Monday, March 1, 2010

OYT Discusses Things Edible

This is a post about food.

There are all sorts of things that may seem important when travelling. Some people need the latest clothes, others look for gadgets and gizmos. Other people are more than content to simply take pictures and look at everything around them. Some people just want to get drunk, party, and black out – proof of a good night. While these groups may seem as if they have nothing in common, that's not quite true. One thing that every traveller concerns themselves with is food.

Sure there are those that eat at restaurants that cost well over one hundred dollars a plate, while there are others who will spend no more than a buck a day on sustenance. But each traveller is looking at the local foods, considering them, and eating them. I know one person who spent eighty dollars on a small bottle of Italian vinegar, and another who spent a week living off nothing more than a bag of Lassie Mog cookies, and some mysterious carrots he came across. While this may seem to put them in opposition, that's not quite true. They both have an awareness for the culinary treats around them.

Why I'm Writing This
Today I headed out of my hostel to the GAP meeting hotel. I got there, discovered no one knows when our group is supposed to meet, dropped my bags off (unwilling to allow someone else to carry them to my room – I'll eat you up, I love you so.) and then headed out for food.

I made my way past Burger King for the first time in ages. I decided that I would eat meat from the grill – as I had been shamed into thinking I was missing out on a treat. Not one to ever sit in a restaurant hungry, though, as this leads to terrible decisions and a lack of enjoyment, I hit up a street vendor selling burgers. The burger was four pesos. It was alright. With something in my belly I went looking.

I'll skip the various places that didn't meet my standards, and get to the one with a poster of ribs hanging in the window. This was the one for me. And at 46 pesos it was twice the price of the Whopper X-Treme combo, but still – ribs... Plus, there were table cloths here.

Fine Dining Experience
I place my order for the ribs and waited. And waited. And waited. Half an hour I sat. Half an hour I looked at the bread bowl that would appear as a mysterious charge on my bill if I so much as touched it. Half an hour I thought about the ribs that I was to have. I also thought of the innumerable number of whoppers that could have been prepared and delivered to me in the time it took to get my order up. I could have started a bar-be-que, flamed them, and have eaten them already. What was going on back there?

Thirty minutes later and I was presented with – pork chops. What. The. [expletive.]

Pork Chops? I didn't order pork chops. I pointed at ribs on the menu. I pointed at the ribs on the Spanish menu. What was this?! It's important to note that I do not like pork chops. I do not really like meat at all. I'm a fan of sauces, hence my love to ribs. And with a good burger, you rarely taste the meat. I'd eat veggie burgers if only they didn't cost more (or if any place other than Lick's could figure out how to work a good texture.)

But there in front of me were pork chops. I had just waited half and hour for them. I wasn't all that prepared to wait another half hour. And the point of this exercise was to eat local grill and see how wonderful it is. Everyone says that Argentina meats are the best. Fine, let us take one bite. Great. Wish they had some sauce. Oh look – lemons.

With the two pork chops eaten I turned to the fries. This may have been the only redeeming part of the whole experience. The french fries were not overly good, but they did not come with any dipping sauces either. Due to this I looked to my plate – what was left? Two lemon wedges that, I guess, were for the pork. I shrugged – the lemons soon found themselves squeezed onto my fries. And the flavour combination? Quite delightful. This is something that will require future trials, and efforts to discover the best way in which to combine this sweet and sour flavour with other things. Perhaps lemon mayonnaise could make a good fry sauce?

When it was time to pay the bill I was charged for the pork chops which cost ten pesos more. Great – I paid more to not get what I wanted. Fantastic. In theory you may think I could have said something – but when everyone speaks Spanish, looks at you crazy when you speak English, and just wanders away if you are too slow in voice, well – there's no real point to it, is there? Just one of the treats you need to accept when eating in another country.

Conclusion? Argentina meat is the same as meat everything. The grilling style is no better, nor any worse. In the future, I'll stick to Burger King – thank you very much. At least it's filling.

It look a slice of pizza, and bottle of soda consumed on the way home to make me feel as if I were momentarily full. One BK combo, and you'll not need to eat for the rest of the day.

Is that all?
But wait... there's more. Now that I have discovered that I prefer fast food to real food, I feel as if is my place, my honoured duty, to discuss various types of said food that I have discovered around the globe. More often than not this will fall back on Toronto being the best of all thing culinary. But I do not hide this. The only meal I've ever had on the road that Toronto has not managed to match was the Sausage and Rice with Lemon Shake in Cambodia. That meal haunts me. It haunts me still.

Right now we'll take a look at two things – pizza, and hot dogs.

I don't know why the world has such a hard time figuring out how to get pizza right. Nowhere in the world is pizza as good as it is in North America. Nowhere. Well, maybe Italy – but that's not really pizza. Not in the way everyone else thinks about it. Italian Pizza is lovely, and a treat to be enjoyed. But think of it more as high quality fresh vegetables, meats, and cheeses on a thin warm bread. It is amazing – but it's not round, cut into triangles, nor eaten by Mutant Ninja Turtles, teenage or otherwise.

I've eaten pizza around the world. In South America it's like a flat bread with cheese melted on top. There is no sauce, well hardly none – maybe a bit for the illusion, just to colour. In Europe it's just a nonsensical train wreck. It's often overdone, or not done enough. They try to walk the line between North American and Italian pizza, and just fail terribly. Asia – it's best we not talk about Asia. They just can't get non-Asian food right – with the exception of steak. And then, only in Kobe, Japan. Honestly – once I asked for a fried egg – they sliced a hard boiled egg and fried that up. Thank you Asia. Thank you. Africa came close to having real pizza. They tried hard, but as it was tourist pizza, it tasted like something you'd get at a ball park. Not terrible – but nothing to write home about.

Then we get to North America. Where pizza was born. You heard me – round, triangle, boxed, thirty minutes or it's free pizza. In North America pizza is saucey the way it should be, coated with stuff – whatever stuff you ask for – and prepared to perfection. Now here the problem lies – there are so many types of pizza in North America.

You have your Pizza Hut, which you can get almost anywhere in the world – and it will taste the same in all countries. Which is the problem. It tastes the same in all countries. Have you had Pizza Hut? Sure you have. It's like eating a stick of butter. You may slightly enjoy it at the time – but don't make any plans for the rest of the day, and if you're in a one bathroom living space, make sure you don't go out with your housemates. I'm just saying, is all.

Then you have Pizza Pizza. This is my favourite – no tomato sauce, triple BBQ sauce, chicken, and x-treme cheese. This is the pizza of kings. Get two XL while you're at it. This is pizza like nothing you've ever had. And it's only available in Ontario. Well – Canada wide, but good luck finding it outside of Ontario – fingers crossed. I hear there just might be one at the UBC campus, if you're out that way.

Then you have New York pizza. New York, you have outdone yourself. You can not compete with Pizza Pizza, if only because you're such a different monster. And I love you. And I love to dip you in the packs of tomato sauce. This is what I thought real Italian pizza would be like, until I realized just how wrong that was. But your crust – your cheese – your sauce. You're just wonderful. And perhaps once every ten orders, I would order you – if I could.

I also hear Chicago has some good 'zza. I'm not gonna lie – I've heard of their deep dish – and quite frankly, I like their style. One of these days, Chicago, one of these days.

Hot Dogs
O.K. let me level with you – as a kid, I hated hot dogs. I hated them in buns, and I hated them in my Kraft Dinner. They were disgusting, and terrible, and gross. All the hot dogs I ever had as a child were boiled. Learning that you could flame them up, and then learning there were other syles of hot dogs out there – well that was the break through. That was as magical as learning there were more types of bread than “white.”

Seriously North America – why do we lead children to believe all hot dogs are Schneider's, and best cooked in steaming water; why do we tell children the only breads are Wonder?

Now when you combine these realizations, and have a well cooked dog, in a delicious bun you're half way there. For full perfection you need toppings.

I've eaten hot dogs all over the world. I've had them in five out of the seven continents. And let me tell you one thing, Toronto has the best you'll ever find. This may sound strange, but believe you me, it's true. We don't push our hot dogs in movies, or let others in on the secret. Nor do we make our dogs a tourist attraction, but my lord they are the best.

I need to start from the hot dog we've all been led to believe is superior. The New York street dog. You'll see these in movies, you'll see them on t.v., and you'll hear people talking ab out them. Some pieces of fiction have these 'superior hot dogs' flown in from hundreds of miles for the true authentic experience. This is ridiculous.

Lets try an experiment. Look at your index finger. Are you looking at it? Good. Now picture that in a bun. There's your three dollar hot dog. And when you get it, you will be asked, “do you want ketchup or mustard?” As in one or the other. Asking for both makes you the crazy one. New York street dogs are over priced, undersized, and un-delicious. They are the ultimate in consumption disappointment.

Now, once we accept the terribleness of these dogs, we can move on. It's not that simple though, because people will fight you trying to express how great these are – even people who should know better. So warped have their minds become. These are the same people who probably love the pretzels there too. Sure, why not. Saves you from having to buy a salt lick for your pet cow, buffalo, or other large land mammal.

Now let us shift over to South America where I was told to avoid the Peruvian hot dogs as they've been known to make even the locals sick. This is not a good sign. In Buenos Aires, Argentina, however, they have many a dog shop. And there you'll get a New York style dog – small, thin, unimpressive. It is twice as long, however, and comes with ketchup, mustard, and these little chippy things they like to put on everything down here. These are a step up from New York, but still – nothing to write home about.

In Japan you can find “American Style Chili Dogs.” These are New York style dogs with chili on them. They are just that. It's distressing that Japan couldn't screw up the New York style dog any more than it already had been. It's a faithful recreation – but a copy of terrible is still terrible.

Now, shall we shift to Europe, where the Scandinavian countries have turned their street meat into a tourist attraction, inviting people to try all the vendors? Nowhere is the push for the best higher than in Iceland. Reykjavik has some of the most delicious dogs in the world. They're almost as different from North American ones as Italian Pizza is from Canadian pizza. These dogs may be a tad on the small side, but they have special sauces, and these fried little onion bits that act as flavour crystals bringing you one step closer to heaven! These are the second greatest hot dogs in the world. Still – their price point of three or four dollars, and the need to eat many to become full, leaves them somewhat lacking. You'll also find your culinary experience becoming quite repetitive. Your dog is fixed behind the counter, and handed to you topped. There is no room for personal customization here.

Now we come to the Toronto dog. The ultimate. And what makes it so wonderful? Is it that it's only two dollars? No – but that is a nice addition. Is it that the hot dogs are huge, all beef, monsters – well, that doesn't hurt, I'll tell you that. But the real beauty is that which you are denied in Iceland. Personal choice.

Every Toronto street dog vendor has a booth with no less than five sauce, sometimes more than twice as many. You have your ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, bar-be-que sauce, and relish as standard. You often have two more types of mustard, another BBQ, hot chili sauce, sweet chili sauce, flavours of mayonnaise – the list can go on and on, really. It includes, terrifyingly, squeeze cheese. Best

Then you have your toppings. I recommend taking the meat out of the bun and laying the base sauce, and a few toppings, then putting the dog back, and allowing the madness to continue.

The standards here are pickles – as many as your heart desires, onions, sauerkraut, black olives. These are your sure things. More often than not you will also be met with hot peppers, corn relish – for those into such things, green olives, bacon bits, and more strange and wonderful things than you can possibly imagine. It's rumored that there is still the odd vendor that even has cheese!

And when you bite into these dogs you taste something you didn't think you ever would from street meat. Pure, unadulterated, satisfaction!

The Day Goes On
In my hotel I was flipping through the channels to find the USA vs. Canada Olympics gold medal hockey game. There it was. I watched the first period where Canada took an early lead; I watched the second where Canada put in a beautiful – teen movie styled – goal; I watched America bring it back to within one with a sloppy let in.

The GAP meeting was beginning. There was no way I could attend. It just was not in the cards. Sorry – but there's hockey. Back home all eyes in the country are tuned to this game. Forget the meeting! Then as the third period neared completion I put on my socks, tied on my boots, and got ready to make my way down to catch the tail end of the information session. One minute left before Canada wins the gold, thirty second, twenty four seconds – Are you kidding me! America ties up the game with under half a minute to go?

Waiting through the intermission my roommate came back asking about the game. My heart nearly broke as I explained it. I was told that the group was going out for dinner. But I could not leave. Six minutes into overtime he left to meet in the lobby. Here was a painful game to watch, and I was missing out on potentially good food. Seven minutes in, I couldn't take it. My finger nails were all but gone. Just as my roommate was exiting the elevator on the ground floor I let out a great scream, no doubt terrifying the people on floor four. Canada had taken the Men's Hockey Gold once more! All over my home country cars were probably honking their horns – without even a driver to issue such a command, and beers were no doubt being shared. Here? No one cared. No one knew. But I cared – and I made damn sure people knew, even if that knowledge came about from an assumed psychotic man – late twenties – large mass of facial hair. They knew.

Putting my shoes on once more, I headed down to the lobby, catching them before they left. Then we headed out to the grill.

Argentinian Steak
O.K. - look, the place I was at before? I had pork there. And pork is no good unless in rib form, bacon form, ham form – pretty much any form but chops. That was the problem. The steak here? Fine – I'll admit it, I'm glad I spent the money, I'm glad I had it. Steak – I'm finally starting to come 'round to it. Hopefully some day I can appreciate it like Cypher did, in The Matrix, to the point that I too would sell out my people, including half of the Wyld Stallions, to the leader of the Elves, so that I could embrace its flavour once more.

Good for you delicious steak. You done good. They also had a starter that was just cheese. Cheese with herbs put in the oven. It's the type of crazy thing you do when you're young and think you created a masterpiece – don't pretend like you never did it too. But then you get older and you think you're too old for it, because grownups don't sit down with a brick of baked cheese. Oh yes they do. Oh yes they do! Bless you Argentina. Bless your clotted, cholesterol-filled hearts. I'll eat you up. I. Love. You. So.

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