Archive for July, 2010


Avocados (not local, but delicious)

It’s summer. It’s warm and sunny. The fresh, local produce in New Jersey is hard to beat.

Right down the road, there’s a stand that sells the produce they grow in their back yard. So far I’ve had their tomatoes (bucket loads of them), grape tomatoes, corn, summer squash, zucchini, onions, and one peach. All delicious. As I was recently saying to Charlie, I don’t know how I’ll ever be satisfied with store-bought tomatoes again. These just have so much more flavor.

That’s not even to mention the other farms and farmers markets very near me (Russo’s Farm, Trenton Farmers Market, the once-a-week Farmers Market in Hightstown, etc.), where I’ve gotten locally-grown delights.

And, ever since I heard from the Nutrition Diva (whose podcasts I love) that eating two whole tomatoes a day wasn’t being a glutton (I submitted my question via Facebook), I have been trying to turn into a tomato this summer!

Not to mention, there are perfectly ripened avocados that I can find in Whole Foods for $5 a bag. Although they aren’t local, they taste perfect. Until we live in an avocado-growing locale again, I think this is the best I can hope for.

Summertime meals center around fresh produce and, often, consist of that produce either washed and sliced or slightly doctored up:

Our Wednesday (and then also Thursday) night dinner

The above dinner was photographed only on my iPhone (like the avocado above) and in a rather poorly lighted area, which accounts for its poorer quality. I don’t always think to photograph our meals at home, although when I’m particularly proud I do.

This one consisted of a recipe from the Everyday Food magazine, which I love. It was the Spring-Vegetable Couscous with Chicken. I wish I’d made it when we had local asparagus, but we were just moving then and I couldn’t get myself in gear. Another change I made to the recipe was due to the fact that I discovered while making the recipe that I didn’t have any regular couscous (the recipe called for 1 cup). I had about 2/3 a cup Israeli couscous (larger size) left in a container, but that’s all. Hmmm … I decided to add bulgur wheat to fill out the 1-cup measure, so the amount would be similar to what the recipe called for. It worked! So, we got a little more whole grain than the recipe might have intended.

The star of the meal, although the tomato is always a star in my book, was the stuffed squash. I followed a recipe I found for Stuffed Summer Squash. If you scroll to the bottom of the linked blog entry, there’s the recipe. I followed it pretty thoroughly, except I didn’t have any of the recommended cheeses, so I shredded some Fontina we had. The only other “unhealthiness” added were bread crumbs I made from some whole wheat we had on hand and the 2 Tbsp of olive oil used to make the 4 servings of the side dish. Most of the contents of the stuffing were onions and squash guts (technical term, I’m sure). All in all, it was a pretty good-for-you way to dress up this plentiful summertime vegetable. It was quite tasty and you didn’t lose the squash among the other flavors. Baked summer squash is QUITE delicious.

A bad shot of good corn

So, with all these delicious and healthy summer options at my fingertips, WHY did I make reservations tonight for a new German/Swiss/Austrian restaurant that opened up in a small town near us?

Because I’ve been blogging and blogging and blogging about some of the Euro-cuisine I sampled last summer and it’s got me craving the stuff.

Do doughy dumplings and hot, saucy meats sound particularly summery? No.

Is this the stuff real Germans (etc.) eat day-in-day-out during hot summer weather? As far as I observed, no.

Should I eat Wursts just because I can? No.

Am I still looking forward to it nonetheless? Yes!

So, soon I’ll be posting a review of this newly-opened restaurant. I hope it serves good enough food to satiate my nostalgia-craving for awhile. Then I can get back to the very, very good foods that await me at my local farmers markets (and there are many more than I’ve already tried this year).

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Right before I went to Germany for two months, I was chatting with a professor of mine. She mentioned that one of her favorite places in Berlin was Einstein Café on the broad thoroughfare Unter den Linden, and she recommended the Apple Strudel. I tucked away that advice and, although I don’t typically pick apple desserts when given other options (like chocolate-anything), I planned to get the stereotypically Austrian/German sweet pastry.

Apfelstrudel in Vanilla sauce (from Einstein)

Thus began my love affair with Apfelstrudeln (apple strudels). A particular German song, which I happen to love, seems apt:

“Lass Mich Nie Mehr Los” by Sportfreunde Stiller

[Note: Below are only two verses and the chorus, the song continues further.]

Wie New York ohne Sinatra
Wie Wien ohne den Prater
Wie ein Herzschlag ohne Blut
Wie Lindenberg ohne Hut
Wie ’ne Eiszeit ohne Schnee
England ohne Tee
So als ob bei Steve McQueen die ganze Coolheit fehlt

Jeder Boxer braucht ’ne Linke,
Kiss braucht viermal Schminke
Tonic braucht Gin.
Wie wär ein Leben ohne Sinn?
Wie ein leeres Paket
Wie ein Rad das sich nicht dreht
So als ob anstatt ’nem Sturm nur ein leichter Wind weht,

So bin ich ohne dich
Du hältst mich; mir fehlt nichts.
Lass mich nie mehr los.
Lass mich, lass mich nie mehr los
Lass mich nie mehr los.
Lass mich, lass mich nie mehr los

English Translation by Kara (it rhymes nicely in the German, not in my translation, though):

Like New York without Sinatra, Like Vienna without the Prater, Like a heartbeat without blood, Like Lindenberg without a hat, Like an Ice Age without snow, England without tea, Like if Steve McQueen existed but without any coolness …

Every boxer needs a left, Kiss needs four times the makeup, Tonic needs gin, How’d life be without meaning? Like an empty package, A bike you don’t pedal, Like if there was a storm but only a faint wind blew …

Chorus – That’s how I am without you. When you hold me, nothing’s missing. Never let me go. Never, never let me go. Never let me go. Never, never let me go.

Romantic black & white photo of APFELSTRUDEL (notice the edge blur? Oh yeah!)

I propose a new lyric that I think would fit perfectly in my food experience: “Wie Deutschland ohne Apfelstrudeln” (“Like Germany without apple strudels”). Germany without my beloved strudel? It’s inconceivable. Such an idea goes against all that is good, right, and real in the world. It cannot be! Like the band Kiss requires makeup and a heartbeat intrinsically requires blood, that’s how German food would feel to me without the sweet Nachspeise of Apfelstrudel. It’s totally love-song-worthy.

(Isn’t that sweet German love song? You’ve got to hear it. So lovely.)

Einstein menu

That's me, all by my lonesome, at Einstein in Berlin

I had a lovely first taste of the dessert at the recommended locale: Einstein Café on the wide boulevard that leads to the Brandenburg Gate, Unter den Linden. I sat outside, enjoying the sun (like a good German would, I’ve observed). The prices were pushing my budget, for sure. But this is a famous café and, after all my wanderings in Berlin, finding a table gave my feet a chance to relax.

Einstein menu

I had a “Braune” coffee, which meant that along with my dark coffee, I was served a small, warm pitcher of steamed milk to mix as I saw fit.

Kaffee

And I had a piece of Apfelstrudel in vanilla sauce.

My table at Einstein

Mmmm. I ate it slowly to savor the perfectly cooked apples in the crisp, yet buttery, pastry. The creamy sauce added to the sweetness. Heavenly.

The next time I had Apfelstrudel was as a dessert at a dinner in celebration of a fellow student’s birthday. We’d gathered at a somewhat grungy pub, Tiergarten-Quelle, located directly under the Tiergarten S-Bahn station.

Tiergarten-Quelle entrance

The dinner was delicious and I insisted that I couldn’t eat another bite. Until a friend suggested splitting an Apfelstrudel with me. Why not twist my arm a little? Of course, I said yes. And I’m so glad I did.

THE BEST Apfelstrudel (... at least that I tasted)

Tiergarten-Quelle has the best Apfelstrudel I’ve ever stuffed in my mouth. It was piping hot, topped with ice cream and whipped cream, dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar.

Oh gracious! If I hadn’t been so full, I might have resorted to wicked tricks to steal the other half from my friend. But I knew this dessert was not just a line Maria von Trapp/Julie Andrews sings from “My Favorite Things.” This was one of my favorite things!

Charlie's enthusiasm is rightly invested in this dessert

As it turns out, once my husband met up with me in Berlin, this was the first (and then third) Apfelstrudel he tasted. It was, thus, my second, third, and fifth.

So, from whence came the elusive fourth (or Charlie’s second) Apfelstrudel? Where else but in Wien (Vienna, Austria), its purported birthplace!

We had visited a strangely wonderful architectural experiment called Hundertwasser in Wien.

The colorful architecture of Hundertwasser Village

But we were getting hungry and cranky. Charlie was hungry and saw several eating establishments that could easily fit the bill. But we didn’t have much time in Vienna and I didn’t want to waste a dinner at any ol’ place. We noticed a café at the entrance to the village and walked up the stairs to get there. I am so glad we did.

Cafe in Hundertwasser Village

What we had for dinner has since left my memory. But we had, on our last night in Wien, a trinity of strudels as our shared dessert splurge. I can’t remember with precision their contents, but …

The three strudels

I know one was apple (that is, Apfel).

Apfelstrudel

One was custardy.

Filled with a custard of sorts

And one involved berries of some sort.

Berry?

It was all kinds of YUM. And quite fun to try different breeds within the Strudel species.

Variety is the strudel of life

So, in conclusion, here is my Ode to the Strudel:

Ach, Du schöne Apfelstrudel,

Viel besser als einige Nudel,

Wieviel süßer, und leckerer,

Und schneller gegessen.

Ich ess’ Dich am besten.

Speaking of quickly eaten ... Charlie and I must have been racing!

Warning: I’m sure poetry in honor of food should never be written by a non-native speaker, if at all. But here’s my translation:

Oh, you pretty Apple Strudel,

So much better than any noodle,

How much more tasty and sweetened,

And more quickly eaten,

You’re my very favorite to eat.

Sticking with the East Berlin theme of my previous post – which hearkens back to a city very near and dear to my heart, where I spent 2 months in the summer of 2009 – I have fond, nostalgic feelings for a particular restaurant that provided me my first tastes of Southern German or, more particularly, Swabian cuisine (Schwäbische Küche).

Schwarzwaldstuben - Mitte, Berlin

Fond nostalgia is the feel Schwarzwaldstuben (translation: Black Forest Lounge) is going for anyway. They have kitschy-cool décor and the food is German-ala-nostalgia in many ways.

A look toward the bar at Schwarzwaldstuben

My German teacher at the Goethe Institut, Detlef, was the one who recommended this place as his favorite for German specialties in Berlin. He seemed to waffle on whether it was truly Schwäbisch or had some other regional loyalties (due to a Fußball jersey he saw hanging there). I, however, have found several online sites calling it either Swabian (the Anglicized name of the German region) or Southern German. So, there you go. I’ll just play the “dumb American” card if I get called on an inaccuracy here.

Menus

Schwarzwaldstuben is quite hip and if you go at the right/wrong times, there can be a wait. There are tables, a bar, and even a nice sofa and stuffed chair section.

Comfy seating available

The place and menu is such that you could order a little pot of coffee (their coffee is quite tasty) and sit and read for awhile (although probably not at dinner time when space is at a premium). But if you’re going there, though, why not make a meal of it?

Meine Kaffee mit Milch

The first time I went, I had Maultaschen (Pronounced: MOWL-tah-shin), large German-raviolis of sorts. The Maultaschen were served with an amazing German potato salad (if I recall correctly) and the flavors were a perfect match.

Maultaschen with potatoes and a great salad

The meal was a-m-a-z-i-n-g! You can’t get Maultaschen just anywhere, so I highly recommend this place. Charlie had them at another restaurant and they were quite different (more fried, I’d say).

Bionade (a naturally carbonated beverage)

I also had Bionade (Pronounced: BEE-oh-nada) to drink, which I recommend for the non-beer inclined (but the beer is reportedly a draw there, too, it’s Rothaus … as the signs outside make abundantly clear).

Schwarzwaldstuben from the outside (the beer-type is advertized more than the restaurant's name!)

I went with a group from my class at lunchtime. There was space for us, but I believe Detlef had called ahead. We sat at a big ol’ booth by the mural. I must report that not all nationalities find Schwäbische Küche as tasty as I did!

Zhishu waves hello

The next (and last – so far) time I went, I decided to try another delectable Southern German dish, Käsespätzle (translation: Cheese Spätzle). Now, I think it cannot be disputed that I like cheese. I really do! This cheese-centric dish was really, really tasty, but almost too greasy even for the most wicked of caloric sinners. The cheeses were of good quality, but there was so much, I lost the Spätzle in the mix.

Käsespätzle (and a listing of what was showing in Berlin outdoor theaters I was flipping through)

For those who are unfamiliar with this classic German side dish (although when combined with cheese, for instance, it can become a centerpiece), Spätzle (Pronounced: SHHPETS-leh) consists of miniature dumplings. Or, like what would happen if a dumpling and a pasta noodle had a baby. They are irregular in shape.

Closer up on the Käsespätzle. The bonus was that it was a big enough serving to make two filling meals.

Another valid reason to visit this restaurant if you’re ever in Berlin is the surrounding neighborhood. It’s in Mitte (City Center), but the streets immediately around Schwarzwaldstuben are very cool and have a different feel from those as you get closer to Museuminsel (Museum Island) further downtown. If you want a walk past some historic locales (and want to peek into a few picturesque Hinterhöfe [courtyards common to Berliner architecture]), take a walk down Auguststraße, for example, which is just a few blocks from the corner of Linienstraße and Tucholskystraße, where Schwarzwaldstuben is located.

A view of the corner

Okay, I’m working on another post of a different European cuisine for which I’m nostalgic.

In the meantime, here’s a photo quiz for you:

You’re crossing the street. You see this …

Hmmm, where could this be?

Where are you?

Maybe, instead, you see this and you pause (choosing not to get run down) …

Don't walk!

Any idea where you are now?

Be as specific as you can. Post your guesses in the comments section. I’m predicting it won’t take long for someone to guess correctly.


The Church of St. Elizabeth, or the "Blue Church" in Bratislava

My husband and I spent less than 24 hours in Bratislava, Slovakia. At least 5 of those hours it was pouring. At least 7 of those hours I was sleeping.

So, my experience in the country and its capital is not broad. But I really, really want to go back. And you should want to, too.

Me on the train between Wien and Bratislava

Why, you ask?

Lots of reasons are good ones:

1) It’s an easy and cheap train ride from Vienna.

2) It seems way more “Eastern European” than Austria, for sure, and even more than the Czech Republic, both of which it borders.

A narrow alleyway in old Bratislava

3) It still has a tinge of the Soviet/Eastern Bloc/Old Communist feel to it, which is intriguing.

Bratislava cityscape

4) The old city of Bratislava is enchanting with stone streets (that glisten in the rain).

Nighttime in Bratislava's main square

5) Prices are cheaper than in many of its neighboring countries.

A gelato shop in old Bratislava

But the reason I most want to go back and the reason you need to go at least once is this:

Halušky.

Three Halušky varieties from U Remeselnika

Specifically, the most popular national dish, Bryndzové halušky, which consists of small gnocchi-type dumplings covered in a sharp sheep cheese with bacon on top. Oh. my. goodness.

It’s warm and creamy. The cheese has just enough sour bite to make the bacon a perfect salty complement. The gnocchi are small and firm (sort of like Spätzle, maybe). We had the halušky with other toppings (one was cheese with some sauerkraut-like topping), but the bryndzové is the best we tried.

If there’s a place I can get this in a three-state radius of me, it might tide me over. Otherwise, I’m booking my plane ticket direct to Slovakia the next chance I get. That halušky was some good stuff.

I’d had a tiny sample of it when I was in Prague. Further, my guidebook highly recommended it. So, we had it for lunch as soon as we arrived in Bratislava.

A view into the courtyard of U Remeselnika

That was the best we had, I think. Halušky #1:

Charlie and I shared a trio of Halušky at a folk-craft-center cafe, U Remeselnika

Then I had halušky that night for a late dinner at a great restaurant in a downtown basement. (And Charlie wished he’d ordered it, too!)

We winded down narrow Bratislava streets to reach Prasna Basta, where we had dinner

(We did also try an amazing smoked trout appetizer.) But the star of the meal was Bryndzové Halušky #2:

Lots of traditional Slovak food on the menu at Prasna Basta

Prasna Basta was busy, maybe because of a glowing endorsement of its “charm” in the Lonely Planet guide.

From our table at Prasna Basta

And their halušky was really good, too! But it was too dark to get a clear picture of it.

Then, when we got to the train station an hour early for our departure the next day, we had an early lunch of halušky at the next door eating and drinking establishment.

It sure wasn't fancy, kind of "other side of the tracks"

It wasn’t much to look at, but their Bryndzové Halušky was still great! Bryndzové Halušky #3:

Bryndzové Halušky from the Antic Caffe, next to the train station

It’s just that good. (And the breakfast at our boat-hotel, aka Botel, was just so bad that we were quite famished at 11 a.m.)

Even though seeing all the cheese and bacon drippings I’m no longer wondering how I gained 5 pounds on my trip, I am still begging you: Please tell me where I can get Bryndzové Halušky in these ol’ United States!

Hello.

Me and my coffee

I am a known coffee enthusiast. Also, I complain about coffee I don’t like.

For this reason, and because of a rash of Facebook status updates regarding coffee pot advice and/or disdain and/or elation, I’ve been asked about coffee pots quite often.

Honestly, though, I’m just the recipient of really good advice.

Well, here’s the story. I’d always been fine with a cheap coffee pot, as long as the coffee wasn’t Maxwell House or something. (Despite catchy jingles, Folgers has never done it for me!) I knew what I’d brewed wasn’t as good as what I could get at a coffee shop, but I considered that on par with my inability to cut my own hair or make proper french fries: I supposed I didn’t have the training nor the equipment to do it.

My first step into the world of “nicer” coffeemakers came when Charlie and I got married.

We had a Cuisinart coffee maker (with some fancy amenities, like a brew-timer and a button to say whether you wanted the coffee “strong” or “regular”) and a thermal carafe, which we purchased with wedding gift cards at Target. We loved it at first. It seemed to make good coffee and the coffee would stay really warm in the carafe.

* cue ominous music *

Slowly, our satisfaction with our coffee pot waned. More often than not, the coffee would come out bitter. We hadn’t been regularly cleaning it with vinegar solutions as a preventative measure, but we did begin to, trying to fix the problem. When this fix failed even after several tries, I suspected the machine had residue deep in its workings. The coffee only got worse, not better. We couldn’t stand it any more and threw out the coffee maker. I still wonder if we could have solved the problem if we’d been more proactive in cleansing the machine.

A French Press in use (Bodum is a good brand)

But I also wonder if the problem was both the machine’s and ours. You see, as we drank coffee more regularly and had nearby access to several good coffee shops, I think our taste in coffee became more and more refined. No longer could any old shop make a latte that I was pleased with. I started being able to distinguish between coffee beans and roasts in ways I hadn’t before. Maybe we had outgrown our pot while it was taking a downward turn into bitterness.

I thought at first we’d just turn to using a French Press. There’s not much to mess up there and I’d noted a lack of the bitterness when I used this method. I talked to my friend Lance, though, and he recounted how his cholesterol had gone up when he’d used the French Press on a daily basis. I looked online and, indeed, if you have any concerns about cholesterol, the French Press needs to only be for occasional usage. Who knows if this would have been a real problem for us, but we do drink coffee daily and I didn’t want to chance it.

This is the point at which I asked for recommendations on Facebook to help us find a new coffeemaker. I got a few happy reviews of an even more elaborate Cuisinart that included a grinder inside the coffee maker. We got a good deal on it at Costco, but I think it still cost around $70. We already had a coffee-grinding appliance, but relegated it to the top shelf of the cupboard. We were upgrading.

* cue thunder crash *

Yuck. Yuck in taste. Yuck in cleaning. Yuck, yuck, yuck.

The combination of coffee grounds and shooting hot water and steam in one close-topped appliance was messy. Wet grounds would get all over the inside of the coffee maker. There were so many crevaces to scrape grounds from with the little brush the machine came equipped with. It was to be cleaned after every use, but the process was tedious and seemingly unnecessary. We soon brought back the regular ol’ coffee grinder, bypassing the “bells” of our “bells and whistles” machine. But the whistle wasn’t that good either.

The coffee was weak. No matter how much or how little grounds you put in the coffee filter, the output was wimpy. And I like my coffee strong. And the wimpy coffee also had a tinge of bitterness.

We were absolutely dissatisfied: grossed out by the messy mechanics of the brewing machine; unimpressed by the weak coffee it put out; frustrated to have paid money for grinding and timing gadgets it turned out we didn’t even like. (We were able to return it for a full refund. We love Costco!)

* the music brightens *

But one day we discussed coffee-making contraptions with friends of ours, Ricky and Janette. They had done all the research. They were true coffee aficionados. They recommended the brewing system from Technivorm called the Moccamaster. We, of course, had never heard of it. But Ricky and Janette swore that it made the best coffee in the world. Better yet, they invited us over for breakfast to taste it.

* orchestration swells *

The coffee was so good. It was piping hot, deep brown, rich, and steaming. It wasn’t bitter. At all. I could drink it without cream and sugar. I wanted to drink it without cream and sugar!

* cymbal crash *

So, we had found our coffee pot. The only problem, as Janette and Ricky had warned us, was that it was expensive. This Dutch system was rare in the U.S. and costly.

(Side note: Janette told me recently that Williams Sonoma now carries Technivorm, but they were more expensive. When I looked back to the site, Boyd Coffee, the place from which we’d received ours, their prices have gone up too! Yikes. Boyd ships theirs very well and includes some coffee and the correct filters, which is very nice.)

* dramatic pause *

But we ended up asking for it for Christmas and my mother-in-law bought it for us and it’s the best thing that’s ever happened in our coffee lives.

Coffee in the foreground, Technivorm in the background

What we learned (from Ricky and Janette – see how dependent we are?) was that most coffee brewing machines have the same basic mechanism for heating the water and dripping it through the ground coffee. Even the fancy pots we bought had the same inner workings, just with more electrical workings around it and shinier exteriors.

The Technivorm, on the other hand, heats the water to a much higher temperature and, quickly, sends it through the filter full of grounds. (Here’s a review.) If you’ve ever had really good commercially brewed coffee, you might have had a similar experience of hot coffee without bitterness.

The machine looks way different than what most American coffee pots look like. I like it aesthetically. And, more importantly, it keeps giving us the best coffee of our lives.

The machine from a different angle

So, should you get a Technivorm Moccamaster?

Let me ask you:

1)   Are you satisfied with coffee from your old coffee pot?

2)   Would paying nearly $300 for a coffeemaker be totally impossible for you? (Even as a gift on a wishlist?)

3)   Are you entirely unconcerned with cholesterol? OR, do you only drink coffee 2-3 times per week?

– If you answer questions #1 with a “yes,” then no, please don’t waste your money.

– If you answer question #1 with a “no,” but #2 with a “yes,” then proceed to question(s) #3.

– If you are dissatisfied with coffee made in a typical coffeemaker, but don’t have the money to buy a Technivorm, you should consider a French Press. They’re way less expensive, but have the cholesterol concerns I mentioned above. If you don’t drink it daily, it could be less of a health concern.

– If you answer all “no”s, don’t despair. Maybe you need to remind yourself of the best ways to make coffee: For instance, if you use substandard coffee beans or if you use pre-ground beans, maybe you just need to upgrade your coffee quality and invest in a grinder. This will at least be a temporary solution for you, I bet. Fresh ground beans (ground by you at home) make better tasting coffee. Arabica beans, the more freshly roasted the better, make the best coffee. I personally dislike Columbian coffee. Ask if you can sample some of Starbucks’s or your local coffee shop’s brews, if you want to develop your coffee tastes and figure out what types of coffee blends you prefer. If you live near a Whole Foods, they roast their coffees onsite and often have beans that have been roasted that very day for sale. Also, the amount of coffee most machines/coffee companies advise you to use is often too little. (Like Pop Tarts thinking a serving size is really one tart. Yeah right. Why pack them together, then? Punks!) Likewise, you really should use nearly 2 Tbs. of ground coffee per “serving” of output (that is not a full cup! 6 oz. I believe). That is a lot of coffee. This site can help. Lastly, are you using filtered water in the coffee making process? That can improve the taste, too. Making these little adjustments may be all the fix your coffee taste buds need.

The name, the power

But if you’re just unhappy with anything you brew at home, drink coffee daily, and buy high quality whole coffee beans (preferably Fair Trade) … and just can’t figure out what’s wrong, think about saving up for the Technivorm Moccamaster. I can testify that it has saved me lots of money on Starbucks; I just don’t have to go out for excellent coffee anymore. If you get a Technivorm, I am guessing you’ll be really glad you did.

* Kara takes a bow and vows that she’s not paid to promote or bad mouth any of these companies. *

Los Pinos – 571 Monmouth Road (Route 537), Cream Ridge, NJ 08514 – very near Six Flags Great Adventure

Tacos from Los Pinos

Now, don’t get me wrong: Los Pinos was pretty stinking good. But I think the search still continues for the best Mexican food in New Jersey. While I really liked a lot of what we had at Los Pinos, I still had some major complaints. Where are the Mexican restaurants where the chips and salsa are superb and each thing you taste gets even better? I know they exist elsewhere (hello, I’ve been to some in Idaho, New Mexico, California).

I had read some really positive Yelp! reviews about Los Pinos. And ever since I spotted them (and because it’s about the closest sit-down-restaurant to our rural dwelling) I’ve wanted to go.

So, today Charlie and I took a day-cation. (Could this be a Kara-coined synonym for day-trip?) We had Mexican food for lunch, visited Point Pleasant beach and boardwalk (well, technically just the boardwalk, but that’s another New Jersey story for another day), and saw a movie. A nice vacationey day.

Remember how Yelp! reviews work and my problem with over-rating?

This time, I had the opposite problem. I waaaaaaanted to score Los Pinos higher, but I just couldn’t. Here’s my review from Yelp! (with some photos added for fun):

The side plate of rice and beans that came with my tacos

This may just be the best Mexican food in New Jersey. Buuuuuuuuut that’s not saying too much. Sorry! It’s still really good, but I’ll need to go back (and I will!) before I can raise the score above a solid three stars.

The GOOD:

Los Pinos's "Orchata" = delicioso!

Affordability: My tacos were $8.95 for a platter and some were $7.95. My husband’s burrito plate was in the $9 range. More elaborate dishes went above $10, but it was really an inexpensive price range for the good food we received.

Their Horchata (or Orchata as the menu says) was excellent. Perhaps the best we’ve ever had. Try this milky Mexican drink!

I had the tacos Al Pastore (pork, pineapple, with spicy sauce) and they were very good. The meat was certainly of good quality (some Mexican restaurants can try to hide poor quality meat under heavy spices). The “soft” tacos are in corn tortillas, which is delicious and very authentic. I would recommend the soft over the hard shells (which were good, but just not as good) here. My husband, the true Mexican-food-critic, was really pleased with his carnitas burrito. Everything was presented well and the service was impeccable. Our meals came to us piping hot. The beans were tasty and the rice wasn’t dry. They use fresh cilantro and romaine instead of iceberg. Portions are generous without being obscene. All of this is really excellent!

Charlie's Carnitas Burrito plate

The NOT-SO-GOOD:

Maybe the cooks have over-compensated for a previous review (see Yelp! review by C.S.) that said some of Los Pinos’s food was too salty, because I found it to be the opposite: I really had to add salt in order to taste some of the flavors in my tacos. This does a disservice to the good ingredients and spices they’re using; salt is a flavor enhancer and should be used as such.

My only other complaint is the salsa … it tasted kind of like cold tomato soup with cilantro mixed in. The tomato component did not seem fresh and there were almost no chunks at all. That really, really needs to change. I know that people in New Jersey can be wimps when it comes to spice, but PLEASE! I think it is the tastelessness of the salsa that really pushed their score from a 4-star rating to only 3 stars.

Overall, I highly recommend Los Pinos and I plan to go back. I hope it’s soon! And I hope the salsa is better.

Here, Charlie is tasting the chips and salsa. He is neither repulsed nor elated. Things could be better.

The best-seller listed above, The Help, was recommended to me by my friend Kristina. It’s pretty popular presently. I think it’s a bit unfairly reviewed here, but the review provides enough information for you to get a sense of the story, if you don’t have the time or interest in reading it. I think, however, that you should read it. It took me a few chapters to get over the affected writing in the “voices” of the characters, but it turned out to be the characters that won me over.

A few of my recent trips have given me a better taste of the South than I believe I had previously. I was enchanted by New Orleans’s French Quarter while there for a conference this past November. To get to my 50th U.S. state before I turned 30, Charlie and I traveled down to Charleston, South Carolina for Easter weekend. Boy, the South sure can be grand. But I felt myself conflicted while appreciating the glory and architectural splendor of the South, all the while remembering the history of slavery that brought that kind of affluence, as well as the ongoing struggle to end the disparity between black and white. I didn’t live through the Civil War or the Civil Rights movement, but why did it still haunt me as I visited the pretty parts of southern cities with a long, checkered past?

(I don’t mean to sound ignorant of the great human evils inflicted in any geographical region, North or South or West or Midwest, Stateside or otherwise. A look at the history of any place is a look at triumphs mingled with errors and horrors.)

This book took a long stroll through the kind of questions I had: How might a white person have experienced the tumult of the Civil Rights Movement in the South? How might a black person have? Was there ever good mixed in with the pain?

As I read the book, I thought of Jestine’s Kitchen. It’s an extremely popular (and rightfully so) restaurant in Charleston, famous for its Southern cooking. The restaurant is named after Jestine Matthews, the long-time household cook of the restaurant owner (and the previous generation of that family).

The reflective front window of Jestine's Kitchen

You see, as the story goes, Jestine helped with at least two generations of the family, as she lived to be 112. The restaurant’s Facebook page has a summary of her story. And the food is so good. The fried green tomatoes, the sweet tea, the fried chicken … all delicious. We loved the desserts we tried, Pineapple Bread Pudding and the Coca-Cola Chocolate Cake.

Jestine's famous Coca-Cola Chocolate Cake

But when I learned about Jestine herself and about the apparent love and loyalty between her and her long-time employers, I just couldn’t figure out how a relationship of “unequals” in many ways, socio-economically and in the power structure of employer-employee, could seem (to a total outsider of course) to have been so loving and appreciative.

Of course, I’ll never know about Jestine, but the book The Help gives a variety of examples of the potential both for wickedness and for love, compassion, and bravery that humans possess.

Daily Radar: 07.15.10 – Intelligent Travel Blog.

See a predominant brand?

Lonely Planet is the guide I trust for travel. They’re not always right in their praise or nay-saying, but they’re good at finding what’s really worth seeing in a place, and ignoring what turns out to be only touristy hype.

My stack of travel guides in the photo to the left demonstrates that they’ve won my allegiance. I don’t know where my guides for Great Britain, Turkey, Austria, and the Czech and Slovak Republics are … but those are all Lonely Planet too! Quite the stash!

So, when I found out from the linked blog post above that Lonely Planet is posting suggested U.S. Road Trips to their Facebook page, I said, “Yes, please!”

(It’s item #2 of the Intelligent Travel Blog’s Daily Radar. I’ve found great things–like the International Food Festival in Prague, for instance–by subscribing to National Geographic Travel’s blog presence.)

I already looked through the New Jersey Diners road tripping guide and it makes me want to try some of them out. I mean, I’m a bit put out that they entirely scooted by MY AREA of New Jersey (Central Jersey) and just went for North Jersey and the Shore … but it’s also even more helpful that way, since I already know about most of the good diners around here. And if you want to know good diners in Central Jersey, you can just ask me. 🙂 A win for us and a win for Lonely Planet again, eh?

Cafe Central (Wien/Vienna) - excluded from the running in this post

The Coolest 1 Coffee Shops 2 in the World 3 so far

I love footnoting, so every superscripted number here points to a caveat at the bottom of the post. They’re very important for understanding my rationale in choosing the places I did.

1) The Flying M Coffee Garage – 1314 2nd Street South, Nampa, Idaho

The picture below shows only one of the distinct areas of this roomy Firestone-garage-turned-coffee-shop-heaven. There’s an eccentric gift store area. There’s a couch and tables, more traditional “coffee shop” area, with huge windows all around. There’s a space for bands to perform. There is an area for bigger groups sitting around tables. And, finally, it has a balcony (pictured below) with work stations, complete with plugs. The one time I had the opportunity to use it, I found it incredibly easy to write there.

Flying M - The Study Loft area (in the garage), which is part of why I love it so much.

The space aside, the Flying M Coffee Garage has excellent coffee drinks, competitively priced, and the most consistently good baked goods I’ve ever experienced in a coffee house. It’s constantly alive with activity and draws an eclectic crowd in this mid-sized Idaho town.

2) RIM Café – 1172 S 9th St, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

My husband and I stumbled upon this coffee shop when we were looking for a late-night place to wait out a friend’s delayed plane. Most coffee shops were closed between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., which happened to be when we needed them. A Yelp! search alerted me to RIM, so we drove there. It’s in the Italian Market part of town, right down the block from the incredibly famous and popular dueling Cheesesteak franchises, Geno’s and Pat’s (Pat’s is better).

Rene, working his magic.

As my husband said, “You’ll never pay more for a latte, but you’ll never have a better one.” It’s a small, dimly lit shop, run by Rene, a man from Nice in the south of France. He’s the artist of the coffee mixes, and the charismatic heart of the shop. Patrons watch as he mixes drinks, shaves exotic chocolates into the mix, spins the concoctions around while drizzling syrups on them, and turns out potable masterpieces. All the while, he’s shouting, “I’ma gonna make it hap-pen!” and “Oh my God!” (We were quite taken aback the first time we went in, since we had no idea what to expect!) Drinks cost between $7-12, I’d say (I’ll have to check to be more precise). But it’s more of a gourmet dessert experience than a simple latte. His peanut butter hot chocolate (the Nutty Volcano) is, I can assure you, divine.

3) Tea Drops 4 – 4111 Pennsylvania Avenue, Westport, Kansas City, Missouri

I’m pretty sure you can’t get any coffee here. But the shop design, menu, and tea/tea-brewing merchandise is pretty fabulous. I’ve had bubble tea elsewhere, but it’s never as good. Of course, I like the milky versions better than the plain teas, but it’s the black tapioca bubbles that are my favorites. I love the look of surprise on a newbie’s face when their large straw shoots a chewy bubble into his or her mouth. Ha!

I cannot find a photo of Tea Drops in all my pictures, even though I’ve been there at least a dozen times. I can find pictures of me grinning with friends in the premises, but they show our faces … not the coolness of the shop.

4) South Street Café – 105 South Street, Bennington, Vermont

This is one of the places I’ve stopped while passing through and I thought, “Oh, I wish we had this. I’d read here all the time. As strangers to town, we walked in and felt comfortable. I moved it so high up the list because it seemingly had something for everyone, and used space really well. The coffee was affordable, with free refills (with their on-site mugs), and good!

The front door of the South Street Cafe - Bennington, Vermont

We stopped here on a frigidly cold day in February on our way back from a weekend in Woodstock, Vermont. We needed lunch – and I usually don’t like coffee shops standard panini or pre-made sandwich lunches. We saw on their chalkboard menu that their soup of the day was African and inquired what that meant. The barista highly recommended it, so we said “sure.” It was a steaming crock of root vegetables and legumes in a thick, richly-spiced broth. It warmed us up wonderfully, along with some tasty bread on the side. We ordered, also, a spinach and feta pastry (I believe). Together they were almost too filling.

5) Caras Gourmet Coffee – Neue Schönhauser Straße 9, Mitte, Berlin, Germany

Berlin has a lot of great cafes and they all serve really stellar coffee. Many are designed beautifully. But many serve lots and lots of different things in the category of food and alcoholic beverages. Caras is a more “American-style” coffee shop. And, because much of their menu was in English, I suspected that it wasn’t not actually German, but I think from their website that it is. Germans do that sort of thing and this was along a popular shopping street, very close to the very-touristy Hackescher Markt area.

Charlie trying out Caras Gourmet Coffee, which was near my school in Berlin.

This shop had a front seating area, as you can see above, with wide windows looking onto the bustling street. There is also a long, more narrow seating area further back where I had success finishing up my daily homework. The most popular place to sit, as I observed in nearly all German cafes, is outside. There were many, street-facing seats where people would come to sip their coffees, smoke, talk, read, and people-watch. Sehr Deutsch.

6)  [The Original] Starbucks – Pike Place Market, Seattle, Washington

There’s nothing special about this Starbucks (at least when I last visited), excepting the large gold post in the shop marking it as the flagship store for the worldwide franchise. But if you like Starbucks (and I do) and if you like pilgrimages (and I do) and if you like city markets like the one in which the shop is found (and I so do), then you’ll like visiting the first Starbucks.

7) Coffee & Co. – Laurinská 135/5, Bratislava, Slovakia

We stumbled onto Coffee & Co. in the old city of Bratislava, picturesque, cobblestoned, and very Eastern European looking. Whether we should have been or not, we were surprised at how modern it was. It was very affordable and had all sorts of fun coffee drinks (iced and hot). The bright space was equipped with varied seating areas, including booths, sofas, and chairs.

Coffee & Co. - Bratislava - So good, we went here twice in 24 hours.

I can also state for the record that our Slovakian language skills were very, very poor, but the workers were quite patient and nice to dumb tourists like us. If I recall correctly, we twice heard Lady Gaga playing in the store.

8 ) Claire de Lune – 2906 University Avenue, North Park, San Diego, California

The North Park area is a fun neighborhood in San Diego; and on our recent visit to San Diego, Charlie introduced me to the long University Avenue that runs through quite diverse parts of town. My friend Rob met us at Claire de Lune – his suggestion – and we had some time waiting for him beforehand. We tried a dessert, which was delicious, but I can’t remember what it was. The brewed coffee was quite strong and not bitter — a good sign.

I wish I had better photos of Claire de Lune.

The place had a wonderful ambiance, and its balcony reminded me a little of my favorite coffee shop (Flying M, above). I can see myself sitting in one of these chairs for hours, reading and nursing a mug of hot coffee.

9) Kudu Coffee House – 4 Vanderhorst St, Charleston, South Carolina

Kude Coffee House - I really liked the lion! There was a beautiful courtyard, too.

This coffee house seemed to have a funky crowd. The group sitting in the back corner were, I think, discussing how to use grant money they’d won. There was discussion while we were there about the set-up for a concert that would be held in the evening. We watched groups of friends talking in the courtyard, and even a dog seemed to concur that it was a great place to spend a Spring afternoon.

10) Cupcake 5 – 36 Zionskirchstrasse, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany

As the name suggests, this little German shop specialized in cupcakes (of the American sort, which differ from German-style cakes both in density and sweetness). It can be found in the cutest side-street in Prenzlauer Berg (northeast of Berlin’s city center), right across the street from Zionskirche, where Dietrich Bonhoeffer taught Confirmation for a time.

This photo cost me at Cupcake in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin!

The coffee was good, too, although I thought things were overpriced. * Please read the related caveats below. I want to emphasize: this place was amazingly cute, but I hope their staff has changed.

Honorable Mention: Small World Coffee – 14 Witherspoon Street, Princeton, New Jersey

Princeton's most popular coffee shop (Photo taken in the breathtaking Spring)

Caveats:

1 Okay, my taste for coffee has been strongly shaped by Starbucks. So, I often prefer the taste of Starbucks to other coffees. But by saying “coolest” and not “best-tasting,” I’m expanding the category and making up for the fact that the Corporate Beast has won my loyalty.

2 This includes the genre of coffee shop where various coffees and pastries are the main focus of the shop (which excludes places where warm drinks may be central, but along with full meals, alcohol, etc.). Specifically, I’m excluding the grandeur of Vienna’s “coffee houses,” many of which also serve gourmet $50 meals. I’ve only been to one of those and it was great, but it’s kind of a genre of its own. That would be an unfair comparison.

3 … the world as I’ve experienced it, that is, what do I know of coffee shops in South Africa or Ukraine? Nothing. And, so, I’m just basing my absolute statements about what I absolutely know and don’t know.

4 Okay, it’s not coffee, but it’s so good that I’m including it. What do you wanna do ‘bout it? I can break my own rules. Bubble Tea makes me giddy with delight. Giddy. My favorite is a Red Bean Bubble Freeze.

5 I hope against hope that they have better staff now than when I was there. Their cupcakes and décor make a visit worthwhile even if the Evil-Photo-Scrooge 6 is still employed.

Cupcake (in Berlin) strikes me as what it would look like if Anthropologie had a cupcake/coffee shop.

6 I wanted to say Evil-Photo-Nazi. That would work in the U.S. But when speaking of Germans (although she may not have been a German; she refused to speak to me in German, even though I was pretty good at this point in my stay … See one of the reasons why I was annoyed?!), it’s best to avoid the use of such a historically-real term, even though Americans use it just to be derogatory. She made me pay 20 Euro-cents to take a single lousy photo. After I took it. What a punk. It wasn’t even a good picture. Outside pictures were free.

Charlie's iced caramel latte from Rim Cafe

In summary: I love coffee.