[I'm going to try something different with this blog. I'm going to do shorter, quicker posts, and then elaborate later. I'm just frustrated at how far I get behind. So I beg you: Read these new updates, but come back sometime soon and see if they are longer with more photos. That's what I'm going to try to do.]
People warn us about the lines at Tin Shed on the weekends. Oh, long lines. “Yes, it may be an hour-long wait.” But Portlanders appreciate a good breakfast and they will wait to get it if they have to. And you can have free coffee, good coffee, while you wait. Pour it yourself. This could be OK.
We get to this popular little restaurant on Alberta Street about 7 AM as the place is just opening, and there is no line yet. It’s drizzly outside. One of the servers, Sheree, is getting the place open, prepping the patio, greeting the first few people who arrive, and she welcomes us.
My trusty cameraman Bob usually starts by getting some shots of the building’s exterior, showing the place in morning light, capturing the empty street at that hour, and the first stirrings of the people who exercise, despite the rain.
We interview some of the early eaters, wise to get here before the rush. The various dishes on the menu have clever names, some with obvious logical reasons, others with more obscure connections to the platter being presented. When we eventually sit down to taste some of the fare here, I get the Everything Naughty plate, including sausage, biscuits with gravy (but I go with the rosemary-mushroom gravy instead of the bacon gravy), scrambled eggs and one of the famous Tin Shed potato cakes. Oh people love these potato cakes!
One of the cool things here is if you sit on the patio (and we did — although Pittsburghers might think it was too soon and chilly to be doing so), you are allowed to bring your dog or dogs. They seem to like it. I haven’t been to a restaurant with dogs since I lived in France.
I love Scotch eggs, have even tried to make them myself several times. They’re classic bar food in Great Britain. But they’re a perfect breakfast food too. I learn that at Helser’s on Alberta here in Portland, Oregon. Alex Helser serves them with potato pancakes. Mmm. I’m getting ahead of myself.
It’s actually raining pretty hard as we leave the hotel at 6:45 this morning.
Bob’s GPS guides us away from the interstate, down quirky and charming residential streets to our destination: Helser’s on Alberta.
The Alberta Arts District is a cool, hip, artful section of Portland, all along Alberta Street, a neighborhood that’s apparently bounced back in the last ten years or so from from seediness and slummy-ness to its current state of groovy-ness with small shops, galleries, co-op groceries, and popular breakfast places.
We get to Helser’s a few minutes after 7. It’s raining still. We meet Alex Helser. His hostess/waitress/coffee-maker/bartender Leah says she knew we were coming but didn’t know it would be today (!). There are 4 or 5 people already there waiting for food. Glenn starts to get the audio gear together. Bob and I head outside to get some exteriors of the place. The neighborhood is just waking up. An energetic bicyclist — even in the rain — a jogger or two, some walkers and an occasional breakfast eater.
Back inside, as the place starts to fill up, we set up and interview Alex Helser, the owner and founder of the place, a guy with lots of restaurant experience who happened to see this excellent space for rent at the corner of Alberta and 16th Street about five years ago, and he decided to leave high-end dinners behind for the world of breakfast. He says he doesn’t cook very much anymore (although he did all the hash-slinging by himself for the first year or two as he got established.) He says he’s just got a great crew now who keep the place humming. He cares about the food. We talk of sausage, bacon, local suppliers and salmon hash.
And we’re impressed. With both the food and the service. Leah handles all the tables by herself for the first hour or so till Emma arrives. The food looks beautiful. Perfect poached eggs. Bob has no trouble finding stuff to shoot. Leah pauses at one point to get her picture taken with two hot “Dutch Babies” ready to be served.
Me, I don’t know these Dutch babies. They are a sort of German pancake that I wasn’t familiar with, but lots of people here know them and love them. Served usually with lemon and powdered sugar (and syrup too if you’d like), they’re an unusual looking variation on a crepe. Sort of.
We alternate between talking to customers, trying to capture the scene and learning what makes this place special.
Shortly after 9, Paul Gerald arrives. He’s the author and publisher of Breakfast In Bridgetown (Portland is sometimes called the City of Bridges – ha!), he runs a website and tweets as “pdxbreakfastguy” (Portland often uses PDX, its airport code, as shorthand for the city.) He’s fun and quick, and he’s thought a lot about breakfast. He says he’s not a food critic at all, but a travel writer who learned to describe a place effectively by describing a meal, often breakfast, in that place. And he tells us how he quickly learned when he moved here from Memphis that Portland is a city that loves its morning meal.
We had planned to follow Paul to the studio where he tapes a podcast radio show, but there’s so much to shoot (and we don’t want to leave without eating something here ourselves), so I change our plans and decide to skip the podcast taping (even though it’s a show about breakfast!) and finish up here in style.
We spend a while in the kitchen watching the lead cook Mark and his Merry Men as they create all the beautiful plates. Mark is fast and efficient, and he makes me laugh. He isn’t hoping to be as wicked as Anthony Bourdain or as tireless as Bobby Flay or any of the Iron Chefs. He is just sad that he isn’t as smooth and sensuous as Giada DeLaurentiis! Oh, the Food Network!
It is a very busy day at Helser’s, the place is packed much of the morning. Bob and Glenn just shoot and shoot and shoot, and listen listen listen, climbing step-ladders for new higher angles, holding the boom above all the action, trying to capture some of the constant work both in the front of the house and in the kitchen. They are a great team.
[Sometimes Bob wears this utility belt, and today it sort of catches on his shirt, pulling up the bottom of his T-shirt, exposing some flesh on his lower back. It isn't as revealing or gross as "plumber's crack" or anything like that, but the goofy people at one table decide that Bob is their newest victim, and they start laughing and making merciless fun of our poor cameraman, even posing for mock Abu-Ghraib-style photos behind his back! Nothing is sacred these days, not even the mighty cameraman.]
When we’re nearly done, we stop to eat some breakfast. Those aforementioned Scotch eggs for me, salmon hash with poached eggs for Bob and spinach-mushroom-tomato Benedict for old Glenn.
Oh yes, the food here is good. We split a Dutch baby for dessert. Yes, this is the kind of restaurant that offers a variety of breakfast desserts, but we go for the baby instead.
We figure Leah is doing a bit of everything, so we ask her also to take our picture, sitting at the counter, our favorite seats in most of these breakfast places. At the counter, you get some of the making-of as well as the grub.
We set up some group photos of their crew too. A few of the shots are sedate and cool.
And a few are not so serious.
What could be better? Leah makes us a “nudge,” a coffee drink with brandy and creme de cocoa and kahlua, whipped cream and a wee bit of coffee. (She pronounces it not as “nudge” but “noodge” which makes it sound more potent, and she mixes a mean drink.) We split it three ways and go on our merry way, noodged out the door.
It’s Thursday, March 11, 2010, and we leave WQED at 5:12 AM for the Pittsburgh airport. We have a 6:55 flight to Dallas to catch. We haven’t flown for a shoot in over a year (we drove all the time for A RIDE ALONG THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY) so we’re rusty at this jet-setting stuff. We have to pay massive fees for the equipment we’re lugging, and air travel seems more dismal than ever. All the beauty and fun and magic of soaring through the sky has been boiled out of the process. Take off your shoes. I need to see your photo ID one more time.
I worry about being too fat. That goofy, chubby movie director Kevin Smith was recently asked to leave his flight on Southwest, and I think I’m bigger than him. Now there are new embarrassments to anticipate and fear on airlines. What joy.
We have a 3-hour layover in Dallas. Blah breakfast in a concourse eatery. Chain food.
Finally on the flight to Oregon, I fall asleep often. I’m trying to work on my upcoming back page article for the May issue of PITTSBURGH magazine. I’m listening to my iPhone’s iPod. I watch a bit of the digital version of the animated movie CORALINE on my iPhone. I’m falling asleep. I’m working today’s New York Times crossword (HOCUSPOCUS, ABRACADABRA and OPENSESAME are the big words. SAYTHEMAGICWORDS is the long diagonal clue.)
I also read the review of a new book titled Next by James Hynes. It includes a mention of his image of an airliner: “A Pringles can with wings, packed full of defenseless Pringles.” It’s a potent and perfect image.
Twelve and a half hours after we left WQED, we get to Portland. All of our bags and equipment cases show up. Ahh. Bob and I go to get the rental minivan, and Glenn sits with our bags. It’s raining and gray.
But the world seems exciting after the plane. People are chipper here in Portland. The young woman at Budget Rental says there’s great breakfast at the Tin Shed. That’s where we’re going Saturday. Everybody seems intrigued by our project. Our Dodge minivan is brand new. It has 5 miles on it! It’s modern and loaded with gadgets and gimmicks. We return to Terminal and get Glenn and the stuff.
Our route to the hotel takes us along Route 30. This is the same US 30 that goes through Greensburg to Pittsburgh, the same US 30 that is basically the old Lincoln Highway from Philadelphia to western Wyoming. In western Wyoming, 30 leaves the Lincoln Highway and turns north to here, to Portland. It’s like the lost extension of the Lincoln. We like it and feel connected.
We check into our hotel. We’re tired but decide we’re all hungry. We get some swell fried halibut and salmon at a little place called Halibut on Alberta Street, a cool and hip little neighborhood here where we’ll be shooting for the next couple of days.
Just for fun, I ask our saucy waitress (whose Ukrainian family is all from Pittsburgh and Indiana, PA) where we can get some good breakfast around here. She sways and says, “Oh there are many great places to get good breakfast near here. Helser’s is probably the best. It’s really good.” We’re happy because that’s where we’ll be shooting in the morning: Helser’s on Alberta. Salmon hash on the horizon!
“…He’s just another Pringle in the Pringles can gliding belly down out of the sky, with no control over the plane, no say over his fate.” — James Hynes, Next
It’s Friday, March 5, and we’re in Allegany County (that’s how they spell it in south central New York state.) We spend the day at a rural restaurant called Cartwright’s Maple Tree Inn. Incredible. At a relatively slow moment in mid-afternoon, Ryan Krumm tapes me doing a quick “stand-up” in the kitchen, and tonight before dinner, Glenn Syska edits it together. After dinner, we finally figure out a way to get it up on YouTube, and it’s hot off the griddle! Watch!
It’s Monday, February 15, and we awake in Columbia, South Carolina. By 8 o’clock, we arrive at Anson Mills on Gervais Street.
I’d found this place while researching grits on-line, and it looks pretty interesting. Careful attention to the old ways of doing things. Grits are an important part of the southern breakfast, and I hoped to see how they get from the ear of corn to the tasty treat on the plate. The Anson Mills website is full of info.
I talked on the phone a couple of times with Glenn Roberts, the man behind Anson Mills, and he agreed to show us how his small milling operation makes some of the best grits in America. It was a quick morning.
We shot a long interview with Glenn, assorted b-roll shots around the small plant, and we were out of there by 11:30.
The people who work there do just about everything by hand, from sifting ground corn to separating it into the different size pieces, to mixing the pieces into different blends for different kinds of grits, to packing and shipping the products. Glenn told us that you can buy these products in some farmers’ markets and specialty stores, but the best way to get “antebellum grits” is to order them from the website. Some of the best chefs in America use Anson Mills products exclusively.
Glenn emphasized that you have to cook these slowly. They’re not instant grits. Glenn didn’t know any local breakfast spots that used his grits, but there are probably many food-loving Southerners who know these carefully created grits are the real thing.
If you find your way to our web site for BREAKFAST SPECIAL, and you mouse over the dish of bacon & eggs there, you can see the check slip that says “Taste A Place.” There we are putting up small video “tastes” of the stories that we’ve shot.
Kevin Conrad is editing them. We’re using Buddy Nutt music. And we just added two new “tastes” that feature Carman’s Country Kitchen in South Philly. You can watch ‘em on our site or look for them on YouTube. Or watch one right here.
Who is up at dawn on Valentine’s Day? We are. Your trusty WQED breakfast crew.
We’ve come to Tybee Island, just east of the city of Savannah, Georgia, to tape a busy Sunday morning at The Breakfast Club, a legendary morning restaurant. At 7 am, just as The Breakfast Club is ready to open, the sun is ready to jump out of the Atlantic Ocean, and Bob and Glenn climb the dune-walkway closest to the restaurant in order to get some beautiful sunrise shots.
I stick my head in the restaurant and say we’re here! but we’ll be a few more minutes. Jodee Sadowsky, the energetic chef/owner welcomes me, shows me that my name is painted on the side window and my picture is on the menu for today! This could be fun.
The place feels like a diner. Crowded, lively, lots of chatter. Glenn puts a microphone on Jodee so we can hear everything he says, but already people are saying, “Oh Jodee is so nice today. He’s smiling! You never see that when the TV cameras aren’t here.” Nothing makes you feel more like home than some early morning taunting.
The pace of the place increases as the morning goes on. The three cooks (Justin, Chris and Franklin) who work beside Jodee are the three hardest working men in the food business. They are fixing eggs, making pancakes, rolling omelets, home-frying potatoes, cooking pork and tilapia, frenching the toast. Jodee is at the end of the line, assembling the plates, adding the grits, manning the toasters, hollering orders. It’s a well-run machine. Great theater. Better than any morning TV you ever saw.
It’s also Tybee Island Mardi Gras, so there are some people dressed as if they were in New Orleans, and the special today is called Who Dat? (The New Orleans Saints won the Superbowl last Sunday, February 7, and the Who Dat Nation of Saints fans is suddenly everywhere, trying to be as big as the Steeler Nation.) The Who Dat Special is eggs, homemade boudin and spicy Louisiana chicken and bacon sausages, along with grits topped today with gumbo. Yum.
As usual, we talk to anyone and everyone about why they’re here, what they think of the food, and what they know about this place. We talk to one family that’s there to celebrate Dad’s 50th birthday. The Guedrys have come from Atlanta: Dad Doug, Mom Jules, and their two girls, Laine and Ella, and although they’ve never been here before, they’ve been told it’s great.
We take their picture, then Jules takes ours with the birthday boy.
There is another large side room (where you can’t see the cooks) with more tables, but I didn’t take any pictures there. (I just wasn’t thinking.) After about 9:30 or so, there’s a line outside, and everyone says it’s not as long as the summer lines when they stretch back to the beach about a block or so away. Jodee’s food has the reputation of being worth dawdling for.
Mid-morning, I ask Jodee to make Bob and Glenn and me each a small bowl of gumbo grits. That’s what I’ve been dying to try. Good and spicy. A hearty and flavorful variation on shrimp & grits. Jodee says he’s used okra and file in the gumbo. Good and thick.
About noontime, Leon Slotin shows up. Leon and his daughter Jane, an old college friend of mine from UNC at Chapel Hill, first brought me here to the Breakfast Club back in the 1980s when Jodee was just getting started (although I think he had attracted a crowd and a line even back then.) Leon and his wife Nancy live in Savannah, and he came out to make sure all was going well for us. I told Jodee that Leon was the reason we were here, and Jodee declared, “Free breakfast for Leon!”
The place is usually open till 1 p.m. or so, but there comes a time, and Jodee says, “I’m gonna say something that will make everybody who works here happy. Flip ‘em!” That means the signs are flipped from OPEN to CLOSED, and the last person in line is to tell anybody else who walks up that the place is closed. And the crew will feed everybody in line, but it’s time to call it quits in the early afternoon. There’s still a lot of clean-up and prep to do for tomorrow, and Jodee’s having trouble with one of his heating chests or something. He smiles with a breakfast sandwich for the camera.
We order before they shut down the griddles. Glenn gets the eggs Florentine. I get the Who Dat, and I can’t remember what Bob gets. Good food. Fun times. A great breakfast spot.
If you go, be sure to leave a special tip for the cooks. Beer money. If you do, they ring you a big thank you on a triangle above the toasters!
Saturday morning, the 13th of February 2010, we head out of Wytheville on I-77 and I-81, and soon follow the signs for Charlotte. The sun is out. The snow piles at the side of the road are diminishing. Bob wonders where we will finally see no more snow.
In a bit of weather-weirdness, states across the South from Texas east, including Georgia and the Carolinas, had a snow storm yesterday, Friday the 12th of February 2010. We start to see cars that have skidded off the highway, some into the gulley beside the highway, some into the grassy median strip. Cars that look like they just couldn’t deal with the white stuff on the roads. The roads are clear now, but they must have been dangerously icy in the last 12 or 24 hours — or these Southern drivers just can’t control themselves when it starts to snow and they just go crazy and drive off the road.
At some point yesterday I realized that we’d be driving down Interstate 26 between Columbia SC and Charleston SC, and we could consider stopping at Sweatman’s Bar-B-Que near Holly Hill, my favorite barbecue joint in the Carolinas.
Holly Hill is a small town along SC Highway 176 that runs parallel to I-26 for most of its length. It’s the old Columbia to Charleston Highway.
In downtown Holly Hill, you turn onto Highway 431 toward Eutawville. Sweatman’s is out in the country, all by itself, an old house surrounded by trees.
The house is late 19th or early 20th century. Rustic and country, with lots of weathered wood and creaky old steps. One on-line review said it resembled the house where they shot “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
It is still so much a house that you almost feel like an intruder when you open the front door, but the aroma of barbecue is everywhere. (These rooms off to the right of the entranceway were closed off this Saturday afternoon. A sign said RESERVED. I immediately thought, It must be a wedding. Or some other important event. What a great place to celebrate.
So you’re inside. Walk through the foyer and then look to your left.
It’s your basic cafeteria-style Carolina barbecue set-up. Grab a styrofoam plate.
It’s hard (maybe impossible) to find this sort of barbecue up north. And Sweatman’s has two fine sauces (including a mustard-vinegar that I crave), and it has great hash (the chopped pig parts that are simmered in a kind of soup that is usually spooned over rice), as well as light and dark meat pulled pork, ribs, and banana pudding. This is heaven. Or lunch in heaven anyway.
After we go through the line twice, the cashier encourages me to wander back into the smoke house with my camera, although we soon figure out that probably not much is happening this late on a Saturday. The barbecue is all cooked for this weekend.
But we go back anyway and meet Little John who stokes the coals, lays out the pigs, handles the ribs and skins in a separate room, and he’s happy to show us where everything happens even though nothing’s happening today. He cooks the meat, and he makes the hash in a big metal cauldron in another room.
I’ve never seen snow at Sweatman’s before, and there’s not a lot of the white stuff left in the Carolina sunshine, but the pork here is still as sublime as I remembered. The prices are still reasonable.
And I will look forward to my next visit whenever that may be. This was a good stop.
Back in the van, we’re supposed to take I-95 south to Savannah but decide to avoid the interstate (packed with cars on this sunny Saturday) and we take Highway 17 into Georgia. Good road.
Friday morning. February 12 2010. We pack up the WQED van with suitcases and our camera equipment, sound gear, blank tapes, release forms, and three carrot-cake cupcakes made by Jackie at the Katerbean Coffee Shop in Regent Square. Pittsburgh still hasn’t recovered from the recent snows, but we gotta go.
I think I have a good plan for the Southern Breakfast trip. Hoping to grab four stories at least, we have two days to get to Tybee Island Georgia. Mapquest says it’s just over 720 miles.
We have iPods and CDs. It’s a small crew again: Bob Lubomski on camera, Glenn Syska on audio, and me, Rick Sebak, on producing and interviewing. We set off about 1 o’clock, not knowing where we’ll stop for the night.
The weather is bleak. It’s a black and white world as we head down Interstate 79 into West Virginia. We take Route 19 to Beckley, then the West Virginia Turnpike to its $2 end just south of Princeton. We stop for the night in Wytheville at a Fairfield Inn. Nice accomodations. Good dinner at the old Log House in town.
I know this set of roads heading South out of Pittsburgh toward the Carolinas because I lived in Columbia SC for 11 years and I traveled back and forth at least once or twice a year. I don’t think I ever stopped in Wytheville before. For some obscure or maybe misguided reason, I usually think of the soul singer-songwriter couple known as Womack & Womack when I drive by this town. I always liked them very much. I suspect that I once read that they lived near Wytheville, but I can’t substantiate that on the internet. Maybe it was another Wytheville. Anyway, they made great music.
Our journey is off to a good start. The roads have been clear since we got out of downtown Pittsburgh. Womack & Womack are singing in my head.
[NOTE: OK. I'm out of order. The sequence of events is off. We made this trip to Ohio before we went to Philadelphia, but because the blog publishes in reverse order anyway, its a confused timeline. It doesn't matter. It's breakfast that matters.]
So, we’re up really early on Friday morning, December 6, loading the van at 5:30 am, getting to the location before 6:00 (!). We’re shooting when they click on the OPEN sign. We didn’t even have to stage it.
We’re shooting at the little breakfast and sandwich place that unabashedly called itself The Best Breakfast & Sandwiches. Bold. Ballsy. Before dawn. It’s located just outside the Columbus city limits, in the suburb called Westerville. It’s not far from Exit 29 off interstate 270, the circle road that goes around Columbus.
We have a few moments to scope out the place before customers arrive. The pre-dawn crew includes Tom Spangler who owns this place with his wife Jan, George Trautman who helps behind the counter, and a waitress named Suzanne Fickes who is there to get the tables set and to be ready for the earliest eaters.
Our trusty cameraman Bob decides that it’s too dark at the grill-and-burners cooking area, where a lot of the action takes place, and he and Glenn clamp a light from the celing to throw some light into that area.
Our new friend Nick Dekker told us about this place. He writes the blog called “Breakfast With Nick,” and he’s agreed to be our guide to good morning meals in the Columbus area. I asked him to recommend two or three places, and this is one of them. He’s been here only once before himself but he was knocked out by the food. He arrives about 9 am.
We leave Nick alone for a while because there’s so much to see and shoot, and we do several interviews with early customers. Nick holds off ordering till we’re ready to shoot him eating, and we watch while he scarfs down the country fried steak with gravy and eggs, potatoes. toast and whatever. It all looks good.
We talk with people on camera and off. There is an amazing sense of loyalty and family here. Customers really love this place, its tasty food and the people who cook for you and who serve you here. They make a big todo about knowing everybody and it seems genuine. Kelli Stover is waiting on Nick today but since his first visit (when he became conspicuous by taking pictures of his food) a week or so ago, he’s been a known player here.
Tom and Jan keep the place humming: delicious and efficient, and their presence here makes a statement. So much of the charm of being in a mom-and-pop place is the interaction with the owners, the mom and the pop, who obviously care about the business, and after years of working in chain and corporate restaurants, these two obviously relish the one-on-one relationships they have built with their customers here.
We interview Tom while he’s cutting up the Best’s popular potatoes. “The secret is: we rub the potatoes with bacon grease before we bake them,” he says.
I take remarkably few pictures. When it’s really busy all of a sudden, I slice bread and make toast for a few minutes behind the counter, and I carry my camera around, but I don’t snap as many food shots as I would like. But the food here is much loved. And patrons rave about the eggs, the bacon, the pancakes, the omelets.
We watch and videotape while Tom makes an order of his famous corned beef hash. It may be the dish that most people encourage you to try if it’s your first visit to the Best. It’s nothing out of a can. It’s potatoes and chunks of corned beef, onions and spices, and it’s topped with eggs. It’s a beauty of a breakfast.
The morning is over fast. People start ordering sandwiches. It’s lunchtime.
Tom insists that Glenn and Bob and I try his chicken wings. “The best chicken wings you’ll ever eat,” he brags. And he backs up the claim with some extraordinary wings. He marinates them before baking them, then he fries them. They are superlative. I would stop back just to have more of them. There are lots of reasons to stop back here.
That afternoon, we meet Nick near the Ohio State campus where the Wild Goose Arts Cooperative has a gallery and meeting space. He and his wife are both members of this co-op, and it’s a good quiet spot where we interview Nick again about breakfast, his blog and the joys of breakfast in Columbus, Ohio.