Saturday 28 June 2014

The Best Hyperbole I've Ever Had! 5 Stars!

[Brown food in Tucson, AZ]
My 11yr old daughter has the enthusiasm that comes with youth - every time we go to the cinema, it's the best movie ever. As it is with young children, so I think it is with young nations - especially in the Southwest USA, where some communities are hardly a hundred years old. Americans, I'm discovering, have a tendency to hyperbole, driven by their enthusiasm and genuine desire for everything to be the best.

As a more restrained Englishman, I've come a cropper because of this more than once. I'd read a review on Tripadvisor and think myself so lucky - by some amazing coincidence this tiny backwater town has a diner that creates the best cheeseburgers in the whole of the USA! So off I'd go to some slightly tired back street diner and eat a cheeseburger that was probably not even the best in Fleabite, Arizona, let alone America.

Digging further in the Tripadvisor reviews, I would start to see a pattern. The diner gets a 4.2, not because of some consensus, but because it's had eight 5/5 reviews and two 1/5 reviews. The reviews are polar - it's either the BEST or the WORST - and often it's the worst because of some error in the service ("the fork was filthy!"). Bad service, in the US, is a much worse crime than poor food.

[Red brown food in Santa Fe, NM]
Of course, I discovered this the hard way a couple years ago, as I drove along the Mexican border in search of the BEST Mexican restaurant, buoyed along on wave of Tripadvisor hyperbole.

Now, I have a soft spot for Mexican food. It was the first 'exotic' cuisine I tried with my wife-to-be, when we starting dating nearly 20 years ago - we felt so sophisticated (and slightly superior) because we knew what to do with a fajita.

We didn't just eat the meat directly from the sizzle pan, treating the tortilla like a side bread. We didn't spread out the meat across the tortilla, pizza style, then eat it with a knife and fork. No, we knew how to create wraps, we knew when to add the white stuff, the green stuff and the red stuff. We knew how to roll it up. We were worldly. We were cosmopolitan. We were gourmands. It was heady stuff.

I still love my Mexican food, and will take any excuse to visit Wahaca in London. I'm hooked on their bright salads, sharp flavours, simple tapas-like dishes and street food inspired plates. No yellow rice, refried beans or deep fried, cheese covered tortillas here.

[Yellow brown food in Barstow, CA]
So I have to admit that American Mexican food surprised me. It was like stepping back twenty years, but not in a good way. The meals were relentlessly brown - huge portions of rice and beans, cheese covering everything, muddy flavours. Cholesterol and carbohydrates overloads. I guess this is 'Tex-Mex' - apparently influenced by the Sonoran cuisine of Northern Mexico. It's firmly in the comfort food category, and certainly beloved by many a Tripadvisor reviewer - but I hate to say it, I was disappointed. I'd had more authentic Mexican food in London.

I guess it's little different from the 'Chinese' or 'Indian' food that can be found on any British high street. Stuck in a culinary straightjacket, serving up the dishes that everyone expects - sweet and sour pork balls, chicken korma - dishes that are essentially British, with little connection to the cuisines they were inspired by. I felt the same was true of the many Mexican restaurants I visited.

[Brown food in Mesquite, TX]
So what have I learned? That Tripadvisor is popularist, good at promoting unchallenging local favourites and certainly shouldn't be taken as the only source of restaurant recommendations. I've learned to search wider, follow blogs written by people with similar tastes to myself, to ask questions in forums like Chowhound. I've learned that good Mexican food is hard to find, just like innovative Indian or Chinese food is hard to find on a UK high street.

Oh and I've also learned that you can feed a family of three with a single Tex-Mex meal. You'll never leave hungry!

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