Locals vs. Carpetbagging Chowhounds: Who Knows Best?
- Jim Leff
Hi, we're continuing from an interesting threadlet on the Manhattan board, a tangential discussion between George Lynch and me in the thread called "The Same Boring Zagatish Chinese Places"). Please take a sec to go back there and read it. I'll quote back part of George's last reply there:
"people of an ethnic group that live in a concentrated ethnic neighborhood will know more about the local restaurants than visitors"
if by "visitors" you mean like first-time visitors, sure I'll agree with that. But I think that home field advantage declines steeply when compared to EXPERIENCED visitors. Many of the people on this site know more about where to eat best in chinatown than lots of Chinese living in the nabe (not chowhound chinese, though). Consider: if a Sri Lanken who REALLY digs American-style macaroni and cheese and had eaten it all over america came to the upper west side, wouldn't you agree that he/she would quickly find better mac-'n-cheese than 95% of the nabe's residents ever knew existed? In fact, does more than 25% of upper west siders really know or care where good Mac-N-Cheese can be found? Do many of 'em know great mac-n-cheese even when they find it? My money is with the Sri Lanken chowhound. And while this sounds obvious talking about a community like the upper west side where people look like me (white...actually, sort of beige), it's equally true of the inhabitants of Chinatown and Harlem.
In my experience, "highly regarded by the locals" just really doesn't count for much. Those preferences are accumulated and filtered through a series of steps, few of which put deliciousness first. I grew up in Long Island...highly esteemed by the locals were the Mobil Travel Guide type places; non-paper napkins and waiters in uniforms. Diners felt a false sense of security that uniformed waiters couldn't possibly serve them anything dirty, bad, or (worst of all) spicy. In Jackson Heights, the old Germans/Jews/Irish/Italians in my building have similar issues and preferences.
Others also have their (non-delicious) motivations: the young Columbians I know like the places with all the neon and the loud music. The older ones like the ones with the real cheap lunch specials or the submissive waitresses. None of this stuff, obviously, is about finding REALLY GREAT STUFF. Mind you, in all these groups are chowhounds who DO seek (and know!!) the really great stuff, and I aspire to meet them all (I love that fast, impassioned exchange with people while waiting at counters for takeout...and it makes me absolutely delirious with joy that I can send 'em here to this site to meet legions of others like us and exchange 24 hours per day). But, in general, we chowhounds can find stuff in one visit to a nabe that long-time residents never imagined. It's happened over and over and over again with me and the hounds I know.
Let me boil it down. A woman friend of mine got a new boyfriend, and kept telling me how I've got to meet him--he's really into beer and he's GERMAN, so he can share all sorts of info about beer. I met the guy, and started mentioning Dopplebocks and Marzens and Alts. He never heard of any of these styles. He drinks Warsteiner Pils (the Bud of Germany). And he says--with a trace of contempt--that American beers suck (he never tried any good ones, wouldn't appreciate 'em if he did). And when I tried to argue with him, my friend got livid. How dare I tell a German ANYTHING about beer?? Anyway, that's the same general idea.
Re: Goody's, I'll try them again. And while I promised myself I wouldn't go to Big Wong again ("fossilized" means a formerly-good place where everything tastes kind of dead and hazy, like nobody's tried to make anything vibrant for years), I will just to see if there's been a rennaisance. I'm a fairly thrifty guy, but a $6 lunch doesn't taste much better to me than a $9 one (I'll gladly pay the 3 bucks for something even a little better), so that's not a big diff. And I think Big Wong has tons of ambience...just not particularly chi-chi ambience. You're preaching to the choir on that one!
Kam Chue is exactly as you described. Puzzlingly inconsistent. Glad it's still cycling and isn't in a permanent trough! thanks for the report.
Lastly, if Zagats--or anything else--works for you, don't let me (or anyone else) talk you out of it. We all need more tools, not less!
Jim I agree 1000%.
Most locals have no idea what restaurants are good in thier own neighborhood. How many Chinese restaurants have you passed that are packed with Chinese folks in places you would not even use the bathroom.
Certain visitors (chowhounders, foodies, whatever) have a nack for sniffing out good restuarants. They can spend just days in a town or neighborhood and find the locals gems that the people who live next to them have never been. They know how to ask the right questions to the right people. They feel the aura. They possess a devining rod of senses that allow them to seek out the best.
I hate to break it to you, but bathroom cleanliness is not a good indication of whether or not a chinese restaurant is decent.
I've been to some pretty serious hong kong-style seafood restaurants with really gross bathrooms.
Its nice though, to find a place that has sanitary bathrooms.
re: Jason Perlow
Don't "hate to break it to me" I can handle the news.
I guess I made a mistake using the bathroom senerio as it seems to have illicited responses I did not expect. I merely meant to say, I would not eat in many restuarants that are supported by "locals" (for the reasons mentioned earlier). Peroid.
However, your comment made me think. I would not eat in a restuarant if I was not comfortable using thier bathroom, regardless of how good the food is. I agree that bathroom cleanliness and food quality are not relative. However, I do believe that bathroom cleanliness is related to the overall restuarant sanitation. I can't inspect the kitchens, but I can inspect the bathrooms which are windows to a resturants attitude toward cleanliness.
Actually, the question that you posted is the sort thatI would probably ask and get hammered on because it would get totally misinterpreted.
A lot of bathrooms in top-flight chinese places are pretty gross. Not sure why this is, but certainly I have to admit I am not impressed with chinese sanitary tradition in general as it pertains to the markets in chinatown in NYC and frisco, so maybe this is related somehow.
The bathrooms at Ping downtown are clean, the NJ Penang's bathrooms were spotless, and Grand Sichuan's were pristine as well, so I don't know what to tell you.
Thank you again for your thoughtful, provocative reply. As usual, a lot to think about and consider. Your post made me think of the movie "Big Night", where the quality Italian restaurant is dying and the tourist trap is flourishing.
Couple of things occur to me, though. First, I don't think I buy into your argument (at least not entirely, not yet), in the case of highly concentrated ethnic neighborhoods like Chinatown, where I think the local opinion DOES count for something. In a place like Chinatown, if the locals flock to a Chinese restaurant or avoid it entirely, I think that is telling you something. For example, if a colleague who grew up in Chinatown told you that his parents and their friends all say that the best Cantonese seafood in Chinatown is at Fulleen's (or somewhere else), wouldn't you give it a try? Or if your colleague said that the locals say stay away from a place because their meat isn't fresh, wouldn't that ifluence your decision on going there?
Or perhaps we do agree, because I really am thinking more about first time visitors than someone who knows the neighborhood, even if not a local resident. For example, I am not a resident of Chinatown, but I go there a lot and, while I appreciate recommendations, by now I operate pretty much on my own knowledge there. And I certainly don't think a 24 year old Chinese person would have the same experience and tastes as I would (being in my fifties). But if I were going to Chinatown for the first time, I would be VERY interested in what the locals think.
On a slightly different note, here's something that occasionally happens to me: I pass a local restaurant that I have never patronized (i.e., it has just registered on my radar for the first time) when it suddenly occurs to me that it has been around for years. Even though I don't know anyone who has tried it and don't have anecdotal information on it, I decide I will try it on the theory that it must be doing something right simply by surviving in the same space for all those years. That seems like a form of accepting the neighborhood judgment on the place, at least for the first visit.
I enjoyed your anecdotes, especially about the German who is presumed to know all about beers simply because he is German. I do agree we can fall into that trap all too easily. There is no substitute for using your own judgment.
Re Big Wong's: It seems to me like they've had the same owners since the beginning of time (and maybe the same chefs as well). Which means that they haven't really changed anything in all the time I've been going there, but I consider that a plus. What they're doing they're doing right. I had occasion to visit there with five others one recent cold, snowy afternoon for lunch. Two had never been there before and they were knocked out by the place. They loved the soups and the congee and the fried pork starter (although I wish they'd serve it hot without having to send it back each time).
Anyway, you've raised some really interesting points that I want to consider about neighborhood places. More when I figure out what I think and what I want to say.
Hope your holidays were as good as mine, even better...
a couple of the best vacs I've had from a food point of view were in Brussels and later in The Hague. Our chum who lived in these places is, I guess, a chowhound. We had the pleasure of staying at his home...he goes in for these big agga cookers that warm the whole house. And we ate really at great restaurants and bars. I tasted my first kriek (sp?) in Brussels, and I had a lovely champagne cockatail with a dash of apricot essence. My first sweetbreads.
In the Hague, I still remember the name of the restaurant though it was around 8 years ago. Le Parapuille. My french isn't that great--the umbrella in any case. It was one of best fish restaurants I've ever been to.
Staying with a local makes for better eating than relying on guidebooks alone. Staying with the chowhound local on vac beats them all.