We boarded the plane with a trepidation of pandemic wrapped in aerophobia, exacerbated by small bags of peanuts and flight attendants miming safety instructions (like I’m gonna find the seat’s floatation device and make it to that porthole-of-an-emergency-exit while elbowing past 162 panicking passengers before passing out). And, wait, you don’t serve peanuts anymore?
I suppose the floatation device is superfluous on imaginary flights. But these are the times and trials that try men’s souls; and only food would hint at solace during this mentally exhausting voyage of the mind … and maybe one of these tiny bottles of airline gin.
Perhaps we’ve been unduly influenced by the resident 5-year-old in our house. We’re sitting down to takeout and our imaginations are running away with us to far-off places.
The whirlwind itinerary launched from the American south, with two days in South Carolina, before a long-haul flight to the Fujian province of China, then swing back west to South London, and then a long weekend in the Big Apple upon our return.
Maybe it was all that quarantining that made us soft, but that leg into Charleston had way too much turbulence.
Do you find the southern drawl enchanting? It seems to make the food taste even better. Now, in the past we’ve been quick to note our relative lack of expertise in southern cuisine. Perhaps this has handicapped our assessments of barbecue and all things fried; and it might explain our unfettered enthusiasm for the grits we found. Nonetheless, these were far and away the preeminent example of what (we think) true grits should be: thick, creamy, cheesy, smooth, tender, rich and requiring no augmentation to make them compellingly enjoyable. The étouffée, with its plump and flavorful shrimp, accompanied brilliantly — but you could slather cardboard with those grits and it would taste great.
The weekend continued with a hunt for the best fried chicken the South has to offer. And we found it. It was served alongside those grits, and it was everything comfort food should be. The breading was crunchy. The chicken was moist. The seasoning was spot on. The whole thing oozed unctuousness. Yes, there is more progressive fried chicken out there — interpretations with honey and lavender echoing somewhere in a distant memory — but this is fried chicken the way God intended it, plain and simple, and fantastically good. But then there was that last boarding call for the red-eye into southern China.
An eight hour layover in LAX. An overnight flight into Guangzhou, just outside Hong Kong. Finally, a quick jaunt north to Fuzhou — the birthplace of the Gua bao, known also by its misnomer, the bao bun. Supposedly “bao” means “bun” thus resulting in some redundancy, but we Americans don’t know this. And we generally don’t care.
Fifty-plus hours to get here. This had better be worth it.
We could have actually been on the streets of Fuzhou, or Hong Kong, for all we knew. The now globalized bao bun is savory and sweet and spicy. It’s steamed white bun is both chewy and soft. Authentic is the barramundi (Asian sea bass) version with gochujang aioli and pickled veg. Nothing like eating your way down an overcrowded street somewhere in Asia. It’s enough to overwhelm the senses, making one long for home. But not just yet. They say London boasts the best Indian food in the world.
The Brits call ‘em chips, we credit the French, McDonald’s has made them universally ubiquitous, and we’re dunking them in an Indian-esque curry sauce. Oh the joys of cuisine globalization. But oh those fries … err … chips. Seasoned with something outrageous, and then the pools of curry sauce. It’s like Sherlock Holmes goes to New Deli, marries a Bollywood actress and then returns to Baker Street to start an Indian fish ’n chips shop. Brilliant.
If the Concorde still flew its iconic route we’d be imagining mach 2.04 speeds back from Heathrow. We had an 8 p.m. reservation at Delmonico’s and we wouldn’t brook any delays, even that taxi driver from Bangalore who kept insisting we’d completely blown our assessment of true Indian cuisine. Whatever, man.
The frenetic push across the pond was worth it. Where else can you imagine dining when enjoying a superlative cut of beef? This cast iron seared tenderloin lived up to its name. Tender to perfection. Beefy in bold flavor. And, OK, maybe the chef was briefly distracted when seasoning the potatoes — hello salt! — but that squash medley was the real deal, either way. Nothing like being back on American soil.
Now we just needed to get back to Colorado. We hear that Streetcar 520 gives all of these places a run for their money.