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"Menu is for Chinese people"

Just on the road for business in Calgary, popped into a Hong Kong cafe in Chinatown for breakfast and was of course given the whitey menu. Asked for the real breakfast menu and was told, yup, that "menu is for Chinese people." I get it, they're afraid of serving up the specials to Westerners who won't like them, but it got me thinking - what are your various strategies for getting the REAL stuff?

I finally overcame language barriers and got them to give me beef brisket noodles...they really hit the spot.

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  1. Being able to speak Chinese helps. Or just know how to say simple phrases like "No Problem" (Mei Weng Ti) and keep repeating it until they give you the Chinese menu. Usually though, the simplest way is to just bring a Chinese friend.

    1. <I get it, they're afraid of serving up the specials to Westerners who won't like them>

      I think this is one of the reasons. The other reason is that regular menu is printed in English. The so called Chinese menu is written in Chinese and they change the Chinese more regularly and easily. And sometime the Chinese menu has items which is very difficult to translate into English.

      For example, the Chinese has love steamed whole lived fish (think lived lobster). This itself is a bit odd for Westerners. Second, the price is seasonal, and some Westerners do not like items which has no listed price. Third, the Chinese has recently taken a liking for the Oxyeleotris marmorata which will require too much explanation and translation.


      I know many Indian and Thailand restaurants have a different "spicy/hot" scale for their native consumers and for the Westerners. If a Westerners ask for "very spicy", they would downscale it t "spicy".

      I guess the real strategy to get any "real items" is to more or less to show you are familiar with their cuisines and you are not the kind of person who would send stuffs back to the kitchen or refuse to pay.

      1. There is an existing thread on this board started in 2012 and last comment #472 in April 2013 about the 'secret Chinese language menus' not shown to non-Asians in Chinese restaurants.

        This thread will answer your question ad nauseum.............


        after 472 posts I don't think there is much to add to the subject, but you should have hours of interesting reading

        1 Reply
        1. How about writing the characters for several dishes that you expect to see on that menu. That should convince them that you can read the menu. (You weren't expecting the 'real menu' to be translated, did you?).

          1. It's a 2 step process.

            1. Learn to read and write Chinese (either formal or simplified)

            2. Then after you've mastered No. 1, slip the waiter an Alexander Hamilton (or two) when asking for the "Chinese menu".

            It really is *that* simple.

            But just be careful what you ask for. There is no guarantee you'll actually like "the REAL stuff" (as you call it).

            1 Reply
            1. re: ipsedixit

              You forgot the steps where you get plastic surgery to look Chinese, and find a Chinese family to adopt you or to marry into. Still, the procedure remains quite simple, as you say. And totally worth it.

            2. Then there's always the Spouse's move. We're as European-looking as they come. Whenever we get any resistance, he simply says, "I grew up in Flushing." Never fails, we always get the traditional menu.

              20 Replies
              1. re: rockycat

                as the OP is talking about an experience in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, I don't think the Flushing reference would have any meaning. In fact it might fail anywhere more than 100 miles from NYC.

                Our problem is that we have a daughter who was born in Guanzho, China, when dining out as a family she is oftened handed the traditional Chinese language menu or no menu at all (and orally offered dishes for her consideration). She is not a foodie, and wants traditional Chinese-American food--General Tso's chicken, fried rice and egg roll. It's wife and I who eat the 'exotic.'

                1. re: bagelman01

                  Oh, I do believe the Flushing comment would work just about anywhere. It has worked wonders in multiple restaurants in central North Carolina, as lately as this past weekend. Upon hearing the word "Flushing" a waitress whose English was definitely a work in progress began telling us how much she loves shopping in Flushing and how one of the chefs in the restaurant has worked in Flushing.

                  It has worked in Indiana, too. If you haven't already, read Jennifer 8. Lee's book, "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles." It's a great read and she does mention how many Chinese food service workers nationwide have come through NY initially.

                  1. re: rockycat

                    Yes,I've read the book,and I know how US Chinese restaurants may be staffed out of NYC. BUT as my above post says. The OP was In Calgary, Alberta, CANADA. They don't staff the Canadian Chinese restaurants in Alberta from NY. and the reference point for the 'Chinatown' of the Canadain west would be Vancouver.

                    1. re: bagelman01

                      That's from RICHMOND, not Vancouver : )

                    2. re: rockycat

                      <Oh, I do believe the Flushing comment would work just about anywhere.>

                      If I hear anyone think he/she is from Flushing, I will give them crappy stuffs.

                        1. re: phofiend

                          It means that I don't care the whole Flushing "credential", and I know many do not.

                      1. re: rockycat

                        It has worked in Indiana, too. If you haven't already, read Jennifer 8. Lee's book, "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles." It's a great read and she does mention how many Chinese food service workers nationwide have come through NY initially.
                        Through Manhattan, not Flushing.

                        The immigrants Lee was writing about fanning across the USA are mostly from Fujian province - at least 400,000 over the past 20 years. They arrive and depart from Manhattan's Chinatown. Some stay of course. It's a reverse of the pattern of 150 years ago when many immigrants fanned out from the west.

                        Flushing is part of a great ethno-burb that draws wealthier and better educated immigrants from Asia.

                        1. re: scoopG

                          <Through Manhattan, not Flushing.>

                          Most likely to be true.

                          1. re: scoopG

                            The Spouse is from Flushing. I'm guessing he has a pretty good idea of who/what is there and who goes there regularly.

                            1. re: rockycat

                              Anecdotal evidence is most always spectacular but rarely representative.

                              My information is mainly from these two books: “Chinese America: The Untold Story of America’s Oldest New Community” by Peter Kwong and Dusanka Miscevic and “Contemporary Chinese America: Immigration, Ethnicity and Community Transformation” by Min Zhou.

                              In Flushing, 38% of the Chinese-Americans are business professionals compared to 14% in Manhattan. More than one-third have college degrees compared to 7% in Manhattan.

                              Urban Chinatowns in America are marked by the presence of poorer Chinese immigrants: 60% are foreign born and have a high school education or less. About 50% of them speak only Mandarin, Fujianese or Cantonese. Wages are fully 50% below regional averages and 20% live in poverty.

                              1. re: scoopG

                                We're simply going to have to agree to disagree. I have seen the Flushing line work many times in the Southeast and Midwest (how is that anecdotal evidence?). If your experience has been different, then so be it. As always, YMMV.

                                1. re: rockycat

                                  I can tell you the "Flushing" line wouldn't work in LA.

                                  You use that line, they'd look at you and more likely than not point you to the restroom.

                                  1. re: rockycat

                                    If it works for you, I see no reason not to continue using it. What do you do after you receive the traditional menu? Do you and your spouse read Chinese?

                                2. re: rockycat

                                  The OP is in Calgary. Chinese restaurant workers would more likely have gone through Vancouver or Toronto then Flushing.

                                  And they might well be ethnic Chinese from Vietnam, and therefore follow different migration patterns then Fujianese or Cantonese in North America.

                                  I am not sure why anyone (if they even know where Flushing is) should assume someone who grew up in Flushing should be well verse in and like "real" Chinese food. I have cousins from Flushing (grew up right next to that giant mall), and they sport lovely Queens accent, and they know less Cantonese then I do.

                                  If I heard the "I grew up in Flushing" line, I would most likely say "Oh, i am so sorry."

                                  1. re: gnomatic

                                    <If I heard the "I grew up in Flushing" line, I would most likely say "Oh, i am so sorry.">

                                    I cannot speak for others, but that will be my reaction too.

                                    1. re: gnomatic

                                      Wow. So much hostility toward poor Flushing.

                                      1. re: phofiend

                                        It isn't hostility toward Flushing. I have no problem if someone tells me he is from Flushing in a conversation. However, I don't put "added value" of Chinese food knowledge for people who are from Flushing. The person can also say "I am know Chinese food, give me the real stuffs. I am from Tucson, Arizona or Richmond, Virginia"

                                        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                          "If I hear anyone think he/she is from Flushing, I will give them crappy stuffs."

                                          Your words, not mine. Sure sounds hostile to me. I can't believe you would purposefully give people "crappy stuffs" (sic) based on where they live.

                                          1. re: phofiend

                                            <I have no idea what that means.>

                                            Well, you said you have no idea what it means. Your words, not mine. I cannot believe you interpret something which you don't understand.

                                            (You took things out of context just like I did here)

                          2. For best results I head out with a Chinese friend results are always good.

                            1. none. i just get annoyed and walk out

                              1. How long until this leads to 3 menus. The English menu, the Chinese menu, and the menu for people who don't speak or read Chinese but insist on having the 'real' food?

                                1 Reply
                                1. do as i did:
                                  i got a chinese roommate who has a terrific palate and he takes running the entire outing.
                                  from the minute we walk in the door of the restaurant he is completely in charge of the whole process.

                                  1. I have never had this problem - I've always gotten the Chinese menu.

                                    Once in Atlanta they warned me multiple times not to order from it. In the DC area (where i live), I've never had a problem ordering what I want, either from a special menu or from the specials listed on the wall. In some cases it can help to learn a few characters in advance. Most importantly, it's fun, educational, and easy.

                                    Of course, you can always buy a translation app, like Pleco.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: Steve

                                      I also want to say that the "Chinese menu" phenomena is not always true. Some Chinese restaurants have them, but many do not. I would say that most do not, but a good portion of them do.

                                    2. I still have my original Chowhound Passport. I've only used it occasionally, but it's worked well in the cases I brought it out.

                                      When I traveled on my own in Yunnan Province, I memorized a phrase in Chinese that I used to let people know I wanted to try the local dishes. It worked well—although the problem was that it still was dependent on someone else's interpretation of what constituted a local dish. So sometimes I got great stuff, and othertimes it was boring (although to be fair, the boring stuff might have indeed been local).

                                      But ultimately I think you already hit the nail on the head with how to get the food you want. All it takes is patience. If you know that a restaurant serves beef brisket noodles, and you know that's what you want, you should be able to eventually get it, no matter how much of a language barrier exists! :)

                                      14 Replies
                                      1. re: Dave MP

                                        <my original Chowhound Passport>

                                        What is that?

                                        < you know that's what you want, you should be able to eventually get it, no matter how much of a language barrier exists! :)>

                                        Yes, just act like a 4 years old and start to nag, scream and cry. You will eventually get what you want.

                                          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                            The Chowhound Passport is a wallet card that has this phrase in English:

                                            "Please bring me the serious, authentic food... not the tourist stuff."

                                            The phrase is translated into several languages. There is an outer sleeve with a small cut-out window, You slide an inner card to the selected language, and the translation you want becomes visible in the window. The translations are not always literal, but are adapted for each language. I think the Chinese phrase comes out to be "I may have Western Face, but I have a Chinese stomach."

                                            1. re: Steve

                                              Oh, this is cool. I was baffled. Nice. Thanks for the explanation.

                                            2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                              And one more photo, for the Chinese.

                                              1. re: Steve

                                                Could you take a photo of the entire inner card so we can see all the translations? The Chinese one is cute, but it seems like it could only be used by a white person…

                                                1. re: DeppityDawg

                                                  <it seems like it could only be used by a white person…>

                                                  Yeah, certainly not Indians or Middleeasterners.

                                                  1. re: DeppityDawg

                                                    I have one of those too. You can't take out the inner card, it's a slider with tabs that shows one language at a time: Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, Filipino, Korean, Arabic and Thai.

                                                    1. re: BobB

                                                      OK. I was just curious to see the other translations, to see if they were as creative as the Chinese one.

                                                  2. re: Steve

                                                    The Taiwanese flag and traditional characters would probably be greeted with much enthusiasm in Taiwan.

                                                2. re: Dave MP

                                                  Yes, I have used my Chowhound Passport abroad, once in China and once in Korea. Worked both times. Plus it's fun to pull it out.

                                                  1. re: Dave MP

                                                    How does one get this magical ticket to tastyland?!?!
                                                    Or am I just way too late to that party :(

                                                    1. re: alliegator

                                                      The earlier incarnation of Chowhound had a 'store' where you could buy stuff. AFAIK, it doesn't exist anymore, and the Chowhound Passport is 'out of print.'

                                                      1. re: Steve

                                                        Bummer. But I figured as much. Guess I'll have to make my own mock-up version of such a thing.
                                                        It was mighty cute, though :)

                                                  2. In Vegas our Chinatown has restaurants where I could be the only non Chinese in the joint. What's a whitey menu? I do have a few "I'll never order that again" moments!