Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Pizza on Chinese Buffets: Hinderances to local food culture

This rant will probably get me in trouble with some of you. It is not intended to shame or judge but it is instead a plea to open minds and open palates.

As we take a drive through the culinary highways and byways of West Tennessee, there seems to be some prevailing attitudes and behaviors that might perhaps 'stifle' the growth of the food culture. It becomes apparent as I watch the closing of locally owned restaurants and the opening of cookie cutter chain establishments. It also can be seen in what I like to call the 'syncretism' of foods among local establishments where foods like 'meatloaf' are found paired with ethnic foods like 'lo mein' or where an order of  Mole Poblano at a Mexican restaurant comes with a 'side of fries'....As Buffalo Springfield said " There's something happenin here, what it is ain't exactly clear..."

In looking at the West Tennessee region it becomes apparent that there is a 'hot list' of foods and restaurants that are popular among patrons. Some of these include:

  • Places that claim to serve 'homemade country cooking' but are truly serving fast food, canned sugar coated vegetables and deep fried meats. The traditional 'Meat and Three' typically ranges from dishes like meatloaf, fried chicken, poppy seed chicken (how country is that?) and country fried steak.
  • Chains that are known for their glitzy advertisements that sell '2 Dinners for 20.00' complete with plastic tasting deep fried cheese sticks and chicken wings. Most of these offer variations of the same four dishes: faux fajitas; chicken covered in cheese and bacon; horrible cuts of meat called 'steak' with some sort of seasoning on top and fettuccine covered in some sort of mystery sauce. Guilty suspects names begin with 'TGI', 'Apple' or 'Chili', nonetheless they are all the same.
  •  Mexican or Chinese restaurants that carry few dishes that have little resemblance to authentic dishes. Burritos, Fajitas and Nachos served with french fries or Chinese buffets covered in frozen pizza or deep fried corn nuggets. Both of these would bring tears to a Rick Bayless or a Ming Tsai in a heartbeat...

The common denominator in these trends seems to be to 'play it safe'. Why go to a place that serves low quality dishes in fifty different forms? Because it's safe, because it is familiar. Why do we have twenty Mexican restaurants in a town but less than three of them serve authentic dishes like Chilaquiles or Posole? Why do we have numerous Chinese restaurants but not one serves Dim Sum? Is it because the owners and cooks don't want to share these traditional dishes with us or is it that we are more comfortable eating grilled cheese tacos and hamburger helper?

There's a great scene in the 1996 movie 'Big Night'. The story focuses on an Italian family that seeks to bring real Italian food to the United States. Offended by the 'watering down' of Italian dishes by Americanized Italian restaurants, the family opens a restaurant to introduce the local community to 'authentic' Italian foods.
One evening a couple enters the restaurant and orders risotto and a pasta dish. The waiter brings the food out to the couple and when seeing a leaf of fresh basil on her husband's dish, the woman exclaims " That looks good. Oh look you got leaves with yours". The wife is then presented with a serving of authentic risotto. The woman begins to ask about 'a side of spaghetti' that typically comes with main dishes at the Americanized restaurants. The waiter explains to the woman that risotto is a starch and that it would be redundant to serve up a starch with a starch. Her husband then demands an order of spaghetti and meatballs. The waiter explains that spaghetti does not come with meatballs. Eventually the chef is told to cook what the customers want NOT what is authentic.

Are we wanting the chef to cook 'what we want' versus something wonderful that could be 'authentic'? Are we finding ourselves at a cultural crossroads in West Tennessee? Will our palates refuse to grow up as long as we are bound to 'safe' sounding foods that do not demand that we open our minds and hearts to trying? Unfortunately some of the refusal is based not necessarily on 'taste' but on fear and ignorance.

For example, if I had a dollar for everytime that someone says (Insert your best Toby Keith accent here ) " I wouldn't eat in those foreign restaurants, ain't no telling what they put in their food!" I would be a rich man. Wanna know what they put in their food? REAL vegetables not canned mutated vegetables preserved in mortuary grease to keep them safe for years beyond the apocalypse. They also use REAL herbs and spices, not powdered pre-packaged seasonings. Shards of real fresh cut garlic NOT garlic powder. And most importantly. REAL cooking takes place instead of a pre-rehearsed cadence of a twenty year old kid dropping a piece of mystery meat into a deep fryer. This is what they put in their food. Furthermore, incredible food usually takes longer to prepare because it is not sitting in a warmer on standby. It is prepared when you order it. Lastly, cleanliness and sanitary health conditions are one of the biggest 'mirages' that exist in the food culture. Think that your local Happy Hour chain restaurant is clean while the local Taqueria is a dive behind the kitchen door? THINK AGAIN. Talk to health code inspectors and they will give you an earful on your local favorite 'safe' places to eat. Plus the fact that all restaurants including 'scary ones' that don't serve tater tots or 'mamas country fried mess' have to undergo inspections as well.

So while it may sound harsh and before you accuse me of being a 'food snob' just understand that a palate's expectation of a 'good tasting' dish will only rise or fall according to what it has been exposed to. Think of a time when you took a chance and tried a food you had never tried before. Think of how you would feel if you never tried this dish. We must understand that the local food culture will not grow and expand if we do not try new things. There are literally tens of thousands of foods that this region may never know unless we are willing to try them and support them once they are here. I think of the only restaurant in Jackson Tennessee where one could get authentic Honduran pupusas now sits abandoned and boarded up. Sadly enough, hardly anyone would venture out and try them.

As you sit back and watch the Food Network and wonder if you'll ever get to try Korean short ribs or wonder why you have to drive to Nashville to get real Caribbean cuisine, just remember that in order to get a diverse food community locally there must be a demand and a steady customer base for it. Try something new. I promise, it won't bite...

Monday, September 17, 2012

Sleepless in Seattle

I recently had the opportunity to spend some time in Seattle Washington. The Pacific Northwest is a bustling region of culinary fixins ranging from scrumptious fresh seafood to eclectic ethnic eats. My first evening in town I was treated to a fine meal at local favorite eatery '13 Coins'.

13 Coins was named one of the Top 5 of Best Late Night Restaurants in the U.S. by Food Network. 
The restaurant gets it's name from a Peruvian tale in which a young poor man seeks to marry a young wealthy girl. The girl's father asks the boy what he has to offer in order to marry the young girl. The boy reaches into his pocket and pulls out 13 coins. The coins became symbols of love, care and concern. Each of the restaurant's tables are decorated with 13 coins as reminders of the story.

13 Coins is an elegant experience featuring a retro Vegas look complete with high back tables, captain's chairs and an exhibition kitchen that allows customers to watch chefs perform their amazing work right in front of their eyes. 13 Coins is open 24 hours a day and has been a local Seattle landmark since 1967.

My brief food excursion started out with some of 13 Coins seafood treats. Our party enjoyed a bucket of fresh clams cooked in white wine, butter and pesto sauce. Members of our party also enjoyed pan fried oysters, rock lobster and filet mignon. I personally enjoyed a seafood saute of jumbo prawn, fresh scallops and sole mixed with onions, tomatoes, mushrooms and lemon cream.

No trip to Seattle would be complete without a trip to the Public Market. The Public Market is one of the oldest public farmer's markets in the U.S. The market contains numerous shops including some of Seattle's best seafood vendors. It was refreshing to see the bright colors of fresh seafood everywhere I turned.

One of the best eats I enjoyed was a 'Dungeness Crab Cocktail' which consisted of a 'shot' of fresh crab meat resting on a sweet and spicy cocktail sauce. I delicately 'baptized' my shot in lemon juice and a dash of hot sauce. Mercy...

In the midst of the seafood extravaganza, there was also a smattering of food vendors serving various foods from Korean 'Bi Bim Bap' rice bowls to foie gras.

Amidst this 'food paradise' I happened upon a place that only existed before in my dreams: A restaurant that serves nothing but sausage. Meet Uli's Famous Sausage.

Uli's Famous Sausage Company is owned and operated by German butcher Uli Lengenberg. Uli makes   his sausages at the market using fresh ingredients with no artificial coloring or chemicals. Uli's also carries sausages from all over the world. German Brats, South African sausage, Mexican Chorizo and many international favorites. Some of the unique flavors Uli's carries include Fresh lamb sausage, Smoked Apple Sage, Rosemary Sage Chicken and Chipotle Tequila Sausage.

I sampled a very unique sausage made from smoked bacon. Served on fresh baguette and covered in a sweet and spicy slaw, this sandwich was heavenly!

No trip to Public Market would be complete without visiting 'Pike Place Fish Company'. By now the world has seen the dazzling fish 'throwing' exploits the market has become famous for on Food Network or Travel Channel. The fish are still be thrown everyday with plenty of crowd cheers and banter among market staff.

For those of you that follow this blog, you know that Chinatown in any city is my favorite place to be. Seattle's Chinatown is no exception. Known as the 'Chinatown International District', Seattle's Chinatown is a community of many diverse Asian people and businesses including Japanese, Korean, Thai, Filipino, Laotian and Cambodian nationalities. 

An amazing Dim Sum joint where I feasted on steamed har gow (homemade dumplings filled with shrimp), pork buns and jasmine tea.

My next stop, Kau Kau Barbecue was recommended to me by a good friend who lives in Seattle. Kau Kau is famous for their bbq duck and pork. Pork (Huo Rou) is marinated and slow roasted and served with a side of sweet plum sauce. The pork retains a crisp sweet outer shell while maintaining a juicy meat filling inside. Gracious....

My last day in Chinatown was bittersweet. On one hand, I found a Dim Sum restaurant  called 'Dim Sum House' that featured '60 cent' Dim Sum items. I also found an amazing Chinese bakery called 'Mon Hei Bakery' where I dined on a sweet shortcake covered in buttercream frosting. 

The downside is that I decided to try chicken hearts. Now, some of you might think that the fact that it is chicken hearts would be reason enough not to like them. It wasn't 'what' it is, it was the fact that the texture was similar to an inflatable chicken liver that you had to chew on like a wad of Big League chewing gum in order to get down sort of spoiled the show for me. Nonetheless, it was an experience. 


Seattle has a tremendous food culture. I think I could probably spend a couple of months eating my way throughout the city but I must get back to barbecue pits, tater babies and southern accents. So is the life of the Biblebelt foodie...

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Heaping Plate of Zen...

 Devi Gurung States, a young homeless boy living in a humble village in Nepal found a job working in a restaurant in Kathmandu. Working in several different capacities, he dreamed that one day he might own his own restaurant. Devi met an American physician working in the area who would eventually adopt Devi and bring him to the U.S.

Devi's father Dr. James H. States would encourage his son to get an education and to serve others however he could. Devi attained his Masters in Social Work and vowed to help others just as his father had helped him. Devi began a career in Social Work where he discovered that many of his clients were suffering from poor health due to eating unhealthy meals and little exercise. Devi would return to school to complete a degree in Public Health.

Devi and his wife Connie desired to bring not only the concepts of healthy living but to also introduce the city of St. Louis to authentic Nepalese dishes. And in 2004, the couple opened 'Everest Cafe and Bar' in downtown St. Louis. 

The sacred prayer flags of Tibet wave customers in to a delicious temple of culinary surprises. A combination of Nepalese, Indian and even Korean foods can be sampled. Customers are greeted by waitstaff with the traditional Indian salutation 'Namaste'. 

The cafe is decorated with colorful images of the Buddha and of the Nepalese culture. 

The smells from the kitchen are enticing as the scent of spices like ginger, garlic, cardamom and clove are used in traditional dishes. Some of the traditional Nepalese dishes include dumplings called 'Momo' which feature cumin, garlic, ginger and spices inside of a breaded dumpling with ground pork. Dishes called 'Takari' are cooked with chicken, shrimp or lamb mixed with stewed tomatoes, grilled onions and peppers in a sizzling plate. 'Thukpa' is a traditional Nepalese soup cooked with noodles, chicken and mixed vegetables.


The cafe also features a number of Indian classics such as Tandoori Chicken and Pakora Vegetables fried in chick pea flour. 

One of the most unique and tasty dishes that I tasted at Everest was a Korean dish introduced by the owner's wife Connie who is from Korea. 'Chap Chae' is a dish made from sweet potato noodles mixed with beef, onions, carrots and assorted mixed green vegetables. The dish is slightly sweet and savory with a nice mix of the two flavors.

Another favorite dish that Everest offers is a vegetarian dish (yes, I enjoyed a vegetarian dish. Don't tell anyone!) Eggplant is rolled in a light coconut breading and cooked till it forms a crunchy chewy treat.

To further encourage healthy living, Everest Cafe and Bar offers free medical screenings weekly to customers. The Buddhist theme of compassion is further demonstrated by the Cafe's work known as the 'Himalayan Family Healthcare Project' in which proceeds from the restaurant's sales go to help further medical treatments in Nepal.

Next time you are in St. Louis, stop by and visit Everest Cafe and Bar. The warmth and hospitality of Devi and his staff are truly enlightening...