Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Kindred Spirit

Via the Wikipedia article on Eritrean food, I happened on Noah Galuten’s delightful reports on precisely this theme – to eat food from every country – from Los Angeles, with a twist: he ate from a different country every single day for 102 days, a kind of Supersize Me a la globalization. He even got home-cooked Kiwi, Norwegian, Slovak, and Bahrainian, among others. It feels wonderfully familiar – the vast Middle Eastern “platters for two,” the exhilaration of African food, the profusion of faraway local beers, the shots-in-the-dark to find the authentic items on a big menu.

I wonder, since we independently decided to do the same thing at about the same stage in life, about the differences in the quests of the native Angeleno and the lifelong Bostonian. And, to be sure, we both wanted to learn and explore the world from home. But it’s home that strikes me as the critical difference. Obviously, Galuten got the better meals: LA has world-class food from all over. Fried clams, lobster rolls, Moxie, and Toscanini’s Ice Cream don’t count for much in the every-country game. But the feel of our projects seem to reflect their respective cities. Place is everything in tribal Boston, and I focus on exactly whose territory the restaurant marks – it’s why I always remark on what the TVs show. Who’s from the home country? How many Boston accents? How much nationalism? Each meal is contested territory, every storefront eatery an answer, conscious or not, to the question (following Forster) of “Who shall inherit Boston?” Now the future of Los Angeles matters rather more to the destiny of the republic, but posing the question of “Who shall inherit LA?” sounds ridiculous because it sounds so portentous for the land of cool. Although he tells a wonderful story of watching the final presidential debate at a Nigerian restaurant, Galuten -- and the new friends he seems in good West Coast fashion to meet every day -- have a great time eating; what’s palpable is their joy in the moment, in the taco-and-now. And that is as it should be.

I continue to update the map (which can also be viewed as an RSS feed, for those so inclined); depending on exactly how many places I choose to revisit, I have about 54 down, and 12 to go – including a dreaded fondue factory. I wonder if it will be as comically bad as I fear. I have a big birthday on February 21st, and I resolve to finish by then.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Hanukkah/Sinterklaas Update

New reviews, on the map, for Albanian and Dominican food. The map looks better in full size, here.

Also, the Globe reports that the Upper Crust, whose pizza I've always found a little doughy, has huge problems giving its workers the dough they've earned.  It's easy to figure out which restaurants treat the animals on the menu lovingly, more difficult to find anything systematic about how they treat their workers.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Mapping My Quest

I have created a Google Map with capsule reviews. For 48 countries (marked in blue), I've included my favorite restaurant; for 6 countries (in yellow), I'm not sure if I've been to the best place; for 14 countries (red), I'm still waiting to try our local entries. While I've tried to give a sense of the place, both food and ambiance, and to chew over any issues that they raise, I visited many of these spots well before I began this project, so the details are stronger in some instances than in others.

View RESTOBOST in a larger map

Monday, November 15, 2010

Rules of the Game

I’m playing a game – that is, attempting to visit a restaurant from every country possible, inside the confines of Route 128 – and games have rules. I want to visit only places with a minimal standard of authenticity and connection to the home country. That said, there’s no harm whatsoever in interpreting that rule reasonably broadly so as to avoid picayune distinctions; I explore widely, and nobody loses. I had originally stipulated a square meal – a sandwich or a full breakfast, not just a pastry – as a requirement for inclusion on the list, but the requirement turned out to be superfluous. Although some restaurants – the Algerian-Tunisian Baraka Café, for instance – claim fealty to the food of two neighboring cuisines, I count only their principal influence so as to avoid double-counting based on a stray dish or two. (This decision, I realize, brings up a whole can of worms about tastes and borders. See Armenia, below.)  One absolute rule, however: “Mongolian” barbecue has nothing whatsoever to do with Mongolia.

The map below colors the forty-one countries with multiple restaurants represented inside 128 in red, the eighteen countries with one restaurant in green, and the eight questionable cases in yellow.

Let’s review the disputed cases in turn. I define country by UN membership; Palestine and Taiwan, whose geopolitical situations are, shall we say, tricky ones, both enjoy recognition from other UN member-states but not the UN itself. For those so inclined, Palestine (or, if you prefer, the West Bank alone) would be colored green, and Taiwan red. I should add that they both enjoy terrific food – although Pat Buchanan may be their best American friend in common these days. More details on both cuisines in an upcoming post on food from war zones. The Armenian restaurants’ owners, although ethnically Armenian, hail from Turkey (Karoun) and Lebanon (Garlic ‘n Lemons). Does including them in the list conflate ethnicity with the territorial state? Complicated.

The other disputed cases simply represent the weaker entries on the authenticity spectrum. Gulu-Gulu Café and the Danish Pastry House pose similar issues. The hipster-ish – Bohemian, if you will; Joseph Roth gone to seed – Gulu-Gulu Cafe, in Salem oozes that Mitteleuropean blend of intensity and insouciance. Vaclav Havel could happily order a Pilsner and translate The Crucible into Czech. That said, apart from an plate of sausage and mustard, the menu is cookie-cutter café fare of nibbles and sandwiches. I had an overdone crepe, served lukewarm, with bits of hard-cooked egg inside, a choice so weird it couldn’t possibly be original. A strong entry, albeit with more points for ambiance than I usually like to award. The Danish Pastry House, in a pleasant space by Tufts, serves as up-market study hang-out (every campus should be so lucky), and serves pastries and sandwiches to match. The various marzipan items are quite tasty, but anyone wanting smørrebrød or herring will leave empty-handed. Jasmine Bistro, still on my list, has a Pakistani chef who trained in Budapest for awhile; I’ll report once I’ve had his goulash.  Silk Road BBQ, a food truck serving delectable grilled meat, may be the best part of the forlorn Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, Exhibit A (or maybe Exhibit B, just behind City Hall Plaza), for the notion that Boston just can't get its act together.  But pork, korean carrots, and gazpacho hardly seem to be imports from Samarkand, so the claim that their shashleek is Uzbek strikes me as tenuous, indeed.

French Canadian immigrants mainly came to mill towns outside this project's geographic limits – in Maine, and along the Merrimack and the Blackstone – so no eatery flies the maple leaf. That said, I’ve never eaten poutine, and this project seems as good an excuse as any to try. So that’s the universe; soon, I’ll break it down a bit by region to see whose food we can, and cannot find, in these parts.

UPDATE, 16 Nov.: Make that 68 countries.  The owners of Falafel King, a stand at a souk-like food court tucked away in Downtown Crossing, may serve Lebanese-inflected food, but they hail from Iraq.  Although they arrived before we invaded, I'm glad we can enjoy falafel (very good -- not quite as crispy as Fordee's in Watertown) and schwarma (the best!!) from a land to which we have exported the best and the worst of ours.  Perhaps relevant: Paul Bremer, our failed viceroy, added Iraqi touches to his classical cooking technique.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Unlikely Tale of Australia in Southie

Authentic Australian food – the very phrase seems like something between an oxymoron and an in-joke, the next episode following Saveur’s tongue-not-at-all-in-cheek article on Christmastime fare in rural QuebecKO Catering and Pies offers neither Sydney’s locavorian fusion, nor the Outback Steakhouse’s ersatz Oz transported to the exurban strip mall (I ate there at the Orlando airport once, and it wasn’t that bad; disappointing, in its way).  Rather, it trades in the older, British-inflected traditions of ordinary Australians.  It is the solid food of Empire, presented in Boston’s whitest neighborhood.

The location, in a desolate stretch of South Boston between a bus depot and a postal-sorting facility, looked, on a steel-gray day, like a set from The Departed, and the setting fits.  The owner dispenses greetings of “g’day, mate” at the register. A communal table and some seating by the window together hold, say, a dozen.  Otherwise, it’s a takeout operation.  On the wall, Tim Tams, Marmite, and sweet chili sauce appear for sale.  Clocks mark the time in Sydney and, interestingly, Cape Town.  When I visited, the lines reached out the door – and, amazingly for our precise antipode and a random location, a quarter of the customers seemed by the accents to be Australian.  Although their social class appeared to vary, all were white.

The beef pie, the signature dish, arrives in a small, disposable tin.  It pops out easily, then gets eaten like a hamburger – a less messy task than I’d feared. It has a fine butter crust, flaky on the outside but firm enough not to break in eating.  The beef filling, which tasted of the salty canned broth, was pleasant but unexceptional.  And while putting ketchup on puff pastry strikes me as faintly sacrilegious, Heinz’s sweet-and-sour notes balance the salty goo and buttery crunch quite nicely. The rice salad with corn and scallions suffered from refrigeration.  It was too cold and the rice slightly pellet-y; even a sojourn in – gasp! – the microwave would have worked wonders.  If the sweet chili sauce has been on the table, I would have added a dab of that, too. The most popular item seemed to be the chicken schnitzel sandwich, nicknamed the “chicken schnitty.” Impressively, unlike plenty of other imports from the developed world, which flee to the brownie and the chocolate-chip cookie, KO maintains congruence all the way down the menu.  The desserts are sticky toffee pudding, Lamingtons, and ANZAC cookies; I had the last, wrapped in paper on a table by the coffee pot.  Clearly made with proper golden syrup, and not refined sugar, it beats the all-American oatmeal cookie any day.

I look forward to returning for brekky, or a fish-and-chips.  An infectious air of mate-ship infuses the place; patrons, and not just the Australians, chat about how they found themselves on A Street eating fries or pies.  For all the similarities of our frontier societies with their wide-open spaces and ugly racial histories, spontaneous camaraderie is not in our character.  As Australia and Southie leave behind their ugly pasts and open to the world, let’s hope this little spot, ambivalently global, aids in the endeavor.

KO Catering and Pies
87 A Street, South Boston

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Eating the World in Boston

I have decided to visit a restaurant from each of the 67 countries food whose is represented in the greater Boston area (inside Route 128).  This blog will include reviews and musings from the journey.

Why?  At a basic level, it’s a way to get me out of my Cambridge rut, catch up with old friends, and answer the question of what to do tonight – a set of destinations more suited to conversation than a movie, edgier than the next gastropub.  Maybe I’ll even feel a sense of accomplishment when I finish.

I have other purposes in tromping around to rickety storefronts in out-of-the-way neighborhoods.  I want to make sense of the place I love, to play around with the particular and the universal, the rooted and the cosmopolitan.  Take Chinese food.  A guide to cheap eats in Boston from the seventies, put together by the then-Real Paper, that I found at the Bryn Mawr Book Store (and unpardonably failed to buy) reported that the city had precisely one good Chinese restaurant.   It was run by spies for the Kuomintang, so a stray line about Zhou Enlai’s statesmanship might lead to a hasty exit.  Now, I can take the bus from my apartment to a Belmont storefront and enjoy Dongbei food, with boiled dumplings the envy of mid-sized metropolises throughout the Heartland. 

A long generation ago, Boston remained the home of the bean, the cod, the Irish seven-course meal, veal saltimbocca in the North End, and, for sophisticates, the Cafe Budapest. America’s premier provincial city has joined the world – or the world has joined it.  Whether or not the city has genuinely “world-class amenities,” a phrase deployed to tempt the next meeting of the American Dental Association, an unusually heterogeneous mix of immigrants combine with a slug of overeducated residents to give the people of Boston, Cambridge, and environs a palette far broader than that of either the departed Frank Skefington or the late George Apley.

I regard this project, too, as an act of solidarity.  Whatever one thinks of a guest worker program or a points system or even – gasp! – amnesty, the New Bostonians, to use Mayor Menino’s generous term, celebrate their birthdays, or just unwind after a long day, with familiar foods in a new land.  Many of the countries whose cuisines are represented around Boston appear in the headlines principally as sites of war (Afghanistan, Bosnia, Lebanon), natural disaster (Bangladesh, Haiti), financial crisis (Greece, Thailand), menacing dictatorship (Cuba, Iran, Venezuela) or the occasional miracle (Chile).  Some places, unidentifiable to most on a map, merit only the dismissal of “random.”  Yet each country has culture and tradition behind these depressing headlines.  Perhaps – a culinary voyager might hope – the denizens of the Cafe Polonia, Jacob Wirth, and the Greek Corner see their metaphorical descendants serving pho not borscht, satay not souvlaki. And – a particularly Bostonian hope, this – the sons and daughters of Eire may find in injera or kimchi the universalist strand lurking in the Hibernian soul (and, as a strictly culinary matter, it’s fine if the causality goes in the other direction, too). So these pilgrimages serve, in a sense, as penance for mean-spirited nativism.

To be sure, these goals risk preaching to the choir.  So do locavore-ism, and all the rest.  And while YoMa, a delightful Burmese storefront in Allston, has a Shepherd Fairey-style Aung San Suu Kyi, the politics may swing less benign.  Nostalgia tends to bring out the old irredentist fantasies; I suspect my tips may, via Western Union, feed various insurrections. 

This post has more commentary and less foodie talk than usual.  That said, I don’t imagine this blog as a set of conventional restaurant reviews.  There are other places for those, and I worry that I’d be making (graduate statistics hanging heavy as I write these words) invidious comparisons from dissimilar cases; I can’t really compare a Tuesday lunch for one with a Friday dinner for six.  Next, I’ll explore the 63 countries whose food I’m tasting, and explain the rules of the game. 

Friends, I’m always looking for dining partners.  Haitian, anyone?  Russian?  Eritrean?  And readers, make sure the door is shut so we don’t feel the draft, order a bottle of the local beer imported from far away, ask about all the words on the menu you don’t understand and, if all else fails, just say you want to eat like the natives.