Sunday, April 20, 2008

Mandarin Cafe - the Chinese menu problem

Great Chinese food hiding out on Long Point

Houston has three great strips for cheap ethnic food: (1) Hillcroft between 59 and Westheimer; (2) Bellaire from 59 to Beltway 8; and (3) Long Point. Long Point is best known for Central American and Korean food -- not Chinese food. But at the intersection of Long Point and Campbell, in a center with a Mexican meat market and a Korean restaurant, there is a wonderful little Chinese cafe called Mandarin Cafe.

The take-out menu explains that Mandarin Cafe's "Master Chef" is Danny Lee, formerly chef of Ocean Palace. It claims to serve "the finest and most renowned Chinese Cuisine offered in west Houston." When you consider the full scope of west Houston, that may be a slight exaggeration. Yet Mandarin Cafe probably does serve the best Chinese food north of I-10.

So far, Mandarin Cafe has attracted little notice beyond the Asian-American community. As far as I know, no restaurant critic or blogger has discussed it. The only review I found online was a short comment on b4-u-eat, which concluded "We all felt light and full, not heavy and greasy when we left."

I walked in to try it several months ago because it had certain hallmarks of authenticity. Most of its signs were written in Chinese. And the crowd inside was almost entirely Asian American.

Since I knew so little about this restaurant, the big question was what to order. It is a question I have struggled with since that first visit.

"So what dish is best?"

I started by asking the waitress what she would recommend. "Maybe you would like sweet and sour pork?"

It was not the waitresses, fault, but she didn't get it. I had gone out of my way to pick a Chinese restaurant based on the hallmarks of authenticity. The last thing I wanted was sweet and sour pork. So I thanked her for the suggestion, but explained I didn't want anything deep fried. "Perhaps seafood?" I asked. "Shrimp with mixed vegetables," she suggested. That didn't sound too interesting either.

Finally, I found part of the menu called "Chef's Specialties." It included sauteed green pepper with pork. Again, the dish did not sound particularly unusual or enticing, but it was more expensive than most other dishes ($10.99). So I thought it might be good.

It was. On the surface, it looked like an ordinary stir fry -- cubes of pork, green bell pepper, green onions and a light sauce. Yet, as I looked more closely, I noticed the care and the artistry of how each ingredient had been chopped.

Food critics don't talk much about how food is chopped. Yet kitchen knife work is an art. And it takes a lot of time and care to chop all the ingredients in a single stir fry dish. This dish had been prepared by a master for customers who would appreciate his artistry.

It tasted as good as it looked. The ingredients were quite fresh, particularly the star of the dish -- bell pepper. I was most impressed with the complexity of flavors. I tried to guess ingredients: garlic? certainly; ginger? probably; black pepper? yes; onion? perhaps; vinegar? not sure. Yet, just as the dish was complex, the flavors were well balanced. It achieved the goal of so much Chinese cooking -- a harmony of acidity, saltiness, and sweetness, of yin and yang.

"I want what they're having"

With later visits, I struggled to find the best dishes at Mandarin Cafe by trying to get more information from the waitress, who kept guiding me toward Americanized dishes, and the menu, which gave few clues about which dishes were most interesting. The menu reads like so many Chinese menus -- cryptic titles with little description: "Happy Family," "Seafood Treasures," "Scallops with Spicy Salt." Other dishes just did not translate well into English: "Sliced Beef Toungue" (ouch), "Mustarded Three Seafood" (?).

On each visit, I noticed that at least one person at every table of Asian diners had ordered a dish of noodles in a thick, black sauce that looked like squid ink. So finally, I asked another customer, "What is that?" They said, "Chinese spaghetti with seafood."

On the menu, "Chinese spaghetti" had not stood out as an interesting dish. Yet it was. The noodles were shaped like spaghetti, but denser and firmer. The thick black sauce tasted lightly salty and was filled with carefully diced onion as well as shrimp, scallops, and jellyfish.

I still don't know what was in the black sauce. Perhaps it was dark soy sauce thickened with corn starch. Perhaps it was squid ink, but I doubt it. Although the sauce did not have a strong flavor, it combined with the noodles to create a satisfying comfort food. Yet like the b4-u-eat critic, I "felt light and full, not heavy and greasy" when I left.

The Chinese menu problem

The problem for a non-Chinese customers in a restaurant like Mandarin Cafe is translation. Many non-Chinese-speaking Americans would like to be adventurous with Chinese cuisine. The problem is that most English translations on Chinese menus do not describe the dishes well. And the descriptions of many dishes don't sound very good. Perhaps that is why so many Americans stick to sweet and sour pork. Perhaps that is why they flock to pale imitations of Chinese food, such as P.F. Chang's and Pei Wei, whose menus are descriptive.

So how can Chinese restaurants communicate their unusual, flavorful dishes to non-Chinese customers? They need to hire a Chinese menu consultant. This ideal consultant has three skills: (1) some knowledge of Chinese ingredients and cooking techniques, (2) an understanding of modern American restaurant trends, (3) English prose writing skills.

For instance, the menu consultant might make these edits:

•"Cow Ribs with Bean Curd Sauce" changed to "Braised short ribs with tofu essence"

•"Chinese Spaghetti with Seafood" changed to "Mandarin Noodles with scallop, shrimp, and jellyfish in savory black sauce" (if I knew what was in the sauce, I might say more)

•"Fresh Squids with Black Pepper Sauce" changed to "Mandarin-style crunchy, spicy calamari"

With the new menu, and a little publicity, Mandarin Cafe's tables would be packed with both an Asian and non-Asian crowd. So what do you think, Mandarin Cafe? Need a menu consultant? I will gladly do the job without charge.

All you need to do is list the ingredients for all your dishes -- and let me taste each dish for free.


Scott said...

Excellent points!

Cory said...

Nice post highlighting a problem I find at MANY Chinese restaurants when I go in feeling advernturous.

I've been to Mandarin once or twice. It's a little out of the way for me but is always worth the drive.

Anonymous said...

"Fresh Squids with Black Pepper Sauce" actually sounds awesome to me, as is. ;)

But you do have a very good point. And I think your menu consultant idea could actually be extremely lucrative, not to mention the envy of every other working stiff out there. :)

Anonymous said...

hmmm...i'm chinese-american-
i'm not an expert on chinese cuisine by any means but i do understand how hard it is to order from a really unhelpful menu.

the cheap hole in the walls are hit or miss unfortunately. some restaurants do just one thing well: hot pot/peking duck/dumplings/noodle soups etc-
and then you just avoid the rest of the menu.

most chinese restaurants with slightly fancier dining (ocean palace, jade village, fung's, phoenix) should have a preset family (5-7 people) menu that highlights good, reliable options. in my experience, this usually centers around seafood. its a good initial sampler of dishes that i found that my American friends liked.
I use this as a model sometimes when I order.

typical menu:
a fish maw seafood soup
lobster w/garlic
sauteed dish (its hard to mess up shrimp in Chinese dishes)
+/- chicken or duck
a beef dish (barbecue esque)
a seafood clay pot
full steamed fish
some small dessert

it might be hard to convince restaurants to hire consultants for the menu- sadly- they may not want to waste time attracting American customers when they have good Chinese customer business already.
My usual advice is to bring a Chinese friend along who knows how to order.

anonymouseater said...

Sheats -- I thought "Fresh Squids with Black Pepper Sauce" sounded awesome too. I ordered it. It turned out to be nothing more than deep fried squids with black pepper. I don't eat much deep fried food, so it was a big disappointment. That's why I would call it "crunchy calamari."

Last commenter -- That's great advice. Thanks.

I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that a lot of authentic Chinese restaurants may not even bother trying to bring in non-Chinese-speaking clientele. Part of the problem may be that there is some truth in the international stereotype of Americans as loud, disrespectful, wasteful and -- worst of all -- the fact that most seem to like sweet and sour pork with day-glo orange sauce.

texas0418 said...

I'm Chinese, and the black bean curd paste on noodles is one of my favorite dishes my father makes. There is a black bean curd paste, some sauteed pork and some diced veggies. Traditionally, it is served with a fried egg on top which I think makes it a great dish. In Chinese, it is called (spelled phonetically) Tsa jung mein.