"How do you find authentic Chinese food?" Today, I'm going to share my tips for how to find authentic Chinese food in any city!

Secret Revealed: How To Find Authentic Chinese Food

“Can you tell me how to find authentic Chinese food?” This is the #1 question I get asked on Facebook from friends. 99% of the time, I get this question after I’ve taken said friend out for real, authentic Chinese food and they realize that the Americanized overly-sweet orange chicken just doesn’t compare. But what do you do if you don’t have a friend who can order authentic Chinese food for you in Chinese?

Since we’re Internet best friends, I’m about to reveal my secrets today.

How To Find Authentic Chinese Food

We’re going to break down this guide into three steps:

  1. Online research and criteria to keep in mind
  2. Walking around Chinatown [this is not always applicable, especially if you live in a smaller town]
  3. What to look for inside the restaurant

Step 1: Start With Yelp or your favorite restaurant site:

Now bear with me, but I usually just type in “authentic Chinese food” and start looking at the top 5-10 results. You’re probably rolling your eyes and thinking, “Duh” but here’s what to look for:

Criteria To Keep In Mind When Searching Online- Aka How To Find Authentic Chinese Food Using The Internet:

  • No 5 star reviews:

    • My fellow Asians can back me up. An authentic Asian restaurant will almost never have a perfect 5 star review because the food will be excellent but it will lose points for things like service, decor, cleanliness, and friendliness. Keep reading for more.
  • Complaints of slow service:

    • An authentic Chinese restaurant will have subpar service. Like, you should go into the restaurant expecting to die of dehydration because your drink will probably only get filled once. But remember, you’re there for the food and slow service is a small price to pay for the deliciousness that is about to be bestowed upon on.
    • Pro tip: If you read about a place that has excellent food, but slow service or bad service, this place is a gold mine. Go there immediately!
  • Specialization:

    • When you’re looking for restaurants, steer clear of the restaurant that promises to be good at everything. You know, the restaurant that claims to have hibachi,sushi,and hot pot. Definitely stay away from the following restaurants:
      • Fusion: this is a deal-breaker. You want authentic Chinese food, not some weird mash-up of different Asian foods
      • Chinese restaurant that also serves sushi: Nope, we want their efforts to be 100% focused on serving authentic Chinese food
      • All-you-can-eat-buffet: We want quality, not quantity. And besides, I have yet to find an all-you-can-eat buffet that is truly as good as ordering from the table. And this includes all the times I’ve eaten in China.

Now that you’ve learned how to find authentic Chinese food by using online resources, we’re going to actually go to the restaurant you picked.

Step 2: Walking around Chinatown

Note: if you live in a town with a small Asian population, you probably won’t have a Chinatown, so you might find yourself in a shopping plaza. In that case, you’re looking for: how busy is the restaurant? If you’re at peak meal times, it should be fairly busy. If there’s only one person there for lunch at 12:00 on a Saturday, then that’s not a good sign.

If you’re in Chinatown, here’s what to look for:

  • Is there a large white van outside the restaurant that workers are unloading produce from? This is a good sign- they have high turnover for their produce and they get their produce delivered regularly
  • As you walked to the restaurant, did you notice that there seemed to be more and more Asian people around you? This is a good sign, Chinese people are very finicky about how authentic Chinese food is, so if they’re going there in hordes, chances are you’ve found a good place
  • Are there old Chinese men that appear to be restaurant workers smoking cigarettes outside the restaurant? This is just like China- good sign that the food will be authentic. I have no scientific data to back this up, just trust me.
  • Is there a long line of people waiting to get inside? This is a huge indicator of how authentic the food is- you should be prepared to wait if you’re dining at a prime meal-time and or if it’s a weekend. Think of it this way: if people are willing to wait for the restaurant experience, then the food is definitely going to be worth it.

Step 3: What to look for inside the restaurant

Alright, you finally made it to the restaurant. And when I say “made it to the restaurant” I mean you can peer through the window. Don’t worry, everyone totally does this, so you’re fine:

  • What is the ratio of Asians to non-Asians?

    • This is not me being racist, this is a true fact: if there is not an overwhelming number of Asians to non-Asians [we’re talking at least a 70:30 ratio] then the authenticity of the place is iffy.
    • True story: there have been times where Mr. Navigating Adulthood and I will be wandering around Boston Chinatown starving and we’ll start bickering because the restaurant he wants to go into [usually the closest one] doesn’t have an acceptable Asian to non-Asian ratio. What can I say? I want to give him the true Chinese food experience!
  • Do they serve the meal family style?

    • At authentic Chinese restaurants, similar to restaurants in China, all dishes are served family style. The table orders communally and everyone serves themselves. If each person gets served their own plate of food [unless you’re eating bowls of noodles] then the restaurant is probably not authentic.
  • Does the food seem to take seemingly forever to come out?

    • This is a good sign! It doesn’t mean that the restaurant has forgotten about you- it just means that they’re cooking everything from scratch. Chinese food is meant to be eaten hot immediately after it’s finished cooking, so they’ll bring out each dish as it’s done cooking. Be patient and you will be rewarded with tasty food.
  • Are there a lot of older Chinese people hanging out in groups?

    • Older Chinese people seem to like to hang out at restaurants on a regular basis [this is especially true if the restaurant serves dim sum]. I have no idea why but if you ever see a crowd of older Chinese people who are just sitting there, chatting, and having a good time, you’ve probably found a good restaurant. Think of it this way: these people are likely retired and have a lot of time on their hands to find a good restaurant to hang out at.

Once you’re inside the restaurant, look for the following signs:

  • Is there some sort of gold dragon/phoenix/mythical creature on the wall? 

    • This is a must-have wall decor for a real Chinese restaurant, it’s almost a prerequisite if the restaurant does any sort of catering. Maybe because a lot of restaurants in China also do the same?
  • Is the decor outdated?

    • If you’re seeing a lot of artificial plants and tacky wall art, you are in the right place!
  • Is the service really slow? 

    • What I mean by this is how often have you seen your waiter/waitress? At an authentic Chinese restaurant, they assume that you’re there for one thing: the food. They won’t check on you every 3 minutes to see how you’re doing because that’s just not customary. They trust that if you need something, you’ll flag them down.
  • Does the waitstaff converse loudly among themselves in Chinese?

    • This is good! This means that the staff like each other and this is a healthy work environment. And don’t worry, as someone who has a white husband and speaks Chinese, they’re not gossiping about you [unless you’re super obnoxious or something]. Chances are, they’re just teasing each other or telling each other what to do.
  • The prices reasonable but not dirt cheap.

    • A truly authentic Chinese restaurant will not be the kind of place where you can pay $10 for a lunch for 3 people and feel stuffed when you walk out. I’m basing this on having lived in Arizona [very low cost of living] and the Boston area [fairly high cost of living]. However, prices will be pretty reasonable, so you won’t feel like you broke the bank.

Bonus tip: If your waiter/waitress doesn’t speak English and the English menu isn’t very helpful, don’t be afraid to pull up pictures of food you think looks good from Yelp and point to it. The waitstaff can generally figure it out- I do this when I have no idea what the item would be on the menu. You can also point at what another table’s ordered and ask for that same dish.

Key thing to remember: 

Finding a good authentic restaurant takes time, especially if you live in a smaller city. Don’t get discouraged if you have to go to a couple of them before finding a good one. Just remember that when you do find “your” favorite authentic Chinese restaurant [that naturally has many qualities that were shared in this post] then all the hard work will have been worth it!

I hope this post was helpful! Comment down below- what qualities have you found to be indicative of a Chinese restaurant?

 

"How do you find authentic Chinese food?" Today, I'm going to share my tips for how to find authentic Chinese food in any city!

You may also like

44 Comments

  1. I agree that looking through restaurant reviews can help you find the most authentic Chinese food. I am always looking to find the best Chinese food with the most flavor but sometimes it can be difficult to get that authentic feel. I’ve had a few bad experiences so I will definitely be looking at all the reviews before going somewhere new!

  2. This is such a helpful post! I never thought about it this way, but these are such good tips. I love Chinese food, but it definitely sucks when you come acoss a place that isn’t good!

  3. This was actually so interesting! I would never have considered all of those factors when trying to find an authentic restaurant. I’m definitely the kind of person who just goes for the best rated place.

  4. This post makes me smile, because I have so many fond memories of going out for Chinese food growing up, and I realize that our local Chinese restaurant was at least semi-authentic 🙂 Haha. There was a buffet, but the food was served family style. Definitely keeping these tips in mind next time I’m looking for Chinese food!

    PS – Thoughts on delivery? Does that add or take away from the authenticity points of a restaurant? There are two delivery options where I live – pizza and a Chinese restaurant – and now I’m curious! Haha.

    XO, SS || Seersucker Sass

    1. Thanks for stopping by! As for delivery, I honestly don’t think it really affects authenticity that much. If you asked me 2 years ago, I would have leaned towards “no.” But with the increasing popularity of meal delivery services, I feel like more and more restaurants are adding the option for takeaway. A few of my favorite places in Boston offer takeaway!

  5. This is truly essential! My mom works with a woman from China and OMG when she makes us food…. it’s to DIE for! These are really great suggestions especially for people who really look only for those 5-star reviews.

  6. Great post! I’m definitely saving this to refer back to in the future! Such good information that I would not be able to get anywhere else.

  7. This is such a great post and super informative! I live in Michigan and unfortunately there isn’t a downtown area/Chinatown in my state. I do love Chinese food, though! There is a really great place in the town that my grandparents used to live. After reading through this post, I know that it is an authentic restaurant.

  8. I’m not Chinese but I live just outside Los Angeles and your points on finding good, authentic food are so dead on. I feel like us white folk can be a bit put off by slow service and poor ambiance, but the food is always amazing… and that’s what’s important, right?? Love this post… and now I want Chinese food 😛

  9. One of my friends actually introduced me to an authentic Chinese restaurant in our college town, and your post couldn’t be a more accurate description of it! We were the only non-Asians, the decor was a bit outdated, and the service was okay but not what I was used to. Needless to say, the food was DELISH! I’ll definitely be going there again!
    Anna recently posted…What You Missed On The Bachelorette: Week 7My Profile

  10. These are definitely great tips!! But also I’m surprised you didn’t add the whole ‘gotta smell like authentic chinese food with a salty air’ hahaha I definitely think authentic chinese restaurants have a particular smell 🙂 otherwise, I totally agree with the asian-non-asian ratio! It’s super important to me as well! Although I don’t necessarily agree with the fusion thing.. I definitely think some places know how to do fusion cuisine well 🙂

  11. This is extremely helpful, thank you! After visiting China, I’ve had a hard time finding authentic Chinese food. My sister and I went to Chinatown in NYC and finding authentic Chinese food in the middle of a 50/50 tourist trap was a feat. But we found one down a hutong kinda street. Delicious!

  12. What are your fave authentic spots in Boston? I used to live there and my best friend still does. We would go to Hong Kong eatery for their stirfry udon. We saw a cockroach on our table once and the waiter just gave us a milk shake as compensation–no discount or anything. Didn’t stop us from going there again!

    Bad service and good Asian/white ppl ratio are spot on!
    The Luxe Strategist recently posted…My Weekend Money Diary: Edition #2My Profile

    1. We’re big fans of Hei La Moon for dim sum and Great Taste Bakery & Restaurant is also great! I have yet to go to Hong Kong eatery, but it’s on my list! Peach Farm is also pretty good if you’re looking for a dinner spot, although we LOVE South Garden in Quincy- excellent lobster!

  13. This is EXACTLY right.

    If the foods the bomb but it’s a sad hole in the wall with bad service…that’s kind of the discount for yummy food. The French version with a friendly sommelier will get you yummy food too at 20x the price.

    I know why the old Chinese guys smoking outside works. If the restaurant is busy, it means the foods good, and it gets stressful for kitchen staff so they run out on smoke breaks when they can. The same goes for the wait staff.

    Specialities in a certain area or region of China is a really good sign. Growing up in China and then SF, my parents went to regional restaurants like Hakka food or something with the name/river of the region.

    Bad for foreigners who can’t read it but that’s not the base of that restaurants business anyways.
    Lily @ The Frugal Gene recently posted…I’m on the Prudhomme Payroll Now? (Should You Accept Money From In-Laws?)My Profile

    1. Ahh, thanks for breaking down old Chinese guys smoking thing! That totally makes sense, don’t know why I didn’t put it together before, haha. Specialties in China are also good- but I feel like the exception to this rule is Szechuan food because the ma la has to be done correctly.

      Lol, and totally agree- Chinese restaurants are not always friendly with people who can’t read Chinese. That’s why you can always pull up pictures and pray they know what it is!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge