So here’s my Fancy Food Theorem. To make your food sound fancy, include the ingredients in the title. Example: “House-grind Prime Beef on Brioche with 12-month Cheddar topped with heirloom tomatoes and a free-range organic egg.” A cheeseburger.
I write this not to mock or denigrate foodies or fancy food in general. OK, maybe a little mockery. But to be clear, I’m one of them. I follow chefs with the same passion that I follow certain actors, guitar players or artists. Perhaps even more so. But I also believe that food needs to be important to YOU. For you to return to a particular dish, or a particular restaurant, you need to feel a connection to it that is uniquely yours. So your favorite cheeseburger may exist on a menu with an entry like this, “Red Cow grind (brisket, chuck, short rib & sirloin), bacon confit, Gruyere, arugula & dried cherry-red wine reduction on a pretzel bun” (The Manhattan Burger at Red Cow) or it may exist on a menu that lists it’s total offerings as “Hamburger with or without cheese”. I’ve been to both places and damn those are good burgers.
I’ve always thought that in terms of food, or eating, there are two basic types of people. One type loves everything about the ritual of experiencing food. Food as religion. The other type puts food in it’s mouth because if it doesn’t, it’ll die. We can move between these groups, or lie somewhere between the two extremes, but I think those two types do a serviceable job of boxing in the food-eating population.
I think for me, and possibly some of you, my favorite meals were the joyful surprises shared with people important to me. Like when She and I sat at a bar at Stewart’s eating a Kimchi Tostada and a Pub Burger while enjoying two wonderfully constructed cocktails. Or when we were playing Rummy at a taproom sharing a food truck Philly. And certainly when I walk around my house, arms raised and proclaiming myself King because of a particularly well-made pan of enchiladas (I do that pretty often actually).
But if you want to know my favorite meals of all time, I’ll tell you. There have been many. Some have been long, drawn out experiences like our first time at Travail, where each course is constructed and served at a certain time. Some of them have been simple, but were spontaneous and dear to me. Like sharing a plate of shitty Indian food with a homeless guy on a train platform in NYC. The four of us had great chili dogs, fries and a primer on the Civil Rights era at Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington D.C. And then there was our Eat-cation. The four of us couldn’t take a vacation one year, so we decided instead that for the entire week, we’d eat lunch and dinner someplace in the Twin Cities we’d never been before. It was perfect. Almost transformative. We found food we’d never heard of before (Shakshuka at Pat’s Tap). We had blazingly hot Jerk Chicken at Harry Singh’s. We found the greatest chicken wings this side of the Anchor Bar at D-spot. It was a blast.
But when I think of my most favorite meals, these are the two that come to mind.
In St. Paul, right by the river is a sushi restaurant called Sakura. We love it for a couple of reasons. The food is really good while not being the best (if you want the best sushi in the Twin Cities, go to Origami). The service at Sakura is good, and the place is comfortable. The main reason we love it is that it’s the first place the boys ate sushi. Our older son was about six, and we’d ordered him a few items off the beginner menu, like a California Roll with Tempura Shrimp. He loved it, and has grown into a very experienced sushi eater. Our younger son was about four, and had never had raw fish before. We ordered him a couple chicken skewers or something safe like that.
This next part is one of our favorite stories of all time.
The server showed up with the plates of raw fish for She and I. We love sushi and we usually order it sashimi style. Just the fish, no rice or seaweed. Before the server had even set down the first plate our younger son snatched a full handful of fish off of it. Seriously, a full, fish squeezing between the cracks of his fingers handful. And he jams his fist in his mouth. All that fish didn’t fit, so he used the first two fingers of his other hand to start packing it in. The server plops the plate down and covers her mouth with her hand in shock as we sat staring at the boy, waiting for a violent expulsion of partially masticated fish.
Instead, his eyes grew wide and he swallowed. Then, leaning forward hard and fast enough that his chest moved the table, tried to snatch some more.
We cancelled his Safety Order and ordered him a few pieces of fish of his own. When that plate showed up, He proudly grabbed a slice of tuna between his thumb and forefinger and slapped it up on his protruding tongue. The next step was teaching him some manners.
But I think my most favorite was at Sushi ii in Honolulu. The four of us had gone to Hawaii with an itinerary packed with “must dos”. Two days in Honolulu followed by 6 days or so in Maui. Honolulu was an important stop for She and I because we really wanted the boys to see Pearl Harbor. But then the Government shut down happened, so no Pearl Harbor, no National Parks. So instead, on the first day, we took the boys for a haircut.
Pearl Harbor——Haircut. Pearl Harbor—- Haircut. Haircut.
As is our habit, we ended up walking a long way, finding ourselves in a neighborhood of strip malls. One of which contained a SuperCuts. Because of course it would. Anyway, haircuts completed, we went in search of lunch. Sushi seemed a perfect choice for the beginning of a dream vacation, so I Yelped my way to a list of nearby places. The decision was Sushi ii, well rated, and about four blocks away.
We got to the spot indicated and couldn’t see the restaurant. It’s in this Inception-like maze of strip malls all coming together at a Strip Mall Nexus. As if putting together too many strip malls creates a singularity that disrupts the rules of physics and city planning. And then they forgot to put addresses on the buildings. And put it in a neighborhood that didn’t like signs.
So we walked up and down until finally finding Sushi ii. And belying it’s simple and somewhat shabby surroundings, the inside of the restaurant was clean, stylish and charming. The staff was happy and helpful, and the food was great, really great. But the best was watching my older son eat Shrimp Head Soup, and the excitement of being in that place together.