In the 1st issue of David Chang’s quarterly journal, Lucky Peach, one topic that resonated with me was his animated discussion with Anthony Bourdain and Wylie Dufresne about mediocrity in American tastes…their palates. Chang concluded that “people are comfortable just staying in the middle.” Dufresne says, “ America doesn’t have a long history of rewarding those who have taken risks, culinarily…” and Bourdain says that restaurants that aspire higher “get slapped down from the get go.” To paraphrase Bourdain a little, it’s all about compromising and keeping your food and labor costs according to template. It’s insanity to try it any other way.
So here is an immigrant’s point of view…
When I first moved to the U.S. 14 years ago I was smacked right in Charleston, West Virginia. My hometown in the Philippines had more restaurants per capita. When the recruiter asked me where I wanted to go for dinner I said, “Mc Donald’s!”
There is that colonial mentality (the Philippines was under U.S. governance for a couple of years) rearing its head and everything that is American is popular in the Philippines courtesy of Hollywood movies and TV shows.
My first U.S. meal in McDonald’s was a disappoint because there was no fried chicken with rice. Apparently fast food franchises adapt their menu to a country’s taste.
The next fast food to disillusion me was KFC, chicken was bland and the gravy tasted of pepper and nothing else.
Got me wondering, why do fast foods in the Philippines taste better than their U.S. counterpart. You would think it would be the same formula. Up to this day when I go home for a visit, I can’t wait to have a midnight meal at KFC before heading up to my hometown of Baguio. The food is definitely tastier, the chicken is served with rice and you’ve got the tastiest gravy courtesy of a gravy pump by the condiments section – a gravy pump! Warm gravy that tastes like well-seasoned drippings from a roast chicken.
To eat at an American fast food chain in the Philippines isn’t cheap. It’s almost a treat to do so, one you would reserve during payday or the family weekend out. Most families still cook their meals from scratch and frozen dinners are not very popular because not everyone has a freezer so when they spend money to eat out, it better taste good and that includes fast food restaurants.
Twelve years ago I moved to Richmond and I was excited thinking the fast food was better – bigger city, right? I still didn’t cook remember? My recruiter this time asked me if I liked seafood because there’s this place known for their crabs. I was thrilled remembering the whole dungeness crab I had at Fisherman’s wharf in San Francisco. This was the “The Hard Shell” and no there were no piles of steamed whole dungeness crabs…just crab legs. Best pizza in town that time apparently was Bottoms up pizza.
I had an eerie feeling that all food tasted the same.
I was new in town, I didn’t know of Carytown or the Fan area yet. I was too timid to explore the Metro on my own because a friend told me there were some places I didn’t want to get lost in and I hate parallel parking.
When my brother and his family came for a visit, I took them to Olive Garden. I was almost apologetic about that meal because it was the most expensive I could afford and it tasted like nothing. We were eating crappy fast food most of the time. I figured when we head up to New York, we’d eat better.
A few months later, things started to happen, a new co-worker who was originally from Berkley, California befriended me and asked me if I tried this incredible noodle bowl from this Chinese restaurant. That’s how I got my introduction to Full Kee.
Then I had another friend come in for a visit and I was desperate as to where to take her – this person loved good food.That’s when “Hungry” Hubby (HH) who was then just a co-worker and sitting a cubicle away, told me about Franco’s (Paolo Randazzo of Sensi ‘s old place). He said I’ve got to try this place and was I glad I did. Both my friend and I were transported to heaven by our meal there.
I could see some reasons why the American tastebuds are so middling.
If they do not know what they’ve been missing in the first place, they are less likely to look for it.
This is more apparent when raising a family in the suburbs. In between a day job, picking a child from day care and running the other kid to soccer practice, one would likely dine closer to home, and what do we have in suburbia? Chain restaurants and mediocre Italian joints in strip malls. But then do fast foods purposely keep the flavor that way because that’s what people want? Vicious cycle.
So one starts to feed their kids that stuff and likely shaping their palates into mediocrity all the way to adulthood.
I know a couple who used to frequent the Fan and Carytown restaurants but when they had kids they didn’t really want to travel too far from their suburban home because the babysitter costs money.
Another is sports bars and America’s love for sports. If there’s a sports bar that serves decent food, please let me know. I could be wrong.
The franchises are the ones with money to advertise so it’s a losing battle at that end for locally-owned restaurants.
But locally-owned, neighborhood restaurants are not any better. Yes, there’s more than a few that open with such promise only to fall back into the formulaic mediocrity of their chain restaurant counterparts. Are crabcakes on every restaurant menu really necessary?
I’m ready for more exciting food, aren’t you RVA? Let’s let our chefs take risks in their creativity and lets go support them.
I do see a glimmer of hope, at least in Short Pump. We now have Lehja. Also Pescado’s had their start in the Southside, opened Pescado’s China street in Oregon Hill and now have The White Anchovie in the West End. We need more folks like them who have enough clout to pave the way for good dining and to raise the bar past mediocrity in Richmond.
Sorry for rambling….
* I do eat fast food sometimes. I think Chipotle rocks as a fast food chain. I like Chick-fil-a and you’ll most likely find me at Mc Donald’s on a hot day ordering a quarter-pounder with cheese with one of their perfectly-carbonated sodas.