The Food Diaries: Tulum.

The Food Diaries: Tulum.

One week ago, I was dipping my toes into the salty blue waters of the Caribbean Sea, completely immersed in the sound of waves gently slapping against the white, sandy shores. We were on vacation, and we had one mission: complete and utter, melt-into-a-puddle relaxation.

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Most days, we lounged around the pool, laying lazily under the shade of the cabana, only emerging into the sunlight to refill our empty glasses. But, as a first-timer in Mexico, I had one requirement: I wanted to go to Tulum.

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Tulum (whose name stems from the Yucatan Mayan word for fence or wall) is an uber-populated resort town just south of Cancun, home to a 13th century, walled Mayan archeological site overlooking the sea. Every photo I’ve ever seen painted this incredible picture of paradise. Of course, I had to go.

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We arrived in Tulum nearly an hour after we hopped into a taxi and told our driver vaguely where we wanted to go. She dropped us off at the entrance to the ruins, an area that has been hyper-gentrified and filled with tourists. But the energy was palpable. Spanish songs filled the air, and dancers in costume could be seen near and far (and dangling in the sky). Dozens of shops pushing their commemorative trinkets lined the outer edges, and stray cats darted through the crowds.

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We were ravenous; it was past noon and we hadn’t eaten anything all day. My eyes glazed over the Starbucks and Subways and overtly-Americanized restaurants, and settled on a little hole in the wall joint near the back. Up until this point, we had existed on burgers, pizza, sandwiches and Asian cuisine. We were in Mexico, for goodness sake. I was craving some authenticity.

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On the most basic level, the fish taco can be reduced to a very simple equation: Fish + Tortilla = Fish Taco. When you consider it in this capacity, there’s no question that people have been eating fish tacos in the coastal areas of Mexico for an awfully long time. It probably goes back thousands of years to when indigenous North American peoples first wrapped their offshore catch into stone-ground-corn tortillas. Today, this humble delicacy typically consists of a lightly battered mild white fish that is deep-fried, then served in a corn tortilla (often two) with shredded cabbage, a thin sour-cream- or mayonnaise-based sauce, a bit of salsa, and a most vital spritz of lime.

Well, my fish tacos didn’t come with that essential sauce or salsa, but my oh my were they delicious. Maybe it’s my bias towards the first authentic Mexican meal I ate in while in — wait for it — Mexico, but it was absolutely, finger-lickingly delectable. And when served with an ice cold mango margarita on a hot and sticky day, there really isn’t anything better. Except for maybe Skyler’s chicken fajitas and Dos Equis.

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The Philadelphia Food Diaries: Georgetown Edition.

The Philadelphia Food Diaries: Georgetown Edition.

“Hi”

A few weeks ago, this was a text I received from my cousin Elliot. No punctuation, no emojis, no indication of any emotion whatsoever. Just “Hi”. A few hours and one ghetto Air BNB later and it’s 2:00 in the morning at Jim’s Steaks. I sat at a table next to him and Heather, chowing down on the best cheesesteaks in town and tossing back cheap beers. A short little text ended in a top notch night.

So, fast forward a little while, and I figured I’d try my luck with a quick “Hi” back to Elliot. The last time one of our conversations started that way, it ended pretty well, so I figured my odds were good. I was heading to Georgetown for a work trip that night, and was hoping he could provide me with a few dining recommendations since DC used to be his ol’ stomping grounds. After a little bit of back and forth, I had it. And I couldn’t wait.

But, before I could get there, I had to get through two other meals: dinner and breakfast the next morning.

For dinner, we chose this amazing Greek restaurant, Kapnos. We ordered an impossibly unreasonable amount of food (most of which I couldn’t even pronounce), and a lip-smacking delicious bottle (or two) of red wine. Each of us left stuffed to the brim with the happiest tastebuds in all of DC.

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The next morning, my mission was singular – I wanted coffee and a cupcake from Baked and Wired, a small, family-owned coffee shop and bakery in Georgetown. Autumn first told me about this place when she spent a summer in DC, and after I visited a few years ago, I fell in love with the joint. The coffee is excellent – I ordered an Americano, as usual – and the cupcakes served there are actually called cakecups. They’re huge and deliciously moist and (dare I say?) worlds better than anything you’d get at Georgetown Cupcakes. I chose the Elvis Impersonater, a banana cupcake with peanut butter icing, drizzled in chocolate. If you’re gonna have something sweet for breakfast, you might as well go big or go home, right?

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After a few hours of work, my wait was over. I was finally going to get my hands on a fish taco from Farmers, Fishers, Bakers before I had to hop on a train (literally my worst nightmare) and head back to Philadelphia. A fried white fish taco on a sweet corn cake, to be exact. Served with radishes, mangos, cashews, dates and coleslaw, every bite was light and refreshing and everything Elliot had said it would be… and then some. Even good enough to get me through a train ride home. And that’s sayin’ somethin’.

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The Philadelphia Food Diaries: Augusta Edition.

The Philadelphia Food Diaries: Augusta Edition.

Two weeks ago, I spent a few days in Augusta, Georgia, a town that I had imagined to be small and uninteresting. I had mentally prepared myself to exist on a mostly-caffeine diet for my marathon days, fully expecting the culinary options to be sub-par.

I quickly learned, however, that Augusta is neither small nor uninteresting. It didn’t take long for someone to inform me that Augusta National Golf Club is home to the annual Masters Tournament, so I did my tourist duty and picked up a commemorative golf ball, and then I set my sights on what really mattered: leveraging a few food-loving locals to unearth some culinary gems.

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Stop #1.  As we waited for everyone to arrive at Abel Brown, a southern kitchen and oyster bar, Maddie and I decided to order a drink. The bartender, a quirky and talkative man with a southern drawl, started chatting about Pittsburgh (a surefire way to my heart) as he expertly crafted my “Sorry, Hank!” cocktail, a silky smooth concoction of gin, elderflower and lime. I asked about the name; Sorry, Hank! isn’t something very familiar. Two of Abel Brown’s usuals – Hank and Anne, a couple in their early 70s – were sitting at the bar one afternoon. After Anne had already downed a martini or two, she asked the bartender to whip up something else he thought she might like. It was the very drink I held in my hands, and when Hank leaned over for a taste of his wife’s, she said in her sweet southern drawl, “Sorry, Hank! It’s all gowne.” Hank rolled his eyes and looked lovingly at his wife, laughing. Now, her drink is a staple on the happy hour menu at Abel Brown.

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We took our seats inside the crisp, brightly lit and minimally decorated dining room and got down to business: appetizers. We started with a cheese plate (because when you’re lactose intolerant, obviously), smoked and fried chicken wings, johnny cakes, a drool-worthy scallop ceviche and a Caesar salad, complete with real life anchovies (yuck). Maddie and I agreed without hesitation – these were the best wings we had ever had. They had an incomparable smoky flavor, and when delicately dipped in the creamy horseradish sauce served on the side, it felt like the world stopped.

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Despite already feeling full, we quickly moved on to the main event. For me, that meant Georgia White Shrimp and Grits. (Because, when you’re in the South, is there really anything else to order?) Served with andouille sausage, fried okra, blistered tomatoes and jalapeno butter, it was everything I could have possibly imagined and more. I love grits – I mean, I really love grits – and these were creamier, saltier and more wonderful than any I’ve ever had before. (Sorry Emeril.)

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Fast forward 24 hours, and we’re seated in a dimly lit booth towards the back of Stop #2: Craft & Vine, a restaurant whose name alone piqued my interest. Walking through the front door was like crossing the threshold into a different era entirely. The waiters were dressed in varying shades of blue pants and cream shirts, each outfit held together (literally) with a pair of suspenders.  If you closed your eyes, the sounds could remind you of what a speakeasy sounded like. Hushed voices, bursts of laughter, and the shimmering, shaking and slamming of cocktails being crafted behind the long, wooden bar. The leather seats felt cool on the back of my legs, and the house rules lent an air of exclusivity to the whole joint. And to think – I almost decided to stay in. But now, I was hooked.

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Craft & Vine is less of a place to get a traditional dinner, but instead, a communal tasting space at your table – more tapas than individual meals. So, I ordered a French 75 (my favorite cocktail of all time – yum), and we slid our fingers down the menu, rattling off to our young waiter everything that caught our eye. We began, in our typical fashion, with a selection of charcuterie, and then layered in the weekly adaptation of deviled eggs, which were served with crispy chicken skins and a light layer of buffalo sauce. We added in some rabbit “wings,” a beet salad and a plate of Cab Sirloin, served with roaster fingerling potatoes, bravas sauce, romesco and wood oven grilled onions. The sirloin, by far, was the winner of the night. It melted in my mouth in the most delectable way imaginable.

Maybe it’s true what they say: everything is better in the South. And maybe the anonymity of Augusta (aside from golf-lovers around the world) works in my favor. These hidden gems will always be mine.

The Pittsburgh Food Diaries: New Orleans Edition.

The Pittsburgh Food Diaries: New Orleans Edition.

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to travel to New Orleans to remember the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. A few months ago, AEO sponsored a denim drive in each of our stores to collect used jeans, which we would eventually turn into insulation to be used in conjunction with the Make It Right Foundation in the houses they are building in the Lower 9th Ward.

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So, last Friday morning, my friend Cheryl and I boarded our plane and jet-setted our way to NOLA. Being that we were the first of the team to arrive, our first order of business was to find somewhere to eat lunch. It was my mission to eat true Nawlins cuisine… and as much of it as humanly possible.

We wandered down Bourbon Street in the French Quarter and ended up at Desire Oyster Bar, a stunning restaurant with a tin ceiling, black and white checkered floors, oversized windows and antique mirrors. It was gorgeous. We ordered Crispy Fried Alligator with Louisiana Pepper Jelly as an appetizer. Pepper jelly is a southern staple, made with peppers (obviously), vinegars, sugar and liquid crab boil. And, in my opinion, it was the highlight of the appetizer. It was lovely and bright and delightfully tangy. I thought about just eating it with a spoon.

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Then, we both ordered Catfish Po’Boys, successfully filling our fried food quota for the day. (But the side of greens has to count for something, right?) The catfish was light and gummy and the bread was sour and warm and flaky, and everything I’ve ever wanted in a Po’Boy. We left happy, considering our first Big Easy meal a raging success.

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The next night, we dined at NOLA, Emeril Lagasse’s French Quarter eatery that fuses  traditional Creole, Acadian and Southern cuisine with global influences. The three-story restaurant featured a wood-fired brick oven, an open kitchen and a stunning collection of wine. I ordered a Fleur-de-Lis cocktail (orange vodka, St. Germain, chambord, chardonnay, lemon juice and ginger ale topped with a lemon wedge), and Shrimp & Grits for dinner. Oh my lawd. The sautéed shrimp sat on top a bed of smoked cheddar grits, with grilled green onions, applewood smoked bacon, crimini mushrooms and doused with a lemon butter sauce. I don’t think a single word escaped through my lips while this plate was in front of me. Each bite was creamy and tangy, and it was everything it should have been when you’re eating Shrimp and Grits in the south.

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On Sunday morning, Cheryl and I dragged ourselves out of bed bright and early, so we could hit up the infamous Cafe Du Monde for beignets and a morning cup of joe. The line was long, the sun was strong, but the hype was all worth it. The coffee — chicory and iced — was the perfect pick-me-up and the beignet was like a bite-size funnel cake.

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After a few hours of meandering through the French Quarter, shopping for trinkets and art and exploring the sights, we asked a few locals for one last restaurant recommendation. Before we knew it, we ended up at Oceana Grill for our final meal of the trip. We started with an appetizer of Oyster Rockefeller, which Cheryl hated and I loved. Stuffed with spinach, bacon and parmesan cheese, there was nothing to hate about them. Nothing at all.  Then my Cajun Jambalaya Pasta arrived, and every spicy, alligator sausage and shrimp filled bite was better than the last.

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After a short and sweet, fun and food-filled weekend in New Orleans, Cheryl and I started our walk back to the hotel. We were surrounded by the stunning of architecture of the French Quarter when Cheryl said, “New Orleans is visually delicious.” I looked around, and couldn’t help but agree. It’s visually delicious… and also just the regular kind of delicious, too.

The Pittsburgh Food Diaries: Ellicott City Edition.

The Pittsburgh Food Diaries: Ellicott City Edition.

Three years ago, a sweet little girl entered the world: Stella Ave. In celebration of her birthday, I packed my bag and hopped in the car on Saturday morning. Destination: Ellicott City, a small town on the outskirts of Baltimore, and home to three of my favorite people on this planet.

John and Michelle had made dinner reservations for all of us at a The White Oak Tavern, a restaurant that celebrates local, hand-crafted food and beers. They had been raving about the burger at this joint, so I had made up my mind about my dinner selection before we even got there. The White Oak burger came topped with porter-glazed carmelized onions, “special sauce,” arugula, aged white cheddar and two thick pieces of bacon. John opted for the blackened catfish and shrimp, served with seared polenta cakes and sauteed greens. It tasted just as good as it looked. Michelle went with a perfectly light and summery strawberry salad. (Side note: The mac and cheese was so good. Stella wasn’t a huge fan, but the three of us found ourselves stealing bites off of her plate a few times. Oops.)

With stomachs full of delicious food, we headed home and called it a pretty early night. We’re old. Leave us alone. On Sunday afternoon, the whole family gathered around the pool to eat, drink, laugh and celebrate the birthday girl. I mean – come on – have you ever seen someone so cute?

After her cake had been cut, the gifts had been opened and I had said my goodbyes to my family, I hopped back in my car to return to Pittsburgh. Hailey was hosting a Memorial Day BBQ, and two of my best friends were in town from Colorado. The day turned into night and before I knew it, I was wrapping up another weekend full of so many of the best people.

To the people that I don’t see nearly enough: I’ll never get enough of you. I’ll always smile big when I see you (and maybe shed a tear or two), and be heartbroken when I leave you. That’s the price of loving and knowing people in more than one place.

The Pittsburgh Food Diaries: Nashville Edition.

The Pittsburgh Food Diaries: Nashville Edition.

Nashville, Tennessee: the home of country’s hottest stars and my very best friend in the whole wide world.  I spent Labor Day weekend south of the Mason Dixon, sipping on ‘shine and cheap beers, listening to up-and-coming musicians in hole-in-the-wall dive bars, eating an exorbitant amount of incredible food, and soaking in the best thing about Nashville: quality time with the people I love. Everyone is beautiful, kind and welcoming, and the sun shines hot. But the food – my goodness, the food – is what will keep me coming back to Nashville, even if my best friend isn’t there anymore.

PicMonkey CollageOur first restaurant in town was Sky Blue Cafe, a quaint little place in East Nashville. We enjoyed a late brunch with Nate, a friend of ours from Pittsburgh, laughing at the verbiage of the 80s trivia questions that rested calmly on our table. We ordered mimosas that came with pulpy, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and Nate opted for a heavy-on-the-horseradish Bloody Mary. I had decided on the Eggs Benedict, a classic breakfast dish that I had been craving for days, until the server buttered me up to the idea of their Crabcake Eggs Benedict. Sold. In fact, all three of us were sold, and soon enough, three identical steaming plates were placed in front of us. Scoot over, Trivial Pursuit. The table fell silent as we each shoveled heaping forkfuls of English muffin, seasoned crab cake, poached egg, and creamy Hollandaise sauce into our mouths. We left feeling fat and sassy. (Shout out to you on that one, Memaw.)

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Fast forward a few hours later, and we stepped inside the door of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream. We had been craving something creamy and cool, and when Autumn mentioned that they were known for their weird flavors,  I readily agreed. Boy, was she right. Offerings like Bangkok Peanut, Brambleberry Crisp and Saison with Sunflower Seeds and Golden Flax made me drool. Never in my new-to-food-loving wildest dreams could these combinations exist, let alone in a scoop of ice cream. I was awestruck. I finally – and after some serious debate – decided on a scoop of Brown Butter Almond Brittle ice cream and a scoop of Sweet Cream Biscuit and Peach Jam ice cream. And each of those scoops tasted exactly how you would imagine they would, if you can possibly imagine it. The farm fresh cream comes from grass-fed cows in Ohio, and then each unique ingredient is perfectly layered in, leaving you with a truly creative dessert. (Note: Jeni’s ice cream is sold in select Whole Foods. You’re welcome.)

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The next day for lunch, I decided – thanks to Autumn’s recommendation – to check out Edley’s Bar-B-Que. From floor to ceiling, this restaurant evoked a homey, woodsy feel. The tables each had unique imperfections, and the walls were rough to the touch, as if I’d have to dig out a deep splinter if I moved by them the wrong way. (Not to mention, the typeface throughout Edley’s is on point.) We waited in line to place our order at the single, open kitchen. I went for the wholesome southern brisket sandwich with collard greens and potato salad. We walked to an empty table by the bar, placed a plastic 25 identifier high on the table and grabbed a drink menu. Soon enough, I was salivating over my plate with a Southern ‘Shine Cider in my hand. My greens were warm and spicy, and the potato salad was cool and creamy. The juices from my brisket mixed with the red barbecue sauce and ran down my arm, pooling on a napkin under my elbow. I could barely come up for breath. This was – by far – my favorite meal of the whole weekend. Instant food coma.

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Fast forward another 24 hours, and I’m are sweaty from the thick, southern heat, seated across from Nate and his girlfriend at a little joint in Midtown called The Row. We wandered in searching for breakfast, but given that it was almost noon, we settled for lunch fare instead. I whet my raging appetites with an order of hot, fresh biscuits, served with homemade strawberry, tomato and blackberry jam, while they opted for fried green tomatoes, pimento cheese and some down home Tennessee chow chow. (I’ll be honest, none of us knew what chow chow was. I had to Google it. Answer: relish.) We dug in, stuffing our empty stomaches, and didn’t give it a second thought until our main courses were placed in front of us. I ordered a simple turkey and avocado sandwich and side of cheddar grits. I took a bite or two of my sandwich, already full from my biscuits, and left it behind to nibble on the salty, creamy, grainy grits.

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 8.11.52 PM Fast forward three days, and here I am, sitting on my couch in Pittsburgh, with a pint of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream in my hands. The taste of goat cheese and cherries reminds me of the time just a few days ago, a cool dessert on my tongue, my best friend next to me, when I was grinning ear-to-ear, happy as a clam, my heart bursting with love. I know I say it all the time, but the moments I remember the most in life revolve around friends and food, and there’s really nothing better.

The Pittsburgh Food Diaries: Boston Edition.

The Pittsburgh Food Diaries: Boston Edition.

Ah, Boston. Another city on the quickly growing list of places that I adore. While on vacation, my family decided to take a day trip into the city. My dad, at the ripe ol’ age of 45, has never been there, nor have my brothers! So, off we went.

Sarah and Evan are huge history buffs, I’m a huge foodie, and my dad wanted to see as much of the city in one day as possible, so walking the Freedom Trail was a natural choice, as it calmly winds through 2.5 miles of the historic sites and top-rated eateries. We started at Faneuil Hall, as most tourists do, and slowly began meandering through the city. About two minutes into our walk, we came across The Bell in Hand, a tavern that has been open since 1765. (In case you’re bad at math, that is 249 years of serving beer. Awesome.) We collectively decided that this would be our lunch spot, and continued to follow the distinct red brick path of the Freedom Trail to our next destination.

We briefly toured Paul Revere’s house and admired the gardens and old pews of Old North Church, then headed back to Union Street for lunch. I was already drooling. When in New England, I do as New Englanders often do… which is order seafood. A lobster roll, to be exact, with a tall, refreshing Alagash White. (Shoutout to Megan on that one!) Sarah ordered the Clam Chowder, another New England staple.

Author Joseph C. Lincoln once wrote, “A New England clam chowder, made as it should be, is a dish to preach about, to chant praises and sing hymns and burn incense before. To fight for. The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought for–or on–clam chowder; part of it at least, I am sure it was. It is as American as the Stars and Stripes, as patriotic as the national Anthem. It is Yankee Doodle in a kettle.” This chowder embodied exactly what he was talking about. Creamy and hearty, delicate and fresh. Quite simply to die for.

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My sandwich was also a thing of wonder. The lobster was tossed lightly in mayonnaise, and mixed with finely diced celery and onion. Then, it was quite literally piled onto a bed of crisp lettuce that sat gracefully on top of a softly toasted bun. The epitome of New England cuisine lasted on my plate for less than 10 minutes. (I really should focus on eating more slowly.)

After lunch (and after the US lost to Germany in the World Cup), we continued our journey through Boston. We hit Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, the USS Constitution and Bunker Hill. (I managed to work off a small portion of my lunch when I climbed the 294 steps to the lookout atop the Bunker Hill Monument.) We ended our whirlwind, touristy day in Boston at Cheers, sipping on cool, crisp drinks where everybody (nobody) knew our names.

Fourth of Julancer.

Fourth of Julancer.

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Voluntown, Connecticut. Population: 2,603. Last weekend, we added 8 to that number, and spent our Fourth of July weekend at my Uncle Peter’s lakehouse. 18 hours of travel and three blissful days of boats, lobsters, beer, and Miley Cyrus filled each of our souls with happiness and laughter. Thanks to my incredibly talented friends, I have these pictures to share with you, to give you just the smallest taste of the beauty we surrounded ourselves with during the holiday weekend.