An Economist's Palate, Applied to Dining Around D.C.
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
I'm sweating and furiously frustrated when I finally arrive, 30 minutes late, at the Hong Kong Palace, an utterly nondescript Chinese restaurant in a Seven Corners strip mall. Tyler Cowen is patiently reading when I arrive, unsurprised that it took me so long to find it. He almost always likes the hard-to-find joints best. The fact that Hong Kong Palace has an unlisted phone number is, in Cowen's eyes, another big plus.
An economist at George Mason University, Cowen has rather unusual criteria for restaurant selection. He doesn't first look at the menu, the ambiance or the reviews. Being an economist, he thinks about the rental market, property taxes, competition and clientele. "All of us already act like economists," he said, digging into a plate of Chengdu dumplings in a black vinegar sauce. "We just have to think about what we already know about the world and apply it to dining."
That's the message of Cowen's new book, "Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist" (Dutton Adult), published last week. It's the latest in a rash of popular economics books spurred by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's 2005 bestseller, "Freakonomics." But it's the first to include an attempt to analyze the economic laws that govern food and dining, a concept that appeals to Jim Leff, founder of the dining Web site Chowhound. "You've got to strategize in this life," Leff said. "If you can improve your thinking, it will help you separate what's good from what's bad."
Cowen, 45, has long had a passion for food. He eats out, mostly at ethnic spots, as often as five nights a week, then blogs his reviews at http:/
When he turned in a draft of his book, his editor suggested -- four days before deadline -- that a chapter on how to use economic theory to eat well might make it stand apart. Because Cowen had long been chewing over a book on food, the new chapter was written "almost off the top of my head" and had "zero editing, while all other parts of the book went through six or seven drafts."
Parts of it read that way. (Cowen spends four of the chapter's 33 pages explaining why cheap food stalls in Singapore offer some of the most exciting food in the country, which is useful if you're in Singapore but less so in Washington, where the best you can hope for at a downtown street cart is a better-than-average hot dog or burrito.)
There are, however, a number of unusual and useful strategies, especially for ethnic restaurants, to help you find the places with great quality and value and figure out what to order once you're there. Over a lunch of deep-fried tiger chilies, Sichuan ribs and cumin lamb, Cowen talked about how some of his theories apply to the D.C. dining scene.
Rule 1: For good value, avoid high-rent areas. Head for your local strip mall instead. Restaurants in ritzy areas will be either expensive or chains that can afford the rent but serve mediocre food for the masses.
In Manhattan, he explains in the book, that means steering clear of Midtown, where you're lunching with expense-account-fueled execs or the tourists at Applebee's. In Washington, it means many popular neighborhoods including Dupont Circle, Penn Quarter and Adams Morgan. "Dupont has everything working against it. It's hip, it's easy to get to and attracts a lot of young people with disposable income." The result: High rents and food that has to be only good enough not to drive people away. A generalization, sure, but not far from the truth.
In contrast, at an off-the-beaten-track strip-mall joint, the food has to be good to keep people coming back. Take Hong Kong Palace. Despite the name, it serves spicy Sichuan food. "It used to be a Cantonese restaurant, but when new owners took over they never bothered to change the sign," said Cowen, who started coming here six years ago when it was a Vietnamese restaurant called Saigon Palace. "That's a good signal. It shows they're not wasting money on marketing."
The other good signs: It's in a strip mall without an "anchor" store such as Wal-Mart or Best Buy: "That drives up the rents." And the clientele is mostly Chinese.
Rule 2: Look for competition. The best ethnic food is found where there are the greatest number of restaurants, which is usually a sign that there is a large immigrant population that the restaurants can draw on for labor and expertise. In the Netherlands, Cowen recommends that you eat Indonesian or Surinamese food (both countries were former Dutch colonies). In England, he advises, choose Indian or Pakistani food.