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Pockets of Authenticity

May 6, 2010

Highways are overrated.  Yes, they can whiz you around from point A to point B, but you miss everything in between.  As I have been trying to learn more about the region I have called home for the better part of the last three years, I have avoided taking the highways as much as possible.

So several months ago I was traveling to our sister city to the west, Schenectady, and I took city streets to get there.  Specifically I took Central Avenue, which turns into State Street, and also goes by the less charming name of Route 5.

As I was driving I passed a sign that said Flores Family Restaurant.  And on the building behind the sign was another sign.  That sign said Pupusas.

I attempted to go there for lunch with Albany Jane one weekday, but it turns out that most days they are only open for dinner.  If you want authentic Peruvian and Salvadorian food for lunch you have to show up on Sunday.

So that is what I recently did.  You can read my review of the place on Yelp.

Suffice it to say that I love the place.  And while I have been accused of only focusing on food, at the expense of all other considerations, I’d like to point to this as an example of where that isn’t entirely true.  I love the place more than I should given the quality of the food.  I’ve had better.  But this place is authentic.  It’s the real deal.  And it’s in Schenectady.

Authenticity gets huge bonus points in my book. But I think I define it a bit differently than other people.  I was having this discussion with Anonymous on DelSo on the subject of authenticity.  That mysterious person claims a place is authentic if it is “not [a] chain or super-Americanized.”

For me authentic ethnic foods ideally satisfy one or two of the following criteria:
1)    The restaurant is cooking the food of its people for its people.
2)    The food reflects a specific regional style from the country.

The second one is a lot harder to find, but that just makes those restaurants that much more special.

I don’t want them to be Americanized at all.  I’m perfectly happy being treated like an interloper in my quest for authentic food.  Getting even lightly Americanized versions of dishes is the gustatory equivalent of being spoken to like a child.

Boneless meat is a perfect example of this.  American diners eschew bones.  I say give me the bones; give me the flavor.  Keep the goat on the menu.  Give me some tendon, and maybe a plate of tripe.  Cold diced bone-in rabbit with chili oil?  Yes, please.

Maybe I won’t love all of it.  Maybe I will.  But let me try, and let me decide.

Now if I could find a good Szechuan place, or somebody who is making hand-pulled noodles, or a carnitas torta, or a Hawaiian barbecue.  But I’m pretty sure we don’t even have a French bistro here that actually serves French bistro food.

I think I need to start trying to wrap my head around the comment from AddiesDad.  He may be on to something, but I still just don’t get it.  Maybe you can help me understand this better.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    May 6, 2010 9:30 am

    Authenticity is the Holy Grail. I prefer dives filled with people of the same ethnicity as the place in which I am eating. In Manhattan, a Bengali dive filled with Bengalis with a blaring TV tuned to a Hindi pay station. In Ghana, a sketchy place serving ciutting grass (“cane rat”). In South Africa, a Tswana diner serving mealie (corn meal mush) with diced chili-oil liver. In Texas, breakfast menudo at a gas station. In Tokyo, diced tuna sashimi for breakfast. In Saratoga. . .

  2. AddiesDad permalink
    May 6, 2010 12:57 pm

    Hey Profussor,

    I’m happy to elaborate on my comment if you care to expand upon your question. What exactly are you trying to wrap your head around: 1)broad menus so as not to offend? 2) seasonal requiring more effort and creativity? 3) the Capital District preferring bland/easy to replicate food? 4) or the lack of a strong connection to a regional cuisine?

    AD

  3. May 6, 2010 1:36 pm

    I hate to say it, but “Authenticity” is a load of bunk. If you want authentic Provençal cuisine, go to Provence (France, not Stuyvesant Plaza). The only true authentic regional cuisine is made from the produce of its own terroir. Using the Provence example, unless you are advocating daily Concorde flights across the pond laden with produce (which some restaurants probably do, I won’t even start a discussion of destructive globalism here), I would argue that it is impossible to have anything truly “authentic.”

    Would I love to go to a restaurant where a Provençal chef throws some of his technique on to some local meat and veg? Absolutely. I would also like to see how he interprets American fare. The beauty about ethnic cuisine in America is the innovative ways that cultures deal with the, not always quality or ideal, food available in their adopted home.

    I understand why many cultures try to recreate a taste of home in America, crafting some forgotten street food from childhood with what is available locally. Many probably eat the result with tongue in cheek, appreciating the nostalgia more than the taste. I am much more interested in seeing how the culture is treating “American Food” seen through the lens of their culinary technique, then trying some recreated dish from the motherland.

    I think a lot of ethnic restaurants try to capitalize on the network TV, travel channel/Food Network craze for indigenous cuisines. We have all of these “foodies (I taste vomit in my mouth when I type that word)” imagining themselves as culinary anthropologists going into restaurants expecting some obscure dish from a back alley in Oaxaca or some other BS. When I go into an ethnic restaurant, I want you to show me what you are feeding your kids on a Sunday night with what you got at the grocery store, not some tired interpretation of a dish that you are peddling to food “adventure-ists.”

  4. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    May 6, 2010 3:14 pm

    Wendalicious, thanks for the yuks! (You look a little like Chloe O’Brien on “24″)

  5. Amy permalink
    May 6, 2010 3:41 pm

    I read with interest your review on Yelp, since I am always on the lookout for South American cuisine in this area. I have to wonder, though, if it’s truly an authentic Peruvian restaurant, since pupusas are typical of El Salvador? Are there other things on the menu that are Peruvian? Papas al Huancaina perhaps?

    • May 12, 2010 2:08 pm

      Yes there are. And truly the menu represents even a broader array of Latin America. There are some Puerto Rican specialties as well.

      On the Peruvian front, there are indeed Papas ala Huancaina in addition to Yuca ala Huancaina. They also have Lomo Saltado. Of course their are other foods that you can get in Peru that are also available throughout the region like salchipapas.

      I’m looking forward to trying the whole menu. Call it a culinary tour of Latin America via Schenectady.

      • Amy permalink
        May 17, 2010 1:08 pm

        Sounds great! I can’t wait to give it a try.

  6. wendalicious permalink
    May 6, 2010 5:23 pm

    @Mr. dave: thank you for saying exactly what I was thinking.

    @Mr. Sunshine: Thank you for the awesome compliment! I’ve never watched “24″, but I found a photo of the actress, and I think she’s quite lovely :)

  7. phairhead permalink
    May 6, 2010 6:26 pm

    thanks for the heads up on Flores Family restaurant. I have to say i’ve always been curious about that place and now i have no excuse not to go there.

  8. May 7, 2010 10:04 am

    Mr. Dave is taking the vinter’s notion of terroir and applying it to food, and I have a problem with that. Provence has rocky soil and extreme temperatures which produce somewhat predictable results for the same vines grown in the same fields year after year. But cooking is much more pragmatic and opportunistic. The same dish of ratatouille will differ from one cook to the next, and will change with the seasons depending on what’s good and what is available. I’m tracking along with the Provence example but my point is that the good cook will innovate with what’s available and it doesn’t automatically become “inauthentic” just because that cook is far from home.

    The issue of restaurants claiming to be “indigeneous” when they really aren’t is a different problem. I could blindfold Mr. Dave and take him to Chinese places in San Francisco, Peruvian brasas joints in Port Chester and Oaxacan dives in LA and I don’t think he would be able to discern the difference from the same foods prepared in their places of origins. But in the Cap District, we seem to have a issue with authenticity. If it tastes funny we need it dumbed down and more red sauce, please. But this is the fault of us, the indiscriminate diners and not the fault of the cook.

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