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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

One basket

While Houston has a pretty good diversity of restaurants, they are often clustered around generalist profiles of "ethnic" cuisines. Just about every Vietnamese restaurant has pho, banh mi, and bo luc lac, every Japanese restaurant centers around sushi, every Tex Mex joint features the range of enchiladas, tacos, and burritos. What we rarely have are restaurateurs with confidence to put their entire line on a specialized dish. But, when one travels, this is often the case in other cultures. People go to specific purveyors for a particular dish because that focus lends a strong identity to that interpretation of the dish.

In Kuala Lumpur, large restaurants will specialize in just making bak kut teh, the "meat bone tea" soups, herbal, earthy, allegedly healthful and medicinal. I don't know about the latter, but it makes for a pretty distinct experience. 

In Mexico, they have posolerias, restaurants that just serve posole, the pork and hominy stew so favored by those recovering from a hangover. The Japanese are particularly embracing of specialization; I encountered restaurants that only served takoyaki (octopus fritter balls), and even one that just did buckwheat noodles (zarusoba). That fanatical specialization, however, resulted in some of the best noodles possible, with a product that didn't even have gluten to provide it structure.

That's why I think it takes guts to put the name of dish up on the name of the restaurant, to tell the world that, indeed, all the energy is focused on this one shot. If you mess up, there's no back up, no alternate. But it should be simpler on the production side - well, save for the requisite attention to detail. I'd say the relatively few exceptions to Houston's generalisms are some pho joints (notably the original Pho Binh trailer), barbecue joints, and burger joints.

Oh, and the hotpot joints. Though you kind of have to do the cooking yourself. 

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