I worked in a Chinese restaurant for three years. Here’s what I refuse to order.
Have you ever eaten something so perplexing that your mind can recall the flavor years later? Maybe you have a visceral reaction at the thought of it? Not that the dish was necessarily bad, but the notes confused your palette. The tongue and mind somehow received mixed signals, and you left the table unable to decipher what exactly why the cook picked that particular combination.
Maybe the experience even left you a little shaken.
One such experience happened nearly two months into my three years waiting tables and serving as in-house phone order interpreter at a local Chinese food place in the next town over.
It all started with a new job
After seeing the “help wanted” sign in the dark tinted window, I decided it was time to take a peek inside the restaurant I had always assumed was closed. Opening the door rang a loud, electronic bell which prompted the lady behind the counter to yell at me.
“James.” She said.
It became clear after a split second that the shout was supposed to be a question, and my answer was just as off-balance as I felt.
She started frantically shuffling small papers on the counter. I took a few steps forward, allowing the front door to close. The few dinners scattered throughout the restaurant all went back to their meals.
I start to notice the sounds that fill the tiny restaurant.
Loud staccato chatter poured from the kitchen accompanied by an oddly soothing voice. A man, singing a cappella. I couldn’t make a single word he sang. Judging by the notes and length at which he held each syllable, I guessed it was some bad 80’s love ballad. Over the top of everything, a cover version of Backstreet Boys “I Want It That Way” arranged to feature Asian string instruments played at high volume throughout the restaurant.
“What’d you order?” The sharp, almost accusing voice of the lady behind the counter cut through the soundscape.
“Uh,” I tried to bring my thoughts back into focus “no. I didn’t order anything.”
She looked at me, annoyed that I was wasting her time.
“I was just driving by and saw that you’re hiring.”
“Oh, yes. You available Friday?”
“Friday?” It seemed the interview was going to be one question, and it was thrown right over the plate. “Yeah, I’m available.”
“Good. White button shirt. Black pants. Start at 5:00.”
“Great…uh, I’ll see you Friday, then.”
As soon as the sentence left my lips, the lady turned around and disappeared into the kitchen. Her harsh voice was added to the choir of jagged one-way conversations blaring out from the back of the house.
I had gotten the job. Or, at least that’s how I interpreted it. As I turned to walk out the narrow walkway where I entered, a small, framed newspaper clipping caught my eye.
“Top Chinese Restaurants in Utah County:
- P.F. Chang’s
- Panda Express
Number three was circled in pencil.
The first shift
I arrived on Friday at 4:45 wearing my too-big white shirt and too short black pants. My life up to that point had been a never-ending parade of ill-fitting clothes. Right after stepping over the threshold of Chow’s front door, I was greeted by the girl behind the counter.
“Sandy.” She said, reaching out her hand.
“Cameron.” I said, shaking it.
Sandy proceeded to walk me around the restaurant introducing me to a long list of parents, siblings, cousins, and friends, all by their chosen American names. Hailey, Stephanie, Chuck, Paul…After the introductions, it was time to get to work.
I was assigned an area in the restaurant and told everyone who sits in that section is my responsibility. Also, if the phone rings, it should be answered first no matter what.
That’s it. Training was over. Now it was time to work. I approached my first table.
My mind went blank.
That didn’t stop my feet from carrying me to the booth of four.
“Hi.” I started. My thoughts were racing. Hi? Really?
“Hi.” A woman at the table answered with a kind smile.
“I’ll bring you some water, would you like anything else to drink?”
I’d been to restaurants before, so I figured I could stumble my way through the process. Waiting tables is far from rocket science. If the advice was ever applicable, walking up to your first table is the ideal time to fake it ’til you make it.
“No, just water is great. Also, we already know what we want to order.”
“Oh, great!” Probably a little more enthusiastic on the answer than they anticipated, but hey, I’m here to help.
“We’d like two orders of Walnut Shrimp and Ham Fried Rice.”
“Perfect! I’ll get that started right away.” Nailing this.
I collected their menus and headed for the kitchen. Sandy caught my sleeve as I brushed past the front counter.
“Write your order.” She half-whispered, gripping my eyes with a firm glare.
“Oh, sorry. I’ll write it right now and give it to the kitchen.”
“Write it at the table, or I’ll kill you.” She replied with a grin.
I wrote every order as it was given from that point on.
Every weekend I continued to show up in my white shirt and black pants, and every weekend was different. In spite of the strange string of happenings each Friday and Saturday night, three things stayed constant week after week:
- Loud music
- Sandy’s half-hearted death threats
- Orders of Walnut Shrimp
Tasting Walnut Shrimp
After several weekends of waiting tables, I had adopted Walnut Shrimp as my go-to suggestion when customers asked what they should order. I’d never taken a bite, but nearly every ticket I handed to the kitchen prominently featured the dish. If everyone ordered Walnut Shrimp, and many tables ordered ONLY Walnut Shrimp, how bad could it be?
That night, I found out.
At the end of every shift, the kitchen staff would offer to make me a dish before I left. I’d pick a noodle dish from the menu and eat the entire to-go box in my car before driving home. After suggesting Walnut Shrimp to countless guests, I decided to request it for myself.
I had seen the cooks make the sauce before. It was the only real component differentiating Walnut Shrimp from Royal Shrimp and Royal Shrimp from Almond Shrimp. Different sauces, same battered, deep-fried shrimp. Unfortunately, the sauce was the part that gave me pause.
Let me create the suspicious sauce for you.
In your mind, take an empty mixing bowl. Now add one part honey straight from the plastic bear, one part condensed milk, one part granulated sugar, and four parts room temperature mayo. Mix thoroughly. Squeeze half a lemon into the creamy mixture and store in a metal container on the line next to your mise en place. You’ve now created the exact sauce each customer who entered our little restaurant craved.
Typing it out still gives me the shakes.
After collecting my tips for the night, I retrieved my dish from the kitchen and walked out to laughter from the staff. Never a good sign.
In my front seat, I opened the styrofoam takeout container and was walloped by the smell. Shrimp was undetectable under the sweet aroma of the sauce. The mayo was there as well like some candy shop decided to try their hand at an aioli filled confection. I put a bite in my mouth.
Confusion filled the car.
Although the mayo flavor was weak, the mouth-coating familiarity was in full force. Sweet. Sweet was almost all I could taste. Not the sugar, not the honey, just unidentifiable sweet. As I bit down, I got the soft crunch of slightly soggy fried batter, followed by the somehow more crunchy shrimp.
The textures, the flavors, the smell, it all culminated in a rag-tag symphony of wrong notes and unexpected chords. I was done after a single bite.
Even though I never ordered the Walnut Shrimp again, I saw the dish start to pop up at other restaurants in the area. The demand for Chow’s Walnut Shrimp never died down and I still see it at every table each time I drop in for a quick lunch.
Three things stuck with me from that experience:
- No dish satisfies every customer
- If the cooks laugh, change your order
- You can, in fact, ruin shrimp
The names of people and the restaurant in this article have been changed.