"Cheap Eats uses a rating system with up to 4 'pennies,' but in reality, nothing ever seems to receive fewer than 2.5. We've hunted around, but never found an explanation of what the Cheap Eats pennies mean. Do more pennies signify cheaper meat? Better value? Absolute greatness? Or nothing?"
Going forward, Buffalo Chow articles are generally going to be brief. This one's an exception, because the subject is bad food writing in The Buffalo News, and the opinions expressed below are years in the making. What follows is one of the most heartfelt articles that has ever been posted on this site - akin to Jon Stewart's famous "You're hurting America" critique of CNN's Crossfire - and so we want to be sure that our criticisms are understood in the proper context.
First, we don't hate the entire Buffalo News. One of us grew up reading it, and learned a lot about world events from its pages in the pre-Internet era. Some people have called for it to be shut down for various slights and perceived slights against the community. We believe that it needs to be fixed. Western New York would be worse off without a newspaper than it is with a flawed one.
Second, we understand that this is merely a discussion about food - writing about food, opinions of food. Small stuff. There are certainly bigger fish to fry.
But we are here because we care about food writing. And because we're not going to stay silent about something that matters to us, even if it's just one of many problems our area is dealing with.
Like it or not, The News is Western New York's largest publisher. Yet its coverage of local restaurants has been broken for years - so bad that literally every person we've ever known here has either expressed outright contempt for its restaurant reviews, or said that their only value is in signaling the opening of new restaurants. Thanks to the Internet, we have a half-dozen other places to consult for restaurant reviews instead, so it's easy to ask "who cares?"
Yet if you believe, as we do, that a newspaper is a sort of public trust - privately owned, but there to serve the community - bad journalism from The Buffalo News hurts Western New York, and speaks poorly of the people who rely upon it. It is an outrage to the community when those who are supposed to be our experts, researchers, and critics perform their jobs so poorly as to be mocked inside and outside the area. That the problems have continued for so long suggests that the News's readers are rubes, either unaware of what they're being fed by the paper, or unwilling to call it out for mediocrity.
We're not rubes. If you're reading this article, you're probably not, either. "I stopped reading the News years ago for reviews on restaurants," Buffalo Chow reader Dennis Brown recently told us over Twitter. "I'll trust Urbanspoon over them." And that's saying something. Urbanspoon user reviews in Western New York are commonly written by angry customers, suspiciously exuberant customers, disgruntled restaurant employees, disguised restaurant owners, and the friends and family of restaurant owners. There's something wrong when anyone can trust this group of anonymous but clearly biased people over News staffers who have been reviewing restaurants for years.
In this article, we're going to focus solely on Cheap Eats, the News's second restaurant reviewing column. We're going to look primarily at two Cheap Eats reviews and explain why we can't even trust the News for advice on inexpensive meals. The expensive ones, we'll deal with in another article.
So What is Cheap Eats? The News has two restaurant review sections, "Dining Out" and "Cheap Eats," suggesting some distinction between covered restaurants - seemingly pricing. In practice, there's no obvious logic governing what appears in one section or the other. One week, Dining Out reviewed the fast-serve Mexican chain restaurant Chipotle, while a different week saw Cheap Eats discuss a different and pricier Mexican place with full table service. In short, Cheap Eats seems like it was created for Janice Okun's table scraps - things she didn't want to eat and left over for the rest of the staff.
How Does Cheap Eats Rate Restaurants? Cheap Eats uses a rating system with up to 4 "pennies," but in reality, nothing ever seems to receive fewer than 2.5. We've hunted around, but never found an explanation of what the Cheap Eats pennies mean. Do more pennies signify cheaper meat? Better value? Absolute greatness? Or nothing? From review to review, reviewer to reviewer, the ratings are effectively meaningless - seemingly capricious and arbitrary.
How Does Cheap Eats Review Restaurants? Generally speaking, the News appears to base reviews on a single visit, and generally makes little attempt to sample most of the menu. These are just two of the obvious ways that it dodges the ethical guidelines of the Association of Food Journalists. For instance, a recent Cheap Eats review of the pizza, sub, and wing shop Lunetta's for some reason focused only on pancakes, french toast, an omelette, and corned beef hash. Unlike Dining Out, Cheap Eats uses different contributors with different standards of thoroughness. You're never quite sure what the review and rating are going to be based upon.
Additionally, Cheap Eats reviews are typically conducted two or three weeks before publication, giving the paper ample time to revisit the place to take photographs - ones that almost always focus on people sitting at a table, rather than the food - and to attempt to sell advertising to the restaurant. We've actually seen menus change at restaurants between the dates of visit and publication, but that's a topic for another article.
So What Are The Other Big Problems? At this point, let's turn to two recent reviews for specifics. We didn't pick the worst Cheap Eats reviews or easiest examples, because we wanted to avoid ones that focused entirely on common breakfast foods, pizza, or sandwiches. Instead, we picked reviews that were directly comparable and close to our hearts: one was an overly positive review of a restaurant with weak food, and the other a droll review of a restaurant with great food. Both were written by Andrew Galarneau.1
On January 20, Cheap Eats reviewed Sun International Foods in a piece titled "Sun International Foods: Burmese Specialties and More." The review starts with a heavy focus on Burmese food and immigrants, which is conceptually laudable. It titillates by noting the menu's seemingly broad scope, calling out Vietnamese dishes such as bun (rice vermicelli), Korean-styled Kim Chee Fried Rice, and a Thai curry dish, then talks a lot about Burmese dishes. Almost all of the review was positive, using happy words such as "so glad," "accessible," "warming," "tender," "rewarding," and "abundant," before ending with a grammatically rough but powerful claim that "dishes from all over Asia [are] cooked with more care than you'll find most places." The rating: 4 out of 4 pennies. Sounds exciting, right?
In reality, it's not. If you actually visit Sun, as we did, what you'll discover is a tiny, cramped dining area in the back of a small corner market. The pieces of a yet-to-be-assembled bathroom were sitting on the floor next to the tables, which sit next to refrigerator units. There's a menu with over 100 choices, only four of which are Burmese. And yes, there's a Japanese section, and a Korean section, but there are only between two and five recipe variations for each of those cuisines. From the Cheap Eats title and lead, you'd think that Sun was a bastion of Burmese food, but there are actually fewer Burmese dishes on the menu than "Vietnamese" ones. It's like telling people to go to Red Lobster for the chicken.
We use those quotes because the dishes we ordered were really, seriously bad. Bear in mind that we love Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Singaporean, and Indonesian food. We've traveled throughout Asia and know what's authentic, but we also enjoy well-prepared American distillations, so that's not the issue here. The items we ordered, including the Tea Leaf Salad and one of the Burmese soups, tasted like salt licks. And if you're expecting to actually get authentic, say, Vietnamese food here, think again. What Sun serves as bun is unrecognizable as the authentic dish - or even what's locally served at most places around here. The meat at Sun was some of the lowest-grade junk we've eaten anywhere locally or internationally, even by Chinese takeout standards. A perfect 4/4 rating would have struck us as inconceivable on any scale, even one that was solely focused on how "cheap" the meal was. How anyone could call the food more carefully prepared than at most other restaurants was mystifying, and arguably highly misleading.
The February 24 Cheap Eats review of Bingo's Dim Sum House represents the flip side of the coin: a dour review of a legitimately great place. Bingo's is not perfect, but great - a small and narrowly-focused Chinese restaurant where the very special collection of dishes actually match the quality of the same items we've tried in China, Hong Kong, and Chinatowns across the United States. We mean that. It's the best dim sum served anywhere in Western New York, with friendly service. If the menu and place were both larger, we wouldn't change another thing.
On the surface, the Buffalo News review is positive - just positive enough to justify the paper's subsequent visit to Bingo's to ask it to advertise in Gusto. But when you really read the review, particularly in light of the ridiculously positive Sun piece, you see that the impression being conveyed is lukewarm. The word "decent" is repeated six times, mixed in with words such as "unremarkable" and "forgettable," along with back-handed compliments such as "satisfying, but" and "tasty as long as it lasted." Remember, this is a restaurant serving small dishes, and ones that taste exactly like they should. There were nicer sentiments in there, too, but they often come across as the opinions of others, rather than the reviewer's. The thrust of the piece was "nothing special." Bingo's received 3 out of 4 pennies, whatever that means.
Here's the last and most important problem with Cheap Eats. Bingo's has taken a much bigger risk than Sun International Foods, and frankly, almost any other restaurant we can think of in this area. Anyone can open a new pizza joint, "fusion" restaurant, or Italian red sauce shop around here. There are now dozens of Chinese takeout-caliber places like Sun International Foods. It takes guts for Bingo's to show up here and open something different, spending extra money to bring in nice decor and truck in impressive dim sum from New York City, despite the fact that weaker, frozen versions are literally available right across the street at the Ni Hoowa Supermarket. Moreover, the owner is the sort of business person that Western New York should be welcoming and holding up as an example of greatness: someone young, highly competent, and with really good taste. Buffalo didn't have a great dim sum place until Bingo's came along. Now it does, and we should reward it so that it stays.
Last week, we called that review of Bingo's "moronic." Here's a summary of the reasons why. The place never belonged in Cheap Eats. The rating has no value. The photography conveys almost no sense of what the food is like. And the content of the review was dismissive of dishes that are being prepared with utmost authenticity, and served in a clean, attractive environment. It's unclear whether Cheap Eats just "doesn't get it," or whether other factors are at play, but in any case, this column has glorified cheap, common crap over affordable, high-quality food. It's that sort of myopia, bad taste, and foolishness, plus many more examples like it, that have convinced us that the News needs to totally clean out its food section and start again with new people.
No, we're not interested in the job. We just want to see someone - someone else - fix what's wrong at The Buffalo News. Bad reviews like this are hurting Western New York. We want our local paper to do better. It's long past overdue.
1 Full disclosure: In 2009, Mr. Galarneau contacted us on behalf of the News for one of the most unusual interviews we've ever fielded. In between tossing out a surprising number of expletives, he talked up his upcoming blog and tried to get us to name a review of a place we'd "slammed," or something of the sort. It felt like he was fishing for something embarrassing to publish rather than interviewing us. No interview ever ran. We mention this so that you can know the full story - and the fact that it had no bearing on this article. We do interviews all the time (for Buffalo Chow, see Artvoice, Buffalo Rising; for iLounge, see Fyiapple, New York Times, USA Today, etc.); sometimes they work out, sometimes they don't. We have a great deal of respect for most of the publications we deal with, but regardless of who we're talking with, we're not afraid to speak truth to power whenever it needs to be said.