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.
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)