Eating good with University student Ben Zehang

Zhang has created the definitive list of the best nearby Chinese restaurants.

Senior Ben Zhang poses for a portrait with an entree from Little Szechuan in Stadium Village on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016.

Meagan Lynch

Senior Ben Zhang poses for a portrait with an entree from Little Szechuan in Stadium Village on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016.

Joe Cristo

As the son of Chinese immigrants, University of Minnesota computer science senior Ben Zhang grew up exposed to authentic Chinese food.

One day, Zhang’s love for Chinese food converged with his academic background.

“I was in a boring computer science class, and I saw a comment on Reddit,” Zhang said. “It was asking what the best Chinese restaurant in the area around the University is. I started writing from the top of my head.”

Zhang has lived near the University campus for most of his life. He has frequented some of the local Asian restaurants since he was a year old. For him, making a list of recommendations was a no-brainer. It was fun.

“It was also about me letting people know which are the quality spots around campus that you probably don’t know of,” Zhang said. “[Like,] ‘These are some tips and tricks that I use that help inform why I go to these places.’”

Zhang said he was born on the University campus. His father was a mechanical engineering student and his mother worked at various Chinese restaurants. There was little money to spend at fancy restaurants, so cheap and authentic Chinese food was important.

“I wouldn’t turn up in Obento-Ya,” Zhang said. “What people forget is that these places have a purpose … The food is supposed to be what the community is built over.”

When Zhang began making the newest edition of his list, he thought about representing the three main areas of Chinese cuisine: Szechuan, Cantonese and Chinese American.

Szechuan is a spicier, peppery Chinese food style. Cantonese is Hong Kong-style food with noodle dishes inspired by South China. Then you have Chinese American food such asKung Pao chicken or broccoli and beef.

Here’s are a few of Zhang’s recommendations:

Peking Garden (Cantonese):

“Back in the day, my parents used to take me there all the time — it was kind of our way of treating ourselves. We knew the family who ran it so we would go there because we didn’t have a lot of money. It was a reward almost. The thing about Peking Garden is that it’s so attached to my memories.

If I read something on a menu like pork watercress soup, the soup that I taste is from [Peking Garden]. I just think back to the time I was a little kid being carried by my mom or by my dad and drinking that soup. Their food is incredible and it represents a certain section of Chinese food perfectly.”

Kowloon Restaurant (Cantonese):

“They are closed for renovation right now, but they’re opening up later in the year. I’ve never gone to a place where the staff is so nice and welcoming. Every time I go there they remember my name. It’s like the intro to “Cheers” … where everybody knows your name.

I really feel like it’s a hole in the wall restaurant from Hong Kong that they just picked up and dropped in Minneapolis. It’s one of those places you go to with all your friends. The renovation is turning it from a five or six table restaurant into much bigger one. People that go there will tell you two things: they are the friendliest and have some of the best food in the area.”

Little Szechuan (Szechuan)

“There was this huge thing in Minneapolis where everyone was obsessing about Chinese Szechuan food. They had this big-name chef from China who came to Minneapolis and said, ‘I’m going to open up a restaurant.’ He ended up opening up a bunch of different Szechuan restaurants.”

Little Szechuan is where you go when you want that really spicy, very ethnic Chinese food. It’s not the stereotypical stuff like sweet and sour chicken. Szechuan is a big province for chili peppers. I think they are one of the biggest exporters of chili peppers outside of Latin America. It’s ‘roots’ kind of Chinese food.”

From growing up with his family of five living in one room to the four years he’s spent at the University of Minnesota trying local restaurants’ specialties, food has always played an important role in Zhang’s life.

It became Zhang’s way of expressing himself — helping others spend their valuable time wisely.

“It was very much my way of expressing that this is what real Chinese food is,” Zhang said. “For most people, most Chinese food they will ever eat near campus is at Panda Express. It was mostly about me helping people who might not know about Chinese food.”

For more recommendations, check out “Zhenbang’s Guide to Asian Food Restaurants 2016.”