Standard dishes for testing the quality of a restaurant

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? (see comments on MR)
Originally posted on Marginal Revolution.

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7 Responses to Standard dishes for testing the quality of a restaurant

  1. Fitzhugh says:

    Mexican: The restaurant must provide fresh hot corn tortillas.

  2. ty says:

    TexMex: Look at the chiles rellenos. If the restaurant does that well, it does anything well.

  3. Colin says:

    Salvadorean: The hand made pupusas. Are they suitable crispyon the outside and mealy on the inside?

  4. Matt C says:

    Indonesian: Beef rendang.

  5. Rajan R says:

    Hainanese chicken rice is not Chinese. Well, it is as Chinese as a hamburger is German. It’s Singaporean/Malaysian dish. The rice must be fragrant and chicken-y – the rice is what makes and breaks chicken rice.
    BTW, I would differentiate between North and South Indian (and, well, Northeast, but even in other parts of India, this is rare). Places that do North Indian well butcher South Indian, and vice versa – its really two distinct cuisine groups.

  6. Vivian says:

    Chinese: whole fish dish
    Especially a saucy one with sauce over a whole fried fish. The greasiness, texture, freshness of the fish and the blend (sour? sweet? spicy?) of the sauce will tell you if a serious cook is back in the kitchen. It’s kinda easy to screw up, so that’s why I choose it. (if Sichuan, the “garlic paste white meat”, the thin sliced boiled pork belly in garlic, chili sauce is my metric since some people undercook the skin, slice the pork too thick, or make the sauce wrong)
    Japanese: sushi is pretty obvious, the rice and fish pretty much tells if you if the sushi chef is well trained–the ratio of fish to rice, the texture and flavor of the rice, the cut of the fish are pretty precisely defined and you can easily tell if they deviate from the textbook. If you’re talking cooked food, I like to use agedashi tofu because a crisp skin without too much coating is hard to achieve. But a lot of people would disagree with my choice of meter stick.

  7. Maria says:

    In a Salvadorean restaurant, not all pupusas are filled with pork, but they should still be reliably crispy on the outside yet gooey on the inside.

    I think that a Colombian restaurant (sadly missing in all comments) should be judged by its empanadas: are they crispy or soggy and oily? Are they filled with finely-ground meat and good spices, or is the filling mostly potato and rice? Is the yellow color too artificial?

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