Tag Archives: Food

The Cafés of Budapest

Budapest has a thriving café culture. A big reason why I decided to stay for a full week and not a weekend is that I wanted to take the time to sit in these cafés and just soak in the ambience. I wanted to drink coffee and do a little people-watching. I wanted Budapest to be to me what Paris was to Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller. I needed to see this city while I was young and have it leave a strong impression on me. I wanted it to become my city, and I figured the best way to find that sense of ownership and belonging was in cafés.

It was during my time in Houston last year that I discovered coffee, and now I can scarcely imagine my life without it. The 200,000 words that make up this blog didn’t come out of nowhere. They needed fuel, and that fuel was caffeine. And I got the strangest feeling ordering my first Hungarian coffee- I was struck by how naturally and confidently I asked for it. Less than a year ago I was introduced to the sweet almond coffees my roommate Anne-Marie made for me, and for a few months I very carefully tried to replicate the exact cups she had crafted. Now I’m fine drinking the blackest, bitterest coffees out there, and it doesn’t bother me where they come from. I was like “Look at me, ordering coffee like a true connoisseur!”

 


CAFÉ GUSTO

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Address: Budapest, Frankel Leó út 12, 1023

What I Got: Bécsi virsli (Vienese Sausages), Americano, Ribizili (Cake)

My Visit: I found this place on Google Maps and saw that the reviews were pretty darn good, with particular praise singled out for the lunch menu. I was after some breakfast however, and needed someplace with which to fill my wailing gut, having not eaten much at the airport the night before. Café Gusto waited for me on a quiet street lined either side with parked cars. There were few pedestrians, and aside from the little Café Gusto, the place looked pretty residential. I was only a block away from the Danube, but the street had the charming quality one finds in cities like Toulouse when they stray away from the buzz of tourism, and realize they have crossed over into a territory that is so thoroughly its own. It’s like walking into a shotgun house out of the pouring rain and coming out on the back porch to find yourself bathed in sunshine.

I entered the café and it was near 10am. The place was quiet, and there was only one other patron- a young woman drinking coffee and reading the newspaper on the terrace with her bike propped against the wall. I sat on the inside to get a feel for the place and ordered some Vienese Sausages. The sausages were excellent, and went perfectly with the mustard. I wasn’t sated however, and ordered a slice of cake after I was done. The interior design was super-cozy, the tables adorned with flower pots, the walls with classy paintings of Budapest and idyllic Hungarian country scenes. Pop music played, not too loud. I admired the little lamps that hung from the walls.

It was here that I learned that you shouldn’t be put off if a Hungarian first comes across as reserved. The waitress was quiet and professional, but I persisted in offering her smiles and acting deliberately goofy. When she took my plate away I said “csodálatos!” which means “wonderful”. She paused and I said “wait!” and typed it into my phone on Google Translate. Then I showed her my phone and repeated the word and she laughed, thanking me. When the cake arrived I asked her for the Magyar spelling. Ribizili. She told me how to spell it and I wrote it down. Obviously, I could have looked it up online, but I was committed to talking to as many locals as possible and bringing them out of their shell if they were on the shy side. According to Dale Carnegie a good way to get someone to like you is to ask them for a favor. I wondered if most of the natives’ exposure to the English was the boisterous lads on Stag-Do’s that paraded down the streets in spring chicken onesies and puked their lángos out into the gutters come morn.

 


Café Smuz

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Address: Budapest, Kossuth Lajos tér 18, 1055

What I Got: A Magyar kedvenc: szalámis-körözöttes svendvics (Hungarian’s favorite: salami with creamy paprika flavored cottage cheese), vizet (water), blue-velvet latte

My Visit: This place is on the Pest side of quirky, and was easily the most hipster lunchroom I went to during my stay. What makes this café so awesome is that it doubles as a florist. I sat inside and the air was thick with the aroma of fresh blooms. I came here for lunch after leaving Margitsziget and ordered what the menu described as the “Hungarian’s favorite”. I like salami and cold cuts, so it went down very well. I’m not really a latte person since I don’t like my coffees to feel filling. I am most definitely a drinker of black coffee. However, I decided to try the blue velvet they had on offer here, because it seemed in keeping with the colorful tone of the place.

Smuz had a different atmosphere to Gusto. My breakfast was had at a little hole-in-the-wall, a hidden gem, the kind of place where the staff are on first name terms with the regulars. Smuz, however, was located right next to the awesome Parliament building and had a distinctly cosmopolitan vibe to it. The place was full of natural light, which made sense given it was also a flower shop. It lacked that cozy feeling, but the staff were very friendly. They were young, spoke good English, and they were very helpful when I asked them for the names of things for me to write down. As if the place couldn’t get any more quirky, there was an old school nacho machine on the counter like you’d get at an old American movie theater. The music was all 1960s counterculture; John Lennon and Don McClean. I found this amusing, because the last song we listened to on my last shift at the warehouse was “American Pie”.

 


Callas Café & Restaurant

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Address: 1061 BUDAPEST, ANDRÁSSY ÚT 20

What I Got: Sült ananász quinoa-val (Baked pineapple w/ quinoa), Coke, slice of cake

My Visit: The Callas Café sits right outside the Hungarian State Opera House. I came here for lunch before I took my tour. It was a little late, so there were few other patrons. The restaurant is very opulent- everything is clean and gold and shiny. The staff were very professional, and I don’t know whether this was an intentional hiring policy or not, but all the waiters had shaved heads. It made me wonder whether this was considered proper in Hungary, that the best waiters ought to be bald. I sat right next to the cakes in the window and admired them as I wrote in my journal. Hungary is a damn good place to go if you enjoy cakes alongside your coffee. Most places I went to offered a slew of cakes as the primary dessert options, and I came to learn that the cake is a big part of Hungarian cuisine.

I wanted a light lunch because I didn’t want to feel like one of those pythons that had just swallowed an entire Caiman when I went for my massage in a couple hours. I also realized that this café was a little fancy and I didn’t want to spend too much money. I looked at the other patrons and imagined that they were quite well-off. I imagined that the British guy opposite me held a managerial position of some kind, that he was divorced, and that the woman with him was his secretary or something. I ended up getting the baked pineapple with quinoa. Fucking great choice. I wasn’t sure what a baked pineapple would taste like, but it turns out the answer is delicious.

 


Café Gerbeaud

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Address: Budapest, Vörösmarty tér 7-8, 1051

What I Got: 2 slices of pistachio & raspberry cake (yolo), black coffee

My Visit: Gerbeaud is regarded as one of the grandest coffeehouses of Europe, and the fanciest in all of Budapest. I had this place written down on my bucket list at the front of my journal. This, it seemed, was the heart of Budapest’s vibrant café culture. I took the streetcar to Vörösmarty tér in the morning and found it a real hub of activity. The square was filled with stalls selling traditional products, handmade crafts, and all kinds of street-food. Music played and people danced on the balls of their feet, bouncing from side to side with hands on hips. I tried Gerbeaud but the door was locked. A sign said something about not being open until lunch. I was surprised and disappointed. It messed with my plan for that day. I decided to damn it all to sod, and eat street-food for breakfast. I found a stall and got in line. Just as I was about to give my order, I saw that there was another door at the other end of the building, and this one opened. I left the line and went inside, and it turns out the bistro and the coffeehouse are separate entities.

This place was next level fancy. There’s a distinct Gründerzeit flair to the architecture, and the whole place just seems to shine. It’s elegant beyond compare, with its grandiose chandeliers and polished woods, and wonderful staff. I felt like I was really being looked after here. I decided on cake for breakfast, and the slice was so moist and so delicious, I promptly ordered another one when the waiter came to take my plate.

Near me there was a family of four, I think from Russia or somewhere like that. The husband was ginger with a very tidy goatee, and the wife was blond and somewhat Claire Underwood in her appearance. The parents spoke in Russian to each other but the little children- a boy and a girl- spoke perfect American English. The kids were adorable. The little girl had French Braids and was clad in a white, floral dress. I thought it was very sweet that despite her young age, she had the affectations of an adult, with exceptional posture and manners, often trying to calm her baby sibling. I couldn’t help but smile when she got up and stood next to where her mother sat, and caressed her mother’s arm, as though soothing her. Everyone around me seemed to be smiling at this perfect little family as well. The tiny girl seemed wise beyond her years, and said “Papa, you can’t ever judge a thing by its cover.”

 


New York Café

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Address: Budapest, Erzsébet krt. 9-11, 1073

What I Got: The Writer’s Dish (cold cuts & cheese platter), Wiener schnitzel w/ mustard potato salad, New York lemonade, raspberry ice cream sundae

My Visit: I had my eyes on the New York Café above all others, since it developed a reputation in the early 20th century as the preferred hangout of impoverished writers. This place seemed to sum up my vision of what I wanted from my trip to Hungary. A place to eat, drink, and get my creative gears turning. I can’t help but think this establishment must have changed over the years though, because it was easily the most expensive place I went. I walked all the way from the Szechenyi Baths, through Varosliget in the rain, on my bloodied toes to get here. When you enter you have to wait to be seated, and then they lower the rope. It felt nice to be allowed entry. My hair was fluffy from the bath and I was dressed in jeans, my Texas belt, my Jordans, and my UHCL Hawks t-shirt. I was sat in a quiet corner beneath an enormous chandelier.

I opted for the Writer’s Dish for my appetizer since I came here with an interest in the café’s literary history. I actually enjoyed this more than my main meal (the wiener schnitzel), since I do like Italian cold meats and cheese. Opposite me was a table of vacationing Americans. Just like I did in Gerbeaud, I tried to listen to their conversation and imagine their lives. The women talked like the stereotypical suburban wasps, no doubt with tennis instructors and several cars. They tied the sleeves of their sweaters around their necks or waists when it got hot. The men were equally trim and clean-looking, and I overheard them talking about business. They all clinked glasses and one said “from the bottom of my heart, I love everyone at this table”. They discussed their visits to Barcelona and Copenhagen and offered each other travel tips on what to see and where to stay. It was interesting to catch a glimpse of their world. It’s been several years since I used my iPod and I don’t see myself ever needing one again. People are so interesting, and you can learn so much just by getting out of the house.

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The Taste of My Study Abroad

Peanut butter is one of those things I’ll always associate with a particular time and place. We have peanut butter in the U.K but it’s not overly popular. In the US however, it’s everywhere. To me, it’s a distinctly American taste. On the lower campus of the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire there’s a big cafeteria that I would go to in-between classes. I remember looking around and seeing a PB & J for the first time. There seemed to be something nostalgic and quintessentially American about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. For some reason, it was strange and funny that these were actually real, that they were right there in front of me instead of in the movies. They seemed more American than hot dogs even- because hot dogs and hamburgers have been transplanted into foreign menus so thoroughly. The PB & J seemed like the sandwich an American boy might have in his lunchbox at a summer camp; I can see him, sandy-haired and sitting on a log taking large, American-sized bites in the sun. I got myself the sandwich and found a booth. The first thing I realized was just how rich it was. The taste was fine, and I loved the jelly, but I found it so filling that I only ever got it in the future for the novelty value.

Sometime later, I was hanging out with my friends Jimmy and Zeke. They delighted in my thirst for American experiences, and out of the goodness of their hearts, took me down to the dorm’s vending machine and treated me to a care package of what they called essential American candy. It was interesting to me what Americans considered to be the most American and the most important. The care package included a Hershey bar, a Reece’s Peanut Butter Cup, and a Pop Tart. These were the things I had to try. If you’re an American reading this, what do you think of their choices? Let me know in the comments what candy you would choose for someone’s induction to American life.

Dedicated readers of TumbleweedWrites will remember my Lamb Boobs post a few weeks ago, in which I mentioned that my friends George and Elizabeth gave me a typewriter as a thank you gift for serving as their wedding photographer. Last weekend I finally got around to learning how to use it, and I decided to make a menu of all the food items that made a strong impression on me during my study abroad. These aren’t American meals so much as they are American tastes. These are the things that, whenever I take a bite out of them, I am instantly taken back to my time in Wisconsin in the fall of 2012. In some way, they all made me feel American when I ate them!

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American Home Cooking Part 2

In part one I discussed how, in American households, there is a much greater tendency to arrange a meal into bowls and trays, and have the family serve themselves. This of course results in a lot of leftovers. And no treatise on American eating would be complete without discussing leftovers. It’s such a big part of life here in the US of A. I can safely say that back home, we’ve never once had leftovers for dinner. Each meal is made and consumed within the same day. During my stays in the U.S I’ve found that leftovers often constitute at least two or three meals per week, sometimes more. My roommates and I will plan our meals at the beginning of the week, and note which ones will serve as supper for two nights, or which can be reused as something else- sandwich or taco filling for instance. We would make big meals- and as always in America, generously and lovingly seasoned- that would often be served into bowls. If we wanted a second helping, we’d go back to the counter and serve up some more.

Salads are also big in America. Most restaurants will have a salad that accompanies your meal, and the question invariably is not “Would you like salad?”, it’s “What kind of salad do you want?”. Salad is often paired with things it wouldn’t necessarily be seen with in the U.K, and many times we prepared a salad to go with our meals; bowls of fresh green Spring Mix, sprinkled with garlic croutons, sliced red onion, tomatoes, Kalamata olives, and a healthy addition of Italian Dressing, that sat beside our main plates. In the USA there’s no such thing as a salad without dressing. It would be considered as utterly vestigial as a truck without wheels.

I should point out quickly that I’m not saying every house adheres to a strict, uniform mode of eating- be it in the U.K or the U.S. What I’m saying is there are aggregate truths to the way a nation eats- ingredients and customs and tastes entirely their own. But of course, each household will explore these national tendencies in different ways. And that’s something I find very interesting- the rituals of a given family. When I first started living with Aaron and Anne-Marie in Wisconsin they weren’t yet engaged, but I had the feeling of stepping into the kitchen of a long-married couple. There was an aroma of love. They seemed to have the goofy humor of a husband and wife, teasing each other, but knowing exactly the other’s movements and skill, knowing each of their responsibilities without discussing them, moving unconsciously in a system entirely their own, as though they had been cooking together a lifetime. I remember Anne-Marie leaning on the counter with a beer in her hand, watching Aaron stir cut-up Italian sausage in a skillet.

“We like to drink beers when we cook,” she told me with a homely smile, and offered me one. I accepted a Spotted Cow, Aaron taking a break from stirring to have a hearty swig of his own. Already I was being immersed into ongoing traditions, the subtle rituals of domestic life. Music is another one. Whenever I cook with the two of them, soft music plays in the background. Nothing like the punk rock or rap we’d listen to in the Panther; the kitchen always filled with light and soothing indie or “coffee shop” music. First Aid Kit. Lord Huron. Best of all, Zella Day.

This was the environment in which I learned to cook. I had made basic meals before when I lived in Winchester, but it wasn’t until I lived with my American roommates that I learned what might be called the craft of cooking. Technique. How to properly hold a knife, which knife to use for each item of food, the fundamentals of cooking raw meat, as well as the hygienic maintenance of a kitchen, and the French philosophy of Mise en place. But what did we make?

One thing I have noticed about the American culinary landscape is how much it adores sandwiches. Sandwiches here are nothing like the sandwiches back home. They’re massive for one thing. Some are impossible to eat as a whole. What I love best about sandwiches in the USA is that they are treated like an art form. American cooks are constantly trying to innovate and push the concept of a sandwich to maximum extravagance. Sandwiches also serve as the creative expressions of different regions within the USA, and often are a combination of tastes from the settlers of a particular place. This summer we made French Dip (of Los Angeles origin) and a shrimp Po’Boy (New Orleans).

What’s interesting is that sandwiches can be considered a main meal in their own right in the USA, whereas at home they tend to be more of a lunch time thing. I don’t remember us ever having sandwiches for dinner back home, nor at restaurants. The French Dip, Philly Cheesesteak, and Po’Boy are favorites of my roommates and I, and the ones we made were delicious.

Of course, there are some practices that are adopted nationwide- for instance Americans hold their forks in their right hand, they drink milk out of glasses and plastic cups instead of mugs. Mugs in the USA are reserved for coffee (which they drink a lot of) and tea. Contrary to popular belief, Americans do drink tea, but mostly it will be iced tea or herbal and green teas.

Our meals this summer also saw an incorporation of Mexican cuisine, and we frequently made quesadillas and tacos for both lunch and dinner. I spoke before about household traditions, and a specialty of Aaron and Anne-Marie is their crab-dip in a bread bowl. I’ve been lucky enough to experience it twice now. The first time was in Wisconsin, where we were living in Eau Claire and joined by Aaron’s sister Elizabeth. With so much leftover crab dip, Anne-Marie decided to use the rest the following day to make crab dip quesadillas. The experiment worked, and Aaron hailed her genius. In America the surest way to someone’s heart is to cook them good food. We remade the crab dip this year for our NBA Draft Party, and once again we used the leftovers for quesadillas.

The other big dip we made that day was Buffalo Chicken, which is a staple of Super Bowl parties and sporting events. We made this twice this summer, the second time coming in the form of a sandwich.

Other successful recipes included our Greek gyros chicken, Shrimp Fajitas, Chicken Primavera, Stromboli, Lemon Chicken with Asparagus, Bacon & Barbeque Sauce Beef Burgers, Pasta with Sweet Italian Sausage, and so on and so on. Enjoy the pictures, and be sure to share with me the meals your family & friends hold dear!

American Home Cooking Part 1

I’ve written about my favorite restaurants in Houston and how they made my time there special, but what really made my summer this year were the meals my roommates and I cooked together in our apartment. What’s that saying? Teamwork makes the dreamwork. Perhaps it’s this, and not our experiences dining out, that have changed my taste buds so drastically in the last few years.

In this post I’d like to discuss American home cooking and the way Americans eat, all through the lens of my personal experiences. Of course, every household has its own traditions and I’d like to explore some of ours, and how I used my friends and their families as case studies to form an image of American domestic life. In some ways, as I write this, I’m imagining myself as a historian from the future, reporting on the habits of a few, freedom-lovin’ natives.

Back in the U.K my family incorporates a lot of Moroccan and Greek influences into our meals. At least once or twice a week at the Vowles household you’ll find dishes that use couscous instead of rice and orzo instead of more traditional, Italian pasta. We like olives and feta, and it’s something of a staple here to make a lemon-chicken or lamb dish every week. That’s not to say that the food is in any way Mediterranean; it can’t be unless you get all your produce from a Greek delicatessen or something. Every country has its own agriculture and its own ingredients, so think of it more as British food with a somewhat Byzantine accent. We’ve also been known to make more traditionally British fare in the way of casseroles and stews, or meat accompanied by a wide range of vegetables- the classic British favorites of broccoli, carrots, peas, sweetcorn, green beans, cabbage, kale et cetera. Once in a blue moon some cod in a creamy sauce, and every now and then an Indian meal- though not bearing any resemblance to the curries of New Dehli.

When I came to the USA five years ago, one of the first differences I noticed was that there was less of an enthusiasm for stews and casseroles in American kitchens. A lot- almost all- of the meals my mother made were in some kind of sauce. Very seldom if at all did we sit down to a dry piece of meat. And almost every day in the cafeteria of the University of Winchester there would be something resembling a stroganoff or a curry. Perhaps it’s because this is a bitter isle and down the centuries food has been typically prepared to warm us up, much in the same way beer in the U.K is traditionally room temperature and bitter, not like the cold, refreshing lagers that dominate the American heartland.

Another thing I noticed was that meals were arranged in different ways. Back home we were each given a plate of food, a casserole or something accompanied with rice or vegetables, and that was that. The table runner only held the candles that lit our dinner. In the USA, I saw a lot more of what you might call a mini potluck, the plates empty and the table adorned with options. This allowed me to control my portions and I’d find myself in less situations where I was desperately trying to reach the finish line. In America families like to mix and match, passing between them plastic bowls of salad or potatoes and all kinds of condiments. Dinner felt a lot more freeform. One thing I vividly remember is eating dinner with my host family in 2012, and my host dad saying “I fancy mine with some buttered bread” and so a loaf of bread and a tub of butter sat alongside the other options on the table. I just couldn’t imagine them ever sitting on the dinner table back home.

In the USA, particularly the Midwest, beef reigns supreme. Back home we’ve made brisket in wine sauce, or roast beef on Sundays, but I can’t ever remember my mom making steak. One time I visited my roommate Aaron’s parents during my years in Wisconsin, and his mom made beef steaks. There is a casual, hospitable feel to an American dining room that always seems ready to entertain. There always seems more room for riders in the night to come in and sup. I thought to myself If we hadn’t come, or had come very late, what was she going to do with all these steaks? It’s very much a grab-yourself-a-plate-and-join-in scenario. So we grabbed our plates, joined the family, and helped ourselves to the options in the bowls and trays laid out along the table. I’m always thinking how relaxed Americans seem, and I thought about the idea of bringing a guest over to dinner at my parents’ house in the U.K, say, a half hour or so before dishing. They’d go off the deep end. There’s not enough food! You should have told us this morning! Goodness, what will we do?

I thought then to a meal I had with Aaron’s family in 2014. In fact it was the first day I met them, and in order to make me feel welcome they asked what American favorites I liked. I told them I liked Philly Cheesesteaks and Green Bean Casserole. A strange combination, Aaron told me with a chuckle, but his dear family went about and made it as though it were a perfectly sane request. If anything they seemed to relish the idea, and there seemed to be this great sense of energy about them. After all, every American is descended from a pioneer of some kind, so perhaps that’s why they always seem to have a thirst for adventure and a lack of fear for the unknown. Why not? seems to be the American mantra. That day I played basketball in the driveway with Aaron, his younger brother Joseph, and Anne-Marie’s younger brother Brock. Afterward we all gathered in the dining room and Aaron’s father said to Brock “We’re having Philly Cheesesteaks and Green Bean Casserole. You staying for dinner?”

Even a pre-planned dinner had the flexibility, perhaps the expectation, of last-minute guests. This to me was a quintessentially American interaction. In the U.K, the question would go “Would you like to join us for dinner?” and if we’re talking my family it would be asked about a week in advance.

“Sure,” Brock said, sitting down. In America there is a lack of the formality that I’m used to. Everything is very casual. Aaron and Anne-Marie’s families both seemed like one big family, as though this sort of thing would happen every week. In the U.K, someone (like me for instance) in Brock’s position would have answered “Oh I couldn’t possibly!”

I’ve long since learned that in the USA, when someone offers you something or invites you somewhere, you absolutely should not respond “Are you sure?”

I wouldn’t have asked you otherwise, an American would tell you. Don’t second-guess them; they want you to take them up on their generosity.

I wish I had a picture of that meal for this blog, but back then I was far too shy to whip out my camera at the dinner table, having just met all these people I had imagined one day meeting for two years. But rest assured that it was quite delicious, and my anxiety was spared the guilt of suggesting something truly crazy.

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed this piece- if so, be sure to Subscribe so you don’t miss the next part. Before the end of the week I will release episode 2, and continue to cover my observations of home cooking through to the present day, and the meals we made this summer!

My Top 10 Restaurants in Houston!

When I arrived in Houston in June of 2016, my roommate Anne-Marie said to me “You could come back for the next ten summers and still not see all the restaurants worth seeing”. For those that don’t know, Houston is huge. It’s the fourth biggest city in the USA and it has a massive dining culture. Houstonians love to eat out, and it’s reflected in the sheer amount (and variety) of restaurants the city has to offer. In 2005 USA Today proclaimed Houston the “dining-out capital of the nation” and it’s been reported that the city’s residents eat out at restaurants more often than those from other major cities. Basically, it’s a great place to live if you’re a foodie, and one thing that’s interesting about Houston is its relative lack of national chains in favor of local ones. This is evident in the dominance of local families such as the Pappases and the Carrabbas which you may or may not see featured in this list (#SpoilerAlert). Anyway, with that said, there aren’t too many rules for this list; these are the top 10 restaurants I have personally eaten at, and given that I’ve lived next door to NASA for the past year, expect inclusions to come from South Houston and its outlying communities.


#10 Aiya Sushi & Ramen

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Location: League City, TX

What to get: The Salmon Nigiri- it’s everything you want in raw fish; beautiful texture that’s soft to the bite and full of flavor.

What makes this place: You might have to wait a little longer than other sushi places, but it’s worth it because better attention is paid to the food. The best example of this is the Crunchy Roll, which I found to be neater and better prepared than at other nearby sushi places. The difference was that we were able not only to finish the Crunchy Roll this time, but not feel like ass afterwards.

Trivia: We went here on July 3rd before heading off to see the fireworks at the Kemah Boardwalk with some newlywed LSU graduates. I never know quite how much to order when it comes to sushi, but in this instance I actually under-ordered and headed back to the counter to ask for some more.


#9 Carrabba’s Italian Grill

Location: Webster, TX

What to get: The Lobster Ravioli, of course. Don’t think I need to elaborate on why that’s the bomb.

What makes this place: The family history behind Carrabba’s is super interesting, and reading it one can see why the food here is so damn good. The family describes getting off the boat at Galveston and starting a legacy that began in the Houston area. When they got off that boat, they carried with them not just the Sicilian recipes they had been raised on, but a love of Creole and Cajun cooking- seafood in particular. There’s an eclectic mix here of traditional Sicilian fare and recipes which reflect the local produce of the Gulf. Did I mention their wood-fired pizzas as well?

Trivia: We came here sometime in 2016, where I immediately became impressed by the classy interior design and low, atmospheric lighting. At the time I described it as being a fancy, upscale Olive Garden, but in truth it’s much more than that.


#8 Aquarium Restaurant

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Location: Kemah, TX

What to get: The Raspberry Chocolate Cheesecake. I got this for dessert and honestly it’s one of the greatest cheesecakes I’ve ever had (and I’ve had a whole helluva lot in my time).

What makes this place: It’s a restaurant that’s also an aquarium, so there’s that. Aside from being able to engage in a staring contest with a moray eel whilst you eat, the food on offer is awesome (and pricey). Best for a special occasion!

Trivia: When we visited this place in July of 2016, we had just seen Finding Dory at the movie theater, and that was why we chose the Aquarium Restaurant (yep, that is the actual name) over the many others that the boardwalk offers.


#7 Sam’s Boat

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Location: Seabrook, TX

What to get: Gotta be the crab cakes. As far as entrees go, I highly recommend the Blackened Mahi Mahi for lovers of quality ocean fish.

What makes this place: The atmosphere. The design of the building is interesting. I keep calling it “Sam’s Club” because it’s the size of a bloody warehouse. There’s a nice maritime aesthetic that blends well with the sports bar setup, and the patio offers a lovely view of Clear Lake.

Trivia: We ate here for July 4th, 2016 and after we finished our meal we were able to enjoy a view of the fireworks from one of the outside balconies.


#6 Ichibon Seafood & Steakhouse

Location: Webster, TX

What to get: The Yaki Beef was exquisite, and everything you want beef to be; slender cuts of meat full of flavor and not too chewy.

What makes this place: Although you can get sushi here, what you really ought to do is come for the Hibachi experience. It’s a right laugh. Seriously- you need to try this at least once in your life because it’s like going to the circus. At the time my roommate Aaron and I were sleepy but once the spectacle started we were woken right up, the server flinging clumps of rice in our direction and setting off flames that made us go “WOAH” with wide-eyed astonishment. I can’t stress enough how much of a hoot this is- to say nothing of the gourmet cooking.

Trivia: When we visited this place in 2016 we were actually attending the birthday of a fellow alumnus of the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire. In fact, the Blugolds at the table outnumbered the Texans!


#5 Pappa’s Seafood House

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Location: Webster, TX

What to get: The Stuffed Crabs were particularly wonderful. You can get two or three, and you better have a darn good reason for not picking the latter.

What makes this place: The Houston Press describes the Pappas family name as “the most famous name in Houston”. These guys are everywhere, and at each one of their eateries you are guaranteed top notch food. The quality and range of seafood here was second to none, and the high prices are justified. Whether you are looking for fried seafood or naked fish, gumbo or steak, or lobster fresh from the bay, this place is a true fisherman’s dream.

Trivia: My roommates and I hit up Pappa’s Seafood House for July 4th of 2017, although it was quite by accident. We had intended to grab some sweet-ass BBQ at the nearby Bone Daddy’s establishment, but found that it was closed. It’s funny because we tried to eat at Bone Daddy’s on four separate occasions this summer, but each time they were mysteriously closed for business!


#4 Frenchie’s Italian Restaurant

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Location: Webster, TX

What to get: Anne-Marie swears by the Linguine Alfredo. I got it on our second trip and it is best had with chicken. Easily the creamiest linguine dish this side of the Atlantic.

What makes this place: The authenticity, without a doubt. This was far and away the most authentic restaurant we have been to in the USA. It’s a small, indie restaurant with a cozy feel. It’s how I imagine the mom & pop eateries of New York’s Little Italy to be. It’s out of the way and not too flashy, but it’s a real hidden gem. There’s no neon or anything, just this simple, homely atmosphere. The staff are all sweet as pie and make you feel like family.

Trivia: The second time we came here Anne-Marie was handed a side of garlic bread, which I assumed for some idiot reason was given to us as a sharing basket. So I reached across the table to grab one, prompting Anne-Marie to exclaim “OI” in her best cockney accent. I’ve never seen her look so shocked. Within seconds she burst out in fits of French laughter, genuine teary-eyed hysterics, at my faux pas.


#3 Yard House

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Location: Friendswood, TX

What to get: The Spicy Jambalaya has overtaken Pistol Pete as my favorite thing to come out of Louisiana. It’s influenced by Spanish and French cooking and personally I can’t think of a more holy culinary marriage. Andouille Sausage and Blackened Shrimp…that’s why this was actually my OFFICIAL favorite meal of the summer.

What makes this place: Its combination and range of American and local favorites. It’s kind of like an upscale sports bar. It’s a great place to go if you’re out on a Friday night seeing a movie or going on a date. Definitely a place to wear ya khakis and button-downs. You can get quality ribs here, fresh seafood, fancy versions of American pub classics, pizza, fried chicken, the lot!

Trivia: The only negative about our trip was that we spent the whole time regretting not getting the tower of onion rings, which we not-too-subtly stared at on the table opposite.


#2 Lupe Tortilla

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Location: Webster, TX

What to get: The Chipotle Smoked Ribs are utterly divine. An interesting, Tex-Mex twist on one of my favorite dishes.

What makes this place: The patio is lovely. Come here on a cool, summer evening and watch the sunset whilst drinking margaritas and eating scooped guacamole off of warm and toasty tortilla chips.

Trivia: Our waiter sounded like Aaron Paul circa “You ain’t seein’ the basement, bitch!


#1 Saltgrass Steakhouse

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Location: Webster, TX

What to get: The Prime Rib is my favorite cut of steak because of the one I got here. The meat was soft and succulent, and complete with this creamy lump crabmeat topping.

What makes this place: This is about as Texan as it gets. This local chain is based in Houston and it exemplifies everything that’s great about the Houstonian dining experience. I really don’t think there was anywhere else I could have put in the top spot. It’s very expensive, so come here on a special occasion, but you really get your money’s worth. The servers are incredibly professional and have the most Texan cufflinks. The interior aesthetics of this place are truly amazing, and the steak here is the best anywhere. And that’s why I suggest that if you are in Houston (or Texas for that matter) for just one day, then eat here. These folks know what they’re doing. Just writing this is giving me serious separation anxiety.

Trivia: We first came here on August 8th, 2015, a Saturday, for what stands as the greatest and most storied dining experience in the history of my travels in the USA. It kind of transcended the food itself, because of all the emotions at play. At the time, we had just driven from Wisconsin to Texas to help Anne-Marie move in for grad school. We were drained both physically and emotionally, but this meal was the highlight of our trip. We wanted a quintessentially Texan experience to mark our introduction to Texas, and we got it.

Grandma Jane’s Pumpkin Bars

I wrote a post last weekend about how my roommate Anne-Marie and I finally got around to making Lauren Gleisberg’s Strawberry Ginger Lemonade. It felt great to tick it off our summer’s bucket list and it was a ton of fun. Today we crossed off the other big item on our culinary bucket list: Grandma Jane’s Pumpkin Bars. This one was very dear to our hearts, particularly Anne-Marie, whose grandmother developed the recipe. I was fortunate enough to meet Grandma Jane in the summer of 2014, when my friendship with her sassy granddaughter was in the height of its blossom. Despite being a gentle Irish-American lady and small in stature, I was struck by the aura and presence she commanded. This was a lady that I understood to be one of those larger-than-life figures. Anne-Marie’s then boyfriend and now-fiancée Aaron described her as being “especially sweet, even by grandma standards”. Grandma Jane lived in the Green Bay area of Wisconsin where she was a beloved teacher and a killer writer. This was a lady both softly kind and sharply intelligent. She clearly had an enormous influence over Anne-Marie and her siblings, and has left a lasting legacy.

I find this kind of stuff so fascinating to discuss. The recipe she left Anne-Marie is just one aspect of that legacy. As we went through the process of making the pumpkin bars, I realized just how much you learned about someone through their cooking. It’s a wonderful thing to do, I think, to remember someone through the act of cooking, and its ensuring the survival of the legacy they leave. I thought to myself, when I’m gone, will anyone be making one of my recipes? I better start taking cooking lessons so I don’t send one of my descendants to the ER. We went through the various steps, adding for example two cups of sugar, a stick of butter, and I noticed that Anne-Marie was laughing in that light, French way she is apt to do.

“This is just typical Grammie,” she’d say. Clearly Grandma Jane had a sweet tooth. She liked to keep her kids and grandkids well fed and full of hearty comfort foods that ease the soul. Anne-Marie recalled memories of cooking with her grandmother and I listened intently to the family trivia that came my way. So much of her personality was in these Pumpkin Bars. As I took a bite of the finished bar I thought about that famous passage in Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time where the narrator takes a bite of the Madeleine cake and how this act triggers what he called “involuntary memory”- something which better captures the essence of the past than the conscious effort to remember. Maybe it’s because Anne-Marie is French. Maybe it’s my guilt that I still need to finish reading the behemoth that is Swann’s Way. Obviously, when I took a bite, it didn’t bring back any memories, but I still had this strange feeling of traveling backwards in time. Perhaps it was just the sugar rush? But no, seriously, I felt that I had on my plate a little piece of Anne-Marie’s childhood. I’m always asking after stories from her and Aaron’s past. How they met, what they ate, the music they listened to, the games they played, the dates they went on. Playing for the high school soccer team and going to Packer games. But I’ve always had to use my imagination to recreate their tales. This was the first time I didn’t need my imagination to fill in the gaps. I had a little taste of Anne-Marie’s childhood for myself.

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This post is a little different because we didn’t make the recipe simply because we wanted to eat pumpkin. It was all about remembering Grammie. It just so happens that I love pumpkin! It’s a quintessentially American ingredient, and eating the bars reminded me a lot of eating the pumpkin pies I had during my student exchange in 2012. America is a very seasonal country, and it seems like it’s rare to eat pumpkin outside of Fall. Much like pumpkin pie, I really think this would go well with a dollop of vanilla ice cream on top.

 

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My Top 5 Wisconsin Delicacies!

Today I’m going to be writing about one of my greatest passions and that’s the cuisine of the US state of Wisconsin. There are several delicious entries which sadly didn’t make the cut and still so many more that I have yet to try, but here are my current power rankings for the delicacies that I have had thus far!


#5 Kneecaps

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I was attending a wedding reception at a bar in Denmark, WI in the summer of 2014, when my roommate’s mom told me I ought to try a Kneecap, saying that not only was it a Wisconsin dessert, but one specific to the northeast region of the state. My love of cultural assimilation brought the pastry to my lips. It’s basically a fried donut with a depression in the center that’s filled with whipped cream. It’s also covered with powdered sugar. I’ve got a sweet tooth so it definitely suits me. It’s interesting that I’ve tried this, and yet I still haven’t tried Wisconsin’s most famous dessert- the Kringle. But it’s on my bucket list!

 

#4 Deep-Fried Cheese Curds

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Most Wisconsinites will tell you that the best and purest way to eat cheese curds is when they are “squeaky” to the bite. This is caused by the elastic protein strands in the curd rubbing against the enamel of your teeth, and so the optimal time to eat them is at room temperature when they are fresh. As much as I do love them, I think I prefer them deep-fried and battered. I had them once at Curly’s Pub- a restaurant that used to be found in the atrium of Lambeau Field (or, as I call it, The Sistine Chapel of the West). They’re great as an appetizer and perhaps best paired with a cup of ketchup.

 

#3 Booyah

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We really are getting local now. Booyah is a stew that’s made with vegetables and the bones of meat (chicken, beef, pork or ox tail) and it’s specific to the Bay Area of Northeastern Wisconsin. It’s a staple of things like church picnics and is usually only made for such social events, since it’s cooked for 2 days in a cast iron kettle with a wood-burning fire and serves a whole army of people. I had it at a high school graduation party in a small town near Green Bay in 2015. The smell of Booyah is amazing. The whole yard was thick with the scent of chicken broth, and it was tasty but super-hot. I actually burnt my tongue eating it. My roommate’s grandfather took it upon himself to tell me the history of this mysterious dish, which cannot be found outside of the Badger State’s borders. He told me that the stew is Belgian in origin, and I have since confirmed this online, with articles telling me that the name “booyah” is a Flemish or Walloon Belgian spelling of the French word “bouillon”, which translates to “broth”.

 

#2 Brats

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This really is a great example of the German influence on the state. The immigrants of the 19th century brought the recipes of their homeland with them, and Wisconsin is one of- perhaps even the best- places to go in the USA for sausage. Summer Sausage, Kielbasa and Venison Sausage are extremely popular, but perhaps none is more quintessentially Wisconsinite than the Bratwurst. In the rest of the USA the hot dog reigns supreme at summer cookouts, but in Wisco they prefer Brats. Wisconsin is actually the nation’s largest producer and consumer of this sausage. I’ve had it dozens of times during my time living there, and there are so many variations. I spent July 4th in Wisconsin in 2014 and 2015 and on both occasions we grilled Brats. We chose these beer-battered Brats with chunks of cheddar inside. I miss them…

 

#1 Fried Fish

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Remember, this is a subjective power ranking, and it’s based on which delicacies I tried and which I liked best. And undoubtedly the most pleasing entry to my taste buds is the fried river fish I ate in 2015 whilst spending some time at my roommate’s cabin in the Northwoods. We had a blast catching some trout at this trout hatchery an hour’s drive away, and we took our catches back to the cabin where my roommate’s dad deep-fried them. I have a picture of our fried trout from that day which you can see above! It’s not only my favorite Wisconsinite meal but it also stands as the best fish I have ever eaten.

 

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