I’m looking for a unique place to bring a friend to lunch tomorrow. On the menu so far:
Cafe Something Fancy- riddled with fancy silverware, cloth napkins, and plates with sauce occupying more space than actual food
Restaurant Suave- starring fusion foods that are drizzled in kale-chia-lemon oil and spirulina essence mayo, served with classy but unwieldy broad wooden spoons and forks
Diner Classic- serving the typical greasy comfort food, with sides of tasty-but-nothing-new and that wonderful post-heavy-meal-lethargy
Standard Eatery- offers ordinary dishes, seasoned with exotic salt and pepper in a creamy sauce of no-adventure-or-excitement
Don’t get me wrong, there are times and places and occasions for each of these options, and I’m sure there are myriads of people who appreciate everything from fancy dishes and deconstructed sandwiches to deliciously greasy hamburgers and fries. But the diversity of food and food culture that I’ve experienced seems lackluster at best. You know the drill- your friends and you decide to go grab lunch, but time is scarce and a large majority of restaurants are too pricey for your college-drained wallet, so you go to Panera, or Chipotle, or Noodle’s & Co. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with that, but it seems like food is more of a medium for hanging out, and you eat because everyone else is and because you have to make your stomach full because the proper hour has struck.
Maybe it’s just because I really, really like food, or maybe I’ve been spoiled by eating adventures on international travels, but I crave a different kind of food culture. I want food to be a focus, the flavors and textures and spices, supplemented by good company and good conversation. I want the ambiance of an eatery to be created by the sizzling of food in hot pans and the chatter from overcrowded tables, air laced with savory and sweet and spicy fragrance. Most Chinese people believe they have found a good restaurant when they find that it is crowded with people-- those evenly spaced tables, classical music, crystalline chandeliers, and shiny napkin rings are not nearly as convincing as the shouts of chefs as fresh food is prepared, the clamor of dozens of people chatting and eating, and the inviting warmth wafting up from huge assortments and quantities of various dishes.
I miss traveling and finding that the best food is served in the rundown basements of strip malls, attempting to read menus in foreign languages and being surprised with tasty and confusing meals, and eating flavors that I am never quite able to find here, flavors that are rich and savory and light and vinegary and spicy. I miss having my friends native to other countries teach me about how their food should be eaten, and learning about their cultures over a delightful and confusion meal. I miss the authenticity and love woven into their foods. And so, with travel wants and food woes, I am continuing my search for the food culture that is so evident in the countries that I have traveled to and so absent from the restaurants that I have visited as of late.