Spices in beer don’t typically impress me. I’m not looking to a beer for coriander or clove, and I’ll take just about any style over a wheat beer. But when I heard that Flying Dog, out of Frederick, Maryland, had teamed up with the folks behind Old Bay Seasoning to create Dead Rise Summer Ale, well, I needed to sample this unlikely pairing.
For those not in the natural habitat of Old Bay Seasoning, imagine a salty paprika mixture, rust red in color, typically sprinkled on crabs with abandon and rather tasty on popcorn as well. It’s a bold taste, pronounced but not spicy-hot, one that can dominate, so to pair it with a drinkable beer is a testament to the brewer’s art.
Termed a summer ale, Dead Rise is a wheat beer with a characteristic clove and banana aroma tinged with just a hint of paprika. It drinks quite smoothly, again apropos of a wheat beer, and the effect of a quaff is not unlike eating Utz’s “Crab” Chips, which are coated in a similar spice mixture, the bready nature of the wheat beer capturing the flavor profile of the chips. Which is not to say that drinking Dead Rise is like drinking potato chips—it’s a quite drinkable beer with a very slight paprika aftertaste on the palate. The Old Bay Seasoning sneaks up on you rather than forcing its presence onto the scene.
I had hoped for an unfiltered beer, with succulent paprika sediment, but alas, this is a filtered brew. At 5.6% ABV and restricted to the summer season, Dead Rise would make a nice accompaniment to a cook out. Given my general aversion to wheat beers, I’m not likely to pick up another six pack of this beer, but it’s another bold experiment from Flying Dog that does what it says on the tin . . . er, bottle.
The team behind Taylor Gourmet recently unveiled their new entry in the Washington, DC, pizza wars, the awkwardly titled Pizza Parts & Service, named in honor of the location’s prior use as a garage. Makes you glad they didn’t take over a fishmongers. The location more recently housed the lamented Taylor Steak & Ice, purveyors of a most satisfactory rendition of the Philly Cheesesteak. After sampling one of PP&S’s pies, I kind of wish they’s stuck with the steaks.
I ordered delivery for one of the suggested combinations, the #2—pepperoni, sautéed onions and peppers, pepperonici, mozzarella, and pecorino romano—”nonna” style. These grandmother style pies are generously topped, and the quality of ingredients, a Taylor hallmark, can’t be beat. As befits a grandmother pie, the cheese browned properly at the edges, making the corner slices the ones to grab. At $24 delivered (before tip), it’s about on par with other high-end pizza joints, but if you try to configure your own pie, you’ll quickly run up a serious bill. Circular pizzas are also available, but the “nonna” is the real gimmick here, a style mostly unavailable locally.
The pie was good, but it didn’t quite make it to great. Never let it be said that I oppose grease on a pizza, as I still fondly recall the sheening pools that formed on the pies at one of DC’s finest pizza dives, Vesuvius, but the “nonna” had just a bit too much relative to the crust’s ability to carry it. I realize that this kind of pie uses a fair bit of oil in the dough, but I was hoping for something closer to the tomato pies one finds in Philadelphia, which share a similar crumb but don’t have that much grease. Perhaps I’m just not a fan of the grandmother style.
In any event, the Taylor team has served up a fine addition to the DC pizza landscape in Pizza Parts & Service, but with other mid- to high-end options out there that are less expensive for the build-your-own camp (albeit without quite the quality of toppings), I’ll stick with my usual pizza delivery service while impatiently awaiting the promised arrival of cheesesteaks on the Taylor Gourmet menu.
Biscuits every hour of the day! Filled with sausage and other fine meats! That’s road trip worthy right there.
As it turns out, I didn’t actually need to travel south towards Greensboro, North Carolina, to stop at a Bojangles—there’s one in the food court at Union Station in DC. But have you ever been in the food court at Union Station around lunch time? Much simpler to drive six hours for a biscuit fix. Plus, I’m convinced that, much like hoagies and cheesesteaks are best north of the Schyukyll River, biscuits get better the further south you go, even if they’re institutionally made.
Besides, I was already in North Carolina on a road trip, and I made sure that one of our first stops was at the Bojangles just off exit 214 on I-40. Super friendly staff (making sure I didn’t miss out on any deals and offers, unlike some places I stopped on this trip) only helped make the experience better. But frankly, for these biscuits, I would have endured surly.
My culinary companion and I sampled several types of filled biscuits—for some reason, I don’t feel comfortable calling them sandwiches—and the clear winner is the country ham biscuit, two thin slices of salty ham nestled in a fluffy, slightly crumbly biscuit. Any more ham and the saltiness would have overwhelmed the experience, but those two slices brought just the right amount of flavor to the biscuit, which was thus allowed equal play in the taste.
The cajun chicken filet biscuit was acceptable, if a little low on the spice. There was some cajun flavoring that snuck up a few bites in, but it seemed tame to me, and the size of the filet rivaled that of the biscuit itself, making the proportions a bit off kilter. Much better was the steak biscuit, a piece of country-fried steak that found a better fit, proportionally. It might seem slightly odd that you would eat a breaded piece of meat between bread, but frankly, it works.
For actual road trip purposes, these biscuits are not ideal. While not greasy per se, there’s a bit of grease involved in eating them, and one doesn’t want a sheen on the steering wheel. So pull over, go into the restaurant, and eat them. A true road trip doesn’t have a timetable.
The whole point of a road trip, besides getting somewhere, is to experience the road. You can’t take a road trip on a major highway; you’ve gotta get on the lesser byways, the routes and throughways and bypasses. At the very least, you have to get off at an exit you’ve never taken and sample the regional fare.
But sometimes, you don’t have a lot of choices, especially right off of an exit or along a busy route, and the local restaurants tend to seem quite similar, with lots of Tony’s and Toni’s and Spitoni’s and Antony’s Pizzas that bespeak not regionalism but lack-of-originalityism. Perhaps there’s an authentic, regional specialty lurking in there somewhere, but at 55 MPH, it’s hard to tell. So what’s an intrepid road trip grazer to do? Regional fast food is where it’s at . . .
For the inaugural Road Bites review, I’m visiting a chain, Hardee’s, that was once a major player in the metro Washington, DC, area but now counts as a rare breed, at least within an hour of the Beltway. There’s certainly nothing particularly regional about their hamburgers, though they are well regarded for their fried chicken. But I’m not much of a fried chicken person, so, on the expert advice of my culinary companion, we stopped in at the Hardee’s on Route 29 in Charlottesville, Virginia, and picked up chili dogs, Jumbo Chili Dogs, to be precise.
Now this is quintessential road trip food. You just don’t find hot dogs on fast food menus these days, and these were grilled. Grilling should be the only legal way to cook hot dogs. The quality of the dog was sufficient—I’m not expecting locally sourced organic Angus beef here—and it fit just so in the toasted bun.
Likewise, the chili sauce (it would be a stretch to call it chili) matched my expectations for a fast food chili dog. The meat was finely ground, moderately spiced, and modestly portioned; the sauce itself was loose but not watery. It stuck to the dog and the bun, and whatever spilled out could be easily scooped up with the serviceable french fries. Topped off with very finely diced onions, the Jumbo Chili Dog hit the spot. Lucky I got two of them.
I’m not thinking that the Michelin inspectors need to stop by, and I wouldn’t necessarily even recommend that a hungry traveller make a detour, but for a bite on the road that takes one back a few decades, it works.
Far and wide in this country, you find sandwich shops and corner takeouts and bland chain restaurants offering “Philadelphia Cheesesteaks” on their menus. But they’re not real cheesesteaks. Slathering cheese on chopped meat does not magically yield a cheesesteak any more than stuffing cold cuts into a hard roll causes a hoagie to appear. Without proper ingredients, preparation, and construction, you just have a sandwich.
And while I’m capable of enjoying a sub (though always wishing it were a hoagie), I’m incapable of enjoying the faux cheesesteaks that have been foisted upon an unsuspecting populace by shops outside the greater Philadelphia area.
So when the founders of DC’s Taylor Gourmet, purveyors of fine, and authentic, Philadelphia sandwiches, opened their cheesesteakerie, Taylor Charles Steak & Ice at the end of 2012, I was hopeful yet wary. Their hoagies, roast porks, and chicken cutlets could well pass muster on any Philadelphia street corner, but for all their apparent simplicity, cheesesteaks require some significant griddle work. No matter how good your ingredients and intentions, you can’t fake it.
It’s not just chopping the meat while cooking it; there’s a flow to getting the meat to the proper consistency while folding in the cheese and grilled onions and scooping it all into the soft roll. Nailing the cheesesteak requires training and lots of it, and if you’re not moving enough volume over your griddle, you’ll never be able to replicate the “just-in-time” cheesesteak that the premier joints up in Philly turn out in consistently amazing quantity and quality.
My uncertainty kept me from making the trek up to H Street. Plus, they offer a “fixings bar” with mustard, ketchup, hot sauce, and mayo. Just, no. Such condiments never go on a cheesesteak. But once they offered delivery, I knew I had to give them a chance. And they nailed it.
Precision is paramount to the Philadelphia sandwich aficionado. As I experienced with my first hoagie from the Taylor team, the proportions and construction of this ribeye wit’ provolone were spot on. Not too many onions, not too much cheese—the steak remains paramount. The cheese was delivered into the roll, coating the soft bread and melding all the flavors, rather than sitting uselessly on top. The good-quality ribeye was chopped finely but not so fine that it lacked texture. The addition of some long hots for a buck helped add a bit of heat and an additional textural counterpoint. (And yes, adding hot peppers to a cheesesteak is quite properly Philly; all the cheesesteak joints up there have them available.)
The roll held up quite agreeably, with a nice, chewy give, and kept all the ingredients together from first bite to last. Not quite an Amoroso, the Philadelphia cheesesteak standard, but a very close approximation.
This home-grown roll works far better than the hard rolls they bake for Taylor Gourmet. My last several sandwiches there were made slightly less enjoyable by those rolls, which impart their own taste, somewhat sweet, into the mix. Hoagie rolls need to be sturdy, blank canvases, and while I would happily eat a Sarcone’s roll alone, significant taste is not their role (only slight pun intended). Taylor’s switch from Sarcone’s rolls to their own recipe makes sense—it’s an understandably unsustainable business model, given the volume and the potential for logistical disaster—but I still long for a more neutral hard roll from them. The soft roll for their cheesesteaks makes up for it, though.
I have it on good authority that the homemade “white whiz” also earns high marks. My culinary counterpart had the ribeye wit’ white whiz and was duly impressed. I’m strictly a provolone guy, so I’ll have to take her word for it.
Simply put, the folks at Taylor Charles Steak & Ice have put together the best cheesesteak this side of the Schuylkill. Good value, great ingredients, careful preparation. All I need now is a gruff voice on the other end of the phone when I place a delivery order and it’s like I’m in Philly . . .
Travel has taught me to eat like a local whenever possible. Journeying to some far-flung destination only to chow down on a standardized, same-as-in-Peoria burger can only be justified in the direst of circumstances—say, an overdose of shepherd’s pie in Dublin or a surfeit of souvlaki in Athens.
Thus, armed with a desire to get to know my surroundings on a quite literal gut level, I convinced my boon traveling companion to stop in an exotic locale during a recent road trip: a fast-food strip just off the I-70/I-75 intersection in Dayton, Ohio, where the highway overpass stanchions are festooned with carvings of soaring jet fighters. All for a Cincinnati Five-Way from regional chain Skyline Chili.
Finely ground meat with a savory/sweet spice mix in a tomato-y sauce characterizes Cincinnati chili, though given the fierce regional rivalries between types of chili, a rivalry almost on par with those of barbecue aficionados, there are some who claim that it’s not chili at all. There’s meat, there’s spice, there’s a thickish sauce—close enough for me.
Traditionally, Cincinnati chili is served atop thick spaghetti with an accompaniment of oyster crackers and then garnished in some number of “ways” corresponding to the number of ingredients: three-way is your basic chili, spaghetti, and cheddar cheese; four-way adds either beans or diced onions; and five-way (which is the only true way) combines it all.
Many midwestern fast-food/casual restaurants serve either the full five-way or a stripped down Chili Mac version (just chili and spaghetti) as a menu staple, and I’ve sampled it over the years from more than a few, but never from Skyline Chili.
So, a plate of Cincinnati Five-Way was duly ordered and came out from the kitchen in a matter of moments, piled high, oh so high, with thinly grated cheddar cheese, making for a towering first impression:
I’m not certain if they grate their own cheese on premises, but it lacked that usual fast-food bagged cheese taste, and it melted nicely into the hot chili beneath, an important consideration given that a Cincinnati five-way is purely an experience of all the parts at once. No solo players here—one simply does not sample a bit of spaghetti then a bit of chili.
The chili itself, the first amongst equals in this gustatory assemblage, had a decidedly sweet taste, with far more cinnamon than I’m used to in Cincinnati chili. The overall impression was savory, but the sweet bite lingered, perhaps accounting for the squeeze bottles of hot sauce at every table. The onions had a nice dice to them, allowing for good coverage of the dish, while the beans I found lacking in quantity, making the overall dish closer to a four-and-a-half-way.
As is the bane of most fast-order pasta, the thick spaghetti was on the overcooked side, but not terribly so. I imagine that if we had gone during the lunch rush we’d have fared better with the spaghetti. The pasta was well drained, though, so that the bowl was not awash in pasta water, a perennial challenge for this dish. One wants the oyster crackers to soak up the remaining chili sauce, not water.
Overall, the experience was satisfying for fast-food chili. As my traveling companion put it, not a food one would crave to an extent that an eight-hour road trip would be undertaken for it, but definitely worth stopping for on the way to something else. Not every meal can be life-altering.
Plus, they have a drive through window. I don’t quite comprehend how one would go about eating a Cincinnati five-way on the road, but the mere fact of that window’s existence makes me happy to live in this country . . .