Category Archives: Food

Smoky Days

You can still smell cigar smoke walking down Seventh Avenue. More than a century after its heyday as the cigar-manufacturing capital of America, men—and women—lounge about Ybor City’s sidewalk cafes and enjoy a break from the Florida sun by puffing on a cigar. It’s a long-practiced, ideal way to wait out the afternoon humidity because the sunset hours are always the best in Florida, so why tire out beforehand? Just sit, relax, smoke slowly, and wait for that perfect part of the day to come because it always does.

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During my recent girlfriend getaway in Del Boca Vista country, we made the time to schlep an hour on the highway to stroll Ybor City and experience one of Florida’s oldest dining institutions, Columbia Restaurant, where the key lime pie is sweet and glossy like fresh lipstick.

Before our dinner reservation, we had time to meander into Ybor’s many vintage and consignment shops, and what’s a girls’ weekend without a little shopping? My favorite was the addictive La France, a place described by its owner as being “like a museum without a cover charge.” La France had the enthusiasm of a gay pride parade with the diligence of a carefully curated exhibit. We were in there a while. Feather boas lined up by color, beaded flapper gowns, diaphanous hats that would send sunbeams ricocheting, hairbands with beaded skulls, necklaces with beaded skulls, earrings and bracelets with beaded skulls. (Did I mention the beaded skulls? A touch of Mexicana in Tampa, apparently.) Floridians, like Southern Californians, don’t shy away from color. Forget urban black and embrace the magentas, corals, ambers and periwinkles! I found Tampa’s vintage shopping more interesting than New York’s, not just because New York’s may feel too familiar by now, but because Tampa didn’t seem to be trying so hard. These shops screamed “we love color and old stuff, so check us out!” and that was that.

At one vintage shop, a chain called Revolve, there, hanging on the wall behind the cashier, I spotted a green, floral-printed Old Navy dress I used to own around 1999-2000. I had purchased my dress in Seattle, had worn it to London (there’s a photo of me wearing it, standing in front of the London Eye in August 2000, shortly after I got engaged), and likely gave it to the Salvation Army sometime when I lived in Washington, DC, and became pregnant in 2003. I’m sure it wasn’t the same dress, though size-wise it looked like a match, and secretly, I wanted it to be my dress still traveling without me.

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But that’s new Ybor. What about old Ybor? The original Ybor? Like many American port towns, Ybor has a “those-were-the-days” story, when this Tampa neighborhood was a thriving immigrant community, and, like the old whaling town of Hudson, New York, a planned community built around a single industry, cigar manufacturing. Ybor’s golden age began as the 19th century was winding down and the 20th century was gearing up, the spin-off years after the Industrial Revolution when Cubans, Spaniards, Italians, Romanian Jews, Germans and Chinese flocked to the area to make something of themselves. In 1869, Vicente Martinez Ybor, a Spaniard in the cigar-making trade, decided to move operations from Key West to Tampa, where there was an active port and a new railroad line, ample opportunity to move boxes of fresh cigars around. Industry always leads to indulgence, and bars, restaurants, theaters and dance halls sprouted up as business boomed. Folks rolled cigars during the day and then puffed and partied at night. It had to have been downright dreamy.

I’m part German, and I had a hard time imagining my fair-skinned ancestors coming from a place of mountains and snow and adapting to Tampa’s climate, but history says they were business leaders there, supervising cigar factories and working as managers and accountants, no doubt bringing their quintessential German efficiency to the task at hand. The Germans arrived to Ybor in the 1890s, and by the 1930s, the Great Depression had knocked the wind out of Ybor’s sails, and like everywhere else in America, things dried up. Difficult decades followed, and then folks started realizing the faded potential of Ybor’s old brick buildings, that one of the state’s best restaurants was just down the street, and that if things could be dusted off a bit, business could boom once again. That’s when places like La France began to bloom.

Walking Seventh Avenue in Ybor City now you hear roosters crowing—just as you do in Key West—though the street is quiet during the heat of the day and not as busy as it appears in the sepia-toned photos I found of Old Ybor. Trolley cars still crisscross town. You still smell cigar smoke, you smell sweat, you see signs for sangria and promises of sales and a Greek man standing in a window making the perfect crepe for the umpteenth time that day. There is French food, Cuban food, Greek food, Spanish food, bar food. You likely won’t hear music unless stepping into a restaurant or cafe or bar because everyone keeps their doors closed to ensure the air-conditioning doesn’t escape and evaporate into the street because it’s really, really hot in Tampa most of the year, and coolness—the tangible kind—is social currency; it literally draws people in off the street, as it did us.

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We cooled off at Columbia Restaurant, which has weathered Ybor’s various transformations over the decades since 1905. Sangria pitchers there weren’t $15, but the booze was light, smooth, and went well with the black bean cakes and grouper that I ordered. It was Friday night and packed. If you’re going to go, make reservations. I gluten-bombed during this dinner, but it was worth it. Order the key lime pie and if you’re gluten-sensitive, just eat around the graham cracker crust. I recall tasting delicious, silky key lime pie when visiting Key West five years ago, and thinking “Damn, that’s good pie!” Columbia makes all its own desserts, but our waiter informed us the key lime pie comes from Mike’s Pies, and let’s just say Mike gets pie. He really, truly gets pie. I once savored cantaloupe gazpacho at Daniel, an extremely expensive restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and blurted out loud so that every coiffed Upper East Side diner heard me: “That’s the sexiest thing I’ve ever eaten!!!” And the waiter there smiled because he knew; he had just never heard someone say it so bluntly.

Then came Mike’s Pies.

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Hotels: Rethink the American Breakfast

Am I the only traveling American who doesn’t want to start her day with a plate of eggs, bacon and gluten bombs? While venturing around the Adirondacks and Vermont these last few weekends, I couldn’t help but notice all the pot-bellied families around me at hotel restaurants and diners eating their high-cholesterol breakfasts. I don’t mean to sound snobby, but America, we’re big. Too big. And I think it’s unfortunate that you have to find a vegan cafe or a five-star hotel to get a breakfast on the road that’s anything besides eggs, bacon and gluten bombs. I don’t expect the world to accommodate gluten-free eating, but isn’t variety the spice of life? Couldn’t the Crowne Plaza in Lake Placid–a pretty nice place with a kickin’ view of Mirror Lake–offer more at its breakfast buffet besides what you can find at a roadside diner? Mirror Lake Inn had the usual American breakfast fare, but there was also a plate of smoked salmon every morning, a feature reminiscent of my mornings at the Park Hyatt Tokyo. Just one, preferably gluten-free, outside-of-the-box dish in the morning, America. Just one. That’s all I ask.

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(What you are served most mornings at most American hotels)

Hotels are run by companies, and companies cater to the lowest common denominator because the lowest common denominator makes them a lot of money. Nothin’ wrong with that. We’re a capitalist society. But what about eggs, bacon, gluten bombs AND a plate of smoked salmon or other fish? Or some gluten-free rice cakes, for I am not the only gluten-free traveler out there? Or what about some freshly sliced avocado, full of monounsaturated fats, which actually help lower cholesterol? You know how many people eat fish and rice for breakfast? Millions. Yes, they probably don’t outnumber those traveling along Interstate 40 or munching on egg McMuffins at Newark airport, but they’re out there, craving something different, something better for breakfast, just like me.

You might argue, “Hey, the Adirondacks isn’t where you go for fish and rice. That’s mountain country where flapjack stacks touch the clouds,” and I would reckon you are absolutely correct. The flapjack is a likely descendant of cornmeal cakes, which were the popular pioneer breakfast back when corn was not the bastardized, pesticide-resistant plant that’s now found in everything from fruit juice to salad dressing. I’m not saying eradicate flapjack stacks. And I’ll admit here on the Internet I occasionally eat a piece of bacon. And I’m not saying eradicate grains. America is the land of corn and wheat. But on either side of those massive fields of corn and wheat lie two oceans, so dangnammit, can’t hotels and establishments serving travelers think beyond the middle? The only gluten-free option shouldn’t be that abandoned bowl of browning bananas and mushy apples.

And you might also argue, “Hey, eggs and meat and dairy are on most people’s plates most mornings all around the world,” and you’d be correct, there, too. Check out how folks start their day. The human race has plenty of disagreements, but when it comes to breakfast, there’s vast common ground: we all seem to need a little caffeine kick every morning, and we like our breads and spreads alongside all kinds of things that come from farms. Those are some global breakfast staples.

When I’m in England, I enjoy the traditional English breakfast of eggs, bacon, beans, mushrooms, and that ubiquitous slice of tomato. Yum. Though I can’t eat that every day. Like the American breakfast, it is too heavy.

In France, I’m now having a tougher time because the French breakfast is coffee and croissants (and usually a cigarette), and gluten-free hasn’t taken off in p√Ętisserie country. Yet.

In Iceland, I had fabulous breakfasts of smoked salmon, skyr and shots of cod liver oil.

Eating breakfast in Mexico was a treat because I lived off corn tortillas, rice, beans, guacamole and eggs–all gluten free.

Japan offered “Western” breakfasts alongside their traditional breakfasts, and I gotta say, little servings of fish, rice and miso soup ain’t a bad way to start a day. I haven’t been to India yet, but I think the country’s lentil cakes served with rice, chutney and sambar would suit me just fine.

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(Breakfast in Paris)

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(Ending our trip to Iceland with a morning shot of cod liver oil)

Hotels mirror the culture, and one of the biggest elements of culture is food. Every time a Best Western or Holiday Inn or an InterContinental unveils another plate of eggs, bacon and toast to a guest, it says something about America. To me, it says we lack self-discipline and can’t think creatively. The United States is a melting pot, where Hispanics and Asians are two of the fastest-growing ethnic groups. Why can’t our breakfasts reflect that? Why can’t our hotels be better examples of who we are and what we eat? I challenge Starwood and InterContinental and all the other hotels chains out there as well as the independently-owned bed-and-breakfasts from the tip of Maine to the Hawaiian islands to get imaginative with breakfast. Ok, it doesn’t have to be low-fat, low-carb healthy. Like I said, I’m guilty of occasionally enjoying a slice of bacon. But can’t hotels and what they put on our breakfast plates reflect the diversity America loves to brag about? Can’t we be more than the same-old, same-old? Can we not be the Denny’s Grand Slam?

Yes, I Like the East Coast, Especially Now

For someone who is from the Northeastern United States, I frequently write about the American West Coast. Just last week, I wrote about Halloween costume shopping and funky drinks in Los Angeles, a city that is starting to become a second home. I feel more bicoastal, which is far more fun than feeling bipolar. For those who don’t know, I lived in Seattle for three years during the late 1990s dot-com rollercoaster ride, which was awesome and helped pull me out of debt. Next time there’s a dot-com rollercoaster, get on. We moved back east in the year 2000, around the time of the dot-com bubble and, since then, fly back west almost every year for something. In December, we fly to Phoenix.

Yet, when it comes to the month of October, southern California or the American Southwest can’t compete with the Northeast. Every fall, the Northeast becomes a cornucopia of color. Early October to Thanksgiving is my favorite time of year here, and despite all my kvetching about New York City traffic and attitude, I still push my way on to Central Park West to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade live among the throngs of people. I don’t need to be there; I want to be there. I still squee during the parade (last year I saw Whoopie Goldberg!) despite having gone several times (I don’t go if it rains…I’m not a hero).

Thanksgiving here is just the after-party to nearly two months of autumnal celebration. During the next seven weeks, there’s plenty to explore in the Northeast. Drive through the Adirondacks. Go to Vermont because everything in Vermont is fantastic, food, landscape, people, all of it. Hike around the Catskills. Have a romantic fall weekend in the Berkshires. Bike around Lake Champlain. Sip cider at a fall festival in New Hampshire (the Keene, NH, Pumpkin Festival made Fodor’s top fall festival lists!). Pick apples. Press apples. Bake apples. Eat apples. We’ve got apples. Lug a pumpkin from a farm in upstate New York. Learn about witches in Salem, Massachusetts. Enjoy the coast of Maine to yourself now that all the August vacationers are gone. Hell, spend the whole month of October in the Northeast. It’s worth it.

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There are twenty-nine days left in October and I’m going to revel in every one of them. Already, in our little ‘burb, Halloween decorations are out, and red and orange leaves line the curb. Next weekend, we’ll follow Ichabod Crane’s steps through Westchester County for the Blaze, a truly remarkable demonstration of what you can do–and should be doing–with any squash or gourds lying about the house. Forget carving a simple crooked smile into a pumpkin this year. Get inspired! Aim higher! Just be careful using sharp objects and stay out of the emergency room. This is our second visit to the Blaze. Last year’s trip was amazing, especially given that Hurricane Sandy interrupted the exhibit and volunteers had to rush five thousand pumpkins to safety. But don’t let last year’s storm deter you. The 2013 outlook for fall in the Northeast is a calm one, so come visit. Warm cider and fresh-baked pie waits.

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Meatless in Chicago

Can you travel to the land of deep-dish pizza and beef hot dogs buried under pounds of condiments, not eat meat yet still eat flavorful, inventive food? The answer is yes. Yes, you can.

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During my trip to Chicago earlier this month, I ventured out from the South Michigan Avenue/Grant Park neighborhood, took a cab ride north along Lake Michigan, and found The Chicago Diner, which this year celebrates 30 years of cooking non-meat cuisine. I have to thank tweeps on Twitter for suggesting this place, for I had never heard of it. Apparently, it’s been mentioned as a favorite among the founders of Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary.

I visited the Halstead Street location, aka the Mother Ship, and found the place almost packed on a rainy Thursday night. Looking like any typical diner with red vinyl seating and quirky vintage-esque signage, you would expect chunky fellas with tattoos frying chicken steak behind the grill. Staff had tattoos, but most were svelte, wiry types busily arranging blackened tofu on a plate, stacking a vegan sandwich or hustling blanched greens to tables. I tried to imagine what this place might have looked like in 1983 when badmouthing meat was not only anti-Midwestern, but anti-American. In fact, even today, despite all the buzz about meat and its impact on health, red meat still accounts for 58 percent of meat consumption in the United States; 22 percent of meat Americans eat is processed meat, like bacon and hot dogs and other pink slime concoctions. As a vegetarian about eighty-five percent of the time (I think I eat less meat than what qualifies for Mark Bittman’s term: flexitarian), I find those figures galling.

Whomever frequented Chicago Diner 30 years ago, it was enough to keep business thriving and allow the owners to open a second location. Perhaps those having dinner that night are among the minority who believe that meat doesn’t have to be a dietary staple? Maybe the owners of Chicago Diner had tapped into a need that wasn’t being met in the Windy City? I could see why, because the food was excellent and worth a 20-minute, $20 taxi ride through traffic and rain. Chicago Diner focuses on simple and delicious, serving vegetarian and vegan options of American classics like the Reuben and a “BLT” Burger.

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My colleague and I both ordered blackened tofu with mashed sweet potatoes, beans, avocado and greens (pictured above), an entree that was as savory as it was filling. And not the gross kind of filling you feel after eating a hot dog, which I haven’t done since the Washington, D.C. Kite Festival in 2002 because it made me sick to my stomach.

So Chicago Diner was a hit, and I hope to return, but how to eat meatless at the Chicago airport where every 10 yards is some food stand selling burgers, hot dogs, and greasy pepperoni pizza (which is every American airport)? Enter Rick Bayless, who by no means is a vegetarian (the guy loves his lamb), but he’s one of Chicago’s most innovative chefs pushing boundaries in Mexican cuisine. Yes, his sandwiches at the chain Tortas Fronteras in Terminal 1 at Chicago O’Hare Airport cost more than a McDonald’s patty next door, but put your suitcase down and enjoy every bite because Bayless’s takeout food is scrumptious and worth a flight delay. Most of the sandwiches feature meat, but for $9 there’s the roasted cremini and shiitake mushroom sandwich with chipotle, garlic, goat cheese, black beans and arugula. I was eating alone when I tried this, and let’s just say I wasn’t dainty about tackling this sandwich. It was a tad messy, extremely delicious, and worth the cost of four McDonald’s pink slime burgers. I wish Tortas Fronteras offered gluten-free options since I had to pick the bread off my sandwich, but, hey, gluten-free appears to be trending lately, so I have hope.