Just a few decades ago, Chinese restaurants were relatively rare in the United States. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Chinese food started to become popular throughout the country. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a city or even a small town without at least one Chinese restaurant.
If you are considering opening a Chinese restaurant, it’s important to understand the kinds of dishes that are most popular. Offering these dishes – like General Tso’s Chicken and crab rangoon – is an important way to stay profitable, even if you want to specialize in other fare. Our list of the most popular Chinese restaurant dishes can be a useful starting point for building your own menu.
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How American Chinese Food Differs from Food in China
Before we dive into the most popular Chinese foods ordered at restaurants, it’s important to first acknowledge that there is a big difference between Americanized Chinese food and the type of food served in China. Our list focuses on American Chinese restaurants, not dishes that are more likely to be popular in various regions of China or even in more authentic Chinese restaurants in the U.S.
When Chinese immigrants came to the United States in the 1800s, many provided services to miners during California’s gold rush (including fellow immigrants who came to the U.S. to mine themselves). Chinese restaurants soon opened in California, known as “chow chow houses.” Chinese restaurateurs quickly adapted to American tastes, offering dishes like chop suey that were not found in China. Over time, the food offered in Chinese restaurants in the United States became sweeter and deep-fried. They also focused heavily on Cantonese flavors, as many of the initial waves of immigrants came from that region of China.
Chinese food exploded in popularity in the U.S. by the 1960s. By the 2000s, Chinese restaurants could be found in almost any area of the country, typically serving up a distinctly Americanized version of the cuisine. Today, there are more than 45,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States.
There are some key differences between authentic Chinese food and the dishes more commonly served at American restaurants. These include:
- Main ingredients: in the United States, meat tends to be the main ingredient in Chinese dishes. In China, ingredients like vegetables, tofu, soybeans, rice, and noodles tend to take center stage. Many common ingredients in American Chinese food – such as broccoli, carrots, onions, and dairy products – are not typically found in authentic dishes.
- Cooking style: in Americanized Chinese restaurants, foods are often fried in a wok or deep fryer. By contrast, food in China is more often stewed, braised, baked, steamed, and/or fermented.
- Flavor profiles: Westernized Chinese food tends to be sweeter and heavier, with more sugar and soy sauce than traditional Chinese food. In China, the food is much less sweet – and tends to be a lot spicier.
- Fortune cookies: in the U.S., customers expect to receive a fortune cookie at the end of a meal. In China, fortune cookies aren’t a thing – because they actually originated in Japan.
In this post, we will focus on the most popular foods served at Americanized Chinese restaurants. While these dishes may not be authentic, they are delicious. They are also in high demand in the U.S., which is a critical factor when running a restaurant: appealing to your customers’ tastes.
Top Chinese Restaurant Menu Items
When it comes to the best dishes of any cuisine, a lot comes down to personal taste. But there is value in looking at overall trends, particularly when it comes to running a successful restaurant.
The delivery service GrubHub analyzed ordering data from 30,000 restaurants in 800 cities to come up with the top Chinese dishes in America. According to its computations, the most popular Chinese dishes in the U.S. include:
General Tso’s Chicken
This sweet and spicy deep-fried chicken dish isn’t just one of the most popular Chinese food dishes – it is one of the top dishes overall from all cuisines ordered on GrubHub. General Tso’s chicken is named after a Qing dynasty statesman and military leader, although it has no connection to the man or to his home province of Hunan. It typically consists of dark meat chicken that is cubed and coated in a batter before being deep fried. The chicken is served with broccoli and a sauce consisting of rice wine, rice wine vinegar, sugar, cornstarch, dried red chili peppers, and garlic.
This dish consists of a filling (cream cheese, crab or imitation crab meat, scallions, and flavorings) wrapped in a wonton wrapper before being fried. It is served with a bright red sweet and sour dipping sauce. Crab Rangoon was likely invented in the 1950s at a Polynesian-style restaurant in San Francisco. This dish is not found in China, as one of the main ingredients, cream cheese, is not used in Chinese cooking.
If you’ve ever had Chinese food in the U.S., you have almost certainly had an egg roll. These deep-fried appetizers are made with shredded cabbage, chopped meat, and other fillings inside of a wrapper. The dish is usually served with duck sauce, plum sauce, hot mustard, and/or soy sauce. Egg rolls were probably invented in the 1930s at a Chinese restaurant in New York City.
This dish is similar to General Tso’s chicken but is sweet instead of spicy. It is usually made from chicken thighs that are cubed, battered, and deep fried before being finished with a sweet sauce. It is topped with sesame seeds and often served with vegetables like broccoli and baby corn.
Unlike many dishes on this list, wonton or dumpling soup is served throughout China, with some regional variations. In the U.S., Cantonese-style wontons are most common. Typically, a square wrapper is filled with a mixture of seasoned ground pork and shrimp, although other combinations may be used. These dumplings are then served in steaming hot soup.
This dish is made from cooked rice that is stir fried with other ingredients, like eggs, vegetables, seafood or meat, and seasoned with soy sauce, oyster sauce, and other flavorings. Fried rice can be found throughout many Asian cuisines, often as a way to use up leftover rice. In the U.S., it can be ordered as a standalone item or may come as a side dish.
Sweet and Sour Chicken
This dish is a variation on a Cantonese sauce. In the United States, chicken is typically battered and deep fried before being tossed with the sweet and sour sauce made from ingredients like vinegar, dry sherry, cornstarch, sugar, and even ketchup (to give it a bright red color). It is often served with sliced green peppers, onion, and pineapple.
Like many other dishes on this list, orange chicken originated in the United States. It is usually made with chicken that is chopped, battered, and deep fried before being tossed with a sweet orange-flavored chili sauce. It may have been invented by a chef for the Chinese restaurant chain Panda Express and is closely associated with this franchise.
Hot and Sour Soup
This soup originated in Sichuan province, and can also be found in Henan province. In the United States, it is made with bamboo shoots, toasted sesame oil, mushrooms, day lily buds, vinegar, egg, corn starch, and white pepper, all cooked in a vegetable or meat-based broth. This soup is typically thicker in the U.S. than in China because of the addition of cornstarch.
pot stickers are a type of Chinese dumpling. They are usually made of ground meat and/or vegetable filling wrapped in a thinly-rolled piece of dough. These dumplings may be boiled, steamed, pan fried, or deep fried, and then served with a dipping sauce. They are similar in some respects to the wontons used in wonton soup but have thicker skin and a flatter, saucer-like shape.
While these dishes may be the most frequently ordered items from Chinese restaurants in the United States, they aren’t the only foods that you should consider for your menu. If you are passionate about a particular type of cuisine, you will likely find patrons who get excited about it as well. Including these popular menu items can help you maintain stable profits while you explore your creative side with different dishes.
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