End of the World

Americans may have tasted all there is to taste

Thirty or 50 or 100 years ago, Dallas resembled every other American city. Hotter, perhaps, overrun by Baptists and maybe a bit chagrined over that assassination thing, but otherwise pretty much the same: dining on standard Euro-American fare, with a few exotic dishes tossed in.

Then Chinese foods hit the scene. In the 1980s, Thai restaurants generated a stir. Ethiopian and all manner of other ethnic offerings followed. Today you can find any number of places serving sushi, pho and borscht. "Twenty years ago it was not possible to get a certain curry or a tandoori oven," says Joanne Bondy, chef-partner at Ciudad. "Now you can get anything you want and learn to cook it." Indeed, we buy mangos and star fruit, butter imported from Holland, bok choy and a full range of paprikas at places like Central Market, Whole Foods and Worldwide Foods.

"When you think about the whole world--Ethiopian, Salvadoran, Brazilian, Indian, places all over--I think we have nearly everything covered," muses Steve Kelly, executive chef at Salve!

Mark Andresen

Location Info

Map

Cuba Libre

2822 N. Henderson
Dallas, TX 75206

Category: Restaurant > Latin American

Region: East Dallas & Lakewood

Abacus

4511 McKinney Ave.
Dallas, TX 75205

Category: Restaurant > Asian Fusion

Region: Park Cities

Of course, some ethnic dishes touched the mainstream over the last century--Mexican cuisine here, for instance, or Polish in Chicago. But widespread acceptance and easy availability are recent phenomena, especially when it comes to authentic ingredients (Rice-A-Roni doesn't count). We live now in a smaller world, unaffected by seasonal growth cycles. We import ingredients from warmer climes during winter, generating enough demand to alter the landscape the world over. Chilean farmers, for example, grow about 70 percent of their agricultural crop specifically for American markets. And Dallas-area chefs constantly meld new ingredients into otherwise familiar recipes. But that, indeed, is the problem.

"You mix and match and combine and fuse," says Nick Badovinus, chef-partner at Cuba Libre. "Is there anything left?"

In other words, do any undiscovered cuisines remain, or have we reached the end of culinary discovery? It's a compound problem. Everyone knows of certain radical foods. In his book A Cook's Tour, New Yorker Anthony Bourdain nibbles on everything from roasted crickets to the still-beating heart of a cobra--happy-hour munchies in some part of the world, apparently. Such "gross out" foods pop into our consciousness occasionally as Survivor challenges or Food Network oddities. "There are so many things around the world that people eat, but that people won't eat here--skate, offal," explains Chris Ward, Mercury's chef-partner. "I can't see people eating snake or all the insects they eat in Asia."

"I'm sure there's something undiscovered, but how much is really accessible?" asks Marc Cassel, executive chef at the Green Room. "There's probably some kick-ass Icelandic, but will it catch on?" Cassel once purchased some insects at an Asian market--for home consumption--so he understands the delicate balance between undiscovered and unpalatable.

In A Cook's Tour, Bourdain puts the fork to a calf's head in France and a whole duck roasted in clay in Vietnam. He drinks lobster blood mixed with grain alcohol and knocks back a bowl of bird's nest soup--a concoction of bird mucus, quail eggs, coconut milk and other cathartic ingredients. But he was writing a book (now a television series), not developing menus for hungry suburbanites.

"We're stuck with cuisines we know and love," says Kent Rathbun, executive chef at Abacus.

Still, what we know and love changed dramatically over the last 20 to 30 years. Bondy refers to Dallas as "a meat and potatoes city that has evolved very well." Immediately following World War II, cuisine offerings in this country flattened out, perhaps driven by a patriotic, anti-Communist wave. "America was a bunch of neighborhoods before World War II," Cassel says. "There was diversity, but it didn't leave the neighborhoods. After World War II, everything became more pedestrian." Americans slowly reawakened to international cuisines through the 1960s. The explosion came later. "In the past 15 years we've seen some of the greatest expansion in food styles in history," Kelly says.

Dallas now features Moroccan, Austrian, Greek, Japanese...and the sheer diversity of international flavors almost precludes the introduction of anything new. "It's a horrible thing to say, 'Nope, it's all been done,'" worries chef Sharon Hage of York St. While acknowledging the untapped markets for offal and insects, she reiterates Cassel's conclusion: "I think all the palatable ingredients are available."

The problem, it seems, is our pernicious accumulation of wealth. "People in North America by and large live a nice lifestyle, so a majority can afford to try different foods," Rathbun says. "But because we have that ability, we become picky." In other words, Americans don't have to rely on innards or insects for sustenance. We can cut the heads off fish, pull the beaks off ducks before tossing them in a pot.

"Americans are not prepared for pure French--liver, intestine, tongue, brain," explains Philippe Naouri, co-owner of Bali Bar. "Americans like steak, salmon, calamari." And as long as we call it calamari, we never have to eat squid.

Rathbun, himself a world traveler and food enthusiast, shies away from organ meats. It's not, then, that we're afraid of different flavors; we just seek them in a more familiar form, hence the popularity of fusion restaurants. Fusion brings together culinary influences from two or more cultures and prepares them in forms acceptable to a mass American palate. "A lot of it is in the way you write the dish, the way you make familiar flavors more predominant," explains Cassel, who prefers "collision cuisine" to fusion. "You balance it out with 'round-eye' flavors. Take Indian food. We use all those flavors in food that Americans recognize."

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