Guest Host: Matt McCleskey
Ask this influential economist who happens to be a foodie how Americans could better spend their dining-out dollars, and he’ll tell you most common wisdom is wrong. Cheap food doesn’t mean bad, and local food isn’t necessarily better for the environment. With the average American spending nearly $3000 annually eating out (and many spending much more), we’ve got ideas for finding the best of what’s out there.
- Tyler Cowen Professor of Economics, George Mason University; and author, "An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies (Dutton)
Cowen’s Suggestions For Ethnic Food In Our Area
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYWelcome back. I'm Matt McCleskey, your local host of "Morning Edition" here on WAMU 88.5, sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. We've all been there in a new city, maybe on business, maybe as a tourist. You get off the plane, you get out of the airport, and you're hungry. Where should you go to eat? How can you tell a good restaurant from a bad? Some people may be tempted to go for the familiars.
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYYou got a chain or fast food restaurants. You know what to expect. Eating out, especially at a restaurant you never tried before, can sometimes feel like a game of roulette. But there are some rules that can improve your odds of getting a great meal. All it takes is waking up your powers of observation and your skills as an armchair economist. Armed with the right tools and some basic knowledge of the laws of supply and demand, you can make a good choice.
MR. MATT MCCLESKEYAnd joining me now is no armchair economist. Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University, also author of "An Economist Goes (sic) to Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies." And he is a passionate foodie himself. Welcome, thanks for joining us.
PROF. TYLER COWENThank you.
MCCLESKEYWell, what are -- as an economist, what do you look for when you're looking for a restaurant?
COWENWell, if you get to a new town, you're basically looking for informed customers. You can judge a restaurant by its customers. So if you're looking for ethnic food, look for a sector where there's a lot of competition. So in Virginia, there are lots of Vietnamese restaurants. They tend to be very good. Also, look for places which are a little hard to find. That means that only informed customers are getting there.
MCCLESKEYExcellent. And you mentioned in particular on whether it's here in Northern Virginia or traveling, you mentioned a trip to Nicaragua and how that convinced you that economic rules could help you make better choices about when and where to find good food. What do you look for when you're traveling?
COWENIf you're going up to a foreign country, very often the Web won't help you that much and maybe guide books won't even help you, as is the case in Nicaragua. You want to figure out, who are the people who are well-informed about food? And very often in an underdeveloped nation, these would be males between the ages of 30 and 55 who travel for a job, and they know where to eat. And first thing you should do is ask them. Again, you're tracing back economic principles in trying to figure out who were the informed customers.
MCCLESKEYAnd whether it's a tourist destination or in our area you say, depending on who you see in a restaurant, it may make you want to turn the other way. If it's a lot of smiling, happy people who look like they're just having a great time being there, that may not be the place to go in.
COWENSure. If you just want to socialize, it may be the right place. But you should figure out when you're paying for socialization and when you're paying for food. And when I see people looking a little bit grim and quite serious when they're eating, I actually get encouraged. The laughing and smiling, I tend to become more skeptical.
MCCLESKEYIt's all business...
COWENIt's all business.
MCCLESKEY...of where to find good business. Also, you mentioned it's not necessarily you're not going to find the best restaurants in the high-profile neighborhoods or places, and perhaps even a strip mall might be a place to go for great food.
COWENSure. Say, you're walking down 5th Avenue in Manhattan. There are hardly any good restaurants there. The rent is simply too high. A place that's there would have to do such volume like a Hard Rock Cafe that it's pretty mediocre. So you look for places which are, again, a bit out of the way, a little bit hard to find, not relying on walk-in traffic.
MCCLESKEYAnd you mentioned in the book a significant amount about different ethnic foods and how in this area, in particular, there are great ethnic restaurants. What role has immigration played in terms of food innovation in the United States over the past century or so?
COWENWell, one big reason American food was so bad in much of the 20th century is that we cut off immigration in the 1920s. So our main source of new ideas pretty much ground to a halt. And American food starts getting better again a bit after 1965 when we let in more immigrants. The best around this area, I would say, is Korean, Vietnamese and Ethiopian. And, of course, they're all immigrant driven.
MCCLESKEYI want to ask our listeners. How do you evaluate a good restaurant? How do you decide where to eat out? Call us, 800-433-8850. You can also send an email to kojo@WAMU.org. Again, that's 800-433-8850. The phone lines are open. We're talking with Tyler Cowen, author of "An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies."
MCCLESKEYYou also talked a lot in the book about -- you mentioned immigration being cut off in 1920s is one thing that's driven, perhaps, some innovation with American food down over the last century. But there are a lot of other factors contributing there as well. What are some of the other things that you put that made American food so bad?
COWENWell, we became a wine culture relatively late. California led the way. The rest of the country is catching up. But I think also, Americans cook too much for their children, and they go to the restaurant the children want to go to. And kids want food that's too sweet and too soft. And the French attitude, where you expect the child to elevate himself or herself to your level of eating, I think is much better, and basically it works.
MCCLESKEYWe also see -- excuse me, rather -- children are one of the contributing factors. Are we dumbing down our palate overall?
COWENIn some regards, but again, the situation in this country has been getting better for at least 30 years. But children are in some ways the main villain in the piece. Don't cook for kids. Cook for yourself. Most of the world operates that way, of course, and children then grow up with good taste in food.
MCCLESKEYAnd we're talking about restaurants. We mention also cooking. What sort of things do you look for if you're going to the grocery store? You mention that it's easy to get into a rut in terms of what you want to -- what you buy. You might buy the same thing over and over. You might hit the same aisles over and over.
COWENMost American mainstream supermarkets are pretty bad. If you take a Giant or a Safeway -- I only go against my will if I'm right near one and I need to pick something up. I would much rather go to an ethnic market, like Chinese, and try their greens or go to a Latino market. So you should either go to something that's better and pricier, like Whole Foods or parts of Wegmans, or go much lower and pay less and get something interesting. There's really no reason to visit a Giant or Safeway.
MCCLESKEYAnd you mentioned an experiment you did in the book, an experiment where you went to a different supermarket for an entire month than you had been to before, and it happened to be an ethnic supermarket. So you really, really did have to stretch out and buy some things that perhaps you weren't as familiar with.
COWENI ate a lot more greens was the main thing. And I didn't have to force myself. I ate more greens because they tasted better, and they were very cheap.
MCCLESKEYMm hmm. Well, we'd like to hear from our listeners. Where do you shop? And where are your favorite restaurants? How do you go about deciding? 800-433-8850 is the number to call. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You mention the greens at a Chinese grocery that you went to in Northern Virginia as being the loss leader in the store. So there's one sense of economics looking at what drives different grocery stores to set things up different ways.
COWENThat's what gets the Chinese parents to go. They know it has the best selection of greens. A green there, if you could get it at all at a Giant or Safeway, would be two or three times the price. It's called the Great Wall. It's on Gallows Road. I would recommend it to everyone.
MCCLESKEYAnd what are some of the other favorite restaurants in our area that you find yourself going back to time and again?
COWENSichuan Pavilion in Maryland is very good, in Rockville. In D.C., I think Little Serow, which has Northeastern Thai food, is probably the best place overall right now. And then in Virginia, the cluster of Ethiopian in West Alexandria on South George Mason Drive, Eden Center for Vietnamese in Falls Church, and all of Annandale for Korean. Those would be my picks.
MCCLESKEYWe're speaking with Tyler Cowen. He's professor of economics at George Mason University, also the author of "An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies." We've had a lot of people calling in here in the last couple of minutes, and we're certainly going to get to those calls in just a minute. We're going to take a short break. I'm Matt McCleskey, your local host of "Morning Edition" here on WAMU, sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. We'll be right back. Stay with us.
MCCLESKEYWelcome back. I'm Matt McCleskey, local host of "Morning Edition" here on WAMU 88.5, sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. And we're speaking with Tyler Cowen, the author of "An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies." We are going to go straight to your phone calls now. Thomas calling from Takoma Park in Md. Thomas, go ahead. You're on the air.
THOMASI just wanted to mention that one of the underrated ways of finding a place is just following your nose. I mean, just a couple of recent examples where I've been -- once was going into a supermarket and smelled grilled wood fire with meat dripping over it, and found an excellent Salvadoran restaurant near our house, you know, where they do lobster tail and steaks on a wood fire. And another time, I was actually pulling into another supermarket to buy curry.
THOMASAnd it was -- I usually go to the, you know, to a couple of good Indian stores that I go to. This time, I didn't have a chance to get to those. So I was going into the Safeway, and when I stepped out of my car, I smelled curry. And I went in the store (unintelligible) little tiny bottles of curry, and it just wasn't doing it for me. So I walked back out, walked across the street and found a brand new Indian place that had just opened -- fabulous food. The best mulligatawny soup I've ever had.
MCCLESKEYWell, thanks for your call, Thomas. The nose knows, I suppose. Do you follow your nose, Tyler Cowen?
COWENSometimes. I would also stress, if you see a Salvadoran place, it's almost always pretty good. It's a remarkably consistent cuisine. It's hard to wreck a pupusa. So over time, you develop a knowledge of some regularities.
MCCLESKEYAll right. Well, let's go to Liz, calling from Clifton in Virginia. Liz, you're on the air. Go ahead.
LIZYes. Well, to be honest, I'm in front of my Wegmans store right now, about to go in when the gentleman was mentioning that -- not to shop at Giant and Safeway. Also, I look forward to the farmer's markets, and they should be starting up in about a month. And when we travel, we always -- we'll avoid the restaurant where you will find the other tourists.
LIZWe feel that if the tourists are there, it's just going to be mass-produced food, and it's not going to be that good. And my father always told me if you go to a Thai restaurant, you always ask to see if there's a picture of the Royal Family 'cause then you know it's a true Thai restaurant.
MCCLESKEYOK. Well, in regards to staying away from perhaps where the other tourists are, in the book, on your trip to Nicaragua that we mentioned earlier, you talk about staying away from the best-rated restaurant in town and going rather to the town square because of a very competitive market there for food stands. What did you find?
COWENI'm a big fan of street food. They had fantastic fried chicken. They had corn products. It was all delicious. You try them, cost less than $1 and probably more sanitary than the restaurants.
MCCLESKEYAnd is that a good idea when you're looking for Thai food, to look for the photo of the Royal Family?
COWENYes. And also, in any Thai restaurant, ask for it home style. So you want to convince the people cooking for you that you're serious and that you mean business. And that can be hard to do. But it's often worth putting in the effort there as much as finding the place.
MCCLESKEYYou also mentioned Pakistani restaurants in the book and talk about what you might want to find on the walls there.
COWENI think Pakistani restaurants are, on average, better than Indian restaurants in this country. Indian restaurants dumb down their food quite a bit. But people are either unwilling or afraid to go to Pakistani places. There'll maybe be religious decor on the walls, or there's this vague sense that has something to do with terrorism. And that actually makes the food better because the customers tend to be other Pakistanis.
MCCLESKEYAnd you also mention then that if they're -- don't serve alcohol, then they rely more on the food being good to bring people in.
COWENThat's correct. A Pakistani restaurant, to make it in the United States, has to taste good and have fresh, sharp tastes.
MCCLESKEYAll right. Also, she mentioned farmer's market as a place to find your food. I know you've written in the book about the local food movement and people trying to source more of their food locally in the midst of what's seen as increasing commercialization and globalization of the food market. But you say that's not necessarily a good trend. What about -- what is it about local food that it is good, what perhaps not so good?
COWENWell, I think local food, very often, tastes better, but it's a mistake to think we're somehow saving the world by eating it. On average, it's not environmentally more friendly than food that's brought in from abroad. Local farmers are often very energy inefficient, and the largest environmental cost to food is the making of it, not the transporting of it. So I say it's fine, but it's not something we should glorify.
MCCLESKEYAll right. Let's go to Bouhany (sp?) calling from Washington. Bouhany, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BOUHANYYeah. I just want to say that the best cultural food that I've experienced so far is the Ethiopian restaurant in Washington, D.C. on 9th and P. And the food is good, great food and free parking and also good service. And I like that particular restaurant because it's not overrated.
MCCLESKEYAre you -- Bouhany, are you affiliated with the restaurant?
BOUHANYQueen of Sheba.
MCCLESKEYAnd are you affiliated with the restaurant in any way? Do you work there?
BOUHANYNo, no. I just go there to eat. I don't work there.
MCCLESKEYOK. Well, certainly, having free parking is a good thing in the city, I know. But in terms of finding the best Ethiopian, have you been to Queen of Sheba, Tyler Cowen? Or are there others in the region that you find particularly tasty?
COWENI think Queen of Sheba is excellent. But that entire row on 9th, starting at around T, every one of them is good. And it gets back to this core idea that competition works.
MCCLESKEYAnd an economic principle then driving where to find the best food.
COWENAnd you have informed customers of all of them.
BOUHANYBesides, you know, the price is not that expensive. If you two, three people, it's plenty of between $10 and $20 you spend...
MCCLESKEYWhat is it, Tyler Cowen, about finding that the best food is not always the most expensive?
COWENWell, of course, you save money. You also save time. Eating in fancy places takes a lot of time. It's, in some ways, a little bit oppressive. So I think you can eat food that is often just as good as -- or better and save money, so why not?
MCCLESKEYWell, thanks for your call, Bouhany. Chris in Bowie, Md., you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISHi. This is...
MCCLESKEYOh, we seem to have lost Chris. Well, I'm not sure exactly what he was going to say. Apologies, Chris, we're sorry to lose you. It looks like what he was going to mention, though, is that, many times, the worse a restaurant looks outside -- and, particularly, he says he used to review residents -- and the worse a Latino restaurant looked outside, he thinks better food often inside. Is that the case you see, if perhaps the less show or the less flashy it is, you wind up with better product on the plate?
COWENIt's often the case. It's a sign they're appealing to immigrants who know the quality of the food and go regularly and not trying to draw in walk-in traffic.
MCCLESKEYOK. Well, let's go to Michael in Silver Spring. First, Chris, thanks for your call. Sorry we lost you there. Michael in Silver Spring, you're on the air.
MICHAELYes. Hi. There's actually a number of restaurants in the Wheaton-Kensington-Silver Spring area that are pretty much all local, either off of mercados, like Pollo Rico on University, or attached to local Korean chain stores. There's a local Korean store called Han Ah Reum or H Mart that actually has a number of different stores in the area.
MICHAELAnd the great thing about it is that the clientele is much more demanding, so the seafood, the meat, the vegetables, the spices are usually much cheaper and much better quality than what you'd probably find at a major grocery store. It also seems to be true in general that if you go to a lot of the local ethnic mercados or other specific, like, Indian stores, the spices are much cheaper and much better quality, as well as much higher quantity, than you might find from, like, a McCormick's or some other major spice vendor.
MCCLESKEYMichael, thanks for your call. Tyler Cowen, do you find that to be the case, better spices at ethnic markets?
COWENAbsolutely. And the places he mentions are excellent. I know them both.
MCCLESKEYAll right. Well, Reese in Washington, D.C. Reese, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
REESEHi. Thank you for having me. So I love to find a place that I would never have wandered into just to try it out. So if I'm traveling, I'll find a hole-in-the-wall that seems to be the local place, and there'll be a sign out front that says they have the best sandwich in town. And I, nine times out of 10, will choose to go there. Just the other day, I left the highway for the Dunkin' Donuts, but then found this great diner. Now, I think I'm unique in my group of friends in doing that, and I'm not sure why so many people would be so adverse to that.
REESEI feel I'm the exception and not the rule in being adventurous with my food. And you had mentioned earlier in the show that this may have to do with familiarity and feeling that the cost of exploring might outweigh the benefit of knowing that what you're going to get is going to be something consistent. Is that always the case? Or is it something more looking for, I guess, looking for familiarity and maybe being afraid of branching out or finding something totally different?
COWENThere's a joy of discovery, I think. I think, also, by driving around looking for places, it's one of the best ways to learn what Virginia, Maryland, D.C. are all about, a way to kind of unearth the anthropology of our lives. You understand what the suburbs are made of, so to speak.
MCCLESKEYWell, as you're searching through a market, can -- walk us through what you look for. As you go into either a restaurant, looking through the menu, or a market, what sort of things jump out at you?
COWENWhen I open up a menu, the first thing I look for is something that I don't understand, something I haven't seen before. Very often, it's a sign that it's good or it's something unusual, or it must be there because someone else knows about it. And I get curious about that, and I ask. The other thing I look for is to try to figure out, who can I ask what I should get? Because a lot of times, I'll never figure it out. And who can I convince that I'm serious enough that I'm worth cooking their best food for? And, again, that's as important as knowing about the food itself, like human psychology.
MCCLESKEYOne other thing you mention is perhaps getting something on the menu that doesn't look as appealing to you or looks like maybe that's something kind of odd. Why would they make that?
COWENSure, like, the roast chicken is usually pretty good at a restaurant, but it's roast chicken. And if there's something there that sounds like it doesn't belong, that's when you should ask more questions and investigate.
MCCLESKEYBecause it's there most likely because it's pretty good.
MCCLESKEYYeah. All right. Let's go to Matt in College Park, Md., with a question about social media and finding restaurants. Matt, you're on the air. Go ahead.
MATTYeah. Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to know his opinion on, you know, the use of social media or user -- I guess diner-generated content online, in terms of the reliability, and, you know, how accurate is that in terms of finding a good restaurant.
COWENIt's a very good question. I'm a fan. My favorite is Yelp. I would say this: You cannot add up the balance of good and bad reviews. What you should do is read the good reviews, and if they are smart, long and detailed, that means the place is good, no matter what the ratio is. That's the way to use online social media.
MCCLESKEYAnd, Matt, do you...
MCCLESKEY...do you use social media when you're looking for restaurants?
MATTYeah. I rely on Yelp quite often. I found it pretty reliable and very rarely have actually been disappointed by anything I've had there.
COWENBut very good places will have some negative reviews, someone who goes and says, oh, the food was too spicy for me, and they give it one star. And, again, you need to clear out the negative reviews and just try to interpret the positive ones, see how convincing they are.
MCCLESKEYAll right. Well, thanks for your call, Matt. Let's go to Sima, (sp?) calling us now from Arlington, Va. Sima, you're on the air. Go ahead.
SIMAHi. Thank you so much for taking my call. I just moved here from Philadelphia, and in Philadelphia we enjoyed good quality produce at a very inexpensive rate at both the Reading Terminal and the Italian market. I'm not -- I'm sure you guys are not aware of that, but it's a place where locals, not farmers, but just dealers will come and sell, so we get very high-quality produce but at a low price.
SIMAAnd I'm just really struggling to find something here around in Arlington. I know there's a bunch of farmers' markets, but I don't want to buy a box of strawberries for $15, which will not last me very long. And I really admire your comment and appreciate it about not going into a Harris Teeter, which I can walk to from my house, but there's really nothing there for me, or Safeway or Giant.
SIMAThe place that I actually ended up finding was -- it's called a Super H Mart. Again, I think it's a Korean store, and it's all the way out -- I couldn't even tell you the place where I go to. It's beyond, like, Falls Church. But, yeah, you're right about the ethnic markets, and I'm enjoying them far more than the chain.
MCCLESKEYOK. Well, thanks so much for your call, Sima. She's already found some of your recommendations. Tyler Cowen, where else would you have Sima look for for produce?
COWENI'm sorry to say Philly has better farmers' markets than we do, as far as I can tell. I like farmers' markets, but you've taken a step down in life, and you need to make up for it other ways. I'm sorry. I can only apologize for our area.
MCCLESKEYWell, thanks so much for your call, Sima. And are there any other particular groceries you would recommend to someone in Northern Virginia go to in terms of finding -- I mean, you've mentioned the greens at the Chinese market, I believe Great Wall, you mentioned in the book.
COWENThe Korean markets, H Mart and Lotte Plaza, are excellent and the Chinese Great Wall and some of the Chinese places in Rockville. They are by far the best. The small Ethiopian groceries are fun. You can't go shopping there for anything but spices and injera, but I definitely recommend them.
MCCLESKEYWell, many, many ways to expand your palate. Tyler Cowen is the author of "An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies." I want to thank you so much for joining us this hour, Tyler Cowen. He's also a professor of economics at George Mason University and a regular contributor to the popular blog marginalrevolution.com. Thanks for being here.
MCCLESKEYI'm Matt McCleskey, local host of "Morning Edition" here on WAMU 88.5, sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. Thanks for listening.