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Szechuan Trend?

I am 28 years old, moved to DC right after college (2004) and quickly learned the amazing range and depth of taste in Chinese Szechuan food. In part this is because my arrival coincided with the rise of the now famous Peter Chang, who was just opening his first restaurants at that time. When he left DC, we found that there were quite a number of restaurants making great Szechuan, including some of the dishes that Chang turned out. I moved to Boston several years ago, and again found that there is a good selection of excellent Szechuan here, including many of my favorites (Chongqing Chicken, Dan Dan Noodles, Cumin Lamb, Dumplings in Chili Oil, etc.).

I have noticed what seems like a rise of Szechuan restaurants in many cities I frequent, but am curious if I am experiencing this because I have myself matured as a diner in the last six years, or if this is actually a historically specific phenomenon to the last 5-10 years. In other words, am I experiencing this is a trend because of my own heightened awareness, or is good Szechuan actually becoming more prevalent? Are there any speculations why this might be the case? I assume it might be a confluence of factors: generally more sophisticated American diners, a generation of diners (mine and thereabouts) who are the second or third to experience Americanized Chinese food and want something more "authentic," more chefs immigrating to America who are looking to distinguish themselves (it seems like there is also growing sophistication in other Americanized Asian cuisines, such as Thai).

I am a historian so spend my time wondering about things like this, but hopefully others will find it interesting and might have some thoughts too! Thanks in advance.

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  1. I honestly don't know the answers to your questions, but I certainly hope there's an upsurge in Szechuan food in the US because I love the stuff.

    1. I think your own heightened awarenesss has a lot to do with it. Once you try something that good for the first time, you're hooked. There are few Cantonese/Mandarin dishes that can compare. Szechuan and Hunan (if you haven't tried that yet, you owe it to yourself to do so) foods are superb.

      11 Replies
      1. re: mucho gordo

        I'm fairly familiar with Northern Chinese and Taiwanese and have some experience with Shaanxi (from the excellent Xi'an Famous Foods in NYC) but find less Hunan around Boston, though surely it is here.

        1. re: hckybg

          You've piqued my memory. I'm trying to recall over 50 years ago when I was at Northeastern. There were 2 Hunan style that I vaguely remember. One was in the Brookline area and the other not too far from the campus. Both probably long gone.

          1. re: hckybg

            I haven't found Hunan food closer to Boston than Flushing, namely 湘水山庄 aka "Hunan House." I tried it once and found it a mixed bag, certainly nowhere near the level of 鴻福湘園 ("Hunan Taste") in Catonsville (MD) which is truly amazing--I ate there four nights in a row when I first discovered it, and several times in the subsequent week, and not *one* dish was less than excellent.

              1. re: mucho gordo

                Basically lemon chicken? Doesn't resemble anything I've had in Beijing. What people call Mandarin in the US seems to be something in a dark gloppy sauce that doesn't exist in China.

                So are you comparing real Sichuan cuisine to real Cantonese and Dongbei cuisine or some American version?

                1. re: PorkButt

                  I'm not comparing anything, PB. I was asked to define Mandarin style and I provided a link that I thought would answer that request better than I could.

              2. re: PorkButt

                Generally Mandarin refers to Beijing style - Mandarins being the highly educated bureaucrats who ran the Imperial court. It's all actually a bit misleading because throughout much of Beijing's modern history it has been a city occupied by foreigners! First the Khitan Mongols (Liao Dynasty) in 947, then the Tungusic Jin ((1122-1234) and the Mongols (Yuan Dynasty - 1234-1368.) Then the Manchu's swept in from the north (Qing Dynasty - 1644-1912) followed by Westerners in 1860!

                1. re: scoopG

                  I am not debating the facts behind what you are saying. But I do believe there is a different explanation for the odd proliferation of "Mandarin" restaurants other than that Mama and Papa Chang in Podunk, Kansas are looking to recreate the elite historic cuisine of Chinese bureaucrats. I think the current state of "Mandarin restaurants" really is a cultural and historic anachronism.

                  When the big waves of Chinese people arrived in San Francisco, they were Cantonese. We all know the story of the railroads and the gold rush. That means that from the beginning, intrepid Americans brave enough to endure the scorn of their peers for eating the "dirty" and "low class" mystery food of the 19th century Chinese community, were dining on some bastardized approximation of Cantonese food, made with local ingredients that the Chinese themselves found palatable.

                  As the stigma against Chinese food (and people) in America lessened, Chinese restaurants spread around the country. Again, for the most part these were American adaptations of Cantonese dishes.

                  As more and more Chinese came to America, not all of them were Cantonese. Some of them came from the northern regions of China, and there was a need to differentiate their restaurants and their identities from the Cantonese who had already been there for generations. Thus, the "Mandarin" designation was born.

                  So, in an American historic context of Chinese food, "Mandarin cuisine" simply means "Not Cantonese". Although, I would hypothesize that as "Mandarin restaurants" were bought and sold over the years, new owners likely didn't feel the need to change their signage, so the already fluffy term really has been diluted to the point where it doesn't mean anything specific anymore-- particularly since "Chinese" dishes became somewhat standardized across the country (with some American regional variations).

                  And now, well over 100 years later, we have massive Chinese communities like Flushing, Queens and LA's San Gabriel Valley, where Chinese food has been restored, finally, to the way it was meant to taste. Hunan, Sichuan, Beijing, Shandong, Guangdong, Shaanxi, Fujian, even Xinjiang. You name the region, and more often than not there's a restaurant owner who hails from that region and will be delighted to cook his favorite dishes for you, with Chinese vegetables grown or manufactured locally (and other products imported from the motherland).

                  If you're interested in the history of Chinese food in America, this is a great starting point.

                  http://www.amazon.com/Chop-Suey-Cultu...

                  Also, for kicks you should check out the restaurant menu archives from the LA public library. Ever wanted to know what Americans were eating in Chinese restaurants 1945? Here's your chance to find out. (Hint: get ready for a lot of Chop Suey)

                  http://www.lapl.org/resources/en/menu...

                  Mr Taster

                  1. re: Mr Taster

                    "were dining on some bastardized approximation of Cantonese food, made with local ingredients that the Chinese themselves found palatable."

                    It's not only that - the rail workers were men who have never done kitchen work their entire lives, per traditional Chinese culture. Without any Chinese women around, they had to experiment and learn from scratch. So the obstacles were two-fold - lack of kitchen experience/formal training and lack of ingredients. It would not be until immigration standards relaxed post-1965 before actual chefs (almost all Cantonese; some from Fujian) would start to move to the US.

                    And for those posters who claimed there existed some sort of Szechwan "renaissance" in the US around the time of the Nixon visit - a quick search in your LA library link is very eye-opening (thanks for that interesting link!).

                    1. re: HungWeiLo

                      it stands to reason, 50 years ago there was only "French" now there's Provencal, Basque, Alsatian, etc. same for Italian - Tuscan, Sicilian, Venetian, etc. just a matter of acceptance and education that we Americans are starting to more acutely recognize regional differences.

                      HungWeiLo, to the lack of experience and unfamiliar ingredients I would add lack of facilities. I once had the opportunity to extensively tour CA's Delta region where many railroad builders found work after the first lines were complete building the levees and sharecropping, specifically Locke and working farms with abandoned worker housing. IIRC the men were packed in tight (one place had the luxury of walls but was divided into about 4'x6' cubicles and a tiny communal kitchen shared by about 15 people.

                      you may already be aware of this, but for others, further stories here http://www.locketown.com/bitter_melon...

            1. Pretty sure we have a higher density than average of Sichuan here in Boston. That's because it's awesome!

              1 Reply
              1. re: marcreichman

                You bet! That, and Thai food can't be beat

              2. Are American diners really embracing real Sichuan cuisine? I see very few non-Chinese customers at Sichuan restaurants here in the Bay Area. The reactions that I've observed from my dining companions have been been mostly negative. Too much oil and a strong dislike of the flavor from Sichuan flower peppers are common complaints (the peppers were banned for a quite few years due to a citrus canker so your first experiences with the cuisine might have been lacking). It's odd that the pejorative claim of "greasy" Cantonese dishes wouldn't be used to describe those Sichuan dishes that come in a slick of red oil.

                Adaptations of Sichuan cusine have long spread across China so the pre-80s versions of Sichuan dishes were by Cantonese, Shanghaiese, and Taiwanese cooks. Mapo Dofu is a good example. So whatever "Szechuan" restuarants that existed before the recent immigration from Sichuan, an interior province, were run by non-Sichuan people who served their versions of dishes that were likely further adapted for America.

                98 Replies
                1. re: PorkButt

                  OMG. How could one not love the fragrant deliciousness of Sichuan peppercorns? That stuff is addictive to the max. I admit I had to get used to the oil, but we eat at our local haunt often enough to be ordering some of the dishes on the 'drier' side.

                  But yeah, if this is a trend - I am all for it!

                  1. re: PorkButt

                    In my case the food has little to do with it, it's usually other issues. I live in the Richmond/El Sobrante area and my two closest Sichuan are Happy Golden Bowl and Sichuan Fusion.

                    Happy golden Bowl has gotten my orders wrong more often than not, both eat-in and take out. It's a low level annoyance but one that convinces me to take my dining dollars elsewhere.

                    Sichuan Fusion puts up a whole slew of signs listing specials and so on but only in Chinese, a subtle way of saying us round-eyes don't matter to them, why should I eat there? If you want my business make me feel welcome, this applies to every resto.

                    I used to live in Union City, within striking distance of Sichuan Express when it was next to 99 Ranch. We went at least once a week for dinner or lunch and wish an equivalent would open in what I like to call the northeast bay. They had the good sense to translate their menu and special sheet, although I think this worked in favor of their non-english speaking waitstaff as much as the customer.

                    1. re: Scrapironchef

                      "only in Chinese, a subtle way of saying us round-eyes don't matter to them"

                      Take off your cranky shoes.

                      Many of these owners can't conceive of a Westerner wanting to eat those dishes. I have been treated with warmth and encouragement. Besides, I have too much fun trying to figure out the menus and talking to the staff.

                      1. re: Steve

                        Yeah - who are they to judge if "married couple's sliced lung" is a commercially viable dish in the burbs...lol. You're right - a lot of those dishes just have literal names that don't really intend to attract a huge Western clientele.

                        1. re: HungWeiLo

                          My favorite dish at a local place translates as "mouth, mouth, good smelling crispy." Animal, vegetable or mineral?

                          Then there is also "meat elbow."

                          1. re: Steve

                            Is that literal translation the only way to describe the dish? Bubble and Squeak, Toad in the Hole, colloquial names that don't describe the food either, but I could probably put a tasty sounding description on a menu for them.

                            The few times I've eaten there the staff hasn't taken the time to explain the specials, it was difficult enough to get them to take my order and get water refills.

                            I'm not cranky about it, just pointing out what I see might be leading to the lack of westerners in the place. Curb appeal matters.

                            1. re: Scrapironchef

                              Scrap, the subject of untranslated Chinese menu items, and how their existence is interpreted from different perspectives, is an absolutely classic topic in online discussion of Chinese food, long predating Chowhound,* also in print periodically by the 1970s or earlier (a Matt Kramer article I saved comes to mind).

                              Yours is a common complaint by non-Chinese diners who are cosmopolitan or adventurous. The thorny part is when these diners speculate about why, whereupon they often project from their own assumptions, rather than asking the people who chose to offer items untranslated. All my information in following this subject curiously for aeons supports raytamsgv's lucid explanation downthread, the true language at issue is money.

                              What some of my fellow round-eyes don't recognize, or maybe don't want to imagine because they personally reject it, is that those mysterious dishes Matt Kramer (1970s restaurant critic) was told "white people don't like" are things "white people" (shorthand for all non-Chinese) genuinely DON'T like, statistically. They prove it to restaurateurs unmistakeably but privately, by how they spend. Competent restaurateurs (the kind who stay in business) bow to their market. The situation resembles others where widespread consumer preference underlies developments individual consumers dislike (e.g. infiltration of needless sugars into breads and salad dressings) and rather than see this as consumer preference, which clashes with their own, they imagine other explanations. And knowing that someone is keeping it from you can make ANY information appear interesting.

                              The successful Bay Area Chinese restaurant I cited downthread with the eccentric customer (he still comes, I asked) is strong on dishes with offal etc., rarely familiar to gringos, and it does translate them to English, and they DON'T sell much to non-Chinese (I asked).

                              * Much like the US embrace of Sichuan cooking in past decades, early public Internet access was geographically extremely variable, and also complicated by business factors like decisions at the private-networking firms (Compuserve, Prodigy, etc.) NOT to offer it early -- all thoroughly documented, but not in pop media like Wikipedia, therefore unknown to most people. The Bay Area has at least one large independent public-access provider giving subscribers Internet-forum and email access since 1985, while some places like NYC, and subscribers to the private-networking firms, saw relatively poor access as long as a decade later. (Another subject I've long followed.)

                              1. re: eatzalot

                                Incidentaly the restaurant mentioned in my penultimate pph above (and earlier below) is called Hunan Chili. It's in the first, or cheaper, group among 50 recommended restaurants in its neighborhood that I just updated in my region's forum:

                                http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/3812...

                                1. re: eatzalot

                                  Isn't it a chicken or the egg problem?

                                  1. re: Scrapironchef

                                    No I don't think so. I come from a family with very limited diets. They would walk out of a restaurant if they saw strange stuff on the menu. A lot of food fears out there. Many people get creeped out just thinking about 'parts.'

                                    Now, I am not saying I am happy about it. It would definitely benefit me to have the translation.

                                    1. re: Scrapironchef

                                      I had to chuckle because "chicken and egg" was a metaphor I cited and then edited out of the posting above. But examples like the restaurant I just mentioned argue otherwise (they offer in English, but _whatever_ the reason, get few orders). Also, while recognizing that mainstream US culture tends to ignore other countries and tongues, it's the personal choice of any adventuroous diner whether to bother to learn some of the language of interest. (I've found immigrant-Chinese acquaintances and restaurant employees more than helpful when I expressed interest in food words.)

                                      Like people who stay on hotel 13th floors only if falsely labeled 14th, some Americans eat far more "parts" than they think. This has come up in travel to other food cultures, e.g. Viennese where folk-cooking specialties made from lungs on down are traditional and common. Of course (said a restaurateur there, bringing many such dishes by request, years ago) you might not eat these things in the US. Yes we do, all the time (I answered): only they're ground up and called other names like sausages, hot dogs, bologna, potted meat products, etc. One of the pithiest lines in the Hesses' harsh but revealing critique _The Taste of America_ is that the history of creative cooking consisted largely of housewives making something interesting from pieces the gentry wouldn't touch. In the US with its relatively brief history, we lack so many interesting traditional uses for "parts" but are well endowed with processed-food firms, which step in with marketable uses for those "parts."

                                      1. re: Scrapironchef

                                        I still don't get why it's such a difficult concept to grasp that white suburbanites just are overwhelmingly afraid of even the mere mention of organs in their menu. I live in the Seattle high tech sector, home to a high percentage of East Asians and South Asians, so one would assume a high average level of cosmopolitan culinary preferences and leanings in the general population. There are several above-average Sichuan places there (around the eastside - Bellevue/Redmond for those familiar with the area) and still it is the Panda Express that has the line out the door (over 50 million lbs of chicken sold there every year in America), and the Sichuan places only have 3 tables out of 30 that have non-East Asians sitting in them - and they're most likely eating the sweet-n-sour chicken-type dishes. Going over the list of my past coworkers in my head (who are over 90% white - a sample of at least 100 people), they simply will not indulge by an overwhelming landslide. Even the concept of a simple BBQ pork bun for dim sum is alienating enough for them. Going back to the thing about the mention of organs on the menu - they truly believe that pieces will just magically fall into their "safe" dish and they're just plain afraid to risk going in and ordering the wrong thing. My wife's conservative banker coworkers are even worse - they crack jokes about Indiana Jones-style monkey brains when non-American food is even mentioned as a possibility for a group lunch. It's just pure free market economics - for every one of us adventurous souls here, there are 500 giving 3.5 stars to Olive Garden on Yelp. What's a restauranteur to do?

                                        It goes both ways too. I've talked to countless East Asians who will refuse to visit a taco truck, for example.

                                        1. re: HungWeiLo

                                          because it has nothing to do with their "whiteness"

                                          1. re: HungWeiLo

                                            Maybe all those people at Panda Express might be willing to try something new if they could read the menu in English?

                                            Your swipe at "white suburbanites" is a little off base, I started out life in the "white suburbs" but it didn't ruin me for new foods. When Thai neighbors moved in across the street my world changed for the better.

                                            What's a restauranteur to do? Work hard to make potential patrons feel welcomed and that they will be treated well. Stepping out of your comfort zone should be rewarding, not a hassle.

                                            1. re: HungWeiLo

                                              Interesting to reflect that "variety meats" are not rare in traditional US cooking, often derived from Europe or UK. Things like lamb kidneys, chicken livers, and sweetbreads are common in US cookbooks I have from most of the 20th century; I saw them more often in home cooking and restaurants in the 1960s-70s. It seems the same factors weaning the US off of family-passed cooking skills in the second half of 20th c. (a loss the Hesses positively rant about in the aforementioned book) also narrowed the diet. Then if a new generation rediscovers dormant traditions (as it did with cocktails), it perceives this as pioneering.

                                              HungWeiLo: "One would assume a high average level of cosmopolitan culinary preferences and leanings in the general population." But then "Even the concept of a simple BBQ pork bun for dim sum is alienating enough." That contrasts sharply to my experience of non-Chinese dining habits in e.g. metropolitan NYC or SF (in SF, items like BBQ pork bun, known to many NON-Chinese as char-siu bao, were widely taken for granted as of the 1960s or earlier). I also recall from my experiences and family in the Seattle region that high-tech there was dominated by Boeing for much of its history; I saw far fewer immigrant Asians in those days, until software ascended from the 1980s onward which (like Vancouver's large Chinese-émigré demographics) is _comparatively_ recent: within many US adult memories, and _after_ the US's 1970s Sichuan-cooking invasion I recalled in detail elsewhere in this thread.

                                              It sounds like (so to speak) my silicon-valley non-Chinese suburbanites are much more accustomed to Chinese food than HungWeiLo's; note none of the locally esteemed restaurants I linked above is Panda Express or equivalent (though you can find those, if you look). Yet the avoidance of unfamiliar specialties (a more accurate grouping than the fun-to-write "parts") remains common here, and consistently unaffected by English translation. And frustrated non-Chinese diners continue online (as they have since the 1980s) to assert anew that the solution is as easy as just adding English translations.

                                              1. re: eatzalot

                                                Organ meats are hard to cook right in the microwave and they don't reheat well...

                                              2. re: HungWeiLo

                                                i totally just had some cold sliced pork ears from Bamboo Garden in Belleview for my late breakfast today. *sigh* So good.

                                                I think Spiced is my favorite place, though, so far, for Sichuan. I live in Edmonds right now and have been to Szechuan 99 once and have tried their fried whole tilapia and cold trio, but not much else. Have you been?

                                                1. re: Joishii

                                                  If you like Spiced and Bamboo Garden, then you should also like Szechwan 99 equally. Not as big of a menu, but the items that they're good at are done very well.

                                                  Things to definitely try include the bean curd fish (hand made tofu in a spicy broth with fish filets) and the tea smoked duck. They also make very rustic and homey dumplings too (there's a pan-fried pork dumpling - shengjianbao that they do especially well). I would also try their hand-cut noodles (daoshaomian). They also serve the sliced pork ears as part of their cold app trio. I like to get the pork ears, and also the diced tofu w/ peanuts, and the jellyfish.

                                            2. re: eatzalot

                                              A local chinese restaurant had a review that notes that, unless your response is "Wow, you have XYZ! I've been looking everywhere for that!" there are certain dishes you are discouraged from ordering. Some things strike our palates as so "odd" that we can't get past the unfamiliar nature. For instance, I once had pureed carrots that repulsed me. I love carrots. They're a favorite vegetable .But I couldn't get past the marshmallow whip texture of these. So the idea that certain things won't sell well strikes me as perfectly reasonable.

                                              1. re: Terrieltr

                                                is it reasonable to assume i won't like something you don;t like because both of us don't speak chinese? You might as well decided our taste in food by what sort fo shoes we are wearing, or what sports we enjoy watching on TV.

                                                the color of my eyes, or the ethnicity of my parents, has little to do with my taste buds. and defining someone solely on the basis of group identity has a name.....

                                                1. re: thew

                                                  are those Birkenstock clogs? we don't serve organic gluten-free here bud.

                                                  I get what you're saying Thew, just 'cause it looks like I was raised on burgers doesn't mean that's what I want. I just try not to get into a lather over it (although I don't assume someone will like or not something based on my perception of their heritage - I can only imagine the reaction! hey that's a good bit of fodder for a comedy sketch actually! but prob. only Chappelle or Cho could get away with that)

                                                  1. re: thew

                                                    I said they would not sell WELL, not that they wouldn't sell at all. The audience on Chowhound is self-selected, and more adventerous than the average eater. Generalizations, by their nature, rarely fit indivduals, so I don't see the point in taking them personlly.

                                            3. re: Steve

                                              I'm pretty sure it actually has chicken in the name. :-P And, I believe based on what those Chinese students (the ones who didn't eat any vegetables from the three dishes they ordered, including the tea-tree mushrooms) told us, the "mouth mouth" thing is claimed to be idiom for "you can't eat just one bite."

                                          2. re: Steve

                                            Then explain why Daimo in the same center does translate all of their menu including the specials?

                                            You make my point tho, they can't conceive of us westerners eating their food so why bother.

                                            1. re: Scrapironchef

                                              Yeah, I think it is a good idea to offer a translation, so I am right with you there. Bring it on. But if they don't, I am more than willing to go the distance and try to figure things out (the internet is a phenomenal resource) plus ask. For me, it's fun. I like engaging the staff at a restaurant in conversation. I look at it as an opportunity.

                                              Plus, I understand they why they don't. It would definitely turn off many people to walk into a restaurant and see all the references to rabbit, eel, ox parts (I am being polite here), and other variety items. I know people who would walk out instantly.

                                              1. re: Steve

                                                Doesn't seem to hurt Daimo. I'd rather see the odd stuff than the standard General Tso Chicken/Mongolian Beef/Mu Shu Pork list. It let's me know there's more going on than at Panda Express.

                                                I do like to talk to the staff and get suggestions, but there's always that nagging feeling that I missed out on some really good food because I couldn't read the specials and the waiter didn't think I'd like it so they didn't mention it.

                                                1. re: Scrapironchef

                                                  Well, I don't know much about Daimo, but I must say I am not sure I have ever seen specials posted on the wall of a Chinese restaurant that have been translated. Where I'm from, DC area, they are just in Chinese. There is probably a common fear about it translated. I could call it irrational, but that would give me a superiority complex.

                                          3. re: Scrapironchef

                                            "Sichuan Fusion puts up a whole slew of signs listing specials and so on but only in Chinese, a subtle way of saying us round-eyes don't matter to them, why should I eat there?"

                                            Sorry, but I have to agree with Steve on this issue. I've talked with many Chinese restaurant owners, and everyone speaks a common language: money. They want business, but they frequently won't put up signs in English for any number of reasons:

                                            1. They don't know how to translate it or are afraid of using poor English. For example, how do you translate "Three Style Seafood Noodles"?

                                            2. They don't think any English speaker would ever dare to order it (e.g "Pig Offals with vegetables"). In a similar vein, sometimes when they find out you're from another region of China, they will often actively try to dissuade you from ordering their specialty. I'm Cantonese, and Sichuan restaurant staff always try to steer me away from spicy dishes (Cantonese food is not spicy).

                                            3. It costs money to print new menus, so it's cheaper and faster to tape up a short, 4 character description on a piece of paper. Even if you read Chinese, unless you're from the same region of China, there's a good chance you won't know what the dish is about. Many dishes share similar names but are prepared in completely different styles in different regions.

                                            1. re: raytamsgv

                                              1, I'm not looking for a literal translation of the dishes name, howzabout a description of the dish and it's ingredients. Poor english doesn't scare me but it would at least give ne a starting point.

                                              2. Again proving my point, they don't think we'd order it so why bother. Somehow though, Daimo manages to translate all of their items. I'm well aware of the steering that can take place by waitstaff, I was once questioned on my ability to eat spicy food in a Japanese resto by the waiter as he was afraid to serve me anything too spicy. When has that ever been a problem in a Japanese restaurant? Until sushi bars discovered Shiracha the worst that could happen was an inadvertant wasabi accident.

                                              3. The markers don't write in english? A description wouldn't clarify regional differences?

                                              1. re: Scrapironchef

                                                I agree that if they want to expand their business, they should use better menus. Having been in my family's Chinese restaurant business, I'm offering my experience in understanding why many Chinese restaurants operate they way they do.

                                                Many of the Chinese restaurants I frequent will have hundreds of items on the menu. The menu is already big enough the way it is. You could put in Chinese descriptions so Chinese patrons from other regions can understand it. But if you put in Chinese and English descriptions, you'd have a menu as thick as a phone book, and that costs money.

                                                As for the posted, 4-character specials on the walls, it's a trade-off between readability and space. They want to have as many specials listed as possible, but they have to be visible from a distance. That's why descriptions aren't on them.

                                                In my area, I've noticed that Chinese restaurants that are trying to reach more non-Chinese patrons have menus that are translated much better, but they often do this by severely limiting the menu items to keep the menus to a manageable size.

                                                1. re: raytamsgv

                                                  maybe a solution to popularize would still be a 2 menu system, but have one be "favorites" or "crowd pleasers" and a few copies of the other "adventurers" for us Haoli, so yeah my elderly Aunt can get her deep fried chicken chunks in whatever and I can delve off into stuff my family would never try. DTP is so easy these days, there's really no cost excuse.

                                                2. re: Scrapironchef

                                                  Scenario 1 that raytamsgv mentioned above is actually pretty common from my experience. At many Chinese places I've been to in the US, the folks there don't really have much English to go by -- their vocabulary can be limited and so they may not be able to describe all aspects of a dish, let alone write it out. Some translations I've seen tend not to be accurate at best or are laughable at worse.

                                                  There were times when I was going for a meal with a bunch chowhounds where I would get the menu faxed to me or pick up a paper copy in advance and annotate the Chinese menu with English translations from my non-chinese reading hounds. Mostly, the restaurant would request a copy if they saw what we were doing.

                                                  On the flip side, I've noticed that many hounds have simply resorted to learning a different language just to navigate foreign menus be they French, Chinese, Italian, Spanish or Japanese etc. Worked pretty well for me.

                                                  1. re: limster

                                                    Really? You learned French, Chinese, Italian, Spanish and Japanese? Was that Mandarin or Cantonese? Do you read Kanji, Katakana, or Hirigana? Living in the bay area it's a bit tough to keep up with just the dialects of Chinese, but if that's the only solution I'm glad there are polyglots like you to help keep all the multitudinous of ethnic and foreign restos in business.

                                                    Seriously, I can muddle through a menu in French and Italian, Spanish doesn't throw me, and I ran a Japanese place for a few years while married to a Japanese woman. But is expecting your customers to learn your language just to order their meal realistic? Yes, I've seen the hilariously translated menu item many times, but I've also seen picture menus all over the world that made ordering as easy as pointing. I've also had Chinese waitstaff when asked to explain the ten specials listed on the whiteboard only describe 6 dishes. Okay, I can't read Chinese but I can count.

                                                    I don't see this behavior in Thai, Vietnamese, Burmese, Japanese, Korean or Cambodian places. It may be that there are enough Chinese speakers to support this here while the other populations haven't reached that critical mass.

                                                    1. re: Scrapironchef

                                                      While the spoken languages in Chinese culture are numerous (Mandarin, Cantonese, Fujianese, Shanghainese, Sichaunese, Hunanese,Taiwanese etc...) in the written form, there is but one script.*

                                                      Only difference in the written Chinese is between the complicated form (used in Taiwan, Hongkong, Singapore etc.) and Mainland China which uses the simplified form. Mainland China started simplifying the characters in the 1950's. Modern scholars need to know both forms because any document before 1949 will be in complicated form. Many Chinese menus in the USA will use the complicated forms in a nod to the many overseas Chinese present in the USA.

                                                      Kanji, Katakana, or Hirigana is Japanese. (Japanese has an alphabet, Chinese does not.)

                                                      *Having said that, there are a few written differences in Cantonese for example, which is much older than Mandarin.

                                                      Further complicating this picture is that even native Chinese will have to inquire at times as to exactly what the dish is, and how the restaurant is making it.

                                                      1. re: scoopG

                                                        I was under the impression that Limster had learned all the other languages he mentioned including Japanese, hence the mention of the three primary types of script. Only one (Kanji) is barely analogous to an alphabet, the others are pictographic in much the same way as Chinese.

                                                        1. re: Scrapironchef

                                                          Actually, the Kanji part of Japanese are a huge selection of Chinese characters, most of which are similar to what are used in modern Chinese. The "kana" (hiragana and katakana) are two variations of phonetic characters very loosely based on Chinese characters, but they are not pictograms.

                                                      2. re: Scrapironchef

                                                        As silly as it sounds, I myself have also picked up enough of the languages you have listed above just to navigate around menus better while traveling in Europe and Latin America (and LA Koreatown!). It's really not that much work. For each language, just learn:

                                                        1.) Thank you and please.
                                                        2.) How to count 1-20.
                                                        3.) The words "water", "bathroom", "where", "how much"
                                                        4.) The words for "chicken", "beef", "pork", "fish".

                                                        It's amazing how much better one can eat throughout the world if one only knew these words in a few languages.

                                                        Here in Seattle, there are plenty of examples of untranslated specials in all Asian restos (Jpn, Viet, Korean, etc.). It's certainly far from being exclusive to Chinese restos.

                                                        1. re: HungWeiLo

                                                          Actually, There's a polite subset of words that I try to learn for every culture I travel in, but it's a little tough to keep up with all the different languages available in eateries around the bay area.

                                                          Did you ever come up with a cite for the panda /Kobari beef thing?

                                                          1. re: Scrapironchef

                                                            I replied under your original question.

                                                            1. re: HungWeiLo

                                                              Sorry, it got buried, great read BTW, I love how the Taco Bell guys idea is to add more bacon.

                                                        2. re: Scrapironchef

                                                          Several posters have already mentioned what I would say. Just like to add that it's not about restaurants expecting people to learn their language -- one obviously has a choice between making a restaurant translate everything, or learning enough of the relevant language to figure out the food. The latter choice is often more efficient in my experience, and has the added advantage of helping one chow outside one's native country.

                                                          1. re: limster

                                                            You're advocating learning enough of the 20-40 or so languages represented in the bay area dining scene just so I can order dinner, spoken and written? Even for places I may only visit once every few months?

                                                            This whole discussion started with the question of why some places don;t seem that busy, maybe it's because people are ate home working on Rosetta Stone and are too broke to eat out after buying the 20 different languages they needed.

                                                            How is it more effecient to require all your customers to learn your language as opposed to learning the predominant language of the market you operate in?

                                                            Can I get an order of what you're smoking?

                                                            1. re: Scrapironchef

                                                              If the restaurant is doing a satisfactory amount of business, why should they care whether it's more efficient for them to translate their menu rather than telling you to learn to read?

                                                              1. re: KWagle

                                                                because more business is better

                                                                1. re: thew

                                                                  So Szechuan restaurants are more popular because all the energy you are burning talking about this in circles is making you hungry?

                                                                    1. re: thew

                                                                      Not when your restaurant is full to capacity, no. Not when you open new branches and they fill to capacity within a few months of opening, no.

                                                                      Spreading your resources too thin is a major reason many businesses run into trouble.

                                                                  1. re: thew

                                                                    You write that like it's a given: translate specials on the wall = more business.

                                                                    KWagle above was questioning the "efficiency" part of the equation. That alone does not signify any gain, especially if the business thinks they might lose customers. My guess is they'd prefer that people who can't read Chinese don't fool with the specials.

                                                                    1. re: Steve

                                                                      my guess is that they make the very false assumption that on;y chinese people will like what's offered.

                                                                      1. re: Steve

                                                                        Sometimes, just putting it into Latin even is a major problem!

                                                                        Recently I ate 天麻鸡 (Tian1 Ma2 Ji1). An untranslated special at a Taiwanese joint. I get home, open up my dictionary and here is what I ate:

                                                                        Chicken with the Tuber of Elevated Gastrodia – or put another way: Chicken with Gastrodia elata.

                                                                        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gastrodi...

                                                                        1. re: scoopG

                                                                          Yeah, but the real question is was it any good?

                                                                  2. re: Scrapironchef

                                                                    Nope, just the relevant languages for the places you want to try that do not offer menus in your first language. Since you say that "I don't see this behavior in Thai, Vietnamese, Burmese, Japanese, Korean or Cambodian places" -- shouldn't this narrow down the number quite a bit?

                                                                    I don't run a restaurant, and never have, so my perspective of efficiency is that of a customer. I've never been able to persuade a place to offer a menu in a different language, but I've been able to pick up the necessary language to order.

                                                                    BTW, I'm not advocating a new radical idea, it's a common enough approach used by many chowhounds that I know and that has worked. If you think of a potentially better approach for navigating restaurants, try it out and share your success rate.

                                                                    1. re: limster

                                                                      But that sidesteps the question - How is it more efficient to require your customers to learn a language they may only have occasion to use once in a great while as opposed to the business learning the predominant language of the market it exists in?

                                                                      I make every effort to learn polite survival phraseology when I travel abroad and I'm not an English only advocate at home. My point in this whole discussion has been that inclusion rather than exclusion is a better business practice. If you have empty seats to fill it's worth a try.

                                                                      1. re: Scrapironchef

                                                                        No sidestepping. The question of efficiency, I as raised it, was never about being efficient as a business, but being efficient as a chowhound.

                                                                    2. re: Scrapironchef

                                                                      All you want is a good meal. You'll travel for it, research places, and try new things. But in the end, it's about the food.

                                                                      There are others who are after something more. They want to go into an Indian or Chinese or Thai place and be treated as a native. They want to speak and read their language, know their customs and history, understand their literature and art. They want to become one with the culture. There's nothing wrong with that but it's about lots more than the food.

                                                                      Personally, I'm with you. I just want a good meal. The rest of it is optional.

                                                                      Here's a trick I learned 20 years ago. Do you want the staff of an ethnic restaurant to accept you and serve you food that isn't dumbed down? Become a regular. When you're served spicy food, show enthusiasm. Order it again. Tip well and come back often. Every time you go back the staff will be happy to see you and you'll be treated very well.

                                                                      There's no need to speak 15 dialects or make secret signs or say special phrases. Just become a regular.

                                                                      1. re: Bob Martinez

                                                                        Words to live by. I get along fine with or without translations. With or without chopsticks. I'm not going to let that stop me.

                                                                        1. re: Bob Martinez

                                                                          I also just want a good meal. However, my experience leads me to believe that in order to get what *I* consider a good meal, I have to go further than just ordering from the English menu. Last night, for example, I had a dish of rice cakes with generic Cantonese-style mixed seafood and vegetables piled atop. The rice cakes were good, but that's easy since I love crispy and crunchy deep fried things. The topping was not bad but relatively boring Cantonese. But if I wanted Cantonese food I would've gone to New Big Wong instead, and gotten something truly awesome from their specials menu. And at the end of the meal, nobody was interested in taking the topping home with them.

                                                                          Now, I have no doubt that something as delicious as crispy rice cakes are going to be eaten by the staff. But I'm pretty sure they covered them with something other than a generic Cantonese dish, and even more confident of that when I find the Cantonese-style dish listed on the American menu. What *I* want is what the staff puts on top of *their* crispy rice cakes, because that's much more likely to be a great, or even good, meal.

                                                                          1. re: KWagle

                                                                            You weren't a regular. If you were, you'd get the good stuff.

                                                                          2. re: Bob Martinez

                                                                            Not really an option if you're only in town for the weekend.

                                                                            1. re: Scrapironchef

                                                                              True enough. But showing up four nights in a row will get you pretty far. :D

                                                                              1. re: KWagle

                                                                                But there are 5 other restos I want to go to also. Narrowing down the three I'm going to actually go to sometimes comes down to snap judgements on the posted menu. This brings it back to my original observation that if I can;t read your menu I may just move on to somewhere I feel more welcome. First impressions matter.

                                                                              2. re: Scrapironchef

                                                                                Here's another one.

                                                                                Order like you mean it. Don't mince around questioning the waiter as to the various spicing levels and flavor combinations. They'll take you for a newbie who will bitch and moan when you bite into a pepper. Instead, just order the dishes with confidence, like you've been doing it for years. If the waiter mentions that a dish is spicy, smile and say "Good. I like it that way!"

                                                                                Really, this stuff isn't that hard. I don't want a mysterious ritual or a cultural experience every time I go out to dinner. Most nights I just want a good meal.

                                                                                1. re: Bob Martinez

                                                                                  That doesn't work if the staff has come to believe that what *you*--a random person with the surname 'Martinez'--mean is something other than what you really mean. Like the time I got a bowl of huajiao on the side because the chef was afraid I didn't mean it when I said 加麻. (The manager was quite clear on this, it was the kitchen that balked.)

                                                                                  Tonight I did order the 夫妻肺片 by its real name for the first time, over the phone no less. It certainly did seem like I got less argument and more of what I wanted.

                                                                                    1. re: KWagle

                                                                                      Maybe I' m just more convincing than you. I've been doing this for over 20 years - I just ask for what I want and they give it to me. But I guess other techniques can work too.

                                                                                      In the "Godfather" Fredo told his nephew that the secret to catching big fish was to say a Hail Mary every time he put his line in the water. If that sort of thing works for you by all means keep doing it.

                                                                                      1. re: Bob Martinez

                                                                                        You ask for what you want, and they give it to you... But how do you know that you got the best version of this dish that the restaurant can produce? And, how do you discover the things you don't already know about?

                                                                                        1. re: KWagle

                                                                                          "But how do you know that you got the best version of this dish that the restaurant can produce? And, how do you discover the things you don't already know about?"

                                                                                          The same way you do in an American restaurant. You use your previous experience, the menu descriptions and the names of the dishes, and your judgment to figure out what you want. I've found recommendations by waiters to be the least reliable method of finding good dishes.

                                                                                          As I've said, it's been working for me for over 20 years. Somehow, without speaking a word of Chinese, I was the first person on Chowhound to post about Lan Sheng.

                                                                                          http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/6737...

                                                                                          I do appreciate the fact that a knowledge of Chinese can help you with menus in certain situations but I think, in the long run, other things matter a lot more.

                                                                                          1. re: Bob Martinez

                                                                                            Previous experience has to actually *come* from somewhere.

                                                                                            Menu descriptions and names don't work very well for me in figuring out whether the kitchen can produce, and does produce, a better version of a dish. Take double cooked pork, for example. Without the previous experience *gained from something other* than "being a regular" or ordering "like you mean it." I don't know that the kitchen has two versions, one for Chinese people, and one for everyone else.

                                                                                            Long before pork belly became fashionable at European-descendants' restaurants, I learned that double cooked pork is traditionally made from the belly, by reading a book. I then went to a local restaurant (Qingdao Garden, which may be closed now) and *asked* the proprietor what kind of meat they used in the dish. He pointed out that they offer two version on the menu, identically named, printed twice, but in different sections and and with different numbers. If I ordered the one from the white side of the menu, I would get lean pork, and if I ordered from the purple side, I would get fatty pork. I'm not sure how to learn something like this *without*, among other tools, asking questions.

                                                                                            Take another example. Steve went to Sichuan Pavilion' in Rockville and ordered the pork belly with crispy bread. Someone else went there for lunch and ordered from the lunch menu, and the dish was different. It didn't have any crispy bread in it. The second person thought this was remarkable, because, well, he remarked about it. *I* would find this unremarkable, because one dish was called "house special pork belly" and the other was "sichuan pork belly." To be honest, in this case I have no idea what the English names are, but I've seen the same thing--different dishes with identical English names--fairly often.

                                                                                            There are plenty of cases where one class of diner is getting a different dish than you are when you order that dish. The application of huajiao offers another clear example. I've been told more than once by more than one proprietor that they just don't put that stuff in the dishes American-looking diners order. Even the proprietor of the Serious Eats blog (Kenji Alt?something like that) complained that Sichuan Garden didn't use huajiao in their cooking. That's never been a problem for *me* at the same restaurant where he gets NONE. I get as much as I want and more to take home.

                                                                                            Was I a regular there? Well, certainly not literally. I went to the restaurant to talk to the proprietor about various issues including the content of the dishes and the translations on their posted menu *before I ever ate there*. I'd call that "asking questions." And, technically I wasn't dealing with the waiter. In my experience, when the kitchen makes multiple versions of a dish (which is not always the case, of course) I have never gotten the food I wanted without dealing with a manager.

                                                                                            I'm sure Steve can certainly recount many more examples of different kinds of people getting different dishes. Of course you could argue that you personally never want those other versions, but I bet you wouldn't try to make that argument. :D My question is, how do *you* personally, using *only* the tools you cite above, discover that the restaurant is doing that?

                                                                                            So I don't think, in the long or short run, the other things matter *more*. All of these things matter. But in the short run, when you have one chance to sample "Hunan Taste" and really need to get it right the first time, I think the things you mention matter less than an actual ability to figure things out for yourself.

                                                                                            1. re: KWagle

                                                                                              which all comes back to my original thought - that they don;t care if non-chinese speakers get the same service or dishes as chinese speakers.

                                                                                              and there's a word for that sort of behavior

                                                                                              1. re: KWagle

                                                                                                "My question is, how do *you* personally, using *only* the tools you cite above, discover that the restaurant is doing that?"

                                                                                                I do something obvious. I order the food. All the descriptions in the world are no substitute for actually tasting the food. To stick with your example of a pork belly dish, that same dish can be offered at 5 different restaurants and described on the menu using the same words. But it can be different each time. It's all in the execution.

                                                                                                What if you took an American with no experience with Chinese dining and taught him to speak and read perfect Chinese. Would you trust him to order for you in a restaurant?

                                                                                                Experience is the key. And to get that experience, you have to take some time and try a lot of things.

                                                                                                1. re: Bob Martinez

                                                                                                  Okay, let's sit down at the same restaurant and order the same dishes. You order the food. I order the food. Because I applied tools other than the ones you cite, I get something different than you do. You taste the food. So do I. How do you know you're tasting the same thing I am?

                                                                                                  This is exactly the story of Kenji Lopez-Alt's experience at Sichuan Garden, and my experience. "The problem with most Sichuan restaurants is that they don't use Sichuan Peppercorns"...

                                                                                                  WTF? Every place I go, including the ones he mentions, uses plenty of them.

                                                                                                  IF you use the right tools to actually get them included in your dish.

                                                                                                  http://www.seriouseats.com/2010/07/si...

                                                                                                  1. re: KWagle

                                                                                                    OK, I give up. You're the King of Sichuan.

                                                                                                    1. re: KWagle

                                                                                                      (Not a specific response to Kwagle; more as a general comment to this sub-thread.)

                                                                                                      There are lots of strategies for scoring delicious food. It's not an issue of whether strategy A is better than strategy B -- very often using both A and B is better than resorting to either one alone. As chowhounds, it makes sense to use every approach possible if one is after an even more delicious meal.

                                                                                        2. re: Bob Martinez

                                                                                          Believe it or not I'm capable of getting what I want when I go out to eat. Most times without having to pay dues 10-15 times before my wishes are considered worthwhile by a business.

                                                                                          My original point in all this wasn't that I wasn't getting what I wanted, it's that there may be other things I'd order and like that by dint of cultural arrogance I'm not being told about. I'm not the type that orders something new and gets cranky if I don;t like it, I just chalk it up to chance and move on. It shouldn't take me or any other patron of a business multiple visits to be allowed to see whats on offer. Maybe it sounds a little paranoid but it's more about marketing than that.

                                                                                          1. re: Scrapironchef

                                                                                            My comments were directed at Mr. Wagle. I actually agree with you.

                                                                          3. re: raytamsgv

                                                                            it's economics based racism. they are doing it because of money, but what they are doing is determining what people will or will not like solely on ethnic lines.

                                                                            1. re: thew

                                                                              I don't think it's racism. It's about the targeted group of patrons. Smaller restaurants have very narrow profit margins, and they must decide if they want to appeal to a specific group, where they have expertise in the patrons' expectations, or to a larger group where they have little expertise in those patrons' expectations. Only the larger restaurants have the resources, staff, and money to appeal to both groups.

                                                                              In my area, a number of the larger and more successful Chinese restaurants have finally figured out that they need to expand to include more non-Chinese patrons. But this is not true with the medium and smaller-sized restaurants. They are fighting tooth-and-nail against all the other mom-and-pop restaurants, which is why the food is so cheap. Unfortunately, this limits their ability to reinvest in their restaurants and to appeal to non-Chinese patrons.

                                                                              1. re: raytamsgv

                                                                                there are no "both" groups - there is one group - their customers. dividing the clientele by ethnic lines is exactly what i'm talking about. again - obviously i wasn't clear - they are not doing it to BE racist, they are doing it for purely economic reasons. but the why doesn;t change the what.

                                                                                i am not saying they should add anything to the menu that isn;t there - but they should open up the entire menu to their entire clientele. if no non-chinese person orders these added dishes (which i doubt would happen) they are in the exact same place they were before - they have not lost a thing. but if they do sudden;y get more orders for this food, and a reputation as a place with hard to find "authentic items" their business will grow. they cannot lose, they can only win.

                                                                              2. re: thew

                                                                                thew, if what you describe is "racism," then non-Chinese people passing up unfamiliar dishes, or dishes containing unfamiliar animal parts, when those DO get translated into English, is equally racism. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, but in US now, people are vastly quicker to perceive "racism" in actions from outside their own group than from inside.

                                                                                I've also seen purely English-speaking restaurants with supplemental menus available by request or orally, or supplemental wine lists on request, etc., but never seen anyone leap to characterize any of that as "racism." At some point, observers are responsible for recognizing that not all things happen for reasons within the limits of your current imagination.

                                                                                1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                  it would only be racism if those dishes were passed up because of the ethnicity of the dish.

                                                                                  if those supplemental menus were only provided to white people, eg, then it would be an analagous situation

                                                                                  again - i want to be very clear in my use of the word. i'm using it in a very technical sense - determining what someone is like, what their tastes are, etc, solely by group affiliation.

                                                                                  1. re: thew

                                                                                    Every piece of marketing that has ever existed targets by race, gender, and socio-economic class. There are no exceptions.

                                                                                    And re: your comment about "they have not lost a thing" - when Panda Express introduced a new spicy beef item on their menu, they called it "Panda Beef" after their trademark namesake. They actually lost a non-trivial amount of business because people thought they served actual panda meat and thus affected the customers' perception of the franchise. Soon after, marketing changed the name to "Kobari Beef." A multi-billion mega-chain like Panda Express can afford to make these marketing snafus and recover from them. Not so with the mom-and-pops.

                                                                                    1. re: HungWeiLo

                                                                                      Do you have a cite on the panda/kobari thing? I'd like to read more.

                                                                                      I don't think you can actually go by Panda Express customer behavior, after all, they think Panda Express food is Chinese.

                                                                                      1. re: Scrapironchef

                                                                                        Here is the BusinessWeek article I remember reading:
                                                                                        http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/...

                                                                                        Turns out I misremembered the details - the "panda meat" never made it to the stores, but the focus group reaction made them reject the naming.

                                                                                    2. re: Scrapironchef

                                                                                      Despite plenty of evidence (to repeat, I've been seeing it for 30 years), you people with your "racist" language insistently assume that the larger menu stays untranslated because of a choice to exclude non-ethnically-Chinese diners. Rather than an economic choice to serve those diners who've proven much more frequently interested. By this logic, any marketing that in practice attracts other than an average population mix is "racism." Actually, some of my ethnically Chinese friends are equally excluded, because they don't happen to read Chinese or because they grew up with US tastes in food. (I'm sure the convinced can rationalize that away, too.)

                                                                                      Anyway, you've gotten the reality here, from witnesses and from the restaurant perspective, and you can find plenty more evidence if you do real research. The choice whether to understand it or cling instead to a cherished but petty interpretation is entirely yours.

                                                                                      1. re: eatzalot

                                                                                        <Actually, some of my ethnically Chinese friends are equally excluded, because they don't happen to read Chinese or because they grew up with US tastes in food.>

                                                                                        This seems pretty legit to me. It's not discrimination against non-Chinese people. It's discrimination against people who can't read Chinese, which isn't racism. I would love it if every restaurant in Manhattan's Chinatown translated into English those mysterious handwritten specials taped to the wall. But that has less to do with me being Caucasian, and more to do with me being lazy.

                                                                                        1. re: small h

                                                                                          while true, the distinction is pretty fine.

                                                                                          1. re: thew

                                                                                            I had to put on my reading glasses, but I can see it. I understand your position as well, but I'm wary of slinging a racism charge without due cause. The more we label things racist (or any -ist) that really aren't, the more we dilute the meaning of the word.

                                                                                            1. re: small h

                                                                                              as i stated above - i do not think it is done out of a sense of superiority, but economics. i'm using a very technical definition,a s i said - judging a persons likes and dislikes based on group (or lack of group) affiliation.

                                                                                              i used to have fights with my mom often about what i called the soft bigotry of cultural pride.....

                                                                                              1. re: thew

                                                                                                I think your definition is correct, your terminology less so. If the word economist weren't already taken, that might be a good one to use. Profit-ist?

                                                                                                1. re: small h

                                                                                                  i've been thinking about what i've meant in this sub thread, and where my language has fallen short.

                                                                                                  i am not saying that the people in the restaurants are racist - i'm saying the policy of assumption produces results that are indistinguishable from racist. it isn't necessarily in the intent to end up seeing so in the practice

                                                                                                  1. re: thew

                                                                                                    Can't argue with that. You may as well continue to use the phrase "soft bigotry," as it seems to fit. In fact, "the soft bigotry of low expectations" would be fine: we don't expect people who don't look like us to enjoy "our" food.

                                                                                                    1. re: thew

                                                                                                      "Racism" and "racist" usually carries very negative connotations. Once you use those terms, any discussion can quickly spiral out of control.

                                                                                    3. re: thew

                                                                                      Why is that racism or profiling? I wouldn't automatically assume that someone couldn't read Chinese just because they were not ethnic Chinese.

                                                                                      1. re: limster

                                                                                        I can't count how many times I got a fork rather than chopsticks, do you think that would happen if I was ethnic Chinese? We all make judgments based on our past experiences and observations. The smart money bets the white guy doesn't speak Chinese.

                                                                                        1. re: Scrapironchef

                                                                                          Actually, I did personally witness a incident where even a Chinese guy was given a fork. I was at a Sichuan restaurant with seven others. Six were not remotely Chinese. One was Chinese but barely spoke any Chinese. I probably looked as ABC as he did. I asked (in Mandarin) the waitress to bring ice water and forks. Sure enough, she brought seven cups and forks to give to everyone besides me.

                                                                                          When we ordered, the waitress didn't question my order. When the others ordered, she asked them if they were sure they wanted those dishes because they were spicy.

                                                                                          1. re: raytamsgv

                                                                                            Unfortunately, I've witnessed more than once in Chinese restaurants where customers would loudly berate the waiters for not warning them ahead of time if a dish was spicy or if it contained meat (because they thought the translated English name "hinted" at a vegetarian dish).

                                                                                            This is precisely why they're not exactly eager to translate "questionable" dishes for English speakers, so they don't have to deal with the customers who raise a rowdy ruckus. (I've worked in a Chinese restaurant in my youth - it happens a lot more than you think).

                                                                                            The comment about "smart money" is right on. Why bring chopsticks when at least 5 times out of 10, you're have to double-back for forks? Let's say if your line of work involves communicating with a bunch of 90-year-olds, no one would question if someone instinctively calls them on a phone instead of texting them.

                                                                                        2. re: limster

                                                                                          the assumption being discussed here is the assumption that an outsider would not like certain food items based on their perceived ethnicity.

                                                                                2. From Beetlejuice (1988): "I can't believe we're eating Cantonese. Is there no Szechuan up here?"

                                                                                  If it's a trend, it's one that's old enough to vote.

                                                                                  6 Replies
                                                                                  1. re: small h

                                                                                    small h,that's my feeling too - that in the late 70's and into the 80's it got so trendy it sort of over-saturated and ebbed and what we're seeing now is more of a welcome revival than a "new" thing. bring it on!

                                                                                    (btw love that movie, nobody delivers a haughty food line like Catherne O'Hara "I want to eat miniature pancakes in an all-white environment!" 6 Feet Under).

                                                                                    1. re: hill food

                                                                                      I am very interested in the way foods - ingredients, cooking styles, regions of origin - go in and out of fashion. As Porkbutt notes, above, it's likely that the Szechuan food we used to eat back in the day was not prepared by cooks from Sichuan province. Thus, perhaps the Sichuan food we find now in North America is different than it was in the '80s. So I can only surmise that twenty years hence, we'll be eating yet a third kind of Sichuan. I am, however, sure of one thing: someone will bitch that whatever it is, it's not authentic. That seems like the only perennial.

                                                                                      1. re: small h

                                                                                        I don't think the cuisine has changed any EXCEPT for the pesky fact that the Chinese diaspora as a whole has the tendency to just use what is available around them instead of introducing/importing what they need to make things exactly as they or their ancestors did on the mainland. This is why I am loathe to use the word "authentic" in any gastronomic sense, because I think this is a trait that's common in all immigrant groups. For example: it was mentioned earlier that ketchup might not be an "authentic" ingredient to use for any Chinese dish...but I've seen it in numerous dishes made by either my parents or professional chefs in restaurants. Try to bring up the "lack of authenticity" in using ketchup, and one will probably get a lecture on how there is 1.) no such thing as authenticity because any cooking is influenced by what is available in a specific region, 2.) how if new ingredients are never introduced to a cuisine, then how will new dishes be created, and/or whatever reasons one can think of (note: these are not necessarily my opinions).

                                                                                        Also, immigration (legal) opened up during the Reagan years, so it was more likely that more professional chefs came to the U.S. during that time than now, when immigration is pretty tight and the illegal kind that preys on poorer, less-educated, less-trained workers from specific areas dominates. I think it's well-documented that there aren't many highly-trained, high-end Chinese chefs outside of China because...well...they can make more money and stay with their family and friends at home without having to go through paperwork and legal hoops.

                                                                                        1. re: yfunk3

                                                                                          On that note, it's also worth noting that Peter Chang initially came here as the official chef of the Chinese Embassy in DC!

                                                                                          1. re: hckybg

                                                                                            Have you heard of his new restaurant (still under construction) in Atlanta? He's not trying to hide the fact that he's behind the opening, but I'm sort of wondering how long he'll stay at this one.

                                                                                            Sorry, off-topic. Yet again. ::hangs head in shame::

                                                                                          2. re: yfunk3

                                                                                            It wasn't just the chefs that migrated, people that eat the food and understood it came over too. A certain "critical mass" has to exist to support a new cuisine until the locals catch on. This drives suppliers to offer raw materials, restos to offer isolated dishes or combo cuisines and a general familiarity rises in a community.