What to order in Chinese Restaurants?
I love Chinese food, and I have it often, but I find that I have been getting into a rut. I often order General Tso's chicken (I know, don't hate me) because I don't know what else to get. I want some suggestions on what to order in a Chinese restaurant. I'm really looking for comfort food, so suggestions like chicken feet don't sit well with me. I don't generally like offal and other "extra parts" of meat, but I'll eat just about anything else (spicy, pork, beef, fish, vegetables). I love Thai and Indian curries, Vietnamese Pho and Spring rolls, all sushi. Any suggestions?
Well, first of all it depends on what sort of a chinese restaurant you are in. If you're not in a particularly authentic type of restaurant -- i.e. one that focuses on a particular type of chinese cuisine, such as Hong Kong/Cantonese, Dim Sum specialist, Sichuan, Hunan, Taiwanese, Shanghai, its kind of hard to know what to order, because many americanized chinese restaurants try to be everything to everybody.
General Tso and its derivatives (chicken/shrimp/beef breaded with some sort of gooey sticky tart or sweet sauce on it, like sesame whatever or whatever with orange sauce) has sort of become the typical american chinese food dish, its not particulary adverturesome. But this is what a lot of chinese restaurants serve because this is what americans like. So its a bit of a conundrum especially if you dont live in a major metro area with a ton of indigenous chinese population.
Personally the first time at a chinese restaurant I always like to order noodle dishes and noodle soups, simple vegetable dishes (like dou miou or gai lan if its avaliable) and simple meat/stirfry saute dishes to see what the quality of their ingredients are.
If you are stuck in a rut ask the waiter what is fresh, whats special that day and if possible tell him you want the "chinese" menu. If it comes out and you cant read chinese ask him to tell you what is on it.
re: Jason Perlow
re: Kim Frankel
re: Kim Frankel
I like Shanghainese cuisine very much. Since Shanghai is a port city, the area is known for its fish and seafood cuisine, so consider getting steamed whole fish dishes, crab soup dumplings, shrimp dishes, etc. I also like aromatic beef very much, a cold dish flavored with star anise. Shanghainese also make excellent noodle soups. I recently had spicy, delicious beef tendon noodle soup at Shanghai Gourmet on Mott St. in Manhattan. I know you don't want to eat offal, but a good Shanghainese restaurant has a good selection of different noodle soups to order. If you're lucky, your restaurant may also make good pickled cabbage. I've noticed that Shanghainese restaurants sometimes make delicious dishes with black mushrooms, as well, so a vegetable dish like napa cabbage with black mushrooms could be a good idea. Enjoy!
re: Jason Perlow
At a Cantonese restaurant one could order:
salt baked squid or squid with sour cabbage
prawns with walnuts and salad sauce
lobster with ginger and scallions over chow fun noodles
razor clams in black bean sauce
peking pork chops
boiled/steamed/soy sauce chicken
Any good looking whole fish steamed with ginger and scallions
The possibilities are endless at a good cantonese restaurant!!
Here are some of my favorites: Rice cakes with pork and cabbage; salt and pepper shrimp or squid; scallion pancake; whole fish with chili sauce (it's not as much as it sounds); anything with Chinese (like Napa) cabbage; noodle soups; Shanghai noodles with pork and spinach; and, of course, dumplings, dumplings, dumplings.
Clams or mussels in black bean sauce. Interesting greens, like snow pea greens or chinese broccoli (snow pea greens with dried scallop ary my fave). Meats and veggies in bean sauces ie, hot peking bean sauce. Shredded pork and pickled vegetable soup. Moo shu. Fresh and preserved squid in pepper garlic sauce. Be adventurous! And please, pay no attention to that man behind the dumpster. He should seek help, not garbage.
Also, look at some things that Jim had for dinner.
I'd figure out what kind of Chinese place it is, Szechuan, Cantonese, Shanghainese etc. and order based on the regional dishes.
As a sampling:
I love to get Lion's Head (large pork meatballs in a dark sauce with veggies) and wuxi crispy eel at a Shanghainese place.
In a Hakka restaurant, stuffed tofu and salt baked chicken.
For Szechuan, I go for lots of spicy stuff like dried fried string beans, tripe and beef in chilli oil, beef in chilli sauce, as well as tamer dishes like powdery steamed spareribs and fish and preserved vegetable soup.
Then there always tons of live seafood (steamed fish, sea cucumber in a dark sauce) at a Hong Kong seafood place, while at a Chinese vegetarian place I gravitatte towards the gluten-based mock meats.
I've not seen any Teochew places here in SF, but if there's one near you, get braised goose, stuffed sea cucumber and other hearty Teochew dishes.
One suggestion I have for a fun, more daring chinese food experience would be to go with a group of friends for dim sum-and pick and point at what looks interesting as it rolls by. that way you'll be able to get lots of samples of stuff you migh not have had before.
I think choosing based on regionality is also very smart but may be intimidating if you don't know the region. As a non new-yorker I have been reading the discussions of Lion Pavilion and Grand Sichuan with some envy and would if in town check out those two. There seems to have been much discussion of these two places with dish ordering advice included.
And of course there's always the point it out to the waiter technique - ask what folks are having, if it looks good order it.
I suggest you start collecting takeout menus from different restaurants. While you're there, ask the help (if they speak English) whether they specialize in the cooking of a particular region of China.
Especially note if they have one of those illuminated boards with backlit food dish photos.
Later, after you get a bunch of menus together, compare them. You will probably find that many of them seem to share the same menu, especially from non-Chinese areas. This is the standard American Restaurant Chinese food, regardless of what the restaurant claims its specialty is. In most sections of the country, especially out of major metropolitan areas with Chinatowns, this is the only sort of Chinese food you will find. I'm not a New Yorker, but I've never been in a place with the lighted picture board on the wall that served anything different.
Now look at all the 'other' menus. This will give you an idea of the different types of food available to you. Also keep in mind that 'real Chinese' restaurants may have a menu in Chinese that has lots of stuff not on the English language menu, loads of specials, and cook specialty dishes not available on any of these.
Now you're almost ready for your next Chinese meal. Pick a menu, decide what you want, (taking into account suggestions of all the previous posters), order, and take notes. Next time you can compare with other dishes at the same restaurant, or the same dish at other restaurants. But try new things on a regular basis, and your experience will grow rapidly.
You've discovered General Tso's chicken and can't order anything else. What are you complaining about? If one is to accept "The Wedding Feast" as a reference it's a dish served to a venerated guest. Well, either that or it was "The Wedding Feast"'s father's favorite, too. They don't really make it spicy enough on the East Coast...