Even if you’ve memorized all the restaurant guides and recipe books you own, much about food remains a mystery. Recognize when other people know better, and do not be afraid to ask which course of action is best. But ask in a smart way. When you’re looking for a good meal, some knowledge of social science is often more useful than food knowledge.
If you need to ask where to eat, start by finding people who themselves love good food and take pride in it. Ask people between 35 and 55 years old for a tip, because they are especially likely to be eating out frequently at good places, and to have a lot of experience with good food. Look for someone who is prosperous or middle class but not necessarily very rich. Ask people who are geographically mobile in their professions and thus accustomed to eating out and collecting information about food. Ask a firefighter for a good, cheap local place; drive to the fire station if you have to. Ask a cabdriver. I have found that regional textbook salespeople—who are traveling and dining out all the time—are a good source of food information. If you ask people for a food tip, and their eyes don’t light up with excitement, ignore them.
If you’re asking Google, put a “smart” word into your search query. Best restaurants Washington will yield too much information, and will serve up a lot of bad restaurants, too. That’s a lowest-common-denominator search query. Google something more specific instead, like best Indian restaurants Washington, even if you don’t want Indian food. You’ll get to more reliable, more finely grained, and better-informed sources about food, and you can then peruse those sources for their non-Indian recommendations. Google Washington best cauliflower dish, even if you don’t want cauliflower. Get away from Google-for-the-masses.
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.
The polar-opposite case is when you see a restaurant replete with expensive labor. There’s a valet-parking attendant, a host to greet you, a person to take your coat, a sommelier, a floor manager, a team of waiters, and so on. If you go, for instance, to the Palm, a fancy steak-house chain, you’ll see a lot of people at work. Everyone is scurrying around, and you have the feeling that management puts a lot of time and effort into coordinating the large staff. The restaurant attracts a lot of celebrities and politicians. I’ve enjoyed the three meals I’ve had at the Palm, but I worry about what I’m paying for. I like quality service, but only when I am steered toward better items on the menu or when I reap some other concrete benefit rather than just feeling fancy. I’m not sure what I am getting from the service at the Palm. I already understand the menu (steak, lobster, and so on); it seems to me that the staff members are there mostly to make the customers feel important. When I visit the Palm, I immediately think of cigars, not dinner.
Thai food in the United States is becoming bad. It’s getting sweeter—with excessive use of refined sugar—and the other flavors are growing weaker and less reliable. In absolute numbers, more excellent Thai restaurants exist than ever before, but I wouldn’t want to vouch for the average quality of Thai food in America these days.
One problem is that many Thai people have such a wonderful service ethic. I don’t think I have ever once been treated poorly in a Thai restaurant. That has made courting wide audiences relatively easy. Thai food also looks healthy and has beautiful colors—all those greens, reds, yellows, and oranges.
As a result, Thai food has become cool. I first saw this trend in California, in the 1980s, when young people in black started turning up in large numbers at Thai restaurants in Hollywood. It spread. Americans eating in a Thai restaurant are likely more hip than those eating in a Chinese restaurant. Yet hip people do not always have superb taste in food.
As Thai restaurants have become more popular, they have become unreliable. It is so easy to make the food too sweet, appealing to lowest-common-denominator tastes or masking deficiencies in the food’s preparation. The best sweet Thai dishes mix sweet with tart, but there’s been too much abuse on the sweet side and not enough use of fish sauce or fermented shrimp paste or ground white pepper. The most-reliable indicators of bad Thai restaurants are a large bar and sushi on the menu. Those are both signs that the restaurant isn’t that serious about food. Stay away.
Unlike Thai food, Vietnamese food hasn’t become extremely popular in the United States. A large number of Vietnamese restaurants operate in this country, but these are patronized mostly by Vietnamese. The cuisine’s failure to take off is interesting, because Vietnamese food rarely offends the American palate. It even has a notable French influence. You would think it could do better commercially, even if that might mean quality declines.
Vietnamese food has probably been saved from the mass market because most people never master the sauces and condiments that must be added to the food, at the table, for its glories to become apparent. It’s too much trouble, and a lot of people don’t like asking for help, especially if the interaction involves some linguistic awkwardness. (In my experience, it’s not uncommon for Vietnamese servers to speak poor English, so they may come across as confused or indifferent.) To outsiders, Vietnamese restaurants can feel like exclusive clubs for Vietnamese people, and that can be off-putting.
To everyday foodies in America, I say: eat more Vietnamese food! It’s rarely too weird, never expensive, and usually pretty healthy, because it relies less on oils and deep-frying than does a lot of Chinese food. Again, the key is to use the sauces and condiments placed on the table in front of you. You don’t have to know what they are; a lot of them are difficult to tell apart without close scrutiny. Just ask for directions. If the wait staff can’t speak English well, they will show you. Simply pull the table’s sauces and condiments in front of you, point to them, and look puzzled. It’s okay.
Exception: Eat at Thai restaurants attached to motels.
Most people don’t think of Thai restaurants as attachments to motels. But you’ll find them, in locales as scattered as Santa Rosa, California, and Edmonton, Alberta. And when you do, you should eat at them. For one thing, if the restaurant is attached to the motel, its proprietors are likely not paying extra rent for the space. A Thai family may already own the motel, and may be operating this business on the side, in which case the owners won’t have to cover high rents by appealing to large numbers of customers or by cutting corners. Odds are you’ll get fairly authentic Thai food at low prices.
What’s more, by most normal standards, it doesn’t actually make a lot of sense to combine a Thai restaurant and a motel. But that’s the whole point. It’s not like combining a gas station and a car wash, or a coffee bar and a bookstore. People who stay in motels, as far as I know, are not especially likely to eat Thai food. The common element between the Thai-owned motel and the Thai restaurant is most likely a hard-working, ambitious Thai family, with one or two wonderful cooks.
Corollary: Prefer Pakistani to Indian.
On average, Pakistani food in the United States is better than Indian food in the United States, and yet a lot of the core dishes do not greatly differ. Northwestern-Indian cuisine is predominant in the U.S., so you find substantial overlap on most Indian and Pakistani menus.
So why does the Pakistani food turn out better? I think it has to do with cultural associations. When Americans hear Pakistan, many of them think of bin Laden, drone attacks, terrorism, Daniel Pearl, and the sale of nuclear secrets. When Americans hear India, they likely think of Gandhi, or brightly colored Bollywood movies with lots of happy dancing. Whether or not these portraits are fair or representative doesn’t matter. Common images of Pakistan nudge away uncommitted customers. Many Pakistani restaurants also serve no alcohol, limiting their American audience and making them turn more to Pakistani customers. That’s another plus.
So you should go more to Pakistani restaurants than to Indian restaurants. Often, as you search out a good meal, the quality of the customers matters more than the quality of the chef. I doubt that Indian chefs are less talented than their Pakistani counterparts, but they are typically more constrained in what they can produce. The blandness of Indian restaurants, like that of Thai restaurants, is a direct result of their ability to market the food to a mass audience.
These are just a few rules, and of course they aren’t comprehensive, but they illustrate a way of thinking. Food is a product of supply and demand. Whenever you’re searching for restaurants, try to figure out where the supplies are fresh, the suppliers are creative, and the demanders are informed. That’s the precept underlying all these rules. Follow it, and I guarantee you’ll find better food and better value when you eat out.