(Still) food tripping in the USA
- Ricardo T. Pamintuan () - March 20, 2011 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Pinoys vacationing in the USA rarely find difficulty enjoying or adapting to continental cuisine. After all, globalization has made it possible for American tastes to find their way to the Filipino palate. During a recent family vacation in the US, we tried to avoid the fast food chains with stores in the Philippines, and opted to try unfamiliar ones.

After sampling some of the local favorites in LA and New York, major hubs of Filipino communities in the US — one would think that we would not find anything new in the American South. After all, New York and LA probably have something for everyone, right? Wrong.

As you travel down to Virginia and the Carolinas, you will notice Five Guys and Chick-fil-A outlets scattered like the Southern counterparts of McDonald’s and KFC (Kentucky, not Kennedy nor Kabul, which is a different story). Five Guys Burgers and Fries has been criticized for serving unhealthy food. My relatives in Virginia, however, senior citizens all, thought otherwise and brought me and my kids to the nearest store to try it out. In fairness, the fresh-cut fries really are quite good (but voted fourth unhealthiest food in America by Men’s Health magazine in its January 2010 issue). The oddest thing is what my aunts and uncles actually go there for complimentary peanuts. Yes, roasted peanuts are given to patrons so they have something other than their nails to gnaw on while waiting. They’re exceptionally welcome during these rare winter days in Virginia and the Carolinas.

Some say this is the best place for a Philly cheese steak sandwich. I’m not so hot about it, though.

Chick-fil-A is a different story. It is only second to KFC as the largest chicken-based food chain in the US. And while it used to be associated with Southern-style Cajun cooking, the chain now has over 1,600 stores in 38 US states and the District of Columbia. With a name like that, I initially thought it was a Filipino restaurant. I later learned that it merely hires a lot of Filipinos (mostly students working part-time), but is owned by Samuel Truett Cathy, an evangelical Baptist. His religious convictions made Chick-fil-A unique in that it is closed on Sundays. It also made me and the kids extremely excited about trying it after my aunts hyped it up ever since we reached Virginia and were frustrated that most of our free time fell on Sundays. When we finally had the chance to try it, we weren’t disappointed. Not only was the chicken really tender and tasty, we also had a Filipina serving us. Her family owned another less-known chicken place. When we asked why she wasn’t working there, she simply said that Chick-fil-A paid better. Good food, great taste, fair wages — the only thing not to like about it is the $300,000 franchise fee.

It’s pretty obvious by now that the American South is quite fond of chicken (which is just fine for chicken-loving Pinoys). Combine this with Southern blues music and you have Bojangle’s, a chicken and biscuits food chain in the same mold as Hardee’s and Popeye’s. The difference lies on two things: first, they cook chicken in traditional Cajun fashion, and second, the name was inspired by Jerry Jeff Walker’s 1968 song, Mr. Bojangles. Eating at Bojangle’s is supposed to conjure up images of a meal in the woods, the aroma of chicken mixing with the smell of the marsh and the sound of New Orleans music wafting in the air. Alas, the only thing it did conjure in me was a near case of hemorrhoids due to the spiciness of the chicken.

 With so much Cajun and Creole cooking to choose from, it is surprising that Chinese and Mexican food have a strong following in the American South. When we visited the Plaza Azteca Restaurantes Mexicanos in Virginia, we were disappointed to see it filled to the rafters. It was only later that we realized the reason. Mexicans in the Americas were celebrating Cinco de Mayo, not Mexico’s Independence Day, as erroneously supposed by some, but a commemoration of Mexico’s unlikely victory over the French at the battle of Puebla in 1862. We celebrated our own victory the following day (after waiting for 30 minutes before being paged via wireless contraptions that resembled smoke detectors — or land mines) by feasting on authentic Mexican food thousands of miles from the border. A Mexican guacamole specialist regaled a group of unsuspecting diners but failed to regale us; no thanks, señor, we prefer taking our avocados with milk and sugar, as dessert. The nachos weren’t bad, though.

L.D. Bassett ice cream

 The heavy feeling you get from eating Mexican food cannot, however, compare with the fullness of eating at really fine buffet restaurants. My aunts found two in Raleigh, North Carolina: the Golden Corral and Hibachi Grill and Supreme Buffet. Both offers exquisite selections of international cuisine, although the former has better desserts while the latter’s Japanese samples taste more authentic. The prices are quite reasonable and there’s no need to wait unlike at the Century Super Buffet in New York. Southerners do like their chicken better.

 We found more chicken restaurants as we toured the Appalachians, a mountain chain believed to have been once the tallest mountains in the world. As superlatives go, this place also has the distinction of having the largest privately-owned home and the most luxurious McDonald’s restaurant in the entire United States. Biltmore House is the ancestral vacation home of the Vanderbilts in Asheville, North Carolina. Everything about the estate is opulent, so when McDonald’s decided to open a branch just beyond its gate, they demanded nothing less from the fast food giant. Less known as Restaurant #1661 than as McDonald’s Biltmore Village, this is the only McDonald’s store that you cannot recognize from afar — or inside. The building looks like a gourmet place. It has a fireplace and a baby grand piano among tables and chairs made of real wood, not plastic or fiberglass. Good thing the price of the products was the same as that of any other Mickey D’s.

 As you travel north-west from the Appalachians, you see less and less of these wonderful chicken places and more of the usual fast-food diners of New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. It’s a good thing that Pennsylvania has a few gems of its own. In a little town known as Hershey, you can still see Amish people walking or riding their horse-drawn carriages along brown-colored streets — chocolate-brown, to be precise, with street lamps in the shape of Chocolate Kisses and street names such as Cocoa Avenue. At Hershey’s Chocolate World (three hours from New York City, ywo hours from Washington, D.C., and 1.5 hours from Baltimore, all by car — or about a 1.5 days from Manila, by jet), every guest of all ages is transported to Roald Dahl’s 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The newly-opened Hershey (amusement) Park beside the factory is a good motivation to stay longer in one of America’s oldest communities. Of course, the main reason to visit a chocolate factory is to see how some of our childhood favorite snacks are created — then sample some of the freshest chocolate bars ever made.

Sinful desserts at Golden Corral

 Going further north, you can indulge your sweet tooth even more with a serving of ice cream at L.D. Bassett, Inc., which has been around since 1861. Located at the historic Reading Terminal Market in the heart of Philadelphia, you can’t help but feel the love that they pour into each ice cream flavor. Its heavenly taste is enough to let you endure the three-hour, $12 (one-way) bus ride from Manhattan to Reading Terminal. And of course, no trip to the City of Brotherly Love would be complete without trying out their world-famous Philly Cheese steak. According to some of the locals, the best place for this is Tony Luke’s. One look at the long queues of folks from different walks of life — from the well-heeled businessman and the fashionable statuesque ladies (or guys), to the biker in leather and the ordinary Joe and occasional tourist — and you’ll be convinced that this is the place to be. Of course, with so many restaurants claiming that they have the best Philly cheese steak in Philadelphia, the Filipino tourist is instantly reminded of the best buko pie that every store in the Calabarzon area claims.

 From Pennsylvania, the trip back to the Big Apple is marked by more of the same things the Pinoy traveler already knows: Pizza Hut, Wendy’s, Burger King, Taco Bell (which, incidentally, ought to open more stores in the Philippines). Yet, two items need to be mentioned before we end this American food trip: first, buffalo wings are called as such because the first recipes apparently originated in Buffalo, New York; second, those ice cream trucks that roam most neighborhoods 24/7, playing some creepy music reminiscent of a scene from a Stephen King novel, do sell really great-tasting frozen delights and soft-serve ice cream at quite affordable prices.

 Now, if only airplane food were even just half as good (but half as fattening), flying long-haul flights wouldn’t be so bad.

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