John Curtas is …

Food

American Cuisine: Fused and Confused

http://www.thepoorpantry.com/uploads/5/4/2/4/54246035/638784925_orig.png(Tofu with tagliatelle?)

The problem is there aren’t any rules anymore.

Not in politics, and not in restaurants.

Rules are what give us comfort. They provide context and boundaries to how we’re supposed to act and how we’re supposed to eat.

By nature, I’m not a rule follower. Laws are just suggestions, I’m fond of saying, but I don’t really mean it, especially when social intercourse is involved, and especially when dining pleasure is at stake.

Civility, decorum, manners, tradition — they’ve all taken a beating over the last decade, a beating that shows no signs of abating.

In that same vein, upscale eating has become a no-holds-barred, free-for-all.

Fish sauce in meatloaf. Clam toast. Uni shooters. Baby back ribs mingle with roasted cauliflower — in a supposed Italian restaurant. (Boy, do American chefs LOVE roasted veggies.) Soffrito this and lamb burger that.

Mocha oatmeal stout mole with beef cheek, brown butter, and a masa dumpling?

Misho kosho polenta? With duck katsuboshi? Bloody Marys that take 20 minutes to make. ENOUGH ALREADY!

Stoner food. Comfort food. Everything has to be cravable. Nothing is tethered to anything but the chef’s imagination — imaginations that are running wild from coast to coast because everyone is copying everyone else’s Instagrammable dishes.

On and on it goes from Grant Achatz to chefs from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon.

I don’t want to eat Iberian-inspired cuisine, I want to eat the real thing…or at least an American restaurant’s close approximation of the real thing. Simply tossing some pata negra ham on something does as much for me as putting pesto on peanut butter.

“Their food aesthetic is hard to define.”is what wins you national publicity these days, but who in the hell wants to eat something they don’t understand?  Grownups want definition;  teenagers need it, and young adults are searching for it. The only people who don’t want definition are children too stupid to know how essential structure is for things to make sense.

American restaurants, I’m here to tell you, and especially new American restaurants, have stopped making sense.

I get it: chefs are in the business of making food that people want to eat. If the crowd wants eclecticism, then pile French foie gras alongside Peruvian tiradito topped with a lamb necks and Millennials will beat a path to your door.

But there’s a big problem with this kind of eating: it’s exhausting.

Thematic restaurants are comforting. Whether it’s a Umberto’s Clam House, Joël Robuchon or In-N-Out Burger, you know what you’re getting when you walk in. You know (or hope) you’re going there to be fed something recognizable, and relax while you’re eating it.

When you have to figure out what’s good, something has been lost. When you have to constantly strain to parse what the chef is up to, then you’ve lost a big battle with my stomach before the war has barely begun.

I’ve been to Europe a lot in the past two years. Even as I type these words I am pining for the beef bourguignon in Beaune, or that pork shank in Munich. I find myself dreaming about Japanese fish restaurants and orgies of Roman pasta. What I don’t dream about is some Japanese-Mexican chef trying to make “Iberian-inspired” cuisine with a Nipponese twist. The worst foreign restaurants I’ve ever eaten in were “eclectic” in their cooking. The worst American restaurants I’ve eaten in were jacks of all trades and masters of none. Just because we live in a melting pot doesn’t mean our restaurant food has to reflect that.

There’s nothing new in food, despite what some chefs will try to tell you. There’s a reason you put ground up pork and not turkey meat in dumplings — because turkey meat brings nothing to the party. All those ingredients you see in Korean stews? Each one is there for a reason. Red wine with meat; white wine butter sauce with fish? The French figured this out a thousand years ago.

Why does no one put pasta in clam chowder? Because potatoes lend better starch and texture to the broth.

The other thing all the world’s cuisines figured out is how to eat. And by “how to eat” I mean the progress of a meal.

Light to heavy, climbing the food chain, all of it makes sense in the context of every country’s cuisine. Even the Ethiopians will tell you in what order to attack your injera. Simply throwing a bunch of small plates on the table confuses both the mind and the palate, to say nothing of lessening our sense of civility.

Thus have America chefs taken the whole cross-cultural thing too far.

Who wants to spend time deciphering whether to get the Bento box and Scotch egg or the fried calamari with some riff on ramen? Or how about salmon with forbidden rice and tomatillo sauce? In a Vietnamese-American restaurant?

The best restaurants in Las Vegas know what they are and what they’re trying to emulate. Carnevino is an Italian steakhouse in the best sense of the word. Twist is French to its core, and Yui Edomae Sushi is a direct copycat of a hidden Ginza sushi joint. They are “foreign” restaurants (and they are essentially theme restaurants), but like all great orchestras they stick to the music and leave improvisation to the fools.

American restaurants have no idea what they are, and spend too much time concocting wild variations of dishes done better somewhere else by cooks who specialize in that kind of cooking. (I get it; chefs get bored. But thinking up oddball combinations to combat boredom is an insult to gastronomy.)

Here’s where I give kudos to James Trees for knowing what he wants to be and what he’s good at. Esther’s Kitchen may not sound like a modern Italian restaurant but that’s what it is.

James Trees knows the rules. He’s not afraid to tweak things here and there, but he sticks to the catechism of Italian cooking pretty closely.

I wish his competition was so inclined.

There are many things to like about Carson Kitchen, 7th & Carson, The Black Sheep, Sparrow + Wolf, Boteco, and The Kitchen at Atomic, but thematic consistency isn’t one of them.

To their core, they are new American restaurants that are all over the map with their (relatively short) menus. And to be blunt about it: this kind of cooking is rarely transporting. It may be picture-worthy and just fine for sitting in deafening rooms with screaming 35 year olds raving about how “amazing” everything is, but at the end of the day, it fills your belly but rarely your soul.

No matter how talented a hotshot young chef is, they’re never going to make a mole as well as a Mexican mamacita who’s been doing it all her life. Ditto raw fish. There’s a lot more to it than just putting some raw slices on a plate and throwing some lime dressing on top. Deep frying is an art, too, as is roasting. But restaurants that are trying to all of these things will excel at none of them.

Fusion food has had an interesting ride over the forty years I’ve been paying attention to restaurants. What started in the early 1980s with Wolfgang Puck’s Cal-Ital-French menus took a sharp turn east when Jean-Georges Vongerichten took New York by storm a few years later with his Thai-inflecked French. By the 1990s, Nobu Matsuhisha and Roy Yamaguchi had everyone talking about pan-Pacific flavors. But by the early 2000s, every food writer in America was over all of it. “Fusion-confusion” was how we mocked it back then.

Then, instead of going away, it took over. The recession had something to do with it. Fancy dining was dead (at least we thought so at the time), and restaurateurs, searching for an audience, had to find something casual and hip and, god help us, picture-worthy, to drive business in the door.

Enter restaurants with more moving parts than a Game of Thrones episode. All of it helped along by the molecular craze — which may have jumped the shark a decade ago, but which gave casual eateries license to try all kinds of wacky combinations.

The foam-thing may have died, but the “anything goes”legacy remains. And what we’re left with is wood-fired grills throwing Bento boxes at us…and udon carbonara.

I’m not necessarily against combining the world’s flavors into interesting combinations, but I am against it when it makes no sense….and when that’s all you’ve got. What I’m looking for is focus — on the menu and in the recipes — focus that seems to be lacking when all of these cultural lines get blurred.

Which leads me to ask: Do they teach this kind of cooking in culinary schools these days? I think not. I think it’s all a direct result of social media creating a “can you top this?” attitude among young chefs. Which deceives them into thinking they’re doing something fresh, when in reality, they’re all posing for the same selfies.

The mission statement of any chef in any restaurant is to satisfy his or her customers. And when all you’re doing is trying to dazzle someone, you don’t allow them to get comfortable enough to be satisfied.

Creativity is a great. The world can’t run without it. But creativity is a slippery slope when it comes to food — a slope that too many chefs are sliding down these days.

I think we’re slowly evolving past the small plates thing, and the something-for-everyone-thing, and the let’s-throw-Asian-accents-on-everything-thing.

This is a good thing, I think. Or maybe I’m just hoping.

It’s time to get back to basics — food that makes people feel good, not impress them for all of the wrong reasons.

 

Pho-oey

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Here comes my annual “Piss the Asian Eater Crowd Off” post, so buckle up and hang on.

I don’t like pho. I eat it once in a while, but I can’t say it has ever impressed me.

I have eaten dozens of bowls of pho in my lifetime in dozens of Vietnamese restaurants, stretching from Garden Grove, California to New York City. If there’s a scintilla of difference between this pho and that pho, I’ve yet to decipher it.

Aside from filling you up, there is precious little to recommend about pho.

Maybe I just don’t get pho. And if by “don’t get” you mean I can’t get on board with a bland noodle soup, then guilty as charged.

Japanese soups are more substantial; Nipponese noodles are more interesting. Thai soups are spicier and more mysterious, and Korean soups are far more complex, so just what is it, pilgrim, that drives you to a bowl of pho?

I’ll tell you what drives you there: price. Pho is cheap. So cheap they can serve it by the gallon. It’s also filling. Two pounds of noodles for $6.95 will fill anyone up. Face it: any foodstuff that can be served in buckets ain’t that special.

Pho, for the most part, is just boring. The broth is never anything to write home about, and the pounds of cheap, flavorless, flabby rice starch noodles (banh pho) they serve with it bring nothing to the party, either. The only thing that makes pho interesting is the forest of fresh herbs they bring to your table. In other words, you’re served insipid broth and limp noodles and you’re supposed to season it yourself! WHAT FUN!

Pho is the most grandma-friendly of all Asian dishes. It’s what you serve to those who find kung pao chicken too exotic. It’s entry-level Asian for wimps.

The only pho I’ve ever liked is at Le Phobecause the broth has guts. And his meat is better than the suspect cuts a lot of pho parlors sling at you. But the noodles, there and everywhere, are entirely forgettable.

And don’t get me started on whatever it is they call this stuff (that always seems to find its way to my bowl of pho):

https://i.pinimg.com/originals/7a/98/c6/7a98c681ad56e281571569e799b915f8.jpg

So can we nip this pho obsession shit in the bud right now?

I fear pho is about to cross the Ramen Line, and suddenly be the soup du jour among the Instagram crowd. But it doesn’t deserve it.

It doesn’t deserve it anymore than your mother’s chicken noodle soup deserves it.

And spare me the whole “it’s part of their cultural heritage” claim, as these ginormous bowls of blandness didn’t become popular until around a hundred years ago. An argument can be made that pho is really French. Sacré blue!

Here’s my suggestion for pho eating:

If you’ve got a head cold, eat pho.

If you’re broke, eat pho.

If you enjoy eating soup by the gallon, eat pho.

If eating flavorless broth is part of your culture (Vietnamese, Jews, Mormons, Iowans) by all means eat a lot of pho.

If you have no teeth, eat pho. (without the eighteen cuts of beef)

For the rest of you, I suggest trying savory soups of substance:

 

But if oddly firm, funnily flavored meatballs float your boat:

http://ot-foodspotting-production.s3.amazonaws.com/reviews/2611406/thumb_600.jpg?1350867546

…knock yourself out.

As for me, I’ll continue diving into the food of Vietnam (which I love, especially the broken rice dishes), and consign this so-so noodle soup to the oblivion to which it belongs.

To head off the haters, here’s a partial list of Vietnamese food that I do like (and I like them a lot):

Goi cuon (fresh spring rolls)

Bun bo Hue (hearty/spicy beef soup with round noodles)

Banh cuon (steamed rolled rice cakes)

https://vietnamtravel.reviews/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/cach-lam-banh-cuon.jpg

Buo luc lac (shaking beef)

Bun thit nuong (grilled marinated pork)

Com tam (broken rice)

Canh chua (hot and sour soup)

Goi xoai (shrimp salad)

…just to name a few.

Ngon miệng!

Hope to see you at Le Pho, or District One sometime soon…just not behind a fatuous fount of f*cking pho.

https://i.pinimg.com/736x/c2/06/35/c20635571f388186bec7a9436e644372--restaurant-humor-bowl-of-pho.jpg

 

 

Where I’ll Dine in 2018 – Part Two

ELV note: Rather than attempt a comprehensive look at Las Vegas restaurants (for that, you’ll have to buy my  book) we at ELV thought it better to let you know where you’re likely to find us dining in the coming months. As we said in our last post, we are done exploring every nook and cranny of the local food scene. We’re not going to ignore the shiny and the new, but more likely you’ll find us patronizing the well-worn and comfortable.  And nothing fits our comfort zone more these days than Chinatown.

The Food Gal® once asked me what I would miss most about Las Vegas were we to move to another town. The things I would miss most about Vegas, would be, in order:

  • The weather
  • My house
  • My swimming pool in summer
  • My barbecue/smoker
  • Chinatown
  • Having half a dozen great French restaurants within 15 minutes of my front door
  • Ditto: a dozen great steakhouses
  • Mexicans
  • Asians

Why the last two? Because they provide more flavor to our humble burg than all the gueros and gaijin combined.

Las Vegas’s Mexicans restaurants don’t compare with SoCal, Phoenix, Tucson and Albuquerque, but all it takes is a quick trip to any Mexicali eatery in Atlanta or St. Louis to see how good we’ve got it.

And when it comes to Asian food, there are very few cities in America that compare with the offerings up and down Spring Mountain Road.

As with Mexican food, I can hear the aficionados braying: “Nothing you have compares with the San Gabriel Valley, or Garden Grove, or Richmond (outside of Vancouver) Canada!”

True dat, but for a town our size, the quality and variety of our Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean restaurants is pretty darn impressive, and beats anything Miami, Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver or Philadelphia can throw at you.

Best of all, our Chinatown (which really should be called Asiatown) is mostly compressed into one, three mile stretch of road. (As tasty as it is, traipsing all over Alhambra, San Gabriel and the Valley Boulevard Corridor can be a slog for all but the most intrepid gastronaut.)

Chinatown really rings our chimes, again and again. It’s the one food address in town that we never tire of exploring. When Thai tedium ensues, there’s always some copious Korean. Should we be sated by sushi, there’s always some restorative ramen at hand. Upscale Vietnamese? Verily, it is so. Interesting izakaya? Indubitably.

Plus, all of this bounty seems to be increasing. As we type these words, a huge condominium complex is under construction near Valley View Boulevard, along with a giant new shopping mall (dubbed “Shanghai Plaza”) a half mile up the street.

Something tells us the quantity and quality of Chinatown eats is about to grow exponentially. In the meantime, here’s where we’ll frequenting in the coming year:

CHINATOWN

(We have purposely included a few non-Chinatown addresses here, but lumped them in this section in the interest of pan-Pacific consistency.)

Noodles, Noodles, Noodles

(“Screaming For Vengeance” at Ramen Sora)

No one does cheap eats better than Asians.  Ten years ago there was nary a noodle to be found in Chinatown that wasn’t in a pot of Vietnamese pho. Now, nourishing noodle nibbling necessitates numerous navigations. Put another way, the number of choices is notable. And without a whole lot of negotiating, you can become a noodle-noshing nerd.

For ramen, we prefer an old reliable — Ramen Sora — along with an interesting upstart: Ramen Hashi, a mile or so up the road. Ramen Sora satisfies our cravings for miso-based noodles (often with everything but the kitchen sink thrown on top), while Ramen Hashi has blown us away recently with its lighter, shio (salt) and shoyu (soy) based chicken broths. We have nothing against Monta, and give it all the props in the world for pioneering our ramen revolution, but Hashi and Sora are just as good, and never quite as crowded.

For unctuous udon,  Marugame Monzo fills the bill with its thick, chewy strands of cotton-white udon (and killer karaage). And for the best of Szechuan, nothing beats Mian Taste (or Mian Sichuan Noodle, depending on how literal you want to be) and the fiery, lip numbing intensity of the Szechuan peppercorns that infuse each dish.

If it’s all-around noodle-liciouness you seek,nothing beats the hand-pulled beauties at Shang Artisan Noodle….or its pocket beef pancake:

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Sushi Fever

Life is too short to eat cheap fish. It sounds elitist (and it is!) but you should have to pay through the nose for your seafood. Nasty, shit-fed, farm raised fish doesn’t do anyone any good, and ocean trawling for cheap tuna is destroying our eco-systems.

My solution: Ban cheap fish altogether and make people shell out a car payment for their sushi. It’s going to come to this eventually, so we might as well start now.

If you want cheap protein, eat a chicken.

If you want wonderful seafood treated right, try this on for size:

(Seared mackerel at Yuzu)

If you want the best sushi in town, go to Yui Edomae Sushi. Or Kabuto. If you want the best sushi in the suburbs go to Kaiseki Yuzu or Hiroyoshi. I don’t eat sushi anywhere else in this town and neither should you.

Why do I have to keep telling you these things?

More Meals of the Rising Sun

The Japanese revolution began in January, 2008 with the opening of Raku. We hear an expansion is planned and we hope that means it will be easier to get into. (Don’t bet on it; it’s still one tough ticket.) Raku’s excellence and popularity shows no signs of abating, as it has continues to elevate our dining scene, and set a standard for all of Spring Mountain Road to emulate.  In the ten years hence, it has begat such tasty options as Japanese Curry Zen and Raku Sweets. Curry Zen is a must for lovers of Japanese curry. Its spinach curry rice shows up at my house at least once a month (the Food Ga®  is a big fan of their takeout), and it might be the healthiest cheap eats in Vegas. Raku Sweets remains a marvel. We can never get in for dessert (always a wait) but weekend lunch is definitely on the horizon.

Very Vietnamese

Gawd I wish I could parse the fine differences between this pho parlor and that pho parlor. They all have the same menu and they’re all alike to this haolie. All I know is this: When I get a hankerin’ for pho or spring rolls downtown, I head straight to Le Pho. When I want more interesting, out-of-the-box Vietnamese, I head straight to District One. I really don’t give a shit about any other Vietnamese restaurant in town, because I’ve been to ’em all, and they all taste the same.

Korean ‘Cue Quest

Last year we did a Korean ‘cue quest. This year we’ve decided to hang out at 8 Oz Korean Steakhouse.

When the mood for more homey Korean fare hits, you’ll find us at Mother’s Korean Grill or Kkulmat Korean Kitchen. 

We don’t give a flying frijole that Kkulmat has only 2 TripAdvisor reviews. It’s really really good, and the people are really really nice. At Mother’s, they barely seem to tolerate round-eyes, but the banchan and dolsot bibimbap make up for the cursory service.

That is all.

Don’t Leave Your Chinese To Chance

(Let Jimmy Li slip you the tongue at Niu-Gu)

Chinese restaurants still outnumber all others on Spring Mountain, and mediocre Chinese restaurants are more the rule than the exception.  The Chinatown Plaza pictured at the top of the page – the place that started our Asian  revolution in 1995 – is chock full of mediocrity, and every strip mall seems to have at least one forgettable boba tea or Taiwanese street food joint. But there is fascinating food to be found. You just have to be smart, read this blog, follow me on Instagram, and buy my book. (That’s two shameless plugs in one post if you’re counting.)

For dim sum, and many other classic Chinese favorites, head straight to Ping Pang Pong. For sophisticated Mandarin-worthy fare at a fraction of what you’ll pay on the Strip, nobody beats what Jimmy Li cooks up every night at the unassuming Niu-Gu Noodle House. (P.s. the tea service is spectacular as well.)

Chengdu Taste is where we head when we’ve got a hankerin’ for dan dan mian, green sauce chicken, or boiled fish in chili sauce. It is a restaurant that brooks no compromise and lays on the tongue-numbing heat the way they do in southwestern China. J & J Szechuan is older, less flashy, and not as of-the-moment as chef Tony Xu’s Alhambra offshoot — but it’s almost as good, even cheaper, and usually easier to get into.

Thai One On

Image may contain: food(Our usual at Ocha Thai)

We group our Thai restaurants into 3 categories:

1) Rustic and authentic

2) Upscale and authentic

3) Everyone else

Gallery(Nam-Prik-Ong – red chili dip at Lotus of Siam)

When it comes to rustic and authentic, nothing beats what the adorable little ladies of Ocha Thai are turning out. A little more polished are the operations at Weera Thai (which features quite a few Laotian dishes) and the incendiary stylings of Chuchote Thai. If you want to know what it feels like to have a flame thrower stuck up your fundament, ask for anything “Bangkok hot” at any of them, and then hold on for dear life the next morning.

Thai comes in more sophisticated form (and with better wines) at Chada Street and Chada Thai as well as at that old reliable: Lotus of Siam. We’ve twice tried to get into Lotus at their new location on West Flamingo, and have been thwarted by long lines every time. At this rate, we may have to wait for their old location to reopen for our yearly fix of Koong Char Num Pla (raw shrimp) and Nam Kao Tod (crispy rice), or to get another chance to waltz around America’s best German Riesling list.

Sweets Release

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What do we always say: When you want a good dessert in an Asian restaurant, go to a French one.

That said, there’s no denying the gorgeousness of Bank Atcharawan’s milkshakes (above) at The Patio Desserts and Drinks, or his Thai toast:

Image may contain: dessert and food

….or just about any other thing he’s serving to satiate your sweet (or tea) tooth.

Other than that, and the gorgeous creations of Mio-san at Raku Sweets:

…there’s not a whole lot we can recommend from our Asian brethren in the dessert department.

Boba tea is a bad joke (it all comes from over-sugared mixes), Korean pastries are pale, spongy copies of French ones, and the wallpaper paste that the Japanese and Chinese make out of red beans might appeal to them, but we find its best usage is holding down roof tiles. And those slushies that some upscale Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese joints throw at you at the end of the meal are just odd, chunky imitations of something the Greeks perfected 2,500 years ago.

Face it: Asians don’t get sugar. Not like the French do. Or the Italians. Or the Germans. They don’t really have a sweet tooth. But we don’t hold that against them. In fact, it’s one of the many reasons we crawl up and down Spring Mountain Road every week — we always know that wherever we chow down on this most chow-downable of streets, we’ll save ourselves a thousand calories by skipping dessert every time.

In Part 3 of Where I’ll Dine in 2018 we will explore what’s left of Strip dining that still gets us excited. In the meantime, we’ll leave you with some thoughtful words from George Orwell about critical writing and the abandonment of standards. (He was writing about book critics, but the regression to the mean (and mediocrity) holds true for restaurants and restaurant writing as well.):

It is almost impossible to mention restaurants in bulk without grossly overpraising the great majority of them. Until one has some kind of professional relationship with restaurants, one does not discover how bad the majority of them are. In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be “This restaurant is worthless”, while the truth about the reviewer’s own reaction would probably be “This restaurant does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to.” But the public will not pay to read that kind of thing. Why should they? They want some kind of guide to the restaurants they are asked to visit, and they want some kind of evaluation. But as soon as values are mentioned, standards collapse. – with apologies to George Orwell

 

 

 

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