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Violetta food-cart-turned-restaurant, Portland, OregonLuckily my food memories are slow to fade. I’ve been wanting to capture David’s and my 2010 travels and all the great places at which we ate last year before hitting the road again this year.

Food is not the only criterion we consider when choosing a vacation destination, but it is among the top 3. I admit we fall into the “will-travel-for-food” crowd and seek out tasty morsels wherever we happen to be.

I’m usually the one who does the research. I start with the tourism bureaus; some places are big into food tourism and have great websites to promote local foods, producers, and tasty eats. I do city searches on Serious Eats, one of my favourite food websites, and Saveur, which does a great job at showcasing city trends and off-the-beaten-track places. I may check the local buzz on Urbanspoon. Finally, I discovered Tasting Table, which sends out interesting tidbits of daily food news in a national (American) edition, as well as city-specific newsletters for Chicago, Washington D.C., New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Once at the destination, we will often plan where to eat first and then arrange our other activities around our chosen food stops. It may sound a little food-obsessed, but I happen to like to know that I’m going to eat something good and not be stuck having to find a “good place.” For me there are few things worse than bad food value and having to settle for a mediocre meal. Nevertheless, we still travel with a budget. We usually splurge on one more expensive dinner and find ways to keep our costs down by eating lunch (instead of dinner) at other restaurants we want to try, eating ethnic foods, and even cooking ourselves if possible.

So where did we go and where did we eat?! Chicago, Vancouver, Oregon, and Salt Spring Island.

Chicago

Sign inviting passers-by to eat a Chicago-style hot dog, Chicago, Illinois

Sign inviting passers-by to eat a Chicago-style hot dog, i.e. topped with mustard, sweet relish, chopped onion, a pickle spear, tomato wedge, and a sprinkle of celery salt.

It was 5 pm when we got to Chicago after two days of driving. We were hungry and getting cranky. We’d decided to stop at Calumet Fisheries (tip from Saveur Magazine) on the way into town. Thanks to the GPS, we managed to navigate our way to this little shack somewhere in South Chicago without any problems. Inside, a diverse 15-person line snaked its way around the tiny place. The dinner of smoked shrimp and fried fish hit the spot and was a perfect introduction to Chicago’s food scene.

We punctuated our week-long stay with what I would consider reasonably healthy and interesting fast food places for lunch. Near Cloud Gate we ate Cuban sandwiches and salads with Caribbean flavours followed with rich, sweet coffee and alfajores at Cafecito. We found fresh and tasty sandwiches at Hannah’s Bretzel tucked into a downtown office building. Also downtown, we stopped at one of the several Wow Bao locations to have a fun meal of fusion-style steamed buns. One day we connected food stops on foot in a 12 km triangle, walking first to what seemed like the middle-of-nowhere to eat the obligatory Chicago hot dog at  Hot Doug’s, then stopping for a beer at the then recently opened Revolution Brewery — which happened to be hosting delegates from the Craft Brew Conference and World Beer Cup while we were there — and ending the afternoon with a taco snack at Tierra Caliente, a Latino supermarket with a lunch counter hidden at the back. Not the kind of place we’d usually wander into, but a rewarding stop for our tastebuds! We did coffee breaks at Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea, where coffee and tea are treated like a fine wine and their preparations release aromas in ways you don’t experience in other coffee shops.

Brewing coffee at Intelligentsia, Chicago, Illinois

Brewing coffee at Intelligentsia.

It would have been amazing if our budget had allowed a meal at Alinea, but that was not the case (and I don’t know if I could justify to myself spending that much on a meal). Our dinner splurge was at The Publican, a place in the Warehouse District I discovered via Tasting Table. When I read about The Publican, I knew right away that it would appeal to David and, despite the offal-centric menu, I was tempted by many of the dishes and the originality of the space. We ordered more than we should have, but were delighted with our selection. The charcuterie plate was the highlight, showcasing a selection of homemade cured and prepared meats including lambcetta and the.most.sublime. homemade coriander and vanilla mustard. It was like eating savoury jam.

We loved Chicago, not only for the food, but also its architecture, attractions, and an unpretentious big-city sophistication blended with a relaxed ambiance. We’ll go back, there’s no doubt!

Vancouver

Sushi platter from Village Sushi, Richmond, B.C.

Super fresh sushi lunch for four from Village Sushi.

Always a pleasure to be back in my hometown, and there are a couple of places that are musts on every trip. Village Sushi in Steveston is one of them. A small establishment run by a husband and wife team, they serve lovingly prepared, exceptionally fresh, and high quality sushi. What’s more, David and I eat our fill for $20-$25 including tip. Another regular stop is Oyama Sausage Company at Granville Island where we inevitably buy guanciale – I have yet to find it in Ottawa – and one of their saucisson sec; Oyama has much more to offer though. Vij’s Rangoli is another place we visit regularly to enjoy a feast of inspired Indian cuisine.

Oyama Sausage Co. at Granville Island, Vancouver, B.C.

Oyama Sausage Co. at Granville Island offers a huge selection of carefully crafted sausages and other meat products made with high-quality ingredients.

On this trip we discovered Chen’s Shanghai Kitchen tucked into a strip mall in central Richmond (home of the Olympic oval). A bright and clean establishment with a partly open kitchen at the back of the dining room. On one side there was a window through which we could observe a woman diligently and deftly making by hand one dumpling after another. The menu was different than the typical Chinese restaurant and it was hard to choose. In the end we had a combination of dishes that were new to us and familiar ones that we felt would be interesting to try in this restaurant. All of it was good, but I particularly appreciated the Buddha’s Delight made with Chinese cabbage, lily buds, at least two types each of tofu and mushrooms, and something I couldn’t identify, maybe wheat gluten. Next time I’d like to go back with a larger group to be able to try more!

The menu at Chen's Shanghai Kitchen, Richmond, B.C.

The menu at Chens Shanghai Kitchen.

One of the best things about going to Vancouver though, is being treated to good things from my parents’ kitchen and garden. Notable from the last visit are home-smoked salmon and fresh quince from the tree.

Oregon

Market fresh in Portland, Oregon

Market fresh in Portland.

Oregon is one of those places that actively promotes food tourism and has an elaborate website dedicated to the subject. Very useful for trip planning. After spending a couple of days in Portland, with its thriving food and micro-brew scene, we drove through the lush Willamette Valley to get to Newport on the Oregon Coast, an active fishing town with a working waterfront, and ended with a too-short one-night stop in Astoria, which was for me the surprise gem of the trip.

Most of our “serious” eating happened in Portland. At Clyde Common, we witnessed the delivery of a whole lamb from a nearby farm as we sat at a communal table eating delicious lunch sandwiches. From our seats at the end of the bar at Olympic Provisions, we had a view of the kitchen and saw them breaking down meats and preparing their housemade sausages. Famous for its food carts, we were lucky to score a comforting meal of chicken and rice at Nong’s Khao Man Gai before the chef ran out. We also had some hearty and tasty breakfasts at Buddha Bites. Meanwhile the burger at Violetta, a food-cart-turned-restaurant, hit the spot after a long day of walking around town.

Making charcuterie at Olympic Provisions, Portland, Oregon

Making charcuterie at Olympic Provisions, Portland. We were lucky to get the seats with a view from the lunch counter.

Our dinner splurge, which happened to be our anniversary dinner, was at Beaker & Flask. We came across the restaurant in a magazine article in which the chef at Beast, one of Portland’s top restaurants, mentioned that Beaker & Flask was one of her favourites. We figured if she liked it, then we would too! Although known for its cocktails, the food was outstanding, and the service genuinely friendly and professional. For me, the most delicious discovery during this meal was the Padrón pepper. Lightly fried and salted, it was part of an vegetarian antipasti plate I’d ordered. Addictive. I’m hoping I can find some seeds and grow some myself! Meanwhile David had an enlightened conversation with one of the waiters about forcemeat, his latest food interest.

Colourful fish & chip lunch place in Newport, Oregon

Colourful fish & chip lunch place in Newport.

On our way to the Pacific Coast, we did some wine tasting and picked up a couple of bottles on our drive through the Willamette Valley. We were enthusiastically welcomed at the Willamette Valley Cheese Company, where we tasted a surprisingly flavourful mozzarella cheese – the traditional method of hand-pulling the cheese makes all the difference. Our lunch stop was in the charming town of McMinnville, well worth a visit.

Ponzi Estate, Willamette Valley, Oregon

Vineyards at Ponzi Estate, Willamette Valley.

With the sound of the waves accompanying our meal, we ate fish and chips in Newport, but missed out on Dungeness crab, the official state crustacean. And well, our stay in Astoria located on the banks of the Columbia River just across from Washington State (where The Goonies and Kindergarden Cop were shot) was just too short. Nevertheless, we managed to stop in at Josephson’s for some smoked fish (next day’s lunch) and had dinner at the Fort George Brewery + Public House, which happened to be serving its seasonal Hopstoria Fresh Hop Ale made with hops collected from local gardens and backyards. How cool is that?! Astoria definitely deserves a second visit.

Oregon brewers sticker collection at Fort George Brewery + Public House, Astoria, Oregon

Oregon brewers sticker collection at Fort George Brewery + Public House.

Our accommodations in Oregon are worth mentioning: the contemporary Hotel Modera in Portland (got lucky; we booked a Travelocity secret hotel), the charming if a little musty Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport with stunning views of the coast (when it wasn’t foggy or raining), and the historic Commodore Hotel in Astoria.

We only spent a week driving around Oregon, but that short visit convinced me that I need to go back for a longer (at least three-week) road trip!

Salt Spring Island

We drove from Oregon to Port Angeles where we took a ferry to Victoria, then another ferry to Salt Spring Island. I think Salt Spring Island is a great place for a holiday. For me, it has the right combination of nature (countryside, forest, ocean, elevation, coastal wildlife), art, and food.

My favourite food stops are the Salt Spring Island Cheese Company, maker of goat’s and sheep’s milk cheese, Salt Spring Island Bread Co., maker of organic artisan breads baked in a wood-fired oven, and Bruce’s Kitchen. The Farmer’s Market in Ganges is also lovely to buy fresh island produce and chat with the locals.

The Salt Spring Island Cheese Company is located in a beautiful wooded area. A short self-guided tour takes visitors around the outside of the building where the cheese is made offering windows on each step of the cheese-making process. But the best part is tasting the cheese in the shop! My favourites are the soft fresh chèvres and the surface ripened Juliette.

The drive up to the Salt Spring Island Bread Co. is worth it as much for the bread as for the view of the ocean from the hilltop location. It’s also worth buying several loaves of the delicious bread, since the bakery is not open every day.

Bruce's Kitchen, Salt Spring Island, B.C.

Bruces Kitchen on Salt Spring Island. Even without the words, the sign visually says it all!

Bruce of Bruce’s Kitchen used to live and work (at Mariposa Farm and the Urban Element among others) in Ottawa. He moved West several years ago and opened Bruce’s Kitchen where he serves up daily specials made with the best local ingredients. His passion for food definitely flavours the fresh and wholesome dishes he cooks up in his tiny kitchen.

Wow, all these memories of great food eaten in great places are making my mouth water and my feet itch! Luckily we’ll be packing our bags soon.

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