All summer, a debate has raged across America in Asian-influenced restaurant kitchens: What and who is authentic anymore? The argument evolved from a back-and-forth on the website Gilt Taste between writer Francis Lam and Eddie Huang, a New York City chef who has Taiwanese parents and owns the Baohaus (bao are steamed, filled buns). The core of the argument was basically about what authenticity means to the new generation of Asian chefs—those raised with college educations that incorporated ideas like Edward Said’s notion that Western consideration of Eastern life is unavoidably imperialist, and also those who came up in a post-Asian-fusion fine-dining world in which white-tablecloth chefs had long been using Asian ingredients such as lemongrass and lime leaves. Is authenticity what you do? Or who you are? If it’s what you do, what can you do—can you make your pad Thai with molecular-gastronomy spheres? Can you use a super-fast blender or must you grind things with mortar and pestle? If you can’t use spheres or a blender, can you use jet planes to transport your lime leaves or must they move by flatboat? And if it’s not who you are or what you do, does authenticity mean anything? Because it sure feels like it means something, and you know it when you eat it.
In the words of Eddie Huang:
Immigrants, my parents and myself included, [were] exposed to years of ridicule. I was made fun of for my stinky lunch upwards of 10 years. . . .
Then, to have these [cooking school] grads come through, repackage the food, and sell it back to me at a premium is just ludicrous. . . .
“The Man” may not outright turn countries into colonies anymore, but it’s only because it’s easier to commodify the goods. It relegates foreign people and countries to the role of factories whose sole purpose is to create culture that gets bought and amplified by someone else. . . .
I wish that Americans didn’t have the need to cut off the narrative from the motherland and butcher our culture into components for a tasting menu. . . .
Now, the discerning reader could say “Eddie, you love hip hop, that was the biggest commodifier.” Yes! But that’s why I love hip hop. It was the only moment I’ve seen in my lifetime where the villagers took the Man’s tools and proved Audre Lorde wrong. You CAN dismantle the Master’s House with the Master’s Tools.
So, hold that thought. Can you eat hip-hop? And more: What is Chinese food? Or Japanese food, or Taiwanese food now in the year 2012, in Minnesota? It’s a particularly relevant topic right this second, because the Asian food scene is changing fast here: In the past few months Minneapolis has gotten pan-Asian haute cuisine plus punk rock with The Left Handed Cook, what’s likely the world’s first Mongolian-immigrant-run sushi truck with Sushi Fix, and a Taiwanese-rooted street-food bar, Maruso. Additionally, Gai Gai Thai has become a cult sensation at the Linden Hills and Kingfield farmers’ markets. What do all of these places have in common? They’re all run by cooks of Asian descent who are redefining their particular cuisines in light of their personal, Minnesota-touched stories. And they’re almost all phenomenally good.
The Left Handed Cook, especially, shows every sign of being a once-in-a-decade game-changer. Led by chef Thomas Kim, this little place in the Midtown Global Market is my favorite restaurant of the year so far. I’ve had nothing but stunning food from Left Handed: a pork belly wrap with meat like custard, garlic confit with a pickled blaze of heat, scallions cut into threads, exquisitely cut papers of radish, and a rosemary ssam sauce, which, when all the elements were tucked into a romaine leaf, united such richness and such bold vibrancy that I was overcome with the urge to not just photograph the dish, but every bite of it. I’ve had hard-seared Brussels sprouts with pithless orange segments, mint, and Grana Padano cheese, which was such a glory of vegetal and fresh umami that it inspired disbelief. Brussels sprouts can’t be this good and can’t have orange in them, can they? And I’ve had hamachi sashimi with a fresh mango salsa in which the buttery, utterly fresh fish was given sweet and surprising dimension with a miniscule dice of mango, jalapeno, and yuzu juice, the whole of it made whimsical and winking with a garnish of Sriracha chili peas, that crunchy Japanese bar snack. The freshness, the fruit, the crunch of the peas, and an echoing crunch of a saltily dressed salad of romaine chiffonade—it was one of those times when you finish the last forkful and want to immediately order six more paper trays of the same dish.
Yes, all the food at The Left Handed Cook comes in paper takeout befitting the stall environs of the market, but don’t let the paper plates fool you; this is serious cooking. Thomas Kim has a stunning resume, having grown up in Los Angeles, the son of immigrants from Seoul, and working his way up in the kitchens of Pacific Rim masters. He came to Minnesota for love; his girlfriend and the restaurant’s co-owner is Kat Melgaard, who has family nearby. He tells me he can’t believe how well his restaurant has been received, and says he plans to open a sit-down restaurant here within two years.
The food is undeniable—you have it once and you have to have it again. Don’t even talk to me about the 21-spice fried chicken, for my money one of the best fried chicken variations in the history of Minneapolis, a complex version that’s spicy and crunchy but also has haunting, Rioja-like leathery and smoky notes from ancho powder, sage rub, and perilla leaves. I can feel the pull of this fried chicken like gravity—the spice, the crunch, the option to add more spice with the tangy gochujang dipping sauce. You can get this chicken solo or on a rice bowl topped with sautéed spinach, kimchi, and a poached, runny egg accomplished with such gorgeous technique it looks like it was sprung from a four-star Michelin kitchen.
Kim tells me he is very sensitive to the issues of identity and authenticity that critics and Asian chefs are arguing about today, having forged his cooking identity in the Japanese sushi kitchen of the traditionalist Jin Suzuki, who currently owns the Saratoga restaurant Hachi Ju Hachi. “It’s certainly a privilege and not a right to cook someone else’s cuisine,” he tells me. “But I feel like it’s a right you can earn. For the 10-plus years when I was doing sushi, the Japanese guys gave me a hard time because I was Korean and so I couldn’t understand sushi. But I also lived in Hawaii and Korea; those are regional cuisines that are crazy and wonderful and flexible, and I think I came to my own decision: Whatever you’re truly passionate about, what you feel connected to, is what you need to cook.”
Speaking of sushi, you can never talk to anyone who has worked in a sushi kitchen without discussing that tension between Japanese traditionalists and everyone else. Enkhbileg “Billy” Tserenbat, for instance, who just opened the upper Midwest’s first sushi truck, Sushi Fix, was born in an unlikely place for a sushi chef: Ulan Bator in landlocked Mongolia. “People in Mongolia actually eat exactly the same as most people in Minnesota,” Tserenbat says. “Steaks, beef, some cheese. But this inspired me to study sushi more than anyone else, to know sushi more than anyone else. I learned with two cranky Japanese sushi chefs who always yelled at me. I learned to be so good they couldn’t yell.” This apprenticeship took place in San Francisco, where Tserenbat learned his trade, and continued through his seven-year stint as head chef at Excelsior’s Yumi. Now his truck is the best thing to happen to downtown Minneapolis sushi in years: The salmon is fresh and silky, and the rolls, like the cilantro-graced Mexican spicy one, look like tiny mosaics of jewels and taste like you’re at the priciest sushi bar in town. And what does Tserenbat think of the debate about authenticity? He’s been fighting it his whole career. “I could make a lot more money making sushi with frozen fish and using sushi-rolling robots,” he says. “But this is what I care about. Bottom line: Sushi is my life.” That’s authentic.
Meanwhile, at the Kingfield Farmers Market, Kris Petcharawises is the young chef behind the stall Gai Gai Thai, which did pop-up lunches all winter at Patisserie 46 and has become something of a cult phenomenon among Thai food fans for dishes like his vibrant turmeric-marinated Gai Isan bowl or his Chinese sausage omelet with sweet sausage suspended in a thin, tender egg pancake, served over rice with lashings of secret spicy “7 Train” herb sauce. He could sell it by the gallon, and I’d buy it. It’s vividly herbal, a little fiery, and creamy too, a killer innovation. Petcharawises, who grew up in Atlanta, the son of Thai immigrants, doesn’t see any reason he shouldn’t use Peruvian elements in his Thai food, and he likes to use Southern ones too, sweet potato sticky rice, for instance, or grits with ginger and fish sauce. His food is so good he could serve three things and one microbrew and have the world beat a path to his door—which he tells me he plans to do, with a brick and mortar space in Minneapolis sometime soonish. And where does a Thai cook with a fondness for grits fall in the authenticity wars? “Thai food has been very politicized the past couple years,” Petcharawises told me. “There are certainly some things you just know about a cuisine by growing up with it, but what about Thai cooks cooking European food—does that mean their food is inferior? Should they charge less because of where they grew up? I feel like, honestly, I might have some inherent advantages because of my memories and taste experiences, but I also need to be open to new experiences, as a cook and as a person. So how could I ask someone else to not have experiences and not be influenced by them? So in the end I think food has to be about bringing people together, and bringing down barriers, not about exclusivity.”
Of course, merely having a globetrotting identity and a love for many elements of cuisine doesn’t ensure deliciousness. New Maruso Street Food, directly across from Seven Sushi, has a great story. Opened by a Minnesota resident who is the great-grandson of a historic, and still operating, Taiwan soy sauce manufacturer, the new restaurant is a showcase for the soy sauce, as well as a home for Taiwan-style home cooking and a mishmash of pierogis, huevos rancheros, banh mi, arepas, cheesesteaks, bayou shrimp, and super-strong frat-kid drinks. The soy sauce is dazzling: thick as motor oil, salty and meaty and mushroomy, a super-powered boost of umami that could take the world by storm. The simple Taiwan home-cooking dishes that showcase this astonishing soy—like the Maruso Rice Bowl, simple beef or chicken skewers served with both grilled and pickled vegetables—are delightful, just hearty, simple, good food. But all the global stuff I’ve tried here has been wide off the mark in one way or another—dry and dull arepas, flavorless pierogi, and generically sweet chicken wings.
All in all, a home run, two hits, and a miss. If only all raging debates ended so productively, so memorably, and so deliciously.
Where to Find Them
Left Handed Cook: Midtown Global Market, 612-208-0428, twitter.com/thelefthandedmn
Maruso Street Food & Bar: 715 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 612-333-0100
Gai Gai Thai: facebook.com/gaigaithai Sushi Fix: sushifix.net