Lean in, my children, and listen closely. I’m going to tell you the secret to being a working-class foodie.
See, a lot of people assume that being a ‘foodie’ means you’ve got to go to all the best restaurants. You should be able to rave about the zillion-course omakase tasting at Masa or your $400 dinner at Per Se. You should be able to voice your own opinion on every restaurant your local critic has given four stars. You should be able to taste the difference between two bottles of Beaujolais from different vineyards, etc. And indeed, a lot of foodies are that way, or at least that’s what the New York Times’ food section tells me.
Those foodies are rich.
We here at the Potato are not rich. We are very much not rich. (Ask our student loan agents.) But we like to eat well, and we want you to eat well too.
Here is the secret: Put your Zagat down, put your coat on, and go to your nearest immigrant neighborhood. Got a Chinatown? A barrio? A Little India? Get going.
When you get there, don’t look for flashy signs or ample parking. Look for humble little joints. If you can’t read the signs, so much the better. Find the busiest humble little joint, and take a look at the crowd. If they’re tourists, move in. But if you’re in, say, a Pakistani kebab house and everyone there is Pakistani, you’re in the right place. Check out the menu, if there is one, but don’t let it rule you. Look around– is everyone having the same thing? If so, get that. Does the woman at the next table have something that looks amazing? Ask what it is.
If nobody speaks your language, relax. You’ll be fine. Point, smile, say yes to whatever. When your food comes, look around to see how others are eating it and do your best. Open yourself up to a new experience.
After four years in New York, I find myself doing this wherever I go. I’m always on the lookout for a new neighborhood to scout. So when Joe and I bought a little used car and I began commuting to Elkins Park, I was thrilled to find out that Philadelphia has a Koreatown. I had no idea! It’s at the very far northern edge of the city, in the Olney area, where Fifth Street meets Cheltenham Ave. There are lots of restaurants and stores. There seem to be Vietnamese and Cambodian contingents too, but I haven’t seen any food– readers?
If you find yourself in Philly’s Koreatown and follow the procedure I just laid out, chances are good that you’ll end up in Korean Noodle House. It’s a little shack of a place– it looks like it was an ice cream shop in a former life– on the corner of Cheltenham and Oak Lane Road. Signs are in Korean, except for neon signs that say ‘KOREAN NOODLE HOUSE’ and ‘HOT DINNER’. There’s a teeny little parking lot.
Inside is clean and bright, with wooden floors and walls decorated with Korean menu items. The menu is bilingual, but everything on the walls is in Korean. The customers, when I entered, were also all Korean, and the woman who greeted and served me didn’t speak a word of English. (This is always a good sign.) I ordered Goon Mandoo (fried pork dumplings, a favorite of mine) for $5.99 and Ja Jong Myun (noodles in black bean sauce) for $4.99. Other choices included a variety of seafood soups, Korean rice platters, and an interesting assortment of Chinese dishes. Some highlights from the Chinese section included meatball stew, jellyfish with garlic sauce, and an intriguing ‘braised sea cucumber and abalone’ dish for $49.99, far and away the most expensive dish on the menu. (I worry about such dishes, though– how many of those do you think they sell, and how fresh will it be?)
The mandoo were huge and crisp, very tasty. The ja jong myun– ok. I’ve never had ja jong myun before. I figured I’d better get noodles, since it’s a noodle house. What I got was amazing– a massive bowl of noodles. You could share this with a friend and still have lots of leftovers. Fresh, springy noodles came covered in an inky, thick purple-black sauce filled with browned onion pieces, small chunks of potato, a few unidentifiable vegetables and little bits of ground pork. The woman who served me mimed mixing the sauce and noodles up with chopsticks, and I did that. It was lovely– deep, rich, plummy flavor with an oniony sweetness. I don’t know if the noodles were homemade, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were. It was a lovely dish for a grey, snowy day like today, warm and satisfying. And I’ll probably get three meals out of that $4.99!
And that, my friends, is why you don’t have to be rich, or even middle class, to travel the world, explore new flavors and sensations, fill your belly and be a happy foodie. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to turn down dinner at Chanterelle or Le Bec-Fin– if you’re paying, that is– but you really can eat well and even be a restaurant snob without paying any more than you would have paid for some awful salad at Wendy’s.