Amelia Island, FL – Simply Wonderful

Earlier this year, before I started my new job I took a few weeks off and went on a road trip with the Abster – my goldendoodle.  After a couple weeks with my family I spent a few indulgent days on Amelia Island, FL.  Amelia is a true treasure.  Its laid back, green, dog friendly, home to some very good restaurants, and has beaches full of large shells.

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Located just north of Jacksonville, FL, Amelia is very accesible from the airport and is an easier Florida destination than other more southern locales.

I stayed at the Omni Resort since my extended road trip with Abby required a dog friendly hotel.  It was a beautiful facility with lots of options – biking, kayaking, boating, flying kites, etc.   The rooms were lovely and I had a fantastic view of the ocean.  Not only does this resort have so much to offer, but Amelia and Fernandina in general do as well.  On a previous trip here I went on a horseback excursion along the white sand beaches with Kelly Ranch.  It was a wonderful experience I’ll never forget.

Kelly Ranch Tour

I’ve been to the area several times, but this was my first February visit.  While it was definitely too cold to swim during this trip, I lucked out with the weather.  With a pair of shorts and sweatshirt I was able to walk the beaches for miles on end and collect a huge bag of shells for decorating.  I also spent some time kayaking and biking, which were so peaceful in the off tourist season.

If you’re looking for a place for a peaceful respite with beautiful beaches and you want to bring Fido, Amelia Island is definitely the place to go!

  Year-round temperatures:

High 78   Low 60
High 89   Low 47
High 78   Low 63
High 68   Low 47

Amelia Island Map

29 South – Amelia Island, Fernandina Beach, FL Treasure

29 South

While on Amelia Island, I found a fantastic eatery called 29 South.  I’d heard good things and decided to check it out myself.  Unfortunately I didn’t have an opportunity to go for dinner (I wanted to try the chef’s burger: half Pound of Waygu Beef/Foie Gras Blend on a ButteredKaiser Topped with Summer Truffle Brie, Benton’s Country Ham and a Conner Farm Egg) and wound up there for brunch. 

It did not disappoint, though.  In fact, I was blown away by the unexpected. The menu items are insipired and live up to their mouthwatering descriptions.  Lobster corn dogs with spicy horseradish ketchup spiked with Ketel One vodka, blackstrap molasses laquered ribs with butter pickles, sweet tea-brined DelKat Family Farm pork chop on macaroni gratin with warm blackberry preserves are just a few examples…I finished brunch with a few bites of their coffee and doughnuts which are served as a glazed doughnut bread pudding with butterscotch drizzle and mocha ice cream. 

Some of the reviews I’ve read indicate poor service, but that wasn’t my experience at all.  I brought Abby with me and they seated us outside, with a dog bowl.  Granted it wasn’t a busy dinner night, but they couldn’t have been more friendly and the atmosphere was casual chic, never a hint of snobbery.  On top of that, they partner with area farms, create their menus around available product, and make every effort to select free-range/organic/natural ingredients.  Great food, cool location, sustainable, what’s not to love about 29 South!?

Inside 29 South

Farming Partners:
Conner Amazing Acres Farms – Hilliard FL
DelKat Family Farms – Hilliard FL
29 South Chef’s Garden – Out back
Sweet Grass Dairy – Thomasville GA
The Naked Bee Honey Farm-Saint Augustine
Painted Hills Ranch – Fossil Oregon
Springer Mountain Farm – Mt Airy GA
The Boys and Girls Club – Fernandina Beach
Marcho Farms – Harleysville PA

Voted “Best New Restaurant” Jacksonville 2006
Voted “Best of Jax” – 2006, 2007, 2008
Voted “Best Chef” Jacksonville 2007 & 2008
2009 “Snail of Approval”
2009“Spirit of Slow Food Award”

 2010 Florida Trend “Golden Spoon”

The REAL Florida – A Native’s Guide For Tourists

Having traveled around the world, I’m always amazed at what people think Florida is…I suppose I should be used to it by now, but it still confounds me.

Tourists generally go to the beaches or Disney and rarely venture out into the real Florida. We are certainly proud of our beaches – I believe our best can hold their own versus almost any beaches in the world – but they are only a small part of what Florida has to offer. Even people who have moved here (aka ‘transplants’) usually don’t even understand the real Florida. If you don’t get out of the big cities, venture away from the coast, you’ll never find it.

The real Florida is so much more than the concrete jungles around the coast and natives are decidedly southern. There is an inherent love of nature and a passion for enjoying it. To have a real Florida experience during your next trip, here are a few suggestions:

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1. Befriend a local and ask them where they go out to eat.  Note – a local isn’t someone who moved here from Michigan or someone who has only lived in a big city…They’re likely to own a john boat or know someone who does – LOL.  (I realize this one is reaching a bit for most people, but I’ve had the best travel experiences around the world employing this concept).

2. Deep sea fishing is popular with lots of tourists, but try fishing in a little boat instead. Go to a lake, a river, or in and around our marshes. Maybe even go out in the ocean and float about picking up scallops off the sea floor. Just don’t go the commercial route. You’ll see plant and animal life up close, experience a slower pace of day, and perhaps start to see why we love our land so much.  Rivers to try – Manatee, Ichatuchnee, Rainbow, Crystal. 

3. Stop at a roadside fruit stand. We have such good locally grown fruit and veg, it doesn’t get much better. In February or March, stop at a u-pick strawberry field for the best berries you’ll ever have.

4. Go to the Keys but spend a few days on one other than Key West.

5. Visit St. Augustine (it’s on your way to Orlando).  It’s the oldest city in the nation!

6.  Take a break from Disney and go to Weeki Watchee – a classic Florida attraction opened in the 40’s, located an hour north of Tampa.  From their website, “Weeki Wachee is an enchanted spring — the only one of its kind in the world — and one of Florida’s oldest and most unique roadside attractions. For almost 60 years, the fun, family oriented park has lured in visitors with beautiful mermaids who swim in the cool, clear spring waters. Weeki Wachee Springs is a magical entrance into a mysterious blue underwater world of mermaids, manatees, turtles and bubbles. Sitting in the Mermaid Theater, visitors feel like they are inside the flowing spring, and are transported back to simpler times, before super theme parks and super highways appeared.”

7.  Go to a local festival.  The best is Gasparilla – a celebration of our pirate history complete with a pirate ship flotilla invasion of the bay (  Here are some to choose from: Rattlesnake Festival (just outside my hometown, Dade City!), Watermelon Festival (in the panhandle), Strawberry Festival (Plant City), Greek Festival (St. Augustine)…There’s even a Possum Festival, but then that might be taking it a bit too far!

8.  Go to a baseball or football game and eat boiled peanuts (Go Gators!).  Check out the Florida Marlins, minor league baseball, UF, FSU, USF, and Miami games.

9.  Take a break from the beach and go to Ginnie Springs, or another park similar for unparalleled outdoor experiences (and at $12/head is much cheaper than Busch Gardens).  Another option is to camp at Grayton Beach in the panhandle, simply georgeous.

I have the great fortune to be a seventh generation Floridian so I know it in a way many others never will. As a kid we went arrowhead hunting in old Indian sand dunes, tubed weekly down the river we lived on, went on my first lake fishing trip when I was a baby, learned to drive on limestone dirt roads, and much more. 

To me, these things represent the great wealth of Florida yet so many people have no idea they exist.  I think it is a good rule for any vacation…get to know where you are. The resort where you are staying isn’t authentic, strike out and find it on your own! You’ll have an experience and memories that you’ll never forget.

Super H Mart – Taste Adventure Around Every Corner

I started visiting H Mart stores years ago when they were called Han Ah Reum.  Back then they were exotic, smelly, and such a riot.  I’d take seasoned grocery execs (men) and watch them squeal like little girls at their bizarre finds. 

H Mart

These days they’re called H Marts or Super H Marts and are clean, well stocked, and contain such a splendorous assortment that any chef or home cook should make them a regular stop.  Recently I changed jobs and before I started the new one, I went on a road trip with my dog – home to see my family in GA and FL.  I was thrilled to hear my sister had discovered H Mart on her own.

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If you go, and if it isn’t a new H Mart, be prepared for a bit of odor upon arrival.  They are much cleaner and more pleasant than they were in years past, but an older location may still be a bit ripe to the uninitiated!  You’ll certainly see things you normally buy but many more items will be new to you…..There are fresh seafood tanks bubbling away with all sorts of species – some you may not recognize in your regular grocery store: geoduck, frogs still croaking, shrimp, abalone, carp, narway, mackerel, belt fish, pommfret, king fish, fluke, konchi, and many more.

Similarly the other areas of the store have enormous selection – ever seen black chicken or black goat?  Ever tried durian?  Ever seen a 20 foot wall of soy sauce varieties?  30 feet of kimchee?    In short, complete fun!  Having taken several cooking classes in SE Asia, these stores are the only places I can find the ingredients I need.

If you’re feeling adventurous or want to step outside the box of your regular baked chicken and broccoli recipes, you should check out your local Asian or Indian market. They might smell and you might feel uncomfortable, but there is so much to learn!

If you do decide to venture out and try something new, here’s a recipe I got from the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School for one of my favorite Northern Thailand dishes:  Khao Soi Gai


500 g fresh egg noodles
    enough oil to deep-fry
100 g egg noodles
8   chicken legs
4 c thick coconut milk (might find this as coconut cream)
4 c thin coconut milk
1 c chicken stock (or water)
3 T palm sugar
2 T sugar
1⁄2 c soy sauce
1⁄2 c fish sauce
    paste dried
1 t yellow curry powder
1⁄2 t salt
15   big, red, dried chillies (seeds removed and soaked in water for 10 minutes and then finely chopped)
1 T ginza (skin removed, chopped)
6 T lemongrass (lower 1/3 only, chopped)
2 T coriander root (chopped)
6 T shallots (chopped)
3 T garlic (chopped)
3 T ginger (chopped)
1 T shrimp paste
2   lime (cut into wedges)
2 T sweet soy sauce


Put all the ingredients for the paste into a blender and blend until smooth.

Put 250mls (1 cup, 8 fl oz) of thick coconut milk into a wok and fry for 3-5 minutes, stirring continuously, until the coconut oil begins to separate out. Add the paste and fry for 1-2 minutes until it is cooked and then add the chicken legs, chicken stock, remaining thick coconut milk and half the thin coconut milk.

Bring to the boil and then add the palm sugar along the side of the wok until it melts followed by the sugar, soy sauce and fish sauce and simmer on a low heat for about 30 minutes or until the chicken is tender. Add the remaining thin coconut milk as needed, while simmering. If it get too dry you can also add some more chicken stock.

Meanwhile put the oil for frying the egg noodles into a wok and when it is hot add 100g (1 cup, 3ฝ oz) of egg noodles and fry until they are crispy (30 seconds). Drain and set aside.

For the accompaniments, put the oil into a wok and when it is hot add the chilli powder. Stir together and remove from the heat. Leave to cool. When you are ready to eat put the egg noodles into some boiling water for 2 minutes and drain and put into a serving dish. Add the chicken legs and curry sauce and serve garnished with the crispy egg noodles, coriander leaves and spring onions. Serve along with the 5 accompaniments which are added to taste.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Bailey Island, Cook’s Lobster House and Moby’s Deck – A Slice of Heaven in Maine

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A local shared this little secret with me.  I was staying in Portland, ME and decided to take an evening off of work.  The jaunt from Portland is longer than expected, but it was picturesque and lovely.  Driving back roads with the windows down, breeze blowing, and Jimmy Buffet blasting was such a treat.  The weather was perfection – high 70’s, an occasionally fluffy white cloud, crisply clean air, and the smell of the ocean with every gust of wind.  As you drive along Rt 24 down to Bailey Island, you wind around gently sloping hills which frame little bays and rivers ringed with craggy rocks softened by tender patches of wildflowers and the greenest of green pines.  It was one of the best drives I’ve taken in a long time.   As you cross over the bridge onto Bailey Island you can see Cook’s Lobster House perched in the middle of the bay.  True to the description the local gave me, it’s a watering hole for area lobstermen as well as a popular dinner spot for both residents and wayward tourists.

I came at just the right time, arriving at 6pm.  There weren’t many people and I had my choice of spots on the Moby’s Deck (attached to Cook’s), perfect for watching the sun set over the water.  I’d had a big lunch so I opted for lighter fare.  The local Allagash brew was wonderfully crisp and cold and the locally harvested mussels were also quite good in a white wine butter broth.  I deferred from much more but the guy sitting next to me insisted I try a bite of his lobster mac n’ cheese and it was divine (thank you handsome stranger guy who kept me company!).

If you find yourself in Maine, don’t miss Bailey Island and Cook’s Lobster.  On island there are a number of small inns and cottages to rent but they’re hard to book in season so plan ahead.

Lobster Shack – Cape Elizabeth, Maine

Portland, Maine from the air

Over the last few months I’ve been spending a good deal of time near Portland, Maine.  Although I haven’t had any play time, I have taken a few hours out and managed to uncover a few foodie finds.  One such place is the Lobster Shack in Cape Elizabeth.  I accidentally found it one day when determined to take a break, skip lunch, and wiggle my toes in the ocean sand.  What I discovered was joyous.  Cape Elizabeth is about 20 minutes outside of Portland and is home to two lighthouses.  The Lobster Shack is literally at the end of the road, a haven for tourists and locals alike.  In the summer season long lines abound, so go early or in mid afternoon.  A legendary institution, the shack has a building where you order and a few tables. 

Inside the Lobster Shack Lobster Shack Shoreline

Lobster Shack Shoreline


 Most people eat outside, though, either on picnic tables or on along the rocky seashore.  Located at the tip of Cape Elizabeth, the view from the rocks is nothing short of therapeutic.  Sailboats sweep by, leaning ever so far in the wind, large waves spray across the rocks, and massive cargo ships dot the horizon.  But do watch out for the seagulls they will steal your food!

Lobster Roll, Onion Rings, Fried Clams, Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

I’ve eaten here twice and loved even more the second time around.  Obviously lobster is the main attraction, but you shouldn’t overlook the fried clams!  They’re wonderfully earthy, moist, yet crunchy with the perfect coating on the outside.  The lobster roll is also good, with buttered bread, huge chunks of meat overflowing, a dollop of mayo, and a pickle slice on top.  I recommend getting the onion rings (hey, if you’re going to be bad you might as well go all out, right?) but skip the lobster stew.  It’s watery, plain, and tasteless – the only less than stellar dish I’ve had here.  To finish out your meal, the homemade strawberry rhubarb pie is to die for – even if you don’t like rhubarb.

When you’re done, stop at the Two Lights State Park, the scenery is breathtaking!

Lobster Shack = 225 Two Lights Road, Cape Elizabeth, ME 04107-9515, (207) 799-1677

Two Lights State Park = 7 Tower Drive, Cape Elizabeth, ME 04107-9503, (207) 799-5871

Longing for Vinh-Long Vietnamese in Nashville

Vinh-Long PhoVinh-Long Pho

Vinh-Long is one of those finds that makes my quest for little known restaurant treasures worthwhile.  During a hectic work trip to Nashville I was staying near the airport, far away from my usual haunts near Vanderbilt and downtown.  Using my Yelp app I found this little hole in the wall which Owen Nguyen opened nine years ago.  He named his Vietnamese restaurant after his wife’s hometown and infused his Japanese cooking background.  According to the reviews I read, the pho and beef with carrot soups were the ticket. 

Hidden in a downtrodden neighborhood and a depressed shopping center, the area was so rough I actually considered not stopping.  I was in town for an important meeting the following morning, and thought, “Dare I risk digestive issues?”  It was nearly 100 degrees out, not exactly soup weather but I decided to go for it.  When I walked in I was greeted with smells wafting from the kitchen that invoked memories of bistros in France that reek of rich, saucy sensations.

Vinh-Long Pho

I ordered a spring roll, beef carrot soup (mi tiu bo kho,  $6.25), and an ice cold Kirin to wash it all down.  The spring roll was delightfully fresh, giving the most wonderful crunch while the sauces made my tongue sing.  Then came the beef and carrot soup, a Vietnamese dish with French influence.  If you’re thinking that sounds boring, boy would you be mistaken. 

I’m not even sure how to describe it or where to start…I wish I had a visual (my iPhone camera was on the fritz).  But with a bit of imagination you can get the gist of it.  Think of a big steaming bowl of beef stew crossed with components of pho (noodles on the bottom, crushed peanuts and chili oil on top) served with a heaping side plate of basil, jalapeño, lime and sprouts. Deeply soul satisfying with its intense depth of flavor – the kind only a well trained chef knows how to achieve with constant seasoning and adjustment – and a surprising crisp brightness one wouldn’t expect (perhaps from a bit of acid?).  I would do REALLY BAD things to get this recipe!

One of the reviews I read on Yelp was hilarious, it compared Vinh to smoking weed for the first time, “soothing, relaxing, refreshing, inviting & fulfilling.”  I don’t know about the weed, but I am addicted to this stew!

Would the gods have eaten ambrosia if they’d known mi tiu bo kho existed?

Tips for visiting:

–          They only accept cash, its super cheap so you won’t need much

–          Hours are limited (they closed at 7, so you may want to call ahead)

–          A Vietnamese couple were oohing, aahing, and slurping over their pho at the next table, so give that a whirl

–          Menu

–          Lots of reviews say to try Cafe Da (coffee made in a French press and served with ice and condensed milk)