Travel & Leisure recently named New Orleans the nation's very best food city. In a similar survey, Food & Wine liked New Orleans too, but saved its highest honors for Paris. When Esquire chimed in last year, it put New York City atop its list.
So what defines a great food city? A patchwork of cuisines helps, as does a dining audience that's willing to spend. There ought to be fabulous fancy restaurants and wonderful dives. And there should be at least one signature dish.
Hajime Sato believes he's invented just such a dish for Seattle by frying burgers katsu-style and serving them on buns. It's difficult to establish a signature dish by decree, but I'm rooting for Sato. As I wrote in this week's review of Katsu Burger, he's created a terrific sandwich that Seattle should be proud to claim as its culinary seal.
Seattle has wonderful food, but it's short on signature dishes. The potential signature dishes I mentioned in my review - teriyaki and cream-cheese hot dogs - are largely unknown beyond the Pacific Northwest, which leads me to seriously question their signature status. In addition to being delicious, a true signature dish should be famous (think Chicago's deep-dish pizza); generic (Detroit's coney dogs); geographically-constrained (Cincinnati's five-way chili); affordable (Austin's breakfast tacos); omniseasonal (Maine's whoopie pies) and - ideally - reflective of a city's particular place in the world (Charleston's shrimp and grits) and history (New Orleans' po-boys.)
Those criteria rule out the incredible dishes Seattle's talented chefs create with wild mushrooms and fiddlehead ferns: While they may capture the city's edible ethos, they're far too specific to compete for the signature title. And it's hard to argue that any dish made with salmon, oysters, mussels or halibut couldn't be replicated elsewhere in the region.
What I love about Katsu Burger's burgers is they deliver just about everything I expect from a signature dish. They're cheap, unique and emblematic of the city's cultural heritage. They're not yet widely available, but Sato isn't guarding a trademark. "People can copy me," he told me.
And people should. A signature dish isn't just a ploy to lure tourists: It's an anthem upon which local chefs can riff. It's a catalyst for civic unity, and an important statement of values. (And should you think I'm overstating the case, I'd wager you haven't asked anyone in Lexington, North Carolina about red slaw.) Every great food city needs one.