I was talking with some people the other night about all the good Chinese restaurants in Irvine and how much my wife and I love regional dishes. The problem is that if just the two of us go to dinner we’re very limited in the number of dishes we can have (dim sum not included in this discussion). The Japanese have Izakayas, the Spanish have tapas, and many less specialized places serve small plates.
Have I been asleep and missed it or is this not something Chinese restaurants ever do? If not, is it because the cooking of most dishes in small quantities doesn’t make sense, or some other reason? Seems like it could be a thing.
As far as I know this doesn’t happen much with Chinese food simply because it’s usually served family style. The closest I’ve ever seen to smaller portions of dishes is at P.F. Chang’s but that doesn’t really count as real Chinese food.
Definitely Chinese dining is largely based around family dining where small plates make no sense. But don’t forget dim sum at lunch and the rare Chinese restaurant with a tasting menu (Chengdu Impression?)
Living in south OC … going to Arcadia isn’t something we’d do except on a rare occasion. I’ve been eating Chinese cuisine for something like 45 years, here as well as all over Asia (the Asia part ended 15 years ago) and I really miss it because all of our friends are broccoli beef and shrimp with lobster sauce types. The one couple that would go with us to Irvine has moved to Valencia.
Now that Robert mentions it, though, a fridge full of leftovers is beginning to sound pretty good.
Figured that out when crispy baked bbq pork buns arrived in SF before LA and drove back with about a dozen in the car. Stopped to eat some while gassing up on I-5 and they had already greatly deteriorated. Took a while to figure out how to revive.
I checked Chengdu Impression’s menu for the tasting menu. At around $150 for two, while I’m sure it’s a wonderful experience, the cost would buy a whole bunch of dishes (maybe two visits worth) at most Irvine restaurants. No? The leftover thing keeps sounding better.
Small plates Chinese actually does exist…the problem might lie in the execution and concept / delivery of North American restaurants to accommodate the format where restaurants decide to enlarge the portions and charge a higher price.
The easiest style I can think of is referred to as Shanghai Xiao Chir (small eats/small plates) 上海小吃. We used to have a hole in the wall Shanghainese in Northern California that has shuttered, but people in the know would go there because of the smaller portioned small dishes and other typical classics. They would include xiaolongbao (not necessarily in a form that’s great), maybe shenjianbao, but other dishes also such as marinated dried fried tofu in rice vermicelli (fen si) sometimes in a soup, soy sauce marinated stir fried bamboo shoots (usually quite greasy from the oil, but very aromatic), a smaller portioned size of scallions brothless noodles drizzled with oil made from stir frying scallions, pan fried noodles (similar to Cantonese style crispy noodles but pan fried till crispy on both top and bottom), Shanghainese eight treasures rice. Shanghainese style wonton soup etc etc.
The alternative to that might be the Taiwanese porridge restaurants where you get several plated entrees from the steam table. If the portion sizes are adequate enough for 3 to 4 people to order a larger number, then those would be the distant parallel to the Shangahinese style small plates. Not uncommon to find the aromatic greasy stir fried bamboo shoots, or a few of the other afforementioned Shanghainese style small plates at some Taiwanese porridge shops (at least this is the case for Northern California…can’t speak exactly to SoCal but hopefully not that far off).
It can’t be just Shanghainese style that does this approach, but this was quite common at least in Hong Kong several decades ago. I think at certain dai pai dong style restaurants in Hong Kong, there are wok stir fry portions that are adequate for multiple dishes for a table, yet they are referred to as wok hay stir fry small plates/small eats as a category. Not tapas size, but not seafood restaurant humongous entree either.
The closest thing and maybe the most accessible you can get, is if you go to a beef noodle or dumpling restaurant and order the cold dishes/appetizer plates that are not entree sized. Easy cop out, but I guess that’s better than nothing.
i would put dim sum in the same category as the others even though dim sum isn’t bar food per se; the original intent of the food was to facilitate the socializing, vs. gathering to eat. when eating for eating sake, it seems to me that the community aspect of chinese culture has a significant impact on eating habits, especially in formal situations.
Din Tai Fung is primarily a bao / dumplings specialist place but in order to make more money in the overseas markets they also have a much wider and expansive menu including appetizers and various dishes that are adequately portioned to share in a small group of 4 to 6 people, and so you might need at least 6 to 12 different things in order to be full. And then they also do boba milk tea and have a wine list. It’s not the same as what I described for Shanghainese style small plates but I guess better than nothing.
You could choose whether to share or not, there isn’t any rule specifically. Other than the beef noodle soup and some random dishes, I don’t really see most of the DTF dishes as large plates (unless you are dining alone) and for one particular item/dish you might need to order more than 1 if the group is larger than four. With three or more people to share, everyone gets a tapas style sampling which gives you that faux feeling of tapas. Either way it’s worth trying if you haven’t been (I honestly think there are a few dishes that are very solid, but not everything is great) and want to get an idea. It’s just not loved and in some cases hated by Taiwanese expats (at least by the community up here in NorCal) for brand dilution/expansion and poor value for money at the expense of efficiency, fame, the false sense of semi fine dining, and some level of consistency beyond the food’s more humble origins.
There may be some smaller bites type dishes in the higher end banquets at some Sichuan and Northern restaurants but those are specific courses in the banquet itself. And of course street food in all those regions as well as in Taiwan / SE Asia, but once they make it into the US brick and mortars, the portions increase, as does the price, and the quality decreases as the menu expands.
While not a true “small plates” experience, you can also try visiting various Chinese restaurants in the SGV during Lunch. They offer cheaper-priced and smaller-portioned “Lunch Specials” Menu which might allow you and your wife to try 1 - 2 more dishes than you normally order.
The one small plate Chinese situation I can think of are hole-in-the-walls in Taiwan designed for the quick solo diner.
An example of this would be something like Jing Fen Lu Rou Fan in Taipei. It’s on a busy street corner, service is brisk, and the menu is narrow in scope. Portions are small: A bowl of rice with pork on top, a plate of greens, a cup of broth / soup, and an accompaniment like a tea egg. Simple, small plates… But again, geared more towards fast dining.
Exactly, in Taiwan all over any street food is adequately “small plate” portioned already, and these neighborhood restaurants do exactly just that. NT$30 to $50 for a “snack” that’s not meant to be gluttony and built for bang bang festivals. That minced pork rice would essentially be a bit smaller than those side mini donburi you get at ramen restaurants as add on’s.
Oh how good it can be to be a bachelor or bachelorette in Taiwan, to eat something like this that’s almost home cooked feel and then finish it off with a local range chicken goji better soup with its aromatic lean grease on top, basically just for the equivalent of a few bucks. That’s more or less a balanced local diet and mom would be proud (even better if those greens had marinated minced pork puff / rou zhou for aroma and texture!!). Oh I miss dis chit so much… especially the Taiwanese mountain vegetables like chuan chi and shansoou.