My son, David, just dropped off his son, Charlie, at a university in Massachusetts for his sophomore year.
It got me thinking about the times when Joanne and I road-tripped around the country, sometimes with our kids, other times on our own.
Naturally this gets us to food.
I remember being intent on trying each state’s ICONIC dishes. There are too many to recount in just one post, so this will be the first in a series.
Let’s begin with Connecticut. Two spots come to mind.
Joanne and I traveled up to New Haven for our son, Steven’s, graduation in architecture and celebrated with a very nice group dinner at the UNION LEAGUE CAFÉ. But typically we sought out restaurants (actually, joints) that define the state’s food culture.
First, LOUIE’S LUNCH.
Louie’s was created in 1895 and, according to the Library of Congress, was the birthplace of the hamburger. Not only that, but the Travel Channel calls its signature offering “THE TASTIEST BURGER IN AMERICA.”
Now, the place is tiny – really tiny – and the burgers are flame-grilled on the original upright gas broilers. The meat blend is a closely held secret, but is rumored to be a combination of five different cuts of beef; a blend so tasty that Louie’s has extremely strict rules about eating their burgers. First, in order to experience the meat’s full flavor, you’re required to eat it on white bread toast. Ketchup and mustard will not be permitted. Toppings are restricted also. A slice of tomato is allowed. Raw onions are permissible, as is cheese. You want a portabella mushroom or bacon on it? You can get the f+++ out.
I recall the burgers are around $7, and I believe they come with a styrofoam cup of potato salad, to be eaten with long red plastic iced tea spoon.
Second: FRANK PEPE’S PIZZA, also in New Haven.
There were several of us that piled into three wooden booths on a quiet Saturday afternoon. But we got to see the original huge bank of white-hot, coal-fired pizza ovens that span the entire back wall of the restaurant. Seven or eight pizziolas decked out in white baker’s uniforms navigate the pizza-making ritual with a show-stopping ballet that involves inserting, removing and landing their charred crust creation smack-dab in front of you with a soft thud on the marble counter. And the performance is choreographed with the use of 12-foot long pizza peals suspended from the ceiling…worthy of a 1930’s Busby Berkeley musical production.
They claim that their most popular pizza is “The Tomato Pie,” a mostly round, manhole-sized rendition. I’ve had it. It’s good. But my favorite, perhaps because I’m from the Midwest, is Pepe’s White Clam Pizza, loaded with clam bellies and crispy bacon.
However, just last week, according to a Facebook quote and published by The New Haven Register, the owner was spotted flashing a Trump poster reading “Deplorables For Trump.” This ignited a boycott by a sizeable group of local residents. Reportedly a contingent of outsiders is currently picketing the restaurant (reinforcing my belief that it is the height of stupidity for restaurateurs to wade into politics).
An Irony: Amongst Trump supporter Pepe’s recent guests are Bill Clinton, Barak Obama and Robert De Niro. (Like I always say, “Pizza ain’t political.”)
My Connecticut winner? Frank Pepe’s White Clam Pizza.
Our son Steven started his undergraduate education at Bowdoin, located at the end of the earth, in Maine. So when Joanne, Steven and I made the road trip to Brunswick to visit…well, it was all about Maine Lobster rolls, day and night. Well-intentioned operators, however, seemed to have corrupted the concoction. All too many spots offered renegade versions of this classic dish. Some served their lobster rolls hot. Some were bound with Miracle Whip. Some of them shamelessly included chopped tomatoes. We even stumbled on Creole iterations with remoulade and bacon. Outrageous.
Perhaps, all these years later, Mainers have enthusiastically embraced such iterations (or should I say “bastardizations”) of the proper lobster roll. And who am I to tell a native which one is actually correct? However, I can tell you this: My favorite Maine Lobster Roll is dreadfully simple.
The base is a Pepperidge Farm hot dog bun with thin sides carefully sawed off. It’s generously brushed with butter and toasted on a flat-top griddle. The lobster filling should be in CHUNKS (ideally with lots and lots of claw meat), mixed with Hellman’s mayo (or homemade mayo that tastes like Hellman’s) and enough chopped celery to ensure that when you eat it, a crunch of celery in every bite serves as a counterpoint to the luscious lean chunks of fresh lobster.
Maine’s iconic food? The Lobster Roll. Hands down!
Next stop: Miami Beach.
I thought about the delicious Cubano sandwiches of PUERTO SAUGA at 7th and Collins, with their layers of roast pork shoulder, deli ham, Swiss cheese, yellow mustard, garlic, lime juice, and bread & butter pickles. I also thought briefly about orange juice, but WTF is there to say about that besides “I like fresh-squeezed?”
Anyway, this blog is about food, and on that count one restaurant comes to mind before all others: JOE’S STONE CRAB, which I’ve written about on several occasions. Here, I’m selecting two dishes. You may not think I’m playing fair, but these two desperately need each other, like salt and pepper, liver and onions, Simon and Garfunkel.
By now you have probably guessed. Yes, It’s stone crabs and Key Lime pie!!!!
A TIP FOR YOU: If you try stone crabs I Florida, get nothing smaller than the Jumbos or the Colossals. And before, some key lime pies are made with regular limes. Not good. They Key limes are sweeter, full flavored, and pack a limey punch. (I imagine a squeeze of Key lime would be delicious in a glass of Florida orange juice).
Now comes Bobby Knight’s state: Indiana.
Here are two state favorites that are special to me – one that I discovered in later years when I started dining at steakhouses. The other? A sandwich that was a major player during my high school years, and helped me deal with rejection by the beautiful Bonnie in my junior year.
First, the steakhouse: SAINT ELMO’S in downtown Indy, specifically their world-famous Shrimp Cocktail. This is the dish that put Indianapolis on the culinary map. Saint Elmo’s is not only one of the great steakhouses in America, but it sports an iconic fiery shrimp cocktail like you’ve never experienced: chilled, fresh, plump, briny shrimp (five of ‘em). But the sauce is what’s special. It’s eye-watering, sinus-clearing, table-pounding (and my wife tells me, libido-enhancing), fresh-grated horseradish hell.
OHHH….but it hurts SOOO GOOD !!
Along with a killer shrimp cocktail and Bobby Knight (and let’s not forget the Jackson Five), Indiana has given us a truly iconic dish: its frying pan-sized, deep-fried, crispy pork tenderloin sandwich, made from a 7-ounce pork tenderloin that’s pounded and flattened ‘til it’s the diameter of a basketball, then floured, dipped in egg wash, and dredged in breadcrumbs before a trip to the deep fryer. Served on a normal burger bun, it’s usually eaten with raw onions, pickles and ketchup. Soooo good!
But what about Bonnie?
She was my high school sweetheart. Or so I thought. You see, Bonnie never quite saw things my way. I endured night after night of rejection and finally took to culinary revenge. On our evenings out, I resorted to dumping her off at home at 9:30 instead of the usual 10:00. Why, you ask? Well, the local A & W root beer stand closed at 10:00, and that gave me just enough time to ditch Bonnie for their platter-sized, deliciously greasy, Indiana-inspired pork tenderloin sandwich.
With my “culinary revenge gambit,” I think I’ve sorta managed to keep my dignity intact concerning Bonnie, so this seems like a good place to close. I’ve got lots more, though!…the Hot Brown, Maid-Rites, Nashville Hot Chicken, 5 Way Chili…And those are just the appetizers.