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Nov 22, 2006 12:55 AM

Jim Leff and NY Times Article 11/22/06

Tomorrow's Food Pages are available on-line now and there is an article about Jim Leff entitled, An Owner No More, Alpha Dog Prowls by David Hochman.

Here's the weblink:

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  1. Just read it, very interesting. If I had Jim's gig, I would weigh 500 lbs.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Phaedrus

      Here's a direct link to the article (which may be unavailable to nonsubscribers after 11/28):

      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        None of the links given brought up the article, so I went to my San Francisco library site and did a newspaper search. Only thing missing was the picture of Jim on the beach.

        Any California resident can get a San Fran library card. Just a reminder of your tax dollars at work and one less password to remember. And no popup ads!

    2. It looks like Jim Leff's senses have let him down... as he went through Culver City / Mar Vista & adjacent areas without hitting the really great ones:

      2 Replies
      1. re: Eat_Nopal

        The whole point of the Chow Tour is to avoid the well known places and uncover new finds not already discussed on Chowhound. Like the obscure truck stop found via a fender bender in the latest Chow Tour installment, this mission is about the hunt as much as the kill:

        1. re: Professor Salt

          The places he has hit in my old stomping are all documented on Chowhound.... he just chose the less impressive finds.

      2. Mouthfulsfood does not screen members before they can post about food. Don't believe everything you read. LOL

        3 Replies
        1. re: Wilfrid

          I read that part of the article to refer to Opinionated About Dining, not Mouthfulsfood.

          1. re: Chris VR

            Right – Mouthfulsfood only screens memebers before they can post about OT subjects.

            Joking. It's just bad sentence construction on the writer's part. I mean, for heaven's sake – Mouthfuls even lets *me* post about food.

            1. re: GG Mora

              I went on the mouthfuls site this morning after reading the NYT piece. I had been there before but the story remined me to pay another call. And there was GG talking (Last August) about Rancho Gordo beans. What's this! I went to the RG site and bought the most beautiful heirloom beans. Thanks, GG.

        2. I enjoyed the article.

          1. did i detect a faint patronising tone to this article?

            the alpha dog has always vey clearly stated what chimes his bell: soul. it has never been about eating cheap, for heavens sake. if someone makes something for you from the cheapest ingredients but manages to invest a particle of their soul in that creation, than the alpha dogs personal ecstatograph swings into danger zone.

            the search for that satori can lead to the strangest places as we've seen over the years. but to deride the arepa lady for using cheap flour is to miss the point completely.

            73 Replies
            1. re: howler

              The quote from Steve Plotnicki is, "Jim was having an increasingly difficult time with people challenging his sensibilities. You could never argue with him about, say, his sainted Arepa Lady. 'Come on, Jim, she’s using cheap corn flour.' No, that detail would seem elitist. He wants the conclusion of any discussion about the Arepa Lady to be that the Arepa Lady is good."

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  Howler's right. There's no point there. The only thing that would have made sense is if someone challenged Jim's opinion of the A.Lady by saying that they've eaten her food and that its inconsistantly good and/or that she's cut back from what made her food taste great by using different, cheaper ingredients. As it stands, if Jim or any of us find something that consistantly tastes great, it really doesnt pay to get into an esoteric discussion about the ingredients someone else thinks she should be using. This quote from Steve P. doesnt really challenge Jim's credibility at all.

                  1. re: Steve R

                    thanks for agreeing with me.

                    there is no substitute for soul. great ingredients have their place, just as i dig my wonderful stereo system. but its what playing that counts.

                    1. re: Steve R

                      Nobody's talking about credibility. Plotnicki's phrase was, "Jim was having an increasingly difficult time with people challenging his sensibilities."

                      People have different palates and different tastes. People who are highly attuned to certain details (such as the quality of corn flour) will sometimes on that basis not like things that most everybody thinks are great.

                      That such opinions are informed by more or less esoteric knowledge does not make them invalid. There's no such thing as a wrong opinion about food. Disagreements are inevitable and there's no reason anyone should take them personally.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        disgareements are inevitable and are indeed welcomed .. i don't think anyones taking anything personally. but lets be clear: whats valid or invalid is a deductive argument, whle an opinion is just that - an opinion.

                        in most reasonable discourse, we agree on a framework and stay within it. it can get quickly chaotic while you have your valid statement on magazine covers while i respond with my equally valid comment on color blind butterflies.

                        to explain the point a bit better, here's an analogy: a mathematician proves a beautiful result on the board. someone says they thought the effort not that great because he used pink chalk.

                        would you agree that the statement about the chalks color is irrelevant? its the same with the arepa lady.

                        when it comes to 'challenging jims sensibilities' at least challenge them in the same zip code. what hes digging and sharing with you about the arepa lady isn't about the quality of her flour, for heavens sake.

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          Nothing personal about it... I just dont agree with the overall point being made. If someone lets the color of the walls interfere with their tastebuds, there's nothing I can do about it. But I will not see the review as credible if I gather from the entire review that this is really what's driving the conclusion. Ingredients are certainly more central to taste than wall color, but I still think its esoteric to base things on what one thinks the cook/chef should be using and not stick to the taste of the final product. I'd have been more content if the criticism was at all linked to how the food was tasted (which is what you're referring to in your 2nd paragraph).

                          1. re: Steve R

                            I don't live in New York, have never read one of Jim Leff's reports, and haven't eaten an arepa, so this hypothetical? argument is really too abstract for me. (It's not clear from Plotnicki's quote whether it's hypothetical or if that's a real example of a post Jim Leff removed.)

                            However, I've seen numerous discussions on my local board that seem similar, where people want to like a place for romantic reasons and don't want to hear that the chowder comes out of a can or whatever.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              Oh if you never read his reviews from the early 90s, you are missing something. He could write a thousand words on a piece of pastry in a greek diner, and show how it would give you a window view on enlightenment and the secrets of the universe. He had me on the next train to Astoria to taste that bogasta, and it was actually really good... but not as good as his writing.

                              1. re: Brian S

                                doesn't that then go to how good a writer one is and not how good a food particularly is. i've gone to many restaurants based on a food or restaurant's description only to find the restaurant or specific item to be subpar in my opinion. if you don't want a bit of romanticism or emotion heaped on food, just read a list of ingredients for a dish and base whether you do or do not go to a restaurant or eat a particular food on that.

                                1. re: jon

                                  The thing about the diversity of opinions on Chowhound is that after a while I learn whose taste is similar to mine and trust their recommendations.

                                  1. re: jon

                                    "doesn't that then go to how good a writer one is and not how good a food particularly is."

                                    I think that Robert hit it on the nose and it applies to food critics as well as Chowhounds. I found this site because a local food critic steered me wrong so many times and I was searching around to see if it was me or there was someone else who thought the food at a particular place wasn't all that.

                                    IMO, food is more than the ingrediant list, it is also about romanticism and emotion which starts with the person doing the cooking. Of course, passionate words from a cook or a writer don't always translate to the dish. What is one person's passion is only 'eh' to someone else.

                                    This past year I've eaten at a lot of dives where the ingrediants weren't anything special. A place I just ate at I saw some of the groceries being hauled in from a nothing market next door, ordinary potatoes, the cheapest black-eyed peas and a loaf of Wonder Bread.

                                    The food from a steam tray looked tired and awful yet it was one of the most deeply satisfying meals that I've had in a long time. I suspect the people who enjoy eating organic 'name' veggies would be appalled by the joint and wouldn't share my passion.

                                    So, I agree that the type of corn meal the arepas are made of is irrelevant and for someone who thinks it is, then it is unlikely they would appreciate the finished product.

                                    I can't speak for anyone else's personal experience as to disagreeing with Jim's opinion on something he was passionate about. Unless you see the original post and response you only have that person's view about what happened which is probably valid from their perspective.

                                    As far as food, from my own personal experience, that hasn't been the case. I was impressed with the response I got when I disagreed with one of Jim's favorite joints in SF, La Palma Mexicatessan. He wrote in a trip report that is now gone (but I save off writing I really like be it a critic or ordinary chowhound citizen) ...

                                    "I also ordered a pupusa, and while I'd previously agreed with Jonathan Gold that to try one pupusa is to try them all, we reached that erroneous conclusion because we hadn't tried THESE pupusas. They were filled with a molten combination of creamy pork, cheese, and beans -- brilliantly spiced and very very clean-tasting -- and the dough had been hand-kneaded less than an hour before. It's the kind of thing where you want to sell all your stuff and move into the apartment upstairs and dedicate your life to eating here."

                                    Yeah. That wasn't my experience.

                                    So, early in my Chowhound days, I posted with trepidition that it wasn't all that and didn't rank up there with SF's best. The post stood and I got a nice response that gave me a little more insight and a tip ... make sure they are being made to order.

                                    In a sense I think it is also an insight about why a food that doesn't ring everyone's bells can be the holy grail to another person. It is true of life. The person you adoringly date or marry might mystify your friends as to what the appeal is all about.

                                  2. re: Brian S

                                    What I and a lot of other people consider Jim''s most entrancing NY Press review had me and a lot of other hounds making the 2 hour trek by a weird subway-bus combination to a deserted stretch of Queens near the city line. It was on the old Chowhound site but is not on the new one, and disappeared from the Internet. What a loss! I finally managed to find it in a huge Internet archive. Here it is. Warning: the restaurants described closed years ago.

                                    Probably my favorite cuisine is that of the south. Nothing gets me going like the thought of crunchy fried chicken, oniony smothered pork chops, candied yams, collards, corn bread, warm peach cobbler, and mounds of deep-yellow macaroni and cheese with the crunchy stick-to-the-pot bits stirred in. Up here in the north, of course, it is African-Americans who keep this kind of cooking alive. I've been to most soul-food joints worth mentioning within shooting range of New York; all the usual spots like Sylvia's, Wilson's, La Famile, Copeland's, M and G Diner (amazing carrot cake, open 24 hours), and Brooklyn's Country Kitchen. I've checked out the new, upscale soul-food places like Honeysuckle (especially good for smothered chicken) and Mr. Leo's (chicken and dumplings). I'm one of the few regulars from outside of the neighborhood at local landmarks like Carmichael's Soul Food Diner in Jamaica and the Dixie Pig in Hempstead. I have spots I frequent for only one or two specific things, like Singleton's for sweet potato pie and chopped barbecue, Emily's for baby back ribs and collards.

                                    My favorite place of all, though, has been the Skylark Lounge, a cozy little club in South Jamaica where Walter Perkins--the swingingest, most soulful drummer around--plays on the weekends and the highly talented and personnable Ray cooks. Richard, the former chef at Skylark, excelled at smothered pork chops in a subtle but intensely earthy thick brown oniony gravy, the chops tender and coated with well-peppered country breading. He also made a macaroni and cheese that to this day is the best I've ever had. But Richard split for a gig in Brooklyn (I'll find him and let you know exactly where), and now Ray cooks up a storm. He makes many things beautifully, but his chopped barbecue and candied yams are ridiculous. I brought a friend from North Carolina (the birthplace of chopped barbecue) and she flipped, solemnly pronouncing it better than her father's, what with all those shreds and chunks of savory, smokey, spicy slow-cooked meat slathered with a perfect vinegary, tangy sauce. The yams are lumpy-crispy-mushy, each bite a new delicious surprise. They were deep enough to instantly convert my favorite surgical technician, Barbara, from sweet-tempered yam- hater to maniacal yam-hogger. Other items are also carefully, soulfully cooked, making this (so I thought) the best southern food in town.

                                    But recently I hit gold. Make that platinum. There's a deserted stretch of road in south Jamaica, undistinguished except for the presence of a ramshackle little hut, a true honest-to-goodness southern barbecue place, steam wafting from inside, clouds of smoke billowing from the meat cooking outside by the door. The handpainted shingle reads "Mississippi Barbecue". You've just died and gone to heaven. You are about to experience the real thing, and Jamaica is a whole lot closer to home than Mississippi.

                                    They're open Thursday through Saturday, 6:30p.m.-11p.m. and they serve only takeout (it makes for great car chow, anyway). Bulletproof glass separates you from physical contact with anything but a thin mean strip of linoleum. It doesn't matter. The folks here can touch you intimately in all sorts of ways with the sheer depth of their cooking.

                                    Let's dig right into the ribs. Big and brown and falling off the bone, these aren't merely the best ribs in town. These are far better than you've ever imagined ribs could be. You take a bite into the crusty juicy things expecting mere greatness, and you're blown away by a huge, masterfully complex smokey crunchy taste volcano. Eyes roll back in sockets, head tilts skyward and all of space and time converge on the interface of mouth and rib. You mumble giddily, incoherently, trying to come up with adjectives, but it's inexpressible and you drift back once again into silent ecstatic reverie. Omigod, omigod. These ribs are...words fail.

                                    String beans, macaroni and cheese and yams are all absolutely top-notch. Man, EVERYTHING is totally great. Corn muffins taste like they were just baked by your grandma in Alabama. Chicken is the stuff of genius, cooked lovingly, evenly, to just the right point, skin as evenly brown and unblemished as a fine Cuban cigar. Complete dinners--meat and two side dishes and a muffin--run about six bucks.

                                    Some things rate just an A-minus. For example, their chopped barbecue isn't as good as the Skylark's. The meat itself is very tasty--at least as good as Singletons--but the sauce doesn't quite meld. Collards, though perfect, would be better if served in their own container, so that they could be doused with more of their tasty, healthy juice ("pot likker"). The peach cobbler was merely delicious.

                                    No flaws at all were found in the banana pudding. It's pretty hard to dislike banana pudding even when poorly-made; how can you go wrong with chunks of bananas, yellow pudding, broken-up soggy Nilla Wafers and meringue topping all stirred together? This place makes a far, far better (and denser-- a small container weighs about a pound) version than you'll ever find anywhere else. The bananas are at exactly the optimal point of slight overripeness; waiting even a single day more would have put them past the point of perfection. The subtle hand that blends the ingredients achieves a balance of dazzling, profound heights. It can't be analyzed, it can't be described; all one can do is to swoon back in one's chair and be overwhelmed.

                                    Look, I know the place is far away, and there's no subway nearby. But if you do make the pilgrimage, it's a sure bet that at meal's end you'll find yourself eagerly planning your next trip back--tomorrow, perhaps? Here are some transportation suggestions: you could take the E train to the last stop and then the #85 bus to Baisley and 172 Street. Or a Carey bus from midtown to nearby JFK and then a taxi. Rent a car. Beg a friend with wheels. Do SOMETHING for crying out loud, and just get there. If you procrastinate, one day you'll wake up and the mirage will have disappeared; there will be no more Mississippi Barbecue and you'll curse yourself for never having gone, for never having paid homage to the only truly great southern road house food this side of Chapel Hill.

                                    Driving directions: LIE or Grand Central Parkway to Van Wyck South, take ex. 3, Linden Boulevard. Left at light on Linden. Pass McDonalds, make right on Guy Brewer Blvd. Pass Carmichael's Soul Food Diner on right (great food, and "Community Jazz Organization" concerts in the basement early Wednesday nights), left on Baisley (The Village Door, near corner, has jazz, and is notable for serving the world's very worst chinese food). Mississippi BBQ comes up pretty soon on the right, after the overpass. Figure on 20-25 minutes from the bridge/tunnel, depending on traffic.

                                    1. re: Brian S

                                      "How can you go wrong with ... broken-up soggy Nilla Wafers"? One way would be to swallow them.


                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        C'mon now, dont be picky and ruin the feel of it. You know that the 'nillas are only one part of it and that he was waxing poetic about the whole gestalt, especially the perfect bananas.

                                      2. re: Brian S

                                        Thanks for dredging that up. I remember it, especially since "Carmichael" is a friend of mine at work and I speak to him regularly. He no longer has any restaurants or clubs.

                                        1. re: Steve R

                                          Glad you liked it. It's not on Google anywhere and I just wanted to preserve it. Otherwise it might be gone from the Internet and lost forever, unless Jim kept a copy of the manuscript somewhere.

                                        2. re: Brian S

                                          Thanks for the save. Great piece. Did the food live up to it?

                                          1. re: Aromatherapy

                                            Yes! It was the only real barbecue I have had in NY, and it was good even by Southern standards. And I do know barbecue... not an expert, but I try...

                                      3. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        Sorry I didn't see this sooner. My quote about the arepa lady was indeed a hypothetical as I have not had the good fortune to have eaten her arepas (can't stay up that late). But the point I
                                        was trying to make was about the difference between standards based on personal taste and standards based on ideals. For example, if someone makes arepas using artisanally grown organic corn, how canm can arepas made from mass produced commercial corn be "sainted"?
                                        And don't tell me it's the way the person making them goes pitty pat with the corn in dough form. Technique goes a long way but it can't make up for quality. At best it maximizes what you start out with.

                                        1. re: Steve Plotnicki

                                          wow so you've never even tried them but you're willing to battle it out re her merits. methinks the problem here is not with jim leff....

                                          1. re: choctastic

                                            I guess you didn't read what I wrote. I said it was a hypothetical. But you don't have to taste them to know that she doesn't use artisanally grown organic corn. Street vendors simply don't use ingredients of that quality because of cost. Once you know that fact, how can her arepas be "sainted"? And that doesn't mean they can't be delicious. Just that ideals should be calibrated to actual quality. I could make the same point about many things I enjoy eating like gorditas from the taco cart on 97th Street off of Second Avenue. They are really delicious but I am realistic about exactly how good they are because ultimately they are made using the same commercially produced masa and and pork that everyone else uses. If I exhausted my highest rating for gorditas on commercial masa, what would I say about ones made from higher quality ingredients?


                                            1. re: Steve Plotnicki

                                              good lord, you can't be serious.

                                              let me try and spell it out: the notion is that of 'appropriatenss'.

                                              it's like using a supreme wine to make coq au vin. its like using a porsche to drive in the jungle. its like wearing a tux to wrestle in. its like ....

                                              1. re: Steve Plotnicki

                                                To answer your last question, I think you would rate each gordita on its own merits.

                                                Do you really think in practice that you'd be able to unerringly discern which gorditas were made from your "ideal" ingredients. As someone who has participated in many tastings of many different types of food and drink, it can be a humbling experience.

                                                I have to agree with Howler that it's hard to believe you're making this point seriously. What constitutes a good hamburger? Does the meat have to be organic? Is prime sirloin or filet mignon superior to chuck?

                                                1. re: Dave Feldman

                                                  what's the point of a hypothetical argument if one never test out one's theories?

                                                  1. re: Dave Feldman

                                                    But many people have this skill. It isn't hard to pick it up, this it's just a matter of tasting practice. But let me flip this on you and ask you the following question. Isn't it the case that DiFara's is better pizza because they don't use the same commercial dough, cheese and sauce as Ray's Famous? So please explain to me that if better quality ingredients makes for better pizza, isn't possible that someone makes better pizza than DiFara's?

                                                    What I'm really getting at is a response of "it tastes good to me" is not an answer to a question that asks, why is it good? Those are the competing concepts here. People want to claim things are good because they taste good to them, but that doesn't explain why it tastes good to them. There is no way to analyze why without getting into the issues I have raised.


                                                    1. re: Steve Plotnicki

                                                      That last paragraph does raise interesting issues. I started a discussion about them last year and got 21 replies.

                                                      By the way, DiFara's uses a gas oven, which is as much a no-no for pizza as for barbecue.

                                                  2. re: Steve Plotnicki

                                                    I think the comments here demonstrate your point.

                                                    Many people don't want to analyze the experience critcally to sort out the taste of the food from other factors. If they love something for reasons other than taste, and someone ventures the opinion that the taste isn't that exceptional, they'll call him elitist.

                                                    And maybe that's a fair cop. But that doesn't make the elitist's opinion any less worthy than anyone else's.

                                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                      Yep -- agree entirely that it's essential to analyze the food critically and empirically based on taste rather than on the wallpaper or preconceived notions about the technique or ingredients.

                                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                        What I often find is that the same people who are perfectly happy to reject something when they don't find the taste exceptional are quick to call someone elitest when they exhibit greater knowledge. It is a convenient way to ignore standards by claiming that quality is whatever you say it is.

                                                        But we are getting far afield from my quote because I was trying to communicate a different point. The writer asked me why so many people have left Chowhound and I was trying to explain that some people wanted to discuss why something tasted good, but that Jim wssn't that interested in making the why of it all a major focus of the discussion here. And as a result, some people left and started their own forums.


                                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                          the opinion of someone who likes to think of himself as an elitist really has no worth if it's based on shorthand as it is here. instead of doing actual research and finding out what makes a sainted arepa instead we have plotnicki's "opinions" based on what amounts to armchair research. sorry, you have to work a little harder than that.

                                                          1. re: choctastic

                                                            The arepa is a hypothetical case, and being called an elitist is quite different than thinking of yourself as one.

                                                        2. re: Steve Plotnicki

                                                          Do you know that Michelangelo sculpted his David from a seriously flawed block of marble?

                                                          1. re: Brian S

                                                            He did a pretty good job of working around the flaws don't you think!

                                                            1. re: Steve Plotnicki

                                                              Yes, he did. But someone who refused to look at Michelangelo's David because it was not made of high-quality marble would never know it!

                                                          2. re: Steve Plotnicki

                                                            It might be fun to hypothesize but it's better to seek out good chow. Why not just pound the pavement a bit and find a better arepa. Locate someone making arepas from artisanally grown organic corn. That's win-win situation.

                                                            In real life, food isn't rated 1 to 10 on an absolute scale, ratings aren't ever exhausted -- just say that it was the best one you ever had, and if you have a better one, then it becomes the best one you had, and the other one is now the second best one you ever hard.

                                                            1. re: limster

                                                              But how can you seek out good chow if you do not know what to look for? Better arepas do not grow on trees, are not made by magic, and are not a product of divine intervention. They exist because a more competent chef used better quality ingredients.

                                                              1. re: Steve Plotnicki

                                                                One seeks them out by trying a lot of them and deciding which one you prefer on the basis of taste. You've laid out the criteria -- a more competent chef using better quality ingredients -- so why not start there by looking for such a chef? Of course if you want to be more rigourous, you could also compare them to a chef using lower quality ingredients or with different techniques to really test the assumption that better ingredients or better technique makes difference to your tastes. There aren't shortcuts, although one gets lucky once in a while.

                                                                1. re: limster

                                                                  But that is an inefficient and ineffectual way of finding them. A better way of finding them is to read about them. But in order fora recommendation to have true meaning, the person writing about it has to do a better job of explaining why something is good than saying I liked it. Because what if the person who liked ir can't tell the difference between good and bad?

                                                                  Should we give the recommendations of a person who likes the way chickens that are pumped up with hormones and antibiotics taste the same level of credence as the recommendations of someonme who has the ability to reject that type of chicken? I can't imagine you are going to stretch your assertion about "its all about what tastes good to you" that far. Please explain how chickens loaded with chemicals can possibly taste any good? Isn't the person who thinks they taste good simply uninformed about it and isn't their opinion worth less than someone who has an informed opinion? And that isn't to say that you have to agree with them. But the issue I raised with the Times is that it is wrong to reject that type of informed knowledge out of hand.

                                                                  1. re: Steve Plotnicki

                                                                    As you've pointed out, reading about them (rather than seeking them out yourself) presents many pitfalls -- including but not limited to the point that the people may do a poor job explaining why something is good or are uninformed. In addition, the reviews are not products of divine intervention or magic, someone has to taste them at some point. Given that tastes and expertise varies, why not rely on your own, rather than leave yourself at the mercy of someone who may not know the difference between chickens pumped up with hormones and antibiotics and free-range chickens that are carefully raised from a good stock? With all these pitfalls, is reading really more efficient and effective?

                                                                    1. re: limster

                                                                      No reading about them is more efficient. That's because reviewers at weed them out and at least limit the number you have to bother with. But if I had to eat through ever taqueria in the city to know where the good tacos are, I'd end up mostly wasting my time. And I'd rather spend my time enjoying myself than wasting my time.

                                                                      But I am trying to make a slightly more nuanced point that the one you are addressing. If Sietsema gives two Uzbeki restaurant 3 stars, and one uses ingredients that are clearly inferior to the other, shouldn't he tell me that? But a discussing quality is not an integral part of the discussion about ethnic and other forms of inexpensive dining. And to take it a step further, some people claim that the issue isn't a valid one to raise.

                                                                      1. re: Steve Plotnicki

                                                                        Some people like to read and debate about food.

                                                                        Some people would rather eat food.

                                                                        Let's all be glad there are different food forums to suit everyone.

                                                                        1. re: Chris VR

                                                                          Chowhound's not much use for people who don't like to read about food.

                                                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                            Chowhound's much more useful for people who eat food than those that just read about food. Preferring to eat does not mean disliking to read about food, it just means liking the former more than the latter.

                                                                        2. re: Steve Plotnicki

                                                                          Going with the information that the reviewer provide might be fine, but if the information is not comprehensive nor accurate for the reasons you describe, then why is the weeding out a useful process? Good places might be weeded out in the process. I find treasure hunting for a good taco or anything a fun experience and mostly satisfying; we'll just have to disagree on whether it's a good use of time or not.

                                                                          If Sietsema can tell the difference between the dishes in the two restaurants and that one is clearly more delicious to him than other then it would be useful to know about it.

                                                                          The point about the ingredient quality assumes that there is a perfect correlation between the quality of the ingredient and the deliciousness (in whatever subjective and discernable way) of the final product. That assumption is not always true. In instances where it's true, it would be important to raise the issue. It's not sufficient to generalize, but requires critical thinking, an open mind and empirical experience on the part of eater on the dish by dish basis.

                                                                          1. re: limster

                                                                            The point about the ingredient quality doesn't assume a perfect correlation. It simply assumes a high correlation. And you know what, there is a high correlation as set forth in the DiFara's example and I can name many others. I'm even certain that if we were to analyze what makes people flock to the arepa lady, we would find out that what sets her apart is either what she uses to make them or her process for making them. What else could it be, voodoo?

                                                                            But the most important point that you seem to be missing is the ceiling that ordinary ingredients place on deliciousness. You seem to be saying that running around and tasting tacos might preclude the impact that hyper-injected chickens have on the limitations of its deliciousness. While I understand the fun in running around your city trying different taquerias, you haven't yet explained how the activity changes how infrerior ingredients impact how delicious something can be?

                                                                            1. re: Steve Plotnicki

                                                                              all of this reminds me of my tone-deaf friends who worry obssessively about the quality of their stereo equipment... on the other hand, i have musician friends who are sometimes happy with the plain score.

                                                                              the true test of any food is in the mouth - not whats gone into it. 'better' ingredients do not necessarily a better dish make as anyone with the slightest palate knows.

                                                                              but there are some things you just can't explain to tone-deaf people.

                                                                              1. re: howler

                                                                                Howler your position doesn't make any sense. If better ingredients and better preparation doesn't make a dish better, explain what does? How can Dish A be better than Dish B without it being because of the ingredients or degree of preparation? What other component can it possibly be. The beautiful sunset? The sound of the El flailing above you while eating an arepa? The gas fumes from the traffic on Second Avenue when I'm having a taco? Please tell me what makes something better other than ingredients and preparation.

                                                                                It comes down to the following;

                                                                                It isn't good because you like it, you like it because it is good.

                                                                                That means taste is calibrated to quality and not the other way around which is what you keep saying.

                                                                                1. re: Steve Plotnicki

                                                                                  Here we are... one big dysfunctional family again. Just look at the "Who's Talking" sidebar and tell me we're not having fun. It's like the ghosts of Christmas past. A couple more missing persons and we could do a reunion movie.

                                                                                  Steve... we're back to the same argument and I think that a # of us just dont buy that the last 2 sentences of your above post flow quite as well as you do. "You like it because it is good" is fine by me but you're defining "good" and "quality" way too academically. Sure, Dom uses very high end ingredients but he's experimented with lots of variations over the years (some downright inexpensive) and the reviews (and my own liking of the product) haven't exactly swung in time with the cost of these changes. As a matter of fact, the oven is now way past its prime (okay, an oven ain't exactly an ingredient) and no one seems to be calling for him to upgrade to a better one to make the pizza taste better. And, where's the similar argument with the other beloved pizza places? Anyone look at Ed Levine's top 5 and see how many of them are using low grade flour, non-imported tomatoes, less expensive cheeses, non-home grown basil? Yet, there they are on the list and folks love 'em. So... magic?

                                                                                  The taste is the thing and there are many factors you're not thinking thru here. If the Arepa Lady gets this great taste (as so many who have eaten her arepas say she does) using low end flour, maybe it combines better with her low end grill then high end flour would combine with a high end grill (just one of many possibilities). Or, given the season, maybe she IS magic. Ya gotta believe.

                                                                                  1. re: Steve R

                                                                                    I seem to recall these debates on egullet too.

                                                                                    I think there is an element of mystery in good cooking that
                                                                                    transcends ingredients, call it touch - its not just the kind of technique that can be learned. I just had some of my mother's pie again a couple weeks ago - she was a home ec teacher, a grandprize state fair baker in earlier days and her mother was an excellent baker too - Mom still uses crisco and even so, her pies are still more delicious than a lot of fancier pies with butter, etc. A lot of it is texture - there is such a thing as a light hand with pastry, and she has it, along with 60+ years of experience in the kitchen. Id venture that the arepa lady's touch and feel for her ingredients and her cooking process is what (I havent had the pleasure either) raises her products to a high level. There are seemingly many traditional, vernacular cooks who produce exceptionally delicious food with run of the mill ingredients and lots of fancy restaurants that dole out boring "hunk of expensive protein on a plate".

                                                                                    I agree that it is interesting to figure all this out, and increased knowledge enriches the experience, but ultimately, we have to trust our palates over our analytical skills.

                                                                                  2. re: Steve Plotnicki

                                                                                    I probably have no business chiming in this discussion because I don't think I've ever had an arepa, let alone one from the arepa lady, but, here I go anyway.

                                                                                    "Please tell me what makes something better other than ingredients and preparation."

                                                                                    I think you're missing another critical factor in evaluating food and that's the quest for authenticity. There are infinite ways to prepare most dishes, but only those prepared in a certain limited combination of ways with certain ingredients come closest to replicating any specific dish.

                                                                                    A simple example: when I was a kid, we ate a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches, prepared, mostly, with inferior ingredients. American cheese on day-old Wonder Bread, grilled in salted butter. Now, you could say, well, let's elevate that a little and swap out the Wonder bread for high-quality artisan bread, swap out the American cheese for better cheese, and I'd say, yeah, that's still a grilled cheese sandwich. And it tastes better. But, at some point, there's going to be a limit to the swapping out ingredients I’ll allow before I'm going to object: that's just not a grilled cheese sandwich anymore. Maybe it's morphed into something else entirely, like a croque monsieur. Or maybe into something that doesn’t even have a name of its own; but, still, it’s not a grilled cheese sandwich. This doesn't mean that this new creation doesn't taste good, better even, but, maybe it's just something slightly different.

                                                                                    You have to judge the food for what it is, there can’t be infinite variations in ingredients and preparations before it stops being what it is. When it comes to certain kinds of street foods, maybe the particular combination of, yes, possibly even inferior, ingredients might be part of what defines it.


                                                                                    1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                                                                      I'm sure I have no business in this discussion, either, but I'd suggest Tejano-style pork tamales as another example of a humble dish, using low-end ingredients, that is nonetheless magically delicious. You can prepare them with duck confit as the filling and home-rendered leaf-lard (or no lard at all) in the masa, but soon they’re no longer the same entity, as TDQ explains above.

                                                                                      Personally, I have no problem accepting the fact that the best ones are home-made with cheap lard, fatty pork, and just the right hand with the masa and seasoning. And I've eaten dozens of them over the years.

                                                                                      1. re: MPH

                                                                                        "I have no problem accepting the fact that the best ones are home-made with cheap lard, fatty pork, and just the right touch with the masa and seasoning."

                                                                                        Tamales made with delicious freshly rendered lard taste much better than those made with that flavorless industrial crap.

                                                                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                                          In theory, I agree with you. In my experience, however, tamales made with non-hydrogenated lard from Mexican markets (which is cheap but tastes better than something like Armour's brand, for example) have been among the very best of the home-made ones that I've been lucky enough to try. At times they've been so good that I can't stop eating them.

                                                                                          Are you suggesting that high-end ingredients make tamales—and arepas—more delicious? Or just recommending that I try making a batch with home-rendered lard? Because I have, and I liked the results. But I’ve also enjoyed the delicious versions made with lard from the Mexican market.

                                                                                          1. re: MPH

                                                                                            The best ingredients aren't necessarily high-end. Carnicerias sometimes sell freshly rendered lard cheap. Pork from Mexican butchers typically has twice the flavor of Whole Foods' organic pork that costs 2-3 times as much. Cheap pineapples from a Mexican grocer typically have better flavor than expensive organic ones. Perfect fresh cilantro from my local farmers market costs less than a less flavorful bunch from the grocery store.

                                                                                            If somebody can make great tamales using second-rate lard, then they can make even better tamales using the best lard.

                                                                                        2. re: MPH

                                                                                          That's a different point. I agree that an increase in quality doesn't necessarily make a dish better. But I haven't claimed it does. What I said was that when you can find a difference in quality you will be able to reduce the difference to something tangeable.

                                                                                          So while better lard or better flour doesn't always make for a better tamale, when you happen to find a better tamale, better flour or lard is likely to be the cause of it.

                                                                                          1. re: Steve Plotnicki

                                                                                            In your response to MPH, I have found a post from you that I can agree with. If you find better food, it is likely to be better because of better ingredients or better preparation (including both technique and proportions), but trading up in the quality of ingredients does not necessarily make for a better dish.

                                                                                            Many of your other posts are inconsistent with that statement. For example, you say to limster below, "I don't need to taste something if I know the ingredients they use are of poor quality." On the one hand, tasting something is likely to be a lot quicker than determining the quality of all the ingredients some other way. On the other hand, since, as you say, "I agree that an increase in quality [ingredients] doesn't necessarily make a dish better," the fact that someone uses an inferior ingredient cannot disqualify their masterpiece.

                                                                                            Back to your original point: if you can find a better arepa, please figure out and express if you can why it is better. That would be a welcome addition to Chowhound.

                                                                                            1. re: Knoblauch

                                                                                              "For example, you say to limster below, "I don't need to taste something if I know the ingredients they use are of poor quality." On the one hand, tasting something is likely to be a lot quicker than determining the quality of all the ingredients some other way. "

                                                                                              Which is why writers who can discuss what you will find in any dish are of more value than those who limit their commentary to saying it was delicious. So yes it is perfectly consistant with the statement of mine that you quoted in that what tastes good is a function of quality.

                                                                                              1. re: Knoblauch

                                                                                                I wonder if we define words differently.

                                                                                                All else being the same, if I replace an ingredient in a dish with one that tastes better, the dish will taste better.

                                                                                                If it doesn't make the dish taste better, then in what sense is it a "better" ingredient?

                                                                                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                                                  I suppose that there are two forms of "better". There is some sort of objective standard of goodness of a particular ingredient, and then there is how it fares as an ingredient in a particular dish.

                                                                                                  Perhaps the objective standard is just a rhetorical point, and the quality of an ingredient can only be interpreted as it combines with other ingredients in a particular dish. While I agree with you as a general rule that a better-tasting ingredient will help to make a better-tasting end-product, there are cases where that is not necessarily the case.

                                                                                                  On the spirits board, you'll see comments that some gins are the best for drinking by themselves, while others lend themselves better to being mixed. There are also ingredients whose flavor is less important to a recipe than chemical qualities and textures. Choosing those ingredients by flavor could be a mistake.

                                                                                                  So I think I agree with what you are saying. Ingredients used in a dish need to be judged on their contribution to the dish's final result, not on some pseudo-objective rating of it.

                                                                                                  1. re: Knoblauch

                                                                                                    "Better" is a value judgment, and it's relative to the context. There's no objective standard.

                                                                                          2. re: The Dairy Queen

                                                                                            those old grilled cheese sandwiches - with processed cheese - can really be delicious. My family used butter on the griddle and homemade (white traditional) bread of course, but that little bit of sweetness in the cheese was excellent.

                                                                                      2. re: Steve Plotnicki

                                                                                        The high correlation between quality of ingredients and deliciousness does not necessarily hold either. Could ingredient quality limit deliciousness? Perhaps, but it's a hypothesis that should be tested on a dish by dish basis rather just simply assumed. How do you test it? Find a place that uses better ingredients would be a start.

                                                                                        The original point that I made which you seemed to have mixed together with the ingredient issue is simply that if you do not consider a particular example good enough, find a better one. And that involves tasting.

                                                                                        1. re: limster

                                                                                          For instance, one might assume that the freshest ingredients are the best. But, turkey stuffing is best when prepared with stale bread.


                                                                                          1. re: limster

                                                                                            Limster your logic doesn't hold. The arepa lady isn't playing a game of chance with the quality of flour she uses. Her arepas are good because she makes sure the flour she uses meets her standards.
                                                                                            Explain to me how she can have standards but you don't?As for finding a better one, I don't need to taste something if I know the ingredients they use are of poor quality.

                                                                                            1. re: Steve Plotnicki

                                                                                              Steve, you've missed my points entirely. Let me explain to you again. Which are: 1. if you think there's a better arepa, find it. 2. Conjecture may make for interesting chit-chat but it is not as valid empirical experience.

                                                                                              1. re: limster

                                                                                                I haven't missed your point at all. I simply don't accept it as a valid point. All you are doing is claiming that your opinion is empirical evidence when it is merely your opinion. But when someone puts forward actual empirical evidence, like the chicken is made out of dreck, you don't want to consider that a valid part of the discussion.

                                                                                                1. re: Steve Plotnicki

                                                                                                  But, Steve, if you concede that "an increase in quality doesn't necessarily make a dish better," as you have above, then, most certainly, the only way to "know" whether a dish tastes better is to taste it. You can't do it by reading a list of the ingredients. And if it comes down to tasting it to find the answer, you can either do that yourself, or rely on someone else to do it for you. Either way, it's going to be subjective.


                                                                                                  1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                                                                                    We're circling around and around and not getting anywhere. It would be best to agree to disagree and move on to the pursuit of good chow. We'd like to ask everyone to give this discussion a rest. Thanks.

                                                                2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                  I couldn't disagree with Plotnicki's point more. I think Jim has had problems when folks have challenged Chowhound's policies, but I think he has encouraged dissent about conventional Chowhound wisdom about the merits of restaurants, including his faves. Just on a personal basis, he's been remarkably patient when I haven't "gotten" some of his pet restaurants. When I was slightly disappointed with my first visit toBo, the sadly departed Korean restaurant they he wrote about lovingly on the Outer Boroughs board, he didn't attack me, but urged me to try it again, as it took him a few visits for him to appreciate it. That turned out to be great advice, as it became a great favorite of mine. A couple of other favorites I never particularly enjoyed, and posted about here -- I managed to survive without recriminations.

                                                                  I also dislike the use of the word "increasingly" in the quote. Jim has been remarkably consistent in his approach since the inception of the board. I see no evidence of his being more or less intolerant to criticism or disagreement.

                                                                  1. re: Dave Feldman

                                                                    yeah i had heard rumors about leff before i got on chowhound but compared to other food forum admins, he's easily the most evenhanded food forum admin i've seen. unfortunately that's not saying much in the food forum world.... i can see why chowhound is thriving and the others are not.

                                                                    i have no idea why plotnicki's quote was let in. it seems that the writer wanted some drama and thus looked for a person with a beef (organic of course).

                                                            2. re: howler

                                                              hello, patronizing, perhaps, and I think very unflattering too. It lists some the the big dawg's maxims as if they were unsubstantiated generalizations. In fact, I went to a place in DC he praised, and went by the 'most expensive item on a cheap menu' credo; it was the worst place I've been to via c.h., the chef's special was barely o.k.
                                                              The article notes the JL plays jazz trombone, but he predicts a cafe's 30% higher prices based on D.Gordon playing. Well, there are a lot of very good cafes with jazz on the sound system, no? I did appreciate the writer providing info about the other sites, but couldn't tell if he/she considered JL in possession of knowledge, or merely fixed opinions. cheers

                                                              1. re: moto

                                                                About the expensive thing on a cheap menu....

                                                                George (Jason Alexander) [perusing menu in cheap diner]: "Look at that. They got lobster on the menu. Who would order a lobster here?? I mean, do they bring a lobster in everyday hoping TODAY'S the day?"
                                                                -- Seinfeld (TV sitcom)Season 6, Episode 19 (1995)

                                                                And yes, I think a lot of the article was unfair, distorted, flat-out wrong about Jim.