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Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Food & Drink

The Myth of Mom-and-Pop Restaurants

2004. That’s when I first realized small, mom-and-pop restaurants could be terrible.

I was just a couple of years into my job as food critic for the OC Weekly in Orange County, California. After initially focusing on high-end chefs, I convinced my then-editor to let me start a column called “This Hole-in-the-Wall Life.” I argued that they topped their hoity-toity siblings on the sole virtue that they were hole-in-the-walls: Humble. Undiscovered. Mostly "ethnic." And anything but fancy.

In other words, “authentic.”

Back then, I fully believed in the cult of authenticity -- that restaurants were either “real” or fake, and that the fake were inevitably more mainstream and buzzier and therefore didn’t deserve coverage, while the "real" spots were downhome and, well, real.

My editor gave the OK, and I found gems the way Steph Curry shoots threes. Beyond the OC stereotypes of real housewives and whack job politicians existed Little Saigon, the biggest Vietnamese community in the world outside of Vietnam. Little Arabia, one of the largest Middle Eastern neighborhoods west of Michigan. Strip malls filled with Taiwanese, Persian, Pakistani, Korean, and even Romanian and South African treasures. And, of course, Mexican everything everywhere.

If I didn’t like a spot, I chalked up my bad experience to my then-unfamiliarity with a cuisine. How could immigrants, I felt, ever get anything wrong when it came to food? And then I got a disgusting reality check.

My friend and I visited a panaderia, a Mexican bakery, deep in the barrio of Santa Ana, one of the most-Latinx big cities in the U.S. Auto body shops surrounded the bread factory; the Orange County Jail was within eyesight. The panaderia’s floors were grimy; the air, stifling.

“This is going to be great,” I told my friend.

It wasn’t.

The empanadas were soggy; the bolillos (French bread), hard like marble. Worst of all were the conchas, the pillowy, sugar-covered sweet bread shaped like a seashell that has become the de facto pan dulce in the American imagination. You rarely find a great one, but you never find a bad one -- until this one.

Conchas are supposed to be spongy and just a tad sweet, but the one I tasted one was rubbery and saccharine. I couldn’t even get a third bite in before I angrily threw out the concha from the car window as my friend sped off in sadness.

I grew up as a food critic that day, learning a truism that most of my peers refuse to publicly acknowledge: Mom-and-pop restaurants can be terrible.

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Over the past decade, the food gods have canonized hole-in-the-wall spots. It’s easy to tear down heavy-hitters like Guy Fieri and Rick Bayless, but offer an honest take on the small guys and gals? No. Who would dare?

When I was a full-time critic, I refused to do so out of a sense of not wanting to seem like I was punching down. Plus, I’d rather tell people where to go eat than where not to go. Nowadays, critiquing ethnic mom-and-pops is fraught with tension. Is it really wise to say that a soul food shack in Houston’s Fifth Ward makes disappointing ribs? (Is it wise to call it a “shack”?) Can I write that an Indian diner in the middle of Illinois made one of the worst meals I’ve ever tasted, a curry with the unctuous consistency of the gravy in a frozen chicken pot pie? Or that not every taco truck in Los Angeles is a cornucopia of life-altering asada and al pastor? And that most taqueros use shitty meat and mass-produced tortillas?

There’s seemingly nothing to gain from trashing working-class grub. Instead, full-time food chroniclers -- whether employed critics or self-employed social media influencers -- mostly take the default position that mom-and-pop entrepreneurs can do no wrong. In this world, the sushi joint in small-town central Tennessee must be marvelous because, well, it has to.

But that’s a juvenile position to take. We don’t have to swing at holes-in-the-wall with haymakers the way Pete Wells took down Locol, but nor should we blindly give them praise. Doing so doesn’t improve food, and just promotes the bad at the expense of the actual good.

My wife and I once went to a small falafel restaurant in Louisville, where we had seen a James Beard-nominated chef walk out with a bag of food. I argued there was no need to eat a pita sandwich in the Bluegrass State, because we had great falafels back in OC.

But she wanted to try it -- if a famous chef was a customer, it had to be extraordinary, right? It wasn’t. The pita sandwich wasn’t bad, but it didn’t match what was available back home. Yet it currently has a 4 ½ star rating on Yelp.

All this tells me is that Louisville doesn’t know what good Middle Eastern food is. “Great” for a city doesn't always translate into “great,” period.

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We owe our current infatuation with mom-and-pop restaurants to two of my writing idols: Eater New York’s Robert Sietsema, and the late Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times. On opposite sides of the coast, the two dove into a side of food long ignored by the mainstream critics, and emerged with spectacular dispatches about Uzbeki breads, regional Chinese cuisines, and sweet Senegalese fritters.

They not only told stories about the meals, but the cultures and economics behind them. Their write-ups drew faithful readers but also a flood of imitators also hoping to "discover" the next great mom-and-pop spot before everyone else.

Gold and Sietsema almost always came back with the good, leaving their few salvos for the big boys, like when Gold eviscerated David Chang’s Majordomo earlier this year. What their acolytes never realized, though, was the mucho bad the two encountered before they found something good.

Gold hinted about the reality of his job in his much-hallowed “Five Rules for Dining in Los Angeles,” a hand-scrawled missive the critic posted on Instagram in July 2017 that fans now treat like a dining Decalogue. The first rule --“If the restaurant you have been directed to lies between the [7-11] and the dry cleaners in a dusty strip mall, then you're probably at the right place”-- seems to declare all holes-in-the-wall as immaculate.

But the second rule -- “The restaurants with the longest lines are either better than their competitors or fifty cents cheaper. Try and know the difference" -- reveals Gold’s true feelings: Cheaper and popular isn’t always better, no matter what the masses say, so don’t lionize such places.

Sietsema says he gladly favors holes-in-the-wall over the higher-end eateries, both for their price point but also their stories. That said, to blindly believe that they’re always superior to high-end dining is “a romantic notion I subscribe to, but not sure it’s necessarily true.”

Sietsema makes it seem like he bats perfectly in finding great eats, and he admits his skill is good enough that he encounters a dud “perhaps one out of six times." But that’s only because Sietsema has a simple rule that quickly eliminates many contenders.

“A restaurant must pass the 'sniff test,’" he says. “I stick my head in the door and if it doesn’t smell good, I won’t go in.”

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To romanticize the mom-and-pop genre also excuses them from what we now demand from higher-profile restaurants: equity.

Some of the worst wage-theft cases in the United States constantly come from the restaurant industry, and the culprits are almost always immigrant owners. A 2016 analysis by KCRW-FM 89.9, an NPR station in Southern California, found that of the 20 highest financial judgments that the California Labor Commission issued against restaurants for wage theft between 2013 and 2016 in Los Angeles County, 18 of them served "ethnic" cuisine.

Earlier this year, La Taqueria, a beloved pioneer of the Mission burrito style in San Francisco, was ordered to pay over $600,000 in unpaid wages and penalties. And the California Department of Industrial Relations Labor Commissioner's Office fined a Japanese buffet and two regional Burmese restaurant chains in the Bay Area over $10 million for wage theft violations that affected 431 employees.

Yet when labor activists take on restaurant robber barons, their target is inevitably national chains like McDonald’s and Burger King -- totally understandable, of course. But they shouldn’t give small-time restaurateurs a free pass, either.

One of the few chefs to call out mom-and-pop spots is Diep Tran, owner of the recently closed Good Girl Dinette in Highland Park. She comes from hole-in-the-wall royalty: family members operate the Pho 79 chain, one of the first Vietnamese restaurants in the United States.

In 2017, Tran wrote an essay for NPR about cheap-eats listicles that food publications constantly churn out. “Food media is never so diverse as when it runs these lists, its pages fill with names of restaurateurs and chefs of color,” she said. “These lists infuriate me.”

She blasted the idea that “immigrant food is often expected to be cheap, because, implicitly, the labor that produces it is expected to be cheap, because that labor has historically been cheap.” And then she bravely laid part of the blame for such expectations on herself and her family.

During a lecture at the 2017 Southern Foodways Alliance symposium in Oxford, Mississippi, titled “Cheap Eats, Cheap Labor, Hidden Costs,” Tran discussed the issue of wage theft. “[It] isn't an aberrant behavior within the industry,” she said. “It is the industry.” She then talked about the history of Pho 79, and how her family relied on low-paid and unpaid relatives and children to build their empire.

“We were able to build wealth in a way that our employees weren't able to unless they opened their own business and replicated the same [exploitative] model,” Tran said before a rapt audience. “And many did.”

This doesn't mean you shouldn't take a chance on another mom-and-pop restaurant again. They still need more love than eateries with PR machines and angel investors. I continue to find the food at them more memorable and delicious than at more well-funded trendy spots.

But be clear-eyed about it. A bad taco is a bad taco, and you shouldn’t give the madres y padres who screw them up a pass just because their restaurant is small.

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 Gustavo Arellano is the author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America and is a strong advocate for Mezcal Mondays and Sotol Saturdays -- but he would never copyright those phrases!
 
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