Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Triangle Cafe

Finally! I've been off traveling again. This time it was to Batesville, Arkansas for lunch. As usual, there wasn't a planned exact location other than "something local" to eat. After driving around for a few minutes, I stepped into a local bank branch office to ask what was good nearby. Aha! That is a technique that works! Local banks have plenty of generally friendly people who often eat out for lunch on a regular basis, and they've tried just about everything local available. A helpful lady there suggested Triangle Cafe, it was "just up at the top of the hill."

As soon as I saw the place, I remembered seeing it the last time I was in Batesville and thinking it looked interesting. With the new smoking ban in place, I'm a lot less hesitant to enter a small local cafe than I have been in the past, so in we went. The wonderful aroma from the instant I walked in the door let me know I hadn't made a mistake.

Since it was the two of us, we decided to get one of their lunch plate specials, plus a bacon cheeseburger and tater tots, then share the whole lot. The plate special included a salad bar and desert, which were the only two dull spots in an otherwise excellent meal. The plate lunch included a hearty bowl of vegetable beef soup, green beans and fried potatoes. There was actual beef in the soup, plus a range of vegetables that would take a while to list. The cheeseburger... it was one of the best I think I've had anywhere. Forget the $8 and $10 burger at the gourmet restaurant or even casual dining restaurant. This $5 burger, in all it's half-pound, bacon and cheese topped glory, puts others to shame. It really was just that good. Astoundingly enough, someone while we were there ordered a double burger. Where did they put a pound of hamburger?! It took two of us to eat the single patty burger. The atmosphere was worth noting too; the menus were printed on a laminated triangle, and the ceiling was covered with a somewhat rusty corrugated tin roof. The staff was friendly, and the patrons seemed to be locals, some who clearly frequent the cafe were happily chatting with the wait staff.

Next time you're in Batesville, Arkansas for breakfast or lunch, Triangle Cafe will fill your belly and not pillage your wallet. It's one of those places that if you leave hungry, it's your own fault.

Other restaurants I've visited in the Batesville area that are worth noting are Josie's at the Lockhouse and Elizabeth's, both of which were recommended by the same friendly bank folks that suggested Triangle Cafe.

I hope to be adding more restaurants soon. At dinner tonight, I found out that a couple, friends of mine, will be doing lots of traveling for business throughout Arkansas and Missouri in the coming months. They like to dine at interesting, off the beaten path places so I hope to get some tips back from them soon.
(Hint, hint... you know who you are!) Any suggestions from anyone are of course welcome. If I go there, I'll post about my experience, as good, bad or ugly as it may be.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Guniea Pigs Have Spoken!

I've delivered all but one of the goody bags of treats I baked and thus the results are in. Recipes! I've have a few requests for recipes from some of the items I've baked so I'm including them below.

Here's the recipes:

Will's Crockpot Sugared Pecans or Walnuts

Spiced pecans or walnuts, from the slow cooker. Sugared pecan recipe with cinnamon and spices, or use walnuts.

16 ounces pecans or walnut halves
1/2 cup melted unsalted butter
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

Turn slow cooker to HIGH about 15 minutes in advance. In hot slow cooker, stir together the nuts and butter. Add the powdered sugar, stirring to blend and coat evenly. Cover and cook on HIGH for 15 minutes.
Reduce the heat to LOW and remove lid; cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for about 2 to 3 hours, or until the nuts are coated with a crisp glaze.
Transfer the nuts to a bowl.
In another small bowl, combine the spices; sift over the nuts, stirring to coat evenly.
Let cool before serving.

Caramel Covered pretzels

1 bag of pretzel wands
50 caramels
2 Tablespoons whipping cream
any type of nuts, chopped finely
Approx 1 cup chocolate chips, any flavor

Melt caramels and whipping cream over low heat. Dip and completely cover each pretzel with caramel...then place in chopped, using hands to kind of press and cover wands with nuts. Transfer to foil lined pan (can be sprayed lightly with nonstick spray). Put chocolate (about 1 cup) and a dollop of shortening (2 teaspoons or so), in a ziplock bag. Microwave on low heat till melted. Squish chocolate and shortening together until mixed well. Snip a tiny end off one corner of the bag, and drizzle the chocolate over the pretzels. Allow to set and store in an airtight container.
(I did not have any whipping cream and rather than buy some for 2 tablespoons, I cheated and used water. It had the same desired effect as the cream.)

Cranberry, Orange & Dark Chocolate Chip Cookies

2 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup butter, room temperature
1 cup white sugar
1 large egg
zest of one orange (about 2-3 tsp)
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup dark chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350F and line a couple of baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
In a large bowl, cream together the butter and the sugar, beating with an electric mixer until light. Beat in egg and orange zest. With the mixer on low speed, gradually add in the flour mixture, stirring only until just combined. Stir in the cranberries and chocolate chips.
Drop dough by rounded tablespoonfuls (about 1 1/4-inch balls) onto prepared cookie sheets and bake for 9-12 minutes, until edges are very lightly browned. Cool for 3-4 minutes on baking sheet then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
Makes about 4 dozen.

Toasted Mixed Nuts

2 cups skinned hazelnuts or cashews
2 cups unskinned whole almonds
2 cups walnut halves
2 cups pecan halves
4 tablespoons butter, melted
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/8 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Set the oven at 350 degrees. Have on hand a rimmed baking sheet.

In a large bowl, combine the hazelnuts or cashews, almonds, walnuts, and pecans. Add the butter a little at a time, tossing well. Stir in the oil.

Lay the nuts on the baking sheet in one layer and roast them for 10 minutes, turning often, until they begin to toast.

Combine the sugar, cayenne, cumin, and salt and sprinkle over the nuts. Toss and return to the oven. Roast for 10 minutes more or until the nuts are pale golden. Let cool completely. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
Makes about 8 cups.

Hot & Spicy Chex mix

4 cups Corn Chex cereal
4 cups Rice Chex cereal
1 cup pretzels
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 to 3 teaspoons red pepper sauce
1 cup mixed nuts
1 cup bite-size cheese crackers
1/4 cup margarine or butter - Do not use spread or tub products
1 1/4 teaspoons seasoned salt
1 cup seasoned snack sticks (optional)
1 cup plain or garlic bagel chips (optional)

Melt margarine in large microwavable bowl uncovered on High. Stir in seasonings. Gradually stir in remaining ingredients until evenly coated. Microwave uncovered on High 1 1/2 minutes, stir. Heat another 1 minute, stir; heat again for 45 seconds, stir. Heat once more for 30 seconds. Spread on paper towels to cool. Store in airtight container when cool.

The toasted mixed nuts are cooling in the kitchen right now, so if you're wondering why you didn't get some, they were delayed until tonight! Also I made a very good yet ridiculously easy Peanut Butter Fudge, recipe complements of Cooks Illustrated. I'll save the typing of that recipe for another time.

The big hit this year was the Caramel Pretzels. Those were a snap to make, actually they were fun. I took a little liberties with the decorating and just topped them with anything I had that sounded good; finely chopped raw nuts, cinnamon chips, snowflake sprinkles and of course, chocolate. You can't go wrong with chocolate!

I do think I'd recommend any of the above recipes. My source for two of the recipes (the cookies and the toasted mixed nuts) is Slashfood, which is an excellent site for foodies, with daily updates.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Holiday Baking

It's that time of year where either you're the one in the kitchen whipping up batches upon batches of goodies, or you're busy consuming all the treats as they pass by your nose. I love how this time of year I can try oodles of good new recipes that I've been itching to try and can give away at least 90 percent of it. So yes, my family and friends are my best guinea pigs but they seem to do the job willingly. For the most part it's safe, no one has died from my cooking yet.

As much as I advocate cooking for yourself because you have control over what ingredients go into the dish, I cringe at the idea of food gifts sometimes. If I don't personally know pretty well the person who baked it, I'll probably politely decline. It's a cleanliness issue; does the cook know about proper food storage and handling? Do they keep their kitchen clean? (Define clean.) Do they just wash their hands before they begin or is it someone with 18 cats that all climb all over every inch of the counter tops? (Icky!) This paranoia I have stemmed from the panic that suddenly hit me on a random Tuesday afternoon when I was due to meet someone for dinner at a local buffet. Ah, the buffet... a veritable germ infested disaster waiting to happen. The sneeze guards just can't quite defend the mac & cheese from the 8 year old with the remnants of a cold. I justify my buffet avoidance now to those who aren't germ-o-phobes by the lack of value for me, I can't begin to eat the amount of mostly mediocre food necessary to make it worth the $15 price tag. From that fear, my concerns about others cooking has expanded to encompass pot-luck meals. Those are even more of a disaster in the makings, as you've got lots of food coming from a wide range of homes, with equal variances in cleanliness and proper food preparation knowledge. Throw in the challenge of getting food at the right and safe temperatures for extended periods of time, plus there's the travel time just to get there. Unfortunately at most pot-luck events, you're expected to eat plenty and are surrounded by family or friends who may be offended if you don't. What's a germ fearing nut to do? Smile, eat some chips, drink a bottle of water, and casually mention how you're working to keep your girlish figure.

Now that I've successfully left you paranoid about eating anything you didn't make yourself over the holidays, remember the conclusion I've come to for such occasions; a few germs won't kill you. But knowing they are there will probably help you to keep your appetite in check. Here's a new little modern day motto for the germ-o-phobe lurking inside you: "Walk softly and carry a bottle of antibacterial hand gel."

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 01, 2006

Top 40

Today I was reading an article about the Top 40 Restaurants in the US. Most were in or near major cities and were places I'd either heard about only in passing or not at all. While I'm not extremely well traveled, I do like to think I've not been limited only to a tiny speck of this planet and have been beyond the borders of my home state. Given that I also enjoy a very good meal as much as the next self-proclaimed "foodie," it seems that limiting to just 40 great restaurants out of the entire US is a tough feat. On top of that, what makes a restaurant "Top 40" material? Must it be swanky, oozing with the trendiest looks or have an extraordinarily elegant ambiance? Is is the quality of the food only? Are we limited only to restaurants that are stand-alone, no chains or franchises? Could it even be... fast food?

Here's some of my picks for Top restaurants in the US. I won't commit to 40 as I know there are too many good ones out there to stop there; at the same time I'll get tired of writing and you'll be sick of reading my opinions before I can ever make it to 40. That said, let's get on with the list.

In no particular order...

Ruth's Chris Steak House - One of my all-time favorites. I avoid going on the weekends as it's busier then and service has on occasion suffered because of it. Usually it doesn't, but it has happened. Then again, "bad" service at Ruth's Chris is better than fabulous service at many other restaurants. Locations worldwide.
Asheville Pizza & Brewing Company - The food is excellent, the menu diverse and presented with a touch of humor and the atmosphere is the most fun I've seen anywhere. Asheville, NC
The Melting Pot - I know it's so cliche because of the fondue theme but for something different, or maybe a girls night out it's just what you need. The intimate environment gives you privacy that I've not found in any other restaurant. Locations nationwide.
Jameson's By the Sea - Some of the best fresh seafood I've had anywhere, period. Very casual setting, choose a table outside for the view. Located in Haleiwa, Oahu, Hawaii.
Mama's Fish House - Again some of the best fresh seafood ever. With the name you'd expect a laid back affair, but this is far from it. It's a much more gourmet presentation of seafood. The menus are printed fresh daily to incorporate which fisherman caught what items, even going so far as to tell you the name of the boat. Yes, that ahi tuna was caught by John Smith on his boat The Fair Lady. Located just outside of Paia on the Hana Highway in Maui, Hawaii.
BJ's Pizza - This was some of the best pizza I've ever tasted. The Blue Hawaii wasn't bad either. I blame this place for introducing me to POG and thus leaving me permanently in search of an equally good fresh fruit juice combination to rival this one. Locations throughout the US.

I'll end my list here for now, but those are just a few of my clearly biased favorites. What's on your list of best dining? Are they ones you reserve for special occasions or is it the place you go every Friday for lunch? Is it the food, the atmosphere or everything all in one?

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The New Hot Restaurant

The new hot restaurant is not far from you at all, it starts with your own kitchen. I recently was reading an article that noted how the new hot trend in dining out is dining in. Of course for the culinary challenged or time overburdened it's more likely to be take-out brought to you or picked up on the way home.
Fifty years ago eating out was not the everyday occurrence it is now, it was viewed more as something special. Now we've become so accustomed to our $1 burgers that it's actually more exceptional to have a full home-cooked meal.

How do you make your new hottest restaurant exciting, yet not have to spend your entire day like June Cleaver, cleaning and cooking in high heels with flawless makeup? One quick pass through food network and with the number of shows whose emphasis is speedy cooking and you can see there's plenty of people asking that same question. Answers are out there, it's a matter of what works well with your schedule and your level of cooking skill / experience. Here's a few ideas to give you a jump start:

1. Remember your old friend, the crock pot? It's time to dust it off and use it again. Beef or pork roasts can cook all day while you work, as well as all the veggies you need to make a full meal. Bone-in chicken can be slow-cooked, as well as uncooked whole or half hams.
2. Cook a little extra. Cooking that extra piece of chicken will only add a minute or two to your cooking time but can save you time later when a recipe calls for "one cup of cooked, shredded chicken."
3. Re-invent a dish. Last night you cooked chicken and have leftovers. Chop it up and toss it on top of a salad, mix it into a Mexican chicken casserole or season it appropriately and mix with the leftover rice from two nights ago.
4. Make menus. It sounds like a tedious task. If you jot down a few meals that sound good and check to make sure you have all the ingredients you need on hand, that week all you have to do is glance at your menu to see what you'd like for dinner. It also can streamline your grocery shopping.
5. Use your freezer. It's not there just to hold ice and frozen pizza. If you put in the extra time to make that giant pan of lasagna, why not slice up the leftovers into portion-sized pieces and freeze them? Here's a website with tips on what items freeze well and can save you from an unpleasant discovery later.

It's all about making the best use of the time you have. Doing a little prep work in advance can make having friends over for a meal a simple and fun evening. It doesn't have to be a fancy gourmet dinner. Try a taco buffet. Build a beastly hoagie. Finger foods can be nibbled on all evening while you chat. Just step into your kitchen and give it a try.

Remember, if all else fails, you can always order pizza.

A few more recipe sources worth checking out:
All Recipes - The name says it all. - An insane amount of recipes.
Copykat Recipes - Replicate at home your favorite restaurant meals.
Food Network - As seen on TV? Find it here.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Movie-Going Experience

Today was the first time I've been to a movie theater in about a year. I was reminded today several of the reason why I haven't been in so long. When did a portion of the general public become so rude and inconsiderate? Was there a declaration made that I missed?

I went to watch two movies today, the new James Bond flick "Casino Royale" and if you've read my posts before you can guess the other film, "Happy Feet." Both were entertaining and worth watching. While the movie isn't where most of my grievances lie, I will say I do not like being highly mislead by a trailer, and I think Happy Feet does that to a certain degree. The storyline isn't just about a penguin chick's plight but pulls in a much larger environmental message. Regardless of whether I agree with the message, it's not even hinted at in the trailers. There are movies that have missed an audience simply by being mis-billed. One great example of that is "The Girl Next Door." It's nothing remotely like the American Pie series, but more a coming-of-age story. I don't believe it did very well at the box office, and I certainly wouldn't have even watched it if I had not just happened onto a few minutes of it while flipping through the channels one evening.

Anyway, my issues with going to the theater... In short, if you're going to take your cell phone in with you, at least have the common sense to set it to silent/vibrate or turn it off. Having a lengthy conversation after announcing to your caller "Oh I'm just at the movies, there's no one around me..." while those of us non-existent people around you listen to you blather on about nothing of consequence is simply put, rude. What do you say to a person this inconsiderate? A man marched down to the guy two rows in front of him today and announced loudly, "How can you be so rude?" The talker completely ignored him, but expecting a response was probably too much.

I think theaters also have given up the fight to clean the seating areas between screenings. After walking through a sludge of sodas and candy left behind from two previous groups, I ended up leaving my shoes by the door to clean them before wearing again. Call me a germ freak, but I can't begin to imagine what I would be dragging through my house on the bottom of those. They may toss the cups from cup holders around the seats, but the floors go untouched. I feel for the crews cleaning those up at night; that can't be an enjoyable or quick task.

But there is something about sitting there with that huge screen and the digital surround sound that does add to the experience. You just can't get that at home unless you have a theater room, which is beyond the reach of many consumers. Theater owners and the Movie industry wonders why sales are down. Ask the customer. They'll tell you how theaters are dirty, other viewers are rude, and we won't even elaborate on how popcorn has deteriorated into some popped-three-days-ago Styrofoam peanut substance.

Oh, Daniel Craig does give a very good performance as the new Bond. The film takes a step back to the character's earlier days, when he's more rough around the edges and doesn't quite have that suave persona as developed. Bond fans will enjoy the references to things you see appear in later films. Missing are both Moneypenny and "R." It's definitely worth watching.

Presentation is Everything?

Well, not really, but it does help. Comfortable surroundings add to the appeal of a good meal. I had the recent pleasure of going to Firebird's Rocky Mountain Grill. It actually is the second time I've been and both were quite exceptional. It's a small chain, there's only 12 locations nationwide so far. The menu is comfort food with a sense of flair, so while chicken may be on the menu it's not likely to be served with dumplings. The atmosphere of the restaurant is such that it feels cozy yet you aren't sharing in the conversation of those at the next table.

If you do find this restaurant along your travels, I highly recommend stopping for lunch or dinner. If you leave hungry, it won't be due to a lack of good food.

Monday, November 13, 2006

New Shoes

Elvis needed a new pair of shoes.

This was just too cute of a story to pass up. Elvis, the penguin shown here, got a new pair of blue socks to help protect his sore feet. His friends were all fitted with socks too. The whole story is here.

I've also discovered we have a few new restaurants in town, I'll be trying those soon and reporting about my tasty experiments.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

"Smoking or Non?"

This summer a big change occurred in Arkansas. A new law was passed to restrict public smoking, which incorporated restrictions on all restaurants. The first time I experienced this was in Los Angeles a few years ago while visiting a friend. She & I went into a restaurant and the hostess simply asked "table for two?" I definitely noted the missing second part, "Smoking or non?"

Now in Arkansas a number of years later, the restaurant standard greeting has been shortened to only the number in the party. On a busy Friday night, there's a whole new section of tables that can be incorporated into the evening's rotation. Waiters and waitresses no longer have to wade through a cloud to deliver a meal. (Can you tell I'm not a smoker?) Restaurant owners at first balked at the new rules; some claimed they would lose business. Yet this week I visited one of our frequent lunch haunts and the crowds are not diminished in the least. I'm a small business owner and can appreciate those not wanting the government determining how to run their business, but I can also agree that this is a case of public health being of foremost concern. I can also see how they may very well be heading off lawsuits, such as happened with flight attendants several years back.

The new laws only just went into effect this July, yet talking with my dad recently he commented how on a trip to St. Louis it seemed a bit out of place to see people smoking in restaurants. That old "smoking or non?" question came back from the dead and was a not-so-subtle reminder that he wasn't in Arkansas anymore.

It's amazing how quick the change has effected my view of restaurants. There are places I will patronize now that I wouldn't before just because I can now enjoy the smell of my food where all I smelled before was the odor of cigarette smoke.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Comfort in Chains

While I'm usually the advocate of trying the interesting local restaurant, sometimes a chain can offer the known variety that just fits what you're craving. Today I stopped in at an Applebee's for a late lunch. They have one dish, the Fiesta Lime Chicken, that since I stumbled onto it a few years ago I have ordered probably 90% of the time I've been to an Applebee's.

Sometimes I think we crave comfort food and the modern-day version of that has become the chain restaurant. I know what I'm getting, pretty much regardless of where I am, traveling or local. It's for the most part consistent in flavor and portion size. I don't go to Outback looking for some great new culinary experience, I go to have the Shrimp on the Barbie. There are those few chains that have a wide enough variety that there's not one specific thing that my creature-of-habit side has tightly latched onto. Cracker Barrel, Ihop and Shorty Smalls are all good examples of those that have a range of tastes that can allow me to expand beyond buttermilk pancakes (and Cracker Barrel has those down to an art form.)

I think I must need need to get out and travel soon. I'd be worried that my sense of good eats is getting warped, but as my husband and I were traveling home from a recent day-trip, we both spied one of those roadside stand eateries in a town with a population that scarcely reaches 100. We both remarked how that there were probably some pretty tasty concoctions to be found there, but since neither of us were remotely hungry we drove on. I did however, file that location into my list of "places to check out."

Monday, October 16, 2006

Totally Off-topic

I'm adding this merely because I can.
Oh and because I cannot wait for this movie to come out. It looks ridiculously cute and funny. The soundtrack should be fantastic too.

What is all this nonsense that's not food or travel related? (It requires me to leave home and go to a theater. That's travel I suppose.) Here's a website explaining it all.

So as not to be totally off-topic, I did try the Otis & Betty's snack mix "Original" flavor and within a day the entire bag was gone. It was that good; a really nice mix of sweet & spicy that I thought was a little off in the "Meet Jack." I still have "BBQ" to try. Will sample and post more on that later.

Friday, October 13, 2006

And Sometimes the Good Eats Come to You

Due to a recent hospital stay, my husband and I have received a few gourmet and snack baskets. It's been a great opportunity to try out some new gourmet goodies that I otherwise might have skipped on the shelves. Many florists look for local vendors with unique food and gift items to create a variety you won't find off the shelf of most chain grocery stores. The ones we received were no exception. Since some of these regional treats may be worth seeking out, I'll share what we've sampled so far.

Toblerone, Chocolate Bar with Almond & Honey Nougat - A treat I indulged in as a teenager as the Swiss Colony shop that was once in our local mall sold them. They're still good, but not as amazing as I remember as a kid.

Otis & Betty's, Snack Mix - There's about 3 varieties in my pantry now, and the only one I've tried thus far is "Meet Jack." It's an odd mix of savory & sweet, so the verdict is still out on this one. (They do not have a website that I can find so far.)

Janis & Melanie, Cheese Straws - For the cheese lover who likes a real kick, these supposedly southern traditional snack are spectacular. They have just enough heat to get your attention without sending you running for the nearest cold drink. Very tasty and worth finding! (They too are in the internet dark ages.)

Brent & Sam's, Gourmet Cookies - These you can get in our area at Kroger, but in limited varieties. While they're not home-made in taste, their unique flavors are quite exceptional. I wouldn't have bought the Chocolate Chip Pecan but they are good. They're usually aren't worth the $4 a box they cost at Kroger, but if they're on sale and it's the Key Lime White Chocolate and I'm experiencing a moment of weakness... there are circumstances that come into play.

I have a whole pantry full of other goodies just waiting to be enjoyed, so as I find things worth noting I'll do just that.

Oh yes, there was this cute sugar cookie that looked like a sunflower in one basket. It was one of those individually wrapped icing coated cookies, I'm sure you've seen them before. I know I'd have chipped a tooth if I'd tried to eat the middle; the icing was that hard. I suggest you let those remain pretty on the shelf and save yourself the dental work.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

A Disappearing Act

I haven't completely given up this blog or disappeared forever. No, I've just been a bit sidetracked and not really into the proper frame of mind to spend a little time sharing some good eats and good roads.

The disappearance is over, at least I hope it is.

While my travels have been rather limited as of late (that's a simple way to put it,) my sampling of eats both exceptional and not quite edible has continued. I've found one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches on the planet, and the secret is simple. It's cooked on a grill where they cook hamburgers and chicken breast all afternoon, plus eggs and bacon in the morning. The flavor brought from the grill make all the difference, because they use a merely adequate bread and cheese. (Add some of the bacon cooked on the same grill to that sandwich and mmmmm that's some serious love there, children.) I'm afraid to think of when the grill was last really cleaned, but that's somewhere I just try to not let my mind go as I watch them slap the cheese onto my hot sandwich.

I also always thought it would be difficult to make green beans completely inedible. I was wrong. Number one rule of any food is it should not taste like kerosene. Enough said about this unpleasant memory.

You can't go wrong with fresh fruit, good quality yogurt and good granola. Toss together and eat for any meal, any time.

I don't care if it takes longer, mashed or creamed potatoes belong SKIN OFF. Period. I can eat them if they're served skin-on, but ask any real southerner. They'll tell you that there shouldn't be skins still in that mess of potatoes.

Just a few lessons learned while sharing my space with the Arkansas Childrens Hospital. I've learned so many more but these little culinary related bits I thought were worthwhile to share here.

More travels and treats to come soon!

Monday, September 11, 2006

Mmmm... Pizza!

In my travels I've noticed the best pizza is usually what you get by asking the locals about their favorite pizza place. Recently in Little Rock I was guided in the right direction by some great nurses at Arkansas Children's Hospital. They suggested Shotgun Dan's and were they ever right! It was exceptional, and I would definitely return. I would however remember that you want to bring your appetite, as they don't skimp on the toppings or flavor.

Locally, we have a very good pizza restaurant that creates some interesting combinations besides the same old cheese and pepperoni. Upper Crust Pizza Co. is probably the best in my area. They accomplish the right balance of crust, sauce, cheese, toppings and herbs to get a filling but not overly greasy pizza.

The best pizza I've ever eaten was at BJ's in Lahina in Maui. It had the perfect blend of all the above, with a nice complement of beverages such as Pog. It was there I became addicted to this delightful blend of fruit juice that I've attempted to replicate at home, but never get it quite as good as it was there. Oh and the location didn't hurt things either.

Another one that ranks probably not far behind BJ's is Asheville Pizza & Brewing Company. Their menu is entertaining to read, and while sometimes that can mean a restaurant is too busy building the atmosphere these guys do not disappoint on the food. The place hums with activity and excitement, the decorating is quirky but cool, and its a multi-purpose destination. They serve great pizza and it hosts a movie house and a huge game room. The owners really took advantage of a great old movie theater location and use it to it's potential. Besides, any place that in addition to good pizza serves a William Shatner Quesadilla (Nothin' but cheese) and a Royale with Cheese can't be all bad!

While the big chains can make a consistently pretty good pizza, and in instances like Pizza Hut's Cheese Bread a rather tasty dish, they just can't quite compare to the tasty delights that come from a good local pizzeria.

On a side note, our travels have been a bit limited as of late, but they will be resuming soon. More trips + More good food = More posts!

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Destination Change Leads to an Interesting Question

Sometimes where you plan to put your pillow at night may not be where you end up. My plan to go to Mount Magazine this weekend changed course this week and landed me at Arkansas Children's Hospital. It's a fantastic facility and has all the latest and greatest technology. They have amazing capabilities and a staff that's outstanding. The linens department however clearly is a bit under funded; they're clean but I've never seen a blanket with more holes.

So while I was consuming a bit of hospital cafeteria cuisine (now there's an oxymoron for you) I wondered how this hospital fares against others in the food department. The food they've brought into the hospital room for patients wasn't awful, some of it was even good. Most hospital food has a reputation just slightly below that of airline food... or maybe the two are slugging it out for the dining choice of last resort.

I'm not sure that reputation is a completely fair one. I had a pretty great grilled cheese sandwich tonight that came straight off the hot grill. I also had some rather spicy BBQ chips that could have some unpleasant consequences later. When I was a young teenager, I worked as a Candy Striper for a local hospital, and the food from their grill was definitely better than just "acceptable." I don't think I was the only one who was partial to specific menu items. It was working there that lead me to discover I like grape and cranberry juices. In one small town in Arkansas, it's not unusual to see Sunday lunchtime bring in a number of families still in church attire dining at the hospital cafeteria. The odd part is that they're not just visiting with a patient and the hospital was convenient; the food was the reason for the stop. Does that mean this particular hospital's food is that good or are the other selections in town that foul?

Are we judging hospital food on an unfair scale, based on what we get in restaurants? Or maybe I've been pleasantly surprised because my own expectations are just so low as I've always heard how the food is horrible.

Is there call for a good chef to run the food operations at a hospital? Maybe so. A sharp person running the kitchen operations can make a vast difference in the quality of product that comes out of that kitchen. Looking at restaurants that have closed in recent years; I know a number of them locally could have made it with better management, especially in the kitchen. A good chef can turn mediocre into magnificent with just a little extra knowledge. I've always gotten the impression most hospital cafeterias take their lead from nutritionists. Not that a nutrition specialist is a bad person to have on the team, but what's good for you can be made tastier with a little extra effort.

I guess when I really think about it, that little town has one very smart chef in charge of the kitchen of their local hospital.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

What makes a hotel great?

If you travel, what is it that makes you say "Wow, I really liked that hotel. I'd gladly stay there next time?" Is it a comfortable bed? Furnishings? The hotel staff's attitude? Maybe it's more the little things, like a good shower, or nice linens. Is there a chain you like or do you try different places such as boutique hotels?

Things I look for in any hotel, regardless of rates:
> Good parking - I don't want to walk a million miles or trust a valet that seems questionable. I expect covered or restricted access at a higher price hotel.
> Internet Access - It should work. I shouldn't have to say that, but it's sometimes an issue. It should also be included for free. The days of charging $10 per day for it are nearing an end.
> Quiet - Every door nearby that closes or child that charges down the hall to their room should not disturb my sleeping in. Speaking of noise, if the bar or restaurant area plays music at high volumes past 7pm and your room will be situated nearby you should be told of this on check-in and have an opportunity to choose a different room.
> Non-smoking - As a non-smoker, I have refused rooms in the past or had to change rooms when I walk in and am met with a knockout smell of stale cigarette smoke. (So please if you're a smoker, don't smoke in the non-smoking rooms! Thanks!)
> Cleanliness - This should go without saying.
> Shower & Bathroom - Adequate water pressure is essential. There's been a few hotels that I want the owner to take a shower with the air running and see how the curtain blows in and sticks to your body. Not cool.
> Bedding - Please opt for the fitted sheets on bottom. It's handy to be able to use the same for both top and bottom, but try sleeping on one at home sometime and you'll know it's annoying. While we're talking bedding, it's great to see how some hotels will leave a spare blanket and extra pillows in a drawer or closet.
> Refrigerator - Any hotel, regardless of how upscale should put a small fridge in rooms. If the fridge is a mini-bar, leave me at least a little space for my own items.
> Water - If the tap water isn't fit to drink, provide a couple of bottles of water. It's cheap in bulk, make the investment.
> Plug-ins - There's never enough of them nearby the desk areas. I need to plug in my gadgets so at least 3 is a good starting point.

My expectations from upscale hotels or resorts are higher, as they should be.
> Afternoon snacks - Thank you to those hotels that have a cookie, coffee and/or cocoa available in the evenings at check-in. It's nice to relax with a little something sweet after traveling that day. I've seen this more often at mid-priced hotels than high end ones. They could learn from this idea.
> Room Service - If I'm staying in a hotel with room service, offer it 24/7. The whole point to me is to get a fruit & cheese tray at midnight when I've got the munchies!

The biggest thing I want from any hotel, anywhere is to get what I've reserved. If I reserve a non-smoking king room, I should get a non-smoking king room, period. I've had better luck overall getting what I reserved with smaller hotels than with large resorts.

It's a lot of questions, but I'd like your opinion. Maybe there's something I should be looking for when I travel that I haven't even thought of that's important to you.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Ice Cream and V-8

I have two more reasons to stop at the grocery store on your way home today. Haagen-Dazs has a line of "Light" ice creams, and the Vanilla Bean puts many of the regular full-fat ice creams on the grocer's freezer to shame. It's that good. They have quite a few of their regular flavors available in "Light" versions, but no Mayan Chocolate as of yet. (My hips are safe from massive weight gain for now...)

Also thanks to my neighbors that introduced me to the pints of take home Haagen-Dazs, I've found a new drink that's a little less likely to leave me shopping for bigger pants. I've always wished I could stomach V8 Vegetable Juice, but it just has such an overpowering gross flavor I would cringe at just a sip. Thanks to V8's new VFusion, I can get my veggies without having to suffer through consuming lots of those little trees, known to most people as broccoli. It comes in three flavors, and so far I've tried the Peach Mango. I can't find any of that powerful vegetable taste in it so far, which to me is a good thing. According to the package, one 8oz glass is the "equivalent" of 1/2 cup of fruit and 1/2 cup of vegetables. While nothing beats eating a carrot in it's natural raw form for maximum nutritional value, this does easily top my current rate of vegetable consumption. It is considered "not a low-calorie food" but I think it's better use of calories than the excuse for calories found in many sodas.

Just a couple of things to pick up on your trip by the grocery store this weekend. Sometimes it doesn't take traveling any farther than your own kitchen for a bit of culinary goodness.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Big Nashville Post, Part 2

So the food was good and the hotel overall was quite nice. The rooms were a little lacking but I wasn't there to see the hotel room. I wasn't really there just for the food. The whole reason for this outting was to see a man whom I hold at least partially responsible for my gaining any confidence to experiment with my cooking and the results be edible, Alton Brown. I was willing to spring for the VIP tickets, which gave me great seats to his afternoon cooking demonstration, a signed copy of his newest cookbook, plus a VIP "Meet & Greet" reception later that day. Was it worth it? You bet.

The contraption pictured in my previous post was a part of his demonstration on how to properly deep fry a turkey with a bit of a comical yet effective approach to safety. A series of pullies and rope allowed him to lower the turkey (raw, on stage) into a hot pot of peanut oil. While he talked, the turkey cooked to perfection in just over 30 minutes. Out of about 650 people there, a friend at the table with me was picked out of the crowd to sample the turkey. Being a generous guy and all, my friend gave the rest of us a small taste too. (Yes, it really was good.) Alton took questions from the audience at the end and answered everything with his usual enthusiasm.

The hotel had left a note to those with VIP tickets that since the promised cookbook was not ready for this weekend, Alton would be signing stickers to place inside the book, which would be mailed to our homes. Since they knew this would be a disappointment, they would provide a professional photographer to take pictures with Alton for free. Nice! At the reception, they had a variety of hors devours, both sweet & savory; recipes for some were distributed at the afternoon demonstration. After moving through a relatively quick line, I got the opportunity to meet Alton. This wasn't my first time to meet him at this type of event, and I can say he seems like a genuinely nice guy every time. The fact he shares my enjoyment of both cooking and motorcycles doesn't hurt either. If you like traveling and finding those not-chain restaurants, you should check out Alton's special airing on Food Network now, it's called "Feasting on Asphalt." He & his crew find some great family diners in the south, and he takes a deep breath before biting into a brain sandwich. (A little disturbing if you ask me, he's clearly more brave than I am.)

The cooking demonstration left me in tears I was laughing so hard, and that wasn't an isolated instance. My face hurt from smiling so much, it was that entertaining. The reception was well thought out, well put together and I have a great photo of my husband and I with one of the few famous folks I've ever met. Add to all that good food in the company of friends and it makes for one very nice weekend out of town.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Big Nashville Post, Part 1

Some trips are all about getting to the final destination and for some trips the journey is the destination. The stopover at night is merely a place to close your eyes and recall the day while looking forward to the next one.
This trip was all about the stopping point, Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. This wasn't my first visit to the hotel; last December I stayed there to check out the Christmas decorations. It's well worth the drive to see such a display of color and the over-the-top extent to which they carry the whole theme. During the summer, the indoor gardens are full of lush plants everywhere you turn. The hotel has an open-air feel, leaving you feeling like you're walking outdoors. The temperature is comfortable, you even feel a nice light breeze once in a while. Pretty amazing stuff when you think of all that's going on here to create this artificial outdoors. Rooms are fortunately in the process of being renovated. I discovered on this visit that my room last time must have been one of those that was recently updated, as the room this time was in dire need of work. If you're staying there, be sure to ask that you get one of the renovated rooms or you'll be disappointed for the price. The few extra dollars to get an atrium view are worth it, although I'd likely decline if it's on the first floor. (You may want to open the picture, I purposely left it a larger size so you can get an idea of how open and airy the place really is.)

The food. Woah.
We started off with a new restaurant that was well worth finding, Park Cafe. Some of the dishes that got rave reviews: Sauteed Shrimp appetizer, Duck Breast laquered with Pomegranate and Honey, Baked Pasta Rounds, Double Cup Pork Chop and the Green Chile Macaroni-n-cheese. Save room for the deserts, as the Creme Brulee and Molten Chocolate Cake are worth the calories. The restaurant is dark yet classy, with small rooms that keep the sound level low and environment more intimate. I wish I'd brought a camera to dinner, as the presentation was as great as the food itself.

That wasn't the only meal of the trip, but the Park Cafe stood out as the most spectacular. Lunch on Saturday came from the food court at Opry Mills Mall, located adjacent to the hotel. "The Best Chicken..." place had good popcorn chicken. Saturday evening I capped off a fantastic day with dinner at Ruth's Chris. I've gone on record here several times about how great Ruth's Chris is, and while it was still very good, it wasn't quite up to the exceptional standards I have set for them. I attribute it to being a very busy Saturday night, as waiters were bustling around at warp speed. It served as a good reminder that the best time to visit a restaurant of this type is most often a weeknight.

To be continued... including an explanation of the guy and his ladder.

Monday, August 14, 2006

More Details Soon

So when am I going to post about my trip to see Alton Brown in Nashville, Tennessee this past weekend? Never! Just kidding.
I'll have more pictures tomorrow so the details are coming soon. Until then, you'll just have to wonder about this slightly crazy (yet likely to win a Nobel Prize) contraption.
It includes:
a ladder
lots of rope
a $2.50 pulley (not to be confused with the $1.50 model)
flashing red emergency light
two fire extinguishers
a large sandbox
a pot
Peanut oil
and a few other items.

Sufficiently confused?

Per a Request

A friend asked that I post about the Hotel Contessa in San Antonio, Texas and my experience there. The hotel was my first real experience with a boutique hotel and it was good enough to make me want to seek out other similar hotels in future travels. The rooms were styled in a contemporary meets southwest style, and the same theme carried throughout the hotel down to the smallest details. Across the overlook in the lobby there were candles lit every night, setting an elegant yet trendy tone for the evening. In each room, one wall is all brick. It makes you feel like you're staying in one of those hip city lofts that appear in the latest architecture magazines.
The hotel staff was friendly and the concierge provided good tips for restaurants and entertainment in the area. Room service is available but not late night. Wireless internet access is also available but it's best to have a backup plan if you'll be working from the road. Pricing is around $200 per night, but varies of course based on time of year and type of room.

While you're in San Antonio, start with the Riverwalk. It's easily accessible via the Contessa Hotel, some rooms overlook the area. Lots of restaurants line the walkways, and between are stretches of landscaped areas to stroll through. The best time to visit is during the week, the crowds pour in on weekends. Also taking a drive out to the various Missions are well worth the trip. There's nothing like seeing the History Channel episodes in 3D.
The best way to see several nearby areas is a tour from SegCity. They offer various tours on a Segway. It's easy to cover a good area including the Alamo and the King William District. You can see more than you would in a walking tour, yet the tour is a small group so it's much more personal. Then there's the whole part of getting to try out a Segway, which in itself is a real treat. It's surprisingly easy to operate and once you get the hang of it, a whole lot of fun!

In March, San Antonio is a great city to visit. It was a break from the doldrums of winter when I really needed it and I would certainly return again. Just not in July.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Dessert Discovery

Run, don't walk, to your nearest grocery store! Maybe you don't have to drop everything now, but you'll want to put this on your next grocery list to try.

This treat didn't require much traveling to find, just over to our neighbor's house for dessert. It was so good though I had to mention it here. I'm not an ice cream connoisseur but like any self-proclaimed "foodie" I can appreciate a good one; Haagen-Dazs has more than one winner with those I sampled this evening. The dulce de leche is fabulous on homemade brownies, which was my desert tonight. I think next time I'll be buying one of their new flavors, Mayan Chocolate. What makes this flavor so spectacular is that I really don't care for chocolate ice cream. This is a chocolate ice cream I could eat until the cows knock on the window and ask for a bowl too.

Usually for consumption at home I buy Blue Bell, a wonderful indulgence known mainly to those of us lucky enough to live in their delivery range. My dessert discovery tonight just might make me look a little further down the dairy case for a nice alternative next time.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Good Southern Food and Roads

After my previous rant on the joys of chicken trucks, I should say that the trip really was quite nice. The chicken truck turned off after what seemed like hours but in reality was less than 20 miles. Long enough to make an impression on me, but not so long as to affect the overall trip.

The real destination of the trip, if there was such a thing, was Cafe Klaser. Located overlooking the Little Red River, the views are nice from any of the large windows that run along the back of the building. You can watch the fly fishermen wading out into the river with kids on their shoulders, anxiously waiting for the big moment. The food was very good, I had blackened Walleye and my husband had their daily special, fried catfish. Their fresh baked yeast bread is somewhat heavy but still very good, and the homemade peanut butter pie was a great way to end the meal.

What is it that makes us southerners take a perfectly healthy food and decide it would be really great battered and fried? For an appetizer, we sampled the fried green beans. Also in keeping with the southern style, they are served with ranch dressing for dipping. I guess I am southern at heart, I happy ate my fair share, and they were pretty good!

I must also revise my statement in a previous post about Highway 9 being so awful. The stretch that runs north from Mountain View to Melbourne is pretty bad, but the portion from Shirley heading into Mountain View is in good shape, by AHTD standards anyway. The scenery on Highway 5 from Mountain View north into Calico Rock as it passes through the Ozark National Forrest is nice, but the road is not especially entertaining.

The view coming into Calico Rock, Arkansas is stunning. Businesses and homes hang on the edge of bluffs overlooking the river below. You can tell as you drive through this is a classic example of a small southern town that has outlived the industries that once brought it life. Towns like these make for interesting stops along a drive, but time didn't permit a stop on this trip. Maybe next time...

Something I didn't expect to see just outside of Tuckerman, Arkansas was the Red Bull Mini. Red Bull has a mini that's just slightly modified to include a serious overdose of caffeine sized "can" on the rear. The picture here isn't one I took as is evidenced by the palm trees, but the car looked the same. Good choice of car for the product, small but fun and quite energetic.

It was an enjoyable day in all and just left me looking forward to my next great drive.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Ahh... the smell of the Road.

Next time you're on the road, get an extra sense of your environment. Roll down your window. You'll sample what motorcyclists and top-down convertible owners experience any time they take to the street. These two can tell you how the scents of honeysuckle in the summer will make you smile and how a recently deceased skunk has an immediate impact on your speed. If they've had the pleasure of roaming around the backroads of the south, they can tell you about some of the other smells too. You'll know you're next to a cow pasture without turning your head. From the "good smell" side, smoke signals from a bbq shack can make your head turn and your wheels follow, almost instinctively. Then there's chicken. Not quite KFC, but rather live chickens in their pre-KFC days. If the winds are not in your favor, you can smell a chicken farm for a couple of miles before you actually see the tell-tale long chicken coop building. While the smell does linger on, this isn't the ultimate in scent horror.

Today I experienced that ultimate. A semi truck hauling live chickens on a twisty road with no passing zones for what seems like endless miles takes the coveted top slot. It is the most horrific road smell I have encountered thus far. Take the foul smell of fowl you get when you pass by a chicken farm and put it directly in front of you for every mile down the road. Amplify it with the knowledge that the white fuzzy things in the air are fresh chicken feathers blowing by you, and those little splats you see in close proximity are what you think they are, chicken poop. I'm not sure there's a strong enough word for it, but disgusting is close. In a way I feel bad for the drivers of these trucks, or maybe their noses build up a sort of immunity to the unpleasant aroma that follows them mile after mile.

Fortunately that was only a small portion of my drive today.
There were the couple of great "Crooked and steep next ... miles" signs.
I found several reasons to crane my head around and look at the landscape below.

I've discovered my trip early this summer to the Blue Ridge Parkway has left me a little less impressed with the views I've encountered since in my home state. They haven't become any less beautiful; the bar has just been set a little higher now to truly capture my attention. I hope visiting Mount Magazine later this month will restore my joy in the Arkansas views.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Itching Powder

Staying busy this week and not traveling for a few days does two things for me. I can catch up on some needed rest in my own bed. While I'm resting, someone must sneak in and sprinkle a special itching powder labeled "desire to travel " all over my bedding. I wake up after a few days and I have this overwhelming itch to go somewhere new again.

If I'm successful convincing myself to leave the comforts of bed early enough Saturday morning, a trip toward Heber Springs, Arkansas is in my plans. The road there is fun, especially heading south from Mountain View, Arkansas. Highway 5 is the most direct, but Highway 9 seems to have that look on a map like a very active EKG strip. It leads you to loop around Greers Ferry Lake, which isn't a bad detour. What's so interesting in Heber Springs? I've got my eye on a couple of local restaurants that look appetizing, so it's off to lunch!

Next weekend it's off to sunny Nashville, Tennessee with friends to stay indoors thus avoiding the heat, consume good food and enjoy the entertainment. Host of the TV show "Good Eats", Alton Brown, will be the celebrity chef guest speaker and I hope to absorb some culinary knowledge from a guy who really seems to be one of the sharpest knives in the block.

Someone I know is traveling to St. Charles, Missouri this weekend so I have requested they make note of anything exceptional in the dining realm. I'll also be getting a report of the dining pleasures in Dallas from another friend. Hopefully both will have experiences to share that will make me want to put these two destinations onto the list of places to visit again soon.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Time Travel

"What were they thinking?" We've all stared at an object from the past and had that same thought. With some of the strange contraptions on display at Wheels Through Time, I'd love to have a time machine to go ask a few questions.
In some instances you can tell what they were thinking. They were looking for merely a solution to a problem, such as the creative biker who was clearly at a disadvantage against other riders. At Wheels Through Time, you'll find a range of American automotive and motorcycle history with a few things that border on the downright bizarre mixed in too.

The museum is located in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, not far from Asheville, North Carolina and Knoxville, Tennessee. Driving in can be fun with the beautifully twisting highways that lead to the area. Souvenir shops, ice cream stands, small motels and various tourist stops dot the landscape of Maggie Valley. While slightly heavy on the tourist-oriented kitsch, it's still a neat place to visit. The Wheels Through Time museum makes it worth the drive.

The place is like a small slice of heaven to a motorcycle enthusiast. What's truly fascinating is that the vast majority of the machines they house are in running condition. I did wonder how some of their displays ran when they were new, much less 50 or more years after the fact. Currently they have a special display featuring women as a part of motorcycling history, mostly told through photos and documents. You could spend days and never see all of it, there's so much attention to even the finest details in every piece. The owners know it all by heart; ask a question about any piece in the entire collection and they can answer plus give you a complete history of the piece. It's an amazing experience for anyone who likes antique machinery, and especially for those with an affinity for motorcycles.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Blowing Rock, North Carolina

The whole area looks something like this.
Yes, it really is this stunning around almost every curve. There's no lack of curves either.

The Blowing Rock area can be simply described in one word: beautiful. Situated just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in the North Carolina mountains, it's a quaint town with upscale shops, interesting restaurants and quick access to some of the most scenic and challenging roads I've ever traveled. It only takes traveling down a few of the 469 miles of this parkway to give you an aching neck from constantly turning your head to soak in the views from all angles. (Above Photo compliments of my own Canon Powershot S80.)

The Blue Ridge Parkway winds through the Appalachian mountain range starting in Virginia and continuing south to North Carolina. While there are numerous entry points, there are no gas stations along the parkway itself. Take a camera and prepare to stop often, as around every bend is another panoramic vista begging to be captured on film (or your choice of digital media.) With the number of miles covered by the parkway, it falls well within a day's drive of many areas of the east coast and westward to the Mississippi River, possibly even farther in southern areas.

Regarding hotels, my husband and I spent a few days at the Meadowbrook Inn. Rooms are nice, especially for the rates. The hotel staff really made the visit exceptional as they were sincerely helpful. Every single person you'd meet in a hallway or ask for anything at all was friendly and eager to assist. The decor is simple and traditional, with a mix of antique and classic style. It's well worth checking into the upgraded suites as some have amenities such as fireplaces, two-person jacuzzis, large 4-poster king beds, even a private swimming pool!

I can't offer a lot in the way of restaurant evaluation, as I was attending an event that was mostly catered. The bartenders at the Meadowbrook Bar were in keeping with the rest of the hotel staff; they even went as far as to rename a couple of drinks just for our group of car enthusiasts spending a few days there. Thus the "Radiator Flush" and "Battery Acid" were on the list of recommend beverages.
(If I recall correctly, these two are also known as a "Red Headed Sister" and "Jager Monster". A more accurate name for either would be simply "woah," as that's the feeling you have after consuming just one of them.)

Just a tip for those considering the area as a destination: The hotel staff indicated that hotel rooms throughout the area go quickly in the fall, as the changing colors and moderate temperatures make it the most popular time of the year to visit.

I can definitely see a trip back to the Blue Ridge Parkway and all it's scenic overlooks in my future. This one easily falls into the "Good Roads and Good Eats" category.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

A Whirlwind Trip to Baltimore

I want to complain about my trip, I really do. Trekking through the airports all day is never a very appealing task; especially when you are due to arrive at your destination at 1 am. Despite my daring the airport, airline and crew to make my trip miserable, they just wouldn't cooperate. The airport staff, even the ones who normally just give you a barely audible grunt were amazingly friendly. People were helpful, even the general public didn't seem all that irritated to be herded through the lines like cattle; I suppose that was because we weren't being treated as such.

The hotel however, did find ways to disappoint. This is my second stay at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel. The rooms were adequate, the bed linens were some of the best I've found in a hotel yet. When the bed linens are the bright spot, you know it's not a good sign. Suffice it to say they completely twisted around the reservations such that they had our reservation cancelled at one point. Upon arrival, the long hallways to reach your room seem infinite. I was there two nights, and both mornings I woke up to the chants of protestors. They were close enough to be heard in the room, but not nearby enough to interpret beyond a repeated chorus of "What do we want?" Not a fault of the hotel, I understand, but an annoyance nonetheless. Overall the hotel was probably quite nice about ten years ago, and the upkeep has been just adequate. It was not worth the rate of over $300 per night. Internet access was inexcusably atrocious, but I digress.

Regarding restaurants and meals, the bar at the hotel was moderately priced, had a reasonable selection and the burger I had was good. The view from the bar area was lovely, overlooking the harbor. Some of my traveling companions had dinner at Windows, the restaurant in the hotel, and came away unimpressed. The hotel is attached to a shopping area, with several other stores and restaurants located just across the street on the harbor. The attached area has a variety of chain fast food eateries, so there are plenty of places to grab something on the go. I did have one excellent meal, our group went to Ruth's Chris for dinner one night. This was the location where my husband and I first acquired our addiction and have been happily scouting out other locations around the US. I strayed from my usual Creme Brulee and had the Pecan Pie for desert, it was truly outstanding.

This wasn't my first trip to the area, so I skipped on the tourist spots this time. Two that are worth noting however are ESPN Zone and the National Aquarium. ESPN Zone is similar to a Dave & Buster's but with more emphasis on the sports theme, including TV's with nearly every game on the planet blaring at you. Not my sort of place, but popular enough to mention, plus the building is architecturally interesting. The National Aquarium is well worth visiting, it's one of the nicest I can recall seeing in my travels. I suspect it's as close to literally swimming with the creatures of the sea as you can get and not wear scuba gear. My last visit there was at least 4 years ago, but I was told it is still just as beautiful.
Photo from the National Aquarium Website, showing a Southern Stingray.

It was a quick trip, an enjoyable one at that, but after being beholden to the schedules of airlines, restaurant reservations and hotel housekeeping I appreciate being able to hop in my car and go on my timetable.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Visiting St. Charles

I was reading a recent article about St. Louis in a local newspaper and it made me think about my last visit to the area. The article encouraged the reader to realize there are things other than ball games in the area. There's a professional sports team there? Really? I must have forgotten...

For this trip, I was traveling with my parents and husband and we stayed in St. Charles, Missouri, located just across the Missouri River. It's a charming town that has a wonderful riverfront district full of unique shops and restaurants. The area has a historical feel without being overtly a tourist trap. A casual stroll down the sidewalks of Main Street will leave you relaxed and not absorb every dime from your wallet.

When it's time to dine you'll find a large range of choices, and we weren't disappointed with any meal. We had dinner at Lewis & Clark's the first night; the view and atmosphere was excellent, the food was good but not worth noting. Also during the trip we had lunch at Mother-In-Law House, which had great outdoor seating and very good sandwiches. The best meal of the trip was at Little Hills Winery Restaurant, which was fantastic. The chicken and Brie is a house specialty and worth the calories, the chicken nachos are also delicious, and portions are generous enough to share. If you're looking for the night scene, there's a number of small pubs and coffee houses with live bands to tap your toes to well into the night.

I was very pleased with our hotel accommodations. We stayed at the Country Inns & Suites, and I've often paid far more for far less of a hotel. The hotel is situated at one end of the historical district, within a short walk of the shops. Some parking is covered, and a full hot breakfast is included daily. The rooms are quiet and clean, with decor that is appropriate for the area.

If you're staying in the St. Charles area, it's worth your time for a day trip to the St. Louis Zoo. Admission is free, but to park within a reasonable distance, plan to pay for parking. The penguin exhibit is exceptionally nice, as is the majority of the zoo. For less crowds, visit on Monday through Thursday; Friday is known as "school day," when area schools arrive for field trips.

Just a little note: I have been pleased with the value for the money when I've stayed at Country Inns & Suites in several other locations. The hotel chain is usually moderately priced but with overall accommodations that are superior in to what you would find at a similarly priced hotel.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

New Links Added

If you look to the bottom of the list on the left, I've added some new links.

Trip Advisor is an excellent source for guidance on hotels and destinations in general. Rarely have I found the comments from previous travelers been misleading, so when there are 15 comments saying "This place was awful" it's worth taking note.

Google Maps - Good maps are essential for travel, and this is one place that will help you get from point A to point B without fuss. There's lots of other great software out there, and for the GPS inclined, you might check out one of these.

Arkansas State Parks - Supporting my home state probably isn't a bad thing. Plus, they have some really nice parks! I'll be visiting Mt. Magazine State Park soon, so you'll hear firsthand if it's good (or bad).

Kentucky State Parks - I've included Kentucky's parks because they are so beautiful and such an exceptional value. The cabins are very reasonably priced and while they are not 5-star accommodations, they are nicely appointed.

Blue Ridge Parkway - To satisfy your desire for beautiful scenery and a road trip all in one, this parkway is the destination.

Segway Tours - I just can't describe how entertaining it is to run around on a Segway, and with tours in lots of major cities, your opportunity may be on your next trip.

Do you know of any websites that are invaluable travel tools? Post a comment below and I'll add it to the list.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Upcoming Destinations

I've got a few upcoming trips and any recommendations of good eats, good roads and just good things to do while I'm there are welcome and highly encouraged.

Some places I'll be visiting soon:

Renaissance Harborplace Hotel - I have been to this hotel a few years ago; it overlooks the harbor in Baltimore, Maryland. Last time I went with a group to the Rusty Scupper for dinner one night. I didn't exactly have what you'd call a broad culinary range of taste at the time, so remembering the food was of low priority. I have heard that Legal Sea Foods is the place to go if you want the ultimate in seafood. I might make it there, but I suspect that if possible we'll pay homage to the place where my pursuit of the perfection of tender beef began, Ruth's Chris Steak House. Unfortunately the timing of this trip doesn't allow for a road trip, so instead of enjoying the scenery up the east coast, I'll be trudging through the Atlanta airport during a delightful four hour layover.

Mount Magazine State Park - Located in western Arkansas, this park has a brand new lodge and cabins, plus it's on one of those roads like what the lovely Highway 9 was supposed to be. I've heard that the area is breathtaking, but I can only stand there saying "Wow, that's a nice view..." for so long and then it's time to go exploring.

Gaylord Opryland Hotel
- When you're presented a map upon arrival at the hotel and you're truly thankful because you know you'll need that map, that qualifies as a ridiculously big hotel. This small city, or rather "hotel," is located in a classic southern city, Nashville, TN. The trip will be a driving trip, but the destination isn't really the hotel; it's the VIP tickets to see Alton Brown, my favorite chef. More to come later...

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Highway 9 was nice

About two weeks ago three of us took off to visit a specific road; it starts with one of those great signs that anyone looking to put their driving or riding skills through their paces is thrilled to find. It looks similar to the one at right. The sign I was looking for was at least past the minimum for making it "worth the drive." How do I calculate the minimum? It's a simple formula. The higher the number of miles on the sign, the more likely it is to be worth driving to get to that starting point.

We had a great trip getting there. Highway 25 leading west into Batesville, AR is entertaining through Strawberry, AR and has some shady areas where the trees give you a canopy of relief on a hot summer day. Batesville is a nice town, with a variety of restaurants to stop in for lunch or dinner. We chose to stop for lunch at Elizabeth's Place, located downtown. It's one of those great places that let you stuff yourself silly on very good rolls to begin with, so when your Quiche lunch special arrives, you're already mostly full. I think the club sandwiches were a little better than the Quiche. It's a good place to stop for a light lunch, and the old renovated building makes for a casual, quaint setting.

We moved on through to Mountain View, where we turned north on Highway 5, leading up to the wonderful road I'd remembered from summers past... Highway 9.

But alas, it wasn't all that glorious anymore.

If you care remotely about the paint and windshield of your car, or if you're a motorcyclist and like to keep your bike upright, I encourage you to avoid this highway for now. The highway department has decided to "resurface" the road. In this case it was clearly done by the very lowest bidder, and they wanted to pocket as much as possible. It's covered in loose gravel and chat 90% of the way, both directions. I'm not sure if their plan is to let this settle a bit then oil or pave over it, but for now it makes for miles and miles of misery. We took a turn on a mystery road just to see if we could get around the mess, but ended up at a dead end (i.e. another actually worse gravel road.)

After grumbling our way through to Melbourne, AR, we stopped to regroup, refuel vehicles and ourselves. To console ourselves a bit, we made our way back home through Highway 25 up to Ravenden and Highway 63, where the fun comes to an abrupt halt as you pass over the river.

It was still a fun trip, and I'd recommend most of the route as overall good roads. Watch your speed on Highway 25 as homes are close to the road and animals roam freely, sometimes into the road.

(Thanks to The Motorcycle Tourer's Forum for having just the kind of picture I needed, sounds like they had a fun/painful ride!)

Dallas for a Day - Part Two

I didn't have a bad meal the entire trip. Nice!

Grotto is an Italian restaurant located on McKinney in the Uptown Plaza. They have a large menu and all pasta is made in-house. I chose the Ravioli Alla Vodka and it was exceptionally good; the fresh pasta makes all the difference. My husband had the Pork Chop Milanese, which has to be the most evenly pounded to thin pork chop I've ever seen. While very mild in flavor, it was tender and quite tasty. We saw the desert cart pass by before we ordered, so it was obvious saving a little room was important. The pata a choux pastries were very good, but the toffee cake was even more memorable.

Room service breakfast at Hotel Zaza was very good. The homemade granola is a must, and the bread basket also is a good choice if you're in a hurry. Also the applewood smoked bacon was well worth the price.

Ruth's Chris Steak House. I just don't think I can explain how good this place is. Yes, it's a chain, I know I said I'd avoid chains. But they do have their place, and this one's place is right up there on the top end of my list.
My love affair with Ruth's began a few years ago, when we "discovered" this smaller chain at their location in Baltimore. I haven't found a consistently better steak anywhere, and believe me it's not for a lack of effort. My husband and I along with a small group of friends chase after that prize of a perfect steak and the standard test it must pass is the one big question: "Is it better than Ruth's?" While it might be good, and I've found a few get very close to being equal, none have been better. When I find that elusive flawless piece of perfectly cooked beef, you'll know.
While they do serve a fabulous steak, their garlic mashed potatoes, potato chips (where available), BBQ shrimp and Creme Brulee are all also exceptional.

Dallas for a Day - Part One

Actually it was a couple of days, but it went by quickly.

I can sum up Dallas this time of year in one word: HOT. That doesn't really cover it accurately, but it's the best I can do. Strangely enough, those who live in the area don't seem to be bothered by it. Despite the heat, it was still a fun place to visit.

From my area, the drive to Dallas is uneventful. It's flat and mostly interstate. I've not found a great way to drive there that doesn't require you to take the interstate most of the way. You can see the transition from lush plants to sparse as you head west on I-30 across Texas. Within a short time you stop seeing houses tucked among the trees and the ranch gates start to appear along the roadsides.

This wasn't my first trip to Dallas but the first time I've stayed in the Uptown Arts District. It's a very trendy sort of area, LA done in Texas style. Compared to LA, there's a slightly slower pace, and plenty of southern hospitality to greet you.

The Hotel Zaza is a prime example of this sort of atmosphere. If you like to lounge by (but not in) the pool while sipping a drink, this is your place. The decor overall is elegant yet sensual. Lots of dark colors pared with cool earth-tone tile. The Shag-a-delic suite was groovy baby, yeah! Complete with purple shag carpet, lava lamps, Austin Powers movie posters and a working disco ball, it lived up to the name.

My honest opinion: It wasn't worth the price. If you have no intention of being in your room until 2 am, you're probably ok. If not, this room is situated in a nook on their limited-access 4th floor placed above the pool area. It makes for a great view of the front lobby area where you can watch the flow of various interesting cars, but the music from the bar is loud enough you really don't need a radio in the room. The service from the staff was for the most part prompt and very friendly, although room service did arrive considerably later than planned one evening. If you can get a room that does not face the front of the hotel, I would recommend it. Overall, I think the hotel would be an interesting break from the usual as a place to stay if you're traveling with friends who are night owls or want to spend an evening socializing with a client.

What this blog is about...

I like to both cook and consume good food. I also like to travel. Whenever it's possible for those two joys to combine, you know I'm having a good day. This blog is my record of adventures in travel and tastes, with hopefully plenty of both.

I expect the majority of my travel will be in the US, focusing on the Southern US as it is the most convenient for me to explore. Chain restaurants have their place, so they might get the occasional mention here, they are not my real focus. I love finding those local gems down the lesser known road with the breathtaking view.

Maybe the next time you're in a small town like Waldenburg, Arkansas (population 80), you'll know that the Dairy Bar is worth the wait and that three days a week you can treat yourself to some of the best BBQ in the area. I'll also warn you that you should go on a day when you don't care how dirty your vehicle is because when you get back it will be worse.