Monday, December 22, 2008

Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken, Memphis, TN

This is the second of several accounts of outstanding meals that were eaten as Tamar and I traveled through Tennessee over Thanksgiving week, 2008.


I could probably write 5000 words on what makes Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken so great.

Or I could just tell you that this is the best fried chicken that you will ever put in your mouth. And they serve beer in 40 oz bottles. These last two sentences would have made Gus's the perfect place for a romantic Thanksgiving dinner, but alas, it was closed for the holiday and we had to settle for lunch the next day.

Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken is located at 310 S Front Street in Memphis, TN; Call (901) 527-4877‎ and plan a visit.

And if you still aren't hungry, watch this.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Bar-B-Q Shop, Memphis, TN

This is the first of several accounts of outstanding meals that were eaten as Tamar and I traveled through Tennessee over Thanksgiving week, 2008.


It was the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving and we were driving south through Kentucky on our way to Memphis, Tennessee. Since I moved to Pittsburgh, this is a trip I’ve wanted to take for a number of reasons. This year, I finally had the chance and the perfect travel companion. Our itinerary was busy, but food was one of the primary considerations in our route planning. We were to arrive in Memphis on Wednesday night, spend Thanksgiving there, visit Graceland on Friday morning, and then get back on the road and head east towards Nashville.

Glancing at our dashboard clock and making some quick calculations, it appeared as though we were going to arrive in Memphis around 9 PM. After consulting my prepared list of targeted eats and making a few phone calls, only one place stayed open that late, The Bar-B-Q Shop, widely reputed to be one of the best ribs joints in Memphis, and thus by association, anywhere in the world. But they were closing at 9, so it was going to be a close call. Visions of succulent ribs and barbecue sauce motivated me as I accelerated faster towards our goal.

But time was not on our side. We were resigned that we might miss out on the evening’s dinner, and because of all restaurants being closed on the next day's holiday, would also be deprived of getting our fingers dirty until Friday. Depressed, we were starting to consider other options. In Dyersburg, TN, we debated pulling over at Bad Boys BBQ, whose storefront marquee promised a free gallon of sweet tea with every “Butt Job” order. Although it’s unlikely that I’ll ever legally have another chance to walk into an establishment and say “one butt job, please”, we drove on, still dreaming of The Bar-B-Q Shop.

However, after pulling out her cell phone, Tam made a discovery. While we started the day in northern Kentucky in the eastern time zone, somewhere on our 8 hour drive, we must have crossed a boundary and gained an hour! A Thanksgiving miracle! Our car’s dashboard clock was now an hour fast, and we had plenty of time to reach our dinner destination.

We eventually made it to Memphis and pulled into a parking spot across from The Bar-B-Q Shop with almost exactly an hour to spare before closing. Starving and thirsty, we were seated at a table by the window and took about five seconds to decide on our order: ribs (we ordered the rib dinner for two) and plenty of cold beer. Wanting to savor the spectrum of Memphis rib styles, we opted for half wet, half dry ribs. The dinner includes a full rack, a generous stack of Texas toast, and two servings of beans and slaw.

The dry ribs were simple yet superb. The dry rub was not overpowering, and consisted mostly of salt, sugar, and paprika. The sugar caramelized slightly on the outside of the slab, giving the ribs a nice, solid crust. Mother Chorizo liked it so much, she was licking it off the ribs before eating. The subtle aromas from the rub let the deep pork flavour of the ribs be in the limelight.

Equally good were the wet ribs. The porkiness was masked with a generous coating of tomato and vinegar-based sauce, which was nicely spiced to give it a little heat and complexity. The meat was so tender that eventually I started pulling it off the bone by hand and licking my fingers clean after each bite. Divine.

The beans were the best we ate on our trip. They were studded with bits of smoky pork and finely diced dill pickle to give it an amazing depth of flavour. They were perfect for mopping up with the thick, buttery toast.

It had been a long day on the road, but after this feast, every mile seemed worthwhile. We washed our meal down with a couple of glasses of Killian’s on tap, and in the spirit of the holiday, gave thanks to the invention of time zones which allowed us to enjoy this meal.

The Bar-B-Q Shop is located at 1782 Madison Ave, Memphis, TN; Call (901) 272-1277‎ for information.

You can order their sauces and rubs online at

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Maxwell Street Market, Chicago, IL

On a recent frigid November weekend, my partner (in and out of dining adventure) Tamar and I found ourselves exploring Chicago. Due to Pittsburgh’s sad scarcity of quality Mexican offerings, when we get out of the ‘Burgh, we often crave food from south of the border. Hungry for lunch on Sunday afternoon, we set out on foot from our hotel in The Loop to find the Maxwell Street Market, which was alleged by a blurb in our travel guide to have a good selection of Mexican street food. Not the most scenic of walks, we did eventually reach our destination, which was not on Maxwell Street, but on S Desplaines Street between Harrison Street and Roosevelt Road.

We were first bombarded not by food smells, but tables of power tools, used DVDs, sweat socks, and random junk (used juke box, anyone?) for sale from a collection of dodgy-looking flea market vendors. Starving and cold, we made a beeline down the street to the first person selling anything we could eat. This happened to be the churrero slinging his warm dessert fare. Bypassing the versions filled with strawberry or chocolate, we ordered a churro natural. It was homemade, with a nice crisp shell and a soft, chewy core. Slightly sweet from the sugar in which it was rolled, Tam proclaimed it perfect to take the edge off her hunger.

Our next stop was the elote vendor. Ever since eating this hand-held food on the side of a road outside of Puebla in Mexico, I can rarely eat corn any other way. This version was grilled and then slathered in mayo, disgustingly delicious squeezable imitation butter product and sprinkled with grated cheese and lots of ground chile pepper. A work of art! Unfortunately, this is an item that is more enjoyable in warm weather, when the mayo-butter shell does not quickly approach freezing temperatures.

Our appetite was sufficiently whetted, so after exploring our options, our next stop was a taqueria stall where we could sit at the end of a bar and watch tacos being made to order in the outdoor kitchen right in front of us. We were sitting downwind of the barbacoa meat, which was eminating a huge cloud of steam. I’ll gladly take that humid, meaty warmth instead of a space heater on a cold day. Tantalized by the smell, I ordered two tacos con barbacoa, while Tam had hers filled with grilled chorizo. Con cebollo y cilantro? Of course. Bowls of lime wedges, hot peppers, and red and green salsas were on the bars for us to use as we pleased. With a few squeezes of lime juice and a splash of hot salsa, the moist, tender, fatty barbacoa meat made the perfect comfort food.

Shoulder to shoulder with other diners wrapped in hooded parkas, breath condensing in the cold air with each uttered word, basking in the shadows of some of the world’s most famous skyscrapers… it hit me that it’s unlikely that there is any other place in the world where I could have enjoyed this experience.

After a few non-food acquisitions of estate jewelry and some used LPs, we searched for some hot chocolate to try and warm our frigid hands. Our styrofoam cup was nicely spiced, rich, and frothy, but unfortunately felt like it had been sitting outside as long as we had (close to two hours at this point) and was barely lukewarm.

Desperate for warmth, we made one last food stop, which undoubtedly the tastiest of all. We ordered a quesadilla con mole rojo. The tortillas were hand-made moments earlier, the cold balls of masa pressed until flat and grilled on a wide hot plate before being folded over with a thick slab of cheese until nicely melted. To order, our quesadilla was pried open and filled with a thick Oaxacan-style red mole dotted with small cubes of stewed pork. We sat at one of the tables inside the tent set up to keep diners warm and traded bites of deliciousness. The spiciness of the mole was complex and persistent, without being overpowering. Each bite balanced the freshly grilled tortilla, rich mole, and gooey, melted cheese. It was the perfect end to a memorable lunch.

The two of us shared some of the best Mexican street food found in the USA from five stalls for under $20. The Maxwell Street Market is located on S Desplaines Street between Harrison Street and Roosevelt Road, Chicago, IL. It is open from 7AM to 3PM every Sunday. Cash only.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Enrico Biscotti Company, Pittsburgh, PA

If I had Italian grandparents, I imagine that visiting them would have been a lot like going to Enrico’s. The menu would be a surprise, but of course I would have my favorites. I would always leave with a full stomach, amazed by how good the seasonal food was, feeling not only warm and happy, but loved. There aren’t many restaurants that feel like family, but Enrico’s pulls it off.

Enrico’s is located in the heart of Pittsburgh’s strip district, a unique blend of food wholesalers, antique stores, street vendors, ethnic grocers, cafés, coffee shops, and such. Aside from tailgating at a Steelers game, spending a Saturday morning on the Strip is about as much fun as you can have in Pittsburgh, or really anywhere. Especially for those, like myself, motivated by great food experiences.

Originally only open for lunch on Saturday and one dinner a month, the café is now open from 6AM to 4PM every day except Sunday. Their only dinner service remains a fixed price five course meal on the first Friday of every month. The café at Enrico’s is visually and aromatically overshadowed by the adjacent bakery with its more visible storefront, larger crowds, and the wafting scent of baking biscotti drifting out onto the sidewalk. I obliviously walked by the café many times before I was tipped off by a friend of its existence. Nestled behind the bakery, the café is accessible through a wrought iron gate and down a narrow alley. Once you walk into the warm space, your eye is immediately drawn to the open kitchen and impressive wood-fired brick oven which dominates the room. Small tables simply clothed with butcher paper encircle the oven, leaving every diner comforted by its nearby presence.

The Saturday lunch menu varies slightly with the seasons, but you’re always sure to find a small selection of pizzas, and “sangweeches”, which are really margherita pizzas folder over and filled with items like fresh salad greens or ham to make a warm sandwich. Pizza this good is hard to come by, especially in Pittsburgh, so I rarely stray from it at lunchtime. The single-serving pizzas are stretched and topped to order, and proficiently fired in Enrico’s wood-burning brick oven, only long enough to perfectly char the crusty bottom, and get the top to bubble up in a tantalizing way. Their crust is so good that the toppings are kept minimal to let the base be the well-deserved star. I love the simplicity of the margherita, topped only with San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and torn basil. A friend will always order a simple pizza topped with dried cranberries, blue cheese, olive oil, and salt. Even when it’s not on the menu, the ingredients are always on hand and the kitchen throws it together without a fuss.

Other lunch options are Italian, with some Southern and Cajun items mixed in, highlighting the chef’s skills. Shrimp and grits, rice and beans, beans and greens, and hearty salads are often available alongside plates of rabbit ragu or other seasonal pastas or salads.

Nowadays, a Saturday morning shopping trip to the strip isn’t complete without stopping by the café for lunch. However, Enrico’s really shines at their First Friday dinners. The menu is always a mystery, but will reliably begin with antipasti, move to a salad, followed by pasta, an entrée, and dessert. The pace of the evening is relaxed, spread out over two or three hours to allow the diner to relax, savor the experience with their tablemates, and let the anticipation build between courses.

On a Good Friday meal, the menu was prepared to accommodate anyone who may have been observing lent. The star of that particular show was the single plump scallop which began the meal, encrusted in biscotti crumbs from the adjacent bakery, seared and served in a curry cream sauce. But the pasta that evening was also excellent: linguini cooked al dente, lightly tossed with an unobtrusive sauce of shredded lobster and a hint of vanilla.

On two fall dinners a year apart, the first course ranged from the simple (a slice of prosciutto, some wedges of Italian cheeses, a fire-roasted heirloom tomato, and a chunk of fresh homemade bread to mop it all up with) to the complex (a farinata topped with caramelized onions and a homemade lamb-fig sausage).

Roast pork was served as the entrée at both fall meals, and it was always expertly cooked and paired with seasonal veggies. The deserts tend to be modest and light, and the best I experienced was a sweetened crème fraîche topped with a whole fig and a few fresh berries, haphazardously drizzled with honey. The fig was so ripe that the skin could be broken with the gentlest spoon stroke, allowing the juicy flesh to be scooped up with some of the sweet and sour cream and floral honey.

The salads tend to be made from only a few ingredients, with excellent results. My spring meal featured roasted asperagus and cherry tomatoes, topped with a few wedges of parmesan, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. One memorable fall salad featured the ripest Pennsylvania tomatoes and peaches, cut into similarly sized wedges, tossed with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, and some freshly torn basil. Both of these dishes have since become staples in my kitchen, and are always met with rave reviews when served.

Enrico’s is B.Y.O.B., so the diner is encouraged to bring a bottle or two to enjoy with the meal. If you put yourself on the mailing list, you will be notified about special seasonal events hosted in the café. Enrico’s is now Pittsburgh’s only wine producer, and a few weekends a year, they look for volunteers to help with the grape crushing and bottling processes. They also occasionally host tasting nights where loyal customers can come in and hear owner Larry Laguttata educate on ingredients like olive oil or honey, with a few simple dishes prepared to highlight the evening's theme. The joy Larry has running this establishment is apparent. He treats his customers like his best friends, and in return, his restaurant feels like home.

Lunch will cost you $10-15 per person. Dinner is $45 for the fixed price menu. The Enrico Biscotti Company is located at 2022 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA; Call (412) 281-2602 for information or reservations. Due to high demand, reservations for First Friday dinners must often be made several months in advance.

On the web:

Many thanks to Leonardo Reyes-Gonzalez for the excellent fisheye shot of the café entrance. You can see more of his photography on his Flickr page.

Friday, November 21, 2008

I hope you're hungry

Welcome to my blog, the musings of a hungry Canuck living south of the border in Pittsburgh, PA.

By day, I'm a graduate student at a relatively respectful institute of higher learning. My job is fine. I'm not bad at it. However, one of my passions is food. In the evenings, I can't wait to get home, get in the kitchen, and turn good ingredients into great meals. Or, when the situation calls for it, disappear into a local restaurant with friends or loved ones until everyone is deeply satisfied.

The relative lack of responsibility induced by my never-ending student lifestyle also allows for plenty of chances to travel. I was first motivated to start this blog to share memorable eating experiences from around the world. The act of visiting a market, or sharing a meal with people from other countries, other cultures, or even other neighbourhoods can be a profoundly moving one. In these posts, I will describe my favorite eating experiences from Pittsburgh, from my hometown of Montreal, and from the places I am lucky enough to visit in my travels. I will attempt to move beyond restaurant reviews and capture the almost spiritual feeling that a perfect meal can leave you with.

If I'm cooking something particularly interesting, I may also try to capture its essence and post it here. Or, if I'm excited about my tomato crop or something else in my garden, you may hear all about it. Last season's tomatoes were spectacularly delicious.

And pretty.