Pictures on ethnic menus

Blake Shurtz, a perceptive MR reader, asks:

What are your thoughts on pictures, or a lack thereof, on ethnic food menus? Do you think better dishes have pictures? Why doesn’t every dish have a picture? The logic of fast food is to show pictures/numbers for non-english speakers to be better informed, but the converse doesn’t seem to happen as often.

Pictures are most likely a good sign when they are dingy and the menu plastic is peeling off.  Even then the food may be bad, but at least you know you have a mom and pop operation which is not very polished on the tech side.  “Nice” pictures are a bad sign.  Pictures are least likely to be a bad sign for Vietnamese food, when they are basically neutral and also fairly common.  Think of the Vietnamese as trying to go mainstream with their food but in any case failing.  Pictures for Thai food are becoming a worse sign over time.  As more people come to learn Yam huapli thot, the pictures are coming to signal that the restaurant is making a determined appeal to uninformed buyers.  There is a subset of cranky but excellent Chinese restaurants which offer (non-corporatized) pictures of some of their dishes, including those with tofu.  This segment of the market is dwindling but still can be found.  The choice of what gets a photo is determined by the expected quality of the image (whole fish get showcased), rather than the taste of the dish per se.


that's one reason I like Chinese places with the meats hanging in the window - what you see is what you get

You would enjoy Dim Sum even more.

heh, Tyler's favorite Dim sum place has closed. I remember walking by there a few of years back. there was some serious structural problems and the Department of Buildings shut it down.

Jade Palace, which has been operating for as long as I could remember is also really good. It's across the street from what was once Gala Manor, next to the large municipal parking lot.

What do you have against tech savvy mom and pop operations? A creative new chef who knows how to take photos and takes presentation seriously is going to be unfairly discriminated by you.

"Tyler Cowen is coming into our restaurant! quick scrawl something on the back of an old check and present it to him as our menu!" :)

scrawl something on the back of an old check

Let me fix that for you:

scrawl something in Chinese characters on the back of an old check

"And get those hot girls out of here!"

It doesn't have to be a young chef. One day I went into my favorite pho place, and there were gorgeous photos of the food all along the walls. I asked the old guy that owned the place who took the pictures. He said a photographer had come by and offered to do it for $700, so he decided to take the pictures himself. I could hardly believe that this old guy from Vietnam who is a skilled cook and businessman was also a pretty darn good photographer. The photos could not have come out better. If you had rejected the place because of the great photos, you would have missed the best pho place in Silicon Valley. (The photos have faded, but the place I'm referring to is at the southwest corner of San Thomas Expressway and El Camino Real.)

The fact that the faded photos stay up is pretty good "Tyler Cowen" signaling and makes up for the brief amount of time when they looked like professionally produced SWPL attractors.

I know what AndrewL is getting at, but remember, we're dealing with generalizations. If a restaurant is dedicating time/effort/money to slick graphic design, it means a)that's time/effort/money not spent on quality of food, and b)the restaurant is likely aiming at a broader demographic, rather than a narrow, discriminating group that will insist on high quality. It's certainly possible to have a superb chef who's also a superb visual artist, but all things being equal, it's less likely.

Aren't we sort of nearing the end of the age in which people are terrified of ordering the wrong thing at a Chinese restaurant and ending up with a plateful of eyeballs?

You'd be utterly wrong about that. Not only are many of my neighbors in Fairfax afraid to go into many Chinese restaurants for exactly that reason, but I've spoken to Mom and Pop owners of small Chinese restaurants who say that they still get non-Chinese customers who insist on ordering something that they're told they won't like, subsequently disliking the dish, and then finally complaining about the dish.

Would you say there are more of these instances, as many such instances, or fewer such instances today compared to 15 years ago?

I'm afraid of going into a Chinese restaurant because of the risk of getting poorly prepared Americanized Cantonese.

Are you saying people are warming up to eyeballs?

One hopes, though maybe not, as Wiki says below.

But, hell, I'm pretty brave* and relatively experienced, but in many cases I have no idea what the preparation of an unfamiliar dish will be just from the description, so a picture would really help me decide in a more informed manner.

(* Chicken Feet? Check. Duck Jaws? Check. Spicy Pork Intestine? Check.

I'm not worried about eyeballs.)

With Vietnamese food, it is known for potentially containing all sorts of gross stuff. So they show you a picture to say "Look! No pigs feet! No turkey neck!" You want to be reassured that what you are ordering doesn't contain anything wierd.

I go with the "mainstream" argument.

When I was growing up, Americanized Cantonese was the only Asian food available. Even Korean ran Chinese restaurants because it was already culturally accepted. It took decades for Thai, Vietnamese and Korean food to enter the consciousness of the average American. It's not that they haven't all been available, but they were mainly in business for their own peeps.

Cantonese came to America in the mid-19th century and spread fast as Chinatowns cropped up in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and even unlikely places like Denver and Boise. Wherever the railroads went, Cantonese followed.

What's more interesting is that although they made up a large portion of America, Irish and German food did not grab hold in their traditional forms. Chinese, Mexican, and Italian food became quintessential and ubiquitous "foreign" food.

Of course today we find pan Asian cuisine everywhere in all its diversity, but most remain fringe for the meat and potato crowd. That is a shame.

I don't need pictures, but what I would like to see in an ethnic restaurant, particularly one for a restaurant serving an ethnic cuisine I've never tried before, is to list the ingredients in English. I don't mind the foreign language, but I want to know what I'm eating.

That's actually something you're seeing in the second-generation owned restaurants in Houston's Chinatown: menus with all the ingrediants explained in English and native-English-speaking waitstaff.

Aside from statistical correlations between pictures in the menu and food quality, I for one prefer to have pictures. When I'm reading the menu and picking dishes, I'm much better at imagining the taste if I can also see the dish.

That, and if I get the wrong item, I'm much more likely to know it.

Pictures are just much better at telling you "this is what to expect".

The next step up would be scratch and sniff menus with pictures.

The very good Peter Chang's in Charlottesville has photos of most of its dishes.

FYI, it's pronounced "yum hua bplee tort".
As so often with Thai, the English spelling isn't quite right (eg. "pad thai" instead of "putt thai").

And I suggest that they send the photo to Thailand. I think people here would be very interested to learn about this.

I have a deadly food allergy to mushrooms, good luck trying to avoid contact in Chinese or Korean or other Asian restaurants. Ask the server/preparer if a dish has had no contact with mushrooms and expect to receive either a baffled look or a not-reassuring "OK, OK". It's not lack of sophistication or sense of adventure that keeps me from exploring their cuisines, it's a healthy determination for survival.

I would welcome any means of knowing more about the contents of the dishes, as would anybody with a serious food allergy. Even too-perfect pictures.

There's an excellent Taiwanese place in Bellevue, WA. Facing East. They have pictures on the menu....entirely unnecessary as there isn't a bad thing on the menu. You could order randomly and have an excellent meal. I recommend the Squid Pottage and the Pork Burger!

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