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Small Towns with Big Flavor

By Laura Kidder

While visiting the Best Small Towns for Food on this year’s Road Rally, Road Bros Brian Cox and Mike Shubic discover that small town America has big flavor–and plenty of surprises. Stellar chefs, wine-pairing menus, hand-crafted pastries, ethnic cuisine, and artisanal olive oils aren’t, it seems, exclusive to cities. Here’s what’s on the menu in small town America.

Charlottesville, VA

Charlottesville, two-and-a-half hours southwest of Washington, D.C., is almost as full of Americana as it is of restaurants. It was named for Princess Charlotte, wife of King George III, against whom this country rebelled. This is where Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in 1819. It’s also the area he (with Monticello), James Madison (with Montpelier), and James Monroe (with Ash-Lawn Highland) called home. The tradition of living graciously and off the land continues.

The Culinary Buzz: “Charlottesville captures our hearts and busts our breeches.” –Road Bros. “I lived in Italy for years and spent much of that time in Tuscany. Back in the States, I found Charlottesville–beautiful, sophisticated, great food and wine. It is, for me, the Tuscany of the United States.”—DavidnVenice.

Culinary Highlights: Agriculture thrives in the surrounding area, so there’s a lot of farm-to-table dishes–and a lot of wine. Thanks to Thomas Jefferson’s vision, this is one of America’s largest wine-producing regions, with more than two dozen vineyards. Sample the variety on the Monticello Wine Trail.

After visiting the farmer’s market, the Road Bros stopped at Brookville Restaurant for a traditional Southern dish: fried green tomatoes. From there, they visited another dozen or so restaurants–in one day–sampling things like pea soup, bacon-wrapped dates, and peach cobbler. Another great area tradition is whiskey. As the Road Bros put it, “The guys at the Whiskey Jar sure know how to show someone a good time!”

Lewiston, NY

Lewiston’s location has long been a draw. It’s a few miles north of Niagara Falls and just about shouting distance from Canada. The original inhabitants were from tribes that formed the Iroquois League. Later came French and British traders. It saw the first War of 1812 battle and was the last stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves fleeing to Canada. Today, folks still conduct trade along and off Center Street. And dining and shopping are just some of the memorable experiences in Lewiston.

The Culinary Buzz: “The food scene in Lewiston is pretty remarkable, especially for its petite size. . . . [It’s] known for its F.U.N. (Food Under Niagara).”—Road Bros. “We moved here four years ago, and . . . it feels like . . . vacation everyday. We really appreciate all the restaurants we have to choose from and the great food they provide.”—josebongo.

Culinary Highlights: Desserts topped the list, with Mile High apple pie at the Village Bake Shoppe, custard that’s richer than ice cream at Hibbard’s, and banana cream puffs at Water Street Landing. On the savory side: a famous mixed-egg dish at Tommy George’s, tomato tart with caramelized onions at Mangia Café and Bakery, and huge portions of barbecue at Brickyard.

The Road Bros also sampled thick-crusted, hearth-baked bread at the DiCamillo Bakery and, at D’Avolios, olive oils mixed with balsamic vinegars–from a white Sicilian lemon variety to a dark one made with figs. A standout at the standout Casa Antica was the Chilean sea bass. As Lewiston claims to be the birthplace of the cocktail, the staff at Carmelos created a special Road Bros concoction as part of a custom menu featuring local produce and wine.

Bloomington, IN

It’s hard to not go red with basketball fever in the home of Indiana University. But before you pass it off as just another college town of greasy spoons and sports bars, consider this: Orbitz Travel named Bloomington “the 7th fastest growing destination in the country for wine and culinary enthusiasts,” and Men’s Journal put it on a list of “Top 50 Places to Live.” Towns don’t get such praise without a great quality of life, which these days means having a vibrant cultural scene, worldly food, and, of course, a good local cru or microbrew–or two. Go Hoosiers!

The Culinary Buzz: “Bloomington is well known as an enthusiastic college sports town, however we found it to be equally as passionate about cuisine.” —Road Bros. “Not only is Bloomington a great foodie destination for quality but [also for] value . . . Thai, Ethiopian, Greek, burgers, pizza, sandwiches, ice cream, soup…it’s all available. Quality, creative ingredients without the huge price tag and long waits? Yes please.”—MisterDrew41

Culinary Highlights: At the Uptown Café, a primarily Cajun-Creole spot, bold breakfast options included chorizo and eggs; milder ones, cottage-cheese pancakes. Afterward, the Road Bros picked produce at the Strangers Farm and had dishes made of it at the Upland Brewing Co.–another example of the farm-to-table movement. The local theme continued with some of Upland’s hand-crafted beers. Other highlights included artisanal pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven at Finch’s Brasserie, a wine tasting at the Oliver Winery, and a six-course feast at Tallent–from foie grois to smoked trout to braised pork belly, with plenty of other dishes in between.

Burnsville, MN

No stranger to Best of the Road, Burnsville returned for the second year as a Best for Food contender. Local favorites include Porter Creek Hardwood Grill, Rack Shack Bar BQ and Chianti Grill, to name a few. The small suburb of Minneapolis welcomes our teams with open arms presenting the Road Bros with a key to the city and sending the mayor herself to personally escort them on their two-day restaurant crawl.

The Culinary Buzz: “Their grueling schedule…start[ed] with a public welcome at Jo Jo’s Rise and Wine on Saturday at 8 a.m. followed by a visit to Abdallah Candies, then tastings at local restaurants…finish[ing] out their Saturday with a tour of the gardens at Valley Natural Foods and a tasting that features locally-grown produce.” -Burnsville Patch

Culinary Highlights: “Didn’t think I’d be eating cous cous in Minnesota,” Brian reacted at the first meal. “And I didn’t know Minnesota was known for their Bar BQ,” Mike added at Rack Shack. After a sampling the team concludes, “as it turns out those Northern boys sure know how to cook up some BBQ.”

Santa Fe, NM

As the Road Bros put it, Santa Fe was the first city that stuck out with a theme, this really deep cultural identity. These people put chili in breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert and drinks. It’s an integral and colorful part of their dishes.

The Culinary Buzz: “The duo…experienc[ed] the best dining Santa Fe has to offer, including breakfast at Tia Sophia’s, margaritas at Maria’s, pizza and beer at Marble Brewery, dinner at Coyote Café, and much more.” -Santa Fe New Mexican “Santa Fe is so distinct. It’s so different than every other place we’ve been. Not only the architecture and the landscape, but the food–chili-inspired, if you will,” -Brian Cox.

Culinary Highlights: “One of the highlights for us was these mixologists competing to make the Best of the Road drink,” the Road Bros shared in judging. “Santa Fe had the identity. They knew who they were and had 500 years of tradition.”

Walla Walla, WA

The 2011 Friendliest Town in America knew how to greet a Best of the Road team. From a gourmet food truck waiting the moment they reached town to a wine and food pairing with local vintners. The Road Bros were treated to the towns staples: onions and wine, and even picked up a complimentary taste of the famed friendliness.

The Culinary Buzz: “The team was taken on a tour of the main onion processing plant. They saw workers process and box onions that would eventually end up in some of the dishes they sample[d]. Neither judge ha[d] had a Walla Walla Sweet. Mike couldn’t stand the temptation of trying one raw. After their tour, the team visit[ed] up to 15 restaurants.” -KERP-TV

Culinary Highlights: “Walla Walla was the biggest surprise, nothing felt forced or contrived and we had a really good time with the people. We understood why they won friendliest last year, the people were overwhelming. There was a camaraderie, not a competitiveness between the chefs in town.” -Road Bros