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

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: 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: Phaedrus

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

                                  2. 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...

                                  3. 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. :-)