by Dan Johnson
What is fusion food?
Americans are borrowers and thieves. We take a little of this and a dash of that and heap it into a catch-all gumbo we call culture. There’s no purity here. (CC: Trump supporters) From bloodlines to language, fashion to food, our society is built on the happenstance of odd combinations.
So who then gets to employ the word “fusion” in describing their cuisine? If I go down to McDonald’s and get a Big Mac combo, I’m ordering a slab of meat done up American style, served on a bun strewn with seeds that trace their historical culinary origins to the Near East, lathered with an egg derivative from Mallorca, Spain, plated with deep-fried potato shards Thomas Jefferson stole in concept from the French. Is that not fusion?
The unspoken truth of the foodie huckster game is that a dish qualifies as “fusion” when its blend of styles has been injected, basted or roasted with cash.
For a built-in surcharge, you too can dine on creatively conceived meals that juxtapose disparate ethnic tropes in a palette coating morass of presumption. You can sit in a restaurant artfully clad with Italian frescos and Japanese shoji and think to yourself, “My God, I’m tasting the very nectar of globalization! Ours is truly a beautiful global village.”
Or you could to Gil’s on Hill St between 7th and 8th. We’ll call it “Pan-Pacific Blue Collar Fusion.” The whole damn block is a warren of working class food options. From Wow Bowl to bento to teriyaki to a few varieties of kabob, that tiny stretch of Downtown Los Angeles is brimming with the promise of a new gastro world where the Orient and the Occident interface.
Why this block? Well, the sub-7th St stretch of the Jewelry District ain’t exactly the focal point of the adaptive reuse renaissance. Even amongst the ring-hawkers, the few store fronts and up-stairs markets aren’t prime real estate. Furthermore, twenty three bus lines transverse Hill, 7th and 8th streets en route to exotic destinations like Watts, Long Beach, West Adams, Sunland, Shadow Hills and La Crescenta.
In short, the block is the food court at an unmarked hub where you can take down economy eats before or after your mass transit commute to and from a thankless job. This goes a long way in explaining why Gil’s is open from 5:30am to 3:30pm.
The place is a shack. There’s a picture menu that may or not be a load bearing design component wedged between concrete block walls and corrugated steel roof. Inside, you’ll find simple booths of the mid-to-late 20th century fast food generica variety. The nostalgia inclined will appreciate the Sobe drink cooler with rack after rack of various beverages including Sunny D. Behind the counter, next to the modest grill space, are a variety of Alka-Seltzer/Advil/Tylenol type pain relievers.
Gil’s clearly meets a need. It would be refreshing if more food service options in Downtown had an equally utilitarian ethos. In fact, I celebrate Gil’s because the truth of American melting pot culture in the age of arch-globalization and Pacific Rim diaspora is on full display in the menu.
The spot is definitively in America. Hence concessions to steak sandwiches, a $2.75 toast combo and a burger affair with fried potatoes. So too do teriyaki bowls, ramen offerings and fried rice harken to the Asian influence in the restaurant’s management corp. Yet, the real seller here appears to be traditional Mexican fare. This speaks to the demographic truth. The kitchen staff and clientele are overwhelmingly Latino.
Fusion at its finest. You can douse your carnitas quesadilla with sriracha. The Asian woman taking your order will refer to you as “amigo” or “amiga” in a heavily-accented staccato. You can use American dollars to pay for a dining experience that approximates social disenfranchisement as you sit silent and mostly ignored except for the few moments where you are horrorstruck after the man mopping the floors stirs rolls of phlegm in his throat via a productive cough directed unapologetically at your face. Did he see me there? Did he do that intentionally? Does he care? Do I have any course of action?
Had I paid eighteen dollars for my beef teriyaki noodle plate at a fancy-pants fusion palace spelled “Chode” but pronounced “Chutey,” I would have been pretty pissed at the results. But since I only kicked out $7.25 for the plate and a bottle of water, I was of a much better mood to accept the lackluster heap of gristled skirt steak, assorted vegetables and noodles. A more substantial culinary landmark might have called the dish “subtly flavored,” “garnished with sliced carrot, natural length broccoli stems and organic onions.” Here, it’s known simply as “lunch” or “almuerzo.”
Waste not, want not. So goes the creed of frugal foodies. I packed an impossibly large quantity of gut-busting teriyaki into my gullet. I practically waddled out of that place, which is bizarre because I got hungry again in an hour and a half. Just to clarify for the Spago-set: when I say MSG appears to have been in full-effect, I am speaking about food additive Monosodium Glutamate not the sold out Springsteen concert at Madison Square Garden.
Hey, I got what I paid for. Incidentally, this included the cashier haranguing me in broken English on my way out to inquire if I had paid already. Yes, Miss, I paid. How you could have forgotten the transaction with the Kenny G look alike I will never know. Do all curly haired white people look alike? Don’t answer that.
Outside, beneath the threadbare green awning, someone has seen fit to scrawl, “Life is crazy/You just have/to be insane/to see it.” Ain’t that the truth? Sometimes you really have to perturb your sense of normalcy to get any sort of accurate bearing on the clusterfuck of a world we live in. Those brief indulgences in madness are valuable experiences. When we move out of our comfort zone, we knock the rust off of our toxic assumptions and prosperity-pickled entitlements.
So why don’t you treat yourself to an affordable and borderline flavorless fusion meal at Gil’s this week? No, you will not achieve gastro-transcendence. But maybe you’ll come to learn a lesson about resignation, basic nutritional needs and bottom-up cultural negotiation that opens up a psychic gateway to a new understanding of the crowded, noisy, and vaguely promising world of our Pacific Century.
I award Gil’s a hearty “1” on the binary and a “Jesus Christ, cover your mouth when you cough” on the Basic Human Decency spectrum.
Take in Gil’s at 730 S Hill St. Or don’t. Either way.