The next several days of the trip proved to be significantly harder when pursuing my chosen subjects. Not only did I have difficulty even locating Asian restaurants, but I realized that I was also doing myself a severe disservice. One friend joked: “are there even any Asian people in that part of the country?”, which made me chuckle, but judging by how hard I had to look for dinner one night, he might have gotten it right after all.
I would stop for gas, talk to a few people, perhaps the person behind the counter at the local store, and get a lot of interesting conversation but no viable leads on lunch. The internet was sometimes more helpful, but often equally frustrating. “No restaurants that match your search criteria” was my all-too-frequent search result, but I never let it get me down. I’d get back on the road and keep hunting for what I knew would probably be an unsatisfying meal.
Think about it: Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas… I was driving through the heart of barbecue land and eating Everyman’s Asian food. I thought about this for not very long over breakfast one morning, and decided sporadic breaks from my Asian cuisine adventure would be wise. I thought I might take advantage of the local expertise while I had the chance, so I sometimes sat down and enjoyed the American South’s magical melding of meats with seasoning, smoke, and spice.
Great advice on local barbecue gems came from counter girls at corner stores, truck stops, and gas stations for a thousand miles running, and my understanding of the flavors and preparations has grown by leaps and bounds. I think I’ve grown as a chef from this experience, and I’m very grateful to have gained a better grasp of such a “simple” style of cooking.
My method was simple: I’d get out of my car to fuel up, catch a whiff of what’s in the nearest smoker, and have myself a satisfying snack while I talked to strangers and hunted for Asian restaurants. That process may sound a trifle odd to those of you unaccustomed to road trips, but the logic is simple enough. Truck stops and gas stations usually serve what I call ‘dude food’, and barbecue is as archetypal as it gets. It’s rich, hearty, satisfying, and pretty cheap; all things I was looking for anyway, irrespective of the style of cuisine.
To be fair about it though, I didn’t neglect my primary responsibility. Every last one of the myriad Asian restaurants in both Tennessee and Arkansas that I sampled was mediocre at best. Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese… the menus were often a mix-and-match combination menu of Asian flavors that occasionally left me a little worried. The most common response when I asked why the oddball items appeared seemed to be ‘it adds variety, and it’s easy to make’. Score one for store-bought curry pastes I guess- I recognized the flavor of a particular brand at least twice. Making a properly intense and flavorful curry from scratch is a Very Serious Endeavour that I can’t see most of these small-town kitchens doing for the dish or two it might be used in.
Another piece to the puzzle about this-and-that menus: you aren’t likely to find Asian restaurants that are wholly staffed by the appropriate variety of Asian. While this might seem obvious (do you see French restaurants fully staffed by handpicked Frenchmen?), it’s a rather Western bit of tunnel-vision that remains popular even today. A Chinese place with a non-Chinese cook in the back can put out a standard menu quickly and easily, but might also make, for example, a bowl of pho that blows the rest of the menu away if they get the chance to serve it. A different background in the kitchen gives an opportunity to showcase something delicious and non-standard without adding any appreciable difficulty. If you see an outlier on a menu, ask about it. If your server brightens up and gets talkative, you might be in for a pleasant surprise!
Despite these points, the restaurants I dined in seemed to be healthy enough business wise that customers were coming back for more, so I suppose it was good enough. It’s not killing the locals, and I’m not dead yet either, which is a big plus. I’m glad for the gathered information, but I’ve been a lot happier with my brisket, ribs, and pulled pork.