As the mysterious cofounder of Chowhound.com, Jim Leff leads an on-line community of loquacious 'adventure eaters' who expound on everything from the best churros in Santa Fe to the top muffuletta in New Orleans. T+L met up with Leff as he launched The Chowhound's Guide (Penguin), off-line collections of the site's restaurant recommendations, for the New York tristate and San Francisco Bay areas.
What is your definition of a chowhound?
Someone who seeks out deliciousness in any situation and loves to discover new culinary treasures. The one who, on the way to work each morning, walks blocks out of the way to try a different muffin and isn't satisfied until the most delectable one is found. They are people who hate to settle. In a world where titanic engines of marketing influence people's opinions and taste, there are the guys who opt out and make their own decisions. You know how there's adventure travel?Well, we're adventure eaters. Which doesn't mean that we won't go to the obvious places if they're great. If McDonalds made great hamburgers, I would be there every day.
What's the difference between a chowhound and a foodie?
In America, if you're into food, you get labeled a foodie. But the term foodie connotes that you eat where you're told, follow the star chefs, and are afraid of unfamiliar neighborhoods. A lot of people think they are foodies and then they realize that they're not comfortable with that rubric. I've created a website that's a refugee camp for disaffected foodies—people who are a lot more self-propelling and irreverent.
When did you realize that finding the best food in the most unlikely places was your calling?
I'm from Huntington Station, on Long Island—the heart of nightmarish suburban sprawl. As a kid, I'd go to Eddie's Pizza in Fort Salonga and the Hamburger Choo Choo in Huntington. Everyone thought I liked the Choo Choo because cute little trains brought you the food. But no, I was into the burger—it was superb—and to this day, I love suburbia. Give me strip malls. Because amid the horrors of the Bennigan's and the Applebee's, there are true gems.
Can people "chowhound" in big cities, or is it more of a small-town experience?
There's nothing better than going to Des Moines for home fries and a malted. You just can't get real home fries and malteds like that in major cities. And pie—when you're in Des Moines you get real pie.
But a lot of what you're sampling is ethnic food, right?
I find the term ethnic food inappropriate. Other than Denny's, what type of food can't be considered ethnic food?I mean, look at French bistros. We don't call French food ethnic because of a snobbery that assumes French food is real dining. We think of ethnic food as charming little places that are surprisingly good for those who can't afford high prices. But Jean-Georges Vongerichten is cooking really well these days, and he's an immigrant. Should we be saying his restaurants serve ethnic food?I'm just looking for the real thing—and it doesn't matter if that's Vietnamese fish-ball soup or an incredible peach cobbler.
Has immigration energized the American food scene?
The Immigration Act (1965) allowed new groups of people into this country. And they brought their food, which invigorated the restaurant scene. Italian-American food was once a great thing. But it's not as good these days because the Italian immigrants of yore have grandchildren who have gone to law school and are not cooking in restaurants anymore. What you find now is incredible dishes from new immigrants who are moving in and, with all their fresh energy, making really good food.
What do you love about dining in America today?
Every age has its zeitgeist: if this were 1973, I'd be spending all of my time going to see great movies. If it were 1951, I'd be spending all my time in jazz clubs, and if it were 1901, I'd be drinking absinthe in a Parisian café. But today, the human spirit is nowhere more potent than in our restaurant scene.
What's your absolute favorite food?
The Arepa Lady. She's a tiny, ageless, saintly Colombian woman who grills corncakes on a street cart on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, New York. If you look down Roosevelt Avenue, you'll see dozens of identical women selling arepas from carts, but they don't taste nearly as extraordinary as hers do. No matter how jaded I feel I'm getting about food, I take a bite of one of her arepas and I'm completely reset in every sense of the word. I've been her customer for 15 years. And, to show my respect, I still only refer to her with the formal usted, never tu.
Any restaurant tips for travelers?
Don't wait for the critics to tell you about them, and don't wait to leave town to start looking. The trick is to practice at home, then apply what you've learned elsewhere. I know a lot about local New York food—yet I still feel like a tourist in my own city. Great food is ripe and low on the branches these days, and it's ready for anyone to pick.
—Interviewed by Amy Farley
We caught Leff in the middle of his travels and asked him to tell us which restaurants he was craving right then. Here's what he told us.
I'm typing away on my laptop at the airport, and announcements of flights to far-flung destinations are spurring me to crave globally. These are the eateries most tempting me to stow away on adjacent planes. I haven't visited most of them recently (absence makes the hound grow fonder), so I can't affirm current quality. Caveat eater!
TOKYO Volga, an unsung labyrinthian dive, is the Platonic form of its genre. I'm tormented by memories of plump, rivetingly delicious broiled chicken wings; moist, tender tsukune (chicken meatballs) brimming with the profound poultry essence of a thousand free-range birds; meaty, nutty shrimp expertly sautéed fast and hot; and succulent boiled potatoes strewn with creamy sautéed onions and bits of meaty bacon as sweet as ham. 1-4-18 West Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; 81-3/3342-4996
RIO DE JANEIRO The name of this ice cream store, Mil Frutas, means One Thousand Fruits, and while all thousand aren't available at once, the staff is generous with tastes of the 20 rotating daily flavors, and one grows giddy sampling so many rare, untranslateable fruits—many of them found only in the Amazon rain forest. Acerola with tapioca, for example, is a concoction unlikely to be picked up by Breyer's anytime soon. Rua J. J. Seabra, Jardim Botânico; 55-21/2511-2550
FRAMINGHAM, MASSACHUSETTS Speaking of Brazilian, I once enjoyed a single on-the-run bite of pão de queijo (cheese bread) at Magic Oven bakery, one of many chowy points of light crowding what Bostonians wrongly deem unmitigated suburban sprawl. It was better than any I've had in Brazil, and I've yearned for more ever since. One day I'll spend a delirious weekend feasting there and at the many other enticing choices in the supposedly dowdy Framingham area. 470 Waverly St.; 508/370-8008
WORCESTER, MASSACHUSETTS Stream of chowousness pulls my cravings a couple of towns west to Worcester's One Love Cafe, a charming parlor where Jamaican entries are both precise and deep. Touches count: peas 'n' rice is a marvel of moist subtlety, and a single decorative morsel of fried plantain contains realms of luxurious flavor. Even the bottled hot sauce is selected with great care. This is the rarest of rarities: loving soul food crafted with the deft touch of a disciplined chef. 800 Main St.; 508/753-8663
One Love Café
Mil Frutas, Jardim Botânico
Although not quite a thousand, there are more than a hundred flavors of natural ice creams and sorbets at this shop near the Jardim Botânico. Mil Frutas makes its frozen desserts by hand, when fruits like the tropical jungle cupuaçu and berries from the açaí palm are in-season. Request a few samples of the fruit sorbets to start, and then pick one for a whole (rather expensive) scoop. Rare flavors range from avocado and pineapple-cilantro to French Toast. Fittingly, as this location is situated near the prized botanical garden, there are also plant-themed varieties like jasmine and rhubarb.