And Our New Food Critic Is …
We’re really excited to introduce you to Philadelphia magazine’s new restaurant critic, Trey Popp. His first reviews will appear in the magazine in the September issue, but for the Restaurant Club, we have a sneak peek interview with the well-traveled writer. Most recently, Trey was the restaurant reviewer for the Philadelphia City Paper; he’s also written for outlets like Slate, Outside magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle. What else do you need to know? Well, he’s not going to tell you what he really looks like — although you will come to understand why this post is accompanied by a rendering of the love child of El Wingador and Anton Ego, brought to life via the magic of Photoshop — and neither will we. But he does reveal what we can expect from his reviews, what food trends he’d like to see die, and what it’s like to eat a bull-testicle sandwich.
Trey, give us a one-sentence bio.
I’m a Northerner by birth, a Carolinian by rearing, and a Philadelphian by temperament and good luck.
What can readers expect from your restaurant reviews?
The discriminating palate of El Wingador combined with the towering self-regard of Ratatouille’s Anton Ego. But only when The Restaurant Club needs something for April Fools Day.
That’s a hard question. I think readers deserve a critic who rewards passionate cooking with passionate prose, and repays mediocrity with poison-tipped arrows — as long as they’re well aimed. But they deserve more than a fair-minded consumer advocate. Food and restaurants are big parts of American culture, and I hope my reviews are just as entertaining and enlightening to someone who’ll never go to the place as it is to someone looking to make dinner plans next weekend.
I think they can also expect someone who has eaten widely, both in a geographical sense and an economic one. I’ve had the unbelievably good fortune to have traveled in about 30 countries — many of them for weeks or months at a time — encountering foods and cooking styles in just about every setting imaginable. From the mess hall of an Indonesian cargo ship to The French Laundry, from Calcutta street carts to contemporary Catalan cuisine, I’ve been blessed to eat a lot of interesting food with a lot of interesting people.
Any least favorite foods? Also, any food or restaurant trends you’d like to see die immediately?
It seems that my dislikes are disappearing. I avoided Brussels sprouts for just about my whole life until my friend Jeff showed me the light at his house a couple years ago. Now I cook them all the time. I’m not a fan of tripe, but the tripe at Han Dynasty had me at first bite. I’ll tell you one thing I hate: chocolate desserts where all you can taste is sugar. That’s a crime against the whole plant kingdom.
The restaurant trend I’d sentence to death would be the move toward one-price-fits-all-cocktails. I can understand how a place like Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company might charge $12 for a concoction marrying four fancy components that you’d never have in your liquor cabinet, but I fail to see why they’d carry that same price to something like a gin and tonic or a simple Old-Fashioned.
Is there something you have a weakness for? Lamb? Sugarplums? Husband-and-wife-owned BYOBs?
I have a weakness for places that give you complementary sparkling water. It’s a small thing, but it really makes you feel like you’re being cared for. Zavino does that, with water they fizz themselves — which gets them an extra gold star on environmental grounds. Not many other places do, but I wish they would. I just instantly get that feeling like, “Oh yeah, I’m in good hands now.” And the thing is, it’s a pretty inexpensive way to produce a great first impression.
People often think restaurant reviewers should also be professionally trained chefs. (I don’t — the job is about reporting, analyzing and writing, rather than cooking.) What’s your take?
Don’t stop at reviewing — I think you shouldn’t even be allowed to eat in a restaurant unless you’ve been professionally trained. Seriously, though, that notion doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t believe M.F. K. Fisher had a culinary diploma. Many of our most perceptive film critics have never made a movie, and some of the most insightful architectural critics would be hard-pressed to build an outhouse.
The things we eat and the way we eat them aren’t just matters of technique, they’re manifestations of culture. It’s a way people express ideas as wide-ranging as their parochial pride, their religious beliefs, their environmental principles, or even just their place in the economic pecking order. And you don’t need a culinary degree to explore that — any more than de Tocqueville needed American citizenship to produce the definitive portrait of our social temperament. Sometimes an outsider brings the freshest perspective.
Don’t get me wrong. I love cooking. I love the way it can forge a deep connection between the person making food and the person eating it. And restaurants, for me, are about food more than anything else. But if eating out were nothing more than a chance to grade how well someone has poached an egg or pickled a peach, no one would bother with it.
What are your thoughts on being a restaurant critic and being anonymous?
I’m glad no one knows what I look like. It’s true that a mediocre kitchen can’t exactly wave a magic wand over its food the minute a recognized critic walks in, but it’s easier to alter other parts of the experience: the pacing of a meal, the responsiveness of the service, the volume of the music, all those kinds of things that come together to form a place’s atmosphere. And whether those adjustments improve the experience or diminish it, they certainly have the capacity to change a place’s sensibility. I think the best way to get a truthful impression of a restaurant is by visiting under the same conditions as everybody else.
You’ve traveled pretty extensively — a year spent tracing Mark Twain’s route in Following the Equator and another through Indonesia and Pakistan without the aid of airplanes. I could ask you what you learned, but tell us what you ate instead. The best, worst and weirdest things, please.
Oh man! How can I condense three years of wandering into three dishes?!
Probably my favorite thing, which I came back to again and again, was the khao soi at this particular place next to the moat that encloses the center of Chang Mai, Thailand. It’s a Burmese mild chicken curry served over broad noodles with all these wonderful garnishes on top — deep-fried noodles, crispy shallots, little pickles. The restaurant was basically an open-air patio that served a smorgasbord of stuff—including some not-bad grasshoppers — but it became impossible to order anything besides khao soi. Which I’m glad about, in retrospect, because it’s pretty near impossible to find it anywhere else, even in other parts of Thailand
As for the weirdest, there was a bull-testicle sandwich that a bus conductor shared with me out in the sticks in Morocco, which was actually delicious. At the end of the ride he gave me his knife, too. This is something I didn’t eat, but I remember riding a spectacularly dilapidated bus in southern Laos during the dry season, my body just totally plastered in dust, when a guy flagged down the driver in the middle of some pretty dense forest to try to sell the passengers some very rare-looking mammals and birds he was holding by their dead necks. That was an effective appetite-suppressant. Camel milk is pretty weird. So is yak butter tea. Fresh millet beer, which I occasionally drank in Sikkim, takes some getting-used-to, but it sure beats giardia-laced river water.
Now that I think about it, it’s harder to get used to new drinks than it is to eat strange new food. And some drinks have peculiar dangers. Kava, which is basically a mildly narcotic mud puddle swallowed from a communal bowl in Fiji, might set you off on a gentle reverie as it numbs your mouth—but women over there also complain that it makes their men impotent. That’s a stiff punishment for a fleeting pleasure.
The worst meal is easy: the one that stuck me with typhoid fever. Problem is, I don’t know which one it was. I’ve always blamed an iced-mango drink I got from a street vendor in Pakistan. It was delicious, but if I’m right about it, it’s responsible for a lot of terrible hospital dinners.
What’s our restaurant scene lacking in Philly? I would have said good pizza two years ago, but is there another gaping hole you see?
It’s hard to think of anything. Since I moved here from California in 2004, the food scene has blossomed in so many different directions. Wine bars, cocktail parlors, Mexican and Latin American food, French bistros, brunch food, Indian cooking, gluten-free baked goods, the recent pizza revival, and all that’s on top of the many things Philadelphia had been doing well already. We’re so lucky to live here.