I’m probably talking out of school here because we’ve only ever been to four cooking classes in our entire lifetime, but if Siam Rice in Chiang Mai, Thailand, isn’t among the best cooking schools for tourists anywhere I’ll eat my Khao Soi.
Why do we think Siam Rice is so good? Because they nailed every single thing anyone could want in a cooking school.
It was a little strange seeing an “American” aisle in the international section of the grocery store yesterday. It’s one of those small things that happen from time to time and reminded me that I’m the foreigner here.
We don’t often see ourselves that way, though, even when traveling. We immediately notice other people’s accents but rarely stop and think about how funny or incomprehensible we probably sound to everyone else. I guess we feel so at home in our own skins that it’s hard to appreciate how foreign we may seem to others.
Maybe sometimes that is a good thing because the world’s perceptions of us aren’t always the most flattering. I have to say that I was both a little sad and a lot embarrassed to see Old Glory flying above these shelves.
Almost four years later we still sometimes find ourselves thinking about two meals we had near Asheville, North Carolina. What made these places so memorable for us, besides good food, is that the type of fare is not what we typically associate with this region of the country. Now that we’re passing through again, we wanted to check back in and see if these places were really as good as we remembered.
Before getting to Asheville, though, we needed to make a slight detour to Hendersonville, North Carolina. It surprised us to learn that Hendersonville is nowhere near either California or Mexico because it is here, more than anywhere else in the country, that we most associated with great Cali-Mexican fare.
So we returned to Papas and Beer for lunch and were delighted to find it exactly how we remembered. Just as before, we started our meal by diving into their awesome salsa bar. Six or more kinds of salsa really should be a required minimum for Mexican restaurants everywhere. At Papas, whether we heaped our chips with the chunky pico di gallo, the green pipian sauce, the bean dip or any of the other salsas we were always pleased with our choice.
We were so preoccupied with our salsa orgy that we almost didn’t notice the waiter arrive with our main meal. I say almost because we couldn’t really ignore the sizzling chipotle fajitas that suddenly appeared at our table.
I’d say they were perfectly seasoned except we really do prefer more heat on our spicy food than Papas wants to deliver. We can’t blame them though. Like most places they’re still catering to the average American palette. Nonetheless, the chicken, beef, and shrimp combo was terrific and, unlike many similar dishes we’ve had elsewhere, Papas’ fajitas aren’t served swimming in oil.
The portions were large enough that we were stuffed after eating just half the serving. And as much as we wanted to keep shoving delectable meat and vegetable laden tortillas into our faces, we really needed to save room for that other restaurant we were planning to hit later the same day.
It took some willpower, but we did manage to push ourselves away from the table before bursting.
Our First Mellow
We were so impressed with this Asheville eatery on our first trip through town that we wrote an entire blog post about it. Coming from New York City we thought we knew all there was to know about good pizza. But what we learned on the road is that good regional cuisine isn’t constrained by geography. People move about the country, or indeed the world, and take their recipes with them. And once a culinary delight leaves home, something wonderful can happen. It sheds the shackles of traditionalism that often stultifies food.
We’ve learned that when it comes to food the word “authentic” doesn’t always mean superior. Food improves through innovation. If “authentic” were really the gold standard for cuisine, we’d all still be eating the traditional nut, berry, and raw carcass diet of our distant ancestors. But we don’t eat that way, and for good reason too.
Ever since the first caveman set fire to an antelope leg we’ve been improving the flavor of the foods we consume. Each new spice, each new technique, each new blend of textures breaks with tradition, abandons the “authentic” old methods in favor of something original.
Not everyone appreciates culinary innovation.
Sometimes those attempts flop and are quickly forgotten. Sometimes, though, they change the world. In those rare cases the old ways are abandoned and eventually forgotten. Over time that innovation becomes what future generations call traditional and, dare we say, even authentic.
To my mind, few things in the world are more traditional than margarita pizza. Invented in the kitchens of Naples, Italy and, I like to think, perfected on the streets of New York, you can taste 100 years of tradition in every deliciously saucy bite. It is the world’s most flawless food. Or at least it was until someone decided to improve it by replacing the traditional tomato sauce with basil pesto.
Add non-traditional feta to the mozzarella, top with both button and Portobello mushrooms, throw on some spinach and spicy jalapenos and you have created a wonder to behold: Mellow Mushroom’s Magical Mystery Tour pizza.
We’ve now visited several Mellow Mushrooms all around the country and can say with certainty that no one makes this particular pie better than the pizzeria in Asheville.
It’s our new favorite and the standard by which we judge all other pies – even if traditionalists like Jon Stewart would tell us this creation isn’t really pizza.
It’s authentically awesome. And that’s traditional enough for us.