Saturday, January 16, 2010

Tony Packo's Cafe -A Toledo Gem

Looking back through my blog, one might think I stick to pretentious foods. In the past few months, I’ve written about steak houses, eating in New York or Chicago or Miami, hundred dollar dinners for one etc. But if you dig deeper –I talk about cheese steaks and hamburgers and ribs too. What I really try to do is find whatever I think is terrific and if it’s a slice of foie gras atop veal with shaved truffles or if it’s a juicy cheeseburger, I’ll eat it, love it and write about it. I have found terrific food from coast to coast –small towns like Owensboro, Kentucky (where you have got to visit the Moonlight Bar-BQ and try the mutton) to the big city (South Beach’s Puerta Sagua has a Cuban pig’s feet stew that I just can’t resist when it’s on the menu), there is no one fare that inspires me more than the other.

Tony Packo’s in Toledo, Ohio is one such place. Food, atmosphere and history all in one perfect hot dog joint –and they don’t even serve hot dogs! Let me explain. In 1932, a Hungarian immigrant named (you guessed it) Tony Packo borrowed a few bucks from family. This was no small feat during the great depression. He then opened what would go on to be a successful family business. His “hot dog” was really a type of sausage called Kolbász, which tastes a lot like a cross between a hot dog and a kielbasa. About twice the size of a hot dog, he sliced it in half so it wasn’t like eating a sausage. Today’s versions are no more creative than other hot dog joints, but the fresh dog, house made chili and other offerings, such as pork and beef stuffed cabbage in sour cream sauce, keep Tony Packo’s bustling year round. Toledoans know their Hungarian food.

While Tony Packo’s might have been well known to the folks in Toledo, it might have remained another tasty but obscure little local treasure had it not been for the 1970’s and 1980’s hit TV show M*A*S*H*. For those of us who grew up watching this still-to-be-outdone comedy, one might recall Tony Packo’s being brought to the spotlight by Cpl. Max Klinger. In the character’s never ending quest to be kicked out of the ARMY and move back to his beloved Toledo, he referenced Tony Packo’s numerous times in the series. In one episode, they ordered sausage casings from Tony’s so they could be used as blood filters (crude dialysis) when the ARMY requisitioning process was too cumbersome. Jaime Farr, who played Klinger and is also a Toledo native, suddenly made Tony Packo’s a national sensation.

Since then, they have opened numerous locations in and around Toledo, but it’s the original, albeit expanded, restaurant that has the sense of nostalgia brought to light in the TV show. Hanging stained glass table lights and dark paneled walls reflect the origins of the place. The 1930’s and 40’s don’t seem so long ago. What is newer are all of the signed Hot Dog buns on the walls. There are hundreds of glass encased buns signed by every celebrity and politician that have passed through these doors since the first bun signing by Burt Reynolds in the 70’s.

For my meal, I ordered more than I could eat but I had to try what they were famous for on several fronts. Like a poker player salivating at a royal flush, if I see fried pickles on a menu, I’m all in. Served with 3 different dipping sauces –notably a spicy ketchup, their house made pickles are perfect for frying.

Tart, vinegar-y flavors layered with that welcoming fried texture and unique ketchup, I thought these were some of the best fried pickles I’d ever tasted. Next came the chili. It was pretty good but also pretty standard. Nothing jumped out at me flavor-wise, but I have to admit, I’m jaded with Chili. Still, it was perfect for dog topping. By now I’m starting to get full and I have 2 more things to taste. The stuffed cabbage was next. Braised and reduced in sour cream sauce, this Hungarian-spiced, meat-filled roll was terrific. My grandmother’s family was also from the “old country” and this food reminded me of my childhood. Sweet cabbage leaves filled with savory pork and beef is an art. I only finished a small portion of this because I knew the dog was coming. I ate the rest the next day. Lastly came the chili laden half sausage with mustard and onions (always my choice for toppings) and cheese to be layered on top.

One bite and I could see what Cpl. Klinger was homesick for. Not completely a hot dog and not completely a sausage, this creation that is cased on premises is so unique and delicious, I don’t believe I can find anything like it anywhere else.

I don’t expect anyone will head off to Toledo just to try Tony Packo’s but if you are ever in the area (30 minutes south of Detroit and 30 minutes west of Cedar Point –roller coaster capitol of the world), you have got to stop in and try this one-of-a-kind establishment. Thank goodness I have family not far away, because I will be visiting this gem-of-a-find again.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Stone Crabs

Stone Crabs are one of the real jewels from the gulf coast. Until I started traveling extensively, I didn’t give much thought to how lucky us Floridians were to have these delightful creatures in our backyard. If you enjoy seafood, you must love this crab too. Harvested from October to May, Stone crabs are fished in a unique way. They are caught in a standard crab trap whose buoys dot the shallow gulf waters. Only the claws (usually one) are removed and the animal is returned to the briny deep. There they will grow another in 12-18 months. This is quite a sustainable model. The claws are then cooked at the docks before being shipped to restaurants or fishmongers. Any delay in cooking would make the meat stick to the claw and very difficult to eat. This process makes for a consistent delicacy no matter where you eat them. For this reason, it would be difficult to write about the best place to eat Stone Crabs but there are a few tips I can offer so that you have the best possible experience.

There are 3 things to keep in mind when deciding to invest in a meal of Stone Crab. They are, after all, one of the most expensive pound for pound products the ocean has to offer. First, and most important, is freshness. Whether you are buying them from a fishmonger to eat at home or going to a restaurant, you should ask when they came out of the water. For me, a few days are max to get a great tasting fresh meat. Anything longer and the meat begins to take on that frozen taste. In my experience, though, it’s not difficult to find fresh Stone Crabs. Most places I‘ve been turn their product over very quickly so freshness isn’t usually an issue. I stay away from the grocery stores. Even if the guy behind the counter says they came in that day, he has no clue about the lag time from the water to his cooler. Too risky.

Then there’s size. This can be a bit tricky. They come in a few different size varieties from medium to jumbo. I’ve heard people say that a particular size produces a sweeter meat but I have not found this to be true. For this reason, I say get the biggest claw you can. The amount of work to get meat from a smaller claw is less worth it for me. Restaurants will always serve it with the claws already cracked. If you are taking the claws home from the seafood store, you’ll have to do this yourself. This video can help get into this thick shelled armor.

Lastly, I have to mention price. Cheaper is not always better but neither is most expensive. The above mentioned size and freshness play into the cost but so does abundance and demand. A season with heavy winter storms drives the price up as harvests are reduced. What I can buy for $12/lb one week can be $25/lb the next. You should be flexible if you can and not expect consistent prices.

If you are lucky enough to live on or visit the Gulf Coast anywhere from Texas to Key West, you can snatch up this amazingly sweet crab claw which is my all time favorite seafood. In restaurants it is usually served with some sort of remoulade, butter or Dijon sauce; all of which I adore. Cocktail sauce would be heresy, in my humble opinion. My favorite place in Tampa Bay is Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill on Clearwater Beach. They have their own fleet of fishing boats and the claws are always succulent and perfect. The rest of their menu is pretty awesome too, by the way. There supply has been limited at times, but otherwise they are some of the best. In the Miami area, I recommend Billy’s Stone Crab (that’s where I snapped this photo) on Hollywood Beach.

A bit too formal of a place to eat Stone Crab (I prefer the seaside shack environment), I still found their claws to be superbly fresh and the view of the mega yachts that travel the adjacent waterway is pretty cool. Probably the most famous place to eat Stone Crabs would be Joe’s Stone Crab on Miami Beach, but there you are truly paying for the name. Let the Euro-tourists drop their currency there. You don’t see too many locals.

I hope some of these tips help you with an amazing gastronomic experience.

Sunday, January 3, 2010


For the few folks who have emailed me wondering where I've been, I apologize for no updates. Life is good; great even. I started a new job in November and have relocated to Ft. Lauderdale (during the week). There just haven't been enough hours in the day. Still, I continue to explore, cook and meet new people. The coming months should be promising with the upcoming South Beach Wine and Food Festival (February) and a pending celebrity chef collaboration. Please, bear with me and most importantly, Have a happy health and prosperous New Year. Stay tuned.