What to Order from the “Secret” Menu at Chinese Restaurants

Updated: Aug. 04, 2023

You’ve been missing out on authentic Chinese food all this time!

Chinese takeout is a weekend staple in America, but did you know that there’s a whole other side of Chinese food you’ve been missing this whole time? Turns out, the sesame chicken and shrimp lo mein that litter our coffee tables on Friday nights are not classic Chinese dishes. American Chinese food is often stickier, sweeter, and unhealthier than traditional dishes.

Ready for another surprise? Check out the reason why you’ll never find Chinese takeout boxes in China.

But have no fear! Turns out, plenty of Chinese restaurants actually have a “secret” menu that they give to Chinese people and fluent speakers. This menu includes traditional Chinese dishes that are bursting with more texture, flavor, and nutrients than the American-Chinese food that we’re familiar with. Here’s how to get in on all the authentic goodness:

Make sure you’re in an authentic Chinese restaurant

Many places have wide menus to cater to both their Chinese and American customers, but some Chinese restaurants are less Americanized than others. If the menu prominently features dishes like kung pao chicken, egg foo young, and any mention of the term “potstickers,” those are all signs that the restaurant tilts American. There isn’t a lot of dairy in Chinese cuisine, so cream-cheese filled crab rangoon on the menu is another good tell. Real Chinese restaurants often feature plenty of Chinese people eating there (look for older Chinese people for true authenticity), fish tanks full of live seafood, family-style rice served in the middle of the table, and Asian soup spoons instead of Western metal ones.

Ask for the “secret” menu

When you get to the restaurant and the hostess hands you an English menu, make conversation and ask to switch it with the Chinese menu. Don’t be afraid to open up the dialogue and converse with your waiter; they usually have great recommendations for tasty traditional fare. If the alternative menu is in Chinese (and you can’t read Chinese), try scanning around for what other people are eating that looks good, and ask for the same. You can also signal that you’re there for an authentic Chinese culinary experience by asking for chopsticks and tea (taken plain, tea is the traditional accompaniment to Chinese food) when the waiter brings you forks and ice water. If the waiter responds by bringing you spicy pickled vegetables and salted peanuts to nibble on while you peruse the secret menu, you’re off to a great start. If you’re there in February, you might see people eating these lucky foods to celebrate Chinese New Year.

Try new things

Don’t be afraid to experiment once you get the menu! “The secret menu will often contain elaborate dishes with offal like chicken feet, braised duck’s tongue, or braised pig’s trotter,” says Ching-He Huang on TODAY. You can start by trying a dish with authentic sweet-and-sour sauce. Unlike the Americanized version, Eastern-style sweet-and-sour sauce is made with rice vinegar and sugar, instead of tomato puree, so it’s dark and not at all goopy. If you’re a picky eater or you’re just beginning to dip your toes into Asian cuisines, it’s OK to start with the “American” menu. But if you’re bold, the secret menu will offer plenty of interesting flavors and ingredients that you’ll love. Check out the 10 healthiest Chinese dishes you can order tonight (and not feel guilty about).

How to order authentic Chinese food from a Chinese-American restaurant

If you can figure out what region of China your restaurant’s cuisine is from, that is a good sign of authenticity. China is roughly divided into eight regional cuisines, and there is a lot of variety. Sichuan cuisine tends to be spicy, Cantonese dishes sweeter, while Shangdong food is great if you’re craving something salty and crispy. It can be complicated to parse out, but there are some general rules of thumb to remember when ordering that will ensure that your Chinese-American meal is more Chinese, and less American. First, swap beef dishes (like dairy, there isn’t much beef in authentic Chinese cuisine) for pork ones, like spicy and delicious yu xiang rou si (shredded pork in garlic sauce). Instead of American-style lo mein noodles try zha jiang mian, which uses similar thick wheat noodles but tops them with stir-fried pork and fermented soybean paste for a flavor bomb that’s salty, sweet, and savory all at once. Switch wonton soup and crab rangoon for shrimp dumpling soup, or soup dumplings known as Xiao Long Bao, which ooze tasty broth when you bite the corner. And finally, don’t order egg rolls. You’ll never go back once you try this delicious alternative: scallion pancakes, or cong you bing. They’re crisp and chewy all at once, and is anyone else hungry? Now that you’re craving Chinese food, do some extra hunting for an authentic Chinese restaurant and pick something from the secret menu. Who needs General Tsao’s chicken when you can have Peking duck? Next, find out the best Chinatowns in America.


  • Thrillist: “19 Ways to Spot a Fake Chinese Restaurant”
  • Food&Wine: “Chefs Reveal How to Find Authentic Chinese Food”
  • The Atlantic: “The Dos and Dont’s of Ordering Chinese”
  • TODAY: “How to order from the ‘secret’ menu at Chinese restaurants”
  • Business Insider: “8 Real Chinese Dishes You Should Order Instead Of The American Knockoffs”