I had the opportunity to do a lot of traveling this summer for both work and play, and for me that meant checking out restaurants in different cities. Here are five favorites that stood out, alphabetically by city:
1. ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA
The Laughing Seed Cafe
40 Wall Street
Asheville, NC 28801
Describing their concept as “Organic, seasonal, farm-to-table vegetarian cuisine with an international flair,” The Laughing Seed Cafe simply radiates freshness from every dish, and you can tell just by looking at the faces of the diners, from happy families to groups of professionals, that this place is beloved by all. I enjoyed a special of hot and sour soup followed by the shiitake corn cake appetizer (which made a nice meal), and just basked in the comfy, warm atmosphere.
The restaurant’s namesake is the legend of the Laughing Seed from the Indonesian Island of Bouton: “When the seeds of this plant were consumed, the people were intoxicated with laughter and able to communicate with the gods. It is said that this wondrous food satisfied the appetite and created a sense of fullness and well-being which lasted for many days…” Pretty cool huh? I have to say, this place had me under their spell.
While You’re There: Zambra on West Walnut is a creative tapas restaurant sourcing local ingredients and serving them up in interesting ways that will have you wanting to order half the menu. I can’t wait to go back. (Special thanks to Jerry R. from DC and TJ and Mark from Knoxville for the great recommendations for my trip to Asheville!)
Extra Credit: The Asheville City Market is a fun farmer’s market right in the center of town, with the usual fresh produce, as well as cheeses, baked goods, and crafts. I had a great, educational chat with the delightful Andrea, Apprentice Cheesemaker at Spinning Spider Creamery (www.spinningspidercreamery.com/index.htm). Doesn’t she have a beautiful smile? Spinning Spider is an award-winning farmstead goat dairy in nearby Marshall, NC. I sampled several of their outstanding cheeses and even brought some home on ice – it was that good. Standouts for me were the Bailey Mountain Tomme and the Stackhouse.
2. BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA
For over 50 years, this Alabama outpost has been serving up some of the best Southern barbecue out there. As legend goes, back in ’58 “Big Daddy,” Dreamland’s originator, had narrowed down his entrepreneurial aspirations to either “Mortuary” or “BBQ joint.” After much prayer, God spoke to him one night in a dream (hence the name) and Dreamland was born. Their website boasts “There Ain’t Nothing Like ‘Em Nowhere!” My dear friend and colleague Theresa S. and I enjoyed some heaping portions after a long day on the road, and we had to agree. And don’t worry about becoming addicted – they ship.
By the way, in true Southern fashion, the owners aren’t exactly subtle about reminding you to mind your manners:
Extra Credit: If you happen to traveling that way, a mere two hours away in Scottsboro, AL, is one of the strangest places in the world, The Unclaimed Baggage Center. As the name suggests, this is where unclaimed airline baggage, and all its sundry contents, goes to die – or be sold.
3. NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
Acme Oyster House
For a true taste of Gulf oysters, Acme Oyster House serves ’em up just right – chilled and raw on the half shell, crispy fried, or sizzling and swimming in garlic butter. Brant B. and I had some of each – and then started over with another platter of raw. What can I say, we were weak. Be prepared for a line. For the true oyster lover, you can try to join the 15 Dozen Club – let me know how it goes!
While You’re There: Another can’t-miss is Mother’s on Poydras St. They may be known for the best baked ham in the world, but I highly recommend their jambalaya (I might be bragging a little when I say their recipe tastes a little bit like my own), and you certainly can’t go wrong with a po’boy. I tried some of Brant’s “debris” po’boy, which is little bits of roast beef scraps in gravy – pure heaven between chunks of fresh bread!
4. NEW YORK, NEW YORK
Chinatown: 9 Pell St
New York, NY 10013
This is one of my old favorites from way back. Right around the corner from the “bloody elbow” in NYC’s Chinatown, this simple storefront may look unassuming, but what goes on inside is nothing short of miraculous. Joe’s soup dumplings are filled with flavorful meatballs and brimming on the inside with rich, piping hot broth. I had to bring my good friend Tenaz D. on my last trip to NYC to see and taste for herself.
How to eat a soup dumpling: Place the dumpling on a soup spoon; puncture the dumpling with a chopstick; suck out the broth as noisily as possible; eat the dumpling. Fun AND delicious. How bad could that be?
5. PLYMOUTH, MASSACHUSETTS
The All American Diner
60 Court St.
Plymouth, MA 02360
Breakfast sandwiches named after classic cars, waitresses rushing past with huge plates of waffles heaped with real whipped cream, giant, fluffy biscuits smothered in sausage gravy… This is what a diner was meant to be. One glance at the menu and I knew I had come to the right place. I enjoyed the green eggs and ham (an omelette with fresh basil pesto and cheese), and my Mom chose a creative take on the classic eggs benedict: the “Brown-eyed Susan” is served on New England brown bread instead of an English muffin, adding just a hint of mollasess-ey sweetness to the whole affair. Genius. This place brings all the old favorites to the table while keeping things interesting with some creative new spins.
While You’re There: Cupcake Charlie’s may have come in second on Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars” but they’ll always be first place in my heart. They have a beautiful spot on Plymouth Harbor, perfect for grabbing a bench and enjoying a delicious cupcake and a lovely view.