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.

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