Menu Items That Are a Complete Waste of Your Money at Chinese Restaurants

Americans love Chinese food — or at least the Chinese-American foods we all think are way more authentic than they actually are. Although you can make many Chinese foods at home, you probably order Chinese takeout at least occasionally. But that means you’re probably wasting your money on some of the foods you shouldn’t order at a Chinese restaurant.

Some of these foods aren’t authentically Chinese. Others are just a poor value for your money. And still others would be just as easy for you to prepare at home. Read on to check out the foods that are a complete waste of money at your local Chinese restaurant.

1. Egg rolls

egg rolls

Egg rolls | iStock.com

Most Americans know egg rolls aren’t authentically Chinese. (They seem to have originated in New York in the 1930s.) And even though they might sound tempting when you’re calling in your takeout order or standing at the counter, they’ll just add lots of extra calories to your meal. Egg rolls do include a lot of cabbage. But no amount of vegetables can offset the deep-fried dough or the caloric dipping sauce. Save your money, and just stick with the dish you planned to order for dinner. 

2. Crab rangoons

crab rangoons

Crab rangoons | iStock.com

Like egg rolls, crab rangoons add lots of calories to your meal. They don’t have even a whiff of authenticity about them. (They use generous amounts of cream cheese, and many Asians are actually lactose-intolerant.) And they’re about as far from “healthy” as you can get, thanks to the deep-fried dough and fake crab meat. You’ll also likely pay a lot for them when you consider the amount of food that you get — though that might be a good thing for your caloric intake.

3. Moo shu pork

Pork in sauce with brown rice

Moo shu pork | iStock.com/GrashAlex

If you want to order an authentically Chinese dish for dinner, steer clear of moo shu pork. It’s just one of the many popular recipes that don’t actually come from China. In fact, moo shu pork likely traces its origins back to the late 1940s or 1950s, when it was invented by somebody in the United States. It might have more flavor than many of the other dishes Americans order at their local Chinese restaurants. But it likely won’t have the ingredients that originally gave it its flavor. 

4. Mapo tofu

Mapo Tofu in a white plate

An order of mapo tofu | iStock.com

Mapo tofu sounds like a great idea, especially if you want something a little bit healthier than your standard Chinese restaurant fare. The main protein in the dish is tofu. But it gets topped with minced pork to add flavor without all the calories and fat. That sounds great. But many Chinese restaurants charge a lot for this dish, despite the smaller amount of pork it contains. Plus, you can make this dish at home without too much hassle. 

5. Lo mein

chicken Lo Mein stir fry

Lo mein | iStock.com/EzumeImages

At many Chinese restaurants, an order of lo mein will consist mostly of noodles. You’ll get a small amount of pork, chicken, shrimp, or your protein of choice. And the rest of the carton will be packed with oily noodles, peppered here and there with some cabbage and onion.

Most of us know other kinds of noodles, such as the spaghetti on the menu at every Italian restaurant, cost the restaurant very little to make. The same goes for lo mein. If you want to get the best value for your money — or avoid the blood sugar spike that comes with eating a meal of pure carbs — order something else. 

6. Chow mein

chow mein noodles with vegetables

A plate of chow mein | iStock.com

Chow mein, similarly, will consist primarily of noodles. But this time, they’re deep-fried to make them extra crispy. This inauthentic Chinese meal not only costs you far more than it costs the Chinese restaurant, but it has little in terms of nutritional value. It’s usually a bad idea to choose a meal that’s primarily composed of carbs. And chow mein is no exception. 

7. Fried rice

scoop of fried rice

A scoop of fried rice | iStock.com

Fried rice, just like lo mein and chow mein, consists mostly of starch — in this case, rice. You’ll get a small amount of protein and likely an even smaller amount of vegetables. And the rice itself has little fiber or protein, so you’ll probably eat a lot of it before you feel full.

Sure, fried rice can taste great. But it’s far from a balanced meal. And you’re likely way overpaying for what’s mostly a carton of rice. You can easily make your own fried rice at home. And you can add in vegetables (and protein) in proportions more in keeping with nutritional guidelines. 

8. Orange beef or chicken

chinese sesame chicken

Orange chicken | iStock.com

If you don’t want to spend your money on food that’s incredibly bad for you, then you need to steer clear of orange beef or chicken. It tops the list of Chinese foods you should never order because a single serving can contain more than 1,000 calories.

Plus, this deep-fried dish comes coated in a sugary sauce. And it rarely comes with a sizable serving of vegetables. Don’t want to consume half of your daily calorie allotment in a single meal? Then, don’t waste your money on this unbelievably unhealthy dish.

9. General Tso’s chicken

General Tso's Chicken

General Tso’s chicken | iStock.com

Though many Americans love it, General Tso’s chicken is another “Chinese” dish that comes up wanting in the authenticity department. The dish served under this name at your local Chinese restaurant will have tons of sugar and crispy batter — two components that wouldn’t have appeared in the original version, created by a chef from China’s Hunan province.

Plus, the dish couldn’t get much worse when it comes to nutrition. It’s packed with fat and sugar. And it usually doesn’t include any vegetables to balance the meal.

10. Egg foo yung

Chinese egg fu yung omelette

A plate of egg foo yung | iStock.com/EzumeImages

Egg foo yung, an icon of Chinese-American food, can taste good. But most of the time, you aren’t that lucky. Some chefs describe it as a “savory pancake,” which includes vegetables, batter, and shrimp, and then gets deep-fried. It’s like ordering any complex food as takeout. The restaurant will do it, and you might enjoy your food once you get it home. But more likely than not, it’ll turn to mush — especially if you put gravy on top of it.

11. Sweet and sour chicken

sweet and sour chicken

Sweet and sour chicken | iStock.com

Another one-note chicken dish Americans love to order at their local Chinese restaurants? Sweet and sour chicken. We probably don’t have to lecture you about the abysmal nutritional profile of a dish that includes battered and fried chicken and an ultra-sweet sauce. (And it’s no secret the dish often comes with only a paltry serving of bell peppers.) But did you know you can make this dish easily at home and even opt for a healthier way to cook the chicken? 

12. Beef with broccoli

chinese beef and broccoli stir fry with sides

Chinese beef and broccoli stir fry | iStock.com/rez-art

Beef with broccoli definitely isn’t an authentically Chinese dish. There’s no broccoli — at least not the Western version of the vegetable — in China. And traditional Chinese cuisines don’t typically involve much beef. The most authentic part of the dish is the brown sauce, which includes stock, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and cornstarch. Sounds simple? It’s so simple, in fact, that you could make your own beef with broccoli at home. 

13. Wonton soup

Wonton soup

Wonton soup | iStock.com/Amarita

Dumplings are as diverse as the Chinese regional cuisines — Cantonese, Sichuan, Shanghai, and Ningbo — that created them. But none of that variety is reflected in your local Chinese restaurant’s wonton soup. Americanized versions of wontons or wonton soup don’t match the flavor or nuance you’d find in any of those regional specialties. 

14. Hot and sour soup

hot and sour soup

A bowl of hot and sour soup | iStock.com

Hot and sour soup often has a pretty short ingredients list. That means a lot of the time, you’re paying a lot more for your bowl than the real cost of making this soup. If you’re craving a bowl of hot and sour soup, you don’t have to head to your local Chinese restaurant. You can actually make this dish at home, perhaps with better ingredients than what you’d get at your usual takeout spot. 

15. Chicken lettuce wraps

chicken and lettuce wraps

Chicken and lettuce wraps | iStock.com

Fans of P.F. Chang’s are probably familiar with the chain’s chicken lettuce wraps. We probably don’t have to tell you the authenticity of this appetizer is pretty dubious. But if you love your lettuce wraps anyway, you might want to try making them at home. Instead of treating them as an appetizer to add more calories to your dinner, you can even prepare these low-carb wraps as the main dish. That’s healthier both for you and for your wallet.

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