The differences between China’s vast and varied foods — and where to find them
More than 50 years ago, the restaurants concentrated in Chinatown were almost exclusively Chinese-American and Cantonese.
It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that the first Sichuan restaurant appeared, joining a few establishments already offering food from Beijing, Shanghai, and Taiwan. But these early regional restaurants presented a pallid take on their cuisines, packing their menus with Chinese-American fare that was already widely popular across the city.
Customers often expected Chinatown restaurants to be cheap, too, with a few exceptions, though earlier in the century Chinese restaurants around Times Square had functioned as pricier nightclubs, with cocktails and live floor shows.
But eventually, more immigrants began streaming into New York City from multiple regions of China, bringing their hometown fare with them. The city’s supply and diversity of Chinese food gradually grew, while Sichuan itself became one of the city’s most popular cuisines. Now, partly mirroring the success of the Chinese economy, Chinese restaurants have gone further upscale, propelled by expat students and professionals with more economic advantages than previous waves of Chinese immigrants — plus Chinese-Americans, tourists who have been to China, and others intent on exploring New York’s newest additions.
Today, diners can choose cuisines from multiple Chinese provinces at a broad range of prices. Here’s a guide to regional fare found in New York City. It proves there has never been a better time to eat Chinese food in New York City.
- Other regional Chinese cuisines
Originating in the province now known as Guangdong, this southern cuisine, renowned for its mildness and subtlety, was what started it all. It gave rise to the Chinese-American and Hong Kong cooking styles, the former extensively adapted for American tastes, the latter with substantial international influences. Cantonese cuisine has lately been revived, especially in Chinatowns, while its offshoot dim sum has attained near universal popularity. Hallmarks of the cuisine include an emphasis on noodles on the low end and big-ticket seafood on the high; artful steaming and stir-frying; use of dried seafood and dried mushrooms, rice wine vinegar, and multiple types of soy sauce; and an emphasis on soups.
The corner stalwart Yee Li has long held the Cantonese banner high, and is chosen here for its broad menu and affordability. The charcuterie in the window runs to crisp-skinned ducks, yellow waxy cuttlefish, chicken wings, and lacquered spare ribs, perfect over rice (ask for the ginger-scallion sauce). Sauteed snow peas, wonton noodle soup, steamed sea bass, beef with black bean sauce, chopped pork with preserved egg congee, and chicken with salted fish fried rice are other Cantonese standards. 1 Elizabeth St., at Bayard Street, Chinatown
Other Cantonese Restaurants: Asian Jewels Seafood Restaurant (133-30 39th Ave., Flushing) is one of those old-fashioned palaces of seafood, stir fries, and dim sum, a little off the beaten path. Bamboo Garden (6409 8th Ave., Sunset Park) represents a similar type of institution in Brooklyn’s biggest Chinatown. Ping’s (22 Mott St., Chinatown) is Cantonese with an upscale Hong Kong bent, while King’s Kitchen (92 E. Broadway, Chinatown) offers a more commonplace look at the city’s cuisine, including the clay pot cookery called bo zai fan. Wu’s Wonton King (165 E Broadway, Lower East Side) represents the old-fashioned Cantonese restaurant reimagined. For dim sum rolled around on trolleys in a humongous space, try Golden Unicorn (18 E Broadway, Chinatown).
Chinese-American food has a long and venerable history going back at least 120 years. Like many adapted cuisines, it made do by substituting ingredients in recipes remembered from the old country, including American vegetables like celery, broccoli, and bell peppers; beef instead of pork; and a different catalog of seafood focusing on shrimp. Recipes were also adapted to cater to American tastes, avoiding strong flavors like fish sauce, and utilizing a different range of cooking techniques. The result was such signatures as chop suey, chow mein, egg foo yung, beef with broccoli, and more recently, General Tso’s chicken.
Look to some of Chinatown’s oldest restaurants for an idea of what the food was like in the long-ago past. Founded in 1938, Wo Hop is one of the city’s only remaining places to serve chop suey. Descend the stairs and find no soy sauce on the tables, ginger and garlic toned down, cornstarch binding the stir fries, and the waiters wearing light blue shop coats. Yet the food is great and the place often packed. 17 Mott St., between Pell Street and Bowery, Chinatown
Other Chinese-American Restaurants: Egg rolls, egg foo yung with buckets of gravy, and beef chow fun are all on the menu at long-running King Food (489 Amsterdam Ave., Upper West Side). Even better at capturing the old-time ambiance and real Chinese-American taste is the former Music Kitchen, now known as Jumbo Kitchen (1915 Southern Blvd., Bronx).
Dongbei means northeast in Mandarin. It’s a region of China comprising the three northernmost provinces and the eastern part of Inner Mongolia, the nation’s earliest industrial powerhouse, once known as Manchuria. The food is particularly hearty, with some influences from neighboring North Korea, so that a saucer of kimchi will often appear first on the table. Vegetables are frequently served raw or pickled rather than cooked, lamb is a common meat, and Asian cumin a ubiquitous spice. Wasabi is sometimes found in vegetable dressings, and sturdy dumplings, sometimes in gravy, are considered a quintessential meal.
Revamped and modernized three years ago after a decade-long run, Golden Palace Gourmet vies with the even-older Fu Run for the breadth of its menu, and makes its own blood sausage and pickled shredded cabbage called suancai in the basement. Don’t miss the pork Chinese cabbage cake, a delicious turnover; the dough drop soup; or the sour cabbage soup with blood sausage, via chefs Dong Pozheng and Wang Fenglu. 140-09 Cherry St., between Kissena Boulevard and Union Street, Flushing
Other Dongbei Restaurants: Fu Run (40-09 Prince St., Flushing) remains the most popular Dongbei restaurant, with crowd-pleasing dishes that include a magnificent rack of lamb chops covered with cumin seeds, a warm salad of corn and pine nuts, and mung bean “sheet jelly” noodles that arrive coated with a toasted sesame dressing. Formerly called Rural Restaurant, Xing Shun Da (44-18 Kissena Blvd., Flushing) is strong on seafood like razor clams and sea intestines, and offal such as duck heads and pig kidneys. Auntie Guan’s Kitchen 108 (108 W 14th St., Greenwich Village) specializes in Dongbei and other northeastern fare, and is one of the city’s best Chinese restaurants.
Relaxed emigration standards in China swelled the ranks of Chinese newcomers to New York in the 1980s, many of them from the coastal southern province of Fujian, specifically from its capital of Fuzhou. Over the years of that decade and the next, Manhattan’s Chinatown ballooned in size to include many parts of the Lower East Side. Fuzhou restaurants concentrated on East Broadway and Eldridge Street, with a cuisine that included fish balls stuffed with pork, as well as lichee pork (meat tidbits colored red with wine lees) and gua bao (pork belly buns). Seafood is front and center in New York’s sit-down Fujianese restaurants, while many of the dumpling and noodle shops — including most that feature Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles — are owned and staffed by Fujianese.
Hong Man, also sometimes called New Sheng Wang, still specializes in hand-pulled noodles and its cousin, peel (or knife-shaved) noodles, in almost 30 soups and stir fries. These run to rabbit, oxtail, duck, pork stomach, and — a favorite of many Chinese diners — pork bone, valued for its chewy fringes of meat and abundant marrow. But the menu also includes additional provincial specialties like lichee pork, fish balls in soup, and pig intestines. The walk down-space is brightly lit, and serves some of the best and biggest steamed dumplings in Chinatown. 27 Eldridge St., between Canal and Division streets, Lower East Side
Other Fujianese Restaurants: Sunrise Restaurant 88 (50 Eldridge St., Lower East Side) is a more formal Fujianese restaurant with an emphasis on seafood; don’t miss the razor clams, sweet and sour fish with pine nuts, or seafood fried rice. Carol’s Bun (139 E. Broadway, Lower East Side) is a friendly and informal café serving Chinese pastries and daily over-rice specials, while Hua Rong (83-23 Broadway, Elmhurst), named after a character in a Chinese novel, offers a more complete menu at bargain prices with lots of seafood and vegetable dishes.
Sichuan food is famous for its hotness, but most observers say that Hunan is even hotter, using fresh green, dried red, and pickled chiles; black and white peppercorns; and chile oil — but few Sichuan peppercorns. Famously, the province was the birthplace of Chairman Mao, and the dish of red-braised pork associated with him is on every menu. Apart from that, the cuisine of this landlocked and sometimes mountainous land southeast of Sichuan utilizes ingredients preserved by smoking, pickling, and drying, and favors dry pot presentations that are nevertheless the height of succulence. Freshwater fish and the vegetable bounty of the province are also showcased.
The East Village’s Hunan Bistro competes to burn your tongue with the Sichuan restaurant Han Dynasty on the same block of Third Avenue. Offerings include cold preserved egg with green chile, in which the egg white has been transformed to obsidian; steamed fish head smothered in colorful pickled chiles; sour string beans; and sauteed preserved pork with dried turnips. And don’t miss Mao’s red braised pork belly, with a gritty texture and nutty flavor. 96 3rd Ave., between 12th and 13th street, East Village
Other Hunan Restaurants: Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan (42-47 Main St., Flushing) is a branch of a once-great Sichuan chain with a bit of glitz, while Hunan Café (137-40 Northern Blvd., Flushing) is its older and more modest counterpart among early Hunan restaurants. Up near Columbia, newcomer Atlas Kitchen (258 W 109th St., Upper West Side) offers food from several provinces, but specializes in Hunan — its contributions are so designated on the menu.
China’s glittering coastal city of Shanghai paradoxically makes less use of seafood than you might expect, but is famous for a series of dishes that owe much to surrounding provinces, giving them its own urbane spin. Shanghai specialties likely to be found on any Chinese menu include orange-flavored lion’s head meatballs (seen on dim sum menus); West Lake beef soup, named after a scenic body of water in Hangzhou, a city southwest of Shanghai; drunken chicken, served cold after marination in liquor; braised pork shoulder; and the famous xiao long bao — soup dumplings stuffed with pork and sometimes crab meat. The city is also known for its sweet and sour fish and jellyfish, and the practice of serving small cold dishes in a buffet as a prelude to a meal, said to be influenced by Russian cuisine in the 19th century.
The best soup dumplings in town are found east of Flushing in Bayside, Queens, at You Garden Xiao Long Bao. It’s an offshoot of the elegant Flushing You Garden, and dumpling master Zhou Jianhua, who once worked at the legendary Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao, presides over the dumpling program. The soup dumplings are not particularly large, but bulge extravagantly with amazing broth. Also, don’t miss fried bean gluten, sweet sticky rice roll, Peking duck bao (though not a Shanghai specialty), yin-yang soup, or lion’s head meatballs. 4107 Bell Blvd., between 41st and 42nd avenues, Bayside
Other Shanghai Restaurants: Just west of the Queens Center Mall, find the The Bund Chinese Cuisine (100-30 Queens Blvd., Elmhurst), named after a historic waterfront district in Shanghai. The fare runs to soup dumplings, smoked fish, pork soup with tofu knots, and tofu sheet with edamame. Helmed by chef Jun Chen, Hao Noodle (343 W 14th St., Chelsea), part of a chain with branches in Shanghai and Beijing, offers the city’s best lion’s head meatballs, while China Blue (135 Watts St., between Washington and Greenwich streets, Tribeca) delivers crispy eel and Ningbo-style kaofu featuring braised gluten, both rendered in high-quality renditions.
With a bracing climate, Sichuan province occupies the easternmost portion of the Tibetan Plateau in southwestern China, and the rise in the popularity of its cuisine coincided with an enhanced interest in regional Chinese food and a mania for much spicier food on the part of the dining public. Sichuan uses lakes of chile oil, dried red chiles, and fresh green chiles, often in the same dish, along with Sichuan peppercorns, a quizzical condiment that wasn’t legal in the U.S. until 2005. Other popular raw materials include wheat noodles, tofu, freshwater fish, peanuts, pig blood, pork along with its offal, and chicken and duck. Cold dishes slicked with chile oil often begin a meal, and hot pots form popular entrees.
Szechuan Mountain House — It has branches in Flushing and the East Village, both managed by Leo Ge — is among the city’s most popular Sichuan restaurants. The decor is reminiscent of a mountain village complete with reflecting pond and waterfall, and standards are on deck, like mapo tofu, wontons with chile oil, twice-cooked pork, dan dan noodles, and Chongqing chicken — a famous dish of poultry morsels littered with dried red chiles, named after an autonomous municipality once considered part of Sichuan. Apart from that, the menu contains all sorts of elaborately conceived and plated dishes, such as sliced pork belly with chile garlic sauce, served cold on a wooden dowel, and “strapping cattle throat,” integuments from the cow’s neck cut like noodles and bathed in chile oil. 23 St. Marks Pl., between Second and Third Avenues, East Village
Other Sichuan restaurants: For the current dried hot pot craze that originated in Chongqing, check out 108 Food Dried Hot Pot (2794 Broadway, Upper West Side). One of the most venerable Sichuan restaurants is Land of Plenty (204 E 58th St., Midtown East), elegantly decorated with farm implements. Chuan Tian Xia (5502 7th Ave., Sunset Park) is a newish place with especially good green pepper fish and mapo tofu, while Savour Sichuan (108 W 39th St., Herald Square) is popular for its lunch specials. Finally, don’t miss the no-frills Sichuan stall downstairs at the Golden Shopping Mall, called Cheng Du Tian Fu, (No. 31, 41-28 Main St., Flushing).
Taiwan has a long history of both colonization and immigration that has resulted in a cuisine with influence from the Netherlands, Spain, Japan, and China, which has most recently claimed sovereignty over the island, though Taiwan is self-governed. Despite political divides regarding its independence, Taiwanese restaurants in New York have become increasingly popular in Chinatowns like Flushing, finding an audience due to overlapping cultural elements. Traditional Taiwanese cooking favors flavors such as Asian basil, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, and cooking wine or sherry, plus sweet potato starch as a thickener. But the fascinating cuisine is flush with innovation. Things like stinky tofu, three-cup chicken, sauteed rice cakes, beef noodle soup, and oyster omelets once held sway, but now giant pieces of fried chicken and squid, plus bubble and cheese teas, have become popular as well.
For a traditional take on Taiwanese, go to the old-fashioned and somewhat formal Taiwanese Specialties, where you’ll find the dish of chives and pork called fly heads, as well as salted crispy chicken and stinky tofu. The handsome room is decorated with artifacts such as a head-to-toe straw outfit that once acted as a farmer’s raincoat. 84-02 Broadway, at Saint James Avenue, Elmhurst
Other Taiwanese Restaurants: A block away from Taiwanese Specialties, Happy Stony Noodle (83-47 Dongan Ave., Elmhurst) under chef Chih Shen Hsu, nicknamed “Stony,” offers a more casual approach based on hearty soups, while Main Street Imperial Taiwanese Gourmet (59-10A Main St., Flushing) concentrates on short dishes including ba wan, a jiggling bowl of meat-stuffed jelly that’s a popular street food. For modern fried chicken in a Taiwanese vein, check out the chain Cheers Cut (86-55 Broadway, Elmhurst or 36 St. Mark’s Place, East Village), which also does squid, or TKK Fried Chicken, a joint restaurant with Kung Fu Tea (115 E 23rd St., Flatiron District), the Taiwanese fried chicken chain’s first New York offshoot. Kung Fu Tea offers cheese tea, among other newfangled Chinese beverages. For contemporary New York takes on the cuisine, Win Son (159 Graham Ave., Williamsburg) shouldn’t be missed, nor should Ho Foods (110 E 7th St., East Village), which concentrates on a single perfect beef noodle soup.
Teochew, also known as Chiuchow or Chaozhou, represents a large proportion of the Chinese diaspora across Southeast Asia, principally from the Chaoshan region of eastern Guangdong province. Teochew restaurants often have Chinese and Vietnamese lettering on their facades, and the group once had a major presence in Manhattan and Flushing Chinatowns. Look for noodle soups and stir fries, sometimes with sour flavors; an unusual duck treatment that braises instead of roasts; and transplanted and transformed Malaysian, Vietnamese, and Thai dishes, strongly flavored with pickled chiles and fish sauce.
The braised ducks fly front and center at Bo Ky Restaurant, an old-timer with a double dining room in Chinatown’s heart. These quackers have a rich, tasty flesh and floppy skin — in some ways the opposite of Peking duck. Deep-fried shrimp rolls, fish ball noodles, Malaysian satay noodles, deep-fried tofu, and an uncomplicated pork broth version of Vietnamese pho are other highlights on a menu that begs to be explored. 80 Bayard St., between Mott and Mulberry Streets, Chinatown
Other Teochew restaurants: New Kim Tuong (83 Chrystie St., Chinatown) is a Teochew cafe facing Sara Roosevelt Park with a slightly more modern perspective on the cuisine. Try fish ball soup and mixed meat stir fry. For a bewildering variety of soups, over-rice dishes, and juices, check out Pho Hoang (41-01 Kissena Blvd., Flushing).
This autonomous port city, which lies southeast of Beijing and belongs to no province, has been called the Shanghai of the North — for its international trade and Europeanized architecture — and is also historically known for grain transport and storage. That grain goes into wonderfully thick-skinned dumplings, and the cuisine also features a dazzling array of seafood and hearty stews with a broad range of meats. It is a cuisine known for its street food as well, including thick sausages and fried rice cakes.
Trip down the stairs at the fabled Golden Shopping Mall to find Tianjin Dumpling Houseright in the center of things, with counter seating on two sides. Dozens of sturdy steamed dumplings are available, including such unexpected choices as dill-flavored pork, sea bass, and lamb with green squash, to be laked with gritty chile oil. But the stall’s greatest accomplishment lies in its presentation of room-temperature dishes, ordered in threes to make a great lunch: pressed tofu, seaweed, gooey gluten, shredded vegetables dotted with chiles, soy-braised meats, and a humongous “ham sausage” that does a marvelous garlicky impersonation of kielbasa. Basement, Golden Shopping Mall,41-26 Main St., at 41st Road, Flushing
Other Tianjin restaurants: Tian-Jin Chinese Restaurant (135-02-6 Roosevelt Ave., door on Prince St., Flushing) is not really a restaurant but a charcuterie store specializing in soy-braised chickens, pork, and pig offal, along with a salad or two and rice also available. Take out and enjoy it in the park at the end of the street, perfect picnic fare.
The cuisine of Yunnan — south of Sichuan and with a diversity of terrains and climates that run from sweltering to downright cold — has as much in common with the food of Southeast Asia as it does with Chinese cuisines. Its noodles hit the East Village and Chinatown with a bang a couple of years ago, though they had long been around in Sunset Park. Mainly used in soups, rice noodles called mixian are a prominent feature, along with mushrooms indigenous to the region and exported throughout China, tiny pickled chiles, and toasted peanuts. Flowers, fruits, lime juice, and ham are also used in many Yunnan recipes.
One of the most famous Yunnan dishes is the inspiration for the name of the subterranean and mural-bedecked Western Yunnan Crossing Bridge Noodle, which is owned by the sister-and-brother team of Tara and Yong Ting Chen. In this quintessential meal-size soup, the ingredients are cooked in the steaming broth right before serving — including mixian, tofu skin, quail eggs, Spam, pickled greens, black mushrooms, and cloud ear fungus. Apart from several interpretations of the famous dish, find vinegared cucumbers, Hmong beef jerky, and pumpkin cakes filled with bean paste. 705 59th St., between Seventh and Eighth avenues, Sunset Park
Other Yunnan restaurants: Crossing bridge noodles are also the centerpiece of the menu at South of the Clouds (16 W 8th St., Greenwich Village), and at Deng Ji II (51 Division St., Chinatown), while Little Tong Noodle Shop (177 1st Ave., between 10th and 11th Streets, East Village) uses Yunnan traditions as a jumping-off point for several invented uses of the same rice noodles. The Rice Noodle (190 Bleecker St., Greenwich Village) falls somewhere in between on the traditional-creative noodle continuum.
Other regional Chinese cuisines
As with the food of New York City, Beijing cuisine is hard to pin down since it borrows styles from all over China. Nevertheless, the stuffed street food crepes called jianbing, hot and sour soup, moo shu pork, tomato and scrambled eggs, and Peking duck are all standards. Reasonably good jianbing are to be had at Mr. Bing (multiple locations), while the creative dishes and very fancy Peking duck found at DaDong (3 Bryant Park, Midtown) reflect the origin of this chain in Beijing itself.
Taste of Guilin showcases mixian-like mifen rice noodles in soups. Chef-owner Peter Qin and his family used to run a restaurant in Guilin before moving to the United States. This southern Chinese city in the Guangxi province is known for its limestone karst hills and scenic lakes (Fei Long Market, 6307 8th Ave., Sunset Park).
The cuisine of Guizhou, a mountainous province in southwestern China, has much in common with Sichuan, only its balance of flavors is shifted toward the tart. Guizhou Huaxi-Wang Noodles (New York Food Court, Stall 14, 133-35 Roosevelt Ave., Flushing) is a small stall that specializes in the noodle part of the cuisine.
With the closing of Uncle Zhou’s in Elmhurst, the city lost its best Henan restaurant, but you can still check out Henan Feng Wei (136-31 41st Ave., Flushing), a restaurant connected to a ballroom, or Spicy Village (68 Forsyth St., Lower East Side), a restaurant descended from it. Both are good for the signature Henan-style noodle soups, “big-tray chicken,” pork-stuffed pancakes, and casseroles featuring bean curd skin and beef brisket.
Across the Yellow Sea from the Korean peninsula, Shandong is home to the city of Qingdao, once the site of a German colony. Its food is ably represented by Qing Dao Restaurant (40-46 Main St., Flushing), which operates a stall featuring street snacks running from steamed corn to chive boxes (a turnover filled with egg) right out front, with a homey dining room in back. Reflecting Shandong’s Korean-influenced food is Chinese Korean Dumplings and Noodles, a stall at the New World Mall (Basement, 136-20 Roosevelt Ave., Flushing), where sour dumpling soup is a specialty, and several dumplings contain fermented cabbage.
At once sour, salty, and spicy, the cuisine of Shaanxi, at the eastern end of the ancient Silk Road, is renowned for its strong flavors and simplicity, its liangpi noodles and Chinese hamburgers (roujiamo), produced here by one mighty chain that focuses on the food of Xi’an. Xi’an Famous Foods (multiple locations in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn) began in 2005 as a stall at Flushing’s Golden Shopping Mall. Many Xi’an specialties, such as lamb soup with pita dumplings, can be found on the menu at newcomer Yu Kitchen(2656 Broadway, Upper West Side).
In remote Western China, where much of the population is Uighur, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority, rather than Han Chinese, Silk Road cooking featuring fist-sized dumplings, handmade wheat noodles, and charcoal-grilled kebabs prevails. Find it at Café Kashkar (1141 Brighton Beach Ave., Brighton Beach), named after an oasis in Xinjiang. Dunhuang(multiple locations), named after a city in Gansu province and the famed starting point of the ancient Silk Road, is a mini chain that features China’s Northwestern regional cuisine encompassing dishes from Gansu, Xinjiang, Ningxia and Shaanxi. Finally, the cumin-dusted and flame-grilled kebabs from Xinjiang that have become popular across much of China can be found at Friendship Foods BBQ (36-22 Union St., Flushing).