On the road, savoring Carolina cooking

Posted: January 24, 2013

Here is an excerpt from Craig LaBan's online chat from Jan. 22:

Craig LaBan: Good afternoon, my hungry friends. I've been traveling, playing roadie for my wife Elizabeth's book tour - and, most important, ensuring a plate of fried okra and barbecue to keep our energy up. More on that later; first, today's Crumb Tracker Quiz. Guess, in order, the three places where I ate these dishes: (1) roast duck stir-fried udon noodles; (2) good fresh gnocchi (hint: Center City); (3) curried cauliflower flat-bread pizza. Ready, set, crumb!

The highlight of our trips to NYC, Washington, D.C., and North Carolina came near Raleigh, where I reconnected with banana-pudding love at the Pit, had life-changing, tangy chopped-pork barbecue at Allen & Son (Chapel Hill), and updated southern comforts at Poole's Diner, including one of the three best mac 'n' cheeses ever.

Reader: Valentine's Day - Le Virtù or Ela?

C.L.: I love Le Virtù, but I suggest Ela. If chef Jason Cichonski does his hot cookie-dough dessert, you and Cupid win!

Reader.: What's your favorite Cambodian dish? I'm Cambodian and so glad to see the recent restaurants you featured.

C.L.: The soups are spectacular, especially the sour soup, but I also loved the one done with pumpkin and roasted rice. Angkor's lemongrass fish soup is really special - extremely elegant and full-flavored.

Reader: Those duck udon noodles [Tracker No. 1] look like Sang Kee.

C.L. Right, Sang Kee in University City. Chewy ropelike strands, the perfect texture against the softness of tender roast duck, with sneaky spice.

Reader: For my wife's birthday, I want to try Rittenhouse Tavern but she insists on Alma de Cuba. Will I be OK?

C.L.: I haven't been back in so long I couldn't really tell you. But I assume it's still pretty good because it's still there and Douglas Rodriguez is still involved in the Nuevo Latino menu. I remember liking it a lot - especially when a young chef named Jose Garces was in charge.

Reader: Mike, Alma is perfectly solid. You will have a good meal, and some food you may not have tried before. Plus it's a great atmosphere, and it's your wife's bday. So (a) do it, and (b) you don't have a choice!

C.L.: My thoughts exactly, but less convoluted!

Reader Mike: Us married men all understand the rules. Thanks.

Reader: During Restaurant Week [Jan. 20-25, Jan. 27-Feb. 1] take note of the regular menu, sometimes a better deal than the prix fixe.

C.L.: But beware. Most kitchens are not geared to put much effort into their regular menus during RW, simply because that's not what people are ordering.

Reader: So is Craig going to partake?

C.L.: Last time I had a fine experience at Meritage, a great underrated restaurant. But there are duds, too. The thing is: $35 for a three-course dinner or $20 for lunch is not a huge financial risk to do some exploring. Stick with my advice; [this month's] Philly Mag list [of the city's 50 best restaurants] was even more random than ever. I've never believed in 1-through-50-type rankings; I think it creates false competition among places with different ambitions. A straight rating blending context of the scene with how much a place meets its own ambitions works best for me.

Here are Crumb Tracker answers 2 and 3: Gnocchi, Tietra (231 S. 15th St.); curried cauliflower flat-bread pizza, Jules Thin Crust (78 S. Main St., Doylestown). I hear Ardmore and Chestnut Hill are in line for outposts. And now, adieu!

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