Far feast

If you don't celebrate Christmas, you may be eating Chinese on December 25. Our gift to you: tips from Asian Dining Rules author Steven Shaw.

Shaw digs into a Chinese feast at Szechuan Gourmet

Shaw digs into a Chinese feast at Szechuan Gourmet Photograph: Dave Sanders

Find the guy (or gal) in the suit

If you look at online foodie forums, you’ll see that about half the people say Oriental Garden (14 Elizabeth St between Bayard and Canal Sts, 212-619-0085) sucks, while the other half swear it’s awesome. One explanation for the inconsistency is that some of those diners ordered from the menu, while others didn’t. Talk not to your waiter but to the manager (the guy—or gal—in the suit), who usually speaks the best English. Go to the seafood tanks together and ask questions. Once you’ve settled on, say, lobster with ginger and scallions or simple steamed live shrimp with ginger-soy dipping sauce, ask what else you should have. “Do this, and you can have one of the best Chinese meals available in North America,” promises Shaw. “If you deal only with the menu, you’ll have a totally generic meal.” This strategy, he says, will improve your odds of getting great food at almost any Chinese restaurant.

Ask the right questions

Don’t just ask what you should order. “If you do, you’ll probably get not what’s good but what’s popular,” says Shaw. “Because no restaurant wants to serve customers food that decades of experience suggest they’re not going to like.” Instead, ask questions that reveal your openness to potentially unfamiliar foods and get your interlocutor off the script: “What do your Chinese customers order?” “What does this restaurant do better than other Chinese restaurants?” “What are those people eating?” This works wonders at Wu Liang Ye (215 E 86th St between Second and Third Aves, 212-534-8899), swears Shaw, because it will lead you away from standards like spareribs and toward Szechuan specialties, such as sliced scungilli with roasted chili vinaigrette. Another tip: If an appetizer is No. 1 on the menu, that often indicates the chef is particularly proud of the dish.

Go with 11 friends

At most Western restaurants, the more people in your group, the worse your dinner will be. Many kitchens can’t handle getting a perfect course out to each person at the same time (a style called “service a la Russe”). At Chinese restaurants, where food is served family-style, it’s exactly the opposite. “With two people, not only can you not order lots of different stuff, but you can’t order the large pièce de résistance dishes like the pork shoulder at New Green Bo(66 Bayard St between Elizabeth and Mott Sts, 212-625-2359), or a whole flounder with seaweed at New Yeah Shanghai Deluxe (65 Bayard St between Elizabeth and Mott Sts, 212-566-4884).”

Find the biggest dim sum restaurant and then lose your cool

Among the cart-service dim sum places, Shaw thinks there are about 20 that serve food of more or less the same quality, including Jing Fong (20 Elizabeth St between Bayard and Canal Sts, 212-964-5256). “So why is it my go-to place?” Shaw poses. “Because it’s the biggest. That means it has the highest turnover. Since the kitchen is pumping out food at such an alarming rate, you’re almost guaranteed freshly made stuff.” But, he says, that’s just the starting point. To take your meal to the next level, you must order from the menu as well (say, the e-fu noodles with crab), and embrace dim sum as an exercise in Darwinism and be pushier and more aggressive than you ever thought you could be. “Because after all,” he says, “it’s eat or let the best stuff be eaten by someone else.”

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