All Articles A Lunar New Year food tour of 5 North American cities

A Lunar New Year food tour of 5 North American cities

From Peking duck in Mexico City to dumplings to rice cakes in Philadelphia.

Nila Do Simon
By Nila Do Simon20 Jan 2023 6 minutes read
Dim Sum for Lunar New Year
Dim Sum for Lunar New Year
Image: Vivien.x.Li/Getty Images

When I close my eyes as I sink my teeth into a Vietnamese bánh chưng, I can practically taste the New Year. The dense, square-shaped rice cake wrapped neatly in fragrant banana leaves and tied tightly with string has come to epitomize a love letter from my family’s homeland when it’s served on special occasions like Tết, or Vietnamese Lunar New Year. To the uninitiated, the multi-day New Year celebrations—and particularly, the food that comes along with them—can oftentimes seem extravagant and over-the-top, but upon deeper inspection, a world of symbolic meaning can be uncovered with just one bite.

Certain menu items are only seen during the New Year, usually cooked by grandparents, parents, and aunties who whip out the dishes using sheer memory and tradition to guide them. In addition to satisfying our bellies, these treats take on extra special meaning as each dish tends to serve a cultural purpose. Some dishes are believed to bring wealth and prosperity, and others are said to usher in good luck or family togetherness. In many Asian cultures, wishes for prosperity come in the form of dumplings and long-life noodles (as long as you don’t cut them!). In Indonesia, rice cakes are served to usher in hope. The Vietnamese believe the bánh chưng cake symbolizes the fertile earth, and place the cake on an ancestral altar for a ritual that includes inviting the souls of their ancestors to join the living family’s Tết celebration.

As more than a billion around the world celebrate Lunar New Year—ringing in the Year of the Rabbit, or the Year of the Cat for the Vietnamese, on January 22—we recognize those who are sharing important (and edible) parts of their culinary traditions across North American cities during this festive—and downright delicious—time of the year. Below, a guide to eating right across the continent during the New Year celebrations.

Vancouver, Canada

A selection of dishes at A.Bento in Vancouver
A selection of dishes at A.Bento in Vancouver
Image: Leila Kwok

After a two-year hiatus, Vancouver’s Chinatown Spring Festival Parade is back to celebrate the Year of the Rabbit in 2023. Considered one of the city’s largest annual parades, the fête attracts nearly 100,000 spectators with its dazzling performances by thousands of talents.

Enjoy the celebration while feasting on Peking duck—a bird that symbolizes fertility, loyalty, and good luck (thanks to its reddish hue, a lucky color in China)—at iDen & Quanjude Beijing Duck House. The sleek spot is an outpost of the original, over 150-year-old Beijing location long lauded for its technique of roasting Peking duck in open ovens using non-smoky hardwood fuel, a discipline originally reserved for imperial families.

For a taste of pan-Asian flavors, stop by Potluck Hawker Eatery, where diners can indulge in Thai, Malaysian, and Chinese cuisine. Those seeking Lunar New Year bites may find luck with the Prosperity Toss dish. Found commonly in Malaysia or Singapore, the salad-style dish features shredded vegetables, raw fish, and crispy wonton chips or nuts, and has become a symbol of abundance, prosperity, and vigor.

Those looking to enjoy the celebration at home can pre-order takeout kits at A. Bento, a Taiwanese hotspot that features three Year of the Rabbit box options. One features Lion’s Head meatballs, a regional Chinese dish with large pork meatballs surrounded by cabbage leaves, and resembles the mane of a lion—an animal that signifies strength in many Asian cultures.

San Francisco

Lunar New Year Platter at Yank Sing in San Francisco
Lunar New Year Platter at Yank Sing in San Francisco
Image: Courtesy of Yank Sing

It comes as no surprise that San Francisco hosts multiple citywide Lunar New Year celebrations: about one third of this West Coast city’s nearly 300,000 residents identify as Asian or of Asian descent, and it’s home to North America’s largest and oldest Chinatown. During the nearly month-long celebration, festivities include a Flower Market Fair that begins about a week before the New Year, the Choy Sun Doe procession on January 22 (which sees red envelopes passed out by paraders representing the god of wealth), and, on February 4, the dazzling New Year Parade, an illuminated spectacle that begins in the early evening and lasts through the night.

Take in the parade at the legendary House of Nanking restaurant as the procession heads down Kearny Street. The Shanghai-born owners opened this restaurant in 1988 to showcase traditional Chinese food with inventive twists, with American-style sweet potatoes accompanying Chinese sesame chicken. Expect long lines, and don’t fret at the lack of a traditional menu—instead, servers will make recommendations based on your preferences.

If feasting is something you have in mind to begin the New Year, then head to Koi Palace in neighboring Daly City for an unforgettable multicourse meal. Known for its dim sum and whole steamed fish, Koi Palace offers several set menus of Chinese classics within its Treasure Pot, a dish that’s served during the New Year and is thought to bring abundance and prosperity to those who consume it. The dish includes enough food for five to 10 people, so dig in with a large party.

Tucked away in the Financial District’s Rincon Center, the 65-year-old Yank Sing is a family-owned restaurant that is now onto its third generation of heritage owners. Grab a table at this local fixture for dim sum, and specifically, long-life noodles: Chinese tradition holds that this dish will bring longevity, as long as the noodles are not cut or broken while being cooked or eaten. As the saying goes, the longer the noodle, the longer the life.

Philadelphia

Lunar New Year display at Nam Phuong in Philadelphia
Lunar New Year display at Nam Phuong in Philadelphia
Image: Courtesy of Nam Phuong

Home to the second-largest Chinatown on the East Coast, Philadelphia celebrates Lunar New Year in true local style: with brotherly love. Two lion dance parades wind through Chinatown, one during the day and another close to midnight, welcoming all to join.

To enjoy the best views, head to Dae Bak, a Korean restaurant whose second-floor vantage point makes it easy to take in the festivities. Enjoy the sights from a window-adjacent seat while dining on rice cake soup, a dish that symbolizes purity thanks to the white color of the sliced rice cake, and prosperity because of its coin-like shape.

In South Philly’s Little Saigon district, you’ll find Nam Phuong, a low-key restaurant serving up hearty and delicious Vietnamese fare. Enjoy a steamed rice noodle dish that’s accompanied by savory chả lụa (pork sausage that’s wrapped in banana leaves and steamed). Though the sausage is eaten throughout the year (thin slices are found in traditional Vietnamese banh mi, for example), chả lụa is a staple on dinner tables during Tết.

For herbaceous Indonesian fare, turn to Hardena, a Philadelphia mainstay run by two generations of Indonesian women. Try the sticky rice cakes, a menu item that symbolizes a family’s ability to stick together—perfectly on-theme for Hardena’s family-run operation.

Chicago

A selection of dishes at Furama in Chicago
A selection of dishes at Furama in Chicago
Image: Courtesy of Furama

Chicago’s expanding Asian population (the demographic is the fastest-growing in the city) has fostered a community that celebrates both traditional and modern influences—both of which can be experienced during the festive New Year season.

Argyle Street is the perfect spot to watch the daytime Lunar New Year Parade, preferably with a hot Vietnamese coffee (cà phê sữa), in hand. The street is full of Vietnamese restaurants, including Pho 777. While noodle soup and hot coffee aren’t only served during Lunar New Year, they’re perfect for a wintry Chicago day spent watching celebratory lights along the corridor known as Asia on Argyle.

For those seeking the traditional Peking roasted duck, go to Lao Sze Chuan, whose Michigan Avenue location is a cornerstone in Chicago dining. The roasted duck comes in two portion sizes—full and half—and is served with an array of enticing accompaniments, like spring pancakes and housemade plum sauce.

If you’re a believer that the more dumplings you eat on New Year, the more prosperous you’ll be in the coming year, then you’ll enjoy your meal at Furama. A Chicago institution since the mid -1980s, the family-owned restaurant has become the largest Chinese eatery in the area, and is known for its dedication to the integrity of the Chinese dumpling. The New Year staple is a symbol of wealth due to its shape, which resembles the curved ingot currency used by the ancient Chinese.

Mexico City

Shrimp entree at Hong King in Mexico City
Shrimp entree at Hong King in Mexico City
Image: Courtesy of Hong King

The Chinese have had a centuries-long relationship with Mexico, most notably a late 19th century immigration of nearly 60,000 workers who developed the country’s fields, mines, and railroads. Because of the deep history, a Chinatown has developed in Mexico City. Known to locals as Barrio Chino, the district was renovated in 2018 and has become a food destination for locals and tourists looking to taste the melding of the two cultures.

Nestled among the cascade of paper umbrellas and lanterns hanging above the streets of Barrio Chino, Hong King serves Cantonese-style cuisine. In what’s become an annual custom (one that requires snagging a coveted reservation), Hong King will offer a multi-course feast for Lunar New Year. Or, if you’re in the swanky Polanco neighborhood, stop by China Shing, which specializes in oven-roasted Peking duck and a variety of dumplings to usher you into a prosperous New Year.

For a twist on traditional celebrations, stop by the Four Seasons Hotel Mexico City to sample dishes by Chef Alexandro Hamacher. On January 22, Hamacher (who lived in China for several years and celebrated many New Years on the mainland) will debut a special Lunar New Year brunch menu that pairs steam and fried dumplings with cold dishes, as well as a pork belly bao station inside the hotel’s Zanaya restaurant. Come for the tasty eats, stay for the breathtaking courtyard setting with its abundant native foliage.

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Nila Do Simon
Nila Do Simon is a journalist and editor whose writings have appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, Garden & Gun, Marie Claire, The New York Times and Cultured magazines. She has been honored with best feature writing and feature headline writing awards by the Florida Magazine Association. In December 2020, her piece about a Black female surfer fighting for inclusion and representation in the sport was chosen as one of the "15 Must-Read Stories by Florida Women" by the women of The Marjorie, a "publication that fills the niche for in-depth, thoughtful and sustained reporting on the state’s environment, from the inside out.” Her nonprofit work includes serving as chair of the Broward Public Library Foundation, the youngest to hold that position in the nonprofit’s history. She is a graduate of the University of Florida’s journalism and communications program.