Friday, December 05, 2008

Had lunch with Britt and Tom at the Burger Joint at the Parker Meridien, that odd space that's segregated from the lobby and the jet-lagged Eurotrash drifting through it by theatrical purple curtains. Once you disappear behind them you're in a completely different world: a college campus hangout, circa 1983. Signs in crayon: "Order here," "Dump your trash in here." They give you the burgers in plain waxpaper that's already spotting with grease. A paper bag for fries. It's got that lowlife chic that a certain type of foodie has promoted in the past decade or two, based on an obsessive determination to find the best food in the unlikeliest places. This is the type that celebrates food carts, dingey delis, Chinatown holes in the wall. Perhaps the term "foodie" itself, as opposed to "gourmet," was really coined to describe them. Their endeavor's not exactly ironic because it's not undertaken with a wink, knowingly. There's an earnest anti-elitism and openmindedness at play here, an activism. If the real food pyramid is the one with three Michelin stars at the top and fish and chips at the bottom, they want to overturn it. But there are perils in this view: It's an anti-snobbism that risks becoming a snobbism, of course. And a lot of cheap food is crap. Worse yet, some places try to capitalize on this trend by presenting contrived downscale food. A lot of Philly cheesesteak places are like this. Any place that sells sliders but isn't White Castle is like this. The Burger Joint seems to me an obvious example of this, with its too-cute perch in the corner of a fancy French hotel. Seems like it's trying too hard to make some kind of point.

On the other hand, the burgers are pretty good.

And sometimes you have a great experience of this kind. Sara took me to Fried Dumpling on Mosco Street a few weeks ago. It's utterly drab and unpromising inside and out - in other words, by the logic described above, it's utterly alluring and promising. You get five fried dumplings for one dollar. That's it. Dumplings. There was something else on the menu - hot and sour soup? - but there didn't seem to be a drop of it anywhere behind the counter, nor bowls to serve it in. The old lady fried and flipped the dumplings, the old man sat and rolled them and placed them on metal sheets by the hundreds, hundreds, hundreds, hundreds. They serve them on a paper plate with a plastic fork and you can stare at yourself in the mirror on the wall as you eat them at a metal counter across from the stove. The skin of the dumpling is crisp in places but has a beautifully elastic, doughy quality below the immediate surface. You feel like you're biting something of substance. You break through and there's a hot burst of juice from the pork and then tender, beautifully seasoned meat, just fatty enough, not the least bit gristly, with just enough spices and scallion. Then you dump your trash where it says to dump it and walk outside.