Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Fusion Confusion

True confession: I’m an Iron Chef junkie. There. I said it. And I don’t feel nearly as dirty as I do when I tell people I watch American Idol or Dancing with the Stars. I loved the original version of Iron Chef when it first aired in Japanese with cheesy American voice-overs. Once Iron Chef America hit the airwaves, though, I was glued to the television the way I was when, as a kid, Bugs Bunny or The Brady Bunch came on. Of all the dopey reality shows on T.V., Iron Chef actually has a purpose beyond getting stupid people to do stupid things as the rest of the world shamelessly looks on.

I love the manic nature of the competition, and I love watching the judges eat and critique the food, which most of the time looks like a veritable art gallery of the chef’s culinary work. I even love when that lunatic host screams something like “Ala Cuisine!” and makes a wild Jackie Chan karate chop gesture to start the competition. This after he magically makes the giant cover rise up and reveal the secret ingredient. It’s food drama at its best!

For those of you who’ve never seen the show, the premise is simple. Each week, a professional chef from around the country engages in a head-to-head cooking battle with one of the five Iron Chefs (each Iron Chef is famous for his or her unique cooking style, representing a particular national or international region). The only catch is that once the secret ingredient is unveiled (it could be anything from crabs to cranberries), each chef must prepare a minimum of five dishes, using the secret ingredient in as many unique and creative ways as possible. They have one hour to make all their dishes. At the end, the judges sample the offerings and decide which chef’s cuisine reigns supreme.

What I love most about Iron Chef, though, is that it’s a classic example of fusion cooking, an approach that combines ingredients and styles from at least two culinary traditions to come up with a new, hybrid style, complete with its own unique flavors and textures. So when Iron Chef Morimoto, for example, makes his signature Asian dishes with mushrooms found only in the United States, (a possible secret ingredient) he is actually creating Asian-American fusion food.

One of the best fusion experiences I’ve ever had is when I discovered a restaurant in Chicago called Kevin. It was nestled in the downtown area on East Hubbard. The food was a French-Asian fusion and received high praise on the local, regional, and national levels. Combining French sauces and cooking styles with Asian spices and ingredients, the food at Kevin puts it in the top five restaurants I’ve ever eaten at. Sadly, its owners have since left Chicago, but they have set up shop in Toronto, which is another fabulous city that offers a host of fusion restaurants.

This fusion craze, the art of using food whose form is based in one cuisine and prepared with ingredients common to other cuisines, is a phenomenon that is neither new nor uncommon. Pizza made with lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese, and ground beef, for example, has always been known as Taco Pizza. And most of the restaurants that Stephanie and I have visited since last September prepare traditional Mexican dishes in a uniquely American style to give us what we commonly refer to as Tex-Mex, arguably the most common form of fusion cooking on the planet. It’s hard to screw up Tex-Mex, but as we’ve seen time and again on our Flint Mexican Tour, it happens.

Depending on the region of the country you’re in, Tex-Mex can vary widely. I’ve eaten some pretty outstanding Southwest-Mex in cities like San Diego and Los Angeles, and aside from the occasional mushroom gravy I’ve had some pretty good Midwest-Mex too. There’s one variation of this favorite fusion, though, that should never be attempted: The Coney-Mex. Stephanie and I learned this hard lesson last Thursday when the penultimate week of our tour took us to Marie’s Family Restaurant, Incorporated in Northern Genesee County; it’s on Genesee Road, not far from Crossroads Village.

The place was advertised as a Mexican restaurant on the internet, but sitting at one of the thirty-five tables in this cavernous Coney Island diner, looking at the three panel, double sided laminated menus, with full color photographs, we knew this was anything but a Mexican restaurant. At fifteen minutes past the start of lunch hour, ours was the only car in the parking lot. From the outside, the building looked exactly like a Family Video store with a fresh coat of paint. The waitress swore it was built new when the restaurant opened three years ago.

Marie’s bills itself as a restaurant specializing in Italian, American, and Mexican cuisine. In reality, it’s a Coney Island that has a page of Italian options and a page of Mexican options. We were determined to have a Mexican experience, so we ignored the other five menu pages and focused on the choices before us. Sort of.

There were no appetizers on the Mexican page, but on the bottom of page six we found a short list, and among them was the one and only Mexican choice; jalapeno poppers. They were everything you would expect from a Coney-Mex perspective. Cream cheese stuffed peppers, wrapped in an inch of breading and deep fried to a temperature so hot you burn the first five layers of skin from your tongue when the scalding hot cream cheese shoots out in a lava-like gush. They were delicious.

Our basket of chips was about a step up from the bagged Tostitos you’d buy from Meijer, and I think they were warmed in the microwave. It was a nice touch and the chips were actually pretty tasty. The house and hot salsas were served in little white bowls resting in a little wire condiment basket. This course felt like Up North Country-Mex.

But the real tip-off that we were having a classically served Coney-Mex was our entrees. The traditional Mexican part of our dishes was the refried beans and Mexican rice. They weren’t great, but if we measure them by the standards of all the other Mexican joints we’ve eaten at, they would actually place somewhere in the middle

of the pack. Stephanie’s beans and rice were served with two beef enchiladas. Marie’s version fuses all three cultures in one dish. Mexico was represented by the flour shells and the tomato based enchilada sauce. America’s contribution was the ground beef which, I’m not kidding, was the consistency of, and tasted like, meatloaf. And Italy topped off this international platter with melted mozzarella cheese.

My chimichanga platter was also ground beef-based, but because of the texture of the meat it was like eating a really twisted version of Beef Wellington. And because it’s Coney-Mex, my tortilla wrapped meatloaf was deep fried instead of baked. I’m not sure how they found room, but the thing also had a bunch of rice and beans stuffed into it, completely encasing the meat. The sauce and cheese on top added some much needed moisture to my entrée that, along with some of the salsa and some cream cheese, made it edible.

By the end of our lunch—we stayed for well over an hour—two old men sauntered in and parked it at a table in the middle of the dining room. They were the only other customers we saw the whole time. A few minutes after they arrived, the cook came out from the kitchen, sat down at their table, and they all started playing dollar poker, a game where you make the best five card hand out of the serial numbers on your dollar bill. I pushed my half-full plate to the center of the table, declined a carry-out box from the waitress, and decided that while fusion cooking might work well for reality T.V. shows like Iron Chef, it’s probably best not to mess with the purity that is Coney Island cooking.


  1. I love Iron Chef too, but am intensely jealous of the judges....
    I really love that the secret ingredients are always some slightly off-beat and kooky ingredient: "MUSKMELON"!!!! or "CHICKEN GIZZARDS!!!!!"

  2. Elise,

    I know. It's amazing how many beautiful dishes they can make out of chicken gizzards. Which I love, by the way.

  3. I have to put in my vote for Chopped on the Food Network. It's got the drama and the passion, but the famous chefs are the judges, and the four contestants use not one mystery ingredient but often up to 4 or 5. Each course of the meal someone is eliminated until only the Chopped Champion remains. I always felt like Iron Chef America lost the kitsch of the original, and Chopped is a truly American head-to-head competition so I switched.

  4. Pale, you're right about chopped. Can you imagine having to make a meal with five secret ingredients? And you have to do it three times in a row to win the competition.

  5. I have a terrifying memory of ordering chicken gizzards with you at Frankenmuth, Bob. They sat there on the plate ashamed of themselves, like bad doggies who just pooped in the parlor, and as I recall you and I were the only ones who would touch them. And we left most of the heap there, congealing. Ewww! PTGD! (Post-traumatic giblets disease) But I still throw the whole bag of "extras" from a whole chicken into my roaster, and I'll fight anybody who tries to get to the gizzard before me. Anyway, you and Stephanie are stalwarts. The food at this latest place sounds really awful. Even reading it made me reach for my bottle of papaya enzymes.