Tuesday, May 31, 2005

North Carolina Dining: Elmo's Diner

When I left NC after finishing my graduate education, I knew there would be some places I would miss. Although it was likely that I could find almost anything in the Bay Area, there are places that are special just because it's special. Of course the food is great, but it's beyond the food - the memories associated with the place makes it impossible for any other restaurant to match it...

Elmo's Diner is one of those places. It was our weekend brunch spot to nurse our hang-overs over a cup of coffee and plate of grits. It was our low-key lunch spot when the Mogurin and I could both get away from campus for an extended lunch. They were always open, and it was where we went out for a holiday meal when all the other restaurants were closed.

And that's what we did yesterday. It was Memorial Day, and we weren't sure where we could go for dinner. I had just flew in and I was tired from traveling all day long, and Elmo's was the perfect spot for dinner on evenings like that.

I always start my Elmo's meal with a cup of their Creamy Tomato Basil soup.

It's tangy, creamy, and refreshing. There's chunks of onions in it that provide some texture, but over all, it is a smooth, smooth soup.

I had a craving for this soup several months ago and tried to re-create it. It involved cooking a whole bunch of tomatoes with some onions and milk with a little bit of Japanese dashi and miso to add depth. I don't think Elmo's uses dashi or miso, so I wonder what they use to create the rich umami taste. As I've told you before, tomatoes are full of umami, so maybe they just use more tomatoes than I did...

Seth and I both had the Carolina BBQ plate. BBQ around here is nothing like BBQ in CA, or in New England for that matter. BBQ does not equal grilling out. Grilling out is grilling out, BBQ is Q, and Q is pulled meat in a vinegar-based spicy sauce. It is traditionally pork, and pork Q sandwiches are a NC treat. Full of flavor with tasty chunks of meat stuffed between a bun, it's hard to find another sandwich that fulfills the primordial desire for meat.

Unfortunately, Elmo's wasn't serving pork Q. They had chicken Q, which in my opinion, was only OK, partly because I am not a terribly big fan of chicken. But knowing that I only had a few days in NC, I had to get a Q dish. It was spicy and tasty enough, but eh, I wouldn't get it again. Elmo's pork Q sandwich they used to serve is SOOOO much better.

Mark had the chicken and dumplin's, which is SOOOOO not what you think of as 'dumplings' in the Bay Area. The dumplings are actually boiled dropped biscuit dough. And no, there is no filling in the dumplings. In a rich, creamy chicken broth, this dish is more stew than soup. Alongside big Southern style biscuits, this plate is full of simple goodness.

Elmo's food is not flashy or fancy. It's just plain old good. And it's where I can go in my PJ pants and a fleece pull over and fit right in. And sometimes, I really miss that simple, unadorned style...


Anonymous said...

You can make cream of tomato soup by using either chicken broth or vegetable broth. That's "umami" too. It is..."dashi"...broth...you know.

Make sure that the tomato is peeled and seeded, slowly sweat the onions, add broth, simmer, never boil, add cream and that's basically it. You can make it in the summer with perfectly ripe tomatos, or you can make them with canned tomatos. A good canned tomato in the winter is certainly better than a bad fresh tomato. (O, but then you live in CA that has no seasons....)

There is a book you should get, "Think Like A Chef" - it teaches you all the basics of cooking western way - such as, the difference between brown chicken croth and white chicken broth. How to perfectly roast things, etc.

Alice said...

Actually, Northern CA has seasons, and tomato season is kicking in soon! I'm expecting a whole bunch of fresh crop from my ten plants!

Anonymous said...

I work at Elmo's - just email the contact on the website if you want the recipe :)