We at Next Exit Travel are curious about local cuisine. For us, this means stopping at various supermarkets and gas station mini-marts to sample local delicacies. We seek to experience the potato in all forms. In fact, that really should be our mission statement.
Several of the gas station mini-marts offered fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as bread baked fresh on the premises. But you all know what bread looks like and snack food packaging is so much more fun. We also found out there is an amusement park devoted to fried potato products – Tayto Park! It was closed for the winter, but it gives us an excuse to go back.
Ireland was really WPT’s trip. I had a few places I wanted to see, but it was really more about fulfilling a promise I made him several years ago. So expect more in-depth posts from him and some nonsense from me. Starting now…
I expected to drive on the left-side of narrow roads. I had driven on the left before, but that was 15 years ago. What I didn’t expect was to find the drivers in Ireland to be the most polite I’ve ever encountered. I’m used to driving in one of the most aggressive regions in the US. The drivers in Ireland were such a pleasant surprise. Slower cars and trucks pulled over to let faster traffic pass, people took turns merging, and there was friendly waving and a lack of beeping. I shed my East Coast skin of speed and rage and cautiously wound my way around the island.
Much like people ask, “Did that tattoo on your foot hurt?” and my response is generally, “Why, yes, it did. Quite a lot.” People similarly ask about driving in Ireland. The narrow, often dark and rainy, winding roads were very challenging. In fact, after driving all day I was completely spent. I was usually rewarded with scotch and a hot bath for my efforts. I should also mention the black ice. Yeah, that was unexpected. I deserved a badge of some kind for dealing with several miles of that shit and not a scratch on the car or any of us. Ultimately, after 1829km, I could hit a roundabout at speed and merge like a pro.
We brought several maps with us, but they were useless at times. Actual street names are something of a secret handshake known only to locals and postal carriers. They change block-to-block and I saw one instance where different sides of the same street were known by different names. WPT deserves a badge for navigating.
Oatmeal tastes better when you call it porridge.
3) SELFIE STICKS
People really use selfie sticks. This is weird. We saw one guy with a selfie stick and iPad at the Giant’s Causeway. He appeared to be having a great time with himself.
4) THIS DISPENSER IN A HOTEL TOILET
5) MY BRAIN EMPTIED
Those of you who know me in real life know that my attention is all over the place. I tend to have 2-3 trains of thought going at any given time. Not so in Ireland. I had to concentrate fully while driving. The usual din of brain chatter was quelled. I focused like I hadn’t focused in years (maybe decades). I was thrilled to see it was still possible. An odd side-effect was that my brain was empty and quiet at night. I actually slept. It was amazing.
6) THE QUIET MAN
In the village of Cong there’s not only a statue of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, there’s a museum and a gift shop devoted to The Quiet Man. You may want to take a moment and sit on the bench devoted to the movie and reflect on that.
7) EIGHT-YEAR-OLDS IN BARS
People are downright pleased to see an 8-year-old in a bar, requesting songs, at 10pm on a Tuesday night. The 8-year-old was ours.
I loved the child-friendly attitude and that people were so nice to our son.
8) JOHN DENVER
Based on live music we heard, John Denver is very popular in Ireland. Or maybe just the song Country Roads.
9) PICKLED ONION CRISPS
Simply undeniably delicious.
For unknown reasons I expected the air to be clean and smell of damp earth and the ocean. Instead it often smelled smoky from all of the wood and peat burning hearths. It was also colder than usual.
There is a constant struggle between the permeating damp and dry heat. The greatest casualties in this war appear to be paint and hair.
I find that my mood darkens with the shorter days and often by December I’m rather unpleasant to be around. I’ve learned ways to fight it, which are usually only semi-successful. This year I had not only the lack of light to contend with, but also new triggers brought about by events that happened this time last year and a workload that has been more stressful than usual.
Then last week I saw that Vincent D’Onofrio will be releasing a spoken word punk album in the spring. I fell down one of those internet rabbit holes and learned that he would be performing in NYC in a few days and that tickets were just $20. I’ve had a long-standing fascination with Vincent D’Onofrio. I’m pretty sure I watched every episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent when I was pregnant and, more recently, I was so disturbed after watching Chained that I couldn’t sleep. His monologues in The Pawn Shop Chronicles made the movie. He completely inhabits the characters he plays and exudes an intense undercurrent that is compelling to watch.
I mentioned the performance to my family who encouraged me to go. I hemmed and hawed because of the expense. I wondered about my sanity in wanting to go to NYC for a matter of hours to see Vincent D’Onofrio perform spoken-word punk. And then I remembered that my sanity was already questionable and said, fuck it, and ordered tickets and reserved two seats on Megabus.
So on Saturday morning WPT and I headed to White Marsh to catch the bus to NYC. We learned that if there is space you can switch buses for a nominal fee, so we boarded an earlier bus and were on our way north.
We were early and decided to walk from the bus stop (at 28th) up to Russian Samovar (52nd) where were we meeting a friend. Along the way we stopped at Sushi Osaka because they have one of my favorite rolls ever – avocado and peanut. This was wise, as the rest of the day would only offer vodka, olives, and fried potato products. I’ve written about the Russian Samovar previously and for many reasons it is my favorite bar. My friend arrived and we graduated from shots to carafes of horseradish vodka.
Somewhere around 6pm we stumbled into a cab. We assume this is where WPT lost his hat. I’ve learned that any trip to NYC takes a little something. At least this time it wasn’t a phone screen or wallet. We arrived at Joe’s Pub and found our seats. Yet more fried potato products were consumed.
Sitting in the dimly lit theater I realized how light my mood was. A spontaneous trip to NYC with WPT, getting to see a good friend, and now listening Vincent D’Onofrio talk about his imaginary friend and describe a hamster’s world view was exactly what I needed to get past the hump of the darkest days of the year. It wasn’t the answer I expected to find.
After the show was over we had a bit of time before we needed to head over to 34th and 11th to catch the bus back to Baltimore. Our first stop was the Little Lebowski Shop (I needed a new t-shirt; five isn’t enough apparently), then onto Generation Records. We boarded a little before 10:30pm and were soon fast asleep, lulled by the road noise and the fulfillment of a perfect, ridiculous quest.
Each May, I pilgrimage to NYC for BEA (along with the rest of the book industry). Last year a friend introduced me to Russian Samovar. I made a newbie mistake that first year – I dove headfirst into the delicious savory vodkas (and on an empty stomach no less). Worst hangover of my life. And I had to work the next day.
This past BEA, my friend and I arrived at Russian Samovar about 7-8pm on a Friday night and stayed until after midnight. We left a party with free top-shelf drinks to pay for our own. The place is that good. The vodkas were just as delicious as I remembered, but the ambiance was even better. There was dramatic live music and by midnight there were also a few vodka-fueled personal micro-dramas and the music provided a perfect soundtrack to imagined conversations. Also, you haven’t really lived until you’ve heard Russian-accented Kenny Rogers.
I introduced WPT to the place when we traveled to NYC in August and despite it being a bit early in the evening, he suddenly understood what I had been raving about.
My recommendations: try the horseradish and garlic vodkas. When they start getting on top of you, order the dill french fries. Try a few more flavors – coriander, basil, and ginger are all good. Then repeat the fry trick. About 4-5 shots in, they transcend their mere potatohood and become something akin to perfection. When you’ve decided you’ve had just about enough, order the cherry vodka as a nightcap. Then stumble outside, stare up at the sky, and think for a moment just how fantastic NYC can be.
There is something almost addictive about the horseradish and garlic flavors, so a week or so after we returned from NYC, WPT decided to try and infuse some at home. We don’t have any live music at home and we attempt to keep the personal micro-dramas to a minimum, but we have discovered the next best thing to Russian Samovar. We are experimenting with a few different vodkas, but Sloop Betty, featured in our last post, is by far the best. Recipes below…
INFUSED VODKAS (INSPIRED BY RUSSIAN SAMOVAR)
1 bottle (750 ml) Sloop Betty or other good-quality vodka
6 half-inch slices of horseradish root
1 clean quart-size Mason jar w/lid
Place horseradish root in Mason jar and fill with vodka (saving the original bottle). Tightly screw lid on jar and give vodka a few good shakes. Store in a cool, dry place for at least four days, thereafter testing vodka until desired level of flavor is reached (I prefer a minimum of one week). Can be shaken and smelled during the infusing process. Using funnel, strain vodka back into original bottle for ease of serving. Enjoy cold or at room temperature.
1 bottle (750 ml) Sloop Betty or other good-quality vodka
1 medium-large bulb of garlic
1 clean quart-size Mason jar w/lid
Peel garlic and place individual cloves in Mason jar and fill with vodka (saving the original bottle). Tightly screw lid on jar and give vodka a few good shakes. Store in a cool, dry place for at least four days, thereafter testing vodka until desired level of flavor is reached (I prefer a minimum of one week). Can be shaken and smelled during the infusing process. Using funnel, strain vodka back into original bottle for ease of serving. Enjoy cold or at room temperature.
This past winter the weather settled into a pattern of snowing on Sunday nights and the city shutting down on Monday. The first snow day or two were great, but then I started having to go into work instead of hunkering down and enjoying Mother Nature’s get out of work free card. On one such Sunday, we decided to get out of Baltimore for a few hours before the storm hit. The sky was leaden as we headed north. We were somewhere around Westminster, near the state line, when our inner 12-year-olds began to take hold.
An hour north of the city, in Hanover, PA, sits the Utz Factory. We decided that if was going to snow, that we might as well stock up on snacks. Wouldn’t want to resort to cannibalism, right? It was a spontaneous trip, so we didn’t plan around the factory tours, but we did walk into the Utz Factory Outlet and for people with a fried potato fetish the angels sang as the doors opened. Potato chips everywhere. <weeping with joy>
Our single basket silently morphed into two baskets. Restraint…What? Why? We were on a fried potato binge that had no bottom. No 12-step reform. And this was a bender we could take the 8-year-old on with us. We found tortilla chips, potato sticks, pretzels, popcorn, chips with olive oil, chips with voodoo seasoning. And when you check out they give you MORE potato chips. We joyously filled the back of our car with oily, salty carbohydrates.
From there we headed just down the street to Timeline Arcade, an arcade in an old bank building. When I was a kid I loved going to the arcade. I didn’t have a home gaming system, I had “my” Food Spot (local minute-mart) and its rotation of games (Joust, Wizards and Warlocks, Asteroid). The Food Spot near the flea market had Galaga and on weekends I honed my skills. There was also a game room in Miami I loved, despite that incident with the air hockey puck. As video games became personal arcade games began to disappear, but Timeline is a classic arcade and better yet, it has classic games.
For an hour or so, WPT, Garnet, and I were all children. We played everything from Galaga to Q*bert to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to The Simpsons to Tetris (I didn’t even know there was an arcade version!). They have games I haven’t seen since grade school and they are in great working condition. They also have pinball machines and old home gaming systems connected to TVs. It was like a living, breathing museum to geeky childhoods.
You pay a flat rate to play by the half-hour or can get an all-day pass. We wanted to stay longer, but the snow was on the way, so we piled back into the car and headed south.
We spent months working our way through the chip stash.
Louisiana offered up multiple variations of two of the things I like best: potatoes and spicy food. The start of the trip was a work conference and the banquet and luncheon meals were everything I’ve come to expect as a vegan who cannot eat wheat. Apparently, this translates to, “OMG, she has no tastebuds, let’s give her the lukewarm roasted sawdust special!” Thankfully the rest of the trip did not seek to deaden my senses.
At Hermes Bar, a local friend introduced me to soufflé potatoes and a new friend introduced me to Chartreuse. Chartreuse is both powerful and beautiful and the only color to be named after a drink. As for the soufflé potatoes, my friend inquired of our lovely, southern gentleman waiter as to the vegan status of the dish before we ordered:
Friend: Excuse me, where are the soufflé potatoes prepared?
Waiter: Why, in the kitchen, of course.*
It was the perfect answer. Upon further clarification, we learned that Hermes cooks them in peanut oil alone. Soufflé potatoes are sublime puffed potato pillows and three plates were devoured in a matter of minutes.
*May not be exactly verbatim, I had already had a Pimm’s Cup and a chartreuse.
13 BAR AND RESTAURANT In search of a decent dinner after a conference lunch of leaves and flavorless root vegetables, we found ourselves at 13 Bar and Restaurant. Their signature dishes include “tachos.” What are tachos you ask? They are the genius idea of tater tot nachos. They are served with or without cheese, vegan chili, jalapenos, and salsa. The red beans and rice was also vegan.
On our way out of New Orleans we stopped at 3 Potato 4, which I had read about online prior to the trip. All vegan, gluten-free, and devoted to potatoes. This was close to a religious experience. The menu offers three kinds of baked French fries and a bunch of all-vegan sauces. I tried the Garlic Ketchup, Garlic Pepper Mayo, and Wasabi Ginger Mayo, as well as the vegetable soup. I would have had some coconut ice cream had I not snarfed up all of my fries and some of Patrick’s. Highly recommended.
We bought a few supplies at Whole Foods in Metairie before we drove out to southwest Louisiana. Among the items was a jalapeno-cilantro nut-based pesto. Damn, that was good. We had dinner and listened to the sounds of live oaks swaying and birds going to bed. While no potatoes were directly involved in the pasta, I was noshing on Earth Balance Cheddar Kettle Chips and Patrick had Haunted Ghost Pepper Tortilla Chips that made him cry.
We drove 45 minutes in rush hour in the pouring rain and arrived at a most underwhelming strip mall in Lafayette, LA housing our destination: Thai Cuisine. I had found the place online and once we asked for the vegetarian menu we were set. The Singapore slings were perfect. The lemongrass soup was among the best I have ever had. They really know how to add heat without losing flavor. I know you are thinking, “Where are the potatoes???” Fear not, the garlic tofu came with several roasted potatoes that were cooked to perfection. The garlic tofu was somehow both moist and crispy. It was so good we went back the next day for lunch.