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On the Menu 

You Can't Eat It If You Can't Read It

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On Mother's Day I took my mom to Ed's Potsticker House, a Mandarin restaurant in Bridgeport, outside the fray of Chinatown proper. I'd heard great things about Ed's over the years, most important that it's possible for a non-Chinese person like me to convince the waitstaff that you want the real stuff eaten in northern China and not the oversauced, Americanized glop that's piped directly to food courts and strip malls everywhere from some central processing plant under the Nevada desert.

Ed's, like most Chinatown restaurants whose main business comes from native Chinese customers, has several menus--among them those written in Chinese only, English only, and English only with pictures--in addition to the changing specials handwritten in Chinese hanging on the wall. The ones you're given to work with depend largely on first impressions. So I wasn't surprised when the waiter handed me and my mother the English-only menu and the abbreviated English-only-with-pictures menu, neither of which listed many of the interesting and uncommon dishes I'd been looking forward to and spent some energy selling her on.

But I wasn't worried. I'd come prepared with a short list of good-sounding things someone had translated and described on Chowhound.com. I was especially keen to try Ed's lamb with cumin, and the "fish-fragrant" eggplant, which has nothing to do with fish and is really just a nice version of eggplant with garlic sauce that renders the fruit light and puffy, with a crispy outer crust.

When the waiter approached I whipped out my list. He was flummoxed. It hadn't occurred to me that he'd have just as much trouble reading the anglicized translations as I would the original Chinese. My catastrophic pronunciations and fumbling descriptions only seemed to stump him more. The eggplant arrived soggy in supersweet hoisin sauce--the classic Wok Express version and not at all the life-changing eggplant experience I was hoping for. Ed's is justifiably famous for its soup dumplings, which are listed on the English menu. Ordering them should have been easy, but what we got was just plain old wonton soup.

Everything else was terrific--the house pot stickers are long cigars of crispy, porky goodness and the complex lamb, stir-fried with dried chilies, seems to be carried from the kitchen with great regularity.

On the way out I snatched a copy of Ed's Chinese-only take-out menu--seven solid columns of dense, impenetrable script, 184 dishes in all--and vowed to crack the code. To that end I secured a copy of the late James D. McCawley's recently reissued The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters (University of Chicago Press). McCawley, by all accounts, was a brilliant linguist (his other titles include The Syntactic Phenomena of English and Grammar and Meaning: Papers on Syntactic and Semantic Topics) who dazzled colleagues and students with his facility at penetrating the mysteries of Chinatown's menus.

In the first few pages McCawley lays a shallow foundation for translating characters, giving a few examples and definitions of basics like "to steam," "to stir-fry," "meat," "fish," and "vegetable." By page six you're translating things like "pan-fried chicken curls" and "steamed beef chunks." After a short explanation of how to identify and look up characters in the glossary, you're off.

The reality is, no one--except maybe a brilliant linguist--will be able to walk into any Fat Lee's Food House with McCawley's book under his arm and order the "tiger skin thrice-cooked pork" with any confidence. It took me a long, tedious week to decipher Ed's menu, a process that involved counting pen strokes for each character, referring to one of four indexes, then thumbing through a 126-page glossary. McCawley warns readers that his system is fraught with pitfalls, chiefly resulting from the wide variability with which Chinese characters are written. That said, there was a nerdy satisfaction in peering from the book to a six-character menu item as it gradually assumed a literal but intriguing meaning like "shredded pork gold dried tiger lily stir-fried rice flour noodle."

It also gave me a new appreciation for those odd ESL menu translations that everybody loves to savor a superior chuckle over. After producing such baffling ultraliteral translations as "house special bean curd brain" or "strange flavor beef stomach shreds," I have a healthy respect for the work that must have gone into Ed's English-only take-out menu, with its "yammy" lamb fried rice with curry flavor and rice cake "cut to ovulate."

I returned to Ed's with a friend, and my hard work was rewarded when the same waiter produced a menu I'd known nothing about--a handsomely bound bilingual version of my now irrelevantly translated Chinese-only menu.

Encouraged, I brandished McCawley's book. "Ah, you are learning Chinese," the waiter said mildly, parking himself in front of the TV to watch a few minutes of America's Funniest Home Videos while we puzzled out an order. When I requested the "shredded pork gold dried tiger lily stir-fried rice flour noodle," which sounded even better as "pork with lily flower and bean thread noodle," he tried to talk us out of it, shaking his head, insisting we wouldn't like it. But "we love flowers," I said, and he grudgingly took down the order. On the other hand he seemed impressed by my choice of "sliced soybean paste pork shoulder flower," which is actually "sliced pork leg with soy sauce." It's his favorite, he said. That seemed like progress.

McCawley points out that retranslating bilingual menus for yourself often gives more descriptive results than the restaurant's efforts. But it works both ways. Sure, if you're in the mood for offal it's helpful to know that what Ed's calls "deep-fried pork intestine" is more accurately "deep-fried fatty large intestine," but their "sweet rice wine soup" made a lot more sense than my "five decorations wine lees."

Some things remained ambiguous. A dish I'd figured was something like "winter bamboo shoots bound with shredded spinal cord" seemed a lot less unusual when Ed's described it as simply "shredded pork with bamboo strips." I still don't know whether it's really made with nerve tissue.

Soon the plates began to pile up. The pot stickers and soup dumplings were predictably tasty. A stir-fried plate of bok choi was good enough, but nothing special. My companion and I were served a dish I don't remember ordering--a cold bowl of tofu with bits of preserved egg--but it was a nice lesson in subtle textural contrasts, and we ate it without complaining. My hard-won pork with lily flowers and bean thread noodle was not pretty--a sort of grayish lump of noodles studded with wilted yellow flowers--but it tasted fantastic, and the lily buds had a satisfying snap, like a lightly sauteed mushroom. Sucking up for next time, I told the waiter they were the best tiger lilies I'd ever eaten.

The pork leg was served cold and cut thinly in cross section so you could see the varying textures of the different muscles, rimmed by a layer of caramelized fat. It was a great piece of pork the likes of which I'd only ever seen in sandwiches from Italy's streetside porchetta stands.

And my benchmark for success, the "fish-fragrant" eggplant, came out exactly like I'd heard: delicate, crispy, gently sauced, and just yammy.

Ed's Potsticker House is at 3139 S. Halsted, 312-326-6898.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.

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