Photo taken near Monument Valley, Utah

Monday, October 6, 2014

Chattanooga: Moon Pies, Yo Yo Ma and Fried Chicken

At Best Holiday Trav-L-Park, Chattanooga, Tennessee...

As I wrote the title to this post, I thought to myself that those three terms probably never before appeared together in any form of communication. Until now.

Frankly, I have no idea if Yo Yo Ma, the classical cellist of worldwide fame, has ever tasted a Moon Pie--or fried chicken, for that matter. I grouped them in the title because I have something to write about each as I close out our visit here. The mere fact that they coexist here in Chattanooga is a testament to the rich diversity of the culture. Yo Yo Ma was performing with the Chattanooga Symphony last week in the Tivoli Theater, a wonderful old movie house built in 1920. Seating 1700 persons, the theater was one of the first air conditioned buildings in the United States and, now fully restored, it is on the National Register of Historic Places. Its mighty Wurlitzer theater organ still plays. 

Before the concert with Yo (as the folksy denizens of Chattanooga might wish to address him), you could have stopped in the Moon Pie store nearby and had one of the tasty little cakes that have called Chattanooga home since 1919, a year before the Tivoli opened.

The Moon Pie was conceived by a Chattanooga bakery at the behest of one of its salesmen who had been approached by coal miners to provide them with a small but filling cake that could be carried in a pocket and provide them a lunch when inside the mines. When asked how big the cake should be, a miner supposedly used his thumbs and forefingers to encircle a rising moon and said, "this big," hence the name Moon Pie. During the great depression, one could buy a Moon Pie and an RC Cola for a nickel, and this constituted lunch for countless people during that era.  

If Yo had had a craving for fried chicken, he could have meandered a little farther west of downtown to Champy's, a shanty-like structure that began life as a gas station. This place has won several awards for the best fried chicken in Chattanooga, and it is well deserved. I have eaten quite a lot of fried chicken in my time, and if this is not the best I've ever had, it's pretty darned close. They also make some killer hot tamales from scratch. We had both, and they were outstanding. I advise you to go hungry; you will not be disappointed.

Another worthwhile foodie adventure can be had at Taco Mamacita, downtown near the riverfront. This joint caters mostly to a younger crowd (I was only grayhair there), but they serve some really tasty tacos. I had a blackened chicken taco and a panko-breaded shrimp taco, along with a fresh ear of roasted Mexican street corn. It was all delicious; don't pass up this one.

We must have been hungry for tacos (we've been away from Texas for a long time), so we made an initial stab at Taqueria Jalisco, also downtown, but it could not hold a candle to Taco Mamacita. 

If you've read this blog for a while, you won't be surprised at the somewhat questionable appearance of some of the dives I seek out for a real food find. Taqueria Jalisco is one of those dives but, although it got great reviews, it came up a bit short, in my opinion. 

Perhaps I was distracted by the appearance of the single waitperson, whose gender I truly was unable to discern, and another customer sitting a few feet away from us. The latter was a heavily tattooed young woman with a nose ring and lip ring and whose armpits were quite heavily forested with hair. Frankly, I was so jolted by her visage that I'm not sure that my review of the food can be fully relied upon. I think I had tacos.

Now lest you think this joint caters only to offbeat types, there were other customers nearby who were wearing suits and talking about multi-million dollar real estate deals. This, in my view, was yet another indication of the diversity that can be found here. It is a college town, after all and, for many students, the college years are where they begin to find themselves. The young lady with the rings, however, needs first to find a razor. 

My take on this place is that you should probably skip it unless I have piqued your curiosity as to whom you might find there.

Next is my second favorite restaurant of the ones we tried: Zarzours. This tiny dive is an institution in downtown Chattanooga, serving breakfast and lunch mostly to locals, all of whom seem to know each other, judging from the lively conversations among the tables of mostly menfolk. Mary, the owner, knows most of her customers not merely by their name but by what they like to eat, which she often plops onto the flattop griddle when they walk in the door. Since Sandy and I were obviously strangers to her, she made a point to inquire, in her friendly, downhome manner, just what in the heck we were doing there. When she found out, she asked us to write in her guest book. Hopefully, her request was not merely intended to provide her with a handwriting sample. But, I digress...back to the food: We had a hamburger and fries--one of the best burgers we've had in a very long time. It was cooked as if in her own home, except better, because there's just something about a very old flattop that sears a hamburger patty better than anything else. I only wish we had another week to eat here; the blue plate specials looked superb. We will be back.

Thai Garden (in Rossville) - Good food, very fresh, and they will tailor dishes any way you like. Oddities: They don't serve nam pla prik, a very common Thai condiment made with fish sauce, garlic, lime juice and bird peppers. They also didn't have any chili garlic sauce, a staple in most Thai restaurants. I was able to add enough heat via some hot chili oil, but it just wasn't the same. The yum nuea (grilled beef salad) was a little sweet for my taste.

Here are some other places we tried, along with my comments:

Lupi's Pizza Pies - Better than the chains, in my view, with a crispy outer crust that is unusually good.

Sweet Basil Thai - Pretty good, but I would not recommend anything with chicken, which was rubbery and tasteless. The mango sticky rice also didn't impress.

Ankar's Hoagies - Don't bother.

Portofino (Italian/Greek restaurant in East Ridge) - Lots of cars in the parking lot fool you into thinking it's a good place to eat. It's not. Even Olive Garden is better.

Well, that's it for Chattanooga; Red Bay, here we come.


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