Secret Chinese Food
Am I the only one that has noticed that when visiting an excellent Chinese restaurant (especially in the International District) that the "locals" are served the most amazing food....none of which seems to appear on the regular menu.
Is this an inside conspiracy? Are we clueless? Did we just over look these great dishes?
What's up with that order going to the next table?
When spending time with my girlfriend's family in Hawai'i, I've learned that at some Asian restaurants, if they've been in business a while, and if you (or your family) have been regulars, you can sometimes ask for specialties that used to be on the menu, or other dishes that you know the chefs can do well. There's a place in Kane'ohe that does great taro duck, but it's not listed.
But it's bad form to ask for such a special service before you get to know the restaurant's crew first.
Go to the same place regularly; if it's not a busy time, get to chatting with the wait staff - often, the owners will be around, and you can meet them, too. Compliment them on the place, and the quality of the food (be sincere - don't fake it, just to get in their good graces.) Let them get to know you, pass compliments on to the chefs (specific compliments are better than general ones - let them know that you love the blend of spices in that chicken dish, for example) - eventually, you might be comfortable enough to chat with an owner or chef about some specific dish that's not on the menu - something you once had somewhere else, or had heard about but never found. They'll let you know if it's something they'd be willing to whip up for you someday (probably with a little advance notice - always a nice courtesy.)
This applies not only to Asian places, but almost any independent restaurant. There's a great little Greek place near the Seattle Center that will whip up one of our favorite desserts, if we let them know a couple days in advance (and especially if we're bringing in new customers, which we do almost every week.)
You overlook the importance of language, as Bryan mentioned. Sure, you might be able to chat up some poi palace in Kane'ohe, but chances are you won't make the same inroad on most Chinatown staff unless you speak a good deal of Cantonese. I speak fluent Mandarin, and even I can't get the "inside scoop" on those quasi-private meals. Then again, many of them would suffer the same fate if they visited my native Taiwan.
Actually, I have been in midwestern diners where all the truckers are eating some mystery stew...or the chef's "secret sandwich"...or last week's meatloaf. An outsider with broken English would surely miss most of those. So it's not just limited to Chinatown.
I've often suspected the same thing, though it's hard to know for sure, since the English menu descriptions are often not very helpful in envisioning the final dish.
I'm not blessed with much language aptitude outside my native tongue, but I am currently puzzling over A. Zee's _Swallowing Clouds_ in an effort to get some handle on the Chinese characters on those other menus. Probably futile, but may pay off.
Of course there's always pointing at a dish at another table and saying "please bring me some of that"