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Canary in the mine dishes.

If a new Jamaican place opens, or one I haven't been to before, I'll always have the jerk chicken, rice and peas, even though it's not my favourite dish- much prefer oxtail or curried goat. I use it as a barometer. If they can't get this right then I don't see the point of ordering other dishes. Not sure why I don't do this with other cuisines?
Anyone else have dishes they use as a "tester"?

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  1. For German, Knodeln or spatzle. First question is, do they have them, and then how light are they? If the potato dumplings are all the same size without any croutons in the center, then I figure they are out of a box.

    For Italian, spaghetti carbonara. Requires each made to order. Fusion examples are usually stable sauces ladled on to the pasta.

    Sushi. If the wide variety of rolls are the selling point, I have an automatic suspicion for the quality of their products. Warning claxons resound when I tell them I am only having Negiri sushi and miso soup and they give me a pair of chop sticks for the ginger. Not really needed.

    19 Replies
    1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

      When I think Italian, I think meatballs. If you screw that up you should open a McDonald's.

      1. re: monavano

        How many meatballs should they serve on your spaghetti?

        1. re: monavano

          That's decidedly Italian-American, if you're talking spaghetti w/meatballs.

          If you mean polpette, small meatballs that are served as appetizers.... that's an interesting choice!

          Mine would definitely be a pasta dish like carbonara.

          1. re: monavano

            Surprisingly I find most restaurant meatballs little better than dog food.

            1. re: melpy

              That's really too bad. We have a fave restaurant, heavily Italian influenced, where we've eaten almost everything on the menu :) We were putting together a few apps there recently and added their meatballs. IIRC, it's beef/pork combo and they were just perfect.

              1. re: melpy

                I think my meatballs are excellent. Humblebrag, yes! And I agree that most restaurants can't make them for toffee..

                1. re: monavano

                  Having grown up on my Grandmothers meatball's I find this a very bad barometer to use to judge a restaurant. As is the same case with gravy, or red sauce, nobody is ever going to live up to my Grandmothers!

                  I've taught my children over the years to never order a spaghetti and meatballs type dish because more times than not they will be dissapointed.

                  1. re: jrvedivici

                    You've just made my point!!
                    If your expectation is the meatball has to be EXACTLY like Nona's, well, expect to live in disappointment. It's completely unreachable, so why bother. That's not my outlook on life and food.
                    But I think there are hallmarks of excellence when it comes to our "canary in the mine foods".
                    I stand by my meatballs because I'm open to Proustian experiences, moreover, I live for them.

                    1. re: monavano

                      Often, when the Spanish brother-in-law is watching a cookery programme, he will say that the food isn't "authentic". What he actually means is that it isnt how his mother cooked the dish (I've eaten his mother's cooking years ago - it wasnt that great).

                      1. re: Harters

                        Great anecdote that shows just how microcosmic "authentic" can be.

                    2. re: jrvedivici

                      I agree! No red sauce or meatballs. I will try and get a taste of some sauce to know for future reference though.

                      1. re: melpy

                        Yes and 100+ bonus points if you find it palatable! But even if I don't I don't hold that against the establishment "it's ok, it's me it's not you".

              2. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                For Italian (or Italian-American if you wanna nit-pick), it's a basic red sauce. It's easy to make a quick delicious sauce - if you can't handle that I'm not going to experiment.

                1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                  Ehh, I think that's a bit harsh in terms of sushi. Like it or not, there are different styles of sushi. Yes, you have the high-end for the folks who fancy themselves sushi connoisseurs and take some pride in their austere adherence to their self-maintained beliefs regarding the purity of sushi. I used to be that guy BTW.

                  However, there really are some delicious and fun offshoots in the world of sushi. If I go to a place and see a bunch of rolls, with a lot of ingredients, and several involve flash frying, then I don't make a scene by trying to show off that I am some sort of sushi snob. Instead I pick what I think are the best rolls, with an understanding that I may want to exercise caution when dealing with their raw fish dishes.

                  In DC, we've got a wildly successful cheap sushi place like that in a trendy hipster area of town. Lots of fried rolls and they serve tater tots with most everything. A couple of years back, in a stunt to gauge opinions from local sushi gurus about the trend towards "junk food sushi", the Washington Post took one of DC's most respected purveyors of high-end sushi to this place and asked for his opinion. The chef basically admitted that in terms of being great sushi, it was awful, but in terms of being good bar food, it was quite delicious. That's sort of how I look at it.

                  1. re: The Big Crunch

                    Totally agree. My expectations are different for bar food at $17 All You Can Eat and when I want to treat myself for $5 per piece. Or higher.

                    1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                      Yea, I usually judge sushi by the quality of the rice and my first order of sashimi. Most of the places I enjoy which are available in the area do have a ton of rolls which are fried or loaded with mayo but their simpler, more classic rolls are still delicious. I just order what I know I like and avoid the more "Americanized" rolls if I don't enjoy them. It's actually a win/win because I can then go with people who prefer those types of rolls and everyone is happy.

                    2. re: The Big Crunch

                      A Midwestern sushi joint won my heart by satisfying my basic sushi cravings (including some deep-fried mayo-dressed indiscretions amongst the nigiri and simple maki) but also deep-frying the heads of my amaebi. There's a line about the profane meeting the sublime in there somewhere.

                    3. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                      I'm surprised how many, many people use chopsticks for non-sashimi sushi.

                      1. re: c oliver

                        Most people don't know the etiquette. My parents were just complaining about the rice in their nigiri falling apart when dipped in soy sauce. They had no idea about the chopsticks.

                        That said, I will eat my maki with chopsticks when it is served topped with a sauce.

                    4. With Mexican restaurants it used to be chiles rellenos, and mostly still is. I'm a bit less stuck on insisting they have to be made the way my first ones were made - egg batter, fried, yellow cheese inside - because I've had very tasty variations, especially with the cheese. Pizza Margherita is another, but that's a quest to find one that is at all like my first, with which I fell in love: thin crackly crust, oil and shredded mozzarella, sliced Roma tomato, and then fresh basil strewn over and the pie given another brief firing. $7 worth of heaven in a single-serving pizza. The place is still in business, but that pizza is long gone from the menu.

                      Steak Frites or escargot for French, Fish & Chips for good imitation-Brit pub, good biscuits and decent grits for Southern, REAL mashed potatoes for a diner (though one otherwise favorite place has ghastly gluey ones).

                      1. For an "authentic" English pub, Spotted Dick. If I ask if they have it and the waitress's eyes get big as saucers and she cracks up laughing, I go somewhere else.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: PotatoHouse

                          We received some Spotted Dick as a gift a few years ago. We don't know if it's any good because we'd rather just keep it around for laughs.

                           
                          1. re: John E.

                            I gave this can as a trophy in a trivia contest I emcee'd last year.

                        2. For years, I had lamb rogan josh as my standard tester for a high street curry house. Now moved to saag gosht.

                          1. Naan at an Indian restaurant. If it's flabby, underdone or not fresh, I won't be returning.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: pippimac

                              How about made from Bisquik?
                              Years ago I went to eat at a very popular Indian restaurant for the first time. Told my friends, "This naan tastes like Bisquik."
                              They replied, "You're really overdoing the super taster thing; it's fine."
                              We spotted the Bisquik box on the counter of the open kitchen as we left.
                              Did not return.

                            2. Chicken enchiladas in Tex-Mex restaurants. If they can't get this right, I have no further interest.

                              Wonton soup is my barometer for Chinese restaurants.

                              Spare ribs in cue joints.

                              32 Replies
                              1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                If a Tex-Mex place doesn't have really good chips and salsa it's a deal breaker. We have really good ones down here. Agree on the enchiladas, but I'll add beef and cheese. Brisket and ribs for BBQ, sausage a plus, I don't eat the sides, once people start mentioning sides first the BBQ must be below par.

                                1. re: James Cristinian

                                  Chips and salsa is very important. I daresay many a Tex-Mex joint has gone speedily outta bidniss because they offered up inferior C&S.

                                  1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                    Agreed. We sat down at a Mexican place on the Riverwalk in San Antonio. When we saw that the basket of chips they gave us were obviously out of a bag, we got up and left.

                                    1. re: Michelly

                                      Wow, that's picky. I don't mind bagged chips if the salsa is good.
                                      I might add, there is a lot of variation in bagged chips.

                                      1. re: Michelly

                                        Michelly, you did the right thing, although you mad a big mistake by eating Mexican, or most other food on the Riverwalk. There is some good food on the Riverwalk, and plenty of good Mexican, mostly Tex-Mex which I love within short cab ride. Next time post ahead well in advance, this is a sleepy board.

                                        1. re: James Cristinian

                                          we had a great meal at la fogata in san antonio http://www.lafogata.com/gallery.php

                                          and also NAO at the very end of river walk. http://www.naorestaurant.com

                                          not far off river walk, we liked john besh's place, lüke http://www.lukesanantonio.com

                                  2. re: Perilagu Khan

                                    I was thinking won ton soup, too. That and chow fun.

                                    1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                      I'm not sure I've ever had either chicken enchiladas or wonton soup in restaurants. Well, not in the last 25 years or so :) We have access to really good Chinese food so I can raise the bar a lot higher than some.

                                      1. re: c oliver

                                        Really good wonton soup is hard to find and priceless when you do. There is a place we go to where I might even order that only because it's so good--light skin that melts in your mouth, large pieces of shrimp, seasoned lightly,... I have access to excellent Chinese food, often homemade.

                                        1. re: chowser

                                          Once the temp drops some, I'll try it out. We have one place in particular where we really like everything they do. So wonton soup is in our future :)

                                          1. re: c oliver

                                            I should add caveats. I don't order it at obviously Chinese American restaurants. And I glance at tables to see if anyone has ordered it and what it looks like. It really is a dish usually done poorly. I also only have it in winter. If I'm feeling decadent, I ask for HK style noodles added to it.

                                      2. re: Perilagu Khan

                                        I agree on chicken (or cheese) enchiladas in Tex-Mex restaurants and the chips and salsa. If the chips are stale or out of a sack.....

                                        1. re: Firegoat

                                          And I cannot stand those paper-thin chips. They've got to have some heft to them.

                                          Another non-starter is salsa whose primary flavor is tomato. The pepper, IMO, should dominate. Weak salsa is boring salsa.

                                          PS--Recently encountered a salsa that had some sort of fruit--other than tomato--in it. I don't know if it was peach or strawberry or what, but it was sweet and terrible.

                                          1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                            For me the killer is way too much cilantro. I enjoy cilantro but some salsas are just overwhelmed by it and you can't really taste anything else.

                                            1. re: fldhkybnva

                                              Agreed. And cilantro is so pungent that it's easy to overdo it.

                                            2. re: Perilagu Khan

                                              Salsa is a big one for me. In Tex-Mex, which is the majority of the Mexican i eat. If the salsa is bad* it's an almost guarantee that the food will be. Of course, by that time you have usually ordered and are eating chips and salsa while waiting on the food.

                                              * If it tastes like Pace, it is bad.

                                              1. re: TroyTempest

                                                Salsa is a fairly accurate canary. If it's bland, chances are good that the entrees will be too.

                                                1. re: TroyTempest

                                                  TroyTempest I shuddered when I read the majority of Mexican you eat is Tex-Mex and then I stalked your profile and see you're from Austin, big sigh of relief. Any time I read about Tex-Mex from around the country I check the restaurant websites and they bear little resemblance to Tex-Mex. Now, about the cilantro debate, we eat at some Tex-Mex places in some of the barrios and cilantro and onions are served on the side to the Hispanics, but my buddy and I must ask for extra to add to the great salsas here. No problem with the wifeacita and I however. It's also served at the local carneceria we frequent, Mexican no Tex-Mex, along with a big bowl of pico de gallo, and two different red and green salsas.

                                                  1. re: James Cristinian

                                                    Tex-Mex gets a bad rap (thanks a lot to diane kennedy), but Tex-Mex can run the gamut from enchiladas with velveeta and wolf brand chili (bad) to the sublime, carnitas, gordita, tacos with all sorts of wonderful fillings, etc.

                                                    1. re: TroyTempest

                                                      I agree completely, there is bad to horrible Texas-Mex in Texas, and the same can be said for BBQ. I have a handful of Tex-Mex places I frequent and they are delicious, take that diane kennedy.

                                                  2. re: TroyTempest

                                                    "If it tastes like Pace, it is bad."

                                                    I thought Pace (from Paris, TX) was the pride of Texas?

                                                    1. re: drongo

                                                      Once upon a time it was. But we've come a fur piece since then.

                                                      1. re: drongo

                                                        Don't believe the marketing. Pace is salsa for people who want salsa that tastes like ketchup.

                                                        Just, checked on this. In 1994 Pace was acquired by Campbell's soup. I guess shortly after that the San Antonio plant was shut down and operations moved to Paris. That's probably about the time it went downhill.

                                                        Found a pretty interesting article about the Pace family, and the no heat jalapeno(ugh).

                                                        http://www.austinchronicle.com/food/2...

                                                        1. re: TroyTempest

                                                          Yes I was not aware of the Paris thing. I used to by good compost from my local garden place and the guy, I trust, said it came from the San Antonio Pace plant in San Antonio early 90's, great compost.

                                                          1. re: James Cristinian

                                                            Paris Texas was my first intro to Popeye's, on the way to a wedding in Marshall. I liked it. And As Bogart said in Casablanca, we'll always have Popeye's. Or something like that.

                                                            1. re: Veggo

                                                              " I can never wait to get some Popeye in me"

                                                              Olive Oyl 1935

                                                              1. re: Veggo

                                                                Are you sure it was Popeye's? I thought Rick told Ilsa we'll always have Paris, Texas.

                                                                1. re: Veggo

                                                                  Geez, I just reread my post and tried to edit by to buy and got a something's gone wrong message, sounds like HAL in 2001.

                                                                  1. re: Veggo

                                                                    I saw a 'toon where Popeye attempted to suck a fried chicken breast through his corncob pipe. Alas, there results were not fortuitous and he was bludgeoned by Brutus.

                                                      2. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                        Hot and sour soup for me, if in a Chinese place.

                                                        1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                          Chinese.....fried rice. I can't believe how many different (and crappy) versions of fried rice I've seen out there.

                                                        2. Chili rellano's for Mexican cuisine. If they can't get that right, I don't want to try anything else at that establishment.

                                                          1 Reply
                                                          1. re: JerryMe

                                                            Bob will frequently order chili rellenos but not as a test but rather because he loves them. I wouldn't say that they're a starting point but rather something that needs just the right everything. My point being a place could execute everything else just fine but fall short on that dish.

                                                          2. If going to a place for the first time for breakfast, it will likely be chicken fried steak. We don't stop going there but are super happy when that dish is done well.

                                                            1. For strip mall Ameri-Chinese take out, the first litmus test is chicken lo mein. It's gotta be soft round noodles, dripping in brown sauce, with plenty of cabbage, carrot, sprouts and scallions. The chicken needs to be white meat, well velveted and tender, and the wok hei better be there or I won't be back.

                                                              The second test is the egg roll. This should be a thick, blistered roll with a shell that's hard and crunchy on the outside and stretchy on the inside. It ought to be densely packed with shredded cabbage and those little granules of red pork. No need to get fancy with shrimp, rice noodles or other vegetables, the cheap stuff works just fine. In the Chicago area, a dab of peanut butter on the inside is also acceptable. It should come with a cup of mustard so harsh it makes you nose hairs fall out after one taste.

                                                              1. Austrian: Wiener Schnitzel
                                                                Thai: laarb or tom yum, both of which are fab done right
                                                                German: spaetzle -- gotta be made fresh
                                                                Greek: taramasalata
                                                                French: onion soup
                                                                Spanish: patatas bravas
                                                                Italian: spaghetti carbonara or tagliatelle bolognese
                                                                Sichuan: mapo tofu

                                                                3 Replies
                                                                1. re: linguafood

                                                                  "Italian: spaghetti carbonara or tagliatelle bolognese"

                                                                  And that they pair the right noodle with the sauce...no spaghetti or ziti bolognese...that is just wrong.

                                                                  1. re: linguafood

                                                                    100 % agree re spaetzle. We are in Stuttgart right now. Can't get enough of the Swabian food.

                                                                    1. re: CKaty

                                                                      It is one of the great German cuisines, for sure. Must be the closeness to France and the South in general :-)

                                                                      Mmmmmaultaschen!

                                                                  2. Not really a "canary in coal mine" but if it's place I have never heard of/eaten at I do stick to what I consider safer dishes.

                                                                    Thai it's usually pad thai or tom yum
                                                                    American Chinese would be peking ravioli or some kind of fried rice
                                                                    Italian would be Bolognese
                                                                    Breakfast would be eggs bennie or a spinach omelet

                                                                    19 Replies
                                                                      1. re: KaimukiMan

                                                                        It's a Boston term for potstickers, essentially.

                                                                        1. re: hilltowner

                                                                          Yup. So many places get them wrong or clearly buy them pre-made. A good one has homemade wrappers that are not too thick but slightly thicker than gyoza, have a flavorful filling with pork you can taste along with the spices, one side should perfectly crisp and the rest tender and not greasy.

                                                                          1. re: foodieX2

                                                                            To me, the real PRIMO gyoza are ones made with freshly rolled out hand-made wrappers. These are very easy to cook properly (crunchy bottoms, very light melt-in-your-mouth tops) and really make as much difference as the quality of the filling.

                                                                        2. re: KaimukiMan

                                                                          I was hoping someone would ask! I saw that last night and thought WTF :)

                                                                        3. re: foodieX2

                                                                          Pad Thai used to be my barometer but lately I have found so few place do it right. Been more on a pad kee mao kick.

                                                                            1. re: melpy

                                                                              The problem with assuming there is only one correct way to cook pad thai is that there are a lot of variations, even in Thailand. When you say, "do it right", you may simply believe one way is the best, but I can tell you, in Thailand you would get puzzled looks if you expressed that opinion. One of the great joys of authentic Thai cooking is how improvisational it is, which is something that I often think Americans don't appreciate enough.

                                                                              1. re: The Big Crunch

                                                                                When eating at our monastery, I always ask them to make it the same way they do at home.

                                                                                1. re: The Big Crunch

                                                                                  I spent enough time in Thailand to know there are variations. The problem for me is that where I live in the West, the phad thai has become irredeemably sweet.

                                                                                  1. re: Chatsworth

                                                                                    Since you have spent time in Thailand I'm surprised you don't judge them on their Tom Kha Gai, but I am jaded.That has always been my favorite dish.

                                                                                    1. re: PotatoHouse

                                                                                      I usually judge on the Tom ka gai.

                                                                                    2. re: Chatsworth

                                                                                      Sounds like those places are using bottled sauce.

                                                                                    3. re: The Big Crunch

                                                                                      Basically I prefer it not to taste like ketchup. The texture should not be a bowl of mushy broken noodles.

                                                                                    4. re: melpy

                                                                                      In a previous iteration of this subject ("authentic cuisine") someone mentioned that papaya salad is a perfect barometer of Thai authenticity, and since then I've ordered the som tam whenever I go to a Thai place. You do get a lot of variation but I look for plenty of spiciness. I'm surprised nobody has mentioned this.

                                                                                      1. re: GraydonCarter

                                                                                        i did.

                                                                                        and you want spicy? go to bagkok golden in falls church. ask for lao spicy som tam.

                                                                                        1. re: alkapal

                                                                                          Oh, sorry, indeed you did. Do you ask for wok hei or just hope for it? Can you detect it in the outcome?

                                                                                          1. re: GraydonCarter

                                                                                            sometimes i ask for wok hei, sometimes i don't. when i have, some places can do it, others don't. some people look at me funny when i say wok hei, because i'm usually wanting it in a thai place….(and it is a chinese term, duh). so as they don't say wok hei…i say, "well-done," and describe how i like some caramelization (also a tricky term LOL) and char on the noodles' edges from high heat.

                                                                                            a never-ending quest, my friend, never-ending!

                                                                                            when i do get it, i am one very happy camper.

                                                                                  2. Mexican: mole from scratch, chile rellenos.
                                                                                    Texas Q: fatty moist brisket with ample smoke ring.
                                                                                    Florida sea food: fresh never frozen stone crabs. I can tell.
                                                                                    Cajun: whole fried catfish with crispy tail, boudin, roux.
                                                                                    truck stop: biscuits with sausage gravy
                                                                                    sushi: giant clam nigiri
                                                                                    Italian: veal
                                                                                    Belize: conch and lobster

                                                                                    3 Replies
                                                                                    1. re: Veggo

                                                                                      Just out of curiosity, have you ever been to Joe's Stone Crab in Miami Beach? I'm an Ian Fleming fan, and he featured this restaurant--under the guise, Bill's at the Beach--in Goldfinger. The stone crabs with butter, toast and pink champagne were reputedly the best meal James Bond had ever eaten.

                                                                                      PS--For Cajun, my coal mine dish is jambalaya. Few places do a truly great jambalaya. And if a place turns out a great jambalaya, odds are it is a special restaurant.

                                                                                      1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                        Before SoBe, JoeBe. I have indeed been there over the last 42 years, when the old original was across the street from the Miami Beach Kennel Club, and the Portofino towers were mangroves. The 'hood has come a long way.

                                                                                        1. re: Veggo

                                                                                          While Mom and Dad got the stone crabs, I always ordered the green turtle steak while Dear Sister dived into the pink shrimp.

                                                                                          And pink champagne back then was a definite flavor and much drier than it is now.

                                                                                    2. i do this two ways: 1) looking over the menu for specific items that i consider typically to be indicators of authenticity (ie, for thai i look for things like miang kum, ko mu yang, som tam...) and 2) certain things i will order as the litmus test. as follows:

                                                                                      sushi: 1 plain sashimi (to check the fish quality and knife skills), and 1 very simple nigiri or hosomaki (to test the rice quality and "shaping" skills.

                                                                                      dim sum: har gao (the wrappers are typically a good indicator of finesse and freshness, since they are so delicate).

                                                                                      thai: fried rice. usually gives a good indicator of wok skill.

                                                                                      may sound silly, but these work for me! :-)

                                                                                      1. Breakfast place: Eggs benedict, bonus points for house made hollandaise

                                                                                        Mexican - corn tortillas, guacamole, beans, carnitas or mole. If the chile relleno is stuffed with picadillo rather than cheese, I will almost always give it a go

                                                                                        9 Replies
                                                                                        1. re: DiningDiva

                                                                                          Breakfast place: biscuits and gravy. Which is why I happily drive 10 miles for my fix.

                                                                                          Or any Army mess hall.

                                                                                          1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                                                                                            I too will test a breakfast place on the biscuits and gravy or the corned beef hash. We recently stopped at a cafe in a rural part of Minnesota and I'd rather go hungry than give them my money again. The corned beef hash was out of a can, but the worst part was, I swear they just microwaved it for minute. Come on, at least get a crisp on it.

                                                                                            1. re: John E.

                                                                                              I am sorry to say, I have given up on corned beef hash.

                                                                                              1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                                                                                                Oh no, it's the best part of the diner! :)

                                                                                              2. re: John E.

                                                                                                Unless a place states that their HB is housemade I don't order it.

                                                                                                1. re: c oliver

                                                                                                  I know, that had been my policy to for a long time and even then it can be hit and miss (I'm sorry, I don't want big hunks of celery in my hash).

                                                                                                  There is a local breakfast place that has been so successful that they now have three locations. I've eaten at two of them, but even though they got rave reviews, they too had canned hash.

                                                                                                  I would like to find a place that serves homemade hash like some of the places I've seen on D, D, & D.

                                                                                                  I also am not a real big fan of eating out for breakfast. I usually am disappointed because they usually don't have anything on the menu I can't make better at home. I don't want to pay ten bucks for fried eggs, bacon, toast, hashbrowns, and coffee. I'd rather have a good burger at lunchtime.

                                                                                                  1. re: John E.

                                                                                                    I had to insist once that late MIL NOT order HBH at a particular place. I'd eaten it and loved it but she wouldn't have. The non-meat part of the hash was shredded vegetables and roasted small chunks of potatoes.

                                                                                                2. re: John E.

                                                                                                  I can't even tell you the last time I was in a diner that offered corned beef hash. :(

                                                                                              3. re: DiningDiva

                                                                                                Agree Eggs Benny. If you can't poach an egg correctly, you suck.
                                                                                                Also good SOS.

                                                                                              4. For Hungarian, suffed pepper.

                                                                                                -1 pt for bell peppers;
                                                                                                +1 for other green peppers;
                                                                                                +2 for yellow wax pepper:
                                                                                                +5 for both yellow and green on the plate;
                                                                                                Outright fail not having them;
                                                                                                Outright fail for cold inside of pepper.

                                                                                                Also an outright fail if someone else orders schnitzel and I don't hear the meat being pounded.

                                                                                                1. not at all ethnic, but here are my three bellweather test:

                                                                                                  marguerita pizza

                                                                                                  hot fudge sundae with vanilla or sweet cream ice cream;

                                                                                                  cheesburger, medium rare,

                                                                                                  1 Reply
                                                                                                  1. re: wonderwoman

                                                                                                    gah, i swear a med-rare cheeseburger is my holy grail.

                                                                                                  2. Yucatecan is one of my favorite cuisines, and I mainly judge places by their panuchos. If they're not made properly (with black bean puree *inside* the tortilla -- smearing beans on a tostada does *not* count -- and crispy around the edge), I lose all respect. And there needs to be habanero salsa, else I wonder if they've ever even been to the Yucatan.

                                                                                                    And if they can't make a decent sopa de lima then I'm calling it off.

                                                                                                    19 Replies
                                                                                                    1. re: Soul Vole

                                                                                                      I've never seen a resto that bills itself as Yucatecan. I'm guessing you live in NY, Florida or SoCal.

                                                                                                      1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                        SF has them. Just ate at one recently and it was swoon worthy :)

                                                                                                        1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                          Yucatecan restaurants are a disappearing breed in the Yucatan. Everything new there is fusion or foreign. Peek at www.xulam.com.mx to acquaint yourself with a high quality recent effort in Quintana Roo.

                                                                                                            1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                              If you do, go to La Chaya Maya, just a few blocks off the plaza grande. La Tradición isn't bad. I can't strongly recommend Los Almendros, though it's not horrible by any means. For traditional Yucatecan that's what comes to mind.

                                                                                                          1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                            Mexico City actually. Lived a year and a half in Mérida, which gave me some opinionation (if that's a word) about the cuisine. I love it. Cochinita pibil, sopa de lima, huevos motuleños, queso relleno, frijol con puerco, pan de cazón, brazo de reina, dzic de venado, ... It's a wonderful cuisine.

                                                                                                            There are Yucatecan restaurants outside of Mexico, but not that many, which is a shame. Mexican gastronomy varies a lot by region, and no moreso than in the Yucatan. It could be a separate country. (And many there wish it were.) Rick Bayless dedicated an entire season of Mexico: One Plate at a Time to Yucatecan cuisine.

                                                                                                            Anyway, in Mexico City Yucatecan food ranges from pretty good and faithful to, as I indicated, "Has anyone here ever even been to the Yucatan?"

                                                                                                            1. re: Soul Vole

                                                                                                              Ah, I sometimes forget that not all posters on CH are from the US.

                                                                                                              It sounds like you eat very well in Mexico City.

                                                                                                              1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                I ate sinfully well when I lived in Mexico City.

                                                                                                                1. re: Veggo

                                                                                                                  Veggo, I believe you would eat sinfully well in a space capsule.

                                                                                                                  1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                    You're funny! I meant my comment to be a high compliment to the great food available in Mexico City. I know you are much more challenged in West Texas.

                                                                                                                2. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                  I'm from the US but have the great fortune of being able to live in Mexico.

                                                                                                                  You're from West Texas? I don't know West Texas but I lived many years in Austin, and would give my right arm for anything resembling Central Texas-style barbeque here. There's nothing, absolutely nothing even close to it.

                                                                                                                  Meanwhile there's a lot of really shitty Japanese food.

                                                                                                                  1. re: Soul Vole

                                                                                                                    I have lived in several areas of Mexico and Texas, including Austin, and although Texas Q is absent in MX, arrachera and lechon there is pretty tasty.

                                                                                                                    1. re: Veggo

                                                                                                                      Oh sure, and so many other types of grilled beef for tacos. Every other restaurant in Mexico City is Argentinian so there's no shortage of options for steak. But then that's kind of my grief -- why so much Argentina and not one iota of Texas? Sigh.

                                                                                                                      But then if you can't even get decent 'cue in West Texas...

                                                                                                                      There is a chain here called Texas Ribs but don't be fooled by the name.

                                                                                                                      1. re: Soul Vole

                                                                                                                        Oh, decent cue is not hard to find in west Texas. But the really great stuff, the stuff that would make the grade in CenTex, well, you'll probably have to drive a while to find it. I think Amarillo, Dickens, Sudan and maybe Sweetwater have joints that are up to snuff.

                                                                                                                    2. re: Soul Vole

                                                                                                                      For whatever reason, great cue is much scarcer in west Texas than in CenTex. In fact, I had some sub-mediocre cue for lunch yesterday.

                                                                                                                      1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                        That's a shame, with your abundance of mesquite.

                                                                                                                        1. re: Veggo

                                                                                                                          Tell me about it. For quite some time folks in these parts have been befuzzled (if that's not a word, it should be) over the lack of great cue in this area. Outside of the fact that it is very difficult to consistently produce truly great cue for the masses, there doesn't seem to be a logical explanation.

                                                                                                            2. Chinese: steamed white rice

                                                                                                              Ice cream shop: vanilla ice cream

                                                                                                              Steakhouse: baked potato

                                                                                                              Diner (breakfast): toast

                                                                                                              Diner (lunch and dinner): chicken soup

                                                                                                              73 Replies
                                                                                                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                                steamed white rice for almost any asian restaurant. agree completely.

                                                                                                                properly cooked pasta for italian.

                                                                                                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                                  Could you PLEASE tell me why it's so hard to get toast that's actually brown????? Even when I ask for 'well done' it will usually come out blonde :)

                                                                                                                  1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                                    So, you go to the steakhouse and order a baked potato, then come back another day for the steak if it is good?
                                                                                                                    Same for the rice at the chinese.
                                                                                                                    I'm confused.

                                                                                                                    1. re: TroyTempest

                                                                                                                      I think its more a matter of

                                                                                                                      for Italian: "well the 'peking ravioli' wasn't good, but maybe it was an off night, but the pasta turned to polenta in my mouth, this is not my kind of place

                                                                                                                      for asian: I thought the potsickers were terrible, but maybe thats just me, but the rice was really gummy and wet. I'm not gonna be coming back here.

                                                                                                                      for steakhouse: That pork chop was really dry, but maybe they let it sit just a little too long, but that potato wasn't even cooked all the way thru, and it wasn't even hot. Clearly they have no quality control going on in the back, don't think they are going to be getting any more of my business.

                                                                                                                      In other words I might be willing to forgive a restaurant for messing up on some things, but if the most basic of their offerings have problems, something they serve to virtually everyone, not something cooked to my individual taste, then they are definitely going to be putting out disappointing food in general.

                                                                                                                      1. re: KaimukiMan

                                                                                                                        I get your point, but if you read the original post again, you'll understand my question to ipsedixit more.

                                                                                                                        1. re: KaimukiMan

                                                                                                                          Yeah, I think K-Man summed it pretty good.

                                                                                                                        2. re: TroyTempest

                                                                                                                          No.

                                                                                                                          I go to a steakhouse. Order my preferred cut of beef, as well as any sides that interest me, but will try to set aside one side order for baked potatoes.

                                                                                                                          If the potatoes come out bad, I'm not going back.

                                                                                                                          If the potatoes come out good, then it's a restaurant that's on my foodar.

                                                                                                                          1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                                            If everything but the spud was great, you wouldn't return?

                                                                                                                            1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                              Could you ask that about everything people have listed in the thread?

                                                                                                                              1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                I don't think so. The baked potato, lovely though it can be, is certainly an ancillary item. Many of the other dishes posters have mentioned are far more central.

                                                                                                                                1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                                  More central than won ton soup? Would you avoid a restaurant that had poor won ton soup but was excellent otherwise?

                                                                                                                                    1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                      To me, wonton soup is far more coequal to the entree than a spud is to a steak. The steak is the supreme entity at the center of the universe and all the sides are mere pebbles in orbit. But wonton soup, and, let's say, kungpao chicken, are like a binary star system.

                                                                                                                                      And yes, I've been known to choose a Chinese restaurant based largely on the quality of its wonton soup.

                                                                                                                                      1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                                        The problem with wonton soup is that a majority of Chinese restaurants don't even offer the dish. In fact, most don't.

                                                                                                                                        So, in your case, you'd be traversing that toxic tunnel with no canary.

                                                                                                                                        And, hence, this is why questioning every single poster's "canary" is such tomfoolery.

                                                                                                                                        1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                                                          I don't think I've ever seen a Chinese menu without wonton soup.
                                                                                                                                          Weird.

                                                                                                                                          1. re: monavano

                                                                                                                                            Likewise. Wonton soup is everywhere except ipsedixit country. And I've lived in Texas, New Mexico, Missouri and New Jersey.

                                                                                                                                          2. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                                                            Isn't a majority and most the same? Anyway I think it depends on what part of the country you live in, and in my case what part of the city and what you are looking for in Chinese. Do I want American Chinese with some of the best won ton around, or do I head to the sprawling Chinese/Vietnamese district where won ton soup is not authentic to the restaurants? Different canaries in different parts of the country, and in my case city.

                                                                                                                                            1. re: James Cristinian

                                                                                                                                              There are many many Chinese restaurants with no wonton soup on the menu -- authentic or otherwise.

                                                                                                                                              In that case, it's not different canaries. But no canary.

                                                                                                                                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                                                                not where i live (VA)..but it's not 'authentic' (if that even exists in China!)

                                                                                                                                            2. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                                              "And yes, I've been known to choose a Chinese restaurant based largely on the quality of its wonton soup."

                                                                                                                                              Yes, but that's not the same as your initial question to ipse--would you avoid a great chinese restaurant just because it didn't have good wonton soup? And, taking it further, would any poster in this thread avoid a restaurant that had great food except for the one dish that is the "canary"?

                                                                                                                                              For me, this question is the reverse--what is one dish that indicates the restaurant will have good food? I don't think baked potatoes is different from won ton soup in that matter.

                                                                                                                                              1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                Taking it one step further, there are restaurants that don't need a "canary".

                                                                                                                                                I don't need a "canary" dish if I'm going to Per Se.

                                                                                                                                                I don't need my steamed rice litmus test if I'm dining at Sun Tung Luk for the first time.

                                                                                                                                                I am not going to have to try the baked potato at Lugers if it's my first time there.

                                                                                                                                                There are certain "mines" where the reputation precedes itself and I know it's "safe" going in or hanging around a bit without the need for a canary.

                                                                                                                                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                                                                  It would be like the Luray Caverns tour, right? Once it's been excavated and the masses have found it, you know you won't die.

                                                                                                                                                2. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                  Would I avoid a great Chinese restaurant just because it didn't have good wonton soup? That depends. I traditionally have an entree and one appetizer/soup. Wonton soup is my go-to in the latter category. However, if a particular restaurant had poor wonton soup but offered spectacular egg rolls, hot and sour soup, spare ribs, etc. instead, I would still go there. I would never, however, cross off a great steakhouse because it served an inferior spud. And I do love a tasty baked potato!

                                                                                                                                                  As to your concluding question, to my mind baked potatoes and white rice set the bar too low to be a reliable indicator of a restaurant's quality. Now those items may indicate that a restaurant is terrible, but they are unlikely to prove that it will be good. Any old joint should be able to turn out credible rice and baked potatoes. One cannot say the same for wonton soup.

                                                                                                                                                  1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                                                    I agree with you on the steakhouse, the steak is the main attraction. A good potato is an added bonus but not why I go there.

                                                                                                                                                3. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                                                  Hmm, I need to change my response because I reread the OP. You have the question right but in my head, I was thinking what's the one dish that indicated the food will be good. I can't imagine avoiding a good restaurant because one dish isn't done well. I'm a dessert person and could judge by the cake but honestly, I wasn't blown away by Bryan Voltaggio's black sesame foam/microwave cake. But, I'd hardly turn away the experience of Volt for that one out of 21 dishes!

                                                                                                                                                  1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                    Glad I am not the only one who sometimes has a perfect answer in one's head that that when posted is irrelevant to the original question.

                                                                                                                                                    1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                                                                                                                                                      Story of my life. I'm more like my mom than I care to admit...Let me tell you a better way to...

                                                                                                                                              2. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                                                having been employed by 2 high-end steakhouses, i was always surprised by how many people got baked potatoes. it's something so easy to make at home; they cannot be made fresh to order, so are being held and reheated for plating; and cost like $12, for something that cost like a nickel.

                                                                                                                                                1. re: hotoynoodle

                                                                                                                                                  Highway robbery. As much as I love a baked spud with my steak, I'd never fork over that kind of scratch. Insane to do so, IMO.

                                                                                                                                                  1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                                                    well, all the sides are priced like that, but for a bp it just seems outlandish., lol.

                                                                                                                                                    1. re: hotoynoodle

                                                                                                                                                      It seems crazy to pay $2.00 for a bottle of water, but I've done it lots of times without batting an eye. You're not paying for a potato; you're paying for the experience of eating a baked potato in a fancy steakhouse.

                                                                                                                                                      1. re: flavrmeistr

                                                                                                                                                        Maybe. But that 12-dollar spud is still six times as expensive as your bottle of water, and it probably has no more intrinsic worth.

                                                                                                                                                        I'm somewhat loath to drop two bones on some H2O, but there is no way in hell I'll ever fork over 12 clams for a tater.

                                                                                                                                                        1. re: flavrmeistr

                                                                                                                                                          You're not paying for a potato; you're paying for the experience of eating a baked potato in a fancy steakhouse.

                                                                                                                                                          ~~~~~

                                                                                                                                                          i understand the pricing model, and that mon-thurs about 90% of the guests were paying with expense accounts. :)

                                                                                                                                                          i worked for these companies as a sommelier and beverage director and many of my mandated markups were downright criminal as well.

                                                                                                                                                          part of the way steakhouses appeal to their desired demographic is as a "money is no object" experience, yet with the most straightforward kind of food.

                                                                                                                                                          clearly, the model works. both companies for whom i worked have been in business for many decades.

                                                                                                                                                          1. re: hotoynoodle

                                                                                                                                                            That's right. You pay for the experience. Personally, I can make a great steak at home, so I never eat at a steakhouse except when business requires it. I'd much rather squander my dining-out money on more exalted cuisines.

                                                                                                                                                            1. re: flavrmeistr

                                                                                                                                                              I agree on rarely going to a steakhouse because my BF's pepper steak or my rib eye is usually just as good. However... that said.... if I have the opportunity to go to a place with dry aged steak or some similar twist I know I can't do at home, sign me up. Same for prime rib. It just isn't cost efficient for me to make prime rib for 1 or 2 people.

                                                                                                                                                              1. re: Firegoat

                                                                                                                                                                Yes, prime rib is a reason I'll go to a steakhouse but rarely for much else.

                                                                                                                                                                1. re: Firegoat

                                                                                                                                                                  Yes. A fine prime rib is getting more difficult to find nowadays. Not sure why that is. You're right, you need at least a 10-12 pounder and a convection oven for it to turn out right. I'll do an 18-20 pounder around Christmas when I have plenty of help. That's a lot o' tasty meat for the average household.

                                                                                                                                                      2. re: hotoynoodle

                                                                                                                                                        I think most restaurants' financial survival depends on how much potatoes and alcohol they can sell.

                                                                                                                                                          1. re: RealMenJulienne

                                                                                                                                                            As a one time steakhouse owner, serving prime dry aged steak, I can tell you first hand it is the thinnest profit margin vs. food cost of any other restaurant.

                                                                                                                                                            I routinely developed pasta dishes as specials, particularly to include table side cooking/flambe. The lure of the table side cooking was a big draw, and I would serve the pasta dishes as entree's or half portion app's. It was a HUGE hit.

                                                                                                                                                            By 6:30 as the restaurant would start to fill up, if nobody had ordered one, I would prepare the first order complimentary to any table. After that.....the orders would just roll in all night. Once people saw it they wanted it!!

                                                                                                                                                            This went for flambe deserts as well, banana's foster or cherries jubilee.

                                                                                                                                                            I will add though, I never had true ala carte' menu as most steakhouses are, I offered house salad and basic side being baked, mashed or sweet mashed potato. (I would have loved to charge $4-5-6 for a spud!)

                                                                                                                                                            1. re: jrvedivici

                                                                                                                                                              ^ Verrry sneaky. I like it. I guess it works on the same principle as the sizzling fajita platters at Tex Mex places.

                                                                                                                                                              1. re: RealMenJulienne

                                                                                                                                                                No doubt. I'm not that big on fajitas--so to speak--but even I feel a tug at my tum-tum when a platter of those puppies goes sizzling by my table.

                                                                                                                                                                1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                                                                  I'm not much on fajitas, either. I love those sizzling wor bar platters with the crispy rice, though.

                                                                                                                                                                2. re: RealMenJulienne

                                                                                                                                                                  I have to share this here. Please :) I texted a friend who's coming over tomorrow for dinner. Suggested that I pick up some prepared Mexican food at our Latino market, i.e., carnitas. She texted back asking if there are vegetarian carnitas. Turns out since we saw them two weeks ago she's become a vegetarian. I assured her that she can have rice, beans, avocado, cheese, etc. We, including her husband, will have barbacoa de res and chicharrones en salsa verde :)

                                                                                                                                                                3. re: jrvedivici

                                                                                                                                                                  We were always suckers for tableside Caesar salad.

                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: coll

                                                                                                                                                                    I LOVE preparing table side Caeser salad......but do you know what the biggest problem is with doing table side Caeser salad is? Most people really have no idea what is in Caeser salad dressing.....sure they love the end product but don't want to know how that distinct taste is created.

                                                                                                                                                                    Besides the anchovies which I would use paste to disguise what it is, you don't know how many people freak out, "Can you make it without the raw egg"..........lol

                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: jrvedivici

                                                                                                                                                                      We used to frequent a restaurant that did the Caesar salad and the owner made a big show of breaking the egg and separating it, it was mesmerizing.I recall he coddled it somehow, with a candle. He also would come later and make some kind of after dinner drink at tableside, maybe Irish coffee or something like that. It was a big part of why we went there, but it was a very old fashioned place and I'm talking the 1980s. Ah sweet memories, you sure don't see that kind of stuff anymore. Well maybe guacamole tableside in San Diego...a whole new world.

                                                                                                                                                      3. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                                                                        But what if the steak was awful and potato was good? Would you give them another chance like Kai?

                                                                                                                                                    2. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                                                                      I try to watch my carbs, so rice didn't leap out to me, but you're quite right. Any place that serves bad rice, be it Chinese, Puerto Rican or South Asian is going to be a let down.

                                                                                                                                                      1. re: JungMann

                                                                                                                                                        Honestly, I can't recall ever getting bad rice at a restaurant. It seems to me that if you set the bar too low, you're not going to get meaningful results.

                                                                                                                                                        1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                                                          Rice is pretty generic for the most part. It's rare to get a bad bowl of rice but on the same grounds, it's as rare to get a good bowl of white rice. A good bowl of rice can stand on its own, like good bread. I find the case more often with Japanese rice where I can't stop eating it plain.

                                                                                                                                                          1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                                                            I live above a Dominican restaurant that sells very bland and undercooked rice and beans. The rice itself has more crunch than their chicharrones. Musky-tasting basmati garnished with frozen peas also seems to be a required side for bad curries. And I have ordered my fair share of middling Chinese accompanied by rice that doesn't taste like anything.

                                                                                                                                                            1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                                                              I think perhaps you've never gotten any "good" rice at a restaurant.

                                                                                                                                                              I find the number of places with bad versus good rice is something like 10:1.

                                                                                                                                                              It's not as easy as it seems to make steamed white rice in mass quantities. It makes it much harder to then serve that rice esp. if you have to hold it for an extended period of time.

                                                                                                                                                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                                                                                You have higher rice standards than I do. I find few places with good rice but the rest is edible/fine for me. I'd put the ratio of bad/meh/good at 1:8:1.

                                                                                                                                                                1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                                  That's why ipsedixit's litmus is so telling. Truly good rice is hard to find, and it suggests an attention to detail that is worthy of a return visit.

                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                                                                                      Nome de plume would be preferable, there are too many guerres going on...

                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: Veggo

                                                                                                                                                                        I do not post in peace, nor do I assume others do so either.

                                                                                                                                                                        1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                                                                                          You have the right to remain silent. You might consider using it...:)

                                                                                                                                                                            1. re: Veggo

                                                                                                                                                                              But according to a recent SCOTUS decision, your silence may be used against you.

                                                                                                                                                                        2. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                                                                                          I'm not much of a fighter...so mebbe it's my nom d' amour...?

                                                                                                                                                                    2. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                                                                                      I think I'm capable of judging the rice I've eaten, thank you very much, yor worship.

                                                                                                                                                                2. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                                                                                  I second the white rice for Chinese. I rarely eat rice, but the good stuff I gobble up.

                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: fldhkybnva

                                                                                                                                                                    But, do you do as the OP says,
                                                                                                                                                                    " If they can't get this right then I don't see the point of ordering other dishes. "?

                                                                                                                                                                    I'd have a hard time believing so, for rice alone.

                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: TroyTempest

                                                                                                                                                                      Yea, I guess you have a point, it's more so I won't bother to order or eat it even if I want rice if they can't get it right although I imagine my favorite take out place is my favorite because it fulfills my cravings for rice as well as the other dishes that I order, but as you point out it's not like I refuse to eat at others because of bad rice. However, this is true for sushi restaurants with me.

                                                                                                                                                                  2. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                                                                                    Call me crazy, but I judge a steakhouse by its steaks. I rarely even order a baked potato.

                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: The Big Crunch

                                                                                                                                                                      You have a good point, I can't remember the last time I went to a steakhouse and ordered a baked potato. Actually, the only time I usually have had them with steak in a restaurant is the few times I've been taken to Outback. At my favorite steakhouses with big hunks of ribeye and strip steaks, I never order the potato as it's just not why I'm there.

                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: The Big Crunch

                                                                                                                                                                        And how well they prepare tithe temperature I order. Where I live it is necessary sometimes to order rare in order to get medium. I can eat rare through medium so we tend to order medium rare Which is our preferred temp. If I end up with medium well I know this will be a rough meal. Will I return? Perhaps, because of the dearth of restaurants here. But I will be ordering my meat rare.

                                                                                                                                                                    2. For Chinese-American, it's surprising how much you can divine from an egg roll. You can read quality into a crispy and greaseless shell or act the haruspex reading into oily and cabbagey innards.

                                                                                                                                                                      For IndoPak, too, I go for pastry. A cold and flavorless samosa can tell me as much as an unsatisfying chicken biryani for a fraction of the price. For American sushi, I can't tell if I always go for spicy tuna crunch rolls as a canary or just because I like them. Either way, if the basic run-of-the-mill sushi shop can't do a satisfying spicy tuna roll, most likely I am going to be disappointed by the quality of their yellowtail and salmon as well.

                                                                                                                                                                      2 Replies
                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: JungMann

                                                                                                                                                                        For Chinese-American, it's surprising how much you can divine from an egg roll. You can read quality into a crispy and greaseless shell or act the haruspex reading into oily and cabbagey innards.
                                                                                                                                                                        ____________________

                                                                                                                                                                        Unfortunately, so many Chinese-American restaurants these days buy pre-packaged frozen egg rolls from the likes of Sysco, et al.

                                                                                                                                                                        1. As for diner fare, I go with the turkey club sandwich and fries. If they use salty turkey roll and the fries are those machine-extruded squiggles, I do not return. The mayo also has to be good.
                                                                                                                                                                          CP

                                                                                                                                                                          1. my "tester" Chinese carry out dish was always Chicken Fried Rice.

                                                                                                                                                                              1. As already mentioned, for diners, a club sandwich and fries.

                                                                                                                                                                                For mexican, carne asada tacos, or tacos al carbon. One would think you couldn't really screw these up, but sadly, you can.

                                                                                                                                                                                1. Yes. Vanilla ice cream. They can hide behind other stuff they put in the ice cream but if they know what they're doing, it shows in the vanilla---no place to hide.

                                                                                                                                                                                  1 Reply
                                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: Querencia

                                                                                                                                                                                    Yes. Reminds me of one of my favourite Simpsons' quote when Homer becomes a food critic and the outgoing critic says "why make 31 flavours when you can't get vanilla right".
                                                                                                                                                                                    I use this quite a lot at work unfortunately when they implement yet another management idea.

                                                                                                                                                                                  2. any fast food joint: fries
                                                                                                                                                                                    Quebec fast food: poutine
                                                                                                                                                                                    italian: carbonara
                                                                                                                                                                                    spanish: tortilla or paella

                                                                                                                                                                                    1. Nope. I don't go out to dinner often so I will just order what is my favorite or what looks the most delicious and hope for the best.

                                                                                                                                                                                      I'd NEVER go to a local red sauce Italian joint and order spaghetti and meatballs or just pasta and marinara to try to check out their "skills". I don't really care about how they make that stuff because I'm never ever ever going to order that when I go out to dinner ever in the entire course of my life. I can make that stuff, chix parm, lasagna, manicotti, etc. better at home.

                                                                                                                                                                                      I'd rather try something different like a pizza topped with garlic, fried eggplant, tomatoes, and basil or veal roulade with spinach, mozzarella, and proscuitto in the center topped with a white wine sauce at the Italian place. I'd rather try the creamy grits with cheese and bacon at a steakhouse because I know how to make tomato salad and creamed spinach at home.

                                                                                                                                                                                      1. Chinese- For me, it's the hot and sour soup, because if that's not good, it's a deal breaker.

                                                                                                                                                                                        5 Replies
                                                                                                                                                                                        1. re: monavano

                                                                                                                                                                                          But there are more versions than you can shake a stick at. Would that be too many canaries???

                                                                                                                                                                                          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hot_and_...

                                                                                                                                                                                          1. re: c oliver

                                                                                                                                                                                            "Would that be too many canaries???"

                                                                                                                                                                                            No. You cannot have too many canaries in hot & sour canary soup.

                                                                                                                                                                                            1. re: Harters

                                                                                                                                                                                              You might enjoy my hummingbird pie.

                                                                                                                                                                                              1. re: Veggo

                                                                                                                                                                                                And, after the pie, I may partake of crunchy frog chocolates (my thanks to Monty Python) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dy6uLf...

                                                                                                                                                                                            2. re: c oliver

                                                                                                                                                                                              Yes, many versions. Some more chicken broth based, others beef. But, I enjoy the variety and have no specific prototype. It can not be gloppy, must be spicy and have a good mix of ingredients.
                                                                                                                                                                                              It's one of those "I'll know it when I see it", and if I like it, I'm probably going to go with that Chinese resto for my whole order.
                                                                                                                                                                                              Makes it more convenient, that's for sure.

                                                                                                                                                                                          2. southern diner for breakfast:

                                                                                                                                                                                            fresh country sausage patties, good grits and biscuits. real butter. half-n-half or cream for coffee.

                                                                                                                                                                                            24 Replies
                                                                                                                                                                                            1. re: alkapal

                                                                                                                                                                                              Yes, yes, and yes, plus fresh hash browns. We have a place that does all of the above but serves whipped spread in those tiny tubs. We import (bring) our own real butter.

                                                                                                                                                                                              1. re: James Cristinian

                                                                                                                                                                                                Properly cooked hash browns are my test at a new diner. Undercooked, mushy sad hashbrowns can totally ruin the breakfast experience.

                                                                                                                                                                                                1. re: Firegoat

                                                                                                                                                                                                  You know what, excellent point. Is it just me that thinks the diner hash browns is a lost culinary art? I remember delicious perfectly cooked and seasoned has browns as a kid, a few crunchy ones that sat on the grill a little too long mixed in. Now it seems all dinners just served salted mushed potatoes. I'm in Jersey.

                                                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: jrvedivici

                                                                                                                                                                                                    I love Saturday or Sunday morning breakfasts in a diner. While in Tulsa I had a lot to choose from. Mom and Pops and small chains. It always came down to the hash browns to determine if I'd go back. No pale. anemic wet mush browns for me please. And there is a difference between hash browns and home fries. Home fried hashbrowns also are a deal breaker for me if they aren't done to a beautiful crisp.

                                                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: jrvedivici

                                                                                                                                                                                                      The only diner I frequent makes great hash browns which is probably the only reason I go there or any diner at all these days. I agree, many are quite lackluster.

                                                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: fldhkybnva

                                                                                                                                                                                                        My diner gives you the choice of hash browns and home fries.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        Worth the 10 mile drive.

                                                                                                                                                                                                2. re: alkapal

                                                                                                                                                                                                  For a southern diner, it's the corned beef hash which makes it for me, as well as good hash browns. For me, those are the key dishes which I can't seem to replicate at home and the primary reason that I step foot in a diner so if they are bad, it's not worth going.

                                                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: fldhkybnva

                                                                                                                                                                                                    I'm from the South and don't think of CBH or HB as Southern dishes at all. And I hope you're not talking about having CBH AND HBs on the same plate :)

                                                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: c oliver

                                                                                                                                                                                                      It's funny, I'm from NC originally and thought the same thing myself. CBH to me is far more of a mid-Atlantic diner staple.

                                                                                                                                                                                                      I guess for Southern diner food, good grits and biscuits are the best barometer, but at this point, most diners just use instant grits. Biscuits and Gravy are another staple. Honest-to-God, the best grist I ever had were in Brooklyn. Damn things were as smooth as silk and so flavorful. The chef/owner was from the South, so at least it wasn't a case of a Yankee cook at a Yankee diner making my all-time favorite grits :)

                                                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: c oliver

                                                                                                                                                                                                        I was waiting for someone to say that, as for some reason I associate them both with the South but I think they are traditionally Northern dishes. If I'm at a diner, CBH and HBs are often together, not on the same plate though because I don't like my food to touch before I eat it.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        1. re: fldhkybnva

                                                                                                                                                                                                          This is totally off the top of my head, but I'm guessing hash browns started out in the US as a northeast Jewish thing and spread from there. Latkes have been around a lot longer than greasy spoon diners, and it's hard not to think the latke begat the hash brown.

                                                                                                                                                                                                          1. re: The Big Crunch

                                                                                                                                                                                                            I can't imagine that at all given the nature of Jewish food history in the US. Lots of European cultures of various fried potato dishes that seem like a far more natural basis.

                                                                                                                                                                                                            1. re: cresyd

                                                                                                                                                                                                              If you can trace HB to before the 1870s, chances are very good they sprang from a goyish group.

                                                                                                                                                                                                              1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                                                                                                                For a start, where a latke stops and a German potato pancake begins is a story that's far older and probably a chicken/egg question. And German (non-Jewish) immigrants were far more numerous and integrated into US society for decades before Jewish immigrants arrived in significant numbers let alone integrated in a significant fashion. Additionally you have dishes like boxty which would have come with Irish immigrant groups that also arrived in larger numbers prior to Jewish immigrants.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                According to a link found from Wikipedia: "The term “hashed brown potatoes” was used by food author Maria Parloa (1843-1909) in 1888, “hash brown potatoes” is cited from 1895, “hash browns” is cited from 1911 (part of lunch counter slang), and “hashed browns” is cited from 1920. Hashed brown potatoes was a popular breakfast dish in New York City in the 1890s and was served in the finest hotels."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                1. re: cresyd

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Like I said before, complete speculation on my part. Potato pancakes are indeed culturally ubiquitous in many areas of Europe, and have been for a loooong time, but I just wondered if, perhaps due to the religious significance, latkes may have a longer and more visible presence, and thereby perhaps were more of an influence on hash browns. Again, complete speculation. Funny, until this thread, I never really thought very much about "American hash browns" and the underlying story they likely tell regarding immigration and cultural assimilation. Food history is some cool stuff :)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: The Big Crunch

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    potatoes being a new world food, i doubt that some kind of potato cake wasn't imagined long before the 1st european had ever seen a spud.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  2. re: cresyd

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Hmmm. Inconclusive, I'd say.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Certainly the Germans and Irish, who were here in large numbers well before the Jews, would be prime candidates for having invented hashed browns. But if they did, it's strange that this wasn't noted before 1888, which, incidentally, is smack dab in the middle of the Jewish/Italian/Eastern European immigration wave. Of course, hashed browns could have been around well before 1888 and been called something else, but if so, what?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                                                                                                                      The intellectual migration from Europe began about 20 years later, no?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Between 1980 and 1914 (start of World War I) that's when you have around 2 million Yiddish speaking Jewish immigrants to the US. I have a hard time thinking that by 1888 the impression would be that great given how ghettoized the initial Jewish communities were.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Regardless though - the woman who is credited with the dish (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_Pa...) definitely moved around a lot.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                        1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Interesting that late 19th century Jewish immigration to the UK did not bring hash browns into our cuisine but did in America. Perhaps comparitively smaller numbers and a quicker integration into society is the reason.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          1. re: Harters

                                                                                                                                                                                                                            I think that whether or not central European Jewish immigration brought hashbrowns to the US or not is completely up for debate.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                            1. re: cresyd

                                                                                                                                                                                                                              I agree. It's merely a possibility, not necessarily a likelihood.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: c oliver

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    I rarely eat potatoes so when I do I eat potatoes, a lot of them. I've never been turned off by the fact that there are two potato dishes in close proximity to each other. I will order corned beef hash every time at my favorite local diner, but only occasionally also order hash browns but when I do I don't feel "over-potatoed" I guess because it's a rare occurrence for me.

                                                                                                                                                                                                          2. Good carnitas that are at the many carnecerias that dot the corners of disparate areas of Houston. Asado de Puerco a plus, also good flour tortillas , yes gasp for the corn purists, which are also a staple. Good red sauce for me, green for the Hispanic wifeacita. These places are patronized by a majority of immigrants, and they prefer tortillas de harina to maiz.

                                                                                                                                                                                                            1. thai place: som tam and pad kee mao with fresh rice noodles and wok hei.

                                                                                                                                                                                                              1. For Middle Eastern/Levantine food - tahini salad or green tahini and the bread, be it pita, lavash, or anything else. If those items are done poorly, then there's just no hope for the rest of the menu.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                2 Replies
                                                                                                                                                                                                                1. re: cresyd

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  I'd say bread, overall. If I go somewhere the the bread is great,I expect that the rest of the meal will be, also. For Middle Eastern food, I'd also add the plain vermicelli/rice.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    I find a number of Middle Eastern places to "over oil" the rice past a point that I personally enjoy (while still making other dishes I find very good). But definitely if the bread is bad, things are headed downhill fast.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Hummus though I find to be the least reliable judge of the overall quality of the food. Some places I know have excellent hummus, and dreadful with nearly everything else while other places are reverse.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                2. Coffee, in a coffee/breakfast shop.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  1. Diner: hot roast beef sandwich. If they can't get it right, it's not worth returning. Extra points for lumpy mashed potatoes.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Chinese: Kung pao. They might be redeemed with good soup, shu mai or pork buns, but kung pao is usually the litmus.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Thai: Tom ka gai. This has to be good or the rest of the meal will usually not be.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    1. I guess I'm kind of against "canary" type dishes. There is just too much variety in the world, and every little restaurant has something it does best - if you used a tester dish as a barometer, you would miss out on too much. For one thing, with many of the examples, the barometer-dish is something that represents only a subset, region or style of a cuisine and would eliminate restaurants from the same cuisine but unfamiliar region or style. Also, each restaurant is unique - I'd rather try to figure out from their menu, specials, and staff what they do best, and try that.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                      9 Replies
                                                                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: Sarah Perry

                                                                                                                                                                                                                        In other words, don't throw the baby out with the bath water.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                        1. re: Sarah Perry

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          I agree. Maybe that's why I misinterpreted the question to mean what is a dish, that done well, will lead you to trust that a restaurant is good. As said above, who would really discount a great restaurant over one bad dish?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                                                                                            If only to say that if your "canary" dish is pretty bad, it might be a sign of things to come. Maybe not.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                            But for example, my offering of meatballs in an Italian restaurant; if the meatballs were obviously just heated up from frozen hockey pucks, then I get pretty crestfallen. If they're fresh, but just not my cup of tea, there's still hope.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                            1. re: monavano

                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Using the won ton example above, there are good chinese restaurants that have bad won ton soup because it's mostly, for them, for the unadventurous palate (to put it kindly). So, just because the won ton soup is bad, I won't write off the restaurant (usually I won't be ordering it). But, if I find a place that has great won ton soup? Admittedly not a frequent occurrence, but then there's a pretty good likelihood the rest of the food will be good. But meatballs are much more central to an Italian place than won tons are to chinese so if they can't be bothered w/ good meatballs, that is a good sign.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                              1. re: chowser

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                ??
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Can't be bothered with good meatballs, or CAN be bothered?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                1. re: monavano

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Good meatballs can come over and bother me all day. I won't turn them away.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: monavano

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Sorry, meant to say, it's a bad sign if they can't be bothered.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                            2. re: Sarah Perry

                                                                                                                                                                                                                              It's a matter of personal tastes and expectations, that's all. If your personal expectations are not met, then the hell with it. Move on.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                              1. re: Sarah Perry

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                This is very true.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                I think the "canary" technique might be useful only for a single category of food, as opposed to an entire restaurant.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                So, for example, one might use Pizza Margherita as a "canary" for a restaurant's ability to make pizza, but not necessarily for calzones or antipasti.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                              2. For a BBQ place I'm always interested in trying the sauce.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                After that, the brisket.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                If those two are tasty I'm gonna stick around.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                27 Replies
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                1. re: Firegoat

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Bingo, I like dry rubs but adore sauces.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: Firegoat

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Nah...BBQ joints are all about the meat. Sauces just cover up the natural meaty goodness. But if the place doesn't have a wood-fired cooker, no sense even darkening their door.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: ricepad

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      All true. But I do like a quality sauce on the side for occasional dabbing.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: ricepad

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Yes. If I can't smell barbeque in the parking lot (or preferably a block away), I won't bother getting out of the car.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        1. re: ricepad

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          I do agree I want to see an outdoor cooker at my Q place. I just assumed that was a given :D

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          1. re: Firegoat

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            There was a (suppposed) BBQ place that opened up a while back not far from my office. I happened to be walking past, and stopped in to see if they'd let me check out their cooker. Turns out, they had a huge STEAMER that looked like a repurposed industrial textile washing machine. I asked, somewhat without hope, what kind of wood they burned, and the guy said the steamer was fired by natural gas. I said, "no fire?", and he said something to the effect that all BBQ joints cook their meats with steam these days.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            They were out of business in less than 6 months. Steamed meat, indeed.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            1. re: ricepad

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              oh boo!!!!! I need to see the smoker out back or a smoke house. I want to get out of my car and smell SMOKY Q in the parking lot.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              1. re: Firegoat

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                I want to be able to smell it while I'm still in my car.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              2. re: ricepad

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Holy Mother of God. It's time to reconvene the courts at Nuremburg. And I'm only half joking!

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          2. re: Firegoat

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            This might sound strange but I judge BBQ places on the quality of the collard greens, not the meat. I'm not always in the mood for brisket or ribs but I never walk out of a BBQ joint without trying to consume my weight in greens.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            1. re: RealMenJulienne

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              are you picky about how they're cut, too? i give demerits for large pieces.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              around this neck of the woods, dixie bones bbq is pretty good -- with excellent collards *except* that they are cut too large. (and i think their cornbread is always too dry and flavorless - which is sad when the greens taste so good, and need some good cornbread to soak up the pot liquor).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              1. re: alkapal

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Very picky. Greens need to be cut into small pieces and ribbons like you would for a stir fry, and the toughest part of the stems should be completely picked out.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                1. re: RealMenJulienne

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  cut small and, oh yes, tough stems OUT, too!

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                2. re: alkapal

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Wow! Total opposite here. I hate collards that are cut too fine and ribbon-y; I feel they basically become mush when finally served. I've also got no problem with stems, though if pressed, I'd prefer them to not be included.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  1. re: The Big Crunch

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Pressed collard stems are indeed hard to swallow.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: Veggo

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Isn't that redundant?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Are there such things as "wrinkled" collar stays?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          I'm head of the Department of Redundancy Department.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          1. re: Veggo

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Could you repeat that I didn't catch it the first time.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          2. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Perhaps not wrinkled but I have a few that make a right angle.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      2. re: The Big Crunch

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        i like collards cut around 1 ½ inch squares -- not as fine as frozen chopped collards, but not as large as 3" like dixie bones makes (collards with pieces so large that you have to stab them in two places with your fork to keep them from flopping and splattering pot likker on your new top. these type of collards often need structural support from cornbread).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    1. re: RealMenJulienne

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      In what part of the world do you get your cue? I've never seen collard greens in a cue joint.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Pretty much everywhere in the old Confederacy. I'll throw in the border states of Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland as well.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        1. re: flavrmeistr

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Hmmm. My cue experiences have been confined to Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Missouri, and, of all places, New Jersey.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            I've had greens and okra w/tomatoes (another barbeque joint staple) at Black's in Lockhart, TX. Of course, Black's is all about the beef ribs. Great googly-moogly...those ribs!

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        2. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee. I see greens on BBQ menus more often than not.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      2. re: Firegoat

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        I'm a pulled pork fan so my judge is the pulled pork. Everything else can be great, but if the pulled pork isn't and they advertise it to be then I don't return usually.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      3. For Chinese food, fried rice. Some places make phenomenal fried rice that's golden yellow, big chunks of bright red bbq pork, green onions, bean sprouts, fried egg and other stuff. Other places just throw some soy sauce on it and it doesn't have any flavor and looks dull.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        4 Replies
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        1. re: Atomic76

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          I understand what you're saying, but it's hard for me to agree. Fried rice is how we traditionally get rid of leftover rice. I suppose some restaurants have elevated the lowly, 'throwaway' dish, but I grew up hearing/thinking, "Better chow (fry) this stuff up before it goes bad..."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          1. re: ricepad

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            I think of fried rice as a side dish. As in "do you want steamed or fried rice?" I always go with steamed.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            1. re: ricepad

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Any Chinese place can make fried rice.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              But only about 1% of them can make a really good, worthy fried rice that can (and probably should) be eaten on its own.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            2. re: Atomic76

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              I basically agree. There is tremendous variation in the quality of fried rice one encounters in restaurants. And this variation probably correlates pretty well with the overall quality of the restaurant.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            3. Also being in a land-locked state, I tend to judge seafood restaurants by the crab cakes. If I get a great crab cake with little binder and great seasoning.... I'm in for whatever comes next.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              1 Reply
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              1. re: Firegoat

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Firegoat wrote: "being in a land-locked state..."
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Even here on the shore, most crab cakes in restaurants are not great. Even at popular places in Baltimore such as Phillips. So if you can get good ones inland, then you're right -- you've found a good place!