Standard dishes for testing the quality of a restaurant

by on May 11, 2009 at 7:14 am in Food and Drink | Permalink

Joshua Johnson, a loyal MR (and TCEDG) reader, asks:

If you are going to a new ethnic
restaurant, what staple items do you order that for you, let you know
if the restaurant is worth coming back to and trying more of their
offerings? It would be nice if you could make some sort of list for
Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai, Turkish, etc.

Here goes:

Japanese: One bite of the tempura tells all.

Chinese: Ma Po Tofu, or for some kinds of Chinese places Hainan Chicken with Rice.

Thai: Almost any dish shows the true colors of a Thai restaurant immediately.

Turkish: Doner Kebab, taking special care to ponder the tanginess of the yogurt and how it interacts with the meat.

Vietnamese: Anything with lemon grass, which is hard to use well.

Ethiopian: Kitfo or barring that lamb tibs.

Peruvian: Lomo saltado, taking special care to check for the right amount of cilantro in the sauce and the correct sogginess of the french fries.

Bolivian: Silpancho, and check the liquidity and consistency of the egg on top.

Afghan: Kadu (pumpkin) and is it too sweet?

Korean: Seafood pancake and in general the quality of their kimchees.

Indian: Most dishes will do (see "Thai"), although avoid the Butter Chicken as a metric of quality.  Lamb with spinach is my do-or-die default judgment dish for an Indian restaurant, if only because you get to taste both the lamb (less likely to be tender than the chicken) and the spinach.

Restaurant, general: How's their chili crab?  If it's not outstanding, or not on the menu, press eject immediately and get yourself to a different country.

Can you think of others?

1 BG May 11, 2009 at 7:28 am

The obvious miss is Italian – more than the quality of the sauces, I believe the type of pasta they buy/make and the way they treat it tells the whole story. You can immediately tell the difference between a soggy, limp noodle and one that has both the al dente bite and holds its sauce appropriate to its shape (i.e., there should be no pool of tomato water on the plate).

I’d also argue that chicken and veal parm are easy things to half-ass in a restaurant kitchen, so getting a properly breaded juicy cutlet, as opposed to something no better than a food service patty, is another sign.

Also, for pizza it’s the crust. Toppings are easy.

2 almitchell May 11, 2009 at 7:47 am

I think JP has the right idea – if you go to an ethnic restaurant, and no one of that ethnicity eats there, it should clue you in that it’s not really authentic. Better yet, go with friends who can advise you what to order based on authenticity.

3 Bruce May 11, 2009 at 8:21 am

A similar measure is what cooking school instructors use to test their students. In France the famous example is a simple omelette, because it is a universally known dish, but tells a lot about the chef’s technique.

I also had a Chinese cooking instructor who had taught for 10 years at the top cooking school in Szechuan in China. He said that the instructors there used Kung Pao chicken for a very similar test (yes it really is an authentic dish). In this case they were looking for the chef’s ability to balance the flavors and heat, as well as the textures of the ingredients.

4 Jonathan Falk May 11, 2009 at 8:42 am

A deli needs to be able to make a proper brisket on rye. The tenderness, flavor, fattiness and bread quality invariably tell you what you need to know about the rest of the deli.

5 Andy May 11, 2009 at 8:48 am

I don’t care so much about “authenticity”. Why would that be important? I certainly don’t have the same tastes as someone from culture X, so why use them as a benchmark?

I do like to order “standard” foods when trying new restaurants though, as it makes it easier to compare. I don’t think the *specific* food choices are so important; it’s more that you are consistent.

6 jonathan May 11, 2009 at 9:16 am

Meaning they know how to make blender hollandaise?

7 George May 11, 2009 at 9:35 am

Greek: Moussaka. It takes a long time to make well. If they use potato as a filler, send it back.

8 Andrew Edwards May 11, 2009 at 10:08 am

Dim Sum: Har Gau

American diner: Hamburger

French/Belgian Bistro: The mayonaise that comes with the fries for Moules Frites. Did they care enough to flavour it thoughtfully?

British pub: Fish and chips (texture/crispness of the batter and oily without being greasy)

High-end a la mode Michelin-star type place: I usually know with the amuse-bouche whether the rest of the meal will be any good.

Korean: I would have said the Bulgogi. Really, who cares if the other stuff is good?

Italian: Osso Bucco is the hardest “standard” to make well, in my opinion

Indian: Mater Paneer is also a good test case as it brings a few different flavours and textures at the same time

Greek: I know with the salad, frankly – especially how much and how they serve the feta (look for a big, fresh chunk drizzled in olive oil), and how fresh the vegetables are

9 Lee May 11, 2009 at 10:30 am

For a North Indian restaurant, I find the best way to judge quality is to order the biryani. However, for a South Indian restaurant, the quality of the chutney and sambar really say it all.

That said, a lot of Indian restaurants in this country will serve you some really crappy biryani.

10 Martin May 11, 2009 at 10:53 am

In a typical Peruvian Lomo Saltado cilantro is used for garnish not as a sauce.

My guess is that your are talking about Seco de Res which is another signature dish of Peruvian cuisine. It just requires a stomach well prepared to resist it.

11 Patrick May 11, 2009 at 10:59 am

Kitfo! I can’t do it. Raw beef scare me too much. Tibs or Shiro for Ethiopian food, and, of course, the quality of the injera that comes with it is critical.

12 MattF May 11, 2009 at 11:44 am

My ‘baseline’ Italian restaurant test is linguine with clam sauce. You might think it’s hard to mess up– but you’d be wrong.

13 babar May 11, 2009 at 12:21 pm

i wouldn’t judge a mexican restaurant by the tamal.

they are made off-line often by different people than those who make the on-time food and then stored for hours. they are quite sensitive to how they are stored as well.

it makes about as much sense to judge a mexican restaurant by the quality of the tortilla.

14 Kieran May 11, 2009 at 12:28 pm

Irish: Will the staff give you directions to the nearest taco stand?

15 Perry May 11, 2009 at 1:45 pm

My test is simple – I judge a restaurant by the bread that it serves before the meal. (for those cuisines where pre-meal bread is appropriate).

And its never failed – bad bread means that they don’t care enough about the little things that make the rest of the meal good.

16 Chip Overclock May 11, 2009 at 1:56 pm

I second the motion for chile rellenos as the standard metric for Mexican, specifically _soft_ (which are like a omelette) versus _hard_ (which are like an egg roll). If the resturant doesn’t have good soft chile rellenos than they’d better have something else I really like (like great huevos rancheros) or I’m not likely to ever come back.

17 Sbard May 11, 2009 at 2:03 pm

Another test for a Japanese restaurant, particularly a sushi restaurant: tamago nigiri (egg nigiri)

Texas BBQ: brisket, especially a cut with some fatty bits on it

18 gc May 11, 2009 at 2:50 pm

Indian: vindaloo

Italian: that they have a variety of quality sauces and the bread/crust/garlic knots are good

19 josh May 11, 2009 at 3:16 pm

Italian: How are the never-ending Pasta and Salad bowls?

20 Barkley Rosser May 11, 2009 at 4:18 pm


I almost gave what you did for Hungarian, was going to at first, but then said gulyas.
Either will do.

21 John Galt May 11, 2009 at 5:11 pm

Mexican: Menudo. How well was the tripe cleaned? Did they use honeycomb tripe? Did they balance the salty, spicy, greasy flavors?

As others have said, a bellweather dish. Hard to do well.

22 josh May 11, 2009 at 5:24 pm


Do you realize that yours was possibly the snobbiest comment thus far?

23 Aguirre May 11, 2009 at 6:31 pm

Tomago is the classic test dish for sushi restaurants. It doesn’t stay fresh long and its obvious if it isn’t fresh. A place with good tomago is probably well run.

24 RSaunders May 11, 2009 at 7:14 pm

Meat and three: Green beans. Green beans are the most reliable indicators of everything, except mac-n-cheese quality (b/c nearly everyone cuts corners on this). If you have good mac-n-cheese, you have good everything, but good mac-n-cheese is just too rare to be useful.

25 dsm May 11, 2009 at 11:25 pm

My baseline for Italian restaurants is chicken parmesan, preferably over pasta. I agree with the first commenter that it’s easy to “half ass” this dish. Which is why it’s good for gauging the overall quality of the establishment.

Here’s what I look for… breading: is it the right mix of breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese? Did they even include Parmesan with the breadcrumbs? chicken: A properly prepared chicken parm should have the chicken breast butterflied and hammered to less than quarter inch thickness. sauce: better not be too runny. Personal preferences drive whether you’ll like the sauce. mozzarella: There should be bright white mozzarella melted on top. pasta: I prefer penne. The real question is whether it’s got that al dente bite.

Here’s what it tells you… breading: quality of ingredients. chicken: if it’s been hammered then you know they’re working in the kitchen as opposed to pulling something from the freezer. sauce: either you like the house sauce or you don’t. mozzarella: this also speaks to the quality of the ingredients. pasta: tells you whether the kitchen knows how to boil water and set a timer.

26 Brad May 12, 2009 at 9:49 am

Ideally, the sample dish it should be an appetizer, should it not?

I have read that in Japan tamago (omellete) nigiri sushi is the standard test. Diners will order that as a test course and it is common to just get up and leave without paying if it is subpar.

In most US restaurants, french fries are a good such test. Do they remind one of Belgium or of McDonalds?

27 twwren May 12, 2009 at 12:23 pm

Actually, you CAN judge a mexican restaurant by the quality of its tortilla and its salsa.

Also, the tamale test is a two step process: do they make their own and, if so, how good is the pork tamale.

There is also a strong correlation based on the quality of the margarita (NOT frozen and with salt).

Opinions from Baja Mexico (Texas)

28 Brent May 12, 2009 at 3:45 pm

I also agree with the person above on the Sate at Thai restaurants. A lot can be learned from the quality of the peanut sauce.

29 Ben Kalafut May 12, 2009 at 8:53 pm

Mexican: Chiles rellenos: the choice of pepper and cheese say a lot, and the greasiness or non-greasiness of the outside says more. Aguas frescas, especially horchata or tamarind. If they don’t taste homemade, don’t get your hopes up about sauces.

Polish: Bigos. Is it too sweet?

Greek: Any squid or octopus appetizer. There is a very short window of time between when quick-cooked squid becomes tender and when it toughens again. Herbs should not mask the flavor of the fresh seafood.

“California cuisine”: Pizza

Creole: Jambalaya, which should be dry and not fluffy. This is the same dish as biryani. Anything with shrimp. Also, if there’s hot sauce on the table, what is it? If it’s not Crystal or Louisiana, be suspicious. Tabasco goes in food, not on it. Cajun Chef is what all the lousy places in New Orleans use.

30 Manolis May 13, 2009 at 4:37 am

Italian: it’s always the creamy sauces that fail first.

Greek: the tzatziki (the moussaka can be bad but everything else still be fantastic)

31 Ben Kalafut May 13, 2009 at 5:43 pm

I think by “dry and not fluffy” above I meant “dry and fluffy”.

32 bcw210 May 15, 2009 at 12:17 pm

Just had exactly this conversation while pondering whether to order Mexican or Indian the other night at work. For me, Mexican is the simple burrito – hard to make it bad, but difficult to make it well. Indian is mutton curry with nan.

I agree with Babar’s thinking for Thai, but for me it’s always green papaya salad – needs the right balance between hot/sour/salty/sweet, and can’t be soggy or vinegary, which it often is in lesser restaurants. That or larb gai – sadly it’s rare enough that just offering it is a positive sign, but when it’s there I always check its quality as well.

Italian – agree on the quality of pasta for Italian, but I always specifically look for the handmade pasta.

Brunch – agree with the others that it’s eggs benedict without question – not just the hollandaise, although that is key, but also whether the egg yolks are runny and the english muffins are crispy

Andrew: agree with you that bulgogi is the probably the most important Korean dish (though I think kalbi and yukke are equally important and tasty), but I have to go with Tyler that kimchee is the best bellwether for me. Also, do English pubs really serve fish and chips anymore? In my four years in London I found that only tourist pubs or gastro pubs served it – but very rarely locals. But I have to agree that if there, it’s the best indicator. Of course, if it’s a tourist pub, then it’s the *only* thing worth eating (unless you’re going to go back for breakfast), so it’s predictive value is somewhat diminished by that.

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