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Familia Samarin: Rustic Russian-Mexican Flavor

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The history of the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California is an interesting one, including the early 20th Century settlement of a Russian community, which was granted a substantial amount land in the fertile valley. Although the Mexican government had granted the land to the Russian, later land distribution policies forced the bulk of the Russian community to locate to the United States. However, a remnant of that community lingered on in the valley and it is estimated that a couple hundred of their descendants still live in the area. These Russian descendants have effectively integrated into the local population over the generations, through both intermarriage and assimilation, there are still visible elements of Guadalupe’s Russian heritage to be found.

One such reminder of the region’s Russian heritage is found in the village of Guadalupe, not far off of Highway 3, which runs the length of the valley and connects Ensenada to Tecate in the north. Here you will find the Restaurante Familia Samarin restaurant, owned and operated by descendants of the early Russian immigrants to the area. The restaurant itself features a creatively rustic design and decor and their menu is a creative mix of inherited Russian recipes, intermingled with Mediterranean dishes.

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Like everywhere in the Valle de Guadalupe, of course, there is wine to be had. There are also a variety of site-made artisanal breads and cheeses, as well as an array of sauces, tapanades and other delicacies to enjoy, or purchase to take with you. Aside from the restaurant itself, Restaurante Familia Samarin has a little gourmet boutique, offering savory treats made on site, as well as from local vendors.

The staff may, or may not, speak English, so if you’re not conversant in Spanish, be aware and be prepared. Having said that, my own Spanish is limited, at best, and the language barrier wasn’t much of a hurdle. A few basic Spanish phrases will serve you well in Mexico and, accompanied with a translator on your phone to conjure up the name of things, it’s really not that difficult to get by. I’ll help you out, though, and let you know that conejo is Spanish for rabbit and, if you order it at Restaurante Familia Samarin, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. I certainly wasn’t. Of the dishes our party tried, the only complaint would be with the chicken alfredo pasta. Although the dish was a substantial portion and, overall, well seasoned, the sauce was more watery than it should have been, which did detract from the enjoyment. Everything else we ordered was spot on, however, so maybe we just caught them on off day for alfredo sauce.

Adjacent to the restaurant is a small Russian heritage museum, operated by the Samarin family. We took a pass on looking inside, for multiple reasons. Earlier in the day, we’d visited the Bibayoff winery, where we’d seen a number of items and artifacts related to the valley’s Russian heritage. Plus, some of us were getting a little tired and there were still other stops to make. Lastly, according to their sign, the admission to the museum is $25.00 per person. Now, given that we had already decided to press on with our day, I did not clarify with the staff if that was $25 USD or if the price was in pesos. I hope it was in pesos, which seems a little cheap, but if that price was in dollars, I’d be inclined to call it exorbitant. Honestly, as a bit of an armchair anthropologist, I find the story of the Russian-Mexicans to be quite interesting and read a fair amount about their history. If I have time on my next visit, I wouldn’t mind taking a peek inside their little museum so, hopefully, that price is not in US dollars, or I’ll have to take another pass.

Restaurante Familia Samarin is definitely on my list of places to eat if, and when, I return to the Valle de Guadalupe. I have seen and heard good things about their pizza, which they bake in their wood-fired, adobe oven, so maybe I’ll try that. On my next visit, I will need to do a better job at stocking up on their retail products, such as their tapenades. I’ve already kicked myself for not coming home with more of such things in the first place. I’m sure they would be a hit with friends and family, as well as a conversation piece. Just one more reason to go back, though, I suppose…to do a little shopping. And eating. It’s well worth the time for both.

Gioia’s Deli: A Sandwich to Remember

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We’ve probably all heard the saying that such-and-such “isn’t anything to write home about”. In the age of social media and email, not much actual writing home takes place anymore, but this old idiom still stands as a monument to mediocrity. When it comes to deli sandwiches, plenty of them may qualify as “not bad”, but frankly, most fall into the “not anything to write home about” category. They’re just meh.  Gioia’s Deli, in the historic Hill District of St. Louis, offers its hungry patrons a chance to go beyond meh.

The Hill District is the Little Italy of St. Louis and is known for serving up highly regarded eats in the neighborhood’s numerous restaurants. Although The Hill is known more as the home of toasted ravioli, Gioia’s has staked its claim as the home of hot salami and after partaking of their scrumptious sandwiches, I have no reason to dispute them. In my opinion, these folks can go head to head with any Italian deli in the country.

There are a number of items on the Gioia’s menu, most of which feature their high quality meats. I doubt you would go wrong with any of them, but the hot salami is their signature offering. The original recipe, brought to St. Louis by the Gioia family was known as Salam de Testa, first served in their little neighborhood grocery and then featured on sandwiches when they later added a lunch counter to their business. Now known simply as hot salami, that original recipe still reigns supreme at the iconic Hill sandwich shop.

If you were to walk into a location of a typical American sub sandwich franchise, you could easily spend seven or eight bucks on an unexciting, uninspired hunk of bread, layered with mediocre quality meats and toppings. Meh. Nothing to write home about. Overpriced. You get the picture. For roughly the same cost, Gioia’s serves you a deli meat masterpiece. They’ll top it the way you want it, but with premium quality ingredients and, be forewarned, the sandwiches are large. One of their thick, juicy, hot salami sandwiches could be a shared meal for many couples, particularly if you add a drink and bag of chips. I’ve eaten a whole sandwich myself, but I could have (should have?) saved half for later.

When I think of serious sandwiches, only a few places come to mind. Schwartz’s Deli in Montreal (smoked meat), Katz’s Deli in Manhattan (pastrami), Central Grocery in New Orleans (muffaletta) and Geno’s in Philadelphia (cheesesteak).  Gioia’s Deli, with their hot salami, belongs in the same ranks as these renowned establishments. In short, it’s a sandwich to remember.

 

Shrimp Shack, St. Helena Island

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I’ve got two words for you. Shrimp burgers. Does that not grab you? Then how about these two words. Shrimp chowder. Okay, so you get the idea. At the Shrimp Shack, they kind of have a thing for shrimp. This rural, roadside eatery can be found on South Carolina’s St. Helena Island, serving up shrimp dishes, along with other seafood selections and traditional diner grub.

St. Helena Island is not too far from Beaufort, South Carolina and if you want to drop by and get your belly full at the Shrimp Shack, just head out on the Sea Island Parkway. You’ll find the Shrimp Shack on the shoulder of the road, between Frogmore and Hunting Island State Park. Think of it as a sort of seafood oriented greasy spoon, perfect for a casual lunch that’s easy on the wallet. It’s coastal comfort food, if you will.

Shrimp Shack has been in business for almost 40 years, so they must be doing something right. The family owned operation has become something of an institution in the area. With typical lunch deals such as sea burger sliders, fries and a drink, all for $5.00, it’s not hard to see how they won some folks over. Of course, more importantly, the food is good. Did I mention “shrimp burgers”?

 

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Mariscos Tito’s: Rosarito, Mexico

Baja California is known as the home of fish tacos and, while you may find decent ones elsewhere, nothing beats the taste of a freshly made fish taco in its native habitat. My favorite place to grab a fish taco (or two) is Mariscos Tito’s, just off the 1D toll road in Rosarito. They have locations in Playas de Tijuana, as well as in Tijuana proper, but my spot is the one in Rosarito.

Why Tito’s? Well, the food is fresh, the taste explodes in your mouth, the servings are large and the prices are small. A better question would be “why not Tito’s”? Prices fluctuate with time and the relative value (for Americans) depends on the exchange rate, but when I’ve been, the standard fish taco cost me roughly $0.75 USD. There is no way a massive fish taco like that would cost anywhere in the ballpark of a dollar if I were buying it at home.

The basic fish taco (taco pescado) is breaded and fried and the pieces are so big that it’s sometimes difficult to fold the tortilla over, in order to eat it. I have had to remove one of the pieces of fish and eat it by itself, just because the taco was too massive and messy, otherwise. For a little extra money, though still a bargain, you can upgrade to a higher end taco.

Last time I was there, I tried the marlin taco and it was delicious. The marlin was not battered like the basic pescado. The best I can describe it is to say that the consistency reminded me a bit of the crab mixture in a crab cake, but of course, the taste and flavor were entirely different. Again, to put the cost into perspective, I picked up the bill for three people and we each had a taco and soft drink. It cost me about $6.50 USD for the whole shebang. That has to be, at minimum, a third of what it would cost north of the border.

As I already mentioned, Mariscos Tito’s is right off the toll road. Just minutes from Playa Rosarito, you’ll find it on Calle Puente Machado. With its bright blue tents and colorful signs, it’s hard to miss. Reminiscing about Tito’s is making me a little hungry. There are plenty of other menu options that you can explore, but I have yet to venture past those awesome tacos. Next time I have a chance to go, I do believe I will have one each of the taco pescado and the taco marlin.

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5 Breakfast Favorites

A big, full breakfast is always a treat, whether at home, or on the road. Although when traveling, one of the easier ways to pare down the food budget is to cut corners on breakfast, it’s somewhat of a tradition with my family to seek out the local breakfast gems. Among our vacation goals is to go big for breakfast, at least once per trip.

So, here are five breakfast joints that jump out in my memory. Some I’ve been to multiple times and some I’ve only been lucky enough to visit once. This is not a definitive list of the best breakfast restaurants. It’s not even, necessarily, indicative of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had. It’s a list of 5 all-around solid breakfast joints that conjure memories of savory dishes and lazy mornings. These are all places I would go back to and that I don’t hesitate to recommend.

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Here they are, in no particular order. Some are independent businesses and some are regional chains. All are worth a visit.

Go. Eat. Thank me later.

The Ultimate Jerk Center

I’m a fan of jerk. No, not rude people. I’m a fan of jerk: the Jamaican-style of barbecuing meat. It’s very difficult to find authentic jerk in the United States, including at most every Jamaican restaurant I’ve eaten at in the States. So, if I want good, authentic, jerk pork, chicken, or whatever else, I usually have to make it myself at home.

You know what’s more fun than firing up the smoker and cooking at home? Going to Jamaica and eating freshly cooked jerk, while you’re looking at the turquoise waters of the Caribbean. Yeah, that sounds way more fun, right? Even in Jamaica, though, not all jerk restaurants are created equally. Honestly, I’ve never eaten anywhere that I just didn’t like their jerk, but some places have established a bit more of a reputation than others.

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If you are meandering along the A1 highway in Jamaica, the main road that hugs the north coast, you are going to pass one of the better known jerk restaurants, so you might as well stop by for lunch. “Jerk Centre” is a common appellation for the roadside eateries that specialize in this uniquely Jamaican style of smoking meats. This one, as the name indicates, considers itself to be the “Ultimate”. Is it really the ultimate? Eh…who’s to say? Tastes are subjective, so I don’t normally like to declare things to be definitively “the best”, but I do consider the Ultimate Jerk Center in Discovery Bay to be a solid example of the style and definitely worth a visit.

At the Ultimate Jerk Center, you will get the usual options of jerk pork and jerk chicken and, at least occasionally, they serve up more exotic items, such as jerk rabbit. Whichever you choose, you can’t really make a bad choice. You also have the usual sides – rice and peas, festival (a type of bread), breadfruit, etc. and if someone in your party simply isn’t a fan of jerk, you can always get some fish and bammy (another type of bread), or go for the curried goat.

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While there are many other jerk centres along the north coast, some of which may prove better in the jerk department, if you’re vacationing in the area, it’s hard to beat this place for location. Discovery Bay is right on the well worn path from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios and beyond. The Ultimate Jerk Center is on the beach side of the highway, so you can enjoy a nice, sea breeze, while dining in the open air facility. Almost directly across the street is the Green Grotto Cave, a popular attraction that is open for tours. Right behind the restaurant is the grounds of the Ultimate Sports Club, which is essentially a cricket field. If you’re lucky, there will be a game underway, offering the opportunity to watch a game that is rarely seen by North Americans, despite being quite popular throughout much of the world.

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