Fish tacos. Do you know?

Warning: this is more of a plea than a post or review.  I realize that the majority of my audience is Raleigh, North Carolina, but have y’all ever had a Southern California fish taco?  Or maybe you had a fish taco on the East coast–whoever made it probably had their first one on the West coast. It doesn’t really matter, as long as it was delicious–and when you use fresh ingredients, and stick to simplicity, a fish taco isn’t all that difficult. I am a fish taco fiend.  I have planned entire vacations around tacos.  This is serious shit, people. Integrity is everything.

Most of you who know me or read my write up on J. Betski’s know that I am from coastal North Carolina.  Carteret County in tha house.  We have the best seafood there.  But what we didn’t have is the rich Mexican culture that I became immersed in while living in Long Beach, CA in late 2000s.  You probably know that Southern California boasts the best Mexican food that the U.S. has to offer, and edged up on the coast of that magical Mexican food landscape is the fish taco.  By the time I moved back to NC, I was completely addicted to California fish tacos.  I would order one just about anytime I saw one on a menu, in hopes it would be a fraction of perfection that the real thing, a true California fish taco, is.  I really learned quickly that it just isn’t worth ordering random fish tacos.  I have been on the receiving end of some really sad excuses for a fish taco.  One experience that stands out, in particular, occurred in a bar in downtown Raleigh that is no longer in business, called Busy Bee.  One night I ordered this fish taco on their menu.  You guys, this was 2009… Can you believe I still remember this?!  It stuck in my mind because they brought me a tuna wrap!!  Totally NOT a fish taco.  Heartless.  Bless their heart…  Anyway, I think that was what ultimately broke me.  Now, unless I make it myself, I stay true to California for my fish taco needs. I adventure around a little more with a shrimp taco, but not fish.  It has to be right, or it is simply sacrilege.

fish tacos

I am super passionate on this topic at the moment because I just got home from a visit back to Southern California a couple days ago.  I prioritize Mexican food, especially fish tacos, while I am there.  There is such an abundance of great fish tacos spots in Southern CA. I ordered the tacos pictured at a little place called Sancho’s Tacos in Belmont Shore, my old neighborhood. It’s themed around the band Sublime, which also made it feel cozy.  My favorite kind is so simple.  It starts with a fresh corn tortilla.  Fish tacos were invented in Baja, Mexico, and they are traditionally grilled or fried, but I really prefer a fresh grilled fish taco, with finely shredded cabbage, some spicy and acidic green tomatillo salsa, sour cream drizzle, cilantro, lime. Or you could add tomato to it, and some spicy citrus/mayo based sauce. Either is perfect and maintains the integrity of a true Baja fish taco, as long as the fish is fresh, the tortilla is fresh, and you have fresh lime, cilantro, and cabbage, maybe some pickled jalapeños.  No cheese. But why do we not have these readily available in the Triangle?  Am I missing something? We aren’t that far from the coast!  I am seriously thinking I need to start a fish taco popup business in DTR.  Is there anyone else who really needs more fish tacos?  Or am I totally a freak? While we are on the topic, do y’all know what a wet burrito is?  

Christmas at J. Betski’s

I know I promised you more on Hummingbird and Coleen in my last post, and I am going to bring it, but we need to talk about J.Betski’s tonight.  Any local friend of mine who has talked about food with me knows that J. Betski’s is my longtime favorite restaurant in the Triangle.  I recommend it to anyone and everyone who’s enthusiastic about food, or looking for somewhere incredible to eat.  There is no place like it anywhere around here, and there never will be another. J. Betski’s is described as an elegant restaurant that uses local ingredients to create German & Polish dishes served with wine and beer.  That’s an accurate description, but being the quintessential romantic and storyteller I am, I have to tell you how my love affair with J. Betski’s began.

Take it back to 2009.  Downtown Raleigh was nothing like it is today.  It was not bustling with art culture (which we still need to strongly cultivate), new restaurants and cocktail bars, tech startups, and the untiring construction and growth we see today.  I was a newcomer to the area, having just moved from Long Beach, California.  I was in culture shock, and a sense of belonging in Raleigh didn’t come natural at the time.  North Carolina has always been my home, but never this far from the ocean, and I was still settling in.  So, I remember my first visit to J. Betski’s very well.  My sister, Laura, brought me there for the first time, along with Josh, and their new baby, my nephew, Atticus.

It’s not just because I was still getting to know the area that J. Betski’s really stood out to me, but because this was the first time I had been to a restaurant that tasted this much like home.  Both of my parents are great cooks, but I also have a Polish grandmother to thank for what my idea of home tastes like.  We had a salty childhood on the Bogue Banks of Carteret County, eating raw scallops and shrimp fresh out of the water as kids, but my sister and I spent every summer with our Grandma Kordulewski in Kinston, NC.  She spoiled us silly, and cooked endless feasts that nearly always included fresh vanilla ice cream drizzled with honey and peaches (sometimes as a late night treat), just for us girls. She grew up in rural Poland, survived the Holocaust, and lived in Munich just before moving to the U.S. in 1949.  It is very clear to me now that she always paid attention in the kitchen.  She also became a great Southern cook, and knew how to delicately roast a pork shoulder or fry a trout better than many Carolina natives. 🙂 But as a child, I knew that her style was unique because you couldn’t find food like that in Carteret County, where we lived.  In fact, after her death in 2000, it was at least 5 years before I ate real Polish food again, which was during a trip to Poland I took with my sister.  So, here we are, in Seaboard Station in downtown Raleigh at J. Betski’s.  I think I really had an awakening there. An ethereal connection to the food culture of my youth that I didn’t realize I was missing in my life.  And, since Chef John Korzekwinski incorporated local ingredients into his menu even before it was popular, that means he features fresh seafood from the places I grew up on.  It was like J.Betski’s captured all my favorite elements of food from my childhood, all wrapped into one magical little place tucked away in downtown Raleigh, staffed by the nicest people, with beautiful cocktails and a very finely curated wine list.  How could such a place exist and be so perfect?!!  Enter my obsession with J. Betski’s.

Every year, they have a special prix fixe Christmas dinner.  Somehow, this year was the first time I have been.  It was absolutely amazing, as expected.  I was joined by the most amazing woman, one of my dearest friends, my “work wife” as we affectionately refer to one another, Hayley.  This was our special “work wife Christmas dinner”.  There’s a photo of the menu below, but what we had was a slight deviation– we had scallops rather than veal after a change of menu followed by a special request (thanks, John! <3).  We started with the beets and the charcuterie.  These beets were soooo tender. The maple and rosemary, which was barely there, paired so elegantly with this goat cheese cream.  That goat cheese cream…  Holy shit.  I want that slathered on everything I eat. It was super light and fluffy, and balanced the beets so beautifully.  Bravo.  Came in hot with the beets. We were really hungry and ended up ravaging that platter of cured meats, pickled veggies, and sliced sausages.  Confession: I try to avoid meat most of the time for several reasons.  But, J. Betski’s is somewhere I’m always willing to splurge.  It is locally sourced, and I like to think that the animal I’m consuming was able to walk on grass and experience the earth as we do before they have that one really bad day.  John’s pastrami is the best thing to ever happen to a charcuterie plate.  You can go there for lunch and often find a Reuben burger on special–which features this pastrami.  The sausages are always perfect.  Can we just stop and talk about sausages for a minute?  Sausages are delicious.  I have jokingly said before that being Polish and German, I have sausages flowing through my veins.  Sausages. Are. The. Best.  And because I rarely eat them, they are really such a treat.  This is where you want to go to get your sausage fix.  J. Betski’s serves fresh kielbasa, also a spicy kielbasa (my personal fav) and fresh brats. My favorite appetizer there is the chicken liver mousse with fresh homemade pretzels.  You need to try that next time you go.  This meat and veggie platter had baby homemade pretzels, and a really unexpected, but much appreciated, little puff pastry with lightly spiced baked apple on top.  Like a little dessert bite to finish your charcuterie.  I dig it.

We were basically full after that.  But, then came the oysters.  His baked oysters are always superstars on the menu–this might be the first time I have had them with leek and fennel.  I’m not sure what type of cheese was on them, but we both decided the oysters were “panty-dropper” status.  Be sure not to overlook anything on a plate at J. Betski’s. The red pepper, carrot, and onion relish garnish was our perfect palate cleanser after those oysters to get us ready for the scallops.  We were having a 2016 Tavel Rose from the South Rhone, but I ordered a Bourgogne Chardonnay to go with the scallops.  Scallops are my favorite seafood of all time, and maybe just favorite food in general.  In fact, I have decided that if I had to choose my last meal, it would be perfectly seared scallops. It is actually really hard to find a restaurant that consistently serves perfectly seared scallops.  I have seen some sad iterations as of late, but J. Betski’s has never disappointed.  Our scallops tonight were accompanied with little Polish dumplings, called Uszka, this time stuffed with spinach, and they really just melted in your mouth. The scallops here are always perfection.  Henry, J. Betski’s bartender, and I even came to a recent agreement that he would send me a text to inform me when they feature scallops on the menu. 🙂  What an angel (pictured below).

One of the many talents Chef John Korzekwinski has is the ability to incorporate several ingredients into a dish and they layer gradually on your palate, and the dish really unfolds in your mouth.  Some chefs get overzealous and get too busy with a dish, and what sounded beautiful in theory or on paper falls flat into a mashed up flavor blob in your mouth in real life.  A lot of John’s dishes sound complex, but are always elegantly and masterfully executed, and they layer beautifully, as intended.  All around a truly world class dinner and only $48/person… We ate hours ago and I am still so full I cannot even talk about the dessert plate, but I will tell you that they have a special pastry chef who makes some really cool Eastern European desserts.  The gingerbread is definitely worth pulling out a stop for– it was different than any I think I’ve had.  It was so light and with the perfect amount of warming spices.  For me though, the best part of the dessert was the description sheet the pastry chef had made for Henry that morning. Highly recommend sitting at the bar with Henry, by the way, if you don’t have a large group.  He is a hoot. I noticed Henry reading from this piece of paper and caught a glimpse of the illustrations, and asked to see it.  I found it hilariously adorable that the pastry chef drew it for Henry.  We probably aren’t supposed to be seeing it, but I thought the descriptions were great, and since you’re reading my stuff, I think you’re special, so I don’t mind divulging Henry’s dessert tray description. 🙂

Thank you/ dziekuje bardzo/, J. Betski’s, for another perfect night with perfect food, and for always making my foodie dreams come true.  I hope I’m in town for the New Year’s Eve Prix Fixe Dinner at J. Betski’s! You can see that menu here and call for reservations–> Otherwise, you can visit OpenTable or their website for reservations, or just pop in and grab a seat at the bar.

dessert drawing

Na zdrowie and dobranoc! 

let’s talk about food.

coleenandsarah_oakwoodcandlelightStaring at this blank screen gave me flashbacks to college when I would procrastinate always with the hopes of creating something masterful under pressure.  haha. Such a bad habit. But today, those daunting blank screens are far in the rear view, it is a chilly December Saturday morning, I am in my pajamas drinking coffee, listening to Mariah Carey Christmas (am I sick or what?), glancing out the backdoor occasionally at my sweet Daisy as she basks in the backyard sun. There is no deadline.  I am enjoying a leisurely weekend morning–such a luxury isn’t it?  So, what am I doing here?

I want to write about my passion for masterfully prepared food and drink.  I have to disclose, this wasn’t my idea.  I was talking with a friend recently over dinner at Hummingbird, gushing over what we were eating and also talking about his aspiration of opening a restaurant someday when he suggested that I start a food blog.  Wait, let’s back up, it wasn’t a suggestion, it was a straight up command. And it came with a deadline.  haha!  And so I questioned, “why the hell would I do that?  What am I going to get out of it?”  His response was, “so you can write.”  Well, that’s reason enough for me. So, thanks for that, friend.

The great thing about writing about food is that I really don’t mind if nobody reads it or talks about it.  I just need to express it, being the expressive woman that I am. But, I am very confident in the comprehension of my palate, part genetically blessed and part trained, so maybe I will inspire someone to try something new, or to dig deeper into their own palette’s comprehension.  That would really make my day.  But this is a very humble beginning, and my expectations are low.  So, ahem, welcome to my food blog.  🙂

I have chosen to highlight a new restaurant in Raleigh called Hummingbird, to begin.  It just recently graced Raleigh’s food scene in November.  I have been proliferating anticipation leading up to the launch of this neighborhood gem owned by Chef Coleen Speaks.  There’s a lot of buoyant emotion wrapped up in this place for me.  You see, Coleen isn’t just a masterful (god I love that word) local chef, she is one of my closest friends, my neighbor, my sister, my confidant, fellow foodie and lover of fun.  I have had the distinct pleasure of enjoying countless meals created by her in her home, and my friends have been listening to me rave about her food and craft cocktails for years.  I remember the first time I met her and her husband, Nick.  I think it was 2009.  My sister invited me to the Speaks’ famous Halloween house party.  Coleen had a huge cauldron of her famous gumbo and a massive punch bowl of Dark n Stormy with lychees stuffed with brandied-cherries floating in it.  🙂  Genius.  They looked just like eyeballs floating around.  haha.  I am pretty sure I fell in love with her and Nick that night.  Fast forward years later, and I ended up buying a house two blocks away from them.  She has extended her table to me these past 4 1/2 years enough for me to say, with conviction, that this woman is one of the most skilled chefs in the area, and in my opinion, one of the most brilliantly creative chefs in the world.  Hummingbird is a long awaited wish of Coleen’s and I am thrilled to celebrate this labor of love.  Now, anyone can sit at her table.  You can even order that gumbo I had on that balmy and rainy Halloween night when I first met her.

Well, that’s it for this post.  I am so excited to tell you about my favorite details of this space, the food, and the cocktails.  FYI–their bartender, Tal, makes the most perfect Negroni I have ever had in my life, which is fitting as my first Negroni was made by Coleen in her kitchen. For those of you who don’t know Chef Coleen, aka Coco, she is pictured seated above, with myself standing. Cheers, and thanks for joining me!