Oct 10, 2009

Flavor Enhancing

I am aware that many of you know that I attended the U2 concert in Tampa on Friday. And you probably are thinking that I am going to talk about that in this post. And while I promise I will do that soon - I am reserving that for something special. (Just keep your eyes open on ye olde blogge.) Instead, I am going to talk about something even more important that I did on Friday.

I ate a bat.

Well, in the interest of complete honesty, I didn't eat the entire bat. i only ate a forkful. But people at my table consumed an entire bat. Mostly it was Greg. But my sister, nephew, and even my mom scarfed some down. Now before you go and start wondering if there are strange practices afoot at Hacienda Staples de Lutz, let me explain that the bat was eaten at Hot Rod's BBQ and Grill in Lutz, FL. I am attaching a handy link, in case any of you fine readers are interested in visiting that establishment.

As I talked about in my Nobel Prize winning post on restaurants, I like to try new places. One of the joys of traveling is eating at different restaurants you can't find back home. And I also am a big fan of the whole "support your local business owner" mindset. The local owner is what gives an city or town its personality. Any city can throw up a McDonald's or Subway. That is what makes so many drives seem like there is just a movie loop running out the window. Walgreens, CVS, McDonald's, Exxon, Burger King, Subway, Walmart, Publix, SunTrust Bank, repeat. We all know exactly what you are going to get at places like that - which is part of the reason they became so popular. And it definitely is the reason they became so boring.

Local places bring depth of personality and regional taste. It is fun to find a new place and try it. Sometimes you meet the owner. You get to experience something unique and new. You can walk into a Sonny's BBQ and order a boring and predictable sliced pork dinner. OR, you can find a place like Hot Rod's and find grilled bat. I am teaching my good buddy Greg this approach to food. For much of our friendship, he sticks to the same things. And that's fine - that is the way some people operate. But when he is with me, he is forced to think outside of that mindset. Sure, it is to make me happy - and maybe because he's afraid I'll jam my finger into his sandwich. Today, though, I think he had enjoyed our weekend of food exploration.

Thursday, we drove down to Orlando after Greg got off work. We grabbed dinner at 1 Fresh Stir Fry - a local Tallahassee company that I documented in that aforementioned Pulitzer Prize winning post. It was as awesome as I had hoped - actually better than usual. 1 Fresh had been gaining extra points since I tried their peanut sauce a couple of weeks ago. We both definitely gave our bacon cheese burger rice bowls two grunts up.

On Friday, a free breakfast buffet came with our hotel stay. I used to be a guy who could put a real hurting on a breakfast buffet. The Shoney's in Tampa used to fear me and my friends as we drove in. Since I developed my egg allergy, though, breakfast is not a huge deal. I usually just eat something so I don't feel sick later on. [Side Note: If you are going down to Disney or Orlando and looking for a hotel, try the Comfort Inn on Park Parkway in Lake Buena Vista. It is right outside of Downtown Disney and costs $29 a night on their fall promo - $39 with two adult breakfasts. You can definitely do worse.] Anyway, the buffet was what I have come to expect from most of this sort of place. Pan of bacon, pan of sausage, pan of lame pancakes, cereal, blah blah blah. It is really a picture of what is wrong with mass produced food places - and national chain restaurants. Boring, predictable, serviceable, unmemorable food.

For lunch, we were driving between Maitland and Oviedo and decided to stop in at Famous Uncle Al's Hot Dogs in Winter Springs. Now, this was not a new discovery. It was one of our favorite places when we lived in Orlando. It has awesome food and it is very reasonable for what you are getting. We sat at the counter. Greg got a jumbo beef dog with cheese and fries. I had a cheesesteak and mozz sticks. The food took like five minutes to come out. We were completely in and out in less than 30 minutes. Greg's food cost like $6. (Mine was a little more due to the appetizer.) I noticed they had changed the bread on the sub, so I asked the lady at the counter about it. She explained their thought process and asked what I thought. The grill chef asked where my kids were, since we usually went with them. I explained we had moved. You don't find that at most places - the personal touch. The waitresses there always remembered our drink orders. The grill chefs recognized me. That is an awesome feeling - and adds even more points to a restaurant.

For dinner, we would be in Tampa. I had heard about Hot Rod's BBQ and Grill a few months ago when my sister sent me a web article about the place. I found a coupon for the place on Restaurant.com and we were set. We had reviewed the crazy menu online and seemed ready. (I know it was a bold choice for right before the U2 concert, but it paid off.) The restaurant is a small building that is made to look more like a run down shack than it is - kind of feels like it belongs in a Louisiana swamp or the Everglades. My mom and Greg ordered the turkey leg. My sister and I both got the pulled pork. And, of course, there was the bat that Greg ordered. Yes, they have farm raised fruit bat on the menu. How can you pass that up? They raise the bats right there. It is one of their gimmick dishes - along with the 15 pound cheeseburger and the 1 ½ pound cheeseburger. (I really wanted a cheeseburger. But my query of "Do you have any normal sized burgers?" was met with laughter. And a quick "No.") So how was it? The pulled pork was absolutely amazing, with a delicious vinegar sauce - as it should be. The turkey legs looked like they actually were from a pterodactyl. The sweet potatoes were enormous. Everything was really really REALLY good. And the bat? Well, it tasted like chicken. No, seriously, it had a mix of ham and dark meat poultry flavor to it. It was good - really good actually. But I wouldn't order it, especially with that dang yummy pork.

So after the incredible concert, we left this morning. Around lunch time we were in Homosassa. We started looking for a local place, to keep our winning streak going. I saw a promising joint on the right - Sub Station. It was kind of strange. Sub Station would seem to be a sub place, but it advertised tons of pizza options. Either way, win win. We went inside and their menu was even more extensive. Fried chicken. Pizza. Calzones. Subs. BBQ. I was having trouble deciding. The owner asked what we wanted and I did the smart thing. "What is your best stuff?" He suggested the pizza, the cheesesteak, and the BBQ - "we make it out in the back." Well, now. That changes everything. I'm always nervous about getting BBQ at a sub place (or a pizza place) because I don't want to just get stuff out of a tub. So I ordered a pork sandwich. Greg got the cheesesteak. And we also got a couple slices of pizza - you know, just to try it all. Man o man. The 12" steak sub was only $6.99. And it was amazing. The pizza was really well done New York style with a light crispy crust. But it wasn't greasy or anything. And the BBQ pork was actually pressed on a Cuban roll - which was just an added twist that made the sandwich even better. Top it all off with really fresh crispy fries and spicy sweet baked beans. Again, the owner and staff treated the customers right. The owner personally walked a pizza out to a group of older people - who were stunned at the size of a Medium pizza. "The large one we have to put on a different table," the owner quipped. It was so good I wanted to find a way to make it back to Homosassa.

So, in addition to the fun I had speaking at ICS and rocking with U2, I also got to have some great local food. Stuff like that makes a trip or vacation go from "really good" to "incredible." Think about it. When you are off on a trip somewhere and you discover a great restaurant, that becomes part of the memory - part of the story. So when you talk about that vacation, you include that small detail as well. It is a flavor enhancer. It adds flavor to your time together and provides a platform for a memory. It makes your story even better. It makes the memory stronger. So next time you are out on the road, try a local place. It may become a great memory - at the worst you helped out some small business owner who can use the help. Either way, it is a tasty way to jazz up your trip. And remember to try the bat.

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