May 25, 2015 – Fusion restaurants are all the rage now. It’s exciting. Producing interesting, sometimes delicious dishes by combining flavors of different cultures.
It has occurred to me that there is a downside to carrying food cultural diversity too far. I wouldn’t want some of my favorite foods to become memories. Then I recall the first fusion restaurant I ever visited. Mestizo in Baton Rouge. The brain child of Chef Jim Urdiales, born of Mexican and Cajun parents, combined two of the world’s great cuisines to create something remarkable. Something memorable. You really haven’t lived until you’ve had a shrimp and crawfish stuffed chili relleno.
This week I was joining my Inupiaq friend Willie Hensley for lunch. Willie is one of Alaska’s most respected statesmen as well as a good friend. When we get together the conversation is interesting, substantial and significant. So is the food. Willie’s willingness to experiment with new food concepts matches my own.
Today I suggested a fusion restaurant I had heard about on the east side of Anchorage. We made our way through the road construction detour on Muldoon Road. (It’s said that Anchorage has only three seasons: winter, almost winter and road construction.) We found Casa in a non descript stand alone building. As we entered we saw a bar with pool table to the right. We were guided to a booth on the left side. The restaurant side.
The room was decorated much as one would expect in a Mexican restaurant in Anchorage. But the menu was far different. Casa is a Mexican-Korean fusion restaurant. How could we pass on the chance to try that?
Casa is the latest offering by Ronnie Lee, the Korean born chef who came to the United States to study fashion design. Instead he discovered Japanese food and became enthralled not only with the food itself but with the color and design used by sushi chefs in preparing their presentations. Lee has opened two successful sushi restaurants in Anchorage. Casa is an experiment in a new and untraveled direction.
We placed our orders and very quickly the ubiquitous chips and salsa of a Mexican restaurant appeared. Each of us also received a small bowl of chicken soup with threads of egg white. Much like an egg drop soup. We were in a fusion restaurant.
Willie ordered bibimbap, a traditional Korean dish that translates literally as “mixed rice with meat and assorted vegetables.” The meat was pork. The rice was Spanish rather than the customary white rice of Korea. The classic presentation of bibimbap includes a raw egg on top. At Casa the egg was replaced with a dollop of sour cream.
The sampling I tasted was highly pleasant. I was especially pleased with the hint of sesame oil. The flavors of Mexico and Korea were working well together.
I opted for the bulgogi burrito. Bulgogi is another dish those accustomed to Korean food will recognize. It translates to “marinated beef.” The marinade usually includes soy sauce, sesame oil, green onion, garlic, shiitake mushrooms and onion.
The burrito set before me was huge. Massive. I told Willie there was no way I could eat all that.
I focused first on the sides. There was, of course, the standard accompaniment of refried beans and rice one would expect in a Mexican restaurant. There was also a beautiful tempura shrimp and slices of tempura sweet potato. I forgot about the beans and rice. The tempura was delectable. The breading light and perfectly cooked. Just nicely crisp on the outside without overcooking the delicate shrimp and sweet potato inside. Beautifully done.
I turned my attention to the burrito. Like the breading on the tempura, the tortilla encasing the bulgogi was cooked just right. The marinated beef inside was very tasty, the complexity of the marinade prevalent with each bite. The addition of cojito cheese, sort of the Mexican version of Parmesan, was a good choice. It added a bit of tang to the other cheese, more conducive to melting, that was included. Green and red sweet peppers, onion, tomato and cilantro, a touch of salsa, and a swipe of guacamole on top. All combined to make a highly palatable meal.
Mexican Korean fusion works. Works well. I did eat the whole thing. And l’ll do it again.