Archibald's Bar-B-Q: Unforgettable 'Cue

With another college football season winding down, it's easy for me to get a little nostalgic. Weekend after weekend, I've watched the same college football announcers gallivant across the country, highlighting and enjoying some of the best food in America, some of the same spots I frequented so often during college, and I do so with complete and utter envy. For me, this is the typically the toughest part of watching any Alabama Crimson Tide football game; moments when my brain conjures up tastes of the past, my mouth starts to water, and I wished I lived a little closer to one of the greatest college towns: Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Earlier this season, when watching ESPN's Todd Blackledge feature yet another one of Tuscaloosa's famed eateries, City Cafe, a landmark meat-and-three dive that I've been to more times than I can recall, got me thinking about all of the good eats found in T-Town and those I now rarely get the chance to revisit. One of the more unique epicurean experiences you'll ever have, and one I reminisce about often, is at Archibald's Bar-B-Q, located just a few minutes north of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in Northport. Archibald's is a barbecue institution, and has been ever since the blue-hue smoke of hickory wood started bellowing out of their now soot-covered cinder block smokestack back in 1962.

Let it be known Archibald's is for barbecue purists. Archibald's is simple, yet indescribably delicious and undeniably unforgettable. It's a place where only four barbecue necessities reside on the menu - a slab of ribs, a plate of ribs, a rib sandwich, and a sliced pork sandwich - supported by a heavenly vinegar-based sauce, white bread, and your choice of potato chips and canned Pepsi products.

At Archibald's, you eat outside on picnic tables, you'll meet all types of people from Tuscaloosa, the great state of Alabama, the South, all across the United States and even the world. My go-to is the rib plate: ribs stacked atop slices of white bread soaked with their signature sauce. Again, it's simple, but at the same time genuinely complex and diverse. Archibald's Bar-B-Q is excellent; and once you have the opportunity to experience it, you'll too be part of this institution's tradition and find it hard to forget.

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Bread Winners: Star of Dallas

One of my favorite things to do while traveling, or when at home, is heading out for a solid breakfast (or brunch) to start the day, and recently, while visiting the great state of Texas, I checked out what some call "the best breakfast" in Dallas, at Bread Winners. I'd first heard of Bread Winners about two years ago, after reading a blog post by Dallas Foodie, on how creative, unique, delicious, and fresh Bread Winners food was, so instantly it made the list. Walking through the front door of Bread Winners historical home at their Uptown location, I was immediately impressed by the display of colorful sweetness radiating from their bakery counter, showcasing a stunning display of beautiful homemade cakes, pies, rolls, muffins, and cookies. I was particularly fond of their Caramel Pecan Sticky Roll...particularly found. It's not often that enjoy dessert before breakfast, but these looked too good to pass up.

After minutes of standing in awe in front of the bakery counter and eventually ordering a cappuccino, I sat outside on their beautiful evergreen-lined front patio and dove into the menu. Everything looked great as I eyed traditional breakfast staples, flavorful southwestern favorites and unique takes on both. I decided to go with their Farmhouse Scramble, three eggs combined with potatoes, jalapeño bacon, red onion, cheddar cheese, and couldn't have been more satisfied with it.

In my first bite, you could taste the freshness of every ingredient; it was delicious and extremely well balanced. No one ingredient was overpowering, which made for an excellent dish, full of flavor and perfectly seasoned. The brunch potatoes and croissant that accompanied the scramble were just tasty, the potatoes tender, but not mushy nor overcooked, and the viennoiserie bread buttery, flaky, and awesome, just what you'd expect from a bakery that knows what it's doing.

To top it all of off, just as I was wrapping up my first visit to Bread Winners, Dallas Cowboys' NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman sits down at the table next to mine. For a moment I couldn't believe it, but then I quickly remembered what I'd just experienced, the best breakfast in Dallas.

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Bread Winners Bakery & Cafe on Urbanspoon

The Southern General: A Welcomed Surprise

Having just moved to Charleston and not yet having a reason to make the short trip over to Johns Island, I didn't know what to expect when I set off for The Southern General. After crossing over the beautiful Stono River, separating James from Johns Island, and driving under the dense canopy of hundred year old Live Oaks, gracing both sides of the Maybank Highway, I was slightly surprised to find the restaurant inconspicuously situated at the end of a mixed-use office park. Not really sure why, but I was; however, it didn't stop me from stepping inside and checking out The Southern General. It doesn't take long, after walking into the quaint space to realize The Southern General is different, not your typical sandwich spot. Yes, The Southern General accurately classifies itself as a craft sandwich shop and bar, but at the same time, the restaurant's name is a bit of a conundrum, not fully describing the totality of the truly creative space (but maybe that's the point). After spending time with the menu, one that's chalk full of goodness, I begin to understand The Southern General, the modern-day idea of a general store inside a Lowcountry gastropub.

With so many great sandwich selections to choose from, deciding what to order was a little tough, so I kicked things off with two of their House Specialties, the Poutine and Sweet Tea Wings. Honestly, the last thing I'd expected to see on a craft sandwich restaurant menu, located on the middle of Johns Island along the coast of South Carolina, would be Poutine, but I'm glad I did.

The Southern General's Poutine consisted of freshly made hand cut fries, beer battered "Northern" mozzarella cheese curds, and "good" gravy. The dill they sprinkled on the fries, along with the warm, gooey mozzarella cheese curds had an amazing flavor. The dish was excellent and was easily my favorite of the evening - yes, they were that good.

Just as flavorful and delicious as the Poutine were the Sweet Tea Wings, featuring the house dry rub with sweet tea barbeque sauce on the side, along with cucumber salad and yogurt ranch. These wings were fresh, juicy and the dry rub paired with the sweet tea sauce was the perfect combination. The sweet tea barbeque sauce was very well done, so well done that you may find yourself taking home a bottle of it (available in the general store). I normally don't order wings as an appetizer, but when you see wings done like this, they're hard to pass up.

Picking out what sandwich to order was a little bit of an internal struggle in and of itself. Initially, I was leaning toward the Super Butt, then it was the Sesame Shrimp, which I'd heard so many wonderful things about, but ultimately I decided on the classic Pulled Pork sandwich, house braised pork with more of The Southern General's sweet tea barbeque sauce on a grilled brioche bun. A good choice, but next time I'm going for their Sesame Shrimp sandwich, which consists of crispy tempura shrimp with sweet chili slaw, oven roasted tomato, spicy "juambo" mayo on a toasted buttery baguette.

The evening spent at The Southern General was more than just another dinner out; it was a dining experience, and an excellent one at that. From the scenic drive from Charleston to Johns Island, to the unique setting and friendly service, to the creatively inspired menu and flavorful food, my visit to The Southern General was full of welcomed surprises and definitely helped in making this Charleston area newcomer feel right at home.

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The Southern General on Urbanspoon

Fire on the Rock: An Evening to Remember!

Last Wednesday, I had the absolute pleasure of being invited to be a guest judge at the "Got to Be NC" Competition Dining Series Fire on the Rock event, in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Not only was I honored to be invited to the event, but I honestly feel my life is richer for having gone. I make this bold, and unequivocal statement, because it's true. I had never been to a food event or "battle" like it, full of so many wonderfully gracious and kind people. The jubilant evening was full of passion, creativity, excitement, community, and amazing culinary creations, all in support of North Carolina's chef talent, their restaurants, and local ingredients from the farms that support them.

Honestly, before receiving my invitation to the April 10th event, taking place at Blowing Rock's Meadowbrook Inn & Suites now through April 30th, I had never heard of Fire on the Rock or any of the other regional dinning series that make up the yearlong event. It's a dining experience unlike any other in the country, comprised of 15 dining competitions that take place throughout five different regions of North Carolina, where each evening two restaurant chefs battle it out in a format similar to "Iron Chef" and those in attendance (you) cast their votes to determine the victor. Each course is scored on overall presentation, aroma, flavor, and accompaniments as well as the creativity and execution tied to using the evening's secret ingredient(s).

Team Chef John Dean

Team Chef John Dean

Team Chef Clark Barlowe
Team Chef Clark Barlowe

During the six-course meal, three from each chef without knowing whose food you're tasting, the menu is centered around a "secret" ingredient(s), produced in North Carolina. Here's the kicker, the chefs and their teams have no idea what the featured ingredient(s) will be until noon, the day of their battle. This particular evening, John Dean of Twigs and Clark Barlowe of Heirloom, had to use Daikon, Beets, and Strawberries from Wise Farms in each of their respective courses.

Chef Barlowe's Daikon, Beet, & Pepper Crudité with Strawberry Vinaigrette, North Carolina Lump Crab, Puffed Red Rice and Beet Chips
Chef Barlowe's Daikon, Beet, & Pepper Crudité with Strawberry Vinaigrette, North Carolina Lump Crab, Puffed Red Rice and Beet Chips
Chef Dean's Braised Pork Shoulder with Golden Beet & Asian Pear Mostarda, Pickled Pepper-Daikon Slaw, and Cornmeal Hoe Cake
Chef Dean's Braised Pork Shoulder with Golden Beet & Asian Pear Mostarda, Pickled Pepper-Daikon Slaw, and Cornmeal Hoe Cake
Chef Barlowe's Certified Angus Beef Teres Major Daikon with Potato Gratin, Bacon-Roasted Spring Vegetables, Beet Demi-Glace, and Baby Daikon Greens
Chef Barlowe's Certified Angus Beef Teres Major Daikon with Potato Gratin, Bacon-Roasted Spring Vegetables, Beet Demi-Glace, and Baby Daikon Greens

Needless to say, both John and Clark are unbelievably creative and talented chefs, as each of the courses they plated were unique, dynamic, and full of great flavor. From the Braised Pork Shoulder with Golden Beet and Asian Pear Mostarda, Pickled Pepper-Daikon Slaw, and Cornmeal Hoe Cake to the Beet-Cured Certified Angus Beef Flank Steak with Daikon studded Potato Purée, Strawberry and Heirloom Tomato Boursin Petit Pain, with Wild Mushroom Demi to the Strawberry Cake with Beet Ice Cream with Beet-Strawberry Balsamic Reduction and Strawberry-Mint Chutney, I thoroughly enjoyed every one of chef Dean's and chef Barlowe's creations.

Chef Dean's Beet-Cured Certified Angus Beef Flank Steak with Daikon studded Potato Purée, Strawberry and Heirloom Tomato Boursin Petit Pain, and Wild Mushroom Demi
Chef Dean's Beet-Cured Certified Angus Beef Flank Steak with Daikon studded Potato Purée, Strawberry and Heirloom Tomato Boursin Petit Pain, and Wild Mushroom Demi
Chef Barlowe's Strawberry Cake with Beet Ice Cream & Beet-Strawberry Balsamic Reduction, and Strawberry-Mint Chutney
Chef Barlowe's Strawberry Cake with Beet Ice Cream & Beet-Strawberry Balsamic Reduction, and Strawberry-Mint Chutney
Chef Dean's Chocolate Brownie with Daikon Ice Cream, Strawberry and Beet Molasses withTea-Smoked Butterscotch Sauce
Chef Dean's Chocolate Brownie with Daikon Ice Cream, Strawberry and Beet Molasses withTea-Smoked Butterscotch Sauce

My wife and I had such a wonderful experience at Fire on Rock, an evening spent with fellow North Carolinians in full support of the Old North State's culinary artistry and ingenuity, restaurants, small businesses and local farms. To learn more about the "Got to Be NC" Competition Dining Series, Fire on the Rock, or how to get tickets for future events, visit the Competition Dining Series website at CompetitionDining.com. I highly recommend you attend an upcoming event in Greensboro, Raleigh, and Charlotte, and hope you find them as enjoyable and as memorable as I did!

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Photo credits belong to Amanda Lugenbell & the Competition Dining Series

Camden Deli: Simply Amazing Sandwiches & More

Nestled along the main street in the picturesque New England village of Camden, Maine, about 80 miles northeast of Portland, lies Camden Deli. It's a trusted staple where locals and visitors alike go for good eats, and have been since 1985. No, it's not the oldest spot in this history-rich township, but it is the place where you'll find gourmet sandwiches and waterfront dining, a beautiful combination any time.

Camden Deli mirrors that of it's picturesque surroundings and their menu is much the same, featuring classic deli favorites and signature sandwiches of their very own, along with vegetarian selections. Immediately after being welcomed in by the owner, working behind the counter, I suddenly went into the hypnotic daze that comes from being overwhelmed by a menu that features so many choices that all sound downright amazing (you know the feeling). After the internal struggle subsided, I decided on one of their signature sandwiches, The Pressed Cubano which included sliced turkey, baked ham, imported Swiss cheese, bacon, pickles and mustard grilled on a freshly baked baguette.

Needless to say, the sandwich was simply amazing. After biting through the flaky and crunchy crust of the baguette, you suddenly taste Camden Deli's unique take on the Cuban sandwich, and it doesn't disappoint. The bacon and Swiss cheese were the perfect addition to the sliced Boar's Head turkey and baked ham, but just like any other great traditional Cuban sandwich it all starts with great bread. This was just an all-around delicious sandwich and one you should definitely consider when stopping into Camden Deli.

If you can't tell already, this New England deli impressed me and there are many reasons as to why. First and foremost, the food was fantastic, but in addition, they also provided a wonderfully well-round dining experience - yes, we're talking about a deli here. Camden Deli's service was welcoming, courteous and prompt, their menu was sundry and creative, and they take advantage of their prime location by providing guests with beautiful views overlooking both Harbor Falls and Camden Harbor, along with a rooftop deck. So the next time you're in Vacationland, take a walk down Camden's main street and be sure to stop into Camden Deli. Like me, you'll be glad you did!

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Camden Deli on Urbanspoon

Eggs in the City: A Utah Beaut!

It's been a little over a week since I returned from my trip to Salt Lake City, Utah, and it's not the unbelievably beautiful snow-capped mountains I can't stop thinking about, it's the breakfast. Yes, the breakfast I had at Eggs in the City. Thanks to Becky Rosenthal and her blog post on SLC Foodie, I enjoyed a wonderful breakfast and some of the best corned beef hash I've ever had. Eggs in the City, nestled in Salt Lake City's trendy Sugar House neighborhood, was incredibly inviting and buoyant, offering a unique interior and engaging service that was evident as soon as I stepped inside. Before I even glanced at the menu, the fantastic aroma coming from their open kitchen and the fresh produce I noticed resting on the counter was evidence this was going to be a great start to my day.

A breakfast favorite of mine is homemade corned beef hash and when I saw it on the menu I couldn't resist ordering it. I was slightly reluctant in doing so, after reading about how good their French Toast and Huevos Rancheros was, but immediately after it was placed in front of me I was happy I did. At first glance, the obvious difference between how Eggs in the City prepares the dish, versus other shredded or finely chopped mush versions I've had in the past, was the mound of large corned beef chunks bullying the potatoes on the plate. The second was the taste; simply some of the best corned beef hash I've ever had given it's tenderness and slightly smoked flavor. Perfectly paired with fresh local over easy eggs, thick crispy bacon, and fresh black coffee made for a breakfast I won't forget about any time soon.

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Eggs in the City on Urbanspoon

La Super Rica Taqueria: Serious Tacos

There are few things Californians take seriously and tacos is one of them. Last month, while in Santa Barbara, California, I learned fairly quickly where to head for quality local Mexican fare, after asking the fine folks at LA Foodie and, well, Santa Barbara locals. All of them pointed me towards La Super Rica Taqueria, located on the corner of Milpas & Alphonse Street, and I'm grateful for their kind and accurate advice, because the food was fantastic. Stepping into La Super Rica, I immediately noticed the lunch rush had surpassed. Many warned of La Super Rica's long line and suggested I get there early, but I strolled in around half past noon, lucked up, and walked right up to the counter to order. Before noticing the chalkboard menu, full of authentic concoctions all under $5.80, I became distracted by the orchestration taking place immediately behind the gentleman behind the register, a woman pressing out fresh corn tortillas and a guy grilling up a variety of beef, chicken, and chorizo. It was one of those moments where you think to yourself, "this is going to be good..."

There was so much I wanted to try, so I did. My first order consisted of Sopes de Pollo (masa cups lightly fired then soaked in a tomato sauce, topped with chicken breast, cheese, avocado, radish, & served with hot sauce), Tacos de Chorizo (chunks of grilled chorizo served on two fresh homemade tortillas), Tacos de Chuleta (grilled strips of pork steak served on two homemade tortillas), and Quesadilla con Chorizo (grilled chorizo with melted cheese served between two fresh tortillas). Everything was made to order, very authentic, and absolutely delicious. Each dish was purposefully simple, flavorful, and carried a unique taste - not like some Mexican food out there where the enchiladas, burritos, and (fill in the blank) ends up tasting eerily similar. What stood out most of all was the fresh homemade corn tortillas - they were fantastic and some of the best I've ever had.

After crushing this order, I went back for the Alambre de Filete (grilled tri-tip with bell pepper, onions, & bacon with three tortillas), and another Tacos de Chorizo. Yes, it was a ton of food, but I knew my stay in Santa Barbara was going to be short-lived and I wasn't certain I'd make it back to La Super Rica during my visit. The second act was just as good as the first with the locally-grown bell peppers and onions tasting fresh, flavorful, and slightly charred, really balancing out the steak and bacon. Somewhere in this heap there were some freshly made tortillas that helped out, too.

Not only was the food at La Super Rica Taqueria wonderful, but the servings were generous, the menu's affordable, the staff's friendly, and the atmosphere's welcoming and laid back, the way a California establishment should be. Oh, and they take their tacos very, very seriously.

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La Super-Rica Taqueria on Urbanspoon

Sweet Potatoes: Creatively Delicious

With this week being all about friends and family gathering to give thanks and enjoy some Thanksgiving favorites, some of which include turkey and sweet potatoes, I thought it was only fitting to share a great experience I had recently during my first-ever visit to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Several weeks ago, we were up from Charlotte to attend a wedding and made it a point to visit Sweet Potatoes, a quaint restaurant located in the heart of the city's art district who's menu features some creative dishes rooted with traditional Southern staples. Arriving right when the doors opened allowed for our choice of seating, so we went with one of the only window seats in the restaurant, which gave us a birds eye view for people watching. Before sitting down, I immediately noticed there were some beautiful touches gracing Sweet Potatoes: original oak floors, picture rail molding, folk art, and a full bar boasting a 100.0 (A) food inspection rating (never hurts).

Deciding on what to order was difficult as their menu was chock-full of dishes that caught our eye, but I went with the Ragin' Cajun Turkey Burger with a side of sweet potato fries and my wife chose the Fried Green Tomato, Lettuce, & Bacon sandwich with coleslaw.

The Ragin' Cajun Turkey Burger consisted of a spicy turkey patty topped with smoked Provolone cheese, creole sauce and spicy collard greens on a wheat Kaiser roll. I can honestly go on record and say their turkey burger was the best I've ever had. The supporting cast of the tomato-based creole sauce, smokey Provolone, and spicy collard greens would prop up any regular turkey burger, but Sweet Potatoes' turkey burger could stand alone as it had wonderful flavor and was surprising juicy; most turkey burgers I find are everything but. The sweet potato fries were an excellent choice, too, as they paired well with the low-heat spicy sandwich.

The Fried Green Tomato, Lettuce, & Bacon with sweet potato aioli on toasted wheat berry bread and a side of freshly-made coleslaw delivered - full of crunch, fresh ingredients, and flavor. This sandwich was so much better than anything we could ever prepare at home. And, for $6.99 why would you bother? Both sandwiches were absolutely delicious, and I highly recommend them.

Last but not least was the notable service we received while visiting Sweet Potatoes. Granted, we were the first guests of the day, but it wouldn't have mattered, as you could tell our server, Carlos, and the kitchen staff are used to doing an excellent job, regardless of the time of day. Carlos was extremely patient, willing to offer suggestions, knowledgeable about their menu and was very helpful and polite to answer any question we threw his way. The service, hospitality, along with the great food prepared by the kitchen, made us extremely thankful we stopped in to experience what Winston-Salem's Sweet Potatoes was all about.

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Sweet Potatoes on Urbanspoon

Watershed on Peachtree: Refreshingly Different

Having the opportunity to spend a few days in Atlanta, last week, was refreshing. Not the typical descriptor for a city famous for it's unbearable heat and gridlock traffic, but it was. Since my wife and I moved from there to Charlotte, 5 years ago, we really haven't had the chance to get back as much as we'd like, so it was great returning to the city we once called home; experiencing nostalgia and seeing all of the newness that's come about since we left. After having four straight meals at some of my favorite restaurants, I decided it was time to check out a new spot I'd heard so much about, Watershed on Peachtree. Well, kind of a new spot. The Watershed I once knew called Decatur home and now, after 14 years, they were settling into their newly fitted uptown digs, located at 1820 Peachtree Road NW in the historic Brookwood Hills neighborhood of Atlanta.

Wide-open doors welcomed me in, and immediately it felt like home. Watershed's layout is clean, and incredibly spacious with natural materials and industrial accents used throughout. With weather in the low 70s, I opted to sit outside on the patio, but the wide open bar sure was inviting.

Watershed's menu supports farm fresh local and organic farmers, and is chock-full of amazingly refined Southern fare. Oddly enough, I went with the Fried NC Catfish with Firecracker Green Beans and Homemade Hush Puppies, after my waiter made several great recommendations. Once he told me about the Firecracker Green Beans being lightly grilled and laced with fresh crushed tomatoes and red pepper, as well as the Hush Puppies containing both dill and jalapeno, my mind was made up.

This dish surprised me. Not because of how great it was, but by how wonderfully different each item on the plate tasted from the way I though it would - not your typical fried catfish plate to say the least (not that there's anything wrong with that). There were so just many amazing flavors throughout the dish, from the thick and meaty catfish, perfectly seasoned and lightly fried, to the Firecracker Green Beans carrying the incredible taste from the grill and supplying the right amount of heat, reminding me of an Asian dish. To cool things off, there was the sweet-tasting homemade hush puppies, containing the combination of both dill and jalapeno. Again, a new and total surprise that was absolutely delicious.

Watershed on Peachtree was exactly what I thought it would be in many ways, but in others it wasn't. By doing something different, they're paying homage to their 14 year past while paving the way for the new Watershed, and that's refreshing to not only see, but it tastes pretty great, too.

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Watershed on Peachtree on Urbanspoon

SMOKE: Memorable Texas Barbecue

What do you think about when you think of Dallas, Texas: bankers, the Dallas Cowboys, JR Ewing, traffic? Maybe. Do you think of barbecue, barbeque, BBQ, or Bar-B-Q? Probably not; but you should. Why? Because, Dallas is home to Texas barbecue that’s memorable. Last month, I traveled down to the Big D with a short list of places I wanted to try. Needing help deciding which one of the two barbeque restaurants to visit first, I reached out to Full Custom Gospel BBQ's Daniel Vaughn and he was kind enough to suggest SMOKE.

Immediately after pulling into the gravel parking lot and opening up my door, I was met with the beautiful aroma of burning wood, as if it were saying “howdy.” At this moment I got excited, because I knew I was about to experience a barbecue restaurant unlike any other. After reading so many wonderful things about SMOKE in Garden & Gun, Southern Living, Bon Appétit, and Food & Wine, now was my chance.

Ordering off the Midday menu was difficult, because everything looked so good. I wanted to order it all: the Pimento Cheese Croquettes with Grilled Romaine, the Foie Gras & Chicken Liver Pate with Smoked Red Onion Marmalade & Grilled Buttermilk Dill Toast, the Chopped Coffee Cured Beef Brisket, the Lemon & Sage Brined Turkey Breast with Pickled Carrots. But, I was in mood for ribs and settled on the Dry Rubbed Pork Spare Ribs with Mac n Cheese & BBQ Beans Topped with Hand-Pulled Pork.

I couldn’t have been happier with my decision. Each rib had a nice touch of bark with a wonderful balance of tender smoked pork, seasoning, and a touch of sweetness to them. Both sides were delicious with my favorite of the two being the ranch-style BBQ beans that carried the bold flavor you’d expect to find in Texas.To call SMOKE just a “barbecue restaurant” doesn’t come close to describing what Tim Byres and team are crafting. Their homemade, everything-from-scratch creative approach produces amazing dishes made from ingredients that are familiar, but end up tasting so uniquely different than any other barbecue restaurant I’ve ever been to.

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Smoke (Belmont Hotel) on Urbanspoon

Taqueria del Sol: Simple and it Still Works!

Being back in Atlanta for a few days has me excited about the opportunity to revisit some of my all-time favorite eateries. Having once lived here for several years, it's going to be impossible to fit them all into my two day stay, but I'm going to try and hit up as many as possible. Immediately after checking into my Westside hotel, I headed towards Taqueria del Sol, an awesome spot that creates everything from scratch to produce some of the most flavorful food around. Their "Monterrey Meets Memphis" concept, their simple a la carte menu, and their uniquely efficient ordering "system" allow you to design your own dish and enjoy  quality food that's reasonably priced and served fast. Just to be clear, this is not fast food, but it is great food in a "fast-casual" setting. Taqueria del Sol's upbeat casual atmosphere welcomes those that just have an hour for lunch or the rest of the afternoon off with both a relaxing patio and a full service bar.

When Taqueria del Sol opened their original Westside location, almost 10 years ago, their tacos were their keystone and I'm relieved knowing that hasn't changed. Yes, they have other great items on their menu like daily specials, enchiladas, soups and side dishes, but their tacos still take the spotlight and rightfully so.

With my favorites tacos being the Memphis (chopped smoked pork with spicy jalapeno cole slaw and tequila BBQ sauce) and the Brisket (shredded beef brisket with pico de gallo) I ordered one of each and decided to try the Veggie (jalapeno refried beans, queso blanco and roasted tomatillo salsa), as well, with a roasted chicken enchilada with salsa verde, a tomatillo-based salsa, and a side of turnip greens.

I was a little reluctant about ordering the turnip greens as it's not my typical accompaniment to Mexican food, but I'm glad I did. They were absolutely delicious - tasting seemingly more like a vegetable-based soup than your typical southern, meat-laced side dish and spicy, too! Everything at Taqueria del Sol is amazingly flavorful, but it's not overpowering. The pork in the Memphis taco is sweet and smokey and it's enhanced by the tequila BBQ sauce, and the Brisket taco offers a robust bite that's balanced nicely by the fresh pico de gallo that tops it off. As for the Veggie taco, I wasn't surprised at how good it was, but I was surprised at how good it was. The jalapeno refried beans and the tomatillo salsa was a perfect combination, and again, provided an unbelievable amount of flavor that you don't typically find in most "veggie" options.

It's obvious, I love and miss Taqueria del Sol. It's one of the many things I miss about living in Atlanta; however, it's reassuring to know it's still the same place I first visited nearly a decade ago: they're still operating with the same passion and promise they had on day one, serving simple, fresh, made-from-scratch food without pretense. It's so good in-fact you're bound to revisit, because you won't be able to find anything like it anywhere else.

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Taqueria Del Sol on Urbanspoon

2nd Ave Deli: New York City's Finest

Deciding where to eat when traveling can be overwhelming. Trying to do so when in New York City takes this feeling to a whole other level, but that's one of the great things about New York City - everything is on a whole other level. Take delis for example. Personally, I've never experienced anything that comes close to the delis on the island of Manhattan. From the sheer number of them, the quality of the food, the portion sizes, the variety, their settings and history, everything is just so much better than delis elsewhere. But with so many to choose from, how do you? Much like the pizza debate, everyone has their beloved favorite deli with ample reasons as to why. For me, my favorite is 2nd Ave. Deli, located at 162 East 33rd Street.

That's right, they're no longer located on 2nd Avenue, but they are still serving up amazing food, and have been since 1954. They claim to be serving the finest Jewish culinary creations in New York City and I wholeheartedly agree. I mean, I'm not Jewish nor do I have an exhaustive history with Kosher cuisine, but you don't have to to realize and appreciate just how good their food is.

Upon entering, I walk past the counter and my eyes zero in on the dozens of freshly made salads and cold cuts beautifully presented behind the glass. The colors, the textures, the variety, everything looks delicious. Not only do I get a good glimpse of their amazing selection, but I start to get a real sense of the authenticity that makes 2nd Ave. Deli so different from others. After being greeted by the guys behind the counter, you're welcomed to your table and the New York City Kosher deli experience starts to come alive. Without even asking, an impressive plate full of sour tomatoes, sour pickles, half sours and slaw appears, almost as a sign letting me know the deli festivities are about to commence...

At 2nd Ave. Deli I've yet to stray from one of their specialties, the Twin Double. It's hard not to as it offers the best of both worlds, two fresh junior rolls each with generous portions of hot corned beef and hot pastrami. What more could you ask for? The taste and flavor of the corned beef and pastrami is immense, and it's so incredibly tender it almost melts in your mouth. Honestly, it's the best corned beef and pastrami I've ever had.

To me, 2nd Ave. Deli is the epitome of what an authentic New York City deli should be. Their history, the people, the food and the overall quality of the experience makes it great. So when you find yourself in the middle of Manhattan and looking for "the best" deli, don't be overwhelmed and just head to one of 2nd Ave. Deli's two locations. You won't be disappointed!

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2nd Ave Deli on Urbanspoon

Pinky's Westside Grill: One of Charlotte's Best!

Four short minutes from the heart of Uptown Charlotte, at the the intersection of West Morehead Street and Freedom Drive, sits one of my favorite local restaurants, Pinky's Westside Grill. Pinky's opened their doors a year ago, in the same shell where Triple G Automotive once specialized in servicing Volkswagens, and has quickly built a solid reputation for great tasting food and drinks. Pinky's charm is evident everywhere you look; from the old Triple G signage that still adorns the lot, to the painted Triceratops protecting the patio, to the VW Beetle parked on the roof (paying homage to the building's past) and this is all before you step inside!

Once you do, you're greeted by a staff that's friendly, personable, and who gives a damn about what they do, a refreshing combination to say the least. Whether you're there for food, drink, or both, you'll find something on their menu that suits you (and intrigues you). They feature a rotating seasonal beer list, as well as a 'classy or trashy' cocktail menu that's fun and creative, yet again reflective of Pinky's own personal charm.

As for the food, it's excellent and it has been during each one of my seven visits. Pinky's does what a lot of other restaurants have a difficult time pulling off, being both a great bar and restaurant. Their setting, style, and total offering is genuine, not overproduced or off-the-shelf, and they're serving up amazing drink and food that's fun, familiar yet different, in a good way.

My wife, Kate, who happens to be a fried pickle aficionado, has put her personal stamp of approval on Greg's Pickles, calling them the best in Charlotte (and she doesn't throw around that accolade lightly)! She asked I make this plug as she knows I'm not a pickle fan. I can attest to her ordering these as an appetizer every time we've visited and suggesting them to anyone anytime the "fried pickle conversation" rears its head.

For me, I have a hard time wavering from what first sold me on Pinky's, their burger and hot dog. No, their unpretentious 5oz. beef burgers and 100% beef hot dogs aren't going to tower over you or hang over the basket, but they're full of flavor and awesomeness! I highly recommend the White Trash Burger, but this visit I crafted my own with provolone, grilled onions, and bacon. This came after I polished off my personal favorite, The Pinky Dog, which is flattop grilled and topped with pimento cheese and chili. Order any one of their Championship Burgers or dogs from Wiener Wonderland with their amazing side selections ranging from waffle fries, red potato salad, homemade potato chips, southern or cilantro-honey slaw, fried squash, black eyed pea salad to onion rings. Whatever you decide to go with, you can't go wrong.

One of our other favorites is their Buffalo Shrimp Tacos, consisting of lightly breaded fried Buffalo shrimp topped with arugula and Gorgonzola cheese crumbles and cradled in a flour tortilla. Served with a side of black beans, the combination of textures and flavors make these tacos both light and delicious. On a menu that features burgers, hot dogs, fried bologna and turkey, you may be surprised to see that Pinky's does an excellent job of catering to vegetarians with several meat-free sandwiches, fresh salads, and substitutions like 100% organic soydogs. Their menu's very well balanced, offering almost the same number of meat-free options as they do meaty ones.

If you've already been to Pinky's Westside Grill, none of this is news to you and you know just how good of a job they're doing. If you haven't yet had the pleasure, venture on over to Charlotte's west side, taste it for yourself and let me know what you think!

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Pinky's Westside Grill on Urbanspoon

The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen: 'Nuff Said!

frontsign

The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen, nestled in San Francisco's historic and uberly artistic SoMa district, instantaneously became a favorite of mine, earlier this summer. We had just landed at San Francisco International, in town visiting family and for the 117th U.S. Open, grabbed the electric blue rocket ship that was my rental and made a beeline towards the intersection of 2nd Street & South Park Avenue. As I walked into the the transformed space, where an early-20th century tobacco warehouse once called home, I immediately had flashbacks of my granny's kitchen. My senses were suddenly overtaken by the ninja-like combination of wooden picture frames, cast-iron skillets, vintage wallpaper, an antique cuckoo-clock, Americana folk art, and the comforting smells produced by a hot, well-greased griddle. In a flash I was incapacitated, unable to move, just standing there with a cheesy (damn right this pun's intended) grin on my face...

Once I snapped out of it, I was fixated on their chalkboard menu, graced with nothing but deliciousness. Stepping up to the register to place our order, we asked for the Jalapeño Popper and Piglet, both "varietals" of grilled cheese sandwiches and a few Empire colas. Now, for those of you out there who question going out for a grilled cheese sandwich, when's the last time you whipped up a grilled cheese sandwiches that included chèvre, Monterrey jack, applewood-smoked bacon, apricot-jalapeño relish on Pinkie's rustic levain (descriptor for the Jalapeño Popper) and one that consisted of Tillamook sharp cheddar, artisan cured ham, apple mustard, rosemary butter on levain (aka, the Piglet)? Okay, that's what I thought, too.

Upon placing our order, we were welcomed by the super friendly staff, behind the counter. One kindly asked where we were from, noticing we weren't from "around these parts" picking up on my ever-so-charming and undisguisable southern accent. Discovering we shared a common thread of both having once lived in North Carolina, we had a nice conversation and then pulled up a seat at the counter, awaiting our food.

Looking over at my beautiful wife, I blurted out "I should have gotten the soup" and, as if Granny overheard me, I was asked by a smiling face standing between me and the kitchen if I'd like a complimentary Smoky Tomato Soup (I swear I heard the angelic belting of H-A-L-L-E-L-U-J-A-H! above me). Apparently it was plated by accident, but I was completely okay with it. There it was, a simple yet rich and tasty homemade creation crafted with crème fraîche and croutons. It was the perfect pairing to my Piglet.

We sat there not saying much, crunching into the locally baked levain's millimeter-thick crust, both amazed with what our taste buds were experiencing. The sandwiches were absolutely delicious. A little forewarning, the Jalapeño Popper isn't for the casual pepper eater. It packs some Jalapeño punch, serious robust flavor. The sourdough surrounding the Piglet was seasoned with rosemary butter, which perfectly balanced the bold taste of sharp cheddar, cured ham, and apple mustard. Speaking of apples, both grilled cheeses came with one - a nice motherly touch.

The what felt like family at The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen is serving up fantastic food in a setting that's familiar and calming, taking you back to a time when things were a little simpler, slower and full of flavor. Offering seating both inside and out, they'll bring your food out quickly and with personality, which is genuine. At the corner of 2nd Street and South Park Avenue, they're making magic, turning quality ingredients into gourmet grilled cheese masterpieces, and, for me personally, memories of Granny...but I don't remember Granny's grilled cheese sandwiches ever tasting this damn good!

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The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Seersucker: Home Away From Home

As soon as the wheels touched down on LaGuardia’s tarmac, food was the first thing that crossed my mind. Yes, I was obviously excited about seeing friends I hadn’t seen in a while; looking forward to the upcoming weekend wedding celebration, and exploring New York City, but because my stomach was talking back to me, deciding where I was going to eat became priority number one.

With over 18,700 restaurants to choose from in Manhattan alone, it's not easy deciding where to eat in the city, especially when you're there for only three days. Reading the essayCourtney Balestier wrote for American Oxford, speaking to “New York’s crush on Southern food,” helped in narrowing my choices and made the decision a little easier.

Walking into Brooklyn’s Seersucker, this Southerner immediately felt right at home. Maybe it was the screen door that closed behind me as I stepped inside, the dim lighting’s warm welcoming glow against the austere interior’s use of brick, wood, and rustic metals, possibly the neat and delicious selections being presented, or the impressive display of colorful pickled goodness that separated the 40 seat dining room from the semi-open kitchen; whatever it was, it was awesome - the perfect way to kickoff the weekend.

At first glance, the menu reflects the refined details of its surroundings and right away I could tell the food was going to be authentic, true to form and it was; not the stereotypical greasy heaps of soul food that often times gets portrayed as the only Southern contribution to American cuisine. Much of Seersucker’s menu is graced with locally grown ingredients, coming from Carroll Gardens and Grand Army Greenmarkets, as well as those from special sources south of the Mason-Dixon, like the North Carolina trout from Canton’s very own Sunburst Trout Farms. With so many great dishes to choose from, deciding on one was difficult, but there’s a reassuring confidence that washes over you when you know you can’t make a poor choice.

Starting out, I went with the Cornmeal-Crusted East Coast Oysters. They were absolutely unbelievable. Growing up on Florida’s Emerald Coast, not too far from famed Apalachicola, I know good oysters and the delicate preparation that goes into delivering fried oysters that allow you to taste both the actual oyster and that of the sweet freshly sifted cornmeal that surrounds it, with one not upstaging the other. I narrowed my entrée selection down to the Potato Crusted North Carolina Trout and the Fried Chicken, but our server decided for me and she selected the Fried Chicken accompanied by Thumbelina Carrots, Yukon Potato Purée and a Bourbon-Vidalia Gravy (yes, I’m still in Brooklyn, New York). The boneless chicken was extremely fresh and tender, not over battered or heavy, and went so well with puréed potatoes and gravy, not to mention the sides of Braised Collards with Potlikker, Cayuga Organic Navy Beans with Country Ham, Considered Barnwell Farm Skilet Mac & Cheese, and Skillet Cayuga Cornbread. Admittedly, I went overboard with the sides, but I had to try them and was glad I did.

I seriously can’t recall ever having a meal out like this, especially this far from home – the flavors were incredible, tasting oddly familiar yet new and sophisticated. It was as if I was sitting down to one of my mother’s comforting Sunday evening dinners, as a kid, and having my first ever fine dining experience all in the same meal – absolutely amazing. Obviously, this wasn’t the lightest fare I could have selected, but I had to test Seersucker and see whether or not they were doing the Southern basics right. Without question, they are. The Arkansan behind Seersucker, Rob Newton, and his team are doing both those that have had the pleasure to dine with them, and the South, justice in Brooklyn. Throughout the meal, I remember shaking my head and smiling in both satisfaction and disbelief given the fact I was 646 miles from my southern home and enjoying a meal that tasted as if I had never left.

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Seersucker on Urbanspoon

Brooklyn South Pizzeria: No Argument Here!

Pizza is extremely personal. When asked who has the best, passionate heated debates often arise. With the countless combinations of crust types, thicknesses, sauces and toppings, even down to how it should be eaten, the possibilities are endless; it's one of the many reasons why pizza is so great!

Lately, my personal favorite's been Brooklyn South Neighborhood Pizzeria's Nonna's style. Their menu describes the featured selection as a square thick crust pizza topped with mozzarella, crushed tomatoes, fresh basil, fresh garlic, and olive oil - just like grandmother use to make! It's unlike any type of pizza I've ever experienced, deliciously fresh and flavorful, with the crushed tomatoes resting on top of the cheese. I add pepperoni to it, but it really doesn't need it as the seasoned sauce, basil, garlic, and olive oil deliver an outstanding, homemade (but better) taste.

With six locations in and around the Charlotte metro area, the Cornelius location is the one I'm most familiar with. The restaurant is clean, spacious, offers outdoor seating, and is very popular family spot, especially on Friday. That's the only forewarning I can offer, don't go on a Friday night unless you want to eat with what feels like every family in the Lake Norman area and experience long lines and crowds.

Give Brooklyn South's Nonna's pizza  a go and let me know what you think. Who knows, it might just become your new personal favorite...

For where to find more Good Eats during your travels, subscribe to my food blog and follow me on Twitter (@TheDixieDish).

Brooklyn South Pizzeria & Italian Eatery on Urbanspoon

La Unica: I Dare You!

When I think about the combination of a restaurant and a strip mall my mouth doesn't instantly start watering - but hey, that's just me. However, when I think about La Unica, located in the Food Lion shopping center in Huntersville, North Carolina, it does. Why? Because it's simply the best authentic Mexican food north of Charlotte, in the Lake Norman area. Willie and the crew at La Unica do an excellent job of serving up dishes that reflect the bona fide flavors of his native Mexico. I've easily made over 50 visits to La Unica, so trust me when I say this. See, I'm a self-admitted Mexican food snob, but it's okay, because I know I am (no denial here) and I'm totally alright with it. With a menu as long as the Rio Grande, there are so many ways you can go, but I highly suggest you keep it simple. Stick with the salsa and the "authentic" tacos. Yep, authentic tacos - and for all of us that speak "Amurican" (kidding) that means no hard shell...ever. Just like they prepare them south of the boarder, these are served on soft corn tortillas, topped with fresh cilantro and chopped onions. My three favorites include the Pastor (roasted pork), Barcoa (soft, shredded beef) and Carnitas (chunky pork), but there are so many more to choose from: Asada (chopped steak), Chorizo (Mexican sausage), Pollo (chicken), Lengua (beef tongue) and more. Again, these tacos are the real deal and full of flavor. So real that if you close your eyes when enjoying your first bite, you'll hear the sounds of a Mariachi band and when you open your eyes you'll be wearing a huge belt buckle, a cowboy hat, and spurs on your boots...okay, maybe not that real.

Seriously, not to be overlooked is their salsa, which arrives at the table as soon as you're seated. Just make sure they drop off two types of the red salsa, one's mild and the other is spicy, blend the two and you're eating some of the freshest, best tasting salsa around.

For those in the Charlotte area looking for great Mexican food in a very relaxed, casual and friendly setting (ahem, strip mall), you have to check out La Unica, in Huntersville. Order up a few different authentic tacos, enjoy that salsa, and let me know how those boots fit! Enjoy ;)

For where to find more Good Eats during your travels, subscribe to my food blog and follow me on Twitter (@TheDixieDish).

La Unica on Urbanspoon

Early Girl Eatery: Not Just for Girls

It's no secret Early Girl Eatery serves up good food. Okay, really good food. What in Asheville, North Carolina, isn't good, right? Personally, it's the internal struggle I find myself having every time I'm there: figuring out what to do, because there are just too many good things to choose from. Yes, too many good choices is the problem, and I face the exact same conundrum every time I visit Early Girl Eatery. The good news is that you can't go wrong with any decision you make.

At Early Girl Eatery, their farm-to-table menu supports over 20 local farms, and as soon as you walk in you're greeted by a chalk board clearly listing the source of key ingredients. Breakfast lovers are in luck because they offer it all day long, but don't think that's any indication they don't do other things well because you'd be wrong. They do so many things right; again, here in lies the problem - just too much good food to choose from!

Last time I stopped in for lunch I went with a 'Meat & Two' selection. For my protein, I went with free range chicken that was lightly pan-fried and topped with herb cream gravy, and for my two vegetables I wisely chose the collard greens and macaroni and cheese (yes, mac 'n cheese is considered a vegetable in the South). In total, I was very pleased with everything with my favorite being the collards, which were very fresh, laced with ham, and very well balanced - not too vinegary tasting, as many can be. I found the herb cream gravy to be slightly overpowering, but the lightly fried flavor of the chicken leveled things out nicely.

So, if you heading towards Asheville this summer and find yourself perplexed on where to eat, visit Early Girl Eatery. They're centrally located, in the heart of downtown, serving up a wide variety of locally produced food that's highly reflective of their tight-knit community. You won't be disappointed, and it's one good choice you won't have to worry about making!

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Early Girl Eatery on Urbanspoon

A Lowcountry Backyard: Ranks High on My List

I love being in South Carolina's Lowcountry, and if you've ever had the pleasure you know why. It's subtlety, laid-back atmosphere, beauty, and gracious character are both unique and welcoming, much like the feeling you get when walking into A Lowcountry Backyard, on Hilton Head Island. We've visited A Lowcountry Backyard on several occasions, always for lunch, and have always left thoroughly impressed (and full). The atmosphere, service, and food is excellent. They have a casual courtyard for outdoor dining, a cozy interior, and their menu highlights down home favorites; rooted in southern tradition, but also features their very own homemade creations, like their Potato Chip Meatloaf, which consists of freshly ground pork and beef that's topped with crushed crispy potato chips then skillet grilled and brushed with a tangy peach BBQ sauce.

Whether you're in the mood for one of their comforting appetizers, freshly made salads, awesome sandwiches, lowcountry favorites, or 100% homemade desserts, you'll find something you'll love at A Lowcountry Backyard. Hands down one of the best lunches I've ever had while in Hilton Head - that's a strong, but honest statement, I know.

I highly recommend their pimento cheese with grilled flat bread for an appetizer, the potato chip meatloaf (enjoyed the baked 4 cheese mac 'n cheese and seasonal fresh fruit as sides) or their unbelievable shrimp & grits as an entree and their (what I call) "close your eyes and you'll think you're back home" banana puddin' for dessert. Stop in, give them a try, relax and enjoy!

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A Lowcountry Backyard Restaurant on Urbanspoon

The Liberty: Give Me Liberty, or the Burger!

Some restaurants just don't live up to the hype. They coast on the wave of popularity, produced by those who are in the "food-industry-know," until real people start spending their real, hard-earned money to discover the reviews and hype just aren't, well, real. The Liberty isn't this type of place. Period. It's real, it's good, and it's a really good gastropub. Our first visit to The Liberty resulted from prolonged accolades I've heard of their burgers and Charlotte Restaurant Week, the perfect combination. Upon entering, we were welcomed by a high energy and wonderful interior design. The seating was spacious, not making you feel as if you're about to dine with four more people than you walked in with, and the service was prompt and friendly. Everything you need, or expect, before you place your order was there.

Because there wasn't a burger offered on the Restaurant Week menu, I went "off the grid" (sounds dangerous, I know) and I'm glad I did. My selection, the Magruder Ranch Pub Burger was accompanied by Benton's bacon, sweetgrass cheddar, griddled onions, hand cut Kennebec fries with herb aioli on the side. Cooked medium, the Magruder tasted the way a burger, in my mind, should taste: grilled, juicy, peppery, and the moderator for the screaming match I want going on between the salty, beautiful taste of bacon and the delicate, sweet flavor of onions on a freshly baked bun. This was, hands down, the best burger I've yet to have in the Queen City of Charlotte, North Carolina.

It's not just about "the burger" at The Liberty. Their fried pickles were crisp, not greasy and supported by ranch dressing and Buffalo sauce for dipping, and grilled chicken added to the iceberg wedge with crisp bacon, blue cheese, balsamic onion, and buttermilk dressing were wonderful choices, too. Overall, our first visit to The Liberty met and exceeded every expectation - again, a perfect combination.

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The Liberty on Urbanspoon