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October 4, 2012 at 6:00 AM

What are America’s most popular cheap eats?

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Seattle won five spots on Urbanspoon’s list of the nation’s most popular 100 cheap eats. Our cheap eats champs: Bakery Nouveau, Paseo, Red Mill Burgers, Salumi, and Zippy’s Giant Burgers. To my surprise — because this assessment is considerably more rigorous than most online lists — Portland only scored one win, for Voodoo Donuts. (Have these people never heard of Waffle Window? Pine State Biscuits?) Florida came out on top with 10 listings, followed by Texas with 9.

I asked the Urbanspoon folks just what they meant by “most popular,” and how they did their measurements. The answer: They churned their considerable masses of restaurant data through an algorithm weighing blogger posts, consumer reviews, critic reviews, page views, and up and down votes. (Critic reviews, for instance, got extra points.) They also made sure they didn’t “double count,” that is, give credit for both a positive written review and that reviewer’s “thumbs up” vote.

Beyond the math, the final results also passed the “bullshit test,” said marketing manager Conrad Saam — all of the listings made sense, to his view, and reactions have mainly centered on whether a listing qualified as “cheap,” not whether it deserved to be on a national best-of list. With 25,000 to 30,000 points of data about restaurants coming in to the site every day, he said, it “starts to build a very accurate picture of the overall market.”

As Urbanspoon is based in Seattle (it was founded here and later acquired by IAC), I also wondered if Seattle won extra spots on the list because we might be heavily represented among Urbanspoon users. Saam said no.

“We’re actually really evenly distributed around the country. We might have a slightly higher penetration in Seattle, but it’s not enough to skew the numbers in the lists we’ve done,” he said.

The biggest issues he’s seen with skewed data, actually, comes from restaurant reviews in vacation spots like Cape Cod and Vegas and large swaths of Florida. That’s one reason they do lists like this based on annual data, not monthly numbers.

Saam’s take on why Seattle did pretty well:

“This is not mathematical at all, but my guess is (it’s because) Seattle has a really cool, progressive cheap eats scene. Rattle them off the top of your head — there are a ton of very, very cool lunch places that are under ten bucks…

“My favorite is Tat’s. I love Tat’s, that is the best place to get a cheese steak, better than Pat’s and Geno’s in Philly.”

Now, that sounds like a debate. Any other spots that would be on your own best-of list? Tacos El Asadero? Slim’s Last Chance? Dick’s or Ezell’s (or Heaven Sent)? Little Uncle, even? If Bakery Nouveau, why not Besalu? Put ideas in the comments, and we’ll see if they’ll do a top 200 next time.

Photo: Red Mill burgers by Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times

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