Stop one of my annual summer road trip was to the heart of New York state to check out the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). Its flagship campus it located in Hyde Park which also happens to be the birthplace of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Unlike the other CIA, FDR had very little do with the cooking school. Although both CIAs were formed a little more than a year apart following WWII, the school was originally founded in Connecticut and did not relocate to Hyde Park until 1970. The CIA (the school that is) has produced some of America’s most notable celebrity chefs including Marcus Samuelsson, Anne Burrell, Michael Symon, Duff Goldman and the late Anthony Bourdain.
We arrived in time for the daily 4 pm tour which is conducted by students within the school. Our guide, Ezra, showed us many of the ongoing stations and classes within the main building which ranged from fondant to rock candy to baguettes. We were told of the hours of home practice required to perfect the tournee cut, a skill often used as a screening tool at interviews all over. There was an interesting discussion about the differences between the baking vs cooking stream of students. The bakers are meticulous (aka boring) while the cooks tend to be quite eccentric. (aka annoying). It was quite surprising how the tour did nothing to mention the aforementioned celebs and seemed more a recruitment tool in the event I wanted to quit my job and enhance my cooking credentials beyond a “Dad’s grillin’ so everybody’s chillin'” apron. I’d clearly opt for the cooking side of the curriculum and more specifically the culinary science arm so I could use words like “oxidative enzymatic browning” with an enhanced confidence.
Of note on the campus tour was “Old Diamondsides”, a sculpture representing the Atlantic Sturgeon, a vital species inhabiting the adjoining Hudson River. The life size depiction is constructed from hundreds of pieces of recycled cutlery and is meant to represent the struggle of such a magnificent species to survive in spite of over fishing, pollution and other human interference.
Although Guy Fieri is not an alum of the CIA, I would feel remiss if I did not venture to the Eveready Diner, Hyde Park’s lone contribution to the DDD empire. Characterized by neon lights and chrome finish, this old school diner promises big portions and great desserts and didn’t disappoint on either front. The spinach dip was a bit watery but flavourful. The consensus at the table was that the chicken salad, burger and mac and cheese were all quite acceptable although the potato salad was a bit bland. Plus, a sunnyside up egg on a burger can brighten any plate up. My mom (caught off guard in the picture above) is till talking about the cheesecake (which i think she ate before i got snap a pic).
The day ended with a hotel stay in New Paltz, New York. All I can say is that it is one of the more interesting U.S. towns I have stayed in. I should have known when I checked into the Hampton which was recently built directly adjacent to the Put Corner historic graveyard which houses the remains of 120 residents of the town placed between 1801-1880. Two celebrity graves, that of heavyweight boxing champion Floyd Patterson and Oscar Tschirky, inventor of the Waldorf salad, are also buried in town but not in the plot hugging the Hampton. A visit to the really creepy dollar store down the road was surely a foreshadow for my visit to Bangor the next day and easily could have been the setting of supernatural anarchy in a Stephen King novel. Who needs Pennywise when you’ve experienced the horrors of a New Paltz dollar store.
I have heard mixed things about New Orleans. Some have told me they love the party atmosphere while others say the city was a mess before Katrina and is even worse after. I landed with “New Orleans is Sinking” playing over and over in my head. The flight from Detroit was decent and was made more exciting by a half dozen drunkish but well-behaved guys who were on the way to a bachelor party.
My goals for the day were simple. First, I wanted to get accustomed to the weather which characterized by constant humidity, warm nights and random thunderstorms. Second, I wanted to explore the city a little and hit up a few DDDs along the way. Third, I was looking forward to ending by going to the James Beard nominated Mo-Pho for dinner.
Once I hit the hotel, I began my trek toward the lowering garden district which is characterized by small shops and some of the hottest restaurants in NOLA. Among these eateries lie 4 triple Ds. My first stop was Joey K’s, an American restaurant with a cajun/creole flare and daily specials ranging from oven roasted turkey to ham hocks with lima beans. I was surprised how busy it was given the time of day. I sat at the bar and was greeted by a friendly waitress who promptly served me a frozen goblet of Abita. Afterwards, I chatted with the waiter and, given I had just landed, decided to go authentic with the eggplant napoleon appetizer ( I was drawn to the crawfish cream sauce) and rice and beans with smoked sausage. He chuckled a bit and suggested I stick with a side of the rice and beans since the appetizer was “big”. It was a good call. The eggplant was huge and ridiculously delicious. It was served piping hot and the sauce was the star. The rice and beans were bona fide belly friendly and I was quite happy I didn’t opt for the full portion.
Goblet of Abita Beer
Eggplant Napolean $11
Rice and Beans $3
In the end, Joey K’s has a fun vibe, good service and great food whether you are looking for comfort food or authentic southern cooking.
Service- 4.5 Guyz
Vibe- 4 Guys
My second stop was Mahony’s Po’boy which was located just a little down the road in the Garden district. It wasn’t nearly as busy as Joey K’s but it was a bit later. Once again, I was greeted by a friendly waitress who recommended a Abita Strawberry Harvest Lager which was the perfect pairing for the heat and humidity. The Po’Boy is a New Orleans staple which legend says was named after the fact that striking workers were named poor boys and that restaurateurs Benny and Clovis (great names) Martin coined the term for that reason. The peacemaker is a particular po’boy which at one time contained shrimp and oysters but has evolved (at least in the case of Mahony’s) as a sandwich with one or the other. After a chat with the waitress, I opted for the fried oyster version. I realized I’m not really a fan. I love raw oysters and frying them is a disservice, especially when served between a toasted baguette, especially when the condiments are skimpy and the cheese isn’t melted.
Food- 3.5 Guyz
Service- 4 Guyz
Vibe- 3 Guyz
Total- 10.5 Guyz
My third stop in the Garden district was the Creole creamery,a rather unorthodox DDD in the fact that all they serve is ice cream. From reading the reviews, I was told to expect bold and unique flavours. Deep down I was hoping for something really cool like rice and beans but that said, there was still some interesting choices. Even better was the fact they offered a 4 scoop sampler for $4.50 which allowed for a little diversity. I decided on cream cheese, hibiscus cranberry, thai basil coconut and magnolia flower. When I have ice cream I hope the custard base balanced enough to give great mouth feel but not so overwhelming that it masks the unique flavour of each offering. CC passed the test. Each scoop was distinct and recognizable. The magnolia flower was the best of the bunch; it was subtle but very present. The environment was very American ice cream parlor but the service was quite laissez-fare.
Food- 4/5 Guyz
Service- 3/5 Guyz
Vibe- 3.5/5 Guyz
Total- 10.5/15 Guyz
I was hoping that a 15 km walk through the garden of eatin’ would burn some of the food I ate and get me ready for my nightcap at MoPho. Lead by James Beard and food and wine “best new chef” Michael Gulotta, MoPho is best described as Southeast Asia by way of New Orleans. I was excited to see how exactly the two would be fused.
The location is a bit of a hike out of our New Orleans core and the space itself is very stripmally. That said, the interior is a trendy interpretation of a Thai joint and they have a great and nicely cheesy patio out back which we braved along with the normal early summer humidity of Louisiana.
For the most part, the menu was straight forward Thai and Vietnamese with a little Southeast America in the form of Cedar Key clams and P and J oysters. Other hints of New Orleans included Creole cream cheese (similar to the aforementioned ice cream) roti and annatto (a condiment commonly used in Latin food sometimes in the Philippines) beignets. They also offer a nice array of local pints which strengthened the local flare just a bit.
We ordered an array of dishes including the Som Tan salad, mimita brisket, clams, paella, the pork belly bowl, wings, brussel sprouts and the lamb curry. In general, the flavours were very South Asian and one would need to use their imagination a little to fully appreciate any huge gulf coast influence. That said, the food had good, aggressive flavours and a nice amount of spice. If you are a fan of a delicate pho, “the standard” was a bit heavy compared to most I have had. The roti and the beignets were delicious. The brussel were the comfort foodie food and the wings were a decent representation of this seemingly southeast staple.
Mitmita Spiced and Smoked Brisket $18
Pepper Jelly Braised Cedar Key Clams $18
Slow Roast Lamb in Green Curry $23
Cast-Iron Fried Sticky Rice Paella $28
The Standard Pho $13
Glazed Pork Belly Bowl $14
The Mopho Som Tam Salad $9
Crispy Chicken Wings $12
Crispy Brussels Sprouts $6
In the end, I was hoping for more of a Southeast meets Southeast experience but that said, it was still a tasty experience in Thai/Vietnamese fare. In general, Day 1 was a good day. Traditional food started the day and some Asian fusion ended it. It was clear I needed a few more days of stuffing my face before I could reach a verdict on the state of the dining scene in a city that the Tragically Hip have assured me has been sinking for almost 30 years.
I reverted back to increasing my Diner, Diners and Drives tally on my recent trip to Cincinnati. It was an easy call since three of them are less than a block away from each other on bustling Vine street. Over the course of two days I hit all three; one for breakfast, one for lunch and one for dinner.
When Guy Fieri was only 10 years old, WKRP in Cincinatti hit the air. I remember watching the short lived sitcom (four seasons to be exact) as a kid. It featured a group of misfit radio personalities at a radio station in the Ohio city. The cast, headed by Andy Travis (not to be mistaken for Randy Travis) featured the likes of Johnny Fever, Venus Flytrap and Jennifer Marlowe. Andy may have precluded the hipster movement by frequently donning plaid shirts and luscious locks. Howard Hesseman, who played Johnny Fever, went on have success as the lead in the sitcom Head of the Class and Loni Anderson will go down in history for certain features and for being remembered as Mrs. Burt Reynolds until the end of time.
In honour of this cult favorite, here’s an overview of Taste of Belgium, Bakersfield and Senate, three of Cincinnati’s Vine street triple D joints.
W- (Waffles and Wright).
Taste of Belgium boasts waffles done right so it seemed to be the ideal breakfast spot. The decor had the brick walls and tiled floor characteristic of Over-the-Rhine eateries. We were seated and greeted but a waiter with a definite chip (unfortunately not chocolate) on his shoulder. He was efficient but far from welcoming. I ordered a decent Americano and the McWaffle, a breakfast sandwich containing egg, bacon, cheese and served with a side of maple syrup. The waffle itself was far from the fluffy batter you might bake up at the free Hampton breakfast. It was much denser and more filling. It flirted with dryness but was helped by the syrup. The combination of everything made for a good but not remarkable bite that was a lot sweeter than the service.
Taste of Belgium McWaffle $8
Daniel Wright is the brainchild behind Senate, the street food pub which revolves around the ultimate street meat..the hotdog. In addition to tube steak (including a daily dog names after a celebrity), there are a number of items including bites, burgers and sandwiches. It had a good vibe highlighted by a long packed bar surrounded by tables. Since it was over twenty degrees, the front window/patio was open and I managed to score a seat overlooking the street. Our waitress was attentive although somewhat overshadowed by this dude in a vest and tie walking around like an..umm…senator. As tempting as the Mama June celebrity dog of the day was (you can imagine the toppings), I opted for the best selling trailer park burger, mainly because it was topped with Cincinnati’s own Grippo’s crushed BBQ chips atop a bacon wrapped dog and finished with slaw and american cheese. It was a delicious mess.
K-(Kentucky and Kibbles)
Bakersfield is a taqueria which is gradually expanding in all directions from it’s Cincinnati epicentre. Also focusing on Mexican food, the booze menu is expansive, not only including traditional tequila but also whisky from the neighbouring state of Kentucky. In fact, I was there on a Monday night which meant I could get a shot of Bulleit for $3. Add a $2 boot of PBR and I’m two thirds of my way to a George Thorogood song for $5. I felt bad to the bone. As for kibbles, the guacamole at Bakersfield was fresh and chunky (which I’m sure is Cincinnati style) and aggressively seasoned with garlic which was paired nicely with one of the best (and spicy margaritas) I’ve had in a while.
Bakersfield Guacamole and Chips
R- (Restaurants Over-the-Rhine)
Defined as one of the most historic neighbourhoods in the US, the Over-the-Rhine area of Cincinnati has deep German roots and architecture dating from the 19th century. Over the years, it has debilitated into one of the sketchiest area in the states. For example, the area was used as the backdrop for the 1991 movie “A Rage in Harlem” because of it’s resemblance to 1950’s Harlem. However, over the past decade or so, there has been major restoration, at least along the southern part of Vine St, resulting in a trendy neighbourhood full of shops and restaurants including the trio of triple D’s mentioned in this blog. I was speaking to a table of locals at Bakersfield and they confirmed this restoration story, telling me that crossing Liberty street to the North after dark was once a death wish but ven that is slowing changing. That said, I late took a drive north up Vine St.to check out the University of Cinicinnati and passed through one of the most decrepit neighbourhoods I remember, easily rivaling Michigan St. in Detroit, parts of Harlem and the worst part of San Francisco’s tenderloin district. Restaurants like Taste of Belgium, Senate and Bakersfield are part of the nucleus in a molecule of hope working through the celebration of food.
P (Pastor, Potstickers and Poutine)
The foundation of the Bakersfield menu is the taco and there are almost 10 to choose from. They pride themselves on making their own tortillas and ironically, that was the weakest part. I felt they tasted a little raw as if they were only fried on one side. They were nicely presented on a large tray with abundant fillings at a reasonable price point of $3-4 each. The pork belly pastor were a good representation and the spicy cochinita pibil and huitlacoche tacos were quite unique.
Meanwhile at Senate, the potstickers were full of extreme Asian flavours and the poutine was served with short rib and cheese and since a white gravy was used instead of the traditional (at least in Canadian terms) brown one, it was more creamy than squeaky and quite rich to say the least.
Bakersfield Tacos (3-4 bucks each)
Based on my ongoing Guyz rating for diners, drive-ins and dives, none were a disaster but I’ll give top taste, service and vibe points to Senate. The vibe of all three were helped by the cool architecture but the buzz at Senate and Bakersfield was much better than the sleepiness and snarkiness of Taste of Belgium. Service wise, both Bakersfield and Senate were pretty good. Regarding the food, the Senate hot dogs, in addition to being pretty delicious, are a great concept especially with the rotating celebrity choice of the day. The Bakersfield guacamole was good and the tacos were average. Taste of Belgium served a decent breakfast.
In the end, Over-the-Rhine is a fun and buzzing area with a number of funky restaurants, shops and snacks. In fact, Vine Street may be the best thing in Cincinnati’s food scene since WKRP’s turkey bombing of the Pinedale mall on Thanksgiving in 1978.
I was excited to drop into Tommy’s Joynt for an afternoon bite. Touted as San Francisco’s original Hofbrau, it has been serving a menu centred on carved meat sandwiches since 1947. They take pride in a no frills attitude and keeping prices low. In fact, the only three menu items over ten bucks are the famous Buffalo Stew, braised oxtails with pasta (served Monday) and braised lamb shanks with vegetables (served Thursday and Sunday). The hunks of meat sitting in the cafeteria style chafing dishes right inside the door while the rest of the place is a seating area complete with a bar serving local craft draught, international bottles and cheapish cocktails. The cast of characters ranged from young to old, regulars to tourists and hipsters to those with with artificial hips. The decor is a reminder that it’s been open for almost 70 years. Hundreds of knick-knacks fill the walls, shelves and any other square inch of available space. It’s like a yard sale on steroids. They’ve never changed their style, they just added to it. It’s like a timeline of post WWII Americana scattered all over the place.
Apparently Tommy’s is “Where Turkey is King” so I strolled to the counter and ordered the roast turkey sandwich for $6 along with a side of mixed pickled beans for $2.65. The guy behind the counter pulled out the bird, carved some meat off the bird and slapped it on a fresh baguette with a side of au jus. As magical as Tommy’s was, they still couldn’t solve the dry poultry issue. You can’t keep a turkey in a chafing dish and expect it to stay moist. That said, the au jus added flavour and moisture to the sandwich. The bean salad was pretty typical. I thought things like the barrel of complimentary pickles (complete with a sign telling you not to abuse the pickle pecking privlegdes) to the strategically placed mustard jars were a nice touch.
Tommy’s Joynt is a west coast version of a Hofbrau, a casual German eatery with focus on beer and food. Having no idea who the place is named after, I figured it might be Tommy Chong (of Cheech and Chong fame). Ironically, Cheech is the Californian (Chong is a good old Canadian). I mean, the psychedelic paint job on the outside, the easy access to copious amounts of food, some clientele that look like they have hot boxed a few million times and even the fact it has “joynt’ in the name makes my theory somewhat viable. In fact, after a drag one might relish staring intently at the numerous trinkets which populate the walls and shelves. That said, the food was reasonable, the vibe was good but it just didn’t give me the “high” some of the other Diners, Drive-ins and Dives did.
My trip down the music highway ended in downtown Memphis. After hitting the hotel and checking in, I decided on dinner along Elvis Presley Blvd to familiarize myself with the strip in anticipation of my visit to Graceland the next day. Running on fumes, the valet parking guy assured me there were plenty of gas stations along the strip. Despite my basic competence and ability to read google maps, I took a wrong turn to make things exciting. Once I found my bearings, I watched the gas gauge countdown…15 km…10km….5 km….0 km. The Jetta is a bit forgiving and it certainly wasn’t the first time I needed to pray to St. Frances of Rome, the patron saint of travelers (who was said to have an angel light her path with a lantern and protect her from hazards, for assistance). In fact, I was so desperate I even sent a prayer or two to St. Elvis Aaron Presley himself.
My prayers seemed to work because on the horizon I could see a gas station with the words “diesel” written across the sign. A closer inspection of the property quickly shifted my beseeching to St. Christopher, the patron saint of protection against muggers. I reluctantly pulled in despite seeing a rather well lit and clean gas station across the street that may or may not have had diesel so I couldn’t risk it. I went in, slid my credit card through the hole in the Plexiglas to the apathetic attendant and scurried out. I pumped and got out of dodge.
A couple of miles down the road I saw Marlowe’s, my destination for the evening. Featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, it’s known more for a wide array of paraphernalia dedicated to the king. For example, it runs a free pink Cadillac shuttle from local hotels. The interior is filled with hundreds of tributes to Elvis…there are pictures, a barber chair, his karate outfit and a looping video of his greatest live performances. My fear was that this was a typical tourist trap and that more effort was put into the decor than the food. I have faith in St. Guy Fieri, however, and that troth was confirmed when I saw the majestic smoker that sat beside the gift shop.
It goes without saying that I had every intention of raiding the smoker. So, I conspired with my daughters to maximize my exposure to the various proteins. They split a BBQ combo which included 2 entrees and 2 sides ($22.95). Not to get into the nature versus nurture discussion but the fact that my youngest daughter’s love for slaw parallels mine would make for a good case study. With her slaw she ordered the brisket, ribs and fries. The meat was tender and full of smoky flavour despite efforts to douce them with copious amounts of sauce. Not that the BBQ sauce wassn’t good; there was just a lot of it. My daughter gave the slaw two thumbs up.
I decided on the BBQ spaghetti so I could indulge on the BBQ pork and experience what the menu calls “Italian Food-Memphis Style”. In keeping with the Tennessee tradition of serving sides as big as the mains, the spaghetti came with a good size bowl of beans and mac and cheese. Once again, the predominate flavour was the delicious BBQ sauce which doused the spaghetti. The pork was delicious and matched the ribs and brisket in rich, smoky flavour. The mac and cheese and beans were good B-sides to the proteins.
Marlowe’s succeeds in that it puts the food before the fact that it located only minutes from Graceland. Sure, you are inundated with all things Elvis including a pink limo, but the commitment to good food is evident, highlighted by the very impressive smoker which “graces” the busy interior. The smoked meats were delicious even though they were heavily sauced in the traditional Memphis “wet” style. Like I mentioned, the B-sides made for good eating as well.
It goes to show that flashy gimmicks can exist in conjunction with big taste and flavour. Despite the need to pray to St. Frances and St. Christopher to get to Marlowe’s, there was no need to extend invocation to St Lawrence, the patron saint of restaurateurs. I explored the origin of St. Lawrence. Such namesakes include the Laurentian mountains and the gulf of St. Lawrence, one of Canada’s most important waterways. What’s more interesting is the morbid reason he is associated with restaurants. Without going into detail, he was martyred by fire. In fact, many depictions have him holding a grid iron (see below). Ribs anyone?
Please keep in mind that I have been to select cities throughout the US this year so this list is far from comprehensive. I have, however, been to enough to warrant a list paying homage to restaurants which stood out during my travels.
10. Voulas Offshore Cafe– Seattle
This cute, old school diner is not far from the University of Washington’s beautiful campus. The staff are friendly and courteous. Watching them set up the coffee station for the line of people who couldn’t get there early enough to beat the lines is endearing. It has a great feel with an amazing biscuits and gravy you wouldn’t expect on the West Coast. The greek omelette was a reflection of good old fashioned family values.
9. Bop ‘n Grill– Chicago
Featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, this joint has burgers and bop plates (essentially rice plates topped with a number of choices). I went with asian flare and tried the umami and kimchi burgers although other unique combinations are available. The deep flavours lovingly punch you in the mouth while filling it with bite after bite of moist, meaty goodness. This ain’t McDonald’s.
8. Tamale Place– Indianapolis
You wouldn’t expect Indianapolis to be a hotspot for Mexican food but the aptly named Tamale place is amazing. The passion and care in the preparation of each one is clear with every bite. If you can, try one of the dessert tamales. The nachos and salsa are brilliant too. It’s clean but not fancy but with those tamales, it doesn’t need to be.
7. Pastabilities- Syracuse
A pasta lunch set up like a cafeteria in downtown Syracuse doesn’t sound like a top 10 candidate…until you eat there. The place is always packed for a reason. First, the food is amazing. Whether it is the pasta bowl doused in their famous hot tomato oil, the moist and flavourful meatball sub, the freshly made side salads or the delicate but delicious pizza, this place would appeal to anybody from age 1 to 100. Second, the prices are terrific. It’s open for a more formal sit down dinner at night which I imagine is just as good.
6. Roast– Detroit
Michael Symon offers a fine dining experience in downtown Detroit, especially for the carnivorous at heart. One highlight is the wood fired grill which, despite the volatility and unpredictability of the open flame, produced a fantastic medium rare new york strip. There’s something about slurping bone marrow and eating sweetbreads while watching a pig spin around on a spit that just works for me. Oh, they have naughty deep fried brussel sprouts too.
5. Union Woodshop– Clarkston (Detroit)
Union woodshop in Clarkston (just north of Detroit) was featured on triple D in the Kid Rock episode. Although somewhat reluctant to take advice from somebody who wears fur coats yet married PETA-happy Pam Anderson, I was excited to try it. My best advice is to act like your parents and show up for dinner when this place opens at 4 pm. There are two reasons for this. First, you may have a chance at the sauce laden burnt ends (brisket) which are delicious but when they’re gone, they are gone. Second, good luck getting a seat after 430 without having to wait an hour. Sorry, no reservations. It has everything you would expect in a smokehouse and more. It produced some of the best pulled pork I’ve had in while. Otherwise, everything from the sauces (try the Chinese Char Siu) to the butterscotch pudding are delicious. They also have a gluten free menu, pizza and even a steak if you want it. The price is right too.
4. Clarkston Union– Clarkston (Detroit)
Kid Rock also brought Guy down the Road to the Clarkston Union. Built in an old church, it comes complete with church pews, a bingo board and yes, huge lines. It sports one of the best craft beer menus in Detroit, offering regional and national brews in taster sizes if you want a variety. It has a gastropub menu with its famous mac and cheese (with or without lobster), sandwiches, burgers with pot pie and meatloaf specials. Even the plowshare platter, a delicious array of meat, cheese and veggies is abundant and delicious. This church offers the holy trinity of a great dining experience: Great service, great food and great atmosphere.
3. Lucky’s Cafe– Cleveland
I do not go to Cleveland without going to Lucky’s. In fact, I think once I went to Cleveland to go to Lucky’s. Also featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, Michael Symon showed up to promote this local gem. It’s all about fresh. The front is filled with fresh baked goods and the staff is busy picking ingredients out of the garden you see through the window during the summer months. The “biscuits” is one of the best breakfasts I have ever eaten. From the fluffy cheddar biscuits and eggs to the sensual sausage gravy, it is complete nirvana. In fact, I awake craving it at times. In addition, there are great beverages and lovely lunch items like a delicious curried chicken sandwich and a made from scratch Reuben that’s to die for.
2. Topolobampo– Chicago
Rick Bayless is considered one of the best Mexican chefs in North America. Now I know why. Once you navigate through the loud and hectic sister restaurant Frontera, doors open and you enter the serenity of Topolobampo. From the minute you are seated you are treated like royalty. Hands down the best service I had all year. The waitstaff part like the red sea when you walk through the front of the kitchen to get to the washroom. The sommelier was informative and not pushy. Our waiter knew everything about every dish. The menu changes frequently but you can always count on a delicious selection of nouveau Mexican dishes with bold, explosive flavours. Even better is everybody at the table can order what they want without the need to have a complete consensus in order to opt for one of the many tasting menus ranging from vegetarian to one dedicated to mole, Mexico’s most prized dish. Topolobampo is proof that not all eateries run by celebrity chefs are overrated…some are just “increible”!
1. Girl and the Goat– Chicago
Stephanie Izard in many ways has redefined what a great chef is. Her infectious smile, lovely attitude and commitment to working vigorously within the walls of her two West Randolph restaurants have been rewarded with numerous accolades including a James Beard award. The menu is a mosaic of tastes and textures which tickles every sense. Whether it’s the escargot ravioli, the pig face which gets smothered in egg yolk or the goat belly confit, the attention to detail from both a visual and taste perspective were amazing. Translating passion to a plate is an art and Izard is Picasso. I’d tour this gallery anytime.
My final day in Chicago was a race to see how many DDDs I could hit before my 2 pm flight. After a strategic session with a map, I determined a route that would allow me to hit three; two within walking distance and one on the way to O’Hare.
Having spent most of my time in Chicago on either the Magnificant Mile, the convention centre or West Randolph, it was nice to get off the beaten path a bit. My first stop was the White Palace Grill. Opened in 1939, this place is the traditional 24 hour American diner. It has all the classics, from eggs to waffles to Mexican breakfast platters. I sat at the counter and joined the show as one of the many cast and characters of the Chicago scene. A very pleasant waitress quickly came to my rescue, offering me the large menu and a newspaper which I much appreciated. It’s amazing how out of touch one falls when stuck in a conference for 4 or 5 days. I scanned the menu and ordered a coffee, some strawberry banana french toast with a side of bacon and some grits to try.
The banter in the place was primarily focused on the Hawks Stanley cup win the night before. People were walking in and out proudly donning T-shirts and jerseys. There seems to be a trend among couples to walk around Chicago wearing matching shirts…it’s rather endearing. I was rather amused when another waitress checked in to start working. I think her name was “Happy” or something like that. If so, the name fit her personality and I quite enjoyed listening to the conversations and laughter that erupted during my breakfast.
Without much of a wait, breakfast arrived. The strawberry sauce was on the side, so some assembly was required. It was classic french toast with classic toppings. I love grits and I wasn’t disappointment by the Palace’s butter laden offering.
White Palace grill is an all American 24 hour diner. It has all the attributes of a good experience; good food, good service and good decor. Although it may not top the Zagat guide, it’s a place where you eat lots and leave feeling happy, happy, happy.
Verdict: 4 Guyz
Stop number two was Panzanno’s Italian Market which was about a 10 minute walk from White Palace. During this time, I got to admire some of Chicago’s downtown architecture from afar while walking over the West Roosevelt bridge. The bridge itself is quite interesting. I snapped a pic of one of the numerous icons which lined the street. I did a quick internet search to find out the meaning of these depictions but came up empty.
Despite the name, I wouldn’t call Panozzo’s a market. True, they sell a small array of pastas and Italian staples, but the main attraction is the deli and take out sandwiches. There are a few “old school favorites” but the signatures are the crescentine sandwiches. Like the name suggests, they are crescent shaped sandwiches stuffed with all sorts of delicious fare.
I ordered two sandwiches to go; the porchetta crescentine and the meatball sandwich. It was hot as hell outside, so I was also drawn to the ice cream freezer which was sporting an array of Zarlengo’s Gelato. There was an article hanging on the wall touting the frozen treats, so I grabbed a Rum and Raisin for the walk back to the mile. It was smooth and creamy with lots of raisins and lots of rum flavour filled the cup.
I like when thought is put into things, even simple things. Sometimes the difference between a good sandwich and a great sandwich is one ingredient. There is always the opportunity to push the boundaries just a little and I feel Panozzo’s does that. Both sandwiches were delicious. I think the pickled fennel and chilis in the porchetta and meatball respectively added enough to make these sandwiches stand out. The bread was fresh and the fillings were ample.
Although the decor is a little barren and the vibe a little flat the sandwiches were delicious. The offering of Zalengo’s at Panozzo’s is another example of the comradery that exists between restaurants and other vendors in Chicago. Like Metropolis coffee and Graham Elliot’s eateries, it’s a win-win and refreshing concept.
Verdict- 4 Guyz
After I devoured the gelato I walked through the park, took a few pictures of Soldier field from afar, made a wish in a fountain, admired some more Chicago architecture and got soaked in a short but intense downpour. I did a quick change into some dry clothes, repacked, hailed a cab and proceeded to my third DDD of the day, Kuma’s Corner, which is located on the way to O’Hare.
Kuma’s corner prides itself on a fantastic concept; the fusion of burgers and head banging metal. This is not a superficial claim. Everything from the decor to the staff to the name of the burgers scream the theme. I see metal this way….stubborn and abrasive on the outside but with a core of justice and determination in the middle. Take their beer philosophy for example. One may attribute the “No Bud and Miller” philosophy to a pretentious and elitist attitude. Consider the possible lyric:
“Drink no Bud, drink no Miller,
I’m a commercial lager killer.”
Sounds a little nasty, but the foundation in rooted in supporting the small guy, a concept as important to the brewing industry as it is for food. To this point, I started with a Three Floyd’s Robert the Bruce Scottish ale on tap and was later hypnotized by a bottle of Apocalypse Cow housed within one of the the many bar fridges and brewed by the same Indiana brewery. Although it came with a $20 charge, it was a fantastic IPA . Rich and citrusy, almost sour and intensely hoppy , it was a wonderful complement to the burger.
The menu itself is burger-centric with a spattering of bar food available as well. The three guys beside me were indulging on an order of mac and cheese which looked divine (mind you when does mac and cheese not look divine). There are almost 20 burgers available, each with a combination of standard and not so standard toppings such as avacodo, smoky and spicy cheeses, wing sauce, poached pears and yes, a fried egg. I went Ozzy and ordered the Black Sabbath burger which was a patty seasoned with blackening seasoning, spicy jack, chili and red onion. I chose a salad as the side which turned out to be pretty good. My colleague went with the burger of the month which in this case was the Stranglehold, an 8 oz buffalo patty garnished with aged cheddar, arugula and habanero mustard.
There’s a whole lotta burger. The bun was delicious and the toppings worked well together. I had a nibble of my colleagues bison burger which hit the mark as well. If anything, I wish there was a little more liberty to choose the wellness of the burger because a patty cooked medium would have been over the top. Instead, the patty was a bit on the dry side although far from inedible.
Kuma’s concept is a fun one. I may have seemed out of place hauling a week’s worth of luggage into this tiny joint and sitting among biker types and foodies who were embryos or twinkles in their father’s eyes when the majority of the metal playing in the background came out. Needless to say, I received the same rugged yet considerate service despite the fact I don’t sport a tattoo, two inch spacers or a permanent chip on my shoulder. The food was good, the gimmick works and the beer selection was amazing.
The first line of Metallica’s Fuel is “Gimme fuel, gimme fire, gimme that which I desire”. Big burgers, plenty of local beer and whisky on tap do just that.