When eating at a restaurant such as Ho Mei BBQ—with its ginormous menu that runs the gamut from barbecue Peking duck and stir-fried squid with Chinese melon to baby taro with bok choy and beef tripe with jalapeños—it can be tricky to make compatible and complimentary beverage selections. That’s especially true if you’re a wine lover. Most Chinese restaurants serve bare-bones jug or box wine, if they serve any wine at all, or perhaps sweet Chinese honey wine. Skip those and BYOB if you’re bent on drinking wine with your kung pao.
My suggestion, right off the bat, is to remember the wine-pairing rules you already know if you’re planning to drink wine with Chinese food. The same general guidelines that you’d use pairing wine in a French restaurant apply in Chinatown. Lighter-bodied wines go best with lighter foods and sauces; bolder, bigger-body wines match well with richer dishes. And keep the type or region of the cuisine you’re dealing with in mind. At a Cantonese restaurant, where the flavors tend to be delicate and subtle, you’d want to drink wine that would enhance, not overpower the food. At a restaurant specializing in Sichuan or Hunan-style cooking, where the flavors are more bold and spicy, you might look for wine that would play a contrasting role to all that heat.
As in any restaurant, I like to begin in Chinese restaurants with lighter-flavored dishes served first, matched accordingly by lighter wines, and then work my way up to heartier fare and wines. Of course, that’s not always possible, since in China, efficiency and speed are highly valued—and more often than not, all of the food comes out at once. This can pose a wine-pairing conundrum, unless you’re prepared to have three or four bottles of different wines for different dishes open on the table at once.
If there is an all-purpose wine that is a good foil for a wide range of Chinese flavors, I’d vote for sparkling wine. There’s not much in a Chinese restaurant that a glass or two of Champagne, domestic sparkling wine, Prosecco or Spanish Cava wouldn’t enhance. Even a fairly rich, salty-spicy dish like clams in black-bean sauce is money with bubbly. And Champagne turns dim sum into a celebratory Asian brunch.
Another wine that usually works well with Chinese cuisine is Riesling, which typically contains enough residual sugars to help counteract the heat of spicier dishes such as kung pao chicken, with its liberal use of chili peppers and garlic. I find that Chenin Blanc also plays nicely with spicy Chinese fare. Aromatic Greek Moschofilero is beautifully spiced and perfumed and is another versatile option.
Normally, I’d recommend Pinot Noir with mushroom and duck dishes. However, with subtle-tasting Peking duck or clay-pot chicken with mushrooms, I’d opt for something a little lighter, like Beaujolais or a good Rosé wine. Generally, I’d choose a soft, fruity, low-tannin red wine to drink with most soy-based dishes and sauces.
And there are definitely wines to avoid. In my opinion, California Cabernet rarely has a place at the Chinatown table; ditto with big Zinfandels, Australian Shiraz or even all but the most insipid of French Bordeaux. Those wines are just too “hot” and overpowering for most Chinese cuisine. Also, I recommend avoiding oaky wines as much as possible. Save your big, oaky Chardonnays for another time.
Of course, I’d never pass up a cold glass of Tsingtao beer in a Chinese eatery, nor a hot pot of tea, which still just may be the best pairings.