Enter to win every day in CTNOW's 21 Days of Summer Giveaways. Click here to see today's prize.
Family Fun
Family Fun

Demand the other menu

At this moment, two restaurants operate at 1655 Algonquin Road in Rolling Meadows. Both share the same four chefs, serve in the same dining room and employ the same tableware and wait staff. To make things more confusing, both restaurants are named Red Lantern.

One menu is considered Pan-Asian, a genre encompassing one-third of Earth, from maki roll mountaintops through egg roll ridge down to pad thai plains. The other menu is written in Chinese and contains not one word of English, with homespun dishes such as jiang zhi xi qin and shandong su rou. Few dishes overlap between the menus.

Which Red Lantern you get is determined by this: If you resemble me — narrow eyes, black hair, Chinese, speaks the language — you'll get the latter menu. If you're a gwai lo, the colloquial Cantonese term for everyone who doesn't look like me, you get the first.

This practice isn't exclusive to Red Lantern, because many immigrant-operated Asian restaurants offer one menu to their countrymen, and a separate, simplified version to Middle America. Perhaps it's a business decision, an assumption that certain dishes wouldn't be palatable to American tastes, dishes that would get sent back and marked as a loss in the ledger. The larger, more troubling implication is that Americans just aren't ready for true Chinese cooking (or Thai, or Korean or whatever).

When I asked manager Tammy Lau about this, she said Chinese food texture was one thing Westerners can't seem to embrace. Jellyfish and bone-in meat, for example. She said the reason her restaurant uses two menus is because combining all the dishes to one volume would be too intimidating. Why not just present them the tried-and-true?

Maybe there is truth in that 95 percent of non-Chinese prefer the crab rangoon, but perpetuating the two-menus-for-clientele philosophy is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It inhibits the remaining 5 percent from growing larger. I'm not ready to brand this as reverse discrimination (or simply, "discrimination"), but it is, as George W. Bush coined, the soft bigotry of low expectations.

There's a secondary problem, specific to Chinese restaurants: the atrocious job of menu translations, and a seeming indifference to adequately describing dishes. Blithe restaurateurs run their menu through Google Translate, turning the Chinese word for "veal" into the mutant transliteration "cowboy meat." At the now-closed Tao Ran Ju in Chinatown, there was one dish named garlic rainbow, with no further explanation. This was a standout, and I wouldn't have ordered if I didn't read Chinese — chilled strips of pork belly, wrapped with cucumber slivers in a garlic-chili oil sauce.

Back to Red Lantern: If presented with the words "three flavor chicken" (one of the few dishes appearing on both menus), what would compel Joe Blond American to inquire further? What about its vague descriptors allude to a dish known as san bei ji — literally three cup chicken ($12) — as ubiquitous and classic as Taiwanese dishes come? I'd gamble the contents of this stainless steel pot, its lid uncovered tableside with sauce still bubbling, is more satisfying than any other dish with a recognizable name.

Plump chicken chunks simmer in soy sauce, Chinese rice wine and sesame oil, a savory and sweet lacquer that's liquid manna on steamed rice. The chicken is cooked with scallions and ginger slices, plus whole garlic cloves that absorb as much flavor as they impart in the sauce. Almost no non-Chinese customers order this, I'm told, because there's nothing appealing about its name, and even if they do get this, they don't care for bone-in chicken and the delicate mouth dance required to extricate the pointy shards.

Nor would they go near Mao shi hong shao rou — Chairman's Mao red-braised pork ($12) — the childhood dish of Mao Zedong growing up in Hunan province. Here is another dish of abundant richness, too heavy perhaps for Western sensibilities, using cubes of skin-on pork belly that's more gelatinous fat than meat, and cooked in a viscous soy-sugar braising liquid similar to three flavor chicken. It's another spoon-over-rice and keel-over dish.

"No, too fatty!" Our waitress told my white dining partner, steering him away.

"No, he's not like most of your gwai lo customers," I said in Chinese, "he actually wants the fat pork."

The Chinese menu, if we want to get picky, isn't region-specific as it is a national pageant (head chef Jimmy Su is a former ballet dancer in China). Sichuan province is represented by dan dan mian ($6), the fiery soup noodle slicked with angry-red chili oil. From Shanghai comes xun yu ($5.95), the bony, chilled smoked fish cured with brown sugar and rice wine, a tough sell even for myself. The island nation of Taiwan offers niu rou mian ($9), the noodle soup with fall-apart hunks of beef shank and pickled mustard greens — I only wished for a more assertive, star anise-y broth.

Over on the English menu, I spied Filipino pancit (a stir-fried vermicelli), shrimp tempura, Panang curry chicken and a sushi roll called, ominously, "Out of Control." I didn't try these.

However, from the Chinese-only menu, I can speak enthusiastically of xiang qian rou si ($11), a superb stir fry of strips — pork strips, tofu strips, leek and bamboo strips. xue cai mao dou fu pi ($9) is a vegetarian dish of mustard greens, edamame beans and bean curd skin resembling silky sheets of egg white.

On each of my visits, the breakdown of customers was about 40 percent Asian. You could score 100 playing "Chinese, not Chinese" just by looking at their plates. Or you could tell by noticing if the table condiments were used — a bottle of sweet and sour goop the color of orange Dreamsicles that no Chinese would touch. Yes, this write-up will not have applied to 95 percent of you. So consider this a call-to-arms to rise up and demand the other menu — the more daring, better menu. At Red Lantern or anywhere. You might not understand it, but what life's worth living without a leap of faith? Fortune, they say, favors the bold.

Red Lantern Asian Bistro

1655 Algonquin Road, Rolling Meadows; 847-439-3380; redlanternbistro.com (the Chinese menu is not online)


Twitter @kevinthepang

Copyright © 2015, CT Now
Related Content
  • Asking for the 'secret menu'

    Asking for the 'secret menu'

    When Kevin Pang's story came up in a news meeting about an Arlington Heights Chinese restaurant with a special menu for Asian customers, I emailed Kevin with two questions: How often does that happen? And can a non-Asian still ask for the other menu?

  • Giant Slide The City Slipping Into Hartford

    Giant Slide The City Slipping Into Hartford

    More than 3,500 people will relive a little bit of their childhoods on a giant scale as they slip and slide for 1,000 feet down Trinity Street in Hartford when Slide the City comes to town Saturday, Aug. 22.

  • A Madison Daycation: A Beach, A Bookstore, A Beautiful Hotel

    A Madison Daycation: A Beach, A Bookstore, A Beautiful Hotel

    Downtown Madison, Connecticut, has the feel of a beach town, though the beach itself is nearly 2 miles away. In addition to shops and restaurants, the town has one of the best independent bookstores in the state and a century-old independent movie theater.

  • Caribbean and Jerk Fest Returns To The Riverfront

    Caribbean and Jerk Fest Returns To The Riverfront

    Jamaican reggae artist Luciano, Barbadian jazz saxophonist Elan Trotman, the music and dance troop Iroko Nuevo and other Caribbean-style performers head to Mortensen Riverfront Plaza on Saturday, Aug. 1, from 1 to 11 p.m. for the 10th annual Taste of the Caribbean and Jerk Festival.

  • 10 Tips For The Best Summer Runs

    10 Tips For The Best Summer Runs

    Summer is a great time for running in Connecticut — outside of the heat and humidity, the swarms of mosquitoes and flies and the crowds trying to enjoy this short-lived season of sunshine. Besides that, it's great getting a chance to lay down the ear warmers and unearth those tank tops. But once...

  • Sounds Of Mexico Come To Old State House Farmer's Market

    Sounds Of Mexico Come To Old State House Farmer's Market

    The sounds of Mexico, along with dancing, hand-clapping and maraca-shaking, come to the Old State House Farmers Market. Fiesta del Norte, Connecticut's first mariachi band, performs on Friday, July 31, at noon at Connecticut's Old State House, 800 Main St., Hartford.

  • Sunflower Maze Returns To Lyman Orchards

    Sunflower Maze Returns To Lyman Orchards

    Dinosaurs return to the fields of Lyman Orchards in Middlefield when its annual sunflower maze opens Saturday, Aug. 1. This year's maze, approximately three acres, is shaped like a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

  • Cirque Éloize's Hip-Hop Streetfight Circus Comes To Connecticut

    Cirque Éloize's Hip-Hop Streetfight Circus Comes To Connecticut

    Cirque Éloize, founded in Montreal in 1993, over a decade after Cirque du Soleil, is purposefully polished and neatly paced, but modern in its thinking. It's "iD" show comes to Foxwoods for a monthlong run.