Where the Real Chinese Food Is Hidden

Jason Kuznicki at Positive Liberty offers some hypotheses as to why Chinese restaurants have “secret menus” that only Chinese people seem to know about. His top theory: American are used to Americanized Chinese food and wouldn’t like the real stuff, so Chinese restaurants continue serving the authentic food only to their Chinese customers. Tyler Cowen adds that, by hiding their authentic menus, Chinese restaurants may be trying to keep from attracting too many non-Chinese customers. [%comments]


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  1. Richard B. says:

    There is a similar issue here in Chicago with Thai restaurants. A foodie Thai-speaking friend described their reasons as:
    (1) They don’t think Americans will like the food on the secret menu. This is not a value judgment against Americans; just business sense in wanting to sell their menu items. Of course they will prepare any dish that is familiar to them upon request, but most people do not know what to ask for, or even if they would like it. So there is a chicken and egg problem. Or a Kanom Buang Yuan problem. (Order it!)
    (2) They do not have adequate menu translations. Most Thai menu listings (and I understand Chinese) do not adequately describe the dish to those who are not already familiar with it. So outside translation help is required to find an effective description of the dish for English speakers. This can be a costly and speculative undertaking for a business that really does not make a lot of money.
    Of course they would be thrilled if they can make a business of selling more authentic dishes, but there just doesn’t seem to be money in a marketing campaign selling these strange dishes with unfamiliar names.

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  2. Sean says:

    When I worked in a restaurant, there was the food out front, and the food we ate. Seeing the same thing everyday gets old and most of the time, the people who work there invent a floating menu that they eat from.

    While the regulars enjoyed typical mall fair we would invent new dishes from what we had. Often we would share with others in the mall.

    I am willing to be most of the people who order from the secret menu either worked in the industry or know that the staff gets tired of the same over seasoned American food.

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  3. AC says:

    More likely they want to avoid giving something *too* exotic to a white customer, freaking him out and generating bad press.

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  4. jonathan says:

    There’s a crappy Thai restaurant near MIT. Someone noticed they have a Sichuan menu. Great. But then someone realized the awning has always said, in Chinese, authentic Sichuan food. One of my friends has a Cantonese restaurant and the name in Chinese is 100% different than the English name. The cultural differences can run that deep.

    I was in FL, walked into a Chinese place, asked where they were from – Fuzhou, where a lot of immigrants come from – and then if they make any food from home. They said, “They don’t like that here.” I asked if they had any real food and we all pondered for a while. The only choice was dumplings.

    There’s a huge unwillingness to believe Americans will or even can eat real Chinese food.

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  5. Laolao says:

    Maybe there are also two sets of prices, possibly lower ones for customers who are Chinese, and who get the ‘secret’ menu written in Chinese.

    I remember years ago, a Chinese restaurant in Canada (in the province of Quebec I think) was brought to court for having two different menus. The main difference was in the prices. It was judged discriminatory.

    I’ve seen it in China too. In large cities with a strong tourism industry, there are some restaurants offering one of two different menus to their customers (in English or in Mandarin) based on their origins. Dishes in the English menu, yes, can be different, possibly catered to the taste of Westerners (usually less spicy), but prices are often much, much higher…

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  6. Kieran says:

    1. Ask the restaurant manager his reasons.

    Presuming that the reason is the top one above:

    2. Suggest that he translate the chinese menu into english and make it available for anyone asking for the “authentic menu” or “second menu”. This way he can serve the non-authentic eaters the food they want without offending them, and acquire a new customer base of authentic food enthusiasts who know what they are getting into.

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  7. Brent Edwards says:

    *looks confused*

    In the Bay Area, California the “secret menu”s are not at all hidden. They’re written on paper, on the walls – in Chinese.

    If you can read them, you can order them.

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  8. Eric Y says:

    I don’t know about the latter comment Cowen made. To me, the two comments seem contradictory. For Chinese restaurant owners, like most other restaurant owners, the more money the better. It’s practicality that rules the day. So much so that they are willing to compromise what they would cook, and cook what they believe mainstream America would like.

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