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Posts from the ‘travel’ Category

The United Republic of Texas.

Originally published on November 17, 2010, at The Diner of Cville. Recently I had cause to think of the story again. And I thought I could tell it better. So I am.

I have a love/hate relationship with blogs. Part of me wants to think of this space on the Interwebs as a book. I’ll have experiences, then write luxuriantly and elegantly about them the minute get home. Each experience a chapter in an ever-evolving narrative of my life in food. But life gets in the way doesn’t it? Sometimes the stories get published. And sometimes they languish in my sad little notebook lying at the bottom of the chasm that is my purse. Then sadly, I forget them.

If they’re good stories though, they rise from the chasm. Something will happen, my mind will jerk awake, usually at 3am, and I think, “Damn, why haven’t I written about that?!” Smack self in forehead. Or I’m doing laundry, or out for a walk, or driving into town and the shape of a tree will remind me of something I experienced 10 years earlier and haven’t written about yet. The mind, the memory, isn’t linear, but a circular, jig-jag messy business. And so is this blog.

This was exactly the case this week. I am sipping a Guinness for St. Patrick’s Day. For strength of course. And out of the blue think to myself, “The United Republic of Texas.”

And there it is. The United Republic of Texas. The thought sends my head Wayne’s World reeling, complete with flapping hands and Doodle-do noises, flashing back to an image of two scruffy, grizzled, elderly gentlemen in dirty suits, one brown, the other gray. They wear brogues on their feet, fedoras atop their heads. Francis Phelan meets Tom Waits by way of Harry Dean Stanton (look ‘em up kids). Sitting outside a pub on Portobello Road in London on worn wooden chairs. The table in front of them is gouged with pocket knife carvings and covered in pint glass water rings. One is strumming a guitar, the other is humming and playing drums with the tabletop. Both are drunk, guzzling Guinness like it’s water. It’s like a scene out of Ironweed.

The Hubby and I had headed out to the corner pub to meet friends. We grab the only two chairs left on a busy happy hour Tuesday. Two chairs immediately adjacent to said grizzled guys. Humming, strumming, drinking along without a care in the world. Waving to anyone who looks and generally being genial in an, “I’m drunk and cannot really harm you,” kind of way. Most people would choose a seat inside, but I figure, what the hell. We’re traveling. Let’s make some friends. So we sit. Offer the gentlemen a Guinness which they gladly accept. Small talk is exchanged.

That’s when it happens. The older gentleman of the two, his face covered in gray frazzled beard, his eyes just on the verge of rheumy, but jolly all the same, his teeth yellowing, reaches into his jacket and offers me his card. A business card. Handmade. Like something a child who was just learning computer software would create in some early version of Windows Paint. The edges are dirty, like he’d fingered it many times, offering it to people to look at, but never keep. The words are typed in mismatched fonts, the map below badly pixelated and some of the words are misspelled. It says, in all caps:

PROUD CITIZEN OF THE UNITED REPUBLIC OF TEXAS!

A colorful map of the Republic lay underneath. Mr. Grizzled begins a long diatribe about how he came to be a proud citizen of this Republic, and in his American accent (getting slurrier and slushier by the minute) talks about what brings him to that stretch of London on that particular afternoon. Or day. Or month. Or year. It kind of doesn’t matter. Mr. Grizzled Two just sits and strums his guitar and grins. Grins like he’d heard this speech many times before. Too many times to count, so why not just strum the day away. Playing nothing in particular. I think I may have actually whipped around to make sure that 1) I wasn’t dreaming and 2) ol’ John Singer wasn’t about to come walking around the corner because right then I was sure I had somehow dropped into a Carson McCullers novel.

But no, Mr. Grizzled is real. And he is passionate about his cause. He talks and talks about why this Republic needs to happen. And why it needs to happen NOW. I want to ask if he’s so passionate about it, then why is he sitting on a London street corner instead of protesting in Austin, but he won’t let me get in a word edgewise. It’s as if the card is attached to an invisible string leading to his sternum, and once it’s pulled, he’ll talk until that string coils back up inside him. However many hours that takes.

Our friends arrive a while later and we leave these gentlemen. One strums, and one talks. Even as we stand to leave, Mr. Republic of Texas just smiles, waves, and keeps spewing his passion all over Portobello Road. Later on that week we see them again, one strumming, the other just sipping, this time seated at a different pub on a different street in the same neighborhood. I catch the eye of Mr. Texas and he just smiles. Points his index finger at me and with a wink of his eye pulls the trigger. But in a genial way. Like we’d shared a secret joke.

So is this story accurate? For the most part. Like all stories you file away in a drawer for a year or two, it’s probably the victim of embellishment. Memory is messy. Sometimes when you let a story percolate flavors are added and boring spices removed. The narrative ferments and acquires a better taste. If it’s a good story of course. Maybe forgetting for a while makes it better? Maybe not? In any case, it makes it mine…

Al Fresco. Really Al Fresco.

Last Friday I premiered my podcast, Edacious – Food Talk for Gluttons. Not only is it living in the “New and Noteworthy” section of iTunes, within spitting distance of the @NYTMag podcast, but it reached #10 on the food charts. I am astonished and grateful. Thank you so much.

Recently I was whinging about it being too cold to eat outside. I went on and on about having to wait until April to enjoy fancy eggs and Bloody Marys and gossipy-brunch-al-fresco fellowship. Little did I know. Less than two weeks after said post, I find myself sitting outside in subzero degree weather during a major snowstorm, at night, enjoying dinner.

The Hubby and I ski in Colorado every few years. Rather, he skis and I walk about what I like to call, “The Happy Christmas Village” of Breckenridge and pretend I’m Heidi of the mountains in my big furry hunter hat and I’m off to see my Grandfather, crunch-crunching through the snow the whole way. I drink way too much coffee, eat way too many pastries, and pretend I’m working when I know what I’m doing is napping and this year, checking my Libsyn stats. It’s relaxing because even though there’s Wifi the mountain ranges make you feel too remote to be reached by man or beast. It snows daily and temperatures this time of year hover around zero, so we end up eating like a couple of hibernating bears.

At least for the first few days. By day three the influx of burgers, pizza, and fondue sits like a layer of caulk on our stomachs and we’re craving something a scosche lighter. Like a French crêpe with brie cheese. You know you’ve eaten your way through The Happy Christmas Village and all of its “I need fuel for skiing” choices when a CRÊPE with BRIE is your light choice. And it’s why we found ourselves in front of Crêpes à la Cart the other night. Just one problem. It was snowing like shit! Squall snow, snow falling so hard you couldn’t see more than 10 feet in front of you. Snowpiercer snow. Plus, it might be two degrees outside. Might be. Pretty much the polar opposite of my al fresco eating ideal.

No worries. I came prepared by wearing my tacky floor-length goose down Land’s End old lady coat. With hood. Hey, at least it’s fashion-forward black. Young ladies there comes a point (usually around menopause) when you just don’t give a fuck about looking like a fashion victim. You’re just too damn cold. If you’re that worried about it, do what I do, top it off with a chi-chi hat. Or be frost-bitten and fabulous.

In this case, my lack of concern for the fashion police provided The Hubby and me with a unique dining experience. We placed our orders at the cart festooned with multicolored lights and blasting Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds (nice touch guys), and took our seats by the roaring firepit. Others were waiting, but as the snow increased its intensity, they ran for shelter on a nearby porch. Meanwhile when our order was up we remained snug and toasty by the fire, tearing into our crêpes with snow pouring down and the firepit sizzling as the snowflakes melted on it. My apple, brie, honey, and walnut crêpe warmed me up nicely adding another ½-inch to my stomach’s caulk layer. And as the snow continued to pile up on my hood and arms, I didn’t care. I was warm, I had food, and the look of envy on the faces of the others was an added bonus. Standing to leave finally, we howled with laughter at the mini-mountains of snow we had to brush off. You can’t get that al fresco experience on a sunny day in April. I love it when something I write proves me wrong.

It happened again when I wrote about sitting at the bar and how it was always better. On this very same trip to Breckenridge we had TWO (count ‘em two) experiences where sitting at the bar actually sucked. We went to a brewery that’s majorly crowded and head to the bar – only it’s a zoo and we end up waiting for a table with a red-light coaster gripped in our tight little mitts anyway. I was so hungry by the time we were picked when a bystander yelled, “Hooray! You’ve been selected!” I yelled back, “For death!” evil grimace on my face. I blame the altitude. The next night we go out for sushi and headed for two open spaces at the bar, not knowing the hostess actually seats folks like it’s a table and we’ve just jumped ahead in line and look like assholes.

Leave it to The Happy Christmas Village to teach this Heidi some things. I do love it when something I write proves me wrong. It keeps me honest, and it adds to the story. The bar isn’t always better forever and amen. And sitting in front of a fire with about an inch of snow on your head plowing into a hot crepe like it’s a Donner Party femur is not a bad thing at all. In fact, it’s quite nice.

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There Will Be Brunch.

My podcast, Edacious – Food Talk for Gluttons, premieres here (and on iTunes) Friday, February 27th!

In the depths of February (the cruelest month I don’t care what Eliot says), my mind fixates on brunch. Al fresco. So outstanding you need a nap, take the paper along and stay awhile, you leave with a just the slightest Bloody Mary buzz, brunch. Bloody Marys, never mimosas, which are just a waste of good bubbles. This might be a long post because I’m a brunch fanatic. And I got lots to say.

Brunch is the greatest creation of mankind no matter what that writer at the New York Times says. Wasn’t that a piece of whiney hipster bullshit? No offense to hipsters who enjoy brunch. He quoted Julian Casablancas, lead singer of The Strokes. Seriously? Didn’t his dad run a modeling agency? He’s your expert? I’ve a hard time believing American Brunch Culture is dead because some writer said so. There are tons of folks who gather eagerly over fancy eggs and cocktails every weekend, if only to celebrate the fact they just got through another 7 days without killing someone!

I’m so sick of people who roll their eyes and act “too cool for school” over life’s simpler pleasures. Who doesn’t love lingering with friends over food? Someone who hates eggs? Or breakfast in general? Or who’s had to work too many brunch shifts? I’ll grant you that being on the other side of things is zero fun.

I’ve worked my share of brunches. Early weekend mornings at The Corner Café in Richmond where we’d toss a coin to see who’d be the poor sap manning the pancake station. Usually me. Endless hours of pouring banana pancakes the size of dinner plates. Getting raw batter everywhere. Looking at the line going out the door and truly believing you’re in a nightmare and this will never, ever end. Heading home around 3pm so tired you can’t even remove your shoes. When you do, finding pancake batter in your socks. Smelling like turned milk even after a shower. Swearing you’ll never work another brunch shift. Ever.

Despite that, I’ve loved brunch since I was a kid. Saturdays spent running errands with Momma began with a stop at Shoney’s. Pancakes piled high with strawberries in syrup and whipped cream, Big Boy comic book on the side. We’d wolf down what we could from Cake Mountain and head over to The Imp Peddler where Mom would shop for bargains, and my sister and I would play Hide and Seek in the clothing carrels. On special days we’d go to Aunt Sarah’s Pancake House for a platter of buckwheat cakes, or potato pancakes with fried apples. I was the only 6-year-old in existence who preferred latkes to cavity-forming chocolate chip pancakes with whipped cream.

In my youth brunch was a chance to gather and share gossip from the night before. Who hooked up with who. Who was a hot mess. Can you believe he said that and she did that? Making plans for tonight. And tomorrow night. Dreaming of being rich and not having to work while inhaling cheap burnt toast, greasy potatoes, hard crusty omelets, and shitty Bloody Marys. Probably the biggest meal we’d have all week. We’d sit outside at places like Trio’s, or crowd a booth at 3rd Street Diner or McLean’s. Sometimes gathering in the daylight, but never before noon, then heading out for 75-cent cocktails if it was Sunday. Holding onto the weekend with all our might. Most of the time we’d gather in the wee hours after leaving the club, because we couldn’t wait for our grits and red eye gravy, or a hot, sweet 3rd Street Diner Grilled D (a grilled Krispy Kreme topped with ice cream and chocolate sauce) which I swear tastes best when you’re 5-drinks drunk at 2am. Gossip exchanged and stories told while we waited hours to be served by the one strung-out waitress they’d assigned to a giant room during the graveyard shift. So many late night brunches. Most of them good, although there was the “Sour Waffle” episode of 1994 at the now-dingy Aunt Sarah’s in midtown Richmond.

Brunch is still my favorite. I love fancy eggs. Sitting al fresco with a fabulous Bloody Mary and a heaping plate, doesn’t matter whether it’s eggy or pancakey, is my version of heaven. Too bad restaurants in the region don’t agree. Is Saturday brunch going the way of the dinosaur? Is that writer correct? I see no established Saturday brunch culture in Charlottesville like I experienced in Richmond, DC, and later in Pittsburgh. Places here offer it maybe seasonally, maybe occasionally on Sundays, or not at all. Yep, no Saturday brunch in Charlottesville, and if they do offer it, it’s more lunch than eggs. And Sunday brunch? Sure I can promise to get my ass up on a Sunday and head out, but let’s get real. It ain’t happening. It’s me and the paper on Sundays. With coffee.

Don’t get me wrong, you can get eggs on Saturday. There’s Tip Top. Bluegrass Grill and Bakery is great, except you can’t linger (an important brunch element), and Blue Moon is fantastic. The Nook is good. The Hubby and I usually end up at one of these. But none of them is perfect. Is anything ever? No matter. In my little headspace, because it is my favorite meal, I’m always dreaming about what the perfect brunch would be in a perfect “Every Day is Saturday” world.

It’s outdoors, preferably a pleasant 70-75 degrees. I don’t care about the setting, but if you pinned me down, the view from Blue Mountain Brewery’s deck is pretty damn splendid.

Let’s start with a cocktail, because all good meals start this way. I’ve had some earth-shattering Bloody Marys in my time, including Bouchon in Las Vegas, and Zocalo here in Charlottesville. My favorite? The Bloody Mary at The Magpie in Richmond, Virginia. Made with bourbon, lager, house-made hot sauce and Bloody Mary mix, with a pickle and Slim Jim garnish, this cocktail brought me to my knees! It had a deep, smoky-spice and a meaty flavor. I could SWEAR Chef Owen Lane added bacon. One is usually enough, but this drink? I could’ve easily downed four and canceled my day.

On to eggs. Some people like fried, over easy, scrambled. Or a great Eggs Benny. I love my omelets. I’m lumping Huevos Rancheros into the omelet category because I consider it “eggs with stuff inside”. The best? Huevos Rancheros at the now-defunct Texas-Wisconsin Border Café in Richmond. Spicy, cheesy, peppery, and the size of your head. Covered in their special house-made salsa you can STILL GET here in town at places like Feast!

Kudos go to The Magpie again, who ran a close second. The omelet with rabbit, goat cheese, leek tops and red wine-caramelized onion jam had me floating off the floor in glee. Not only that, the leftovers I took home TASTED FRESH THE NEXT DAY! When was the last time you microwaved day-old eggs and had them taste light and fluffy? I thought so. Chef Owen Lane has a magic touch.

Honorable mention goes to the Bluegrass Grill’s caramelized onion omelet. Delicious, the size of Shaq’s shoe, and so light! They might’ve ranked higher if Bluegrass was a “lingering” kind of place (I need to linger after consuming Shaq’s shoe). One of the downfalls of being small and wildly popular.

If Eggs Benedict is more your taste Zocalo has a great one according to The Hubby. Spicy and filling. Too bad they only do brunch seasonally. Sigh.

Hash browns? Scattered, smothered, and covered at Waffle House. I don’t care, you can present to me any combination of heirloom fancy schmancy hand-grown by kid-gloved potato scholars in Ireland preparation of potatoes and I’ll still want scattered, smothered, and covered. Double order please. Bacon from Coca Café in Pittsburgh on the side.

French toast? The unique version at The Bright Morning Inn in Davis, West Virginia is my benchmark. So good I’m not sure I can eat any other kind. Banana Dream french toast starts with potato bread dipped in a cinnamon batter with banana liqueur, then it’s dipped in oats, fried, and topped with more bananas. Tastes like a big ol’ nap!

Pancakes? I’m still a sucker for the potato pancakes at Aunt Sarah’s Pancake House with a side of fried apples. In fact, if any brunch I’m attending serves potato pancakes I’ll probably wolf them down. WITH hash browns please.

It’s easy to louse up biscuits and gravy. The biscuits can be dry and puck-like, and the gravy can end up a gloppy, tasteless goo. The Frost Diner in Warrenton serves up an amazing version, with flaky light biscuits and a nice creamy, peppery gravy. But they don’t have the BEST biscuits. That award goes to the now-closed Betsy’s Coffeehouse on the corner of Auburn and Cary Streets in Richmond. Large and square, these babies were sliced open and toasted with lots of butter. Sage and feta, rosemary and gruyère, cheddar and chive. With a latte and a nice spot on the porch, this was my dream meal back in the day. I discovered Nick Drake while studying at Betsy’s, and watched prudes leave in droves when she played Prince’s “Darling Nikki” at top volume. I must’ve written a million words on her porch. And when we left Richmond for Pittsburgh, our last stop was for biscuits. Betsy bagged them up with a sad face. I’ve attempted to recreate her biscuits, to no avail, ever since.

Grits? You can have your shrimp and grits, your cheese grits. I’ll take my grits swimming in red eye gravy. From McLeans in Richmond. Consumed preferably at about 3am with greasy eggs, hash browns, and toast. You gotta love a place only open from 11pm to 3pm. As long as I live, I’ll never forget a late night when a group of friends looked over to see four pretty heinous-looking girls sitting in a booth in taffeta prom dresses, one of them with a massive black eye. We spent the rest of the evening trying to figure out the story. Because there was surely one.

Coffee? Any good cup of diner coffee in a white mug will do. I ain’t picky. You can forego the fancy foam design, as I take my first cup black, and my second cup with copious amounts of cream and sugar. Breakfast dessert.

Finally, because I can’t find a proper place to stick this dish, I must address the Chicken and Waffles from Bouchon in Las Vegas. I must because it’s as close to brunch heaven as I’ve ever achieved here on this dim, dusty planet of ours. Chef Thomas Keller takes roasted chicken and sets it atop a bacon-chive waffle with Tahitian vanilla bean butter alongside. Pour some velvety sauce Chasseur over the entire thing (imagine the creamiest chicken gravy you’ve ever put to lips) and you’ve reached brunch Nirvana. Everything on the Bouchon brunch menu is stellar, but this reaches new heights. They get bonus points for not requiring reservations.

I understand restaurants have to survive and doing a year-round Saturday/Sunday brunch might not be feasible. I can still gripe about it. Just as that hipster declared, “Brunch is over!” I’m here to declare it’s not. American Brunch Culture is alive and well. Eating eggs with cocktails and friends, lingering over your food with no other plans for the day is one of the great joys of life. I bet there are plenty of people out there who agree.

Sure there are places who throw their leftovers into a quiche as a “Brunch Special” but the restaurants who take time and care to offer creative brunch options week after week? They’ve got my respect for keeping the flame alive. They’re carrying the torch for those of us who look forward to making it through yet another week by celebrating with pancakes and tomato juice spiked with vodka. Brunch isn’t dead. Or there wouldn’t be 10-gazillion versions of the Bloody Mary!

As long as people go to bars on Friday night, there will be brunch. As long as there is a farmer’s market to run a stroller through, and a Targe-Home-Depot-WalMart-Kroger run to be made, there will be brunch. As long as there is church to visit, there will be brunch. It’s one of the great shames of my life I’ve not yet visited Brookville’s brunch, served only on Sundays. We’ve discussed why my ass can’t seem to get out the door on a Sunday. It’s a problem I plan to address in 2015. But what about the rest of you? Won’t someone please take up the cause of great, creative eggs-centric brunch on weekends? I selfishly implore all chefs completely unashamed! Purdy please? I’d like to do this list again in a year or two with ONLY Charlottesville restaurants on it. Me and my tummy are waiting.

Note: I didn’t include Bodo’s because Thank God for Bodo’s. I can satisfy my bagel craving any time of day. Even if they don’t toast.

Addendum: Several people contacted me after publishing to let me know Chef Harrison Keevil of Brookville Restaurant has both Saturday and Sunday brunch. And has been doing it for at least a year. Doh! Is my face red? Another signal I need to get out more…and will.

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