Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana (Fairfield, CT)

Greetings from New York! The Hackknife family has been getting settled in our new Westchester County home for the past couple of weeks - the Chuckwagon has been unpacked, WiFi is enabled, and I am anxious to dine/dish about the nearby grub. There's one facet of living in this area that's already surprised me - you sure don't have to go far (Manhattan? What's that?) to find good food. Just within our own modest town of Mamaroneck, hungry folks can chow down on Italian, Indian, French, Japanese, Greek, Turkish, Mexican, Chinese, and something that appears to be Middle Eastern fusion (we'll have to explore that one later).

 If you're willing to headed further afield towards the Hudson River or into nearby Connecticut, you'll be rewarded with even more diversity and regional-specific oddities; in fact, the first idea I had for a Hackknife Northeast posting came back in June when we were looking at properties. On our last day before flying back to Florida, we decided to drag the kids on a little road trip into Connecticut. In case you've never been, this is what much of it looks like:

I can see why the British were reluctant to give this territory up to the rebels - if I didn't know any better, I would have thought I was in York or Exeter or some other part of the bucolic English countryside. Luckily, the eating is much better here, as evidenced by the fact that you can get world-class pizza just a few towns over the border.

Frank Pepe was an Italian immigrant from Naples who established what is now known as the New Haven style of pizza in America; that is, dough fired in a coke or coal bread oven, resulting in a charred and chewy thin crust (this style has since been imitated by many others, including Piece in Chicago). The original location of Frank Pepe's opened in 1925 in New Haven; they have since spread out into 9 total locations around Connecticut and New York.  We stopped into the Fairfield pizzeria to try out his most well-known creations: the white clam pie and the original tomato pie.

Every Frank Pepe pizzeria has a coal-fired oven with a door that's cast from the original in New Haven (legend has it that this contributes to the pizza's high quality).  The one in Fairfield is directly behind the counter, complete with 10-foot long peel to facilitate entry and removal of the pies from the oven.

Although now most well-known for the white clam pie (topped with fresh little neck clams, oregano, grated cheese, olive oil, and tons of garlic), this version didn't come into being until the 1960s.  Whatever toppings you choose, we discovered it's wise to wash it down with a Foxon Park Soda (another longtime Connecticut institution).

The ovens can only accommodate a limited number of pizzas so as not to lower the baking temperature too much; therefore, they require a little extra time to cook (best to get there early on a weekend - we arrived around 11 am and encountered a line out the door when we left).  When ready to serve, the pies arrive at the table on a sheet tray lined with parchment paper and are plopped down on a collapsible stand (that is, if you've already taken up most of the room on your table with another pizza tray like we had).

The progeny poignantly declined to try the clam pie, which was briny and potent with all that garlic and oil.  My past experience with most clams is that they're a bit on the toothsome side and these were no exception; all in all, while we enjoyed the white clam pizza, I'd have to say it's something of an acquired taste for newbies like ourselves.

The original tomato pie (topped with crushed tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and olive oil, plus some optional bacon on half for good measure) on the other hand was absolute dynamite, lending credence to those out there who claim that Frank Pepe's pizzas are among the best in the country.  I'd have no quibble with that assertion if one of these charred-and-sauced dreamboats were periodically delivered to me; regardless, after visiting a single Northeastern pizzeria, it's easy to see that we're definitely not in Florida (where Papa John's makes the top 10 list) anymore....

Friday, August 19, 2016

Burger Culture Food Truck

I can't decide the proper way to make this announcement, so I'm just going to blurt it out: this is my final post under the "Hackknife South" heading.  Many of you are no doubt already aware that Mrs. H. has accepted a prominent position at company headquarters in Manhattan and we have been in the process of relocating to New York over the past few weeks (and if you weren't aware of this, consider yourself now up to speed). Although we are sad to be leaving Florida, I am practically bursting with enthusiasm over the dining and blogging potential of the greater NYC area (which will occur under this blog's new moniker, "Hackknife Northeast" - original, I know), not to mention Westchester County (our new place of residence) and nearby Connecticut, home of many unique and noteworthy eats (and favorite state of the good folks over at Roadfood). So, in the spirit of moving onward and upward, here is the last dispatch from Tampa.

On the day before we loaded up the family truckster and headed north for good, I let my kids decide what they wanted to do for their going-away activity. Q-Zar Laser Tag on N. Dale Mabry Highway was the consensus choice and, while the two of them were perfectly content eating mediocre snack bar pizza for lunch, I held out for something a little more intriguing. Many times before, I had passed the nearby Harley-Davidson of Tampa complex and had noticed a bright orange food truck parked in the lot at 6920 N. Dale Mabry, wondering how good the burgers might possibly be. Today was the day we would find out.

The people running the operation (native New Yorkers, as it turns out) received bonus points in my book for both displaying a Buccaneers flag with the old-school insignia and for offering Whatever Pops (the missus and I had enjoyed these artisanal treats at a food truck summit a couple of years back) to hot and thirsty customers. The burgers here, however, are the obvious draw and I selected the Street Burger, a slab of tasty ground beef grilled up and served with cheddar cheese, pink sauce (a mixture of ketchup and mayo), cilantro aioli, lettuce, shoestring potatoes, and, the coup de gras, a slice of grilled pineapple.

The addition of the pineapple turned this beauty of a sandwich into about the best polynesian-style burger in the land, quite possibly the top burger in Tampa (discovered better late than never, I suppose). The hand-cut fries that accompanied it were nearly as top-shelf, warm and crispy and loaded up with just the right amount of salt.

I hate leaving town with regrets, but I had a hard time not feeling a sense of lost opportunity here (still, I am comforted by the fact that I have a recent issue of Westchester Magazine on my shelf with a list of the top 25 sandwiches in Westchester County just awaiting my gastronomic exploration). From Ted Peter's to the Refinery to Bern's, I salute you, o Tampa Bay dining scene - here's hoping for continued excellence and further enhancement in the years to come. Perhaps we'll meet again when we become snowbirds...

Monday, August 1, 2016

Coastal Georgia Eats - Skipper's Fish Camp (Darien) and Willie's Wee-Nee Wagon (Brunswick)

In between a Chicago trip and our impending move to New York, the Hackknife Family somehow found the energy to visit the Carolina Shore this summer, heading to Ocean Isle Beach, NC as we have done now for many years. Our week at the shore was packed full of quality pool and beach time with many relatives on my dad's side (read: not much dining out and, sadly, no pilgrimage to Scott's BBQ this go-round), but I'm happy to report we made noteworthy stops for lunch on the long drive up and back from the Canteen, both times in the Georgia Lowcountry just east of I-95.

Stop #1 was a Jane and Michael Stern recommendation on Roadfood.com (an indispensable tool for locating good and humble grub no matter where you may be wandering in this great country, I might add). Skipper's Fish Camp is situated within spitting distance of the shrimp boats bobbing along the Darien River and, as you would guess, fresh seafood is the main draw here.

The restaurant isn't quite as hardscrabble as the surrounding town (apparently, business has been good), but the menu offers some unique offerings, including these broiled oysters topped with spinach, Parmesan cheese, and a Key lime sauce, a combination that wouldn't seem to work at first consideration (surprisingly, it does work, yielding a pleasant tang to cut the rich cheese and briny oyster meat).

The sandwich shops in New Orleans have little to fear from Skipper's fried shrimp po' boy (it didn't take long to disintegrate into pieces); however, the more formidable dish in this case was the house sweet potato souffle (that's the little white bowl in the top of the photo), a calorie-dense slurry of butter, brown sugar, eggs, walnuts, and starch.  The Sterns wrote that it's sweet enough to be dessert and I would concur with that viewpoint.

On the return trip, we pulled off the expressway only a few miles from our first lunch stop, this time in the similarly-sedate Brunswick, GA, home of Willie's Wee-Nee Wagon, a fixture in town since 1975.

A favorite of college students (the campus of Coastal Georgia University is across the street) and local residents alike, one would believe that hot dogs are the house specialty upon glancing at the menu (Willie's sells 8 different combinations).  If you let your eyes drift slightly to the right, though, you'll note a sign that states patrons will be awarded $2,000 if they can identify a better pork chop sandwich in Glynn County (allegedly, no one has ever cashed in on this offer).

Far be it for me to pass on a challenge like that, so I ordered up said pork chop sandwich and was promptly blown out of the swamp, feasting on a glorious mess of hoagie roll, tender pork pieces (pounded thin and grilled on the flattop, not really a "chop" per se, but much easier to consume in its existing form), caramelized onions, and bright yellow mustard.  If I were Willie (or his descendants, to be more precise - he passed on in 2009), I'd up that wager and expand my radius of pork chop sandwich dominance to include the whole Eastern Seaboard since I doubt anyone else is serving one this outstanding.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Chicago Eats - Summer 2016

Even though we're in the process of packing up to leave Florida for good, the family has still managed to find time to travel a little this summer (I'd be remiss, however, if I didn't mention that these trips had been scheduled quite some time prior to our decision to relocate). Trip #1 (a 10-day junket to Chicago for my nephew's first birthday party) just concluded this week and included some of my favorite tastes in Chicagoland, as well as a few new ones worth mentioning. Exhibit A is hereby submitted for your perusal:

Deep Dish Pizza, Gino's East, various locations

We missed this on our last trip to town in December, an oversight that shall not be committed twice. Having recently shacked up in the old Mill Rose Brewery complex in South Barrington, the pies here are a wee bit less good than the ones churned out downtown on Superior Street (maybe the pans aren't as well-seasoned), but nonetheless satisfied my craving. If you order sausage, get the patty covering the whole pizza or don't bother :).

Dim Sum, Triple Crown, 2217 S. Wentworth

A hearty shout-out goes to Chicago Food Planet and our guide, Philip, for putting together a stellar tour of tasty dining spots in the city's modest Chinatown.  The origin point for the tour was the raucous Triple Crown, serving what I found to be among the better dim sum offerings I've had.  This photo includes from left to right a steamed bbq pork bun, a pork and shrimp siu mai (dumpling), and a deep fried taro puff (my personal favorite), along with a trio of dipping sauces - sriracha, hoisin, and a spicy shrimp paste that seared my fillings oh-so-good.

Spicy Chili Eggplant and Dry Chili Chicken, Lao Sze Chuan, 2172 S. Archer

Local Chinese food impresario Tony Hu may be headed upriver soon for tax evasion, but his restaurant empire lives on. As long as his crew can continue to churn out his famous dry chili chicken, spicy cabbage, and spicy chili eggplant, everything will be just fine until his parole.

Smoked Tea Duck, Lao Beijing, 2138 S. Archer

Chef Tony's place a few doors down the shopping complex from LSC tilts less towards spice and more towards the heartier cuisine found in the cooler environs of China, such as this luscious tea-smoked duck, carved with the crispy skin on and served family-style with a pile of shredded scallions/cucumbers and wraps so you can create your own duck burrito.

Macanese Egg Custard Tart, Saint Anna Bakery, 2158 S. Archer

No food tour would be complete without dessert and the above is an exemplary example of Eurasian fusion, a sweet egg custard tart from the Chinese island of Macau, which was administered by the Portuguese for 450-odd years.  I'll definitely be on the lookout for these rich (and messy) treats among the Portuguese bakeries scattered throughout New York and Connecticut.

Dusek's Restaurant, 1227 W. 18th Street

Before Pilsen became a haven for immigrants from Latin America, the neighborhood was predominantly Czech and Bohemian. Back in 1892, local businessman John Dusek constructed the striking Thalia Hall at the corner of 18th and Allport as a community center of sorts for Central European expats. This complex was recently renovated and reopened as a restaurant (Dusek's), tavern (Punch House), and concert venue honoring the center's history. Our good foodie friends Phil and Karen recommended Dusek's and were kind enough to join Mrs. Hackknife and me for dinner there during our trip. Chef Jared Wentworth (who also spearheaded the terrific Longman & Eagle, owned by the same dining group) has succeeded again in creating a casual-yet-elevated menu of dishes that just work in almost every instance, including an unusual duck-based choucroute (pork is usually featured) and a mind-blowing multi-component version of a Lebanese sweet cheese roll.

Wood-Roasted, Cheese-Stuffed Pretzel with Beer Mustard

"Beet-Stained Burrata" - Chevre, Marscapone, Pickled Beets, Arugula, Black Walnut Pesto

"Choucroute" - Aged Seared Duck Breast, Duck Sausage, Confit Duck Leg, 18-Hour Sauerkraut, Caraway Pickled Apples, Confit Potatoes, Duck Jus

"Halawat El Jibn" - Cardamom Ice Cream, Blood Orange Curd, Honey Gel, Golden Raisin Puree, Honey Bubbles, Olive Oil/Honey Toffee Powder

Craft Beers, Hailstorm Brewing Company, 8060 186th St., Tinley Park

Just a mile or two from the old Commissary sits Hailstorm Brewing, a newer craft brewing operation tucked away in an otherwise nondescript industrial park north of I-80.  Mrs. H, my brother-in-law Dan, and I popped in for a couple of samples in celebration of his recent milestone birthday.  In addition to some really intriguing beer creations (including a German sour with prickly pear and an Imperial stout made from 11 different malts/6 different hops), my personal favorite was the Shenanigans with Shillelaghs, a dry Irish stout with a smoother finish than Guinness.  If we still lived in the neighborhood, I reckon I'd be a regular visitor here (with a lighter wallet and a swollen liver).

Allgauer Schnitzel, Chef Klaus Bier Stube, 20827 S. Lagrange Rd., Frankfort

Mere hours later, the wife's family held my brother-in-law's actual birthday event at another old 'hood institution, Chef Klaus' Bier Stube, a celebration of all things German.  Sure, old Chef K is no longer with us and his breakfast restaurant on 191st serves better grub for the most part, but there's something vaguely comforting about a gigantic plate of veggie and Jarlsberg-covered schnitzel (straight from the world-famous schnitzel bank, according to the menu, which left me puzzled - is there a vault full of pounded pork in the back?), washed down with a Hofbrau maibock and a side of uptempo accordion music.

Wrigley Field Hot Dogs, 1060 W. Addison St.

These are happy times to be a Cubs fan, not just because the team is actually fun to watch now (something I couldn't say for the majority of my 12 years as a season ticket holder), but you no longer have to fight the crowds in the main concourse downstairs to get the best ballpark dogs in America.  Simply pop your head out onto the upper deck patio behind home plate to find a Vienna Beef stand selling charred dogs with grilled onions (believe me when I tell you that the onions are key).  This particular dog bit the dust almost immediately after I took this photo (it landed on the ground, not in my stomach); fortunately, the vendor took pity on me and gave me a replacement without having to get back in line.

What you see here are among the more difficult ballpark dogs to secure in all of baseball.  Our now-retired friend Doug Sohn (of Hot Doug's fame) caused a foodie frenzy in Chicago when he announced in 2015 that he was opening a stand in the Wrigley Field bleachers to serve a rotating selection of his coveted sausage creations.  The catch is you need a bleacher ticker in order to access this stand - no exceptions.  My feeble attempts at sweet-talking an usher to let me past the checkpoint failed miserably; however, Mrs. Hackknife's good friend Melanie (who is a bleacher fixture at Cubs games) was kind enough to bring us over a couple of Hot Doug dogs, namely a Carmen Fanzone (a spicy Vienna Beef polish sausage with incendiary brown mustard and caramelized onions) and a Turk Wendell (gyro sausage with feta cheese, chopped tomatoes, and tzatziki sauce).  I must admit they were well worth the added hassle (thanks again, Melanie!).

Original Superdawg, Superdawg Drive-In, 333 S. Milwaukee Ave., Wheeling

Staying on the theme of encased meats, this one needs no further explanation.  Superdawg remains the all-time hot dog champion in my book, down to the crinkle-cut fries and green tomato wedge.  If you visit the satellite location in Wheeling, you can actually clearly review the other menu offerings (such as the Whoopercheese and Superfish), most of which I'm told are quite good, not that I'd know (future blog post idea - consume and write about all non-hot dog Superdawg menu items).

Smoked Pork Mollette, Tortas Frontera, O'Hare Airport

Celebrated Mexican chef Rick Bayless continues to expand his restaurant kingdom (Lena Brava just opened in the crazy-crowded Randolph Street corridor to rave reviews recently); however, his fast casual sandwich bar at O'Hare is still the best airport food by a country mile. I suspect this smoked pork mollette (open-faced sandwich of smoked pork loin, red onion, Jack cheese, chipotle-fig spread, Cotija cheese, and cilantro) had been sitting around in the warming oven for a little while; no matter - it made a fine lunch nonetheless...

Monday, June 27, 2016

Roasted Acorn Squash (The Refinery - Tampa)

The Canteen has officially been purchased and we need to vacate in a few short weeks, so Mrs. Hackknife and I are starting to make the rounds to our favorite Tampa Bay Area restaurants before heading up to New York in early August (at which point this blog will be rechristened "Hackknife Northeast"). The photo displayed above was taken this past Friday evening at one of said restaurants, Chef Greg Baker's flagship The Refinery, still one of the few places in town serving a new roster of fresh, inventive dishes almost every week (although I have to admit that the local culinary scene has definitely closed the gap on M. Baker in our 3 years here).  This particular plate, a wonderful combination of roasted acorn squash, quinoa, cilantro, aji peppers, grape tomatoes, and a couple daubs of sherry sabayon, was good to eat and even better to behold.  We wish Chef Greg continued success in all of his endeavors and hope his culinary empire someday expands beyond the environs of west-central Florida...

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Pete and Shorty's

Summer's here and I'm now continually on the lookout for ways to occupy the kids during these humid Florida days. We've almost survived Week 1 completely without Mrs. Hackknife (who's toiling away at her new position in NYC) using a combination of swimming pool, Disney movies, our usual extracurricular activities, and strategically selected meals, including today's visit to Pete and Shorty's for lunch.  P&S's is conveniently located down the street from Costco (our ultimate destination) at 2820 Gulf to Bay Blvd. in Clearwater (next door to the original Hooter's for those of you who care about these things) and has been a reliable dining choice for the family by virtue of its Midwestern vibe (my visiting in-laws enjoy the fried fish during Lent, for example).

Self-styled as a small-town tavern and "Iowa bistro", the owners have recently changed their marketing approach to emphasize their corn-fed roots (see the idyllic farm field on the front page of the website).  Heartland references aside, my favorite decor touch in all of Florida has to be the restaurant's tabletops, which appear to have been crafted from the 1950's floor tile in my grandparents' basement.

While not all that different from most bar menus, the bill of fare does lean a bit towards Iowa-specific cuisine, including such regional gems as the loosemeat sandwich (which they describe as containing ground chuck and not the, um, leftover cow parts you'll find in a traditional loosemeat recipe in, say, Mason City) and the fried pork tenderloin sandwich, my lunch choice below.

Topped with mustard, pickles, and chopped onions and served with a side of Cole slaw (that was extra), the tenderloin sandwich wasn't as massive as others I've seen around the Midwest and probably wouldn't satisfy a discerning pork tenderloin connoisseur from either Iowa or Indiana, but it'll do in a pinch.

Monday, May 30, 2016

New Era Cafe (Akron, OH) and Kitchen Post (Struthers, OH)

Mrs. Hackknife and I recently found ourselves in Northeast Ohio again for the second of 3 family weddings (all three grooms are brothers and my first cousins) in an 18-month period. In addition to getting to see distant relatives, we always enjoy the opportunity to sample whatever outstanding local eats we encounter there. For example, we missed out on Central European grub when we passed through Akron last October (there is a sizable population of Serbians and Hungarians nearby), so we were sure not to pass on it this trip. Fortunately, one of the better Central European restaurants anywhere is located a mere 20 minutes from Akron-Canton Airport; namely, New Era Restaurant, next to Interstate 76 at 10 Massillon Road.

At first glance, the operation (which appears to be relatively new or at least newly-renovated) doesn't differ much from any of thousands of blue-collar restaurants across America, a tavern on one end and a dining room on the other with a take-out counter in the middle.  Even the menu doesn't exactly scream "ethnic food" upon review, that is, until you zero in on a few key dishes, most of which we had to try.

What looks like Brown-N-Serve breakfast sausages above is actually the national dish of Serbia called cevapi, which are skinless links of minced beef, lamb, and/or pork (not sure which meats ended up in ours).  The cevapi at New Era are served with fries and raw chopped onions, making for a tasty, garlicky treat.

The house touts their 75-year old chicken paprikash recipe, so, of course, we had to have it.  The dish (which consists of assorted bone-in chicken pieces browned in butter, then stewed with onions/paprika) is served here on a bed of dumplings swimming in the reddish paprika-laced stewing liquid.  A slice of delicious homemade strudel (we chose cheese over apple) accompanied the chicken.

Mrs. H. couldn't pass on one more offering, a thick-cut goose liver sausage sandwich, served on toast with onions and mustard.  This beauty was rich and earthy and ensured that no one would come within 50 yards of us for several hours.

After our sizable dinner in Akron, we rolled into my aunt and uncle's house in suburban Youngstown (our destination for the weekend), who promptly informed us that they have a new restaurant nearby that was a can't-miss experience.  Unable to further defile our innards that evening, we waited until lunch the next day to pop in to The Kitchen Post, a self-described "supper club" in a small strip mall space on a ragged stretch of Youngstown-Poland Road, an area of town still visibly reeling from the local steel industry's departure and about the last place one would expect to discover elevated cuisine.

Dressed for a wedding (I in my suit and my lovely bride in a formal dress), we clearly stood out amongst the youthful, hipster crowd, but settled in for a fine lunch nonetheless.  The chalkboard above the counter stated that the menu changes frequently and included a collection of casual, accessible dishes like toasts, tacos, and fried chicken.

What you see above is one of the aforementioned toasts, in this case smoked salmon with mashed avocado, red onion, jalapenos, and "everything bagel" seasoning.  This was my first experience with the ultra-trendy avocado toast and I now get the allure: KP's toast was fantastic, a real pro combo of flavors and textures that was perfectly balanced and just a tad sloppy for good measure.

If you see something called "Elvis spoonbread" on a menu, I believe it should be your moral obligation to get some. Chef Ross Fowler at KP created this decadent wonder of peanut butter bread pudding, bruleed bananas, bacon, and honey, all the best parts of Sunday brunch in a single bowl. I had to share it with Mrs. Hackknife. I wasn't happy about that.  At the rate he's going, Chef Fowler (who's only around 25 and apparently going places) should be expecting a call from the producers at Top Chef any day now...