Franklin BBQ

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If you come to one conclusion from my recap of Hot Doug’s, it’s that Isabel and I don’t mind waiting in line for the promise of great food. And of course, when it comes to Texan cuisine, great food and great BBQ are one in the same.

Coming from Toronto, the notion of proper, southern BBQ is foreign. BBQ around here tends to be hot dogs, steak and burgers (or chicken wings, if Isabel and I invite you over). But of course, anyone with tastebuds and internet access knows that ain’t the case in Texas. So while in Austin, it was natural for us to sink our teeth into the best BBQ we could find. And since the internet is full of people who know more about that sort of thing than I do, it was easy to to get pointed in the right direction. Because if you’re looking for BBQ in Central Texas, all signs point to Franklin.

Of course we knew about the lines. But from what we’d heard, the multi-hour queue is a worthy price of admission for what plenty of experts call, “the finest barbecue in the land.” So we arrived shortly after 9am on an unassuming Thursday morning. Some two hours before the restaurant opens its doors and staked our place in line. Little did we know, it would be close to 4 and a half hours before we’d come face-to-face with the famous pitman.

Here’s where I say the most unbelievable-but-true thing I possibly could: the wait wasn’t that bad. Yes it was long, but we happily used that time to make friends with the fine folks around us who shared the belief that greatness (some might say, “perfection”) is worth waiting for. Maybe we lucked out, but our linemates were all very friendly, offering a place to sit (on their cooler) and drinks (beer from said cooler). And as the line snaked closer and closer to the unassuming shack of a building you couldn’t help but feel that the waiting is part of the appeal. BBQ is slow food, after all.

So what did we eat and how was it? We ordered everything that came out of the smoker (aside from the turkey, which sold out before we got the chance to probably not order it). So this meant brisket, ribs, sausage and a handful of pulled pork given to us gratis. The brisket is probably what gets most people excited, and it was undoubtedly delicious. The Central Texas-style of BBQ means that the rub is simple: salt and pepper. Which means that the end product is really all about the meat. And the smoke. And the skill of the pitman. A common credo around these parts is that great BBQ doesn’t even need a sauce. And this was true for everything we tasted. But that’s not to say that Franklin doesn’t have a dynamite BBQ sauce. Spiked with espresso, it’s much more complicated and delicious than the typically one-note sauces I’m used to.

On the whole, the Franklin experience was worth it. It was the best BBQ I’ve ever had, and would happily stand in line for it again if given the chance.

Keep Austin Weird

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I enjoy traveling more than most, but that’s not to say I fall in love with every city I visit. I’ll gladly tell you why I’m over London, and will happily state that the appeal of Vancouver is mostly lost on me. So I’m not an easy mark.

With that said, Austin was everything everyone says it is.

Having never been to Texas before, Austin was probably not the most typical introduction to the state, but what we were greeted with was a vibrant and interesting, young and unique city. The food and bar scene was great. The people were friendly. And our four days there left me already itching to go back. Maybe some future posts will go into more detail on why that’s the case, but I’ll leave that for “Future David” to bore you with.

Blue Star Donuts

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When telling people that you’re headed to Portland, the word “donuts” is generally said within a few sentences of their response. Or at least when you talk to the kind of people I do.

“Skip Voodoo Doughnut. It’s for tourists. The real winner is Blue Star.”

Be it through word of mouth or word of mouse, the general consensus is nothing but praise for Blue Star Donuts – the trendy shop (of course it’s trendy, it’s in PDX)  slinging inventive and delicious donuts. So naturally, it was Isabel and I’s first stop when we rolled into the city. And it did not disappoint.

I typically favour a cake-type donut (with a sour cream old fashioned being my absolute favourite) but Blue Star’s brioche-based dough gave even the best donuts I’ve ever had a run for their money. Between the two of us we sampled three delicious varieties, but the undisputed champion was the lemon poppyseed. Paired with Portland’s finest brew and what you’re left with is a breakfast fit for a big ol’ fat king.

Hiking Mount Si

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Ever since last year’s remarkable trek to Machu Picchu, Isabel and I have tried to fit hiking into our vacation plans whenever possible. With that in mind, our trip to Washington State provided the perfect opportunity to stretch our climbing legs, and treat ourselves to some fresh, Pacific Northwestern air.

Mount Si – a 40 minute drive from downtown Seattle was the perfect daytrip. Located about 35 miles southeast of the city, Mount Si lies on the western edge of the Cascade Range, with its highest point reaching 4,167 feet. Getting to Si was not a problem, but finding the trailhead (and a place to park once we arrived) proved a bit trickier. But the extent of our confusion was not made apparent until we reached what we thought was the peak – where we learned we’d been actually climbing Little Si, the smaller, cuter neighbour of Mount Si. We had a good laugh at this fact, and took a group shot at the top, with the actual peak of Mount Si looming in the background.

Still a nice day out, though.

Ebbets Field Flannels

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One of the stops on our trip to Seattle that had me most excited was Ebbets Field Flannels. This rather remarkable store located in the city’s historic Pioneer Square district sells handmade reproductions of turn of the century (the last one, that is) baseball uniforms. The cap selection alone is enough to spend the better part of an hour mulling over. With common debates being: could I carry off a pillbox cap? What about wearing the logo of a defunct Negro League team? In my case the answer to both questions was “no.” But I still managed to find a cap that suited my taste. That being, the iconic emblem of the Colorado Telephone Company of 1911. It’s early days, but I’ve already been told by a number of strangers, much cooler than I, that they like it.

Hot Doug’s

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Last weekend Isabel and I drove to Chicago. It was our second visit to the city in as many years, and if I claimed the urgency of our return was prompted by anything other than eating a hot dog, I’d be lying. But of course, a Chicago-style hot dog is much more than a regular dog. And when you are talking about one from Hot Doug’s, that’s another matter all together.

To say that the self-proclaimed, “Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium” is much more than your average hot dog stand, would be an understatement. In fact, the exotic and inventive menu has landed it on Bon Appetit’s list of the  “50 Best Restaurants in the World.” No small feat for a place whose logo is a cartoon hot dog with glasses, and the most expensive item is a whopping $10.

So yeah, the place is good. But the urgency of our return was prompted by owner Doug Sohn’s shock announcement earlier this spring that the restaurant will go into “permanent vacation” this fall. Which meant if Isabel and I were going to sample some of these famous dogs, this summer would be our last chance.

If driving 850km to eat a hot dog sounds insane, than how would you react if I said that before even setting foot in the small restaurant you have to stand in line for upwards of 2 hours? Well that’s part of the Hot Doug’s experience. I won’t say it was a pleasant part of it, but time flies when you’re aware of the ridiculousness of the situation.

So after waiting over an hour and a half—which is about average, I’m told—we came face to face with Hot Doug himself. Part of the restaurant’s charm stems from the fact that Doug personally takes every single order, and happily makes chitchat with every single person. Isabel and I ordered three dogs. The first was Doug’s version of the classic Chicago-style dog. We got ours charred (instead of boiled). It was as good as any Chi dog we’ve had to date. We considered this our “control” in the taste trip. Which meant we had two more opportunities to sample some of the more adventurous dishes. A no-brainer for us was the foie gras dog—a duck and sauternes sausage, with truffle aioli, foie gras mousse and fleur de sel. It was as rich as it sounds, and probably the tastiest bite of food I had on our trip. Our third order—based on Doug’s recommendation—was his cassoulet dog. It was a Toulouse sausage with herb mustard, great northern beans, duck confit and black sea salt. We found this one to be a touch salty, but delicious nonetheless.

The verdict? Amazing. Worth the ridiculousness we went through to try it. When it closes this fall, Chicago is losing a real gem.

Weekend in PGH

heinz pghbridge PGHcemetary pghcoffee PNCpark umbrellapghI’ve dragged Isabel on a number of road trips to see Toronto sports teams play (and lose) in foreign cities. From the glamorous and obvious (Boston, Chicago) to the less obvious and less glamorous (Columbus, Ohio). Earlier this month we set our sights on a city that likely falls somewhere in the middle of that spectrum: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

I visited the city less than a year ago with some coworkers, and found it charming – in a gritty, working class kind of way – adequately primed to live up to it’s New Portland billing. But my first trip was more about sports and drinking (and drinking sports), so we really didn’t see much more of the city than two stadiums and probably a dozen bars. So with the Jays visiting, I figured it was a good enough reason to visit the city proper with Isabel.

So we piled in the car, loaded up on snacks (sadly no homemade jerky) and in about five hours we made it to our Airbnb in the city’s East Liberty neighborhood. As is the norm with our trips, we try to plan the important stuff (i.e. where we will eat our 6-square meals a day), and this weekend was no different. Although PGH is hardly New York or Chicago, there was still plenty to do and eat. Here were some of the highlights:

PNC Park

Everyone you ask about PNC Park will tell you the same thing: it’s a beautiful place to see a game. Intimate atmosphere, great sightlines, and amazing location right by the water. For the two games we saw, we sat in the left field bleachers, with a small but vocal contingent of traveling Jays fans. We saw them win and we saw them lose, but had fun both days.

Allegheny Cemetery

Located in the wooded hillside neighbourhood of Lawrenceville, high above the Allegheny River, this historic burial ground (the 6th oldest rural cemetery in the US) is a beautiful place to go for a stroll. Plenty of deer call the grounds home and it offers ample opportunity for some beautiful pictures.

Andy Warhol Museum

Warhol is perhaps the city’s most famous son, and this seven floor museum is a fitting tribute to his life work. From the early days as a commercial artist, to his exploration in avant-garde filmmaking, the exhibit left Isabel and I inspired beyond expectations.

Bar Marco

We had a few nice meals in PGH, but the one that left the strongest impression on me was at Bar Marco, a small, modern room in the Strip District. It’s a bit unlike us to “brunch” (we both generally hate that) but the breakfast we had here was superb.