Hamburg's Ginger & Garlic, Or, Useless Urbanspoon Reviews

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Ginger & Garlic
5685 McKinley Pkwy, Hamburg, NY 14075
Web: Ginger & Garlic
Phone: 716.649.3898
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User-submitted Urbanspoon reviews are bogus. Not all of them, of course, but there are so many red flags these days that even Urbanspoon itself is suspicious: (a) first-time reviewers (b) show up in groups (c) to drool over places that (d) turn out to be decidedly mediocre. This week, more than 20 over-the-top raving posts (sample titles: "The Best Barbecue Ever!!!" and "Yee Haw!") in a surprisingly short period of time led us to Hamburg's Big Belly BBQ - unusually closed four days a week, including the day we tried to visit - so we instead wound up at another supposedly incredible Hamburg restaurant, a Chinese place called Ginger and Garlic. According to some Urbanspoon reviews, it's "the best in WNY!" But to make a long story short, it's not, and not even close. Phony or otherwise ridiculous 'reviews' are amongst the reasons we screen our comments, and why Urbanspoon recently added a "shill" button to its reviews to let readers mark obvious fakes. Even with human screeners, however, it's sometimes hard to know whether the "reviewers" are totally fake, just have limited experience, or are expressing subjectively bad taste.

To be honest, the experience we had at Ginger and Garlic was not worth the time we'd normally take to write a full or even half review; it is a small, not particularly Chinese-feeling place with seating capacity for roughly 20 people, only slightly nicer inside than a typical local take-out. We're not posting many photos of the dishes, which were visually indistinguishable from ones you'd find at most other sit-down Chinese restaurants. Instead, we're going to just highlight the two reviews on Urbanspoon, which we won't call "shills," and instead will just describe as… well, underinformed.

The "Joe" Review. Urbanspoon's first review of Ginger and Garlic is short but sugary sweet. "Not your typical Chinese restaurant… much better!!!" raves someone identified as Joe. "One stop at G&G and you'll never go anywhere else! Hands down, the best in WNY!" And that's it - three sentences and five exclamation points worth of unbridled excitement. These days, Urbanspoon is filled with similarly brief postings, many of them coming from mobile phones. With no details that can be verified in any way, apart from their glowing overall conclusions, they're useless.

Again, we're not going to call "Joe" a shill, but we can tell you that the vast majority of astroturfing (phony grass roots) posts we've seen over the years have a similarly absolutist tone: something isn't good, it's "the best," or if it has problems, it's "the worst." Sure, some people - perhaps many people - think in such black and white terms. But the point at which this post leaps right over our wall of plausibility is the suggestion that "you'll never go anywhere else," suggesting that the food is so fantastic here that you'll ignore the restaurant's competitors, no matter how good they might be. Would any typical customer ever really believe or post such a thing? Is it just a joke? If so, why show up on Urbanspoon to post a grand total of one review with such a statement?

If Ginger and Garlic was truly this great, we wouldn't have known it from the appetizers, which come from a very short list of choices: three types of egg rolls, a handful of other fried items, and six soups. The bowl of Hot and Sour Soup ($2.45) we ordered was quite literally the thickest we've ever had, and amongst the worst we've sampled locally - a brown bowl of gravy made with way too much cornstarch or a similar thickening agent, and not very good. By comparison, the deep-fried Vegetable Spring Rolls ($1.95/2) were fairly typical of pre-packaged versions - thin, crispy shells with ever so slightly peppery shredded vegetables inside, and entirely unremarkable. We've had better versions of each item at forgettable take-outs, and the Hot and Sour Soup is often superior at buffets, even ones where it's obviously been sitting around for a while.

The "JSM" Review. That brings us to the other Urbanspoon review, which reads a lot like the first one. "This is hands down the best Chinese restaurant in town…" starts the user identified as JSM, using the same "hands down" language found in "Joe's" review. "It is not greasy and they use high quality ingredients (for example the chicken is real chicken not the disgusting pressed and formed chicken pieces that the others use)." Once again, this person may not be a shill, but in our experiences, pointing negatively to "others" and calling their practices "disgusting" is a common astroturfing tactic: fake reviews frequently slam unspecified, straw man competitors to create the impression of strength in another product.

Admittedly, something could have changed in the kitchen since JSM's late August, 2009 posting, but what we can tell you about Ginger and Garlic is that the grease factor and "high quality ingredients" were no better here than at most of the Chinese restaurants we've visited recently in Western New York, take-out or otherwise. We sampled three entrees, each with a different potential level of grease, and all three were similarly very oily: Mongolian Beef ($10), served elsewhere as a low-grease dish with copious scallions, was completely different here - a mess of greasy brown sauce with cube-sliced onions and peppers, approximating a salt lick in flavor. Neither the portion size nor the quality of meat was in any way distinctive. Lemon Chicken ($8.75), typically deep fried and drenched with a thickened citrus sauce, was so-so here - the thin-sliced breast meat was heavy on batter and basically flavorless in portions that lacked for the sauce, but unimpressively edible in places that included it, and had no shortage of oil. Finally, Mou-Sei Pork ($8.15, aka Moo Shu Pork), which is always stir-fried in a wok, was glistening with grease at literally every angle, but the flavor of the shredded vegetables and matchstick-thin pieces of pork was totally fine, save for a salt level that became increasingly powerful with every bite. The included circular crepe-like pancakes were straight from a package and completely stuck together.

"The menu is limited," continues JSM, "but everything we have ever had is delicious… especially the handmade dumplings!" And in fact, yes, the menu is limited, though not in a special, 'only the best' Ming Cafe or Ming Teh sort of way. What Ginger and Garlic offers is effectively half or two-thirds of a typical Chinese takeout menu - the largely Americanized fare you're left with if virtually all of the specials have been removed, and many of the regional or otherwise challenging entrees have disappeared. On this menu, for instance, General Tso's Chicken has somehow become Hunan Chicken, rather than two separate dishes. And what about those handmade dumplings? We did try to order them. "Are you sure you want them?" asked our server. "Yes," we responded. "Well, people sometimes get upset when the appetizer takes 25 minutes to come out." "Okay, then, no," we said. How could we ignore such an inverse hard sell technique?

JSM finishes with a couple of touches found in Joe's review. "It is a little more expensive than the others," JSM claims, without noting who the 'others' are, "but once you have tried it you will never go back to another [C]hinese restaurant." Familiar? Yes. Accurate? No. Ginger and Garlic isn't actually more expensive than typical Chinese restaurants, unless your point of reference is a buffet; the dishes are generally cheap, and taste it. Even the white rice - a gimme almost anywhere - was dry and not worth eating.

Yet it's the second part of the sentence that we really disagree with. There may be fewer truly good Chinese places in Western New York than there were 10 years ago, but it's downright sad to think that someone - anyone - could visit this place without hoping for better options. Are Joe's and JSM's posts just shilling? A reflection of limited experience? Or something else? We can't say for sure. But if you're looking for superior choices, a fairly comprehensive list of worthwhile Chinese restaurants in Western New York is right here. Joe and JSM, if you're reading this - and if you're actually two different people, unaffiliated with the restaurant - we'd love to hear your side of the story, if there is one.

Ginger and Garlic on Urbanspoon


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Comments (10)

Meg :

I have to comment about the Big Belly reference with Urbanspoon. I too was shocked by the many positive reviews on that site and decided to try Big Belly. Maybe I'm not a 'seasoned' eater like you, but the bbq is seriouly delicious with incredible maple (or maybe brown sugar?) cornbread and friendly service plus the place smells wonderful. You have to try the turkey, never had smoked turkey like it (my bf says the brisket and ribs were excellent) The second time we went in the owner (I think) asked us to review them online (since we had told him we tried the place after reading all the glowing results). So I think Big Belly has so many reviews because the owner caught on to people doing it already and it helps spread the word-I know it got us in there. And remember, reviews online are peoples opinions, not everyone has the same standards either.

I'm really glad to hear that at least some of the sentiment/one of the reviews for Big Belly is legit. As noted in the article, we haven't been there - the issue is merely the number of totally over-the-top reviews, such as one from "Catherine M Leonard" who describes himself as "being a man of 340 lbs," and quite a few that purport (a) to be from people who know the owner or (b) to be from out-of-towners. Every review came from a person who had never posted another review before; at least one came from someone who has only posted two reviews, both for that restaurant.

In my personal experience moderating comments over the years, patterns like this are practically the definition of "red flags." But yes, it's entirely possible that 20-some people all have the exact same OMG-level opinion about a restaurant, that a guy's name is Catherine, and that BBQ fanatics from Texas, Kansas City, and WNY have all shown up in Hamburg to check this place out...

Jaclyn :

This is why I'm a bit saddened by the demise of newspaper restaurant critics. People seem to think that these review websites can simply replace them, because it's allowing "regular people" to comment on a restaurant. But at least with a regularly-published critic (whether in the Buffalo News or on BuffaloChow.com) you can be reasonably sure that they're not a shill, because they write negative reviews as well as positive ones.

If someday the only way of finding restaurant reviews is on UrbanSpoon and the like, it would be better to have nothing at all - these sites are pretty useless, because you never know who is writing an honest review.

Jeff Geckler :

You hit the nail right on the head!!! Some of the reviewers MUST be shills based on the disparity between actual experiences vs. reviews. I think it depends on the subjectivity of the individual reviewer not the objectivity. Thing is, most reviews are subjective...

JJ :

I think you may want to publish a "Hall of Shame" at some point for restaurants that attempt to manipulate their positive reviews on Urbanspoon using this dubious "ballot stuffing" practice.

Jeff - the issue isn't whether people are allowed to have their own subjective opinions. Individual, honest, balanced reviews aren't really the issue. The problem is shilling, astroturfing, and "ballot stuffing" - posting fake positive or fake negative reviews that are either false in numbers (one person posting two or three reviews), or in over the top intensity.

Mary :

I hope you're able to get over to Big Belly too & look forward to your review. I voted on Urban Spoon but didn't have time to post a review. I work nearby & have been wanting to stop since it opened...I've been back 3 time since...the 1st & 2nd visit on the same day! We went for lunch & enjoyed the bbq salad w/smoked turkey & the pulled pork sandwich. The owner brought us ribs to try w/our lunch & that sealed the deal...a beautiful pink smoke ring was the first sight that greeted me & the dry rub was very tasty. I'm not going to do a review here...that's your job. I look forward to reading it to see if we agree. (btw..definitely try the maple cornbread...it also has brown sugar & molasses in it according to the owner.)

JJ :

Another thing I noticed about the Big Belly reviews on Urbanspoon - As of today, they have a total of total 70 votes. By contrast, P.F. Chang's has 56 votes. I don't think a small roadside eatery that is only open 3 days a week is going to generate more votes than a place like P.F. Chang's that is substantially larger and is almost constantly full to capacity 7 days per week. I'm not crazy about P.F. Chang's, but they probably serve 30 times as many customers on a weekly basis than Big Belly, so it is highly unlikely that P.F. Chang's would generate fewer total votes.

Pete :

Hello to all and thanks for the support! As the owner and pit master of Big Belly, all our food is cooked daily, to insure freshness of great BBQ to you. All foods are made in house, except the maple/brown sugar corn bread, that a long time friend's bakery makes for us. We are now bottling our sauces and such. However, let us talk about our reviews. We welcome everyone that comes in, as we strive to make everyone feel comfy and enjoy some darn good down home barbeque. Look us up, we ended up 7th in New York State KCBS competition in 09, our first year competing, we did not get there by subpar food! This is the same food we serve to you. We never realized about Urbanspoon, till someone came in and told us they read reviews about us, it is then we seen how the public shops for even BBQ joints, so yes we tell others to take the time, (if they have it!) to let others know about us, and if they don't like something, please tell about that too, this is why we live free in our country, called the USA. We believe in our product and will share with you, what I feel is good BarBeQue! I trained with Myron Mixon, from Jacks Old South and he is one of the best in the country, I owe this all to him, along with Uncle Paul W. who gave Big Belly a chance to showcase the BBQ food that our area needs. In closing, please be honest in what you put in print, good or bad, but please do not attack the people that took the time to write about something they believe in and remember, like pizza, BBQ is more than a breakfast food!! Kook low and slo, and if you looking, it aint kooking!

Tex :

Thank you for telling it like it is. I'm from Toronto but do shop and dine in WNY regularly, and all I can say is, I wish we had a site like yours, unbiased reviews with moderated comments underneath. Unfortunately, the closest thing we have to BuffaloChow in Toronto is Martiniboys which seems to be more about "cool/hip" than "good food", and of course Chowhound which is basically "Urbanspoon for foodie snobs". In there you often do see patterns like you describe, mediocre joints getting rave reviews from newbies who just conveniently showed up at the same time, like a certain "southern food" place that opened in downtown Toronto recently. No surprise they're in trouble and might close down soon, so much for those fake reviews they got...

I echo Mary's sentiments above -- I can't wait to read how Big Belly stacks up against the local champ Kentucky Greg's. Greg's is great for us Canadians using Buffalo airport (since cheap lame-ass Delta Airlines doesn't feed starving passengers!) Very conveniently located and great BBQ. My wife is from the gulf coast of Alabama and she loves going to KG's. If you guys say that Big Belly is at least the equal of KG's we will give them a try on our next trip across the Niagara River!

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