Which Chinese Restaurant Menu to Order From?

Chinese restaurants often have multiple menus or menus with sections that are in English and sections in Chinese only.

Hong Kong-style restaurants take it to the extreme, they have menus on the walls, under table glass, on tables in stands with the sugar, handed out by waiters, and more. The most extravagant are the neighborhood cha can ting (茶餐廳) with myriad sets and offers for breakfast, for lunch, for afternoon tea, for dinner, for late night. It can either be a fun treasure hunt or intimidating. Chinatowns in Canada have some very authentic versions, in the US they are few, one I like in New York is XO Kitchen at 148 Hester St, not to be confused with nearby XO Cafe in Little Italy.

Here are three wall menus at House of Gourmet in Toronto. What to do?

House of Gourmet Toronto - Chinese Restaurant English Menu

House of Gourmet Toronto - Chinese Restaurant Bilingual Menu

House of Gourmet Toronto - Chinese Restaurant Chinese Menu

English-only: when items are only in English, what is the restaurant telling you? That they think it would be embarrassing to even try to serve those items to Chinese customers. Avoid. Possible exception an occasional guilty pleasure, like when I order sesame chicken despite the lasers of humiliated fury coming from my wife’s eyes.

Chinese and English: these can run the authentic spectrum, look for items that have awkward translations or not entirely clear what they are without explanation. Try vegetables. Note that dishes that come with rice are designed to be quick one person meals, not dishes to share. Congee is porridge by another name. Think beyond dim sum.

Chinese-only: things get interesting and depend on risk-tolerance especially with often-curt waitstaff that don’t want to explain or don’t have the English facility. You can ask other diners for help. You can end up with the XO sauce oysters for 14.99 (second from left) or the bean sprouts fried large intestine for 8.99 (fifth from left).

The tried and true method is still to wander around and find out what others are eating.

House of Gourmet Toronto - Customers

And we always have space at our table, the more people, the more we can order!

House of Gourmet Toronto - Feast

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  • Now those dishes look authentic!

    Your post reminded me of a road trip I was on either outside Beijing or Xian with my native Chinese guide. We had just sat down at the table at a “catch your own fish” restaurant (interesting concept!) and Gao (my friend) got very upset with the waitstaff. He soon explained to me that he compared his Chinese menu with the courtesy English menu they handed me and they were the same, but for the much higher prices on mine. Common occurrence I’m told. Agree?

  • Singapore Flyer

    Another good place to try out in NYC is actually called Cha Chan Tang on Mott Street right past Bayard Street, about two stores past St. Alps Teahouse. They don’t have as an extensive a menu as XO, but wife and I thought it was closer to the typical CCTs that we’ve seen in HK.

  • Joseph M

    Wife and I would love to Join you and your wife for a dinner in Chinatown NY!

  • Jeff

    Unfortunately I fall in to the worst of both worlds! I am Chinese but can’t read characters (I can converse passably), so when I get into a Chinese restaurant…

  • Jayson

    ^^^^That awkward moment when…

  • Try Cha Chan Tang next time on Mott St. Their food selection isn’t as extensive as XO’s, but they have a good atmosphere and modelled after HK with TV screens and a mural showing HK scenes.

    http://www.yelp.com/biz/cha-chan-tang-new-york

  • @Mark – the two menus practice is now mostly found in big tourist areas, those restaurants that cluster around tourist sites especially, in residential or business areas restaurants now seem to just be expensive for everyone. One to always be wary us any seafood sold by weight or market price, lots of games on Chinese and non with those.

  • @Singapore Flyer, @WeddingSpend – I have recently been eyeing that but shame on me for not trying, I am in NYC and will try it Mon.

    I miss Saint Alps’s, that location became a Haagen-Dazs, the only one left I know is 3rd Ave & 10 St.

  • @Joseph M – would be great to see you two again, will set it up, did you make the BRT? I was out of town.

  • Frequent grouponer

    @Mark:

    In 2012 in Italy we found many “nicer” restaurants with English menus with higher prices. The menus in Italian were identical except for the prices. I pointed this out to our waiter who wasn’t the least bit phased or embarrassed.

  • Eugene

    You said it right: Just see what the locals are eating. This works in every country. If it looks good to you, order what someone else, who probably knows better, ordered. Skip the menus.

  • @Eugene – my wife and I just had early dinner in Chinatown and she spotted a huge off-menu $2 scallop at a teaster price, because it is 1 for $2 or 2 for $6.

  • Joseph M

    Just followed you on twitter (though I had done so a long time ago.) DM Me when you want to have that dinner!

  • Joseph M

    No didn’t make the BRT this year. Next year will try again I think every other year is about right for that. Was a lot of Fun though. Dan is a riot!