There are many adventures to be had when one does not know either the language nor the written representation of words, and that happened to us almost daily when we were in China this summer. One way to approach such a situation is to play it completely safe--eat at the restaurant in your Western hotel and while you will pay a high price for your meal and you may not get the very best representation of the regional cuisine, you will be unlikely to get any of the three things that I very much wanted to avoid on my first trip to China--blood, intestines, and feet. I am sure those all have delicious renditions and I might very much enjoy them someday, but I wanted my first trip to be filled with food that I liked and hoped that I could make at home some day. To come home with good memories and maybe a little bit of inspiration.
Mission accomplished (when you set the bar low enough, you are more likely to be satisfied). We had a phrasebook, a dictionary, and I had the concierge at our hotel write out the symbols for chicken, beef, pork, and lamb so that we would be able to either figure it out for ourselves, or use the universal method for last resort communication--pointing. The concierge was very skeptical that we would be successful, but he underestimated our love of spicy food and the willingness of his people to help non-Han people get food that they would enjoy. We were also aided by the custom of the waitress seating you and then waiting at your table until you are ready to order--we quizzed her, and anyone who was willing to help, and almost always got something that we recognized, and often exactly what we were looking for. menus with pictures were better than those without, and that is where I would recommend starting, but we had outstanding food at local restaurants that often cost under $10 a person.