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...