The Great Bites of America... And Whether It's Wise to be Liberal or Conservative About Them!

In this completely wacky political season... I've chosen to write a piece that has nothing whatsoever to do with politics. But some of the terminology is on loan.

For I think it's good to discuss the great, standard bites of American food... and then discuss whether you trust 'em or not. In the list below, you'll see hamburgers at the top, for instance. I know what a great hamburger is. But do I only eat great hamburgers? No. I'm always on the prowl for a bun o' beef. And the hamburger complies, by being an extremely forgiving food. I'm almost always at least satisfied, no sensibilities offended. Therefore, I have a liberal attitude to the hamburgers out there. Look further in the list, and you'll see tacos. No way, José. I'm careful about where I eat a taco, because I don't like tacos that don't get it right. I'm much more conservative when it comes to tacos. The higher the "liberal" rating, the more confidence you can have of finding something edible!

Got it? Let's consider the Big Ten:

What is Great?
For many, it seems, the greatness of a burger has much to do with the toppings. Bosh, say I. If it only took toppings, there'd be many more great burgers. A great hamburger, to me, is, above all, a great beefburger; it should taste like warm, juicy, sweet, buttery beef. The grind has to be just right; like sushi rice, the damned thing has to seem on the verge of falling part, but it miraculously holds together. A perfect one is crusty on the outside, but like a soft pillow on the inside. Seasoning, again, is not even a consideration: a little salt and a little black pepper are only there to heighten the flavor of beef, beef, beef.

2016-05-09-1462826949-8611541-SiobhandubsUniburger.jpg(image: @siobhandubs/Instagram)

The Territory Below Great
I love hamburgers. I eat lots of them...many more then there are great ones out there. How do I do it? Simple: I love hamburgers so much, I simply lower my standards. In lesser hamburgers, the toppings do take on a kind of importance. Let's go to the extreme level: I manage to wolf down a dozen or so Quarter Pounders with Cheese every year! My big McDonald's secret is time of day--if you order the Quarter Pounder with Cheese just at 11AM, as they're starting to serve lunch, your odds of getting a warm, fresh one go up. On a good day, it tastes almost like a real hamburger. But on any day, the pickle-onion-ketchup combo gives me pleasure, as does the special sauce on the Big Mac. The proper way of thinking is this: a real hamburger to a McDonald's hamburger is like lump crabmeat to surimi, or a porterhouse at Peter Luger's to steak-ums. The two things with the same names are just not of the same universe.

What is Great?
I'm a sausage maniac--and that mania most definitely includes hot dogs, those wonderfully pink, smooth, emulsified inhabitants of wurstworld. Even before I get to the question of quality, however, I must touch base on the great hot dog dichotomy, and my grand preference. There are the dark red, garlicky, all-beef ones (I call 'em the Jewish Garlic Dog), and the much paler, sometimes porky, Oscar-Mayer-kind of sausage (I call 'em Bologna Dogs). Now I recognize full well that "Bologna Dogs" can be grand (especially if you're in the vicinity of Austria). But the greatest dogs, to me, are the "Jewish Garlic Dogs"--oozing with a fatty juice, and ready to spoil your breath for the rest of the night. No matter what kind of dog, the quality that really propels a dog's leap into greatness is...snap! Crunch! A skin audibly cracking as you bite through it.

The Territory Below Great
The concept of the hot dog is so great that I can tolerate many a lesser dog. No skin, like the Nathan's grocery store hot dogs distributed in New York? Way down on the charts...but I eat 'em. The pathetically skinny dogs that bob out of the dirty water of New York pushcarts? Slather on the sauerkraut, or the onions, and I'm good. Even the Oscar-Mayer-type of dog gets through my palate portal: throw it on the grill, top it with sweet relish and mustard, caress it with a squishy bun, and I'm good to go. Even more than hamburgers, I can tolerate hot dogs that aren't great.

What is Great?
Not everyone will know this, but once you know it you can never forget it: the pizza of Naples, Italy is the greatest pizza in the world. All other pizza pales in comparison. The Naples pizza, sometimes mis-described as "thin," is thin only at the center. The edge, or rim, or cornizione, is a miraculous raised affair, all puffy and brown, crackling on the outside, light as cumulous clouds within. The char of that crust, straight from 2½ minutes in a super-hot wood-fired oven, is the main flavor of the pie. A light dice of San Marzano tomatoes and a moderate melt of mozzarella (usually cow's milk, called fiore di latte) play their roles, of course. And the splash of good olive oil helps to create the "swamp" at the center of the pie. It comes together like a Michelangelo, and nothing in the world compares...not even "Naples" pizza in Rome.

2016-05-09-1462827731-270703-IMG_4268grandmapizza.jpgThe Grandma Pizza at Mariella Pizza in NYC, a pie I can be liberal with! (image: David Rosengarten)

The Territory Below Great
I grew up in New York City, which also has quite a reputation for pizza. And I must admit that your classic New York "slice" is not a bad thing at all, with its much more baked-in flavor. Nor is your now-classic California pizza a bad thing, with its "cheffier" doughs and toppings. Let's face it: the basic idea of baked dough with tomatoes and melted cheese is a great one, and multitudinous good versions make me happy--even if they're not Neapolitan! However, pizza can rather easily be a turn-off--which is why, as you'll see in the rating below, I'm not a "liberal" pizza-eater. Problems easily arise from the crust: very often, across America, it seems more like cake than bread. Sweet, gloppy tomato sauce can wreak havoc, and salty, flavorless melting cheese can also send a 'za to the loser's circle.

What is Great?
I've often called BBQ "America's greatest contribution to world gastronomy." It's important to point out that "BBQ," to BBQ aficionados, is the opposite of "grilling." It means proteins (almost always meat) cooked low and slow (Texas brisket usually smokes for 16-18 hours!), at a distance from the heat source, and usually involves a good deal of smoke. It's a difficult thing to do right in a restaurant, unless the restaurant's raison d'être is BBQ; these guys start smoking in the middle of the night, and keep the place open only until the meat runs out (which, in the South, often means mid-afternoon!) The results, at a great BBQ place, are spectacular: smoky meat, dripping with fat and juice, crazy tender. When you've had it, when you know it...there can be no substitutes.

The Territory Below Great
I'm very conservative about BBQ. When it's fake BBQ, not done in the time-honored traditional way, it's nothing. It may be some pork shreds stewed in a pot (standing in for "hand-pulled pork"), or it may be some ribs cooked in the oven until edible (standing in for real, pit-smoked, 6-hour ribs)...but I don't consider this crap BBQ, and will eat it only under duress!

What is Great?
Most folks, when discussing chili, get hung up on all the historical chili questions. Indisputably, it had its origins, on the American range, when cowboys took the old Native-American specialty called pemmican (pounded dried meat, mixed with fat) out of their saddles, and mixed it with another easy portable, dried chilis. A little water and voila!--chili for dinner! Today, the debate rages far and wide. What kind of meat? Chopped or ground? Beans or not? Tomatoes or not? What kind of spices? For me, I'd rather be true to my palate than any doctrinaire reading of American culinary history. I think a chili is great when the flavor is intense: meaty (above all), with a well-balanced "sauce" (not too salty, not too sweet) that is loaded with cumin flavor (not everyone agrees, but I gots to get my cumin!) And that sauce has to be a certain texture: runny, not goopy-thick. That's great chili.

2016-05-09-1462825481-3151568-ChiliconCarneBigstocke1359135068855.jpg(image: Bigstock)

The Territory Below Great
But you know what? Chili is such a terrific gastronomic fundament, a really simple but wonderful idea, that I don't get bent out of shape by chili that's not "great." Most of the time, my ideals are not achieved, but I enjoy a bowl o' chili anyway. On rare occasions it will be too thick, sludgy, or too sweet, or too dusty with raw spices--or sometimes even too "hot," as if actual chilis were the point of chili--but I usually wolf down the average ones as easily as I do the great ones.

What is Great?
Another popular food with a south-of-the-border flavor (or maybe we're talking near-the-border flavor)...has a completely different position from chili on my liberal-conservative continuum. I can eat a lot of different chilis, but I need my tacos to be flirting with "great" before I get interested! This predilection starts with all the horrors always perpetrated in the old days in America in the name of tacos: folded, crunchy tortillas, out of a box, with a space in the middle for some kind of gloppy "chili" or other, topped with some tired shredded lettuce and tasteless shredded cheese. The taco! Well, I never bought into it. I knew, a priori, that there had to be something better. And there was! The real Mexican taco uses soft corn tortillas, smallish, griddled lightly, warming them and slightly greasing them. Savory fillings are added: different variations of pork, beef, and exotic stuff (like lengua, or tongue, my favorite!). Alive vegetable toppings (from lettuces to avocado to cilantro) get hoisted on top, along with salsas and hot sauces. It is a perfect package, the kind of thing you can love whether you're thinking of yourself as a food critic, or just one hungry person.

The Territory Below Great
Happily, we are taco-rich in America today. We live in the food truck age, and the queen dish of food trucks is the authentic taco. But there are also gobs of storefront taco stands throughout our cities; they may look something like Chinese take-out places, but their specialties are so much more authentic and so much more delicious. The newer tacos are consumed by a population that began eating them within the last ten years, when great tacos were already their taco standards are higher!

What is Great?
Of all items on this list, sushi (and when I say "sushi," I mean sashimi as well) probably has the subtlest standards of greatness. Without a lot of experience, I contend, you can't "know" great sushi--which is why so many Americans find the high, high price of "great" sushi something of a puzzle. They don't get why something that can cost $30 a person costs $300 a person. And it looks sorta the same! Those of us with the good fortune to have logged many sushi-bar hours--particularly in Japan!--do understand the difference (which still doesn't mean we can afford it!) The greatest sushi of my life was served at 6AM, right across the street from the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. It's hard to describe the special magic that that fish had--but it created the impression of being alive in your mouth; it was remarkably vibrant, with a life-force turned into gastronomy. The rice in the nigiri sushi was also amazing--so delicately and perfectly holding together, every grain separate, but every grain also part of the common good.

2016-05-09-1462827476-2446369-UniatTakashi.jpgUni at Takashi in NYC (image: David Rosengarten)

The Territory Below Great
Sushi has become a funny category in America, qualitatively speaking. A tiny percentage is truly outstanding...and man, do you pay for it (like an easy $500 a couple for lunch). However, now that sushi has exploded on the American scene, and is available, pre-made at most supermarkets, there's a lot of absolute crap. The fish is dried out. The compacted rice is way too heavy, dense, sometimes sweet. These blobs of California roll or whatever, have no life to them at all. The good news is, there are quite a few very good sushi bars across the country...bars that will cost you only $200 a couple, not $500...that serve very respectable sushi. Look around in your neighborhood for freshness, variety, skill of execution, then anoint one as "your" sushi bar. One of the nice things about sushi bars is that they are consistent at their quality levels!

What is Great?
The Chinese restaurant situation in America is an odd one. Once upon a time (say, as recently as the 1960s and early 1970s), "Chinese food" in America meant "Chinese-American" food, that whole cornstarch-thickened universe of chow mein, egg drop soup, egg rolls, spare ribs, and shrimp with lobster sauce. The funny thing is, when it was done well, though the cooking was far from authentic, it could be delicious. The '70s brought a march towards more authentic Chinese food with a great uprising of regional cuisines we hadn't seen before (Sichuan, Hunan, Shanghainese). Early practitioners copied their sources carefully, and at a high level of quality; if no one knew, say, Hunan cuisine, the new Hunan restaurants knew that they had better be good (in fact, Uncle Tai's Hunan Yuan garnered four stars from the New York Times in 1978!). Chinese-American food became old-fashioned, and began its quality nosedive...though people were still ordering it like crazy on Main Street. Unfortunately, Sichuan restaurants became as common as chop suey parlors used to be, and the quality plummeted there too with the decades. Today, if you know how to find 'em, there are amazing Chinese restaurants in America, especially in New York City's "other" Chinatowns, in Monterey Park, CA (and other nearby East L.A. suburbs), in Houston (which has a noble tradition of mainland chefs). America is indeed swamped with Chinese restaurants, from coast-to-coast--but, unfortunately, most of them are just grinding out undistinguished, copycat take-out food. The real hallmarks of great Chinese cooking--freshness, lightness (in the case of Cantonese), balance, vast technical precision (like the way a good chef creates wok-hay, or "the breath of the wok") are not usually respected. But when you finally run into a sexy slither of chicken coated with egg white, or a salt-leached shrimp emerging crackling, sputtering and squirty from the deep oil--you know you've encountered greatness.

The Territory Below Great
Now I'm not saying that most of what's out there is bad...though some of it is bad, completely un-Chinese. It's just that sameness rules the day...leading to a Manhattan Chinatown that no longer features boned and stuffed whole fish in black bean sauce, amazing fried chicken with seasoned salt, the abounding tureen of wintermelon soup. What you'll find instead is endless, soulless General Tso's Chicken, most of it sweet and oily, really the new "Sweet and Sour Chicken" from the bad old days with no one acknowledging it. And now the passage filled with hope: if I discipline myself to look for top-quality Hong-Kong seafood palaces, modern technique-oriented wonders (like Ji Rong in Rosemead, near Pasadena), good Chinese "delis" with hanging ducks (like the wondrous dive at 102 Mott Street called Big Wing Wang in Cantonese), even great versions of old Chinese-American (like the timeless Wo Hop in Manhattan's Chinatown)...I can get pretty lucky. Usually, though, "Chinese" food across this land of ours? Eh.

What is Great?
Great Indian food, as I've discussed in some detail recently, tastes vibrant, fresh--made today!--with a bewitching array of complex spices turning every dish into something sui generis. Following the same game plan as Chinese food in America in the 1970s, Indian restaurants today are becoming increasing regional, and this trend is lifting quality in Indian restaurants in general. May it have a better end than the Chinese "revolution" had!

2016-05-09-1462824444-9716335-bigstockSelectionofIndiancurriesan12014747.jpg(image: Bigstock)

The Territory Below Great
Indian food compares to Chinese food in another important way, this case they are non-correlative. I'm not a fan of careless, low-end Chinese cooking. But when I walk into an Indian restaurant serving pots of "curries" that all seem to have come from "the central curry factory"...I may not respect the food, but I like it! Indian spices are so vibrant that even if they're not used imaginatively...they still pack an impressive culinary punch! I'm a maven of Indian lunch buffets, where the cost is low, the choices are plentiful, and the food is definitely not designed to emphasis the greatness and subtlety of Indian cooking. No problem! I enjoy it! I'd never say that about Chinese lunch buffets. And that built-in difference in Indian food--the fact that it holds, that it's hard to mess up--is why I'm allowing a high "liberal" rating. If you like Indian food, and get down to even the dives, you'll find a kind of happiness.

What is Great?
Well, tasteful people do disagree about what greatness is in red wine (there is that bigger-is-better kind of California bunch). But old-world types and I, no matter what the Napa folks say, are always in agreement about great red wine: it is aged, elegant, balanced, filled with mystery and complexity. Give me a Grand Cru Vosne-Romanée from 1978 right now, please. That's what great is.

The Territory Below Great
But I am adamant about how important it is to drink red wine all the time even when it's not great!!! The world is awash in delicious young reds that cost 20 bucks a bottle or less, and go perfectly with dinner! One of the aberrations of "the wine life" in America is that new-ish wine-drinkers often think there's something wrong with drinking cheap wine. So different from Europe...where every table has your bread, your butter, your salad, your fish, your meat, your cheese, your carafe of red wine, it's just part of the environment, without a lot of pomp! I love young reds that are filled with fruit, low on tannin, refreshingly acidic. Sure, you can find bad ones--thin and neutral--but it ain't hard to find really good versions of cheap red! Cheers!