This review of Tyler Cowen’s new book, “An Economist Gets Lunch” appeared in the New York Post on April 21, 2012.
Don’t eat at a restaurant packed with beautiful women. Any Chinese place, even at the most woebegone formica joint in the dullest small-town strip mall, can be a good one if you know what to say. And get to a barbecue place early — before noon.
So says Tyler Cowen in his smorgasbord “An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies” (Dutton). The vague title provides cover for the wide range of food issues Cowen considers, all the way from why American food got so bad to why hundreds of millions of Indians are starving to why locavorism usually makes no sense. Just think of it as another contrarian ideas party; “Freakonomics” for food.
Cowen’s special sauce is rationality, which is why this may be the first food book I have ever made it through. (I nearly threw Anthony Bourdain’s macho-man pose-a-palooza “Kitchen Confidential” into the fireplace after 20 pages). Eating, especially in restaurants, is a subject that opens into a lot of other fields. There’s location, trendiness, class, alcohol, decor, socializing and even the beauty of your servers and fellow diners to distract you.
All of these are factors in why food writing is so bad: There are so many other things to consider that the restaurant critic often doesn’t get around to the food until the second half of the review. When I pointed this out to one such writer, he sighed heavily and said, “Yes, but how many ways are there to say ‘crunchy’?”
EATING OUT — FAR OUT
Cowen is an economist at George Mason University who is widely admired in the field for his influential Marginal Revolutions blog and also runs a food blog (Tyler Cowen’s Ethnic Dining Guide, whose motto is “all food is ethnic food”). He gets around the food-writing problem by taking it for granted that you’ll agree with him on what makes a great-tasting meal.
The meal is all that matters to him. He doesn’t care if it’s served in a hut by the side of the road or if you have to sit on a picnic bench to eat it. He’s willing to for a fantastic dish, but he doesn’t pretend food is better just because it cost more. Some of the best meals (not just for the buck, but best meals period) can come from food trucks operated by struggling immigrants.
Consider barbecue: The best examples of it, Cowen believes, are to be found at places on the outskirts of towns in Texas or at roadside stands in Mexico. Why roadside? Genuine barbecue requires slow roasting at low temperatures in a pit. Even in Mexico, government regulators are nervous about potentially out-of-control fires and fumes bothering or endangering neighbors. Roadside stands outside of town don’t have to worry about neighbors. Moreover, rural Mexican police are easily bribed.
If you care about decor, you’re probably not going to be exposed to much great barbecue. (On his foodie blog, Cowen says that what might be the best barbecue on the entire East Coast is to be found in Queens, at the modest John Brown’s Smokehouse in Long Island City). The best barbecue is cooked overnight, and when it’s ready, you should eat it as soon as possible. That means, perhaps, as early as 7 a.m. Great barbecue places like the ones in Mexico and Texas run out of supply as the day goes on, and when the meat is gone they simply close. (Beware of bigger, more commercial places that never run out, as in North Carolina. That means the meat is likely to have been frozen.)
The short business day means it isn’t wise to invest in the look of your place. An exception: Manhattan’s Blue Smoke in the Flatiron District. It charges premium prices that in part reflect the regulatory burdens of operating a barbecue pit in an urban area and also relies on its customers to spend a lot for drinks, which in my experience they are delighted to do.
Some of the same reasons — quality family-made food, of limited profitability, made under limited regulation — are why food carts serve up many of Cowen’s favorite meals. Washington, DC, he notes, is forever threatening to put food carts out of business, urged on by heavy lobbying from restaurants, though there is one area (in Adams Morgan at Columbia and 18th streets) where trucks serve first-rate Central American and Puerto Rican dishes.
Austin, Texas, Portland, Ore., and New York are much more accommodating to food trucks, and with delicious results. As more cities continue down this path, “the next food revolution in the United States is likely to be a mobile one,” he predicts. And thanks to social-media sites like Twitter, it’s easier than ever to track your favorite vendors.
COOL IS NOT HOT
The overall vibe of a restaurant (the aspect of the experience that takes up, say, two-thirds of a standard restaurant review in The New Yorker) is, for Cowen, an irrelevant distraction. You will search his writing in vain for the tiresome snark about how a restaurant is bad because it attracts power-tie-wearing bankers or those supposedly awful bridge-and-tunnel people New York nightlife writers are so obsessed with denigrating.
Yet the vibe can be a useful counter-indicator. When you see a restaurant that’s full of happy, smiling, chatty people, run the other way. Why? “Don’t get me wrong,” he writes, “There is nothing wrong with having fun, but it’s not the same thing as good food. So many restaurants ‘get by’ — and charge reasonably high prices — by creating social scenes for drinking, dating and carousing. They’re not using the food to draw in their customers . . . They will serve some kind of overpriced fusion cuisine, sponsored by a famous or semi-famous chef who is usually absent from the premises . . . The famous chef, or some competent delegate, will be on hand early in history of the restaurant to make sure it gets good reviews from sophisticated food critics and smart food bloggers. Then everyone will want to go there and the place will become established as a major social scene. The laughing and the smiling will set in. Beware! That’s when you need to stop going.”
A restaurant that attracts beautiful women will attract so many men to look at the women that the restaurant will be able to increase profits by cutting back on the quality of the food.
By contrast, at a really great restaurant, people may look miserable. Cowen suggests putting a mirror in front of you when you’re eating a great meal. Do you look happy and sociable? Probably not. Cowen loves Chinese restaurants where you see diners “screaming at each other and . . . fighting and pursuing blood feuds.” That means the customers go there a lot, because people don’t have arguments at restaurants that are unfamiliar to them.
Even in one of those spooky Chinese joints that always seems empty — possibly because it uses frozen meat and canned vegetables — you can get a better-than-decent meal if you ask to speak to the cook and try to get across the idea (which may be difficult as he may not speak English) that you want a genuine meal. Say “Ma Pa tofu, like you eat it, Sichuan, family style.” Tofu, unlike meat, won’t be ruined by being refrigerated for a long time.
Cowen says a rule that has never failed him is: Eat at a Thai restaurant that is attached to a motel. As Thai food became trendy in the 1980s — it looks healthy, it contains beautiful bright colors, it’s more exotic than Chinese — it spiralled downward in quality, with sauces becoming overly sweet. As hip people started to go to Thai restaurants, these places started to have lively bar scenes (meaning they could make a lot of profits on drinks, so the quality of the food didn’t matter much) and to feature sushi (a sure sign of diluted interest in the main menu).
Thai food is really complicated to make because the sauces are so labor-intensive, though, which leads to mass-produced food that isn’t fresh. What you want is a family-run place that doesn’t have to cover high rents by selling en masse. If a Thai restaurant is attached to a motel, it means the same hard-working family is probably running both of them, and the food part is a labor of love that will serve up pretty authentic cuisine at reasonable prices.
Another contrarian idea for Asian food? Seek out Pakistani places. Indian restaurants became so popular (in part because Indian summons up pleasant images of beautiful saris, Gandhi and the Beatles) that their offerings became homogenized and bland. Pakistani restaurants, by contrast, still have to try hard. Anyone who is from a country associated with harboring Osama bin Laden wouldn’t be able to stay in business if she served up so-so food.
Pakistani restaurants tend to use fresh ingredients and make you wait 20 minutes for just-baked bread. If a Pakistani place has lots of Islam-themed decorations on the wall, that’s another plus: Anything that is likely to drive away the mainstream slobs means a greater likelihood of authentically excellent cooking.
ASK A CABBY
When searching out a place to eat, Yelp and similar sites can be helpful, but such places tend to attract cranks, which is why Cowen tends to discount the negative reviews. What he’s interested in is how the positive reviews are written — are they richly detailed, do they talk about the food rather than the hipness factor, are they impassioned? If so, the place is probably worth a try.
And it’s smart to ask a cab driver for recommendations, especially if you’re in an unfamiliar place. Cowen relies on cabbies especially when he’s in a place like Nicaragua, where the best, most interesting local dishes (as opposed to the places most cunningly designed to ensnare rich visitors) aren’t easily found. “If you ask someone for a restaurant tip, and their eyes don’t light up with excitement, ignore them,” he advises.
If you Google a restaurant, use a specific search term “Best restaurants Washington” will yield far too much information to be useful, as well as reams of bad advice. But “Best Indian restaurants Washington” will yield up more finely attuned advice, and even if you don’t want Indian food you can follow the informed-sounding sources to find their non-Indian picks. Even a search term as wacky as “best cauliflower dish Washington” will serve the purpose of separating yourself from the Google masses.
Real foodies think about more than just what’s on the plate, though, and so does Cowen in his wide-ranging book. He takes a quick tour through the history of American food politics in a sketch that explains how our food got so bad.
The supremely misguided attempt to attack alcohol, for instance, drove many excellent restaurants out of business, since a lot of them can’t make a profit without selling drinks. Prohibition was just a part of the story; Kansas was dry as early as 1881. And when Prohibition ended, in 1933, economic conditions meant opening a restaurant was dicey.
Moreover, Prohibition led to many more family restaurants, which in turn meant adjustment of menus to suit kids’ unadventurous palates. And many state and local laws continued to restrict alcohol for decades. In Texas, restaurants didn’t serve alcohol until 1971. Many counties still have dry laws.
Prohibition was followed by WWII, which meant a boom in mass-produced shelf-stable food, and WWII was followed by the boom in TV, which sparked a demand for quick TV dinners taking the place of multi-course meals. Many Swanson meals were developed by bacteriologists rather than chefs, the main concern being to avoid poisoning the customer. Hence the taste.
That kind of unexpected detail makes the book a kind of secret history of dining. Food gets demystified quickly when you look at it in economic terms.
As Cowen sums up: Food is a product of supply and demand, so try to figure out where the supplies are fresh, the suppliers are creative and the demanders are informed.
Some of Tyler Cowen’s contrarian tips for excellent eating:
* At a fancy restaurant: Ask the waiter, “What is the best?” If he hesitates, or says it’s all equally good, be wary. Also: Order the least-appetizing- sounding item. An item won’t be on the menu unless there is a good reason for it to be there. Order the ugly and order the unknown.
* Eat at restaurants on side streets, not on high-rent boulevards and avenues, unless money is no object. Higher rents mean higher prices. Restaurants need high turnover to earn a profit, and quirky ethnic places (unlike chains or theme restaurants that cater to people with questionable taste) can’t survive. In New York City, underpriced locales like the far West Side of Manhattan and Flushing, Queens, are rich with interesting choices.
* Seek out nabes with lots of restaurants. More restaurants means more competition, which keeps standards high. Plus a dense concentration means a better supplier base.
* Barbecue is best in towns of under 50,000, and even then on the outskirts of them. Because pit barbecuing can be hazardous, and difficult to scale up in large quantities, the best places are in low-rent, low-regulation settings.
* Japan is not a low-wage country so its immigrants aren’t poor. And quality depends heavily on ingredients, not in howmeals are prepared. So Japanese dining, unlike other kinds, is pretty much just a question of how much you’rewilling to pay.
* Chinese food is meant to be flash-cooked over high heat, not simmered. So never eat at a Chinese buffet.
* If a Thai place is attached toamotel, it’s probably really good. That means it’s a small, family-run operation.
* Try a Pakistani place. India makes people think of saris and the Beatles. Indian food has lost quality control since it became popular. But nobody loves Pakistan, so its chefs have to try harder. Especially seek out ones with an Islam-themed decor.