It's a good time to be an economist. Ever since the Freakonomics guys explained everything from how sumo wrestlers cheat to why Amber isn't as classy a name as it used to be, there's been a market for wonks to deconstruct modern life.
Enter Tyler Cowen, an economist, professor and avid foodie, and his new book, An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies. Cowen can sometimes come off like the über-Yelper, revering the almighty food truck and taking it for granted that the most exotic cuisines are by definition better and more interesting.
First, eat far from beautiful women, happy people and hipsters. Hipsters are drawn to places that are popular or trendy, both signs of overpriced food.
His eye roll-inducing introduction brags about his preference for Bolivian, Laotian and North Korean fare and uniformly declares cuisine in Paris to be the worst in Europe for anyone without an expense account. (Upon hearing this, the publishers of the influential Le Fooding guide immediately disbanded.)
He's also wary of the slow food movement, claiming that genetically modified food and the creation of agribusiness is what enables us to adequately and safely feed a rapidly expanding global population. But in his determination to guide average eaters to meals that provide more satisfaction for their money, Cowen offers some interesting and often useful advice, especially as distilled into six rules in The Atlantic.
First, eat far from beautiful women, happy people and hipsters. Hipsters are drawn to places that are popular or trendy, both signs of overpriced food, and Cowen says that a restaurant full of beautiful women attracts other diners for all the wrong reasons — that is, any reason other than that the food is tasty and inexpensive. But what if the restaurant just serves really good salad?
Similarly, restaurants full of people smiling and having a good time might be there for the social atmosphere — another waste in Cowen's eyes. He recommends restaurants where people are yelling and seem overly serious about the food, which does seem to manifest another preference for hole-in-the-wall ethnic joints, as well as a limited view of what constitutes a good meal.
Cowen recommends eating from restaurants that have the fewest overhead costs, which means ignoring places in high-rent zones and opting for restaurants in strip malls outside the city center, or, even better, food trucks. This is actually great advice for Houston, where strip malls and great ethnic restaurants are both plentiful.
Taking this line of thought to its logical conclusion, Cowen recommends restaurants that lower labor costs by employing family members rather than those that actually are required to pay legal wages or who include valets or sommeliers on staff. This just seems wrong. Not that family restaurants aren't very good at what they do (they often are) but if you start rewarding restaurants for underpaying staff, you only encourage bad owner behavior in a race to the bottom.
Quality of life for servers and other restaurant employees, like the quality of ingredients provided by ethical farming, is of no consequence to Cowen. Based on Houston's reaction to the Ruggles scandal, I don't think that's a philosophy most local foodies can get behind.
Another tip from Cowen is to patronize restaurants serving less common cuisines, which is why he favors Vietnamese food over Thai food and Pakistani food over Indian food. As he says in The Atlantic,
. . . Thai food has become cool. I first saw this trend in California, in the 1980s, when young people in black started turning up in large numbers at Thai restaurants in Hollywood. It spread. Americans eating in a Thai restaurant are likely more hip than those eating in a Chinese restaurant. Yet hip people do not always have superb taste in food.
As Thai restaurants have become more popular, they have become unreliable. It is so easy to make the food too sweet, appealing to lowest-common-denominator tastes or masking deficiencies in the food’s preparation. The best sweet Thai dishes mix sweet with tart, but there’s been too much abuse on the sweet side and not enough use of fish sauce or fermented shrimp paste or ground white pepper. The most-reliable indicators of bad Thai restaurants are a large bar and sushi on the menu. Those are both signs that the restaurant isn’t that serious about food. Stay away."
First of all, lets all take a moment to enjoy a middle-aged economist describing things that are hip and cool, like Hollywood's large beatnik community in the 1980s.
While I agree with this sentiment in theory, obviously in Houston the formula must be changed. Chinese food and Vietnamese food are both extremely popular, and yet neither are particularly Americanized because many of these restaurants exist in the same neighborhoods in competition with one another (always a plus, according to Cowen) and serve, at least in part, an Asian clientele. If you are looking for something less on the average Houstonian's radar, you might have to seek out Korean or Malaysian cuisine.
I'm curious how much of his findings are based on solid economics and how much are the manifestations of a foodie culture that, like Cowen, loaths hipsters and ascribes value to places that are cheap, unglamorous, and off the beaten path. That's not necessarily a bad way to find good food on a budget. It's just not a very scientific method.
What do you think of Cowen's theories? And how do you judge where to find good food?