HOME > Chowhound > General Topics >

Discussion

Chowhounding Rules of Thumb

  • j

Does anyone have any chowhounding rules of thumb (for finding good eats, and strategizing once you've gone inside)? I'll start off with a few of my own:

When asking strangers for restaurant suggestions, watch their eyes. If they don't warm up and show excitement as they answer, politely thank them and find someone else to query (remember: 10% of humanity are chowhounds, and the trick is to find one!).

Always order spaghetti with meat sauce when it's a menu non sequitur

Just because people are "from there" doesn't mean they know anything about the cuisine--or where to find the best places (any more than the average American knows anything about great apple pie or hamburgers or clam chowder!).

Corollary to above: ethnic places filled with natives aren't necessarily good.

Truckers and police cars in restaurant parking lots do NOT indicate good food.

The more stuff (burgers, cold sandwiches, etc) served by a pizzeria, the worse the pizza.

Don't order steak in diners.

Don't seek restaurant tips in gas stations, government offices, or 7-11's.

Best line for convincing waiters to bring you the real, spicy, serious food (rather than the tamed-down gringo version): "Don't tell the chef I'm not Chinese/Thai/Korean/Ethiopian/etc (best delivered as the final parting remark after ordering, as the waiter is about to return to the kitchen).

If you ask a waiter what's good and they seem evasive (usually because they're afraid that if you don't like what they recommend that you'll hold it against them), quickly change the wording to "what do a lot of your customers order?" (which lets them off the hook)

Don't order seafood on Sundays or Mondays.

Always walk to the bathroom before ordering, in order to scan other people's plates for ordering ideas.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
Delete
  1. Hi Jeff,

    I'd liked your ideas-- especially the one about taking a trip to the restroom before ordering. I hadn't thought of that.

    I'd like to add a couple of tips of my own especially related to finding barbecue (especially places in the South and Texas):

    Never visit a 'cue place except during normal meal hours. Since the meat usually takes between 3 and 12 hours to smoke, the places plan on having there stuff ready at noon and 7. If you visit a place at 3pm, then count on getting dry, tough meat.

    If the sausage isn't homemade, it's probably not going to be that interesting.

    Distrust any place that advertises. A good place can survive on word of mouth from locals.

    Distrust any place that sells T-shirts. There are a couple exceptions to this rule, but for the most part shirt-selling places have "sold out" and don't care about making truly memorable food anymore. In a similar vein, generally distrust anyplace that "airmails" barbecue.

    Distrust any place that is open on Sundays-- especially in the Deep South. Sundays are days for loving your family (and the Lawd) and most people do not want to be lovin' the barbecue pit beginning at 4 in the morning.

    As most Southern states put county names on their license plates, check out the cars in the parking lots. If people have travelled more than 2 counties to get there, you can bet it is a good place. Double points for out-of-state plates.

    A Texas addendum is to count the number of trucks in the parking lot. A good ratio is more than 50%. Note, SUVs don't count. In fact, SUVs are probably a bad sign anywhere. Of course, I drive one. :)

    My 2cents,
    Carter

    5 Replies
    1. re: Carter

      Great , great stuff, Carter (stick around and post more, ok?).

      While I hope others chime in with barbecue rules of thumb, your first item made me realize that a lot of rules of thumb have to do with timing. here are some more (If anyone has any other tips on timing your eating, please reply to message....I've changed the thread title accordingly).

      Never visit a brick oven pizza place until at least several months after they open (it takes a while to get used to the oven).

      The bad weather tip I gave elsewhere in the thread (go to popular places during real bad weather for easy seating sans reservations)

      No dim sum after 2pm.

      speaking of timing, it's 4:30am, time to crash. more later! man, I just realized how incredibly urban and yuppie these tips sound after your great ones, even though I AM shifting topic...sorry....

      1. re: Jim Leff

        ok, some more timing thoughts:

        Don't order seafood on days with an "n" preceded by a vowel!

        In Chinese barbecue places, wait until they've hacked to the middle of the suckling pig before rushing forward to place your order (I learned this from a Chinese grandma)

        In buffets, keep your eye on what's being replenished so you can get fresher stuff (essential in Indian buffets, where bread and tandoori items are only good when right out of the kitchen). Wait them out!

        mondays and sundays are the riskiest nights to eat out....the main chef often takes off. Friday and Saturdays usually have the good chef on hand, but depending on the ratio of crowding to kitchen skill/organization, full care might not be taken. Tuesdays may be ideal....both the chef and the fish are likely to be fresh.

      2. re: Carter

        "Distrust any place that sells T-shirts. There are a couple exceptions to this rule, but for the most part shirt-selling places have "sold out" and don't care about making truly memorable food anymore. In a similar vein, generally distrust anyplace that "airmails" barbecue."

        How about places whose products you can buy in other venues? like barbecue sauce and other condiments from 'Porky's 'Cue Rations' secret recipe sauces are now available at {insert name of supermarket/deli and other fine stores near you}

        1. re: Carter

          One good rule at 'cue joints in KC is, If the chairs in the dining room don't match, you're in for some good stuff.

          1. re: Carter

            Very good, Carter. I would add that on my Texas roadtrips, the establishments that are on the outskirts of town on the cheap real estate, deserve investigation. But, beware of the ones that are just a front for money-laundering and don't really care about food.

          2. Two minor questions (and possible qualifications):

            1. I agree that "[j]ust because people are 'from there' doesn't mean they know anything about the cuisine--or where to find the best places (any more than the average American knows anything about great apple pie or hamburgers or clam chowder!)," and with the "corollary" that "ethnic places filled with natives aren't necessarily good." But isn't it also a reliable rule of thumb that "ethnic places filled with nothing but non-natives almost certainly are *not* good"?

            2. Is it really such a good idea to ask waiters (esp. in "ethnic" restaurants) "[W]hat do a lot of your customers order?"? I find that when I ask a waitperson for recommendations, more often than I'd like he or she responds "Well, most of our customers like [whatever is the most pedestrian and "Americanized" items on the menu]." I don't want to know what most folks order (except in those rare places with a loyal and knowledgable core clientele); I want to know where the hidden gems are!

            1 Reply
            1. re: Marty L.

              "But isn't it also a reliable rule of thumb that "ethnic places filled with nothing but non-natives almost certainly are *not* good"?"

              Depends on the non-natives. If they look like chowhounds, you're golden. I could name a number of restaurants that are underappreciated by their native clientele that chowhounds virtually keep in business.


              "Is it really such a good idea to ask waiters (esp. in "ethnic" restaurants) "[W]hat do a lot of your customers order?"

              only if they hesitate at the "what's good" question, or tell you "everything's good". If you get good info with question #1, you don't need to try the gambit of question #2. And in any case, you don't need to follow their advice. But with a hesitant, problematic, or uncaring waiter, the best info you can get out of him/her may be a bland statistical response re: what's popular. And that's useful info to have--sometimes compelling, sometimes not.

              ciao

            2. d
              Dr. Julius Kelp

              I, too, like the idea of a bathroom stroll prior to ordering. Here are two of my methods:
              1. Particularly abroad, to weed out the real restaurants from the tourist traps, look for something "disgusting" on the menu. This could be any organ meat, cut from above the neck, or anything else that would make the average tourist blanch.
              2. If a waiter in an ethnic restaurant tries to tell you that you won't like the "disgusting" thing you've ordered, assure him or her that you've had it before and really like it. That's how, many years ago, what began as a query about a menu item ended up in a plateful of giant sea cucumbers at a Chinatown restaurant. If I recall correctly, my tablemates quickly forgot our decision to share dishes.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Dr. Julius Kelp
                d
                David "Zeb" Cook

                "cut from above the neck, or anything else that would make the average tourist blanch."

                An acquaintance just told how when her husband ordered brains at a restaurant in Rome, the chef came out of the kitchen and kissed him, saying he never thought he'd see the day when an American would order brains!

                David "Zeb" Cook

                1. re: Dr. Julius Kelp

                  Here, here! I agree that ordering something
                  "disgusting" will often help you avoid the
                  food that is "dumbed-down" for the tourist.
                  In SE Asia I met with success when I ordered
                  dishes with such ingredients as boiled ant
                  eggs, fried rat (a harvest festival specialty)
                  and jellied buffalo skin. I was rewarded
                  every time with a new taste sensation. In
                  addition, I got involved in lengthy discussions
                  about the origin of what I ordered and other
                  distinctive dishes of the region.

                2. s
                  Steve Drucker

                  If you in a strange place and totally without a clue:
                  --Desk work is hard work. If there's lots of office workers, it may or not be good, but its very probably lots for the money.

                  If you are looking for Italian in older mid-west and northeast city neighborhoods, look for hyper neat and tidy houses converted to restaurants. This one almost never fails.

                  Certain menu items signal to avoid a place:
                  --i.e. fried cheese and fried mozzarella
                  .and the bakery corollary: if the fresh fruit tarte is made with puff pastry (because puff pastry is a bear to make, so is most likely frozen, cheap and chemical laden), quietly leave and find another bakery not so shortcut oriented and chemical inadverse.

                  Don't ask hotel desk clerks for their personal opinions on where to eat. Often the response is a dull eyed stare, followed by a ten watt bulb and a steer to the nearest Olive Garden or Appleby's.

                  BUT--if in the rare instance the desk clerk is well-larded or better, do ask!

                  Unless you are sure the sauce is prepared in the pan "a la minuit" and not ladled out from the steam table, get the sauce on the side.

                  If you don't want the sauce at all, under any circumstances, ask for the sauce on the side. Likewise, if you don't want cheese (or anchovies, or croutons) on your salad, ask for them on on the side.

                  Best method to turn up new places in a strange place: Once you find a good place, ask the manager/waiter/owner where the best sandwich, cookie, pastry, pizza, pho, steak, breakfast, pupusa etc is. Often the discussion gets thrown to the floor, and other patrons chime in.

                  That's how we found Jimmy Dadonna's Italian Restaurant in Solon Ohio--a blessing in the far eastern reaches of ex-uburban Cleveland, and Johnny's--Chicagoland's best sausage sandwich and lemon ice.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: Steve Drucker
                    m
                    Melissa Garland

                    "Best method to turn up new places in a strange place: Once you find a good place, ask the manager/waiter/owner where the best sandwich, cookie, pastry,pizza, pho, steak, breakfast, pupusa etc is. Often the discussion gets thrown to the floor, and other patrons chime in."

                    This is a great tip, and one that Tom Armitage also uses. I met up with Tom and his wife in Chicago where we ate at a wonderful little French Restaurant that I would never have found in a million years. When I asked Tom how he had found it he told me that when he was eating at another great restaurant in town that he had asked the chef where he ate on his night off.

                    1. re: Melissa Garland

                      Please name the place for me Melissa or Tom.

                      1. re: bryan
                        m
                        Melissa Garland

                        It was Le Bouchon on Damen. It was amazing.

                        1. re: Melissa Garland

                          I just took a look at our chicago board and this place has NEVER been mentioned there!

                          Melissa! Tom! You're holding out on us! I really hope you'll post at least short report over there!

                          Tom is indeed an urhound..."where do you eat on your night off?", I love it!

                          ciao

                  2. c
                    Caitlin McGrath

                    I've always thought good the suggestion to , instead of asking locals "what's good?", ask them "where do you like to eat?" and "What do you like to eat there and why?" The logic being that if you ask what's "good," they'll try to come up with what they think might please you (based on whatever impression of you they've put together instantly), rather than think of that hole-in-the-wall with the great whatever that they visit all the time.