A Los Angeles restaurateur raises issues surrounding immigrant labor and the real cost of so-called "cheap eats" — and the questions reverberate on social media in Seattle and across the country.
“Everyone loves a cheap eats list,” Diep Tran observed on NPR’s blog The Salt last weekend. She’s the chef/owner of Good Girl Dinette, a Vietnamese restaurant and diner in L.A.’s Highland Park.
“These lists infuriate me,” she writes. Her essay, “Cheap Eats, Cheap Labor: The Hidden Human Costs of Those Lists,” looks at how “cheap eats” is often code for places run and staffed by immigrants, where they pay the price for your $1 tacos or $6 pad Thai with their own bottom-of-the-barrel wages and sacrifice of life outside work. She writes from first-hand experience, having grown up in her relatives’ pho restaurants.
Tran hit a nerve, and her essay got shared far and wide on social media. Seattle restaurateurs weighed in on Facebook: Chef/owner Heong Soon Park of Chan called it a “great write-up.” Miles James of Dot’s Butcher & Deli commented, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve explained to people why a $12 sandwich should actually be $15 and not $7. The vast majority of the people who complain that it’s too expensive are the same people who want ethically raised/organic produce and believe $15 minimum wage is a bare minimum.” Taylor Hoang of Pho Cyclo (and executive director of Seattle’s nonprofit Ethnic Business Coalition) responded, “So true!! Mainstream media play a big role in facilitating this cycle. I cringe every time I see a ‘cheap eats’ list in our local magazine and newspaper.”
At the Seattle Times, my colleague Tan Vinh and I have been putting together the ol’ annual cheap eats lists for the last couple years, based on the Seattle Times cheap eats reviews that come out every week. But, in our defense, we’ve also been thinking a lot about this very issue. And — despite some vociferous commenter protests — we’ve changed our definition of “cheap” to include places that, gasp, charge more than $10 for good food.
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This is Seattle, 2017. Yes, remarkably inexpensive pho still exists, but even that has gone up a buck or two (or three). As I wrote in an article about our city’s increasingly excellent affordable food options in November, bargain-basement, dirt cheap just isn’t realistic here anymore. Your “cheap” lunch or dinner now might cost between $10 and $20 — not always $10 or under.
Yikes?! But (from my article): How much do you pay for a cup of coffee nowadays? How much has your rent gone up, or how much more is your house worth, if you’re lucky enough to own one? Are you, in these boom times, making more than you used to? Restaurants must contend with increased food costs and astronomically rising rents, too, not to mention paying workers a wage that provides a fighting chance at a less-than-miserable life here.
Under our cheap eats rubric, we wholeheartedly recommend the great pho at Dong Thap Noodles, with bowls starting at $7.50 (with housemade noodles!). And we entirely endorse the also-great pho at Ba Bar, which starts at $10.50 and goes up to $14 (with socks-knocking-off rich, nuanced broth). Ba Bar owner Eric Banh has been keenly aware of the cheap eats problem; he’s been defending his “pricey” pho since 2013, citing the good ingredients, the care, the true cost of making it. It seems to be working: Banh just opened a second Ba Bar in South Lake Union, and a third’s en route for University Village.
Diep Tran’s pho at Good Girl Dinette goes for $11-$12 — if it were in Seattle instead of L.A., we’d call it cheap eats. A $12 sandwich, gasp again, qualifies too.
Tran is calling on food media to fight “the underlying racism” that makes us think certain kinds of food should be really, really cheap, but she’s calling on consumers, too. “We need to recognize that the narratives we tell ourselves about immigrant resourcefulness and tenacity also makes us willfully blind to the human cost that makes the $3 banh mi possible… part of a broader restaurant culture that devalues labor and ignores the consequences of that devaluation.”
She also takes issue with the nomenclature “cheap eats” itself, tying it to historical notions of “cheap” immigrant labor. She suggests lists of “affordable eats” instead. Language is fluid, and “cheap” doesn’t necessarily carry the connotations of shoddiness or low value that it used to; for the moment, at least, we’re staying with the name, while we broaden the price point.
The questions remain, though: How much is too much for cheap eats? And should we even be calling them that?