Four years ago, Zach Brooks walked into Hing Won, a Chinese restaurant near his office in midtown, and noticed two lines. On his left, a bunch of white guys in business suits waited next to a steam table to order Americanized Chinese food like beef with broccoli and fried rice. On his right, a line of largely Asian folk were ordering from a menu printed in Chinese. Brooks knew which line he belonged in, and Midtown Lunch was born.
Soon, Brooks was dedicating most of his waking hours writing about the culinary wonders that existed cheek-by-jowl with midtown’s generic delis and salad-and-sandwich chains, and last year quit his job as a music programmer for Sirius Radio so that he could work on the site full-time. Earlier this week, Brooks announced that Midtown Lunch would be expanding to include Downtown New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles sites, and that he’d be relocating to L.A. with his wife and young son, Harry. About 20 minutes after he threw the switch on downtown and Philly this morning, Brooks spoke with Fork in the Road about his plans for Midtown Lunch, what he’ll miss about midtown, and why he won’t be becoming bi-coastal anytime soon.
So when do you leave for L.A.?
The week after next will be my last week in New York.
What’s going to happen to Midtown Lunch after you leave?
I’m still going to be running the midtown portion of Midtown Lunch; I’m going to be integral part of all the sites. I’m not selling the midtown part of it or giving it to somebody else. Midtown Lunch is a community; it’s more than single person blog. As much as I’d like to think everyone cares so much about what I think, so much of content is driven by the readers and things they see or eat, and their comments and the forums. Much of the site isn’t going to change, but as far as having people who are actually going to go out and eat food, for those kinds of posts I have a group of contributors, many of whom have blogs of their own and will be very familiar to the Midtown Lunch audience. I’m going to be relying on those contributors to do the eating for me in my absence, to go out and eat food and take photos and post about actual food. It’s not like employees or a team of people in a room. That’s why I think the transition is really going to be not so noticeable to everyone, except maybe my mom, who reads everything I write.
Who will these contributors be?
Nothing’s completely solidified, so I don’t want to say. Once the whole downtown and Philly thing is up and running and I have a chance to breathe, then I’ll be able to say. But the Midtown Lunch readers I’m pretty sure will be able to figure out a shortlist. But Sam Sifton is not going to write for Midtown Lunch, as much as I would love that. I mean, he ate at Chicken House, which is a completely gross dive near the Times building. I don’t think he’s too busy to write about gross places. Sam, there is a place for you at Midtown Lunch!
So will you become bi-coastal?
[laughs and laughs and laughs] Midtown Lunch would have to be bought out by a very large company for me to become bi-coastal. If I could pay for plane tickets with my fat I would become bi-coastal. But Street-Meat-Palooza is in May or June, so I’m using that as an excuse to come back and stuff my face with New York street meat. And I will be back for the Vendy Awards; I wouldn’t miss that for anything. I’m sure there will be many jealous moments as I read the site from L.A. I never thought in a million years I would miss midtown.
What will you miss the most about it?
I’ll definitely miss the street food. As amazing as the street food scene in L.A. is, I don’t think there’s an equivalent to the halal chicken and rice with hot sauce that you can get from Kwik Meal or the Trini-Paki Boys. Those carts, which do their own brand of ethnic street food, I don’t think they exist in L.A. Much as I’ll enjoy the taco trucks and Kogi, I’ll miss that.
Do you have any trepidation about being the new kid on the block?
I’m incredibly mindful of going to a new city and starting a food blog. I’ve always believed that blogging is a community; the thing Midtown Lunch has never been is an island unto itself. If I read about a place on a blog or magazine, or hear about a place that Robert [Sietsema] went to, I credit it. It’s about linking to each other and creating this community. I’m just a fat guy who likes to eat, and I’m super-excited about going to these places. All I plan on doing is immersing myself into an already existing food community; I’ve already started reading a ton of food blogs out there and making a list of a ton of places I want to go. It’s not like, “Hey, I discovered this place no one’s ever been to.” Midtown Lunch has never been like that. There are bloggers who purposely don’t read other people’s work so they can stake a claim, and maybe it’s honest in that they didn’t get a recommendation from somebody else, but it isolates you.
The food blogging world is obviously a much more crowded place than when you started Midtown Lunch. Do you think that’s good, or do you think a monster’s been created?
It’s not just relegated to the food world; it’s the net in general. That question goes way beyond my pay grade; I have no idea. I’m just happy I’ve been able to carve out a niche for myself and at any blog that’s non-corporate, most people will tell you their success came as complete surprise and was unintentional. It’s just about passion and writing what your passion is about. If other people are excited, you’ll be successful. The competition is from other sites that are trying to occupy much larger spaces on the net. Midtown Lunch didn’t launch to compete with Eater — it was just me and eating and I really love lunch. I think people make too big a deal about the competition thing. There’s so many food blogs and the truth is they don’t all get read. They might get linked to because larger blogs are looking for content, but in the larger run don’t grow audiences in significant numbers. The good ones run to the top, and the bad ones don’t.
Do you think that going from midtown, where you walk everywhere, to L.A., where you’ll have to drive, will have any effect on the kinds of places you cover?
I never really wanted to expand for that exact reason, because there is no place like midtown. There’s no other place like midtown in the country, with so many people in such a small space with so many places to eat. The site could never have become what it’s become in any other place. But maybe it’s not about finding the midtowns in other cities; it’s about finding Midtown Lunches in other cities. The L.A. and Philly sites are not going to be the way that Midtown Lunch has been, taking a small area of the city and focusing like a laser beam on that area. It’s more about going to those places and finding the Midtown Lunches which have gone beyond that location, this special kind of lunch under 10 bucks that’s interesting, authentic, unique, the thing that makes your coworker who eats the same sandwich everyday go, ‘That’s weird, that’s dirty.’ That’s Midtown Lunch. L.A. is not going to be seven-post-a-day blog about going downtown and writing about every single opening and closing. It’s just about living adventures in urban lunching.
Have you chosen where you want to eat first?
I have a place picked out, but I don’t want to give it away. It’s is a recommendation I read on Squid Ink, LA Weekly’s food blog. It’s a recommendation from the Guru, which is Jonathan Gold’s title on Midtown Lunch L.A.
What do you think will be your biggest challenge out there?
The biggest problem I’ll have is trying to avoid my favorite chains, which don’t fit in here in New York. When Baja Fresh opened, that was a big deal because there is no Baja Fresh here and the burrito scene is so bad. In L.A., Baja Fresh is not a Midtown Lunch. Neither is Panda Express or El Pollo Loco, which I love. That’s my hardest challenge: I love Midtown Lunch, but there is some good chain food in L.A. But no one needs me to write about In-N-Out Burger, unless they opened in midtown. That would be the biggest story of all time.