Friday, September 19, 2014

The Chattaway

Yesterday was apparently National Cheeseburger Day - that seems appropriate since I was planning to post about one of the better cheeseburgers I've had to date in the Greater Tampa Bay area, recently devoured at an historic diner in St. Petersburg called The Chattaway.  First, a little background - TC showed up on my radar screen last year during one of my regular good eats research excursions on the web.  Being both casual and offering burgers/hot dogs (i.e., kid friendly), I nearly made the 40-minute drive over there from the Canteen with the progeny a number of times this past summer, but for one reason or another, plans never materialized.  Then, I got word just last month that Garden and Gun Magazine (my favorite publication name in the whole universe) named TC as one of two places in town (El Cap in St. Pete being the other) on its Best Burgers in the South list.  With upcoming Sunday tickets to an early afternoon Rays game in hand, I now had a preponderance of reasons to show up for lunch with the whole family.  Conveniently located in South St. Pete (328 22nd Ave. S, to be exact) a mere 5 minutes from Tropicana Field, TC certainly looks like it's been there a long time, which it definitely has (since 1921).  The building began as a corner grocery also selling gasoline to local Model T drivers, eventually morphing into a drive-in sometime around the Depression.  The property has changed hands a number of times, but it's still a neighborhood favorite (although the neighborhood has changed a bit - old bathtubs filled with cement now provide a barrier between reckless/impaired drivers careening down 4th Avenue and the sidewalk) and still family-owned.  As you walk from the dusty parking lot through the tiki bar-like patio, you'll be shocked to enter a quiet and semi-dignified dining room, unexpectedly decorated in the manner of an English tea salon (the owner's daughter told us that her homesick British mum decided about 5 years ago that a makeover was needed, trading beer signs for portraits of the queen).  While you might be able to get crumpets and cake on occasion, the main reason for driving here across town is for the burgers - the original CheeseChattaburger features a nice grilled slab of beef topped with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion, relish, ketchup, mustard, and mayo, all atop a bakery roll.  My vote on sides goes to the golden fried onion rings as opposed to the run-of-the-mill french fries, but, in either case, the house burger is worthy alone to justify your journey (leave your gun and garden at home)...

Monday, September 15, 2014


If you're a longtime reader of this blog, you may recall seeing my dispatches from New Orleans back in May 2011; if so, you'll probably remember that we spent most of the weekend in a po-boy and oyster-fueled digestive stupor. You can understand, then, how excited I was when I heard that the Datz for Foodies (already one of our favorite eateries in town) people were planning to open a second restaurant in South Tampa, this one entirely focused on what they describe as "creole nouvelle" or New Creole cuisine. Setting up shop in the old Wimauma space at 4205 S. MacDill, Roux is a celebration of all things New Orleans gastronomy, with a dash of modern fusion thrown in (for example, the menu includes a ramen dish and a Southern take on the now-ubiquitous charcuterie plate). When the missus and I secured a sitter at the last minute to celebrate our anniversary, I was able to get us a table at Roux despite the fact that they'd just opened two weeks before and were still awash in the resulting buzz. After scrutinizing the menu while sipping pre-meal drinks (an Old Fashioned for Mrs. Hackknife and a rather stiff Sazerac for me) and discovering that we simply wanted just one of everything, we winnowed it down to a half-dozen hay-smoked oysters (served with provencal butter and slabs of grilled Leidenheimer french bread straight from the bakery on Simon Bolivar Ave. in New Orleans) that would have made Rene Redzepi (a hay smoke pioneer) proud. Things got even better when the entrees arrived at the table - Mrs. Hackknife ordered a spectacular Crawfish Monique a la Roux (angel hair pasta topped with tasso ham, Louisiana crawfish meat, a creamy Sauce Monique, and shaved botargo, a nice little Floridian flourish), while I settled in to my two crispy beer-battered quail, each split in half and plopped onto a sweet potato waffle with a Barq's Root Beer reduction (standing in for maple syrup), spicy praline pecans, and a mayhaw coulis (mayhaw is a Southern swamp fruit often used to make jelly). Even though it's often difficult to get much meat off of the small birds (and this was no exception), Roux's version of chicken-and-waffles filtered through a New Orleans lens really hit the mark. Although we were stuffed by now, our waiter managed to convince us that we'd be sinning if we passed on the house bread pudding (served in a cast iron skillet with a small carafe of caramel sauce - I'm sure there was no butter in that), and he was absolutely right. By the looks of it, Datz Inc. has another hit on their hands (by the time we left, the restaurant was overflowing with Saturday evening revelers) and Tampa is starting to embrace a wonderful place where les bons temps rouler all the time...

Thursday, September 11, 2014

California Tacos To Go

I've lived in Florida for about 18 months now, and I've met people who relocated here from the Northeast, the Midwest, the South, Texas, Cuba, even England, but not so many from California (why move from a sunshine state to another sunshine state, unless you want to trade earthquakes for hurricanes?). Still, someone felt there was a market for San Diego-style fish tacos that was being underserved in the Tampa Bay area; this is the enigma that is California Tacos To Go. Tucked away on a busy and utilitarian curve of Bearss Road just east of I-275 (where it intersects with Skipper Road), I would have never even known to seek this place out had it not been for Guy Fieri, whose Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives show stopped in a couple of years back so he could indulge in the house specialty, fried grouper tacos. I happened to be in the neighborhood running errands one day and decided to stop in for lunch, ordering two grouper tacos, a set of 3 San Diego "rolled tacos" filled with chicken, and a horchata to wash it all down. Each fish taco comes with a double corn tortilla (better to hold all the fillings, I suppose) and includes a healthy helping of tasty tempura-battered grouper, crunchy fresh cabbage, a tangy white sauce (mayo, yogurt, lime juice, salt, Mexican oregano, cumin, dill, capers, and arbol chiles), and pico de gallo, plus sour cream, guacamole, and shredded cheese as add-ons (I asked the girl to hold these last three, but she included them anyway - guess she liked my charm).  Sitting outside (there is no indoor dining room) on a warm Florida morning indulging in these beautiful tacos and listening to the surf (or was that the whoosh of a garbage truck?), I almost felt like I was on a California beach.  The rolled tacos weren't much to speak of (they were deep-fried, almost like flautas, and piled sloppy high with guac and cheese) and there are other intriguing items on the menu (like burritos with fries inside in lieu of rice/beans, deemed "California-style"), but I'm quite sure it's the fish tacos that will bring me back (you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave...)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

NYC Day #4 - Russ & Daughters Cafe/Shake Shack

On the final day of my trip to New York City, I deliberately scheduled my return flight to Tampa for later in the afternoon so that I'd have time work in two meals (ok, three maybe) before heading to the airport. With Mrs. Hackknife now attending to work obligations, I was free to wander the city on my own a bit in the hopes of crossing a few more food items off my hit list. My plan was to leave our hotel early and take the subway over to Brooklyn for breakfast at Pok Pok, Chef Andy Richer's interpretation of Thai street cuisine that's taken both coasts of America by storm. I'd read that Pok Pok had begun serving light breakfast items in May of this year, however, I'd somehow missed the subsequent news that this morning service was discontinued shortly thereafter (presumably due to insufficient customer traffic), a fact I didn't discover until I'd hauled myself all the way over to Brooklyn and found the shop locked up tight, chairs on tables and sous chefs moving product from the curb into the basement storeroom. Disappointed yet undaunted, I headed back past the quiet brownstones to the subway stop and returned to the lower east side of Manhattan, where my original second stop (now my first) awaited - Russ & Daughters Cafe, located at 127 Orchard Street smack in the middle of the historic former tenement community that housed so many Jewish immigrants back around the turn of the 20th Century.  When I swung down Orchard, most of the storefronts were still dark and closed (did I screw up again?), but I soon found the cafe's inviting blue awning and headed inside.

The famous Russ & Daughters deli opened in 1914 and is still in operation a few blocks away from here, but while the deli is usually barely controlled chaos of order shouters and takers, the newly-open cafe is a calm oasis where diners can leisurely sample R&D's finest smoked fish. Given that I'd missed my first breakfast, I compensated by ordering two dishes, namely the Shtetl (smoked sable, goat cream cheese, fresh bagel, sliced tomato, red onion, and capers) and a side of their famous whitefish salad (topped with dill, celery, and capers), all of which was phenomenal and making me pine for any kind of Jewish immigrant food in west-central Florida (now if we lived in Miami...).

Feeling re-energized, I mulled over a possible visit to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum before settling instead on a side trip to the new Four Freedoms Memorial on Roosevelt Island (which, I determined, is largely devoid of any kind of distinctive food). By this time, I needed to start making my way back towards Midtown to meet Mrs. Hackknife for lunch at the one remaining NYC fast food joint I'd been itching to try, Shake Shack. Started by restaurant impresario Danny Meyer, SS is a high-quality take on the casual cheeseburger, created with love and paired with things like crinkle cut fries (my personal favorite) and homemade frozen custard. The lines at the original Madison Square Park location became legendarily long; since then, Mr. Meyer has expanded SS across Manhattan, into other states (we recently got one as close as Orlando), and even internationally with no apparent end in sight to the demand. I can now speak from experience that the line at noon on a Monday in the Theater District (8th and 44th) is pretty bad, but the restaurant staff moves everyone along quickly and I had my order within 15 minutes. I decided to dispense with the fancy options and kept it very simple: the single ShackBurger (cheese, bright green leaf lettuce, tomato, and Shake Sauce, a blend of mayo, ketchup, mustard, chopped pickles, and a few unnamed spices), plain fries, and traditional chocolate shake.

Immediately after Bite #1, I realized this was not your average fast food burger - the beef was the perfect mix of lean and fat, the toppings all fresh, and the bun (a Martin's Potato Roll, I later found out, the very same as we eat here in the Canteen) nicely toasted. With the possible exception of In N' Out Burger on the West Coast, I can safely say that you'll have a hard time identifying a better cheeseburger out there (in case you're wondering, both the fries and the shake were also tough to beat). I'm now strategizing my campaign to get a Shake Shack to open in the greater Tampa-St. Pete-Clearwater region and am seeking volunteers to help stuff envelopes.

One last item of note before I wrap up this 4-day posting extravaganza - after our Sunday dessert stop at Momofuku Milk Bar, our local friends brought us by Zabar's, one of NYC's most famous gourmet grocery stores that just happened to be in their neighborhood at Broadway and 80th. Zabar's has been supplying the masses on the upper west side since 1934 and is known for many things, including this wall of cheese that confronts you as soon as you walk in the front door (and nearly made me break out in tears):

Our primary interest in stopping by was to find some traditional black and white cookies for the progeny - according to Adam, Zabar's makes some of the best.  They were a little pricey at $7.98 a dozen, but we found them to be quite worth it.  These cookies (which are actually more like little frosted cakes, soft instead of crunchy) are unique to NYC (they even figure prominently in an episode of Seinfeld) and have something of an unknown provenance; however, all I know is that when my kids actually like a food item we bring home from a trip, it has to be pretty special...

Friday, September 5, 2014

NYC Day #3 - Gray's Papaya/Breslin

The influx of calories from the last two days of dining began catching up with us on Day #3. Yesterday, I had only halfheartedly threatened to avoid breakfast, but this time, I was deadly serious and fully prepared to get by on just a handful or two of EMP granola (which had somehow improved with age - boy, those guys are good). Our schedule today included a switch of hotels from 38th Street to Times Square, then a trek on the A-Train up the west side along with hordes of Yankees fans (the Bronx Bombers had an afternoon tilt) until we reached the Cloisters, a replica of a medieval castle built in the 1930s by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. on the very northern tip of Manhattan Island. The castle was slated to display the wealthy family's many European artifacts and was actually built using parts of several ancient churches and abbeys (sort of like assembling a giant jigsaw puzzle from pieces that weren't intended to go together); nowadays, it's owned and operated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Anyway, rather than attempt to consume a sit-down lunch, we instead made a detour to what's arguably NYC's best hot dog, Gray's Papaya (2090 Broadway), for a bite on the way.

Opened by Paul Gray, a former owner of Papaya King (hence the name), in 1973, there's not much to the stand or the menu at this colorful-yet-no-frills shop. The hot dogs are grilled on a little rotisserie and come with sauerkraut and/or onions (in the form of a tomato-based onion sauce manufactured by Sabrett, the same maker of the hot dogs) by request. Cheese costs extra, but brown mustard (which you can add from the large dispenser on the counter) does not. Besides hot dogs, Gray's is also known for its non-alcoholic tropical fruit drinks (somewhere between a shake and a smoothie in consistency), especially the papaya.

I ordered two of the "Recession Specials" (two dogs and a drink for only $4.95), one each for me and the missus, and walked back to Central Park, where she was waiting for me on a bench. The hot dogs are longer than those typically served in Chicago and have a nice snap from the casing. I found the onion sauce to be a little peculiar and the papaya drink to be something of an acquired taste (I liked Mrs. Hackknife's coconut champagne much better), but I can certainly see why New Yorkers are proud of these - they made a fine and inexpensive meal (an important consideration given how much we'd spent on food in the last 48 hours).

After the hot dogs, I managed to stave off hunger with just a bottle of water until around mid-afternoon, when we found ourselves back on the upper west side not far from our friends' apartment. As luck would have it, they only live about 2 blocks away from one of the now 5 NYC locations of David Chang's Momofuku Milk Bar (when I last visited the city in 2010, we stopped by the original and then-sole MMB shop in the east village - apparently, M. Chang's bakery venture is doing very well), so we ducked in to grab a little nourishment.

This particular store is located at 87th and Columbus, but all of the MMBs are serving seasonal soft serve, specifically cereal milk flavor (where the ice cream is made from milk that's been steeping in toasted corn flakes - deceptively simple, yet genius).  Unable to pass on this goodie, I ordered mine with an extra coating of sweet corn flakes for added texture.  Mrs. Hackknife got a small slice of the infamous house crack pie, which we ate during our first MMB encounter in 2010 and is still a sinful, custardy mess (and, truth be told, outshined my cereal milk soft serve).

The final dinner of our weekend trip was the most downscale of the 3, but no less anticipated. Ever since we saw Chef April Bloomfield at the Cayman Cookout in 2012, I'd been jonesing to try one of her restaurants and this was finally our opportunity to do so. The Breslin is a modern British gastropub inside the hipper-than-thou Ace Hotel (16 W. 29th Street) serving many of our favorite food items, especially beer, red meat, and shellfish (I know, what's not to like?). Being the good host, Adam joined us again to help out in consuming the bounty set before us on the table.

Our little group first ordered some small plates to share: a curried goat pasty with yogurt, red onion, and cucumber, a set of scrumpets (basically ground seasoned lamb meat that's been breaded and deep fried) with mint vinegar, and a seafood sausage (stuffed with Lord knows what) with beurre blanc and chives, all of them amazing and all of them obliterated in short order (and, in my case, washed down with a Captain Lawrence Liquid Gold beer).

Since man cannot live on appetizers alone, the missus and I agreed to split an entree of a chargrilled lamb burger with feta, cumin mayo, and thrice cooked chips (being a marathoner and much more diligent about maintaining his good health than us, Adam ordered his own lamb burger), plus a side of roasted cauliflower. While it's a bit hyperbolic to characterize the Breslin's lamb burger (cooked medium-rare, by the way) and chips as life-changing, I have no problem advising anyone to eat this (and, frankly, anything else on the menu) as your death row last meal.

I voted against dessert, but was overruled. A homemade cookie platter seemed to be the safest route and we somehow found a way to nibble all 9 of these down (not without some effort, I might add).

Desperately in need of exercise again, we skipped the cab ride back to the hotel in favor of a long walk up Broadway back to Times Square. With only 2 meals left to go before my return to Florida tomorrow, I began to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel (which was partially obscured by bagels and hamburgers) that was our weekend dining excursion...

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

NYC Day #2 - Prince Street Pizza/Banh Mi Saigon/Del Posto

I woke up on Day #2 of our NYC food adventure feeling not nearly as bad as I could have given the excessive consumption of the prior evening. In any case, I was perfectly content to nibble on a handful of Eleven Madison Park granola and one of the little cookies our hotel staff had left in the room last night; that is, until Mrs. Hackknife expressed her desire to get some lox and bagel for breakfast. Luckily, this being New York, we were able to wander into the nearest deli and find exactly that, with half of a poppyseed bagel setting down a nice foundation for the day's snacking yet to come. Our plan was to meet Adam down on the Lower East Side for lunch at a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich place that he raved about, followed by some general exploring of the Village before an early 5:15 dinner reservation at Del Posto. Stepping out of the subway tunnel into bustling Chinatown, the missus and I quickly discovered that this part of Manhattan was chock full of small food shops featuring Chinese, Italian (the touristy remnants of Little Italy are close by), Jewish, and other ethnic delicacies hard to pass up.  After some token resistance, I succumbed to the siren call and ducked into Alleva Dairy at the corner of Grand and Mulberry (188 Grand St., to be precise).

Alleva bills itself as the oldest Italian cheese shop in America (established 1892) and offers a full range of Italian products and tasty-looking food to go (a mini-Eataly long before the concept came into being).  Although the pizzas appeared to be most attractive, I opted for a single arancini (rice ball) instead and was surprisingly disappointed by how dry and bland it was.  Next time, I'll stick with the pies.

There was not one iota of regret at our second unscheduled stop, Prince Street Pizza (26 Prince Street), which just happened to be around the corner from St. Patrick's Old Cathedral (a monument that the missus wanted to visit) and just happened to be on my list of pizza stands to try while in town.

A small stand in the space once occupied by the Original Ray's Pizza (which was operated by a member of the infamous Luchese mafia, according to their bio), Prince Street sells the platonic ideal of New York style pizza - an ethereal blend of zesty homemade tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella on top of a chewy (somewhere between thin and thick) crust that's a touch crisp on the bottom from the ancient pans used to bake it (all for only $3.75 a slice). The cook was even kind enough to split our slice in half once we explained to him that we had lunch plans elsewhere in just a few minutes.

I could have easily spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying slice after slice of kicka$% pizza (and maybe a calzone) at Prince Street, but then I would have tragically missed out on Adam's banh mi experience.  We only had to backtrack a couple of blocks to Chinatown to find the entrance for Banh Mi Saigon, slinging up Vietnamese sandwiches to hungry patrons at 198 Grand Street since 1989.

Adam explained to us that part of BMS's allure is that they used to be located at the back of a jewelry store, giving the patron a sense that they'd uncovered some sort of hidden culinary gem. Nowadays, the jewelry selection has been marginalized to a single counter in the middle of the dining room, but the sandwiches are still top shelf.

For those of you unfamiliar, banh mi sandwiches represent a fusion of French and Vietnamese cultures, featuring cured or fresh meats garnished with pickled vegetables (daikon radish, carrots, cilantro, hot peppers, and cucumbers), a dash of hot sauce, and mayonnaise, all on a crunchy baguette.  The barbecue pork (first photo below) came highly recommended and I also tried out the version stuffed with sardines, each one costing only about $4 (another great value).  Although I have to admit a slight preference for my favorite banh mi in Chicago (from Ba Le - the bread is a little bit better), BMS clearly gets points for ambiance.

Just up the street at 206 Grand, we passed a little cart vending $3 packages of Dragon Beard Candy. When I had been doing research for the dragon beard dessert course we had been served as part of the Next: Modern Chinese menu a few months back, I came across a description of this very cart on Yelp (listed under "Yao's Dragon Beard Candy") and, realizing that this was one of a handful of places in the Western Hemisphere where you can find it, I had to buy some (for dessert, you know).

The candy was sold in packs of 6 and resembled little caterpillar cocoons in shape and color. Each sweet bite consisted of delicate strands of spun sugar wrapped around a dense core of honey, coconut, chopped peanuts, and sesame seeds. I popped one whole into my mouth and immediately became aware that it was one of the stickiest things I'd ever attempted to eat, with 2/3 of it adhering to my back molars for later consumption.

After much snacking thus far, the three of us felt the need for a nice long cleansing stroll from one end of the Village to the other, passing through Chelsea and SoHo on our way to the Lower West Side.  After a brief detour for a midday drink, Mrs. Hackknife took leave of us and headed back to the hotel for a rest, while Adam and I pressed onward until we reached our next destination, the West Village location of Big Gay Ice Cream at 61 Grove Street. The folks who founded BGIC (Douglas Quint and Bryan Petroff) started with a food truck in 2009 and eventually parlayed the whimsical ice cream business into two New York City stores, a third in LA, and a fourth in Philly. I first became aware of their existence via Anthony Bourdain (who frequently retweets BGIC posts) and was curious to give their creations a try.

Besides the evident fascination with all things Golden Girls (several menu items were named in the show's honor), BGIC offers a number of unique treat combos, including a chocolate ice cream cone studded with toasted nuts and toasted marshmallow chunks that you see above. Although good, I liked Adam's selection better, a gourmet sandwich of bourbon ice cream between two praline pecan cookies (the "Rue McClanahan"). I'm not certain that this stop was worth a special trip, but if nothing else it gave me an excuse to encounter first-hand some of the colorful daily life in the Village (which, at least on this day, included a lady with a pet pigeon on a leash).

After a very long walk back to our Midtown hotel (I figured the extra calories burned in the process was essential to my well-being for the remainder of the trip) and a brief recharge, Mrs. H. and I hopped in a cab back down to Chelsea for our dinner at Del Posto (85 10th Avenue), a meal nearly as anticipated as the one at Eleven Madison Park last night. The Michelin-starred Del Posto is the flagship location of the Mario Batali/Lidia & Joe Bastianich NYC restaurant empire and certainly looks the part of the stately and formal dining palace, with low lighting, heavy drapes, white linen, and dark wood throughout (in my mind, Spiaggia in Chicago is the only other high-end Italian place we've been to that offers an apt comparison).  This setting seemed like the perfect place to try out my first Negroni, a traditional Italian bitter cocktail (and bitter it was) containing barrel-aged gin, vermouth, and Campari.

In addition to a la carte dining, Del Posto offers a set five-course menu that includes antipasto, choice of two different primi (pasta) courses, a secondo (meat) course, and a dessert. After getting reassurance from our server that this menu could be had in 2 hours or less (the amount of time we had before needing to depart for our show later), this is what we selected. First up was a set of 3 amuse bouches (or assiagi, the Italian equivalent), a tasty polenta croquette, a small cup of warm tomato broth (to be swallowed like a shot of liquor), and some sort of crisp noodle-pesto-parmesan creation that resembled a pair of raw scallions in reverse, with the white on top and green on the bottom (Ed. disclaimer - given the dim lighting in this place, my photos of our dishes are lousier than usual).

Now adequately primed, we moved on to our first menu course - Mrs. Hackknife chose a wonderful fin fish crudo prepared with citrus juices, olive oil, and seasoned salts, while I went for something on the lighter side, the house "Insalata Estiva Della Terra", featuring fresh ricotta cheese, assorted summer herbs/greens, and crumbs of crushed almond cookies known as brutti ma buoni.

For the two pastas, I picked a dynamite pumpkin cappellacci (large dough pillows almost like dumplings) in a brown butter sauce with slivered almonds and the wife (who is always a fan of gnocchi) selected the soft potato gnocchi with piennolo tomato salsa and Thai basil, which we found to be surprisingly flat and uninspired, especially given the caliber of the kitchen.

Much better was my secondo course, a celebrated dish from Mario's Po days (his first NYC restaurant) of pan-roasted halibut in a piccata sauce with Roman vignarola (a vegetable stew of fava beans, peas, and artichoke).  Mrs. H. also greatly enjoyed her dish of Livorno-style cacciucco (or fish stew) containing cured cod and a side of garlic bread crostini for dipping.

My dessert was also spectacular, a butterscotch semifreddo with melon agrumata (i.e., marinated in citrus juice), blueberries, and crumbled sbrisolona (a crunchy tart from the Lombardi region of Italy), a plethora of great flavors and textures. The meal ended with the arrival of an old-fashioned box grater at the table filled with a collection of mignardises, including chocolate-covered olive oil pops, small bomboloni (like doughnut holes), some dried fruits, chocolate truffles, and mini-tartlets.

All this, and we still managed to arrive at our show well in time for the opening curtain at 8pm.  I commend the folks at Del Posto for exemplary service and a terrific meal; however, if I had to choose, I'd say my favorite bite of the day was that heavenly slice at Prince Street Pizza (mmmm)....