Imagine yourself sitting in a little restaurant, or maybe its more of a bar. Let's just say it's a pub.
You're having a gander at the menu, and gosh darn it if you can't read a thing on it. Well, obviously you're in another country! And one that doesn't have English as its first language to boot! Well aren't you in a pickle?
You're hungry, and the waiter is on his way to take your order. You've already put in your drink order for a local beer, so its time to make a decision. What do you do?
I'll tell you what I did in a little bar called the Monkey Wrench in Nagasaki, Japan. I asked the waiter. He was Japanese, but spoke a little English, and with some clever use of hand gesturing, I managed to get him to tell me his favorite thing on the menu. He pointed at an item on the menu, the name of which looked exactly the same as everything else on the menu.
He said "Monkey Burger" and I looked at him with a very questioning look.
Pause and process that for a moment. At this point I've been in Japan for less than a week, and I have managed to learn how to say please and ask where the bathroom is, which brings my total mastery of the Japanese language up to four phrases.
I've heard horror stories about Asian cuisine and the distinct possibility of something... dogged being put in front of me.
Before I could bring myself to ask, he said Egg Burger. I cannot stand eggs, but once I knew I wasn't going find out how tender Curious George might be, I said "Kudasai, Toilay wa doko desuka," meaning, "Please. Where is the bathroom?"
As it turns out that waiter also owned the Monkey Wrench. His name was Kazu and he loved the American students who always manage to find their way into his little pub on the edge of downtown. A few minutes later he brought me out a big burger with bacon, cheese, lettuce, BBQ sauce and a fried egg. Traditionally, I hate eggs. Scrambled, Sunny Side, in a basket – it's all terrible.
But I'll tell you what, I loved that burger. I could taste the egg and everything, but something about the fried-ness of the egg really set off the burger and the BBQ sauce.
If that menu had been in English, I absolutely never would have ordered a burger with an egg on it.
So sure, anyone who has studied abroad before will tell you to order something new and unusual for your palate at a restaurant. That's not terrible advice, but it's puddle deep.
Ask the waiter what he would order for an American friend. This is better than finding something you've never had before and ordering it randomly for three reasons:
First, some food isn't good. Call me a tourist or an ineffective traveler, but I honestly didn't care for squid once out of the like eight times I'd tried it. That's part of life, sometimes you don't like the food, but your odds improve of having something good when you seek some advice.
Second, you engage the waiter in actual conversation. By asking them a question they don't expect, you give them permission to talk to you. They are curious too, so be the one that opens the door.
Third, more often than not, the waiter will tell you a restaurant special, or a particular dish that is traditional for either that country, or even better, that region of that country. If you don't agree with me, consider for a moment if the U.S. had a guest, and they randomly walked into Sunspot for a nice dinner. How bad would it be if they didn't get the Rattlesnake Pasta?
And if you've never had Rattlesnake Pasta before, stop reading this column.
Nate Talbot is a senior in mechanical engineering. He can be reached at email@example.com.