Preserving America's Food Traditions.
These are some of the great places we have stumbled across that have fed our bodies and souls:
Columbia, SC: Maurice’s Gourmet Barbeque—our first stop for food on the road trip.
One thing you can always count on when traveling through the South is a great number of establishments to satisfy your barbeque cravings. I am usually distrustful of any restaurant that puts the words “Gourmet” and “Barbeque” together, but when I saw the sign with the giant pig proclaiming that Maurice’s serves the “World’s Best BBQ,” I knew we had to stop and check it out. One thing I have learned on past road trips is you never mess with a pig, especially an enormous one that promises a good meal.
We had high hopes for Maurice’s—this was, after all, our first meal on the road trip and we did not want it to disappoint. We saw a sign that proudly announced that the restaurant holds the world record for most pounds of barbeque served in one location on one day—a gut busting ten tons of meat! If that much food could be sold here in one day, we had to give it a try. We each ordered the combo platter that made them famous: the half-pound pork sandwich with a mustard-based sauce, fries, cold slaw, and hushpuppies, along with two sweet teas to wash it all down (did I mention we were in the South?). The combo basket is called the “Big Joe,” and I admit I was feeling a little bigger by the end of the meal. But not only were the portions more than generous, the pork was succulent, the cold slaw tangy with a hint of pickles, and the hushpuppies crunchy but still moist on the inside. It was my first pork sandwich doused with a mustard-based sauce and it was pretty good. It did not overpower the flavor of the meat, which is something I look for. My only complaint, and it is a minor one, is that the bun was not toasted. But that is fairly common, and I will forgive Maurice. The good news for those of you that live nowhere near South Carolina is that Maurice ships “coast to coast,” so you can try it for yourself. And if you are celebrating something important, like getting your tax refund back from the IRS, they will even roast a whole pig and send it to you. How is that for a good return?
New Orleans: Back in Business (2 July 2007)
For those of you that have not been back to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city you have got to go. Jackson Square was filled with the sounds of jazz and Dixie Land musicians doing what they do best, and across the street, crowds indulged as usual on café au laits and beignets at the Café du Monde (www.cafedumonde.com).
Although we did not have much time to spend in town on our way to Baton Rouge, we walked around a bit and had lunch at the Acme Oyster House (www.acmeoyster.com), our favorite spot for po’boys. We split a plate of crawfish étouffée and a Peace maker po’boy. Acme’s classic preparation of the crawfish étouffée was straight forward and homestyle. Nothing fancy, but good and comforting nonetheless. The Peace maker is a sandwich lovingly filled with a combination of fried shrimp and oysters, lettuce, tomatoes, and a Tabasco-infused mayonnaise. This is what you want when you order a po’boy. Obviously we could spend days eating our way through New Orleans but this was just right for a quick lunch. It was our second time back since “The Storm,” but certainly not our last. We are more than happy to keep this city cookin’.
Albuquerque, NM: The Frontier (7 July 2007)
Albuquerque is the perfect road trip town. After spending over ten hours crossing what seemed like the never ending state of Texas, and a quick overnight stay in Truth or Consequences, NM, to rest, refuel, and recharge with an early morning dip in the hot springs of our hotel, we finally arrived in the “Duke City.” Like heat rising off the desert floor, the vision of Albuquerque appeared before us sprawling out on both sides of I-25. The city is at the crossroads of Interstates 40 and the aforementioned 25, as well as Route 66, the mythical mother highway of all road trips. We enjoyed all three of Albuquerque’s personalities: Old Town, with its cute little plaza and historic setting; Downtown, a hip and vibrant area where professionals and college kids rub elbows; and Central Avenue (Route 66), which crosses town from east to west on its way to L.A. and recalls memories of the ‘50s with its neon lights, classic diners, old motels, and kitschy signs.
As we drove westward on Central Avenue, we came upon an Albuquerque legend: The Frontier restaurant. This is where everybody, and I mean everybody, in town comes to eat good, cheap food that is served quicker than you can decide on whether you want your dish smothered in red or green chile sauce—a common and serious topic of debate in New Mexico.
The most expensive item on the menu is the sirloin steak at $9.89. But we were here for breakfast and wanted to sample two things in particular: the highly recommended Huevos Rancheros and their famous Frontier sweet rolls. The restaurant is run cafeteria style. You wait in line staring at the large menu overhead and a staff member directs you to an eager cashier who takes your order and gives you a number. When you locate an available table hidden somewhere among the crowds, you anxiously await your number on the screen in the corner of the room. The place is so efficient that our number was called almost as quickly as we found a table. But this is not “fast food.” Every item on the menu is carefully prepared despite the amazing speed at which it arrives at the pick-up counter.
We asked for our sweet roll to eat before our entrées, and the cashier handed one over immediately. It was the kind of decadent thing that you know is not good for you, but is too irresistible to pass up. The roll was light and fluffy and filled with just the right amount of cinnamon—not to overpowering and not skimpy on the spice either. It was smothered in a hot, buttery sauce that made the whole experience even more sinful. Just as we had started tearing into the roll, our number was called and we sprang from the table to fetch our meal. Although the Western Omelette was tasty, it was the Huevos Rancheros that won us over. This was New Mexican comfort food at its finest. The dish is comprised of two eggs on a fresh tortilla covered in your choice of chile sauce and is accompanied by some of the best southwestern style pinto beans we have had. This dish is a cultural experience and a feast for the senses that you cannot miss if you are ever in Albuquerque. And by the way, we decided on the green chile sauce, and I think we made the right choice.
San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace: A Food Lover’s Fairytale (16 July, 2007)
One of the toughest parts of going to San Francisco is not walking up all those big hills, it’s deciding where to eat. With so many unique neighborhoods, each specializing in some tantalizing cuisine, you really have to carefully choose where you will spend your meals. Every time your belly starts rumbling for food, you have an extraordinary amount of CHOICES: you can hit Chinatown for dim sum and noodles, North Beach for pasta and cannolis, the Mission District for incredible burritos (the true soul food of San Francisco), Fisherman’s Wharf for the touristy (but still yummy) sourdough bread bowls full of clam chowder, or Japantown for sushi. But this trip I made a new discovery that made dining in the Bay City much easier: the Ferry Building Marketplace (www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com).
The Ferry Building was once (and maybe once again is, along with the Transamerica Pyramid) downtown’s most recognizable landmark. Modeled after the Giralda tower of Sevilla, Spain, the building originally opened in 1898 to welcome immigrants from the East as well as workers from around the bay. Though the construction of the Oakland Bay and Golden Gate bridges and the advent of automobiles and freeways into the city made the Ferry Building almost obsolete, it somehow resisted demolition. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged parts of the Embarcadero Freeway that ran in front of the Ferry Building, and the city decided to demolish the eyesore expressway and invest in renovating the Ferry Building to reduce traffic congestion and spur economic development. Today, packed ferries once again run to and from the once doomed building and inside the historic nave, over 40 merchants, specialty shops, and restaurants have chosen the site to make this one of the most vibrant rehabilitation projects in the country. But these aren’t just tacky T-shirt shops. Almost every business in the building is a celebration of local food.
We decided to go to the Ferry Building in the first place because I had read about their Tuesday Farmers’ Market. Though the Saturday market is bigger, I had heard good things about the Tuesday event and wanted to check it out. Both days’ markets are sponsored by the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (www.cuesa.org) and the organization does an outstanding job informing customers of the ins and outs of sustainable farming with various handouts and displays.
Outside the building, we were greeted by dozens of area vendors selling everything from organic produce to local honey to smoked wild Pacific salmon. I was delighted when I found a pile of Padrón peppers at the Happy Quail Farms (www.happyquailfarms.com) stand.
Padrón peppers are native to Galicia, the part of Spain from where my family comes, and they are my favorite peppers in the world. They have a delicious sweet flavor and are generally not spicy, although every now and then you can get a spicy one in the mix. Because of this, some people call eating them “Spanish Roulette.” The peppers are so tasty that all you have to do is fry them quickly in olive oil and then sprinkle them with coarse sea salt. They are not only a delectable treat, but are also fun to eat with someone else as you watch each other’s faces anticipating who gets the hot peppers. My father, Eusebio, has five healthy bushes growing in his yard back home in Florida, and we are lucky enough to have a long growing season and can indulge in Padrón peppers most of the year.
After touring the impressive Farmer’s Market and calling my dad to let him know he had some West Coast competition, we entered the building to peruse the shops and restaurants that line the interior. As I toured the edifice, I realized I had died and gone to Foodie Heaven. The Marketplace is a beehive of activity and home to an incredible array of food artisans, each offering something unique and delightful. You can sit down and feast on southern French fare at Mistral Rotisserie Provençale, grab a seat at the bar and order a dozen local bivalves at Hog Island Oyster Company, or slurp a superb milkshake while you wait for your food at Taylor’s Automatic Refresher, an old-fashioned hamburger lunch counter. Acme Bread Company offers dozens of hand-crafted loaves, the Cowgirl Creamery entices cheese lovers with award-winning local premium cheeses, and we found pastries and the most beautiful cupcakes we have ever seen at Miette Patisserie. Ferry Plaza Seafood and the San Francisco Fish Company have all the fruits of the sea on display, while Prather Ranch Meat Company and the Golden Gate Meat Company offer sustainable, all natural beef, chicken, pork, and other specialty meats.
At Boulette’s Larder you can dine on creative, seasonal food from the open kitchen at the one communal table in the place (or sit outside with a view of the bay) or simply stock your pantry with the very best ingredients. We picked up some of our favorites: Anson Mills grits and Carolina gold rice, as well as some Native American Anishinabeg wild rice from Minnesota. Boulette’s Larder also offers take-away, as do many of the other fine dining establishments in the Ferry Building, such as Mijita, where we picked up some excellent fresh mahi-mahi tacos, flavorful beans, and a cup of slightly spicy Mexican hot chocolate and ate outside as we watched the boats pass by. As a quick snack, we picked up a bombolone at I Preferiti di Boriana. Bombolones are an Italian version of small filled donuts tossed in sugar and ours came loaded with dark chocolate. It was the most irresistible snack I have had in quite some time. Perhaps the most interesting store in the building is Far West Fungi, a shop entirely devoted to a dizzying variety of mushrooms, truffles, and other fungi.
And speaking of produce, one thing that really impressed us was that the various produce stalls in the building (such as Farm Fresh to You) all offered a community-sponsored agriculture (CSA) -style weekly box for its customers. The program is like having a produce subscription: customers pay a fee to have a box of seasonal produce ready for pickup each week. Everything in the box is picked fresh and only the best local, seasonal fruits and vegetables are included. The list of merchants goes on and on, and you could easily survive in the place if you were locked inside for months.
We spent literally hours touring the farmers’ market and Ferry Building Marketplace, browsing its shops and restaurants, and people watching while we sampled many of the artisan products. While many tourists go to San Francisco to visit Alcatraz or the Golden Gate Bridge, the one place that will have me coming back time and time again is the Ferry Building and its glorious food halls. The history and rebirth of the building are remarkable, but it’s the marketplace’s artisans and the products they offer that tell the story of San Francisco’s present and future.
For more information on the Ferry Building Marketplace and a complete list of merchants (and their respective websites), please visit www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com. The website also offers information on the biweekly farmers’ markets and the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture.
Notes from Napa (22 July 2007)
While traveling ttahrough California Wine Country, we made two discoveries I’d like to share with those of you who may not have heard of them. The first is a “wine soda” called Vignette (www.winecountrysoda.com). It comes in two flavors, Chardonnay (described as “fresh with subtle fruit”) and Pinot Noir (“bright with berries”). Both styles are sweetened only with California grape juice and are lightly carbonated. Though we didn’t try the Chardonnay, I can wholeheartedly recommend the Pinot Noir as a non-alcoholic and caffeine free complement to sandwiches and other light picnic fare or simply chilled and enjoyed on its own on a hot afternoon.
The other item that I was excited to find in the Sunshine Foods supermarket in St. Helena, CA was a brand of dried beans called Rancho Gordo (www.ranchogordo.com), a local company that specializes in heirloom varieties of corn, grains, herbs, chiles, and beans. The selection of beans at Sunshine Foods was fascinating and included many types I had never heard of before, such as Tiger’s Eye, Rio Zape, Goat’s Eye, and Flor de Junio. Many of these are native to the American Southwest or Latin America and the company is working to preserve genetic diversity and improve the quality customers can expect to find in their local supermarkets. You can learn more about their products and order them on their website, which also features many interesting recipes. I am looking forward to getting home and testing the various bean varieties we picked up.
Letter from a Fast Food World (25 July, 2007)
I have a confession to make. I like fast food. OK, some fast food. Specifically, on the West Coast. I know, I know. It goes against everything I thought I stood for and it completely contradicts the purpose of this journey. But let me tell you about two places I’ve discovered while out West. Neither of them is really all that “fast” in delivering your food because it is made to order, but they are quicker than a sit down meal at a typical restaurant. Both places bring your food to your table after five to ten minutes, depending on your order. But they are worth the minor wait.
When we left for our cross-country tour, we promised ourselves we wouldn’t eat at any major chain restaurants or any fast food places. But all that changed when we dined at the following two hamburger temples. The first establishment that won me over was Taylor’s Automatic Refresher, with locations in St. Helena, CA (the original since 1949 in the Napa Valley) and another in San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace. It is more like an old-fashioned lunch counter than a fast food restaurant, and that was the original attraction. The friendly staff is dressed in crisp, white uniforms and the place itself looks almost like a roadside drive-in. There is definitely a sense of nostalgia when you park your car and walk up to the counter to order. But atmosphere aside, what really convinced me that I could like, dare I say love, fast food was the food itself. Like most decent, hard-working folks, I like a good hamburger. But more often than not, I avoid ordering one because most of the time the stuff between the buns is unidentifiable (although I have isolated cardboard as a key ingredient in more than one regrettable burger). According to their menu, the meat at Taylor’s is “all natural, hormone free California beef cooked medium well,” and this wasn’t just a marketing ploy. This patty was juicy and actually tasted like, well, beef. It was a shock to my senses--a pleasant one, but a shock nonetheless. I ordered the Texas Burger, which is served with guacamole, salsa, cheese, mayo, and jalapeños, to spice things up a bit. This was, hands down, the best “fast food” burger I have ever had. Lisette wanted to try something a little less traditional, so she ordered the Ahi Tuna Burger, which is seared rare and served with a tangy Asian slaw. It was an instant classic. And let me tell you about the sides we ordered: sweet potato fries and garlic fries. Oh man, this was no ordinary fast food joint! Garlic on the fries!!!! I went nuts. They were terrific. We washed it all down with a pair of superb milkshakes—espresso bean and white pistachio. Who needs dessert with a meal like that???? You can even order from a decent beer and wine selection if milkshakes aren’t your thing and you want something more sophisticated with your meal. I admit, the bill was certainly heftier than at your typical chain, but it made me really wonder why there weren’t more places like Taylor’s. People want good food. I think most people will even pay a little more for it. This is how fast food should be.
The second place that has sent me down the evil road of fast food fandom is a chain called Burgerville, with locations throughout northern Oregon and southern Washington State. The place certainly looks more like a typical fast food outlet than Taylor’s, but what caught my eye was a big sign outside announcing, “Oregon Blackberry Milkshakes.” Local, seasonal ingredients at a chain? As we found out, blackberries were just the beginning. We entered the restaurant and gave the menu a quick, suspicious look. Walla Walla, WA onion rings? North Pacific halibut filet sandwich? Tillamook, OR cheese? Wild Coho smoked salmon and hazelnut salad??????? What was going on here?
After careful investigation (which of course included sampling the obligatory hamburger, fries, and yes, blackberry milkshake), we learned that Burgerville was not your typical fast food chain. Founded in 1961 in Vancouver, WA, just across the Columbia River from Portland, OR, the company has not strayed from its original vision of serving good food while supporting local businesses and communities. Their motto is “Fresh. Local. Sustainable.” The chain purchases many of its ingredients from farmers exclusively from the Northwest, and frequently uses seasonal ingredients (such as Walla Walla onions) to make its menu more distinctive. It offers affordable health care to its employees and has purchased 100% local wind power for use in each of its restaurants and headquarters. It even converts its used Canola oil into biodiesel.
Though we were indeed very impressed with the quality of the food and service, it was their avante garde way of doing business that really set this place apart from any other chain restaurant in which I had ever eaten. It was good, honest fast food with a conscience. Just as I had thought to myself with Taylor’s, I questioned why more chains weren’t this committed to its employees, customers, and communities. I guess it takes great leaders these days to make radical ideas like high quality food and concern for the community a priority, but in Taylor’s Automatic Refresher and Burgerville, I think we may have found a bright future in the fast food world, even if it does take a few minutes more.
Portland, OR: Cacao Chocolate Shop (27 July, 2007)
ATTENTION CHOCOLATE LOVERS: we have found the place for you. While strolling the streets of downtown Portland, we came across a business sign that piqued our curiosity. It read, “Drink Chocolate.” Drink chocolate? We could not resist entering this little chocolate boutique called Cacao (http://www.cacaodrinkchocolate.com). The place is a chocolate addict’s dream come true. Tables and shelves are stacked from wall to wall with artisanal chocolate bars, and as we passed through the doors our nostrils and souls were penetrated with the scent of powerful chocolate aromas that sent our bodies into what I now like to call “Cacao Nirvana.” It was like a complete affirmation that karma existed, and that all the good things I have done in my life had finally amounted to something!
Jesse Manis, who co-owns Cacao with Aubrey Lindley, showed us around the shop and explained to us the subtle differences between the chocolate bars, such as distinguishing flavors, percentage of cacao content, and place of origin. We were impressed by Manis’ expertise and the store’s wide selection of hand-crafted chocolates. As we sampled them in a state of cocoa bliss, I could only think of one thing: “How could something this good tasting be so good for you too?” Two of the more memorable chocolates we tried were the Amano “Ocumare Grand Cru Dark Chocolate 70% Cacao Minimum” and the Pralus “Le 100% Criollo” chocolate bars. Amano Chocolatiers is quickly becoming the most respected American chocolate maker, and the bar we tried lived up to its reputation. Amano utilizes antique equipment to produce this chocolate bar in small batches and hand-selects the finest cacao beans from the Ocumare Valley of Venezuela. The result is a floral and fruity dark chocolate that was extraordinarily pleasing to the tongue. The Pralus bar is for die-hard dark chocolate fans because of its astounding 100% cacao content, something that no other bar I have tried has pulled off with such success. Unlike other 100% bars that are much too bitter to be enjoyable, the “Le 100%” was indeed strongly flavored yet amazingly graceful and sophisticated. One other chocolate that caught our attention was the Tsáchila bar with 75% cacao content. It is made with wild cacao beans from the jungles of Ecuador that are harvested, fermented, and dried by the Tsáchila tribe, which numbers just 2,700 members. The cacao is then refined and turned into chocolate by the Confisserie Coppeneur of Germany and the product is an intensely fruity, almost sour, bar that the company describes as having hints of dried fruit flavor. Although it was not our favorite, it was still a worthwhile tasting experience and the fact that it was made from wild cacao beans in partnership with a native tribe made it all the more rewarding.
And the “Drink Chocolate” part? What sets Cacao apart from other chocolate shops we have visited are the liquid chocolate shots you can indulge in at the bar area. We ordered two intoxicating shots that left us tingling with ecstasy. The Special Spicy Dark shot is made of 72% Arriba dark chocolate, cayenne pepper, smoked paprika, ginger, and coconut milk. It was exceptional in its complexity of flavors, and its spiciness crept up on you little by little, as if to say to your taste buds, “Wake up and enjoy the chocolate!” The second shot, a 72% Rivoli dark, was more straightforward but possibly even more delicious than its spicy counterpart. As I sat there digesting all we had sampled in an out-of-body state of mind, I came to a conclusion: Cacao chocolate shop would make a most productive setting for peace talks between warring nations. There is no way anyone could be hostile to another human being after “drinking chocolate.”
Columbus, GA: Ezell’s Catfish Cabin (12 August 2007)
We were headed down home to St. Augustine, FL when we had a hankering for some “down home cookin’.” I don’t know how to explain it, but being back in the South gave us immediate cravings for a good fried seafood meal, and as we crossed through Columbus, GA, our eyes widened as we passed the bright blue neon sign that read “Ezell’s Catfish Cabin—All You Can Eat Catfish.”
This was not the first time eating at Ezell’s—we had feasted on catfish there a few years back—and seeing the sign was like coming home. The catfish at Ezell’s is perfectly fried, either whole or as fillets, in a lightly dusted cornmeal. Years of practice have made this the place to eat catfish. What began as a small fish camp on the Tombigbee River in 1937 is now one of the finest places to experience a good Southern fish fry. We each ordered the catfish and shrimp platter for $11.99.
There is nothing quite like eating catfish whole and pulling off the flaky meat right off the bones…it just plain tastes better! There is a quote on the menu that reads, “Catfish: #1 requested food of death row inmates!” I am not sure if that represents Southerners well, but when you bite into Ezell’s catfish, you almost do think, “I would kill for this at home!” The shrimp at Ezell’s are also exceptional, but what REALLY made us happy to find the restaurant again were the homemade cole slaw and hushpuppies. The cole slaw is creamy and tangy and has that homemade taste like your grandma used to make. For those of you that have never had hushpuppies, SHAME ON YOU! Hushpuppies are a Southern favorite served at most meals as a side, but at Ezell’s they are a star dish in their own right. Balls of cornmeal are fried lightly and eaten like you would bread rolls in other regions of the country. Yankees are tempted to eat them with a knife and fork, but true Southerners know they are too good to be wasting time with silverware. We just pop them in our mouths with two fingers. Ezell’s hushpuppies are the best I have ever had---not greasy at all and full of flavor. They are moist and have onion and small pieces of jalapeño peppers mixed in for added goodness. Who needs fries (though they are better than average at Ezell’s) with your fish when you have such outstanding hushpuppies???? There are not many places that I would drive for four hours just to have their hushpuppies, but that’s how good they are at Ezell’s.
St. Augustine, FL: Pesky's Baja Grill
(Published in the St. Augustine Record on 20 September 2007)
With the end of summer fast approaching, I thought it would be appropriate to write about beach food. We’re fortunate to have an extended beach season here in Florida. There is something magical about the beach—no matter how stressed out and overworked you feel, it has a way of whisking you away to a more carefree state of mind. Let’s face it—there aren’t too many belligerent beach bums out there. But after a long day at the beach, I usually have quite an appetite and I crave good coastal comfort food, and that to me means one thing: grilled fish tacos from Pesky’s Baja Grill. The name Pesky’s, in fact, is derived from pescado, the Spanish word for fish, and there’s no better place to sample the dish.
Since bringing their San Diego/Baja California beach vibe to St. Augustine Beach almost four years ago, owners Jen and Trevor Henley have created an establishment that focuses on freshness, flavor, and friendliness. “We are not a Fast Food restaurant,” their menu proudly exclaims. Everything is made to order using only the freshest ingredients. When a recent bad shipment of avocados left them without their popular guacamole, the Henleys refused to buy a pre-made version, despite protests from customers. “People didn’t understand why we didn’t have guacamole for a week, and I tried explaining that we didn’t believe in serving the industrial stuff. I guess it’s a compliment to our guacamole that it was in such demand,” Trevor explained to us. “Our customers are loyal and they know they can expect quality here,” he added. Regular customers can also expect to be greeted by name, something Trevor prides himself on. “People never come to eat here just once. That’s probably the best part of my job—seeing people come back again and again and developing relationships with them. We get doubters from time to time, people that scowl when they read on the menu that we put fish in our tacos, but we win them over pretty easily.”
It didn’t take much to win me over. The fish tacos at Pesky’s are light, healthy, and packed with flavor. Two strips of grilled mahi-mahi rest gently on a corn tortilla and are topped with a sour cream-based “white sauce,” cabbage, salsa fresca, cilantro, and a slice of lime. Add some of their homemade guacamole and you’ve got yourself a beach masterpiece wrapped in a tortilla, minus the sand. And if fish tacos aren’t your thing, the casual eatery also serves chicken and beef tacos, burritos, and quesadillas, coconut shrimp, and a number of vegetarian dishes. No matter what you decide on, taking a bite of anything served at Pesky’s makes you feel a whole lot closer to the beach and far, far away from the stresses of work and daily life. So if you catch me at Pesky’s eating a fish taco and I don’t respond, I’m not being rude, I’m just on my way to Baja.
The following is Pesky’s homemade guacamole recipe to try at home:
Courtesy of Chef Jennifer Henley © 2001, Pesky’s Baja Grill
4 large ripe Haas Avocados
1 tablespoon diced red onion
¼ bunch fresh chopped cilantro
½-1 lime’s worth of fresh lime juice
Tabasco sauce (to taste)
Kosher salt (to taste)
White pepper (to taste)
Halve and peel avocados and remove pits. Set one pit aside for later. Place avocado flesh in a bowl and combine with red onion, cilantro, salt, pepper, lime juice and Tabasco sauce. Mash together with a fork or a heavy whisk. Taste and adjust seasonings to preference. TIP: In bowl, place reserved avocado pit and press against guacamole mixture (This prevents it from turning brown!). Remove pit before serving. Refrigerate until served.
Hastings, FL: Johnny's Kitchen (Published in the St. Augustine Record on 18 October 2007 as "Johnny's Cookin' for Johnny")
Once upon a time in the southwestern corner of our county, a bustling farming hamlet called Hastings once thrived, producing enough food to feed the entire St. Augustine area, locals and snowbirds alike.
Elmo's Drugstore was the place to see and be seen. It was where farmers commiserated over poor planting weather and youngsters courted each other. It was where anyone who was anyone ate, drank, and chatted the day away, and then did it all over again the next day.
But little by little, the forces and pressures of modernity began transforming the community over the decadesdowntown's once busy Main Street was nearly abandoned, many proud families left farming and left the town altogether seeking better paying jobs and new opportunities elsewhere, and Elmo's closed its doors. Still, many folks never gave up on Hastings, and today what once seemed impossible is now happening a Hastings Renaissance is on the horizon and it's being led by a guy named Johnny.
After cooking in local eateries like Gypsy Cab Co. and then heading out to California to hone his skills, John Barnes returned to his beloved hometown five years ago and immediately noticed a void in the social and dining scenes.
"There was no place to eat home cooked food or just get together and talk like when I was growing up. I decided I needed to do something about it," said Barnes. "Cooking out in California, where you have fresh produce from the Central Valley all year long, really made me appreciate coming back to Hastings. We have an amazing wealth of vegetables being grown in the region and it's often overlooked."
Seizing the opportunity, he opened up Johnny's Kitchen 2 years ago and it was an instant hit. "People don't have the time to simmer collard greens for three hours like they used to, so now I do it for them. Most of my customers want the food from their childhoods. I had never eaten anything canned or processed until I joined the Navy. It was a shock to my system. There was a time not so long ago when we ate local foods according to the seasons and that's what I do here," said Barnes. "I shop every afternoon at the County Line (Produce Company). Then I head to San Mateo and watch them cut my pork chops. I buy whatever I see is freshest and cook it the next morning. And when we run out, we're done."
In the beginning, that took some getting used to, as customers weren't too pleased about arriving at the restaurant only to find out that there was no more fried fish. "I don't buy frozen. Who wants old fish? I had to educate people. When we're done, we're done," said Barnes.
Cooking with the seasons means a return to more simple, honest foods for Barnes. He described the excitement that sweeps Hastings in May as Silver Queen corn begins arriving. "The whole town starts buzzing. I saut it with a little butter and pepper, but it's so good you can eat it raw!
Soon, we're going to be getting cabbage in here and it will be so tender and delicate," an enthusiastic Barnes said. "People ask me, how did I cook that corn or those collards, and I tell them it's not me, it's the produce. I mean, I may throw in some salt and pepper or add a little pork I do love to cook with pork but for the most part, the produce speaks for itself."
Barnes may be overly modest when it comes to his cooking, but there's no doubt that the local vegetables he buys at the peak of their ripeness enhance his menu quite nicely. But don't be fooled, he's not cooking for his customers. "When I put together my menus, I cook for me. I cook based on what looks good to me. If one out of a thousand customers doesn't like it, I'm not changing the way I cook. I cook for me, and I hope you like it."
Judging by "Fried Chicken Wednesdays" (or any other day of the work week, for that matter), customers don't seem to mind the way Barnes is cooking or his prices either. For an even $7, your lunch plate comes overflowing with an entre, two veggies, cornbread and sweet tea. Tax is included.
Popular items include the aforementioned fried chicken and fried fish, as well as stewed okra and tomatoes, white acre peas, chicken and dumplings, sweet potato casserole and pork pilau. It's all as tasty as is it is affordable, and a mix of regulars, including workers from the fields, widows and sheriff's deputies, all mingle happily meal after meal. The eatery is also open for breakfast from 6 to 10 a.m, before feeding the massive lunch crowds from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Barnes stays busy not just with his successful restaurant, but also actively trying to revitalize the town. Recently, I attended a benefit dinner he hosted to raise money for the Hope Pavilion, an after-school center for local youths from troubled backgrounds or households. In addition to cooking and absorbing the costs of the food shared that evening a five course feast featuring some of the finest country cooking anywhere he donated money to buy supplies to renovate the building in which it will be housed. The sold-out event raised $6,400 and cemented his role as a leading force in the rebirth of the farming community.
Jennie Skillman, one of the charity event's organizers and a devoted customer, claimed that Johnny's Kitchen "is like a mother to Hastings. It feeds you and your friends, it fusses at you, and it encourages you to do the right thing. It's the glue of the community. Everyone's at Johnny's black and white, farmers and workers. If you have $7, you can be part-owner of Johnny's too. When I can't be found at work, people call Johnny's and leave messages for me there. It's that kind of place."
With Johnny's Kitchen bringing an increase in traffic to Main Street, new businesses are popping up, like a soon-to-open Low Country eatery a block away. Barnes is not afraid of a little competition. "I think it's great for the town. Plus, now I'll have a place where I can eat dinner."
When asked why he is inspired to do what he does, Barnes paused for a moment to contemplate. "My grandma was a real country lady she cooked, she butchered hogs, made her own sausage, and there was always a peach or berry cobbler or something sweet at the end. I think people miss that and I'm trying to fill that need, not just for good food but for a gathering place." Barnes said. "I think we're the new Elmo's in town."
Miami, FL: Michael's Genuine Food and Drink--Definitly Worth the Drive
It’s not often that I would use this space to recommend a restaurant that is a five hour drive down I-95, but Dear Readers, I have been so captivated by my two dining experiences at Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in Miami that it would truly be a selfish disservice of monumental proportions were I not to share them with you. Michael’s Genuine, which opened its doors in 2006, is the brainchild of Chef Michael Schwartz, a rising culinary talent who is starting to garner the attention he deserves. Since my first bite there last autumn, I knew I was experiencing something very special—a chef, a restaurant, and a vision that only come along every so many years and alter your perception of what cooking and dining should be.
So what makes Michael’s Genuine so exceptional? It starts with the artisanal ingredients from small scale producers that punctuate the menu—old time livestock breeds like Berkshire pork, local heirloom tomatoes, Harris Ranch beef, Anson Mills grits, and locally harvested seafood, to name a few—and continues in the kitchen with masterful preparations that celebrate, rather than dominate, the subtle and sublime qualities of the individual components of each dish. Fresh octopus is first boiled then pounded with a mallet to tenderize it before it is finished on a wood-fired grill and placed on a bed of gigande beans, roasted peppers, green olives, and herbs. It’s a dish that captures the essence of the entire menu with its freshness and simplicity. In addition to the chargrilled octopus, the wood oven’s smokiness enhances many of the other memorable dishes on the menu. The wood roasted whole sweet onion stuffed with ground, spiced lamb and apricots is a nod to Morocco and tastes so deliciously authentic all you’ll need is a mint tea to wash it down. I was equally impressed with the crispy beef cheek, a decadently rich cut of meat that is roasted, then served with whipped celeriac and a chocolate reduction. It was as satisfying as a good bowl of oatmeal on a winter morning, yet its subtle elegance elevated the dish beyond mere “comfort food.” Similarly, such humble seasonal vegetables as Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and Swiss chard are wood roasted or sautéed, allowing their earthiness to shine brightly.
Steaks and fish are also roasted to perfection, the wood imparting fragrance and complexity, yet the menu also features a number of other delicious morsels not necessarily wood roasted, such as the chicken liver crostini with caramelized onions, the genuinely addictive crispy hominy with chile and lime, and the almond braised shortribs with a persimmon compote. The masterpiece of the house is the pan roasted half poulet rouge chicken, served with whipped truffled potatoes and garlic jus. This single item is reason enough to make the 300 mile journey from St. Augustine. Remember when chicken tasted like, um, chicken? We’ve become so accustomed to the dry, rubbery, flavorless industrial bird sold under the moniker “chicken,” that it’s difficult to recall what it’s really supposed to taste like, but this is it in all its glory. The poulet rouge, a French stock raised on small family farms in North Carolina, is one of the tastiest chickens out there. It’s so good that Michael’s Genuine seasons it with a pinch of salt and pepper—that’s it. I can say without exaggeration that this is the best chicken dish I have ever had in America.
Chef Schwartz is able to turn simple dishes into ones that astound diners with their complexity of flavors and textures in an honest, soul-satisfying way. Perhaps that is his greatest strength—he is not a pretentious chef that dazzles with flashy presentations—he focuses instead on the quality of his ingredients and lets his simple, rewarding preparations do the talking. By developing a dependable web of artisanal suppliers, he is able to present the freshest, most flavorful ingredients at their peak in authentically delicious ways. It’s a sincere vision that inspired the eatery’s name (Genuine Food & Drink) and it has translated into great success for his restaurant and great admiration from those of us fortunate enough to dine there.
Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink
130 NE 40th Street
Miami, FL 33137
(305) 573 5550
You Are What You Eat.
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