Where's the Haggis?

"Ethnic Cleansing" in the Valley

Do you consider yourself a daredevil diner? Do you think you live on the edge with ethnic food, counting Asian, Middle Eastern, Caribbean and Third World foods among your ruminative repertoire? If so, you're not alone. Ethnic cuisines are the hottest segment of today's dining-out market, says the National Restaurant Association. Some 44 percent of Americans polled in the Association's 1999 survey said they love to try new ethnic restaurants, in particular Japanese sushi, Thai, Caribbean, Middle Eastern and Latin American.

But this same survey found that the average diner's concept of what makes a cuisine ethnic is hardly authentic. In fact, the study predicts that as these once unfamiliar cooking styles become incorporated into mainstream American culture, authenticity no longer will be a concern for consumers.

It's sad, but true: The July issue of Consumer Reports tells us that America's sweetheart dining choices include such sanitized ethnic wanna-be chains as Steak and Ale ("inspired by English country inns of the 18th century" -- but I wonder, did the Lord of the Manor really eat burgers and escargot?); Benihana (Vegas-style teppanyaki cooking shows like none you'll find in Japan); Olive Garden ("where real Italians eat"); Don Pablo's ("ranch-style Mexican"); Bugaboo Creek Steakhouse ("Canadian mountain lodge food," believe it or not); and Chili's ("spicy, Southwestern, Caribbean, Asian, fusion" -- yeah, right).

I call this disturbing trend "ethnic cleansing." Patrons who think these meals offer exotic experiences also rate Taco Bell as their favorite Mexican eatery, and Outback Steakhouse as an honest Australian adventure. These are the folks who sadly limit Japanese taste to California rolls, Mexican flavors to chimichangas or Choco Tacos, and Chinese food to sweet and sour pork (not that there's anything wrong with that, to be Seinfeld-PC. It's just a boring way to live).

It looks like the '90s pseudo-cultural invasion is continuing into the '00s, taking further hold in our own hometown. Promoting itself as the East Valley's newest hot spot, Bahama Breeze opened a few weeks ago at Ray and I-10 in Chandler. The sparkly, big-toothed servers here promise us "the greatest culinary crossroads in the world, with all the bold and unique flavors of the Caribbean." What this means is things like conch chowder, jerk burgers, tilapia (fish) sandwiches, Caribbean pasta and West Indies Island turnovers filled with curried beef and vegetables -- without any of the delicious grunge that makes the cuisine so exciting.

I'm sure Bahama Breeze will do just fine and keep many folks quite content. As the association notes, Americans are swayed more by familiar flavor (fats and sugars) than by the importance of ethnic authenticity. I simply grieve for the masses who may think Caribbean culture means sugary tropical drinks with umbrellas and "spicy-'n'-tasty" sweet-glazed chicken wings.

For a taste of true Caribbean flavor, why not support, instead, our locally owned and quite wonderful Havana Cafe, Altos, Likle Montego Jamaican Cafe, Chez Bubba or Jamaican Cafe?

Such Is Life -- Such a Shame: One of our favorite authentic Mexican (Mexico City-style) eateries has closed down. Signs posted at both Such Is Life locations -- 24th Street and Osborn, and Scottsdale and Shea -- state that landlords have seized the properties because of failure to pay rent.

This bothers me as much as the Taco Bell Chihuahua's forced retirement. Things this good aren't supposed to go away.

Those adventurous diners who've been in the Valley since 1992 remember that Such Is Life made culinary headlines with its delicious, Cozumel-inspired cuisine. It had been the only place in town we could indulge in exotic-sounding dishes like sincronizadita (beef, chorizo and cheese quesadilla), nopal polanco (prickly pear cactus broiled with Chihuahua cheese and chorizo), pescado jarocho (Veracruz-style fish) and cochinita (Yucatán-style pork with achiote sauce).

Such Is Life even had a great story. Its founder, Moises Treves, liked to tell what inspired the unique name. In the '70s, Treves worked at a taco stand in Cozumel, where he met an American tourist named Judy Anderson. She was smitten with his cooking and asked him why he didn't open a restaurant. When he explained he had no money, she replied, ''Such is life.'' But she also gave him an envelope full of cash, which he used to relocate and open his Arizona business.

I'm not giving up hope, however. The restaurant business is fickle, and often cyclical. Cooks with true talent tend to resurface, and I'm betting this isn't the last we've seen of Treves.

After Dinner Mint: Bistro 24 has a new chef, and so, not surprisingly, a new menu. Ex-Tavern on the Green pro chef John Johnstone took over the classical French eatery at the Ritz-Carlton a few months ago and leapt in with a complete kitchen renovation and new staff.

Last week, Johnstone unveiled a menu featuring interesting-sounding dishes like herb lasagna with Jerusalem artichoke, seared tuna loin with foie gras and crispy potato-truffle galette, and a grand plateau -- a hefty, $58 shellfish platter of a half lobster, shrimp, oysters, mussels, seafood du jour and clams.

 
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