Beyond our biggest cities, seeking out the best Chinese restaurants in America can be like looking for needles (or better yet, noodles) in a haystack, only to find yourself grasping at straws. No doubt the entire history of the Chinese immigrant experience in America can be glimpsed in the fact that the best restaurants for Chinese food are likely to be mom-and-pop affairs that don’t cater to Westerners—they’re a little like our best Mexican restaurants in that way. Whether this dim sum parlor makes unreal char siu bao or that hole-in-the-wall serves dandan noodles to make you cry, their discovery by English speakers typically happens through word of mouth, actual or virtual. That said, these 17 restaurants—some new sensations, others decades-old icons—stand out for helping to define (or redefine, as the case may be) Chinese cuisine in their communities. From dim sum restaurants in New York to high-end restaurants in downtown L.A. to a local legend in Falls Church, these are the best Chinese restaurants in America—start planning your pilgrimages now. Follow Time Out USA on Facebook; sign up for the Time Out USA newsletter
Best Chinese restaurants in America
After running a successful restaurant in China and working at the Panda Restaurant Group in Los Angeles, Tony Xu opened Chengdu Taste in 2013. The San Gabriel Valley—and the rest of L.A.—quickly took notice, and the lines haven’t let up since (a second location opened up in Rosemead). Fiery Szechuan dishes fill tables with intoxicating smells and an overarching red hue that indicates an intimidating level of spice. Start slowly, perhaps with cold mung bean noodles slathered in chili paste, then move to more grandiose items: boiled fish in green pepper sauce, stir-fried pig’s intestines, lamb on toothpicks with cumin. A green peppercorn here and there will have your mouth feeling numb at times, but the flavors at Chengdu Taste are all intense, wonderful and worth the wait.
Chinese-food fanatics rejoiced when this Flushing chainlet began its move into Manhattan. As at its Queens counterparts, the Manhattan shops offer the cuisine of Xi’an, an ancient city in North Central China that was once a vital part of the Silk Road trade routes. The cumin-spiked “lamb burgers,” tangy liang pi cold noodles and warm tofu submerged in crimson chili oil are all must-haves.
Owners Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo (formerly the duo behind Chicago supper club X-Marx) are cooking the food of Macau, a former Portuguese colony along the South China Sea. As such, their menu is heavy with influences both Portuguese (bacalhau, salt cod) and Chinese (pot stickers, Szechuan peppercorns), not to mention any other forays toward which Conlon, the chef, is guided. If this convergence sounds like “fusion,” what’s remarkable is it certainly doesn’t taste like it: The food—especially the paella-like wonder that is the signature “fat rice” and the comforting crock of tofu, pork belly—is vibrant, personal and natural.
The aromas coming from the steamed and fried dumplings at Yank Sing are so tantalizing, you’ll likely gobble them down before finding out what’s in them. Exceptionally fresh and flavorful dim sum is undoubtedly what keeps this longtime restaurant thriving in an unlikely corner of a massive office complex. Ordering is half the fun at this trolly-service dim sum institution: Just point at what looks good as the waiters roll their carts past your table. Favorites include shanghai dumplings with pork, scallion, ginger and a shot of hot broth, stuffed crab claws, and goldfish dumplings filled with crunchy shrimp and bamboo shoot tips.
There is a go-to restaurant for every kind of Chinese dish in Los Angeles—Beijing’s xiangbing (meat pies), Peking duck, cold noodles—and Seattle is no slump either, but for xiao long bao (soup dumplings) in both cities, we go to Din Tai Fung. Now with three locations in L.A., two in Seattle and one in Orange County, the Taiwanese dumpling house is a favorite among both tourists and locals for slurping down pork dumplings (pork and shrimp is another popular option) for lunch or dinner. At the Glendale location in L.A., a slice of truffle can be added on top of your dumplings—not entirely traditional, sure, but we’re not complaining.
Xiaotu “John” Zhang may not rank among New York’s superstar restaurateurs, but his expanding Chinese chain has a cult following nonetheless. Zhang brought real-deal Szechuan food to Chelsea when he opened a branch there in 1998. His menu passionately describes the history and cooking process behind each dish, providing diners a comprehensive primer on the feast to come. Start with a sinus-clearing bowl of dandan noodles, loaded with dried peppercorns, or opt for the addictive gui zhou chicken, which combines dry-fried hot chilies and tongue-tingling Szechuan peppercorns, without a drop of gloopy sauce. If you’re looking for something milder, order a basket of eight succulent pork soup dumplings. Just don’t be afraid to experiment: Gems abound on the menu, and you have nothing to lose but your fear of fire.
Facing East, Bellevue, WA
A David to the Goliath of chains like Din Tai Fung and Boiling Point that keep sprouting up around Seattle, Facing East derives its staying power from owner Yu-ling Wong’s deeply personal approach to the food of her homeland, street eats in particular. Noting that, per Taiwan’s complicated political history, its cooks have incorporated “a lot of different cuisines” (Fujian above all, with “a little bit of Japanese influence”), Wong brings her own modern sensibilities to bear on the classics, whether exchanging caul with tofu sheets or using beet juice for coloring. As a result, staple comforts shine lighter and brighter, from the cracklingly crispy Tainan shrimp rolls and soulful pork-belly stew over rice to specials like bamboo shoots with salty egg yolk and garlic or shaved ice with fresh mango in season—not to mention the legendary pork “burger,” an overstuffed bao sprinkled with peanuts and herbs.
Philadelphia’s home to a number of superb contenders, but it’s hard to top one with a backstory like this Chinatown magnet has: the owners can trace their ancestry back to one of the chefs who invented the universal objects of foodie worship that are xiao long bao—and they’ve got the recipe to prove it. What’s more, says Sally Da, her mother-partner Shizhou has been cooking “the entire line of Shanghai-style dim sum” for more than 30 years. So it’s not just those intricate, elastic little dough pouches, bursting with soup at the touch of a tooth, that earned Dim Sum Garden such loyalty it moved to a bigger (but no less thronged) space in 2013; dumplings and cakes of all kinds—flat, fat, steamed, fried, savory, sweet—play substantial roles along with myriad variations on the snappy house noodles.
Tony Hu uses plenty of Szechuan pepper, dried chilies, garlic and ginger to create flavors that are incredibly addictive. Our favorites are Chengdu dumplings, crispy Chinese eggplant with ground pork, twice-cooked pork, mapo tofu, Szechuan prawns and “chef’s special” dry chili chicken. There are venues throughout the city and suburbs and trust us, whichever you pick, you won’t be disappointed.
Peking Gourmet Inn, Falls Church, VA
If Peking Gourmet Inn looks like your grandfather’s Chinese restaurant—painted lanterns, red vinyl booths, jacketed waiters and all—that’s because it could have been: after all, it’s been around since the late 1970s, when Deborah Lee and Bobby Tsui’s own Shandong-born grandfather opened it with only eight tables. It's expanded greatly over the decades, but Peking duck remains at the center of it all, ceremoniously dismantled tableside for a feast of dark, rich meat and crackling, glistening golden skin accompanied by unusually delicate pancakes, housemade hoisin sauce, and green onions grown on the family farm—which also supplies the beloved garlic sprouts. Beyond that, look to the lamb dishes and the lightly batter-fried but heavily garlicky jeo-yen shrimp.Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Michael McDonough