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Field research for a trip to China!

Hi wonderful hounds,

I am going to China in August, and before I get there, I would love to educate myself about the regional cuisines by testing out some of the different specialties. I would love recommendations for authentic places/dishes at those places that might represent the different cuisines (although I recognize I may not be able to try all of them in the Boston area). FWIW, I live in Somerville, but I have a car.

Here are the places I am visiting in China: Beijing, Xian, Chengdu, Guilin, and Hong Kong.

Thanks so much in advance!

P.S. Recommendations for books/websites also much appreciated!

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  1. Hmm.. for Sichuan cuisine, Gourmet Dumpling House, maybe Chili Garden in Medford. They still don't get it as hot as you'll get at a restaurant in China. Figure out how to eat a soup dumpling - don't use a straw. I was only in Shanghai, and had Sichuan, Hunan, and Hot Pot. Dinner's were best with a lot of people around a round lazy-susan table. No dinner was that expensive. There are chains, and they aren't that exciting to eat at.

    Frankly, nothing compared to walking around, especially at night or early morning, and trying out random street stalls. Stuff is rather cheap, so don't have a lot of big bills. I hope you have a guide that speaks the language, makes ordering and paying a lot easier. Don't expect anything rare or medium rare - they don't like pink in their proteins.

    3 Replies
    1. re: grant.cook

      Golden Garden and Shangri-La in Belmont are pretty good too..

      Note - make sure you look for regional specialties on the menu.... often these are listed as specific regional specialties or as daily specials. Sometimes they are in Chinese. A lot of restaurants feel pressure to keep the canned American-created dishes (General Gau's chicken, crab rangoon) on the menu to satisfy the masses.

      1. re: grant.cook

        Two other bits of advice, only one of which is tied to food.

        1) Its a long flight.. I saw a guy bring a "cup o' noodles" raman type thing onto the plane. Late at night, he went and got hot water from the crew area - crafty way to get a snack

        2) ANY over the counter drugs you think you could possibly need bring with you - decongestants, allergies, bug bites, etc. You can't just walk into a drugstore and point to the Sudafed...

        1. re: grant.cook

          Every flight that I've taken to Asia will have instant ramen noodle on board (it's not advertised....just ask and the staff is happy to add hot water). No need to sneak them on board! Chuckle!

      2. If you don't mind a quick drive up to Malden, Fuloon will give you very good Sichuan stuff. The owner/manager (Diane, I think) is always there and is always very nice--tell her about your trip and maybe they can cook you a culinary "tour" of the region.

        3 Replies
        1. re: emannths

          Thanks to both of you for your replies! Driving to Medford/Malden is no problem. I hav wanted to try Fuloon for a while, so maybe that will be our first stop!

          1. re: rebeccact

            The cooking at Fuloon, imho, is more like the cooking in Beijing. Yes they have lots of Sichuan dishes on the menu, but they taste a lot more like Sichuan dishes as prepared in Beijing than in Chengdu. Which is not a bad thing, just in terms of research think of it more as an example of Beijing than Chengdu.

          2. re: emannths

            If you do make it to Fuloon before your trip ( and I hope you do) They will provide a menu with pictures o many of the dishes, so you can see what the dish looks like, also, the menu describes the dishes flavor profile so you know what you're getting into.

          3. I gather Gene's Chinese Flatbread Cafe in Chelmsford has food from Xian. The lamb soup is the region's main specialty.

            2 Replies
            1. re: lergnom

              Another place I have been meaning to try! Thanks! Is the food at Gene's generally specific to Shaanxi or are there just a couple things on the menu from that region?

              1. re: rebeccact

                Gene's is fun, and very Shaanxi, but the total menu doesn't have a dozen items, less if you ignore the egg rolls and chicken fingers. The noodle dishes, the stuffed breads and the lamb soup are all typical of Shaanxi.

            2. This is a pretty broad topic, and I have never seen all the info you are looking for put together in one place on Chowhound before.

              Of the places you listed, the most obvious cuisines would be Sichuan in Chengdu, Cantonese (Yue) in Hong Kong, and Shandong in Beijing.

              So here's a few recommended restaurants, you will have to look them up if you want to find recommended dishes:

              Cantonese: Best Little Restaurant (Chinatown), Peach Farm (Chinatown), Winsor Dim Sum, (Chinatown)
              Sichuan: New Shanghai (Chinatown), Gourmet Dumpling House (Chinatown), Chili Garden (Medford), Sichuan Gourmet (Billerica and Framingham), Zoe’s Somerville,
              Shandong: China King (Chinatown), One of the Kind (Allston in Super 88 Food Court)

              1 Reply
              1. re: nickls

                Wow-- thanks for this awesome summary! I will be sure to report back.

              2. Hong Kong is pretty well represented in Chinatown, to the point that you can cover a lot of ground in terms of different types of food establishments. I recommend Great Taste for bakery items and milk tea, Cafe de Lulu for "cha chaan teng" diner style, Hei La Moon for dim sum on carts, and Best Little Restaurant for "casual white tablecloth" style. None of these would be destination places in HK but they all serve good food and will give you a good example of the style.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Luther

                  Thanks so much!

                  1. re: rebeccact

                    I'd add HK Eatery in C-Town for the roast meats and rice plates.

                2. It's pretty hard to find any food in the Boston area that is reminiscent of what you'll find in Guilin.

                  I spent a bunch of time in Yangshuo, near Guilin. Here's my report on my time there, so if you go to Yangshuo, hopefully you can enjoy some of these places. I like it a lot better than Guilin, which is much bigger: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/632343

                  I actually think that some of the closest things you'll find to Guangxi food in Boston are at Vietnamese restaurants....Pho Hoa in Dorchester, Xinh Xinh in Boston have certain noodle soups that are not too far off from those in Southern China.

                  I thought the food at Best Little Restaurant was good for Cantonese in Boston too, and not unlike what you could find in places like Hong Kong and even in Guangxi province.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: Dave MP

                    Thanks so much-- we actually are going to Yangshuo for two days-- your post is amazing! We are scheduled to do a scenic bike ride, not sure of our route, but it would be amazing to try those black sesame buns!

                    1. re: rebeccact

                      I was back in Yangshuo in 2010, and annoyingly, the place in Yima doesn't serve the sesame buns anymore. But you can find them elsewhere in the town. If you have other China questions, feel free to respond to my thread over there, since this is now a bit off-topic for Boston :)

                  2. The poorly named Thailand Cafe in cambridge is another Sichuan option

                    1. seriouseats.com might have good travel reports. also noreservations.com

                      1. I was in ChengDu a couple of years ago and loved it. Here is my report from the China board.

                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/616339

                        I know that Yu Bo's restaurant is still there because I sent friends there last month.

                        Here, for that type of cuisine, I'm just adding to the list above - New Shanghai in Ctown, Sichuan Gourmet in Brookline or Framingham and Fuloon. The key is to adapt to the numbing sensation from the sichuan peppercorns. I've never thought of Gourmet Dumpling as sichuanese food. It's more taiwanese to me.

                        On a side note, I agree with digga about the planes having cup of noodles for snacks. They passed it off as a meal. grrr. Bring your own food, nuts or fruit. I found cheese its in zip locks worked well.

                        10 Replies
                        1. re: beetlebug

                          Thank you so much! I am going to make a reservation at Yu Bo's-- it looks fantastic.

                          Thanks also for the advice about adapting to the sichuan peppercorns-- this is absolutely the kind of field research I need to be doing! It seems like Sichuan cuisine is going to be the easiest to prepare well for, so I will certainly report back once I get some ma po dofu, etc.

                          1. re: rebeccact

                            I just hosted a large party at Sichuan Gourmet/Brookline. There are threads on the board, but the dinner favorites included:

                            apps - dan dan noodles, cold noodles (liang mian), dumplings in hot sauce (hong you chau shou), and fresh bamboo shoots in wonder sauce.

                            main - ma po tofu, dry fried string beans, water cooked fish (this is called something else on the menu, maybe fish and cabbage stew?, it's shui zhu yu), cumin lamb, old sichuan chicken, and gan duo beef (a small is huge). One table also got shrimp with garlic sauce and that was fantastic. Not spicy but very flavorful.

                            1. re: beetlebug

                              Thanks so much for the specifics! Sounds delicious.

                              1. re: beetlebug

                                Ok, first stop: last night, one friend and I had dinner at Sichuan Gourmet in Brookline, as it sounded delicious and was in a convenient location. Because we were only two people, we didn't go too crazy in ordering.

                                We got:
                                Chengdu dumplings in chili sauce
                                Bamboo shoots in wonder sauce
                                Ma po tofu
                                Chinese eggplant in Yu Xiang Sauce (this because someone told me Fuschia Dunlop said it was one of her favorite dishes during her time in China-- just about to start reading her book).

                                Everything was really tasty, but nothing was very spicy (maybe I am used to a different level-- I order things "Thai spicy" when at a Thai place, for example-- but I still feel like I was getting an "Amercian" level of spice here... not what I am expecting to get in Chengdu). I did really enjoy the flavors and textures of the different dishes. The bamboo shoots were fresh and light and the sauce on the was bright, the tofu was smooth and soft, and the heat that the different dishes was more integrated into the flavors of the dish than usual, which was nice. Actually, one of my favorite things we had were the little sesame flavored pickles that came as we sat down.

                                Service was very good and we enjoyed our meal a lot... just not sure it "prepared" me for the level of heat I will encounter in Chengdu.

                                Thanks again for the advice! Next, I hope to get up to Gene's.

                                1. re: rebeccact

                                  if you expect 'Thai spicy' you'd be disappointed. Sichuan spicy is perfect (facing-heaven chilis), plus the tingling (peppercorns). enjoy your trip! i had the best Sichuan food in Chengdu. hope you get to try fresh facing-heaven chilis during your visit.

                                  (been to Chengdu 3 times. first time was shortly after reading Dunlop's 'Sichuan cookery'. i had no addresses, wandered round, saw something good, pointed at it and that's my order.)

                                  1. re: rebeccact

                                    You can ask for things "mala" to show them that you know what you are talking about. Also, while mapo is typically pretty spicy, there are certainly spicier dishes on a standard Sichuan menu. Try Chongqing Chicken, sometimes called dry fried chicken with peppers or a similar variation on the theme. You should get a plate that is about 50 percent chicken, peanuts, ginger, garlic and about 50 percent dried peppers and peppercorns, which you should eat. You will feel it (for about 24 hours). Zoe's in Somerville makes an excellent rendition, you might try that since you live nearby.

                                    1. re: hckybg

                                      Thanks-- this is great advice. Can you order anything "mala" or is it particular dishes? I am definitely going to try that chicken dish at Zoe's.

                                      1. re: rebeccact

                                        "Mala" designates the peculiar numbing spiciness that is characteristic of Sichuan, so I suppose you could try that with anything that is spicy. By the way, I've never had Zoe's serve me anything that seems "Americanized" in its spiciness. The folks there are very nice and seem to take all their customers seriously. I've never complained about the number of peppers I get in the Chongqing chicken. And there is a point where you can't eat anymore or you will really suffer for it later.

                                        1. re: hckybg

                                          Sounds perfect. Thanks for the info. I think this is the level of spiciness I am looking for!

                                        2. re: rebeccact

                                          Not sure that I would suggest ordering just anything Ma La (or mala). While this is a distinctly sichuan flavor combination, there are many sichuan dishes that have only one or neither of these flavors. What the term really means is má (麻) - numbing (which comes from the sichuan peppercorns) and là (辣) - spicy (which comes from the chilies, usually dried). However, dished like mapo tofu, which are intended to be very ma la, are often improved by telling the waitstaff you'd like them that way. An alternative (which works in non-sichuan restaurants as well), is to ask for some la jiao you (辣椒油) - hot chili oil on the side, which you can then incorporate into your dishes/dipping sauces to bring them to your desired level of spice (though you won't get any numbing sichuan peppercorn "ma" from this).

                              2. You've already got a lot of good suggestions on this board, but when you are in Hong Kong, I would recommend trying salt & pepper anything (salt & pepper is a well-represented Cantonese preparation) and compare it to a salt and pepper dish you get here even in the best of the Cantonese food restaurants. It's eye opening!

                                Some other unique things are desserts when you're in China. We don't represent Chinese desserts well here in Boston, though you can sometimes get a bowl of sweet soup at the end of the meal that can serve its purpose. Most of the major restaurants in Chinatown serve this after a meal.

                                1. I ate at Xi"an Famous Foods twice while in New York City this past weekend. I had Liang Pi Cold Skin Noodles, Chang-an Spicy Tofu, and many of their lamb dish's. Outstanding stuff. I wish we had some of that in Boston. So addictive and they don't skimp on heat. Might be worth the trip.

                                  http://xianfoods.com/menu.php

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: bizkat

                                    I just went tonight! It's one of the great Chinese restaurants, but I love the cumin lamb with noodles so much that I end up ordering it every time I go. You may have missed the (false) rumor on here a couple months ago that Xi'an was looking to move to Boston, but apparently the owner did say that he is interested in expanding and Boston was the type of place they'd keep in mind. But there have been a number of expansion rumors and so far they have moved at a reasonable pace, so it might be a while.

                                    1. re: bizkat

                                      We do have some truly excellent Shaanxi food at Gene's in Chelmsford, but nowhere near as diverse a menu as Xi'an.