Not your Mama’s Tacos!

Taco Mamacitas

My sister-in-law was the first to introduce me to Taco Mamacita in Chattanooga and I’m the kind of person that once I discover something as wonderful as this, I want to share it with everyone.  Three years consecutively I was able to persuade my staff to take them for team celebrations. (One staff member, went back the following three weekends in a row to introduce others to the Taco Mama glory!) We had many a ‘ladies nights out’ with some of my colleagues, several double dates, and numerous times where it was just the hubby and I escaping at the end of a stressful and tiring week. Not only did we want to visit Taco Mamacita this summer while in town because of the great food, but because it is now a place full of precious memories with friends and family.

Taco Mamacitas

Before you write this off as just another taco place, Taco Mamacita is NOT your average Tex Mex, lettuce-filled-soggy tortilla! Neither is it just the best version of the tastiest standard yummy taco out there (although it is that too). Mama is putting some of your favourite foods into taco form. Love Pulled Pork Sandwiches? Try The Memphis with dry rubbed slow braised pork, onions, pickles, jalapeno slaw and BBQ sauce. OR how about the Loaded Gyro with thinly sliced lamb gyro, baja white sauce, peppers and feta. My personal favourites are the California Club (exactly what you might think-a twist on the classic club sandwich) and the Vegetarian Jerk with sweet, fiery, jerk-seasoned plantains and Mango Salsa.

Taco Mamacitas

As well as offering a great regular menu, they have hidden items and chef’s specials on occasion. While we were visiting they were trying out a new taco with duck confit, goat cheese, and cherry pepper relish which was outstanding.

Taco Mamacitas

And then there’s the seasonal Mojitos (virgin available upon request) like blueberry, strawberry and my absolute favourite, blackberry. All made with fresh fruit and muddled mint leaves. Perfect for hot summer days on the patio.

I don’t know that we will find anywhere quite like Taco Mamacita round here in Texas so if you are reading this and get to pass through Chattanooga (or their Nashville, TN or Charleston, SC locations) stop by and order some Mango salsa on my behalf!

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Chattanooga’s Julie Darling Donuts

To me, donuts are as quintessentially American as burgers and hot dogs. I know this is not particularly accurate as pastries made from fried dough covered in sugar are prevalent in many cultures but personally I think of the US when I think of donuts. I am sure that it has something to do with their presence in movies and TV shows that aired in England during the 80s and early 90s. (The classic donut-loving-overweight cop joke comes to mind.) And, donut shops were practically non-existent in the UK as opposed to the mass chains and local joints in every town and city in North America. When I arrived in 2003, all I had ever known of donuts were that they were filled with jam and came in packs of 10 at Tescos. Then I was introduced to Krispy Kreme and their hypnotic hot and ready light. (Ironically, a few months after leaving London, a store opened up in my old neighbourhood!) I was hooked for better and for worse; donuts would never be the same for me again and this love affair led me to seek out the best little sugary pillows at every turn.

I had the pleasure of visiting places like Gordoughs Donuts and Round Rock Donuts in Texas earlier this year, both of which were exceptional for different reasons. But for me there is only one donut shop that truly has my heart, and that is Julie Darling Donuts in Chattanooga, TN. Although they did not open until 2010 and were not a formative part of my first USA experiences as a Grad student, I cannot imagine downtown without their charming 50s throwback storefront. 

Chattanooga's Julie Darling Donuts

Not only do they offer the standard delicious flavours but my absolute favorite aspect of Chattanooga’s Julie Darling Donuts is their vast, creative and delicious specialty menu.

Chattanooga's Julie Darling Donuts

Donuts like Coconut Creme Pie, Pancakes and Bacon, Key Lime Pie, and Banana Split

Chattanooga's Julie Darling Donuts

To avoid eating several donuts in one sitting, and in order to be sure we enjoyed our much missed favourites, we had to figure out creative excuses to visit CJDD a couple of times this summer while on vacation in TN. And it was well worth the downtown detours.

Chattanooga's Julie Darling Donuts

Granny’s Apple Pie is exactly as you would imagine with warm spices, a hearty filling and even a little crusty crumb topping.

Chattanooga's Julie Darling Donuts

And the gourmet Oreo; soft, fluffy dough topped with rich chocolate fudge sauce and scattered crunchy creme-filled cookies.

If you ever find yourself in the North Shore/Coolidge Park neighbourhood, seek out Chattanooga’s Julie Darling Donuts on Frazier Avenue and don’t leave without trying their Pancake and Bacon Donuts. (Check their Facebook page before you go as they often have daily specials) You will not regret it!

Used Books and Rain

As soon as we crossed into our home state of Tennessee this summer for a little getaway, it seemed as though the mountains knew family had come to visit and they stood ready to welcome us in their flourishing green Sunday-best, looking more beautiful than ever.  I think both John and I experienced a sense of relief as the feeling of belonging and familiarity swept over us, unmarred by months under the scorching Texas sun.

Our first course of business (after a good night’s sleep) was to venture to our favourite used bookstore, McKay.

photo (1)

I say used bookstore but in truth McKay is an entire warehouse full of organized shelves, neatly overflowing with music, movies, video games and books of all genres at extremely reasonable prices. I remember the first time I walked into this discount treasure trove as a Londoner used to paying extortionate prices for everything! I was fresh off the boat and ran around filling up an increasingly heavy basket until I remembered that I was also a broke student and reluctantly placed each item back on its cozy shelf. Months later, John and I met and our joint obsession with McKay helped fuel our blossoming romance into wedded bliss!

McKay Chattanooga, TN

McKay Chattanooga, TN

Being English Lit, and Biblical Studies Majors, McKay was our weekly drug of choice when we lived in TN. (Which probably explains why we have 6 full bookcases at home!) And although this might be a tad unhealthy, John in particular has saved us a fortune by purchasing his necessary books and commentaries from this musty-paper smelling paradise. During our visit, we were able to sell some items for trade credit (which we immediately exchanged for more books to take home of course!) and left brainstorming how to convince the store owners to add Waco to their list of locations.

Just 5 minutes down the road from McKay is our all time favourite Thai restaurant, Rain Thai Bistro.  Another regular on our date-night circuit, we ordered our much missed dishes and it was as familiar as settling down to a home cooked meal at a family reunion.

Rain Thai Bistro, Chattanooga TN

Although Rain has a pretty extensive menu, sometimes its just the perfectly executed and well flavoured classics you crave like Basil Rolls, Panang Curry and Pad Thai.

Rain Thai Bistro, Chattanooga TN

Rain Thai Bistro, Chattanooga TN

 Rain is not only one of our favourites but everyone we have introduced it to has fallen in love. On a staff outing a few years ago, one of my students had just returned from Thailand and was immediately transported back across the world when our food arrived. As many Thai restaurants as I have tried, few compare to this one so humbly placed in a very unsuspecting strip mall. Needless to say, our first day back in TN was a home run! 

My 10th USAnniversary!

bilbo quote

August marked 10 years since my arrival in the USA and I have found myself reflecting and reminiscing a lot lately. As a result, today’s post is very different than normal as I set the scene for a week of some of my favourite eateries from our summer vacation.

It is still strange to me sometimes when I think about how this little wandering Greek- Cypriot Londoner finally found her home with a tall southern gentleman at the foot of the Smokey Mountains, in a little town just north of Chattanooga, TN. And, little did I know that I would have to leave that majestic view to graze in the flat lands of Texas, just a few years later, while my husband finishes his doctoral work. That is life my friends. You never know how it is going to unravel as each foot is placed in front of the other.  You just move, hoping, trusting, squinting into the distance and believing somehow that you will look back at the end of your life and feel peace with all you have learned and experienced. Even those who meticulously plan 10 years at a time can never truly know what is ahead. I think somewhere deep down that is my favourite thing about life; the mystery. It’s the peace we find when things aren’t as we imagined. The hope, and knowledge, that things can change means we can focus on present moments that are still positive and draw strength for the patience required as we wait for the up and coming. It is also the hope of all the adventure that is yet to come.

 

Ski Lift

In the summer of 2003, when I was still living in London and a month away from moving to the States, I had the pleasure of attending a conference at the ski resort of Pamporovo in Bulgaria. Being July, we were not there to ski but an afternoon outing had been arranged to ride the ski lifts across the beautiful mountains. I learnt something monumental that day as our journey unfolded. The first ski lift at which we arrived was pretty modern with large cushioned seats, a thick strong safety bar that locked into place, and a short little ride to the first mountain. Being slightly afraid of heights, I felt as safe as possible under the circumstances and decided to move with the flow of people making their way to the lift. It was rather quite pleasant as we smoothly sailed up to the tops of the trees, enjoying the crisp summer air, and landed safely on the other side of the valley.  

However, the next ski lift was not as sturdy-looking and a little older than the first. The view from the mountains was stunning and, despite my trembling knees and the strong desire to go back alone, I decided to hop on this next set of ski lifts and just grip the flimsy bar with all my might. As we bobbed along the line, I could not get enough of the natural beauty around me. I have always loved the mountains and these were stunning.

Once we reached the final ski lift, at the very height of the resort, I was pretty mortified at the sight of the contraption that would be carrying us down. The safety bar was a thin rope of metal that came half way across the body, the entire chair was paint pealed and somewhat rusty, and as each empty seat rolled around the top of that highest mountain, it swung wildly, squeaking and taunting its next victim. Even though I could hear my heart pounding in my head, I somehow managed to muster the courage and rode this lift of death to the bottom of the mountain. The view was silently breathtaking and completely distracting from the fear I had initially experienced. It is an experience I will never forget.

Every moment of the journey that day was only visible as I approached each leg and for that, I am so very thankful. If I had seen that final terrifying lift from the beginning, I would have turned around and mulled on back to the hotel with the few others who did not want to go into the mountains. Instead, each stage was revealed gradually and I managed to find just enough courage and strength to get to the next point and experience some of the most incredible scenery. One month later, I arrived in the States for what was to be two short years and here I am ten years later, with so many hill top moments behind me, and still enjoying the ride!

Why do I tell you all this? Because it seems fitting to celebrate my USAnniversary by highlighting the food in a city that became a very significant mountain top for me during the early years of my life in this country. I will be spending this week focusing on the wonderful eateries we love so much in Chattanooga and I truly hope to inspire you to visit this beloved city. Who knows, maybe one of life’s ski lifts will take you there someday too.

chattanooga

Austin, the weird and wonderful!

Having formerly lived in London, and then more recently close to the (believe it or not) up and coming foodie city of Chattanooga, TN, getting used to the limited culinary options in Waco, TX has been quite an adjustment.  It’s not that there isn’t some lovely food here, it’s just that those places are few and hard to find. I truly believe Waco is a city at the beginning of a journey that will end with it being a budding hip town but that will probably not happen during our time here. As much as I love cooking and experimenting in the kitchen, I equally adore exploring and discovering new food joints and then introducing them to others.

Luckily, whenever the claustrophobia of Waco sets in, we have two great neighbouring food cities in Dallas and Austin for a fun occasional adventurous getaway. Although, the 2 hour drive is not something you can do for just an evening, it is comforting to know that these places are accessible even if just for the day. Recently, we had the joy of visiting Austin while my in-laws attended a conference. We drove down and spent the night with them and when they left the next day for their flight home, we ventured into the downtown area for some quick foodie fun. Austin is famous for many reasons but it is the city’s slogan that says it all; ‘Keep Austin Weird!’ and we were excited for our first real dose.

The first stop was at Franks on 4th and Colorado and for any of you hot dog fiends, this is a must visit if you come to the great city of Austin. We took a long time choosing what to order because every item was so unique and interesting (and this is after looking at the menu many times from home before we arrived!!) . We settled (and I really mean settled because we wanted to try everything!) on a couple that sounded too irresistible to miss. (My camera decided not to work that day so we had to take pics with our phone. Sadly they are not that great but I still wanted you all to get a glimpse of the magic!)

I ordered the Southern Belle; a blackened split Vienna Beef Polish link dressed with pimento cheese, fried green tomatoes, and Cajun remoulade and scallions.

Southern Belle, Franks, Austin

John ordered The Notorious P.I.G.; house made pork, bacon jalapeno sage sausage topped with mac n’ cheese, and Dr. Doppelganger BBQ sauce.

Notorious P.I.G. Franks, Austin

I have to say, I did suffer from a massive case of order-envy after I tried his. Not that mine wasn’t amazing but his was just the perfect unexpected interesting mix of well-matched flavours. The pure genius of their menu, including sides and drinks, ensures that Franks will always be an Austin favourite.

After this incredible lunch, we wondered down town a little further and took our chances on a food truck for dessert, Gordoughs Donuts on S.1st Austin St. One of the saddest parts of leaving East Tennessee was being so far  from my all time favourite donut shop, Chattanooga’s Julie Darling Donuts. Since moving to Texas, we have been hoping to eventually find something as good. Once more, we were enthralled by Gordoughs insane menu. With items such as the Boss Hogg, (covered in pulled pork, potato salad and honey bbq sauce!),  and Black Out  (brownie batter, chocolate fudge icing, chocolate covered brownie bites and chocolate syrup!), we knew we were in serious trouble again. We finally decided on trying two at the truck and then taking a couple back with us to Waco. This was a big mistake! We didn’t realize that their donuts are the size of your face! In fact I can safely say that the image of the donuts on their on-line menu is pretty much actual size! We ordered The Carney (apple pie filling, cream cheese icing with caramel and dry roasted peanuts), the PP&J (grape jelly filling with peanut butter icing and peanut butter morsels), the Flying Pig (bacon with maple icing)

Flying Pig, Gourdoughs, Austin

and a Black Out.

Black Out, Gourdoughs, Austin

Needless to say we really did bite off more than we could chew and didn’t quite get through the first two. But that’s what ‘to go’ is for right? What they are doing at Gordoughs is pretty crazy and unique. It didn’t quite replace my little retro Julie Darling in TN but I definitely recommend it at least once if you are visiting Austin. 

All in all, it was a fun escape from Waco and we can’t wait to visit Austin again sometime soon to experience more of their great city and awesome food. I don’t know if I could say everything we saw was weird but it is certainly a very unique town and extremely fun.

Origins of a foodie

Everyone has that one person who pushed them from a simple eater to a true food explorer. For me that one person was my brother. Although 5 years apart in age, and living on separate continents, we are extremely close and the first hour of our catch-up conversations revolve around food (and then usually another hour of discussion about TV shows and movies!). I don’t know that I can pinpoint the exact moment when we moved into the realm of foodies but I can clearly remember that he was always willing to try anything as a kid; lamb’s brain and eye balls, squid cooked in ink,  various animal parts ground, seasoned and wrapped in intestines; and he was always eager that others should do the same. It is not surprising that his food journey has led him to deeply fall in love with places like Japan, and as much as I would love for him to live near me, I know in his heart, he could never leave the culinary excitement and adventure of a big city like London.

And, I don’t blame him when there are places like Borough Market at London Bridge to explore your every specialty food indulgence. My husband and I were treated to a day of wondering, sampling and purchasing with my big brother and we had a blast! I am not sure if every person who stepped down off the bus with us had originally planned to go to the market, or if they were helplessly seduced by the aromas wafting into the streets above, but as one unified mass, we all eagerly bustled into the culinary oasis together.

Borough Market

After all, who could resist. The market sports all kinds of masterly crafted cheeses, meats, chocolate, freshly shucked oysters and clams, baked goods, olive oils, vinegars, micro brewery beers and fresh produce not to mention all the stands weekly conjuring up delicious meals to feed the already mesmerized (and sometimes free sample stuffed) crowds.

.Here are just some of the stands we stopped at to indulge:

oysters and clamsFresh oysters and clams served with Tabasco and sherry vinaigrette.

cheese soaked in red wine

A sampling feast of the Italian L’ubriaco Drunk Cheese. Cheese aged and soaked in Wine-how can that be bad?!

Chocolate

Artisan du Chocolat. Probably my favourite stop along the way. My brother bought one of their incredible boxes  with a creative selection of chocolates which he generously shared with us later that evening. (Also, for about $5 you can buy a bag of their misshapes and try a variety of their treats at half the price). Did you notice the Tobacco dark bar?

olive oilA unique olive oil blend from Oliveology. We all know how I feel about good olive oil…so yes.. I did want to just drink this!

duck confit sandwichesA tasty duck confit sandwich for lunch with some mulled wine.

the marketWhat a perfect Christmas season trip on a chilly wintery day. This really is just a very tiny sampling of the incredible vendors we enjoyed. I have never had such a difficult time making a lunch choice! Honestly you can’t beat a trip to Borough Market if you love food.  I am so grateful for all the ways my brother keeps expanding my culinary experiences. If there is anyone to blame (thank) for my grumbling belly- it’s him!