When we talk about regional food, we usually mean fried clams and coney dogs and datil pepper sauce.
For a regional food to qualify as really special, it has to be made with gusto within a limited geographic area, obviously. But a dish’s status also hinges on a cloudy backstory, fiercely-guarded family recipes and outsiders perplexed by its appeal. To find preparations that qualify, intrepid eaters typically patronize church suppers and scruffy cafes. They don’t haunt restaurants that are assumed to be the same everywhere, such as Japanese steakhouses.
Their loss. On a recent trip to suburban New York, I ended up having a hibachi dinner in a strip mall, and was reminded anew that edible regionalisms flourish even in the face of convention.
My guess is Benihana in Atlanta isn’t too different from Benihana in Beverly Hills: The whole point of chain restaurants is consistency. But I’m sure the independently-owned Banzai in Hartsdale, N.Y. wouldn’t fly in the Southeast.
I’ve eaten at lots of Japanese steakhouses in the Carolinas. Yes, the beef’s cheap and the shrimp’s not local, but I love the antic atmosphere and the diverse groups of diners that gather around a table. Plus, I have the kind of appetite that sometimes drives me to order another appetizer after my entrée, so I appreciate the heaping pile of fried rice that accompanies a hibachi meal. Portions are so massive at most area Japanese steakhouses that servers circulate with takeout boxes before anyone asks.
So I was pretty surprised that almost everyone at Banzai ate all of the meat, vegetables, rice and noodles (noodles!) flipped their way. It’s worth noting that these were not especially large people. Excess just isn’t a Northern hibachi value, I guess.
But what really floored me was the total absence of white sauce, the sugary mayonnaise concoction that many Southern hibachi fans find more enjoyable than a triple flaming onion stack. Personally, I’m not crazy about white sauce: Sweet and pink aren’t my favorite food attributes. But I genuinely love watching my fellow diners at Japanese steakhouses ask for white sauce in all three compartments of their segmented sauce trays. It’s not uncommon for restaurants to impose surcharges on extra white sauce; at restaurants where the sauce comes free, I’ve seen tables empty jugs of the stuff. True connoisseurs – and the Lowcountry is home to many – rate Japanese steakhouses on the strength of their white sauce.
“What is it about the white sauce?,” a hibachi server in Asheville once asked me.
Interestingly, nobody’s certain of white sauce’s provenance. I’ve consulted Benihana and various commercial producers, and it’s unclear how the salad dressing became a hibachi fixture. Mayonnaise is hugely popular in Japan, so maybe its inclusion isn’t so far-fetched: Japanese eaters slather mayo on their pizza. They mix mayonnaise into their fermented soybeans and spread it on fried eggs, which arguably makes the condiment every bit as “authentic” as the ginger sauce and mustard central to New York hibachi culture.
The South, of course, likes mayonnaise too. Now’s the season for sliced tomato sandwiches and picnic tables set with cold chicken and devilled eggs.
In the realm of regional food, white sauce has it all: A hazy history; contention about who makes it best and charms lost on eaters elsewhere. The South ought to be proud to claim it.