October 25, 2010

Scavenging in restaurants

The menu is daunting: three pages of symbols, numbers and no pictures whatsoever. Though some restaurants proudly showcase pictures of their dishes on the wall, many places don’t bother.

Alex and I had been scoping out restaurants in our neighborhood all week, and the one we chose always had a busy dinner crowd filled mostly with people our age.

We sat down at the white, plastic covered table and had two porcelain bowls, a very small plate, a cup, and large ceramic spoon tightly wrapped in plastic.

Ni hao laowai!” (Hello, foreigners) the waitress said. “Nimen yao shenme?” (What would you like?)

We asked for a menu in English. “Meiyou,” ([may-yo,] I don’t have).

A sensationally awkward series of cross-cultural exchanges ensued throughout the next two minutes, until finally after many pointing and eating actions we told the waitress to choose some food for us.

As this was all going down, the young cooks were peeking through the kitchen window thoroughly enjoying what was happening in the restaurant.

A few moments later, our first plate came out. It was some sort of greens sautéed in garlic and very delicious. Right after that came a large sizzling tinfoil pouch. The waitress carefully opened it to reveal pieces of beef bubbling with onions in a thick, brown sauce. We washed it down with some rice.

The surprise meal was incredible. And very inexpensive, the bill came to $7.

After dinner, I wanted a smoothie. We went to what we thought was a smoothie shop, but after walking in and seeing the background photos on the menu, we realized it might be a cocktail/margarita place.

The owner spoke no English and did not offer an English menu. She started showing us vats of different colored powders and a pot of what appeared to be blueberries. I pointed at the purple powder and the berries and somehow in my babbles of Chinese told her that we wanted two drinks: a blue one and an orange one.

After powders were mixed and shots of things were added, she scooped in the blueberries and we paid for our $0.75 drink. We cautiously took a sip and happily discovered that it wasn’t a cocktail, rather it was a Bubble (boba) tea. It was a sweet tea-based cold drink (like Teaberry in Fargo). The “blueberries” turned out to be homemade tapioca balls.

Another tasty surprise. Overall success for the night.

After that experience, Alex and I have been venturing into restaurants, pointing at other people’s food or aimlessly pointing at the menu to see what arrives at the table. Everything has been fantastic – American Chinese food is nothing like Chinese Chinese food.

No fortune cookies. No fluorescent orange sauce. No egg rolls. And (knock on wood) no intestinal fist fights yet.

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