In Pittsburgh Chicken Latino is a long time favorite Peruvian style roast chicken joint that also serves a variety of other kinds of things, all in portions that are too large.
Chicken Latino is also, paradoxically, the home of the cheeseburger in Pittsburgh which is probably second on my list by overall objective “quality” but first on my list of emotional favorites. In these times when people can be remarkably pretentious and self-centered about getting burgers and fries made from only ingredients of the highest quality and correct origins, Chicken Latino takes frozen patties and “steak fries” that just fell off the Sysco truck and turns them into a burger and fries better than almost any other in town. The fries are the most puzzling part of this equation. They really should not be good, but they really are better than almost any other fries in this city where almost no one seems to know how to make fries.
Anyway, Latino has been open for about 15 years, but it wasn’t until about five years ago (I think) that they started serving a dream dish for anyone who loves Chinese food, Peruvian food, double starch, and Chinese/Peruvian/Pittsburgh fries fusion cuisine. I refer, of course, to Lomo Saltado which is basically a sort of beef stir fry served on top of yellow rice and french fries. Brilliant.
Here is what it looks like:
Who can’t love this?
If I’m honest, the beef stir fry part of this dish is its weakest aspect by far … but the fries, and most importantly, the rice mostly make up for it.
Of course, even something as perfect as this combination can be ruined if you try hard enough. I bring this up because at some point last year I was excited to finally sit down in a new place in town that a lot of local foodies appear to like that had an upscale version of this dish on their menu. So of course I ordered it.
In this implementation, the meat was a lot better than the cheaper cut you get at Latino, but overall the dish was bad. The dish was bad for two reasons. The first was that the fries were bad.
I will not rant here about the bad fries. Bad fries are just a fact of American life, I think. Whereas in (say) France there are places whose entire existence is dedicated to serving nothing but steak with perfect french fries, even fancy places run by fancy chefs in the U.S. will serve you sub-par french fries on a routine basis. This is kind of unforgivable, but I guess fries are also technically a tiny bit demanding to do well on a large scale. But really it’s still unforgivable.
The second thing that ruined the expensive plate was that the rice was unforgiveably bad. This I will rant about. It tasted like day old rice that you have left partially uncovered in the fridge and then reheated in the microwave for about 30 seconds while forgetting to add a small dribble of water. You bite into it and the kernels break off in your mouth in a mealy semi-crunchy and tasteless mess. But, you are either too lazy, too tired, too hungover, or too hungry to fix it now, and just dump your food on top hoping the sauce from the food will finish the job of bringing the rice back to life. But it does not.
All this for $29 a plate.
This is, of course, not the first time I have gotten unforgivably bad rice in a restaurant. I sent the rice back at a fancy French place in Paris once, and they sent me back a perfectly great risotto, which for some reason they could make better than plain white rice. I also got the single worst bowl of white rice that I ever paid money for in my life at a fancy special dinner at a long standing and well loved local Asian fusion joint (it was Soba) in Pittsburgh. That rice was like the fridge rice above, except they hadn’t even really tried to reheat it, I think. This happened a long time ago, and people say I should be over it by now. But I’m not.
I am here to say that it does not have to be this way. Unlike fries, rice is completely trivial to cook well. Here is what you do:
- Buy a fucking rice cooker.
- Cook perfect rice every single time.
The cooker will even keep the perfect rice warm and perfect for the entire restaurant service. I doubt that there is any single food product that requires fewer brain cells to do well than perfect white rice in a rice cooker. And yet the evidence before us is that people care so little about rice that they won’t even do the bare minimum amount of work needed to make it decent.
At this point in the article at least 15 reply-boys (and girls) will stand up and declare that no functioning human being should need a dedicated kitchen appliance taking up their precious counter space for the sole purpose of making sure that the rice is good every time. I am here to say that these people are wrong, because their framing of the question is wrong. The question is not “can I cook OK rice on the stove (or more recently, in the microwave)?”. The question is: “can I push a single button and get perfect rice of any kind any time I want without looking at the cooker again until it’s done?” … and then also keep it warm and perfect for between 8 and 24 hours afterwards.
The second thing is what rice cookers do, and if rice is important enough to you that it will be the main starch in more than 15 out of 35 meals every week, then you will do the right thing and just buy the machine.
But, this attitude about rice is rare here which is why rice always sucks in the U.S. In the U.S. (and most of Europe, really) rice is at best a second tier auxiliary starch that is only used once in a while. In baseball terms, it’s not “an every day player”. So no one actually cares if it’s good or not.
Let us contrast this situation with Japan (and most other places in Asia). In Japan you can walk into any 7-11 store anywhere in the country and walk over to a cooler with pre-made sushi things in it and you will get better rice, even though it’s cold, than what is served in about 99% of all places that serve rice in the West. In particular the rice wrapped in sweet tofu skin is always great, from the middle of Tokyo to any random small town with a train station 7-11 no matter how few people live there. This is because they have a rice cooker and they give a shit.
I have often joked that one of my food dreams would be for a single Japanese 7-11 to open within a reasonable driving distance from my home. Not only would this greatly improve upon the quality of snack foods available in the area, it would also instantly become the best sushi restaurant in town and the best cheap East Asian fast food in town. But really this dream is more about just having a place somewhere that cares about the rice as much as you are supposed to.
The rice is important. In sushi, it’s as important as the fish (remember: sushi means rice). In Chinese food it’s as important as all the other dishes on the table, because all of them are improved when put on top of rice. Rice should not be an overlooked side dish that is little more than some extra food cost. We need for it to be elevated to the same level as potatoes, pasta, the fancy sourdough bread, and all those other hideous whole grain products that unlike rice don’t really taste that good. It should be a whole menu unto itself.
The rice is important.
Appendix: Places in Pittsburgh with Good Rice
Rose Tea in Oakland.
Cafe 33 in Squirrel Hill.
Chengdu Gourmet/Chengdu 2 (could be better, but not bad).
Mola. Decent sushi rice. Maybe as good as Chaya was, which was the standard back in the day.
Penn Avenue Fish Company. Their rice is good enough for the rice bowls and stuff but the sushi rice is sub par.
Turkish Kebab House.
Most of the Indian restaurants, although Indian rice is a different aesthetic than East Asian rice (it’s not sticky, what the hell?).