Food & Drink

Memorable dishes don't get lost in translation

"Dan dan noodle," the waitress said, naming the dish that she was setting before us on the table. It's one of my go-to dishes in a Szechwan restaurant, and Super Wok's version -- a skein of vermicelli topped with minced pork, chopped scallions and a pungent chile sauce, served piping hot in a deep bowl -- was as good as any I've ever had.

But here's the catch: I hadn't ordered dan dan noodles. Doubtless I would have, if I had seen the dish listed on the authentic Chinese menu (which you'll have to ask for; otherwise, you'll be handed a menu of mostly generic Chinese and pan-Asian fare aimed at the mainstream American palate). What I had ordered instead -- at least, what I think I ordered -- is a dish listed under the Cold Appetizers heading as Szechwan-style spicy noodles. After tasting the dan dan noodles, though, I wasn't about to send the dish back.

The confusion is understandable. The command of English among the wait staff at this small, family-run eatery is -- to put it mildly -- variable. But they're uniformly eager to please and remarkably patient with those of us whose Chinese vocabulary doesn't go much beyond "kung pao" and "moo shu."

In its defense, the staff hadn't yet had a chance to become familiar with the bilingual version of the menu, which was still in draft form when I dined there. My attempt to order a dish that had been highly recommended to me and variously described as "squirrel fish" and "squirrel tail fish" was a comedy of language-barrier errors (including my attempt to pantomime the furry-tailed creature, which I'm sure proved entertaining to fellow diners).

The matter was finally resolved when I spotted the words "fried fish cut like a squirrel tail in sweet & sour sauce" penned in the margins of the menu.

Am I ever glad I saw those words. Turns out the name of the dish is a fanciful description of the appearance of its star ingredients: filets of a sweet white fish, their flesh cut in a cross-hatch pattern before being deep-fried in a light, tempura-like batter. The delicate yin of the fish is balanced by the vibrant yang of a vegetable-spangled sweet and sour sauce that's far more nuanced than the familiar cornstarch-gloppy Chinese-American version.

The point-at-what-you-want method proved efficient at ordering other dishes, from pork dumplings in chili oil to a hotpot of Asian eggplant and garlic. Once I got the hang of things, I was even successful in phoning in an order of stewed spareribs in sesame sauce, one of a handful of dishes that must be ordered in advance. For next time, I've got my eye on lobster with ginger and scallion.

The menu offers nearly 100 dishes, primarily from Szechwan and from Fuzhou in southern China (squirrel tail fish being a notable example of the latter), where owner/chef Zengming Chen was born and began his culinary career as a teenage apprentice in his grandfather's restaurant.

If you find the extensive selection overwhelming, you'd be well-advised to put yourself in the capable hands of Chen's niece and partner, Wendy Zhou, who manages the front of the house. I did precisely that recently and was rewarded with a memorable meal that began with chicken in chile oil, a cold appetizer that proved a delightfully refreshing companion to a bottle of Tsing Tao beer on a warm spring night. Then came fried whole tilapia lavishly blanketed by a spicy Szechwan sauce and a colorful confetti of chopped scallion, garlic and red chiles. And a fiery stir-fry of chicken with three kinds of pepper, the nuggets of meat moist and supple under a delicately crisp surface. And stir-fried Chinese greens, their emerald green leaves and crunchy-tender stems the very essence of spring.

Rest assured that Zhou will steer you clear of, um, challenging dishes such as fish head and tofu hotpot and spicy pork tripe. Naturally, if such dishes appeal to you, you can order yourself from the authentic menu. In that case, you can point to anything you like, secure in the knowledge that you can't go wrong -- even if you get something you didn't order