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...