On a rare day off, Jerry Regester might be found on a stroll. On his T-shirt is a slogan – “Land of the Wing and Home of the Weck” – that may need some deciphering.
The chef at Carmel’s Rise & Roam grew up in Buffalo, celebrated in the culinary world as the birthplace of the now ubiquitous chicken wing. There’s another dish specific to the city and its surroundings, however, that has yet to achieve nationwide popularity.
Beef on Weck is a Buffalo staple, a sandwich of piled roast beef and a smear of horseradish on a Kummelweck bun studded with flecks of salt and caraway seed. Once, when he was at a different kitchen, Regester tried to convince his bakers to give it a try, but they balked at the bread’s toppings.
“Nobody understood the concept,” the chef complains. “I think all that salt freaks people out.”
Regional dishes exist across the U.S. – the Cajun and Creole favorites from the Mississippi River delta, the hefty casseroles of the upper Midwest, coastal Carolina and its low country cooking. And yet surprisingly few gain popularity outside of their domain.
Just about every seafood restaurant on the Monterey Peninsula prepares New England clam chowder. Flaherty’s Seafood Grill in Carmel is one of the few places to find Manhattan style. Even people who scrunch their faces at the lowly southern ground hominy brighten to a bowl of shrimp and grits. But what about spoonbread?
Missing from Monterey County menus are such gems as disco fries (itself a play on Canada’s poutine), the open-face hot brown sandwich and shoofly pie.
Some examples can be located if you look long enough. Bear + Flag Roadside in Carmel Valley whips up pimento cheese. Toro Place along Highway 68 grills a Jucy Lucy – although they irk any passing Minnesotans by listing the burger stuffed with cheese as “Juicy.” The Oven in Seaside and Pocket Change in Monterey offer versions of St. Louis’ toasted ravioli, which is actually deep-fried.
Amalia Scatena, chef at Carmel’s Stationæry, draws a blank on Cincinnati chili. But she can describe in detail a sandwich popular across a swath of Iowa, Illinois and Indiana. Pork tenderloin, beaten into hubcap-size submission, breaded, fried and sandwiched. Dwarfing a normal bun, it’s something to behold.
“No one has ever heard about it here or on the east coast,” says Scatena, who has worked on both ends of the country and has relatives in Iowa, also the home of the loose meat sandwich.
Stationæry may be the only restaurant in the county serving Maine-style lobster rolls, although it proved to be a lot more trouble than just stuffing shellfish into a bun. Scatena and the team at Ad Astra Bread Co. went back and forth tweaking the bread recipe. Worth it, though.
So why do some regional favorites travel and others sit?
“Some dishes are so iconic it tends to be what people take with them,” explains Chef Brandon Miller, Monterey County’s mobile paella master, referring to the culinary diaspora as people move about. “And some things don’t get enough exposure.”
Other probable causes include difficulty sourcing proper ingredients and a lack of experience relating to certain ingredients. Leave celery seed off a Chicago-style hot dog – or serve it in a bun sans poppy seeds – and it’s thrown off balance. Chef Jeffrey Thompson prepares a lot of New Orleans blackened seafood at the Carmel Valley favorite Jeffrey’s Grill & Catering. But, he admits, “it took me a while to get it right.”
When a plate does pop into the national consciousness, it also becomes subject to every chef’s desire to adapt to their style and location. Nashville’s hot chicken is becoming a breakout star thanks to cooking shows.
“I think food is very trendy,” Scatena observes. “Nashville hot chicken is fun for chefs. You can put a local spin on it.”
Riffing is natural and can improve a recipe – though at the cost of any specific regional identity. This might be part of why, for Thompson, there’s a benefit when dishes remain trapped in their place. “That’s the beauty of traveling – trying new things, opening your eyes,” he points out.