Food culture is a function of cultural culture. But what is culture? One idea suggests it is the practice of traditions, these in turn being old ways of doing things, ways that are obsolete and bear little relevance to the modern world. Dressing up in old-fashioned costumes and singing and dancing every five years most certainly are culture—a very important example, too—but ultimately, it does not feed the homeless. Food culture is more indicative of what a society is like than the practice of culture itself, for it is practiced several times a day. The foods consumed in a metropolitan society reflect just how pedestrian that society really is. Thus food culture, following the logic above, means rejecting the new in preference of the old. The more foodly cultural you are, the less open-minded—and hence ignorant—you therefore appear to be. It means preferring Soviet-era mystery meat sauce over something like—oh I don’t know—green salad? This is a xenophobic paradox worthy of Zeno of Citium, right here on Tartu – City of Good Food.
This blog has previously mentioned how there are really only three fast food establishments available to the bar crowd—Alvi Kebob, McDonald’s, and the local gas station hotdogs—and that you should probably just stay where you are if you want to eat in hopes of warding off a hangover. In America, however (a very unfoodly cultural place, because so many different cuisines are so very popular), the afterparty munchies are extremely fickle because, well, they can be. My university town had a Tex-Mex place that offered “burritos as big as your head” for just a couple bucks. And they were that big. And that’s why we are too. But at least there’s a choice. The choice exists because people take advantage of it. Here, the market is less demanding, and that’s both good and bad for obvious reasons.
Before going ice-skating at Lõunakeskus (a mall) one evening, Mrs. Mingus and I spotted a bus parked up against a wall. Inside the mall. An honest-to-goodness bus, in working order. It served fast food. The selection was a bit odd: the first thing on the menu was a hamburger, and the second thing on the menu was also a hamburger. The difference was that in the second burger, you could get beef, but at Le Bus, “beef” is called “grill”. Or you could get a chicken patty instead. Well, if the second burger offers a choice of beef or chicken, what in the world was on the first burger?
And just this past week, I discovered a new joint called City, right downtown, by Barclay Square. The image of their cheeseburger looked so inviting, I just had to try it. The guy behind the counter—Kristjan—seemed to be the owner as well, not to mention stoned. I think he was stoned because I was a stranger, but he was very informal (yet still polite!) and humorous. He answered my questions. “Is the meat in the burger beef?” —Of course it’s beef. Have a look! And he picked up a tiny little thing out of the freezer. At first I thought he was going to try to play music from it in the restaurant’s compact disc player.
So welcome to Episode One of Burger Wars: A New Hope. Do these two new additions make Tartu and Tartites more or less foodly cultural? (Remember, “less” is actually good, by my logic.)
The battle begins. Le Bus is inside a Citroën, and that’s where the Frenchness ends. Definitely a good gimmick, an old gas-guzzler that’s about as healthy as the food it serves. I almost felt like I was outside, as the nearby ice rink adds a breath of something resembling fresh air. City starts out in a quiet corner of a newish building. Inside, it has the most typically, Westernly fast-food interior of all fast-food places in Tartu, except for McDonald’s, of course. The cool thing is the vaulted floor-to-ceiling window that goes out as you look up. Apart from the asphalt parking lot just outside, it somewhat resembles the top level of the ferry to Stockholm.
The help are polite in both places, if not a tad overly cultural in their behaviors. City charges you three kroons for ketchup, but it’s not in a tube as in other better-known establishments. It’s the cheapest ketchup available, with a sort of spiced flavor. Doesn’t really go well with anything, so don’t bother buying it.
“Out of curiosity,” I asked, “why do you charge for ketchup?”
—I don’t know, replied a new employee—Krista—who had just come from the back.
“Do you charge for salt, too?” I continued, eyeing the condiment tray.
—No, of course not.
“Why of course not?”
—Because it’s just salt.
“But this is just ketchup.”
—I don’t know.
“What about these coffee creamers? Are those free?”
“So I can just take some?”
—No, you have to buy a coffee.
“But I bought a hamburger, and fries.”
Just a shrug.
I continued with, “So it’s pretty certain that these creamers, individually packed, are more expensive per gram than the ketchup from this huge bottle, so why do I have to pay for it?”
—I don’t know. She was really smiling, out of embarrassment it seemed, so I gave up. She doesn’t own the place, or make the rules. I simply wanted to get some insider knowledge.
And then she squeezed out a tiny bit of red stuff into a plastic dish. “Could I have a little more, please?”
“Because I have more than two French fries to eat.”
She gave me some more, and I didn’t have to pay for the extra amount, either.
Back at Le Bus, I also wanted ketchup. The burgers are served in little paper pockets, so I had no way of evenly ketchuping my sandwich—just piling it up on the front, drowning the meat, doesn’t cut it for me. I asked if they had anything they could put it on. Ironically, Krista worked here as well. She was moonlighting.
—I can put some on this coffee cup lid, if you want.
“But there’s a ventilation hole.”
—I’ll put it on this side.
“There’s a hole there, too.”
—But it’s smaller.
“I just wouldn’t want you to have to clean up my mess on the table when it leaks,” I timidly smiled.
—It won’t leak. You’ll see.
Now, the reason I made that comment about cleaning up my mess was because there were no serving trays available. I had to make the trip from the bus to the seating area four times to transport our meal, and I had laid out a tablecloth made of paper napkins. That’s a big, big minus, in my opinion. The tabletop wasn’t capable of sustaining visible life, but it wasn’t as clean as it could be. Now I understood why. But Krista was right—it didn’t leak through the little hole.
The food itself was mediocre. Well, no, that’s not fair. The hamburger at Le Bus was a decent size and tasted proper. It had real lettuce and tomato, not Chinese cabbage. Slightly pricey, but worth eating a second time if you happen to be in that particular mall. The same thing at City was a joke. The first time I ate their food, I stumbled upon it on the way to the grocery store. I thought it would be worth a try. It was so bad that I had to write about it, but that would involve actually going back there again and getting some photographs.
Although I will say the kebob was not nearly as bad. I am not sure, but I think it was beef as well. But there was no way in Helsinki I was going to eat that ridiculous burger again. Then something caught my eye: a baguette sandwich! Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I am obsessed with finding baguettes in Tartu, without cheese or seeds or any other odd toppings. Just a plain old baguette. And here was one as a sandwich. I got the one with kebob meat. It was absolutely delicious, and gigantic, for just thirty-five kroons. This thing is the best buy in Tartu kroon for kroon. But be warned—while it’s wrapped in one piece of foil, it’s been cut in half. I opened it up and tried to lift it, but the “head” fell all over the tray, causing a royal French mess. And I was only served one napkin, and it was inside the foil! (I’m not sure if I’d have to pay for more napkins.) Fortunately, the jaan was right there. We sat a couple tables away though due to the arôme de vomi wafting from the antechamber. Unlike on the ski slopes while skiing in Otepää, you can’t take your camera in the jaan with you. That’s probably a good thing.
To get the salt and sauce off your hands at Le Bus, you have to walk over a hundred meters to the nearest jaan. But at least that jaan had the coolest, freakiest, most useful hand-dryer I’ve ever seen. The four-second dry. Amazing. Probably not very environmentally friendly though. I think it must have been powered by the generator in Le Bus.
As for sides, Le Bus had fried cheese sticks. People familiar with them know that they’re only as good as the accompanying sauce—in this case, ketchup again. At least it’s something new. City offers onion rings. I saw Krista counting out six. Not five or seven, but six.
Back to the bar-crowd comment at the beginning of this review. Le Bus obviously does not apply, but if you go out on a Friday or Saturday, it’s useful to know that City is open until six in the morning. You can also sit inside. It’s a good deal, if you think about it. It’s not a burrito as big as your head, but it’s a pile of tasty baguette and other stuff for almost the same price—almost the same size, too.
While there are some major downs to both contestants in this first battle of the Burger Wars, there are positive advantages to each as well. More choice and better quality have definitely made Tartu a less foodly cultured city to live in, and that’s a good thing. The winner is City by a nose—hopefully not in my baguette though.