So last week, we had a little web-world brouhaha over why Seattle has a better and more enduring BBQ tradition than Kansas City and how Seattleites giving the digital middle-finger to California should be proud never to have actually traveled to California. It was ugly and it was stupid and it was a lot of fun for those of us (read: me) who enjoy poking fun at the brain-damaged xenophobes who can't conceive of anything anywhere being done better than everything is done right here in the Emerald City.
More importantly, though, it got me thinking about places which, unlike L.A. or Seattle or Kansas City, really do deserve to be made fun of for their food scenes--cities that should be good, that have reputations for having interesting cuisine, or at least possess the resources to make something of themselves, but which, in actuality, totally suck for food lovers and drive gastronauts into paroxysms of rage whenever their names are brought up. And this, of course, led me to the notion of making a game of it.
So here's what we're going to do...We're going to make a list. A list of all the reasonably-sized cities that we dislike SOLELY (or at least mostly) for their overblown, over-hyped, over-loved, one-trick, ridiculous, dispassionate, over-bearing or just plain non-existent food scenes--places where we spent some time (in other words, more than one night), ate some meals and were thankful to get out again with our lives and appetites intact. No fair picking on tiny little towns in the middle of nowhere. No fair assaulting places where the sole offerings are seven drive-thrus and one creepy Chinese place with an empty parking lot. And no laying into cities that you haven't actually been to yourself just because you hate, say, Des Moines and want to talk some smack. You've got to have a good reason why the place you're talking about is a culinary hell-hole, and you've got to tell your story in the comments section below so that all those out there in Blog-O-Land who disagree with you and LOVE Des Moines or Bangor or Buffalo can mock you and call you names and accuse you of having it in for the places that they love.
Simple enough, right? I'll get things started with a couple of the places that I hate and will never return to without packing in my own supplies.
Tampa, Florida: I can't speak for how it might be today because it has been more than a decade since penury, rage and poor life choices forced me into spending the better part of a year in and around this festering sump of a city, but when I was there in the late '90s, Tampa (and, really, most of Central Florida in general) was where cuisine went to die. It was like every bad trend, stealth chain, overt chain, faddish notion and warhorse dish in the entire history of American culinary development had all clumped together in this one city to create a schizophrenic and horrific scene where no one thought there was anything wrong at all with putting goat and grapes on a pizza and calling it dinner. Putting aside the three-deep strip malls full of franchise operations and big-box restaurants profiting off the rape of otherwise dignified culinary traditions (I'm looking at you, Olive Garden), the sheer number of fusion, Pac-Rim and Frog-humping "world food" restaurants operating in that swamp was enough to nearly break me of the habit of eating, period. The only good thing about the area was the profusion of really excellent Cuban restaurants, but even that wasn't enough to make it even remotely tolerable. I hope things have gotten better since I left, but I'm not so hopeful that I have any desire to go back and check.
Santa Fe, New Mexico: Don't get me wrong here. I actually like Santa Fe quite a lot. But in terms of food? Not so much. For starters, it's wicked hard just to find a place to get a drink after 9 p.m., let alone something to eat. Because it's such a tourist-driven economy, the overwhelming majority of the restaurants there are aimed squarely at the kind of people who jet in for five days in June to "sponge up the local color" and buy all the cheap, chunky turquoise jewelry and Kokopelli statues they can get their grubby little hands on. And beyond that, every menu in the entire city is almost identical--a mix of steaks, cowardly chicken, pinon, chili and blue corn everything. The red and green chili thing (served with just about everything in the entire city) is charming for about a day and a half, but after that just becomes oppressive. And because it's a fairly well-to-do city, it doesn't have the interesting, cheap and available ethnic foods of someplace like Albuquerque. While there are a few places in Santa Fe that I do like (and a couple that I even miss), it's one of those places that should be so much better, foodwise, than it is. And that's really what makes me dislike it as much as I do: the sure knowledge that Santa Fe could be a great food city if only it could get past its own vision of itself.
Chicago, Illinois: I have been to Chicago many times. I have eaten in Chicago many times. And though I certainly have not been to every great restaurant in the city, I haven't yet had anything there that truly blew me away and made me say, "I can't wait to get back to Chicago!" I am willing to admit that this might be one of those situations where I have just had phenomenally bad luck during my time in the Windy City. I mean, it's supposed to be one of America's great food cities, right? But I've begun to dread having to go there simply because, try as I might, I have yet to experience what's supposed to be so awesome about the place. I actually got punched in a bar in Chicago for suggesting that maybe--maybe--the city's rep was a little bit undeserved, and while that kinda made me like the place a little bit more (I have nothing but respect for local boosters putting the knuckles to out-of-town haters who've probably had a couple drinks too many), I still haven't had a moment in Chicago that convinced me it was deserving of standing up among the truly incredible food cities in this nation.
Also, they put too much crap on their hot dogs there and that just pisses me off.
Okay, so there's my (partial) list. Cities like Schenectady and Colorado Springs? They dodged a bullet this time. And now it's your turn. Let it all out, be prepared to defend your hatreds, and remember: let's keep this limited to a discussion of food. One of the other reasons I don't like Chicago is that the food people there seem to have a really big stick up their collective ass when it comes to their scene, but you don't see me talking about that in public, do you?
Anyway, comments below. Keep it clean and above the belt. Ready?