Athenian Ale

It’s been hot in Athens, much hotter than in Istanbul. Accordingly, after walking around yesterday trying to find a reasonably priced hat that could shield against the sun’s glaring rays, we decided it was time to stop for refreshment. Fortunately, Athens is loaded with streetside pubs and restaurants, and we stopped at a random place to cool down.

I realized quickly that a beer was in order. My throat felt dry and dusty, and it needed a good washing. The circumstances therefore called for a cold adult beverage brewed from grains and hops. Our friendly water strongly recommended a beer called Mythos. Who could resist ordering a bear that conjured memories of Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Aphrodite, and of course Athena, for whom Athens is named? So, I ordered the Mythos, and found it to be an entirely potable lager, happily served very cold. And even though it was warm in Athens, I quaffed the entire glass before the beer reached room temperature.

As an veteran reader of this blog knows, I like trying different, local beers. Mythos was pretty good. It didn’t make me think Olympian thoughts, but it definitely wet my whistle on a warm, desiccated day in Athens.

Pide, Beer, And Bubbling Grub

One of the things I like most about traveling to a different part of the world is trying the local food. Istanbul is blessed with plenty of outdoor cafes where you can sit outside on a sunny day and try some of the different culinary options.

We’ve tried several restaurants and some different foods–all of which have been very good. Consider the pide, shown above. It looks like a pizza with a crunchy crust in a canoe shape, but there are some subtle differences. Although the sauce is tomato-based, it doesn’t have the hard-hitting tomato flavor you get with many American pizzas. Instead, the seasoning gives the pide a very delicate, mild taste. I got the pide with minced meat, which was excellent and just the right amount of food for lunch. The pide also is inexpensive, which is nice if you are watching your budget.

Of course, you also want to try the local beer when you go to a different country. We sampled some Efes, which was very good, indeed–a full-bodied, refreshing lager. Another interesting feature of the Turkish cafes is a stone container they use for casserole-type dishes. It has an amazing heat storage capability that keeps the dishes hot and bubbling long after a western casserole dish would have cooled off. I like food that is served hot, so I really appreciated this nifty bit of stonework. Be careful not to touch it when it is fresh from the oven, however!

Black Tea And Baklava

If there is a national drink of Turkey, it is this: black tea served piping hot and brewed strong, presented, usually, in a tempered glass like this with a bulb at the bottom. It might singe your fingers to pick up, but it is delicious. It’s so good that it makes this committed coffee drinker think tea might not be so bad.

One of our guides explained that Turks like something sweet with their tea or coffee. For tea, the preferred dessert of choice is baklava, For coffee, it’s some Turkish Delight candy.

The Turks take that “bitter with the sweet” notion very seriously.

A Town With A Sweet Tooth

I’m paying my first-ever visit to Istanbul, and aside from some mishaps getting here and a bad case of jet lag that caused me to doze off in the middle of a sentence at lunch, it has been great so far. I’ll have a lot more to say about Istanbul, but for now I simply want to point out that this is a town with a serious sweet tooth. Whether it’s candy, cookies, ice cream or fine pastries, we’ve seen virtually every kind of sweet being consumed by the locals, with relish.

These photos were taken as we walked through the thriving old town section of Istanbul at about 11p.m. on a Wednesday night, as people were out eating ice cream or having a last tea and baklava before heading home. This store was open and selling high-end confections that looked delicious. I’ve always though of Vienna, Paris, Florence and Munich as the capitals of sweets, but Istanbul belongs in that conversation, too.

The Turks may look fierce, but they obviously have a soft spot for the sugary end of the spectrum.

The Random Restaurant Tour–LIV

In Texas, for many people at least, Whataburger has a reputation of almost mythical proportions. The zealous dedication of these fans to the brand and its food offerings is so extraordinary that, in extreme cases, Whataburger fans have constructed impressive Christmas trees from the franchise’s discarded fast-food packaging, with its trademark bright orange color.

Any fast-food emporium that can inspire that kind of slavish devotion from American consumers must have something going for it, right? So yesterday, as I paid my first-ever visit to a Whataburger, I felt a surge of high expectations, anticipating an extraordinary burger experience. What I found was a pretty good burger, but an overall dining experience that fell a bit short of the hype.

I ordered a double Whataburger, fries, and a diet Coke. The normal Whataburger comes with mustard, onions, tomato, lettuce, and grilled onions chopped into little squares. Interestingly, cheese isn’t part of the standard order; you have to ask for it specially. I didn’t know that, but I did know that I didn’t want the lettuce, tomato, and pickles. Through this combination of intent and ignorance, I ended up with a cheeseless double Whataburger with onions and mustard.. It’s probably the first cheeseless burger I’ve had in a half century, so that alone made the experience memorable.

The Whataburger was pretty good. The mustard is a nice touch, as are the onions, and the meat was of good quality. Getting a burger without cheese is like getting a cake without icing, in my view, but if you go that route you definitely taste the meat more distinctly–so obviously you want to make sure the meat is tasty. Whataburger offers a nice spicy jalapeno ketchup, part of a tray of topping offerings that they bring to your table, like the waiter at a nice restaurant bringing an array of different tea options to tea drinkers. I tried the spicy ketchup, and it had a decent kick to it. All of these elements were positives for me.

The bun, though, was nothing to write home about, and the burger wasn’t served piping hot. That’s an issue, because heat is a key element of a good burger. The biggest disappointment, though, was the fries. When I saw they were of the shoestring variety I was encouraged, but alas! They were dried out and lukewarm, and tasted like they had spent an an excessive amount of time under one of those blazing food heat lamps. In short, it seemed that the fries part of the meal equation had been sadly neglected.

One of our party said that we had caught Whataburger on an off day, and we should try it for lunch another time at another location. I would do that, and be sure to order cheese on the burger this time. But on this occasion, at least, the experience failed to live up to the advance publicity.

Learning From A Label

When I was a kid, I used to religiously read the backs of cereal boxes while spooning down my breakfast. The Wheaties and Frosted Flakes boxes usually had some pretty interesting information on the back, and besides–what was I supposed to do instead? Engage in meaningful conversations with members of my family?

I fell out of the habit of reading product labels and boxes, but lately I’ve tried to reengage with that practice, in hopes of broadening my base of walking-around knowledge. You never know what you might learn.

Consider, for example, this jar of 24 Mantra “organic curry powder,” with its description on the side of the jar of the “24 Mantra Advantage.” It raises some interesting points, and questions, too. For example, is it even possible for curry powder to be inorganic? After all, curry powder is made from a variety of ground up leaves, roots, and chilis. Isn’t everything that comes from a plant organic? Has someone created chemically based, laboratory-created curry powder and tried to foist it on an unsuspecting public? It makes you wonder.

The “24 Mantra Advantage” is one of those vague statements of purpose you see on some product labels these days. I’m not sure why this is so, but it’s interesting to see what companies decide to feature. The 24 Mantra Advantage statement says: “In our Mantra we have integrated the ancient wisdom ‘Tvam Bhumir Apo Analo Anilo Nabha‘ (You alone are Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Ether).” The “fire” part is encouraging if, like me, you like your curry at the high end of the spice scale, but I’m not sure that ether, for example, has much relevance to good curry. The label goes on to say that the company works with a lot of farmers, and states that one aspect of the “24 Mantra Advantage” is that you can “enjoy food adhering to international standards.” You wouldn’t think that last part really needed to be stated, but I suppose it’s nice to have that confirmation, in writing.

I’m going to have to think about establishing my own mantra.

Back To The Buffet

Some people thought that COVID-19 would mean the demise of the all-you-can-eat buffet. That was a reasonable prediction, because pandemics and social distancing aren’t really compatible with a business concept that puts strangers in close proximity, shuffling through buffet lines and using the same implements to dig into common platters of food. And, in fact, some buffet chains went out of business in response to COVID restrictions.

But now, apparently, buffets are back, and in a big way. The three largest buffet chains–Golden Corral, Cicis, and Pizza Ranch–are reporting growth that is leaving other kinds of restaurants at the end of the line. The sales at those three chains in March were up 125 percent from January 2021, and Golden Corral’s sales last year had increased 14 percent from pre-pandemic levels. The demand for all-you-can-eat buffets is so strong that Golden Corral has plans to eventually add another 250 locations in the U.S.

Why are people flocking to restaurants where they will be dealing with sneeze guards and warming tables groaning with food? The economy is a big part of the reason. All-you-can-eat buffets are seen as an inexpensive way to have a big meal out–with chocolate pudding for dessert, too!–and the chains cater to customers whose income is below the national average. With inflation and rising food costs causing people to feel economic strains and search for value, a trip to an all-you-can eat buffet restaurant helps to stretch the family food dollar. That notion resonates with me, because I remember going with friends to the Swedish Buffet in Columbus when I was a cash-strapped college student and the buffet allowed for maximum food consumption at a minimum price.

The surging popularity of buffets is another sign that Americans are over the pandemic–or at least are willing to accept the risk of infection in search of a bargain and a full stomach.

Building A Better Mousetrap

It’s a pretty common scenario. You’ve had lunch at a fast food restaurant, eaten your meal, and are getting ready to leave. Because you are a nice, neat person, you go to dump your trash and deposit your tray, only to encounter a disgusting trash bin. Either it’s a bin with a swinging inward door that has been made gross and sticky by people using their full trays to push it open–because no rational person would touch the door with their hand, leaving food waste and leftover soda smeared on the door, or it’s a top-load receptacle that is filled past the rim with wrappers, soda cups, and other untouchables.

The trash deposit issue is one of those things that give fast-food restaurants a bad name.

Yesterday, at a Chick-fil-A in Tucson, we found an ingenious solution to the trash deposit issue. The restaurant had a motion-activated trash can door that swung open as you approached. Even better, the door was tall and wide enough to allow you to put your tray through the door, turn it over to dump the trash, and then remove it–all without having to touch the door or trash can itself. And because Chick-fil-A pays attention to the details and has sufficient staff, even during the height of the lunch hour rush the trash can was empty and not in overflow mode.

It’s nice to know that chains like Chick-fil-A are paying attention to the little details of the fast food experience, and that somewhere out there inventors are continuing to work on building a better mousetrap.

The Random Restaurant Tour—LIII

In my 66 years of enjoying life on this planet, I have never been to an In-n-Out Burger—until today.

In-n-Out Burger is one of those regional restaurant chains that achieve almost mythical status in other parts of the country. Residents of the western states who are fans of In-n-Out rave about its burgers, but those of us who lives east of the Mississippi never get to see what the fuss is about. (I imagine people outside of the Cincinnati and Columbus area have this reaction to enthusiastic descriptions of Skyline Chili.). So, when you go to a place where these regional favorites can be found, you’ve to try them.

I liked In-n-Out from the moment I walked in the door. The restaurant was spotless and bustling, and the staff was friendly and actually seemed happy to be on the job. I liked the white uniforms and old-school caps, and after we ordered we sat and watched the employees hustling to fill the orders. The whole ambiance gave off a decided ‘50s vibe, and it seemed legit—not a forced affectation, like you find at some retro burger joints.

Of course, the key to a burger place is not the setting, but the food. I ordered a double-double cheeseburger combo, with fries and a Diet Coke. The burger was very good. It was a tad on the salty side, but full of flavor with high-quality burger meat, thoroughly melted cheese, and lots of onions. The bun was soft and tasty, and the fries came in a reasonable portion size and were crisp and crunchy, All told, the meal was a winner.

I would definitely go back to In-n-Out, but first I’ve got to try Whataburger and Jack In The Box.

Good ‘Wich, Bad ‘Wich

The prices you find in New York are always a cause for sticker shock for those of us who live in the hinterlands. But now even Manhattanites are expressing astonishment and dismay over being charged $29 for a ham and cheese sandwich at a Gotham eatery.

At a restaurant called E.A.T. on the Upper East Side, customers are paying $29 for a ham and cheese sandwich–which comes to $31.57, with tax. (The other prices shown in the photo above–$16 for a half ham and cheese sandwich and $24 for an egg salad sandwich–seem equally ridiculous, incidentally, but it is the $29 ham-and-cheese that has provoked true outrage.) The sammie is made with a decent, but not New York deli-sized, portion of ham, Gruyere cheese, mustard, and seven-grain “health bread.”

The price is so ridiculous that when a New York Post employee went to buy it, embarrassed employees at the restaurant offered to sell it for $22–which still seems absurdly high to my tender Midwestern sensibilities. The Post insisted on paying full price, however, and described the handheld as being like an airport sandwich, with bread that wasn’t very flavorful and hardly enough cheese and meat.

According to the Post article linked above, sandwich prices have jumped in the Big Apple recently–although $29 for a ham and cheese still expands the envelope at the high end of the cost scale. If you’ve got a trip to NYC coming up, you might want to pack your lunch.


If you go into any Buc-ee’s in Texas, you will see an enormous wall covered with packages of different kinds of meat jerky. But Buc-ee’s does not stand alone in its careful attention to offering hungry customers a Texas-sized array of jerky options. Any convenience store in Texas will also be liberally stocked with jerky. Given the number of different brands being marketed, you get the sense that jerky is flying off the shelves and Texas chefs are focused on developing the next big jerky flavor.

This random Texaco station in Austin, for example, offered dozens of different kinds of jerky, including tantalizing flavors like black cherry BBQ jerky and chipotle cracked pepper jerky. It also offered turkey bites (curiously, not turkey jerky, which at least has a nice ring to it), sausage bites, and even mushroom jerky.

Seriously — mushroom jerky? Is that offering designed to appeal to vegan Texans? What’s next? Twinkie jerky? Snickers jerky?

What is it with Texans and jerky? Is there something about the Lone Star State that makes jerkiness especially appealing? Or can Texans just not resist resist the chance to use their teeth to tear off a chunk of something salty and dried?

The official state food of Texas apparently is chili. That’s a strong choice, for sure, but based on what I’m seeing in the stores jerky is giving chili a strong run for the money.

Useful Information

Today, on a bright and warm spring day in Austin, we decided to stop at the Armadillo Den brewpub and outdoor venue, drink a beer, sit outside under the trees in the sunshine, and enjoy the fruits of a fresh crawfish boil.

The Armadillo, like many brewpubs, not only lists the kinds of beer they have on tap, but also provides alcoholic content information for each option. I’m grateful for this information, and I think the publication of beer and ale alcohol content, on signs and menus, is one of the best developments in bar and tavern management in my lifetime. Not only can you avoid dreaded IPAs and beers that might not otherwise suit your taste–like a strawberry blonde beer, for example–but you can also make conscious choices about your alcohol intake.

We’re going out to dinner tonight, so I went for a beer on the lower alcohol side of the ledger. If we want people to drink responsibly, as the ads inevitably urge, why not give them the information that allows them to make responsible decisions and, perhaps, steer away from the 9.1 percent ABV Lakewood Temptress Imperial Milk Stout? Bravo to the Armadillo and other bars that engage in this helpful practice.

Columbus-Style Pizza?

I belong to a devoted (and happily apolitical) Facebook group called Pizza Connoisseurs of Columbus. Recently I learned a surprising fact from that group: there is such a thing as “Columbus-style pizza.” Indeed, the fact that Columbus has its own distinctive pizza style is so widely recognized that pizza lovers have written about it and people actually come to Columbus looking for the best places to to sample it.

So, “Columbus-style pizza” is a real thing. You can put Columbus right up there with New York, Chicago, and Detroit in the ranks of cities with an iconic form of pizza.

So, what is a “Columbus-style” pizza, exactly? The key identifying ingredients seem to be an ultra-thin, cracker-like crust, edge-to-edge toppings, sliced pepperoni that curls up so it looks like a small bowl after baking, and a pie that is cut into small, easily handled squares, rather than larger, potentially floppy triangles. To people like me who have lived in the northwest part of the Columbus area, that sounds like a description of a Tommy’s Pizza offering–so I guess I’ve had “Columbus-style” pizza before without explicitly knowing it.

Having a specific “style” could be both a blessing and a curse. It’s nice to have an approach to pizza that is so well-recognized it has become iconic, but you don’t want the need for pizza chefs to conform to the “style” to crush innovation and creativity. Fortunately, Columbus is such a strong pizza-loving town that doesn’t seem to be a problem, and great new options like JT’s Pizza–which has been recognized as a leading local pizza emporium in articles about “Columbus-style pizza”–can establish their own styles and introduce Columbus taste buds to new options and flavor combinations.

All this talk about pizza makes my hungry for a pie.

Dinner At The Bar

Last night, on a whim, we decided to duck into Speck, the new downtown restaurant only a short walk from our apartment, to see if we could grab a meal at the bar. Getting a table can be a challenge at this hot new Columbus dining option, but Speck has a bar area and we decided to take our chances that two seats might be open. Luck was with us, and we grabbed two stools at the end of the bar.

I like eating at a bar every now and then. The vibe is distinctly different, and a nice change of pace. At a table, you see your server periodically, you’re a few feet from other diners, and there is a sense of some privacy. At the bar, on the other hand, there’s a lot more interaction with the servers and a lot more hustle and bustle; you’re only a foot or so away from people making drinks, slicing fruit, and washing dishes. There’s no sense of privacy, really, but it’s easy to strike up a conversation with the back of the bar staff.

Another key difference is that you are facing the array of different bottles of alcohol behind the bar, and seeing a lot of interesting drinks being made. The temptation to try something new is irresistible. As befits an Italian eatery, Speck has an extensive collection of European liquors. That’s why I deviated from my normal wine-only beverage approach and started the evening with a bright and refreshing Aperol spritzer, shown above. At the barkeep’s suggestion, I followed that up with a Fernet-Branca, an Italian digestif and apertif that was interesting from a flavor standpoint, but a bit on the bitter side for my tastes, so I switched to a glass of wine for my meal.

Speaking of the meal, we started with some excellent mussels, with a broth that demanded to be sopped up by some delicious bread. It was succulent. I followed that with an enormous and awesomely tender short rib, shown above, that looked like it should have been precariously balanced on the side of Fred Flintstone’s car. I ate it all, without remorse, and some of Kish’s cacio e pepe pasta, besides.

I had the feeling that the dinner wasn’t quite done yet, so I sought the bartender’s advice on one last drink to cap off an excellent meal in a fun setting. He suggested a pistachiocello, shown below, which was absolutely delicious. I could have guzzled a gallon of it, but somehow resisted the temptation. We headed out into the cold Columbus night, fully satisfied and happy that we took a chance on a few seats at the bar.

Our evening at the bar at Speck was a memorable one that we’ll want to repeat in the future. If you haven’t eaten at the bar lately, you might want to give it a try.

The Skin On The Pudding

Yesterday our firm had a nifty little St. Patrick’s Day food event called “Irish nachos,” consisting of waffle fries, a queso sauce, and bacon crumbles. They were very tasty! I got to the buffet late, however, so when I dipped the ladle into the queso sauce there was a thin skin on top that crinkled up in response to the downward pressure of the ladle before breaking–and thanks to that sight a pleasant childhood memory came flooding back.

My mother always tried to have a dessert to serve during our family dinners. Usually it was something like a lime Jello mold with grapes in it–not a favorite for me, frankly–or some canned peaches or pears, perhaps served on cottage cheese. On some lucky days, however, it was little glass bowls of chocolate or butterscotch pudding.

The pudding always had the skin on top, and that turned out to be a big part of why pudding was a favorite dessert. Using your spoon to play with the pudding skin was irresistible and kind of fun–could you peel off the skin in one piece, could you use your spoon to wrinkle the skin and loosen it from its moorings on the sides of the bowl, and how much pressure would it take to puncture the skin, once and for all?–and the skin, once consumed, always seemed even richer and tastier than the rest of the pudding.

I see on the internet that some food websites offer tips on how a cook can prevent the formation of skin on top of pudding or custard. What? That whole concept is fundamentally misguided, like trying to make pizza without attention to the crust, or attempting to develop plant-based burger patties. In my book, the skin is a crucial part of the pudding. Why would you want to make a pudding without it? A pudding without skin is a pudding without soul.