Archive | June, 2010

A Spotty Lunch at Downtown Mobile’s “A Spot of Tea”

30 Jun

“A Spot of Tea” can be found in the shadow of beautiful live oaks at 310 Dauphin Street in Downtown Mobile, AL. I had recently picked up their menu at the Mobile Chamber of Commerce offices and I must say it looked pretty promising. I was especially intrigued by featured items such as Pecan Waffles, Bananas Foster French Toast, Seafood Omelettes, a hard to find Monte Cristo sandwich, and, by many accounts, a world-class Chicken Salad platter.

This is a shot (above) from my inside dining table looking out at the shady open-air patio. It is a really nice setting for a quiet, intimate lunch. I decided to dine inside since it was a rather humid afternoon in Old Mobile. I sat back in anticipation of a stately Southern dining experience. Boy, was I in for a surprise!

The historic building was constructed in 1836. It was once a stable for carriages in the late 1800’s. The present restaurant first opened its doors in 1994 with seating for just 29 guests. It has since expanded to accomodate much larger crowds during the lunch rush.

The plate carrying my lunch was elegant — its contents were decidedly not. For starters, the croissant was obviously not freshly baked. The “Salad from the Garden” was a sorry assortment of end clippings … some of which had started to turn the corner towards “Browntown.” The salad was accompanied by a Parmesan Peppercorn dressing that had a higher viscosity rating than Quaker State. Just stunningly thick and goopy, which was not exactly what I was seeking on such a hot, sticky summer day.

Calvert’s “gourmet” Chicken salad was pretty awful. This totally surprised me since it was said to be one of the stars of the menu. The pecan-laced chicken was overly salty and, frankly, just dripping with mayo.

The iced tea was good, but that could hardly justify a $13 (including tip) lunch. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. Let’s just say I was totally unprepared for how bad this meal turned out to be. I may give them another chance at some point, but I’ll need some time to clear my head (and palate) of this terrible first impression. My server was wonderful — so there, I’ve said something nice. Always try to end things on a positive note!

www.spotoftea.net

“Hammerin’ Hank and Joltin’ Joe” – A Tale of Two Heroes

27 Jun

 I am just finishing up very interesting literary bios on Baseball legends Henry Aaron and Joe DiMaggio. I was pretty surprised to learn they actually had a great deal in common. Both came from lower class urban backgrounds (Joe in SF and Hank in Mobile). Each man’s father worked on the waterfront (Joe’s Pop was a common fisherman, Henry’s Dad labored as a ship builder). Both smoked heavily throughout their careers and had public reputations of being cold and aloof. Both were jealous of more flashy stars of the era (Joe was often overshadowed by Ted Williams, while Hank played in the long shadow of Willie Mays). Each man was married twice. Both loved watching Western movies. Each player was a natural with amazing God-given baseball talents. Both shied away from the media due to their fear of looking uneducated. Neither man graduated high school. And guess who Hank’s idol was as a child? Yup, Joltin’ Joe.

Now for the differences. Joe was a drinker, Hank was not. DiMagg beat his wife, Henry did not. Henry was humble, DiMaggio’s ego was massive. Joe hung around mob figures, married a Hollywood starlet (Marilyn Monroe) and, by all accounts, whored around a good bit. Henry, on the other hand, was a quiet, commited family man. And perhaps most telling, Hank has put his retirement years to good use by doing a lot of community service and civil rights work. Joe, conversely, spent his golden years yearning for the spotlight and chasing the almighty dollar via an unending string of autograph schemes with shady partners. The infamous Mr. Coffee TV campaign was not exactly a great career move either for a man of Joe’s professed class and dignity.

Both books are well written, although the DiMaggio story bogs down a bit after the passing of Marilyn Monroe. Perhaps the most fascinating revelation was regarding “Joltin’ Joe” and NYC’s mafia. DiMaggio was allegedly “watching” three suitcases filled with cash for a local mob friend. When that associate was rubbed out, Joe kept the suitcases and used the countless thousands for spending loot over the next decade or so. Years later, when a major earthquake shook Joe’s native San Francisco, DiMagg managed to deftly cross thru the police tape and enter his luxurious townhome by the Bay. He was later spotted by witnesses leaving the scene toting a rather large, bulky suitcase.

Lesson learned? Our heroes are obviously not perfect. Joe and Henry were surely amazingly gifted athletes, but flawed human beings (DiMaggio certainly more flawed than Aaron). So how do you want to be remembered? I would suggest living your life as if your future biographer is always at your side. Not easy, but surely something to think about — and strive for.

“Bingo!” and “Mojo” – New Releases from Steve Miller and Tom Petty

27 Jun

Steve Miller’s new CD hit stores in mid-June. No jokin’!

Petty’s new release is a stripped down effort with roots in rural Dixie.

Miller’s “Hey Yeah” is one of the standout tracks on “Bingo!”

www.stevemillerband.com

Petty’s “I Should Have Known It” rocks like Led Zeppelin.

http://www.tompetty.com

Manci’s Antique Club – Daphne, Alabama

18 Jun

Manci’s Antique Club is essentially a bar and restaurant, not an antique store. Let’s get that straight right away. It had me confused for a short while, until my friend Chris Kalifeh dragged me in for a quick look around. I have long since become a convert. Manci’s has really tasty burgers and po-boys. They also live up to their Italian ancestry with some mighty fine pasta dishes. And the bar has a comfy, neighborhood pub feel to it. You might say it is the Cheers of Alabama’s Eastern Shore. They serve draft Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan Ale too — that is a definite plus.

This freshly painted mural outside of Manci’s (above) is part of a larger city arts project in Daphne. I believe this particular image was lifted from an early photo of one of the Manci women. It is very well done and adds to the overall charm of the building’s exterior. My arsty wife Eileen has recently been asked to create a similar mural, so I’m anxious to see what she comes up with.

Horses like the one seen above will keep an eye on your vehicle while you’re dining/drinking at Manci’s. This joint is in a cool little part of Old Town Daphne. If you’re a foodie, you’ll also want to check out Will Hughes’ Catering & Market (www.willhughescateringandmarket.com) located directly across Daphne’s Main Street. It is a gourmet’s dream with a wide assortment of sandwiches, soups and other take-home treats. I am especially partial to Will’s New Orleans-style bread pudding. It’s about as good as it gets this side of the Crescent City. There is also a pretty unique cigar/wine bar (De-Cuba) and a cupcake bakery (Something Sweet Bake Shop) just a couple doors down from Hughes’ building.

The Menu Board (above) outside Manci’s entrance. Their Bloody Marys are notorious in these parts. In fact, Manci’s is often billed as “The Bloody Mary Capital of the Eastern Shore.” Beyond that, Manci’s also houses one of the world’s largest collections of Jim Beam decanters. Very impressive. We spent a few minutes before dinner strolling around the restaurant’s cool, dark interior. It was pretty darn interesting and kept the boys occupied as our meals were being prepared.

The lucky horse shoe on the front door at Manci’s Antique Club.

The handsome wooden Indian (seen above) just inside the front door at Manci’s — on the lookout for stogies? Either that or he’s seeking a “mansierre” to support his well-developed chest. Dusty relics like this can be found throughout the tavern. Honestly, it could take hours to have a real close look at all the “doo-dads,” “chotchkes,” and “brick-a-brack” they have collected over the many decades.  

Guns, booze, and gasoline — what a combination! I snapped another photo of an antique gas pump inside Manci’s Antique Club, which once was a filling station back in the ’20s. So in many ways, I guess this truly is an “antique club — although I don’t believe any of the items are actually for sale. Who knows? Make ’em an offer and see what happens.

A vintage gas pump from days gone by. American Pickers would love this joint!

Clutter? Yup. Eye catching? Yer dern tootin’! The main bar at Manci’s Antique Club. Alex Manci, the club’s current owner and resident barkeep, quietly holds court — all the while sporting his signature driving cap. This is his little kingdom and he reigns calmly but proudly. Barack Obama’s address concerning the Gulf Oil spill was on the bar’s lone TV as we took our seats. It was all a bit surreal. We were right in the heart of the affected area and preparing to dine on the type of seafood treats which have long made the Gulf region nationally famous. My visiting mother-in-law Pat is a Baltimore native. She declared the soft shell crab sandwich (aka “The Spider Sandwich”) to be first rate.

Boxing’s Rocky Marciano – still a major source of pride for Italian-Americans.

Minnie Pearl greets the female diners seeking rest — “HOW-DEEEE!!!”

Yes, Food Network’s Guy Fieri has been here to film an episode of Triple D. His signed poster adorns the door of the “GENTS” room. Manci’s is also prominently featured in one of Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-ins,  and Dives” cookbooks. Of the 3 choices, I would say Manci’s would fall under the DIVE category. You don’t see many tourists or out of towners in here. It’s pretty much a locals hangout. And I guess that’s the way they like it. It’s something of a secret dining society and I consider myself fortunate to finally be in on the secret.   

Combo Fried Gulf Oyster and Shrimp Po-Boy at Manci’s — get ’em while you can! Manci’s po-boys have been praised by the likes of Southern Living and Coastal Living. The Bayou La Batre oysters were obviously fresh and the shrimp were fat and meaty — unlike those puny little frozen cocktail shrimp you find in some lesser po-boys. The bread, which was freshly baked, was slathered from end to end with a homemade tartar sauce. I am normally not a big tartar sauce guy, yet this was quite well done and, more importantly, not overdone. A little bit of mayo goes a long way. Local tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, and red onions completed the symphony of complimentary ingredients. A little splash of hot sauce won’t hurt either!

Retro newspaper ads as seen on all the tabletops (pictured above) at Manci’s. Anyone need some Princess Bust Developer? Hey, maybe this is where our old friend the wooden Indian re-enters the storyline??? I’ve seen this kind of designer touch before, but it is right at home at Manci’s. In many ways you’ll feel like you have been transported back to the 1930’s in a time machine. A time machine, I might add, with really cold beer and really memorable chow.

Never heard of “Alabama Water before?” Neither had I. Tap water, lemon, and Sweet-n-Low — mmm, mmmm! I’m not sure how many of these drinks they actually sell each day. I didn’t bother to ask. However, it makes for a nice conversation starter if nothing else.

A dusty old carriage inside Manci’s.

Early prototypes of iPods on display inside Manci’s main dining room.

A vintage ROCK-O-LA juke box – check out the primo selection of tunes!

http://www.manci.net/

Thrown Olives & High Gravity Beer

17 Jun

Thrown olives are stuffed olives which are dropped into a jar by a machine as they are packed, rather than being carefully placed by hand. While this distinction might seem petty, some people are willing to pay more for placed olives, olives which are carefully oriented in the jar so that their stuffing faces out, creating a more even, attractive look in the jar. Ultimately there is no difference in flavor between the two, although placed olives tend to be more expensive because of the manual labor involved.

Generally, the term “thrown olives” is only used in reference to stuffed olives, because most consumers don’t care which direction unstuffed olives are facing. Many Mediterranean nations have a long tradition of stuffed olive production; olives can be stuffed with things like nuts, pimentos, anchovies, onions, and other pickled fruits or vegetables. These olives can be used in cocktails, on salads, and in ornamental olive plates, and they are quite popular in some regions.

When stuffed olives are made, they are pitted and the stuffing is inserted into the hole left behind after the removal of the pit. This is typically accomplished by machine in modern olive processing facilities, although a few communities continue to produce hand-stuffed olives for commercial sale. Then the olives are packed in brine, salt, or oil for curing. After the olives are cured, they can be packaged for sale. Typically stuffed olives are packed in cans or jars which are tightly sealed to prevent the intrusion of unwanted bacteria.

Obviously, the contents of a can of olive are not visible until the can is opened, and therefore the placement of the olives is not very important. However, olives in a jar are visible, and some people use olive jars decoratively, or they at least like their olives to look attractive until the jar is opened. This is why some producers distinguish between placed and thrown olives, offering placed olives for a slightly higher price. Since the stuffing is usually tightly inserted into the olives, you don’t need to worry about thrown olives losing their filling as a result of being haphazardly tossed in, although there might be slightly fewer olives per jar when a human doesn’t physically pack them as neatly and tightly as possible.

Once a jar or can of olives has been opened, the olives will need to be refrigerated. Canned olives should be transferred to another container as acids can sometimes eat at the can, potentially causing it to fail or contaminate the food. Olives in a jar can be stored in the jar until they have been consumed. Whether thrown or placed, the arrangement of the olives will generally become random once the jar has been opened and handled. Most markets carry jars of olives; the next time you’re in the store, you can check for thrown olives in the olive section.

Anheuser-Busch’s High Gravity Lager is branded as “Hurricane”

High gravity beer refers to specialty craft beers with an increased specific gravity. A beer with an original gravity 1.070 is generally considered to be high. High alcohol content is not the intended consequence of high gravity beer, however, the concentration of sugar and flavor-enhancing ingredients at the beginning of the brewing process results in a brew with a higher percentage of alcohol compared to other beers.

High gravity beers are traditional in Europe, but only a small percentage of microbreweries in the United States produce them. They are more expensive than mass-produced beer. They are also more flavorful, intended to be sipped and savored, and are often paired with foods.

Salted Caramel – “Where Sweet Meets Savory”

16 Jun

We recently received some Salted Caramel treats in our Dixie Dining company mail box. I had seen a write-up about Smoked Pecan Bourbon Caramel Corn in Garden & Gun magazine and I had to give it a go. Turns out the company also makes a killer Bacon Bourbon Caramel Corn. Now that’s about as Southern as it gets! Founded by confectioner Ginna Haravon in 2009, Salted Caramel is a Chicago-based company with it’s heart in the South.

The Bacon Bourbon Caramel Corn is shown above — after I spilled it out on our granite countertop. The Smoked Pecan Bourbon variety was devoured in a flash. Our crew circled and attacked it like a hungry flock of seagulls (insert 80’s hairband joke here). The smoky flavor was subtle, yet very much there.

The pork-laced corn produced a slightly different reaction – as you might imagine. Some dug in heartily, while others popped individual kernals in their mouths and swirled it around like they would a fine wine. In this case I would say fine swine because it was, to my taste buds, mighty fine. The sweet/salty trend has been with us for some time now. And the whole bacon mixed with anything sweet has, along with chocolate covered pretzels, led that culinary charge. Doughnut shops have introduced maple and bacon creations and they have flown off the shelves. Who says pigs can’t fly??? 

Our consensus is that these treats are extra-special and would make an excellent gift for any Southern foodie in your life. Someone once said “Bacon Makes Everything Better” and that certainly holds true with caramel corn. The smoked pork flavor is not overwhelming, but it does provide an extra layer of savory, greasy goodness. So buy some for a friend and don’t forget to score a couple bags for yourself. Eat some for breakfast: “Relax, it’s got bacon in it!” You may even catch yourself “oinking” as you pig out on these delicious, golden brown nuggets. And don’t be surprised if you hear its praises being sung from the kudzu shaded trailer parks to the finest gourmet kitchens throughout Dixie.

As Porky Pig would say … “That’s all folks!!!”

www.saltedcaramel.net 

Exploring Old Pensacola

15 Jun

I had several work stops in the Pensacola area on Monday and I had some time in between to semi-explore the city’s downtown. I spent most of that time in Pensacola’s Historic District. Old Town Pensacola is loaded with charm and is peppered with many quaint Creole-style cottages like the one shown above. It reminds me just a little bit of New Orleans’ French Quarter – minus the bars and crazy nightlife.

Jimmy Buffett’s new Margaritaville Beach Hotel on Pensacola Beach will open later this month. Their target date is June 28th and the construction, from what I could see, is coming right along. I learned today that Jimmy’s sister Lucy (aka “Lulu”) is going to be opening a second eatery inside the hotel property. Her first venture in nearby Gulf Shores, AL has been a smashing success. The food is decent and the cheerful island vibe is always uplifting.  

I took a break at lunchtime at The Pensacola Fish House (above). This waterfront compound was recommended to me by a friend and it turned out to be a pretty sound tip. My mid-day meal consisted of a blackened Red Snapper filet paired with smoked corn tartar sauce, Gouda grits, collard greens, and two hush puppies chased by a Tazo citrus-infused iced tea. The fresh fish was excellent and the accompanying dipping sauce was an ideal match. The chopped collards were good, but the hush puppies were mealy and, to be honest, nothing special. The Fish House is known for their cheese grits (their web address is www.goodgrits.com ) and I must admit they were quite tasty, if just a tad dry. The tea was very refreshing and missing the spoonfuls of sugar that are frequently dumped into most Southern brews.    

The atmosphere at the Pensacola Fish House was surely pleasant enough. Folksy coastal art could be seen on the restuarant’s rear deck. My spacious views of the waterfront were only partially ruined by the presence of oil retention booms just a stones throw from the docks.  

TV crews (local and national) were all over the beachfront the day I visited. The media-types are obviously out in full force, bracing for the worst. I couldn’t help but notice that protective booms were pretty much everywhere I could see water. Very sad. We can only hope and pray that BP’s mess doesn’t soil the beautiful white sand beaches of Pensacola and Destin.

As you can see from the booms visible above, the local authorities and area volunteer groups are doing what they can to prepare for the oil’s likely arrival. BP has established an outpost in Pensacola’s Historic District and the building surprisingly lacked the mega-security presence that exists at similar office fronts in Mobile, AL. That may change once the greasy stuff makes its way onshore.  

I spied a BP sign post in Pensacola’s Old Town —- pretty ominous, huh? I ask that you say a little prayer tonight for the people of the Gulf Coast and the beautiful wildlife that inhabits the region. This is a gorgeous part of our country and it sickens me to see this eco-tragedy continue to spread along our coastline.

We will continue to monitor the situation on the Panhandle — specifically from the foodie’s point of view. I hope my dining on local seafood in plain view of all the satellite trucks and retention booms will send a message to the entire Dixie Dining community. Don’t turn your back on the Gulf and its many delights – edible or otherwise. We need you more than ever right now.

Weaver D’s is Still “Automatic for the People”

10 Jun

Joe’s Fabulicious Homemade Ice Cream in Fairhope, AL

5 Jun

We stumbled upon this new wonder on the way to the Fairhope Wal-Mart located near the intersection of Routes 104 and 181. Sadly, it was only 10 am on Saturday and Joe doesn’t start his day until 11:30. Not to be denied, we made a pact to return after lunch for our first taste.

Following lunch, I somehow decided it was a good idea to mow the lawn as well as take the weedeater around our entire property — in 90 degree heat and sweltering humidity. Yeah, I know, DUMB! Yet there was a method to my madness. I was working up an appetite  for something cool and creamy. Follow me?

We learned upon arrival that Joe’s has only been open about 3 days. In fact, they are so new they have not yet decided on their hours of operation. That will be determined after gauging business activity over the first week or two. Joe, an older gentleman originally from Ohio, makes all the ice cream using his mother’s own recipe. He hired a very friendly Alabama lady (a former manager at the Fairhope Burger King) to run the day to day operation.

The manager seemed to be fretting a bit about how slow business had been all day. But the cars literally started pouring in shortly after our arrival. Not sure what that was all about. Anyway, we were happy to see the gravel lot filling and the line forming at the the front of the trailer. My two boys got a small chocolate cone, while I called for a small vanilla cone. Asking for a small cone turned out to be a mistake for me — I needed more. So without an ounce of guilt, I got back in line and ordered a small chocolate cone. Strictly for the blog write-up, I explained. The kind lady simply grinned, took my $2 (cash only here), and rendered another scoop of that homemade heaven on a cone.

I really hope they make a go of it here. The ice cream is really fine. No oils, no guar gum, no nasty aftertaste. Just good, fresh, wholesome All-American homemade ice cream like you remember from picnics and family reunions of days gone by.

So if you’re living in the Baldwin County area or just passing through on your way to the Gulf Coast, please stop in and order up a double scoop on a freshly made waffle cone. Or perhaps one of Joe’s highly touted shakes or sundaes. But eat fast, friends. It’s hot as the dickens down here and homemade ice cream has a way of melting quickly. It’s a race against the clock, but a race you can’t help but win!

Roadside Mayhaw Jelly in NW FL

5 Jun

I spotted the above signs as we were driving through NW Florida recently. Not the heavily traveled FL panhandle, but the remote, unglamourous part of the “Sunshine State” just before you connect with Interstate 10. Stands like this really don’t exist on the interstates anymore, so I figured this might be my last chance to explore the flavors of Old Florida. It ain’t Stuckey’s or Cracker Barrel, folks — and that is truly a good thing in my book!

Willie Robinson’s Pecan House was furnished with all kinds of edible Southern goodies, yet it was the Mayhaw Jelly and Tupelo Honey that struck my fancy this particular day. Tupelo Honey is pretty hard to find outside of this part of the world and can be rather expensive. Mayhaw Jelly is even more rare … only appearing in roadside stands & country farm markets in the late Spring of each calendar year.  

Mayhaw Jelly is a pricey seasonal treat & worth every penny. It is made from a small, tart wild berry that grows in Dixie swamps. Here’s what the nerds at Wikipedia have to add: 

Mayhaw is the name given to the fruit of the species of Crataegus series Aestivales[1] that are common in wetlands throughout the southern United States. The principal species are C. aestivalis, the eastern Mayhaw, and C. opaca, the western mayhaw.[1]

Mayhaws grow in moist soil in river and creek bottoms under hardwood trees. The fruit ripens in late April through May, thus the name mayhaw. The fruit is also found in bayous surrounding lakes, such as Caddo Lake on the Texas/Louisiana border. Mayhaws are often collected out of the water from boats to be used to make jelly.

Families used to go on outings to collect mayhaws and create stockpiles of the jelly to last throughout the year, but the tradition has declined with the increasing urbanization of the South and the destruction of the mayhaw’s native habitat. The fruit has also been cultivated to grow outside of wetlands and this is increasing the source of the jelly.

Willie Robinson ran this little cottage industry for several decades before passing away a few years back. His brother Arthur (pictured above) picked up the reins in hopes of carrying on the family tradition. Arthur was kickin’ back in a battered recliner, rusty fan going full blast, when I met him on this steamy, hazy May afternoon. He pulled himself out of his “Archie Bunker chair” and slowly walked me through all the merchandise.

Arthur is a very mellow old dude. He paused momentarily to show me a recent newspaper clipping singing the praises of his sweet Tupelo Honey. All the while, I was wondering if I was his first customer of the day — this place was pretty remote and he, it seemed, had all the time in the world.

I wasn’t packing a whole lot of cash and let’s just say Arthur doesn’t accept credit cards. No surprise there, right? However, I did rustle up enough green to score a tall jar of Mayhaw Jelly. We were already packing some fresh Greek bread that we had picked up earlier in Tarpon Springs and I sensed that the Mayhaw preserves would make an excellent foil for the recently baked loaf. I turned out to be right on the money. A clash of cultures, perhaps. But the end result was a true melting pot of pleasing textures and flavors.

We’ll be passing through again in December and I trust our friend Arthur Robinson will still be here – chillin’ in his beat-up easy chair, rusty fan buzzing away, carefully balanced jars of Mayhaw Jelly, pickled Okra, and Tupelo Honey standing at attention, ready for service.