May 31, 2005

I Ain't Nothin' But a Chowhound

Like a dog, I'm always thinking about when and where my next meal is coming from. I like to think I'm a bit more discriminating about what food I shovel in my mouth than the average canine. I've always been willing to go out of my way for food. In my college days, I drove hundreds of miles out of my way to eat barbecue in Kansas City. I once drove two hours just to try a plain doughnut in Rutland, Vermont (it was worth it).

On the web, you can find fetishists of all stripes, so it's no surprise that there are many websites catering to those whose passion is eating well. My favorite site, where I spend an inordinate amount of time reading and participating, is Chowhound. The site was started by Jim Leff, a musician and ex-food critic, who wanted to serve a community of hounds who "live to eat."

The heart and soul of the site are the message boards, which feature restaurant tips ranging from effete French boites in New York City to lobster shacks in Maine to street vendors in Bangkok. Chowhounds debate the relative glories of Oreos versus Hydrox cookies or whether it's necessary to tip when picking up takeout food. Any time I travel, I read about the chow opportunities in the area; if I can't find what I'm looking for, I request help from my fellow Hounds, and they are generous with their knowledge. Reading the reports, rantings, and recommendations on Chowhound can be entertaining even if you're reading about far-flung places you may never see in the flesh. The Chowhound knowledge base extends all over the world, although, come to think of it, I haven't read anything about the food in Antarctica.

Jim Leff encourages fellow Chowhounds to discover great food themselves, rather than relying on restaurant critics or food guides. That's one reason why the first two Chowhound books (which cover the New York Tristate and San Francisco area) are different from most other restaurant guides. The "critics" are the users of Chowhound. The restaurants aren't ranked. Often there will be no mention of the ambience or service of eateries. The focus is on food, and the assumption is that if you read that a a Mexican place serves great carne asada tacos, you might poke around and find out what else is worth eating there. The guides aren't comprehensive, but they are full of great ideas -- they inspire you to explore. I've lived in New York City for more than 25 years, yet I found scores of places that I've not only never visited, but never heard of.

I highly recommend the website and these guides. If you use this link, Chowhound will receive a little cut of the proceeds from Amazon, which is selling the books cheaper than any place I've found.