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Great ‘Cue with Bob Garner, Two Pillars of Mexican Cooking, and a Deafening Honduran Pool Hall

Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina

What a thrill to meet Bob Garner, author of one of my favorite guidebooks—Bob Garner’s Guide to North Carolina Barbecue.

Bob was generous enough to meet me and some friends for lunch at one of his favorite places: Allen & Son (6203 Millhouse Road, Chapel Hill, North Carolina; 919-942-7576). It was great to hear Bob’s barbecue wisdom in person, and I’ll share some audio highlights with you.

Podcast 1 —MP3 file:
We join in as Bob’s offering his thoughts on the places I hit yesterday.

Podcast 2 —MP3 file:
Bob weighs in on the delicate issue of “outside brown.”

Podcast 3 —MP3 file:
Bob offers a neophyte in our party a quick tutorial in North Carolina ‘cue:

Podcast 4 —MP3 file:
Background info on the incredible personal touch and energy applied by Allen & Son’s chef/owner, Keith Allen.

Podcast 5 —MP3 file:
Discussion and analysis of the hush puppies.

Podcast 6 —MP3 file:
Bob (who’s never visited our site) eloquently expresses the chowhounding ethos.

Podcast 7 —MP3 file: Bob’s further ponderings on the outside brown issue, left on my voicemail later that day.

I loved just about everything about Allen & Son. It’s truly benchmark barbecue, and sides and desserts are terrific, too. But one thing: Why on earth would chef/owner Keith Allen go to the trouble of whipping up great fresh desserts daily if he’s going to allow waiters to tragically destroy them by nuking before serving? Superb piecrust is rendered sodden; cobbler has its soul sucked out. It’s pure blasphemy.


Allen & Son.


Bob Garner addresses his rapt admirers.


Bob takes us around back.


Chopped barbecue sandwich.


Hush puppies.


Brunswick stew.


Pound cake and (homemade) ice cream.


Banana pudding.


Chocolate pie.


Coconut pie.


Peanut butter pie.

Chowhounding Durham

Chapel Hill is intensely charming and tightly zoned. It’s not the sort of place where one finds finds. But upon hearing that nearby Durham is more sprawling and less explored, I made a beeline and within minutes came upon the astonishing Taqueria El Paraiso (111 South Alston Avenue, Durham, North Carolina, 919-680-4728).

Paraiso means “paradise” in Spanish, but that’s not the half of it. This is a major point of culinary light. The best stuff here is vastly better than anything I had in Mexico (and companions with more Mexico experience than I were inclined to agree). Their menudo rocked my world. It was intensely garlicky, spiced to perfect balance, and layered as deftly as a top-tier fireworks display. The tripe was clean-tasting and tender. The secret ingredient? Ham hocks!

Their posole was even better. Food this good is hard to describe, but let me just say that whereas other posoles taste like soup, this one tasted like a symphony or a novel or a torrid romance. The sensation is too much for one avenue of perception alone, so the bliss overflows into synesthesia. I’m so glad to have had my camera along, because for some reason the Casio Exilim 750 has the magical ability to convey soul. Take a look!


Humble exterior belies greatness within.


The blessed menudo.


I forget what they call this, but it amounts to beef fajitas. The beef is insanely tender and bursting with soulful flavor, and it yearns (insofar as meat yearns) to soak up the garlicky sludge of black beans served alongside. Oh, and the rice alone is worth a trip to North Carolina.


Freshly handmade tortillas!


Tostadas for the posole are utterly greaseless and gushing with earthy corn flavor.


Tacos on great fresh tortillas. The salsa verde is the best I’ve ever tasted (the rojo is merely stunning).


The previous tacos were terrific, but the cabeza tacos (beef head —mostly cheek meat, I believe) are life-changing. Sure, the pool of oozing oil is a bit intimidating. But … gawd …

These guys are Oaxacan, by the way. They make a few customary moles, but everything’s from scratch in small quantities, so unless you arrive quite early, the specialty items will have run out. El Paraiso makes several varieties of tamales, and I was crushed not to get any in two visits (next time I’ll go at 9 a.m.). The wistful look in the eye of the counter guy indicated to me that they are magnificent.

I had a late-night supper in a Honduran pool hall, just on impulse upon driving by. Mi Pequeño Honduras (2201 North Roxboro Road, Durham, North Carolina; 919-220-3702) is quite a good venue for a pretty rare cuisine. But jaded by the superlativeness of earlier discoveries—plus the fact that I was pretty damned full—I failed to get as excited as I probably should have. In any normal day of chowhounding, this would have been quite a find indeed.

Baleada, a huge tortilla wrapped around curdy cheese and beans, was both interesting and delicious. Pupusas are more Salvadoran than Honduran, but I loved the kitchen’s take on them. They had a lively, sexy freshness, and the curtido (akin to cole slaw, the traditional pupusa accompaniment) was unusually spritely. Even in my delicate state, it took much self-discipline not to polish off the plate. I was less tempted by the tajadas con pollo frito, though. This was a perfectly OK deep-fried half bird strewn with perfectly fine fried green plantains and curtido. Not something to especially transport gringo food-lovers to Honduras, but good stuff for homesick immigrants.

Another factor in my underappreciation: The music was nothing short of bone-shattering. Get the idea from this short podcast. MP3 file

I didn’t want to stop again, being achingly full and exhausted, but I sensed grandeur and so ducked in for one last very-late-night check-out at a place right near Mi Pequeño Honduras, Taqueria Y Birreria Los Comales (2103 North Roxboro Road, Durham, North Carolina; 919-220-1614). I’ve seen restaurants like this before: a gleaming, bracingly efficient Mexican eatery clearly run by a very strict perfectionist owner who keeps an extremely tight ship. Hours are late, prices are fair, and service is brusque (the efficiency ethic irons out all the sweetness).

Every inch of the place is sparklingly clean—even the toppings/condiments bar at 1:30 a.m. They’ve earned a 98 out of 100 health rating, which is the best I’d seen in North Carolina. No corners are cut in the cooking, either. Everything’s done just right—both delicious and authentic enough to impress anyone. What more can you ask?

Well … soul! Buche (pork stomach) and birria de chivo (stewed goat) tacos were technically perfect and extraordinarily enjoyable, but lacked that loving feeling. As at Paraiso, tortillas are made fresh, but these are a tad cold-spirited (if these tortillas and the ones at Paraiso ever touched, the matter/antimatter reaction would implode the galaxy).

But it doesn’t matter. It’s just another sort of greatness. I wish I had time to stick around and work through the whole menu; there are things to learn, and everything is prepared so deftly that I could establish baselines on foods I’m less familiar with. I’ve never drunk such pristinely ricey horchata.

The menu at Los Comales includes a smattering of Salvadoran items, and I’d particularly like to try their pupusas. Maybe the Salvadoran chef has more warmth.

I don’t know any other Mexican eatery currently operating on the East Coast that can even begin to rival El Paraiso or Los Comales. And I need to get earplugs and return to Mi Pequeño Honduras sometime for more thorough checking. All in all, it was a rewarding day of free-form chowhounding. My streak remains intact!

Let the Barbecue Begin

Winston-Salem, North Carolina (and environs)

Family Diner (7911 North Carolina Highway 68 North, Stokesdale, North Carolina; 336-643-8853) is killer, a serious revelation. It left me shaken and giddy, as you’ll hear in the following podcast (note: I was way too ecstatic to attend to things like recording level, so the sound’s pretty bad. But this meal was a watershed moment for me, and I feel fortunate to have emerged with even this damaged fragment). MP3 file

Note that Family Diner is just the name in the Yellow Pages. As best as I can determine, the restaurant has no formal name.

Could you resist stopping here?

The bill of fare

Ruby fries are not red. They’re fries in the style of a woman named Ruby —one among a daily rotating list of chefs (including Jimmy, creator of the eponymous burger).

But how can anyone eat food this great without swearing?

Teeth strictly optional. Food needn’t have texture to be great.

No need to wait till September 23; just scarf the chicken and dumplings.

On impulse, Tom Philpott (from Maverick Farms, who accompanied today) and I pulled over to check out a small, tidy rural fish store run by an old, kindly African-American man. His inventory consisted of a few bags of cornmeal and a dozen or two fish (not sure what kind) so fresh and clear-eyed that the fisherman must be a blood relative. The store had no fishy smell at all. I tried to hit up the owner for chow tips, but he directed us toward the sprawl. Finally deciding that there was just no use to be made of a large raw fish during a two-month car trip, I bought a bag of self-rising cornmeal and headed back to the car.

As we walked down the sidewalk, another mystical guide (see the “spirit guide” portion of report #7) appeared. A middle-aged white man in an orange baseball hat missing a quantity of teeth, who’d been in the store, had come out on the sidewalk and was yelling at us. Resisting the impulse to run, we hesitantly walked back and learned that he was asking what sort of restaurant we were looking for. We said barbecue. He sent us, with great authority, to Hill’s Lexington Barbecue (4005 Patterson Avenue, Winston-Salem, North Carolina; 336-767-2184).


I loved the place, though their sauce is way too sweet for Carolina taste (being less doctrinaire, I wasn’t bothered a bit), plus it does seem hyperbolic of them to advertise as “The Original Lexington Barbecue” when they’re not even in Lexington.

Check out the feast we ordered:



Back row, left to right: string beans, creamed potatoes, fried squash, hush puppies. Front row, left to right: chopped barbecue sandwich, sliced barbecue with outside brown, (red) slaw, baked beans.

Before you read further, I need to bring you up to date on my unfolding knowledge of “outside brown.” The following is an article I wrote just after my last North Carolina barbecue trip:

Going Brown

As a food writer, I don’t spend much time contemplating my personal likes and dislikes. It’s my role to be a chameleon, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over Malaysian fish head curry even if I’d privately prefer to be scarfing pizza. My goal is to appreciate things on their own terms. So I rarely order what I feel like eating; I order what I suspect the place does best, and aim to gauge the objective quality of foods that I may not subjectively prefer.

With that in mind, I must confess: I’ve never loved North Carolina barbecue. I’ll rave over it when it’s good, I’ll drive hours out of my way for a top rendition, I treasure my Lexington Barbecue T-shirt, and I can triangulate location without the use of maps, simply via subtleties in the vinegar/tomato balance. But to me, frankly, this style of barbecue offers few of the pleasures of barbecue to the south or west. There’s no sublime juxtaposition of crunch, chaw, and meltingness; it’s just a mass of uniform pork meat packed into a sandwich. This is, after all, ‘cue in a hamburger bun, and the best that can be hoped for, in truth, is a sloppy Joe with moist, well-chopped meat and a decent balance of sauce. That, plus tiny variations in smoke quantity and quality, is what differentiates great North Carolina ‘cue.

But then I found God. And God is Brown. Or, at least, He orders Brown.

Let me explain. I’d seen passing references to lesser-known ways of ordering Carolina barbecue but figured they were esoteric variations on the same basic thing, which I ignored in my efforts to immerse in the fundamentals. Nobody, damn them, ever gripped my shoulders and told me I was missing everything. I’ve read twenty jagillion barbecue books, and none of them explained that there is one, and only one, way to eat Carolina barbecue.

Bob Garner’s Guide to North Carolina Barbecue was no exception. It mentions that “with outside brown” is a hip order in certain places. Again, it’s offered as a mere variation, like a soy milk latte. Wrong. Brown is the crunchy skin and the meat right near the brown crunchy skin. It is essential, and all the metric tonnage of Carolina barbecue prepared and consumed sans Brown is wrong and ungenerous and woefully incomplete —in truth, not quite really barbecue. Brown should never have been withheld; it’s precisely the thing I’d always found missing. Brown is crunchy and succulent. Brown is salty and smoky and deep. It is the yang to the yin; the prosciutto to the melon; the hot ironing and lemon juice that expose the invisible writing and make the paper convey A MESSAGE!

NC barbecue ordered with Brown is like your first taste of fresh-filled cannoli. No, it’s so much more than that. It’s like having a really great burger after a lifetime of Wendy’s. No, it’s like your first lasagna after the taste bud transplant. I’m struggling here, but stay with me. In one bite I went from appreciating Carolina barbecue in an intellectual food-writerish sort of way to appreciating it in an I’m-selling-all-my-belongings-and-moving-down-here sort of way. Genre utterly redefined, attention riveted, appointments dropped, cholesterol swelled, lapels stained, political party switched, Jesus Christ adopted as personal savior. Finally, I got it!

After the reverie of my first bite wound down, I expected to look up and find myself in utter harmony with the rapture around me. I, the big-city Yankee rube, had been ordering wrong lo these many years, but North Carolinians would now spiritually welcome me into their fold. To my extreme anguished shock, however, I seemed to be the only person in the room eating barbecue with Brown. Almost none of the locals were hip enough to know. THEY WERE EATING THEIR OWN FOOD WRONG!

The Buddhists say that a sure sign of enlightenment is a powerful urge to awaken one’s fellow beings. And this is how I know that Brown is Good: As I worked blissfully through my sandwich, I found myself noticing my fellow eaters who’d not yet found Brown, and pangs of pity drove me to wonder how I could show them the light. I asked a waitress why everyone didn’t order Brown, and she hemmed and hawed, and finally whispered, with some embarrassment, the answer:

If everyone ordered Brown, there wouldn’t be enough for all.

So don’t pass the word, OK? Save it only for those righteous enough to merit the Good News.

Armed with my new hip ordering strategy, I ordered sliced barbecue with outside brown at Hill’s. It looked great:

... but was actually pretty dry and unpleasant. Outside brown is not always, it seems, the hip strategy. The bits of non-brown barbecue were pretty great, though. And Hill’s regular chopped barbecue sandwich was tender and very good (even with that heretical sauce).

I should have ordered sliced regular, and not resorted to oustide brown. Live and learn. Anyway, the hush puppies were terrific (it’s becoming a ritual for me to deem each new hush puppy the best I’ve ever had, but that’s just evidence that the trip’s going well!).

Excellent, excellent banana pudding, with lots of meringue and ‘Nilla Wafers mixed in:

Looking for ‘Cue in All the Wrong Places
We had, er, some trouble locating a legendary barbecue place called Wild Hogs. Hear all about it in this podcast: MP3 file. Warning: This podcast is rated R for vulgar language and shocking accounts of lewd and deviant behavior.

Finally, on to Short Sugar’s (234 South Scales Street, Reidsville, North Carolina; 336-349-9128), a local legend not well known outside the area.

Short Sugar’s is, as you can see, super down-home, with open kitchen and open pit, and everyone involved talking and hanging out with you as you eat at the counter —plus lots of cross-talk with other customers. I vastly prefer this back-of-the-house ambiance, which is rare in North Carolina, though it suits barbecue so well.

We ordered a minced (their term for chopped) barbecue sandwich and a sliced sandwich. No fooling around with outside brown; we just took it straight. It was wonderful, coming with white cole slaw (places to the west add a bit of sauce to tint the slaw red) and intense hush puppies.

Like Hill’s, Short Sugar’s also uses a heretical sauce: Theirs is dark and sweet. The minced/chopped ‘cue takes to this sauce better, as greater meat surface area injects more smoky counterpoint. But sliced is great here, too. As Tom notes, it’s the perfect texture—super-tender but not stringy.

North Carolina Barbecue Joint Chowscape
Groove on some ambient sound at Short Sugar’s BBQ—punctuated by Tom and me trying to figure it all out. Listen with headphones for best effect. You Are (Eating) There! MP3 file

The Best Sticky Buns Ever (and ‘Cue in a Citgo)

Boone, North Carolina

This northwest corner isn’t the chowiest part of N.C., but two terrific places are quite near Maverick Farms.

Citgo Market, a.k.a. Foscoe Country Corner (8937 Highway 105 South, Boone, North Carolina; 828-963-6409), makes the best barbecue (hickory-smoked!) in this part of the state (the mountains are not known for good barbecue). The meat itself is very well smoked, but most North Carolinians would quibble with the sauce, which is too sweet.



This joint makes pretty good cheeseburgers too.

MoonPies and RC Cola are a classic combination, sort of sweetness squared.

Johnson’s Bakery, a.k.a Kersh’s Old World Bakery (106-1 Clubhouse Drive, Highway 105, Foscoe, North Carolina; 828-963-5668), makes these:

... the best sticky buns I’ve ever eaten

Excellent scone and brownie

Real good muffins (here we see their wistful side, headin’ down that lonesome highway …)

I made my way down to Charlotte, where I ate some fairly pedestrian fried chicken in a few places but went ga-ga over the lardy-crusted coconut custard pie at United House of Prayer for All People (2321 Beatties Ford Road, Charlotte, North Carolina; 704-394-3884). The measure of its quality can be gauged by my failure to shoot the photo before having scarfed most of it.

As at all United House of Prayer cafeterias, quality is quite variable, according to which church ladies cook on a given day.

Shelby, near Charlotte, is a mecca for barbecue, and
Bridge’s Barbecue Lodge (2000 E. Dixon Boulevard/Highway 74, Shelby, North Carolina; 704-482-8567) is a local legend. I found their ‘cue dismayingly blah. Perhaps I arrived at the wrong time of day. Pretty good hush puppies, though.



Tomorrow I head east into prime barbecue territory, and I’m really hoping for some ‘cue that blows my doors off.

Pretzel/Potato Chip Tasting, and Jim Meets Chickens

Banner Elk, North Carolina

Maverick Farms
Maverick Farms (410 Justus Road, Banner Elk, North Carolina; 828-963-4656) has become one of my favorite getaways. I can’t write about the place objectively anymore because I’ve become friends with the proprietors, but my original article about them, written several years ago, still delivers the gist. So, before I update, let me replay that piece:

The Enigma of Maverick Farms

Maverick Farms is hard to describe. It’s an organic, politically aware nonprofit small farm run by super-foodie hipsters who bring a dot-com sensibility to their work. Remember all those Internet upstarts back in 1998 where nobody outside—or even inside—the company understood what the company actually did, and everything rolled forward via sheer exuberance? That’s Maverick Farms. They claim to grow things, and I actually did see some salad greens growing plus a few chickens, but … I don’t know. I suspect Maverick Farms is more of a state of mind than an actual farming operation. To be fair, though, I did arrive late in the season. The badminton court may brim with soybeans and corn in the summer, who knows?

It’s a beautiful big farmhouse on a beautiful creek in a beautiful hollow, though, and that’s all that matters, from the viewpoint of an agritourist (their term for guests). They rent out (short or long term) some rooms, e.g. a beautiful downstairs corner space with awesome view and veranda and private bathroom for just $65/night, or a little monastic bedroom for a mere $25/night—a steal in this increasingly boutiquey area. Speaking of the area, I was strongly corrected that western North Carolina is NOT the South—it’s Appalachia. People hereabouts fought on the Union side.

For an extra $13/day, you can be served dinner, which is excellent and very California-style, very much about letting the goodness of the ingredients sing out. And the ingredients are up to the task. Those salad greens, for example, are hallucinogenic in their intensity and persistence of flavor; coated with a dab of oil and vinegar, they steal every meal they accompany. Portions are modest; a typical dinner consists of a shallow bowl of squash soup, and some of those psychedelic salad greens with freshly baked bread and well-chosen olive oil, all top-drawer.

The Mavericks have channels to get unpasturized farm milk (they’re all about channels; their forte seems more in provisioning rather than in actual growing). It comes in enormous jars from which you scoop out rich, extra vivid life-affirming milk. Cereal will never taste the same again.

I attended one of Maverick Farms’ occasional $35 farm dinners. It could be described in two ways: 1. a way to divest the local gentry of some of their lucre in order to support the operation, or 2. an outpouring of culinary expressionism from exuberant cooks using ingredients grown or procured with a great deal of care and who love an excuse to blow out a serious dinner.

The menu will give you the idea:

  • Cornmeal Flatbread with Garlic and Parsley Confit, Olive Tapenade, and Homemade Ricotta-Chipotle Spread

  • Springhouse Farm Fresh Salad
  • Candy Roaster Squash Soup Garnished with Spicy Cilantro Pesto
  • Cider Glazed Pork Roast with Homemade Pear Chutney and Root-Vegetable Puree or (for vegetarians) Homemade Ricotta and Sage Gnocchi
  • Both Entrees Garnished with Braised Greens
  • Sweet Potato Flan with Sesame Tuilles

Long tables are set up in the farmhouse, and the aforementioned gentry (professors at a local college, landowners, yuppie gentrifiers) get their status buttons pushed via several courses of fancy gourmet cooking described with a rich cavalcade of adjectives. For my part, I enjoyed some top-notch flavors as well as some (charming) near misses. Guests bring their own wine, and nobody shares.

These infrequent dinners aside, if you’re looking for a rustic getaway at very reasonable price, and want to immerse yourself in some very high level rural-yet-sophisticated foods and foodways, Maverick Farms is a smart choice. Note: I actually split wood.

This time I arrived earlier in the season and saw some actual farming going on. Not at any vast scale, but certainly some interesting—even weirdo—foods. I’ll let Leo Gaev of Maverick Farms take you on four video tours.

Video 1: Wild volunteer tomatoes, husk cherries, and purple Osaka

Video 2: Hops … and a major greenhouse initiative

Video 3: Meet Leo’s bees

Video 4: Surrealistically fastidious chickens

I risked my life to bring you this report.

This is not actually food. Look closely.

Typical Maverick Farms salad (all homegrown, of course)

Let the pretzel tasting begin …

Pennsylvania Dutch Pretzel and Potato Chip Tasting Notes

Way back in installment #8, I went a bit overboard at Yoder’s Market in New Holland, Pennsylvania, filling my shopping cart compulsively with bag after bag of lardy potato chips and hand-pulled pretzels. At Maverick Farms, a tasting panel was organized to evaulate them. The following are my conclusions, with input from the panel.

Pretzels

Old Fashioned Hammond’s Hand Made
Pretzels
(”... taste the difference”)
Very malty, almost like malted milk. Uninteresting texture.

Unique Pretzels Splits
A clean, simple, pure pretzel. Good for an extended pretzel bender.

Martin’s Special Handmade Pretzels —Akron, Pennsylvania
Shattery texture. Each pretzel is unique, varying in darkness, saltiness, thinness, everything. Very interesting and delicious.

Martin’s Hand Twisted Hearth Pretzels
Light color. Crumbly/crunchy rather than shattery. Funky flavors —I taste onion and pork, but the ingredients list reveals nothing unusual.

Uncle Henry’s Handmade Pretzels
I can taste the wood oven they’re baked in, but it’s subtle. Check out the ashes on the salt! Fine crunch.

The following three brands tasted soapy/perfumy because they’d apparently been poorly stored at the grocery.

Wege of Hanover Broken Sourdough Hard Pretzels

King’s Broken Hard Pretzels

Dieffenbach’s Sourdough Broken Pretzels

Lard-Fried Potato Chips

Dieffenbach’s
I hardly taste potato. It’s all pig. There are chips where you have to point out the fact that they’re lard-fried to people. Dieffenbach’s are not among those chips. Good texture, and they’re thick-cut.

Good’s Blue Bag
Also very lardy, but the potato flavor shines through (unlike in Dieffenbach’s!). Texture is more shattery than crisp.

Good’s Red Bag
Lard is very nicely integrated; more potato-y than Lewis Good’s or Dieffenbach’s.

Nibble with Gibble’s
This chip does it all. Texture is full-out crisp, not flaky. This is the first one where I find my hand reaching for more.

Family Owned Markets Kettle Cooked
A generic chip I’d never spotted before. We think they’re Dieffenbach’s.

Other Snacks

Utz Classic Russets Gourmet Dark potato chips
Not lard-fried, but I love ‘em. My favorite dark chips since Cape Cod went downhill.

Kettle Krisp All Natural Caramel Corn
Ingredients: brown sugar, popcorn, corn syrup, salt.
Without butter, it tastes overly simple, like Cracker Jacks sans prize.

Mr. Hound’s Wild Ride

Roanoke, Virginia, to Boone, North Carolina

No edibility to report, just a manic ride down the Blue Ridge Highway, fueled by extraordinarily sugary coffeecake. Come along for the ride via this video (blow it up to full screen for maximum effect). Special bonus: the onscreen debut of Eartha, my GPS concierge.

First Video

Then a stop to practice trombone (hotels usually discourage horn playing, so highway rest stops are the perfect rehearsal studios when you’re on the road).

Second Video

Note: Here are Amazon links for the Mexican banda compilations (both out of print but available used): Todo Banda and Todo Banda, Vol. 2.

Disappointment in Lexington, Triumph in Roanoke

Lexington, Virginia

Among the many features of Eartha, my GPS navigating assistant, is the ability to list nearby restaurants wherever I am. So as I drove the bleak stretch of Route 81 into Roanoke and learned (via cell phone) that the restaurant I’d hoped to try, the Homeplace Restaurant (4968 Catawba Valley Drive, Catawba, Virginia; 540-384-7252), is closed Mondays through Wednesdays, I let Eartha smoke out some local places I was speeding past.

As I approached the exit for Lexington, Virginia, Eartha informed me that the Southern Inn Restaurant (37 South Main Street, Lexington, Virginia; 540-463-3612) was just a few miles away. The name intrigued. Out here in the sticks, Southern Inn was sure to be a lively down-home treat.

To my surprise, I pulled up to a striking bistro serving pricey New American Cuisine.

I did not have a good feeling about the place, but it was late, and, loath to be a reverse snob, I went in and ordered a $7.45 Asian pear salad (baby field greens, local Asian pears, toasted pecans, shaved red onions, chevre cheese [sic] tossed with roasted shallot vinaigrette) and a $12.25 grilled salmon sandwich (grilled salmon fillet served on a homemade garlic-dill bagel with bacon, lettuce, tomato, and herb aioli, accompanied by homemade potato chips and country cole slaw).

You know how in big cities many young chefs cook like clones, having been indoctrinated into the standard cooking school procedures? While their work is never very personal, and usually a bit pretentious and soulless, it’s at least competent, because, after all, they went to cooking school.

The cooking at this place had all those negatives, plus it lacked competency. Every bite was utterly lifeless and rife with errors. And if I never see another homemade garlic-dill bagel in my life, that would suit me quite well.

Roanoke

The Lexington Catastrophe wasn’t a streak-ender, because the place had triggered no positive vibe whatever. I only dined there out of morbid curiosity. Rattled nonetheless, the next day I was pleased to find my chow-dar unaffected.

The food court in Roanoke Market, with its fake Chinese booth, fake pizza booth, et al., seems pretty lame. Yet my antennae were twitching, and I eventually found myself at a greasy, untitled burger stand tucked at the end of an otherwise flashy row of concessions. Burger in the Square (32 Market Square SE, Roanoke, Virginia; 540-982-1639) makes fantastic, memorable crunchy old-fashioned hamburgers, and fine waffle fries.

I stayed at the Doubletree Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center, formerly a grand independent hotel that’s only been improved by the addition of warm chocolate chip cookies at the front desk (the chowhoundish signature of all Doubletree hotels). Build in 1882, it’s got loads of personality.

One secret of the South is that the $150 price of a blah hotel room in Boston or San Francisco can buy you a room at the best hotel down here in towns like Roanoke. To digress further, the reign of the big hotel reservation sites like Expedia and Orbitz is over. You can no longer book rooms more cheaply than at the hotel’s own sites, so they’re no longer worth the surcharges and stricter cancellation terms.

One exception is Priceline, which, in addition to their scary bidding system, offers straight-ahead discounted reservations for named hotels in many cities. If you work really hard, though, you can still ferret out bargains. For example, I booked a highly discounted room at the execrable Trump Marina in hellish Atlantic City via a shadowy bulk discount operation called Access Atlantic City.

Roanoke is halfway between New York and Atlanta. So at this point I can say I’ve really traveled. Tomorrow, I look forward to a nice long ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Virginia Chowconnaissance: Two Days in High Gear

Northern Virginia
There are three modes of dining:

• Going to a known place (for many, this means a chain) or a place you’ve been guided to

• Taking a random stab and hoping for the best

• Chowconnaissance, whereby an area is methodically gauged and charted via herculean onslaught in an afternoon or two

For non-chowhounds, those options appear in declining order of appeal. Familiarity is paramount, going off the map is worrisome, and the sampling of multiple places in quick succession is completely daft.

For chowhounds, it’s the opposite. Familiarity is boring, trying someplace new is exciting, and massive exploration is … well, the most rewarding pastime one could imagine.

Rewarding though it is, chowconnaissance is not easy, and no one would choose to do it often. It’s a grueling undertaking that offers none of the standard pleasures of dining out. The pace is frenetic, food combinations are unharmonious, and energy expenditure is mighty. And the result, even if one diligently paces oneself, is exhausted dyspepsia.

So why do it? Because chowconnaissance is how we build knowledge. By plunging in, we’re able to compare similar venues to suss out superior options. The drill is to dash in and out of places, parsing takeout menus and strategizing orders to efficiently reveal benchmark quality. Hopefully, grandeur can be ferreted out in short order. And then, having attained the knowledge of Where’s Good, we can one day return to the hottest spots for leisurely, exultant meals.

This rigorous, unnatural style of grazing used to be the exclusive domain of restaurant critics, but more and more amateur food sleuths are taking the iron-hound route. What it lacks in physical comfort and immediate satisfaction it more than makes up for in the quick accrual of massively useful chow know-how. Like saving a portion of your paycheck or freezing spaghetti sauce, this is a kindness one does one’s future self. And the fact that my future self must get itself to Falls Church, Virginia, to partake of the fruits of this research matters not. Such knowledge is treasure, and I horde treasure reflexively.

I hit all the following in two afternoons, rarely taking a second bite of anything. And while it left me groaning, I was able to speedily go from deeming northern Virginia a mysterious, vaguely enticing chow area to thinking of it as an old stomping ground. I’ve got a portfolio of great places to return to, plus tempting leads for future investigation.

How did my streak affect things? It’s all about the winnowing. There were probably something like 300 eateries in the area, and around 20 piqued my attention. I actually ordered something at the following 10 places, all of which had something quite noteworthy to offer. I used nothing but my chow-dar intuition to find the following:

Original Pancake House
370 West Broad Street
Falls Church, Virginia
703-891-0148
(Also branches in Bethesda and Rockville.)

The Original Pancake House shows the patina of a great place devolved into ennui. These pumpkin pancakes were merely above average, and I suspect that’s true of much of their offerings. But the menu includes two dishes too wacky and distinctive for the kitchen to have eroded: the apple pancake and the Dutch baby. I don’t need to describe them, because they taste precisely as they look in the following photos.


Pumpkin pancakes.


The apple pancake.


The Dutch baby (undressed).


The Dutch baby (dressed and partially consumed).

From the looks of their website, the Original Pancake people seem to agree that these items are the highlights. I didn’t know that when I ordered … which goes to show that ordermanship is an integral part of the chowconnaissance process.

Jerusalem Restaurant
3405 Payne Street
Falls Church, Virginia


This was an extremely difficult puzzle. Initially, I pulled over because I hoped I’d find Palestinian kunefe (a rare and prized thing) here. Any restaurant called “Jerusalem” is likely to be either Palestinian or Israeli, and it certainly wasn’t the latter. I didn’t expect to see explicit Palestinian references, because Palestinians tend to identify their restaurants as Jordanian.

The menu lists mostly Lebanese dishes, though, which is a whole different thing. And just to confuse me further, the menu included some serious Egyptian dishes.

I ordered a chicken shwarma sandwich, described on the menu as served with garlic sauce and pickles—which is very Lebanese. So I asked for extra toom—the Lebanese term for garlic sauce. The waitress stared at me blankly, and the sandwich came completely toomless; it tasted fine but somehow off. Everything tasted off, in fact. Finally, I chatted up the waitress and learned the present staff is Moroccan!

So they’re trying valiantly to keep up the restaurant’s legacy dishes, though Morocco is a long way, culinarily, from Lebanon. I ordered some Moroccan baked pastries (see photo below), which were wonderful. And I noticed a few errant Moroccan gestures on the menu, including harira (lamb soup) and couscous. I bet they’re real good. Must try next trip.

Bread & Kabob Restaurant
3407-B Payne Street
Falls Church, Virginia
703-845-2900

Too full to even sample. But I’m quite certain it’s top-notch. Hopefully chowhounds will try it and report back on our message boards.

Yas Bakery and Gourmet Foods
131a West Maple Avenue
Vienna, Virginia
703-242-2800
• Saffron ice cream

• Cookies, almond/pistachio

Devastatingly delicious and potent saffron ice cream. More rife with saffron than any other saffron ice cream I’ve had, and they go easy on the rosewater (which, to my taste, tends to overly complicate the flavor). Cookies are good-not-great. Ask for the lemon-washed pistachio nuts, a must-buy in any Iranian grocery. I bet there’s other great stuff here, too. Disclosure: Rob (the military wine geek) told me there’s an Iranian bakery thereabouts, so I was not entirely flying blind, though I will take credit for uncovering the saffron ice cream, which has now become a holy grail must-eat on all future trips to the area.

Victor’s Grill
436 South Washington Street
Falls Church, Virginia

This tiny Bolivian cabin is so intensely insular that you feel like you’ve been transported to La Paz. Things are different in Bolivia, so things can be disorienting here. We walked in at 1:30 p.m., and the waiter approached us gravely. “Lunch is over,” he said (in Spanish), with merciless finality. “Lunch is over?” I repeated, deflated and unbelieving. “Yes. It’s over. No more lunch.” He waited for me to turn and walk out the door, but my panic prompted a creative response. “Then may we have dinner?”

Yes, we may. We were seated and handed menus (the dinner menu, quite inexplicably, is the lunch menu), and we ordered falso conejo (faux rabbit: sauced breaded beef cutlet in a spicy sauce with rice and boiled potatoes) and picante de pollo (spicy chicken: chicken with spicy sauce, boiled potatoes, and rice, served with cut tomatoes and onions). They were out of salteñas (Bolivian baked empanadas) and sopa de maní (spicy peanut soup), but that may be emblematic of the lunch/dinner divide.

To drink, I got a phenomenally unrefreshing glass of refresco de durazno, a tepid, syrupy sweet beverage clobbered with countless tablespoons of cinnamon and containing what appears to be a desiccated llama testicle (actually a dried peach) lying sunken on the bottom.

The food was amazing. I was transported not just to La Paz, but to La Paz 300 years ago. Each plate was an enormous mountain with its own microclimate and gravity (I think I saw the salt and pepper shakers tremblingly pull in as the weighty load was deposited on our table). One could eat and eat and never make a dent. And the cooking is unrepentant. The falso conejo (see photo below), a fiercely oniony delight, uncompromising in every respect, asks, “Can you really handle unstinting authenticity? Can you really face down this blast of spice, this sheer load of unvariegated meat, so primal, so intense? Can you ever hope to so much as run your fork through this quantity of rice?”

The picante de pollo (see photo below) dared me to maintain my notion that I really love chicken. Do I love chicken this much?

I felt like a four-year-old presented with Daddy’s plate (and Daddy lays train tracks in the Bolivian jungle). I ate and ate and ate, made no headway at all, and, with flop sweat on my brow, asked for the rest packed up to go. Defeated, I was expelled from the joint like the clueless pasty gringo I am.

I hadn’t intended this recording for public consumption … it’s just me noting down the items I’d tried for future reference. But the background sounds are transportive, so I’m throwing it in. Don’t listen to me … just catch the vibe: MP3 file.

There were two other great places in the same strip as Victor’s Grill. I regret not sampling the other two, having been knocked nearly unconscious by the experience at Victor’s:

Blanca’s Restaurant
418 South Washington Street
Falls Church, Virginia
703-538-2466

A walk-through revealed fresh tortillas and everything super homemade and alluring. They are Salvadoran but make mostly Mexican. The owner, asked about their pupusas (Salvadoran fried corn pucks stuffed with meat, cheese, or meat and cheese), gleamed at me and said (in Spanish), “Dude, if you’re into pupusas, you’ve just got to try ours.” Not hype. This place rocks. I don’t need to eat there to be sure.

Super Chicken
422 South Washington Street
Falls Church, Virginia
703-538-5366

Killer-looking Peruvian chicken, done over live coals. Even the sides look great. See photos.

Pure poultry porn.


Pure plantain porn.



Feel the high-energy bustle!


Cool mural on the side of the building.


The following two reports don’t stem from chowconnaissance, strictly speaking. Pho 75 is a place Dave had shown me once before, years ago, and Elevation Burger was shown me by Robert.

Pho 75
1711 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, Virginia<br /
703-525-7355

Pho 75, unsurprisingly, makes pho—Vietnamese meaty soup, pronounced like “funk” without the “nk,” and with voice rising as if asking a question. They are expanding wildly (including branches in Philly, which I reported a few installments ago). The big news of this trip is that Vietnamese seems to be springing up everywhere, often beneath the radar. Look for, and get used to, pho, because we’re all going to be eating lots of Vietnamese!

I’d sampled the original location years ago and loved it. This time I tried a more downtown branch, and while the soup’s excellent, it’s a bit less intensely seasoned than I remember. The star anise is particularly reduced—I realized this as I walked in the door (aficionados can distinguish a good pho place with a single sniff). But, hey, I still really liked my soup—soulful broth generously stocked with quality meat. Beware the chili peppers on the condiment platter, which are beyond hot. They produce what feels like a nasty electrical fire on your tongue (pepper heat varies seasonally, though).

Elevation Burger
442 South Washington Street
Falls Church, Virginia
703-237-4343

Elevation Burger is around the corner from Victor’s Grill (which I actually tried the following day). These guys talk a good game: burgers made from Kobe beef … yadda yadda … fries fried in olive oil … yadda. Prices are high. And, much like the lauded Five Guys in Arlington, Elevation Burger produces merely a pretty good burger and fries. Though, in these days of total chain dominance, an honest, pretty good burger and fries probably truly is a gourmet treat worth a premium price.

What I did not check out was the Vietnamese shopping/eating cluster at Seven Corners. The food’s got to be good in this amazing-looking plaza, because it’s so dense with immigrant-patronized restaurants that slackers would never survive. But it’d take days to thoroughly investigate, and I just didn’t have time. I see that Tyler Cowen is trying to catalog some of these venues on his website.

Alexandria, Virginia

Because I’d managed to have only microbites at the places above, I was able to have an actual (late) dinner. I was very disappointed not to have found any Cambodian or Laotian, which I still suspect exist in northern Virginia, but I consoled myself with a Thai blowout at a newish restaurant that Dave Sit discovered in a remote shopping mall. Dave’s correct—this is a terrific place.

Rice and Spice Thai
6466 Landsdowne Court
Alexandria, Virginia
703-339-9775


Just a dumb suburban shopping strip … but such strips can contain hidden treasure!


Dave is baffled by the sheer font size of their table sign.

Chicken larb, full of complexity and rice flour. And yes, that’s a whole lot of chile, son. This stuff was hot ... and as good as any larb I’ve ever had.

Penang curry with chicken (very good, but missing a few elements in the curry sauce).

Basil crispy duck (wonderful, though perhaps—dare I say it?—too spicy).

Siam beef (oh-so-tender and rich).

It takes time to fully decompress from a serious binge of chowconnaissance, so, caught up in the inertia, I felt obliged to sneak in one post-meal bite, a morsel of sashimi from the sushi joint across from Rice and Spice in this unassuming (yet chow-rife) shopping strip. Matsui Sushi, 6408 Landsdowne Centre, Alexandria, Virginia, 703-550-6100, is, as Dave had reported, much better than you’d expect in a suburban shopping strip. I’d never order prepared food there, but the raw fish is quite good.

Jive Tribal … but Great Buffet

Washington, DC

The cafeteria at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, a.k.a. Mitsitam Café, seems enticing. They have separate stations for various regions (“Northern Woodlands,” “Meso America,” “Northwest Coast,” etc.), each presuming to serve regional foods. Who could resist?

I’m ambivalent, so I’m moved to both pan and (tepidly) rave.

Pan:

Restaurant Associates (Nick and Stef’s Steakhouse, Café Centro, Naples 45, etc., plus lots of catering) runs the cafeteria, and this is not a company with a deep commitment to culinary authenticity. Of course, I’d forgive inauthenticity if the food were at least decent. But most of it isn’t (I’d single out the mint agua fresca as the worst thing I’ve put in my mouth in ages). And the place is phenomenally overpriced. And the staff’s not even making an effort (I asked for “posole,” and a manager stared blankly until I said “chicken and corn soup”).

Basically, this is a fake, jive, lousy, crowded place hanging entirely on a hooky shtick that no one involved takes the least bit seriously (a Hispanic woman, displayed like a robot Santa in the Bloomingdale’s Christmas window, looked miserable making tamales from a bad, wrong recipe foisted on her by some corporate gringo scum).

Rave:

The recipes, though adapted, short-cut, compromised, and incompetently rendered from ludicrously substituted ingredients, sometimes show honest underpinnings—fleeting glimpses of real Indian cooking. At the start of the chain of events that led to the present culinary catastrophe, some earnest person seems to have really tried to do right (this individual is likely rotting in the dungeon of Restaurant Associates’ headquarters so that he can’t complain to the press).

The tamales, for example, are wrong, but there are mitigating notes of rightness, and they have a nice creaminess. The Indian pudding (does anyone, by the way, think Indian pudding is actually Indian?) is worth more than a single bite. And the tablespoon of chili ladeled onto my mess of an “Indian taco” (fry bread-– here rendered like cheap carny zeppole) tasted cuminy good.

But the real upside is this: Compared with the overpriced bad renditions of bad food found at other museum cafés in the area, the American Indian Museum’s overpriced poor renditions of interesting foods is a best-of-evils alternative. And so they draw in flocks of lunch-hour workers from the neighborhood, who literally could not do better. And so it’d be a particularly serious mistake to attempt to eat here between noon and 2 p.m.


This sign does not prepare you for what is to come.


Tamale (edible) and blue cornbread (insipid).


Indian taco (a smothered mess, mitigated by a dab of decent chili).


Buffalo flank steak sandwich (tasted like Arby’s).


Indian pudding (pretty good).

BuffetCam videos! Warning: My video skills are still severely lacking. I’m improving, but this footage is still fast, jumpy, and out of focus (which, come to think of it, is actually how I’m feeling nearly two weeks into my trip!).
Movie file

Falls Church, Virginia

On last night’s podcast, you heard Dave Sit raving about his dim sum find. I begged him to bring me there (Lucky Three Chinese Restaurant, 5900 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, Virginia; 703-998-8888).

When it comes to dim sum, Dave is the pickiest of picky. Precious few places merit his consideration, and the smallest shortcoming (slightly overthick dough on the har gow, fried items less than optimally crisp) can ruin his whole day. New York City has a half-dozen top-class dim sum places, but he’ll only eat at the Nice Restaurant on East Broadway, where everything is suitably refined and consistent. So I was stunned to hear that he’s fallen hard for a dim sum buffet, for goodness’ sake. Dave is not a buffet kind of guy!

But see the photos and hear the podcast to understand why this place has won Dave’s heart.

Lucky Three’s unassuming exterior.

Delicious-looking crab (though the Crab Fiend has picked out every single claw).

Podcasts:

I’ve been eating dim sum with Dave for two decades, and I continue to learn new things from him. Listen in so that you can share his tips and perspective:

MP3 file

Dave guides us through the big hot pot of fresh tofu.

MP3 file

Strategies: dim sum buffets versus classic dim sum.

MP3 file

Always select for succulence!

MP3 file

The Crab Fiend

... and the still-bumpy and amateurish BuffetCam:
Movie file.

Note: A suspicious manager came running over to question why I was filming, so I had to give him the Bugs Bunny treatment.

NOVA Wine-Geek Meet-Up (Plus: Eartha “Goes HAL”)

Lancaster County, Pennsylvania


I scored a great slice of whole-wheat shoofly pie at an organic roadside farmstand on my way south from Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Maple Arch Farm is along Route 10 between Parkesburg and Cochranville, Pennsylvania; (610) 593-7105. They’re open May through October (except Sundays).

Thus fortified, I headed down to Our Nation’s Capital. But on the way, I had a terrifying problem with Eartha, my GPS navigation assistant. Hear my podcast: MP3 file. If you doubt the story, go to Google Maps and plug in “Thankless Lane, Rising Sun, MD,” and you’ll see that this is indeed where the scenic route (Route 273, marked “scenic” in maps and atlases) starts diverging from Route 95 as one leaves Lancaster county headed toward DC.

Wine Geek Meet-up

Arlington, Virginia
Having extricated myself from my high-tech nightmare, I made it to DC just in time to throw on a sport jacket and have a blow-out dinner with a couple of friends (who’d never met each other). Robert Mitchell is a former Navy SEAL (he currently “works for the Army mumble mumble mumble project management mumble mumble”) and food/wine aesthete, and Dave Sit is a television executive, playwright, ping-pong champion, crack chef (both French, having studied with Paul Bocuse, and Chinese, having been born in Canton), and food/wine aesthete (his palate and encyclopedic mental database are renowned among collectors). You’ve probably noticed the point where we all intersect.

What I like about both is that while they have somewhat intimidating credentials in their real-life occupations, and have intimidating knowledge and experience in food and wine, there’s not an iota of snobbery between the two of them. They just love and appreciate great stuff, and live to share/analyze/discuss it with kindred spirits.

The photos will give you the idea:

Dave.

Rob (seeking absolution from a morsel of tender short rib).

We hit a newish wine bar/restaurant called Tallula (2761 Washington Boulevard, Arlington, Virginia; 703-778-5051), and it was terrific. It is a wine store, wine bar, and restaurant, and while the store isn’t bargain-priced, the café and restaurant hardly mark up the wines (those last five words are heady music to the ears of any wine geek). Dave and I met for a drink before, and we ordered a slew of Amuse Yourselfs, micro-tapas that are lots of fun to rip through along with wines by the glass. We tried these:

Risotto fritter (roasted corn and scallion, romesco sauce)
Crispy and soulful.

Duck spring roll (confit leg, chipotle chili, orange gastrique)
Well fried, and a wonderful unique flavor mélange, not at all fussy.

Steak tartare (Dijon mustard, capers, Parmesan cheese tuile)
Terrific; worth a visit just for this.

Lobster roll (tarragon aioli, brioche roll)
Good, but a bit blah.

Wild mushroom strudel
Clever and delicious.

Heirloom tomato salad
Fine but unmemorable.

Beer-battered corn dog (chorizo sausage, whole-grain mustard)
Contrived and disastrous; dry and weird.

For entrées, Dave and I ordered short ribs (with creamy cheddar grits and tomato salsa) (left) and house-smoked beef tenderloin (with duck-fat fried potatoes, black truffle, glazed carrots, Zinfandel reduction) (middle); then Robert asked for grilled saddle of venison (with chanterelle mushrooms, napa cabbage, cornbread, and ancho-Syrah reduction) (right). Dave and I were a bit startled. Three red-meat dishes … an ordering faux pas? No. Robert had nailed it; these were exactly the right things to get, and the carnivorous riches went beautifully with wine.



The wine list is excellent, atmosphere is high-end but convivial and laid back, prices are fine for the value, and service is good (one problem: Our waiter only somewhat grudgingly took away a patently bad bottle, which left us miffed, plus left the restaurant out the cost of the bottle, a lose-lose outcome). I’d recommend this place quite strongly. But I need to single out the short ribs, which were fantastic and interesting. The grits were quite firm and polenta-like, ribboned with soulful tomato sauce and dosed up with lots of cumin, evocative of Texas tamales—a beautiful and ingenious backdrop for the exquisitely tender short ribs. Unforgettable!

Join us for the meal via some audio snippets (notice the increasingly slurred speech … and buzzy background crowd—as the meal proceeds):

MP3 file #2

Introducing Dave and Rob.

MP3 file #3

App talk … plus the bittersweet phenomenon of “letting go.”

MP3 file #4

Left brain wine geek/right brain wine geek.

MP3 file #5

Everything’s in duck fat!

MP3 file #6

The 45 Chateau Latour was not ready.

MP3 file #7

Everything great tastes Cantonese.

MP3 file #8

Dave’s Childhood in Canton … and the Butter Story.

MP3 file #9

Heirloom tomatoes are overrated (also: the Dave Matthews fruit).

MP3 file #10

Chateau Palmer is like baseball player Dave Kingman … and why is Jim recording our meal?

MP3 file #11

Rob’s Zinfandel rant and Dave’s bizarre winemaker footware anecdote.

MP3 file #12

Deconstructing the short ribs.

Pennsylvania Dutch Country: Breakfasts, Buffets, and Beery Yearnings

All I’ve ever had in Pennsylvania Dutch Country is super-touristy food. I’ve only eaten in venues with (literally) busloads of tourists, so I was looking forward to digging deeper.

I’m not usually a B&B type of guy, but I figured that if I wanted to “go inside,” I needed to live inside. So I booked a room at the Old Stone Guesthouse (1599 Swan Road, Atglen, Pennsylvania; 888-642-9107), on a farm in the middle of nowhere, and prepared to relax into the simpler ways of centuries past (while, of course, relentlessly reporting on the experience with my flash audio recorder, seven-megapixel digital camera, and PowerBook, and guided via GPS navigation on my late-model Avis rental car blasting digital music through my DLO Transpod iPod Car Solution, and frequently checking email on my Treo). Ah, simplicity!

I think I may have startled Mrs. Stoltzfus as I crashed my way into her quaint premises with my Tasmanian Devil-ish whirlwind of gadgets, luggage, and road-trip manic brio. I tried to scale down and ratchet back, talk slower and less crazy, and say “Ma’am” a lot, but Mrs. Stolfzfus, in spite of her impeccable manners, couldn’t quite conceal her startledness. If you try to book a room at this place and are asked to provide references, you can blame me.

Actually, Mrs. Stoltzfus and I got along great once we got to know each other. Simple as she comes off, her shrewd gaze misses nothing. And her breakfasts are very good. The photos tell the tale. (For shots of the Old Stone Guesthouse itself, see their website.)




This is a local dish called “baked oatmeal,” a wonderful dessert (even after dinner) that can be made from rolled or steel-cut oats. Mrs. Stoltzfus uses rolled oats.


But that’s just breakfast, leaving two meals (or more!) to grab in the surrounding area. So each morning I’d drive off the farm (bidding adieu to the 7,000 turkeys, which looked surprisingly erudite with their craned necks and courtly wattles) to find what I could find.

First, the torture. Mrs. Stoltzfus, an ardent churchgoer, prohibits alcohol on her premises. And though I’m not a big drinker, the injunction gave me a wild and insatiable thirst. So every day, as I’d pass the beer store on the main road at the turnoff for Old Stone Guesthouse, I’d yen mightily. Problem is, you can’t buy individual bottles of beer in Pennsylvania. You can’t even buy six-packs. Only cases. And I had no way of keeping a case of beer chilled without triggering Mrs. Stoltzfus’s watchful eye. So several times a day I’d eye the beer store wistfully as I drove in and out.

The closest excellent beer bars are the Drafting Room (635 North Pottstown Pike, Exton, Pennsylvania; 610-363-0521) and, even better, Black Angus (Route 272, Adamstown, Pennsylvania; 717-484-4386), the superb steakhouse of Stoudt’s Brewing, maker of fine beers (mostly lagers). Black Angus also makes some of the best burgers I’ve ever had. But I didn’t get to either. Instead, in keeping with my Simpler Living aspirations, I went dry and just hit local buffet places where Mrs. Stoltzfus said I’d eat with the locals.

This was another time of guided eating rather than pure chowhounding, but it’s a vast rural area with well-hidden commercial pockets. It doesn’t lend itself to the driving-around school of free chowhounding.

First, a note about names. Yoder, Dienner, and Stoltzfus are the Smith, Jones, and Martin of Pennsylvania Dutch surnames. Most restaurants (as well as other businesses) have one of these three surnames, and though no two identically named places, given the rather hermetic gene pool, can be conclusively deemed “unrelated,” one must avoid falling into the “I think I’ve heard of that place” fallacy. The Dienner’s rotisserie chicken at Reading Market is not the same as Dienner’s buffet. The Yoder’s du jour is a whole other Yoder’s. As with Blarney Stones, cultural continuity belies shared ownership.

As mentioned in my previous report, Yoder’s was a buffet, frequented by locals, with food dismayingly similar to what’s served at tourist traps. My second night, I hit Dienner’s, which was a bit more touristy and actually a little better. The cooking is as charming (and as heavy) as it appears in these photos.



Really, it’s not a tourist/local thing. Even Mrs. Stoltzfus, a talented and caring chef who’s lived a long life on an isolated farm, uses shortcuts like Cool Whip and juice-drink crystals. Pennsylvania Dutch food is inherently unrefined, so the lines blur more easily. And you know what? To use a cliché I despise, it’s all good. There are times I’d rather have commercial-tasting buttery noodles than yet another Chilean sea bass or chocolate mousse cake.

As a postscript to my last report, I’d like to try to sneak in—over the exasperated pique of my editors—what I deem a vitally Important Innovation: BuffetCam, capturing in a mere 20 seconds the breadth of the steam-table offerings at Yoder’s Restaurant in New Holland. Yes, it’s out of focus, bumpy, and too fast. Yes, I missed an entire row of buffet. Yes, I almost took out a startled fellow diner as I shot. And yes, my sneakers are beyond hideous. But I am stoked to giddiness by the possibilities of BuffetCam, and hope you appreciate this new technical marvel, even in this experimental stage of development: Movie file.

One nonfood note—I spent the most relaxing afternoon imaginable wafting down the breathtakingly beautiful Brandywine River in a kayak rented from Northbrook Canoe Co. (1810 Beagle Road, West Chester, Pennsylvania; 800-898-2279). It was absolutely perfect. They also rent canoes and inner tubes. This is, I’ve found, an ideal pastime for between-meal hours in the midst of rigorous chow tours.

Chowhound published the following report six years ago, and it didn’t survive the transition to the new design. But since things change slowly in Amish country, some of this info is likely still useful, so I’m including it here for those planning trips.

Pennsylviania Dutch Secrets

Here are a few insider tips for eating in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, most of which I’m pretty sure you’ve not heard of. If, like me, you’re weary of the Disney Worldish Shartlesville Hotel or Bird-in-Hand Family Restaurant, where tour buses crank out camera-toting diners by the score, you’ll be pleased to learn that there are plenty of places that aren’t commercialized.

Especially interesting on the following list is the church. Church dinners are still a tradition in this region, and they offer some of the best, most authentic eating in this area. You’ll find more info on church dinners and other special community meals in the community calender page of the Reading Eagle.

For what it’s worth, the in-the-know order at church dinners and other nontouristy haunts is pig’s stomach. But also keep an eye out for chicken and waffles; food historians have been struggling mightily to determine the origins of this dish, but it’s been served as long as anyone can remember here in Pennsylvania Dutch country. It serves the snobs right for shunning this homely-but-delicious cuisine for so long!

It’s easy to forget what a short trip this area is from New York City. I think I’ll jump in my chowmobile tomorrow and go get some stewed dried corn. And apple dumplings. And good home fries. And pies. And ice cream. And fried stuff made by people who know how to fry. And apple butter. And (I can hardly contain myself) noodles! Oh, God, how I miss noodles!!!

Many thanks to saxophonist Ron Bertolet and his parents for providing this info. If anyone has comments (or other tips), please leave them on our Pennsylvania Message Board.

Virginville Hotel
Main Street
Virginville, PA 19564
(610) 562-7072

Fancy Pantry
252 West Main Street
Kutztown, PA 19530
(610) 683-8642
Scrapple for breakfast and other good stuff (closes early).

Haag’s Hotel
Third & Main streets
Shartlesville, PA 19554
(610) 488-6692

Belleman’s Church
3650 Belleman’s Church Road
Mohrsville, PA 19541
(610) 926-4280 or (610) 916-1044

Shady Maple Smorgasbord
1352 Main Street
East Earl, PA 17519
(717) 354-8222
Particularly good for scrapple!

Miller’s Smorgasbord
2811 Lincoln Highway East
Ronks, PA 17572
(717) 687-6621

Deitsch Eck Restaurant
Old Routes 22 and 143
Lenhartsville, PA 19534
(610) 562-8520

The following four may be less obscure, but Ron’s parents still think they’re worth a try:

Yoder’s Restaurant & Buffet
14 South Tower Road
New Holland, PA 17557
(717) 354-4748

Stoltzfus Farm Restaurant
Route 772 East
Intercourse, PA 17534
(717) 768-8156
Eat in what looks like a farmhouse.

Good ‘N Plenty Restaurant
150 Eastbrook Road
Smoketown, PA 17576
(717) 394-7111

Plain & Fancy Farm Restaurant
Route 340 East
Bird-in-Hand, PA 17505
(717) 768-4400