Monday, March 30, 2009

Lone Starvin'.

Austin prides itself on being “weird,” a bastion of liberalism in a cowboy state, so I wasn’t surprised to find an active locavore scene there. The Kerbey Lane Café, a local mini-chain open 24 hours, has served affordable diner fare using Texas-sourced ingredients since 1980. At the South Lamar location, the atmosphere was student-friendly, brightly-painted with “funky” mixed-media stuff on the walls, and the crowd was mixed, too—moms with little kids, lots of students, workers on lunch. I ate the Kerbey scramble (mushrooms, tomatoes, green onions, cheddarjack) with Texas toast and OJ—a satisfying breakfast that fueled me on my hours-long walk through the city. The menus have blurbs about cutting carbon emissions by eating local produce—nice to see in an ordinary diner-style place in Texas.

I wandered down South Congress Street to the Farm-to-Market, well, market, where I bought amazing, tart chocolate-orange goat’s-milk ice cream and picked up a copy of Edible Austin. A pornographic salad photo pointed me toward the insipidly-named Wink for dinner. At about six, the bar area was filling with an after-office crowd and until I had a glass of wine in hand I felt about ten years old in my ratty t-shirt and shorts. I found a cozy corner and ordered two small plates. During happy hour, all bar apps were half price, meaning that I paid four dollars for a generous portion of really good countryside farm chicken liver pate. Peppery at first, then smooth and satisfying with a sweet finish, I felt like I was robbing them. I ordered a roasted chioga and bull’s blood beet salad from the dinner menu, with baby arugula, walnuts and chevre. The beets tasted really fresh, earthy but not dusty, and I learned that they had indeed been picked that morning. Wink one-ups the typical farm-to-table gratitude blurb by thanking not just farmers, foragers, and gardeners but also ranchers and farm workers, which was nice and kind of unexpected. I’d love to go back for a chef’s tasting—with antelope and bison entrees and their commitment to local produce, it would surely be a real taste of Texas.

The super-friendly bartender at Wink directed me toward the Counter Café, and I saw her reading the paper there over coffee and OJ the next morning. The Café is situated in an ordinary diner where literally all of the other patrons knew one another and all were very interested in hearing about my travels. The eggs and bacon and veggies were local (slogan: local food, global love) but the beef was Niman. I found this phenomenon elsewhere as well—naturally-raised, quality local beef just isn’t widely available in most of the country, including Texas.

On my last night in town, a Friday, I planned to eat some Tex-Mex, provenance be damned, but the place I’d been told about was packed with clean-cut dudes and blaring TVs and I just didn’t have the stomach for it. I wandered down to a wine bar (called, I think, Wine Bar) where I ate an exquisite, delicate first-of-the season salad of barely-dressed baby greens, radish, carrot, avocado and feta with a bit of tarragon. The salad made me realize that I’m chasing spring all over the country, and I felt really lucky.

On the way to El Paso the next afternoon, my tire blew out in the middle of the desert, leaving a trail of twisty scraps in its wake and a pile of black sand beside it. While I waited for AAA to arrive, the Border Patrol pulled up behind me and asked to search my car. I guess they aren’t kidding about Texas being “A Whole Other Country.”

Next: New Mexico and Arizona and California and more! (This country, it’s a big one.)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Nawlins Callin'.

I arrived in The Big Easy a few days after Mardi Gras. Throngs of fratty stragglers sipped hurricanes from bright bong-like plastic containers on Canal Street, and emerald green and gold beads were ground into piles of iridescent sand throughout the French Quarter. But just a few blocks away from the chaos, adorable Creole cottages and oak trees lined quiet streets. Outside the tourist-ridden depths of the Quarter, I did not come across a neighborhood lacking charm, and I ate well.

Sarah’s sister Callie, who works at the farmer’s market, introduced me to a flourishing local-foods community. The New Orleans Food and Farm Network encourages farming within the city limits and hosts community meals in city neighborhoods. In Katrina’s wake, pockets of green have sprouted throughout the city as one means of rebuilding community. The restaurant scene, unsurprisingly in a city known for its unique regional cuisine, is fabulous. On my first night I went to Mandina’s, a 75-year-old locals place in center city, near the hostel. I liked the old-school vibe of the place--casual but with bow-tied waiters, framed posters from jazz fest on the walls—and the etouffee was solid, very comforting, with a lot of celery and garlic. Crawfish are such a great ingredient, super-tender and succulent, with a unique clean flavor, lacking the ocean’s briny bite. My lunch the next day, though, was a real standout.

Cochon has got to be one of the best restaurants in New Orleans. With a James Beard award and a lot of high-end press under its belt, the restaurant was busy on a weekday at two in the afternoon despite its proximity to Emeril’s. The décor is warm and cozy, with terra cotta, mustard and chocolate walls, a pretty panoramic photo of a farm on one wall, and an open kitchen where four cooks looked remarkably relaxed while they worked. Like Charleston’s Hominy Grill, Cochon’s focus is on regional food using seasonal ingredients—the chefs are frequently spotted at the farmer’s market, and whole pigs are brought in from local farms and used for andouille and head cheese. If I was going to be adventurous, this was the place to do it, so I ordered fried alligator and a pig patty.
The alligator, cut into General-Gau-like chunks and breaded, was coated in a chipotle aioli with surprising kick and garnished with a green chiffonade that I soon discovered was mint. I must admit that I only ate a fraction of the gator. Though the chipotle and mint were really interesting together, the texture was chewy and tough, and when I picked the meat out of the breading it had very little intrinsic flavor. The Louisiana cochon with turnips, cabbage, and cracklins, though, was full of piggy flavor. Shredded cabbage sat in a shallow pool of salty broth, layered with a pork patty, cubed turnip, and big ole’ cracklins on top. What a perfect winter meal. (I could only finish a third of this course.) Because it sounded so amazing, I ordered dessert, too. The gateaux au chocolate (a misnomer, really), with honey, cream cheese mousse and pears, was a thing of beauty. Sour cream cheese, rich dark chocolate, sweet honey, and floral pear…it was, in my opinion, a perfect dessert.

The farmers market bustled at nine the next morning. Strawberries were abundant and cheap, newly in season. Piles of Paleolithic-looking crawfish were piled by tin scales. I ordered tacos, one with blackened fish and one with fried oyster. They were delicious—the oyster garnished with balsamic-drizzled baby spinach, the fish with red cabbage and dill remoulade, a bottle of Sriracha handy. The two pints of strawberries I bought did not last through the afternoon.

The next morning, before heading off to Austin, I sliced open the black sapote I’d bought at the stand in South Florida. It really did look like chocolate pudding and I ate it with a spoon, the other hostel travelers eyeing me warily. When I closed my eyes, though, the flavor was more of a one-note sweetness with maybe a hint of raisin or molasses. Perhaps I didn’t wait long enough for it to ripen…

Next up: Austin, Santa Fe, Arizona, Los Angeles, and more!

Friday, March 13, 2009


South Florida is a long way from Flagstaff, Arizona, where I’m writing now. I’ve crossed the bayou and the desert and now I’m up in the mountains watching powdery snow meander from the sky. It’s so hard to believe that such wildly varying climates and cultures—Cuban, Creole, Cowboy, Comanche—are all part of the same crazy patchwork of a country. Back at the Everglades International Hostel, heaps of fresh oranges and grapefruits, free for the juicing, greeted me from a little outdoor bar outside the kitchen. The Homestead area is home to dozens of farms, from 3-acre organic mom-and-pop joints to mammoth tomato-growing operations with hundreds of employees. After checking in I headed to the Farmer’s Market restaurant, just a few blocks away, for lunch. The restaurant is tucked among several huge produce warehouses—if you have eaten a tomato in January, I read, you have eaten a Homestead tomato. There were no tomatoes, however, on the lunch menu at the Market Restaurant. The menu was straight-up diner fare, using fish and produce from the market when applicable, and the other diners were warehouse workers on their lunch break. The waitress recommended the grouper fingers and they did not disappoint. Four fat chunks of succulent fried fish came with a pile of thick fries and plastic ramekins of tartar sauce and slaw. I’m usually not much of a French fry enthusiast but I was famished and ate every last bite on my plate, even the coleslaw.

On the way to the Everglades National Park the next morning, I passed sprawling tomato fields. Workers crouched in wide-brimmed straw hats and watering vehicles sent massive rainbows shooting into the air. Gorgeous, rosy red tomatoes were mysteriously spread along the side of the road. I swerved to avoid a pack of vultures devouring the first of three dog carcasses I would see that day. In the park, the variety of wildlife took my breath away. Impudent gators sunned themselves on the asphalt paths. Four species of heron and three kinds of egret waded through the marsh, and a cormorant with a big fish in its beak alighted on a mangrove branch. On the way back to the hostel I stopped at Robert Is Here, a flashy fruit stand a couple of miles from the park. I’d read the story of the stand—the owner started selling cucumbers as a boy in 1959, other local farms got in on the action, and now-middle-aged Robert continues to sell local fruit from the same location, with a full staff and a somewhat depressing little zoo out back. Today Robert specializes in unusual tropical fruits. Among the shiny pyramids of heirloom tomatoes and Florida avocados were such rarities as sapodilla (tastes like pear and brown sugar), canostel (“egg fruit”—tastes like custard) and Black Sapote (chocolate pudding fruit). I left with one of each, instructions to wait a week before eating any of the fruit, and a huge canostel milkshake that did indeed taste like a rich custard, with a hint of tangerine.

Back at the hostel I got comfortable reading in the screened-in gazebo among shisha-scented pillows, Moroccan draperies blowing in the breeze. That night I ate a satisfying, locally-sourced eggplant lasagna dinner in the backyard with new friends from all over the country and the world. The next morning, I began my journey up the gulf coast of Florida, with stops in Sarasota and Tallahassee, on my way to the Big Easy.

More to come tomorrow, if not sooner!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Miami's Nice.

My first stop in Florida was St. Augustine, the oldest European settlement on the American continent. The city teemed with tourists. It was hard to appreciate the narrow cobbled streets lined with Spanish colonial buildings—those buildings housed gift shops selling t-shirts for Chihuahuas and rhinestone-studded beach cover-ups. The weather was lovely, though, and I sat reading on the beach for hours. I ate fried shrimp at O’Steen’s, where middle-aged waitresses named Brenda, Debbie and Charlene kept my sweet tea filled to the brim. The shrimp, which I ordered with beets and fried okra, was served with a dipping sauce made with ketchup, mayo, Worcestershire and horseradish. Datil peppers, a Minorcan variety mostly grown in St. Augustine today, leant the homemade hot sauce a peppadew-like sweetness. The hushpuppies were the best I’ve had. Light and fresh from the fryer, they bore no resemblance to the hard little turds I’ve eaten elsewhere. Mostly, though, St. Augustine didn’t seem to care much about fresh food, and I looked forward to Miami, where I knew I’d be connected with some farm-fresh goodies.

On my first night in Miami, Cristin and her brother and sister took me to Red Light on the Little River. Situated downstairs in one of Biscayne Blvd.’s revamped motels, the restaurant has an easy urban charm, with the river gurgling below and fresh herbs growing near the door. The seafood at Red Light was excellent—a delicate conch chowder got a gentle kick from paprika, and the grouper, served with wilted spinach, was allowed to speak for itself—barely seasoned and pan-seared, it tasted like the Atlantic on a sunny day.

The next day I checked out an indoor farmer’s market which, oddly, resembled a high-end hair salon’s waiting room, complete with magazines. Two vendors sold produce from nearby farms and a handful of others sold prepared foods—ravioli and tamales. The vibe was kind of awkward so I left empty-handed, but my next dinner out was fabulous.

Cristin’s sister Meg forages produce for Creek 28 in Miami Beach. She also cooks there several nights a week, and she designed and planted a vegetable garden in an adjacent lot. In her capable hands, I knew I was in for a real taste of South Florida. We sat on a quiet brick patio lit by candles, the scent of flowers wafting over us. Meg amused us with sweet chestnut and fig ravioli, tastefully adorned with single blossoms from the garden. We shared a classic Mediterranean-style tomato salad, the salty feta crumbled over a mound of fresh red tomato chunks and fresh parsley, and a decadent (decidedly not-local) phyllo-wrapped baked chevre drizzled with (local) honey. I ordered a comforting pozole entrée. Fragrant with oregano and cumin, the stew was homey and satisfying, the flavor punctuated with the freshness of radish, onion, and cabbage and the spiciness of chile de arbol. In all of our pleasantly simple dishes, I admired the kitchen’s restraint with spices and its un-showy use of local produce when available. Miami is still Miami and isn’t consumed by localvore mania, but even in a city known for glitz and decadence, a growing appreciation for local foods allows lovely places like Creek 28 to thrive.

From Miami I drove a quick hour to Homestead, near the Everglades, where many of the veggies I ate in Miami were grown. The Everglades were amazing and so was the fruit and I will write about it all momentarily...