Fixing the Ballot
Does the Albany Times Union matter? It’s a fair question.
What does it matter what Cheryl Clark says about a restaurant, or Ruth Fantasia, or Steve Barnes? They are just individuals. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, one can call upon Yelp, Urban Spoon, Trip Advisor, Open Table, or simply Google a restaurant to read countless reviews and see how it stacks up.
These online reviews capture multiple dining experiences over many nights from many different perspectives. The information that can be gleaned from these sources is invaluable. Sure, sometimes there may be conflicting reports, but when you find a place that is almost unanimously loved, you know it’s a winner.
Like when you search for the highest rated sandwich under the Delis category Cardona’s Market pops up to the top of the list with 4.5 stars on 36 reviews. That’s phenomenal, and even if your heart belongs to another Italian deli, surely you can agree that Cardona’s is indeed one of the best sandwich makers in the Capital District.
But the newspaper does indeed matter. It matters a lot. Especially when it conducts a broad poll of our populace and makes pronouncements about what things are The Best of The Capital Region. You know, like Subway.
Every year this survey kills me. Instead of instilling a sense of pride, the results widely elicit a feeling of shame. This year I’m being proactive, and I’d like your help.
You may be wondering, what’s the big deal? The poll is simply a popularity contest. Of course Subway would win. There are more of them than any other sandwich shop, so naturally they will get more votes.
Here’s the problem.
This poll affects not only how the region sees itself, but also how those outside the region see us. When people consider relocating to the area or take the next step and move here, among other things, this annual poll is a resource for information. Even established residents use the results to help them make purchasing decisions. This is why businesses campaign for votes and try to maintain their reputation as The Best Whatever in the Capital Region.
For the past several years the poll results have not painted a flattering picture of the region. And frankly, it infuriates me. The area may not be the most cosmopolitan in the country, but a lot of our best stuff is never recognized by the survey.
And I’m starting to realize that part of the problem is the ballot itself.
Take Chinese restaurants for example. Ala Shanghai does not even get a mention in the Times Union poll despite being far and away the most highly rated Chinese restaurant on Yelp with 4.5 stars on 49 reviews. Why? Well, because it is competing in a category called, Best Chinese/Japanese/Korean restaurant and we happen to live in a place that loves its teppanyaki.
We actually have a handful of decent Chinese restaurants, which include Shining Rainbow, CCK, Hong Kong Bakery, Taiwan Noodle and Emperor’s. Don’t even dare try to tell me that Tai Pan in Clifton Park should be on that list. But that’s beside the point.
What we don’t have is a ton of Indonesian or Vietnamese restaurants. Still, that’s no excuse to merge these separate and distinct regional cuisines with Thai to form the dreaded Best Indonesian / Thai / Vietnamese restaurant category. Kinnarree, which I believe to be the best Thai in the area, doesn’t even get mentioned, since it’s squeezed out by the fine dining Indonesian restaurant Yono’s.
And those are only some of the worst offenders, I could go on.
Other categories could be made more specific in order to hone in on local businesses that are truly special and less on generic chains that mar our culinary landscape. Take the Best Sandwich category for example. If that were changed to Best Italian Deli (of which there are countless in the region) Subway would fall off the list, and we might be treated to a sampling of truly delicious sandwich choices.
This isn’t just about complaining. Did I mention that I have a plan?
Don’t tell anyone, but I did a little digging and found out that Michael Janairo at the Times Union is responsible for putting together the poll this year. And he has asked me for my thoughts and suggestions in writing so that they can be shared with the team over there.
But I want you involved. Yes, you. Last year, I took on a similar campaign a bit further downstream, and did not get your input early on. That was a mistake. In the months ahead, I’m going to ask for your support in pushing this agenda forward, and am looking forward to many conversations about what places are truly the best in the region.
For now, please tell me what else you think can be done to improve the survey. Be as specific as you wish. With your input I will cobble together an open letter to the Times Union that I hope I can get many of you to sign (or at least leave a comment with your support). We may or may not be able to get the changes on the ballot, but it’s a worthwhile effort to try.
You can see the results of last year’s Best of the Capital Region here. The section that pertains to dining is here. Although there are some food related entries in the goods and services section too.
The categories that really concern us are:
1) Best local grocery store
2) Best wine store
3) Best beer store
4) Best bakery
5) Best ethnic market
6) Best farmers market
7) Best health food store (single location)
8) Best restaurant to open in the past year
9) Best restaurant for kids
10) Best hamburger
11) Best pizza
12) Best sandwich shop
13) Best Chinese/Japanese/Korean restaurant
14) Best Indonesian/Thai/Vietnamese restaurant
15) Best Indian/Pakistani restaurant
16) Best Mexican/Central/South American restaurant
17) Best Italian restaurant
18) Best ice cream
19) Best hot dogs
20) Best sports bar
21) Best coffee joint (single location)
22) Best diner
I have some very strong feelings for improving most of these. And there are notable categories that are conspicuously absent. Seriously, how can there be no Best fish fry? And it’s absolutely criminal that there is no category for Best apple orchard.
You’ve seen a few of my thoughts above. Now it’s time to add your own below, or forever hold your peace.