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Why do chinese restaurants insist on having "secret" Chinese menus their English-Speaking customers can't decipher?

  • m

I went to try a new Chinese restaurant here in Boston Chinatown last week. I had heard that the best dishes were on the "secret" chinese only menus on the walls of the restaurant.

I tried my best to get any of the waiters to help me order from those menus. But, they kept insisting that I wouldn't like any of the food. They just did not want to tell me what was being offered off the English menu. I argued the point for a while, and I finally was able to have them suggest one dish which I ordered and it was wonderful (it was a stir fried eel dish with pea tendrils and garlic). But, the fight to get it was off-putting.

One time a few years ago, I went with a group of people to a Chinese restaurant, and one of the people spoke Chinese, so he ordered. The food was wonderful and I've wanted to try doing that again, but I don't have any Chinese friends locally.

Why do these restaurants insist on "hiding" these dishes from the general public? I understand that many or most of their customers are Chinese and it isn't an issue for them. But, what do you do if you are a poor American soul with a love of good Chinese food and a basic lack of Mandarin language competency? Is it really that hard to have another menu with English translations for these? If 5% of their English customers order those dishes, isn't that more business for them anyway?

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  1. It's not so much that they "insist on having a 'secret' Chinese menu" as that they're insisting that you wouldn't like it. Right or wrong, they are making a sweeping generalization that, as a non-Chinese, there are some things that you just would not eat.

    1 Reply
    1. re: ricepad

      Years ago in Shanghai, I tried to order several dishes off the hotel dinner menu only to have my very young, cute and polite waitress smile and tell me, "You won't like that." "No, you're not getting that." "No, not that one either." I went though about seven before asking, "OK, what will I like?" She immediately pointed to a number of dishes so I relented and let her choose. I ended up with cold fresh-sliced lotus root with orange blossom water, yellow fin tuna and egg drop soup with cilantro, roasted pigeon with orange flavor, spicy shredded chicken on wide rice noodles with peanut sauce, fresh fruit platter and moon cakes. And a few Tsingtaos. I can't complain as all was excellent but I'll always wonder what I was protected from sampling.

    2. "If 5% of their English customers order those dishes, isn't that more business for them anyway?"

      If you're coming there to eat you will order something that's to your liking - so they aren't losing any business. I don't think they're "hiding" anything it's just that there are going to be a number of off-putting options there that detract from what they believe their customer base prefers.

      Our neighbors own a Chinese restaurant and often bring things for us to sample that they don't offer in their restaurant. Some we like and many others just don't suit our palate (either more bitter or pungent than what we're used to). If these were on the menu and someone ordered them, not understanding the flavor profile, they would be very unhappy with their meal, so I get the point of not putting it out there.

      29 Replies
      1. re: ferret

        I want to know and taste most of those items on the non-English menu. It is very frustrating to me that I need to rely on a busy server who may not have an excellent command of the English language to allow me to monopolize their time long enough to get those translations. In my experience, few servers are willing to do that and would simply rather tell you you won't like it or that it's only for Chinese palates. This is unfair and could result in me not returning to that restaurant again.

        I do, however, think that the restaurant owners genuinely believe that non-Chinese diners will be frightened off if they are able to peruse those menus. This may be true for a lot of non-Asian diners, but certainly not all. There will never be any exposure to those regional specialties if they continue to remain hidden and essentially off-limits to most. I have tried to throw caution to the wind and just point at something, but that can backfire if you don't have a clue what you're getting. What if I order a large soup to share with my co-diners, plus a few other dishes and then one mystery dish, and it turns out to be another large soup, or else something not dissimilar to another dish I've ordered (i.e. same protein or same veggies)?

        Sometimes I get a server that's willing to translate a few items from one of the menus, but it's impossible to get through the list before that server is needed elsewhere. Let me say that of those mystery items I've ordered, some were not to my taste. I have no regrets about ordering them though.

        Another pet peeve is the "western" vegetable options on the English menu, versus the fresh produce items available if you ask. Why aren't they listed anywhere, such as on a blackboard? I once ordered a dish from the English menu. It was shrimps and Chinese broccoli (gai laan). It arrived with regular broccoli. I complained and the server told me that the chef thought we wanted it that way. Nobody ever confirmed that with me. For the record, both options were listed separately on the menu. I specifically ordered the one with gai laan. Unacceptable judgement call, and offensive too. I made them fix it. They took the shrimps and plunked them atop the gai laan. Needless to say, I never returned.

        I like the restaurants that list dishes this way: Stir fried squid with vegetable. This forces the customer to ask what the vegetable is. The response is typically the server listing a few options, based on what the kitchen has that day. This has resulted in me getting to order snow pea leaf, ong choy (water spinach), baby bok choy, gai laan, amaranth leaves, etc. Another benefit is it allows the customer to drive the bus, meaning that I can choose to have my squid curried, spicy, with garlic or ginger and green onion, etc. This is closer to what I experienced in mainland China and Hong Kong. People ask what is fresh then ask for whatever they like based on what is available and within their price range.

        1. re: ferret

          A good example of this is bitter root marinated duck. The name doesn't lie. It's the most bitter thing I have ever tasted, and I'm chef and have tasted plunty of bitter things. Also sometimes in Asian countrys they steer westerners away from dishes that contain cat and dog, as well as religious dishes and dishes that require certain rituals or ways of eating.

          1. re: chefbynx

            Never mind dog or cat but I've had friends get squeamish about fish heads being eaten or quail being served, as if it were flattened roadkill. And, the chew and spit it out, eg unpeeled shrimp turned off a few, too.

            1. re: chowser

              Some common foods prepared in a way that many Westerners are not used to:

              Small bits of chicken on the bone
              Cold, sliced chicken with the skin on
              cold noodles
              Bones in stew
              tofu, many different types
              clear noodles
              raw shrimp
              seafood in omelettes
              savory pancakes
              beans in dessert
              stews with peanuts or peanut butter
              marinated salads and vegetables
              head-on anything
              seafood in any way combined with beef/pork/ chicken

              Just to name a few. And that's well before you get to any 'exotic' ingredients or spices.

              1. re: Steve

                Interesting list. I realize I, like most people on here, am more adventurous than most Americans, but some of these just don't seem so odd in 2014. For me, the beans in dessert is the most "exotic" item on the list. I just don't like many asian desserts.

                When I was a kid, chicken fricassee was a staple in my mom's repertoire. Small bits and shreds of chicken, loaded with bones. I think the disappearance of bones in dishes has a lot to do with the increasing affluence of the US.

                1. re: Steve

                  I find your list very interesting. Maybe "whitebread" westerners are not used to many of the items you list (and I expect that that type of eater would not be in a Chinese restaurant looking to order what non-westerners eat), BUT
                  many of these items are very common in central, southern and eastern-European diets and traditional food.

                  Small bits of chicken on the bone:
                  Chicken Fricasee
                  Chicken Cacciatora
                  both of which are often made with the bones hacked into 2-3" pieces so as to let the goodness of the marrow into the dish

                  Cold sliced chicken with the skin on:
                  A warm weather staple of the Jewish Sabbath luncheon table

                  Cold Noodles:
                  Pasta Salad

                  Bones in stew:
                  Common way to make Lamb Stew, especially using lamb shanks

                  Marinated salads and vegetables:
                  Marinated fresh Cucumbers
                  Marinated vegetables are a staple on any Central (Hungarian, Roumainian, Czech, etc), Eastern (Polish, Russian) or Northern (Scandinavian) winter menu,
                  Gardiniera...pickled/marinated cauliflower, carrots, peppers, etc, a staple of the Italian south and very common in markets throughout the northeast US.
                  Marinated mushrooms

                  Seafood in omelettes
                  Lobster Omelette
                  Maine, Eastern Canada, New England
                  Shrimp (w/ or w/o) Cheese
                  Carolinas and the Gulf Coast of the US

                  Seafood combine with beef/pork/chicken
                  Surf and Turf
                  Bacon wrapped scallops
                  Clams Casino
                  Turkey with oyster dressing (incl. Sausage)

                  Untold millions of Europeans and Americans of European descent eat these items and don't consider them strange.

                  I'm 5th generation American, and it didn't take me 5 minutes to come up with this simple list of 'common' dishes that deny your list, and if I put 20 minutes of research into it I might come up with many more dishes.

                  Most Americans are not Anglo-Saxons and have far more food exposure than you posture.

                  1. re: bagelman01

                    I said in my post that "many Westerners are not used to", not that these things don't exist. Mere existence is not the same as prevalence. I'm speaking of the US.

                    Fro example, in the US, whole fish is mostly not served in restaurants. No whole fish in your typical diner. In Malopolksa, it is all over the place; you don't have to be near the sea to eat it.

                    I do agree that items like pickles and cole slaw are prevalent in the US.

                    1. re: Steve

                      I think we basically disagree about food that is widely available/served in the US.

                      "No whole fish in your typical diner"
                      Really, in this area, smelts, trout or even cold sardines served over a salad are common diner food (fish served whole), and yes, I know that is not the same look as a whole crispy bass served on a platter in a Chinese restaurant, but shows the fallacy of your claim.

                      Your original post never said in the US, you used the term westerner and I spoke about common food of European ancestry (the west) as opposed to Asian (the east).

                      You certainly ignored my points about surf and turf, clams casino and bacon wrapped scallops prevalent in the US or Lobster omelettes prevalent in New England. I think your post was very short sighted and you seem to be making excuses after you got called on it.

                      1. re: bagelman01

                        Oh, I don't know. I think you're picking nits. Steve didn't say his list was exclusive or absolute. There are exceptions to his list, to be sure, but it's a far cry to call it fallacious.

                        1. re: bagelman01

                          You are right in that I was thinking of the US. I apologize for that. As far as the rest is concerned, I will let others chime in on what they believe is commonplace in their area. All of the things I listed are pretty rare at a mainstream American restaurant where I live except that pickles and cole slaw would count as marinated vegetables.

                          1. re: Steve

                            I'm curious....where do you live in the USA?
                            Is there a Costco or Trader Joe's in the market area?
                            If so, bacon wrapped scallops and clams casino are likely in the freezer section.
                            Is your area supermarket part of a regional/national chain?
                            If so, I'm pretty sure you'll find jars of marinated vegetables in either Polish, Italian or other ethnic section of the International aisle.

                            Is there a fresh deli counter at your supermarket, or does your town/city have a deli.
                            Chances are Pasta Salad is offered for sale---cold noodles as sold/eaten in the US.

                            And yes I know that you say these are rare at a mainstream American restaurant where you live; which begs the question: Does your area have anything beside chain fast food and casual dining a la TGIF?

                            It is possible that you live in a culinary wasteland, but the vast majority of the American population lives in areas where these items I mentioned (American adaptations of European food) are commonly available.

                            It's June, school graduation, Father's Day, wedding celebrations are all upon us and even at non-ethnic affairs many of these items will be served.

                            Yesterday, there was a neighborhood picnic (in a totally mixed ethnic neighborhood) with grilled burgers and hot dogs. Sauerkraut, Cole Slaw, pickles, marinated cucumbers and pasta salad were brought by many. There were skewers available with bacon wrapped scallops, and one family made skewers with both jumbo shrimp and beef cubes with cherry tomatoes, onions and green peppers that had been marinated in red wine.

                            1. re: bagelman01

                              You make some fair points. And I apologize for not acknowledging the differnece between Eurpoean and American tastes. But I am trying to get to the big picture, especially as it relates tyo the topic of this thread and the "you no like" syndrome at Chinese restaurants.

                              Yes, pasta salad exists. Cole slaw and sauerkraut exists. But if you walk into an Asian supermarket, what you see completely blows away the choices at an American supermarket.

                              I listed 14 items I thought were markedly different than what the American consumer is used to. I stand by that list. Becuase I know there is a big differnece betwen naengmyun served in a stainless steel bowl with ice cubes in it in order to keep it ice cold, and supermarket pasta salad. There is a difference between clams casino and a Chinese casserole that has equal parts chunks of fish (skin and bone on) and chicken. The breadth, depth and commitment to head-on shrimp, fish, raw, fermented, soy, and many other products are so markedly different from what we otherwise eat that it is like entering another world. And that is well before you get to duck tongues and pig ears.

                              1. re: bagelman01


                                Steve chose not to directly reply to your question about where he lives, but given what you were insinuating I will (sorry Steve). He lives in the DC area (pop. 6 million+), which is among the most sophisticated and variegated culinary areas in the US, both restaurants and groceries. Far from a "culinary wasteland." I will grant that the DC area is short on eastern European cuisine, but I can assure you he is extremely familiar with dishes from that part of the world, and just about every other part of the world, and in general, in matters culinary, he is among the most serious chowhounds there are and knows what he is talking about.

                                As to his original post in this series and your comments about it, I think you are stretching your position to the breaking point. To cite one example, surf and turf (typically a piece of grilled steak on a plate with a piece of separately grilled or boiled lobster) is hardly an example of *mixing* meat and seafood in a dish in a manner anything like the stews and other Asian dishes Steve was talking about. In fact, s & t is really nothing more than putting two courses of a multi-course meal on the same plate -- there is no actual mixing which is the essence of what Steve was saying. Some of your other examples of fish/meat are to me actually cases of using the meat as a condiment, not as a central ingredient, and I would include things wrapped in bacon in that category. Many people refuse to eat stuffing with oysters in it, and many more simply don't make it that way for the same reason. Take another example -- while Jews may often eat cold boiled chicken with skin on, that fact doesn't change the reality that 90% or more of "Westerners" or Americans would probably gag at the thought of eating such a thing (many or most won't even eat cold fried chicken), so Steve's original point (in the big picture) holds. I could call out other examples you used, but will let it go. In short, IMO Steve's original post is well-taken, and your comments, while technically true, don't successfully support the broader point you are (in my view erroneously) trying to make.

                                1. re: johnb

                                  I think the basic answer is that items presented in Asian cooking/dishes look so unfamiliar to westerners that they may be afraid to try them, even if they are used to eating items that are similar in preparation or origin.

                                  I have traveled extensively in the Far East, albeit many years ago, and youngest Ms. B is born and adopted in China, so I am familiar with non-Chinese-American Chinese food.

                                  What I was doing was rejecting much of Steve's hypothesis as to why westerners don't eat/like/try 'authentic' Chinese food by showing that these westerners do eat foods that are: pickled, seafood and meat, eggs with seafood, cold chicken with skin, etc.

                                  When my children were young and rejected the offer to try a 'new and exotic' food I would always try to explain a familiar food that had some of the same basis/technique/ingredients. First time my eldest said no to Kinchi, I told her that it was New Kraut that wasn't sliced/shredded thinly.....it worked.

                                  1. re: bagelman01

                                    clam chowder usually contains bacon. low country boil? seafood and meat. i currently have pickled onions, pickled beets, pickled carrots, pickled cabbage (kimchi), pickled radish, pickled green beans, pickled watermelon rind, and more in my kitchen. i like chicken skin on, cold or hot, i eat shrimp with the head on (or fried up separately), i like shrimp or lox in omelets or scrambles, and i enjoy chilled pasta dishes (eastern and western both). i eat head cheese, pate, foie gras, tongue (many lovely french preparations), tripe, tendon, and more. i was born in california, raised in california and washington, went to college in iowa, and lived for 4 years in asia (japan and southeast asia, mostly thailand and cambodia). i think steve is overgeneralizing, and i agree with bagelman. the idea that these food items and combinations don't exist in the west is just silly.

                                    1. re: bagelman01

                                      >>>I think the basic answer is that items presented in Asian cooking/dishes look so unfamiliar to westerners that they may be afraid to try them, even if they are used to eating items that are similar in preparation or origin.<<

                                      If the westerner dislike is based on appearance, as you say is the "basic answer," then explain why do so many westerners, even white bread ones, chow down on Chinese American dishes that look pretty much the same as Chinese dishes that they refuse to eat, not to mention that appear different from anything they would normally eat. Sorry, but this new theory of yours is way more bonkers than anything Steve said.

                                      Of course one can always point to exceptions as you have, like surf and turf. I love 1000-year eggs for example, and I'm sure there are thousands of Westerners who do, but that doesn't alter the fact that the vast majority of westerners AS A GROUP gag at the thought of eating them. You are losing the forest being discussed in this thread by pointing to odd trees, and even odd leaves on trees, that are exceptions but don't change the fundamental rule and don't have any significant explanatory power related to the thesis at hand.

                                      The fact is that, when and if presented with many actual authentic Chinese dishes, the broad range of westerners reject them because they react against the ingredients, the combinations of ingredients, the methods of preparation, the smells, the appearance, the texture, the temperature, the spicing, the mouth feel, the color, some of the above, all of the above, etc. etc. And, returning to the basis of this thread, this rejection is why many Chinese restaurants try to keep westerners from ordering such things from a menu description, only to rejecting them and cost him money and goodwill.

                                      There are those westerners, a vast minority, who love these dishes. Some can be found posting on chowhound, but the culinary range of chowhounds is definitely not representative of the large body of westerners as a whole. There are also sub-groups of westerners who grew up with and eat dishes that bear ingredient similarities to Chinese dishes that westerners generally reject, but that in itself does not show that the ingredients and combinations of ingredients used in the Chinese dishes are not at the root of the rejection.

                                      In fact, I'm willing to bet that most of those Americans who eat, let's say certain pickled items as you cited earlier, would turn right around and reject the Chinese marinated items Steve cited; similar comment for the other categories you cited. And many Americans reject the very eastern European dishes that you are citing as proving it's not really the ingredients.

                                      Bottom line: in this case, a recitation of exceptions does not disprove the general rule. Let's keep focused on the forest and not get ourselves diverted into microscopic examination of the oddball trees.

                                      1. re: johnb

                                        that's a case of personal upbringing, not ethnicity or nationality. and since you're limiting scope to the usa as per an earlier post? it's a damn narrow definition of american, too. over 25% of americans today are immigrants themselves, or the first-generation children of immigrants. and those people are *just as american* as anyone else. my father was born in new york to immigrant jewish parents. he grew up eating schmaltz, gefilte fish, chrain, chopped liver, kishke, pickled herring, calves' foot jelly, and similar foods. i think it's safe to say that he's american. he was born here, raised here, speaks only english, has never lived outside the united states. and he grew up eating all sorts of things people here claim are only for "easterners" or "asians". my dad's family were from europe - not really asian. that said, any naturalized immigrant or first-generation immigrant is, in my opinion, *american*. that includes people of different races and ethnicities. so over 25% of americans are either immigrants themselves or the children of those immigrants; over 80% of americans live in urban areas, which in turn tend to have high concentrations of diverse food items. now there's some overlap, but i'd bet big bank that puts over 50% of americans either being raised in a home not eating "wonder bread and bologna and cheese 'product'", or at a bare minimum with good exposure to different foods and cuisines. just my 2 bits. not to mention upthread where i point out some very classic american exceptions to these silly notions. i think maybe the biggest contributing factors, in fact, are more likely to be: heritage/upbringing, location, and family income/education.

                                        heck, my mom was brought up in a town of 900 people in wyoming 200 miles from the buttcrack of nowhere, in the 50s-70s. she was raised eating rabbit, liver, tongue, sweetbreads, veal, lamb, whole fish (trout), pickled feet, head cheese, kidney, and more. she canned and pickled for their household as well. not to mention thanks to japanese internment camps, her town had a large japanese population. her best friend was japanese, so she grew up eating curry rice, onigiri, tempura, oyakodon, and other japanese homecooking dishes. her side of the family has been in this country since the mayflower (still technically immigrants but i digress). the notion that such foods aren't american and aren't still eaten in many "conventionally" american homes (or that said homes, no matter how isolated and rural, have no exposure to other cuisines) is quite simply silly.

                                        1. re: chartreauxx

                                          Seems to you everything others think is "silly."

                                          In fact, neither Steve or I ever said anything that differs from the thrust your two posts as they relate to American diversity. You are creating strawmen, saying we have said things we didn't say, and then using these phoney strawmen to suggest we are being "silly." Steve and I are fully aware that Americans are diverse and have a wide variety of likes and dislikes in matters of food. While we are grateful for your concern about our knowledge base, please be assured we do not have a need to be informed about the American melting pot.

                                          Reread my posts more carefully. The point is not that there aren't exceptions to the "whitebread rule;" the point is that they ARE exceptions and they don't provide you and bagelman with the basis to claim that, because these exceptions exist, Americans as a whole (or Westerners if you prefer) are therefore OK with certain allegedly "similar" Chinese dishes, as you have been doing.

                                          Let me restate it as clearly as I can: EVEN THOUGH AMERICA IS A DIVERSE PLACE, MOST, NOT ALL BUT MOST, AMERICANS, INCLUDING RECENT IMMIGRANTS AND THEIR OFFSPRING, REJECT MANY CHINESE DISHES. In fact, as I said above, there is no doubt that many of the folks you talk about with their diverse experiences and heritage also often reject Chinese dishes even though these rejected dishes have some analogues in their own cuisines.

                                          1. re: johnb

                                            Just serve them some stinky tofu or fermented shrimp paste .....that will change their tune.

                          2. re: bagelman01

                            I think that the list is actually incomplete. Here is a more expanded version-and this is actually Chinese restaurant ingredients that American's may not be so friendly towards:

                            Goose Stomach
                            Pork Intestine
                            Duck Tongue
                            Chicken, Duck and Fish liver
                            Cocks comb
                            Fish head
                            Pig feet
                            Pig ears
                            Pig snout
                            Pig skin
                            Pork or beef tripe
                            Tongue (beef or pork)
                            Lamb ribs
                            Stinky tofu
                            Stinky fruit
                            Bamboo pith
                            Fish sperm

                            Just to name a few. What do you think? U.S. seems resigned to Fish, Chicken, Beef, Lamb.

                            1. re: foodlovergeneral

                              Yum. I have eaten 17 of those items. I want more!!! Ok, so I am half Japanese, 1/4 Chinese. Luckily, I can find all kinds of "bizarre" ingredients in my city so I can experiment!!! Bring it on!!!! Don't forget sea urchin, sea cucumber, silkworm pupae and other bugs, goat, pig's head, whole roasted baby pig, chicken and duck feet, animal hearts, brains, salted eggs, fermented black soy beans....this list could go on and on and I could eat on and on... Hard to find in restaurants unless you know the cook. I had fish head soup with eyeballs at this one place (yes, the secret Chinese menu). Totally freaked my friend out! Hilarious, especially when I tried to put an eyeball on her plate!! Alright, so I'm mean... Now I want to head to my local Asian market and find some weird food. Btw, I have silkworm pupae in my freezer!

                      2. re: chefbynx

                        "Also sometimes in Asian countrys they steer westerners away from dishes that contain cat and dog,"
                        Although I'd yet to meet another Chinese or Asian person who'd actually eaten dog or cat, I guess we have to live with this stereotypical image.

                          1. re: Gastronomos

                            this article basically says nothing and sources the daily mail as their source which is a joke

                            dog meat definitely exists in china, but its not common by any means at least not in any major metro i've been to. ive seen it once in chengdu in 2002 and my friends uncle told me it was one of the only restaurants that still serve it bc young people dont want to eat it. I'm sure you can find it like weird markets in guangzhou where they have everything under the sun, but the idea that you just find dog meat all over china is an antiquated idea (i'm not sure how prevalent it was a long time ago). there is a fairly strong stigma against it now, its viewed as low class

                            1. re: Lau

                              I got the impression when I was in China and Korea that it was viewed as 'old people's food' and heavily marginalized.

                              1. re: Lau

                                There were dog meat stands in Jiantan, Taipei, when we lived there (1980s) and I saw an ordinary restaurant advertising it on their window in Shanghai near the Yiyuan in 2007, as well as found a dog meat cookbook in one of the big bookstores there. It's not common but it exists. It was always a tonic food, so more likely to appeal to the older crowd at any time, I suppose.

                                1. re: buttertart

                                  It's much more common in Guangdong (and possibly the Northeast, though I'm much more familiar with the former). Leizhou is apparently "the" city for 狗肉.

                              2. re: Gastronomos

                                Dog meat is considered extremely warming. That being said Chinese culture views food as medicinal generally. So every food has it's place and characteristics based off of Chinese Medicine Practice. I saw Dog meat at a market in Yangshou. It was somewhat of a tourist trap but the guys running the butchery were definitely not keen about photos and watched me like a hawk. But it is eaten, just that now it's sensationalized by mass media. The rest of the world treats factory raised chickens, pigs, cows, and farmed fish just as bad. China just takes it to another level of abuse. Just watch the South Park episode "Whale Whores".

                              3. re: klyeoh

                                I've met plenty of Koreans who eat dog meat.
                                It's popular there (I think there is "health" considerations, kinda like going to a chinese medicine shop...)

                          2. This is a recurring complaint. The assumption seems to be that the vast majority of the non-Chinese guests are not interested in these dishes, and I think that is probably correct. Producing an English translation is not as easy as you think, and the effort is likely to backfire: Will it bring them more business, as you believe, or will it instead lead to more people ordering dishes that they don't like and then bad-mouthing the restaurant, or people being put off by seeing strange things on the menu and being afraid to eat anything at all?

                            It's unfortunate that the staff continue to discourage you after you have clearly indicated your eagerness and openness, but try to understand their point of view. The vast majority of customers that they deal with all day long are not like you. So look at it as a Chowhound challenge, and you might appreciate the food even more.

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

                            how do you order from the Chinese-only menu?

                            What is the Proper Way to Order in a Chinese restaurant to receive a spicy dish?

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: DeppityDawg

                              Hey, DD! You want to go another round on this one? :-)

                              After re-reading the first of the threads you posted, I'm reminded of one basic point: people who are (or appear to be) Chinese will never understand the frustration of having the food they want routinely hidden from them or denied to them. They just don't. When they walk into a restaurant, no one automatically hands them the American menu. The thing they need to understand is that it doesn't even occur to most Americans that there is another menu they should ask for. Why should it? I'm not aware of any other type of restaurant in America that has two completely different menus and that routinely segregates the clientele by offering one or the other, but not both.

                              A while back I took my parents to a restaurant I'd previously only eaten at with Chowhounds. Because I'd only eaten with groups that were ordering off the "real" menu I wasn't even aware that there was an Anglo menu until I started looking for dishes I'd had there before and couldn't find them. Once I inquired about them, the Anglo menu was whisked away and the real menu was provided. Note that both menus are in English so it isn't even an issue of translation -- it's simply about the restaurant making assumptions about its customers. I don't think it's unreasonable to be miffed about being stereotyped!

                              What's particularly mystifying to me is why so many Chinese restaurants are missing out on an important marketing angle. There are thousands of generic Chinese-American restaurants out there -- there are probably a dozen within a one-mile radius from my house! If you have something to offer that would make you stand out from the crowd, then why wouldn't you?

                              BTW, my "tricks" are still working for me. Recently my sister and I walked into a Chinese restaurant at random. I asked what vegetables they had fresh that day. I don't even remember what I was offered and decided on, but it wasn't the default vegetable the other Anglo diners were getting. The people at the next table actually asked what it was and how to order it.

                              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                I do understand the frustration of non-Chinese speaking customers (and keep in mind that this includes many people who "appear to be Chinese", who in some ways must be the most frustrated group of all). I just don't quite understand all the complaining. In other situations, Chowhounds are eager and proud to go to great lengths for "authentic" chow: pay more, travel farther, speak Spanish/Italian/Russian/etc., interact with uncooperative staff, go to restaurants that are dirty, inaccessible, unwelcoming, … And the fact that they are surrounded by "local" people that didn't have to jump through any hoops to get the same food makes the Chowhounds' achievement all the more satisfying. They don't feel miffed about being stereotyped and treated like an outsider: They crave it!

                                The best food in Chinese restaurants sometimes involves obstacles. Some of these obstacles don't exist for Chinese customers, for whatever reason (intentional or not, indifference or malicious racism or lack of resources or whatever). Some true Chowhounds like you, Ruth, look for ways around the obstacles. But so many other posters seem to be reduced to helpless, resentful whining.

                                There may be some restaurants that will flat-out refuse to serve certain dishes to non-Chinese customers. That is unacceptable, and such places should be named and shamed. If they just make you work harder to get those dishes, consider it the price of authenticity. (Rest assured, Chinese customers also have to pay a price to enjoy their authentic Chinese experience. Just not at the restaurant.)

                              2. re: DeppityDawg

                                I recently listened to a radio podcast that addressed this issue (sorry, I can't recall which podcast) and offered the same explanation, namely, it is the belief of the owner/management of the restaurant that these Chinese-language menu offerings would not appeal to the majority of non-Chinese customers. That said, the person being interviewed suggested going to the restaurant on an off-peak day, at an off-peak time, when the host/owner could spend some time going over the menu with you, item by item. There are a few of benefits to this approach -- you'll have an opportunity to become familiar with the "secret" menu, you could try the items that sound appealing to you, and you and the owner/host will get to know each other. That bodes well for future visits, too, when that same person might be able to recommend other "off-the-regular-menu" items.

                              3. On option if you are really curious and committed is to photograph or scan the Chinese menu and post to Chowhound to see if anyone can/will translate for you. There is a run of the mill Americanized Chinese restaurant in my neighborhood, but they have a separate Cantonese menu on their website. I posted on my local board with a link to the menu, and had a translation within 24 hours. If you are already knowledgeable when you show up and order, there is usually less hassle.

                                3 Replies
                                1. re: mpjmph

                                  This is a fantastic idea! The Chinese places by us do not post or give out the "secret" menu to non-Chinese though. Hmm.

                                  1. re: mpjmph

                                    Along with a translation, try to get the correct pronunciation of the Chinese name, and try ordering it that way.

                                    (I'm half asian, so I can get away with it. YMMV.)

                                    1. re: mpjmph

                                      If your phone runs Android, you can run the photo through Google Translate for instant results.

                                    2. I would advise you to be patient. If you like the food and really want to try the "secret" menu, go there a couple times, speak with the staff, ask them for recommendations, try some of the stuff on the normal menu that's not "Americanized". And definitely, if you see stuff on other people's tables that look interesting, ask for it! I'd be willing to bet that once they get to know you a bit, they will be more willing to open up and offer more interesting items.

                                      I'm Chinese, but am always interested in trying the "secret" stuff at other ethnic restaurants and its generally worked for me. I get it, it's not fair, but I've seen more than my fair share of people asking for special dishes or for things extra spicy, only to send them back and ask for a refund. So, it's not just generalization for the sake of doing so, but because it impacts their P&L to not be selective.

                                      Hope this helps and best of luck!

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: FattyDumplin

                                        I agree with the idea of becoming a regular and becoming friendly with the staff, but it's not a guarantee of anything. Most of the "traditional" Chinese restaurants in our area do the seperate menu thing, so we're used to the procedure. At one Sichuan restaurant, we became friendly with one waitress who had better than average English skills and she would insist on taking our table when we came in. She knew our tastes and always had good recommendations for us. She even modified some dishes for our then very young child, but modified them in a way that Chinese parents would for their own children. It helped give our kid a taste for the real thing. Alas, that restaurant is no more.

                                        Another Sichuan restaurant in our area, same story. Except, for some reason, only the female wait staff will serve us the same food as the Chinese patrons get. The young men, all with excellent English skills, insist on bringing us Americanized versions of what we ordered, because "we wouldn't like it otherwise." Funny, we like it just fine when we get it every other time. And yes, we don't return as frequently now as we used to.

                                      2. I've come across this a few times myself, & as a definitely adventurous diner - especially as far as Asian dishes are concerned - I too find it frustrating (& sometimes a bit insulting) that I'm strongly discouraged from the "secret" menu.

                                        In fact, just a few weeks ago hubby & I were at a new restaurant that was a "sister" to another authentic Szechaun place we'd dined at. Although the dishes we'd had & enjoyed at the first place were displayed in large photos in the lobby of the 2nd, they weren't on the menu. When I asked if they had "another" menu for the "Szechuan" dishes, a very puzzled-looking waiter finally brought us a one sheet menu of "special" dishes. Even then some of the dishes we wanted were missing. We finally were able to convey what we wanted, & they did make it for us. We DID enjoy the food immensely & complemented the place on them. But it was like pulling teeth to get them. Geesh.

                                        1. Forget trying to get the waiters to translate. Does "fish flavoured pork" [and that's the correct translation] really tell you what the dish is?

                                          I suggest a heavy use of the online world.
                                          First, http://www.pleco.com/ [there's also an app]
                                          you can photograph/scan the characters and get a definition.
                                          Then use
                                          http://www.nciku.com/ [there's also an app]
                                          or just regular Google to look up the characters and the English combined. It'd be a good idea to search Google Images.

                                          20 Replies
                                          1. re: Kris in Beijing

                                            National Lampoon ran a parody Chinese menu many, many years ago. It was funny because it didn't veer too far from actual terms. The ones I can remember are "fish in funny smell" and "twice-abused pork." However most Chinese menu translations work as self-parody.

                                            1. re: ferret

                                              Ah, the 'poon. The advent of spell-check has reduced (somewhat) the entertainment value in Chinese menus. I still collect them, but I rarely bother playing "Find the typo" anymore.

                                            2. re: Kris in Beijing

                                              . Does "fish flavoured pork" [and that's the correct translation] really tell you what the dish is?

                                              I don't know if it's the same dish, but many years ago I ordered what was described as Chinese Meatloaf with Dried Salt Cod. When asked how it was prepared, I was told it was steamed with the fish on top. Now I've had Dried Salt Cod, or Baccala, many times before this day......and the dish described sounded very innocuous.

                                              Boy, was I wrong. While the Ground Pork Meatloaf was very tasty.....it was swimming in grease and the Dried Salt Cod were Small Steak Cuts with bones that were hard as rocks and inedible due the saltiness for me. Apparently, the fish is not soaked in water to draw out the salt like the Dried Salt Cod fillets how most European recipes are made, which I was used too. A very bad surprise.

                                              I was told this was a very common dish served in many Chinese family homes. meat loaf good, dried fish bad.

                                              1. re: fourunder

                                                I believe that "fish flavored pork" is yu hsiang pork. If so there's no fish whatsoever in it.

                                                1. re: jgg13

                                                  One etymology according to Barbara Tropp, is that Yú Xiāng Ròu (渝湘肉) - does not mean "fish flavored pork," which has been widely used on many, if not every translation in menus today. 渝 Yú is an ancient term for the Jialing River in Sichuan and a current abbreviation for the city of Chongqing, as well as for Sichuan itself.

                                                  湘 Xiāng refers to the Xiang River in Hunan and today has come to also mean Hunan. So the real name of this dish would be "Sichuan-Hunan Pork" - mixing "the piquant flavors for which Sichuan and Hunan are best known" according to Tropp.

                                                  Because Chinese is full of so many homophones, it is possible semi-literate Chinese restaurant workers rendered 渝湘 Yú Xiāng as 魚香 Yú Xiāng, hence "fish fragrant." Nothing fishy about that!

                                                  1. re: scoopG

                                                    Fish-flavoured Pork is the Chinese equivalent of "chicken fried steak"

                                                    No fish in the 1st, no chicken in the 2nd.

                                                    Just a "standard seasoning profile for fish," applied to pork.

                                                    I've seen the deep etymology argument before, but IMHO it "feels" over-thought, Noah Webster trying to explain Justin Wilson : )

                                                    Edit-- a link

                                                    1. re: Kris in Beijing

                                                      I've always heard it described as "in the style of fish" or something along those lines. I've also always figured that wasn't a direct translation but it helps to get the point across better.

                                                    2. re: scoopG

                                                      I'm firmly in the Barbara Tropp camp myself. If the seasonings were typically usedonly with fish, I could see the other being true. I expect it is a matter of the more common and simpler characters being used and coming to be accepted as correct.

                                                      1. re: buttertart

                                                        I agree. Plus I much prefer her scholarly approach - she knew her stuff (ed tofu)! Is there any other language with more homonyms than Chinese?

                                                        1. re: scoopG

                                                          East Asian studies at Pton will do that to a person. Re homonyms, not that I know of! Same tones for the substitute characters, right?

                                                            1. re: scoopG

                                                              Aren't the Cantonese pronunciations of "渝湘" and "魚香" slightly different?

                                                              I'm inclined to lean a little more towards what Kris in Beijing suggested. Any number of Chinese recipes (e.g. on the web) would contain what seems to be the established "魚香" phrasing, whatever the derivation. It seems a little puzzling that literate folks (not semi-literate waiters) would so readily accept or transmit that phrasing if it was incorrect...

                                                              1. re: huiray

                                                                The first character of both phrases (渝 and 魚) sound the same. The last two are similar except that they have distinctly different starting sounds. The 湘 character has a "S" starting sound. The 香 character has a "H" starting sound.

                                                                However, they have the exact same sounds in Mandarin.

                                                                For the truly bored, here's a site where you can hear them in Mandarin and Cantonese:

                                                                1. re: raytamsgv

                                                                  Yes, thanks, I'm aware of what you say.** Which is why I "asked" scoopG about it. :-) After all, the folks who ran Chinese restaurants in a great deal of the world outside China, and in the USA for that matter, who first drew up these menus putatively written by semi-literate waiters were Cantonese folks speaking Cantonese or Toishan, not Putonghua/Mandarin speakers. In fact, what would the two phrases sound like in Toishan? (I don't speak Toishan)

                                                                  **Even then, 魚 is pronounced yu2 by itself, certainly in the Cantonese I grew up with...and I think I've heard the combination 魚香 as both yu2heung1 and yu4heung1.

                                                                  1. re: huiray

                                                                    To be tedious, Sichuanese is closer to Putonghua than to Toishan.

                                                                    1. re: huiray

                                                                      Perhaps the answer lies in an old Crosstalk...or maybe even a contemporary one from the Canadian Da Shan:


                                                                      Da Shan’s Solo Crosstalk:

                                                                2. re: scoopG

                                                                  I am convinced. Good ole (late lamented) Barbara Tropp. I remember being rather outraged when I first read it, but it definitely makes sense.

                                                      2. re: fourunder

                                                        Sounds like one of my favorite "peasant" home-style dishes + my non-Chinese hubby loves it too. It's meant to be eaten with lots of steamed rice, and some feel the more fermented the fish is, the better.

                                                        The salted fish is meant to be used more as a condiment than the main ingredient. Sometimes the fish is deboned, and mixed into the steamed pork hash.

                                                        More "up-scale" Chinese tend to serve a much milder version, if at all, as the smell & flavors have been deemed to be offensive to non-Chinese diners.

                                                        1. re: fourunder

                                                          Hmm, I had missed this until I saw Stephanie Wong's post just now.

                                                          Yes, what she said. I've known this dish as a home-style dish (鹹魚蒸豬肉), Cantonese/Hakka version, where the salted dried fish (often pre-soaked briefly to soften it first) is usually deboned and chopped in with the minced pork then the patty steamed (in an enameled metal dish), as Stephanie also mentions as one way of doing it. This is what my mother also made. It is *definitely* eaten with rice, as smallish bites accompanying mouthfuls of boiled or steamed rice. The dish when done should not be "swimming in grease" unless excessively fatty pork was used and/or needlessly extra oil was added.

                                                          In your case where the fish (with bones) seems to be on top of the patty, the bones aren't meant to be eaten anyway. :-)

                                                          It isn't clear from your post if you had your dish with rice or not?

                                                          The quality of the fish also matters and affects the final product. "Bad" salted fish will have a nasty pungent smell and harsher taste, while high quality stuff has a pleasant smell and (less salty) smoother taste. Of course, "pleasant" is in the nose of the smeller. :-)

                                                          1. re: huiray

                                                            this is a common cantonese dish, i ate it growing up. the version described sounds all wrong. it should be a nice minced pork patty thing that has some flavor from the salted fish. it an awesome dish with some right

                                                      3. Because it's almost impossible to translate some of those "secret menu" items into English. And if they did, you probably wouldn't want to order it based on the description.

                                                        For example, if you saw "Buddha's Jumps Over The Wall" (or 佛跳牆) on the menu, would you order it?

                                                        7 Replies
                                                        1. re: ipsedixit

                                                          Exactly this. What westerners don't understand is that alot of chinese dishes have very romanticized names. It's not easy translating all the dishes and explaining what they are especially with very foreign/exotic foods (all those different types of fungi, herbs, vegetable greens). And these more interesting ingredients are generally off-putting to westerners except for a few exception such as OP. Would you want to eat coagulated pork blood jello with chives?

                                                          1. re: ipsedixit

                                                            yes I would order Budda Jumps over the Wall and have.... but it WAS printed in English - a.nd I am adventurous, oh yes and ants climbing on a tree (I think that was the name)

                                                            1. re: estnet

                                                              Ants climb a tree- I have to find a restaurant that has it, I read about it years ago in Sunset magazine and havent' seen it on a menu since.

                                                              1. re: EWSflash

                                                                I read about Ants climb a Tree years ago in a library Chinese cookbook, and have made it occasionally. Apart from the name, it's actually not that exotic. Certainly no more so than Pocked Marked Ma's Tofu. But I agree, I haven't seen it on a menu. If I did I'd order in an instant, just to see how it compares with my home made version.

                                                                Chinese sausage is another item that I see all the time in the grocery, but rarely in a restaurant. I learned about that in my first Chinese cookbook, a little one from Hong Kong.

                                                            2. re: ipsedixit

                                                              I didn't think of this till now :-) although I make it myself and eat it from time to time, and it *is* offered in some "down home" type Chinese restaurants -
                                                              "Big Maternal Aunt Marries Off Daughter" (大姨媽嫁女).

                                                              [Copy and Google the Chinese phrase...;-) ]

                                                                1. re: RUK

                                                                  Yes, thank you - that illustrates what I meant. :-)

                                                            3. There are some workarounds for this.

                                                              1) Offer feedback to management/ownership, or wait until near or after closing hours and see if you can get face time with owners and chef, but not in an intrusive way. State your intentions politely and see if they would be willing to translate the menu or even perhaps add pictures to the walls. Yes some specials could be seasonal, but not always.

                                                              2) Find your local chowhound "chowdown" mailing list, or proactively start a group dedicated to trying out the specials (Facebook groups/events for example). Find a Chinese reader/speaker and someone who is fairly knowledgeable about the food on the wall, make a reservation and decide on the dishes. If need be, figure out the banquet style budget (let's say you have 10 folks, that's a good enough sampling for multiple dishes) but do not order from the "banquet" dinner set menu, and do it on a weeknight when the restaurant is less busy. With enough time and experience and talking to owners/chef (if possible) to find out what they can do best, order or pre-order set dishes (particularly ones that take a lot of time/labor to prepare). I've studied what the top bloggers in Hong Kong are doing, and this is how they organize social events...they hold and host dinners for upwards of 130 to 200 people at many mid to high end Cantonese/Chinese seafood restaurants (some even Michelin star) except these are just social eating gatherings and not a wedding dinner, and try to seek out the best dishes, some even off menu. This is great for a number of reasons...networking, a chance to learn and appreciate new food styles and approaches, and of course a chance to brag on social media and blogs.

                                                              In some ways one might have to position this kind of request to the restaurant as a means of them getting more exposure and interest, and thus business....would they rather be the go to place for authentic traditional dishes, or whatever the local demographic seemingly prefers?

                                                              37 Replies
                                                              1. re: K K

                                                                Pre-ordering is a great idea -- best way to access all kinds of specialities that they not normally serve because of ingredients and prep time. Off menu dishes, so long as they are classical, are often fair game at many Chinese places; it can be take a bit of negotiation between patron and chef to work out what the kitchen is able/willing to make and what they're best at. The chowdowns in SF used to work pretty well that way.

                                                                1. re: limster

                                                                  Well at this rate it is just you and I talking to another... because we are of a similar fold.

                                                                  The old definition of the chowhound was to ultimately seek out deliciousness in unexpected places. One really has to put forth an effort just to get some of the best a restaurant and chef has to offer, and that is inherently true in upscale Cantonese dining, and even at many Japanese run Japanese restaurants. It shouldn't take a Herculean effort to study blogs locally and abroad, and of tourists from their experiences, in both English (and thus finding blogs that have both English and Chinese) to dig deeper into the dishes, or google translate for example, even if the translation is hideous for the most part. Or printing out web pages of interesting dishes, taking it to the restaurant and ask owner/mgmt/chef, "can you make this?", of course with some knowledge of what the restaurant is potentially capable of.

                                                                  The other sad thing of note, is that even the media continues to portray this "secret menu" thing, like if you watch Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations: Disappearing Manhattan, where Chris Cheung and Tony eat at this basement dive called Hop Kee. I'm sorry to say, but many of the "phantom menu" dishes from that show look like crap, and even I wouldn't want to eat it. Pan fried flounder, really? The names of the dishes may be "old school Cantonese" but the execution and end result looks so different than what it should be.

                                                                  So pre-ordering would only work at a place where the restaurant produces good quality of food...it doesn't have to be an expensive high end seafood VIP dim sum restaurant (sometimes those are the worst places to pull this off).

                                                                  1. re: K K

                                                                    So Limster and KK -- how would you feel if you were handed a special dessert menu that omitted the cheese course because "Asians don't like cheese" and you didn't even realize the restaurant offered a cheese course (just as many Chinese restaurants in the US don't have "special" menus most restaurants in the US don't offer cheese courses) until you saw it on other tables.

                                                                    You'd be cool with that, right? It would be your fault for not researching the restaurant thoroughly beforehand, or not thinking to ask if they'd given you a special menu that omitted something, and not an unpleasant instance of racial profiling, right?

                                                                      1. re: EWSflash

                                                                        Oh, I forgot the best part: even after you find out about the cheese course, they refuse to let you order it, because they don't think you'll like it. You have to go back at off hours, name a bunch of French cheeses you like, and form a relationship with them!

                                                                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                          While the cheese analogy maybe apt on some levels, it has severe limitations when it comes to "secrete menus" with Chinese (or other ethnic) restaurants.

                                                                          The reason why Chinese restaurants will have "secret" menus is because historically they were segregated, ostracized and maybe even ridiculed because of the foods that they ate in their homeland.

                                                                          I still remember a story that was told to me about a group of college age kids who were trying to decide what to eat, and when someone suggested Korean, one member of the group said, "Yuck, don't they eat dog?!!"

                                                                          This type of reaction to traditional homeland food does not happen with European cuisines in America. So the fact that a cheese course maybe skirted from a Chinese diner is very different than a "secret" Chinese menu item being secreted away from an American diner.

                                                                          From the Chinese restaurateur's perspective, opening the Pandora's Box of "secret" menu items exposes the real possibilities of segregation, and perhaps ridicule. Those memories are bad, and very visceral. Perhaps it's not as popularized in the common vernacular as segregation in the South with African-Americans, but believe me, it existed and still exists.

                                                                          Now, thing maybe very different (and better) these days -- esp. amongst the Chowhounds -- but like I said somewhere else upthread, very very very few people in the world are Chowhounds.

                                                                          1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                            You know, that's the first reasonable explanation I've seen. I don't think it's valid (a) most places, and (b) as much now as before, but I can understand a deep-rooted feelings that come from past experiences.

                                                                            On the other hand, hiding these foods just perpetuates the idea that there's something yucky or shameful about them that requires that they be hidden.

                                                                            1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                              It also, in my opinion creates a tendecny to "push even further". I've bumped into quite a few cases where the general opinion of a few (and I am by no means trying to denigrate all, or even most of Chinese resturanteurs) resturuant owners seemed to be that not only would non Chinese patrons not like the more "exotic" ingredianted items of the menu, but that they would balk at ANY item ouside of the "American Classic" menu. For example, there have been a few cases where I have had difficulty at a resturant getting orders of "hong kong style" lo mein (i.e. the steamed kind with the toppings and the bowl of broth on the side) even when it was on the English Language menu, because they assume that any gwai lo who orderd lo mein would only be willing to eat the Northern stir fried version they were familiar with from the neigborhood takeout. Or a funnier version, I used to know a little place where the owner made a really good off menu West Lake soup. One day I said, "you know, if you put this on the menu it would probably sell quite well" to which he replied "Oh I couldn't do that, most non Chinese people would NEVER eat anything with coriander leaves and black mushrooms in it." Internally, I rolled my eyes a little, as next door on one side was a Mexican Resturant (whose speciality was tacos Oxaca style, heavy on the cilantro) and on the other side was a vegatarian place that made HEAVY use of Shittakes.

                                                                              1. re: jumpingmonk

                                                                                Like the payoff to that story very much.

                                                                              2. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                The vast majority of non-Chowhounds I know would walk out of a restaurant if they so much as see there are funky items on the menu or specials posted on the wall which disgust them. Imagine your average family with kids walking into a restaurant and spying a sign about braised frog, pig intestines, and rabbit. They'd be out the door in a flash, and that's even before they get to the bull penis.

                                                                                1. re: Steve

                                                                                  That's what I've been trying to explain all along but might be hard for CH to accept that they are not the norm. It turns a good portion of the population off, sadly.

                                                                                  1. re: Steve

                                                                                    Let's not forget.....Cowboy Dick

                                                                                      1. re: huiray

                                                                                        I cannot seem to recall the blog with the crazy translations....I know it's been posted here by many.....but more along the lines of the ones found in the following links:



                                                                                        1. re: fourunder

                                                                                          Ah. Well, mis-translations is a little different from "correct" translations of the terms for offal and the "nasty bits" that USAmericans and other Westerners seem to shy from... :-)

                                                                                    1. re: Steve


                                                                                      As a related point - even with something as ubiquitous as Vietnamese Phở, found all over the USA nowadays and something that is no longer an exotic dish, common even - the squeamishness of so many folks to the "full accompaniment" of ingredients is prevalent, where tripe and tendon (e.g.) is avoided or shuddered at.

                                                                                      1. re: huiray

                                                                                        On food court Vietnamese shop felt the need to warn me that the noodle salad plate that I ordered included shredded pork skin.

                                                                                        On the other hand, Korean shops in the Seattle area, don't hide the offal.

                                                                                        1. re: huiray

                                                                                          great thread. i am thoroughly enjoying it.
                                                                                          but for all you non-believers on the anglo-shunning of unfamiliar foods...
                                                                                          i lived in montana for 5 years. once for xmas, i made a leg of lamb. 3 out of the 5 invited guests had never had lamb. y'see, in montana, most didn't eat sheep back in the 1970s. the reason was that montana cattle ranchers hated sheep ranchers. eitherway, the local anglos were pretty darned close minded, even on something as innocuos (to me) as a leg of lamb. i understand the "you won't like it" approach by the chinese restranteurs. i am half japanese. lived for many years with the "ewww" and "yuck" responses, and ironically the "you won't like it" from chinese and korean restaurants.

                                                                                          1. re: ritabwh


                                                                                            I second your remarks about the lamb-aversion of many "Anglo" folks, at least here in the US. My experience has also been similar. Chowhounds probably eat much more lamb but it was odd how many "ordinary" folks looked askance at me when I mentioned that I was making/made roast lamb, or lamb stew, etc etc.

                                                                                            1. re: huiray

                                                                                              And here I thought it was a regional thing. When I was a kid living in the South, my NY-born mom would have her sister bring us lamb chops when she came to visit. When I moved back South as an adult I still had trouble finding lamb in the stores. When we made a leg of lamb for a neighborhood pot luck we discovered that many of our neighbors had never tried lamb before.

                                                                                              1. re: huiray

                                                                                                Thank goodness you didn't mention the goat. That could get you shreiks of horror in some corners.

                                                                                              2. re: ritabwh

                                                                                                Keens Chophouse in NYC has been serving what they call mutton chops for probably over 100 years. I suspect their servers don't deny people the opportunity to order it and say "no, you won't like it." They seem to be doing it right, and doing pretty well.

                                                                                                I don't think anyone has suggested that not all people like all foods or some don't care for unfamiliar foods. That's really not what this thread is about.

                                                                                                1. re: tommy

                                                                                                  It's Keen's Steakhouse.
                                                                                                  Those "mutton Chops" might have been truly mutton once upon a time. In modern times, there is some dispute about whether it is really lamb rather than mutton. :-)

                                                                                                  BTW, "mutton" in South Asia usually refers to GOAT.

                                                                                                  With regards to your comment –
                                                                                                  "I don't think anyone has suggested that not all people like all foods or some don't care for unfamiliar foods. That's really not what this thread is about."
                                                                                                  – I think the issue of "you won't like it" has been a core element of the discussion on this thread.

                                                                                                  1. re: huiray

                                                                                                    I don't think anyone has suggested that not all people like all foods or some don't care for unfamiliar foods. That's really not what this thread is about.

                                                                                                    1. re: tommy

                                                                                                      I think many posts here have indeed "suggested that not all people like all foods or some don't care for unfamiliar foods".

                                                                                                      1. re: huiray

                                                                                                        I believe I tripped over my wording. With respect to ritbabwh's comment "but for all you non-believers on the anglo-shunning of unfamiliar foods", it's hardly a shock that not all people like all foods.

                                                                                                        1. re: tommy

                                                                                                          i know chowhounders are more likely to be adventuresome and willing to try the new and unusual. my comment was meant to illustrate that something that many may consider mundane as lamb, is unfamiliar to many. i think the talk about pho, tripe, etc. etc. reminded me of my montana experiences.
                                                                                                          when i go to a chinese or korean restaurant and i have to "reveal" that i do not speak chinese or korean, there is a noticeable change in demeanor. nothing rude, just different.

                                                                                                    2. re: huiray

                                                                                                      Personally, I prefer goat over sheep. For eating, not for wearing.

                                                                                                  2. re: ritabwh

                                                                                                    As I was reading your post, before I even got the the part where you said you are half Japanese, I was thinking that I've seen lamb served on Iron Chef and it doesn't seem to be popular with Japanese people, either.

                                                                                                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                                      ruth, yeh, well, my mother may be from japan, but my father is irish-american. we had plenty of leg of lamb for easter and xmas. our meals at home were truly half and half like me.

                                                                                                        1. re: ricepad

                                                                                                          wonderful. i thank you for sharing this with me, ricepad.

                                                                                                2. re: Steve

                                                                                                  @Steve: I revisited an older thread and was reminded of this there too. Even Chowhounds don't like such stuff. :-)

                                                                                                  (Darn, I forgot to cite your post here in one of my posts downthread...http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/8573...)

                                                                                                3. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                                  I tend to agree with you on a and b, and further disagree that European cuisines are not ostracized or face stigma.
                                                                                                  I know plenty of Polish, Russian , Ukrainian, Greek or even German dishes that many Americans woudl turn their noses up at, or even make ridicule. Heck I have made fun of some of them myself when I was a kid.

                                                                                                  1. re: PenskeFan

                                                                                                    The French are certainly well known for kidney, liver, sweetbreads (talk about a euphemism!), tripe, snails, frogs legs, snout, etc.

                                                                                                    Tongue, somehow, gets passed over. Even the French don't eat much tongue.

                                                                                                    1. re: Steve

                                                                                                      It's pretty popular in Mexico, though.

                                                                                                      1. re: EWSflash

                                                                                                        Oh yes, I very much enjoy tongue. Bolivian places near me do a good job of it.

                                                                                  2. I have read a book called "Swallowing Clouds" by A Zee. It was a great help to start deciphering menus, since it follows the development of many the characters used in foods. It helped me to identify pork vs chicken vs fish dishes as well as identifying the soup from the dumplings.

                                                                                    Now I need to own a copy so that I can read it again, as my memory gets fuzzier.

                                                                                    2 Replies
                                                                                    1. re: thinks too much

                                                                                      Thank you so much for this suggestion. My local library has a copy and I am so excited to get to
                                                                                      study it. Have you seen "The good food of Szechwan" by Delfs?

                                                                                      1. re: paul balbin

                                                                                        No. Thanks for the suggestion though. Sounds like I'll be ordering something from my library now!

                                                                                    2. FWIW, if you search "authentic Chinese" just on Chowhound, all boards all years, you get 2,700 hits.

                                                                                      I think the fundamental problem leading to this issue is that so many Chinese restauranteurs have had Americans order these dishes and not like them, and send them back so the owner loses his revenue, or they've heard about the problem from others -- it's probably a common assumption among these owners that that is what will happen if they offer these dishes to Americans, so they don't. Let's face it -- folks like us are in the vast minority among Chinese restaurant customers, who mostly just want to shovel it in from the buffet.

                                                                                      Some of the workarounds suggested above are good.

                                                                                      I seem to recall a previous discussion about a card printed with both English and Chinese, explaining what was truly wanted to the server, that was helpful. Does anyone else remember that?

                                                                                      2 Replies
                                                                                      1. re: johnb

                                                                                        I recall that discussion. The card was asking for spicy food, but I imagine one could have a card that says something to the effect of "I'd like to try your native dishes. I like squid, eel, etc." or whatever works for you. Maybe handwritten would be better- it shows a bit more initiative that just printing something off the Internet. Interesting discussion, though.

                                                                                        1. re: Hobbert

                                                                                          Remember-- sourcing ingredients is also an issue. Do you have a seasoning that was hard to obtain that you "keep back" just for the right dish?
                                                                                          Also-- imagine that you have a meal all planned and when the guests come in, they all say "oh, we'll just have what you have when you're tired and want something quick."

                                                                                          Here's a site that has a fair number of dishes and descriptions:

                                                                                          This site's rendering of my example in an earlier comment:
                                                                                          Fish Flavored Beef Shreds Yu Xiang Niurou Si yoo sshyang nyoh-roh srr 鱼香牛肉丝

                                                                                      2. The problem is that too many people think that just because they dislike something that they have valid grounds for sending food back and/or bad mouthing the place. There's a huge difference between a dish being prepared poorly and people just not understanding what they're ordering. There are a lot of people who fancy themselves adventurous who really aren't when you get down to it, and they're trying to curtail the negatives from that crowd. This is the same reason why it is nearly impossible to get a truly spicy dish at any restaurant - because 99% of the people who ask for "spicy" would walk out in anger if they truly got something spicy.

                                                                                        To make matters worse, there are people out there who assume they know how a dish should be prepared. I see it all the time on yelp reviews for instance, the "oh their XYZ was a terrible rendition! Whomever is cooking there doesn't know what they're doing!", except that the XYZ is closer to the 'authentic' (for whatever that means) version than typical and *that* is their problem. heck, I've been guilty of that myself.

                                                                                        11 Replies
                                                                                        1. re: jgg13

                                                                                          True-- most adventurous eaters will try a 80¢ scorpion-on-a-stick, but will they go for the main dish $12 "伊犁马肉" [see pic below] which is donkey or horse meat? We all have preferences, many of which are the result of exposure.

                                                                                          I feel the "I want it may way" way about risotto. I know how ~I~ like it, but on every cooking show I see, the chefs/judges disagree [or try to do it in <20 minutes]. I like mine so if you press a spoon down Hard, you get just a bit of broth.

                                                                                          1. re: jgg13

                                                                                            I've NEVER sent a dish back simply because I didn't like it. Raw, burnt, or otherwise not as it should be? Yes. Simply because I didn't care for it? Never.

                                                                                            That said, frankly I don't even NEED a full translation - just a list of main ingredients, how it's prepared (braised, fried, etc., etc.) & its heat level. That's it. Shouldn't be rocket science to be able to pry that out of a waiter or chef. Honestly, all it comes down to is something like "Pork, vegetables (or not), braised (or whatever), hot (or not hot, whatever). Really - how difficult would that be?

                                                                                            One of the most memorable meals I've enjoyed was one listed on a Szechuan restaurant menu simply as "Braised Spicy Fish", with the rest of the description done in Chinese. That was enough for me. Turned out to be FABULOUS large pieces of white fish swimming in an incendiary chili broth ripe with Szechuan peppercorns & a few green vegetables. One of my best meals ever!! And I bet a LOT more folks who enjoy spicy food would have ordered this had there been an English description.

                                                                                            You know, if this were in China, I would completely understand it. But if you're a restauranteur here in the U.S., I frankly think it's sort of rude for this kind of separate menu stuff. Go back to China if you don't want to patronize this country's dining folks.

                                                                                            1. re: Bacardi1

                                                                                              Can we avoid the unhelpful "go back to China" rhetoric, please? I'm as concerned about unassimilated immigrants as the next guy, but if they're cooking, I'm eating…

                                                                                              Also, look up "patronize" in the dictionary.

                                                                                              1. re: DeppityDawg

                                                                                                I'm sorry. And it's not "rhetoric". I mean what I say. If you're a restauranteur in the U.S., to me it is blatantly rude to have a "secret menu" that non-ethnic diners can either not access at all, or have to literally BEG for. In addition, taking it upon themselves to assume that Americans are so clueless that they couldn't possibly enjoy the oh-so-special dishes is also uber-insulting. I say again - go back to China if you find all American diners so dumbed-down & clueless.

                                                                                                I give MAJOR MAJOR MAJOR kudos to the infamous Chinese Chef Peter Chang (do a web search on him if you don't know who I'm talking about), who not only NEVER had a "secret menu", but introduced - & continues to introduce - oh-so-many people to the joys of authentic Szechuan cuisine. And he's making a fortune at it. So, so sad that other Chinese chefs & restaurants don't follow his lead.

                                                                                                1. re: Bacardi1

                                                                                                  I say again - go back to China if you find all American diners so dumbed-down & clueless.

                                                                                                  Excuse me....but who's really being rude here.. If you do not agree with the policies of a restaurant....it's your choice to patronize or not. I go to restaurants where they prepare special items for customers at their request. I have no expectations or beliefs that I am entitled for them to do the same for me.

                                                                                                  1. re: Bacardi1

                                                                                                    "I had heard that the best dishes were on the "secret" chinese only menus on the walls of the restaurant."

                                                                                                    Why are we referring to these dishes/menus as "secret" when the OP clearly says they are posted on the wall? S/he just can't read Chinese. It's not up to the staff to explain each word and the OP ultimately got what they wanted. If you don't care for a restaurant (for any reason)... don't go.

                                                                                                    1. re: Bacardi1

                                                                                                      Yes, Chang had a secret menu. At an early job (how many has he had now?) in Virginia, the restaurant had a menu you had to ask for - I won't call it "secret" since it was delivered without argument, but many of his signature dishes were on the Chinese menu. A group of Chowhounds "ate through the menu" there some years ago, pre-arranged by a fluent speaker of the language, and our monthly meals there were a highlight of my recent life.

                                                                                                      If you're insulted by a menu aimed solely at those familiar with authentic cookery, you need to put yourself in the shoes of an owner who has seen enough walkouts prompted by Americans' reactions to "Bull P*nis with Vegetables" or "Duck Blood with Tofu". I'd see that selection and choose something else, but Aunt Edna (who wanted to go to IHOP anyway) might very well get up and go.

                                                                                                      As has already been mentioned, if you're in such a restaurant, it may be that the highlights of a "secret menu" are posted prominently on the wall, in Chinese, on red cards pinned to a board. Now all you have to do is get a server to tell you which ones are the best, and convince the server to order your selection prepared exactly as they would were the server eating it, or else get someone on Chowhound to suggest the best off-menu specials and tell you how to ask for them. It opened a few doors for me to remember to ask for it "ma la" (tingly-spicy-hot). And then get the server to believe you.

                                                                                                      1. re: wayne keyser

                                                                                                        When he first started out, perhaps. But when he worked for "Taste of China" in Charlottesville, & then ultimately opened his own place (also in Charlottesville, & now in Richmond, VA, & GA as well), the specialized dishes were/are presented along with the regular fare on the menu - offal & all. No need to search it out or beg for it.

                                                                                                        1. re: Bacardi1

                                                                                                          We might consider that Chang is a star, and he knows it - in fact, his whole career for the last several years has been managed to make him a star, and that effort has worked.

                                                                                                          I guess people will order "odd" dishes from a star that they won't even think of ordering at a neighborhood hole-in-the-wall.

                                                                                                        2. re: wayne keyser

                                                                                                          Thanks for saying that. From personal experience, I have a family member who had all dishes on his menu. It turned people off and his restaurant did terribly. He changed his menu, and over time business turned around. Look at it, not from the view of an adventurous CH but from the average person who is ordering sweet and sour pork who is the norm. Seeing duck tongue turns them off.

                                                                                                    2. re: Bacardi1

                                                                                                      You might not have, but many people do and they have no way of knowing which group you belong to.

                                                                                                  2. We often have the opposite problem when dining out with our youngest daughter. She was born in China, but has lived in this American Family since she was a few months old. She speaks and reads English only, BUT she is often given a Chinese language menu different from the menu the rest of the table is presented.

                                                                                                    Of course, she can't read it!

                                                                                                    She has learned to order the few Chinese dishes she likes in Chinese, but generally avoids speaking with the restaurant employees.

                                                                                                    The opwner of a Chinese restaurant we frequent asked me why my daughter won't speak to his employees, was it beneath her? I replied that his employees were not from her province and she did not understand their dialect. Was this the truth, Yes, was it the reason, NO, BUT I wouldn't insult the employees or reveal my daughter's English only secret.

                                                                                                    She wants no part of those 'authentic' Chinese dishes, happier with chicken lo mein or eating steak and salad at an 'American' restaurant. I on the other hand wish I could decipher the 'authentic' menu.

                                                                                                    1. So our of curiosity, to those that do have access to the secret menus, do there tend to be common overlaps? If you can get a few names of those dishes that sound good you could then ask a restaurant outright if they are available to make. That might prompt a server to recommend something if they don't make the dish. Just a thought.

                                                                                                      3 Replies
                                                                                                      1. re: Astur

                                                                                                        Did you look through the different menus on these pages?


                                                                                                        Any Chinese restaurant will be happy to tell you that they don't have a dish/have the ingredients. There will be times when they SAY that because, really, they don't think you'll like the dish for which you are asking so they don't want You to get embarrassed by making a bad choice.

                                                                                                        1. re: Astur

                                                                                                          If the English menu looks like it came out of the Chinese Restaurant Owners Manual (3 ring binder edition), then the secret menu probably does as well.

                                                                                                          Not all owners are culinary giants. They may be just a few steps up the ladder, so to speak, from the waiter who can barely speak English. With a little capital borrowed from friends and relatives, they have bought an established restaurant, and learned to run it from the Chinese language manual. The manual may even have instructions on how to handle English speakers who think they would like a jelly fish and pork trotter appetizer or the deep Fried Bung Unbplit. (ref. Fortune Cookie Chronicles, Jenifer 8 Lee)

                                                                                                          1. re: paulj


                                                                                                            From the 2001 review of one of my local Chinese restaurants

                                                                                                            Service, under Lam's direction, is commendable. I appreciated the waiter whose honesty regarding "deep fried bung unbplit" was welcome. "What is it?" I asked. He smiled and shook his head, silently intoning, "You don't want it," while pointing in the vicinity of his intestines, later stopping by to show me the dish before whisking it away to another table.

                                                                                                            another account of trying to order this item

                                                                                                        2. Even if they get translated the descriptions might not make sense.
                                                                                                          One example here is "chicken without sex". Hmmm, says they renamed it in English to be "spring chicken" I am guessing young or virgin chic.

                                                                                                          2 Replies
                                                                                                          1. re: calliope_nh

                                                                                                            In beijing, a menu translated to english said "tofu served by freckled lady" (if you know sichuan,you know what dish I mean)

                                                                                                            1. re: Chowrin

                                                                                                              They are being very generous since we all know the lady in question had a pockmarked face!

                                                                                                          2. My experience is most of the *Secret Menu* items are often available in the form of a Chinese Banquet menu. The restaurants in my area have for for 4,6,8 10, and 12 people in mind......from a few dishes to 12+ courses......ranging from $50 - 500.

                                                                                                            I suggest you have a look at them, ask about the 12 plus course menu and have them describe the dishes to you. If something interests you, ask for it .

                                                                                                            1. There's at least one book that attempts to translate wall menus. This is one that turned up on a quick Amazon search: http://www.amazon.com/The-Eaters-Guid...
                                                                                                              I've never tried to use one and this one did have its detractors.

                                                                                                              9 Replies
                                                                                                              1. re: sr44

                                                                                                                I had this author as a linguistics prof at U of Chicago years ago. The student run Chicago Linguistics Society used to include his guide to Chicago restaurants in their conference packet. He was a chowhound before the internet age.

                                                                                                                1. re: paulj

                                                                                                                  And is it available or has it disappeared into the mists of time?

                                                                                                                  1. re: sr44

                                                                                                                    It's available. If you're willing to put a bit of work into it, it's useful.

                                                                                                                    1. re: buttertart

                                                                                                                      I have a copy! Yes, it takes work.

                                                                                                                      1. re: buttertart

                                                                                                                        I bought a copy that promptly went to my bookshelf and laziness has seen that it never has been taken down. However my understanding was that they use all traditional characters while typically menus use simplified characters.

                                                                                                                        1. re: jgg13

                                                                                                                          Actually, the complex (or traditional) characters are still popular as the Chinese restauranteurs know many of their Chinese patrons that are originally from Taiwan, Hongkong, Singapore etc. will be more familiar with them.

                                                                                                                          1. re: scoopG

                                                                                                                            Good point, hadn't considered that direction. I was viewing it purely from the standpoint of translating menus.

                                                                                                                            1. re: scoopG

                                                                                                                              The only places where I have seen simplified character menus have been Sichuanese restaurants. Almost all of them are owned and staffed by emigres from the Mainland, whereas the traditional Cantonese banquet and dim sum places and noodle/dumpling joints are owned and staffed by people from Hong Kong and Taiwan.

                                                                                                                              1. re: dpan

                                                                                                                                That seems about right to me too. The staff in Szechuanese restaurants also usually speak only Mandarin/Putonghua. This creates difficulties for me because I speak Cantonese (not Toisan, however, which is still common in many US Chinatowns), what I've retained of it over the years, and they don't - so it usually defaults to English, with whoever is most English-competent in there, when verbal interaction is called for or desired.

                                                                                                                  2. I don't know if this is exactly the same thing that the OP is talking about but we ate in a Chinese Food restaurant recently that had a Chinese menu on the back page translated roughly into English. My husband tried to order from that page and the server told him to please only order from the front part of the menu. She said he would not like the dish he had asked for. It got funnier because he caved and just ordered sweet and sour chicken but when the dish came, it was sweet and sour shrimp so he told the server it wasn't what he ordered. She went to the kitchen and came back with the same dish saying that the kitchen had cooked sweet and sour shrimp so he should eat it! He was a good sport and ate the shrimp.

                                                                                                                    1. There are some good suggestions here, especially taking the pictures of the menu signs on the walls and trying for a translation.

                                                                                                                      What happened in my case was I asked the waiter for a fish dish from something off the chinese menu. At first she kept pointing me to the English menu's seafood section. I said I had come specifically because of the fresh seafood in the tanks in the front of the restaurant. I said I wanted some fresh fish from the tank, however they would normally do it for their Chinese customers. That's how I finally ended up with the Eel dish, which was wonderful.

                                                                                                                      I don't need a literal translation of the dish's name. Fried Buddha's Tail doesn't help me. Just tell me the main ingredients...it's vegetables stir fried with fish and Chinese sausage...that's all I need to know.

                                                                                                                      The funniest thing about that night, was after they brought the eel to our table, I saw all the waiters standing off to the opposite side of the dining room, watching us intently as we started eating. They seemed genuinely surprised we loved the dish.

                                                                                                                      I do find that there are sometimes other Ethnic restaurants which have "secret" menu items as well. But in those cases, the language barrier isn't usually an issue and I can make myself understood to the waiters to bring the dish I want. I just went through that in a Portuguese restaurant a few weeks ago. But everyone spoke English so it wasn't nearly the hassle. Besides, the owner was ecstatic that we wanted to try this dish, and brought it over to the table himself and waited while we took our first bites.

                                                                                                                      2 Replies
                                                                                                                      1. re: mwk

                                                                                                                        "The funniest thing about that night, was after they brought the eel to our table, I saw all the waiters standing off to the opposite side of the dining room, watching us intently as we started eating. They seemed genuinely surprised we loved the dish."

                                                                                                                        Doesn't this suggest to you that other non-Chinese patrons who insisted on ordering the eel (or the intestines, or the chicken soup with six chicken feet sticking out of it, or the split pig's head, etc. etc.) in the past had NOT loved it? I also assume that since you are a poster here that even if you had not loved the dish that you would have paid for it - but I have seen people angrily send such things back and refuse to pay. And so has the staff at that restaurant. Many times.

                                                                                                                        1. re: ratgirlagogo

                                                                                                                          Actually no. Because to be honest, I don't see how someone would fight to order something like pig's blood custard and then angrily send it back afterwards. I would imagine that someone like that would not be interested or even be aware that the paper signs on the walls written in Chinese were menu items. Most people I know, go to the Chinese restaurant and get Scallion Pancakes, potstickers, General Gao's Chicken and Hot and Sour Soup.

                                                                                                                          I can certainly see someone angrily sending something back from the English menu that they ordered (and that is just wrong as well...).

                                                                                                                          I have actually ordered things in Chinese restaurants that I hated, an example being a dish with bitter melon. I just can't stomach the stuff. But you are correct that I never would have considered not paying for it.

                                                                                                                          I also think that the number of non-Chinese Americans who come in and even ask about those menu items is very, very small. If someone is interested enough to ask, I think that indicates that the customer is willing to try new tastes and it should be encouraged.

                                                                                                                          One other thing I wanted to mention. The dish we did have was in no way "weird". It was chunks of eel, stir fried with lots of garlic and ginger, with pea tendrils and watercress. When I did go with the group who had the Chinese speaker, we didn't end up with anything that had whole pig heads, or live snails, or stinky tofu. My problem with a lot of what is on the English menu is that it's sweet...or deep fried...or uses American vegetables instead of Chinese ones.

                                                                                                                          I still stand by my original thought. It would be great if at least some of these dishes were put into an English menu and offered to people who ask for it.

                                                                                                                      2. Let's understand something.

                                                                                                                        Restaurant owners, including Chinese ones, are in business to make money, not to scratch your Chowhound itch.

                                                                                                                        Most folks outside of our little Chowhound community, do not want and do not care for whatever you believe is on those "secret" (or non-English translated) menus.

                                                                                                                        The risk-reward of letting someone sample a "secret" menu item just doesn't justify the long-term risks or costs.

                                                                                                                        The risk of letting a customer try one of those "secret" items is that you risk offending that customer, and losing that person forever to Panda Express down the street.

                                                                                                                        And, believe it or not, most of the world are not Chowhounds. I dare say that Chowhounds probably make up 1% of 1% of the total diners out there in the wild.

                                                                                                                        3 Replies
                                                                                                                        1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                                          That's a good point. According to Chinese Restaurant News, there are 46,756 Chinese restaurants in North America. The vast majority of American customers arrive looking for Egg Rolls, Sweet and Sour Pork, Egg Foo Young, Fried Rice etc. and require Sweet 'n Low for their Chinese tea. Once, in Spicy and Tasty restaurant in Flushing, while waiting for take-out a young Caucasian couple walked and asked, "Do you have egg rolls?"

                                                                                                                          No, the cashier replied and the couple turned around and walked out.

                                                                                                                          If you are not living near a community where you can readily get "the good stuff" then get to know your local Chinese place, keep asking for what you want and tip well.

                                                                                                                          1. re: scoopG

                                                                                                                            The "secret" part of this is what gets me. Not secret, just not translated, for the myriad reasons given here.

                                                                                                                          2. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                                            Absolutely agree with you, ipsedixit. Most of my American (not Chinese) friends don't really care too much for the more "exotic" Chinese dishes which I'd order for them to try when we're in Chinese restaurants in the US - they'd much prefer the fried rice, mushu pork & egg rolls variety.

                                                                                                                          3. Never had this problem in Pittsburgh. Even outside the actual city, when the locals discovered there was a chinese only menu, diners translated it, and the owners put up the diner-translated menu.

                                                                                                                            1. I don't understand why the resistance to providing translation. This is like opening up a diner with all the menus in Scottish Gaelic. With a big surly guy in a kilt to say "Och, laddie, ya n'ae like!"

                                                                                                                              5 Replies
                                                                                                                              1. re: MsDiPesto

                                                                                                                                Because these restaurants aren't staffed by Chinese Linguists.
                                                                                                                                When they know of something as "Pock marked grandmother's tofu"-- they don't think of it as anything else.
                                                                                                                                Try imagining that you are a non-English speaker, looking at a "standard menu"--
                                                                                                                                What would you expect peanut butter to resemble?
                                                                                                                                A doughnut?
                                                                                                                                What's a Po' Boy?
                                                                                                                                Salisbury steak?

                                                                                                                                Food-language knowledge is so different from the level needed to communicate.

                                                                                                                                Thanks for the softball.
                                                                                                                                Who's going to order a sheep's organs with mutton fat mixed with oatmeal?

                                                                                                                                1. re: Kris in Beijing

                                                                                                                                  It sounded pretty good until you got to the oatmeal.

                                                                                                                                  1. re: johnb

                                                                                                                                    Aye, dee ye ken, 'tis Scots' haggis.

                                                                                                                                  2. re: Kris in Beijing

                                                                                                                                    Menu fantasy names are not limited to Chinese. What's a Godfather sandwich? Jump in the Mouth? The Imam Fainted? Egg cream? Lion's Head? (Oops, that one was Chinese.) Would you expect coins in silver dollar pancakes?

                                                                                                                                  3. For as long as Yale can have Skull and Bones, Chinese restaurants can have secret menus. Turnabout is fair play.

                                                                                                                                    1. So you have difficulty ordering from the Chinese menu. What then do you order? What are the most 'exotic' Chinese dishes that you like to order, or fix?

                                                                                                                                      2 Replies
                                                                                                                                      1. re: paulj

                                                                                                                                        My favorite restaurant in Chinatown in Boston has a dish called Taro Root stuffed with Duck. It's bits of roasted duck with Taro root wrapped around it in a ball, and then it's fried, I think. It's served with a sweet dipping sauce.

                                                                                                                                        My other, more "odd" favorites involve offal. I love tripe soup, or stir fried tripe, brains, kidneys, liver, etc. I also love chicken feet, the kind they serve sometimes at Dim Sum. Any of those strange, Cartilaginous pieces that Chinese people love eating, that most Americans would be turned off with. Rooster combs, another example of something that I would order if I see it on a Dim Sum cart, and the rest of the people at my table will give me a wide berth while I eat it.

                                                                                                                                        1. re: mwk

                                                                                                                                          99Ranch grocery has a deli buffet with items I haven't seen on 'normal' Chinese menus. Things like
                                                                                                                                          stir fried book tripe (chewy and bit hot with dried peppers)
                                                                                                                                          drop flank stew (flank or diaphram with chewy membrane left on)
                                                                                                                                          salt and pepper fish - deep fried bony fish, either anchovie size or 'belt fish'

                                                                                                                                          And over by roast duck stand, there are takeout boxes of pigs, duck, and chicken feet. Also steamed rice packets in bamboo leaves.

                                                                                                                                      2. Okay -- another link.


                                                                                                                                        Seriously, try this.

                                                                                                                                        And, a location-specific article about this topic:

                                                                                                                                        1 Reply
                                                                                                                                        1. re: Kris in Beijing

                                                                                                                                          I like that first link, how to order Chinese food. Thanks!

                                                                                                                                        2. In the past when I had chowdowns at Chinese places, I would often get a copy of the Chinese menu ahead of time, jot down translations and make a few copies, so that it would facilitate ordering. Some of the places we went to saw our translations and actually requested to keep a copy. That suggests that for these restaurants, either the cost or effort of translation was too much for them. It could be due to the limitations of their English ability as well -- some of the hilarious chinese menu translations online show that they're not great at translation.

                                                                                                                                          I know chowhounds who started learning a foreign language just to navigate restaurants, so that's one possible solution. Here's one example of a blog recounting those efforts: http://kake.dreamwidth.org/

                                                                                                                                          I also recall older threads swapping tips on the best food.restaurant dictionaries for various languages; I think a search will pull them up.

                                                                                                                                          1 Reply
                                                                                                                                          1. Chinese buffets:

                                                                                                                                            I've noticed in the buffets that have little signs describing the various dishes, often times, some are in Chinese only. As a non-Chinese, I always make a point of eating those items that (I guess) are only meant for Chinese patrons.

                                                                                                                                            1. Being rude is wrong, and once you ask for the menu/translation, it should be provided, as long as the restaurant isn't crowded. The reason the menu isn't written in English is that it's generally not necessary--few people who don't speak the language are true CH who want to eat off the menu (and it's not 5% or even close). It's definitely worth getting to know a place and getting to be known at a place. Top top it off, you can also order food that's not on any menu. I don't remember my in-laws who are in the business ever ordering off any menu. They chat w/ the staff, owner, etc and get end up w/ better meals than I'll ever get w/out them. When we ordered our rehearsal night banquet, it was a tiny hole in the wall place w/out a secret menu or a banquet menu. We loved the American Chinese food we got there so we spoke with the chef who was very excited to do it. There was some brain storming and we ended up w/ a great dinner that worked for a diverse group of people. Although, that also brings up the question of dividing guests up by "adventurous" eaters and non. Since you liked what you got, go back again and again.

                                                                                                                                              The other inequity is that what non-asians order might not be what asians order, even the same dish. We were on vacation, tried a chinese place. My husband said he heard the waitress call back something to the effect of, "Make it the right way, not the way the Americans like." I'm assuming this isn't wide spread and none of the family we have in the business do that (or say they don't when I've asked). At the same time, if you're trying to please the palate of the average customer at your place, you need to know what they like. Don't serve the whole fish with the eyes. Don't serve the quail put together w/ head. Some people get squeamish.

                                                                                                                                              2 Replies
                                                                                                                                              1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                The other inequity is that what non-asians order might not be what asians order, even the same dish. We were on vacation, tried a chinese place. My husband said he heard the waitress call back something to the effect of, "Make it the right way, not the way the Americans like." I'm assuming this isn't wide spread and none of the family we have in the business do that (or say they don't when I've asked).

                                                                                                                                                Happens all the time.

                                                                                                                                                1. re: ipsedixit


                                                                                                                                                  And - not just in the USA. One example: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/8288...

                                                                                                                                                  In a way the "toning down" of the heat/spiciness of dishes from "traditional" renditions so as to fit the tastes of the *general* USAmerican public is another facet of this phenomenon. Then CHers and CH-chiliheads get all upset at it. Remember this other thread? http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/826545

                                                                                                                                              2. I find this to be also to be widespread in Greek diners.

                                                                                                                                                2 Replies
                                                                                                                                                1. re: beevod

                                                                                                                                                  It happens in just about every ethnic restaurant.

                                                                                                                                                  The "secret" is just more exposed in Chinese restaurants because Chinese restaurants and cuisines have become more popular and part of mainstream dining vernacular.

                                                                                                                                                  1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                                                                    Very true. And for outsiders to break the glass ceiling takes time, familiarity, and the earning of trust. I am pleased to have done so, although to an unknown degree, in Italian, Jewish, Taiwanese, and Mexican environments - restos and homes. It's a crockpot timeline, you can't microwave or Google your way there.

                                                                                                                                                2. I’m agreeing with all the comments that the typical American diner doesn’t want food that’s too ethnic. There is a Thai restaurant that we used to go to quite a bit. The food was spicy and flavorful. A real step up from most Thai places but the place was never busy. Lunch and dinner never saw the place more than ¼ full. Food was great but we were worried about their business. Had not been in a while and then 3 months ago we arrive for lunch and the place is packed. We noted the crowd and ordered. The food comes and we take a few tastes and stop eating. Everything tasted sweet. Overloaded with sweetness, no spice. Didn’t finish our food. The dishes had lost their complexity but the crowds now loved it. We’ve been afraid to go back.

                                                                                                                                                  5 Replies
                                                                                                                                                  1. re: Bkeats

                                                                                                                                                    The owner of Portland's Pok Pok claims he doesn't alter Thai recipes to suit the American palate, but he does choose menu items that fit. For example he does not include the fermented dishes that are popular in northern Thailand.

                                                                                                                                                    1. re: paulj

                                                                                                                                                      True. Nevertheless, there are various aspects to even that...
                                                                                                                                                      You may remember this thread in which you also participated: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/851758

                                                                                                                                                      1. re: paulj

                                                                                                                                                        I live near Sripraphai in Woodside, NY, which is known for their truly authentic Thai dishes. They don't alter recipes either, but they definitely have different heat levels and will not give a non-Thai person the real deal unless they insist on it. The wait staff there has also tried to steer me away from ordering fermented things, sour curries and the like, telling me that I won't like them. Frustrating, but I try to see it from their perspective - I am the 1%, and they are dealing with the 99% most of the time...

                                                                                                                                                      2. re: Bkeats

                                                                                                                                                        I certainly understand that I'm in the vast minority of people when it comes to wanting to try unique foods. When I was in Japan two years ago, I ordered something which sounded innocuous, "Chicken three ways". First course they served Chicken Katsu, which was delicious. Second course was some sort of marinated, grilled chicken, somewhat like Yakitori. Finally, they bring out the third course, which looked like chicken sashimi; thinly sliced raw chicken breast. I waited a short while, figuring it was shabu shabu and they would bring out the boiling broth. But no, that was it, they were serving me chicken sashimi. My dining companion and I debated what to do with it. But in the end we figured they wouldn't be serving it if safety were an issue, so we ate it. I wouldn't say I'd ever order it on purpose ever again, but it made for a good story to tell.

                                                                                                                                                        I'm glad that they didn't "Americanize" the dish for me, without my knowledge.

                                                                                                                                                        I just think people should be proud of their heritage and their delicious food and be anxious to share it, by offering the opportunity to those who show an interest. Sure, hand out the menu with the Egg Rolls and Wonton soup on it, but if I ask for the "real" menu, smile and be happy that someone wants to try your "real" food for a change.

                                                                                                                                                        1. re: mwk

                                                                                                                                                          "if I ask for the "real" menu, smile and be happy that someone wants to try your "real" food for a change."

                                                                                                                                                          I agree. And, I find that to be the case for the most part. They might smile at the thought but most I've found are happy--as long as it's not super busy. That's why the suggestion above about going when it's empty is a great one.

                                                                                                                                                      3. I have run into this issue, and it is frustrating. Fortunately, most places I dine have a multitude of on-the-menu options that I am anxious to try. Also, as I dine out often, I have become familiar with many of the staff at some of my favorite places, and they have clued me in to delicious items not on the traditional menu. While I have noticed this practice to be particularly common at Chinese and other Asian restaurants, it is, by no means, limited to the more exotic (to Americans) restaurants. The three best dishes at one of my favorite Italian restaurants, for example, are not on the standard menu. And these are not exotic items - veal medallions, veal & peppers and the like. Just the other night my date ordered a dish at a restaurant - one she had gotten there before - we looked on the menu, and it wasn't listed. They prepared it, and it was cooked just as she had remembered it, but it wasn't on the menu. Someone must have told her about the dish at this restaurant sometime in the past, just as the sommelier at the Italian place had let me know about the great off-menu items. I don't strive to develop a rapport with the staff in general, but I have found that it often pays dividends when I do. So, if you want to find the best unknown, un-listed dishes at your favorite eatery, develop an amicable relationship with the servers, cooks, FOH, owner, other staff. Let them know what types of food you like. They'll hook you up.

                                                                                                                                                        1. Here's my take.....if you introduce yourself to ownership or management, become a regular customer and tip appropriately......really you should have no problem ordering anything you desire. If this is a first time in a restaurant , ask them if they have have a separate Chinese Family menu. Tell them you would like to try something from these selections. Give them the beef, pork, poultry or seafood you are in the mood for....and tell them you would like for them to select for you.....they will either pick something very conservative or something very stinky 9 to the nose )......you live by the sword, you die by the sword.

                                                                                                                                                          1. Well, I guess I never realized how pervasive this really is. I mean, all my life, whenever I've walked into a Chinese restaurant, I've assumed they would give me their best stuff. Sometimes, we'd get handed only one menu...the one in Chinese. Often, Mom would just ask the waiter (in Chinese) to make up a menu for us to include a few elements in particular, and sometimes she'd ask what the staff meal was going to be, and order some of that, too.

                                                                                                                                                            The only 'secret menu' experience I've ever had was at a hole in the wall joint in an LA suburb that had a daily special posted on the wall in Chinese. Since I read Chinese about as well as I speak Klingon, I had to ask what it was. Eventually, tho, I got to the point where I didn't bother to ask what it was, I'd just order the daily special no matter what. When caucasian co-workers of mine would accompany me, some of them might order the special, too. Sometimes they got it. Other times, the waitress would tell them, "You wouldn't like it", and suggest they order something else. Without question, whenever the waitress told them they wouldn't like it, it turned out to be something they would not have liked.

                                                                                                                                                            2 Replies
                                                                                                                                                            1. re: ricepad

                                                                                                                                                              Other times, the waitress would tell them, "You wouldn't like it", and suggest they order something else. Without question, whenever the waitress told them they wouldn't like it, it turned out to be something they would not have liked.

                                                                                                                                                              Very true.....and it often happens on the regular menu too.

                                                                                                                                                              1. re: ricepad

                                                                                                                                                                "Without question, whenever the waitress told them they wouldn't like it, it turned out to be something they would not have liked."

                                                                                                                                                              2. I agree that this is annoying (and would add that it would be a case for our courts if another race were profiling its customers...), but having worked in restaurants, I can tell you there is probably a very practical reason for this. Sure, most of us on this site are fairly adventurous and curious and would love to try some of the more daring dishes on the "secret" menu. But, you'd be surprised at all the wanna-be-foodies out there who think they "should" like somehing different and strange, but really can't handle it. This costs a busy restaurant a lot of time and money while customers play culinary roulette at their tables--especiially when they start sending things back because it's "weird" or "gamey" or "has a bad texture". I've been to Thai restaurants in the U.S. where the food was more authentic--and used flavors such as camphor and really hot Thai bird chiles abundantly in their food (just like in Thailand, but rarely in U.S. restaurants)--only to see that Americans had reviewed the dish online to say that it was "off"--when it was definitely not. At least it never was the numerous times I'd had it. I recommend you learn the name of the dish you like (good luck with the Mandarin!! Ni hao ma!! ). I learned the Cantonese names of several types of Chinese greens in SF, CA, and I can tell you, it definitely works.

                                                                                                                                                                18 Replies
                                                                                                                                                                1. re: staughton

                                                                                                                                                                  It's probably not racial profiling. My caucasian cousins are fluent in Chinese and get by great in Chinese restaurants. As you say, restaurants generally want to make sure customers enjoy their food and not send it back. I just read a review about a Puerto Rican restaurant where the reviewer said the food was terrible and that the gets better Spanish food in his home town in Connecticut. Those are the people who make it tough for restauranteurs.

                                                                                                                                                                  I agree, it's definitely worth showing a familiarity with the cuisine and that's more important than race. We had a friend who would break out in a little dance when certain dishes showed up at dim sum. They loved him and he got great service.

                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                                    Sure it's racial profiling. The fact that your friends speak Chinese and can therefore make their wishes known in does not negate the fact that a non-Asian person who walks into many of the restaurants we're discussing gets treated differently than an Asian person until they somehow prove themselves.

                                                                                                                                                                    There's been a lot said about the difficulties of translating the menus. Fine. I get that the menu might be hard to translate (although amazingly against these apparently Herculean odds some manage) and they're not going to hand me a menu in Chinese.

                                                                                                                                                                    What this doesn't excuse are the restaurants where the "special" menu IS translated and they STILL won't give it to you unless you know to ask (this has happened to me that I know of at least twice -- who knows how many times it happened that I never knew about before I knew to ask?!).

                                                                                                                                                                    For most people, it's a case of "they don't know what they don't know" -- it's not common practice in Western-style restaurants to have two sets of menus, and thus they don't know to ask. Is it really so hard to tell a customer that they have a "regular" menu and a "specials" menu?

                                                                                                                                                                    Limster can go on and on about working hard to seek out deliciousness, but the fact is that he speaks Chinese, he's never been treated like a Gweilo in a Chinese restaurant, and he grew up familiar with the various customs and practices of Chinese restaurants. The same is true for KK, and any other Chinese person posting on this thread. Even if they don't actually speak a word of Chinese, when they walk in the door the staff (who after all don't know they can't speak Chinese) will treat them differently than they would a non-Chinese customer. Thus, they really shouldn't dismiss in the rather patronizing way they do the feelings of the non-Chinese among us since, to be frank, they have no clue what they're talking about.

                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                                                                                                      FWIW, I'm Asian and have never been given a special menu. I don't speak the language and they know it because the first thing they do when you enter a restaurant is talk to you. Given that non-Asians I know who do speak the language are given it means to me it's not racial but familiarity with the culture. How do you know that every Asian person who walks into a Chinese restaurant is treated differently from a non-Asian? Have you talked to non-Asians who are fluent in Chinese?

                                                                                                                                                                      But, as I've said all along, I think it's wrong to ask for the special menu and not be given it. And, as I said, the reason it's not always presented is that it can be bad for business. My husband's uncle tried and failed--most people didn't want to see pig blood or duck tongue on their menu. He eventually changed it and business slowly went up. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                                        I wanted to add that I'm not trying to downplay the frustration that the OP went through, nor others with the same experience. It's wrong when you're making an effort and being thwarted.

                                                                                                                                                                        I'm just saying 1) it's not necessarily racial. I can't speak for every restaurant and I'm sure there are some that are. I'm speaking from personal experience. Most Asian cooks I know love it when someone outside their culture embraces the food. As I said, that guy who danced and openly showed how excited he was by the food? Great service every time and they made an effort to bring things to him. And, 2) sometimes it's about trying to please your clientele and not offending them so they don't come back and that can mean sterlizing the menu they get. It's an issue, too, with throwing a banquet. Sometimes it's hard to know whether to order an authentic menu, with jelly fish, quail w/ head, whole fish, and turn off friends; or modify the menu for them. It's not easily cut and dry.

                                                                                                                                                                        1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                                          Are you sure you've *never* been given a special menu? When I ate China Village or Hunan with chowhounds I assumed -- naively -- that the menu we were ordering off (in Chinese and English) was the regular menu. It wasn't until I went back with my family that I realized there were two separate menus.

                                                                                                                                                                          1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                                                                                                            It's possible but I'd be very surprised. My parents and in-laws, definitely do. I should clarify never when I eat on my own or w/ my husband but when we're out with them, we do. The types of food are so different on the two.

                                                                                                                                                                        2. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                                                                                                          Combining this response with that to your above post.

                                                                                                                                                                          Do experiences at sushi places like Hama-Ko count? Convincing a place in Portugal that I would eat lamprey stewed in its own blood (found out beforehand that it was in season)? Ordering steak tartare at a polish place here in London (overheard the guys next table ordering it)?

                                                                                                                                                                          In one modern French restaurant in Boston, there's a whole tier of dishes that never make it to the regular menu. Fesenjen is available at a well loved Persian place here in London, but it's not on the menu and usually requires advance ordering. It takes effort something's to get something delicious. Learning about a culture/cuisine to uncover stuff in various restaurants, and cultivating places over a period of time to get better stuff is part and parcel of chowhounding.

                                                                                                                                                                          And nowhere was I aiming to patronise, merely providing concrete workarounds that have worked in the past. Different Chinese restaurants may have different reasons for not offering someone their "secret" menu; generalisations can be tricky.

                                                                                                                                                                          1. re: limster

                                                                                                                                                                            But how many of those examples were those dishes actually on a secret menu that was given to some customers and not to others, as opposed to knowing how to ask for a special off-menu dish, which would apply to everyone?

                                                                                                                                                                            Sure there are work arounds, but before you can work around something you have to know there's something behind the barrier. In areas where there is a large variety of Chinese restaurants people are more sophisticated. But if you're from a part of the country where 99 (I'd say 100, but I suspect there are hidden Chinese menus even in the boondocks) percent of the restaurants are generic Chinese-American restaurants, why would you ask? How many people in Fresno would think to ask for the special Sichuan menu (in English, so no excuses), especially at a restaurant called Hunan that was a generic Chinese-American restaurant until the current chef bought it? I'd eaten there three times with Melanie Wong and until I went in with my parents I had no idea I had to ask for the "real menu" since that was all I'd ever seen!

                                                                                                                                                                            I guess it's even more infuriating when it happens in reverse: you go to a restaurant with Chinese friends who get the "real" menu, and then when you go in without them you get handed a menu that you KNOW isn't the real menu!

                                                                                                                                                                            1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                                                                                                              I choose those diverse examples that covered different aspects of what had been discussed here. Hama-Ko's barriers are well documented, extending to different quality of cuts for different customers even for the same item ordered. The lamprey was on the menu, it was convincing them to serve me that was the barrier. Advance order of the fesenjian became possible only after I went with a regular; I had asked about it on a different occasion.

                                                                                                                                                                              Separately it's worth mentioning that many non Chinese chowhounds have successfully ordered off menu at many Chinese places, implying that those dishes are available to anyone who knows about them.

                                                                                                                                                                              In some of these situations and others, it is not obvious that there is a barrier or that there are things behind, similar or more secretive than the restaurant in Fresno. Thus it pays to dig deeper regardless of the type of restaurant.

                                                                                                                                                                              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                                                                                                                Seeing more of your post (post edit?)-- if you think that the majority of Chinese places have hidden menus, then it should logical to ask for them by default. I do that whenever I don't get a Chinese menu.

                                                                                                                                                                                1. re: limster

                                                                                                                                                                                  No, I said it depends on the region. In the Bay Area I think a substantial number of restaurants have -- let's call them "alternate menus." What I thought I said was that in most parts of the country that don't have a large Chinese population, 99 percent probably don't have alternate menus. But I won't say 100 percent because ... well, they could be there and we wouldn't know about them!

                                                                                                                                                                                  You also seem to be missing the distinction I'm making between "off menu" and "alternate menu" -- so far you haven't given me a single example of being given an alternate menu with different offerings, at a restaurant that routinely gives different menus to different customers based on racial/ethnic stereotypes. With the possible exception of Hama-Ko (and Omakase is by definition off menu) you've only cited "off menu" items and items that were on the menu but they didn't want to serve to you.

                                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                                                                                                                    The distinction isn't important; at a fundamental level they all represent barriers to eating something that is based on stereotypes. In fact, not being able to order something on the menu represents an even more severe barrier. Nevertheless, I have lost count of the number of times where I've had to ask for the Chinese menu. (BTW, the "alternate" menu at Hama-Ko is asking the wife what is good that day and she recites it; omakase is a separate thing.) And fundamentally, the workarounds are the same - learn the cuisine/culture, cultivate the restaurant. It's worth going on about working to seek out deliciousness because that's how one finds delicious in many types of restaurant, not just Chinese ones in the US.

                                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: limster

                                                                                                                                                                                      I don't know if you're willfully misunderstanding me -- we're both intelligent people, but clearly there's a gap in communication. If you can't see the difference from something that's "secret" or alternative to anyone who doesn't know to ask for it as opposed to one that is freely given to some people without them having to ask but not to others, then I've explained it as clearly, and I'm through with this discussion.

                                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                                                                                                                        Not trying to wilfully misunderstand, just trying to look at things at a more global level, as I was hoping to cover all the different types of barriers that have been mentioned on this thread.

                                                                                                                                                                                        To simplify and cut through the potential miscommunication, I'll focus on one aspect: that even as an ethic Chinese who speaks Mandarin, I often have to ask for the alternative menu too. Thus, when I suggest workarounds, it's not an attempt to dismiss or patronise, but to share tips that I hope that others folks will find as useful as I have.

                                                                                                                                                                                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                                                                                                                          OKOKOK. I think I started all this by stating that "it would be a case for our courts if another race were profiling their customers," and I'm not rescinding that comment. NO ******* WAY!! It IS profiling, and even though I find it a little offensive, I gave a very solid reason why they're doing it--and, YES, they ARE doing it. limster, who's either been to law school or has picked up some fantastic devil's advocacy trainiing in the UK, will keep arguing that it's about context and that begging for a secret menu and taking language classes should be required for fully enjoying any ethnic restaurant. That seems to be working for him. Those of us who don't dine out 5 times a week all over the western hemisphere and like to try different places on the few occasions when we do go out probably won't ever establish that kind of rapport with any particular restaurant or chef. And why SHOULD we--just to try a $15.00 plate of food?!?!? I've been told, even after explaining that I was familiar with a dish and had eaten it before, that, still, I "wouldn't like it." And it's not just the Chinese. I've been in Korean restaurants where the Korean customers (I don't care HOW they were identified as such, their nationality/ethnicity was assumed or establshed. PERIOD) got more of a variety of banchan/side-dishes for what I'll assume is the same reason, which is that, in that particular restaurant's experience, too many non-Koreans didn't eat/like the ________ (raw crab or the acorn jelly or the WHATEVER). Fact is: THEY DO IT. And that puts the non-Korean customer who likes Korean food in the awkward position of having to POINT IT OUT and ask for what they gave the other tables. I'd love to see my local greasy spoon diner give Asian people who weren't speaking fluent English a different menu every time they came in, or never put bread and butter on the table "because the 'foreigners' wouldn't like it.".... It would be on 60 Minutes the following week.

                                                                                                                                                                                          1. re: staughton

                                                                                                                                                                                            I gave several examples of profiling that I experienced, so I'm certainly not making the argument that profiling doesn't exist. But just because one restaurant profiles doesn't mean that all restaurants do.

                                                                                                                                                                                            In terms of solutions, you suggested learning the names of a few vegetables in Cantonese and mentioned that it works. I suggested other approaches that have worked for myself or others.

                                                                                                                                                                                            Understanding all sorts of cuisines/cultures and building rapport with restaurants are common approaches used by many chowhounds in BOTH ethnic and non-ethnic restaurants. This site is full of such examples.

                                                                                                                                                                                  2. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                                                                                                                    I'm really surprised this happens in SF. It doesn't seem to in NYC, at least at the places we patronize. The menus are bilingual. One of the family rules: never eat at a place that doesn't have the Chinese names for things on their menu.

                                                                                                                                                                            2. re: staughton

                                                                                                                                                                              i saw someone send back strawberry chicken because it "didn't look cooked."
                                                                                                                                                                              never ate with that person again.

                                                                                                                                                                            3. Does anyone get upset about the secret menu at McDonald's or In-N-Out.....

                                                                                                                                                                              6 Replies
                                                                                                                                                                              1. re: fourunder

                                                                                                                                                                                LOL! Are yu trolling the foodies? My nephew's best friend works at McD's, and there actually IS a secret unwritten menu that involves giant fully-loaded off-menu sandwiches for his friends at the end of the shift. Off-menu. Reminds me of OffWorld in Blade Runner.

                                                                                                                                                                                1. re: staughton

                                                                                                                                                                                  Really? Do tell, do tell!! What does one have to say or order or what are the phrases used to sweet-talk the laddies and gals at one's local McD to sample such a thing? :-D

                                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: huiray

                                                                                                                                                                                    There's no way to ring it up on the computer-register to charge you, so they're not going to make it for the paying customers. I suggest you start hanging out with some McDonald's employees. This is all stolen and counterfeit goods, btw--and it's in a McD's under notoriously BAD management in rural Southern Maryland, so I doubt it's a global phenomenon. This place is a joke throughout the county. The meat or fish patty is ALWAYS 1/3 off the bun, etc., I can count on one hand the times they've gotten my order right--and I've never ordered for more than 3 people.. I only go there a few times a year, but twice they've just completely lost my order and I had to tell them again what it was. As for the secret items, It's just basic stuff that a big, teenage American boy would eat--like a Big Mac made with quarter pounder patties and extra cheese. I mean, REALLY!! Is this the sort of thing you want?!?!?! LOL!! When my nephew told me what his friend makes him, I nearly gagged. And I like McDonalds! Let's open a McD's franchise that only does secret stuff that has to be begged for, and has a doorman who only lets the right people in.

                                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: huiray


                                                                                                                                                                                      I've always been too afraid of actually ordering them by name, for fear of looking like a dope.

                                                                                                                                                                                  2. re: fourunder

                                                                                                                                                                                    There is a secret menu at Starbucks. Ask the kids. Age discrimination? I'm guessing if an older person orders it, the kids will stop because then it will stop being cool.

                                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                                                      half the starbucks barristas don't know their secret menu.
                                                                                                                                                                                      it's a cali thing.

                                                                                                                                                                                  3. -: "I had heard that the best dishes were on the "secret" chinese only menus on the walls of the restaurant"

                                                                                                                                                                                    just a question: if the menus are on the walls of the restaurant, how are they secret? why don't you try again, but just point at something and ask what it is then say you want it? is the problem that they dont want to explain it to you or that they insist on not allowing you to order it? kind of sounds like the former. or maybe you can take a picture of the menu and post it here, and we can maybe try to figure it out with you.

                                                                                                                                                                                    when you say " chinese only" menus, do you mean -"in chinese" (in which case, i suppose you mean mandarin) or for chinese people (like - racially? or chinese-looking). its kind of a loaded question because not all english-speaking customers would not be able to read the chinese menu.

                                                                                                                                                                                    when you went with the person who spoke chinese (what language was it), what did you end up eating?

                                                                                                                                                                                    1. I think it is more of a decision based on their culture and belief systems.
                                                                                                                                                                                      They really don't have the time to spend trying to explain the complexities and nuances of food items that many people in Asian countries know and enjoy on a daily basis. Most Chinese food comes at a very affordable price and most Chinese restaurants worth their salt make money off of selling their specialties to a Chinese, Asian, and... American clientele. In order to be profitable they need to turn tables. Unless the establishment is a big urban style restaurant, the smaller family owned places need to turn and burn. They "usually" are staffed with family members that speak broken english, have little time to explain the obscure items that Americans might cringe at, with the exception of the foodies on these boards, do you really want to deal with the masses in a restaurant that "usually" delivers food and drinks to the table in a very timely fashion, with a lengthy Q&A at every turn? People that dine in restaurants really need to understand what it takes to make a restaurant successful, a lot of blood sweat and tears and long hours. Things just don't happen at a snap of the finger. Family owned restaurants are dying off because the corporate owned places train and staff with huge budgets. I am sure the Chinese places that serve a separate menu would accommodate peoples requests for the special menu if patrons actually had some cultural understanding and food knowledge. Other than that they are within in their right to serve what they want to who they want.

                                                                                                                                                                                      3 Replies
                                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: keithlb1

                                                                                                                                                                                        So basically what you are saying is that Chinese restaurants are in the business only to serve other Chinese people, and woe to the stray Non-Chinese American who happens to wander in?

                                                                                                                                                                                        As for all this talk about turning people off, so yes, keep another menu with the "authentic" stuff that has been translated and offer it to people who ask. Or mention it on the regular English menu. You don't need to have giant signs talking about bull testicles hanging on the wall if you are afraid it may offend your customers.

                                                                                                                                                                                        Meanwhile, the items I have managed to obtain from the Chinese menus are not really "odd" at all, which is what annoys me the most. I mean, fish stir fried with watercress? Chinese broccoli instead of American? Spicy hot instead of bland?

                                                                                                                                                                                        1. re: mwk

                                                                                                                                                                                          There is a place I go to in Seven Corners Va called Hong Kong Palace where they actually give you 2 menus and have a chinese menu on the wall. I asked about the specials on the wall and they basically said they're on the menu as well.
                                                                                                                                                                                          Their food is no the prototypical Wonton soup and Orange Chicken type of place so even their Americanized menu has a different blend of flavor and cooking technique. I love it.

                                                                                                                                                                                          1. re: keithlb1

                                                                                                                                                                                            Not all the specials on the wall at Hong Kong Palace are on the menu. Also, the specials change and sometimes they will have them even when they are not posted.

                                                                                                                                                                                            Pretty soon everyone will have one of those apps that let you translate everything, like the Pleco app referenced upthread.

                                                                                                                                                                                            In Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Mrs Gibbs dreams of one day going to Paris "where they don't speak English and don't even want to." Variety is the spice of life, and I don't mind picking up some language skills if it means I get something good for dinner.

                                                                                                                                                                                      2. To order off the "secret menu", you need to know what is on the menu. The example given was "stir fried eel dish with pea tendrils and garlic". To get something like that, the correct way is order is to not even look at the menu and to tell the waiter that you would like some eel and if he has any recommendations.

                                                                                                                                                                                        2 Replies
                                                                                                                                                                                        1. re: FoodPopulist

                                                                                                                                                                                          Exactly. They might have fresh pea tendrils, they might not. If you talk to them, you can find out what's best. On top of that, my parents friends have sometimes called ahead and asked to bring their own special ingredients, eg. fresh lobsters (things the restaurant might not carry), to see if they would cook it up for them and to discuss how to do it. If you have a relationship w the restaurant, they comply. I've gone into a place where I'm a regular and said I don't know what I want but wanted vegetables. The owner (Korean) popped back and made me a special chap chae w/ lots of vegetables. It was better than anything I'd had there. This was an American Chinese restaurant. Don't be limited by the menu, special or not.

                                                                                                                                                                                          1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                                                            There is an American-Chinese restaurant here that I used to go to very frequently which also had a Chinese menu - which, in later years, was also published on their website. It's still there, together with their English menu - and many of the items on the Chinese menu are also on the English one.

                                                                                                                                                                                            Like you and FP, however, I've also walked in, sat down, then asked them what vegetables they had that day - Chinese-type veggies in particular - and often got stuff done "for me" Chinese-style, such as a plate of Chinese spinach ("por choy") stir-fried with fistfuls of garlic...which I'm sure endeared me (not!) to the surrounding Caucasian diners. [The clientele was always almost wholly Caucasian]. Or get stuff like their "Cantonese pan-fried noodles" with alterations to my specifications (including changing to pan-fried mei fun; or breaking a raw egg on top); or asking them for Chinese-style dish recommendations when I was in an undecided mood and got nice stuff on the whole with some misses, in effect off the Chinese menu. Sometimes the proprietress would offer to me that they had "Ngow Laam" that day (Slow stewed beef brisket with daikon & spices like star anise).

                                                                                                                                                                                            One talks to them, make oneself known as a frequent customer, etc.

                                                                                                                                                                                            Oh, and of course even with all that Americanized stuff the chef puts out, certain Chinese-type dishes can be made very well by him on request - like his Salt & Pepper Shrimp, which IMO is the best I've eaten in the city. OTOH, some kinds of dishes never come out right from him. He has strengths and weaknesses and certain dishes he does well, just like many other chefs operating within such a widely varied cuisine with many traditions and regional variations. Others have mentioned this aspect elsewhere here too, I think. (There was a change in ownership recently but the old chef is still there)

                                                                                                                                                                                        2. Restaurant owners make business decisions. Most aren't there to pander to the hobbies of a tiny percentage of their customer base, if it is likely to impact their bottom line.

                                                                                                                                                                                          How can anyone not understand that a small business owner has to protect their investment, and that they know how to do that better than you do?

                                                                                                                                                                                          29 Replies
                                                                                                                                                                                          1. re: rohirette

                                                                                                                                                                                            +1, + DOZENS

                                                                                                                                                                                            and is Rohirette as in The Rohirrim?

                                                                                                                                                                                            1. re: rohirette

                                                                                                                                                                                              How is not providing all of your customers with a list of items that you sell up request "protecting their investment?"

                                                                                                                                                                                              1. re: tommy

                                                                                                                                                                                                Here's a possibility. A Chouwhound thinks they are adventurous and would like to order something authentic that sounds good, or worth trying......once served and eaten, it turns out to something they actually do not like due to some spice or ingredient used to make the dish, e.g., like a casserole clay pot made with a fish heads and stinky tofu.....the casserole comes out and they think it has a funky smell and taste and is all bone and very little meat.....instead chalking it up to experience, they go about telling everyone they know the food is not very good. there based on the one dish.

                                                                                                                                                                                                Not everyone is level headed about their experiences. The current thread about when is it appropriate to give a restaurant a second chance illustrates just how difficult it is to please everyone. While it can be argued any dish can be viewed the same....many dishes on the second menu are traditionally prepared with ingredients unfamiliar to most western diners and are an acquired taste.....even something as innocent as pickled vegetables.

                                                                                                                                                                                                1. re: fourunder

                                                                                                                                                                                                  A remote possibility. How many times do people send back food when they insist on a chinese menu? Not very often I'm thinking.

                                                                                                                                                                                                  Here's another possibility. I, and many people I know, don't patronize places that don't let us order what we want. They are clearly not protecting their investment.

                                                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: tommy

                                                                                                                                                                                                    The simple truth is if you happen to venture into one of these restaurants that have a secret Chinese menu.....it's a bonus for them. Their business plan is to cater to Chinese Families.... because they know that's where most of their repeat business will come from.

                                                                                                                                                                                                    As for the second possibility....that's the beauty of choice.....you can be happy not to patronize and they can be happy not to serve you.

                                                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: fourunder

                                                                                                                                                                                                      "As for the second possibility....that's the beauty of choice.....you can be happy not to patronize and they can be happy not to serve you."

                                                                                                                                                                                                      Right. So tell me how that "protects their investment."

                                                                                                                                                                                                      "Their business plan is to cater to Chinese Families"

                                                                                                                                                                                                      Is it? Which restaurants are you referring to? There's no money in the masses chowing on beef and broccoli? I think you're wrong there, based on the chinese restaurants I've seen.

                                                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: tommy

                                                                                                                                                                                                        The former Hunan Cottage in Fairfield was one place that followed this model for years quite successfully. Qin Dynasty in Parsippany is also doing quite well using the same model.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        They protect their investment from potential bad word of mouth criticism on the food....

                                                                                                                                                                                                        There can be money in Beef and Broccoli.....but there's more money is serving Live/Fresh Sea Foods and Whole Fish to Chinese families who are willing to pay $45+ prices for entrees like:

                                                                                                                                                                                                        Dried Oysters
                                                                                                                                                                                                        Dried Scallops
                                                                                                                                                                                                        Live Prawns
                                                                                                                                                                                                        Sea Cucumber
                                                                                                                                                                                                        Sea Urchin
                                                                                                                                                                                                        Red King Crab
                                                                                                                                                                                                        Whole Steamed Fish

                                                                                                                                                                                                        from their on-site tanks, without having to travel to NYC Chinatown or Flushing

                                                                                                                                                                                                        1. re: fourunder

                                                                                                                                                                                                          "The former Hunan Cottage in Fairfield was one place that followed this model for years quite successfully"

                                                                                                                                                                                                          Do you have any knowledge of their finances? Do you know if they would have done better if people like me weren't turned off by their practices?

                                                                                                                                                                                                          I'm baffled that people can't see the idea of refusing to serve people might actually cut both ways.

                                                                                                                                                                                                          Carry on.

                                                                                                                                                                                                          1. re: tommy

                                                                                                                                                                                                            The point is....people like you have been given thought and considered.....but it has been determined your patronage is not really a concern for them.

                                                                                                                                                                                                            1. re: tommy

                                                                                                                                                                                                              Do you have any knowledge of their finances? Do you know if they would have done better if people like me weren't turned off by their practices?

                                                                                                                                                                                                              Let's change the restaurant and use Houston's as an example....another restaurant I can see visually with my eye that business is good.

                                                                                                                                                                                                              No ....and Yes, and No.

                                                                                                                                                                                                              Using Houston may seem silly, but so are your questions. As for Houston's....I don't like the fact that they limit the amount of adult beverages you can have at the tables, by discouraging the server to allow you to have more than two during a meal. Also, to curb consumption on certain type of drinks, they do not stock the required liquors necessary to make the drink. an example of this would be an Apple Martini. The policy is not to stock Apple Plucker so an Apple Martini cannot be made. Do you think there is an outrage over this policy for denying potential customers what they want? Do you think the restaurant would do any better if people like me were not turned off by this practice or policy........I don't think they really care myself.

                                                                                                                                                                                                      2. re: tommy

                                                                                                                                                                                                        A remote possibility. How many times do people send back food when they insist on a chinese menu? Not very often I'm thinking.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        I never indicated anyone would send back anything....I indicated the possibility of
                                                                                                                                                                                                        * Bad Word Of Mouth * criticism....which does happen often with all restaurants....regardless of how good they are from small mom and pops to Michelin rated restaurants.

                                                                                                                                                                                                      3. re: fourunder

                                                                                                                                                                                                        kind of related but an alternative version: has this never happened to anyone? have you never, in the spirit of adventure, in some place serving cuisine that you have never tried before, insisted on ordering some "new" or "foreign" dish (by this i mean foreign to you), whether it was already declared to you on the menu or you had to pry it out of some "native" waiter as a secret, received the dish, tried it, then realized that you really hated it for some reason (not your taste, or too hot, or too sour, or too something)? perhaps then you realized that the advisor was right: you really wouldn't have liked it, you really didn't. And maybe you felt chagrin, or embarassment that the waiter might be thinking "you see, i was right, should have listened" etc . Or maybe you just felt glad that you tried it out and learned something anyway.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        its happened to me, of course. and seeing it from the other side of things, i can understand the experience being valuable to me, but a waste of the other person's time in some way - yes the dish was paid for, but the dining experience was not ideal. i don't think any server wants to have their customer be disgusted by their food, or not enjoy it, whatever the customer may have assured the server about their accepting responsibility regarding how weird it was to them. sometimes cultural tastes just are that different, and in channeling those expectations, the business owners have to make assumptions on how best to serve their clients so that they expect the overall experience will be positive.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        i'm going to do it.. i'm going to talk about durians. very few people who are new to durians end up liking them. the first encounter is usually traumatic. but durians are largely beloved in their native countries. one memorable event for me is when i had to take some new zealanders out (tourists) and they insisted on trying durians. i played a part similar to the waiters in the original post by issuing the warning that they should be really prepared not to like it, but of course they insisted they were game. how bad could it be? i can tell you that i was sincerely concerned when i made that warning (in a friendly way). we had to order almost $50 worth (they are sold by weight, and it was a family), and .. well, it was bad. there was throwing up, spitting out, red faces, confusion and fear.. also, not much of an attempt to conceal disgust.. and i ended up having to eat all remaining $45 of the durians, partly because i was afraid of offender the durian seller.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        let's take this further - see how durians are portrayed or described in "foreign" media - by which i refer to media of countries in which durians are not native? it is the quintessential "other" - the truly weird, exotic item, representing something completely foreign, and tasting like bad cheese and feet. how do you think natives feel about this portrayal, being empathetic to the description but loving it all the same? Similarly, chinese food is mocked sometimes, for its strange combinations, for the bad English, for hygiene and non-Western-format presentation (fish served with the head? omg!). you just have to look at the Men in Black 3 restaurant scene to see what i mean (i loved that scene). While hilarious, and not without merit, one can be sympathetic to the more unfriendly Chinese restaurant owners who anticipate the fundamental discomfort and mockery that underlies this perspective, and who simply are not interested in translating every single item so that non-Chinese speakers can understand them. In some ways, it is true. what is the point?

                                                                                                                                                                                                        Isn't it possible that the restaurant owners in the above example are anticipating this perception and aiming to negotiate a happy medium for all their customers? Nice, tame, dishes with Chinese flavour and English descriptions. the politics they exercise is actually a politics of inclusion. When in uh.. "a foreign land," there is a recognition along the lines of "hey - you be my people, yo what's up " that occurs sometimes for any cultural group. I think sometimes that having that menu in chinese characters only is not meant to exclude those that cannot read it, but to include those that share the commonality. Is it rude? perhaps not intentionally.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        I've really enjoyed this thread and appreciate the civil exchange of ideas in it.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        1. re: fourunder

                                                                                                                                                                                                          I could not have said it any better. Most people on this board are pretty knowledgeable on food matters, but I will Second the "level headed" quote. Most average Americans want what they think is saved for somebody else. Look at the bigger is better SUV craze if you don't believe me. And like all wasteful and disregarding lemmings we have become, we moan and groan when something doesn't come out the way we the "experts" thought it would. Waaa! Then we go to YELP and post our narrow minded opinions about how awful the food was, ruining the reputation of a hard working career restauranteur making their life that much tougher. Most owners don't need that aggravation. Just to please a few adventure seekers. Like the well informed hounds on the board here. Not trying to be a real pessimist, but as a restaurant worker I see it all the time. Another scenario is the Chinese or Asian restaurant owner might have some very limited ingredients available for his friends, family or regular Asian clientele, but really can't predict when they're is going to be a run on fish heads,ex. People who know how to communicate with owners should have no problem getting what they want. But for the average diner it is just another obstacle that has a negative pay off for the owner.

                                                                                                                                                                                                          1. re: fourunder

                                                                                                                                                                                                            Last time I was served a dish I didn't like in a Chinese restaurant, I posted that I had ordered wrong. That's what a Chowhound does.

                                                                                                                                                                                                            1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                                                                                                                                              The last time I ordered anything I did not like in any restaurant, Chinese or other....Like yourself, I chalked it up to ordering wrong....however, as the following thread shows, not all
                                                                                                                                                                                                              Chowhounds do the same.


                                                                                                                                                                                                              1. re: fourunder

                                                                                                                                                                                                                If I don't like it, I probably wouldn't order it again.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                That said taste change and/or mature over time so I try certain things I didn't like in the past at later dates.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                I didn't like asparagus until I was in my 40s.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                BUT>>>>if I don't like it because it was prepared/cooked incorrectly (burnt, grossly under-cooked) then I would say something and send it back no matter what the ethnicity of the restaurant.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                1. re: bagelman01

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  BUT>>>>if I don't like it because it was prepared/cooked incorrectly (burnt, grossly under-cooked) then I would say something and send it back no matter what the ethnicity of the restaurant.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  I don't think that is being questioned or debated....

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: fourunder

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Although, if you were trying something new and didn't care for it, how would you know whether it was the prep or you? "Excuse me, my steak tartare is undercooked" is the obvious example.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Or (For Red Dwarf Fans). "My Gazpacho has gone cold."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: jumpingmonk

                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Know someone who ordered that and was very disappoint.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                        (hot soup good for noses! cold soup, not so much)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                      2. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                                                                                        As Bagelman indicated.....overcooked, undercooked , spoiled or over salted are the only times you should complain

                                                                                                                                                                                                                        This is not how my Mother/Grandmother made it is not acceptable.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                        1. re: fourunder

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          especially since many mothers and grandmothers were/are terrible cooks.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          B's paternal grandmother only cooked 3 meals in her 55 years of married life. They were memorable not because they were good, but because she actually cooked.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          B's mother was a great company cook, but couldn't be bothered for the family, even the dog wouldn't eat her meatloaf. There was a set supper menu week in week out and 3 of the 7 nights involved restaurant meals.

                                                                                                                                                                                                            2. re: tommy

                                                                                                                                                                                                              As I've said, and others have pointed out, people can be offended by things like duck tongue, bull testicles, pig blood on the menu; or with ducks hanging w/ heads in the front. It depends on the area. That's what happened to my husband's uncle who tried--people didn't come back. He got rid of the that menu, got rid of the chef and hired some line cooks instead. He's doing very well now. CH might think they're the norm but they're not. Andrew Zimmern has an entire show on foods that turn off Americans. If it were appealing, he wouldn't have a show.

                                                                                                                                                                                                              1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                                                                                If it were appealing to the masses, those items would be on the menus at Applebees.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                Can you tell me how not letting people order from the chinese menu, when they insist on it, "protects their investment?"

                                                                                                                                                                                                                1. re: tommy

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  I have ordered items from a "Chinese" menu and been a bit disappointed with my choices. Knowing that it was a bit of a crapshoot, since the items weren't well described, either by the badly translated menu or by my kind server, for whom English was a second or even third language, I did not complain whatsoever about those choices, but simply expressed that they were indeed different, but interesting and tasty. In fact, they were encouragement to keep trying and ordering new and different dishes.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Of those dishes I didn't love, the reasons were simply that in one dish, there was quite a lot of fat and oil, that was delicious, but was guaranteed indigestion for me later. As for the second dish, it was a bit bland. It was a green vegetable with whole garlic cloves and in quite a lot of poaching liquid. It was pleasant, just not exciting. A third dish was, in fact, full of bones with scant little meat, plus some funky dried fish. It wasn't bad, just frustrating to pick at. All experiences were worthwhile. I would NEVER leave that restaurant and badmouth it due to those dishes ordered. Those were my experiments. If anything, I'd be praising that place for competently handling both the standard Americanized Chinese restaurant requests and those of Chinese diners that want food that more closely resembles that of their country of origin.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: tommy

                                                                                                                                                                                                                      "Protects their investment", as in my husband's uncle almost lost his restaurant because people were turned off by what was on his menu. As a last ditch effort, he changed it. It's not what he wanted the restaurant to be but he made the business decision.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                      I've said all along that I think it's wrong to prevent people from ordering what they want; or from getting the special menu. At the same time, if the special menu were provided to all customers, it could turn them off. And some people do think they are adventurous and hate what they try and will pan restaurants because of it, as with huuray's link to my post. Just read trip advisor.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Overall, while this might be a big deal to CHs, there aren't that many people who care about it which is probably why it's done the way it is. If enough people clamored for the special menu, there wouldn't have to be one and that would be a good thing.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                                                                                        It sounds like your husband's uncle didn't have a separate menu that he refused to give to non-chinese. That's the thrust of the OP.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                        1. re: tommy

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Yeah. The question is how often does it happen that there is a menu that non-Asians are not allowed to order off of? I can understand if it's busy and there isn't a lot of time to translate. But, I have never heard of an instance where there is a special menu, in English, and the restaurant refuses to allow someone access to it. I can see admonitions because people do think their more adventurous than they are. At the same time, I'm not offended when I'm told something might be spicier than my palate might like. I appreciate it and assume they've found from experience that "others" find it too spicy. In either case, an admonition is good; refusal isn't.

                                                                                                                                                                                                              2. A short reading list from the web:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                "The economics of secret Chinese menus" (repost; no longer available on original blog)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                "Where the Real Chinese Food Is Hidden"

                                                                                                                                                                                                                "Happy Chinese New Year! The Secret Chinese Menu. Hop Woo BBQ. Chinatown, Los Angeles."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                Even Chinese people have to ask for the full menu sometimes. If you come in for lunch, if you're just one or two people, if you look young and Americanized, if you're not a regular, etc. you might have to ask.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                The comments on the other sites are revealing, because they come from a broader spectrum of Internet users than CH posters. For example:
                                                                                                                                                                                                                "We Americans do NOT need to be exposed to the filthy eating habits of the asians."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                Also, there are accusations of price discrimination in favor of Chinese customers (the same dishes are supposedly listed on the "secret" menu at lower prices) and suggestions that some of the items available on the secret menu are actually illegal. Hmm. But there are two useful comments (by "A. Lee" and "China Man") at the end of this blog post:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                "The economics of the secret Chinese menu"

                                                                                                                                                                                                                62 Replies
                                                                                                                                                                                                                1. re: DeppityDawg

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Excellent post. Thank you.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Another comment from the 2nd link:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  "the local Chinese restaurant here does the same thing, but i have a friend who works there (and isclose with the owner) so i’ve had a chance to try many of the authentic dishes. i’m a very adventurous eater, but never found anything i would order over the americanized dishes."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Also from that same link, from poster JACQUILYNNE [same person as on CH? :-) ]:
                                                                                                                                                                                                                  "Jacquilynne says:
                                                                                                                                                                                                                  August 17, 2009 at 12:46 pm
                                                                                                                                                                                                                  One of the reasons I’ve commonly seen cited is that it reduces problems with people who order things off the Chinese/secret/authentic/good menu, and then send them back because they don’t like them. Every ethnic restaurant owner has a few stories of people who insisted they absolutely wanted the spicy/offal/weird/authentic dish and then sent it back and insisted on not paying for it after they found out what it was. If you just give them the gwailo menu in the first place, you don’t have that problem."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Or this:
                                                                                                                                                                                                                  "3) Protecting the ego. Believe it or not, it’s hurtful and/or offensive to most people of Chinese descent when a much loved dish is disparaged with comments like “Good lord!” or “I can’t believe you people eat that stuff” or “You people really will eat anything, won’t you?” or “Ewwww!” I can easily see how a restaurant owner or manager would quickly decide, “You know what? Forget it. Selling this dish to the two adventurous non-Chinese customers a year isn’t worth the grief of hearing the sounds of disgust from everyone else.” "

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Other commenters also remark on how this phenomenon is also found with cuisines other than Chinese, *including French*:
                                                                                                                                                                                                                  "Stephanie says:
                                                                                                                                                                                                                  August 17, 2009 at 3:31 pm
                                                                                                                                                                                                                  I’ve seen something similar happen in Paris. We spoke French to the waiter who seated us, and were given the French menu. Another couple spoke English to the waiter who seated them, and they were given the English menu. Comparing the two side by side, it was quite clear that the French menu had many more choices on it than the English menu. It saves the waiter from having to explain unfamiliar terminology to the customer."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Etc etc etc.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  As you say, these links emphasize how exceptional the CHers who are complaining are.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  tommy (and others) should read these articles you link to.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: huiray

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    What will I learn?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    I for one like the idea of the "secret" menu. I prefer to have the good stuff separate from the rest.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    The only thing that I take issue with is when they refuse to give it to you, and if you do get it, insist "you won't like that." The thrust of my involvement in this particular discussion has been questioning how fighting with customers is somehow "protecting their investment."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    I've read here that they don't want bad word of mouth, and then that they don't want non-chinese at their restaurant anyway. The two do not compute.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: tommy

                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Yet you continue to dispute that "authentic" dishes *do* get sent back. Or that you are one of the 1% (or whatever percentage) of their clientele who would otherwise go "EWWW" at such dishes. Unless you cultivate the trust of a restaurant, they have no way of knowing that YOU are not just like the 99% who *would* go "EWWW".

                                                                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: huiray

                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Yet I continue to dispute that anyone can support the claim that not serving people what they want, in the context of someone asking for the hidden menu, and arguing with customers "protects their investment." That's all. Nothing more, nothing less.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                        1. re: tommy

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          ***Sigh***. Because they would not know you were that "1%" rather than the "99%" who would either send it back or post negative reviews.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                            1. re: tommy

                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Fine, I change my phrasing to "...rather than the "99%" who MIGHT either send it back or post negative reviews."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                              1. re: huiray

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                What's amusing is that the restaurants that I'm aware of that have this type of policy of arguing with customers and not letting them order certain dishes were in existence long before people were "posting negative reviews." Can't say I buy the theory, given that fact.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                1. re: tommy

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  "Posting negative reviews" certainly encompasses 'word-of-mouth' and "local reputation", which is independent of any new-fangled online stuff. Even nowadays, with all these "internets" stuff, that is still true.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  I do agree with you that a restaurant that *absolutely* refuses to serve you a requested "authentic" dish is in the wrong, but a reluctance to do so is not.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                              2. re: tommy

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                I want to insert a story that is a gem from a friend of mine.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Guy has heard about this new, phenomenal restaurant focusing on one cuisine that is rumored to offer an off-menu "chef's choice" dinner.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                He wants to take friends native to the culture of the restaurant, but thinks he should go alone first.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                He orders the not-on-the-menu Chef's Choice after having to be insistent with the waiter, who implies that CC is really only for people known to the Chef. He finds this patently unfair, but is patiently pushy with the finally submissive waiter.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                The meal comes-- spread in a beautiful display of integrated small bites.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                He can identify multiple elements in many of the dishes and feels immensely vindicated.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                He begins with the smallest individual bite--
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                and promptly consumes and entire one inch mountain of wasabi.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                        2. re: tommy

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          It's real simple. No catering to the whims of high-maintenance customers who often cause too much trouble to be worth the effort. Come in often and become a regular and then you might have a legitimate complaint if they won't give you the "secret" menu.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Coming from an Asian family, I can honestly say that some Asians consider too many white people to be a bad mark against a restaurant. Some restaurants want to build a loyal, repetitive base of ethnic customers who value some semblance of authenticity and bring in their families at least once a week. The perception of being too Americanized could threaten that base. I don't see why it is so hard to see how someone might believe in that sort of business model.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          1. re: FoodPopulist

                                                                                                                                                                                                                            " I can honestly say that some Asians consider too many white people to be a bad mark against a restaurant."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                            That's interesting because I've never found that to be the case, but do find that a lot of non-Asians think that a number of Asians at a restaurant give it legitimacy. I often read reviews like "Judging by the number of Asians there, it has to be good." I've never heard an Asian say they won't go somewhere because too many non-Asians go there.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                            1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Are you Asian? I am. I figure most Asians won't admit that sort of opinion to white people.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                              1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                If you see a significant proportion of non-Chinese diners, it is reasonable to suspect some degree of Americanization of the food. There is nothing wrong with any of that per se, but if you're looking for authentic Chinese food, you might choose to avoid that restaurant. Unless you have some reason to believe that you can actually get authentic food there. One way for the restaurant to indicate this is by having a menu in Chinese. In that case it doesn't matter if the place is full of non-Chinese people enjoying Americanized food; you don't have to eat what they're eating.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                This rationale is explained very well by the commenter "A. Lee" I mentioned above. It's not just a matter of time/expense/expertise required to translate or explain the Chinese menu. The language barrier and the other barriers that the restaurant may put up are not bugs, but features. If the Chinese menu becomes accessible to everyone without effort, the dishes on it can no longer be assumed to be authentic, and diners looking for that may go elsewhere.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                1. re: DeppityDawg

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Those are good points. I do think, at least people I know have a good relationship w/ the restaurants they frequent, eg. hold banquets there, know the owners, etc, that they continue to frequent the restaurant no matter what the clientele. At the same time, they're probably not getting the same food, even if it's the same dish.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                              2. re: FoodPopulist

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                What's real simple?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                So not giving the odd (1% was it?) non-chinese customer the chinese menu even when they demand it, but instead giving them the americanized menu as they do with allllllllll of the other non-chinese, somehow cuts down on the non-chinese customers?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                "Come in often and become a regular and then you might have a legitimate complaint if they won't give you the "secret" menu."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Why the eff would anyone who wants chinese food continue to return to a restaurant that won't serve them chinese food. LOL.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                This discussion is getting more difficult to follow by the post.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                1. re: tommy

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  "So not giving the odd (1% was it?) non-chinese customer the chinese menu even when they demand it, "

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  How often does this happen?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    "I tried my best to get any of the waiters to help me order from those menus. But, they kept insisting that I wouldn't like any of the food. They just did not want to tell me what was being offered off the English menu. I argued the point for a while, and I finally was able to have them suggest one dish which I ordered and it was wonderful (it was a stir fried eel dish with pea tendrils and garlic). But, the fight to get it was off-putting."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: tommy

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      I'm not saying it never happens. I'm asking how often it does happen. Having had family with multiple restaurants, I'd say the opposite happens far more often--where someone orders and hates it rather than someone who is not given the option loving it. And the former happens often which is why some act that way. Having thrown banquets, I can say far more people who don't grow up w/ jellyfish are turned off by it than love it.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Here, I googled "authentic chinese restaurant review" and this was the first one that came up:


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      It shows what the average person is expecting when they go to an authentic chinese restaurant. Not really authentic Chinese food.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        *****Omg...Silver Palace is legit ran by real Chinese people who know wtf they're doing!!! If you're looking for an authentic Chinese meal this place is for you!! :o)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        What I love:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Salt and Pepper Shrimp - crispy; spicy; amazing with white rice.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        House Special Lo Mein - delicious!! perfect.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        House Special Fried Rice (no bean sprouts please) - amazing!
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Egg rolls - yummy fried goodness
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        LOL...I guess you are right. Egg Rolls and Lo Mein...

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        But again, I can't see this person ever demanding the "secret" Chinese menu and demanding to order something from it. Anyone who thinks that Egg Rolls are authentic Chinese food would not be ordering jellyfish in any form. Personally, I'm not a jellyfish fan myself, so I wouldn't order it.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Also, someone who is sophisticated enough to know about the other menu and ask about it and be anxious to try items off of it, will have a much broader mind to try new things anyhow. I just cannot fathom a situation where someone would demand to order something that is going to disgust them.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        1. re: mwk

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          I wonder how many people get that Chinese cold cut appetizer platter that is common in the kind of Chinese restaurants I like and think they are eating seaweed when it is really jellyfish.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          1. re: FoodPopulist

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            I'd think someone who is comfortable eating seaweed would be comfortable eating jellyfish, unless they're vegetarian. On that cold platter, how would they feel eating beef tongue if they thought it was just sliced beef (as if somehow muscle is palatable but mouth muscle isn't.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              I think more people would be comfortable eating seaweed compared to jellyfish. If you went to a sushi place, more diners are comfortable eating seaweed than with eating sea urchin. People have a better idea of what to expect from eating unusual plants than they do from eating unusual animals.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          2. re: mwk

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Yeah, it's funny what people think is authentic. I have no idea what the stats are on people who think they're adventurous and aren't. I also have no idea how many people request the special menu and are denied it. We haven't heard from the OP on how busy the place was, whether he/she returned and tried again now that there's a track record. It's one person, one restaurant, one server. If the menu is in English and requested, I think it should be provided. The hard part is when it's not and a person asks what's on the wall--does the server have the time to translate it all and is it going to get some gagging reflex?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              To answer your question, I recited my experience at one particular restaurant here in Boston Chinatown, and the place was not busy at all. Only one other table of Chinese customers and us. However, it is a familiar refrain in just about all of the Chinese restaurants I've been in (except for the strictly "american" take out only places). Actually, it's even worse in the suburb where I live, where there is a large Chinese population and many Chinese restaurants which cater to that population. However, it's next to impossible for me to get anything other than General Gao's chicken, or Moo Shi Pork.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              The menus are not in English most of the time, and that is the core of the problem. And it happens again and again. I'll even give you another example where the menu WAS in English. I was ordering take out from a local place. I had the menu in hand while I was on the phone and wanted to try something different, so I tried to order "minced beef and cilantro" soup. The response was, "oh no, that's not for American customer, you should order won ton".

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              I took that as a challenge and insisted that I wanted it. I told him I like cilantro and I like minced beef, so why wouldn't I like the soup? Long story short, I finally convinced him to let me order it and it was delicious. It's my go to soup now, instead of the usual hot and sour.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              1. re: mwk

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                It's too bad that they weren't more responsive to you in that restaurant. It's not right that you have to jump through hoops so I hope it doesn't sound like I'm excusing the behavior but explaining why they might direct you to a more Americanized dish. People do order things and realize they don't like it. It has happened often when I brought friends over to my parents' house and they try things and don't enjoy it. There's no cost involved there but in a restaurant, they're trying to direct you to what they've found others have enjoyed, rather than spend money on a something you don't (at least, that's my experience). They're not trying to be rude, although sometimes the mannerism might come off as it. Most restaurants don't want to see people leave an entire plate of food uneaten, as we wouldn't in our own homes. It's happened enough to my mom that she's always cautious when serving some of her more culturally strong dishes (I also feel the same way when I serve some things to my kids' friends who only like chicken nuggets--sure there are some who have enjoyed moussaka but most turn their noses up at it, after trying it).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                It's great that you're diligent enough to get to try new foods. And, I think if they know you, they'll be thrilled about your wanting to try new things, Nothing thrilled my mom as much as when I brought home adventurous friends who loved what she prepared. "Oh, you like our food" is what she'll happily exclaim. OTOH, it's not fun making dishes and knowing that most people haven't liked it and they turn out not to.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  There's a Szechuanese restaurant in my area which has the "real stuff" for their Sunday brunch; and Americanized stuff for their weekday brunch/lunch buffet. Here's what I selected and ate from the openly-presented buffet one Sunday: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/8535... (see the second entry). As I described there, the people who actually eat there on Sundays are almost wholly Chinese, and in fact on that particular Sunday there were no non-Chinese patrons while I was there. On other Sundays when I have been there, no more than 2 or 3 Caucasian people might be there on average, if that. On weekdays the clientele is almost wholly Caucasian. In this case it isn't a "hidden menu". However, it is interesting that Caucasians would not avail themselves of the "real" delicacies available on Sundays. It isn't as if they "don't know" about it, nor that they are barred entry - all are freely welcome to walk in and dine there.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: huiray

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    This actually proves the point though doesn't it? Most people know the types of food they like. If you had all the items from the weekday buffet, and the sunday buffet all on one menu - with say the sunday buffet dishes as "szechuan specialties." Almost everyone would self-select appropriately.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    The appropriate analogy to the original poster's scenario is a white american couple walks into the Sunday Brunch. A waiter stops them and says oh! you don't want to eat here today! Today we only serve food Sichuan people like. The couple replies oh we know, we actually came here to try it....yet the waiter insists that they should not eat the buffet and leave.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    I don't know why this type of interaction should happen. How often does it happen that one insists on eating tripe, and it comes and they say eww tripe I'm not paying for that?!? Sure it happens every once in a long while but it can't happen that often.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Perhaps it's just a language/cultural barrier, the wait staff doesn't have the English abilities and cultural knowledge to describe dishes to send off the "warning" signals for American palates. So it ends up in one ordering a pork dish, but not realizing that the pork is rendered gelatinous, or that it's pork organs etc.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: goldangl95

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Where, I live, the the DC area, 'You No Like' Syndrome is not very forceful. And there are quite a few places where it is not present at all. However, in Atlanta I came up against a very aggressive waiter and then manager who pleaded with me not to order a spicy dry-fried noodle dish.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: goldangl95

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        I'm not sure it does (although, yes, it could be extrapolated to do so as you say). For one thing, this alternating buffet spread does not, after all, take place side-by side where the dishes are right next to each other. Also, the dishes are not named - not the "real" stuff, anyway, like those cold hors d'oeurvres. Do we know that the majority of white folks would not blanch at them and lose their appetite? No doubt you would not, of course.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        The restaurant does also have a handwritten "Chinese menu", in fact, which is mostly translated and for the most part in basic terms. I don't know if that is handed out to every patron automatically with the full/regular menu when a menu is requested or at non-buffet meals.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        1. re: huiray

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Are you saying that someone would lose their appetite if they saw a section they did not like side by side with descriptions they do like on a menu??!??! Even when that section is delineated?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Because no one is talking about having a buffet with mixed sichuan delicacies/more exotic items along side the Panda express type food in a jumbled mixed up scenario.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          The fact is people generally know what they like as shown by your buffet example (people go on the days where they know they will like the food and self-select). If you have a regular americanized chinese menu, and a separate menu or section for the delicacies. People will self-select. There is no need for the restaurant to select for you.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          And depending on the region, yes you do end up making wrong assumptions (like the one you just made about me) enough to turn off patrons. Especially in urban areas, you are going to have people who worked in china for a year, or whose spouse in chinese but couldn't come that day etc., or who are adopted, or whose mother was an ambassador to Hong Kong etc.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          1. re: goldangl95

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Ah, so you *do* lose your appetite if you see plates of pig colon pieces, marinated beef tripe, garlic-scallion pig stomach etc next to poached chicken slices, spring rolls etc - which you have to view while you pick up your spring roll and chicken? OK, sorry, I stand corrected.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            1. re: huiray

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Last point, no I don't personally mind at all, and I don't think many would. But mixing it together (e.g. having a chinese food menu where say 60% traditional chinese dishes and 40% americanized dishes are all listed together alphabetically) or a buffet, is a decidedly more risky position -as it always is- because it would be hard for people to find what they want, they'd get overwhelmed, and they'd leave.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              It's why all menus and all buffets are sorted by category, you don't mix in the soups, with the entrees, with the desserts all in a jumble because it's hard to navigate. Even in restaurants where they are only serving 10-15 dishes they still separate into categories.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Now if you want to make a political statement, that anyone should be able to eat anything on your menu and jumble it all together that's fine.....but I was just stating no one was actually advocating that here....and that it's not the point of this thread.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              1. re: goldangl95

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Yet you said that I was mistaken when I presumed you would not lose your appetite with a buffet of "real" stuff next to "Americanized" stuff in my prior post. :::scratchinghead:::

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                "...you don't mix in the soups, with the entrees, with the desserts all in a jumble..."
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Uhh, I didn't say it shouldn't be nor propose that it be.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                "Now if you want to make a political statement, that anyone should be able to eat anything on your menu and jumble it all together that's fine..."
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Neither did I say this nor intimate this.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Ehh, I was describing a situation I observed. It is possible that folks may make different extrapolations from it. Let's leave it at that.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    2. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      But, how will I ever know if I like something if I don't try it? Isn't that what our mothers all used to say when they were trying to get us to eat vegetables or something? "How do you KNOW you won't like it if you won't TRY it?" I may very well not have liked that soup, and it may have ended up in the sink. I have had that happen with food I KNOW I like, if it was done poorly. I remember one time ordering fish and chips from a local take out place, and having to put it in the garbage because it was soggy and so oversalted I couldn't eat it.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Not every new dish I've tried has been a success for my palate. One example is bitter melon. I ordered a dish of beef with bitter melon because I wanted to try it. Needless to say, bitter melon is REALLY bitter. I just couldn't stomach it. So, what I did was to eat other dishes and have it packed up to take home, pretending I ordered too much food. Then I threw it away at home. Was that really necessary? I figured that if the waitress saw I didn't like it, I'd never get to try anything new there ever again.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: mwk

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        "But, how will I ever know if I like something if I don't try it?"

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        ?? I didn't say anything about not trying it. I'm just saying that if you made one type of dish for a certain group of people, most of whom don't like it, you might get leery of making it for them. I'm that way w/ my children's friends who only eat limited foods. Do I want to give them eel sushi when almost every one who has tried it has hated it? Hesitantly. I think restaurants are the same way when people leave a dish uneaten. As the bitter melon example goes, if that was the only unusual thing you ordered, then taking it home was probably a good decision. But, if you ordered quite a few things, leaving one isn't a big deal. I eat a good amount of the banchan served at Korean restaurants. But, there are some I try and leave. No biggie. But, that's night and day from some of my friends who don't touch any. No one expects you to like everything.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        When we traveled through Scotland, some of the inn keepers repeated asked if we really wanted the haggis and blood sausage. I guessed that there were enough Americans who didn't care for it that they wanted to make sure we wanted it. I wasn't insulted.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          LOL, send the haggis and blood sausage to me. I love that stuff. I have a Scottish friend who acts as my "mule" and brings me canned haggis back from scotland when he visits his relatives.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          1. re: mwk

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            I prefer blood sausage over haggis. Don't think any of it was canned. OTOH, I'd be perfectly happy just starting my day w/ a bowl of porridge. It just hit the spot and kept me full for hours. I don't know how they all made it but it was such a great way to start the day.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        2. re: tommy

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          If you think the English menu is fake Chinese food and there is some secret menu with the "real" Chinese food, you are mistaken.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        3. re: FoodPopulist

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          It's nice of you to speak so frankly, food populist, but your original post shows those Asian restaurants to have a racist attitude pure and simple. You can never prefer one customer over another, especially when living in a multicultural society.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          1. re: Wawsanham

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            It's not that they're refusing to serve one group of people; they're directing the customers to what they've found is popular to that crowd. It's like a democrat not spending as much on advertising on during FOX news. As a woman, I treat a strange man more suspiciously than I do a strange woman. Ask any woman. Is it sexist?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Well, that is what profiling is all about. It is a fine line, but when it goes too far it is offensive and or racist/sexist/xenophobic--at the very least it is crude and thoughtless. Besides, the onus has to be on the person who ordered it to then say "I didn't like it." Well, they still ordered it, then they found out they don't like it--that's their problem and their choice.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              1. re: Wawsanham

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Ask any woman how she'd feel if she were alone in a dark place with a man she didn't know vs a woman. You can call her sexist, crude and thoughtless; she'd call it survival.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Yes, the onus is on the person who didn't place the order but maybe the owners don't want to put it out there because they'd experienced enough people hating it that they don't want to be bothered. As I've said in many posts here, I'm not defending it but trying to explain why someone might do that. As most Asians have said, we've experienced people "Eewing" our food enough that sometimes you don't want tot deal w/ it any more.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  When you have a restaurant and a customer goes "ew" you just have to live with it. It's part of dealing with people. Those customers are probably idiots as it is. But, it is your duty as a restaurant to give the customer the choice to order what they want from what you offer all customers there. If you profile your customers, you are in the wrong. It has no justification.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: Wawsanham

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    The restaurant's duty is not to lose money.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: Steve

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      How does a restaurant lose money by allowing a customer to order what he wants or by not profiling customers?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: tommy

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        By having to take back dishes that the customer ordered then decided he didn't like and sent back, and credit the customer, thus losing money. It also may affect his service staff, since such events may lead to smaller tips.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        If a restaurant has had that happen several times, with a certain recognizable type of customer and certain dishes, they learn what to expect and act accordingly. I see this a reasonable on their part -- I don't see it as profiling, at least in the pejorative sense of the word; YMMV. I think they are justified in taking such a cautious approach to a new customer that fits those characteristics.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        We all "profile" all the time -- the term, as a verb, has taken on a pejorative meaning in recent years due to its being used to describe how police (government) at times approaches members of minority groups. I trust we all agree that is not a good thing. However, the tendency of restaurant owners to presuppose what certain types of customers might like or not like, and acting on that supposition, does not rise to the same level.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        1. re: johnb

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Denying service or goods based on ethnicity or religion or appearance is wrong, regardless of how people seem to want to defend it in this case.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          If a taxi driver tells you that he thinks that blacks are more likely to rob and run out on a fare, would you say it's OK for him to not pick up blacks? Muslims? Whites? Ridiculous, and wrong.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Your theory on how many times dishes get sent back when a white guy insists on ordering them is interesting. Do you have any facts/numbers/statistics to back that up? You really think that someone who is going to know that there's probably a menu with more authentic dishes on it, ask for that menu, navigate that menu, and make a decision, often with the help of google on a smartphone, the staff, or against their better judgement, is then going to send the dish back and demand a refund?? How many times might this scenario have actually played out? About twice, I'm thinking.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Again, I like that there is a separate menu for more authentic dishes. It not doubt saves the restaurant the hassle of having someone ordering eel thinking it's General Tso. My issue stems not from the menu's existence, but the staff's refusal to let non-Chinese see it, or order from it.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          1. re: tommy

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Other than the OP, which I agree wasn't fair, who has experienced a staff's refusal to see the authentic menu? And, in the OP case, it was there, just not in English.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Me. "no. You won't like it".check out other food websites with similar discussions. This obviously happens. I could point you to two restaurants that do this, but you don't care. I care even less.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            2. re: tommy

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              I think the whole point of numerous posts in this thread is that that is EXACTLY the "scenario that plays out." If you think it doesn't happen, well, you can think what you want.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              A private businessman can deny anything he wants for any reason (discriminate) provided it is not explicitly forbidden by law (the taxi hypothetical you cite is forbidden by law). It is his business, his option. To raise what menu items a Chinese owner is willing to sell to a particular customer to the level of morality or ethics as you are trying to do is, IMO, over the top.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              1. re: tommy

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Denying service or goods based on ethnicity or religion or appearance is wrong, regardless of how people seem to want to defend it in this case.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Who said Chinese restaurants are denying customers the "secret menu" based on ethnicity, religion or any other protected class (btw, "appearance" is not a protected class).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  I stand corrected. It's totally fine. LOL!

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    It may be rational and consistent with sound business practices for a Chinese restauranteur to not transliterate or advertise in English dishes which are anticipated to be received as off-putting or distasteful by non-Asians. Common sense and anecdotes cited here and elsewhere seem to support that.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    I doubt that it is similarly rational to refuse to serve such dishes to a non-Asian customer who specifically requests them, or to withhold a menu including such dishes.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Regardless of the customer's apparent race or origin, it would seem that offending the presumed "customer is always right" attitudes/entitlements through this conduct (which is also reasonably perceived as paternalistic and condescending) would be more likely to lead to negative reviews and word-of-mouth than complying with the customer request at the risk of finding that the customer, despite apparent interest in special items, dislikes the requested food, and then, goes on to blame the restaurant for their experience.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    In this sense, I think the restauranteur who chooses to refuse specific requests misperceives the numerosity of customers who are curious enough to ask but yet mercurial and petty enough to publicly complain when their adventure goes awry. Such persons are, IMHO, exceedingly unlikely to exist. Benignly curious customers who may be reasonably offended by refusal itself are, IMHO, much more likely to exist.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    "Appearance" is not per se a protected class, but it is effectively the same as race or national origin in the context of this discussion.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  2. re: tommy

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    i had a "friend" send back "strawberry chicken" because it came out pink (chinese restaurant). never ate with her again!

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                2. re: tommy

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  I was just pointing out that it is the restaurant's duty. Since I am neither a restaurateur, Chinese, or a Chinese restaurateur, I will not assume I know more than they do about their own business.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Most successful Thai restaurants around me have turned their entire restaurant into a 'you no like' zone by sweetening all the food, downplaying the spice, and exchanging 'yucky' ingredients for white meat chicken. If they have a Thai language menu, they keep it very well hidden and will probably deny they have one not to offend customers like you who will make a stink about not having access to all the dishes offered. "It's all on the English language menu." There, are you satisfied?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: Steve

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    You don't satisfy me, nor should it be your obligation. Thanks, though.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              2. re: DeppityDawg

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Wow, that comment on the third link is scary but I'm glad others called him on it. I don't think it's that rare of an attitude, once you leave the major cities. Is it a wonder that chinese restaurants have secret menus.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                "Is there anything on the planet that asians will not put into their mouths, or eat?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                If the asians do it in asia, that is fine with me. They can eat dogs, cats, after-birth, and each other, for all I care.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                BUT, when they bring their filthy habits to MY country, the United States of America, it offends -- it sickens -- and if increases my dislike (if not hatred) for asians in general.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                We Americans do NOT need to be exposed to the filthy eating habits of the asians.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                And we do NOT need the likes of YOU to promote such filthy eating habits (are you still savoring your "wife's placenta"?)"

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  You left out his name/handle and the final parting sentence. They were, respectively:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  "Colonel Kenneth Wayne Treuter, Esquire said... "


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  "Filthy people. "

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: huiray

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    I believe one of them is somewhat famous.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: huiray

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      I have never heard of him. Didn't realize he was famous enough to include the name.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                2. After reading posts for several days, I have to weigh in.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  In my experience (and I'm Chinese), there's a limited universe of vegetables and meats in existence. I doubt it's the lack of jellyfish or chicken heads that is frustrating CHers. The various combinations of those ingredients are not what make a Chinese dish, Chinese. It's the sauces and flavorings, and those are difficult to translate or explain. Many people wouldn't jump at the opportunity to order something flavored with dragon-eye fruit, or might mistake it for dragonfruit. Many Chinese resto servers don't speak English well and may not know the English translation, or might know the English word (dragon-eye fruit) but not what it tastes like, or that it isn't the same as dragonfruit.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Like every other foodway, we just say the name of the dish or name the unusual ingredients. We don't go into long descriptions or definitions and in fact, if I were pressed to explain certain dishes, I'd have to launch into a long and tedious monologue. (And frankly no one in my family has ever used a menu at a Chinese resto.)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  I honestly don't think that Chinese restos are hiding anything. It's difficult if not impossible to be able to adequately offer everything to everybody, given language issues.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  And BTW having "a basic lack of Mandarin language competency" (per the OP) isn't what's going to get between you and the "secret menu" in the many Chinese restos in which Mandarin is neither spoken nor understood.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  2 Replies
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: Erika L

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Thank you for this very insightful post, Erika.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: Erika L

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Bah. Any Asian restaurant staffed by Asians whose English is too good is often not worth eating at.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    2. One of the big problems is that it's difficult to translate the menu items into something an non-native patron would understand. Not only does this apply to English, it also applies to Chinese patrons from other regions who aren't familiar with the particular specialties of a restaurant. A translator must understand both the regional cuisine as well as English.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      For example, one Hong Kong-specific dish, usually known as a Hong Kong-style waffle, would be literally translated as a "street chicken egg", which is also it's literal meaning in Chinese. Even Chinese patrons wouldn't know what the dish is about unless they're familiar with Hong Kong (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eggette for a picture). They don't provide additional explanations in Chinese or English.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      There have been many times that I've had to explain the menu of a Cantonese restaurant to my non-Cantonese Chinese friends. You would need to add an additional line to explain items, but given the fact that most Chinese restaurants have hundreds of items, the menu can get big very quickly, thereby increasing the cost to print them.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      The same problem probably existed with other cuisines when they were first introduced to the general US public: escargot, pizza, lasagna, paella, taco, gyro, hush puppies sushi, sauerkraut, etc. Today, many Americans know because those dishes have been around for a long time. Also, most of those restaurants have smaller menus than most Chinese restaurants, so they have more space on their menus for descriptions.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      3 Replies
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: raytamsgv

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Even though, in American culture, there is a tendency to NOT transalte--even when this can be done. Many of the items you listed could have, or could, been translated into English: sauerkraut = marinated sour cabbage. escargot = snails. paella = safron rice with seafood. lasagna = "layered flat noodle pie" (if you want to be extreme). For cultural reasons, most Americans seem to balk at these kinds of translations. However, it can be done.