Chinese Restaurants

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Signs You’ve Walked in to a Bad Western Restaurant in China.


There comes a time for everyone when you’re tired of ordering the same pizza or burger from the Western restaurant you trust and want to find a new but good place to eat. When it comes to Western food in China, this can be a heartbreaking affair. There are just so few places to choose from, and so many of those choices end up being disappointing. Western food is famously more expensive than Chinese food, but high prices do not always translate to a satisfying meal. While sometimes price can reflect the cost of importing rare ingredients, other times an unscrupulous restaurant owner might use serving Western food as an excuse for overcharging on substandard fare. Be warned, you would be surprised how much you can pay for a migrant worker to heat up a can of spaghetti for you. Here are seven signs to help you avoid such disasters.

Not a good sign. Photo: funnytypos
1) The Menu is Misspelled
Too many misspelled words and dishes with nonsensical names should have alarm bells ringing the moment you look at the menu. This is a surefire sign that no foreigner was ever involved in the development of the restaurant. Of course a couple of letters out of place could be the mistake of the printer, but completely misspelled or even mistranslated dish names tells you that the person who designed the menu has never interacted with a person familiar with the dish. Sure, plenty of Chinese chefs have mastered Western cooking without the aid of a foreign chef, but to have no familiarity with something as basic as the name of a dish implies no familiarity with how it’s supposed to taste. A foreign owner or even foreign advisor goes a long way in ensuring customers get what they think they are ordering from the menu.
Here are a few commonly misused words to lookout for. If you do see them it is probably better that you just pack up and head on over the nearest cheap noodle shop.
Seeing the word “beefsteak” in the menu with no description of the cut means it’s probably terrible. Ketchup and spaghetti sauce are both called “tomatoe sauce” in Chinese (fanqie jiang 番茄酱), and are often confused on menus. One restaurant in Suzhou actually put ketchup on pasta. Since the word “vanilla” and “herbs” is the same (xiang cao香草), be wary of desserts like herb ice cream. It’s never a good idea to try the vanilla roast potatoes. Similarly, specific herb names that have been translated literally are a bad sign. You might see thyme (bai li xiang 百里香) listed as “hundred li fragrance.” Run.


2) The Staff is Asleep and the Power is Off 
Again, this is a sign that there is no foreign presence in the ownership or set up. While having a foreigner is certainly not a must in operating a successful foreign restaurant, a staff that is familiar with Western concepts of service is an excellent sign that a professional is in charge of the food as well. While it’s acceptable in some Chinese places to take a break if the dining room is empty, no self-respecting American or European chef would let the servers nap in front of the customers.
Similarly, lights and A/C off in the middle of the afternoon is the decision of a person who has never sat at a table outside of China.


3) It’s in Your City, But You Never Heard of it
It happens to everyone: you’re in a different part of town and you come across a coffee shop or a steakhouse that looks pretty good. The menu checks out, the prices are right and the tables look nice. Yet no one has mentioned this place to you. That’s because it’s not aimed at foreigners and, while it may not be bad, it is adapted to Chinese tastes and is sure to disappoint. This is not a terrible sign, as long as you are prepared for a different interpretation of the dish you expected.

 

4) Poor Foreign Beer Selection 
What may seem like a small issue reveals a lot about the restaurant’s owners. First of all, most foreign chefs and owners take great pride in their home beers and relish the opportunity to share them with the world. Look for specials on the chef’s native beer.
Second, the level of beer variety shows the level of access the chef has to importers. Heineken is available everywhere. Newcastle or Corona means they at least shop at Metro. Getting rarer, Acme or Brooklyn Brewery means someone has been in contact with the American Craft Brewers’ Association and is a great sign. More independently distributed beers like the Italian Birra Moretti are an even better indication of a high exposure to quality imports.


5) It's Far from Other Western Places
Like most businesses in China, eateries tend to clump together. This is especially true of places oriented towards foreigners, who also have a tendency to stick together. You’ll certainly get bored fast if you only go to foreign areas to eat, but a lone pizza place in a sea of hotpot is probably the brainchild of someone already not experienced in the foodservice industry.


6) Hard to Find Ingredients at Low Prices
This as an offshoot of the classic rule: don’t eat sushi if you’re too far from the coast. Anything good is bound to be expensive. High-priced items like caviar and truffles should be in the hundreds of RMB for a taste, otherwise they are serving some amorphously legal substitute. Similarly, smoked salmon, salami and of course steaks simply can’t be sold at the same prices as more readily available meats like chicken and pork. Be wary.


7) Only a Thousand Island 
A classic topping on Chinese salads both green and fruit, Thousand Island holds a lower rank in Europe and America. Anyone who has an interest in serving authentic salads is going to have vinaigrette, if not some kind of house special. If your server doesn’t give you a good choice of dressings, just cancel your salad and try somewhere else.
One of the great issues that foreigners have in China is knowing what to expect from Western restaurants. Some set their expectations too high, and find fault in even the smallest adaptations. Others set their sights too low, and accept whatever quality of food they are given, conceding, “That’s China.”
In fact, the best way to ensure your expectations are met is to determine what style of Western food the restaurant if offering. A great number of “Western” restaurants are in fact meant for Chinese customers, and are mistakenly considered bad by foreigners. They’re not bad, just different. There are some that do, in fact, target those with either low expectations or little understanding of foreign food in China. Their menus are large and cluttered, their service is spotty, and the décor is awkward and often cheesy. The best kinds of restaurants have a clear vision, a limited number of dishes, and some experience in foreign food. Just remember: If you can’t say in one sentence what kind of restaurant it is, you’re probably not going to like it. 
:

Watch out for the "mega-restaurants" with foreign themes as well! If you walk into a place, and it looks like the dining room is roughly half the size of a football field... and there's simulated Corinthian marble columns everywhere... you're sure to have a bad time. Usually, these places also have a menu that is at least 30 pages long, and raw / plastic model food on display tables that would rival any major hotel buffet in variety and scope. Not good.

I've discovered in my years of living here in China that the smaller, more focused spots are best. The emphasis on creating a friendly and relaxed environment is more easily implemented, and the small size makes their ability to resolve problems (there's always problems in the food biz) a reality, whereas the giant palatial monstrosities are staffed by frazzled and high-strung workers with radios and earphones that only care about keeping the train moving until quittin' time... will disappoint, every single time.

 

by Michael R. Davis.

 

Booker T and The MGs - Chinese Checkers

 

 

= edwinno

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