Tag Archives: Restaurants

How About Now?

10 Mar

I recently went out to dinner at a Spanish restaurant near my office. It’s a pretty great spot: beautiful inside, with delicious food and a good mix of dishes. We took a while to decide what to order. Should we get appetizers, or just mains? Paella, or personal entrees? Sides, or no sides?

We finally made up our minds and put in our order. And then, five minutes later, a man rolled up to our table with a cart of food.

“Would you like to add one of these to your order?” he said.

My friends and I looked at the cart. Then at one another. And then we added 3 more dishes to our order.

The roving snack cart is truly genius. There we were, so confident in what we’d decided to order. We’d thought about budget, and sizing, and all of that. But the minute someone walked up with dishes on display for us to consider…all of our careful ordering went out the window. We ate more than planned, and spent more than expected.

I’m used to seeing dessert carts, but an appetizer cart is a special breed of genius.That restaurant knows that willpower only goes so far. Maybe we felt capable of resisting temptation on the menu, but once the dishes were right in front of us, forget about it. And maybe we felt able to protect our wallets upfront…but the cart essentially made ordering more food an impulse buy.

At another meal, the waiter offered us a supplement to our prix fixe menu. We declined–so he asked us again, twenty minutes later. I don’t think that was a mistake. I think it was a perfectly calculated move to get us to reconsider, and maybe change our minds.

This same consumer psychology comes up for other kinds of purchases too: car add-ons, cleaning service extras, even extra toppings on your frozen yogurt. The more you’re asked, the more you consider. The more you’re asked, the weaker your resolve.

Does this count as businesses taking advantage of people? In a way, yes. I’m sure they know what they’re doing, and I’m sure they keep doing it because it works. But is it evil? I don’t think so. As a consumer, you have to feel responsible for each decision you make. If you change your mind about wanting an appetizer and now you can get one, great. Win win! But if you’re considering that appetizer simply because it’s in front of you, and you feel almost bad saying no, try to hold onto your willpower. They may keep asking again and again, but that doesn’t mean you have to take their bait!




What’s Spaghetti?

30 Oct

I got into a debate about spaghetti the other day.

You might assume I got into a debate about the right type of herbs for the sauce, or how long to cook the noodles. But no: I got into a debate about spaghetti itself. What it even is, at its most basic level.


From Kawaling Pinoy

It started with a dish called Filipino Spaghetti. This dish includes hot dogs and banana ketchup, adding up to a sort of sweet, sort of savory dish. I’d never had it before, and quite liked it. But then, my dining companion and I got to talking about spaghetti. He wasn’t a fan of Filipino Spaghetti, and said he prefers “Italian spaghetti” with a richer tomato sauce and savory herbs. Which is totally fine: to each their own. Still, we started wondering what makes spaghetti, well, spaghetti. Is it about the shape of the noodle ? The way it’s served? Who makes it?

Technically, “spaghetti” refers to a type of noodle. But when we hear the phrase “spaghetti,” we have specific associations of what that dish should look like. Same goes for most foods, really. What guacamole should be, what fried rice should look like, what ketchup should taste like. These ideas come from our individual food histories: what we’ve experienced so far and what we believe to be true about different foods. Coming up with a standard definition really isn’t that simple, though. There may be traditional ways to prepare foods, but who’s to say what the “right” way is, especially when variations persist across cultures? Where’s the line between “authentic” and “variation” and “reinterpretation?”

Defining dishes has been a hot topic lately because of chefs’ new takes on traditional foods. Recently I saw a discussion about paella that was altered so much, Spaniards didn’t think it should be called “paella.” I also saw a conversation about tacos that shouldn’t be called tacos, since their fillings were so non-traditional. I’ve seen people declare certain dishes a “mockery” of regional cuisine because of ingredient tweaks or technique changes.

When does something become a mockery, rather than a twist on a classic? Where is that line between “creative interpretation” and “offensive bastardization?”

Honestly, it’s sort of hard to tell. Something like Filipino Spaghetti is, in fact, authentic to a specific culture. It is an adaptation that happened over time due to local contexts and local ingredients. This is true with most foods we eat today: few look like the original dish that our ancestors would have consumed centuries ago. Earlier this year, I read a fantastic book called “The Language of Food,” which digs into the linguistic roots of popular dishes to explain how those dishes evolved over time. Most things we eat today morphed over centuries of human migration, crop changes and cultural nuances. Did you know the origins of ketchup are a fish sauce created in 17th century China? That ketchup looked and tasted nothing like our ketchup today. If a restaurant served you that take on ketchup, would you protest it wasn’t ketchup? Or should we rename our beloved tomato sauce something else, instead?

In my opinion, Filipino Spaghetti is equally spaghetti-like to something smothered in marinara. But what about when it comes to more liberal takes on traditional dishes?

And that’s where it starts to get murky. There is a difference between creativity, and disrespect. I often think that switching around ingredients shows creativity, not insult.  I’ll gladly eat your Korean BBQ tacos and your butternut squash paella. But I do think there is a line to watch about respect, about mocking an authentic dish, about claiming authenticity. Which brings us back to the original question: when is paella not paella? Is it about some proportion of ingredients that got swapped out? Is it about who makes it?

Personally, I am satisfied with someone modifying the name of a dish to express that it’s been altered. “Butternut squash paella” or “soppressata kugel” are just fine by me. But I hope that chefs always respect the origins of the cuisine they’re adapting, and that they call it an adaptation rather than trying to claim authenticity or superiority. What ruffles my personal feathers is when chefs get snobby about how they’re “improving” a dish by using different ingredients or techniques–implying that the original dish was not sufficient on its own.

It’s a gray area, to be sure, because lots of people do get offended when they see their traditional dishes “re-interpreted.” But given how much food changes over time, I think respectful creativity is a delicious addition to our menus.

Travel Eats: Portland

21 Aug

I’ve found that one of the best ways to reset my brain is to wander a new city or neighborhood. Wandering provides the perfect mix of adrenaline, curiosity and relaxation. As I explore, my brain is so wrapped up in discovery mode that it forgets stressors and to-do lists.

I switched jobs recently and wanted to reset my brain a bit before heading into something new. Portland, Oregon has long been on my mind as a potential vacation destination. I’d heard such good things about its scenery, its people… and of course, its food. So when I realized I’d have a few days between jobs, I booked a rather last-minute trip and finally got to see what Portland’s all about.

We spent 2.5 days wandering every neighborhood we could, and sampling every dish we could. We also rented a car so we could drive to Multnomah Falls, the second highest waterfall in the U.S.

I’d compiled our list of “must dos” based on lots of advice from friends, websites like Eater and a bit of Yelping. We found so many delightful spots on our trip, but today I’m just going to share the very top eats. This was supposed to be a top 5  list… but I couldn’t narrow it down to 5! So, here are my top 8 places to eat in Portland:

1. Chizu 

IMG_0636Chizu focuses on cheese, and its menu is mighty impressive. You can pick cheeses by the ounce to make your own plate or order “omnikase” style and let the staff pick cheeses on your behalf. We ordered $20 of cheese plus some duck charcuterie and were incredibly pleased with what we got. The platter included an awesome mix of hard and soft cheeses, served with accompaniments like honey and dried fruit. The staffe explained the back story for every single cheese we ordered. Plus the staff was super friendly and chatted with us about recommendations for our stay.

2. Hat Yai

IMG_0870Hat Yai is all over the “best new restaurant” lists for Portland right now, and the hype is definitely substantiated. We loved our meal of meat skewers, curry, roti and grilled corn. Everything was so flavorful, and so satisfying. We stopped here on our way back from the Falls and it was the perfect post-hike dinner!


IMG_0907Maurice calls itself a “luncheonette” and is only open until early evening, so make sure you stop here for lunch! It’s adorable inside, and its food is simple but delicious. We got a wonderful shaved carrot salad, delicious scones and yummy open face sandwiches.


4. Shalom Y’All

IMG_0632.JPGThis recommendation came from my mom (hi Mom!). I love falafel, and Shalom Y’Alls take on falafel was truly incredible. Spiced with sumac, accented by the unusual additions of walnuts and feta – this falafel sandwich keeps calling to me in my dreams. I usually find falafel options disappointing and really wish I had a Shalom Y’All in the Bay Area! The PDX location is in a “food hall” with several other local favorites.

5. Nuvrei

IMG_0900This Pearl District bakery has the most beautiful display of varied pastries and croissants. I opted for the Kare Pan, a brioche bun stuffed with Japanese-style curry. This thing was SO GOOD.





6. The Meadow

IMG_0939This shop specializes in salts, chocolates and bitters. So in other words, it’s a foodie’s dream. I snapped up awesome saffron salt, and resisted the urge to buy every kind of chocolate they had in stock. There are two locations in Portland and one in NYC, plus an online store!





7. Cheese & Crack Snack Shop

IMG_0783I found this shop by Yelping “pickles” and man, am I glad we visited! We stopped here for snacks on our way to the Falls. We got a “cheese plate to go” that had a great selection of cheeses, crackers and spreads like honey and mustard. We ended up eating this overlooking a vista point. Turns out that cheese + vista points = the perfect combo.


IMG_06148. Simple Local Coffee/Sterling Coffee Roasters

Ok, I’m cheating a little, but both these shops serve the same brand of coffee. First we bumped into Simple Local Coffee, a charming shop downtown that serves Sterling Coffee. A couple days later, we sought out Sterling’s own shop over in the city’s Alphabet District. I drink my coffee black, and loved their flavorful roasts. Fun fact: there are remnants of an old tunnel in the lobby adjacent to Simple Local Coffee, complete with old tools. Pretty cool!



Here are just a few more snapshots of our wonderful trip. If you’re ever headed to Portland, let me know. I’ll give you all the dirt on different neighborhoods, eats, etc.!


((This entry is cross-posted on my baking blog, Sugarsmith

Best in Class

1 May

What would you expect to see on Yelp’s yearly “Top 100” restaurant list? Would it be that haute cuisine restaurant in downtown San Francisco that costs $500 per person? Or maybe that trendy cafe in Brooklyn that’s so hip, you have to wait 3 hours just to get a table?

You’d probably be surprised if you saw the real list. There are indeed some cutting-edge entries, but there are also places like the corner store-meets-coffee shop tucked into a corner of San Francisco’s Inner Sunset neighborhood and a seafood truck in Maine. At the coveted #1 spot? A small BBQ restaurant in Big Pine, California. Copper Top BBQ’s Yelp page shows a 5-star average rating, which is laudable. But as a Slate article pointed out, there’s something else going on here. Being #1 on Yelp’s list does not mean that Copper Top is necessarily the top restaurant in the country. It means it is the top restaurant for satisfying a Yelp user’s needs.

Yelp reviews run on a star system, like so many other ratings systems we encounter. But ratings systems inherently bring issues: people interpret the options differently, some people consistently low-ball or high-ball, people choose ratings based on outlier experiences. The idea is that eventually those things will balance out. But as other research has shown, more than 40% of Yelp reviews are 5-star ratings. That suggests that people are using the 5-star option to mean something other than “extraordinary.” Slate’s Will Oremus broke this down, dissecting why certain restaurants thrive on Yelp and others don’t – even if they’re critically acclaimed.

Oremus’ analysis leads to a number of interesting hypotheses. For starters, restaurants do really well on Yelp when they provide good quality, for good value. Most people using Yelp are not frequenting fine dining establishments and simply want their needs met, for a good price. In fact, it seems like one of the biggest drivers for good ratings is a lack of disappointment. If you get what you want, without hassle, it’s a net good experience. In that case, a good rating on Yelp becomes a symbol of checking the right boxes, rather than a symbol of extraordinariness. Oremus also noticed that a lot of the “top-performing” restaurants are local establishments with focused menus. So there is less chance for error, in a way: people are more likely to order something they will like, and more likely to get what they expected. There are also more “top restaurants” from specific geographic areas, which Oremus attributes to the fact that quantity of reviews factors into how the list is built.

I don’t think that the way people use Yelp should stop us from “trusting” its reviews. In fact, this all makes a lot of sense. I am someone who chases innovative foods and unique flavors, so when I use Yelp, I often do want to see the most “unique” options and not just the most “satisfying” options. But “unique” isn’t necessarily the best way to judge the overall value of a restaurant. Most of the time, there’s a lot to be said for stable, reliable places to eat, and I don’t think they get nearly enough credit for what they provide. For that alone, I think it’s great that this list gives us a different perspective than the types of rankings we usually see.

Worth Its Salt

7 Oct

Ever had a bacon cupcake? How about salted caramel ice cream? Salty-sweet desserts are making their way to menus all over the country. According to food and beverage firm CCD Innovation, only 0.4% of U.S. restaurants offered salty-sweet desserts in 2010. That number is now up to 3.1% of U.S. restaurants. While that’s certainly not a majority, the boost is meaningful. Salty-sweet has captured the U.S. palate  and our imagination, too. American taste buds are growing up, as we seek more sophisticated tastes and complex flavors. Plus, the combo may have scientific justification. As the CEO of Vosges Haut-Chocolat explained it to NPR: “when you add salt, it creates a cycle of continuing craving.”

I’ve been reading a fascinating book about food trends called The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes, but Fed Up with Fondue. In his book, David Sax takes us through several of North America’s recent crazes, from cupcakes to kale. Sax talks to people who work in trend forecasting, food marketing and product development to help us understand how foods go from just another foodstuff to almost mythical status. He interviews food truck owners, restaurant owners, meat farmers, apple growers. As I read NPR’s article about the growth of salty-sweet, I remembered a part of Sax’s book where he talks to innovation expert Barb Stuckey. Speaking about kale, Stuckey points out that foods have to go mainstream to truly have a place in American food culture. It’s not just about high-end restaurants experimenting with new ingredients or gourmet companies putting out expensive niche products. As Stuckey puts it, “slowly but surely, the kale salad will make its way to TGI Friday’s menu, then McDonald’s, Kraft, and, eventually, as a Dorito’s flavor.”

My favorite cupcake at Molly's Cupcakes (locations in Chicago, NYC and Iowa). Photo from Flickr, via the Chocolate Peanut Butter Gallery

My favorite cupcake at Molly’s Cupcakes (locations in Chicago, NYC and Iowa). Photo from Flickr, via the Chocolate Peanut Butter Gallery

A food goes from niche to mainstream when it manifests across price points, formats and locations. To truly cement its place in the US dessert psyche, the salty-sweet phenomenon has to trickle down from high-end ice cream sandwiches and pricey bacon chocolate to casual restaurant chains and mass packaged goods companies.  This trickle is already happening: the NPR article notes that TGIF has been offering a salted caramel cake since 2012.

As Sax’s book makes clear, not every food trend can or should become a full-fledged part of our eating culture. Though salty-sweet desserts sure seem like they’re here to stay, other trends that Sax talks about were less successful. Sometimes consumers lose interest, sometimes there’s backlash, and sometimes the flavors just don’t work for the majority of American palates. There are always people working behind the scenes to bring us the “next big thing.” There’s always going to be a new superfood and a new trendy dessert. The more interesting part is seeing which take root, and which  disappear quicker than you can say “cronut.”

If you want a preview of David’s compelling writing style and thoughtful research, check out his recent piece on the “Bacon Boom.”

And since I love to bake salty-sweet treats in my own kitchen, here are some great recipes I’ve made in the past:

What I want to make next:

My first-ever batch of homemade salted caramel - but definitely not my last. Recipe from Two Peas and their Pod

My first-ever batch of homemade salted caramel, but definitely not my last. Recipe from Two Peas and their Pod

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