What is the best food produced en masse?

by on January 31, 2009 at 7:44 am in Food and Drink | Permalink

Ben, a loyal MR reader, asks:

What is the preferable type of food to eat when it is produced en masse? I.e., for what type of food does the quality not diminish significantly when it's produced for a buffet? How much worse is Panda Express from "real" Chinese food vs. Fast Food Mexican from "real" Mexican?

Indian food, produced en masse, sits relatively well, especially the non-meat dishes and the ground meats.  It can sit and stew for a long time.  Chinese food, which usually should be cooked at high heat and served immediately, wares about the worst.  Barbecue can do fine, if it is cooked properly to begin with (not usually the case, however).  At Chipotle the carnitas are pretty good and they are cooked sous vide at a distance and then reheated in the restaurant.  But the top prize goes to Korean vegetable dishes, many of which are fermented and pickled in the first place.  Natasha and I catered our wedding party with Korean vegetables (and a bit more, including some cold meats) with no loss of culinary value.

1 Cyrus January 31, 2009 at 7:49 am

Food intended to be eaten at room temperature is the key here. Much of the standard picnic fare comes to mind. Cold sandwiches, salads of various kinds, pickled goods, gazpacho.

2 MSC January 31, 2009 at 9:44 am

I’d guess that McDonald’s hamburgers keep fairly well under a red light.

Whisky would be a good bet as well.

3 Joshua Allen January 31, 2009 at 10:48 am

Looking forward to the delighted comments of guests at my next dinner party, “Mmmmm, this kimchi is so FRESH!”

My wife got me addicted to kimchi and Chinese pickles. When I ask her why Chinese people are so fond of spoiled vegetables, she asks why white people are so fond of spoiled milk. The point, of course, being that cheese also keeps well after being mass produced, and can sit out on a counter for a long time without losing tast.

4 Greasy Peter January 31, 2009 at 10:55 am

You can get pretty good Thai food on the west side for less than ten bucks. I’m not sure where on the west side you’re at, but Thai Beer on Venice is pretty decent, Natalee Thai (Culver City, Pico/Robertson, and Hollywood) is not bad, and I think Thai Dishes in Santa Monica by the 3rd St Promenade is supposed to be good. Your best bet, though, is to stick with Mexican for quick lunches in LA.

5 farmer January 31, 2009 at 11:16 am

…is it declassee to propose beef jerky?

6 sheryl k January 31, 2009 at 12:12 pm

I’d have to go with red sauce Italian – great big mounds of spaghetti, lasagne, etc etc. Bon Appetit!

7 Greasy Peter January 31, 2009 at 12:58 pm

@burger flipper – I just moved out of Culver City a week ago. My favorite things to eat were sushi at Irori, omelettes at Cafe Metro (Serbian), face-numbingly spicy Indian food at Akbar, and burgers and sweet potato fries at Father’s Office. Versailles is a great Cuban place. Samosa House is supposed to be fantastic.

@Joshua Allen – I almost never make it out that far east, but next time, I’ll have to try some Chinese out there. I don’t get east of the 101 often enough.

8 babar January 31, 2009 at 3:58 pm

it depends on whether “produced en masse” gives room for line assembly as the last step.
if so i would propose bahn mi.
i am sure there are other suggestions.

another suggestion, certainly, is “bread”.

9 ogmb January 31, 2009 at 6:31 pm


Also, the difference between Panda Express and “real” Chines food is not so much the mass production as the adaptation to American tastes.

10 Burger Flipper January 31, 2009 at 6:42 pm

Greasy Pete, thanks for the tips. Still new here. Samosa House is only one on your list I’ve tried. Face numbingly spicy is just what I’m looking for.

11 Floccina February 1, 2009 at 9:12 am



italian bakery pizza

12 Jason February 1, 2009 at 4:04 pm

I have to agree with Tyler here – Indian food sits great at a buffet. In fact, in most cases I’d rather go to my favorite Indian place’s buffet than dinner side – regardless of relative price. I enjoy the diversity of selections with very little drop off in flavor.

13 PQuincy February 1, 2009 at 5:36 pm

I recall traveling in Greece some years ago, and learning that the Greeks thought that food should not be served hot, but warm. Many greek dishes — e.g. moussaka, etc. — seem to be designed to sit for a long time held warm without major deterioration. (Or was this just a marketing ploy from a Greek steam table manufacturer?)

14 Joshua Allen February 2, 2009 at 12:27 pm

@J: @ombg is correct. PF Changs is not “real” Chinese food by any stretch of the imagination, but it is perfectly good American food with a Chinese “theme”. The PF stands for “Peter Fleming”, and he is an experienced entrepreneur who knows that real Chinese food does not sell well across most of America. The book “Sons of the Yellow Emperor” has a few chapters about the first waves of Chinese immigrants to America, and how they quickly learned that real Chinese food doesn’t sell to Americans. Of course, P.F. Changs is not even of the class of “Americanized Chinese” — it is “Chinese-themed American”.

Of course, Chinese migrants to other countries find the same thing, and have made adjustments to each local culture. I am always fascinated to eat “Chinese” food when I travel to other countries. “Chinese” food in India is some of the most interesting, IMO. It’s like an explosion of flavors. Even Australian Chinese food is significantly different from what you get in the U.S.

This isn’t to say that America doesn’t have plenty of authentic Chinese food; Flushing and east L.A. are the best, and large west coast cities and university towns usually have a few choices, or at least have the option of ordering from the “Chinese Menu”.

15 C Dan February 2, 2009 at 3:14 pm

The question was what is best “mass produced”, not what has the longest shelf life.

My vote is for corn meal, aka grits or polenta.

As far as I can tell, there is no quality difference between “small batch” and mass produced corn meal (sorry Anson Mills).

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