19 January 2008

The Writing on the Wall

In his delightful food essays, Calvin Trillin has often mentioned his suspicions that, on his visits to Chinatown restaurants, he is missing out of the kitchen's best dishes. These, he contends, are to be found not on the menu, but on the handwritten Chinese-language signs found on the walls of every eatery. To uncover the secrets of this signs, he has gone so far as to bring Chinese-speaking friends along with him.

I decided to test his theory on a recent visit to New Chao Chow Restaurant, a favorite of Trillin's and mine. I've tried many dishes found on the menu proper; they've all been tasty. This time, however, I was determined to taste an entree advertised in Chinese on the wall. Achieving this goal, I discovered, was not easy.

My waiter approached. I asked him what specials were listed on the sign, which was bright green with black lettering. The expression on his face is hard to describe. A combination of feigned ignorance and contempt, I'd say. What's more, he said nothing, absolutely nothing in reply to my question. He even looked around him, as if not registering that a question had been asked.

But I was dogged. I asked again what was advertised on the sign, pointed to it. He relented. "Those are specials," he said. And the exchange ended. No more information. Silence. His frowning visage made it quite clear he was not happy about my line of inquiry. But I continued. "What are the specials?" Nothing. "Can you tell me specials?" Finally, he offered, "Oh, shrimp and scallop..." and trailed off. That was the extent of his description. Fried shrimp and scallops? Shrimp and scallop pie a la mode? Who knew?

I had gone this far, so I soldiered on. "I will have that," I said, without further information as to what I was ordering. He stomped off. Evidently, the specials were meant to stay special; it was not meant for the interloping likes of me.

The dish turned out to be a simple one. Sauteed shrimp and scallops with water chestnuts, snow peas, mushrooms and other vegetables. It was worth the effort. The meal was quite delicious and fresh-tasting.

Seeing me dig into the plate with relish, and not bothering him any futher, the waiter seemed to warm to me. Toward the end, he even smiled. "It's good, isn't it?" he said. Yes, I agreed. It was good, Mr. Waiter. A good entree you didn't want to give me!

So, my conclusion (based on one experiment): Trillin is right. The specials written in Chinese are among the better things from the kitchen and worth seeking out. But don't expect the management to like you for it.


Anonymous said...

Good tip

chinowitz said...

Often the names of the specials are very poetic and defy easy translation -- something like, 'fragrant peony in spring snow'. Hard to translate even if you're English proficient and even harder if you're not. The other complaint I've heard from waitstaff is that many non-Chinese people who insist on ordering the specials end up not liking it because it's not what they're used to and so they then complain or try to send it back.