July 18, 2006
[You may want to read Part I first.]
Before I proceed with the second installment of notes from my roadtrip, I would like to respond to a question posted by Robin: how did we choose our food stops? The overall theme for this vacation was "improvisation" -- no planned route, no schedule, just us, a car blissfully equipped with cruise control, and a Michelin road atlas -- and this made it difficult to visit any of the fancier, reservations-needed establishments. Luckily this was the whole point, and even when we happened upon such a place and it seemed to have room to accommodate us, we would just look at the curlicued menu, the candles, the freshly ironed tablecloths, exchange a glance, and hop back into the car to search for something more basic, with less chichi and more ketchup.
The places we ended up going to were a happy mix of:
~ Guidebook recommendations. We used the Roadfood guide and the Lonely Planet guide to the US. The former is excellent (and not just because the Sterns and I share the same editor and publisher); the latter we do not recommend. Save for a few exceptions, the restaurants they mentioned were either not tempting enough for us to look for them, or disappointing when we did -- perhaps we just don't share the authors' tastes.
~ Serendipitous finds. An impressively speedy nerve connection seems to establish itself between the empty stomach, the eye, and the hand holding the steering wheel, and we had some of our best meals on such occasions.
~ Dining tips shared by people we met on the road, and advice from C&Z readers. There wasn't nearly enough time (or meals) to check out even a fraction of these places, but I do want to thank those of you who took the time to share your favorites. I am certainly keeping these recommendations for another time.
And now, on to the notes...
- If you buy pecan pralines in Cajun country -- 3-inch-wide disks of super-sweet pecan goodness that crumbles and melts on your tongue -- you should definitely taste them before you get home. That way you'll know you should have bought much, much more.
- You won't regret spending a bit of time in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, one of our favorite spots of the whole trip. Walking around the pretty downtown, having an iced coffee at the Coffee Break, buying an old cake stand or a rusty roadsign from one of the American antique stores, then taking a boat tour of the swamps on Lake Martin to see the cypresses and the birds. Having dinner at Café des Amis (don't miss their gâteau sirop, drippy with cane syrup and studded with pecans) and a drink at Mulate's, to listen to the live Cajun band and marvel at the thousands of business cards pinned to the ceiling. Staying in one of the quaintly decorated Bayou Cabins (ours was called Miss Elise), indulging in fresh beignets for breakfast (closer to bugnes from Lyon than donuts), drinking your morning coffee on your very own back porch overlooking the Bayou Teche, and not forgetting your complimentary Cajun platter when you leave. Homemade boudin, cracklin (fried pork skin), and spicy headcheese -- that should take care of lunch.
- When you rent a car, do check that there is not only a spare tire, but also a jack in the trunk. That will prove quite useful when you have a flat in the middle of nowhere, as there won't always be a 70-year-old aligator hunter to lend you a hand and a jack.
- You might think you're doing the reasonable thing by ordering a grilled chicken po'boy, but once you take a bite of your travelling companion's variation, stuffed with extra-large fried oysters, you will sorely regret your choice (Le Café, Breaux Bridge, Louisiana).
- Perhaps I am the last one to be let in on this, but Mexican eateries make sandwiches called tortas, and the combo of avocado and chile rellenos (roasted peppers stuffed with cheese and fried) is a glorious filling for them (Tacos & Salsa in Alamogordo, New Mexico -- their shredded beef tacos were just as splendid).
- It is much more difficult than one might think to find cowboy hats that fit. It helps if there is a knowledgeable salesgirl to advise you, add a bit of foam inside so it is snug but not too snug, and shape the front of the rim so it aligns nicely with your eyes (Dollar Boots & Jeans in Alamogordo, New Mexico). Unfortunately, such hats can't be worn when you drive because the headrest gets in the way, but they will look quite classy on you when you stop at a gas station to fill the tank yet again.
- As you drive from the beautiful mountains of Sedona, Arizona, to the old mining town of Jerome on Highway 89A, don't miss the cactus nursery on your right-hand side. Such a lovingly-tended display can rarely be admired and you will want to bring them all home, but you will have to settle for just three small ones (including the native Arizona Rainbow, a cute little bulb with shades of purple) that will travel well without endangering the life or eyesight of your fellow airplane passengers. As a bonus, you may learn the meaning of a new word, xeriscape (Arizona Botanical Gardens in Clarkdale, Arizona).
- I would gladly sell my soul for a good crabcake, the kind in which you can actually taste the plump morsels of crabmeat, and their subtly sweet flavor isn't overwhelmed by mayo or spices. Particularly enjoyable are the ones from The Monterey Fish House in Monterey, California.
- When you reach the San Francisco bay area after two weeks, you will find that you are ready to kick things up a notch (okay, seventeen notches) and have dinner with a friend at Manresa: the excellent company, outstanding tasting menu, and perfect service will make this a memorable evening. You must remember however that even if your waiter is Italian and you have just lost the World Cup against his country, you can still be a good sport about it -- besides, one of your guys has already head-butted one of his, so let's leave it at that.
- If you buy a jar of the old-fashioned chunky peanut butter you are so fond of, it would be smart of you not to let it out of your sight. Apparently, these things have brains and little legs that make them quite capable of running away during transit. Next time, you might consider sticking a return address label on the jar.
Finally, a word on the San Francisco get-together. I would like to thank all of you who joined us, sometimes after quite a drive: local bloggers, longtime or recently converted readers (including not one, but two Vance fans, we continue to defy the laws of statistics), familiar smiles and new faces, it was truly a pleasure to have you join us. I had such a good time that the entire evening dashed by in what felt like minutes, but I hope I managed to chat at least a little with everyone. Thank you also for the generous gifts of chocolate, candy, jam, cookies (now, who told you I had a sweet tooth?), pretty striped waistband, and t-shirt with tiny pompoms -- they were all very much appreciated. Hope to see you again soon!
Visiting Stratford and Toronto: Recommendations?