Dec 28, 2016

Parks and recreation in Kentucky’s cave country

It’s just not summer without a family road trip, and in 2016 that road trip involved a trip down memory lane for me, as Punky, the Kiddo and I visited Mammoth Cave National Park and parts of south central Kentucky where my grandmother who raised me was from.

I’ve visited Kentucky’s cave country more times than I can count, as my grandmother and I would often visit relatives in nearby Glasgow and touring the area around Tompkinsville where she grew up.  To this day, I still feel it’s one of the most enjoyably scenic parts of the country I’ve ever visited.  So, when Punky suggested we spend a weekend exploring the area together, I jumped at the opportunity and booked us a room at the Mammoth Cave Hotel inside the national park.   

Dec 24, 2016

Margaritas and mole at Rosepepper Cantina and Mexican Grill, Nashville, Tenn.

What a difference a year makes.  Although my job requires extensive travel, this commoner is fortunate to be spending the entire month of December at home … still working, but at least I have a lengthy respite from the road for the holidays.  Last year, however, I found myself working in Nashville for most of the month and exploring the city’s increasingly trendy and hipster-heavy East Nashville neighborhood.  And Rosepepper Cantina and Mexican Grill was one of my first discoveries. 

To be perfectly honest, it doesn’t take much to interest me in Mexican food, but a little research into Nashville’s dining scene put Rosepepper near the top of my to-do list.  As it turns out, the menu is full of surprises – not your typical Americanized restaurant fare – and being recognized as the city’s best Mexican restaurant and best margarita for 11 years in a row give Rosepepper more than a little street cred. 

So, I ventured out one rainy Thursday night last year into the heart of East Nashville to see if Rosepepper was as popular and as good as advertised. 

Dec 15, 2016

Getting cheesy at Melt Bar and Grilled, Cleveland Heights, Ohio

For as long as I’ve known my wife, one of Punky’s dreams in retirement has been to run her own restaurant devoted to custom grilled cheese sandwiches and soups – one that not only delivers the basics but also features a large menu of specialty themed creations. 

It’s a great idea, but as we’ve learned it’s hardly a unique one.  Still, a successful idea is all about the execution.  And from what I experienced while travelling for work in Cleveland, you’d be challenged to find any place that does gourmet grilled cheese better than Melt Bar and Grilled.

The first Melt opened in 2006 in Lakewood, Ohio, a west-side suburb of Cleveland.  Its success has spawn six more locations in the Cleveland area, Akron and Columbus.  By 2010, word had spread to the Travel Channel and Food Network, and your usual food-themed hosts helped give Melt national recognition. 

After learning I’d be working in the Cleveland area for a while, I remembered Melt from these shows, and it didn’t take a lot of convincing for my co-workers and me to eventually plan an after-work “team building exercise” to our nearest Melt location in Cleveland Heights.  

Once you walk into a Melt Bar and Grilled (at least at this location), it doesn’t take long to realize the style and décor of the place is about as cheesy as their sandwiches.  I loved it.  Whether it’s the lighted figurines hanging on the shelves, the classic leg lamp, or beer and food signs from bygone eras, you’ll find plenty to distract you while your food and drinks are being prepared.

The centerpiece of the Cleveland Heights location was its huge rectangular wooden bar.  It goes a long way to fill up a rather cavernous brick-walled interior.  

The ceilings are quite tall and lined with what appears to be newer, although classically designed, aluminum tiles.  The duct work is prominently visible, adding to the building’s industrial feel.  It all comes together quite well, and although Melt seems to draw a sizable dinner crowd, it never feels too busy.

After discussing several of the room’s more interesting knickknacks, my group and I turned our attention to the food.  I quickly ruled out the Melt Challenge listed at the bottom and after much deliberation, I chose a half-sized fried green tomato BLT for my sandwich.

It should also be noted that even the menus themselves are a little “cheesy.”  That’s because they’re printed on the back of album covers.  And, if my menu is any indication, it doesn’t have to be a classic album by any stretch. I suppose if you’re getting material from record store bargain bins, though, this selection would make sense.  

Although I was perfectly satisfied with my sandwich selection, the monthly specials were simply too fascinating for me to pass up entirely.  So, instead of the customary fries to accompany my half-sandwich, I substituted the kung pao brussels sprouts.  I also added the featured beer – a DuClaw El KaBong apricot chili ale – to wash it all down.   

Although it’s probably one of the less “experimental” sandwiches on the menu, I found the fried green tomato BLT worthy of praise, especially when you consider their touch of substituting seared pork belly for bacon.  If there’s one thing on this earth better than bacon, it’s pork belly.   The fried green tomatoes themselves were very well done and compared favorably to those you’d typically find in the Deep South.  But the star of the sandwich was the remoulade sauce.  Put simply, they nailed it!

As for the beer, I can safely say it was the best apricot chili ale I’ve ever had.  It was in all honesty quite tasty although it took a little getting used to the chili aftertaste that just kept you thirsty.      

The best thing I had for dinner, though, were the kung pao brussels sprouts.  The hoisin-style sauce used in roasting them took the concept of carmelization to a whole new level.  And the crushed peanut topping was an excellent complement.  It was an outstanding side dish and large enough to be a meal by itself.   

The only disappointing part of the meal was the cup of roasted garlic tomato soup I ordered as an add-on.  After all, what goes better with grilled cheese than tomato soup?  The coffee cup was another nice, cheesy touch, but the overall flavor of the soup – which seemed to be little more than crushed tomatoes and garlic – was a little bland for my taste.  

Still, Melt Bar and Grilled completely met my expectations, and its menu was so intriguing that I went back a few more times while I was working in Cleveland.  As you can imagine, Punky was less than excited to learn I had discovered Melt Bar andGrilled, but at least she has a good standard bearer to follow if she ever decides to own a similarly themed restaurant. 

Dec 12, 2016

A commoner dines at McLintock’s Saloon & Steakhouse, Standard City, Ill.

(Editor's Note:  As of Feb. 9, 2020, McLintock's Saloon & Steakhouse has closed for business.  On behalf of this blog and all of its faithful followers, thanks for the memories!)  

If it seems like it’s been a long time since I posted a new blog entry, that’s because it has – nearly two months to be more precise.  As I tend to say, life happens and the past couple of months have been full of work-, family- and occasional fun-related items to force my blogging to the back burner.  Hopefully, with things more settled down in December, I can catch up, and hopefully my few faithful followers will feel rewarded for their patience. 

With that in mind, I’d like to start with a true hidden gem – McLintock’s Saloon & Steakhouse just outside of Standard City, Ill.  

McLintock’s had been a local legend of sorts for me and Punky to seek out for some time.  After all, how often do you hear about a highly acclaimed (by word of mouth, at least) steakhouse and bar in a small Illinois town so off the beaten path, it’s not even remotely near a numbered state or federal highway.  I had even driven through Standard City previously just to see if McLintock’s really existed only to miss it entirely. 

Still, our friend Danielle assured us McLintock’s was real and worth the trip, so we made it a destination on a summer Saturday bar crawl down Illinois Route 4 from Springfield toward Carlinville.  Unfortunately for my readers, much of that trip will remain untold at the request of those who lived it, but I will say the detour to the biker club in Nilwood and being welcomed with open arms by the members of the Iron Sleds will not be an experience I will soon forget (thanks again for making us stop, Danielle!). 

As you may imagine, after several Stag beers and a few cage dances in Nilwood, we were ready to venture off on the rural routes toward Standard City to find McLintock’s.

This time, I did not miss the sign as we neared the northern edge of town. It helped that the parking lot was packed full … in the middle of the afternoon!  This was obviously a good sign.

Maybe I missed seeing McLintock’s before because I was looking for something more … rustic? Barn-like?  McLintock’s was neither.  In fact, the large brick exterior and long wooden porch look relatively new, even a little out of place for Illinois farm country.  The inside does feel a little more barn-like, if only because of the high-beamed wooden ceilings and the spacious seating for groups and families. 

And, in keeping with the tradition of what you’d expect from a saloon, a long bar stretches across the back wall.  With seats ready for the taking at the end of the bar, we sat down and deliberated about dinner over another round of Stags. Yes, we had a very well stocked bar in front of us, but why mess with what got us to this point already?  

Much to Punky’s delight, McLintock’s had prime rib on special, so her decision was an easy one.  After all, what better way to judge a steakhouse than by its prime rib? 

As you can probably guess by the picture, McLintock’s preparation passed with flying colors.  Seriously, that knife is for show.  Her prime rib was so tender and perfectly prepared (a nice medium to medium rare), you could pull it apart with the fork alone. 

I’m a sucker for any menu item that sounds unusual, so I chose the Standard City Squeal for the menu’s regular dinner specials section.  They’re just marinated pork medallions, but they are so good you really will be squealing with happiness.  The horseradish dipping sauce is also an excellent complement to the meat (or, in my case, an extra-large baked potato).

In the end, finding McLintock’s Saloon & Steakhouse was definitely worth the effort to find. The food was outstanding, the service was more than adequate, considering how crowded the place was, and the staff were very inviting. Standard City may be the very definition of the middle of nowhere in Central Illinois, but if you want to satisfy a carnivore’s craving, take your posse out McLintock’s. 

Oct 13, 2016

A commoner dines at That BBQ Joint, Madison, Wis.

Once I know where I’m going to be working out of town for an extended period of time, I like to do a little advance scouting for the best food and drink options my temporary location has to offer.  That preparation brought me to the Williamson Street neighborhood often while I worked in Madison, Wis., but even with all of my research the Willy Street area still managed to surprise me.

One of those surprises I literally discovered one night while walking Williamson Street in search of another restaurant.  

Ribs, pork, brisket and chicken?  A handwritten sign beckoning me to try the smoked pulled pork above all others?  I hadn’t previously considered Madison a barbecue aficionado’s town, but I was willing to have my opinion changed with the right barbecue.

The name of That BBQ Joint sealed the deal.  I had to see if it lived up to its billing.  

From the moment you walk in, you can tell That BBQ Joint is a little space-challenged like most classic barbecue joints should be, with very limited table and counter seating and a steady carryout business.  Another good sign -- the smells of smoked meats emanating from this place are certain to strengthen your appetite.

You order at the register from the up-to-the-minute menu written on the whiteboards posted on the wall.  I say up to the minute, as like most good barbecue joints, they will run out of some popular items, which are smoked daily, as the night wears on.   

And if memory serves me correctly, that may be why I didn’t try the rib platter, which is a barometer by which I like to measure most barbecue joints.  I “settled” for the rib tips instead, but it only took one bite to know I would not be disappointed. The pink smoke ring on every rib was my first clue at how wonderfully smoked these babies were.  And the glaze on each tip perfectly complemented the smokiness of the meat.  A little dunk in any of the three homemade barbecue sauces on hand -- a nice sampling of sweet, spicy of Carolina mustard style -- just made them taste even better.   

As shown in the picture, my two sides were cole slaw and brisket chili.  Both were exceptional.  The slaw was labeled as “creamy Wisconsin slaw.”  I’m not sure what that means, but if it has anything to do with the use of purple cabbage, I’m all for it.  And honestly, who wouldn’t choose brisket chili over baked beans, especially once you saw the chunks of beef in this chili?  The brisket was fall-apart tender, and the chili had a nice kick.  I was very happy with the decision.

The most offbeat choice of my dinner was selecting an Original Sin Elderberry Cider to wash it down rather than a beer.  It worked, though.  It must have been a sweet and sour thing to complement the food.
That BBQ Joint is truly excellent barbecue in the classic sense of the word.  If you’re craving barbecue in Madison, Wis., I doubt you’ll find better than this place.  

Oct 5, 2016

Most like it hot at Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish

If you’re a foodie who plans on spending any time visiting Nashville, Tenn., chances are strong that you’ll eventually have to make a choice for where to try hot chicken. I know I tried my share of hot chicken places while I was working there last winter, including the one where it all started.  But if you want my favorite, Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish gets my vote.

The original Bolton’s location (and really, why would you want to go to any other?) is the type of place you might easily overlook if you’re not seeking it out.  Still, it’s getting more and more popular as a destination.  Case in point:  Bolton’s was the hot chicken of choice of Anthony Bourdain in a recent episode of “Parts Unknown.”  So, if you want to get on the bandwagon, head down Main Street toward the increasingly trendy Nashville East neighborhood.  In just a few blocks you’ll hopefully see this on the right …

That’s your cue to pull into the parking lot and go to the building in the back.

This one.

The menu is pretty simple … straight up soul food with a kick.  And ordering is easy.  Just step right up and be ready to tell whoever is behind the counter what you want.  Be sure to specify whether you want your chicken mild, medium or hot.  But be aware hot is probably hotter than most things you’ve ever eaten.  

Once you’ve made a decision on heat level that could potentially stay with you for some time (the look on the staff’s face will clue you in on if they think you can handle it), your ticket will go immediately in front of the cook … if you peek through you can see them working the fryers.  

Bolton’s has a steady carry-out business, but I’d just as soon eat in.  It’s interesting to see the odd blend of neighborhood locals and slightly confused tourists out of their element.  Just be prepared to give your order some time.  Chances are they are cooking it fresh with each order.  

The exception to this rule would be if you’ve reconsidered whether you can handle the spice level you’ve ordered.  Then I suggest you take your order to go, like I did with my first experience at Bolton’s (actually, they delivered it to go without me asking … I think they expected me to wilt under pressure).

This is just part of the chicken portion of the wing plate I ordered.  It came with six whole wings, sufficiently dusted with spicy magic at the “medium” level.  The chicken itself was certainly hot, but just as juicy and crispy.  The heat lingers, but at least at medium spice it doesn’t overpower.  And that’s a good thing, because on its own Bolton’s chicken is some of the better fried chicken I’ve ever had.  

Like all plates at Bolton’s, this one came with two “southern-style” sides.  When I saw spaghetti as an option, I couldn’t resist getting it.  And I was glad I did.  Nothing unusual about it, but a nice meat sauce with a slightly sweet taste -- a good complement to the heat of the meat.  

I also couldn’t resist the turnip greens as my second side.  Slowly simmered for who knows how long, these greens are dripping with vinegar and seasoned pot liquor.  You even get a packet of hot sauce if you still don’t have enough heat with your meal.  

The ranch dressing, of course, is for the wings.  The bread is for mopping up the spice and grease that you’ll find underneath all of the chicken.  Yes, you really should do this.

I have the feeling Bolton’s will be a regular stop on my trips to Nashville.  I took Punky there on our way through during our honeymoon roadtrip, and she was just as delighted.  My only dilemma will be whether I can skip the chicken next time, so I can try the fish instead.  

Sep 20, 2016

Brew X 2 on Cleveland’s near west side

My work requires extensive travel.  But it also requires hunkering down at the same location for weeks to months per assignment. As you can imagine, even a travel-obsessed commoner can find it challenging to prevent the weekly routine from getting monotonous.  Fortunately, in Cleveland there were good co-workers and good beer -- and one co-worker who made beer and brewpubs his passion.  
With that in mind, it didn’t take long for us to discover Cleveland’s historic Ohio City neighborhood for after-hours exploring.  Ohio City just happens to contain Cleveland’s largest portion of its seemingly ever-growing number of craft breweries.  And when you think about Cleveland’s blue collar image, it really should be a beer loving town.  We began our sampling of the city’s craft brewpubs with the oldest -- and possibly still the best of the bunch -- Great Lakes Brewing Company.

Since it started in 1988, Great Lakes Brewing Company has grown into a symbol of the resurgence of the trendy Ohio City neighborhood it anchors.  You can find their beers practically everywhere in the city (there are even brewpub outposts at the Cleveland and Akron airports), but wouldn’t you rather go straight to the source?

That source is connected to this rather well-kept and slightly innocuous looking brick building on Market Street, less than a block off the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare of 25th Street.  

You really can’t miss it.  Use the historic West Side Market as your landmark.

Once inside, you get a better appreciation of the history that permeates throughout the building.  The brewpub winds through several levels, including the basement, but the centerpiece has to be this mahogany bar that dates back to the 1860s.  Rumor has it Eliot Ness liked to drink here -- when it was legal, of course.

On both sides you’ll find a list of what’s on tap for the day.   A first timer should first and foremost try the brewery’s signature Dortmunder Gold Lager.  It works quite well as the company’s standard bearer.  The Edmund Fitzgerald Porter and Eliot Ness Amber Lager are just as enjoyable, but based on my experience, I’d also recommend Conway’s Irish Red Ale (a spring seasonal) and the Burning River Pale Ale -- if only for the name which pays tribute to the city that once had its river catch on fire from pollution.

Great Lakes’ brewpub has a decent menu with items that are a step above standard bar fare while catering to Cleveland tastes:  sausages, pretzels, pierogies, a stilton cheese soup (!) and excellent hearty burgers (I recommend the Old World Burger).

The second brewpub we visited (don’t worry, it was a separate trip) was Nanobrew, just about a block away from Great Lakes on 25th Street.  

I initially didn’t expect much from Nanobrew, unfairly comparing it to Great Lakes and not really impressed with the storefront, but I changed my tune quickly once we got inside.  

Nanobrew doesn’t feature many beers of its own; however, it has an extensive menu of other craft beers, including many from the Market Garden Brewery located next to the West Side Market.  Nanobrew doesn’t seem to be afraid of the competition.  Instead, it seems to encourage it.

Still, since I was at Nanobrew, it would be a shame to not sample the “home” product -- in this case, a flight of four Nano-beers:  the Namber Amber Ale, the Icebreaker IPA, the Tandem Cruiser Lemon Radler (my personal favorite) and the Tettnang Pale Ale.  

Nanobrew also features a spacious wooden bar as the brewpub’s centerpiece, with plenty of seating to people watch, share conversation or simply soak in the ambiance between the bare brick walls.  

Or, you could just hang out with this guy.

Nanobrew’s pub menu seems to focus on a few specialties, brunch items in particular, as well as an inventive selection of burgers and grilled cheese sandwiches.  They also feature rotating daily specials … you can always check them out on the chalkboard at the end of the bar, which also provides a view into the kitchen.

Far out, man!!
Having scoped out the menu beforehand, though, I couldn’t resist ordering the Acid Trip -- a nice-sized burger topped with cheddar cheese and topped with a tangy combination of pickled onions, cole slaw and spicy mayonnaise.  It’s a good sweet and sour kick that complements the basic burger very well.  It was also voted “Most Unique Burger in Cleveland” so you don’t have to just take my word for it.  

Ohio City is a fun part of Cleveland to visit if you’re looking for good food, good drink and a lively atmosphere.  If you go, I suggest putting Great Lakes Brewing Company and Nanobrew on your go-to list.  

Sep 14, 2016

A superior taste of Tex-Mex near New Orleans’ Garden District

If you take a vacation to New England, you’re probably going to try the lobster.  Spending a little time in Chicago?  Then you’re likely to eventually have a deep dish pizza or a Chicago-style hot dog.  And if you find yourself in cattle country, it would be a shame to not order a fat, juicy steak.  

Occasionally, however, it pays to go against conventional wisdom.  So, when Punky and I last visited New Orleans and toured St. Charles Avenue by streetcar, we went against the grain and ignored the many great dining choice for Cajun food, seafood and po-boys.  Instead, we stumbled quite literally into the Superior Grill and wound up satisfying a craving for Tex-Mex food we didn’t even realize we had.

Superior Grill has been a staple on streetcar stop #21 since 1997, and given its location and signature patio you could be forgiven for believing it’s been there even longer.  For years, I had admired the spot from the streetcar but long believed it was just another of many pleasant looking bars and grills that are fairly ubiquitous in every New Orleans neighborhood.  Superior Grill, however, has the natural advantage of not only being on one of the more famous and scenic streets in New Orleans, it’s patio also provides prime viewing opportunities for Mardi Gras parades.

So, after a lengthy ride and a lengthy frozen daiquiri, Punky pointed out Superior Grill as the place for us to stop and check out.  It turned out to be a very good impulsive decision.  

Once we arrived and got acclimated, we very pleased to learn of Superior Grill’s focus on Tex-Mex menu and its signature margaritas.  The interior is much larger than what it may seem in passing, with a long bar that runs much of the length of the main dining area.  We opted, however, for a seat in the interior patio area, the best of both worlds after a long afternoon -- inside dining with a nice opportunity for people watching.

We started with a Superior Margarita, of course, while we studied the menu.  And the drink lived up to its name.  I credit the fresh squeezed lime juice that goes into them.  I refrained from ordering any more drinks, although I couldn’t help but notice a nice selection of top shelf tequilas that would have been perfect for shooting.

Those are some hot tamales!
Punky loves a tasty tamale as much as anyone, so I wasn’t the least bit surprised that she chose the homemade tamale dinner, especially since good authentic tamales are fairly hard to come by in our home town. It turned out to be an outstanding choice ... just see how delicious they look and you get the idea ... corn tamales filled with shredded pork, smothered with chili and topped with melted cheddar and monterrey jack cheese.  Even the sides stand out on this plate.  The refried beans have real beans!  And the rice is super (or is it superior?) fluffy.  

The whole enchilada ... and then some!
My menu selection may have seemed a little tame, but I had high expectations given the items that came with Superior Grill's seafood combination platter.  Again, they didn’t disappoint.  There was nothing small about the size of the  grilled shrimp skewer -- these were easily the largest and most flavorful shrimp I had on our entire trip.  The grilled fish taco featured a full-sized grilled fillet of meaty and flaky grouper, along with a nice side of fresh pico de gallo.  But the star of the platter was Superior’s take on the Cajun classic crawfish enchilada.  

For those unfamiliar with crawfish enchiladas, it’s a standard dish at many Cajun restaurants.  I consider the version at Prejean's Restaurant in Lafayette, La., to be the standard bearer, although they credit the crawfish enchilada’s popularity when it first appeared at Jazz Fest for putting it on the culinary scene.  

Superior Grill’s version of the crawfish enchilada was nothing short of amazing.  It was a perfect blend of melty cheesy goodness and tender, mild tasting crawfish meat in every bite.  It’s filling, but it’s very much worth it.  There’s something about top quality crawfish in a cheesy enchilada that just works in a fantastic way.  

As you can probably guess, Punky and I walked out of Superior Grill happily stuffed and ready to roll.  We eventually left -- the remainders of our margaritas in tow -- caught an approaching streetcar and coasted back to the Quarter to rest up for the evening. 

If you find yourself in New Orleans and similarly craving quality Tex-Mex (with a touch of Cajun flair), I strongly suggest you take a streetcar ride to stop #21 on St. Charles Avenue.  Between the food, the view and the cocktails, I think you’ll find Superior Grill worth the trip.  

Sep 6, 2016

A gathering of great eats at the NOLA FoodFest

To many people who live in and around New Orleans, there are only three seasons -- summer season, hurricane season and -- my favorite -- festival season.  The height of what most might consider festival season begins with Mardi Gras, continues through French Quarter Festival and culminates with the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (more commonly known as Jazz Fest).  

To be fair, the New Orleans festival calendar is pretty full year-round.  But a relative newcomer wedged between the springtime heavyweights is gaining traction.  It’s called FoodFest, and it celebrates not only the great tastes of Louisiana but some of the best and best-known local eateries throughout the country.  And, as fate would have it, FoodFest was taking place the very same weekend Punky and I came to town on our honeymoon road trip.

FoodFest began in 2009 as the New Orleans Roadfood Festival with inspiration from my favorite city and one of my favorite foodie websites.  In fact, Roadfood was one of my many inspirations for this blog.  So, to say I was happy to finally attend is an understatement.

To accommodate FoodFest, New Orleans allows the festival to set up at Spanish Plaza, one of the most recognized landmarks in downtown New Orleans.  It’s just a naturally ideal gathering point and central to many of the city’s best tourist attractions.  We arrived there just as the Saturday lunch crowd was gathering.  An abundance of food flavors were already mingling in the air.  The only hard choices would be what to try and how much to eat without feeling miserable later.

For instance, do I try Woody’s Fish Tacos or sample some authentic Texas barbecue brisket from the Salt Lick?  

The line was initially shorter at Woody’s, so I ordered a blackened fish taco and admired the tortillas and the bucket of slaw that would eventually become part of the finished product.  

Trust me, the finished product tasted significantly better than this looks.  I should know by now that I can’t eat and take pictures at the same time.  Suffice to say, this was one of the best fish tacos I’ve had anywhere.

With Salt Lick so close, and the smell and sight of their sizzling pork ribs as encouragement, I didn’t have to go far for my second course.

But since I had already talked up Salt Lick’s brisket from past experience, I had to “settle” for the beef.

Punky approved.  It may have helped that she had found a great resting spot in front of the fountain to people watch.  

It doesn't get more New Orleans than a boiling cauldron of gumbo.
That’s mostly what we did for the next hour or so … watch the people and watch the culinary artists at their craft ...

... and enjoy the live music and the river view behind the stage.

Unfortunately, some of the stands weren’t operational so early in the day.  Punky has a thing for a good grilled cheese, so she was disappointed that we did not get to try The Big Cheezy …

And I still haven’t had a proper meat pie since I last visited Natchitoches almost 20 years ago.  Lasyone’s remains on my must-try list.

However, I was thrilled to finally have the opportunity to taste Gus’s Fried Chicken from Memphis.  Ironic that with all the trips I’ve made to Memphis, it took a trip to New Orleans to sample Gus’s.  And it did not disappoint.  Its reputation is well earned, and it was among the best fried chicken I’ve ever had.

That’s the beauty of FoodFest -- if you’ve missed out on some of the great road foods in the country, FoodFest brings many of them to you, all in one convenient place.  It’s a great concept for foodies who love food made the old fashioned way instead of mass-produced blandness that is so common in chain restaurants.  Plus, FoodFest is free to attend.  Well, the food isn’t free, but the samples are nicely sized and affordable.  

Not that you need another reason to go to New Orleans, but if you happen to be in town next year when FoodFest is happening, it’s worth your time to check it out.  

A commoner dines at Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern, Monroe, Wis.

I wasn’t sure a place existed that could be the perfect representation of Wisconsin life, but then I traveled through Monroe, Wis., one week...