French and Mexican in The Keys

Before we get into food, the Florida Keys are really cool. 

Getting there from Orlando, the first base of our holiday, boils down to road or air. 

At the time of the trip we had a two-year-old in tow and my wife was carrying our second. Driving was out of the question. 

We took to the air. 

The plane was a third full, and with a max capacity of thirty-something, it goes without saying that it was the smallest, most empty plane I had ever been on. 

My wife hated it. 

I thought I liked it until we hit turbulence; I wasn’t a fan after that. 

My two year took it in his stride. 

One thing that made the flight enjoyable was the view. A propeller plane doesn’t go so high, so we got to see all the islands and the water. The latter was blue, peaceful, and so inviting. Like a starving man seeing a banquet, the whole family was desperate for a swim. 

The landing was smooth enough, and Key West airport took the planes lead; tiny and almost empty. 

Getting our bags and rental car were a breeze. 

I could go on to talk about the beaches; Bahia Honda in the shadow of a large, decaying bridge. Fort Zachary Taylor is very cool and the collective stubbornness of its soldiers interesting. 

But I wanted to talk about food. 

First up: The Greatest Almond Croissant in the World. 

I haven’t tried all of the almond croissants in the world, but I would fight anyone who claimed there was a better one.  

The place is called La Grignote, a French artisan bakery close to the southernmost point of the US. 

Ironically the only reason we went there was because Banana Cafe (La Grignote’s more famous neighbour) was full up. 

I’m so glad fate intervened.

For me, a great croissant pasty has to have snap on the outside but chewy on the inside. Not only did La Grignote’s rendition nail these two, but the almond cream also had a real punch. The consistency meant it all mixed beautifully in your mouth.

That’s the magic; three clearly distinct textures meeting and making a better one. It’s a form of gastronomic performance art. 

Despite only having three days in The Keys, we visited the place twice. I would easily brave another choppy flight for an almond croissant again. 

In a slightly different part of town is a joint called Bad Boy Burrito. 

My knowledge of the place came from another twist of fate. 

The night before we left Orlando I was watching Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, which turned out to be a Key West episode! 

Of the few places featured on the show, I had to pick Bad Boy Burrito for two reasons; fish tacos and their homemade pineapple habanero sauce. 

Why those things?

  1. In the UK fish tacos aren’t very common. They are one of my favourite things ever. 
  2. I love spicy things, but I have a condition that means I have to be careful. The sweet element of this sauce said I could get the heat and still tolerate it. 

I was expecting to like the food. It was right up my street. Yet somehow it exceeded my expectations. The fish had a nice bite to it, the tacos had the perfect amount of chew, and the salad topping snapped nicely on my teeth. 

The sauce was the star of the show, though. The pineapple habanero was sweet upfront and tangy spice at the back. But on the recommendation of the waitress, I got one taco with a green sauce. She said it went better with the fish. Perhaps she oversold it versus the pineapple habanero, although it was still damn good. I’d definitely suggest a trio of tacos and at least one fish with the green sauce. 

You should also know; I had to fit this in as a snack because my wife and kid didn’t fancy Mexican food for lunch. 

Don’t blame them. 

We are used to the cold. 

The idea of spicy food in over thirty degree Celsius heat wasn’t floating their boat. 

It was fine. I like snacks. 

A Castle, a Pyramid and a Burger

Imagine you are in Las Vegas for the first time. You land in the evening to find an airport that should be bigger and an immigration line that should be smaller.

You’ve already read advice about a taxi from the airport, making sure they don’t take the more expensive freeway route. You’ve seen the place in pictures. You know the names of the hotels and the concept of The Strip.
Then you see it.

Neon reflecting off glass, lights hanging in shapes you can’t quite make out, The Strip is real. It’s alive and pulsing with cars and people and noise.
The scale is incredible. On paper, the buildings were close neighbours. In real life, each hotel looks like a self-contained town, it’s own territory.

And like a fairytale come to life, your hotel is a castle, with flags and turrets topped by blue or red roofs. From the inside, the childlike wonder is quickly eroded. Smoke plumes left and right, bells from machines punch the air and patrons stagger from one device to the other.

Stand still for too long, and you will be offered the chance to buy a room at the hotel, and you aren’t sure if you want to even spend the night.
It’s not the venues fault. After the initial excitement wears off, it dawns on you that this is Disneyland for adults. Particular kinds of adults who like drinking, smoking, gambling and eating. No description fits the place better.

After dropping your bag in the entirely adequate room, you walk through the hotel and find a walkway to the next. You find yourself inside a pyramid. Only this one has the rear end of the Titanic next to a food court. Why wouldn’t it?

The pace changes once again, taking the short trip to Mandalay Bay, with its shockingly white tiles floor and open walkways.

Out of nowhere, the sports bar is on your right. You nearly passed by. Now you see, hear and smell it; you know you’re in the right place.

Burger Bar.

To a tourist, this looks like America. A generous, polished bar offering beer after beer. Screens on every wall and in each booth showing basketball and football. Waiters and waitresses clad in black buzz from table to table.

Once seated, the menu is a laminated paper equivalent to the bar. So much to choose, so little time. The premise is simple; pick a ready-made burger or get creative and build your own. It has to be the latter.

Start with the meat. The Kobe beef is enticing, but you’re here on business. You can’t expense that. Especially when the ‘back up’ is Certified Angus, cooked medium (which comes out nicely pink in this establishment). Decision made.

Next up is the bun. When did you last get to choose the type of bread for your burger? Have you ever? Pretzel intrigues you but is that crazy? You pick sesame. You’re a traditionalist. At least in the bun department.
Toppings. The combinations are dizzying, like seeing the strip all over again. Only this isn’t amateur night, you consider yourself a pro when it comes to burger.

Pepper jack cheese & peppered bacon. Let’s make it sing. Guac will offer balance and contrasting texture. Then a fried egg. That’s right. A freakin’ fried egg on top.

With a side of sweet potato fries (settle down, we’re all friends here) your order is almost complete. Because you haven’t ordered a drink. You were so busy with your food you neglected the vast array of liquid refreshment.

There is always a way out in these situations.

‘What do you recommend?’ You ask the waiter.

‘I highly recommend the Dogfish Head IPA.’

‘Great, I’ll have that.’ Order complete.

The beer arrives first, served ice cold in a goblet. The first sip kicks you in the mouth, smooth on the tongue at first, but the bite is hard. The next sip is less of a surprise, you get the sweeter notes this time. Somehow the beer is hearty and refreshing at the same time.

The food eventually getS to you, highlights of a recent NFL playoff have kept you company. It’s a strange game, but you could get into it.

The burger is significant, requiring both hands around it. Gripping it gently in place, the first bite pops the egg yolk, and gastronomic chaos ensues. A beautiful mess.

The bun and meat are strong in flavour and density. The toppings play together well, crunchy bacon, lumpy, creamy guacamole and hot moist egg white. The taste of the yolk jumps in and out, combining best with the peppery beats. No two bites are the same, it’s a dynamic workout for your mouth. Adding the egg wasn’t ego, It wasn’t folly, it was divine. Your perfect creation doesn’t last long.

The sweet potato fries are okay. Ranch dressing makes them all taste like slaty garlic mayo anyway.

You’re quickly full up and more than satisfied. Two unknown teams are playing basketball on the TV next to you.

You order another beer. This is adult Disneyland after all…

Portable Writing…On Your Phone

Despite being in my early (mid) thirties, I still love a video game. I doubt I’ll ever grow out of it. When I’ve come to a crossroad, such as having kids, or my wife not wanting to be in separate rooms during the precious few evening hours, I’ve just evolved. 

My main way of getting a gaming fix is from a handheld. As of writing this post, the Nintendo Switch is my jam. 

When I hit a similar issue with writing, I knew I had to adapt to that as well. 

In the end, it was the exact same solution. 

Portable gaming? Portable writing!

I started this post on my iPhone, for example. Using something like iCloud (which I have found better than OneDrive) syncing content between devices is easy – even for an Apple nerd like me who writes across a Mac, iPad and iPhone, sometimes in the same day.

When sitting at a desk or sofa aren’t available, I can always get a few words in.

As any article on writing will tell you, a daily habit is required. If you only have one space and limited time to write, that habit will elude you.

My advice is to harness those screens we all surround ourselves with. Write when you can, where you can and on whatever you can.

Let’s not sugar coat this – your standards won’t be as good. Personally, I took the positive from that. If you’ve ever read any writing tips from Hugh Howey he advocates ‘writing rough’ and I agree. The most important thing, especially the early days of a new work, is to get ideas onto the page.

Portable writing is the perfect way to do that.

I’ve gotten paragraphs out while my kid slept in my arms, I’ve worked on chapter order sitting on a train, I may even have jotted an idea or two down while on the loo…and you can too.

I wouldn’t recommend editing anything on your phone though. I see it as a champion device at the ideation stage. It is easier to carry than a notebook and you alway have it with you. Never miss a moment of inspiration again.

The proliferation of screens has completely democratised my writing process, and I hope it could do the same for you too.

The Best Burger in NYC

You’re in Manhattan, just after dark. There is a slight chill in the air, meaning the steam coming out of the grates in the floor is a pleasant surprise.

The fairy lights are lit on the trees, the city is bustling and you’re hungry.

You enter Le Parker Meridian hotel from the entrance on West 57th Street, a few blocks south of Central Park. There is a bar on your left as you head in, with a few tables intimately glowing red from the colour of the candle holders. You move through towards a marble clad hub with concierge on one side, reception desk on the other.

Between the two counters, a dark wooden floor leads to a wall. It look as though only hotel staff should be walking there, until you see the sign.

A neon sign, hanging as discreetly as a neon sign can, on the back wall. It is the shape of a burger.

As you follow the path, the hubbub of the hotel is slowly drowned out by Jimi Hendrix. You notice the air begins to crackle with the smell of cooked meat.

When you reach the end of the corridor, a small door opens into a joint with the most epic dive bar scene. The walls are cluttered with pictures and writing, the tables are all full, bearing scars from beer spills, drumming hands shuffling patrons. Why this jewel of American street food sits in such a grand hotel, you will never know.

The counter looms ahead of a queue, which persists no matter what time you go. The hard written sign above the cashier warns you to decide what you want before you get there. Or it’s back of the line.

‘Cheeseburger, medium rare, with the works,’ you say. Skip the fries, you think. If you’re still hungry, just order another burger. You didn’t even have time to consider a drink, but who needs one?

Now the wait. Because you know it’s being cooked fresh to order in front of you. You see the patty you think is yours and track it like its your card in a magic trick.

These magicians aren’t going to fool you. You’re not letting that thing out of your sight.

Finally, they call your order and hand you a brown paper bag which is heavier than you’d imagined. There are no free tables, but that doesn’t matter. This is a street burger, after all. Somehow, spilling out onto West 57th and taking your first bite out there seems more private.

When the moment arrives, it’s one you never forget. The condiments would overpower any normal burger, but the ground beef has enough to punch back. The balance of flavour is astounding, sweet and spicy dance across the ketchup and mustard, the crunch of the onions push against the soft bun and crumbling meat. The pickles snap on your teeth and the cheese folds over your tongue. It’s the best burger in New York. Hell, it’s the best burger in the world!

Now if only you’d had a drink and some fries to wash it down with.

I Don’t Want To Blog

I hope the title of my first blog doesn’t dampen your enthusiasm to read any further. I promise there is some content in here and an explanation for the title. 

It is true though, I don’t really want to blog. Not because I dislike the medium, quite the opposite. I really like reading blogs. I also like the idea of documenting and projecting my own opinions on things. What I don’t want to do is blog for the sake of it, just to build a platform for my other writing. Ultimately that is what this is – I am writing about my other writing. That’s what I want to do, my other writing. Not this. 

Whether you are reading this because you know me, recently heard of me, or just luck (good or bad), I’m an aspiring novelist. I say aspiring because I’ve only finished one piece of work. It’s a sci fi book called the last human. I’m starting to blog about myself and my process to help give an insight into how and why I write. Perhaps it will be helpful, either as an inspiration or a cautionary tale of how not to do things. Perhaps it’s personal therapy and no one will ever read it and eventually I’ll stop paying the bills on this website. 

I guess it doesn’t matter. It’s written now. Out of my brain and onto the page. This page.