The A - Z Challenge
Everybody can get stuck in the occasional food rut. And you know exactly what we're talking about when we say "rut." It's when you find yourself not only going to the same restaurants over and over again, but also ordering the same thing off the menu every time. We're creatures of habit, but it's still sad.
So in order to break the monotony, we decided to issue a staff-wide, rut-breaking challenge for our 2010 Annual Eat Guide feature. The rules were simple: draw a letter, then eat a type of food or particular dish beginning with that letter that you've (a) never tried, or (b) never liked.
This alphabetical epicurean experiment took us in pretty much every direction possible. From shiny new waterfront eateries to Asian grocery stores to sushi restaurants attached to condominiums -- nothing was off limits. We even ate a candy bar with bacon in it. Seriously. So get ready to get hungry and inspired. Bon appetit! A-AnchoviesI've never tried anchovies -- not because I'm repulsed by them as some people are -- but because I've just never had the opportunity to eat them, either out of the can complete with heads or otherwise. I ordered the Kosmic Karma from Mellow Mushroom, which was topped with sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, feta, fresh tomatoes and swirls of pesto, and at my request, anchovies on half of it. I was expecting salty, which I love, but the extreme saltiness and fishiness was a little too much for my unsophisticated palate. The pizza was awesome -- but I'll pass on the fish next time. --JP
B-Bacon BarI'm a huge fan of sweet and salty combo foods, which is probably why Mo's Bacon Bar caught my eye while I was strolling the aisles of World Market. It's a three way candy bar consisting of alder wood smoked salt, milk chocolate and applewood smoked bacon. How could I not try it, right? But as exciting and appealing as it seemed in theory, the actual taste of the Bacon Bar was borderline disgusting. While the bacon does give the candy bar a nice crunchy texture, it's not enough to make up for the smell (which is reminiscent of a dog treat) or the overwhelming icky aftertaste. Some things just aren't meant to go together, and I'm officially putting chocolate and bacon on that list. --JDC-Chicken and Okra SoupPortabello Market is known for its soups. Every day they have two or three options available for lunch. Okra has always been a popular vegetable in Southern cuisine, particularly in Louisiana where it's a key ingredient for gumbo. The chicken and okra combination was a new broth soup that had the right spicy kick to make you devour every single drop of it. -- ROD-Dried Rice NoodlesI'll be the first to admit that I can't read or pronounce three-fourths of a Vietnamese restaurant menu. But that's not to say I don't generally enjoy the food -- even if I don't entirely know what I'm getting. For my last trip to Tu Do Vietnamese I brought a friend who is Vietnamese, knows some of the employees, and was more than willing to give me a breakdown of what I was looking at. After a five-minute discussion of what I was in the mood for, I decided on the Hu Tieu Kao Mem -- a dish composed of dried rice noodles, chow mein and a mixture of pork, beef, shrimp and veggies. The hefty portion was more than I could eat, but I was pleasantly surprised with the texture and flavor of the noodles alone. Next time I may try ordering them with a bowl of fried rice and see if my opinion can be swayed. -- SB
E-Eggplant ParmesanPetrella's Italian Cafe may be located way over on Nine Mile, but it's worth the drive. I normally don't dig eggplant very much, but I wasn't feeling lasagna or pizza upon my visit, so I opted for the eggplant parmesan instead. Beautifully fried eggplant slices, baked with hearty marinara and cheese, then laid atop a bed of angel hair made for a fine meal without the overstuffed feeling that meat sometimes gives you. -- BH
F-Futomaki Roll I love sushi, so I relished an excuse to try a "fat roll." The titan Futomaki Roll I ordered at Ichiban was massive, and although it tasted nothing like traditional sushi -- more like a fried shrimp bowl in convenient roll form -- it was delicious. --AHG-Gazpacho with Red Roasted PeppersThe thought of a cold soup reminds me of eating leftovers on days when the microwave didn't work. When I spied Red Roasted Pepper Gazpacho on Dawn's Breaktime Cafe menu board, I ventured out of my comfort zone. After all, you can't ever go wrong with roasted red bell peppers. The cold, flavorful soup made a great light lunch, especially with a few crackers and cheese cubes on the side. --ROH- Hawaiian RibsAs I browsed Hunan's extensive menu, the Hawaiian Ribs jumped out as an appropriate choice for a Spring dinner tropical and sweet sounding. I'm not a stranger to pork ribs, but I usually opt for southern-style BBQ. The pork ribs were cut into small pieces and served with a light sweet and sour sauce and bite-sized pineapple slices, a tasty mix of sweet and salty. --JPI-IkuraIkura (salmon roe) is the less expensive cousin of caviar and adds a rich flavor, velvety texture and bright orange-red color to sushi. Sumo Sushi, located at Carlton Palms Condominium in downtown Pensacola, prepares a memorable version of this popular nigiri sushi roll. --RO
J-Jalapeno Relish Jackson's Steakhouse has, as a noteworthy appetizer, the Louisiana Oyster Fry with charred corn and jalapeno relish, crispy bacon, Windsor blue cheese cream, Tabasco and Worcestershire reduction. The relish has fresh corn that has been charred on the grill, then removed from the cob. The jalapeno peppers have also been charred, then seeded and finely chopped. The two are then sauteed with finely chopped red bell peppers, parsley and diced red onion, and combined with honey, kosher salt and lemon juice. The relish is poured over the fried oysters and topped with crispy bacon. --RO
K-Kosher Dog with KrautI don't eat hot dogs very often, and when I do, I'm fairly certain they're not Kosher. New Yorker Deli's Hebrew National Kosher Dog was huge, and it was served on toasted French bread and served with chips. In the spirit of the letter K, I opted to add some kraut to my dog as well. I accompanied it with some ketchup and spicy brown mustard for the perfect like-you're-at-a-baseball-game grub. --JP L-Lamb Coconut CurryIn browsing the menu at A Taste of India, you'll find a great selection of vegetarian, beef and lamb dishes. I generally choose the latter when I'm there, although I had never tried the coconut option with it. Coconut is a lot like salsa in my mind -- an added condiment or flavor that can brighten up the blandest of the bland. But this time, my taste buds were in a bit of a crunch. I wasn't overwhelmingly won over by the taste of the coconut curry sauce, so I added some additional spice and sipped on a cold Guinness to get to the bottom of the bowl. Perhaps I'll try something else next time. --SB
M-Mango When given the option, I always pick mango -- whether it be a flavor in a smoothie or the scent of a candle. It's just one of my all-time favorite things, which is why I was so shocked when I realized that while I have eaten many a mango-flavored thing in my day, I've never eaten an actual mango. I went straight to Apple Market and bought two. Thankfully, the real deal didn't disappoint. The aroma is fantastic, the texture is smooth and easy to eat, and the flavor packs a subtle, yet serious pop. I wasn't sure exactly how to cut it, but I'm sure I'll figure that out with practice, and I predict I'll be buying a lot more mangos in the future, especially to spice up dull summertime salads. But my favorite way to enjoy a mango is still at the bottom of a glass, mixed with rum and minty goodness in a strawberry-mango mojito at Hemingway's Island Grill. --JD
N-Nacho DawgThe Dog House Deli is a weekly lunch spot for most of the downtown regulars. Faced with "N" food choices such as New England Clam Chowder, Norwegian Sardine Pate and Nilat-an na Manok, I was grateful to find the Nacho Dawg on the Dog House menu, which is a hot dog smothered with cheese, jalapeno peppers and hot sauce. --ROO-Oysters (raw)Generally, I prefer my oysters fried and in po-boys, but I have always wanted to try raw oysters. So I went to Pensacola's newest restaurant, The Grand Marlin, and placed an order. The waiter told me to just throw my head back and shoot them "like a Jell-O shot." I think I prefer Jell-O shooters to this shot of slippery seafood. I ate three, which was two more than I expected to eat. --AHP-PatePate has always intimidated me. Until recently, I wasn't even exactly sure what it was -- only that many recipes involve ingredients like ground liver and fowl, which admittedly I don't experiment with much in my kitchen. I chose 600 South for my test run and ordered the Chicken Liver Pate, made with organic chicken livers, caramelized onions and thyme, and topped with fig preserves and served with a toasted baguette. As timid as I was about the dish, I couldn't stop eating it -- the fig preserves were so sweet and addicting, I forgot I was even eating chicken liver -- which was actually quite tasty even without the fig preserves. Perhaps I have a sophisticated palate after all. --JPQ-QuesoCheese is just cheese, unless of course you melt it and throw in some chips -- then it's a dip party for your mouth. I've always been a big proponent of adding some queso to the mix at a Mexican restaurant while waiting on the entrees to arrive, but I've never been taken aback with the flavor of the dip as much as Cactus Flower's offering. The restaurant adds a bit of herbs and spices and a buttery cream that left me wondering how I was going to eat anything else. I tried the medium, but I'm thinking the hot might be in order for my next visit. --SB
(a.k.a. Reuben) I'm not a big fan of corned beef or sauerkraut. That probably explains why I've never tried a Reuben. But for my dad, it's the best sandwich in the world, when made "correctly" of course. So I figured I'd give it a try at Hub Stacey's, knowing that if anybody can make a sandwich "correctly" it's this downtown establishment. Their "Romano" has all the components of a classic Reuben -- corned beef, melted Swiss cheese and sauerkraut -- served on perfectly toasted rye bread and drizzled with a signature Thousand Island dressing. I didn't expect the tang of the sauerkraut to be so addictive, but after just a few bites I was hooked. Don't get me wrong, I still think Hub's hummus is the best thing on the menu (and in town), but the Reuben is worth ordering, too. --JD
S-SteakWhen I tell people I don't eat steak, the normal response is "Oh, so you're a vegetarian?" But I'm not. I'm just not much of a carnivore in general, and I've never had a steak that tasted good enough to get excited about. But now I finally understand the appeal, because prior to this assignment, I'd never had a steak cooked by Chef Frank Taylor at The Global Grill. His filet mignon more than lived up to the hype, and after eating just one, I finally realize why people get excited about a big slab of meat. His signature Worcestershire sauce alone was enough to convert me, and when he added in the perfect potatoes and delicious roasted vegetables -- now there's a meal that's definitely worth raving about. --JD T-Tart Frozen YogurtThanks to way too many trips to my favorite do-it-yourself yogurt shop in New Orleans, I have developed a serious addiction to tart frozen yogurt. There's just something about the sweet, tangy taste that satisfies my sweet tooth in an entirely different way than standard, TCBY-style, yogurt does. Sadly, Pensacola is currently without a Pinkberry, Yogurtland or any other place where I can get my much needed tart fro-yo fix. So until someone does me a favor and opens one locally, I'll be making this at-home recipe on a regular basis -- which I attempted for the first time ever for the purposes of this assignment, and it was actually much easier than I imagined. --JDTart Frozen Yogurt (adapted from a recipe by Sunset Magazine)32 oz. container of plain nonfat yogurt5/6 cup of sugar1. Whisk together the yogurt and sugar until the sugar dissolves. (Feel free to add more if you prefer a sweeter taste.)2. Pour mixture into an ice cream maker and churn for 25-30 minutes.3. Eat some immediately and freeze the rest in an airtight container to save for later.
U-Upside-Down CakeWhen I was assigned the letter U to cover, I was at a loss. Then it dawned on me. I haven't had a pineapple upside-down cake in eons. Seeing as how I only live three blocks from the legendary J's Pastry Shop, I moseyed on down and asked if they could help me out, and boy did they. The tasty tropical treat was everything I hoped it would be, and it brought back some nice childhood memories. Sorry mom, J's has you beat. --BH
V-Vanilla Infused Honey MustardI have never been a big fan of anything vanilla. Root beer is about the extent of my vanilla tolerance, but I'll be damned if I didn't go crazy about the vanilla infused honey mustard that came with my crispy lobster fingers at The Grand Marlin. No extract here. The chefs take fresh vanilla beans and add the sweetness to an already delicious honey mustard served with golden fried lobster tails. You must try this. --BH
W-Wasabi Steak BurgerThe menu warned: "Hot! Not for the timid," so I knew what I was getting into when I ordered the Wasabi Steak Burger at McGuire's. I like wasabi, I love burgers, and I was curious to see how much wasabi I could handle beyond the pinch I usually mix with my soy sauce. As it turned out, I could have probably used the wasabi smothered atop my burger for about 55 rolls of sushi. I think I know why someone described eating too much wasabi as feeling like "a volcano erupting in your skull." After my initial bites, I scraped off most of the wasabi and enjoyed the rest of my burger with just enough of it to keep my eyes watering. --JPX-Xia Mi (Dried Shrimp) When I heard that one of my letters was X, I decided the only place to go was Bien Dong Asian Grocery and wander the aisles. It was there, in a bright plastic bag, that I found "xia mi." Basically dehydrated shrimp, they crunched like chips, had the texture of Cheetos and were an odd mix of sweet and salty. I was told that they actually have the coveted Japanese "umami" taste (which is a completely different article in itself). They were pretty good, and I imagine they'd make a great beer snack. --AH
Y-Yucca RootNever having cooked with yucca before, I attempted to spice it up, since I have heard it tends to be rather bland. After peeling the root, I cut it into big chunks and parboiled it for 10 minutes. I then drained the yucca wedges and tossed them with olive oil, paprika, cumin, salt, pepper and garlic chunks before baking them in the oven for 15 minutes. The result? Basically, a glorified spiced potato. Definitely boil them first before you bake them. Otherwise you end up with a yucca with a pasty consistency. --AHZ-Zucchini BreadGood zucchini bread is something that I don't trust anybody outside of my father Phil and I to make right. I have tried it anywhere I can get it and it's usually too dry, too nutty or just plain gross. So, given the challenge, I decided to gather up some ingredients and make a couple of loaves of this tasty, healthy treat. Of course, I can't share my whole recipe with you, but I can tell you this: any recipe that calls for nutmeg, ginger or cinnamon can be made a lot better by using pumpkin pie spice. I'm just sayin'. --BH(Contributors: Sean Boone, Joani Delezen, Ashley Hardaway, Rob "Bubbs" Harris, Rick Outzen, Jennifer Passeretti)