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Posted by Michael Stern on Sunday, February 7, 2016 9:28 AM

Years ago Jane and I came across a roadside tourist attraction with a sign outside that said, "Prepare to be Amazed." I offer the same advice to anyone who goes to Carbone's Market for a grinder (Connecticut's word for a hero or hoagie). These sandwiches are huge. Lengthwise, yes – available as an 8-inch regular, as a Super-Sub, which seems about as long as a healthy newborn baby, and as a family-sized Extra Large, which I hadn't the courage to order. But length is not their most outstanding trait. What's truly amazing is girth. Each torpedo is a half-foot tall with an 18-inch circumference – far too large for any human jaw to encompass. In addition to the main ingredient of choice, which ranges from bologna to veal loaf – piled on in superabundance – all sandwiches come festooned with lettuce, tomato, cheese, mayo, oil, and spice. Other garnish options include bacon, onions, olives, pickles, and peppers.

I went for the roast beef grinder, which came highly recommended by indefatigable contributor ketteract, who has made it his business to seek out Connecticut's finest and largest grinders. The roast beef, made in house by Tony Renzullo, who's the great-nephew of founder Alphonse Carbone and has been running things here since 1972, is velvet soft and mild flavored. It would not be exciting on its own, but piled high in grinder form and boosted by a hail of pepper and salt and sliced onion and tomato and mayo and peppers, it is a hugely satisfying lode of meat. The bread that holds all these ingredients is sturdy enough. However, as is typical of Connecticut grinders, it is not a memorable loaf.

Grinders star, but Carbone's also has a steam table with hot dishes available. I tried the chili, which a sign warns is HOT; but it is not. It's good northern-style chili with great clods of ground beef and beans in a tomato-red emulsion that is a little bit sweet and just whisperingly peppery.

Carbone's is a neighborhood grocery store, and it seemed to me that just about everyone ordering sandwiches at the counter was a regular customer known to the staff. There is no indoor seating and just a trio of picnic tables along the sides of an adjoining parking area. Grinders are presented firmly swaddled in heavy butcher paper, making it easy to carry them to wherever they'll be eaten. But do not expect to munch one while driving anywhere. They're cut in two pieces, but even half a sandwich is a two-handed proposition, and some sort of drop-cloth is necessary to catch all the ingredients that inevitably tumble out.

In July, 2015, Carbone's Market was sold to new owners, who have promised to keep everything the same. Tony still will be roasting the beef, and the merry crew of sandwich makers behind the counter will remain.
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Posted by Michael Stern on Sunday, February 7, 2016 4:10 AM

Al's is heaven for those of us who spend our lives in search of great diner breakfast. It is smaller than small, wedged perpendicular to 14th Avenue among the shops of Dinkytown, near the University of Minnesota. Customers waiting for one of the fourteen stools at the counter stand hovering just above and behind those who are seated and eating. In the narrow space between the counter and the back bar, where Al’s hash slingers race to and fro with seasoned aplomb, decor consists of pictures of Elvis and Wayne Newton, foreign currency, and a sign that advises, TIPPING IS NOT A CITY IN RUSSIA (curiously, changed from an earlier sign that said TIPPING IS NOT A CITY IN CHINA). Also behind the counter is a pile of meal ticket books, each inscribed with someone's name. Many of Al's customers buy these books and keep them here, so they know they can come eat, using coupons instead of dollars, even when their wallet is empty.

The specialty of the house is pancakes, which are made with either a whole wheat or buttermilk batter, and are available studded with blueberries, walnuts or corn, kernels. We chose blueberries and buttermilk -- an enchanting balance of sweet fruit poised in their faintly sour medium, infused with butter. They were just barely sticky, delicate-textured, and profoundly satisfying, especially when lightly drizzled with maple syrup. Al's flapjacks are sold as a short stack (2), regular (3), or long (4); and you can also have your waitress garnish them with sour cream and/or strawberries.

The short-order chef up front spends his time poaching eggs, constructing omelets, and griddle-cooking corned beef hash and crisp hash browns. It is an old-fashioned pleasure to watch this guy work, handling about a dozen orders at a time, always snatching whatever he is frying, poaching, or grilling away from the heat at the peak of its perfection.
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Posted on Sunday, February 7, 2016

Fried mac and cheese with truffle sauce
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Posted by Michael Stern on Saturday, February 6, 2016 4:57 AM

My first pimento cheeseburger was at the Ruby Seahorse Café on Edisto Island in South Carolina. It was billed as "the original Dairy Bar Pimento Burger," referring to the generally accepted belief that it was J.C. Reynolds, proprietor of a place called the Dairy Bar in Columbia, who sometime in the early 1960s first had the brilliant idea of crowning a burger not with ordinary American or cheddar, but with pimento cheese. The Dairy Bar is gone, as is the Ruby Seahorse Café, but South Carolina in general and Columbia in particular remain a bonanza of excellent pimento cheeseburgers.

It is hard to imagine one more impressive than that listed on The Kingsman's menu as "The Palmetto." It is ten ounces of ground ribeye hand-pattied into a thick, rugged disc, grilled and put into an enormous bun along with a massive amount of rich pimento cheese, thick strips of bacon, and crisp-fried chips of jalapeno pepper. Connoisseurs get theirs all the way, meaning garnished with mayonnaise, mustard, lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle. The awesome monument of a meal arrives at table with a sharp knife plunged into it up to the bolster. The knife is a welcome tool, along with a fork, for this burger will test the dexterity and strength of anyone who tries to pick it up like some ordinary wimpy.

Somewhat less outrageous is the Kingsman's regular pimento cheeseburger – six ounces of certified Angus beef that is, in fact, quite delicious when paired with the zesty pimento cheese and topped with all the fixins. The French fries and onion rings I got alongside these four-star burgers were ho hum. Those in search of hot lunch rather than a burger will find satisfaction here. There are meat-and-three specials every day, including barbecue on Thursday and fried pork chops and/or chicken livers Friday, the vegetable list including superb peppery collard greens. For a non-burger hot sandwich, I highly recommend the Philly cheese steak, an upscale torpedo made with succulent strips of ribeye.

The Kingsman is a fascinating hybrid of restaurant genres. The room into which you walk at first looks like a tiny diner, complete with counter and short-order chefs working the flat tops. Beyond that is a larger room that has the feel of a neighborhood café: upholstered booths and unclothed tables, a short counter here with a view of whiskey bottles on the shelf, but also of the big urns of ice tea, a favorite lunchtime drink. Then there is a third room – deeper, quieter, more tavern-like. By mid-meal, all three rooms are perfumed by hamburgers and filled with rollicking conversations of customers. I arrived just before noon. Soon thereafter, all seats were occupied and there was a wait for tables.
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Roadfood of the Day: Diner Grill - Chicago, IL
Posted on Saturday, February 6, 2016

Slingers are associated more with St. Louis than Chicago, but don't let that stop you from enjoying one at Chicago's Diner Grill, particularly if it's after midnight.
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Roadfood of the Day: Wedron Office - Ottawa, IL
Posted on Friday, February 5, 2016

Bluegill is a restaurant rarity because you need a lot of fillets to make a meal, but what a wonderful meal it is, each little curl of white fish offering sweet, freshwater flavor encased in a nutty, toasty crust.
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Posted by Michael Stern on Thursday, February 4, 2016 4:06 AM

The Triangle is a single building – a dazzling one, triangular in shape, 1960s in spirit – and it is two different restaurants, each with its own entryway. At the back against the hypotenuse is a lunch-only cafeteria where, for under $10, customers pile their trays with fried chicken, vegetables, and slices of made-here layer cake. Up front at the vertex in a room with picture-window walls and do-wop décor, dinner is served starting at 5:30pm.

Steaks star at dinner: filets, sirloins, and a broad beauty named John's ribeye (named for owner and chef John McDowell). They are grilled on the flattop and so develop a savory skin with a bit of crunch at the edges. The sirloin can't be beat. It is thick and easy to slice and runs savory juice as soon as it is breached with a knife. The plate-wide ribeye, although thinner, is lushly marbled and even juicier. The filet mignon, at eight ounces, is all meat, not quite so flavorful but ridiculously tender. On the side come either French fries, sweet potato fries (along with a shaker of cinnamon sugar), or a foil-wrapped baked potato.

The dinner menu also lists fried shrimp (more about the fried than the shrimp), pork chops fried or broiled, and an array of sandwiches including thick-sliced fried bologna with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise on toast. Next time I get this deliciously unctuous B(ologna)LT, I'll ask for it on a bun. Toasted white bread isn't sturdy enough to hold the substantial slab of meat and all its garnishes.

For dessert, there's cake: Key lime cake (bright green), red velvet cake (bright red), hummingbird cake, coconut cake, and strawberry shortcake. Although the strawberry shortcake is topped with pseudo-whip and the syrupy topping shows little evidence of ever having been a berry, I found myself returning for more and more forkfuls, like it was some kind of addictive Little Debbie snack cake. On the other hand, red velvet cake is a no-excuses triumph, the cake itself cocoa-rich and not too sweet, so well abetted by an abundance of cream cheese frosting. Hummingbird cake with its double-tap salvo of pineapple and banana, plus nuts, will sate the most demanding sweet tooth. The cakes are moist and good on their own, but my waitress reminded me that they also can be had a la mode.

It is fun to eat in the dinner part of the Triangle, where one is serenaded by the sizzling grill and the bell that rings to let waitresses know that orders are ready to serve. Décor is 45rpm records, Coke ads, and other mid 20th century pop-culture iconography; and the view out the big, slanted windows is of the parking lot – an appropriate vista for a restaurant that dates back to the heyday of car culture.

Eating lunch in back, where there is no do-wop decoration and there are no picture windows, has charms all its own – of the edible variety. Service is cafeteria-style, not a buffet, meaning staff dishes out the food, which customers receive and put on a tray. (In other words, no other diners will be playing pattyfingers with your corn bread muffin.) It's a meat-and-three affair, or meat-and-two or meat-and-one for meager appetites, where the day's two or three entrees might be fried chicken, salmon patties, and meatloaf and side dishes are the likes of broccoli-rice-cheese casserole, braised cabbage, mashed potatoes, peas, and beans. The same impressive layer cakes are available here, as are bread pudding and Watergate salad. Although you do tote your own tray to a table, a staff of eager waitresses is always ready to help and to refill glasses of tea or lemonade.

Notes: Lunch is served Monday through Friday, 11am – 2:30pm. Dinner is served Monday through Saturday starting at 5:30pm. While a steak dinner can cost $20 or more, lunch is under $10.
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Roadfood of the Day: Huck's Catfish - Denison, TX
Posted on Thursday, February 4, 2016

Catfish and stuffed crab combo
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Posted by Michael Stern on Wednesday, February 3, 2016 4:09 AM

A list of house rules posted at the Serving Spoon includes admonitions to relinquish a table when you’ve finished so others have a chance to eat and “if you encounter a celebrity sighting, give them the respect of allowing them to complete their dining experience should you decide to approach them.” The rules make sense: the Serving Spoon is so popular that it’s common to wait for a table; and it is a magnet for a cadre of Los Angeles glitterati. For all that, it is tremendously friendly. New arrivals are greeted at the door by a host who is nothing but hospitable.

On a podium up front, a sign that says if there will be a wait for a table and how long it might be. When the time comes, you will be directed to a booth or table or armchair seat at a long diner-style counter. ESPN plays on a few overhead TVs, but unless an important event is on, it is totally drowned out by an ebullient room that bustles with conversation, music, and good vibes. Everyone who eats here seems very happy to be doing so; and that good cheer is amplified by a staff who all seem equally happy to be on the job. My waitress fretted terribly when I didn’t finish all my fried chicken, insisting I take it with me in a to-go box along with veggies and cornbread that I hadn’t polished off.

The menu features such homespun items as chicken and waffles, pork chops, catfish, and vegetables galore. In fact, on a recent visit, I forewent an entrée altogether and enjoyed a four-“vegetable” plate that included sweet potatoes spiced like Christmas and tender, clumpy collard greens that were as satisfying as meat. Also on the plate were that beloved southern-style vegetable, mac ‘n’ cheese, which was spicy, soft, and satisfying, and a bowl of thick, brightly-spiced, beanless chili con carne. On the side came a slab of cornbread nearly as sweet as pound cake; and the meal concluded with syrupy peach cobbler.

Notes: *As limited as seating may be, parking can be even scarcer. *Serving Spoon’s location makes it an ideal first or last stop on the way from or to LAX.
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