I spent tons of time on the road in 2010. It’s not a glamorous life. For every incredible Outstanding in the Field type of dinner, I probably had ten grab-and-go, cheap, mediocre Chinese meals in nondescript cities across the country. Here are quick hits on some of the places I visited in 2010.
We met up with some friends at Marumi Sushi in Plantation, Florida. This is no NAOE, but the menu offers nice variation and the feel is very Japanese. Check the blackboard for specials. We had chrysanthemum tempura and a bowl of offal hot pot. The best way to go, probably, is to order the fresh whole fish and let the kitchen serve it in a few different ways, such as sashimi, grilled, etc. (Unfortunately, our friends were not fish eaters.)
When I’m stuck without good choices, if I can find a Vietnamese restaurant, I’ll happily give it a try. Such was the case when I had pho in Fort Wayne, where Saigon Restaurant hit the spot. As an added bonus, they actually offered tripe–a treat that’s harder to find on the menu in small town America. This bowl: not bad.
Each fall, I find myself with a very short stay in Tampa, which gives me a hankering for some Cuban food. But with minimal time and stationed close to the airport, I regret being unable to make a trip into the city for finer choices. This time around, I grabbed a sandwich at Havana Village Restaurant. Pretty good, considering the convenience–though making me crave what I’ve had in Miami.
From Miami, I headed to New Jersey for a couple of nights. A food writing colleague raved about Star Tavern in Orange, so I was anxious to check it out. Definitely a popular, upbeat place, but I found the food to be very ordinary. A good enough lasagna helped fill the stomach fast, but what I was really after was the legendary pizza. Well, it must be an alcohol thing, as this one closely resembled boxed pizzas from the grocery store’s frozen food section. Terribly disappointing.
Seeking an alternative to Eppes Essen, I went with family to Irving’s Deli in Livingston, where I ordered a favorite combination of mine: a pastrami and chopped liver sandwich. (It’s not a sandwich they offer, so I ordered the chopped liver as a side.) The pastrami was okay, but the chopped liver was too creamy, as if prepared with a food processor–making me appreciate the way my mom used a two-bladed tool to chop the liver, caramelized onions, and hard-boiled eggs in a wooden bowl. (I still have that tool and the bowl, and make chopped liver myself the same way.) Still, the sandwich was nostalgic, as was the matzo ball soup I had to go with it. But better deli to be found in New York City, though I never want to use my stomach space that way.
Next, another sandwich, this time at North Country Brewing Company in Slippery Rock, PA. I had pulled over at a library to catch a wifi signal, and when a local asked what I was working on, I explained that I was seeking a lunch recommendation. No beer to drink for me as I had work to do, but my Runnin’ Bull sandwich was stuffed with roast beef slow-roasted in beer and topped with grilled onions and Swiss cheese, accompanied by Northradish sauce that I wish had just a little more bite.
From PA, I had an open day before needing to be in Michigan, so I detoured down to Amish country for lunch at Mrs. Yoder’s Kitchen in Millersburg, Ohio. I parked my car next to some horses with buggies. Tons of tourists waiting (not long) for seats, primarily to get the buffet lunch. Not my usual thing, but with limited time, a tempting way to taste as much food as possible. I scarfed down a bunch of broasted (love that word!) chicken and all kinds of sides, including pineapple rhubarb jello. Oh, the mustard pickled eggs and beet pickled eggs were interesting.
Then on to a night in Millersburg at the Inn at Honey Run. A really nice place for a retreat with relaxing and/or therapeutic spa services on site. I’m a bit disappointed to say that dinner was the low point of the experience. The dining room was a bit dreary and the food, while not bad, was uninspiring. A simple soup, a simple salad, and a “meat and potatoes” type dish that was under-seasoned and not only made me want to skip dessert, but made me wish I’d instead gone to Cleveland for some of Michael Symon’s cooking.
From Ohio, I dashed off to Dearborn with time for just a quick lunch at Bangkok 96. I sat at the counter and put down a plate of “pud se’ewew’” (interesting spelling), asking for it extra spicy. Thankfully, they delivered on the spice, though the dish was a little “dark.”
Wow, does that look like typical Chinese food in America, or what? I should probably post a couple dozen of these photos for the past year. This one’s from Hunan King in Blacksburg, VA. If I remember right, I snuck in just short of 3:00, just in time to get the combination plate as a lunchtime special. These things always run about $6 and include soup (I alternate between wonton and hot and sour), an egg roll, an entree, and rice. (Sometimes I slip up and forget to order white rice, getting the fried variety instead.) Notice those crispy delights by the soy sauce. When I was young, I’d dunk them in my wonton soup. Now, I eat a ton of them with spicy mustard until I realize how unhealthy they are.
After a little travel break, I took a trip to Albuquerque, looking forward to some good “New Mexico” Mexican food. And then I fell sick ahead of some important work. Still, the evening of arrival, I forced myself to go to Owl Cafe, well-known for its burgers. I’ve actually seen a couple of people claim that they’re the best in the country, so I needed to get in for a try. I’m in New Mexico? Why not get the Original Green Chile Cheeseburger ($4.75)? As for the verdict, best in the country? No. Quite good, though…I just wish the green chile had been a little more prominent. And also good malts and shakes, as you can see from the photo, along with the chance to choose your own tunes.
A little better the next morning, I managed to get to Duran Central Pharmacy, a little eatery inside an actual pharmacy. And, yes, that’s red and green chile on blue corn enchiladas–topped with an egg, of course. A wonderful way to wake up the morning. The women who work at Duran are friendly, making it a fun place for New Mexican food.
And then before flying out, I found my way to Mary & Tito’s Cafe for a bowl of menudo (note the oregano along with the lemon and onions) and some carne adovada. This was the perfect meal before heading home to Seattle. I can see why this cafe was a James Beard Foundation America’s Classics Award Winner for 2010.
Back in Washington, I traveled to the other side of the state and ate at Old European Breakfast House in Pullman. (They also have locations in Spokane and Post Falls, ID.) As much as I wanted to try the Hungarian goulash (I asked for a sample, but they couldn’t make it happen–though I did enjoy a shot of their peri peri sauce), I couldn’t resist a Scandinavian Cake Plate: strawberry Swedish crepe (with sweet cream filling), German potato pancake (with applesauce), 3 Danish aebelskivers (ask for the blackberry brandy syrup if they don’t provide it), and buttermilk hotcakes. Oh, and bacon. You can sit and read the exhaustive menu while you wait for your food. Overall, the food was good, and inspired me to buy an aebelskiver pan!
From Pullman, I drove to Walla Walla, home of one of my most enchanting finds of the year: Colville Street Patisserie. Wow. As I struggled to choose from pastries, breads, cakes, I sampled a number from the gelato case, ultimately settling on a seasonal apple sorbet as my favorite. I grabbed a sweet onion croissant for the evening, and the next morning enjoyed a canele, turnover, and more for breakfast. Also brought home kouign amman and quick breads. All delicious. The food at Colville Street Patisserie is solid. This could very well be the best bakery in the state.
To counter all the sweets, it was time for a burger binge, starting right in Walla Walla. First up: Fast Eddy’s. This is car service, where your “hostess” puts a tray on your window. You can get gizzards and a choice of 26 shakes (from Butterfinger to butterscotch and Dr. Pepper to peppermint), but I opted for a 1/3-pounder with special sauce, onions, lettuce and tomatoes. Fun, but not my favorite burger.
Much better: Andrae’s Kitchen. Granted, this is more of a gourmet burger, featuring all local products (if we generously call the Tillamook cheese local), including Thundering Hooves’ beef, which is custom ground for the AK burger. (It’s lean, with just a little chorizo for bite and fat.) I loved the local, caramelized onions, as well as the pickled green tomatoes. Definitely one of the best burgers I’ve had in a long time, and the twice-fried French fries were an added treat. I look forward to sampling more of the menu sometime, from the pork tacos to the ever-changing special of the day.
From Walla Walla, I drove to Coeur d’Alene, where I arrived 15 minutes ahead of Hudson’s closing time. Hudson’s was Idaho’s representative restaurant in USA Today‘s “Great American Bites” article on hamburgers; since I picked Washington’s restaurant, I simply had to try one from the adjoining state’s. This is an iconic place where the burgers are hand-formed just before being thrown on the grill. It’s then loaded up on the bun with lots of pickles and onions. Like Fast Eddy’s, fun, but not my favorite.
Less than a week later, I’m in Florence, SC, and I put my patties in perspective by going to Five Guys. The chain is enjoying great success; for years I’ve been tempted by them every time I’m in Dulles airport. The cheeseburger is good for a “faster food” restaurant, but it also has a little of that melt-away, “what quality meat is this, anyway?” texture to it. The menu says 100% fresh beef without fillers or preservatives, so here’s hoping. Nice touch: peanuts to play with (and eat) while waiting.
From Florence I went to Charleston, with sadly time for only one meal, and here it was Hominy Grill. Yes, some she-crab soup (with sherry) was a prerequisite–and a good one at that. But the star of the show was the shrimp and grits. The dish comes with mushrooms, scallions and bacon. The shrimp had nice snap to them, and the crunchy bits of bacon offered nice contrast to the cheesy texture of the grits. Definite try adding a little Tabasco and pickled vinegar. A bit expensive at $16.95, but a worthy treat.
Back on the west coast, I met a friend at Arirang BBQ House in Irvine, CA and had one of my favorite Korean dishes: spicy naeng-myon. I love the Asian pear, the egg, and the cold noodles in contrast to the spicy sauce. And the tin bowl is also great. Pretty good version of it here.
Then, that night, I met a different friend for dinner at Yu’s Garden. We were a little limited in choice by seeking a late-night place, and not wanting to travel north where we’d likely find better options. But here we found friendly folks doling out decent Taiwanese food–some from the case, and some cooked to order. We got a bunch of small plates–some tofu, some greens, and more–but my favorite was this bowl of boiled beef.
To break up my drive from Irvine to Merced, I made a random stop in Tulare and asked a local for a recommendation for Mexican food. This person’s top choice: Taqueria Guadalajara. I can now second that recommendation. That person had told me that the tripe tacos were the best to be found, but unfortunately they were out of tripe. Still, I enjoyed my torta and taco, and the horchata was refreshing on a hot day.
My next trip was to Philadelphia, where I was fortunate to have time for a few interesting meals. First was a late lunch at DiNic’s in the Reading Terminal Market. I went with the roast pork sandwich, and loved the bite of the shaved sharp provolone and the bitterness of the broccoli rabe. Fabulous contrasts. I’d go back in a flash, with no regrets about not having a cheesesteak sandwich.
That evening, I met a friend for dinner at Chifa, which is part of Chef Jose Garces’ growing empire in Philly. The concept here is Latin/Asian cuisine, with mixed results for me. Good enough: naigari toro tataki (with daikon noodles), chicharrones (with curried lentils and pickled napa cabbage), and Chinese water spinach. Less successful: empanadas of jumbo lump crab meat (despite the words “jumbo” and “lump,” there just wasn’t enough crab coming through) and pork bao buns that were far from the deliciousness of David Chang’s version. These are small plates at big prices, so I wish I had been more wowed with the results.
At Chifa, folks at an adjoining table noted my interest and heard my disappointment, so they strongly suggested I try Distrito–another Garces restaurant. So that was my lunch destination the next day. It’s a colorful place. Lucha libre masks line one wall of the stairwell to the second floor, where a screen showed a lucha libre film. Walls are painted pink, and pink pervades the entire area (chairs, pillows, napkins, etc.). I enjoyed my tortilla soup, especially the pasilla chile broth. And my flatbread pizza was pretty good. The huarache de hongos had forest mushrooms, huitlacoche sauce, queso mixto, black truffles, and corn shoots. Lunch offers a deal at $15 for the starter, entree, and beverage. A better experience, and better value, than Chifa!
A crazily busy work schedule meant that dinner was more like a second lunch. But who’s to complain when that lunch comes from Koch’s Deli. After Distrito, I strolled further west to check out Koch’s, intrigued by recommendations. My visit there will be my most memorable food experience of the trip to Philly. Talk about heaven for a former New Yorker. The workers are known for their generosity with sampling, which helps appease the long line of people inevitably waiting to place lunch orders. The tongue was terrific, and the hot pastrami was melt-in-my-mouth delicious. I placed an order for a Lou Koch double decker, a behemoth of a sandwich with roast beef, turkey, and chopped liver and choice of condiments. Oh…and good pickles. The owner delivered my sandwich personally, leaving me to wonder whether he’d extend such deliveries to Seattle, where we’re much in need of such a high-quality deli.
It was back home, and then back to the same area again when the following week I visited Grand Shanghai in Edison, New Jersey. Still savoring memories of a recent trip to Vancouver, I tried the xiao long bao and drunken chicken, but both were far from the quality I had in Canada. But I was hungry, so I also ate a bowl of noodle soup with pork and pickled vegetables. Proof again that a mediocre Chinese meal is still better than many other options.
Another trip to the east coast afforded an opportunity to try Cape Verdean food at Restaurant Cesaria in Dorchester (Boston). This was first time trying this cuisine, so a friend and I asked our server for recommendations of authentic dishes. I tried the isca a Portuguesa, which is liver and onions in a paprika-butter sauce. My kind of soul food, though this was cooked a little tougher than I like it. (I prefer my liver still almost alive–soft with a mineral-like taste.) For my entree, it was katchupa refugada. Katchupa is a slowly simmered stew of hominy, pork, beef, beans, and collard greens. That sounded great, but then the server suggested the refried version. The promise of eggs and linguica steered me to it, but it was actually a bit dry and heavy. The stew might have been a better choice.
The last trip of the year, a week later, was back to the east coast, this time to Durham, NC. And a chance to dine near Duke. After a little research, I realized that I had to visit Watts Grocery, a cheerful spot featuring contemporary Carolina cuisine utilizing local ingredients. My wonderful server helped me navigate the tempting menu, and said I simply had to try the popular hushpuppies, served with basil mayo. I’m not normally a hushpuppy fan, but these were fantastic. Not greasy, good flavor, and that great dipping sauce. In the photo, also note the short rib soup, which was a satisfying starter.
Going for the local cultural experience, and being lunch, I ordered the Lilybet toasted pimento cheese sandwich (grated cheddar, mayonnaise, and parmesan cheese) – adding bacon to the sandwich and bread-and-butter pickles on the side. This was a creamy, crunchy experience with just the right amount of bite, a higher class grilled cheese sandwich, if you will. The kitchen also sent out some warm chow-chow cole slaw which I enjoyed. (The local chow-chow is a type of pickled relish that is sweet and sour, but with a little red pepper in it for some heat.)
I left stuffed, sad that I could only make it in for lunch after seeing a fabulous dinner menu with organ meats and more. If I can get back to the area in 2011, Watts is at the top of my list.