Saturday, February 2, 2008

Memory Lane Food: decades of sating the rumble down under

I imagine that deep in the woods of the Smoky Mountains all the hibernating bears are thinking about the same thing that this urban hibernator is thinking about: food. Too cold to explore the city, too grouchy to socialize, we're stuck dwelling on one activity that requires minimal exertion and no engagement whatsoever.

Lou recently got back from a too-short visit to St. Petersberg, Florida. Once upon a time, I spent a couple of years living across the bay in Tampa. Next to visiting with friends and generally defrosting, I had a single driving mission: have a meal at the historic Columbia Restaurant.

And it got me thinking, if I were to leave Louisville tomorrow, what food would I miss the most?

But let's take a trip back in the ol' Lou Time Machine and visit some of the past hometown foods I miss most.

We'll skip over the baby days. Let's face it, nostalgia alone renders the homecooked meals of my family far superior than anything we ever ate at restaurants. I'm a sucker for New England Clam Chowder, but no one will ever make it better than my G-pa. I love me some red meat, but my grandmother's grilled steak tips still cause me to put the pedal to the metal in anticipation as I drive to her house. My other grandmother made a kicking Vineyard Herbed Chicken; I have the recipe, but it's never as good. My aunt's Edna's Pot Roast-- she's not Edna; I don't know who Edna is-- and her Yorkshire Pudding... hubba hubba. Ma wasn't much of a cook, although she's gotten better as she's aged; I still make her lasagna and stuffed peppers.

Anyway, first stop NYC. It's been more than a decade since my college days, and some of my favorite joints may be defunct. I haven't been to the city since 2000, so I haven't had a chance to check it out. Let's see what a little web-diddling can produce.

  • Distaster in the first click! The West End Gate on Broadway near Columbia closed in April 2006. Opened in 1911, haunt of the Beat generation and members of the Weather Underground, and the site of many a Columbia student's first underaged drink in a bar, the West End also had a killer grilled chicken salad with blanched broccoli. I don't ever think I ate anything else there, and believe me, I ate (and drank) there often.

  • Strike Two: there's no listing online for Cafe 112, the pseudo Italian restaurant on 112th and Broadway that offered a cheese raviolli with alfredo sauce, ham, onions, and peas. Again, I don't think I ever ate anything else there. (I'm that kind of diner, by the way. Loyal to dishes.)

  • Thank goodness! I finally found a mainstay of my New York City diet that is still in business. Yaffa Cafe on St. Mark's Avenue between 1st and A. And, bless their hearts, they still have the Avacado Melt-- simply an avacado with your choice of melted cheese (muenster!) and a side salad with tahini dressing for (now) only $6.95. The homefries there were also memorable.

  • I'm on a roll-- clearly the East Village hangs on to its haunts-- Dojo also on St. Marks near 2nd Avenue. You don't often see burgers served on pita bread. It came with a side salad with tahini dressing (I still have a thing for tahini dressing), and I used to stuff the whole salad into the pita with the burger. Still a deal for $5.95.

  • How crazy is this: by my senior year, I was going to Ollie's Noodle Shop at least twice a week for dinner. I have still never had steamed vegetable dumplings that good. But my meal of choice from this noodle restaurant (and-- GASP-- no longer on the menu??!!): Spaghetti. Hey, it's noodles.

Of course, there were other places that tickled my tummy or served as a home away from home. Most notably: the Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam between 110 & 111. I think I owe them rent for all the many hours I spent there during my four years of college. There was a Chinese restaurant on Amsterdam called the College Inn which had decent food but became a regular date place because the food came with free, cheap white wine. It didn't matter if you were 12, they'd serve you-- and serve you, and serve you, and serve you.

Leaving on a jet plane for Tampa, Florida.

  • It's kind of interesting that my all-time most-missed food is a salad, the 1905 Salad at the Columbia Restaurant. Over the past few years, friends from Tampa or friends that have visited Tampa have made it a routine to gift me with a few bottles of the dressing, but somehow it's still not the same. Just about everything on the menu of this 103 year old Cuban establishment is amazing. Swanky without the swanky prices. Pretty much my ideal restaurant.

  • Tampa is the city for Cuban food and the first Cuban restaurant I was introduced to was Carmine's, also in Ybor City. I never quite got the taste for it's famous Devil Crab-- kind of a sour (if I remember correctly) deep fried crabcake-- but the Cuban sandwiches and roast chicken are amazing. It's always one of those quandries when you visit: one or the other. Carmine's is open late and also has wonderful Cuban cafe con leche.

This trip down memory lane will have to be continued. My trusty laptop sidekick is hungry too. Coming soon: New Orleans and the Ville!

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