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On the Trail With a Cheap Eats Icon

A podcast profile and walking tour with food critic Robert Sietsema

Leo’s Latticini
Robert Sietsema

Robert Sietsema has been covering food in New York since way before food was cool. On this week’s episode of the Eater Upsell, the critic and cheap eats savant takes Dan to some of his favorite spots in Queens and explains how he went from chemist to rock musician to food critic. Listen to the full episode below and/or scroll down to read some choice Sietsema quotes.

On anonymity as a critic: I haven’t lost that obsession, which is all that really matters as far as I’m concerned. It makes it much easier for me to be one of the few anonymous critics. I can go into any restaurant and nobody notices I’m there. I mean, nowadays with my granddaughter, I even have a baby sometimes, so it’s like who would ever think a critic in their right mind would bring a baby into a restaurant? Let me say it’s an important tool, that it helps you to get exactly what everyone else gets. ... In many cases, if you are recognized or they think you have some pretense, they will make a sandwich that’s different, and then when I say, “Oh, this is the thickest sandwich I’ve ever seen in my life,” and then someone else comes and gets it and it only has one little piece of meat in it, then I will be a liar.

On why he prefers the cheap eats beat: Cheap eats always has an edge over everything else, because it’s something that’s, especially with my consumerist attitudes, it’s useful to the readers. You know, there’s always a debate, is criticism fantasy? Is it a kind of food pornography? Or is it practical? A balance has to be struck but I fall down on the side of practical, that for me, to tell people that they really ought to drag their asses off of the 7 line and walk down here and eat one of these hero sandwiches, I mean, it’s like history on a plate.

On the perfect subway snack, a samosa: This is the real subway snack. These are just absolutely fantastic. You see how good those look? The thing about the samosa, even though it may have been influenced by the empanada, is there is something much better about the samosa because the samosa is like a tetrahedron. It’s like your fist. It’s like eating your own fist, and it’s so delicious because it has cumin and a masala in there and sometimes a few errant peas and maybe even a little bit of carrot. It is the best subway snack in the world. For a dollar, you can almost fill yourself up on these giant samosas. For a dollar? Can you believe that?

On his influence over the decades: Most places, they either rise or fall based on their own excellence and other factors like how many people from that particular cultural group are willing to go there on a regular basis and what is the proximity to an active community of that group, et cetera, et cetera. So, it is only in a handful of places where I have really made a difference. And in those, I’m just proud as punch to have kept some places going.

On true objectivity: I often wonder about things like that. How they affect my response and the response of other food writers. For example, there’s something you eat after a long binge of several restaurants. Is it harder for that food to make an impression on you? If you’re in a bummed out mood, does the food taste worse? Does your review of a restaurant depend on the frame of mind you’re in when you eat there? Of course, it partly does. I mean, you’re expected to kind of level out these impressions, but at the same time, there’s no doubt that the personality of the reviewer always intrudes just a little too much into the account of the restaurant.

On the importance of the work: People are always telling me that I have the greatest job in the world, and I usually believe them. It’s a lot of work. Is it useful to the world? Only that I am chronicling a world that will seem so strange to people in the future. Because it runs contradictory to many of the tendencies of the world today. The overpopulation, the starvation. It’s ironic that we here in New York can kind of, without having a lot of money, really, enjoy whatever food we want. That we can go to a dinner among rich people and not feel like we’re overextending ourselves. It’s a blessing and yet it will seem ... What will it seem like 30 years from now?