Story and photos by CHLOE NGUYEN
Asian seafood salad; beef tournedos with Asian-style salmon steak; vegetable stir fry; grilled chicken breast marinated with a ginger plum sauce — all food you would typically find in an Asian restaurant, right? Not quite.
You can actually find these dishes at the Coffee Shop, located inside the Little America Hotel, a three-star hotel in downtown Salt Lake City. The Coffee Shop is ranked 7th out of the 104 restaurants in the Salt Lake area, according to Virtual Tourist. It has always been known for its traditional “comfort food,” as Ashley Bollinger, 26, the hotel’s community relations manager, calls it. Its menus have had limited changes over the years because they have been well received by customers. But this does not mean there haven’t been accommodations.
“Most of the guests are very vocal with the dishes they like and what they would like to see added,” Bollinger said. “We feel the best way to review or make changes on our menu is to listen to them firsthand.”
Customers want diverse dishes, including those from Asian cultures, such as seafood salad and marinated ginger plum chicken. And while these dishes are only available through the hotel’s banquet menu, the hotel’s Coffee Shop is always serving their customers Asian vegetable stir fry. And if a dish is requested often enough, the decision to include it in the regular menu is considered.
Besides the customers, the people who make the dishes also contribute to what is on the menu. The hotel’s kitchen staff consists of a diverse group of individuals, including Caucasians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans and Hispanics. “[Because of this,] over the years I have incorporated many different dishes from all around the world in our daily cooking techniques and final products,” said Bernhard Götz, Little America’s executive chef.
Those final products are something to be proud of. Unlike some Americanized Asian dishes served at chain restaurants such as Panda Express or P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, the Coffee Shop is different. The chefs value the authenticity of a dish and the culture behind it.
“The traditional Asian dishes are prepared by my Asian cooks,” Götz said. “They are cooked in the traditional way with authentic ingredients.”
Ingredients native to Southeast Asia are included in the making of the dishes. Soy sauce, pineapple juice and ginger are some of the ingredients that go into the ginger plum sauce. Tofu, Napa cabbage, Bok Choy cabbage and Chinese mushroom are among the native vegetables of Southeastern Asian countries that are included in the vegetable stir fry. And like any authentic Asian dish, rice is always included.
If you ask people of Asian ethnicity, many will tell you that rice is a critical part of their culture. In most Asian cultures, “to eat” is often synonymous with the phrase “eat rice.” This can suggest that rice is of high importance to the people of Asia. Rice can be said to be an identification of the Asian community. “It’s important to keep the ingredients the way they would be as if in Asia,” Götz said. “You can’t get more authentic than that.”
But in America, it’s not always easy to keep the ingredients authentic. Chinese restaurant owners developed American Chinese cuisine when they modified their dishes to suit a more Western appetite. According to China Insight, these restaurants adapted by using local ingredients that were familiar to their customers, like flour. Rice was often replaced with noodles, made from flour. As a result, American Chinese cuisine is usually less pungent than authentic cuisine.
Many of these new dishes were quickly and easily prepared. According to an article by Yao-Wen Huang at Flavor & Fortune, they tend to be cooked with a lot of oil, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and sugar, which authentic cuisines do not commonly use.
It is rare to find an Asian American restaurant that serves Asian dishes with authentic ingredients and cooking methods. But the Little America Hotel recognizes and values the importance of diversity and culture in food. Just like language is a part of culture, so is food. “If we serve Asian food, we want it to be real, not fake,” Götz said. “That’s the whole point of why people come looking for authentic food.”