Jim Leff speaks in a breathless staccato: "Incredible barbecue. In a shack. In Newark." He's raving about his newest restaurant find, which he says serves some of the best South Carolina-style mustard sauce in the Northeast. You may not think of Newark, N.J., as a culinary capital, but Leff has a knack for sniffing out great food in unlikely places. He shares his discoveries with readers of Chowhound.com, where thousands of food lovers swap tips on everything from which Queens street cart sells the best Indian dosas to how to get a reservation at Napa Valley's The French Laundry. Next week Leff's wisdom, along with that of his site's most loyal contributors, will be published in two new guidebooks: "The Chowhound's Guide to the New York Tristate Area" and "The Chowhound's Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area" ($18 each). We tagged along on a recent scouting trip to Newark to figure out how he can find a great meal anywhere.
Search for soul. There are two types of restaurant owners, says Leff, "people who were doing pool maintenance two weeks ago and decided they could make a quick buck this week on restaurants, and people who genuinely want to nourish you." How do you tell the difference? Look for touches that show the owner is putting his or her heart into the enterprise: a hand-painted sign or flowers on the tables, fresh rather than processed ingredients on display, diners who seem discerning and look happy. As soon as he pulls off the highway, Leff spots a tiny blue storefront peeking out from behind a massive Kentucky Fried Chicken. He's a little concerned that the windows are painted over and sniffs the air to see if the grease seems fresh, but plows ahead. The cozy Salvadoran spot, called Las Canastillas Restaurant, is decorated with strung-up lights and small baskets of plastic flowers. His instinct pays off. The corn and chicken tamales we order are fresh and delicious, and come with a rich homemade sour cream called crema.
Don't follow the crowd. Some of the day's tastiest finds, including a plate of crisp fried fish with a fiery pepper sauce, come from a Ghanaian restaurant that is empty, save for a blaring TV and a toy water pistol abandoned on a tabletop. Leff says that crowds are attracted by nothing more than (1) low prices, (2) advertising and (3) more crowds.
Avoid busy corners. We drive past a place called Central Lunch at a major intersection. Leff contends, without going in, that it must be "crappy." His reasoning: "They're getting a lot of traffic whether they're good or not, so why be good?"
The pastrami rule. Look for surprising menu combinations. Cruising past the It's All Good deli, Leff sees a sign for oxtails and pastrami sandwiches, and immediately pulls over. "If you're putting pastrami in a soul-food restaurant, you're thinking creatively," he says. We buy a pastrami on rye, and while not exceptional, the meat is tender and pleasantly greasy.
Always break for barbecue. In the Northeast, barbecue is hard to find, so Leff makes a point of tasting it when he sees it. This theory leads him to the Puerto Rican Eder's BBQ, where we devour smoky chicken and ribs, and Brothers BBQ, where we're treated to chopped pork in a sweet mustard sauce--this is the place he'd been raving about.
Be a commitment-phobe. Never decide on a restaurant before going inside. "When I walk into a restaurant, I don't walk in like I'm staying," says Leff. He suggests strolling through the dining room and observing the food and the patrons before requesting a table. (Leff fled one pizzeria after spotting logs of processed cheese stacked in the fridge.) Look for "really avid, passionate-looking people digging in and having a great time," he says.
Still, picking a restaurant is an art, and there are few hard and fast rules. "It's like the stock market," says Leff. If there were a formula, everyone would follow it and mediocre restaurants would go broke. His final tip: "Trust your taste. Trust your intuition. Demand deliciousness always." Spoken like a true chowhound.
BEST OF THE WEST
Some picks from Chowhound's San Francisco-area guidebook:
Bargain sushi lunch: Kabuto Sushi, 415-752-5652
Neighborhood Italian: Ristorante Bacco, 415-282-4969
Best tortas outside Mexico City: La Casita Chilanga, Redwood City, 650-568-0351
Monster ice-cream survey: Rick's Ice Cream, Palo Alto, 650-493-6553, plus many others