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Q&A With Tyler Cowen, The George Mason University Economist Who Likes To Eat

The Huffington Post  |  By Posted: 04/12/2012 11:17 am Updated: 04/12/2012 11:51 am

Tyler Cowen
Tyler Cowen speaking at D.C.'s Politics and Prose bookstore.

Blame the interns and the politicians for D.C.'s overpriced and mediocre food. Then go get some good lunch at a strip mall in the Virginia suburbs.

Tyler Cowen is a George Mason University economist and prolific food blogger with a new book full of counterintuitive ideas about eating. He thinks pretty restaurants full of happy people should be avoided and argues that eating local foods can be bad for the environment.

"Buying from a local farmer can mean that he makes a two-hour extra truck drive, which can damage the environment more than a bunch of bananas on a boat," Cowen writes in his new book, "An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules For Everyday Foodies."

The book is part travelogue, part discourse on the overlap of food and economics, part treatise on solving the world's hunger and environmental problems with agribusiness and more highly-taxed meat production. It's also full of love for local food establishments, like an Asian supermarket, Great Wall, in Falls Church, which is now in trouble with the law for selling red-eared slider turtles and other live animals. (Cowen praises the supermarket not for its reptile selection, but for its cheap delicious greens and pleasantly unfriendly check-out procedure.)

The Huffington Post recently caught up with Tyler Cowen to find out what the economist likes to eat in the D.C. area and if he tried the red-eared sliders.

The Huffington Post: A while ago you wrote an economic analysis of why there were so few restaurants in Anacostia. As an economist and a foodie, what do you think of it there these days?

Tyler Cowen: There was an article not too long ago in the Washington City Paper that claimed there was a western Chinese Muslim restaurant that was going to open up in or near Anacostia. It hasn't yet. But I've been monitoring this. I've long thought this was the next area for a restaurant revolution in Washington. I don't think it's happening yet. But when you see how much good real estate is there, and that parts of it are gentrifying, and it's not far from Capitol Hill -- I believe it will happen.

HuffPost: Tell me about the Great Wall supermarket. You write very lovingly about it in your book. Are you still shopping there?

Cowen: Yes, it's a fun mess. You walk in and if it's the weekend it seems impossible getting around. But everyone else there is into food. And that's valuable. If you go during the weekday it's calmer. You have an incredible selection of greens. It's a great place to go.

HuffPost: They've been in the news lately with the wild animal violations. As a foodie, did you try their turtle, or the other animals they're under investigation for selling?

Cowen: No, I have not. I have tried turtle elsewhere. I'm not that fond of it. So I was never tempted to buy it there. It seems to me they're going to lose that battle. To me that's not the charm of the store. Those things are illegal, I think the law should be enforced. I don't have any particular sympathy with them for breaking the law. At the end of the day it's still going to be a very valuable store.

HuffPost: Where are the best places to eat in the D.C. area?

Cowen: There are any number of places with good decor and great food, they just cost a very high price. Most people don't want to eat at those places on a regular basis for reasons of money or time, or just the sheer oppression of having to dress up and go to a nice place all the time. Most restaurants in most cities, including Washington, are at a sort of mid-level. They're somewhat trendy or they have some sort of gimmick, or they're somewhat expensive. And they make a lot of money off drinks. I tell people don't go to most of them, unless your goal is just to socialize. And if you go to ethnic food in strip malls, you'll get better food at a lower price.

There's a strip mall in West Alexandria on South George Mason Drive [Skyline Plaza] -- it's the center of the Ethiopian and East African community. And that's my favorite place to go to now. After that my second-favorite place to go to is Eden Center, which has about 40 Vietnamese restaurants all in one place. Another cluster I recommend is in Annandale. It's not in a single strip mall, but it's a single row -- or two rows, rather -- of restaurants, mostly Korean. I think that's another peak. If you just have the Annandale cluster, the Ethiopian and Eden Center, just those three clusters you're doing so incredibly well. Even in terms of variety.

HuffPost: Have you found any North Korean restaurants since the one in Annandale closed?

Cowen: No, they're pretty rare. I've heard there's one in Chicago. There aren't that many North Koreans, of course. And those that come may not have that much experience with restaurants and cooking, for obvious reasons. So they're real rarities.

HuffPost: Your food has a lot of policy prescriptions for how to feed people better for less money. Is there a short version of that?

Cowen: For the world as a whole the main thing we need to do is invest more in increasing agricultural productivity. It's really slowed down since the 1990s. It's a major problem for at least one billion people. I think it's much more important than what people like Michael Pollan usually talk about. For the U.S., I think we should have a carbon tax, for environmental reasons.

I think as individuals, people overrate the virtues of local food. Most of the energy consumption in our food system is not caused by transportation. Sometimes local food is more energy efficient. But often it's not. The strongest case for locavorism is to eat less that's flown on planes, and not to worry about boats.

HuffPost: What are the food areas you think might be developing in the D.C. area?

Cowen: This will sound a little strange coming from me. The two dynamic sectors now are hamburgers and pizza. In the last two years they've both gotten a lot better. You can call them ethnic food if you want. 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. And that's what's gotten better in the very recent past. Anything you can scale will do better taking over the world, so to speak, than anything you cannot scale. So Eden Center is wonderful, it's incredible, it's cheap. But you can't scale it. There's really only room for one in this area. Then you have to ask what it is we have that you can scale. I could imagine what I call "real Chinese food" becoming more important, like Sichuan. That scales pretty well. So that could happen.

HuffPost: Would you say overall D.C. area restaurants are getting better, getting worse?

Cowen: Overall getting better. I would say we're a good area for having a lot of choice of places that are kind of second-best versions of something. So it's great for variety. But we have very few places, if any, where you would point to it and say "oh, that's the best restaurant in the country for this." Top top tier we're very weak. But second tier I think we're very strong. It's a smaller market than New York or Los Angeles, which would be the top two places by far. So we'll just never be as big as them.

We have a lot of transient people here. We have a lot of interns. We have a lot of political people here. I'm not saying they all have bad taste. But I'm not sure they have the levels of taste that get you to being the very very best.

HuffPost: Where did you eat lunch today?

Cowen: At a Thai restaurant. But it's a Thai restaurant run by Laotians. I had pineapple fried rice, which I think is an underrated dish. The same family runs a Laotian restaurant in Falls Church which is excellent. It's like northeastern Thai food. It's kind of musty, and sour, and strong and biting. It's very good.

Flickr photo by Politics and Prose Bookstore, used under a Creative Commons license.

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