Restaurant criticism is at a crossroads. Over eight short days in July 2018, Jonathan Gold died, Michael Bauer stepped down from his position at The San Francisco Chronicle, and gastronomes officially closed the book on an era of food writing. Now a new chapter has begun. Within just six months, three politically savvy women of color were hired as restaurant critics at institutional newspapers. Soleil Ho at the Chronicle. Patricia Escárcega at The Los Angeles Times. And, perhaps the most perceptive in this critical triumvirate, Tejal Rao, who in August 2018 became the first-ever California restaurant critic at The New York Times.
Earning her stripes at The Village Voice and Bloomberg, Rao has imbued fresh style and purpose into the hidebound genre since arriving at the Times in 2016. Her prose melds a poet’s tongue and a populist’s spirit: she writes of French Laundry’s gaudy presentation, “In the Trump era, gold seems a bit too eager to assert its value.” Born in London to immigrants from Kenya and India, Rao expands the range of standard topics, frequently covering women and working-class cooks, who are often excluded by the field’s fine-dining bias. Her articles explore a hybrid style of food reportage—half investigative journalism, half human-interest—such as her James Beard Award–winning column, in which she shadowed a halal cart owner for twelve hours. She has a novelist’s gift for observation, and small details from her writing stay with you—like the quiet but blistering fact that the halal vendor could have only one cup of coffee a day without risking a bathroom emergency.
A memorable 2019 column focuses on Poncho’s Tlayudas, a Friday-night pop-up in South Los Angeles outside the offices of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations. Poncho’s serves Oaxacan fare such as a blood sausage called moronga and the namesake tlayudas—a toasted tortilla topped with beans, lard, and other tasty bits that earns the dubious moniker of “Mexican pizza.” But such analogies are often an excuse not to learn about a cuisine. In antidote to this culinary blindness, her review paints the dual stories of a restaurant and a population—as outlining the process of making a tlayuda becomes a vessel for resurrecting the social history of Oaxacan immigrants in LA. In short, Rao shows us history we can taste.
Rao initially declined to pick an article for this interview’s focus, but when I suggested one she countered with a curt email noting that her column on Poncho’s seemed “more interesting.” This quiet insistence is characteristic. We sat down to talk about the tlayuda, but our conversation quickly expanded into a larger discussion of criticism and California.
THE BELIEVER: How did you pick this particular restaurant to review? Did it start with the food or the story?
TEJAL RAO: I guess it always starts with one or the other. In this case, I was interested in the tlayuda and blood sausage as a recipe for my column. There’s such a specificity to the dish. It requires so much skill—the tlayuda itself, which is big and thin and crinkly and delicate, comes from artisans in Oaxaca who are masters of this form. And then making the blood sausage is an all-in process that starts with fresh pigs’ blood. So the more I learned about Alfonso Martinez and how he does it, the more I realized this wasn’t something I could get most New York Times readers to make at home. So I dumped the idea of a recipe column to do something longer and more in-depth, and that could hopefully reach more people.
BLVR: Your reviews have focused more on the larger population of producers behind a restaurant than on the chef’s individual creative vision—the chef as lonely-genius-on-the-mountaintop. Why did you make that editorial choice?
TR: That idea feels really out-of-date and really dangerous—the notion that there’s just one creative genius behind the art. That’s not how films work. That’s not how plays work. And that’s not how restaurants work. Sure, there’s somebody at the top, but it’s strange to give only one person credit. I have definitely written stories that do that, but I’m trying to move away from it and look at the restaurant as a cultural artifact—which means looking more carefully at all the pieces and people involved in it.
BLVR: Do you look for restaurants that make a political statement?
TR: I don’t look for them on purpose. But I think once you start to research a restaurant, they’re all making some kind of statement. They’re all engaged in the culture in some way, even if it’s by ignoring politics. Trying to be neutral is a way of being political.
BLVR: How do you approach writing ledes? The opening paragraphs of many reviews feel self-evidently “well written,” as though the critic sat down and thought, It’s time to write a badass paragraph.
TR: I started writing on the internet first and later for newspapers. These are two very different spaces, but when you’re writing for both, you can’t help becoming conscious of the fact that your readers have other places to be. There are so many shiny things to read and watch all the time. I know a reader is going to leave me if those first few sentences are bad or boring—or if any sentences are bad or boring. So I write like I might lose them.
BLVR: Do you think there’s any difference when you’re describing a non-Western dish that people may be less familiar with? When you’re describing a tlayuda rather than a soufflé?
TR: I think you should bring your same skills to both things. I don’t imagine that I’m writing for a forty-year-old white man who’s never had a tlayuda—or who’s just as likely to have never eaten a soufflé. I don’t have that person in my head, so I just want to be as precise as possible.
BLVR: How should we write about “ethnic,” non-Western cooking differently from how we currently are?
TR: I always wonder: “We” who? How are we currently writing about it?
BLVR: Um, that’s a good question. I apologize for falling victim to the universal “we”! [Laughs] I guess I see a lot of non-Western cuisines being put into “cheap eats” columns or top-ten lists as opposed to getting their own individual features. There’s less attention to exploring their whole cuisines. While a lot of young eaters are fluent in Asian and Latin cuisines, I am not as familiar with dishes like tlayudas as I am with Italian and French recipes, which I have a passing familiarity with. But do you try to write about non-Western cooking in the same way that you would approach something like French cuisine?
TR: Maybe not in the same way. But when I’m writing a piece about, let’s say, Indian food or any kind of immigrant cuisine, I think: Do I want to use the word as it is? Do I want to translate it? Do I want to put the translation in parentheses? All those tiny grammatical decisions do so much work in “othering” the food or centering it. They also say something about who you’re speaking to and who you’re not speaking to. I don’t think there’s one rule to apply to all stories. For every story, within the confines of that article, you have to figure out the best, most elegant, clear, and respectful way to discuss that given food. How do you center that food and the people making it, rather than saying, “It’s like a pancake”—
BLVR: —or a Mexican pizza.
TR: Yeah. How do you let it be its own thing? How do you tell a story where the people who make it are at the center without using lazy comparisons that are not very useful to the reader?
BLVR: I hadn’t thought about the way that punctuating or italicizing a food can “other” it.
TR: All those things matter. It does make a difference. Now, I don’t believe there’s one way to do it every time, but trying to be thoughtful about those decisions is definitely part of your responsibility as a critic.
BLVR: How important is conveying a sense of place in your reviews? Do you think it takes on a different role when you’re describing California rather than New York restaurants?
TR: Yeah, ideally the restaurant is inseparable from where it is. So that should be part of the story. But there are definitely restaurants you go into and you feel like you’re on a spaceship. You’re not in California and you’re not in New York—you’re in some strange, science fiction space that’s been really carefully designed to make you feel a certain way.
BLVR: Was there any particular sense of place you were trying to convey when writing about Poncho’s?
TR: Poncho’s is such a special place because people from the Oaxacan community in Los Angeles get together there every week. It’s like a party on a Friday night. It’s also a place where activists gather and organize, because it’s in the backyard of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, run by Odilia Romero. So people eat dinner there, but last year workers also got ready for the hearings about legalizing sidewalk vending. Most of the time when you go to a restaurant, you have the feeling of being in a space where you’re exchanging money for food. Poncho’s is more like going into someone’s home.
BLVR: You focus many of your columns on traditionally ignored members of the food economy—often women, people of color, and working-class cooks. What subjects do you think people should be writing more about in food journalism?
TR: Water sovereignty. Labor conditions. I feel like we should be doing more investigative reporting and maybe a little bit less service—not less; it’s important, too, just more investigating in addition to the stuff we already see. It’s hard to be in California right now and not think about water all the time. Every story is a water story. Every story is a climate story.
BLVR: When I was looking at your articles, I wasn’t sure if the column about Poncho’s Tlayudas was a review or a Critic’s Notebook. It’s really a hybrid piece.
TR: It is. We are using those tags very loosely, and I don’t know what they mean. When it’s a review, the address information is in a certain place, and when it’s a Critic’s Notebook, it’s in another space. But I bring the same level of care to both, and I just write the way that feels right for the story.
BLVR: How do you find fresh ways to describe food?
TR: It’s just an exhausting, horrible exercise that never ends. [Laughs] But it can be really fun. If you’re genuinely excited about something, finding the right words—like precisely the right words—is really rewarding. It’s like writing a tiny little poem.
BLVR: How long do you spend researching the cuisine of a restaurant before writing about it? How long did you spend researching Poncho’s?
TR: When I first started writing about food, if a cuisine was new to me I’d get several cookbooks and other books to read while I was working on a column, and interview people too. But should I add that research time now when I’m working on a story about the same cuisine? I still do research as I go, but it’s cumulative, it’s building. With Poncho’s, I spent some weeks interviewing people and reading before I filed, but I was also working on other stories at the same time, because I’m always working on a few pieces at once. Also, sometimes the research for one story informs another one, even if it seems unrelated, and I don’t really know how to measure that.
BLVR: What words do you think should be retired from food criticism?
TR: I have a running list of what I consider goofy, generally useless words. When I read them, they just grate on me. I don’t believe in banning them entirely. People should use the words they like. But unless they’re used carefully, they tend to be pretty cliché or imprecise.
Some of these are words of genius or words of—I don’t know exactly what to call it, bloodline: bad boy, brainchild, love child, pedigree, or wizard (unless referring to an actual wizard!). I know a better writer could make some of these work, but unless it makes sense to use them, I’ve been trying to avoid words of contamination and adulteration in descriptions, like spiked, laced, dosed, fixed, and infectious (unless referring to actual infections).
BLVR: Why did you forgo the traditional four-star rating system [used by The New York Times since 1963]?
TR: I think it functions as a kind of shorthand for readers. I don’t want them to see two stars and then not read the review and think that it means something it doesn’t. You can communicate so much more nuance in the writing.
BLVR: I feel it does carry this sort of implicit class barrier—in the sense that even the best taqueria cannot get four stars, because that’s reserved for Michael Mina or a Michelin-starred restaurant.
TR: It was a big conversation with my editors before I started: Should we use stars or should we not? And I really pushed for not using them. Pete [Wells] uses them. Ligaya [Mishan] doesn’t use them. I think there’s a certain weight attached to reviews that have stars, and the critic who produces those reviews is considered more powerful. I didn’t want it to seem like I was ceding that power, which a few people warned me against. But I also don’t really care about that perception: I mean of whether I appear powerful or not. I just want to do the work.