Illustration by Julia Terbrock
Illustration by Julia Terbrock

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Mohinga, seen hang, pozole, sarma, tlayuda, mentaiko, chermoula, muhammara, kajmak, natto—menus across the District feature these dishes or ingredients. You’re not alone if you haven’t heard of any or all of them. 

Chefs and operators have plenty to consider when writing their menus, starting with how to straddle the line between staying true to their cultures and alienating diners who are unfamiliar with their cuisines. Some eaters don’t mind if meals double as education, while others aren’t necessarily looking to be enlightened. 

Chief among the considerations is language and word choice—how much to describe, transcribe, and transliterate—and why. Take the word lumpia, for example. Do most people recognize it, or do the “Filipino spring rolls” still need a lengthy description or imperfect comparison to a more common food for diners to understand what they’re ordering?

At odds with the goal of coaxing Washingtonians into ordering new foods is the pressure to produce a clear menu. A menu doesn’t just convey a restaurant’s vibe and vision. From a business perspective, it’s a lifeline. An overcomplicated menu that doesn’t effectively communicate what a chef is serving can impact a restaurant’s bottom line and intimidate diners.

“We all have different ethos, but share that we are there to sell food and drink,” says Simone Jacobson, who co-owns Burmese restaurant Thamee with her mother, Jocelyn Law-Yone. “In the event that something is preventing or hindering or inhibiting you from selling food and drink, then as a business that’s something you have to look at.” 

Jacobson and operators of Middle Eastern, Balkan, Lao, Japanese, and Oaxacan restaurants shared how they use their menus to find a sweet spot between sending diners to school and showing them a good time with a few lessons along the way. Each have strategies to make their menus more approachable, from leaning on staff to make menu descriptions come alive to adopting prix fixe formats to lessen the risk of trying something new. 

These Decisions Are Most Acute For Restaurants Introducing New Cuisines to a City

Thamee opened on H Street NE in May 2019. At the time, only two Burmese restaurants—Georgetown fast-casual salad spot Bandoola Bowl and Burmese bodega Toli Moli in Union Market—were open in D.C. proper.

When designing the menu Jacobson first considered the restaurant’s audience. “We don’t live in a Burmese enclave,” she says. The restaurant sits across the street from Atlas Performing Arts Center. “We get a lot of patrons who come from the theater. Maybe they didn’t think about eating Burmese food but ended up here. I have to be mindful of that. Maybe they didn’t come for a lesson. Maybe they came for a quick meal before a show.” 

Jacobson looked to Filipino hotspot Bad Saint in Columbia Heights for inspiration to see how much Tagalog they incorporated. Then she inspected Burmese restaurant menus across the country and around the world. 

The result is a menu with only the word thamee written in Burmese. Given the limited real estate on a sheet of paper, Jacobson didn’t believe the restaurant would attract a big enough population of non-English speaking people from Myanmar to warrant using both scripts. Instead, Thamee transliterated the names of Burmese dishes with strong cultural significance including mohinga, a traditional breakfast dish of stewed catfish over rice noodles, and lahpet thoke, a pickled tea leaf salad. 

She hopes guests feel comfortable asking questions. “This is not a class,” she says. “You don’t need to pronounce it to order it. We’re going to help you. We’re not here to make fun of you or shame you … Maybe you walk away knowing one more Burmese word or maybe you don’t and that’s OK.” 

Even the name Thamee, pronounced like “tummy with a ‘th’ in front,’” is a conversation starter. Nine out of 10 people who come through the doors ask how to pronounce it. “My mom was worried if it would be difficult for people to say or hinder our success,” Jacobson says. 

What you won’t find on Thamee’s menu is any comparisons to Western dishes. Jacobson finds them misleading if a dish has its own “history, culture, and legacy.” “If you called spaghetti and meatballs ramen without broth it would be absurd,” she explains. “People need to reverse [the] colonial mentality to see its absurdity. Would you call a bowl of oatmeal congee but sweet?” 

When Laos in Town opened in NoMa in April 2019, Thip Khao and Sabydee were the only places in D.C. proper specializing in Lao cuisine; Hanumanh opened a month later. Owner Nick Ongsangkoon agrees that if a dish or ingredient has cultural significance it should be named to give it greater exposure. 

He thought about comparing one of his restaurant’s signature dishes to beef jerky. Instead, he used the Lao transliteration of seen hang coupled with a description: “Flash-fried hanger steak strip that has been marinated overnight. Served with Sriracha dipping sauce. Pairs well with a cold Laotian beer.” It’s more vivid, and Ongsangkoon, who’s Thai, hopes those who have traveled to Laos will remember trying the street food at markets. 

Beyond just using Lao words in his menu, Ongsangkoon also likes to include brief anecdotes about when and how dishes are consumed. Order khao poon pla, for example, and learn that the fish curry noodle soup is served at Lao weddings. “We try to showcase Lao culture and pass it onto the customer,” he says. “Of course [diners] come for the food, but we like helping them understand the big picture.” 

Even Established Restaurants Scrutinize Word Choice

Restaurants aren’t solely responsible for teaching Americans new food vocabulary. Food writing, travel, community organizations, cooking classes, and TV shows also play a role.

Daisuke Utagawa, who has been working in Japanese restaurants in the U.S. since 1983, has watched Japanese words like “umami” and “yuzu” become mainstream among his patrons. “When I started running Sushiko, I started talking about umami,” he says. “People were like, ‘What is that?’” One thought he invented the word. “I can’t find the English equivalent. People call it ‘savoriness,’ but that’s not exact. Now it’s such a widely used term that it’s even used with burgers.” 

Still, the restaurateur says he still grapples with balancing “being snobby” by using too many esoteric terms and being overly reductive or using a description that might turn squeamish diners off. 

With his Daikaya Group partners, Utagawa recently opened Tonari, a “wafu” or Japanese-style pasta and pizza restaurant in Chinatown that serves natto bolognese. Its menu describes the dish as pappardelle with beef, pork, red wine, mirepoix, natto, garlic, tomato, and sake. If diners don’t know what natto is, they have to  Google or ask. “If you describe natto it doesn’t sound that good,” Utagawa explains. The pungent, sticky, fermented soybeans are a love-it-or-hate-it food, even in Japan.

Ambar owner Ivan Iricanin chose not to describe the Serbian word kajmak on his menu for similar reasons. “It’s a milk curd spread, but I don’t want to order a milk curd spread,” he jokes. “I can explain how it’s made, but that doesn’t sound good either.” (The Barracks Row location of the Balkan restaurant is closed for renovation; the Clarendon outpost remains open.)

He describes the product as somewhere between butter and mozzarella. It’s served with bread and toppings like smoked salmon and mushrooms. “Because it opens up a new category [of food], it’s good to call it what it is,” Iricanin says.

Other dishes on the Ambar menu are written in English and non-Cyrillic Serbian. “For the items that were very traditional we went that route,” Iricanin says. Next to “stuffed sour cabbage” it says “sarma.” 

“We probably serve 2,000 to 3,000 people per week and we’ve been there for seven years,” he continues. “From when we opened to now, it’s a huge difference. We have a lot of regulars. When they come in they’re trying to say things in Serbian like, ‘Give me that sarma!’” 

Iricanan says he relies on servers and managers to talk up traditional dishes. “We all use our grandmothers as an excuse to tell a story,” he says. “People who’ve been to the Balkans will say, ‘Hey, sarma sarma,’ and people who haven’t will have clear direction about what they’re ordering.”

Servers and Other Staff Play a Vital Role  in Helping Guests Navigate Menus

Some restaurateurs, including Maydan’s Rose Previte, strategically use words diners aren’t likely to recognize on menus to prompt them to engage with servers. To pull it off, restaurants must invest time and resources to empower staff members to sell dishes that may or may not be new to them. 

“We have rigorous training because there are a lot of things servers are not familiar with and guests aren’t familiar with—not to mention just understanding the region,” Previte says. “We’re trying to convey family, food, and migration patterns. A lot of food can be explained through actual history.” 

Before opening Maydan off 14th Street NW, Previte and the opening chefs toured the Middle East. When it came time to write the menu they elected to use “whatever word we were taught in whatever country we were in” since dish names and ingredients can vary.

“One of the things I train the staff on is if you don’t know, say you don’t know,” Previte says. “There’s a chance your table is the former ambassador to Morocco. I’ve had servers get called out before.” 

Previte also prefers servers not correct diners’ pronunciation attempts, though they can read an order back to ensure they’ve understood it. “They’re very humble about having had to learn themselves,” she says. “There’s empathy for the guest.” Finally, she says, you have to read the table. “If they want to know all the things, you have that arsenal. If they don’t, leave them alone.” 

A Prix Fixe Format Can Make Menus More Approachable

Even at restaurants that serve cuisines more familiar to diners in D.C., restaurateurs have to broaden their appeal. Two adopted similar strategies to make their menus more approachable. 

At Ambar, Iricanin introduced several fixed price “Balkan Experience,” options, including one with unlimited small plates and drinks for $49 per person before tax and tip. “With limitless dining, diners are more willing to experiment,” he says. They could discover something they’d order again or learn a dish isn’t for them without the risk of committing to the price of an entrée. 

In addition to its a la carte menu, Espita Mezcaleria launched a three-course “precio fijo” option last year that follows the Restaurant Week format year round. It includes an appetizer, entrée, and dessert for $35. “It takes away the fear of dishes diners don’t understand how to approach,” says co-owner Josh Phillips. He points to the tlayuda—the Oaxacan bar snack that stacks lamb barbacoa, beans, and cheese atop a crispy tortilla smeared with pork lard called asiento. “You’ve already spent $35—now these are no longer a risk.” 

Orders at the Shaw Oaxacan restaurant diversified immediately and check averages shot up. “We used to sell three times the tacos than we do recently,” Phillips says. People were ordering trios of street tacos as entrées and leaving hungry even though they’re categorized as appetizers. Philips probed his customers about it. “The answer is always a version of: ‘I hate to admit this, but I didn’t understand any of these things. Tacos were safe.’” 

Like Jacobson, Phillips always assesses his restaurant’s audience. “Being near the convention center means we’re not always serving Washingtonians,” he says. The people streaming out of conferences in search of a meal “all have different backgrounds, educational levels, and political biases,” according to Phillips. “We have to structure our menu in a way to make it friendly to people who are familiar with Mexican food and people who are not.” 

You Can’t Please Everyone

Phillips presumes most of the Spanish words on Espita’s menu aren’t intimidating—pozole, quesadilla, tacos, mole, and ceviche have become widely used culinary terms. Mostly English descriptions are there to help. But not all diners feel at ease dining at Espita. Some post online reviews or say during a meal that it’s difficult to dine when the menu isn’t entirely in English. 

“We get it fairly regularly in person,” Phillips says. “I offer myself to guide them through the menu.” 

“The best way to create a regular is to have a problem,” he says, alluding to an idea from restaurateur Danny Meyer’s book Setting the Table. “Not understanding the menu is a problem that gives me the opportunity to give outstanding hospitality.” 

One recent two-star OpenTable review that said there is “not much info on the menu if you don’t speak Spanish” sent a steaming Phillips on a Facebook rant.

“What is difficult about ‘Three Day Mole Negro’? Should it be called ‘Black Sauce That Takes Three Days To Make’?

Perhaps ‘Taco’ should be ‘Round Bread We Tried To Make Out Of Corn, But It Didn’t Rise, So We Put Pork Or Shrimp In It With Some Spicy Vegetable Sauce’?

Or maybe ‘Ceviche’ should be ‘Raw-ish Fish With Some Pretty Shit In A Bowl’? Or ‘Like sushi, but not at all like sushi…’?”

He signed off by wishing more diners were “willing to talk to a server and have a sense of adventure.”