As research for Lake Success, a novel about a wealthy Manhattan businessman who hops on a Greyhound to escape his troubles, writer Gary Shteyngart went on a bus trip of his own through the American South. This journey turned out to be something of an epicurean odyssey for the author. “In some of the roadside places where ‘the Hound’ would stop, you’d have, like, the best fried chicken on the planet,” Shteyngart says. And to get inside the mind of the hedge-fund types depicted in Lake Success, Shteyngart also embedded himself among a bunch of New York finance guys, who, he says, actually “eat really bad food.” All things considered, Shtyengart thinks that “10 percent of the book is food-based.”
For close followers of Shteyngart’s work, this should come as no surprise: Throughout his career, the author has peppered his novels with food references, while also writing dining guides and occasional odes to important restaurants in his life in between novels. For all these reasons, we thought the acclaimed author would be the perfect fit for The Famous Original Eater Questionnaire.
In the middle of his “87-day tour” promoting Lake Success last fall, Shteyngart took some time to answer questions about the dishes he loves and the ones he’ll never eat again.
What’s the last thing that you ate?
Gary Shteyngart: It was on an Amtrak, and I had… oh, I guess a beer doesn’t really count.
Beer totally counts.
I had a Brooklyn Defender IPA? It was a Brooklyn Defender something on the train home last night.
When and where was the last time you had a hot dog?
Oh, wait a minute, I’m sorry, I had a hot dog with that IPA. I forgot all about that. I’m trying to repress that, I think.
How was the hot dog?
It was good. I mean, it’s not the world’s worst hot dog, but it is microwaved, so the bun doesn’t quite work out. But in theory, it should be the easiest food you can have on the Amtrak.
Follow-up question about the hot dog: A character in your new novel mentions that the Old Town Bar serves the best hot dogs in Manhattan. Do you think that’s true?
Yeah, I think it is amazing. I order two of them with fries. It’s just pure heaven. I don’t know what it is. They have a great cheeseburger, too, but that is just amazing.
I feel like people don’t know that place for hot dogs.
People think of it as a cheeseburger place, because they have a great one. But I actually prefer the cheeseburger at Joe Junior’s. That is a succulent cheeseburger.
What do you want to eat right this second?
Well now that I mention that cheeseburger, I very well might order it right now. Are we at lunchtime yet? I hope so.
What’s your favorite but admittedly strange food combination?
I do like eating foods that should be eaten later. Like, I feel really — what’s the word? —subversive when I have something that’s meant for lunch at breakfast, and it’s not a brunch situation. Let’s say it’s Tuesday morning, and what if I order a ham-and-cheese sandwich, and not an omelet or anything like that? A ham-and-cheese sandwich slathered with mayo and I have coffee with that at 9:30 a.m. Can you imagine?
What’s one food item that you didn’t try till later in life?
Well I grew up, you know, in the Soviet Union and then with a sort of post-Soviet household, and we really didn’t use garlic that much — it was not a big thing. I discovered garlic when I started going to Spanish restaurants. There used to be a bunch of Spanish restaurants [in New York] and I think there are still a few left. Back then, they were pretty avant-garde, or associated with “cool eating” before all the other stuff. Back then, I loved shrimp al ajillo and mariscada in green sauce — stuff like that is so good. So garlic-flavored.
In your book, you cover a lot of high-roller culture in NYC, and I read somewhere that you did some research hanging out with hedge-fund guys. What was that like?
A lot of them eat really bad food. The problem is that if you go to your club or the high-end places in New York, they’re all kind of the same. The clubs are awful, but the high-end places are, eh, you know... I like some of them. But the Polo Bar is not that great, honestly, for food. It’s great for people watching, so it becomes this event. But for pure food, I would take them to great Korean and Indian places I love, like Madangsui on the 35th Street, which has the best micro-brisket I’ve ever had. Or what’s that place on Lex that has the best chicken biryani on the planet? Oh, what is it called? Shit. [Checks his computer] Oh, Sahib, I think is the name. Oh my god. So, you do that instead of one of those places, and you’re really eating the best food in New York.
What’s a food that you’ve never eaten that you wish you could try?
Well, I was just in Scotland and I had haggis for the second time and I loved that, but I guess I have tried that. You know, the thing is that I’ve eaten almost every animal alive. I was at a ceremony in the Arctic Circle where the local Inuits were eating whale, so I ate the whale — not great. I’m not a big whale guy.
What did it taste like?
Like fish, but in rubber form? I dunno… it was not good. But they’re allowed to, I think, eat one whale per year or something. It’s a huge part of their customs and lifestyle, so I was honored to be a part of that. My wife and I got married up there, so it was part of the thing. Oh, caribou is great — raw caribou.
Yeah, like caribou sashimi. Delicious. I’m trying to think of what I haven’t eaten. I think I’ve eaten just about everything. I’m a little bit of an insectophobe, so I don’t think I could ever eat a water bug or something like that. I know people live on that stuff, but that’s the one thing. Brains? No problem. I’ve eaten the brains of every animal imaginable.
What is your drink?
I’m traditionally a vodka-tonic guy, because I love vodka — obviously, I grew up in Russia. My favorite new drink, which I’ve been really loving is, there’s a place called District Distilling Co., I believe. It’s out of D.C., and I’ve never been a huge rye fan, but this just blew my mind. It is so good. They make the best rye on the planet. They just sent me a six pack of that because I am jonesing for it all the time. I’m on, like, this 87-day tour, and it’s the official drink of the 87-day tour. Because every time I touch down back home, I just uncap a bottle and drink it the way people drink a Pabst — glug, glug, glug.
Related to being on a book tour, I know that you took a bus trip while writing Lake Success. What is your traveling game plan when you’re on the road? Do you go to chain restaurants? Do you hit-up mom-and-pop restaurants? What’s your strategy there?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Wherever I go, I just try to hit the best place imaginable. I’m going to St. Louis, so obviously that’s going to be ribs. But my friend also told me about this thing in St. Louis call the St. Paul sandwich — have you heard of this? It’s in Chinese restaurants, and it’s like an egg foo yung patty with dill pickles, onions, mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomatoes, served on white bread. So that is my goal for this trip to St. Louis — I gotta get a St. Paul sandwich.
Do you have a universal dinner party soundtrack?
Yeah, I put on... I dunno, it’s a mix. Old Dr. John’s stuff like “Mama Roux,” I feel like that really helps with digestion. I like the… what’s the Ethiopian jazz that’s really great and mellow?
Is it the Éthiopiques compilation?
Yeah, slide into Éthiopiques. That’s great for digestion.
Do you have a favorite chain restaurant?
It’s a bit of a cliche. But I think In-N-Out is insane. I mean, that is a huge part of going to LA for me. They have one right outside LAX — they probably have one inside LAX, but I just haven’t figured it out. You know, again, I’m going really cliche on this, but Animal-style fries and all that. And that actually showed up in Super Sad True Love Story. I believe one of the characters is from California originally and is like, “Oh god, why am I living in New York, where there’s no In-N-Out?” Why can’t they open one here?! I think it’s just obstinance on their part.
If you could bring one now-closed restaurant back to life, which one would it be?
For sure El Faro. That’s where I discovered garlic. I grew up in Eastern Queens — Littleneck — and now it’s really cool. They have all these Korean restaurants there, but they didn’t before. And then I went to Stuyvesant High School and started meeting people. I think I was already in college, but I started to develop a more global, kind of New York-y taste. El Faro was not cutting-edge at that point. It wasn’t new, but it felt like an old bohemian New York, and the whole thing smelled of garlic to such an extent that your eyes really watered.
I’ve written about it quite a bit — I did a piece in the Times magazine, I think, about it. And when it closed, that was horrifying. That was the one. Union Square Cafe closing was a big thing too. I wasn’t as much of a [fan], but I do remember when I published my first book that was a big publishing hangout and that’s where they took me, so that was pretty awesome, but it wasn’t like heart-rendering. Anyway, it reopened now on Park Avenue South I think, and it’s not bad either.
But yes, there is this weird feeling you get in New York, where, because the rents are so high, [you wonder] what’s going to survive in Manhattan. I do live in Manhattan. I don’t want to live in Auburndale to get the best food, right? I mean, nothing against Auburndale, it’s just really far from my shrink.
Is there a food trend that you’re sick of?
I dunno... I just don’t get into these food trends that much. I can live without kale for a very long time and be totally happy. I’m one of those people that looks for staying power. Some things are just better than others, and almost every culture has a great cuisine, a great dish. Russian food is not my favorite, but just oily sturgeon with a shot of vodka, that is a great meal in and of itself.
What’s your “Proust’s madeleine”?
It’s a dish that my mother made a lot when I was a kid. It was kasha, which is buckwheat groats, I think. It’s boiled in water and milk, and my mother would put little slices of sausage in it. When I was growing up, I thought this was the most disgusting dish ever, and I would fight with my mother — I mean, we’d have screaming fits about it. In Russia, it’s considered health food, and I guess it is health food, considering everything else in Russia is just butter. She would make me eat it, and I would hate it. I would love the sausage part, because it was meat, you know? But I would eat around the kasha, and she would literally cram it down my mouth.
And then I had a kid, and he used to love a Russian chain called Teremok that was near us, and it closed down. It wasn’t my favorite place in the universe, but my kid loved it, and I think it felt for him like a connection — obviously he was born in New York — but a connection to Daddy’s culture. He actually ate the kasha, and not just the sausage. He loved the sausage very much, but he ate the kasha. And I would almost get tears in my eyes whenever I would see him eat it. I almost felt bad, like, “I wish I had enjoyed it as a kid.”
What’s a food secret that you think more people should know about?
Oh god, I’m going to really gross people out here, but fried brains are amazing. That is actually something my mother made. She said it would make me smarter — that didn’t work out — but that was sort of her pitch for it. You can get them in Italy. They’re called cervelli fritti and they are spectacular — lightly, lightly fried. Ahhh, they just melt in your mouth.
I know people have this thing about brains, but they don’t taste like brains. If you take out the idea of brains, they taste like the essence of the animal, like a Vulcan mind-meld with a cow. And I just had them in London — calves’ brains — that were also very delicious. If you’re a carnivore, it makes sense to eat every part of the animal, because the animal has given itself up for your eating pleasure — go nuts, and eat every piece of it. Eat its brain and feel like you really are communing with the animal.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.