Tacos cost $1 a piece. It’s $2 for a slice of pizza, $4 for falafel, and $5 for a bowl of pho.
For residents of ethnically diverse metropolitan areas, cities like Los Angeles, New York, and, well, Seattle, these prices are more or less set in stone, one aspect of the inalienable right to cheap “ethnic” food provided to city dwellers. Which is why whenever some upstart restaurant starts messing wildly with the standard pricing model, serving $5 tacos or $10 bowls of pho, people have a tendency to freak.
The economics—and racial undertones—of such complaints are rarely considered or explored. But Eric Banh, chef at the Seattle restaurant Ba Bar, made his impassioned case for a $10 bowl of pho on the restaurant’s blog. His argument? Better ingredients cost more money.
“We want to make phở with Painted Hills all-natural, grass-fed eye of round beef and brisket,” he writes. “We want to use Northwest Tofu and Washington-raised chicken. We want to use fresh, local oxtail in a stock that cooks for 24 hours. We don’t want to cut any corners. We want the best.”
Not only are the slivers of rosy beef that float in the Vietnamese noodle soup pricier at Ba Bar than those at the cheap pho spot; so are the beef bones that flavor the soup. And oh, how many bones it takes to give the deceptively light, clear stock of a great bowl of pho its depth of flavor. At Ba Bar, a 1:1 ratio of bones to water is used, and the stock cooks for 24 hours. In addition to comparatively cheap knuckle and marrow bones, Banh uses oxtail, one of the pricier offcuts of beef, to give his soup extra flavor—flavor that, as he puts it, makes it “hard to go back to that thin ‘spice water’ of the five dollar shop.” He also finishes the broth, definitely, with a touch of MSG.
Banh gets the appeal of inexpensive meat. “There’s nothing criminal with using cheap beef—it’s not going to kill anybody after all,” he writes, “and it makes your soup very affordable.” Still, he’s not interested in working with it himself.
Why is it so cheap? Because it’s terrible. It’s tough, it’s sinewy, and it’s likely beef rendered from old dairy cows that no longer produce milk. Sad, old milk cows who find a final resting place in your bowl of five dollar phở. We’ve tried cooking with this beef before, and even after six hours on the stove, it’s still tough as leather.
With its cocktail list, Franco-Viet-fusion breakfast menu, and post-bar-crowd-catering late-night menu, Ba Bar is in a different class of restaurant from the countless pho spots that line the streets of Vietnamese enclaves in Southern California, the largest such community outside Southeast Asia. For immigrant restaurants catering to immigrant communities it’s not as easy to take a stand and go the premium route instead of undercutting the competition. So the margin on those $1 tacos and $5 bowls of pho is razor thin—if not nonexistent.
Take the case of Great Taste, a Chinese restaurant in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. Immensely popular, Great Taste is a magnet for New Yorkers seeking a cheap, delicious meal—namely, dumplings, which are five for $1.
Last year Anelise Chen wrote a story about the restaurant for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s magazine, Open City. She found that, despite Great Taste being consistently packed with diners, the owner, Mr. Chen, was barely making any money off his immensely popular dumplings.
If we could sell four dumplings for a dollar, then we might make a real profit,” he said. “But at five for a dollar, we are only just surviving. It’s not even for money that we have this deal; it’s just for the advertisement. After we get a strong customer base, then we can consider selling four dumplings for a dollar. Someday, we will be able to sell four.
Urbanites may have the advantage of living in places where regional cuisines from far-flung countries are readily available, but we need to collectively rethink our attitudes toward the prices we’re willing to pay for those foods. You wouldn’t balk at paying 15 bucks or more for some rarefied plate of Sicilian pasta—so why complain about the rise in price of dishes from countries that are far easier to deem “other”? If you aren’t getting grass-fed beef in your pho, you’ll at least be making life more livable for someone like Mr. Chen.