2004. That’s when I first realized small, mom-and-pop restaurants could be terrible.
I was just a couple of years into my job as food critic for the OC Weekly in Orange County, California. After initially focusing on high-end chefs, I convinced my then-editor to let me start a column called “This Hole-in-the-Wall Life.” I argued that they topped their hoity-toity siblings on the sole virtue that they were hole-in-the-walls: Humble. Undiscovered. Mostly "ethnic." And anything but fancy.
In other words, “authentic.”
Back then, I fully believed in the cult of authenticity -- that restaurants were either “real” or fake, and that the fake were inevitably more mainstream and buzzier and therefore didn’t deserve coverage, while the "real" spots were downhome and, well, real.
My editor gave the OK, and I found gems the way Steph Curry shoots threes. Beyond the OC stereotypes of real housewives and whack job politicians existed Little Saigon, the biggest Vietnamese community in the world outside of Vietnam. Little Arabia, one of the largest Middle Eastern neighborhoods west of Michigan. Strip malls filled with Taiwanese, Persian, Pakistani, Korean, and even Romanian and South African treasures. And, of course, Mexican everything everywhere.