Hi, we're continuing from an interesting threadlet on the Manhattan board, a tangential discussion between George Lynch and me in the thread called "The Same Boring Zagatish Chinese Places"). Please take a sec to go back there and read it. I'll quote back part of George's last reply there:
"people of an ethnic group that live in a concentrated ethnic neighborhood will know more about the local restaurants than visitors"
if by "visitors" you mean like first-time visitors, sure I'll agree with that. But I think that home field advantage declines steeply when compared to EXPERIENCED visitors. Many of the people on this site know more about where to eat best in chinatown than lots of Chinese living in the nabe (not chowhound chinese, though). Consider: if a Sri Lanken who REALLY digs American-style macaroni and cheese and had eaten it all over america came to the upper west side, wouldn't you agree that he/she would quickly find better mac-'n-cheese than 95% of the nabe's residents ever knew existed? In fact, does more than 25% of upper west siders really know or care where good Mac-N-Cheese can be found? Do many of 'em know great mac-n-cheese even when they find it? My money is with the Sri Lanken chowhound. And while this sounds obvious talking about a community like the upper west side where people look like me (white...actually, sort of beige), it's equally true of the inhabitants of Chinatown and Harlem.
In my experience, "highly regarded by the locals" just really doesn't count for much. Those preferences are accumulated and filtered through a series of steps, few of which put deliciousness first. I grew up in Long Island...highly esteemed by the locals were the Mobil Travel Guide type places; non-paper napkins and waiters in uniforms. Diners felt a false sense of security that uniformed waiters couldn't possibly serve them anything dirty, bad, or (worst of all) spicy. In Jackson Heights, the old Germans/Jews/Irish/Italians in my building have similar issues and preferences.
Others also have their (non-delicious) motivations: the young Columbians I know like the places with all the neon and the loud music. The older ones like the ones with the real cheap lunch specials or the submissive waitresses. None of this stuff, obviously, is about finding REALLY GREAT STUFF. Mind you, in all these groups are chowhounds who DO seek (and know!!) the really great stuff, and I aspire to meet them all (I love that fast, impassioned exchange with people while waiting at counters for takeout...and it makes me absolutely delirious with joy that I can send 'em here to this site to meet legions of others like us and exchange 24 hours per day). But, in general, we chowhounds can find stuff in one visit to a nabe that long-time residents never imagined. It's happened over and over and over again with me and the hounds I know.
Let me boil it down. A woman friend of mine got a new boyfriend, and kept telling me how I've got to meet him--he's really into beer and he's GERMAN, so he can share all sorts of info about beer. I met the guy, and started mentioning Dopplebocks and Marzens and Alts. He never heard of any of these styles. He drinks Warsteiner Pils (the Bud of Germany). And he says--with a trace of contempt--that American beers suck (he never tried any good ones, wouldn't appreciate 'em if he did). And when I tried to argue with him, my friend got livid. How dare I tell a German ANYTHING about beer?? Anyway, that's the same general idea.
Re: Goody's, I'll try them again. And while I promised myself I wouldn't go to Big Wong again ("fossilized" means a formerly-good place where everything tastes kind of dead and hazy, like nobody's tried to make anything vibrant for years), I will just to see if there's been a rennaisance. I'm a fairly thrifty guy, but a $6 lunch doesn't taste much better to me than a $9 one (I'll gladly pay the 3 bucks for something even a little better), so that's not a big diff. And I think Big Wong has tons of ambience...just not particularly chi-chi ambience. You're preaching to the choir on that one!
Kam Chue is exactly as you described. Puzzlingly inconsistent. Glad it's still cycling and isn't in a permanent trough! thanks for the report.
Lastly, if Zagats--or anything else--works for you, don't let me (or anyone else) talk you out of it. We all need more tools, not less!