Off the Clock: For Mason Economics Professor, Good Ethnic Meals Make the Grade

Posted: December 21, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

For 14 years, economics professor Tyler Cowen has eaten his way to local fame. Hidden among the nooks and crannies of the George Mason web server is his tasty treat—the most extensive ethnic restaurant guide in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.

Cowen’s 70-page ethnic food guide is updated every six months and covers more than 70 cuisines. In it, you’ll find short, straightforward, and sometimes blunt reviews of hundreds of restaurants.

Cowen isn’t afraid to mince words. In his review of Thanh Son Tofu in Falls Church, he writes, “They serve one main dish, tofu. That’s right, just slabs of tofu, done three main ways. Five for a dollar. The best tofu around, period. Tofu to die for. Tofu. Wonderful tofu. The Vietnamese love this place. By the way, you’d better be in the mood for tofu.”

Cowen knows where to find the best shrimp, the tastiest curry, and the spiciest Kung Pao chicken. He doesn’t speak Chinese, but he orders off menus that only the Chinese customers know about. He does speak German, but writes, “There are no German places in this area worth eating at. Don’t even think about it, as they say.”

He likes places with atmosphere—loud locals, loud music, or the owner’s grandmother sitting in the back booth knitting. The best places to eat, he says, are often in ugly strip malls where immigrants can afford the rent to start a restaurant. He doesn’t like expensive meals that aren’t worth their salt. And he’ll try most anything.

The list of foods he’s tried runs longer than the restaurants—everything from jellyfish to brains, but for Cowen it’s the taste that’s most important. “I’ve tried insects—they’re not that interesting. They taste mostly like potato chips. I don’t eat potato chips, so why would I eat insects?”

But even an obsessed food fan like Cowen has his limits. “Everyone has a line, and I draw mine at worms,” he says.

What he does like are the basics—pork, fish, beef, chicken. He likes it when food surprises him, and he loves to try to figure out what ingredients are in the meal or how it was prepared. His three criteria for a good restaurant are that it has good food, it makes you think about food and eating in a different way, and that it gets better with memory. “You can have many great meals that are ultimately forgettable. The best ones develop their own history in your life and make you look forward to going back.”

Tyler Cowen and family
Tyler Cowen, economics professor, samples restaurant fare with his wife and stepdaughter.
Photo courtesy Tyler Cowen

His food research has brought him local and international fame. The Washington Post profiled him a few years ago as “The Lone Critic.” He’s even been a keynote speaker for the Association of International Culinary Professionals. And Cowen gets at least one e-mail a day from local readers of his guide. “A friend says that Taco Jalisco down on Rt. 1 near Ft. Belvoir was good and authentic,” begins a recent e-mail. Or, “Thank you for your recommendation of the Lebanese place near the intersection of Lee Highway and Hillwood—we went last night and had a great meal.” Whether it’s to suggest a restaurant or a meal, to comment on a review, or to give a review of their own, Cowen’s loyal readers have helped spread the word.

The director of the Mercatus Center at Mason, Cowen does extensive research on the economics of the arts and the globalization of world’s cultures—including how globalization changes the way the world eats. He earned his BS in Economics from Mason in 1983, then went on to get his PhD at Harvard University. He returned to Mason to teach in 1989.

A self-taught cook, Cowen has traveled to about 65 countries and has sampled hundreds of dishes. He frequently brings his wife or stepdaughter with him to eat, but isn’t afraid to go alone and start a conversation with the people around him. His parents were very conservative about food when Cowen was growing up, so Cowen thinks his passion for food comes from traveling. “It’s tragic that I can only live in one place,” says Cowen. “I travel for both work and pleasure, but really it’s the food I look forward to.”

Sometimes his love of food can get him in trouble, though. Just a few weeks ago, Cowen was out to dinner with his wife to celebrate their second anniversary, and she asked him if he remembered what they had talked about the night he had proposed. “No,” Cowen answered, not at all to his wife’s surprise. “But I remember what you ordered.”

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