January 19, 2008

Food is basically awesome and I'm too unoriginal to think of a better title

In Chapter 7 of his book, Cowen discusses how to get the most out of your meal at a restaurant. He talks about what dish you should order when at an unfamiliar place, which countries have the best ethnic cuisine, what you should cook for yourself at home, and why Las Vegas no longer has $1.50 a meal lobster and steak buffets. The most interesting part of the chapter for me was his discussion on where to find the best restaurants.

The main thing to look for in a good restaurant is its location. Cowen says that the best restaurants are in countries with high income disparity. The thinking is that if there is a large wealthy class and a large poor class with little middle class, there is a high demand for fine cuisine from those at the top, and a high supply of those willing to cook the food from those at the bottom. Cowen describes countries like Haiti that have a large number of people willing to cook for UN troops stationed there. They tend to provide excellent service and fresh ingredients because they have more to lose as there are few alternatives. This also explains why countries with high wages and tough labor laws, such as many Western European countries, are losing their status as the culinary leaders in the world.

But how can you find a restaurant without traveling outside the US that is cheap and very good? Cowen says that to find a good and cheap ethnic restaurant, you must pay attention to the rent. Any given restaurant must pay rent for its location, and a small ethnic restaurant run by immigrants is not likely to attract a large number of people. Because of this, they must choose a location where there are other low-rent businesses, such as strip malls with dollar stores and secondhand shops. Restaurants such as Chili’s or Hard Rock CafĂ© survive in high rent areas because they can generate the volume needed, despite their often bland and boring food.

So, to find the best ethnic cuisine, try to travel to a poor country with a large supply of labor able to pay careful attention to the food. Failing that, look away from the center of town for the best ethnic food. Look not at the areas that have a Starbucks and a Macy’s, look for the areas that have consignment shops and nail salons. They tend to have the rents affordable enough for immigrants with better cooking ideas but less money to set up a restaurant.

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