Every Meal Out is a Choice

I’ve written many times about the unique alchemy, the fellowship, if you will, that’s created when we gather together at the table and eat a meal prepared for us with the care, and even love, of a chef.
There’s a reason many religious services revolve around food and drink — participating in the communion of sustenance that’s been prepared for you, whether alone or with a group, can transcend mere nutrition. You’re eating not just nutrients and calories, but the time, effort, and intention with which that food has been made.
Now, when you submit to the siren song of national advertising and the industrial behemoth that processed-food makers and national chain restaurants have fashioned — the salty, spongy chew of “Italian” bread sticks or the steaming pile of bargain-priced, gargantuan crab legs that arrive overcooked and rubbery — it’s not quite the same. Sure, you’ll leave that table full, and quite often the food may have tasted pretty good (they’ve literally engineered it to do so!). But those meals will never come close to the feel and taste of egg yolks and anchovies whisked with care by a gentleman who’s charming you with the dish’s history as he coaxes the dressing into an emulsion, or the crunchy surprise of delicately pink watermelon radishes, crisp and tangy, cut into tiny half-moons by hand to perk up the bowl of soup invented by someone who’s slicing and sautéing just steps away from you.
When you eat at a chain restaurant, you’re not only sending your hard-earned money away from our region to a corporate headquarters in another state, but the food is often mostly prepared far away as well, in an industrial kitchen, to be reheated in the microwave or vacuum-sealed baggie near you. The sauce topping your burger was packaged in Illinois or Utah, shipped thousands of miles, and squirted on top of that frozen and grilled patty garnished with a dried out, mostly green slice of bland tomato and plopped into a mass-produced white roll.
It’s one thing to talk about chains versus locally owned restaurants in the abstract, to debate the weaknesses of small businesses against the consistency and affordability of national, fast-casual and sit-down eateries. I don’t mean to lecture — you certainly have earned the right to eat what you like and spend your disposable income as you see fit.
But recent closures in our the Northern New York community — like Dano’s Pizzeria in Felts Mills and, I’m told, Riccardo’s on Arsenal Street, restaurants run by local people that were quite good and seemingly beloved by many — spurred me to think more about why so many people choose chains over family-run eateries and how to turn the tide. I don’t knock those who choose chains once in a while — heck, there are some national burritos and breakfast sandwiches out there I crave sometimes, myself — but I do question a society that sustains the processed and homogeneous over the handcrafted and locally owned.
I turned to some of our resident food experts for further information. My buddy Andy Wehrle, who has cooked at The Kitchen, Skewed Brewing and DiPrinzio’s Italian Market (also recently shuttered), and is now planning a move to the Mid-Atlantic, where the market can better support an independent chef capable of creative cuisine, lent the following opinion:
“The chains make it incredibly difficult for privately owned restaurants. I think they sort of warp people’s perceptions of certain foods/cuisines, and I get it: someone created it and there is a lot of work that goes into chains; I would even say that working in a chain restaurant could offer someone a great opportunity to learn about speed and volume, but at the same time, I can tell you for sure that the national Italian chain, with an outlet on Arsenal Street, is not anything like any of the food I had in Italy when I lived there.”
He added, “There is so much in-your-face marketing as well that smaller restaurants can’t afford to compete.”
I’m as susceptible as everyone else to the vibrant commercials promising delectable food at nationwide locations. But what I’ve learned is that the food you receive in those locations seldom looks anything like those very expensive images. Did you know that food stylists use solid shortening in place of vanilla ice cream, and that white school glue is often used to look like milk? The shortening doesn’t melt at room temperature, you see, and the trans fats in it feather when you scoop it just like the ice crystals in the real thing.
But local restaurants, owned by mothers and fathers paying for their kids’ dance classes and hockey equipment, struggling to meet new minimum wage requirements for their wait staff and kitchen crews, and hoping to have enough left over to turn a profit, can’t afford lavish advertising. Television spots don’t come cheap, and I’ve never even met a food stylist in our area. How can they possibly compete?
In the Southern Tier, local restaurateurs have banded together to form the Southern Tier Independent Restaurants, or STIR. The organization combines resources to advertise locally, put on culinary events, and sponsor scholarships for local students who want to pursue food careers. 
Paul VanSavage, the group secretary, says, "...by promoting the concept of eating local and featuring local independent establishments, we hope to drive business in our direction."
It's working; local restaurants in Binghamton and surrounding villages are seeing a surge in business, and restaurant weeks in Binghamton and Endicott further help introduce residents and visitors to local eateries. In the past couple of years, new brew pubs, brick oven pizzerias, and southwest restaurants have flourished in the area.
I had heard that Shuler’s Restaurant, on the north side of Watertown, has been struggling, despite good food crafted by a veteran chef, a refreshed and comfortable interior and the positive review I gave it last year.
I reached out to co-owner Terry Williams, who said, “I think that all of us struggle with the Arsenal Street issue … Like everyone else, the minimum wage increase, waitress wage increase and increasing food costs really impact us smaller, family style restaurants more than it does the chains, making it harder to turn a profit with increasing prices or surcharges, which we are trying to avoid.”
In Shuler’s case, he said, “Our other struggle is the north side factor. We have people tell us all the time that they forget we are over ‘here.’ We have discussed ways to try and make us a destination restaurant, by trying to offer what we have been told is some of the best prime rib in town, and offering a Wednesday prime rib special to get people to try it. We also try to let people know that we are one of the few restaurants that offer home-style food like chicken and biscuits, house-made meatloaf, liver and onions etc.”
He made me wonder: Do most people, when deciding where to eat out, automatically head the car in the direction of our concentration of chain restaurants? Do we simply forget about places that might be off the beaten path? It’s no coincidence that the chains are clustered near other commercial outlets — the real estate in these areas is often pricey, and marketing professionals have helped the corporate-owned enterprises get smart about the idea that if the masses are buying goods at national big-box stores, they’re likely to head right next door for dinner, too. So they’ve got you not only via seductive advertising, but location as well.
But is dining out an economic prospect or an emotional one? We must eat to live, but when we dine out, there is a choice to be made between convenience and community. Every time one of these local restaurants is snuffed out, every time a family gives up and turns out the lights of their small business for the final time, not only is that family impacted, but our Northern New York culinary landscape is as well. Yes, there’s a fiscal impact; that family likely spent most of its income locally and employed local people, but whatever family recipes were served at that restaurant are also now gone forever.
In a few years, will we still have Croghan bologna, Utica greens, salt potatoes, Hofmann’s Hots, chicken riggies, and spiedie sandwiches? Will we take our kids for their first meal out at the Boathouse, Tony's, Fairgrounds Inn, Consol's, the Clipper or Shuler’s? Will those kids return one day with their own children? Well, it’s up to you. Will you dine out this week on prime rib, or cheddar biscuits? It’s your call, but be aware: Your choice has an impact on real people and the whole of our community. Please choose wisely.
PS: a reader tipped me off that Riccardo's, in Watertown, may not be gone for good, but just moving. I don't have confirmation yet, but stayed tuned. I would be so happy to report that we can still get that awesome roasted onion appetizer!

PSS: STIR's Tasting Party is coming up this weekend! Will I see you there? 


Dispatch from Austin: I Accept a Chain Restaurant. Because, Tacos.

When is eating at a chain restaurant OK? When that chain started as a food truck in Austin, grew to a brick and mortar restaurant because of customer demand, and then spread, gradually and locally. Torchy's Tacos is both quintesstially Austinian (an oddly charming mix of hipster staff, biker badass, Tex-Mex cuisine, and southern charm) and damn good. Just read the sign:

My trip to Austin this time, planned as a rather exciting work event, was rendered a mess by violent thunderstorms that cancelled flights and plans. I didn't get downtown at all, and to neither of the more high profile restaurants I had been wanting to hit up this time. But a Torchy's location was near my hotel, so my colleague Paula and I stopped there for lunch, after hearing from another colleague that it was important that we order queso.

This was no ordinary, Velveeta and Ro-tel microwave queso, friends. This was queso fresco, Monterey Jack and maybe cheddar cheeses, green chiles, cumin, cilantro, guacamole and hot sauce, combined to stunning effect. It was richer than most restaurant quesos, and the wonderful green chiles added a piquant heat that was comfortably spicy but also pleasantly acidic. The chips? Fried in-house, of course. I had trouble stopping the continual shoveling of this stuff into my gaping maw, and finally had to beg a server to take it away from me before it could inflict further damage.

I chose the pork and green chile and barbacoa with avocado tacos for my entree, on small double-stacked corn tortillas. The pork and green chile was my favorite, the carnitas in this case expertly rendered, luscious and juicy but not overtly fatty, the citrusy, tart chiles helping to cut through the richness, along with sharp, raw, diced white onion and a squeeze of fresh lime juice. Shredded queso fresco along top added a very light, milky creaminess, and a flurry of chopped cilantro finished this masterpiece with a verdant, herbaceous, grassy flavor.

The barbacoa taco was more mellow, not quite as lively with bright, popping flavors as the pork. The beef was slow cooked with spices similar to BBQ beef, so there was a depth and richness to the generous portion of pulled meat. A thick slice of avocado provided creaminess to this one, but there was no heat from chiles, and that may have been what I was missing. Despite not quite showing up the pork, it was still utterly delicious.

A side order of Mexican street corn was a little much, I thought. The classic iteration of this dish is a roasted cob of corn, slathered in Mexican crema (a less-tart sour cream) and then coated in chile powder and squeezed with lime juice. Sometimes it gets some queso asadero, or another of the harder Mexican cheeses. It should be sweet and spicy and creamy and bright. This version was off the cob, a bowlful of deeply roasted corn kernels, drizzled with a heavy handed amount of mayonnaise flavored with ancho chiles (also roasted), then smothered with quite a bit of queso fresco. A squeeze of lime and some fresh cilantro, in this case, weren't enough to bring this sweet, rich dish up out of its heavy depths. The roasted flavor of both the corn and ancho chiles was really overwhelming, for me.

My colleague, Paula, went for full blasphemed taco corruption with a fried chicken taco and a jalapeño sausage taco. Both came topped with a whallop of shredded cheese (this stuff had some yellow to it, so I suspect it was cheddar-jack) and while I didn't try either one, Paula was happy, and they looked decadently naughty and fabulous:

This was my first time at Torchy's, but I have a good feeling that no meal there is quite complete without a Lil Nookie. Come again, you say? These are balls of chocolate chip cookie dough, rolled in crushed cereal and deep fried, then garnished with maraschino cherries. Talk about rich! Like the corn, these were over the top, flavor-wise for me. Sweet and rich, and desperately crying out for a cold glass of skim milk to break up the intense, sugary, chocolately gooeiness. I'm not sure the intent or purpose of the cherries, exactly. Fresh cherries would a better choice, to add some tartness in the mix.

There were some balance issues with a couple of the dishes at Torchy's, but it must be said that despite these nitpicks, the food was really good. I would give this (gasp) chain a seven on the BHS scale.

Torchy's Tacos Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

I've got two big events coming up this week that I'm judging, and I hope to see you there. I attended Watertown's Taste of the Twon last year, as evidenced from this photo I found on the event's Facebook page this week:

Where's Hungry?

I'm going again this year, but I get to judge the thing this time! I can't wait to sample all the treats our local restaurants have devised, and I think we're all familiar with how much I like to pass judgement...so this should be fun. I especially love that this event helps out the Victims Assistance Center but also gives family-owned restaurants exposure to lots of new people. Here are the details - I hope to see you there!

Next week, I'm carbo loading at the first ever Mac and Cheese Fest, in Binghamton, which benefits the Binghamton Philharmonic. This event, at the Holiday Inn in Binghamton, is sold out, but hopefully a few of my foodie friends got their tickets. I'm so honored to serve as a judge at the inaugural event, and I'm looking forward to judging macaroni and cheese entries from my friends at Social on State, Food & Fire, Zona's, and more! 

Stay tuned for next week's post for the scoop on Taste of the Town's big winners! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


A Saratogan Refresh

I'm currently on my 11th consecutive day of travel, so I don't really have a real blog post in me this week. Can I just share some pictures and captions from my latest weekend in Sartoga Springs with you, and call it good? Thanks.

We stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott in town, which had big rooms and was very clean. Almost everybody there was super nice, except the guy who kicked us out of the lobby restaurant at 9:30 p.m. because we were taking up tables with a birthday celebration. Tables he said he needed. Guess what? There was no line out the door for a table at the restaurant in the lobby at the Couryard. Marriott fail.

Dinner at Max Londons: This tuna tartare was the highlight.

This lobster ricotta pizza...was not. 

The mushroom/egg/truffle version was marginally better, but still nothing to write home about.

At my old favorite, Hattie's, the fried okra was in good form.

The collards were really tough and dried out, however. Luckily, they came with fried chicken, so who cares?

The sweet tea was righteous: sweet but not sugary, and strongly brewed.

I love Saratoga. We discovered a very cool boutique this time called Violets that has adorable dresses, fabulous shoes, and fun accessories. If you visit, I highly recommend it. I'll be returning to the Spa City this June for a concert, so stay tuned for more eats from one of my favorite Capital-area haunts. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


Dispatch from Hamburg: Salads Made from Sausage

I'm in Germany this week for work, which mostly consists of standing around on a trade show floor with aching feet, encouraging reporters to write nice things about my company, but occasionally also means crispy pork, shimmering lakes, decadent desserts, and inky canals. Hamburg is a large city in Northern Germany that grasps the shore of the Elbe River, which in turn sends tendrils of its waters throughout the the city to form more canals than either Amsterdam or Venice has.

On my two previous trips to this waterfront metropolis, it was all work, no play, and while there is just as much work to go around this time, I'm trying to be better about seeing a smidge of the city infamous for bad weather and eel soup. BTW, the Germans call bad weather, "schmuddelwetter." Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

The first thing I ate after arriving, resting for a bit, and taking what may have been the best shower ever (Ok, to be fair, every shower after a long plane trip is best one ever), was a sausage salad at a really lovely, light-filled, canalside brasserie called Johannes Albrecht Brauhaus. The menu was mostly in German, which I do not speak, so I wasn't completely sure what a sausage salad would entail. Well, gird your loins, because:

It was literally a bowlfull of thinly sliced ring Bologna with pickled onions, capers and gerkins, topped with two pats of butter and served with three slices of brown bread. Ladies and gentlemen, this is my kind of salad! 

The sausage was mild and finely ground, like an Italian mortadella without the pistachios, and the brine of the various pickles with it cut through the fattiness of the pork. We were dubious about the butter, but when in Hamburg, right? So we smeared that right on those slabs of bread before piling them with sausage. This is savory, tangy, slightly sour and pleasantly salty MAN food. I'm not a man, but the approving grunts of the two male colleagues with which I supped proved this point succinctly.

And how doth one follow up a sausage salad? How about a roasted, then deep-fried pork shank, bacon sauerkraut, and a potato dumpling the size of a baseball? Welcome to Deutschland, folks! 

This beast was the most tender, succulent pork roast encased in a fresh pork rind so crunchy it was actually a bit difficult to pierce. With every bite, soft meat and crispy skin leant textural pleasure to the savory flavors flooding the tastebuds. The potato dumpling was bland in and of itself, but very light, and the small cup of brown gravy, never touched by a mix, made yummy work of it. The saurkraut was very fresh, with leeks in the piquant mix with the cabbage, and a small dice of mild bacon throughout. 

Perhaps less old school, but just as delightful, was dinner on my second night here, at a tiny restaurant just two blocks from the hotel I'm staying in, called Kasse Croute. We didn't mess around with any appetizers here, because who would want to wait to get to a stuffed oxtail nestled in a blanket of black truffle slices?

Yeah, baby. I don't even know what the oxtail was stuffed with, truth be told. Again, I don't speak or read the language here, and while I've found the people nicer this time around about trying to speak English, I'm not sure the word "forcemeat," or its details really translate. The oxtail was stuffed with meat, for sure, and it was mild, possibly pork. But with the shower of thinly sliced truffle over the top, I honestly wasn't all that concerned with identifying its source animal. This dish came with a side of very solid mashed potatoes that weren't overly creamy or buttery - just very potato-y and smooth. I also added on some roasted mushrooms, which complimented the truffles and meat beautifully, and were woodsy and buttery. 

This meal was already absolutely hearty and wonderfully tasty, but I just had to add dessert into the mix. Enter: mascarpone grantinee with strawberry rhubarb compote and almond ice cream. They brûléed the creamy, sweetened mascarpone cheese so that it smelled and tasted like a less-sweet toasted marshmallow. I think there was even some vanilla caviar mixed in with the cheese to up the flavor ante. The sharp, bright fruit played off the richness of the cheese gorgeously, and the almond ice cream anchored the flavors with its depth of nutty creaminess.

No joke, I might go back tomorrow night and get that dessert again. It was sinful and light and sweet and comforting, all at the same time. 

In our journeys Sunday, we also visited the ruins of a cathedral that was bombed during WWII:

With this special monument honoring the victims of the concentration camps, which is partially built out of bricks from the camps. It was touching to see this tribute here:

And then, to add levity to that weight, we returned to this perfectly idyllic European cobblestone street lined with cafes and enjoyed a beer outside:

So I'm enjoying this trip a bit more this year than usual. Have you ever visited Hamburg? Any tips for me that I can enjoy after 6 pm in the next two days? Let me know, because if not, I may just have that mascarpone dessert twice more. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!