Where are the gourmet Chinese restaurants?
February 11, 2011 7:04 AM   Subscribe

Why are there so many Chinese restaurants in America that serve really cheap, low quality food, compared to, say, Thai restaurants, which seem to always have fresher ingredients? I've seen what really good, genuine Chinese food looks like from shows like Iron Chef, and I'd love to try some, but every restaurant I eat at always seems like they serve reheated food out of vats. How can you find the good Chinese restaurants in your town? I know they must be out there.
posted by empath to Food & Drink (62 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: (This question is prompted by a really terrible meal I had at the Chinese place right by my apartment, which seriously tasted like they just opened up a can and plopped it on a plate -- and it occured to me that I've never really had what I'd call 'gourmet' chinese food -- and have no idea where I could go to eat it.)
posted by empath at 7:06 AM on February 11, 2011

Give Thai food in America another 100 years to catch up to the stagnation and commodification that's slowly taken over generic American Chinese since, like, the gold rush... and I think you'll see the same thing.

That said, there certainly are high-quality Chinese restaurants in most cities. How to find them?

Make Chinese friends. Go out with them.
posted by rokusan at 7:08 AM on February 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Make Chinese friends. Go out with them.

Definitely. Some Chinese restaurants have a menu specifically for their Chinese patrons that is never offered otherwise.
posted by tommasz at 7:14 AM on February 11, 2011 [6 favorites]

I think the real question is not "why do they serve bad food?", but rather "how do they persist?"

Much like bad food of any culture type you just need to get out there and find the right restaurants. They are out there.

To back up your question, or to tag something onto it, why do the restaurants that create good food migrate towards making bad food over time? (basically what rokusan stated)

I grew up in Berkeley CA and ate a lot of great Chinese food. I now live in the Minneapolis, and in my travels one day i happened across Jasmine Garden in Hopkins, MN; they were without a doubt the best Chinese food i had had outside of San Fran. Then, one spring day about a year ago, they suddenly started using that red sauce/dye that the bad restaurants use, and their food quality plummeted. They had become just another chinese food joint. I no longer go there.
posted by zombieApoc at 7:16 AM on February 11, 2011

It's not just America, either. There's crappy Chinese food over here in Europe.
posted by melt away at 7:16 AM on February 11, 2011

Trying to avoid stereotypes, but friends of my inlaws are Korean. They took us out to eat at a Chinese restaurant their friends owned. The father claimed that the "best" Chinese cuisine cooks were all Korean. (And to follow up on tommasz, they got a special Korean menu to order from).

Are you looking for authentic Chinese food, or authentic 'Americanized' Chinese food ? An old office mate raved about Boston's Chinatown because you could find authentic Chinese food, as he quoted "not like the Americanized food you get in a Chinese restaurant.."
posted by k5.user at 7:18 AM on February 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

I found a fantastic authentic Chinese restaurant in my city by reading the food section in our local newspaper. They have regular in-depth reviews a couple of times per week, and the archives are available online.
posted by something something at 7:20 AM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are definitely cheapo, fast food-like Thai restaurants in the US, I think the Chinese restaurants just had a head start.
posted by ghharr at 7:20 AM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Why are there so many Mexican restaurants that serve cheap, low quality food?

I don't know the answer to this question, but I think the two are related somehow, in that Mexican and Chinese are probably the two most common "ethnic" cuisines in the US.
posted by madcaptenor at 7:20 AM on February 11, 2011

The funny thing is, we have the opposite situation in Toronto. The Thai restaurants here serve dumbed-down fare like "pad thai" in a glowing red sauce, and people keep eating it because they've never tried the real thing. On the other hand, we have lots of great authentic Chinese food because of the large Chinese population - to the extent that someone posted on the Toronto chowhound board lamenting that he couldn't find "American style Chinese" food!
posted by pravit at 7:23 AM on February 11, 2011

One of the historic reasons Chinese food was so poor was simply because the original wave of Chinese takeaways were started by Chinese people who were not professional chefs. They emigrated to work in laundries, and with mass take up of washing machines in people's homes suddenly found themselves having to find a new line of work.

I suspect the hangover from that is a fair number of Chinese restaurants suffer from low customer expectations, price sensitivity, and a lack of will/expertise to improve things.

In addition, Thai food, pretty much anywhere in Thailand, is great. The same is not true of Chinese food in China.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:23 AM on February 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Are you looking for authentic Chinese food, or authentic 'Americanized' Chinese food ?

I'd be happy with either, but I'd prefer to try what Chinese people in China would consider gourmet food.
posted by empath at 7:24 AM on February 11, 2011

I think that rokusan might have it. There is a style of food served in Chinese restaurants in the U.S. that is not a style of food that is actually served in China, but is rather something that has been developed since the 19th century by U.S. citizens and residents of Chinese descent (and restauranteurs of other ethnic backgrounds operating Chinese restaurants) as a modified version of a mixture of different Chinese cuisines created to be appealing to their U.S. countrymen. You are probably going to a restaurant that is serving this style of food and doing it badly.

(Doesn't answer your question about how to find the good stuff, though, just the "why.")
posted by XMLicious at 7:28 AM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Chowhound forums can get a bit petty and ridiculous, but they're still useful to mine for this kind of information.
posted by barnone at 7:29 AM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: empath: here is what you are looking for (mentioned by pravit already): http://chowhound.chow.com. These people care about good Chinese and know where it is to be had. Especially if you are in D.C., there's gotta be some good stuff there.
posted by dubitable at 7:30 AM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I rarely plug Chowhound, because I work there, but the members of Chowhound are, as a group, pretty much obsessed with finding authentic Chinese food across the country. There are areas where they're most interested in, say, BBQ, and areas where they're most interested in Taquerias, but Chinese food is probably in the top 3 obsessions in every region.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:30 AM on February 11, 2011

Whoops, lotsa folks thinking the same thing at the same time...haha.
posted by dubitable at 7:30 AM on February 11, 2011

I think one part of the issue is that lower level restaurants like hole-in-the-wall Chinese joints are rarely reviewed in the terms of a classical restaurant review. It can be vanishingly hard to find the great, random place on your own, especially when it might be located in a less than desirable neighborhood. So rely on places like chowhound.com where passionate eaters will unearth the best places.
posted by BlahLaLa at 7:32 AM on February 11, 2011

I suspect that the Chinese food industry has just had more time to create a set of standard ingredient suppliers and menu templates and that the relatively larger and steady flow of Chinese immigration has created a larger demand for these "restaurant-in-a-box"-type supplies.

There are plenty of good Chinese restaurants out there. The thing is that every street corner has a low-quality take-out Chinese food storefront because it's so easy and so many people are working off of the same template and, I presume, suppliers.

It's like asking, "why are there so many McDonald's?"
posted by deanc at 7:33 AM on February 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My girlfriend, who is Chinese, has the theory that these exist because the immigrants who opened them were not trained chefs or restauranteurs, but rather entrepreneurs following a paint-by-numbers guide to running a business and becoming prosperous in America. It doesn't help that many of these places have found a niche as the cheapest food on the block, hence the lowest quality ingredients.

In my experience, you have better chances if you go to a newer (post-1990's) restaurant that represents a specific cuisine (e.g., Szechuan) instead of "Chinese food". If only white people are eating in the restaurant, avoid it.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 7:36 AM on February 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Americanized Chinese food isn't chinese food and it's not meant to be. The reason why so much bad Chinese food is available is, sadly, the majority of Westerners prefer it. It's spent 100 years being distilled down to chunks of meat and broccoli coated in a thick sweet sauce. And sadly, most people don't know that it isn't real Chinese food.

One of the most popular 'Chinese' dishes is Chop Suey, which means Leftovers in Chinese. The fortune cookie is a popular part of any Chinese meal... but is actually Japanese. Many authentic Chinese restaurants will actually serve a fortune cookie now, simply because Westerners expect it and end up disappointed if they don't receive one with the check.
posted by aristan at 7:39 AM on February 11, 2011 [4 favorites]

Can you clarify what you mean by "gourmet"? I think that a lot of really good Chinese restaurants and not going to be what I'd consider "gourmet." They're not fancy places, and they're not necessarily where Chinese people would go for a special meal, but the food is still really good.
posted by craichead at 7:40 AM on February 11, 2011

Oh, one idea that occurs to me is to look for restaurants that seem to be specializing in a specific regional Chinese cuisine. (Which isn't the same thing as a place that simply includes "Szechuan" in the name or something, obviously. BTW Szechuan - the province - or Sìchuān in pinyin, means something like "four rivers", my rudimentary Mandarin and recognition of sì as the number "four" tells me.)

On preview, qxntpqbbbqxl beat me to this.
posted by XMLicious at 7:42 AM on February 11, 2011

Best answer: I just want to say, since I believe you're in Richmond now, that there is actually one decent Chinese restaurant in town, Full Kee out on Horsepen Rd, that does relatively authentic Cantonese food, though they also serve Americanized Chinese food. It does Dim Sum on the weekends (which is itself a good sign) and has a separate "Chinese menu" like Tommasz mentions above, though they leave the Chinese out on all the tables, and it does have English translations.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 7:43 AM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Make Chinese friends. Go out with them.

Let them order.
posted by spec80 at 7:43 AM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I lived in China and had gourmet Chinese food, it was super-duper different from anything I've ever had here -- and I've had some very fine Chinese food in the US. I had a connection at Suzhou's then-fanciest gourmet restaurant which served very interesting sort of nouvelle-Chinese cuisine. I missed going to the "imperial-style" restaurant in Beijing due to a schedule conflict. I ate some strange dishes at Beijing's second poshest Beijing duck establishment that included a lot of non-traditional ingredients.

(There was a Minneapolis restaurant called Yummy that, for a while, did a few interesting vaguely nouvelle-y dishes.)

I suspect that in the US it's possible to do really cheap Chinese cuisine since there's a high starch-to-meat ratio, there are heavy sauces and deep-frying to conceal cheap meat and many folks don't expect a lot of good vegetables in Chinese dishes. Also, there's a strong culture of non-spicy Chinese food (possibly from Cantonese/coastal immigrants being the first ones here? I might be making that up) and so you get starchy/meaty/fatty/non-spicy, and that's pretty much the perfect storm of cheap US food.

(That said, I am very partial to the Village Wok in Minneapolis for cheap yet tasty sort of dinery Chinese food.)
posted by Frowner at 7:44 AM on February 11, 2011

I'd prefer to try what Chinese people in China would consider gourmet food.

That may be your problem right there - there is no one uniform answer to what "Chinese people" would consider "gourmet food." There are a gabillion different ethnicities in China, all with their own cuisine -- and so what "a Chinese person" would consider "gourmet" depends on whether they're from Sichuan, Beijing, Hunan or Taiwan or whatever, or whether they're Cantonese or Uighur or Mongol or Bai or Tibetan or Tu or Mulao or...

What we in the West are used to is based primarily on one group's style of cooking, Cantonese, and has been further "dumbed down" for American palates. Recently (at least comparatively so) we've started seeing some more Sichuan food, but it's still only scratching the surface. Some restaurants in San Francisco are starting to branch out and have other regional cuisines from China, but still there are maybe only 3-4 different regional cuisines we get here, as opposed to how many actually exist in China.

So maybe the way to find more diverse cuisine...is to look specifically for it. Rather than thinking of trying to find "gourmet Chinese food", try thinking, "is there a Uighur restaurant in town, I wonder?" You may have better luck, because if you do find a Uighur restaurant, nine times out of ten it'll be catering to its own expatriate clientele because "who the hell else outside of China knows who the Uighurs are, much less that we have our own food? So fuck it, we'll eat what we want and not worry about making the Westerners happy." (I was told by my ex, who lived in China for a year and a half, that one such Uighur restaurant actually exists in Queens someplace, and that Uighur food is the best "it's 4 a.m. and I've been out drinking and am going home to bed" food on earth.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:50 AM on February 11, 2011 [9 favorites]

(Also, to find a good Chinese restaurant, I usually look at the menu for more Chinese dishes -- five-spice things, unusual animal parts, lotus root, descriptions that lean on Chinese cooking ideas ("pork in the style of fish", how this vegan misses you!). I look for more variety in the appetizers. I look for a regional cuisine or a specialty - a restaurant that labels itself Szechuan or northern or Shanghainese or specializing in hot-pot is more likely to have a competent cook.

My favorite Szechuan restaurant, for example, serves fish-sauce-eggplant (the sauce is a kind used for fish, not made of fish), and ma la tofu, promotes din din noodles as a specialty, serves various weird fish parts, and has some absolutely killer Szechuan french fries. They also have some old standby General Tso's-type stuff made to fairly high standards. Also, their big sign is in chinese characters and they only have "Little Szechuan" on the window. This suggests that they are looking to attract a substantial Chinese clientele. )
posted by Frowner at 7:50 AM on February 11, 2011

And I would kill for a good plate of Uighur-style pot-roastish stew and some of that big flat bread. If you get the chance to eat Xinjiang food, always do so.
posted by Frowner at 7:52 AM on February 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Thai food in New York is just another cruddy cheap food option. And we also have some extremely high quality amazing Chinese restaurants.

The cheap Thai here isn't quite as cheap as the cheapest Chinese, but that's probably because the ingredients are slightly more exotic. Chinese-American food was developed at a time when it was difficult to get obscure ethnic food items across most of the country, so it was developed to be adaptable to what was available commercially just about anywhere. Thai came to America at the dawn of an era when it wasn't too hard to get things like bean sprouts, tofu, lemongrass, etc. here, so there's no incentive to substitute more commonly available foods or just eliminate those flavors from the dishes.
posted by Sara C. at 7:52 AM on February 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

My own theory of why real gourmet Chinese food is not broadly advertised in North America is the unfortunate Chinese thinking that Westerners "won't get it". I find good/authentic Chinese food (with the exception of Sichuan food) to be really subtle and mild, relying more on unami flavors of rich broths or delicate steamed fish, for example. But many Chinese people think that Westerners only expect sauces heavy with garlic and onions and strong flavours. Don't get me wrong, there are great dishes with a lot of strong flavours, but when you eat a "gourmet Chinese meal" you'll be paying over $100 per person and you're paying essentially for ingredients like abalone, shark's fin, birds nest where people are looking for more subtle and nuanced flavors. I can think of a lot of reasons why North Americans may not like these pricier meals, however: 1) the think the flavors are too subtle/different 2) or they don't recognize the cachet of the ingredients 3) they don't agree with the way the ingredients were obtained (shark's fin, for example, is starting to be quite controversial even with my generation of Chinese diners).

TLDR: There is gourmet Chinese food. They are very expensive because the ingredients are expensive. They may be stretching the North American palate. Gourmet Chinese restaurants also think this, and they don't put a lot of effort advertising or marketing themselves to those outside the Chinese community, and in places without a large Chinese community, these restaurants simply don't exist.
posted by reformedjerk at 7:54 AM on February 11, 2011

I found out about an amazing Szechuan restaurant in St. Paul (Tea House) by reading the newspaper. There's not much decent Chinese food in the Twin Cities, in my opinion, so it was sort of big news when these authentic Szechuan places started appearing. Maybe the same would be true for you area and you need to keep an eye on the restaurant critics?
posted by cabingirl at 7:57 AM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

To clarify something that's being repeated over and over here which is misleading and/or untrue:

There are lots of really incredible high quality Chinese-American style restaurants in the US. The problem OP speaks of is not the problem of "inauthentic" Chinese food.

There's also no real reason that there couldn't be totally crappy low-quality Authentic Chinese Like They Do It In China restaurants out there. I'm sure there are Chinese people here in New York who are all, "don't go to X restaurant, their food is shit", even if the food there is not Chinese-American but traditional Chinese.
posted by Sara C. at 7:59 AM on February 11, 2011 [5 favorites]


1) Chinese came over for mining and building railroads and similar labor.
2) As laws changed specifically to make it harder for Chinese to make money (charging more fees to them, paying a lower percentages on gold, etc.) and the jobs started drying up, they figured it was easier to open restaurants to feed the other laborers...
3) So, the origins of Chinese American food are the things that White miners and railworkers preferred eating.

Now take that, and then watch the evolution of American junk food: oily, greasy, starchy stuff sells, and if you can make it cheap and fast, it sells better. Chinese American food isn't about food, it's about money and supplying a demand.

While all that's going on, it's not like Chinese people are eating this crap nor are they going hungry. The easiest way to get to this is to find the restaurants that serve real Chinese food.

If you have friends who know which ones, you can eventually develop the eye to tell them apart with some time, otherwise... it's going to be tough - you'd think the exterior would say all, but there's plenty of fancy-looking Chinese places that serve crap to Americans and plenty of holes-in-the-walls that give great food.

Generally, you want to be looking for places with lots of actual Chinese people in them. Also, if you find there are things on the menu you don't normally get in American food- "bird's nest", squid, sea cucumber, pig's feet, you are probably on the right track, though that's only a subset of the total.
posted by yeloson at 8:00 AM on February 11, 2011

You would also probably be interested in Tyler Cowen's "ethnic dining guide (January 2011 edition) to the Northern Virginia/Washington D.C./Maryland area." It has both general and regionally-specific advice.
Over the last few years I see two big trends. The first is that we now have plenty of places with first-rate Chinese food. Our region used to be pathetic in this category, now it is a leading light. So if you feel you don’t really enjoy Chinese food so much, think again.
posted by andoatnp at 8:03 AM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Jennifer 8. Lee wrote a book on this called The Fortune Cookie Chronicles which answers many of your questions.
posted by Pomo at 8:06 AM on February 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

At risk of playing into ethnic stereotypes and clichés, one reason why it may not be possible to get what would be considered an authentic gourmet Chinese culinary experience outside of China, as Frowner sort of suggests, is that it appears to genuinely be the case that the concept of the modern restaurant was invented (or at least began to become generally developed) in China a little less than a thousand years ago; so they've had a hell of a long time to work on it and many essential elements of infrastructure, such as certain food supply chains, may not exist elsewhere. (reformedjerk already said basically the same thing.)
posted by XMLicious at 8:06 AM on February 11, 2011

Chinese American food isn't about food, it's about money and supplying a demand.

I do not think that this is true; saying that particular cuisine isn't authentically a homeland Chinese thing is not the same thing as saying that it isn't a legitimate culinary tradition, it's simply one that is created by one ethnic group for others instead of for themselves. See Sara C's comment.
posted by XMLicious at 8:12 AM on February 11, 2011

(I mean, restaurant food that a chef would never create for herself and eat at home is by no means an unusual thing, even in five-star restaurants.)
posted by XMLicious at 8:14 AM on February 11, 2011

Best answer: When looking for a decent Cantonese restaurant, my trick is to look for places that serve dim sum. Then I look to see if they have tanks full of live fish and crabs in the front of the restaurant. I've seldom been disappointed by this method.

(Nice to see all you twin cities types. We should go on an adventure. I love Mandarin Kitchen, Seafood Palace, and Hong Kong Noodle. I also love Grand Schezchuan and Tea House but they have a different category in my book)
posted by advicepig at 8:16 AM on February 11, 2011

My father's method:
Step one, spend your childhood in Chinatown and pick up Mandarin on the street. (and Korean, and Japanese, and Tagalog)
Step two, make Chinese friends.
Step three, look in restaurant windows for genuine Chinese people, especially if they're elderly.
Step four, speak to the waiter in Mandarin or their native language. (Do not do this when they're carrying a lot of stuff, as they tend to drop things when spoken to in their native language with a Brooklyn accent.)
Step five, make a big deal of how much you're enjoying your food. Slurp your noodles, demonstrate your skills with chopsticks, etc. Show appropriate table manners for that country.
Step six, graciously accept when the staff starts to play "Here, Eat This" with you. You're in.

My method:
Visit your local Asian grocery store and stock up on packaged gyoza.
posted by Soliloquy at 8:18 AM on February 11, 2011 [6 favorites]

The fortune cookie is a popular part of any Chinese meal... but is actually Japanese.

Actually there's some debate about this -- check the Origin section of the cookie's Wikipedia entry.
posted by Rash at 8:19 AM on February 11, 2011

I didn't know this until relatively recently, but there are Indian Chinese restaurants as well. The same sort of mass-produced Chinese food, but tailored to the Indian palate (read: hotter than hell, more vegetables and whatnot). Never knew there was such a thing until I went out with a bunch of Indian co-workers. The place was a total hole in the wall - no sign or anything - but it was packed inside. A very interesting twist on a theme.
posted by jquinby at 8:33 AM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

(oh, and I forgot step five and 1/2, which is to get drunk and start singing folk songs in Mandarin.)
posted by Soliloquy at 8:39 AM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding the fact that Thai food in NYC is the same terrible-quality, overly-sweet, reheated disaster as the cheap Chinese places you are referring to. I think it is just the fact that these restaurants have come to be seen as semi-fast-food places, and people continue to go to them regardless of the quality. They fill a niche here. Also, food quality in restaurants has generally plummeted as food costs rise astronomically against negligible gains in income. These places have no real incentive to keep to a particular high quality while charging the low prices everyone demands, and they can obviously get away with it, so they continue to offer the cheapest possible versions of each dish while banking on the strength of people's memories of what the food used to be like (or is supposed to be like) to carry them through repeated visits. At least that's my assumption, and its probably a similar mechanism that has led to the sub-par Chinese food you asked about.

Sadly, I figure most Thai places in the rest of the country will go this route in time. However, the one thing acting in favor of continued good-quality Thai food in places outside the NYC pressure cooker, is the 'cult of purity' and the centrality of complex flavor-balance within Thai food, where it is considered pretty scandalous to substitute ingredients for simpler versions, or to use preservatives or flavor enhancers. That is at least my understanding, based on my experience with multiple Thai friends who have cooked around me, and even in the lack of preservatives in every Thai prepackaged ingredient I have ever bought (from fish sauce to curry paste to sweet chili sauce). That could be off-base, but those aspects seem to be recognized as a defining aspect of Thai cooking. Sigh. I really miss fresh, tasty Thai food.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 8:43 AM on February 11, 2011

Full Kee in DC and Falls Church, Miu Kee in Falls Church, Szechuan Delight in Alexandria/Landmark--they have the good stuff.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:01 AM on February 11, 2011

I agree with MrMoonPie about Full Kee in DC (haven't been to the places in the burbs), but i would caution, that if you order General Tso or Kung Pao, you won't understand why we love Full Kee. Order a casserole and the wonton soup Hong Kong style, go for the offal or the Pork with Dried Tofu, the clams in black bean sauce and the crispy fried things (soft shells, grouper fish, tofu).
posted by jindc at 10:14 AM on February 11, 2011

In the DC area the place you want to go is Peking Gourmet Inn out near Seven Corners. Select from the Chefs Specials. It is actually best to go when they are busy, as the food is freshest.

For dim sum, Oriental East in Silver Spring. Get to Oriental East at least a half an hour before they open to get in the first seating, otherwise wait until after about 12:30.
posted by procrastination at 10:30 AM on February 11, 2011

In Northern Virginia China Star and Hong Kong Palace (actually szechuan restaurant, despite the name) are beyond excellent. Full Kee is alright, I guess. I doubt there's much worth bothering with in DC proper.
posted by The Lamplighter at 11:12 AM on February 11, 2011

rokusan: Make Chinese friends. Go out with them.

I dunno about that. Just because someone is of Chinese origin/ethnicity doesn't mean they've good taste when it comes to Chinese food. Every culture/ethnicity has its share of connoisseurs and its (usually larger) share of people to whom taste and quality don't matter much. I've met Chinese people with terribly low standards for Chinese food and non-Chinese people with very high standards for Chinese food.

Similarly I've also found that while Chinese restaurants with no or few Chinese customers are probably not worth trying out you can't simply reverse the logic. Chinese restaurants with lots of Chinese customers are not necessarily great by default. My Chinese wife confirmed this and pointed out that cheapness can be as much of a factor when it comes to popularity as quality. Yet again, cheapness is also not a reliable indicator of bad quality. Great Chinese food can be had at very cheap places. It's tough to figure out and ultimately you just have to try many places and follow recommendations from source whose tastes you agree with.

Also, n-thing the notion that there's as much shitty Chinese food in China as there is here. That said... I did have the best Chinese food I've ever, ever tasted ever in China. If you find yourself visiting the Westlake area (not too far from Shanghai) you absolutely positively MUST go to Louwailou (located right on the lake) and eat the Beggar's Chicken. I did not know food could taste this good. One of the few dishes so good it can make you cry. WANT!
posted by Hairy Lobster at 11:30 AM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Signs that a Chinese restaurant might be a "good" Chinese restaurant:

- The restaurant focus is on sit-down/dine-in with takeout as a side business, not vice-versa.

- There are tablecloths on the tables

- There is waitstaff

- There are plenty of Chinese customers

- The menus aren't single pieces of paper that tear off of a pad.

- The menus have Chinese language first and English second
posted by de void at 11:34 AM on February 11, 2011

Another book that might be interesting (if you really want to get historical) is Andrew Coe's Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States.
posted by vespabelle at 11:40 AM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding Tyler Cowan's guide mentioned above for DC. Also, Joe's Noodle House in Rockville is worth the trip from anywhere in the continental US.
posted by Killick at 11:57 AM on February 11, 2011

Look for restaurants with round tables -- not square ones. (Anecdotal, but round table = food sharing = communal/family eating = authentic.)
posted by cowboy_sally at 12:00 PM on February 11, 2011

>In addition, Thai food, pretty much anywhere in Thailand, is great. The same is not true of Chinese food in China.

QFT. (Shuddering memories of bus-stop restaurants in Yunnan.)

I've begun eating with a fluent-in-Cantonese ethically Chinese friend who's also a food writer. NOW I get the good stuff!
posted by cyndigo at 12:40 PM on February 11, 2011

Good tips so far. One thing I'd like to add:

You don't have to pay MORE for good Chinese food. An interesting (possibly apocryphal) fact is that Chinese invented fast food in the Song Dynasty. Good, authentic Chinese food can be found from the street to the Emperor's dining table. So, you may just get better Chinese food from the back of a truck rather than from a trendy restaurant.

I think Washington DC should have some Chinese. A Chinese population would be a natural customer base to have authentic restaurants. In addition, when Chinese overseas come settle/study/work in another country, they usually go to places with an existing Chinese population. I live in Southern California, and the initial wave of Cantonese in the 19th century, has given way to Taiwan/HK immigrants in the 80s and 90s. And now lots of Mainland Chinese are coming and more offerings that they like are starting to open up. This is not even considering choices like Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, and Filipino which may all have varying influences from Chinese cuisine.

You can also try the areas around major universities or more cosmopolitan areas in a city. These have a better chance for good restaurants that at least have some authentic offerings (if not decor, which might be more upscale).

Knowing Chinese people would help, but not always. I would say it's more important to know a Chinese language speaker. If you wish to go all out, try to find not only a Mandarin speaker, but someone that speaks Cantonese and perhaps even Taiwanese.

Finally, if you enjoy cooking (you might since you mentioned Iron Chef), consider cooking some dishes yourself. Even if they don't turn out very tasty, at least they'll provide an insight of what goes into a dish.
posted by Jack Uphill at 1:15 PM on February 11, 2011

Oh, and China Garden in Rosslyn for dim sum. Don't let the office-building setting fool you--I've been to a Chinese wedding and one-month party there.
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:19 PM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I didn't know this until relatively recently, but there are Indian Chinese restaurants as well.

The father claimed that the "best" Chinese cuisine cooks were all Korean.

There is Korean Chinese food as well; interestingly enough, many of the dishes are battered, deep-fried, and served with a sweet/spicy sauce (like tangsuyuk or kanpungi).
posted by pravit at 2:59 PM on February 11, 2011

i am taiwanese and i live in california. we find new good chinese restaurants by 1) word of mouth from other chinese people, and 2) ads in the local chinese newspapers.
the best places are those that tend to have small pieces of paper with chinese and prices plastered all over the walls; this is more or less the menu but it's kind of like, seasonal stuff that isn't on the menu they give you. the best places will have no english on the menus at all and cater only to local immigrants and not have any nonchinese customers. admittedly this is sort of unfair to americans who should also have access to really awesome chinese food. go with a chinese speaker because many of these places are run and serviced by immigrants who don't really speak english and used to only interacting with people who speak their native language.
posted by raw sugar at 5:41 PM on February 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

This may be more an issue of how to order, rather than this particular restaurant serves bad food. Many Chinese restaurants have two menus with different items on them - one in English (more likely to get things like Chop Suey, Mongolian Beef and stuff from a can) and one in characters (more likely to get pigs' feet or fish balls or a plate of just chives). There may also be specials written up on the wall or around the cash register.

For an authentic family style experience: Look around the restaurant at other people's plates, what looks good to you? Ask the server, "What are they having?" or "I would like what she is having over there." If you go in before or after the rush you might get to see what the workers are eating and you can ask about those dishes too.

For Iron Chef delights: you can search online to find a restaurant that serves shark fins or caviar or fancier fair. And since you are online read the reviews of favorite dishes to get some ideas.

Happy eating!
posted by mutt.cyberspace at 9:32 PM on February 11, 2011

Chinese people are often adept at doing business and catering tastes to non-Chinese. The funny thing is, even in China itself some restaurants cater to foreigners and make the same kind of fried, sweet food that you find in the states (restaurants with a lot of foreign guests, that is).

It may sound really obvious but finding locations with a large number of Chinese people and eating in restaurants there should help. Could be Chinatowns, or could just be neighborhoods/cities with large numbers of Chinese immigrants. It's also easier to find ingredients used in Chinese food in these places; if you're in some small town in the middle of nowhere looking for authentic Chinese food, even if the people can make it, they might not have a place to buy the appropriate ingredients.
posted by bearette at 10:39 PM on February 11, 2011

I think it may depend a lot on what you order -- Chinese places seem to feel the need to put hundreds of items on the menu when they only really know how to cook half a dozen. Look for what the regulars are ordering and get that!
posted by miyabo at 9:12 AM on February 12, 2011

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