Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

'What makes a restaurant authentic?'

Should it matter if Cajun food is prepared by a chef from Iran, sushi by a chef from Mexico?
Should it matter if Cajun food is prepared by a chef from Iran, sushi by a chef from Mexico?
Photo by cattoo/Flickr (Creative Commons)

In a land where your sushi chef might be from Mexico, they guy who makes your pizza might be from El Salvador, and the owner of your favorite Cajun joint might be from Iran, how relevant is "authenticity" to a restaurant if the food is good? And what constitutes authenticity, anyway?

Elahe Izadi of WAMU's DCentric blog in Washington, D.C. poses these questions in an interesting post today, talking to the chefs and patrons of eateries operated by people whose ethnicity is different from that of the cuisine served.

Among those she interviews is Bardia Ferdowski, an Iranian immigrant who moved to Louisiana, working in Cajun restaurants and eventually opening his own Cajun kitchen in D.C. She also talks to Jose De Velasquez, an immigrant from El Salvador whose pizzeria, the Italian-sounding Moroni & Brothers, also serves Salvadoran and Mexican food. From the piece:

A wood-fire oven blazes in the back of the restaurant. Above it, a picture of De Velasquez making a pizza hangs on the wall, next to an ornament with “El Salvador” emblazoned on the front.

“The most important thing is to know how to combine the ingredients, and the dough recipe,” Jose says in Spanish. “But we’re Salvadoran and we wanted something traditional. This is a good combination.”

At one table, a couple eats pupusas. At another, Jeff Lindeblad and his two daughters eat their usual meal: quesadillas and pizza. The menu “didn’t seem odd at all” on his first visit, Lindeblad says.

“Is it important to have someone from Italy make the pizza? No,” Lindeblad says. “And the pizza here is fantastic.”

I'll admit that I've been an authenticity snob in the past, especially in the post-"Buena Vista Social Club" era of a decade ago, when the humble, filling Cuban food of my youth - not to mention mojitos - became trendy and bad interpretations were popping up like weeds.

Similarly, I've turned up my nose at some American-style Mexican food, but I've since been schooled. In a recent Multi-American Q&A, the OC Weekly's Gustavo Arellano presented a good argument in defense of Tex-Mex, Cal-Mex, even something he's dubbed Bro-Mex as authentic in their own right.

In her post, Elahe asks: "How important is authenticity in a restaurant? How do you judge a restaurant’s authenticity?" Feel free to share your thoughts below.