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Mar 2, 2010 04:38 PM

Good Chinese restaurant .... that doesn't use MSG? Possible?


Recently I was back in the Bay Area and was staying with my mom in Sunnyvale. Was excited that my Taiwanese sister-in-law might take us out for Chinese food in the area, as I miss it. The thing is that my mom cannot eat MSG at all or she gets a horrific migraine. I'm sure she isn't the only one....

Anyway, we went to Dynasty in Cupertino. The food wasn't great unfortunately, but the incredibly frustrating part was that the waiter would simply LIE - deadpan - and tell us that there was no MSG in anything that we wanted to order. So we ordered...... some bbq pork appetizers, a scallop dish, Peking duck, some noodles with crab etc... And then when a different waiter arrived with each plate food, my sister in law would ask them again in Mandarin if there was MSG in the food. And they admitted that it was in almost everything! They claimed the noodles were safe (with almost no visible crab....).

Are there any good Chinese places in the Sunnyvale/Mountain View/San Jose area that don't use MSG, and don't lie to you about it?

My mom got a migraine. It sucked.

Sorry if this question has been asked before. I seem to not be finding it with the search function.

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  1. Parmigiano reggiano, mushrooms, tofu, shrimp, beans, tomatoes, soy sauce . . . these are all ingredients that are loaded with naturally occuring glutamates and MSG. A restaurant can tell you that they don't add extra "Accent" aka MSG and that will likely be true. But since it's naturally occurring in so many foodstuffs and condiments especially those that are protein rich, it's near impossible for anyone to avoid unless you're ordering plain pasta or rice.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Melanie Wong

      Thank you Melanie. I couldn't hope for a more thoughtful, informed reply then from you.

      I do realize that there are "naturally occurring" sources of glutamate, and appreciate your review. But in my mom's case she has never had a single food turn out to be a clear migraine trigger except red wine. However, it is definitely clear that she has many more migraines after eating at some Chinese restaurants, but not all. So I suspect it is in situations where extra "Accent" is used in full-force that it is more likely to trigger her migraine.

      So I guess what I am asking is if there are restaurants that actually let it be known that they don't use "extra" MSG, that you guys know about?

      Of course, the placebo effect is also a powerful thing ;)

      1. re: violin

        Actually a number of place state "no MSG" or "no added MSG" on take-out menus or restaurant signage. I just haven't paid attention to tell you exactly where. The trouble is that they tend to be the spots that cater to non-Chinese and not really of much chowish interest. Thinking about a few places that have a lot of non-Chinese customers yet still make some authentic dishes that you might call to check --- off the top of my head, Chef Chu's in Los Altos that has been mentioned below, Jade Palace (Shanghainese) in Palo Alto, Cafe Yulong (Shandong) in Mountain View.

        A place that I really enjoyed about 18 months ago is i-Restaurant in Cupertino. But the website has changed quite a bit and there have been no new reports on what's going on. You might swing by there to give it a look see.

        Then further north in San Mateo, "baron45" mentions that Everyday Beijing doesn't add MSG.

        Everyday Beijing
        637 South B Street, San Mateo, CA

        Jade Palace
        151 S California Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94306

        Cafe Yulong
        743 W Dana St, Mountain View, CA 94041

        Chef Chu's
        1067 N San Antonio Rd, Los Altos, CA 94022

        20007 Stevens Creek Blvd, Cupertino, CA 95014

      2. re: Melanie Wong

        most chinese restaurants don't use accent (u.s. made). anymore. expense and cooking trends are reasons why. weichuan (taiwan) is popular amongst taiwan and northern chinese cooks. ajinomoto (japan) is also popular since it's grandular structure is bigger, thus stronger taste. generic versions from china are becoming very popular for cost reasons.

        many restaurants claim not to use msg but they use chicken "broths". "extracts", "gradules", etc. #1 ingredient:msg. the chicken products originate from thailand, china, hong kong, japan.

        just a heads up. not a msg lover......

      3. Su Hong's in Menlo Park and Chef Chu's in Los Altos do not use MSG, and do not give me migraines. Good luck!

        1 Reply
        1. re: Turtle Wexler

          Yes, but Su Hong in Menlo Park is one of the worst Chinese restaurants I've ever eaten at. There are a few Chinese restaurants that don't use MSG and they display that fact prominently,. Some are quite good, though I too wasn't paying sufficient attention to remember exactly which ones. An alternative we used with my mom was that if you develop a good enough relationship with a Chinese restaurant, they'd prepare dishes to order for her without MSG, going so far as to wash the MSG off of items that had been pre-prepared with MSG.

        2. Even if you find a place that doesn't add MSG, odds are that any commercial sauces they use contain plenty of the stuff or its analogs (eg, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, autolyzed yeast extract, etc.). And if they're making their own sauces, they may well be based on stocks or broths that use MSG. So if your mom is truly sensitive to MSG, the only safe bet is not to eat at any Chinese restaurant. Or any fast food restaurant. Or any chain restaurant.

          Whether there's actually any correlation between MSG and migraines is a whole 'nother question. People who claim to be sensitive to MSG suffer from symptoms in approximately equal numbers regardless of whether they're given the real stuff or a placebo in double-blind tests. But that's a different post...

          3 Replies
          1. re: alanbarnes

            Don't know about the research, but I can say that I once had to take my wife to the ER with intractable vomiting and headace after eating a bunch of Kalbi. Most of the Korean marinades have MSG, so we have to be very careful.

            1. re: mkleinbart64

              Sounds like something in the food definitely made her sick. The problem is that for decades people have been demonizing MSG as the culprit when there are lots of other ingredients that might be the cause.

              For some, it's become an article of faith; they've made up their minds that MSG is deadly and won't be confused by the facts. Some of the most irrational opponents are also the most strident. See

              Meanwhile, researchers have had been unable to demonstrate a causal link between MSG ingestion and any symptoms. That's not to say that MSG doesn't cause a reaction in some people - it's difficult to prove a negative - but there's not much support for the proposition that it does, either.

              The real problem is that singling out MSG shuts down all analysis of what other substances might be causing symptoms like your wife had (and that my wife occasionally has, too). Assuming for the sake of argument that those kalbi ribs would have made your wife ill with or without added MSG, wouldn't it be nice to know which ingredient actually caused the problem in order to avoid it in the future?

              Now if it happens that MSG and the responsible substance always go hand-in-hand, then avoiding MSG will also keep the problem stuff off the plate. But until we know what's causing the problems (research indicates that it might be tyramines), we can't know whether it's always found with MSG.

              1. re: alanbarnes

                Great discussion alanbarnes.

                You are absolutely right. The evidence for MSG triggering migraine is actually very very weak. While very few randomized, placebo controlled trials have been done (and with very small numbers in these trials), they did not show a statistically significant cause/effect. However, there does appear to be a small sub-population that may have a true effect from MSG. And as migraine is so common (and not all are alike), this effect may be watered down in studies of non-selected patients.

                And again, I am a true believer in the placebo effect (!), so if you believe you are avoiding MSG and this "helps" prevent a migraine, hurrah!

                And in my own study of 1 patient (my mom...), the apparent causal link is too strong to not try t o avoid it. Only 1 migraine in the past 2 months, after eating at Dynasty, where they lie about adding extra MSG to their food.

                So thanks to all for your recommendations. I've lived off/on in the Bay Area for many years, and I also didn't pay careful attention to the restaurants that "advertise" that they don't use extra MSG. And I agree with Melanie that the ones that advertise tend to cater to the non-Chinese/are less chowish (which is not my goal....). So I appreciate your help in finding the rare place that is careful with the MSG, and is still tasty.

          2. I would suggest trying Crouching Tiger in Redwood City. Their style is low on sauces and not "gloppy", and I trust them. I might want to get the word from the older woman who runs the place and not the younger guys she's had as waitstaff, they seem to just say Yes to everything. Important to be especially polite, though. They have a lot of pride there.

            I am not sensitive to MSG, and they don't make MSG statements on their menu, so I can't vouch any further than trust and good food. Nor will I make any statement about the actual effects of MSG - I've never felt them.

            +1 for Su Hong Menlo Park being the worst chinese ever, except for a place I walked out of in Minnesota on a road trip.

            1. I am sensitive to MSG. I get the tingling tenseness up and down the spine weird and unpleasant sensation. I used to get it frequently in Chinese restaurants in the New York and Chicago area -- typically hot and sour soup... until I explicitly requested no MSG. And then I didn't feel it. This was a pretty clear on/off test of whatever the restaurants thought was MSG.

              Over the last 7 years in the Bay Area, eating at a large fraction of the places discussed on this list, I have detected MSG only once, maybe, and I think it was a Vietnamese place.

              My conclusion is that after all the attention on the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome in the 80s and 90s, the restaurants stopped dumping huge quantities of MSG into soups and sauces.

              They may put small amounts in, and there are all kinds of natural sources for substances like this, so I can imagine someone with extreme and unusual sensitivity might have a problem. Like kids with peanut sensitivity.

              But in general, I think this is a long resolved issue -- for most people at least.

              3 Replies
              1. re: Thomas Nash

                So you honestly believe they made two batches of soup, one with and one without MSG? Or that they were adding MSG on a bowl-by-bowl basis?

                Your test is entirely identical to the placebo effect test - and I might argue your test is more indicative of a placebo effect, since I would expect a decent percent would lie.

                If I convince you that restaurants are lying, maybe the effect will come back. Or maybe it won't, because you'll believe you aren't really sensitive to MSG. The placebo effect is a wonderful thing.

                1. re: bbulkow

                  Sorry to get you so fired up.

                  I assure you that this is no placebo effect -- it is a very definite and unpleasant sensation.

                  It is a long long time ago when I asked a restaurant, one where we knew the owners well, to not put MSG in their soup -- so I can't remember all the circumstances. What I can tell you is that with extremely rare exceptions (exceptions that establish I am still sensitive at some threshold) I have not experienced the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome in many years. It stopped happening after there was lots of publicity on the subject. That doesn't sound to me like a placebo effect...

                  I am sure some restaurants are lying about not using it at all, but something has changed since long ago -- and I think it may be the extreme quantity of MSG they were using.

                2. re: Thomas Nash

                  Hot and sour soup is typically made in large quantities at various parts of the day. Here's a general test of whether or not the soup was pre-made:

                  1. Is it on the daily special?
                  2. Can it be stored at high temperatures for a long time?
                  3. Did it come out of the kitchen within 10 minutes of your order?

                  If you answered yes to any these questions (especially #3), it was almost certainly made in bulk. Even soups with items that don't store well (e.g. wonton or noodles) are usually made with pre-made stock that may have MSG.