About a decade ago, while visiting my in-laws, I went to dinner with the entire extended family at one of those large-format American restaurants with a tri-fold menu offering the full gamut of steaks, ribs, pasta, and seafood.
"Let's get a couple of orders of cheese-sticks to share," one uncle suggested as everyone scanned the menu.
"There's too much to choose from," my mother-in-law said.
"Do you know what I am going to have?" my wife's 85-year-old grandmother said, almost gleefully. "Lasagna. It's been so long since I've had ethnic food!"
This episode came flashing back to me a few weeks ago when my editor asked me to write a piece discussing our "growing ethnic options" in Charleston and how we're now "ready for ethnic flavors."
That term "ethnic" is a slippery one, especially when it comes to food. Technically, it means the cuisine of a particular subgroup or culture, and it's usually linked to immigrants and the dishes and techniques they bring with them from their native lands.
But when does something stop being ethnic and cross over into the mainstream? Does it have to be made and sold by members of a definable cultural subgroup, like immigrants or hyphenated-Americans? When a white chef falls in love with kimchi and starts serving it atop house-ground cheeseburgers at his downtown fusion cafe, is it still "ethnic"? What about Korean immigrants who open restaurants serving General Tso's chicken and crab rangoon?
Ultimately, I guess, ethnic food is one of those things that we know when we see it. And there's little doubt these days that Charlestonians are seeing a far wider range of culinary traditions than ever before.
That expansion has come on so quickly that it's easy to forget that, just a few years ago, our options were surprisingly limited. "Go to any city renowned for its food," Jeff Allen wrote in the opening essay for the Winter 2008 Dish, "New York, L.A., San Francisco — and you will find lots of ethnic diversity. Charleston's food, despite a smattering of influences about town, can be read mostly as it always has been, in black and white."
He noted some encouraging changes: a handful of Asian and Latino groceries and the Mediterranean flavors of harissa and merguez that enlivened the menu at the newly arrived Muse Restaurant & Wine Bar.
But if you scan the restaurant guide from that year, you'll find that, apart from a lot of French and Italian and a flurry of tapas joints, the ethnic options in Charleston were pretty sparse: Basil for Thai, Red Orchids for Chinese, and a new place called Pho Bac, which, it had to be explained, served "Vietnamese beef noodle soup."
Six years in, things have certainly changed. You can't swing a dead cat downtown without hitting a bowl of pho, and there are now a half-dozen joints where you can get banh mi, the traditional Vietnamese sandwich.
We've doubled the number of local Indian places to a still-not-so-staggering four, but that's progress. You need only a single tank of gas to track down Peruvian chicken, yaki soba noodles, fresh-made menudo, and Jamaican curried goat. Sunae's Korean and Japanese Hibachi recently brought bibimbap and jjamppong to Johns Island. A few months back, Ethiopian Taste Food and Coffee opened on Dorchester Road, introducing tibs and wot and spongy injera flatbread along with traditional Ethiopian coffee service.
There was a time in America when ethnic cuisine was an urban phenomenon, and, as such, not widely found in the South. It was brought to this country by new generations of immigrants who crowded into old neighborhoods in Northeastern and West Coast cities, one culture displacing a previous one as the second- and third-generations grew more prosperous and moved further out from downtown.
That pattern is playing out differently in the modern South. Just like Atlanta and Charlotte and so many other Southern cities, Charleston is experiencing the now-common pattern of newer generations of immigrants working from the outside in, and that's reflected in where you find new ethnic food. The most novel arrivals tend to appear first in the outer suburbs, where rents are low, empty storefronts plentiful, and the immigrant community that forms the base of the restaurants' clientele can actually afford to live.
Eventually though, the new flavors get drawn inward toward downtown. Take a walk down King Street from Line to Broad, and you'll pass the following: a Spanish tapas bar, a Thai restaurant, upscale sushi, French fusion, a pita joint, a Korean restaurant, three Thai-Vietnamese fusion spots, Chinese takeout with pan-Asian dishes, a Tex-Mex joint or two, an upscale Mediterranean cafe, a Lebanese bistro, and a Greek restaurant. And that's not even counting once-ethnic food like pizza, pasta, and hefty burritos that have been so thoroughly assimilated they've lost any connotation of distant, exotic places.
Ethnic food generally appears first in standalone restaurants with a particular theme, but it soon gets picked up by other cooks and rolled into a sort of progressive fusion — and that process seems to be happening more and more quickly. Some of the hippest restaurants of the past few years, like Xiao Bao Biscuit and the Green Door, wowed with their ambitious mash-ups of Asian flavors and farm-to-table aesthetics, serving ingredients and dishes that, just a few years ago, hardly anyone in town could even pronounce.
A decade ago, the sharp, pungent flavor of kimchi was virtually unknown to local palates. These days, pork noodle bowls with house-made kimchi appear regularly alongside the ribeyes and golden tilefish at Two Boroughs Larder. At the Tattooed Moose, it gets loaded on a sub roll with braised pork belly and red chili sauce. Heck, they're even making it (with Southern-grown cabbage, one is sure) at Husk, where it gets tucked into a tiny iron skillet of fried Carolina Gold rice middlins with grilled beef, shiitake, and a gooey poached egg.
The workings of this melting pot has sparked a lot of debate. It's a craven example of the privileged, dominant culture co-opting the treasures of the marginalized ones, one line goes. Other naysayers whip out their cognoscenti cards, decrying the dumbed-down fusion joints or insisting that the local instantiation of a particular ethnic cuisine just isn't as rich, intense, and — God help us — authentic as what one would find in a more cosmopolitan place like Seattle, not to mention Bangkok.
And there are always endless complaints about the price of ethnic food once it starts to go mainstream. Nine bucks for a banh mi sandwich? Highway robbery! You can get them for $3 in L.A.'s Little Saigon. And back comes the counter-charge from the opposing team, which demands to know why upper middle-class diners will gladly shell out $18 for an Anglo chef's mac-and-cheese but avoid a delicious beef tongue taco for $1.50 down the street.
I'm just happy that enough diversity of food exists for us to have such passionate debates about it. On the culinary scene, we've entered a pretty adventurous mode. Yes, in part it does seem driven by the amped up nature of our social media-driven foodie culture, where 15 minutes of fame seems excessively generous and everyone dashes off to find the next new thing as soon as they Instagram the current one.
But our palates are growing more daring, and that's encouraging. We're gaining more opportunities to discover novel flavors and to learn a little bit more about unfamiliar cultures at the same time.
And, some day, when my grandkids snicker as I order aterkik alecha and call it ethnic, I will be exceptionally pleased.