Sunday, June 26, 2011

New Orleans to Go Food Truck Does Eden Park Brunch

Would shrimp and grits get you out and about on a Sunday morning? How about pecan waffles? These are just a couple of the offerings you may find when the New Orleans to Go food truck begins serving Sunday brunch in Eden Park July 3rd. They’re talking about glazed wings to go with those waffles, creole bread pudding with rum sauce, catfish sliders, crawfish and shrimp etoufee stuffed bell peppers, Randy’s sweet cornbread (mmmm), and more, on a rotating basis.

Surprises and responding to customer requests are always just around the bend with these folks, so who knows what other delicious fare will make it onto their Eden Park menu. Look for them next Sunday at the overlook up the hill from Krohn Conservatory (toward the Edgecliff), starting around 11:00 a.m. and ready to feed the after-church crowd. If all goes well with this roll-out, they may extend their Sunday hours and move closer to Seasongood Pavilion later in the day on Sundays.

Eden Park is one of Cincy’s gems, so keep up with what New Orleans to Go is doing there via facebook or twitter and treat yourself to a fine Ohio River view, a visit to the Krohn Conservatory or the Cincinnati Art Museum, or just sprawl on a picnic blanket near Mirror Lake and do some people-watching with some tasty eats, and enjoy a summer Sunday!

Update: Looks like the hours for this Sunday's brunch are now 10:00-3:00.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Summer in the City! StreetPops, Pho Lang Thang + Roeblingfest

Blueberry Lemon Thyme, Chocolate Chili Pepper, Grapefruit Tarragon. As soon as I heard about fruit + herb combinations like these, I knew had to try the "grown-up" popsicles from Streetpops.

Lucky for me, one of my favorite downtown lunch joints, Lunch on Main, carries Streetpops, and my first taste was a delightfully puckery keylime-sicle. While it would be a perfect on a hot, humid Cincy summer day, it perked up my spirits - and taste buds - after one of our all-too-frequent recent mid-day storms. I saved the strawberry-mint Streetpop pictured at the top of this post for an afternoon snack yesterday, and was glad I did. This not-too-sweet treat made from fresh fruit was something to look forward to. By the time I pulled it out of the office freezer at 4:00, I was thinking "strawberry." But the first lick made me sit up straight and take my mind off work. What made it different? Oh, yeah, that fresh mint.

Today I had a chance to pick up more Streetpops and meet Sara Bornick, who is bringing her Streetpop cart to Fountain Square for Acoustic Thursdays at lunchtime.

Streetpops will be featuring even more intriguing flavors this weekend when they team up with Pho Lang Thang at Roeblingfest, including Vietnamese Coffee, Cucumber-Jalapeno, and other combos featuring lemon grass, coconut, and mango.

Lunch on Main owner Adam Easterling and his friendly crew were excited the first time I asked to buy a Streetpop from them, and now I know more about the story behind their familiarity and enthusiasm for Streetpops. Sara told me she rents kitchen space from LOM. Love to see locals supporting locals! Park + Vine will also be carrying Streetpops (vegan). Otherwise, you can catch Streetpops at Findlay Market, Second Sunday on Main, and other festivals and events around town.

More about Roeblingfest, in Covington, KY, filled with music, food, history, and fun, and celebrating the Roebling Bridge, our little prototype of the Brooklyn Bridge, here, here, and here. Happy weekend!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Happy Father's Day: South Dakota Trip, Part 3

I'm dedicating this installment to my dad, who, with my mom, was brave enough to take three kids under the age of 14 on a six-week cross-country trip back in 1970. Mom took along her electric skillet so we could have a hot breakfast most mornings in whatever motel room we were staying in. Our picnic lunches included vienna sausages and deviled ham (neither of which I can abide to this day). We usually ate out only once a day, for supper.

Our car overheated one day in a remote portion of Montana or eastern Oregon (after 41 years, I don't recall exactly - but I'll bet my dad does). Nonetheless, Dad and a local managed to get us back on the road and to that day's destination. My father had meticulously mapped out our route and lined up all our lodging in those pre-internet days. Deviled ham aside, it was a trip of a lifetime, and the inspiration for me to return to South Dakota these many years later, when my nephew's wedding presented a perfect opportunity for another, not quite so long, road trip.

I'll forewarn you this post is a long one. Pour yourself a cup of coffee (or your beverage of choice after your Father's Day festivities have quieted down) and settle in for a little armchair traveling on one of my most spectacular days in South Dakota.

After two nights in my Custer State Park cabin at Sylvan Lake, I was on the move again. But before I would dine in Rapid City, I wanted to see more in the southern Black Hills. After I checked out at Sylvan Lake Lodge, I saw this deer.

Although you’ll see lots of billboards on I-90 for touristy cave tours, the two caves I kept reading about that sounded truly compelling were Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument, both to the south and west of Custer S.P.

I've come to the conclusion that much of the most detailed and helpful advice I read about vacationing in this part of South Dakota pertained more to the busier part of the June-August tourist season and that I lucked out being there Memorial Day week.

Particularly for Jewel Cave, admonitions to obtain advance reservations and aim for the first tour of the day made me feel like a slacker for not having called before I left Ohio. Even the official website for Jewel Cave insists you must speak to a live person to reserve a spot for any cave tour, provide credit card info, then arrive at least half an hour ahead to pick up your ticket. I called first thing Monday (Memorial Day) hoping to book something – anything! – within the next two days. Turned out availability was wide open for Wednesday, so I settled on the second “Scenic Tour” of the day. Trying to leave myself plenty of time to arrive that prescribed 30 minutes early, I ended up at the Jewel Cave ticket booth about 15 minutes before the first tour started and was asked if I wanted to go on that one instead. Sure – that would leave more of my day for other explorations!
Jewel Cave’s “Scenic Tour” is limited to 30 people, but there were fewer than 15 that Wednesday morning. I dutifully adhered to all the (official and unofficial) advice about peeing beforehand, not taking a purse or water bottle, and wearing closed-toe shoes and a light jacket in the cave’s constant year-round 49 degree temperature. As I waited in the visitor center for the tour to begin, I saw several earnest young men in hiking boots and dirt-smudged kahkis gather indoors, then move outside for what I gathered to be a planning discussion. My first take was that they were guides for my cave tour and wondered what I’d gotten myself into, on this 1 hour, 20 minute tour with 723 steps, proclaimed on the website to be moderately strenuous.

Not to worry. Those guys must have been some of the avid (and trained) cavers who extend the mapping of Jewel Cave, the “second longest cave in the world,” each year. Soon an announcement came over the PA system, and a National Park Service employee in official dark green garb headed up our tour group, with two others following at the rear to make sure no tour-goers went astray. We descended in an elevator that took us the equivalent of 23 stories into the cave, to the “upper cave" elevator exit. With ramps and plenty of stopping points to listen to our guide, I found the tour more exhilarating then strenuous. The tour was over all too soon when we emerged to take the elevator from the "lower cave" stop.

Our friendly and informative NPS tour guide explained lots of geological stuff I have failed to retain, even though she presented them in accessible terminology. Some cave formations are likened to popcorn, there were “draperies” that made me think of Scarlett O’Hara (or Carol Burnett), and when she pointed out one magnificent formation they call “Cave Bacon,” I could see exactly why. Alas, I have learned that photographing in a cave is even more challenging than in a dimly lit restaurant. So I’ll just share these photos that kinda sorta turned out.

Next on my itinerary: Crazy Horse Memorial. I wasn’t even aware of this mountain carving the first time I visited South Dakota in 1970. I'll bet my dad wasn't either. But I learned this mammoth project was begun in 1948, after Lakota elders asked Korczak Ziolkowski, a Polish American fighter-turned-sculptor from Boston who had worked on Mt. Rushmore, to undertake the memorial “so the White Man would know the Red Man has great heroes also.”
It took 50 years for the sculpting of just Crazy Horse’s face to be completed, and far more work remains to realize the completed carving of Crazy Horse on horseback, pointing in the distance as an homage to this quotation from him: “My lands are where my dead die buried.” Here’s Korczak’s model of the sculpture on the outdoor deck of the Crazy Horse visitor center complex.
Korczak died in 1982, but work is being continued by his wife (who still lives in the visitor center) and many of their ten children. The project is operated as a non-profit and has accepted no state or federal funding. Initially funds were raised by charging visitors a mere 5 cents per carload. (Now the cost is $10 per person over the age of six or $27 per carload, with reduced rates for motorcycles and free admission for Native Americans, active-duty military personnel, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops in uniform, and residents of surrounding Custer County.) During the summer months, a laser light show is projected on the side of the mountain every night.

During that family trip 41 years ago, we stopped at Mt. Rushmore, and I recall being non-plussed. Mountains are beautiful just as nature has sculpted them. It struck me as presumptuous in the midst of such scenery to carve faces of four dead presidents on the side of one. I declined to stop and pay to see Mt. Rushmore this trip, but was very glad I visited Crazy Horse.
The scope of the Crazy Horse Memorial goes far beyond the mountain carving itself. Struck by white hostility toward Indians when he first arrived in the area, Korczak envisioned the project in a larger cultural and educational context. The current visitor center complex encompasses two movie theaters where you can watch a 20-minute orientation film (do not miss it!), an enormous museum of Native American artifacts, a conference center, and a Native American cultural center, in addition to restaurants and a gift shop. Native American artisans conduct demonstrations and sell their wares.

Eventually the grounds are to be home to a medical center and a university for Native Americans from throughout North America. Although the family and the memorial’s foundation could have raised funds by selling stone blasted from the mountain to be turned into gravel, they are keeping it all on site, where it will eventually be used in building those facilities.

The visitor center is still a fair distance from the mountain itself. But you can hop on a school bus that takes you to the base of the mountain, and well worth the $4.

These bus tours run about every 15 minutes during the summer and last about 25 minutes. You get to see the mountain from the far side of the visitor complex, then can disembark at the midpoint of the mountain. I thought I’d learned a lot from the orientation film, but our bus driver shared many more fascinating details. He’d clearly worked there a long time, knew the family, and cared about the mission of the place.

The size of this thing is hard to grasp (all four presidents on Mt. Rushmore collectively are smaller than the face of Crazy Horse, if I recall what my bus guide said correctly). Here are photos from the base of the mountain I shot thanks to that bus ride.

I had one more "must-see" on my list before heading to Rapid City for dinner: Iron Mountain Road. The 17-mile drive from Crazy Horse to Mt. Rushmore is so scenic and lush with trees, I didn’t mind the several stops I encountered for road construction and one-way traffic. I was surprised at what a close view I had of the dead presidents from Hwy. 244 as I drove past the entrance to Mt. Rushmore. But I would see them again – several times – after I turned south on 16A, that portion of which is known as Iron Mountain Road, part of the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway.

Norbeck was a South Dakota governor, U.S. senator, and conservationist whose name I’d seen repeatedly. Among the projects he championed for his native state of South Dakota were Mt. Rushmore and Iron Mountain Road, which features several more of those one-lane tunnels – these designed to perfectly frame views of Mt. Rushmore.
Iron Mountain Road squiggles through rugged terrain and also includes “pigtail bridges,” which are kind of like three-dimensional figure 8s or corkscrews. The road doubles back on itself so that even if you’re going in just one direction, you’ll be able to see Mt. Rushmore framed in those one-lane tunnels both from ahead and in your rear-view mirror.

At the top of Iron Mountain Road is a scenic pull-off where you can see Mt. Rushmore like this.

It was disjarring to go from that kind of landscape to my motel in Rapid City on I-90. But I had  a dinner reservation at The Corn Exchange, which I'd read somewhere was the best restaurant in South Dakota. This Western-casual-meets-fine-dining storefront in downtown Rapid City did not disappoint.

My appetizer was this corn and scallion buttermilk pancake topped with house-smoked Black Hills trout, a cucumber-horseradish raita made with Cowgirl Creamery creme fraiche, and these spectacular eggs.

For my entree, I went with a house specialty, the Corn Exchange steak, made that night with bison from local source 777 Buffalo Ranch.

After such a great meal, I couldn't resist dessert, this lovely chocolate pot de creme with raspberries. A satisfying conclusion to a very memorable day.

xoxo to all, and especially to my dad,

Sunday, June 12, 2011

South Dakota Trip, Part 2: Frybread and Serendipity

I was semi-organized enough before my vacation to have made lodging arrangements and two dinner reservations for the week. But I certainly didn’t have my days scheduled to the hour like some of the folks about the Blackhills and Badlands on Tripadvisor, whose tips I’m nonetheless grateful for. Once I got to Custer State Park, I packed a sandwich, started meandering my way around, got friendly with my maps, and kind of let my vacation unfold before me.

Needles Highway was recommended as a highlight, and it turned out my cabin at Sylvan Lake was already on it. I continued past the lake to encounter sights like these my first morning.

Needles Highway (as well as Iron Mountain Road, which I traveled later) is also known for its one-lane tunnels. Apparently even a trained tour bus driver can make his/her way through these passages, but they are quite something to come upon for the first time.

Continuing farther south toward the Wildlife Loop, I spotted these bighorn sheep. (OK, actually I spotted the cars pulled off on the side of the road – a good sign in a place like this that there’s something worth stopping to see.) When I was a wee sprout, bighorn sheep were a common sight in Rocky Mountain National Park, where I spent many happy days thanks to my grandparents’ cabin. But illness all but decimated the bighorn population in RMNP, and this was the first time in decades I’d seen them. A harbinger of a good day, in my book.

Just before I hit the turnoff to the Wildlife Loop, I saw more cars on the side of the road. Ah, yes, tatanka, or buffalo. I happily bided my time while these magnificent creatures ambled across the road, managing to snap a few pics from the safety of my car and with the aid of my camera’s zoom, when I remembered to use it.

Shortly thereafter, I had to brake for antelope, whose horns are far more distinctive than their butts, to my untrained eye. But this is the only photo I managed to snap after this guy galloped down the road behind my car.

In the biggest traffic jam of all were these animals, who I’ve learned, thanks to the folks at the Blackhills, Badlands, and Lakes Association, are “typically called burros (Spanish) here in the Hills, yet they are donkeys. They were previously used as pack animals approximately 100 years ago for tourists visiting Mt. Harney. Then turned loose in the '30s and there they have been ever since.” They were short and very tame, poking their heads into car windows.

In addition to scenic drives and all this wildlife, Custer State Park includes several lodges with adjacent cabins, numerous lakes, and boating opportunities of all sorts. This is Legion Lake, where I stopped to admire water fowl and their downy offspring. I wish I'd stopped and explored more that day. Sigh, but all the more reason to return :)

I’d packed a sandwich for lunch, but just as I was getting hungry, I came upon State Game Lodge. My sister, who vacationed in South Dakota last summer with her husband’s family and passed along numerous wonderful tips, had mentioned a memorable buffalo stew she’d eaten here.

Comments I'd read online suggested State Game Lodge offered the best food of any of the lodges in the park, although I'm not sure you'd go wrong with any of them. My timing seemed a sign I should forgo my sandwich and treat myself to lunch here. Although there’s also a lunch buffet served here (and at many of the lodges, I think), I zeroed in on two items from the appetizers section of the menu: One was a cup of this hearty and delicious buffalo stew my sister had talked about.

The other was Smoked Chicken Frybread with applewood smoked bacon, sautéed chicken, tomatoes, wild forest mushrooms, topped with fried leeks – a fantastic combination that tugged at all my culinary heartstrings. Especially the frybread, a Native American staple I’d never before had the opportunity to taste. I can’t say that this was made by a Native mom, but I did enjoy it and the forest of ingredients that accompanied it. The frybread is the crispy thing in the lower lefthand corner that looks kind of like a pie.

In case you're in need of a jolt of whimsy during this long post, here's a clip about frybread from one of my favorite movies of all time: Smoke Signals.

So, I promised you a walk around Sylvan Lake, and I'll try to keep this short as I sign off. My sister clued me in that she'd done this walk and that after you think the trail ends, you can actually go further and get "behind" the rocks.

I started off on the far side of the lake from my cabin and the camp store, over in the day-trip parking lot and went as far as I could get.

My walk on that side of the lake did not result in what I assumed she was referring to. But I saw folks hiking on the side near to the camp store, so shifted gears and walked that trail.

I came upon this bridge that appeared to dead-end straight into rock:

I wondered if the lake was just too high to traverse the water along the craggy rocks that led to the bridge.

Then I found a sliver of a trail that led to this:

These steps take you down at the other end of that slot passage:

And here's that "bridge to nowhere" from behind.

Edited to add: Additional wildlife and Sylvan Lake photos now up on my blog facebook page (which I think should be visible to anyone):

More South Dakota tales as well as local food posts coming up. But for now this is it, kids.