Sunday, March 1, 2009

Inside Nick's for an Outside Beef Sandwich

The narrow streets of South Philadelphia are one way and just wide enough for four cars side by side. Only one lane is open, however. On one side, cars are parked along the curb as they might be anywhere; on the other side they are completely double parked. At eleven in the morning there were plenty of gaps along the curb while the middle of the street was still chock a block. How did the inside cars get out? It was a mystery. The system must work, somehow.

"Tony, what's your favorite sandwich shop?"

"For beef, it's Nick's. They start with prime steamship round, roast it and serve it on a kaiser roll with aged provolone cheese. You want it wet."

Tony Catelli's father's shop was located at the same intersection of 20th Street and Jackson in South Philadelphia. Tony knew what he was talking about.

From the street, Nick's looks like a neighborhood bar. We parked nearby on the single file side of the street. Inside it looks like a neighborhood bar, except for the carving station between the bar in front and a small seating area in back. Two guys were prepping the roasted steamship rounds for lunch.

"Can I order an end cut?"

"Ask for an 'out.'"

We sat in back and ordered french fries with gravy, broccoli rabe, peppers, and wet beef sandwiches all around. Sandwiches with and without cheese and one with outside beef. Our waitress was concerned about the order for the 'out.' First, it wasn't always available; second, it was spicier. It was available, it was spicier and it was excellent.

I would go back to Nick's just for the fries with gravy with broccoli rabe on the side. But I would be thinking about that outside beef.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Vicky Emerson at the Carpe

"Sage." Fred Scherrer makes single vineyard chardonnays in French oak, sometimes leaving them there for 18 months. When the wines are still young and the oak too pronounced "add some crunchy fried sage to the chicken (or whatever) and it will cancel the oak."

Vicky Emerson performed at the Cafe Carpe on Friday night. She looked and spoke a lot like the girls I wished I had known at the Ole Store in Northfield when I was in college. She played guitar and piano and sang her own songs beautifully. Bluesy country drawn from her life in rural Wisconsin, the Twin Cities, New York and on the road. She drew in the small audience in the Carpe's listening room with stories between each song. While the chattiness was humorous and sometimes edgy, it did not resonate nearly as strongly as the singing. The lyrics were unmistakably heartfelt; the patter needed some crunchy sage.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Conch Chowder at The Strip

"For the first time in my life, I envy my brother." Colin sat at the bar in the Strip House; his brother was chef de cuisine in the restaurant. I like eating at bars: the conversation is usally good and sometimes the food is exceptional. The bartender recommended the beef but I was in the Conch Republic and in the mood for something local. Conch chowder. The New York chef started with a Manhattan chowder base, spiked it with bacon and toasted corn. The toasted corn was magic.

So Colin ditched New York in January to hang out with his bro at The Reach Resort in Key West. Good call.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Hawks Jumbo Boiled Peanuts

Years ago I worked with a guy in Taiwan who was born in Africa. Deschler grew up eating native foods, including grass hoppers. When he visited Bangkok as an adult, he saw a street hawker selling deep fried grass hoppers. The vendor did not want to sell any to him. Westerners don't eat bugs.

As I was driving North through the Keys on US 1 (at a flea market somewhere near mile marker 60), I saw a sign for boiled peanuts. The Cantonese have something similar. I used to have them for lunch. Roast duck on top of steamed peanuts, steamed white rice with duck broth, sauteed greens. I pulled over. The vendor was incredulous: Northerners don't eat boiled peanuts. Three flavors were simmering in Nesco roasters: Regular, Cajun, Jalapeno. I tried all three and left with the Cajun. Hot on the fingers, hot on the taste buds. Satisfaction all around.

Apres midi sur la plage

Frank Riley insulated my grandfather's attic with seaweed. The house was built in the early thirties. When he designed my house a decade later, the state of the art had changed; Riley spec'd glass fiber insulation in my attic.

The beach at Bahai Honda State Park off US Highway 1 in the Florida Keys claims to have the best beach in the continental US. It might. It is about a mile and a half long. The sand is white and fine, the water warm and several distinct shades of blue. The beach was littered with shells and native sponges and seaweed and that's all. No trash. There were families spread up and down the entire length but everyone had lots of space. Les Canadiennes were well represented. The last thing they were thinking about was insulation.

A Penny and Pieces of Eight

There was a party at the Earnest Hemingway house in Key West last night. The chance of rain was nil but there was a tent anyhow. I suspect the same reasoning that went into that decision was also present when Mrs. Pauline Hemingway replaced all the ceiling fans in the house with chandeliers. An elegant flourish perhaps, but out of touch. The band was damned good.

The tour Stan gave this afternoon was almost as good the music had been. Short on canned humor, longer on interesting tidbits. The house was built in the 1850s by a Connecticut sea captain who made his fortune scavanging the frequent ship wrecks in and around the Keys. Hemingway bought it in 1931 for $8,000. He converted the attic of the carriage house into a studio and built a cat walk to reach it from his bedroom. He worked from six in the morning until noon and then he went fishing. He liked to sit in birthing chairs; there were several around the house. Hemingway had a six toed cat; dozens of its descendents still live in the compound (the bookshop under the studio is redolent of them). Picasso gave Hemingway a ceramic sculpture of a cat; it sat on top of a Spanish armoire in the master bedroom until December 2000 when a visitor swiped it. Pauline ditched the back yard boxing ring and replaced it with a $20,000 swimming pool; Earnest, in a rage, said she would spend his last penny and took one from his pocket and cast to the ground (she imbedded it in the terrace by the pool). Later he added a pool of his own: a urinal from a local bar set horizontally in the ground as a water fountain for the cats. Two thirds of everything Hemingway wrote was produced during the eleven years he spent in Key West.

Another larger than life Key West character can be visited at the other end of Whitehead Avenue. Mel Fisher's story began when the galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha sank in a hurricane one day after departing from Havana on September 5th, 1622. Fisher spent 16 years hunting for the wreck before discovering the "main pile" in 1985. Pieces of eight, gold bars, emeralds as well as astrolabes, cannons, crockery were part of a trove estimated to be worth $300 million. A small portion of the find is in the Mel Fisher's Maritime Museum . Visitors to the museum are encouraged to heft one of the gold ingots recovered from the wreck. I bet Fisher didn't need a tent for the party he and his crew had after finding the Atocha.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Reach, Key West

Arriving in Key West after dark is less than ideal. After all, isn't it all about the sunset? Not really. The town was hopping. The music at the Green Parrot made me pull over at the next available parking space. After making a few calls for hotel reservations and coming up empty handed, I went back to the tourist information office I had passed on my way in. Maria Bennett quickly made a reservation for me at The Reach Resort.

The hotel is located in town and on the only natural beach. That's something. The clerk was busy when entered the lobby, so I walked into the courtyard. Three guys were playing cards near the pool. The place was quiet. You could hear the waves on the beach. I checked in and went up to the room. On the fourth floor, reached by cat walk. Very nice. High ceiling, great beds, Nespresso coffee maker, desk, ample balcony with a nice view. All new.

Crossing the courtyard on my way back to the lobby, the guys were still playing cards. I wondered how they could see. I checked out Duval Street. Apparently, it never sleeps. Neither did those guys playing cards. They were still at it when I went to breakfast.

A J. Seward Johnson sculpture entitled "Fourth Hand"... Clearly, I needed to unwind.

Craig's World Famous Super Fish Sandwich

The Garmin navigator had me going in the right direction for about an hour. Somewhere outside Fort Lauderdale it redirected me north (and probably back to destination from the night before). The cheerful lady at the toll booth confirmed my suspicions and I turned navigator off and turned the car around. So I lost the better part of an hour on my way to the Keys. South of Miami I started looking for a place for lunch. The billboard in Islamorada heralding a great fish sandwich was the sign I was looking for.

The mid afternoon traffic was light at Craig's but the place looked promising.

(6 oz.) 10.95
Dolphin or Catfish on grilled whole wheat bread,
with American cheese, tomatoes, and tartar sauce.
Grilled or Blackened Add $1.00
Fresh Local Grouper or Yellowtail Add $5.00

A young couple sat at the bar. "I don't want dolphin."

"Don't worry, it's not Flipper. It's Mahi Mahi. A fish, like the one in that picture." They ordered dolphin.

I ordered grilled local grouper, without cheese. The sandwich arrived standing up and with good reason. Hauling it in required the same finesse needed to fly fish. The grouper fillets, tomatoes and tartar sauce were devilishly difficult to handle but totally worth the effort. Hot grouper, cold tomatoes and warm tarter sauce on crispy whole wheat toast is excellent. Maybe the cheese is recommended to hold everything together. I'll stop in on my way back to find out.

Craig's is located at mile marker 90.5 on US Highway 1 in Tavernier (Plantation Key), Florida; telephone:(305)852-9424.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Good Food, Bad Cork

"Have you ever returned a bottle?"

"I don't think so."

The wine list at Olivia's is nice. Sparkling and whites on one side and reds on the other; arranged on single spaced line by weight rather than region or variety or price. Lots from Italy, some from France and Spain, a few New World; all new to me.

We ordered two appetizers and two main courses: mussels in a roasted garlic pesto sauce and beef carpaccio with toasted capers, shaved Parmesan and arugula; pork sugo and beet spaghetti.

"How about a white with no oak and a little buttery?"

I ordered a verdicchio from Jezi.

"Woman have finer palates. Why don't you taste it?"

A swirl, a taste and a quizzical look.

"There's a lot going on here. I have never had this before. It's okay."

A mountain of mussels arrived along with a platter of carpaccio. The mussels could easily have been a main course, especially with the three wedges of toasted foccacia to soak up the broth. Better if shared at a table for four. The toasted capers added magic to the excellent carpaccio.

"The wine tastes... musty."

"I'm not getting that. Let's let it open a little more."

The pork and the spaghetti were served.

"I really don't like this wine."

"You were right. Smell the cork."

John, our waiter, confirmed the bottle was indeed corked and offered to replace it or simply remove it from our bill. So there. Sometimes a bottle does go back. John handled the matter as naturally as he picked up and folded a napkin.