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The TU Cha-Cha

January 30, 2019

Dancing is kind of funny. You move around a lot, but you never get anywhere. Sometimes, like with the waltz, you find yourself spinning around in circles.

One, two, three.
One, two, three.
One, two, three.

But the one that always got me was the cha-cha.

Forward, back.
Cha, cha, cha.
Back, forward.
Cha, cha, cha.

More than anything, I think the cha-cha is a good metaphor for the Best of the Times Union readers’ choice poll. Every year it gets a little bit better. But every year it also gets a little bit worse. So in the end, even though there’s a lot of work put into this mammoth project, it never moves forward.

The new poll is now live, and just like in the past, I’m compelled to share my thoughts.

For those who have been following at home, just a few weeks ago, for the very first time the Times Union opened up the floor to preliminary nominations. So the choices in the new poll are theoretically all vetted options by the newspaper readership.

This has produced some unexpected outcomes.

For starters, one of the five places up for “Best restaurant to open in the past year” is a chain. But a bigger problem is that another two businesses in the category aren’t really restaurants at all, but rather juice bars. And one of those juice bars is a place I’ve never heard of out in West Sand Lake. It has one Yelp review, and while that review is glowing, there were a lot of truly great restaurants that opened in the past year. 

It’s unfortunate that the Time Union is letting advertising appear on the ballot. Because not only is Daley’s on Yates paying for a banner ad on top of the section they are under consideration, the ad says “vote for us!” It even has the audacity to include the official Times Union Best of the Capital Region 2019 seal.

Other unexpected outcomes include restaurants that have found themselves in inappropriate categories.

TapAsia may have some Chinese dishes on the menu, but it’s not a Chinese restaurant. Neither is Sake Cafe. Their website promotes the place as the “Best Japanese Restaurant in Albany”, even if the kitchen may crank out some Chinese-American staples for those locals who expect to find General Tso at any Asian restaurant. Oh yeah, and one of our potentially best Chinese restaurants is a take out spot in Latham, according the the paper.

The tragedy here, is that we have some truly amazing Chinese restaurants, serving regional specialties from all around China. On the upside Bombers Burritos didn’t make the cut for Best Mexican.

But there is definitely some local confusion about Vietnamese and Thai restaurants too. Because Saigon Spring is listed under “Best Thai” and it’s Vietnamese. Pho Queen, on the other hand is actually a Thai restaurant, and it’s listed under “Best Vietnamese”. Of course, Pho Queen has done itself no favors by establishing this Thai restaurant under the banner of a dish associated with Vietnamese cuisine. But that doesn’t change the fact it’s a Thai restaurant, with a Thai chef, specializing in Thai food.

On the upside, the “Cheap Eats” section is now almost entirely devoid of national chains. I’m left scratching my head at Cracker Barrel, but am glad to see Mike’s, Gus’s, and Famous Lunch on the list. And I’m happy to see The Bear’s listed in Best Steakhouse. Stacks is included under Best Coffee Shop, that’s good. Thankfully, The Dutch Udder is in the running for Best Place to Get a Frozen Treat. Lost & Found made it onto the ballot on the strength of its outdoor space. And chefs Ian Brower (Lost & Found) and Josh Coletto (Nighthawks) are in the running for Best Chef. So it’s not all doom and gloom.

You know I love Cider Belly, and think they are perhaps the best cider donuts in the Capital Region. But do you know what they are not? A bakery. They don’t bake a blessed thing. It’s a donut shop. They fry dough. They fry dough brilliantly. But baking is a craft. Bakers are a rare breed of people. And bakeries are magical places. How the Times Union Readers conflated a donut shop with a bakery is beyond me, but this beloved business is in the running to win a category in which it doesn’t exist. Oh yeah, and Mrs. London’s doesn’t make the list, nor does Leah’s Cakery.

And then you have the category for Best Wine Store and no word of 22 2nd Street Wine Co.

On the plus side, the paper did switch out “Best Ethnic Market” for “Best Import Store” and I salute that positive change as well.

Cheers to the paper for trying to do better. Jeers for compromising the results with paid ads. Hopefully when the final results come out, they can be supplemented with some editors picks as well. Especially if a Japanese restaurants takes the prize for Best Chinese. Because that would be really embarrassing. Not just for the newspaper, but for the region as a whole.

And bravo to the social media team at Unbreakable Nutrition. I don’t know how this juice bar in a tiny hamlet of the Capital Region got on the ballot for Best New Restaurant, but whoever orchestrated the campaign deserves a raise, or at least some kind of bonus.

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