Tyler Cowen is both a renowned economics prof at George Mason University (Business Week last year called him “America’s Hottest Economist,”) and a widely-read food blogger, and he combines those passions in his newly published book, “An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies.” When the world’s media come to interview Cowen, he takes them to some nondescript ethnic food haunt in Northern Virginia, and explains how his love of Ethiopian injera or Korean kimchi expanded his understanding of how the world works.
For the last 23 years, even as he traveled and eaten in more than 80 countries to discuss economics, Cowen has always happily returned to what he calls “the magic of Northern Virginia.” For it’s here, Cowen says, that a combination of immigration, quality education, wealth, good business environment and affordable housing leads him to conclude that “Northern Virginia does integration better than any other part of the country, and I’ve been to almost all of them.”
He’s off to Italy and Romania this week, but “I’m always happy to come back here,” Cowen said, as we dined on spicy goat at Bang Ga Nae, a six-table Korean place in a house on Little River Turnpike in Annandale that you really have to know is there. “I always feel rejuvenated by my return.”
Cowen apparently had written about Bang Ga Nae on his ethnic dining blog before, because in the middle of our dinner, a man at the next table came over and asked politely, “Are you Tyler Cowen?” He proceeded to tell Cowen that they were there because of him, they go to all the places he recommends, consider themselves huge fans and his blog is simply amazing. It was like seeing a Beatles fan approach Paul McCartney. Which, in the small world of economist-foodies, I guess makes sense.
Here is a short video that The Atlantic shot of Cowen in Falls Church’s Eden Center, speaking with a restaurant owner about intense competition in a crowded area. After the jump is a more detailed discussion about why Cowen feels NoVa’s ethnic dining scene is one of the best in America.
Cowen, originally from New Jersey, first landed in Fairfax when he attended GMU as an undergrad in the early 1980s. There was no ethnic food scene here then, and the immigration boom had not visited us. Yet.
But his palate was permanently enlightened after a year spent in Europe during graduate school. After a couple of years teaching in California, Cowen returned to Fairfax in 1989, by which time the ethnic food scene here had begun to take off. He has lived in Tysons Corner, Baileys Crossroads, Vienna and, now, just outside Fairfax City.
“I find that there’s daily enjoyment for me here,” Cowen said, hunting the corridors of Eden Center or the strip malls of Baileys Crossroads for new, fun foreign food.
“The immigrants want to come here and cook for us. They work hard. They pour their lives into this,” he said gesturing at the table full of Korean food, which was unique even in the local Korean community. There were only nine things on the dinner menu in the tiny restaurant. “They have to do some of them very well.”
Cowen’s ethnic restaurant exploration has led him to devise a number of interesting rules and guidelines, such as: Avoid restaurants with beautiful women (the place is likely more focused on its social scene than its food); Don’t avoid strip mall restaurants (they have lower rents, more likely to be adventurous); Order what sounds least appetizing (it’s not designed for mass tastes, but rather for the local immigrants of that culture, probably more interesting).
Cowen feels that a number of factors have combined to make NoVa one of the most intriguing food spots in the country. He said our quality schools have attracted immigrant families, who place a high value on education, but are unwilling to put their kids in private schools. “Ethnic food and education go together,” Cowen said.
He said immigrants could go to Maryland, whose schools are fine, but Cowen said that side of the Potomac feels older, less fresh to him, and probably to new visitors as well. He said Virginia is better for small businesses, which the immigrants intend to open, and has slightly lower taxes.
Ethnic communities also evolve in reasonably close proximity to where their businesses, shops and restaurants are in Northern Virginia, such as Annandale for the Korean community and Baileys Crossroads for the Ethiopian community. Even when immigrants don’t live near their work, getting there by car or bus isn’t the ordeal that it is in New York or Los Angeles, Cowen said.
And Northern Virginia, through its government contracting, among other things, also has wealth, Cowen said, “with people who are cosmopolitan, well-traveled, willing to take chances.” Their communities are, by and large, not gated enclaves, apart from the rest of the world. “I think immigrants, when they come here,” Cowen said, “feel more accepted than in California. There’s no paranoia here that people are coming in to take over. It’s much more relaxed and healthier. I like living in an area that has arranged that well.”
Though he spent plenty of time in Mexico and loves Mexican food, ”There’s none of it that I enjoy” in NoVa, Cowen said. But we do have good ethnic groceries, particularly the Lotte stores and the Great Wall in Falls Church, he said.
The best food choices in NoVa these days, Cowen said, are the Bolivian food in Arlington and Falls Church; the Ethiopian along George Mason Drive in Baileys; the Korean food in Annandale; and the Vietnamese food at the Eden Center in Falls Church.
Other helpful guidelines: Pick Vietnamese over Thai food (he says Thai food here is getting too sweet and Americanized); and pick Pakistani over Indian (Indians are also reducing their heat for Americans); look for places with older customers (they’re fussier); avoid places with billiards tables (not serious about food).
Cowen fears the effects of gentrification, which tends to drive up real estate rates and drive out ethnic restaurants. It can also lead to blander food. But if defense funding is cut, and the impact is felt locally, that would be a good thing for ethnic restaurants, if not for the populace in general, Cowen said.
And finally, some more helpful tips for ethnic restaurant exploration: ”It’s all about the ordering,” Cowen said. The best places have smaller menus, so they aren’t trying to please everyone, and likely do several things very well. Don’t ask the waiter what’s good, “that will only confuse them.” Instead, ask, “What dish do you have here which is special?” or “What are your regional specialties.”
Don’t be afraid to ask questions about what’s arriving, pointing if necessary, and don’t be afraid to check out what others are already eating. Ask these questions — and stay away from the beautiful people — and you’ll have a great time, Cowen assures.