My business travel provides me with the opportunity to experience the best food in the country. But, too often, I don’t take advantage of it. When I arrive in a city late in the evening and all my backed-up e-mail is pressing on me, it’s just too easy to unpack the laptop and grab a bad burger at the hotel bar. Or go across the street to one of the indistinguishable chain restaurants and choke down something there.
This year I’m trying to break that habit. There’s too much good food at good prices out there. I just have to find it. Fortunately, there’s an entire media empire devoted to showing me where it is.
Diners, Drive-ins and Dives
Last week I was in Dallas, Chicago and Nashville, three cities in four days. These cities are favorite locations for Guy Fieri and Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. Since I had time in each, I went to the fan site Flavortown USA and planned my trip. In return for an hour reading reviews and scrolling through maps, I got a deeply funky burger joint, some awesome seafood and whole hog BBQ.
Maple and Motor
My first stop was a late lunch at Maple and Motor, a tiny dive on the west side of Dallas. According to Triple-D, they’re known for their burgers and the locals love them. That must be true because when I got there, there was a line out the door.
You place your order at that counter, then wait for one of the dozen or so tables to open up. A floor manager guides people, in order, to appropriately sized tables, trying to maximize the use of his seating. There is no extra chair for your coat in this place.
I’d come in expecting to order something like a Cowboy Style burger (Chile, cheese and onions) or bacon cheese burger with grilled jalapenos. But when I got to the counter, I saw they had fried baloney sandwiches. I haven’t had a fried baloney sandwich in probably 35 years. As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to have one. I ordered it with mustard and grilled jalapenos with a side of cheese fries with pickled jalapenos. I took my seat at one of the four bar stools and waited.
When the sandwich arrived, it was an instant flashback to childhood. The bun was soft and light. It had been toasted so crispy that after my first bite, I took the top off to see where all that crunch was coming from. The baloney was cut about half an inch thick and was fried till the exterior was almost blackened. I don’t think I’ve ever said “great baloney flavor” before, but that’s what it was.
The cheese fries were good, but nothing special. I really wished I could have sampled some of the local brews behind that miniscule bar, but I was on my way to a meeting. Maybe next time.
If there is a next time, I’m definitely getting a burger. They looked and smelled great. While that baloney sandwich was a nostalgic rush, I think it was a onetime thing.
Wednesday night was Glenn’s Diner on the border of the North Center and Ravenswood neighborhoods in Chicago. Glenn’s was, by far, the highlight of the trip. The food was superb and the staff were great. I’d go back to this joint in a heartbeat.
Glenn’s specializes in fresh seafood and cold cereal. I’ve never been in a place where I could get my choice of 15 different fish or over 25 different cereals. Striped Sea Bass? Check. Apple Jacks? Check.
The dining room is small, packed and colorful. The walls are taken up by the chalk boards that comprise the menus. Everything is fresh and listed daily. If they run out of a selection, they place a little “Going fishing” tag over that entrée. A friend of mine had to change his order twice because they were selling out as we were ordering.
The best part of Glenn’s was our waiter. He was a total hipster, with hipster hair, hipster glasses and a hipster beard. He was personable and he knew his menu and wines like the back of his hand. We talked about my tastes and what wines paired well with which dishes during the drinks and appetizer rounds. He nailed every selection. By the time I was ready to order my entrée, I just told him, “I’m getting the Crustacean Pot Pie. What am I drinking?”
The pot pie was excellent. Big chunks of scallops and shrimp in a flaky pastry crust. What really made the dish though was the sautéed mushroom gravy served over the top. The mushrooms added a deep earthy flavor that really complemented the delicate seafood and white sauce. What I tried of my friends’ dishes were all top notch, too.
We finished the evening with Bananas Foster, Key Lime Pie and a warm brownie al a mode.
This place really earns its Zagat’s 25 rating. Not bad for a little dive.
Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint
Friday was a day-trip to Nashville. After finishing my last meeting, I had enough time before my flight home to head southeast to Nolensville, TN and Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint. Watching Martin’s segment on Triple-D, the big appeal was their custom whole hog pit attached to the dining room.
From the outside, Martin’s isn’t exactly what you’d expect from a Bar-B-Que Joint. It’s a new building which shares a parking lot with a strip mall, a pharmacy and a Sonic Drive-in. It’s got its own drive through window and, at least while I was there, most of their business seemed to be take-away.
I ordered a SweetWater 420 Pale Ale and a pulled pork sandwich with a side of pinto beans. The pork was cooked perfectly. It was pulled to order, tender and juicy. The Devil’s Nectar sauce had great flavor with a nice punch of heat.
The one thing I realized while I was there though is that for pulled pork, I prefer smoking Boston butts to whole hog. For all the showmanship and drama of whole hog, this method lacks a bit in the flavor. Depending on where your portion comes from, you can miss out on the “bark” (the burnt black crust and deep pink smoke ring) that carries so much flavor. My sandwich had almost no bark in it and there was only a hint of the house-made rub that owner Patrick Martin talked about on Triple-D.
Compared with a whole hog, an eight pound Boston butt has so much more surface area that your almost guaranteed to get a nice bit of bark in every serving.
In the next couple of weeks I’ll be going to several other big Diners, Drive-ins and Dives cities. Hopefully, I’ll be able to carve out time to try this experiment again. It worked out really well this time.