When Michele Romeo logged into Yelp to review a Boise restaurant, she did not intend to vent.
The street tacos at Taqueria El Torito had been tasty. The tamales are worth the trip.
But then Romeo noticed a post from a fellow Yelp Elite reviewer. “Being from California, we were on the hunt for good Mexican food,“ the author began. “... And by good, I mean AUTHENTIC.”
“I have to get this off my chest,” Romeo responded on Yelp. “My kneejerk reaction to reviews that contain ‘I’m from California, so I know authentic ... .’ I lived there, too, for 20 years. How is it one becomes an expert on food authenticity by virtue of being California refugees in Idaho? I also lived in New York and Seattle and Portland and Bend ... none of which make me an ethnic food expert. In my humble Yelp opinion.”
When all-knowing newcomers throw shade on Boise, Romeo can’t help chuckling. And groaning. Even if it was less than five years ago when she escaped the tourist onslaught in Bend, Oregon, by moving to Eagle with her husband Mike. Even if they’d spent two decades in the San Francisco Bay Area before seeking a quieter retirement in Bend.
“I can’t tell you how many times I read a review where somebody makes a comment, ‘Well, I’m from California, so I know good food — good Thai food, Middle Eastern food — and this is not it,’ ” Romeo explains when I track her down by phone. “Or, ‘Finally I found something in Boise that’s decent, because I know decent and you can’t find it here.’ ”
It’s not just dining. Or social media. A couple of weeks before Romeo’s fuse got lit on Yelp, she overheard two women talking in an Eagle restaurant. “Yes, well, I’m from California, too, so I know how this should be done,” Romeo remembers one saying. “Whatever they were talking about was not how they thought it should be taken care of in Eagle.”
“It just kind of makes me — take a breath,” Romeo admits.
I’m having trouble catching my own breath, I’m laughing so hard.
It’s all just human nature, says Jeffrey Lyons, an assistant professor of political science at Boise State University.
“The people obviously chose to leave California — and this is anecdotal on my end — but I do think there’s still some level of California pride in many of them,” Lyons said. “Or this idea that they had this unique experience.
“They think they have something to contribute that maybe a lot of Idahoans that have lived here their whole lives don’t have. And I don’t even think it’s necessarily intended to be found elitist or holier than thou or anything like that.”
So by telling us how lame our restaurants are, Californians are trying to help us?
And Boiseans aren’t supposed to start flicking finger steaks at their heads?
“I do think there’s probably a bit of sensitivity on Idahoans’ part, right?” Lyons explains with a chuckle. “So folks that have lived here all their life are seeing all these changes in the Valley, all of the growth — they are probably not perceiving all of this as positive.”
These factors color our judgment. Idahoans see Californians as having “the audacity to lecture us on how we should eat food or whatever the thing is,” Lyons says. “It’s a little bit of this kind of ingroup, outgroup thing, which we talk a lot about in social psychology.”
In other words, if you identify as an Idahoan, you begin splitting the world into “us” and “them.” You make assumptions. “You start to process people kind of through a lens,” Lyons says.
But isn’t it possible that some of these Californians actually are holier than thou?
“Some of them probably are,” Lyons admits, laughing.
Certainly, not all are like that. John and Julie Cuevas moved to Boise last year to raise their family and open Madre, a boutique taqueria in the Lusk District near Boise State. John is a James Beard-nominated chef. His most popular item? An Idaho potato and chorizo taco.
When I tell the Cuevases about Romeo’s mini-rant on Yelp, they can relate.
“Let me tell you how I feel about Yelp,” John rages, before he and Julie burst into laughter.
As lifelong Californians, the Cuevases bring a unique perspective. When I mention that Romeo hears most know-it-all California commentary coming from younger people, Julie Cuevas isn’t surprised.
“Maybe they haven’t had, dare I say, enough life experience where they might have the awareness of how they might be offensive to a new environment,” she says. “We were very sensitive when we first came here of speaking, I guess negatively, about anyone or anything through all of our experiences.
“That being said,” Julie continues, “I think if you had New Yorkers or Chicagoans or anyone from a more densely populated area that prided themselves on food — like San Diego, L.A., San Francisco — I think any of those people would hang their hat on that and say ‘I have a more qualified palate, maybe.’ ”
“You’re going to have people shooting our windows out after this column goes out,” she exclaims, causing more laughter.
“From someone who grew up in San Diego,” John Cuevas says, “and a chef’s perspective, I will say that, hands down, Mexican food in Southern California is one of a kind. And if you’re trying to replicate it in Idaho, people are either gonna love you or they’re gonna hate you.”’
Plenty of California transplants walk into Madre. Some aren’t expecting the restaurant to specialize in creativity and high-quality ingredients instead of SoCal street tacos.
“They comment on our beans a lot,” John says, “since it’s the closest thing they’ve had since they’ve been to San Diego.”
Boise’s restaurant scene will never be San Diego’s. Even if it feels like every Californian will eventually move here. Despite my snarky headline, though, I am grateful for California’s impact on Boise food options. Restaurants like Madre help change the game.
Nevertheless, transplants will keep longing for familiar tastes of home.
“We wish we could find Chinese food,” John admits, “that didn’t serve brown gravy on everything.”
“My craving is ramen,” Julie adds.
It’s all just part of being human, remember?
California newcomers will keep sharing their homeland memories and experiences. And Idahoans will keep oozing resentment — which, by the way, isn’t much fun to receive. “Oh my god, it gets under your skin,” Julie admits. “If you’re aware of it, you can just feel it.”
Romeo, who lived near Napa Valley wine country, admits to bringing her own dismissive California attitude to Idaho.
During an early visit to Boise, she came across a dry riesling from Garden City’s Coiled Wines at a restaurant. “Ha-ha, isn’t this cute?” she thought. “Somebody in Idaho is making a dry riesling.”
As it turns out, Idaho’s wine industry is “pretty darned lovely,” she says.
“I think maybe it’s the conceit of any of us who move to Boise thinking it was sort of a backwaters city, as some people thought it was when we were first introduced to it,” Romeo says. “To really find out what a great city it is for all kinds of things — it’s just really a special place.”
Keeping it that way might be something Californians truly can teach Idahoans about.
“Maybe that’s the flip side of the ‘I’m from California so I know better’ in the younger voice,” Romeo says. “To say in a little more aged voice, ‘Oh my god, I lived in California all those years. I saw what happened there. I hope it doesn’t happen here.’ You just really want to respect where you are.”