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...