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May 2005

Pane's Bread Cafe: Perfect Sandwiches in Chicago

Pane_tomato_sand_4There is nothing more simple, soul satisfying and crave-worthy than a good, hearty sandwich. Case in point: I just spent close to a month driving from Chicago to the very tip of Baja, Mexico, and at the end of the journey, all I was craving was a big ol' juicy American-style sandwich. I'd had enough of the fresh fish tacos, the deep-fried coconut shrimp, the tangy, potent margaritas and the authentic frijoles and arroz. Delicious as all that fresh Mexican cuisine was, I wanted nothing more than to stuff my face with a handful of mayonnaise-filled sandwich.

I found the cure at a tiny America-owned cafe in the picture-perfect, colonial town of Todos Santos (40 miles North of horrific Cabo San Lucas), and since I've been back in Chicago (7,000 miles roundtrip, but the trip of a lifetime), all I've really been dreaming about is a sandwich worthy of the one I'd consumed with sheer and utter delight at Cafe Todos Santos (a two-pound cheese, veggie and mayo behemoth). If you could have seen the blatant confusion when I sweetly asked for even more mayonnaise, bringing my grand total slathered the sandwich to about half-a-cup...good God.

My usual sandwich joint in Chicago is fan-favorite Potbelly's. There really is no comparison to its soft (but still crunchy), warm take on the vegetarian sandwich. Packed down with fresh mushrooms, gooey cheese, shredded lettuce, ripe tomato, homemade pickles, a tiny burst of mustard and extra, extra squirts of mayonnaise, this is the ideal sandwich for the non-vegetarian. The denseness of the mushrooms make it seem like there's some sort of meat on board, and the mayo soaks deep into the warm bread, which makes every bite an eye-closer, full of wonder.

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Four Moon Tavern: Breakfast of Champions

Dscn1258 Breakfast was always the highlight of my soap opera-fueled days as a kid. My grandmother and granddad would whip up fluffy scrambled eggs, homemade biscuits (with mountains of molasses and butter), sausage and black pepper gravy, juicy sliced tomatoes, vats of greasy bacon, creamed style corn, fried potatoes with onion and fresh orange juice every single day of the week. The smells penetrating through our house at 6 a.m. were enough to make me bellow out of bed and race to the kitchen, wide-eyed and bushytailed, ready to crack an egg or pour some juice (really, just to eat some raw potato with a shake of salt).

These days, I usually delight in a bit of crunchy granola with Greek yogurt (Fage is king) and fresh berries or nice bowl of steel cut oatmeal with brown sugar (the version at Victory's Banner rocks) and I can't even imagine stuffing down that sort of monstrosity of a meal at 8 a.m. Well I guess I could. Actually, I guess I do pretty often. But in the city I've found that breakfasts are more roadside dinery or upscale stacked than plain ol', damn good Southern comfort food.

Leave it to a bar to change that and bring me straight back to my roots. The Four Moon Tavern (long known as an actors' after-hours hangout) is the perfect neighborhood bar, complete with a super-cute outdoor patio, candlelit bar tables, a pool table, a great jukebox and a breezy vibe that's cozy and intimate. All that plus they have some awesome handcut French fries with homemade ranch and let's face facts, that's all you really need in a bar. (I could do an entire book on my quest for the best homemade ranch).

Back to breakfast, though. Who knew a dark bar would be dishing up the yellowiest, fluffiest, cream cheese-filled scrambled eggs I've had since the South (Four Moon Scramble $7.50)? And who'd have thought it would come up with perfectly chopped little potatoes with a sprinkle of rosemary and thick English muffins covered in melting butter to go along side the pile of eggs? For a bar, that's the big time.

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Third Coast Press Goes Live

Third Coast Press, alternative paper I freelance for (it's totally different and challenging style of writing for me, not the breezy foodie/travel stuff I'm so used to) just went live online and it really looks good.  There's a story on there that I wrote called "Black Water:  A Story about Survival," a few months back about fair trade coffee and homeless people.  It's really more about their link via an inspiring local Chicagoan (and former homeless) man and the lengths he's going to in trying to change the world.  I just reread it and was reminded of how easy it is to get inspired by someone, go nuts trying to clean up the world, and then, a few months down the road, totally forget everything you'd just learned.  Practice what you preach; I guess it's that simple.

Flagstaff, AZ: Eco-Adventure Central

On the way to Baja, we stopped in the beautiful little town  of Flagstaff, AZ for some Cracker Barrel (beans, greens, salad with homemade ranch and cornbread with honey is truck driver fuel) and a bit of Red Bull.  Taking a moment to jump away from the highway (Route 66), we moseyed through the charming village-like town of Flagstaff and promptly fell in love.  It's now made my Perfect Place to Live list and me and my whole crew just simply wandered about, chatted up the locals and contemplated what it would be like to live in this rustic, eco-hip mountain town.   

Snow-capped peaks, organic restaurants, walkability, free-trade coffee, outdoor gear, mountain biking, deep valley hiking and general goodness spreads up and down the cute, chilled-out avenues.  A fella working at the local mountaineering store says he pays $650 for a 3-bedroom house on the outskirts of town and another local says, "It is by far the perfect place to live."  I believe him.  Dscn9962_1

Food Is Always Where the Heart Is

Dscn9921No matter how far around the world I travel (the wilds of Mexico, the side alleys of Paris, the narrow streets of Barcelona, the hills of Cinque Terre, the butterfly fields of Greece, or the mountains of Switzerland), the word that's always on the tip of my tongue is food.  Be it a platter of re-fried beans, an entire freshly baked baguette, a smear of some homemade goat cheese, a dab of prickly jam, or a pile of poisonous nettles, I'm constantly searching for my next beautiful bite.  Food--it's the one thing the entire world has in common; and I love roaming the world in pursuit of all its mouthwatering glory.

I Guess All Ya Need is a Moho

Dscn0864After traveling for weeks in the wilds of Baja, Mexico, I've come to realize that all you really need is a moho.  Me and my fatcake crew have traipsed the entire peninsula of Baja filming our TV show, "Tracking Expats," and we've run across people living in everything from multi-million dollar mansions, cozy motorhomes, old trucks, rugged palapas, beachside hotels, tiny tents and charming bungalows.  Everyone seems just as happy as the next person, no matter where their hanging their hat.   I am digging the moho style, though.  Get a piece of land on the beach ($25k), thrown in a DSL line and some satellite TV, and rock out the moho/palapa vibe.  Done and done. 

Time Out Chicago Rocks

Timeoutchicago_logo_2I just started writing food reviews (they call it a food critic) for this awesome magazine (Time Out Chicago).  I've followed TONY and TO London for years and for them to come to Chicago is great; it makes me feel like I live in a real city now.  Plus, they totally dig my style of writing (check out my weekly column The Raving Dish on that link)--a little quirky, slightly off the cuff, witty and right on the money.  Food reviews are the best, too, because I get to eat myself silly, have a few drinks and then tell others about the glory of it all.  That just plain 'ole rocks.

Recent reviews:

Twisted Lizard (some of the best margaritas in the city)
Bojono's (NY style pizza that is wet, greasy and loaded with bubbly cheese)
La Michoacana (crazy delicous carnitas in Pilsen)

Margaritas in a Mason Jar

Dscn0743Sometimes, if you have all the ingredients, you don't have to follow a recipe.  You just start slinging.  Such  is the case with margaritas.  I never know the correct measurements, so I usually toss it all in a blender and pray for success.  At Baja Joe's,  they definitely had all the ingredients in their communal kitchen steps from the water, and a blender, so I just tossed in big splashes of orange liquor, even bigger splashes of tequila, a bunch of fresh squeezed lime, ice and some orange juice (on the advice of a local).  What turned out were some kick-ass blended margaritas that I kept refilling into my trusty little mason jar.  Nothing beats this sort of paradise.

Nieve~The Best Dessert in Mexico

Dscn1168Nieve (which means "snow" and is Mexico's version of sorbet) has turned into  the sort of treat that instills a severe longing for us while were here in Mexico.   It seems to be offered at stands and carts  all over the peninsula (you have to be careful, though, as some vendors let it sit so long the flavors become chalky), but the best I've had is at a tiny store in Mulege.  The charming woman who runs it makes all of the flavors from scratch and there is no dairy, no milk, no cream, no nothing in it (yet, it is still as creamy and delicious as ice cream).  After weeks on the road, to stop off in Mulege and order a cup of nieve (my favorites are pistachio, coffee and banana) is pure nirvana.  A recreation is definitely in order when I get home.

Fish Tacos in Baja

Dscn0081_1There really are no fish tacos like the ones that are found in the tiny restaurants lining the port in Ensenada, Baja, Mexico.  When you pull in the narrow street just off the marina, every tart young thing comes running for your vehicle, hawking their wares and it's really hard to decide which colorful establishment to choose.  Ultimately, I go with my heart and rock out with the first person who makes contact with me.  The fish (simply described as "white fish") is flaky, tender and perfectly fried.  The toppings are kept to the bare minimum (cabbage, cilantro, fresh lime) and I love dousing them with the creamy, sour cream/mayo blend that sits on the long, family style tables.  After tasting the tacos in Ensenada, I thought that was it for me...taco heaven found.  BUT, after heading further south in the peninsula, I took the recommendation of the owners of Eco Mundo (an awesome little eco-friendly hotel in one of the most perfect places in the world, Bahia Conception) and went to Ana's Restaurant (in Santispac) Dscn0996for her version.  Sars to letcha know, they were the finest I've ever had.   Served with a side or mashed potaotes (almost like scalloped  mashers) , beans, and sides of pico de gallo, salsa, cucumbers, avacado and limes...what more could I say.  Top it all off with a potent margarita and  Ana's is truly paradise on the Sea of Cortez.  Dscn0989