Wednesday, 30 July 2014

American food is just burgers and pizzas?

[White Pie with Spinach, Home Slice, Austin]
When I'm at home in England, talking about American food, there are three words I love to say - 'biscuits and gravy'. It always gets a shudder.

Here in the UK, a biscuit is a small cookie, like a digestive or a hob-nob. Gravy is always brown and very meaty. The idea of mixing the two - and even my American readers will agree here - is quite repulsive.

I then explain that in the US a biscuit is a type of scone, and that gravy can also be pale - that it's basically what we call 'white sauce', with some meat pan juices and pepper added. It's still a bit strange - scones are really meant for cream and jam - and a good illustration that there's more to American food than just burgers and pizzas.

Then I'd say 'shrimp and grits' (prawns with small stones to us English) and off we'd go again.

[Pizza frisbee, Home Slice, Austin]
But although American food isn't all about pizza and burgers, we must admit it is something you do seriously well - and I love to seek out the best examples when I'm over there.

This year I made a pilgrimage to Home Slice Pizza in Austin. Now, they claim to be authentic New York pizza, and I claim to not to really understand what means. I just know it's some of the best pizza I've ever had.

It's not just that it's a perfect thin crust pizza with a range of imaginative toppings (including white pizzas, without tomato, which I'd not had before). It's also got the buzz right. The place is small, dark and noisy. The staff are friendly, cute and tattooed. They gave my daughter a ball of dough to play with, and she's been in love with the place ever since.

It's also pizza you eat with your hands - they even give you a guide on how to fold it (take a triangular slice, and fold in half from centre to edge - insert pointed end into mouth), and that too makes it a more sensual experience. Just thinking about it makes me happy.

[The Porter Burger, Porter's, Austin]
To illustrate what a difference the atmosphere can make to the enjoyment of food, I also went to Porter's Ale House Gastropub on South 1st St. I'd agonised about this place recently, as it was a long walk from my hotel but I didn't want to drive (in the end, I caught the bus). I had some rather nice beer, and their signature burger with brie, pancetta and kettle chips. A bit rich, but what do you expect?

Now, I could get a bit cynical here. Let's say you're a new restaurant, in an area that's outside the main food districts. How do you get discovered? Well, one good route would be to a design a burger that's going to get noticed by the food writers and burger blogs. Like one with unusual ingredients. That perhaps gets you mentioned in the list of the 15 most splurge worth burgers in America on Zagat for example? Which lands in the mailbox of an Englishman who's off to Austin soon?

Well, I'll never object to a bit of publicity and marketing - the burger was tasty - but what I needed was a bit of buzz and atmosphere to make it a truly incredible burger. And I didn't get that being the only diner in your restaurant. I know it's not your fault.

The next night I walked to Guero's, just up from my hotel. It's standard Mexican fare, in a big fun restaurant with plenty of people watching opportunities.  I hate to say it, I had a better evening.

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