I’m leading off this edition of the $20 Diner mailbag with a twofer because, last time I checked, you can still address a pair of questions simultaneously in Washington even if you can’t order a beer and backup in D.C. bars.
Katt M. Hull, of York, Pa., and Melanie Haupt of Austin have sort of bookend questions that bear investigation. Hull asks, “Why do servers at Asian restaurants judge patrons for asking for silverware?” Haupt, on the other hand, wonders, “Should I have been insulted when a server at a dim-sum parlor in Phoenix brought me silverware without asking whether I wanted it? Because I was.”
America is a country rich with cuisines from around the world. As diners expand their palates, seeking out foods from beyond their own culture and comfort zone, they are bound to have strained interactions similar to those of Hull and Haupt. On a fundamental level, these are culture clashes, often based on assumptions that either the server or the diner draw from too little information.
Take Hull’s question. It’s based on an assumption that servers at Asian restaurants are passing judgment on her choice of flatware. Maybe some are. No, let me rephrase that: Some definitely are. But maybe there are other explanations, too. If, for example, Hull were dining in a traditional Korean restaurant, she could be experiencing a form of culture shock known as Korean-style service, which is foreign to those accustomed to American hospitality, which aims to be attentive, nurturing, pampering.
Korean service can be brusque to all comers, including native Koreans. No waiter is going to approach your table, with his smile on high beam, and say, “Hi, I’m Dave, and I’ll be taking care of you tonight!” No one will ask about your day or explain the menu as if it were the Rosetta Stone. Korean service is about speed and efficiency.
Back in Korea, says Danny Lee, the restaurateur behind Mandu and ChiKo in Washington, diners just take whatever table is available without bothering with a host. Once seated, they raise their hands and shout, “Yeogi yeo!” which means “Over here!” in Korean. A server quickly approaches and asks, “What do you want?” The banchan snacks and meal arrive posthaste. Diners pay at the front when done.
“It’s a very quick style of service, even when you’re sitting down to dine,” Lee says.
What does this mean for diners visiting Korean restaurants in America? Be aware of the establishment’s target customer. If the place caters to Koreans, you should expect Korean-style service. Your server will grab you a fork, sure, but she may not go out of her way to coddle you about it. If she’s passing any judgment, it’s not about your preference for Western utensils. It’s about the inconvenience of the request itself.
“They just might seem a little put off because it’s not a request they get all the time,” Lee says. “It kind of takes them out of their rhythm.” He speculates they might just wonder: Do we even have a fork? “Then they have to run back to the kitchen, find a fork, wash it and then bring it out.”
The servers who do judge chopstick-challenged diners tend to be recent immigrants, says Janet Yu, owner of Hollywood East Cafe, the dim-sum parlor in Wheaton. They’re the servers who have not lived long enough in the United States to understand that many Americans have yet to master the pair of sticks that dominate the table in China.
Yu points out that it’s not just Westerners who ask for utensils other than chopsticks. Thais, Indonesians and Filipinos all have special requests, usually for a fork and spoon, their preferred cutlery. In other words, as the world becomes a smaller place, Chinese restaurants have become more bloated with silverware not of their own culture. There’s no shame, and very little judgment, in asking for it.
But what about Haupt’s situation, in which a server at a dim-sum shop forced Western utensils on her? She has a healthy perspective on this benign form of racial profiling. Her own solution, she says, is to get over herself. But Lee says such unwanted flatware advances can create problems with less-forgiving diners, who are quick to perceive a slight at the mere suggestion they need a fork in a chopstick house, as if the server has spotted a rube underneath all the finery.
Which is why if diners want a fork at Mandu, they have to ask for it. (Same at Hollywood East.) All the tables are set in the traditional Korean manner with only chopsticks and a spoon. Every customer is considered a chopsticks master unless one confesses otherwise. But even if a server should offer you a fork at, say, a dim-sum parlor, it’s not necessarily because you’re an alien in the house of Hong Kong dumplings. It may be because others in your party have requested one or because you have, ahem, proved to the entire dining room that you have the chopsticks skills of a manatee.
Trying to improve a guest’s experience, in short, is not racial profiling. Sometimes it’s just hospitality in a form that can, nonetheless, still bruise one’s ego.
Andrew Miller of Washington wants to know, “Where can I find excellent corn-husk tamales? Ideally in the city, but willing to travel for guaranteed deliciousness.”
As Andrew’s question implies, Washington is not a tamales town. That said, you can find some excellent Salvadoran-style tamales at Panam Grocery in Columbia Heights (3552 14th St. NW, 202-545-0290). They have corn-husk-wrapped tamales in a warmer by the cash register. They’re fresh yellow-corn specimens ($1.25 each), dense as cheesecake but sweet and milky, perfect with some tangy crema.
El Rinconcito Cafe (1129 11th St. NW, 202-789-4110) has a similar sweet Salvadoran-style tamal de elote in corn husk ($2.45 each), every bit the equal of the one at Panam, but the cafe also sells a softer, looser savory tamal ($2.45) stuffed with chicken, chickpeas and potatoes, all wrapped in a banana leaf. I would highly encourage you to try it. The thing almost melts in your mouth.
Pati Jinich, the cookbook author and television personality, forwarded a couple of sources for fresh, homemade Mexican-style tamales, and I’m happy to pass their contacts along if you email me. The underground economy, I’m told, offers some of Washington’s best tamales.