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Letters for the Week of April 10, 2013

Readers sound off on street food, tech money, and the Oakland city council.


"Street Food Grows Up," Taste, 3/27

It's the Prices, Period

I read "Street Food Grows Up" with some interest, particularly because it dealt with The Ramen Shop and my own position about that restaurant and its prices. More on that later, but it was the comments of Preeti Mistry — equating folks' resistance to her pricing as simple racism — that got me a bit perturbed. Racism? Ridiculous, I say. There have been plenty enough restaurants where I have paid somewhat exorbitant prices for South Asian cuisine, so I firmly believe that, at least in the "foodie" culture, racism simply doesn't enter into the equation for determining whether or not to attend a given restaurant.

It's the price point. Period.

Look, my wife and I earn decently enough, got a couple of kids through college, saw a mom through her final days and the attendant costs, and have always enjoyed eating out at fine dining places throughout the Bay Area. When The Ramen Shop opened for business, I followed its opening with great interest, followed the reviews, checked out the varied Yelp comments, but honestly, I simply have chosen to forgo paying $15 or more for a bowl of ramen. As for Mistry's restaurant, wherever it is, please let her know that I won't pay $16 for a hamburger by the young Turk ex-Chez Panisse chefs, much less $13 for three vegetarian Indian sliders, either. No racism involved — it's maybe just the fact that, now that I'm on more of a budget as I close in on retirement, that excess is still simply that: excess.

Still, as a consumer and a simple home cook, I'm working my way through my feelings about this new middle ground where professional chefs leave their trademarked high-end restaurants and break out into the area of street food. My problem is, of course, that I've been all over the world, and my general sense of street food fare is, it's cheap, it's quick, and it's hopefully tasty. Emphasis on cheap, let me say again.

Now, with all the awareness being brought to bear on chic new mid-level restaurants by established and adventurous chefs looking to make their mark, we as consumers are being asked to seriously consider all the hidden costs of opening and running a restaurant, from sourcing foodstuffs locally and ethically to being aware that the back-of-house folks are getting a living wage, health care, etc. Yes, I get all that. I understand and appreciate that there are these costs accruing that have been ignored and pushed under the rug for years.

I realize that, yes, I do have a choice. I face it every day that I go to Berkeley Bowl West or Mi Tierra Market or Trader Joe's in Berkeley. Do I buy commercial produce? Organic? Bulk flour? How was that steer raised and butchered? Did the workers get a fair wage for doing it? How about that artisanal cheese? Organic milk? Were the sheep read bedtime stories at night of humans leaping over a fence? Did that chicken experience free-range and free-of-antibiotic feed? Were my coffee beans bought at Peet's fair trade? What about that chocolate I bought?

So many questions, and we as consumers are entering into a very different world of "aware consumption," notwithstanding the ridiculous (and funny) portrayals of this on Portlandia. When we eat out, when we buy our produce and meats and such, we make a decision every day to support our own health and the economic livelihood of people in other countries by making ethical choices.

It's a pretty heavy process to carry through any restaurant's door or in front of a meat market display every day. Most of us want to remain blissfully unaware of the ramifications of our decision, and this article was certainly informative about all the secret costs facing these young entrepreneurs who are opening up businesses, trying to do the local, ethical, fair thing for their employees and customers. I appreciate it, even if it makes me crazy, and guilty, or nervous about my food choices.

I buy commercial produce because it's what I can realistically afford. I buy commercial meats and fish because it's what I can afford. I tend to eat more vegetables than I do meats and fish because it's a healthier choice to make. I go out to restaurants whose prices I can afford. As for The Ramen Shop or Juhu Beach Club or Hawker Fare, all of which seem to specialize in street food that is traditionally cheap, I am both unwilling and, to a degree, unable, to pay a premium to support all their overhead in order to support their ethical and fair businesses. This doesn't mean I don't wish them well, and I expect those out there who are well-heeled will continue to keep these places afloat — and more power to them. Bottom line is this: I can't afford it and I'm not willing to pay excess bucks for a plate of food, regardless of the pedigree of the chefs or their sourcing of quality ingredients. I'd like to be able to afford to pay these prices on a more regular basis, but it's not in the cards, unless I win the lottery or come into a pile of an inheritance that would allow me to do my part to support these business and the hidden lives behind them.