International Intrigue: Why There’s No Shame in Dining at US Chains Abroad
It was hard to believe that I’d spent an entire afternoon in the six-million-square-foot mall of my dreams and hadn’t eaten a single bite. The ground-floor restaurant collection was a centipede of America’s greatest hits, some greater than others: a Red Lobster attached to a Texas Roadhouse giving way to a P.F. Chang’s, with its towering, Tang Dynasty–esque horse standing guard. And a Bennigan’s? Didn’t they go out of business years ago? Clearly not, but no one was devouring any World Famous Monte Cristos on the other side of the curved wall of windows. No one in the shopping center was eating or drinking, period. Ramadan was seriously cramping my style.
Even though I risked being late for my dinner reservation — across town, at an upscale Indian restaurant in an outpost of London’s Grosvenor House — I hunkered down in my white leather chair at Cacao Sampaka, the Barcelona-based chocolatier posing as an open-air café here inside The Dubai Mall, and waited for 7:08 p.m. to arrive.
And there it was: The now-familiar wail built up, then echoed down the canyon of storefronts for what felt like five minutes, though in all likelihood it was only half that. Iftar, the evening meal that breaks each day’s fast, could commence. Bloomin’ Onions could now be consumed. The man slumped at the next table sprang to life, pulling a bottle of water and a few dates from his bag. Suddenly, crowds were forming in front of hostess stands. Women draped in black abayas and covered by hijabs parked their strollers, plastic beepers clutched in hand.
Me, I wanted to know how a barbecue chain operates without beer and baby back ribs. Would the staff at Texas Roadhouse, most likely a mix of Filipino and South Asian “guest workers,” wear “I heart my job!” T-shirts and break into country line dances, like they did in Perth Amboy? It’s one thing to watch a bunch of New Jersey youngsters’ choreographed attempts at Southern charm, and quite another when visas depend upon cheerfully representing a foreign culture for diners who haven’t experienced it firsthand either. Americans are not plentiful in the United Arab Emirates, despite the astonishing degree of our culinary influence there — from these suburban chains to NYC-based exports like Magnolia Bakery and Shake Shack. But I had to run before I could see my own country refracted back at me in a potentially embarrassing manner. Even though I might have preferred checking out a deep-dish at the Pizzeria Uno across from the ice skating rink, my truffle oil– and morel-enhanced Lamb Gucci Korma was waiting.
Luckily, I’ve been afforded other opportunities for such cultural immersion. Though it seemed decadent, not to mention impractical — Dubai was a brief layover on a longer celebratory trip that included three Southeast Asian cities — I vowed to return and spend more temperature-controlled quality time people-watching under fluorescent lights. Oh, and dine during daylight hours, whether or not I actually felt any rays warming my skin.
You would have to fly to the moon to escape America’s stamp on dining abroad (and it wouldn’t shock me if a space-station Taco Bell were in the works). I’ve eaten a Rhode Island–sized slice of Texas toast at a Sizzler in Bangkok and a spice-rich rendang patty at a Singaporean Burger King, and I’ve pondered the escargots at a Shanghai Pizza Hut (cumin lamb balls somehow seemed more Italian). And I’m a better traveler for it.
If you’ve loaded up, camel-like, on grilled slabs of beef, milanesas, choripán, and empanadas in Buenos Aires for a week, that’s enough local flavor to allow for a pit stop at TGI Friday’s along the banks of the Río de la Plata. One frozen margarita isn’t going to undo all the glasses of Malbec that came before it.
This isn’t purely about the comforts of home, because you can’t get a $5 footlong stuffed with paneer tikka in the US. These localized dishes enable you to experience American-ness from another culture’s perspective. I hadn’t set foot in a Pizza Hut since the summer I worked at a takeout operation nearly two decades ago, yet I knew that the version I’d find in a modern Chinese shopping district would be nothing like a branch in an Oregon strip mall next to a 7-Eleven.
At first, you feel a little dirty, and then you realize that no one cares except internet commenters. Or maybe expats and the types of travelers (never tourists) who define themselves according to how deeply they’ve become immersed in the culture, as if repurposing keffiyehs stylishly or ordering kebabs in Arabic means that locals won’t notice they’re American. I, too, dabbled in local customs at that Pizza Hut, but even though I was the only non-Chinese diner, it was I who caught disapproving stares from a passing group of Westerners. (Though, to be fair, I’ve felt far more silent judgment on the F train with an Olive Garden bag tucked between my feet.)
Our down-market restaurants confer status elsewhere. Because Pizza Hut is more expensive in Shanghai than a steamer basket of soup dumplings, the dining experience must match, meaning that table service and sparkling wine might accompany that plate of escargots. And our shamefully suburban brands, thought to be valued only by those Americans lacking the taste to appreciate real food, are embraced in wealthy parts of the Middle East. (Never mind the fact that P.F. Chang’s now serves quinoa, kale, and farro, and hand-crafted cocktails using rhubarb bitters and amaro have trickled down to chains like Maggiano’s.) When The Cheesecake Factory opened in Dubai, two-hour waits were common, and His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum was spotted dining with his family. No word on whether any Tex Mex Eggrolls were ordered.
Arva Ahmed, founder of Dubai-based culinary tour company Frying Pan Adventures and an advocate for regional foods and local traditions (despite a few Pizza Hut novelties in her past), cautions against the assumption that all residents blindly embrace chain restaurants. She agrees that a fondness for Western trends exists, but that’s due in part to the cosmopolitan nature of the city. “Many of the people in my generation have traveled abroad extensively for work, study, and pleasure. So, when they return to Dubai, they want to continue enjoying the foods they may have in the US, UK, or wherever else,” Ahmed says.
I did return to Dubai, over Thanksgiving 2013, and traveling alone for the first time in 14 years. More frugal than before, I settled on the cheapest hotel I could find closest to the Mall of the Emirates, so that I might visit it daily (which I almost did). One sprint across two lanes of traffic and I was an escalator ride away from an IHOP serving veal sausage, a beef-pepperoni-appropriating California Pizza Kitchen, and a Shake Shack with a menu nearly indistinguishable from the original.
I walked past the sprawling Cheesecake Factory, where, at close to 10 p.m., families still waited for tables. The fast food court featured KFC, Subway, and Fatburger alongside regional chains like Al Farooj and Hatam. I wanted to claim some in-person cred, rather than simply reading about foreign fast food anomalies, increasingly the subject of mainstream-media attention (edible fried chicken nail polish, anyone?), from afar.
There’s something to be said for just letting the absurdity wash over you — absorbing some of the incongruities, saving others to process later — but ultimately finding a stillness among the gleaming atria, polished floors, and streams of shoppers treating this mall like any other mall. (And, if you do get overwhelmed, you can drink expensive Budweiser and smoke cheap Gauloises in the faux ski lodge overlooking the man-made slopes until you’re ready for further sensory overload.)
In the end, I bought some mannakish, instant coffee (this is teakettle territory), and prepackaged slices of something called “chicken mortadella Mexican la fontaine” at Carrefour to bring back to my New York kitchenette. Then I celebrated Thanksgiving with a slice of opera cake at Fauchon, with a view of another P.F. Chang’s.
“Same same but different” is a Thai phrase that crosses my mind in situations like these. There’s a small, precious window between when something is fresh and exciting simply because it’s new to you and when it becomes unremarkable and commonplace. When I first moved to Brooklyn, in the ’90s, I thought “Boar’s Head” sounded wonderfully exotic, until I learned it was just a brand of deli meat.
The motivation behind the enthusiasm for American chains can occasionally be as inscrutable as a McDonald’s pork burger on a green bun. When I asked Tetsuya Tanaka, a well-traveled Tokyo resident who Facebook-friended me last year after attending a party of mine, why he likes Tony Roma’s, Hard Rock Cafe, and Shake Shack (all restaurants I’ve seen him checking into in Japan), his response was to lament the lack of pastrami and lobster sandwiches in his home country. It seemed that his visits were less about the chains — and any perception of kitschiness — and more about seeking out American dishes.
I’m not discounting novelty out of hand. The primary reason why I ate a McRib in Berlin was because I could. Like the country’s beloved franks doused in ketchup and curry powder, or its baffling fondness for David Hasselhoff, regular access to the sandwich that has achieved mythic status in the US due to its scarcity is an only-in-Germany experience. Nowhere else in the world can you find the boneless pork patty slathered with sweet barbecue sauce on McDonald’s permanent menu. And, if you happen to visit the Kreuzberg McDonald’s, you can carry your red tray, holding a cardboard box with “ich liebe es” (“I’m loving it”) printed in a jaunty font on the side and a plastic cup of beer, up a winding staircase, past the graffitied column and two-story photo mural depicting gray tenement facades with bricked-in windows. If the weather’s nice, you can dine on an outdoor patio that sits directly in front of Checkpoint Charlie. There’s the border-crossing booth replica, with sandbags stacked in front, and locals dressed like US soldiers who’ll pose for photos for a fee, like less creepy Times Square Elmos. Across the street, a black-and-white sign warns, “You are now leaving the American sector.” And believe me, you are.