What follows is a lot of boring personal ranting. If that interests you, feel free to read. If not, come back another time, I promise there will be more reviews up soon.
I used to watch the live action Incredible Hulk TV show as a kid. One of the episodes that has stuck with me was “Stop the Presses” featuring Pat effin’ Morita (I used to be a big Karate Kid fan too). The plot of the episode had to deal with a crooked food critic who would plant garbage and insects in restaurants, take pictures, write up stories about it and subsequently drive the restaurants out of business. Of course in this case the restaurant was run by two young women whose entire livelihood and security depended on that story not being published, and it was up to David Banner to…you know what? Go watch it yourself. The point is that food critics used to have that kind of power. In some circles, in some publications, in some cities, I’m sure some of them still do.
I don’t have that kind of power. I’m one anonymous foodie nerd with a computer in a sea of anonymous foodie nerds with computers. Nobody is compensating me to do this. I’m just a guy who likes to dine out and enjoys writing, and this gives me an excuse to do both. I’ve never been satisfied with the restaurant reviews in the Statesman, and the local blogs that I found were too targeted for my tastes. Even the listing sites with user reviews sometimes fall short of the mark (I know that Café Olé doesn’t serve authentic Mexican food, and so should everyone else…saying that it’s the “worst Mexican food ever” doesn’t tell me if they’re any good at what they DO serve). I felt there was a void that could be filled between the people writing about the high-end restaurants and the hip downtown joints and the mothers bitching about bad service at Burger King, though I’m not above or beyond writing about those myself, I just don’t want to confine myself to them. The clincher was when I drove by a Portuguese barbecue truck several times over the course of a few weeks and couldn’t find any information about it online. That, Bourdain’s new book (what can I say, the guy inspires me), and the encouragement of my ever-patient girlfriend turned thought into action. Because nobody is paying me or telling me where to eat, I can skew it so that I write a minimum of negative reviews by primarily going to places that I think and hope I’m actually going to like. I’m not looking for things to complain about to make my blogs more interesting. I’m spending my own money and looking to eat well with it. Honestly, I never expected anyone other than my friends and family to really read anything I wrote unless someone was specifically searching the internet for information about one of the places I reviewed.
Today, I got a message from someone who was doing the latter: the owner of Boise Fry Company. I’ve been writing this blog for just over a month now, and I’ve reviewed nine eateries, only half of those in any real depth. My comments about Boise Fry Company have drawn the most attention by far. My friends said it was a good review but disagreed with me about the fries, saying I must have just been unlucky. My sister said I was overly critical and a little mean. My girlfriend said I was right on the money, but of course she was with me and had also never eaten there before. I was willing to entertain the idea that I might have had a rare bad experience, but thought it just as likely that it could be one of those “it’s locally owned and downtown, so it must be good” places. After the accolades heaped on them in the Statesman’s Best of Treasure Valley poll this year, I decided to do a little research. I went to every newspaper site, blog, restaurant listing page and online photo gallery I could find that had any pictures of the fries at BFC, and never once did I find anything but fries that looked good enough to be used in a TV commerical or magazine ad with a little creative arrangement and proper lighting, though I did find a few other people commenting on high grease and low flavor scattered amongst the rave reviews. I even sent one of the pictures to my gal with a note to the effect that I wish we had gotten THOSE fries.
So there’s me, a still-green nobody who has only written two reviews that he’s really proud of, and there’s this local favorite restaurant. I’m not exaggerating here. 120,000 people voted in the Statesman’s Best of Treasure Valley poll. On my beloved Urbanspoon.com, BFC is the number one ranked restaurant in the Boise area for best cheap eats and sits at number two on the overall best restaurant list. And out of nowhere, I get an e-mail from the owner of the restaurant. He didn’t threaten legal action, offer me a bribe to remove or change my review, or gloat about how beloved his restaurant is regardless of what some internet schmuck has to say about it. Nor did he wax snobby and insult my intelligence by explaining how excellent his fries are regardless of what my probably ignorant self incorrectly thinks I know about french fries from years of eating processed potatoes from establishments with drive-through windows. No, what he did was so much worse. He thanked me for reviewing his restaurant, apologized for failing to meet my expectations, and invited me to give them another chance. He even complimented my writing skills and invited me to ask any questions I might have about their food and how it’s made. My girlfriend says I should take him up on it. My sister didn’t exactly say it, but the vibe I got from her was that I should commit ritual suicide for dishonoring such a pleasant and humble man with my petty comments.
The problem with food criticism is that it’s like a photograph. It may be worth (or contain) a thousand words, but it captures only a moment in time. The Statesman will usually send their people back to try different things on a few different occasions to get a more well-rounded view of what the restaurant can do before writing it up. The Boise Weekly sends two reviewers to every place. But those of us who are spending our own money and writing about it on review or free blogging sites often don’t have that luxury. We can only hope (those of us with any conscience anyway) that people will take that into consideration. There are bad places, but there are also places that just have bad days or bad shifts or even just put out one bad plate, and sometimes a critic or a foodie or just some person who’s internet savvy shows up at just the wrong time. And as we all know, people complaining tend to talk louder and longer than people who are content. I read back over my review. I had said that the portions were generous and the prices reasonable. I said that my burger was “one of the better burgers I’ve had in a while”, “very good”, made with “top shelf ingredients”, “high quality”, “amazing”, “truly great”, “one of the best in town”, that the toppings were “fresh” and the condiments “flavorful”, and that the red onion gastrique particularly was a “revelation”. Those comments are spread throughout the review, but they’re in there. I said that my Bourgeois fries smelled “tantalizing” and that I “loved the flavor from the very first bite”. The only negative comments I had were directed at their standard regular-cut russet fries, and I never said that they were inedible, just that they failed to live up to the hype. It seems to me that some of the people who read that review, for whatever reason retained only the negative comments. I don’t think the BFC owner is one of those. He’s just a guy who’s proud of his business, what it produces and what he’s accomplished, and that is an honorable thing and worth commending. From what I read in the message he sent me, I can’t help but like the guy, and that fact will be added to the list of reasons I’ll make a return trip. However, it’s not the top reason. Truth be told, I just plain like french fries and I know the place can put out good food. I want the fry experience that I keep hearing and reading about from all the people who can’t stop gushing about the place, and maybe I’ll get it. Hopefully I will. Either way, I’ll write about it honestly.