5 of the best cheap Chinese fast food restaurants

The best cheap Chinese restaurant chains for healthy fast food on the go

There’s something almost impenetrable about Chinese chains: logos and shopfronts you see on a daily basis but whose thresholds you’ve never crossed. To the menu-illiterate, some franchises can be daunting, especially when you know that you can ‘zhege, nage’ your way through a McDonalds picture menu for a hassle-free dinner. 

Ultimately though, compared to limp burgers and dry fried chicken, Chinese chains win out every time with their (relatively) fresh produce and great-value set meals. To break on through to a world of healthier, cheaper fast food, all you need is a few reliable dishes at each restaurant. Read on for our run-down of the five most common Chinese fast food chains and the inside scoop on what to order at each.
Qing-Feng Steamed Dumpling Shop 庆丰包子铺
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Qing-Feng Steamed Dumpling Shop 庆丰包子铺

With more than half a century of history, Qing-Feng’s most recent claim to fame was President Xi Jinping’s visit to its flagship location last December. You can imagine what happened in the days that followed: a queue snaking out the door of people all wanting the Xi Jinping combo. 


The eats Here, ‘steamed dumpling’ means baozi (包子), lush puffs of bread concealing pork or beef fillings. They come three to an order – a liang (两) – and combinations are classics like pork and fennel (zhurou huixiang, 猪肉茴香; 3RMB) or beef and leek (niurou dacong 牛肉大葱; 4RMB). Try the susanxian (素三鲜; 4RMB) which translates as ‘vegetarian three fresh’ and includes three varieties of mushrooms mixed with egg. Other offerings include wonton soup, bowls of noodles, porridge and various cold dishes. If you’re into dining like a chairman, make a presidential combo of six pork and leek buns (zhuroudacong, 猪肉大 葱; 3.5RMB), a bowl of fried liver (chaogan, 炒肝; 5RMB) and a plate of seasonal greens (banshishu, 拌时 蔬; 8RMB).

Shaxian Delicacies 沙县小吃
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Shaxian Delicacies 沙县小吃

Hailing from Shaxian county in the coastal province of Fujian, these shops might litter the capital but still retain a decidedly mom-and-pop feel. All of the restaurants that bear the Pac Man-like logo are independents, but to get that badass signage they have to win the approval of the Shaxian Snacks Guild. Either way, we love these little places like Pac-Man loves… wait, what was it that Pac-Man munched down on? Ecstasy? 


The eats Pile up on the house favourite, liuye zhengjiao (柳叶蒸饺; 6RMB), whose pleated, translucent skins look like the pattern on a willow leaf, which is what they’re named after. Ten apiece in their bamboo steamers, a few orders of these should leave you fully sated. Mix it up with another Shaxian standard, wonton noodle soup (xiangcui hundun, 香脆馄饨; 6RMB) or piaoxiao banmian (飘香拌面; 6RMB), noodles doused in a fragrant peanut sauce.

Tian Laoshi Hongshaorou 田老师红烧肉
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Tian Laoshi Hongshaorou 田老师红烧肉

With an unassuming facade that blends into the Beijing landscape, Teacher Tian (aka Tian Laoshi) is something of a dark horse. The restaurants command long lunch queues, which the food amply justifies. Best avoid the peak hours if you don’t want to wait in line – not a problem at this 24-hour chain. 


The eats All we care about is the titular hongshaorou gaifan (红烧肉盖饭; 12RMB). Tian Laoshi cooks up a mean version of the soy-braised pork, which is flavourful and tender. The sides are of an unexpectedly high quality too: stir-fried cabbage with a bit of crunch, a heap of pickled greens, half a marinated egg and a mound of rice.

Malan Lamian 马兰拉面
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Malan Lamian 马兰拉面

Lamian joints may abound in the city (look for green and white signs with Arabic script), but this chain dominates and is now taking it global. There’s an old saying that lists every component necessary for ‘proper’ laminan (hand-pulled noodles) from Lanzhou: ‘One clear, two white, three red, four green, five yellow.’ Malan has this formula down and then some. It’s taken this classic colour-coded recipe – signifying broth, turnip, chili, garnishes and noodles respectively – and expanded its reach across the Pacific to LA. 


The eats Slurp up their signature dish of hand-pulled noodles (malan lamian, 马兰拉面; 15RMB) – with the option of extra beef (8RMB) – or as get it as part of a set (taocan, 套餐) that includes a marinated egg, pickled vegetables and a cola for 20RMB. Malan also offers a serviceable selection of non-soup noodles (banmian, 拌面) and rice dishes like curried chicken (galijiroufan, 咖喱鸡肉饭; 16RMB).

Real Kung Fu 真功夫
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Real Kung Fu 真功夫

Real kung fu, but fake Bruce Lee? It’s hard not to appreciate a concept that uses an off-brand version of a martial artist as its mascot. Oddly, this Cantonese chain is known most for its steamed dishes and light soups, some of the least hardcore dishes you could imagine. 


The eats The mushroom and chicken rice (xianggu jituifan, 香菇 鸡腿饭; 15.5RMB) and black chicken soup (wujitang, 乌鸡汤; 14RMB) attract high regard. Steamed vegetables and a clear pork bone soup come as the sides to set meals, if your body is a temple. Too much health? Go for the oily but delicious and unusually spicy aubergine (yuxiangqiezi, 鱼香茄子饭; 14RMB).

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