Food recommendations, Yelp, and the Circle of Trust
I know you’re reading this right now, but I want you to pretend like you’re closing your eyes for a minute.
Breathe in deeply, then exhale. Now keep your eyes closed. I want you to think about all the people in your life that you love. Now I want you to think about a time when one of those very same people told you to go to their favorite burrito spot because the food was “amazing”, you made it a point to go that very burrito spot, and you left so disappointed you contemplated deleting that person entirely from your contacts list.
Now open your eyes. What is the name of this person–this Judas Iscariot–in whom you so willfully placed your trust only to have them lead you astray? And was this only time that this person has betrayed your trust so egregiously?
My guess is probably not.
Ah, like Bobby Caldwell so masterfully said in 1978…what you won’t do…do for love…
There’s a lot of people in my life that I love. Let’s get that out in the open. Especially in these emotionally trying times of The Rona, I’m reminded more than ever of the perpetually empowering feeling I get from those in my crew who make me feel invincible because they love me no matter what day of the week it is and no matter what type of goofiness I may be on from day to day.
That being said, some of y’all need to stop recommending food spots to me. Please. I’m a great storyteller, but cotdammit sometimes you make me feel like Christopher Nolan trying to weave a tale of how your favorite burrito spot also changed MY life when I never even went after your recommendation because I knew better than to ruin my Tuesday night dinner plans like that. So what did I do? I went to Yelp, read some reviews, cobbled together some relevant points about the menu, and reported back to you with all the reasons why you were right about that tortilla-enveloped capsule being worth the price of admission.
Oh, I’m going to get to you cornball Yelp navegantes too…but let me talk first about setting boundaries with family when it comes to food recommendations.
Look, man. It’s not that I don’t love you. There’s no question about where my heart lies. But some folks just aren’t built for this recommendation game, and that’s okay. And it’s not a matter of anyone having bad taste…it’s more about having a broken antenna. Let’s go to Baskin Robbins so I can explain this a bit better.
You’ve been to a Baskin Robbins, right? You walk in and they say “Welcome to Baskin Robbins! Let me know if you want to try anything!” And if you just landed on this planet or if maybe you’ve haven’t spent the last 36 years of your life dedicated to cookies-n-cream and mint-n-chip like I have, you end up having this 22-year-old frozen dairy sommelier behind the counter serve as your tour guide through their wonderful world of 31 flavors. And they’ll usually start you off with a simple question like “What do you like? Chocolate? Sweeter flavors? Something more low-key?” Like an ice cream version of the 21 Questions game or like bumpers on a bowling alley this youngin’ behind the counter is going to help you walk through the samples, narrow down the potential finalists, and lock in on your tastebuds until they hopefully help you arrive at a flavor that is for YOU and that will have you walking out of there with a smile.
This is how food recommendations should work, man. You gotta know your audience. It’s the number one rule of comedy, the number one rule of pretty much any kind of entertainment, and quite possibly the number one rule of interacting with other human beings (okay maybe Rule #1.5 behind The Golden Rule).
There are many immutable laws when it comes to food (stop cutting my sandwich in half, don’t put too many water elements or else the bun is gonna get soggy, never order rice and beans at a spot that mostly sells tacos…there are too many to get into right now). And if you’re going to be out here eating suspect food, that’s completely cool. Hey man, your idea of fly is what gets you by, so do you, boo boo.
If you’ve been out in these streets for 18 months eating at a couple of spots with your new girlfriend or your new homie that calls themself a “foodie” in their IG bio and now all of a sudden you think you can put on a pair of Clarks’ Desert Boots and call yourself the Second Coming of Bourdain, then allow me to be the first to tell you:
THOU MUST PUMP THINE BRAKES.
– THE BOOK OF ABRAHEEZEE, CHAPTER 1: VERSE 5
Not everyone is built for this recommendation game. If a place sucks, keep it moving. I don’t believe in writing bad reviews. I’ve never been one to believe in the unnecessary expenditure of energy and stroking of one’s ego that is writing a bad review. We’re dealing with people’s livelihoods in these restaurants, and you don’t want that kind of karma sitting on your head if you’re out here contributing to someone’s shutdown as a result of your palate-related poetry. But if you are actively out here recommending food places to people that you LOVE, then you had better cotdamn well know what you’re doing.
Giving out food recommendations is like unprotected sex. It’s only safe and enjoyable if you know what you’re doing and you’re engaging with the right dance partner in a mutual space of love and trust. Otherwise you’re disturbing the balance of the dining world and fucking up people’s dinner plans.
We’re only blessed with so many meals in this life. So here’s Uncle Abe’s 3 Rules for filtering only valid food referrals into your Yelp “Places to Peep” list:
Rule #1: When someone tells you “Yo, man, you gotta peep XYZ spot!” you better come right back at them with questions:
“Oh word? What was your favorite thing there?”
“What was it about said item that you dug?”
Now this is the first checkpoint. If they can’t tell you specifically what they liked about this spot and what in particular about this item stood out to them, then they’re just fucking about and wasting your time. They kinda sorta liked their meal, and they’re trying to throw a recommendation your way just so they can feel like a sabio and act like they’re “in the know” like my Nino Ray loves to do. But if they have good answers here, then proceed to rule #2:
Rule #2: If they mention anything about the ambiance, run in the opposite direction.
This may be a hard one for you to digest, but FUCK AMBIANCE. I can’t tell you the number of spots that I’ve been to that were in amazing scenic locations but had the wackest food. And I’ve had some of the best meals of my life in places that were hella rundown and had unmentionable bathroom situations. What’s the reasoning here? Well, it’s simple…the owner knows that the visuals are going to bring in the crowds, so if they’re already got asses in the seats then what’s the point of actually trying to have solid food? This isn’t how all spots work, but if you see a place whose Instagram geotag has more pics of the scenery or people’s faces than actual food, then it might be a good idea to not head over there. And similarly, if someone is in front of you talking more about the scenery than the food, then this person is someone you don’t need in your life. Okay, they can remain in your life…but whenever they talk food, you just gotta give them one of these. On to the final and most important rule…
Rule #3: If the person mentions, “Yo, I think you’d dig this spot because (insert specific highlight that pertains to you)” then they have unlocked the final gate and officially entered The Circle of Trust.
This is the mark of a true friend.
“I know you’ll love this place because they have a taco with the same shredded Oaxacan cheese that you were raving about when you went to Los Tacos Arabes de Puebla a couple weeks back.”
When someone hits you with some type of deep-referenced callback that even YOU might have even forgot your damn self, THAT’S where the real trust is developed. This is indicative of someone who has taken the time to chop it up with you, build with you, and learn what you like in life. And in the tradition of the world’s greatest salespeople, they are selling the features that pertain to you because they’ve taken the time to ask the right questions and do the knowledge on the front end.
This is someone you can trust when it comes to food. This person and me. That’s it. Just us two. That’s all you need, really. Quality over quality. It’s a simple principle because it’s true.
Now really quickly let me get to these Yelp cornballs…
I don’t give a damn about your “Elite” status when all your reviews are lame and have no flavor nor wit and you spend more time waxing poetic about the chips and salsa than you do about the actual menu. I don’t care that you and your girlfriend go there every Tuesday and that you know the owners because they catered your neighbor’s boyfriend’s daughter’s birthday party.
TALK ABOUT THE FOOD, COTDAMMIT. AND USE YOUR WORDS.
I’m going to give you a few excerpts of reviews from my favorite taquero here near the crib (name withheld to prevent randoms from rolling up…but just hit me if you want to know the name):
“The meat is bomb and the burritos are good.”
“Flavor of the meat is good.”
“Asada, lingua, and adobada was awesome. Can pass on the carnitas next time. Free frijoles were super special.”
FAM, I HAVE NO IDEA WHO YOU ARE NOR WHAT THE WORDS “GOOD”, “AWESOME”, NOR “SUPER SPECIAL” MEAN TO YOU IN YOUR LIFE. AND THESE DESCRIPTORS TELL ME NOTHING USEFUL ABOUT THE MEAL THAT YOU JUST HAD. AND YOU WANT ME TO MAKE THE TREK OUT TO THIS PLACE NOW ON THE BACK OF THIS WEAK-ASS DEBRIEFING?! FOR REAL?! NAH, SON!!
Now if you’re going to step up to the plate and get your Yelp on, then THIS is the type of gospel that you should obligated to deliver to the congregation before you:
“The asada has a slight saltiness, a little smokiness that is subtle but just enough, and a proper thickness which allows it to stay juicy unlike most other taqueros where they keep turning the meat over on the plancha and by the time they throw it on a tortilla for you it’s crisped up or the fat has rendered into gristle. And the beans had a bay leaf and onion flavor that gets deep into your nose and haunts you long after you’ve left…AND these beans are free you say?! SHEEEEEEIT.”
Now just from reading this eloquent imaginary review from yours truly (and that was off the top of the dome!), I can tell exactly what kind of person I’m dealing with. A person I can trust. A person who is all about the details. And I can smell the food through the computer screen which means that not only am I hooked, but I’m also prolly gonna make it a point to make my way over there to this place as soon as is humanly possible.
There are people on Yelp dropping good gospel like this from time to time, but it’s only about 5% of what I see in my food search phone-scrolling adventures. Sometimes you gotta leave the art to the artists, and writing food reviews is not something meant for everyone just like how I spelled out for you why recommending food spots is not a sport built for all.
So what am I saying here? I don’t really know. My new glasses from Warby Parker just arrived late this afternoon (they finally make sizes for big-ass mascot heads like mine), and I’ve had these thoughts on my mind for the past couple of days, so I figured I’d sit down real quick after watching all 8 episodes of The Big Flower Fight on Netflix to put 2,000 words to paper in hopes of getting some new level of clarity both literally and figuratively.
And I can see clearly now. On both fronts.
You want the abbreviated version of today’s gospel?
Stop hanging out with people who have shitty taste in food.
Or if you have to still hang out with them, just stop going to the food spots they keep recommending to you.
You’re so much better than that.
And holler at me if you need recommendations.
But only in Southern California.
Because that’s where I’m at.
All you that live somewhere else are outta luck.