If Moo Goo Gai Pan is the most exotic dish in your repertoire, listen up. As new immigrant groups move into the Untied States, our culinary choices expand with it. After all, food is the first to be shared in a new community and the last to go through assimilation.
Eating globally has its benefits: the food is usually fresh and inexpensive. But it can also be weird ... as in chicken feet stew. And how do you know the difference between "authentic" ethnic and "epnic" (a nod to Epcot's Disney-fied ethnic cuisine) if you've never been to that country? How do you find a good ethnic restaurant? Well, if you follow the following rules, you can be inexpensively eating your way across the world without visiting Charlotte Douglas Airport:
First you need to think about your city. Cities that started developing towards the latter half of the last century rarely have a "Little Italy" or "Chinatown," so finding a well-defined enclave of eateries, shops and businesses dedicated to one culture is unusual. Nowadays the development is organic and less defined. What is your community's dominant immigrant group? In Charlotte, the Latino community is blossoming with a large number of native Mexican residents, but there is also a community of Hondurans, El Salvadorians and a growing number of Venezuelans and Colombians. With a community this large, there will be a large number of restaurants offering "home-style" cooking.
When I use the term Mexican, I do not mean Tex-Mex or Cal-Mex. These are amalgamations of Mexican cuisine on this side of the border. And not all Latino communities offer the same foods. Asking for a burrito in a Venezuelan restaurant is tantamount to asking for German schnitzel in a Spanish tapas bar. But asking for fortune cookies (which is an American creation, by the way) in some Thai restaurants have caused them to stock containers of the message-laden snacks by their cash registers.
Locales such as Charlotte never experienced the wave of European immigrants that the Northeast did, for example, at the turn of the 20th century. Thus, there is no history of Italian or Portuguese enclaves that sprouted their associated eateries and bakeries. I frequently hear readers complaining about a lack of ethnic restaurants in a neighborhood or part of town. The grumbling usually goes like this: "There isn't a (your choice of eatery) anywhere near me. To go to one, I would have to drive to (name a part of the city)."
But a general rule of thumb is that unless you live near an immigrant neighborhood, the ethnic eatery that opened in/near your neighborhood has Americanized itself. Recently a server at an "authentic" Chinese restaurant reported a couple who sent back the sesame chicken because it didn't "taste the same" as the sesame chicken served in the fast food outlet at the mall.
The amount of accommodation in dishes will depend on the long-term community's attitude and exposure to this ethnic cuisine. The business formula for most ethnic restaurateurs is this: First you give them what they want, then you can give them what you want (ala the film Big Night).
So if you want to try a more authentic version, go to the immigrant neighborhood. Traditionally these are located in older neighborhoods where the store fronts are also older. What does the restaurant look like on the outside? Is the sign hand painted? If so, the owner may be relying on word of mouth within the community -- which is a good thing. As long as you feel safe and the place looks reasonable, it's passed the first test.
Your first visit should be during the lunch or dinner rush. Once inside, listen to the other patrons. Are they speaking the language of the servers? That's another positive sign. It's even better if your server does not speak English -- then you can count on the fact the majority of customers are from that country.
Do the other patrons have their kids in tow? Generally whole families will not sit down and waste their time and money on mediocre food.
Next, check out the menu. Is the menu written in the native language with a translation into English? Is there a section for chef's specialty dishes or native dishes? Does the menu have pictures? This is especially helpful even in the ethnic community because food preparation and style can change by community. For example, a Honduran enchilada resembles a Mexican tostada -- not an enchilada.
Then, take the "I'll-have-what-they-are-having" approach. Sometimes you look around and see native eaters enjoying a dish that was not on your menu. Some restaurants (this is particularly true of Chinese restaurants) offer two menus: one for ethnic immigrants and the Americanized menu for others.
The American menu offers common Americanized Chinese dishes such as Sa Cha Chicken, Lo Mein and General Tso. Ask for the other menu and discuss your short list with the owner if he/she is available. Servers have a tendency to stereotype the eating habits of non-native patrons. Tell the owner that you enjoy experimenting with ethnic foods. Most restaurateurs are more than happy to begin a relationship with a customer and will guide you to an amazing meal.
Heat is another subsection. Unfortunately, there is not a universal menu agreement on the levels of heat. What is hot in Indian cuisine is super hot in Chinese. Sure you can ask where a dish lies on Scoville, the industry standard to measure what a pepper is packing. But many restaurateurs/cooks/chefs are unfamiliar with this measuring system. (On Scoville, a bell pepper has zero units while India's naga jolokia, the world's current hottest pepper, has a score over 1,000,000 Scoville units.) Better to order the dish under the heat you prefer on the first go. You can adjust on the second trip.
When an ethnic eatery is a singular outcropping unsupported by a large ethnic community, chances are the menu will be in English with copious descriptions. The onus of educating the population to that particular cuisine becomes the owner's. One Persian (Iranian) restaurateur told me that even though some patrons suggested Americanizing his dishes to increase business, he concluded that his culture and cuisine is 2,500 years old and he planned to share his culture -- and original recipes -- with his new community.
One final bit of advice: Go to an ethnic restaurant, especially one that does not have a large native base to support it, right after they open. Chances are this is the most authentic -- and inspired -- the owners and chefs will ever be. Soon they may come to realize -- depending on their culture -- that a certain level of Americanization will have to take place in order to survive, and the dishes may change significantly.
Food Issue 2007