Is Sacramento erasing its cultural food boundaries?

This Sunday, I reviewed a place called Lou’s Sushi. It is a new neighborhood restaurant owned and operated by a man whose name happens to be Lou Valente.

I wonder how many people looked at that name and moved on, assuming a guy named Lou was probably a Johnny-Come-Lately who was doing trendy, possibly inferior sushi.

And yet, those who have followed Valente’s career know he is a true student of the craft. He put in his time, apprenticing for years to gain the knowledge and skill to do sushi the right way. Sure, his menu has some of Valente’s personality, but the quality of the products he uses – and the respect with which he uses them – is very impressive.

We are in a new and possibly enlightened era of food and culture in this town and, really, throughout the country. There are several sushi places of note owned by Vietnamese and Korean sushi chefs. More and more people are making regular trips to the amazing food to be found in a place the city has recognized as “Little Saigon,” the epicenter being Stockton Boulevard and 65th Street.

My colleague Allen Pierleoni recently wrote about the great bounty of food at Koreana Plaza and its multicultural food court that reflects the array of nationalities in Rancho Cordova. Part of the appeal of food is the sense of adventure we get when we try something new, if not exotic. Another part of it is how food can be an entry point to understanding other cultures in a casual and meaningful way.

Does food have boundaries? Certainly. But there are ways to show respect for those boundaries without being hamstrung by them. Having a global outlook when it comes to food can be about possibilities, about pushing the limits, about inspiration and fusion and lifelong learning – for those who eat and those who cook.

Before it closed a couple of years ago, one of my favorite fine dining experiences was at Ambience, a restaurant in Carmichael where the owner/chef was Korean, his talented sous chef was Mexican-American, and the two found a beautiful bond by making modernist, artistically realized French food. Imagine the dialogue in the kitchen – an older chef with a heavy Korean accent talking French technique to his young protege. Like Valente, Chef Morgan Song was sometimes considered an outsider in the world of French cuisine mostly because of his name. Song has since opened a new restaurant called Ambience in Los Altos.

Then there are the global-inspired dishes we see in some fine dining establishments. This isn’t being derivative. It means the chefs are paying attention and are inspired to add new flavors and combinations to their repertoires. Last week I ate an amazing example of poutine – French fries and gravy and cheese curds. Yet, we’re an awful long way from French-speaking Canada where this heart-attack-on-a-plate originated. That same restaurant served a bone marrow dish with the flavors of pho, the delicious Vietnamese soup that has its own multicultural fan base in this town.

Some of our best restaurants have added to their menus their take on the banh mi sandwich, a very flavorful Vietnamese sandwich with great, crunchy textures along with delicious meat. Served on crunchy baguettes (from the French influence in Vietnam), these sandwiches usually cost a few bucks on Stockton Boulevard, but now we’re seeing upscale versions of them for $10 or more. I love both kinds, and I’m especially fond of the stellar banh mi at Magpie and Juno’s. Prior to its closing, Tuli Bistro also had a banh mi.

So, if you’re a cultural purist when it comes to food, you may be closing your mind to a new opportunities, whether you’re scoffing at a place called Lou’s Sushi or wondering how some American chef could possibly do a banh mi sandwich. Perhaps the best way to embrace global cuisine is to focus on how the food can enlighten us, inspire us and, perhaps, bring us together.

To read Allen Pierleoni’s take on Koreana Plaza, click here.

To see my review of Lou’s Sushi, click here.