Gateway Cuisine
June 20, 2012 4:06 PM   Subscribe

What are the best "gateway dishes" for someone who wants to try authentic Chinese cuisine?

The timing of the front page post on David Chan could not have been better, as I will be traveling to Los Angeles for the first time this July.

However, my only experience with Chinese food has been of the Americanized variety, which I am somewhat hesitant to admit I enjoy immensely.

What dishes would constitute the best options for someone like myself, who is looking for a "gentle introduction" to authentic Chinese?

Incidentally, if you have any additional advice on the Chinese dining scene in LA, I would love to hear it.
posted by rapidadverbssuck to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
As a very general piece of advice, the most authentic and highly-praised Chinese restaurants will be found not in Chinatown as you might think, but east of downtown in the San Gabriel Valley. I can try to dig up a link that lists particular places...
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:31 PM on June 20, 2012

Here's one link.
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:32 PM on June 20, 2012

ma po dofu
posted by Infernarl at 5:19 PM on June 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

Peking Duck.

Some restaurants require you to order this ahead of time, but it's worth it. Every time I've ever had this, I got half a duck -- which is way too much for one person to eat. So bring someone else, particularly someone who has had it before and can show you how to eat it.

Understand that it isn't cheap. But it's very good.

Another thing to try is cold sesame noodles. It's an appetizer.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:10 PM on June 20, 2012

Also, keep in mind that "Chinese food" is about as meaningful as "European food."
This bears repeating. For instance, I utterly despise dim sum and hot pot, but still eat Chinese food almost every day because I love Taiwanese, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Yunnan, Sichuan, and the list goes on and on.

Gateway dishes: I don't think such a thing is necessary. There is of course some authentic Chinese food that I wouldn't recommend to a newbie (such as stinky tofu) but you're very unlikely to come across it on your own. Tripe and intestines are labelled as such. In addition, menus typically alert you to particularly spicy dishes, and if not, the server will. One thing I WOULDN'T recommend is having a set dish in mind then going to a random restaurant and ordering it. They might serve it, but it might be pretty bad. Every restaurant has a few specialties and if you ask your server what's good or popular, they will be honest.

If you love the fried greasiness of Americanized Chinese food, then I think 101 Noodle Express as mentioned in the FPP could be a great idea. They have good beef rolls which are kind of like the Chinese equivalent to a burrito. While there you could get some dumplings/potstickers-- maybe one order fried and one steamed, so you can think about the difference.

Also try beef noodle soup and an order of a whole fish, if you're okay with bones. Steamed fish with ginger and green onion is so simple and so unlike Americanized Chinese food, but so so good.
posted by acidic at 6:17 PM on June 20, 2012

Be sure to save room for dessert at one of the Taiwanese Shaved Ice places in San Gabriel.
posted by cazoo at 6:20 PM on June 20, 2012

Shanghai-style soup dumplings (xiaolongbao)

Anything involving red bean paste

Sichuan spicy beef

Shanxi-style noodle dishes (there are many varieties)

Chicken feet. (personally, it makes me gag, but if you want authentic...)
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 7:40 PM on June 20, 2012

Soup dumplings or really any dumpling are always hits among people who don't eat much authentic Chinese food... Also hand pulled noodles tend to go over pretty well.
posted by pravit at 8:35 PM on June 20, 2012

From Jonathan Gold / LA Weekly's Essential 99 Restaurants: You could start here: a large shopping mall in the heart of San Gabriel's Valley Boulevard that has pretty well regarded dim sum, xiao long bao, vegetarian cuisine, delis, bakeries, and a Chinese supermarket.
posted by ikaruga at 8:55 PM on June 20, 2012

There are a number of dishes that are similar or shared between American Chinese food and 'authentic' Chinese food. Eggplant in Garlic Sauce is one that's pretty universal, Kung Pao Chicken (though that's a dish that changes a lot from restaurant to restaurant), fried rice or noodles, pot-stickers (though, again, there will be some significant variation from place to place).

To me, "authentic" food means at least in part the kind of food that you can cook for every meal and not have a heart attack by middle age, so I always like trying the noodles in soup, stir-fried vegetables, steamed fish, and other dishes like that. But that's just my take on it - certainly you can get authentic "special occasion only" food (I know this one szechuan place where every dish is served in a quarter-inch of oil...) but if you're really interested in the cuisine you might enjoy trying more of the everyday items as well.
posted by Lady Li at 11:37 PM on June 20, 2012

Oh, let me separate out / finish my list of dishes that are fairly common/shared/approachable:
- (whatever) in garlic sauce
- Dry fried string beans
- Steamed fish fillet (or whole fish, if you aren't bothered by it)
- Kung Pao Chicken
- Fried rice / fried noodles (chow mein, chow fun)
- Dumplings
- Mongolian beef
- (whatever) in black bean sauce (soooo salty delicious!)
- Noodle soups
posted by Lady Li at 11:42 PM on June 20, 2012

In my (granted, limited) experience, Chinese food abroad is rarely as good as it is in China. Add to that, having studied Sichuanese cuisine at a (Chinese language) culinary institute in Chengdu, I would have to say that Sichuan food outside of Sichuan - to me - rarely hits the by now all-too familiar spot. There are notable exceptions, of course.

However, I don't want to scare you off with my increasing snobbishness.

Most Chinese food is fairly vanilla, in terms of technique and ingredients. Those should be your gateways, and in particular dishes like 干煸四季豆 or dry-fried string beans (that are actually deep fried before being dry-fried). Mapo tofu is a fantastic distilliation of Sichuan flavour, but if done badly is rather ordinary. If the tofu tastes a little off, corners have been cut.

Almost every foreigner i've met in China (myself included) rave about their eggplant dishes. Red/Soy-braised eggplant is a particular favourite.

Braised, smoked or otherwise slowly prepared duck necks make *fantastic* cold dishes.

Shanghaiese xiaolongbao, or broth-filled dumplings are just beautiful. Most of SH cuisine is a little on the sweet or ...none-spicy side or me, but the XLB are not to be missed.

Shaanxi style roujiamo (meat -pork, beef or lamb) in a round bread are a great snack. 腊汁肉 -Lazhirou is a slow braised type of meat from Shaanxi. The pork is very similar to pulled pork.

If you're of the more adventurous sort, try the tripe. Goose intestine is great, as are so-called "kidney flower" dishes, etc.

Just get out there and eat!
posted by flippant at 12:43 AM on June 21, 2012

the Americanized variety, which I am somewhat hesitant to admit I enjoy immensely.
If you like it, own it! You can love "authentic Chinese food" and still like the Americanized versions. They are totally different cuisines, just as the Hunan and Shanghainese cuisines are different. Or to remove the discussion from China, you can like both TexMex and Mexican, gourmet pizza and Dominos.

Though I know nothing about Chinese food in LA, I wanted to second the above point that China has many many diverse kinds of food, so you should be trying different restaurants with focuses on different regions. Three more points:
1) Don't be afraid to point at something that looks good and eat it. Sometimes you don't want to know what it is until after you have had it. If you like it, get the name written down in Chinese and a description.
2) Ask what the restaurant's specialty is. Don't trust the menu page that says "house specialty" but ask your server for a recommendation, or which of 2 or 3 interesting dishes they recommend.
3) In Boston, we always got the best food if someone at the table could speak Chinese and we would get the ura-menyuu of less Americanized dishes.

(I was under the impression cold sesame noodles were an exclusively New-York-Chinese dish. They're hard to find even in other parts of the US! But I guess they had to come from somewhere? Regardless, they are delicious!)
posted by whatzit at 3:32 AM on June 21, 2012

I don't know if it was serendipity or someone who saw this question, but do check out the discussion on the blue
posted by whatzit at 3:46 AM on June 21, 2012

Do you like shrimp?

Walnut shrimp with mayonaise. My (Chinese) wife LOVES this at really legit Dim Sum places, and can stand it at Panda Express even.
posted by tremspeed at 10:40 PM on June 21, 2012

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