The Critic's Notebook: Not All Food Is Good

We have the best job ever, but we have to take the bad with the delicious.

By Alice Levitt October 6, 2016

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Image: Shutterstock

Yesterday, I reheated an enchilada in the office microwave. This doesn't happen a lot. Most days, it's my duty to be out reporting an interesting meal during lunchtime, but it was a quiet day and I had writing to do.

A Houstonia editorial intern was also in the kitchen and he saw the pitiful thing on my plate. He thought it was a taco. In fact, it was a mash of unseasoned chicken, lackluster beans and serviceable yellow rice, all choked with hardened cheese. When I ate it fresh the day before, I felt slightly ill for a few hours. But it was in the fridge, and whenever possible, I keep in mind Pope Francis' statement that “Throwing away food is like stealing from the table of those who are poor and hungry.” The homeless and I have a symbiotic relationship (I hope the gentleman begging on Westheimer today liked his soup dumplings), but when I can't find them, I try to make it a habit to eat my own darn leftovers.

Like most people who aren't full-time restaurant critics, the intern had assumed my meals were all glamour. And much of the time, they are. It's not so uncommon to do a tasting of a new local ice cream brand, then eat my way through a steakhouse's menu, all before dinner at an Afghan spot in Little India. That's my life, and it's awesome. If my childhood self could see what my days look like, she would be mightily impressed, at least once she got over the blow that I'm not playing Eponine on Broadway or dealing with ancient bones as a paleopathologist.

But when he saw my pitiful lunch yesterday, that intern asked me if I would eat at one of Guy Fieri's restaurants. I legitimately didn't understand the question. Yes, the King of Flavortown is universally known for unpalatable excess, but the idea of not eating at any restaurant or not sampling any dish simply didn't compute. It is my job to be a human garbage disposal, no questions asked.

Yes, I generally choose the restaurants at which I eat, but it's not usually due to my personal preferences. Same thing with ordering. Yes, I often get dishes because they sound appealing to me, but just as often, I order because it's the restaurant's signature or because I imagine readers will be interested. Sometimes, those things sound downright abhorrent to me until I try them. The best result is being won over. The worst is I take a few bites and end up sharing the leftovers with my officemates or a new homeless pal.

A few months ago, I was reporting a story that involved going to a Japanese restaurant out in the Copperfield area. A friend who works nearby joined me and had a rude awakening. The food was lackluster at best, which I admitted I expected. He hung his head, looking slightly deflated before he told me, "It never occurred to me before that not everything you eat is good." Even the best job in the world is still a job —and like all things in life, it comes with a full range of experiences, I explained. And it's my role to know it all: delicious, not-so-delicious and food poisoning.

I said it. It happens. More than you think. Often at otherwise excellent restaurants. And usually, I don't hold it against them too much, just as I overlook minor variations in quality. I often tell chefs, "You're working with organic matter—it's never going to be exactly the same." If the food is poorly prepared and makes me sick, that's a different matter.

But more often, I'm just left feeling slightly unpleasant, as I did after eating the sad enchilada. My idea of "slightly unpleasant" might be worse than yours after losing my gallbladder to my job, of course. Light nausea or gas are nothing compared to heart attack-like pain that regularly kept me up all night for months. That was my fault, of course, the folly of a girl who had grown up being cheered for eating the whole plate of bulgogi, then everyone else's. When you're eating out every meal, you end up either gaining 50 pounds in five years or learning to control yourself. I did the former before I moved on to the latter. But more on that another time. 

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