Monday, January 03, 2005

You Can Take the Girl Out of New York...

With less than two days left on our annual holiday trip to NY, I feel the same deep seated longings that I do every year:

I love seeing everybody here, but I miss Mom & my brother. I miss my friends. I miss my house and my ongoing, neverending projects. I have had the requisite stressed out dream because all my inner alarm systems are aware I have not taken care of my guinea pigs in weeks.* And, for the love of G-d, cram that suitcase full of black & white cookies, because no matter how they want to believe they are offering black & white cookies at various Seattle locations, they are not real black & white cookies (and worse, because the look-alikes make me want one sooo much).

I have to say that I love Seattle. I have to say it because truly, it is a city in need of culinary help. Great for fish, of course, from salmon to sushi. Great for Japanese, Thai, Indian. Not bad for Italian and steakhouse, and phenomenal for organic foods. It is fine for chain restaurants - got your Wendy's, your Outback Steakhouse, etc. - although WTF is going on with Burger King? Every time I leave town, when I get back something major has happened. Major to me, that is. Time before last it was the disappearance of the Queen Anne Thriftway (best produce in the whole city), and through my sobbing and avowals never to leave town again, I was told it was really the same, management had just gone independent so the new Metropolitan Market was born. Of course, to me, it will always be, "Let's stop at the former Thriftway for cameo apples." Last time I had the nerve to leave town for a few days, I returned to find every single Burger King closed. Poof! Some were gone for good. One underwent renovations, and a few weeks later they gently eased me off the glass doors to open for business.

Seattle's food scene has its strong points, but every trip to NY starts with S & I turning to each other with sly grins, "So what do you wanna eat first?"

Listen up, Seattle. There are a lot of us expatriate east coasters living in your area now, and we NEED the following:

1. Deli. Get some Boar's Head cold cuts. Get some real deli case offerings. Get some knishes and some fricking black & white cookies. Not just cake cookies you disguise with some brown and some white frosting. No! I have tried every last one of those and they are wrong wrong hearbreakingly wrong. I will handcarry a few on the plane to any deli or bakery in Seattle willing to try and duplicate an authentic b&w cookie. Furthermore, once you offer it, I will sing your praises to every single person I know. In the meantime, if you are on safari to bag authentic deli, the best delis I have found in Seattle so far are the Other Coast Cafe, Buffalo Deli, Roxy's [pastrami!], and Leah's for knishes.

2. Chinese. I know, I know. You would think, being on the Pacific Rim and all, that Seattle would have amazing Chinese food. You, kind sir or gracious madam, are sadly mistaken. Vancouver, BC has great Chinese food. San Fransisco has great Chinese food. Notice anything? They have Chinatowns! Ah hah, you think, but Seattle has the ID (International District, for you outta-towners). Yes, there are some better-than-elsewhere Chinese restaurants in the ID. No parking, but good dim sum. Problem is it is still west coast Chinese. For those who have not lived on both coasts, let me explain. See that eggroll you are holding? Imagine it has a Granddaddy. On steroids. It fills the whole plate. You order one eggroll and split it with someone or else you won't have room for dinner. It was actually made there in the restaurant's kitchen, not deep fried from a bag of frozen little eggrolls. Sure the menus look similar, but read your menu. It should be filled with Engrish, and asking the waiter what is in the "chicken with vegetables" should elicit as much gesturing and unintelligible mutterings as asking for directions to the interstate. Why? Because this is your only hope at eating the real deal. But it still might be white-bread west coast American Chinese food, because the situation is actually far more subtle and complicated. The menus may look identical. Every person down to the busboy might be Chinese. And yet, the food is as different as a McDonalds burger and a steakhouse burger. If you have not tasted it, you will have to believe me, that the east coast fried rice is not the same as the west coast fried rice. The chicken with broccoli at Sam's or Sun Ming is not not not the chicken with broccoli at any restaurant anywhere on the west coast (possible exceptions in small areas of Vancouver BC and San Fransisco, although these too are being corrupted by the Pan Asian homogenization of good Chinese food). I honestly do not know why this is.

I do have a half-baked crackpot theory. At some mysterious, but mandatory, school, every Chinese person thinking about starting a restaurant in the US is told, Here is your Official American Chinese Menu. Mu shu pork, wonton soup, fried rice... never ever deviate from these choices. The east coast "rebel" Chinese restaurants offer those choices in addition to things like shark fin soup, braised eel in garlic sauce, etc. Maybe this attracts the better Chinese chefs? Want to take it up a notch? Go try a Chinese restaurant with someone who is actually from China. See your menu? See that telephone book your dinner companion is holding? Yes, that is his menu. Page after page after ever lovin' page of yummy dishes they won't list on your menu because it deviates from the Official American Chinese Menu. Much of it does not translate, so be brave and let your friend order for you. Have your friend write down anything you love so you have any hope of ordering it again.

If you want to try the closest thing I have found so far to east coast Chinese food in Seattle, go to Mandarin Chef, 5022 University Way NE, (206) 528-7596.

3. Friendly's. I grew up with their dinners that end with mint ice cream sundaes, Friendly fribbles, and the watermelon slice ice cream you can only get in summer with the chocolate chip "watermelon seeds." Ithaca, NY, recently grown from the one cow town of my memory to a full blown two cow town, now has TWO Friendly's. (Or is that Friendly'ses?) Two! Two! Seattle? Zero. I am so ashamed Seattle. Deeply, deeply ashamed.

4. Carvel. Yes, I worked there. Yes, Tom Carvel was an obnoxious bastard. Yes, I can still make a perfect soft-serve swirled ice cream cone dipped in sprinkles. But you are never going to beat that chocolate crunch Carvel puts in every ice cream cake. I even know how to make it and I can't duplicate it. Ohhh, I have tried. But one of the ingredients is proprietary, resulting in sad approximations and wishful thinking and, frankly, I must stop. Carvel cakes and flying saucers are popping up in supermarket freezers now, surely we can at least get these?

I know I am not in this alone. Elswhere wrote about the coastal food phenomenon and I think if we start to band together, we can bring about a change in the Seattle culinary landscape. We can go from "Seattle: Afraid to Admit We Are a Real City" to "Seattle: West Coast Hub for East Coast Cuisine."

Oh yes we can.

(*The Wonder Pigs are boarding with Mary, who has them burrowed in a huge mound of tinothy hay. When they see me they will hand me a small scroll listing their [mainly food related] demands before agreeing to come back home.)


At January 5, 2005 at 7:50 AM, Blogger Kris said...

I live on the East Coast, north of Boston, and I would give anything for some good Indian or other ethnic food. Something besides Chinese! And our Friendly's just closed, because it was just God awful. They still sell their ice cream through groceries stores, which is for the best. I would miss Boar's Head deli meat though. But I would surely trade it for some decent Indian and Thai food :-).

Funny how different areas lack in different food categories. My parents lived in West Virginia for five years, and they had no hard ice cream and the most bizarre "donuts."

Glad you had a nice trip!

At January 10, 2005 at 3:48 PM, Blogger elswhere said...

Oh, G-d, all so true! I was gonna write about Chinese food too on my post but it was already too long. You know what else we had in Florida that I can't find for love nor money in Seattle? Cold sesame noodles. I will look for them at Mandarin Chef.

p.s. I just found cannoli last week at the Pike Place Market, of all places. Go figure.

p.p.s. Black & white cookies... mmm.

At October 10, 2005 at 9:45 PM, Blogger tom naka said...

I've stumbled across your blog when I done some barbecue restaurant research in Google. You're doing a pretty nice job
here, keep up the good work! check out barbecue restaurant


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