That's the question -- or, rather, series of questions -- that arose at a recent dinner.
My friends and I had chosen a new-ish Tex-Mex restaurant that night and the chips and salsa that arrived first were appallingly bad. So bad, in fact, that we were left dreading the rest of the meal. And as expected, what followed was one of the worst dinners I've had all year, Tex-Mex or otherwise.
Are chips and salsa at a Tex-Mex restaurant an overall indicator of quality? Quite often, yes.
I know a few places where the chips and salsa are unmemorable although the rest of the food is terrific (Los Dos Amigos, for example) -- but I also know places where the chips and salsa are perfectly reasonable yet the food is awful. Still, these places are outliers on the bell curve of overall quality, and chips and salsa remain my bellwether for gauging a restaurant from the start.
The discussion over dinner quickly turned to other establishments: How do you judge a cocktail bar? A coffee shop? A food truck?
My friends and I compared and contrasted our own litmus tests and came to some fairly distinct conclusions. To broaden the pool a bit, I also polled my rough thousand friends on Facebook as to how they judge ten different establishments -- a cocktail bar, a beer bar, a wine bar, a Tex-Mex restaurant, a French restaurant, a sushi restaurant, a food truck, a bakery, a coffee shop and a burger joint -- and received a slew of responses.
The results are here, but I want to hear your own ideas in the comments section below.
Judge a Tex-Mex restaurant by its chips and salsa.
Are the chips stale? Too thick or too thin? Is the salsa too watery, too bland, too heavy on inappropriate spices like garlic? Does it taste like a jar of Pace salsa dumped into a ramekin? These are all indications that your meal ahead may be rough.
Alternate answers: Cheese enchiladas, how expensive the fajitas are (anything over $20 is an automatic disqualifier), guacamole, queso, tortillas (made in house is preferable by far), margaritas
Judge a cocktail bar by its martini.
If the bartender asks you what kind of vodka you want in your martini, leave. Just get up and leave.
Alternate answers: Manhattan (and whether or not the bar has rye whiskey), whether or not the bartender can make you a simple bitters and soda, whether or not there's a dress code (if there is -- again -- leave), knowledge of the staff, the colors of the bar's signature cocktails -- are they colors found in nature?
Judge a sushi restaurant by its sushi rice.
Good sushi rice is hard to find. Is the rice bland? Does it stick to your fingers like glue? Does it fall apart when you touch it? Does it even look like sushi rice, or just some Uncle Ben's that the kitchen found at the store? If the restaurant doesn't care about its rice -- the most basic component of sushi -- it won't care as much about its fish.
Alternate answers: Ratio of rolls to actual sushi or sashimi (more rolls usually indicates lower quality fish that the restaurant is trying to disguise), sashimi, tamago (if the restaurant can make tamago and make it well, the chef can probably make everything that good), whether or not the restaurant carries cuts like collar or belly, availability of real wasabi
Judge a coffee shop by its lattes.
Has any effort or care been put into the foam on top of your latte? Is there even any foam on there? Is the latte all milk and no espresso? Is the espresso burnt and bitter-tasting?
Alternate answers: Plain espresso, the espresso machine itself, roast and/or bean selection, ratio of sugary frozen and blended drinks to actual coffee, friendliness of baristas, whether or not the employees refer to themselves as baristas (this can, but doesn't always, indicate how much they care about the quality of their product), choice of music
Judge a burger joint by its meat.
Is the patty frozen and pre-formed? Will the restaurant cook the meat to order for you? These are the main questions you should be asking at any burger joint worth its buns.
Alternate answers: Symmetrical, non-lopsided burgers (you should get a little of everything in one bite), quality of produce, fries and/or onion rings, crowds (a good burger joint should usually have one during the lunch and/or dinner rushes), bun
Judge a French restaurant by its offal.
If there isn't at least a piece of liver on the menu in some way, shape or form, get out. You're eating at a faux French restaurant.
Alternate answers: Butter, wine list, pâté, bread, steak tartare
Judge a bakery by its baguettes.
For God's sake, the French take this so seriously that their baguettes are regulated by law: The bread can only contain flour, water, salt and yeast and must weigh no less than 350 grams. This most simple of breads should have a thin, crispy crust and have what's generally called an "open crumb structure" inside -- neither too thick and dense nor too soft and light.
Alternate answers: Whether or not the sourdough has a mother, how frequently the bread is baked, whether or not the bread is baked on site, whether or not preservatives are used, icing quality on cakes, whether or not it offers seasonal specialties
Judge a wine bar by how much its employees know about wine.
This seems so simple, and yet so many wine bars simply staff up with TABC-certified kids who can't tell you the difference between Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. If the staff doesn't know wine, its wine list won't be any good, the pours will be off and the wine will be stored at the wrong temperatures -- among other things.
Alternate answers: Depth and breadth of wine list, eccentric or unusual selections, wine-by-the-glass selection, markup over retail, temperature in the storage area
Judge a food truck by its social media presence.
Does this seem stupid? It shouldn't. Food trucks rarely post up in the same space from day to day, so it's not as though you can drive by a truck's regular spot and check its hours, menu or anything else. The best way for a food truck to keep in touch with its guests is via Twitter or Facebook, interacting with them and answering questions like "Do you take cards?" and "Where can I find you this week?" If the truck can't be bothered to maintain these simplest of accounts and let hungry people know where they are each day and what they're serving -- in other words, maintain a steady stream of business for itself -- how much could the truck really care about its food?
Alternate answers: Cost (how much is too much to pay for a hot dog?), originality of menu, food neither too boring nor too obscure, how long it takes to receive your order
Judge a beer bar by its selection.
What is the percentage of big macro beers on the wall? Slim to none? You're in a good spot. Sit tight.
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Alternate answers: How knowledgeable the staff is, proper pours, proper glassware, amount of heavy wooden furniture inside, ratio of normal men to dudebros, markup over retail, cask selection, clean lines (no funky-tasting beer), availability of local beers
We'll do another How To Judge post next week, so let us know your suggestions. Pizza places? Barbecue joints? Italian restaurants? Grocery stores? We'll judge them all!