For many in China, “fast food” means McDonalds and KFC. To the average laowai, a visit to the nearest burger joint (or a phone call to the bicycle delivery man) is a periodic necessity for those craving a reminder of life back home and a break from their usual Chinese diet of rice and noodles. Even many Chinese consider fast food to be a uniquely foreign –- or specifically American –- phenomenon.
But Western fast food restaurants in China have long been outnumbered by native competitors. For decades, these Chinese chains were mostly small-scale operations limited to a particular city or province. But in recent years, a persistent handful have begun to extend their reach across the country and establish themselves as national, or at least regional, brand names. A diverse group, their menus range from American fast food staples to regional Chinese specialties, and some imaginative creations that don’t quite fit any category. Here’s a guide to five popular and fast-growing Chinese chains you’ll likely come across (if you haven’t already):
Where It Started: Dongguan, Guangdong, in 1994 with the name “168”. It assumed its current name in 2004, when the chain began to expand outside its home province.
Locations: 391 restaurants, mostly in the southeast, but also in Beijing, Tianjin, and Liaoning.
What You Need to Know: Well-known to many laowai because of its logo featuring martial arts legend Bruce Lee, Kungfu features a variety of meat and vegetable dishes served with steamed rice, as well as Cantonese-style clear broth soups. They also offer a few noodle dishes, as well as a sizeable breakfast menu that includes not only includes staples such as congee and dumplings, but also rice noodle rolls (肠粉) and zongzi.
Newest Offerings: mango juice, papaya-orange soy milk, iced mulberry jelly
Best Deal Combo Meal: mushroom chicken with rice and a drink – 18 RMB (minus 2 RMB with coupon)
Mr. Lee (李先生)
Where It Started: Beijing, in 1987.
Locations: over 400 branches in 20 provinces and municipalities across China.
What You Need to Know: As one of the oldest and most successful chains in the country, Mr. Lee brags of having “opened the door” to Chinese-style fast food within China. The restaurant’s former name “California Beef Noodle King USA” gives a hint to the focus of its menu. Though while Mr. Lee started out in America, the menu has little visible Western influence. In addition to noodles, they also serve rice dishes and a variety of cold sides.
Newest Offerings: a slate of desserts and drinks, such as a red bean milkshake and peanut shaved ice.
Best Deal Comb Meal: braised pork with a mixed vegetable side, soup, and rice – 24 RMB.
Xiabu Xiabu (呷哺呷哺)
Where it started: Beijing, in 1999. A relative newcomer to the fast food scene, Xiabu Xiabu only expanded outside of China’s capital within the past two years.
Locations: 240 restaurants in Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Shenyang. They additionally plan to open restaurants in Xi’an and Guangzhou before the end of the year.
What You Need to Know: As the name says, the menu here is dominated by shabu shabu, a kind of hotpot featuring a variety of meats, seafood, and vegetables cooked in your choice of six different flavored broths — ranging from a spicy Korean-style kimchi broth to a tamer clear broth with mushrooms. While many may be familiar with shabu shabu as a Japanese dish, the restaurant points to its origins in southern Fujian and its development on Taiwan, the home of Xiabu Xiabu’s founder He Guangqi.
Newest Offerings: none
Best Deal Combo Meal: shrimp, imitation crab, noodles, egg, seven vegetables – 28 RMB.
Where It Started: Zibo, Shandong, in 1996.
Locations: about 300 locations, mainly in Shandong and neighboring provinces, as well as Beijing, Shanghai, and Inner Mongolia.
What You Need to Know: Despite its Shandong origins, Guoqiaoyuan specializes in Yunnan style cuisine, particularly the guoqiao rice noodles from which the restaurant takes its name. Like Xiabu Xiabu, the noodles are cooked alongside a selection of raw meats and vegetables in a flavored broth. The restaurant takes pride in its claim of preserving the original local flavor of their signature dish while appealing to both northern and southern Chinese tastes, all while serving up fast meals to busy customers.
Newest Offerings: preserved egg tofu, peanut braised rice noodles.
Best Deal Combo Meal: beef, six vegetable sides, an egg, a chicken drumstick, noodles, and broth – 15 RMB.
Where It Started: Chengdu, Sichuan, in 1994.
Locations: over a thousand locations in every one of China’s provinces, including 8 in Tibet and 10 in Ningxia.
What You Need to Know: Describing their menu as Western food with Chinese character, Dico’s signature dish is a hamburger served on a bun made of rice. But for the less adventurous, they also offer ordinary buns too, and in fact the majority of what you’ll find here is little different from an average American burger joint. Their selections also include a variety of fried chicken meals, tortilla wraps, and fries.
Newest Offerings: onion rings, garden salad, spicy “good luck” chicken sandwich.
Best Deal Combo Meal: chicken fingers, nuggets, and onion rings – 13 RMB