Last time I was in Westminster (aka Little Saigon), refilling on the food of my childhood, I noticed a very painful scene: non-Asians ordering the Wrong Way, and then leaving disappointed.
I had noticed this before.
I almost interceded with the table next to me. I finally did intercede, when my beloved dining partner, also ethnically-impaired, began to order the Wrong Way.
In explaining to her what she was doing, I formulated the following rules as a guide to eating at certain kinds of ethnic dives. These rules were taught to me, in less formal form, by my parents, who were, I think, shocked to see their Americanized son ordering the Wrong Way.
I share these rules with you, in case you might be ethnically impaired, or close to someone who is.
RULES FOR THE ETHNICALLY IMPAIRED
(Note: these rules are constructed from my knowledge of Vietnamese noodle 'n soup 'n meat shops. I know for a fact that they extend to certain Chinatown places, Japanese noodle shops, and Mexican places. They probably extend to many other cultures, but I'm not sure which.)
1. As you enter an ethnic dive, especially one where the name is in a foreign language, note the name of the restaurant.
2. When you look at the menu, check to see if any of the menu items contains any of the same strings of words as the name of the restaurant. You should probably order this dish.
3. Especially check to see if Item #1 has the same name as the restaurant.
4. Especially if everybody around you is orrdering that thing.
5. ADVANCED STEP: Learn the word for "The Special" in as many languages as possible. (In some languages, the word or phrase for "The Special," meaning the house speciality, is different from the word or phrase for "Daily special.") In Vietnamese, the phrase is "Dac Biet."
Thinking behind these RULES: American dining culture, I think, is geared heavily towards the multi-dish menu. Lots of other dining cultures are geared towards the shop, where there's lots of shops specializing in one particular thing. In the Old Country, those shops wouldn't serve anything else, so you couldn't really go wrong. In the New Country, frequently these shops add things to their menu, to make things OK for people who sit down and expect a menu. But they're not really any good at those other things. Frequently, these other things have been sitting in the back of the fridge forever, since nobody really orders them.
When a bunch of guys and gals gets together, stuffed to the brim of American culture, and go to a restaurant, they want, as is the American drive, to be individuals. They want to order different things. When I, stuffed with American Culture, go to a Vietnamese noodle shop with my friends, I feel like I ought to order Different Things.
Resist this impulse. Resisit it like the very grip of death itself. I remember I used to watch as each of my relatives ordered the SAME DISH and I, refusing to conform, ordered something different.
It was always worse.
Resist the impulse. Just submit. You'll be happy.
(Exception: Somehow, traditional American places that are good at only one thing are aware that their patrons are likely to stray if they are given not-so-good choices, so, they restrict properly. Witness the In 'n Out Burger menu.)
(These rules devicsed at Banh Cuon Tay Ho, on Bolsa in Westminster. Get the Banh Cuon.)
P.S. I would appreciate as many words for The Special in as many languages as possible. Danke.