It’s always nice when you get a chance to spend a long holiday weekend with family.
I was able to get a few days off and made plans to spend the Fourth of July with my parents, brother and sister-in-law in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
I packed my luggage, my two older dogs and my new puppy and hit the road extremely early Thursday morning.
Crack of dawn early, as in where the hell is the sunlight?
The early start was to beat the afternoon heat and, more importantly, the midday Atlanta-area traffic jams.
Visiting my family has always meant time to get caught up on what’s happening in our lives. But more importantly, it means my mom is likely to make some of my favorite Cuban food since I don’t get to visit as often as she would like me to (which would be permanently if she had her way).
This visit was exactly what I expected and more.
Arriving early Thursday meant I made it to Mom’s in time for lunch and dinner.
For lunch, she plated up a small serving of picadillo (a Cuban dish made with ground beef, olives and a tomato sauce Cubans call sofrito) and a side salad of sliced avocados with olive oil, salt and pepper.
Friday evening, my mom made another of my favorites and a plate that I had not eaten in about a decade — arroz con pollo (Cuban-style chicken and rice). Authentic arroz con pollo is made with yellow rice.
The rice turns a yellow color with the addition of either saffron or bijol powder, both popular methods for making the traditional Cuban dish. The rice is also cooked and flavored with the watery chicken broth that was used to par-boil the chicken. My mom also add pimiento (diced roasted red peppers), the cooked chicken and peas to the rice.
Finally, the rice is served while still moist and sticky. My mom accomplishes this by soaking the rice in BEER (gotta love Mom) so the entire one-pot dinner will stew in the beer about 15-20 minutes before serving.
With my brother also being off for the weekend, I had a chance to partake in some good old fashion hot dogs and burgers cooked by the grill master himself (so he calls himself).
I must admit his Jack Daniels (it has to have or be served with some form of alcohol if it’s my family) marinated burger with pepper jack cheese was worthy of a grill master recognition (just don’t tell him that).
In between time in the pool, catching up on family stuff and dining, I had some time to go off and explore certain things for myself.
My parents are too elderly to go out hiking or searching for waterfalls. My brother is not the outdoorsy type, especially during a vacation break and it’s nearly 100 degrees out.
So while he slept in and Mom and Dad watched TV, I ventured to downtown Chattanooga after doing some hiking around Lookout Mountain.
I had worked up a serious appetite after climbing rocks, scaling steep trails down to some waterfalls and then hiking back to my car.
After walking around for a bit, I found what seemed like a trendy new taco place. Being that Mexican food tops my list among favorite things to eat (of course, if you know me well enough, my list of favorites is about three pages long), I decided to give it a try.
The place was called Taco-nooga.
I was hooked from the first bite!
This was the real thing. Not Tex-Mex. Not an Americanized version of Mexican food. It was completely what you would expect to be served if you visited a taqueria in Mexico.
Their guacamole was chunked (not mashed up, but real big chunks) pieces of fresh avocado, diced tomatoes, onions, cilantro and lime juice. Their house salsa had just the right amount of heat. But it was their tacos that had me at “hello.”
I ordered the three-taco plate, which offered me the option of picking three different tacos for $8. I opted for a carne asada taco (grilled steak), a grilled chicken taco and a taco al pastor (slow-roasted marinated pork shoulder).
When they placed that plate before me, I could hear the mariachi band in the back of my head transporting me to the heart of Mexico City. The fresh handmade corn tortilla was lightly heated and each was STACKED with my meat of choice. On top of the meats were diced onions and a heaping of cilantro. The plated was flanked by lime wedges just begging to be squeezed over each taco.
It was delicious, and I’ll definitely be going back to try other options they had on their menu.
I had to hike another trail after that meal just to walk off my food baby.
We all picked one night to go out to eat at a restaurant. It was nothing fancy, but it was an all-you-can-eat place (see it does run in my family).
I think my dad and I won the who-can-eat-the-most-crawfish contest. My sister-in-law and I did well on killing off some boiled shrimp. And my brother and I polished off plenty of mussels.
Mom saved her appetite for the dessert round and won that easily. The rest of us couldn’t walk to the dessert table by then.
It was a great family visit, and I look forward to going back. Dad said there is a new place he knows I’ll love because they serve New Orleans cuisine.
Now back home it’s time to tighten the belt (not too tight, as my belly still hurts) and get back to more moderate eating habits.
It’s either that or train twice as hard, and that ain’t happening anytime soon.