Travel Eats

Travel Eats: Island flavors from a week in San Pedro, Belize

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Belize mural and frozen coconut mojito, The Truck Stop

Frozen coconut mojito in front of Belize mural at The Truck Stop

When your dad moves to an island permanently, you go visit.

That was what brought me to the town of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, Belize’s largest island. Because it was my first trip there, I tried to sample as much local cuisine and tropical beverages as I could in one week.

Sangria and snacks, Marbucks Coffee

Sangria and snacks at Thursday night Wine Down, Marbucks Coffee House

Thursdays are a particularly good evening for dining in San Pedro: Marbucks Coffee House hosts its Wine Down event, with live music, snacks, and wine or sangria (we opted for the latter), and Casa Picasso offers its chef’s tasting menu. I loved the atmosphere at both venues, and especially loved Casa Picasso’s citrusy tuna main course with avocado and sauteed local greens. We also added the Korean barbecue tostones with steak and housemade kimchi as an extra appetizer, and they were a hit.

Korean barbecue tostones, Casa Picasso

Korean barbecue tostones with skirt steak and kimchi, Casa Picasso

Greek gyro spring rolls, Casa Picasso

Greek gyro spring rolls with Mediterranean-marinated pork tenderloin and yogurt tzatziki sauce, Casa Picasso tasting menu

Chilled tomato and honeydew melon gazpacho with poached shrimp, Casa Picasso tasting menu

Chilled tomato and honeydew melon gazpacho with poached shrimp, Casa Picasso tasting menu

Citrus tuna, Casa Picasso

Citrus-marinated local tuna with sauteed callaloo, avocado, and citrus-parsley drizzle, Casa Picasso tasting menu

Ice cream sandwich, Casa Picasso

Ice cream sandwich of devil’s food cake cookie, vanilla ice cream, and whipped cream, Casa Picasso tasting menu

My main focus at most restaurants was the seafood – San Pedro was originally founded as a fishing village, after all – and I came away impressed by the variety and freshness. At Tiki Maya, from the second story of a palapa over the ocean, I enjoyed lime-laced shrimp ceviche and a quesadilla packed with lobster and peppers.

Shrimp ceviche with chips, Tiki Maya

Shrimp ceviche with chips, Tiki Maya

Lobster quesadilla, Tiki Maya

Lobster quesadilla, Tiki Maya

After I arrived on the island via water taxi, my first meal was at Melt, known for their namesake sandwiches. My madras curry chicken version was hearty and melted to the perfect consistency. Another evening, we came upon Robin’s Kitchen, a small, one-person establishment like many of San Pedro’s eateries. Robin is known for jerk chicken, but my snapper was also expertly seasoned and grilled.

Madras curry chicken melt sandwich, Melt Cafe and Beach Bar

Madras curry chicken melt sandwich, Melt Cafe and Beach Bar

Snapper with rice and beans, Robin's Kitchen

Grilled red snapper with rice and beans, Robin’s Kitchen

At Waraguna, the specialty was Salvadorean pupusas, a griddled corn cake with fillings. I went for the mixed seafood version, which was stuffed with fish, shrimp, and lobster along with the melted cheese. I thought that was a generous portion of seafood until a lobster burrito hit our table. The tortilla was packed with lobster, with more lobster chunks around the outside and a full tail on top. Both were delicious.

Seafood pupusa, Waruguma

Seafood pupusa with shrimp, fish, and lobster, Waruguma

Lobster burrito, Waruguma

Lobster burrito, Waruguma

Belikin stout beer

Belikin stout, the beer of Belize, at Waruguma

Waruguma was also where I tried my first Belizean beer. Belikin is ubiquitous in all of Belize, and the stout variety isn’t so much a stout, but just a lager with higher alcohol. I can’t say I’d seek it out elsewhere, but it put me in the island spirit.

Other island staple was Elvi’s Kitchen, in operation for 40-plus years. I had to order more lobster, this time in a savory black bean sauce with bits of plantain and coconut rice, and also sampled conch in the form of hefty fritters dipped in spicy tartar sauce. My cocktail at Elvi’s, the Crazy Monkey, combined coconut and peanut in an unexpected but highly successful way.

Conch fritters and Crazy Monkey cocktail, Elvi's Kitchen

Conch fritters with habanero tartar sauce and Crazy Monkey cocktail with peanut, coconut cream, and rum, Elvi’s Kitchen

Lobster in black bean sauce, Elvi's Kitchen

Lobster in black bean sauce, coconut rice, and plantains, Elvi’s Kitchen

Blue Water Grill is another well-known restaurant in San Pedro. Two nights are sushi nights, and we took full advantage. All three rolls we tried were fresh and delicious, but the smoked mayo atop the tempura lobster roll really set that one apart. The calamari with togarashi spices and citrus-avocado coulis made a nice starter as well.

Spiced calamari, Blue Water Grill

Togarashi-spiced calamari with citrus-avocado coulis, pickled ginger, and cilantro, Blue Water Grill

Sushi rolls, Blue Water Grill

Jackpot roll (tempura lobster, avocado, cucumber, green onion, house-smoked mayo, eel sauce, sesame seeds), Yen Yen roll (spicy tuna, mango, cilantro, yellowtail, avocado, and jalapeno), and Spider roll (soft-shell crab, cream cheese, cucumber, avocado, sweet soy, and sesame), Blue Water Grill

Frozen dark & stormy cocktail, Blue Water Grill

Frozen dark & stormy cocktail, Blue Water Grill

Blue Water Grill also made an excellent frozen dark and stormy, one of my very favorite cocktails. Of course, tropical drinks were plentiful nearly everywhere we went. A mango mojito from the Aurora’s Grill truck served as a reward for finding Secret Beach after a long and bumpy golf cart ride. Rum punch was on every menu, but it had particular pizazz at Carlo & Ernie’s Runway Bar, where you can watch the Tropic Air planes come in as you sip your drink at the bar.

Mango mojito, Aurora's Grill at Secret Beach

Mango mojito, Aurora’s Grill at Secret Beach

Rum punch, Carlo & Ernie's Runway Bar

Rum punch, Carlo & Ernie’s Runway Bar

Banana-kiwi-lime smoothie, Izzy's Smoothies, Snacks & Juice Bar

Banana-kiwi-lime smoothie, Izzy’s Smoothies, Snacks & Juice Bar

We passed the Izzy’s Smoothies stand many times while in town, and of the smoothies I tried, this banana-kiwi-lime combination was the most flavorful and refreshing in the island heat.

I also appreciated tasting a few traditional Belizean breakfasts. They were usually anchored by scrambled eggs, either with tomatoes and peppers or more exotic mix-ins (I loved the shrimp and chorizo version at Estel’s), plus refried black beans. The local twist was the fry jacks, pockets of barely sweet fried dough served with butter and jam.

Shrimp and chorizo special eggs, Estel's Dine By the Sea

Shrimp and chorizo special eggs with fry jacks and beans, Estel’s Dine By the Sea

Belizean breakfast, Portofino Restaurant

Belizean breakfast with scrambled eggs, sausage, refried beans, and fry jacks, Portofino Restaurant

Sesame bagel and iced coconut latte, Brooklyn Brothers Bagel Company

Sesame bagel, half with sun-dried tomato-basil-olive cream cheese and half with guava-nutmeg cream cheese, and iced coconut latte, Brooklyn Brothers Bagel Company

On the other end of the breakfast spectrum, I visited Brooklyn Brothers, the only bagel shop in the country of Belize. While the bagels are fairly traditional New York-style, the cream cheeses have an island twist. I fell in love with the guava-nutmeg spread on my sesame bagel. The shop was conveniently located next to the island’s main coffee roaster, Caye Coffee.

Seafood risotto, O Restaurant

Seafood risotto, O Restaurant

Chocolate sea urchin, O Restaurant

Chocolate sea urchin dessert of Bailey’s-infused chocolate truffle wrapped with
shredded phyllo dough, O Restaurant

Another night, we dined at the restaurant closest to home at Las Terrazas Resort, O Restaurant. While I really enjoyed the seafood risotto, with saffron and lots of parmesan, I was even more wowed by the elaborate chocolate dessert that resembled a spiny sea urchin. Other impressive desserts included the lime cake at Wild Mango’s, a chilled icebox-style cake with layers of cookies, lime filling, guava sauce, and a little tequila.

Mexican Margarita Caye Lime cold cake, Wild Mango's

Mexican Margarita Caye Lime cold cake with lime filling, Maria biscuit layers, tequila, and guava sauce, Wild Mango’s

My favorite food and drink destination on the island, though, was The Truck Stop, an enclave of eclectic food stands made from shipping containers, plus a bar and lots of space for activities. Its During our Sunday visit, we participated in a corn hole tournament; on Wednesday, we watched a movie projected onto a screen over the water and enjoyed piña colada ice cream from the Cool Cone stand. The frozen coconut mojito, pictured at the top of the post in front of The Truck Stop’s beautiful mural, was another standout.

Pina colada and Oreo ice cream, The Truck Stop

Pina colada and Oreo ice creams, Cool Cone at The Truck Stop

Other noteworthy treats came from The Baker, where I savored a coconut tart, and the Belize Chocolate Company, where we tried four caramels: sea salt, ginger, chile, and, my favorite, banana. There will be plenty more to try on my next visit!

Coconut tart, The Baker

Coconut tart, The Baker

Sea salt, ginger, banana, and chile caramels, Belize Chocolate Company

Sea salt, ginger, banana, and chile caramels, Belize Chocolate Company

The details: The Truck Stop bar and Cool Cone, 1 mile North of the Bridge; Marbucks Coffee, Tropicana Drive; Casa Picasso, past Belikin distributor; Blue Water Grill, Barrier Reef Drive; Wild Mango’s, Barrier Reef Drive; O Restaurant at Las Terrazas, 3.5 miles North of the Bridge; Elvi’s Kitchen, Pescador Drive; Waruguma, Angel Coral Street; Robin’s Kitchen, Sea Grape Drive; Tiki Maya (old Palapa bar), 1.5 miles North of the Bridge; Melt Cafe and Beach Bar, Boca Del Rio Drive; Aurora’s Grill, Secret Beach; Carlo & Ernie’s Runway Bar, Coconut Drive; Portofino Restaurant, 6 miles North of the Bridge; Estel’s Dine By the Sea, Buccaneer Street; Izzy’s Smoothies, Snacks, & Juice Bar, corner of Pescador Drive and Caribeña Street; The Baker, Sea Grape Drive; Brooklyn Brothers Bagel Shop, next to Caye Coffee; Belize Chocolate Company, Barrier Reef Drive; all San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize.

Best Bites

Ube, mochi, and Chicago-style hot dog bun, The Bakery at Fat Rice

Ube, Bakery at Fat Rice

Ube with purple yam, coconut, and sweet dough

Why it’s a Best Bite: It’s no secret that Fat Rice is a favorite of mine for both dinner and brunch, so I was excited to check out their take on a Macanese bakery. In July, the Fat Rice team opened this daytime pastelaria along with an adjacent, red-lit cocktail lounge called The Ladies’ Room that’s reservations-only.

Birdcage lighting, The Bakery at Fat Rice

Colorful birdcage lighting

I couldn’t help but love the bakery’s decor. From the pastel-painted storefront to the vibrant birdcage light fixtures, color was everywhere – including the pastries. Cracking open my ube bun revealed a yam filling in an almost shocking shade of royal purple. Its texture contrasted nicely with the crispy coconut that formed a golden crown on top.

Anywhere else in the city, you’d expect that a breakfast pastry modeled after a Chicago-style hot dog would just be an overdone novelty, the stuff of downtown tourist traps. But here, they totally pulled it off. The poppy seeds, onion, celery salt, and bright green relish with chunks of Vienna beef hot dog brought me straight to the ballpark, just with a more elaborate bun.

Hot dog bun, Chicago-style, Bakery at Fat Rice

Hot dog bun, Chicago-style, with Vienna beef and classic fixins

I added the mochi almost as an afterthought, since I tend to enjoy it in all forms, and am grateful I did. The stretchy rice-flour exterior was flecked with coconut and then stuffed with peanut, black sesame, and other crunchy seeds. Sweet and salty doesn’t even cover it – this was borderline addictive.

Mochi, Bakery at Fat Rice

Mochi with black sesame, peanut, coconut, and seeds

The details: The Bakery at Fat Rice, 2951 W. Diversey Ave., Chicago.

Delicious Events

Delicious Event: Pok Pok Thai pop-up supper club in Chicago

Pok Pok pop-up table setting

Loft-style space with long wooden tables, set with fork and spoon atop Thai paper placemats

Last night, I attended my first Land and Sea Dept. pop-up dinner with two food-loving friends. We bought tickets for the later of the two seatings held in the group’s East Garfield Park studio space (both sold out within hours).

It was the first of this fall’s From Good Stock supper club series, and featured Chef Andy Ricker preparing the cuisine of the Tai Yai / Shan people in the north of Thailand. Everything was served family-style at communal tables, and I felt very at-home among people who appreciate adventurous food as much as I do.

Chef Andy Ricker in the kitchen

Chef Andy Ricker overseeing the plated first course

Ricker is renowned in the food world for the wildly popular Pok Pok Thai restaurants, which opened first in Portland, then expanded to New York and Los Angeles. Pok Pok was at the top of my list when I visited Portland a few years ago, and the chicken wings (and more) did not disappoint.

With a soundtrack of Thai music from the DJ, we opened the evening with a cocktail by Paul McGee (best known for the beloved Lost Lake) that included local Letherbee Gin and one of Pok Pok’s drinking vinegars. It was punchy, fruity, and complex, as McGee’s cocktails always are, and set the tone for the sour-sweet-spicy balance that would persist throughout the meal.

Welcome cocktail and pinball machine, Pok Pok pop-up

Welcome cocktail of Letherbee gin, pineapple, lemon, tamarind vinegar, Letherbee absinthe brun, chili tincture, and mint, with a pinball machine backdrop

The first course was anchored by a fiery dip of sour tomatoes, peanuts, green onions, and a whole lot of chiles. Of all the accompaniments – cabbage, cucumber, and some more exotic herbs and vegetables – my favorite were the knotted green beans. The spiciness of the dip was right at the edge of my comfort level, but I’d prefer an authentic experience over one tamed for Western palates. Lacey fritters made with shallot and green papaya were a deep-fried foil for the chile-laden dip.

Naam pit with crudites, Pok Pok

Naam pit: naam phrik of grilled tomatoes, green chiles, green onions, and peanuts, served with herbs and crudité

Khang phong fritters, Pok Pok pop-up

Khang phong: green papaya, lemongrass, chile, and shallot fritters

The two components of the second course had the same sort of dynamic: one spicy and super-charged; one meant to absorb the other’s impact. The yu choy salad was a textural explosion of crispy shallots, peanuts, and pork cracklings, plus more of the sour-spicy ingredients from the dip and pungent black sesame oil. The heat of the salad was tempered by rice balls, gently flavored with turmeric and fried garlic. Eating both together was key to this course.

Phak kad ko salad, Pok Pok pop-up

Phak kad ko: yu choy salad with black sesame oil, phrik kaliang, naam phrik thua, shallots, peanuts, and pork cracklings

Khao som rice balls, Pok Pok pop-up

Khao som: rice balls flavored with turmeric and tomatoes, and topped with fried garlic

We paired the first two courses with Double Jungle Boogie, a fantastic imperial IPA from local Marz Community Brewing Co. Then the beer got even more creative: each person was presented with a Thai “jelly beer,” a bottle of Singha lager cooled below freezing for a slushy-like effect (explained here by Thrillist). A traditional elephant-carved barrel gently shakes the beer in an ice bath – here’s an Instagram video of the barrel in action. When the beer is opened, the pressure release and temperature change is what creates the slushy consistency.

And, needless to say, such a cold beer was sweet, sweet relief after two spicy courses. I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated an icy lager more than I did at that moment.

Thai jelly beer slushy, Pok Pok pop-up

Thai jelly beer, a supercooled beer slushy

Kaeng hang leh pork belly curry, Pok Pok pop-up

Kaeng hang leh: pork belly and shoulder curry with tamarind and ginger

Then came the third course, whose centerpiece was a luxurious pork belly and shoulder curry. The pork was wonderfully tender and aromatic from just enough five-spice, bathed in a mild-yet-rich broth. Alongside were lightly seasoned, almost creamy rice vermicelli noodles showered with more of the same onions and herbs. The noodles were especially useful in soaking up the leftover pork broth. The course also included a curry of boiled eggs and what a fellow diner described as Thai marinara sauce. Eggs cooked in a tomato-based sauce are a staple of many world cuisines (Israeli shakshuka is the buzziest at the moment), and this version fit right in.

Khao sen ko rice vermicelli, Pok Pok pop-up

Khao sen ko: rice vermicelli with fried garlic oil, chile powder, cilantro, green onion, and lime juice

Khai oop egg curry, Pok Pok pop-up

Khai oop: tai yai boiled egg curry

The meal ended the way it began: with a mint-garnished cocktail. This time, cold-brew coffee joined milk, coconut, and Letherbee fernet (a spirit I keep on hand at home) as a sweet and licorice-scented dessert drink. The dessert itself was a bowl of coconut cream, sweetened with palm sugar and dotted with Thai bananas and soft tapioca pearls, which were worlds apart from the larger (and to me, unappealing) bubble tea variety. As a whole, the meal was an unforgettable introduction to ultra-regional flavors that I likely would never have experienced outside of traveling there myself.

Coconut cream dessert and coffee cocktail, Pok Pok pop-up

Dessert of warm coconut cream with palm sugar, sago pearls, and bananas; dessert cocktail with cold brewed coffee, coconut, condensed milk, Letherbee fernet, and mint

View more coverage of Land and Sea Dept. restaurants.

The details: From Good Stock by Land and Sea Dept., 3124 W. Carroll, Chicago.

Dublin Dining, Travel Eats

Travel Eats: Euro-whirlwind in Dublin, Edinburgh & London

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

This year, I celebrated my birthday by heading back across the pond for six days. I started by reuniting with Dublin – both the people and the city – and also fit in quick stops in Edinburgh (for the first time) and London.

While in Dublin, I revisited some favorite spots from my time there: Avoca, the subject of a previous post about an equally colorful dish; Sister Sadie, where I was wowed by dinner, and Hatch & Sons, a cozy café that taught me about the blaa.

Halloumi salad, Avoca

Grilled Toonsbridge halloumi salad, butternut squash, cavolo nero, baba ghanoush & dukkah, Avoca

Cortado and scone, Hatch and Sons

Cortado and scone with butter and raspberry jam, Hatch & Sons

Beans and toast, Sister Sadie

Home-baked beans in tomato sauce with a soft fried egg, whipped feta, olive & lemon yogurt, fresh herbs, and toasted bread

I also tried a few new places: Catch 22 for smoked salmon, Whitefriar Grill for their renowned brunch, and the Tram Cafe for a mocha served out of a restored turn-of-the-century train car.

Smoked salmon with mushy peas, Catch 22

Castletownbere smoked salmon with Guinness bread and mushy peas, Catch 22

Exterior, Tram Cafe

Exterior, The Tram Café

Mocha, Tram Cafe

Mocha, The Tram Café

Interior, Tram Cafe

Interior, The Tram Café

Norwegian eggs, Whitefriar Grill

Norwegian eggs with potato rosti, smoked salmon, baby spinach, and hollandaise, Whitefriar Grill

Next, it was off to Edinburgh for the main dining event: a seven-course tasting at The Gardener’s Cottage that was seasonal, creative, and completely charming. I also tried haggis (not as crazy as people make it sound) and enjoyed a traditional Scottish breakfast.

The Gardener's Cottage, tiny and tucked away

Walking up to The Gardener’s Cottage, tiny and tucked away

Amuse bouche, The Gardener's Cottage

Mussels with herb crumb and broad bean with mint, The Gardener’s Cottage

Trout, The Gardener's Cottage

Trout with cauliflower and sheep sorrel, The Gardener’s Cottage

Tortelloni, The Gardener's Cottage

Beef shin tortellini with butternut squash puree and chantarelles, The Gardener’s Cottage

Grouse, The Gardener's Cottage

Grouse with spelt, charred onions, parsley, capers, and walnuts, The Gardener’s Cottage

Sorbet and rosé, The Gardener's Cottage

Roman berry sorbet with mascarpone granola and meringue, with a glass of rosé, The Gardener’s Cottage

Chocolate dessert, The Gardener's Cottage

Dessert of blueberry, chocolate ice cream, soft biscuit, and popcorn, The Gardener’s Cottage

Veggie breakfast, Loudon's Cafe and Bakery

Loudons veggie breakfast with veggie sausages, sautéed spinach, egg, tattie scone, baked beans, mushroom, cherry tomatoes, and toasted homemade bread, Loudons Cafe & Bakery

Haggis tower, No. 1 High Street

Haggis, neeps and tatties tower (haggis with carrot and turnip), No. 1 High Street

Then, with tea and salted caramel fudge to tide me over for the journey, I took the train from Edinburgh to London to meet friends. We came upon a BBQ spot in Camden that night for dinner, and the next day spent multiple hours in the culinary mecca that is the Borough Market (recommended to me by many).

Braised ox cheek sandwich, Q Grill

Braised ox cheek on a brioche bun with chilli slaw, mustard mayo, and seasoned fries, Q Grill

Key lime pie jar, Q Grill

Key lime pie jar, Q Grill

Grilled cheese (with 4+ different cheeses), Borough Market

Grilled cheese (with 4+ different cheeses), Borough Market

Exotic meats, Borough Market

Exotic bites trio of crocodile, ostrich, and zebra, Borough Market

Fresh figs, Borough Market

Fresh (and massive) figs, Borough Market

Meringues, Borough Market

Giant meringue topped with macarons, Borough Market

The details: Avoca, 11–13 Suffolk St., Dublin 2, Ireland; Sister Sadie, 46 Harrington St., Dublin 8, Ireland; Hatch & Sons, Little Museum of Dublin, 15 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland; Catch 22, 28 South Anne Street, Dublin 2, Ireland; The Tram Cafe, Wolfe Tone Quay, Milltown Park, Dublin 1, Ireland; Whitefriar Grill, 16 Aungier Street, Dublin 2, Ireland; The Gardener’s Cottage, 294 Colinton Rd, Edinburgh, Scotland; Loudons Cafe & Bakery, 94b Fountainbridge, Edinburgh, Scotland; No. 1 High Street, 1 High St., Edinburgh, Scotland; Q Grill, 29-33 Chalk Farm Rd., London, England; Borough Market, 8 Southwark St., London, England.

Travel Eats

Travel Eats: Brisket, Tex-Mex & more in Austin & San Antonio

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Brisket plate, Brown's Bar-B-Que

Brisket plate with mac & cheese and corn-on-the-cob, Brown’s Bar-B-Que truck

I recently spent the weekend in Texas with five girlfriends, splitting the trip between San Antonio and Austin. Because our time was so limited, we had to prioritize, and barbecue was at the top of the list. We landed on Brown’s Bar-B-Que, one of Austin’s many food trucks; without hesitation, I ordered sliced brisket. After the first bite or two, I was practically moaning over how good this brisket was – crackly crust on the outside, unfathomably tender on the inside, and just the right ratio of smoke to meat to fat. It didn’t need the sauce, but I drizzled a bit onto the open-faced sandwich I made with the white bread, and was happy I did. The mac-n-cheese and corn on the cob were no joke, either. Eating that caliber of meal in what was really just a bar parking lot felt quintessentially Austin.

Chalupa Cabra, Beto's

Chalupa Cabra, curry-stewed cabrito served over guava & cream cheese empanada roll, topped with cilantro lime cole slaw, cotija, and toasted coconut, at Beto’s

Tacos was also a dining priority, and that was where we focused our efforts upon arrival in San Antonio. Beto’s Alt-Mex came highly recommended by our Airbnb host, and this towering Chalupa Cabra was listed on the menu as “Guy’s Favorite” (Fieri, of course). It was an eclectic mini-feast of curried meat, toasted coconut, and lime cole slaw, all on top of a sweet guava-cream cheese pastry. On the other side of the spectrum, the best classic tacos we ate all trip were actually at the airport location of Rosario’s (one of several in San Antonio). They were lightly grilled with generous amounts of beans, chicken, and sliced avocado, plus a smoky salsa on the side that tied it all together.

Tacos nortenos, Rosario's

Tacos Norteños with flour tortillas, refried beans, Monterey Jack cheese, sliced avocado, and chicken, served with frijoles a la charra, Rosario’s

It isn’t vacation without brunch, and ours came in Texas-sized proportions in both cities. In San Antonio, it wasn’t enough for Cappy’s to top thick-cut, cornflake-crusted French toast with deliciously juicy Hill Country peaches, whipped cream, and powdered sugar. No, there were also scrambled eggs and bacon on the side for good measure. It was probably the best French toast I’ve had in recent memory.

Hill Country peach French toast, Cappy's

Hill Country peach French toast with scrambled eggs and bacon, Cappy’s

At Perla’s in Austin, seafood was the star in my breakfast bouillabaisse. The unabashedly spicy broth was stuffed with a staggering amount of clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops, and whitefish. A crispy poached egg made it “breakfast,” and I’m now convinced all bouillabaisse should come that way.

Breakfast bouillabaisse, Perla's

Breakfast bouillabaisse with crispy poached egg, saffron rouille, and grilled french bread, Perla’s

Centro-Americano, Houndstooth

Centro-Americano with espresso, rice milk, cinnamon & honey, red plum preserves, and a burnt lemon garnish, Houndstooth Coffee

Austin seems to take coffee as seriously as Portland or Seattle, and I drank a couple of especially creative versions. At Houndstooth, an Austin mini-chain, the twist on an iced Americano involved red plum preserves, cinnamon, honey, rice milk, and burnt lemon – a fascinatingly successful combination. My order at Cenote in East Austin was a little more traditional (iced chai with espresso) but the chai itself was creamier and more heavily spiced than most. I was also a little obsessed with the glittery marble table amidst the other mismatched furniture inside the shop.

Iced house-made chai with espresso, Cenote

Iced house-made chai with espresso, Cenote

The details: Brown’s Bar-B-Que, 1901 S. Lamar Blvd., Austin; Beto’s, 8142 Broadway, San Antonio; Perla’s, 1400 S. Congress Ave., Austin; Cappy’s, 5011 Broadway, San Antonio; Houndstooth Coffee, 401 Congress Ave., Austin; Cenote, 1010 E. Cesar Chavez, Austin; Rosario’s, San Antonio Airport (and other locations), San Antonio (all Texas).

Best Bites

Best Bites: Filet, salmon tartare, key lime bar & more, Swift & Sons

8-ounce filet, Swift & Sons

8-ounce filet (and monogrammed china)

Why it’s a Best Bite: I was out of the country when Boka Restaurant Group’s splashy new steakhouse opened in the Google building, so since my return I’d been looking for an occasion to go. Chicago has more than its fair share of steak-leaning restaurants, but this one quickly rose above the rest in recent memory, mostly because of the attention to detail in both food and service.

I began with the Benevolent Philathropist, a pink peppercorn-flecked drink that blended three of my favorite cocktail ingredients: amaro, whiskey, and egg white. It was so good that I broke my usual “try something different” rule and ordered a second one with my steak.

Benevolent Philathropist cocktail, Swift & Sons

Benevolent Philathropist cocktail with whiskey, amaro, fraise des bois, lemon, egg white, and pink peppercorn

Chilled salmon tartare, Swift & Sons

Chilled salmon tartare with cucumber, crème fraîche, and charred onion

The chilled salmon tartare made a refreshing starter before the heavier dishes to come. It was almost reminiscent of a deconstructed bagel and lox, only with the purest, coolest cucumber liquid at the bottom. And then, the steak. My 8-ounce filet was cooked to a beautiful medium rare, and while it could have stood on its own without any sauces, I’m so glad it didn’t. The steak sauce and bearnaise – both excellent – came standard, and we also added caramelized onion and anchovy garlic butter. That melted butter was basically liquid umami, so it made the meat even more satisfying.

Side of creamed spinach and sauces, Swift & Sons

Sides of creamed spinach with vin blanc and roasted mushrooms with porcini aioli (not pictured), plus steak sauce, bearnaise, caramelized onion, and anchovy garlic butter

Key lime bar, Swift & Sons

Key lime bar with white chocolate mousse, lime curd, and graham crunch

The dessert I liked best surprised me, because key lime pie isn’t something I normally seek out, but we were convinced by our server that it was a version worth trying. Thin layers of lime curd and graham cracker bolstered a luscious, lime zest-spiked white chocolate mousse that just worked so well – and the toasted meringue and gold leaf didn’t hurt either. The Swift & Sons spin on a Cracker Jack was also top-notch, a salty-sweet bomb of peanut butter, popcorn, and caramel.

And lest we forego a more chocolate-focused finish, a charming wooden trolley was wheeled over to our table with all manner of confections: bars, trifles, mousses, tiramisus. We finally decided on a Butterfinger-inspired treat, and it did not disappoint. It also somehow tied together the old-school, wood-and-gold space in the most whimsical way.

S&S Cracker Jack dessert, Swift & Sons

S & S Cracker Jack dessert with peanut butter mousse, salted caramel, caramel corn, and popcorn sherbet

Chocolate trolley, Swift & Sons

Couldn’t resist the chocolate trolley once it was wheeled to our table

The details: Swift & Sons, 1000 W. Fulton Market, Chicago.

Best Bites

This month’s Best Bites: Catching up on Chicago

I’ve spent the last month catching up on Chicago dining and drinking destinations! These were the standouts for brunch, dinner, and beverages.


3 Arts Club Café

Burrata, 3 Arts Club Café

Burrata with slow-roasted tomatoes, garlic bread, and basil

I have to begin with what must be the most breathtaking dining setting I’ve seen in Chicago lately (and from the looks of Instagram, I’m not alone in this assessment). The glitzy Gold Coast café has sweeping windows, brick arches, skylights above towering trees, glittering chandeliers, and a centerpiece fountain that we were more than happy to be seated right alongside. This plate of burrata, tomatoes, and garlic toast was just as elegant as the atmosphere.

Catalpa Kitchen

Old Fashioned flapjacks, Catalpa Kitchen

Old Fashioned flapjacks with orange caramel, bourbon cherries, and angostura whip

Brunch at this newcomer to Logan Boulevard had a decidedly cozier vibe, and these creatively boozy pancakes fit right in. Orange caramel, angostura whipped cream, and bourbon-soaked cherries atop a pile of flapjacks added up to a version of an Old Fashioned almost as good as the cocktail itself.


Sunday brunch, Latinicity

Sunday brunch with tacos, oysters, empanadas, waffle bacon burgers, caramelized plantains, and more

Latinicity opened on the third floor of the Block 37 complex late last year, and its Sunday brunch is an especially good value: $25 gets you unlimited food from eight different stations, plus two brunch beverages from the bar. Our group divided and conquered, each visiting a different counter and bringing back as many offerings as we could, and our strategy produced a delicious variety of results. A few standouts: oysters on the half shell, tacos al pastor, smoked fish dip, and savory lomo saltado with fried rice.



Cannelloni saltimbocca, Monteverde

Cannelloni saltimbocca with prosciutto, lamb, sage, balsamic, soffritto, and romanesco

I’ll admit that I made this March reservation at Monteverde while I was still in Dublin, because I was that excited to try Sarah Grueneberg’s much-anticipated pasta dishes. The cannelloni was exactly the caliber I was expecting: the hardy rolls of pasta stood up to the proscuitto and lamb, enhanced by sage, balsamic, and crunchy romanesco – everyone’s favorite veggie fractal. I was also impressed by the sunchoke crostini, complete with creamy ricotta and lots of black truffle. We also happened to be dining there the same night as Chicago’s mayor (and heard even he had to make a reservation).

Artichoke & sunchoke crostini, Monteverde

Artichoke & sunchoke crostini with fontina, ricotta, and Savini black truffle

Band of Bohemia

Coffee-roasted carrots, Band of Bohemia

Coffee-roasted carrot with coconut milk, chai, sesame seed, licorice, and oxalis

A self-described “culinary brewpub,” Band of Bohemia brews food-friendly beers exclusively to pair with its dishes. Our group’s meal here was meant to make up for missing Chicago Restaurant Week, and it was a more than sufficient substitute. These coffee-roasted, coconut-scented heirloom carrots packed explosive flavor, with lots of contrast from chai, licorice, and sesame. The steak and the foie gras were also major hits at our table. Beer-wise, I was particularly a fan of the beet-thyme and apple-tarragon brews.

Band of Bohemia beer trio

Three house-brewed beers: roasted beet thyme, orange chicory rye, and grilled apple tarragon


Potatoes a la plancha, Salero

Confit potatoes a la plancha with mushroom demi-glace, wild mushrooms, sunny egg, and Queso Tetilla

A few friends graciously threw me a welcome back celebration at this Spanish eatery in the West Loop. Of all the dishes we sampled, these grilled potatoes with heaps of wild mushrooms, toasted grains, and a sunny-side egg were the most savory and satisfying. The baked alaska with “Welcome Home” in script on the plate was also a lovely touch.


Cantina 1910

Bears Club cocktail, Cantina 1910

Bears Club cocktail with Milagro Reposado tequila, Punt e Mes, maple, and cherrywood

I’d heard great things about the drinks at Andersonville’s new upscale Mexican cantina. This was quite possibly the smokiest cocktail I’ve ever had, and I was completely captivated by the cherry and maple notes in every sip. It’s now only available as a large-format shareable drink, so I’d recommend getting a few others on board if you visit.

Mezcaleria Las Flores

Unknown Death cocktail, Mezcaleria Las Flores

Unknown Death cocktail with mezcal, amaro, ancho reyes, crème de noyaux, lemon juice, and simple syrup

This cocktail was in the same smoky family, but served across town at Mezcaleria Las Flores in Logan Square. This new flower-shop-turned-mezcal-bar has gotten a lot of attention for its concept, and I’m glad to see such an oft-overlooked spirit getting some time on the spotlight. This cocktail was balanced and citrusy, with punchy amaro and a colorful sprinkle of hibiscus on top. Bonus: we were also able to order snacks from adjacent Johnny’s Grill – just ask for a menu.


Chocolate cake shake, Portillo's

Chocolate cake shake

I had to include this beloved Chicago treat, because having one my first week back at work made me truly feel like I was home again. Portillo’s chocolate cake shakes are basically an institution, and are as simple as they sound – chocolate cake whirred into a milkshake, with chunks of icing and cake crumbs hiding at the bottom of the cup. It’s decadent and a little absurd, but it’s also pure Chicago.

The details: Monteverde, 1020 W. Madison St.; Band of Bohemia, 4710 N. Ravenswood Ave.; Salero, 621 W. Randolph St.; 3 Arts Club Café at Restoration Hardware, 1300 N. Dearborn Pkwy.; Catalpa Kitchen, 2800 W. Logan Blvd.; Latinicity at Block 37, 108 N. State St.; Cantina 1910, 5025 N. Clark St.; Mezcaleria des Flores, 3149 W. Logan Blvd.; Portillo’s, 100 W. Ontario; all Chicago.

Dublin Dining

Dublin Dining: Five-course tasting menu at Forest Avenue

Dublin Dining chronicles my food & drink experiences during six months living in Dublin, Ireland.

Agnolotti, Forest Avenue

Agnolotti of Comté, Jerusalem artichoke, truffle & whey butter & pickled cabbage

I knew that my last weekend in Dublin had to include a special meal, and after a little research, Forest Avenue fit all the criteria: seasonal and locally sourced Irish cuisine, tasting menu format, reasonable price. But this restaurant was even more of a gem than I ever expected. I stayed impressed through the entire dinner, including an especially dreamy pasta course with buttery, truffle-scented agnolotti and Jeusalem artichoke.

Bacon tart and aubergine-green olive snacks, Forest Avenue

Aubergine and green olive on a cracker and mini bacon tart, two of several snacks

Parsnip soup, Forest Avenue

Parsnip soup with mushroom and crisps, the last of the snacks

Several snacks and soup served as bonus courses to begin the meal. Each bite packed flavor, whether it was salty olive on a cracker, smoky bacon in a tart, or earthy mushrooms punctuating a delightfully foamy parsnip soup. Next came the salad course, where roasted beets were transformed by blood orange, creamy curd, and dukkah, an Egyptian spice blend. The early courses paired especially well with our bottle of Austrian white wine, a unique straw-colored blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, and Gruner Veltliner from 2014.

Beet salad, Forest Avenue

Salad of beets with blood orange, curd, dukkah, and radish

Duck, Forest Avenue

Duck, swede, onion, chanterelle, and romaine lettuce

I chose duck as my main, which brought me full circle from the excellent duck I’d had at The Pig’s Ear during my very first weekend in Dublin. The nicely charred onion, wilted greens, and rich jus kept the focus firmly on the meat itself. In fact, that kind of focus and purity of flavor was really a theme in all of the dishes.

Dessert also included a couple of bonus courses, but the main event was a pleasantly tropical combination of coconut panna cotta and passion fruit sorbet with pineapple and spiced bread crumble on top. Even with its several playful components, the dessert still felt focused and clean. And Forest Avenue’s whole aesthetic adhered to those same values, from the earth-toned art and antler wall hangings down to the beautiful ceramic servingware. All that combined with attentive service and a soulful soundtrack made this the restaurant I’d now most highly recommend in Dublin.

Coconut panna cotta, Forest Avenue

Coconut panna cotta, pineapple, spiced bread & passion fruit sorbet

While I’m sad that my time in Dublin had to come to an end, I’ve already started catching up on all the food and drink Chicago introduced while I was gone. Stay tuned!

The details: Forest Avenue, 8 Sussex Terrace, Dublin 4, Ireland.

Dublin Dining

Dublin Dining: Duck liver creme, pan-fried hake & more, The Vintage Kitchen

Dublin Dining chronicles my food & drink experiences during six months living in Dublin, Ireland.

Wicklow duck liver creme, lime jelly, pistachio, toast, and raisin, apple, and star anise jam, The Vintage Kitchen

Wicklow duck liver creme, lime jelly, pistachio, toast, and raisin, apple, and star anise jam

As I write this, I’m spending my very last morning in Dublin, so it feels right to look back on what was probably my most fun dining experience. I booked a table at The Vintage Kitchen a few weeks in advance (it’s a small restaurant with only two evening seatings), and made it a girls’ night. And thanks to the BYOB policy, I was able to bring along the last bottle of wine that I had brought back from Tuscany. The silky-smooth red paired well with all three of my courses.

The star of the meal for me was the starter of duck liver creme, an unctuous spread topped with a thin layer of lime jelly and lots of crushed pistachio. Spread onto crustless toast points together with an apple-raisin jam, it basically made the perfect sweet-and-savory bite. And thankfully, there was enough of the creme and jam to form a whole lot of those bites, especially after a few more slices of toast magically appeared without asking.

Pan-fried hake, The Vintage Kitchen

Pan-fried Atlantic hake with white beans, Roaring Bay rope mussels, cajun and tomato bisque, and lump fish caviar

I went for the pan-fried hake as my main. I’ve ordered hake a few times before in Dublin, but never have I seen it presented with such height and pizazz. The bed of mussels bathed in white bean-tomato sauce and the seashell full of lump caviar were excellent accompaniments. And again, the portion was incredibly generous for a modestly priced prix-fixe menu.

The half-baked chocolate cake for dessert lived up to its name. The inside oozed with liquid, melting into what felt almost like cake batter ice cream. It was a rich ending to a genuinely fun meal. The vinyl records and pop-art decor keep the tiny restaurant’s setting feeling at once cozy and fashionable, so it was an ideal venue for laughing and reflecting on the past several months.

Half-baked chocolate cake, The Vintage Kitchen

Half-baked chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream

The details: The Vintage Kitchen, 7 Poolbeg St., Dublin 2, Ireland.

Travel Eats

Travel Eats: Three days in Berlin

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Goat cheese pizza, LuLa am Markt

Goat cheese pizza with red grapes and balsamic-honey sauce and ginger lemonade at LuLa am Markt

You might be expecting my post about Berlin to be all schnitzel and bratwurst, but it was actually a rather culinarily diverse trip. Things started off strong with a wood-fired pizza at LuLa in Friedenau (no relation to the beloved Lula Café in Chicago, but the vibe was in fact quite similar). The somewhat eclectic combination of goat cheese, red grapes, balsamic vinegar, and honey turned out to be a total hit, especially paired with mint-garnished ginger lemonade.

On the other side of the global spectrum, we dined at an Egyptian restaurant one evening, settling into plush floor-level couches and diving into colorful shared plates. My favorite dish was this tagine, a clay pot brimming with warm-spiced tomato sauce, potatoes, meatballs, and a soft-boiled egg.

Tagine "Marrakech", Baraka

Tagine “Marrakech” with meatballs, egg, and tomato sauce at Baraka

Macarons, Du Bonheur

Caramel, pistachio, and plum macarons at Du Bonheur

Berlin also had a few sweet surprises in store, most notably the best macarons I’ve had in years. The beautiful plum, pistachio, and caramel varieties all packed enormous flavor and really left me thinking I was in France instead of Germany. I also found Berlin’s coffee to be excellent across the board, all the way down to this cappuccino at a darling café right next to one of the S-Bahn stops.

Cappuccino at S-Café, next door to the S-Bahn train station

Cappuccino at S-Café, next door to the S-Bahn train station

Currywurst, Arkonaplatz

Currywurst from a stall at the Arkonaplatz flea market

Of course, I had to try a little bit of traditional fare, and currywurst seemed like the right place to start (the memory of one at Dublin’s Oktoberfest was still fresh in my mind). This sliced sausage doused with smoky ketchup and curry powder served as a nice hearty snack while I strolled around the Arkonaplatz flea market.

And there was beer, too; don’t worry. I was excited to go local at what seemed to be Berlin’s premier craft brewery, Eschenbräu. I sampled both the Dunkler Bock and the Pils (dark and light, respectively), and found them to be more complex and nuanced than I expected. I hope the craft beer scene continues to grow in that city!

Dunkler Bock, Eschenbräu

Dunkler Bock and Pils beers, both brewed at Eschenbräu

It was fun to try a traditional brunch buffet as well. Schwarze Pumpe’s version included a smattering of meats, cheeses, eggs, breads, and spreads, plus the ever-present yogurt, fruit, and muesli cereal. Small tastes of many things is exactly how I like to eat anyway, so it worked out well.

Brunch buffet, Schwarze Pumpe

Brunch buffet with bread, cheeses, eggs, muesli, yogurt & more at Schwarze Pumpe

The details: LuLa am Markt, Lauterstr. 14; Schwartze Pumpe, Choriner Str. 76; Trödelmarkt Arkonaplatz, Arkonaplatz; Du Bonheur, Brunnenstraße 39 ; Baraka, Lausitzer Platz 6; Hausbrauerei Eschenbräu, Triftstraße 67; S-Café, Bahnhofstraße 4c; all Berlin, Germany.