Saturday, April 28, 2012

Nova Scotia Drinking Food

While I'm sure it's not exclusively the food of the drunken Bluenoser, rest assured most people will tell you that an East Coast Donair is just about the best food to eat at 3am after a long night of imbibing.

In the early 1970's Greek immigrant Peter Gamoulakos opened a small restaurant in Halifax featuring one of his native land's signature dishes; Gyros. Peter failed. Or, to put an Edison-ian spin on it, he learned what doesn't sell in Halifax. Not to be deterred, much like Edison, Peter returned to the drawing board and adapted the Gyro recipe to suit the local tastes. The lamb was swapped out with beef and the Tzatziki (which they detested) was replaced with a sweet, white, garlicky sauce (sometimes crudely known as Jizz Sauce). Haligonians (that's someone from Halifax for those of you scoring at home) loved it and a new food craze was born. Soon Donair stands were popping up all over "Canada's Ocean Playground." It's not a Gyro, it's not a Doner Kebab. It's a Donair.

Neil Dominey is from Waterville in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia. (About an hour outside Halifax). He's also a Torontonian. Yep, Neil has made a habit of relocating from one city to another decennially. (That's every decade).
His current drivers license has him residing in Ontario but seems at least some of his heart and a good part of his stomach are still back in Nova Scotia. Longing for the donairs he survived on in Halifax and unable to get one 'round these parts he took matters into his own hands. In spring of 2012 he opened The Fuzz Box in Toronto and is cranking out Nova Scotian favourites to the large
Maritime ex-pat community. Annapolis slaw (made with apples) deep fried pepperoni and garlic fingers join other East Coast Favourites on the menu.

Named after Neil's band The Fuzz, The Fuzz Box operates out of a store front on Danforth on the edge of Toronto's Greektown. It's a simple store front outside and a fairly minimalist space inside. Some guitars hang from the walls as do paintings of guitars. There's enough tables and chairs for about 14 people so it's pretty cozy. In the kitchen Neil assures me that it's exactly as it is back home. The minor exception of the pepperoni not being quite right. The right stuff is harder. He's working on getting the correct type but in the mean time what he's using will do. (As of September, 2012 TFB imports the real stuff, Brothers Pepperoni from “back home.”) The meat, the sauces, well, everything outside of the breads are made in house. So you know it's gonna be good.

How good?? A fellow customer and young Nanny gave a little piece of her sandwich to her 15 month old, ultra picky charge. He loved it and went back for more. High praise from a temperamental youngster.

The Donair was tasty but a little sweet for me. Nothing I couldn’t live with though. The meat has the same texture as a regular Gyro but more mildly spiced. There’s also a little heat component
in there. The sauce is what really makes it. It provides the sweet component though not as garlicky as I’d like but that's just fine tuning things. Over all, this was very enjoyable.

The Fried Pepperoni is just plain addictive. For those who love to pick the nicely crisped up pepperoni off the top of pizza, this stuff is for you. It’s like pepperoni bacon. The crisp edges give it some nice texture and the heat brings out the oils and spice. The sweet mustard sauce that comes with it seemed odd but worked perfectly well. The sweetness balancing out the spice from the pepperoni. Honestly, it was like crack it was so hard to stop eating. 
Donair PizzaThe Donair Pizza is rather interesting. Rather than donair meat, sauce and whatnot in a pita, it’s put on pizza dough and baked. Oddly enough, the sweetness didn’t stand out but the garlic did. I preferred this incarnation of the Donair.

Well there you have it folks, a taste of  Nova Scotia in the heart of Toronto

You can find The Fuzz Box at 1246 Danforth Ave. in Toronto.

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You can also find them on the web, facebook and Twitter.
The Fuzz Box on Urbanspoon

Well that’s all for now folks, see ya next time in the food court.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Minority Report

An old English proverb offers “Before you can truly know a man you need to walk a mile in his shoes.” I may not have walked that mile but for a few feet anyway, I got to see race relations from a different perspective.

On some personal business in Birmingham, Al. we were interested in something local and legendary for lunch. We polled the fine folks about where they'd take a visitor and one name really stood out. Green Acres Cafe (downtown). Charles Gratton founded Green Acres at the corner of 6th and 16th but later relocated to it's current home on 4th. Specializing in soul food, it's a shining example of how to turn oft neglected ingredients into something special. The family business has been around since the 1950's and is now run by Charles son, Greg. In 1994  at the urging of Greg they opened their first franchise. A second came in 1996 and they now boast 9 locations in the Greater Birmingham area.

The store downtown operates as their headquarters and is considered the best of the bunch. The old brick building is a perfect setting for some serious, real deal, soul food. They do a bustling business at lunch and can often have lineups outside the door and down the street.  It's a bit Soup Nazi-ish too. Large crowds mean the line needs to move. Humming and hawing over the menu at the counter will get you scolded I'm told. A terrific lady helped us with our ordering and kept things moving.

There's no seating so your best bet is to take a short walk to near by Kelly Ingram park. The park is now dedicated to civil rights but in an era that seems so recent yet long past it was often center stage for civil rights activists. Martin Luther King himself organized rallies on behalf of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Across the park sits the infamous 16th Street Baptist Church. Site of the 1963 bombing and murder of 4 young black girls. It can be seen in the background between the trees of this picture. You can also visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute across the street.

It was an interesting perspective to be the only whites in the whole place. We received a good a range of looks extending from an occasional sideways glance to a dumbfounded “what the hell are they doing in here” stare. I suppose for some it would've been unnerving but I was way to excited about my pending lunch to worry about such silliness. I always just figure people are nice so I really didn't think I had anything to worry about anyway.

So how was lunch you ask?? I will state up front that basically everything comes breaded (flour/cornmeal) and deep fried or so it seems. Most of what we had was anyway. The simple breading tastes fine on it’s own but where the sauce covered it, it was fabulous. That applies to all the items we ate.
Also, we ordered everything “All the way” which means salt and pepper, hot sauce and, yes, ketchup. Odd as it seems it was a great combination. I should’ve ordered extra sauce since they don’t put a lot on and I love it. Everything the red goodness touched was just that much better.

Mrs. Sippi’s gizzards were, well, gizzards. I’m not a fan (I don’t hate them) but she had delirium tremors in anticipation. They didn’t disappoint. Crunchy with a terrific chicken taste. They had the typical texture you’d associate with gizzards which I find off putting. It’s tough because while I can’t get by that texture, they are one of the tastier parts of the bird.

The catfish sandwich was pretty interesting. A whole splayed (head off) fish served on white bread. I wasn’t sure how to attack since the bones were still in. I kinda nibbled around but then remembered how you take the bones out of a poached fish. Grab the spine and lift away from the flesh. It came right out. No skeletal remains. The meat was nice and sweet with the breading adding some nice crunch. I really liked it.

The fried green tomatoes were really good (S & P) only on these. They need to be extricated from the bag immediately and kept from steaming. Where they stayed crisp they were very good. Nice and crunch with a green tomato taste that was stronger than the thin slice would suggest. Not the best I’ve had but tasty none the less.
Perhaps as much as anything the chicken wings are their claim to fame. Regularly nominated for a Steve Harvey "Hoodie" award they took top honours in 2007. They only serve wings but still call it fried chicken. The crispy batter seals in the juices and where the appendages were covered with sauce they were some of the best wings I’ve ever had. I could handle them hotter but the heat level was more than enough to liven things up. I probably wouldn’t kick the heat up but leave well enough alone. Just make sure I ordered extra sauce. Delicious.
I’ve always wondered what crunchy vinegar tasted like and now I know. Mrs. Sippi’s pickled pigs foot was in her mind, okay. She thought it was a little small and a bit too fatty. I just really didn’t like it. Surely there must be something better to do with these things. As I said, it tasted like vinegar and had a certain crunchiness to it. Yuck. Never hurts to try something new though, right??

Well there you have it folks. Some serious soul food from a legendary establishment.
Green Acres Cafe on Urbanspoon

You can find Green Acres Cafe's downtown location at 1705 4th Avenue, N. in Birmingham, Al.

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You can also find them on the web.


Sunday, April 15, 2012

Taste the Difference of Real Wood

It’s a funny thing about barbeque. Long known as a southern staple it’s also very regional within that geographic area. Sometimes only a few neighbouring counties will have a certain style while outside that area it’s different. Be it someone from Owensboro, Austin or the Triangle in North Carolina, they’re fiercely proud of their own special take and roundly dislike other varieties. 

Perhaps this, as much as anything, is what plagues Q in non traditional areas. In Memphis you have a certain style and everyone likes it. If you try to do Memphis BBQ in a non traditional area, only Memphians will like it. That can lead to a pretty small demographic. So people tend to generalize their product. Trying to satisfy everyone. Most often, if you try to make everyone happy, you end up pleasing no one.
So it came as a nice surprise in a land of poorly done Q to see Paul Kocukov serving up some real deal smoky goodness. One time insurance salesman Paul’s love for love for Q started over 30 years ago with a pulled pork sandwich in Tennessee. It led him on a journey that would culminate in a small west end Toronto restaurant. Along the way, he and his wife Sandy toured some of the South's great BBQ havens, sold brisket's and shoulders to friends and eventually opened a BBQ sandwich stand at the Orangeville farmers market. This is where Paul really road tested and honed his craft. Playing around with sauces, rubs, woods and cook times all the while perfecting his techniques. In 2010 it was time to open Paul and Sandy’s Real BBQ. 

Paul and Sandy’s is a store front operation in the heart of Islington Village. It has a chalet look with wood on the outside whereas inside it’s pretty much a straight up restaurant. Tables, chairs, open kitchen, you know, a restaurant. The Godbrother and I were the first customers in the door and by the time we left, people were snapping up tables as fast as they were being turned over. The word is definitely out about this place.
In the kitchen, Paul and Sandy are doing just about everything themselves. Right down to the salads and fresh cutting the fries. Paul uses fresh cut hickory imported from the states in his smoker. He believes the freshness adds a certain sweetness that aged wood doesn’t. He monitors the fire for the first few hours or so while the smoke ring sets in. Once that happens, the threory is, no amount of wood and smoke will flavour the meat after that. He then lets the thermostat take over from there. This extra attention to detail certainly comes out in the food. So let’s have a look.

Paul makes two sauces in house. Both are surprisingly thinner than I was expecting given his BBQ tendencies. The regular had a good molasses sweetness and some smokiness. The hot wasn’t that much hotter. Or so it seemed. I used some on the pulled pork and when I was done my mouth was all a tingle. It really snuck up on me and will bite you if you’re not a spice lover.

A plate of complementary garlic bread was up first. It was quite nice in that it wasn’t overly garlicky. It had some crushed garlic mixed into a butter and then spread on toast. The bread itself was a nice French stick from a local bakery. Very nice.

Next up was the 2 meat + half rack combo.
The accompanying pickle is imported from stateside and is terrific. Not overly sharp and with a great crunch.
The fries are quite nice too. They were on the more well done side which I really like. A lot of places undercook their fresh cut taters. That said, I’d still like to see them a little crispier. I’m not really here for the fries anyway.
The slaw was straight up, classic BBQ joint slaw. I say that as a complement. It’s not over thunk. It’s simple, creamy, slightly tart with a nice cabbage taste and crunch. The old standard, executed perfectly.
I was totally into the beans. A nice rich broth was punctuated with a good peppery taste. I noticed a few whole peppercorns in the dish so it came as no surprise it’s where it gets it’s personality. Not something I’ve ever had but since I add pepper to just about everything, it was a very good fit for me.
The worst meat on the plate was the pulled pork. Remember how I say that it’s never smoky enough for my taste. Well, not so here. Sure mine is smokier but this had enough, good porkiness and came with only a top dress of sauce. A very nice compliment. The other part that they did well here is the chunks of pork. Not this minced up hash of pigginess drowned in sauce.
The chicken was some of the best I’ve had in TO. A hind quarter, smoked to juicy goodness and again, lightly dressed with sauce.
The ribs were great. A little on the sparse side and being back ribs of course were not as juicy as side ribs. From a taste and texture stand point, these really delivered.

The brisket was outstanding. The heftier bun didn’t get in the way of the bold taste of the brisket. A nice light smokiness punctuated by a phenomenal bark. I’m even pickier about brisket than I am pulled pork and this ranks as some of the best I’ve had. Keep in mind I’ve never been to the big Texas Q meccas. 

You can find Paul and Sandy’s Real BBQ at 4925 Dundas Street West.

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You can also find them on the web and facebook.
Paul & Sandy's Real BBQ on Urbanspoon

Well that’s all for now in the Big Smoke. See ya next time.


Saturday, April 7, 2012

Where Friends Meet-n-Eat

As I had written before, the Interstate system that now networks the United States wasn’t always the way people moved about the country. People in the Great Lakes region for instance travelled the Dixie Highway between the north and Florida. The eastern Midwest equivalent of the Great River Road or US 101/El Camino Real.
The DH was not a linear thoroughfare per se, but a network of interconnected roads stretching from Canada to Florida. Two main arteries, DH East from Sault St. Marie, Michigan to Miami and DH West from Chicago to Miami had loops and connectors funneling cars to the main lines. The introduction of the interstate meant the dismantling and renaming of portions of the Highway. The Dix was, roughly speaking, replaced largely by I-75 and in part by I – 65 and I – 95. In a north/south direction anyway. You can still see signage for the DH in states like Kentucky and Ohio but more than often you wouldn’t even know you’re on the historical road.

Many of the businesses that thrived along this highway died when the interstate pushed through. Some did manage to survive and you can read about two of them here. One lives on, one does not.

In north Cincinnati the suburb of Sharonville, once on the DH, is a mecca for chain restaurants and hotels. However at least one hold out still exists. Hanging on to it’s pre interstate days. The Rootbeer Stand has been delighting south central Ohioans and visitors for over half a century.
Originally opened under the A & W banner by Mick and Nancy Rideour along with (Nancy’s parents) Jim and Catherine Clark. Mick found a seasonal (summer) business was the perfect counter to his seasonal (fall to spring) job as a teacher. Right on the outskirts it was the first place to grab a bite as you hit town. (Or last depending on which way you were going of course.) In 1982 they’d discontinued their affiliation with A & W and were independent.
By the late 80’s Mick and Nancy were winding down their careers and Nancy’s parents had both passed. It was time to move on. That's where Scott and Jackie Donley stepped in. A deal was struck and the Donley’s opened the 1990 season as the new owners. They immediately changed….nothing. Why would they?? They had a good thing going. The chili and most importantly the root beer recipes developed by Catherine back in the 50’s are still the same today.The root beer is even made with the same equipment they’ve been using since they opened in 1957.

On the outside very little has changed. There’s been some cosmetic alterations and of course all the A & W signage was replaced with The Rootbeer Stand but the place is still in the same spot it was when it opened. Car hops have been gone since the early 70’s as well.

Inside the kitchen and a few other areas have been moved around but the signature feature has remained. The hat hall of fame that adorns the ceiling. In by gone days, truckers were the predominate customer as they travelled up and down the Dixie Highway. They’d leave their ball caps as a form of advertising. The tradition has continued ever since. They get thinned out once in a while and when they took over, the Donley’s had a great number of them cleaned. Another tradition still observed is the hiring of young, high school aged kids for the season. Most often, this is the first job these young boys and girls ever have. A nice way to kick off their working life. Even better for a couple of young girls in the 60’s. Both working as car hops met their husbands at the stand. Today they can be found working in the kitchen.

Well all this tradition is wonderful the food is really what matters. So lets have a look.

The double cheeseburger was good but not great. Mrs. Sippi was far more enthusiastic about it than I. It was very reminiscent of the one at Texas Tavern in Roanoke. Both of those burgers to me just screamed nostalgia.

The foot long chili cheese dog was very good. An ordinary wiener and bun with chili, cheese, mustard and onion. The surprise, being that we’re in Cinci was that the chili was more of a traditional chili. It, on its own was also very good. It had a nice cumin hit and good chili flavour. No real heat which would’ve made it even nicer but you just don’t get that in hot dog chili.

BigE-RBFloatThe Big E sandwich is the normal Cheeseburger with warmed Deli Ham and Swiss Cheese. It came dressed with pickle, onion, mustard and mayo. In future I think I’d skip the pickle and add tomato. All in all this is a delicious sandwich. The ham and swiss take this to another level. As I said above, the Cheeseburger was good. This is very good.

The star of the show as you can imagine is the root beer. Made with water from their own well which they claim gives it it’s personality. It has a nice smooth flavour and little carbonation. It’s also not overly sweet. Just enough to take the edge off. They even serve it up in a mug which is a nice touch. Notice the pop corn. They don't serve fries so chips or pop corn are your options.

The root beer float was even better. The vanilla ice cream complimented the root beer perfectly. This is where the less sweetness of the root beer really mattered.
My Grandmother would often make us Ginger Ale and Butter Pecan floats when we were kids. (It's a great combo, give it a try). I never really thought much about them until the last few years when I rediscovered the float. Great memories.

So if you’re in the Cincinnati area and are feeling nostalgic, head on over to The Rootbeer Stand.

You can find The Rootbeer Stand at 11566 Reading Road in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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You can also find them on the web, facebook and Twitter.
Root Beer Stand (closed winters) on Urbanspoon
The Root Beer Stand on Foodio54

Well that’s all for now folks, see ya next time in the food court.