In August of 2006, my family moved from the highly Asian-populated Seattle to Albuquerque, New Mexico: the land with a 1% Asian population. The first week we were here, my dad made it a point to find an authentic Chinese restaurant to eat at regularly. We tried food from more than ten places, but they were all Americanized. We wanted to give up.
Thankfully, we didn’t. After a year of searching, we found our go-to authentic Chinese restaurant called ABC. It reminded us of our favorite restaurants back in Seattle. I’m glad we didn’t stop trying. For those of you who are still looking for the right authentic Chinese restaurant, don’t give up. Here are a few tips on how to find an authentic Chinese restaurant in a small city.
1. Check the location
The first step you should take when finding an authentic Chinese restaurant is to check its location. Is it in an area that is busy with mainstream franchises, such as PF Chang’s, Olive Garden, or Texas Steakhouse? Or is it located in an area that isn’t gentrified, one that is known for having some sort of Asian population nearby?
If the answer is the latter, then you have made your first step toward finding your authentic go-to Chinese restaurant.
2. Check the restaurant’s atmosphere
When you go to the restaurant for the first time, check the atmosphere and the setting. If the restaurant is decorated with red and gold designs, large fans, and a shrine with incense and oranges, it’s probably authentic.
Most Americanized Chinese restaurants will have the similar red and gold designs, but they will lack a shrine. My dad told me it’s because these restaurants aim to be inclusive for people of all religious backgrounds. He also told me authentic Chinese restaurants tend to express their religion more.
3. Check what kind of teapot they use
If the restaurant you’re at charges for tea and serves their tea in earthenware or stone teapots, it’s probably not an authentic Chinese restaurant. Most authentic Chinese restaurants serve tea for free. My dad says it’s because Chinese people have a firm belief that tea burns fatty foods and helps aid the digestion process.
Serving tea in earthenware or stone teapots can be expensive, especially if the tea set breaks. Authentic Chinese restaurants typically use ceramic teacups and metal teapots because they are easier to clean and they last a long time.
4. Check if they serve their food family-style
Unlike most American restaurants, Chinese restaurants serve their food family style on a Lazy Susan. Meals are typically eaten with the family. Instead of one person having their own dish, the whole family shares multiple dishes so that everyone can have a variety to eat.
If the restaurant you’re at doesn’t serve their food family style, then it’s probably not authentic because it strays away from the collective culture of eating to the individualistic way of eating.
5. Check if they serve fish with its head attached
This may seem unappealing, but this is a sure fire way to find out if the Chinese restaurant you’re eating at is authentic or not. Order fish, preferably the sea bass. If the fish comes out with its head intact, this restaurant is authentic.
For some reason, American restaurants like to filet their fish. A close friend of mine once told me dead fish looks disgusting, so that might be the reason why American restaurants don’t serve the whole fish.
To me (and most authentic Chinese restaurant owners), filleting fish is a wasteful concept. The filet may have a good portion of the fish’s meat, but it lacks the fish’s tender cheeks, and the fish’s delectable and sometimes crunchy skin. Fish with head is a classic Chinese dish, and it is one of the few dishes that can signify authenticity.
Finding an authentic Chinese restaurant in a small city can be tough, but it doesn’t have to be. If you follow these steps, I’m sure you’ll be able to spot your new go-to Chinese restaurant in no time.