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The Department of Authenticity
Sara Deseran | Photo: Bert Hardy/Getty | September 5, 2013
Nostalgia-fueled authentocrats policing San Francisco's restaurants are missing the regional cuisine right under their noses.
Recently, a blog called FloreakEats published an amusing parody of a couple of Michael Pollan’s popular books. Pithily titling it “The Food Asshole’s Dilemma,” the blogger listed the sanctimonious habits of aspiring foodies in the concise, mantra-esque style that readers have come to associate with Berkeley’s reigning omnivore.
1. Eat food, mostly overpriced and hyper-local.
2. Except for food that is very obscure, even more overpriced, and imported from very far away indeed.
3. Eat what your grandmother ate, but only the things that take so long to prepare that she gave up making them long ago.
Somewhat related to number 3 is number 13, my favorite: “Seek authentic food experiences, no matter how terrible they are.”
While on vacation in Rome over the summer, I was reminded of the latter rule as I dined at a modest restaurant that had a line of real, live, gesturing, smoking Italians waiting for its doors to open at 8 p.m. Don’t get me wrong: It was a delight just to be there. I felt Italian by osmosis. But when my food arrived—a typically Roman dish of lamb shoulder braised in vinegar with a side of escarole—I took knife and fork to it with a familiar wavering conviction. My expectations had been inflated by a well-known chef back home who had recommended it as a good, “no frills” spot (which I took as chef code for “legit”). With my own food-snob credentials at stake, I told myself that I loved the dish. In truth, though, I thought the lamb was a bit dry, and the classically long-cooked escarole had the texture of a pile of swamp weed. “Terrible” is not the word, but “disappointing” is. My determination to appreciate the food reminded me of the times that I’ve tried on trendy highwaisted jeans, assuring myself that they look great on me.
In my lifelong global search for authenticity, my rose-tinted palate has accompanied me everywhere—from Tokyo’s fish market to the taco trucks of Modesto. Some of my “authentic” eating experiences have been blissfully memorable (perfectly al dente spaghetti with dimesize clams on the Amalfi Coast, pho with translucent beef tendon in the Tenderloin). Some have been memorable for other reasons (a bite of a pungent, braised pig liver taco in Mexico City that—to my shame— I gagged into the nearest trash can). My determined enthusiasm has resulted in food poisoning more than once. But I soldier on because on some level I believe that if I consume the right foods, I will somehow steal their soul and thus know what it’s like to have a purebred culinary heritage, instead of being the West Coast– based cultural mutt that I am.
It is not lost on me, however, that in my quest for authentic food, I often ignore my own sense of taste. And in doing that, I’ve joined the league of the authentocrat, that insufferable person who celebrates only the food that he or she deems properly unadulterated and true. San Francisco has more than its share of these folks, dog-earing their back copies of Saveur and Lucky Peach and scrolling through Chowhound. Search “authentic” on our local Yelp, and you’ll find the site teeming with authenticity police. While some giveth the title to restaurants (“I love the holein- the-wall, authentic type atmosphere,” Alissa N. writes about Lers Ros), many use their power to taketh it away. (Syd A. cautions Yelpers against Helmand Palace: “I have eaten Afghan food all my life. This was by far the worst. The food was not authentic.”) In these lectures, deliciousness is irrelevant.
But making it your mission to draw a line between the bona fide and the bogus is a dubious endeavor at best. Even the most flagrant of mudslingers must know deep down that cuisine is a shape-shifter, that it crosses borders. Both recipes and ingredients immigrate and change, along with the people who love them—and thank God for that. Those San Marzano tomatoes on your purist Una Pizza Napoletana pizza wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the bully Spanish colonists who proudly delivered nightshade seeds from the New World back to the Old.
In the face of the fact that cuisine continuously modernizes and evolves, people stubbornly cling to what’s “real,” even if it’s based solely on their own experience, prejudices— and pride. Case in point: When chef Craig Stoll was researching Locanda, his Roman-inspired Mission district restaurant, he had a come-to-Jesus moment about authenticity. “I think it was one of the more enlightening experiences I’ve ever had,” he says. “In Rome, [Locanda’s chef] Anthony [Strong] and I went from place to place, each one claiming that they made the definitive carbonara. But they were all different.”
So how did Stoll, a New York–born Jew, replicate all those “traditional” carbonaras? “We took the 20 ‘definitive’ carbonaras that we liked in Rome and tore them apart and rebuilt them—from the egg yolks to the pecorino,” he says. “We must have changed the cut on the guanciale about a million times. We’re still changing it.” (See "Three Shades of Carbonara.")
Which brings me to the biggest problem with the authentocratism around these parts: its inability to rejoice in the food that San Francisco does best. The nimble cooking at which Stoll excels, inspired by travels but anchored in local values, is the essence of many of our region’s most popular restaurants. Their menus are routinely described as “[you name the cuisine] with a California twist,” a tagline applicable to a multicultural mix that includes the Slanted Door, Nopalito, Nojo, Locanda, and Ichi, to name a few. But as jam-packed as these restaurants are, they also suffer their share of scrutiny. Yelper Anthony Xavier S. stands tall on his soapbox: “Listen and listen good: This is not authentic Mexican cuisine. Nopalito provides Mexican-like dishes, but for anyone to say this is authentic is straight out stupid.” To this nostalgia-driven group, for whom a staid, third-generation joint with a grandma at the stove is the gold standard, there’s nothing more suspicious than a hip, urban restaurant.
The more that I suss all this out, the more I’m coming to understand that—country of inspiration be damned—restaurants like Namu Gaji, A16, Flour + Water, Aziza, and, yes, Nopalito serve food that is indeed true to itself and its place.
I think that today, the Bay Area can make claim to its own regional cooking, best defined by rustic food that pays respect to tradition with apparent effortlessness (when, behind the scenes, the chef has personally mined the gold to build the die to press the pasta through and has commissioned a farmer to produce pastured eggs from a nearly extinct breed of Italian chicken). Call it precious, but if you’re a local, these restaurants provide a familiar, if obsessive, freshness. More important, they serve up a sincerity that is at the heart of what authentocrats are chasing. And if, because of misguided contempt, they push their plate away in disgust, they’re missing out on some world-class food.
Rick Bayless, the famous, Chicago-based unofficial professor of Mexican cooking, was criticized for a Zagat interview about his recent trip to San Francisco. But frankly, his observation resonated: “What’s interesting to me is that there is a real similarity from restaurant to restaurant. Of course, all the restaurants are doing the seasonal thing and getting the same ingredients from the same farms and what not, but it’s all a little bit too alike.”
Which distinctly recalls what it’s like to eat in a city like Rome, where every place serves the same food as the next: bresaola with arugula, caprese salad, cacio e pepe, carbonara, lamb in vinegar. Of course, an authentocrat from here diligently laps it all up, posting dreamy, fauxtiqued Instagram photos of the food and raving about it to followers. But if pressed in a homesick moment, that mutt might admit that sometimes, just sometimes, even the most authentic food could use a twist of California. Or—to be regionally specific—San Francisco.
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of San Francisco