Not so long ago, the term “fusion cuisine” didn’t connote many positive thoughts. If you were to play the word association game with “fusion cuisine,” you likely heard words like “arrogant,” “pretentious,” “over-priced,” etc. And this was for good reason.
At its worst, fusion cuisine is all of these things. The food is never very good, the chef is clearly trying way too hard and it’s never worth the expensive check coming your way at the end of the meal.
Over time, though, the ideas surrounding fusion cuisine have evolved. Restauranteurs like David Chang of Momofuku fame and Roy Choi of Kogi taco trucks have taken the idea of fusion cuisine and put their own unique spin on it. What these restauranteurs (particularly Choi) have shown us is that good fusion food doesn’t have to be fancy or pricey. It can come from a food truck or a hole in the wall that you might not consider going into.
As you would expect, different parts of the country have different takes on what fusion cuisine can and should consist of, depending on all sorts of complicated factors both large — what foreign nation settled that area way back when — and small — what ingredients they have readily accessible. Of course, this all makes sense if you take the time to really consider it because the history of our country’s cuisine is, essentially, a history of food fusion. Other than possibly “Southern” or “Louisiana Creole,” everything Americans eat is basically fusion of some kind and even those two particular styles can be traced to somewhere off the North American continent.
Most Americans, then, have grown up eating fusion cuisine, even if they hadn’t realized it or were looking in the wrong places for it. Often, the best way to find killer fusion food isn’t to search it out, but to simply stumble upon it. On a recent trip to San Diego, this is exactly what happened to me. Once I tell you what the dish was (though you have had a few major clues already as to what it is), San Diegans will likely mock me for my ignorance of what truly is an incredible example of fusion cuisine. For this I ask their forgiveness, because if there is one thing travel has and continues to teach me it is of how ignorant I am of so much great food out there.
Although there are plenty of wonderful things to do in San Diego, I really only had one objective while I was there: eat as much Mexican food as possible. In South Florida, we only really get that faux-Mexican stuff, which just doesn’t cut it most of the time. One of the first places I noticed when I arrived was called Humberto’s Taco Shop, which was located in the Golden Hill neighborhood where I was staying. It looked a little sketch and totally like a locals only spot, which, according to my travel philosophy, is exactly the kind of place where I want to eat.
Inside it was tiny — only a few tables surrounded a counter, which separated the dining area from the kitchen. It was also crowded, always a good sign. After looking over the menu, I ordered a California burrito and one of the most wonderful sounding dishes I’ve ever come across: carne asada fries. As I would discover, carne asada fries are basically loaded nachos, only with french fries as a base instead of chips.
Originally, I though it would just be small side order, but the dish was barely contained in the styrofoam container — also, for whatever reason, usually a good sign of impending awesomeness — it came in. The carne asada fries consisted of a pile of crispy shoestring fries, carne asada, guacamole, sour cream and cheese (likely Cotija cheese). Now I could get into things like how great the texture was or how the delicate interplay of salty, sour, and savory really made the dish stand out, but it just doesn’t seem appropriate for the setting or the dish. Suffice it to say, it was really, really good.
Obviously, then, part of what makes this dish a masterpiece is the taste. The other (and just as important) part, I would argue, comes from the fusion of two food genres: classic Americana and Mexican. Taking staples of both American and Mexican cuisine and mashing them together to create something better than the sum of its parts is a work of genius. Again, this is all really, really complicated food-wise because french fries might have been invented in Spain or Belgium, and nachos aren’t traditionally Mexican, but in order to keep this from being 5,000 words, I’m going to refrain from going any further into food history.
What I have been trying to get at through all of this, though, is that fusion cuisine at its best isn’t confined to high-end restaurants. Historically, it never has been, though that misconception continues to linger in the mass consciousness to this day. More than likely, great fusion food is right around the corner where you’d least expect it.
Charlie Crespo (@Little_Utopia) is the editor-in-chief of Little Utopia.
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