Monday, July 7, 2014

Eating on 30A

I just got back from a family vacation in Seagrove, Florida, on beautiful 30A, a beach road that runs between Destin and Panama City. It's a favorite destination of mine...and offers so many options for excellent coastal dining. 

My first stop upon arrival is always at Seagrove Village MarketCafe. This visit, while we were waiting in line to order, we saw several varieties of Grayton Beer in the cooler, so we tried their (new to us) brews...and we drank local for the rest of the trip!

They've been "Serving Deep Fried Love since 1949," and they also boast that their burger has been voted #1 on 30A. I always go with the grilled grouper sandwich, and it's the perfect way to kick off a beach vacation!

On your way out to pay your bill, be sure to check out the market, which is chock full of local souvenirs. 

Another favorite of mine is The Red Bar...but since it was a holiday week, we worried that it would be too crowded for dinner our first night in town. We opted instead for their sister restaurant, Louis Louis, which is actually located on Hwy. 98. 

I was pleased that the atmosphere and menu were very similar. It's eclectic and charged with energy. Both restaurants offer just five dinner options, presented tableside on a chalkboard menu. 

I went with the crab cakes, which were topped with a citrus beurre blanc and served with mashed potatoes and a house salad. No fillers here...just pure crab with a light binder. Delicious!

Note: They don't accept credit cards, but there is an ATM on site. 

For lunch the next day, we went to a family favorite, Shades. They have an extensive menu, and it's a great place to take kids, both for the crayons and activity sheet as well as a game room to keep them occupied until the food arrives. 

I have loved fried crab claws since I was a child, and this is my "go to" to get my fix! 

Later that day, for a drink before dinner, we stopped at 723 Whiskey Bravo. They had the 30A Beach Blonde, also made by Grayon Beer, on tap. I fell in love with the light, crisp taste and ended up picking up a six-pack later at Publix. 

Be sure to check out the rooftop bar for a gorgeous view of the Gulf! They also offer great Happy Hour specials, including a "5 for $15" entree menu. 

The bartender overheard us talking about where we were headed for dinner (Stinky's Fish Camp). She used to work there and said that one of their appetizers was one of the best dishes she has ever had. 

I have visited Stinky's countless times, but I have skipped right over this dish until she told us it was a MUST. So, our party of four started with the blue crab-stuffed squash gratin...and she did not steer us wrong. This was decadent! I'm still thinking about favorite!

No trip to the beach is complete without oysters, and Stinky's offers 10 varieties. We stuck with traditional raw on the half shell. 

After snacking, my boyfriend and I decided to just split two additional appetizers for dinner. The firecracker shrimp had the perfect kick!

We also had the crawfish hot tamales, which were hand rolled and served with Tabasco sour cream. It was such an unusual but fantastic dish!

On the actual Fourth, after watching the annual parade down 30A that morning, we grilled ribs, Conecuh sausage, and corn...and feasted on that all day!

For our last beach meal, we visited another tradition of mine, La Playa. I finished the trip the way I started it, with a grilled fish sandwich. This time, it was mahi-mahi with a tangy chipotle tartar sauce. 

If we had more time, I would have made stops at other favorites, including:

Also, be sure to check out the various food trucks (in Airstream trailers) lined up in downtown Seaside. Great offerings!

Did I leave out any of your favorites? 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Behind the Scenes at the Memphis in May BBQ Contest

My boyfriend is an official BBQ contest judge. He's gone through the training and certification. He knows his 'Cue...and has the paperwork to prove it. So, how did I end up sitting one table away from him in the judges tent at the World Championship BBQ Contest at Memphis in May? By accident. Truth.

On Friday, for the "Anything But" competition day (which included everything but the three main categories of Shoulder, Whole Hog, and Ribs), we arrived and got him checked in. We both had identical for the judge, one for their companion. I looked as official as he did. 

We had some time to kill before judging started, so we walked around and checked out some of the booths. I was planning on just hanging out in the judges tent and watching the process. However, when we returned, we were both quickly ushered to tables and seated (separate from each other). All of a sudden, I'm sitting with three "official" judges with a placemat in front of me.

Um. I introduced myself to my tablemates and confessed, "I don't think I'm supposed to be here." They didn't seem to mind, so we set about getting to know each other. When an official came around checking cards to make sure we were at the right table, I explained what happened and started gathering my things. She said, "It's fine. You can stay."

Um. I turned around to Pat and gave him a questioning look. He said, "Go with it. Have fun. You know food. Just rank based on what you like."

Okay, then! He had given me a pretty thorough explanation, stemming from my curiosity, the day before on the drive up to Memphis, so I had a reasonable grasp of the process. Plus, the other three judges were incredibly nice and helpful. 

Our table would be judging Exotics and Vinegar Sauces. The trouble with Exotics, my group explained, is that the dishes come without a description, so it's sometimes difficult to figure out what you're actually eating. I would soon find this out for myself. 

You give each dish a score of 7-10...but 7 is absolutely "I can't take a second bite" inedible, so it's not frequently used. You judge Appearance, Consistency, Flavor, and Overall Impression. One dish must receive a 10 for Overall Impression as your "winner." Here's what the scorecard looks like:

So, here's how it works. Six Styrofoam containers are placed on the table (lids closed). This is called a "blind box." At the appropriate time, they are opened and everyone stands up to view and judge first on Appearance. Then, a piece from each box is taken and placed on the mat next to its number. Dig in! 

You're not allowed to talk to each other about the dishes until the scorecards have been taken up...and then you can compare notes/thoughts. Here's what our table looked like after judging the first category:

As predicted, we could only identify one of these dishes with any certainty (bologna). One of the dishes was a huge piece of meat (stuffed with sausage) on a large bone. We "think" this was probably emu or ostrich. 

We did, however, all agree on our table's winning dish. It was a bacon-wrapped bison (we think) jalapeno popper, and it was outstanding.

Next up were the Vinegar sauces...I didn't particularly care for any of them, so scoring this category (and declaring a winner) was difficult for me. 

I can honestly say this was one cool experience. I was already excited about getting to see behind the scenes...but "being" behind the scenes was an event I'll never forget. I have to give all of the contestants props for the hard work that went into cooking their food and preparing their boxes. 

Don't let the official apron fool you...the real judge is the one wearing the official pin.

(VERY IMPORTANT) FOOTNOTE: On Saturday, when the "official" World Championship entries of Shoulder, Ribs and Whole Hog were being judged, I was a safe distance away, and all of the judges doing THAT work had been through the training and certification process. Contestants should rest assured that their BBQ was being evaluated by "professional BBQ palates!"

Monday, May 19, 2014

Eating & Drinking in Memphis

We spent the past weekend in Memphis for the Memphis in May BBQ contest, for which my boyfriend was a judge. While we ate plenty at the festival, we also made time to check out a few other local establishments.

On our way into town on Thursday, we stopped for lunch at Memphis BBQ Co. This restaurant is owned by award-winning Melissa Cookston, who won the Whole Hog division on Saturday. 

We started with an order of the Smokin' Wings, jumbo whole wings that were smoked and then fried and tossed in BBQ sauce. I can't even describe how incredible these were. I'm a big fan of buffalo-style wings, but these blew me away.

We then shared the Pitmasters Sampler, which had a half slab of baby back ribs, sliced brisket, and pulled pork...with sides of baked beans, turnip greens, and cornbread. I was surprised that my favorite thing on the plate was the brisket, of which I don't consider myself a fan...but I guess I haven't had it cooked right until now!

After judging was over on Friday, we started walking from the riverside over to South Main, a cute area of town described as "original shops, restaurants, art, events, architecture, history, characters and innovation." 

We stopped in at S.O.B. - South of Beale for a beverage and a snack. 

On recommendation, we had a pint of Honey Wheat Reserve from Ghost River, a local brewery. It is described as a "play on a traditional American style wheat ale, enhanced with locally sourced honey and sweet orange peel." It was so light and refreshing!

As a bourbon fan, Pat couldn't resist ordering the chicken and waffle sliders with Maker's Mark glaze as "syrup." I had never had chicken and waffles before, and I loved the combination. Plus, I loved that the syrup wasn't overly sweet.

We are always quick to ask locals where to get the best food, and everyone we talked to (from the guy at the liquor store to a festival policeman) said we had to go to Central BBQ for ribs. Their tagline is even "Go Where the Locals Go." Done!

We shared a half slab of ribs, half wet/half dry. My dad does his ribs with a dry rub, and I'm always more of a fan of these than sauced ribs. The locals didn't steer us wrong...perfection!

Pat completed his judging on Saturday and was desperate for a burger. He was BBQ'ed out! He had done a little research, and it led us to Earnestine & Hazel's

This hole-in-the-wall is known for two things: its Soul Burger and haunted jukebox. It's "driven by ghosts." You don't operate just will go from silent to playing "tunes that eerily sync to the moment." 

Back to the food...there is one thing on the menu. One thing. The Soul Burger. 

"The Soul Burger began as an experiment. In its infancy, it was plastered with every topping under the sun – lettuce, gourmet cheese, and other items we’re not allowed to mention. But, after trying to keep up with the countless combinations, we soon remembered the old adage - “Keep it simple, stupid” – and never looked back. A bun, patty, onions, cheese, pickle, and “Soul Sauce” are all that's needed to make our delicious burger. And if you don’t think that’s enough, pay $30 bucks for a fancy burger somewhere else. Then come back to Earnestine and Hazel’s, repent for your sins, and munch on the Soul Burger's delicious simplicity."

Y'all. It was ridiculous. 

We sat at the bar and watched the cook create this masterpiece. He cleaned the flat top grill after each order with pickle juice. He was a character!

That wraps up our eating and drinking adventures in Memphis. Stay tuned for my festival roundup post!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Crockpot Ranch Mushrooms

If you're a mushroom fan, then this should make it to your table ASAP! 

We had some friends over for Sunday Steak Night, and I remembered this pin, courtesy of Riches to Rags, from awhile back. We also had roasted Brussels sprouts and pasta salad....but this was the star side dish! It's super easy with tons of flavor.

I scooped out the mushrooms with a slotted spoon and then drizzled some of the sauce over my steak. Oh my.

Look at that yummy sauce!!

2 packages whole button mushrooms, halved
1 stick butter, melted
1 package dry Ranch dressing mix
2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese

Place mushrooms in the slow cooker. Mix together melted butter and Ranch dressing mix. Pour over top of mushrooms. Top with Parmesan cheese and stir to combine. Cook on low for 2-4 hours. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Eating & Drinking in Nashville, Part III

Source: Dreamstime

On the recommendation from our Uber driver on Friday night, we spent Saturday night in the Germantown suburb. (Big shout out to Hoyt, a retired restaurant consultant, who not only provided the name of one of the "hot" restaurants in town, but also picked up the phone and got us a hard-to-get last-minute reservation! That's service!)

A Yelp search of the neighborhood led us to Silo, a chic bistro with another very knowledgeable (and young) bartender. More great bourbon info for Pat!

This picture pretty much sums up our trip!

We still had some time to kill before our reservation, so we walked down the street to the Germantown Cafe for a snack/appetizer.

We had the fried green tomatoes, which were served with a red bell pepper sauce and topped with a dollop of goat cheese. Delish!

Our dinner location was a few blocks away, and the walk there afforded us the opportunity to check out all of the quaint houses in the neighborhood. 

Thanks to Hoyt, we were expected and warmly greeted by the hostess at City House, which is housed in a funky building that we almost walked right past until we saw the sign.

Hoyt had insisted that we order the house-made pork belly pizza that was topped with a fried egg. My eyes would have glossed right over this on the I'm glad I had an insider tip because this pizza was AH-mazing. 

We also ordered the gnocchi with lamb ragu, chard, and pecorino cheese. The gnocchi was light and airy, and the sauce was so divine that we found ourselves running pieces of the pizza crust around the dish to get every bit. 

This was, hands down, my favorite food and dining experience of the trip! If you take only one suggestion from my three blog posts on Nashville, THIS should be the one.

When we mentioned getting a nightcap in the neighborhood, both the couple sitting next to us and our waitress heartily agreed that we should walk down to Rolf and Daughters

This place was hopping...we couldn't even manage to get a seat at the bar, so we took our drinks outside and enjoyed the mild night. The hostess made us promise to come back for dinner to have their signature squid ink pasta. 

So...for our last stop on the trip, we headed to Husk for brunch on Sunday morning. This was a name that kept coming up all weekend when we asked for recommendations. (And this is the best way to find great local spots...Pat and I are chatty and talked to everyone we sat by!)

If you don't have a reservation, I suggest getting there right when they open at 10. 

While we sipped on coffee and looked over the menu, they brought us a basket of fresh, warm Parker House rolls with the most delicious butter. Wow.

We decided to share an order of the White Lily biscuits with sausage gravy. The gravy had the perfect kick of heat/spice. It's one of the best I've ever had.

We could have/should have stopped right there...but because our eyes were bigger than our stomachs, we didn't. I ordered the Monte Cristo with a fried egg and potato and smoked sausage hash. The egg is the key to this dish. When broken open, it gave this open-faced sandwich the most delicious "sauce." 

So...there you have it! Our whirlwind tour of Nashville that included hitting 12 spots during our brief time there. We hit the road back to Birmingham vowing to come back soon for more food and drink adventures in this great city!