Romy Sial, owner of the Bombay Chaat House in Henrietta, is watching anxiously as I bite into a creamy, cardamom-scented ball of gulab jamun. A few moments ago, after I'd already eaten a plate of bhel puri (curried rice crispies topped with tamarind and mint chutneys, raita, and a generous shake of chili powder), two different samosas, and a kachori (a deep-fried pastry filled with lentils and spices), I told her that I don't really like Indian sweets. She asked me if I'd tried her carrot halwa or her gulab jamun as she walked behind her counter and started dishing me up a portion of both of them.
The tiny dining room has no polish, but it is all comfort, right down to the ceiling-mounted heater that blows down hot, curry-scented air. My table, with its plastic tablecloth patterned to look like white lace, could be in my grandmother's kitchen. The chairs are comfortable and look like they, too, came out of someone's kitchen.
The door opens and a blast of chilly air ushers two young people, both Indian, into the restaurant. They greet Sial as "Auntie" - a sign of both affection and respect. Sial beams at them, bustling about behind the counter while asking both of them about their classes, about upcoming and past job interviews, about how their winter vacations have been so far. All the while, she is moving about her kitchen, cleaning, rearranging, checking a pot on the household range on which she cooks everything, popping samosas into a microwave for a burst of heat. Sial shows her love through food: this is exactly like eating in my grandmother's kitchen, and the people who frequent the restaurant seem to be coming in as much for the warm reception as for the superlative Indian street food that Sial gets up at 6 every morning to make for them.
I used to fancy that by eating the food of a particular country I got some sort of insight into its culture. I couldn't have been more wrong. Searching out new and strange foods and cuisines, taking pictures of them, eating them, and then going home to talk about them has not made me Margaret Mead or T. E. Lawrence. It has made me a tourist, and like all tourists I bring all of my own baggage - assumptions and preconceptions about what I'm seeing, what I'm experiencing, and what I'm eating - along with me.
What follows is a chronicle of six weeks of trying, and I think ultimately failing, to understand the lives of Chinese, Indian, Latino, and Ukrainian immigrants in Rochester through the food that they shared with me. I found out how to get access to dishes and even entire menus that aren't available to the general public: you have to know someone. Most important, though, I learned that when a waiter or waitress says to you in broken English, "You no like," what they are really saying is, "You don't understand." If you haven't lived abroad, if you haven't spent enough time in a place to feel homesick for "American" food, you'll never understand what secret menus, and even restaurants that are hidden in plain sight, mean to the people who own them, and to the people who seek them out looking for a taste of home.
The secret menu
It took me years to realize that a plate of chicken makhani, a pile of deep-fried sesame chicken, or a bowl of pinkish borscht, while tasty, aren't what I see real folks from Punjab, Hong Kong, or Ukraine eating when I encounter them in restaurants. I can recall several Chinese New Year's celebrations where I ignored the lion dancers, eyes fixed on the kitchen door as waiters emerged with trays heaped with whole steamed fish, unfamiliar greens, and crispy-skinned ducks that were whisked away to some unseen banquet room while all around me my fellow diners were eagerly tucking into twice-cooked pork, moo-shu, and General Tso's chicken. When I asked about that food, the stuff that was going to a party that I wasn't invited to, invariably waiters and waitresses would tell me, "You no like."
It happened in Flushing, Queens. It happened in Chinatowns in New York, San Francisco, and Toronto. It even happened here in Rochester. I was absolutely determined to get access to this secret menu and put a notch on my foodie gunbelt at the same time. Asking clearly didn't work, neither did begging. I needed an in; I needed to know someone who knew the guy who held the menu.
I called Karen Poon, owner of New Ming Restaurant on Monroe Avenue, explained what I was looking for, and crossed my fingers. Ten minutes later, I had a name and the phone number for the Shanghai Party House in Henrietta. Several days later, I was sitting at Shanghai's bar, trying to convince the manager, who tells me to call him "Jimmy," to let me try the special menu that I've been told exists there. I'm not getting anywhere. First he tells me there is no special menu, and slides the thick book that is Shanghai's regular (and very good) menu across the bar to me. Then, he tells me that I almost certainly won't like what's on the special menu. Finally, grudgingly, Jimmy produces a smaller menu with a plain cover reading "Traditional Chinese Cuisine."
Inside there is only one dish per page: a glossy photograph, an English name, and a block of text in Chinese that is surely more descriptive than "Spicy Szechuan Fish" or "Roasted Spare Rib with Scallion and Pepper." My companion and I selected a couple of items, more or less at random, and then a heated discussion started behind the bar between Jimmy, the bartender, and another man who I later discovered is the owner of the restaurant, Quyen "Peter" Au. The three flipped back and forth through various menus - some featuring text in what I recognized as Vietnamese - for several minutes, reached consensus, and Jimmy headed for the kitchen.
Nothing that we initially selected ever came to us. The bartender set a jiggling plate of cold jellyfish salad, and a plate heaped with fiery hot beef shank and stomach, before us. As Jimmy looked on and poured tiny cups of sake, my companion and I took up our chopsticks. Nearly three hours later, having eaten pork spare ribs that have been braised, deep-fried, and passed through a wok with chilis and scallions, orange roughie in a ground pork, chili, and ginger sauce, a platter of mixed seafood in black bean sauce, and emerald green Chinese broccoli finished with garlic and ginger, we staggered out into the night, vowing to come back and let Jimmy and friends call the shots the next time we came, too.
I started to wonder whether there were other places in the city where I could find "secret" menus, where it helped to know someone to get access to food that's simply not available to the guy walking in off the street. Six weeks later, I knew that the answer to both questions was yes.
The secret restaurant
Olga's Restaurant is located in a nondescript strip mall on the western edge of Irondequoit. Six years ago, when the place first opened, it featured a regular menu and fairly regular hours. Owner Olga Dereshchuk, who is also the proprietor of an Eastern European grocery store next door, initially had the restaurant open six days a week, serving sensational Ukrainian food in a setting that evokes the over-the-top opulence of New York City's Russian Tea Room. After only six months, she cut back to serving dinner only, then to buffets on weekends, and finally considered closing the restaurant altogether. On foodie blogs and sources like Rocwiki, it became common to hear that Olga's was open, and then to see a post immediately after it saying that it was closed. That barely tells half the story.
Dereshchuk opened her restaurant initially because, as she put it, she "had no enemies" in the community and wanted to create a place that would serve as a party house for Rochester's burgeoning Eastern European and Ukrainian communities. While the restaurant never thrived on the walk-in trade, Olga's did steady business in parties, catering, and banquets for churches, clubs, and even the Ukrainian Federal Credit Union. Dereshchuk told me, through an interpreter, that she was always open, you just needed to call and make reservations at the store next door. But she speaks very little English. The lingua franca at her restaurant and store is Ukrainian, so unless you speak Ukrainian, or perhaps Russian, your chances of successfully making a reservation were, until recently, slim. Fortunately, I have a Ukrainian friend, and he invited me to tag along with him on two visits to Olga's.
On a frigid evening in early December, I'm sitting in the dining room at Olga's Restaurant with at least 50 other people, all of whom are singing either a Christmas carol or perhaps an anthem in Ukrainian. When the singing stops, a brief round of speeches, also in Ukrainian, begins. At some point, I hear my name mentioned and realize, with a twinge of discomfort, that I'm an honored guest at this Christmas party. I raise my comically large beer mug in a wordless toast to my hosts and try to fade into the frescoed wall behind me - at least until the speeches are over and dinner itself begins. I've been invited to this party by the president of the Ukrainian Federal Credit Union. Having eaten lunch with her, several of her board members, and the head of the Manhattan-based Ukrainian consulate a couple of weeks earlier, I know what to expect: I purposely haven't eaten a thing all day.
Dinner begins, as lunch did two weeks earlier, with a selection of salads: vinigret, diced beets, potato, and carrots with kidney beans; and olivye, a sort of creamy potato salad with peas, carrots, and maybe a bit of pickle diced into it. Lunch had included groaning plates full of thinly sliced sausages, a pork roulade, and smoked pork roast. Dinner, on the other hand, offered dishes of chicken and carrots in aspic, crepes with bright orange caviar, pickled herring, and two different kinds of pickles: kvasheni ohirky, which are somewhere between a kosher dill pickle and a gherkin, and kvasheni pomidory, both green and red tomatoes pickled with garlic and dill. Two women across the table from me, both of whom were Ukrainian, of course, were determined that I should try everything, and take seconds and even thirds of the things that I clearly enjoyed - which was everything except for the herring, which I assume is an acquired taste.
But these were only the appetizers. After that came platters of stuffed cabbage, fried cakes of minced chicken combined with garlic and bread crumbs (similar to a chicken croquette), grilled sausages, and steaming bowls of roasted potatoes to soak up the juices that pooled in our plates. I was unable to stay for dessert, and would have had nowhere to put it anyway, having already popped the button on my pants. But Dereshchuk makes most of her desserts herself, and from previous experience I knew that I was missing out on something special. Next to the door was a large table on which not a single inch of space remained for more cookies, jelly rolls, rugelach, shortbread, and hazelnut cookies filled with pastry cream.
My companion and I stumbled out into the dark, snowy night, and I recalled that Dereshchuk had told me that it wasn't unusual for parties at her restaurant to stretch into the wee hours of the morning. As we left, the conversation, all in Ukrainian, was rising to an earsplitting level, and the entertainment for the evening was starting to set up at the edge of the restaurant's dance floor.
Hidden in plain sight
Several days before the Christmas party at Olga's, I stopped in to El Sabor de la Isla on Norton Street. Luis Tejada, co-owner of the restaurant with his wife, Yesenia Cruz, had promised to make me mofongo - mashed plantains mixed with garlic and pork cracklings - an item that he makes upon request, but doesn't put out on the restaurant's excellent carry-out buffet. I was also there because on Fridays, El Sabor puts baccalao (salt cod) on the buffet, and I was anxious to try that as well.
As we stood near the counter talking about my lunch, I asked Tejada if there was anything else he made that wasn't on the menu. He reached behind him and handed me a laminated sheet of paper listing at least 40 dishes that aren't on the buffet. Soon, Tejada is sitting across a table from me, and I'm looking at this menu, mostly in Spanish, firing questions at him: what is kingfish, and what's the red sauce that it's cooked in? What's the green sauce on the next item down the list? What's the proper way to order a plate of mofongo? (There are at least five variations listed on this menu.)
Finally, overwhelmed by the choices, I ask him to bring me whatever he'd bring his family or best friend if they dropped by for lunch. Tejada asks whether I like shrimp as he ducks around the corner into the kitchen. Ten minutes later, a hot plate of tostone, deep-fried plantains served with something like remoulade, hit the table, followed minutes later by fried rice full of tender pink shrimp and strips of spice-rubbed steak. I've been eating regularly at El Sabor for a year, and it never occurred to me to ask if there was an alternative to the restaurant's excellent buffet. I mentally kick myself, pick up the menu, which has no prices, and start cross-referencing words that I recognize, trying to plan my next meal as I dig into the current one.
Tourists and expats
It doesn't finally occur to me that I've missed the point of what I've been doing for the past six weeks until a couple days after Christmas, when I sit down to talk with Peter Au, the owner of Shanghai Party House in Henrietta. Au and his wife, Amy, have put out the kind of lunch that you only see in an Ang Lee movie: marinated, thinly sliced sautéed pig ear with chilis and scallions; meaty, dark purple slabs of stewed cuttlefish; spicy beef stomach and shank; tofu skins with a slightly sweet dressing; and a whole fish, deep-fried and finished with filaments of ginger and scallion. The amount of food is overwhelming, almost embarrassing when I think that this has been set out just for me.
The same thing happened when I returned to El Sabor de la Isla, where I'd fortunately brought reinforcements to help me eat a huge portion of spicy, cumin-scented shredded salt cod, mofongo, mashed plantains (mangu), a plate of pork chops with a huge heap of rice and beans on the side, and flan. Dereshchuk, when I'd gone to her restaurant for lunch, sent me off with a tower of boxes, because she didn't want my wife to miss out on lunch just because we couldn't find a sitter. Romy Sial at Bombay Chaat House was insistent that I try her desserts. The impulse of the restaurateurs to share the best that they had to offer, and to do it in excess, was an unbroken thread running through all six weeks of my off-menu tour of Rochester's restaurants.
I never really stopped to ask myself why, though. And then Peter Au helpfully explained: sharing food creates bonds between people, it reinforces community, it provides a bulwark against the unbearable pressure to assimilate. The portions are huge because they have to be shared, and in the act of sharing, people who have lived here for years and even decades can get a taste of "home" among people who often speak their own language and share at least a part of their history. Food is the expatriate's teleporter and time machine. While the food that I'd been eating was tasty, sometimes challenging, and often unfamiliar, while I'd put several notches in my foodie gunbelt and conquered four or five of my deepest food phobias, I was still nothing more than a tourist desperately trying to go native, and failing spectacularly.