I spent the better part of seven years as a restaurant critic at the Chicago Tribune, where I was given the opportunity to chronicle the city’s cheap eats scene (the newspaper’s longtime lead critic, Phil Vettel, gets to eat at the fancy white tablecloth places, which was more than fine by me). The best part of that job wasn’t the food, it was telling people at parties what you did for a living. It was a novel job; it boosted my fragile ego. Because after six months of dining out four times a week, I realized: Restaurant criticism is a complete fucking slog.
Problem one (and perhaps this spoke more of my anti-social tendencies) but finding friends who want to eat on the company dime was—for me—much tougher than it seemed. I was approaching the age where people were having kids, and finding three spare hours on a weeknight for them was a Christmas present. Problem one plays directly into problem two: If you end up dining by yourself or with one other person, ordering four extra entrees to get a fuller representation of the menu looks 1) weird, 2) like flashing red arrows pointing to a restaurant critic who’s ordering everything off the menu (I suppose the two aren’t mutually exclusive). Problem three is how you feel afterward. In addition to being overstuffed with food, you’re overstuffed with dull pains and despair.
This was an overly long preamble to say that if I were ever to tackle food criticism again (highly unlikely), I would approach the job like two enterprising critics recently profiled in the news: Both are chroniclers of tacos in their respective cities. And unlike the hand-jobby, writing-to-win-a-food-journalism-award, purple-prosed paeans to expensive restaurants with marketing budgets, reviewing taquerias actually sound useful for the everyday consumer.
First, there’s Mike Sutter, critic for the San Antonio Express-News, whose 2017 mission was to consume 365 taquerias in 365 days. God bless Mike Sutter. Even after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer in October, Sutter was back on the job three days after surgery. His taco count for 2017 is at 1,300 and counting, and more importantly, Sutter is cancer-free. Read more about Sutter’s adventure at NPR.
Also blowing past the 1,000-taco mark is Titus Ruscitti, profiled in the December issue of Chicago magazine. Entering Ruscitti’s blog means being hit with a kaleidoscope of asada and al pastor images, each accompanied by a pithy paragraph of tasting notes. The Chicago magazine story is worth a read, but one particular passage stood out, a piece of advice from a true taco connoisseur:
When in doubt, order the first item [on the menu]. “I do believe that nine times out of 10, the best taco will be listed first,” he says.
Live your best life, gentlemen. From a former restaurant critic who’s grown too cynical for his liking, consider me envious and in awe.