I was at a Thai restaurant, eating the chicken with garlic sauce, when it occurred to me that I had no idea whether chicken with garlic sauce is actually something they eat in Thailand.
I’ve never been. Just about the only thing I know about real Thai food is that the dishes they serve with beef here are made there with water buffalo. Chinese food in China, I have heard, bears virtually no resemblance to the food in Chinese restaurants here.
As I was eating my chicken — it was quite good, regardless of how genuine it was — I started to think: What do restaurants in other countries try to pass off as American? Would we recognize it as our own? Or would it strike us as foreign and alien as General Tso’s chicken does to a visitor from Beijing?
Fast food, which has taken the rest of the world by storm, does not count. KFC here is the same as KFC everywhere, except in Bangkok where you can get crispy chicken green curry rice, or in Mumbai where you can have a crispy-fried vegetable patty on a sesame-seed bun, or Kuala Lumpur where a bucket of fried chicken now comes with a chili snow crab sauce.
Through the magic of the Internet, I called up menus from American-style restaurants in other countries to see what they are passing off as traditionally American. Of course, without actually going to the cities involved, which can get to be expensive, I cannot know what the food actually tastes like.
And that can make a difference. Fish and chips is easy to find in America, but an Englishman would barely recognize the stuff. Still, we do what we can.
For instance, if you were looking for American food in Munich you might very well step into one of the three outlets of Dillinger’s American Bar and Grill. There you can get the burgers you would expect, the steaks (pointedly made with beef from Argentina, widely reputed to be the finest in the world), the club sandwiches, and a couple of German specialties — such as Putenschnitzel — for the locals who don’t want to try anything too exotic.
But if you wanted the German version of real American food, you might order the Ohio salad. As we, as Americans, might not know, an Ohio salad is a salad of lettuce, tomato, and cucumber, with eggs and a yogurt dressing. An American salad comes with beef steak strips, mushrooms, corn, and beans. And their large selection of Tex-Mex specialties includes a turkey fajita with a sweet and sour sauce.
If, on the other hand, you find yourself in Rio de Janeiro — perhaps for Carnival or the 2016 Summer Olympics — and you have a patriotic hankering for American food, you could stop into the Gringo Café. The offerings there are a bit more recognizable. Along with hamburgers and sandwiches (the BLT is served on ciabatta, while the French dip is served on sandwich bread instead of a roll), the entrees include macaroni and cheese, chili, a grilled chicken platter, spaghetti and meatballs (the menu includes a photograph that makes me very much not want to try it), and meatloaf.
Dessert is even more all-American, with red velvet cake, apple pie, cheesecake, cupcakes, and a fudgy brownie sundae.
But not every international American restaurant thinks in terms of diner food. In Shanghai, Kabb Bistro Bar goes upscale with roasted pumpkin soup and creamy shrimp bisque. The rest of the menu is all over the American culinary map, from chili con carne and deep-fried potato skins to a char-grilled pork chop and New York strip steak in a mushroom herb sauce.
Showing how much American food came from immigrants, the restaurant also offers penne pasta with spicy sausage marinara and a tuna skewer with ginger soba noodle salad.
And in Paris, a restaurant called Joe Allen makes American food with a French touch. The chicken breast is stuffed with goat cheese. The salmon is marinated in a lime wasabi vinaigrette. A recent daily special was honey-glazed duck leg with curly endive, new potatoes, and mixed fruit chutney.
And for brunch? Grilled bagels with lox and cream cheese. Oui, s’il vous plait!
Contact Daniel Neman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.