New Orleans, LA –
The writer Calvin Trillin once brought a linguistics professor along for dinner as part of his campaign to penetrate Chinese-language restaurant menus in New York, which he was sure held finer culinary delights than the standard options. It doesn't take quite such lengths to get to the good stuff at a few New Orleans-area Chinese restaurants. But it does help to keep an eye-out for clues that, sometimes, there's more available than the same old Americanized Chinese dishes.
For instance, the Chinese restaurant Imperial Garden in Kenner does not exactly blare with the promise of adventuresome eating. It's stuck in the middle of a dreary strip mall, and inside most patrons seem to happily plow through giant combination plates stacked with great sheets of fried wonton.
But then, there's the specials board tucked into the corner, marked exclusively with Chinese characters. And there's the steady flow of customers speaking with the staff in fluent Chinese. When their food starts stacking up on the tables, even the curious patron across the room can tell their meal is quite different from anything in General Tso's army of puffy fried things, sweet sauces and canned baby corn.
This should be your cue to ask to see the "Chinese" menu. What comes next might be a revelation. The waitress brings forth a whole different volume listing dishes of meats, tofu and seafood prepared using exotic chili oils, peppers and fermented sauces.
How one kitchen can produce two menus of such disparate cooking is a mystifying, but I'd happily never eat another crab Rangoon as long as a Chinese menu is available. The technique, the ingredients, the care in preparation -- all of it is worlds apart. For a crash course in what you may have been missing, ask for the Chinese menu at China Rose, a restaurant that was once a fixture in Lakeview, but, since Katrina, has relocated to Fat City.
The Chinese menu here is not explicitly advertised, but it isn't exactly a secret either. You can see them piled right next to the normal - let's say American -- menus at the hostess stand. Still, there's an underground thrill in exploring this alternate eating reality, and it's startling how much more interesting the Chinese menu dishes turn out. There's cold Chinese cucumber dressed with minced garlic and peanuts or scallion pancakes, flaky and oily as piecrust. You can pick from a long roster of noodle dishes and family-size soups, and there's an exquisite Szechuan beef dish combining wild pepper and hot pepper for heady spice trip. Even familiar dumplings are different on the Chinese menu, with their thin, al dente noodle and spicy, sausage and ginger filling.
Menu descriptions are very short, with only rudimentary English translations. And if a waitress warns you off a certain dish, you may want to follow her advice. For instance, I didn't even attempt the braised duck feet, though someone out there must love them.
A few Chinese menu items make appearances on the mainstream menu, like pork in a hot garlic sauce or the shredded catfish with sprouts and green beans. But even if you're not sold on the whole idea of the Chinese menu, at least do yourself a favor and order those dumplings.
3501 N. Arnoult St., Metairie
Imperial Garden Chinese Restaurant
3331 Williams Blvd., Kenner