The larger the number of restaurants serving the same ethnic cuisine in a given area, the more likely the food they serve will be good. Why? Restaurants that are competing most directly against each other can’t rest on their laurels. They are also typically appealing to an informed customer base. And finally, they can participate in a well-developed supply chain for key ingredients. In other words, a town that has only a single Indian restaurant probably does not have a very good Indian restaurant. In Houston, looking for clusters of similar restaurants will lead you to Mexican and Vietnamese food; in parts of Michigan, it will lead you to Arabic cuisine. Competition works.
It is especially common to see good ethnic restaurants grouped with mid-level or junky retail outlets. When it comes to a restaurant run by immigrants, look around at the street scene. Do you see something ugly? Poor construction? Broken plastic signage? A five-and-dime store? Maybe an abandoned car? If so, crack a quiet smile, walk through the door, and order. Welcome to the glamorous world of good food.
Corollary: The food truck is your friend.
The ultimate low-rent venue is the food truck. The wide presence of food trucks in New York City, Austin, and Portland, Oregon, has greatly improved the food in those cities. No longer is street food a bad pretzel or fatty hot dog; food trucks offer diners authentic Mexican tacos, homemade sausages, dim sum, Vietnamese bánh mi (sandwiches), and hundreds of other delicacies. One of the most famous food trucks, Kogi, in Los Angeles (@kogibbq on Twitter, if you want to track it), specializes in Korean-Latin fusion food, such as its Kogi Kimchi Quesadilla, which mixes spicy, garlicky Korean cabbage with cheese in a flour tortilla.
If we want to improve American food, and make it much cheaper, we should deregulate the food trucks and the other street vendors, provided they meet certain sanitation standards. Many cities have already moved down this path, and people are not keeling over with salmonella. The next food revolution in the United States is likely to be a mobile one, and it will be advertised on Google and Twitter, not through more traditional (and expensive) ads or commercials. That’s how the low-rent food of the future is going to work.
Side tip: When in Manhattan, choose restaurants on the streets over those on the avenues.
Manhattan’s avenues tend to have higher rents than its streets. Given the long, thin shape of the island, the north-south avenues carry more vehicular and foot traffic. A Fifth Avenue spot will be seen by most city residents and many visitors at some point or another. A storefront on 39th Street will be seen more exclusively by neighborhood locals and people who work in the area. If you are stuck in Midtown, and you want good, cheap ethnic food, try the streets before the avenues. Opt for narrow passageways rather than broad ones. That neat Korean place can make ends meet on 35th, but it would not survive on Fifth Avenue. No matter where you are, turning just a bit off the main drag can yield a better meal for your money.
Admit What You Don’t Know
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.