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Ordering in a Chinese Restaurant (split from San Francisco board)

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It seems pathetic that one must seek expert advice on what to order in a second-rate Chinese restaurant.

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  1. That's a common problem even at some of the best Chinese restaurants. If you ordered randomly off the menu at Old Mandarin or China Village, just to name two, you might not have a clue as to the great food you were missing.

    18 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      The single most valuable thing I've learned from Chowhound is how to order in a Chinese restaurant.

      1. re: Ruth Lafler

        A valuable thing indeed. What are some of your tips?

        1. re: Ruth Lafler

          "The single most valuable thing I've learned from Chowhound is how to order in a Chinese restaurant"

          This is a lot different than seeking advice on what to order at Chinese places. Are you saying that reading CH taught you how to order, or attending multiple Chowdowns taught you how to order?

          1. re: Paul H

            Both. Okay, some tips:

            Ask the waiter what seasonal vegetables (not on the menu, although often on the specials board, probably in Chinese) they have. Now that you have his attention, ask what the other specials are. Learn the names of a couple of dishes in Chinese -- that will give you more cred with the waiter.

            Look past the conventional dishes and try to ascertain what kind of food the restaurant actually specializes in. Dishes that are not fried/stir fried are more likely to indicate where the restaurant's strengths lie: clay pots, braised dishes, cold appetizers, steamed whole fish, etc.

            Learn to recognize signature dishes from various regional cuisines -- once you've spotted one or two, you can start digging through the menu for more, or you have a good starting point for quizzing your waiter about what regional dishes the kitchen specializes in. Look at the offal dishes -- even if you don't like offal, they'll give you a better idea of what the kitchen is making for its Chinese customers and what styles of cooking you should focus on (if there aren't any offal dishes on the menu, then either it's a completely Americanized restaurant, or the "real stuff" is in Chinese on the walls).

            As in any restaurant, look at what the people are eating at other tables. Are the Chinese people all eating the same things? Are they eating completely different things than the Anglos? Also, look to see if there's another menu. China Village, for example, used to have two completely different menus, one with mostly Americanized dishes, and one with all the Sichuan specialties. Some Shanghainese restaurants have multiple menus as well.

            I'm sure there are more....

            1. re: Ruth Lafler

              I don't think your tips vary from any type of restaurant/food. You could rightly apply those to a Mexican restaurant. If I'm reading it correctly you're saying sniff out what's good, what potentially is well prepared and use some deductive logic and looking around. There's some difference is prep, but wouldn't you have to know that for any cuisine? .

              Admittedly it's more difficult with a language barrier to get past but I don't speak Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and Italian and I can get by and use the same observational tips. I might not be right 100% of the time but those are the breaks.

              If there's anything that's different at a Chinese restaurant it might be ordering family style applying the tips. Sometimes people can't handle this but it's still a matter of some understanding of the cuisine and setting up your courses, just like how you'd do at a 3- course "continental" place.

              There is one tip that takes a little work or repetition and that's knowing what dish is suppose to look like and smell like (good vs. bad) on quick look. This applies to all cuisines just a different knowledge base, French, Italian, Chinese, Mexican.

              The difference with Chinese food is sometimes there's an exoticism and stereotypes placed on it that throw people off for some reason.

              1. re: ML8000

                Actually I think the thing that distinguishes a typical Chinese restaurant from a typical non-Chinese restaurant is the greater variety of dishes. In this regard I think Ruth's rules are more useful, perrhaps much more so in cutting through the alternatives at a Chinese restaurant than somewhere else.

                1. re: Chandavkl

                  The understanding of prep and specialties (clay pot, fried, etc.) makes sense to cut through mass but I apply the other tips to every place I go.

                  The variation in method and volume is different but why wouldn't understanding any cuisines methods not help you?

                  My attitude is 60% of anything in a typical Chinese restaurant can't be good. The places where 90% is good to excellent gets you Koi Palace prices.

                  1. re: Chandavkl

                    The other thing is that Chinese cuisines are very diverse, and even a for Chinese person from one region, the food from another region may actually be relatively unfamiliar. It's a bit like how Spanish people from Madrid might view French food from Lyon.

                2. re: Ruth Lafler

                  I think these are great, RL. Thx.

            2. re: Robert Lauriston

              Wouldn't that be true in a lot of restaurants? What and how to order in Japanese, Korean, Afghan, Indian, etc. restaurants.

              1. re: PeterL

                Not nearly so much, in my experience.

                I have yet to encounter an Indian or Afghan menu that was not in English.

                Korean and Japanese menus usually translate everything or, less often, nothing, or there simply is no menu. The latter cases can be a challenge but you're not being misled or pandered to.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  Just wondering, have you ever been misled or pandered to in another type or non-Chinese restaurant?

                  1. re: ML8000

                    I've occasionally had waiters in various kinds of restaurants tell me "you won't like that."

                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      There is simply no doubt that many, many Chinese restaurants in America have treated non-Chinese folk as if none of us are capable of enjoying "the real stuff". Now, I have a certain amount of sympathy for that stance, as many of us non-Chinese folk react very poorly when presented with anything more interesting than egg foo young.

                      I read a story about a large group of local college kids touring China recently, and they behaved so poorly at some of the best Chinese restaurants that I was horrified. Of course their behavior was spun as humor in the article, but there's nothing funny about some coddled suburban kid literally screeching loudly when presented with a beautiful bowl of soup in one of the best restaurants in Beijing. It's unbecoming of a person who is serving as a cultural ambassador, but one can easily understand how this sort of thing could cause Chinese folk to be highly suspicious of American attitudes toward their food.

                      But I've heard and read numerous stories over the years that strain one's patience. If someone asks for "the real deal" in a Chinese restaurant and is rebuffed, that's just silly, but it seems all too common in this country. Luckily, we have two places in Atlanta that serve the reall stuff to non-Chinese happily, and who seem to be really excited to do so, so maybe the tide is turning.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        When they say that, do you forge ahead anyway or heed them? I tend to do the former...

                  2. re: PeterL

                    No. These cuisines are all happy to serve their own authentic food, and even insist upon on it. The only other cuisine that shames their own culture by creating horrible "Americanized" versions is probably Mexican food.

                    1. re: fennecB612

                      Two things:

                      First, you write as if you are unaware of the enormous difference between Japanese restaurants in Japan and those in the US. Substitute many other cusines in that sentence.

                      Second, your idea that they are 'shaming their culture' is interesting, but perhaps naive. The Chinese make food that adapts to wherever they are, so a Chinese-Korean restaurant featuring jja jiang mian is very different from Chinese-French, Chinese-Peruvian, and Chinese-American. The national dish of Peru, lomo saltado, is a chaufa dish with soy sauce as its 'secret' ingredient. That adaptation is part of their culture, too.

                      1. re: Steve

                        There is a Japanese place here in southwest Ohio that serves superb sushi and also does thew teppanyaki grill thing as well. The owner is Japanese and he takes great pride in his cuisine. His clientele is mainly made up of Japanese engineers who are working at the local Japanese auto plants etc. so he is very aware of what he serves and how he serves it. Having said that, he absolutely refuses to do sukiyaki and many of those kind of dishes. I thought it was because he couldn't make a profit on it, he said that was partly the reson, he said the main reason was because he couldn't do a perfect job of it and the Japanese clientele would walk if he did a mediocre job.

                        The reason I am telling this story is to emphasize the huge difference in the dishes within Japanese cuisine alone. So please don't assume anything unless you are very aware of the philosophy of that particular restaurant.

                2. I think Ruth's guides are pretty much spot on, but a few added points.

                  You really need to consider where you are and the kind of Chinese restaurants you are going to. There are the banquet type places where they have much more of the formal banquet-y style foods. Like most high end restaurants they take a lot of pride in the presentation and the service. If you go to the Chinese comfort food places the dish will look great to a Chinese person but the average inexperienced anglo will think nothing of the dish, figuring that it is just another nondescript dish. I am a big fan of the comfort food places and I know I have taken my anglo friends who are shocked at how good the food is, despite the plainness of the presentation.

                  Even though the restaurant may boast of their cuisine of focus: cantonese, szechuan etc. It is best to discreetly ask the server about where the cook comes from. As much as it pains me to say this, because I am Fukienese, a Fukienese cook will most like be only capable of making anglo-ized Chinese food, there are exceptions of course. By and large they learned to cook for the anglo masses. Fortunately a lot of them work at buffet places so that is also a decent general rule. Now, there are tremendous buffet places all around so not all of them are terrible, but that is pretty obvious when you walk in and check out the buffet. And because many of them cut their teeth in buffet places, they don't usually place a premium on quality ingriedients, something to think about.

                  Ruth's rule on offal is good. It shows you are willing to try things. Asking about the freshness of Chinese vegetables and fish is critical. We like out seafood alive and jumping when they get thrown into the pot. This is especially true in cantonese places: ask if the flounder is fresh. On of their specialty is the steamed flounder with scallions and ginger.

                  If the city where you are at have a somewhat sizable Chinese population AND casinos, the food is bound to be good. Chinese cooks don't have many hobbies, the main one is gambling. So, no casinos, no Chinese cooks in the area.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Phaedrus

                    'If the city where you are at have a somewhat sizable Chinese population AND casinos, the food is bound to be good. Chinese cooks don't have many hobbies, the main one is gambling. So, no casinos, no Chinese cooks in the area."

                    Phaedrus- interesting comment b/c I just found an authentic spot down the block from the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Fl (on the reservation of course)

                  2. The most general thing newbies might need advice on is sorting out which dishes are on the menu only to please non-Chinese customers who are unfamiliar with the restaurant's regional specialties.

                    Several times I've learned from Chowhound posts that certain places have specialties that are not on the English menu, or even a whole separate menu that they don't show to non-Chinese customers unless they ask for it.

                    I've also written such posts to share what I've learned, e.g. that the three untranslated dishes on the menu at Darda, a Muslim Chinese restaurant in Milpitas, are Xinjiang, and one of them is the best cumin lamb I've ever had.

                    1. In a way, yes, the same "strategies" apply in all restaurants, but for most other cuisines people just think of it as "getting to know the restaurant" after a few visits, whereas for Chinese food they think that there might be secret tips that allow them to identify the very best dishes within the first 5 minutes.

                      Read the menu, look at what other people are eating, talk to your waiter: like in any other restaurant. As for the "secret" Chinese menu, don't worry too much: it *mostly* overlaps with the English menu. If something is not translated, it's not some conspiracy to prevent non-Chinese people from ordering it, it's probably just an oversight. Or maybe it's a special (ask the waiter: "Are there any specials?") or it's something that, when translated, would make everyone lose their appetite just reading the English menu (tell your waiter, with gestures as appropriate: "We enjoy eating things like lungs, eyeballs, and reproductive organs, … do you have anything like that?").

                      Seriously, if the restaurant is really good at something, they will tell you. Just ask! And to make a gross overgeneralization, you will not get a lot of attitude from the waiter. You don't have to establish credibility with him, and he won't be offended if you ask if the cooks are Fukienese. On the other hand, he is not going to be helpful with vague requests like "So what's good?" and he does not have the time to translate everything on the walls for you. And he will not be back to find out "Is everything ok here?"

                      13 Replies
                      1. re: DeppityDawg

                        Hey, I never said my tips were rocket science -- someone asked so I posted them. And you're right, in that there is an overlap, but the stuff that doesn't overlap is usually the most interesting.

                        But I have to disagree with you: many, many restaurants -- not just, but most frequently, Chinese -- will steer "gweilos" away from authentic dishes with the idea that "white people won't eat that" even if you ask for it. I've run into quite a few with separate menus, and they'll automatically hand a white person the American-Chinese menu unless you know to ask for the other one. And it's not an "oversight" that some stuff isn't translated, as you pointed out they deliberately don't translate the specials because their experience is that most of their white customers aren't interested, and some of the will be turned off/replused by some of the more "exotic" fare.

                        Basically, my experience is that many Chinese restaurants are actually two restaurants: one for clueless white people and one for Chinese people and other people who bother to look past the facade that's presented to them. The trick is to identify when it's the case that there is a second "real" Chinese restaurant co-existing with the American-Chinese restaurant. In some setting it's obvious that this might be the case, but in some it's not. To use China Village as an example again, it's a nondescript restaurant on a suburban commercial strip that has many, many Chinese restaurants on it. For several years, before they redid the menu, you could go there and think it was just like the other generic Chinese restaurants on that strip and never know that if you ask for the other menu it's one of the best Sichuan restaurants in the Bay Area.

                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                          Very true about the steering away from authentic dishes. I had dinner at a Sichuan restaurant a couple of weeks ago. Most people there were Chinese eating very spicy looking dishes. I ordered hot pot (off menu) and was given a Chinese menu which I had no clue how to translate. They set it up so that it's difficult for non-Chinese to order it. Then three white people sat in front of me. The waiter actually did the ordering for them telling that he would recommend these dishes. Guess what they got? Sesame chicken, lo mein and another dish I don't remember at the time. And the three people were very satisfied with their meals.

                          1. re: Ruth Lafler

                            There are differences in menu but as mentioned, it's usually not a huge deal. The stuff not on the menu really isn't about "real" and secret restaurants within restaurants. That's a bit exotic frankly.

                            The more realistic explaination is that most mom and pop Chinese restaurants are very poorly run in PR, menus and even offering too large of a menu. Many items, cumin lamb or whatever come in as requests from a ex-pat and slowly gets word of mouth but it never makes it to the menu because:

                            1) menus cost money
                            2) that's a hassle
                            3) no one thinks of putting it on the menu
                            3) no one thinks anyone wants to eat it except for a few

                            You mentioning the menu change at China Village and that's a great example of how things work. Even after a change of ownership menu sometimes don't change even if the chef can't really cook the dish. There could be three ownership changes and the menu stays the same, literally the same.

                            Honestly why would any place keep 150 items on a menu if they only do 30 okay? Because they believe they're missing out on potential business and not staying competitive, even if this lack of ability drives people away...and yet it's no more illogical then a 1,000 western customs and thought processes...like why do fast food places serve salad? Times that by 25 and you get the idea.

                            1. re: Ruth Lafler

                              It seems to me there's always stuff off menu that ethnic places serve. If you go with someone ethnic, sometimes you find out. I've seen it at Greek places and Afghani places. I can't imagine it's super common but not that rare either.

                            2. re: DeppityDawg

                              "As for the 'secret' Chinese menu, don't worry too much: it *mostly* overlaps with the English menu."

                              My experience matches Ruth's. I've been to places where *none* of the dishes the Chinese people around me were eating appeared on the English menu.

                              Another classic example is Old Mandarin Islamic in SF. Chinese people drive there from all over the Bay Area to get Peking-style hot pot. Even though that was the dish on every table, for years it was the one part of the menu that was not translated. About two years ago they started taping an English translation into the front of the menus.

                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                CH moved the thread to General CH Topics. So for those who are in the hinterlands, i.e. not SF and not NYC, the Chinese menu is the Holy Grail mainly because the "round eyes" in middle America won't abide by things that aren't familiar. So Robert and Ruth, what you say is true in SF, NYC, or Chicago, its not true in St. Louis, Indianapolis or Louisville.

                                1. re: Phaedrus

                                  I think my point is that it might be. Maybe not in 99 out of 100 Chinese restaurants, but if you know what clues to look for, sometimes that secret "second" Chinese restaurant is hiding right there in plain sight, I bet even in St. Louis or Indianapolis.

                                  I live in the Bay Area, but I live in a suburb that I often joke has now moved into the '90s (a big improvement over five years ago when it was still mired in the '70s). There are a couple of dozen Chinese restaurants in town, the vast majority of which could be found in Anytown USA. There's one that's openly catering to a Chinese clientele, but there are two or three others where if you dig through the Chinese-American menu you can find the "real" dishes.

                                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                    My bad.

                                  2. re: Phaedrus

                                    I think you'll encounter the situations we describe anywhere you find Chinese restaurants with a significant number of Chinese customers.

                                  3. re: Robert Lauriston

                                    I don't think this can be interpreted as deliberately steering non-Chinese people away from the dish and setting it up for it to be difficult to order. Like I said, an oversight: it's translated now, isn't it?

                                    Of course if you let the waiter choose your dishes without giving him any indication of what you like, as in Miss Needle's story, you will end up with sweet and sour and fried rice (or maybe a selection of their highest-margin, about-to-go rotten ingredients). If you point to the next table and say you want the same thing they're eating, that's what they'll bring you. If you're afraid that they will somehow Americanize it for you, tell them not to. They might still do it, of course (not wanting to see another table of people get sick and complain), but at this point, you've done everything you can to get yourself an authentic meal, short of learning Chinese and getting plastic surgery.

                                    1. re: DeppityDawg

                                      Having a completely separate menu, with different dishes, is not an "oversight" -- both menus had English translations, but the one with the specialities was not offered to Anglo customers unless they knew to ask. It was only after they became well-known through the media for Sichuan specialties (in large by chowhounds, who posted about it and turned the reviewers from the local weeklies on to it) that they combined the menus.

                                      And really, you just made my point by saying that if "you (presumably an Anglo) let the waiter choose dishes without giving him any indication of what you like...you will end up with sweet and sour and fried rice." Why is that? Aren't you just agreeing with me that Chinese restaurants will serve Anglos American-Chinese dishes unless they take a proactive approach? Isn't that the opposite of what you claimed above when you said "if the restaurant is really good at something, they will tell you"?

                                      Anyway, I don't understand why you're arguing with me, since you seem to be saying the same thing I said: that the "trick" to ordering a good meal in a Chinese restaurant is to communicate with the waiters AND to have some kind of idea of what to ask for and how to convey to the waiter that you really want the "real stuff."

                                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                        I claimed "… they will tell you. *Just ask!*" Now that it appears three times on this page, maybe we can leave it at that.

                                        Sorry for appearing to argue with you. I do indeed agree with your general points, and I don't really feel inclined anymore to continue discussing the more specific ones. The latest message by ML8000 says what I would have liked to say, but better.

                                      2. re: DeppityDawg

                                        I think Old Mandarin added the translation sheet because so many non-Chinese customers had heard about the hot pot, for example from thsi 2001 post:

                                        http://www.chowhound.com/topics/16662...

                                  4. I'm assuming that you don't speak/read any dialect of Chinese.

                                    The first thing you should do is determining where the cook is from. Different regions of China have vastly different styles of food. You can't always tell by the name of the restaurants. For example, I know of a few Cantonese restaurants have been known to masquerade as Sichuan restaurants in my local area. Here's a short guide to certain types of Chinese restaurants (it's heavily skewed toward Cantonese and variations thereof):

                                    http://www.geocities.com/raytamsgv/ch...

                                    Next, you should take a look around at the different tables and look at what others are eating. If you see something interesting, make a note of it so you can point it out to the wait staff. It's not rude--it's a second-rate restaurant, after all! :-

                                    )

                                    Don't be afraid to try different things. Every restaurant has its good and bad dishes. I've eaten the same dish at many different restaurants, and I can tell you that the quality varies tremendously.

                                    Don't worry about any "secret menu." Many of the items in a Chinese restaurant aren't even written in Chinese. Chinese restaurant cooking often use a combination of ingredients, seasonings, and cooking techniques. Many of these are interchangeable (but some would be pretty hideous). For example, if you see something like "Shrimp with Black Bean Sauce" on the menu, you can be certain that they'll cook just about anything with Black Bean Sauce, including crab, lobster, oysters, clam, beef, chicken, chow fun, chow mein, etc. They are essentially variations on one method of cooking.

                                    Finally, if you want "authentic" Chinese food, tell the wait staff in advance that you want real Chinese food--the type that Chinese people would eat.

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: raytamsgv

                                      "Finally, if you want "authentic" Chinese food, tell the wait staff in advance that you want real Chinese food--the type that Chinese people would eat."

                                      You're assuming that the wait person speaks/understands any dialect of English.

                                      1. re: Sarah

                                        That's true, but at least it worth a try. :-)

                                    2. How to order at a Chinese restaurant?

                                      Bring someone that speaks Chinese, preferrably a Chinese person that speaks Chinese.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: ipsedixit

                                        Um, I am always available for a consulting meal...

                                        :)

                                      2. It's not true that one must seek expert advice on what to order, you could always learn about the various cuisines by trying different types of dishes yourself. It's a more satisfying process, and you don't need to take short cuts.

                                        31 Replies
                                        1. re: limster

                                          As discussed in detail above, for a newbie who doesn't read or speak Chinese, there are some big problems with that approach at some Chinese restaurants.

                                          Getting expert advice doesn't necessarily mean someone telling you want to order. For example, I can tell you that at Old Mandarin Islamic the house specialty that all the Chinese customers order is Peking hot pot; that if the English translation of the hot pot choices is missing from your menu, you should ask for a copy; that the "warm pot" is a very different dish; that the Muslim Chinese specialties are grouped together at the beginning, numbered 1 through 73; and that the remainder of the menu are generic Chinese dishes offered only to please timid non-Chinese customers.

                                          In theory, a newbie could figure all that out by ordering at random. However, if they ordered several dishes numbered 74 and higher and found them all bland and boring, they might not return to try the good stuff.

                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                            Well, everyone starts a a newbie at some point. The issue is how a newbie becomes experienced enough to be able to order at a restaurant.

                                            It isn't that hard to learn about the different cuisines, that information is widely available -- one could learn about applied math by reading a textbook without a professor, so why not for food? Armed with a rough idea of what the different specialties of the different cuisines, it's not that hard to ask the waitstaff what region the food is from, and just order from there. In this example, the name of Old Mandarin Islamic is already a good hint about what to order.

                                            Or even if one has no knowledge beforehand, it common chowhound practice to look at what others are eating and order by pointing. when I was at Old Mandarin Islamic years ago, virtually every table had hot pot.

                                            One important point for chowhounds, newbies or not, is to remember that sampling a few dishes isn't going to be an accurate assessment of whether the restaurant is good or not. It can take some effort. Some people don't want to do that, they prefer safe instant gratification, rather than treasure hunting -- it's more efficient. Nothing wrong with that, but many chowhounds I know prefer to "spurn established opinion to sniff out their own secret deliciousness."

                                            It depends on how one wants to approach it. I'm merely pointing that expert advice isn't the only route. One could learn the necessary background and get some practical experience. And as for not being able to speak or read Chinese, I have heard of chowhounds who are taking Chinese lessons so that they can decipher a Chinese menu.

                                            1. re: limster

                                              On most of my visits to Old Mandarin, there was no one there who spoke enough English to answer even simple questions.

                                              The Check, Please! Bay Area episode that covered Old Mandarin had a good example of what can go wrong when the servers don't speak much English and the owners pad the menu with bad generic dishes:

                                              http://blogs.kqed.org/food/2006/03/23...

                                              Theit China Village episode also had one guy who based his negative judgment largely on their lousy chicken chow fun.

                                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                My experiences at Old Mandarin islamic have been different; I was brought there by friends who spoke no Chinese and they ordered all the right dishes, not because they were on or off the menu, but because they were all textbook dishes from Beijing and Xinjiang.

                                                On other occasions and at other restaurants, some of my friends took the trouble to get the approximate sounds for the relevant dishes, they didn't get everything right, but they definitely scored several hits.

                                                It's very difficult to make an overall assessment of a place based on one or two dishes and the example of China Village's chow fun supports that point. If the guy had read up beforehand about the major Chinese cuisines, it would probably be a different result.

                                                1. re: limster

                                                  Reading up on regional Chinese cusines is one way of getting expert advice.

                                                  China Village makes things more difficult by not identifying itself as Sichuan and by padding the menu with Cantonese dishes it doesn't do particularly well and with American-Chinese standards that aren't even meant to be good.

                                                  They used to make things even more difficult by putting the Sicuan dishes on a separate menu they wouldn't give to non-Chinese customers unless they specifically requested it.

                                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                    Knowledge of regional chinese cuisine is so widely available that I wouldn't call it expert advice. It's not esoteric knowledge that can be obtained from very specialized sources, and the bar for acquiring that knowledge is much lower than as genetics or calculus.

                                                    Eating out with chowhounds, it's pretty standard to ask for the Chinese menu if one doesn't get one. And then going over the menu with the waitstaff for translations/recommendations. And that menu isn't even a necessity -- looking at what other people eat that looks good and ordering by pointing is another widely used strategy.

                                                    1. re: limster

                                                      The old Chinese-for-dummies menu at China Village was in both English and Chinese. As Ruth noted above, there was no clue for anyone who got that menu to imagine that the place was any different than the other generic Chinese places on Solano.

                                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                        Not the Chinese for dummies menu, the CHINESE menu. And then get them to translate. I don't need a translator for Chinese, but I've had stuff translated at Thai restaurants since I don't read Thai. Or as Ruth noted above, look at what the other tables are getting; superficially it might look generic, but if the food looks different, it's a good clue.

                                                        1. re: limster

                                                          As Ruth discussed above, that's exactly the sort of advice people can learn from experts. You can figure it out on your own, too, but it takes longer.

                                                          China Village's decoy menu had both Chinese and English, so it was not obvious there were two menus.

                                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                            re: looking at what other people eat -- it seemed pretty intuitive to me, since that's what I usually do, and no one ever told me to do that. Usually, people tell me to stop staring. Most chowhounds have a curious side to them, especially about food, so that should come pretty naturally, rather than something to be learned or figured out.

                                                            re: menus -- that's right, I'm saying to ask for the Chinese-only menu, not the one with both languages.

                                                            1. re: limster

                                                              China Village didn't have a Chinese-only menu.

                                                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                Then it's even easier to tackle China Village if everything is already translated. If one had a list of all the dishes the restaurant served, it would be possible to pick out which dishes were from which region. The basic point is that chowhounds often ask for the menu with the regional specialities at a Chinese restaurant.

                                                                1. re: limster

                                                                  China Village had two menus, both translated. There was no reason for a newbie who got only one to guess that there was another.

                                                                  If you'd heard the place was Sichuan and knew enough to know that there weren't any Sichuan dishes on the menu, then you'd guess, but that's expertise.

                                                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                    Why not? Most Chinese places have a second menu with regional dishes; its something that most chowhounds take for granted, it's almost an automatic response to ask for that menu or regional specialities. That's pretty basic.

                                                                    Getting expert advice is having an expert tell you to do something that is based on non-obvious knowledge e.g. "order dish X, that's a speciality of region Y." My point is that one can dispense with that expert advice by learning that non-obvious knowledge yourself, which does not involve getting expert advice. In this case, knowledge about the different regional Chinese cuisines is easily obtained.

                                                                    But back to the original point, which is that getting expert advice on what to order is not the only way to get good food in a Chinese restaurant. There are many general, common sense things that one could do without asking an expert, including learning about the various cuisines in question or ordering what looks good at other tables. Clearly, things will vary from restaurant to restaurant, but the redundancy of multiple approaches makes it more than likely to work.

                                                                    1. re: limster

                                                                      A diner who suspects that every Chinese restaurant has two or more menus has already developed a significant level of expertise. Ruth's posts at the top of this topic detail how she learned that sort of thing from Chowhound.

                                                                      Average Americans whose concept of Chinese food is egg foo yung, sweet and sour pork, and broccoli beef do not expect restaurants to deliberately hide their best dishes by creating a second menu.

                                                                      If they did, there would be no reason for the restaurants to have those menus. Indeed, when Chinese restaurants find that most of their non-Chinese customers order the "real" dishes, they often bail on that strategy, as did China Village and, to a lesser extent, Old Mandarin.

                                                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                        "Average Americans whose concept of Chinese food is egg foo yung, sweet and sour pork, and broccoli beef do not expect restaurants to deliberately hide their best dishes by creating a second menu."

                                                                        They aren't hiding their best dishes from anyone. They are keeping those dishes separate from the main menu because of the potential reaction from the clientèle of whom you speak of, those who only know egg foo young etc. Put a little historical perspective into it, go back 30 years and understand that listing sliced braised pig's ear and marinated beef tendons would destroy your business amongst the majority of your American customers.

                                                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                          I don't consider knowledge of a second menu as as a significant level of expertise. Moreover, to become aware of that, it isn't absolutely necessary for someone else to tell you. I've had friends mention "why did that table get 2 menus and we got only 1" Plus, if you looked at what other tables are eating, sometimes you'll find that what they are having isn't on the menu. That implies that there are off the menu items or other menus -- it's simple logic.

                                                                          And even asking for the second menu is not a necessity to ordering well in a Chinese restaurant, as one could use the alternative simple methods that I and others have listed.

                                                                          The OP's post is about people who want real regional chinese foods, not about people whose concept of Chinese food is egg foo young.

                                                                          There are many places to learn many different things. Just because certain ways of learning certain things are much more common or obvious doesn't imply that it's absolutely necessary to learn it that way.

                                                                          1. re: limster

                                                                            Actually, the moderators splilt this topic off from a San Francisco Bay Area board topic about House of Nanking, a restaurant that serves neither traditional regional dishes nor traditional Chinese-American dishes. OldTimer was replying to my statement that if you order the right dishes you can eat well there:

                                                                            http://www.chowhound.com/topics/50822...

                                                                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                              Ah, I was confused by the mentions of Old Mandarin Islamic and China Village.

                                                                              That simplifies it even more, making expert advice less necessary. IIRC, essentially all of HoN's dishes are available off their regular menu, in which case ordering randomly or looking at what other people are eating would work for HoN.

                                                                              1. re: limster

                                                                                Unfortunately that's not the case. It's so easy to get a bad meal at House of Nanking that, as you can see in that topic, many people come away with the false impression that there's no delicious food to be had there.

                                                                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                                  It depends how hard a person is willing be work as a chowhound. No one is insisting that getting a good meal is easy, but that doesn't mean it's impossible. As you can see, many people come away with the correct impression that there is delicious food to be had at HoN as well. The first person that figured out HoN was a good place didn't have an expert on HoN telling him or her what to eat there.

                                                                                  There's no reason why one couldn't go through the menu in-depth sampling dishes with diverse ingredients and cooking techniques. We all know that drawing a conclusion based on a small sample isn't a rigorous conclusion. It all depends on the person's motivation, not access to expertise.

                                                                                  From the manifesto: "Chowhounds blaze trails. They comb through neighborhoods for culinary treasure." If people don't want to comb, but just want safe, reliable and easy ways to score something delicious, that's not part of the chowhound ethos.

                                                                                  1. re: limster

                                                                                    By that reasoning, why post to or read Chowhound?

                                                                                    There's a continuum between clueless newbie and seasoned chowhound. There's more than one way to make progress from one to the other.

                                                                                    As regards House of Nanking, the first couple of months it was open all the food was fabulous. When it got popular, the chef pandered to the taste of the poor young student types who somehow latched on to it. Most of its customers eat and enjoy dishes that more experienced Chinese food lovers would not like.

                                                                                    It's nevertheless possible for more sophisticated diners to eat well there, but eating through the whole menu to find the gems would be a grim task, and you might never want to see a sweet potato again.

                                                                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                                      "By that reasoning, why post to or read Chowhound?"

                                                                                      Some reasons (not in any order of priority, nor comprehensive):

                                                                                      To share tips about where to explore and to narrow down stuff to try. It's not unusual for chowhounds to order a dish that they know has a good chance of being good and another that is an unknown.

                                                                                      To cooperate -- if you think that going through a whole menu is daunting, cooperate by trying stuff that other people haven't posted about. In fact, this type of approach would work well for a place like HoN.

                                                                                      To find out what's known, so that one can move on to the unknowns.

                                                                                      To have a source to calibrate when trying new stuff.

                                                                                      Exploration is an essential component of chowhounding. Otherwise one could just follow a great guide, online or off and eat well. It's possible that some people use chowhound only in this way, and there's nothing wrong with that, but the site was built with a different vision.

                                                                                      "There's a continuum between clueless newbie and seasoned chowhound. There's more than one way to make progress from one to the other."

                                                                                      Yes - there is a continuum. Some of it might be level of knowledge, but what Jim was trying to say in the FAQ and Manifesto is that being a chowhound goes beyond the love of food. (Hence his comparison between foodies and chowhounds.) A lot of that continuum also lies in the willingness/eagerness to think for oneself, to find explore and find new deliciousness. Finding new good food can take effort, and there's nothing wrong with just setlling for known good food as it's a lot easier. But chowhounds are about "blazing trails."

                                                                                      See the FAQ and manifesto for details:
                                                                                      http://www.chow.com/faq
                                                                                      http://www.chowhound.com/manifesto

                                                                                      e.g. "Chowhounds spurn established opinion to sniff out their own secret deliciousness."

                                                                                      Everyone gets the part about being obsessive about food and loving food. But fewer people pay attention to the part about sniffing out "secret deliciousness."

                                                                                      And yes, there are multiple ways to make progress, which is the point that I've been trying to make. One could follow the guidance of "experts" or one could pick up stuff consciously or unconsciously along the way. Often it's a combination, just because it's hard to avoid either method.

                                                                                      1. re: limster

                                                                                        "To share tips about where to explore and to narrow down stuff to try."

                                                                                        Since it was precisely my offering those sort of tips about how to eat well at House of Nanking that sparked the opening post in this split-off topic, you seem to be arguing both sides of the issue.

                                                                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                                          When I say share tips about where to explore and to narrow stuff down to try, I was referring to tips reveal what was not known and therefore made for good exploration, not tips that tell people to eat specific known dishes.

                                                                                          Some examples:
                                                                                          What to explore - "I came across a thai place on that street that no one ever mentioned, I think it's good place to try out"

                                                                                          Narrow stuff down - "I had a great stir fried chicken there, would be worthwhile to try the other stir-fried dishes."

                                                              2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                If you looked carefully, there's a back door that stores the secret second menus and leads to an opium den. Be careful.

                                                  2. re: limster

                                                    Vetting an average Chinese restaurant to find the prize can take time and you can get discouraging but it can be done. It helps if the place is convenient and you get a few big categories on or off the list right away, like no fried food or noodle there, etc.

                                                    OTOH, an insider can be infinitely helpful and fun if you trust the quality of information. Just because someone is Greek Spanish, Japanese, etc. doesn't mean they're a foodie or engaged.

                                                    In the Bay Area talking about food is like talking about the subway in NYC or the freeways in SoCal, everyone has an opinion...and all valid from their POV but not necessarily a good tip. (Witnessing an office restaurant selection is always entertaining and office food politics are so much fun.)

                                                    For "insiders", the people I like are engaged (foodies) that understand the local scene with a specific eye to their home/ family cuisine. They understand expectations/quality in context, know what places are good, what's outstanding/just like home and the reality of the situation/place…and yet when their face lights up after eating something, it’s very cool. These are the people you want to talk to and of course they're not just ex-pats but 1st, 2nd, 3rd gen hyphened-Americans.

                                                    When these people say they don't think you'll like that, you then have a conversation about it, why, why not and probably a cross-cultural discussion and comparo about other things in the same category (root beer being an American biggie)...and overall it's pretty cool. These people usually become friends.

                                                    On the flip side, there are people who just aren't into food or feel there's nothing like at home so why bother and their recommendations are going to be haphazard.

                                                    Any way, the vetting process can be fun (regardless of the type of restaurant) and sort of is a project really…but going with an engaged "insider" that knows their stuff can be just as fun, just depends on the insider.

                                                    1. re: ML8000

                                                      re: vetting a restaurant -- one could randomly select dishes to try or make intelligent guesses based on what one thinks the regional specialization is. It's not always hard to guess the cuisine by looking at the dishes that other people are ordering and going over the menu. Typically, for Chinese places in the US, the set of Americanized dishes are pretty standard, along with the Cantonese dishes used to pad the menu. Mentally subtract that and see what's left.

                                                      And you're absolutely right in that the vetting process or going with an insider are both fun. I just wanted point out that there is more than one way to approach a restaurant. One way is to follow expert/insider advice. The other is to become an expert/insider yourself; to do that, one can be self-taught, given the amount of widely available information. I'm not saying it's easy because it's not, but it's a more permanent and flexible solution than waiting for an "expert" to eat at a restaurant before you do.

                                                      From time to time, I go to Chinese places serving food from various regions with other chowhounds, and I often go with their suggestions and instincts, even though I'm more fluent in Chinese than they are. They're insiders, even though they're not of the relevant ethnic origin.

                                                      1. re: limster

                                                        About experts or insiders not of that ethnic group...I mildly disagree. My point isn't that they don't know or can't know -- because they can. More, it’s about having insight others can't provide and the conversation around food after that point. It’s not just Chinese restaurants but any ethnic place, although some are more accessible.

                                                        I work in a small office, fairly international...from Japan, France, Greece, the UK and a few American borns of different ethnicities...I'm the only one actually from California. I find some of their feedback on food isn't there due to lack of interest...however the conversation about food from those interested in invaluable. It's not about being right, because others can point you to anything, it’s more about depth.

                                                        There's stuff that's talked about that a non-ethnic "experts" or insiders could never know. It's not just technical knowledge but cultural insight and personal info that flushes things out in ways book knowledge can not. It’s knowing “the story”. This insight is way more powerful, for me anyway. You gain non-filtered concepts and understanding and if you pick that up…next time when you’re not with them, you’re better off.

                                                        For the majority of the world’s cuisines (or choosing from an ethnic menu) any expert or reasonably informed person will help but given a choice, I’ll go with someone who grew up with it...if they can converse about it. I think the difference is education by showing/picking/telling and education by interaction, rote vs. concept, etc.

                                                        1. re: ML8000

                                                          We'll have to agree to disagree re: non-ethnic experts/insiders, because our experiences with such people have been different.

                                                          I do want to add that on occasion, a non-expert with a critical palate/mind can provide a useful and refreshing perspective or insight that "insiders" can't. The way we pair French wines with Chinese food or tea with chocolates are some examples.

                                                    2. re: limster

                                                      Limster, you know I love you, but you're being obtuse. Isn't reading a book "expert advice"? How is reading a book any different from reading chowhound? It can be more satisfying to explore the cuisine on your own, but if, as Robert pointed out, you start picking things randomly and they aren't good, you're not going to go back and try more.

                                                      You need to have some basic information on where to start, and most Chinese restaurants aren't very forthcoming with that information. For example, a lot Chinese restaurants these days proclaim that they serve "Mandarin, Sichuan and Hunan" cuisine. That's sort of like a restaurant proclaiming that it serves "Continental, Italian and Spanish" cuisine. You get handed a mish-mosh menu that has very few clues as to what the restaurant really specializes in (which may be none of the above). American and European restaurants don't have multiple menus, so unless people know to ask, they won't. You don't ask if there's a secret menu in French when you walk into your local bistro, do you? Even if you do, do you really consider yourself "typical" in terms of your level of expertise?

                                                      I don't think you're capable of putting yourself in the shoes of a non-Asian who is a newbie at "real" Chinese food. What's obvious to you based on your experiences since birth is not obvious to people who haven't grown up with the same experiences.

                                                2. This is book that I posted about on another thread. It's called the The Chinses Food Finder Los Angeles & San Gabriel Valley

                                                  http://www.amazon.com/Chinese-Food-Fi...

                                                  There's one for San Francisco
                                                  http://www.amazon.com/Chinese-Food-Fi...

                                                  & one for NYC.
                                                  http://www.amazon.com/Chinese-Food-Fi...

                                                  There is also one coming out that's book on Chinse regional cusine. across the usa

                                                  http://www.amazon.com/Chinese-Food-Fi...

                                                  All of them are region by region, cusines by cusine down to specfic dishes. The city edtions list restaurant.I have found the LA/San Gabriel Valley edition to be informative and helpful.

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: SeaCook

                                                    The SF one hasn't been updated since 2004, lots of changes since then. Some topics discussing his books:

                                                    http://www.chow.com/search?search%5Bq...

                                                  2. Notwithstanding that Chu's book hasn't been updated since 2004 it is a good intro to Chinese regional cusine. The new book coming out in Oct 2008 looks like it will have how to choose a good rregional Chinese restaurant no matter where in the country one is. Keeping up with restaurant openings, closings and name changes is maddening no matter what the cusine is.

                                                    As far as some critics about how Chu dissing some regional cusines... well (to me) that read like SF people dissing LA food. ;-) As far as not being academic. Why should it be? This is for eaters not readers!

                                                    2 Replies
                                                    1. re: SeaCook

                                                      Well, it depends on how the conclusion was drawn...in some cases, it wasn't based on comprehensive information. For example, in the original LA guide, Chu says that pu-erh tea is bad. There are many varieties of pu-erh, from bricks and cakes to loose leaves that have different flavours, moreover pu-erh's flavour can change with age (some can age for over a century). Given that he hasn't tasted the tea in all it's forms, I think it would have been more accurate to say that a specific variety was not to his taste, rather than indicting the entire type of tea.

                                                      1. re: limster

                                                        And there is the matter of personal preferences. I prefer pouchang tea over other green teas for sitting and drinking. I prefer jasmine with my meals and I prefer chrysanthemum tea for dim sum.

                                                    2. What a weird thread this is.

                                                      I loved Ruth Lafler's post about what she has learned form Chowhound.

                                                      When I go traveling, I want Chowhound advice. Not because I'm afraid to explore. I tend to explore in my own backyard, where it hasn't cost me so much time or money to get there. Even then, when I travel I don't necessarily follow the advice 100 percent, but at least eighty percent. That way, I can still explore the menu a bit on my own.

                                                      My last trip to SoCal is a good example. I followed advice when I could. But I found myself in Carpenteria (10 miles south of Santa Barbara) overhearing a motel staffer ordering tacos over the phone, in Spanish. I don't speak Spanish, but I certainly know "taco de lengua" when I hear it. So I inquired, and she told me about this place, cautioning me it's just a hole-in-the-wall. It was the taqueria of my dreams. As far as I can tell, never mentioned on Chowhound before.

                                                      Also, when I go with a group to a Chinese restaurant, we always order some "Chowhound favorites" plus some exploratory choices. Best of both worlds.

                                                      Really, I don't see what the fuss is all about.

                                                      6 Replies
                                                      1. re: Steve

                                                        Will you share with us about the Carpenteria taqueria? Maybe on the California board?

                                                        1. re: Stephanie Wong

                                                          Below is the link. I posted about it like a good Chowhound should:

                                                          http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/5530...

                                                          1. re: Steve

                                                            Thanks so much, Steve; I missed it when you posted originally. Will try to get there when down there for a baby party (anticipated some time this summer).

                                                            1. re: Stephanie Wong

                                                              Great - I'd like to get a true Californian Chowhound take on this place. Though the woman who recommended it to me was VERY enthusiastic.

                                                        2. re: Steve

                                                          Theres a great book that came out late last year called "Asian Dining Rules" that is all about how and what to order in asian restaurants including some of the tips above like the secret second menu. I learned quite a bit and enjoyed reading it. It was written by one of the founders of another popular foodie web site so I hope its ok to have mentioned it. on here.

                                                          http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0061...

                                                          1. re: Bossa_Nova

                                                            I've done this with good success: As we are being seated I look very carefully at what other tables of guests (Chinese guests) are eating. I'm looking for a table full of delicious looking dishes and happy/busy eaters.
                                                            When the waiter comes to take our order I say "We'll have exactly what they are having", nodding not pointing, at the table full of delicious looking dishes. I make sure the waiter knows which table I'm referring to. Works like a charm. Often we'll get a dish we would never have even known existed. Pretty much all delicious.