If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
The post-punk-turned-food-critic on New York City’s varied cuisine.
For over thirty years, Robert Sietsema has traveled the foodways of New York City, hopping on subways, bikes, or otherwise hoofing it across the boroughs in an ongoing, and seemingly never-ending, quest to catalog the staggering variety of cuisines served in the city’s restaurants. Fresh out of a graduate English program in Wisconsin, Sietsema arrived on the Lower East Side in 1977, quickly forming the post-punk band Mofungo, and, by the late ’80s, adopting the punk form of the fanzine to self-publish—Xerox and all—Down the Hatch, his dispatches from the ninety-nine percent of New York City restaurants he estimated professional critics were ignoring. In 1993 the Village Voice hired him to be their food critic, a position he held until 2011, when he moved his signature columns to Eater.
Sietsema often writes in a laidback, consumer-focused style, but lurking behind this friendly veneer is a serious underground edge best typified by the devil’s mask he dons in photographs and at public appearances to protect his identity as an anonymous critic. So perhaps it was fitting, then, that Sietsema suggested we meet in the semi-subterranean environs of Williamsburg’s London Tandoori, a new Balti-focused restaurant he was scoping out. Shorn of his satanic mask, he bounded down the steps and into restaurant, ready to eat.
Robert Sietsema Let me note that on the table right now there’s a dish of chopped onions, some sort of pickle, a raita, and another sauce that I don’t quite recognize. (Tastes the sauce.) Oh, but it’s thick and sweet. So maybe it’s a tamarind sauce. And there are two sad little papadums, rolled up and cringing in their basket.
Michael Blair How did you hear about this place?
RS Somebody sent me a tip by email, which is one way I get them. Whether the person was a disinterested soul who lives in the neighborhood or some shill for the restaurant, I don’t know. If you were a British or Pakistani expat, I could see being excited about this place because it offers Balti cooking. Balti just means “bucket,” and most of the food is cooked in a wok with handles that is also called a Balti. Are you okay if I just order a bunch of stuff for us?
MB Definitely. How often does an anonymous tip lead to something you check out?
RS I’d say I’ve been warned over email or Twitter about maybe a quarter to a third of the places I hit. The best way to find restaurants, though, is just to go cold turkey into a neighborhood where you haven’t been in a while and walk up and down the streets marveling at how many places you didn’t know about.
Occasionally, I’m also assigned something by my editors. Recently, it was this place called SoHo Diner. As real diners that provide vernacular food at cheap prices are closing, all these fake diners have opened up where they reinvent the diner menu for their own nefarious purposes. In other words, you can’t get just a veal cutlet anymore. It’s got to be covered with some special sauce and garnished with some special pickle.
MB I’m curious about your “Sandwich of the Week” column, which has been running for about a year now. Does it come out of a subversive desire to take down those souped-up veal cutlets and luxury, twenty-eight-dollar burgers?
RS The beauty of the sandwich-based column is that it can naturally extoll cheaper food. And it’s also a vehicle for talking about cultures other than European ones. I began with an essay about the Earl of Sandwich and how it’s bullshit that he actually invented the sandwich. I mean, he may have popularized a certain kind of sandwich, but the sandwich itself is something that’s been invented across the globe in various forms.
MB In 2010, you wrote an essay in the Columbia Journalism Review that, among other things, traces how far the culture of dining out has come since you first moved to New York City in the late 1970s. Eating in restaurants, you point out, has gone from something most people did somewhat infrequently to becoming one of our primary forms of cultural entertainment.
MB Of course, that’s great for a lot of reasons. But you also talk about how it’s creating a boom-and-bust cycle for restaurants, where “novelty and buzz is valued above excellence.”
RS Things have only slid downhill since 2010. About ninety percent of food writing is still publicist driven. A writer receives a press release by email and then proceeds to follow up on that story, and, in the sadder cases, almost copies the press release. It’s disappointing because food is such a broad and rich category.
But food as a fad—it will come to an end. I can think of many different ways it could happen, some of them cataclysmic. Already the coronavirus has had such a profound effect on New York dining. Chinatown has been emptied of its devotees, leaving many places that were already on the verge of dissolution due to small profit margins in an even more precarious position.
(Food is served.)
MBYou’ve often cited the influence of the consumerist movement in your writing.
RSI like to talk of myself as the only living anonymous critic. You’ll see afterward that I’ll pay for the meal with cash, because I don’t want people to know the name on the credit card. Most critics go into a restaurant wanting to be recognized or to telegraph that they’re critics. I’d prefer that the people who run this place thought I was a novelist or something like that.
MB Just someone passionate about documenting their meal with a badass digital camera.
RS Yeah, or just a nut dictating a letter to my mother back in Austin.
This food is pretty spicy! That is a good sign.
MB You grew up in the upper Midwest in the ’50s and ’60s. Was food the same source of obsession for you as a kid?
RS It was a source of upset. Even though my father was a food chemist, who worked for Pillsbury and eventually Frito-Lay, our tastes in food were very Midwestern and conservative. We’d have a roast beef cooked to a cinder on Sundays. I’m fond of saying I never had a potato until I got to New York. I had instant mashed potatoes, shaken from a box.
MB Talking about the Midwest brings up Kansas City’s own Calvin Trillin, who famously championed the barbeque and cheeseburgers of his hometown. How important to you were books like his American Fried (1974)?
RS Even going back further than Trillin, there was A. J. Liebling. Both Jonathan Gold and I did pretty much the same thing, which was to come to writers like Liebling through reading Trillin. They were the ones who established the prose style that we followed—that flat, matter-of-fact observation. The cultural references we added ourselves, due to over-education. Gold and I had the same idea as Trillin—that we should look beyond the fancy stuff to the food regular people eat.
MB You and Gold both started writing in the late ’80s, but independently in New York and Los Angeles, respectively.
RS We eventually found each other and became close friends, but we arrived at many of the same conclusions on our own. I think Los Angeles has always had more pride in its vernacular food. Jonathan’s explanation was that food remained static there longer—that because Los Angeles is nothing more than a tangle of freeways, you could have things that flourished over a period of decades in a single spot, whereas New Yorkers are always moving around. That was his theory, but I don’t know if I believe it, because both places have equally good food.
MB Do you think New York food tends to be more of a mash-up of cuisines because people are living on top of each other here?
RS Yeah, and that’s a strength. We have many more people and many more immigrants. But it all goes back to real estate.
MB This cross-cultural flow is something you’re always tracking. Lately, you seem to be particularly fascinated with hot dogs, finding them at old-school stands in Jersey City, but also at Chilean restaurants in Corona, stacked on “Super Tortas” in Hell’s Kitchen, and on flame-grilled kebabs at Uyghur restaurants in Flushing.
RS Hot dogs have been migrating. Now I’m seeing them in Chinese pastries, too. Gold always extolled the Mexican under-the-freeway hot dog, wrapped in bacon and cooked in lard. One of the reasons I think Gold and I were able to do what we did was due to the repeal of immigration policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act. In the latter half of the twenthieth century, America had many more Chinese immigrants coming over and bringing with them such a wonder of different cuisines. All of the sudden you could say, Well, my god, they’re eating sauerkraut in Dongbei. Where the hell did that come from? Is it derived from something in Korea on the border? Or is it from Huangdao, where there was a German mini-colony?
In other words, the food of the world has always been fusion food, and the idea of a pure cuisine is bullshit. Everyone has been stealing everyone else’s food forever, going back millennia. I mean, we’re in a goddamn English restaurant, and we’re eating curries. And London has added its own spin; did you notice how much sugar was in these? That’s such an English thing. This shrimp pasanda is sweet as fuck. I’d spread it on my pancakes.
MBYou’ve also been writing about restaurant chains from other countries that are coming to New York for the first time, like Korean fried chicken or Chinese hot pot places, which is kind of cool.
RSIt’s totally cool!
MBBut it’s also not signaling the best news for independent places like where we’re eating now.
RSThat’s right. The little ma-and-pa restaurant is almost a thing of the past, except the real estate is so vast in New York that people still find ways. But these fast-casual spots have taken over, and it’s through an economy of scale that they’ve been able to do so. They are these horrible places where you pay fifteen dollars for this meager bowl, and you squat down like a medieval peasant eating with your fingers in the field. Then you offer them a handsome tip and bus your own table, you know, like an obedient little serf.
But once again, the Age of Foodism is going to end. All of this stuff can’t but have its effect cumulatively. People are going to be off their feet and working remotely; they’re not going to think that eating out is a good use of their time. It may be that the generation after millennials, people in their teens now, are just so tired of their parents being obsessed with food that they’ll turn away. We’ve already seen that with things like Soylent.
RSThe fast-casual places are the only restaurants that can stay open. Even at the fancy restaurants, the profit margins are too low. I mean, who wants to blow six hundred dollars for you and a friend to go eat sushi? All of the writing and publicity you read about food is being produced by people that are getting it for free, basically. People don’t really want to go to that twee restaurant in Prospect Heights, except for maybe a few Wall Street people or whatever. Even this modest meal tonight cost us a hundred dollars. Fifty dollars is the minimum you can pay to sit in a restaurant and not be pestered, and who can who can pay fifty dollars every night? But this food absolutely rocks.
MBIt seems to be getting better with each bite.
RSOh, yeah. It’s changing as it sits there. We haven’t even touched the condiments. We didn’t need to.
Robert Seitsema’s review of London Tandoori will be published on Eater next week.
Michael Blair is a contributing editor at BOMB and the co-author, with Joe Bucciero, of a book on Young Marble Giants’ Colossal Youth (Bloomsbury, 2017).
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.