US Roadtrip Highlights, Part II

Roadtrip

[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).

- Sweet potatoes lend themselves quite ravishingly, and quite addictively, to the French fry form (Mr. D’z Route 66 Diner in Kingman, 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!

  • http://www.emod.ru/en Kiska

    wow… my diet goes wrong after this:)

  • http://www.toomanychefs.com Meg

    Welcome back, Clotilde! It sounds like it was a fabulous holiday. I’m always so delighted when a French person is charmed by my country as it’s usually a diatribe about our unfortnate president I hear instead!

    I’m truly jealous – it’s been years since I did a road trip and when I did I never had the money or time to linger and enjoy!

  • http://passionfusion.canalblog.com Stéphane

    (…) It seems time has stopped in US when you describe the little restaurants you tried. Beautiful landscapes, typical shops… And a lot of hamburgers and fries! I WANT to go to Louisiana! (and I want to go to San Francisco, but also to Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, Washington,… hummm to rent a car and go for a very long trip from one city to another…). I suppose the final meeting was great, and I think it confirmed you are now a celebrity ;-) Will you be able to live in Paris again? I think it’s possible ;-)

  • http://parisbreakfasts.blogspot.com carolg@PB

    Bienvenue Clotilde..fascinating posts 1 & 2..Gee I’ve barely scratched the surface of my so-called homeland road foods. Would you please do your next book on “Paris Visits US Back Roads”? It would be an interesting take…

  • http://analisfirstamendment.blogspot.com/ Anali

    Clotilde – I’m glad you had such a wonderful trip. I think that this is my favorite post ever! I loved the wonderful pop up pictures and the way you described the coffee and beignets. I’ve never had one and feel like I am missing out. Also, I’ve been planning to go to Sedona and do a mini road-trip myself. You are inspiring me!

  • Donna Smith-Harrison

    Clotilde – I am so happy to hear that your journey was filled with such simple and lovely delights! Louisiana is one of my favorite places – Bayou Teche is a wonder! Oyster po’boys just drop me to my knees in joy – sorry about the chicken! =) And pralines and beignets seem to me like the closest thing to just mainlining sugar! I have to wait til the day I leave to buy them, or I would just turn into a sugar zombie!

    Did you have a chance to go to the Grand Canyon?

    Sam and I were delighted to meet you in SF and also happy to talk with other C&Z fans. It was a copacetic group, n’est-ce pas?

  • http://agategoddess.blogspot.com Agategoddess

    Sounds delicious! And now I would like nothing more than to jump in my car and take off for the western part of the country (which I’ve only ever seen before from an airplane).

    One quick comment though, if you want good crabcakes, you need to hit the East Coast. Particularly around the Chesapeake Bay area. It’s the only place to get a good crabcake in the U.S.

    Lucky for me I live only 45 minutes away.

  • http://www.weeklydish.com Jennifer

    Hi Clotilde! What a lovely post. After a year of reading your culinary adventures in Paris, I’m thrilled to hear you had such a lovely time in my home state of Louisiana. Breaux Bridge is indeed delightful–and your advice about the po’boys is right on target. Never pass up a fried oyster po’boy in Louisiana. Never. Thanks for sharing your travelling tips!

  • http://parisbreakfasts.blogspot.com carolg@PB

    Clotilde’s Elle issue has finally reached US shores! Yahoo It only took a month is all to get here…well worth the wait though. A late felicitations :)

  • http://woodlandsprite.blogspot.com Stephanie

    oy. I must not have been paying attention – I had no idea you would be enroute through my hot state of Arizona! Thanks for the tip on the cactus nursery :) I am always looking for more to add to my xeriscaped garden :D

  • Robin

    I’m glad you enjoyed Arizona, and a great tip on the cactus garden!

  • jerusha

    thanks, clotilde. here i am, an american, and i have never been to louisiana…these 2 posts are enough to inspire further roadtripping. too bad i am in nyc, so far from san francisco. would have been nice to express my fandom up close and personal.

  • http://www.downwithabsolutes.com Mike M.

    Fascinating, Clotilde. I’m a huge fan of your site and your suggestions will certainly be considered when I decide to take a roadtrip across the southern US. I’ve written about you on my blog today.

  • julieane

    Your trip makes me want to explore my own country. I’m from the LA area and our tortas here are just as huge as your picture shows. Hope you took home lots of boxes of cinnamon puffins, too. Yum!

  • SarahS

    I was so mad that I missed the SF stop, having just returned that day from Quebec, but am so glad that you had a great trip full of wonderful things to eat like pralines and crab! You hit CA right as everything is getting ripe, too. Thanks for your wonderful posts and photos.
    I can’t wait for a trip to France in September. Only in Paris for a few days (but lived there in 1999-2000)where we’ll try to get to some of your regular restos, in addition to some of our favorites in the 14th. Do you know any great places in the Ardeche (or en route?)

  • Mirjam

    What a wonderful road trip you had! We visited Breaux Bridge 5 years ago and also stayed at Bayou Cabins and it was exactly as you described it: the nice cabins, the porch, the beignets and the Cajun platter with boudin and cracklin…I can still taste them. It brought back very good memories, thanks!

  • http://sentidosculinarios.blogspot.com Diggliana

    Welcome back!!!!!!!!
    Too bad I was not in the states, but if you ever think of South America..let me know.. I might got back to paris for vacations ( I spent 3 month in Paris in 2002)….

    Clotilde I love your blog!!!!!!

  • Megan

    Is that photo of Rt. 23 in Malibu? A scary drive…

  • Catherine

    I had bad luck with Lonely Planet food guides in Italy, too! Italy! How can you get Italy wrong? So from now on, no Lonely Planet Food guides.

  • http://sherribraude.blogspot.com Sherri

    Are you going to Charleston, South Carolina ? If you are, head to “Magnolia” and get the crab cake burger with sweet potato fries, it’s fabulous! Will you make it to NY ?

  • http://www.gourmetstation.com Donna Lynes-Miller

    Enjoyed your reference to pralines. Many folks from the south (US) think pralines were invented by southerners. I suppose that is only true to the extent that Cajuns in Louisiana imported the notion from France. I especially enjoy the caramelization and the many applications for pralines, beyond candy to cheesecake and more. Keep up the great work.

  • Caroline

    Reading about your fabulous US trip just reminded me what a great time we had there in 2003, staying at the Bayou Cabins in Breaux Bridge (lots of cats!) and eating Pecan Pralines, fried oysters and beignets. Can’t wait to return, Lousiana was a highlight of all the US (we did New York, Appalachians etc. too). Paul Prudhomme’s (K-Paul) ‘Louisiana Kitchen’ and the ‘Prudhomme Family Cookbook’ are good places to start for great cajun recipes. After experimenting with a few recipes, I came up with a good one for Pecan Pralines (I have such a sweet tooth!):
    Pecan Pralines
    21/2 cups brown sugar
    1/4 cup corn syrup
    1/4 cup maple syrup
    3/4 cup cream
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    1 tablespoon butter
    2 1/2 cups pecans, chopped
    Put sugar, syrups, cream, butter and vanilla in a pan and stir over low heat until dissolved. Add pecans and increase heat, stirring. Boil until soft ball stage, remove from heat. Cool for 10 minutes then beat mixture vigorously for 2-3 minutes until thickened then quickly drop spoonfuls onto greasproof paper and leave until set.

    Did you visit the Tabasco plantation and factory at Avery Island near New Iberia? Their store is excellent and they make a yummy Boudin sausage too!

  • http://jonskifarms.wordpress.com/ Tricia

    Southerners may not have invented pralines per se, but they probably had the idea to add pecans :^) Caroline, thanks for that recipe, my dad sends me pounds and pounds of pecans from his trees and I’m always looking for ways to use them up!

    I’ve been through Alamogordo thousands of times, both when I lived in New Mexico and now when I go back to visit, but I don’t think I’ve been to those two establishments! Next time, Tacos & Salsas it is. I judge a Mexican restaurant by the quality of their rellenos!

  • http://www.carablack.com Cara

    So sorry to miss you both in SF…I’m in Paris in September so let me know if you’re planning another Montmartre get together…thanks for the peanut butter comment about how those jars have a habit of sprouting legs and walking away…can’t find mine either today

  • Lara

    Hi Clotilde!

    New to the blogging world…but immediately intrigued by all of the beautiful souls out there!

    I love nothing more than food and travel…especially a fabulous road trip! Never having posted anything ever…I felt I must thank you for reminding me of “The Brick Pit.” As an Alabama girl displaced in Brooklyn…I can only dream of “southern” BBQ. It made me laugh that a girl from France brought back memories of eating at this BBQ shack in Alabama!! I would have never remembered the name…but instantly knew that was the place. Thanks for the memories and the fun read!

  • http://halfass.com/blah/2003/05/09/boudin-king-boudin-capital-of-the-universe/ scotty

    Oh wow! So glad you tried Boudin. My URL is a link to a little blog entry I wrote about Boudin a while ago. I’m a BIG fan.

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