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Pennsylvania Is for Potato Chips (and Indonesian)!

Reading Terminal Market

I’m actually losing weight. I just consume microbites when doing this sort of chowconnaissance. The unfortuitous food combinations still leave me feeling vaguely queasy, as if I’ve overeaten, but my total calorie count’s pretty low. The Chowhound Diet.

Reading Terminal Market is a wonderful place, especially Wednesdays through Saturdays, when the Pennsylvania Dutch section is open. I mostly stuck to that area, because 1. the food looked best there, and 2. I wanted to get myself calibrated for my trip to Lancaster County.

MP3 file Hear a podcast.

Podcast notes:

1. Yes, I know it’s pronounced “Redding,” not “Reeding.”
2. My interview subject is, in case it’s not obvious, just this woman who sat down at the next table. That’s how the best chow tips are elicited. Obnoxiousness pays.

The woman in the podcast was right: LeBus Bakery makes wonderful onion rolls. She was right about everything else too.

Hot news: The potato chips at Glick’s Salad look homemade, packaged in unmarked bags. I said in the podcast that they looked like they were fried in vegetable oil rather than lard, but no. I tasted (read: ravaged) them and found them properly lardy (a lard-fried chip emits the bouquet of fried pork chops). And, hot news, I dragged out of the stand’s proprietor the fact that these are repackaged red-bag Good’s chips. To explain: Blue-bag Good’s and red-bag Good’s look similar, and are made by different parts of the same family, but the rivalry is fierce. I’ve long ago taken sides, prefering Ralph Good’s red-bag chips to Lewis Good’s blue. So the glorious upshot is that red-bag Good’s can be found in downtown Philly (albeit repackaged in unmarked bags).

Amish bagels!

Here is the fantastic rotisserie chicken from Dienner’s Bar-B-Q that I was swooning over in the podcast. The wings were stunning—bones shattered easily, yet the meat was consummately moist. Perfection!



Hear a concluding podcast (MP3 file) about the unforgettable smoky ribs from the Rib Stand.


... and also mentioning the great soft handmade buttery pretzels (and very good ice cream) from Fisher’s:


Tracking Wonderful Ena

I’ve been tracking a brilliant Indonesian chef named Ena for many years. I first found her cooking in the basement of the Indonesian Consulate, and the story of her gig there is too good not to tell. Here’s the review I wrote for a guidebook about 10 years ago:

The Cafeteria in the Indonesian Consulate
Atmosphere/Setting: You walk down the stately steps of the Indonesian consulate, into the building’s basement. Open the massive iron door, buzz to be admitted through another set of doors, pass a receptionist (tell her you’re there for lunch), go through still another door and head straight toward what appears to be a large closet. In the center of this closet there’s a single long table (covered with a cheap plastic cloth), at which dignified Indonesian men in suits are eating from paper plates. To the right, in a small alcove, a good-humored Indonesian woman is juggling dozens of pots and pans on her huge antique stove. The smell is positively hypnotizing. Tell her you want to try everything, and go have a seat at the table (grab some plastic utensils from the big central bucket and water from the water cooler) and await bliss.

House Specialties: The menu changes every day; you’ll be served tastes of five or six different things, all piled high on your plate. Luscious possibilities include chicken or fish in spicy peanut sauce, spicy potatoes, tempeh concoctions, a vegetable hodgepodge or other, and lots of perfectly cooked rice. The sole complaint is that the sambal (fiery Indonesian chutney) is usually commercial … but at least it’s a good brand.

Other Recommendations: There’s optional soup, for an extra buck (raising your tab to a whopping $6). Go for it.

Summary and Comments: Not only is this by far the finest Indonesian food in town (perhaps in the entire country), but it’s also a regional style (Sundanese) hard to find cooked this well even in Indonesia. The cuisine will please even skittish eaters; its exoticness lies in the spicing and condiments, while staples are relatively familiar (the chef does cook pretty spicy, but rarely does she apply serious heat as you’d find in, say, Thai restaurants). While nobody minds well-behaved outsiders stopping by, this lunchroom is not particularly seeking our business, either. Be patient about waiting for your food, and expect little in the way of coddling. Remember, this is not a Real Restaurant.

After that, Ena operated a quasilegal catering operation from her home in Queens, and was also, I’d heard, commuting to Philadelphia to run a secret place out there (serving the ever-growing community of Indonesian immigrants). The secret place has blossomed into a full-fledged restaurant, though you’d never know it from its anonymous position on an otherwise purely residential block.

Hardena Restaurant (1754 South Hicks Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 215-271-9442) is full of potfuls, panfuls, trayfuls, and steam tables full of Ena’s great cooking. She couldn’t cook only one thing at a time if she tried. I was almost delirious with happiness tearing through her adobos and vegetable patties and whatever else she piled onto my plate.

This place has been sort of discovered by the Philly food press, but they’re underrating it. Ena is one of the most talented chefs I know, and her restaurant is worth a drive from just about anywhere.


Pennsylvania Dutch Country (Lancaster County)

Then it was down to Pennsylvania Dutch Country, where I completely lost it while shopping at Yoder’s Country Market (14 South Tower Road, New Holland, Pennsylvania; 717-354-4748).

I couldn’t stop snapping photos of the snack food aisle, completely loaded as it was with a huge range of superb local pretzels and lard-fried potato chips, including nearly monumental supplies of both red-bag Good’s and blue-bag Good’s.





Just look at the beautiful variation in brownness among bags of Martin’s pretzels!

It’s downright surreal to see so many holy grail brands presented proudly, and in larger quantity than mainstream brands. It’s as startling as if a Truffaut film were to get top billing at a suburban multiplex. My pulse raced, my brow grew moist, and once I’d exhausted my camera’s flash, I compulsively loaded up a shopping cart with $30.17 worth of snack products:

I’ll assemble a tasting panel next week in North Carolina to work through this mother lode, so watch for my notes.

I ate dinner at Yoeder’s restaurant, near the market in the sprawling Yoder’s compound. Buffet’s the way to go here, and having been all riled up by potato chip shopping, I ate myself into a stupor. This is one of the rare Pennsylvania Dutch restaurants that’s patronized more by locals than by tourists, yet a lot of the food had the same tired-out, commercialized feeling as in the tourist meccas. This is a cuisine one must eat at home—or at church events. The hip church, I’m told, is Belleman’s Church (3650 Belleman’s Church Road, Mohrsville, Pennsylvania; 610-926-4280 or 610-916-1044), but my timing was off. No churches for me.

But along with exhausted greasy noodles and drab salads, Yoder’s did make a few real good things: great bacon salad dressing (quadruple your Lipitor tonight), very good rotisserie chicken, and a revelation: baked oatmeal, made from steel-cut oats and a recipe I need to try to re-create one day (after many return trips to try it again and again). They also do broasted chicken, a licensed term for chicken cooked on a type of frying equipment that was popular in the 1970s but seems to have disappeared everywhere but in this part of Pennsylvania. The fried chicken I tried had been sitting too long, but it’s my fault for dining at the ungodly hour of 7:30 p.m., just before closing. Damned city people …

Philadelphia: Southeast Asian, Shrimp, and the Young Crab Men

Note: Those with limited reading time should scroll down to the “Northern Philadelphia” part, where things started getting amazing.

Downtown

Glatt kosher Maccabeam Restaurant has an unfinished quality to it that’s hard to pin down. You can get the vibe just from looking at the exterior:

I immediately suspected the menu to be land-mined with misses as well as hits, and I stumbled right into one of the former, even after having been warned.

I’d asked the waitress if they really make latkes (potato pancakes), which aren’t usually restaurant food. She answered “yes” in the halting hesitant rhythm that waitresses use to send coded messages. She was telling me to avoid the latkes at all costs. But I never met a latke I couldn’t eat, so I ordered one anyway, along with a falafel sandwich. Assuming I wasn’t hip enough to pick up her signal, she concluded I was a rube and tried the oldest trick in the book.

“That’s ALL? Just a latke and falafel sandwich?” she asked, in wide-eyed disbelief. I grinned, stared her in the eye, and replied “Yeah, just THAT.” I’d seen through the ploy, in spite of my latke gullibility. Perplexed, she retreated to the kitchen.

My order arrived, and … let’s not discuss the latke (suffice to say I spit out my sole bite). My bad. But let’s talk a LOT about the falafel, which was the best Israeli falafel I’ve ever had. This rule of thumb is so exception-prone that some would deem it useless, but I’ll state it nonetheless: Israeli falafel tends to be golden, made from chickpeas, whereas Arabic and North African falafel tends to be greenish and made from fava beans (and herbs). This was chickpea falafal, it was gloriously loose (it burst into microchunks at the mere proximity of molars), and it was optimally crusty in the right places and richly moist in others. This was killer falafel, though the rest of the sandwich—pita, tahini, and salad—was merely functional.

God bless seven-megapixel cameras; the takeout menu is readable in this shot.

Washington Avenue

Philadelphia is blooming with chow. There’s a fairly musty Chinatown, but also a vibrant and burgeoning Vietnamese/Chinese area on Washington Avenue, anchored by the Wing Phat Plaza shopping center (1122–1138 Washington Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania).

Inside the plaza is Pho 75 (1122 Washington Avenue; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 215-271-5866), a very good-looking place for Vietnamese meat soup. It passed the all-essential smell test: If you don’t smell a deep, soulful, herbal aroma upon cracking open the front door, a pho place is no good. Pronunciation tip: Pronounce “pho” like “funk” without the “nk.” And raise your voice, as if asking a question.

Wait; I just noticed that this is a branch of the famous Pho 75 of northern Virginia, which makes my favorite rendition! I should have tried it; if it’s as good as the Arlington location, this place is worth a trek from NYC, which has no great pho. Even better, maybe the chain will keep spreading northward. All join hands in prayer.

There’s also a swell-looking Vietnamese noodle shop and other good stuff inside. And Hung Vuong (1122 Washington Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 215-336-2803), a large Asian supermarket, has a barbecued-meat counter selling very tasty (and reasonably priced) ready-to-eat ribs and other meats.

Further down Washington Avenue is an interesting, brand-new place, BaoBaoHao Chinese Seafood (1100 Washington Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 215-463-2981).

Here’s the menu:


You’ll notice that the menu lists enough Southeast Asian fare to make one suspect that, in spite of the name, this isn’t a Chinese place at all. But it’s very likely the other way around. The vast majority of Southeast Asian restaurants, both here as well as in Southeast Asia, are Chinese owned. Resourceful Chinese chefs learn how to produce local dishes there, just as they conjure up fried chicken wings and egg rolls here in America. My theory is that these guys are Chinese from Malaysia with Vietnamese sympathies.

I caught the grand opening of Saigon Tofu (215-339-0388), which makes their own very good tofu and pretty good Vietnamese bakery items. They also have steam tables with prepared Vietnamese tofu dishes. To my knowledge, there’s nothing like this in New York.


I was so sorry not to have time to actually try a meal at wonderful-looking Café de Laos (1117 South 11th Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 215-467-1546).

Terrific-looking place, no? Their takeout menu particularly intrigued me:


Laotian is a very rare cuisine in this part of the country—I know of no Laotian in the New York tristate area. New York is missing far more things than most people realize. One travels to fill such gaps!

And if Café de Laos rang my chowhound bells, Taqueria la Veracruzana (908 Washington Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 215-465-1440) conked me over the head.

Driving by, I was sure it was great, and having gone in, grabbed a menu, and scanned plates, I’d bet my chowmobile these are among the best tacos in Philly. I also got a good vibe from the fish store/restaurant next door, Anastasi Seafood Ristorante (Ninth and Washington, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 215-462-0550). The place is less than no-frills, but the store has a fresh smell, and a fresh-smelling fish store with scattered tables inside for eating is an opportunity one must never pass up.

I passed it up, though (this sort of rigorous chowconnaissance work requires much sacrifice and trusting of instinct re places that “look good”), because I needed to head to north Philadelphia to scout expensive shrimp bars.

Northern Philadelphia: The Search for Extravagant Shrimp (and More)

In the poor, largely African-American northern reaches of Philly, there are bars with inexpensive drinks, inexpensive bar snacks, and extravagantly priced shrimp. We’re talking $15 to $20 for a half-dozen shrimp. I’ve never understood this phenomenon. As a jazz trombonist, I’ve hung out and performed in black bars all over the country, but I’ve never spotted extravagant shrimp elsewhere. Only in north Philadelphia.

What could be a shaggy dog story has an ending that’s both unsatisfying and triumphant. My quest was complete before I really started. I spotted, seconds after entering the nabe, Sid Booker’s Stinger La Pointe and fell immediately in love.

I can’t entirely grasp the extent of Sid Booker’s empire, but “The Colonel of Shrimp” certainly has a lot more going on than the small bulletproof takeout window at the corner of his vast pink edifice at 4600 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 215-329-4455.

This window was the only portion open at midday, but it sure expelled some mean shrimp. Let me back up, though, to the moment of my arrival at Sid Booker’s Stinger La Pointe, whereupon I pulled over, whipped out my camera, and started photographing the exterior through my car window. A rough-looking fellow in a van that was randomly driving by pulled up right next to me and, scowling in mistrust and malevolence, asked me who I was suing. I replied sunnily that I wasn’t suing anyone, and explained that I was, in fact, a food writer out to find the best shrimp in Philadelphia—and that I suspected I may have just hit pay dirt with Mr. Booker, the Colonel of Shrimp. Scowl turned to puzzlement, and then resolved into a glimmer of respect. “Man, those are the BEST MOTHERF*ING SHRIMP IN TOWN!” he hollered, driving off.

The Indian yoga masters write about “devas,” spirit guides who roam the earth directing human beings through rough times. I was sure I’d just encountered a chowhound deva—with neon wheel rims and a really, really loud stereo, no less.

Coughing in the dust he’d kicked up, but emboldened by his guidance, I stepped up to the window and ordered. The waitress asked me which of a half-dozen seasonings I wanted on my fried shrimp (cocktail sauce, hot sauce, salt-n-pepper, and a bunch of other things listed too fast to catch). I said “Salt and pepper.”

“That’s it? Just salt and pepper?” she asked, strangely parroting the glatt kosher waitress at Maccabeam Restaurant earlier in the day. I asked her to also add hot sauce.

“Nothing else?”

“Well,” I stammered, uneasily, “what else is good?”

“You could have cocktail sauce,” she suggested.

“OK, yeah. Cocktail sauce, too, please.”

“Do you LIKE cocktail sauce?” she asked, having telepathically surmised my aversion to cocktail sauce.

“Sure I do!” I lied.

The bulletproof window slid shut and she went to work, eventually handing me out a boat of fried shrimp and a boat of french fries.

They weren’t, as I’d feared, gloppy with multiple sauces. It was almost as if fries and shrimp had been tossed in a wok with hot sauce (I don’t think she’d applied cocktail sauce). The thinnest film was dried on, crunch was retained, counterpointed with a few happily soggy spots. I discovered that adding ample salt and pepper to Trappy’s Red Devil creates an entirely different result from any of those seasonings on their own. The shrimp were excellent, but the french fries were screamingly good. I think you can get a sense of them from this photo (I’m not a very good photographer, so if this evokes any emotional reaction in you, it’s purely the result of my own overflowing feelings for my subject. With that in mind, please view the french fries and know that you are seeing and feeling what I saw and felt):

Since Sid Booker’s Stinger La Pointe is a bar (and, I’m certain, much, much more), I feel that I fulfilled my extravagant shrimp mission, even though the bar was closed at this time. And these suckers WERE expensive, at $18.50 per dozen. But I still don’t understand why North Philly has developed this culture of expensive shrimp bars. I’ll have to keep hammering away at the puzzle.

Then I hit gold. I found young kids working in a tarp-covered roadside shack, in the poorest part of North Philly, cooking crabs with incredible skill. They worked amid buckets of squirming crabs and buckets of spicy cooked crabs (the spice blend was nothing you’ve ever had before—I think the kids just went to the grocery and bought random spice bottles and shook indiscriminantly, but it’s pure genius).
These are by far the best crabs I’ve ever had. Hear the story of their discovery in this podcast: MP3 file. Please understand that you’re hearing a recording made in a car strewn with severed bits of crab, as if a Tasmanian devil had whipped through the area. My clothes were stained and greasy from head to foot, my hands were completely caked with spices, my lips were swollen with chile—the whole scene must have looked straight out of Silence of the Lambs.

As I say in the podcast, they are near the intersection of Taney and Burkes. As with all previous investigations I’ve done in Philadelphia, it’s as if I dreamed it. Because there is no intersection of Taney and Burkes I can find on any map. Some things must remain a bit mysterious. But at least I have photos:

These young kids were cooking and serving the crabs with unearthly skill and panache.

Alas, my only photo of the staging buckets of crabs turned out blurry. Yet the vibe is still palpable, so I’m leaving this shot in:

Cool mural on the side of the building gets you in the mood for seafood:

My bag of crab … seconds before I devoured it like a crazed animal:

UPDATE:

SUCCESS! The spelling is “Berks,” not “Burkes,” so the locale has
been found and mapped!

North Taney Street and West Berks Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19121.

Unfortunately, I did not spot the Florida Boy’s Street Barbecue truck, which I’d last come upon years ago after countless hours of tracking. My notes from that encounter are sketchy, and Eartha, my GPS navigation concierge, couldn’t make sense out of them (and I had no maps). If you’d like to search for this truck yourself, here are some raw clues. I’m quoting from my scribbled notes:

Delfield and 18th (on Delfield). Or near Woode’s Poing (whatever that is). Or try 16th and Hunting Park Ave.

Happy hunting!

Atlantic City Means “Coors”

I stayed at an Atlantic City casino, and the experience was pretty repulsive. I’m too traumatized to even rant about it. Just avoid the experience if you can. (One interesting note: I spotted “single-deck blackjack” tables. How on earth do they manage that without being beset by card counters?)

Nice nighttime view from the marina, though:

Aversa’s Italian Bakery (3101 Brigantine Boulevard, Brigantine, New Jersey; 609-264-8880) has real good sticky buns. Thanks to Peter Genovese (of the Newark Star-Ledger) for the tip.

MP3 file Listen to the first podcast.


At Tony’s Baltimore Grill (2800 Atlantic Avenue, Atlantic City, New Jersey; 609-345-5766), the sausage pizza slayed me. Sobs of grateful
appreciation to Peter Genovese for the tip.

I asked the rough-looking, pot-bellied bartender, “Is your sausage pizza as good as I’ve heard?” His reply: “When I took this gig, I weighed 150 pounds!” Another customer piped up and said he’d been coming here for 30 years and it still tastes precisely the same now as it did then. The bartender added, “Yup, that’s because we’re still working off the same hunk of dough …”

The bar has lots of gritty 1950s Atlantic City charm, and the only beer on tap is Coors Light. I was resigned to poor-quality suds but nonetheless asked the bartender what he had in bottles. He told me he had “everything.” I asked if he carried Westmalle Trappist Tripel, and he said, “No, but I do have Hoegaarden.” Touché! He even pronounced it the correct way (“HOO-harten”), which almost nobody this side of Belgium does. This touch (along with the excellent Belgian white beer) was the capper on a lunch of intense, memorable pleasure.

MP3 file Hear podcast 2 (and note that I misspoke: Mack & Manco Pizza is in Ocean City, not Atlantic City).





Then on to Ocean City, New Jersey, a totally pleasant place. It’s as if a genie conjured up the summer of your false nostalgia.

There’s a nice boardwalk, surprisingly well stocked with decent-looking food choices.

Best option on the section of boardwalk I scoped out is Mack & Manco Pizza (758 Boardwalk, Ocean City, New Jersey; 609-399-2783). It’s no artisanal pizza, but the buttery cheese is irresistible, and balances have been beautifully worked out over the decades. Time-machine pizza, indeed.

In the case of Kohr Bros. Frozen Custard (Seventh & Boardwalk, Ocean City, New Jersey; 609-399-6327), the years seem to have brought more corner-cutting than refinement. It’s OK, mindless custard, nothing more. Not that that’s a bad thing, mind you …

New Jersey Shows Its Cards

The motto at Chef Charles is “Gotta Put LOVE In Your Cookin’!” (It’s at 6774 Washington Avenue, Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey; 609-641-7338. Ignore the address given on his own website.) I thought his barbecue was just dandy—authentic and very, very good (perhaps not the very peak of deliciousness). The ribs were slightly tough, but I attribute that to my early arrival on a Sunday, shortly after opening. Chef Charles’s soul food is also quite good (especially his slamming candy sweet potatoes and excellent cornbread). For dessert, he had no sweet potato pie, alas. But the lemon pound cake slayed me. It’s unrepentantly greasy, a dessert that says, “Hey, you’ve just been scarfing all those ribs: Drop all pretensions of being fat averse.”

MP3 file Listen to the first podcast.



Kelsey & Kim’s Soul Food (52 North Main Street, Pleasantville, New Jersey; 609-484-8448) is a nice place run by a sincere chef. It’s not set up to do ambitious Southern pit barbecue à la Chef Charles, but it’s one of those places that make up in deliciousness what they lack in authenticity and ambition. The ribs reminded me of Chinese restaurant ribs, because the meat has a penetrating sweetness that’s more addictive than annoying. Great tender texture. Their chicken wings are expertly fried; I’d order anything fried here (I bet the catfish is great).

The Clam Bar (910 Bay Avenue, Somers Point, New Jersey; 609-927-8783) is a lovely rustic seaside haunt. It’s spotlessly clean and run with friendly, expert efficiency. Nice place. Too bad I was too full to really try it.


Crabby Jack’s (on the dock behind the restaurant the Crab Trap, 2 Broadway, Somers Point, New Jersey; 609-927-7377) is a totally fun dockside summertime bar.

While sucking down drinks at Crabby Jack’s, the Newark Star-Ledger’s Peter Genovese and I recorded a manic double interview. (Note: The audio was not speeded up; we really talk like that. Bear in mind I was sucking down sugary rum drinks at a dizzying rate.) We covered the origins of Chowhound, the mission of Munchmobile, the pitfalls of restaurant reviewing, the appallingness of Jet Skis, and my big new discovery (suggested by the dude at a neighboring bar stool): Power Straws.


MP3 file Part One
MP3 file Part Two

Catskills, Cupcakes, and ‘Cuing

Crushing disappointment: I’d been looking forward to breakfast at Shandaken Inn (One Lower Golf Course Road, Shandaken, New York; 845-688-2622), which locals speak of in rapturous tones. Insanely delicious omelets. Little touches. Bucolic, woodsy idyll.

But I was confronted by that bane of chowhounds everywhere: a sign reading “Closed for Private Party.” If I ruled the world, private parties would not be allowed to render entire restaurants inaccessible to their loving and loyal fans. It’s so terribly unfair.

I did poke my head in, and it’s a charismatic, informal country place, sort of like the inn one would imagine at Walden. They rent rooms, which I hear are charming and reasonable. There’s a nice splashy pool out in the grassy back area. I must return.

As I headed out of town, I spotted a hand-scribbled sign for baked goods and screeched into a side-street in a hail of gravel. It was there that I made my first real find of the trip. An elderly woman named Yvonne sits immobile in a hut at the intersection of Route 28 and Ernst Road in Phoenicia, New York (845-688-7340) amid a wide range of knickknacks. (I get the sense that Yvonne is in a more or less perpetual state of garage sale.) I may have been the first person to stop in hours—days? weeks?—and she spun into action, peppering me with homilies, culinary theories, and alternative cupcake-flavor options, her bright, youthful eyes flashing all the while.

I chose a butterscotch cheesecake cupcake and answered “yes” to fresh whipped cream. Yvonne drew from the refrigerator an ancient, heavyweight pastry bag, which emitted the thickest, most luxurious-looking cream imaginable. If you told me Yvonne’s refrigerator was actually a portal to Vienna circa 1870, I’d be inclined to believe you. The flavor of both whipped cream and cupcake was astounding, and a brownie was top-notch and full of personality, as well. (Note: Yvonne is really into moistness; the cheesecake is nearly liquid and even the brownies are runny. Go with it; it’s her aesthetic.) Foolishly scarfing the thing as I drove off, as one does with trifles bought from a roadside stand, I realized I was wrong—blasphemously wrong. I pulled over, got out, and sat, with impeccable posture, on the rear bumper, and gave this amazing pastry the full attention and respect it deserved. Do not pass within 35 miles without stopping at Yvonne’s.

Yvonne clearly comes with an interesting story (I just Googled a clue; see this 1986 article from The New York Times, which says she once owned a restaurant), and she was clearly eager to recount it to me, but I’ll have to wait for another time to hear it, because I was late to meet friends at …

The Hudson Valley Ribfest

Peekskill, New York

Hear my three podcasts:

MP3 file Arriving at the Ribfest.
MP3 file ‘Cue Geek Spiel
I could listen to ‘cue geeks go on all day about their craft. Here, I’m chatting with a fellow from Tennessee who lives up north and enters barbecue competitions on weekends to reconnect with his roots. See photo, below.
MP3 file Ribfest Redux

Photos of Commercial Vendors

Commercial vendor (“Eat well, stay fit, die anyway!”).

Another commercial vendor.

The third and final commercial vendor.

Photos of Amateur Competitors

Barbecue geek (a Tennessee fellow who lives up north and does barbecue competitions on weekends to reconnect with his roots … that’s him speaking in the ‘Cue Geek Spiel podcast, above).

Newbies on the circuit with their tiny little grill, next to veteran competitors with top-end equipment.

A drinkin’ team.

My party works through disappointing fare from the commercial vendors.

4H Milkshake Tent

Master chowhound Barry Strugatz always swears by milkshakes made by 4-H Club girls at county fairs. So I eagerly made my way to the 4-H milkshake window, where I spied bored-looking girls desultorily scooping cheap ice cream and squirting cheap generic syrups from big plastic containers. The shakes cost something like $4 each, and the whole thing showed no promise at all. But all the quality was injected during the final blending stage, which was managed by the only perky, cheerful girl in the entire squadron. On request, she recited the 4-H pledge. I forget what all the Hs stand for, but one of them is surely “Helluva milk shake”—a perfect, old-school rendition.

Strictly Local Legends
Mendham, New Jersey

New Jersey is chock-full of local food legends—places to eat that are widely known and loved within their areas, but never written about or patronized by outsiders. I find it irresistible to try to uncover as many of these as possible.

My cousins Bob and Cindy have for years regaled me with tales of Sammy’s Ye Old Cider Mill (353 Mendham Road West [Route 24], Mendham, New Jersey, 973-543-7675), a super-quirky, super-expensive local steakhouse established in 1933 and still run by the same family. They were certain I’d get a kick out of this extraordinarily characterful place, but, as is often the case with local legends, they were unsure whether the place stacks up in terms of pure deliciousness.

MP3 file Hear Bob and Cindy’s pre-meal briefing.

Sammy’s was actually startlingly good. The house salad (iceberg hued deep brown from way too much vinegar) was as off-putting as I’d been warned, but everything else rocked. Lobster was primo quality and cooked by a kitchen that really understands lobster; lamb chops were humongous, charry, and juicy; and superbly fried shrimp were doused with perfectly balanced lemon garlic sauce for scampi—a rendition I’ll forever hanker for. Sammy’s crunchy, slightly overcooked shoestring fries were fun. There’s great stuff to eat here, and you unquestionably walk out the door feeling like you’ve been somewhere.

MP3 file Hear Bob and Cindy’s post-meal appraisal.

Sammy’s (no signs!).

Across the street: Sammy’s Cider Mill.

Sammy’s dining room (it really feels this blurry; a clear photo simply couldn’t capture it).

Sammy himself!

In Which Both Jim’s Credo and Upstate New York Are Unveiled

Many people think Kingston, New York, is a scrubby, scruffy place. Aw, contraire! There’s a charming part of town, with some good things to eat. I was hoping to hit Armadillo Bar & Grill (97 Abeel Street, 845-339-1550), which I’d heard boasts a Jewish owner, a Chinese chef, and a menu stocked with Oaxacan moles, rabbit posole, and awesome hamburgers.

Eartha, my GPS navigating assistant, had trouble getting her bearings, so it was a major ordeal to find the place. And it was, alas, closed (at lunchtime on a Friday?). Down the block, the Bridgewater Bar & Grill (50 Abeel Street, Kingston, New York; 845-340-4272), in a weather-worn antique brick building, looked intriguing. And it, too, was closed for Friday lunch. At this point, my friend Jan and I decided to opt for the touristic pleasure of a “fun” clam bar and margarita joint with outdoor patio perched picturesquely on a creek under a bridge. At Mariner’s Harbor (1 Broadway, Kingston, New York), the crab cakes were unfocused, the mussels slightly funky, and I bet the menu includes a bunch of other must-avoids. But the shrimp scampi was wonderful, and lobster salad was quite good. A local microbrew was available in stout, IPA, and pilsner flavors, and was fresh and creamy-delicious. Plus the staff was super-nice. We basked in the sunshine and sucked down beer and were happy. And happiness counts for a lot.

But we came away with different assessments. Jan averaged the peaks and troughs and offered a firm opinion of “so-so.” But I weight the peaks. A restaurant where everything is horrendous but one item is fantastic is, to me, a great restaurant. Jan deems that overly lenient, but consider your favorite restaurant. Its menu surely includes a few losers, and if one were to hit several on first visit, it might overly tarnish one’s opinion.

The restaurant critic’s fallacy is to underrate places where poor dishes were encountered early and good ones later. One must focus on the deliciousness. In fact, that’s a credo for life itself!

Just up the block, nice, sweetly charming, unfancy cookies and such are available at Alternative Bakery (35 Broadway, Kingston, New York; 845-331-5517). Also, quietly, a full stock of frozen Brazilian hors d’oeuvres.

Walton, New York

I’m such a sucker for rural county fairs. I drive hundreds of miles, seduced by dreams of cherry pie competitions, serious soulful fried chicken, jams, jellies, and all the other things America once prided itself on cooking and eating. I hope to find a window to simpler, better times before modern marketing convinced the masses that highly processed soulless crap is the normal, comfortable thing to eat.

The Delaware County Fair

Not even the Delaware County Fair—a relatively small, remote event at the northern edge of the Catskills mountains in upstate New York—has escaped the marketing juggernaut. Nearly all of the fair’s food offerings came from the same carnie concessions you’d find in Staten Island or any suburban sprawl. Funnel cakes, pizza, bloomin’ onions, fried dough, and the like were all slung by grizzled folks in shiny booths. Feelingless food with no sense of place.

I was exultant, though, at coming upon the Treadwell Franklin Walton United Methodist Church Pancake Griddle.

This was entirely a family operation, and the pancakes were light, airy, tangy, and ever so lively tasting. They were perfect. Of course, breakfast was not what I’d been hoping for at 6 p.m. after a long, hungry drive, but chowhounding means availing oneself of greatness when it arises, regardless of personal preference. So pancakes I had.

My waitress, a bright-eyed young teen, was an electronics whiz who required 15 seconds to decode all the controls on my new camera and have me fluently working the thing as I awaited my flapjacks. I wolfed down a plate of delightful pancakes, alone on a picnic table hours from home, with the stench of cow manure heavy in the air. The cashier, a feisty older woman, smiled and looked me in the eye as she handed me my change. I felt a chowhoundish bittersweetness—wishing I could be Methodist and part of the swell gang giving rise to these superb pancakes, but also a feeling of gratitude for being welcomed into the fold for just a moment. In the end, this brief encounter was worth the ride.

Amid the carnie dreck was one item of interest: potato ribbons. This is apparently a new carnival invention, but it’s spreading fast (I saw numerous booths making it). It looks like a vat of freshly fried potato chips, but as you hoist one chip, all the others hoist along with it, like a greasy tuberous string. Topped with (real) bacon bits, chives, and/or cheese, it’s irresistible—albeit trashy. No soul was applied, but the great thing about fried potatoes is that they are so inherently soulful that they make their own spiritual gravy.

Potato ribbons made a fine accompaniment to the plumes of dust and wafts of carbon monoxide fumes at the fair’s demolition derby.

The Streak

Editor’s note: Jim’s second report shines some light onto his phenomenal 10-month food streak. Will it last through the CHOWTour? Check back daily to find out.

MP3 file


The Streak
Heading upstate on the first leg of the CHOWTour, Jim describes “The Streak.”

The Night Before

Note from CHOW managing editor Davina Baum: Many of you know that Jim Leff is on the road, traveling the country in search of “edible treasure.” Here’s his first post—not quite from the road, but pre-road.

We’ll be building a bigger CHOWTour area shortly, so check back for more action. Take a look at the CHOWTour board and get the discussion going. Now, on to Jim …

I’m sitting in my living room in Queens, New York, gnawing celery sticks and sipping diet soda in anticipation of the gastronomic punishment to come.

Here’s the plan: Armed with a camera, a recorder, a notebook, and endless joie de manger, I will spend two months on the road, following my intuition and putting years of chowhounding experience to the test. My goal is to find edible treasure cooked with heart and soul, prepared by the holdouts, kooks, and geniuses who aim for much more than maximal profit from minimal effort.

As a dedicated chowhound, I have an insatiable desire to soak up experiences outside the slick bubble. I refuse to be distracted by the shiny bauble of hype. Even in this plastic era of pandemic soul-stifling chains, there are still compellingly unique destinations. It’s just a matter of drilling down to find the local gems. I will Photoshop out the Applebee’s and Denny’s from my chowscape.

There’s no cheating allowed. I won’t call local food critics for tips, I’ll carry no guidebooks, and I won’t even scour through the Chowhound message boards (reliable though they are for excavating under-radar deliciousness).

There are risks, of course, in dropping in to strange places and expecting to eat superbly. That’s why the crashes might be the most interesting parts. There may be stretches where I fail to score, perhaps even resorting—in moments of extreme deprivation—to victuals that are merely adequate. But don’t bet against me. You see, I’m on quite a streak. (I’ll podcast about that shortly … keep following along!)

The trip won’t all be pure chowhounding. There are people to meet—I can’t wait to introduce you to my friend Rob, a Navy SEAL commander/wine expert who gushes in floridly poetical terms on food and drink—and there are some specific events and venues I plan to check out. But mostly, I’ll aim to get lost.

Right now, though, I’ve got gear to pack and about two thousand sit-ups to do.