Just how all-American is Chinese food? We’ve been placing delivery orders since the 1920s, and there are now more than 41,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S., nearly three times the number of McDonald’s, according to Chinese Restaurant News.
With this expansion, Chinese kitchens have pushed well beyond General Tso’s chicken, introducing creations like Mission Chinese Food’s fiery kung pao pastrami as well as more regional dishes, from western-style cumin lamb with hand-ripped noodles to Sichuanese pepper frog legs. The result is a reinvigorated debate over what makes for authentic Chinese food, plus plenty of tantalizing, adventurous eating.
You’ll find restaurants setting the bar higher in immigrant enclaves like New York City’s Flushing neighborhood and California’s San Gabriel Valley, but also in Vermont, Chicago, and Salt Lake City. Some are family-owned, hole-in-the-wall joints, while others have spawned celebrity chefs like Peter Chang, originally from Hubei Province.
Hunan Taste in Maryland is on the stylish end of the spectrum, with traditional design elements (calligraphy, red walls) and dishes to satisfy all comers. Choose from a Chinese menu that includes tea tree mushroom casserole and stir-fried leeks with dried bean curd, or go for the comfort of the American menu’s sweet-and-sour spareribs. It’s not unusual for Chinese restaurants to have differing menus or special unlisted preparations available on request.
“There are so many cool dishes that aren’t being put out front; experimenting can be intimidating, but it’s worth it,” says Scott Drewno, executive chef of The Source, Wolfgang Puck’s contemporary Asian restaurant in D.C. Drewno says he fell in love with Chinese food at age 21, while working with Puck in Vegas. Now he has put his own spin on Chinese: sesame-miso cones filled with ahi tuna; pork belly dumplings with black vinegar and chili oil; and lacquered duck with sweet-and-sour huckleberries.
The Source hosts a great-value Saturday dim sum brunch and special events; you can learn to make the dumplings yourself as part of a class timed to Chinese New Year (typically late January or early February). Dumplings are considered symbols of luck, wealth, and prosperity—a key part of the holiday feasting.
Here’s a first bit of good fortune: our short list of the best Chinese restaurants across the U.S. See how many you’ve tried, and share your favorites in the comments below.