Passion. For some, the very word stirs up visions of perfume commercials, Victoria’s Secret ads and chocolate. For others, it conveys an image of a 1969 Camaro, your favorite football team or a sporting event. In short, it is what makes us human. Some of us are more passionate than others, and we are all passionate about different things. For us, meaning my wife and me and our small circle of friends, its food. We are truly passionate about what we eat. Ask me about our trip to Italy and I will fixate on some of the meals that we ate. Ask me about the touristy destinations and I will likely fix you with a blank stare. The only touristy destination we visited was Capri and I deduced that American tourists managed to ruin that beautiful place too. It took us nearly an hour to find a restaurant that was not Americanized. Don’t get me wrong, I love our country but when I leave it, I don’t want to be reminded of it. I want to experience the culture, hear foreign languages, eat different food and be amazed.
It’s passion that drives us to ridiculous lengths to obtain something we want. On this trip, our annual trip to West Chester, PA, our passion is cheesesteaks. We’ve been trying different spots on our trips – so far we’ve been to Geno’s, Pat’s and Ron’s (I had to go there!). So far, our favorite is Geno’s. This year, we wanted to try Jim’s on South Street in Philadelphia. So, on a fine Friday morning, we loaded up my old Ford and aimed the headlights north on I-81, bound for the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Anyone who has travelled on I-81 has my sympathy. That interstate is miserable. Trucks, left-lane riders, stop and go traffic, rubbernecking, cops everywhere – it’s not a happy experience. To ease our nerves, we pit-stopped at the Pink Cadillac in Lexington. It’s a cool joint, 1950s décor, diner style. I’ve been there several times and thoroughly enjoyed the food and the experience. They are well known for their cheeseburgers and rotisserie chicken. The last time we tried the chicken it was a bit dry, so we opted for cheeseburgers. They weren’t bad. Not great, but still a good American cheeseburger. Much better than anything you’ll ever find at a fast food joint!
Our shattered nerves soothed by a half-pound of ground sirloin, we get back in the truck and continue our journey. Something weird always happens on this trip to PA. Last year, my window stuck all the way down in a snowstorm and we drove 60 miles in freezing temperatures with the window down until we could find a dealership. This trip was sunny, delightful and relatively easy. We hit some traffic, but nothing major. I should have known something was up.
We arrived at our friend’s house, Nic Murphy, who is the President of BoDoc Records, which is a music production company that he started a few years ago. We met up with another foodie and traveler extraordinaire, Tanya Kang and went to Victory Brewery in West Chester, PA. Wow. The wait was nearly an hour so we mowed our way through the crowd to the bar and ordered a round of brewskies. Excellent beer, I would highly suggest you try it. We tried to narrow down a favorite but it’s really hard to do.
We were seated and I ordered a house-made wild boar sausage grinder with slaw and apricots. Laura ordered rib sticks with root beer barbecue sauce and threatened to bite anyone who touched them. She was just kidding, we all did share. Our friends watched in silent amazement as Laura destroyed her bowl of ribs, part of my grinder, the rest of Nic’s pizza and part of Tanya’s Quesadilla. What can I say? The girl can eat. If you are in the West Chester area, I highly recommend this place. Service is great, the food is top-shelf and the ambiance, if you can call it that, is all PA. Awesome.
The next morning we grabbed a cooler and some ice and headed out to an Italian market in downtown West Chester. Carlino’s. We love this place! We bought twelve-month house aged prosciutto, Italian cheeses, freshly ground sirloin, Italian sausages, anchovies, olives, freshly baked Italian style bread, fresh ricotta cheese, house roasted sliced pork and foe gras . The place is simply decadent. We drooled over their sandwich selection and decided to hold out for Jim’s Cheesesteak instead. Big mistake.
So often when travelling, it’s the unexpected that proves to be delightful while the planned turns into a bitter disappointment. Which is why, in part, I despise travel guides. I hate them. Tear the maps out of them and throw the guide away. All the guide does, with few exceptions, is take you where other Americans are. I’d rather be beaten with non-al-dente noodles than spend my precious vacation with other tourists. The phrase “When in Rome” has largely been lost on American travelers. But, for the sake of brevity, I digress.
We then journeyed over to Taste of Olive, our annual source for our olive oil. This place is amazing! They specialize in gourmet Italian dried foods, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and other assorted treats. I tasted olive oil until my taste buds were completely blown, and finally chose an unfiltered Italian oil from the Amalfi Coast. Maybe it was the fact that we have just been there, but I found it to be smooth and rich, with just the right notes of olive and a hint of rosemary. Is it expensive? Define your concept of cost versus rewards and I would say no. It is well worth the investment. So armed with a years’ worth of olive oil, truffle salt (if you haven’t tried truffle salt, you must! Oh, you must!) and dried pasta, we returned to BoDoc Records for a quick sandwich and the drive into Philly.
Most times, the drive from West Chester to Philadelphia takes about thirty minutes. This day, it took us nearly two hours. Traffic was miserable. After we finally arrived on South Street, it took us another thirty minutes to find a parking spot. Shout out to Nic for driving and patiently handling all of that! I was sleeping, which is preferable when I’m in traffic. Trust me, you don’t want me to be awake if we are stuck in traffic. I get mean.
We gleefully free ourselves from the car and enjoy South Street. This is one of the great places to people watch. Street vendors, skateboarders, runners, hookers, johns, homeless, wealthy, white, black, yellow – they are all here. The line to Jim’s stretched around the block and we waited nearly two hours to get a sandwich, but I have to say it was fun. We made it inside and to the front of the line to realize something crucial: They didn’t take credit cards! We huddled quickly and realized we had just enough cash for two sandwiches. Again, a shout out to Nic for his Mississippi roots: Never leave home without some cash!
After all that, honestly, they weren’t very good. Laura took one bite and announced hers needed mayonnaise. If Laura thinks something needs more fat on it, then something is wrong. It was just, well, bland. We tooled around South Street for a while and then were back in the car for another stop and go drive back to West Chester.
Laura is humming and looking through recipes during the drive back and finds one for Prosciutto meatballs. Perfect. We arrive back at BoDocs and Laura makes homemade Italian style meatballs with roasted red pepper pasta and we are all in heaven. We feast. Then, exhausted from the day, we sleep.
We wake, and I make omelets. We feast yet again, and then fix our grills south for I-81 and the only freaking snowstorm we get this winter. For 300 miles we slog along in four-wheel drive, passing stranded motorists and fellow travelers without so much as a blip on our conscience, passing mile after mile of snow covered forests and closed restaurants.
But, eventually, we made it home. Philly threw us yet another curve ball, but we still enjoyed ourselves. After all, it’s not the destination; it’s the journey, right? Something like that. For giggles, we ordered a cheesesteak at Sal’s, a local Italian restaurant across from our office here in Blacksburg. It was the best one yet. Hah! Should we have just stayed home? Oh hell no.