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Archive for the ‘America’ Category

General Tso's chicken from Hunan Cottage in Fairfield, NJ

Over the spring Bank Holiday, Jon and I made a last-minute trip to New Jersey and New York for a family obligation. While these trips back to the New York area are always too short and too busy, we still managed to hit up some hometown favorites. For those of you who end up in north Jersey or are rushing around the tri-State area via Penn Station, here are some of my most-loved places to eat:

scallion pancake at Hunan Cottage

Crispy duck with mantou at Hunan Cottage

For Chinese, I love going to the Hunan Cottage in Fairfield, NJ. Although it was a relatively-long, 30-minute drive from our home, Hunan Cottage was the place we went to celebrate and/or treat ourselves when I was growing up. The exterior is hideous (like many highway-side businesses in the Jerz), and the interior isn’t much better. But the food’s freshness and tastiness are the star attraction. I know this next sentence sounds ridiculous because I’m describing a dish that is the chicken tikka masala of American Chinese food, but if you’ve never had General Tso’s chicken and want to have a positive first experience, you should try Hunan Cottage’s version. Theirs is made with chicken that’s always crisp and flavored with a well-balanced spicy-sweet-tangy sauce. Scallion pancake and crispy duck served with fluffy, hot mantou round out the items I miss most from Hunan Cottage.

Despite its name, Hunan Cottage serves dishes from lots of other regions of China (as almost all Chinese places have to do to survive in the ‘burbs), so you’ll have to set aside your desire for regional specificity here: xiao long bao fillings are juicy and dense with flavor; sauteed snow pea leaves are melt-in-your-mouth; and crispy fish is served whole and to a chorus of oohs and ahhs. Definitely a place I love to visit when I’m back in the Jerz. Most dishes cost less than $15, but a few of the specials-of-the-day cost $25.

Hunan Cottage, 14 Route 46 East, Fairfield, NJ 07004; (973) 808-8328.

Hunan Cottage on Urbanspoon

Everything bagel from Bagels 4 U

For breakfast, nothing beats a quick drive to Bagels 4 U (there are multiple locations in North Jersey, but we usually end up at the locations in Livingston or Short Hills (their original shop). I know the name is hardly confidence inspiring (4? U? Really?), but the bagels are crisp and shiny on the outside, chewy on the inside, and with a hint of the sweet yeastiness that smells like warm comfort. The key, as in any bagel place, is to order whatever’s the freshest from the oven, and while Bagels 4 U seems to have crossed over to the Dark Side and now offers “specialty flavors” (raspberry? grrr), the classics are all represented and going strong. Ceteris paribus, a sesame for me, please.

Bagels are about $11 for a dozen, and slightly more per bagel if you don’t go for the dozen.

Bagels 4 U, 69 E Northfield Rd, Livingston, NJ 07039; 973-761-0556

Bagels 4 U on Urbanspoon

large pizza margherita ($17) and small white pizza ($15) at Patsy's

Jon and I had exactly 1.5 hours free from family “stuff” and wanted to see some friends in Manhattan. We’d taken a train from NJ into Penn Station and had to catch another train out to Long Island (ahh, the Tri-State area), so where to meet that would be relaxing, tasty and quick? Patsy’s, of course. Is it the best pizza in New York? I’m not going anywhere near that. But it’s pretty darn good. Thin crust, fresh mozzarella, good sauce. The crust edges were a bit too thick, but after almost five years of living in London, I’d say Patsy’s pies tasted like manna.

Large pies start at $17 and small ones at $15. Toppings are $2.50 each, and there’s lots of salads and pastas available, too, in case you’re crazy and don’t want pizza.

Patsy’s, multiple locations in Manhattan, but the Chelsea one is convenient for those rushing around Penn Station. 318 W. 23d Street (between 8th and 9th Avenue), New York 1011; 646-867-7400. Closest subway stop: 23d street on the C, E, but just a 10-minute walk from Penn Station.
Patsy's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

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lobster roll at Neptune Oyster, photo by Skillet Doux

Finally. I arrived back in London this weekend. It’s been four weeks since I saw my beloved flat, and the rainy London weather is a welcome change from the freezing days and nights in Boston, where I spent last week. I ate out a lot.

From best experience to worst, here’s the roundup:

Neptune Oyster. Boston is full of little oyster bars, which tend to be a size just large enough to accommodate a bar and maybe four or five tables. The buzz and intimacy are the Boston equivalent of a cozy bistro. I’d wanted to eat at B&G Oysters, which is owned by chef Barbara Lynch, whose New American place, No. 9 Park, I really enjoyed last December. But B&G was fully booked, so Neptune Oyster’s no-reservations policy was my best hope for a quality clam chowder and lobster roll. The place was full on a cold Tuesday night, which could’ve been disastrous as there’s no place to stand while you wait for a table to clear, but my friends and I snagged the last available table. Dishes weren’t cheap — clam chowdah was $11, and a lobster roll was $25 — but both were great examples of their kind and well worth the price tag. The only miss that evening was a Special of the Day, a lobster “stroganoff” for $38. Which goes to show you that when you’re at an oyster bar, stick with the classics.  (Read this post at Skillet Doux – whose photo I used above – for a full rundown on what made the lobster roll so genius).

Neptune Oyster on Urbanspoon

Second-favorite resto meal in Boston last week was at Myers & Chang, which was a bigger but toned-down-in-flavor version of David Chang’s Momofuku Ssam Bar in New York. The atmosphere is young and trendy, and most plates are small, so you’re meant to order two or three per person. About a third of the menu offerings were just well-executed versions of straight-up Chinese (for example, the dan dan noodles ($8) were of the classic Americanized variety – more akin to cold peanut noodles than to the fiery goodness we know in London). The majority of menu items were more creative – like the fried chicken and waffles ($21), a dish that in its classic form makes you think “only in America.” The Myers & Chang version included not only a fragrant, crispy fried chicken but also waffles infused with ginger. It was clever but still delish. Braised short-rib tacos ($8 for two) and pork belly buns ($9 for three) rounded out my favorites of the evening, with the sweet potato fritters ($9) getting the lowest score for my not being able to see or taste the advertised Chinese sausage. It’s a fun place to go with a group.

Myers & Chang on Urbanspoon

L’Espalier is apparently the formal French Place-to-Be these days in Boston. With every year that I live in London, I grow increasingly tough on French restaurants in America. L’Espalier was no exception. Generic luxury green-and-beige color scheme? Check. Lots of suited-up servers? Location in a big luxury chain hotel? Check check. Jon and I were there to catch up with old friends, so it was OK that there were no fireworks from the food. Ultimately, I was most envious of a nearby table that had ordered an outrageously-large foie gras sauce-topped burger. Our prix fixe menu items were ho-hum, and unbelievably, our server didn’t offer us the wine list. We had to ask for it. C’etait bizarre.

L'Espalier on Urbanspoon

Needing a dim sum fix, I dragged my parents to China Pearl, which got rave reviews on Yelp and Urbanspoon. The place is huge and dingy, but it was certainly busy on a Sunday afternoon (which was the typical day and time to have dim sum when I was growing up). There were lots of carts going around, but oddly the only dish I thought was stellar was the shin-ju-kun, pork and bamboo wrapped in a tofu skin. All the prawn dishes (har gau, cheung fun) tasted mealy, assuming you could even find the prawns buried under all that rice wrapper, and the loh boh gau (turnip cake) was heavy and gluey. Sigh. What a disappointment. On the (minor) plus side, the resto offers validated parking at the garage around the corner on Beach Street. It’s America, after all. You have to take the car.

China Pearl on Urbanspoon

Brasserie Jo is located in the hotel where I stayed and around the corner from where I was working. It was therefore inevitable I’d eat there at least once. Let’s just say that my hanger steak tasted bitterly of char, and the frites were served lukewarm. The amber lighting and small-tiled floors are gorgeous, but otherwise, this brasserie was a bummer.

Brasserie Jo at the Colonnade Hotel on Urbanspoon

And the absolute bottom of the barrel for food was the Legal Sea Foods inside the Prudential Center mall. OK, yes, this is what I got for eating in a mall. But it’s Sunday night and I’ve just checked into my hotel. It’s cold and dark outside, and I’m craving clam chowder (which happened a lot while in Boston – go figure). So I figured the Legal Sea Foods would be fine. But it wasn’t. The chowder was all cream and starch, and the menu items were all a lot more expensive than I had expected (i.e., $25 and up for mains). Too much for a chain restaurant in a mall. When did LSF get so pricey? At least they had free refills of soda and lots of ice (ahh, America!).

Legal Sea Foods on Urbanspoon

In addition to the above, I ate a few good lunches at the burrito cart inside Back Bay station (skip the pork, though; it’s tough and horrible), enjoyed the waffle fries at the Brownstone, loved the thin-crust and tangy sauce at Upper Crust Pizzeria, and failed to see what the fuss was about re: the “healthy” burgers served at B. Good.

It’s nice to be back in London. And back to my regularly-scheduled London restaurant posts.

Neptune Oyster, 3 Salem St, Boston, MA 02113; +1 (617) 742-3474; closest T station: Haymarket

Myers & Chang, 1145 Washington St, Boston, MA 02118; +1 (617) 542-5200; closest T station: Back Bay (15 minute walk)

L’Espalier, 774 Boylston St, Boston, MA 02199, +1 (617) 262-3023; closest T station: Prudential or Copley

China Pearl, 9 Tyler Street, Boston, MA 02111, +1 (617) 426-4338; closest T station: Chinatown

Brasserie Jo, 120 Huntington Ave (part of the Colonnade Hotel); Boston, MA 02116; +1 (617) 425-3240; closest T station: Prudential

Legal Sea Foods, 800 Boylston Street (inside the Prudential Center mall), Boston, MA 02199; +1 617 266-6800; closest T station: Prudential

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quality time somewhere in Palm Beach County

Happy (belated) New Year! Unbelievably, I’m on week 3 of 4 in the U.S. I feel I’ve taken every plane, train and automobile on the East Coast by now, and I’ll be spending this week in Boston before returning to London, where I hear there’s lots of snow.

Because there’s definitely no shortage of cold and snow in Boston, I’m looking back very fondly on my week of sunshine in south Florida, where Jon and I mooched off stayed with Jon’s parents for New Year’s.

Much as I appreciate warmth and sunshine in the dead of winter, Palm Beach County’s dining scene seems to leave much to be desired. For years, our restaurant experiences have tended to be expensive and mediocre, so we try to eat at home as much as we can. But sometimes you just gotta leave your gated golf community, so below are the best and worst of what we ate this December 2009, for the next time you find yourself in Palm Beach/West Palm Beach. At least you’ll know what to avoid (and if you have recs, please leave a comment below – this was our fourth year in the area and we still can’t find a consistently-yummy resto to love).

fish tacos at Grand Lux Cafe at Sawgrass Mills

It speaks volumes that the best of our south Florida restaurant meals was at a Vegas-like chain in Sawgrass Mills (the world’s most overwhelming outlet mall). Grand Lux Cafe is owned by the Cheesecake Factory people, which tells you what to expect: enormous portions and ridiculously-lengthy diner-style menu. Still, if you keep your order simple (salads, mostly) and stick to appetizer or “lunch menu” items, the plates won’t be too big, and the ingredients will taste fresh. I greatly enjoyed my Southwest salad, which was packed with black beans, avocados, Monterey Jack and smoky bits of chicken, and Jon and I loved our fish tacos, which were hot from the fryer and accompanied by a zippy salsa. There are some scary-looking items on the menu, of course, but use your best judgment. Most lunch items were $15 or less, and the place is close to the upscale outlets of the Colonnade.

Grand Lux Cafe on Urbanspoon

good enough crab cake sandwich at Charley's Crab in Palm Beach, FL

Two more (small) chains tie for the title of “OK-but-not-great” dining in the area: Charley’s Crab in Palm Beach and Matteo’s Ristorante in Jupiter.

Charley’s Crab‘s primary selling points are its location overlooking the water in Palm Beach and its free valet parking. But the food is uneven. The “lobster spring rolls” highly recommended by our server had the thick, tough skin that could only have come out of a box, but the coconut shrimp was miraculously not overcooked and deliciously crispy, and my crab cake sandwich really hit the spot. Our lunch would’ve been a 100% positive experience had the starters not cost $15 and the mains upwards of $20. I know it’s Palm Beach, but I expect much fresher food at these prices.

Charley's Crab on Urbanspoon

Matteo’s Ristorante sits in a strip mall a stone’s throw from Juno Beach, and it’s typical of “family style” Italian restaurants: enormous plates of chicken- and veal-based dishes designed for sharing. Everything on the menu seemed to cost $25, but because each dish feeds about ten thousand people, a meal there can be relatively inexpensive if you don’t over-order. The fried calamari, chicken parm and planet-sized meatballs were hits. The chicken paillard, chopped salad and the spaghetti that accompanied the meatballs were extremely eh. Still, a fun place to go with your family or a large group of friends.
Matteo's Ristorante on Urbanspoon

The worst meal this December was at Spoto’s Oyster Bar, which has served us well in years past, so I’m not sure what happened this time around. Again in a strip mall, but an upscale one. And again serving seafood, but with a nod to a mishmash of global cuisines (so American). Fried oysters were under-cooked, though Thai mussels were served in a moreish, light, coconut curry sauce. The prawns in my angel-hair pasta were severely overcooked, and everything was drowning in butter. At $20+ for pasta, you expect a lot better. And our server seemed incapable of remembering our drinks order.

Spoto's Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

And that’s the sad story of my dining out in Palm Beach County this December. Next year, I’ll stick with Cuban food: Padrino’s Cuban gets my vote based on my meal there last December, and thanks to a friend’s rec, Havana Cuban is now also on my list.

I’ll be back in London next week, and with my luggage full of Ziploc, tortillas, Goya products and Skippy, I can’t wait to get home and back to business as usual.

Grand Lux Cafe, 1780 Sawgrass Mills Circle, Sunrise, FL 33323; +1 (954) 838-9711

Charley’s Crab, 456 South Ocean Blvd, Palm Beach, FL 33480; +1 (561) 659-1500

Matteo’s Ristorante, 4300 S US Highway 1, Jupiter, FL; +1 (561) 627-8515‎

Spoto’s Oyster Bar, 4560 PGA Boulevard, Palm Beach Gardens, FL 33418; +1 (561) 776-9448

Padrino’s Cuban, Mission Bay Plaza, 20455 State Rd. 7, Suite AA-1, Boca Raton, FL 33498, +1 (561) 451-1070

Havana Cuban, 6801 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach, FL 33405; +1 (561) 547-9799

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burger, fries and onion rings from Hodad's in San Diego

burger, fries and onion rings from Hodad's in San Diego

I’m back in London after spending five days in La Jolla, California, which included quick trips to LA and the ‘burbs of Orange County. I couldn’t get enough of the sunshine and wide, sandy beaches of SoCal, but sadly, my year-old Canon Elph drowned in seawater during a kayak outing off the coast of San Diego (Ziploc, how could you fail me?!?), so all the food photos I wanted to share are now lost.

Nonetheless, here’s a picture-free roundup of three seriously good meals in case you ever find yourself hungry in SoCal (and click here for my earlier post about our phenom meal at Tacos Por Favor in Santa Monica):

Hodad’s. It’s a San Diego institution. And once you’ve tried the goods, it’s easy to understand Hodad’s popularity. The sweet, crispy onion rings are alone worth the 11-hour flight to LAX and 2.5-hour drive down to San Diego. I ate so many of them that I failed to save room for their equally-fabled milkshakes. Next time (and there surely will be a next time) I won’t make that rookie error.

Hodad’s, 5010 Newport Ave, San Diego, CA 92107; +1 619-224-4623.

Hodad's on Urbanspoon

Cho Sun Galbee. My close friend and Orange County-Korean-chick-about-town, Jane, recommended this Korean barbecue in the heart of Koreatown. In the heat of summer, I had my doubts while driving past ugly concrete-block strip malls, but Cho Sun Galbee is an oasis. Jon and I sat outside in a shady garden and devoured Cho Sun Galbee’s tender, smoky-sweet bulgogi, which may be the best we’ve ever had. It wasn’t cheap ($24 a portion), but good Korean barbecue never is. Job chae and bibimbap were also tasty, but paled in comparison. Sleek interiors tells you this isn’t your grandmother’s Korean barbecue, but the food is classic and quality. The restaurant offers free valet parking, which I think is so L.A.

Cho Sun Galbee, 3330 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90019; +1 323 734 3330.
Chosun Galbee on Urbanspoon

Nha Hang Van. OC-born-and-bred, our friend (and talented wedding photographer) Lu knows his Vietnamese food. And when I told him I was craving banh xeo, he took us to Nha Hang Van, which specializes in banh xeo, of course. Perfect. The pancakes were thin and crispy and the prawns and beansprouts plentiful. A first for me, Nha Hang Van’s version included mashed-up mung bean which glued the fillings together and added a creamy texture. Also on offer were gorgeous sweet-potato fries and banh khot, which are coconut-scented mini-pan pizza versions of banh xeo. Basically, the cooks at Nha Hang Van know how to work a fryer and pancake batter, and with most dishes costing about $5, it’s no wonder that the place is busy all day. Wrap everything in lettuce and mint leaves and you can pretend you’re not clogging your arteries, but for a “lighter” dish, the steamed banh beo were excellent, too.

Nha Hang Van, 14122 Brookhurst Street, Garden Grove, CA 92843; +1 714-530-6858.

Nha Hang Van's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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interior of Tacos Por Favor in Santa Monica, California

interior of Tacos Por Favor in Santa Monica, California

Jon and I are in SoCal right now, and although I’m an East Coast girl, I must confess I’m enjoying the sea and sun around these parts.  And I’ve definitely been loving all the great Cal-Mex food.

Our fave Mexican fix so far has been at the divey Tacos Por Favor, which is just a dozen blocks east of the ritzy bits of Santa Monica.

huevos rancheros at Tacos Por Favor

huevos rancheros at Tacos Por Favor

Being jetlagged, we were counting the hours until the place opened at 8 am for breakfast.  And once in, I had a sinfully-good plate of huevos rancheros.  It doesn’t look like much, but I assure you there’s no better way to start your day than with fresh corn tortillas, smoky, spicy salsa, sour cream and an oozy poached egg.  The sides of fluffy, sweet tomato rice and creamy beans was a bit overkill at 8 am, but I’m on holiday, you know?

breakfast burrito at Tacos Por Favor

breakfast burrito at Tacos Por Favor

Jon opted for the breakfast burrito, which he felt was more 8 am appropriate, and maybe I’d be convinced he had a point if he hadn’t also wolfed down all the freshly-fried tortilla chips on the side.

The perfect accompaniment for all this heavy “I’m-ready-now-to-work-the-ranch” food were the light and refreshing watermelon agua frescas, the original flavored water.

With both our main dishes costing about $6 and all our food being made on the spot only after we’d placed our order at the cash register, I don’t know why we ate anywhere else while in Santa Monica.

Tacos Por Favor, 1406 Olympic Boulevard (14th Street), Santa Monica, CA 90404. (310) 392-5768.
Tacos Por Favor on Urbanspoon

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beef brisket pho at Momofuku Ssam Bar

beef brisket "pho" at Momofuku Ssam Bar

If you follow the New York restaurant scene, you’d be forgiven for thinking that everybody loves David Chang and his Momofuku Ssam Bar: The New York Times, New York Magazine, New York bloggers, London bloggers . . . .

Well, I dropped by last Friday for a last-minute, family-reunion lunch, and I think I’ve finally found people who hate Momofuku Ssam Bar: Jon’s relatives.

Looking back, it was rather brain-dead of me to have suggested Momofuku to a group that included strict vegetarians, pork avoiders, and Italian-restaurants-only diners. Most tragic of my mistakes, the group I convened at Momofuku Ssam Bar understandably wanted to sit a while and catch up, and while Momofuku is a lot of wonderful things, it’s definitely not a place to linger (see e.g., the restaurant’s no-coffee-or-tea policy).

Still, as long as you eat fish, pork or Asian food and don’t mind an in-and-out vibe (I know, that’s a lot conditions to fulfill), you’ll really enjoy Momofuku Ssam Bar. I did, anyway.

Korean rice cakes with sausage at Momofuku Ssam Bar

Korean rice cakes with Chinese broccoli and sausage

I loved the flavors of spicy Korean rice cakes served with broccoli and sausage like a classic gnocchi dish. The rice cakes were beautifully crisped on the outside, chewy and comforting on the inside. And visually a lot of fun.

hoisin pork in a steamed bun at Momofuku Ssam Bar

hoisin pork in a steamed bun

And the steamed pork buns were a pork-belly-lover’s dream. Crisp, pickled cucumber, sharp scallion and sweet hoisin to lighten the rich, fatty pork, all wrapped in a light, fluffy hot steamed bun. The perfect street food, except at $9 for two, you know Ssam Bar is no fast-food joint. Then again, a fast-food joint wouldn’t source from Newman Farm or Hudson Valley Foie Gras.

Definitely give the place a try the next time you’re in New York, unless, of course, you’re vegetarian, hate pork or want to linger at your table. Most plates are priced at $15-$20 each, so given the quality of ingredients and creativity of cooking, Momofuku Ssam Bar gets high scores for value.

Momofuku Ssam Bar, 207 2nd Avenue (at 13th Street); +1 212 254-3500; closest subway stations: 3rd Avenue (L) or 14th Street Union Square (4, 5, 6, L, N, Q, R, W).
Momofuku Ssäm Bar on Urbanspoon

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cheese trolley at No. 9 Park restaurant

cheese trolley at No. 9 Park restaurant

Normally when I travel, I look forward to finding good places to eat and then blogging about it. But for some reason, I think of trips back to the US as somehow not “counting” as travel. And so I rarely blog about places I like in the US. Which is stupid.

So let me tell you about a restaurant in Boston where I enjoyed a leisurely, tasty, sophisticated lunch a few weeks ago: No. 9 Park.

oysters starter at No. 9 Park

oysters starter at No. 9 Park

No. 9 Park sits on the Boston Common, which prides itself on being the oldest public park in America (dating back to 1634 – LOL). The dining room was simple and comfortable – I felt like I’d walked into a well-renovated (a Gordon Ramsay-owned, even) gastropub. And I liked that. I liked that a much-hyped “special occasion” restaurant in Boston felt so casual. I know Americans occasionally push the casual envelope a little too far, but I do wonder: why does a well-cooked meal using high-quality ingredients served by attentive, knowledgeable waiters have to come with thick carpeting and showy chandeliers (a la France)?

foie gras starter at No. 9 Park

seared foie gras starter at No. 9 Park

No. 9 Park falls into the popular category of “New American” (which has its English equivalent in the equally-non-descriptive “Modern British”). The ingredients and sauces are identifiably French, which is fine by me. I never say no to oysters, foie gras and duck confit, and with the seared foie gras in mind, I’d say No. 9 Park knows how to source.

duck confit at No. 9 Park

duck confit at No. 9 Park

None of the dishes were especially creative (meaning there were no flavor or ingredient pairings that made me wonder “how’d she think of that?”), but everything I ate was well prepared and delicious.

At $42 for a three-course meal that included foie gras and several cheeses from the chock-full-of-interesting-local-and-French cheeses trolley, No. 9 Park struck me as great value. It was an elegant, welcoming place to grab lunch and catch up with old friends.

Our servers seemed a tad too chirpy, but that’s likely just me reacting after months of more reserved service in Europe. I loved that my (tap) water glass was never empty, and our servers always seemed happy to answer our questions. I felt right at home. You will, too, so drop by the next time you’re in Beantown.

No. 9 Park, 9 Park Street, Boston, MA 02108; +1 617 742 9991; closest T station: Park Street
No. 9 Park on Urbanspoon

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Straight Wharf Fish Store, Nantucket island

Straight Wharf Fish Store, Nantucket island

I was on Nantucket island for less than 48 hours to attend the wedding of two good friends. Their hospitality was such that Jon and I ate only one meal “on our own,” and for that, we headed straight to the Straight Wharf Fish Store.

This Serious Eats blurb about the place called it “Nantucket’s Best-Kept Lunch Secret” and then included a photo of a magnificent-looking soft-shell crab sandwich. Surely they would serve a good lobster roll.

Straight Wharf Fish Store interior

Straight Wharf Fish Store interior

Straight Wharf Fish Store is definitely first and foremost a fish store. Lots of tanks of doomed crustaceans and fish; clean, no-nonsense white tile decor. I wondered at first whether they actually sold prepared food, but then I caught a whiff of rich, creamy clam chowder and knew this was the right place.

Lobster roll at Straight Wharf Fish Store

Lobster roll at Straight Wharf Fish Store

The bad news is that the Straight Wharf’s lobster rolls cost $18 each and are served with some pretty awful potato chips. The good news is that your buttered, toasted roll comes stuffed with 1/2 a pound of chunky lobster meat, touched up slightly with tangy mayo and crunchy celery. It didn’t look like much, but it was sweet summer decadence on a roll.

We devoured our sandwiches sitting on creaky picnic tables by the water. And I thought about how the lobster roll could only have come from America: they represent an almost-embarrassing abundance. What other country would treat fresh lobster meat like canned tuna?

The clam chowder ($6.50 a pint) was no slouch, either. It lacked big chunks of clam, but it made for an unbeatable companion while I stood in the rain, waiting for our ferry back to Hyannis.

Straight Wharf Fish Store, 4 Harbor Square, Nantucket, MA 02544; 508-228-1095. (When you get off the Hy-Line Ferry, just walk down the pier and you’ll see Straight Wharf on your right. If you hit Cap’n Tobey’s Chowder House, you’ve gone too far).

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Fish taco at Pancho Villa, San Francisco

Next to seeing so many close friends and family in the Bay Area, I was very excited to stuff my face with as much Cal-Mex as humanly possible over 72 hours. Jon and I were lucky to have so many local experts in the area to indulge us, so though we had to move around a lot during our trip, we managed to eat Cal-Mex in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland.

In San Francisco (the city proper), we ate at Pancho Villa Taqueria and Puerto Allegre. Pancho Villa started in the Mission district, which, you might already be aware, is ground zero for taquerias. But the location we tried is across the street from the posh gourmet Ferry Building, and you know, even at the fancier location, Pancho Villa feels like a dive where it’s all about the fresh, corn tortillas (that smell and taste like corn – a crazy concept if you think about the dominance of El Paso-brand, floppy yellow grossness in London groceries).

Because we went to Pancho Villa within an hour of leaving San Francisco Airport (i.e., we had been stuffed silly by the plane food you eat solely out of boredom), Jon and I were only able to scarf down one cheese-and-mushroom quesadilla and a fish taco. But wow, what a difference a quality tortilla makes – flour in the quesdadilla and corn in the fish taco. Salsas were fresh, spicy and varied. My kindgom for tomatillo salsa! Overall, I was happy with my sampling of Pancho’s offerings.

Generally, the Cal-Mex we ate tasted good, but my photos of the food didn’t come out looking so fantastic (see, for example, the photo at the top of this post. It’s of my fish taco at Pancho Villa). So there aren’t any entertaining snaps for this post, I’m afraid.

Puerto Allegre is in the Mission district, and when we dropped by on a Thursday night, our travel-exhausted selves were not amused by the 40-minute wait to get in to the restaurant. The decor is modest (think bowling-alley booths and tables), but the vibe is energetic and chatty. Margaritas are strong, and the nachos were outstanding – piled so high with spicy meat, cheese, and salsa that the server left us an extra bowl of plain nachos to get the right ratio of topping to cripsy, corn-tasting nachos.

My carnitas burrito was a little disappointing. It was enormous and slathered in a green sauce, necessitating fork and knife usage, which was too bad since I’m a big believer in foil-wrapped burrito as portable meal. I also thought the rice in the burrito was kind of damp and overly dense, but this could be my Asian bias for fluffy, dry-textured rice coming through. In any case, I’d go back to Puerto Allegre for the nachos and drinks, but I’d skip the burrito.

In Oakland, even though I wasn’t at a taqueria, I couldn’t resist ordering the huevos rancheros at the friendly, casual Somerset restaurant. My friend Margaret tells me Somerset is the place she goes for brunch, and I can see why. Our party of eight had servers who were happy to customize orders (just try asking for a customization in London!), and the menu included creative twists on brunch classics (e.g., lemon-ricotta pancakes). I was happy but not surprised that my eggs arrived fluffy and hot, spiced up with salsa and cheese, and accompanied by rich, black beans. The eggs sat on a thick corn pancake, which soaked up a tad too much oil, but no big complaints as everything tasted fresh. After ordering a separate side of avocado to complete my idea of perfect huevos rancheros, my state of well-being was complete.

In Berkeley, I went with another party of eight to Cancun Taqueria, a super-lively place near the Cal campus. The place is large and the seating is canteen style. When we arrived, a Cal football game had just ended, so the place was packed with crowds of students and Cal fans wearing college paraphernalia. The noise and cheery enthusiasm were a little too much for boring, old me, but we managed to snag eight seats at a long table, and then I happily guzzled down several flavors of agua fresca, which never ceases to amaze me with its “essence of fruit” tastiness. The nachos were good, though not as yummy as the ones at Pancho Villa, and my shrimp taco cost a rather pricey $5 for a single taco housing four overcooked shrimp. I was also thrown off by the black beans in the taco. I won’t pretend to be a Cal-Mex expert, but I’ve never had a taco that included black beans. If I go back to Cancun, I’ll just focus on drinking all the agua fresca flavors and maybe try a burrito.

It’s amazing how quickly I get spoiled. Any one of my Cal-Mex meals in the Bay Area would have kicked ass in London, but of course, being in the land of taquerias meant that I got pretty picky. I’m most likely to return to Pancho Villa before visiting Puerto Allegre and Cancun again, but they were all pretty good.

Despite the fact that I ate Cal-Mex for four out of six restaurant meals during my weekend in the Bay Area, I’m still craving more. I saw an article in the Times recently about the revamped test for naturalization, and there was, of course, some analysis of what it means to be an American. Given how my mild, occasional homesickness takes the form of craving Mexican food, it seems obvious to me that the test should include a question or two about tacos and burritos.

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Sweet Corn soup and shrimp tempura at Redd

I’m just back from the Bay Area! Jon and I were there for a long weekend for our friend Maura’s wedding, and after spending an excruciatingly-boring 12 hours on a BA flight from LHR (the on-demand system broke down – tragedy!), we arrived to bright sunshine and mild, breezy weather in San Francisco.

On Friday, we drove with our friends Margaret and Dan to Napa, which was rather ambitious considering we had to be back in San Fran by sundown for Yom Kippur services.

Nonetheless, we managed to visit an excellent wine cooperative in Napa (the Ancien and Destino wines were especially tasty and the snob in me loves that only miniscule numbers of cases are available) as well as enjoy lunch at Redd Restaurant in Yountville, just down the street from You Know What.

Yountville is a small town, and best I can tell, it consists of a main street lined with Thomas Keller-owned restaurant (Bouchon, Ad Hoc, French Laundry), but mixing it up is Redd.

The restaurant serves fresh, high-quality ingredients in attractive presentations. It’s all so no-fuss and casual that I took the food for granted, and it wasn’t until after the meal that I really appreciated how delicious our meal was.

My pork belly starter was tender and meaty, and at first I loved the sweet-and-salty teriyaki-ish sauce, but after a few bites, not even the crunchy frisee greens could soften the overwhelming richness. I ended up eating greedy spoonfuls of Jon’s cool, refreshing sweet corn soup, served with shrimp tempura for crunch (see photo at top of post).

Scallops at Redd

I loved my main course. I normally like scallops pretty raw, but even though these were cooked through so as not to be pink in the middle, they were still sweet, plump, and far from overcooked. The cauliflower-raisin-and-sliced almond “hash” served on the side, while not pretty, added texture and a nice variety of sweetnesses. Delish and worth every penny. (I tried hard not to think this way, but even at $25 a dish, that’s less in dollars than a main course at the gastropub across the street. Eating in USD was like – you know – Christmas came early!)

My one complaint about Redd (this one’s for my vegetarian friend, Margaret) is that it was too bad the lunch menu we had lacked vegetarian options. C’est bizarre for California foodie country, no? But the server was gracious and flexible about accommodating requests for customizations.

I’d certainly go back to Redd the next time I’m in Napa. The food is what I think of as California style . . . fresh and creative and served in a casual-luxe way.

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