Try These Chinese Restaurants in Seattle’s International District ASAP
Just in time for Lunar New Year.
Seattle’s International District encompasses businesses from around Asia—hence the modification of the traditional Chinatown moniker. But along with the diverse mix of food from Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, and Korea, the ID gives diners choices from a wide range of Chinese regional cuisines and styles.
When food writer Hsiao-Ching Chou’s parents first moved to the US and opened a Chinese restaurant in 1980, traditional dishes didn’t sell. The author of Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food jokes that “Cashew chicken paid for my college education,” and notes that customers favored Americanized options and only tried the more traditional dishes her family cooked, like dry-fried string beans, when served buffet style.
In the decades since, she saw the world of Chinese food in America expand, which she attributes to more people traveling, or even exploring other cultures from their couches. “What’s on TV, Tony Bourdain… even people on YouTube, broadcasting from wherever they are,” she says. “That has opened up the access to these regional cuisines and ingredients, created a broader demand and customer base.”
The sheer variety—and combination of swanky big-name chains from overseas and California with long-standing local classics—makes Chou resent the idea of picking favorites. “There are different types of restaurants, and they will fulfill different types of needs, and the type of food that you want,” she says.
Even if she won’t pick, we happily will: This list compiles Thrillist favorites to match diners up with food from all over China and surrounds. But along with looking for the exact right fit by cuisine and style, Chou reminds diners that lots of places in the ID deserve honoring for their history and longevity. “Regardless of any particular cuisine, being able to run a business for decades in this market, that’s to be celebrated.”
This little strip mall spot, serving up Sichuan dishes including hot pot, mapo tofu, and dan dan noodles, embodies that longevity of which Chou spoke. Though Chou notes that it first found fame for serving absurdly low-priced and enormous plates of dumplings—then and still on the menu as “Sichuan Ravioli''—the sprawling menu covers the whole gamut of Sichuan favorites, including the innocuously named boiled fish, couple’s beef, and the pork and clear noodle dish of ants climbing the tree.
This showy outlet of the California mini-chain opened just last year, giving Seattle diners the chance to try the specific style of Sichuan cuisine hailing from Chengdu and its many spicy specialties—often with a creative flourish or a twist on the traditional. More than anything, the food here gives flavor freedom to go big: The boiled fish comes in zingy green pepper sauce, the mapo tofu buzzes with the Sichuan peppercorns, and the chili oil lights mouths on fire.
Seattle’s two recent waves of regional Chinese food brought Xi’an food and Hunan cuisine to the city, but while the former hasn’t shown up in the ID yet, this outlet of a California restaurant brought the latter in a flashy, fiery way. While the eponymous dish looks great on the table, the best tastes of the region’s spicy, sour, and strong flavors come from the specialties menu: The sauteed pickled beans with diced lotus root, preserved eggs with eggplant and green pepper, and sauteed shredded beef with wild pepper.
The Northwest’s homegrown competitor to Taiwanese mega-chain Din Tai Fung for Shanghai-style dumpling supremacy, the modern, swanky flagship location also competes with DTF on another matter—the wait. “I’m really impatient about standing in line,” laughs Chou. “But they’re delicious.” And so people continue to line up for the crisp-bottomed, fluffy Q-bao (sheng jian bao) and rich, soup-filled xiao long bao.
Since its opening in 2003, this dim sum restaurant earned its laurels by meeting the long lines of siu mai-seeking Seattleites with a steady stream of consistently good dumplings, rice noodle rolls, phoenix claws, and all the other classics of the morning meal. Consistency, notes Chou, is one of the biggest struggles for Seattle’s Chinese restaurants—things change, chefs move around. But through it all—and for almost 20 years—Jade Garden has been the dim sum darling.
Taiwan’s Chinese food, like that of the US, weaves in the heavy influence of immigrants from around China—including Chou’s parents, who lived there before moving to America. She stops in for the beef noodle soup, the Island’s—and restaurant’s – signature dish, but the menu includes a full slate of Taiwanese classics, such as oyster omelet, three-cup chicken, and minced pork rice.
“Hot pot is generally a communal dish,” notes Chou, “But there are some times you just want something comforting. You can go in, you can sit by yourself, enjoy a little mini-hotpot, and it’s so soothing.” The chain out of California serves about a dozen variations of personal bubbling soups including Taiwanese spicy Korean bean paste, and milk cream curry, each filled with a different selection of meats, noodles, vegetables, and assorted toppings to match the flavor.
The city’s oldest Chinese restaurant, started in 1935 and now run by the third generation of the same family, serves foods shaped by the same forces that Chou remembers from when her parents opened their restaurant almost 50 years later. Time seems to slow down here, where the specials hang on paper slips on the wall and the retro rooms match the old-school Chinese American food like chop suey, egg rolls, and egg foo young, all made with care and fresh ingredients.
The big menu and long hours of this 300-plus-dish, little-bit-of-everything restaurant might raise worries of the kitchen spreading themselves too thin, but they manage to do just as well at putting out dim sum in the middle of the night as they do hot pot at lunchtime. It also serves classic Cantonese dishes, simple noodle soups, Hong Kong-style adapted specialties like baked spaghetti and borscht, and milk teas—and somehow manages to do a good job at nearly everything.
This tiny dumpling shop started out as a mini mart, but soon people flocked here mostly for the freezer full of home-made dumplings. Over time, the dumpling operation took over more and more of the space, eventually becoming the full-fledged restaurant of its current incarnation. Though it earned a reputation for making Shanghai-style soup dumplings before any of the bigger players came to town, the owner—and the best dishes on the menu—actually hail from Qingdao, including street food, meat skewers, and many other varieties of dumplings.
The smattering of Yunnan restaurants around the city hasn’t reached the ID yet, but this river snail-broth soup specialist from neighboring Guangxi province more than makes up for it. Its eponymous signature dish, which CNN recently called “The hippest dish in China,” comes in just two forms: as a soup, or as a dry bowl. Each comes with rice noodles, egg, pork, pickled green beans, tofu skin, vegetables and various garnishes, plus options to customize with additional toppings.
Award-winning Seattle-based writer Naomi Tomky explores the world with a hungry eye, digging into the intersections of food, culture, and travel. Her first cookbook, The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook, was declared one of 2019’s best by the San Francisco Chronicle. Follow her culinary travels and hunger-inducing ramblings on Twitter @Gastrognome and Instagram @the_gastrognome.