8 (Mon) February 2016
North Philly Sausage Cheesesteak on a Pretzel Roll
at Alla Spina
with SB and wife
Mission to USA + Personal Deviation, Day 3 (see previously 7.033 Forty-Six Fifty).
In New York. Here to attend a meeting on NCDs at the United Nations, Tuesday to Friday. Plus to give a guest lecture on global health at TU this afternoon. Flying back Saturday.
While appreciating all representations of the Chinese culinary diaspora that I’ve experienced across the world, I hold a strong affinity for the Chinese-American cuisine that I’d enjoyed more than anything throughout college in the States.
In fact, after I’d transferred to Berkeley, I established a Thursday night tradition with my friends of watching Seinfeld and eating Chinese takeout — almost always chicken with broccoli for me — both because the characters seemed to eat a lot of Chinese food on the show — whenever they weren’t at Monk’s Café — and also because Chinese food reminded me of New York. We called it “S&C (Seinfeld & Chinese)” (pronounced “essency”).
As such, I was hoping to get at least one meal at a mainstream Chinese restaurant during this trip.
Upon arrival at Penn Station, I discovered that the train to Philadelphia, scheduled to depart at noon, was indefinitely delayed.
No problem, I immediately went out in search of a lunch venue and soon found exactly what I’d hoped for.
My experiences eating in China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan (see for example 4.292 …Welcome Dinner), and Hong Kong (see for example 3.140 Noodles with Shrimp…), as well as Singapore (see for example 4.266 …Carrot Cake) and Taipei (see for example 5.111 Braised Ground Pork Rice), would categorically contradict the criticism that Chinese-American cuisine is a watered/dumbed-down, and by implication an inferior, version of the real deal.
For dessert, I couldn’t resist White Castle.
It was my second visit to a White Castle restaurant. The first back when I was living in New York 25 years ago. This will be my last.
The cheesesteak is an American sandwich. Thinly sliced beef with onions, grilled, topped with melted cheese, stuffed into a long soft roll. Origins attributed to Philadelphia, where cheap street-side cheesesteak shops abound, it’s often referred to outside of the city as a “Philly cheesesteak.”
So, for dinner on my first ever trip to Philadelphia, what else but a cheesesteak?
My host, however, with the best of intentions, had arranged dinner near campus at an upscale restaurant famous for a newfangled version of the classic dish. “In light of your work on promoting healthy diets, you wouldn’t want to eat the crap that goes into one of those downtown cheesesteaks” — actually, I’d very much wanted to eat the crap that goes into one of those downtown cheesesteaks. Oh well.
Incidentally, I’d taken SB out to dinner on my second night as a new resident of Manila (see 5.006 Steamed Lapu Lapu…).
We’d most recently seen each other in Guam (see generally 6.282 Tuna Poke).
Getting back to NY close to midnight, I was hungry again.
A market near the hotel looked promising for a quick snack.
As soon as I’d stepped inside, the guy behind the counter — presumably Korean, probably the owner — asked in Korean if I were Korean.
He then offered me a free bowl of ddeok guk to celebrate the lunar new year — “a Korean should always eat ddeok guk on new year’s, even when traveling.”
The soup itself was terrible, perhaps the worst that I’ve encountered, but it may have been the most touching ever.