Tuesday, January 09, 2007

How Do I Determine Which Taqueria To Try?

This is a post I wrote about a year ago for now-stalled (failed?) blogging project. I haven't made any great taqueria discoveries since, but I can't say I've tried too hard (unlike this guy). Burrito Corner in Mountain View has some pretty good options for the area. (I must admit that I actually really like Chipotle.) As for the information problem, Yelp is helping with review aggregation, and the reinvigorated Chowhound has led to some really delicious eats, such as Gregoire in Berkeley last weekend.

I've just completed my fifth month of living in California. Given the stated purpose of this blog to be about perspectives of young East Coasters just moved to the Bay Area, and given that my largest personal interest right now is food, I thought I'd write down some thoughts on California food that I've gathered over the past five months.

Firstly, the produce is great. I don't have an organic fetish by any means, but I appreciate having so many local farmer's markets for specialty fruits and vegetables. I also frequent the Milk Pail in Mountain View for amazingly cheap basic produce and Trader Joe's for Whole Foods-like products at sub-Safeway prices.

Secondly, Silicon Valley has many ethnic restaurants, and it's been a pleasure trying new ones as often as I can afford.

This brings me to my question: how do I determine which taqueria to try? And, perhaps more importantly, how do I know what to get once I'm there? (This question of course applies to all cheap ethnic restaurants, but I will use taquerias as my example because of their California preeminence.)

There are literally dozens of taquerias within a short drive of where I live. I've tried a few so far, but to be honest I don't have the time or the money to sample the goods at dozens of places to determine my favorite tacos al pastor or carnitas burrito.

One traditional guide for dining advice is the local newspaper food columnist, but the kind of ethnic places I'm seeking are generally ignored by the dining section.

In contrast, the democracy of the internet would seem to be the perfect filter for the kind of information I'm looking for. One website that has become a first stop whenever I'm seeking food advice is Chowhound , a public message board of food reviews that often focuses on local favorites. However, Chowhound is a pain to navigate and it takes a lot of effort to distill advice from the message threads.

Perhaps a trusted expert is the right solution? When I lived in the Washington, D.C. area this past summer, I had great success following the advice of Tyler Cowen and his ethnic dining guide, but I haven't yet found anything so comprehensive or reliable out here.

Essentially, there is an information problem. I am seeking knowledge on local taquerias, but there is really no easy way for me to make the best ex ante decision. I can only rely on advice and intuition, and thus I will inevitably make mistakes in my eating choices.

I have several thoughts:

1. Very basic economic theory assumes that individuals only make purchases when the expected utility exceeds the expected cost. I make purchasing mistakes more often than I want to, and thus if I made better decisions my total utility would be greater. Review sites like epinions help, but it is still too much effort to become fully informed, and thus I remain rationally ignorant.

2. It is fun to discover a great restaurant. I would lose the pleasure of the search if I knew the answer ahead of time.

3. Is it possible to objectively determine the "best" taqueria? Of course not, but I do believe it is possible to categorize certain taquerias as being objectively exceptional. Determining which of these exceptional taquerias is the best is the subjective decision. My goal in the taqueria search is to narrow the local list down from dozens to the handful that are worth exploring. The internet has made this quest easier for me than for previous generations, but it is still too difficult.

I would categorize this taqueria dilemma as a "good problem". My arteries may beg to differ, but I am better off for having so many taqueria choices.


The Frugal Law Student said...

When I lived in Tijuana the way I determined whether to eat at a particular taqueria was 1) if I saw a huge line of people eating tacos at that stand, 2) the price-the cheaper the more tacos I could eat, and 3) whether they gave you one or two corn tortillas in your taco.

John V said...

Good advice for sure - I'm presuming that you preferred two corn tortillas? Unless you were going low-carb of course...

Coriat said...

This are the 10 best taquerias in Mexico city:


Coriat said...

This are the 10 best taquerias in Mexico city:


Enjoy them.