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Hominy Grill, Charleston, S.C.

“I carry the delicate porcelain beauty of Charleston like the hinged-shell of some soft-tissued mollusk. . . . In its shadows you can find metal work as delicate as lace . . . it’s not a high-kicking, glossy lipstick city.”

These words from legendary author Pat Conroy display two important truths. First, Charleston is truly a southern treasure. Second, Pat Conroy is a much better writer than I am. Given that he also put out a cookbook, he also might be a better chef than I am. Not that that’s anything to be ashamed of; I’m a big fan of Pat Conroy and I’m well aware of my limitations.

But luckily, I don’t have to know how to make Lowcountry cuisine from scratch to know how to enjoy it. Truthfully, Charleston is one of the best food cities in the country because of its abundance of options. Much like New Orleans is a fantastic place to eat because of its cultural influences and access to natural resources, the same is true of Charleston. If you can’t find something to enjoy in this city, you simply haven’t spent enough time looking.

Truthfully, you shouldn’t have to spend much time looking, because it doesn’t get much better than the Hominy Grill. Located in downtown Charleston, Hominy Grill has been winning rave reviews ever since it opened in 1996. It doesn’t hurt that chef and owner Robert Stehling’s story is the ultimate example of hard work winning the day. He began his restaurant career washing dishes at a restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C. and ultimately rose to eventually open his own place. When he did, he showed that he knew what he was doing, winning acclaim as the best chef in the Southeast from the James Beard Foundation. That’s pretty high praise, and it’s why this place has been high on my list for many years.

From the moment you sit down to get started at Hominy Grill, you know that you’re not in the typical restaurant. One of the most obvious signs is the opening appetizer that greets its diners. At many restaurants, you start out with bread or crackers, which can range from quite good to forgettable, but usually don’t impress anyone that much. At Hominy Grill, much to Amy’s delight, you’re presented with a bowl of boiled peanuts.

If you’ve never been to the Southeast, boiled peanuts are about as Southern as you can get. The peanuts are boiled in their shells and then served, and when they’re done right, they are fantastic. These peanuts are most definitely done right. The taste and texture of them can best be described as like a good mashed potato. I’d never had peanuts boiled this well, and I loved every bite of them. However, boiled peanuts can also be a trap because if you eat too many, you’re going to miss some of the great things on Hominy Grill’s menu.

One example was our appetizer. Amy loves fried green tomatoes, and it was pretty obvious when we saw them on the menu that we’d be trying them here. Fried green tomatoes can be tough to pull off because the key to them is the breading. If the breading doesn’t work well with whatever you’re frying, the dish suffers, and that’s especially true with fried green tomatoes because of the moisture in the tomatoes.

This breading, however, was crispy the entire way through and didn’t interfere with the taste of the tomato. If you’ve read my work before, you know that I am very particular about my breadings. I want to taste what’s inside the breading, and Hominy Grill absolutely delivers with these tomatoes.

With her appetizer choice out of the way, it was my turn. From the moment that Amy and I decided we were going to Charleston, I knew that I’d be getting some she-crab soup. She-crab soup is a Charleston staple that gets its name from the fact that it can only be made from female crabs. That’s because a good part of its flavor comes from the roe (eggs) that are only found in the female’s body. The roe and crab meat are blended with milk or cream into a bisque, and the most important non-crab addition comes in the form of sherry.

I’m not a wine drinker, as has been well documented here, but I do love when alcohol in my food makes something better. The flavor of sherry is a major bonus in a good crab or lobster bisque, and I knew that I had something good coming when I could smell the sherry as it was brought to our table.

I’ve had some good crab soups before. This was unlike anything that I’ve ever had before. This bisque is creamy and full of crab meat in every bite. The flavor is simply perfect, and if not for what I knew was coming, I would have wished I’d ordered a bowl instead of a cup. It’s definitely one of the best soups I’ve ever had.

But the main thing I was here for was the Charleston Nasty Biscuit, which might have a terrible name, but is one of the best creations I’ve ever tasted. If you’ve ever had chicken-fried chicken, you’ve got a basic idea of what makes the Nasty Biscuit so outstanding. Basically, the Nasty Biscuit consists of fried chicken breast on a biscuit, covered in cheddar cheese and sausage gravy. As for the name, it comes from Stehling’s mechanic.

Apparently, Stehling and his mechanic would occasionally go to breakfast together at Hardee’s, and the mechanic would flirt with the Hardee’s workers in an effort to get them to pour sausage gravy on his chicken biscuit. The workers would jokingly tell him he was “so nasty”, and inspiration struck Stehling, as it does with the best chefs. Soon after, the Big Nasty was born. There was one hitch, however: national chain McAlister’s Deli already had that name trademarked for its open-faced roast beef sandwich. So in 2013, Stehling avoided a lawsuit and changed the name to the Charleston Nasty Biscuit.

Under any name, the Nasty Biscuit is fantastic. The biscuit is perfect, firm on the outside and soft on the inside. In my opinion, the mark of a good biscuit is that it can be eaten and enjoyed on its own, without any additions. If you’ve ever had a biscuit at a hotel’s continental breakfast, you know that most biscuits there are incredibly hard and require gravy or jelly just to make them edible.

Not so with these biscuits. The gravy is simply making an already good thing better, which is how a good biscuit should be done. As far as the gravy goes, it’s unlike any that I’ve ever had before, and that’s because of the cheddar cheese. While in the restaurant, I didn’t realize at first that the cheddar was there. I looked for the cheddar briefly before deciding that I didn’t care if it was on there or not because the biscuit was so good.

It was only when I sat down to write this blog that I looked at the photo and realized the cheddar had been there all along. First, they use white cheddar here, not the orange that many American establishments love. That’s a big plus for me, because white cheddar is one of my favorite cheeses. Second, the cheddar actually melts into the gravy, taking the flavors to another level. I’m not the biggest fan of gravy on its own, but this was more than gravy. This was more of a Mornay sauce, and the flavor was spot on. With some onions, peppers and chicken stock thrown in, the gravy was simply perfect.

Amy opted for the shrimp and grits, the other major specialty of the Hominy Grill. In fact, when we placed our order, our waitress immediately told us that we knew exactly what we were doing. That’s always a good sign when the staff compliments your order after you’ve placed it, because they’re not in any kind of sell at that point.

They don’t really need to sell this dish, either. The shrimp and grits are fantastic, and truthfully, with their name and location, they should be. Charleston is well-known for quality seafood, and hominy is actually the basis of grits, as it’s ground up to make the dish. So this should be a signature dish, and it absolutely delivers. The shrimp are plump, juicy and well-cooked, while an addition of bacon and mushrooms provides great flavor and texture to work with the base. Amy is hard to please on her bacon, but this bacon worked perfectly for her, as did the rest of the dish.

If you’ve read this far, you might notice that I haven’t even mentioned sides yet. That’s because sides don’t come standard at the Hominy Grill. Truthfully, in terms of eating, you don’t need the sides because portions are pretty large, and one entree is going to be enough for one person. But if you have a side or two that you want to try, Hominy Grill offers 16 different standard options, plus a couple specials. To get the most diversity, you can opt for a plate of three sides with a piece of cornbread, which is what we chose.

Sides can range from the expected, such as the macaroni and cheese, which is still quite good, to the truly unique of deep-fried grits. Yes, you can actually get cheese grits battered and fried here, and while they are heavy, they’re definitely delicious. I’d recommend sharing them so that you get the great taste without overindulging on them. Our third choice was one of the specials, which was squash and hominy with feta in a tomato base. They’re all good complements to your main dish without stealing the show from the entree. I’d order any of them again.

The thing that does steal the show from the entree, however, is the dessert. Hominy Grill has several homemade desserts to choose from on their board, but if you’ve never been here before, you absolutely have to try the chocolate pudding. In fact, once we requested it, our waitress said that she all but forces her customers to order it if they haven’t decided on dessert. Well, then.

After one bite, I could see why. This is the best pudding I have ever tried, period. The texture of the pudding is more like the interior of a truffle. It’s the perfect mix of not being too firm and not being too soft, and the chocolate flavor is simply sensational. The whipped cream on top is a beautiful complement, and the only complaint I had with this dish was that I wanted more. This has to be one of the best desserts that I’ve ever tried.

Apparently, their other desserts are every bit as good. I had about five desserts I would have loved to try, including the chocolate peanut butter cake and the brown sugar pound cake, both of which sound like they’d be instant favorites of mine. Brian Hurst swears by the pecan pie, and after seeing this picture that he was kind enough to share, I can see why.

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Courtesy of Brian Hurst

Hominy Grill might have only been around for the past 21 years, but they’re not kidding when they say it feels like it’s been around for generations. This is exactly what I think of when I think of eating well in the Southeast. The best way I can probably sum up their reputation is this: On my way out to my car to retrieve my phone, I was stopped by a man on vacation with a simple question, “Is this the place that serves the famous shrimp and grits?”

Yes, it is…along with a lot of other great stuff.

Time to go: Lunch or dinner. You’ll be able to get a lot of great breakfast options at breakfast, including the Nasty Biscuit and shrimp and grits, but lunch and dinner are when you can try the desserts and the plate of sides. It’s open from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. for breakfast

Wait during my visit: None. That could be because of the small parking lot, or it could be because we were fortunate. I’m not entirely sure, but plan on a possible wait just to be safe

Location: Hominy Grill is located at 207 Rutledge Ave. in Charleston, S.C.

Cost: It’s not cheap, but it isn’t too terrible either. The most expensive thing on the menu for brunch is the shrimp and grits, which comes in at $19. However, be warned: you will spend a good amount of money here, not because the cost is so much, but because you’ll want to try so many things. Plan on about $30-35 a person to allow for sides, soup and dessert.

Parking: There is a very small lot by the restaurant, and you basically just have to hope you catch it at the right time. Charleston is not a car-friendly city, so you’re in for a mess if you have to search for street parking. I gave it two circles before getting lucky, and you might want to do the same.

Seating arrangement: The tables are kind of old-timey, like you’d expect in the old South. They are, however, designed for today’s customers, so you shouldn’t have issues with them.

Website: Hominy Grill

Specialty items: Nasty Biscuit, Shrimp and grits, Chocolate pudding

Hominy Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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The Green Room, Greenville, S.C.

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Wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve been active here, but I had a great reason for that. I simply haven’t had time to blog as of late, mainly because I spent the majority of the past three months undertaking the most important change of my life: giving Amy a new last name.

Yes, after almost a year and a half of being engaged, my wonderful fiancee is now my wonderful wife, and I am even luckier than I already was. Of course, with a wedding comes a honeymoon, and it simply wouldn’t be our lives if the two of us didn’t find ourselves a great restaurant or two while enjoying the start of our lives as a married couple.

One of those places proved to be in Greenville, South Carolina, the largest city in the Upstate region of the Palmetto State. Located along Interstate 85 between Charlotte and Atlanta, Greenville has quietly positioned itself as an underrated gem in the shadows of its two larger neighbors, mainly because of the sheer beauty that is its downtown. After all, there aren’t too many places that feature a downtown with a natural waterfall, and it’s even rarer for such a situation to occur in a city of 400,000 (OK, technically Greenville has a population of 62,000, but that’s only because of South Carolina’s very weird laws on city annexation that make it virtually impossible for cities to grow their official populations in the state), which has helped make Greenville an attractive place to live.

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Of course, when that’s the case, that means there are going to be good restaurants to be found. In Greenville, that’s especially true because of the city’s competition not only with Charlotte and Atlanta, but also with fellow South Carolina city Charleston. The Lowcountry (South Carolina is divided into the Lowcountry, the Midlands and the Upstate) has long had a reputation for great cuisine on the beach, and although the Upstate can’t do anything about its geography, it can certainly compete on the restaurant scene. In fact, according to an Esquire article in 2013, Greenville has 110 restaurants within a mile and a half of its Main Street, and that’s just downtown.

Appropriately, one of the best downtown options is The Green Room, located right on Main Street just north of the center of downtown. Unlike the rivalry of Nashville vs. Memphis, the rivalry of Upstate vs. Lowcountry appears to be a friendly one, as The Green Room claims that its style is “Upstate Casual”, which supposedly blends the “casualness of the Lowcountry with the sophistication of the Upstate.” Hmm, that was subtle. Maybe this rivalry isn’t quite so friendly after all.

Friendly or not, it was good news for me, because I’ve clearly learned nothing from my experience in Louisville and headed downtown in shorts, which meant that my wife and I needed a place that doesn’t have a dress code to enjoy our evening in the Upstate. Luckily, not only does The Green Room oblige, but it has a reputation for being home to some of the best fries in the country. Well, that certainly got our attention, considering how much I love famous things and Amy loves potatoes. Possibly the best fries in the country? This was something we had to try for ourselves.

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But the fries wouldn’t come right away, because first on the agenda were The Green Room’s mini crab cakes. Amy will choose crab over almost anything when it comes to seafood, and crab has been one of my favorites too for as long as I can remember (thank you, growing up on the Eastern Seaboard), so this was definitely high on our list. It proved to be well-justified, because these crab cakes are some of the best you’re going to find anywhere. What makes them work so well is the chipotle remoulade sauce they’re served with, which provides the perfect amount of zing without overpowering the crab, a delicate balance to manage.

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The crab cakes are blended together perfectly and hold both texture and flavor in every bite. About the only negative is that they aren’t very big, which is both a positive and a negative in the fact that they leave you wanting more. It’s a negative because you’ll wish you had more crab cakes, a positive because it’s a perfect preparation for the rest of what The Green Room has to offer.

For me, that included the other thing that The Green Room is well-known for: the TGR Meatloaf. Apparently, this is by far their most requested dish among regulars, and it’s an order of two pieces of chipotle-glazed meatloaf, a side of jalapeno macaroni and cheese and a side of bacon-creamed peas. Considering that two of those include some heat and I readily admit my low spice tolerance, you would think that this dish would actually be a nightmare for me, rather than something on my list. But actually, I really enjoy a good meatloaf and only have it very occasionally because it’s Amy’s worst nightmare. Given the reputation, heat or no heat, I had to give this a try.

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It’s good. It’s very good. First off, the heat is nowhere near the level of Prince’s or Hattie B’s, it’s more of a burst of flavor than anything. It’s very well done, because the key to any good meatloaf is the glaze, and the chipotle glaze is different but excellent, making this an outstanding entree. As far as the sides go, the real star is the bacon-creamed peas. The inclusion of bacon is a stroke of genius and creativity that adds a nice unique layer of flavor to what could otherwise be fairly mundane. The macaroni and cheese is also good, opting for the less is more approach to heat as well with only a small amount of jalapeno noticeable. It’s then topped off with a slice of corn bread and some really good honey butter, which is an excellent finish. The honey butter works beautifully with the corn bread as a nice touch of sweetness, a necessary component to proper corn bread.

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To that, we added a Southern staple, fried green tomatoes, which are very well done here because of the addition of an herbed cream cheese as a topping. These can be had as either an appetizer portion or a side portion, with the side portion giving you two tomato slices and I believe the appetizer being at least four. The tomatoes are excellent, as the breading is neither over the top nor totally bland, and the cream cheese counteracts the red pepper relish very well. I’d definitely get these again.

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Amy felt the same way about her Green Room Salad, which included delicacies such as gorgonzola cheese, cranberries, apples and a homemade black fig balsamic dressing, which gave an interesting level of sweetness to the flavors. She also added blackened salmon to her salad, which came out well seasoned and meshed with her salad perfectly. I’d just had a rather bland salad a couple days ago in Georgia, and she made sure to note the contrast between that salad and this one she had. Nothing says that a salad has to be boring, and with a perfect blackened salmon on it, this salad was anything but.

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As far as the fries? They’re parmesan truffle fries with parsley seasoning, which is what makes them such a great experience. The key to using truffle as a seasoning is to be very light-handed, because a little bit of truffle oil goes a long way, and too much of it can totally overwhelm the flavors. But The Green Room didn’t get its reputation by failing to balance the flavors on its fries, and it’s the parmesan and the potato flavors that are allowed to shine through here. These are outstanding and well worthy of their lofty billing. The only danger is that you might not want to order these if you’re on a first date, because the multitude of dried parsley can and will stick in your teeth upon consumption.

But if that’s the worst thing that happens, that’s a pretty enjoyable meal. Greenville might not yet have the reputation that its more famous neighbors do, but it certainly has the quality that earns such recognition. With excellent entrees and some incredible sides, The Green Room is absolutely worth the trip to the Upstate.

Recap

Time to go: Brunch, lunch or dinner. The Green Room has different menus for each time of day, so be sure to check before you go.

Wait during my visit: None, but I have heard the lines here can get very long at peak times, so plan ahead.

Location: The Green Room is at 116 North Main Street in downtown Greenville, S.C.

Cost: It really could be a lot worse in some areas, while a tad high in other aspects. Most entrees will cost about $15-20, while the sides can get expensive at $6 each. However, the fries and tomatoes are quite worth the extra cost.

Parking: Not that bad, considering that Greenville’s downtown offers free parking after 6 p.m. and two-hour free parking during normal work hours.

Seating arrangement: Booths and bar stools

Website: The Green Room

Specialty items: Parmesan truffle fries, meat loaf

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The Green Room Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Hook Up, Biloxi, Miss.

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When one thinks of great food on the Gulf Coast of America, they usually have one of two places in mind: Tampa and New Orleans. And why wouldn’t they? With the Spanish influences in Tampa and the French influences in New Orleans, plus both cities’ access to fresh seafood, the Cigar City and the Crescent City are as good as it gets for foodies.

But there’s more to the Gulf Coast than just the two major cities. Mobile, a major city in its own right in Alabama, features seafood the way it should be and some of the best oysters you can find anywhere. Then there’s Mississippi, which is sometimes forgotten among the four Gulf Coast states, despite its location on Interstate 10. The truth is, the cities of Gulfport and Biloxi are the second and fifth-largest cities in the Magnolia State, combining to form a metro area of between 250,000 and 350,000 residents, but the cities were hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, resulting in a population decline over the past decade. Biloxi in particular was crushed by the storm, falling from Mississippi’s third-largest state to fifth since that disaster.

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In recent years, Biloxi has positioned itself as a resort town, billing itself as “The Playground of the South”. Driving along Beach Boulevard, the main highway of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, drivers see plenty of souvenir stores, casinos and open shoreline. Of course, the shoreline isn’t exactly open, considering it’s $30 to rent a spot on the beach for the day and the Gulf is only about three to four feet deep on the Mississippi coastline, but it does at least look pretty from Beach Boulevard and provides a nice contrast with the glut of casinos that greet a driver upon entering Biloxi proper. But if you’re looking for a good place to dine in Biloxi, the shoreline isn’t the place to be. Actually, to find Biloxi’s specialties, you head into the city and head to a marina.

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Yes, I’ve had some strange locations before in this journey, but I’ve never once had a marina before. But that’s exactly the setting at the Hook Up Restaurant and Bar, located next to the Biloxi Boardwalk Marina on the Back Bay of Biloxi. From the moment you walk in, it feels like the typical ocean clubhouse bar, complete with open windows blowing in the breeze and a gorgeous view of the water. With fish on the walls and the bars, plus a constant cool temperature whether you’re inside or out, the atmosphere is that of relaxing after a day on the boat, perfect for its location. Even the restaurant’s logo itself includes a marlin.

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The atmosphere, however, is only the beginning. As you might expect from a marina restaurant, the Hook Up prides itself on its seafood, offering several ocean favorites such as shrimp, oysters and the catch of the day. As you also might expect from a place that is so close to New Orleans, some of the stuff that the Crescent City has made famous has also made its way east down Interstate 10 to Biloxi. Po boys, Gulf Coast seafood specialties and Cajun spices are common here, such as in the Zydeco Shrimp Pasta, which includes gulf shrimp, peppers and onions and a Cajun cream sauce with penne. The appetizers are especially inspired, including shrimp bread (French bread with shrimp, scallions and cheese baked into it), CF Fries (a southern version of poutine, including roast beef along with the gravy and cheese) and the Dillapeno Basket, a 50/50 of fried pickles and fried jalapenos.

But as good as that sounds, that’s the kind of stuff that you can easily get in New Orleans itself (outside of the appetizers), and that’s not what I do. Sometimes copycats are of very high quality (usually, they’re not), but it’s very rare for a copy to measure up to the original enough that it’s worthy of recognition. As I’ve been told before and agree with, when you’re on the road, you don’t want the same stuff that you can get elsewhere, you want something special.

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Ironically enough, that ended up being a burger. Yes, a burger at a marina. Anticlimactic? Well, the Southern Miss Burger is no ordinary burger. Actually, it’s kind of the Magnolia State on a bun. The standard beef patty and cheddar cheese get crowned with some applewood-smoked bacon and two of the great treats of the Gulf Coast, fried shrimp and fried green tomatoes. I’m not sure specifically where fried green tomatoes originated, but they’re definitely a southern tradition, so much so that there’s a book and movie with that name (set in Alabama, not Mississippi) and there’s actually a restaurant in Biloxi named The Fried Green Tomato. (Seriously, there is.)

The description suggests Mississippi on a bun. The taste says heaven on a bun. This might seriously be one of the best burgers I’ve ever had in my life, and the beef is a large part of that. An important component of any meal is how well your ingredients work with each other, and the beef is simply perfect with the other ingredients on the Southern Miss. The burger has a great grill flavor and is juicy throughout, working beautifully with the bacon, cheese, unfried and ripened tomato, fried green tomato and shrimp. The shrimp gives a new meaning to surf and turf, as it’s not often that you get to combine those tastes for your entire meal. There isn’t anything about this burger that I would alter. With the perfectly battered shrimp and green tomato offering that extra something, this is about as close to burger perfection as you can get.

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I added some baked macaroni and cheese as my side, and although I enjoyed it very much, as the cheese worked perfectly with the penne pasta, this is actually not an item I recommend here. That’s because at the time of our visit in late May 2014, the Hook Up has a massive flaw with its menu. If you remember, one of the great things about Willie Mae’s is that it doesn’t charge extra for side dishes, no matter what the price of the side is. The Hook Up goes the opposite direction in that it does charge extra for certain sides. The problem is that the restaurant does nothing to tell you this on its menu, leaving you with a nasty surprise on your check if you’ve ordered one of the sides with an upcharge. What’s worse is that the staff members actually know about this flaw, but as of this writing, to my knowledge, the restaurant has yet to either stop charging extra for sides or note which ones cost extra. The baked mac and cheese adds $2 to the price of your meal, which would be fine if that was made clear on the menu, although I wouldn’t pay an extra two bucks to order it. To their credit, the staff members will reverse the upcharge if you say something about it, but you really shouldn’t even have to ask. It’s a bad policy and a black mark that doesn’t need to exist, especially not at a place like this.

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Amy, a noted beef hater, was totally in her element in a place that caters to the ocean. With that in mind, she opted for the fish tacos, which come with citrus slaw, chipotle aioli and avocado. The fish can be either fried or grilled, and Amy opted for fried, which proved a great decision. These tacos are excellent, with a good amount of heat from the chipotle aioli. If you’re not much for spicy stuff, two of these might be a little much, but if you can handle some heat, these are perfect. In Amy’s words, these might be the best fish tacos she’s ever had, and considering that she’s actually from the Gulf Coast in Tampa (and we’ve hit some pretty good taco places), that’s pretty high praise. She added fries as her side, which are high quality and do not carry an upcharge.

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But we’re not done yet, because as good as the Hook Up’s main fare is, dessert is pretty much a requirement here. You’ve got two main options to choose from, with the first one actually winning Food Network’s honor as the top ice cream treat in Mississippi: the RC Cola Moon Pie Sandwich. It’s basically a couple Moon Pies with cola-flavored ice cream sandwiched between them, with the whole thing dipped in a chocolate ganache and topped with whipped cream. However, unlike Mississippi Foodie Shawn Rossi, who has enjoyed this treat, I can’t speak to how good it is, because unfortunately, on our visit, they happened to be out of Moon Pies.

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But that’s okay, because in the Magnolia State, the dessert of choice is the one with the state’s name in it: Mississippi Mud Pie. The name comes from the dark brown look of the banks of the Mississippi River, and it always involves lots of chocolate. Here, the chocolate comes in the form of a dense and delicious brownie, covered with pecans, an Oreo topping and whipped cream. Trust me, you want to save room for this one. The warm brownie and cold cookies and cream topping are perfect together, and the chocolate sauce and whipped cream are amazing. This is so good that it almost made me wish we each had our own so we didn’t have to share it.

Mississippi might not be anywhere near the top of the list for most foodies, but sometimes, even the most unlikely places can get quality eating establishments, and the Hook Up definitely qualifies. There’s no excuse for the issue with the pricing of the sides, but otherwise, this is as good as it gets no matter what your taste is. Once they’ve got that issue fixed, this will definitely be a place Biloxi can be proud to call its own.

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Recap

Time to go: Lunch or dinner. If there’s an event at the marina, it might be wise to schedule around it, as this is the only restaurant by the marina.

Wait during my visit: None. There were plenty of places available.

Location: The Hook Up is located at 200 Eighth Street in Biloxi, Miss., near the ocean but not on it.

Cost: Most items run $10 to $15 here, so it isn’t too terribly priced, as long as you don’t hit the hidden charge with the side dishes. The desserts are a bit pricy at $5 to 7 each, but they’re worth it.

Parking: Plenty. This is one of the good things about being at a marina. One thing to note, though, some parking is reserved for marina members only.

Seating arrangement: Tables and chairs, both inside and outside.

Website: The Hook Up

Specialty Items: Southern Miss Burger, seafood, Mississippi Mud Pie, RC Cola Moon Pie Sandwich

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The Hook Up Bar & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Bern’s Steak House, Tampa, Fla.

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Long before this journey began, I knew that this was one of the places that I wanted to experience at some point in my life. Put simply, Bern’s is one of the most famous restaurants not just in the Tampa Bay area, but in the entire country. This is a steakhouse that set itself out to be the best at what it does, and that means that it’s one of the rare places that had its fame go far beyond its borders long before the days of the Travel Channel, Food Network and the Internet.

I’ve personally known about Bern’s since the 1990’s, and I’ve been waiting for the day that I’d finally visit ever since then. A year ago, as a special surprise for her birthday, Amy and I got a taste of Bern’s by visiting the dessert room, which is an experience on its own. But as great as the dessert room was, it’s only a part of the true Bern’s experience. To get the real experience, one has to go through every part of a Bern’s visit, which means dinner and the dessert room in one visit. It was something that I thought would happen eventually, but as I said last time, I didn’t think I’d be able to afford it for another two years.

But with a little bit of careful budgeting and planning, Amy and I were able to make it work on our most recent trip to Tampa. After fighting our way through a massive rainstorm that stretched across the entire East Coast and shut down airports in colder cities, we handed the keys to the valet in front of Bern’s (a required part of the Bern’s experience, as there is no other parking available there) and headed into the deceptively small restaurant to begin our evening.

Just as it was when we came to the dessert room, it was clear that we had stepped into elegance. This is a place that segments its dining areas throughout the restaurant and has only one window in the entire building, which is not even in a place that’s visible to customers. Unlike the dessert room, which is first come, first served, a reservation is pretty much required when you come for dinner. If you don’t have one, you’ll be lucky to get a table at all, and even if you do have one, you might still have to wait. After all, when you’re going to a restaurant for an experience, you’re not going to be rushing yourself, and Bern’s isn’t about to ask people to rush. In fact, they encourage you to fully bask in every part of the evening.

Unfortunately, depending on your luck, that can have a slight drawback. If you do visit Bern’s, learn from our mistake and ask if there’s any way that you can avoid being seated in the same room as a large group, because Bern’s segmented areas means that it is NOT a good spot for large groups, because the noise bounces around a much smaller area. We were unfortunate enough to be seated near a group of 12 people, and as soon as they left, the room’s ambiance became much more intimate and romantic. I do wish that Bern’s would assign couples to one area of the restaurant and louder groups to another, because that would make for a much better atmosphere for all parties involved. But that said, our experience was still enjoyable, even with that drawback.

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What makes a trip to Bern’s special is the quality of the service and the quality of the food. Ever since the days of Bern Laxer, the founder of the restaurant, Bern’s has billed itself as a true culinary experience, a tradition that has continued under his son David. Even the wine is something unique, as Bern’s boasts one of the largest wine cellars in the world and has bottles of wine available from all over the country, some of which are more expensive than your average journalist’s salary.

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Yes, Bern’s offers bottles of wine for sale that cost over $30,000, all of which are either stored on-site in the wine cellar or stored in a private area near the restaurant. Because it takes its wine so seriously, Bern’s asks that if wine is your thing, you place your order at the beginning of your meal before anything else, which will allow them to properly prepare it for your maximum enjoyment. If you want, you’re allowed to take a tour of the wine cellar after your meal is over, which is a pretty cool experience. Each bottle is stored at the perfect temperature, and the massive collection of bottles is just awe-inspiring. The wine cellar tour is the second half of a tour that includes a tour of the Bern’s kitchen, allowing you to see just how much work goes into every bit of your meal. They say they do things differently here, and they really do mean it.

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The menu is more like a book than a traditional menu (and the wine list really is a book, coming in at around 300 pages), all of which go into detail explaining the process for each of their offerings. The appetizers are broken down by what the main ingredient, including beef, poultry, vegetarian, seafood, foie gras and caviar. We weren’t about to break the bank for an ounce of caviar (although Bern’s does fly it in fresh), so we decided to start our meal with something unique that would appeal to both of our palates: a lobster cocktail.

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Basically, it’s a shrimp cocktail times about 100 in terms of awesomeness. The lobster cocktail includes fresh Maine lobster tossed with citrus mayonnaise, and gets served with whipped avocado, mango and other greens, along with thinly cut gaufrette potatoes, which basically means potatoes that have been woven into a thin waffle-type shape and fried.

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The lobster is quite simply incredible. The meat is amazing, and the avocado and mango flavors complement it beautifully. The potatoes are simply an added touch to show that yeah, they can go for the fantastic in terms of presentation, because that’s what they do. The taste of the potatoes with the avocado and lobster is simply unmatched. Honestly, the lobster cocktail is so good that Bern’s deserves recognition based on that alone.

But this is only the beginning of the Bern’s story. From there, Bern’s shifts to its standard offerings of soup and salad, which are pretty high-brow. All entrees come with both a house salad and French onion soup, which can be troublesome if those aren’t your thing, because substitutions are not allowed. That’s really a shame, because Bern’s has two other soups available, its vichyssoise and lobster bisque, both of which appear to be worth experiencing. In fact, Bern’s even has an option for trying all three of the soups. But unfortunately, anyone who takes any of those options will pay for the soup a la carte, which means adding roughly $12 to your bill for a bowl of soup.

Bern's Bisque

Costly, but sometimes it’s worth it, because Amy is not a big onion fan and wanted to go with the lobster bisque. Truthfully, the bisque is pretty good, using golden mushrooms, corn and bacon, but it’s missing the large chunks of lobster that were present in Carmel’s version. This was honestly a tad disappointing, even though it’s still a very tasty soup. By blending the lobster meat into the soup so thoroughly, the soup is filled with lobster taste, but the lack of the meat is a slight drawback.

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By contrast, I thoroughly enjoyed my French onion. The soup was hot and flavorful from first bite to last, and the cheese melted on top of it was perfection. When you make as many of these as Bern’s does, you’re bound to get really, really good at it, and I suppose that’s why every entree gets the French onion. They know it’s something they do incredibly well. Throw in some pretty awesome bread, and you really can’t go wrong here.

Bern's bread

The salad is again amazing. Bern’s offers 10 house-made dressings available, and as many of its vegetables as possible are grown organically on the restaurant’s farm. Bern’s pays so much attention to detail on the salad that they actually peel the tomato before adding it to your salad. Having never had a peeled tomato before, I was amazed at just how good it can be without the skin.

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The buttermilk ranch was also incredibly creamy and worked well with everything on the salad. I loved every bite of it, and was thoroughly impressed at just how much work goes into making a salad of that quality. From the hard boiled eggs to the green peppers to the marinated olives, everything was fresh and fantastic. You can’t ask for anything more.

After all that, it was time to get to the main reason that one comes to Bern’s: the steaks. Bern’s offers several different cuts of meat, all aged to their specifications, and does not cut any of its steaks until after a customer has placed their order. The reason is because they want the steak to be of the highest quality, and one size fits all does not really work for steaks. Instead, thin steaks are better when served medium well or higher, while thicker steaks are better when cooked less than medium well. As we’ve discussed before, they don’t miss a thing in this place. That means juicy steaks are served here, and they’re totally worth the high cost.

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I decided to go with the 10-ounce Delmonico, wanting flavor marbled throughout my steak. If a place like Bern’s calls it the best beef eating in the world, that’s good enough for me. Flavor was certainly what I got. The steak was cooked to perfection, and they’re not kidding when they say that no sauce is needed because of the flavor and juice. Every bite was ridiculously flavorful, and even the bits of fat on the steak are worth eating. Bern’s isn’t concerned about looks on the steaks, because they know that this is their specialty. Unlike the lobster cocktail, where they’re trying to impress you with presentation, this time, they’re all about the taste.

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It’s an approach I really appreciated, because when it all comes down to it, the most important part of a culinary experience is whether the food tastes good, not whether it looks good. If it tastes great and looks so-so, that’s much better than the reverse. The steak was wonderful, and I would love the chance to try the other steaks that Bern’s offers. Whatever your steak preferences are, chances are you’ll be satisfied, but I can definitely vouch for the Delmonico.

The sides were just as awesome. Bern’s offers a fully loaded baked potato, crisply fried onion rings and two vegetables of the evening with all of its steaks. The vegetables of the evening can be anything that Bern’s has on its farm, and are served with all entrees. As with the cocktail presentation, this is a great example of Bern’s showing off. They’re so proud of their farm that they’ll give seconds or even thirds of the vegetables of the evening at no extra charge, if a customer asks. On our visit, we were served carrots and some kind of leafy green vegetable, which I believe was spinach. Whatever it was, it was incredible.

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But the real stars of the sides are the baked potato and the onion strings. The baked potato is huge and has the flavor of condiments throughout it, while the onion strings are a perfect complement to the steak. Honestly, I was tempted to ask for more of the onion strings, and I’m not even the biggest fan of onion rings. But these things were that good.

Unfortunately, they’re also part of a very misleading part of Bern’s menu. Bern’s menu says that all entrees come with the baked potato and onion strings, but that isn’t the truth. The non-steaks occasionally have their own sides that come with the meal, and if that’s the case, the baked potato and onion strings are superseded and replaced by the sides that come with that menu item. We didn’t end up finding this out until Amy’s order arrived sans potato, and I felt horrible for her as a result, even though she of course said it was fine. She’s so incredibly sweet.

Bern's chicken

Not being a beef eater, Amy opted for the Chicken Bern, which is marinated, spiced, sauteed and served with rice pilaf and crispy shiitake mushrooms. As with the lobster bisque, it was good, but not great. The soy sauce that it’s served with didn’t really work as well as it should have, which was a bit of a disappointment. As my uncle Phil, who used to live in Tampa, told me before we went, it’s best to stick with the steaks, as that’s what Bern’s has built its reputation on through its history. I felt really bad for Amy, but the good news was that it was time to head to the dessert room.

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Just as it was the first time, the dessert room was magical. This time, we decided to start by trying one of their specialty cheeses, which can be bought at $6 for an ounce. Incredibly costly, but something we decided was worth the experience to sample something unique. That ended up being the triple goat brie, which was incredibly creamy and great with strawberries. The cheese definitely isn’t something to get all the time, but it’s worth trying at least once on a dessert room visit, where the ambiance allows you to really enjoy something that exquisite.

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For the desserts, of course, our choice was to go with the pie. Truthfully, it was a difficult decision, because everything on the menu looked amazing, but the main thing that we knew was that the banana cheese pie had to make a return appearance. I’ve tried to make my own, and even though it was good, it just doesn’t compare to what Bern’s produces. This pie is heaven on a graham cracker crust, and we would have been crazy not to try it. I’m all for new experiences most times, but really, that wasn’t going to be necessary this time for one of our choices.

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For the other, however, we could afford to look around. We didn’t look far, though, because we both wanted to try something chocolate. Of course, that meant going with the chocolate cheese pie, which is much like the banana cheese pie in the fact that it’s also an incredibly delicious mousse. The chocolate is so rich and the whipped cream so fresh that this one ranks right up there with the banana cheese pie in terms of awesomeness. I honestly wasn’t sure which one of these two should rank higher. With the chocolate shavings, the chocolate pie scores even more points, but the fresh bananas at the bottom of the pie are totally unmatched. For a really awesome taste, you can also mix both and get a chocolate-covered banana pie. Every bite is incredibly awesome, and we might not ever get around to trying any of the other desserts. These are that good.

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By the time it was over, we had spent more than three hours inside Bern’s, engrossed in the full experience. That’s a testament to just how incredible this place really is. The food is amazing, but it’s not just about the food here. From the decor to the kitchens to the wine cellar to the burgundy ties that show a waiter is still learning the job, it truly is an experience to see just how much can go into one meal from long before you arrive until the moment you finally leave. At most places, dinner is just a meal, no matter how good it is. At Bern’s, it’s truly an event, and it’s something that has to be experienced in person to really be believed.

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Recap

Time to go: Dinner, and make a reservation. Bern’s is only open from 5 to 10 p.m. most nights, and it can get ridiculously packed. Call ahead and save yourself the trouble. When you do get your table, you can also book your tour of the kitchen and wine cellar, plus your seat in the dessert room, if you’re so inclined.

Wait during my visit: Minimal, because of our reservation. If you don’t have one, there’s a good chance you don’t get in at all.

Location: Bern’s can be found at 1208 South Howard Avenue in the southern part of Tampa, Fla.

Cost: Oh boy. Doing things differently does not come cheap. Even without wine, you can easily top triple digits at this place, which we did. One thing to keep in mind here is that tipping works a little differently here in the main dining room. Regardless of party size, Bern’s will automatically add a 12 percent tip to your bill, and anything on top of that is up to you, so if you normally leave 15 percent, you’ll only need to add 3 percent to your bill to reach what you want to leave. In the dessert room, however, that rule does not apply, and you should tip as you normally do in other restaurants. We budgeted $160 for this meal, and that was where it ended up.

Bern's lobby

Parking: Valet only, and you will pay $5 for the privilege.

Seating arrangement: Tables in the main dining rooms, booths in the dessert room.

Website: Bern’s

Specialty items: Steaks, lobster cocktail, cheese pie

Bern's front

Bern's Steak House on Urbanspoon

Carmel Cafe and Wine Bar, Tampa, Fla.

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Yes, this seems like a great idea: have the non-alcoholic write about a wine bar. Actually, if you’ll bear with me, it really is. On the surface, this would seem to be like having Amy do a review of a steakhouse, but Carmel is far from just a wine bar. Sure, the Tampa Bay chain’s focus is mainly on wine, and for good reason, because it has quite the collection of wines going for it. But there’s also the cafe portion of Carmel’s name to focus on, and it’s really an underappreciated gem, mainly because of how different the upscale atmosphere is.

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Right from the beginning, it’s clear that things are different here, because Carmel doesn’t stick to the traditional system of telling a waiter or waitress what you want to order. You will have a waiter or waitress to assist you, but when you sit down, you’ll be handed an iPad along with the normal paper menu. The reason is simple: Carmel is all about giving the customer the freedom to choose the experience that they want. If you’re not really interested in waiter interaction, it’s totally optional. In fact, you actually don’t have to speak to the waiter at all if you don’t want to.

The reason is because the iPad serves as both a menu and your own server. If you want to place an order for a certain food item or a wine, all you have to do is find it on your iPad and send it to the kitchen. The second you do, your order is sent back and will come out as soon as it’s finished. If you’ve ever gotten annoyed about a waiter rushing you, that’s not a problem at Carmel, because you’re in control. The iPad will even suggest drinks to pair with the food you’ve ordered, which is a very nice touch. Clearly, this is an idea for the future, and it’s probably going to expand as time goes on. It’s just a great way to put yourself in control.

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However, if you’re the kind of person who just can’t get used to ordering from an iPad, or if you just want some human interaction, not to worry. Carmel’s wait staff, possibly because they don’t have to pressure the customer to order at certain times, are some of the best in the business. Our server that night was a friendly guy named Chris, and quite honestly, Chris proved himself worthy of enshrinement in the Jimmy Lopez Hall of Fame because of how professional he was from beginning to end. Repeatedly, he stopped by to check in, without ever once interrupting the atmosphere or flow of our meal. That’s a rare skill for a server to have, and when you get a server like that, consider yourself fortunate. If you’re lucky enough to get Chris as your server, you’re in for a first-class experience.

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Now, on to what else makes Carmel a first-class experience, which would be the food. Truthfully, Amy had been waiting to take me here for a long time ever since she had been for appetizers and drinks with her friends when she lived in Tampa, and with us in the Sunshine State for Thanksgiving, this was the perfect time for us to experience it together. Without question, after receiving some breadsticks and sauce to snack on, our first plate that we tried was going to be Nan’s Goat Cheese, which Amy had tried on her first visit here.

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As soon as Amy tasted it, she knew that we had to come here, mainly because I love high-quality goat cheese. I don’t know what it is that makes it so creamy, but when goat cheese is good, it is really good, and it’s simply one of my favorite tastes of any food. So when Amy told me she had a goat cheese appetizer that I had to try, well, this was something that I had to experience.

Holy cow, was this amazing. First, Carmel serves what they call a drunken goat cheese, which means that the goat cheese is soaked in white wine to give it another layer of flavor. Even as a non-alcoholic, I can certainly appreciate the flavors that come with alcohol, and the wine that the cheese is soaked in is a perfect complement. Second, the goat cheese comes with olives, crackers, sun-dried tomatoes and cloves of garlic, all of which are available for dunking in the cheese. The garlic is mild and buttery, a really nice treat. For a real culinary experience, try all three with goat cheese on a cracker. I did multiple times and loved the multitude of flavors going on at one time.

Third, as I mentioned before, when goat cheese is good, it’s really good, and this one was really good. The cheese is mild and creamy, creating an incredible taste that melds well with all of the flavors on the plate. Goat cheese is at its best when its texture is allowed to shine, and this was about as good as it gets. As far as appetizers go, this one is very tough to top.

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Didn’t mean we weren’t going to try. While looking over our menus, Chris pointed out a special of a three-course meal that included an appetizer, soup and an entree, all for a price that was roughly about the cost of one entree. Needless to say, given how Amy and I like to experience as much of a menu as possible, we decided this was the way for us to go, and started off with a combination of edamame hummus and chickpea fries to split between us.

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Both of these were fantastic. Usually, chickpeas and hummus are synonymous with each other, but this time, the chickpeas are formed into the traditional fry shape and come out looking more like Belgian frites. Whichever one of those two they are, the fries/frites are simply fantastic. They’re served with tomato jam and curry aioli, which basically serve as a much, much higher brow version of ketchup and mustard. I’m not the biggest fan of curry myself, but I absolutely loved this. The tomato jam is a little on the sweet side, which is a nice change of pace from the curry and works great with the chickpeas. It’s pretty dang awesome. The edamame hummus is also excellent. Dipping crackers into pureed edamame is a little bit different, but when the soybeans are of this quality, it’s totally worth the change.

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The second course was the soup, and this time, there was going to be no sharing. Let’s be honest, it’s really darn hard to share soup, and truthfully, we didn’t want to do it anyway, because the soup in question was Carmel’s lobster bisque. Both of us love the taste of pretty much anything that comes out of the ocean, and with this being topped with truffle oil, I had a feeling that this soup was going to rank right up there with the best.

Sometimes, I know exactly what I’m talking about. This soup was simply perfect. We both love creamy soups, and this bisque had the perfect amount of cream to create a fantastic texture. At the same time, the flavor was unmatched. A proper lobster bisque is darn hard and time consuming to make because so much flavor comes from boiling the lobsters and getting the taste out of the shells, but Carmel’s version does the trick. Even better, this thing is loaded with chunks of lobster meat. Every spoonful of soup had a nice amount of lobster on it, and the lobster was succulent. I honestly can’t think of a single way that this could have been better. Seriously, I could have just eaten the lobster bisque, and not only would I have been satisfied, but Carmel’s spot would be earned on that alone.

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But the story doesn’t end there. No, we still had our entrees to come, and for me, that meant pumpkin ravioli. I love pretty much all pastas, especially filled ones, and the idea of pumpkin ravioli was intriguing to me. Throw in a sage cream sauce, and you’ve got a pretty good combination there.

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With pecans added to top it off, this dish is basically autumn on a hot plate, and I was very pleased with it. This being the Thanksgiving season when we visited, this was a perfect combination for the season.

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As she usually does, Amy opted to go a little bit hotter than I did, choosing a Moroccan lemon chicken with pine nuts, olives and lemon, along with a vegetable couscous. This was an excellent blend, as the lemon really stands out along with the vegetables, creating a really unique flavor that she genuinely enjoyed. Personally, I preferred my meal, but that’s not to say hers wasn’t very good. It really was, it’s just a little spicier than my tastes run. As someone who enjoys the heat, Amy found it to be the perfect spice level.

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That doesn’t even mention the small side dishes we chose to sample, as Amy opted for seasoned fries while I added mashed cauliflower. If you’ve never had mashed cauliflower before, it’s a really interesting texture. It’s a little liked mashed potatoes, but more lumpy and with an obviously different taste. It’s pretty healthy and it tastes pretty great, which is definitely a winning combination.

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For something a bit more mainstream, Amy went with the fries, which were also pretty dang good themselves.

Even after all of that, we still weren’t done. After all, this is a wine bar, which means two things: One, the alcohol is probably very good (and Amy tells me that it is, after she sampled a couple glasses). Two, if the alcohol is good, that means any dessert that has the alcohol involved is also going to be good. With that in mind, and given my love of pears, the poached pear was an obvious choice.

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I love poached pear, so much so that I’ve made it a couple times in cheesecake. Truthfully, one of the best things about it is how good it makes my apartment smell, because the wine that the pears soak in is mixed with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, which makes any kitchen it’s in smell wonderful. I don’t know what the kitchen smelled like at Carmel after poaching this pear, but with vanilla ice cream and caramel on our pear, I do know that this thing had every flavor working beautifully for it. The alcohol was a wonderful complement to the other sweet flavors, and I was absolutely thrilled with this dessert’s quality. There wasn’t a thing wrong with it, and it served as the perfect finish to a surprisingly amazing meal.

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It’s almost inconceivable that a meal of several small plates at a wine bar can be this fantastic, but that’s the culture that Carmel has created here. It’s not your typical restaurant experience, and that’s the way that Carmel likes it. If you’re willing to embrace something different and give your tastes a new experience, you’re going to find something that’s pretty darn incredible in one of the most welcoming and laid-back atmospheres you could expect to find. It’s certainly an experience worth seeking out in south Tampa.

Recap

Time to go: Lunch if you have a tight budget, dinner if you can afford to spend a little more. The prices are a little bit lower at lunch, so if you’re trying to save, go early.

Wait during my visit: None. This place should get more traffic, but does not.

Location: Carmel Cafe is in south Tampa, located at 3601 W. Swann Avenue, on the corner of Swann, Henderson and Himes. For some reason, the city planner of Tampa came up with the idea of a diagonal street cutting through the city and decided that couldn’t possibly go wrong, so three roads meet here.

Cost: It isn’t cheap, but it isn’t bad. Appetizers can cost about $5 to $7, while  soup is $3 to $4 and entrees range from $8 to $16. A word of warning here: if you’re going to be ordering appetizers or sides, you really don’t need the large entrees. The small will work just fine.

Parking: No challenge. Parking is abundant.

Seating arrangement: This can be in booths, tables and chairs, couches or stools. Take what makes you comfortable and adds to the atmosphere.

Website: Carmel

Specialty items: Poached pear, lobster bisque

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Carmel Café & Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, Nashville, Tenn.,

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No matter who created a dish first, when it becomes the signature food of a city, there are going to be plenty of places who claim they do it better than the original. In Louisville, that’s the Hot Brown. In Minneapolis, it’s the Juicy Lucy. In Butte, it’s the pasty, and in Nashville, it’s hot chicken.

Hot chicken has been a part of Nashville lore ever since Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack created it and unleashed the fires of hell on the Music City, burning lips across the country music capital with its combination of quality meat and spices at every level. It’s meant to cause pain, but the taste brings so much pleasure that it doesn’t even matter how much you’re hurting, you have to finish it.

Prince’s might be the one who created it, but that doesn’t mean other places can’t master it as well. The latest to discover the secret is Hattie B’s, a place that has all of the ability and flavor of Prince’s with none of the location problems that plague the original. I’m not honestly sure how it found a spot when Hattie B’s is almost in both Music Row (the area where country recording studios are located) and the campuses of both Vanderbilt and Belmont Universities, making it a much nicer area than Prince’s seedy strip mall. As Amy was making her move north, the idea of being in a more protected area was appealing to us, and since you can’t go through Nashville without having experienced hot chicken, Hattie B’s was the choice.

It proved to be a great one. Hattie B’s might be new to Nashville, but its owners are no strangers to the restaurant business. The Bishop family got its start running Bishop’s Meat and 3 in Franklin, just south of Nashville, and bring over 50 years of experience to the table. Given their long ties to central Tennessee and their experience with serving quality meals, they decided to give Nashville’s legendary bird a try, naming it after Nick Bishop’s great-grandmother.

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It’s safe to say that they know what they’re doing. Like most hot chicken places, Hattie B’s offers various levels of heat, offering guests the chance to choose just how much pain they’re willing to put themselves through. At the lowest level is regular southern fried chicken, completely devoid of the blazing spices of hot chicken. This is not necessarily a standard at hot chicken places, as some restaurants only go as low as mild, but Hattie B’s philosophy is that some like it hot and some don’t, so those who can’t take the heat have an option.

From there, the levels keep increasing. Mild is the lowest level of heat, followed by medium, hot and Damn Hot. From what I’ve heard, Damn Hot is basically like someone lit a match inside you and decided to burn you from the inside out. As far as my preference, if you remember my escapade at Prince’s, mild felt like I had licked a spark plug because of my low spice tolerance. But at Hattie B’s, the spice is reined in a little to a more sensible level. With that being the case, I decided to give medium a shot.’

This was excellent. The bird was still painful, but it wasn’t as ridiculously spicy as my first experience with hot chicken. At Hattie B’s, the spice of medium doesn’t hit you right away. Instead, it takes a couple seconds before the burners kick in, taking your experience from tasty to spicy in a matter of seconds. But again, with hot chicken, pain is pleasure. Despite the heat, I had to keep going and finish the whole bird, plus the bread they serve you to soak up the grease and heat.

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That’s because inside that heat is one juicy and moist chicken. I’ve had some really good fried chicken before, but this is some of the best there is, hot or not. The meat is so tender and filled with so much juice that you just have to keep going beck for more. The spice does not soak in from the skin to the meat, which means that all you taste once you get through the skin is one delicious bird. I love dark meat, and this chicken’s leg and thigh were simply incredible. When I was done, I just wanted more of it.

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Amy opted for a different kind of hot chicken that’s not always available, going with chicken tenders. She has a higher spice tolerance than I do, so she opted to make it hot, which is the most common order at Hattie B’s. She greatly enjoyed it, finding the heat to be exactly to her liking. Personally, the hot is a little too much for me, but it still tasted pretty good. These guys really know what they’re doing on the chicken.

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However, it doesn’t stop there. Other than its fries, Hattie B’s makes all its sides in-house, and I had to sample their pimiento macaroni and cheese. This was a very different and very outstanding taste. The pasta is creamy and cheesy, and the pimientos add a new layer of flavor which fits perfectly at a hot chicken place. I was very impressed with what I found. I also enjoyed some of Amy’s cole slaw, which she was not as pleased with. Turns out, she’s used to slaw being a bit sweeter, while the vinegary taste of it at Hattie B’s worked well for me. I don’t even like slaw, and I found theirs excellent.

It doesn’t end there, either. Amy decided that while she was still in the South, we had to get some banana pudding, and since I’d never had it before, it was something I had to sample. It was outstanding. The cool, creamy pudding with real whipped cream is the perfect finish after a round of hot chicken, allowing you something sweet and satisfying after you’ve put your mouth through a meal of sheer torture to get the taste you wanted. With vanilla wafers, it’s simply perfect.

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If you want the original hot chicken, you’re simply not going to find it here. But if you just want a high-quality bird spiced the Nashville way, Hattie B’s is definitely worth making a stop. It might not have been the first place. But it’s definitely one of the best. There will be pain, but hey, some like it hot.

Recap

Time to go: Lunch or dinner. Hot chicken is best eaten at one of these times, although it can be consumed very late at night.

Wait during my visit: None. Surprising, given that Hattie B’s is not exactly big, but we were fine.

Location: Hattie B’s is at 112 19th Avenue South, near Nashville’s Music Row.

Cost: Most plates will run you about $10 total. Not bad at all.

Parking: Hope and pray. Hattie B’s has the tiniest lot possible, and you have to go up a curb to reach it. It can be done, but it’s tricky. Also, you are out of luck if there’s no open spot. All you can do is find a place to park and walk if possible.

Seating arrangement: Picnic tables

Website: Hattie B’s

Specialty items: Hot chicken

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Hattie B's Hot Chicken on Urbanspoon

First Watch, Tampa, Fla.

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When it comes to lunch and dinner, there are about 20 different kinds of specialty places out there. However, breakfast, despite its status as the “most important meal of the day”, tends to get overlooked quite a bit in the restaurant world. Most places put their focus on the later, more expensive meals, only serving breakfast for the earliest part of the day. When places do serve breakfast all day, most of them devote equal focus to dinner, hoping to shine in more than one area.

First Watch, on the other hand, takes the complete opposite approach. Much like the Pancake Pantry, First Watch’s goal is to be successful at one thing and one thing only: breakfast. Thirty years ago, First Watch began with a commitment to breakfast only, even down to its name. First Watch refers to the first shift of the day on the sea, tracing back to the restaurant’s roots in both California and Florida, and that’s the only thing that has ever mattered to a place that starts bringing fresh quality breakfasts at the crack of dawn.

Amy and I weren’t quite up that early, but we also weren’t about to sleep in too late on this place. As you might expect with a place that focuses only on the first meal of the day, First Watch doesn’t stay open for very long and it’s usually packed when it is open. That’s life when you pay attention to high-quality, and First Watch’s singular focus allows it to do exactly that.

First, there’s the fact that First Watch gives the nutrition info for every meal and uses only the freshest ingredients possible, which explains why they start work at the crack of dawn. In turn, that allows First Watch to put a stamp of creativity onto its dishes, a trait that is pretty much universal among top breakfast places.

Some of the exclusive dishes include the Chickichanga, a breakfast burrito that features all-white meat chicken, green chiles and chorizo, the Key West and Turkey Chive crepes with eggs, which feature eggs, meat and vegetables inside a sweet crepe and the Swisshroom omelet, which would seemingly speak directly to me with its combination of ham, Swiss, onions and cremini mushrooms. Honestly, there’s not a word of that sentence I didn’t like.

But that’s also an omelet I’ve had many times before, and one of my rules is to never get something that you can get anywhere else when you go someplace special. If I was going to get an omelet (and let’s be honest, I was), it was going to be something that I don’t see every day. Enter the Bacado omelet, featuring bacon, avocado, Jack and sour cream.

Being the mushroom lover that I am, I couldn’t let this one go without throwing some of those into the mix, and the combination still worked wonderfully. What I love about avocado and sour cream is the cool, smooth and creamy tastes they both provide to whatever dish they’re in, and they counteract beautifully with the bacon. As an outsider in the dish, the mushrooms worked out great, meshing well with the creamy Jack cheese. Along with the eggs, this was as good as omelets get.

First Watch delivered well on its sides as well. One of the best things about getting breakfast is when you get treated to quality home fries, and that’s exactly what I found here. The potatoes are crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, and you can’t really ask for anything more than that. Throw in a well-buttered English muffin, and you’ve got an excellent breakfast.

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Amy, a veteran of First Watch, opted for an avocado, bacon and tomato hash with fresh fruit and loved it. As usual, I got to sample a slight bit of it, and the combination is excellent. Cheese and potatoes are never a bad idea, and with vegetables and bacon in there as well, a good idea becomes a great one.

I’ve said it many times, when you focus on only one thing, you become an expert at it. First Watch has taken that philosophy with breakfast, and it’s working. Even after expanding across the country, First Watch knows who and what it is, and holding that identity is what makes it great.

Recap

Time to go: Breakfast only. First Watch closes its doors at 2:30 p.m., opting not to serve anything past lunch. You have to make sure you’re here early.

Wait during my visit: Somewhat, but not too bad. It gets busy, but it does move quickly.

Location: First Watch is all over the country, but our visit was at 3712 Henderson Boulevard in Tampa, Fla.

Parking: It’s in a shopping center. There’s plenty of it.

Cost: Average. You’ll get out for about $7-8 a person.

Seating arrangement: It’s booths and chairs.

Website: First Watch

Specialties: Breakfast

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First Watch on Urbanspoon