Saturday, July 31, 2010

A North American Food Tour-Part I

Well, we mostly toured the U.S. but I can't omit our little stint in Quebec, and we didn't go to Mexico, but "U.S. and Quebec Food Tour" just doesn't have the same North American Food Tour it is!  In case you didn't know, Lissa and I went on a transcontinental train trip.  As you can see from the map on the previous post, we stopped in Chicago, D.C., Montreal, Quebec City, New York, Charlotte, and New Orleans.  In each one of these cities, in addition to other activities, we ate food.  As happy as I am with the gross amounts of great food I stuffed my face with, I could probably do it twice over again.  I mean, these are some great food cities!  So without further ado, let me take take you on a tour of the culinary highlights of our trip.

First stop, Chicago.  This was my first trip to Chi-town, so I had to hit up a couple of the classics: deep-dish pizza and hot dogs.  Let's begin with the pizza.  So, you know how they call pizza "pie"?  Yeah, well deep-dish pizza from Chicago is a freakin' pie!  A piece of deep-dish is as thick as a piece of your Grandma's apple pie, the crust is flaky like pie dough, and it sits in your stomach like a couple pieces of pumpkin pie after Thanksgiving dinner.  We considered going the tourist route and visiting Pizzeria Uno or Gino's East, but our host, Leena, persuaded us to check out one of her favorite restaurants, Bella Bacino's.  Overall I thought the restaurant was mediocre, but the pizza was really quite good.  As mentioned above, this kind of pie is no joke.  With the crust towering at around 3 inches, you're dealing with 2 and some inches of cheesy, meaty, saucy, gut-bomby goodness.

Now, Chicago-style hot dogs.  What really sets Chicago dogs apart is the array of condiments.  Complete with mustard, chopped white onions, sweet pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato slices or wedges, pickled sport peppers, and a dash of celery salt, it is said that a Chicago hot dog has been "dragged through the garden" (wikipedia).  For our dog-devirginization we had to hit up Portillo's.  It was a darn tasty dog--nice snap, soft bun, and all the tasty condiments that you would expect.

Alas, we didn't get to hit up any of Chicago's famous Polish specialties, but we did manage to squeeze in some Greek food!  The famed Greek Islands Restaurant was our destination.  This place is no joke.  It's a big place, and they employ a small army of cooks, bussers, and waiters.  On everyone's name tag is printed their name and city of origin.  I can't remember our waiter's last name, but I think it started with a "p" and ended with an "s" :)   Anyway, it was a great meal and definitely worth a mention here.  Pictured at left is my tender grilled octopus, with Lissa's keftedes (meatballs) and spanikorizo (spinach and rice) in the background.

Our next stop was the nation's capitol.  Perhaps not as well known for its culinary delights as some of our other stops, D.C. did not disappoint--mostly due to one very special experience.  Lissa has family scattered in and around the metro area, so the horns were sounded for a "comeallya" (that's the code name for a get together in her family).  Uncles, aunts, cousins, and significant others gathered for a good-ole' Maryland-style Crab feast.  Now having been born and raised on the west coast when I think crab, I think Dungeness, but this is a whole different thing.  Here we're looking at Blue crabs-Callinectes sapidus.  The meat in Blue crabs is sweet and delicious, but damn is it labor intensive to get it out!  We went down the the wharf with Lissa's cousins and picked up a bushel (about 70-80 crabs).  They season them with Old Bay and steam them right there for you.  I must have eaten 20 crabs when it was all said and done, which yielded at least 12 ounces.  It's a labor of love though, and I savored every last nibble of those little guys.  The only other time I had tried Blue crabs was last year in Veracruz, Mexico.  There we had them stuffed and baked, which required less work on my part, and were delicious (link to my Veracruz post here).

After D.C., we boarded the train again and headed up to the Great White North.  I had been wanting to go to Quebec for some time, and my years of anticipation were not in vain.  Our first stop, Montreal, ended up being one of my favorites of the whole trip.  I love multilingual cultures (Barcelona, Switzerland, Belgium...) and though French is the only official language in Quebec, most Quebecers (in our experience) speak English quite well.  In many of our initial exchanges we were greeted with "Hello, Bonjour..." like a fork in the road that would determine the conversational route ahead.   Food-wise, Quebec is probably most famous for its tourtières (meat pies), and maple desserts, but I came for one thing and one thing only: poutine.  Pronounced "poo-TSIN" this hearty dish is said to taste best after a long night of drinking.  It consists of a pile of french fries topped with cheese curds and beef gravy.  I didn't think it was going to be as good as it really was, but it really was!  Our host, Catherine, directed us to what has been touted by many as the best place to in Montreal to get your poutine on, La Banquise.  With 28 variations of the Québécois diner classic to choose from, it's easy to get nervous.  For my first experience, though, I took a deep breath, and ordered a regular sized classic.  The guy sitting next to us ordered a large poutine Italienne (covered in meat and tomato sauce)...I was glad I ordered the regular size.  The gravy was not nearly as thick as what I am used to, so it really isn't as heavy as you might think.  It was really and truly, awesome.

You got me Montreal!  You lured me in with your je ne sais quoi, and then the poutine was the nail in the coffin.  Now, if I can only find some poutine in Cali....

Part II of the North American Food Tour coming soon.

Friday, July 30, 2010

A North American Food Tour-Part II

Moving on from Montreal, our next pause was in the city of New York.  I'll just say it, I love New York City.   There is a contagious energy coursing through the veins of this city that I happily and
willingly contract.  The rough-edged attitude of New Yorkers is so often mistaken as discourteous, but I have always found people in the Big Apple to be outstandingly gracious.   New Yorkers are also extremely proud of their city, which despite its flaws, makes it that much more enchanting.  Of the six million things to do in the city, eating is certainly one of them and there is no shortage of  establishments (according to the NYC Dept. of Health, more than 20,000) to do so.  With five days to wander the island and its neighboring boroughs and three to four meals a day, we barely made a culinary dent.  Oh, but what a delicious little almost dent it was.  We landed at The Pod Hotel, on E. 51st St between 2nd and 3rd Avenues.  It was late when we got in, but that's not so much an issue around here.  We wandered out into the madness of Times Square and were instantly dizzied.  I consulted the Yelp app on my Droid (love it!) and we stumbled into a nearby restaurant called Havana Central.  It was just what we needed: live music, cocktails, chicharrones de pollo, arroz con pollo, and tostones.  Refreshed, we meandered back to the Pod to rest up and prepare for the next day's meals.

The location of the Pod Hotel is great for many reasons, and upon rising in the morning I found that one of those reasons is the proximity to Ess-a-Bagel on 2nd Ave.  There are many things that New Yorkers claim they do better than anyone else, but none are so clear and true in my opinion as the bagel.  In fact, I have a very difficult time eating bagels anywhere but New York.  Ess-a-bagel's tagline is "Everything on a bagel," and they do offer just about everything.  For me though, I just want my schmear.  One cinnamon raisin bagel with raisin walnut cream cheese and a black coffee...unbeatable.  Guess where we ate breakfast the next day?

We also had to make at least one stop to a Jewish Deli.  We were lucky enough to get to see a live taping of the Late Show with David Letterman (special guest: Bill Murray...awesome!) and we left the theater starving.  So why not go get a pound or so of sliced meat stacked between two pieces of bread at Carnegie Deli?  True, it's a pretty touristy place, but what can I say...we're tourists.  Plus, we sat next to some very nice guys from Jersey and had a great conversation as we noshed.  Anyway, would you look at the size of that sandwich!!  That is the Woody Allen, which is "lotsa corned beef and lotsa pastrami."  It must have weighed a pound and a half. 

Perhaps the culinary highlight of NYC was had in Brooklyn.  We met up with a friend of mine from high school who insisted we meet him and his girlfriend for dinner at a place near his apartment in Bushwick.  Located in a former garage, Roberta's offers a "unique space that has both a handmade and original feel," complete with wood-fired oven, roof-top garden and aviary!  What?!  They also purchase most of their high quality meats from Heritage Foods USA, for whom my friend John happens to work.  Salumi plate, coppa di testa, veal sweatbreads, bibb lettuce salad with dried-cherry vinaigrette, purslane salad with bacon and pears, a couple wood-fired pizzas and a beer or 10 was just about enough to fill us up (note sarcasm).  After dinner, John took us on a tour of the roof-top garden where they grow their tomatoes and herbs, and then we moved over to the dimly lit vegetable garden next door to sit and talk some more.  Thanks John and Nami for such a wonderful evening!

Some other highlights of our stint in the city included roti canai and beef rendang at Nyonya, breakfast at Popover Cafe, cupcakes at The Magnolia Bakery, pistachio and apricot tart at Georgia's Cafe and Bakery, plantains and courve and The Coffee Shop, and the cheese plate at Celeste.  Ah, island life...   We'll be back to gobble up more of your goodies soon enough New York.

After Nueva York, we headed south.  We had only two days and one night in Charlotte, North Carolina, but I made certain that I would eat some barbecue before we left.  Lissa and I used different methods of deciding where to eat on our trip, but in Carolina I decided to rely on Guy.  Yep, Guy Fieri from Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives visited a place in Charlotte called Bar-B-Q King, so I figured we should visit too.  I must admit, it wasn't the best BBQ I've ever had but it was darn good, and since we don't have any barbecue drive-ins in Santa Cruz, I particularly enjoyed the experience.  We shared a pulled pork plate, with slaw and hush puppies on the side.  The meat was slathered with tangy vinegar-based Carolina-style sauce...mmmm.   It was just what we needed to fuel us up for our day trip to beautiful Chimney Rock.

Now, we had planned on driving back in to Charlotte that night to catch our next train to New Orleans, but we got a phone call from Amtrak notifying us that the train had been canceled due to a tropical storm.  After some deliberation and about 15 phone calls, we decided to extend our rental and make our way down to Louisiana by car.  Road trip food can be a scary thing, but I dove in head first and relished the novelty of places like Zaxby's and Waffle House.  There's nothing to be frightened of...well, at least that's what I kept telling myself.

20-some hours later, we arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana.  Just like the original cajuns, we made the same trek from Northeastern Canada down to the bayou, and we were hungry.  Our first meal was The Old Coffee Pot on St. Peter Street in the French Quarter.  They were short staffed and pretty busy so I figured I should occupy my time sipping on a New Orleans classic cocktail (reportedly one of the oldest): The Sazerac.  I ordered the Louisiana Crab Platter (pictured at left): corn and crab bisque, fried soft shell crab, sauteed lump crabcake with shrimp Bienville sauce, broccoli au-gratin and Lyonnaise potatoes.  Lissa had the New Orleans Sampler:  a portion of jambalaya, red beans and rice with Andouille sausage, and a cup of seafood gumbo.  It was a great introduction to NOLA.

After wandering around the French Quarter a bit more, both our appetites and some rain had reappeared so we ducked into Cafe Beignet for a sweet treat.  We really only wanted to share one, but they came three per order so I took one for the team and ate two and a half of them.  We took refuge under an umbrella in the courtyard and listened to the band that was playing.  There were three or four other groups of people doing their best to stay dry.  One couple, though, decided that they had had enough.  So they got up...and started to dance in the rain.  It was a beautiful, beautiful moment.

Before we hobo'd up and left town again, we had one more lovely meal at the Bourbon House, where I had fried oysters, french fries and a fried hush puppy, and the entire plate was coated and lowered into the deep-fryer.  I ordered a neat Maker's Mark and a side of triple-bypass surgery to go along with it.  Lissa had shrimp remoulade and fried green tomatoes.  Dessert: Pecan Pie and Bourbon Milk Punch.  Good.Night.

I'm baaaaaaaaaack

I'm back peoples.  After a one month transcontinental train trip, we ended up crossing 25 states, sleeping in 18 beds, and stopping in 20 cities!  Here is a map of the general path we took...

View To Quebec in a larger map

To give you a quick taste (emphasis on quick) of the trip, I have put together a photo montage of the many snaps taken during our voyage:

Much food was eaten and many good times were had.  More to come on both, soon.