Credit: David Belisle
A few months ago I got an email from a Chowhound poster who goes by the handle ?Equinoise? (he prefers to keep his real name secret) about Bamboo Garden, a Sichuan restaurant in Bellevue that I reviewed back in April. Equinoise, his wife, and I actually met there over dinner, and he?d gone back with some relatives a few months later, only to find that half the dishes we?d tried -- half the menu, in fact -- had disappeared. All the Sichuan delicacies that I?d gotten excited about were no longer there, and most of what was left was of the Chinese-American variety: beef with broccoli, Hunan prawns, etc.
Equinoise wrote a protest on the food bulletin board, whose posters nationwide tend to gravitate toward non-Western cuisines. Other people chimed in. And here?s the best part: Dietmar Schimmel, husband of Bamboo Garden owner Stacy Zhong, responded.
?Chowhound is how I found out all those dishes had been taken off the English menu and moved over to the Chinese menu,? Schimmel told me on the phone today. ?I always go with my wife, so I never open the the menu. My wife takes care of the ordering. I like a lot of those dishes a lot.? On the board (and later, talking to me), he explained that the restaurant?s lunch clientele is mostly white and its dinner and weekend clientele, predominantly Chinese. Zhong didn?t find that the Western customers were ordering many of the unfamiliar dishes, so she pared down the English menu to make it easier for her Western customers to find what they liked.There?s a precarious balance that restaurants with both insider (in Bamboo Garden?s case, Chinese) and outsider (non-Chinese) customers must find. Insider customers come for dishes that they can?t find anywhere else, but those same dishes can disturb or repel outsiders, who may then feel intimidated about picking dishes they can be confident they?ll like. Many restaurants have handled this dilemma by hiding specialties with offal or unfamiliar sea creatures in plain sight: printing up two separate menus, one in English and another in their native tongue, or posting specials on the wall that the waiters, seeking not to offend the customer or invite ridicule, will claim to be unable to translate. (Note: This isn't true of every Chinese restaurant, of course. Szechuan Chef, for example, puts it all out there.)
As someone who eats broadly and is always trying to ferret out a restaurant?s specialties, regardless of whether timid eaters would like it, this exclusion used to make me angry. Not just for myself, but for second-generation kids who never learned to read their parents? native language, people who grew up in other cultures that don?t share mainstream American taboos, and other white Midwesterners who got past the ick factor long ago.
Though the best way for a waiter to convince me to order a dish is still to tell me, ?Oh, you won?t like that,? some of the righteous indignation has faded. I ate hot pot at a Chinese restaurant the other day -- you?ll read about it in a week or two -- where diners cook a selection of raw ingredients in a simmering pot of broth. One of the ingredients listed on the menu was honeycomb tripe, which never materialized. My friends and I asked the waitress if it was coming later. ?Oh, I didn?t give it to you because he?s white,? she said, pointing at me (my tablemates were Asian American). ?I don?t want to scare the white people.? Not only was it refreshing to hear her speak frankly (especially because she then brought us out a plate), but I realized: Why should any restaurant owner feel obliged to waste good product on customers who aren?t going to eat it?
To my mind, the answer to the insider-outsider dilemma is transparency. For example, all our hot-pot server would have had to do is ask, ?This comes with honeycomb tripe. Do you want it?? Bamboo Garden has come up with another solution, one that cracks me up and positively dares the restaurant's whitebread customers to try something new: This past Saturday, four dozen dishes, including ?beef stomach strips in a garlic sauce? and ?stir-fried sea cucumber,? returned to the English-language menu in a section titled ?The Wild Side.? You should consider taking a walk.
CORRECTION: The original post claimed that Dietmar Schimmel was "a well known wine pro." That would be Dieter Schafer.