Skip to content

Failure to Communicate

March 25, 2010

It is time to break out the big guns.

There are plenty of ethnic restaurants in the Albany area.  A few of them are truly authentic versions of regional cuisine.  Honestly, I’m not exactly sure what to call the others.

I mean, how would you characterize a restaurant with a Japanese name that served sushi, but also had an extensive Chinese menu, and whose placemats bore the descriptions of the Chinese zodiac?

But one criticism I hear time and time again is that people go into a Thai or Chinese restaurant and ask for their food to be spicy, but what comes back is an anemic dish that is clearly intended to be spicy for white people, yet not actually authentically and blisteringly spicy.

Well, I think I might have a solution to all that.  But it’s a little complicated.

Before Chow.com was part of the CBS empire, it was just chowhound.com.  A fussy little message board, filled with very opinionated people talking about food.  This was way back in the day before Yelp came along to help aggregate people’s opinions and silence the incessant bickering.

If you couldn’t guess, I used to comment on occasion under my Internet nom de plume, my50cheeses.

Anyhow, they used to have a little store where they sold a brilliant little product.  It was called The Chowhound Passport.  And it contained the same message in seven non-English languages.  In theory the adventurous diner could hand this card to a waiter in an ethnic restaurant and have a fighting chance of coming out of the experience with a memorable meal, regardless of whether the Korean chef spent most of his time banging out chicken teriyaki on a teppanyaki table or behind a sushi bar assembling phantasmagorical rolls.

The message on the card read, “Please bring me the serious, authentic food…not the tourist stuff.”

I was filled with pangs of regret that I never bought one of these cards when I had the chance.  But I never really had a problem getting authentic ethnic food in the Bay Area.  Albany is another beast entirely.

Anyhow, I tried to track down a passport for a while with little luck.  I went back into the Internet archive, and found a few active email addresses of Chowhound users who at one time in the past mentioned using their passport.

Everyone I contacted was delighted by the memory of their cards, but they all had misplaced or abandoned them many years ago.

Somehow, using my advanced Internet research skills, I tracked down an email address for Jim Leff, the founder of Chowhound, who I can only imagine now spends his days perched atop a pile of gold, with a shotgun full of rock salt and a rucksack filled with goose liver, baguettes and pommeau.

Thanks to the intervention of divine provenance, my email to Mr. Leff was not only answered, but it turned out that he did indeed have an extra passport (buried somewhere deep within his pile of gold) to send this way.

A few days later, with a personal handwritten note, the card arrived at my house via the USPS.  The passport was so old that the glue that held the seams together (because it actually works a bit like a slide rule) had dried out and required a bit of tender loving care.

And finally I learned that in Spanish the message reads, “Hola, me gustaria probar la comida autentica y no los platos para turistas.”  In Filipino the same message is, “Gusto kong tikman yung tunay na lutong pilipino. Ayaw ko yung ulam na pang rista.”

It also translates the message into Korean, Arabic, Thai, Chinese, and Japanese.

So who among you is good at event planning, and where should we take the passport out for a spin?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. theresa permalink
    March 25, 2010 10:01 am

    I remember the good old days in NorCal when I could ask for my food “Thai hot” and it literally took your breath away. Our weekly ritual after a tough weighlifting session was coveted.

  2. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    March 25, 2010 10:46 am

    Please please post it online so we can all use it!

  3. March 25, 2010 11:46 am

    me! me! me! nice investigative work.

  4. March 25, 2010 6:10 pm

    I can’t wait to see it. Maybe one of the Thai places around here?

    Oddly enough, heat levels are the one instance my spice-wussiness actually benefits from.

  5. Joni permalink
    March 26, 2010 12:08 am

    who among you is good at event planning? i don’t understand.

  6. March 26, 2010 7:27 am

    I really love the idea of this – something saying in their language (therefore potentially identifying you as one of their own) but clearly not written by or understood by you (therefore identifying you as not) saying that you know their food is usually aimed at what you are, but you’d like some cooked as if you were what you’re not!

    Ha – you definitely do not want my event planning skills, but I think I’ve proved my eating abilities… :)

  7. beck permalink
    March 26, 2010 9:00 am

    I like the idea of the Chowhound Passport, too. I would think any of the Chinese restaurants around here would be a good place to try it out. Maybe Buffalo Wagon off of Wolf Road?

    I recently went to Blue Spice in Delmar for the first time, which is Thai, for those unfamiliar. I ordered my food (red curry) medium spicy and it was just that. So I would think they’d be similarly accurate in ordering food hot or very hot. I really enjoyed it, but I don’t know that much about Thai food to know if it was highly authentic or not.

  8. jess permalink
    March 27, 2010 7:53 pm

    I’m down with Renee!
    I’ve been into Blue Spice lately, primarily because it’s BYOB. Group outing?

  9. Annie permalink
    March 28, 2010 3:40 pm

    I like a happy ending!

    It’s interesting because in Spanish (well, at least in Argentina), the word Turista/tourist doesn’t have the negative connotation that it has here. Same with the word tipica/typical. Used to connote authenticity and not banality.

  10. Sarah M. permalink
    March 28, 2010 7:17 pm

    Um… if one can’t request something particularly “authentic” from the chef, isn’t one a tourist?

  11. March 29, 2010 3:18 pm

    I think it’s Fussy Little Blog Field Trip time!

Leave a Reply to jess Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: