Where can you get a three-star experience at one-star prices? Which hot new restaurant merits the scorching hype? The answer to all these questions and more can be found Tuesdays at 11 AM on Kliman Online.
From scoping out scruffy holes in the wall to weighing the merits of four-star wanna-bes, from scouring the ‘burbs and exurbs to hitting the city’s streets, Todd Kliman covers a lot of territory.
Winner of a James Beard Foundation Award in 2005 for the country’s best newspaper column about food, Kliman is food and wine editor and restaurant critic for The Washingtonian. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Oxford American, Lucky Peach, The Daily Beast and Men’s Health, among others, and he has been selected four times for inclusion in the Best Food Writing anthologies. A finalist for the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award, he took home first-place honors for feature writing, in 2013, from the Association of Food Journalists.
He is the author, most recently, of The Wild Vine, a literary exploration of two entwined mysteries: an obscure grape that rose to prominence, only to disappear, and its present-day evangelist, a foul-mouthed transgendered multi-millionaire vintner on an obsessive quest to restore the legend of an antebellum southern doctor. Barnes & Noble and The Oxford American both made it an Editor’s Pick. The Richmond TImes-Dispatch called it “an outstanding piece of literature.”
Kliman previously taught writing and literature at American University and Howard University. At Howard, he was also the editorial advisor to The Illtop Journal, Chris Rock’s humor magazine modeled after the Harvard Lampoon.
Can’t wait a week to talk to Todd? Follow him on Twitter for dining reports, tips, and breaking news from the culinary world. Or write to him: firstname.lastname@example.org
WHERE TO EAT NOW:
Not cheap for H St., but the quality of the fish is high and 24-year-old chef Carlos is a talent. His plates are striking, and his flavors pop. Ocopa functions best when you think of it as a place to divvy up small plates of tiradito and ceviche and causa (his version of papa a la huancaina, a potato salad, is so sublime it makes the picnic staple you’re probably imagining look like prison food) while tanking down cocktails (among which you’ll find expert renditions of pisco and rum punch).
At a recent meal at this Yemeni gem, I ate injera, pita, and wheat bread (the latter baked for a marvelous bread pudding called masoob, layered with bananas, cream, honey and nigella that is a little bit different with each bite). Owner Taha Alhoraivi didn’t know how to cook a single dish from his tradition when he arrived in the States 15 years ago on a student visa. He didn’t even know how to cook. His mother and sister had barred him from the kitchen; cooking was women’s work. He subsisted for months on eggs, bread and cheese, until he returned home for a visit and prevailed upon the women in his family to share their recipes with him. Thus began a 15-year-journey of research and experimentation, as Alhoraivi sought to recreate the foods of his youth in isolation. Saba is the remarkable result. The two must-orders are the haneeth and the fahsa. The former is a strapping platter of slow-cooked lamb, seasoned with cardamom, cumin and cloves, that comes apart without prodding and some of the most flavorful rice you’ll ever eat — each grain is distinct, and tastes richly of the meat. The latter is a shredded beef stew in a sauce of tomatoes, onions and cumin so concentrated it might as well be a syrup; the crowning touch is a dollop of hilbeh, a tangy dip flavored with mint and cilantro.
Casa Luca, DC
The most casual of the restaurants in Fabio Trabocchi’s collection has found its groove. This is an assured operation from top to bottom, and from its opening nibbles to its pastas (go for the San Leo — ravioli stuffed with wild greens and ricotta and treated to a sauce of butter, toasted almonds and nepitella) to its dazzling preparations of fish and seafood to its light, colorful and exquisitely crafted desserts. I joked to a friend at dinner recently that the cornish hen minestrone was “too flavorful” — its broth so intense and rich that I had to stop talking and give all my attention to it.
Ray’s to the Third, Arlington
It’s as stripped down as a restaurant can get; even some food trucks pay more attention to creating an experience. But it still makes the best burger around, the steak ’n’ cheese is better than a Philly cheesesteak, and the milkshakes, including a booze-spiked Bananas Foster, are fabulous.
DGS Delicatessen, DC
Founding chef Barry Koslow has left to open Pinea, set to make its debut any day now at the W Hotel, but things haven’t exactly slacked with new chef Brian Robinson. It’s almost impossible to come here and not gorge on matzo ball soup (note to the kitchen: a wee bit more schmaltz in the broth, please), chopped chicken liver, and pastrami, but there’s a lot more here than just deli. (What am I saying, “just deli”? Since when is deli itself not enough? And this deli especially.) The tongue gyro is terrific. So is the chicken schnitzel, made with pounded chicken thighs; it comes with whipped potatoes and tangy red cabbage, and puts you in mind of something you’d see at Central Michel Richard. A new dessert is also a winner: a banana split with salted caramel ice cream and toasted almonds.
Baby Wale, DC
I’d love Tom Power’s place just for the go-go soundtrack alone — on a recent Saturday night, it simmered with the chunky syncopations of the godfather of the scene, Chuck Brown. (Wind me up, Chuck!) The thing to do is to order up a glass of wine — any wine (Power knows his stuff; his list is fantastic) — and a bowl of soup — any soup (Power makes some of the best in the city) — and then settle in with the terrific ribeye and fries.
Gypsy Soul, Falls Church
An outtake from my recent review: “Gypsy Soul is informed by Southern cooking in the same way that Kid Rock is informed by country music. Like chef R.J. Cooper, Rock hails from Detroit, is tatted, has long stringy hair and fancies himself a kind of badass vagabond. Like Cooper, his gift is in braiding strands that aren’t generally braided.” I love the chicken fried quail, one of the most perfect high-end dishes out there right now (perfectly conceived, perfectly executed), the chicken skins are maddeningly addictive, the oyster stew manages to be both daring and delicious, and the crabcake gets it exactly right. There have been problems, in the early going, with salting (both under- and over-), and some dishes haven’t delivered the promised richness or depth. I expect these wrinkles to unwrinkle over time. The too-slick space is another matter.
Two of the best meals I had this summer took place here. And I don’t say that just because of the food coming out of the kitchen. The restaurant itself is a showpiece. From outside, it looks a little like a castle and a little like a bank, and sits in the middle of nowhere, amid a still-evolving development of townhouses in Fulton, Md. Inside, the space summons a polo club. The main dining room is a sumptuous lair of handsome dark wood, floor-to-ceiling bookcases and leather seats, while the veranda puts you in mind of an observation deck for a cricket match (it’s already one of the best places to dine on an unseasonably cool summer night, under the gently rotating fans and looking out on the lush treetops). In an age of casual, sometimes dashed-out service, Ananda leans toward greater formality — but without stuffiness. The young, affable waitstaff is got up in vests and ties, and is exceedingly well-drilled — not just attentive but vigilant, and determined to learn what it can do to make your meal better. The restaurant is the third from brothers Keir and Binda Singh, who also run The Ambassador Dining Room and Banjara, both in Baltimore. They maintain their own farm not far from the restaurant, complete with an herb garden — a highly unusual practice for an Indian restaurant in this area. Add to that the quality of the meats and fishes, which is several notches above that of the curry house, and you have a brand of cooking that is lighter and fresher than any Indian restaurant in the area not named Rasika. Given this emphasis, you might expect the dishes to experiment a little, to rethink traditional dishes in whimsical or dramatic ways. But for the most part Ananda is attempting a different, less obvious kind of fusion — the fusion of the local-leaning bistro with the conventional Indian restaurant. The preparations of black dal, chana, and raita are among the most complex I’ve tasted in years, and unexpectedly clean-tasting. A dish of salmon was perfectly roasted, with a subtle melange of tomatoes, cinnamon and cumin for a sauce. A watermelon salad with feta could have stood in for any trendy bistro in DC, except that its spicing was unmistakably Indian, and the dressing and its garnishes were both so stunningly fresh I would have thought I was dining at some gastronomic getaway in the country. I could have eaten three bowls of a recent special, a chilled summer squash and carrot soup, subtly spiced and tasting of fresh vegetables, not cream.
Thai Taste by Kob, Wheaton
On a three-block stretch of Wheaton, near the intersection of University Blvd. and Georgia Ave., can be found two of the area’s best Thai restaurants — Ruan Thai and Nava Thai. Time to add a third. Phak Duangchandr — Kob, to friends — has set up shop in the tiny space that originally contained Nava, in the back of Hung Phat market. Thai food fans may remember her, or at least her cooking; for 19 years she operated the Thai Food Carryout at Thai Market, near the old Safeway in Wheaton. The new setting, electrified with a paint job of orange and day-glo green, gives her a chance to expand her repertoire of dishes, while staying true to the from-scratch traditions that earned her a devoted following. The emphasis is on street food and homecooking, with a good many dishes you simply won’t find anywhere else, like bamee moo daeng, a meal-in-a-bowl of tender egg noodles, red-edged roast pork, baby bok choy, and fish balls; or kai yad sai, an omelette stuffed with ground chicken punched up with fish sauce and soy sauce; or a salad of shrimp paste-flavored rice, onions, cucumber and sweet, sticky pork). But even familiar tastes, taste different here — funkier, more pungent, and definitely hotter (a shrimp fried rice, alive with fistfuls of Thai basil and a generous pinch of chilis, set my heart to racing). Some customers have already been asking for more rice to accompany their orders. Partner and manager Max Praserptmate says he’s willing to accommodate any requests, but adds that his aunt’s cooking isn’t the aberration; it’s the great majority of Thai restaurants that are the aberration. “The taste,” he says, “is what you’re supposed to get from your Thai food.” Duangchandr imports many of her spices from Thailand, and toasts and grinds them herself. All the condiments on the spice tray, including a terrific chili vinegar, are made on the premises. Meats are given a long soak before hitting the grill — 72 hours, in the case of the pork that is pounded and threaded onto a skewer to create a must-order starter called moo yang. The other must-order starter sure doesn’t sound like it — when was the last time you had fried shrimp wontons that were any good? These are fabulous. Kiew tod comes to the table looking more like a plate of tortilla chips, the mix of shrimp and white pepper bundled within a sneakily rolled edge. The crunch is junk food-loud; it’s hard not to believe they weren’t engineered in a lab. No beer or wine yet; Praserptmate says soon on both. I would take the money you’d ordinarily spend on a drink and spring for an extra dish or two (most are under $10, and many items will survive into the next day).
Sushi Capitol, DC
This is a diminished sushi scene: Makoto is no longer special, Kushi has exited, and Sushi-Ko I is gone. That leaves Sushi Taro and Sushi Capitol, and for me, right now, it’s not a debate. Capitol is not as polished an experience as Taro, but neither is it the Zen-like spa of hushed voices and restrained manners — an Important Restaurant to save up for when you are looking to mark an occasion. This is a simple, unassuming spot, a workaday spot, with good, well-sourced fish and a chef who knows how to enhance the raw product without sacrificing the elegance essential to the form. Minoru Ogawa was previously in charge of sushi operations at every Mandarin Oriental property along the Eastern seaboard. He’s a purist at the bar, abjuring gimmicks, fads and clutter. The pieces are small, with tiny pads of rice, and the fish is sliced thin and delicately and draped just so over the pads. This doesn’t just make for an elegant presentation; it ensures that each bite is in balance, with the right proportion of fish to rice. I was in most recently for the omakase, which, at $50 for somewhere between 16-20 pieces, amounts to a sweetheart of a deal in the sushi world — particularly when the yellowtail is so sweet and still tastes of the sea, and the various white fishes are not simply there for padding, and the hand-rolls (passed across the bar as soon as they’re finished, their wrappers warm and crunchy) come with fresh-chopped toro. If you order a la carte, don’t ignore the rolls. The Florida roll, draped with whitened bands of blowtorched salmon belly and sliced avocado, is a stunner in every sense.
FOLLOWING UP FROM LAST WEEK: BEST RIBS? ……….:
You were talking about best ribs in the area last week. I agree with your pick of DCity Smokehouse. They are doing the best BBQ in the area right now.
Their smoked chicken wings are to die for. Ordering 5 or 10 is not enough. I recently ordered 5 wings to go and told my friend who was with me, that they better get their own order because I was not going to share.
I also like the creative sandwiches they offer. I am still working my way through those items.
Their brisket is good but it is not consistent throughout. Some pieces are perfect, juicy, moist and tender, while some pieces were very dry.
overall it is my current go to spot for good BBQ in the DMV.
If they can just watch the salt, I’ll sing their praises unreservedly.
But man oh man, that’s a lot of salt.
Still, this is a pretty diminished scene right now for ribs and barbecue in general.
What’s on your mind, everyone?
It feels like the last nice day of Fall …
PHILLY EATS ……….:
My husband and I are heading to Philly next week to see friends. I was wondering if you had some dining recommendations for when we are there?
We’ll be doing dinner, drinks after at a couple of places, and brunch during our visit.
Last time I was in town I had a great meal at Barbuzzo and am interested in their sister restaurant Little Nonna’s but want to get some additional ideas.
Thanks so much!
I have a lot of affection for Little Nonna’s. They make one of the best meatballs you’ll ever eat.
Best meal I’ve had in Philly the past couple of years — in fact, the best meal, at its level, I think I had all of last year — was at Laurel, in East Passyunk. It’s a BYOB, and almost decor-less inside; the message is unmistakable — you’re here to look at your plates. And they’re remarkable. The chef is Nick Elmi, and he’s a massive talent. This is imaginative food, and sometimes subtly playful food, but it’s also food of great and occasionally surprising depth.
I also really like Vernick Food & Drink, The Fat Ham, and Fork.
WINE MARK-UPS ……….:
Enjoy the chats and your point of views.
I recently dined at Fiola Mare in Georgetown with 6 members of my firm for a dinner meeting and while the food was good to Ok I was most upset about their prices.
Entrees reached $96 for a beef steak, pastas at nearly $40 a plate, a simple portion of mussels for two in tomato sauce come with a $75 sticker price and selections by the glass so expensive that I found the wine I ordered by the bottle at the local wine store for $37 while Fiola Mare charged $30 for a single glass of it, same wine same vintage. I felt I got robbed, extorted and mostly cheated…….do they charge for the view as well? I left that place nearly $2000 lighter.
Will never go back
Hold on, now … I know the prices are super expensive, but I don’t recall ever seeing $75 for mussels for two. Or $96 for a steak.
You spent $2000 — but to feed how many?
Wine mark-ups in the industry are high. Fiola isn’t unique in this regard. You can generally expect to pay, per bottle, 3, 4 and sometimes 5 times as much as you would at a wine store.
A $37 bottle of wine at the store might list on the menu — on any menu — for $130-$150. $30/per glass is high, but it’s not completely out of reason if you understand the scale.
I always tell people: that $50 bottle of wine you order with your meal is probably a $14-$15 bottle of wine at the store: in other words, a table wine, a wine you typically would bring out for a simple midweek dinner at home.
I’d be interested in hearing the name of the $30/glass wine, by the way.
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: THE TABARD INN, DC ………..:
Brunch on the patio at the Tabard Inn continues to be one of the joys of DC. Especially when you catch a glorious Autumn afternoon.
And years before the cupcake, the cronut, and stick a piece of fried chicken between a pastry craze swept the country, we’ve had the Tabard Inn donut. Fresh out of the fryer, dusted in sugar, and served with a side of whipped cream. They just keep it simple.
I wonder how many donuts have been fried in the Tabard Inn kitchen?
And it’s kind of amazing, if you think about it …
With all the changes through the years, and all the chefs (many of them big names — Peter Pastan, Carole Greenwood) who’ve passed through, and, of late, all the problems the restaurant has suffered — the donuts endure.
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: BRASSICAS, IN ALDIE, VA. ……….:
BBQ in this area automatically makes me think of the pit crew in Aldie at the intersection of routes 15 and 50. As previously discussed, good-not-life-changing, but worth a stop.
A new find out that direction that is an additional bonus stp if you’re out that way is Brassicas – a tiny sandwich and produce stop newly opened in Aldie. Gary Hall’s labor of love means homemade sides and soups that are regularly changing (and usually including produce straight from their own garden out back), great sandwiches, and fresh produce for sale make this a welcome addition to the area.
Last time I stopped in, there was a comforting pot of acorn soup with spiced nuts and caramelized apples and a just-picked-that-morning chard salad. It’s not Middleburg fancy, but they’re doing everything right so far, plus the vibe is warm, inviting, and friendly.
That sounds pretty great.
Who needs Middleburg fancy, or even regular old fancy, when the food is as good as that food sounds?
Thanks for the tip.
THANKSGIVING DINNER OUT ……….:
Thanksgiving Lunch/Dinner Reservations:
Currently trying to pick between Art and Soul, Corduroy, Bibiana, and Charlie Palmer for thanksgiving dinner.
Heard differing opinions about each’s thanksgiving menu. I’ll be eating with a bunch of meat eaters who, for obvious reasons, want a filling meal.
The pick, for me, would be easy — Corduroy.
And for reasons that go beyond what’s on the plate, though Corduroy is tops there as well. I like the room better than any of the others, and I also think it would make for a more intimate experience — and isn’t that what you’re looking for on a day like that?
A MEAT-FILLED BIRTHDAY ……….:
My husband’s birthday is in a couple weeks and he requested meat…non-specific, just good meat. Typical dude!
I want to do something more exciting than a steakhouse. Was thinking about starting with Partisan, have heard raves about the charcuterie.
Should we stay there for entrees as well? Or do you have any suggestions for a multi-location dinner? Thanks!!
You didn’t hear those raves from me.
I’ve only been once, admittedly, but I wasn’t particularly taken with the charcuterie I ordered.
I’ve got two ideas for you, one safer, the other more interesting.
The safer pick, first …
You could do Bourbon Steak, which doesn’t code as a steakhouse, and has a lot more than steak on the menu. It’d be a fun, festive night. Begin with a gratis tasting of fries and truffle rolls; that’d sure set a celebratory mood.
Or, the more interesting option …
You could take him to Kogiya, in Annandale, which is an orgy of meat — including all-you-can-eat options. It’s the best Korean barbecue in the area, and not only that, but also the best Korean barbecue I’ve ever had in the area.
I’ll be interested in hearing which way you go on this. Keep me posted, okay?
FAVORITE “AMERICANIZED” ETHNIC FOOD? ……….:
What’s your favorite “Americanized” ethnic food?
Sometimes I hate to admit how much I like food reworked for an American palette… but that doesn’t make it any less tasty. I certainly wouldn’t go to China to have General Tso’s Chicken or to India for butter chicken – but gosh do I love the guilty pleasure of picking them up from the carry-out down the street.
Have a favorite that we’ve made our own?
First of all, this is a really interesting question to throw out there. Thanks for coming up with it …
It’s funny you mentioned Butter Chicken, which, if I understand correctly, is technically Anglo-ized, not Americanized. It’s a product of English soil.
Like you, I have a soft spot for General Tso’s, though I haven’t had it in ages.
Quick story: there was a dreadful Chinese restaurant in Takoma Park many years ago — I can’t even recall the name. Anyway, I called one night, late, for takeout. General Tso’s chicken, rice, and something else. The guy on the other end called it: General Dao’s. And when my order came, it wasn’t steamed white rice. It was rice and beans.
You know, I’m having trouble coming up with one … one “ethnic” food that’s been Americanized …
California-style fish tacos?
Who else has one?
FIOLA MARE, CONT. ……….:
Quick look at the bar menu at Fiola Mare’s website shows that the only beverages that are $30 per glass are champagnes. $98 for a beefsteak is probably the Japanese Kogoshima Ribeye, not just a steak…
I am writing as a fan of Fiola Mare, as someone on income that leaves me some disposable income but certainly no big fat expense account – so that I save money to have a “treat” there, even by myself, every couple of months.
Yes, this place is expensive, but I also think the food is much higher quality than what you find overall in DC, especially seafood and pastas (not to mention the service and beautiful surroundings.) Wines are always a great match, especially if you ask the servers/bartenders’ recommendations.
The reader talked about a dinner meeting, which I read as expense account, and I am sure noone held back since this was the perfect occasion (frankly I’d love to go to Fiola Mare if someone else is paying!) so I am not surprised.
This is the “top special occasion” restaurant in the city in terms of cost in my opinion, and I think you are opening the door for it when you say it’s a company dinner…
In any case, in my experience, I never left thinking about the cost but only the taste of the delicate pasta (my mouth is already watering thinking about the lobster ravioli!) or the super fresh seafood, and the friendly and knowledgable service (thank you Luca and Marco!), having had a great time.
Also, I agree with your wine calculations, the thing I like about this place is they have interesting wines I don’t see all across town, so it gives me an opportunity to “discover” new tastes and places.
Lastly, your calculations do not take into account the rent, clearly, when you pay high rent in Georgetown (and you have so much staff), your up charge has to be higher. I think anyone who plans a meal at Fiola Mare has to be not only prepared to pay for it, but also for a special enjoyment of high quality food, talent (of Chef Fabio, I still remember the one amazing pasta I had earlier in the year with foie gras and chestnuts!), service, and beautiful space with or without the views.
To me this place is not only about food, it is about dinner & entertainment, especially if you enjoy and can differentiate high quality food from the rest (this not from a snob but someone who eats from food trucks and taco places most of the time, but appreciates the effort behind quality on rare occasions).
Still, I agree that this place is not for everyone, and I can understand why someone can look at the check at the end of the night and be disappointed. It is all about personal experienced and palate in my opinion.
P.S. It is possible to not totally break the bank if you order a glass of wine and half portion of pasta just to get a feel at the bar…
I agree that you don’t have to have a super-expensive meal here.
You can have an expensive meal, if you watch it.
And you can also go at lunch, when they offer what they call “Maria’s Menu” — three courses for $28.
It’s very rare to find a terrific restaurant with a view of the water. So yes, you’re going to pay for that. You’re also going to pay for the top-notch sourcing. You’re also paying for Trabocchi’s name and the quality of his cooking.
And you’re also paying for living in a city where the costs of living are completely out of control. The housing market, here — and this is only one of many examples — is now the most expensive in the country, surpassing even that of San Francisco.
A MEAT-FILLED BIRTHDAY, CONT. ……….:
Meat birthday: Del Campo does pretty well in terms of meat and side dishes in my opinion. Or you could go to Rural Society after Partisan (RS appetizers are disappointing).
If it were me, I’d order only meat and wine at Rural Society and make sure they don’t hold anything under the heat lamp ie. send out as it comes. They have high quality meats but sometimes have timing issues I think.
Their desserts are pretty good, too. Just stay away from the cheese plate!
I agree with Bourbon Steak though, if the fire pits are open, either start there or have dessert there which certainly makes a very special experience. If it were me, I’d have my whole dinner by the fire outside…
How great would that be?
With a slew o’ s’mores for dessert.
And good call on Del Campo — I hope the chatter reads this far down.
Back to s’mores for a second. I’m kinda sorry to see the fad go. Although very few places seemed to understand that the dominant element of a s’more is the graham cracker.
The usual thing was to get a chocolate fondant or pudding or cremeux or something with a cap of marshmallow that had been torched, with crumbs of graham cracker on the side. Chocolate was made dominant, with marshmallow second, and graham cracker a distant third.
Or you might have chocolate and marshmallow in equal proportion — but the graham cracker was still a distant third.
Never did I have one where the graham cracker was dominant.
I wonder why.
BUTTER CHICKEN, CONT. ……….:
I believe that Butter Chicken (murgh makhni) is a traditional dish. Perhaps you’re thinking of chicken tikka massala, which by legend originated at a London restaurant where somebody complained about there being no sauce with his chicken tikka.
So, the restaurant owner added a can of tomato soup and, voila!, a classic was born. I’m also amused by the traditional Indian Balti (origins: Birmingham, England).
Right you are.
I always mix them up in my mind.
Thanks for the eagle eye …
FAVORITE “AMERICANIZED” FOODS, CONT. ……….:
Re: “Americanized” foods:
Most Americans think Brats are like you get from Johnsonville brand. Unless you find a butcher here that does it the German way you will have no idea what they are supposed to taste like. There are fine brats and coarse brats. Both delicious, but the German way tastes more flavorful. YOu really taste the meat and seasonings. They aren’t as greasy in Germany.
Neiman Ranch does a good version, but the Germans really know how to do it the right way.
Also Chocolate. American Chocolate cannot hold a candle to European chocolate, Specifically, Belgian, French, Swiss and German. US Chocolate has too much sugar. Very “Americanized!”
I don’t know, I think Scharffen Berger makes pretty terrific chocolate.
But generally, yes, I think you’re right.
And the difference in the brats is even more striking. The casing. The coarser texture of the meat. The spicing. It’s as if you’re eating something entirely different. Because, well — you are.
FAVORITE “AMERICANIZED” FOODS, CONT. ……….:
“Americanized’ ethnic food. Italian American food. Do I need to elaborate! Once you’ve had real Italian food any American version is “EYETALIAN!”
I understand what you’re saying, but I can’t actually agree with you.
I love Italian food. And I love American-Italian food, too.
Duke Ellington said: there are only two kinds of music. Good and bad.
Food’s the same.
Italian food in America reflects the meeting of the two cultures. It’s inevitable that the cooking would change. There are different products here, and the cooks responded to their environment, their immediate culture, as much as they did their native one. And now we are several generations in, and the cooking continues to evolve.
I don’t compare the two. I love a big, rich meatball sub topped with loads of cheese, and I also love a delicate mint-filled ravioli and a light butter sauce.
There are terrible expressions of Italian-American cooking, and they can make you think the idiom is worthless. But there are terrible expressions, too, of regional Italian cooking, and they can do the same.
FAVORITE “AMERICANIZED” FOODS, CONT. ……….:
After a recent business trip to Austin, where we took our one chance at a meal on the town to visit Chuy’s, I was reminded of how much I love the Americanization (or Texification?) of Mexican food.
Cheese, cheese for everyone! Sauce- everywhere- for your chips, for your food, for anything that’s not drenched in sauce yet! While you’re at it, you can ask for 12 more sauces, including one that’s really just a ranch in disguise!
And that’s before they came up with deep-frying entire burritos that are now drenched in that sauce and covered in cheese as well. A lot of Americanization going on- incredibly unnecessary excess. But so tasty. And satisfying. Almost…uncomfortably satisfying.
And I’m very much with you on this one. I love Tex-Mex. Especially if it’s good. But even if it’s only okay, I still kinda like it.
Everything I wrote, up above, about Italian-American cooking also applies to Tex-Mex. It’s not a dishonorable idiom; in fact, it’s an honorable one, a genuine and organic way of bridging two cultures.
The fact that you can easily get your hands on crappy versions of these dishes — and the fact that it takes some real searching, outside of Texas, to find good ones — doesn’t change this.
I wish we had good Tex-Mex all around us. It’s a really easy cuisine to like, and to celebrate with.
FAVORITE “AMERICANIZED” FOODS, CONT. ……….:
I would argue that in this day and age there really isn’t a need to “Americanize” a dish. The reason being, foreign ingredients that are used by other cultures are now readily available at various ethnic grocery stores or even high end grocery stores.
I personally think the term “Americanize” a dish was or would have been more relevant say 30 years ago, when acquiring certain ingredients was not possible and people from ethnic households would substitute those missing ingredients with something similar or replace it with an entirely new ingredient from their local grocery store.
Also for me personally when I hear “Americanize” a dish, the first thought that comes to my mind is usually, less heat, play it more safe. Like dropping into a prevent defense at the end of the game when you should be applying pressure, instead of giving the QB all day to go through his progressions.
(Every football coach, analyst and ex-player is somehow Southern.)
You make some great points. It’s a different age.
And we’re seeing this, I think, in the recent wave of hipster Asian restaurants here and throughout the country. They’re not doing what their forebears did — playing it safe, dialing down the heat, running from funky flavors. They’re embracing them. It’s an exciting thing to see.
But still, we do have dishes in the culture that were Americanized way back when, and have since become a part of the landscape of going out to eat. General Tso’s. California-style fish tacos. Tex-Mex … What else?
ITALIAN-AMERICAN VS. ITALIAN, CONT. ……….:
Todd, can see your point about Italian American, but it has to be really good. 🙂
But I mean, doesn’t it always have to be good?
That is, even when it’s regional Italian or micro-regional Italian?
I’ve had a lot of dishes over the years that belong to the latter category, and was completely underwhelmed by them.
And I know I’m not alone.
I’ve taken friends to dinner with me, friends who say they love Italian food … and when they see the menus of regional Italian restaurants their faces fall.
They’re not rubes. They’ve just come to associate this particular idiom with unsatisfying, sometimes ungenerous food. I don’t always agree — again, good food is good food. But it’s hard for me to get them to change their minds.
ITALIAN-AMERICAN VS. ITALIAN, CONT. ……….:
Your Italian food comments made me want to watch Big Night again! Just to remember what’s American-Italian and what’s real Italian 🙂
Love that movie.
Sweet and serious.
Tender and intense.
I’d love to watch it again, too.
Gotta run. Got a lunch to get to.
Be well, everyone, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]