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Why keep eating the same ethnic dishes?

I don’t like Indian and Thai food.

BORING ! – Chicken Tiki Masa, red, yellow green curries. pad thai, papaya salad, etc, etc

And the thing is, most of these dishes aren’t very good in the first place. How did they get so popular? It’s like the old days in Chinese cuisines where with two you get egg roll and sweet and sour pork.

Someone recently wrote about a sublime green curry, but you have to eat a lot of mediocre green curry to get there.

I’m sort of having fun right now looking for items on the menu that I don’t see elsewhere.

Most of the time, that is the dish that is the best thing at that restaurant. However, even the spectacular failures ... and I’m talking about the memorably horrible Nicaraguan boho ... are interesting, sometimes funny and entertaining... and at the least give you something to kvetch about. I've gotten years of mileage out of that dish.

Ironically at the same place and same dinner, I had one of the most memorably great tastes in my life, pitahaya, a mind-blowing tasty and beautiful ruby-colored drink made from dragon fruit.

Most of the time ethnic food isn’t that expensive, so if it is a taste disaster, order something else.

I regret all the years I spent order broccoli beef in Chinese restaurants when after I started following Chowhound I found there were so many wonderful and amazing Chinese foods.

And if the lesser known stuff doesn’t get ordered, the restaurant has no reason to expand. The interesting stuff gets cut.

There’s a great Chinese restaurant near me, Lily’s, that is struggling to stay alive because everyone orders the same old, same old and rarely bothers with the regional specialties they excel at. In fact the restaurant doesn't push these dishes because they think no one wants them.

And by ethnic, I’m including everything that isn’t burgers and steak. How much lasagna and coq au vin can one eat anyway?

However, when I’m eating my own cuisine, Polish, I do stick with the comfort dishes for me like pierogi. When I’m brand new to a cuisine, right now that is Bolivian, I’m going to go for the most ordered dishes like, in this case, salteñas, one reason being all of the restaurants in my area ... a whopping two ... have that on the menu and I can compare.

But I seems like a vicious circle ... we order the same things over and over ... the restaurants say ‘aha’ that’s what they want ... we get the same old boring stuff.

So, two questions:

1. What less common dish have you ordered that knocked your socks off ... or was a spectacular failure?

2. If you don’t stray from the tried and true ... why not ... money considerations ... fear of the unknown?

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  1. well first of all, papaya salad is NOT boring. At least the version they serve at Lotus of Siam in Vegas is NOT boring. neither is a well-prepared pad thai, IMO.

    but to answer your second question: How can you order what you don't know? If its not on the menu, and you know nothing about the cuisine, you are at the mercy of the restaurant. If they think it'll suit your taste and have it on your menu, you can order it. So things that are "boring" are made so to suit their idea of what your taste should be.

    I think the solution is to seek out people of the various ethnicities and make friends with them. Offer to take them out to their favorite restaurants. You may discover places you never knew existed. Better yet, find a way to eat in their homes. I GUARANTEE you the Indian food you eat in my house will be different than what you've eaten in Indian restaurants. Come on up sometime and find out :-)

    6 Replies
    1. re: janetofreno

      I agree - a good green papaya salad is actually very exciting - the unique texture of the papaya, bite of the chillies, salt from the little dried shrimps and brightness of lime. In all of New York City, I've only found one place that makes it well. I find that most Thai (and Vietnamese) restaurants I've tried put way too much sugar in the salad which ruins it. Then they throw in unnecessary ingredients such as beef.

      1. re: chowmeow

        One of my favorite papaya salads includes some little bits of dried beef.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          Clearly this is a mutant papaya salad. If you ask for beef in your papaya salad, you will insult the chef and you don't deserve to eat in a Thai rest...

          ...oh, sorry, just got done posting on the sushi thread.

          I've never had beef in it, but bits of protein (dried shrimp, raw shrimp, blue crab, etc.) are common.

          1. re: Das Ubergeek

            Dried beef is not unusual in Vietnamese papaya salads. I've never seen it in the Thai version.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              ditto. there was a vietnamese place in NY which offered a very good papaya salad with bits of jerky in it - could have been pork or beef, I cant remember.

      2. re: janetofreno

        I just had a really good dryish, red Thai curry with chicken and Thai basil. It was thick, not soupy, and not boring at all.

        TT

      3. I never get bored with papaya salad or pad Thai but I don't always order them. I usually try at least one new dish every time I go to my favorite places.

        Last time I went to my favorite Thai place, we didn't have one dish we'd had before.

        http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

        1. Sometimes I keep trying the same dish because I'm looking for a great version of it. e.g. Thai curries, sweet and sour pork, tangerine beef. They not intrinsically bad dishes, but good versions require serious cooking that many places seem incapable of.

          1. My favorite Indian restaurant has a rotating menu of less common, panregional dishes. Consequently, although I eat Indian food at least once a month, I haven't eaten CTM or Lamb Vindaloo in years. Some of the better dishes I've had recently:

            Dhaniwal Murg Korma: This dish from Kashmir is named after 'Dhania', the Hindi name for cilantro, a major ingredient in the sauce. The sauce is green in color due to the use of cilantro. The fresh, herbaceous flavor makes it delightful for eating in summer. A very tasty dish with a sauce that tastes and looks very different from the yellow curry sauces normally associated with Indian cooking. (This stuff is incredible, and it's still on the menu).

            Goa Lamb Curry: Almost all the curry sauces in Indian dishes are made with a base of onions. This lamb curry from Goa has an unusual and very tasty sauce that does not use any onions. The sauce is made with tomatoes, coconut milk, ginger, and spices. Boneless cubed leg of lamb is simmered in this sauce until tender. Like most dishes in Goa, this dish is eaten hot.

            Vendaka Masala Pachdi: : From Tamilnadu. Fresh Okra is trimmed, sliced, sauted and then briefly cooked in a sauce made with onions, tomatoes, yogurt, coconut milk, urid dal, curry leaves and spices. The sauce is rich with a multitude of textures and flavors. The okra is cooked in a way that makes it not slimy.

            I'm happy I found an Indian restaurant that features such a diversity of options instead of the same, tired standards. It's fun to show at at the start of the month and find something new on the menu to experience.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Morton the Mousse

              I'd like to second your recommendatin of Goan Curries, well our favorite Indian restaurant labels them Goan curry I have no idea which is more correct Goa or Goan. At any rate we alternate between a Goan chicken curry and a Goan lamb curry and find them rich, velvety and the perfect foil for other spicy dishes.

              Personally, I don't find that ordering the same old dishes is a particular problem. I do sometimes hesitate to try certain dishes at mediocre Chinese American restaurants because some of what they offer is so sicky sweet and gloppy. But in a good Chinese restaurant I'll try anything!

              OTOH sometimes I become so taken with a dish that I just don't want anything else. One of the Korean restaurants we frequent makes a kimchi and pork bok um that I have never ordered anything else there!

              We have found that being friendly and inquisitive with your waiters and particularly with the owners can help you explore a menu. At some restaurants it can take time because they will steer your toward the most common dishes that they know will appeal to a broad American palate. But if you make yourself a regular a lot of restaurants will recognize your interest and suggest special dishes or even offer you items from the 'natives only' section of the kitchen!

            2. Goa is a region in India, so "Goan" would probably be the proper adjective.

              The whole idea of regional cooking brings out something I hinted at but didn't quite state properly: a country's cuisine (especially a large country like the US, India, or China) may vary considerably depending on the region. And one problem is that immigrants from a particular region tend to go into similar businesses for simple practical reasons: Someone immigrates and maybe starts a business, and then his brother comes to help, and his brother's friend, and so on and so forth, and pretty soon you have a whole community of folks from the same region with similar businesses. I could bet you $100 that if you ask someone from Gujurat if either they or someone in their family is in the hotel business that the answer would be yes, and I would probably win that bet. Which is fine, but unfortunately very few Gujuratis have gone into the restaurant biz. (Unfortunately because their food is excellent!) OTOH, most Indian restaurant owners in the US are from Northern India, with a few from Southern India. So if you walk into an Indian restaurant here, chances are you'll get a northern Indian menu.

              And of course, a country's cuisine can vary greatly depending on region. Southern and Northern Indian cooking is as different as say, the cooking of Minnesotta and New Orleans. (Maybe more so!) Even the natives of countries with a lot of regional variation will have their preferences, depending on where they were raised. My husband is from Gujurat, but he spent a lot of time in Southern India growing up, and has developed a strong liking for their food. If he is served Northern Indian food he invariably finds it too bland. And he would say that there is no way you can say all Indian food is "boring" based on northern Indian dishes such as Tikki masala. And he would be right.

              2 Replies
              1. re: janetofreno

                No, that wasn't my point at all with this post.

                My point was that too many people order the chicken tiki masala and don't explore the menus to find different items.

                In fact, Goan food is what got me started on this.

                Walking into that Indian Restaurant there was the choice of the standards: vindalo, saag, tandoori, biriyani ... in this area most of that, to my tastes, is not worth my time or calories.

                So, it becomes an adventure for me to look at a menu and find the different thing ... in this case the Goan dishes ... and chicken soup instead of the same dal drek ... and I'm sorry but I've only had one dal in my life that was earth-shaking.

                Then there was the lamb nan which isn't on all that many Indian restaurants around here.

                It's sort of playing "Where's Waldo" with menus.

                As far as papaya salad, like chowmeow mentioned, she had a very exciting one ... once ... and sure, there are some out there ... I personally have never found them ... but I've heard tell.

                Actually a few months back I used papaya salad as my Thai test dish. I tell you I have never been so bored in my life and that includes the touted Ruin Pair.

                So my point is why are these dishes popular whether it be CTM, or tangerine beef or papaya salad? Most of it is the worst representation of the cuisine.

                It's not an issue of ordering off the menu, but looking at the menu and ordering dishes not seen before. That, to me, has been the more interesting thing to do. It wasn't meant to dump on specific dishes or cuisines.

                Actually when you do that it starts a relationship immediately with the restaurant. You are not ordering the gringo special and I find I get better service and more advice than going for the green curry or pad thai.

                It's also often a good barameter for a restaurant. If they don't perk up when you order that different dish, usually something is wrong there.

                Then too, by not ordering the different, those dishes go away.

                There's a pizza place near me where the owner once ran an brilliant Brazilian restaurant that was even written up in Gourmet magazine. But boring, average pizza sells and no one takes chances on the Brazilian. The Brazillian part is going away.

                Another Brazilian Pizza joint just tanked and now we have yet another insipid place selling pizza.

                To his credit, a local food critic that I'm not usually fond of, sniffed out the Peruvian menu on a local mainly Mexican joint. The cook is from Peru, yet all that people order is the same burritos and tacos from the Mexican side of the menu.

                So the question was one of why not look beyond the obvious?

                If you've done that, what have you found?

                1. re: rworange

                  Papaya salad is not one of "the worst representations of the cuisine." Though som tam is Isaan, it is ubiquitous in Thailand and you will find Thais eating it all over the place. When made properly, it is a wonderful and typically Thai balance of salty, sweet, sour, and spicy.

                  Also, why do you care what other people order at restaurants? As long as there are choices that you perceive to be off the beaten path, what difference does it make to you what anybody else wants to eat? Some people like to know what they are getting in advance, and are not interested in experimentation every time they eat a meal out.

              2. Depends what you mean by ethnic. I mean, take pizza for example. I must have ordered hundreds of pizzas in as many restaurants. Some have been good, others not so, but few were boring. I've had all kinds of toppings, crusts, sauces and cheeses; sometimes all these components were present, while at other times only partial combinations were used. But to some, a pizza is still a "pizza"!

                TT

                2 Replies
                1. re: TexasToast

                  Yes, but one of the crappiest pizzas I ever had in my life turned out to sell amazing Brazilian food with a lady straight from Brazil cooking it up. At that place you can order cheese pizza or a dessert banana pizza.

                  That led to the discovery that there's a big Brazilian population in the area and finding an amazing juice bar serving up fresh fruits flown in from the Amazon jungle. OK, that's romaticized a bit, the fruit is flown in frozen from Brazil but there are flavors that are different and incredible.

                  I very much include pizza and Italian and French in this. The question is when you go into a pizza joint, for example, do you look for the odd topping you don't see anywhere else ... or scope out the rest of the menu to see if they are offering something out of the norm. If so, what was it and how good?

                  I mean even plain cheese pizza can be exciting if you ask enough questions ... there might be a special sauce, house-made or some special cheese ...

                  1. re: rworange

                    Sure, I've had venison on a pizza, and chicken & fennel sausage. And the first time I had truffle oil was on a pizza as well, so I tend to try different ingredients as well as having a plain cheese, which, as you rightly pointed out, can also have its own identity.

                    TT

                2. What you consider to be exotic depends on your point of reference too. For someone who's not used to even stepping on a block where an Indian or Thai restaurant might stand, just looking at the menu might be a big step. And this doesn't just apply to a meat and potatoes sort of person. Someone on the other side of the coin, maybe someone who eats kimchi everyday, might find Applebees to be an exotic locale.

                  15 Replies
                  1. re: carbs.meet.bacon

                    Great handle.

                    But, it is not about exotic. It is about eating the same thing over and over again. I would not expect MOST meat and potato types to stray off the tried and true, there are always exceptions.

                    But if stepping in an ethic restaurant why does everyone gravitate to the same dishes ... over and over.

                    1. re: rworange

                      Thanks.

                      That's true. I think thinking of something outside of their comfort zone does have something to do w/what they consider exotic though. Maybe it's b/c sometimes just stepping into that environment was scary enough in the 1st place. If they happened to not like their 1st experience, they probably won't go back, and if they liked what they ordered, they'll just keep ordering it. Most people are creatures of habit. Most people take the same route to work everyday, go to the gym at the same time every morning, and watch the same tv shows every wk. And food is just an extension of this mentality.

                      1. re: carbs.meet.bacon

                        Yeah, but its not just a newbie, it's almost everybody.

                        I mean, just using Indian as an example. Why does everyone order the same chicken tiki masala or whatever rote dish rather than looking for something different on the menu.

                        I was exploring local Tibetan and Nepalese restaurants in my area and even professional newspaper reviews didn't write about the unique dishes for that restaurant, but rather the standard Indian dishes.

                        If commiting to Indian and say having eaten at dozens of other Indian restaurants over and over why not explore the different whether at a new place or an old favorite.

                        1. re: rworange

                          I want to say this in the friendliest way: I fear that you've become obsessed with restaurant patrons who choose chicken tikka masala!

                          Perhaps you haven't had enough experience with truly tedious eaters. We know people who eat at Applebee's. I even know people who's children eat nothing but chicken nuggets and frozen pizza. I know that is all that their children eat because they've come to my house for dinner and demanded these items without correction from their parents. One couple seemed genuinely upset with me when I explained that I did not have any of those foods in the house.

                          Anyone with friends who are fearful eaters but great company has probably developed a few strategies to manage outings together. The easiest is to just go out for Italian. I've never run into anyone that couldn't find something to eat in an Italian-American restaurant. From there you take them to a more authentic Italian spot and then you tackle Chinese American. When you're ready to take them a bit further, it's good to offer them 'starter dishes'. I don't mean apps, I mean the dish from that cuisine that seems to appeal most broadly to American palates.

                          We eat a lot of Korean food and when we take guests I always start them with BBQ or bulgogi. Next they have dolsot bibimbap. There's a progression. That's not to say that I would ever steer someone away from Ojingo Bokum if they wanted to order it themselves, but if they look lost or intimidated I suggest a dish that I think is a good place to start to get to know the cuisine.

                          For all that you know, the fellow ordering the dreaded chicken tikka masala was raised eating boiled beef and canned carrots and actually liking them. It may be genuinely remarkable that he is in an Indian restaurant at all. Patronage from people who order dishes that strike you as pedestrian may be keeping the restaurant in business! Were it not for chicken-tikka-masala-guy, you may never have come across Goan cuisine.

                          And do realize that doubtless, someone is reading your analysis and laughing at the poor sap who thinks that Goan food is the height of sophistication! : )

                          1. re: Kater

                            No really, this isn't about first time eaters, meat & potatoes people, the Swanson frozen dinner set or anything like that.

                            I lived with people like you mentioned for over a year. You'll find posts from me defending Olive Garden and other chains. Heck, McDonald's is on my top five restaurant list on 'My Chow'.

                            Again, this isn't about eating exotic. It is about people who have already committed to a restaurant. You are going to an Indian restaurant. Why keep ordering the CTM over and over.

                            No one said Goan food was the height of sophistication. It was the different item on the menu, that's all. The standard dishes I see everywhere or the one Goan dish that was different. That was the point. Most of the places I eat at are dives.

                            In the pizza place it was a banana pizza, in the Mexican place it was the beer mixed with tomato juice with shrimp decorating the rim (great), in the El Salvadorian place it was the lizard ... ok, I did't order the lizard ... I'm not up to lizard yet ... but I did order something besides the pupusas.

                            I guess what is amazing to me in this thread is that people don't even seem to understand the concept of ordering something other than the standards and seem to be intimidated by the whole suggestion.

                            People have defended to death dishes and cuisines that were used as examples and gone off on a tangent like this one.

                            Yes, maybe the chicken tikki masala is the dish that is keeping that Indian restaurant and having an Indian restaurant at all is good to have a choice of restaurants with diverse cuisines.

                            And please know that Indian and CTM are just examples, substitute any cuisine or standard dish in its place.

                            I'm getting a vibe of food fear. Like the big adventure in eating out at all is in even going to an ethinic restaurant, so people order the same dishes over and over because it makes the experience less scary.

                            1. re: rworange

                              I would consider myself to be an above-avg food risk-taker (I can't say I'm a big fan of insects or brains and would have to limit myself there). But I grew up in a family who are fairly below-avg in this category. So I understand why a lot of people wouldn't be willing to go out of their comfort zone when it comes to something that's supposed to provide pleasure. They simply don't see the pleasure of trying new things. For them the cons outweigh the pros. There's a limit to how much you can suggest, and in the end it's their choice. For me it's a priority, but for them, *shrug*. Their loss, I say. For those of us who care enough to integrate palette expansion into our daily lives, that's why we have chowhound!

                              1. re: rworange

                                In my case its definitely not food fear. I'm as guilty as the next person of ordering "the same old thing" sometimes. If I like it, and there is a particular restaurant that does it well, why shouldn't I??? I would NEVER go to Lotus of Siam and NOT order the mango-sticky rice-coconut cream desert. To me it is heaven on a plate and I like it. Sure, I'll take risks and try different things, but sometimes I DO like "the same old thing." I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with that.

                                1. re: janetofreno

                                  Nothing wrong with it. Sounds like you do both explore the old and enjoy your favorites. The best of both worlds. It's not like I never eat the same thing. When you find the truly exceptional, then it shouldn't be a none-time experience.

                                2. re: rworange

                                  Reading that you perceive a food fear vibe in this thread demonstrates that you're too invested in this chicken tikka masala controversy to see things clearly. It's not been my experience that there is any level of food fear among chow hounds. If you read the thread carefully you'll note that people are offering you an explanation for a behavior that seems to unduly distress you. You'll also notice that most have been very kind and gentle while trying to help you sort out the issue.

                                  1. re: Kater

                                    What I have been trying to do is get the topic back on the track to answer the question asked in the beginning.

                                    Bad mistake to use examples. Posters glommed in on specific dishes and cuisines which for each response says that wasn't the point of the post.

                                    It doesn't matter the cuisine. It doesn't matter the dish. Dining has been personally more interesting, delicious and rewarding for me since I started trying the unique dishes on the menu.

                                    I don't think Indian or Thai food is as boring since snubbing the standards and looking for the unique dishes on the menu.

                                    Not only have I had more intesting food, I've gotten to know people of many cultures and fascintating information about food.

                                    Amoung chowhounds the issue seems to be one more of cost and personal satisfaction. There's a dish you like and order it over and over.

                                    However the defensiveness is what strikes me as a sort of fear vibe. I'm kind of surprised by that. I guess I don't understand your point at all about sorting out any issue.

                                    I just would be happier if restaurants put different dishes on the menu instead of standards. Ordering patterns and staying in business don't allow that.

                                    I worked in Mexico a year and was recently looking for some pan dulce info on line and stumbled across a typical middle class restaurant menu. We have absolutely NOTHING like that in my area and SF certainly has a large enough Hispanic population.

                                    IMO opinion people would love that type of menu if that retaurant opened here. I wasn't at all adventurous when working in Mexico, but necessity forced me out of my comfort zone and I fell in love with REAL Mexican food ... not the tacos, tamales, etc served up here.

                                    However, that wouldn't fly in this country because when people want Mexican food they want the standards and won't order something else or patronize a different type of Mexican restaurant.

                                    Which is all of our loss.

                                    We had an upscale Mexican restaurant that long ago didn't serve guacamole and chips. You wouldn't go to the Chez Panisse Mexican equivalent and expect that. The restaurant had to change because diners were outraged that they couldn't order chips and dip ... hey, what kind of Mexican place is this anyway? No guac.

                                    This isn't the example I am looking for, but there was a perfect example recently I can't find.

                                    This poster asked a few questions looked for the different and found out about a unique sinaloan tamale made only during the months of March & April.

                                    In addition, you can see the interaction between the poster and the owner when asking more and getting that little gem of a nugget. The poster writes:

                                    "I began to ask him about the prepared food on the weekends and he started to really light up -- pretty passionate foodie, and obviously proud of the operation."

                                    And that is what I noticed happens to me when I order the unique dish. The people light up and share. I stop being the gringo and become someone who is interested in them, their culture and the food they eat.

                                    This is probably one of the top tips I've seen on Chowhound in the four years that I've been reading the boards ... or one could order the chicken tamale and look no further ... nothing wrong with that either since they make delicous chicken tamales.
                                    http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

                                    1. re: rworange

                                      Okay I'll try to answer your question. Hey, I'm like you... adventurous. And I once entered a discussion on Takeout chinese food by posting, why would any rational person order takeout when you can have the excitement and adventure of eating in a restaurant thronged with Chihese families, loudly bustling, happily enjoying their food? And people posted back, hey, we've had a stressful day at work, we dont want excitement and adventure. We want comfort and consolation, we want to recharge amid the familiar setting of our home, ao we want takeout... or better yet, delivery.

                                      1. re: Brian S

                                        That makes perfect sense. There are any number of reasons why people select different entrees, restaurants or modes of eating than the ones we think are most sensible. Tempting as it can be, it is not reasonable to cast those choices as character flaws. And it certainly isn't reasonable to cast the people who try to gently explain that as food-phobes!

                                        We're probably all guilty of judgement when it comes to some aspect of food and dining be it intolerance of food-phobes, pedestrian eaters, overeaters, pedantic gastronomes, boorish table manners, lousy tippers, food fadist, etc...

                                        Perhaps if the 'question' were more honestly posted as a 'doesn't it drive you nuts that...?', it would have gone over better. It definitely would have gone over better without quite so much projection along with a better grasp of Indian cuisine!

                                        1. re: Kater

                                          I really don't care about what is on another's plate. If people choose to to eat the same thing over and over, that's their choice, I was just wondering why. So posting as doesn't it drive you crazy that other people order ... wasn't what I was asking or thinking. It is your assumption that I'm seeing that as a character flaw. There are dozens of posts like that on the boards.

                                          It was why people order the same thing over and over and we get the same menu items as a result. Like I said, I was trying to give examples and the relevant questions at the end of the OP were probably the only thing I should have posted.

                                          The only judgement I cast is on myself where I ate the same dishes at the same restaurants for years when I was missing out on so much other wonderful food and experiences. For me, eating out is more interesting lately. It just appeals to me more.

                                  2. re: rworange

                                    "Again, this isn't about eating exotic. It is about people who have already committed to a restaurant. You are going to an Indian restaurant. Why keep ordering the CTM over and over."

                                    Loads of reasons. Maybe because they like the Chicken Tikka Masala. More likely because they know the CTM and aren't totally comfortable trying new things. Possibly because when they're paying a not-insignificant amount of money to eat, they want to go with the safe options that they know they'll like.

                                    The thing is, most of the people posting here aren't the kind of people you describe. I don't think many of us Chowhounds have the food fear. There's a difference between having a narrow comfort zone and ordering the same dish over and over just because you love it and dream about it at night!

                                    1. re: Kagey

                                      My wife always orders chicken tikka masala at places where she she thinks they do a good job. It's not that she's afraid of other dishes, she just really loves it. We'll still eat our way through the rest of the menu at those places.

                        2. This may sound uncool, but I'm trying to be honest. I can only afford to go out to eat a couple times a month. Sometimes I've tried a new dish and been sorry that I did. Not always, of course. But when that happens, I feel that I've wasted a dinner out. So maybe that makes me a bit conservative.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: Glencora

                            You make a good point. Also, it seems as though many people will judge a new place on their "standard" order. Hence, if the Thai place you've never gone to before makes a good pad thai, then you may be willing to explore further.

                            I also understand rworange on this too. But I feel some of the standards can be really great when done by a cook who doesn't automatically tune out a dish because it may be a neophytes order.

                            Lastly, I've seen Indians eating tiki masala. I've seen Thais eating papaya salad. Perhaps one of the reasons for ordering the same old is that it just tastes good.

                            1. re: bryan

                              YES-- couldn't have said it better myself. I as an adventurous diner will have do the litmus test order when trying a new restaraunt-- I'll order the pad thai to see if it is an individual cook's take on a national dish, served with pride, or some glop spooned out of a vat and plunked down in front of the diner with indifference. You can tell a lot about the establishment's attitudes toward the food served, and the folks served to, this way. If you order a plain ol' plate of pasta with olive oil and garlic in the new Italian place down the street, or a plain omelet at the new diner, you can immediately judge the skills of the cooks in the kitchen, as well as whether they truly care about food. ordering basic (& inexpensive) dishes first can really keep you from potentially being disappointed by an overpriced "signature" dish that's cooked badly-- or it can tip you off that the kitchen has skills &takes care of all the details, all the dishes, uses the best ingredients, or just cares about the food.

                              once I know a place has great cooks (or what shift the great cooks work) i'll be back for the showpiece dishes.

                          2. I've discovered that many, perhaps most, Americans have fairly set ideas about food by they time they reach adulthood. And once they reach middle age, those ideas are unshakeable. So Indian is always tikka masala or biryani. Chinese is won ton soup or sweet 'n sour. Thai is green or red curry. Italian is spaghetti with meatballs or American lasagne, etc.

                            I don't understand why people with means won't venture beyond the oldies and often baddies. I've invited people to my home who won't take a taste of something that isn't familiar. Other people are surprised when they do - one friend exclaimed "why don't restaurants serve this kind of Chinese food?" when he ate a piece of red-cooked duck and some real Chinese vegetables. But I've had other friends tell me they don't like eggplant, period. And they won't take a single bite.

                            When I'm eating out, some times I'm in the mood for something I've looked forward to, so I'll order just that. But most times I make a point of ordering at least one item that is new. Sometimes I'll ask the server for advice and sometimes I'll recall something I read about a dish. Last week I had a "surprise" masala dosa, not on the menu, which the server suggested after a little conversation about dosas. It was excellent. Another time the server came over to ask if I was from Malaysia because we ordered assam laksa and ate every drop, despite his warning that it had "strong taste".

                            I cook more than I eat out, so for me exploring a cuisine means working through recipes which seem authentic. I've made all kinds of discoveries this way, both from cooking the dishes and searching for the ingredients. We're regulars at Indian, Armenian, Southeast Asian and Mexican groceries where we find everything from atta to Aleppo pepper. Fortunately DH is as adventurous as I am so I have an audience of at least one. As for others, you can only take a horse to water.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: cheryl_h

                              YES !!! Everything you said ... THANK YOU !!!

                              That is exactly it, especially that part about helping to get into conversations with staff and getting clued in on other interesting stuff, not to mention delicious stuff.

                              For the most part, the kitchen takes more care with these different dishes because it is not stuff the have put together mindlessly for countless times.

                            2. For me, when I'm trying a new restaurant and trying to put it's food in perspective, I want to order some standards so I can compare with what I know. For me, with Thai, it's the standard red and green curries, beef salad, etc. Usually not pad thai, because it's one of the more americanized dishes, and I'm not looking for americanized thai.

                              Once I establish that a restaurant is up to snuff with the standards, I'll expand my choices and try some of the more unusual stuff.

                              1. "why does everyone gravitate to the same dishes?"

                                I don't know this everyone you speak of. If a menu has something I've never heard of, I always want to try it. My friends are the same way. All my favorite restaurants' menus change daily.

                                If a place is good and I go there a lot, eventually I try the whole menu. Or at least all of the dishes from the cook's real repertoire--I'm not going to order the Chinese-American stuff at a Sichuan restaurant, and I don't need to try every Chinese dish on a Burmese restaurant's menu, or every Thai dish on a Cambodian menu, before deciding that's not the thing to order there.

                                1. To answer the first question (unusual dishes), my test dish in a Thai restaurant is Nam Prik Pla Tou - a spicy fermented shrimp-paste dip served with semi-raw vegetables and grilled fish. Ninety percent of Thai restaurants in my town don't serve it, so anyplace that has a version of it immediately passes my first test. But there are big differences in quality, mostly in the rich aroma and overall stinkyness of the dip. (On the other hand, it's rarely disappointing.) Unfortunately it seems to scare a lot of non-Thai diners, so it's hard to find.

                                  After that, you can tell a lot about a Thai restaurant by the size of the menu (the bigger the better) and the creativity of the "chef's specials" section of the menu. I usually stick to that section and ignore the rest of the menu, because that's where the most interesting food is. (And I generally skip the curries and the pad thai.) If there's no "chef's specials" section on the menu, I usually don't bother with the place at all.

                                  In general it's easy to build a menu based on the crowd pleasers, in whatever cuisine it might be, but I think good chefs, whether they're cooking French or Sri Lankan or Laotian, like to be creative and put their own personal touches on their native cuisine, so it's always worth looking for the unusual dishes on a menu, and trying at least one or two.

                                  1. I often eating at restaurants where everyone there is from the country whose cuisine is being served. And even there I notice that every restaurant has the same dishes! And these restaurants do not cater to tourists or newbies. In fact, English isn't spoken at most of them.

                                    I just posted an account of the challenges -- difficult but they add spice to my dining experience -- that await the visitor to restaurants in Chinatown. Secret menus, written in Chinese. http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...
                                    And on these menus I often find the same old dishes you see everywhere else. Pork belly and preserved veggies, for one, or chicken, saltfish and dofu casserole. I guess, to the patrons, these are comfort food. But how I long for something new!!

                                    It's the same with Mexican. I guess recent immigrants, homesick, want to eat the same dishes, dishes that remind them of home. I found one Mexican restaurant that offers new dishes every day and I eat something new every time I go. http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/... But most people order the tacos.

                                    1. One theory I haven't seen advanced here is that the choice is often of food, with the restaurant choice following. "I want chicken tikka masala," says our fictitious diner, "and there is an Indian restaurant down the road."

                                      So the fictitious diner goes into the local Indian restaurant, sits down, orders chicken tikka masala, and joins other people who perhaps thought the same way.

                                      My next theory is that they don't know what it is. My local Thai place has a menu written entirely in Thai with "$2.50" emblazoned on the top of it. The food is great... but it's all written in Thai. I went to a Korean bar the other night and all the signs for the various bar snacks were written in Korean. Even when the language uses the Roman alphabet, most people won't order a dish if they don't know what's in it... so when you see "choros a la chalaca" and it has no explanation, it becomes a bit too adventurous. Sometimes the explanations that are provided are no help -- one Chinese place has "meat with three flavor" written up on one item. Now, I know enough Chinese to know that meat means pork, but still... what three flavours?

                                      My final theory is that restaurateurs have a fixed idea of what "white people" (insert your favourite quasi-slur here, gaijin, gabachos, etc.) will tolerate. I have had to struggle in some places to get them to not dumb it down. (My Chow Passport even failed at these places!) I've been told "you won't like it" hundreds of times. At one place, I left, learned enough Korean to say, "I know what I want, now no arguments please", and went back -- and was rewarded with the spicy seafood soup I was craving.

                                      Under this theory, the reason you see people eating chicken tikka (not tiki) masala is because they asked the waiter what he would recommend, he thought "hm, white folk like chicken and don't like strongly flavoured curry" and recommended the most innocuous dish.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                        The I-don't-want-to-try-new-things mentality transcends race and nationality. I'm korean, and when my father goes to an "American" restaurant, he'll only order the hamburger. When he goes to an "Italian" restaurant, he always gets spaghetti w/meatballs. And when he goes to a Korean restaurant, he always gets the crab jigae.

                                      2. rworange - can you recommend your faves at lily's? i'm in the neighborhood.

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: sriracha

                                          Ok, but ask on the SF board and you'll get not only my recs but people who know both Lilly's and Chinese food better than I do. Great place.

                                          1. re: rworange

                                            Actually I've come across people who eat the same thing all the time. They like it, they eat it and be done with it. food is not a big part of their life and whatever works is what they stick with.

                                            it's about priorities. I hate shopping for clothes so I stick with buying the tried and true and get it done as fast as possible. However, I don't hesitate to buy all kinds of crap from a half dozen chocolate shops and spend hours in the process. Actually I've driven 2 hours down to San Diego to get some chocolate but I wouldn't spend half an hour looking at pants, bleah.

                                            I did notice that after hanging out with me, my closest friends have started to branch out in the food dept. I think if you have a trusted person who helps you have great new experiences, that helps a lot.

                                            CTM is awesome if it's made right.

                                        2. It's sort of a mixed bag for me.

                                          With a cuisine I know little or nothing about, I'm pretty much game for almost anything, because I just don't know enough to know what's supposed to be considered the "favorites."

                                          However, with a cuisine I am more knowledgeable on, I do tend to get into habits and stick with the "favorites". But even here, I'll eventually get bored and want to branch out.

                                          For example, there's a ton of Mexican places in my town, but for most, it's the usual assortment of burritos, tacos, quesadillas, etc. I've wayyy outgrown my burrito phase, and gotten away from my huge taco habit, so when I do feel like eating Mexican, I am these days often looking for something different, even if the dish isn't in reality all that exotic (such as costillos de puerco with nopales.)

                                          1. This thread has inspired me a bit. Yesterday, instead of making my usual trek to Chinatown, I went up to Harlem and had peanut butter soup with fufu in a Ghanain restaurant.

                                            1. Actually, I would tend to sort of agree with you. Where as I don't DISLIKE Thai food, I always feel bewildered as to why it's so popular as compared to Vietnamese food, which beats Thai in my mood any day.

                                              1. THE PROBLEM THAT I HAVE NOTICED IN THE STATES IS THE LACK OF AVAILABILITY OF INGREDIENTS OR LEGALITIES PREVENTING THE SERVING OF AUTHENTIC FOREIGN CUISINE. I HAVE TRAVELLED TO TWENTY-FIVE COUNTRIES OTHER THAN THE USA AND HAVE TRIED MANY DIFFERENT CUISINES. I HAVE NEVER SEEN ANY FOOD THAT WE ATE IN THAILAND IN ANY USA THAI RESTAURANT. WHILE THERE, WE ATE MONKEYS, LIZARDS, GRASSHOPPERS, SCORPIONS, VARIOUS BIRD SPECIES, OTHER INSECTS, AND VARIOUS TYPES OF WILD ANIMAL MEATS. FOR DESSERT EACH MEAL, WE WERE SERVED FRESH FRUITS INCLUDING MANGOSTEEN AND LONGAN WHICH I HAVE NEVER SEEN IN ANY USA THAI RESTAURANT THAT I HAVE VISITED. WE HAD BREAKFAST LUNCH AND DINNER EACH DAY FOR A COUPLE OF WEEKS. I HAVE NEVER SEEN ANY OF THE INCREDIBLE SAUCES SERVED TO US IN THAILAND AT EACH MEAL IN ANY USA THAI RESTAURANT EITHER. THEY WERE ALL FAIRLY SPICY HOT THERE. SOME VERY MUCH SO. THERE WAS A LAZY SUSAN IN THE MIDDLE OF THE TABLE AT EVERY MEAL IN THAILAND TOO. I HAVE SEEN MANY OTHER FOREIGN CUISINES IN THE USA THAT DO NOT SEEM TO COME CLOSE TO BEING AUTHENTIC TO THE FOOD SERVED TO US IN OTHER COUNTRIES DUE TO LACK OF INGREDIENTS OR LEGAL ISSUES PREVENTING INGREDIENTS FROM BEING SERVED.

                                                2 Replies
                                                1. re: MIKELOCK34

                                                  Well, in some of our bigger cities there are absolutely authentic Thai places, but no, you're not going to eat monkeys, lizards, grasshoppers, scorpions, or many bird species.

                                                  As for fresh fruit, you need to come to California -- mangosteens are available here in season now, and longans and lychees are common.

                                                  And our Thai places have spicy sauces and the lazy-susan of things to put on or in your food.

                                                  1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                                    That's true of L.A. but not true of San Fran (where rworange lives) which for the most part has a comparatively mediocre Asian food scene. Yes we get fresh mangosteens flown into Westminster here but I have yet to see a similar operation in San Fran. yes we have good Thai food here (relatively speaking) but that's only becuase we have the largest Thai population in the country. We in L.A. have a much bigger slice of the immigrant pie and well, it shows. Count your blessings.

                                                2. THEY ARE NOT ABSOLUTELY AUTHENTIC IF THEY DO NOT SERVE THE FOODS SERVED IN THE COUNTRY THEY ARE TRYING TO REPRESENT. THEY ARE SERVING AMERICAN THAI OR AMERICAN WHATEVER CUISINE, NOT AUTHENTIC CUISINE.

                                                  1. I can totally relate to the original poster's concern. It is difficult when you are not in the city or an area with a lot of immigrants from the cuisine that you are interested in to find a lot of variety. In Forest Hills Queens NY you find many Thai, Chinese and Japanese restaurants, even a Malaysian and Indian...but it is the same old standards- not bad, but it is frustrating that Penang took off their Rojak salad because no one ever ordered it but me...and they do not even have assam laksa on the menu. (Maybe if I ask nicely next time!) I think that if a restaurant would explain more unusual dishes in a better to understand way on the menu then maybe more people would order them.

                                                    4 Replies
                                                    1. re: NicoleFriedman

                                                      Thanks. That's exactly it. And the thing is that the owners of Penang will advise others opening a restaurant to put the standard dishes on a menu because the Rojak salad didn't sell.

                                                      I read that Chicago has more authentic Mexican food than California because the immigrants in that area have not established a network yet so they cook for themselves. In California, Latino's open restaurants and consult with others who opened restaurants cluing them in on what 'sells' on the menu and how non Latinos like the food.

                                                      I guess all one can do is order the different if that appeals to you and if it is delicous post about it here.

                                                      1. re: rworange

                                                        If i'm trying out a new Indian restaurant (I love chicken tikka masala, so OP's post struck a particular resonance), i'll often order the chicken tikka masala as a point of comparison. I've ordered the dish, and I usually like it, so I know that i'll be enjoying my dinner if I get it. Boring, maybe, but "predictably delicious," as one of my friends says whenever we chide him for getting the same dish every time. This is not to say I won't try new things, but maybe I just don't understand why it's such a big deal? Just because something is exotic, or not frequently ordered doesn't make it a better choice. I don't like to experience "spectacular failures" when I eat. If that's the case, I don't consider myself a better person for having tried it, I am usually just unsatisfied with my meal :) Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

                                                        As for California not having authentic Mexican food... I don't know what to say other than the food i've had in LA tastes a lot like the food i've had in Mexico. I guess it depends on what you mean by "authentic" (whole different conversation and one that's been had multiple times on this board). If you go to a place that has a high density of a certain ethnicity (just east of Koreatown, for instance), the restaurants will tend to cater to that taste. Can't speak for the "Hollywood" restaurants, as I don't go there when I want to eat "real" Mexican food.

                                                        1. re: Devourer

                                                          I've done that too. With whatever cuisine it happens to be, you find a dish for comparison purposes, so you can see who makes the best one!

                                                          TT

                                                          1. re: TexasToast

                                                            and on the other hand, after searching for an authentic dish (say biryani) in restaraunts, the disappointed diner will NEVER EVER order it in a restaraunt again :-(

                                                    2. Look beyond the "insult", rworange makes a good point. A few years back I was excited to find out that a French chef had moved from Mexico City and opened a nice Mexican restaurant in Brentwood (Casa Antigua). So I look it up on the website...and was giddy when I saw the he was serving up a lot of regional stuff from Mexico City as well Nueva Cocina classics...

                                                      > Vegetables in Guajillo-Ancho-Arbol broth
                                                      > Huazontle (aka Aztec Brocoli)
                                                      > Nopales & Fava Bean Soup
                                                      > Filet Mignon in Huitlacoche Sauce
                                                      > Crepes in Cajeta Sauce

                                                      So I go there, had some of those dishes... enjoyed them (althought they weren't perfect)...and returned several times...only to note that the local old money stiffs were sticking to the usual, uninteresting stuff from the Antojitos menu...and avoiding the adult food.

                                                      Before long... the Regional & Avant-Garde dishes started dropping off the menu one by one... and now it is basically one big, Margaritas & Antojitos bar that plays Salsa & Latin Jazz until 7 PM when people leave for the dinner reservations elsewhere.

                                                      Maybe if there were more like rworange... great ethnic food would have a chance more often.

                                                      1. I know this topic is a little old, but I just wanted to weigh in with the fact that I feel this emotion as well when going to restaurants with friends. It's not that they will order the same thing all the time that bothers me but the fact that we will be in a restaurant where thefood thing is clearly just an item on the menu placed there because people seem to expect it from that type of restaurant rather than because it's food in which the restaurant specializes.

                                                        I think it's a combination of lack of knowledge and a lack of curiousity. It may sound a bit braggarty, but I think I am good at reading menus and dismissing the items that are not specialties, plus I do the cursory glance around and try to figure out what "everyone else" is ordering, because I feel that in restaurants this is a large tell.

                                                        Anyway. I don't go out with people who won't discuss share items as a general rule because when they won't discuss you end up with an unbalanced menu. too many similar sauces, not enough different meats andin a chinese restaurant a blatant lack of greens.

                                                        5 Replies
                                                        1. re: oranj

                                                          You know, you've hit on something -- I hate, hate, hate going out to Chinese restaurants with my friends because nobody will ever order anything except meat dishes. The Chinese in general and the Cantonese in particular have raised vegetable cookery to a true art, but all anyone ever wants is the meat dishes.

                                                          It's got to the point where I end up ordering gai lan or choy sum or what have you so that there's something green on the table.

                                                          1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                                            But don't most Chinese dishes, even the vegetarian ones, have pork in them?

                                                            TT

                                                            1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                                              Hey-- is anyone besides me frustrated at the same old "vegetarian option(s)" on the menu? --in my experience another good tell of whether anyone cares about the food/menu/cuisine/clientele & relevant to the original topic of this thread?

                                                            2. re: oranj

                                                              Similar name oranj and sentiments ... the orange family so to speak.

                                                              After a while, if you pay attention to menus, it does get easier to spot the specialties. For some reason they never really stick out. I've been at this Salvadoran restaurant a number of times and until I took a close look at the menu, I never noticed they had fried corn tamales ... which were pretty good.

                                                            3. Hi rw!
                                                              Do tell about the Nicaraguan boho (whatever that is) disaster. I could use a good laugh. I had a bizarre experience over the weekend. Usually those Chinese bakeries with the to-go dim sum are reliably OK but at this Happy Bakery (ironic name?)on Irving near 23rd. I bought $20 worth of assorted stuff and when I got home discovered that the shrimp in the har gow were actually decomposing. Did not smell (artificial chemical preservatives?) but they had partially turned into a sort of mush. I was so disgusted I just threw the whole lot, everything, down the garbage chute.