Get a group of frequent restaurant-goers together, and soon enough their note-sharing will reveal the small things that can diminish an otherwise nice experience. Are we talking #FirstWorldproblems here? Absolutely. Does that stop us from venting? Absolutely not.
Modern diners, surveys tell us, have become bolder. They’re open to a wide, colorful spectrum of flavors and textures, just this side of lamb brains. They’re willing to order fishy, pungent, molten, unpronounceable plates that would have sent previous generations scurrying for a basket of Olive Garden breadsticks.
They’re also still sheep.
Led by food bloggers and writers (and the publicists who whisper in the media’s ears), these trough eaters have expanded their palates, not their sense of adventure. They would rather sample a green papaya salad at Doi Moi in the fashionable 14th Street strip than at Thai Taste by Kob, located in a forsaken Wheaton parking lot. They’d rather dine on tacos at Tico than travel to Taqueria La Placita in the Little Mexico neighborhood near Hyattsville.
There’s nothing inherently knuckleheaded about dining at the bistros, restaurants and tapas houses that cater to the scene-craving crowd. Chefs at many of those places have already done the hard work for diners: They’ve scouted remote outposts in Thailand, risked gastrointestinal misery at Chinese stalls reeking of gutter oil and browsed the open-air mercados of Mexico to better understand the ingredients they will manipulate into something appetizing for Western palates. The chefs serve as a medium through which local diners experience flavors far removed from Washington’s natural bureaucratic habitat.
The thing is, locals don’t need chefs to serve as interpreters. The adventurous eater can remove the middleman and enjoy a meal one step closer to the dining experience back in the country of origin.
As the $20 Diner, I talk (or try to talk) with the immigrants who have turned the DMV into a melting pot. Though ridiculed by those outside the Beltway, ours is a gorgeous, multicultural landscape. Our streets teem with immigrants from El Salvador, Korea, Vietnam, China, Peru, Ethiopia, Mexico and many other countries, and those newcomers strive to re-create the flavors of their homeland, some more successfully than others.
Sure, there are a few gasbag, know-it-all gastronauts who’ll travel anywhere to dig into a plate of soup dumplings. But why don’t more locals invest their time in exploring the flavors found in Falls Church, Annandale, Rockville and countless other communities? Why don’t I see these new, bolder diners searching for authentic Thai, Mexican, Peruvian or Chinese flavors in restaurants far removed from the sought-after destinations on 14th Street or Penn Quarter? Why do they continue to dine on dishes several steps removed from the original source? I put the question to the most fearless eater I know.
“Fear of dirt. An insane, Trumplike germophobia that I, in my early years, did little to help,” explains author, TV host and truth-teller Anthony Bourdain via e-mail. “Also racism. Never discount that.”
Leave it to Bourdain to cut to the chase. But I think there are also humane reasons to explain this fear of the immigrant restaurant: namely, a fear of being uncomfortable. A fear of not knowing what the hell you’re doing. A fear of looking stupid. I’ve experienced all of those, and more. The fears gradually go away if you confront them and stare down their small, constricting souls.
What emerges can be more satisfying than anything you’ll experience on 14th Street. You might discover a glorious plate of Senegalese yassa chicken or the metallic tang of the Nepali timur pepper, but you might also find something just as rewarding: a happy family of like-minded diners who look nothing like you.