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]

Sydney’s Chinatown means cheap eats, Australian seafood, famous noodles

“NOOOOOOOO!”

That’s the sound of me, arriving at Chinese Noodle Restaurant (Shop 7, 8 Quay St.), in Sydney’s Chinatown/Haymarket district. Two years I’d waited, eight thousand miles I’d traveled, to feast upon my beloved #4 pork noodle combo. Instead I found the following handwritten sign:

“Dear Customers, We will be closed…for kitchen renovation. We apologize for any inconvienience” The restaurant was scheduled to re-open the day after I returned home. What the hell was I going to do?

The answer, it turned out, was drown my sorrows in roti and cendol (an addictive concoction of coconut milk, palm sugar, and rice flour jelly) at Mamak, a newish, affordable Malaysian restaurant down the street. And it was good. So good, I returned three times in as many days. As the song goes, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”

%Gallery-107144%

As for my #4 obsession, allow me to explain why a plate of spicy, saucy ground pork atop dense, chewy noodles keeps me awake nights (I have issues, I know). These aren’t just any noodles. Chinese Noodle Restaurant specializes in hand-pulled wheat noodles from the northwestern Xinjiang province. Owner/chef Cin (like Cher, he goes by one name) hails from the region, and each day, he can be observed in the tiny kitchen, working his magic with ropey lengths of dough.

I don’t know about post-remodel, but in the seven years that I’ve been eating at CNR, the small, dingy dining room didn’t have much else in the way of decor, aside from some plastic grapevines–the kind you see in cheap Italian joints–festooning the walls. Because that totally makes sense in a Chinese restaurant. Anyway, it didn’t matter, because it’s all about Cin’s food. It’s not just me: one friend, a business traveler, is manic about getting her pork dumplings en route to and from the airport, and another, a chef from Port Macquarie up north, also hits the dumplings whenever he’s in town.

While CNR obviously has a cult following, there is something to be said for an open relationship. I’ve often referred to Haymarket as the “Disneyland of Chinatowns,” because of its wide, clean streets, tidy shops, and orderly throngs of locals and tourists. Sussex St. is the main thoroughfare, but the compact district has dozens of great markets, food court stalls, and restaurants to choose from. I lived in the Bay Area for many years, and while San Francisco’s Chinatown is a must-visit tourist attraction, it’s not where you’ll get the best Asian food (that would be the Richmond district), and the heaving crowds are off-putting. Oakland’s Chinatown has some fantastic Vietnamese holes-in-the-wall, but it’s seriously lacking in atmosphere. And other Chinatowns across the planet–New York, Vancouver, Honolulu, Buenos Aires–all are fascinating in their own right, but to me, Sydney trumps them all.

It’s not just the close proximity to Sydney’s CBD, and many other city attractions like the Opera House and Harbour Bridge (both a 15 minute walk away), because San Francisco can rival that. And it’s merely a bonus that Haymarket has a lot of hostels (“backpackers”), some of them excellent and geared toward a more diverse demographic than the college crowd. FYI, Haymarket really comes alive at night, so it’s nice to have digs nearby, even if you opt for one of the high-end hotels in the CBD.

Aside from how pleasant it is to just wander the streets without being trampled or skidding out on a giant phlegm glob or errant puddle of urine, it’s the seafood that makes Sydney’s Chinatown special. Australia is famed for its indigenous flora and fauna, and that applies to seafood, as well. Australians and visitors alike prize sweet, meaty, mud crabs from Queensland, blue swimmer and spanner crabs, Moreton and Balmain “bugs” (slipper lobsters), freshwater crayfish like yabbies and marron, mild Sydney Rock oysters, King George whiting from South Australia, wild and farmed barramundi, farmed abalone and Australian salmon.

As an aside, if you visit the Sydney Fish Market in nearby Pyrmont, browsing the stalls can be likened to a jewelry store (if, like me, you prefer crustaceans to carats). Rows of brilliant, gem-colored catch glitter under the lights: sapphire-hued crabs, tiny, emerald-striped pipis (mollusks), ruby Coral Trout dotted with neon blue, psychedelically-splotched parrot fish. Over 100 species and 50 tons of seafood are auctioned and sold every day at the world’s second largest seafood market (next to Tokyo’s Tsukiji). There’s also a cooking school and tours of the auction floor and sashimi pavilion–something I highly recommend.

Back in Chinatown, Golden Century (393-399 Sussex St.) is the place for excellent, Hong Kong-style seafood, like salt-and-pepper squid and braised abalone. You select your dinner from the many tanks lining the front windows. Be prepared for your waiter to bring still-wriggling sea creatures to the table for your approval before dispatching them to the kitchen (I hope PETA isn’t reading this). This is the place to indulge in some first-rate Australian seafood, if you can spare the cash. Golden Century is also open until 4am, and a popular late night chef’s hang, should you have a drunken craving for congee and some local color in the wee hours.

Speaking of local color, the infamous B.B.Q. King (18 Goulburn St.) is a post-shift tradition for many of Sydney’s chefs and cooks. It’s also the ultimate drunken, post-clubbing/bar-trawling restaurant (open until 1am-ish, which might mean 3am), where plates of fried rice and roasted and barbecued duck and pork are cheap and plentiful. It’s located next to a porn shop, and the irony of the hanging carcasses and sides of meat in the restaurant windows never fails to amuse me. It’s an utter pit, the waiters are beyond surly, and the food is mediocre. Yet, I adore it. It’s one of those places that should only be patronized whilst ripped to the gills, but it’s a great little slice of late-night Sydney.

For cheap, no-frills, snacking, there’s Mother Chu’s Taiwanese Gourmet (86/88 Dixon St.). This family-owned restaurant is at the lower end of the Dixon St. pedestrian mall. It’s all about the outrageously delicious, made-to-order scallion pancakes, which are about a buck fifty a pop. I’ve never had luck with the entrees, but it’s popular with noodle soup and congee-loving locals. The staff are wonderful; you can watch women rolling out dough and stuffing dumplings. They’re not above giving you a bit of sass, either, so take some time to chat with them.

For higher end yum cha (dim sum, but the term technically refers to the full experience of drinking tea while dining on it), I loved the Regal. In June, it merged with Marigold (883/689 George St.), which I’ve consistently heard is very good.

You’ll find an array of more spendy, touristy restaurants along the mall (as well as annoying hawkers trying to lure you with menus). Save your dollars and instead head to Dixon House Food Court (corner of Dixon and Little Hay Streets.) or the Sussex Centre Food Court (401 Sussex St.). You’ll find the usual suspects in both: greasy steam-table Chinese noodle and rice dishes, but also tasty street food items, hot pot, Korean, and Malaysian food. In Dixon, try the pressed-to-order sugar cane juice, and bubble tea/Asian dessert stall.

Thai Kee Supermarket (399 Sussex St.) is great for any Asian ingredient you might desire (think canned and dried goods for souvenirs), as well as snacks like delightfully squishy rice and mung-bean sweets. Paddy’s Market is of historic importance, in that it’s been a Haymarket landmark for 150 years. Unfortunately, its current incarnation is a jam-packed, cacophonous multi-story mall/produce/household goods/souvenir market. If you feel the urge to purchase a fake Akubra hat or tacky t-shirt, this is the spot.

Whatever your budget, Haymarket is a vibrant distillation of the many Asian immigrant cultures that have made Australia their home, and for that alone, it’s worth a visit. I’ll see you at the noodle joint.