Jerry Weinberger distills one of Cowen’s key points:
Small mom-and-pop ethnic enterprises tend to enjoy what he calls a “cross subsidy”—that is, family members, masters of their cuisine, cook and serve for free. Such establishments are more likely to be found in outer suburbs or on the grungy side of town. That’s because rent, a fixed cost, is cheap in those areas, and that makes the food cheap. Again, that’s been known for a long time. But I’ve never seen it observed that from this principle, one can deduce that, all other things being equal, you’ll dine better in New York on an east-west street than on a north-south avenue.
Cowen promotes pockets of ethnic food in suburban strip malls. His experience shopping at Great Wall, a Chinese grocery store in Fairfax, Virginia:
The most striking difference, other than having lots of Chinese food, is how much of the store is devoted to greens. Once you push your cart through the door, those are the first things you see, and lots of them. They’re fresh and cheap, and there’s a more attractive selection than in any other area supermarket. … Once I started shopping at Great Wall, I began to eat more greens, and to enjoy them more. I never had to tell myself they would ward off cancer, make the earth a better place, help me lose weight, or ease animal cruelty. I wanted to eat them, and the purchases felt virtually free of charge, given the low prices. I could try any new and unknown green without investing much money.
But he offers two surprising foods on the rise in the DC area – hamburgers and pizza:
Right now, in this area, we’re at a very high plateau with ethnic food, which is great. I don’t see a single cuisine really on the march, the way Ethiopian food was in the 80s. Or Bolivian was about 10 years ago. But in terms of some transformative development, I’m seeing hamburgers, pizza and good fast food. The Chipotle revolution is turning out to be real.