Top-Ish List: From 1 to Habana


Starting a new thing here for the Bear Feed.  It seems these days many blogs and websites are publishing a “Top 10 Somethings” or “Top 5 Somethings” all the time with variations on those lists.  Sometimes its as general as “Top 5 Movies of All Time” to something overly specific like “Top 10 Streets Where Turning Left on a Sunday Will Lead to the the Strangest People With One Leg Hailing a Cab to the Museum”.  I am kinda a fan of some of those, whether they are vidoes on YouTube or random blog-like articles; and since similar blog posts I have had came with good feedback I thought I would turn it into a “Thing”.  My problem is that when I make these, I can never hold myself to a number.  Sometimes it seems 10 would be enough, sometimes 5 … so as I would plan them they start off at that point and become something different.  Like this first one was meant to be a “Top 5” … but devolved into a “Top 5-ish”.  So … It’s become my “Top-Ish Lists”.

Our first adventure is inspired by a text message I sent to Jeremy Phillips a few weeks ago.  Jeremy is a foodie … meaning, he likes him some great meals.  Over the years, we have discussed some of the great meals we have had, not always as much for the food but for the situation and atmosphere.  I mean, the food played into it, but the concept was the “great meals” which can be so much more than what is on the plate.  This weekend I got to think of one place in Rome, and wondered how likely it was for us to find it again — which reminded of a second place (named Habana in Costa Mesa, CA) that we went back to again (he more times than me).  So I asked him “From a scale of 1 to Habana, how likely would it be we find (that place in Rome).”  Since then … I’ve felt it is time to put down the Top 5-ish Meals.

Now, being an engineering idiot, all lists need to have rules … and this one has the following:

  • The listing is based on the most memorable meals of my life … not necessarily of anyone else’s life … mine!  So if they seem strange to be selected, tough.
  • Memorable is defined by the food, the ambiance, the people I shared the meal with, the conversations, the experience.  It does mean if something is significantly lacking, it won’t make the list — see honorable mentions below.
  • Recreating the meal over time actually hurts in this list.  I am looking for things that stand out, not get lost in the mix.  So that means no burnt chicken stories.
  • While the food is not the only thing considered … if I can’t remember what I ate, then they are off the list.  This actually dropped a couple off the list straight out, and some good ones too.  But tough.

So here we go … in order of ‘None of your business what order it is in’ here is:

The Top-5ish Most Memorable Meals in My Life:

1) Roman Barn

One of the two restaurants that inspired this blog is a good place to start and set the tone for you.  It was 2008, and I was attending a Nadcap meeting in Rome, Italy.  During these meetings, all the colleagues from our parent corporation would get together for dinner one night – which can be tricky because there tended to be a lot of us.  So finding a restaurant that can seat a large group (especially in Europe) can be a challenge.  Through the hotel we were at, we got a reservation for twenty of us at a place whose name will forever escape my memory – but the directions never will.  We were told to take a train to a specific train station and “Head out the front door, follow that road until we crossed the river, and it’s right underneath the bridge.”  Sounded simple enough, of course.  Well we arrived at the station, started walking.  And walked.  And Walked.   AND WALKED.  Some of those with us were spouses who spent the day site-seeing and this walk was not what they wanted.  We had to make at least one break to get water on an unexpected warm day.  We asked for directions at least once, and getting them the directions were still the same “follow the cord, cross the river, underneath the bridge”.  As we neared the river finally, we realized we had been walking for nearly 45 minutes – all of us were tired, cranky, and hungry.  To a person the statement was ‘this better be worth the walk.’

That turned out to be an understatement.

Don’t get me wrong, the realization of what we found took some time.  It looked like a barn on the inside, something out a country-side estate.  Our 20 people took up two family sized tables – of which the whole restaurant was about 5 of those tables all together.  The wait staff spoke very little English and we wondered if menus were going to be a problem.  The waiter we had came up with a simple solution.  He in very broken English laid out a four course meal complete with antipesto, pasta dish (white & red sauces), a mixed grill main including lamb, beef, & chicken, and finally dessert.    Wine was served, of course, but in pitchers like they were poured directly from the barrel.  Each plate seemed simple, but wonderful.  Each course perfectly timed to allow the last one to settle in.  All the while, a small traditional Italian band wandered around and sang for tips.  Everything about this little barn of a restaurant felt authentic and enjoyable.  It seemed like the perfect collusion between what we dream about Italian meals, and what we can expect as well.  If that wasn’t enough, when the bill came – the price tag came out to just about 20 Euros (or about $25 at the time) per person.  As I said, we had loads of people questioning if this meal would be worth the walk to get there – but after finishing we all were saying it was well worth it.

But we did take a cab back to the train station.

2) Lunch at Co-Ed Hall

This will literally go from one extreme to the other.  In the late fall of 1991, while I was attending college at Michigan Tech, one of my classes involved a field-trip to a local mine.  This was a rough class for me, in part because the subject matter was completely strange to me (regarding the mineral processing that converts mined ore into useable raw materials), and in part because it was an 8AM class – which for any college student is way to early to be up and paying attention.  I didn’t look forward to this field trip either, because we had to be on the road well before dawn to get to the mine at a reasonable enough time before riding all the way back to campus before afternoon classes.  The tour was great, memorable in it’s own way, and eye opening to how those processes really work.  But it made for an exhausting day, between getting up so early, touring a facility for a few hours, and the bus ride to and from.  What didn’t help was the meal schedule on campus.  I was living in a dorm that since has been renamed, but at the time was named “Co-Ed Hall” … as in, both men and women lived there (not like the others didn’t, but for some reason, they felt they could name it this specifically until someone donated enough money).  Co-Ed also tended to serve late lunch too, so getting there in time for it was just that extra bonus.    For most of us, if you lived in the dorms you got two meals a day – lunch and dinner – and placed not really more than 4 hours apart.  So, not only did I do this trip at the crack of early in the morning, I did it without anything to eat except dinner at 5pm the day before.

So arriving back on campus, I was hungry, tired, and because it was mid-October in the Upper Peninsula, I felt that wet cold like you get when snow is just about to fall.  Maybe it was how I was feeling, or the conditions, or whatever … but the perfect dish was what was slapped upon my plate.  An open faced roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy piled on top.  Now, Co-Ed had a pretty good rotation of meals there, and while I probably not have written home about this dish in particular, it was the right place at the right time.  Ironically, it was a meal I ate only with a couple others that were on the field trip, and it was my cafeteria for two years, so in many ways this meal should fall short of making this list in so many ways … but that should bring home how mind blowingly perfect it was.  Like when you have searched for some salvation in your life, and it comes rolling across your soul … while smothered in gravy.  That is what that was like!

3) Crab Shack & The Ferrell Cats

So often when we get together, Chadd Creed and I reminisce about a grand meal we had while on a supplier audit in Savannah, GA and a place called The Crab Shack.  This restaurant is on a swampy creek near Tybee Island beach where all the seating is outside under the stars and surrounded by free roaming cats looking for a handout.  Like, they had signs there warning against feeding them – but that sure didn’t stop any of us.

We ordered a crab boil feast for the two of us.  What we got was this MASSIVE meal.  It wasn’t a feast for two.  It was crab enough for two for a full meal, shrimp enough for two for a full meal, potatoes enough for two for a full meal, corn enough for two for a full meal, crawfish enough for two for a full meal.  They brought it out on this huge platter that seemed piled with everything upon everything.  The table had a riser in the center that allowed us both to access the platter – and under the riser there was a hole cut and a 55 gallon garbage can underneath for our trash.  It was incredibly efficient in that way, because by the time you ate something, it was nearly the same movement to toss a shell and grab another bite to eat.  We ate like southern kings, hung out under the southern night, and chatted away.  Probably as important is Chadd has been a good friend for a good long time; and that was the first trip we went together on.  So in a way, it kicked us off in the best way possible.

Maybe minus the ferrell cats.

4) Austrian Farmer’s Lunch

Two cultural facts that are key if you ever visit Austria:  1) Not cleaning your plate is considered offensive to the cook, as if saying ‘I didn’t like it so I didn’t finish it’  2) Lunch is the biggest meal of the day.

I was in Austria on business visiting a major company there.  Trying to be friendly, some of the workers at the company offered to take us to dinner the night before the meetings (which was a good meal in itself, but not the story).  We ate so much that night that by the next day we were still feeling it and come lunchtime I wasn’t even hungry.  Still, they guys at the company said we had to … HAD TO … go to lunch at a famous spot in their town, famous for a traditional farmer’s lunch.

The guy who was setting us up told me I had to … HAD TO … get the onion soup.  So I did.  It was a brilliant onion, more creamy and sweet than your normal salt fest of ‘french onions’ in the state.  Thing was, it was served in a bread bowl.  Not a small loaf of bread the size of your fist … more like a loaf the size of a cantaloupe.  AND YES, cleaning your plate meant finishing the bowl too!

So there I was stuffed beyond belief, and the guy I was with said I had to … HAD TO … get the Farmer’s plate.  A dish that touched on classic traditional Austrian meals.  That meant, pork chops (two), sausages (three), mild sauerkraut, and a pile of dumplings that looked like those volcanoes kids make in school.  It was a massive dish.  All the while we are drinking beer (because it is Austria) from this liter sized glasses.  The food was good, mind you, but trying to clean this plate was near torture.  I think at some point I had to say “No mas, I give, finite, done!”

That’s when the guy said that I had to  … HAD TO … get the desert.  A little pancake he says.  It’s just something light with a little fruit.  How Big, I asked.  He said, small plate sized.  It wasn’t small plate sized.  It was big plate sized.  It was a massive pancake with a massive amount of fruit.  And it was delicious.  And so was the schnapps that came with it.

And I don’t think I ate again for a week.

5) McCarthy Dinner

Duck breast with an orange sauce, side of purple potatoes with a hint of coconut.  Starter, a summer squash soup, thick and nutty.  Desert, cake equally dense and moist with a bit of homemade ice cream on the side.  Good wine to go along with it.  It was a high end meal in a high end restaurant.  Elegant ambiance.  All shared with two good friends celebrating a wonderful Independence Day weekend.

Sure, not many people can say they have had duck breast in a high end restaurant, but keep in mind that I traveled a lot for my jobs, and sometimes you can work an expense account.  So that kind of experience shouldn’t be Unique.  Memorable, yes.  Noteworthy, sure … but why does it make the Top 5-ish list?

This was a meal in McCarthy, Alaska.  McCarthy isn’t just a town that is remote because it is in Alaska, it’s remote FOR Alaska.  To get there from Anchorage, you drive four hours along the main highways until you get to the Richardson Highway turnoff.  Then you drive another hour to Chitna.  Then you drive the last 90 miles (or two to three hours) along a dirt road that is closed for eight or nine months a year.  Then when you park at the glacier fed river, you have another mile of walking to get to McCarthy.  During the winter, the population of McCarthy is 28.  TWENTY – EIGHT!  Yet out here in the middle of nowhere, the meals they were cooking rivaled a high end place anywhere in the Lower 48 big cities.  What I kept getting shocked by was that these were items that had to be shipped in all the way here – and the chefs had to be one of those 28 people.  To be so remote, but so good, just shocking.


Honorable Mentions:

  • My “Driveway Money” night with nachos at a Buffalo Wild Wings watching the NFL Draft should make this list.  But it wasn’t as much about the meal as it was the drinking and the crazy.
  • In London in 2005, the same group that did the Italian Barn meal had maybe the most memorable meal of my life — if I could remember more about it.  Don’t know what I ate.  Don’t know the name of the place.  Probably would have to wander around Kennsington for a while to even find the street.  All I know is it was the most quotable meal of my life (“To the Wives” – “We are Captains of our Own Ship” – “That Must Make Us Pirates” – “Arrgh”),
  • The “Habana” that breached the title of this post but not the list.  Great Cuban restaurant in Costa Mesa, where a good sangria & a plantain enhanced white fish were on the plate.
  • Seward’s Folly in Anchorage became a Sunday night usual for me, in part because their specials were incredible.  I remember a halibut with a tomato jam and polenta that a guy could write poems about they served one night there that sticks out.
  • Memorable because it was the most expensive meal of my life, I once did a three course full on meal in the Space Needle in Seattle.  Sat there long enough for the place to do a couple laps around the city, and a couple laps around my credit card.
  • Similar to the Co-Ed Hall lunch, and occurring on the same weekend as the McCarthy dinner – stopping off in Glenallen where the pup and I shared a gut warming yellow curry at the Tok Thai food truck (the pup had the rice, I had the curry).

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