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What do you look for in Authentic Chinese?

So I was enviously reading the other thread on Authentic Chinese (it was all in VA! I live in south Baltimore), and started thinking about the dishes that qualify a place as "authentic." I scan the menu within 2 minutes of sitting down, and immediately pronounce the restaurant worthy or not - and I know I'm not the only one! Don't get me wrong, American Chinese can hit the spot too, but what do you look for when you're craving the authentic stuff? (Extra points for also naming a place closer to B'more!)

I'll start with dim sum: my criteria includes sharkfin dumplings (with sharkfin you can see, and bits of chinese mushroom), beef tripe (both kinds, though I prefer the stewed one in soy sauce with radish), shui mai with a quail egg on top, and yes, chicken feet.

How bout you?

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  1. Depends on the type of restaurant. In a dinner (ordering family style) kind of place, a menu only in Chinese is a good indication. Specials on the wall written in Chinese is also a good indication. Of course, lots of Asian people frequenting the restaurant is also good.

    For a Szechuan place, one specialty is called literally "water-stewed beef (or fish)" (delicious beef or fish in a red-hot spicy stew). Any tofu dish beyond the normal mapo tofu (which in itself is amazing if done well). Any dish with pork belly, maybe stewed with pickled vegetables. Tendon. Any dish with pickled vegetables. Any dish with intestines or blood. :)

    For a Taiwanese noodle-shop type place, pork chop rice and beef noodle soup are my standards. If they have the Taiwanese style wonton soup (very small wontons with an indescribably tasty meat filling, and a clear, light soup), that is a huge bonus for me. Also stinky tofu, and any street food you might find in Asia. (e.g. oyster pancakes, fishball soup, thin somen in thick soup with oysters/intestines).

    Mm... getting hungry. Lunch time...

    3 Replies
    1. re: daveinmd

      Have you ever found stinky tofu, or oyster pancakes nearby? I've only heard stories, and they sound great!

      I do love mapo tofu. I vaguely remember a decent one at Cafe Zen, which also had another quite authentic dish, literally translated to "Ants Crawling Up a Tree." It has stir-fried vermicelli with eggs, dried shrimp, and scallions. This was a while ago though.

      1. re: pattiat600block

        Bob's Noodle House, in Rockville, has stinky tofu. They may have oyster pancakes/omelettes too, but I don't remember seeing them on the menu. They have really really good beef noodle soup, and lots of people were ordering the pork chop rice the last time I was there. Their Taiwanese noodles with clams were really tasty (but a bit oily) too... lots of choices there.

        Rockville also has a great Szechuan restaurant, called Joe's Noodle House. :)

        I think I've been to Cafe Zen -- is it in Towson? From what I remember, it didn't seem all that authentic. The food was still very tasty though... (I had some kind of curry dish).

        1. re: daveinmd

          Yep, in Towson. They're also the ones who opened the Tex-Mex place next door called Zen West. Odd, I know. They offer some authentic-sounding choices, but they do westernize the recipes quite a bit; I haven't been in a while though. I think most people look at them as a good carry-out upgrade, because the food is a lot less greasier than most.

          So Rockville, huh? Maybe I'll just have to do a day trip devoted to noodles (thanks!). =)

    2. One thing that I look for is too see if they use the "Whole Beast", especially, Pork Kidneys. The Chinese, like everybody else, used every part of the animal.

      1. It entirely depends on the region of cooking. Sounds like you've been eating at Cantonese/Hk-style places. Those wouldn't be markers of authenticity at a Shandong restaurant, for example, in fact if they were on a Shandong place's menu, I'd might take it as a bad sign.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Melanie Wong

          Hi Melanie - you're absolutely right, I'm talking about Cantonese dishes up there. I haven't eaten the other regions nearly as much, but do enjoy them. I think good Cantonese is hard enough to find, but the others are even harder. Would you agree?

          1. re: pattiat600block

            No, it probably depends on where you live.

        2. I don't look for specific items so much as I look for items that Chun King doesn't offer canned.

          Maybe they have dishes with ingredients Westerners think of as odd or icky (sea cucumber, blood) - even Honk Kong Palace's Chinese menu (the latest Hound authentic darling) lists a couple of dishes "stir-fried p with [whatever]" when "p" stands for "penis" (yes, you can get those frozen at Grand Mart - and yes, I'll bet seeing that on a menu would make many Anglo customers walk out).

          Maybe they list dishes that are spicy - plus "two-pictures-of-peppers" spicy, plus "three pictures of peppers" spicy.

          Maybe whenever you walk in, you're the only non-Asian in the place, and chopsticks are the only utensil already set on the tables.

          Maybe the tables all around you have a few platters of entree such as you're used to, plus some big bowls, glass pie plates, and a bunch of little plates of this and that.

          Maybe you get out of your car, approach the door, and a family that looks like refugees from the Blue Collar Comedy Tour is fleeing out the door in frustration (where are they gonna get their moo goo gai pan?) or terror (the owner didn't have to get angry, they only asked nicely for chow mein).

          2 Replies
          1. re: wayne keyser

            I'm curious how many Hong Kongers (a perfectly valid subset of "authentic" Chinese) wouldn't feel reluctant at eating penis... it all depends on what you're raised with, eh? :). It's not like we eat "strange ingredients" to gross out the other cultures or as a rite of passage.

            1. re: Blueicus

              Sorry to offend. It's probably a guy thing.

              I mean, there's a plate of delicious stir-fried penis. I have but to adjust my gaze downward a minimal amount and there's my lap. Plate - lap - plate - lap - "Check, please … no, no doggy bag thank you, I couldn't watch the dog eating it either. Maybe I'll get the sea cucumber next time. Or the blood."

              Speaking of authentic Chinese I was intrigued at my recent HKP visit - the wonderful plate of Chicken in Hot Garlic Sauce (Chinese menu version, of course) has three vegetables: the wonderful large tree-ear fungus, the fresh red peppers, and … what? Flat, cut from something with green skin, almost neutral flavor, and of course perfectly cooked … I asked and was told 'cucumber.' Tasted again and, yeah, cucumber! I've never had cooked cucumber (other than pickles, and I had to think about that, but yeah they're cooked in many pickles) - is this authentic? Are these Asian cucumbers? Are these gonna be the new sub for diced broccoli stems (which I also love)???