Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Restaurants on the Sly: Radley links to a NYT article on a boomlet in unlicensed restaurants. Says the article:
These underground restaurants range from upscale to gritty, and are born from youthful idealism, ethnic tradition or economic necessity. They lack certification from any government agency and are, strictly speaking, against the law. You dine in them at your own risk. If you can find them.
I saw this phenomenon, on a smaller scale, in the alleyways of the string of Hispanic-flavored little towns along the Jersey side of the Hudson: Jersey City, Hoboken, Weehawken, Union City. One Cuban fellow I worked with (call him Carlos) was a good example: After work, he would go home, open the back door, and dish out homemade comfort food -- soups, stews, red beans -- that his wife cooked up during the day. It was only a couple of bucks, and it was great food. A number of Puerto Ricans and Salvadorans ran similar businesses, with good food at good prices -- all illegal as hell. Of course, their market wasn't the white yuppies but the locals, so word of mouth tended not to spread very far, and the likelihood of a health department bust was low.

What Radley doesn't say, and the article only implies, is that in a major city, the restaurant business is a racket in which the business owner is regularly rolled by suppliers, the mob, and . . . the state. (In Massachusetts, you need a special license to serve milk, for chrissake.)

''It's all about how to avoid making people sick,'' said Jack Breslin, director of the consumer protection program at the San Francisco health department. ''If no one is looking over my shoulder to see how I'm storing, processing and serving my food, the greater the risk of something bad happening.''
It's a lovely sentiment, but really, I'm a big boy now. I can weigh the risks of getting my menudo or pupusas on the sly. The cost of opening a restaurant is often prohibitive, especially in a poor neighborhood. Carlos couldn't charge his neighbors enough to go legit; as it was, his prices covered food costs and a bit of profit for his family. Getting licensed, providing bathrooms, meeting ADA access requirements: these were not in his budget, and they would have priced him out of his market's reach. In the end, how much do you want to pay for a plastic bowl of red beans and a hunk of cornbread on a napkin? How much more is it worth, and how much better is it, in a china bowl with silverware?

Another thing: Carlos . . . was essentially a garbage man, managing waste disposal for a large apartment building. I regularly saw him digging through the central dumpster because the chute was clogged. Does it make a difference? I had no concerns about eating the food he served, about getting sick from contamination, from food poisoning. In fact, I think I probably felt better about it from seeing how clean he kept the trash room at that building.

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