Six Rules for Dining Out
April 12, 2012 8:18 PM   Subscribe

How a frugal economist finds the perfect lunch. Tyler Cowen's Ethnic Dining Guide: Some places you must try. How to find good deals when food shopping for home. How to find the best food in a foreign city.
posted by mosessis (69 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
Tyler Cowen is brilliant.
posted by dfriedman at 8:27 PM on April 12, 2012


. Ask people who are geographically mobile in their professions and thus accustomed to eating out and collecting information about food.

That's good advice.
posted by Miko at 8:34 PM on April 12, 2012


Get online and write something along the lines of, "hey guys, I just had the absolute best chicken rice at [restaurant x] in Singapore, no questions asked, hands down, everything else pales in comparison," then sit back and enjoy the show as the internet foodie elite each jump into the fray to defend their own picks to the death.

This is possibly the best idea ever. Better than agriculture.
posted by saturday_morning at 8:41 PM on April 12, 2012 [19 favorites]


They told me they were taking me to an “average” Thai place. I insisted they let me “speak sternly” to the waitress. It took a few rounds, some back and forth, and some visits from the kitchen. I told everyone that we were “serious eaters” and had been to Thailand and wanted the food “Thai style” and that I wanted their best dishes. I refused to order anything but simply repeated these instructions. They told me this would require an adjustment, but eventually it came, a meal for five people, hand-cooked by the chef. It was one of the very best Thai meals I’ve eaten in this area -- ever
Couldn't he taste the spit?
posted by unliteral at 8:50 PM on April 12, 2012 [27 favorites]


Nice to see Somerville MA gets a shout-out. Petsi Pie is there!
posted by of strange foe at 9:08 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


At a fancy restaurant, the menu is well thought-out. The kitchen’s time and attention are scarce. An item won’t be on the menu unless there is a good reason for its presence. If it sounds bad, it probably tastes especially good.

I don't understand the reasoning here. Yes, the item is on the menu for a reason. Yes, two possible reasons are "it tastes good" and "it's a dish people are familiar with or which has an appetizing name." But there are lots of other reasons, so I don't see why the failure of reason 2 should make reason 1 substantially more likely to be correct. If he has some experience ordering crappy-sounding dishes and having them be great, he should tell us!
posted by escabeche at 9:20 PM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm sympathetic, though -- I tend to look for places to eat in the same way Cowen does, privileging the authentic-looking ethnic place in the dingy strip mall, trolling Chowhound for recommendations from people who seem to know what they're talking about, etc etc.

What makes it more fun is recognizing that it's just a game -- it is fun to think of oneself as having found "the best Laotian place in town" but of course in a blind taste test there's no way I'd be able to distinguish the food at the place I consider "best" from a place I consider "fake and bad." It's not so much about food, but about the self-identification as a person who cares about food! Knowing this lowers the stakes and makes the food taste much better.
posted by escabeche at 9:30 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Roughly speaking: a dish can only be on the menu if the sum of how good it tastes (which attracts repeat business) and how good it sounds on the menu (which attracts first-timers) exceeds some threshold. If the second of these is smaller, then conditional on the fact that the sum still exceeds the threshold, the first has larger conditional expectation.

(I should be working.)
posted by madcaptenor at 9:32 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Times reviewed Cowen's book, too.

Representative quote: "Truisms are sprinkled like whatever the opposite of salt is."
posted by asterix at 9:35 PM on April 12, 2012 [8 favorites]


I went to high school with a girl whose immigrant parents owned an authentic (not-Americanized food) Chinese restaurant. One year we had a field trip to a museum not far from her parents' restaurant, so we had lunch there.

If you want to have the best Chinese food you will ever have in your life, go with the owners' daughter's teacher. Oh my Lord. Dish after dish. Fantastically-carved carrots. Everything made to the height of the chef's skill and delivered by mom herself. Everyone else in the restaurant thought our teacher was ... Some kind of creepy dignitary, I guess, who had a teenaged entourage. Like, I have seen governors and senators at galas, and that had nothing on the level of service and respect for our teacher at this little restaurant that day, and I have never, ever seen such a quantity of dishes served, each spectacular.

I learned three important cultural lessons that day! First, I really like traditional Chinese food! Not just americanized take-out. Second, they are not kidding even a little about honoring teachers in their culture. And third, I will never, ever have such a good meal again unless I can contrive to teach a restauranteur's child myself.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:58 PM on April 12, 2012 [17 favorites]


Roughly speaking: a dish can only be on the menu if the sum of how good it tastes (which attracts repeat business) and how good it sounds on the menu (which attracts first-timers) exceeds some threshold

But here aren't you making the same assumption that Cowen is, that these are the only two factors in determining what's on the menu?
posted by escabeche at 10:01 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Adding to the "worst sounding dish" theory: if something on a regular menu sounds way out of the ordinary and unlike even the rest of the menu, there's a better than average chance that it's something the chef is particularly proud of. Every restaurant has to serve the steak dish, the chicken dish, the vegetarian dish, etc. If you see a menu item attempting to move beyond the dishes that 90% of diners are either happy or just fine with, it would make good sense that it would be a stand-out.
posted by Gilbert at 10:09 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Good lord, that Thai story. What an entitled douche, I'm sure the chef was just falling over her or himself for the exalted honour of cooking something off-menu and "authentic" for the up-themselves bastards, screw the other diners, the menu, their time etc. Honestly, the mentality behind such a request doesn't display what its author thinks it does.

More broadly: At a fancy restaurant, the menu is well thought-out. The kitchen’s time and attention are scarce. An item won’t be on the menu unless there is a good reason for its presence. If it sounds bad, it probably tastes especially good.

I agree that a menu is well thought out, but for an economist dude doesn't bring his vocation to the kitchen. An item won't be on the menu unless:
1. Its ingredients can be bought cheaply and sold expensively.
2. It can be either extensively prepped beforehand, or thrown together quickly with little maintenance.
3. It will appeal to a large portion of the customer-base - who may have terrible taste for all you know.

The presence of something on a menu indicates that there is demand in having it and profit to be made in selling it. Deliciousness is merely one factor that can influence these things.
posted by smoke at 10:12 PM on April 12, 2012 [11 favorites]


The Times published a positive profile as well as a critical review. (The correction at the bottom of the first piece is very funny. Do they write Times articles on iPhones now?)

I really enjoyed the critical review. I thought it was eviscerating. I like Cowen quite a bit, but this really does sound like noodling around. A little too Freakanomics-ish or Steven Landsburg-ish.

I disagree with the idea that you should order bad-sounding things because they wouldn't be on the menu if they weren't good. Bad-sounding things are sometimes bad and kept on the menu because they are ordered by people who assume that they wouldn't be on the menu if they weren't good. All sorts of really bizarre menu items get a place on the menu just because people like to try ordering bizarre items. If the food really were especially tasty, you'd expect to see it on more menus. I usually order the weird thing because I value the adventure, but I do think it's more likely than not that it'll be less tasty than other things on the menu.
posted by painquale at 10:14 PM on April 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


I love how now anything with the patina of economics is supposed to be edgy and fresh. It's like, "These guys pretty much ruined the world, now watch them ruin everything else!"
posted by threeants at 10:18 PM on April 12, 2012 [25 favorites]


Good lord, that Thai story. What an entitled douche, I'm sure the chef was just falling over her or himself for the exalted honour of cooking something off-menu and "authentic" for the up-themselves bastards, screw the other diners, the menu, their time etc. Honestly, the mentality behind such a request doesn't display what its author thinks it does.

I've had good results by just asking for the "real" sauce on the side. I usually get some chili-fish sauce concoction and dump it over my pad thai and I'm good. I don't really like bothering people too much though I guess.

I love some strip mall Asian food and food carts, but I don't get the impression that Cowan actually loves food or cares about it as an aesthetic experience. Of course he doesn't think having fun is important. It's all a game to find the most "authentic" in the city, even if it means alienating everyone.

And I often wonder why economists, who pride themselves on being so quantitative and factually rigorous, get away with saying things that just seem completely and totally anecdotal like to avoid restaurants where the people inside look happy. That just confirms my view that Cowan's ideal meal would be in a fluorescent-lit white-washed plain strip mall dive where you sit alone and eat a piece of factory-farmed chicken absolutely drenched with as much fish sauce and chili oil as you can possibly handle.

Also Beware the Beautiful, Laughing Women? What if I am a beautiful, laughing woman? Should you avoid the restaurants I eat at? Should I avoid the restaurants I like?
posted by melissam at 10:45 PM on April 12, 2012 [13 favorites]


This part is really so execrable that I'm genuinely surprised the Atlantic was willing to print it:

Exploit Restaurant Workers

Quality food is cheaper when cheap labor is available to cook it. In a relatively wealthy country like the United States, cheap labor can be hard to find. We have a high level of labor productivity and a minimum wage; in some cases even illegal immigrants earn more than the legal minimum. But one obvious place to find cheap labor is in family-owned, family-run Asian restaurants. Family members will work in the kitchen or as waiters for relatively little pay, or sometimes no pay at all. Sometimes they’re expected to do the work as part of their contribution to the family. The upshot is that these restaurants tend to offer good food buys.

posted by threeants at 10:57 PM on April 12, 2012 [11 favorites]


What if I am a beautiful, laughing woman? Should you avoid the restaurants I eat at? Should I avoid the restaurants I like?

No, you should drive from strip mall to strip mall until you find Tyler Cowen having lunch, then go in to that restaurant and sit at a table right next to him, start laughing, and he'll be all, oh shit, I was wrong!
posted by escabeche at 10:58 PM on April 12, 2012 [23 favorites]


In fact, I just thought to myself this morning, what's really lacking in America these days is exploitation of poor immigrant restaurant workers. More!
posted by threeants at 11:04 PM on April 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


Tyler Cowen is not brilliant. He's a macroeconomist with no significant predictive record of success of macro states of the economy.

Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, Dean Baker, Simon Johnson, Robert Reich, Bill McBride, Mark Thoma, Barkley Rosser, Yves Smith, and many others have significantly better predictive records and economic insights.

Cowen is intelligent and fluent on a wide range of topics. But as far as I know, despite the impressions he carefully crafts on his website, there's no evidence that he's brilliant.
posted by airing nerdy laundry at 11:10 PM on April 12, 2012 [10 favorites]


This part is really so execrable that I'm genuinely surprised the Atlantic was willing to print it

Have you been paying attention to what the Atlantic prints these days?
posted by asterix at 11:50 PM on April 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think it's unfair to say that he doesn't love food or care about the aesthetic experience. He clearly loves it and makes extreme aesthetic judgements - they're just not the usual ones.

I grew up in the DC area I've been reading his work, reactions to him, and copycats for years. He's obnoxious, he makes ridiculous claims about some place being "the best X in the Western Hemisphere" based on a single visit, and he's not a great writer. His reserve-snob contrarianism is incredibly predictable but ... he's usually right.

If you read his website, he also doesn't exclusively like shabby Fairfax Country strip malls. For all the Falls Church/Rockville/Riverdale uber alles bluster, he actually gives a lot of fancy pants DC-proper places good reviews too.
posted by The Lamplighter at 11:51 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


The presence of something on a menu indicates that there is demand in having it and profit to be made in selling it.

May indicate that there is a demand etc. It might just be there for entirely non-economic reasons (prestige, expected of the type of restaurant, chef's favourite, simple inertia).

Just because economists have to assume spherical cows to make their pet theories come true doesn't mean you can do this in the real world.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:14 AM on April 13, 2012


Bad-sounding things are sometimes bad and kept on the menu because they are ordered by people who assume that they wouldn't be on the menu if they weren't good.

My wife was very disappointed with the fish head she ordered at that place in Guangzhou, but that might have just been her.


Quality food is cheaper when cheap labor is available to cook it. ... But one obvious place to find cheap labor is in family-owned, family-run Asian restaurants.

Or in McBurgWendIntheBox. Be sure to harass the staff, and enjoy the spit of the day!
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:29 AM on April 13, 2012


Jeez.

On the whole, I find menus at restaurants in the US to be way too long and complicated. So there's that. Although I will agree that the best Korean I've had in some time was in a LA strip mall, when you weigh up the time it takes to get to these places, is it really always worth it? Nah.

I was in Venezia the other day. The best meals I had were at the most modern funky looking trattorias and pizzerias. Tourists prefer older restaurants that more look 'authentic'. The meals I had in those were truly blah. Looks can deceive.

My rules: In the UK and parts of Asia, chains rule. South Beauty, Crystal Jade, Din Tai Fung, yup, love them. Don't eat anywhere in the US that serves orange or Kung Pao chicken. Choose a restaurant that's not a total PITA to get to. Kee the bill around $50 for two.
posted by wingless_angel at 3:11 AM on April 13, 2012


Exception: Eat at Thai restaurants attached to motels.

Works here (though I've yet to try Cairns).
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:23 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Raw ingredients in America - vegetables, butter, bread, meats, etc. - are below world standards. Even most underdeveloped countries have better raw ingredients than we do..

Wut?
posted by Splunge at 4:42 AM on April 13, 2012


How to find good deals when food shopping for home.

I read this. It seems to apply only to those folks liking in fairly large cities with diverse populations. Shop the Chinese or Korean markets??? Dude. I live out in the country and we don't even have a viable farmers market here.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:44 AM on April 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Don't eat anywhere in the US that serves orange or Kung Pao chicken.

Overbroad, I'd say. My wife asserts that the Chinese restaurants here in MA serve better food than the ones in her native Beijing. Without exception, they have Kung Pao on the menu. Some of their versions of the dish are less than stellar, others are quite good.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:48 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Chacun à son goût. My goût happens to be very much in line with Cowen's. I don't know that I have much use for the book, but his ethnic dining guide has been a reference point ever since I moved to the DC area 10 years ago--once a year or so I like to go out for a somewhat more "foodie" experience (and even then, it's probably only really entry-level foodie), and the rest of the time if we do eat out, it's ethnic, ethnic, ethnic. My only sad trombone is that he hardly ever seems to make it across into Maryland anymore.
posted by drlith at 5:04 AM on April 13, 2012


Between the exploited restaurant workers and liking Thai before it was cool, he proves that a feeling of smug superiority is more delicious than MSG.
posted by betweenthebars at 5:11 AM on April 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Raw ingredients in America - vegetables, butter, bread, meats, etc. - are below world standards. Even most underdeveloped countries have better raw ingredients than we do..

Wut?
posted by Splunge


Yeah, I don't know about that -- I've had better Peking Duck in California than in Beijing, and I think to a large extent it was the underlying quality of the duck.
posted by Comrade_robot at 5:40 AM on April 13, 2012


The presence of something on a menu indicates that there is demand in having it and profit to be made in selling it.

Or maybe most of its ingredients are already being prepared in the prep kitchen for other, more worthy dishes, so the chef figured "I'm most of the way there already, so it's practically a freebie -- what the hell."
posted by wenestvedt at 6:09 AM on April 13, 2012


Splunge: "Raw ingredients in America - vegetables, butter, bread, meats, etc. - are below world standards. Even most underdeveloped countries have better raw ingredients than we do..

Wut?
"

I haven't lived in the US for years, so I don't know how things are first-hand, but I hear Americans (especially on Mefi) always talking about how the fruits in grocery stores are picked unripe and then chemically ripened, so they don't taste good, and the tomatoes are bred for appearance, not taste, so they don't taste good, and cattle are grown too lean, so meat doesn't taste like much either. It's all cheap, and looks great, but not very tasty. And I hear my parents talk about how good the vegetables, bread, and desserts are here in Japan.

The "underdeveloped countries" thing seemed weird, but I think he's only talking about locally-grown food. "If you buy a mango in an underdeveloped country, it was probably grown about a mile away, and fresh and ripe. If you buy one in the US, it was probably grown hundreds of miles away, and relatively tasteless".

Like I said, I'm not necessarily agreeing with him. I don't personally know. But I think that's what he's getting at.
posted by Bugbread at 6:29 AM on April 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


I can say that in NYC a lot of his rules for eating out wouldn't work. Manhattan in particularly has some absolutely terribly Vietnamese restaurants that are bad enough that you'd be better off at the local mediocre Thai place. And sadly to say, there exist "authentic" dishes in many cuisines that are just not very good, that will involve you picking bones out of a mediocre fish or desserts so sickeningly sweet that they will make you re-think the idea that Americans have some kind of sugar fetish (I'm looking at you halo halo, but also most Indian and many SE Asian desserts). And some of the best SE Asian food is actually at inauthentic restaurants full of beautiful women, like Fatty Cue in Williamsburg. The rest of the best SE Asian food is mostly in Queens. I find you can pick out a good Thai restaurant there by the presence of certain dishes on the menu, like fermented sausages such as Sai Krok Isan. I've never had a bad meal in a restaurant that serves those.
posted by melissam at 7:58 AM on April 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


Also, it's worth knowing what kind of "offal" is awful and what kind is underrated. Sweetbreads, liver, tuna collar, tongue, cheek, trotters, skin, whole fishes, and brain are usually fatty and delicious. Lungs, kidney, reproductive organs, much tripe, tongues of small animals, insects, and blood (unless spiced and mixed with fat) are often just not very good even in the most authentic context. Unfortunately, offal is often the place in meat where the quality of the animals raising is most reflected. So I really do think it's worth seeking out a restaurant that sources meat from good places if you are going to try some of these things and not just look for the most authentic place. The best offal you can get in Manhattan is at Takashi, where they specialize in it and manage to make even some of the worst offenders taste very very good. However, it's exactly the kind of trendy place full of stylish women that Tyler might pass by. The various late-night yakitoris in Midtown are also very good.
posted by melissam at 8:23 AM on April 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


Cowen has some plausible suggestions but a lot more bad ones, I find his quest for perfect authenticity mostly off-putting, and I can't follow most of his directions anyway because I don't have a car and would rather eat at the place down the street than take a multi-stage bus trip to a strip mall somewhere in Northern Virginia (or, in one case, a gas station somewhere in Maryland), but mostly I find his cringing fear of the only moderately-gentrifed neighborhoods of DC pretty funny.
posted by Copronymus at 8:36 AM on April 13, 2012


I read this sentence in his restaurant reviews with great amusement.

"Are you, like me, sick of trying new Pho places?"

Heathen!

Pho is the best hangover cure. You heard it here first.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 8:44 AM on April 13, 2012


I agree with his statement of "If there only one Indian restaurant in town, it's not going to be very good."

Sherbrooke has the tragic distinction of one sole Indian restaurant and it is so bad, I want to cry. I have to wait until we get to Montreal to have Indian (which is always so-so) and I lament I didn't make the most of it when I lived in Atlanta.
posted by Kitteh at 9:25 AM on April 13, 2012


Don't eat anywhere in the US that serves orange or Kung Pao chicken.

I live in the middle of the US. Here, a lot of the better Chinese restaurants have two menus, one with Kung Pao chicken that they give to non-asian people, and one without it that they give to asian people. They're happy to give the second menu to anyone, if they ask.

A lot of Americans don't want to see anything they don't recognize on their menus, so that is what they get. It never hurts to ask if they have a Chinese menu. The Chinese menu is usually written in both Chinese and English. Good food lies on the Chinese menu.
posted by Quonab at 10:04 AM on April 13, 2012


I live in the middle of the US. Here, a lot of the better Chinese restaurants have two menus, one with Kung Pao chicken that they give to non-asian people, and one without it that they give to asian people. They're happy to give the second menu to anyone, if they ask.

This is not just a middle-of-the-US thing. It happens in Philadelphia.

On a related note, my mother's heuristic for ordering at restaurants featuring foreign cuisines: go with a person of the appropriate ethnicity, if you know one. Ask them to order off the secret appropriate-ethnicity menu. (Usually with a caveat that she doesn't want her food to have eyes.) It seems to work pretty well.
posted by madcaptenor at 10:09 AM on April 13, 2012


once a year or so I like to go out for a somewhat more "foodie" experience (and even then, it's probably only really entry-level foodie), and the rest of the time if we do eat out, it's ethnic, ethnic, ethnic

What definition of "foodie" are you using here? IME/Idiolect, "foodies" are just as excited about eating at an awesome ethnic dive as at a Michelin-starred restaurant.
posted by asterix at 10:58 AM on April 13, 2012


Of course, I wouldn't know good authentic Chinese/Thai/Indian/etc. food if it crawled down my throat on its own waving its national flag. I've been to supposedly "authentic" restaurants and, while it was delicious, I couldn't tell you if it was authentic or even actually tasted correct.

I live in the middle of the US. Here, a lot of the better Chinese restaurants have two menus, one with Kung Pao chicken that they give to non-asian people, and one without it that they give to asian people. They're happy to give the second menu to anyone, if they ask.

Is there some secret hand signal for this? How do you ask for the "real" menu if you don't know if one exists?
posted by Thorzdad at 11:49 AM on April 13, 2012


I guess what I mean is, would it be insulting to the owner if you asked for the secret menu when there wasn't one? Implying that he isn't serving the anglo patrons his best stuff?
posted by Thorzdad at 11:53 AM on April 13, 2012


The easiest way is to just look where the host or hostess picks up the menus, and check if there are two stacks. I didn't learn about the two menus thing until I married a Chinese woman, and started getting the second menu by default. I have asked for a second menu when traveling on my own, and the response was confusion rather than resentment.

I asked my wife what she thinks about it, and she says that the owner shouldn't be upset. But China, like America, is a pretty big country and how a person feels about something like that might depend on what part of China they are from. From a risk vs. reward perspective, I'll continue to ask.
posted by Quonab at 12:26 PM on April 13, 2012


There is Kung Pao chicken in Sichuan, and there are very good Sichuan restaurants in the US that serve it. The presence of Kung Pao on the menu indicates nothing, unless it's the only (or one of the only) Sichuan dishes on the menu. Then you should run.
posted by Bugbread at 4:34 PM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I agree with his statement of "If there only one Indian restaurant in town, it's not going to be very good."

I believe the statement would be valid if you substituted almost any ethnic descriptor for Indian, or left it out entirely. If there's only one pizza place within 20 miles, they aren't likely to impress you.

One of my indicators for bad Chinese restaurants is if none of the waitstaff are Chinese, or if there are no customers who are. Probably extends to other ethnicities as well.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:46 AM on April 14, 2012


Kirth Gerson: "One of my indicators for bad Chinese restaurants is if none of the waitstaff are Chinese, or if there are no customers who are. Probably extends to other ethnicities as well."

That's been one of the drawbacks, in my experience, with ethnic (i.e. non-American and non-European) food hitting it so big. Back when I lived in the US (I'm thinking late 80's, early 90's), white folk weren't big into authentic ethnic. Some were, of course, but most weren't. That meant that (at least in Houston) any decent Chinese, Vietnamese, or Indian restaurant was easy to identify, because you could look through the window and see that all the customers were Chinese, Vietnamese, or Indian. Now, everybody likes to eat a diverse range of cuisines, so when I've gone back to Houston, I've found that crappy restaurants will be full of white folks, like they always were, but great restaurants will also be full of white people, making them much harder to identify.
posted by Bugbread at 5:25 AM on April 14, 2012


Bourdain's advice for finding the best food in a foreign city is basically a particularly good application of Cunningham's Law: “The best way to get the right answer on the Internet is not to ask a question, it’s to post the wrong answer.” (Obligatory xkcd bonus reference)
posted by robla at 6:51 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Back when I lived in the US (I'm thinking late 80's, early 90's), white folk weren't big into authentic ethnic.

Lots of white people have ethnicities, some of which are associated with awesome food.
posted by escabeche at 5:19 AM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


escabeche: "Lots of white people have ethnicities, some of which are associated with awesome food."

In my experience, "ethnic food" has generally been understood to mean "food from an ethnicity other than your own".
posted by Bugbread at 2:04 PM on April 15, 2012


In my experience, "ethnic food" has generally been understood to mean "food from an ethnicity other than your own".

Yes. But there are a large number of ethnicities had by white people. So for any given white person there's some white ethnicity that's not theirs.
posted by madcaptenor at 2:24 PM on April 15, 2012


Yes...and? I'm not following the point you're trying to get at. White Poles didn't eat authentic Chinese, or Thai, or Greek, or Italian. White Italians didn't eat authentic Chinese, Thai, Greek, or Polish. In other words, white folk weren't big into authentic ethnic-other-than-their-own-ethnic. Didn't matter if the ethnicity in question was a white one or not.
posted by Bugbread at 2:58 PM on April 15, 2012


I was just saying that great Italian restaurants, along with crappy Italian restaurants, were always full of white people, so your "full of white people" criterion worked only for selected types of ethnic restaurants. But now that I read your post more carefully, I see that you used ethnic to MEAN "non-American and non-European," which I think is a weird usage of the word "ethnic," but it does make your post make sense.
posted by escabeche at 4:17 PM on April 15, 2012


Yeah, it's not a very accurate definition, and perhaps living in Japan for so long has messed up my terminology. In Japan, エスニック (esuniku = ethnic) means "Asian other than Japanese, African, Middle Eastern, and Mexico and further south". When you pointed out, for example, that Italian would be "ethnic", I realized that maybe my English definition had gotten twisted up, so giving it further thought I tried to correct my definition, but changing definitions midstream just creates more confusion, and I apologize.

And, yes, I totally agree that the "full of white people" criterion only works for a subset of ethnic restaurants. I guess what I meant was that in the 80s and 90s, at least in Houston, it was easy to determine if a restaurant from a non-predominantly white country had good food: if there were a lot of white people eating there, it was crappy. Now, that method of determining crappiness of that specific subset of restaurants doesn't work.
posted by Bugbread at 4:49 PM on April 15, 2012


Related:
You cannot buy Japanese Kobe beef in this country. Not in stores, not by mail, and certainly not in restaurants.
You can buy it in Japan, and since last year, in Macao. Not anywhere else.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:15 PM on April 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


That's a great three piece series, Keith Gerson.
posted by mosessis at 8:48 PM on April 15, 2012


That's a great three piece series, Keith Gerson.

Yeah, thanks!
The first two parts of that series are excellent but the third installment is really mind-blowing.
posted by vacapinta at 5:37 AM on April 16, 2012


The easiest way is to just look where the host or hostess picks up the menus, and check if there are two stacks.

Take a look at other diners when they're sitting down as well - regulars might get the other menu by default. I've been to Japanese places that offered a different menu to Japanese folks, and the menu was clearly different - not fancy in the least, one laminated page, etc. I used to go to a Mexican place that did this as well, and the alternate choices on there tracked much more closely with authentic Mexican food than '1 enchildada, 1 burrito, 1 taco'. Delicious stuff.
posted by jquinby at 6:23 AM on April 16, 2012


From that third part of the series:
Twelve decades ago, the highest profile of the many foodstuffs to come out of the Treaty of Madrid protected was Champagne. Every major power in the world at the time elected to sign the treaty, with the exception of the United States. As a result, the term “Champagne” has been protected in almost every other first-world country since 1891. The Treaty has been revised many times, and in every case since, the U.S. has adamantly refused to sign. This is not an issue forgotten by the rest of the world. The European Union alone has a list of over 600 geographically designated products it protects under law, almost none of which the US agrees with. Despite repeated requests dating back more than a century from the French, and in recent decades the World Trade Organization and European Union, the U.S. has stubbornly and purposefully refused to become party to this treaty or dozens of others like it.
Once again, Europe fails to grasp the importance of our Global War on Terroir*!



*I learned a new word!
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:28 AM on April 16, 2012


The concluding paragraph is great:

As long as you don’t care about quality, you [as an American] can now sit down to a complete dinner of faux gourmet items like Greece’s famous Kalamata olives and domestic Spanish or Italian cured ham, followed by a pasta course made with “Italy’s” world renowned San Marzano tomatoes and topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano, “The King of Cheeses.” The main course? Kobe beef of course, maybe topped with Kobe pork, all washed down with Champagne and red Burgundy. Top it off with a glass of Port or a nice cup of Darjeeling tea, and you will have just consumed a meal that may well have been produced entirely in a factory down the street from you.
posted by vacapinta at 7:36 AM on April 16, 2012


The Kobe article is interesting, but it feels like it's aiming at a really narrow segment of people: folks sophisticated enough to know that Champagne is supposed to be from France, but not sophisticated enough to know that it isn't. Growing up, I thought "champagne" was just a variety of wine. If I saw it in a store, I assumed it was from California, or Australia, or France, or Spain, because I wasn't aware it was supposed to be from a specific part of France. The day I learned "it's supposed to be from Champagne, France" is the day I learned "but it's not". So I jumped from "not knowing enough to be fooled" to "knowing too much to be fooled" immediately, without "fooled" in the middle.

And with Parmigiano-Reggiano, I never knew it was supposed to be from any special region, until today, reading his article. So, again, pre-article, "not fooled, due to ignorance", post-article "not fooled, due to knowledge". Ditto with port, madeira, burgundy, chablis, sherry, or darjeeling, all of which I believed (until maybe 10 minutes ago) were non-location-specific foodstuffs.

Now I'm wondering what else I'm too ignorant to be fooled about.

I'm not denigrating the article, by the way. It was interesting. I just wonder how big the "know enough to be fooled, but not enough to know better" audience is.
posted by Bugbread at 8:11 AM on April 16, 2012


Thai restaurant reminds me of an interesting statistic about Portland, OR:

There are 13.5 Thai people for every Thai restaurant in the Portland area. (Vs. for example 588 Vietnamese per Vietnamese restaurant, 450 Indians per Indian restaurant.)

So, asking for "authentic" Thai in Portland from the chef will probably yield you a Mexican/Cambodian/White-Dude-Foodie-Chef/Vietnamese interpretation of what they think real Thai should be.
posted by wcfields at 9:54 AM on April 16, 2012


wcfields: I was going to ask for a source but it looks like here it is. Now I'd be interested to see similar numbers for other areas. But that would require having the Yellow Pages (those appear to be the source of the restaurant counts), which I threw out when they were delivered to me.
posted by madcaptenor at 10:13 AM on April 16, 2012


wingless_angel: "Don't eat anywhere in the US that serves ... Kung Pao chicken."

Yeah, if you ever want to eat Chinese, that's impossible. Even the most authentic restaurant has that dish on the menu. And it happens to actually be a dish that's popular through a lot of mainland China too.
posted by Deathalicious at 12:51 PM on April 16, 2012


So, asking for "authentic" Thai in Portland from the chef will probably yield you a Mexican/Cambodian/White-Dude-Foodie-Chef/Vietnamese interpretation of what they think real Thai should be.

Maybe, but a lot of those non-Thai chefs have made a huge effort to eat authentic ingredients and to train in Thailand (Andy Ricker's Pok Pok, for example). And they are also not going to argue with you when you ask for the "real" stuff. In fact, they take the heat and fishiness as a point of pride, because since they aren't Thai, they have something real to prove. And so do their hipster customers. Same goes for a lot of the Thai restaurants in Queens- they know you traveled to get there (Williamsburg to Woodside is no easy jaunt) because you wanted the real stuff and they've attracted these new type of customers just because of it. There are no random soccer moms picking up takeout there. Hipsters aren't always a bad thing.

A Thai family running a random Thai restaurant in a strip mall in Fort Walton Beach, Florida have nothing to prove and know that the average non-Thai Southerner air force base clientele wouldn't like or try to like their normal cooking. So you really have to put out an effort at places like that to get good things. It's worth it, especially if you can be a little nicer than Tyler about it, but I'm the only one in my family who asks for it.
posted by melissam at 2:38 PM on April 16, 2012


melissam: "Maybe, but a lot of those non-Thai chefs have made a huge effort to eat authentic ingredients and to train in Thailand (Andy Ricker's Pok Pok, for example)."

I won't dispute there are some amazing authentic (or at least what I've come to understand) Thai food here in Portland, but when you have over 130 restaurants, most will serve the understood Thai menu: Pad Thai and Red/Yellow/Mussman Curries.

Doesn't really matter to me, either way, my belly wins.
posted by wcfields at 3:33 PM on April 16, 2012


...Champagne is supposed to be from France, well a rather small region in France. And there is champagne from France that just ain't. ;-)
posted by sammyo at 6:04 PM on April 16, 2012


Mr Cowen was interviewed on the most recent Econtalk.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 6:19 AM on April 29, 2012


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