Category Archives: Foodie Travel

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.

IMG_1435

IMG_1417

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.

IMG_1391

IMG_1387

IMG_1397

IMG_1393

IMG_1394

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.

IMG_1444

IMG_1434

IMG_1426

IMG_1432

IMG_1380

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.

IMG_1481

IMG_1492

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.

AmericanBreakfast
(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.

IMG_1540
(Breakfast in Paris)

IMG_3399
(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?

A Chocolate Cake Attempt Inspired by Travel

Yesterday, I attempted vegan baking for the first time. It was an epic failure. It doesn’t look like a failure in this photo, but the cake was a sweetened brick smothered in rich, fabulously delicious avocado icing, a yummy way to enjoy antioxidants, fiber and unsaturated fat. So yes, the icing was a big success; the cake was not. However, just licking icing off a cake is what kids do at birthday parties; I’d like to think I’ve evolved beyond that, so the entire dessert got tossed into the garbage (that felt heartbreaking). I will try again so that both cake and frosting are edible…at the same time.

avocado cake

The recipe comes from Joy the Baker, who is a non-vegan Californian foodie willing to take chances with avocado. Only Californians get so creative with avocados. I mean, they make avocado cocktails, avocado beer, even avocado ice cream! Mention combining chocolate with avocado in my neck of the woods, and you get some raised eyebrows. Not surprising, given the East Coast caught on to the chocolate and bacon craze about a decade after we had been eating that on the West Coast. We’re uptight here in the Northeast, and not as trendy as we think we are.

I wanted to explore vegan eating because I have been inspired by our trips to the Woodstock Animal Farm Sanctuary in the Catskills north of the Hudson Valley. We’ve stayed and volunteered there three times now, and it’s been an enriching experience for the entire family. Shoveling poop can be a mentally calming activity. The more we head north to the Hudson Valley and Catskills, the more we learn it’s farm-to-table food country, a place filled with people who care about sustainable, clean, green living, as annoying as that string of buzzwords can be, and where there’s a level of playfulness toward what goes on the plate. The New York City dining scene takes itself way too seriously; a little further north, you can find equally innovative, fresh, organic cuisine without all the fuss. And you can eat out in jeans!

I can’t go upstate every weekend, so yesterday I tried to bring a little bit of bucolic upstate New York and cool California into my kitchen. I had never prepared anything like vegan chocolate avocado cake before (there’s also avocado in the cake batter holding things together), and doing so reminded me of trying wonderful new restaurants along the two coasts. A new restaurant on our horizon is Henry’s At the Farm, which is at Buttermilk Inn in Milton, New York, not far from the Woodstock Animal Farm Sanctuary. Henry’s specializes in local cuisine. In February, we’re spending a few days cleaning up peed-on hay at the animal sanctuary followed by a few days of pampering at Buttermilk Inn. I hope to come back to my kitchen with some confidence and new ideas. And yes, I’ll give the vegan chocolate avocado cake another go. That amazing icing deserves to sit on moist, decadent chocolate cake. Oh, and that butternut squash standing proudly behind the cake in my photo? That’s next on the chopping block; thankfully I already know how to make a tasty butternut squash soup.