Breaking the Chains: 30 Days Without Chain Restaurants


This idea hit me one morning as I sat at a national chain resaurant eating what I thought, at the time, would be an enjoyable breakfast. As my plate of  powdered eggs, previously frozen bacon,  matching sausage, and hash browns was sat on the table in front of me I realized that I had fallen into the trap that many people, who live in suburbia, commonly run into. Everyone eats at chain restaurants. You cannot resist it as they are everywhere. On every corner and in every store outlet there are Taco Bells, Denny’s, and the infamous McDonald’s all there hovering ominously and softly whispering, “eat here, you know you are hungry.”

Yes, sadly enough I had fallen prey to the same gimmicks as everyone around me who were more focused on other aspects of their life beside eating well. I began to question myself and all I ever knew of my foodie upbringing. Shocked, I began to wonder how it happened and what I could do to prevent it. I felt as though I has cheated on a long time lover. That was it! I could stop it and I could prevent it. I decided there, that moment, as I was spooning powdered eggs into my mouth, that I need to stay away, far away, from these very chain restaurants which caused so much temptation for ease.

So the notion of 30 days without chain food was created and initiated all in the same dining experience. This period without food would be beneficial for three reasons. 1) I could wean myself from my newly acquired eating habits of suburban life. 2) I could return to the very eating values which I have always sworn, eat well, eat fresh, eat local. 3) This would allow me to find new and possibly exciting restaurants in an area that I am still familiarizing myself with. 

I am currently 18 days into this culinary expedition. Since that day I have discovered about 10 new restaurants on top of cooking more at home which is always a plus. With those newly discovered restaurants, I have found an amazing and inexpensive Mexican restaurant within biking  distance of my house, I have found an awesome hamburger joint which is owned and operated by a former chef who worked under Wolfgang Puck, and the beachside bar and grill which serves the best fish tacos in San Diego (possibly the world). The amazing thing about each and every one of the restaurants that I have found is that they do not report to a corporate office, nor do they ship everything in from a warehouse to be defrosted and thrown in the microwave.

So, with all this said, I say to you… go out explore, support local businesses, restaurants, and purveyors. Treat yourself right by eating well, eating fresh, and eating local.

Hong Kong BBQ and Dim Sum

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From top left clockwise. Pan Fried Vegetable Cake, Stewed Chicken Feet, Pork and Shrimp Shiu Mai, Ginger Scallion Beef Tripe

Although my introduction to Asian cuisine has been somewhat limited, my move to San Diego will, I believe open up my eyes and allow me to gain an appreciation for this food style. I am not referring to the typical Asian food seen in all you can eat buffets. This type of cuisine is prepared by Asian Americans for consumption by their fellow Asian American neighbors.

Dim Sum is a style of eating which closely resembles the style of Spanish tapas, meaning that it is served in small portions with the intent of the consumers ordering many dishes. This allows a person to try several dishes which will fulfill their various hungers in one setting.

Hong Kong BBQ and Dim Sum is nestled in the front corner of the Vinh Hung Market in San Diego. The restaurant is consisted of a little more than a dozen tables and a glass fronted warmer box like the ones seen in delis. In display box there were many of the commonly seen Asian dishes, such as Mongolian beef and lo mein. Next to those dishes were the items that first drew me into this small eatery, the hanging Peking duck and whole roasted pig. In my adventures, I have learned that any restaurant which happily displays some sort of roasted meat tends to provide a promising meal. Sandwiched in between the lo mein and the roasted meats were something that I have never encountered. They were multiple stacks of what appeared to be aluminum dishes which I suspected were used for steaming food.

After being seated, the server produced a large and varied menu which made my mouth water as I looked over the many selections. I noticed the dim sum section squared off in a small corner of the page. To my recollection I had never eaten dim sum but I knew of the origin and style. I began to browse the choices in that area. Steamed spare ribs in black bean sauce, Steamed BBQ pork buns, and Taro Cakes were just some of the many selections.

My partner in culinary crime and I each chose two dishes from the dim sum selection. I chose the Pan Fried Vegetable Cake along with the Pork and Shrimp Shiu Mai while he chose the Stewed Chicken Feet and Ginger Scallion Beef Tripe. We then asked the server for an off the menu item, something consisting of just green vegetables. She suggested the Chinese Broccoli with Garlic.

Much to my surprise the dishes arrived within just a few minutes. They were all contained in the very same metal steaming containers seen at my arrival. The only exception was the Sautéed Chinese Broccoli which was prepared to order and then brought out on a serving plate.

What now set in front of us was something out of an East Asian travel documentary. Multiples of food stuff which looked delicious and intriguing all in the same instant.

Despite its name, the Pan Fried Vegetable Cake was not solely prepared of vegetables. Located inside the fried doughy pastry were a number of tender vegetables, which included cabbage, and what tasted like tender, cooked to perfection, ground pork. Once I bit into this little delight the juicy flavors which were produce by the coupling of the pork and the vegetables is something that leaves my mouth watering as I write.

The Ginger Scallion Beef Tripe, although not a personal favorite, is something I believe should be tried once just because of the amazing flavor produced by the combination of the minced fresh ginger and scallions. The tripe took on this flavor which, if one can get past the texture, should prove to be an enjoyable dish. There were no flaws in its preparation method I might add. I am just not a fan of this particular organ.

Pork and Shrimp Shiu Mai is a traditionally Chinese prepared dumpling which consists of an interior of ground pork, diced shrimp, and black mushrooms. My only comparison would be a meatball wrapped in semi-transparent dough which is seasoned, then sealed, and then steamed to perfection. This method retains all the juices in the interior of the dumpling which provides for an explosion of delicious flavors when bitten into.

Stewed Chicken Feet are something which is normally shunned in American culture. But, being the adventurous sole that I am, I opted to try it. The experience was not a regrettable one either. The feet were stewed in a spicy orange and red colored sauce which consisted of, what is suspected, to be a combination of peppers and their juices. The meat which was contained in the feet was a tender and cartilaginous delight once you got past the fact that your lips burning from the sauce. 

Last but not least is the Sautéed Chinese Broccoli with Garlic. This enjoyable combination of basic flavors is still one of my favorite dishes of that day. The Chinese broccoli, unlike typical broccoli has broad leaves and a longer slimmer stalk. When prepared in the above method, the leaves remind me of a more crisp tradition green, a little like cabbage but better. The stalk of the Chinese broccoli tastes almost identical to that of the traditional broccoli consumed in the United States. The pairing of the broccoli with the sliced garlic and the garlic infused oil provides an amazing, yet uncomplicated, grouping of flavors that should satisfy even the weariest of eaters.

The combination of tastes and the overall delight that is experienced with eating this type of cuisine has the tendency to remind one of the many years of evolution which has lead to these types of enjoyable dishes. Thousands of years of production and fine tuning coupled with the food style’s journey across the Pacific has rendered what I experienced that day, a truly enjoyable and satisfying meal.