Friday, August 24, 2007

Coast to Coast

A friend of mine always used to swear that the West coast had better restaurants, better food in general than the East coast. Now that I live out here, I can say that while I will agree there are some things that are better out here, there are some things (food related, of course) about the East coast I miss very much.

For one thing, it’s impossible to get a decent crab cake out here. There are crab cakes, all right, but they’re made with Dungeness crab. Dungeness crab is stringy and mushy. It is not crab cake crab. If you want crab cakes, they have to be made with blue crab only. Lump meat preferred. A little mayo for binder, and then they must be sautéed, not deep fried. Recently I went back East and, while there, ordered a crab cake at a restaurant and forgot to ask about preparation method. Sure enough, it was deep fried. That’s just wrong.

Another thing they don’t have out here is Chick-fil-a. Some may say, who cares about a fast food chicken sandwich restaurant. Me, I retort. I care. It’s not their lunches, it’s their breakfast biscuits that I love so much. On this same trip back East, I was within reasonable distance of a Chick-fil-a when our plane landed. Oh sure, it would be a little bit of a detour, but really, we were in no hurry, so we were going to drive a little out of our way and go there. One thing about Chick-fil-a: they’re closed on Sundays. It has to do with the founder decreeing that everyone was entitled to the Biblical “day of rest” and thinking that all of his employees should be able to go to church, if they wanted to. As our plane was landing, I was trying to decide just how many chicken biscuits, versus how many buttered biscuits I was going to buy, and would I just get enough for right then, or should I buy extra and eat them later, even though they would be cold? As I was thinking all this, something struck me—we had left LA on a Saturday on a red-eye. That meant that this was, yes, Sunday morning. Poop.

There’s also not a single person out here who can make a proper donut. Again, same trip back East, we drove up into Vermont (from where we were staying in Massachusetts) and stopped in a town called Bennington at something called the Apple Barn. The Apple Barn is really just a big store, although they do have pick your own things out back (apples, mostly). We bought Vermont cheese, maple mustard, some crackers, some summer sausage, and two bags of donuts. Two bags of the world’s best donuts, that reminded me again that there must be something in the air, or in the genetic composition of the people who cook them, that makes New England donuts so incredibly good.

Real cheesesteaks also elude cooks out here. I have to confess, I’m not actually devoted to true Philly cheesesteaks. I don’t like that Cheese Whiz crap that’s supposedly traditional, nor do I like peppers, onions, or mushrooms on my cheesesteak. What I like is the kind they sell at Jerry’s Subs and Pizza. Regular cheesesteak, with lettuce and extra mayo only is my choice, the cheese needs to be Provolone. Plus fries and a drink. We do have a place out here that claims to make an authentic “East coast” cheesesteak, but it’s someone’s interpretation of a genuine East coast cheesesteak (not mine). It’s OK, it’s just not what I crave when I crave a cheesesteak.

I have discovered that bagels actually are different out here. I kept buying them at the grocery store, and being disappointed that they seemed to be basically just round white bread with a hole in them. I assumed it had to do with the brands I was buying, since the brand I used to buy back East wasn’t available out here (I admit it—I liked frozen Lender’s plain original, the smaller ones, not those huge things that could serve a family of four for a week). Anyway, I had finally decided to give up on bagels, because clearly I was missing something, when I read a website that informed me that, in fact, West coast bagels are different from their East coast counterparts. They’re softer, and thus more like…well, more like round bread with a hole in it. The website, if you care, was an LA-based bagel chain. Western Bagel or something, I think it was called. Anyway, they had one of those “about us” stories, and the founders had come from the East and opened a bagel shop, only to discover that people on the West coast don’t like chewy bagels, so they changed them to make them softer.

Lobster is another thing that’s just not available out here. We have good seafood by the ton, but no lobster. This translates to no really good lobster bisque, which I happen to adore. Mostly I adore the kind that’s available at a small local chain of restaurants near where I used to live. But the lack of lobster out here means that really no one has lobster bisque that’s quite right. I’ve had it out here, but it’s not the real thing. Even though I know the lobster used back East is often frozen, out here it’s so obviously frozen. It couldn’t be anything but. I think that takes something away for me.

I have been able to find one decent bar-b-que place, which is a blessing. They even have the Kansas City style sauce that I like, and passable cole slaw. But on the whole, cheap bar-b-que is not easy to come by in this part of the world. What I do find amusing is how many people who are from the Pacific Northwest will proceed to sit you down and lecture you about just what constitutes good bar-b-que. These are people who’ve never gotten closer to real pulled pork than walking past pork shoulder in the grocery store, and yet they know all about what’s good and what’s not. I find that kind of funny.

On the other hand, where I live now, I can go out and pick blackberries by the ton everywhere. What used to cost $4 a pound are now growing wild by the roadside and can be picked by any and all. I spend the entire months of August and September making blackberry cobbler because it’s just too easy to get lots of really great blackberries for free. There’s also outstanding Japanese food, and fresh mussels at every turn. Ingredients that I’ve been searching for for years to make more authentic Asian and Indian dishes are readily available in the grocery stores.

I can’t say I agree with my friend that the restaurants are all an order of magnitude better than anything on the East coast, but there are certainly some good ones. I think the shortcomings are more obvious to me because I grew up on the East coast, and had all those things I miss available to me from birth. I’m sure my kids will go back East and bemoan the lack of free blackberries, or complain about how crummy the sushi is.

No comments: