Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Sitting around the dinner table with a bunch of ex-pats the other night, the question of, “what is the food you crave most?” was posed. With some thought, I realized the answer depends on where I am and perhaps more importantly, where I have just been. After returning from six months in India, I dove into a steak and full-fat ice cream; after two weeks in Indonesia, I emailed a friend, who was going to be joining me, with a request for a couple bottles of red wine. I didn’t even drink much red wine at the time - apparently my body needed the tannins. After four months in South-East Asia, I landed myself in Hong Kong and spent two unforgettable weeks indulging in a craving for fine-dining and unbeatable service. When I moved on to China, I longed for the precious red bean-filled rice dumplings from the Japanese sweet shop tucked into the maze of magic alleyways behind Peel Street. After China, I just wanted food I could identify. Continuing on to Africa, I would have given my right arm for anything Asian, and back in Asia I woke from dreams of the best chicken I have ever had – the garlicky chili goodness of the peri-peri chicken in Zimbabwe - and the tough salty-bite of the biltong in South Africa.
Living in the second largest city in Mexico, I am pleased to say, affords me access to most of what my Midwest upbringing and California culinary-honing has embedded in my salivating glands as things worth longing for. It used to be, days before arriving at my parent’s house from Honduras, I would send a wish list longer than an eight year-old’s Christmas list of food I HAD TO HAVE. This usually included many very stinky, very creamy cheeses, meat other than chicken, palatable wine, fresh vegetables and anything “ethnic”. And yes, every time, I was terribly ill after one day of ferociously eating all that I desired. And no, in the two years I lived in Honduras, and returned to my parent’s house to eat, I never learned to take it easy on my out-of-practice belly.
Heading back to the States, after our first year living in Mexico, I am desperate for a cheeseburger with a side of Bloody Mary. Cheeseburger?! Yep. To me a hamburger is an art and perfection can not be achieved in a home kitchen and as far as my research has concluded has not been achieved at any establishment in Guadalajara. I believe the key to a truly delicious hamburger is the well-seasoned greasy flattop of a restaurant that turns out hundreds of burgers a day. We have tried to add that secret ingredient flavor infusion at home by mixing in crumbled blue cheese, spreading on homemade onion marmalades, saucing it up with chipotle spreads, and yes, all these things do impart their own flair, but we are talking perfection, true love, not a tarted-up prom queen trying to get served at a bar, the real thing. Of course, that is not all it takes, quality meat, adequate fat content, skill at the grill, the perfect pack (i.e. the meat cannot be too densely packed, it cannot be a solid patty, it has to have retained some of its ground beef texture, soft to the bite).
Upon arriving at my in-laws house in the DC area, our request was immediately put forward. I wish I could say that the first burger out of the gates was the fix I was after. It was good, but not perfect. At first glance, the potential was there: it was a popular spot, which most definitely housed a well-seasoned grill -- judging by the spilling-over, spill-over seating, packed with people enjoying burgers. I couldn’t put my finger on it. The salty, meaty, fatty, yet lean flavor in my mouth was not, precisely, that which I sought. Plus, they didn’t have Dijon or yellow mustard – just a variety of sweet grain mustards that simply would not do when seeking perfection. The silver-lining is that I have three more weeks in the States and there are many more burgers in my future. I will not stop until I am satiated.