If you want to measure the soul of a city, browse its Yelp reviews. Yelp is where every town airs it out—the cheers and jeers, the prides and petty grievances, the desperate longings and most deeply held grudges. Amid the anecdotes about better-than-average omelettes and tales of prolonged wait times, you can begin to discern what a community values, how it reacts in the face of even the most minor of adversities, and whether there’s a local branch of the post office that isn’t the devil’s own Skinner Box. (Nope.) Every city’s Yelp reviews are really judgments of the city itself.
To commemorate fifteen years of providing restaurant tips and unfiltered glimpses inside the American psyche, Yelp recently assembled a set of word clouds comparing the language used in reviews across thirty cities to determine which phrases define them. In this case, Texas is represented by Austin, Dallas, and Houston—which, of course, presents its own problems. But we can still use them to triangulate an idea of what Texans are Yelping about, as well as to identify the slight yet significant regional differences that make them unique.
Let’s start with what we all have in common:
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We’re always thinking about breakfast.
All three cities had breakfast foods somewhere in their top three, suggesting we’re a state that values it as the most important meal of the day—preferably when it’s made in a form we can eat while sitting in traffic. “Kolache” and “breakfast taco” appear on all three cities’ lists, while “kolache” took the top spot in Houston and (surprise, surprise) “breakfast taco” is the defining word of Austin.
We’re loyal to our brands.
Dallas’s love of shopping at (and complaining about) Kroger makes it the number one phrase for the city. The grocery chain pops up across all three cities’ word clouds, along with Sonic and Tex-Mex mainstay Chuy’s. Dallas and Houston both love—or again, love to berate—Papa John’s Pizza, while Dallas definitely has a thing for Waffle House. Finally, Austin keeps it proudly local for Alamo Drafthouse and the soon-to-be-defunct Hut’s Hamburgers.
Everyone likes Tex-Mex.
This one’s so obvious it barely merits a mention, though it’s fascinating to see how preoccupied we are by Tex-Mex, granular details and all. Unlike any other places in America, we will drill down to search everything from tortilla soup to barbacoa to green chiles on Yelp, creating word clouds that double as taqueria menus. (Tip: if you’re thinking of opening a Tex-Mex spot in Dallas or Houston, people are hankering for elote.)
And pecan pie.
The sticky treat is a mainstay in all three cities, alongside peach cobbler and donut holes. Meanwhile, Houston is into tres leches cake, while Dallas loves its banana pudding and popsicles. Considering that most other cities barely mention sweets at all, they make a collective argument for Texas as one of the most dessert-obsessed states in the nation.
We all share the same slang.
Every Texas city on the list casually drops “y’all” into its reviews, never mind the extra hassle of inserting the apostrophe. We also like to talk about our “kiddo.”
And here are some of our delightful little differences:
Houston really loves seafood.
Again, duh, but the Bayou City’s affection for eating our friends from the sea is truly unparalleled, to the point where “garlic butter” merits mention by itself. “Crawfish” ranks among Houston’s top three phrases, followed closely by gumbo, red snapper, seafood platters, po’ boys, fried catfish, fried oysters, and—of course—“fried shrimp” and “shrimp fried” and “fish shrimp.” That last one is probably just some convenient search term conflation and not some sort of monstrous hybrid that, nevertheless, Houstonians would gladly smother in garlic butter.
Austin is just slightly more obsessed with barbecue.
Don’t misunderstand us: “meat plate,” “beef rib,” etc., are staple searches in every city. Dallas is even the only one that’s specifically looking for “burnt ends.” But Austin not only regularly talks ribs and brisket, it also tosses in the “potato salad” and “white bread.” It’s also always on the hunt for the experience of a “BBQ joint” where it’s cooked on a “pit.”
Dallas will eat deep-fried anything.
“Chicken fried, “fried steak,” “fried okra,” “fried pickle,” “fried catfish,” “chicken strip,” “crispy chicken,” “cheese stick”—just a quick glance through Dallas’s list is enough to give you secondhand angina. It’s no wonder the State Fair goes to such great lengths each year to impress a city that’s seen and fried it all. Naturally, “ranch dressing” also ranks pretty high.
Houston has the largest breadth of Asian cuisine searches.
Given that Houston has one of the largest Asian populations in the country, it’s not surprising that the city’s taste in Asian cuisine is so diverse. Bao, bánh mì, the “best pho,” and bo hue abound, alongside sushi like “spicy salmon”—even specific ingredients like “spicy mayo” and “condensed milk.” What is surprising is that, for cities that pride themselves on being similarly cosmopolitan, Austin and Dallas both have pretty basic tastes, only mentioning Chinese staples like egg rolls, sesame chicken, and egg drop soup. (Although, to Dallas’s credit, it is the only city whose word cloud mentioned “biryani.”)
Austin cares just as much about the setting as the food.
Austin’s most frequently used terms include “backyard,” “back patio,” “outdoor area,” “picnic table,” “fence,” and even “old house” and “branches,” suggesting its citizens are as interested in a laid-back, open-air atmosphere as anything they might actually eat in between shooing flies. “Locally owned” and “around town” also rate highly, as do “trailer” and “food truck.” In short, Austin values the idea (or even the illusion) of authenticity.
Houston likes it fancy.
Houston loves a good “soft opening” of a new restaurant. It’s on the hunt for “valet parking.” (In fact, the whole “parking situation” seems to be a going concern.) It loves to dine on “quail,” “baked potato,” “tomato basil soup,” and other stuffy, Old Money sorts of dishes. It’s also the only city that seems to be searching for a good “shellac manicure”—all the better for attending the soft opening.
Austin just wants to know if it can bring its dog.
“Dog friendly,” “dog park,” “take dog,” and “leash” are all among the most-used phrases in a town that doesn’t go anywhere without its canine buddy, and where the quintessential Austin business may as well be a dog food truck. “Vet tech” is also up there, hopefully not as the result of so many breakfast taco scraps.
Dallas would like to see the manager.
“Manager duty,” “manager come,” “management team,” and “mgr” are littered across Dallas’s results, along with other signifiers of service gone south, like “dirty table” and the mysterious “lady came.” We’re not sure if Dallas restaurants are more slapdash, or if Dallas patrons are just less forgiving about it. Either way, woe unto Dallas waiters who take too long with the fried pickles.
Austin is far more nonconfrontational.
In Austin, on the other hand, “sent email” is apparently a common enough phrase to be singled out here, implying that the unsatisfied customers of Austin would rather type out their complaints after the fact—a byproduct, perhaps, of the booming tech industry, or the disgruntled liberal arts majors residing there.
Dallas is not reserved in its praise.
Still, Dallas isn’t withholding when it comes to offering compliments, or even unspecific hyperbole. “Greatness”—and just “greatness”—appears on Dallas’s list, a word that its people apparently toss out frequently enough to be notable. This is accompanied by the inherently hilarious phrase “tacos amazing,” which suggests that Dallasites live in a somewhat enviable state of perpetual wonder, whenever they’re not complaining to the manager.