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Somewhat related to number 3 is number 13, my favorite: “Seek authentic food experiences, no matter how terrible they are.” While on vacation in Rome over the summer, I was reminded of the latter rule as I dined at a modest restaurant that had a line of real, live, gesturing, smoking Italians waiting for its doors to open at 8 p.m. Don’t get me wrong: It was a delight just to be there. I felt Italian by osmosis. But when my food arrived—a typically Roman dish of lamb shoulder braised in vinegar with a side of escarole—I took knife and fork to it with a familiar wavering conviction. My expectations had been inflated by a well-known chef back home who had recommended it as a good, “no frills” spot (which I took as chef code for “legit”). With my own food-snob credentials at stake, I told myself that I loved the dish. In truth, though, I thought the lamb was a bit dry, and the classically longcooked escarole had the texture of a pile of swamp weed. “Terrible” is not the word, but “disappointing” is. My determination to appreciate the food reminded me of the times that I’ve tried on trendy highwaisted jeans, assuring myself that they look great on me. In my lifelong global search for authenticity, my rose-tinted palate has accompanied me everywhere—from Tokyo’s fish

The Department of Authenticity

Nostalgia-fueled authentocrats policing San Francisco’s restaurants are missing the regional cuisine right under their noses. by Sara Deseran

market to the taco trucks of Modesto. Some of my “authentic” eating experiences have been blissfully memorable (perfectly al dente spaghetti with dimesize clams on the Amalfi Coast, pho with translucent beef tendon in the Tenderloin). Some have been memorable for other reasons (a bite of a pungent, braised pig liver taco in Mexico City that—to my shame— I gagged into the nearest trash can). My determined enthusiasm has resulted in food poisoning more than once. But I soldier on because on some level I believe that if I consume the right foods, I will somehow steal their soul and thus know what it’s like to have a purebred culinary heritage, instead of being the West Coast– based cultural mutt that I am.

Recently, a blog called FloreakEats published an amusing

parody of a couple of Michael Pollan’s popular books. Pithily titling it “The Food Asshole’s Dilemma,” the blogger listed the sanctimonious habits of aspiring foodies in the concise, mantra-esque style that readers have come to associate with Berkeley’s reigning omnivore.


San Francisco | September 2013

own sense of taste. And in doing that, I’ve joined the league of the authentocrat, that insufferable person who celebrates only the food that he or she deems properly unadulterated and true. San Francisco has more than its share of these folks, dog-earing their back copies of Saveur and Lucky Peach and scrolling through Chowhound. Search “authentic” on our local Yelp, and you’ll find the site teeming with authenticity police. While some


1. Eat food, mostly overpriced and hyper-local. 2. Except for food that is very obscure, even more overpriced, and imported from very far away indeed. 3. Eat what your grandmother ate, but only the things that take so long to prepare that she gave up making them long ago.

It is not lost on me, however, that in my quest for authentic food, I often ignore my

giveth the title to restaurants (“I love the hole-

jam-packed as these restaurants are, they also

in-the-wall, authentic type atmosphere,”

suffer their share of scrutiny. Yelper Anthony

Alissa N. writes about Lers Ros), many use

Xavier S. stands tall on his soapbox: “Listen

their power to taketh it away. (Syd A. cau-

and listen good: This is not authentic Mexi-

tions Yelpers against Helmand Palace: “I have

can cuisine. Nopalito provides Mexican-like

eaten Afghan food all my life. This was by far

dishes, but for anyone to say this is authen-

the worst. The food was not authentic.”) In

tic is straight out stupid.” To this nostalgia-

these lectures, deliciousness is irrelevant.

driven group, for whom a staid, third-gener-

But making it your mission to draw a line

ation joint with a grandma at the stove is the

between the bona fide and the bogus is a

gold standard, there’s nothing more suspi-

dubious endeavor at best. Even the most fla-

cious than a hip, urban restaurant.

grant of mudslingers must know deep down

The more that I suss all this out, the more

that cuisine is a shape-shifter, that it crosses

I’m coming to understand that—country of

borders. Both recipes and ingredients immi-

inspiration be damned—restaurants like

grate and change, along with the people who

Namu Gaji, A16, Flour + Water, Aziza, and,

love them—and thank God for that. Those

yes, Nopalito serve food that is indeed true to

San Marzano tomatoes on your purist Una

itself and its place.

Pizza Napoletana pizza wouldn’t be there if

these restaurants provide a

490 PACIFIC AVE. (AT MONTGOMERY ST.), 415-775-8508

claim to its own regional cooking, best defined by rustic food

delivered nightshade seeds

that pays respect to tradition

from the New World back to

with apparent effortlessness

the Old.

(when, behind the scenes, the

ernizes and evolves, people stubbornly cling to what’s “real,” even if it’s based solely on their own experience, prejudices—and pride. Case in point: When chef Craig Stoll was researching Locanda, his Roman-inspired Mission district restaurant, he had a come-to-Jesus moment about authenticity. “I think it was one of the more enlightening experiences I’ve ever had,” he says. “In Rome, [Locanda’s chef] Anthony [Strong] and I

Drawing a line between the bona fide and the bogus is a dubious endeavor at best. Recipes immigrate— and thank God for that.

chef has personally mined the gold to build the die to press the pasta through and has commissioned a farmer to produce pastured eggs from a nearly extinct breed of Italian chicken). Call

familiar, if obsessive, freshness. More important, they serve up a sincerity that is at the heart of what authentocrats are chasing. And if, because of misguided contempt, they push their plate away in disgust, they’re missing out on some world-class food. Rick Bayless, the famous,

went from place to place, each one claiming

Chicago-based unofficial professor of Mexi-

that they made the definitive carbonara. But

can cooking, was criticized for a Zagat inter-

they were all different.”

view about his recent trip to San Francisco.

The Riffer: Locanda Locanda’s carbonara is made with egg yolks, pecorino romano, and guanciale rendered in its own fat until crisp. But its secret is “guanciale water” made by boiling the skin of the guanciale for “extra swininess.” An onion petal, a fresh bay leaf, and a splash of white wine are also involved. Chef Anthony Strong swears that, barring the swine swill, “it’s the exact method that was used at San Cesareo, one of the places I worked outside Rome.” The pasta is house-extruded (copper die), eggbased rigatoni. 557 VALENCIA ST. (NEAR 16TH

But frankly, his observation resonated:

licate all those “traditional” carbonaras? “We

“What’s interesting to me is that there is a real

took the 20 ‘definitive’ carbonaras that we

similarity from restaurant to restaurant. Of

liked in Rome and tore them apart and rebuilt

course, all the restaurants are doing the sea-

them—from the egg yolks to the pecorino,” he

sonal thing and getting the same ingredients

says. “We must have changed the cut on the

from the same farms and what not, but it’s all

ST.), 415-863-6800

guanciale about a million times. We’re still

a little bit too alike.”

The Classic: 54 Mint Once the guanciale is crisped in olive oil, chef Mattia Marcelli adds a bit of water “to make the sauce a little creamy without butter or cream.” To that, an egg whisked with pecorino cheese and ground black pepper is added. This is all tossed with Rustichella D’Abruzzo spaghetti (cooked for 9½ minutes). Freshly grated pecorino and freshly ground black pepper are sprinkled on top.

Which distinctly recalls what it’s like to

Which brings me to the biggest prob-

eat in a city like Rome, where every place

lem with the authentocratism around these

serves the same food as the next: bresaola

parts: its inability to rejoice in the food that

with arugula, caprese salad, cacio e pepe,

San Francisco does best. The nimble cook-

carbonara, lamb in vinegar. Of course, an

ing at which Stoll excels, inspired by travels

authentocrat from here diligently laps it all up,

but anchored in local values, is the essence

posting dreamy, fauxtiqued Instagram photos

of many of our region’s most popular restau-

of the food and raving about it to followers.

rants. Their menus are routinely described

But if pressed in a homesick moment, that

as “[you name the cuisine] with a California

mutt might admit that sometimes, just

twist,” a tagline applicable to a multicultural

sometimes, even the most authentic food

mix that includes the Slanted Door, Nopalito,

could use a twist of California. Or—to be

Nojo, Locanda, and Ichi, to name a few. But as

regionally specific—San Francisco.

San Francisco | September 2013

16 MINT PLAZA (NEAR JESSIE ST.), 415-543-5100


So how did Stoll, a New York–born Jew, rep-

changing it.” (See sidebar at right.)


it precious, but if you’re a local,

I think that today, the Bay Area can make

ish colonists who proudly

cuisine continuously mod-

When it comes to the classic Roman carbonara, Locanda owner-chef Craig Stoll isn’t the only one who has taken a few liberties (see story at left). While these three purist chefs would never do something as gauche as add cream, they still tweak the dish to meet their platonic ideal of authenticity. The Extremist: Cotogna Chef Michael Tusk’s explanation of his carbonara was an email-page long. We bring it to you in brief: Only half-inchlong lardons of guanciale—“I don’t like thicker or smaller pieces”— will do. That, and Verrigni, a smooth gold-die extruded spaghetti and a blend of whole eggs and yolks. Tellicherry peppercorns are ground by hand in a mortar, and the pasta is done in 8½ minutes, at which point it’s cooked together for another few minutes with a little pasta water, Sini Fulvi pecorino, and eggs.

it weren’t for the bully Span-

In the face of the fact that

Three Shades of Carbonara

Profile for Sara Deseran

Department of Authenticity  

Nostalgia-fueled authentocrats policing San Francisco's restaurants are missing the regional cuisine right under their noses.

Department of Authenticity  

Nostalgia-fueled authentocrats policing San Francisco's restaurants are missing the regional cuisine right under their noses.