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Chasing the Perfect Meal

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Tyler Cowen didn't even need to look at a menu.

"Let me order," he said, asking the waiter for crystal shrimp, fried spicy beef served in a bamboo basket and Szechuan chili chicken, items which only appear on the Chinese-language menu.

Cowen doesn't speak Chinese but has been to the China Star in the Fair City Mall in Fairfax, often enough to know what to get.

To him, the China Star, an unprepossessing storefront next to a Kinko's, is more valuable than all those fine downtown dining establishments with complicated silverware and tiny portions.

"My staple is to go to places like this, mom and pops, holes in the wall," he said. "The local Chinese all know about this place."

It's easy to see why he's so attached to it when the food comes. The shrimp is coated in a white mixture of cornstarch and ginger and accentuated by bright green scallions. It looks simple and plain and tastes so intriguing that chopsticks are constantly drawn back to it. The beef is coated in cumin and comes with strands of scallions on top served inside a bamboo basket. It's a weekly special, according to the waiter.

"Scallions and cumin, you don't see that mix so much," said Cowen.

The Szechuan chili chicken comes on the bone coated with peppercorn and buried in chopped chilis.

"On the bone's always a good sign. The meat is juicier."

Since 1989, when Cowen first moved to Fairfax, he has been scouring the Washington, D.C. area looking for obscure delicacies like these.

"It should somehow challenge your palate," he said. "Things like this, they make you think about food in a different way. The third bite is different from the first bite."

EVERY TIME Cowen tries a new restaurant, he jots down a few notes about his meal and posts them on his Web site. In a single paragraph, he gives his opinion on hundreds of restaurants from Loudoun County, Va. to Baltimore.

"The idea is to approach [a restaurant] as an eater, as someone who wants to go to places where not everybody goes and record my experience," he said. "It's a labor of love."

Over the years, Cowen has become a sort of folk hero to an underground group of food adventurers, some of whom call themselves "chowhounds" who are loosely organized around an online message board.

The chowhounds keep a close watch on Cowen's list, said Marty Lederman, a chowhound from Montgomery County, Md.

"We tend to discuss it whenever he comes out with a new [entry]," he said. "There's usually a short discussion about it. ... Some people don't like the way he does things or disagree with his stuff, but almost everyone appreciates the amazing reference that he creates."

Cowen said he receives about an e-mail a day about his list.

"I get the feeling a lot of people read it. To me, that's rewarding," he said.

To Cowen, this is a good time to be a diner. After being written off as hopelessly dependent on predictable and safe fast-food franchises, Americans are discovering the joys of ethnic food. Gourmet supermarkets are proliferating.

The waves of immigrants settling and opening restaurants in middle class suburban communities are exposing Americans to more and more diverse menus. Look at the hundreds of posts on the chowhounds Web site — or the popularity of Cowen's list. This is an environment that will reward adventurous chefs.

"In my short lifetime, I've seen so much improvement," said Cowen. "It gets better every day."

Today, the new kids on the international culinary block are the Anglo-Saxon countries, he said, like the United States, Great Britain, Australia or New Zealand. "It's partly immigration, partly getting their act together."

WHEN COWEN is not eating or updating his Web site, he teaches economics at George Mason University focusing on globalization and the impact is has on culture and the arts.

"My core point of view is that people underestimate the benefits of capitalism on the arts."

That works for food as well, he said, even though he hesitates to call cooking an art.

"Great food you get from a mix of competition, experimentation and great pride," he said.

Whenever a nonprofit foundation, or an art museum or a group like UNESCO needs an economist to talk about the cultural impacts of globalization they call Cowen. As a result, he's often on the road, which gives him a chance to sample new restaurants. Over time, he has trained his economist's eye on dining establishments all over the world.

The old culinary powerhouses like France, he has found, are "stagnating" because of high wages, a unionized workforce and a 35-hour work week. By contrast, in South America for instance, a lot of young people will work for relatively little money.

One of Cowen's most memorable meals was at a huge churrascaria in Southern Brazil. He ate whatever was put in front of him, pastas and meats that "melt in your mouth."

It was hard to put away so much delicious food, he recalled, but he was able to keep up the pace with his fellow diners.

"And then the [waiter] comes up to me all apologetic, 'We'll be ready with your main course soon, sir.'"

The best French chefs now work in Germany because it's "liberating" to be somewhere where experimentation with food is more accepted. Budapest has "fantastic food," as well. And, of course, "you can get incredible meals in Mexico for $3 cooked by a grandmother."

CLOSER TO HOME, the top two U.S. food cities are New York and Los Angeles, but Washington D.C. is a close third although Houston is also up there.

"Here's definitely better than Boston, it's better than Atlanta," Cowen said. "Miami's outstanding for Latin, Caribbean. It's outstanding for nouvelle. You get past those and it's weak."

"The Bay Area is great, but it's a little unwieldy. Traffic is worse; it's spread out more."

Cowen's travels in the United States have led him to an interesting discovery: "In these midwestern cities with old baseball teams, you have to worry about your food."

Places that were built on big industry like Milwaukee or Pittsburgh "were ethnic food leaders in 1910," he said. They haven't adapted with the changing tides of immigration, he said. As a result, they offer great pizza or great diners but not much else. Of course, exceptions exist. Cincinnati, for instance, makes a mean bowl of chili.

The D.C. area boasts fine Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Afghan or Indian, he said. He's found "more good Chinese places here. ... Just when I thought Chinese food was dead. I'd written it off."

"If you see a Chinese place that has jellyfish, it's almost certainly a good place," he said. "If they go to the trouble of getting jellyfish, there's something going on there. If they have a lot of different kinds of fish, it means they're flying a lot in which is a good sign."

A diner can find good Korean food, too, in Annandale, but nowhere else, he added.

SO FAR, Cowen has been able to stay out of the spotlight. Very few of the restaurants he frequents know about his ethnic dining expertise. And he'd like to keep it that way.

"The restaurants, I don't think they're clued into these networks," he said. "The places I praise, a lot of these owners don't have much English. They're not on the Internet too much."

But that may be difficult. A couple weeks ago, he was the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals in Baltimore.

"He talked about the globalization of food and how the different ethnic tastes are just about everywhere and so forth," said Daniel Mare, executive director of the IACP, which is made up of chefs, restaurant managers, cooking teachers, food writers, photographers and food marketers.

"He really blew our members away. They just really loved him."