Food as an Experience

Yesterday, my wife and I made a run to the farmer’s market and decided to have lunch afterwards.  We’re a bit unusual in that we don’t simply find a nearby drive-thru and grab whatever is available.  We look for places that 1) are not chain restaurants, 2) are well rated on Google, Yelp, or Trip Advisor, and 3) appeal to our sense of adventure.

We chose CO, a relatively new restaurant serving Southeast Asian cuisine.  We hadn’t been there before so we had no preconceived impressions.  Being that it was a beautiful Saturday and just a few minutes after opening, we had the restaurant to ourselves, at least for a few minutes.

The decor was nice, with kind of an upscale diner feel.  One wall had several large black and white photos of who our waiter said was the 1960s Bond girl from You Only Live Twice, Akiko Wakabayashi.  The photos were stunning and gave the interior a kind of hip feel that would appeal to the younger, more affluent crowd I expect they’re going for.

The food and service were great and we had a nice leisurely lunch before finishing up our shopping run and heading home.   It was a nice experience and we will be back to CO.

All of this brings me to the point of this post.  We had a wonderful dining experience, but what made is so?   First, we had not been there before, so it was a new experience.  We both had drinks we hadn’t experienced before and the food, Ann Marie’s Korean Short Rib Banh Mi and my Korean Poke Bowl, were full of fun and interesting flavors.

Second, we learned a few things during our experience.  How many people take the time to ask about the photos decorating the wall, much less even notice them?  We also took the time to talk to the waiter, who gave us a bit of history about CO and a bit of his own history, as well.

Finally, we enjoyed ourselves.  We explored a new menu, met new people, and visited a new restaurant.  We took a little time out of our day to have a bit of an adventure and to create new memories.  That’s what it’s about for us.

So what are some of my favorite food experiences?

One relatively early experience happened in Blowing Rock, North Carolina nearly twenty years ago.  I can’t remember the name of the restaurant; it doesn’t really matter since the restaurant was gone when we returned to the town a few year’s later.  I also can’t remember the food, although I do recall that it was very good.  What sticks with me is the gentleman playing acoustic guitar for the retaurant’s clientele, who played a beautiful version of John Prine’s Paradise.  It was a special moment.

More recently,  we had a very personal dining experience in the Bairro Alto neighborhood of Lisbon, Portugal.  We visited Flor da Laranja, a wonderful Moroccan restaurant and a true one-person operation (the owner was the cook, waitress and maitre de’).  It felt as if we were dining in the owner’s home.  Again, the food was great, but what made it special was the intimacy of the dining experience and the service.

Flor da Laranja

Sometimes it’s the atmosphere that makes the memories.  On a rainy night in Nazaré, Portugal, we spent an evening at Maria do Mar, a little seafood restaurant and a favorite of Nazaré’s surfing community.  The restaurant was full of locals and Maria, the owner, made us feel as if we belonged.  There was a karaoke D.J. playing fado and the staff took turns singing their favorite songs.  The fun atmosphere turned a rainy night at the beach into a memorable experience.

Finally, just a couple months ago, we sat at a picnic table outside 12 Bones Smokehouse, in Asheville’s River Arts District, and enjoyed a nice meal on a beautiful Summer day.  We watched as an eagle soared overhead against a brilliant blue sky.  It tied everything together-  the food, the location, the beautiful weather and a touch of nature.  It was wonderful.

12 Bones River

For us, it’s these special moments that make dining an adventure.  Those moments can be anywhere.  You just have to open your eyes to them.

 

 

 

Smokin’ Joe’s of Texas, San Antonio

My wife and I are pretty adventurous with food.  Whenever we travel we do our research and find outstanding restaurants that offer something we can’t get at home or from a chain.  San Antonio was no different.

Ann Marie did the research this time.  Since we were in Texas, we figured this was our chance to get real Texas Barbecue.   Smokin’ Joe’s of Texas was the restaurant she decided on.

Now, we love barbecue, but Carolina barbecue is different from Texas barbecue.  Western Carolina, or Lexington, barbecue uses a red, ketchup-based sauce.  Eastern Carolina barbecue uses a vinegar-based sauce.  In both cases, the meat of choice is usually pork.  It makes sense.  There are more hogs in North Carolina than people.

In Central Texas, the emphasis is on the meat, which is usually beef.  The meat is usually seasoned with salt and pepper only, though occasionally other spices are used.  Sauce is optional and is served on the side.  That’s the style we found at Smokin’ Joe’s.

We didn’t know what to expect but, from what we had seen around the River Walk, I expected a large fancy restaurant along the lines of Republic of Texas Steakhouse.  What we found was much more fun.

Smokin’ Joe’s is a tiny place tucked between a used car lot and an equally tiny Mexican restaurant.  The outside is typical Texas, with two giant six shooters displayed under the sign.  Once inside, we were greeted by a nice lady at the register, who I think was Joe’s mom.  Joe came out when we ordered and visited for a few minutes.  It’s truly a family operation.  There was Joe, his mom and one other gentleman in the kitchen.

It’s not fancy, but Smokin’ Joe’s isn’t a here today- gone tomorrow joint.  Joe has been smoking meat in San Antonio for over 35 years and his restaurant has been open since 2010.  Joe knows what he’s doing and, he’s not going stop any time soon.

We ordered each ordered a plate with two meats and two sides.  Ann Marie had the brisket and ribs while I had the brisket and sausage.  As is usual with central Texas barbecue, the meat was served with pickles and sliced bread.

Everything was very good.  The meat was really nice and the sides- baked beans and watermelon, in my case- were great.  The sauce was really just to add a little moisture to the meat, but wasn’t really needed.  In Texas, it’s the meat that counts, not the sauce.

The stars of the show, though, were the desserts.  We had a slice of lemon cake and a slice of Black Russian cake, and shared them.  They were both incredible.

Our visit to Smokin’ Joe’s was just what we were looking for.  We found traditional Central Texas barbecue, a relaxed atmosphere, friendly people and good food.  I’d say that I’d recommend this little barbecue place to people, but it’s too late.  I’ve already started telling people check out Smokin’ Joe’s.

Smokin Joes

Café Guarany, Porto Portugal

My wife and I could be called foodies.  We enjoy a good meal and love to visit highly rated restaurants and eateries of all kinds.  We made a point, during our Portugal trip, to explore the many great foods and restaurants available.  Café Guarany was one of our stops.

Guarany Exterior

Located on Avenida dos Aliados, in the heart of Porto, Café Guarany has been a popular gathering place for Portuenses since 1933.  It’s a beautiful restaurant.Named for a Brazilian indigenous people,   Renovated in 2003, the interior’s centerpiece are two paintings, “The Lords of Amazonia” by University of Porto alum Graça Morais.

Cafe Guarany

We had a wonderful breakfast at Guarany.  Ann Marie had the ubiquitous tosta mista, which is basically a grilled ham and cheese sandwich.  The tosta mista is very tasty and we had several of these during our Portugal trip.  We had a version of it in Coimbra with grilled chicken which was very good as well.

I ordered a crepe Alaska.  I completely missed that it had a scoop of ice cream on top.  Ice cream for breakfast?  Yep, and it worked.  The crepe was great, pineapple, berries, whipped cream and an orange slice, and a scoop of tangerine ice cream to top it off.  It was really good and the tangerine ice cream was a nice touch.

Tosta Mista and Ice Cream

Later we decided to stop in again for dessert, port and coffee. On the way there, the bus stopped and the driver said that something was happening ahead and that we would all have to to exit the bus and walk to another stop.  We were just a short walk from the restaurant so we set out on foot.

We were at the restaurant before the dinner crowd so we had a nice leisurely dessert, accompanied by a glass of port and a coffee.  While we were enjoying our meal, we noticed a policeman just outside the door, putting a police border across the road.  Soon, a crowd began to gather and a news crew showed up.  We watched with interest as we ate.  I took this photo once we were done and had left Guarany.  It was taken no more than 20 feet from the front door of the restaurant.

Bomb Scare

We made our way back to our hotel and followed the drama on the local television news.  I’ve been learning the Portuguese language for a few months and we were able to understand that an unidentified black automobile was found abandoned on Avenida dos Aliados.  Fearing that there could be a bomb in the vehicle, the police had cordoned the area off and had brought in the bomb squad.  The news showed, in an endless loop, two policemen releasing a bomb sniffing dog to investigate the car as they watched, crouching behind the monument to Dom Pedro IV for protection against the potential blast.

About three hours later, the drama came to an end.  Someone had finally thought to run the tags and contact the car’s owner.  Apparently the car had stopped running and the owner simply left it there and took the bus home.  The car was towed and the story was over.  The event added an interesting and unique memory of our trip to Portugal.

 

12 Bones Smokehouse, Asheville, NC

Asheville, North Carolina is a food lover’s paradise.  My wife and I love visiting this great little city and make a point of visiting restaurants we haven’t yet been to.  There are a few restaurants, however, that we have on our must visit list, no matter how many times we’ve been there.  12 Bones Smokehouse is one of them.

12 Bones came to prominence when then President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama dined at the restaurant not once, but three times on trips to Asheville.  We’ve been there three times as well- once to their Arden location, once to the original riverside restaurant and, most recently, to the new location in the River Arts District.

I loved the Arden location, a converted automobile service station, for its funky feel.  The now-defunct riverside location had a great outside dining area next to the river.  The new location, though, is probably my favorite.

The River Arts District was once a run down industrial area, but it’s been converted into art space for Asheville’s creative community.  More than 200 local artists have studio space here and, with the artists, several restaurants have moved into the district.  One of the things I love about the River Arts District is that the exteriors of many of the buildings are covered with art.  12 Bones is no different.

12 Bones Artwork Detail
12 Bones Smokehouse Entrance

Dining at 12 Bones is a little different from most restaurants.  First, you have to wait in a queue to get into the restaurant; as the group at the counter places their order and moves into the dining room, the next group moves into the restaurant.  Second, by restaurant standards 12 Bones’ hours are unusual.  The restaurant is only open for lunch Monday through Friday (it’s actually open for takeout until 6pm, but the dining room closes at 4).  If you get there late you’re out of luck.

We got there just before the Friday lunch rush, so our wait outside wasn’t long.  We placed our orders and chose to sit outside to enjoy the great weather and the fascinating wall art of the surrounding buildings.  We enjoyed watching an eagle soar high overhead against the beautiful blue sky.

12 Bones River

The food at 12 Bones is great. Ann Marie ordered their award winning blueberry chipotle ribs with potato salad and collards and I had a pulled pork plate with mac and cheese and collards. I tried several of the barbecue sauces- a vinegar based sauce, a mustard based sauce, and an awesome jalapeno sauce.   It’s country cooking, but taken to a whole new level.

 

There are no secret sauces at 12 Bones.  They don’t keep their recipes locked in a safe.  If you’re up to it, you can “try this at home.”  They’ve got a cookbook with recipes for pretty much everything they serve, including their blueberry chipotle sauce.  Ann Marie makes a pretty awesome barbecue, but she’s always looking for new things to try.  The cookbook was one we definitely needed.  I see blueberry chipotle ribs in our future.

If you make it to Asheville, head to 12 Bones River.  You won’t be disappointed.

Cafés, Portugal, March 2018

Travel can be stressful, with planes, trains, or even ships that must be caught, unfamiliar roads to follow, schedules to be met and new languages to learn.  It’s nice to be able to slow down from time to time and to stop at a café for a coffee or a glass of wine.  We experienced a lot of interesting cafés and we took advantage of them to stop and relax for a few minutes on our journey.  Here are just a few.

Aveiro is home to one of our favorite cafés, A Mulata.  It’s a tiny place on Avenida Santa Joana and a block from the Museu do Aveiro.  A Mulata has a nice breakfast and fresh baked goods with a lot of vegetarian options.  It was also a quiet place to sit and enjoy a glass of wine or beer.  We like quiet.

Porto’s most famous café is Café Majestic.  Opened in 1921, this art nouveau café was a favorite of British author J.K. Rowlings, who is rumored to have worked on the first Harry Potter book here.  The notoriety that comes with being associated with anything Harry Potter means that the café is always crowded with tourists.  We were looking for a nice quiet atmosphere where we could sit and enjoy breakfast and coffee, and Majestic was not the place for us.

Majestic Cafe

Fortunately, Porto has another iconic café just a short walk from Majestic.  Named for a Brazilian indigenous people, Café Guarany has been a popular gathering place for Portuenses since 1933.  It’s a beautiful restaurant.  Renovated in 2003, the interior’s centerpiece are two paintings, “The Lords of Amazonia” by University of Porto alum Graça Morais.  We had a wonderful breakfast at Guarany and, later, stopped there again for dessert and coffee.

Braga has a pair of nice cafés in the Arcada at Praça da República, Café Astória and Café Vianna.  We chose to have breakfast at Café Vianna.  In operation for over 150 years, the café is supposedly where the 28 May 1926 coup d’etat began.  Portuguese novelists Eça de Queriós and Camilo Castelo Branco are said to have been visitors to the café during its long history.  We enjoyed a relaxing breakfast while we planned our day.  Located at the end of Praça da República, it proved to be a nice place to people watch.

Cafe Vianna Interior

Coimbra is home to another interesting historic café.  Located in what was once an auxiliary chapel, Café Santa Cruz has a wonderful interior, with vaulted ceilings and stained glass.  Opened in 1923, it’s another great place for coffee and a snack.  It’s location on Praça 8 de Maio and next door to Igreja de Santa Cruz make the café a good place for people watching.

Ze Manel dos Ossos, Coimbra, March 2018

My wife and I look upon dining out as an adventure.  We do a lot of research to find interesting and unique restaurants wherever we go.  I had done a lot of research into restaurants in the cities on our itinerary.  One restaurant that came up over and over was Ze Manel dos Ossos, in Coimbra.  The fact that it was just a short walk from our hotel was a bonus.  This would be our dinner destination.

Ze Manel dos Ossos is tucked down a little alley just a block from Largo da Portagem, a central square across from the Santa Clara bridge and a popular for shoppers and tourists.

A light rain was falling when we arrived at the restaurant.  Ze Manel dos Ossos is a very small restaurant with nowhere to wait inside for a table to become available, so we waited in the rain with a young man from Greece and his dinner partner, a young woman from Croatia, and, eventually, a man from Lisbon.  The young man had done his research as well and was not going to give up a chance to dine at Ze Manel dos Ossos.

We studied the menu so we’d know what we wanted when we were seated.  The best way to describe the offerings would be country cooking, or, as Ann Marie called it, peasant food.  We decided on a half order of braised goat and a half order of bean stew with wild boar.

Half an hour later we were all in and seated.

The restaurant is truly a hole in the wall.  The inside is tiny.  The front half of the restaurant is an open kitchen.  The back half is filled with simple wooden tables and chairs and the walls are covered with small pieces of paper- drawings, doodles and poems.  The waiter called our order to the cook, brought us our bread, a great bean and cabbage soup and a stoneware pitcher of red wine, and we were under way.

The soup, as I said, was great.  The goat arrived in a stoneware pot along with potatoes and vegetables.  We poured the wine and the gentleman from Lisbon, seated at the table beside us, leaned over and told Ann Marie that the wine is homemade on the cook’s farm and is very strong, so please don’t drive afterwards.  He was a really nice guy who said he stops at the restaurant whenever he’s in Coimbra.  And yes, the wine was strong, but very nice.

Remember that we had ordered only a half serving of the goat and a half order of the bean stew.  By the time we had finished the goat, potatoes and veggies, we couldn’t eat any more.  We asked the waiter if we could cancel the bean stew and he laughed and said, of course.  But, he reminded us, that was just a half order!

We really enjoyed the dinner at Ze Manel dos Ossos.  The food and wine were really good, the staff was friendly and seemed to enjoy what they were doing, and the atmosphere was one of a kind.  And, best of all, the bill was half of what we paid at many other restaurants on our journey.  Our new friend was on to something.  Ze Manel dos Ossos would definitely be worth another visit the next time we’re in Coimbra.

Flor da Laranja, Lisbon, March 2018

On our last night in Portugal we had the pleasure of dining at Flor da Laranja, a Moroccan restaurant in the Bairro Alto district of Lisbon.

Morocco and Portugal have a history that goes back to the eighth century.  Moorish influence can be seen in architecture and art (Portugal’s famous azulejo tiles are of Moorish origin) and heard in place names throughout the country.  Despite this history, Moroccan restaurants are relatively rare in Portugal.

We asked our hotel to make reservations at the restaurant, which was fortunate, because without a reservation you will not get in.  The owner keeps the door locked and you must ring the doorbell to get in.  If you don’t have a reservation, she turns you away.  There was never more than three groups dining at one time, which allowed for a very personal and intimate experience.

Stepping out of the night and into the restaurant was our first indication that this would be a unique dining experience.  The interior is bright, with lots of flowers and candles, and Moorish-influenced art and furniture.  Moroccan music added to the vibrant atmosphere.

Flor da Laranja
Flor da Laranja

Flor da Laranja is truly a one man- or in this case, one woman show.  The owner, Rabea Esserghini, does it all, from waiting on the tables, to cooking the food, to answering the door.  I asked her about doing everything herself and she replied that it’s not much different from cooking dinner for her family.  A native of Casablanca, she loves sharing her country’s food with her guests.

And the food is really good.  We started with a glass of white vinho verde, or green wine.  The wine gets its name from the fact that it’s made from young grapes, not from its color.  It’s a bit sweet and slightly bubbly.  With dinner Sra. Esserghini recommended a bottle of rosé vinho verde, which was very good.

For the entrees, I chose a stuffed pepper and Ann Marie chose chicken with preserved lemons.  There were several small plates of eggplant, spinach, chickpeas and potatoes, which were all very good.  Sra. Esserghini made sure I didn’t forget about the sauce from the pepper, actually scooping it up and pouring it over the pepper.  She was right.  The sauce was awesome.

We enjoyed our dining experience at Flor da Laranja.  The food was outstanding and it’s obvious that Sra. Esserghini loves to share her culture and cuisine with her customers.  If you’re in Lisbon I recommend you make Flor da Laranja a stop on your journey.  But don’t forget the reservation.