Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Take Me Back

I started this blog in the summer of 2008, but I'd been taking pictures of my food for a lot longer. I received my first digital camera as a Christmas present in 2004. (I used a cheap little 35mm camera and quite a few disposable cameras up to that point, but two months earlier I had been to New England in October, taken hundreds of pictures of the foliage and other things, and Rite Aid destroyed almost all of them during development. So my parents bought me a digital camera.)

In the spring of 2005 I went to Memphis with some friends for Memphis In May. I'd originally planned to take pictures of the barbecue, but really I started taking pictures of everything I ate. (Although, to be honest, 90% of what I ate was barbecue.) Within a year I was taking pictures of all my food everywhere I went, even though it would be years before I started a blog.

The other day I was looking through an old hard drive for some files, and I came across a bunch of pictures I took years ago. I'm borrowing the title of one of my five favorite Van Morrison songs to show you some of the things I ate on vacations back before there was a blog.

Mountain Mike's Pizza (Sacramento)
More than once (probably more than a dozen times) I have mentioned my longing for King Arthur's Pizza in Arcadia. It disappeared a long time ago but I have not forgotten the taste, and I've chased down many pizzas in the years since when I've read descriptions and seen pictures that reminded me of the King.

I hadn't heard of Mountain Mike's but I was in Sacramento in October of '05 and staying at a motel. I wandered across the street to Mountain Mike's simply because it was the nearest restaurant with a television and I wanted to watch the Angels vs. Yankees ALDS game in HD. I ordered a pizza to accompany my pitcher of beer and was shocked to discover the closest pizza I have ever found to King Arthur's. The sauce was tangy, the crust was cornmeal-spiked, and the pepperoni was thick and delicious.

The next night I ordered a 20" "Mountain" sized pizza. (Check out my sunglasses or the Rough Guide on the table for comparison.) The menu claims that it serves 6-8. I didn't quite eat it all myself, but I put a pretty big dent in it.

A year later my brother had to go up to Sacramento to take a swiftwater rescue class on the American River. Did I go with him for the sole reason of having more of this pizza? I sure did. The day we left we picked up another one of these massive pies to eat the whole way home, though I think we finished it by the time we got to Stockton.

Horse Brass Pub (Portland)
I had some friends who moved up to Portland in 2005 and I visited them several times. On many occasions we stopped by the Horse Brass (where one of them worked briefly) for a beer, but on this occasion four of us ate there. The plate on the right is a Scotch egg: a cooked egg wrapped in sausage and deep fried. I'd never seen that before but I didn't take a bite. The fish and chips on the left were mine and they were quite tasty.

Cracked Crab (Pismo Beach)
I've been going to the Cracked Crab for over a decade now. I don't make it there like I used to - the prices keep going up, which is acceptable, but the portions keep going down, which is not - but years ago I used to visit Pismo Beach at least a couple of times per year for a bucket of seafood dumped on the table. On this occasion I started the meal with a crab stuffed poblano chile. It was gooey, a little spicy, and full of crab flavor. (A year later I tried another one and it hardly had any crab in it, and I have never tried another.)

 Bistro Le Steak (New York City)
I flew to New York in the summer of '06 and it turned into one of those nightmare stories. I won't go into all the details but after landing we sat on the runway for five hours before they let us off the plane. It's been more than five years and I can still feel the heat and humidity of the recycled air and I can still hear the groan en masse when the flight attendant announced that the toilets were at 100% capacity so we should only use them "if it's an emergency."

By the time I got into the city it was 8 in the morning and I had not slept in over 24 hours. I crashed for a few hours and woke up in the afternoon. I went for a walk. The previous evening's scenario was a conflation of several things - a terrorist alert, union laws, a sporting event, weather, and probably other things I've blocked from my memory. The storm had been massive. But it had passed through and now suddenly it was an early-August afternoon in Manhattan with perfect blue skies and zero humidity.

I was making my first pilgrimage to Yankee Stadium that night to see my beloved Angels take on the Yankees. So I had to catch the train in a couple of hours. But first I needed some lunch. I stopped in Bistro Le Steak and sat at a sidewalk table. I had mussels and a turkey burger. I wasn't a big fan of the former but the latter was delicious, one of the better turkey burgers I have ever had.  

White Castle (New York City)
On that same trip I had to try White Castle for the first time. So I went by the one in the Bronx. Years later I learned this is the closest one to Fordham University and Elizabeth went here many times. I got some crinkle cut fries, which were pretty good, and a slider, which was not. The frozen White Castle burgers I sometimes cook in the microwave are just as good.

I didn't dislike White Castle but I think I was expecting it to be something really special and it was not. If there was a location in Pasadena I imagine I would go there once or twice a year, but it couldn't compete with In-N-Out, Del Taco, or Popeyes as my go-to fast food joints.

 John's of Bleecker Street (New York City)
Before my trip, a friend told me his favorite pizza in New York is at John's, so I made a point of going there. (It turned out the best pizza I had was at Tottono's, though.) It was certainly outstanding pizza. The crust was perfectly singed in spots and the toppings were melt-in-your-mouth delicious. I wish I had taken better pictures, but my camera in those days was not as good as the one I have now.

 The Sink (Boulder, CO)
So after that flight to New York, I didn't want to get back on a plane for some time. So I rented a car and drove back to Pasadena. Why not? As badly at the airline had behaved while we sat on the ground for hours and they refused to give us any information about what was happening (I won't say which airline but let's just say it ryhmes with "pet poo") they were very nice after the fact. They refunded me for that flight and then refunded the return flight when I told them I did not want to get back on an airplane.

On the trip back I stopped in Denver to see one of my high school friends and his fiance (now wife). In the afternoon I headed up to Boulder to have a beer at the Dark Horse, my single favorite bar in America, and get a pizza at The Sink. I ordered the BBQ Chicken Pizza: chicken, barbecue sauce, red onion and cilantro. It was really good.

When I lived in Boulder a dozen years ago, I thought the Sink served one of the best pizzas I had ever had. As years go by and I try more and more pizzas (and my tastes change), I realize it is not the amazing pizza that I thought it was. But it's certainly above-average pizza and I do miss their house barbecue sauce.

 Paesano's (Sacramento)
I haven't been to Sacramento for many years but there was a time when I went there several times per year. And every time I did, I liked it a little bit more. Sure, the traffic was horrendous in the city and in the summer it was brutally hot, but in the autumn the weather was ideal and a 45-minute drive east would take you to some of the most beautiful scenery in the state. And I was impressed with the dining scene. Not blown away, but impressed - it was a far cry from the provincial cuisine I'd been told was there.

I enjoyed taking the light-rail to Midtown and walking around, seeing some of the sites, and stopping somewhere to eat. On this occasion I stopped at Paesanos and ordered a Spicy Chicken Pizza: tequila-lime chicken, pasilla chiles, roasted green chiles, jalapenos, cheese and cilantro. I loved it. I wished there had been a little more of the jalapenos, but with a few shakes of dried chili flakes it was spicy enough for me.

The Forge in the Forest (Carmel, CA)
I rarely ever order calamari. Far too frequently I find it rubbery and flavorless. But this calamari was probably the best I have ever had. So good that I ate almost all of it before I remembered to take a picture.

Montecito Deli (Montecito, CA)
My friend Murph is a great guy and one of my very best friends, but he is more prone to culinary hyperbole than anyone I have ever met. When a new restaurant opens in Old Town he will most likely try it, and if the food isn't terrible he will inevitably call it "amazing" and eat there repeatedly for days, sometimes weeks. To his credit, when the place isn't all that good, he will certainly admit that eventually and say something along the lines of "Why do I get so carried away with these things? It's absurd." So it's not like he's clueless.

Which is why, in 2007, when the two of us were on our way up to Santa Barbara to meet up with some friends for a wine tasting weekend - the weekend I met Elizabeth, by the way - and he said we had to stop by Montecito Deli to get sandwiches because "they make the best sandwiches in the world," I did not get my hopes up too high. I ordered a chicken sandwich with honey mustard, provolone cheese, red onion and roasted peppers.

The sandwich was fine. The bread-to-ingredients ratio was much too high for my liking, but at least the bread was fresh. As were the ingredients. I liked it but I did not love it and I told Murph so. "Yeah," he said, "now that I think about it, I can think of several sandwiches I like more." They really did break the mold after they made him.

Gladstone Street Pub (Portland)
Now, for a sandwich I really did love.

Those friends I mentioned earlier with whom I ate at the Horse Brass in 2005 had moved into a house in Southeast Portland by the summer of 2007 when I went up there for several days for my friend Tom's wedding. Just a couple of blocks away was the Gladstone Street Pub, where they spent a lot of time. And after my first lunch there I understood why. We sat on the sidewalk for hours while I drank pints of Deschutes Twilight Summer Ale for $2.75 each.

When it was time to eat I ordered "The Grubber," a sandwich I was assured was awesome. And it was: Black Forest ham, smoked turkey, Swiss, cheddar, roasted red peppers and lettuce on grilled sourdough bread. There are very few sandwiches I have had in America that I have enjoyed more.

Rogue Public House (Portland)
Another year later and back in Portland. What can I say, I used to go there a lot. My brother was going kayaking in the San Juan Islands so I tagged along with him and had him drop me off in Portland for a few days. I wrote about many of those meals a few years back, but I never included this picture of my popcorn shrimp at Rogue.

To be honest, I have no memory of how they were. Looking at them, I'm guessing they were good but there was nothing special about them.

The Coast Starlight
For a long time I'd wanted to take the Coast Starlight, so after that Portland trip I decided to do it; I got myself a sleeping car, fell asleep in the middle of Oregon, and woke up in Northern California. This is how I spent the entire afternoon: in the Pacfic Parlour lounge, nursing Sierra Nevada Pale Ales and watching the California coast go by.  The sun set when we were just north of Santa Barbara.

Thanks for letting me reminisce.


Fritos and Foie Gras said...

Mountain Mike's pizza looks phenomenal. LOVE thick cut pepperoni. So fun to see this wide assortment of pics!

Anonymous said...

dude that Sink pizza looks like a pie- literally

Michelle said...

Wow. I love it - it's like On The Road through food!

JustinM said...

Fritos: Thanks! It was fun to come across all those old pics.

Anon: Yeah, it's kind of weird with the whole double-crust thing. But the crust is really light and crispy and it tastes better than it looks.

Michelle: Yeah, it does kind of seem like it, eh? If I had bought a digital camera a few years earlier I really could have done a crazy map of food. But all those old pics would have to be scanned in now and wouldn't be very good.

Nosh Gnostic said...

Justin, you are a man among pizza-eating boys.

Anonymous said...

We have A mountain Mikes in Watsonville, CA and I love to go eat there as well.

Never been to the place in Carmel ( though Its about 20 min away) but looks good.