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Versailles Cuban Cuisine Stands Tall in Miami’s Little Havana

21 Apr

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Cafe Con Leche and Conversation — morning in Little Havana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

Fat Kahuna’s Beachside Grille Brings Hawaii’s Aloha Spirit to Cocoa Beach, Florida

21 Apr

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What do you think of when you think of Cocoa Beach? Most folks from my generation think of the classic TV show “I Dream of Jeannie,” which was set in this coastal Florida community. Major Anthony Nelson (played by Larry Hagman) was in the Air Force and I’m sure most of you know that Cape Canaveral is in the vicinity. I attended nearby Brevard Community College for one year, so I do have some working knowledge of the area. However, I must admit that my JuCo years were many moons ago. Areas can change a lot over 30 some odd years and the Melbourne-Cocoa Beach area is no different.  This region has long been popular with Spring Breakers and we happened to be returning during the annual Spring Break for many of our nation’s universities.

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We had planned on hitting The Pompano Grill, but it (as we found out) is only open for dinner. We encountered a very cool looking surfer joint called The Green Room. I was ready to eat there … until we eyeballed the menu. It featured a variety of health food smoothies, salads, and wraps — strictly vegan fare. That would have been fine for me and my wife, but we were also in the company of our two ravenous teenage boys. I asked a local for dining suggestions and she pointed us to a somewhat traditional seafood mecca overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. I’m sure it would have been OK. Yet I was not seeking OK — I was seeking something fresh and out of the ordinary. It was then that we spotted Fat Kahuna’s.

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Fat Kahuna’s is actually sort of small — and brightly colored. The outside looked suitably beachy and the name was intruiging. A peek inside only made me more curious. It was a very hip little beach bar with ceiling fans spinning above and the sounds of Hawaiian music filling the room.

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Just take a gander at the interior (shown above). Pretty inviting, huh? My wife and I had just returned from a Hawaiian vacation a few short months earlier, so the surroundings felt familiar — and appealing. The upbeat hostess/waitress welcomed us with a big smile and led us to our table, which happened to be adorned with a cheerful orchid. The aloha vibe was clearly alive and well here. But I was now a bit baffled. How did this place even exist with little or no presense on the internet? Well, it turns out that Fat Kahuna’s had been open less than a year. The hostess explained that early reviews had been quite positive, although the place was still something of a well-kept secret. My goal is to make sure that this secret doesn’t continue on much longer. Their chef attended Johnson and Wales and the owners have spent a considerable amount of time in Hawaii. How’s that for a winning combo?

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A “Surfer Crossing” sign seems perfectly at home here

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A basket of tortilla chips with bean dip and a Big Wave Golden Ale

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The restaurant’s island-inspired decor was breezy and tasteful

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OK — so the atmosphere was nice and the people were friendly and the beer was cold. What about the food, you ask? Well, I am happy to report that it was fine as well. I ordered the fish taco plate with black beans, salsa, and coconut rice. The tacos were of the soft corn tortilla variety. The fish was mahi mahi — flaky, blackened mahi mahi, to be more precise. Everything was fresh and tasty. I became so relaxed and caught up in the Hawaiian vibe that I even ordered a second beer (they serve my current favorite, Kona’s BIG WAVE GOLDEN ALE). This is something I rarely do at lunchtime,  but, hey, I was on vacation, doggone it. Give me a break, will ya?

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Lesson to be learned here? Beach communities offer lots of dining choices. Many are good, many not so good. Most cater to tourists and the widest possible audience. Wait. Did I mean widest or widest? Yes … my answer will be YES. Too often fried seafood rules the day. Don’t get me wrong — I dig fried fish, oysters, and shrimp as much as the next guy. It’s easy to fall into that rut and never climb back out. Eating fresh does not mean having to sacrifice on flavor. Fat Kahuna’s is a perfect example of that. Beach views, fresh flavorful food with a Hawaiian Island flair — what exactly is not to like? Eat here now. You can say “MAHALO” later.

Trust me, friends.

At Fat Kahuna’s, you’ll ride a wave of deliciousness … with no fears of a wipeout.

Fat Kahuna’s – 8 Minutemen Causeway, Cocoa Beach, FL 32931

http://www.facebook.com/FatKahunasGrillBar; (321) 783-6858

The Floridian Brings Fresh New Ideas to Old Town St. Augustine, Florida

16 Apr

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On our return trip from Palm Beach, we decided to take an alternate eastern route and spend the night in the historic city of St. Augustine. It had been decades since my last visit, so it all seemed new again to me. St. Augustine remains a striking town with equal parts Savannah, Mobile, and Charleston. Southern, check. Close to the water, check. Chock full of history and stunning architecture, check. What perhaps sets it apart a bit is the distinctive Floridian vibe. Palm trees and Spanish tile everywhere. And that, my friends, is where The Floridian comes in.

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The Floridian’s delivery bike — spic and span and ready for action

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The hours are kind of complicated — the concept is not

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Classic Old Florida kitsch can be viewed & enjoyed throughout

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They do tasty sweets here too — this one nutty and delicious

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This Gator painting was lurking over my shoulder all evening long

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Great, fresh menu — I opted for the unique Florida Sunshine Salad

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Drinks are served up in an old-fashioned yet timeless Ball Mason jar

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The Dining Room is a combo of soft pastels and fish camp ambiance

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The bar is cool – and diners must visit if you choose to imbibe

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The Floridian’s thrift store sensibility is charming, for sure

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Few details are overlooked here. Even the floor looks terrific!

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 I started my meal by ordering the Grit Cakes. This take was especially unique thanks to the inclusion of a spicy chili-cumin aioli and a seasonal salsa highlighted by small cubes of roasted sweet potato. A Wainwright Cheddar is also employed, giving the appetizer a true diversity of flavors and textures. There was a lot going on here, but it all managed to work just fine.

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My son’s po-boy with fresh Pork Sausage and Fried Green Tomatoes

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Behold (above) the Florida Sunshine Salad. It is a feast for the eyes and the belly. Look at those vibrant colors! Look at those plump Florida shrimp! Look at those BEETS!!! Hey, how often do diners actually get fired up about beets? Not very often, I can tell ya that. But you know what? They are the star of the show in this daring dish. If your only experience with beets involved a glass jar, I strongly suggest you reintroduce yourself to fresh beets. There is a BIG difference. Great texture with natural flavor that is often diminished during the normal pickling process. Fresh Plant City (FL) strawberries are also invited to the party, as are large chunks of blue cheese from Thomasville, Georgia’s Sweet Grass Dairy.

The inventive cuisine served at The Floridian is Southern-inspired … to a degree. More importantly, they are using farm fresh ingredients that spotlight the best natural bounty that the Sunshine State has to offer. The atmosphere is winning and the staff hip and helpful. If you’re looking for touristy, this ain’t your place.  

It’s not exactly vegan, but it’s close.

And it’s a smart choice for those ready to take a step beyond fried seafood.

So come tour The Floridian — where fresh flavors coming shining through.

Consider it a vacation for your palate.

The Floridian – 39 Cordova Street, St. Augustine, FL

(904) 829-0655; www.thefloridianstaug.com

The Hyppo Gourmet Popsicles Keeps Things Cool in Historic St. Augustine, FL

14 Apr

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Look for this sign (above) when touring historic St. Augustine, Florida. It should prove to be especially welcoming on a hot summer’s day. But don’t let the season of the year or weather dictate your decision to stop in at The Hyppo Gourmet Pops. Anytime is right for these delicious and surprisingly heathful frozen treats. The name Hyppo is obviously a play on the name of the street (Hypolito Street) on which the flagship shop (opened in 2010) is located.  

We dropped in this last March — following a tasty dinner at a nearby restaurant called The Floridian (more on that in a later post). It had been a particularly busy Saturday at The Hyppo. The young man working the counter proudly informed me that more than 500 pops had been sold that day. It helped that it was Easter weekend — and Spring Break — and in the midst of St. Augustine’s 500th anniversary celebration. But don’t be fooled … this joint is always pretty, well, POPular. (INSERT GROAN HERE)

I ordered a coconut popsicle dipped in dark chocolate and I did not regret my decision. My only regret was that we did not have more time to stick around and experiment just a bit more. Eccentric flavor marriages such as Watermelon Elvis, Honeydew Avocado, and Cream Cucumber Lemon sound tempting, to say the least. They may sound like shotgun weddings to you, but I assure you these tastes do somehow live happily ever after.

So many pops, so little time. But don’t worry … we’ll be back.

Drop by The Hyppo sometime and let us know what you think.

We think the folks at Hyppo are very cool, indeed! 

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Pop Art? A very cool wall hanging (above) at Hyppo Gourmet Pops.

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Only the freshest fruit is used — like Plant City (FL) Strawberries!

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This dreamy mural (seen above) adds to the shop’s whimsical feel.

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This simple process (shown above) produces delicious results.

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Ingredients like Mamey & Jackfruit can make choices tough.

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An intriguing flavor combination … and very appealing to me.

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What is DATIL, you ask? Well, the Datil is a pepper that produces a good deal of heat to the palate. It is especially popular in and around St. Augustine. In fact, the city hosts the annual Datil Pepper Festival each October. It is billed as “The Hottest Festival in Florida.”

The Hyppo Gourmet Pops – 15 Hypolito Street, St Augustine, FL 32084

(904) 217-7853; www.thehyppo.com

“The Gulf” Adds Some Needed Juice to the Orange Beach, Alabama Dining Scene

12 Jan

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The structural design is striking, for sure. It is a beautiful space and it flows nicely with its surroundings. It is clear that a lot of thought has gone into the creation of The Gulf, an exciting new restaurant concept in sun-drenched Orange Beach, AL. The colors blend nicely. The logo (featuring Neptune’s trident) is hip and attractive. GM Johnny Fisher, a former baseball pitcher at the University of South Alabama, tells me the logo was designed by Big Communications in Birmingham, AL. They are the same folks who created the successful Alabama Gulf Seafood campaign. Sounds like they have a nice little niche going.  

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Fisher, who is obviously passionate about this exciting new venture, explained that this original concept was something of a Food Truck 2.0. Clever … and true. The enclosed kitchen structure is not large and the menu is short but sweet. All of the seating is outside — including the bar and the upstairs “balconies.” You can sit upstairs for the best panoramic views. Or you can sit on the wooden deck. Or on the grass — yes, real grass. It’s almost like a putting green. Or you can sit in a chair or comfy couch on the white sands of Perdido Pass. Talk about options! I really like the tiered approach for the outdoor “dining room.”

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OK, time to talk more about the menu board. Here it is (above). It gets tweaked from time to time, but the burger and grouper sandwich have become staples — and why not? Music by the 70’s R&B band WAR was spinning on the house turntable when I stepped up to place my order. Vinyl??? You bet. I heard Dave Mason, War,and Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass during my first visit. This feature scores major points with this longtime vinyl junkie and thrift shop denizen. Getting back to the food, the Gulf Burger is just $6 and made with Meyer Ranch (based in Colorado) Natural Angus Beef. None of the cheap stuff here. The Grouper sandwich is $12 and always fresh. Grab an order of fresh cut french fries ($4) as a side or take my lead and skip right ahead to dessert. More on that later.

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These cool T-shirts at The Gulf are moving fast

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My beach view as the food was being prepared

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Even the seats & indoor/outdoor carpeting are cool

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I’m pretty sure the open air bar will prove to be a smashing success

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The space heaters are here — if they are needed

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The Gulf Burger arrived looking all hot and tasty. It was. I was impressed with the attention to the little details. The brioche bun was soft and delicious. The tomato slices fresh and juicy. The lettuce is chopped fresh daily. The house aioli delivers a nice lemon, garlic tang. Even the kosher dill pickle was impressive. This was no sliver, people — this was one half of a big, fat dill. I take notice of this stuff, don’t you? All the food is served on brown paper trays, which only further reinforces The Gulf’s casual vibe and food truck mentality. Place your order at the window, grab a seat overlooking the water, dig the tunes, and prepare thyself for a solid meal. It is on the way, baby.

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The grilled brioche bun made the burger even more memorable

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As for the previously mentioned dessert, the Meyer Lemon Pound Cake (above) was sublime. It’s basically a lemon cupcake topped with a stunningly sweet, tart Meyer Lemon icing. Plenty of it too. You can even see the lemon zest in the generous blob of icing on each piece of citrusy cake. It was a sunny January day when I visited and the heat of the sun’s rays slowly melted my icing into a soft, warm consistency. My entire meal including the juicy, flavorful burger and tangy pound cake came in at under $10. Pretty hard to beat that. And the views were worth a million bucks — especially in the heart of the winter here along the Alabama Gulf Coast.

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Talk about your table with a view? Incredible!

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Cool day on the beach. Grab yourself a Hot Buttered Rum and chill.

Let me put a bow on this thing by saying that I am thrilled that The Gulf has arrived in our little nook of the world. This place is very hip, the people really care about the food, and the beach views and casual, sandy vibe are second to none. And did I tell you they spin vinyl??? Oh yeah, guess I did. Got any old, neglected vinyl laying around? Take it to Johnny — he’ll give it a good home. And speaking of home, I have found a new one at The Gulf. I’ll be a regular in the Summer months. And I’ll visit when I can in the chillier months too.  Can’t think of a better way to wash away the Winter blues — short of another trip to Hawaii.

Great job, Johnny Fisher and crew. We love your new place. Thank you for giving us this little piece of paradise. Like Neptune’s trident, The Gulf is quite sharp — and “on point” too! 

The Gulf  – 27500 Perdido Beach Boulevard, Orange Beach, AL

(251) 424-1800; http://www.facebook.com/#!/thegulfal?fref=ts 

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 

Moonshine Jelly — The Breakfast of Champions!

11 Feb

Yes, folks — there really is such a thing. And, for this, we owe a hearty thanks to the people at Southern Cider Company of Oxford, FL. Now this Oxford is not home to any institutions of higher learning, yet they surely could teach you a thing or two about crafting fine ciders and jellies.

I first spotted this product at a roadside tourist trap in Florida and it immediately struck me as a novelty gift item. But how good could it be? And how much moonshine do they really incorporate? Yup, I had my doubts about this product and chose not to purchase any that day. Days and weeks passed and the concept somehow lingered on my mind. OK, I admit it — I’m a bit of an odd bird. Stuff like this keeps me awake at night. I eventually broke down and sent an email to Southern Cider’s Jan Montanaro expressing my curiousity. She didn’t seem the least bit surprised and was very gracious in offering to send us a sample 18 oz. jar via US Mail. The package arrived at our Alabama home just a few days later.

Upon further inspection of the product’s ingredients, we were pleased to see that this is pretty much an all-natural jelly. Sugar, white wine, water, pectin, lemon juice and moonshine (corn whiskey). I popped a piece of wheat bread in the toaster, cracked open the jelly jar, and gave it a shot. And you know what? I liked it. It is very good. And you can really taste the moonshine. The good stuff too — no funky aftertaste. Jan, I am extremely impressed!

Sure, this product is obviously a conversation starter. But that doesn’t mean it can’t taste good. We enjoyed it and think you will too. So if you’re bored with your usual grape or strawberry jam, let Southern Cider Company’s Moonshine Jelly give your breakfast a kick in the pants. And as the old hillbilly song goes, “Them that refuse it will be few.”

www.southernciderco.com

Mr. Gyros Greek & Mediterranean Grill in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida

31 Dec

Mr. Gyros was recommended to us by some online food critics. The reports were overwhelmingly positive. That was enough for us to seek them out. I have long been a fan of Greek & Mediterranean food — especially the fast, comfort food variety. Gyros, Souvlaki, Fried Zucchini, Spanakopita, Falafel, Moussaka, Calamari, Baklava, etc. This love affair can be traced back to my youth. And no, I do not have any Greek ancestry. Far from it. I’m just about as Anglo as you can get. But I do know good ethnic cuisine when I taste it.

As a teenager, I dined frequently at Knossos in Vienna, VA. Great place, but sadly not around any longer. Mr. Khan treated us like family … always obliging when we pestered him for the largest portions possible or for extra Tzatziki dipping sauce (made with Greek yogurt, cucumbers and other seasonings). Former Knossos owner George Bilidas (the longtime Greek God of Northern Virginia’s culinary scene) still operates The Amphora, a killer 24-hour diner in Vienna.  

Mr. Gyros is housed in a strip center in Palm Beach Gardens, FL

Greek sweets (like Kadaifi seen above) are a must @ Mr. Gyros

The Gyro Platter at Mr. Gyros is very nicely done. Tons of freshly sliced meat (the usual beef & lamb combo), a cup of thick white tzatziki sauce, really good pita bread, lots of fresh sliced onion, lettuce, and tomatoes. It comes with a Greek salad, rice pilaf, or fries. We strongly recommend the Greek salad. It is excellent and fortified with crumbled feta cheese, kalamata olives, and the ubiquitous green pepperoncini.

Just look at the spicy sliced meat, folks. And those super fresh veggies. This is really fine stuff. In fact, Mr. Gyros was recently voted a “Best Casual Dining” winner by the Palm Beach Post. Beer and wine are also offered if you choose to turn your meal into a regular celebration. We are just plain happy to have found this gem of an eatery. Owners John and Yianna are doing it right at Mr. Gyros. We don’t live in the PBG area, but my parents spends about 6 months each year on nearby Singer Island. That means we shall return … and you can bet that Mr. Gyros will be on our dining agenda.

MR. GYROS – 10901 N. MILITARY TRAIL, PALM BEACH GARDENS

(561) 627-3979; www.mrgyrosflorida.com

Lunch and Dinner 7 days a week; major credit cards accepted

Ray Charles’ “Singular Genius” Shines Through on New 5-CD Box

6 Nov
 
This, in my humble opinion, is a long-overdue release. Florida native Ray Charles’ output while with the ABC-Paramount label was pretty extraordinary. And while his earlier Atlantic recordings placed him on our collective radar for the first time, his ABC singles allowed him to stretch out and reach for the stars. Country, soul, pop, R & B … it’s all here. And laid down in a way only Brother Ray could. In fact, I can think of no one else who could have pulled this kind of mix together in such a cohesive, effortless manner. 53 singles, 11 #1 hits. You call yourself a true fan of American Popular Music and Culture? Then you simply must own this historic collection.

 

RAY CHARLES’ SINGULAR GENIUS: THE COMPLETE ABC SINGLES,
AVAILABLE NOVEMBER 15 ON CONCORD RECORDS, COMPILES
HITS AND B-SIDES — MANY NEVER PREVIOUSLY ON ALBUM

106 recordings on five compact discs totaling 53 singles
are housed in handsome linen-textured collectors’ box

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — With the release of Ray Charles’ Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles, on November 15, 2011, Concord Records will make available for the first time the artist’s collection of ABC-Paramount singles during this prolific period (1960-1972).

The digitally remastered deluxe 106-song collection presents the A and B sides of 53 singles, including 11 #1 hits, such Grammy Award winners “Hit the Road Jack,” “Busted,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Crying Time,” “America the Beautiful,” and many more.

 

Twenty-one of the songs are making their digital debut, and 30 have never previously been available on CD. Liner notes were written by R&B recording artist and music historian Billy Vera and rare photographs are included.

According to Valerie Ervin, president of the Ray Charles Foundation, “This compilation provides an opportunity to hear Ray’s evolution into a full-fledged artist and creative force. The song selection was based upon the interpretation he could bring to the music and not the genre. The ABC singles comprise an epoch of essential Ray Charles music and a window into how his genius evolved.”

John Burk, Concord Music Group’s Chief Creative Officer stated, “Ray Charles is one of America’s most iconic and treasured voices. We are fortunate to have the opportunity to present Ray’s historic ABC singles with the reverence and respect they deserve and continue our dynamic partnership and acclaimed reissue program with Valerie Ervin and everyone at the Ray Charles Foundation.”

By the time the singer released his first single for his new label affiliation, ABC-Paramount, in January 1960, he had crossed over into the stardom that show biz insiders had long known was his due. After several years of R&B hits on his previous label, Atlantic Records, he’d finally reached the coveted white teen market with his smash, “What’d I Say,” the simplest, most basic song of his career.

 

Charles’ contract was coming up for renewal and the Atlantic brass expected an easy negotiation. After all, most entertainers took a passive approach to their business, especially when things were going well. However, his agency, Shaw Artists, wanted to bring Charles to a broader audience, which they felt could be better delivered by a major record company.

One such company was ABC-Paramount, a newer major that had found success with teen idols Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon, and Fabian, while crossing Lloyd Price over into pop. ABC’s Larry Newton convinced label president Sam Clark that Ray Charles was the ideal artist to not only make hits but to attract other black acts to the fold. Charles was granted a magnanimous contract that included ownership of his masters after five years. Even Frank Sinatra, as Vera points out, did not have a deal like this.

 

Sid Feller became Charles’ A&R man and producer. Though as Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler once said, “You don’t produce Ray Charles; you just get out of the way and let him do his thing.”

After striking a rich deal, the Ray Charles/ABC relationship had a momentary setback when the first ABC single, “Who You Gonna Love” b/w “My Baby,” sold disappointingly. The second single, “Sticks and Stones,” a “What’d I Say” knockoff, went to #2 R&B and #540 pop. Finally, the third ABC single, “Georgia on My Mind,” culled from the album The Genius Hits the Road, reached #1 on the pop charts. With the overwhelming popularity of “Georgia on My Mind,” Charles was at last a full-fledged mainstream star, right up there with the Nat Coles and Peggy Lees. The company’s strategy was to cater to his new market while still releasing singles to serve his R&B base.

Charles in the meantime launched a publishing arm, Tangerine Music, signing one of the greats of West Coast blues, Percy Mayfield. Mayfield brought with him a song he’d pitched to Specialty Records without success, “Hit the Road, Jack.” Ray’s version rose to #1 on both the pop and R&B charts. It was followed by “Unchain My Heart.”

ABC-Paramount celebrated his grand success by giving Charles his own label, Tangerine, which he used to record some of his personal R&B heroes including Mayfield, Louis Jordan, and Little Jimmy Scott. At the same point in time, Charles became enamored of country music and recorded several country sides: “Take These Chains From My heart,” “Busted,” “That Old Lucky Sun,” and from Buck Owens, “Crying Time” and “Together Again.”

 

1966 saw the opening of Ray Charles’ own RPM Studios on Washington Blvd. in Los Angeles. The first song he recorded at the facility was “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” a Coasters cover penned by Nick Ashford, Valerie Simpson, and Jo Armistead.

The ABC-Paramount recordings continued into the late ’60s and early ’70s. In 1972 Charles cut a version of the New Seekers hit, “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma,” but it was the B-side, “America the Beautiful,” that became a runaway hit, Grammy Award winner (one of five on this collection) and to a younger generation unfamiliar with his earlier major works, his signature song.

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Tallahassee’s Seminole Wind Buffet is a Breath of Fresh Air for Lovers of Scratch Cooking

28 May

We typically pass through Florida’s state capital of Tallahassee at least a couple times each year. Our standby meal stop along this route was normally a little further down the road in Live Oak, FL. Sheryl’s Buffet in Live Oak is really good, but it was time for us to step out of our comfort zone and try something new.

Seminole Wind Country Buffet was suggested to me by a friend who works at Florida State University. He stops by Seminole Wind once or twice a month and raved about the fried chicken and the fresh veggie dishes. He stated he would like to visit more frequently, but his diet simply wouldn’t allow him to do so. The guy has obviously got to get his priorities straight!   

The Florida Seminole Indian theme is apparent both inside and out of the restaurant. So are the Christian messages, religious art, and fish symbols. These folks obviously love the Lord and that is more than just OK with us. The people who work and dine at Seminole Wind are quite friendly. They will stop and chat and not think twice about lingering more than a minute or two. Some may find this uncomfortable. I love it. Reminds me of the good old days when people knew how to make idle chatter. An elderly gent in a straw hat told us it made him feel good to see my teenage boys eat so well. A little old lady pinched 14 year old Travis on the cheek (face, not rump) and exclaimed, “You sure are cute!” It took several minutes for his beet red face to return to its normal shade.

As a lifelong Virginia Tech Hokies football fan, I have been brought up to cheer against the rival Florida State Seminoles. But I never let that loyalty get in the way of a good home cooked meal. And, in this case, I’m pretty glad I didn’t.

The crunchy fried chicken at Seminole Wind is one of their buffet stalwarts.

The made-from-scratch biscuits should also earn a spot on your plate.

Vegetables at Seminole Wind. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Let’s kick it off with the rutabagas. Flat out the best I have ever tasted. Sorry, Granny … it’s true. Great collards here too. As good as you’ll find anywhere.

I have always loved carrot & raisin salad — when it’s made correctly. It certainly is at Seminole Wind. We even made some room for the fresh cucumber & tomato salad and it was (no surprise here) first rate too.

Here (above) are the rutabagas in all their glory — stellar!

My platter (above) following my first trip to the buffet. Yes, several more trips followed in short order. Butter beans, biscuit, collards, cuke & mater salad, carrot raisin salad, fried green tomatoes. Oh yes, almost forgot to tell you about the fried green tomatoes. So doggone good! Pretty much went all veggie the first pass thru — who needs meat with fresh veg like this???

Dessert choices are pretty amazing as well. I would strongly suggest a big fat slab of the strawberry cake. I went back twice and am not ashamed to admit it. It consists of a moist strawberry cake, topped with real strawberries and a light whipped cream frosting. The juice from the berries works its way throughout the cake. This adds to the moisture and the fruity flavor. So simple, so deadly.

Jesus is Lord at Seminole Wind — as this large wall mural will attest.

Former FSU Football Coach Bobby Bowden is also worshipped in these parts.

The lunch buffet is, well, one of the best we’ve ever encountered. And it’s only $4.99 six days a week. Yup, $4.99! It’s about double that price on Sundays and it’s still an incredible value. We hit Seminole Wind twice (once each way) on our most recent drive to South Florida. What does that tell you?  

Seminole Wind – 2226 North Monroe Street, Tallahassee, FL

(850) 385-8718; www.seminolewindrestaurant.com

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