New York Foodie – The Best Places for Food Shopping in New York City

by Sarah Spigelman exclusive for Vagobond

Murray's Chees Shop

New York isn’t just the best place to eat; it’s one of the best places to shop for food. No need to subscribe to pricey specialty food email lists to obtain the latest in hard-to–source foods.

Stop stockpiling foreign candy that gets you in trouble with customs every time you try to come back from London. And please…let’s say goodbye to big box supermarkets that sell tomatoes that look gorgeous and taste like candle wax.

Here are just a few of Manhattan’s very best food stores, sure to give you everything you need to feast at home.

KalustyanKalustyan’s – this Indian food emporium offers literally anything you will need to make a meal from the subcontinent. There is a wall full of spices so potent that your eyes may tear – but at the same time, your mouth will water. Need paneer, chickpea flour, or kaffir lime? They have it. Or maybe you want a huge bag of Brazil nuts, strained yogurt from Greece, or foreign candy bars. Don’t sweat; they have that here, too. If all else fails, you at least owe it you yourself to try some food at the tiny upstairs café. It might not be fancy, but it is the best Indian food that you can get outside of your Bengali mom’s house.

Eataly—Mario Batali strikes gold again with this humongous Italian emporium. This place isn’t just a supermarket; it is a full-on destination. Along with the piles of exotic mushrooms, Italian dried pastas, and imported fruit like Sicilian blood oranges, you can have cooking lessons or wine classes. There is a European style food hall, with many small restaurants focusing on just one thing – fish, vegetables, pizza, or pasta. Also, stand at counters and try meats, cheese, or wines. Finally, for the ultimate experience, head to Manzo, an acclaimed beef focused restaurant right in the heart of the bustling store.

Zabar’s-come on to the UWS for a little nosh. This is the place where you come for Sunday brunch – for soft, chewy bagels, whipped cream cheese,Zabar's and the gest assortment of smoked fish in the city. Smoked salmon, kippered salmon, smoked trout, whitefish salad, and everything else you can imagine to make a fantastic spread. Also load up on gourmet olives, luscious cheeses, homemade hummus, and artisanal crackers and breads. Don’t underestimate the stuff you can get at Zabar’s –they roast their own chickens; have an extensive prepared food section, and a coffee section that carries the aroma of the best Starbucks in the world.

Esposito's Meats by afagenEsposito’s – this old school butcher shop is what NYC used to be like, before the infusion of big chain grocery stores. Esposito’s is a tiny store in Hell’s Kitchen where anything and everything meat can be yours. Shins, marrow bones, veal breast, and whole baby goat – literally, anything that you want is either in stock or will be ordered for you. The fellas behind the counter couldn’t be more accommodating or helpful –they will tell you how to cook that chicken breast so it is tender and flavorful. Pick up some homemade mozzarella and local Italian bread while you are there and make sandwich fit for a king.

Hmart 1 by @JyonnnnHMart—goodbye, USA, hello Korea. This store, where the windows are papered and the location is in the middle of a harried street, houses an entirely different world. A world of 50 lb. bags of rice and dried squid sold like potato chips. A world of thinly sliced sashimi and an entire freezer case filled with dumplings and potstickers. A world of peach flavored gummies, coffee flavored milk, and instant noodles that are way beyond the stuff you had in college. It’s also a world of prepared bibimbap, kimpab, and anything that you might need to take a gustatory trip to Korea.

Hells Kitchen Tour – New York’s Foodie Hotbed

by Sarah Spigelman for Vagobond.com

Hell's Kitchen Foodie TourSaying you are going to visit New York is like saying you are going shopping. Where? For what? With whom? So it’s time to stop being vague and start being specific. Let’s talk about neighborhoods – each neighborhood in NYC has its own character and purpose, and you can easily spend an afternoon eating and drinking your way through them without ever having to descend into the train stations or spend money on a cab. One of the best neighborhoods for adventurous foodies is Hell’s Kitchen.

Hell’s Kitchen, roughly 40th-60th streets on 9th and 10th avenues, got its name from the time when West Side Story was written. It used to be a rough hood, full of gang strife and hoodlums. Even through the 80s, a nice kid like me would never walk west of 8th avenue – it was just not a savory neighborhood.

However, the cleaning up of Times Square has brought good along with the evils of Applebee’s, and some of that is that Hell’s kitchen has become safe while retaining its many wonderful ethnic restaurants. Starting south all the way uptown, you can literally develop gout from the delicacies:

Sandwich Planet – (http://www.sandwichplanet.com) ignore the $27 dollar BLTs elsewhere and come right here for the best things between sliced bread. Ignore the fact that it is located on the “wrong” side of Port Authority. Come for the reasonably priced beers, the thick milkshakes, and the truly unbelievable sandwiches. Served on artisan bread and with the best ingredients possible, these babies are chock full of home roasted turkey, fresh vegetables, and served with handmade fries. Order a burger for something different – they are some of the best and juiciest in town, served on tangy sourdough bread.

Hell's Kitchen Foodie Tour99 Cent Pizza (569 9th Ave) artisanal this ain’t, but you have to love how day or night, Christmas or New Year’s Day, whenever you want, you can get a slice for just a dollar. This place won’t win any prizes for originality, but its thin crust under oregano heavy sauce and oil slicked, bubbly cheese is nostalgic and comforting at 2 am after a long night.

Esca – (http://www.esca-nyc.com) debatably the best seafood restaurant in town. This Mario Batali joint is part owned and run by its chef, Dave Pasternack, who goes out fishing to bring back the best that he can offer. The menu often changes twice daily, so customers know that they are getting the best seafood possible. The crudo are always fresh and clean, the pastas are handmade, and the affogato is a delight. As a bonus, the wine list is extensive and interesting. This isn’t cheap, but the food is so fresh and flavorful that you won’t mind dropping few bucks.

Amy’s Bread – (http://www.amysbread.com) if you want bread, this is where you come. There are better cakes and cookies to be had, but the bread here is incredible – that is why there is always a line extending out the door of this tiny shop, from dawn till dusk when it closes. Go for the potato dill, the fennel raisin, or the chocolate sourdough twists. The breads are unique, baked daily, and beg to be tasted the minute you have a loaf in your hot little hands.

Hell's Kitchen Foodie TourPam Real Thai – (http://www.pamrealthaifood.com) there are many Thai restaurants that line 9th avenue, but none is as spicy, as garlicky, and as mind-blowingly funky as Pam’s. Both of her locations, just 2 blocks apart, serve up home-style Thai food that is closer to what you might get in Thailand than what you might get in NYC. The pad kee mao is especially hot and flavorful, redolent of garlic, chiles, and fish sauce. Order it extra spicy for a hit of chiles that will have you wiping your brow. Cheap beers and dollar sodas finish off an awesome deal.

Azuri— (http://www.azuricafe.com) bye bye soup Nazi, hello falafel Nazi. Though Ezra Cohen may growl at you if you take too long to order, the chastisement is worth it. Juicy grilled meats, smoky babaganoush, crisp falafel, and fiery hot sauce is among the best in the city. You may feel yourself transported to Israel by way of this truly exemplary food.

Luxury Vacation Condo & Private Chef in Gulf Shores, Alabama

Story by Linda Kissam by Vagobond

Gulf Shores AlabamaWho said the experience of a lifetime has to happen in some far off place? Holidaying at a luxury vacation home rental in the USA can be as memorable as anything in Italy, St. Croix, or any other exotic locale. The United States itself is so diverse that it borrows elements from all of the world’s best destinations. What is your idea of the perfect vacation? Is it a whirlwind of activities or a kick-back stay and play? If it’s the later and includes a luxury condo, sugar white beaches, crystal clear waters and a private chef, I have the vacation of a lifetime for you. It was a unique experience for me, and one that I highly recommend for you.

What would you give to stay on the beach and out of the kitchen, unpack once, throw your purse and smart phone on a chair and head out to the water? Ahhh, I sense I have your attention. Think the Dunes Subdivision just 19.5 miles west of Gulf Shores, Alabama on Fort Morgan Parkway. Along with your luxe rental, hire an experienced local, private chef from near-by Orange Beach to prepare gourmet meals customized to your taste buds. Sit back, relax and enjoy the ocean breezes. No shopping, no meal prep, no cleaning up. Serious luxury living.

Gulf Shores Alabama Private ChefGulf Shores has a distinct food culture that you’ll not find anywhere else in the world and a private chef is guaranteed to bring the best of the Gulf shore directly to your vacation tabletop. A private chef is a wonderful way to expand your knowledge of the area’s cuisine without ever leaving the comforts of your villa. Who would I recommend? Chef Chris Sherrill – celebrated chef and owner of EAT! Restaurant and Staycations Catering in Orange Beach.

First things, first. When the sugar white sand beaches and blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico start calling your name, Kaiser Realty, Inc. is a good place to start your Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Vacation rentals search. Located in charming Gulf Shores, Kaiser Realty, Inc. welcomes guests from around the world to enjoy a fantastic vacation experience along the Alabama Gulf Coast in one of the areas most luxe rental homes or beach condominiums. With properties sprinkled along the 32 miles of pristine white sand beaches accommodating singles, couples and large groups, you are going to easily find your perfect vacation rental. Kaiser Realty, Inc.’s ability to accommodate groups of any size makes creating a successful beach vacation in Gulf Shores/Orange Beach a breeze. Specializing in romantic getaways, family vacations and large group accommodations, their expert staff will pair you with the best property for you and your idea of the perfect vacation.

Gulf Shores Alabama My condo experience was the “CARPE DIEM:: GULF FRONT” featuring 6 bedrooms and 7 baths. It is a direct Gulf-front property. Off the beaten path between the sparkling waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Mobile Bay, the Fort Morgan Peninsula offers privacy, but easy access to area attractions. All homes within this subdivision have access to a swimming pool, located approximately 1 block north. Carpe Diem is conveniently located to 2 of this area’s finest golf courses. This home features lots of extras including a wet bar, 61″ TV with a home theater system, DVD player. Trust me; this is anybody’s dream vacation home. Here’s some (subject to change) pricing for you. Seven nights in peak summer $7,697.28 (there is a week minimum required in summer and peak season); 7 nights in winter $3,127.26; 4 nights in winter $2,172.46 (there is only a 4 night minimum required in “off” seasons). Adding a private chef to make the meals was a separate cost, but such an excellent decision.

Gulf Shores Alabama Private ChefOnce you find your perfect accommodations, call up Chef Sherrill to let him know what you want. Chef graduated from Johnson and Wales University in Charleston, S.C. in 1998 and has been a successful chef and entrepreneur for over 10 years. Chef was selected to be part of eight Gulf-area chefs to participate in the “Spirit of the Gulf, “a series of food and music events specifically designed for the US Olympic team and their families during the 2012 Olympic games.

What does Chef Sherrill do for his vacation condo clients? “We cook condo meals on site. The menu is handpicked by the client and my suggestions per seasonal and fresh product (produce and seafood). We take extra care to make sure food allergies and cultures are taken into consideration.” I asked Chef what Gulf Shores Alabama Private Chefthe benefits of having a personal chef prepare meals at a client’s vacation home. “Benefits? No wait versus standing in line during the summer. Many restaurants are on a 2 hour wait. Drink and eat in the comfort of your condo. Children can be served a separate meal early and the adults can eat at a later time. BEACHFRONT DINING!!!!!” I agree!

 

Resources:

Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Visitor Info – http://www.gulfshores.com/

New York Foodie – Emergency Dinner Spots in NYC

by Sarah Spiegelman  for Vagobond

Katz's Deli NYC Food emergencies happen! You just have to deal with it. Here are a few emergency dinner situations and how to make the most of them in New York City.

– Maybe you are meeting your parents they refuse to go far from their hotel.

– Maybe you are dining with friends who are just too cheap to pony up for a pizza that costs more than $10.

But, whatever the case, you can almost ALWAYS dine at somewhere a little better than what would have been if you are the one to suggest a place, and it is somewhat within the parameters that you or someone else has set.

There are just too many places in NYC to allow even one meal to be less than delicious. Follow this guide to ensure that the only time you eat a less-than-good meal in NYC is when you are in the airport.

Spice Market NYCLast Minute Party Reservations—so you couldn’t get into Buddakkan for your girlfriend’s last minute I’m-turning-35-and-freaking-out huge birthday bash? All you need is to keep an open mind and check out Open Table.

Go with a hip spot like Spice Market, The Stanton Social, or Tao – all places that specialize in small plates with strong Asian flavors. The only difference is that they are a little less popular with the Sex and the City crowd of tourists. These should be easier to get into and still give your friend a wonderful party. Don’t forget to ask for a prix fixe so everyone knows how much they are paying going in.

Dinner with Parents-

If your parents are visiting from Ohio, chances are that they are either so enamored with the bright lights of the city that they won’t want to leave their Times Square hotel area or that they are so disgusted with NYC that they won’t want to leave their hotel room.

Either way, you owe it to them to show them that NYC is more than just the Naked Cowboy and buying fake handbags. For a really NYC experience, pony up for the cab and take them down to Katz’s on the lower east side. IF they have never had real NYC Jewish Deli, they haven’t experienced NYC at all. Get a pastrami sandwich, a potato knish, and an ice cold Dr. Brown’s cream soda.

Tocqueville NYCIf they want a more relaxed dining experience, take them to the John’s in midtown. Spoiler alert – it really IS as good as the John’s downtown, takes reservations, and is far easier to get into. Get a cheese pizza and treat them to a real taste of NYC.

Dinner with Snooty Boss –

If your boss asks you to have dinner with him that night, but YOU had better make the reservation, and for 9 pm nonetheless, don’t even try to get into Jean-Georges of Babbo. Isn’t gonna happen.

Instead, head straight to Tocqueville. This gorgeous Union-Square area eatery offers high end green-market driven fare in an elegant setting. Come wearing a suit, don’t miss the scallops and foie gras, and be sure to ask for a kitchen tour when you are done dining.

Last Minute Brunch on Upper West Side-Gazala's Place NYC Druze Food

Friends pop in last minute? Don’t run out and get a stale bagel, and do NOT head to Sarabeth’s. Rather, go retro with brunch at Big Daddy’s. This 50’s style diner specializes in big portions of home-style favorites like omelettes, pancakes, and from-scratch tater- tots. There are quite a few kids there, but if that bothers you, just have another bloody Mary – they are delicious and strong!

Dinner with Skinflint Friends –

Cheap friends doesn’t have to mean a cheap experience. Head to Hell’s Kitchen and go to Gazala Place, the best Druze food this side of the dead sea. Load up on tabbouleh, falafel, and homemade bourekas in this tiny cash only spot where the food is way too good to be this cheap. You will struggle to spend $15 and will leave totally stuffed. Bonus – the spot is BYOB.

Got another favorite NYCX Emergency Dinner Spot? Let us know on our  Facebook page!

 

NYC Restaurants You Won’t Find On Other Lists – Yet

by Sarah Spigelman for Vagobond.com

NYC EatsNew York is full of fantastic restaurants – not just fancy-pants tasting menu affairs, but also down and dirty hot dog stands, pop up restaurants, and everything in between. The thing is, people know to go to Katz’s for pastrami. They know about PDT for craft cocktails, and if one more person says “gee, have you ever been to Norma’s for breakfast?,” the universe may implode.

There are unexpected places that you can get great meals in the city, from an amazing burger inside a department store (see the pic), to authentic Mission Mexican food up on the rather frigid Upper East Side, to insanely good ramen right on the other side of …Port Authority? Read up on this list of places that you won’t see on Eater’s Hot List any time soon.

Best Department Store Lunch –David Burke in Bloomingdale’s. The food isn’t cheap here, but it is delicious and the portions are humongous. For two people, order one serving of the Juicy Burkey and prepare to be stuffed. This monster burger is two patties, each stuffed with ribbons of tangy cheddar cheese and savory grilled onions. The meat is loosely packed and cooked until rosy but not dripping…an ideal medium rare. The accompanying duck fat fries are crispy outside and fluffy inside, with just enough meaty essence to compete with the burger.

Best UWS Spot that Should Be in the West Village – Vai. Vai in no way feels like it is on the UWS, a neighborhood famous for parents teaching their kids about mergers and acquisitions before they can poop on the toilet. This tiny restaurant is dark, sleek, and romantic, with a large bar and candles illuminating the dark room. The menu is varied, taking influences from Italy, Spain, and France. The crudo is as fresh as that at Dave Pasternack’s esteemed Esca, and the beef duo with short rib and flet mignon is rich, buttery, and multifaceted. Don’t miss the coffee service, which comes with 4 different types of sugars. And, don’t wear a sweatshirt – the crowd here dresses to impress.

NYC FoodieBest Hotel Restaurant – Koi. Hotel restaurants are notoriously hideous – overpriced banquet halls serving up iceberg salad with overcooked prime rib for a small fortune. Koi in the Bryant Park Hotel is stupidly expensive, but it has food that is unparalleled in the city. The signature spicy tuna on crispy rice is a triumph, and worth every penny – fresh, fiery tuna atop crispy, salty, butter-soy-sauced rice cakes. The crowd of beautiful people is as delicious to watch as the food is to eat.

Best Cheap Eats on the UES – Dos Toros. This mini-chain of Californian-Mexican restaurants offers sensational burritos at under $10 a pop – a bargain in the neighborhood of the $28 Ceaser Salad. Get the works, with fresh guacamole, juicy carnitas, and a hit of their own fiery habanero hjot sauce. If you aren’t stuffed yet, grab an ice cold beer and some chpis to go, too.

Ramen in NYCBest Trip to Japan – Tabata. Don’t bother with Ippudom, Totto Ramen, or any of the insanely crowded ramen restaurants to get your n oodle fix. Head to the southwest side of Port Authority for delicious ramen in a less than desireable neighborhood. The ramen here is all chicken-broth based, so it is considerably lighter than most other places, that offer pork based ramen. Go for the “Hellishly Spicy” Geki Kara ramen for a soup that is hot and garlicky, layered with fresh scallions, slices of juicy pork, and a soft boiled egg. Get there early to ensure that you get a seat in the tiny restaurant.

Best Ice Cream – Eddie’s Sweet Shop. Don’t even mention Serendipity in the same breath as this ancient Forest Hills ice cream parlor. Everything here is homemade, from the rich ice cream to the gooey hot chocolate sauce to the pillowy, almost custardy whipped cream. The décor is straight out of a Gibson Girl lithograph, and on a Saturday afternoon you are likely to see families, grandparents, and teenagers on a first date all here at the same time. Ice cream is the great equalizer.

Sarah Spigelman is a New York based food writer, recipe developer, and blogger. She writes for Bites at The Today Show, Whisked Foodie, and Northeast Flavor, among other publications. She loves luxurious hotels, inexpensive clothing, and “Mad Men.” Whenever she is not searching for the spiciest kimchi in NYC, she can be found at her website.

Old Pasadena Walking Food Tour A Melting Pot of Flavors

Pasadena Food TourStory by Linda Kissam for Vagobond.com

What could be better than to taste your way through historic Old Town Pasadena, California?

Thanks to the popularity and growth of food-obsessed walking tours and local Melting Pot Food Tours (based in Southern California) tourists, visitors, and locals can get to know the unique culinary neighborhood that makes up this special city.

On a beautiful June weekend morning, Melting Pot Tours treated a team of press people to an unforgettable 3-hour, 1.5 mile epicurean excursion to enjoy some of the best off the beaten path artisanal restaurants and unique shops in heart of Old Pasadena.

The tour group met in front of a local wine store and was made up of about 10 people from all kinds of places, ages, and walks of life. The tour started promptly with a quick explanation of the day’s itinerary. The walking pace and amount of information given was perfect. My group especially appreciated that owner/tour guide Lisa kept us on task and on schedule. We never felt rushed, but neither did we feel bored at any time.

Pasadena Food TourOld Pasadena is well known for its food. Delicacies of every variety can be found throughout the city, from dim sum to truffles. Our tour took us to an eclectic mixture of nine great shops, cafes, and restaurants. Each tour is different so you can go multiple times and experience something different each time. Ours took us to an old-world boutique chocolate shop, an award-winning gelato shop, an authentic Mexican torta café, a Mediterranean café serving crispy falafel balls, an edgy Asian fusion restaurant (the group’s favorite stop of the day), an exquisite olive store, a delightful family-owned and operated Peruvian style restaurant, a gourmet tea and herb shop—complete with a tea bar- and an upscale soap shop. If there’s one thing the owners of Melting Pot Tours know—it’s good food!

Pasadena Food TourEach place was thoughtfully chosen to be unique and probably not something I would have found on your own. In my opinion Melting Pot delivered on its promise, “…to entertain and educate locals and visitors alike.” At just $53 (adults) and $28 (children) this is the bargain of the century. I’ve taken similar food walking tours for double and triple the price.

A walking food tour is appropriate for almost anyone, but is best suited to adults with a curiosity about local food, architecture and history. The dining experience will provide enough food to satisfy any appetite. Water is the only beverage served, but you can purchase other beverages if you like. My advice is to wear sun block, comfortable shoes and a hat if it’s a hot day. No time has been set aside for shopping, so you’ll most likely have to go back on your own time if you see a special treasure you want. The route is flat, but if you have knee or hip issues, the course will be a challenge for you. Each stop is less than 10 minutes from the next one and you will be spending about 20 minutes or so at each stop.

Pasadena Food TourTours are given year round (except major holidays). Guides are patient, knowledgeable and engaging. Most are day tours, although April – October an evening tour is added on. Feel free to join an already organized group or you can book a private tour with 10 or more people. Advance tickets are required. So come hungry and be excited about the Old Pasadena Walking Tour, as you eat your way through the best restaurants, and shop your way through some of the most unique shops in the diverse, best tasting city in Southern California, Old Pasadena.

Once you finish your foodie tour, think about strolling back over to the Everson Royce (ER) wine shop and tasting bar (named for owner Randy Clement’s two twin boys). The shop is located across from Memorial Park where the food tour started. April Langford and Randy Clement have created a shop that offers small production, high quality, artisanal wines …and a few surprises. For starters, there’s draft wine – from an eight-tap dispenser to be exact. You can find that treat in the tasting section of the wine shop. The taps dispense four California reds (cooled to 60 degrees) and also four California whites (cooled to 43 degrees). Wines change often, but look forward to small lot beauties such as Butternut Chard, Blue Plate Chenin Blanc, Andrew Lane Merlot, and Hobo Zin.

Pasadena Food TourYou can find owner Randy Clement there on most days. You can feel his driving energy and passion for exceptional customer service and value. He also seems to have a knack for choosing the right staff. As Randy told me, “It’s all about customer service; we want to kill our customers with kindness.” I can confirm that. My experience is that the staff is attentive, knowledgeable and engaging.

Once you’ve finished your tasting, there’s a large selection – about 500 bottles – to choose from, from just about everywhere. Prices run from $7 – $2,000 a bottle. Special orders are welcome. Think eastern European wines, Italian, French, Spanish and lots of California wines showcasing whatever you can think of from varietals to blends. Be sure to ask for your 10% off discount off as a participant in the Melting Pot Tour experience.

Until you’re able to take the tour, here’s a quick and refreshing recipe from our first stop Tortas Mexico to tide you over. It was a group favorite.

Watermelon Agua Fresca
Compliments of Tortas Mexico Pasadena
www.TortasPasadena.com

Tortas Mexico Pasadena offers an authentic casual dining experience with recipes from the owner’s homeland of San Juan Yucuita in the Nochixtlan District of Oaxaca. They use only the freshest ingredients and each food item is made to order.

Serves 6

This light, refreshing drink popularized in Mexico is a terrific thirst quencher on a hot summer day. The trick with making agua fresca (Spanish for “fresh water”) is to infuse the water with fruit essence without turning it into a smoothie or slushy drink. Feel free to experiment with other flavors such as strawberry, mango, cantaloupe and honeydew.

Ingredients

6 to 8 pounds seedless watermelon, cut into 2-inch pieces
2 cups cold water, divided
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon honey (more or less to taste)
Ice cubes

Method

Cut the watermelon flesh from the rind. In a blender, process half the watermelon pieces with 1 cup of water until smooth. Pour through a strainer into a pitcher. Repeat the process with the remaining melon and water. You should end up with about 8 cups of juice. Stir in the lime juice and honey. Pour into ice-filled glasses and garnish with lime slices and mint.

160 calories per serving

The Ultimate Adult Pit Stop at Bravo Farms in Traver, California

Article by Linda Kissam for Vagobond

Bravo FarmsThere’s a lot to be said for the adult “pit stop” on a road trip. Long after the kids have left the backseat empty and are on to their own adventures, there comes a time when adults pile in a car and are off on their own wild escapades. No longer is there the constant whining in the van of, “Are we there yet?” Now, just a mild war cry “Is it wine time yet?” floats melodically through the Mercedes.

The most interesting pit stop I’ve experienced lately is at Exit 106 on Highway 99 at Traver, California. Somewhere on my San Francisco to Porterville road trip I discovered Bravo Farms. I’ve heard it described as a “…small, enhanced Knott’s Berry Farm without the entrance fee.” Maybe. I thought more of a casual Bristol Farms or Whole Foods in a sprawling barn kind of atmosphere. I think it just depends on whether you bring kids or not. We didn’t, so I am sticking with a casual gourmet barn kind of experience.

Bravo Farms could be classified as a tourist destinations so don’t forget to bring your camera and a working credit card. You’re going to find wine, cheese and produce shops. There’s also hundreds, if not thousands of antiques. Get ready to cruise the aisles for old artifacts: barrels, antique advertising signs, bicycles, meat grinders, and so forth. What you may think of as a 30 minute stop will surely whirl its way into a 2-hour extravaganza.

Since my roadies were looking for wine we started at the wine tasting bar. The wine shop is stocked to the gills with hundreds of wines – some local and some not so local. The wine bar is not always open but when they’re pouring enjoy the experience of pre-selected wine and expect to leave with bottles of terrific local wines that qualify as true liquid gems. A slight wine tasting charge is in play, but don’t fret, you’ll get your money’s worth.

There’s also a cheese factory where you can watch cheese being made and a cheese bar where you can sample several different types at your own pace. I liked everything they offered. The chipotle cheddar was tasty, with rich smoky overtones and a nice hit of spiciness. Their sage cheddar surprised me with its herbal notes. I bet it would be magic melted onto toasty slices of artisan bread, olive bread, or a plain French baguette slice. The sharp aged cheddar was also magnificent. Yup, you guessed it…a whole lot of cheese went into our car’s cooler in preparation for a great cheese and wine pairing that night.

Bravo FarmsHaving had our fill of wine and cheese we were off to discover the grocery store area. We found local nuts and olives from the valley, along with an endless assortment of gourmet food including a cold case of prepackaged items. We lingered a bit at the unique nostalgic memorabilia and reproduction signs, greeting cards, seasonal items and garden décor. It was easy to find a gift and score more tasty treats for the road. This is exactly what an adult pit stop should be.

All this sampling primed us for lunch. There’s a couple of ways to go. A stop at the indoor/outdoor 99 restaurant is a good idea. A mix of lively Mexican style dishes as well as Americana staples like sandwiches and burgers are there to please. Or visit the interior patio area for some rocking lip smacking BBQ. I liked the festive picnic atmosphere and the prices were reasonable for the food offered. Leo’s BarBQ is perfect some of the best, slow cooked Tri-Tip or BBQ Chicken roadside stop sandwiches ever. Expect a line…but it moves pretty fast, and its well worth the wait.

Ending our visit we mozied (more like waddled) over to the ice cream shoppe. If creamy ice cream, date shakes, or coffee/lattes/espressos are your thing, it’s a great final stop. It certainly was for us.

If you find yourself with children, these added features will enhance their visit.

Bravo Farms7 Story tree House: 25 cent admission…entered in the Guiness Book of World Records as the Tallest Real Tree House. The kids can climb and climb.

Petting Zoo: A multitude of smaller animals like donkeys, hens and flying rats is sure to amaze and amuse you the kids. For 25 cents, get a handful of grain to feed the animals. You may just get the best parent / grandparent award.

Mini Golf: 9 old time golf holes…some easy, some not so easy. $4round…if the kids get a hole in one on #9, they get a free round and you’ll have time for another bite of cheese.

Shootin’ Gallery: One of the most advanced interactive “shootin” galleries anywhere

Resources

Bravo Farms: http://www.bravofarmstraver.com

The Bellingham, WA Renaissance A 7-day Foodie Tour

Story by Linda Kissam
Bellingham, WAThere was a time when Bellingham area was booming, then a time when prosperity was only a faint memory. But a quick trip to Bellingham just a few short weeks ago tells me, its back bigger and better than ever. Whoever is responsible for the thoughtful mix of college town and foodie mecca should get an award. There’s enough to see and do for even the most demanding of food and wine diva’s – me included.

Some interesting facts about Bellingham set the scene. It’s about 2.5 hours by car from Seattle. It is Bellingham, WAhome to Western Washington University, so it has an authentic college town feel to it. It is a highly celebrated outdoor recreation haven. It’s also America’s raspberry capital. It is home to the largest Manila clam producer in the US. The Bellingham Mt. Baker region is #1 in the nation in milk production per cow. And…my favorite “brag” about Bellingham…Gading.com named Bellingham as one its “…top 25 greatest cities for sipping on vino thanks to its wine bars, boutique wineries, subdued vibe and stunning scenery. Ya gotta know I‘ll sip to that!

A true foodie tour is a mix of trying the ultra-fabulous and local’s favorites. Foodies love food for the experience, preparation, and promotion of it all. We want to learn everything about food and wine; both the best and the everyday, and about the science, industry, and personalities surrounding food. My 7-day trip to Bellingham was that and more.

A quick puddle jumper from Seattle (about 40 minutes) brings you into Bellingham Airport. Love this airport. It’s clean, simple and has rental cars. The first thing you’ll notice after getting your rental car – opt for the GPS – is that everything you’ll want to see and do is no more than 15-30 minutes from each other. Man, I love “The Ham,” as locals call it.

Fairhaven, WACheck into your hotel. I tried three while I was there. Each was perfect in its own way. First two nights I stayed at the Chrysalis Inn in Bellingham. Can you say, “Light, airy, elegant and a glorious spa?” The views were to die for and it was just a short breezy walk to the quaint town of Fairhaven. Bags dropped off, I was on my way to a sunset BBQ at Taylor Fish Farm. This is a working shellfish farm and a local’s favorite for its picturesque rugged Northwest location and fish market. Bring your own picnic supplies. Purchase oysters, clams and geoduck and do a scenic shore-side BBQ. It’s memorable to say the least.

Perhaps the highlight of my foodie-thon was a foraging event. Working with local wilderness guide celeb Jennifer Hahn my group went foraging for food in the morning in a near-by forest. That collection of herbs, flowers, and berries was sent over to Ciao Thyme on Unity St. in Bellingham. That evening we were treated to a dinner featuring the fruits of our labor. I cannot begin to describe the “wholeness’ of this experience. A delicious multi-course dinner made by owner Jessica and Mataio Gillis served at elegant community tables with classic Washington wines brings the term farm to table to life. This is a must do.

Switching hotels, I find myself at the Fairhaven Village inn. Large, well appointed, comfortable rooms, easy access to downtown and a friendly staffBelllingham, WA make this a great place to stay. For breakfast, walk about 50 feet to Magdalena’s Creperie. Owner Magdalena came to Bellingham from Poland. Her menu is certainly inspired by her Polish roots, but expect a definite French influence as well. Any dish you order is lovingly prepared, delicious beyond expectation, and generous in portion. I don’t think you’ll have a favorite because everything you order will be your favorite. The espresso drinks are also killer. This is a must stop for anyone on a quest to taste excellent local-run restaurants.

A quick tour around town with the Goodtime Girls Walking tour will give you some background on this once wild and wooly town. Or if you wish, try their Sin & Gin Tour. Both tours run about $20 bucks and end up with a free drink at a local bar. Its good fun and fun times with the ladies. Highly recommended.

For the more artistic types head off to the Whatcom Museum and Mount Baker Theater for some lessons in art and architecture. Both are breathtaking, unique and a joy to visit. Call ahead for a private tour. Both sites have a lot to offer from LEED awards to Moorish style architecture which come to life through a docent tour. Have lunch at the Cheese Meat(s) Beer café located in the Museum. I think you’ll enjoy this fresh take on comfort food. Expect the unexpected through the many influences and inspirations of owners Travis Surmi and Annalou Vincent.

BellinghamFor dinner, The Table in downtown Bellingham might just have your number. It certainly had mine. This is an edgy, trendy, energetic restaurant. The food is served family style with a view to using locally produced products whenever possible. Known for its healthy gourmet food attitude, expect really good food served in an upbeat but noisy atmosphere. Our dinner included freshly made Beet Caprese, Fattoush Salad, Sockeye Salmon Primavera, Moroccan Chicken Linguine, and Pink Vodka Penne. Yum!

Take a breather as we did and stroll over a few blocks to Chocolate Necessities. Owner Kevin Buck treated us to a guided chocolate tasting helping us to better understand the differences in quality of chocolates and cocoa content. Best to call ahead to see when the chocolate and wine pairings are happening. You’ll thank me later.

Switching hotels again, this time to Hotel Bellwether located in Bellingham, WA. This 65-room upscale view property is lovely and is again centrally located. One of Bellingham’s most popular seafood restaurants, Anthony’s, is located just a quick stroll away. A waterfront view of Bellingham Bay, delicious creative cocktails (try the cucumber cooler), and some of the best seafood in Washington is served up in casual elegance. Both hotel and restaurant are highly recommended.

BellinghamHopping on a shuttle tour with Whatcom Wine Tours the group was out for a glimpse into what the area wine scene has to offer. Our stops included Glacial Lake Missoula Winery, Vartanyan Estate Winery and Dynasty Cellars. Since there are another six to try, your tour might be different. Although not world class wineries as of yet, there is certainly potential. We had a lovely picnic lunch at Vartanyan. Owner Margarita is so passionate and visionary, you can’t help but sense success is just around the corner for her. At Dynasty Cellars, owner Peter Osvaldik greeted us with lots of charm and a dynamite food & wine pairing. Peter seems to be mixing Old World winemaking techniques with Washington varietals. My guess – we have a winner here. Watch out for this guy – he’s a rock star in the making. The reds are killer.

Last up on the foodie tour was the grand slam of it all; a 16-course dinner at The Willows Inn on Lummi Island. Under the quiet and confident direction of young Chef Blaine Wetzel this was a chance to indulge Bellingham Foodieand delight in the foods, taste and culture of Washington cuisine. Tiny bite-sized courses paired with Washington wines made this the ultimate foodie experience and best of all it’s an affordable indulgence.

During the dinner, our group was treated to the texture, sights and tastes of exquisitely prepared and presented courses. Our server patiently explained each unique course: Baked Sunflower Roots, Crispy Crepe with Sockeye Roe, Pickled Oyster with Sorrel, Toasted Kale with Black Truffle and Rye, Wild Berries and Grasses, Albacore with Horseradish, Shitake over Fire, Smoked Sockeye Salmon, Bread with Pan Drippings, Crispy Halibut Skin with Razor Clams, Flax Seed, Aged Venison Leg, Grilled Onions, Spot Prawns, Charred Frisée, and finally… Blueberries with woodruff and malt.

Washington wine pairings at the dinner included Wescott Bay Traditional Apple Cider, 2010 Ross Andrew Winery Meadow Pinot, 2011 Mount Baker Vineyards Madeline, 2011 Lachini Vineyards Rosé of Pinot, and 2009 Brian Carter Cellars Opulento Port.

Hard to top that, so I won’t try. Goodnight Bellingham. Nice to see you’re back – and a great place for foodies.

Helpful Resource

Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism

Julian, California A Magnificent Four Season Mountain Town

Story by Linda Kissam

So… when I say, “ Julian, California” you probably responded, “Pie.” If that’s what you did then you would be about 10% correct. A recent four-day stay in Julian tells me this place is trending in all the right places: food, wine and unique travel activities… four seasons a year.

The key to getting to know this special place is to stay awhile. It’s about an hour away from San Diego and Palm Springs; add another 30 minutes from Orange County and LA. Coming up for two hours for a cup of cappuccino and a slice of apple pie, just doesn’t make sense. This is a smart hip mountain town that combines all the elements foodies and small-town aficionado’s look for.

Lake Cuyamaca

Think easy to walk downtown area with lots of different shops, a microbrewery, a multitude of incredible restaurants small and large, a charming tea shop, and my favorite of course…wine tasting rooms. Venture out ten minutes past downtown and you’ll find wineries to visit, hill top dining in Wynola, a picturesque fishing lake, an ultra-cool stargazing facility, and killer hiking opportunities like the Pacific Crest Trail. This is Julian? Yup…and there’s even more. Drive 20 minutes from downtown and you’ll be able to do some gold mining, discover a wolf education center, and work those slots and poker tables at a casino. Ahhh, I see I have your attention now.

Here’s a round-up of my favorite places. Use it as a quick guide of what to do and enjoy in and around Julian.

In the Downtown Area
Park your car and enjoy free parking, flat terrain, restaurants, clothing stores, wine tasting and bakery shops. Get your credit card ready, this is a shopper, foodie and wine lovers paradise. Here’s a taste of what to expect.

Julian Lodge Bed & Breakfast – Designed after the Washington Hotel, built in 1885, the affordable Julian Lodge (generally under $90) with modern amenities is just steps away from all things fun: shopping, biking, hiking, dining, wine tasting and afternoon tea. Guests enjoy recently refurbished rooms and a pleasant continental breakfast. Friendly, knowledgeable staff. Open year-round. Be sure to check out their online and walk-in specials. Hikers welcome!

Orchard Hill Country Inn – Book here for a serene and romantic AAA four-diamond experience. I know you’ll love the choice of twenty-two well-appointed rooms, 10 comfy lodge rooms, and 12 secluded cottages near downtown Julian. Stroll the grounds and sit awhile in this lovely mountain top retreat. Enjoy your own personal “Ahhh moment” viewing gorgeous sunsets and wandering through the seasonal gardens. Includes many in-room amenities, Internet, a full breakfast and afternoon hors d’ouevres. Be sure and make reservations for their four-course sophisticated dinner served on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday evenings. Room rates run from $195 – $450. Check out the Web site for specials and packages.

Julian, California

Julian Tea & Cottage Arts –Despite the name this place is definitely all about the tea. A gracious staff makes your time here a welcome retreat. I loved the way the staff member Jill explained each course and the tea that accompanied it. Tea is served in a charming turn-of-the-century home. Afternoon Tea consists of finger sandwiches, scone with whipped cream, homemade jam and dessert. However, if you just want a cup of tea or tea and cookies, you’ll also be welcomed with open arms. Ask to try the Yorkshire Gold. Seriously, for those of us who love all things afternoon tea, this has to be on your places to visit and do some major shopping.

 

Witch Creek Winery- A boutique winery focusing on quality over quantity, by producing small-lot, handcrafted wines. The result is full-bodied well balanced wines rich in flavor that have earned many medals over the years. Server Tammy told me “We’re all about the Reds.” She was right. Be sure to taste the 2009 Screaming Kitty ($23), the Tre Amici ($29- Gold Medal Winner) and the Cat’s Pajama’s ($21).

Julian, California

Candied Apple Pastry Company –Owner Charles Scott and Executive Pastry Chef Charles Scott bring quality, scratch-made pastries and delicious lunch entrees to Julian. This is the bakery you’ve been longing to find. Sit outside and people watch while munching on unbelievable treats, enjoying unique lunch offerings, sipping some local fresh pressed apple cider (seasonal) or enjoying the full espresso bar. This place has passion for its product and the community it works in. DON’T MISS IT.

 

Bailey Pit BBQ & Julian Brewery – This is the place for dinner and live entertainment. Bailey Barbecue has a big-boy BBQ menu, 16 draft beers, in addition to a full bar. Enjoy live music and dancing every Saturday night and some Friday nights. The place was packed and rocking out when I was there. There’s a special vibe to this place that will call to your artistic side. The Julian Brewing Company (brewing facility located in the garage of the historic Bailey house) has released the first brewed beer in Julian in over 100 years. Trust me, it’s all good – the food, the music, the beer. Check out the Web site for the menu and live entertainment schedule.

Julian Pie Company: You know you’ve come to the right place for apple pie when you find out each one weighs 2.85 pounds –give or take an apple slice. Hot, juicy, luscious come to mind. This is the ultimate apple pie stop, don’t miss it. Think about combing your visit with lunch first. It’s a simple lunch menu that’s offered, but its Big Boy sandwiches at their best…for meat eaters and vegetarians alike. One of my favorite places.

Eagle & High Peak Mine –Just a few blocks from downtown tour one of Julian’s original gold mines. Guides lead you through the intricate path of tunnels in the hard rock mine and share tales of the life of early residents of Julian. Great fun! Perfect for all ages.

Just Outside Town
10 minutes away on a charming country road.

J. Jenkins Winery – This boutique winery is ready to run with the big dogs. With 15 year-old vineyards, their wine has finally come into its own. Currently there are 7 wines to taste, all have merit. There is a $6 fee to taste which allows you get to keep the glass. My jaw dropped at the exquisite 2005 Syrah ($22). Big and bold, this ruby colored wine is complex, expressing both bold fruit and a definite earthy quality. I took this one home intending to share it with my wine club as an example of a great local wine find. Melanie was tending the wine bar. She suggested we try the Dolcezza ($16) (apple wine) made from 100% apples. Light, crisp with a slight effervescence, sipping it out on their patio was quite a treat.

Menghini Winery – Just down the road from J. Jenkins , this winery is surrounded by apple orchards and a six acre vineyard. This is country charm at its best and a major site for many Julian events. The winery produces approximately 4,000 cases of wine annually. I think you’re going to like the 2006 Syrah with its berry notes and hints of oak, and the 2006 Sauvignon Blanc showcasing some grassy notes on the nose and palate. Should be an excellent food wine.

In Nearby Wynola
Surprising dining options on this hill top just a few minutes from downtown Julian

Julian, California

Wynola Pizza Express – Located a mere three miles west of Julian on State Highway 78 and 3.5 miles east of Santa Ysabel this is where you go for the best gourmet wood-fired pizza, a variety of entrees, desserts, wine and beer and lively entertainment. Affordable and great for singles, families, or date-night. There’s a variety of places to dine at, from a bistro-style dining room, to casual booths or a group dining area. My favorite dishes were the Fire-Roasted Artichoke Dip (serves 2-4) $ 9.95. Artichoke hearts, pepperoncini, Romano, provolone and mozzarella cheeses blended with herbs and spiced and served with Buffalo crackers; Sausage Pizza $11.95 Sausage, red onions & bell peppers & mozzarella cheese; and the Sumi Salad (an Asian slaw) – $7.95. Crisp green cabbage tossed with crunchy noodles, scallions, shredded carrots tossed with house rice vinaigrette and topped with toasted sesame seeds and almonds.

 

Jeremy’s on The Hill –Heads up foodies! This family owned and operated business specializes in fresh and sumptuous gourmet foods. Put this experience in the fine-dining category without the pretentious stuff . They take pride in providing an atmosphere that promotes family friendliness while still providing for romantic intimacy. Chef Jeremy is dedicated to using only the finest and freshest ingredients available–most of which are locally provided. Because of that, the menu can often change, while still providing guest favorites. Got to love a place that brings in organically grown produce from Julian, Borrego Springs, Valley Center and other nearby locations. Great wine list and the Sunday Brunch is to die for. Put this 24 year old chef on your “to watch” list.

Chef Jeremy sends his love through a yummy recipe. See below!

Country Cellars- Think and drink local beers, wine and hard ciders with owner Trezette “Trez” Gotfredson. Country Cellars offers $6 tasting which include a mixture of local wine and beer choices. Offerings change weekly so you’ll always be surprised at what Trez is pouring. If you’re lucky you’ll come on a day Trez is offering her mini food & wine pairings. This should be one of your first stops on the way into Julian so you get an idea of what the local microbreweries and wineries have to offer. Plan your tasting AFTER you spend some time here.

A Little Further Out
There’s more unique fun about 20 minutes outside town.

Observer’s Inn Sky Tour – This is going to be an OMG moment for you, guaranteed. One of the best ways to see Julian’s star-filled skies is by taking a sky-tour with owner/innkeeper Mike Leigh. He’s set up a small – but mighty observatory with research-grade telescopes. Mike’s evening sky tours are literally out-of-this world. Mike will guide you through the star clusters and galaxies, pointing out planets and nebulae. This ain’t your boring high school astronomy class. Mike leads a lively presentation challenging everyone to think outside their comfort zone. The best $10/person you’re likely to spend.

California Wolf CenterAhhh, the heart and soul of it all. This place is likely to bring you to tears – happy ones – for all this center does. The California Wolf Center is a one-of-a-kind education, conservation. Founded in 1977 to educate the public about wildlife and ecology, the Center is currently home to several packs of gray wolves, some of which are exhibited for educational purposes. The wolves serve as ambassadors representing wolves in the wild. They also host highly endangered Mexican gray wolves, now being reintroduced into the southwestern United States. A visit to the Center provides a unique close up experience involving one of the most charismatic and controversial species in North American history. Perfect for singles, families, and couples.

Santa Ysabel Casino – Escape to a hidden getaway with intimate gaming, breathtaking views and some of the best craft beer and tequila shots around. Enjoy over 350 of the most popular slots, blackjack, 3-Card Poker, Pai-gow and exciting poker tournaments. Full service restaurant featuring lots of variety.

 

Chef Jeremy’s Crispy Brussel Sprouts & Chickpeas Recipe

Enjoy the following recipe compliments of Chef Jeremy Manley. Chef speaks directly to the reader throughout the recipe in an engaging and interactive format. The instructions come with some cooking tips that are essential to a successful dish. Read carefully all the way through before prepping..

One pot of oil (approx. 8 cups)

1 bamboo skewer

½ cup chick peas

1 cup of quarter Brussels sprouts

1 cup of Ponzu- a citrus soy sauce

2T red wine vinegar or rice wine vinegar

1 T red pepper flakes

¼ Cup Brown Sugar

1 garlic clove minced

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and whisk rigorously until all combined.

Heat your oil to 350 degrees. Wonder how you can tell what 350 degrees looks like? Once your pot of oil has been sitting on the stove top at a medium high heat for a couple minutes, place a wood skewer in your pot of oil and when the bubbles rise gently gliding up the stick you are at the appropriate temperature. Do not bring to a boil or you will create the biggest mess you have ever seen and burn wounds are dangerous!

Gently place the chickpeas in a wire basket, or straight into the pot. Remember though you must have a tool to fish them out.

After about 30 seconds add your Brussels sprouts and watch out! They will snap crackle and pop on you so protect your eyes! A little grease splat on your arm builds character.

If the risk is too high for you, just come into the restaurant and I’d love to cook you up some local vegetables. Did you know Brussels sprouts are from Belgium and they are a hybrid of the cabbage family. Enjoy!

 

 

Big Food Challenges in Florida

Florida is known as a place where everything is bigger and better – the theme park rides, the sports and certainly the food. If you’re the competitive type, why not check out some of the restaurants below, all of which offer unique challenges for the truly hungry.

Whether you’re on holiday with your kids or enjoying an intimate break, sweltering over the Inferno Soup at Nitally’s, chowing down a 48oz steak or eating ice cream from a kitchen sink, you’re sure to have a great story to take home with you whether you pass the test or not.

48oz Steak Challenge at Don Shula’s Steak House

48 oz steakLaunched by former NFL coach Don Shula in 1989, this restaurant chain quickly gained a reputation as one of the best places in Florida to sink your teeth into some prime Angus beef. Each restaurant is themed after the Miami Dolphins’ “Perfect Season” that Shula presided over in 1972, when the Dolphins became the only team in NFL history to finish the entire season undefeated.

Orlando holidays in Florida wouldn’t be complete without sampling their famous 48oz Porterhouse steak, dubbed “The Shula Cut”. Holidaymakers who manage to finish all of this titanic T-bone in one sitting are rewarded with induction into the restaurant’s 48oz Club, which would certainly provide a few bragging rights back home.

However, guests have their work cut out for them if they’re planning to beat the record of superfan Taft Parker, who to date has eaten over 175 of the giant steaks – earning a commemorative football from Don Shula himself for his achievement.

Shula’s Steak House Orlando, Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel, 1500 Epcot Resorts Blvd, Lake Buena Vista, Florida 32830

Inferno Soup Challenge at Nitally’s

If you’ve got a taste for the spicy stuff, you may have finally met your match at Nitally’s Thai-Mexican restaurant in St Petersburg, Florida.

This challenge isn’t for the faint of heart: the Inferno Soup contains fresh ghost pepper. At over 400 times stronger than Tabasco sauce, it’s the hottest chili known to mankind – in fact, it’s so hot the Indian government has reportedly considered using it in non-lethal hand grenades.

For good measure, the restaurant throws about a dozen other varieties of pepper, including three kinds of jabanero, into the dish.

The owners of Nitally’s initially offered a $150 (£96) reward to any steel-tongued guest who can finish the soup in less than 30 minutes, but as of July 2011 not a single customer has managed it – prompting them to raise the jackpot to $800 (£512).

Challengers must be over 18, stone-cold sober and “of sound mind and health” before they can tackle the Inferno Soup Challenge, as well as remaining seated throughout. Any takers?

Nitally’s Thai-Mex Cuisine, 2462 Central Ave, St Petersburg, Florida 33712

20 Tacos in 40 Minutes at Poblano’s

Poblano’s Restaurant in Clearwater, Florida is a local favourite among lovers of burritos, enchiladas and tequila. The truly adventurous, however, can put their guts to the test with the 20 Tacos in 40 Minutes challenge. The crispy fried tortillas filled with shredded beef, cheese and lettuce are a staple of Mexican cuisine, but it takes true grit to step up to the bar at Poblano’s and earn a place in the restaurant’s hall of fame.

The tacos are served ten at a time and diners are expected to clear their plates completely to succeed. If they do manage to chow down the full 20, the house pays for the meal and the challenger receives a T-shirt and has their photo mounted on the wall of the restaurant.

A word of warning, though – only 13 people have completed the challenge since it was launched a couple of years ago. Reigning champion Adam went above and beyond to finish an incredible 30 of the spicy snacks in the allotted time.

Poblano’s Mexican Grill & Bar, 2451 North McMullen Booth Road, Clearwater, Florida 33759

The Kitchen Sink at Jaxson’s Ice Cream Parlour

Americans love to round off a meal with a good ice cream sundae, and entering this classically-styled parlour in Dania Beach, Florida is like stepping back in time to the age of soda jerks, Cadillacs and rock ‘n’ roll. There’s also a dessert on the menu that’s a meal in itself and then some.

The Kitchen Sink isn’t just a clever name – it really is served in a full-size kitchen sink, plumbing and all. The servers behind the counter are invited to let their imaginations run wild putting everything they can think of into the colossal sundae, with toppings including marshmallow, chocolate, strawberries, cherries, fudge and sprinkles.

In this case there’s no reward for finishing the food besides the satisfaction of a job well done, but at $12.95 (£8) per person – for a minimum of four diners – it’s a whole lot of ice-cream for your cash.

Jaxson’s Ice Cream Parlour, 128 South Federal Highway, Dania Beach, Florida 33004

Eddie’s Monsta Burger at Eddie’s Bar & Grill

Eddy's bar and grillIf you’re a burger lover and you think you’ve seen it all, Eddie would have you believe otherwise. From the outside it may seem like just another waterfront burger joint in Dunedin, Florida, but it has achieved local fame thanks to one truly daunting menu item: the Monsta Burger.

Featuring 3lbs of beef created from six of the restaurant’s normal half-pounders and “all the fixin’s”, this colossal burger is even served with a pound of French fries on the side! Finish it all within 30 minutes and you’ll get a T-shirt and your picture on the Wall of Fame, as well as a free meal.

Fail, and it’ll set you back $24.99 (£16), but why not have a go at one of Eddie’s other challenges? The super-spicy Fire-in-the-Hole Chicken Wings will net you $100 (£64) in gift vouchers if you can chomp down 13 in 15 minutes, or alternatively there’s an enormous tray of nachos offering the same prize if you can finish it in half an hour.

Eddie’s Bar and Grill, 1283 Bayshore Boulevard Dunedin, Florida 34698

Introduction to the Oregon Coast

 

When I brought my family from Morocco in 2013, we were going to settle in the San Francisco Bay Area but I found that no one wanted to hire a guy in his 40s who hadn’t worked at a fortune 500 company unless they wanted to pay far less than it took to live in the Bay Area. We tried to make things work in Sacramento for a few months – but already, the tech plague had caused rents to go up too much there – with resources dwindling, I found the cheapest place on the Oregon Coast and set off to build a business or two. I wrote this shortly after we settled in.

Oregon Coast

Out of all the places in the world – we’ve chosen to live on the Oregon Coast.  This 363 mile (584 km) stretch of mostly undeveloped land on the Pacific Ocean offers long sandy beaches, stunning wild shorelines, and more than a few interesting roadside attractions. What it does not offer – is warm ocean to swim in – which is, perhaps the reason we will eventually leave for warmer climates…but only time will tell.

 

We live in the ‘undiscovered’ city of Reedsport – a bit of a backwater slightly inland from the shore and so a few degrees warmer, less foggy, and slightly less rainy in the winter.  Our town has about 3000 people in it and lies directly between Coos Bay to the south (the largest city on the Oregon Coast with 16,000 residents) and the quaintly hip town of Florence to the north (Florence has book festivals, a great waterfront, and the best indy cinema on the coast). We travel to both cities frequently because Reedsport has only two small grocery stores, a new brewery, and not much else in terms of shopping or entertainment.

Oregon Coast

The Oregon Coast is broken up into three sections – the North Coast which goes from Astoria to Lincoln City, the Central Coast which goes from Newport to Florence, and the South Coast which goes from Reedsport to the California border.  Each section offers unique experience, though, to be honest – there are a few things quite notably lacking such as places you can have a beer and look at the ocean from a deck. Oregon is strange in this way…we are extremely backward when it comes to some simple amenities. I’ve grown used to it but one of the complaints I quite frequently hear from visitors to the Oregon Coast is about how bad our service in restaurants is…you are lucky if someone says hello when you go in and it’s not rare to have to ask for silverware.  Every place has it’s idiosyncrasies…

One of the beauties of Oregon law is the Beach Bill of 1967 which grants free beach access to everyone. You may have to pay for parking, but you won’t have to pay for the beach here. Just bring your jacket or wet suit.

Oregon Coast

 

We live (like most people on the Oregon Coast) about a minute from Hwy 101 which traverses the entire state from North to South. My sister lives less than a mile from Hwy 101 in the Bay Area.. to get from her house to mine she just turns right on 101 and then drives for 10 hours before turning left onto our street.  Along Hwy 101 in Oregon there are over 80 state parks. Along the way there are beaches, lighthouses, the Oregon Dunes, surf breaks, and more than a little wildlife including bears, elk, deer, beavers, birds, salmon, steel head, and more.

Oregon Coast

 

The history of the Oregon Coast stretches from indigenous people arriving in pre-history to the arrival of Lewis and Clark in the early  1800s to the only attack on the mainland USA in World War II when a Japanese midget submarine bombed the Oregon shoreline in an unsuccessful attempt at starting huge forest fires. Today there are great roadside attractions like the Dinosaur park in the south, the Tillamook Cheese Factory, and the Sea Lion Caves just north of Florence.

 

There is a lot to see here…we’ve been exploring for three years now…and we are only getting started.

 

Beyond the Ghosts – Grave Tourism in Lynchberg, Virginia

Lynchburg ghostsStory by Linda Kissam 

The small Southern town of Lynchburg, Virginia is steeped in rich history. Much of that history can be revealed by visiting the Old City Cemetery which is located in the very heart of Lynchburg. I sense some eye rolling out there and a sarcastic note or two of “Really…?” is ringing in my ears. I know. Cemeteries are considered by many to be eerie places, full of ghosts and bad memories, but I find them sort of fascinating – especially the ones that are loved and supported by the local community. By reading old grave markers, you can find out so much about family lineage and how old or young people were when they passed away, or even how a society tended to treat its citizens.

Some people make a hobby out of visiting graves. I am not one, but I can see their point. They’re called gravers. A graver is someone who visits cemeteries for fun. The graving hobby encompasses a range of activities. There are tombstone tourists who plan vacations around the resting places of Hollywood stars and military gravers who track down Civil War soldiers. Genealogical gravers fill blank spots in their family tree with information collected from headstones. Preservationist gravers use special compounds to clean moss from 100-year-old markers. Many gravers just like to hang out in cemeteries and look at the stones.

On a recent trip, I came to explore the emerging Virginia wine scene, but left fascinated with the dearly departed. I didn’t purposely set out to immerse myself in cemetery matters, but I did and I am better for it.

Lynchburg GhostsMy visit was to the Old City Cemetery. Not so long ago the Old City Cemetery was totally overgrown. But through the efforts of the Southern Memorial Association under the direction of Jane White combined with the efforts of the dedicated volunteers and the Lynchburg Public Works department it has been reclaimed as a well-kept park honoring the lives of the people buried there and those that keep the flame alive.

The Old City Cemetery is a registered historic landmark opened in 1806 as a public burying ground. It is the oldest public cemetery in Virginia still in use today. It has been estimated that over 90% of Lynchburg’s enslaved and free African American population are buried in the Old City Cemetery, the primary burial site for African Americans from 1806 to 1865. Since 1806, Lynchburg’s indigent citizens have also been buried in the Cemetery. An area known as Old Potters’ Field was used from 1960 to 1994 and is now enclosed as a memorial. In another part of the cemetery a distinctive bottle tree is part of a display created at the Cemetery to interpret centuries-old African burial customs.

The 26-acre site features more than 2000 historic gravestones, monuments, and ironwork enclosures; Butterfly Garden & Lotus Pond; garden of 19th-century shrubs and local architectural relics; Pest House Medical Museum, depicting conditions in a Civil War quarantine hospital; Cemetery Center, housing an office and small museum of mourning customs; Hearse House & Caretakers’ Museum, featuring an original 1900 horse-drawn hearse and grave markers exhibit; Station House Museum–an 1898 C&O Railway depot that interprets local railroad history; and Confederate Section containing 2200 graves of Civil War soldiers from 14 states.

It can be a bit much to take in if you have just experienced the loss of a loved one, but all in all this cemetery celebrates the lives of those who came before us and those that are just starting out in life. The Old Cemetery keeps up with the times by offering space for meetings, recitals, lectures, and weddings. All occasions are easily accommodated in the charming little Chapel at the Old City Cemetery. Small groups of 50 adults can be seated in the 100-year-old handmade pews. The Chapel is also the perfect setting for a traditional wedding ceremony.

One of the things I especially enjoyed about this special place is how it engages the community and visitors. The 26-acre site is an arboretum of 19th-century trees, shrubs, and flowers. Before you visit, plan ahead. You can plan by Seasons in the Cemetery. Peak of bloom for antique roses is the last two weeks of May. The peak of bloom for the Lotus Pond is July and August. And especially impressive is the peak of Fall Foliage the last two weeks of October. The peak of the bird population is the first week of June. The peak of the butterfly population is August.

Lynchburg GhostsOf particular note are the hundreds of antique roses which reach their peak of bloom in mid-May. If you plan to visit in May think about attending the Annual Antique Rose Festival where you can enjoy the Cemetery’s famous antique rose collection near its peak of bloom. Quite a sight. There is also a special free Mother’s Day Rose Walk. Or if you’re a history buff check out the Confederate Memorial Day Ceremony (“Decoration Day), an annual Lynchburg tradition since 1866.

Fall brings its own unique opportunities to interact with the Cemetery. The Bawdy Ladies of 19th-Century Lynchburg is held in late September. Historian Nancy Weiland leads a tour to the graves of some of Lynchburg’s famous “sporting ladies.” It’s Free. Candlelight Tours in October is always SOLD OUT, so call ahead and book early. I am told tickets go it a matter of a couple of hours. However, you can call or visit the Cemetery office after 9:00 a.m. on the morning of each performance night to check for extra tickets. If the weather forecast is good, extra tickets will be made available for each tour that night. Actors in period costume portray true stories of Cemetery residents. Six tours each night begin at 6:10. Tickets must be purchased in advance, at the Cemetery office, by phone (434-847-1465), or online: www.lynchburgtickets.com/candlelight.

Perhaps one of the most touching events is held in December. Wreaths Across America begins with a
brief ceremony where attendees lay evergreen wreaths on hundreds of veterans’ graves in the Cemetery. Visit http://www.wreathsacrossamerica.org/ for more information.

Family fun can be found just prior to Christmas. The Holiday Open House encourages locals and visitors to stop by the Cemetery Center for hot cider and cookies and last-minute gifts before going to the Chapel for a special holiday concert.

I suggest you consider including a tour of the Old City Cemetery in your tourist plans when visiting Lynchburg Virginia. Expect to see the grounds filled with people of all ages and interests – from the Civil War Buff to the antique flower enthusiast to school children on a history field trip. Plan an hour or two to stroll around the property. A guided tour or attending an event will make your time there even more memorable. And while you’re there, stop by the gift shop and pick up a copy of the award-winning cookbook, Food to Die For: A book of funeral food, tips and tales. Talk about a unique souvenir.

World Travel for Almost Nothing #6

One of the biggest impediments to world travel is your stuff. Not just your physical stuff, but your mental stuff too. It’s hard to get rid of the baggage you’ve spent your life accumulating. One of the reasons I’ve been able to see as much as I have is that I’ve gone through the painful process of saying goodbye to people, things, and ideas…it’s never easy and if I were better at it, I would have seen much more than I have.

World Travel for Almost Nothing Tip #6: Leave Your Crap Behind You

We all like the physical comforts that a sedentary life brings us. The nice lazy boy (yeah, I miss mine), the kitchen gadgets, the easy way we can lounge around the house, and most of all the comfort of routine.

Routine is the biggest killer of adventures. It’s comfortable, we’re used to it, and even if it isn’t good for us, we hang onto it. I say that as I realize I’ve been smoking for nearly 25 years and refuse to think of how much that has cost me in terms of money and health. Or how much it will.

Yes Virginia, habits are nothing more than comfortable routine. It’s hard to leave your city, it’s hard to put yourself in a new environment, it’s hard to leave the friendships and places you are used to. But if you want to see the world for almost nothing, that is what you have to do.

Most of the time people think of travel in terms of leaving home and then coming back home. Well, a home costs you whether you are there or not. Same goes for a car, electricity, and all the other physical things you own. You have to keep them somewhere, right?

The bulk of my things are sitting in six small boxes in my brother’s garage. When I say small, I mean you could put them all in the front seat of a compact car. These are the things I’ve temporarily let go of with the knowledge that it might be permanent. I’ve also managed to somehow get a house full of things in Morocco, but I’ve very little attachment to any of them this time. My wife doesn’t count as a thing by the way, she isn’t a possession. 🙂 Besides, she’s small enough to fit in that front seat with the boxes…

Anyway, the point is that if you want to travel for almost nothing you need to get rid of that stuff or find a place where it will sit and not inconvenience anyone while you explore the world. One nice thing about traveling is that you don’t have to pay any of those expenses unless you hold on to them.

The truth is that traveling takes less money than being sedentary. As you travel you don’t need to pay those bills, you don’t need to have a job, and you don’t need to worry about what the Jones’ will think.

That also gives you the chance to let go of some of the harder possessions. Obsessions and habits need to hit the garbage can. To Truly find the joy of travel, you need to walk away from it all and experience what comes at you with your whole mind, body, and spirit.

If you have to plan everything six months in advance and you can’t live in the moment and ‘carpe diem’ than you might as well book that cruise vacation or the all inclusive package and spend the next six months working to pay for it.

The only way to really travel for almost nothing is to have almost nothing.

If you enjoyed this series you should buy my books, buy things using the affiliate links on the site, or donate a couple of bucks towards my future travels and the upkeep of this site.

World Travel for Almost Nothing #5

Tesla CoilBeing able to do something useful makes all the difference in the world when you want to travel the world for free or for almost nothing.

The fact that I can write, edit, work on computers, fix cars, and wash dishes means that I can go just about anywhere and trade my skills for whatever I need.

World Travel for Almost Nothing Tip #5:
Make yourself Useful.

Whether you cook, clean, or practice medicine the skills you’ve worked hard to develop will help you to be welcome wherever you go. If you are a carpenter or a mechanic, you can probably find everything you need in return for your skills. If you’re good at eating chips and playing World of Warcraft, well, it might be harder to find someone who is willing to trade food or lodging for those skills…but in this world, anything is possible.

In fact, lots of people opt to take actual jobs that involve travel. Working on cruise ships, airlines, tour guiding, and many more jobs actually pay you to travel…that’s almost better than free.

The key to this is that it takes time. You can’t step off the plane and simply say, here I am! You have to talk with people, you have to interact, you have to let people know that you have something to offer. So if you want to get that free vacation rental in Bermuda for three days, you better work your ass off figuring out who you know has connections there or using the internet to network virtually.

Another skill that has really worked in my benefit is being a teacher and a Native English Speaker. You can usually find someone who wants to trade what you need for language lessons.

How Not To Enjoy World Travel – Part 1

Here’s an oldie but goodie I first published back in 2009!

There has been a lot written about how to enjoy world travel or how to increase the ways that world travel can fulfill you. What I haven’t seen is a lot about how to have a miserable time when you are on the road.

Having lived in quite a few tourist destinations, run hostels, and interacted with literally thousands of travelers, tourists, nomads, vagabonds, and gypsies over the years I’ve seen more than a few people who are making themselves as miserable as possible. In fact, I’ve done it a time or two myself.

So, I dedicate this post to all the miserable wretches who thought they were going on the adventure of a lifetime but ended up having the worst time of their lives.

Across Canada1) Get drunk all the time. Party like a miserable suicidal rock star.
Sure, it’s nice to have some drinks now and then. It’s even nice to sometimes throw caution to the wind and just get blotto and see if you wake up in the morning with a beautiful stranger (or a stranger you thought was beautiful when you were hammered), but the truth of the matter is that alcohol is a depressant.

Alcohol used to excess has a negative impact on our bodies, our minds, and our emotions. While it is easy to shake off a hangover now and then (easier for some than others), no matter how fit you are if you are getting soused every night your mind and emotional state are going to suffer.

Not only will you miss those glorious early morning walks when people all over the world are getting ready for work and starting their day but you are putting yourself in a position where you won’t be able to clearly see the things that make foreign cultures beautiful. And you will spend a lot. With a few exceptions (like the Philippines), booze is also one of the most expensive things you can buy. Drinking will sap your budget and sap your spirits. As an example, an average night of drinking in Turkey will cost you anywhere from 30 to 100 lira. For 20 lira you can take a boat tour in Kaciegiez including lunch and visit the mud baths, and go to the beach, and drink a beer and eat an ice cream. So, one night drinking or a boat trip?

2) Don’t leave the resort or tourist areas.
I know that being in a foreign culture can be difficult, but if you only eat in the McDonalds, use the hotel facilities, stay in the backpacker ghetto area, or stick to the guidebook than you are missing out on what life is really about in whatever place you are in. Would you rather sit by a pool meeting other vacationers or perhaps meet Chinese villagers who are celebrating a local holiday?

When I ran a hostel in Waikiki, I noticed that some guests never left Waikiki and they usually wrote things in the comment book like “Hawaii is just like Miami but more expensive”, but for those who ventured out into little towns like Kailua or who visited local spots in Honolulu, the comments would usually read something like this “Aloha is real! I love Hawaii!”
Which comment would you rather leave?

Valencia, Spain3) Compare everything negatively with somewhere else.
I’ve heard plenty of tourists in Fez, Morocco say things like “The clubs here aren’t as good as the ones in Barcelona” or “The cafes here aren’t as good as the one’s in Paris”. They are right, but the problem is that by comparing things in a negative way they are missing what is good or interesting about the clubs in Fez.

A better way is to say something like “The cafe’s in Fez are different from those in Paris because they are filled with only men. That’s interesting, I wonder why?” and then to ask someone about it. Sure, you may not like it as much, but explore the diversity instead of just harshing about it.

If you want to know more ways to not enjoy world travel, stay tuned. More are coming soon.

In the meantime, what do you recommend for those who want to be miserable?

%d bloggers like this: