There is a new blogger in town, talking about barbecue in Georgia, and one of his first posts takes on Swallow At the Hollow. He’s generally polite about the experience, but notes that they don’t smoke their ribs. That’s an experience I’ve noted and so has Cynical Cook. I’m hoping he isn’t in for the amount of nonsense I’ve suffered in various parts for being impertinent enough to make such a statement. The online issues are noticeable.

To be plain, there are some restaurants that gather zealous online fans. Cans Taqueria is one. And the more I think about it, Swallow at the Hollow is another. It’s as if any direct statement of the form “Swallow just doesn’t produce competition style ribs” — which IMO, they don’t — is immediately challenged, largely by huge doses of online testosterone, and occasionally, by the totally mystifying media post.

There is a pretty colorful quote by Trevanian that correlates the size of a Frenchman’s “ego” and the way he drives his car. The same can be said for certain fan’s reactions to their favorite restaurants.

Somewhat less cynically, there are (simplified) two camps of barbecue eaters. There are those who want their ribs richly smoked and others that want them fall off the bone tender. Turns out, you can make very tender ribs with some smoke, if my recent experience at Fox Brothers is any indication, but the other camp is represented by SATH, Fat Matts (if others are correct), Smokey Bones, Golden Corral, and just about anyone who can effectively broil meat. Well smoked ribs are much harder to find, and the others, sad to say, can be found most anywhere.

One of the problems with elevating one component of a cuisine over another is that you can denigrate the portion of the cuisine that has been dismissed. You can then effectively regard the “lesser” product as “substandard” and ignore it critically. I don’t think that’s what Cliff Bostock had in mind with his comments on Pure Taqueria, but I’ve been reading way too much Robb Walsh to not catch the potential implication: foods originating in Atlanta, created by Hispanics, that are largely targeted at “gringos” are critically insignificant and to be ignored.

Nevertheless, there are a series of dishes in the Atlanta Tex-Mex restaurant repertoire I’ve not seen elsewhere. I have relatives (some of them are well known) all over Texas and spent my share of time in that state. Some of these Atlanta Hispanic dishes are good, and if they are not seen anywhere else, aren’t they then Atlanta originals?

I’m mostly interested in what Frontera Mex-Mex calls a Crazy Taco. Usually done with a marinated chicken and covered with lettuce and white cheese, it’s cheap and quite good. Other places call it a Taco Loco. But where did it come from? Was this created by Hispanic Atlantans? Is it as original as chop suey was once believed to be?

Are we ignoring a regional original in our haste to be “authentic“? I don’t have time to research this during the holidays but I thought I would toss out the question and let it circulate among Atlanta food bloggers. I’ll pick up on this after the Thanksgiving holidays.

We’ll start with this quote from the online edition of Scientific American:

The CITES office in Geneva confirmed that Monaco has submitted a formal bid to add bluefin tuna to the Annex I list of threatened species and that the proposal will be part of the formal agenda at the next general conference in Doha, Qatar, in March 2010. An Annex I listing grants species the highest level of protection, allowing for the continuation of a domestic market but banning all imports or exports of animals and their parts on the list.

To give a recent quote from Taka, of Taka Sushi Atlanta, it’s just not that easy to find good tuna at all these days (see also here and here):

I don’t remember when was the last time that I got good tuna. I believed it was 3-4 weeks ago. This big eye tuna is the best of October.

My point being, of course, going into a restaurant and judging it primarily on the quality of its tuna sushi may be as gauche as judging a restaurant on its supply of chicken fried passenger pigeon. The best fish are becoming extinct, but because a thick red slice of tuna on sushi rice is one of the first nigiri an American learns to like, Americans tend to judge restaurants on what they are familar with.

The problem starts with a uniquely American attitude that sushi is the acme of Japanese cooking. I can’t adequately express how wrong that whole notion is. For one, making sushi is hardly cooking. For another, it’s not sushi that Japanese themselves serve to guests and use as a criterion for goodness. If Shizuo Tsuji is to be believed, it’s sashimi that they offer to guests, and use as a criterion for goodness. Again, referencing Tsuji, (Chapter 1, p 46), these are the components of an ordinary Japanese meal:

  1. fresh, uncooked fish, or sashimi.
  2. A grilled dish, or yakimono.
  3. A simmered dish, or nimono.

Afterwards, the guest would be served miso soup, rice, and pickles (tsukemono). Consequently, I’m going to say something that should be common sense and hardly profound: if you write about food, and haven’t bothered to try a single entree in a full service Japanese restaurant, then you really haven’t bothered to review the restaurant, have you? You’ve just sat around and nibbled on the “cold cuts” and not bothered to find out how the restaurant actually cooks.

This comes into play when talking about a restaurant such as Nakato Japanese Restaurant. This is a restaurant trying to be all things to all people. It has a section that is a hibachi restaurant. It has a sushi bar. It also mentions on the front page of its website that it serves food “tapas style”, trying to also catch the heat of the ongoing izakaya craze.  But it’s only if you look hard that you can find out about their Garden Dining Room, with traditional Japanese foods, and only if you scroll down to the very bottom of their online “traditional” menu that you find what insiders think is the best part of Nakato, their nabemono, their one pot dishes.

That’s how I found out about Nakato, by entering into a conversation with someone who had done their Japanese tour of duty as an English teacher overseas, and then came back looking for authentic tastes. She found them, not at Nakato’s sushi bar, but in the Garden Room, and their hot pot dishes like sukiyaki and yosenabe.

What this also means is, from a reviewing standpoint, that reviewing Nakato is akin to defeating a three headed hydra. Almost no blogger has the time or budget to look into every single aspect of Nakato, unless they are a regular with exceptionally expansive tastes. Instead, bloggers tend to focus on what they know, and what they like. And for a lot of bloggers, what they really like about Japanese food is the sushi.

Now why is that? It’s because sushi is exotic, an unknown. Americans crave the mystery of sushi, and make more of it than it is. A fine grilled fish, by contrast, is far more ordinary, and easy to take for granted. So we see lots of reviews of ribbon sushi, and very little time spent on ordinary Japanese foods, the kind ordinary people eat.

To make it clear, Nakato’s menu is 7 pages long, full of appetizers and entrees, sushi, hibachi favorites and of course, the one pot dishes. I’ve been to Nakato twice. Both times I had nabemono. Once it was shabu-shabu, and perhaps yosenabe the second time. I was served on my table by a waitress in kimono. The food was cooked on the table and I was encouraged to add items to the pot myself. It was a rich experience, one that most restaurants in Atlanta cannot begin to handle. They don’t have the equipment. They don’t have the staff. They don’t have the patience. My wife, if I recall, had the tonkatsu. Yes, it was pretty darned good as well.

Verdict: Especially favored among “insiders” for their one pot dishes. Those dishes are Highly Recommended.

Nakato Japanese Restaurant
1776 Cheshire Bridge Road
Atlanta, GA 30324
(404) 873-6582

Nakato on Urbanspoon

One final note from Taka’s web site: his recommendation for judging a sushi bar is to order and try its tamago. Did I mention his web site, Sushi and Passion, is just awesome? Many thanks to Foodie Buddha for making this site known to the Atlanta community.

Without explanation, without exposition, the phrase “authentic” is just about critically meaningless. Authentic compared to what? To whom? To what time period? To what style of cooking? To what standard? I’ve seen it used, I’ve seen it abused. But more than anything else, in a land where whole cooking styles are a product of a master of one style taking on elements of another, and in a land that is proud of being a melting pot, saying, “XXX isn’t authentic” is pretty much wasting reader’s time if you don’t explain.

What most people care about is great food, and mastery of food. And if someone is making good, but not great food, it’s worthwhile, as a reviewer, to explain why. If someone else is taking on the style of another, such as the Korean pho house La Pho, then in a review, it’s useful to explain why La pho’s pho isn’t the same as the Vietnamese pho houses. Chloe Morris did this in her review, but to note, she said why the pho wasn’t authentic (missing spices), and what the consequences were (missing flavor).

I’ve used the phrase ‘authentic’ to describe the range of foods offered in a Japanese restaurant. That’s an important criterion in terms of being exposed to the whole range of Japanese cuisine. Talking about ‘authentic’ in terms of Japanese food in any other context is tricky, because the Japanese are adept at taking Western and Chinese foods, making them their own, and bringing them back to the world. Therefore, a dish such as tempura is simply an adaption of good old fashioned deep fat frying. This is a Western import. Japanese ramen is derived from Chinese lo mein, and yakisoba, despite the name, is also a Chinese import. As a consequence, the phrase “authentic ramen” is almost an oxymoron.

In the border cuisines of the United States, things get tricky as well. As Robb Walsh, a food writer and James Beard winner, has explained, no one knew the difference between Mexican cooking, and the foods served as Mexican food in San Antonio or Houston or Dallas until the publication, in 1972, of Diane Kennedy’s landmark cookbook The Cuisines of Mexico.

The Cuisines of Mexico was a breakthrough cookbook, one that could have been written only by a non-Mexican. It unified Mexican cooking by transcending the nation’s class divisions and treating the food of the poor with the same respect as the food of the upper classes.

Thanks in large part to the influence of Kennedy’s friends at The New York Times, particularly the late food editor Craig Claiborne, The Cuisines of Mexico became the definitive book on Mexican cooking. Its sermons on the inferiority of this country’s Mexican food were accepted as gospel by food-savvy Americans who soon started using the derogatory term Tex-Mex to describe it.

The problem is in Atlanta, is that our local food reviewers are doing the same to places that serve border food, even though almost all high end Mexican restaurants in Atlanta are nothing but border food. It’s easy to tell Mexican food aimed at our newest wave of immigrants: they come from hole in the walls named Taquerias and Carnicerias or branches of Supermercados. Places that brand themselves “Mexican Restaurants” and use English in the title almost invariably serve border, or Tejano food.

Fish tacos have an origin that’s very disputed ( see, for example, here and here), but the versions we have in the States: are they authentic Mexican food, or border food? Should California’s influence be discounted? Should we point at a vendor that uses Gulf fish (as opposed to a species native to Baja California) and say, “Those aren’t authentic fish tacos.” Is that any kind of reasonable criticism?

I live in a city where most “French” bakeries are staffed by Koreans, and I live in a land where the best known French brasserie, Les Halles, has a head chef that is Hispanic.  There is a saying whose origin I can’t trace, but it applies here: “It’s not the wand, it’s the wizard.”  It’s not the adherence to a particular style that counts. It’s how good the food ends up on the plate. Claiming otherwise is pure snobbery.