In the past half-decade, one of the great leaps in American dining culture has been the widespread understanding that Chinese food is not a one-dimensional cuisine and does not need to include General Tso’s chicken. Rather, the cuisine of a country with more than 1 billion people varies from the warm, urban coasts of the south to the high mountains of the west, much as the dishes of the American South differ from those on tables in New England and California. Sichuan, Xi’an and Anhui all have unique culinary traditions, and Seattle is lucky enough to have restaurants that offer food from each of those regions, and others.
This north-central province prides itself on being just a little bit different, one example being a set of culinary customs referred to as the “10 Weirdies of Shaanxi.” Among the “weirdy” traditions are these “noodles as wide as a belt.”
Hot-oil-seared Biang Biang noodles
The technique used to stretch these thick noodles, by slapping them repeatedly against a hard surface (hence the onomatopoeic moniker), results in a ropy, twisted noodle full of irregularities into which the pepper-infused oil can pool. The noodles, made from just flour and water, are chewy but snappy, and the mound of chiles and chopped scallions resting on top provides the intoxicating aroma and ensuing flavor. $7.99
Pair it with: Get a little meat into your meal by starting with a spicy cumin beef sandwich on house-made flatbread. Redmond, 2022 148th Ave. NE; 425.644.6090; miahskitchen.weebly.com
This northeastern port city is famous for its snacks, including this handheld treat whose popularity has spread around the country.
Jian Bing Guo Zi
Dough Zone Dumpling House
The menu at this local mini chain draws from multiple regions in China, and represents the hometown memories of its crew of owners: xiao long bao (soup dumplings) from Shanghai, dandan noodles from Sichuan and jian bing guo zi from northern China. In the case of Jason Zhai, that hometown is Tianjin, and the dish is jian bing, whose crêpe-like wrapper is spread with egg, smeared with sauce and wrapped around a Chinese doughnut. On the streets of northern China, this is breakfast—and it’s everywhere. $4.75. Crossroads location only: Bellevue, 15920 NE Eighth St., No. 3; 425.641.8000
Tianjin breakfast dish, Jian Bing Guo Zi
One of the more popular regional cuisines, the food of this south-central province is known to most people for one thing: its unrestrained use of hot peppers. Nowhere is this truer than in the regional variation of hot pot.
Style Hot Pot
The minimally remodeled interior of this former diner makes for a slight disconnect, as this place specializes in spicy, steamy pots of boiling broth—without eggs and bacon or a cheeseburger in sight. Diners dip raw ingredients into that broth—there’s a mild chicken version and the bright red, pepper-packed spicy version (choose one or order half of each)—to cook them at the table. Ingredients for dipping are presented on a checklist and range from the common (beef, chicken, pork, cabbage) to the more rarely seen (pig brain, shrimp paste and pig’s blood). The make-your-own-sauce bar at the back of the restaurant lets diners further customize the meal, which also includes a few free appetizers to nibble on until the broth begins to boil. Prices vary.
Don’t miss: Tong ho, or chrysanthemum greens, work well in hot pot, as does frozen sponge tofu, whose texture after thawing absorbs more of the flavor of the broth. Bitter Lake, 930 N 130th St.; 206.257.3888
The cuisine of this mountainous eastern province is known as one of the healthiest of Chinese cuisines, because many dishes call for braising and stewing rather than frying.
Pickled Fish Rice Noodles Soup
SilkRoad Noodle Bar
Though what’s pickled in this soup is unclear in the English translation on the menu, it’s the vegetable, not the fish itself. Both the bite-size pieces of fish and the pickled greens come floating in a subtle, light broth along with spaghetti-thick rice noodles, whose remarkable chewiness is more like ramen noodles. Owner Frank Zhu hails from Anhui, but as the restaurant’s name suggests, the menu wanders into other regions, including Yunnan, for that province’s most famous dish, Crossing the Bridge noodles (here called Yunnan rice noodle). $8.99 University District, 4507 University Way NE; 206.547.1966; silkroadnoodlebarseattle.com
Pickling and braising are two signature techniques from China’s northeast, home to a hearty wheat-based cuisine full of potatoes and root vegetables.
Lamb with Sour Napa Cabbage Earthen Pot
Beijing Duck Palace
While American food-handling laws prevent any place in the states from selling real Peking duck, you’ll find a decent impression here, called roasted Beijing duck. But forget the fancy namesake duck; the rest of the menu shows off more of the stick-to-your-ribs everyday cuisine of China’s chilly northeast: twice-cooked pork, Chinese-style kung pao chicken and sweet potato with caramel sauce. The stone pot with lamb and sour cabbage is Dongbei comfort food at its most soothing—pungent and meaty, hot and heavy, but most of all, simple and reassuring. The powerful, sauerkraut-like fermented greens stand up to the burly flavors of the meat, tempering the fattiness that leaks into the broth, the opposing forces calming each other—and, of course, the diner. $15.95 Bellevue, 12121 Northup Way, Suite 205; 425.628.2816; beijingduckpalace.com
Hong Kong’s long history as a port city and British colony has left it awash in culinary traditions, all of them combining in unique ways to present dishes that are only and entirely of this city.
Baked Seafood over Spaghetti
A+ Hong Kong Kitchen
The cultural melting pot of Hong Kong often has meant Western ingredients (pasta) integrated with Chinese techniques, as is the case with this dish. Here, a bed of plump spaghetti topped with delicately cooked shrimp, fish and squid receives a dousing of cream sauce and a quick trip under the broiler. For those new to Hong Kong–style food, the simple seafood preparation under such a rich sauce can be surprising—and indulgently good, as it coats the noodles and marries them to the seafood on top. $9.25. Chinatown/International District, 419 Sixth Ave. S; 206.682.1267
As communism rose on the mainland, Taiwan become the seat of the nationalist government, drawing new residents from all over China. The diverse population made for competitive street-food markets, with chefs of various backgrounds constantly competing to produce the best version of each dish.
So, you think you know fried chicken? Taiwanese chicken is something else entirely—popcorn-size nuggets of intensely salty, crackly crunchy chicken, perfect for late-night street-food snacking. The sweets made at this Taiwanese-style bakery (actually part of a Los Angeles chain) are its most visible goodies, but peek at the menu located near the register and you’ll see these addictive chicken bites available to order. They’re dusted in powdered red pepper (start with the medium if you’re unaccustomed to spiciness but still want flavor) and served in a paper bag, accompanied by skewers for mess-free snacking. $5.25.
While you’re there: The surrounding shopping complex also houses fantastic Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants, plus a well-stocked market if you want to try making some dishes at home. Haller Lake, 13200 Aurora Ave. N; 206.617.7688; kikibakery.com
Food for Thought
Ding Xia, co-owner of Dough Zone Dumpling House
"Dough Zone is about more than food—it's about memories. It's one of the reasons we opened it to start with: to serve the dishes we wish we had here, the ones we all had growing up."