“Nobody knows anything.” That was screenwriter William Goldman’s famous summation of Hollywood studios, and it applies to the restaurant business as well. Every year, food writers like me make predictions that are about as reliable as the photos on a Latvian dating site. And the one thing that we all seem to get wrong, from my own poor Gastrodamus prophecies to that of my friend and mentor, the restaurant consultant Michael Whiteman, is Americans’ appetite for exotic foods. For years, Whiteman and others have predicted that Indian, Peruvian and other cuisines would conquer the heartland, and every year these cuisines fail to make much headway. People in the heartland, like people on both coasts, eat pretty much the same Italian food and Chinese food and sushi they did 20 years ago. But that doesn’t mean that things aren’t changing. A few isolated items have, I think it’s fair to say, entered the American mainstream. Like spaghetti, egg rolls and gyros before them, the following foods can no longer be considered exotic. Let’s officially grant U.S. citizenship to:
Banh mi. There are so many of these Vietnamese sandwich shops in New York City, Philly and other U.S. cities that I almost forgot that this was still considered a foreign food by some people. Yes, it has a funny name (pronounced bon-mee) and appears on menus covered with a bewildering number of accent marks. But what are we really talking about here? A delicious sub that consists of crispy French bread filled with fresh, bright, firm vegetables, hot sauce and what usually looks like six kinds of pork. What’s not to like about that? There are also meatball, turkey and vegetarian versions. They seem to be universally cheap, and I’ve seldom had a bad one of any kind. So if you want to sound adventurous but don’t actually like eating new things (and there are more of us in this category than we like to let on), the banh mi is the sandwich for you.
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Yuzu. This Japanese citrus looks and tastes a lot like a lemon, and chefs use it in exactly the same way they would use a lemon, in part because no one would give them credit for a “lemon gelée” or “lemon vinaigrette.” I am not saying that yuzu is indistinguishable from a lemon. Or maybe I am. There are a lot of varieties of lemons and limes. But they don’t have the cachet of that exotic name. Yuzu has offered chefs the same free ride that banh mi brought diners: the ability to seem worldly while secretly hewing to the exact same flavor profiles one might have found in any Eisenhower-era luncheonette. Yuzu, turn in your green card: you are now a full-fledged citizen. Now get in my margarita!
Non-instant ramen. What would any of us have done in our college days without instant ramen? The stuff was, and is, a kind of modern magic, the closest thing I know of to the miracle of the loaves and fishes. But that freakish dried brick of starch and its attendant packet of bouillon powder didn’t prepare any of us for how good real ramen is: the complexity, the heat, the power and the umami, the soft and succulent nuggets of pork belly floating like corpulent bathers in an aromatic sea. And the noodles! Their copiousness, their texture, the way they almost but not quite absorb the soup. And best of all, the way a loud slurp brings all the tastes together, aerating it and announcing your happiness to every diner nearby. Fresh ramen hasn’t reached every hamlet and food court the way that banh mi has — O.K., banh mi isn’t quite everywhere yet either — but this is one I’m willing to go out on a limb for. Think how unlikely it once seemed that sushi (“Ew, raw fish!”) would become as common as Tex-Mex in America. Ramen is basically amazing chicken noodle soup.
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Verace Pizza Napoletana. Now that Domino’s has announced that it is making “artisanal pies,” we can finally shut the book on the migration of “true” Naples-style pizza into the mainstream. Not that Domino’s is actually serving it, or anything like it; but the fact that the delivery giant feels the need to address the competition is telling enough. Brick-oven pizzerias serving small, thin pizzas laden with fresh (not to mention nongreasy) blotches of white mozzarella have become nearly ubiquitous. Few pizzaioli follow the exacting standards of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, a rigorous trade board, but the basic idea has extended outward throughout the country.
Dim sum. Remember when General Tso’s chicken seemed exciting and new? That dish has made its way to Walmart’s frozen-food aisles. And now it looks like dim sum, the Hong Kong–based small-plates tradition, is starting to expand beyond the Chinatowns of big cities, with some of the dumplings and other classics showing up in chain restaurants à la California Pizza Kitchen. As with banh mi, I have to ask: What took Americans so long to catch on? In a dedicated dim sum place, you sit at a table and a constant procession of carts comes by, each loaded with little plates of this or that. Admittedly, some of these items can be off-putting — especially when the chicken feet show up — but the idea of having a bunch of small Chinese dishes and calling them dim sum instead of appetizers has finally sunk in for good.
Can you see a pattern here? Subs, lemons, soups, appetizers … the U.S. tends to absorb exotic foods that have mainstream equivalents. Pizza, too, was once understood as a pie.