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3 tips to order off a menu at a restaurant you’ve never been to before.

If there’s one skill that I possess that borders close to a superpower, it’s being able to sleep on an airplane.  I once boarded a flight to Australia, took one over the counter sleeping pill at takeoff and woke up when we were walking off the plane.  The second closest skill I have is being able to order optimally at restaurants.

Ordering for people is one of the reasons that I started writing this blog.  It’s very important to me that once I recommend a restaurant or a few dishes that someone enjoys them, which is usually more a curse than a blessing because the default feeling I want someone to have is “omg that was so good” which just makes me kinda happy. If they hated it though, I’m devastated.

how to order at restaurants
No, she is a philistine.

The side effect of this crushing urge to get people to like what I recommend is that I am very good at ordering off menus the first time I eat there with literally no prior notes given to me about what is good.  Which is great, because if you’re eating at some restaurants in Vegas you will need outside help, given their absolutely ridiculously large menus.

how to order at restaurants
Approximate reaction of a first time Lotus of Siam diner.

So here’s my 3 tips on how to order optimally at a restaurant (without ever being there before).

  1. NEVER pick something that you think is going to sell well regardless of how good it is.  At most places, this includes the stereotypical stuff you expect to be there.  Filet mignon at most places, fried rice at most generic chinese or japanese places, pad thai at thai places, chicken parmesan at Italian places.  They’re classic and insanely popular, so the chef there for the most part has to include them on the menu but they are not especially inventive or exciting so they don’t devote that much time to them.  If the chef spends too much time working on them, they may become something that the people who order them (who are generally boring as hell) don’t recognize as what they ordered, so they get pissed off.  So it’s better for them to make it super plain and ordinary and not rock the boat.
  2. In a tourist restaurant (most strip places), ask the server what their worst selling item is.  That’s what you want.  Corporate restaurants work thusly: The worst stuff gets culled fast.  This includes stuff that no one likes and stuff that doesn’t sell.  So if something isn’t selling very well but is still on the menu forever, the chef is FIGHTING for that dish because they really really believe in it.  If that’s the case, that’s definitely what you want to get.  At Julian Serrano at the Aria, I went for the tripe stew after asking 5-6 times for something the server hasn’t sold in months and it was a fantastic dish.  I had to drag that out of her, but it was a great dish.  Sweetbreads fall firmly into this category, because they sell absolutely terribly and they are really delicious at good places
  3. Order something you’d never expect to be on the menu.  I’m not talking about ordering a steak off a chinese menu (that’d be closer to tip 1 status), but if you see a dish containing some sort of absolutely crazy combination or accompaniment, that’s generally something you want to try.  Restaurants try out dishes for months before actually adding them onto their menu, so they will be tested and will almost always work.  And going back to tip 2, the chef will generally be fighting for stuff they think is great.  If you can trust the chef, you can trust the dish.  The pear jalapeno marmalade pizza at Settebello is a great example of this.

Use these three tips and you can avoid the worst and hit the best stuff at restaurants.  Or if you really want, you can just ask me (that’s the best way).

How to order at All-You-Can-Eat sushi restaurants.

Done properly, ordering at an All You Can Eat (AYCE) sushi restaurant in Las Vegas will change the staff from looking at you like this:

But, you know, like, Asian.
But, you know, like, Asian.

To this:

AHHH GOJIRA
AHHH GOJIRA

I’m not saying that you should order a ton of food and I’m certainly not trying to preach to you about how you’re doing it wrong and the only way to eat it is MY WAY… but okay, yeah, I’m kinda doing that.  It annoys me that most Americans think of fried tempura rolls that may not even contain fish (or at least raw fish) as sushi.  The Japanese call those maki rolls and they are a very different kind of thing.  Sushi generally refers to nigiri which is just fish and rice.  It’s impossible to tell actual quality of fish if it’s jumbled up in a roll with a bunch of extremely strong flavors like avocado, cream cheese, and mayonnaise.

Don’t get me wrong; I LOVE Avocado, cream cheese, and mayonnaise.  I generally get a roll when I go out to eat at one of these places.  But none of them should be what makes you think of great sushi.  There are tons of great AYCE places in Vegas, and all of them serve a ton of rolls that are mostly similar but also a little different from every other place in town.  But they also serve some great fish and the quality of that is how you should determine which chef really knows what he’s doing.

If you want to know how I order sushi, here’s what I do:

Sit at the bar.

Order a few appetizers that are unique and look like they’ve put actual thought into them.  Every place has different appetizers and sides and this is how I think I distinguish between different AYCE places.  Oyshi is the one I frequent the most and it has a sweet and spicy pork dish served on a bed of grilled onions that’s probably the best grilled side dish on any of these menus.

If the place isn’t completely slammed, ask the chef to make you nigiri in the quantity you’d like, but tell him to completely decide which fish to serve you.  A lot of chefs in these jobs are bored and have a lot of really cool ideas.  The job mostly doesn’t allow them to be creative.  If you let them decide what to serve you, any good chef will immediately have 4-5 different things they’d love to make you and get your opinion on it.  If the chef refuses or gives you completely boring BS, don’t go back there.  If you like it, tell him it was great and ask for more.

If the place IS slammed and they’re too busy to get creative, order a nice variety of nigiri.  Salmon, yellowtail, tuna, hand rolls, etc.  Sometimes they will have special fish and you could take a look at those too.  Look at the quality of the fish and feel the texture.  It took me years to start to appreciate the really good stuff but the first time I went to Kabuto I was absolutely blown away.  Kabuto is Vegas’ sushi end boss.

Finally, I fill the rest of the empty space inside of me with this:

Salmon belly. Pictured: Plate 1 of 73.
Salmon belly. Pictured: Plate 1 of 73.

Since all the places around town that do AYCE sushi have pretty much the same price, same menu, and similar service, it really comes down to what you enjoy and if anything is closer to you.  But if you’re the kind of person who gets a few fried rolls and posts on yelp about how high the quality is, I really implore you to try ordering your own little tasting menu and trying to level up your palate.  The end boss is waiting.