I'm not a food critic. I’ll never determine if a dish needs a pinch more tarragon or a smidgen less marjoram. I can’t analyze flavor profiles and I wouldn’t break down the presentational attributes of a meal if I knew where to begin. The subtle nuances distinguishing a $7 box of Peter Vella from a $150 bottle of Napa Valley red go undetected to my less than sophisticated pallet. I can go no further than pegging each to be members of the wine family of booze. My analysis is entirely based on sensual and soulful appeal.
Having sufficiently outlined my lack of credibility, I know this much is true:
- If you’re at an ethnic restaurant and it’s full of white people, you’re not at an ethnic restaurant. Serving gringos what they perceive to be Mexican/Chinese/Indian/Thai/BBQ food is big business. The clientele will say much more about authenticity than the name on the building.
- Never eat at a chain. I don’t care how delightful the chicken strips at Chili’s or the cheese biscuits at Red Lobster are, you’re doing yourself and any present company an injustice by patronizing any of these soul-sucking establishments. Chain restaurants thrive on appealing to the masses. As a general guideline for life, re-evaluate your position anytime it falls in accordance with the masses.
- Cash only is an excellent sign of quality fair.
- If there is a specialty, try it.
Guide to Columbia, MO by genre:
Mexican: In Columbia, look no further than the Taqueria El Rodeo. Sans the gringo concession of crispy tacos, this place is as Mexican as ciudad de Juarez. The authenticity is evidenced by offerings of beef tongue, tripas (intestine) tacos, whole fried fish (crunchy fins are the highlight; avoid the eyeballs), migas (Mexican breakfast dish) and my personal favorite, the Torta Cubana. If you’re a gringo, verde salsa is available upon request. If you’re not, it will be served on arrival. The tamales aren’t on the menu, but are always available. Order them.
Chinese/Vietnamese: For nearly 17-years, the best Chinese food in Columbia has been hiding in plain sight. There is nothing aesthetically pleasing about the China Wok Express. The bland building at the corner of 5th and Broadway looks like a good place to walk past. Inside, décor is mostly absent except for two freshly painted murals and a colorful arrangement of table-side hot sauces. Orders are taken at the counter and cash is the only accepted tender. Start with anything under the Vietnamese portion of the menu, and don’t forget to add a bowl of soup. At a $1.61 apiece, you can’t afford to not add both hot and sour and egg drop. Most main dishes come with a kick, but a spoonful of homemade hot pepper sauce will put hair on your chest and lead in your pencil.
Burgers, Booze and Bar Stools: Booches. This bar, burger-joint and pool hall has been around since 1884, and it feels like it. The place has Gladys Knight and Luther Vandross kind of soul. A line of bottles, topped with empty cups, serve as a monument to the regulars who have died. A small plaque with some of their names accompanies each of the seven stools. Music is a rarity and the two televisions are almost always muted. Neither is necessary. The cheeseburgers are rightfully the king of the menu, but don’t rule out the other offerings. The chili is delectable on it’s own or smothered over a hotdog. Don’t ask to change the channel and bring your folding money.
BBQ: Shotgun Pete has the only worthwhile BBQ in Columbia. It’s served out of a shack, which is always a good indication when it comes to BBQ. Actually, any food shack that stays open more than 90 days and doesn’t strictly cater to bar-hoppers is a fairly good bet. Cash only.
Breakfast: Columbia has breakfast well covered. Ernie’s takes the prize for traditional diner cuisine. The biscuits and gravy are excellent (if you sleep in they will be gone), classic diner atmosphere and friendly staff. Prices are reasonable and food comes out in a hurry. The Café Berlin offers a more interesting and comprehensive menu. Local ingredients and unique dishes justify higher prices and longer waits. The staff is as eclectic as the menu and adds to the overall appeal. Best breakfast in town. If you smoke cigarettes, frequent the Perche Creek Cafe. Good food, strong coffee and tons of second-hand smoke. A throwback to what breakfast in America once was.
Honorable Mention: Murray’s is the best place for a date and there isn’t a bad dish on the menu. They even make meatloaf taste good. Don’t miss the tuna sandwich with pesto or fried green peppers. Live jazz and an intimate atmosphere seal the deal.