Monday, October 10, 2005


More restaurant theories

Q. Why are there so few good "ethnic" restaurants in My Home Town?

A. The humorist and food writer Calvin Trillin came here to My Home Town for a reading a few years ago, and was asked during the Q and A whether he liked any of the ethnic restaurants in town. He acknowledged the problem, and gave his theory: to have good cuisine of a certain ethnicity, that ethnic group must have a resident population base sufficient to elect at least two aldermen.

Meanwhile a friend of mine hypothesizes: good ethnic cuisine in a place must be based on a cornerstone of solid quality Chinese food.

Putting the Two Aldermen Theory and the Cornerstone Theory together, we're screwed.

Q. Do restaurants have life spans? You have blogged about this, and apparently you think so. But how can that be?

A. While it's easy to imagine a restaurant shooting itself in the foot and sustaining a mortal wound by trying to change -- for instance, abandoning the tried-and-true menu in some misguided effort to go upscale -- it's less obvious why a restaurant should be unable to do its really good, consistent thing indefinitely. Yet restaurants that strive for consistency do seem to decline and die.

I'm just guessing here -- I've barely set foot in a restaurant kitchen -- but here are two related theories: while the prices of ingredients steadily rise, it is difficult for restaurants with established clienteles to raise prices to keep up with inflation. People who resign themselves or don't notice gradual rises in grocery prices will nevertheless be upset by menu price increases. So over time, restaurant owners may skimp on the quality of ingredients to hold down their prices, hurting the quality of their food.

Also, a good cook or chef who works at a place for a while may justifiably want a wage increase. If the owner resists, there will be turnover in the kitchen. Over time, cook staff turnover might take its toll on the quality of the menu items.

Q. Last night I had what started out as a delicious Indian meal. But as the meal progressed, dishes that tasted really great at first began to taste almost unbearably salty. Do you think the food is really salty or is this just an aberration? Should I go back there?

A. I always advise people eating at ethnic restaurants here in My Home Town that they wait a full 24 hours before deciding whether they liked the meal. So it's really too soon to say.

Hi, I've been reading TCM for a while and I think it's great. Now I'm speaking up.

Your Home Town, by which I gather you mean Madison, has lots of good ethnic food: Wasabi, Lao Laan-Xang and Baraka are three favorites from my grad school days. You're right that there are no good Chinese places, though.

I don't buy either of the theories, but I suppose they are fun to think about.
I agree that there are no good Chinese places here. But frankly, there are few good Chinese places *anywhere*. I believe that it is a cuisine that invites mediocrity.

Don't misunderstand me, I'm not dissing Chinese food. I've just found that fantastic examples of it are *extremely* rare. (But whenever I find myself in San Francisco, I always make time to visit the House of Nanking and other purveyors of fine Chinese cooking.)
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