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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.
      CP

    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

                  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:
                  Sauerkraut
                  Pickles
                  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

                            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

                                bagleman

                                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
                            Blood
                            Chicken, Duck and Fish liver
                            Cocks comb
                            Fish head
                            Pig feet
                            Pig ears
                            Pig snout
                            Pig skin
                            Pork or beef tripe
                            Tendon
                            Tongue (beef or pork)
                            Lamb ribs
                            Penis
                            Testicles
                            Stinky tofu
                            Stinky fruit
                            Bamboo pith
                            Jellyfish
                            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)
                            http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/512466

                            how do you order from the Chinese-only menu?
                            http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/50581

                            What is the Proper Way to Order in a Chinese restaurant to receive a spicy dish?
                            http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/826545

                            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.