General Discussion

Chowhounding tips redux - ETHNIC HINTS


General Discussion 17

Chowhounding tips redux - ETHNIC HINTS

Stanley Stephan | Jul 25, 2002 01:11 AM

Best line for convincing waiters to bring you the real, spicy, serious food (rather than the tamed-down gringo version): "Don't tell the chef I'm not Chinese/Thai/Korean/Ethiopian/etc (best delivered as the final parting remark after ordering, as the waiter is about to return to the kitchen).. (Jim Leff )

For casual fare, regional is better than national restaurants (ie, pick a restaurant that advertises Venetian food rather than just plain Italian (Caitlin Wheeler)

And lastly, my sure fire (for me anyway) to get a feel for a potential ethnic restaurant is to watch who goes in. For example, if I notice a Chinese restaurant has a large Chinese clientelle, I tend to find the food is good. If I can't even find a wait staff person who is Chinese, I generally turn around at the door. SisterT

Ethnic places filled with natives aren't necessarily good. (Jim Leff )

But isn't it also a reliable rule of thumb that "ethnic places filled with nothing but non-natives almost certainly are *not* good"? (Marty L.)

Depends on the non-natives. If they look like chowhounds, you're golden. I could name a number of restaurants that are under appreciated by their native clientele that chowhounds virtually keep in business. (Jim Leff )

When it comes to ethnic places I drop names of places I’ve traveled to in said country and things I've eaten there. I discovered recently that our waitress was from Tague, Korea and was a little girl when I was stationed there. It was almost like finding a long lost cousin. (scottso)

Here are two of my methods:
1. Particularly abroad, to weed out the real restaurants from the tourist traps, look for something "disgusting" on the menu. This could be any organ meat, cut from above the neck, or anything else that would make the average tourist blanch.
2. If a waiter in an ethnic restaurant tries to tell you that you won't like the "disgusting" thing you've ordered, assure him or her that you've had it before and really like it. That's how, many years ago, what began as a query about a menu item ended up in a plateful of giant sea cucumbers at a Chinatown restaurant. If I recall correctly, my tablemates quickly forgot our decision to share dishes. (Dr. Julius Kelp)

Order what you haven't heard of. The first time I ordered sushi (1978) the waitress almost refused to bring it to me. (Peter)

I've found amazing agreement among chowhounds and food writers that when spaghetti with meat sauce lands from nowhere onto a menu where you'd not expect such a dish, it's nearly always good. (Jim Leff )

Eat in places where that nationality is common in the nearby population. If you're not sure, you can look up some common names in the phone book. (Peter)

I avoid restaurants that are in the wrong location - the Mexican restaurant in the Italian part of town. (Stanley Stephan)

Decor: Avoid any restaurant with large generic food posters, such as the ubiquitous "Gyro" and "souvlaki" posters. My worst experience with these was in a Dallas Italian place in the late '80s which had a placard on the table stating "Try Tiramisu: the most popular dessert in New York." The tiramisu I got tasted like it had been brought from New York to Dallas by foot in someone's backpack. In contrast, I find travel posters to correlate highly with good chow. (SKU)

I find that when I ask a waitperson for recommendations, more often than I'd like he or she responds "Well, most of our customers like [whatever is the most pedestrian and "Americanized" items on the menu]." (Marty L.)

Another strategy I often employ is to rely on folks with specialized knowledge. Because I'm in science, I come across lots of foreigners from all over the world (I'm one of them), and I'll ask them where they go for the cuisine of their country and culture. Usually, I'll also drag them along for an expert opinion. (Limster)

At "ethnic" restaurants, learn a bit about the cuisine in question first, and order the "signature" dishes of that cuisine. The kitchen will know that you mean business. I also use this to compare the place with other similar places that I've been to; I use the standard dishes of the particular cuisine for "calibration." (Limster)


I tend to get better service when I order in Mandarin at Chinese places. The stuff written in Chinese on posters on the walls in Chinese places are usually good bets.(Limster)

With Szechuan, I'd get stuff like beef in a spicy sauce (loose translation, might vary from restaurant to restaurant), sliced pork with garlic, tripe and beef in spicy sauce with sesame etc...(Limster)

With Shanghainese - Lion's head (large meatballs), steamed dumplings (xiao long bao), eel dishes, vegetarian chicken (Limster)

Hakka - stuffed tofu, salt baked chicken, stewed bacon (Limster)

At an Asian restaurant in which half the menu consists of traditional Chinese dishes and half are other types of food (Lao, Malaysian, Cuban, etc.), avoid the Chinese dishes, they are there for the unadventurous and unlikely to be the specialty of the house. (SKU)


Greek or Greek-owned places with attractive murals depicting cities or villages in Greece will have decent-to-spectacular chow. C. Fox


At Indian restaurants - avoid any Indian restaurant with the word Kashmir in its name - I am kashmiri and have never found one of these that actually serve kashmiri food (does anyone know of one?)they are usually generic and mediocre indian restaurants. (zim)

Also the best decored restaurant in an indian neighborhood will usually have pretty decent food, but it will also be more expensive than it should be-sometimes by a pretty large factor (zim)


If you are looking for Italian in older mid-west and northeast city neighborhoods, look for hyper neat and tidy houses converted to restaurants. This one almost never fails. (Steve Drucker)

As far as Italian restaurants go - If I see pasta coming out of the kitchen with a bull’s-eye of tomato sauce on a field of white spaghetti, Chances are the pasta will be overcooked and have a puddle of pink water at the bottom of the plate. (in other words the pasta is not tossed in the pan) before service) (Pat I.)

I avoid any Italian restaurants that have Louie prima or "That's Amore" blaring over the loud speakers. (Pat I.)

The more stuff (burgers, cold sandwiches, etc) served by a pizzeria, the worse the pizza. (Jim Leff )


Eat sushi at the bar, not at the table. (Limster)

Most of the Japanese places I go to here are either simple noodle places (for quick meals) or sushi. For sushi I'll go for raw stuff like mirugai (large clams), uni (sea urchin gonads), ankimo (monkfish liver), toro (fatty tuna) and what the chef recommends that day. At more high-end places, go for kaiseki dinner (if budget allows - only done this once). From what I've heard, there's a whole world of interesting Japanese cuisine that I haven't seen and will probably only get to try on a trip to Japan. (Limster)


I think a good Korean place is one that brings out lots of little side dishes, with are emblematic of Korean food. Octopus is a favorite of mine, but I haven't been to that many Korean places here in SF or previously in Singapore. (Limster)


With Vietnamese, I usually go for the variety of rolls and the sugarcane prawns (I find their appetizers more exciting than their main dishes). Also a stir-fired dish of beef tenderloin cubes. (Limster)

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