California to Corvallis: More Than Food, by Janessa Thropay

“Okay guys. What are we feeling for lunch? Din Tai Fung?” My mother would ask after church every Sunday once all four of her kids were in the car. “What about BJ’s?” My eldest brother Josiah would respond, always the first to speak up on the topic of food. “No. We went there last week. I’m cool with the dumpling house.” Jordan, my youngest brother, loved the dumplings at Din Tai Fung and would eat there every other day if he could. “How about the Cheesecake Factory? That one’s always good.” My father liked variety, as well as a relaxing experience, which are two things that The Cheesecake Factory offers in spades. The difficulty my family experienced each Sunday was not in finding a place to eat, but it was in narrowing down the long list of potential options. All good and delicious options that would be sure to satisfy any grumbling belly and all within 20 miles of each other.

In my family, eating was always an adventure. My parents were very open to trying new foods and had been exposed to a large variety even before they had kids. This was naturally passed down to their children, as what they ate, we ate. Ranging from Cuban to Japanese, Mexican to Italian, food was a continuous journey that I enjoyed with every bite. As I grew older, I began to cherish the exposure my parents offered me early on in my life, as I became aware of how uncommon it is to have tasted so much of the world. Of course, this wouldn’t have been as easy or as fun if it weren’t for the versatile and competitive food culture that pushes Southern California’s cuisine to unprecedented heights.

Growing up in Southern California, particularly the Inland Valley, you are exposed to a plethora of foods. Within that expectation, Southern California’s food culture is one that is dominated by food chains. In almost every city, the most popular food chains can be found within their borders. As California is known for branding multiple chain restaurants, it is no surprise that they have become a part of the food journey of those who live there. Restaurants such as The Cheesecake Factory, California Pizza Kitchen, and BJ’s were all started in Southern California and have grown to experience national success, as they are some of the biggest chain restaurants in the United States. Although these places cater to a variety of food genres, they are also popularly known and enjoyed for the food experience they offer. Each of these places is semi-classy and presents a high-dining ambiance, eluding to a better eating experience overall. As a young girl, these restaurants were a few of the primary places my family and I would dine at for celebrations, birthdays, and sometimes a “fancy” family dinner. Their accessibility and commonality would later reveal to have left a bigger impact on me than I was prepared for.

As a senior student at Chino Hills High School in 2016, I was offered a full-ride scholarship to Oregon State for basketball. I had been playing the sport since I was 8 years old and all the countless hours of practice and games had proven to be worth it. Although the thought of leaving my family and my home was scary, I was confident that this was the right decision based on the amazing culture and coaching staff that was at Oregon State.

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Understanding that Oregon experienced a lot more rain than California, I assumed that this would be the biggest hurdle for me to grow accustomed to. Many of my family and friends joked about the gloomy weather and how I would come running back to California and the sun. Soon, I would realize that Corvallis’ weather was not the problem, but rather the lack of food options I was familiar with.

Within the first month of living in Corvallis, I was enlightened of the almost inexistence of chain restaurants. Ignoring the few fast food chain options, The Spaghetti Factory and Buffalo Wild Wings were the two primary chain restaurants in Corvallis that I was familiar with. At the start, I found myself irritated with the fact that I had to drive to neighboring cities, such as Albany and Eugene, just to get a Red Robin burger or a BJ’s pizza. The more I grew accustomed to the shorter driving distances in Corvallis, the stronger I refused to leave this small town just to satisfy a craving I had. Quickly, I realized that Corvallis operated in a way that placed special attention on small businesses. Restaurants that I had never heard of before were scattered throughout the town, ranging in genre of food, their eating environments, and the overall experience. This left me to expand my horizons and try locally owned businesses within the very perimeter of the city I was beginning to loathe (I’m kidding, but seriously).

So where do I begin my journey with Corvallis’ food options? I decided to do what every logical person with a phone would do, and I Yelpednearby restaurants, depending on the type of food I was craving. The first day I started my excursion, I decided to try a place that seemed to be a spin-off of Mexican and Asian food. It had amazing reviews, with customers raving of its credited “Yumm! Sauce”, leaving me no choice but to try it out. When I first entered the building, there was a unique smell that I wasn’t sure was appeasing or down-right awful. Later on, that smell would cause my stomach to growl with anticipation.

After ordering, what is now my favorite dish, the Hot-N-Jazzy, with southwest chicken, I was very impressed with the plethora of flavors I experienced. It was almost as if a firework was set off in my mouth and I was left salivating for another bite. This cuisine was so unique to anything I had ever tasted, sparking interest and hope within me as I looked forward to experiencing other restaurants in Corvallis.

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My teammate and friend, Taya Corosdale, also finds herself craving the food at Café Yumm, commenting that “it’s a healthy choice, but also very delicious.” Surprisingly, Café Yumm is not yet present within California even though it is a chain restaurant. Being that Café Yumm is now my favorite place to eat in Corvallis, it saddens me knowing I will be returning to a place after college where Café Yumm doesn’t exist. Isn’t that ironic.

Since finding my beloved Café Yumm, I returned to my food journey in Corvallis with eager curiosity and an open mind. Especially as my friendships and interactions with the local residents continued to grow, my insight into community favorites grew as well. This led me to stumble across Benny’s Donuts, Bellhop, and Castor, which are all locally owned restaurants that only exist in the city of Corvallis. Although these places cater to different types of food, each of their environments evoke a level of friendship and authenticity. These are feelings that you often don’t experience when dining at a chain restaurant, as each building and those who are hired are not specifically chosen in order to have a unique and particular purpose. Rather, these chains are replicas that pay little attention to unique and authentic environments, as they are just another dot of the same restaurant on a map across the United States. Something that I had never even thought about till coming to Corvallis.

After being in Corvallis for three years, I have grown to not only enjoy these local restaurants but appreciate them as well. There is something beautiful in investing in one’s community, which is exactly what Corvallis is aiming to do by withstanding the push for chain restaurants. In a quick conversation with Joe Corrado, Corvallis resident of 33 years, he commented that “the market within Corvallis isn’t suited for major food chains”, mentioning that “there have been a few that didn’t last” such as Ruby’s Diner, among others. As far as Corrado can tell, what “the college student population prefers is what stays in business.” This makes perfect sense since the Oregon State University students make up nearly half of Corvallis’ population. An example that was offered up was the burger chain Bo & Vine, which although being only five months old, has become the late-night hot spot for a delicious burger. This particular restaurant, although a chain, caters to half of the demographic of Corvallis by providing a “hip” atmosphere and affordable prices.

As a college student in the “best college town in the PAC-12”, I can honestly say that my college experience wouldn’t have been the same if it weren’t for this push in my food journey. It was no longer about familiarity and convenience, but rather adventure and the people I was with. This next chapter of my experience wouldn’t have been nearly as enjoyable if I hadn’t experienced it with those, who now, mean so much to me. Each restaurant is now associated with a multitude of memories, as well as particular days that have created a sense of tradition. On Friday’s we get Benny’s, Saturday morning’s we get Bellhop, and Castor is a quick stop for some drinks or the perfect place for dinner any day of the week. These routines, these feelings and emotions, give me a sense of home as I have created a life in Corvallis, a life where food and the people I love connect, just as they did in California.

Now, as I reminisce about my food excursions back in California, I look through the lens of a new perspective. A perspective that sees the beauty and adventure in experiencing food that is made in the only restaurant of its kind. It becomes more than food, but instead a community, all working to encourage their own and their futures. Although Gumbo from The Cheesecake Factory would be nice every once in a while, it doesn’t compare to the taste of community that is alive and well within Corvallis. This journey not only taught me the importance of investing in one’s own community, but also how it is not so much about the food on your place, but rather the people you are with.

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