Sydney’s Suggestions: Top 5 Chinese Restaurants in San Diego

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Sydney Chan

The “Mung Bean Jelly Noodles with Spicy Sauce” from Sichuan Impression is one of my favorite dishes, hands down. The noodles have a light texture, and the dish is extremely refreshing, as it is served cold. It’s spicy, flavorful, and a little má, and you will surely come back for another bite.

Sydney Chan, Staff Writer

Refreshing and spicy. Crunchy and garlicky. Chewy and sweet. These are just a few words to describe some of the dishes from some of my favorite Chinese restaurants in San Diego. 

After living here for almost eight years now, I’ve tried a bit of everything at this point, including a fair amount of Chinese cuisine. I’ve learned that Noble Chef has the best roast duck, one with crunchy skin and a mildly sweet sauce. I’ve learned that Taste of Hunan can completely change a person’s point of view on eggplant. And I’ve also learned that there’s nothing better than Sichuan Impression’s “Mung Bean Jelly Noodles with Spicy Sauce” on a hot summer day. 

So if you’ve recently been wanting to try some new Chinese restaurants in San Diego, or you’re just in the mood to feel really hungry, you’re in luck. Grab a pair of chopsticks or a fork, and let’s do this.

  1. Szechuan Chef – 4344 Convoy St.

Tucked away in the left corner of the Convoy Village Shopping Center is Szechuan Chef, a restaurant that may look plain on the outside, but is full of flavor and heart on the inside. Although Szechuan cuisine is commonly known for its hot and spicy flavors, fortunately for many of you that don’t like it, or dare I say, can’t handle it (*cough cough* you know who you are), this restaurant has a ton of great non-spicy options.

My family, including my little sister who is still building up her spice tolerance, likes the “Glass Noodle Stir-Fried Cabbage w. Egg,” which is a pretty dry noodle that still has a lot of flavor. It’s great to pair with the “Beef w. Chinese Celery,” and my personal favorite, the “Jalepeno Stir-Fried Pork.” For those of you that want something that’s just a little spicy, this dish is for you. The pork is sliced super thin so it’s very tender, and the jalepeños add a nice kick that isn’t too intense.

Szechuan Chef’s “Scallion Pancake” is one of the best in San Diego. For those that are unfamiliar with this tasty Chinese pancake, imagine a circular piece of flakey dough fried and filled with green onions, also known as scallions. Although many restaurants have this dish on their menu, not many of them have the perfect balance of textures like this one. It’s not overly flakey, flakey, but it also has a good chew in the middle. 

And finally, my family has never eaten at this restaurant without getting their “Pumpkin Cake.” No, it’s not a layered cake with pumpkin inside (I agree, that doesn’t sound the most appetizing). Instead, it’s pumpkin puree combined with rice flour and then fried. The chewy mochi inside paired with the super crunchy outside pairs for a texture explosion in your mouth. It’s definitely one of my favorite dishes at this restaurant. 

  1. Noble Chef – 6159 Balboa Ave                                     
Sydney Chan

I can’t count how many Chinese New Years meals I’ve eaten at Noble Chef. Quite simply, their dishes feel like home. Although Noble Chef isn’t the largest on the inside, it’s still great for larger parties of people if you want to dine in. With two large tables in the back, you can comfortably fit around eight people at a table. And like Szechuan Chef, it also has a lot of great non-spicy options. Don’t worry spice devils, I’ve got some great spicy restaurant recommendations coming up.

Let’s start off with their orange chicken. Yes, I know that orange chicken is an American Chinese dish, but I’m going to guess that a fair amount of you are looking for a good place for orange chicken besides Panda Express. A lot of Chinese restaurants make their orange chicken either really soggy or flavorless, but Noble Chef’s has a nice crunchy exterior with tender meat, and a great orange sauce that isn’t too sweet.

Going along with the protein theme, the “Beef Steak French Style” is super flavorful. I’ll be honest, I don’t exactly know what a French style beef steak is, but Noble Chef presents the cubed pieces of beef on a bed of cabbage. The beef has a nice soy-sauce seasoning without being overly salty. A lot of restaurants tend to associate flavor with salt, but that’s not what they do here, and that’s what I love about this place.

I also highly recommend their “Assorted Seafood with Tofu” pot. It’s hard not to salivate when the server brings over the big steaming bowl. Ask for some rice, and maybe some chili oil, and you’ve got yourself a soul warming meal. And for a veggie, their “String Bean with Garlic” is tender while also having a little crunch.  It tastes very similar to the Din Tai Fung green beans, just with a shorter wait time. Sounds like a win-win to me.

To me, their roast duck is the best in San Diego. I know, that’s a pretty bold statement, but I’m serious. The pieces aren’t 80% bone, the duck is seasoned perfectly, and the sauces aren’t too sweet. Definitely get the roast duck when (not if) you come.

Noble Chef is one of my favorite Chinese restaurants because of the quality and variety in their dishes. Pictured on the left is their “String Bean with Garlic,” their “Assorted Seafood with Tofu” pot, their “Orange Chicken,” and their “Chicken Chow Fun.” On the right is their amazing roast duck, which in my opinion, is the best roast duck in San Diego. (Sydney Chan)

I’ll end it off with another thing my family has eaten, or I guess in this case, drank, every time we’ve come to Noble Chef: their complimentary tapioca dessert soup. I know, I’m giving you another dish that probably sounds a little strange if you’ve never tried it. But as we embark on this food article journey, you’re going to have to learn to trust me! This soup is filled with cubed taro and red beans. For those that are less familiar with taro root, it tastes like a more fragrant coconut with a nutty undertone. This is the perfect end to an amazing meal, and it’s a complimentary dessert, so you’ve got no excuses to skip out on this one.

  1. Taste of Hunan – 9880 Hibert St. Ste E2

Yay everyone! We’re on to the spicy stuff! (Well actually, #2 is a primarily non spicy restaurant, but anyways…) With that start, you can probably tell that one of the main reasons why I love this restaurant is because of its spicy dishes. Hunan cuisine is most known for its spice, so this section is primarily for my spice lovers out there. However, for those that have a lower spice tolerance but have family members that love spicy food, I recommend their Chicken Chow Mein; it’s not too dry, and the chicken to noodle ratio is pretty on point. But without further ado, let’s get into the spicy stuff!

To start, I really like the “Steamed Whole Fish with Chili Peppers”. It’s big, hence the key word “whole,” so it’s perfect for sharing. The fish is flakey, and the punchy chili peppers compliment the pretty mellow fish really nicely. To continue on with the fish theme, their “Fish Fillet with Pickled Vegetable,” has amazing flavor. A lot of restaurants do peppercorn fish, and my #1 recommendation makes the best one in my opinion, but this one is a close second. It’s not as “má” (shoutout if you know what that means and double-shoutout if you learned what that means in my hotpot article) as my #1 recommendation, but the pickled veggies add a nice brightness that I really enjoy. 

Now for other proteins, I recommend the “Stir Fried Pork with Chili Peppers.” Yes, more chili peppers, but this one is actually not that spicy. It’s the same idea as the jalepeño pork from Szechuan Chef, but this one has a black bean sauce which adds a lot of umami flavor. These aren’t the kinds of black beans you’d order at a Mexican restaurant; instead, these black beans are actually fermented black soybeans.

Their beef and ox tongue in chili sauce is also really good. I did just say tongue. But don’t shy away from this tender and pretty spicy dish, that is also incredibly refreshing because it’s served cold. With all of this hot (in both ways) food that you’re eating, it provides some nice contrast.

And finally, a veggie. This is probably my favorite thing that they serve at Taste of Hunan which surprised me when I first ate it. I’m talking about the “Smashed Eggplant & Pepper with Century Egg.” There’s a lot to unpack there. So first of all, I didn’t really like eggplant that much as a kid until I had this. But I can assure you that this dish doesn’t really taste like eggplant; it’s just spicy and very flavorful. Now, we’ve got to talk about the century egg. This is also something that I wasn’t particularly fond of when I was a kid, but let me tell you, it grows on you. These eggs are preserved so they have a black yolk and black egg white (or is it black egg black? I’ve never had to think about this…). Trust me on this one, it’s really really good. And that concludes it!

  1. Emerald Chinese Cuisine – 3709 Convoy St.

Okay guys, we’re now getting into the final stretch: the top 2. If I had to choose my favorite non spicy Chinese restaurant, it would be this place (bonus: their chili oil is really good). 

The main reason why I really like this restaurant even though it’s not spicy oriented is because of its dim sum. For those that know about Jasmine Seafood Restaurant & Express (located in the Convoy in the same plaza as Iceskimo and Mochinut), I’d say Emerald is better. All of it’s great, but my favorites are their har gao (the shrimp dumpling), as well as their baked barbeque pork bun. Key word: baked. The steamed ones are still good, but the baked ones are on another tier of excellence. So don’t forget to say the magic word when you order.

For actual dinner dishes (if you’re not in the mood for dim sum at 6 p.m.), I’d recommend the “Minced Beef and Cilantro Soup” to start. It has a similar consistency to rice porridge, and is really soothing. It’s got a good flavor, but it’s also pretty mellow, making it a great appetizer. 

Their “Salt And Pepper Pork Chop” is nice and crispy. It’s not overly salty if you’re worried, and it’s not spicy at all. Pair with some rice, and you’ve got yourself a pretty solid dinner. And drum roll…

  1. Sichuan Impression – 13816 Red Hill Ave, Tustin, CA

We made it! Restaurant recommendation #1 is hands down Sichuan Impression. Before you say anything, there is a way for the food to get delivered here in San Diego, so it technically counts! First, download an app called WeChat, which is the most popular messaging app for Chinese people. Then, have someone in the group invite you into the thread (that can be me if you’re interested), and then you’re off and running! 

Every Friday at around 10 a.m., someone who works at Sichuan Impression sends the weekly menu, and between then and 9pm that Sunday, customers send in their orders. The following Wednesday after 4 p.m., deliveries are made to four San Diego locations. I just couldn’t leave this place out! It’s amazing.

Okay, now for the actual dishes! I’m going to try and keep this as short as possible, but I apologize in advance if you begin to hear your stomach. 

Although this restaurant is primarily spicy, there are also some less spicy options like the wontons in chili oil (even my sister who doesn’t usually like a lot of spice really enjoys this), as well as the kung pao chicken. The secret for the kung pao chicken is that you don’t have to order it very spicy. They give you a lot of chicken, and you can order mild or even non spicy. The peppers just look intimidating, but if you don’t think about them, you can barely tell they were there.

For the spice devils, I always start off with the “Mung Bean Jelly Noodles with Spicy Sauce.” The mung beans make these clear noodles that have a great texture, and this is served cold. It’s refreshing, spicy, flavorful, and a little má. It’s just everything you could ever wish for in an appetizer. Another one of my favorite appetizers is the “Shredded Potatoes”. The potatoes are sliced super thinly, kind of like zucchini noodles, and then are stir fried with some chilis (but it’s not that spicy). I will admit, I had no idea what to expect when my mom first ordered this dish, but the potatoes are actually super crunchy and very flavorful. It’s hard to explain–looks like you’re just going to have to try it to find out what it’s like for yourself!

As for protein, I really like the “Dry fried farm chicken.” It’s pretty much popcorn chicken with a lot of chili peppers (this one is actually spicy), and a lot more flavor. The only thing is that it doesn’t taste that good when you order it for takeout (for obvious reasons), so try this if and when you’re in the area. 

And finally, for the grand finale, my favorite dish at this restaurant: the “Boiled fish with rattan pepper.” This is the best peppercorn fish I’ve ever tasted in my entire life, and I’ve had my fair share of peppercorn fish. It’s super spicy and makes your tongue and everything it touches numb. It’s a really funny sensation that isn’t for everybody, but if you like this dish, it’s pretty addicting. Pro tip: save the soup after you eat all of the crunchy bean sprouts and fish to cook some instant noodles in. 

And lastly, some of you might be wondering why this restaurant spells Sichuan as “Sichuan” whereas Szechuan Chef spells it with a “z”. To cut to the chase, they’re both referring to the exact same region that is located pretty close to the middle of China. People who live in the actual province (a geographical area which is equivalent to a state in the U.S.) have a thicker accent and a different dialect than the North, and thus, they pronounce the “z”. The Mandarin speaking people in cities like Beijing spell it with the “ch” which is the proper pinyin (the official writing system of the Chinese language) spelling.

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That’s it! I know the article was long, but I take my Chinese food seriously! On the bright side, this article was shorter than the hotpot one, so I take that as a point of improvement in my concision skills (not really). I hope you enjoy my recommendations! Here’s to lots of water and ice cream for some of your mouths that might burn off!