Alex Blaze

My Magical Culinary Tour of the US

Filed By Alex Blaze | December 19, 2010 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: America, Dr. Pepper, pizza, root beer, travel

I got back from a nearly month-long trip to the US last week, to New York, Indianapolis, Chicago, and DC, staying with my parents, Bil and Jerame, Yasmin Nair, and a few friends not into Bilerico at all (thanks, all!) and I'm glad to be home. Baked Potato.jpgI'm getting old, and there's only so much back-to-back traveling I can do anymore. I did plenty of meet-ups and I met lots of people from the internet that I never associated with a physical body, a great reminder that the people we interact with online really do exist and have lives and families and jobs and hobbies....

The great thing about going to America this time is that it'd been so long since the last time I was in the states (one year, three months) that I felt like a tourist in my own country. It's not the things I didn't know that surprised me, but the things I did know but apparently somehow forgot, that weren't instinct anymore, that made me more surprised to be surprised. For example, the first few days I was still getting used to the fact that price tags and menu prices don't tell the full truth, but even by the end of my trip I was still getting exact change ready while waiting in line only to have to pull out another dollar and get another handful of change.

Anyway, another one of those big surprises is the food. Americans love to make fun of their own cuisine, but if you know what you're doing you can eat better in America than anywhere else in the world. After the jump are a few of my gastronomic exploits, things that I can't get in Paris that I'll have to wait another year to eat.


cake sliceFrench pastries are the best in the world, and the only other cities where I've had desserts that come close are Istanbul and Vienna. But America?

They take some getting used to. At a cafe with Yasmin Nair I got a big piece of American cake - one-inch of cake under one-inch of cream under one-inch of cake under one-inch of cream under one-inch of cake under cream with crumble on top. If you weren't diabetic before, you might want to get tested after having a piece of this cake.

I had skipped lunch that day and still wasn't able to finish it. I lost my edge after a year with only tiny, carefully decorated cakes with tuiles and small pieces of fruit and plenty of negative space, only on special occasions because they're expensive. American-style cakes are in a league of their own, although they're probably something I could live without.

Big chocolate chip cookies, on the other hand, are a simple pleasure if done right. Unfortunately, I only had one that was stale to the point of becoming sand and another that was half-chemical, so that'll have to wait for next time.

$1 pizza

3975627-Joes_Pizza-New_York_City.jpgThere's only one place in the world that still sells big slices of pizza for a dollar, and that's New York. I passed by one with my sister early in the trip, after we had already eaten lunch at a very sophisticated, very unsatisfying restaurant downtown Manhattan. I had Domino's a week later, which was more than $1 a slice, but it couldn't compete.

Oh, $1 slice. How can you be so cheap yet so good at what you do?

Dr. Pepper and root beer

dr-pepper.jpgThere are Jelly Belly versions of both these soft drinks, and Jelly Bellies are out here in France, but it's really not the same. Alberto and I like Jelly Bellies, but these flavors just can't be translated. How do you explain what Dr. Pepper is to someone who's never heard of it?

I got a bottle of root beer in Chicago and was reminded of that smooth, herby flavor and the way it has "head" like real beer does. I got a Pepper in New York and found I had actually forgotten what it tastes like, how its spices come together, that my memory of it had somehow been altered.

Of course, only in America do people like soft drinks so much that they'd have to come up with new flavors that don't even taste like real things.

Bagels and cream cheese

bagel.jpgJust because I happen to live in the bread-and-cheese capital of the world doesn't mean I can get every bread and every cheese. I consider cream cheese (along with queso fresco and Monterrey Jack) to be a worthy member in the club of high cheeses, bringing freshness, versatility, and sweetness that's often missing from the great French, Italian, German, and Spanish cheeses.

Bagels are even harder to find, and I wouldn't have much confidence in one out here. This is a country where the toaster hasn't caught on yet - would they know how to treat a bagel right?

So, luckily, I touched down in New York City first. There's no where better in the country, or even the world, for bagels and cream cheese and flavored bagels and flavored cream cheeses. Veggie spread with an onion bagel to take a trip into the garden, or maybe a sesame bagel with garlic cream cheese for something stronger.


taco.jpgIt was my goal to find good Mexican street food in America, hoping to hit Baja Fresh or another large chain as a matter of last resort. But it didn't happen for various reasons (I'm easily distracted by other gastronomic ideas, even good Mexican food like in DC) until my last night in NYC, after the Bilerico meet-up, after trying to convince people to find the Baja Fresh near Times Square with me.

After the meet-up broke up, I headed back to the subway and, lo and behold, there was a taco truck. It's proven fact (I read it in a journal somewhere, don't ask me where) that the best tacos come out of trucks, so I ordered one from a woman who was wearing all white, standing about two feet above me in the truck, and was back-lit so she looked like an angel handing down a $3 taco. I squeezed the lime and put the cilantro on it and, after the first bite, I finally understood the culinary masterpiece that is the corn-tortilla taco. The corn tortilla mixing with the coriander and lime, with the lettuce for texture and the hot sauce to open the whole thing up... it was genius.

I tried to repeat it this past week at home only to have my corn tortillas crumble apart. Unless I can find a way to get my hands on real masa harina out here, I'll be waiting a long while for another good taco.

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That cake looks almost exactly like what you had - good photo scouting!

Next time, we'll definitely go to Pilsen for tacos (fingers crossed that I won't have the flu again).

OMG that cake. I'm still telling people about that cake. I'm a big guy but that cake kicked my ass.

Next time I'll start earlier in my taco-search instead of procrastinating. Although we did eat really well in Chicago - pho and Indian take-out and cooking beans at your place. That's the other great thing about eating in America - the best food from all over the world plus a few tricks of our own.

Ha! I was wondering if you ever found that Baja Fresh after we split up.

You want bagels? I'll give ya bagels! Next time you're in town, we hit H&H Bagels on 79th and Broadway, best bagels in Manhattan. I used to practically live at that place when I was living in an SRO in that area during the early 80's.

And for some real West Side culture, maybe we'll also go down to Needle Park (72nd and Broadway) and stop by Gray's Papaya. When I lived there, it was two hot dogs and a papaya drink for a buck, a true punk rock dinner. They charge a bit more now, but last time I was there it was still pretty good.

We so will. I love bagels and I didn't get to see much of the upper west side when I was there.

Thanks for holding the NYC meetup! It was great to meet you, Becca, Jason and others in person...

It was great to meet you too! Good luck with your work!

I don't see anything 'southern' on your list. Would love to offer you a bit of southern hospitality on your next trip! LOL...

What about the TV chef's burgers & shakes? :)

I want to go back there just so I can remember how much fun I had with you while you were here. Don't be gone so long next time! Yasmin & I need our Alex fix more often!