They say there's no such thing as a free lunch, but those people can't eat nearly as many tortilla chips as me. Chips and salsa are the most ubiquitous of all restaurant freebies, and as much as I love them, I've come to realize something that might sound horrible to the hordes of salsa-stained eaters: we should be paying for them.
Yes, we should close the top of the bottomless chip bag and put a cork in the salsa fountain. But before you threaten me with the sharp end of some mediocre tortilla you didn't pay for, hear me out. You'll soon be putting your money where your pico de gallo is (and getting more pico in return).
Free chips are seldom "restaurant quality"
Here I am, wearing more than sweatpants, politely interacting with a stranger in an apron. I'm at a restaurant if you couldn't tell, paying a hefty surcharge for freshly prepared food. I'm not too picky when it comes to a plate of enchiladas, but I do expect them to be made by a human in the immediate vicinity, which is far from the norm with most restaurant chips.
Most restaurant tortilla chips taste like printer paper seasoned with cardboard shavings. If you're lucky, they're dusted with so much salt it doesn't matter. If you're unlucky, expect essence of conveyor belt aftertaste and old fryer grease.
These do not satisfy the quality requirement for me to put on pants. I could be eating these by the handful on my couch, cursing openly at how foolish I was to wear a white T-shirt while transporting such viscous salsa to my mouth on a vessel with the same uneven topography as level five in Marble Madness. I expect higher-quality offerings from a place that specializes in making food for humans. But hey, you get what you pay for, so you have no right to make demands. Except the "more chips" demand. Which you will nonetheless make 15 more times, because...
They're impossible to stop eating
All that cardboard shaving talk might imply I can resist the temptation of limitless chips, but I can't. Nobody can. Put one of those red webbed plastic trays in front of me and watch as I empty it directly into my maw. No matter how gigantic a plate of fajitas is on its way, I will still inhale chips like salty air. Something about the slalom of sodium and barely there corn flavor satisfies me on a lab-rat level, jamming on the happy button until my stomach feels like a family-sized bag of mashed masa. And not the homemade kind.
I know that this is folly. Hell, I live in Texas, so it happens at least three times a week. And every single time, I find myself apologizing to a half-eaten, homemade, delicious mixed fajita plate that I couldn't finish because I filled up on emptiness. And I know I'll do it again and again, because there's no barrier to keep me from that unlimited mound of crispiness. If there was a charge, it'd make gluttons like me think twice before dooming our meals.
Free chips are hugely wasteful
This doesn't apply to me, since I basically lick the tray empty, but other humans have more self-control. Some tables don't even touch their chips, and most everyone is leaving a half-empty bowl once they've eaten all the larger glamour chips, all because the damn free chips hit the table the second you walk in. Over the course of a night at a high-volume Mexican restaurant, a whole aisle's worth of tasteless tortilla slivers are dying sad deaths crumbled at the bottom of trash cans.
Charging for chips would change everything
An oven-baked tortilla is a truly magical thing, and it can be a way to show the customer from the get-go that you're serious about what you're putting in their mouth. The scrappy, penny-pinching 20-something in me is dying a little as I write this, but I would pay for a better chip. In an instant.
In the course of a meal, a couple bucks isn't making a big difference in the bill,. What does make a difference are fresh chips of purposeful thickness served alongside multiple types of salsa, none of which are freezer burn-flavored. Once you've got people paying for chips, perhaps that influx of revenue could offset the high cost of guac and queso, bringing down those prices and encouraging more purchases of tortilla-based aperitifs. Oh, and you can bet your ass that you're not throwing away chips you paid for... and since you did pay for them, you won't feel weird asking for a to-go bag.
Bottom line, I'm happy to reward a restaurant that goes the extra mile and makes its own chips with up to 299 cents, or about one cent per chip I usually consume pre-dinner.
So listen up, dear managers of homestyle Mexican restaurant rodeos, I know you've probably explored this idea before. And I know you probably enjoy making money, and not losing it when some big fat bastard rolls in and gets a taco with a side order of 2lbs of free chips.
That man is not your friend. I am. And I beseech you to stop this handout of mediocre appetizer, if for no other reason than because I sure can't stop myself, and I'm willing to give you more money to make my gluttony -- and America's -- taste slightly better.