Sunday, July 31, 2011

Road Trip 2011: Chicago (Pt. 1)

Since I had never been to Chicago, Dennis scheduled a stop for the route back home.  Although I knew my main food plan for Chicago was to go to Frontera Grill, Rick Bayless’s restaurant, I had no plans for the other eating stops.  Inadvertently, I ended up doing the low-end and high-end of Mexican cuisine when we stopped for burritos at a place near Wrigley Field.  So, if you are looking at the poles of foodie adventures in Chicago, here it is . . .

El Burrito Mexicano

There are so many places to eat and drink around Wrigley Field.  People clamor in on their way to the game and clamor in on their way out.  Dennis and I were going to an afternoon game and wanted to grab something beforehand.  Although I saw a lot of interesting places to drink and eat, nothing quite called to me.  Finally, when we turned on West Addison, tucked under an “L,” was a place that boasted the best burritos in town.  When I saw El Burrito Mexicano, I knew it would be a good “down home” experience. 

And it was.

Dennis grew up in San Diego where authentic Mexican food is everywhere you turn.   Although we have found some good Mexican places on the East Coast, nothing has ever quite matched the “real thing.”  When the food got to the table, his first comment is that this was the perfect burrito size.  Then, on tasting it, he looked at me and said, “This is the real deal.”

I had the huevos con chorizo and he had the carne asada with added avocado.  For both, the tortilla was perfect.  The texture had the right amount of flakiness and the flavor was spot-on.  The carne asada was also tender and well-seasoned and nicely cooled by the fresh avocado.  The huevos con chorizo was gooey, spicy, and deliciously oily.  Plus, the meal came with crisp tortilla chips and three different salsas: green tomatillo, a thin tomato salsa, and a spicier chunky one.  I gluttonously poured the green and spicy one on my burrito which gave it a great balance of fresh and bright and greasy.

El Burrito Mexicano is a place with the right atmosphere: “L” trains rolling by, baseball fans trafficking in and out excitedly, and the sounds of vigorous chopping of ingredients in the background.  Authentic food and authentic experience all rolled into one.  

El Burrito Mexicano on Urbanspoon
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Friday, July 29, 2011

Road Trip 2011: Lincoln (Pt. 2)

Lazlo's Brewery and Grill
For dinner one night, we checked out Happy Hour at Lazlo's.  Since eating out so much can really bring a lot of expense, including Happy Hours in your trip is a good means of getting fed and imbibed for less. 

On the night we were there, Lazlo’s was featuring $2 off their microbrews as well as $2 off appetizers. Lazlo’s features beers from Empyrean Brewing Company, their in-house brewery.  I tried two beers, the Dark Side Vanilla Porter and the Third Stone Brown, and Dennis had the Burning Sky Scottish Ale.  The Vanilla Porter has a pleasant mellowness without the excessive sweetness that is sometimes an unpleasant side effect of Vanilla Porters.   The Brown lives up to the description of being a dark beer that isn’t too filling.  I liked that it was nutty and smooth and very drinkable.  But, the Scottish Ale was the star being “sweet and smooth with a wee hint of smoked character.”
For dinner, Dennis ordered the Buffalo Chicken Sandwich and I took further advantage of Happy Hour by getting the Slider Trio.  The Buffalo Chicken had a brazen hot sauce, tangy bleu cheese, and tender chicken.  The Slider Trio was a meal on its own and is a trio of the hamburger, cheeseburger, and BBQ bacon.   They are not afraid of slightly pink hamburger meat and I definitely approve.  All were juicy and flavorful, but the best was the BBQ Bacon.  I’m mean, the pictures says it all.  
With Dennis’s and my food, I have to mention a small detail that makes a huge difference.  With both, the bread was the perfect complement to the sandwich.  Sometimes the rolls are too dry, too much, or pull focus from the sandwich; Lazlo’s rolls are a perfect complement by being squishy, slightly tasty, and willing to accept a role as supporting cast.

Lazlo's also has wi-fi.  I know where my future favorite place to work on my blog will be.   

Next stop . . .  Chicago
Lazlo's Brewery & Grill on Urbanspoon
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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Road Trip 2011: Lincoln (Pt. 1)

Because I will eventually be moving to Lincoln and will have lots of time for blogging about Lincoln cuisine, I didn’t feel as pressured to do as much scouting and tasting on this trip.   But, two food finds, the Dairy Store and Lazlo's Brewery and Grill, are worth mentioning and gave me high hopes for the foods that await me when I become a resident.

Dairy Store
Dennis and I spent one afternoon walking around the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus.  While wandering around the Student Union an ice cream place caught my eye.  Turns out, in 1917 the dairy branch of UNL’s farming and agriculture department started the Dairy Store which produces ice cream and cheeses.  After eying the flavors, the idea of cool and creamy ice cream seemed like a good counterbalance to the warm walk.  I got in line with “chai chip” in my mind, when, at the last minute, my eyes were drawn to two words—Maple Bacon.   

I tried a little bit and then ordered a whole cone.  Rich, full, creamy ice cream with subtle warm maple made for a decadent ice cream on its own right.  But, they didn’t stop there.  Completing the flavor profile was finely diced-up pieces of real bacon scattered throughout.  It is ice cream that hits sweet and velvety and then finishes with chewy tidbits.  It is reminiscent of dipping bacon in your pancake syrup.  

I once wrote about kummerspeck, or “grief bacon,” but Maple Bacon ice cream is pure “joy bacon.”    

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Monday, July 25, 2011

Road Trip 2011: St. Louis

Square One Brewery and Distillery 
Originally, there was a master plan for St. Louis: Gateway arch, dinner at Iron Barley, drinks at Square One Brewery and Distillery.  We had gotten into St. Louis around 3:30 pm and, after an hour rest up in the hotel, the plan seemed plausible.  The catch, I forgot to run the plan by St. Louis.  There was traffic from people going to the Cardinal’s game.  The arch area was crowded because of "Military Week." And, with lines and an IMAX film, we spent two and a half hours at the arch itself.  Given that it was 8:30 central time and all we had eaten since 2:00 EST was some Gateway Arch cheese curds, I had to choose between Iron Barley and Square One.  Since Square One was closer, that won out.   

Square One is on Park Avenue in a trendy part of St. Louis with lots of yuppie restaurants and hip bars.  Square One itself had a crowd of 20, 30, and 40 somethings and was even giving tours at 9:00.  There is lots of great beer kitsch all over the walls and is a fun place to soak in atmosphere. 
The beer list is a pretty impressive one--some fruity, some bright, some hoppy, some dark, and some mysterious.  Dennis and I each had a “plank,” which is a four beer tasting.  I got the Light Squared, Spicy Blonde, Honey Oatmeal, and the Single Malt Scotch Ale (the beer that also helped tip for Square One).   The Light was bright and crisp and a fresh sipping beer.  The Spicy Blonde is very similar to Hoegaarden, but a cleaner taste and not quite as cloudy as Hoegaarden.   The Honey Oatmeal was intriguing, but a little too sweet and was more suitable as a dessert beer.  And, the Scotch Ale . . . worth the visit and was the favorite.  It has caramel, toffee, subtle hops, and is so smooth.
From Left to Right: Honey Oatmeal, Single Malt Scotch Ale, Spicy Blonde, and Light Squared
For food, we started with Beer Pretzels which are served with jalapeno cheese sauce and Pale Ale grainy mustard.  The pretzels were buttery, soft, and fluffy light.  I preferred the jalapeno sauce which was creamy and captured the bright green quality of jalapeno’s while adding only a little heat.  The mustard, though, was also fantastic and was spicy and tangy.  
For dinner, I had the Smoked Salmon BLT.  It usually comes with a rosemary garlic mayo, but since I don’t always do so well with garlic I substituted with cherry sage mayo.  The sandwich was big, smoky, and with nice big hunks of salmon and chunky strips of bacon.  The salmon was also well-seasoned with light dill and the flavorful greens provided nice crunch and accent.  The roll was a little thick, but overall helped give the sandwich a nice texture that was almost like a crab cake.    
It was a shame that we didn’t get to try the “Ballistic Elvis Sammich” at Iron Barley, but that gives me a pretty good excuse to come back to St. Louis.  

Next Destination . . . Lincoln, Nebraska
Square One Brewery & Distillery on Urbanspoon
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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Road Trip 2011: Lexington (Pt. 3)

Picture from "Cupcake War" in Ace Weekly
Brown’s Bakery 
Brown’s came to my attention when Dennis handed me an insert from the local paper that was titled, “Cupcake Wars.”  It ends up that a local cupcake creator is on Food Network’s CupcakeWars Season 3 line-up.  On the way out of Lexington, we stopped at Brown’s Bakery to grab to cupcakes for the road    

I chose a Bourbon Chocolate Pecan concoction.   I didn't know this at the time, but this is one of the cupcakes featured on Cupcake Wars. The yellow cake was light and spongy and the frosting was not too sweet.  There were good hints of vanilla and a slight touch of bourbon.   
Dennis got a German Chocolate cupcake.  Although I was happy with how good mine was, I was envious of the wonderfulness of the German Chocolate.  It was gooey and soaked with coconut syrup.  Plus, there is more coconut nestled between fluffy chocolate cake and rich chocolatey ganache.  Super moist.  Super decadent. 

I have never liked a cupcake so much that I contemplated eating the wrapper to get every bite.  But, looking at the sticky, coconut soaked German Chocolate paper, I gave it pause for thought.  

Please don't judge.  

That's it for Lexington, KY.  Next up . . . . St. Louis
Brown's Bakery on Urbanspoon
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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Road Trip 2011: Lexington (Pt. 2)

Horse and Barrel Pub

Last time Dennis was in Lexington, he and his friends discovered the Horse and Barrel, a bar voted one of Whiskey Magazine's "Icons of Whiskey" and one of the three best bars in the world.  The have a wall of glistening, gleaming bottles of the warm caramel-colored hues of bourbon, rye, and whiskey.  
 Horse and Barrel provides several tasting options.  There is a Wild Turkey tasting for $16.95 that lets you try 5 one-ounce tastes of different Wild Turkey varieties.  The tasting I did was the one for $15.95 and includes three one-ounce tastes of any of the bourbons, except the high end ones.  The tasting comes with ice to open the bourbon and a menu of tasting notes on all the bourbons. 
From Left to Right: Old Charter, Henry McKenn, and Blanton's Single Barrel

I tried the Blanton’s Single Barrel, Old Charter, and Henry McKenn.  The Blanton’s was probably the least interesting.  It has honey and caramel notes but leaves an almost soured caramel taste in your mouth.  The Henry McKenn was slightly more complex, having a sweet nose, a spicy kick, and licorice on the finish.  The Old Charter was the best and had pepper and fire on the first sip, smoke in the middle, and finished with honey and vanilla.  The complexity and the subtlety of the changes made it exciting and complicated.

Dennis had a glass of the Old Fitzgerald 1849.  It was a great sipping bourbon that has a long finish that builds with every sip.  The bourbon has fruity notes to start, but the long finish dissipates and mellows those fruity notes for a nicer balance.

 The star of the bourbon tasting was not just the bourbon.  Horse and Barrel also has KentuckyAle’s Bourbon Barrel Ale on tap.  I’ve had quite a few Bourbon Barrel Stouts in my life and am a sucker for the heavy, thick beer with the creamy vanilla and caramel finish.  But, as much as I like the stout version, the ale variety is quite a force to be reckoned with.  To me, it is like a beer ice cream float.  It has notes of caramelized banana, vanilla, brown sugar, and all in the lightness and effervescence of ale--quite an addictive combination.  

Horse and Barrel is a great place for both bourbon novices and experts: novices get to test the waters and experts get to explore undiscovered territory.  For the really bold, you can join their bourbon club to keep track of every bourbon you taste.  Once you try them all, you get your name up on a plaque with the other bourbon champions.  Just a little something to strive for.    
Horse and Barrel Pub on Urbanspoon
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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Road Trip 2011: Lexington (Pt. 1)

Lexington, KY, is a place that is a bourbon and wine and late night bars and food delight.  It is a good stop on the way place, but a better go a week and wantonly bumble through the bourbon trail.  On leaving, one exit contained two bourbon distilleries, a winery, a cigar place, and a candy store.   Intrigued?  
Image from Bourbon n'Toulouse's Website
Part I: Bourbon n’Toulouse
Picking where to eat in Lexington was a combination of research, previous knowledge, and luck.  I found Bourbon n’Toulouse on a Top 10 Best Value and Urbanspoon's Best Cheap Eats list.   
They have a menu (that also has gluten-free options) of Cajun and New Orleans inspired dishes and are all under the same pricing scale: $4.50 for a small portion, $6.50 for a regular size, and $7.50 to get two instead of one.  Dennis and I both chose two so we could try as much as possible.  Each dish is served on white rice with a slice of bread that is dipped in garlic butter.  All of the dishes are waiting in a long line of pots kept hot.  So, once you order and pay at the counter, the dish is ready in almost no time.  
Southwest Etouffe and Gumbo
Red Beans and Sausage and Jambalaya
  Dennis had the Southwest Etouffee with Crawfish and the Gumbo while I had the Jambalaya and the Red Beans with Smoked Sausage.  Although I’ve never been to the “big easy,” Dennis has experienced cajun food in New Orleans on several occasions.  He said that the flavors are not quite as strong and lack some of the intensity, but that overall he really enjoyed the food, finding it solid with the general idea of New Orleans.  I, who suffers from a lack of Cajun cuisine, liked the culinary change of pace and enjoyed the thick, full sauces that I loaded with hot sauce.  Dennis’s favorite was the Crawfish Ettouffe and mine was the Gumbo.     

I'd also recommend getting an Ale-8-One to have with the meal.  It is a Kentucky a ginger-flavored soft drink that has been around since 1926.  It is bright and refreshing and works really well with spicy hot Cajun food.

Bourbon n’Toulous strikes me as the perfect college hangout.  Located near the University of Kentucky, it is a quick, easy, and cheap way of getting a warm, satisfying meal.  I think they would be the perfect comfort food during final exams, and I imagine that if there were one near me, you would catch me there with my laptop on a regular basis.    
Shouldn't every restaurant have a hot sauce station like this?

Bourbon n' Toulouse (East Euclid Ave.) on Urbanspoon
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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Road Trip 2011

 As mentioned in a previous post, I’ll be moving to Lincoln in either August or January.  So, a couple of weeks ago, my boyfriend and I took an initial scouting trip to plan the route we’ll take with the Budget truck and get a sense of apartment options.  To make the most of the trip, making it one part vacation and one part reconnaissance, Dennis mapped some interesting towns for us to break-up our journey: Lexington, KY; St. Louis, MO; Lincoln, NE; Joliet and Chicago, IL; Sandusky and Cleveland, OH.

This trip to Nebraska was an adventure of new sights.  The Midwest and Plains are uncharted territory for me, and I saw Kentucky, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, and Illinois for the first time. 

New towns.  New scenery.  New food adventures. 

The next series of posts are all about my food adventures while on the road.  There are microbreweries and a winery, some sweets and some spicy, low-end and high-end Mexican food adventures, a new ice-cream flavor, and a run-in with a monster.       
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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Ristorante Renato

In every town we lived, my family had a “special occasion” restaurant.   They got slightly ritzier as I grew up, but the earliest one I remember  was Renato’s in Fredericksburg, VA.  On my birthday, my dad would take me there for lunch, and on Christmas Eve you’d find all four of us there, forks full of pasta and marinara. 

Because of that, going to Renato’s feels like visiting an old friend.  The dining room hasn’t changed since I was a kid, and  when my parents went to Fredericskburg recently the same waiter is still there, adding a touch of nostalgia and familiarity.  Also, despite current pushes for restaurants to have the newest food, Renato’s menu still boasts the same dishes and same flavors that always kept my family coming back.    

In June, my best friend, Kathy, and I had gone back to Fredericskburg a couple of weeks ago.  We met when we were freshman at the University of Mary Washington and decided to go see our old alma mater.  Although there are lots of new trendy restaurants, for dinner I decided that a walk down college memory lane deserved restaurant reminiscence at Renato’s

For an appetizer, Kathy and I split the Granchio in Carozza, homemade bread and crabmeat baked in lemon butter sauce.  I wasn’t sure about the first bite, but enjoyed the dish the more I ate it.  The dish contained soft, squishy white bread that has been made into a sandwich and then deep fried.   It had a lot of white wine flavor and was brightened by the lemon.  Overall . . . squishy, crunchy, saucy.  

For the entrĂ©e, I went straight for a dish with the marinara.   Renato’s has the most amazing marina sauce that I have ever had.  I feel like I make a pretty exciting and complex one and it is still nothing compared to Renato’s.   What makes their sauce so amazing is that it has a great flavor that is enhanced by a fantastic texture.  It keeps a little of the very fragile fibrous quality of tomatoes while also keeping it smooth.  There is a great taste of wine and the color is a beautiful bright red, not the darker shades of most tomato sauces.  If you get something that has their marinara, you are not going to go wrong. 

For a marinara vehicle, I got one of my favorite dishes , Lasagna Romana.  Imagine perfectly thin and light pasta noodles, salty mozzarella, lush ricotta, light olive oil, and lots of perfect tomato marinara.  Deliziosissima!
Kathy had one of my second favorites, the Linguine Vongole, cherry stone clams in a white wine sauce.  This is another solid combination of clams, some in shell and some out, lots of garlic, and a strong white wine sauce.  Molto gustoso

Renato’s is a place that some might be called “old-school,” but I would like to think of as classic.  Sure, they still use iceberg lettuce in their salads and there is no hint of reductions, infusions, and foams, but it is a meal that makes me want to drop everything and go to Italy.  It tastes real and is still true to its recipes after all these years. 
Ristorante Renato on Urbanspoon
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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Buffalo Wings

Buffalo wings are the crack of food.

For one, they are cheaper byproduct that makes good use of the somewhat cast off pieces of a chicken.  Two, they are as addictive as crack: in a gut wrenching, center of your stomach, can’t think about anything else until you get them kind of way.  When I am not eating wings on a regular basis, I don’t really think about them or crave them.  But, as soon as I have a basket and get them in my system, it becomes an addiction that needs to be filled on a regular basis.

I don’t tend to eat at many chain restaurants and tend to think of their food as soulless and generic, but I do love Buffalo Wild Wings’s Tuesday Wing Night.  It is quite astonishing the amount of beer you can drink and wings you can eat without breaking the bank.   Throw in buffalo chips, ranch dressing, and some celery sticks, and you have one of every food group and a well-rounded meal.

I also really enjoy the fun of Buffalo Wild Wings.  My boyfriend can watch sports on any one of the over fifteen screens in the place.  I can play trivia or Texas Hold’em.  I don’t think of myself as a competitive person, but a little smack talk and team bashing sneaks out in the moment.   For a while, I had a pretty fun trivia nemesis and nothing goes better with sports bar wings than a little competition.   
I’ve played around with several wing sauce options.  I tried the low key the mid range and flirted with the high end.  Mango Habanero is my spicy sauce of choice, but a couple weeks ago I decided to climb Mount Everest.  I had worked my way up from Mango Habenero to Wild.  I figured if I can go Wild then surely I can go all in with Blazin.  If the law of degrees between the top three spicy sauces meant anything, this should be a challenge, albeit a doable one.    What I did not expect is that the highest was more of a balls-to-the-wall, show no mercy kind of hot.  I knew I was in trouble after the first wing.  
With Mango Habanero and Wild, the first wing isn’t but so bad and you think you have them mastered.  Then, slowly, the heat builds and by the second or third, you realize the full gravity of the situation.  With Blazin it was bad from the first wing.

Bad . . . try throbbing, agonizing, burning.    

For the first time ever, a spicy food really made me cry.  Not just a couple of drops eeking out because of swelling nasal passages, but good uncontrollable tears.    I also felt pain.  So much pain that I had to keep myself from drinking the ranch dressing to help sooth my ever throbbing taste buds.  After wing three, I had to pause for a moment of truth and remind myself that eventually, endorphins would kick in and that no spice pain is permanent.  After a momentary breather and a regrouping with beer and water (which do nothing but offer mental comfort), I finished the last two.

Was my moment of triumph slightly marred by the delirium I felt?  Probably.

Was my ability to play trivia affected by the huge amounts of fluid filling my head?  Definitely. 

For better or worse, I did it.  Will I do it again? Never.  No need to keep proving myself.  Once you climb Mount Everest, you don’t have to do it again.  Right?      
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Sunday, July 10, 2011

Devil's Backbone

Before I ever went to Blue Mountain Brewery, there was Devil’s Backbone.  Nestled at the foot of Wintergreen Resort, just a swish and a swoosh away, lies a respite of beer, food, and music.  You can sit indoors in the cabin like interior or enjoy sitting outdoors to enjoy sunsets and mountains.

In terms of beer tastings, $4 gets you the four regular beers, $7 gets you the six seasonal, and $12 buys you a little of everything.  I have hunted and pecked over the beers on several occasions (and had just been through three winery tastings), so I went with a pint of the Eight-Point IPA and a half-pint of the Reilly’s Rye.  I’m not really an IPA person.  I love the first bite of hop, but hate the bitter finish.  What I like about Devil’s Backbone’s Eight-Point is that it has all the hop, but a much smoother and mellower finish.  The Rye was a new one for me because I’ve never had a rye beer--rye liquor, yes, but no beers that I can remember.  This rye was like drinking a field.  I liked it.  That description may not work for you, but the beer worked for me.  My friend Erin had the Nelson Brown, which is a must for fans of brown ales.
Dark and Stormy
If beer isn’t your thing, Devil’s Backbone also makes their own ginger beer and root beer.  One of their specialties is a “Dark and Stormy” which is homemade ginger beer and rum.

For food, my friend, Jen, ordered fried pickles for us to share.  I like a good fried pickle.  Normally, I prefer pickle chips, but the chunky, beer battered spears at Devil’s Backbone, served with cool cucumber cilantro sauce, was a good beginning and I didn’t miss the chips version one bit.  For the main dish, I had Rob’s Bonedipper, which is just as scandalous and dirty as the pun on the name calls for.  It is beef brisket, toasted ciabatta, bacon, provolone, Habanero-horseradish (although it could be even more Habanero heavy for me), and a cup of smokehouse au jus to dunk it in.  Are your lips smacking from the description?. . . they should be.    

 There is a Charlottesville blog, Mas to Millers, who I just discovered has really great Cuisine Cage Matches between similar establishments.  I like reading them and I am a fan of the concept—comparing Christians to Vita Nova and Spudnuts vs. Carpe Donuts.  Having just recently written about Blue Mountain Brewery and, given their proximity, I thought about trying my hand at a brewery smackdown and putting them pint to pint for a frothy head to head.  But, alas, I couldn’t make up my mind to compare them, pro for pro and con for con.  I am a relativist, or maybe just a restaurant polygamist.  I also believe that at the end of the day, I don’t think you can go wrong either way.  As long as you are enjoying both on a regular basis, then that is all the harmony your beer universe needs.  I’ll just say, eat, drink, and be merry at Devil’s Backbone, and then go do it again at Blue Mountain.  Just take a designated driver.  

Fried Pickles; Fish and Chips; Hamburger; and Tuna Sandwich
Devils Backbone Brewing Company on Urbanspoon
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