Monday, May 28, 2007


I have several comments on dining in Europe. Of course these are biased based on recent experiences in Germany, but I have seen some of this elsewhere too.

Tax has been included in all prices - not just dining, but also shopping. This is vastly preferable to the American approach. It greatly simplifies check splitting. It is still a nice surprise whenever I get a bill, since I expect it to be about 9% more. People tip a lot less. These two factors make eating out cheaper.

Countering this is the drink scam. There are no water fountains anywhere in Bremen. I confirmed this by asking someone who grew up here, my labmate Thorsten Lüth. He first said no, then said yes, but he actually referred to a faucet with non-potable water. This is not a drinking fountain. It's not even one of those two words. You cannot order tap water at a restaurant. Thus, whenever you go out, you must pay for your drink. Any drink, including water, is usually €2 or more. The default assumption is that you want carbonated water, and you must specify otherwise when ordering. It is a little like Atlanta, when all iced tea is assumed to be sweet tea, meaning an 8 oz glass of sugar with ice. Unlike Atlanta, any kind of iced tea is hard to find, and is never brewed. Atlanta did have two tasty food categories that are very hard to find elsewhere: soul food and Jamaican food. Mmmm, jerk chicken.

It is also assumed that you know what you want to drink immediately after being seated. Waitresses ask you what you want to drink before you look at the menu. If you ask for a minute to look at the menu, they assume stems from a language barrier. No, were the menu in English, I still wouldn't know without looking at it. Do you want my food order now too? How bout that elusive and highly negotiable tip?

They are often very nice to Americans, and Thorsten explained that they assume that Americans are used to tipping much more than others. This leaves me in the awkward position of playing the fool or disappointing them. On the other hand, since the normative rule is to round up to the nearest Euro, an 8% tip is usually generous to them. I still need to work out this subteley.

Bremen has much the same cuisine options as any big city. Italian, Greek, Chinese, Mexican, Indian, Thai, Japanese (including sushi), even German food. Quite a lot of Turkish food, consistent with the large Turkish population. One thing they think they have in much greater abundance than California is Californian food. California has far fewer places that advertise Californian cuisine, nor label meals as 'Californian.' Yet this seems to be the most effective marketing gimmick out here. Did you know that Caifornia Pizza has corn, onions, mushrooms, and paprika? Or was that pepperoni, salami, and peppers? Or spinach, carrots, and corn? I am not making this up. Three places within a block of each other each advertise California pizza as such. There is also California chicken, California steak, and Californian soup. I tried explaining that this suggests that the soup contains ground Californians, but he didn't speak Californian either.

I would pay €30 right now for one of Rimels' fresh mahi sandwiches or chicken burritos with green chile garlic sauce. This is not as unreasonable as it sounds. Once, when I was living in Atlanta, I visited San Diego and my return flight to Atlanta left at 10 PM. I said to my lab, I arrive at 6 AM, and will have fresh tasty burritos for lunch. Who wants one? None of them had heard of swordfish, crab, or lobster burritos and thought me quite mad. This may be true, but remember I am a mad scientist; whether or not bringing burritos on an airplane in my backpack surrounded by cold packs is reasonable, I will figure out how to make it work. Sure enough, my more adventurous labbies got some perfectly good burritos. I should also note that Atlanta has exceptionally bad Mexican food, made all the worse by the locals' conviction that their Mexican food is excellent and the surprisingly high number of Mexican people in Atlanta. I remain convinced that there exists an underappreciated opportunity for a chain of San Diego style taco shops, called SoCal tacos. Put it somewhere near the biggest university, including a hot chick on a pedal-cart full of burritos cruising around the dorms. In Atlanta, the prime spot would be midtown, near Georgia Tech, and open very late. My streetcar ride home passes three places called Taco I, II, and III. Yeehaw, I thought, someone else imported that concept. But no, what that sneaky Turk meant by taco was Döner kebabs. Then I stumbled upon Speedy Taco, which is conceptually much closer to a taco, yet worse than Taco Bell. For readers unfamiliar with Taco Bell, stay that way. I haven't been there in over 10 years. They had an advertising campaign a few years ago to plug their new burrito, the chalupa, featuring a little dog saying 'drop the Chalupa!' This is now slang for taking a shit. (They stopped that ad campaign.)

The following are all characteristics of bad Mexican food. The beans are Rosarita refried, or some other canned beans. The salsa is usually Pace Picante mild. Taco shells are premade, chips are from a bag, beef is ground beef, tamales have no husk because they came from a bag, etc. Just like any good restaurant will make their own food, good Mexican places make their own beans and salsa and tamales, fry their own taco shells or chips, ideally from tortillas they made or bought from a tortilleria that made them that morning, and offer shredded beef, which was stewed in a huge pot with tomoatoes for six hours. They will probably also serve pozole, tortilla soup, or other good soups that they made. Excellent examples of such restaurants in San Diego that are not too expensive include the three Fidelses, Ortega's on Newport, or La Pinata in Old Town. For taco shops, which are faster and even cheaper, try Cotixan on Genessee, Taco Fiesta on West Point Loma Drive, the Santanas chain, Lalos on University, the Senor Panchos chain (some of which were recently renamed Los Panchos), or many others. I am getting hungry. Many taco shops are named XBertos. These include Robertos, Albertos, Roybertos, Himbertos, Adalbertos, Jilbertos, Filibertos, and my favorite names, Nobertos and Bertbertos.

The best burger chain in California In n Out Burger.

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