You can tell just by looking at me that I like my food. I appreciate good food, be it in 5-star restaurants, other people’s dining rooms, or diners, drive-ins, and dives. It’s not just about eating to live, about stopping a gap, about being social – I simply like my food. I like the taste, the texture, the smell. I like preparing it, taking hours in the kitchen to produce something that will be devoured in minutes. I like dressing a table, pairing the wines, creating the ambience.
When I’m travelling, I like to find places that are local, not touristy. I have a list of my five most memorable meals ever. It’s a living list, and things tend to get knocked off and replaced and put back. One was eons ago, in Rome, a five-hour marathon session where I first discovered that pasta isn’t a main meal. Another was in Belgrade at Milošev konak– a lunch that kept going and going – I think it was 8 pm before we stood up from the table. Italy gets a second mention, this time in Ancona, with pizza and antipasti with jugs of prosecco in a local bar. Salt-encrusted prime rib in someone’s trailer in Valdez rates, too. But probably my all-time favourite was a small neighbourhood café near the bus station in Kutaisi, Georgia. Clueless as to what we were ordering, every dish was better than the one that had gone before it.
What these have in common is that none particularly fancy. Yes, Rome and Belgrade were old institutions but not fancy fancy. Ancona and Kutaisi were chequered-tablecloth locals. It’s more about the food than the surrounds.
In Milwaukee, WI, recently, in search of an authentic diner experience (I’m a great fan of retro booths, long bars with bar stools, and the all-we’re-missing-is-a-soda-fountain look). I did my homework and came up with The Comet Café.
We specialize in from-scratch comfort food like homestyle meatloaf, cheesy-gooey sandwiches, delicious vegan and vegetarian fare and breakfast everyday til 3pm. Our bar features a wide variety of craft beers and signature cocktails. We also serve a number of trademark coffee drinks and other non-alcoholic liquids.
Guy Fieri, who hosts the TV show Diners, Drive-ins and Dives on the Food Network, visited here in 2009 and put it on the map. It’s been a go-to place every since. That said, fame didn’t go to its head – it’s still downhome, good cooking, with American staples.
Over in Richfield, MN, our last night in town, himself did the research and came up with a well-rated local Mexican restaurant. Both of us had images of a cantina-style rustic so’border style set-up, serving pitchers of Margaritas with great food. How wrong we were.
Andale Taqueria doesn’t fit the drive-in or the diner category. It’s a dive. A glorious dive, teeming with locals. Spanish is the language of choice and the menu is both basic and extensive – the basics with all sorts of choices. You order at the counter, pay, then sit and wait for your number to be called, trying not to look took closely around you (they gets lots of to-go orders). Really. Okay, they were busy, so maybe wiping tables and sweeping floors wasn’t a priority, but… as I say, don’t look too closely. And there’s no booze. But the food, the food, the food. I had my staple Mexican order, carne asada burrito with guacamole and sour cream. The. Best. Ever. Well second best – the best were the ones my mate Lori Fed-exed to me in Anchorage, Alaska, from her local dive in San Francisco.
Andale is another of Fieri’s discoveries and they don’t let you forget it.The mercado next door does a hopping trade in cooked food, too. Noted to self to check out for next time.
Any visit stateside comes with a list of foods I have to have. As well as getting my diner fix and my burrito fix, I had my prime rib fix at the wedding rehearsal dinner in Stillwater, MN. I missed the Olive Garden the last two times I was over there and got it this time – and I can cross it off my list permanently. It’s not what I remember. I sated a long-time want in Astoria, OR, with a plate of fried clams. And, of course, had my chicken-fried steak every chance I got.
Naturally, I brought back a few extra kilos. Why are all the portions so bloody big? Madness. The USA is second only to Australia when it comes to food waste. All well and good to take it home with you to have for lunch the next day, but if your home is a hotel? What then?
I’m back to my regular habits now and the pounds are slowly falling off. Still, though, I’m really grateful that my problem is choosing what to eat rather than finding something to eat. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be starving, not knowing where your next meal is coming from. I find myself increasingly preoccupied with this lately, to the point that I’m peeling my veg a lot closer to the skin so as not to waste any. I’m fixating on using all the fruit in the garden and every bit of what we’ve been given. I spent an hour the other day, making grape juice out of grapes that were on their way out. I’m not quite sure where this newfound consciousness has come from but it’s approaching the obsessive stage. It’ll need to be kept in check.
A massive thanks to those who indulged my food fantasies and make them come true. You know who you are.
The Comet Café, 1947 N Farwell Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53202
Andale Taqueria, 7700 Nicollet Avenue South, Richfield, MN 55423 (close to the Mall of America and MSP airport)