Monday, August 3, 2015

Upper-South Roadtrip

In June, I went to Kentucky, again, to read the AP US History exam. I decided to drive this year. I guess you could say I'm a driving person. A few weeks before this trip I experienced a life event. Yeah, let's go with that, "life event." It wasn't one of those times when you have to let your employer know that the number of deductions on your taxes has changed, but a "life event" nonetheless. I suppose I should say that no one has cancer and no one died. I was ready to leave town.

On my way to Kentucky, I stopped in Cleveland to see one of my best friends from high school. After the reading in Louisville, I ventured to Nashville, Asheville, Durham, and finally, D.C. to see my other best friend from high school. In all, I logged 2200 miles. I listened to two audio books (Marc Maron's Attempting Normal and Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl), six Stern shows, a Phish show or two, and countless podcasts. I have a fascination with seeing the US, or anywhere for that matter, by car. I imagine that some day, when we run out of oil (suuure we'll figure something else out...right?), the old-fashioned road trip will be an experience of the past. When I can make a road trip happen, especially to places I haven't explored before, I have to go. 

On the way to Cleveland I stopped, very early in the AM, at Fallingwater. I can't believe I had never visited before. The notion that Fallingwater is in the state I live in has taunted me for years. But, a four and a half hour drive away, this architectural gem is not exactly close to Philly. After Fallingwater I stopped at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh. They have three permanent James Turrell installations that are worth a stop, amongst the other contemporary art exhibits.

After a night in Cleveland I drove down to Louisville. I don't have much new to report about Louisville. I finally made it to Hammerheads and Holy Grale. Hammerheads is such a dive, I have to love it. It's the kind of dive that when you leave, you smell like the fryer. The tacos were awesome. Also, Holy Grale is a beautiful spot and the food was great. Otherwise, Rye remains the favorite spot to drink. The food wasn't nearly as good as last year. 
On my way to Nashville I detoured to Willett Distillery for a tour. I wanted to see a smaller production distillery and this was certainly it. Willett seems microscopic compared to Heaven Hill up the road. I bought a Two Year Old and Three Year Old Single Barrel Rye for my brother and continued south.

When I was planning the road trip, Nashville seemed like a natural next stop. I didn't have any expectations about the place. But, everything I ate in Nashville was perfect. There wasn't one miss, and well, I ate quite a bit for one person in 24 hours. I started at Mas Tacos Por Favor with chicken pozole and pork tacos. The soup was the highlight: tender chicken, roasted corn, avocado, cherry tomato, cotija.

After the tacos I went to Barista Parlor for espresso. The macchiato was excellent and I couldn't resist a warm, homemade PB&J pop-tart. I mean, c'mon, pop-tart? When was the last time you had a pop-tart? (Okay, I had one a few days prior during the reading's last snack break; it was a moment of weakness.) To use academic language, this pop-tart "moved beyond" the standard pop-tart, as the crust was more croissant like, amazing.

After taking a nap during an insane thunderstorm, I ventured out for dinner. Honestly, I was so full, I wasn't even sure I could eat dinner. But, I'm glad I made it out. I went to Rolf and Daughters for an impeccable meal. This restaurant reminded me of Russ and Daughters in Brooklyn (not simply because of the name similarity) and Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica. The meal was unusual, surprising, creative, and well-executed. 

Side note: After three years back in Philly, I'm at another food standstill. Save three spots, I may need to be done with eating in Philly (and, two of the three places are actually in Collingswood, NJ). 

Anyway, it's rare to be entirely satisfied by a meal. Rolf and Daughters was beyond. I ate three dishes; really, I didn't want to eat the third, but everything was so perfect, I decided to try one more dish. 
1. Diver Scallop, seaweed, iceplant, yuzu kosho. 
2. Beef tartare, sunflower, barley, egg yolk 
3. Farro gemelli, hen of the woods, spigarello, sarvecchio, lemon. 
Their use of succulents and strange herbs I had never heard of was quite fun.


I'm not sure if a trip to Nashville would be complete without hot chicken. I really mean that. I don't know if it's a requirement, but I think so. On my way out of town, I went to Prince's Hot Chicken exactly when it opened. I agonized over how hot to order it: regular, medium, hot, or extra hot. I read Yelps, texted friends to text locals, listened to Marc Maron lament over the pain of ordering hot, and chatted with the friendly lady taking my order. I went with medium and found it to be not hot at all. I forget that my tolerance for spicy is probably higher than most. I was disappointed that it wasn't hot enough for me, but it was the best fried chicken that I have ever, ever had. The kind of "best ever" that makes you never want to eat that specific type of food anywhere else. 

The tiny restaurant was already full, so I ate in my car. It was over 90 degrees that day. I sat in my car, in the parking lot, A/C blasting, eating a fried half chicken with my hands. No shame. I did it. And I could not stop myself. (Well, maybe some moralistic sense of shame about eating meat.)
I also bought the hummingbird cake from the nice woman who sells cakes inside Prince's. Again, hummingbird cake?! Had to. Not something we see in the North: banana pineapple spice cake with frosting, sprinkles, walnuts, and a maraschino cherry. It was a very moist cake and I did eat that with some sense of shame as I drove east from Nashville.
Without a doubt, Nashville was the high point for food on this trip. My next stop was the biggest disappointment: dinner at Blackberry Farm in east Tennessee. I can't even go into it. I wouldn't know where, in a seven-course dinner of calamity, to begin. The grounds were beautiful, I'll give it that. The rest of the "experience" left me angry and jilted.
The next stop was Asheville. I had always heard that it was a cool-hippie-mountain-town. My thoughts about Asheville may be colored by a rather dodgy AirBnb stay, a lingering police car observing me go into said AirBnb because a guy was walking down the street, and the sound of gunshots late into the night. I left that AirBnb very early and went to yoga. Afterwards, I had a nice breakfast at Over Easy Cafe, did some thrifting, and hit the road for Durham. Maybe Asheville needs another look. It has a burgeoning hipster presence and a very cute art deco downtown. But, I felt a little claustrophobic in those mountains. 

Next, I went to Durham. I heard good things about the town and had always wanted to visit. I drove through Duke. Whoa. Country club college! Duke is the beautiful fantasy college I always imagined. If I had visited Duke, I don't know that I would have ended up in West Philly for college. 

Anyway, I drove over to Chapel Hill, in an effort to figure out the difference between Durham and Chapel Hill. Friendly people at the back bar at Lantern (not great food) informed me of the difference: "Chapel Hill is a college town. Durham is a city." Okay, sure. Apparently, Durham has "arts and culture." Chapel Hill did feel like a suburban college town, while Durham has some amount of authenticity to it. The only highlight of this stop was Scratch Bakery. Buttermilk donuts and pecan sandies. Yes.

After several days of eating for two (not in the pregnant way), I was tired of food. I stopped in Richmond to practice yoga and kept going to DC. I went to the excellent Peregrine Espresso to wait for my friends to be done with their real jobs. Kindly, my friends gave me a few choices for dinner. On the list was a Japanese spot, Izakaya Seki. After many days of eating fried food (duh, Gina, its the Midwest and the South), Japanese was the clear choice. I wanted something simple, clean, and pure. The three of us handily made our way through the menu. This was a perfect end to a solid road trip.