Why I Don't Expect Good Service in Asian Restaurants

Categories: In the Trenches

pho ga dakao svc.jpg
Photo by Mai Pham
I got my order at Pho Ga Dakao in record time. I focus on the food there, not the service.
Last week, as I was reading Katharine Shilcutt's review of Mai's downtown, one of the things that struck me as odd was the fact that she seemed to make a big to-do about the poor service, especially when I read: "But our service was unfriendly and hasty, as if the waitress couldn't wait to turn our table and get us the hell out of there."

Interestingly enough, I'd just visited Pho Ga Dakao a few days prior, a restaurant where she didn't mention poor service in her review. I recalled the service I'd received there and it was almost the exact description of hers at Mai's. To me, however, I didn't take hasty as poor service, or unsmiling as unfriendly; it's just the way things are at Asian restaurants, where the focus is more on food than service.

Generally, someone will come to your table, flip a notepad, ask you what you want, leave, come back with food, and maybe, if you're at one of those places that does it, bring the check to your table when you ask them to. At many places, like at Pho Ga Dakao, they won't bring a check to the table. When you finish eating, you walk up to the counter and pay. At Taiwanese and Chinese places in Chinatown, like Yummy Kitchen or San Dong, they are moving away from a service model altogether, and making everything self-serve.

I explained this in the Mai's review comments section as basically a cultural custom. It's a general known fact: you don't tip your waiters in China, and in other Asian countries. It's either no tip or very little, say five to ten percent. The "tipping culture," where food service people get paid little and rely on tips for a living, does not exist in these Asian countries. The service job therefore becomes simply that, a job that you work to get done.

As a result, service is brisk, matter-of-fact. There's generally no upselling, no "would you like a coffee or would you like some dessert?" Patrons don't linger over multi-course meals for hours. You can get a full 10-course Chinese banquet and people will dig in quickly and get the eating part over with. The service is the same: Quick, expedient. It has nothing to do with the type of patron you are or what your wearing, or even if you're a regular.

In fact, my measure of good service in an Asian restaurant is how quickly someone will acknowledge me, take my order, and bring my food out, because, for me, someone who's slow doesn't care what they're doing. It's the people who are fast and get the food quickly that take pride in their work, that are trying to do a good job. At Tan Tan, they strive for good service and what do I get? Before I have even finished my bowl of wonton soup, someone has already cleared it away. I speak as someone of Vietnamese heritage, who has travelled to Vietnam, Thailand, mainland China and Hong Kong. Ask any person who lives in these countries or has been and I'm sure they'll agree.

Just yesterday, I asked a Chinese friend for the sake of conversion: "Do you expect good service in an Asian restaurant?" My friend, who had just gotten back from a trip to Hong Kong, China, and Macau, replied, laughingly, "Hell, no."

So here's my position on service in your typical, run-of-the-mill, less-than-$10-a-plate Chinatown restaurant, whether it be Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Malaysian, Singaporean, and so on: Don't go in expecting good service in the way that you would get in an American establishment. Just be happy when you get your food quickly and they don't make you wait. If they smile and they're friendly, give them bonus points, but if they don't, try not to take it as rudeness, because they're not purposely being rude; it's just status quo.



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Location Info

Mai's Restaurant

3403 Milam, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

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97 comments
Avenusj
Avenusj

You should check out Kim Son Cafe in the Woodlands. They have delicious Vietnamese, Chinese, and Japanese cuisine. I work there. And the restaurant has been open for a little over a month. I was lucky enough to start before the grand opening. The La family and management put in 3 weeks of great customer related training prior to the opening. I have never worked in a restaurant that put so much emphasis in customer satisfaction while still maintaining happy co-workers/employees. There are more locations; Memorial and Edlridge, 

http://www.kimsoncafe.com/home.... Check us out : )

HoustonGuy
HoustonGuy

It's always smart to know your market when operating a business. In the USA, we enjoy "service".

T.L. Hamilton
T.L. Hamilton

I used to live off the tips I made waiting tables at a Chinese food place. I cringed while reading this thinking of all the servers who will now get stiffed on tips after people read this article. What a shame.

Tracy Nguyen
Tracy Nguyen

I agree with the quick service because its most likely the culture BUT I would also appreciate a bit of friendliness as you're being "quick" to serve me. This is a HUGE problem with asian restaurants. Funny thing is that they treat their Anglo costumers waaayyy better than their own. Believe me all you Anglos, you're getting the better service. LOL. Ask anybody. It's true. Hahaha.

Jasonofthesea
Jasonofthesea

"it's just the way things are at Asian restaurants, where the focus is more on food than service." - unacceptable.  Also, being a Texan, I really don't care how things are done anywhere else - these restaurants are in Houston, where we expect good service.  I guess I do have the opportunity to reflect the service in the tip.  I just hate doing that, regardless of how bad the experience was.  My time in the trenches won't allow me to stiff a server.

I spend my money in places where both quality of food and service are valued.

Hank
Hank

I always get wonderful service at Cafe Chino. The owner,Eddie Chan, works the floor and his staff is helpful, kind and most accommodating.Plus, the food is outstandingly delicious.

love foreign foods
love foreign foods

I know this will sound tacky, but has anyone else experienced "NO" service in Korean restaurants in Houston?  My husband and I have eaten at every ethnic restaurant in Houston (and elsewhere, we travel extensively), but the only Korean place in Houston that ever was friendly to us was Green Pine Tree (no longer in business, unfortunately)  We've  walked out of at least 3 Korean places who simply ignored us.  Usually, we were the only Caucasians in the place......

Eric S
Eric S

On Sunday at Pho Binh trailer, my group was lingering over our empty bowls. A waiter walked up and told us they needed the table; we had to go. We just shrugged our shoulders, got up, paid our check and headed home. No complaints - it was delicious as usual, and they were slammed. 

Cmetz2468
Cmetz2468

You Might Give Some Serious Thought to Thanking Your Lucky Stars You're in Texas

cmetz

SirRon
SirRon

After seeing the title, I can't be the only one that was a little excited about playing some "Is it racist" down here in the comment section.

At the moment, I'm a little disappointed in you monkeys.

Loon
Loon

Inner loop people problems. 

Though I guess it's a good thing I tried pho at Pho Binh and not Mai's

JK
JK

57 posts? I can't believe so many people care so much about rude asians. If i knew this would happen, i'd have disregarded all of you a lot sooner.

Fudatskee
Fudatskee

if u want good service, go to a french or italian restaurant.  We asians are cheap, hence..no service 4 u! Money money money..cash only!!

Philanderingnellie
Philanderingnellie

I was at the New Pho Tan Loc last weekend. The waiter was animated and had our table cracking up a couple times with his repartee (does anyone say repartee anymore?). Guess that's another exception.

Hoodoo2222
Hoodoo2222

When Mai ran the place she spoke to me everytime I went. Either at the door when I walked in or at the table after my meal. Some of the servers were were more friendly than others. I also had no problem dining alone in the dining room. I haven't been back since they reopened but I am looking forward to returning.

SirRon
SirRon

Wow! Talk about different standards and tolerances... I'm pretty sure if Shilcutt had written this post, then trolls would have come running out of their holes with some finger wagging and really personal attacks.

I wag my finger at you, finger waggers.

garage door opener
garage door opener

are you talking about the professional poker player, Minh Nguyen?

Albert Nurick
Albert Nurick

Interesting.  One key point:  We're in America.  If you're not catering to an exclusively Asian clientele who is familiar with (and agrees with) the culture of lousy service, you're just alienating customers who expect at least decent service.  And the savvy Asian restaurateur will realize that by offering great service his restaurant will stand out from the pack.

Fortunately, I've been to plenty of Asian restaurants that have fantastic service (Morningside Thai is a shining example)  So apparently there is hope.

Francesco Orodinapoli
Francesco Orodinapoli

And that brings up the question of tipping once more. An Asian friend told me once that many times in the more budget priced Chinese restaurants on Bellaire, the staff doesn't see the tip, that it is pocketed by the owners and for that reason he seldom tips more than 10%. I certainly don't mind tipping but if it isn't expected (that is, Asian diners don't tip) I would love to put some money toward more food.

Early Cuyler
Early Cuyler

Why would anyone expect good service anywhere these days?  I remember when there was a post on the EOW blog some time ago about the decline of service in restaurants these days.  I said it then, and I will say it again, considering that most people that work in restaurants are of an age where they were taught that nothing is their fault, and the world owes them, why on earth would you expect good service?  I am more surprised when I receive good service than when I don't.  

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

In no way does this article endorse bad tipping. What I said is that the culture in Asia is not to tip. That being said, what type of Chinese restaurant did you work in? Was it one in the heart of Chinatown where most dishes cost $5-8 on average, or was it more of a large Chinese restaurant that did banquets and such? 

Eric S
Eric S

I've only been there a couple times, but the Korean Bar-B-Q restaurant on El Dorado near Clear Lake has always had very friendly service. It's a small, family owned place, and they genuinely seem to care about their customers. I'm not an expert on what constitutes good Korean food, but I've liked everything I've tried there. Worth checking out if you're down in that part of town.

BCleever
BCleever

Yes, it was bait SirRon. Duh. But the argument as she makes it, both ways, makes no sense at all. But even a caveman knows that.

Fiorellofellow
Fiorellofellow

That's silly. As someone else noted, Europe is not a tipping economy either. Yet, you are claiming that the service is better in these European restaurants. Why would that be?

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

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Clairedelune
Clairedelune

Great place, that, and a very gay waiter in both senses of the word; he had our table cracking up as well, although I don't know what he said, as he didn't speak much English and I was with a table of Vietnamese.

Thought that service went above and beyond.

Bonethuggerybuggery
Bonethuggerybuggery

Interesting image.

Albert standing Baron von Steuben like before a troupe of poor coolies who've been suddenly drafted into his training seminar: "Execute It! Restaurant Service that Will Differentiate Your Asian Restaurant"

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

I have no idea what happens to the tips in these restaurants, but I usually leave cash, because I've heard, too, that when you leave a tip on credit card, it doesn't always get to the server.

Vonroach
Vonroach

Sounds like an excuse to be cheap, to me.

Bingthecheery
Bingthecheery

An Asian friend told me once that many times in the more budget priced Chinese restaurants on Bellaire, the waitstaff has been smuggled into the country by snakeheads, and are kept in boxes in nearby apartments. He said that they need the tips to buy their freedom, and asked me to be slightly more generous than normal after receiving good service.

Jalapeno
Jalapeno

So, yeah, someone tell us?  Do these folks get $2.15/hour or whatever the rate is now plus tips?  Or do they make minimum wage and get no tip?  That's information we need to know!

Wyatt
Wyatt

I read this in Andy Rooney's voice, made me aroused

SirRon
SirRon

Why do tips really matter in this conversation? If I go to Taco Bell and the service sucks, I don't go back to that store. If my sandwich artist blows at Subway, I find a new Subway to get sandwiches from. Getting "waited" on means nothing to me (I've never had a servant, so I don't know what that's like). However, being prompt, not screwing up my order, and caring about my business means everything. I don't care if you are purple, from Tatooine, or need my money to survive because your boss pays you a wage under the poverty level, if you want more than the sticker price you have to be better than average.

Once this discussion went any further than "it's not bad service, it's a cultural difference," it lost all the thought-provocative-ness

Go ahead. Hate.

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

Not at all. It's almost as if you need to be Asian to understand my point. Sigh.

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

Isn't France known for having rude French waiters? Here in the US, the French restaurants are usually upscale restaurants. High dollars = high tips = better service.

Albert Nurick
Albert Nurick

Pfft.  It's the 21st century.  I'd offer it as an on-line e-learning course.  But I think the Baron von Steuben persona has win written all over it.

Early Cuyler
Early Cuyler

That is hilarious Wyatt, seriously.  Have you seen the footage they keep showing where they are interviewing a kid at the Occupy Wall Street who is passionately denouncing corporate America to the point of being overwhelmed, all the while holding a Taco Bell bag in one hand, and a Starbuck's cup in the other?  Kind of hard to take that generation seriously.

SirRon
SirRon

Yeah, I thought that is the point down here. If someone tells me otherwise, I'm outta here.

edit: {/} :)

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

SirRon, you just like being divisive. :)

anon07
anon07

I live in France, and its not usually the case outside of Paris. In smaller cities you'll most likely have nice, albeit slow, waiters.

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

I googled "rude french waiters" and guess what the results turned up? The second listing was an article about french culture and customs: http://www.myparistrips.com/fr...This is my point about the Asian restaurants, they are cultural customs, and I gave tipping as an example as one of the reasons why they are the way they are. When you bring other countries in Europe into the mix, you are talking about their culture and customs. My friend Alexis, who is of Chinese decent, but American raised, and who has travelled extensively, explained it like this: "For better or worse, that standards of service are simply different in American and Asian restaurants, and for that matter, European restaurants. The tipping culture certainly is a factor."

Clairedelune
Clairedelune

No, France is known for having rude French. What about Italy and Germany or Spain?

Bonethuggerybuggery
Bonethuggerybuggery

The thigh-high black leather boots and assless chaps are sorta a giveaway ; )

garage door opener
garage door opener

what is the point of all the Occupy Wall Street crap, exactly? 

Edithbunker
Edithbunker

Oh I know. I know. Man can't even get decent service anymore when he steps out for a meal. What's with this spoiled generation who wait on us and think they deserve a tip?

Yourdaddysdaddysays
Yourdaddysdaddysays

Yeah! All those protesters are dirty, smelly, lazy college kids. And they've all been taught by their parents and the mainstream media to expect everything just given to them.

Early Cuyler
Early Cuyler

You know anyone in college right now?  Good place to look first.

Browningwm
Browningwm

OK, we take your point. He should be speaking more specifically about the financial sector, denouncing them for exploding the economy. It wasn't Starbuck's or Taco Bell.

Where do get the idea that people are taught that the world owes them everything? And nothing is their fault? That sounds like more propaganda.

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