This article originally appeared in Business Insider
When an economist goes out for lunch, he doesn’t think twice about putting the waiter on the spot. He asks what the server likes to eat, then flaunts some knowledge of the cuisine.
The idea, says economist Tyler Cowen, is “to ask in a way that [the waiter] will believe that you’re serious and informed and won’t steer you down the wrong the path.” It’s his tried-and-true method for avoiding dull meals.
“Half the dishes there will be so-so or average,” says Cowen, so ask the waiter point-blank, “What are your specialized regional dishes? You want to get the waiter out of the mode of viewing you as a mainstream consumer in white bread America.”
Cowen prides himself on eating dangerously and encourages consumers to visit ethnic hole-in-the-walls, where they’re almost guaranteed to order something surprising. You won’t get flavorful bi bim bap at corporate chains like California Pizza Kitchen, so he makes it a point to suss out his neighborhood’s ethnic haunts. “Typically, they’re in clusters,” he says, “The competition forces them to be good.”
Avoiding tourist haunts and staying closer to the suburbs are two other ways to find great joints. Think: Indian cuisine in Astoria, Queens versus “Indian Row” in New York City’s touristy East Village. “You can tell an ethnic place is good when it’s hard to get to and local people are eating it,” he says.
The author of ”An Economist Gets Lunch” first made a name for himself with his blog, Tyler Cowen’s Ethnic Dining Guide, where for the past two decades he’s written on all things food and reviewed the best gems in Northern Virginia from Ricos Tacos Moya II to Bangkok Golden Thai.
Yet Cowen admits he wasn’t always a foodie. Growing up in Northern New Jersey, his parents mainly ate pizza and hamburgers, so it wasn’t until he moved to Europe that the economist finally broke from tradition.
“How you approach food is related to how you approach life,” he says. “It’s the notion of being curious. The blend of the quest, taste, surprise and interaction is that when they all come together, it’s just magical. It often happens when you travel but it can happen at home.”