Like most North American cities these days, many of Seattle’s most exciting Xi’an noodle spots and curative Yunnan soup purveyors sit in the suburbs, but the traditional home of Chinese food, the Chinatown-International District, stays relevant and still holds the highest concentration of excellent restaurants. Big-budget modern regional Chinese chain outlets share streets with old-school chop suey spots, and takeout dim-sum counters are interspersed with all-you-can-eat premium hot pot vendors. It’s a far cry from a generation ago, when most Americans outside the Chinese diaspora barely understood the difference between Americanized Chinese food and the cuisines of China.
Food writer Hsiao-Ching credits 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.”
When 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.
Now, Chou relishes in the variety, and even resents 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.
Any list of favorites can only barely scratch the surface of including every spot and style in the International District worth enjoying a meal at, especially when it comes to honoring the neighborhood’s long history. “Regardless of any particular cuisine, being able to run a business for decades in this market, that’s to be celebrated,” says Chou. So consider this a pupu platter of International District Chinese restaurant options: a few tastes before you dig deeper into the near-infinite menu.