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Getting Etnic Restaurants to serve the real thing to "stoopid americans"

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  • Barbara S Oct 12, 1999 02:13 PM
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Fred T. made an interesting point in a thread (mostly about Pearson's BBQ) on the Outer Boroughs board, concerning enthic restaurants that may balk at revealing the secrets of their cuisine to the uninitiated, or those unlucky enough to be born outside the tribe. He noted he'd had great food when he went in to Xenon with a native speaker. Not all of us have the good luck to have contacts in the community - let alone know a good mechanic - wow. I've been reading with great appreciation the tutorials on ordering Korean food, and was wondering if any language coaches would be willing to provide us a few key phrases in Korean, or Greek, or name-your-fav-ethinc cuisine, that would get one past the "no American will like our food" attitude? Something along the lines of, "Gracious host, please excuse me, a humble American with only these few words to convey how much I truly wish to eat your excellent food and can we have that table by the window?"

Just a thought.

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  1. just to clarify...food never gets miraculously better just because it's ordered by a native. Perhaps better things can be chosen and ordered, but that doesn't require a native...just good knowledge of a given cuisine (hang around here for a while and you'll pick it up) or a really good guidebook.

    Fred's good experience at Xenon had to do with the right chef showing up that day. Somedays everything's good there, some days everything's bad. Can't ever know, and it doesn't matter who orders what.

    All that said, SERVICE can change markedly depending on whether a paisano is along with you. But chowhounds care more about the food. And, in fact, we LIKE the challenge of penetrating untranslated menues and winning over wary non-English-speaking waiters.

    Ciao

    2 Replies
    1. re: Jim Leff

      We always enjoy reading cookbooks before trying out a new cuisine to check if interesting dishes are available on the menu. Sometimes a reluctant server will absolutely melt when you request a rare dish and spill the beans on what you ought to order at their place to get their best.

      1. re: Allan Evans
        r
        Rachel Perlow

        I think doing your homework is a great idea! Go to the library, sit down with a cookbook and find a dish you'd love to have, but would never attempt (or have the ingredients) to make at home.

        My husband, Jason, speaks "Chinese Restaurant", he knows how to say hello (nee how), tea (cha), chopsticks, etc, in Cantonese and Mandarin. This usually helps us win over the owner or hostess. Our favorite place for dim sum, always asks if we want gailan (chinese broccoli) as we sit down, because they know we love it.

        Also, since he speaks Spanish fluently, that usually helps in Mexican, Spanish & Portuguese places.

        But as Jim mentioned, being able to win over the front of the house only helps with service. It really can't influence the kitchen, but it does help to get the water refilled, get you advice on specials, the food to the table quickly, etc.

    2. Barbara,

      I guess the General section is really where it belongs but there is a good thread which carried for a while in the International Section titled "Korean Menu Terms" and there is a guide there of ordering Korean food.

      Now, a humble phrase to get a Korean waitress or waiter on your side? Hmmm. I'll have to think about that one, but the key there is pronounciation. I fear that a long-winded sentence might drive your waiter or waitress bats and you may see her for the rest of the meal with this perplexed look on his or her face. A short phrase. I will come back to this. For the meanwhile, here's one attempt:

      Juh nun jin shil lo han guk eum shik eul jeul ghim ni da. Joh eun eum shik eul choo chun haeju sae yo.

      I earnestly enjoy Korean food. I request you to make some good recommendations.

      Michael Yu
      Co-President of the Committee for Universal Consumption of All Korean Edibles (CUCAKE) (kidding)

      1. I would like to hear less artificial and patronizing suggestions for how to express interest in "real" ethnic food.

        1. i agree with the others on this thread -- just because a native orders the food doesn't mean the food's going to be better or any more authentic. i doubt there's some guy back in the kitchen going, "old round eye ordered this, so give him the wonder bread version" and "brother wonki ordered this one so let's break out the real thing." i think the important thing is knowing what to order, and there are plenty of suggestions for this throughout these boards. i think the only places you may have problems are restaurants where no "natives" eat, but these you should avoid anyway because no natives are eating there for a reason.

          mike makes an admirable attempt to give you a korean phrase to use, but believe me, i couldn't even say what he wrote properly. proper pronunciation comes from actually hearing and repeating and even that can be difficult. most people can't even say hello correctly after a solid five minutes of tutoring. mike's right, the waiter's liable to look at you like you're the most recent escapee from the mental institution or even worse, you may end up saying something like "your mama's got huge radish ankles" and really pissing the person off.

          so concentrate on figuring out what the more authentic dishes are instead of trying to impress your waiter. as allan said, he's more likely to be impressed by what you order than how you order. mike does have an excellent post on korean menu terms a while back, so for korean food, you should definitely check it out. although you may not get the pronunciation correctly, at least you have the added prop of pointing to the item on the menu while saying it, thus avoiding further confusion. good luck.

          8 Replies
          1. re: wonki
            j
            Josh Mittleman

            > i doubt there's some guy back in the kitchen
            > going, "old round eye ordered this, so give him the
            > wonder bread version"

            In at least some cases in my own experience, that's _exactly_ what's happening; though it may be the waiter rather than the chef who's making that decision. I have ordered food, gotten something else, and been told that they never serve that dish to Americans.

            1. re: Josh Mittleman

              that's ridiculously offensive. what did you do? i would have just gotten up, said a couple choice words and walked out.

              1. re: wonki

                That being said--and I've been on the other end of this at least a thousand times--restaurant people generally want to make their customers happy, and for every chowhound who really, really wants the appetizer of fish bladders with pork sinus, there are a hundred people who like egg rolls and sweet 'n' sour pork. It's frustrating when you want to truly experience a cuisine, but it's also understandable. Waiters aren't insulting you when they suggest those dishes (or are reluctant to serve you Taiwanese stinky tofu...or for that matter, insist on leaving a fork by your place no matter how fervently you push it away), they're just trying to make sure you have a pleasant meal. You don't have to like it, but don't take it personally. If the food is worth the trouble, they'll get the idea by the third or fourth time you come back.

                1. re: j gold

                  In a Korean restaurant in the 30's (Manhattan) a waiter once begged me not to order cow foot, as an American had done so but couldn't eat it, and returned it to the kitchen: the poor server was penalized, with the price deducted from his wages (he explained) and was afraid of a repeat. I reassured him of my ability to eat and enjoy the dish, which he brought with trepidation. The cleaned plate brought relief to him in this instance, but his reluctance is justified if restaurants have such policies.

                  1. re: Allan Evans

                    absolutely, Allan...that's fer sure the single biggest reason for the "you won't like that" syndrome...previous imperious gringo diners who disliked unfamiliar stuff and refused to pay.

                    It's hard for us to imagine such behavior, but it's VERY common. Part of the chowhound credo is to behave well in such restaurants, building up some good will to counterbalance such unfortunate experiences. On those occasions when I just can't get a dish down (because of my own aesthetics, not because it's badly cooked...and I've gotta be damned sure before making that determination!), I ALWAYS take it to go, claiming that I'm just not hungry enough. This sets a good precedent for future hounds.

                    1. re: Jim Leff

                      Jim -- I do exactly what you do --get the difficult to eat dish packaged to take home. Often I feed it to the birds. I did this recently with a low-fat tofu meal. When I tossed it out for the pigeons up at church they picked at it and refused to eat. Ditto for the squirels. We are talking about cold, hungry animals.I have had the same experience with tofu cheese. Mother nature often agrees with us :-)
                      Tord

                  2. re: j gold

                    i wholeheartedly concur with you guys in situations where a waiter is reluctant to bring you out something and suggests another dish, especially in Allan's case where they've got a good reason and explain it - however, in this case, it seems the waiter didn't even say anything, he just brought out another dish, and then made a condescending remark, which i think is totally reprehensible and insulting. i think it's a case by case thing, and i was only reacting to that particular case.

                    1. re: wonki

                      My most fraught and embarassing chowhound moment was last June at Kam Chueh on the Bowery. I wanted to order a dried fried squid dish, thinking it would be a bit like the fried squid appetizer at Nyonya, and the waiter balked. He persuaded me very much against my will to go with the more conventional sounding salt-and-pepper squid; my sensibilities were deeply hurt when he said something along the lines of this is what Americans enjoyed more. I obsessed about being talked out of it in the tortuous and unpleasant moments before the food came. The squid dish that arrived was then probably the best I have ever eaten. Go figure.