Stranger in a Strange Land: Our Global Smorgasbord

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Our Global Smorgasbord

I just had my first encounter with Marco’s pizza and my entire world has changed. Although I have been to Marco’s before, I have never ordered their celebrity-endorsed pizza. But alas, I have lost my pizzeria virginity to the hands of a greasy slice of cheese-covered pizza. I haven’t had a pizza experience this perfect since Florence. The pizza, the cooks and the overall atmosphere are as close to Italy as one can get this side of the pond. And surprisingly, it’s located right here in Dubuque.

Being a mutt of Polish and German genes (with a slight strand of Canadian thrown in) the whole ethnic-identity phenomenon that has defined our country never really made sense to me. The closest I got to connecting with my inner Polack was through an inside-out coffee mug given to my father as a gag gift. I remember hearing stories about how Dubuque was a town built by Irish, German and Italian immigrants who arrived from Chicago looking for a better way of life. Although today it may seem these immigrant roots have been blended into obscurity since the days of building Irish Catholic churches across the street from German Catholic churches, the effect immigrants had, and continue to have, at sculpting the cultural landscape of our city continues to be felt. Nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to going out to eat.

Let’s start with Germany. When one thinks of Germany one thinks of beer, and lots of it. Likewise, when one looks at Dubuque, one sees beer, and lots of it. Not long ago Dubuque ranked number three in the world in per capita alcohol consumption, losing to two small towns located in, you guessed it, Germany. At the Europa Haus Restaurant and Bier Stube you can still experience Dubuque’s German roots. Not only does a mural of a stein-swinging Pauli Girl greet you outside, inside you can feast on such Old World staples as meat, potatoes and an occasional Weiner schnitzel.

Even the French maintain a lingering ghost of an influence over the city they founded. Despite that unfortunate time when being French was frowned upon, we Dubuquer’s resisted the reactionary urge to rename our city something ridiculous like Freedom Town and instead carried on with our subversive French-ness. Granted, there might not be any French restaurants per se, but our numerous cafes present a café culture modeled after that found only in Paris. Café Mana Java, for instance, serves a selection of gourmet coffees, chocolate-filled croissants and a selection of wines in a cozy, art-filled environment. With a steaming cup of espresso tamed by a cube of sugar and a window to watch people from, it’s like Paris without, well…Paris.

Today the Hispanic influx is the latest group to add to our city’s ethnic buffet. With a new Mexican restaurant opening daily, perhaps no other immigrant population has contributed more to our municipal dinning table. However, its not only chimichangas and burritos that we benefit from, we can also indulge in South of the border treats from both El Paisano grocery store and a newly opened Mexican bakery.

The list of immigrant influences on our choice of restaurants is endless. There are such classics as House of China and Yen Chings for Chinese food, Asian Gourmet for Thai and Vietnamese, and Taiko for Japanese. Although we’ve been suffering prolonged Gyro withdrawal, the Athenian Grill will soon be cooking up their moussaka and sweet baklava again. Opa! And before we know it summer will be here and we can migrate downtown to stand in line and wait for a chance to sink our teeth into a Sugar Ray’s soul-fulfilling barbeque sandwich.

Last but not least, there’s the Irish. The Irish have accomplished something along the lines of a miracle: They have conquered the world by beer. There is not one corner on this planet lacking an Irish pub, and Dubuque is no exception. After pizza at Marco’s, I find myself seated at the Busted Lift for a vicious round of “Pub Quiz”. Swirling the froth in my pint while drawing a blank on an answer, I instead think of how Dubuque’s dining scene resembles what the United Nations’ cafeteria must look like. If it weren’t for immigrants and their diverse culture of food, I would not have had the opportunity to enjoy a true-Italian pizza or this purely Irish Guinness. Maybe someday there will even be a spot at Dubuque’s global smorgasbord for a Polish restaurant? Yes, I can see it now- Klenske Polanski’s Sausage and Bacon (as a nod to my reluctant Canadian). Let’s just hope nobody closes the buffet before I have a chance to get in line.


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