Friday, June 26, 2009

A Restaurant Down Memory Lane

To paraphrase a comment from James May, car enthusiast and presenter on Top Gear (BBC), "Never drive the car of your childhood dreams."

This applies to food as well, as my husband and I found out this evening. Periodically throughout our marriage, I've heard my husband wax poetic about Almond Chicken from a local restaurant. Over the years I've attempted to make the dish a few times, but none so far have been the dish he recalled, or even come close. So after tossing the idea around a few times, we finally decided tonight we'd try that restaurant for dinner and see if I could get a better idea of what this dish really entailed.

Bad idea. I think I can borrow Mr. May's comment and take it one step further. My revised version is as follows: Never return to the restaurant you idolized during your childhood. It will NOT live up to the memory.

Our first hint to turn and run should have been that the sign now included "buffet." When the parking lot on a Friday night seemed to be sparsely populated, that should have been the second giant red flag waving us and our car into a different direction. Then the food... cold, salty and so loaded with MSG, it wasn't what I'd call pleasant. I've had worse experiences, but this was up pretty high on the list of bad food.

It wasn't as bad as that infamous burger in Maui. That truly was horrific, I don't think there are words to describe it. I can't recall the name of the place, but after a long ride motorcycle ride around the quite literally breathtaking Honoapiilani and Kahekili Highways from Kapalua, my husband and I were tired and ready for a place to relax and chow down. As is our usual traveling style, we were trying to go with a local restaurant, so we found one and stopped in for a sandwich. What we got were two of the most awful, grease drenched burgers I've ever had anywhere. We actually both took one gut-wrenching bite, paid for the "food" and left the restaurant. To this day I can recall how truly bad that inedible item on the plate was, described mysteriously as a burger. There are meals I like to remember and even reminisce, and then there's that experience that I won't ever be able to forget.

Take my word for it about the childhood thing though. Keep the memory untarnished. Let it remain happy there in your mind and history. In my case, I'm just thankful that Mexican restaurant I used to adore back in high school is long since gone, but not forgotten.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Food Rules

After a couple of surprisingly good recent meals I'm feeling forced to reconsider my food rules. I know I'm not the only one who has them. They're the basis from which I determine what to order where and when. They do require a little basic food knowledge, like that strawberries ordered in November will not be fresh or at least not flavorful. Here's a few of my own food rules:

1. Seafood should not be consumed more than an easy day's drive inland.
2. Don't order dishes featuring out-of-season fruit.
3. BBQ is only done right from about as far north as Kentucky.
4. Do not order fried catfish in a northern state. Ever.
5. Only in the south do they know how to make sweet tea correctly.

Let's take these in order. With modern shipping services providing delivery so fast that the shrimp could just say "beam me up Scotty" and arrive from the boat to the restaurant kitchen instantaneously, I'm willing to let this rule slide a bit. However I do limit this to places I know can actually get their seafood fresh. The big tip-off? The prices usually reflect the added cost of that sci-fi speed delivery.

I'm really not sure I want to change my out-of-season fruit rule. Strawberries out of season or those big beauties they try to pawn off at the local grocery store as "fresh berries" look pretty. That's where the goodness ends. They have a complete lack of any discernible flavor. Visual is important with food, don't get me wrong, but flavor is pretty essential too.

With my recent experiences, I think I'm strongly reconsidering my BBQ rule. I've had some mediocre BBQ in the south and some good things coming from our northern friends. I have to conceed, this rule has finally become obsolete, thankfully so!

The catfish rule.... that's a tough one. I have stuck to this one thanks to a wonderful great uncle of mine who used to come visit at least once a year from Michigan and would always want to eat fried catfish at least once. He assured us that the folks from his current home state did not know how to cook catfish, and that breading with cornmeal was a lost concept there. I can't say I've traveled in Michigan or even in northern states enough as of late to really test this out, so I'm for now I'll trust what he said.

A friend recently returned from an Alaskan cruise and she remarked how one thing she really missed was sweet tea. I can undoubtedly relate. After travels across the states, my rule of "Sweet Tea only in the South" still holds true. What is labeled as sweet tea in the south is really a concoction resembling simple syrup with a twist of tea. It's not just sweetened, it's truly sweet. It's probably not the healthiest beverage but it is often the beverage of choice in the south and getting outside of that area of the US is done at the tea drinker's risk.

One final rule I didn't list earlier that I simply cannot and will not ever let slide is the restroom rule. If the restaurant cannot be bothered to keep the restrooms at least clean at some basic level, that's simply inexcusable. I'm not asking for marble counters and floors that are spotlessly shined hourly; I humbly ask that the toilets, floor and sinks are clean. I prefer adequate amounts of toilet paper, soap and some mechanism for drying my hands (paper towels are preferred but dryers are acceptable. Bash away at me for killing precious trees, but I don't like having the cootie-filled air of a public restroom forcefully blown onto my now cootie-free hands.) These basic things don't take much to maintain and as I recall reading once, if the restaurant can't be bothered to keep the basics done in their restrooms, what level of cleanliness can you expect from the kitchen, or any area of the restaurant for that matter?

I have a few more guidelines when dining out, but these touch on the areas dealing with the seasonality and location of the food, which I have been reconsidering as of late. The global economy introduces tastes of one region into another and restaurants are embracing this trend. My own tastes over the years have gone from frustratingly finicky to somewhere approaching a willingness to try anything that can't bite back. That attitude change has led me to eating rattlesnake a few years back and just last week topping a french fry with a dollop of pimento cheese (it's actually good.) Most important, I've come to even break the rules, as sometimes those lines do have to be tested. Otherwise I never know what culinary goodness I might be missing!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

BBQ Lunches

For some reason, it seems I've been chowing on the BBQ lately. I know I take food cravings in cycles, as I recently went to Blue Coast Burrito three days in a row. The tacos are really good, but three consecutive days? Maybe we are creatures of habit.

I while I do like BBQ, admittedly I am not a connoisseur of all things BBQ. Just the term "BBQ" has a vague definition, making reaching a pinnacle of experience appear unattainable. What is BBQ exactly? It depends on who I ask. It could be any number of smoked portions of a critter, or some food item(s) cooked on a grill, or simply a meat drowning in a BBQ sauce. There's that elusive term again, BBQ. Presuming we could even narrow down that BBQ is a cooking methodology that employs a slow, low heat source and smoke from a type of wood, there's then a whole debate on what makes a good sauce. Sweet? Spicy? Slippery thin? Molasses Thick?

Fortunately, none of this matters to me. Put the cooked critter on a plate and give me a fork already. Sweet, savory, vinegar-based, molasses based, I'll take it all. About the only BBQ that I will skip uses a mustard based sauce. I've actually seen my husband get an indescribable expression on his face and excuse himself from the table to rid himself of bbq with mustard-based sauce. I don't quite have that strong an aversion to it, but why waste the calories and fat on something that's not to my liking? If it requires running an extra mile that day, I'm going to make it something truly tasty.

Anyway, I've had the good fortune of finding good BBQ in my path as of late. Searching for something local open on a Sunday, which in itself is a challenge, my husband and I found Woody's BBQ at the end of a strip mall in Elizabethton, Tennessee. I wouldn't expect a BBQ chain centered around Florida to have BBQ that Tennesseans find acceptable. When it comes down to it, people are pretty picky about their BBQ, we southerners most especially. So a BBQ joint that has a fairly full parking lot is as good an indicator as I could find that day. It was a good call too, as their sampler of pork, chicken and turkey were very good. The turkey was served as a section instead of pulled and in conjunction with some great chili cheese fries, made for a good lunch stop.

Another good BBQ experience I've enjoyed twice now at Famous Daves in Little Rock, AR. They are a chain out of Minnesota, and to this southerner's surprise, there IS good BBQ to come from north of Kentucky! (I have a short list of food rules and this breaks one of them, more on that later.) Their BBQ chicken is truly exceptional! Also seeing that they're based out of the North explains their sweet cornbread muffins, as any southern cook will tell you that cornbread isn't supposed to be sweet. I take issue with that, and I like it both ways; I say that doesn't make me un-southern but that I have a more flexible palette! I have it on good word (my mom) that their bread pudding is also fantastic, but both times I've been I filled up on too much BBQ chicken to give it a try. There's always next time, and with chicken that good, there will definitely be a next time.

So regardless of what it's called, the deliciously cooked meats and their accompaniments I consumed at two "BBQ" restaurants recently were worth the calories. I do like my BBQ, in most any form. I think that qualifies me as southern enough.