Throwdown: Best Chinese Food in Syracuse
Who has the best Chinese food in Syracuse? We went on an intercultural gastronomic trip with two students from China to figure it out. This throwdown features Tang Flavor up against 21 Cafe.
We are back in our series: Throwdowns in the heart of New York. The rules are as usual; the compared restaurants changed but in the end the result is yours. In the last article we experienced the Italian flavor into CNY, now we are going a little bit further East of our World: China.
Find the Chinese version of this article here.
The contenders: Modern Downtown vs. The Chinese Community Spot
The first contender is in the heart of Downtown Syracuse: Tang Flavor. Run by Ms. Lin, as regular patrons of the spot endearingly call the restaurant’s owner, Tang Flavor has been serving up Szechuan food to the Syracuse community since 2013. Visitors feel very comfortable in its sleek, wood-paneled interior decorated with low-hanging Chinese chandeliers and hand-painted vases. Because of its location and authentic Szechuan food choices, it draws a wide variety of people from the Syracuse community. It is a spot where you can find a table of Chinese students next to a family from Eastwood, eating either completely different dishes, or the same signature authentic Dry Pot with Szechuan chilies aplenty.
Our second contestant, 21 Cafe is a bit harder to find. Off the beaten path, maybe a little bit sketchy, it’s located on a small side street next to Erie Blvd, in the 21 Asian Center plaza. It is a real Chinese melting pot: Sharing a parking lot with a Chinese restaurant, and a Karaoke bar, this is a place seldom frequented by non-Chinese community members. Walking into the restaurant, it is clear that this is a spot where students from China feel at home.
The Set Up
Both restaurants have Chinese chefs cooking the food. To offer a variety of Chinese food, both Tang Flavor and 21 Cafe have several chefs from North, West and South-East China.
Both restaurants serve authentic Szechuan food, but Tang Flavor has also dishes that appeal to a more American palette, including Chicken and Broccoli, Orange Chicken, etc.
Ordering food is a different experience at both restaurants. Tang Flavor is a sit-down restaurant. After you sit down at a table, the hostess brings salted peanuts alongside our menus and gives recommendations. At 21 Cafe we had to order at the cash register. You can choose between two options: order an item off the menu, or put ingredients into a bowl, priced by the pound, to be sautéed Szechuan style by the Chef.
Apples to Apples (A2A)
At both restaurants, we ordered a Szechuan-style Dry Pot cabbage dish for comparison.
The Dry Pot cabbage at Tang Flavor was very spicy. But before the spice hit, it had a smoky, almost nutty flavor that made one of our tasters, a German who said she cannot handle spice, keep going back for seconds. The Dry Pot was also served over a candle-lit flame, and continued bubbling as it sat on the table. It felt like each bite was the first after it came fresh off the stove.
When it comes to spice, the Szechuan cabbage at 21 Cafe was a bit milder than the one at Tang Flavor. It was sweeter and more aromatic. This dish also had herbal notes to it, almost reminiscent of fresh parsley. One Chinese student coming from the Szechuan area liked it better because it reminded her of home.
A2A, the dish at Tang Flavor is the winner. We were intrigued by the presentation of the Dry Pot over a continuous flame. It made us feel like the kitchen came directly to the table, giving the culinary experience a more hands-on feel. The taste was also phenomenal. All of the tasters went back for second and sometimes third servings of the smoky, spicy, almost irresistible cabbage.
Toe to Toe (T2T)
At both restaurants we also asked for the “signature dish.”
At Tang Flavor, the server immediately told us they have both an American Chinese signature dish and an authentic Szechuan Chinese signature. She recommended the Beef in Szechuan chili oil sauce as the Chinese signature and the Chicken with Broccoli as the American one.
At 21 Cafe, the signature dish is the Hot Pot. This is where you walk down a bar of raw ingredients, put as many as you’d like into a wooden bowl, and they stir fry it with their signature Szechuan flavors. The options are varied, but we put chicken, glass noodles, cabbage, Shanghai cabbage, lotus root, and tofu in ours.
In this category, our tasters were split. Out of all the signature dishes, the Chinese students both agreed the Szechuan Hot Pot at 21 Café was better than both the Chicken and Broccoli and the Beef in Szechuan Chili Oil Sauce. It had a nice aroma, herbal notes, and it was just spicy enough.
Our German taster, however, preferred the Chicken and Broccoli at Tang Flavor to the other dishes. It was light, had less sauce than the usual Chicken and Broccoli, and had the sweet smokiness all Chicken and Broccoli should have.
Therefore, if you’d prefer an Authentic Szechuan Chinese dish, order the Hot Pot at 21 Cafe, but if you prefer something more mild, the Chicken and Broccoli at Tang Flavor does not disappoint.
Availability & Ambiance
Getting to 21 Cafe is more difficult than getting to Tang Flavor. Tang Flavor is downtown, so it is easily accessible and in a high traffic area. 21 Cafe is right off Erie Blvd. and very dimly lit from the outside. It is easy to miss.
Tang Flavor also wins in ambiance. It is a quiet restaurant with ambient lighting. The food is served in nice white dishes, making everything look appetizing and pristine, and the servers are very friendly, consistently asking if there is anything they can do and making sure everyone has a good dining experience. But if you want to experience the Chinese melting pot, you should definitively go to 21 Cafe.
Anyway, Tang Flavor takes this round.
Tang Flavor’s Dry Pot is stunning: not only the taste, but the dishes’ look and feel as well. This dish is honestly a good enough reason to go to the restaurant. Served over a hot flame, it stays warm throughout the dinner, and the flavor is extraordinary. Every one of our tasters was amazed at the depth of flavor: first there is smokiness, then sweet, then a strong kick of spice at the end. From the experience of having a sizzling dish come to your table to the great flavor, this dish is a knockout.
21 Cafe’s authenticity and community is it. In this restaurant you will feel like an integral part of the Chinese community in Syracuse. The food, according to our two tasters from China, is exactly like what they would eat in China. There is also a community feel to the place: food is served in dishes you could find in someone’s pantry, the inside of the restaurant is festive and bright, and there is a noticeable lightheartedness to it.
Bottom Line: 21 Cafe for Authenticity, Tang Flavor for Everything Else
Who makes the best Szechuan Chinese food in CNY? Both restaurants are good, but the slight edge goes to Tang Flavor. Although 21 Cafe is the more authentic of the two, Tang Flavor delivers in ambience and food choice diversity. It has two full menus: one authentic Chinese menu and one with American Chinese food. Because all three tasters were impressed with the dishes at Tang Flavor, it wins this throwdown. Also, we can’t forget how incredible the Dry Pot truly is.