As all chowhounds know, the really worthwhile Chinese restaurants generally have a section of their menu that's only written in Chinese. Often it's posted in handwritten signs on the wall. That's the stuff that a true chowhound wants, and yet language barriers can get in the way of ordering it. Has anyone developed a workable strategy for overcoming the problem?
It's not easy. Unless you can read Chinese, you haven't the faintest idea what any of the dishes are (unlike, say, a menu in Portugese where you can guess at some items through Latin cognates). The staff knows that you don't know what any of it is, and they don't want to have to translate everything on their wall. Their English may not be so great either, and often the dishes involve things that don't even have ready English translations. And they've probably had some bad experiences of non-Chinese speakers who order stuff and then freak out at how spicy/weird/etc it is.
My own evolving strategy is simply to point at one of the dishes at random and ask, "what's this?". If I don't want it (e.g., it's something I can't eat), I'll point at something else at random, until we reach the first thing I want.
This strategy produces various responses, all the way from (as in the case of NYC Seafood) an outright refusal to translate anything to (as in the case of Green Village, which I mentioned the other day) a grand conference of restaurant employees genuinely trying to come up with English words for things, even bringing samples of the ingredients to my table and gesturing at them. In between these extremes I've encounered all manner of clumsy interactions. At one well-known San Gabriel Valley restaurant that shall remain nameless, the manager said, "oh, that's something that foreigners don't like", and directed my attention back to something bland in the English-only menu. "Foreigners"? Hola amiga, usted ahora es una Americana!
Does anyone else have their own tips about how non-Chinese speakers can go about ordering from the Chinese-only menu?
In particular, can anyone report their experience using the Chowhound pocket card that says something like "I have a foreign face, but I have a Chinese mouth" in Chinese?