Saturday, 28 June 2014

The Best Hyperbole I've Ever Had! 5 Stars!

[Brown food in Tucson, AZ]
My 11yr old daughter has the enthusiasm that comes with youth - every time we go to the cinema, it's the best movie ever. As it is with young children, so I think it is with young nations - especially in the Southwest USA, where some communities are hardly a hundred years old. Americans, I'm discovering, have a tendency to hyperbole, driven by their enthusiasm and genuine desire for everything to be the best.

As a more restrained Englishman, I've come a cropper because of this more than once. I'd read a review on Tripadvisor and think myself so lucky - by some amazing coincidence this tiny backwater town has a diner that creates the best cheeseburgers in the whole of the USA! So off I'd go to some slightly tired back street diner and eat a cheeseburger that was probably not even the best in Fleabite, Arizona, let alone America.

Digging further in the Tripadvisor reviews, I would start to see a pattern. The diner gets a 4.2, not because of some consensus, but because it's had eight 5/5 reviews and two 1/5 reviews. The reviews are polar - it's either the BEST or the WORST - and often it's the worst because of some error in the service ("the fork was filthy!"). Bad service, in the US, is a much worse crime than poor food.

[Red brown food in Santa Fe, NM]
Of course, I discovered this the hard way a couple years ago, as I drove along the Mexican border in search of the BEST Mexican restaurant, buoyed along on wave of Tripadvisor hyperbole.

Now, I have a soft spot for Mexican food. It was the first 'exotic' cuisine I tried with my wife-to-be, when we starting dating nearly 20 years ago - we felt so sophisticated (and slightly superior) because we knew what to do with a fajita.

We didn't just eat the meat directly from the sizzle pan, treating the tortilla like a side bread. We didn't spread out the meat across the tortilla, pizza style, then eat it with a knife and fork. No, we knew how to create wraps, we knew when to add the white stuff, the green stuff and the red stuff. We knew how to roll it up. We were worldly. We were cosmopolitan. We were gourmands. It was heady stuff.

I still love my Mexican food, and will take any excuse to visit Wahaca in London. I'm hooked on their bright salads, sharp flavours, simple tapas-like dishes and street food inspired plates. No yellow rice, refried beans or deep fried, cheese covered tortillas here.

[Yellow brown food in Barstow, CA]
So I have to admit that American Mexican food surprised me. It was like stepping back twenty years, but not in a good way. The meals were relentlessly brown - huge portions of rice and beans, cheese covering everything, muddy flavours. Cholesterol and carbohydrates overloads. I guess this is 'Tex-Mex' - apparently influenced by the Sonoran cuisine of Northern Mexico. It's firmly in the comfort food category, and certainly beloved by many a Tripadvisor reviewer - but I hate to say it, I was disappointed. I'd had more authentic Mexican food in London.

I guess it's little different from the 'Chinese' or 'Indian' food that can be found on any British high street. Stuck in a culinary straightjacket, serving up the dishes that everyone expects - sweet and sour pork balls, chicken korma - dishes that are essentially British, with little connection to the cuisines they were inspired by. I felt the same was true of the many Mexican restaurants I visited.

[Brown food in Mesquite, TX]
So what have I learned? That Tripadvisor is popularist, good at promoting unchallenging local favourites and certainly shouldn't be taken as the only source of restaurant recommendations. I've learned to search wider, follow blogs written by people with similar tastes to myself, to ask questions in forums like Chowhound. I've learned that good Mexican food is hard to find, just like innovative Indian or Chinese food is hard to find on a UK high street.

Oh and I've also learned that you can feed a family of three with a single Tex-Mex meal. You'll never leave hungry!

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

At what temperature does an Englishman spontaneously combust? (or, how far will I walk for a Mexican?)

[Mi Rancho Restaurant, Yuma, Arizona]
It's summer here in England and, of course, it's raining.

We English aren't used to the sun. When it hits 24° (that's 75 to our American readers), the whole country melts to a sticky halt. Our trains stop running (wrong type of sun), and the M25 turns to liquid.

Worst of all, normally reserved Englishmen are found wearing shorts, and turning from blotchy white to flakey red with none of that tanned brown nonsense in between. Sometimes, even I have been known to take my jacket off. Luckily for us, those scorching temperatures are rare here.

So nothing prepared me for the wall of heat that is Yuma, Arizona, not even stifling Dallas in the summer. There are many ways of defining 'hottest' in America, yet all these lists seem to include Yuma. This is a place where it's been 51° (124) in the shade. That's halfway to boiling, people.

I remember stepping out of the car at the motel and worrying that the moisture in my eyeballs would evaporate and make them pop. The heat took my breath away. Just carrying my suitcase to the room made me sick and dizzy. I lay there, hugging the air conditioning unit, gulping cold beer in an attempt to lower my core temperature. But the beer made me hungry, and I knew, at some point, I would have to go outside again.

[Dinner - with cold beer]
Google said there was a Mexican restaurant on the same block, and Tripadvisor told me it was the "Best Mexican Food in Yuma!", which to be honest told me very little. It also said it was "Mexican like your mother cooks", which means, for me, that it will come with mashed potato and carrots (there will, I promise, be a rant about Tripadvisor very soon).

So I did the maths - it's just 387 feet from the Arizona Inn to the Mi Rancho restaurant. Google says I can walk it in just one minute. In that heat, one minute is possibly 57 seconds too long. But hunger can make you do strange things, so one more medicinal beer later, I head out.

The heat is intense, oppressive. It's like I'm sucking the air out of our tumble drier. I stumble into the restaurant, hoarsely cry 'one Pacifico please' and collapse in my seat directly under the air conditioning vent.

I remember very little of the meal itself. I was obviously still shaking from heat exhaustion when I took my picture, as it's a bit fuzzy. My diary says:

"I had a tasty and authentic (?) Mexican meal. I question 'authentic' - apparently what I'm eating is 'Sonoran'. It's not Tex-Mex, they keep telling me, it's northern Mexican cuisine. Well, I'm struggling to spot the difference. Yellow rice, brown bean sludge, pile of brown stuff ... seems pretty generic Tex-Mex to me"

I think the heat had put me in bad mood that day.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Steak and Honour - the burger van, all grown up!

[Steak and Honour]
England's never had a great tradition of 'street food'. There's the kebab and burger vans, arriving in a town centre near you at closing time, there to satisfy the needs of the late night drinker. There's the jellied eels and cockles and mussels of the East End markets, valiantly serving an aging customer base.

The street corner vendors of burnt chestnuts seem to have disappeared from the streets of London, those open braziers rightly considered a health and safety nightmare.

But in recent years we've seen the arrival of the 'food truck', a concept I first encountered in Austin. This is food from a van without the risk of botulism. This is food without fear. In fact, this is food to be actively sought out.

[Food Trucks in SoCo, Austin]
In Austin's so-cool SoCo district, there's a little stretch of waste ground opposite a row of hip restaurants that's populated by 'food trucks' - I fondly remember the 'Mighty Cone', although I'm sure there's quite a turnover and it may not still be there (note to self - go check in a couple weeks!).

I don't imagine Austin invented the 'gourmet' food truck, but certainly the SXSW festival helped popularise them, as they formed part of the mobile catering army that sprang up to feed the masses that turn up each year.

The low urban density of most American cities means many have waste ground in the middle of quite desirable areas, and for that reason, food trucks make sense there. It's a low cost route to restaurant ownership, the good weather in cities such as Austin favours outside dining, and it fits in with America's love of fast, informal dining.

[A Steak and Honour Burger]
Well, of course, it's now found its way across the atlantic, with London leading the way. What starts in Dalston comes first to the South Bank, and of course now it's in the provinces. Today we went for lunch at foodPark, Cambridge's collective of street food vendors, at their site in the new CB1 development at Cambridge station - and ate at the much talked about Steak and Honour.

I've been hearing rumours about this place for a while - like a 90's rave, it would pop-up at mysterious locations only known to the dedicated Cambridge burger fans. Or, of course, you could just follow their twitter feed (@steakandhonour). Well, it was a delicious burger, happy to proclaim that the beef was local and that the buns were brioche - I don't think the burger vans of my youth would ever have admitted their sources. Welcome to Cambridge, food trucks! The burger van has definitely come of age.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Possibly the best burger ever? I love father's day!

[I ate this awesome burger!]
Oh my, I think I am actually high on burger. I'm suffering a burger induced euphoria. Burger rapture, perhaps. I've just eaten a burger so good my daughter cried when she realised she just one mouthful left.

It's father's day today, and my wife and daughter decided to give me a treat that I'm not entirely sure I'm a good enough father or husband to deserve. The ultimate burger. Burger perfection. Burger nirvana. Did you notice I enjoyed my lunch?

We've been researching the ideal burger for some time here, and today all those elements came together in the perfect burger storm. So, where do I start describing our journey to burger heaven? I guess it all started with this article and accompanying recipe from the The Food Lab at Serious Eats, with just a few adaptations of our own.

[Gog magog burgers]
First - the burger. There's no end of debate out there on the perfect meat (and fat ratios) for the perfect burger.

In the end, they chose to go with Hawksmoor's mixture of rib eye steak and bone marrow, and grinding it at home, but hit a brick wall early on - no bone marrow available anywhere in Cambridge.

Luckily, those wonderful butchers at Gog Magog stepped in - yes, they had no bone marrow, but only because they'd been using it in their own award winning burgers. We'll have three of those please!

[Hawksmoor Buns]
Second - the bun. Although consensus is hard to come by (as with all things burger, the debates are endless), we've always favoured the brioche burger bun. Alas, Tesco let us down by being out of stock, but again, it was Hawksmoor that came to the rescue. Their recipe can trace its roots back to a chinese bakery and has custard powder as the 'secret' ingredient. And let's just say, these buns were second to none. Firm, a good crumb, not too sweet, there was no chance of soggy bap (shudder) or burger collapse.

[Bacon Weave]
Third - the weave. Oh yes, this is straight from The Food Lab - the bacon weave. Those could now be my two favourite words in the English language. Bacon weave. Oh yes.

A handful of crinkle cut chips on the side, a pickle, a little salad and a glass of Adnam's Best Bitter combined to make the best burger lunch I think I've ever had. Happy Father's day from a seriously happy father!

Perfect Burger Links

Bacon weaving
Burger meat blends
Metro try the Hawksmoor burger recipe
Crump Eats tries both the Hawksmoor burger and buns
Gog Magog Hills Deli

How far will I walk ... for a cheeseburger?

[Porter's Cheeseburger, Image from Zagat]
In my last post I described my idyllic two hour stroll through Santa Monica in search of a particular glass of wine. So why am I thinking twice about a 45 minute stroll in search of a cheeseburger (and back)?

Well, the problem is that this walk is in Texas. As I've already discovered, the Texans are suspicious of walking. Maybe it's the ridiculous summer heat that can drain you of the will to live in just minutes. Maybe it's the huge open spaces and roads that can stretch to the horizons that don't really invite you to stroll. Maybe it's because cities like Dallas and Houston simply weren't designed with pedestrians in mind. Maybe it's because, if God had wanted us to get places under our steam, he would have given us wheels.

What ever it is, you simply don't walk in Texas.

Now that's not to say that the large Texan cities don't have lovely areas for an evening's constitutional walk. Fort Worth's Stockyards, and Austin's SoCo areas leap to mind, and I'll be staying in both this year. I've also heard wonderful things about San Antonio's river walk.

However, you don't stray outside of these clearly demarked pedestrian areas. When first in Fort Worth, local friends were horrified to hear we'd walked to (the wonderful) Joe T Garcia's, just one block away from the Stockyards. But it was quite literally on the other side of the tracks - and I never cease to be surprised how quickly the atmosphere can change in an American city. One minute I'm being sold $500 custom made cowboy boots, the next it's all pawn shops and bail bonds, and there's not a person on the street any more. "I wish you'd told us", they said, "we would have come pick you up".

So this year, I'm looking at Porter, Austin. In particular, I can't take my eyes off a certain cheeseburger. The Porter burger. The menu says "triple cream brie, crispy pancetta, kettle chips, crispy fries ...". Zagat says it's one of the 15 most 'splurge worthy' burgers in America. says it's one of the most buzzed about burgers in the US. I say 'a burger with crisps and brie in it, oh yeah'.

Read the reviews I've linked to at the bottom to see why I need this burger, and why I'm prepared to risk life and limb to taste it. Porter is also an ale house with a vast range of draft beers, so driving is a complete no-no. But I've never walked further than the Magnolia Cafe on South Congress before, and it's a long way down SoCo or First from the Austin Motel. Maybe I need to explore the buses ...

More on the Porter Burger ...

The menu at Porter, Austin
Zagat - 15 Spurge Worth Burgers Across America - The 19 Hottest Burgers in the US Right Now

Friday, 13 June 2014

How far will I walk ... for a glass of wine?

[Pleiades, Milo and Olive, Santa Monica]
If I don't drive to dinner, that sometimes means a dilemma. How far am I prepared to walk?

A couple of years ago I had a pleasant hours walk (and back) for a glass of wine - and this year I'm thinking of a 45 minute walk for a cheeseburger. On one hand, this is no run-of-the-mill burger, but on the other, this is a long walk in an area I'm not at all sure of. But first, let me tell you about the wine ...

A Texan friend of mine introduced me to the wines of Sean Thackrey, and I was smitten - not just with the wine, but with whole story behind this eccentric wine maker. Watch this Youtube video about what happened when Oz and James met him for their TV show about American wine to see what I mean.

So I was determined to try some when I was in California, but I didn't want to stump up for a whole bottle. Drinking expensive wine alone in a cheap motel room, well, I'm not there quite yet.

[Oh and wine came with pizza too!]
So, through the magic of Google I found Milo and Olive, a neighbourhood pizzeria on Wilshire Blvd that served it by the glass (I do note they no longer do, but I would still recommend a visit).

Although it was an hour from my motel near the beach, I fondly remember my stroll along Third Street (and the beach on the way home), a balmy evening with a lovely sea breeze. I also remember getting lost on a corner of a buzzy communal table, and the waitress continually topping my glass by way of apology for (in her eyes) the poor service. Given I'd come for the wine, I cared not one jot!

So sometimes it pays not to drive - I had a lovely walk and I certainly wouldn't have been safe to drive afterwards anyway. But that's enough rambling about wine, I hear you cry - tell us about the burger. Why the internal debate about a 45 minute walk? Well, the problem is, this is in Texas, not California, and the Texans have a completely different attitude to walking ... I'll explain all in my next post ...

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Making Plans for BBQ (pt2) - How much BBQ can a man eat?

[Louie Mueller - Wikipedia]
Well, it's Tuesday, so it must be roadtrip planning day! (although I'm writing this in the pub and will probably wait until tomorrow until I actually post this, so I can scan for beer induced hyperbole with a clear head).

What I'm trying to work out is how to fit five BBQ joints into three days. I think I have no choice but to eat three lunches in one day - although I will be in good company if I do. But more of that later.

The first day is easy - off to Louie Mueller's in Taylor. Everything I read points here - hell, even Wikipedia seems to be telling me I should go. Man Up Texas BBQ gave it a near clean sweep. Even the NY Times says to go. Enough already, it's my first stop!

The problems start the next day. The problem is Lockhart. The problem is that it contains possibly the three best barbecue restaurants in Texas. And my itinerary doesn't really allow me two visits. So it looks like I simply have no choice, I shall I have to eat in all three. Now, I won't be the first to do this. Simon Majumdar managed it in Eat My Globe. Michael Park at Epicurious managed it. The guys at Destination Eats managed it.  As long as I don't get too tempted by breakfast in the Magnolia Cafe before I set off (hard, but not impossible), I reckon I could manage it too. Follow me on Twitter (@tjewell) on the 22nd July (or read this blog the following day), and let's see how I do. Providing my podgy fingers can still hit the keys ...

So how did this pretty pickle happen? Well, Zagat have a 'handy' infographic to explain the connections between the restaurants - there's intrigue, in-fighting and a dynasty to compare with the Borgias here. As far as I can tell, a family feud in the Schmidt family caused the Kreuz Market to move to a new location, while the old restaurant became Smitty's. Quite where Blacks fits into this I'm not sure - the beer is starting to make the lines in Zagat's infographic move of their own accord. And I'm turning a blind eye to newcomer the Chisolm Trail BBQ (so hip, it has no website) that some are saying eclipses them all. No, no one can eat four lunches. Surely?

The final day in Austin, and it's off on a drive through Hill Country with a stop off at Cooper's BBQ in Llano for lunch. Just one barbecue that day (I don't want to fall asleep behind the wheel), and then I'm moving south to San Antonio - and next week I'll tell you more about that!

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Getting a taste for New Orleans - The Lockhart, London, W1

[Shrimp and Grits]
Many years ago I honeymooned in Marrakech, and on the first night we went to one of city's top restaurants. Their speciality was a nouvelle cuisine take on Moroccan street food - but as this was our first meal of the holiday, we'd yet to experience any. So it was an experience with a hole at it's core, like a clever jazz reworking of a tune you're not familiar with.

Only as the week went on did we sample the fare that was the inspiration for their dishes - and we left wishing we had left that meal to last, when we now understood the riffs upon which their improvisations were based.

I was worried that Lockhart might be same - a top end, New Orleans inspired London restaurant with great reviews; would our lack of experience with Creole cooking hamper our experience? Now, this is just our personal experience, not a serious review - I've put the reviews that inspired us to go at the end if you'd like to know more.

I thought that I would stick solidly Southern - catfish followed by shrimp-and-grits. The catfish was coated in crispy polenta and perfectly cooked, served with a tartar sauce surprisingly flavoured with mustard, and my wife had the intriguingly named 'chicken oysters' - again with a mustard sauce. Both quite delicious - although served in smaller portions than we'll ever see in the US (not a criticism - more just voicing my worries about how much weight we'll put on this year).

[Fried Chicken]
I will have to admit I was nervous about the grits. Grits are one of those quintessential American foods that you don't ever see in England - unlike the burger or the hot dog, it's stayed firmly on US soil. I'd catch references ("kiss my grits!") without knowing what it was - and the name doesn't conjure up wholly positive images.

My first taste was in Lamberts in Austin (oh, the breakast buffet ...), where it could best be described as savoury porridge with just a little too much pepper. I wasn't convinced. Nor was I entirely sure about the grits at the otherwise delicious Cafe Anchua in Vicksburg, where yet again it was just that little too close to porridge for my English tastes. Now, there's nothing wrong with porridge, in my book, but it's a breakfast dish, best served with cream and sugar, not salt and pepper.

The grits at Lockhart, however, were sublime. Intensely cheesy, it reminded me much more of a good polenta (and I guess, deep down, they're closely related), with a delicate lemony broth, plus little bits of bacon and spring onion (and shrimps too, of course), it was astonishing, revelationary. I see grits in a whole new light now.

[Free Doughnuts!]
I can't fault the rest of the meal either - the fresh corn bread was superb (if possibly a little sweet for my tastes, although that didn't stop me eating it). My wife loved her fried chicken (although it didn't come with a song - more on that later!).

And, because it was national doughnut day, we had two surprisingly light little balls of deep-fried loveliness - one elderflower, one lemon curd.

All in all, an outstanding meal, and one that gets me salivating for the treats to come this year in the US. However, my only worry is that we've already had our best New Orleans meal, and we haven't even got there yet.

Reviews of Lockhart from my favourite blogs

Eat Like a Girl
The Skinny Bib
Samphire and Salsify
The Food Judge
Worth Getting Fat On

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Making plans for BBQ (pt1)

[Saltlick BBQ, Texas]
It's Tuesday night, and yet again I'm in the Flying Pig pub on Hills Road, here in damp and drizzly Cambridge, with my laptop and a pint of beer.

I'm lucky enough to have a month to spend in the US every year, and each Tuesday, for the 11 months before, is research night. This year is more complicated than most - a few days in Fort Worth with my daughter, a week on my own in Texas, two weeks with my wife in New Orleans and a week's road trip for the three of us at the end. But tonight, I'm researching BBQ.

My plan is to spend my week exploring Texas - and of course, eating the quintessential Texan food - barbecue. Half food, half religion, it's something the Texans take very seriously and have very firm ideas as to what makes the best. We're talking brisket. We're not talking sauce. And I am going to try as much as I possibly can in my week away.

So what's the plan? After a quick Riscky's fix in Fort Worth, I'm bombing down the I-35 to Austin. Now, the I-35 isn't the world's most exciting road, but it gives me a buzz.  I-35 is part of the Pan American Highway that stretches from Alaska to the tip of Argentina. With enough time, you could cross two entire continents on this road - but that's a road trip for another day. This time I shall simply stop off in West for kolaches (Czech baked goodness).

[Home Slice Pizza, SoCo, Austin]
I'll be staying at the Austin Motel in ever so hip South Congress (so I don't have to drive to dinner, natch), so it'll be hard to ignore Home Slice. I love Home Slice. I miss Home Slice.

But enough of this pizza nonsense, where's the barbecue? Well, the pilgrimage starts the next lunchtime in Taylor, home of what is arguably the best barbecue in Texas.

And, tease that I am, I'll tell more in my next post!

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Driving to dinner

Margarita at H3, Forth Worth
So I'm sure my many readers (hi Mum!) have been wondering about the name of my blog. It stems from a simple desire - to be able to walk from my hotel to dinner and back again. This isn't some socio-political stance, I'm not some sandal wearing, card carrying member of an anti-car lobby group. It's simply because I like a drink (or two) with my dinner, and it's safer for everyone concerned if I walk home afterwards.

I guess it's not something I'd thought about before I visited America. When I travel around the UK and Europe, I'll get myself a hotel near the city centre so I can go for a walk before dinner, maybe try a few pubs, then eat with a few glasses of wine. How European! How naive to think it would be that simple in the USA ...

The first year we went to Texas, we stayed in Allen, on the north-east of Dallas, because it was convenient for Summer Camp the next day. I'd already checked out the Hampton Inn on Google maps and seen there was a nearby shopping mall with a choice of restaurants - perfect!

So after a day's travelling and a terrifying drive through Dallas (oh my god, the flyovers over flyovers over flyovers), we arrived in need of a very large and cold and alcoholic drink (something, surprisingly, the hotel couldn't sell us). No problem, there's restaurants just across the road, says I, and we set off into the oppressive heat of Texas in mid-July.

The first challenge is that the pavement (sorry, sidewalk) ends at the boundary of the hotel's land, so we're now walking, single file, along the edge of the access road. The second challenge is considerably greater. The road that the restaurants are 'just across' is, of course, US-75, The North Central Expressway into Dallas. Between us and the restaurants is the Dallas equivalent of the M25. And no, it doesn't have a pelican crossing.

A little further down there's a road tunnel under the 75 - still not exactly pedestrian friendly, but certainly safer than playing a game of Frogger with my family's life across the speeding expressway. We negotiate another access road, and cross acres of deserted parking lots before arriving, hot, sweaty and very much in need of a drink at the restaurant. Of course, at the end of the night, we had to do the process in reverse - and this time with added difficulty of a lack of street lighting too.

So this was our baptism of fire - our introduction to American car culture and the fact that in Texas certainly no one thinks twice about driving to dinner. Also, the start of my stubborn desire to continue my English traditions - to have take my evening constitutional before dinner, to explore a town and soak up some atmosphere before I eat there. Often this has meant compromises - either less than perfect accommodation or restaurants because of my perverse desire to walk. Sometimes it's meant long and slightly scary walks. It's meant nights in deserted, ghostly downtowns because I refuse to use the chain hotels just off the interstate. It's almost always resulted in bemusement - and occasional looks of horror - when I tell my fellow diners I walked here.

And I promise you, it's going to result in a number of rants on this blog very soon.