Which are the “safest” cuisines?

James Hinckley asks:

Which cuisine are you most likely to be satisfied with when dining out?  Which disappoints you the least # of visits?

If you were at a shopping center you’ve never been to before and it has one restaurant of each cuisine and your goal was to simply be satisfied (you’re not looking to be blown away, you just don’t want a bad experience), which cuisine do you pick?

Korean is perhaps the safest bet, for two reasons.  First, non-Koreans are not usually interested in the food.  They might enjoy Bul-Gogi but there will be plenty of other dishes for Korean patrons and these will not be “dumbed down.”  The lack of mainstream interest limits the potential for sell-out behavior on the part of the restaurant.  Second, many Korean dishes, most of all the pickled vegetables, “travel” relatively well and do fine in a culture — the USA — which is not obsessed with fresh ingredients.

The most dangerous cuisine to try, in the United States at least, is Chinese.  Your best working assumption is that the restaurant simply isn’t any good.  Even in a Chinatown, such as in New York or DC, most of the restaurants aren’t very good.  Inverting the two principles mentioned above puts you on a path toward figuring out why.  Still, even in Paris or most of Europe for that matter, most of the Chinese restaurants aren’t very good.

I find also that (in the U.S.) Mexican restaurants are risky, Vietnamese establishments are relatively safe, and Thai places were traditionally safe but they are becoming riskier. I’ve never been to a bad Nepalese restaurant.


Italian? Seems safe enough to me. . . You can always have pasta with tomato sauce.

so the safest bet (if i was Korean) would be Korean? otherwise i would not likely be interested? hows does that help? unless I was Korean. What is "sellout Behavior"?

Chinese Food is so broad, perhaps the author is talking about american take-out chinese, in that case it's extremely consistent.

I would say American Diner food is the safest bet. burgers, fries, chicken fingers, sandwiches, breakfast foods, hard to mess up, very filling, and easy on wallet. fresh ingredients not a big part of the menu.

Lebanese/Middle Eastern food. For similar reasons to the Korean, though the first argument probably doesn't hold as well.

And how many distinct Nepalese restaurants have you been to? Me? I've never been to a bad Moldovian restaurant, so that would be my pick.

Americanized Chinese doesn't differ very much (mostly edible but nothing great). Burger joints are also pretty consistent. The most hit or miss, in my opinion, is Sushi. I can definitely see an argument for either Vietnamese or Korean being consistently good though, as they are marginally popular cuisines.

American fast food, especially the Burger King Whopper. Avoid the fries. And the Sausage McMuffin with egg.

And in Rockville, MD, Sichuan Pavilion. Wow.

i've noticed the same thing re: the "risk" of thai food. what do you think explains that?

My impression is that mediocre Chinese is actually worse than mediocre food from other cultures... For instance, I find food-court quality Japanese quite acceptable, as long as I steer clear of the sushi. And contra Tyler's theory, I find that Mexican food has become safer the more mainstream it has become. It used to be that you couldn't get a decent burrito outside of Texas and Southern California (probably other places in the Southwest, but those are the ones I've had personal experience with), now I can think of three chains in the Philadelphia area where I can get a perfectly satisfactory one. But the random Chinese places are still awful.

Korean food is relatively safe in the DC metro area because their are a lot of Koreans to cater to and a lot of Korean grocery stores to locate fresh ingredients.

Korean was NOT a safe pick in Indianapolis or Fort Wayne (and probably not in most smaller midwestern cities) where the Korean restaurants are kind of terrible.

Definitely agree with the Chinese assumption, though.

C'mon people it's cheeseburgers. Add a soda and you get a huge fix of the 3 substances we crave -- fat, salt and sugar.

I think that Vietnamese is only safe if you're considering mostly Pho places as in DC/NOVA. When you consider Vietnamese places with a larger menu (which is actually quite typical in other areas), it's easy to get mediocre food. Pho is consistent. The rest of the menu Not.

Want risk? Eat Spanish in the US. The problems with ingredient quality and availability make it very difficult to cook many traditional dishes, leaving restaurant owners with a set of expensive extremely americanized Tapas that no bar in Spain would serve. In a certain establishment in KC, I could not find a single dish one could consider authentic.

Persian food, particularly in the DC area. Nobody makes better Basmati rice. The kabobs are usually excellent and NOT spicy like Pakistani or Afghan. They also make great stews that the American palate can appreciate.

For me, "safe" food has a completely different set of variables. I've been vegetarian for 15 years. my main questions are is there something on the menu I can eat and will the server know enough about the food to tell me if it has chicken broth in it. I wish places would stop using chicken broth in everything, there are other ways to impart flavor.

Italian is far and away the easiest for me, followed by Indian and Middle Eastern. Mexican is risky because of lard, authentic French is virtually impossible. I can eat Asian food in the US, but had a hard time finding vegetarian food in China. Location also plays a role: I can usually find something to eat in the Twin Cities, but it's a lot harder in small towns.

My safety food is a grilled cheese off the children's menu.

I agree with those promoting fast food...or are we going to pretend that it's not really "cuisine"!

Assuming this scenario means that I have absolutely no familiarity with any of the restaurants at this hypothetical shopping center, I'd have to say I'd avoid any kind of specific ethnic cuisine and just head straight for the bourbon chicken. It is in no way authentic, but it's always okay. If this shopping center is located in the US, another viable alternative is pizza or sandwiches - having tasted school lunch pizza and survived, I'm fairly sure I'd be okay with most renditions.

I love Korean food, but I've definitely had my share of mediocre Korean food, even in NYC (though the title of worst Korean food I've ever had definitely goes to a place in China).

The answer depends on the value of "satisfied". If I'm someplace unfamiliar, and I want a meal I know will not leave me regretting having gone to the restaurant, I'd probably go with certain chains: Chevy's, Olive Garden, Round Table Pizza. (I find Applebee's, Chili's, and most all-night/breakfast chains to be too greasy.) If I'm feeling cheap, or am just looking for food-as-fuel, but still want something I won't find disgusting, higher-end burger joints like Carl's Jr. (Hardee's in the rest of the country), or Wendy's, or Arby's. Failing chains I know will provide decent enough food, I'd probably go for a local taqueria if I'm feeling cheap and/or eating alone; or a Thai restaurant if I'm in California, or a steak house elsewhere.

If I'm looking for an excelent experience with no prior knowledge, I'd probably go for Persian.

Unless safety is in the context of not getting sick, this is pretty much the exact opposite of what I'd expect.

Chinese and Mexican food seem to me to be two of the most reliable cuisines, as they are fairly homogenized and hard to screw up, not to mention cheap. I live in California, though, so my view may be biased. I would also not recommend cheap and mysterious Chinese or Mexican food from a food safety perspective.

If you care about "authenticity," well, that might be an issue, but it's a bit of a yuppie concern and it's not what the question was about. Plus, since what we call "Mexican" food is fundamentally Americanized, it's always "authentic!" Fast food burgers are also pretty reliable, though on average not as good, I would say. And it's virtually impossible to go wrong with fried chicken.

I've had bad Italian food in Milan (granted, near the train station), so Italian can definitely be executed poorly.

As for Korean, I'm not sure I've had it, but it sounds like it's only a good choice if you really (A) care about "authenticity" and (B) like "authentic" Korean food. This probably does not describe many people.

TC's preference for Korean food actually seems ironic. I get the feeling he dislikes homogenized fast food because, well, basically, because it's low-class, and thus the kind of people who care about the authenticity of their Korean food are likely to snub it. On the other hand, he likes Korean food because it's reliably the same type of cuisine.

In my experience these vary tremendously:

These are usually decent:

Any restaurant that has food handled by third-world immigrants is pretty risky. Places with lots of clueless hipsters are the worst. I find Japanese restaurants to be the safest.

Agreed Tyler, with one exception. While "traditional American" Chinese restaurants (sweet & sour chicken, broccoli beef, etc) tend to be overwhelmingly bad, dim sum restaurants seem to have predominantly Chinese patronage and thus are pretty authentic. If you don't look Chinese, they tend to offer only safer items (ex chicken feet) when they come by with the cart.

Also, pho is always a winner for me, if only because there is a fairly regimented recipe and technique that is seldom deviated from, resulting in a pretty consistent product. PLus it's cheap and fast.

"Which cuisine are you most likely to be satisfied with when dining out? Which disappoints you the least # of visits?"

Very successful fast food franchises, such as McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, Wendy's, etc., which is why they are everywhere and so successful. The ones that will most likely satisfy customers are the ones that take market share from everyone else, provide consistency, and value. When a person is faced with choices, such as when getting off a highway to eat in an unfamiliar area, most people will choose a national franchise because they know it will be very similar to their previous experiences and value for the price.

Wow, how incredibly snobby.

As far as absolute safest food, where the restaurant is least likely to screw it up, it would be Chick-fil-A here in Atlanta. Fried chicken is hard to screw up in the first place, and Chick-fil-a never, ever deviates from their recipe. It's not exactly high-class cuisine, it is most definitely "safe." As Milton said, that's how they've been so successful. They never cut corners and consistently give the same experience to the consumer.

"Americanized Chinese" has been the worst for me. I only eat it if friends are eating it. I just don't usually have good experiences with it. Thai's been pretty good for me, but maybe that's because Atlanta doesn't have all the Thai-adoring yuppies yet to saturate the market. Mexican is pretty hit-or-miss, but usually pretty good. If you're ever in Atlanta, go to Nuevo Laredo Cantina if you haven't already.

BBQ is by far the least safe food though. Show up to a place in the rural South and it's either the best experience of your life or utter crap that only stays in business because the local hicks have nowhere else to go.

My rule for Mexican food is not to eat it east of the Mississippi or north of Denver (Fort Collins actually). Inside those bounds it's a pretty safe bet.

Conclusive evidence based on sample size of one:
Don't eat Chinese food in Florence, Italy.

To me these statements are so general that they cannot possibly have any content. Why is the variance of Korean restaurant quality in Philadelphia correlated with that in Los Angeles? If what Tyler says is true then they must be meaningfully positively correlated. Someone please make the case!

Vietnamese restaurants in the DC metro area are not a safe bet. That area is a minefield. All of them are sub-par, with many being downright terrible. Almost all are incredibly expensive compared to the much better Vietnamese restaurants in areas like Little Saigon or San Diego. I've eaten at no less than ten Vietnamese restaurants from Annapolis to Arlington and I've never been impressed with what I had.

I avoid the uncertainty and stick to Cracker Barrel.

korean is the least safe. hard to find anything on the menu without pork,and hard to trust that the things on the menu that don't say they have pork won't anyway. will the server be fluent and honest if you ask about ingredients?
chinese is pretty safe. like a mcdonalds, you pretty much know what to expect.
some tendency to lie/misunderstand about whether there's chicken stock in stuff.
however, adventure trumps safety.

In your response it seems like you're using "safe" to mean authentic. If that's the case, I agree with Korean.

For me "safe" means tastes decent. I find Chinese to be "safe", meaning even a "bad" chinese food is americanized, but pretty good. Even bad thai food (the worst I ever had was in Mexico) is pretty decent too.

But I find Italian to be the riskiest. "Good" italian food is something to cherish, but when it goes even slightly wrong it goes very wrong.

I think Mexican food is somewhere in the middle. It's almost never very good at restaurants in the US, but never, ever inedible either.

It seems to me that there are 2 operative definitions of 'satisfying' and 'good' in use here, both in the original post and in the comments. I think the answer to this question really depends on how you define these two words -- are they synonymous with 'tasty' or with 'authentic'. The two aren't mutually exclusive, but they mean very different things. Many 'Mexican' restaurants can turn out tasty burritos, but they have nothing to do with 'authentic'. I think a lot of American 'Chinese' food is quite tasty, I haven't ever been to China, though, which may change my opinion if I had a wider food 'world-view'. I went to a Korean restaurant in Chicago, and I found it tasty, but I had no idea if it was empirically 'good' or 'authentic' because I had no reference. Not having that baseline, one doesn't know if the food is well-prepared and tastes like it's 'supposed to' or if it's well-prepared and you just don't care for it (bc you haven't ever had it done properly).

One of the specialties here in Lyon, France, is tripe and other assorted offal. I have never tried it here, bc I am afraid to. Why? Because I want to know that I am having well-prepared organ meat. I don't want to dismiss all organ meat bc of a bad experience that was *cooking* based. That's the main reason I would love to go to Incanto and eat whatever organ meat Chris Cosentino would put in front of me - I trust in his abilities to prepare it properly. Then, I could make an accurate assessment of my preference based on the food's merits. You can apply that principle to any ethnic cuisine you want.

That being said, there are certainly bad restaurants and food everywhere - anything buffet is not going to be your safest bet, quality-wise. Much Chinese food is overcooked and dried out, esp the fried things that sit in a warmer for hours on end. I am not in any way trying to deny that there are bad versions of all cuisines.

In my opinion, to define 'safe' would be to say which cuisine is consistently tasty and difficult to screw up. On the ethnic front, I'd agree that Italian is pretty solidly consistent (meaning average or above). There are times when it's absolutely stellar.

WAIT- I know the answer to this. In the south, the one place to go where you will always be satisfied is WAFFLE HOUSE! ;-)

you know, in this economy, with so many people out of work and children going hungry, elderly choosing between electricity and food or their medication perscriptions, i think this whole conversation is revolting. how many of you are even GRATEFUL that you can afford to eat out and compare the quality of one restaurant to another (let alone restaurants in foreign countries)? i know i am. as i sit here and eat my 'crappy' chinese food, which i really quite enjoy, i'm exceedingly grateful for employment that gives me the money to buy food and a car that gets me to the chinese place. i've always found food snobs annoying, but this thread is more distasteful than any 'bad' restaurant food i've ever eaten.

I think the problem here is the consumer themselves, a majority of them really don't know what "good" food is. It's easy to go to any McDonald's for a burger, but if you stop to really notice what you're eating and all the aspects about it you can find differences in something as generic as a burger be it from fast-food conglomerations to the local corner cafe. But the biggest thing one should remember is: that the experience at a restaurant cannot be fully shared, and taken as the ultimate review. One should go and experience it yourself and come to your own conclusion.
As for safe food, there is NO such thing as safe food. Contamination can happen from faulty machinery, pre-contaminated food (from the store(s)), down right to place you're sitting. (How many restaurants out there actually sanatize their chairs and door handles?) If you want safe you might have a slightly better chance at a franchise store, simply because they are required to follow a lot of protocol and if they're breached it means big trouble for the owner of the franchise as well as the conglomerate that the franchise is leased from.

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