Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Shifting Directions and Apple Bread

Hello, dear readers - some of you may have taken notice of my dwindling output of postings over these last few months. The reasons for this are varied, but most of them can be traced back to the fact that I'm in a bit of a life transition phase at the moment. My kids have grown to the point where they no longer need my undivided attention most days and I've become aware (with some prodding from those close to me) that I need to identify a new path for myself, one that will alter my job title from stay-at-home parent to whatever it is that defines the next phase of my existence. Since I left the workforce 10 years ago, I have had some vague ideas regarding my future career that have remained mostly idle daydreamings, but I now realize that they must be sharpened and put into action lest the relentless passing of time eventually render them meaningless. I don't yet know exactly where I'm going to land, but, geographically speaking, my focus has shifted from Tampa to the St. Petersburg side of the bay as we're in the process of beginning to build our future home (due to complete in 2017) over on Snell Isle. If you continue to follow this blog, you'll probably notice more posts coming from Pinellas County, and they may be less of the traditional "here's where we went and here's what we ate - insert a few pictures" format and more reflective of my developing career arc. That may mean oral histories of beloved area dining institutions (possibly in conjunction with the local history museum - I've started volunteering there) or the in-depth examination of particular neighborhoods (I have a yet-to-be-named 49th Street project in my head) or research into the story behind local dishes, or perhaps none of these things (life, as you know, is a moving target). I still plan to document meals of note (we're going to Miami in February to eat at Alinea's pop-up there, and I'll be damned if I'm not going to blab about that), but I suspect the gaps in that sort of coverage will widen somewhat until the new enthusiasm kicks in. So, thanks in advance for your patience in waiting for me to figure out what I want this blog to become.

On that note, I present to you apple bread, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal on November 3, 2015 (see the recipe here). This recipe comes from a 1981 Junior League of Rochester, New York cookbook and was the perfect way for me to use up some old eggs and apples in the fridge, at the same time providing a tasty homemade dish for the progeny's piano recital reception. If you're like me and you decide to use sour cream instead of buttermilk, a word of caution: I omitted the baking soda and had to sweat it out during baking to see if my very-dense batter might actually rise at all without the benefit of any leavening agent (it did, but not much). Next time, I plan to mix the soda into the sour cream (or just bite the bullet and buy buttermilk) to get that "lift" into the final product. Happy baking and happy holidays!!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Northeast Ohio Eats - Revisited

Here at the Canteen, we are now in the middle of what can probably best be described as an "old-school" dining phase, whereby the missus and I have been visiting a number of classic, clubby, frozen-in-the-1980s restaurants lately. This has not been a conscious decision, mind you, nor has it been a negative experience by any stretch of the imagination; rather, I'm encouraged to see that there are proprietors out there who are able to successfully pull off mid/late-20th Century standard American cuisine (i.e., before everyone went farm-to-table cuckoo) in a modern atmosphere, even though these types of places are becoming a rarity. Case in point - while in Ohio for a wedding recently, we had the opportunity to return to an eatery that we very much enjoyed the first time around. Ken Stewart's Grille has been a dining stalwart in Akron since it opened in 1990 - my aunt and uncle (people who know a thing or two about good food and wine) brought Mrs. Hackknife and me here about 10 years ago, proclaiming it to be their favorite restaurant (and they still say that now).

KSG definitely isn't trying to be a proto-gasto-wonderland targeting millennials with fancy craft cocktails and bacon/Brussels sprout-laden small plates; rather, the crowd hums along to Sinatra while ordering another Manhattan and adjusting their hearing aids.  On a Thursday evening at 6, the dining room remained largely empty while Mrs. H and I sipped a pre-meal drink in the bar/lounge with a few other patrons and the Golf Channel on in the background.

Almost all of the appetizers on the dinner menu feature some kind of seafood. We dug in to a wonderful tuna tartare stack (consisting of avocado, marinated tuna chunks, and wonton crisps) with a schmear of sambal aioli to add some kick (do not adjust your monitor to remove the yellow haze - this really is how the lighting looked in the restaurant).

Nearly as tasty was my salad of field greens with candied nuts, figs, and a liberal topping of brie slices. This is more of the type of simple salad I'd be able to throw together on a weeknight at home in a pinch (and be perfectly happy consuming it).

Mrs. Hackknife will nearly always choose steak from a classic American dinner menu; however, I can't resist the urge to still try something local to the region I'm in. This pan-seared walleye (straight out of Lake Erie? Who knows?) came doused in a beurre blanc sauce and sported sun-dried tomatoes, parsley, scallions, and basil - I finished it down to the last bite.  We also ordered a basketful of the house's tarragon pomme frites, served shoestring-style and voluminous enough that there were leftovers.

Our server clued us in to the seasonal dessert special, a lusty pumpkin bread pudding a la mode with caramel sauce. Again, no gimmicks, just solid, delicious food served in a classy environment. Every town needs a Ken Stewart's to celebrate life's special occasions (or not-so-special occasions, like Thursday nights).

Although the reason for our Northeast Ohio trip this year was a family wedding, we try to come to this corner of the state at least annually to see relatives. Many times, we'll stop in at one of Youngstown's own Handel's Ice Cream stands, a hometown favorite in these parts since 1945. Handel's started out of a gas station back when the local steel mills were cranking out product for the war effort and have since expanded throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, out West (California and Nevada now), and even into Florida down by Bonita Springs (it's amazing what you can discover by looking at a website).

Handel's ice creams consistently appear on lists of the country's best (no joke - check out the line on a chilly November evening), and with over 100 flavors to select, the choice is not an easy one. I picked a cupful of Buckeye (a flavor created to support of the Ohio State football team) hoping that it would reflect some unique Ohio character that the Bonita Springs location couldn't duplicate; sadly, this wasn't the case, but the blend of peanut butter ice cream studded with big chunks of "buckeye" candies (really just chocolate-peanut butter cups) was mighty fine.

On our way back to Akron-Canton Airport at the end of the weekend, we had to make one last stop for some nourishment before the long return flight to Florida.  I'd both read and heard good things from the locals about Swensons Drive In, a true drive-in burger operation that started in these parts in 1934 and has grown to include 7 locations in and around Akron. I was told that the most famous item on the Swensons menu is a burger called the Galley Boy, two beef patties with American cheese, two sauces (mayo-onion and bbq), and a butter toasted bun, all for only $3.50. It just so happened that one of the Swensons locations is just down the street from the airport, so pop in we did.

My first impression was that the building housing the restaurant is surprisingly large for a place with no indoor seating (when they say "drive-in", they mean it quite literally). For service, patrons park and simply turn on their lights - almost instantly, a server appears rapid-fire style to take your order (apparently, speed and attentiveness are prized qualities amongst the staff).

In just a short minute or two, our Galley Boys arrived to the vehicle on an old-fashioned window tray. The burgers are minimalist (being neophytes, we didn't realize we could have ordered a number of extra condiments/garnishes - all for next time) and, although I wouldn't go as far as to proclaim them "America's best" (as a few have done), I can say they're head and shoulders above most (ed. note - the olive on a toothpick was originally outside the wrapper and repositioned by me to enhance the photo). The house onion rings were equally good, as was a butterscotch milkshake that my lovely wife ordered. My drink choice was something called a California, which was explained by our server to be a mixture of ginger ale and grape soda - not bad, but I don't need to have another for a while. Still, all told we had a great meal for approximately the same cost as one of those pedestrian snack boxes and a soda on the airline...

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Coney Island Grill

Now that I'm spending more time in and around downtown St. Petersburg these days, I felt it was time to revisit the Tampa Bay Times's Best Hot Dogs in the Bay Area list from earlier this year and correct what I consider to be an egregious oversight; that is, I hadn't been to Coney Island Grill yet. CIG (side note - I'm pretty confident that the locals never refer to it in this fashion) has been located on a scruffy stretch of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. (250 N., to be exact) since way back in 1926, making it one of the oldest continuously-operating restaurants in Florida. Original owner Pete Barlas followed the lead of many other Greek immigrants coming to America at that time and opted to open a Detroit-style hot dog stand, topping the sausages with a chili sauce that sports a sizable ground meat component (likely beef trimmings and other less-desirable castoffs of the cow). Over the years, the neighborhood went from prosperous to less so and now back towards gentrification, but the grill has remained pretty much unchanged both inside and out.

Upon entering, I found the similarities between CIG and Chicago's dearly-departed Ramova Grill (1929-2012) to be uncannily close, down to the sparse menu, flattop grill (no fryers) near the front window, old-school refrigerator unit, waitstaff exchanging disapproving glances at strangers taking photos, and "we-don't-really-see-the-need-to-brighten-things-up" beige decor. Clearly, the subsequent owners (Pete's son, Hank, now deceased, and his son, Pete Barlas II, the current proprietor) are selling nostalgia as much as their chili and hot dogs (to great effect, I might add).

On my first visit, I stuck with the house specialty of chili dog (served with mustard and chopped onions, ketchup is a nickel extra) with a bowl of chili on the side. While the price was right ($2 for each), I can't say I was terribly impressed by either dish, both constructed more for plain sustenance than style. I discovered after the fact that you could add shredded cheese to your hot dog, which I did on Trip #2, not really noticing much of an improvement.

The real finds, however, are the chili burger and the chocolate milkshake. The burger arrived at my barstool thin and crispy after a good charring on the flattop, with the same toppings as the chili dog. At $3, it was well worth the extra buck. The milkshake is one of the most expensive things on the menu (except for the BLT, which I'm told is also a must-try), but still a smooth, rich, happy tummy bargain at $3.45. If you want a better hot dog, you need look no further than across the street and down the block to the newly open Chi-Town Beefs and Dogs (to be featured in a future posting), but diners seeking a great chili burger with a dose of time capsule will be perfectly content with Coney Island Grill...

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Marker 39

With Cub Scout activities in full swing and our new ownership of a property in St. Petersburg (of which I will be taking on the role of slumlord), I have come dangerously close to experiencing my first missed month of posting since this blog's inception. I am just able to sneak in under the wire here, however, a few short days before the arrival of Halloween and the 1st of November. Mrs. Hackknife and I have recently discovered a gem of a restaurant tucked away on a quiet street in downtown Safety Harbor, until now best known as the place where we go to church, but quickly becoming a local hub for great dining experiences. While wandering down 2nd Street N. one evening looking for pizza (that would be Pizzeria Gregario, another noteworthy joint that will appear in these pages sometime in the near future), we happened across Marker 39 (which happens to be Sunshine Key on the Overseas Highway in case anyone's curious) and its quaint-looking shack done up in vibrant tropical colors. After a once-over of the menu, we opted to stop in here instead and were immediately gratified by our decision.

Chef Justin Murphy is a skilled practitioner of Florida's famous Fusion (or as he calls it, "Floribbean") cuisine, a melding of Latin, Caribbean, and Floridian influences with a touch of Asian and African thrown in for good measure. He learned his craft at the hands of several Fusion masters, including Norm Van Aken (one of our favorite chefs) and Michael Schwartz, putting in some time with Jose Andres (another of our favorites) as well, building up an impressive resume in some of the most well-respected kitchens on Florida's Atlantic Coast. According to the natives, Marker 39 is packed on weekends, but seems to be lightly visited during the week - on our first sojourn (a Thursday night), there were only 2 tables occupied besides ours, while we were the sole diners on a recent Wednesday evening. This, of course, was not an issue as we were grateful to have the extra attention from the waitstaff.

What you see below is the only dish that the missus and I ordered both times - a traditional Florida smoked fish dip served with BBQ potato chips (paired here with a Toasted Coconut Porter from Orlando's Orange Blossom Brewery). Having now tried about five different versions of this dip since we relocated to Tampa, I'd say this one is probably the best we've encountered, meaty and rich.

We went crazy with the small plate offerings on the menu, each one as impressive as the last. Not pictured is the house "pappas rellenos", mashed potato balls stuffed with chorizo and fried to a crisp exterior, served with sriracha mayo and charred tomato salsa. These put to shame the similar (but mega-sized) fried potato ball I'd had at Brocato's not long ago. We also enjoyed the roasted plantain-stuffed crab cakes (with greens, mango mustard, and plantain chips), a nice tropical twist on a Northeast favorite. One dish I did manage to photograph was the Bahamanian conch wonton you see below, served on a bed of tasty greens and sauces.

Another home run was the cornmeal-crusted Gulf oysters, pictured here with a kicked-up pasilla pepper and corn relish, roasted poblano pepper remoulade, and more greens, making us feel good about how healthy we were eating all this time.

Our only foray into entrees was equally impressive. Chef Justin's Cuban Pork Crisis features mojo-marinated and slow-roasted pork with pickled onion, black beans, maduro plantains, queso blanco, and jasmati rice, a party of flavors and textures that Mrs. H and I fought over until the last morsel was gone. Even the desserts didn't disappoint, including a bacon-topped doughnut that was consumed faster than the camera shutter could capture it and a Key lime ice cream sundae with a guava sauce, toasted almonds, and a fritter thrown in for good measure (see below).

After 2 trips, I'm of the mindset that there is no bad dish on the Marker 39 menu, leaving me quite anxious to return for some further exploration. Maybe someday we'll make it over to the nearby pizzeria, but only if we approach it from a different direction...

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Angel's Soul Food & BBQ - Tavares, FL

On Labor Day weekend (which also happened to coincide with our anniversary this year), Mrs. Hackknife and I decided to spend the holiday visiting a quaint, arts-oriented community called Mount Dora, located in the Florida Rockies (elevation 184 feet above sea level) about 30 minutes northwest of Orlando. The town features a number of art galleries, wine bars, boutique gift shops, and restaurants, many of which we were able to visit on a food tour (led by locals John and Paula under the moniker Taste of Our Town). My original plan was to devote this whole posting to the many vittles we sampled over the weekend - yes, you can find good microbrews at Mount Dora Brewing (I could drink Beauclaire Blonde Ale and Pistolville Porter all summer long), a mean sausage roll at the Brit-themed Magical Meat Boutique, decent (if not overpriced) dinner fare at the frozen-in-1998 Goblin Market, and even a romantic meal enjoyed on the porch of our charming B&B Adora Inn (soon to be featured on an episode of Travel Channel's Hotel Showdown).

At the end of our trip, however, a single culinary experience stood out among the rest, and that is what I will focus on today. The missus and I took a kayak out onto Lake Eustis late Sunday morning, paddling through the famous Dora Canal (once described as the "most beautiful mile of water in the world", although I'd call that a bit of an exaggeration) into Lake Dora and back, working up quite an appetite in the process. Fortunately for us, a nearby soul food joint beckoned for lunch - Angel's Soul Food & BBQ, tucked quietly away in a strip mall off the main drag, Florida Route 19 (390 W. Burleigh Blvd. in Tavares if you want to employ your GPS).

We were a little past the lunch rush (such as it is on Sunday in these parts), so the restaurant was pretty sedate. I had read rumors about terrific fried chicken here that were reinforced by Angel's menu, which stated their chicken was so good "you'll slap your mama". While I wasn't quite incited to the level of matriarchal violence, I can say they fry up a damn delicious bird here, with moist dark meat and a perfect crispy skin (shattering almost like glass), putting Angel's squarely on my short list of top fried chicken in the South. I'd also advise diners not to miss the cornbread or the collard greens studded with shredded unknown pork parts (you can pass on the mashed potatoes and gravy).

Dessert in this type of joint means banana pudding and they mean business - cool, creamy, and loaded with crushed Nilla Wafers. Again, I defy any Texan or Carolina native to present me a better bowl (please try, though - I'm craving some right now).

Our meal at Angel's strengthens my opinion that Central Florida is the epicenter of soul food in this great state. Between Nikki's Place in Orlando and here (not to mention the many others I haven't yet discovered), I know where to go to satisfy my fix...

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Brocato's Sandwich Shop

Our friends (and L.A. fixers) Jaime and Lydia were in town recently to experience for the first time the magical wonder that is Disney World (and experience it they did - I don't know of anyone that covered as much ground at the parks as they did in a single trip). While stopping over in Tampa for a few days, they also wanted to sample the finer points of our local cuisine (namely Cuban food) - I thought this would be a great opportunity for us to visit one of the few homegrown places in the Bay Area that is striving to elevate its profile to the national level. Brocato's Sandwich Shop has been serving up Cuban sandwiches, devil crab, and something they call stuffed potatoes since 1948, with their current operation just a stone's throw from I-4 near Columbus Drive (5021 Columbus, to be exact) on the near east side of the metro area. I've zoomed by this exit on the interstate countless times without ever once stopping off to test out Brocato's claim of having the best devil crab (you may recall an earlier posting about this unique local favorite, loose crab meat mixed with sofrito and bread crumbs, shaped into a mini-football, then deep-fried) in Tampa, but, this day, I would wonder no more.

We quickly discovered that if you go to Brocato's, lunchtime on Saturday is probably not the best time to show up. The unpaved parking lot was a jumble of vehicles somewhat haphazardly abandoned and the order lines extended out the door, not the type of situation we normally encounter around here (I took this to be a good sign). The wait gave us plenty of time to inspect the operation, which includes covered outdoor seating, a separate prep shed where teenaged employees appeared to be cranking out tray after tray of devil crab and stuffed potatoes, and vivid, ubiquitous signage that might even give Donald Trump pause.

Once inside, we found the ordering process to be slightly haphazard. After about 15 minutes, I finally reached the cash register and placed our order with a cashier speaking in broken English. When that portion concluded, I slunk over to the right half of the building where most people seemed to be awaiting food (the traffic flow and layout was a little confusing). A few more minutes passed before I decided to park myself at the metal counter in front to better increase my chances of getting my tray when ready (servers called out names that had been semi-legibly scrawled out on tickets, sometimes successfully, sometimes not).

I had about 20 minutes to observe the workers assembling orders before the food arrived and I was stunned by the volume of business being run through the kitchen. Clearly, the operation makes a fair amount of dough in spite of the primitive order delivery system - my man Jaime (himself a process engineer) had re-jiggered the whole business in his head and was making them millions more by the time I finally arrived at our table with lunch.

What you see above are the 3 aforementioned marquis items on the Brocato menu (the devil crab is on the left, in the black container). First off, I agree that their devil crab is the best of the 3 or 4 different kinds I've tried in Florida, not to mention the largest - the portion sizes appear to cater to the famished solo diner or families splitting plates. Only slightly less good was the stuffed potato, which we discovered is more like a potato croquette, a mound of mashed spuds surrounding a wad of picadillo (seasoned ground beef) and then deep-fried. I have to say that I was let down by the Cuban sandwich, mainly because the haste of the prep process leaves no time for the bread to be pressed, which is a key element of what makes a Cuban unique. Brocato's does heat up the sandwich in a counter oven before serving, but without the buttery, toasted exterior that pressing provides, their Cuban is mostly just like a warm hoagie.  I have no problem returning here for a devil crab sometime (as long as I have friends to help me eat it all) or even shipping them cross-country (as the website advertises), but for the best Cuban, I'll skip Brocato's in favor of my friendly neighborhood Cuban food truck, El Truck Del Rincon Criollo...

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Acadia - Chicago, IL

While back in Chicago for a long weekend recently, Mrs. Hackknife and I had the pleasure of dining out at Acadia (1639 S. Wabash), a much-admired restaurant that I'd had on our hit list since its opening in 2010. The name refers to a coastal region of Maine and the influence of the ocean is readily apparent in Chef Ryan McCaskey's cooking style, which he classifies as "contemporary American". Chef Ryan grew up in the same part of the northwest suburbs that I did and took a circuitous route to opening his place, beginning in Chicago (including a stint with Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia fame), followed by Maine, Wisconsin, then back to Chicago where he worked in a number of famous kitchens (Trio, Tru, and Cartwright's among them) before setting out on his own. Clearly, the chef and his team have impressed both diners and the food press, earning a Michelin star for three straight years. So it was with that backdrop that the missus and I anxiously arrived for our reservation on a warm Sunday evening in the South Loop.

Acadia's design style can best be described as stark and modern, with meticulous greys and beiges in the dining room mingling with less-austere splashes of color in the form of wall-mounted dioramas that resembled a mossy carpet of tundra (see above).

As is normally the case with contemporary, upscale restaurants, we opted for the tasting menu to get a wide variety of the kitchen's best and current dishes.  I have to admit - I didn't take any notes and have not been able to track down matching menus for what we ate that night, so my (sometimes grainy) photos and a few feeble descriptions will have to paint the picture for me.

Our server brought us some delicious biscuits with compound butter, not exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the New England coast.

This corn chowder with bits of bacon served in an egg-white bowl was both whimsical and delicious.

Manila clams with leeks and broth

Oatmeal-encrusted oysters topped with a single blueberry and sea foam essence

Salmon and scallion

Flatiron steak with roasted root vegetables - as you might have expected with a cut like flatiron, the meat wasn't particularly tender, leaving the vegetables as the best part of the dish.

Housemade wide noodles (almost like a tagliatelle?) with tarragon, bottarga, and caviar, plus a sinfully-rich cream sauce - I didn't think the original version of pasta carbonara could possibly be improved upon, but I was wrong as it turns out.

Lobster and mushrooms in a savory brown broth

Dessert.  I couldn't possibly attempt to relate what we were served here, except to say that it included that wonderful mix of textures and forms that I now realize I really enjoy in a dessert course.

There were no mignardises, but our host presented us with small bags of chocolate-banana bread to take home with us.

Mrs. H. and I agreed that the experience wasn't exactly perfect - the waitstaff seemed to be having an off night (lots of confusion between courses and some uneven pacing) and the aforementioned steak course felt a bit flat.  For the most part, however, we were very impressed with the inventiveness, look, and flavor of Chef Ryan's creations, especially those focused on seafood.  I have no problem recommending Acadia to others as a fitting tribute to the ocean's deliciousness...

Monday, August 31, 2015

Pearl in the Grove - Dade City, FL

Not long after we arrived in Florida, I got wind of a revered fine dining establishment far removed from the environs of urban Tampa. Pearl in the Grove has an address listing in Dade City, which is located way out in eastern Pasco County (where there seem to be more cows than people) and bills itself as the "Kumquat Capital of the World", even boasting an annual festival celebrating said strange citrus fruit every January. As for the restaurant, it languished away on my local dining hit list for quite a while until I finally made the executive decision to grab the wife and head out to the country one warm Saturday night for supper.

As it turns out, PITG isn't located in Dade City proper, but about 4 miles west at the crossroads of County Roads 577 and 578 in the tiny hamlet of St. Joseph, where the lone gas station is probably one of the few places in America advertising kumquat pie (sadly, they were closed when we arrived). Owners Curtis and Rebecca Beebe appear to have taken a nondescript squat cinder block building at that intersection (a former house with a commercial kitchen) and transformed it into a farm-to-table showcase of the area's bounty.  It's not obvious exactly where the clientele arrives from, but arrive they do in droves, filling up the place most weekend evenings.

The restaurant's interior is sparsely decorated in the style of mid-century basement (I couldn't tell if it was 2015 or 1955) and is as cozy as a Florida cabin retreat.  While the view may have been slightly kitschy, the service, wine list, and foods on offer were most definitely not.  We began with a sizable platter of regional cheeses and cured meats.  Charcuterie plates these days are a dime a dozen, but this one was spectacular, featuring cheeses from Georgia's Sweetwater Dairy and Winter Park Dairy (near Orlando), plus sausages, pickled okra, and sweet sides like mostarda.

We also ordered a fried green tomato caprese, which included panko-crusted tomato slices sandwiching house made mozzarella, topped with a dollop of basil pesto, all served on a bed of greens from the garden outside, a dish classic, simple, uber-local, and uniquely Southern in equal measure.

This is one of those meals where we probably could have stopped after the appetizers; however, we pressed onward, selecting grass-fed strip steak (Mrs. Hackknife) and a slab of Palmetto Creek Farms pork belly (from nearby Avon Park) for me, an ethereal roulade stuffed with chopped Granny Smith apples, brushed with molasses, then smoked over pecan wood and served with more garden greens and a savory chili sweet potato mash that provided a solid kick to the cortex.

I was ready to roulade myself out the front door at this point, but Mrs. H. insisted on dessert, a featherlight yogurt panna cotta with fresh fruit and a touch of honey (no picture was taken) that I still managed to enjoy a few bites of before collapsing in glorious food coma agony into the passenger seat, thus concluding one of the best and most unique dining experiences we've had in Florida...

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Hot Dogs on Main/Mel's Hot Dogs

A few months ago, our local newspaper (the Tampa Bay Times) published this handy list of best places to get a hot dog in the Bay area. Being a Chicago native, I, of course, consider myself to be something of an expert on this topic and greatly welcomed the suggestions of the food press, especially since my experience with hot dogs in Florida thus far has been less than impressive (other than the one Brazilian-style dog I had at Padoka Brazilian Bakery, and, sadly, that place is no more). Of the restaurants on the list, I'd heard of Mel's (out near Busch Gardens) and Bruce's (out in Largo towards the Gulf), plus the Americanweiner food truck (which can be hard to find around town), but hadn't ever encountered mention of Coney Island Grill in St. Pete (one of the oldest food establishments in Florida, dating back to 1926) or Hot Dogs on Main in Dunedin. Regardless of their notoriety (or lack thereof) in my household, I made a pledge to eventually visit each and every one of them, starting with Hot Dogs on Main (the closest to the Canteen) in the hopes that my opinion of the west-central Florida frankfurter would be elevated.

I popped over to downtown Dunedin on a warm spring morning to find HDoM (505 Main St., no website), which is just up the street from more well-known eateries such as the Dunedin Smokehouse and Casa Tina. Chef Susan Norton has been serving up wieners from her small storefront (really small, that is - no indoor seating) here since 2010 with a focus on not only traditional hot dog varieties (such as the Chicago Dog), but more inventive combinations as well. I couldn't resist trying out two of these combos, the Chihuahua (featuring guacamole, onion, mango salsa, jalapeno melted cheddar, Greek yogurt, and crushed Frito chips) and the Reuben (with Russian dressing, swiss cheese, and sauerkraut), two crowning achievements of what can occur when you put together the right tastes and textures in a single package.

While not much to look at (and awfully sloppy - grab lots of napkins if you go), I can tell you that these creations really clicked, each melding the various sweet, sour, spicy, and rich components very nicely. The only complaint I had was with the hot dogs themselves, which were a little on the bland side. With a bare bones operation (no fryer or stove), Chef Susan is simply boiling the dogs behind the counter, and I've found that even the mighty Vienna beef dog (her house wiener) needs some char to make it stand out (her sausages are also skinless, meaning no snap when you bite down - I miss that, too). I'll need to give HDoM a second chance by trying out a traditional Chicago dog next time, but I have to confess a tinge of disappointment at the initial visit.

Next up for sampling was Mel's Hot Dogs, located in a much less bucolic setting down the street from Busch Gardens at 4136 E. Busch Boulevard. Unlike the newcomer HDoM, Mel's has been a mainstay in this neighborhood since 1973 and has a terrific backstory. Musician Mel Lohn traveled to Florida in the late 1960s on some gigs and decided (even back then, when the mosquitoes and gators still held seats on the local city council) that this was the place for him to be. A Chicagoan by birth, Mel started his own Chicago-style hot dog stand in Tampa when he was unable to find a proper one, turning a rundown structure on the old Henderson Air Field into the sausage palace that sits there today (albeit slightly expanded).

Mel also uses Vienna Beef dogs, the differences here being 1) these have a natural skin casing for a bit of added texture and 2) they're grilled just like the traditional Chicago Dog.  With authentic toppings (down to the celery salt and the sport peppers that everyone tosses aside, plus no ketchup), a poppy seed bun, and a mound of golden, just-right fries, Mel's dog is the real deal, the best I've had in Florida.  The menu even features such Windy City mainstays as Polish sausage, Italian beef, and the much-maligned hot tamale (all of which I'd like to try at some point) - if the next hurricane were to levitate Mel's operation and plop it at the corner of Fullerton and Kedzie in Chicago, it would not be out of place amongst all of the other local hot dog joints.

So, in summary, Hot Dog on Main wins the innovation award, but Mel's wins my heart. When that Portillo's goes up in Brandon next year, they should be aware that they're not the only Vienna Beef king in town...

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

St. Petersburger and Bacon Cheese Fries (Locale Market)

What you are seeing above is an example of one of the best burgers in the Tampa Bay area, provided courtesy of Local Market in downtown St. Petersburg. The above beast is dubbed the "St. Petersburger" (of course) and features a dry-aged ground beef patty topped with local shredded romaine lettuce doused in a secret sauce, melted smoked Gouda cheese, something called double-smoked bacon (apparently, the first smoking wasn't enough) from Miami Smokers Urban Smokehouse, caramelized onions, button mushrooms, and more cheese (melted American this time), all on a brioche bun made in the onsite bakery. At $13.49, it's not cheap, but the missus and I were able to split one along with an order of the house bacon cheese fries. This sandwich is a sloppy, glorious mess, well worth the cholesterol and calories on a steamy August afternoon, and I wasn't even fazed by the mushrooms lurking under the American cheese (just plowed right through 'em).

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Alaska Eats

After taking our big vacation to the Great Plains (South Dakota, to be precise) last July, we liked the concept of escaping the tropical heat/humidity in Florida so much that we decided to go even further afield this summer; that is, above the 60th parallel to the wilds of Alaska. For those of you who don't know me personally, I spent the summer between my junior and senior years of college interning with the National Weather Service in Anchorage and, while I professed to be miserable and homesick for the majority of my 3 months there, I developed a strong connection to the people and places of the Last Frontier, so much so that I've been back twice before this latest trip. Mrs. Hackknife (who was with me on my last Alaska adventure, right after we got engaged) and I had always wanted our two kids to experience this great state through their eyes and, at ages 9 and 6, we decided now was the right time for a family visit.

One thing we didn't fully appreciate was the extended flight time from our corner of the country way across to the other, a full 8 1/2 hours total (it's funny to think we can actually fly to Europe faster). Jet-lagged and exhausted, we crashed immediately upon our arrival and all woke up around our usual time in Tampa, which unfortunately translated to about 4:30 am in Alaska. Still, propelled onward by near round-the-clock daylight and a hearty hotel breakfast, we got an early start, managing to visit Earthquake Park, Lake Hood, Ship Creek, and the Imaginarium, all before lunchtime. Just a few blocks from the Imaginarium lies the Anchorage Weekend Market, perched on the hillside overlooking the port area and railroad depot. The market (which appears to be held year-round, God bless 'em) has grown considerably since our last visit in 2002 and is a great place to grab a locally-sourced lunch.

With the warm sun beating down (no joke - not wearing a cap earned me a sunburned scalp), the kids settled for a standard hot dog/burger, while I dug into an ideally-crafted halibut taco courtesy of Two Fat Guys Catering. The TFGC conglomerate operates two restaurants in nearby Wasilla, as well as the market stand in Anchorage, churning out in this case a Thai-influenced halibut accented with lemongrass, ginger, and jicama, a spiffy combo of sweet, spice, and crunch.

For her lunch, Mrs. Hackknife managed to locate an Indian taco that was far superior to the variety we'd encountered in South Dakota. Walking around the rest of the market made me wish I'd brought a larger suitcase - reindeer sausages, Russian dumplings, birch syrup from Kahiltna Birchworks (a bottle of which we purchased and are now enjoying), you name it. One sweets booth offered fireweed honey ice cream, (fireweed being a ubiquitous flower that blooms in Alaska like dandelions during the short summer season - you'll see a picture of it later in this posting), a scoop of which tasted suspiciously like regular honey ice cream, but refreshing nonetheless.

We spent a good hour burning off calories while walking through the numerous gift shops in downtown Anchorage, then popped into a random coffee and tea shop for some bottled water. As luck would have it, the Kobuk Coffee Co. (situated in one of the oldest buildings in town, a former general store that survived the 1964 earthquake) has a small bakery in the back, selling a particular glazed old-fashioned donut that Huffington Post just cited as one of the nation's best in June (far be it for us to skip past a food item gaining such notoriety).

Chef/owner Mike Bonito has been churning out donuts at Kobuk for over 35 years, pretty much perfecting the glazed old-fashioned recipe in the process. Slightly crispy, warm, and decadent (and also available with some chocolate ribbons drizzled on), we'd stumbled upon a terrific bridge between lunch and dinner.

Feeling the need for more exercise following our dessert break, we headed up in the mountains to Chugach State Park, climbing up and around the various overlooks with hordes of tour bus riders before making our way back down to the city for dinner. On our last trip to Anchorage 13 years ago, Moose's Tooth Pizza and Brewery was the most popular place in town and, despite expanding into a facility 3 times larger since then, it still, well, appears to be the most popular place in town. We passed it on Seward Highway a number of times during our stay (it was around the corner from our hotel) and always saw people massed outside on the patio waiting for tables. Amazingly though, on this Sunday night, only a 20-minute wait was required before we were seated.

The beermaking operation (which has grown substantially) has been spun off into a separate entity called Broken Tooth Brewing and there was no sign of the fantastic smoked salmon pizza that the missus and I had enjoyed our first time at MT, but otherwise the business has maintained that laid-back, counterculture vibe we experienced before (all while printing money, I'm sure). We opted for the roasted garlic pie, a heady combo of Roma tomato slices, artichoke hearts, feta cheese, basil, mozzarella, provolone, and enough garlic/garlic oil to make us wish we'd slept in separate beds. Our meal was fine, however, the plain cheese pizza we ordered for the kinder was mediocre at best, leading me to wonder if kitchen expansion has diluted product quality a bit.

Our next day of touring found us traveling through Turnagain Arm and south on the Kenai Peninsula, where we enjoyed both great Mexican food (shrimp and crab enchiladas at Acapulco Mexican in Soldotna) and tasty caribou and elk burgers (Chair 5 in Girdwood). I was eager to have dinner at Jack Sprat in Girdwood, whose head chef has recently earned some James Beard recognition; sadly, the restaurant was booked up full (on a Monday night, no less) when we tried, a development that would have been unthinkable in 2002 (evidently, even Alaska has its share of foodies now). The next morning found us at the other most-popular eatery in Anchorage (we are nothing if not gluttons for punishment), skipping the hotel breakfast and waiting nearly an hour for a table at Snow City Cafe.

Having escaped my notice on two prior trips (they've been open at the corner of 4th and L Streets since 1998), SCC is not flying under anyone's radar now, packing in both locals and tourists alike for celebrated brunch fare. I can personally tell you that it's worth the wait - Mrs. H professed that her stuffed French toast (baguette slices, mandarin orange cream cheese, toasted walnuts, raspberry butter, and syrup) was about the best she's ever had, while I happily dug into my smoked salmon cakes and scrambled eggs, hash browns, and sourdough toast with a side of reindeer sausage from Indian Valley Meats, a local meat purveyor whose name I saw again and again on our travels (they must be doing something right). I also enjoyed the jar of jam on the table to slather on my toast - when I inquired about it, our server told me it was something called "marionberry" jam, and I instantly believed I was being punked (remembering the infamous mayor of Washington, D.C.) until I saw this article in Serious Eats on lesser-known berries just the other day (apparently, marionberries are found in the Pacific Northwest and are similar to blackberries).

From this point onward, our vacation swung away from the southern coast and towards the interior of the state. The initial stop on our way to Denali National Park was the town of Talkeetna, formerly a scruffy hamlet hosting mountain climbers and backpackers, now grown to also accommodate cruise line tourists taking the train up from Anchorage. The number of shops and restaurants in the 3 or 4-block main business district has significantly increased since I first set foot here in 1992, including another zen-heavy pizzeria joint named Mountain High Pizza Pie. MHPP's lot is a riot of colors, from various wildflowers to Buddhist prayer flags on the patio to the cabin's purple hue (or is that navy?).

Behind the hippie exterior resides some serious pizza-making skills. Mrs. Hackknife and I split one of the house specialty pies, the "Game On" with reindeer meat prepped two ways (gyro and Italian sausage) on-site, basil, and onion. Even the kid cheese pizza rocked the town, much better than Moose's Tooth, I might add. Although my sample size is small, MHTT receives my vote for best pizza in the 49th State thus far (I hope to conduct further research on this topic).

After lunch, the clan climbed onto a DeHavilland Otter and took a flightseeing tour into the Alaska Range, eventually landing on a glacier flanking Mount McKinley at an altitude of about 7,200 feet above sea level. There were no food trucks here, only hungry mountain climbers anxious awaiting a return flight to civilization.

To celebrate our triumphant survival from 30-odd minutes in backcountry oblivion, it seemed appropriate to indulge in some blueberry-rhubarb crisp. A shiny Airstream trailer (called Talkeetna Spinach Bread) back in town proudly advertised this dish and I was happy to try some, finding it significantly better than the rhubarb crisp I threw together many years ago.

Our host resort for the 3 days we spent in and around Denali was Tonglen Lake Lodge, a quirky combination of luxury bed and breakfast, arts commune, and Berkeley coffee house. Conceived and constructed out of virgin woods by founder Donna Gates (who's a Jill-of-all-trades: dog trainer, artist, cook, event planner, entrepreneur, and mother, among many others, the type of multi-hat personality that seems to be a prerequisite for successful living in the Alaskan Interior), Tonglen's small, but energetic, cafe staff churned out an impressive array of dishes given the remote setting and limited kitchen facilities. Each morning, we enjoyed homemade scones (including one variety chock full of bacon - yum), muffins, granola, fruit, and hot cereal, followed in the evenings by cheese plates, salads, quiches, and delicacies like salmon mac and cheese.

The cafe at Tonglen Lake also offers terrific box lunches (mine had an amply-sized veggie sandwich with hummus spread, chips, apple, water, and a giant chocolate chip cookie), which came in handy for us when we decided to venture down the unpaved Denali Highway (shhh....don't tell Hertz) and have a picnic in view of lesser-seen peaks of the Alaska Range like Mount Hess and Mount Hayes (see below).

If you're willing to tempt fate and drive a full 50 miles along this dusty road, you'll eventually reach Gracious House Lodge, the only settlement of any size in this part of the state and home to the Sluice Box Bar, a very unique venue (a trailer, actually) to grab a cold beer and some homemade pie. With all of the rusting vehicles, battered outbuildings, and random maintenance equipment scattered around the property, you might think you've stumbled across a junkyard at first until you realize that this arrangement is fairly typical here for a backcountry homestead.

The clientele mingling around the narrow saloon that day included an adventurous solo motorcycle rider, a few hardy-looking woodsmen that I'd guess might work in the heavy trucking and/or lumber industry (and I suspect could snap me in half just as soon as suffer my city-slicker presence), and a handful of intrepid tourists like us. The slice of blackberry pie (crowned with whipped cream) that the missus and I split wasn't cheap ($5), but it was mighty tasty.

With our rental vehicle having returned unscathed from the journey, our reward for yet again braving the Alaska wilds for a few hours was dinner at quite possibly the best restaurant between here and Seattle, 229 Parks Restaurant and Tavern, a stone's throw from Tonglen Lake. Chef/owner Laura Cole honed her cooking skills at the New England Culinary Institute and the Ritz Escoffier L'Ecole de Gastronome in Paris (where she earned a master pastry certificate) before coming to the Denali area to open her dream project, a place for her to incorporate Alaska's bounty of ingredients into various cuisines from around the world.

With the mountains and forest (there's that fireweed I was talking about) providing a humbling backdrop, we dug into our appetizers of parsnip chips with chive creme fraiche and a refreshing half-dozen oysters from Karheen Passage in Southeast Alaska. The kids were happy to eat warm bowls of buttered homemade lemon semolina pasta (a flavor I was worried might turn them off, but ended up being fine).

My entree of miso black cod (perfectly roasted and charred on one side, something that would not look out of place in a Japanese izakaya) served on a bed of roasted beets and greens with more creme fraiche was spectacular (and a bargain at $20 to boot).

The desserts on offer were all pretty standard (I passed on the Key lime pie for obvious reasons) except for one that I had to try, an inventive carrot ice cream sandwich (carrot ice cream between carrot/almond flour macarons) garnished with crunchy preserved carrot shavings (from last fall, our server confirmed), chocolate sauce, and a dark chocolate strip laid across the top. This was a baller dish that would hold up against anything the top-tier kitchens in New York or LA could create (it made me wistful for some of the savory desserts we had at Charlie Trotter's, except this was an order of magnitude larger on the plate). Chef Cole and her team should be very proud of what they're doing at 229 Parks and I sure hope there's some national attention coming their way.

By this time, we were nearing the endpoint of our trip. A few hours' drive further north (made longer by the frequent road construction delays) past Fairbanks brought us to the small town of North Pole, famous for its post office (which receives letters to St. Nick from all over the world) and a Santa's Village complex of stores, RV campground, and reindeer farm. There's also a McDonald's with its sign mounted on a candy-striped pole (the kids pestered us to have lunch here), a rarely-seen anymore Blockbuster Video next door, and a curious drive-up kiosk advertising tamales in the same parking lot.

As it turns out, this is the home of Outlaw Tamales and the Tamale Lady, which sounded like a much better dining option to me than a Big Mac. I walked up to the stand and had a nice conversation with said Tamale Lady, who's originally from Texas, but relocated up north to be with her soldier son stationed at nearby Ft. Wainwright. She managed to parlay her family tamale recipe into a nice business, cooking up pork, beef, chicken, and black bean tamales for hungry Latino expats (and gringos like myself), along with occasional batches of menudo, frijoles borrachos, and other Mexican goodies.

I picked up a mixed batch of 6 tamales for me and the missus to share while the progeny had their Happy Meals and this was immediately the best meal I've ever eaten inside a McDonald's. The masa inside the corn husks was a little lighter than I recall experiencing before (she told me she omits the lard in favor of just the meat drippings) and the meats used were all nicely seasoned (don't miss out on the homemade salsas, either).

After that great meal, we came to discover over then next 36 hours that Fairbanks doesn't exactly offer much in the way of distinguished eats; sure, we had decent seafood, crepes, and sushi, but as a whole, the area hasn't progressed much since I first had dinner here in '92 (we went to Sizzler then). Still, one notable place to visit for an afternoon treat if you're ever in town is Hot Licks Ice Cream, a local institution since 1986 and a very popular place when the mercury surpasses 80 degrees F as it did the day we were there.

Along with some tempting-sounding flavors that you're not likely to find outside the state (such as Alaska blueberry, Alaska Cranberry, and Arctic Refuge Wildberry Snap), they happened to be featuring that day an ice cream made with Silver Gulch 40 Below Stout (Silver Gulch being America's most northern brewery, in nearby Fox), a choice that I couldn't pass up. It was, in fact, quite robust and stouty, making me envision what a bottle of Guinness might taste like after being left outside during a clear Fairbanks January night.

All told, I like what the past decade has brought to the formerly-sparse Alaskan culinary scene. The better news is that I didn't exhaust my hit list of restaurants to visit there (and even added a few more), giving us more than enough reason for a return trip in the coming years...