Here are seven waypoints to mark on your exploration of Chinese cuisine, at four restaurants in Amherst and one in Tonawanda. This is just the tip of the dumpling, so to speak. Restaurant critic Andrew Z. Galarneau has dozens more to recommend. Go online to continue the journey at buffalo.com.
Chopped chicken with Xinjiang flavor
$19.95 at 80 China Café, 1280 Sweet Home Road, Amherst, Suite 102, 568-0080
The broad menu at this cozy new spot plays to Americans with bacon fried rice, and to homesick Chinese with this dish of chicken chopped and cooked bone-in, which Chinese prefer. It’s worth careful nibbling for the bouquet of cumin, chiles and other spices reminiscent of India. Xinjiang is China’s westernmost and largest province, an area of plains, deserts and mountains almost the size of Alaska, with 20 times the people, mostly Uighurs, Muslims who speak Turkic.
Spicy crunchy shrimp
$13.95 at Wok & Roll, 5467 Sheridan Drive, Williamsville, 631-8880
Disguised as cookie-cutter fried rice parlor, down-low Cantonese specialties include dim sum and this dish of shell-on shrimp that are fried till crackly outside, then stir-fried again in garlic chips, dried chiles and golden bread crumbs. You can peel the shrimp, but I didn’t bother, and reveled in the crunch. It’s from Canton, now called Guangzhou, capitol of Guangdong, China’s busiest manufacturing area, on the South China Sea.
San bei chicken
$12.95 at 80 China Café, 1280 Sweet Home Road, Amherst, Suite 102, 568-0080
Also known as “three cups” chicken for its sauce’s three main ingredients (soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil), it’s sweet and savory boneless dark-meat chicken. If bones scare you, try this crowd-pleaser. It’s from Jianxi Province, on the Yangze River, but has become especially popular in Taiwan, the independent nation off the coast of the People’s Republic.
Shanghai braised pork
$13.95, Miss Hot Café, 3311 Sheridan Drive, Amherst, 832-3188
Spacious place with vast menu, capable of eye-popping presentations. A pyramid of pork belly cubes and whole hardboiled eggs, cooked spoon-tender in sweet spice-scented soy and surrounded with a green fringe of baby bok choy cabbage, is a classic from the former British colony, now the world’s most populous city. It’s also a good example of Chinese dishes that seem like suicidal fat bombs until you realize they’re designed to top mountains of white rice, like gravy on biscuits.
$15-$18, Peking Quick One, 359 Somerville Ave., Tonawanda, 381-8730
Homely place with self-serve water offers best authentic Chinese values in town, filling battered tables with homesick students. Groups often ask for a plate-sized braised pork hock or whole fish steamed on a bed of ginger, then topped with more ginger, chiles and scallions that are sizzled with a spoon of boiling oil. In China, different fish are used, but it’s a style common in Fujian and throughout southeastern coastal provinces.
Chicken with Chongqing style
$12.95, China Star, 4001 Sheridan Drive, Amherst, 631-7198
Under cover of the Subway bread breeze from next door, a Sichuan specialist is quietly displaying an artiste’s touch with the fiery fundamentals of fresh and dried chiles and numbing Sichuan peppercorn, expressed through master-level sauces, oils and vinaigrettes. This dish, named after neighboring Chongqing, is boneless chicken coated in spices and fried to a crisp, then tossed in an aromatic maelstrom of scallion and dried chiles (which are for aroma, not for eating). The result is a dish that is so tasty you keep eating, even as sweat beads on your brow.
Hot & sour shredded potatoes
$5.95, Peking Quick One, 359 Somerville Ave., Tonawanda, 381-8730
Irish and northern Chinese diets overlap at cabbage and potatoes. Instead of boiled bland, this Chinese staple offers potatoes shredded into matchsticks and fired in a blazing wok just long enough to take the starch edge off, leaving them crisp, smoky and tingly with vinegar and chile. You will never look at a potato, or a Chinese restaurant, the same way again.