A little while back I asked for help on a trip that took my family past all but one of the Great Lakes (Superior) on a circle tour with stops in Toledo, Pittsburgh, Buffalo/Niagara, Toronto and Sarnia, Ontario. I promised photos, but my photojournalism skills are embryonic; the good stuff didn't pan out as well, camera-wise, as the bad. So, the photos, in my case, would tell lies. Here goes:
Day 1, Tony Packo's, Toledo
Go for the pickles and the fake hot dog buns signed by semi-celebrities at this Hungarian tavern made famous by M*A*S*H's Klinger, leave because the hot dogs are only fair, while the sides, including disgustingly bad German potato salad (15 years ago, Wendy's sold Tony its surplus sweet n' sour bacon dressing / lubricant formerly served on spinach salads) and dumplings, are to die from. To be nice, the pickles, which you can get here at Paulina, are great, and the Greek/Coney Island diner chili (like what you see in Detroit), hot with lots of paprika, was good too. Pizzeria-Uno atmosphere, touristy but in the original old tavern. Dogs are just ok by me, halfway between a Chicago dog and a Polish, spice-wise. This shook my faith in Holly Moore's web site, which awarded Packo's the highest possible rating, while dismissing several objectively better Chicago hot dog places. A rough start, but things got better fast.
(Dinner was a mix of Italian (pasta with escarole and pancetta) and Syrian (lamb with Syrian pepper salad and lemon garlic sauce) at relatives in New Castle, PA, beaten steel town with a Calabrese, Syrian, Polish population. Where the Warner Bros., Polish, Jewish immigrants, opened their first business, a nickelodeon, on the main street.)
Day 2: Brunch, Primanti Bros. on The Strip, Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh is underrated for lots of stuff, physical beauty, architecture, cultural resources, ballparks, and food. Hilly, densely urban and ethnically diverse, endowed with Victorian, robber baron money and the attendant museums, Richardsonian edifices, baroque bridges, etc., it is a miniature, easy-to-navigate (fill in the blank with your favorite US city). The Strip is a real working food depot (a theme on this trip) with a great mix of wholesalers and retailers -- something that Daley could do here, say on Lake or in the "new" Water Market if he could stomach the idea of tourists walking around abattoirs and such. It's a bunch of weathered warehouses and shops, hard by the railroad and the river, on a narrow strip between the shore and a steep cliff.
Great coffee at Prima, roasted there and expertly pulled. Among the best I've had in this country. Blue collar Italians drinking espresso and talking crap in Italian. This is not the cafe culture that has been sold to us for 4 bucks a cup.
Sandwiches and icy Yuengling's lagers at Primanti Bros. The most underrated dive that I've ever been to where common wisdom among the sapientiae is that it is vastly overrated. New Yorkers and Philadelphians will steer you away, tell you that the sandwich with fries and slaw on top is a gimmick and a pale attempt at a civic sandwich to rival cheesesteaks and pastramis on rye. But this is not a competition, usually, and I really loved my fried pastrami with eggs on this given Sunday. Fairly, I've been before at 3 am, and the sandwich was not so great.
But today was the Fourth of July, early, and the rambling complex was shuttered except for the nerve center-- the bar area right in front of the grill. I sat at the bar, directly in front of the A Team grill man and saw what I liken to the shuckers at Acme or Swann -- simple, mechanical perfection. This one guy hand-sliced still-warm Italian bread from down the street, griddled perfect over easy eggs, made dead-perfect, tiny batches of skin-on fries and assembled sandwiches for dozens of hungry locals and tourists. He earns his money, that guy. Extra credit to Primanti Bros. for options like sardines, hot cappicola, and the ubiquitous fried jumbo bologna on their sloppy sandwiches. I've read that there is a new spot by Wrigley that is making these things; here' hoping that they are better than the pale imitations at Costello's.
Dinner, frozen custard, Forbush's, New Castle PA.
Forbush's has been drawing Ted Drewe's lines to its humble facade for 50 summers. Inside is a crack staff of high school cheerleaders dispensing half-a-dozen flavors from as many shining vintage machines, chrome with Rolls-Royce hood ornaments. Think Scooters, then think about 3 times as many flavors, like chocolate with salted almonds. Bonus: major vintage car show at nearby Cascade Park adds to the Americana.
Day 3, brunch, New Castle-style lamb sandwich.
The Calabrese-Syrians of New Castle are known throughout Western PA for something called "lamb on the rod," drawing food day-trippers from Pittburgh 40 minutes away. Really just marinated, charcoal-grilled lamb, what people really go for is the condiments. Pepper salad is olive oil, garlic and lemon juice with banana pepper rings and sweet onions. Garlic sauce is a stiff whipped aioli of garlic, lemon juice, salt and egg whites. And the main focus of local pride is the odd "Syrian bread," round loaves somewhere between a pita and focaccia split easily to fill with lamb (or pork -- most of the Syrians are Orthodox, though recent immigrants include Muslims looking for similar culture and Arabic speakers). Mr. B's, a take-out place focussing on fried fish by the pound (very good Erie smelts, especially) and lamb, makes a nice sandwich: grilled lamb, mixed and griddled with hot pepper salad, and covered with provolone, is stuffed into a loaf of the local bread. Sustenance for the drive to Canada.
[By the way, the drive from P'Burgh to Toronto can be spectacular. We went up the highway that follows the Allegheny through the mountainous National Forest of the same name, past postcard 1800's oil-boom towns like Oil City and Warren (and some neat smokehouses selling slab bacon, Amish butter and house-made jerky), into NY Wine country past rusty old Buffalo and touristy but physically awesome Niagara and through the surprising vineyards of the Niagara peninsula. Who knew that nearly the whole ride from Niagara to Toronto involved dozens of vineyards on a verdant ribbon between the lake and a steep, continuos moraine maybe 10 miles west of the shore. Some ok table wines, and the famous ice wines too.]
Dinner, Friday's, Niagara Falls. In the spirit of VI, I must warn you that the TGIF in Niagara Falls is as horrible as a bad chain at a notorious tourist trap could possibly be. This exceeded my expectations of poor food and service. Ironically, the Buffalo wings were especially bad, and undercooked.
Niagara falls, on the other hand was much, much better than I expected and remembered. The "fallsview" room at the Marriott was pretty darn nice, and the view was absurdly good, unreal, really. Having been also to Iguacu, I feel the need to see Angel and Victoria soon.
Days 4-5, Toronto
Toronto is a charming City, a great city. But you know that. It doesn't need my boosting.
Dinner, Lai Wah Heen. This is the fancy hotel Hong Kong style restaurant lauded on CH, in the NYTimes, in Gourmet, etc., as possibly the best Cantonese restaurant in this hemisphere. Dim sum, especially. But since we were eating at 10 pm on a weeknight, no dim sum. Overall, I enjoyed it, but I was a little underwhelmed by what we had. I admit, the subtleties of Cantonese hold less a spell over me than some of the more aggressive cuisines of China.
The smoked meat plate had winners (perfect BBQ pork and great "candied" fish) and losers (the mock goose proved again that tofu can too eagerly take on smoke). Tendon-y beef was somewhere in the middle. I thought I had found the perfect dish for this kind of restaurant in the scrambled eggs with seafood, and it was very good. The chef's skill was apparent in the light, fluffy egg whites and barely-done seafood that firmed up just as the plate hit the table. A raw yolk sat on top, waiting to be incorporated tableside. Very nice, but perhaps too subtle, especially after a tray of smoked meats. Philistine that I am, I remedied this with the house's fine chili oil with dried shrimp. Taiwan noodles finished up. The pasta was perfect, as were the barely blanched vegetables. But there was not much flavor. As a side note, be aware that this Chinese kitchen goes full blast with the MSG.
PS, the place is a fancy hotel restaurant, deco-style and subdued. I have to think that it compares in many relevant ways to our own Shanghai Terrace.
Brunch: Shopsy's Deli, downtown. This was the first decent looking place as we emerged from the subway from our Yorkville hotel. It's your standard "Jewish deli" with a wildly expanded menu. However, I found the chicken soup and the corned beef to be much better than acceptable. Torontonians bemoan the lack of good delis compared to NY and Montreal. But most cities would be happy to have a Shopsy's. Nice humidor, too.
Apres-brunch: St. Lawrence market peameal bacon sandwiches. St. Lawrence is widely lauded as one of the best fresh markets in the world. This, I can agree with. Great permanent stalls, including butchers (mostly Portuguese and Italian), bakers, Chinese stalls, Italian sandwich stands, cheese mongers (lots of superb French ripe cheeses you won't see here), and, especially, fish mongers. I'd give Toronto's market the nod over similar places in, for example, New Orleans, Philly, and Seattle. Weekly markets and wholesale market "districts" are different animals. Chicago deserves a permanent market like this.
Oh, the bacon sandwich (Canadian bacon, like McDonald's but infinitely better) was very good, as was the contraband super-hot dry chorizo in my fridge from one of the Porto-Italo butchers.
Dinner: Chiado. This is the fancy Portuguese restaurant in an old townhouse in the hip "Little Italy" neighborhood (Italian and Portuguese, really, with lots of Canadian "trixies" in recent years). First, let me recommend the neighborhood. College Street is a nice place, with a good mix of restaurants and retail, not really geared toward tourists. Very human scale. Have a coffee and pastry at Riviera, which compares favorably to Prima, above.
Chiado is supposed to be the "best" Portuguese in North America. I don't doubt it. (I went to the recommended "best" portuguese in Rio, which paled in comparison to Chiado, BTW.) An amuse of queijo fresco followed by lightly marinated, grilled sardines. This is the simplicity and respect for fish that I had hoped to enjoy from such a well-regarded Portuguese place. For my main course, I avoided the novo stuff for home cooking -- acorda. This is a casserole of shellfish and stale bread soaked in broth with roasted garlic and a little parsley. Delicious comfort food not unlike the Italian aquacotta. Very Portuguese: simple, austere, honest. But I must admit, the dish was soft, white and subtle like the scrambled eggs at LWH, and I felt the need to besot it, just a little. (I think that all the Thai and Mexican here has blown out my taste buds, maybe.) Luckily, the chef sent out his own malgueta sauce, which tuned my seafood paste into the perfect meal. Great all-Portuguese wine list. Chilled porto for dessert. PS, the fries were among the best I've had -- limp, dense, olive oil and garlic packed sticks, stacked like Lincoln Logs into a cube. Get a side order like we did.
Apres dessert: Gelato and espresso corretto at Sicilian Ice Cream. This little chain really captures the feel of a Southern European bar in a tourist zone. I mean that in a good way. Families with little kids eating ice cream, young Italian and Portuguese guys watching soccer and drinking beer, and bewildered Anglo Torontonian twenty-somethings wondering why the Latins keep their kids out so late. Truthfully, the ice cream's not great.
Last day: Chicago via Sarnia, ON. Stopped in this weathered old border town for lunch. We were drawn to the neon sign of the Cromwell Diner. Sticking with a theme, the fries were terrific dark skin-on beauties like Al's on Taylor. For 9 bucks I had these, a bowl of rich, from-scratch chicken soup, and maybe a pound of Lake Huron perch. I remain faithful to the theory that any place that keeps an ancient neon sign operating perfectly will probably have good food.
We also tried Tim Hortons. Bad coffee, bad donuts; you win some you lose some.
PS, all of these meals included my 2 and 4 year old kids, and my wife. The fancier spots, we went late, during the week, and ok'd everything with the restaurants through the concierge first.