Thursday, 20 October 2016

Florida: Diners, Dives and Luncheonettes

Everywhere I reviewed!
After suggesting you watch this space, I can only apologise for the three month silence. Unforgivable. However, I wasn't completely idle in Florida - after my occasional rants about online restaurant reviews (here, and here if you need a refresher) - I thought I'd give it a go myself.

It's not easy. I'm too English to give just anyone a five star review. I'm too polite to post a bad review. With just a few exceptions, it's a long list of four star reviews.

Still, I stuck with it and reviewed every place I ate and if nothing else it gives me a diary to look back on. If you'd like to read them too, I think this link to Google maps should work.

Angel's, Palatka
However there were two places I thought deserved more than four stars and four lines in a Google review. Not only was the food delicious, but they were historically interesting too.

The first is Angel's diner in Palatka. This authentic 1932 diner is far from the diner's spiritual home of the American Northeast. It also occurred to me that this is the first traditional diner I've eaten in.

A diner novice, I commented to the waitress that it looked like a train's dining carriage, and she agreed that it probably once was. As romantic as that notion might be, it's unlikely to be true.

In fact, it's much more likely that Angel's diner was prefabricated in a factory and shipped to Palatka. The long, carriage-like shape makes it much easier to transport on the back of a lorry or on a rail car.

See, it looks like a train!
The opportunity to make this shape a feature wasn't wasted by designers like Roland Stickney, who designed the iconic Sterling diner, heavily inspired by the Sterling Streamliner train dining cars.

It's unlikely Patalaka is an original Sterling - I'm sure I would have discovered if it was - but it's very much in the same style.

So in some ways, the diner is very much like the static caravan, much beloved of British holiday resorts (or, perhaps, the American trailer) - but with a bigger kitchen and booth seating - and delivered to wherever a local entrepreneur has bought land and thinks they'll have passing trade.

Seriously good onion rings
But what if you weren't just a guy with a dream and a patch of land? What if you already had a general story or a pharmacy (in the more wide ranging American sense). Well, that's where the luncheonette, or lunch counter, came in.

Arranged like a diner, with seats around a counter and using very similar cooking equipment, it could easily be added to any existing store with enough space.

Which one supported JFK's bottom?
Green's Pharmacy in Florida's Palm Beach is host to Green's Luncheonette, an institution that's been there since 1938.

Palm Beach was also home to the 'Winter White House', John F Kennedy's winter escape, and Green's hasn't changed an iota since JFK would come for a burger, fries and a chocolate shake.

I skipped the shake, but the cheeseburger would definitely take some beating. In upmarket Palm Beach, Green's was charmingly old fashioned without being 'retro'.

In fact, that was something rather pleasing about both Angel's and Green's - neither had succumbed to over restoration, neither had jukeboxes of 50s hits, nor pictures of Marilyn Monroe or Elvis.

It was packed!
Both had patina and been allowed to age gracefully. Both were also packed, so neither had to try too hard to attract the passing tourist dollar.

I am, of course, boiling up for a rant about over-restoration, about America's sometimes perplexing attitudes towards it heritage. But that's another post, for another time. See you in three months?

Friday, 15 July 2016

Fun in Florida!

Another year, another margarita photo! Yup, we're back in Forth Worth's Stockyards and we're revisiting all our favourite haunts (if you need a reminder, read this post!).

The journey was relatively painless - although navigating rush hour Fort Worth from memory, with no GPS, was a challenge.

Google maps is awesome, but it does need a data connection and my phone provider let me down (naming no names, but the sum 1+2 = ? might give you a clue). I felt I earned that glistening goblet you see on the left.

But that's enough about Dallas - the title says "Fun in Florida!", and that's what I'm planning to have.

On Sunday I'll fly to Miami, the starting point of one of the USA's great road trips - south on US-1, across the bridges to Key West. So me, I'm going north!

I wouldn't say I'll be exploring 'undiscovered Florida' - this is a densely populated part of the US, popular with tourists from across the States and beyond. But I do plan to take the A1A north as far as I can, hugging the coast up to St Augustine - then a hop across the middle, and down the Gulf coast, picking up the Tamiami trail back to Miama. Only then do I feel I've earned the trip to Key West!

[The Route - every dot is a diner I want to try!]
What do I expect to see? Spaceships and alligators, the Everglades and urban beachside sprawl. I want to eat conch, frogs legs and crocodile. Florida has some classic 1930s diners that I'm itching to try - plus a restaurant that tries to include beer as an ingredient in every dish they serve.

I'm expecting mounds of crispy brown deep fried sea things, plus some of the freshest fruit in the US. I expect to hear Spanish in Miami, Salsa in Little Havana and dodgy 70s rock music in my car.

Watch this space!

Sunday, 14 February 2016

How to be the Best Restaurant in America!

[Homeslice - best pizza in the world?]
Those of you that know me won't be surprised to hear I have a long list of fantasy road trips - and every now and then I'll see if they're still up to date, that nowhere has closed or gone down hill.

So I get to the Copper Top BBQ in Big Pine, a simple barbecue joint and possible lunch stop on US-395 (The 'Three Flags Highway') - and discover that not only is it still open, it's now the best place to eat in the whole of the USA.


Well, that's what readers of Yelp say - it tops their list of 100 best places to eat in the US. I already have a love/hate relationship with restaurant review sites and decided to investigate how this humble BBQ joint could become America's most well rated restaurant.

The journalists over at Slate have explained it best, and I fully recommend you go read their article after this, but here's my simplified take on it -

I'd written before that Americans love to give 5 star reviews and Slate say that over 40% of reviews on Yelp are 5 star. I've recently started using an app to rate beer and I've noted that my default review is always 4 stars.

Now, I'm a reserved Englishman, and that means I can't give anything a 5 star review (I'd reserve that kind of praise for the ambrosia of the gods, or the elixir of youth, should I find either). But I'm pretty free with my 4 stars. I like beer, and as long as the beer is okay, it gets 4 stars. Only if it disappoints me does it get less. And I'm rarely disappointed by beer.

[Really the best ribs in the USA?]
I think it's the same in the US - where their natural optimism and ebullience means that here, the 5 star review is the default. Hey, you're going out for a meal, the kids are with a babysitter, you're on holiday, you're on a date, you want this to be a good meal.

You want to give it 5 stars. And you will, unless something actually goes wrong.

So here's my four simple rules to having a well rated restaurant.

1. Make sure nothing does wrong. It's obvious, really, but - certainly in America - there's nothing like poor service to make you lose points.

Copper Top's owner gives away free food samples.

2. Don't be over ambitious. If your food truck serves hot dogs, and the hot dogs are tasty, you won't lose points. If I arrive at your food truck, and you confuse me with too many options, push me out of my comfort zone with venison sausages and sourdough rolls, and I don't like it, I'll dock you points.

Copper Top sell simple BBQ food on paper plates.

[Louie Muellers
is actually the best BBQ in the
entire world]
3. Don't be a local restaurant. I go to my local bistro once a month and always start with the risotto. I love their risotto. Last week the risotto was undercooked. I'm sad. There's a 3 star review coming now.

Instead, be a holiday restaurant. Ever noticed how fish and chips tastes better by the sea? You're relaxed, you want it to be good, and as long as it's not bad, it's best fish and chips ever.

It's possible that Homeslice in Austin doesn't make the best pizza in the world or that Riscky's in Fort Worth do the best ribs - but because I associate them with holidays, they'll always get 5 stars from me.

Copper Top is in the holiday resort of Big Pines.

4. Don't have your restaurant somewhere it rains. It's the holiday effect again. Rain makes us miserable. It's why there's fewer 5 star restaurants on the East Coast than the West. Chicago and New York both have world class restaurants, but the rain can wash away the occasional star, and that affects your averages. If you're thinking of opening a restaurant in Manchester, I simply say "don't".

Copper Top is, of course, in California.

So is all this advice true here in the UK? Well, here's the same top 100 list. (Relatively) warm and dry London dominates (just one restaurant in Manchester), as does simple comfort food. Number one is curry house Dishoom, and number two is a well regarded greasy spoon in Westminster. There's also pizza, two burger bars and a juice bar in the top 10 alone.

Need I say more?

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Meri Kurisumasu! Celebrating Christmas in Japan ...

We recently had the delightful Maho stay with us -  a 17yr old from Japan through our daughter's school exchange program - and we thought we'd introduce her to the rituals and routines of an English Christmas.

So picture our surprise to discover that, although barely 1% of Japan's population is Christian, Maho was all clued up on Christmas. Oh yes, she decorated trees, put up fairy lights, ate chicken and loved Christmas cake. Christmas was big in Japan.

Hang on. Ate chicken?

Christmas Dinner, KFC Style
After a bit of research, it appears that the Japanese throw themselves into the festivity as eagerly as any Westerner - but it's the differences that are fascinating.

Shorn of any real religious meaning (apparently, among the younger generations, there's a little confusion as to whose birthday it is - Jesus? Santa?) - Christmas in Japan is undiluted commercialism. 

Mix in a little bit of Valentine's and its becomes the 'how much can you spend on your girlfriend?' festival, and woe betide any man who doesn't spend enough.

Like any good festival, Christmas in Japan also comes with 'special foods', and it appears that, yet again, the American fast food corporations have pulled a fast one. We're all aware how the classic Santa - white beard, red and white clothes, weight issues - is an invention of Coca-cola; well in Japan, it was an opportunity for KFC to get into the Christmas re-appropriation act.

Okay, I kinda see it. The logo is also red and white. Colonel Saunders has a white beard. Chicken is a bit like turkey (a rarity in Japan anyway). KFC definitely saw it, and didn't hesitate to run with it either, with a long series of campaigns telling the Japanese that the rest of world ate KFC on Christmas day - and so should they. Order your Christmas buckets here!

Christmas Cake!
And of course, there's also Christmas cake. More even than KFC, this is the one to cause cultural cross-confusion, especially between travellers to and from the West.

 The US has no tradition of Christmas cake, and are mystified when told that it's an essential part of Christmas by the Japanese.

The English think they understand - but our traditional heavy iced fruit cake is completely alien in the East. A Japanese Christmas cake is a light and fluffy creation of sponge, cream and strawberries.

All I can think of is that the red and white evokes Christmas.

We're sticking with our routines this year - no KFC bucket, no sponge cakes (but probably just as many expensive gifts from Santa-san). But we wish Maho - and everyone else - a Meri Kurisumasu!


Saturday, 24 October 2015

Tacos vs Burgers and other Austin Adventures

Mmm. Tacos.
I caught a headline recently that the taco is about to overtake the burgers as America's favourite fast food.

Can this be true?

Austin seemed the perfect place to investigate. After all, Texas is the home of all-American beef - and also shares a 1,241 mile border with Mexico, spiritual home of the taco.

Burgers and tacos sit cheek by jowl in the trendy food areas of Soco, South 1st and South Lamar - and given we had a month ahead of us in our off-Soco house, we thought we'd investigate further (the things we do for you!).

Now, tacos haven't really hit the UK yet. There are nearly 6,000 branches of the ubiquitous Taco Bell in the US, yet just 4 here. You'd be hard pushed to find one at all outside of the trendy Hoxton/Shoreditch triangle. If I were a betting man, I'd say these could be the next big thing.

Mmm. More Tacos.
In Austin, they're already big news, and none bigger than Torchy's - a rags to riches, trailer to mini-chain story that spans just 10 years. As I speak, they should soon be opening their latest store right on Soco. They seemed the perfect place to taste test the taco, and oh boy, if all tacos were like this they deserve to win.

Between us we had a 'Republican' (jalapeno sausage), a shrimp, a fajita and the most awesome green chili queso. It was everything you'd hope for from Mexican food - bright, zingy flavours, just the right amounts of heat, crunch and chewiness. Flavour explosions and all those other food review cliches.

By comparison, we went to the bright star of Soco burgers and marveled at the seven mile queue for Hopdoddy's. There's always a queue, regardless of the hour - even in the 100F heat of Austin's summer.

In the UK we'd call this a gourmet burger, with all the toppings you might expect - feta cheese, smoked cheddar, field mushrooms, brie, truffle aioli, fritos, sprouts - combined with beef, bison, turkey or tuna - to make fourteen(ish) different burgers such as 'Greek', 'Buffalo Bill' and 'El Diablo'.

Indifferent picture of an indifferent burger.
If you've been to Byrons, GBK or one of the other countless up-market UK burger chains, you'd know what to expect - but this concept is still quite new in the US, which I guess explains the popularity.

Well, of course, I had to be awkward and order a 'Classic' (a simple bacon cheese) - and here's the problem. It wasn't very good. If I'd queued for an afternoon in the heat I would have been seriously upset.

Maybe if I'd slathered it in goats cheese and six different varieties of hand-picked lettuce, I might not have noticed. But simplified down - by their standards - it exposed that under it all was simply an indifferent burger. And I don't think that's just me being picky - Serious Eats weren't impressed either. And I'm sorry, I think they purposefully over complicate their ordering system to ensure there's always an epic queue.

So at this stage, the taco's definitely winning - but it's never that simple. Next stop, Wahoo's Fish Tacos, also on Soco. Where it was surprisingly difficult to actually find the eponymous taco on their menu - snuck down at the bottom, and made with the same degree of indifference. It was basic, bland and unimpressive.

Wholly Cow!
Then it was time for the burger to redeem itself. Wholly Cow on South Lamar was quite simply one of the best burgers I've ever had in the US. This part convenience store, part burger joint was doing simple, tasty, meaty burgers. No goats cheese and arugula nonsense here - just good burgers, clean and simple. And no queue round the block either!

So what's my conclusion? There's no doubt that Tacos are on the ascendancy - but there's always going to be room a simple, delicious, classic burger. I also give an honourable mention to Caminos on 6th - the location and the 'Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives' hype had made me a little nervous, but the burgers were up there in the top five. And also to Guero's on Soco. It's not the best Mexican in Austin, but they do a tacos el pastor that's to die for.

Austin, thank you for a great month! See ya'll again soon.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

I Love Lucy's

Well, we definitely didn't drive to dinner last night - although I never cease to be surprised how draining even a 15 minute walk can be in Austin's summer heat.

If you're an Austinite, you'll probably already know that Lucy's is the fried chicken spin off of local upscale eatery Oliva. If you're a tourist like me, you simply spotted it on the way to buy milk at the local HEB and thought it looked good. Either way, it's definitely worth the walk from central SoCo, no matter how warm the evening.

Lucy's seem to like frying stuff. Livers, gizzards, tomatoes, oysters - even meatloaf - all get popped in the deep fat fryer. This isn't a bad thing. Nor are the deep fried devilled eggs we had for a starter. Sorry, appetizer.

At long last we're getting the hang of eating out in America. Back home, we're used to eating out being the main activity of our evening - yet here, we've found ourselves walking out of even upmarket restaurants less than an hour after we entered them thinking "err, what now?".

[Devilled Eggs - Deep Fried]
If you haven't eaten in the US, the speed at which restaurants operate at can come as a surprise.

The nightmare scenario for a waiter is that there might be a moment in the evening when there is no food on the table.

This must be avoided at all costs, as if their tips get reduced by a dollar for every minute of food free table.

Entrees (main courses) always arrive as the last mouthfuls of starter are swallowed (if not earlier). Desert orders are taken halfway through the mains to ensure they arrive the very second the knife and fork are put down.

[All The Good Stuff]
We've tried explaining to waiters we're in no rush. We've even learned that the term for how us awkward Europeans do things is called 'eating coursed out'. But it doesn't work. Waiters hover saying "do you want your mains now?" every fifteen seconds. Food arrives, goes back, comes out again. You can sense a feeling of rising panic.

So at Lucy's we kept things calm by simply not telling them what we wanted.

[Pink but Powerful]
First we had a watermelon margarita (yum, far too easy to drink in quantity) while we read the menu. Slowly.

Then we ordered the devilled eggs, but wouldn't be drawn on whether we wanted anything else. (The eggs, by the way, are delicious).

For mains - when we did, eventually, order them - we went all-American. A basket of chicken pieces, corn bread, bowls of mac cheese and sweet potato. The waitress suggested putting honey (in little sauce sachets) on the chicken, and there's no doubt I'll be trying that at home.

A great meal, and we will absolutely be back. I need my meatloaf and gizzards.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Our top 5 US eating out experiences

Well, it's nearly time for our annual American adventure, so it seemed like a good time to look back at some of our top USA family food experiences. These aren't restaurant reviews - I'll leave that to the professionals - but our favourite examples of how fun, and downright foreign, food can be in the States. So, in no particular order ...

Kentucky Fried Chicken, somewhere in Massachusetts

[Chicken Livers? Pot pie?]
It was our first trip to America. It was dark and it was late. We were hungry. We were still shaking after the experience that was Boston's rush hour. We needed comfort food, and we spied a family favourite - KFC. A Zinger and chips would make everything good again.

As soon as we walked in, we knew something was wrong. This wasn't the KFC we knew from England. We expected to ask for fries, not chips, but this went deeper. Wedges? Mash? Green beans? "Comes with 2 sides and a biscuit". A biscuit? What in the name of God is going on here? Why are they giving me scones with my chicken?

I don't remember what we ate, but I know we ate in silence and got straight back on the road. Mash? Wedges? SCONES? 

Riscky's Barbeque, Fort Worth Stockyards

Look, I know it's for the tourists, but this place has a warm spot in the hearts of our family. It's the first meal we have each year after arriving in Fort Worth after our long transatlantic flight, and we look forward to this headlong plunge into Americana - stuffed animals nailed to walls, neon lights, witty signs promising to shoot trespassers - full-on BBQ themed chic.

And then there's the food - before the Hoxton American restaurant invasion, I'd never seen a beef rib before, let alone been offered as many as I could eat! And what exotic sides - home style fries, polish pickles and texas toast (I had to Google this - apparently it's double width bread that's too wide to fit in a toaster. Instead it tends to come fried. Go figure).

It's full-on comfort food - combine that with ultra-friendly waiting staff, and a huge Lone star beer, and we definitely feel welcomed to America.

House of Prime Rib, San Francisco

[Just like this in the UK, really]
Now, I've never actually eaten here, but my wife has, and it's definitely an experience. On the web-site it says "Old-school, English-style restaurant serving acclaimed prime rib & martinis since the 1940s" - and it's the English-style that tickles us. Trust me, San Francisco, there's nothing like this in England. 

Waiters in white linen and three foot tall chef hats push around giant domed trolleys containing huge rib roasts. Would you like it 'English-style' or the Henry VIII style? Would you like creamed spinach with that? Or would you like a half hour demonstration on how they convert a lettuce into an 'appetising' tossed salad? But there's yorkshire pudding, so it must be English.

If you come to England, don't go to a Beafeater. After this you'll be seriously disappointed.

(Thanks to John Pastor for the image)

Home Slice, Austin

I've waxed lyrical about this place before, and I will again. It's not just that they're the best pizzas in world (ah, hyperbole), it's the whole package.

Mexican chefs twirling pizza dough above their heads. Dark, cool decor and a hip crowd being served by gorgeous tattooed waiters. 'In Crust we Trust'. And trust me, I'll be eating there in a just a couple weeks.

The Old Country Store, Lorman, MS

Now, I can't claim to be an expert on fried chicken (although I've had fun cooking it), but many claim this place does the best damn fried chicken in the whole of Mississippi. Whether you agree or not, you can't fault it in terms of experience - and that's all down to the owner, Arthur Davies ('Mr D').

Mr D loves his customers (he spoke to every one of us), and he loves his chicken. In fact, he loves it so much, he just can't help but sing about it, in a delightful gospel baritone. Over to you, Mr D!