Humble Kitchens // Ben’s Brown Bag

July 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

Saturdays, no matter how sunny, are designed for sleeping in. Hence the blackout curtains and complete disregard for alarms and elephants on the staircase. Nevertheless, when the clock strikes noon and you’re still spending quality time with your mattress, there’s that pesky guilt complex and you have to get up and do something. In a culture structured around get-up-and-go, it seems we’ve forgotten how to rest guilt-free. We tend to be strung up by the rush of life, so we go to the gym or go to the store or just GO, and go quickly. Thus, bigger traffic jams, longer lines at restaurants, fuller theatres. Where’s the appreciation for a Friday night date with sweatpants, Netflix, and a bottle of cheap wine? Or in this case, a pulled-pork sandwich from a greasy paper bag, eaten on a mossy rock in the middle of a sultry green river?

That was my Saturday afternoon. A short drive from my little yellow house in Atlanta’s west side brought me to Ben’s Brown Bag, a bright orange edifice on Howell Mill Road, reclining in a pitted parking lot next door to a tiny law firm. No indoor seating, just a couple classic silver booths with umbrellas folded in preparation for a summer rainstorm. Behind the counter, Ben himself stood, grinning with the promise of a new customer. It seems everyone smiles a bit wider when he tells them they can get a local, hormone-free Brasstown Beef burger for $5. It takes me a small eternity to pick something off the tall yellow menu. Everything is fresh and natural and made with love, Ben tells me. “I’ll take the pulled pork sandwich,” I say. “And a Cheerwine.”

He sets a frosty Cheerwine on the counter with a glassy clink. Old South jazz crinkles from the speakers lining the metal overhang and I get that summer feeling, sipping the South’s best cherry flavored soda and reveling in pure, unadulterated sunshine. You know the feeling; usually brought on by picnics and sprinklers and the fourth of July.

“Pulled pork on a potato bun with cajun chips!” We make the exchange. A crinkled five dollar bill for a brown bag with grease seeping through the bottom, but in an appetizing way, not a McDonald’s way.

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Chattahoochee River on a sunny Saturday in Georgia

Twenty minutes later, perched on a rock in the middle of the Chattahoochee River, I pull the sun-warmed sandwich from its bag and dig in, lost in the pure feeling of good food, sunlight, and icy water lapping at my toes. Spices roll over my tongue, teasing sensory memories and I remember childhood evenings by the grill, watching my father get crazy with the hot sauce. The click of a lighter still sparks those memories, dashing out to the grill to watch, mesmerized by the flames and my father’s showmanship.

I recognize the culinary passion infusing the sandwich I now hold, similar to the dedication seasoning my father’s grill creations, and I realize the best food tends to come from humble kitchens. Go visit Ben’s, if you fancy a taste of the best fried pickles in town, cozied up to an all-natural, hormone-free burger.

Ben's Brown Bag on Urbanspoon

Voodoo Donuts // sharing is caring

April 22, 2013 § 4 Comments

I once read a poem that equated Valentine’s Day with venereal disease. I thought that experience would be an isolated event, but a trip to Portland proved me very wrong.

Most people don’t go on vacation expecting the topic of sexually transmitted diseases to be a prevalent motif of the trip. I certainly didn’t. What a fool I was. I should have known; the very purpose of my visit to the west coast’s hipster mecca was to attend the Sigma Tau Delta (STD) English Conference. Evidently, when the initials didn’t tip me off, the universe figured I needed more obvious hints.

In a conference wide meeting, I was inundated by a flood of innuendos, or in-your-windows as my mother is wont to call them.

“STD! Spread the love . . . of literature”

“We always test positive!”

Needless to say, I got it. At which point someone attempted to coerce me into buying a bright red t-shirt with the words “The Dickens are bigger in Texas” scrawled across the chest in the Bleeding Cowboys font. There were so many things wrong with that. From the red to the font to the words to the fact that the seller’s eyes were borderline rapey.

It was all very scary.

In any case, we eventually ended up standing in the seemingly infinite line in front of Voodoo Donuts, in a dim alley in the middle of Portland, OR. A pink sticker on the window said “Get VD in Portland” in bright, cheery letters. A few drunk partygoers stumbled out of their limo and into the line behind us. Someone told us this was the best donut shop in the world.

Ten minutes later, with an Arnold Palmer donut in my hand, I understood why. I only caught blips of the conversation around me as I reveled in flavor. I knew I’d regret it later, but donuts are about living in the moment, so that’s what I did.

Thirty minutes later, the conversation about cannibals and trust finished with a suitable but inappropriate bang and we followed the cold back onto the street. I was somewhat listlessly following my group when one of the men leaning cold against the brick wall caught my eye, his blonde hair curling with his grin.

“Spare a dollar for a donut?” he asked, pulling his ragged sweater closer around his body. I grinned back. Spread the love, right? I handed him a few dollars and a smile. A few minutes later, he emerged, bright faced from the warmth of Voodoo donuts, opening a paper bag to share his haul with a couple friends.

A little lesson about the small things, I guess.

Meers // experimenting with pie pans

April 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’ve always been a bit of a traditionalist.  Cakes in cake pans, muffins in muffin tins, and pies in pie pans. It’s just logical that way. But last weekend, I experienced a paradigm shift that went straight to my hips. I had a Meers burger. You know, the famous Oklahoma burger that challenges you from a 8″ pie pan? A monstrous concoction of fresh-off-the-farm Texas Longhorn beef, red onions, tomato, and lettuce in conjunction with a whole wheelbarrow of fried okra. They cut it into quarters as if that’ll make it less embarrassing to eat.

image courtesy cbshop.com

image courtesy cbshop.com

Meers has been dubbed the home of Oklahoma’s best burger. Located in the Wichita Mountains, this down home restaurant has the rustic feel that every stereotype of Oklahoma includes. Animal heads, ancient photographs, license plates, and a variety of business cards litter the dark-stain walls. Our server handed me a big mason jar with ice clinking against its misty sides. Grinning, I traced my fingers down the greasy sides of the menu, settling on the one-and-only Meers burger. All or nothing.

When our burgers finally arrived, I had to laugh as I reconsidered the current size of my stomach with the size of the monstrous burger in front of me.

“There’s no way you can eat that whole thing.”

Challenge accepted. Every leaf of lettuce, every scrap of juicy beef and tomato.

The look of disgusted respect was worth the twenty plus pounds I felt gathering in the pit of my stomach. I felt myself descending into a food coma, but morale had never been higher.

We paid the ticket, drinking water in small sips, unsure how much space was left in our stomachs.

“Well, let’s go,” he said, slipping a tip under his water glass. I looked despondently up from the rickety chair. I was going to need a crane or a Hover-round to get out of there. I felt like I’d eaten an entire grass-fed cow, along with all the love that went into raising it. I was a happy camper, but I was also an overfed camper with no future in walking.

He pulled me up, gingerly, laughing as I painstakingly put one foot in front of the other.

I didn’t appreciate it. Some of us just can’t handle half a pound of beef in one sitting. Call me a pansy, but I’m a fruit-fed thing.

Good thing we had a two-hour drive ahead of us. Moving wasn’t really on my agenda for the next three weeks.  

Iguana Taco // white pants for taco tuesday

April 14, 2013 § 2 Comments

Taco Tuesday is undeniably the worst day of the week to squeeze into immaculate white pants. One day, I will successfully eat one of Iguana’s gourmet dollar tacos with class and grace and a spotless lap. Unfortunately, white-pants taco Tuesday was not that day.

The salsa teetered precariously on the edge of the chip for a brief, panicked moment. By the time I’d realized what was happening, the salsa leapt gleefully from its proper place, probably screaming “YOLO” the whole way down to my poor once-spotless pants. Chaos. For a birthday dinner, this wasn’t going quite as planned.

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Ivy with the infamous chips and salsa

My dinner date nearly choked on her Philly cheesesteak taco when she saw the devastation in my eyes. She didn’t say “I told you so,” but the smirk at the corner of her mouth did. I blotted up the mess as best as I could and turned to my tacos to soothe my misery. Since they were Iguana tacos, it worked. Philly cheesesteak, BBQ flank with pineapple relish, and vegetarian stir fry. Foodies would describe this culinary experience with a lot of fancy metaphors about the way the flavors interact with your taste buds and how you feel when your mouth gets groped by a cocktail of sweet and savory. I, on the other hand, lack their skill with language, so all I have to say is that those tacos were delicious and I’d pay five dollars apiece for that kind of fabulous.

Two baskets of chips and salsa later, we were rocking out to the in-house DJ and eavesdropping on the drunken conversations around us. Iguana is loud, vivid, and a wonderful respite from the gloom of my messy apartment. There’s nothing quite like eclectic decor and drunk OKC trendsters to make you forget about papers and projects.

When we finally left the little taco stand by the railroad tracks, we were completely stuffed and comparing levels of culinary impregnation. I won with a decisive three months next to Ivy’s one and was conflicted between feelings of pride and shame. I settled on contentment. It’s not often I find Mexican food that doesn’t result in a night spent on the fake tile of the bathroom floor. Iguana certainly deserves the title of “Best Downtown Restaurant.”

Fat and happy, we eased into my car and headed home, the very picture of class as we proceeded to have a burping contest the whole way down I-77.

|HOURS|

mon through sat // 11am – 11pm

sun // 10:30am – 8pm

|LOCATION|

9 nw 9th st

oklahoma city, ok 73102

|CONTACT|

It’s advisable to call ahead and reserve a table, especially on Taco Tuesday. For that, here’s their number: 405.606.7172

Petunia’s Pies & Pastries // miracle on 12th avenue

April 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

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don’t let the frills and pink throw you off; this place is serious

We practically flew through the bright doorway into Petunia’s Pies & Pastries as we sought to escape the wintery mix of rain-snow-sleet-wind-what-have-you whisking down Portland’s 12th Avenue. Inside, we gingerly wiped away the involuntary tears of winter from our chapped red faces and coaxed back our steady breath, which the west coast wind was so eager to steal. As the fog crept from the lenses of our glasses, we took stock of our pale green and pink surroundings.

My eyes focused on a glass case of delectable pastries, behind which stood a young blonde in a frilly green dress, smiling invitingly at my friend and me. On the ornate white shelf, a chalkboard advertised a selection of roasts from Stumptown Coffee Roasters. I leapt to the counter, debit card at the ready and “GivemetheGuatemalanplease” spilling in an almost indiscernible rush from shivering lips.

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cup of Stumptown’s Guatemalan roast

She looked at me like I was a crazy person. And rightly so, I suppose. I repeated myself, slowly, adding a polite request for a slice of the walnut banana coffeecake that’d been grinning at me since I walked in the door. Money and thanks were exchanged and I left my celiac friend at the counter, asking the usual questions about what would and wouldn’t kill her while I snuggled into the back corner at a pearly white table.

My friend joined me shortly with a huge pastry in her hand and the most joyful expression on her pixie face.

“Everything is gluten-free,” she said in awe. “Everything.”

As she took a tentative bite of her cupcake, I saw tears form in her eyes and spill over. I vaguely remembered the first time she discovered Udi’s gluten-free bread and couldn’t stop talking about how it tasted like “real bread.” I had a feeling this was another one of those moments when she could recall the taste of real pastry.

I understood the emotional connection with food. Up until the age of fourteen, I ate wheat, dairy, and soy-free against my will. While all the other kids got their Wendy’s chicken nuggets and Oreo frosties, I’d sit there dejectedly munching an almond butter and jelly concoction spread between two slices of dry, crumbly bread. Everything tasted like dust or cardboard and my relationship with food was based on the fact that I needed it to live.

When I was fourteen, by some miracle I managed to sneak a box of chicken nuggets under my mother’s nose. My taste buds were opened up to a whole new world of horribly delicious breaded fried processed foods. I was especially excited when eating the entire box had no affect on my stomach, my mental capacity, or my ability to walk in straight lines. It really was a miracle. Needless to say, I branched out into the world of gluten and dairy and as the allergies begin to return five years later, I find letting go of bread and ice cream to be one of the most difficult experiences of my adult life.

That being said, I understood the tears. Gluten-free is typically billed flavor-free, and for good reason. Petunia’s, however, a frilly haven for celiacs, overcomes the stereotypes, literally bringing tears of joy to at least one customer’s eyes.

We left laden with pastries to take home, not sure what made everything so friendly to digestion and simultaneously so delicious. We called it magic and left it at that. We don’t question culinary miracles.

|HOURS|

tues – thurs 9am-9pm

fri – sat 9am – 10pm

sun – 9am-79m

closed mondays

|LOCATION|

610 sw 12th ave

portland, or 97205

ADDY’S // Thanksgiving on the sidewalk

March 31, 2013 § Leave a comment

Most foodies of this generation have laid claim to the food cart trend as their own, forgetting that it was booming in the late 1920s and on. However, today’s version has a gourmet twist. The flocks of fully-functioning, health code approved trucks that line the streets of big cities like Portland, New York, New Orleans, and Atlanta are no longer just serving the staples, like hot dogs and hamburgers. In Portland especially, the ethnic (and trendy) variety is astounding. No more chains, no more mall food courts, no more hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurants: the gourmet food cart phenomenon is here and it’s spreading.

Last year, a story popped up on the Associated Press about the evolution of this trend, discussing the economical benefits of the food truck industry. In the wake of unemployment and real estate prices, the food cart is a viable option for talented foodies who want to be self-employed and independent of landlords and the like. While some of this small entrepreneurs are still battling ordinances and paperwork hoops in cities like Chicago, most large cultural centers have eased up to allow these culinary havens to flourish.

In Portland, the food cart industry is one of the most popular features of this health-conscious hipster-vegan mecca. One particular food cart that shines above the rest is Addy’s Sandwich Bar, a cheesy, fruity, French-esque heaven for your taste buds. If you ever visit Portland with an indecisive group of travelers, stroll over to Alder street, where the massive variety of food carts will guarantee happy faces and stomachs for everyone.

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A turkey, brie, cranberry melt on a toasted baguette. It tastes like Thanksgiving.

|WHERE|

521 SW 10th Ave

Portland, OR 97205

|WHEN|

mon-sat until 3pm

Cuppies & Joe // home is gourmet

February 21, 2013 § 2 Comments

Driving down 23rd street on Saturday night, we stop at Cuppies & Joe, drawn by the warm light pouring out of the little house’s windows. Inside we find overstuffed couches and antique chairs and corner tables with peeling paint. Low wood beam ceilings. White, green, turquoise. Litographs on the walls. Lamplit and bustling with conversation and tonight, live music. There’s a couple in one corner reading poetry together. Across the room, three men lean over a small table. It’s a business meeting; one takes rapid notes on his Lenovo tablet.

We maneuver our way to the register, scanning the drink menu. I linger at the glass case by the register, salivating. The Lemony Snickett, a lemon cupcake with lemon buttercream, grins up at me, tantalizing. Strawberry Mary Poppins rubs shoulders with mocha Bangarang while Donnie Darko throws an ominous shadow across The Traveler. With their quirky names and unexpected flavor combinations, it’s no surprise that Cuppies and Joe is so popular.

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Em peers rabidly through the beaded fringe. I hope that’s frosting on her lips.

Unable to choose a cupcake, I just order a frozen chai. It comes to me in a quaintly chipped mason jar with a silver espresso spoon rising like an exclamation point from the middle. The girls and I wander to the back room with our drinks, crowding around a small side table with a beaded lamp that jingles pleasantly every time I clumsily knock my knees against the table.

My friend Em offers a taste of her Sass-a-frass cupcake. A bite of red velvet, an explosion of cloud-light buttercream, and a sip of cold milk from a mason jar and I’m reminded why I don’t like being poor. I drown my sorrows in Hannah’s macchiato, made with a nutty espresso from Oklahoma City’s Elemental Coffee Roasters.

The atmosphere isn’t the only thing that makes Cuppies special. They also make all of their bakery items from scratch (and I assume with a lot of love. Buttercream doesn’t get that fluffy without love.) As is the case with any gourmet food or drink, Cuppies is on the pricier side. If you want to spend fifty cents on a cupcake, be Wal-Mart’s guest. If you want to extend your life expectancy and enjoyment, shell out $2.50 for a cupcake that will probably change your life during its journey to your hips. The cupcake selection is ever-changing; this isn’t a place for the habitual customer. However, their Twitter feed is updated every day with the list of available noms, so if you’re headed that way, follow their Twitter.

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Sass-a-frass cuppie. Milk in a mason jar. $2.50. Worth it.

Next time you need a quiet afternoon studying in a cozy atmosphere, remember that you can’t go wrong with Cuppies. They’re a Keep-It-Local partner, as well, which means you have a chance for 10% off your purchase. With that sort of deal, what’s stopping you from opening up a tab and over-caffeinating? That’s right, nothing. So go visit. Give them all the stars on urbanspoon. And buy a t-shirt, too; they’re almost as good as the cupcakes, though for different reasons (I don’t recommend eating them).

Cuppies and Joe on Urbanspoon

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