Best of the Best

by Michael Stern

Unlike southern tomato pies, which tend to be savory casseroles (as at Mary Mac’s Tea Room in Atlanta) or pastry cups (as at Grits & Groceries in Belton, South Carolina), tomato pies of the northeast are clearly members of the pizza family. In fact, they are arguably the foundations of American pizza, originally created in Italian neighborhood bakeries over a century ago when mozzarella was a luxury. The original pizza pies, which were flatbreads topped with crushed tomatoes, spice, and maybe a few anchovies or a sprinkle of hard cheese, are still billed as Tomato Pies at Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana and DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies. At “DeLo’s,” cheese is mostly applied below the tomato sauce, directly on the crust. At Roma Sausage & Deli, there is no cheese whatever. At Maruca’s Tomato Pies on the Jersey Shore, mozzarella is enriched by cheddar, giving it a buttery taste. And at Marzilli’s Bakery in Fall River, Massachusetts, cheeseless tomato pies are cut into squares and served at room temperature — like tomato-seasoned bread to accompany a meal.

Best of the Best

by Michael Stern

Other than drinking more or not drinking at all, the way to banish hangovers is to spoon up some menudo. Made from hominy and tripe and usually a shot of hot chilies, it is served in Mexican restaurants throughout the Southwest, often only on weekends — a visceral comfort food of the kill-or-cure school of gastronomy. Besides fully-dressed chili dogs, murder-burgers, and garbage plates at 3am, one other legendary hangover cure is yakamein. Also known as Old Sober, yakamein is a Chinese/African-American soup of noodles, shredded beef, green onions, and a hard boiled egg. It has become scarce in restaurants, but it is a blackboard specialty at the Creole-themed Tchoup’s Market in Washington, DC.

Best of the Best

by Michael Stern

Barbecue’s newfound nationwide popularity has put burnt ends on menus across the country, but in all too many cases, the burnt ends are bogus. Genuine burnt ends are cutting-board scraps: crunchy edges, veins of fat, shreds, and debris that fall from slices destined to be served on plates or in a sandwich. At their best, they are a lascivious indulgence — barbecue at its most nutritionally incorrect. Burnt ends have become popular enough that when there aren’t enough scraps to be found on the cutting board, some places purposely shave the edges of brisket (or pork shoulder) to create them. This is not necessarily a horrible thing, but in general, such artificially created burnt ends are too dense and meaty to deliver the wanton succulence of the real thing. While good burnt ends can be found in Phoenix (in the beans at Little Miss BBQ) and even in the northeast (at Big W’s Roadside Barbecue), they are at their best in Kansas City, where they first were recognized as a regional specialty, sometimes known there as brownies.

Best of the Best

by Michael Stern

Long ago, a slider was just one thing: a dime-thin patty of griddle-cooked cheap beef from 1 to 2 ounces nestled in a mini bun less than 2 inches across. The term has expanded to include small, bunned sandwiches made with high quality beef (Kobe sliders!) and even ones made without beef (tuna sliders, lobster sliders, even veggie sliders). They all can be good, but there is something transcendent about the taste and aroma of greasy beef oozing into a spongy bun with a pile of glistening fried onions — a classic formula used at White MannaCrabill’sPowers Hamburgers, and  Cozy Inn. Admittedly, District Donuts Sliders and Brew ups the ante by using “house blend Creeekstone Black Angus” beef and dressing it with campari tomato and slider sauce, but we forgive the heresy: it’s a delicious slider!

Best of the Best

by Michael Stern

Food in airports is better than it used to be, but when we arrive by plane, we can’t get out of the terminal fast enough. By rental car, or even cab or Uber, we head for the nearest Roadfood eatery. These are two dozen favorites just minutes from the airport. They make great first stops or final farewells.

Buffalo, NY: Charlie the Butcher for beef on weck

Boston, MA: Santarpio’s for pizza

Philadelphia, PA: Leo’s for a cheese steak

Washington, DC (Reagan International): Weenie Beenie for a half smoke

Columbia, SC: Hite’s for barbecue (weekend only)

Atlanta, GA: Big Daddy’s Dish for barbecue; Barbecue Kitchen for vegetables

Tampa, FL: La Teresita for a Cuban sandwich

New Orleans, LA: Morning Call for beignets and cafe au lait

St. Louis, MO: Natalie’s Cakes and More for caramel cake

Cleveland, OH: Little Polish Diner for hunter’s stew

Chicago (O’Hare): Gene & Jude’s for a hot dog

Minneapolis, MN: Hot Plate for waffles; Wise Acre Eatery for anything on the menu; Pumphouse Creamery for ice cream

Dallas/Fort Worth (in Grapevine): Bartley’s Bar-B-Q for barbecue; Tolbert’s for chili

Phoenix: Little Miss Barbecue for brisket

San Diego: El Indio for fish tacos

Los Angeles: Randy’s for donuts; Serving Spoon for soul food

San Francisco: Barbara’s Fish Trap for fish ‘n’ chips

Seattle: Des Moines Dog House for sausages and empanadas

Boise: Bar Gernica for a Basque feast

 

Best of the Best

by Michael Stern

Having recently moved south from Connecticut after living and eating there for 40+ years, I am loving shrimp and grits, local peaches, and, of course, barbecue; but there are some dishes I am sad to have left behind. A few are unheard of elsewhere (a steamed cheeseburger at The Lunch Box, freshly-shucked clam pizza at Zuppardi’s). Others are so good in the northeast that other versions pale in comparison (fried clams at Sea Swirl; ice cream at Dr. Mike’s; a fully-dressed frankfurter at Kamp Dog).

Best of the Best

by Michael Stern

Southern cuisine includes many famously sweet things, from tea to pralines to sorghum syrup and fried pie. Sweetest of them all is hummingbird cake, a spice cake that includes mashed banana, crushed pineapple, and chopped pecans and is layered with cream cheese frosting. Culinary genealogists trace it back to the Doctor Bird, a swallow-tailed hummingbird that lives only in Jamaica, and a Jamaican banana cake that was its inspiration. Our favorite version is baked by a lady in Marshall, Virginia, who brings one a couple times a week to the town’s Orlean Market, where it is served by the slice. If it is on the dessert table at Peaches ‘n’ Such in Monetta, South Carolina, it will be necessary to order it as a companion to the essential house-made peach cobbler. Also in South Carolina, it is almost always on the menu at the Triangle Restaurant and Manuel’s Bread Cafe. If you are a cake connoisseur, hummingbird cake is a must!

Best of the Best

by Michael Stern

Frogmore Stew is a good-time meal served at picnics, parties, and political rallies throughout South Carolina, especially in the Low Country. The hearty jumble of shrimp, sausage, potatoes, and corn-on-the-cob boiled with a hail of spice was named for the community of Frogmore on St. Helena Island; and today it frequently goes by the name Low Country Boil. That’s what it’s called on the help-yourself buffet at Chef Bob’s in Edgefield, as at JC’s Seafood in Aiken, where customers can add scallops, crab, or any other fresh fish to the formula. At Rae’s Coastal Cafe across the river in Augusta, Georgia, precede it with she-crab soup and a green jacket salad. On the coast, it is served in its most elegant form at the swanky 82 Queen in Charleston, and in extreme informality at the oyster shack called Bowen’s Island.

Best of the Best

by Michael Stern

Following the barbecue trail west of Louisville along the Ohio River and south towards the Land Between the Lakes, mutton is king of the pit. Unlike the subtle elegance of smoke-laced pork that is more typically southern, mutton packs a wallop, its sharp sheep tang only minimally tempered by hours of smoke. The result is succulence to the max. Mutton can be found elsewhere – it’s the must-eat dish at Perry Foster’s BBQ in Augusta, Georgia; but nowhere does it get the respect given by Western Kentucky pitmasters.

Subtleties of local nomenclature and service are dizzying. In Owensboro, at the Moonlite Bar-B-Q, it is offered chopped, sliced, and as ribs; and by the time you travel west twenty-five miles to Thomason’s Barbecue in Henderson, and out to Peak Bros. in Waverly, another presentation appears on menus: chipped. Chipped is like chopped, but extreme, yielding a fine hash that is moist and mellow. Instead of sauce, you get dip, which is the consistency of natural gravy. Mutton served without any sauce is labeled “off the pit.”

Best of the Best

by Michael Stern

White clam pizza was first made in New Haven in the mid 20th century. While its exact origin is uncertain, one frequently repeated story is that a clam vendor in an alley off Wooster Street near Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana convinced Pepe that the two of them should pool their resources. Raw littlenecks on the half-shell already were on Pepe’s menu as a pre-pizza hors d’oeuvre. Pepe used them on a pie with neither tomatoes nor mozzarella cheese – just the freshly-opened clams, minced garlic, olive oil, a dusting of sharp Pecarino cheese and a sprinkle of herbs. The elegant medley is really as much a flatbread as it is pizza, its crust ultra-thin with a rugged underside from grains of semolina on the oven floor, its circumference puffed up in a golden circle that offers profound resilience in every bite. White clam pizza remains Pepe’s signature pie and a popular item at New Haven’s Modern Apizza and Eli’s Brick Oven Pizza, as well as at Dayton Street Apizza (which customarily adds a bit of mozzarella). Some connoisseurs believe the very best white clam pie is served at Zuppardi’s in West Haven, where clams are shucked only when the pizza is ordered.