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do you have a strategy for--

...not getting the 'dumbed down for american taste' dishes at ethnic restaurants?

some personal examples as to why i pose such a question:
(1) It was a revelation for me to try authentic (real!)chinese cuisine --only when-- i was treated to perhaps the one of the most fantastic meals of my life... a birthday dinner from a woman friend of mine from shanghai.

(2) After eating thai food at a songkran festival, i avoid thai restaurants like the plague...only because i know i will be inevitably underwhelmed.

many thanks

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  1. Good question. One method is to ask friends who are natives of particular countries. Second, read reviews (like on Chowhound) to find restaurants that actually serve traditional (i.e. non-Americanized) dishes, and see what foods people are talking about. Finally, ask the waiter for recommendations.

    1. Sometimes doing a bit of research and asking about dishes that are typical of the cuisine helps.

      1. Does anyone know if the Chow Passport still exists? I tried links but they don't work. It was a card that begged your server in a variety of languages to serve the authentic stuff....

        1. No, I don't. I wish I had. In some restaurants you'll see a lot of natives which is usually a good sign. If there are lots of Chinese-speaking eaters in a Chinese restaurant, I think your chances of getting authentic food is higher. I'm embarrassed by the truly awful glop that passes for Chinese food in many restaurants, I can't imagine any Chinese family eating it at home.

          But after eating at a Malaysian restaurant and being asked if I was Malaysian, I asked the waiter why the food was so mildly spiced. He said they couldn't sell it if it was as spicy as Malaysians like it. And certain dishes just wouldn't be acceptable. BTW he warned us repeatedly that the assam laksa we ordered would have "strong taste" and checked a couple of times to make sure we actually were eating it - that's why he thought I might be Malaysian. Seems non-natives find it unpalatable. I think this is true of many ethnic restaurants in the US.

          1. when I order Thai or Indian, I tell the person I'm ordering from that I want it really hot, not "white boy" hot. They usually get a chuckle out of that and then proceed to give me 3rd degree burns of deliciousness

            1. First, think about the location of the restaurant. Restaurants located in ethnic communities will be more likely to feature menu items that appeal to that community. For a specific example, a Vietnamese restaurant in La Jolla or Hillcrest is much less likely to serve authentic cuisine as one out on El Cajon Blvd.

              Second, restaurants in which English is spoken extremely well are more likely to have had numerous interactions with native English speakers. The converse is also true: limited English skills often means limited ability or interest in dumbing down the food. I still remember stopping at a Korean restaurant out in suburban Portland, Oregon, because its sign read "Korea Food." And indeed little English was spoken there and the black goat soup tasted authentic.

              Third, more than once I have asked about specials on the wall or written on whiteboards in foreign languages. "I can't read Chinese, what are those specials?" "Do you have any seafood specials written up there?"

              Fourth, order something that sounds totally weird to you. That way you are letting them know that you are not like the vast majority of their anglo customers. Try natto at the Izakaya or whole fish at the Chinese restaurant.

              Fifth, learn about dishes that say "I like the real thing" and ask about them. For example husband and wife is a traditional szechuan dish. In a Cantonese place ask if they do greens with foo-yee sauce (and thanks to Jim Leff for that one). In a Mexican place ask about barbacoa, birria de chivo, or cabeza.

              Sixth, cultivate a restaurant. Sometimes it takes a while for a place to get to know you and understand what you like. You don't always have to score on the first date. If the other signs are hopeful, return and keep trying.

              Last, be friendly and positive. When I get the "you no like this," I usually smile, point to my face and say "American face," then rub my tummy and add "But Japanese (or Korean or whatever) stomach." Usually they laugh.

              Hope these help.


              5 Replies
              1. re: Phoo D

                The comment about ordering something wierd is right on. Whenever I go to a new sushi bar I always order among my first few dishes some natto, yamakake or awabi guts. I've found that this sort of establishes my bone fides and the sushi chefs then offer sll sorts of "secret" stuff.

                1. re: Phoo D

                  Ditto to these techniques that Phoo D recommends. We look for places that have more "natives" than others, where it is clear that English is an afterthought, and as a particular test of authenticity, there has to be at least one thing on the menu that doesn't even really sound like food, by "non-ethnic" American standards.

                    1. re: Produce Addict

                      Truth be told, I first learned about it from a post or two by Jim Leff when he wrote about evaluating Cantonese restaurants.

                      It is a sauce used on vegetables like gai lan, on choi, yu choi etc. The primary flavors are fermented tofu - an earthy, funky flavor - and garlic. As I understand, the cubes of fermented tofu are mashed into the oil on the bottom of the wok.

                      After I asked my nearby Cantonese spot to make some on choi for me as they would for their family, they started adding hints of chile - either a bit or two of dried chili or a few thin strips of a yellow chili. I don't think that's traditional, but it works for me. Nonetheless, it is still not a spicy dish.

                      A few years ago we took a retiring collegue who had grown up in SF Chinatown to the restaurant and ordered greens with foo-yee, and her response was "wow, this is like when I was a kid."


                    2. re: Phoo D

                      Good points. Also, going with a friend who knows the food is a great way of learning about the best dishes.

                    3. I would add to the list:

                      - attend festivals & church events
                      - pick up free ethnic magazines & newspapers & look at the ads
                      - observe other tables, spot something delicious, discretely point and say “I’ll have that”.
                      - travel, if possible. Get to know the real thing in the actual country
                      - pick up a dictionary of the culture and learn key food words. Even Chinese
                      - get a take out menu and do some research on it or write down interesting dishes

                      All of the other excellent suggestions in this post (GREAT tips Phoo D)

                      - ask friends of that ethnicity about dishes.
                      - Try to eat out with natives of that country (Chowdowns are great)
                      - read reviews
                      - order the unusual or new to you
                      - learn the dishes that show an interest in the ‘real thing’
                      - cultivate a restaurant
                      - go to the ghetto (community with large concentration of an ethnicity)
                      - look for non-English speaking staff
                      - ask about the non-English menus or specials on walls or whiteboards
                      - research the cuisine (cookbooks are good)
                      - joke about wanting to eat like a native not an American

                      Not so much

                      - lots of people of that ethnicity (Americans eat at McDonald’s. Big crowds might have to do with price, not taste)

                      I can’t stress Ethnic festivals enough. I attended a Nigerian Yam festival this year, the Brailian June Festia, Mexican Christmas events, Portuguese festas and Filipino sunrise (ugh) Easter services.

                      I will say that the food isn’t usually amazing, just like your average pot luck. However, you get to learn about foods you never imagined and if you strike up a conversation with the people attending, you can learn about the food and good local restaurants and markets.

                      I am into Brazilian food lately. I’ve been picking up the free local magazines I’ve learned about restaurants and markets I never knew about. Also, it is an indication of which restaurants are reaching out to that ethnicity through their ads. There are three Brazilian BBQ’s in the Bay Area. Only one advertises in the three Brazilian publications. I’m more likely to try that one (Cleo's) first

                      Cultivating a restaurant is a really good one. If they see you more than once and you build a rapport, a good place will help you understand the food. They often delight in introducing the cuisine.

                      Even on a first visit, show a genuine interest in the food. Ask questions. That doesn't always work, but it works more than it fails. Don't you warm up when someone shows a genuine interest in you and listens to what you say?

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: rworange

                        You're right. In my life there have been a few special restaurants from which I have learned a great deal. In most cases, if the owner/chef/family really care about their food, they are happy to explain and/or suggest. From my viewpoint, I am cultivating the restaurant; from theirs, they are cultivating a customer. Symbiosis.