My Twitter handle is “offdutyfoodie.” Originally, I’d intended my Twitter feed to be recreational, a way to share my personal dining exploits, but that social media platform has become a very “on-duty” vehicle; a tool for sharing links to my articles. The friends and family who originally followed me are now outnumbered by fervent food enthusiasts, and none of them get to see the incredible cuisine I have the good fortune of encountering as a food journalist at large — until now. The following is a list of five cities I regularly jaunt off to for food-driven adventures west of the Mississippi.
Las Vegas, Nevada
While most are drawn to Sin City by the potential for instantaneous wealth, luxurious clubs and lounges, larger-than-life mega-hotels, and the ability to lose all inhibition, it’s the entrenchment of so many of the world’s greatest chefs and restaurateurs that inspires me to drive five hours to the middle of nowhere several times a year. The best time to head out is in the spring during Vegas Uncork’d, when gastronomic giants like Joël Robuchon, Thomas Keller, Nobu Matsuhisa, Gordon Ramsay, Guy Savoy, Daniel Boulud, Mario Batali, and more converge to wow crowds at a number of properties including Caesar’s Palace, Bellagio, and MGM Grand. It’s the culinary event of the year encompassing dozens of chef’s dinners, gourmet feasts, culinary demonstrations, and the climactic grand tasting at the Caesars’ Garden of the Gods Pool Oasis. Even if you can’t make it out for what is considered by most to be the country’s biggest weekend food festival, most of these world-class toques’ culinary style is brilliantly represented on a daily basis at their deluxe desert outposts. Why gamble at the tables when these tables are a sure thing?
Paso Robles, California
I used to be all about Napa and Sonoma, power Cabs and buttery Chardonnays — then I had my first trip to this Central Coast oenophile’s must-visit where a dense concentration of smaller-scale, boutique wineries serves up Rhone varietals with less of the pomp posh of NorCal’s vino hotspots and a lot more heart. But it’s not all about the juice. No trip to Paso is complete without a trip to Artisan, a husband-wife operation considered the region’s premier eatery. Central California’s edible bounty — abalone, honey, rabbit, cheeses, and produce grown on the owners’ own patch of farmland — are sumptuously showcased along with chef-proprietor Chris Kobayashi’s favorite local wines. A similarly bright spotlight is shone on local fruit, veg, proteins, and olive oils at Thomas Hill Organics, a favorite casual lunch spot with simple, ultra-fresh fare that pairs well with slightly chilled Paso whites and rosés. Italian eatery Il Cortile is a local gem, as is its newer, tapas-driven, Spanish spot, La Cosecha. Villa Creek’s good for bumping into winemakers off-the-clock, while the world-renowned Firestone Walker Brewing Company is a must-visit for beer fans.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Even before I met and cooked with renowned NOLA chef and restaurateur, Emeril Lagasse, his enthusiasm for the Crescent City and its zesty, incredibly unique cuisine inspired me to make several trips to “Looziana” where I strategically ate my way through the French Quarter and its surrounding areas. I’ve returned many times — it’s simply impossible to have a bad food day in N’awlins. Each day must begin with café au lait and beignets, so a stop at the iconic, 152-year-old Café du Monde is a must (though I’d contend that the fried dough diamonds at Café Beignet are slightly better — but it just ain’t the same). For lunch, po’ boys hit the spot and another long-famed locale, Mother’s Restaurant, makes ’em just right. Try the Ferdi “dressed,” a ham and beef sammy given a healthy, bread-soaking ladle of “debris” (the drippings-laced jus from the roasted meat). Or hit up Cochon, the easygoing yet incredible environs of local boy chef Donald Link. Get the chicken-fried alligator then head over to Napoleon House for a Sazerac cocktail. It’s hard to choose between Commander’s Palace, Herbsaint, Gautreau’s or, of course, Emeril’s (still a standard-bearer), so stay long enough to take in multiple legendary eateries. In town for brunch? Make time for a classic experience at the flamingo pink Brennan’s. And get some pralines for the plane ride home at Southern Candymakers.
The extreme characters portrayed on the TV show Portlandia made me wonder if the folks in the PDX were really as outlandishly different as the cult hit would have me believe. It turns out they are. But despite marching to their own beat, Portlandians tend to be OK with outsiders, whether or not they can get in step with their offbeat rhythm. That said, an appreciation for good food and drink is a must. Farm-to-tableism, artisanal edible craftsmanship, craft beer, and local wine are essential. So, it’s best to start out with a Saturday morning jaunt to the Farmers Market at the Portland State University campus. Peruse mountains of foraged mushrooms and gaze upon the world’s most vibrantly crimson strawberries while chowing down on a Reggie Deluxe from Pine State Biscuit topped with an egg, fried chicken, bacon, and cheese then smothered in piping hot sausage gravy. Or head to Screen Door for Southern-style brunch including biscuits and gravy or mind-blowingly good Bananas Foster French toast, fried oyster Eggs Benedict, and the largest serving of chicken and waffles on the planet. Work off that hearty breakfast with brewery touring. I recommend sours at Cascade Brewing Company, Belgian-style ales at Upright Brewing, barrel-aged beers at The Commons, and hoppy brews at Breakside Brewing Company. For dinner, head to Pok Pok for food from American chef Andy Ricker, who spent years traveling Korea to learn how to do that country’s cuisine justice back home.
San Francisco, California
It’s the most obvious food destination on this list. So much so, that I’d barely know where to begin in recommending the best of one of the most densely populated food wonderlands in the country. But I’ll give it a whirl. When it comes to drinks, there are some seriously incredible craft cocktails served up with equally stunning but not hoity-toity cuisine at Comstock Saloon. Other great watering holes include the multi-faceted speakeasy-style Bourbon and Branch and Alembic. Prefer beer? (I tend to), try out the Mikkeller Bar built by Danish experimental brewer Mikkel Borg Bjersø. Most would call out the legendary Toronado for ales and lagers, but the service is so-so. That’s definitely not the case at nearby Magnolia Gastropub and Brewery, where they also serve a bevy of thoughtful dishes like house-made sausages, Scotch quail eggs, and Monterey Bay sardines. Looking for more fresh-from-the-ocean? Local legend Swan Oyster Depot is a winner. Prefer pork? Get charcuterie in many meaty forms at chef Chris Cosentino’s Boccalone Salumeria at the Ferry Building Marketplace, which contains a wide array of edible treasures. For dinner, offal good, carnivore fare is the name of the game at Cosentino’s Incanto. Of course you can always simultaneously eat, drink, and get in a good game of bowling at Mission Bowling Club, where burger-making is an art form and the place is as fun as it is food-driven. Oh, and don’t forget Chinatown — and Heaven’s Dog — and Monk’s Kettle. OK, I’d better stop now. Brandon Hernández