Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Food of London


Introduction
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Food is a big deal to me. When I’m not cooking or eating food, I’m either working to make money to buy it, or riding my bike to burn it off. Not surprisingly, many of my friends are also foodies, and some have asked how I liked the food in London during my recent vacation there. To those who haven’t asked my opinion, well, here it is anyway.
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I will point out up front, though, that I’m not going to pretend I could give an overall account of how good English food is, or try to compare it to what we eat in the Bay Area. In London I was a clueless tourist with no idea where to go, and judging English food by the random restaurants I blindly stumbled into would be no more fair than judging San Francisco food by the humdrum fare you get along Fisherman’s Wharf.

Bacon
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For some reason, the members of my bike club (http://www.eastbayveloclub.com/) are inordinately fond of bacon. Numerous group e-mail threads have been devoted to bacon-related topics, and I’ve even enjoyed a taste of a bacon chocolate bar courtesy of a teammate. There has even been talk of bacon icons on our jerseys or socks for next year. And when I mentioned I was going to London, there was much chatter about bacon butties and the merits of English bacon over American. So I’ll get right to the bacon here.
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Here’s a picture of English store-bought bacon before and after I cooked it:
As you can see, their bacon is much, much leaner than what we have here. In fact, it looked more like a pork cutlet than bacon. You can also see how much of it was left after cooking; that amount of American bacon would have largely disappeared into liquid fat. And the taste? Delicious. Salty and briny like bacon should be, and though obviously less fatty, still satisfyingly decadent.
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Of course, there is more than one kind of bacon in England. This snack bar sandwich had their “streaky bacon.”
This bacon was more like American, but its pairing with arugula on this simple sandwich was a nice touch. (Over there arugula is called “rocket.”)
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Bacon makes a guest appearance later in this post, and if we back up and consider pork in general, stay tuned because the very best thing I ate in London involves the almighty pig. If you love pork but you’re in a rush, and/or have an MTV attention span, skip ahead to the “highlights” section.
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Local specialties
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We never did try a bacon butty during our trip, but we did make an effort to try some of the more famous English culinary offerings. Baked beans on toast didn’t figure in because we breakfasted at the house, and never felt like making this. As much as I love starch, I don’t get the dual-starch thing (e.g., potato calzones). So, the very first thing we ate in London was fish & chips:

I really like the format here of a single giant piece of fish. It was crispy and greasy in the best possible way and I enjoyed it. Note the side of “mushy peas,” which we frequently saw paired with fish & chips. Mushy peas: what a strange name. “Mushy” seems pejorative rather than merely descriptive, like if they’d said “gross peas.” (Speaking of unflattering terms, during the trip I frequently announced to the kids that for dinner we were having “greasy bloaters” or “cabbage and potato sog,” both phrases from the brilliant kids’ book How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen, which I think should be required reading for all children and their adults.)
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So, you’re wondering, how were those mushy peas? Our panel of tasters declared them disgusting. But mixed with a little malt vinegar, salt, and some crème fraîche we stole from another entrée, they were actually quite tasty. I should also point out that the pub we ate fish & chips at has been around for about two hundred years old, with some very groovy ambiance.
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Another local specialty we wanted to have in the UK was a proper high tea. This we did at the Orangery restaurant in Kensington Gardens. Being a little confused, we described this outing to the kids as “taking tea at the palace.” (I see no harm in letting them continue to think of it that way.) We waited over forty-five minutes for a table, but the experience was very grand indeed:
The little sandwiches were tasty, and the scone was better than any I’d had before. Another item I have saved for my “highlights” section below.
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Alexa says this was one of her favorite memories from the trip. I'm glad, because this little snack cost about $80, and I could have put every single food item in my mouth at the same time and still had room for tea. Of course, it’s not like I worked hard to find a high-value venue for our high tea experience.
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It would have seemed silly and frankly irresponsible to spend two weeks in London without having bangers & mash, so I did: I love the contrast between comically ornate American menu descriptions (e.g. “served with a turnip, radicchio, and bruised parsnip salsify”) and the barebones English term “brown sauce.” No, they’re not telling us exactly what’s in it, nor even what animal(s) it derives from. Thus, this may have been my only exposure to the infamous English beef during the trip. (Note that I’m not uniquely suspicious of English beef; I generally eat only grass fed beef in the U.S., preferably local.) Anyway, the bangers & mash were quite nice, especially the mash.
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World cuisine
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When at home in California, we don’t focus on American food (and what would that be, exactly, anyway? Dennison’s chili? Ball Park franks? Or Native American fare like, uh, corn and acorns and Thanksgiving food? Or would it be New York or Chicago style pizza?). So in London, we eagerly tried out English renditions of other countries’ foods. At an Italian place, I had this risotto:
It tasted about how it looks: like a pile of rice with some ham and peas in it. There was no magic there—the dish was nothing more than the sum of its parts, and the Earth didn’t move for me. Truth be told, I’m seldom impressed with risotto; it’s so often an insipid, gloppy mess. But I had it at the California Culinary Academy when I took a cooking class there, and it was fantastic. I don’t remember exactly how we made it (I was fairly absorbed in babysitting the Bolognese ragu at the time), but I remember the chef/instructor, a real Italian and rather stout, tossing pat after pat of butter into it, long after the amount in the recipe was exceeded. I asked him what he was doing and why, and his response—the subtlest shrug you could imagine—tacitly told me, “Shut up—you know nothing.”
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This fettuccine alla carbonara at another Italian restaurant was a fair bit better:
The bacon involved was great stuff, and the pasta itself was perfectly cooked. Eight more servings just like this one would have made it perfect for me (look how much plate is showing).
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We had a goal of eating a lot of Indian food in London, but (not knowing where to go) we ended up trying only two restaurants. Both of them were good. Here is the samosa appetizer I ordered at the better of the places:
I’m not actually a big fan of samosas and don’t often order them, because they have that dual-starch thing going (pastry plus potato). But I just had a, uh, gut feeling it would be good here, and I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, the best samosa I’ve ever had, and decked out with other hearty, groovy stuff.
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And here is the thali that Erin ordered:
She loved it. By the time I tried it, I was pretty sated from eating much of my kids’ food and my own, and my mouth was already on fire from my noodles, so I wasn’t particularly receptive to its charms. As for those noodles, I’ll get to them later in the “Kids’ menu” section of this post.
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One night we had American food. As I said before, I’m generally not sure what American food even is, but in this case we were notified right off the bat this was bona-fide American:
There’s a frozen pizza brand in the Netherlands called “Big American,” and I had to laugh it its conception of what “American” pizza is like. The “California,” for example, has corn and tuna on it. US Pizza has some charming “lost in translation” menu offerings as well:
I was relieved to see that “EAGLES PREY” was topped with relatively humdrum toppings rather than the rodents, birds, and carrion the name suggested. And the name “WILD CAT FEAST” startled me as well. Meanwhile, I love that the “FAVOURITE” and the “CLASSIC” have exactly the same toppings. I’ll also point out that their “SEAFOOD ULTIMO” is the first pairing of tuna, prawns, and BBQ sauce I have ever seen.
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Here is the pizza itself:
It was exactly as good as it looks, and actually pretty authentic. (I had them hold the corn—local color be damned, I won’t eat corn on pizza. That would be almost as bad as whole wheat crust.) Of course the US Pizza didn’t rival my favorite pizzas in the US (see http://www.albertnet.us/2009/03/little-star-vs-big-zachs.html), but as far as run-of-the-mill pizza-delivery places it was just fine (and a fair bit better than Domino’s, except for the Domino’s we ate at in France back in ’03, which totally rocked, vindicating me somewhat for having bought it at all). Full disclosure: I like almost all pizza, even bad pizza, even (usually) frozen pizza.
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Things we didn’t eat
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The main thing we didn’t eat was Mexican food, because it’s almost impossible to find it over there. We’d been prepared for this; before leaving the US I ate Mexican for almost every meal, just as a pearl diver takes a huge breath of air before going underwater.
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In fact, one of our last pre-trip meals was at Mario’s La Fiesta, my favorite Berkeley place. Early in our meal there I realized that at the very next table were seated Mario himself and his wife Rosalinda, having their dinner! A framed photo of them above our table showed them on the day the restaurant opened, in 1959. They’ve held up well, as has their restaurant. We chatted with them, and they described to us how several American expatriate families have a tradition of heading straight to La Fiesta when they come back to the US for a visit. (My brother Geoff, who lives in the Netherlands, always makes La Fiesta a primary destination when he visits.) Mario told how, very recently, one expatriate couple, hearing of La Fiesta’s move from its original Telegraph Ave location, shifted their vacation schedule by a week so they could have one more meal in the original location. (Of course fifty years in business isn’t that long by London standards, but I’ve been eating at La Fiesta for roughly half my life.)
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I missed Mexican food terribly in London; twice I dreamed about it as I slept. One of these dreams featured two different kinds of chile rellenos. Waking up and realizing I couldn’t even find the raw materials to make my own pseudo-Mexican food, I was despondent. How can the English (among other Europeans) live like this? It’s barbaric. If these countries were ruled by evil tyrants who forbade Mexican food that would be one thing, but the fact that there’s apparently little demand there for this glorious cuisine just boggles my mind.
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Okay, enough griping. So, what else didn’t we eat in London? Well, we took a good look at the paella a street vendor was selling on Portobello Road. (The Portobello Road outing was another literary pilgrimage, based on the short story “The Portobello Road” by Muriel Spark. This story contains what may be the greatest sentence in all of literature: “He looked as if he would murder me, and he did.” It’s something of a ghost story.) Anyway, the idea of unrefrigerated shellfish and other unknowns frightened us away from the paella:
We also declined to sample the “doners” at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that we passed every day on the way home from the underground:
I guess “doner” is just too close to “donor.” Shouldn’t the English be similarly bothered by this similarity? Like the manager of this place goes around to other restaurants saying, “I’m running a shoestring operation, do you have any meat you could donate?” And there's a suggestion of "organ donor" lurking in there as well. Beyond that, the food looked kind of gnarly in the picture, and of the very fact of the pictures I consider a liability.
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We also didn’t eat this:
I’m no stranger to lard (my favorite Mexican restaurant in Boulder has t-shirts that say “Praise the Lard”), but lard in a cake? Or are they describing what the cake will do to you? I think a restaurant could be a bit more discreet.
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This problem of suggestive naming also scared us away from an appetizer offered by US Pizza: It’s a pity—the description was actually somewhat enticing—but I just can’t eat anything that calls itself pregnant.
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We didn’t eat much vegetarian food in London. (A friend of mine has commented, “It’s like all of England is on Atkins.’”) I’m not saying we looked particularly hard for vegetarian food (why would we?), but it’s apparently not that common to begin with. We did see a vegetarian offering at the (remarkably elegant) dining hall at one of the Oxford colleges:
Look at the second item from the top: “Mushroom in oats & salsa dip.” What the hell? Is this somebody’s idea of punishing vegetarians for being vegetarians? Wacky. (I’ve racked my brain for an explanation. I thought maybe it was “mushroom in goats,” as in goat cheeses, but there’s just plain no “g” there.)
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A final thing we didn’t eat: most of a loaf of bread that inexplicably became a science project the day after we bought it:
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Kids’ menus
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We were pleasantly surprised by the near-ubiquity and quality of the kids’ menus at London restaurants. I won’t say they were particularly cheap (£5-6, or about $8-10), but they usually came with a dessert and a side vegetable. They were always generously apportioned (which I appreciate, being the family “closer,” who makes sure every plate is clean by the end of the meal). Best of all, these kids’ menus offered sophisticated foods, not just the cop-out grilled cheese, chicken nuggets, or hot dog to which so many American kids’ menus are limited.
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Check out the quality of this kids’ entrée, grilled salmon with vegetables:
And though this next lunch gets middling scores for style points, presentation, and balance (it violates my dual-starch rule), it was fricking huge, and good. The stuff in that bowl hiding under a crust of cheese is macaroni and cheese, and we all loved it. The mashed potatoes were from scratch and perfect. The corn was, well, corn.
This dessert, custard with banana slices, was far too large for a single child. This isn’t a problem in my family, where there as a Parental Dessert Tariff of 25% per parent. The great thing about parenting is that you can create a true dictatorship. Individual rebellions are easy to crush, and kids just aren’t organized enough to challenge the status quo. In fact, perhaps the most British thing about our kids is their blind acceptance of our Parental Tariff. Whereas the founders of the USA rebelled against the whole British taxation-without-representation thing, our kids would always cheerfully slide their desserts over to be taxed, as though this were a simple fact of life. Thus a “free” dessert for them is a free dessert for us, and nobody falls into a sugar coma afterward.
At the especially groovy Indian place, Alexa got to have her own Thali, just like Erin. Look at how stoked she is:
Lindsay opted for the chicken noodles, which sounds like something really basic, like what we got out of a can in our own youth, but what she got really had some flair:
My own chicken and noodles plate looked almost exactly like this one, though it was spicier—too much so, actually. And it was only slightly larger than Linsday’s. I had her hold a box of crayons in the frame of this photo so I’d remember this was the kids’ version of this dish. You’d never know looking at it, huh?
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A note on the crayons, by the way: remember how in the ‘80s it seemed as though every restaurant in America had a salad bar? Almost like it was a law? Well, in the aughts you’d be hard pressed to find a restaurant without crayons and coloring sheets. Waiters have learned not to expect kids to share, so each kid gets his or her own box. The diversion is welcome, of course, unless you believe the parenting books that warn against destroying your child’s creativity by teaching her that “art” means staying within the lines somebody else has created. Meanwhile, the crayons invariably get left behind and thrown out since all kids everywhere have bazillions of crayons at home already. Years down the road we can expect a worldwide wax shortage and Technicolor landfills.
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Okay, back to the food. The real pièce de résistance of the UK kids’ menu was the “Big Mussels ‘n’ Chips” that Alexa ordered at our last restaurant meal of the trip, in a posh restaurant in Bath. I was not just surprised to see mussels on the menu (what American kid would ever order them?) but frankly a bit hesitant to let Alexa have them. For one thing, no less bold a diner than the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain warns against mussels, on illness-avoidance grounds (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2000/aug/12/features.weekend1). Besides, I wasn’t sure Alexa would even like them. But she was adamant, and here they are:
Alexa admitted later that she had been a bit leery of her first mussel (“it seemed gooey and jiggly on my fork”) and had to close her eyes before putting it in her mouth. But once she tasted it, she loved it right away, and on the basis of her yummy noises Lindsay became envious and begged for some mussels of her own. Here is the result:

video

Once she’d tasted mussels, Lindsay lost interest in her salmon. Things got a little dicey there—it was a good thing Alexa’s serving was so generous.
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Weirdness
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Dining out in London was occasionally a little weird. In one case it wasn’t the food but the service that was weird. At the really good Indian place, there was a little comment card, and Erin decided to fill it out. Now, I think we generally assume these comments are anonymous, but to our surprise the manager came out, plucked the card off the table, and questioned us about it. “Why only ‘very good’ in the service category?” he asked. Erin pointed out that my entrée came ten minutes later than everybody else’s. The manager acknowledged this, but still seemed a little hurt. Erin continued, “C’mon, I gave you almost all ‘excellents,’ I have to ding you on something.” He continued to go through the card. It was a pleasant enough dialogue, but what if we’d bagged on the place? The only comment card I’ve ever filled out was at an Arby’s in Boulder near my junior high school about twenty-five years ago. Being a snotty teenager, I rated the ketchup quality “poor” and undor “Arby’s Sauce” I wrote in “ketchup.” What would the Arby’s manager have said?
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Okay, back to food. I ordered the linguine alla vongole at an upscale restaurant (the place in Bath that served the mussels), hoping for the best. I make this dish at home, albeit with canned clams, and it’s pretty hard to screw up. (I used to enjoy it at I Fratelli, which was Erin and my favorite Italian Restaurant in San Francisco back when we lived there. On my deathbed I’ll still be regretting not eating there more often; it’s gone now—actually, it moved and hideously mutated and still exists in evil-twin form as Tre Fratelli in Ghirardelli Square and it’s awful). Anyway, here is the linguine alla vongole I was served in Bath: The first thing you’ll notice is that it’s really small. Probably fewer calories than in Lindsay’s plate. And I don’t need to point out that the pasta is like Noodle Roni. Why would they cut the noodles for me? It’s insanity! What isn’t evident from the photo is that at least half of those clam shells were empty. WTF!?
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Also not visible is how totally over-spicy this dish was. I’m no pansy—I like my salsa good and hot—but clams have a subtle flavor. Why drown it out? Okay, maybe you think I’m just a whiner and all these complaints are nit-picky. Fine—but bear with me, because here’s where the entrée gets really weird: every third or fourth bite had tiny shards of what must have been broken clam shell in them. Each time my teeth crunched on these rock-hard shards I would wince, cringe, wither inside and then (as the English motto goes) “keep calm and carry on.” After all, my kids were enjoying themselves.
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But what of Erin? Was she enjoying herself? Probably, but her own entrée wasn’t helping. She had ordered the plaice:
Now, some people might be put off by the mere sight of this fish. Not only is the head attached, but it looks like the fish equivalent of a slashed tire. That said, Erin and I are adventurous eaters, and I think Erin was still enthusiastic as she set about eating it. To say this is a flatfish is an understatement—it was practically two-dimensional. The fish opened up like a manila folder and all that was inside was bones. Hundreds of them, and virtually no flesh whatsoever. You could get more calories from the crumbs between your sofa cushions. It was a joke. She was done “eating” it within about sixty seconds. In all my years of dining out I’ve never seen anything like it. Again, I didn’t complain. We had a train to catch, and the salmon and mussels were great.
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Highlights
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As you’ve doubtless gathered, we had some really great food during out trip. Here I’ll share with you the “best of’ items—a little food porn, if you will. Baked goods were invariably delicious. At a very basic snack bar at Kew Gardens, we shared this simple pound cake:
It’s a good thing we divvied it up ahead of time, because otherwise we might have ended up in quite a fracas. It was really, really good. I think they added heroin or something. But better yet was this Belgian chocolate cake we had with our high tea at Kensington:
This was unbelievably good, I mean eyes-rolling-back-in-your-head good. The cake was more dense, more moist, richer and better-tasting than cake ever gets to be. And that stuff next to it? Clotted cream, baby. It’s like what regular whipped cream might be like if you could freebase it. As for entrées, we particularly liked this leg of lamb: The leg of lamb technically belonged to Erin, but it was so rich I got to eat a fair bit of it, including the marrow from the bone. It’s pretty hard to screw up a leg of lamb, but this place did an especially good job. It was the kind of food that makes you (or at least makes me) whimper with pleasure. But the very best thing I ate in London was this pork belly:
This was the first pork belly I’d ever had the opportunity to eat. Why is that? How come the pork belly has become the quintessential example of a tradable commodity, and yet you never see them on menus or at the butcher shop? What do Americans do with all their pork bellies?
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My God, this thing was exquisite. I won’t lie to you, it wasn’t lean whatsoever, but neither was it just a big pile of fat. It had the best characteristics of a pork cutlet and of bacon. It was like The Other Dark Meat. The skin was on it, all crackly and chewy. I was reminded of what my friend Mark said about a plate of pasta alla Bolognese: “This is so good it’s making me angry.”
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This pork belly … where had it been all my life? (A quick look at chowhound.com yielded only two recommendations, though I sensed a kindred spirit in the seemingly almost desperate person who started the thread: “What are your favorite restaurants to get pork belly in the city? I don’t care how it’s cooked. I don’t care if its in a salad, sandwich, app, main, or even dessert.”) The side dish this pork belly was served with was good, too: roasted potatoes and slices of apple in a light curry. Brilliant.
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Dang, thinking back on that meal has made it almost impossible for me to think. So, I think I’ll call this post done, and go fix myself a snack. Cheers!

4 comments:

  1. Yeah, but what are bangers and mash? I could look it up, I suppose, but wouldn't it be more fun and realistic if you described it to me? Thanks!

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  2. Man, they do American even better than Americans do! Buy one pizza get *two* free! Yeah, baby!

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  3. The muscle video is so great! She had no hesitation whatsoever to slam that bad boy home, and she wasn't about to just gag it down and get it over with, either. You sure have adventurous diners—they remind me of my own young diners!

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  4. So all this talk about English food brought up a few interesting things. First, I remember losing quite a bit of weight when I went to England to play soccer as a teen because the food was so bad. I'm not sure if you ate there, or if it still even exists, but we ate at the closest thing we could find to an American fast food restaurant called Wimpies. It was terrible and the burgers reminded me of the soy burgers that the hippies made who ran the all vegetarian summer camp I went to as a kid near Mt. Shasta. It sounds like the cuisine has come along way though.

    For some reason the ability to recreate good Mexican food in the Pacific Northwest stops on the I5 near Weed, CA. Sure there are plenty of taco trucks, hole-in-the-wall burrito shops and restaurants, but the flavor is lacking. When we head back south, we make an immediate stop in King City, Salinas, or Guadalupe and find the nearest Mexican food because it's going to be good and it's going to have that something that's lacking up here. So my question is: what is that missing "thing"? Is there a certain ingredient that has been left out? Is there not enough residents of Mexican descent to keep authentic food and restaurants here? Maybe it's me: Maybe I am looking for a whole cultural experience that I was so used to in Oxnard and Ventura. Listening to and ordering in Spanish, fresh salsa and chips, pork hanging from the ceiling on a spicket?

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