Jun 18, 2009

Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives

My two favorite vacations I have ever taken were Spring Break of 1996 and Independence Day of 2004. Spring Break 96 consisted of me and my friends Matt and Allen going up to Atlanta. It wasn't anything spectacular. It just was the first time I ever had gone on a vacation on my own. We never travelled much at all when I was a kid, so this was a big deal to me. We had a great time. The 2004 trip was up to Pennsylvania with Heather, Josiah, Natalie, and Heather's parents. It was really neat to see a part of a country that I never had seen before and to spend time with Heather's extended family.

One of the coolest things about the trip, honestly, was the food. I may have written about this before, but I really enjoy food. This may explain why I am considered to large to be a fashion model, Jabba the Hutt stand in, or walrus. But I really do like food. Even if I was thin, I assume I would like food. I enjoy cooking. One of the best parts of this whole change of life has been that I have taken over the cooking. Heather is a great cook. But I like trying out recipes and cooking. I have made some things that I never had before - and they have been good. Yesterday I created a new recipe. I made drop biscuits in a muffin tin and then topped them with leftover mashed potatoes mixed with cheese and bacon. It was like a poor man's version of Pizzeria Uno's Pizza Skins. And they were good.

So my love for food is not just because I love stuffing my face. I enjoy trying things and making things. I like going to new places. As anyone I have visited should know, when I go to a new place I want to "try places I can't go back home." I remember when I went to Australia back in 2000. A bunch of the people with me wanted to eat at McDonalds and stuff. In three weeks, I had BK Lounge once, Pizza Hut once, KFC once. That was it. I made stuff like lasagna and sausages. I went to vendors to try kebabs (which rocked) and meat pies.

Pennsylvania was similar. They had the best cheesesteaks in the world - and I tried a dozen different places. I ate pirogues. We ate at awesome stand alone diners. And I wondered why things couldn't be like that down in Orlando. I thought about and had a theory. Orlando is a very "new" city. It may have existed for a while, but most of it has sprung up as a result of Disney (60s) and UCF (90s). Those places grew after the big chain restaurants had established themselves. So when you drive through Orlando, there aren't unique restaurants. Some areas, you will find some stand alone places - like in Winter Park. These Pennsylvania joints had been open for fifty years and stuff. They had renovated and expanded and changed ownership. But they were part of the landscape. And their strength of reputation had helped them fight off the big companies.

The other reason is that places like that always seem to be cheaper. The big chains say they have buying power, and they do charge less than a lot of places. But they never seem to keep up with these older diners and such. For example, in PA I could get a cheesesteak for 3.99 at several places. Huh? Try seven or eight bucks in a chain. My thoughts are that these older places own their places, equipment, lots. They don't pay astronomical leases. They don't rent their knives. So they have lower overhead. And they are family run, so they save on payroll. Look at the next time a new stand alone comes along. They always are more expensive than the older ones, and more than the chains. Down in Oviedo, Nick's Restaurant opened up right before we moved. We tried it one night and were stunned at how much their pizza cost. You could feed a youth group for the same amount at Domino's. It seems to be the same story at most of the newer places. They are stuck in bad leases, they don't have volume buying, and so they have to charge more.

Well, in Tallahassee I have discovered that it is more along the lines of Allentown. It is an older established city. There are a ton of local places around town. They have carved out their niche, and as a result they have fought off the chains. There are only like four Chick-Fil-A stand alones in Tallahassee. You have to drive to find a Taco Bell. Why? Well, you have to pass five GOOD Mexican places before you hit the Mexican Phone Company. There are four chicken places on Tennessee Ave alone. You don't HAVE to go to the chain places. Sure, they have crept in around town. But there are also a bunch of great local places. Here are some I have found so far:
  • 1 Fresh Stir Fry - Our favorite new place. You pick the items you want and they cook it up and give it to you. It is like Macaroni Grill's "Design Your Own Pasta" but better. You can pick rice or noodles. You can make it like Italian, Mexican, Chinese, or Bacon Cheeseburger Pasta. And they serve Pepsi! Best Spring Rolls I have ever had. And it costs $9 for a huge bowl that always give you two filling meals. (Reheats well too)
  • La Fiesta - This Mexican place on Apalachee Parkway is like three minutes from our apartment. We all went here last week with Greg. All five Staples ate until we were full - quesadillas, chicken tenders for the kids, enchiladas. $30. I can handle that once in a while. Great stuff. And they serve Pepsi . . . AND Cherry Pepsi.
  • Barnaby's Pizza - This is right next door to La Fiesta. Literally share a parking lot. It has absolutely amazing pizza. Braided dough crusts sprinkled with corn meal. Their hamburger topping is one of the best I've ever had. The kids love it and knock out a whole pizza by themselves. My favorite pizza place thus far. And they serve Pepsi!
  • Helen's Silver Bullet Diner - This is right next door to Barnaby's. Literally share a parking lot. [Honestly, have you EVER had three epic restaurants located next door to each other? I can't remember this in my life. And I would remember something like that.] Only open for Breakfast and Lunch. Kids meals are all 1.99 or 2.99. BIG portions. I got a double cheeseburger and was embarrassed because I couldn't finish it. Gabe tore into his eggs and sausage. Natalie ate a plate-sized pancake. Josiah had a hot dog and fries. Total bill $24. Yup. And I could have gotten a regular burger and saved $2. They serve Coke, but they have ice cream.
  • Decent Pizza - We have only tried one of the Ridonkulously Sized Pizza Slice places around town. (We will try Momo's at some point.) Decent is better than its name claims. Don't pay for delivery, because you get rooked. But carryout is not bad. We got a huge 24" and a "medium" 16 incher for $24. You don't realize just how big those pizzas are. We fed our family and Greg, and had enough for a family of reheats. Plus, their calzones are phenomenal. $6 for a 14" diameter calzone, stuffed with sausage (or whatever). Can't beat that.
  • Red Elephant Pizza Grill - This was started by the guy who started Barnaby's. So the pizza is identical. But they have great salads (which Heather loves), awesome soup, and nice sandwiches too. And Greg gets boiled peanuts there - and I watch him eat them. Who would eat wet peanuts? They lose points for serving Coke, though.
It sounds like we eat out a lot, but we don't. Many of these places got tried when we were up here before the move. We go out one night a week and on Sundays after church - maybe one other time during the week. But we have already found six top notch local establishments. And we still haven't tried Pitaria, Momo's, Jenny's Lunch Box, Peppers, or Three Guys from New York. And Greg has a friend who owns a kick-butt bar-b-que place (best homemade sauce I've ever had). I can't remember its name and Heather hasn't tried it. So I didn't put it in there.

So when you are sitting there feeling bad for us for being exiled to FSU, just remember that we are eating well. And when you come visit us, you will too.

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