Summer travel: best U.S. cities for localized food lovers

best cities food loversWhat’s that you say? Summer’s half over? Those of us living here in the Pacific Northwest had no idea, given the lack of sun in these parts. But even if you’re getting slapped by the mother of all heat waves, it’s still early in the season for the best produce summer has to offer. As for where to get great food featuring locally-sourced ingredients? Allow me.

Some cities are inextricably linked with food; they’re destinations unto themselves if you’re the type who plans trips around meals. I do. Museums are great and all, but personally, I’d rather eat.

As a longtime proponent of sustainable agriculture, I want to support local growers as well as get a sense of place when I take a trip (that the food be good is still number one). That’s why a city like Santa Fe is so intriguing to me. The cuisine is rooted in the state’s history, indigenous peoples, and native foods, and there’s a fantastic farmers market. The fact that Santa Fe is beautiful in its own right seals the deal.

If you also let your appetite guide your vacation-planning, I’ve listed my favorite U.S. cities in which to stuff my face, based upon repeat visits or previous/present residency. It’s like choosing a favorite child, but someone had to do it.

Seattle
I currently reside in Seattle, and work at a cheese shop in the 14-month-old Melrose Market in Capitol Hill. So perhaps I’m a bit biased when I say that Melrose rocks. But really, I don’t think I am. It’s the best thing to happen to Seattle since Pike Place opened in 1907 and became the model for public markets nationwide. But Melrose isn’t a tourist trap, and you won’t find anyone hawking crappy t-shirts. It’s housed in two adjacent, restored historic automotive shops built entirely of reclaimed materials; there’s a soaring cathedral ceiling, and lots of exposed brick.

[Photo credit: Flickr user La Grande Farmers’ Market]

The Benefits of Buying Eco-Friendly Local Foodbest cities food loversAlthough home to just four dedicated retail spaces and a wine bar, sandwich shop, and restaurant, Melrose has garnered lots of national media attention. The Calf & Kid (aka My Day Job) is a European-style fromagerie, while Marigold & Mint is a lovely little nook full of antique apothecary jars and cut flowers and produce from the owner’s organic farm. At Rainshadow Meats, without question one of the finest local/sustainable butcher shops in the nation, there are hard-to-find cuts like pork cheeks, and excellent housemade charcuterie.

There’s also Bar Ferd’nand, a miniscule wine and tapas bar, Homegrown Sustainable Sandwich Shop, and the jewel in the crown, Sitka & Spruce. Chef/owner Matt Dillon’s farmhouse mod space features an open hearth, room-length communal farm table, and rustic but refined, hyper-localized cuisine–this time of year look for foraged mushrooms, local goat cheeses, halibut, and Juan de Fuca spot prawns. Do.not.miss. Next door, Taylor Shellfish Farms–one of Washington State’s most beloved growers of oysters and Manila and geoduck clams–just opened a retail shop where you can scoop live shellfish from tanks, or puchase live Dungeness crab or housemade geoduck chowder.

Should you make it over to the Scandinavian-flavored Ballard neighborhood, be sure to dine at La Carta de Oaxaca (get there early or be prepared for a very long wait). Seattle can’t do Mexican food to save its life (I speak as a native Californian), with the exception of this Oaxacan treasure, where everything is made the slow, traditional way. Best of all, two of you can fill up–including beers–for under 30 dollars. For a more upscale treat, hit Bastille, a truly beautiful bistro featuring produce and honey from its rooftop garden.
best cities food lovers
Portland, Oregon
Portland has a vastly different vibe from easy-going Seattle. And while the attitude may be a bit much at times (do not raise the ire of a barista), it’s also got a phenomenal food and mixology scene (and yes, better coffee than Seattle). There’s no one neighborhood with all the great eats; they’re scatted throughout the city: Southeast, Pearl District, Alberta Arts District

Carnivores won’t want to miss Beast or Olympic Provisions (which also makes its own charcuterie for retail). There’s Cheese Bar, which specializes in beer parings, six glorious farmers markets, distilleries, artisan ice cream, and new favorites Lovely’s Fifty-Fifty (wood-fired pizza in the former–and much-missed–Lovely Hula Hands space) and Little Bird Bistro, the sister restaurant from former Food & Wine Best New Chef Gabriel Rucker of Le Pigeon.

If street food is your thing, Portland is swarming with food trucks, carts, and stands: Mississippi Avenue and downtown are both hot spots; check out Food Carts Portland for the inside scoop. If you feel the need to work off some calories in between food cart visits, (this is one of the best cities for outdoorsy types, after all), sign up for the Grub on the Go bike tour with Portland Urban Adventures.

Santa Barbara
I grew up near Santa Barbara, and have lived there a couple of times. It’s truly one of the most picturesque cities in the world, and over the course of 30-plus years, I’ve watched it evolve from sleepy small town to L.A. North. Spendy boutiques aside, Santa Barbara really didn’t start turning into a sophisticated dining destination until about five years ago.

The original hidden gems focused on locality–Bouchon, and the venerable Wine Cask (which recently changed hands and is now co-owned by the very genial owner of Bouchon) are still going strong. The executive chefs at both restaurants now lead farmers market tours, which I highly recommend. Both the Saturday and Tuesday farmers markets are major community events, and the sheer breadth of offerings–dozens of varieties of citrus, tropical fruit, olive and walnut oil, goat meat–is dazzling. Seafood lovers won’t want to miss the Saturday Fisherman’s Market, held at the Harbor.

The Hungry Cat
is my favorite restaurant in town (it also has a raw bar), followed by the superbly fresh Arigato sushi. Milk & Honey makes fantastic cocktails (and the small bites aren’t bad, either), as does Blue Agave. My true addictions, however, are Lilly’s Taqueria–a downtown hole-in-the-wall where for under five dollars, you can stuff yourself senseless on the best street tacos this side of the border. I also never fail to get an adovado or carnitas burrito at Taqueria Rincon Alteño. The same guys have been running the place for at least ten years, and it always feels like coming home.
best cities food lovers
Oakland, California
Nearly a decade of living in Berkeley, on the Oakland border, has enabled me to see this much-maligned city grow up, both aesthetically and culinarily (it’s always had a great Chinatown and taco trucks). In the gentrified Temescal neighborhood, you can literally hit a different restaurant every night of the week on the block between 51st St. and 49th St. on Telegraph Avenue. There’s Asmara for Ethiopian, Chez Panisse alum eateries Bakesale Betty and Pizzaiolo; Doña Tomas, and the new outpost of San Francisco’s wildly popular Burma Superstar (delicious). On 44th, late night chef’s haunt Koryo has great, cheap Korean bbq. Just around the corner: the wonderful Sunday Temescal Farmers Market.

Nearby, on 51st and Shattuck is the new Scared Wheel Cheese Shop, while down on Grand Avenue, by Lake Merritt, is Boot and Shoe Service (sister to Pizzaiolo), Camino (chef/owner is longtime former Chez Panisse chef Russ Moore). Don’t miss Market Hall Foods in nearby trendy Rockridge.

Brooklyn
I admittedly don’t know Brooklyn well; I couldn’t tell you how to get from Point A to Point B. But I know that some of the best food in New York lies within this dynamic borough. In Williamsburg, keep an eye out for Leeuwen Ice Cream’s roving, butter-colored truck–after you enjoy the heavenly pizza at Fornino. I also love the Brook Farm Genbest cities food loverseral Store, which has all manner of lovely vintage and vintage-inspired items for the kitchen and dining room. Bedford Cheese Shop and Stinky Bklyn (in Cobble Hill) are two of the country’s finest cheese shops, full of esoteric domestic and imported selections.

Over in Bushwick at Roberta’s, chef Carlo Mirachi, a 2011 Food & Wine Best New Chef winner, fires up pizza and other treats in his wood-burning oven, and utilizes produce from his rooftop garden. If you’re still hungry, other tasty stops: Fatty Cue or Fette Sau (both in Williamsburg) for barbecue, Saltie for crazy-good sandwiches, (Williamsburg), and the oddest ice cream flavors ever at Sky Ice (Park Slope). Be sure not to miss the various weekend Brooklyn Flea markets, where you’ll find all manner of good-to-eat treats, artisan beverages from Brooklyn Soda, and retro kitchen equipment. Note: every Saturday is the Flea’s new dedicated food market, Smorgasburg, in Williamsburg.

My other top picks for great food, made with local ingredients:
Chicago
Denver/Boulder
Santa Fe
Portland, ME
Drop me a line and I’ll be happy to give you some tips on where to get your feed on!

[Photo credits: Portland, Flickr user qousqous; courthouse, Flickr user Silverslr; Vietnamese food, Laurel Miller; pizza, Flickr user h-bomb]

Gas stations: then and now

gas stationsOnce upon a time, gas stations gave away all kinds of cool stuff, most of it targeted at kids. As a child of the 70’s, I clearly recall of our Exxon “NFL Helmets” drinking glass collection, and my miniature Noah’s Ark collectible series (What genius ad team decided that was the perfect gas station promo?). The point is, these giveaways worked. My parents would bribe me not to annoy my older brother on road trips by promising me a new plastic animal for my Ark. My brother didn’t have to punch me in retaliation, my parents didn’t have to pull over; everyone was happy.

I’m not exactly sure when the freebies stopped, but that’s not the only thing that’s changed in American gas station culture over the years. Prior to the opening of the world’s first dedicated gas (or “filling”) station in St. Louis in 1905, hardware stores and mercantiles had gas pumps. The price of gas when the first “drive-in” filling station opened in 1913? Twenty-seven cents a gallon.

As I write this, I’m in Oregon, on the final leg of a 10-day road trip from my home in Seattle to San Francisco and Lake Tahoe. The cost of gas in Truckee, California, where my brother lives is $4.09 a gallon. I paid $3.59 in Mt. Shasta today, and thought myself lucky. Oregon also reminds me of another way gas stations have changed between then and now.

[Photo credit: Flickr user iboy_daniel]gas stationThere were still full-service station attendants when I was a kid: clean, smiling, uniformed pumpers of gas who cleaned the windshield and checked the oil for free. Today, however, Oregon is one of the few states that prohibits the pumping of gas by motorists. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been yelled at in this state for absentmindedly getting out of my car and touching the pump. I actually enjoy pumping gas, but I’m not going to fight about it. I just think southern Oregon might want to look into hiring gas jockeys who look as though they haven’t spent time in a federal prison or crawled out of a meth lab, especially when they don’t even bother to wipe down my windshield. “Here, take my debit card, please.”

I think the trend toward enclosing urban attendants in bullet-proof booths is something that’s fairly recent. That makes me kind of sad. No one should really have to risk their life working the graveyard shift for close to minimum wage, but being a gas station attendant is definitely a high-risk occupation in a lot of places. If nothing else, the temptation to snack on the plethora of chemically-enhanced food and beverages in the workplace creates a hazardous environment.

Although a dying breed, I’ve seen some pretty sweet, old-school gas stations in the rural Southwest, South, and California’s Central Coast that sell regional bbq, Indian fry bread, or biscuits and country ham. I once visited a gas station in Tasmania that sold artisan bread, local cheese, butter, and milk (in bottles, no less), and local wine, jam, and honey. I really wish gas stations/local food markets would catch on the States…it would make getting gas less painful, even if it further depleted my bank account.
gas station
Gas station design has changed drastically over the years. Many rural stations in the fifties and sixties sported kitschy themes, such as dinosaurs or teepees, and were roadside attractions in their own right. Today, we have mega-stations like the Sheetz chain, which is wildly popular in the northeast for made-to-order food, all of it annoyingly spelled with “z’s” (If you need coffeez to go with your wrapz and cheezburgerz, you should check it out). There is something to be said for one-stop mega-station road shopping, however. It’s incredibly convienient when you’re short on time or in the middle of nowhere, and in need a random item.

I love dilapidated old filling stations, but I’m also lazy, so it throws me when I can’t use my debit card at the pump. It’s kind of a moot point, because I possess a bladder the size of a walnut. The cleanliness of gas station restrooms, while still an advertising hook, used to be a point of pride. These days, I feel like I should be wearing a hazmat suit when I use most small chain station toilets. Seriously, if you’re not going to going to clean or restock your bathroom, ever, please don’t post a sign telling me to report to the management if it needs “servicing.”

As for those fun giveaways disguised as advertising? I think that maybe the Happy Meal is what killed it for gas stations. Once fast food outlets started giving kids toys, the ad execs had to come up with a new plan. Which I suppose is why most gas companies target grown-ups now, even if they still use cartoon graphics. Does the sight of anthropomorphized cars dancing atop the pump actually sell gas and credit cards? I’d rather have a set of drinking glasses.

[Photo credits: Magnolia, Flickr user jimbowen0306; DX, Flickr user Chuck “Caveman” Coker;

California’s Santa Cruz Island: sea kayaking and…sushi?

My dinner lay spread out beneath me in every direction, plainly visible in the crystalline waters. The rocky inlets and kelp forests of Central California’s eight Channel Islands are home to what is considered to be some of the finest uni, or sea urchin, in the world. To better see them in their natural habitat, I was sea kayaking off Santa Cruz Island, 25 miles offshore of the Santa Barbara Channel.

I’d decided on a day trip with Ventura-based outfitter, Island Packers. Confession: I grew up 30 miles south of the quiet coastal community (which is an hour’s drive from LA), but I’d never before visited the islands. It’s just one of those things on my to-do list that kept getting pushed aside, until a friend invited me to join him on a paddle.

Part of the Channel Islands National Park, Santa Cruz is the state’s largest island and a popular hiking, paddling, and camping destination. Seventy-six-percent of Santa Cruz is owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy, with the remaining 24-percent managed by the National Park Service. Along with nearby Anacapa, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, and San Miguel islands, it’s a starkly beautiful place of desolate hills, wind-stunted Native Island Oaks, white sand beaches, tidepools and fossil beds, and rocky cliffs. Santa Cruz is also a popular whale watching destination, famed for its massive sea caves, which can be explored by kayak.

[Photo credit: Flickr user mikebaird]


The Channel Islands were first inhabited by the Chumash Indians, whose archaeological remains date back over 10,000 years. In the last two hundred years, the islands have variously been used by fur traders, fishermen, and the military (poor San Miguel was a bomb testing site that still has the odd live mine unearthed by the relentless wind). In the late 19th century, cattle, horse, and sheep ranching became island industries.

Today, the islands are essentially deserted except for some research facilities, and a handful of primitive campgrounds. There are no stores so campers must pack in all essentials, including drinking water. Campground reservations and a nominal fee are required on all five islands; Santa Rosa permits seasonal beach camping for experienced paddlers and boaters. Even if you’re just day hiking, be sure to bring layers, as the weather is unpredictable.

The Channel Islands are known as North America’s Galapagos. They’re home to over 2,000 species of bird, plant, animal, and marine life, 145 of which are found nowhere else on earth (including the island fox, and an endemic scrub jay). The waters host a variety of sea urchin species, including Strongylocentrotus franciscanus, the red sea urchin. Another confession: I’m not so much a fan of uni, which I find overpowering, as I am of sustainable marine resource management. I’m also fascinated by seeing any ingredient in its raw state. Combined with my love of sea kayaking, a Channel Islands uni expedition was irresistible.

Highly prized for their flavorful roe (which are actually the egg-producing gonads), red urchins are harvested commercially by divers for the domestic and international market. Purple urchins also proliferate in the Channel Islands, but their smaller size makes them undesirable for commercial use. Appearance-wise, uni resemble jaundiced cat tongues (really), and they have an intense, briny flavor revered by seafood aficionados for its pure, unadulterated ocean essence.

Uni is the Japanese word for sea urchin roe; sushi is the culinary form most familiar to Americans. Another classic way to enjoy uni is smeared on toasted bread, which is how I’ve eaten it on the Chilean island of Chiloe – another spot famed for sea urchin. In Southern Italy, uni, or ricci di mare, is sold as a street food, to be scooped onto bread, or tossed in pasta or risotto, while the French use them in custards or delicate sauces, as well as raw for street food. Uni used to be primarily an export product, sold at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market, but since the 1990’s, the domestic market has been the most profitable. In Santa Barbara, you’ll find local uni, when available, at Arigato, and The Hungry Cat (convieniently, my two favorite local restaurants).

Uni is generally considered a sustainable industry because there are size regulations, permit restrictions, and limits on how many days a week harvest is permitted, depending upon the season. Red urchins range from tideline to depths up to 90 feet, subsisting entirely on bottom-growing kelp; the quality of their roe is entirely dependent upon the quantity and health of the aquatic plants, and it’s in the best interest of divers harvesting uni to be selective. Channel Islands uni are prized because of the high quality of the kelp, which is rich in nutrients due to the convergence of the region’s warm and cold waters. Grade A uni possess fatty, or creamy, bright yellow roe, while Grade B uni are more of a brown or orange color. The lowest grade roe have a grainy texture and brown roe.

Central California‘s coast is the nation’s leading source of uni, and it’s become one of the state’s most important fisheries. Though regulated (and currently only open to commercial harvest), not all sea urchin fisheries are sustainable. Human factors, in addition to climate and water temperatures (which affect the kelp cycle) are reasons you might not always find uni at your local sushi bar. Sea otter migration is another factor, and a source of much industry controversy.

While the Santa Barbara/Channel Islands fishery doesn’t have otters, the animals have, in the last decade, moved farther south-the result of coastal development and pollution, and increasing human populations. They’re a protected species, and a key part of the food chain. By nature, they’re grazers (they also don’t feed at depths below 60 feet), snacking upon sea urchins and crustaceans as they swim. Bits of food fall to the ocean floor as they eat, which in turn provides sustenance for lower-food chain bottom feeders. In some fisheries, otters, combined with overfishing, have caused sea urchin and shellfish populations to dwindle.The Channel Island fishery has instituted strict harvest regulations to sustain a healthy sea urchin population, but if otters move into the area, that could change.

The big picture, however, is that consumers, wholesalers, and restaurateurs need to continue to seek out seafood that is sourced in an ecologically responsible manner, from well-managed fisheries. How you eat your uni is up to you, but if you’d like to see them in their pristine natural state first, take a paddle around one of the Channel Islands.

For boat departures, click here.

The Santa Barbara Fish Market, located at the Harbor, sells live and processed uni. It’s adjacent to the Saturday morning Fish Market at the Harbor, held 7am to 11am. Local guys sell their catch straight off their boats; even if you just go to look, it’s a great little slice of local industry that not many tourists get a chance to see.

Spaghetti with Clams and Uni

The following recipe is from an uni article written by Los Angeles Times editor Russ Parsons. For information on how to purchase seafood from well-managed fisheries, click here to view Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch” list.

Serves 6

salt
2 T. olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
dash crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
1 lb. spaghetti
1 c. white wine
2 lbs. small clams in shell (Manila type)
2 (2-ounce) trays sea urchins
Italian parsley, leaves only, left whole

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil and garlic in a large skillet over medium heat. Taste a bit of sea urchin. If it seems bitter, add a pinch of red pepper flakes to the skillet. Cook until the garlic is soft but not yet golden, 2 to 3 minutes. When the garlic has softened, add the white wine to the skillet and raise the heat to high. Cook until the wine has reduced by about half, 4 to 5 minutes.
Add the clams and 1 ½ trays of sea urchins, reserving the best ones for garnish. Cover and cook, stirring frequently, until the clams are all open, about 5 minutes.

While the sauce is cooking, add the spaghetti to the boiling water. Cook until it is just short of al dente, soft but with a thin thread of crunch in the center, about 7 minutes.
When the clams have opened, remove the skillet from the heat and stir to break up as much of the sea urchins as possible. They should blend into the sauce.

When the spaghetti is done, drain it, reserving one-half cup of the cooking water. Add the spaghetti and the reserved cooking water to the sauce and place it over high heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the sauce has slightly reduced, about 2 minutes. Taste and add salt if necessary. Divide among 6 heated pasta bowls and garnish with the reserved sea urchin and several leaves of parsley. Serve immediately.

[Photo credits: sea kayak, Flickr user mikebaird; uni, Flickr user rick; Scorpion Bay, Flickr user Brian Dunlay; seagull, Flickr user KyleChx; sea urchin, Flickr user mecredis]