Friday, January 25, 2008

Breakfast of Memories

When I was a kid breakfast eaten outside in the California sunshine was something that we often did as a family. About 11:00 AM, I would help my sister set the table shaded in part by the large avocado tree with yellow green foliage, and lumps of green fruit hanging from its branches. Fresh squeezed orange juice, scrambled eggs, warm crunchy/soft French rolls, strips of crisp bacon, cold milk, and maybe cinnamon rolls, made by my mother, to finish the meal. I loved breakfast then and I love it now.

Once a month or so in the early 1960’s, my brother, me and two friends would drive to Ojai from Los Angeles to shoot at targets. I remember that one of our friends always dressed for the occasion in a khaki shirt, shorts and a hat with the brim folded up on one side, looking like Hemingway might have while on safari in Africa. Stopping in Ventura for breakfast was part of our ritual, and two eggs, three or four link sausage, hash brown potatoes, and pancakes, smeared with butter and covered with syrup was the usual breakfast. Cholesterol, what was that? Calories, no one cared?

For a few weeks in 1967, I worked in Cleveland, Ohio. I was still living in Seattle, and was on temporary assignment to the company’s home office in Cleveland, Ohio. Along with a few other guys on similar duty I stayed at the old Hotel Alcazar. It must have been some kind of place in its heyday, but now eating there wasn’t an option. Each morning we drove to a nearby restaurant, one of few open in the morning for breakfast. We ate there so many times that the waitress got used to seeing the group, and she would chide anyone that failed to finish their meal. Breakfast was juice, a couple of eggs, maybe ham or bacon, toast and coffee. Interestingly, hash browns, so common in the west were not available.

A few years later, while working in Atlanta, Georgia, I often drove to our construction projects in South Carolina and Georgia with the construction manager. We always enjoyed stopping for a breakfast of eggs, a slice of country ham or a couple of sausage patties, the ubiquitous grits and fresh made biscuits. While grits never became a favorite, the ham and biscuits were usually outstanding. Sometimes we could get home fries, but never hash browns.

In 1973, for a hospital project in Macon, Georgia, I would drive from Atlanta to meet with the hospital’s administrator. The meetings were scheduled for early morning, and I always made it a point to show up in time, because if late I would miss out on the fantastic sausage or ham biscuits, hot from the hospital’s own kitchen, and arguably the best in town.

In the 1980’s I had the good fortune to stay at many German hotels, and nearly all served an outstanding “continental” breakfast of soft or hard boiled eggs, sliced ham and other meats, yogurt, muesli, assorted fresh fruit, juice, Jacob’s coffee, and warm crusty rolls, with butter and jam; delicious indeed.

My favorite breakfasts, not in any particular order, include:

Buttermilk pancakes, crisp bacon, butter and real maple syrup.

Fresh made roast beef hash with an egg fried over easy on top.

Two fried eggs over easy, crisp bacon, well toasted rye bread, butter and jam.

Most any German (sometimes called a continental) breakfast.

A sliced bagel, toasted on the cut side, spread with cream cheese and apricot preserves.

Breakfast things I dislike most:

Limp, warm bread that some restaurant call toast

Undercooked bacon

Weak coffee


A few of the places that I recommend for breakfast:

Lange’s Café, Pipestone, MN. The best pancakes that I have ever eaten, hands down, end of story. Lange’s is in the southwest corner on Minnesota, and if you are within even a couple of hundred miles drive into Pipestone, and stop at Lange’s, you will not be disappointed.

Blue Colony Diner, Newtown, CT. A great diner breakfast served almost faster the time it takes to order.

Harley Davidson Dealer, Bedford Heights, OH. (Yup, they have a diner inside the dealership.) A very good breakfast served with the potato, potato, potato sound of Harleys being tuned, what could be better.

Monument Café, Georgetown, TX. Located on Austin Ave., south of the square, the Monument Café serves a consistently good breakfast. They bring hot fresh baked biscuits to the table almost as soon as you sit down. I usually order pancakes, but their migas (scrambled eggs with tortilla chips, cheese and tomatoes) are sometimes too good to pass up.

Newman’s Bakery, Bellville, TX. Eat a good breakfast in a real honest to goodness bakery, now that’s a treat. After the eggs, just step to a glass case, pick out your favorite freshly baked pastry to enjoy with that third cup of coffee.

The Virginia Kitchen, Herndon, VA. A small family owned restaurant that serves some of the best biscuits I remember eating.

The Original Pancake House, on Lemmin, Dallas, TX. Not only good pancakes, served with real maple syrup, but just maybe the tastiest sausage patties on the planet.

The Bread Winner Café on McKinney, Dallas, TX. Weekend Brunch at the Bread Winner Café is really special. I love their beef brisket hash, with an egg fried over-easy on top. The food made up for the annoying wait.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries: Another Best

When I was visiting my sister in northern Virginia she said she knew of a good burger place, and took me to Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries (FGBF) in nearby Reston. Although, I know that sis has a pretty good sense of the good and the bad when it comes to road food, and expected that a pretty good burger was in my immediate future, I was still more than a little surprised at how good a burger I actually had at FGFB's.

I liked everything about Five Guys from the “free” bucket of peanuts to the pseudo White Castle like atmosphere of the restaurant, and while not as challenging as ordering say a, triple grande sugar free vanilla latte at Starbuck's, ordering a burger at FGFB’s is still a little tricky, especially for a newbie.

The standard cheese burger at Five Guys is a two patty affair made using never frozen beef and two slices of American cheese, dressed as you like it from a list of thousands of toppings – OK, not thousands but certainly many. I limited mine to onions, lettuce, tomato, and the condiments to mayo and a dab of yellow mustard.

My cheeseburger was cooked to perfection, and the juices dripped on its foil/paper wrapping with each bite. The fries, made from whole spuds sliced in front of you, are fried in peanut oil, and served in a cup. Malt vinegar is available to sprinkle on top of your fries, which of course I did.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

A True Story: Did it Fall From the Sky?

Platoon 170, of which I am a member, is now at Camp Matthews, located a few miles north of Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) San Diego, California, for weapons training. I am seventeen years old, and with the exception of the last five weeks of my life I have freely indulged in candy and soda pop; things the Corps refers to as pogey bait, and does not allow.

One week out of the four each platoon spends at Camp Matthews is either on mess duty, working in the “butts” of the target ranges, or picking up trash. When my platoon is selected to pick up trash we each get a burlap bag, a pole with a nail on the end, and ordered to clean up the camp’s grassy perimeter. I am assigned a portion between the camp’s fence and the adjoining four lane divided highway.

We get before day break, have a hot breakfast, get our gear and start working. Although it’s August the mornings are cool, and the tall grass stays wet and cold until close to noon. It quickly becomes a routine, and with the exception of a car speeding by from time to time I am alone in the quiet of the morning.

My routine is broken when I spot something vaguely familiar sticking out of the grass. Lowering my pole I step closer, and look directly down. Mostly hidden, only the corner is in view, but I damn well know what it is. I bend over, pick up the damp cardboard container, and it quickly disappears into my burlap bag, and that evening a few good men enjoy some forbidden fruit.

For years I have wondered how it got there; I mean, how do you accidentally lose an entire six-pack of cola? Did some thoughtful, kindhearted soul throw it out of a fast moving car, or did it fall from the sky?

………I like to believe the latter.

(In case your wondering, that's me five from the right, second row down from the top.)

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Diners: Like Snow to a Snow Man

Diners serve the food we long for, the food we ate while growing up, that our mothers used to make, and what is sometimes referred to as road or comfort food. When I lived in New England, being an unabashed road food junkie, it was sort of like being in heaven, because New England, and in particular Rhode Island is after all the motherland of the American diner, and they were everywhere.

To put it into a metaphor a diner is to a road food junkie what the Internet is to an information junkie. Don’t like that, how about a diner is to a road food junkie what snow is to a snow man? Anyway, you get the idea.

Diners are also part of our bulwark against the flattening (to borrow a word from Thomas L. Friedman) of America, because they still reflect not only the heritage of their owners, and the mobility of our population, but the uniqueness of the local experience. For example, on the menu alongside the usual suspects like meatloaf (arguably the most common of all our road foods) you will find gizzards if you’re in Joe’s Gizzard City in Potterville, Michigan, “calf fries” if you’re in Clinton’s Café in Vinita, Oklahoma, or falafel if your at the Falafel Drive-in in San Jose, California. In comparison, your "local"mall has the same stores, selling the same things, as if you walked into a mall a thousand miles away.

Diners have a few other important things in common: The food they serve is nearly always prepared from fresh ingredients, often from recipes handed down from an earlier generation, and maybe most importantly they do not have absentee ownership in that they are usually operated on a day to day basis by the same people who own them. They are no-nonsense places to eat, and their focus is on serving you good food cooked on location, fast. That is not to say they are fast food restaurants because they most certainly are not.

By the way, diners are primarily defined by the food they serve, not by their architecture. Some look like a lonely circus wagon, or a streamlined rail car, left behind when the train left town, and others like a drive-in restaurant. Its indeed fortunate that their appearance is not important because some are just plain ugly.

On a drive with my wife and daughter from Boston to Philadelphia we stopped for breakfast at the Blue Colony Diner on I-84 in Newtown, Connecticut. It was about 9:30 AM, and the place was busy, but not full. Almost before we sat down our waitress showed up to drop off the menus, and take our drink order. She returned with our coffee and we ordered; mine was a short stack of pancakes with a side of bacon. We had taken no more than a few sips of our coffee, when the waitress was back at our table with our food. Now, as you would imagine I have eaten in more than a few diners, and have experienced fast service many times before, but I have never been served anywhere, fast food place or otherwise, as quickly as on that morning in the Blue Colony Diner.

When a copy of Richard J.S. Gutman’s book, American Diner, a great source of information for all things diner including the location of every vintage diner in New England was given to me, I was off on a quest; I would eat at every vintage diner in New England. Now living in Texas I will probably never finish that journey, but I sure enjoyed some good food, and met some great people while traveling that particular road.

The Food Network’s wonderful TV show Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, hosted by the very entertaining and enthusiastic Guy Fieri, does a wonderful job of presenting some of the best road food places in America. From the their web site I printed a list of the places visited by Guy on the show to use as a reference as I travel around the country in my Airstream.

Wilson’s Diner in Waltham, Massachusetts is a wonderful vintage diner, and when I was there for lunch the following exchange took place:

The cashier, standing behind the register, said, “Food alright?”
Customer, in the process of taking a few bills out of his wallet, replied, “Always is.”

……and that says it all.

Monday, January 7, 2008

A Tiny Burger does not a Slider Make

Friday’s has added “sliders” to their menu, and I assume that their intent is to imitate the real thing as served by White Castle or Krystal Burger, but no onion ring here because they have woefully missed their goal.

Several other national restaurant chains have added small hamburgers to their menu, but with the exception of the tasty tiny burgers I have eaten at two different Ruby Tuesday’s, they were just plain awful. The phony sliders, or whatever they were called, were over cooked, over seasoned, covered with onions more steamed than caramelized, and served on cold buns.

I know that there are at least a few non-chain burger joints that make a decent "slider", the Chicago Hamburger Company (CHC) in Phoenix comes to mind. Their "sliders' are good, and if you are in Phoenix, and need a "slider" fix the CHC is the place to go.

The “true” slider includes a small perforated patty, caramelized onions, steamed bun, and yellow mustard. The perforations in the patty make for quicker cooking, and facilitate onion flavor infusing into the patty. The small cardboard boxes that sliders are traditionally served in help keep the product warm, and also function much like the paper wraps used in other quality burger joints by helping the bouquet of beef/onion to permeate the bun.

White Castle and Krystal Burger are the places of choice for real sliders. Two or three sliders, a cup of chili with diced onions, and a cold soda; now that’s good eating.

Friday, January 4, 2008

I’ll Take the Usual

The best little burger chain in the entire universe is In-N-Out Burger. Their patties are made from never frozen ground beef. They use good quality lettuce, tomatoes, and onions. The buns are nothing special, but they do taste fresh. Their fries are made from fresh whole potatoes, sliced on location. Sadly, they only have restaurants in a few western States.

In spite of everything I appreciate about the In-N-Out Burger company I would much rather find a locally owned place that makes a good burger, and go there time after time, to the point that when I enter they recognize me, know my name, and I can say, “I’ll take the Usual”.

In Georgetown, Texas, with BB’s closed, my hamburger place of choice is Monument Café on Austin Avenue. I am not yet to the point where I can say, I’ll take the usual, but nothings perfect.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

What's for Lunch?

For one entire summer my lunch included a BLT sandwich. It was the summer before my senior year at Cal Poly, in San Luis Obispo, California; I was taking three courses, and every day my lunch consisted of a bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup, and a BLT sandwich with strips of crisp bacon, fresh lettuce leaves, slices of ripe tomato, layered between two slices of mayonnaise covered toast.

When the local Safeway ran a special on TV dinners I filled a basket with an assortment, and then got a rain check for more. The dinners were $.25, and on my budget they were a lifesaver. For nearly three months I ate a BLT for lunch and a TV dinner in its aluminum tray at night.

To this day I still love BLT’s, but I can’t stand TV dinners. Go figure.