The number one question people ask me about my trip is, “Where is the best food?”, or “What is the best food?” The quick answer is that there is no “best” but a couple meals blew my mind so much that they could easily be the best in their category. That is, until I find a meal I like even better.
The real lesson I learned on my road trip is that everyone, everywhere is living their own little life. Doing their own little thing. This is good. And I use the word “little” to describe it because you and I are each just 1 person on a planet with almost 8 billion people!!!
Let’s say you had everyone cook you their best meal. You can eat three meals a day and in the course of a year you would eat roughly 1,000 meals. It would only take you roughly 800,000 years to try everyone’s dish.
Which leads me to the lessons learned…
Food is Local – Food evolves in its own local microcosm. You first must have access to your base ingredients. Then you must apply tools and techniques to them to produce a dish. This is why we have food shows giving cooks the exact same ingredients and they produce amazingly different dishes. Variety is the spice of life, no?
Freshness Counts – Our food delivery system is amazing. What may be more amazing is how little we know about where our food comes from. But I can tell you nothing is as good as eating a lobster in Maine or oysters in New Orleans. Nothing is as good as a freshly plucked tomato from a home garden. The best ceviche I had was in Peru. It wasn’t just how fresh the fish was for the ceviche but perhaps the freshness of the limes counted for even more.
Pork Belly is Overrated – Pork Belly dishes are a huge trend and will continue that way. However, no one seems to know how to make it well. The best pork belly I had was on a steamed bun in a DC Vietnamese restaurant then it went all downhill from there. I think I need to go to New York to experience David Chang’s ramen to really know if pork belly is really good. But then it’s just an accompaniment to the soup. It is also slightly comical that I have to explain to people that pork belly is basically thick cut bacon.
Charleston May Be Overrated As a Foodie City – Besides DC, my first real foodie town stop was Charleston. It’s got a lot of good press lately but I’m not sure it lives up to the hype. DC as a foodie town beats it in practically every way. But, I did love the shrimp and grits. They are like peanut butter and jelly. Just this magical combination that works great. Not sure if Charleston wants to degrade itself either by attempting to produce the best Carolina BBQ.
Shrimp and Grits is AmazingYou can’t visit the south and not get shrimp and grits. In fact, forget about the shrimp, just eat any grits dish you can. Corn is American as it gets. Not sure if you can call yourself American if you don’t eat corn. Ironically the best shrimp and grits I had was in Denver. But that’s because they put green chilies on it which I have a not so secret love affair with.
The Cuban Sandwich – If you are in Florida you have to eat as many as you can. Forget even eating anything else in Florida, everything else is a waste of time and digestive effort. If you aren’t eating a Cuban sandwich you should be eating anything out of a Cuban restaurant. Seriously, for the love of food don’t even try to go to a fancy restaurant in Florida. Just eat Cuban. One place I ate a Cuban sandwich at was at a food stand by a gas station. The food was amazing but the guy told me he wanted to start a national franchise for Cuban sandwiches. I hope they get bigger than Chipotle and Jimmy John’s combined.
You Will Fall In Love With New Orleans – Someone told me that when I got there and I didn’t believe it but it’s true. I’m in love. I tried three different restaurants and all three practically brought me to tears. I didn’t know what I was missing out on! And you have every tourist’s favorite place Cafe Du Monde. The beignets are great but believe me when I say the Cafe Au Lait is better.
Oysters Only Good in New Orleans – Not sure if this is true, but it seems to be true. It goes back to freshness. But maybe it has something to do with that fact that people in that area have been cooking them for hundreds of years and eat them as often as other Americans eat burgers. Sometimes you just have to go to certain places to eat certain foods.
Keep The Burger Simple – When I got to Texas I ate quail. It was amazing. Then I went to a backyard bbq with friends. It reminded of the fact that there is hardly a more satisfying meal then a burger with fresh lettuce, tomato, and for me, pickles. Food always seems to be better when you cook it at home with a group of good friends…
Texas Owns BBQ Brisket – I think most people know this already. A quick Google search shows texas style brisket as the top recipe choice for those wanting to attempt the impossible. Of course, I’m not sure anyone can do it like the Texans, and in particular the people living in Austin. Everything is bigger in Texas and every Pitmaster loves the challenge of making their BBQ the best in town. Which is good for the rest of us that want to eat it. That intense competition produces some of the best prepared meat in the world. The downside is that you need to go to Texas to get it.
Good Mexican Should Be Everywhere – As I moved on to El Paso and Sante Fe I wondered why good Mexican food can’t be found everywhere. I love it because it is cheap and good. In other words, it has great value. Everyone should be able to make a decently good quesadilla at home. My cousin is a chef in Knoxville and he made me the best quesadilla ever. The fresh tomatoes and chilies certainly helped. Oh, and that magical word chorizo. Right now my spell check doesn’t even recognize the word chorizo, but it should be part of the English language. If selfie is in the dictionary why can’t chorizo be in there to?
Everyone Should Know French – Before I get ahead of myself I should step back a second to say everyone should be familiar with what constitutes good french cooking. Unfortunately Americans don’t recognize it much at all. Like chorizo, most people don’t know French words like charcuterie or confit. There goes my spell check telling me I can’t spell again. Luckily I think most people know what a crepe is. Even my spell check. As a side note, this is why New Orleans has amazing food. It is their French heritage.
The Vietnamese Are Mighty Fine Cooks – From 1887 to 1954 Vietnam was a French colony. Now imagine you are a French born citizen living in Vietnam and you miss your French food. What are you gonna do? You are gonna train the locals to cook French food for you. After one hundred years a lot of people were growing up in Vietnamese households learning to cook the French way with a Vietnamese influence. Everything evolves in place even with outside influences. Pho soup is one of most satisfying things you can eat. Chicken Noodle soup has nothing on it. The Vietnamese invented their own amazing sandwich called the Bahn Mi. It just might be the best sandwich you’ve ever tasted.
Great Sandwich = Great Ingredients – The Vietnamese have their Bahn Mi. People in New Orleans have their Po’Boy. People in Philly have their Hoagie. Most people call them Subs because of the popular sandwich chain Subway. You can also call them heroes, grinders, or wedges. Whatever you call them, if you slap some gourmet meats and cheeses on a nice soft tasty bun with maybe some fresh or pickled vegetables you’ve got an amazing meal you can eat with your hands.
You Will Love Green Chilies – I don’t think I have met a single person that didn’t like them. A little spicy, a little smoky, a little sweet, they just have a wonderfully unique flavor you can’t get anywhere else. I think chilies are generally underrated as a food. People should definitely be growing them in their gardens and using them in their meals. They seem to be good on everything, even shrimp and grits. I once made a pastry with green chilies and cream cheese as an appetizer for a party. It seemed to be everyone’s favorite thing.
Pork vs. Beef – Whole dissertations have been written about BBQ, but one thing is true. Place is certainly why Texans love beef and the rest of the south loves pork. Although both animals are and have been raised everywhere it is generally easier to raise pigs east of the Mississippi and cattle west of the Mississippi. Texas is famous for it’s brisket and Omaha is famous for it’s steaks for a reason. Just as Kansas City, St. Louis, Memphis, and a few other Southern states are famous for their pork ribs. Cows eat large amount of grass. Pigs eat large amounts of practically anything humans eat. Pigs were usually fattened up with the abundance of the fall harvest. They eat potatoes, squash, nuts, peas, corn, and other big crops that come to harvest in the fall. The pigs have a few final fall months to fatten up before they are slaughtered in the winter. Most early settlers couldn’t survive the winter without their smoked and cured pork rations. I say all that to say I never really thought too much how place influenced one’s diet even though it was right in front of me all along.
Farm To Table Will Get Bigger – What seems like a trend now is the way things will go and will probably need to go, especially as gas prices make shipping food less economically feasible. Get to know your local farmers. Buy from them. There are a million environmental reasons to buy local food, but it all goes back to taste. It simply tastes better then your mass produced food. I haven’t met a farm to table restaurant I didn’t like.
Step Out of Your Comfort Zone With Ethiopian – You want a unique flavor experience? You need to try Ethiopian. Not sure if you could get more flavors on one plate. That may be a bad thing depending on how you approach food, but it will certainly expand your palette.
Queso is Everything – Queso is cheese in Spanish for you gringos. Everyone loves it. You will love it too. Throw some green chilies in there and you will develop an addiction. It’s that good.
The Chile Relleno – Whats better then chilies? Deep fried chilies. That is all.
Tacos are Becoming Too Fancy – The trend in fancy tacos has got to come to an end sooner or later right? I love beef tongue (lengua in spanish) as much as the next person, but can we put it on something besides a taco. Same goes for you Mr. pork belly. I think the taco reached it’s culinary max with the fish taco. Another easy recipe to cook at home.
Kimchi is Better Than Sauerkraut – I love my sauerkraut. I can’t honor my German and Polish roots if I don’t say that. But I love Kimchi even more. Fermented foods is where it’s at, and for whatever reason the whole cabbage family just makes the perfect thing to ferment. Add a little Korean red chili paste (GoChuJang) and you make magic.
Poutine – It will make you start singing “O Canada”. Try it. Love it.
Sushi Never Goes Out of Style – If it’s fresh I love it. If it’s all you can eat. Even better.
Meat and 3 – This was new for me. Surprised I never heard of it before. All it means is that you pick one delicious piece of usually barbecued meat and get three sides with it. Add some cornbread and you have a little piece of heaven right in front of you.
Memphis is an Underrated Foodie City – When I can get great memphis style ribs and the most delicious catfish all in one place, I would say this city gets my vote. Thanks Blues City Cafe for the Best Meal in Beale.
Speaking of Crepes – I didn’t have a crepe the whole trip besides in Boca Raton Florida. Besides the Cuban sandwich it was probably the only other decent thing I had in Florida. Sweet or Savory you can eat them any time of day. If it’s French you should probably eat it.
More than anything this trip has taught me to appreciate how much a place influences the food it serves up. First ask yourself what ingredients can you source locally. Next ask yourself how has the culture traditionally prepared those ingredients. Then try to see who is pushing the envelope… best oysters in New Orleans, best dish of shrimp and grits in the South, best Cuban in Florida, best Mexican in New Mexico or Colorado, best brisket in Texas, best bbq pork anywhere.
My hope was never to find the best dish anywhere. My hope was to soak up some Southern culture and see what it had to offer. See how I could let it influence my own palette and cooking style. And to hopefully bring a few of those things home with me so I can enjoy the best food made with my own hands.