Good dishes to test a restaurant's quality?

On different occassions, Italians have told me that they test a newly established Italian restaurant by ordering Spaghetti Aglio e Olio: pasta with garlic and olive oil. It is an inexpensive dish that still says a lot about the cook - how mushy he cooks the pasta, what type and quality of olive oil he uses, even if he uses garlic powder! :frowning:
You cannot trust a cook who uses bad ingredients for such an elementary dish, even with professional pricing (25% to 35% of the price are for food costs), to do better with the expensive meat or seafood dishes.
Are there comparable dishes from other regional or national cuisines that are so much of a standard that one can use them to gauge the quality of a restaurant?

I know it’s not hi-tech or expensive, but for ordinary family restaurants, Ceaser Salad is a test.

Real Ceaser Salad includes croutons, and a dressing made with coddled egg. Both must be freshly prepared. The salad dressing is unsafe if not freshly prepared, and croutons are dry, damp, or stale if not freshly prepared.

For this reason, any average cheap joint will used a hard-boiled egg instead of a fresh dressing, and anything they can get away with for for the croutons.

Not that there is anything wrong with eating a cheap chicken salad: I eat McDonalds too. Sometimes you want to pay a little extra for something nicer, and sometimes it’s ok to eat fast-food from a food-by-numbers kitchen.

Gordon Ramsay always seems to get the shrimp cocktail on kitchen nightmares. I guess seafood is a good test of freshness.

In strange places, I always order an omelette. My organ teacher, of all people, taught me that habit, since it’s a food item that’s difficult to prepare in advance, so you know you’re getting something reasonably fresh. It’s a good test of their ingredients, AND their expediency.

I know of a fellow that orders the puerco pibil wherever he goes when he is in Mexico, though he’s exceptionally rough on the chefs.

I asked a similar question here.

Roast chicken.
Easy to do, easy to fuck up.

If you know your way around a kitchen this should be nailed every time.
If you don’t know what you’re doing you can screw the pooch on this in more than a few ways.

Barbecued chicken. In Chicago, the political corruption, crime rate and rampant racism pale next to the penchant of many restaurants here to dip breaded fried chicken in barbecue sauce and call it barbecued chicken. The first time I got some (1986, Leona’s) I took it as an over-busy kitchen attempting some misguided shortcut to get an order to the table, but the practice has proven common here.

Unfortunately, it derails an evening, because it’s something the Southerner in me can’t let pass. Every time it happens, I return the order, get a refund and leave - if you’re willing to serve that abomination, nothing on the menu can be trusted. Friends have said that’s over-reacting, but it’s not that extreme a position when you consider my first impulse is to burn the place to the ground, salt the earth, and leave the cook’s head on a pike outside.

Breaded chicken is good. Barbecue chicken is good. Breaded barbecue chicken is an abomination, and I think that you should follow your first impulse.

When I visit a new Mexican restaurant, I order beef enchiladas. I can tell if they make their own sauce, if they make shredded beef, what kind of cheese they use.

For an Italian place, lingini alle vongole (linguine with clams). Simple, but hard to get tight. For an American place, london broil with mushroom sauce. For a French place, onion sop. For Japanese, tuna sushi. Chinese, General Gau’s chicken.

Order the house special, whatever it is. If they can’t do that well, they can’t do anything well.

You really have to ask in the Midwest. “Barbecue” meaning a particular method of cooking involving smoke is generally not the default definition. Basically, anything served with barbecue sauce can get called barbecue. It irritates me too (especially with pork shoulder–no, braised pork in barbecue sauce is not “barbecue.”) But words change based on where you’re at (see “chili,” for instance) so if you keep running into this problem, I’d say you should know better by now than not to ask.

I, also, would go with the house special. Of what dish or dishes are they especially proud?

As a Texan, I wouldn’t order barbecue in Chicago; other states are famous for their own styles of barbecue–not Illinois. Just as I wouldn’t order Mexican food in the paler regions of Yankeeland; Chicago does have Mexicans, I hear.

This is based on nothing more than my personal bias, but for Thai food, my first visit I’ll always order Tom Yum soup and Beef Lad Nar (spellings vary).

The Tom Yum soup is one of those dishes that, when done well, I can discern all six flavors - sweet, spicy, salty, sour, bitter and umami - but when done poorly, one overwhelms the other, or some are just missing.

Beef Lad Nar gives me some idea of the quality of their meat and of the chef - the beef is lean, sliced thin and stir fried, which gives it plenty of opportunity to be chewy, dried out or overcooked. The bean sauce in a good place with have actual little black beans in it, and a good balance of savory and salty and just a hint of sweet without being dull. In a bad place, it’s corn starch thickened beef or vegetable broth “flavored” with soy sauce. The noodles should be pan fried, with a good proportion of golden brown crispy delicious bits to the soft white bits, and of course the noodles shouldn’t be mushy. If they’re using broccoli rabe, it should be tender crisp and bitter but not too bitter. If they’re using broccoli, I probably won’t be back. Not because I don’t like broccoli, but because it’s a cheap cop out that doesn’t give the dish the bitter element that makes it interesting.

So one complex dish, one simple dish, and both classic dishes which every Thai place has on the menu, and they get ordered a lot, so there’s no excuse for not doing them well.

If you made me pick only *one *to judge a restaurant on, it’d be the soup. Soup is where a lot of otherwise okay (but not great) restaurants tend to get lazy.

Well, I should respond to this. These days, there are a few styles of barbecue going on in Chicago–there’s been quite an explosion of interest in it in the last 5 years or so. Seems like barbecue joints are popping up everywhere.

But let’s go back historically to the West Side and South Side barbecue joints that I think of as “Chicago barbecue.” Chicago barbecue is exemplified by places like Lem’s, Uncle John’s, Barbara Ann’s (currently closed, and maybe forever closed), Honey 1 (West Side relocated to North Side), Exsenator’s, I-57 Rib House, Leon’s, etc. Chicago barbecue is usually spare ribs, rib tips, and hot links (not Texas style hot links, but Mississippi style.) Here is a photo of a tips & links combo, the one dish I feel exemplifies old school Chicago barbecue. Those places typically don’t do pork shoulder, and certainly don’t do brisket. I don’t even remember seeing chicken there. There’s fried chicken on the menu often enough, but I can’t remember ever seeing smoked/barbecued chicken. It’s possible I just didn’t notice because I’m just not a fan of barbecued chicken at all. Grilled chicken, yes. Barbecued? I’d rather have a different meat.

Historical Chicago barbecue is smoked on an aquarium smoker. The smoker is fired from below with logs. The type of wood varies. Oak, mulberry, elm, are the usually woods. Sometimes maple and hickory will find its way in there, too. It’s almost always a pure wood fire (one place–the name escapes me–does a charcoal fire. Incidentally, the only other place I’ve ever seen with an aquarium style smoker is Cozy Corner in Memphis, where they fire it with charcoal.)

Chicago barbecue also tends to be cooked a little bit hotter (which is how I do my barbece at home). The temps are probably more in the ballpark of 250-275 (or perhaps slightly higher) than the usual 225 or so.

The types of sauce it is served with is all around the map. Default for these joints is to put sauce on, so you do have to specify “sauce on the side.” The sauces are always tomato based, and typically thinner than commercial barbecue sauces. However, beyond that, it’s kind of hard to generalize. No liquid smoke, of course, but spicing ranges from tart and clove-y to semi-sweet and cumin-y. I always do a mix of hot & mild on the side.

But, yes, Chicago absolutely has its own barbecue identity. If you’re ever in town, drop me a line and I’ll show you. It’s not Texas barbecue. It’s not brisket (although there is some damned good brisket in town, there’s no point in showing you that, since you get that stuff in Texas). But Chicago barbecue (once again, as defined by these old South and West Side shacks–there is a new generation of Chicago barbecue fomenting) is a bit different than anything else I’ve ever had in the South or Texas.

Mexican - Chili relleno. Plus menudo on Sundays.

BBQ - Hot Links. You can tell if they make their own.

Now that’s a Meet the Doper meal I’d definitely be interested in joining. :slight_smile:

While true (here), that’s just nuts to me. That someone had barbecue somewhere, liked it, came back to Chicago, and decided all there was to it was frying some chicken and dumping barbecue sauce all over it. That’s like mistaking calamari for fried chewing gum or something.

Anyway, yeah, I typically ask if I don’t know the place now. I still got burned recently - I ordered a barbecue chicken pizza from the new Jet’s Pizza on Ashland, having had it out in the ‘burbs - it’s a pizza with barbecued chicken breast on it and some barbecue sauce added to the tomato sauce. Guess what the culinary masters in Chicago do differently? Yep, they just squirt barbecue sauce all over the top of your freakin’ pizza. This town sometimes…

Nowadays, my go-to place is Fat Willy’s Rib Shack for Southern barbecue but a place near me does good wings. Re. another thread, be prepared for epic portions at both places.

If you want old-school Chicago barbecue, go down the street to Honey 1. Get the tips-links combo. That’s some honest-to-goodness Chicago barbecue. Now, I will warn you that the quality can be variable depending on when you visit. It’s always good to call ahead and see when the ribs are coming off the smoker. A thread here.

I like Fat Willy’s, too, but it hasn’t been on my barbecue rotation for quite some time. It’s more of a proper sit down restaurant rather than Honey 1, which just has a sparse dining room with basic tables and chairs. I would also suggest heading up to Smoque, if you ever get a chance. Best brisket I’ve had in Chicago that does not come from my smoker. Also, Honky Tonk BBQ in Pilsen is worth checking out for great food and great atmosphere.

Oh, and I don’t necessarily think that’s specifically a Chicago thing (although I’m not sure I’ve actually had fried chicken with barbecue sauce here served as “barbecue chicken,” but that wouldn’t surprise me.) It’s more of a non-Southern thing. Like I said, in a lot of places, barbecue sauce has become synonymous with “barbecue,” although, as every good barbecue afficianado knows, barbecue has nothing to do with the sauce. The reason, I suspect, is that most commercial barbecue sauce is flavored with liquid smoke, so the smoke flavor the barbecue sauce imparts to meat make it synonymous with “barbecue” for those areas that don’t have very strong barbecue traditions.

Also, when visiting these old-school Chicago joints don’t expect a huge selection of sides or anything like that. That style of Chicago barbecue is not like that. It’s meat, a couple pieces of Wonder bread, a tablespoon of mayo-based coleslaw, and an order of fries. You might be lucky and find some okra or something, but generally there’s no corn bread, beans, or anything like that at the aquarium smoker style places like Honey 1, Lem’s, Uncle John’s, etc. Smoque and Honky Tonk will have more of a complete Southern-style barbecue menu. I especially like Smoque’s very spartan coleslaw (just coarsely chopped cabbage and vinegar, basically–it’s very much a love-hate thing for a lot of people.)