While perusing eater.com this morning looking for news about Food Network powerhouse Sandra Lee's ascent to (sorta) First Lady of the State of New York (she's the girlfriend of Andrew Cuomo, and Cuomo just got elected Governor), I happened to run across something much, much better. Not just a list, but a kind of psychological inventory of American appetite--a peek under the hood at our collectively food-obsessed little minds--courtesy of the good folks over at Poor Taste.
Doe's in Little Rock: Not on the list
(What, never heard of Poor Taste? That's okay. It's an online food magazine that means to "explore food culture with great passion and zero pretense,"--which it does with stories about kimchi, mutant gummy worms and eating Paul the Psychic Octopus. You should really check it out.)
So what was it? Well, as the title of this post clearly states, it was a collection of "The 100 Greatest Cult Restaurants in America"--a fantastic round-up of some of the best eats all across this great nation, reasonably well curated, but also notable for two very important reasons.Reason #1: This is a restaurant list that a normal person can actually, conceivably, have an honest opinion on.
Unlike most of those other "Best Restaurant" lists which include only ridiculously high-end or international destinations (Noma, El Bulli, The Fat Duck, et cetera), this is a list of places that regular folks might've actually gone to. Which, of course, just begs a bit of low-end culinary one-upmanship. "How many of these joints have you been to," someone asks. "Well I'm just cooler because I've been to more."
Reason #2: This is a restaurant list most interesting not for what's on it, but for what has been left off.
The thing about cult restaurants is that everyone knows one or two or three. They have places that they love all out of proportion for what they are and what they serve and, in many cases, know more about the history of these places than they do about some of their own relatives. Lists like these, then, give folks an opportunity to get all huffy and holier-than-thou over their favorite cheeseburgers, tamales or chili, and a chance to feel smarter than the obvious mental deficients who put together the list in the first place.
Which was precisely my first reaction to seeing this list. My first issue with it? Super heavy on the East and West Coast scenes and pretty thin everywhere else--as though the great and boring middle bits of this country aren't the place where most cult restaurants actually live. Shake Shack, Momofuku and Pink's? Well those are just obvious, aren't they. But how could a list like this leave off Doe's Eat Place in Little Rock (which was once Bill Clinton's favorite lunch-stop) or the Owl Bar in New Mexico (without which the entire Manhattan Project might've been a failure) or pretty much everything good in Seattle?
Yes, the Emerald City gets two mentions: for Pike Place Chowder and Piroshky Piroshky. But the list ignores places like Salumi (which is just nuts considering that one of the standards for judgment was the length of the lines), Mee Sum Pastry and Pick-Quick.
You can check out the entire list of America's greatest cult restaurants right here (for the top 20), then here and here and here (for the remainder of the hundred). But when you're done with that, here's what I want you to do...
First, let's play the game. How many of these have you actually been to? I counted 14 of 100--everything from El Pinto in Albuquerque and the Anchor Bar in Buffalo to Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix and Red's Eats in Wicasset, Maine.
Second, tell me what the staff of Poor Taste left off the list. What's your favorite cult restaurant, where is it and why does it make your personal inventory?
All of that goes below in the comments section. And if I get enough of these, maybe we can assemble our own counter-list: 100 MORE Great Cult Restaurants and where to find them...