Eat that in a small town

One of the things I focus on at Newton Publications are things that you miss from the big city, and what to do about it. If you describe what you’re missing to the locals, it seems irrelevant to them, because they’ve never had it. It’s like you are describing colors to someone who’s very happy with their black and white vision, and it comes off as big-city pampered whining to them. So, this is my comprehensive “I miss this food” list. It seriously feels like Thanos decided that there were too many choices for food, so he snapped his fingers four or five times until there were only five choices, and two of them were the same chicken place but with different signs on the building.

A note to the locals: City folks probably come off as whiny to you, but realize that from their perspective, just by moving here the variety of food options they can get has gone from A-Z to A-C.

Anyway, the good news though is that relatively few of the things I really miss actually require the use of machines that you can’t put in an ordinary kitchen. I’ve learned to cook passable versions of most of the things I miss at this point, and I’ll be posting links to the recipes I use, and probably some videos eventually. But for right now, I’m going to list off a bunch of the things that irk me about going from the big city to the small town. Don’t worry, there’s also a list coming later about going the other direction – the things that suck about the big city.

  • By 8pm, the whole city is closed and there is nothing at all to do. If you drive 30 minutes to a larger town, you might find some place that’s open until 9pm. One or two nights a week, there are a couple of bars open until 10pm or so. To be fair, there is also a music venue in town that’s open most weekends, where they play until about midnight or so.
  • You will never again enjoy a carne asada burrito at 3am, unless you learn to make it yourself.
  • Jewish delis? That’s some kinda conspiracy theory, right up there with the space lasers. Pastrami is a made-up food, though there are a few fast food places with reubens. And schug sauce? Go ahead and describe it; someone will try to convince you it’s the same thing as green salsa. And forget about getting any form of Israeli food here.
  • On the bright side, you will not see any other kind of Middle Eastern food either. Israeli was the only Middle Eastern food I really liked; the rest I’ll eat but it’s not craved. Also, Greek food – beyond fast food gyros at American Deli – is just as mythical as Zeus himself.
  • Mexican places do exist. But there’s only one place where you’ll get shredded beef in anything, but you will never get to eat anything like the shredded beef burrito with cheese from Vallarta Express again, not even at a fancy restaurant. On the other hand, the local Mexican place does have excellent crawfish nachos. And if you like the Tex-Mex style of putting queso cheese on everything, you’re actually in luck here. I don’t dislike it, so I don’t actually hate my Mexican food choices here. I miss some things, but I get others. If all the other categories were like this, I wouldn’t mind the food so much.
  • By law, liquor stores are a government-run monopoly in this state, and they all charge full retail. Beer and wine can be at other stores, but anything over 15% has to go through an ABC store. The locals all drive to Florida to buy alcohol. Pretty much every restaurant has signage reminding patrons that AL will not let them put more than 1.5oz of liquor into any drink unless it’s a special order of some sort.
  • Sake? What’s that?
  • Chinese food here is … just “Chinese” food. It isn’t Szechuan, Hunan, Mandarin, or Taiwanese, just “Chinese” – which is to say that everything is lumped together and the restaurants don’t really differentiate. They’re even a little blurry on the lines of which countries are Chinese; after all, Korean and Japanese food is basically the same, right? Nothing like Mandarin Wok or Chin’s exists here, much less a dim sum place. And nothing like the old Spicy City from Convoy. There are no dan dan noodles or XO noodles. By the way, at the Chinese take-out place in town you can order something called Szechuan Beef. It turns out that name can actually mean a few different things, and here it is not the thing you probably expect after eating Szechuan beef in San Diego. This is basically just a broccoli beef in brown sauce.
  • Korean restaurants are 30min away in Daleville, where I haven’t been yet. I shall reserve judgement until I’ve tried them.
  • I’ve been to Thai places here where the employees have never even heard of meekrob.
  • Filipino food does not exist. Pancit, tocino, and lumpia are all gone. And the amazing Mexican/Filipino fusion at Sayulitas only exists in a parallel universe. Make your peace with this, if you can.
  • There’s a Japanese place or two, and they can make sushi rolls that aren’t horrible, and some weird but not unpleasant versions of yakisoba. There is no such thing as okonomiyaki, and the takoyaki tastes like they changed the recipe a ton to appeal to Alabama taste buds. There are no hibachi grill places. And there are no grocery stores to get mochi ice cream or anything like that from. But for the love of all that is holy, spare yourself and do NOT get the Colonel Sanders roll at Ooka Sushi. Greasy fried chicken is not a viable pairing for a sushi roll. On the other hand, the teriyaki steak roll is actually quite tasty. You will also never find a yakiniku place like Gyu-Kaku here, either.
  • Brazilian bbq? What, southern pulled pork bbq isn’t good enough for you, and you need something weird from South America? And some kinda parmesan cheese balls to go with it?
  • Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwich) shops barely exist in the reality you now inhabit. I’ve found one place, and the sandwiches were ok. They also somehow managed to make boba tea where the boba was crunchy.
  • Boba tea – you mean bubble tea? There are two places I’ve found with boba tea. One was the Vietnamese place serving boba tea so overcooked that it crunches, and the other was a Japanese fast food place which actually had respectable boba.
  • Peruvian? It exists, in Dothan, jammed into the Indian place.
  • Ethiopian? Somalian? Uygur? What are these foods? To a local, it feels like you are just spinning a globe and demanding food from wherever your finger landed. To you, it’s just more of the continuing pattern of “this is something I used to be able to get. Why does no one actually want to eat something new here?”
  • Yes, there are bbq places here. But unlike Texas, where bbq places are the absolute pride of their existence, these just sort of exist. They’re tasty, but no one’s lives really revolve around eating there. And they all close early. And they aren’t really that worked up about brisket here.
  • There is one Indian place within 30 minutes drive (and it’s the place with Peruvian menu items). What I’ve had from them has been pretty decent, but it’s nowhere approaching the variety of Indian places in San Diego, or the multiple Indian buffets where you can sample dozens of different things.
  • German food? Nein, hier ist kein schnitzel. You can find bratwurst in the grocery store though. And once a year everyone pretends to be German long enough to drink some beer and eat a bratwurst from a food truck. If you want German food beyond that, there’s chicken cordon bleu in the freezer case over at Sam’s Club. Wait, that’s French? Oh. They’re not the same thing?
  • Burgers are available, and are very well done for what they are, but they’re absolutely basic. Do you want a half-pound beef patty loaded with turkey and pastrami like the Monster Burger from Anny’s Fine Burger? Make it yourself, because you’ll never get something like that here. Nowhere. Here you might get bacon as an available option, and that’s it. If you can get mushrooms on your burger, you’ve found a super adventurous place. Food adventurers here dine at Applebees.

Most of this gripe list is admittedly petty, and a gripe list which consisted of just a few of these items would be worth just rolling one’s eyes at. But everyone in San Diego (and probably most big cities outside of the South) have access to everything on this list, and usually less than 30 minutes away. I personally would be content, food-wise, anywhere I had a random sampling of half the things on this list available. It’s also true that in most places in the world, you can go “Oh, well I can’t have <X> but at least I can go have <Y> instead.” Here, the things that are lost, haven’t been replaced by anything new. You can… go get a decent steak. Or a burger, but nothing fancy. Or eat some Mexican or Chinese food that would be, at best, passable fast food in San Diego. Southern bbq? The local places are slightly better than the average in San Diego, but not by enough to make up for the loss of every other thing on the list.

Most of the time I get in the mood to eat something, I am forced to add yet another thing on the huge, vast list of things you can’t get here unless you make it yourself. I’ve actually gotten workarounds for many of the items on this list though, and have my own small-town-survival versions of the foods I miss from California. I plan to write ’em down and post them on this blog eventually.

That having been said, there are also things you get in small towns where big cities are absolutely dropping the ball – but that’s another post.


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