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Why in the hell would you eat that?"
I get asked that a lot. Most often by my wife.
"No, I mean seriously, Jay. Whole fish and sea bugs and chicken ass -- why?"
5117 S. Yosemite St.
Englewood, CO 80111
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
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Egg and crab dumplings: $7.95
Pork dumplings: $6.25
Beef shank: $4.95
Jellyfish salad: $6.50
Beef with garlic sauce: $9.95
Flaming pig’s intestines: $8.95
Pork with Peking sauce: $9.95
Sesame pocket: $6.95< br>Yellow fish with garlic: $10.95
Because they're good, I tell her (or anyone else who corners me with The Question). But that's not enough. Pork chops are good. Cheeseburgers are good. There's lots of normal food that's good, so why do I insist on eating cow's stomach and calves' brains and chicken feet and field mice?
This is where I stop the conversation, standing with hand raised and metaphoric whistle in my teeth like some kind of cultural traffic cop. Wait a minute, I say. Normal? What's normal, exactly? Normal is a loaded word, because it means different things to different people. And in terms of food, normal means nothing at all. Is a grilled cheese sandwich more or less normal than flying-fish eggs? To a child of the American suburbs, more. To a child of immigrants, less so. To a kid living in Moscow, the two squares of melted yellow cheese product squished between two slices of grilled white bread might be a novelty, vaguely recognizable as a distant relation of the open-faced broiled sandwich with which he is most familiar. And to a kid living in Japan? Forget it. He's been eating tobiko since forever, using it the way the American kid would salt or ketchup, and when faced with a grilled cheese sandwich for the first time, he might just as well wear it as a hat as eat it.
Goat-nipple soup is normal. Sheep face in mustard sauce is normal. No matter what it is, if it's edible, there's someone out in the great wide world who thinks of it as normal and its taste as coming home.
This argument is enough to satisfy most people. It's not going to make them run right out and order a plate of sweetbreads or beef hearts or eel pie (at least, not if they aren't already predisposed to doing such things), but it usually persuades them not to bug me anymore about my unusual diet.
But Laura, not so much. She's been my partner (Butch to my Sundance, Bonnie to my Clyde) for so long that she can smell my particularly fragrant brand of bullshit from about a mile off. She knows, for example, that I really couldn't care less about culinary multiculturalism or anyone's judgment of what's normal. I might talk a good game, but in truth I vastly prefer the closed societies of ethnic enclaves to the co-opting of a culture by the theft of their food traditions. I'm deeply distrustful of even the most high-concept translations of regional cuisines outside of their regions, and am saddened whenever I see struggling ethnic restaurants adding one-off "Americanized" entrees to their menus in the hopes of drawing a little more trade.
Laura knows that I am that stereotypical kid of the white-bread American suburbs -- the kid built of grilled cheese sandwiches and pork chops and iceberg lettuce salads with Bac-Os. And she knows that the way I eat today has more to do with some knee-jerk psychological urge to keep running from that tract that spawned me than it does with me running toward any kind of squishy, sociocultural, One World epiphany of human commonality. I think it's cool that nearly every cuisine on the planet includes a kind of dumpling, a version of barbecue and a type of sandwich, and I eat them because I think I might learn something about the people who consider them normal. I eat the way I do for the adventure, for the thrill of the new and the different. And yes, on one level, even today, I eat to flee the old neighborhood, to prove -- if only to myself -- that I'm better than those who never did.
Last week, though, I decided to try an experiment: to hit one of the newer ethnic restaurants along Federal -- a place buried deep in the warm, throbbing heart of Little Everything, in one of those zones where Mexican and Chinese and Vietnamese and American and Middle Eastern restaurants sit jumbled up together like a dogpile map of the world -- and eat only the "normal" food. I would look at the menu through the eyes of the slightly creeped-out suburban food tourist I really am, eschew all the stuff that my non-foodie friends would never, ever consider eating, and see what happened.
For my laboratory, I chose Chopsticks China Bistro, a place with a name so goofy that it sounds like it was deliberately chosen to draw in people who want to go to a Chinese restaurant but not necessarily eat Chinese food. In picking Chopsticks, I was cheating a little. I'd already heard that the kitchen was good at handling the blood and guts of both Chinese party food and peasant grub. Since the restaurant had been open for just over a year -- in an area where an address can go through three owners in as many months without raising eyebrows -- I knew it was doing good trade among the neighbors and gastronauts who prowl this mutt district, some looking for weird culinary kicks, others for a taste of home.