Gastronaut: Don’t Touch My Junk

dont-touch-my-junk

When guilty pleasures become the cuisine du jour, what’s the illicit culinary thrill-seeker to do?

There was a time when fried chicken—really good fried chicken—was something to be coveted. You’d find a place that did it well (often in some dodgy neighborhood, in a place where even paper napkins were too uppity), and then you would tell no one about it. It was your spot, and you guarded the address the way you did the phone number of your weed guy or the place you could go and pay a hundred bucks for an inspection sticker for your car, no questions asked.

Now, fried chicken is cool. Fried chicken is “hip” in the worst sense of the word, and it’s no longer a secret, guilty pleasure, because you can get it everywhere. Restaurants display it on their menus in a way that’s almost braggy. In a way that says, Look how awesome we are! We took this classic American dish and jammed a bunch of lemongrass and pomegranate in it so now it’s cool to eat again! Aren’t we clever?

The inclusion of fried chicken on a menu once spoke to a certain loyalty to formerly overlooked American classics and the iconoclastic nature of the chef who chose to feature it. Once upon a time, serving fried chicken in a fancy restaurant was neat culinary mutiny, a nice little bit of pro-American-cuisine rebellion. But what happens to the revolution when everyone is rebelling?

I feel the same way about deviled eggs. You wanna know who makes the best deviled eggs in the world? My mom. Followed by every other mom in the world. Followed by any cook who follows a mom-inspired egg/mustard/mayo recipe. Followed (distantly) by any white-jacketed knucklehead who adds anything else at all.

Deviled eggs used to be something that I could score maybe twice a year—always in the summer, generally on a day involving some kind of family picnic—and that was fine. I would eat about 200 of them, get sick, have to lie down for a while, then dream about deviled eggs until the next summer family gathering came around.

Now? They’re on the bar menus of 967 different restaurants in Center City alone, and none of them are as good as the deviled eggs that I remember from the days before deviled eggs, like fried chicken, became cool.

Tater tots are also cool. Everyone serves them now. Usually gunked up with stuff that only a chef would think is a good idea to add to tater tots—like nuts, or mornay sauce. Grilled-cheese sandwiches? Totally ruined by chef-ly creativity and the juvenile desire to always add just one more thing to something that, in its original form, was already perfect.

Am I being a bit oversensitive here? Maybe. But in order to defend that which is so good and pure in the canon of the after-midnight, one-Yuengling-too-many, I-don’t-want-it-if-I-can’t-eat-it-on-my-couch-while-watching-Night-Court-reruns-in-my-underpants style of American guilty-pleasure cuisine, sometimes hyperbole is the best weapon.

So am I saying that the world will end the next time some bright and pretty young thing in a pearly-new chef’s coat invents a clever new way to infuse my tater tots with essence of rosemary and fill them with sardine gelée?

Yes. Yes, it absolutely will.

You have been warned.

First appeared in the September, 2013 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

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  • JA

    Hopefully, someone will conceptualize those “tater tots with essence of rosemary and fill them with sardine gelée”…..TODAY! It wouldn’t be soon enough!

  • Fattyfatman

    I don’t know that there is wrong with the fancifying (if we can call it that) of comfort food as a food trend per se.

    For example, I went to Red Rooster last night and had the fried yard bird. Yeah, on one hand it was just overpriced fried chicken. On the other hand it was delicious and the huge thigh and leg looked like they came from some Jurassic era beast which was really cool.

    In my mind the issue is that once you break down the barriers around fine dining, what is it that you are left with?

    That is, if the place around the corner makes good fried chicken for a few bucks at 2am, why should anyone spend $25 for a fried chicken entree? For the garnishes? For the service?

    I’m all for deliciousness and casualness ruling the day in our current dining era. But along the way, high-end restaurant dining, in it’s adulation of comfort food, street food, and pothead food, has come to feel a little…. lost?

  • rk

    phillymag, the magazine devoted to having your cake, eating it, and then bitching about how cake is played out too.

  • Daytime Drinker

    Am I being a bit oversensitive here?

    Not only are you being oversensitive, the entire premise of this article is rooted in multiple flaws typical of myopic food writers.

    Fried chicken was never something to be coveted, it was what poor people (mostly non white) ate in the south that evolved into southern food culture. Multiple places that fry chicken have been around for years and the only thing seemingly new is the proliferation of fried chicken entrees in non Southern-specific restaurants.

    Coming from the same hypocrites who cannot seem to resist writing anything about Federal Donuts, It is particularly odd that you now hate fried chicken given any kind of modern treatment. Southern folk didn’t brine no chicken let alone cover it with Za-atar or other weird crap.

    And NO…your mom did not make the best deviled egg, your mom made the deviled eggs that set your taste memory. Taste memory does not mean something is actually good. It only means it is familiar.

    There are no “mom-inspired” egg/mustard/mayo recipes by the way. All that crap post world war 2 was developed by companies like Nabisco, Kelloggs and Hellmans who put the recipes on the back of mayonnaise and mustard jars. A more accurate description is “corporate tested recipes for mom on the back of food packages to feature applications of their products since there was no google at the time”.

    Now we are to accept this silly premise that moms make better food than chefs and any attempt to do anything creative will always be a backward step. Sorry I will take my chances with creative people not moms reproducing corporate crap with mixed results.

    This from the same magazine /website that kisses HopSing’s ass and raves about it’s creative cocktails which are all rip offs from other bars and Korean fried chicken which is not even “Korean” other than Gojuchang is slathered over it.

    @FatFattyMan:disqus
    “That is, if the place around the corner makes good fried chicken for a few bucks at 2am, why should anyone spend $25 for a fried chicken entree? For the garnishes? For the service?”

    They should because they want to and YOU are not paying for it. People can eat what they want and this reverse elitist BS about what restaurants charge for classic dishes have nothing to do with economics. If you don’t want to eat a chicken for 25 bucks at a fancy place then get it at the bodega or make it yourself. Restaurants have bills to pay.

    • Fattyfatman

      “They should because they want to and YOU are not paying for it. People can eat what they want and this reverse elitist BS about what restaurants charge for classic dishes have nothing to do with economics. If you don’t want to eat a chicken for 25 bucks at a fancy place then get it at the bodega or make it yourself. Restaurants have bills to pay.”

      Right, but you didn’t address my point.

      My point is if you have a restaurant kitchen and restaurant personnel what’s the point of making food that could be prepared just as deliciously in a bodega.

      What does the restaurant add, food-wise?

      If the answer is nothing, then what is the point of your existence as a restaurant?

      Fine, it’s a business: if you’re selling food and making money, excellent. But in terms of the identity of the place, and what the food means, I think there is a lot of confusion as a result of recent culinary trends.

      Once the trend has passed (Cheetos fried chicken!) and something is no longer fashionable, what value does said fried chicken or tater tot have over the non-restaurant version?

      Make sense?

      • Daytime Drinker

        Does not make sense.

        Saying “it can be prepared just as deliciously in a bodega” is your personal assumption and nobody else is under any obligation to agree with that. Even if they wanted to, the perception of taste between any 2 humans is not always concurrent…so it comes down again to you stating your own opinion and nullifies your next 2 questions.

        Name a restaurant that currently has fried chicken on it’s menu such that it changes the identity of the restaurant please?

        • Fattyfatman

          I’ll give you a parallel example.

          Years ago I had my first pork bun at Momofuku Noodle Bar – it was pretty fucking awesome!

          Little did I know I know that it was a slight twist on Taiwanese street food.

          Therein lies the brilliance of David Chang.

          Subsequently I got out to Flushing and found a basement food court that does the original version.

          Also awesome!

          But if there was a legit Taiwanese street food vendor in every neighborhood to start with, the Momofuku buns would be, well… meh!

          That’s how I feel about fried chicken – so fine, it’s a cheap, easy, money-making crowd pleaser. But at this point it’s also boring, lazy, kind of stupid, uncreative, and resistant to any real innovation or personal touch.

          It’s kind of the Olive Garden of dinner entrees.

          You know how a lot of chefs will say they would never want to work anywhere that serves a cesar salad as an entree?

          Fried chicken is the same thing.

          If you have the resources of a good restaurant’s staff and kitchen, fried chicken in 2013 (unless you do a killer version – a la David Chang again) is just weak.

          • Daytime Drinker

            Again Sir…you are wrong.

            Here is why:

            The reason the Momofuku bun was awesome in the first place is that while it is not at all authentic, it was tasty outside of your comfort zone of familiarity. That being said when you had one in Flushing which was also awesome, it was under different aesthetics with more authenticity. Rent in Flushing is also not rent on the East side of Manhattan.

            Fried chicken made properly is not a cheap money making crowd pleaser. Cheap fried chicken is. To suggest it is boring, lazy, kind of stupid. uncreative and resistant to any real innovation or personal touch only clearly convinces anyone reading that you have NO idea what you are talking about.

            Furthermore Chang’s fried chicken is overhyped like everything else Chang and is not even that great in comparison to some of the best birds in the country. Sean Brock’s chicken at Husk makes Momofuku fried chicken taste like a mop.

            You sir need to travel more rather than say “it’s a cheap, easy, money-making crowd pleaser. But at this point it’s also boring, lazy, kind of stupid, uncreative, and resistant to any real innovation or personal touch”

            Please read this ….http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324165204579029183834405594.html and go eat at these places.

  • LeeAnne

    I was with you until the grilled cheese portion. There’s nothing wrong with churching up a grilled cheese. I want more of everything. Thicker bread, more butter, more cheese, pulled pork, tomatoes, pickles… throw on some fries or coleslaw or even tater tots. The greater the amount of cheesy, savory, decadent goodness you can wedge between those dripping-with-fat thick-cut slices of horrible-for-you white bread, the better.

  • Guest

    I went to JG last night and had awesome comfort food plate. It was two Kraft singles (orange) – but get this – it has a fig paste chutney on top! Awesome. I know, I could get something like this somewhere cheaper, but it was just so amazing. Can’t wait to go back!

  • Adsum

    Sounds like Matt Levin and his entire concept … though the dude did make some good food if you made it to his restaurants before he got fired or the space closed.