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Posted by Michael Stern on Tuesday, November 3, 2015 3:06 AM

Shrimp Platter

I came to O'Steen's on an expedition to find St. Augustine's best Minorcan chowder; and sure enough, this is where it is. Similar in appearance to Manhattan clam chowder, it radiates the fruity potency of the locally-grown datil pepper which, like its botanical cousin the habanero, delivers heat in a slow-rolling but inexorable wave of exhilaration.

The chowder punch turned out to be only a prelude to the main attraction here: fried shrimp. Florida's north coast claims to be the birthplace of the shrimping industry; and while the shrimp around here aren't the biggest, and their nature varies from season to season and depending on what exact variety you are eating, these are shrimp to remember. Available in orders of 9, 12, 18, or 24, they are each butterflied to resemble the lines inside the circle of a peace symbol. Sheathed in a crunchy veil, their pink flesh packs snap and nutty luxury.

The shrimp are served atop a pile of French fries and they are accompanied by a ramekin of the kitchen's special pink sauce for dipping. To give the sauce an extra charge, O'Steen's datil pepper sauce is set out on tables and at the counter in Grolsch beer bottles. While my waitress suggested I mix it with the pink sauce, I loved the unadulterated hot sauce so much that I poured a puddle of it on the plate and used it as a dip for everything I could find: the shrimp, of course, plus the French fries as well as hushpuppies, corn bread, and biscuits.

O'Steen's is a small cafe with a sign on the wall that warns, "If you have reservations, you are in the wrong place." It takes no credit cards, has no tablecloths, and serves no liquor. It is so immensely popular that there always is a wait, even at 11:30am and 5pm. An antiques mall on the other side of the parking lot invites O'Steen's customers to shop until their place becomes available, a small sign outside its door promising, "Hear names on the speaker inside … Enjoy the shrimp."
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Roadfood of the Day: BBQ Land - Santa Maria, CA
Posted on Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The tri-tip sandwich is traditionally topped with fresh salsa on grilled and buttered French bread, and BBQ Land's version is phenomenally tasty.
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Posted by Michael Stern on Monday, November 2, 2015 4:17 AM

You likely will meet Chef Bob when you eat at his café. Throughout mealtime, he comes forth from the kitchen with great basins of butter beans or corn niblets or a tray of fried pork chops as these items need to be replenished on the buffet line. If he happens to pass your table carrying a new supply of fried catfish, he likely will offer you a piece hot from the fryer. When he asks if you are enjoying the meal, he really does want to know. If he isn't too busy cooking, he might sit down at the upright piano near the front door and play a tune or two, perhaps one he wrote himself.

As befits so hospitable a host, Bob's cuisine is Southern comfort. The first time I came by I relished lunch of crisp-fried chicken along with flavorful, starchy field peas, collard greens, rice and gravy, plus biscuits and cornbread. The buffet does not offer a huge assortment: maybe six side dishes and a couple of entrees. The alternative entrée that day was chicken parmesan.

Lunch is served every day; on Friday and Saturday, there's dinner, too, and the Friday night seafood buffet is abundant: she-crab soup, crab legs, fried oysters, deviled crab, popcorn shrimp, Low Country shrimp boil, and catfish fillets, plus access to a minimal salad bar and dessert. Non-buffet types chose from a dinner menu that includes pork chops, fried chicken, beefsteak, and catfish fillets broiled or deep-fried – all served with fixin's galore.

Bob's buffet is an all-you-can-eat deal, and customers are encouraged to return to the line as often as appetite requires. However much you do eat, reserve some of that appetite for desserts. Plural. They are plentiful and good, ranging from creamy banana pudding to death-by-chocolate cake and including, in season, moist and fruity strawberry shortcake. As I polished off my apple pie one evening, the waitress, who had spent most of the meal circulating around the dining room to refill everybody's tea glass and to encourage folks to pile their plate with seconds and thirds, pleaded with me to go back to the line for more dessert. With great glee, she reminded me of the sign above the front door emblazoned with Bob's motto: "If you leave hungry, it's not my fault!"
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Posted on Monday, November 2, 2015

Warm, fluffy popovers are delicious on their own, but even better topped with homemade strawberry and blueberry jams!
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Posted by Michael Stern on Sunday, November 1, 2015 3:17 AM

Toni's is a few blocks off U.S. 41, the main road leading up through the Keweenaw Peninsula. We likely never would have found it if an enthusiast we met down in Houghton hadn't told us that we needed to detour there for the nisu and saffron breads. Those loaves, which are made by many Finnish bakeries in northernmost Michigan, were just a few of the wondrous eats to be had at Toni's.

Sticky buns, for example. We smelled them the moment we walked in the front door. Three big round loaves of pull-apart buns were set upon the glass bakery case to cool. Each roll severed from the motherloaf was modest-sized but big-flavored. Just inside the front door, to the left, we peeked into the semi-open kitchen, where bakers were rolling dough on a floured table and another woman was plowing forearm-deep to hand-mix a big pan full of ingredients destined to be the filling of pasties. Toni's pasties are exemplary, light and elegant yet profoundly beefy.

It was late fall when we stopped in. The modest, one-room cafe was buzzing with conversations among locals who were reminiscing about the summer and anticipating the snows to come. When we ordered pasties, the waitress beamed with pride and exclaimed, "The best, ever!" We left with bags full of oven-warm molasses cookies to munch as we drove.

Note: Toni's closes just before Christmas and reopens at the end of January.
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Roadfood of the Day: 400 Degrees - Nashville, TN
Posted on Sunday, November 1, 2015

Breast quarter, 200 degrees.
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Posted by Michael Stern on Saturday, October 31, 2015 5:02 AM

Boca Tacos Y Tequila is a brash joint with graffiti on the walls, outside lavatories, and smart-ass attitude expressed by the overhead sign that crows, "Our salsas are hotter than your wife." Rude and crude all that it may be, but the people who work here are nice when they explain the kitchen's unique dishes and, more important, those dishes are very, very good.

Chef Maria José Mazon guarantees that her tacos contain no yellow cheese, ground beef, or iceberg lettuce. They are elegant little pockets, available on a choice of homemade corn or flour tortilla and nearly all of them adorned with cabbage and guacamole. Grilled octopus, squash, fire-roasted corn, and barbacoa are some regular fillings, and Mazon offers every-Wednesday exotic meat night, featuring anything from silkworms to snapping turtle to elk. "If it's already dead, I can make it into a taco," she once joked to a reporter.

With tacos come extraordinary salsas, an ever-changing repertoire that includes chipotle, mango-habanero, watermelon-pepper, pickled carrots, and ginger-wasabi. A special treasure on the menu, listed as an appetizer, is Mazon's Boca ball – a sphere of mashed potatoes infused with chipotle peppers, rolled in panko crumbs, deep fried, and served with chile sauce that is a balance of cream and spice.

For customers watching their waistline, "taco lites" are available – the ingredients you like wrapped in lettuce instead of a tortilla.
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Posted on Saturday, October 31, 2015

That's a serving of boiled crawfish for one! They do love their mudbugs around here.
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Posted on Friday, October 30, 2015

Leg quarter: a mix of dark-meat succulence and tongue-searing heat
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Posted by Michael Stern on Thursday, October 29, 2015 3:13 AM

Like ice cream, potato chips, and coffee, hamburgers have gotten much better over the last few decades. There are more and better choices all up and down the status ladder. Cheap or fancy, good ones are plentiful. But great ones remain hard to find. Poppy's serves a great one.

It is not an unusual or outrageous burger in any obvious way. It is decent-size, an honest quarter pound, crusty and irregularly shaped, thick enough to ooze juice but not boastfully large. A single is listed on the menu as a Classic Little. Two in a bun is a Classic Big. Both automatically come with a spill of chopped sweet red onion and a melting mantle of Adirondack cheddar cheese (from Barneveld, NY), which is sharp enough to be a significant presence, but not so flavorful that it in any way detracts from the booming protein flavor of the beef. Like the cheese, and like so much of the menu here, including tomatoes in tomato season and Hudson Valley lettuce, the beef used to make these burgers is local. The menu promises it is grass-fed and humanely raised and has a "distinct, clean flavor that melts in your mouth." Yes, it does. Other burger options include a BBQ bacon burger, an egg-topped burger, and even a veggie patty made of beans. Beyond burgers, there is a short list of beefless rice bowls and salads available.

Every good hamburger deserves a good spud companion. Poppy's offers two: sweet potato chips that are sliced see-through thin – crisp and elegant – and French fries that are gorgeous golden twigs, served piping hot.

For all the attention paid to the provenance of the provender, Poppy's is a casual, bare-table, paper-napkin sort of place. Burgers come wrapped in foil; and while glasses are available for soft drinks and beer, my waitress apparently sized me up as a more rugged sort of guy, bringing my root beer in its bottle with the twist-off cap still attached. For those who came to Poppy's back when it opened in 2009 and service was do-it-yourself, note that it has since remodeled, but not dramatically. Indoor seats are at handsome wood-back booths and out back there is now a nice patio for open-air eating.
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