In the mid-1950s, my mother Sue persuaded her parents to try Chinese (or actually Chinese-American) food for the first time. They lived in Sharon, a suburb of Boston, and the restaurant was called China Villa. My mom had been taken there for the first time by one of her high school friends and from the first bite it was a revelation. The recipes and spices were bold and novel, and the prices were so low that high schoolers could sometimes afford to dine there with what few dollars they would save from their pocket money or side jobs.
My mother’s equally frugal parents loved the place, and Chinese food soon became a staple in their family, as it had in many others across the country.
The main dishes on the China Villa menu, like early Chinese restaurants across America, were chop suey, egg foo young, chow mein, and sweet and sour pork. These, along with some fried dishes like General Tso’s chicken and plain meat and vegetable stir-fries with soy sauce, were invented (or seriously modified) by Chinese immigrants to America to cater to mild American tastes. It wasn’t authentic Chinese food—even fortune cookies were actually Japanese—but it was authentic Chinese-American food, its own thing, and it was cheap, delicious, and spectacularly successful.
This whole phenomenon was deeply threatening to competing white-run restaurants. The backlash soon came in the form of racial fear-mongering over monosodium glutamate (MSG), a perfectly healthy form of glutamic acid that’s a staple in cuisines across Asia. The idea that MSG is harmful was debunked in the scientific literature long ago, but some anti-MSG xenophobia still lingers in the minds of the general public. I recommend avoiding Chinese restaurants that advertise “no MSG”—they might as well put up a “less flavored” sign.
Over the past decade or two, American palates have rapidly evolved toward adventure and open-minded curiosity, and authentic Chinese food — dishes that people would actually eat in China — started mushrooming, sometimes in places with an ordinary Chinese. American menu and a second “gourmet” or “authentic” menu available upon request only.
While there will always be a place for General Tso’s in our culture and we should never be ashamed to order fried cream cheese wantons (if you can still find them), I’m happy to report that authentic Chinese food is in the Massachusetts has spread west. There are several great places in our area where you can sit side by side with the Chinese students and families in the five college area and taste the true flavors of their homelands.
Oriental Taste, Amherst. I think I could eat at this gem of a Chinese restaurant in downtown Amherst almost any day. The aromas are so deep and intense here.
There is no one Chinese cuisine. There are hundreds, and they vary widely across regions of China, from the Muslim Uyghur cuisine of Xinjiang to the seafood of the South China Sea. The authentication of Chinese cuisine in the 21st century across America focused on a specific region: Sichuan province, where hot, spicy, salty and sour flavors explode on your taste buds and fragrant mala (Sichuan peppercorns) make your whole mouth tingle most unique taste experiences in the world.
Oriental Flavor is not only Sichuan, but this is where its greatest talents lie. Sichuan-style dry braised beef arrives in a sizzling, steaming mini wok, garnished with mushrooms, leeks, bamboo shoots, lotus roots, onions and mala. The beef slices are shaved as thin as possible to capture maximum flavor per square inch.
Cumin lamb roasted with onions and peppers has a very different palette of equally intense flavors. Special Spicy Chicken is a delicious Chongqing specialty of diced and breaded chicken pieces, expertly fried with tons of bright red dried chilies.
Sour dishes are an underestimated dimension of Sichuan cuisine, and Oriental Flavor’s cooked fish fillet with pickled cabbage, soft tofu and vermicelli in milky white broth makes a great counterpoint to the meat and chilies.
If you’re not in a sultry mood, this restaurant also does a great job with small plates of dim sum like translucent “crystal shrimp dumplings” (Hargow, a Cantonese dim sum favorite), pan-seared beet pie with sweet smoked sausage, and dried shrimp or steamed mini spare ribs in black bean sauce.
Lilis, Amherst. This bright, simple and cheerful lunch (or dinner) counter offers authentic regional dishes from Xi’an in China’s Shaanxi province. You can take away or eat in at one of the few simple tables. The specialty here is hand-pulled noodles, which you can experience either dry-boiled as biangbiang or dipped in noodle soup (preferably with braised pork). A classic Xi’an street food, roujiamo is billed as a “pork burger,” but it’s actually more of a pulled pork sandwich, with moist pork belly chunks stuffed into a rich, slightly flaky bun. I also like their cold noodles, which get their bite from cucumber and springy wheat gluten, crunch from bean sprouts, and refreshing tartness from rice vinegar.
Oriental Taste, Northampton. Easily the best Chinese restaurant in Northampton is a simply furnished room with high ceilings. I like the tables by the front windows that overlook the hustle and bustle of Main Street.
The real firepower of the menu comes in a section called Chef’s Special Dishes. A great party dish that will fill two or three people is “spicy grilled whole fish” simmering in a giant metal tray with a burner underneath and in a red broth with generous helpings of cabbage, lotus, and other Chinese vegetables.
The cuisine makes heavy use of mala, and you can’t go wrong with any menu item that includes the word “Sichuan.” Beef in a spicy and sour pickle broth and dry-stewed dishes hit the spot, as does red-boiled pork, a Taiwanese specialty of rich, fatty pork belly that’s slow-simmered and deeply infused with flavors of soy sauce and five spices.
Oriental Taste is also one of the cheapest lunch options in town. Each “Chinese Lunch Special” costs under ten dollars, including soup and rice; Pork or beef with wild chili. There are many great veggie options on this list, including Ma Po Tofu with Sichuan Peppercorns and Shredded Potatoes with Chili—China’s answer to hash browns.
Panda Garden, Williamsburg. A small strip mall on a rural stretch of Route 9 in Williamsburg is an unlikely spot for excellent Chinese food. The space is warm, with the occasional lazy susan table, and the staff is chatty and welcoming.
There’s one important ordering rule here: you must ask for the semi-secret, bright yellow “gourmet menu,” a mix of authentic regional specialties you might actually find in China. The chef is from southern China (Guangdong Province and Hong Kong), so his cuisine is particularly adept at preparing dishes from the south.
My favorite appetizer is sliced pork with garlic sauce, served at room temperature. This is pork belly, about half meat and half fat, topped with a heavily caramelized garlic and chili sauce. Highlights among entrees include pork-stuffed tofu in a thick brown sauce, glassy bean noodles with minced pork, and deeply flavored mussels with fermented black beans. Beef Tendon in Spicy Chili has rich ribbons of gelatinous, intensely flavorful meat hiding in a forest of green peppers that pack serious spiciness. Pair your proteins with what’s been dubbed “fried pea pod stalks,” aka pea sprouts, aka dou miao, the sweetest and most complex of all Chinese greens.
Ginger Garden, Amherst. Located off Route 9 at the Amherst end of Hadley, this standalone property features a variety of well-executed Sichuan dishes in a large, open space that feels like the Chinese-American restaurants of yesteryear. In an adjoining room is a sleek bar straight out of a luxury cruise ship from the early ’90s, plus a sushi bar. For starters, a salad of bright, bouncy wood ear mushrooms in a complex dressing of vinegar, fresh red chilies, coriander, and sparkling Sichuan peppercorns. Ma po tofu is gooey but great, rich and generously flavored. Runner beans with little clustered bunches of deeply caramelized garlic are a bombastic take on one of my favorite vegetable dishes on earth.很好吃 – Hen hao chi!
Robin Goldstein is the author of The Menu: Restaurant Guide to Northampton, Amherst, and the Five-College Area. He serves remotely on the Faculty of Agricultural Economics at the University of California, Davis. He can be reached at email@example.com.