Give us your poor, your tired, your hungry masses, and we'll give you the best Chinese food outside of China. Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn each has its own Chinatown stuffed with tantalizing restaurants. Chinese food is rarely pricey, arrives lickety-split and hits the spot. And nothing says Christmas in New York like Chinese food (for Jewish families, at least), since Chinese restaurants are nearly always open. Throughout the City, you'll find authentic versions of Cantonese, Hunan, Szechuan, Beijing and Hong Kong cuisine, plus cozy Shanghai specialists like Shanghai Asian Manor and Shanghai Asian Cuisine. In our slideshow, we highlight 10 of the most acclaimed, from classic institutions to new kids on the block. Forks are provided if Grandpa hasn't learned to control chopsticks.
5 Catherine St., 212-925-8308, Chinatown, Manhattan
A-Wah is a hole-in-the-wall gem that opened in 2010. Robert Sietsema of The Village Voice has already named it the number one Chinese restaurant in the City. Through the windowed kitchen up front, the cooks can be observed expertly hacking up Peking duck to drape atop noodle soups and Hong Kong–style lo mein or layer in a juicy sandwich. Rice casseroles heaped in stone crocks are crowned with squab or Chinese sausage and minced pork; even take-out and delivery orders come in lidded casserole dishes, not plastic or Styrofoam. Eel, frog, jellyfish and pig's feet are also in stock for the aficionado of such delicacies. The small dining room is modest, with white-and-green-checked tablecloths and a flat-screen TV broadcasting videos of Chinese love songs.
Great N.Y. Noodletown
28 Bowery, 212-349-0923, Chinatown, Manhattan
So brightly lit it almost hurts your eyes, Great N.Y. Noodletown is nevertheless a cult favorite among off-duty chefs, celebrities and late-night club kids. Ruth Reichl and David Chang are among its notable fans—Chang, especially, for the ginger-scallion sauce he was inspired to re-create at Momofuku Noodle Bar. Plenty of working people come here day and night, too (it’s open until 4am), simply because the poached chicken breast with the aforementioned ginger-scallion sauce, Cantonese-style wide noodles and baby pig on rice are so intoxicating. Other than merciless lighting, the decor consists of ducks hanging on hooks in the window and menus slipped under the glass tabletops. But you don’t eat the decorations, and the food lives up to the hype.
9 Pell St., 212-233-8888, Chinatown, Manhattan
Does Joe’s Shanghai need any more attention? Since the neon-lit Chinatown branch opened in 1996, there’s basically been a line out the door every night. More than 1,000 Yelpers have weighed in. And yet it deserves its place in the top 10, if only for the dreamy soup dumplings filled with pork or a combo of pork and crab (actually called “steamed buns” on the menu). When the waiter approaches the table, it’s assumed you’ll get an order. Once that’s dispatched, compile a list that includes cold sesame noodles, shredded turnip shortcakes (much better than they sound), moo shu pork and crispy yellow fish fingers with dry seaweed. The lion’s head (stewed pork balls) is mighty fine, too. Communal tables are ideal for groups, and the festive atmosphere means you might hear “Happy Birthday to You” sung three times during a seating.
136-13 37th Ave., 718-939-3501, Flushing, Queens
Whenever you see West Lake beef soup on a menu, order it. This Cantonese specialty is thick with tender morsels of steak, egg white, scallions, mushrooms and bright green cilantro leaves—basically an egg drop soup extraordinaire. At Imperial Palace, a giant bowl of it is enough for three or four people. The red-carpeted dining room offers lots of big tables covered in white linen—but they could use more, as clusters of families are often waiting outside. Service is brisk and English minimally spoken. Dungeness crab with sticky rice, clams with black bean sauce, braised sablefish and lamb chops are also popular. Many swear it’s the best Cantonese food in Flushing, if not all of the City.
813 55th St., 718-871-2880, Sunset Park, Brooklyn
The crown jewel of Sunset Park’s Chinatown is Pacificana, a vast sea of round tables filled with well-heeled Chinese families. Dim sum brunch here is an epic experience, presenting an overwhelming array of dumplings, spring rolls, sweet shrimp wrapped in slippery rice noodles, sautéed vegetables and seafood. When the ladies park their carts by your table, point and nod to signal what you want, unless you speak Chinese. Be assured that it’s all good and clean, freshly prepared in an open kitchen that looks like a theatrical production in and of itself. Dim sum is available seven days a week for breakfast and lunch. Dinner is also a well-oiled machine, with choreographed service and lazy Susans in the middle of each table laden with Cantonese-style pork, beef, chicken, duck, squab and vegetarian preparations. It’s a destination that’s worth the effort it takes to get there, and certainly less onerous than a trip to Guangzhou.
Peking Duck House
236 E. 53rd St., 212-759-8260, Midtown East, Manhattan
The name trumpets the main event here—if you want rich, crackly-skinned, carved duck, look no further. Peking Duck House is fancier than many Chinese places, with a coat check booth up front, a wall of fame that includes celebrities like Don Johnson, and waiters in black bow ties and jackets. At both gently lit branches, in Midtown and Chinatown, the menus are similar. Glossy sesame noodles, Szechuan-style jumbo prawns, spicy scallops with dried bean curd as well as diced chicken with cashew nuts are served in crowd-pleasing portions. But it’s really all about the duck, folded into pancakes like a burrito. It’s nice to book the front table in the windowed café, and there’s also a private party room in back.
Shun Lee West
43 W. 65th St., 212-595-8895, Upper West Side, Manhattan
Shun Lee is the mother ship of haute Chinese, a classic showplace cherished by Upper West Siders and convenient to Lincoln Center. This branch opened in 1981 while its sister restaurant on the east side of Manhattan, Shun Lee Palace, has been around since 1971. There’s a reason they’ve lasted: owner Michael Tong gives demanding New Yorkers what they want, including low-carb and salt-free dishes and cheesecake and tiramisu for dessert. Christmas is the busiest day of the year, and for many Jewish families, dinner here on that day is a longtime tradition—last year, Shun Lee accommodated 1,400 Christmas Day diners. House specialties are poached whole fish, barbeque spare ribs and Grand Marnier prawns. The adjoining Shun Lee Café serves a more limited menu.
244 W. 56th St., 212-265-2226, Midtown West, Manhattan
Broadway tunes play on the sound system in deference to its Theatre District turf. Szechuan Gourmet is a pretty spot with low lighting, tasteful Chinese art and a pebbled wall. Judicious bloggers mainly agree it’s the best in the area, attracting stylish Chinese couples and older Caucasian loyalists, many of whom stop in for takeout on the way home. The menu is enormous, with 160 choices; ordering is done by number. For something superhot, try #45, ma po tofu, creamy cubes of tofu blended with minced pork and tongue-scorching chilies. On the sweeter side is #114, shredded moo shu pork with pancakes, or #107, which is stir-fried beef with scallions and miso. This is the second branch of the popular original on West 39th Street, with an upper level with space to accommodate large parties.
Vanessa’s Dumpling House
118 Eldridge St., 212-625-8008, Lower East Side, Manhattan
Vanessa’s is hipster central, its steady line of customers sporting skullcaps, lip rings and hoodies. The crowd knows that this is where a hot and satisfying dinner can be had for $5. Very good fried dumplings (chive and pork) are four for $1; punch them up with sriracha or soy sauce. Eight boiled vegetable dumplings are $3. Then there are the sesame pancakes, which are actually substantial sandwiches made from puffy bread resembling pizza dough. Variously stuffed with vegetables, pork or Peking duck, they range in price from $1.50 to $2.25. To drink are bubble teas and smoothies in flavors like green mango or coconut. The bustling ladies behind the counter keep the line moving, and there’s camaraderie around the plywood tables. If you’re looking for waiter service, go elsewhere—here it’s serve yourself and bus your own tray.