That was the motto painted on the wall of the North Sea Village, a Chinese restaurant in Edinburgh, about 20 years ago. I don’t know if the restaurant is still there (probably not) nor which North Sea village its name referred to (Inverbervie? Sandhaven?) But I still like the motto. So, in one more Tour Top Ten, I offer you:
TEN MOST MEMORABLE WAYS TO UNDERSTAND THE USA.
1. Czech-American Restaurant, West, TX. On our way up from Austin to the Tommy Duncan Festival in Hillsboro, we stopped at West, site of a previous culinary pilgrimage for me about 15years ago. Last time I’d been mildly disappointed, this time I found the right place and was wildly excited: at last, Czech food of great flavour and character in a community still influenced by its original central European settlers 150-odd years ago. The Czech-American is a somewhat dilapidated joint, ancient pictures hanging off the walls, lighting somewhat murky, fittings a little mix ‘n’ match. My guess is they’re too busy cooking great food to worry about fripperies like interior design. It had to be smoked sausage with sauerkraut and Czech fries…yup, good choice…washed down with iced tea. There are shinier, better-lit places in West, but this is the real deal, and a fine introduction to the Texan melting pot.
2. Hermitage Cafe, Nashville, TN. 3am breakfast of omlettes, biscuits & gravy, bacon, orange juice, coffee – distributed amongst everyone in different proportions – and the best jukebox of the whole darn trip, pumping out Hank, Left, Loretta and a host of other historic honky tonk greats to a cafe full of current honky tonk greats sharing our breakfast: Chris Scruggs, Danny Mohammed, Scott Icenogle and last but not least Craig Smith. Perfect refuelling stop after a fantastic day and night of music-making and listening on Lower Broadway.
3. Smitty’s Barbecue, Lockhart, TX. By general consensus the best of several good barbecues in Lockhart. I was last here about 1999, when it was still called Kreutz Market. Following a family split, Kreutz moved to a big new location elsewhere in town, but the magic seems to have stayed here in the old building. Beef brisket tender as marshmallow, and nearly as sweet… 40 miles or so outside of Austin, but unmissable.
4. Triple XXX Diner, West Lafayette, IN. A haven of good old fashion American cooking in the fast-food hell that was the Purdue campus. Sure, they sell root beer, milk shakes, fries, cherry pies and burgers – but all of these things are made here, freshly made, expertly made, made with love and care! Not much wonder their speciality burger, the Duane Purvis All American, had reached the finals of the Superbowl Sandwich competition while we were there.
A unique and striking burger, made special by having dollops of peanut butter smeared over the chopped sirloin after cooking and before bunning, this was a memorable treat washed down by a pitcher of their own root beer. This is the American diner you’ve always dreamed of.
5. A tiny taqueria somewhere on the outskirts of Lafayette, IN. We were whisked in here so quickly by Paul Baldwin, local man about town and owner of the excellent Black Sparrow pub (no mean eatery itself: the blue cheese and fig pizza was our fave), so quickly, I say, that we didn’t catch the name. The menu two was merely waved in front of us, as Paul recommended one thing in particular: ox tongue tacos. I’m glad he did: they were fantastic: simple, fresh and flavoursome. Street-food simple, I suppose you’d say. And all the better for it. Mexican food in the UK is rubbish: it buries itself under a burden of refried beans, stodgy rice, guacamole, salsas, corn, tomatoes, grated cheese, multiple flatbreads and pounds of meat. Here’s the secret, guys: keep it as simple as this and you’ve got one of the world’s great cuisines.
6. Birrieria Zaragoza, Chicago, IL. It was only me who went here, no one else fancied it. Well, it was a dozen or so miles out of the city centre in an area that we were advised to avoid. The other thing that might have put folk off was that the only dish it serves is goat meat. Not to worry, I persuaded two Chicago resident friends, Gene and Debby, who had never heard of it and were not overwhelmed with anticipation, to drive me down there and use their excellent Spanish to smooth the way. (Not essential, but I think it helped get us an even warmer welcome than we would have done.) So, nothing but goat…to be precise steamed and braised goat meat, served in a deep, subtle ancho chile sauce. Accompanied by a picante salsa in a granite bowl, and condiments: lime quarters, diced raw peppers, cilantro (coriander leaves) and dried chile peppers of some kind. And lots of paper napkins to wipe the inevitably sticky fingers. Ask Gene and Debby, folks, it was an absolute joy: simple food cooked to perfection. They’re on the web if you want to check them out, or better still just pop down to 852 South Pulaski Road: a Polish name but a Mexican neighbourhood…and a chowhound’s dream.
7. Cartino Italian Restaurant, Chicago, IL. A fantastic procession of Italian ‘tapas’ – i.e. small pizzas, pasta bowls, saucers of octopus, parma ham, cheese, etc – to celebrate Dick’s birthday. Checked tablecloths, giant pepper grinders, cheap red wine…the works. We all had a great time. (Me, Stevie and Emma had a great brunch the next day, too, at Lula’s Cafe. A very hip place with a good wine list – including an Arbois from the Jura – wow – though we didn’t sample it at brunch, you’ll be glad to hear.)
8. Texas de Brazil, Chicago IL. A woman in a lift recommended this to Dick, and he recommended it to me and Iain. A good tip, lady… The idea was to marry the beef-overload culture of Texan cowboys with the, eh, beef-overload culture of Brazilian gauchos. So you paid a set price ($45, the dearest meal of our trip) and for that got unlimited supplies of freshly grilled beef (various cuts) delivered to your plate on three-foot-long skewers by guys in gaucho gear (several of whom turned out to be Romanian, not Brazilian, but never mind.) Also sausages, lamb chops and quarter chickens. They just kept coming, the meat kept piling up faster than we could eat it – till we discovered that if you turned over a little card by your water glass so the red rather than the green side was uppermost, they stopped persecuting you with their delicious, succulent fillets and strips… Here’s the funny thing, we would happily have paid almost as much money not to have eaten meat at all, and just to have feasted on the fantastic salad and vegetable buffet, all of it sparklingly fresh. We saw more vegetables this night than we had in the whole of the previous two weeks in Texas and Indiana! In fact, the three of us probably ate more vegetables this one night than the population of Texas… To cap it all, if anyone ordered a bottle of wine, a waitress swung down on a trapeze, twirling head over heels as she went, and plucked the required bottle from its shelf on the three-storey-high wine shelving, behind smoked glass, all along the side wall of the restaurant. It was the stupidest feature I have ever seen in any restaurant anywhere…and another reason to check out this remarkable place. (Bizarrely, vegetarians would actually eat better here than in most other places we tried across the US.)
9. Spruce Creek Diner, a few miles outside Huntingdon, PA. Local presenter and all round good egg Chad Herzog drove us to this place after an early morning visit to an Amish/Mennonite market nearby for pepper & garlic cashews and fresh (non-alcoholic) sweet apple cider. Spruce Creek Diner is famed for its speciality, the Tray of Fries. (Which, to the uninitiated, is indeed a trayful of chips.) A ‘Wall of Shame’ inside the front porch shows photos of the handful of folk who have eaten a whole tray themselves and lived. We managed a tray (just) between six of us. Also worth a mention is the soup of the day that day, a sirloin burger broth, and the pies from the bakery next door. Afterwards we walked, or waddled, fifty yards to what is supposedly the best trout fishing stream in the USA. Enthusiasts pay many thousands of dollars to come and fish here. They could come to Stenness Loch in orkney and fish for trout for free (and keep what they catch, rather than having to throw them back…)
10. A dozen Apalachicola oysters (‘the best in the state’) in Bird’s Aphrodisiac Oyster Shack, Tallahassee, FL. $8 for 12 oysters! Luxury at fast food prices!
Let’s leave it there: I’m full…
. . .
PS Except maybe just…how about a milk shake at the Triple XXX? http://youtu.be/h5qicdxIyIo
PPS You want cheese on that?