Before heading up to Napa, I decided to scratch another triple D off the list by heading to Rocco’s Cafe on Folsom Street. It is a classic Italian cafe offering typical fare from pastas to Italian sandwiches. The timing wasn’t right for dinner so a breakfast visit was the next best thing.
The decor was old school Italian diner. There is an open kitchen and more pictures than selfies in my daughter’s instagram account hanging on the wall. It has a friendly feel complete with happy cooks and equally pleasant waitstaff. There is a certain magic about a true rundown/rustic Italian cafe and Rocco’s had the right semblance.
As much as I was tempted to go with the Grilled Homemade Polenta topped with Cheese & Marinara Sauce w/ Eggs any style with Italian Sausage, I figured the mushroom, onion, basil, & parmesan cheese frittata ($11.95) was authentic enough for an Italian cafe without the need to paralyze myself. Now, the word frittata is up for interpretation. By definition, it means fried but there are all sorts of interpretations. Most of them fall somewhere on the spectrum between an omelette and a crust less quiche but usually dictate that some element of the filling is cooked within the egg. Rocco’s offering was closer to an omelette and not quite what I expected. Nonetheless, it had good flavour and seasoning and more than abundant fillings/toppings. The potatoes had a slight off taste I just couldn’t identify but overall they were decent.
On the way to the subway I was craving an Americano so a quick google search told me Wicked Grounds was just around the corner. Don’t get me wrong, I could have hit a number of other coffee houses on the way but I was intrigued at the thought of sneaking in behind the closed curtains to experience a fetish cafe in the early morning. I didn’t expect much at 830 am but there were a few customers and some very nice, courteous staff along with plenty of cuffs, paddles and other paraphernalia for sale. Most alarming to my virgin eyes was the option to have a drink served in a dog bowl for those who chose to be subservient on that particular day. I was tempted to order a decaf and a paddle to go but I stuck with the former along with a granola bar which promised to be more awesome than a cat riding a unicorn. It wasn’t and I left humming Chris Issak.
I suppose there are worse things to do than search for a good breakfast and an amerciano from a fetish cafe in one of the most liberal cities in the world. What’s even better is when you get a decent breakfast and knock another DDD and getting a coffee from the same place I’d buy a blow up doll..screw you Walmart. In the end, regardless of where the frittata fell on the spectrum, it was a decent plate and the Wicked Grounds coffee was good even if I was able to get my Rocc’s off again.
With limited time and a hectic schedule in an unknown city, I often rely on the experts (including urbanspoon and yelp writers) to tell me where to go. In the case of Beauty’s, I relied on Gail Simmons’ recent article in Food and Wine magazine for an over-the-top breakfast. In particular, she recommended the Mish-mash omelette and the banana bread.
I hopped in a cab with a colleague and headed out of the downtown core and into the Mont-Royal area. Nestled on a corner, Beauty’s sports all the hallmarks of a classic diner including vinyl benches, signed pictures of famous people pledging their love and support and a table of old people sitting near the door engaging in some kind of social event.
The menu is a straight forward mix of diner classics such as burgers, salads, sandwiches and melts. I stared blankly at the menu pretending like I might order something other than Gail’s suggestion. So when the waitress arrived with diner coffee in a diner cup I ordered the famous Mish-Mash omelette which is stuffed with hot dog, salami, green peppers and fried onions and a side of home fries for $12. It was served like something called a mish-mash should; with large chunks of each ingredient busting out of the rather crispy egg. An added touch was a messy mound of home fries all over the plate. It was good and was somewhat enhanced by those secret ingredients called nostalgia and celebrity endorsement although I’m not sure it would win you Top Chef Canada anytime soon.
I know Gail is a sucker for a good dessert so I purchased a loaf of banana bread for $10. The minute I inquired one of the older gentleman got up from the table by the door and pitched it like he was selling me a car. It weighed a stone or two but was moist and not greasy. I brought some back to Ontario and dressed it up with homemade caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream which was ironically the dish which allowed me to meet Chuck Hughes the week after. I’m surprised Gail forgot to mention the rice pudding which was spectacular. I’m a huge fan of this diner (and hospital) classic and this was one of the better ones I’ve had. I brought it back to the hotel and when I realized I was spoonless, I resorted to gluttony and consumed half the container using my first two fingers and my thumb with no remorse.
I get the nostalgia of the place. In addition to being hustled into large dessert purchases by the senior’s table, it has all the components of a classic diner and has been a part of the community since 1942. There’s a relatively inexpensive and diverse menu highlighted by signature dishes which have caught the attention of food gurus like Gail Simmons. It’s a fun stop and allows you to explore another area of this great city outside of Old Montreal and the downtown core. That said, if you’re not up for a $15 cab ride for a hot dog omelette, this may not be your place. Maybe the beauty of Beauty’s is not in the decor or presentation of the food but in the fact that places like this, which set the foundation for the future of restaurants from fast food to fine dining, continue to thrive in 2013.
The early morning humidity didn’t stop me from taking a 30 minute walk to West Randolph, an interesting stretch known for an array of restaurants of all shapes and sizes. After the first wave of high end places (including a few touting Michelin stars), you hit a block of empty, spray-painted buildings, cut in half by a highway running underneath. Shorty after, the street becomes vibrant again, filled with microbreweries and eateries slapped with celebrity names like Graham Elliot.
The apex of this West Randolph landscape is a cute spinning goat overlooking the street. This was destination number one.
Stop #1- The Little Goat Diner
This Stephanie Izard spin-off offers a bit more versatility than the flagship Girl and the Goat. You can grab a quick breakfast, feast on a hearty dinner and everything in between. You can buy of loaf of bread or drink on the roof. This particular visit was of the breakfast variety. It was about half full and we were seated quickly at a booth. The place had a definite diner vibe. I felt like John Travolta in Pulp fiction. The waiters and waitresses were current and hip and bad-ass despite donning trendy yet old school diner uniforms. There’s something about raven tattoos and dainty dresses that works for me. Coffee flowed, served with smiles and poured from old school pots into mugs stamped with that cute, smiling goat.
The menu is equally dichotomous. One can simply grab bacon and eggs or venture into the creative realm of a number of more exotic options. I didn’t come to Chicago to eat standard fare, so I did what any warm-blooded Irish dude would do; I ordered spaghetti. Presented like a cross between a seafood pasta and an omelette, it was boldly flavoured and sat in a delicious broth. I asked for some hot sauce and was offered a housemade smoky chipotle and an apricot flavoured option which had a little more bite. Both were delicious although I feel the former more suited for the dish. It’s not for everybody, but I’d shelve the home fries any day to dig into this seafood medley.
My colleague went for the bull’ s eye french toast, a crafty demonstration of Korea meets chicken and waffles meets toad in the hole. The sweet dueled with the savory in every bite to create a stimulating battlefield on the tongue. Underneath the chicken, two slightly overcooked eggs stared up from the comfort of the thick brioche. In the end, the savory prevailed, so don’t order it if you need to satisfy your sweet tooth. Otherwise, It’s delicious.
My Take: With so many choices, I’ll have to come back whether it be breakfast, lunch, dinner or sucking back drinks on the rooftop. It’s full of innovation and choices that only makes sense when you read them on a menu. Plus, I enjoy feeling like a Chicago gangster as I sip coffee in an old school diner surrounded by tattooed staff and riffraff such as myself. Don’t expect diner prices, however. It’s not a cheap, unless you come for the experience and settle for one of the daily breakfast specials.
Stop #2– Naha
A lunch appointment kept me downtown for a trip to Naha, a Michelin star restaurant with a bit of a middle eastern flare. It’s spacious and modest, reminiscent of a Moroccan villa. The waitstaff were courteous, although many were wearing these oddly large uniforms that just didn’t seem to fit. A full lunch menu is offered in what seemed to be Chicago fashion: a prix fixe menu for $22. After consuming the Little Goat breakfast earlier that day, I was sort of hoping for Blackbird type portions sizes to save the embarrassment of the ramifications of overindulgence. When asked if I wanted a beverage, I found that the beer selection was quite lame…..a bit of a cardinal sin in the heart of the craft brew craze which consumes the Midwest.
I started with the cannelloni which was stuffed with housemade ricotta and garnished with snap peas, jerusalem artichokes and a bit of fregola (small pasta balls). Nothing like some pasta on pasta action. It was a very delicate, had great texture contrast and fresh flavour….an ideal lunchtime starter.
For the main, I opted for the sea loup de mer (sea bass) which wasn’t much bigger than the starter. It appeared to be a twist on a bagna cauda( a dip with strong Mediterranean flavours) which served as a salad dressing on romaine lettuce instead of being served in the typical vessel. The fish was a bit dry and the flavours reminded me of a well-disguised ceasar salad. It was a little bit of a yawn.
My colleague opted for a mezze (ie sampler) of Mediterranean goodies which included hummus, babaganoush, string cheese, spiced beef etc. It offered a true experience minus the salt water smell one might experience if eating the same thing in the homeland itself (I don’t think the smell off of Lake Michigan could mimic…even if the windows were open).
The dessert menu incorporated concepts from this side of the ocean, ignoring the expected tiramisu and baklava and replacing with American classics such as ice cream, malt and caramel corn. I went with the sundae, served with with porter ice cream topped with a crackling chocolate topping and a bit of European infusion with the use of toasted hazelnuts and a couple of triangles of nutella panini. The other choice at the table was a chocolate pave with the aforementioned sprinkles of Americana and a gold leaf as a tribute to capitalism. Both were a fitting end to a meal. There were no surprises…just well constructed and executed desserts which would be deemed delicious by anybody on the either side of the ocean.
My Take: Naha offers a well-executed lunch by fusing strong Mediterranean flavours and techniques with beloved elements of Americana. For the most part, the execution was on the mark and the portion sizes were acceptable, at least for lunch. The North American inspired desserts were the star, an irony for a place whose concepts are rooted in elements of the Middle East. The meal was well paced, the service was decent and the decor was spacious and fresh.
Stop #3– Billy Goat Tavern
Between the Billy Goat curse and the famed SNL appearance, it’s a foregone conclusion that one has to drop by this tavern during a trip to Chicago (especially on the heels of a visit to Wrigley). I won’t go into the details of the curse (you can look it up on the website, wikipedia etc.) but it involves a goat and a bunch of men….enough said.
Basically, it’s a place with the burgers, coke, beer and a spattering of other snack foods. The walls are plastered with faded newspaper articles and signed pictures and accolades from generations past. The grey-haired bartender looks like he’s won a trivia contest or two in his time and courteous staff pan the floors looking for empty steins to refill.
I ordered a burger for three bucks and change and a beer for about the same. The thin, pre-made patty is served on an oversized bun. The condiment station has the standard toppings, although I found the onions two ways rather intriguing. You could choose finally diced or thick (and I mean thick) rings. I loaded up with a pile of pickles as well. It was exactly was I expected and exactly what I wanted; a burger which brought me back to the days when it didn’t cost twenty bucks and wasn’t served with pineapple, mango, fried egg, short rib, pulled pork, bone marrow, avocado or housemade BBQ sauce. It’s just a freaking $3 burger.
Neither the burger nor the beer will win any culinary awards, but I consider the $6 cost the price of admission for a small bite of Chicago history.
Stop #4- Topolobampo
I’ve been eying Rick Bayless’ Michelin star Topolobampo even since I ate tortilla soup at his place in the airport a couple of years ago. Plus, I’ve been mesmerized by his soothing voice while watching “Mexico: One plate at a time” and even attempted one of his moles as well as a short rib recipe, both with good success and a lot of sweat. I routed for him on Top Chef Masters and follow him on twitter. Ya..maybe it’s manlove but I was longing to experience Mexican in an environment other than the numerous taquerias which have appeared throughout Toronto.
Showing up was like entering a busy Mexican market…buzzing people all over place and busy servers navigating nachos and guacamole through the streaming crowds. I was very loud and I wondering how I would hear myself think I was went to the desk to check in. I was greeted by two gentlemen who barely looked twenty; dressed in bright colours, trendy ties and the look of either a beachfront Tommy model or a member of One Direction. They confirmed the reservation I had 4 months before and we were notified of the token short wait as they got the table ready. With the announcement, I was prepared to deal with the abundant noise that was in store for the evening. Instead, a magic door open and we were whisked into a room with half the decibels of the waiting area. We were seated, the door was shut and it felt as if we were transformed in to a secret VIP space. Water was immediately served in large, heavy blue glasses and the night began, but that’s another story…..
Part of the difficulty of ranking DDDs, or any restaurants for that matter, if the fact that they are so different. Take Chaps Pit Beef for example. It’s a humble abode with a simple concept; charcoaled meat on bread but can it compete with likes of sausage gravy and Maryland’s own blue crab cakes?
The directions are straight forward.
1.Get on the Pulaksi highway.
2. Look for Gentleman’s Gold Club.
3. Enter parking lot. Park. Leave car.
4. Follow smell of smoky goodness to small, stand alone shack.
6. Got to counter, imagine any combination of meat possible (beef, sausage, ham, turkey and corned beef). Many are named after famous people, teams etc. Put pointer finger and thumb on chin and stare blankly at the numerous choices.
8. Move to the other side of counter and wait.
9. When food comes proceed to condiment counter and dress accordingly.
I felt a pang of betrayal not ordering the The Guy’s Triple D, but decided on the Richwich, a corned beef, beef, turkey and sausage which pays homage to Man vs Food host Adam Richman (sorry Guy, but it had two kinds of beef!).
Having just eaten at Sip and Bite, I took it to go and drove toward Pennsylvania with a side of tiger (horseradish) and house made BBQ sauce. I had every intention of waiting until I drove a reasonable distance before digging in, but as I said on yelp, it spoke to me, asking me over and over to eat it. I really had no choice, so I finally had to succumb, pull over for safety reasons. I slathered it with the sauces and indulged. I must of looked like a cross between a rabid dog (complete with dripping tiger sauce) and a fat kid in a pie eating contest. I swear a state officer did a double take making sure I wasn’t wrestling a ruffed grouse.
Chaps is a straight forward sandwich and burger shack set up in the parking lot of a strip bar. Chaps offers a fantastic sandwich, highlighted by the tender beef, corned beef and turkey. The sausage was so-so and a bit awkward, so I would likely go with the Raven (beef, turkey, corned beef ) next time. As for the sausage, I’ll leave it for the Gentleman’s Gold Club.
It was stormy night, long ago in Philadelphia. On the last night of a week long conference, after smiling in front of customers and running up the Rocky stairs, I was ready for Silk City Diner. Other than the fact it’s a DDD and it’s foundation is a old school diner, I knew little about this Philadelphia icon.
Since I was already an expert in the Philly landscape (based on my previous walk to Honey’s Sit n’ Eat), I lead my band of fearless eaters down Spring Garden St to our destination. The diner was a little more than I expected, housing a lounge on one side and a beer garden on the other. Despite the promise of a late June storm, we weathered it out and sat in the latter. Adorned with metal trellises, Christmas lights and coloured stools and picnic tables, it looked like it could have been decorated by Don Ho or a creative grade 7 class inspired by Claude Monet.
The Thai Style BBQ ribs were delicious…meaty and flavourful and likely the best thing I ate that night. The pickles, peanuts and hoisin sauce was an odd combination but it worked so well.
Other than a little joint in Toronto (see grand electric in this blog), this is the best fried calamari I have had. It was an abundant pile of hot, tender and spicy all rolled into one.
Philadelphia may not be the haven for comfort soul food, but Silk’s buttermilk chicken reminds me of the deep south (well not really…I’ve never been to the deep south but it did have collard greens and a corn muffin!); a delicious, big ass home cooked meal. Crunchy skin, juicy chicken and all the fixin’s.
In a world filled with burgers approaching $20, a $10 burger (well..$12 with the guacamole and long hots) is an endangered species. Silk’s offering was simple and solid.
The pork belly empanadas were decent but not the highlight of the meal. The slaw and the mango attempted to add some different flavour and texture to the dumplings, but they were a bit doughy. The cilantro cream did little to enhance the dish.
I can’t turn down bread pudding, so I was happy to see Chocolate Banana Brioche Bread Pudding on the menu. It was a little more bread than it was pudding so I let out a little sigh or two.
This is another let the pictures do the talking place. The food is diverse and tasty and there’s a bit of something for everybody. There’s plenty of cocktails and a great beer selection, ranging from $2.50 Tecates to a $4 Oskar Blues Mama’s Little Yella Pils. The portions are huge and the prices are cheapish. The environment is fun and lively, even in the midst of a pending summertime storm.