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Quibbles with Fearless Critic's Guide to Austin?

It seems to me that we Chowhounds, dedicated to deliciousness above all else, ought to set the record straight for those who may be misled by some of their more curious or inexplicable scores -- be they too high, or too low.

I brought the tome to work so my coworkers and I could make educated lunch decisions about places in the area that we had not been to. Since we started using it heavily to guide our decisions, we have noticed several glaring discrepencies.

Thoughts?

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  1. I agree. I flipped through a self-styled _Fearless Critic Austin_ and saw several scores and descriptions that made no sense. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the reviewers are right about the things I like and wrong about the rest. Aside from the keeping-it-real schtick, however, these “experts” have nothing new to offer me. To be fair, I should admit that I generally don’t use guidebooks to tell me where to eat locally, and only consult them for maps and addresses when I travel to unfamiliar areas.

    You probably wanted to get into their ratings of specific places, but I’m afraid that I didn’t read closely enough for that. Maybe someone else will post on the subject?

    I’m glad that you started this thread here rather than on the Austin board, although, as you said elsewhere, some local ‘hounds may not respond here. My feeling is: If I didn’t buy this book myself, why would I want to constantly be informed of its ratings—not just in a thread like yours that was specifically about FCA, but even in other discussions that are just about local chow? Plus, let’s not forget that chowhound.com reaches a large audience. Constant casual references to this guidebook (which are almost always positive, on our home board) amount to free advertising. The publisher should have to pay for that. Somewhere else.

    1 Reply
    1. re: MPH

      Good points, MPH. I certainly do not want to provide the FC with free publicity.

    2. One of my big complaints with the FC guide is that the scores seem completely half-assed. Establishing a meaningful continuum for their scoring system is basically impossible.

      Take several samples for Mexican food of various styles. At the top, they have El Chile at 9.2 and Fonda San Miguel at 8.9. So far, so good; these restaurants are obviously pretty darn good. They also score Manuel's at 8.9. I personally disagree with Manuel's being tied for second best Mexican in Austin, but I'm no Fearless Critic, so what do I know? (They also score Uchi at 9.7 as the best overall food in Austin. Again, this makes sense to me.)

      Taking the score out of it, we could just say that El Chile is (per FC) Austin's best Mexican food -- 100%. Uchi is Austin's best food, period -- again, 100%. All other Mexican food can be compared against the best Mexican and the best Overall as percentages of the top score. This helps give context to the otherwise inscrutable gulf between the scores themselves.

      Next, we've got FSM -- at 8.9, it is 96% as good as El Chile and 91% as good as Uchi.

      Some more sample scores:
      Polvo's - 8.3 - 90% as good as El Chile, 86% as good as Uchi.
      El Meson - 8.1 - 88% EC, 84% U.
      Chuy's - 7.7 - 83% EC, 79% U.
      Angie's - 6.6 - 71.7% EC, 68% U.
      Taco Cabana - 5.8 - 63% EC, 60% U.
      Guero's - 4.9 - 58% EC, 55% U.
      Nueva Onda - 4.4 - 48% EC, 45% U.
      Cisco's - 3.4 - 37% EC, 35% U.
      Maudie's - 2.9 - 32% EC, 30% U.
      Enchiladas Y Mas - 1.4 - 15% EC, 14% U.

      Looking at these numbers, here are some claims they're thusly making:

      "When considering deliciousness only, Polvo's is three times better than Maudie's, and about twice as good as Guero's."

      "Likewise, Taco Cabana is four times better than Enchiladas Y Mas."

      "A meal at Nueva Onda is less than half as delicious as a meal at Manuel's."

      Do these sentences even make sense? Especially in context of our experiences at these restaurants: does even one of these sentences ring true? Every one sounds blatantly abusrd to me. Then again, you know what they say about opinions...

      Chief amongst this mathematical debacle is the question: How could they begin to justify the inexplicable 1.4 scored to Enchiladas Y Mas? Did one of the owners' kids beat up one of the FC team's writers' kids? Did they not get the respect they felt the Honorable FC Team deserves? Was the meal not comp'd? Did they have to wait too long for a margarita? Do they honestly mean to say (for instance) that Chuy's is nearly six times better than Enchiladas Y Mas? Six. Times.

      Think of something six times more than something else. Say, you're going down the highway at 55. Someone flies past you at six times your current speed. That guy would be going 330 MPH.

      The best hitter in baseball hits 46 HR in a season. Next year, someone does SIX. TIMES. Better. A simple 276 home runs.

      Scoring a restaurant as well-liked and well-reviewed as EyM is (at best) a silly attempt to be provacative and generate publicity, and at worst the equivalent of a food review hit-job.

      7 Replies
      1. re: tom in austin

        Just as a first reaction, it's hard to take FC seriously having seen this. Chuy's isn't six times as good as anything.

        Not wanting to give these folks any money, I'll see if I can't find a copy at the library soon so that I can say something cogent about the reviews themselves.

        1. re: Knoblauch

          You can amuse yourself w/ scores (sans reviews) on their website:

          http://www.fearlesscritic.com/

          To see all their Mexican, for instance, go to "Find Restaurants" in the topnav, pull down Cuisine for Mexican and choose nothing else. You'll have to hit "Next" six times to see everything, but there you have it.

          More examples of weirdness: they rank Capitol Brasserie at 9.0, tied w/ Aquarelle; both are ahead of Chez Nous at 8.2. I should point out that this means Polvo's is a better restaurant, food-wise, than Chez Nous, and El Chile is better than Aquarelle.

          They score Madam Mam's at 6.8 -- tied with the bland Thai Noodle House. No Thai in the Austin area, including Little Thailand (not listed), cracks into the 8's. (Bangkok Cuisine caps it at 7.7.) Per FC, Madam Mam's is scarcely better than Taco Cabana.

          Another bizarre scoring:

          1. re: tom in austin

            I don't think you can take the ratings to mean that a 9.0 restaurant is three times better than a 3.0, or 9 times better than a 1.0. If one rated using your system then most of the restaurants would be above 5.0, which wastes the entire 0-5 range. I talked to Robin Goldstein, the editor of the book and he specifically stated that his goal was to spread the ratings across the whole 0-10 range, which is reasonable to me.

            That said, there are some questionable ratings. I don't know much about Mexican so maybe you're right about Enchiladas y Mas.

            One example is Sambet's (7.9) which considering that Gumbo's is 7.4 and Evangeline Cafe (6.0) I'd be more inclined to rate Sambet's a 5.0.

            Others are Cafe Josie (9.3) which I think should be 8.4, Fino (9.2 -> 8.5), Aquarelle (9.0 -> 9.3), Malaga (8.4 -> 9.0).

            I do find the bulk of their ratings reasonable, more so than any other guide such as the Austin Chronicle. Their arrangement of restaurants by genre and neighborhood is also very helpful.

            Yes, Chowhound, eGullet and other internet sources will be the most reliable but one does not always have the time to parse through all those threads to make a decision.

            1. re: Kent Wang

              It may make for a pretty distribution, but without any reason behind it, it makes interpreting the numbers baffling.

              Another strange thing about the guide: some very positive written reviews will have low scores, while reviews that come off negative will have high scores.

            2. re: tom in austin

              Well, the copies in my local library are out, so I'll make a few comments based just on the web site for now.

              My biggest problem is with the name, and with the resulting attention it gets from those who seem to want to prove their edginess by following a different leader. The catch is that (with a few exceptions that serve more to prove the rule than otherwise) the general thrust of the ratings does not differ from the consensus of the unadventurous.

              Since I was at the library, I pulled a Fodor's off the shelf. The authors of FC fearlessly seem to agree with Fodor's almost all the time. The only disagreement noticed was on Guero's, which Fodor's liked more than FC. It is interesting when two presumably independent sources both overrate the same restaurants (some examples in my opinion are the Driskill Grill, Castle Hill, La Traviata, and Gumbo's).

              When the East Side reared its ugly head, they bravely turned their tail and fled. Searching for "Mexican" in the two regions of "East Austin" and "Southeast", I found a total of 14 places reviewed. I've seen MPH hit that many in a single week, and with free and more useful reviews. While they did make it to Angie's, El Mesón, and El Regio, they miss nearby great places like La Regiomontana, Rosita's al Pastór, and Seis Mesas. It's not just limited to Mexican food, though. They don't even bother to review Tony's Southern Comfort.

              As to the results of the process, I can respect the concept that other people have different tastes that may even seem absurd from my point of view. The important thing is that I can put the review in context and thereby make some use of it.

              Based on the one review that can be seen on the web site, I can't do that. The 10-paragraph review of the Blue Star Cafeteria opens with four paragraphs on the lampshades and musings on what they imply about the restaurant. It ends with another half paragraph on decor and a paragraph on service. That leaves less than half the review to cover the food. The smug descriptions of the hamburger, pizza, and meatloaf spend their words trying to be clever with unusual but unenlightening comparisons ("an aggressive spice mix that has all the refinement of a lawn statue of Michelangelo’s David in the lawn of an Italian-American Jersey suburb") and populist lowest-common-denominator appeals ("who wants to eat plain broccoli?").

              Their surprise that a char-grilled burger would not be as greasy as a similar-sized fried burger tells of a lack of experience. For those who shudder at missed details, the use of "mitochondria" where "nuclei" would be more appropriate and also the missing "neither" might be off-putting.

              All in all, the sample review is a poor effort. As someone who has not been to the restaurant in question, i have gained nothing of use from having read it. If I read more reviews from the same author, I might glean a little more information from their track record, but since the "FC" really seems to be more than one person, that might be a little like counting into a 6-deck shoe.

              By the way, anyone who is really looking for comments on the restaurant can find much more meaningful comments from several points of view here: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/305678

              These "critics" presumably have an audience. Their book is lighter than the yellow pages, and includes more restaurants than national guidebooks. I really can't see, though, how it rises above them in helping either visitors or locals find good chow. I hope my fellow 'hounds will continue to share their own experiences. That remains the real hope for deliciousness.

              1. re: Knoblauch

                I had forgotten about that Chowhound thread. It was defintely more insightful than the FC review.

                1. re: Knoblauch

                  I'm with you, Knoblauch. I’ll take my categorization of Austin’s restaurants without the unimaginative Fodor’s redux, please. This guidebook is the same old conventional wisdom with an added touch of snarkiness—all packaged in a way that makes readers feel “fearless” just for buying it. Brilliant marketing of a mediocre product.

          2. Frankly I LOVE the book and think they're pretty spot on. I love how they don't pander to the places around town that everyone is supposed to like just because they're "Austin institutions". Sure there are a few ratings that are a bit off, but I have to agree with most of their reviews.

            3 Replies
            1. re: Willisinaustin

              I enjoy the book as well: it really helps open folks up to new places they haven't tried. My coworkers generally rotate between places like Subway for lunch; using this book's reviews, I've coaxed them into trying places they otherwise wouldn't.

              But some of their ratings are so far out there they can only be called absurd, and they have several clear prejudices regarding the restaurants that have nothing to do with how delicious the chow itself is.

                1. re: Willisinaustin

                  One of many:

                  "...unless it is that the almost entirely white clientele really does prefer that aforementioned ... to anything more authentically Mexican."

                  Nice. Race-baiting. Real strong way to make your argument, FC. Aren't white people lame? They don't even like authentic Mexican food!

                  Never mind the comment isn't even remotely true, by the way -- the place is owned by hispanic people, staffed by hispanic people, and has many, many hispanic people amongst the clientele. I've been there probably fifteen times.

            2. I'm sorry, but I cannot trust any "published reviews" in Austin (i.e. media OTHER than Chowhound) except for the FC. I think the FC is entirely accurate. It was so nice to read an honest assessment of the places here, and even quoted some of the same things and my husband and I have discussed amongst ourselves. This has been said, but can we please get a new batch of critics in this town? It seems the only choices we have are "critics" that love everyone and never really focus on the food or service, or bad tex-mex love fests that gush over Maudie's (please, please- why???)

              I do like menu postings on Foodhawk, but an online site that give reviews of all restaurants here (www.guidelive.com in Dallas, www.nymagazine.com and www.menupages.com come to mind), and divided into the correct categories, like not just "Asian" or "Indian/Mediterranean") would fill a huge gap.

              and so I wait...

              1 Reply
              1. re: ChristineR

                I'm not saying that Fearless Critic is worthless or terrible. Simply that some of its reviews are obviously inaccurate, and blatantly so, as if their intent was to be deliberately provocative and titillating.

                I'm also saying that their point system for scoring restaurants is farcical and absurd.

              2. I find sometime FC to be spot on and sometimes terrible but that's the nature of reviews. What I like about my copy (and seems to be on the website) are their lists. Restaurants open after 11pm on a weekday? Covered. Chinese food close to South Lamar (though have you to scan the type of cuisine column for South Lamar section) Covered. I haven't seen as comprehensive list of restaurants (though I haven't tried the Chronicle's website since they've redesigned). Lists of places that are kid friendly, have good patios or live music. All have made it worth the money for me.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Carter B.

                  I agree with you completely. The value that the book provides has little to do with the all-over-the-place reviews or the absurd scoring. The actual legwork they did: a decently comprehensive list of restaurants, categorized in useful ways for reference (by region, by cuisine, by hours of operation, etc.) -- very nice.