Years ago food writer Calvin Trillin wrote of his frustration with the so-called secret or double menu at Chinese restaurants. Sometimes this menu intended for Chinese eyes only is listed on slips of paper lining the wall, and sometimes it’s a separate menu all together. In these days of increasingly adventurous eaters who feel compelled to document their every bite, it’s increasingly rarer. In my stamping grounds of downtown Flushing, it is for the most part nonexistent. And when there is a mysterious menu it is usually a menu written only in Chinese.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of being on Arun Venugopal’s WNYC radio show Micropolis to discuss the “Mystery of the Chinese Double Menu.” Take a listen here. Not only did the show afford me an opportunity to rave about duck testicles on NPR it reminded me that I need to revisit Flushing’s Main Street Imperial Taiwanese Gourmet. This reminder came courtesy of Andrew Coe, the author of “Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States,” who discussed a dish called “chive flowers with fly heads,” that does not appear on Main Street Imperial’s English menu. Coe says the dish is one of the restaurant’s most popular, and contains no insect heads whatsoever. “Fly heads” is a metaphor for the black beans in what Venugopal describes as “a smoky, spectacular pile of minced pork, liberally garnished with chives, red chilies and fermented black beans.” When it comes to Taiwanese rest assured that stinky tofu is no metaphor, it is indeed quite pungent.
So here’s what I want to know. Do you still encounter the so-called double menu in Chinese restaurants? And when you do, how do you handle it? Tell me in the comments or hit me on the Twitter, @JoeDiStefano.