If you're a fan of authentic Chinese in Charlotte, you're in luck these days.
But first, let's pause to explain the difference between the two kinds of Chinese food in America:
There's the American Chinese kind, with all those familiar dishes we see on buffets and in our takeout menus. Then there's the real kind: Balanced, nuanced, jumping with flavor – the kind of experiences you expect to find (in this country, anyway) on Mott Street in New York or down alleys off Grant Avenue in San Francisco. It can a little dangerous, maybe a little outside our comfort zones.
If you want to experience that kind of Chinese food, it can be difficult. Get the "other" menu at a Chinese restaurant and you're facing unfamiliar ingredients, techniques you may not know, even names that change from place to place. It’s like getting off the interstate without a map: You know there’s something good here, but you don’t know how to find it.
When I went on a search for more authentic Chinese restaurants in Charlotte, I got help from a tour guide: my friend Betty Lee. An obsessive home cook herself, she was born in Shanghai and speaks Mandarin. At a restaurant, she'll study the menu with a practiced eye, then drop a soft, quiet question in Chinese. And we’re off: Different dishes appear, servers get more enthusiastic. The table ends up covered with dishes that I would never have found for myself.
I wish I could send my friend along with every person I know. But there’s no Betty app for a smartphone. So, with help from Lee, Seattle-based food writer Hsiao-Ching Chou (author of the new book “Chinese Soul Food”) and Charlotte Chinese restaurant nut John Bird, I put together a list of tips, suggested dishes and three restaurants you need to know.
Where to go
Lam’s Kitchen, 1369 Chestnut Lane, Matthews. Fans of the old restaurant Dynasty Cuisine can rejoice in the return of chef/owner Joe Lam. Around 2010, Lam bought Dynasty Buffet in Pineville, but he wanted to do something more authentic than Americanized Chinese food. So he ended the buffet and changed to a more authentic menu, including dim sum.
“I wanted people to know the real Chinese food,” he says. “What we eat every day.”
Despite gaining fans, Dynasty didn’t make it and closed around 2013. Lam bounced around, he says, working at places like Great Wall South. He moved to Asheville briefly and helped to open Red Ginger. But his friends and family were in Charlotte, so he returned and opened Lam’s Kitchen in November.
It’s very small, with maybe 26 seats and a small galley kitchen. But he’s turning out a list of well-made dishes like clay pots and cold appetizers, like a fiery version of beef tendon and tripe in hot chile oil.
“If people are looking for Americanized Chinese food, this isn’t it,” he says. “If you know this food, you can tell. No shortcuts, everything needs time. That’s something people don’t understand – this isn’t fast food.”
Don’t miss: The cold appetizer beef tendon and tripe: The tendon is tender, not chewy, and the combination of cold food in a fiery red chile oil is hard to stop eating. For balance, follow it with snow pea tips with crab, an elegant version of a classic dish, with large, fresh pea plants (they’re sort of like tender bok choy, with stems and leaves) in a cornstarch-thickened white sauce that’s almost furry with shreds of king crab meat.
Lee Cafe, 1046 Regent Park Parkway, Fort Mill. Yes, it has sushi and an Americanized menu, and at lunch, that’s mostly what you’ll find. But if you go at dinner and ask for the “special” menu, you’ll get an extensive lineup of well-made Szechuan and Cantonese dishes. Owner Ying Liang has two chefs, one Chinese and one Japanese, to handle the Chinese menu and the sushi. Chef Bu Chen is from Guangzhou, the sprawling city on the Chinese coast that used to be known as Canton, and he has a serious talent for seafood dishes.
Don’t miss: Feng tang fried crab. Sometimes called bi feng tang, it’s sort of the Chinese version of shrimp and grits, something fishermen came up with, to use what they caught. The version here is a standout: A big platter of what looks like toasted bread crumbs but is really a huge pile of golden fried garlic, studded with chunks of softshell crab..
Chuan Wang Fu, 8418 Park Road in Quail Corners. It’s a combination of sushi bar and Chinese dining room, with an extensive Szechuan menu. Look for the sign that says “Sushi & Asian Bistro.” Owned by Fang Jiang, a native of Fujian province, with cooking by Szechuan native Liu Cheng, it has an extensive menu (the pictures help a lot). This one of the rare places in Charlotte that sometimes has xiao long bao (soup dumplings).
Don’t miss: Dry-fried green beans topped with minced pork. It’s a dish that doesn’t turn up on many menus.
How to order
Chinese food is meant to be shared, with everyone tasting from different platters. Go with at least one other person and plan to order two dishes per person. Pick a cold appetizer or two, a fish dish and at least one vegetable dish. Here are more tips from a couple experts:
Retired Winthrop University English professor John Bird is a Charlotte native who fell in love with Chinese food as a kid going to the old Oriental Restaurant. His wife, Seung Lee, was born in China and they travel frequently, particularly to Washington and San Francisco. His tips:
▪ Look for Asian vegetables, particularly bitter melon, Chinese broccoli and pea shoots. “Chinese American restaurants will have (American) broccoli. Chinese broccoli is a totally different thing. So that’s one indicator.”
▪ Look for meats like tripe, “things most Americans would turn up their noses at. If (the menu) has offal, it’s probably good.”
▪ Look for other diners who are Chinese. He was once in Boston and spotted a Chinese and American couple. He followed them and ended up at a great dim sum place.
▪ Look for a menu with typos, misspellings and awkward translations, like one local menu that lists "saliva chicken" instead of "mouth-watering chicken." A bad translation is a good sign, he says.
Food writer Hsiao-Ching Chou lives in Seattle and is the author of a new book, “Chinese Soul Food: A Friendly Guide for Homemade Dumplings, Stir-Fries, Soups and More” (Sasquach Books, 2018).
▪ If there are a lot of Chinese people in the dining room, the food must be good, or at least better than the other places available.
▪ If there are Chinese characters written on sheets of paper taped to the wall or on a white board with no English translations, those are specials geared toward Chinese customers. Ask the server about those.
▪ Try clay-pot dishes (they may be translated as “casserole” on menus). Look for dishes with unfamiliar combinations (such as green pepper with shredded potato or brisket with daikon). Consider ordering anything with XO sauce or with eggplant or green beans. Look for roasted duck in a Cantonese restaurant or anything listed as “ma la” or in chili oil in a Szechuan restaurant.
▪ Seafood dishes are prized, so take a chance on a crab or fish dish.
▪ She agrees with Bird: Don’t be put off by typos and seemingly odd translations. "Chinese characters don’t always translate easily."
The chopstick issue
Yes, it can be embarrassing when everyone around you is adept with these (and with those flat soup spoons, too). But you'll see American-born Chinese diners who didn't grow up with them either. Give it a shot, but there's no shame in asking for a fork if that's what it takes to enjoy your food. And while it may get messy, it's fine to use your fingers on things like seafood in the shell.