Foodie Travels: Ray’s Drive Inn, San Antonio, Texas

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We wish you good luck if you visit Ray’s Drive Inn, an iconic restaurant in San Antonio, Texas.

You’ll need luck to find a parking space in Ray’s lot, which seems to stay quite full, especially at peak dinner times. (They do appear to have a gravel parking lot across the street.) But that’s your first good clue that you’re in for an awesome dining experience at the spot that calls itself the home of the original puffy taco.

And speaking of that taco, good luck resisting the opportunity to order as many as you can, filled with nearly as many toppings as you can imagine. If you’re as lucky as we were, you’ll experience amazing service at Ray’s with a server who’s willing to describe the contents of each taco option.

Ray’s was our first stop on a two-day summer excursion through San Antonio, and we’ll be honest with you that it was quite difficult to not return for every other meal we ate in the city!

It was the aforementioned “puffy taco” that attracted us to Ray’s. I had heard about puffy tacos on one of the many Food Network shows I regularly binge on, and it appeared Ray’s was the place to get them.

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If you’ve never had one, the puffy taco is almost like a premium Taco Bell chalupa, but it’s far fresher and, well, better. The outer shell is fried crispy yet maintains a lightness that yields to the delicious filling it carries.

On our visit we sampled puffy tacos with zesty chicken fajitas, seasoned ground beef, savory pork, crispy fried fish and carne guisada. Each one offered the same familiar pop of fresh flavor of toppings like lettuce and tomato, and a crispy, puffy shell. But each one’s unique meat performed its own flavor concert with the other ingredients.

We ate a basket of chips that also came to the table—and the menu features a variety of other Mexican and American favorites—but otherwise this #FoodieScore stop was all about the tacos—wondrous homemade-style tacos.

If you can’t resist a tasty taco like us, don’t miss Ray’s. We suggest you take cash and expect a hearty crowd of other taco lovers. San Antonio’s quite lucky to have this taco treasure.

Ray’s Drive Inn, 822 SW 19th Street, San Antonio, Texas

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Foodie Travels: Chico’s Tacos, El Paso, Texas

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The United States-Mexico border is just a couple of miles down the road. You see hills jammed full of colorful houses in Mexico’s neighboring Ciudad Juarez on your drive to dinner. After arriving in the small, packed parking lot off Alameda Avenue in El Paso, Texas, you walk into an equally packed, nondescript building and walk to the counter, where orders are being taken—in Spanish. This is Chico’s Tacos.

The far-western Texas town of El Paso is America’s 20th largest city with more than a half million people. Ask any of the locals (and anyone who’s made their home in El Paso in the past) where you should eat; Chico’s Tacos, open since 1953, is always the answer.

We first heard about Chico’s Tacos from celebrity chef Aaron Sanchez on one of our favorite food shows, “Best Thing I Ever Ate.” Sanchez hooked us from the beginning of the episode by saying, “It’s always a good time to eat a taco. There’s never a bad time to eat a taco.” Amen, Aaron! Molly and I have a mantra about such food: #MexicanEveryDay. Sanchez goes on to share the delightfully simple pleasure of eating Chico’s Tacos, and those words—delightfully simple—are exactly how my wife, Molly, described the experience after our first-ever visit.

As Sanchez explains, the Chico’s Tacos are not the prettiest, most photogenic tacos you’ve ever seen. In fact, by today’s standards, they don’t look much like tacos at all. To the processed-food society we live in, they look more like what we’d call taquitos. But they are light, crispy and covered in a very thin tomato-chile sauce that fills a little cardboard food boat. Then all of that is covered in basic, finely shredded American cheese. It is indeed simple, yet so satisfying and authentically El Paso. And two people can dine (we had a double order of tacos, a bean burrito and two drinks) for about $10. For the non-taco-inclined, it appeared many of the locals were also fond of the Chico’s cheeseburger.

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I took Spanish classes for five years in high school and college, so I’m proud to say I knew what was said at the order counter and when our number was called. I was even able to answer a question from an employee about whether we wanted packets of “dulce,” or sweetener.

It was obvious we were one of few visitors in Chico’s at the time, as most folks appeared to be dining as part of a regular routine. In a time when so much emphasis is put on the struggles between different people in our country, it was nice to experience being visitors in this great place. El Paso is a city with many bilingual English and Spanish speakers, and some patrons even live or do business across the border in Mexico. Walking into Chico’s was a chance for us to experience life in the everyday world of another culture, still within the borders of our own country, though close to another.

Chico’s Tacos is essential El Paso dining. You’ll find fancier, pricier, more Instagram-ready food. You won’t, however, get a more realistic, local food experience.

Chico’s Tacos, 4230 Alameda Ave., El Paso, Texas (Other locations in town as well)

Foodie Travels: Mas Tacos Por Favor, Nashville, Tenn.

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Just a few miles from Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, there’s a cozy little Mexican food spot that really puts on a show for your tastebuds.

Mas Tacos Por Favor (translation: more tacos, please) started out as a food truck-style eatery in a 1974 Winnebago and has since moved into a more permanent location in East Nashville.

This place is all about flavor, as a taco shop should be. On the menu you’ll find favorites like the Cast Iron Chicken Taco and the Sweet Potato Quinoa Taco with roasted tomatillo salsa and red cabbage, both with sour cream, cilantro and fresh lime. Options also include tamales, soups, and vegetarian and gluten-free options. Tacos and other menu items rotate based on fresh ingredients available.

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Expect a line, and minimal parking space in the lot and surrounding neighborhood, especially if you arrive at a peak lunch or dinner time. But that’s just a good indicator of the loyal customer base and the taco experience you’re about to enjoy. We had a brief wait, but when our order was ready, it was exciting to hear “Tacos for Matthew” called on the restaurant’s speakers. And despite a solid crowd, our order was ready pretty fast.

Fresh is an apt word to describe the flavors of each taco we enjoyed, which included savory chicken, pork and fish, as well as the sweet potato quinoa variety. We also appreciated the menu balance of favorites you’d expect in a taco restaurant and creative options you won’t find just anywhere.

There are few foodie experiences we enjoy more than a solid visit to a delicious taco shop, and Mas Tacos is certainly on our list of favorite Mexican food destinations.

 

Mas Tacos Por Favor

732 McFerrin Ave., Nashville, Tenn.

Yucatecan Shrimp Tacos

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One of my favorite things on TV when it comes to food is Rick Bayless’ fabulous PBS show “Mexico – One Plate at a Time.” Not only does Bayless have a bottomless energy and enthusiasm for traditional, authentic Mexican food, he also provides fascinating historical and educational commentary about Mexico’s culture and traditions, while creating mouthwatering dishes that cause me to enviously stare at the screen. He is so fantastic at describing the tastes and smells of his cooking that you can almost taste and smell it yourself. Enough said, the guy’s a genius.

A few years ago, my family bought me one of his cookbooks – “Fiesta at Rick’s” – and I tried a few of the recipes, but found many of them a little too difficult for my busy lifestyle and limited access to authentic Mexican ingredients. This past Christmas, I received “Mexican Everyday”, which, to compare the two, is a fiesta without the fuss. Matthew and I couldn’t wait to try our first recipe from it, “Seafood Salad Tacos with Tomato, Radish and Habanero.” We made a few changes: we didn’t have habanero in our grocery store, so we substituted half of a jalapeno; we changed a few of the amounts to suit our tastes; and whereas the recipe allows for preparing it with any type of fish, we decided to focus on shrimp, since we love shrimp tacos. As an added coincidental plus, I had just been watching Bayless on TV talk about Yucatecan cuisine, and the introduction to this recipe is all about the market in downtown Yucatan! Cool stuff. I can’t wait to try more recipes from this awesome book, and share our takes on them (a bit simplified for us and for you) here on FoodieScore.

Ingredients

1 pound of small shrimp (about 40) (We always buy the small bag of frozen raw shrimp at Walmart; inexpensive and easy to cook, because they are already de-veined and peeled.)

1 tbsp. butter

2 tbsp. fresh lime juice

1/2 cup chopped onion

3 radishes

1 jalapeno chile

1 large tomato

1/4 cup cilantro

1 tsp. salt

12 corn tortillas (Walmart has a variety of brands that smell incredibly fresh and homemade.)

Directions

  1. Put the shrimp in a non-stick pan and add the butter. Saute until pink. Remove and place in a small bowl to cool.
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  2. Prepare the salad ingredients/vinagreta:img_1388
    • Pour the 2 tbsp. of lime juice into a medium-sized bowl. (You can use a bottle of lime juice, or squeeze a little fresh.)
    • Finely chop the onion.
    • Thinly slice the radishes.
    • Cut off the stem and finely chop about 1/2 of the jalapeno pepper.
    • Core and chop the tomato.
    • Finely chop the cilantro.
    • Add all ingredients to the bowl, along with the cooked, cooled shrimp.img_1391
  3. Stir with a large wooden spoon and season with about 1 tsp. of salt.
  4. Warm the tortillas. (Bayless has a strategy for this, which we also saw in action on his TV show. Dampen a stack of about 6 paper towels. Wrap the tortillas inside. Place inside a large plastic Ziploc-type bag, but do not close. Fold the top over and microwave on defrost for 4 minutes. This will make your corn tortillas softer and fresher.)img_1393
  5. Assemble! After our first try, we suggest using two tortillas for each taco for added strength to the integrity of the taco.

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Matthew’s Take: In a world that moves too quickly and stressfully, food preparation and consumption have turned into rat race processes of the dining out or heat-and-eat variety. This dish bucks that unsettling trend. There’s nothing already-processed or drive-through like about these Yucatecan tacos. You freshly prepare your ingredients. You slow down to savor the extraordinary flavor that gives your tastebuds pause. And you save this recipe to make again. Rick Bayless is the modern master of authentic Mexican cooking in America. I’m lucky my wife discovered him so I can now enjoy his tried-and-true recipes, too.

Molly’s Take: These tacos were cool, refreshing and bursting with crisp, fresh flavor. I suggest if you don’t like spicy things at all, maybe leave out the jalapeno, because it definitely added a kick. All in all, a very simple, delicious recipe that I’d suggest for any summer or winter night.

Foodie Travels: Best We Ate in 2016

2016 has been a year of travel across the South for us. And from east Texas to coastal Georgia to the West Virginia mountains, we have enjoyed the ongoing gifts of incredible local food at every stop.

Many of our experiences have found their way here to #FoodieScore, but there have been too many great eats to have time to share them all. However, as the year comes to a close, we’d like to recap and award favorite designations to some of the best food we ate at restaurants in 2016.

Without further delay, here are the first-ever Year’s Best #FoodieScore winners, our short list of favorite experiences, somewhat categorized in the style of Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.”

BEST BURGER

Matthew – Lankford Grocery & Market, Houston, Texas – In a year full of delicious burgers on our foodie travels, this local dining institution gave me the second best burger experience I’ve ever had (after the now-closed Kim’s Kitchen in Stanley, N.C.). The fresh meat, soft yet hearty bun, creamy cheese and fresh veggie toppings on my traditional burger was the perfect bun-meat-condiment ratio. Even Sheldon Cooper would be proud. And the friendly southern-style atmosphere of this place, set right in a neighborhood near the downtown of the nation’s fourth-largest city, was memorable. Lankford edges out a long list in this category, which also includes Al’s Burger Shack (Chapel Hill, N.C.), Betty Bombers (Savannah, Ga.), Burger Bar (Bristol, Va.), Pawley’s Front Porch (Columbia, S.C.) and Secret Sandwich Society (Fayetteville, W.Va.).

Molly – Al’s Burger Shack, Chapel Hill, N.C. – Out of all the delicious burgers we tried this year, Al’s eclipsed them all in multiple respects. Al’s burgers come with a delightful, soft bun that is freshly cut almost all the way through. The bun is still held together on one side, which means the ingredients – the meat of the meal – don’t move around or fall out like with most burgers. I eat a lot of messy burgers, but this bun held it all together for me. That’s one reason Al’s burgers are my new favorite. The second big deal for me is, of course, taste. I got a Swiss and mushroom burger with a garlic aioli sauce. The garlic flavor along with a slew of mushrooms atop a very juicy, perfectly-cooked burger made this sandwich my best burger of the year. Honorable mentions include a mushroom Swiss burger from The Copper Penny (Forest City, N.C.) and the Hey Good Looking burger from Burger Bar (Bristol, Va.).

BEST BREAKFAST

Matthew – Red House Inn in Brevard, N.C. – A bed-and-breakfast often gives you pancakes, French toast, eggs and other mainstays on a B&B menu. This homey B&B in western North Carolina does all that, but they also offer a traditional English breakfast. You get an English muffin, multiple meats, a cooked tomato, beans and mushrooms, along with other breakfast favorites. Everything is hot, fresh, and thanks to the B&B setting, you don’t have to drive to get there. It was a nice walk from our cottage next door to the main house. This was a wonderful place to celebrate the joys of marriage on a Valentine’s Day weekend.

Molly – The Collin’s Quarter in Savannah, Ga. – You can’t go wrong with the perpetually busy, Australian-inspired, unique cafe that is The Collin’s Quarter. (Unless you don’t like Matcha lattes.) (Inside joke.) We decided on brunch and my Avocado Smash was one of the freshest, most hearty, delicious brunches I’ve ever had. Here’s a description from the website: “[Smashed avocado] served on artisan toast bread with feta, heirloom tomatoes, micro herbs, and shaved radishes topped with a poached egg and sesame seeds.” It doesn’t get much better than that, and I didn’t even know I liked radishes! I also had a Madagascar Vanilla Latte. This place even inspired us to try our own poached eggs and smashed avocado toast at home. That makes it a winner in my book.

BEST SWEET TREAT

Matthew – Cupcrazed in Fort Mill, S.C. – A simple follow of this spot on Instagram shows you just how much this place knows cupcakes. Success in Food Network competition proves it, too. Seriously, I can’t explain it any better than this: Follow Cupcrazed on Instagram. You’ll get a daily digital dose of cupcakes. They offer the basic favorites, but they get crazy, too. My s’mores cupcake was righteous. It was so good that we took a box of cupcakes to our family.

Molly – Sweet Paris in Houston, Texas – It was so difficult to choose a best sweet treat spot, because we went to so many! But perhaps the most out-of-the-box was Sweet Paris Creperie, suggested to us by a dear friend for whose wedding we were in town. Their website says, “Welcome to our beautiful world of crepes” and I couldn’t agree more. I decided on a s’mores crepe. It was soft and delightful, filled with marshmallow creme, and covered with a chocolate drizzle, powdered sugar, and flame-torched marshmallows. I don’t think I’ve ever had anything more delicately sweet in my life.

BEST DESSERT

Matthew – Profiteroles at Superior Seafood in New Orleans, La. – A hearty dessert for $2 while traveling 1,000 miles across the southern U.S.? Yes, please! Our meal was great at Superior Seafood, but the $2 desserts topped it off so well. In a city known for its food and for its beignets, I discovered the profiterole, a soft and light pastry with ice cream and various sweet toppings. Other restaurants came close on taste this year, but none offered the corresponding value of Superior’s $2 dessert.

Molly – Banana pudding at Ronda’s Kitchen, Kings Mountain, N.C. – I got local for this one, because the best darn dessert I’ve put in my mouth this year is Ronda’s banana pudding. Let me tell you why. It’s homemade weekly, cooked slow on the stovetop, and topped with fresh bananas just before it’s served. It’s so creamy and sweet, with just the right amount of vanilla wafers swirled inside, that you forget any other banana pudding exists. It’s spoiled me on banana pudding anywhere else. Nom!

BEST SOUL FOOD

Matthew – Sweet Potatoes in Winston-Salem, N.C. – Perhaps the place I was most excited to visit this year for its southern and local flair, Sweet Potatoes did not disappoint. We enjoyed brunch while on a one-night weekend excursion. My chicken and pancakes (a take on the famed chicken and waffles) were like a slice of grandma’s old kitchen. Crispy, flavorful, boneless fried chicken tenders, atop a light and rich sweet potato pancake. And the brunch macaroni and cheese was a creamy, light appetizer to start us off. We lucked out with a window seat, so we got to take in Winston-Salem’s outdoor arts district, while also getting a view of the entire restaurant, which filled up immediately after opening on a Sunday morning.

Molly – Time-Out Grill in Chapel Hill, N.C. – Clearly Chapel Hill was a win for us foodies, and Time-Out had it all. We made a late-night stop upon our arrival into town, with no idea the caliber of soul food we were about to encounter. We sampled a chicken and cheese biscuit, broccoli casserole (the warmest, heartiest broccoli casserole you can imagine), sweet tea, country ham, and even a slice of pecan pie. A great stop for any hungry passerby at any time of day or night, Time-Out is a 24/7 soul food capital for North Carolina.

BEST MEXICAN FOOD

Matthew – El Rey in Houston, Texas – We eat Mexican food often, and most restaurants offer a similar set of familiar favorites. Not El Rey. Maybe that’s what you’d expect of a restaurant just a few hours from the Mexico border. But it struck me how surprised people were when I told them how great the food experience is in Houston. Folks seemed further surprised to discover Houston is one of the nation’s largest cities. El Rey was not just Mexican. It was Mexican and Cuban and other ethnic food goodness. We had tacos with plantains. We had fish tacos. We had fajita tacos. This place was a mix of the tastes of Mexico, San Diego, Miami and more. And the restaurant space itself gave off a very boutique cantina vibe. Best Mexican experience all year.

Molly – El Rey in Houston, Texas – Nope, that’s not a typo. When we were discussing our favorite Mexican food of the year, both of us chose El Rey. Another great suggestion from our awesome friends in Houston, my favorite fish taco of all time can be found here. Just crispy enough, just flaky enough, on a warm flour tortilla, with all the right toppings. Fish tacos, for the win.

BEST ITALIAN FOOD

Matthew – Big Mike’s in Brevard, N.C. – This is the definition of a local Italian-American joint. Red-and-white plaid tablecloths. Delicious pizza dough. Sweet tea to drink. Sports memorabilia all over the walls. Big Mike’s had great pizza, great garlic knots and a homey feel. It’s the kind of place that can turn lunch into lunch AND dinner. And that’s a good thing.

Molly – Dino’s in Bessemer City, N.C. – My mom and dad recommended Dino’s after they visited a few times and enjoyed the plethora of options this local Italian place has to offer. My stromboli was on point, Matthew’s pizza was on fleek, and the appetizer plate my mom shared with us gave us a taste of fried zucchini, fried mozzarella and more.

BEST BARBECUE

Matthew – Tie between Peace-N-Hominy Q Shack in Belmont, N.C., and Lexington Barbecue in Lexington, N.C. – Peace-N-Hominy is a chic modern Q Shack. Creative menu. Tasty meat. Decorated space. Lexington Barbecue is the legendary classic. All the favorites. Delicious meat. Non-fussy decor. Two different sides of the barbecue experience completely, both thrilled me in different ways with their range on the barbecue restaurant scale. And they offered something different than our three barbecue restaurants here where we live in Cleveland County, N.C.

BEST SEAFOOD

Matthew – Desposito’s in Thunderbolt, Ga. – If you want fresh, flavorful seafood presented simply without frills, this is your spot. Right off the water in coastal Georgia, I don’t know that Molly and I have ever visited a more hole-in-the-wall restaurant with more simple decor. And I don’t know that we’ll ever have boiled shrimp and deviled crab with more flavor. This place has served stars like Michael Douglas, and it’s been featured in publications nationwide. We understand why, and it has the distinction for me of serving the best seafood we ate all year.

Molly – Superior Seafood in New Orleans, La. – My hat’s tipped to Superior Seafood on this one, mainly due to the incredibly superior shrimp and grits I had the pleasure of eating here. Shrimp and grits are where I set my bar for the quality of a seafood or southern restaurant. I have sampled them in many places, but Superior Seafood’s were exactly…perfect. No gravy, instead a simple, flavorful, delicious “tasso cream” sauce. Perfectly-cooked grits. Perfectly-flavored, sauteed shrimp. Tiny squares of sausage. I savored every bite.

What’s the best thing you ate this year? Have you tried any of our favorites? You can find out more about most of the restaurants above in our Foodie Travels section!

Pictured Above (clockwise from top left): Lankford Grocery cheeseburger in Houston, Texas; Cupcrazed s’mores cupcake in Fort Mill, S.C.; El Rey fish taco in Houston, Texas; and Red House Inn English breakfast in Brevard, N.C.

Creative Southeast-Style Fish Tacos

The recipe is a missing ingredient when I approach the kitchen. There are very few things I cook that follow an actual tried-and-true recipe with measurements. Something thrills me about looking in the fridge and the pantry and creating a meal. Maybe that’s a trait I developed during my bachelor days. And maybe that’s why many of my posts in this space are restaurant adventures; I cook often, but I rarely use a recipe that’s very shareable.

Cooking is a therapy for me, and there’s very little that’s therapeutic about sweating what expensive ingredients I need to pick up at the store and how carefully I follow someone else’s directions. It’s the creativity that makes the whole experience fun and flavorful.

That’s the case with these “Southeast-Style Fish Tacos” I made up on a recent Sunday afternoon. We cook a lot of homemade Mexican in our house, and we usually keep things incredibly simple. This on-the-fly “recipe” is easy, too.

Here are the basic parts of the plate: Fish, Tortilla, Sugar Slaw, Garlic-Onion Aioli

Molly makes amazing homemade tortillas, but for this “dish” we used store-bought. We always prefer flour.

The fish can be any fish you like. To be truly “Southeast” I’d suggest something like a catfish that you commonly see here in North Carolina. You could also use a flounder or a tilapia. We had fresh-cooked salmon on hand, so that’s what I used, lightly seasoned with a little paprika and fresh-squeezed lime juice. I cooked the salmon on a medium-high heat for about 6-8 minutes on each side, just enough to cook it through and through without losing any of that beautiful flaky texture and light pink color.

For the slaw, I took 2 cups of fresh red cabbage (great for color), 2 teaspoons of white sugar and 2 teaspoons of brown sugar, and a teaspoon of milk to add a little liquid to break down the sugars a bit faster. I mixed the slaw in a bowl and then flash-froze it for about 15 minutes. The combination of two basic sugars in the slaw is one reason I call this “Southeast.” There are many variations of Asian slaw out there that have a sweet ingredient, but the sugar just seemed to place this in the Southeast United States.

The aioli was a combination of a 1/2 cup of mayonnaise, a teaspoon of onion powder, a teaspoon of chopped garlic and a teaspoon of garlic salt. This sauce was intended to give the aioli a bit of a quick kick that would counter the sweetness of the slaw and the citrus spice of the fish. The mayo in this ingredient is another reason I refer to this as “Southeast Style.”

I spread a few lines of the aioli on a warm tortilla, added a few strips of freshly cooked fish (the salmon in our case) and then topped the plate with a healthy pinch of the slaw.

It took about 30 minutes to put this dish together, from the moment I gathered ingredients to the time we took our first bites. Let me know what you think of the concept and the dish if you try it, and feel free to share with me in the comments below what you think about my approach to cooking. Eat well!

Molly’s Take: As a big fan of White Duck Taco in Asheville, I have to say, this is the closest we’ve come at home to replicating the explosion of flavor and fresh ingredients you’ll find in one of their tacos. The three parts of this taco were each incredibly flavorful – the citrus-y, grilled salmon; the crispy, cool slaw; and the salty, saucy aioli. I don’t always rate dishes on our blog, but I give these easy tacos an A+ for originality and taste.

Matthew’s Take: Obviously, I love this approach to cooking, as I said above. But I was also quite pleased with how these tacos came out. We feature beef, chicken, fish and shrimp in tacos at our house on a regular basis, and this particular combination varied from the homemade pico de gallo, rice and beans we normally use to accompany the main ingredients. I really liked the flavor combination of the sweet slaw and the spice of the aioli, along with the hearty lightness of the fish. And I ultimately decided that cabbage holds up much better in a taco than the oft-used lettuce.

Foodie Travels: White Duck Taco Shop, Asheville, N.C.

Mexican food is always a viable option when Molly and I are deciding what and where to eat. We’re attracted to the free or inexpensive appetizers of chips, salsa and queso dip, the ability to mix and match a variety of tortilla, chicken, beef and cheese entrée options, and the atmosphere you experience in each Mexican-style restaurant.

White Duck Taco Shop takes that experience to a whole new place altogether—quite literally in its Asheville River Arts District location.

We first discovered this place while on our honeymoon in 2015. The arts district was on our list of places to visit in the city, but White Duck wasn’t really foremost on our radar. That radar, by the way, wasn’t very accurate as we initially had a difficult time even finding the arts district along a beautiful but lengthy stretch of river.

A bit frustrated from driving around a bit more than expected, we came upon the taco shop, which we had heard of but hadn’t necessarily planned to visit. Hungry, we decided to make it our lunch stop.

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Already in a graffiti and creativity-covered waterfront section of an artsy town, White Duck’s setting in a colorful old industrial building gave us the feeling of being somewhere outside North Carolina.

When we walked inside and took note of the pub-style seating, the underground-feeling environment and the somewhat-hipster customers, we felt like we had stepped into a travel portal and out the other side in Europe. Upbeat music filled the air and a variety of drinks covered patrons’ tables around us as we surveyed the menu.

At first glance, you might think more than $3 for a taco sounds expensive. Normally, you’d be right, but these are unique and large tacos. We decided to order three and share all of them to make the most of our experience. We highly recommend the fish taco, the carnitas and the black bean variety.

You should expect to have a hard choice, as this place appears to offer about 10-12 different taco options on its menu each day, with slight variations depending on when you visit.

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White Duck’s tacos are packed with the kind of intense flavor that many Americanized ethnic food restaurants are lacking. The different meats were clearly seasoned in their own unique spices, the vegetables were fresh, the sauces added to the experience instead of feeling like a way to hide a lack of taste. And the portions were more than satisfactory for the price.

Past the tacos, most of your chip-and-dip combinations are also about $3 and are a satisfying prelude or sidekick for your main courses. And the side order offerings provide $2 choices that are a mix of traditional and unique for a shop that serves Mexican-style food. We had the options of black beans, cowboy pinto beans and chipotle cheese grits on the day we first visited, seeing a chance to mix Mexican and Southern recipes to accompany the tacos.

We liked White Duck so much we’ve referenced it ever since that first visit as a Mexican-American favorite within an hour of our home in western North Carolina. That affinity even led me to stop by to pick up takeout for dinner on my way home from a conference in Asheville earlier this year. There’s always room for tacos on our household’s menu, and White Duck is absolutely one of our favorites.

 

White Duck Taco Shop

1 Roberts Street, Asheville, N.C.

(There are also locations in downtown Asheville, the Charleston and Columbia areas in South Carolina and in Johnson City, Tenn.

whiteducktacoshop.com

Foodie Travels: Pawleys Front Porch, Columbia, S.C.

Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” (or DDD for short) resoundingly succeeds in sharing some of the most tasty, interesting and American restaurants from coast to coast. The show has served as a locator map for restaurants Molly and I have visited across the country, and it’s been a primary source of dining ideas for a couple of our trips this year alone.

When we planned to hit the road for a recent summer trip through South Carolina, Molly explored DDD options on our route. That’s how she discovered Pawleys Front Porch, an American food restaurant in the Five Points community of Columbia, not far from the University of South Carolina campus and the confluence of interstates 26 and 77.

Pawleys is a well-known burger spot in Columbia, receiving praise beyond just the Food Network. One of my mom’s friends even suggested it as her first choice when she learned we’d be traveling right through the South Carolina state capital.

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As if the menu’s primary reliance on cheeseburgers wasn’t enough to reel me in, this place names its specialty burgers after South Carolina islands. That’s a major selling point for me, since my family has frequented Kiawah Island south of Charleston for nearly 30 years as our vacation haven.

There’s a Kiawah burger on the menu, and that was naturally my easy choice. Along with an incredibly well-seasoned beef patty, I enjoyed the Brie cheese, fire-roasted peppers and portobello mushrooms as my toppings. And the burger was more than a mouthful in each bite.

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Other island options include Fripp, Edisto, Wadmalaw and Sullivan’s, with a wide range of toppings that make each burger a special experience. But that’s not all that we enjoyed about this place.

When Molly and I can travel to a restaurant that offers me a burger and her a Mexican food option like a quesadilla or taco plate, we’re especially happy. Pawleys delivered on those options, including a special shrimp taco offered on the day of our visit.

With burgers and a mixture of other food options, Pawleys has an atmosphere you’d almost expect to find at a more coastal location. There is a front porch with seating, as you’d expect with the name, but there’s also inside seating in an all-American restaurant kind of environment with college-aged wait staff members, which you’d expect with the location proximity to USC.

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We usually order water for drinks, but with that in mind this is a place where two can eat well for about $20. When we left, our stomachs were full, our tastebuds were happy, and I didn’t have any reason to complain about pricing or service. Give it a try if you’re traveling through the middle of South Carolina. I’ve had burgers from Greenville to Charleston to Myrtle Beach, and Pawleys’ was the best in taste, creativity and price.

Pawleys Front Porch

827 Harden Street, Columbia, S.C.

pawleysfrontporch.com