For a recent review of Walnut Creek's Shanghai Garden ("Shanghai Dreamin'," October 2), I took two different groups to dinner -- one Chinese American, the other Caucasian -- and received two menus. The bilingual "Chinese" menu was packed with Shanghai regional specialties and traditional favorites such as shredded pig's ears and braised sea cucumber. The short, "whitey" menu -- almost completely different -- had General Cho's chicken and Mongolian beef.
How often does this happen? "Not as often as it used to," says Carl Chan, former president of Oakland Chinatown's Chamber of Commerce and a resolute foodie. "More and more non-Chinese know how to order Chinese food. Restaurants are translating their menus."
To test that theory, staff writer Melissa Hung and I made the rounds of Chinatown last week. When I asked the owner of Tin's Tea House if she had separate menus, she looked at me as if I had a swastika on my forehead. No go. Melissa took over, asking for menus in Cantonese, then nodding at me and asking if they had a gwailo (cracker) menu as well. Still no go. Peony's sole menu was bilingual. Jade Villa and Golden Peacock handed Melissa their standard menus, but indicated they had special banquet ones in Chinese. "My friend hasn't yet translated it into English," the owner apologized.
Cookbook author Shirley Fong-Torres says she doesn't even bother with menus. She orders specials off the wall (often in Chinese) or talks directly to the chef. "Restaurateurs really do believe that non-Asians will not understand some of the traditional foods they prepare, so they lay out non-Asian-friendly menus."
If you don't speak Chinese, you can still pick the right restaurant. If the menu only lists dishes you've been eating since you were four, move along. In your favor is the fact that restaurateurs are changing to accommodate Chinese Americans who can't read Chinese, as well as non-Chinese Asians. For instance, all the Chinese restaurants in Richmond's Pacific East Mall -- where Asian American gourmets from many cultural groups shop and dine -- post wide-ranging menus with specials in both languages.
Or make a reservation for a traditional Chinese banquet -- not the same as the "dinner for three" on the back of the regular menu. Ask the staff to look over the banquet menu with you, and protest if it includes sweet and sour. You're more likely to have problems farther east -- say, Walnut Creek. If you do live in a less diverse town, get to know the restaurant staff and start asking for dishes that aren't on the menu. That's what Chan typically does in Oakland. "I just ask the waiter what's fresh that day."
When I try that, I tell him, I get General Cho's chicken.
"Tell them you don't want that kind of food. Or order something [traditional] from the menu and they'll know that they can't fool you," he suggests. Fong-Torres has a simpler recommendation: "Take a Chinese person to dinner."
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