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Sokolowski’s University Inn (Cleveland, OH)

My regular readers know that once a year, I gather with several of my friends and we do a “Death March” in which we spend an extended weekend at a different metropolitan area exploring the food, drink, and cultural scene, culminating in a ~20 mile walk through the city to explore all the neighborhoods. We’ve done a lot of cities, New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Montreal, London… this year was Cleveland. Okay, I can hear a lot of you already asking, “Wait, what? Cleveland?!” But you heard me right. Yeah, Cleveland had some rough years of post-industrialism, burning rivers, and general rust belt blight, but as I learned with many business trips to the area in the ’90s through recent years, Cleveland is actually one of the country’s most underrated cities, having cleaned themselves up quite nicely, and the city has a plethora of great attractions, ranging from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, to some great parks, some great breweries, and excellent restaurants both old and new. While much of the culinary coverage of Cleveland focuses on the newer places, we started our visit in the city with a trip to one of the old stalwarts of Cleveland ethnic dining: Sokolowski’s.

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House of Wu (West Warwick, RI)

At times I have to remind myself that here at Offbeat Eats, we’re all about finding good food wherever one’s travels take them, and that can mean anything from dive bars, to food served out of the back of a converted U-haul, all the way up to Michelin-starred restaurants on obscure islands. A good example of this is “Chinese” food. Chinese-American cuisine is really an odd sort of evolved cuisine. As covered quite masterfully by Jennifer 8 Lee in The Search for General Tso, ethnic cuisine in America is much like immigration in general: a mix of cultural integration, cultural preservation, adaptation, preservation… as well as more than a little improvisation and occasionally bastardization. And you know, while I do love going to various more “authentic” Chinese restaurants in various cities, and really enjoy some of the higher-end Chinese-inspired fusion cuisine that’s come into existence, sometimes I like a good Chinese-American meal as well. Like a good Tex-Mex meal, a “Chinese” meal doesn’t need to be “authentic” to be great, it just has to be well-prepared with good ingredients. In that light, earlier this summer I joined some of my good friends from the FOM for a friendly outing at an old, classic New England restaurant serving unapologetic “Chinese American Food”: House of Wu (not to be confused with the fashion designer)

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Two Brothers Tavern (Middlebury, VT)

After a splendid four day weekend in Lake George, we ended up taking a slightly roundabout route home in order to do a bit of tourism. Normally we’d head back east on Route 4 through Rutland, but this time we ended up going north to the very north end of Lake George to check out Fort Ticonderoga, and then meander our way back home by crossing the scenic Lake Champlain Bridge and heading home through mid-Vermont, stopping off in Middlebury for dinner. Middlebury has always been a pretty good food town, with options like a location of American Flatbread, or even one of the few remaining A&W Root Beer drive-ins (with Lake George being one of the others), but while we smelled some rather splendid smells coming from Taste of India, we were in a bit of a burger mood, and decided to check out Two Brothers Tavern.

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Lone Bull Pancake & Steak House (Lake George, NY)

Our second morning in scenic Lake George, we had a bit of spare time to explore, so went driving a bit north along the western shore of Lake George, seeing some of the nice views, seeing a few of the larger resorts, and finding a place for breakfast. We ended up selecting one of the area’s more venerable establishments, the Lone Bull Pancake & Steak House, now approaching it’s 50th year of operation.

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Biscotti Brothers Cafe (Lake George, NY)

The very end of June had us heading out to scenic Lake George with a bunch of friends for Ohana By The Lake, a three-day celebration of Tiki culture, rum, and basic fun sponsored by the Fraternal Order of Moai (of which I am a member), held at the scenic Tiki Resort, one ofAmerica’s last best existing examples of mid-century American Tiki culture. But it also gave us a chance to explore the Lake George area, with it’s many, many mini-golf courses, scenic vistas, boardwalk, and the like. One little place we found for breakfast was just across from The Tiki: Biscotti Brothers.

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Rose Villa (Ormond Beach, FL)

As I mentioned in my previous review for Kona Tiki Bar, downtown Ormond Beach is a pleasant, quieter sibling to Daytona Beach, and sports a rather nice selection of restaurants on its own; walking to Kona Tiki Bar, I walked right by a rather nice Victorian-style large mansion done up as a restaurant: Rose Villa, that looked like it had some potential for a nice dinner, so when the next evening gave me another opportunity to grab some dinner around Ormond Beach, I decided to give them a try.

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Kona Tiki Bar (Ormond Beach, FL)

As a somewhat frequent business traveler, sometimes business travel is pretty good: I get to go to some interesting parts of the country (and sometimes world), meet interesting people, and explore some restaurants that are quite different from those around my rural New England home. Usually, a trip is one part work and one part pleasure. Well, my June trip to Daytona Beach to do some testing at Embry-Riddle? It definitely wasn’t one of those business trips that went well. Pretty much everything went at least a little askew. Work booking the wrong hotel. The wrong hotel somehow screwing up the room reservation ending up with my stuff in a box, and my rental car getting towed since they showed me as having checked out. Flights back home getting canceled and having to scramble to find a way home to not miss a vacation I was due to depart on. Pretty much, this was the exact opposite of what a good business trip generally is. But there’s one place this trip really shined, and partially made up for all the headaches, and that was on the culinary front.

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Riff’s North (Turners Falls, MA)

One of the areas I do really like exploring is Western MA’s Pioneer Valley. A semi-rural area much like VT/NH along the Connecticut River, it’s got a nice selection of college towns (Amherst, Northampton), quiet former mill towns (Easthampton, which is surprisingly SW of Northampton, and Greenfield), and the like. Nestled among these towns are a bunch of great little restaurants, breweries, art galleries, farm stands, and the like, and it’s nice to occasionally get out and explore a new town. In this case, while we’ve been to Greenfield a few times, I had never really had a chance to explore the village across the river, Turners Falls. It’s actually part of Montague, MA, but Turners Falls is a fairly compact downtown area along the now-defunct Turner Falls canal (now a reservoir for a dam downriver in Greenfield). In any case, it’s a rather nice little downtown, with an arts center, some galleries, and a rather nice selection of restaurants. After looking at a few menus, we ended up settling on Riff’s North.

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Harlem Shake (Harlem, NY)

Our last stop in NYC was a fairly relaxed burger shop on Lenox Ave called Harlem Shake. Kitty corner from our previous reviews of Sylvia’s and Red Rooster, Harlem Shake seemed like a good place to grab a light lunch on the way out of town. Harlem Shake Interior Basically, Harlem Shake is your classic 1950s-style burger diner: a modest art deco interior including a semi-functional diner counter (while it’s got the row of classic spinning stools, there’s little room at the counter itself for eating), with a little bit of an edgier, modern music selection (indeed, the autographed signatures on the wall include P.Diddy and A$AP Rocky), but one look at the menu board confirms that this is classic diner fare: a selection of burgers, patty melts, fries, milkshakes, fried chicken, and the like. There are also a handful of interesting items on the menu, like jerk chicken, hot honey chicken, and even a few unexpected twists like the Red Velvet or “Double chocolate bacon” milkshakes. But the twist here is that they are trying to really do these diner classics well: the burgers are made from Pat Lafrieda patties (as are fully half of the “craft” burgers in the city), the ice cream is from Blue Marble, and most of the sauces and toppings are made in-house. Despite the invocation of the phrase “craft burger”, these aren’t the typical half-pound-plus $20 deals sold at entirely too many restaurants, either, but the classic retro-style burger with two ~2 oz patties seared to a crisp on the griddle and served up on a toasted bun.

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Red Rooster (Harlem, NY)

Our trip to New York City also gave us a chance to check out a relatively new restaurant just down the block from Sylvia’s: Red Rooster, which has been rather well known as a good place to experience Southern food, comfort food, and a good brunch. As an added bonus, I’ve always liked the recipes of Marcus Samuelsson, the Ethiopian- and Swedish-trained chef from Top Chef several seasons ago. I didn’t realize until after dining at Red Rooster that it was one of his restaurants, so I got to kill two birds with one stone.

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