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Rosa Mexicano sells itself as a purveyor of “authentic Mexican cooking in an accessible, stylishly festive atmosphere.” Arlington’s Kabob Bazaar pronounces itself “delighted to serve the Washington D.C. metropolitan area with authentic Persian cuisine.” Primi Piatti’s Savino Recine once boasted to a local newspaper, “We are the most authentic Italian food in town.”
Says who? Authenticity is a moving target – always has been, always will be. Thirty years ago, Vietnamese immigrants would have looked homeward for a real taste of Saigon. But some in the young generation, those who have spent more time in America than in Vietnam, view the cuisine back home with a cold eye.
“People might think I’m crazy, but when I went back to Vietnam four years ago for the first time…I didn’t like the food that much,” says Hoa Lai, executive chef at Huong Que/Four Sisters in Falls Church. “Really, I honestly can tell you I didn’t like the food much. The seafood, the fresh stuff, is great. The authentic stuff, it’s not as good as over here.”
“Authenticity be damned!” says L’Academie de Cuisine instructor and chef Susan Watterson. “Good food reigns supreme over authentic bad food any day. Give me a faux Mexican mole that tastes like a treat, and I’ll chuck over Abuelita’s classic family recipe in a heartbeat.”
The quest for authenticity might even be a fool’s errand. After all, even half-hearted attempts at culinary anthropology quickly reveal how difficult it is to stake a claim of authenticity for almost every food. Crack open an ethnic cookbook, and the author will confess the difficulties of trying to pinpoint some mythological moment in time when everyone agreed on a dish’s ingredients and its cooking methods.
In Madhur Jaffrey Indian Cooking, the actress-turned-cooking-authority suggests, “Those of you who do not like hot food should just leave out all the chiles – red, green, or cayenne – in my recipes. Your food will still be authentically Indian.” Why? Because Indian cooking long predates the introduction of chili peppers to the subcontinent. The Portuguese brought the hot stuff to Asia in the 16th century.
Even something as simple as cornmeal polenta, that Northern Italian staple, is not exactly rooted in the peninsula. “For several thousand years,” before Columbus brought corn to the Old World, writes Bill Buford in Heat, “polenta usually meant barley: a stodgy cereal, easy to grow, indifferent to the excesses of the seasons, brown like mud, high in carbs, low in protein, and with the earthy flavor of a mature weed.” So why isn’t barley polenta considered authentic? Because barley polenta apparently tastes like crap.
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Given that virtually every cuisine on earth, from Mexican to Malaysian, has evolved and changed over time, it is often an inherently naive proposition to claim, with a straight face, that one dish is more authentic than another. We’re going to do it anyway.
The Real Deal: Pork loin torta ($5.75) at El Tapatio Mexican Restaurant, 4309 Kenilworth Ave. in Bladensburg
How so: A Mexican torta is a messy collision of beans (black or refried), guacamole, lettuce, tomato, onion, and your choice of meat on football-shaped bilillo bread. El Tapatio’s pork loin version sneaks in a thin layer of mayo but otherwise adheres to tradition. The shredded loin is seasoned and lightly fried, which gives the pork both spice and texture. The meat plays off the creamier toppings and complements the fiery fat strips of jalapeno; this bold balancing act takes place between giant slices of soft and crusty bilillo, which is every bit the equal of French bread.
The Pretender: Mexican club torta ($10.50) at Rosa Mexicano, 575 7th St. NW in Penn Quarter
How so: This Franken-wich welds a classic club onto the chassis of a Mexican torta. What arrives on the plate resembles neither sandwich. The marinated grilled chicken and the bacon – the so-called “club” ingredients – are squeezed between slices of chewy ciabatta, which is a poor stand-in for the more mouth-friendly bilillo. Still, when paired with the standard torta ingredients, these clubby foreigners make for a lusty combination. It’s not traditional, but it’s a smart interpretation of a Mexican standard.
The Real Deal: Margherita Neapolitan pizza ($10.95) at 2 Amys, 3715 Macomb St. NW in Cleveland Park
How so: If you need me to explain it, you clearly haven’t been to 2 Amys yet. The explanation is posted right next to the front door, where you will have plenty of time to read it as you wait and wait for a table. The bottom line: 2 Amys abides by the strict guidelines laid out by the Italian government when it granted Neapolitan pizza Denominazione di Origine Controllata (D.O.C.) status. The dough is key. Made with only four ingredients, this humble mixture undergoes an alchemic reaction in the fires of the wood-burning oven. The resulting crust – crisp, bubbly, chewy, and charred – is a toothsome, yeasty vehicle for the creamy buffalo mozzarella, plum tomatoes, and licorice-like basil.
The Pretender: Cheese “Neopolitan” pizza ($8.75 medium; $11.50 large) at Three Brothers Italian Restaurant, 7434C Riggs Road in Hyattsville
How so: For one thing, this Maryland chain of Italian restaurants can’t even spell Neapolitan correctly. For another, this pizza has nothing whatsoever to do with a true D.O.C. Neapolitan pie. It’s a fumbling expanse of limp crust with a creamery’s worth of mozzarella on top – and small pools of oil floating to the surface. This pizza has all the finesse of those alcohol-absorbing tracts of land known as the jumbo slice, and it is likely targeted for the same consumer: those looking merely to fill the stomach, not to satisfy the palate.
The Real Deal: Chicken-and-sausage gumbo ($5.25 cup; $6.50 bowl) at New Orleans Bistro, 4907 Cordell Ave. in Bethesda
How so: Owner and chef Kevin Scott was born in the Crescent City. And even though he admits that he’d prefer to make his stew without some of the standard ingredients, his version clings to Creole orthodoxy. Scott’s gumbo is a heady brew of dark roux, woodsy file powder, and thin slices of soup-thickening okra. The surprise here is the sausage, a smoked-beef link trucked in from Louisiana. As a result, the bowl isn’t as spicy as many andouille gumbos, nor is it as thick as I’d prefer. Traditional gumbo, in this case, does not translate into superior gumbo.
The Pretender: Sausage-and-okra gumbo ($3.95 bowl) at Lex Cajun Grill, 2608 Connecticut Ave. in Woodley Park
How so: Rue the missing roux. Lex Cajun, believe it or not, serves up a gumbo that’s not built from a roux, dark or otherwise. The joint prefers to thicken its stew with okra, a heaping mound of the sliced pods. They don’t help much. The gumbo is still a watery, pale-green soup. The spicy sausage does pack a serious kick, but the most jolting flavors in this stew – the ones that dominate everything else – come from the clove and cumin. You read right: clove and cumin.
The Real Deal: Beef brisket dinner ($11.95) at O’Brien’s Pit Barbecue, 387 East Gude Drive in Rockville
How so: Founder Ken O’Brien Sr. became such pals with the late, great Texas ‘cue legend Sonny Bryan that the latter shared his recipes with O’Brien, who then hired Lone Star State experts to install his wood-burning pits. They obviously do things Texas-style at O’Brien’s – namely slow cooking beef briskets with only wood fuel. They don’t use rubs, and they don’t use marinades. Their hickory-smoked brisket, they believe, can be consumed without adornment, much like those legendary Central Texas briskets. If only they were right. While O’Brien’s beef has a perfectly pink smoke ring, it still tastes too much like those briskets cooked in stainless steel smokers: too dry, too cottony.
The Pretender: Beef brisket platter ($12.95) at Old Glory All American Bar-B-Que, 3139 M St. NW in Georgetown
How so: Like so many briskets cooked in commercial electric-heat smokers, this one can’t really be called Texas-style brisket. The marinated beef, with fat cap intact, is slow cooked for hours in what is essentially an oversized oven, with a hickory wood used for flavoring. The brisket is served, in all its gray glory, on a plate that’s oozing “juices.” Those juices turn out to be mostly olive oil, a fruity flavor that dominates everything. If any brisket cries out for a sauce, it’s Old Glory’s. They have a number of them available tableside; any one will do to get that awful, oily taste out of your mouth.
The Real Deal: Beef-and-lamb shawarma ($5.43) at Lebanese Butcher & Restaurant, 113 E. Annandale Road in Falls Church
How so: Unless otherwise indicated, shawarma sandwiches typically mix beef and lamb, at about a 70/30 split favoring the cow. The beef and lamb on this sandwich come from the restaurant’s own butcher shop, which peddles superior halal meats. Unlike a lot of shawarma recipes, these moist, marinated meats do not taste as if they’ve been drowning in yogurt and vinegar; they are calibrated to allow room for the sandwich’s essential meatiness, not just its flavorings. The beef and lamb are tucked, taco-style, inside a sliced and toasted pita, which means you can attack the meats from the side far easier than you could a typical shawarma sandwich.
The Pretender: Turkey and lamb shawarma ($6.95 whole; $4.75 half; $8.95 plate) at Max’s Kosher Cafe, 2319 University Blvd. in Wheaton
How so: The folks at Max’s don’t advertise it, but their shawarma is predominantly turkey, with small amounts of lamb for flavor. The mild-mannered turkey may be good for your health, but it does little for your taste buds, save for helping to absorb all those condiments. Technically, you’re supposed to direct the sandwich makers, telling them which of the pickled vegetables and spicy toppings you’d like. But they never listen. You might tell them to ease off on the hot condiments, but the next thing you know, they’ve spooned a pepper’s worth of jalapeno atop your shawarma. I suspect they drown your sandwich to cover up the clammy, gamey taste of the turkey.