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“A Q&A with Asian Dining Rules' author and food guru Steven Shaw”

Known as The Fat Guy, Steven Shaw (like yours truly) is a lawyer-turned professional foodie. He is the founder of eGullet and a prolific writer who has covered the business of eating out for many years and for many publications, including a book about the restaurant biz called Turning the Tables. His latest book—Asian Dining Rules: Essential Strategies for eating out at Japanese, Chinese, Southeast Asian, Korean and Indian Restaurants (William Morrow, $15.95, 2008), takes a less business-oriented approach and instead offers up an essential extremely practical guide for helping you get the most out of every sort of Asian meal (it’s a paperback so it’s portable and you can take it with you everywhere).

His cherry red resource guide aims to give you the tools for having the best quality Asian dining experience with tricks and tips from guerrilla sushi tactics, to the truth about health and MSG, Thai food to order beyond Pad Thai, five dishes to order in a Szechuan Chinese restaurant, and the hidden cost of takeout. What’s also terrific is that his book includes tips for every level of foodie, from beginner, to intermediate and advanced so that everyone can learn something from this book, whether it’s a new cut of tuna, or the best place to eat Indian food (surprise: it’s Edison, New Jersey).

I had a chance to chat with Steven about the book and ask him a little about the best and worst Asian eating in our city. It’s best not to read this interview if you are hungry. Immediate Asian food will be necessary.

Strong Buzz: What was the inspiration for writing Asian Dining Rules?

Steven Shaw: My previous book Turning the Tables was generally about how to get the most our of restaurants and it didn’t have any particular restaurant slant. It had four pages about sushi though, and when I went on tour it was those four pages of a 250 page book and that got the most interest.

Then there was a big study published by the National Restaurant Association called Ethnic Cuisines Two or something that reported this famous statistic that now there are now more Chinese restaurants in the United States than KFC, Burger King and McDonald’s combined. They came up with something like 3.4 Chinese restaurants per McDonald’s. People don’t even consider Chinese ethnic food anymore. So all of that combined I thought would be enough to support a book.

SB: What are some common mistakes that people make with dining out in Asian restaurants?

There are a few. The first is taking no for an answer. A lot of times, when non-Asians ask about a dish (for example, on the specials list at a Chinatown restaurant), the server will say something like "Oh, you won't like that." That's code for "Chinese people love it but a lot of our white customers don't." Ask what it is anyway. It could be something great.

Also, in a sushi restaurant, the number one mistake you can make is not sitting at the sushi bar. There are two kinds of people eating at a sushi place: the people at the sushi bar, and the tourists. When you have direct interaction with the sushi chef you get the best stuff, the best information, the best experience. You also get served immediately, before your nori gets soggy. At the tables, you get whatever.

In Korean restaurants, a lot of people don't realize you can ask for more pan chan—the little salad-like items they bring out at the beginning), condiments, lettuce, etc. and that they're free. I see so many people, for example, at Korean barbecue places carefully husbanding their five lettuce leaves. What you're supposed to do, when you're down to your last leaf, is just ask for more.
Also don’t go at busy times. The best time to go to an Asian restaurant (any restaurant, really) is an early weekday evening, outside the dinner-rush hours. If you go on a busy Friday night you're just going to be put through the assembly line. Nobody will have time to answer your questions or give you attention. If you go at a slow time, you'll have the place, the waitstaff and the management to yourself.

Finally, don’t always order the same things. Most Asian-restaurant customers establish a universe of five or six dishes they know they like and then repeatedly order those. A better strategy: always try at least one new dish. That's the only way to expand your culinary horizons.

SB: Speaking of favorite dishes, were there any favorite restaurants that you discovered writing the book here in New York City? How about favorite sushi place?

SS: Yes. I discovered Ushi Wakamaru, a Japanese place on Houston Street that was totally off my radar. I have a three year old and I have been out of it for a while. Bruni reviewed it with 15 East and I missed the other half.

Originally I wanted to write about the first sushi chef I had a relationship with, Shin at Nobu who is now the executive chef at Nobu 57. But the Nobu organization would not permit it. They would not give me access. They said I could write about Nobu but none of his chefs. So I wasn’t sure who to write about. I have a friend who was really into Japanese food and he said I’ll take you to Ushi Wakamaru, I was blown away and he ( (chef Hideo
Kuribara) was my character for the sushi chapter. I can recommend that place over and over and they’re like I have never heard of it, and then they are like it’s the best. Its not a Masa, but its not in the same price category but its better than other places that are much more expensive. You can do a really good dinner for $200 and have it be very close if not just as good in quality to Kuruma Zushi, which is $800. Unless you are a real fish guru you would not know the difference. That was the biggest New York discovery.

SB: What about other cuisines? Were there other surprises?

SS: The biggest discovery for me was the Indian restaurant world in Edison, New Jersey. I had a notion that Jackson Heights was where the Indian community was concentrated but they are really Pakistani or Bangladeshi. But the real Indian communities are in Edison, Princeton and New Brunswick because that is there the pharma companies are headquartered. That’s where they have educated well to do engineers scientists Indians and it’s totally different than in the city. Most are from the south of India like Bangalore so there is a demand out there for a type of upscale south Indian food that is not there in the city. It’s wild because the food was out of sight and it was such an interesting experience to open a four-page page menu and not recognize a single dish. It’s also a great place to spend the day and go shopping and soak up the culture.

There are three new Indian restaurants are in Morristown worth checking out: Ming (Bombay style Chinese restaurant), Mehndi (you can get henna tattoos there), SM23 a very high end PDT-styled cocktail bar.

SB: What about Vietnamese or Cambodian restaurants? Anything worthwhile in New York City?

SS: Kampuchea is a place I love. While most people associate it with noodles, it’s just like Momofuku in that the least remarkable dishes on the menu are the noodle dishes. All best stuff on the menu is non noodle. They make these incredible sandwiches called Num Pang, which are like Vietnamese Bahn Mi. They are little sandwiches that are just amazing. They make one with  house cured bacon, charred whole pickled Thai chilies and red onions, and another with house-made pork pate and headcheese terrine. The word is Ratha (the chef) may open a little sandwich place soon. They also do these Vietnamese crepes. The best is the catfish crepe—a French style crepe made from rice flour made with chunks of spicy catfish. Oh, and their Tamarind baby back ribs with lime cilantro dressing is the best dish in the house. I cannot believe people are not talking about them. It’s a dish on the level of a Shake Shack burger.

SB: What about Vietnamese?

SS: I lost my favorite Vietnamese restaurant when Saigon Grill got sued for unethical labor practices and I could not go there anymore. This is the Vietnamese place on the Upper West Side where two years ago their delivery workers went on strike because they were paid like a dollar an hour and subject to inhumane working conditions. When they went on strike their boss fired them all. The case went to court and this week they handed down a 4.6 million verdict against the restaurant. (NOTE: His Op-Ed on this matter appeared in the New York Times on Saturday October 25th.)

SB: Are there any Chinese restaurants that you can recommend?

SS: The ground is always shifting on Chinese restaurants. So that many restaurants in the book are already gone, like Grand Sichuan International Midtown. But one place that is still around is Nice Green Bo (it was called New Green Bo in book) and it’s on Bayard Street. It’s a working class Shanghai restaurant. It’s cheap and quick and they have all kinds of stuff. One dish that I love is with tofu skin and pork and edamame tossed up, and it’s the most wonderful textural contrast and it’s $6. They also do great soup dumplings and several other varieties.

SB: What did you think of eating out in Koreatown?

SS: I found out how weak the food is on 32nd Street. The best food is at Do Hwa on Carmine Street. It’s sort of odd to find a great Korean restaurant on that block but it’s better than any Korean place in Koreatown. It’s a smaller menu and more expensive, but its’ fantastic. It has all women in the kitchen.

I also had a nightmare of a time finding any good Thai food in Manhattan. I got some good recommendations but nothing can compete with Sripraphai in Queens. The Thai situation in Manhattan is impoverished.


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