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Restaurants & Bars 77

Chinese Menu Translations

juno | Aug 22, 2008 01:39 PM

Let me throw this open to our learned Chinese-food mavens, and anyone else who cares to pitch in:

Chinese restos are overwhelmingly pretty damn good in Toronto, and there are four or five authorities on the subject who post on this board and who've directed us to some solid winners. The trouble is, most of the good ones are uptown, often in areas heavily populated by Asians (that's where you find the good Chinese spots, naturally), and the English translations of the menus handed to us Caucasians often aren't up to much.

For example, last night we went to Sun Star, on Finch Ave. east of Bayview - recommended - I think - by the wonderful Charles Yu, who I suspect never ever eats at home. A lively, deservedly popular joint packed almost exclusively by Asians. Charles had mentioned several dishes he liked, so I thought I'd try at least one of them. But no luck finding any of them on the English menu, or anything that looked like it might even be close. And our servers didn't seem to have enough English for me to question them about what I wanted. Also, the English translations of many dishes, I suspect, aren't all that close to what actually arrives on the plates. I ordered what was described as "spicy salted spare ribs", and got deep-fried pork chops - which were tasty, let me emphasize, but not quite what I had in mind. All the other dishes our table wound up with, like the bitter melon with olives and minced pork (excellent) were reasonably close to the menu translation, but all too often a dish - not just in Sun Star - is, how to put it? "undertranslated". In short, not all that close to what you're gonna get.

I suppose it can be fun, not knowing what's gonna turn up on your table. A little like roulette. But Charles, where was the braised eggplant with Enobi mushrooms in oyster sauce? Or the wok-fried mixed mushrooms and scallions with fillet of veal? Or the sand and salt chicken? You got to ingest all that good stuff on your visit but I didn't on mine. All those dishes were missing in action at Sun Star, at least on the English menu, though it's certainly not the only uptown joint with undertranslated menus.

So what's the solution, if any? Do we insist that Charles and his confreres let us know whether a dish they liked can be found on the English menu? Or do we demand that they type out the Chinese characters on their postings (as someone has done occasionally), the better to allow us to bring a copy to the resto of our choice and point to it, saying "I want that!"? Or should we just import better menu translators, so Chinese dishes are less of a crapshoot to us Caucasians?

Or do we just take our chances, as I've been doing in Chinese restos most of my life - except for a few years when a Chinese friend guided me expertly through his restaurant selections. Ah, those were the days. I just ate when was put in front of me, and it was invariably delicious. Maybe I should make friends with Charles Yu.

I put this problem to the assembled, and eagerly await your answers.

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