Strong opinions, weakly held

Judging restaurants by a single dish

Tyler Cowen has posted a list of dishes he uses to evaluate the quality of ethnic restuarants. For example, he evaluates Turkish restaurants based on the doner kebab:

Turkish: Doner Kebab, taking special care to ponder the tanginess of the yogurt and how it interacts with the meat.

I find that when it comes to “bar food”, you can tell a lot from the fries. Are they the frozen, institutional fries or were they hand cut on the premises? If the latter, chances are they care about the quality of the other things they serve as well.

When it comes to Mexican restaurants and taco places, tortillas are key. It’s hard to take a place seriously if it doesn’t make fresh tortillas.

I’d be curious to know what people consider the best barometer dish to be at Italian restaurants.


  1. There are comments about Italian metrics on Cowen’s post.

    On the Mexican “tortilla” metric, I gotta disagree slightly. It’s very important to have good tortillas of course, yet most of my favorite Mexican restaurants don’t actually make their own tortillas. Instead, they purchase extremely nice tortillas from local tortilla bakeries. Granted these particular restaurants aren’t exactly the upscale type–they primarily cater to the local Mexican laborer population. At a fancy Mexican restaurant, I do expect fresh tortillas, but I also expect something mostly unrecognizable as Mexican cuisine (at least anything 99% of Mexicans would ever encounter).

    I think a better metric for Mexican restaurants is the quality of their salsa as well as the presence of multiple types of salsa. The “tradition” of just 1 type of salsa is an American thing. In Mexico, most restaurants pride themselves on their salsas and typically offer 3 types with every meal.

  2. At sub shops I use the chicken parm sub at the barometer. With Al’s Cafe in boston being the gold standard.

  3. Linquini or Spaghetti. If the pasta isn’t al-dente and/or the sauce comes from a can, spike it.


    p>On the other hand, if I want to make myself cry, I’ll order gnocchi, as there is simply no good gnocchi in the states. One has to go to Rome if one wants a fighting chance.

  4. IMO, a much more important Mexican food metric is the frijoles — either the frijoles negros or frijoles refritos, depending on what the default at the particular restaurant is.

    No idea on a good Italian metric, but I’d think you’d need distinct “Northern Italian” and “Southern Italian” dishes.

    +1 on the fries in bars one.

  5. @genehack

    I also find that frijoles like fries in bars are a good bellwether. Unfortunately, the American version of Mexican food seems to overly focus on the meats. Many, otherwise, excellent Mexican restaurants sadly neglect the frijoles.

    That said, I’ve yet to find a Mexican food spot with great beans that sucks.

  6. Good call on the frijoles. That’s exactly right, I think.

  7. for Thai restaurants, I always check their Tom Kha Khai (the chicken/coconut milk/basil soup) — there’s a big range of possibilities for its savoriness, freshness, balance, etc., that give you a good sense of how much the kitchen cares.

    no good answer on Italian; tend to go out for things that diverge more wildly from what I cook at home…

  8. Michael Denzin

    May 13, 2009 at 8:58 am

    “Italiian” and “Mexican” are semantic traps. Having spent a lot of time in both countries, the cuisine is marked by many regional differences. Flour tortillas for instance are without exception a rarity in Mexico except along the border where their happened to be wheat millners and most of those are in the U.S. Mexican/American fare is also regionalized. In Texas, the use of red chiles is a predominate feature. In the southwest the use of green chiles and moles is more predominate. While I believe that homemade tortillas are a nice feature, I agree with the one author who suggested that a good tortilleria could supply these as well. Two of my criteria are either chile rellenos or the tamales with a homemade mole sauce. Many Mexican dishes are unrecognizable to Americans. For instance, the use of corn smut (huitlacoche) is encouraged in Mexico vs. farmers in the US who consider it a blight. The mold is removed from the corn and has a grayish white color and tastes of wild mushrooms. It is used to fill tamales and tacos in central Mexico. Also driving through the hills of Mexico you see small stands which specialize in Trucha or trout. they cook it whole steamed and stuffed with herbs and chiles….its phenomenal.

    With respect to Italian, I think you need to turn to Mario Batelli for the regional differences he notes in his cookbooks and programs on the Food Network. In the north of Italy you see more traditional meat and veal dishes. In the south, the food is spicier and there is more seafood available. I had a dish in Milan once which was a simple pasta with dried tuna eggs. It was sublime and fantastic. But it was only one of 5 or six other courses in the meal. The dinner stretched from 8pm till almost midnight with antipasti, soup, pasta, vegetable, main and dessert. I swear I don’t know why the entire country doesn’t clock in at 500 lbs each.

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