Is it Valid to Suggest that Ethnic/foreign Cuisines Can BEST be judged by Members of that Ethnic Group??
that Chinese people as an example are in the best position to tell you what are the best chinese restaurants. or the best dishes to order.
And as an extension: that if a Chinese restaurant isnt frequented by Chinese, it cant be very good.
(And i would apply this theory to any other non American cuisine)
Food is not some type of Rennaisance Festival where you get extra points for authenticity. The true test is whether something tastes good to you, not to somebody else.
If the food that you like best happens to be authentic, swell, then seek out only the most authentic places. If you find that you like inauthentic but tasty places, that's fine too. All cuisines evolved and changed over time and are *still* changing in response to exposure to new ingredients and other cultures.
re: Bob Martinez
I would add that just because someone is from a country, they may not be able to judge the authenticity of every dish. For example, my roots are Southern Italian and I'm familiar with that region's food - but not so much with the Northern cuisine.
Plus, cooking evolves, so what would have been typical Italian food 20 years ago might not reflect the way they cook there now. (It took my dad forever to realize that his friends back home had switched from a mezzaluna to a food processor...)
In a word, yes. With respect to your question about Chinese folks in a Chinese restaurant, the question would be whether you're talking about a true regional cuisine Chinese restaurant in say a Chinatown (if there are no Chinese there, stay away), or whether you're talking about the 4-in-every town, American-Chinese places, in which case, Chinese do not represent the indigenous people for whom the cuisine was originated and evolved, so a lack of their taking part is no measure at all of its relative quality.
I think the best rule of thumb is always whether you like the food, regardless of who patronzes the restaurant.
FWIW, Chinese in a Chinese restaurant as a a rule of thumb is likely to be as useful as Europeans in a European restaurant. They may have a very rough idea of what's good, but the regional cuisines (and language/dialects) are so diverse that they may not necessarily be eating their indigenous foods (or ordering in the native languages).
I agree - most Americans do not know the difference between Asians - they wouldn't know a Japanese person from a Vietnamese, Northern from Southern Chinese. Most couldn't differentiate the languages.
So it does depend - if you don't know these things, then using generic Asians eating in Asian places makes as much sense as using Europeans to judge all European restaurants.
But if you go to an Italian place in the North End (Boston - or say Little Italy in NYC), and the place is full of people speaking Italian - the owner is obviously familiar with the local crowd, all enjoying their food - well you might make an assumption that the food is going to be better than Olive Garden.
This is the same as the Sichuan place nearby, which is always full of Chinese people speaking Mandarin, which I take as a sure sign that the place is worthy. In fact, being in the burbs, it is well known to many of the more recent Chinese immigrants living in a large area extending into New Hampshire.
It is indeed a Chowhound mantra - "it's what you like that matters". But the problem with that attitude is that it offers no opportunity for growth or experimentation. So you're only supposed to eat what you like? What if you don't know? What if you know that the safe and comforting items you've grown up with are just fine - but you know there's a lot more out there, and you want to find out more about it? What if you didn't like something once, but have read so much about it that it's worth another shot - or you feel that it might have been prepared badly, and want to find a better version? How does one go about expanding the palate? How does one gain more knowledge of all types of food?
Short of having a knowledgable, personal guide (best choice, if you ask me), is using the "patrons test" worthy of consideration when looking into new and different foods? - I'd say yes. Is it an absolute rule that all good restaurants of a particular type get those type of patrons all the time? Probably not. But it probably happens a lot more often than finding a group of say, Mandarin speaking Chinese, congregating in a lousy American-Chinese place - or say a lousy Italian red sauce place.
But you do have to watch out. The local American-Chinese buffet place in Lowell, a city with an extensive South-East Asian community, is always full of Asians - virtually all Vietnamese or Lao or Cambodian. There are items that are particularly interesting to many of them - the steamed crab legs being a major attraction. But most of the food falls into the brown glop category - there are certainly better versions of General Tso/Gau's, Singapore mei fun, and egg drop soup in the area. I wouldn't judge this place by the large Asian presence, but by the fact that it attracts zilch Cantonese speaking Chinese, (except the servers, who if you catch at a late lunch, are eating something totally off the menu/steam tables), zilch Mandarin speaking Chinese, and probably zilch Americans who particularly like great American-Chinese food. (Although I can only vouch for a certain group of my friends who refuse to eat there and they know where all the good egg rolls are...)
My tact would be to go into a place that looks to be well attended by the locals or the ethnic/cultural/language group it represents, and then to ask the server what their specialty is - what gets ordered the most by these people? I would then try that same dish or two in other places (over time) - and make up my mind of whether I liked it, and if so, which one I liked the best. Of course, I would discuss it here - and get the real skinny!
re: "What you like that matters" -- How does one decide whether one likes something? There are lots of theoretical justifications that can improve one's odds at the correct prediction, but I think the most rigorous answer is by eating/drinking. It's essential for expanding one palate etc...
The other important point in this is critical thinking/eating. "Experts" might be useful here and there, and they might provide useful background facts (e.g. techniques, ingredients etc...) but they are not an excuse to leave the tasting and thinking to someone else; one has to decide *critically* whether one likes something.
I agree about the imperfection in relying completely on rules of thumb. They are useful and they do improve the odds, but there are lots of exceptional places that are exceptions to these rules (e.g. one of my favourite North End restaurants has a Vietnamese chef), and when we're looking for stuff that's at the good extremes of the bell curve, generalizations aren't going to be as useful a predictor as for stuff that's in the middle. Rather than generalize, it's always better to taste.
Lastly, nothing bad with safe comforting food, I bet lots of Sichuan folks hang out at Sichuan places eating all sorts of spicy dishes because that's comforting and safe. But what a hound does is to find the best version of that safe comfortable food, rather than settle for an ordinary version.
I've posted on this subject before, and there are some caveats involved with this rule. For example, it might be that the person who owns the restaurant is well-connected into the community. Or there could be some other affiliation.
I don't believe that it is something that should be strictly adhered to. Think of this way, if we exend it to American food, then McDonalds, Denny's and The Cheesecake Factory should be considered excellent examples of American food.
Having said that, I do agree with the whole "go to where you like the food" idea. I mean sometimes I've eaten at a Chinese restaurant that I would consider a little too authentic and it turned my stomach because my palete is not used to things like tendon and liver in my beef stew. Sometimes, I just want the Orange Chicken.