Good dishes to test a restaurant's quality?

:nitpick: Its Cao (Tsao). Cao Cao is one of the more interesting characters in Chinese history.

Shouldn’t that be General Zuo’s chicken, after the Qing Dynasty general, Zuo Zongtang?

I’ve found that Mexican restaurants that don’t have tamales on the menu are usually not worth eating at. If they do have tamales, I want to check out the texture of the masa and the proportion of meat (which should be pork chunks or strips) inside.

I hear ya. A short menu is a strong positive indicator in itself.

For ‘American’ Chinese food, a strip mall restaurants sesame chicken is the cheese burger of Chinese food. If they can’t make that without stock ‘zodiac placemat’ ingredients I won’t go back.

When in doubt either the daily special or dishes named for the restaurant are the way to go.

+1 or +2, I’ve lost count. There has been a trend back to places that do a few things well and stick to them. When you see pages and pages of items, you just know it’s all the same goop pressed into different shapes.

I agree 95%, but I’ve been surprised. There’s some Chinese places I’ve been to with impossible long menus with over 100 items that manage to turn out most of those dishes well. I don’t know how they do it.

I second the Aglio e Olio a great peasant dish that says everything about how the Pasta is cooked. I would also chose Risotto not a lot of ingredients to go in, but the result is all in the execution, and the attention paid to creating it.

I always approach “paella” with trepidation. If the restaurant is

  • abroad,
  • not manned by emigrants from Spain at any evident levels,
  • and has a menu not including ensalada mixta or any pasta,
    you will not see me order the paella, I already know it will be bad.
    If it’s abroad and you hear a Gallego waiter curse the Chinese busboy in Spanish, you’re in the right place, but ask the waiter for his favorites: the paella is likely to be in the menu because it’s expected and not because the cook knows how to make it.

Short menus are good, as are offerings of daily menu. Menus which say “thrice-minced prime USDA falda over a bed of freshly-made linguini, flavored with a zesty sauce di pomodoro aux fines herbes” rather than “spaghetti bolognese” - UUUGH! I once stayed in a very expensive hotel in Houston which used three lines and four languages to describe what should have taken two: spaghetti (1) bolognese (2). Yep, inedible.

That seems to be the case all over; even places that smoke their meat frequently don’t do it enough. I mean, what’s the point of smoking a pork butt just enough to barely be able to taste the smoke? Barbecue should be deeply smoky- otherwise it’s just roasted meat.
Anyway, back to the question posed by the OP; if the place is “American food”, then a hamburger is probably my first choice. If it’s “Mexican/Tex-Mex”, then enchiladas or tamales. If it’s “Italian”, then usually something along the lines of Bolognese, or if it’s a higher-end place, then maybe pasta alla amatriciana or carbonara if they have it. Seafood places usually warrant something simple- baked fish, or the like, to try and identify the quality of the fish and its storage and preparation.

Barbecue places… in Texas, it’s obviously the brisket and sausage that I try. Elsewhere, I typically ask what’s the local specialty and try that, so burnt ends in KC, pulled pork in Alabama, etc…

Marietta Diner’s menu.. It’s massive. Have never had a bad meal there.

This is also my test. I will tolerate the pre-packaged croutons and lack of coddled egg, but I get quite disgusted when they cheat on the lettuce. You’re supposed to use only the heart of romaine, which is the pale, tight, crisp leaves in the center. I guess some restaurants either don’t want to toss out the nasty dark green outer leaves (decreases yield, increases food cost %) or simply don’t give a rat’s @#$%^&. Or maybe they don’t know any better. Many, many have been the times when a cook has clearly just chopped up the whole head of romaine and there are plenty of dark, coarse, bitter outer leaves.

My BF is used to it by this point. “How’s the salad”. “The dressing is ok but they cheated on the leaves.” He’s heard it a zillion times.

Interestingly one of the most consistently decent places in this regard is a lunch hole in the wall near my work, a Mexican joint of all places. It isn’t haute cuisine, but it doesn’t trigger my salad rant-o-meter.

Italian: lasagna because it is too much of a pain in the ass to make at home so it should be good if you get it there. The sauce should not be too sweet.

Chinese: an egg roll that should be light and crisp and lo mein that should not be greasy.

Diner: French fries that should be light and not greasy and a burger that should have a good beefy flavor.

Deli: ruben to test the quality of the corned beef and the rye bread.

Southern: fried chicken. If they can’t do that right forget it.

Heck, even in the South, “Barbecue Chicken” means all kinds of different things. Usually, though, it’s one of 2 things:

  1. Chicken cooked in a smoker, slowly. It’s either pulled like pork or served whole.

  2. Chicken cooked slowly over direct coals, mopped with a “barbecue sauce”, that is usually just a thin mop sauce. Always served in large pieces, quarters, or half-chickens.

Most of the time, I don’t order it. I just never know what I’m going to get.

I can count three different definitions of barbecue in Montreal. As others have said, if I invite you over for a barbecue, I’m grilling chicken/sausages/pretty much anything outside. If I go out for barbecue chicken, I’m expecting crispy-skinned rotisserie birds served with piquant gravy on the side. (Quality varies widely, but little Portuguese-owned restaurants are IMHO the best.) Finally, if I want the smoked slow-cooked meat our neighbors to the south enjoy, I’ll look for an American-style barbecue restaurant. A few have popped up in recent years, which I greatly appreciate because it really wasn’t something we could get on a regular basis. We do have a Quebecois tradition (that we stole from northern Africa) called mechoui which involves slowly spit-roasting large joints of meat, especially lamb. But this is generally served only on special occasions and done via catering rather than at fixed locations. You can hire a travelling wagon to make a feast for a large group, or wait until they pull up in your grocery store’s parking lot selling take-out.

Back on topic…

Diner: French fries. If they’re made from frozen, leave and do not go back. So many places do their own excellent fries that to me, anything less is a waste of calories.
Montreal deli: Classic smoked meat sandwich. Can they offer you a choice of lean, medium, or fat? If so, tuck in and enjoy because they know their meat.

xnylder, is Joe Beef as good as I’ve read?

Since it’s on the side-topic of bbq, I’m going to be in Memphis for one night in a couple of weeks and want some good bbq for dinner. Any recommendations?

mexican: chili relleno and the quality of rice
thai: pad thai and tom yum soup
italian: fettucini alfredp or chicken/veal picatta
japanese: unagi don or soft crab roll, udon if they have it
diner:reuben or gyro
chinese: hot and sour soup, crab rangoon, house lo mein

I’m ashamed to say I haven’t actually eaten there yet. (Time and money have been tight lately.) I have heard from several friends that it is excellent. They’ve got a cookbookif you’re interested in seeing specific dishes. They seem to be doing a very successful combination of upscale comfort food and updated bistro cooking.

I agree. I have eaten there many times over many years, and the food is good.