Restaurant hacks can make a good dish even better

I wouldn’t dream of asking a restaurant to tweak a dish. But a bit of culinary creativity on the part of a diner can make a good dish better.

Atlanta restaurant hacks
Taqueria del Sol’s refried-bean enchilada with pork green chili is better when topped with spicy turnip greens.

Photograph by Martha Williams

Because of my role as a restaurant critic, I wouldn’t dream of asking a restaurant to tweak a dish, serve the sauce on the side, or modify anything at all—lest I compromise my fiercely neutral professional taste. If you go out to dinner with me, you pretty much eat what is in front of you and keep your mouth shut.

But do I ever mess around with my food by, for example, ordering and crumbling a few slices of bacon over a vegetarian lasagna? You bet I do. At White Tiger in Athens, I especially love the vegetarian egg scramble with various brassica, but, like chef Ken Manring, I think it tastes better if you add some sausage to it. I don’t want to encourage you to sneak a bit of chopped barbecued pork from next door into the noodles you’re about to eat at an Asian restaurant (a true story confessed to me by a colleague), but a bit of culinary creativity on the part of a diner can make a good dish better—or at least acceptably different. I have learned, for example, that you can tone down some of the spicy curries at an Indian restaurant by ordering ras malai (a boiled milk dessert flavored with cardamom and rose water) and adding some to your incendiary savory course.

Buffets are an ideal way to create your own delicious mashups, but even regular restaurants can inspire ingenuity. You can easily replicate Dave Poe BBQ’s redneck lasagna (mac ’n’ cheese with a layer of Brunswick stew) at other barbecue joints. If you feel limited by the choice of condiments in a Vietnamese pho restaurant, try squeezing lime into some oily chili paste or sriracha to create a dipping sauce for the meatballs and brisket you fish out of the broth. I learn a lot by watching customers make their own sauces, even if it’s just adding a massive amount of black pepper to some sesame oil (which I’ve witnessed at hot pot restaurants and Korean barbecue spots).

I eat at Taqueria del Sol once or twice a week, and, in order not to get bored, I sometimes do things like lift chef Eddie Hernandez’s marvelous spicy turnip greens out of their pot liquor in order to distribute them on the surface of the refried-bean enchilada with pork green chili that I always order. I mush everything together into some weird, tasty stew and drink the turnip green broth on the side. Creativity has always been encouraged at Taqueria del Sol, where manager George Trussler ordered Mexican rice, spicy turnip greens, and ranchero beans so often for his staff meal that the soupy combo is now known as “the George” and is available as an off-menu item to in-the-know diners.

I can’t say that I approve of putting peanut sauce on a bacon cheeseburger (people do it routinely at Shake Shack) or imitating the stoners who wrap their burrito in a quesadilla at Chipotle. But I do appreciate the clever hacks that deliciously improvise on a restaurant’s good work.

This article appears in our April 2020 issue.