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Versailles Cuban Cuisine Stands Tall in Miami’s Little Havana

21 Apr

miami little hav sign

A visit to Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood is like a trip outside the USA. The sights, the smells, the accents — you’ll feel like you’ve really journeyed to Cuba. For many of us, it will be the closest we ever get to the real deal. We only had a few brief hours to explore this go around, so it was something of a whirlwind tour, for certain.

miami ver sign

We rarely come to this part of the world without stopping for a meal at Versailles Cuban Cuisine. If not the best, it is surely the most popular and well known eatery in Little Havana. The food is consistently good and the prices always fair. It always seems to be a proper mix of tourists and locals. And if the locals are consistently eating here in large numbers, then you know they are doing something right.

miami ver ext

Lots of locals make Versailles a regular stop — even if it’s just to grab a jolt of strong Cuban coffee or a flaky pastry from Versailles always-busy bakery. This place is a bit of a compound. A cottage industry, one might even say. There is a walk up window to accomodate patrons on the go and it appears to be a never ending flow of humanity. Boston may run on Dunkin … but Miami runs on these tiny, shot glass-size shots of dark coffee loaded with more sugar than a box of Dunkin Donuts. Yes, you could say this is an acquired taste. I whoofed it down and immediately felt the combination caffeine/sugar buzz. Eileen didn’t care for it and I, not wanting to waste a drop, knocked hers back as well. My day was now in full tilt mode.

miami ver cafe

Cafe Con Leche and Conversation — morning in Little Havana

miami ver menu

“The World’s Most Famous Cuban Restaurant” — enough said.

miami ver mirror

Check out the ornate mirrored walls in Versaille’s rear dining area

miami ver cuban sandwich

The Versailles’ traditional Cuban sandwich is my go-to lunch order

miami ver tres

Save room for some Tres Leche Cake — it’s moist and sinfully good

miami ver coquitos

If you love coconut, give these sugar bombs (aka “Coquitos”) a try

dominoes

Playing dominoes to pass the day is a Cuban (and Miami) passion

miami cigars

The art of making a hand-rolled stogie is alive and kickin’ in Miami

miami south beach

The Breakwater – one of South Beach’s fabulous art deco palaces

Do not miss Versailles Cuban Cuisine. But more importantly, don’t miss Miami’s Little Havana. It is a cultural gem that showcases Florida’s diversity and strong connection to Latin America. One day I will get to the real Havana. That day is coming soon. But until then, this will have to do. My son told me he felt like we were in a totally different country. “That’s the whole point, Travis,” I replied. “That is the whole point.”

Versailles Cuban Cuisine – 3555 SW 8th Street, Miami, FL 33135

www.versaillesrestaurant.com; (305) 444-0240

Exotic Treats Await at Biloxi’s Vietnamese-Inspired Le Bakery & Cafe

9 Mar

le bakery sign

A Facebook friend of mine tipped me to this place recently. I was in Biloxi for the afternoon and we had already enjoyed lunch, but we dropped in at Le Bakery & Cafe just before their daily closing time (5 pm). It was clear right away that this was not your typical Parisian-style bakery.  This is a French bakery and cafe with a decidedly Vietnamese twist. The seafood industry (primarily shrimping) brought many Vietnamese families to this area. A brief  tour around Biloxi makes that quite evident.   

le bakery yuca

Just look at the picture above. How often do you find that in Paris?

le bakery treats

The image above is just a sampling of the exotic treats you’ll find here at Le Bakery. The item to the far right was particularly interesting to me. It looked something like a homemade Hostess Twinkie with an accompanying white, milky dipping sauce. I was curious and had to try it. The young Vietnamese man working  behind the counter explained that the soft, spongy pastry encased a slab of moist banana. The sauce was even more complicated. A closer look revealed something very mysterious — scary even.

le bakery pearls

It looked like little tiny eggs — bubbly, clear pellets. The Vietnamese can eat some weird stuff and my mind was taking me in some strange directions. It turned out I was looking at Vietnamese Pearls of Tapioca. Yup, you can look it up — that’s what I did. The soupy white sauce was coconut flavored and quite delicious. The “pearls” were somewhat sweet and the rubbery texture was simply bizarre. That was the most difficult part for me — the “mouth feel.” Otherwise I found this dessert to be really sublime and satisfying. This wasn’t just an afternoon snack — this was a culinary adventure.

le bakery mural

As we departed, the employee urged us to view this colorful mural (pictured above) on the side of their cinderblock building. Glad we did — it’s a cool, colorful piece of work. So is Le Bakery & Cafe. I already want to return for lunch so I can sample their locally famous French Vietnamese-Style Po Boys (aka Banh Mi). Little places like this are community treasures for the folks who live nearby. For visitors to the casinoland of Biloxi, Le Bakery & Cafe is a gamble worth taking. Roll the dice and prepare to be surprised.

Le Bakery & Cafe – 280 Oak Street, Biloxi, MS 39530

(228) 436-0850; www.facebook.com/LeBakeryBiloxi

Mobile’s Yen Restaurant — “It’s Food Pho The Soul”

10 Jan

Yen sign

OK, folks — this one is a bit of a sleeper. Off the beaten path. Run down neighborhood. But, hey, don’t judge a book by the cover. That has long been our M.O. here at Dixie Dining. And it pays off more often than it doesn’t. I have lived in the Mobile area for 4 years now and I spend a good bit of time in my car. I mean, a lot! However, I had never driven this long forgotten stretch of blacktop, found just a few blocks off heavily traveled Government Boulevard. This part of town is certainly not featured in the Mobile Chamber of Commerce print material. Let’s just leave it at that.

Yen front

Just look at the restaurant’s front (above). Pretty sad, huh? Plain old cinderblock construction. A hand-painted sign. Landscaping needs a little work. Maybe more than a little. It’s the kind of place that most folks would drive right past. Yen doesn’t do any local advertising, yet they’ve been around for quite some time now. Over 15 years, in fact. So how does one explain this? Simple. Good food, fair prices, and a loyal local following.

Yen interior

The Dining Room inside Yen

Yen menu

The menu is bare bones too

Yen noodles

Some fried egg noodles to munch on

Yen summer

One of the high points of my first visit to Yen was the Summer Rolls (above). Call ‘em what you want — I’m eating these babies any time of year. Super fresh and delicious. The accompanying peanut sauce was quite tasty too. None of the food I sampled at Yen was over the top spicy. The flavors are subtle, yet satisfying. Those who prefer it hot can ask for their food to be served spicy. Or you can just reach for the bottle of Sriracha Hot Sauce that is provided at each table.

Yen Spring

I also tried the crispy fried Spring Rolls (above) — you could tell they were homemade and not stuffed and wrapped weeks/months in advance. The rolls’ wrapping was suitably crunchy and not too thick. That is always a pet peeve of mine — too much wrapper and not enough stuff inside. I was pleased with what I tried here at Yen.

Yen fish

Spring rolls are served with a small dish of housemade fish sauce (seen above).

Yen pho

My main course was the Beef Pho, a delicious soup-like concoction made with beef broth, lean sliced roast beef, green onion, bean sprouts, fresh mint, and more. They offer a choice of a small or large bowl — I opted for small after woofing down the two appetizers by myself. Glad I did order small — the bowl was pretty substantial and I surely could not have eaten much more than that. I later saw the large bowl and it is massive. A couple with light appetites could easily share one of the large bowls of pho. Several varieties are available, so it may take me some time to try them all. Not to worry, I plan on returning with some frequency.

Yen cookie

My post-meal fortune cookie (above) reminded me that “Great thoughts come from the heart.” So does great food. Yen Restaurant has virtually none of the amenities needed to insure success. The location is not great. The structure is spartan at best. But they are cooking with lots and lots of heart. You can taste the love and attention in each bite. And that kind of passion for flavor and authenticity is harder and harder to find in these days of fast food and chain eateries. Make plans to visit Yen in the near future. It’s food PHO the heart — and the soul.

Yen Restaurant – 763 Holcombe Avenue, Mobile, AL 36606

(251) 478-5814; www.yenrestaurant.com

A Visit to Berkeley and San Francisco (December 2012)

27 Dec

claremont1

My home base for this brief 3-day visit was the historic Claremont Hotel in the hills of Berkeley. What a beautiful property. The views off the back of the property were simply amazing. You could watch the sunset over the bay with the Golden Gate Bridge and the SF city skyline in the background. Stunning.

gilroy

I arrived late and quite tired on the first night. I decided to stay close and dine at the hotel restaurant. The food turned out to be pretty good. I especially enjoyed the Gilroy Garlic Fries, but boy did my breath stink afterwards. Had to brush and rinse several times that evening. It was all well worth it.

napa smith

Napa Smith Lost Dog Ale was my beverage of choice that first night in town. It was mighty fine — and mighty powerful. The brew’s 7.2% alcohol content (I had 2) knocked me for a loop, especially after traveling all day. I decided to call it a day and head for the rack.

grocery

I was in Northern California for a conference, but was able to bust loose during a long lunch break one day for some exploring beyond the walls of the Claremont. I walked about a mile (pretty much all downhill) to the first signs of commercial and culinary civilization. The first spot of interest I encountered was the Star Grocery. A classic corner grocery updated for the modern age. It had something of a hippie, granola vibe to the place — totally what you would expect for Berkeley.

star bakery

Star’s bakery goods looked impressive. So much bread, so little time!

sandwich

I ended up grabbing lunch at a place called Southie — a very hip little California bistro. The atmosphere was contemporary with a menu full of fresh and healthy local fare. My Roast Turkey with Applewood Bacon sandwich really hit the spot. The focaccia bread was obviously fresh and the sandwich was completed with locally grown romaine, sliced avocado, and a totally on-point rosemary aioli. It all was quickly polished off. It came with a bag of chips, but I chose not to consume them. I was saving room for the far more interesting treats that lay ahead.

nom nom

The next day was even better. The conference concluded before noon, so I bounded down the hill once again and grabbed the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) for San Francisco’s Financial District. Shortly after I got off the subway, I spotted the famous Nom Nom truck (best known from its time on Food Network’s THE GREAT FOOD TRUCK RACE). The line was rather lengthy, but I took a deep breath and plunged into the cue.

viet sand

Service was actually pretty swift and my Vietnamese sandwich (aka “Banh Mi”) was a tart, tangy joy. The price wasn’t bad either.  The pickled vegetables and green leaves of cilantro were a perfect match for the chunks of grilled chicken and the crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside bread loaf. I added a little bit of Sriracha for some added zip. It was a chilly day in the City By The Bay and the bright red condiment warmed me to the bone.

tadich ext

Determined to eat my way across town, my next stop was the Tadich Grill. It is also known as “The Original Cold Day Restaurant.” And now I know why. It is a warm, welcoming spot — a favorite in this town since 1849. All the restaurant seating was occupied, so I bellied up to the bar.

tadich nap

I ordered a bowl of chowder, a pint of Sierra Nevada, and took time to check the old place out. The servers look they they have all worked here for quite a while. Most were well north of 5o years old and all were decked out in classic white smocks. My bespeckled bar attendant was super friendly and very attentive. He even gave me some strong touring tips — the best one being to avoid walking the city’s steep hills and to purchase a day pass for the cable car system.  Thank you, sir!

chowder

My Clam Chowder (New England style) was rich and creamy, the brew just the right flavor note and temperature. Yet it was the bread served alongside my soup bowl that was the real revelation at this stop. My server told me the rustic looking loaf was baked daily by the legendary Boudin Bakery of San Francisco. He added that it was a proprietary recipe only sold to area restaurants and not the same as the Boudin Sourdough bread found all over town and in the local airport gift shops. My day was humming along nicely.

china ext

My next stop on the trolley line was Chinatown.

china

Chinatown is nice for sightseeing. I was tempted, but not ready to eat again.

trolley

After wandering about Chinatown for a half hour or so, I jumped on board a cable car headed for the intersection of California & Polk. The trolleys are a great way to get around town — even on a brisk day. I chose to sit in the car’s open air seating to get the full ambiance of city sights, sounds, and smells. A bum approached me for some money and I was in such a good mood that I flipped him a couple bucks and wished him a Merry Christmas.

depot

The Swan Oyster Depot was featured in Tony Bourdain’s The Layover TV series.

swan2

Their display of fresh local seafood lured me inside.

swan cala

The marinated squid salad looked like something out of a Japanese horror flick. But it tasted like the gastronomical equivalent of a Shiatsu massage. That alone should have been enough. The accompanying Anchor Steam beer and more fresh-baked Boudin bread had my taste buds singing like another famous Tony — Tony Bennett.

colin

Later that same evening, I met up with my childhood friend, Colin Jewell (pictured above). Colin and I had not seen one another in over 40 years (yes, we’re old). I believe I was about 10 years old or so the last time we crossed paths. We grabbed a beer or two and started catching up at the Tadich Grill. The reunion continued over a great Greek meal at Kokkari, an Italian biscotti in the North Shore neighborhood, and a nightcap (“Surfer’s Punch”) at the world famous Tiki bar known as the Tonga Room.

atonga2

The “room” (shown in picture above) is actually cavernous and includes a full-size swimming pool as a focal point. Precisely timed thunder and lightning cracks are occasionally heard over the Tonga Room’s sound system. That is immediately followed by a faux tropical rainfall that is thankfully confined to just the pool and not the bar tables and hightops along the periphery. Pretty cool, huh?  

boudin

And yes, I did end up buying some Boudin sourdough bread to take back to Alabama. Sure, it’s a very touristy thing to do. It is also a very wise thing to do. The bread in the SF Bay Area  is truly amazing. Foodies who live around here are extremely fortunate. As for me, I’ll soon be inquiring about any Bread of the Month Clubs that might exist for poor suckers like me who can only visit once in a blue moon. What a wonderful town San Francisco is. I may not have left my heart there, but I surely left my bread  there.

My Top 10 Bites & Top 5 Sips from our 2012 Trip to the Island of Oahu, Hawaii

27 Dec

TOP TEN MEMORABLE BITES

Please keep in mind that this is in no way a complete list. Many delectable treats were devoured. And many refreshing beverages were consumed. Narrowing down the list to 10 food items and 5 drinks was decidedly difficult. Enjoying Hawaii’s delicious bounty was not. Special mention should go out to the Diamond Head Deli and Bakery.

bbscone

Everything we ate there was top shelf. That included their memorable ginger spiked grilled tuna steaks and the gargantuan (almost as big as Diamond Head) blueberry scones (seen above) they serve up each morning for breakfast. If I could move any restaurant we visited on Oahu back to the mainland with me, the Diamond Head would probably be the one.

1) FRIED BANANAS @ KAHUKU LAND FARMS, KAHUKU (NORTH SHORE)
fried banana
2) SPAM MUSUBI (“SPAM SUSHI”) @ CHING’S GROCERY, KULA
spamwich
3) GARLIC SHRIMP @ BIG WAVE SHRIMP, HALEIWA
garlic shrimp
4) MALASADAS @ LEONARD’S BAKERY (NEAR DIAMOND HEAD)
malasada
5) MACADAMIA PINK SNAPPER @ BLUE WATER SHRIMP
bluewater
6) PORK DUMPLINGS @ LEGEND SEAFOOD, HONOLULU
dumplings
7) SWEET PINEAPPLE BREAD, YUMMY LAND BAKERY, KALIHI
sweet roll
8) BOWL AT CRISPY GRINDZ FOOD TRUCK (NORTH SHORE)
acai bowl
9) HAUPIA (COCONUT PUDDING) ICE CREAM @ HU LA LA’S
hu la
10) HAWAIIAN PIZZA (KALUA PORK & PINEAPPLE) @ DUKE’S WAIKIKI
hawaii pizza

TOP FIVE SIPS

1) MAI TAI @ ROYAL HAWAIIAN RESORT
mai
2) KONA COFFEE @ HONOLULU COFFEE COMPANY
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3) BIG WAVE GOLDEN ALE FROM KONA BREWERY
big wave close
4) PASSION FRUIT LILIKOI PUNCH @ LA MARIANA TIKI BAR
fruit
5) HAWAIIAN SUN PASS-O-GUAVA NECTAR DRINK
pass o

“YAK – The Kathmandu Kitchen” Is Second to Naan

27 Oct

You don’t expect to find Shangri La wedged between a package store and a nail salon in a suburban strip mall. But then again, you don’t expect to find authentic Nepali Indian cuisine in Mobile, AL. Yep, life is full of surprises. And this was a really pleasant one. I must confess that I’ve never traveled to Nepal or hiked the Himalayas. Never been to India either. I did grow up just outside of Washington, DC — a truly international city. My culinary curiousity allowed me to explore many exotic flavors and I came to appreciate good Indian and Middle Eastern foods.  

YAK’s All-You-Can-Eat Lunch Buffet is a steal at just $9.95

The interior at Yak is tidy and sun-drenched. They have only been open about 3 months, so it still has that new feel about it. I arrived right as they opened at 11 a.m. on a Friday — this explains the dining room being empty when the above image was captured on my phone. Apologies for the picture quality, friends. I often go in “stealth” when on assignment. This was one of those times.

The menu is extensive — the buffet makes for a fine introduction

One of the many stars of the buffet was the Chicken Tikka Masala, described as grilled chicken breast chunks in a tomato and onion cream sauce. This dish is extremely popular in the UK — dating back to India’s many years under British rule. Yak’s Tikka Masala is bright orange in color (as you can see above). The darker meat dish to the left is Lamb Roganjosh, which consists of boneless “cubes” of tender lamb simmered with yogurt and tomatoes. The Chicken Curry was equally delicious and its sauce was a perfect compliment for the famous Tandoori bread known as “Naan.” It is essentially a white flour bread cooked in a traditional Indian clay oven.   

The brilliant red object in the center of the above photo is Chicken Tandoori. The dish itself has almost become a bit cliche — it appears on almost every Indian buffet on the planet. It is made with bone-in chicken parts marinated with yogurt, herbs, and spices … and then cooked in the aforementioned clay oven. Tandoori Chicken is eye-catching, no question. Yet it is often dry and less flavorful than it looks. That, thankfully, is not the case at Yak. Their version is suitably moist and practically singing with deep, smokey flavor. Yak was impressing me at every turn and a work day lunch was being transformed into a magical, mystical experience.  

Even the vegetarian offerings (like the dish seen above) were mind-bending trips into an exotic land of flavors hereto unknown to Mobile, Alabama. Was this all a dream? Did they slip something into my iced water? Was the sitar-driven music filling the dining room somehow hynotizing me and/or my taste buds? It was all amazingly good. Almost too good to be true. My mind groped for a word that might describe my state of nirvana. Astonishing! That was it — I was astonished.

Even the desserts were first rate. This included the incredible warm Indian Carrot Pudding (aka Gajar Halwa) and a cool, pleasantly soupy Rice Pudding laced with shredded coconut. I had never enjoyed Gajar Halwa before. Yet I was immediately smitten. Call me weird, but have always loved Carrot Raisin Salad. It’s something of a Church Supper staple. So if you’re with me, then continue to follow along. Others may skip ahead to the next paragraph. OK. Imagine a good Carrot Raisin Salad — only served warm — without the raisins — and the mayo and shredded pineapple replaced with ground nuts, maybe a hint of cardamom, and sweetened condensed milk. Sounds a bit strange, I know. But it was really, really good – at least to me. Try it and let me know what you think.

Once again, I must apologize for the pictures. The muddled white mess seen above is the Coconut Rice Pudding we touted earlier. I had to share the picture to show just how soupy a consistency it presented. The long strands of coconut were a welcome surprise … as was the “just right” cool temperature of the dish. It was ideal for extinguishing some of the overall spiciness of my main course – or should I say courses. Yes, I did make several trips to the buffet line. Tried pretty much everything. It was all superb. Collectively, it was pretty much one of the finest meals I have enjoyed in my nearly 4 years in Lower Alabama. Go figure, right? High praise, for sure. But much deserved. You really must try this place. You can expect to see me here often. Yeah, I know it ain’t exactly your typical Dixie Dining joint. But I would call it Indian Comfort Food — pretty doggone healthy too — and medicine for the soul.  

Had I finally reached the summit? It sure tasted like it, folks!

YAK  The Kathmandu Kitchen – 3210 Dauphin Street, Mobile, AL 36606

(251) 287-0115; http://www.facebook.com/IndianNepaliRestaurant

Momma’s Mojo Brings Miami Spice to West Mobile, Alabama

25 Oct

West Mobile (and I do mean WEST) is not the place you’d expect to find a Cuban cafe. Especially one offering a great Pressed Cuban Sandwich or a shot of authentic Cubano coffee. Yet that is exactly what you will find when you make the drive out Cottage Hill Road to Momma’s Mojo Cafe & Deli.

As you can see by the above banner, Momma’s Mojo is not exactly a secret any more. It is slowly gaining a reputation for its Cuban-style Roast Pork, Mojo Grilled Chicken, Sweet Plantains, Flan, Tres Leches cake, and more. But there are many Mobile area foodies who have yet to sample the fine exotic foods offered here. It’s not necessarily due to a lack of interest. The location is not exactly on the beaten path. Heck, for folks like me who reside on the Eastern Shore of the Mobile Bay, it’s almost in Mississippi, for crying out loud. But the positive buzz kept on coming my way, so I felt compelled to checking it out.

It’s a small, cozy joint — and very clean. That is alway’s a plus. I was greeted with a smile and a complimentary shot of strong, sweet Cubano java. Nice! Imagine a slug of dark coffee liqueur (without the alcohol, of course) and that will give you the general idea. The interior decor here is bright and cheery. That’s pretty much what you expect, right? There is even a domino table out front, so the Little Havana vibe can’t help but grab hold of you.

Cuban Coffee is strong and sweet — it’ll give you a serious JOLT!

I was told that the traditional Cuban Sandwich was the house specialty, so that’s where I started. The lunch platter comes with sweet fried plantains, a unique dipping sauce, a dill pickle, and a handful of pork rinds. The sandwich, which just so happened to be amazing, was made with good bread, Boar’s Head brand ham, Swiss cheese, smokey house roasted pork, and a tangy mustard. The combination of flavors and textures immediately delivered me back to South Florida. Momma’s Mojo owner (America “Maggie” Lamorell) moved here from Miami and was determined to bring along the flavors of the city. She learned to cook with her Mom, hence the eatery’s name.

I love sweet plantains — and these babies were cooked just right

Fried pork rinds (or chicharrons) are a staple in South Florida and Cuba. Their addition here was a nice little touch. And little touches really do make a big difference. The folks at Momma’s Mojo are proud of their food and their native traditions. That comes shining thru like the bright Caribbean sun.

There’s really nothing else quite like this place in the Greater Mobile area. Business is chugging along OK, but Maggie tells me it could always be better. They are trying really hard and deserve our loyal patronage. There is even a Momma’s Mojo food truck making the rounds now. You can follow them on Facebook. Maybe this is a more convenient alternative for some people.

We love Cubano food and culture. And we really dig Momma’s Mojo. It’s the next best thing to a trip to Miami’s Little Havana.

Momma’s Mojo – 9211 Cottage Hill Road, Mobile, AL 36695

(251) 607-0442; www.mommasmojoal.com

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Mommas-Mojo/235515533126713 

Real Deal Mexican Tacos at Foley (AL) Indoor Flea Market

7 Apr

Real deal Mexican food is often hard to find in Alabama. And you certainly don’t expect to find it at a flea market. But that is exactly what happened during a recent visit to the Foley Indoor Flea Market in Foley, Alabama. Foley is a familiar stopping point for travelers en route to Gulf Coast tourist towns like Orange Beach and Gulf Shores. It is also home to the Tanger Outlet Mall. Some folks get really excited about shopping. I get fired up about food. And I was especially pumped when I saw the skewer (pictured above) jam packed with pork, fresh pineapple and sliced onion.

The condiments at our table were another sign we were in for a treat. The lime, cilantro and onion were garden fresh. The salsas homemade and delicious. The tablecloth and the general surroundings of the place gave it a nice, homey feel. For a moment, I felt transported to some border town in Texas. The help speaks very little English and there was a Mexican soccer match playing out on TV.

Pork Tacos – Carnitas @ top & Pineapple & Onion version at bottom

Mandarin Orange Jarritos soda with chipotle salsa & pico de gallo.

This fiery salsa rojo made for a nice addition to the pork tacos.

The homemade pico de gallo was riddled with chopped jalapeno.

The sheep stew seen above was a special treat. It was not on the menu and we did not order it. The restaurant’s owner offered it up free of charge as an added bonus to our lunch. It was good — and hot — both in a temperature and spice way. The gent smiled broadly as he presented the stew in 2 large styrofoam cups. He at first seemed hesitant to reveal what kind of meat was used … and appeared relieved when we let him know that we liked it. Another couple of gringos converted. Mission accomplished.

The dark & dangerous roasted chipotle salsa was mui authentico.

The pork under the heat lamp (above) was chopped fresh to order. Both pork tacos I devoured were bueno. I especially loved the one sliced fresh off the metal skewer. It was lean and sweet — you could really taste the pineapple.

These colorful Mexican style pastries were fresh out of the oven.

These babies (above) were not nearly as colorful, but equally tasty I’m sure. We were just tickled pink that we had found this place. The owners were very nice, the joint was clean, and the food & atmosphere was authentic. We will return soon and trust you will give them a try sometime this summer. It’s worth the trip.  And who knows — maybe you’ll find a bargain at the flea market. I usually do — and it’s normally of the vinyl variety. Yes, that gets me fired up too!

Taqueria Las Camelinas – 14809 Highway 59, Foley, AL

251 970-1234 or 251 943-6068

Day Trip to Bayou La Batre – “Alabama’s Seafood Capital”

20 Nov

The sign says it all — and there is a lot of truth to this. I was expecting a little town dominated by the seafood industry. That is pretty much what I found. But there were plenty of surprises during my brief weekday visit. I was only in town for a couple hours. And part of this time was spent on business. However, I did find enough time to scout around, snap a few images, grab some lunch, and just generally get the vibe of this sleepy, little fishing community.

Even BBQ joints take on nautical themes in Bayou La Batre. Case in point: Capt. Frank’s Smoke Shack. I didn’t try the good Captain’s Q on this trip — I was holding out for some local seafood. I did take a moment to peek in the window. Cozy little joint. Wonder if the food’s any good? Drop me a note if you’ve tried them out.

They may want to work on that slogan – not the best we have seen.

I’m partial to this salty swine in the window at Captain Frank’s.

Seafood Gumbo — certainly a local favorite in these parts.

There is a pretty significant Vietnamese population in BLB. Many of these folks are employed in the seafood industry. Working on the shrimp boats, picking crabs, etc. Their presense becomes obvious as I motor thru town. I came across this Vietnamese grocery (above), which is located next door to a Vietnamese bar/pool hall. I popped in just to check out the ambience. To say it was authentic would be something of an understatement. Exotic fruits and veggies could be seen at every twist & turn. They had a fine selection of Asian DVDs. The owner barked at employees in a manner that oddly reminded of that scene in “The Deer Hunter.” Thankfully, no Russian Roulette was involved.  

Shrimp chips seemed right at home at Vien Dong. Especially in BLB.

The Eat Alabama Wild Shrimp campaign has recently morphed into Eat Wild Alabama Seafood. This latest, more inclusive strategy seems to be paying off. The organization’s marketing office is located in an older strip mall on the edge of Bayou La Batre. I spent about a half hour chatting with office administrator, Rosa Zirlott. Very nice lady. What a pleasant visit we had. Rosa really knows her stuff, that is for certain. And she is extremely passionate about her job. Rosa currently owns 2 shrimp boats and has been involved in the seafood industry for most of her life. She seemed fairly satisfied with the results her leadership is producing. Lots of work still remains and we are determined to do our part to assist Rosa and the countless area fishermen and shrimpers she represents. Learn more at http://www.eatalabamawildshrimp.com

As our brief meeting wrapped up, I asked Rosa Zirlott two quick parting questions:

1) “What is your favorite local seafood market?”

2) “Where can I get some good local shrimp for lunch?”

The answers followed, but not without some explanation. It turns out there are currently no retail seafood markets in Bayou La Batre. “How can that be?”,  I inquired. Well, Bayou La Batre apparently does not enjoy much traditional tourism — in part because of its rather remote location. Local residents either work in the seafood business or know someone who does. They tend to go straight to the source … cutting out the middle man. This also guarantees the exact origin of the product. Commercial fishing operations in BLB only tend to sell wholesale – and in large quantities.

As for my lunch plans, that answer was easier for Rosa to process. “We really only have 2 seafood restaurants in the vicinity. But one recently closed.” So process of elimination led me to The Lighthouse Restaurant, located a short drive away in nearby Irvington, AL. Rosa suggested I try the crab claws. She also urged me to stop by Jubilee Seafood on my way out of town … thinking they might sell me a couple pounds of fresh wild shrimp for the road. I decided to proceed directly to lunch at The Lighthouse. Maybe next time, Jubilee. I’ll be the dude with the flat top toting a giant ice chest.  

Jubilee Foods — “For All Your Seafood Needs”

The Lighthouse Restaurant is your typical Southern seafood dive … minus any water views. It is found a mile or so inland on Padgett Switch Road. The marquee out front (a scaled-down lighthouse that would be at home on a miniature golf course) was promoting the premiere of History Channel’s new BIG SHRIMPIN’ series. The show is sort of a DEADLIEST CATCH spin-off and it is being shot in and around Bayou La Batre.  

The hand-painted mural out front provides an old school touch.

The Lighthouse menu offers local seafood choices in abundance.

The lightly fried shrimp at The Lighthouse were just as scrumptious as I had anticipated. There just weren’t enough of them! The lunch platter, which costs $9.95 plus drink and tip, included 6 shrimp and 2 sides. The shrimp were the first to go. That took all of 2-3 minutes. After that, I was left with some frozen krinkle cut fries, a boring side salad with thick Thousand Island dressing, a few Captain’s Wafers, and 2 average hush puppies. And I swear the iced tea tasted like water. Next time I’ll order the large shrimp platter for $13.95 or maybe spring the additional two bucks for $15.95 Seafood Platter (see menu above). I’m sure that’s great. Sounds great. I’ll also skip the tea and order an ice cold beer — unless it’s a work day, of course.    

Lighthouse Restaurant – 12495 Padgett Switch Road, Irvington, AL

(251) 824-2500

The Dragonfly Food Bar Soars Proudly into Downtown Fairhope

5 May

I first heard about Dragonfly at the Fairhope Arts & Crafts Festival this Spring. They were offering some pretty unique street treats that particular day. I was tickled to later learn that they had opened a “food bar” in the heart of Fairhope’s historic downtown. It certainly seemed to be a good fit.

The advance buzz (Get it? Dragonfly?) on the street was quite positive. In fact, some of my local contacts were raving about Dragonfly’s innovative world view on tacos. A braised beef cheek taco was being offered the day I finally decided to show up. What took me so doggone long to get here???  

This retro bike stands ready to deliver your Dragonfly lunch

Dragonfly offers 12 (yes, you heard right) taco choices on their daily menu. After some intense internal debate, I called out for one Kung Pao chicken taco and one braised pork taco. I plan on eventually getting to them all (with the possible exception of chicken liver taco), but that may take numerous visits to achieve. No problemo … I can surely make that happen.  

It’s all about Dragonflys – even the outside lantern plays along

Yes, they do look seriously yummy don’t they? They were. Let’s just put that right out there. Really, really good. The flavors were somewhat familiar. It’s just the whole “rolling them up in a taco thing” that was throwing me off a bit. Pork roast as tender as Granny’s love — enhanced with apple, habanero, lime, and avocado. Spicy Kung Pao chicken accompanied by chopped carrot, daikon, and a zesty peanut sauce. I love Asian satay and I love my Granny, so I was totally on board with the whole nine yards. But where exactly does one find daikon in Fairhope, Alabama? I’ll have to ask Dragonfly’s chef/owner Doug Kerr about that someday soon. More power to him, I reckon.

I often refer to Fairhope as an “artsy Mayberry by the Bay.” We even have our own little barber shop — and a vintage barber’s pole — just like good old Floyd. (Insert your own joke here).

The barber shop is actually the Dragonfly’s next door neighbor. Seems like a minor detail, sure. Yet I was able to dine outside at the sidewalk picnic table and, at the same time, overhear all the latest gossip spilling out the barber’s wide-open front door. Talk about taking in the local atmosphere!  

The hot habanero peppers and lime juice were obviously fused into the fresh apple sauce-like topping (see above). Think of it as a kicked-up version of the old 60’s standby pork chops & apple sauce. The slow-braised pork was really moist and juicy, so I had to refrain from slurping up all the leftover liquid in the bottom of my cardboard “taco boat.” I’m still not sure where the avocado was hiding.  Anyone? Bueller??? 

The view from my picnic table – looking east on Fairhope Ave.  

OK, here’s a closer look at the Kung Pao Chicken (above) with carrot and daikon. Daikon (which is actually misspelled on the Dragonfly menu) is sometimes known as a white radish or Japanese radish. It doesn’t pack much flavor. It does impart some nice crunch.  The chicken was lean, the Chinese spice on point, and the flour tortilla fresh & warm.

We think you will soon be mysteriously drawn to the Dragonfly Food Bar. It’s hip, quirky, and creative. The decor is (like yours truly) a blend of retro and contemporary. Their tacos are mighty fine. Can’t wait to sink my teeth in the Lobster Corn Dog ($12) too. And the Crispy Blue Cheese Olives with Vodka Remoulade ($6). It ain’t cheap, folks. And it sure ain’t Taco Bell — or even Los Tacos. So check your cheap a$$, fast food mentality at the front door, please. You get what you pay for, people — and you’ll get a lot at the Dragonfly. But don’t just take my word for it. Swing on by sometime and take a swat for yourself.

Dragonfly Food Bar – 319 Fairhope Ave., Fairhope – 251 990-5722

www.dragonflyfoodbar.com

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