If you look very un-Chinese, and if you ask for a menu instead of the buffet, you get a pink slip of paper listing some of America's favorite Chinese dishes -- sesame chicken, Hunan beef and chop suey among them. Once I held this menu, I had the darndest time convincing a waitress that I had come for the frog legs a local non-Chinese chef raves about ("You eat those?" she asked). When I ordered tea, meaning a pot of jasmine, she automatically brought a tall glass -- iced. And when I wouldn't give up on the frog, a manager eventually appeared with a handwritten menu of Chinese characters on one side and English words on the other. No frog. I pointed at a mussel hot pot.
In less time than it takes to make a latte, a deeply salty broth sputtered from a clay pot on my table and seared my cheek in two places. The sizzling, stew-like meal inside looked as lovely and fresh as it tasted: green-lipped mussels, crunchy red and yellow bell peppers, broken bay leaves, whole cilantro stems, orange zest and specks of red chile. "In case you use these," the waitress said, placing a pair of chopsticks beside my bowl of sticky rice.
On weekend afternoons, when the buffet line is closed, you still have to fend off that pink menu. Most Asian customers bypass the man poking a wooden rake into tanks of live lobster, and they look past the butcher's block where a shiny whole duck and metal cleaver wait in gruesome, mouth-watering still life. They come instead for dim sum, the Chinese brunch tradition that originated eons ago in teahouses where laborers would stop to snack after work.
For Ding How's dim sum, you choose either small, tapas-style plates from a push-cart of steaming vessels, or you wait for a waitress to dart from the kitchen with deep-fried goodies. Waitresses keep track of each table's dim sum count by stamping a scorecard, and they serve as the voice of moderation when you ask for both shrimp and beef-stuffed rice noodles at once. Ordering takes practice: you want enough to keep everyone at the table chewing but not so much that the food gets cold before anyone gets to it. One friend might love the gristly spareribs wet with fish sauce but pass on her steamed bun filled with lotus paste. The chicken feet could go untouched no matter how many fetishists you brought.
The best dim sum selections include turnip cakes larded with Chinese sausage; pork sui mai, open-face dumplings with pork and shrimp forcemeat; translucent shrimp dumplings; wrinkly and wet bean curd wrappers rolled around meat and herbs; deep-fried dough balls injected with plum paste and covered in sesame seeds; and pristine white steamed buns that crack open to yolk-yellow custard centers.
On my third visit, for dinner, I found the frog. It was listed below sliced conch and sauteed fish ball on a beige menu set upon a table near the entrance. When I asked, I learned its name: "Chinese menu." The pink one, which a waitress again tried to give me, is called "American menu." Among the beige menu's Cantonese specialties are clams in a spicy fermented black bean sauce that you'll lap up like it's Nutella; knuckle-size spareribs prepared with bitter melon, which is okra-like in texture and bitter incarnate in flavor; more hot pots ("casseroles"), like one with bony grouper, beef, meltingly soft bean curd and ginger broth; and mountains of delicate, spring-green snow pea shoots sauteed with garlic and salt. It's painful to speculate how different life would be if I had begun requesting the Chinese menu in Chinese restaurants years ago.
I now harbor a fantasy of the day when I will have tried everything on the beige menu -- the jellyfish with cold meat, the sea cucumber, the abalone with oyster sauce, the braised pigeon, the water spinach, the Beef Chow Fun ... .
Richard Wu began to mend one of our city's minor injustices when he and his chefs moved down from New York's Chinatown to take over the 20-year-old restaurant. Wu and his partners also own Chinese restaurants in New York and Philadelphia. The buffet and the Americanized selections still seems to be Ding How's bread and butter, but resist those urges. The more customers Wu hears clamoring for fried frog, the closer we'll be to a world of only beige menus.