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 Zombies’ Biloxi Performance Produces Magical Moments

10 Mar

Zombies

“The Zombies Live” — a bit of an oxymoron, right? Or maybe a title of an upcoming horror film? I’ll tell you what I call it: A damn good time! These guys (leaders Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone, by name) have been at it since 1961. Their first charting hit came along in 1964.  And you know what? They still sound great. Sure the lads have aged a bit. And maybe picked up a pound or two since the dashing portrait above was snapped. Some called them nerdy — some called them art school geeks — I have always dug them. They were always thinking a step ahead of their musical peers and that did not always translate into commercial success.

zombies hrc

The Hard Rock Casino – Biloxi is where it all went down

zombies sign

Our tickets to this Thursday night Zombies show at the Hard Rock Casino were just $25 each plus tax — and the seats were superb. Probably about 10 rows back and just a tad left of center stage. I didn’t really want to be much closer. At the risk of sounding like an old fart, it can get a little loud up there sometimes.

zombie LP

The average Joe might be hard pressed to name a single song by The Zombies. Time of the Season could come to mind … as it should. That recording, in my world, ranks right up there with The Beatles best work. The casual music fan of a certain vintage probably remembers tracks like Tell Her No and She’s Not There — and most likely Argent’s big solo smash Hold Your Head Up. The more hardcore vinyl junkie like your’s truly can go much deeper into The Zombies’ highly underappreciated catalog. I, for one, would be hard pressed to stop at 20 or so songs. They were indeed that special. Especially when further incorporating Rod’s time with Argent and vocalist Colin Blunstone’s solo recordings (check out his breathy Caroline Goodbye for starters) and stellar session work with the Alan Parsons Project (see Old and Wise for beginners).    

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The view from our seats (above) at Hard Rock – a steal at $25 + tax

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A signed CD was my souvenir for the evening

The Zombies masterpiece (often discussed in the same hushed tones as Sgt. Pepper’s, Pet Sounds, and Love’s Forever Changes) is their Odessey and Oracle album. It may have only included one chart hit (the soaring Time of the Season) but it is laden with innovative, quirky, and ultimately unforgettable tunes. The themes can be somber (A Rose for Emily) and downright bizarre (Care of Cell 44). This is an album that grows on you — and then stays with you forever. I can’t recommend it enough if you consider yourself a fan of The Beatles, Beach Boys, Moody Blues, The Kinks, or Pink Floyd. I’m pretty sure you will enjoy it. Critics rave about it and it is often cited as one of the Top 100 LPs of all time. Rolling Stone ranked it #80 in their Top 500. How ’bout them apples???

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If you ever get a chance to see The Zombies in concert, don’t miss them. Rod and Colin work incredible magic together. Argent can still bang on the keyboards like nobody’s business and Blunstone remains, to my ear, one of rock’s great voices. They play a great mix of the old and the new — and both founding members get plenty of time to bask in the spotlight. When they broke into Time of the Season (easily one of my all-time favorite songs), my wife Eileen and I were grinning from ear to ear. By the time the song reached its crescendo, I could have sworn our feet were floating about a foot or two off the ground. It was the same magical feeling I experienced when I first heard Booker T and the MGs perform Green Onions in person. Or the time I saw Tony Joe White singing Polk Salad Annie. Or the time I experienced the great Roy Orbison bring the crowd to its collective feet with a live take on Running Scared. It was indeed one for the ages.

Thank you, Rod and Colin. LONG LIVE THE ZOMBIES!!!

And just in case you boys ever wonder if all the bad meals, hotels, and travel are worth it, it is. Trust me … it really is.

You are making the world a brighter, more joyful place.

And what could be more rewarding than that?

Bozo’s Seafood Market & Deli in Pascagoula, MS Doesn’t Clown Around

9 Mar

Bozo front

Bozo’s Seafood Market and Deli has been around since 1956 — that’s longer than I have been around. But as my Granny Justice often said, “Old school is GOOD school.”  That is most definitely the case at Bozo’s — they don’t clown here. Every coastal community should have such a go-to seafood dive. Sadly, few compare to the almighty Bozo!

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When you’re ready to order, step right up to the little card table near the back of the dining room. A gentleman seated there will take your order and jot it down (along with your first name) on a basic white paper lunch bag. The sack is then flipped back to a red headed woman toiling away in the kitchen. The line to order was pretty short when we arrived mid-afternoon. But we’re told that lines at lunchtime can sometimes stretch all the way back to the front entry. After more than a half century of business, Bozo’s is anything but a secret in these parts.

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Okay, folks — now THAT’S a Muffaletta!!!

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Pork Cracklins are a popular side item at Bozo’s

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Zapp’s Chips are terrific — and Bozo’s has you covered

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Take a gander at this mouth-watering Shrimp Salad – amazing!

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Eileen and I split a Fried Shrimp Po Boy and, as expected, it was awesome. The shrimp were plump, fresh and right out of the fryer. We ordered ours “fully dressed” and added just a splash of Tabasco before rolling up our sleeves and digging in. This decent sized, overstuffed sandwich was just $6.99. That’s a very fair price when you consider the price of fresh seafood these days. If you’re really hungry, I’d like to suggest the Shrimp Overload — a footlong po-boy stuffed with 1 1/2 pounds of fried shrimp for just $13.99. Now that’s a MEAL! If you’re more of an oyster person, try the Oyster Box with a dozen fried bi-valves, French fries, onion rings, and hush puppies for only $8.99.  

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This custom table is perfect for shelling shrimp or crawfish

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A painting of a local fisherman (above) tells the story at Bozo’s — it’s fresh off the boat here. And it is a working man’s joint. The portions are generous and the prices more than fair. What more could you ask for? Well, besides Bozo’s opening a location in your neighborhood. They really don’t clown around here, but you will leave with a big, messy smile on your face.

Bozo’s Seafood Market & Deli

2012 Ingalls Avenue, Pascagoula, MS 39567

(228) 762-3322; Mon-Sat 8-8; Sunday 8-6

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.   

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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

“The Best Album Otis Redding Never Made”

2 Mar

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I have always loved the voice of Otis Redding. Who doesn’t, right? So much soul and feeling. So raspy and unique. More of a song stylist than a true singer. He could scream and shout with the best of ’em, but his talents were perhaps best on display when he performed a slower ballad. That is especially true when the ballad tackled the topics of pain, loneliness, heartbreak or sorrow.

The cover looks like an old, time-worn LP cover. The cover art fits within the time period. Yet this is a completely new collection being released for the first time. Cool concept — and it works. The album is a mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar. The original songs and a few alternate versions. Some Redding penned originals and compositions by the likes of Eddie Floyd and Lloyd Price.

Most all the cuts here click. Those that don’t on all levels still demand your attention and curiousity. An example of the latter would be the alternate take of “I’ve Got Dreams To Remember.” There are a few awkward key changes that can be hard on the ear, but the feeling and emotion is still very much there. The backing band (Steve Cropper, Booker T and the boys) seems to be experimenting — trying to find their way at times on this take. I’m guessing that is why this version is subtitled “Rougher Dreams.” You can understand why this rougher take didn’t make the original record back in the late 60’s.  

On the other hand, the alternate version of “Open the Door” is simply killer stuff. Subtitled “Skeleton Key Version,” this one delivers the goods in the best Redding tradition. The 2:29 slow burn comes complete with door knocks and goosebump-inducing blasts from the mighty Memphis Horns and Booker T’s Hammond B-3. The collection closes with the hopeful “My Lover’s Prayer” — long one of my favorite Redding performances. It leaves you wanting more, so don’t forget to punch that REPEAT button. This makes for ideal late night listening.  

Turn the lights down and the volume up.

You’ll find plenty to like about this new addition to Otis’ legendary catalog.

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Otis Redding’s Lonely & Blue: The Deepest Soul of Otis Redding could pass for a title Stax/Volt might have released in the late ’60s. The look of the album reflects Stax’s design themes of the era. But in fact it’s a collection that never existed, until now, that homes in on one mood and one theme —heartbreaking, yearning ballads — of which Redding had many. The album will be released as a CD and blue vinyl LP on March 5, 2013 on Stax Records through Concord Music Group.

Lonely & Blue: The Deepest Soul of Otis Redding contains the hits (“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “These Arms of Mine,” “My Lover’s Prayer,” “Free Me”) alongside many lesser-known songs (“Gone Again,” “Open the Door,” “Waste of Time,” “Everybody Makes a Mistake,” to name a few). They’re all included in this compilation because they share the tangled theme of sorrow.

According to compilation producer David Gorman, “Given how nobody delivered a gut-wrenching sad song like Otis, I always felt he should have made an album you could put on late at night and settle into with a glass of something strong. The mood and the subject of every song is the same — Otis, heartbroken, and begging for love. I tried to find the saddest most potently heartbreaking songs he ever sang, with no regard for chart position or notoriety. There are a few hits on the album, but they’re there because they fit the mood, not because we wanted to include the hits.”

For instance, an alternate version of “I’ve Got Dreams To Remember” features lyrics that are darker and tell a more personal story than the better-known hit version. Little-known tracks like “Gone Again” and “A Waste of Time” are given the same weight as “I’ve Been Loving You too Long.” The motif of love is even subtly addressed in the sequencing, the album closing with “Send Me Some Lovin’” and “My Lover’s Prayer.”

The concept of Lonely & Blue: The Deepest Soul of Otis Redding plays out in the packaging as well, which was intentionally designed by Gorman to look as if Redding actually did put this album out at the height of his career. The typography, color palette, and layout are all meant to adhere to the Stax/Volt LP designs of the time. This extends to the liner notes, which are written in the present tense and credited to a fictitious DJ so that they read as if they were written while Redding was alive at his peak.

“The goal,” explains Gorman, “was to create the best album Otis never made and ‘reissue’ it in 2013 rather than do another hits compilation. We hope this album will reframe him as something more than an oldies radio staple and become his Night Beat (a classic 1963 Sam Cooke LP) — the album that exists as a starting point for people wondering why so many consider Otis Redding the greatest soul singer of all time.”

Track Listing:
1. I Love You More Than Words Can Say
2. Gone Again
3. Free Me
4. Open the Door [Skeleton Key Version]
5. A Waste of Time
6. These Arms of Mine
7. I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)
8. Everybody Makes a Mistake
9. Little Ol’ Me
10. I’ve Got Dreams to Remember [Rougher Dreams]
11. Send Me Some Lovin’
12. My Lover’s Prayer

Roman Chewing Candy – A Longstanding New Orleans Tradition Rolls On

2 Mar

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The Roman Chewing Candy cart has made its rounds in New Orleans since 1915. Yes, I said 1915! NOLA is an old city (at least in US terms) and this is one of the city’s oldest culinary traditions. The cart, as you can see above, has seen its share of wear and tear. But like most things New Orleans, the cart’s worn and weathered look makes one more than a bit nostalgic for the “good old days.” And yes, this is the original cart fashioned by New Orleans wheelwright Tom Brinker in 1915. Amazing. Many cities bulldoze or bury their past. New Orleans celebrates theirs. God bless ’em for that.

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We recently encountered the cart at the Crescent City’s wonderful Audubon Zoo. Eileen and the boys promptly called me with the good news. I urged them to take a few pics and bring back an assortment of the gourmet taffy. The price of the taffy has gone up a bit since it was first offered for 5 cents per stick by the Cortese family back in the day.

roman candy wraps

 You can now purchase three basic taffy flavors (Vanilla, Chocolate, and Strawberry) for $1 per wax paper wrapped stick, 6 sticks for $5, or $10 for a full dozen sticks. The candies are handmade on the cart each day and they are not, like many of today’s confections, overly sweet. Personally, I prefer the vanilla.

You can now track the Roman Candy cart’s day to day location via Facebook.

You can also purchase by mail by ordering at http://www.romancandy.gourmetfoodmall.com

In the immortal words of Jackie Gleason, “How sweet it is!”

Roman Candy Company – 5510 Constance St., New Orleans, LA 70115 

(504) 897-3937; romancdy@bellsouth.net

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Roman-Chewing-Candy-Co/124215977625950

A Weekday Lunch at Sprayberry’s BBQ in Newnan, Georgia

2 Feb

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Sprayberry’s is a longtime stalwart of Southern BBQ. They have been around since 1926, so staying power is one of their strong suits. Country music star Alan Jackson once waited tables at Sprayberry’s. There are 2 locations now (both in Newnan, GA). We hit the Jackson Street location several years back and enjoyed it. This time we were traveling from Atlanta back to Mobile, Alabama and our timing was just right. We arrived just before noon — beating the lunch rush.  

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We were promptly seated in the spacious dining room and handed large tan menus (see the 2 images above). I immediately noticed the Lewis Grizzard Special (details shown on photo above). The late Grizzard was a popular Southern humorist who is still something of a folk hero in these parts. I owned a couple of his comedy tapes and sometimes read his column in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. He was a funny man with a hearty appetite for Dixie-style chow, so this BBQ combo is a fitting tribute.

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I wasn’t feeling up to onion rings, so I ordered the Chopped Pork Sandwich with a side of Brunswick Stew and a Sweet Tea with Lemon. My sandwich came with fresh chopped slaw (lacking the usual heavy mayo), a few pickle slices, and a small cup of Sprayberry’s singular BBQ sauce. It’s kind of a thin, vinegar-based condiment — not too different than sauces you find in Eastern North Carolina. The sandwich was quite tasty — lean, smokey swine paired with crunchy grated cabbage and the peppery tang of the sauce.

sb stew

I consider myself a bit of a Brunswick Stew aficionado, so I braced myself to be disappointed when I first viewed Sprayberry’s mushy concoction (see above). Virginians and Georgians have long debated about which state bubbled up the very first Brunswick Stew. I am not here to argue that point at this time. I will say that I am more accustomed to a stew with more texture. Kernals of sweet yellow corn, visible strands of meat (most often chicken), tiny green butter beans, etc. Sprayberry’s Stew looks more like baby food, but I am pleased to report that it is suitably flavorful. I added just a sprinkle of salt and a tiny splash of Tabasco. You could drink this stuff through a straw. I elected to utilize the more traditional spoon.

Sprayberry’s has stood the test of time for a reason. The food is good. The pricing fair. The service swift. Convenient access from the interstate. All in all a positive Dixie Dining experience. So if you find yourself motoring between Auburn, Alabama and Atlanta, Georgia, please do give ’em a try. It’s right on the beaten path, but worthy of your time and palate even if it was not. Skip the fast food options and treat yourself to a taste of Georgia culinary history.

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Sprayberry’s BBQ –

Hwy. 34 @ I-85, Newnan, GA (770) 253-5080

229 Jackson Street, Newnan, GA (770) 253-4421

www.sprayberrysbbq.com

For more reviews of Southern food, please visit our web site at www.DixieDining.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 

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.