Being on the road all the time means that I am constantly eating out. Because of budgetary constraints, a lot of it ends up being fast food garbage or some buffet place of mostly-dubious quality. Roadfood is an occasional series in which I highlight some of the better options I find along the way.
I have a hypothesis about restaurants that have been featured on Food Network and/or Travel Channel shows. It goes thusly: the quality of these restaurants takes a hit as the extra demand caused by being featured on these shows (which is not a one-time surge, as these shows are re-run consistently for years and years) leads them to cut some corners in order to meet this demand. So the pork shoulder that used to be smoked to perfection over 12 hours is now smoked for only 8 hours; the chickens that used to be purchased through a local farm now go through the ubiquitous Sysco; the previously-fresh fish now comes from halfway around the world. I'm sure vegetarian-based examples can be found, too, but that ain't my purview, babe.
This hypothesis popped into my head during my travels last year, particularly while in a swing through New Jersey in which – using the TVFoodMaps website as a guide - I sampled a half-dozen restaurants that had been featured on these shows, and was underwhelmed by the majority of them. Maybe my expectations were too high. Maybe these places just weren't very good to begin with. I could accept the former; accepting the latter, though, meant that the praise bestowed upon these places by folks like Guy Fieri and Adam Richman was wrong, and . . . well, how can that be possible? If I can't trust the flavorgasmic opinions of Guy Fieri and Adam Richman, then whose flavorgasmic opinion can I trust?
Further reinforcement of my hypothesis came a couple months later while visiting Calgary, Alberta. Prior to leaving my hotel in order to walk across the street to catch the first home game of the Calgary Stampeeders' CFL season (yeah – get jealous), I watched a Canada-centric variance of Diners, Drive-Ins, & Dives. One of the segments on the show had the host visiting a restaurant in downtown Calgary that featured the most beautiful porchetta sandwich I had ever seen – locally-sourced, slow roasted for X number of hours, then thickly sliced and placed on housemade ciabatta bread. It also featured pork cracklings as a topping (and arugula, but whatever). It looked like perfection – I had to have it.
The following afternoon, I found my way over to the restaurant, placed my order, declined to pay a dollar for their special purified water (seriously), and excitedly waited. Then the sandwich came out and it looked nothing like the one on the TV show. Then I gave it a taste and was disappointed even further: the ciabatta bread was stale and tough, the porchetta was sliced super-thin and flavorless, and the cracklings were barely there. I guess the arugula was okay, but whatever. Was it an anomaly (in their "defence", I went during a week in which the town was still recovering from a once-in-a-lifetime flood, so it's possible that logistics made it more difficult for them to obtain their locally-sourced piggies), or was the unsatisfying quality of their previously TV-show-worthy sandwich a result of the increased demand caused by that TV show appearance?
Despite the disappointments I encountered last year, I still consider this to be a hypothesis. More testing is needed – more samples need to be taken – before I can convincingly turn this hypothesis into a proven theory. And, really, I want my hypothesis to be proved wrong – as a food lover on a budget, I'd much rather have my mind blown with tastiness than to find further mediocre validation for the previous 600 words in this post.
Thankfully, my time last week in Savannah involved two visits to a restaurant called Zunzi's, which happily helped to punch a big, flavorful hole in my hypothesis.
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Zunzi's came to my attention at some point in my travels last year, when I saw it featured on a segment of the Travel Channel show, Adam Richman's Best Sandwiches In America. The sandwich that garnered the show's designation contained baked chicken and some sort of special sauce served on French bread. Given my fried food and pork-loving tendencies, it didn't seem like something that I would much care for. However, there was something about the host's reaction upon taking a first bite – he seemed genuinely blown away by the quality of the sandwich, as if he had no idea that something that didn't involve frying or pork could taste so good. It made an impression – I made a mental note to make sure to check out the place if my travels ever took me to Savannah.
And then my travels took me to Savannah. I was actually in town late last year, during Thanksgiving weekend. I tried going to Zunzi's with a friend of mine during one of our nights in town, but we got there too late (they close at 5pm), so we opted for calzones from Vinny Van Go Go's instead (highly recommended, by the way). When I found myself back in town last week, I knew that I wasn't leaving until I checked out Zunzi's at least once.
Both of my visits occurred in the mid-afternoon, a little after 2pm in order to avoid any lunch rush. There was still a line each time, but it wasn't too bad –my longest wait, during my second visit, was about 10 minutes. Once inside (and there's not very much of an inside – ordering and waiting for your food can get claustrophobic), I looked at the items on the menu board and quickly grew anxious, as everything looked very good, so I didn't know what to order, but I had to make my decision fast because I was nearing the front of the counter and I couldn't just step aside to think about it some more because I was smushed in with a bunch of other people in this cramped space and stepping out of line meant stepping outside which meant having to get back in line to wait some more and probably still not come up with what I wanted to order.
So I froze up, and ended up ordering what the 2 folks in front of me ordered. That turned out to be a dish called Oliver's Lunch, which is named after Savannah's favorite son, the character actor Oliver Platt (maybe). The dish – pictured at the top of this post - consisted of their baked chicken and some smoked sausage served on rice (you can also opt for mashed potatoes instead), with a side salad, and a small piece of French bread. Along with a sweet tea, I took my to-go box and walked over to a bench at a square. As I ate it, all I could think was, "this is good, but it's not what I wanted", which ended up greatly tempering my enjoyment of Oliver. This led to another thought: "Is this dish – good but not mind-blowing – strengthening my hypothesis?" And then there was a last thought: "God, I'm an idiot." Curse my menu board anxiety (M.B.A. – look for it in the latest Diagnostic & Statistical Manual)! And damn those 2 people in front of me – why did they have to be such big Oliver Platt fans?
That's why I went back for another visit the following afternoon. My disappointment wasn't their fault, but mine – I just needed to order the right thing. That meant no side salad and no rice and no small piece of French bread. I needed to avoid the menu board altogether and instead focus on one thing: ordering one of the best sandwiches in America.
That's what I needed to do. Of course, that's not what happened, because I once again looked up at the menu board and froze up and completely lost my focus.
Again, the sandwich that was highlighted on the show featured baked chicken and their special sauce on French bread. It's called the Conquistador, which is the nickname of Savannah's favorite son, the character actor Oliver Platt (maybe). The ingredients for the sandwich were also found in the dish I ate the day before, so my attention started turning over to another sandwich on their menu board, which featured a homemade version of the South African sausage known as boerewors. This was what I became set on ordering until I scanned the menu board one more time and saw another sandwich called the Godfather, named after blah blah Oliver Platt et cetera. This one featured all the ingredients of the Conquistador plus the boerewors plus marinara and possibly one other sauce as well. This was it – as soon as I ran through all the ingredients in my head, I knew that this was the item that I should have ordered all along.
The sandwich is pictured below. Other than showing that the Godfather is so loaded that it's impossible to eat it without a fork, the photograph does it no justice – you just have to try it for yourself in order to fully grasp how incredibly delicious this sandwich is. You also have to eat it properly, which involves finding the right balance of the chicken and the boerewors. The sausage is strong and fragrant and might not be up everyone's alley (the co-owner gave me a sample before making the sandwich in order to make sure I liked it). Since the sandwich is too big to eat by hand, the best thing to do is to get a little bit of the boerewors with your fork, then nab a good chunk of chicken and munch away – the taste of the sausage is more subtle this way and compliments the chicken and the sauces quite nicely.
Zunzi's can be found in the Historic District of Savannah at 108 E. York Street. My impressions were all based on this location, as I didn't realize until later that they have a second location closer to the river with later hours, booze, and less cramped quarters. This indicates that they continue to have plenty of demand, and that meeting that demand has not led to cutting any corners or a decrease in quality, which means that my hypothesis has taken quite a hit. I couldn't be happier.
Oliver Platt can currently be seen in the FX show, Fargo.
Have you eaten at Zunzi's? Are there other places in Savannah you can recommend for the next time I end up there? Have you ever visited a restaurant solely because it was featured on a Food Network show? Did it meet your expectations? Am I fishing for comments? Answer any question you wish in the comments or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.