Cheesesteaks & Dinosaurs

One of the things I love most about living on the East Coast is the proximity to big cities. From our cozy home in the suburbs of northern Maryland we are 30 minutes from Baltimore and 90 minutes from Washington, DC to the south, and 60 minutes to Philadelphia and another 2.5 hours to New York in the north. This is ideal, decadent, and positively laden with food and cultural options.

That said, last Saturday we hopped in the car in the late afternoon and headed north to cash in on a Christmas present: Tickets to the Jurassic World exhibit at the Franklin Institute in Philly. One of my favorite museum perks is discounted tickets for a certain time of day. In this case, adult evening admission for the exhibit was $19.95 for entry after 5 p.m. and through 9 p.m. That said, you can’t access the rest of the FI’s permanent exhibits if you enter after hours. You may also run into hordes of Scouts lined up to camp-out, and families lining up for the IMAX theatre which closes at 7 p.m. So, choose your own adventure. Dinosaurs are on through April 23, so don’t miss it!


Say what you want about Philadelphia sports fans but be advised that some of the best food on this coast is in the city. One of our favorite all-time pitstops when in Philly is the Reading Terminal Market. It has grown over the years, and we’ve grown smarter in scheduling our shopping there, too. Never show up without a re-usable bag, and avoid Saturday like the plague.

Although we were mired in the Saturday crowd this time, we were ready to rock with a cooler, and bags. What the hell are we buying, you ask? Oh, everything. RTM has chocolate, coffee, seafood, burgers, produce, baked goods .. you get the point. Here are some of our personal favorites in the market:

  • Miller’s Twist – Hand-rolled pretzels. A must have sweet or savory snack while shopping.
  • Mueller Chocolates – Purchase your chocolates by the pound, and look for oddballs like the chocolate covered onion that was featured on Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.
  • Martin’s – Our favorite sausage stop, although the butcher has many other options. From turkey chorizo to chicken feta spinach sausage, always look to see what’s on the board for the 3 lbs for $9 special. Go all out, and freeze it at home to enjoy later.
  • OK Produce – Absurdly cheap vegetables. Think 3 avocados (ready to use asap) for $1, three medium red peppers for $1, bundles of potatoes for the same. Your bags will be heavy if you stop here, make it your last stop.
  • Beiler’s – With two locations in the market: Beiler’s Bakery, Beiler’s Donuts & Salads. We aim for the Salads (surprising, I know) for the giant vats of pickles (less surprising now, right?)
  • Hatville Deli – New for us on this trip, and yielded thick cut pepper encrusted bacon that barely lasted a day at home.
  • The Head Nut – Tucked in the back corner of the market (by the restrooms) you will find a little haven of bulk nuts, seeds, flours, spices, and every other thing. Prices are right and the staff does a nice job of navigating the very tiny shop to serve their customers.

After intense shopping and running from dinosaurs we made our way to Sonny’s Cheesesteaks in Old City. This is the fourth stop on our recent Tour de Cheesesteaks, and the results were mixed. Sonny’s ranked highly in several food critic romps through the city, so our hopes were high. Sadly the steak was lukewarm (literally and figuratively) and the whiz was without. Sonny’s lands the third spot on our list while Pat’s remains strong at #1 with Geno’s at #2, and Campo’s dead last at #4.

All that, and home before midnight. Thank you, Philadelphia! #seeyousoon


Beautiful Belvedere Square

This past Saturday I wandered over to Belvedere Square. I’d received a mailer around Small Business Saturday in November and am just now getting around to exploring.

Can I just say that I’ve been missing out?

Belvedere Square is a sweet little conglomerate of stores, shops, restaurants and great people. When I first checked out their website it’s no surprise I was gunning for the food. What I didn’t expect was the wide variety of businesses peppered throughout the block. You’ve got a salon, a diner, a bagel joint, a bank (two?), a pizza parlor, a pub, a gym .. what is this, New Jersey?

Know the best part? With the exception of the Sprint store, every single storefront is independent (as far as I know). And the second best part? There’s parking! #smalljoys

The real draw for me was the indoor market, which I can only imagine must be stunning in good weather with it’s cute cafe tables and booming business. I knew the key players from the website, and had chatted with @AtwatersBakery who informed me that croissants were happening for the first time this weekend. Check! Atwater’s also sports a deli counter where you can get your lunch fix, and do some quality people watching.

Atwater’s is in good company with Planet Produce / Earth’s Essence – purveyor of fresh fruit & veg and fresh juices and smoothies. I almost passed out when I saw a Zumex machine tucked into the corner of the produce section .. these things are The Answer to real orange juice in Spain, and I’d never seen one in the U.S. This alone will encourage me to go back again and again and again.

I also dipped into Grand Cru for a bottle of red wine, stopped at Neopol Savory Smokery for a pound of andouille sausage and some Italian pasta from Ceriello Fine Foods. Let’s not forget the muffaletta sandwich for lunch, the apple/carrot/ginger juice and a $9 matinee at the nearby Senator Theatre which dates back to 1939.

So much more to sample when I return. Shoofly Diner – just named one of the “Best New Bars in the South” by Southern Living. Yeah, I don’t believe this is the South either .. Mason Dixon line be damned. There’s also Sofi’s Crepes which recently catered an event for our office (duh, crepes are international). Greg’s Bagels was high on my list but I had zero cash at the time and the line was a mile long. Ryan’s Daughter is where I parked my car (4 hour limit for B Square shoppers) but I do have plans to return for a pint. All that said, I am quite ok with this to-do list!

Good day? Great day. Thanks, Belvedere Square .. see you soon.

The Day of the Deli

One thing that I was sorely missing while living in central Illinois was a deli. A market, a sub shop, a luncheonette. Not a grocery store, we had three of those if you count Walmart. I mean a corner market, where you can access lottery tickets, a newspaper and most importantly: the food.

The upscale deli is a thing of hipster kingdoms and haute neighborhoods. Exposed brick and wooden beams do not a deli make. Ditto, exorbitant pricing of a fancy sandwich with sprouts or a spread you can’t pronounce. A true deli is an experience. It may or may not have a line out the door (it should) and possibly a “take a number” wheel. It should also be a place to go when you’re not trying to go somewhere. It becomes part of your routine, not a one-time destination.

I’m not entirely sure if this phenomenon extends past the East coast where I grew up. Just up the street from my parent’s home is Heights Market. A local institution where we used to get iced cinnamon rolls before school, my dad still gets the paper there on Sunday mornings. It’s small, nothing fancy, a maximum of four aisles. The odds we’ll see someone we know are 8 out of 10.

They get fresh rolls from a local bakery, and keep them on the counter top in tall plastic cases, with the plastic tongs to go surfing for the one that looks just right. A massive selection of brightly labeled chips (Utz, obviously) mirror A-treat 2 liters and other sugary sweet beverages that I call SODA, not pop. The baking spices are twice the price. The meat case is full of local beef from Koehler’s farm**. And then, there’s the deli counter.

Stein's Deli NOLA

Cheers to gkahns for this great photo of Stein’s Deli in New Orleans, which I know and love.*

Enclosed in glass and under lights, is a large variety of comfort food. Some people call them cold-cuts, others call it lunch-meat, whatever it is if it’s a real deli the selection should be vast. Ham and turkey and roast beef by the pound. Several kinds of cheese with salt content so high it could seize your heart. Tuna salad, egg salad, chicken salad, what-is-there-besides-mayo salad. Bright pink signs a shade more neon than the pickled beets shout out the prepared foods that you simply must have for dinner: stuffed peppers, baked macaroni and cheese, swedish meatballs.

The wall behind the counter boasts the same hard plastic Boarshead sign that’s been there since the dawn of time. A list of daily specials in strident fonts calls for your attention (Meatball Sub Monday!) and a long mirror lines the counter, where you can ask your reflection if you really do need that quarter pound of potato salad (you deserve it).

Thin-sliced, thick sliced, that’s just fine-sliced – the butcher and his crew will assemble your plastic-wrapped packages however you like. While you wait, you stare down the hanging columns homemade jerky (you could smell it on the drive in) and consider the heavy barrel full of gigantic deli pickles and the rickety wire stand of Hostess products and fruit pies. Then of course you need a sandwich. A hoagie, a sub, a sandwich, a gyro.

If you’ve had a deli sandwich, you’ll likely frown upon any other type of assembled meat and cheese situation. This is the equivalent of going to Taco Bell for a burrito and expecting Chipotle. You’re doing it wrong. A deli sandwich is required to be at least twice the diameter of your mouth, insofar as you will take one bite and the entire thing will fall out the back, which you’ll miss because your eyes are closed for the first bite, like a first kiss.

I hope you have a napkin in that brown paper bag.

* read more about Stein’s Deli and my NOLA food binge.

** Mom corrected me. No meat from Koehler’s at Heights! But Bethlehem Brewworks carries it in burger form 🙂

Mad about Markets

There is nothing more thrilling than a bargain.

Nothing more colorful than endless rows of rainbow-hued spices.

Nothing more satisfying than the taste of something so fresh you know it was harvested that morning.

And the smell? Oh … the smell. Something cooking, baking, frying, positively leaping from the pan to your nose.

You could say I like markets, but that would be an understatement.

Tangier Morocco

My first market: Tangier, Morocco, 2004

There are a few things I look for immediately upon arrival in a new city: café, bookstore, market. To me, a market is one of the few places you can connect instantly and intimately with locals. Some natives may scoff that many markets have become touristy and the shopkeepers (and their prices) too keen on visitors. Can you blame them? It is a business, after all. Conversely, tourists may think markets are the place for photo ops, samples, and bargains. And can you blame them? Open any travel magazine and see how markets are advertised: glossy pics of ripe fruit, smiling patrons, laughing shopkeepers. So, open your eyes, adjust your expectations and keep a few things in mind:

1) Don’t assume a photograph is acceptable; ask. This is also an easy conversation starter.
2) Don’t expect a bargain. Look for local cues – are other people haggling for prices? You may unintentionally insult a shopkeeper if you go in swinging your wallet and hoping for a bargain when the prices are fixed.
3) Don’t forget to say thank you. Those samples you’re stuffing into your mouth are also sold separately. Like what you tasted? Support that vendor, buy some product, and hear their story.
4, 5 & 6) Bring a bag. Watch your wallet. Go with a local if possible.

Some of the markets I’ve known and loved range from grimy to glorious, and tiny to tremendous. In most cases, I allow for a few hours in a given market, particularly around a meal. Check opening hours either online, at your reception desk / concierge or ask a local. There may be full market days (midweek, weekend) and other days that showcase certain vendors or events. A little bit of research goes a long way. Bear in mind the holiday season also creates additional market opportunities, often in public squares or plazas. But that’s for another post 🙂

Here are some of my personal favorites:
* Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey. “One of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops,” so says Wikipedia. It’s lesser known cousin is the nearby Egyptian Bazaar or Spice Market. See this post in the Delicious Istanbul blog for local tips on do’s and don’ts. I bargained my face off for a pashmina in the Grand Bazaar, and a local friend helped me secure an evil eye pendant for a good price.

* Borough Market, London, England. This one is fresh in my mind, as I’m just off a trip to England & Wales. I had some great conversation with shopkeepers, bread makers, farmers and just some really excellent people. This is a great combination of fresh produce and prepared foods, which explains the outrageous raclette I feasted on in the afternoon. I also managed to fill up a bag with some great snacks for the following day… after sampling the entire market and returning to my favorites.

* La Boqueria, Barcelona, Spain. The Spanish know markets. From wandering gypsies to high priced Mercado San Miguel in Madrid, I have always found the same high energy, and love of food. This was one of my first Spanish markets, and I walked in wide-eyed and hungry for more than just photos. You can’t miss the gates off of the central avenue of Las Ramblas. I snapped a few photos here on my first visit, including the great escape of a local lobster (below).

* Central Market, Cardiff, Wales. I am particularly drawn to markets housed in their original (if modified) buildings. Central Market has been doing business in one of the Victorian arcades that snake between two main streets (St. Mary’s and Trinity) since 1891. Most fabulous are the Welsh teacakes, and the gigantic upstairs record store that bears my name.

* Great Market Hall or Central Market, Budapest, Hungary. My mouth waters when I think about this colorful place, and the langos I had for lunch. As bright as it’s famous paprika spice – this two story covered market is a noisy, delicious space. There is a fair mix of tourists and locals, and plenty of food and souvenirs like the hand-stitched linens, and endless rows of hot peppers.

* St. Nicholas Market, Galway, Ireland. After being intensely charmed by the Irish, I was so pleased to wander into Galway after a long stroll along the sea to find this busy market fighting the rain and the cold. Hearty souls selling everything from wool socks to fresh fish were endlessly kind. My personal favorite is the donut maker, who put a freshly fried fasnacht in my hand for a mere 60 cents, after agreeing to my photography (and confirming I was not with the tax folk).

A weekend in Galway

Atlantic Ocean Galway Ireland

Greetings, Galway

The sea is good for the soul.

Taking an hour or more to walk into the city of Galway from the neighborhood of Salthill was like balm for my nerves. After a long week of meetings and a big presentation, I grabbed my Nikon and hit the beach. Forget the fact I was bundled up from head to toe with leggings under my jeans and a wool hat on my head. I was rewarded with a clear sky (rare in Ireland, as I learned) and took endless shots of sea, shore and pedestrians. With winter boots I trudged along through piles of seaweed and picked some seashells – one of nature’s sweetest souvenirs.

Walking into town over the raging River Corrib, I kept my map deep in my pocket and began to wander. Is there anything quite so nice as getting lost in a new place? Cobblestone streets, bright Christmas lights, hand painted Guinness Santa Claus advertisements and chalkboards shouting the day’s specials. I was hungry, happy and charmed all at once.

Guinnes Santa Gaelic Galway

Ho, Ho, Have a Guinness

The St. Nicholas Market was in full swing by the time I spotted the church and a stream of people. Turning off the main shopping street, I ducked under a series of woolen mittens, socks and slippers and made small talk with the artist. From booth to table to stall to shack, a wide array of everything from vegetables to soap was on sale. My nose pointed me into the cheesemonger’s shop and who doesn’t like free samples?

I remember my host suggested falafel, and although I was extremely pleased with the cheap lunch (3 euro), I was head over heels for the donut man. An older gentleman who looked decidedly like the railway character in Polar Express, acknowledged my request for photos with an arched eyebrow. He leaned in and asked, “You’re not with the government now, are ye?” I said no and he laughed long and loud, and invited me to snap away.

St Nicholas Market Galway donutsmaking donutsmaking donuts  homemade donut



For the record: best damn donut I’ve ever had.

I indulged my penchant for jewelry and met a young artist with an interesting story. The lovely Juliette of fretmajic fashions her Celtic wooden jewelry with leftover pieces from a musical instrument shop where she works part time. I was more than happy to pick up a pair of rose oak love knots for my mom, and circled back later to splurge on intricate bogwood earrings for myself.

The free museum, a wide open (and empty) tourist center where I booked my trip to the Cliffs of Moher, a bustling chocolate shop and another Christmas market in Eyre Square balanced my day. Shooting twinkling white lights and dedicated shoppers in the dark, I made my way into a pie shop for dinner, and decided to take the long way home back along the beach. Even this city girl needs some time with the ocean every now and then.

Galway Christmas Ireland