In between appointments yesterday, I stopped for lunch at King of Thai Noodle House near Union Square in San Francisco. A sign outside proudly declares that this is "the first authentic Thai Noodle House in the US." Thousands must pass this restaurant everyday and the place looked moderately busy.
What the popularity of a restaurant seems to usually indicate is that the food is not bad and sometimes that it is in fact good. Location, local tastes, lunch specials, etc. all play a role in determining if a restaurant is actually going to be popular. Food is just one element after all.
Eager to try something new in the area, I grabbed a seat at the lunch counter against the wall and took a cursory look through the menu. When someone appeared to take my order I asked if stir-fried or soup noodles were most popular. I was surprised to learn that stir fried noodles were most popular here, despite the store's signs featuring a bowl of soup noodles. She went on to explain that the most most popular dish was [gasp] pad thai!
What does this little experiment show? That economist Tyler Cowen is probably right in this respect about ordering Thai in restaurants. He says "It is so easy to make the food too sweet, appealing to lowest-common-denominator tastes or masking deficiencies in the food’s preparation."
You have to know when the conventional wisdom is wrong. When people are determining the "best food," it usually is wrong. The so-called wisdom of the crowds, I find here, guides you to the mean or simply put: what's mediocre.
Instead, I looked for something different and contrarian. I ordered the stewed duck soup. It was epic. Rich and unctuous, it was almost like a mushroom broth, but with with a tender duck's leg inside. It was way more satisfying than a run of the mill tom yum or pho soup that you might compare it to and now I have discovered the wonders of duck broth! A slight bit of fish sauce and red chili sauce and it was perfect.