Suggestions for the ethnically-impaired
Last time I was in Westminster (aka Little Saigon), refilling on the food of my childhood, I noticed a very painful scene: non-Asians ordering the Wrong Way, and then leaving disappointed.
I had noticed this before.
I almost interceded with the table next to me. I finally did intercede, when my beloved dining partner, also ethnically-impaired, began to order the Wrong Way.
In explaining to her what she was doing, I formulated the following rules as a guide to eating at certain kinds of ethnic dives. These rules were taught to me, in less formal form, by my parents, who were, I think, shocked to see their Americanized son ordering the Wrong Way.
I share these rules with you, in case you might be ethnically impaired, or close to someone who is.
RULES FOR THE ETHNICALLY IMPAIRED
(Note: these rules are constructed from my knowledge of Vietnamese noodle 'n soup 'n meat shops. I know for a fact that they extend to certain Chinatown places, Japanese noodle shops, and Mexican places. They probably extend to many other cultures, but I'm not sure which.)
1. As you enter an ethnic dive, especially one where the name is in a foreign language, note the name of the restaurant.
2. When you look at the menu, check to see if any of the menu items contains any of the same strings of words as the name of the restaurant. You should probably order this dish.
3. Especially check to see if Item #1 has the same name as the restaurant.
4. Especially if everybody around you is orrdering that thing.
5. ADVANCED STEP: Learn the word for "The Special" in as many languages as possible. (In some languages, the word or phrase for "The Special," meaning the house speciality, is different from the word or phrase for "Daily special.") In Vietnamese, the phrase is "Dac Biet."
Thinking behind these RULES: American dining culture, I think, is geared heavily towards the multi-dish menu. Lots of other dining cultures are geared towards the shop, where there's lots of shops specializing in one particular thing. In the Old Country, those shops wouldn't serve anything else, so you couldn't really go wrong. In the New Country, frequently these shops add things to their menu, to make things OK for people who sit down and expect a menu. But they're not really any good at those other things. Frequently, these other things have been sitting in the back of the fridge forever, since nobody really orders them.
When a bunch of guys and gals gets together, stuffed to the brim of American culture, and go to a restaurant, they want, as is the American drive, to be individuals. They want to order different things. When I, stuffed with American Culture, go to a Vietnamese noodle shop with my friends, I feel like I ought to order Different Things.
Resist this impulse. Resisit it like the very grip of death itself. I remember I used to watch as each of my relatives ordered the SAME DISH and I, refusing to conform, ordered something different.
It was always worse.
Resist the impulse. Just submit. You'll be happy.
(Exception: Somehow, traditional American places that are good at only one thing are aware that their patrons are likely to stray if they are given not-so-good choices, so, they restrict properly. Witness the In 'n Out Burger menu.)
(These rules devicsed at Banh Cuon Tay Ho, on Bolsa in Westminster. Get the Banh Cuon.)
P.S. I would appreciate as many words for The Special in as many languages as possible. Danke.
Pretty good device, although it must be said that other cultures are nowhere near as diligent as the Vietnamese, who tend to put the words ``dac biet'' in front of almost anything that might be constituted as a specialty. If you, for example, ordered fried chicken at the Filipino chain Max's Fried Chicken or clams at Umberto's Clam House, you'd be out of luck.
Is there a Max's still in the L.A./Orange area?
I miss my old place I used to turn to when I was too sick to bother cooking arroz caldo, also called Lugao. If you have any other suggestions let me know, I haven't found another place that has been good. Some turot-turots (point-point) have only goto, and I don't like the tripe.
This isn't exactly "the special," but it is a very useful phrase that has a similar effect...
When in sushi bars it is both productive and polite to say "Osukina yoni omakase shimasu," which I am told means, "I leave to your excellent judgement what is the finest thing to have next." Sometimes you get what the place is best known for, sometimes whatever is really fresh that they want to show off, but it has always been good. (I often get items that are posted behind the bar in Japanese but not English. At one place I asked why these items aren't offered to non-Japanese speakers, and was told that there was no English name for some of those items and it took too long to explain what they were every time. It was easier to just not offer them.)
I ordered terribly tonight in a Taiwanese noodle shop, and I'm humiliated (not to mention hungry). And, I'm embarrassed to admit, it was because I broke your rules. God, I can't believe I'm revealing this publicly, but the restaurant was called "Beef Noodle House" and I didn't....didn't....didn't. Sigh. I didn't get beef noodles.
I'm usually pretty good, though. Here's what I wrote in the introduction to my NYC restaurant guide book:
The vast majority of diners want to order what they feel like eating, rather than what the kitchen does best. Restaurateurs understand this, and sometimes load their menus with every possible dish customers might crave--though these items may be far from the kitchens' fortes. So even though Tin Do (see review) offers chow mein, don't fall for it. It's a tourist choice, and will taste mediocre or worse. You wouldn't request steak in a diner even if it was on the menu; it's likewise useful to acquire ordering savvy for other, less familiar sorts of restaurants.
The trick is to consider menus as puzzles, with the goal being discovery of the Best Stuff. Waiters may or may not prove helpful (some may not know food, others may steer you toward expensive items or ones they mistakenly think you'll like), and with practice you can learn to detect the gleam in the eye that indicates that a person is earnestly passionate about eating well. If the waiter's unhelpful, look out for more enthusiastic staffers who you might be able to question on the sly. Don't be afraid to point at plates that look promising, or to take a walk toward the kitchen to see whether anything is on open display. Take notes (takeout menus come in handy for this) so that you can remember what you've tried. Most crucial of all, take in stride dishes that fail to please; this is about exploration and short term pleasure often must be set aside for the greater good of menu mastery.
Great great post.
Most lunch places in Seoul specialize in one or two dishes and so you really can't stray.
The difficulty with Korean places in NY (not sure about LA) is that they try to cater to everybody's tastes and they truly have no focus. There are less and less Korean dives that serve one or two kinds of dishes...
Anyway, the code word for Korean is: "yuhgi-eh jalhaenun yoriga mwuh-aeyo?" which means: what dishes does this house do well?