The World Cup kicks off Friday in South Africa, and I’m starting to plan my soccer-watching itinerary. Soccer tournaments have been my favorite occasions for food-touristing in the cities in which I’ve lived, and the World Cup offers the most wide-ranging opportunities at all.
I recall perhaps most fondly one long night of quarterfinals in 2002, when I lived in Philadelphia and decided that the underdogs offered better food and social opportunities. For a South Korea vs. Spain matchup, I went out to a Korean social club hidden in an Upper Darby basement, where the karaoke was abruptly silenced as the teams took the field. (The match was being played in Korea.) The soju-fueled crowd kept up “Korea Team Fighting” chants for a full 120 minutes before their heroes outlasted Spain in a dramatic shootout.
As dawn broke, I trekked across Philadelphia to a restaurant called Le Dakar to watch Senegal play Turkey in the last quarterfinal match. Senegal had devastated me by beating France in the tournament’s first match, but the victory of the old colonial periphery over the center — historically meaningful in a way few are — had given the Senegalese much to celebrate. I remember the devastated expression worn by Le Dakar’s owner as he stood in his restaurant’s doorway at the time of kickoff apologizing that his TV was broken. A West African taxi driver who had also come for the match guided me to an inconspicuous Malian-run establishment a block away. As we were hustling to take our seats, Senegal gave up an early goal and was eliminated, but in the process I discovered one of my favorite Philadelphia restaurants — home to an astonishing guinea hen fried in a peppery palm oil. (The restaurant, La Calébasse, sadly closed not too long ago.)
This year, the matches will be on at friendlier meal times. The early match, on at 7:30 am here, will be perfect for breakfast; the late 2:30 kickoff works well for drinks and nosh. I’m seeing some good opportunities to mix food and soccer while avoiding the crush at Lucky Bar or another go at the surprisingly good smoked-trout-on-potato-pancake dish that popped up on Fado‘s menu in the middle of the English Premier League season. I have no worries about finding culturally and gastronomically appropriate company to watch the Korean teams, Mexico, Ghana and France — but as I look over the 32 teams I’m also spotting some holes in the region’s generally lively collection of ethnic eating opportunities.
I’ll get into some of those gaps tomorrow, as part of what can be fairly read as a desperate cry for varied migration patterns into the capital. Until then, please offer up in the comments section any suggestions for good places to eat and watch soccer over the next month.
Image from Sydney International Food Fair