An Economist's Palate, Applied to Dining Around D.C.

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
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://www.tylercowensethnicdining He has traveled and eaten his way through 75 countries, where he has swallowed offerings such as insects and sea cucumber -- both of which "kind of bore me. They just don't taste that good."

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.

Today in the Washington area, he recommends Ethiopian, Salvadoran and Vietnamese. (Ten years ago, Afghan and Indian cuisine were at the top of his list.) And skip Mexican food -- the only passable stuff in this area, according to Cowen, is in Kensington -- or learn to cook it at home. "Always remember: There's strength in numbers."

Rule 3: Order strategically. In fancy restaurants, never ask, "What should I get?" The waiter might have incentives to push the dish with the highest profit margin or the most expensive items, which will jack up the tip. Instead, ask, "What's best?" That allows the waiter to highlight what's special and reveals how informed the staff is. If the waiter's answer is "everything" -- an uninformed or cowardly response -- head for the door.

In ethnic restaurants, in contrast, asking what's best often gets you the most watered-down dishes, designed for gringos. Instead, at a Salvadoran restaurant, for example, look at what Salvadoran diners have ordered and ask for the same.

Rule 4: Know the "restaurant cycle." When it comes to fine dining, restaurants have a shelf life: "First they cook for the critics, and it's wonderful. And they win awards and the word gets out," Cowen said. "Then everyone starts to come and it becomes more mainstream. The chef is less concerned about developing a reputation and more about cooking for the masses." That can happen, he said, in as little as nine months.

Cowen suggests going to Hook in Georgetown, which is just beginning to get good press and is stellar, and to the Penn Quarter Indian hot spot Rasika; it's peaking. But he thinks Mediterranean tapas restaurant Zaytinya and "modern Mexican" Zengo, while still good, are already headed downhill.

It all makes perfect sense if you like what Cowen likes, which is interesting food for a reasonable price without much ambiance. Which is not what everyone likes.

Some diners enjoy people-watching and a sophisticated setting; others value flawless service. "In this day and age, I don't think you can have any hard-and-fast rules about where you find a good thing," said Jane Stern, a veteran food critic and co-author with her husband, Michael, of "Roadfood," a guide to the best no-frills regional food. "We have rules, but I wouldn't foist them on other people. I can't think of anything more appetite-killing than rules."

Maybe. But if you're hungry in a strange city, calling on your inner economist might not be a bad place to start. The dismal science might just help avoid a dismal meal.

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