Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Cost of Dining Ethnic: A Catch-22 Column and Exercise in Futility

A couple of weeks ago I chimed in on a random twitter conversation that was not my own. Normally, I try not to involve myself with serious conversations or comments, but for some reason, I was naturally compelled to do so. Potty humor, daily soundtrack listings, self deprecation and food innuendos are really more of my extensive forte.

The conversation was actually between SFoodie and Chezpim about dim sum in San Francisco, but eventually the two twitter parties and myself began contending the merits and cost of dim sum at Yank Sing in San Francisco. There was even a guest appearance tweet later from Chef Daniel Patterson (not directed to me, but you know...awesome by association type of thing). I'm a HUGE fan of Chef Patterson and I'm inclined to agree with his opinion, but backing up the wrong horse here when it comes to a conversation about dim sum is not what I was hoping for. Anyways, his thoughts were the inspiration for this blog today. Here's the conversation:

@chezpim Not sure why it's wrong to say Yank Sing might be a ripoff, AND tasty. Can't both be true? They're not sourcing from small farms.

@SFoodie Calling them a ripoff implies they're passing out crap for $$$. Their stuff *is* good. Small farms don't have monopoly on good."

@SFoodie I say they are expensive, yes. I wouldn't accuse them of being a ripoff

Hot Food Porn:
@chezpim @SFoodie I think its a ripoff when you consider that there are a lot of dim sum places putting out better food at better prices

@hotfoodporn You're wrong. Dimsum is not SFBay's strong suit. We've some good ones, but you'd be hard pressed to find*a lot of places*better

Hot Food Porn:
@chezpim arguably cheaper, similar, if not better: gourmet delight (oakland), kitchen, dim sum king, S&T, hk lounge, south seas, east ocean

@chezpim I've been to probably a total maybe 20 big dim sum places in the bay area and counting. you'd be surprised how much is out there.

Dcpatterson (Chef Patterson):
So true!! RT@chezpim People must stop thinking that "ethnic" food has to be cheap to be good - or that when it's expensive it's a rip off.

So that pretty much ended the round of conversations, but it left me thinking with some followup thoughts and questions:

1. Is there a ridiculous expectation that ethnic food has to be cheap to be good?
2. Should it mean that when ethnic food is expensive, there should be an expectation that it is better?
3. Is it ethnic food that is underpriced or is it non-ethnic food that is overpriced? Who or what defines a proper price?
4. Is it fair to call a restaurant a ripoff when most (if not all) restaurants of similar/better/worse quality and substance are priced significantly less? What are you exactly paying for?
5. Why do people question my dim sum knowledge...like, ever? (Dim sum eating resume includes: Hong Kong, multiple cities/provinces in China, all over Toronto/Ontario, LA, Houston, Boston, NY, Montreal, San Francisco, Washington DC, Miami, etc.. Yes, I am Southern Chinese, I grew up eating and learning to make this stuff too)

I'd like to make this a dim sum column, but the heart of the problem really lies at the simple idea of cost expectations and value at ethnic restaurants. I do not know all the answers to those questions and I do not to pretend that I do, but what I do know is that I'd like to examine some of them with some personal and nuanced observations.

Before I do that, here are a list of dim sum places that are relatively similar to Yank Sing and decent (a few better) in the city - all are less expensive (I can furnish a bigger list of ones slightly outside of city):

South Seas
HK Lounge
S&T Seafood
Great Eastern
Gold Mountain
Golden River

First and foremost, we need to identify the ultimate reason why many ethnic restaurants are cheaper: the produce. I wish Chinese restaurants knew to use the best and most local ingredients to incorporate them into their regional cuisine, but sadly this is not part of Chinese mentality. That's not exactly their fault all the time, considering that, there is no organic alternative for specific Chinese produce. Can anyone find me organic, sustainable local baby Shanghai bok choy? Ideas such as sustainable and local are more of an exception and far from the rule. Food is approached from a no-frills point of view and if you hadn't noticed, a lot of ethnic food doesn't just let the ingredient "speak for itself."

From a chef's point of view, we want the best ingredients to produce the best plates - and it so happens that the best ingredients are normally local and come from the best farms at a higher price. It's pretty easy to stand and point at the simple idea that if restaurants bought better ingredients, then charging more for their items would eventually be justified. I think people need to realize (if not already) that for many reasons, a drastic change in cost structure is not likely to happen anytime soon. This is both the fault of customer expectation and owner willingness from decades of conditioning.

For instance, a small restaurant decides to change their approach to local sustainable meat and produce - costs soar, prices go up. The cooking remains the same, but diners don't notice the subtlety in the difference of the quality of the food. The restaurant is now pricing out their former customers who can eat at a similar place for slightly cheaper down the street. This is essentially the nightmare scenario for a lot of ethnic/small restaurants.

With a bigger restaurant and a bigger budget, there is a much high possibility that they have the money to buy better stuff, but now you are also wrestling with other costs associated for running a bigger place. Pricing out customers may be even riskier when you have to fully staff a large restaurant. It's a Catch-22.

Aside from the whole expectation issue, there lies a core fundamental philosophical difference. Many ethnic cuisines look at produce as produce. It's either good enough to work with or its not. They acknowledge that how well you can cook has nothing to do with the produce put in front of you. Rarely is there a varying degree of good, better, best, grass-fed, corn-fed, cage-free, sustainable or local. For many restaurants, there is only the bottom line. That bottom line reads:

"I am not a fancy restaurant. I am a family restaurant that appeals to families because I can serve a well cooked product for an affordable price without the pressure of dealing with the expectations of Michael Pollan, Alice Waters and friends."

While I don't hold the same cooking philosophy, I'd be judgmental and snobby to tell someone what their own bottom line should or shouldn't be. I think many people, chefs, culinary icons need to be careful about dictating how people should eat into a system that is out of their means - it is very callous and slightly arrogant. Personally, I think eating the proper foods and produce shouldn't be a luxury, but please understand that it is definitely a privilege. A privilege some many people in this Bay Area lose sight of more and more.

Every year there are more and more restaurants that are taking classic ethnic cooking and bringing them to life with the best produce. I enjoy and appreciate those restaurants and their efforts. They are not ripoffs, but in that same vein of thinking, the restaurants that serve cheaper fare may not necessarily be wrong in their approach either. Please also consider that cooking is not just a matter of produce,
because you can make a black-footed pig dumpling, but it can also be bad in the hands of an average chef. I think that there is an inherent social contract when people dine at cheap or expensive restaurants. I would hope the Diner's Contract may read like this:

I choose to go to this restaurant and I accept it's price point because it is my choice of destination. When I choose not dine at the restaurant, this contract is void and I am allowed any opinion regarding its value or cost as it is relative to me.

So, was it right to call Yank Sing a ripoff? I think in my personal opinion and experiences, it is a fair assessment considering Yank Sing really fulfills none of the necessary criteria that allows it to differentiate itself from other dim sum places? I don't believe they serve better meat or produce or have a more skilled kitchen staff than other restaurants. I don't really believe they have the best dim sum in the city (definitely not the U.S.). Unless they can justify why pork buns are $2 more there than any other dim sum place (which are better at The Kitchen in Millbrae by the way), I'm not sure why it's unfair to call them a "tasty ripoff." It really says nothing about the food, which I think is good and yes, one of the better dim sum places in the city. However, when I go out to dim sum in my pick of places in the bay area (have car, will drive) I am not looking to share the burden of a expensive lease, convenience, or smiling service unless I'm obligated by my Diner's Contract.


  1. Made the mistake of reading this when I was hungry...now I want dim sum.

    I do have to agree that I don't think there's truly amazing dim sum in the Bay Area, although there are some spots that are decent. Many of the ones you listed are on my list, and I also think CityView is good (although a tad on the more expensive side), and Koi Palace outside of the city is a must.

  2. I will say dim sum in the Bay is very good and definitely above average. I will agree that its not truly amazing compared to asia, canada and a couple of other places in the U.S.

  3. As an occasional visitor to SF that has tried at least a few of the places you mention - Yank Sing, Great Eastern, Gold Mountain - I tend to agree that while some may do certain items better than others, there isn't such a huge difference overall to justify a significant price discrepancy based on the food quality.

    But I think there are some points of distinction that have nothing to do with the food. Yank Sing has a somewhat posher, shinier, cleaner look and feel to it than many other SF dim sum options. Its locations are also in parts of town that are perhaps more tourist-friendly and presumably higher rent. Some people are willing to pay more for this more "sanitized" experience (and many simply don't know of other options).

  4. I will take your extended list, please! I was raised in Italy with pretty much no access to any kind of ethnic food, and discovering dim sum just a few years ago felt like a HUGE discovery! I love dim sum, and I am always looking for new places to try. alas, I always end up at Yank Sing because it's easier, more convenient and just "safe".

  5. trust me, I've tangled with a bunch of people on chowhound about this. Personally, I can't stand Chez Pim past a verb and a noun, though I agree with the sentiment. I think both you and I would agree, and even Chef Patterson that most average people don't get the concept of dim sum, the cost of running it as a business, the intricacies of each different dish, or the tastes.

    I've never been to Yank Sing, though they suceed in a particular marketplace, helped along by non-Asian/non-Chinese reviews as well as the "Asian Experts" (chez pim included).

    That said, the higher the cost of the dim sum, the cleaner the tablecloth, the more often do the servers change your plate, and the better the tea.

    The organic and sustainable sourcing is a whole different matter that is a conversation I've been having with every Asian cook/chef I've come across.

    One quick point about that, if the Chinese/Asian market doesn't create enough of a demand for it, it won't exist. Along with that, when you're talking about communities of color, it's an immigrant population looking for the best deal, which is where the organic movement often leaves out of the conversation....

    phew, this is why I leave myself out of these back n forths.