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Restaurants where you can enjoy tasty turkey year-round
The scene: Ben Franklin famously wanted the turkey, not the bald eagle, as America’s national bird. He did not get his wish, but thanks to the pilgrims’ original fall harvest dinners, for one month every year, the turkey still takes center stage. Thanksgiving is just one week away, and in the span of about 12 hours, Americans will consume one-sixth of all the turkey eaten in this country this year, over a billion pounds of it.
For many households, next Thursday is the only day they will roast a whole turkey. But in restaurants, the bird remains amazingly popular all year-round, and shows up on menus in every way, from burgers to Southern barbecue to full-blown Thanksgiving dinners with all the trimmings. There is at least one national chain that built its success on this humble bird, and the dish is a staple at America’s oldest eatery. Since this column has been searching out the very best Americana cuisine for about four years, it’s time to take look back at the best of the birds.
The food: A turkey trek across America has to start at one of two locations, both in the Northeast, in locales that date back to before the Revolutionary War. Perhaps no one restaurant in the nation puts the bird on as lofty a pedestal as at Hart’s Turkey Farm in Meredith, N.H., on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee, “The Oldest Summer Resort in America,” circa 1771. It dates to the 1940s, when the Hart brothers began turkey farming, and in 1953 they opened a 12-seat restaurant. Today Hart’s is a huge, sprawling complex seating about 500, but they still get their turkeys from individual farmers who meet their quality standards. On a typical day in tourist season they serve over a ton of turkey, 40 gallons of gravy, 1,000 pounds of potatoes, 4,000 rolls and 1,000 pies. They do a full-blown traditional Thanksgiving dinner — or lunch — every day, and on Fridays offer a self-serve prime rib and turkey buffet with soup, salad and dessert bars for under 20 bucks. The menu here is wall-to-wall turkey, all the time: turkey pot stickers, nuggets, tempura, quesadillas, chili, soup, pot pie, livers, marsala, meatloaf, parmesan, spaghetti with turkey meatballs, turkey and broccoli Alfredo, and the house signature, croquettes. There is also a long list of turkey sandwiches, from stuffing and cranberry to a jerk turkey burger and Philadelphia-style turkey “cheesesteak.”
At Philadelphia’s City Tavern, you won’t find a cheese steak, but you will find a faithful reproduction of Martha Washington’s favorite dish, and the restaurant’s signature, turkey pot pie. George Washington ate here almost daily in the 1770s, formulating strategies with other Colonial leaders, and by some definitions, this is America’s oldest restaurant, though not in continuous operation. It has been restored to its 1770s glory and serves authentic, historically correct 18th-century American cuisine, offering a meal that is a trip back in time. Martha’s pot pie is delicious and the restaurant’s bestseller: an individual serving, round and tall like a soufflé, with a tender crust containing big chunks of turkey along with red bliss potatoes, mushrooms and baby peas, all in a rich sherry cream sauce.
Outside of these turkey powerhouses, you’ll most often find the bird playing the role of a white meat alternative in burger restaurants, big and small. While none of the biggest truly national chains offer turkey, many beloved regional chains do, and we’ve visited four of the best. Umami Burger positions turkey as a healthy “green” alternative, with Green Goddess dressing and avocado, but the patty can be enjoyed equally well with all the chain’s decadent toppings. Larkburger is an exceptional fast casual burger chain across Colorado with a heavy emphasis on natural meat and from-scratch ingredients, and it does an excellent turkey burger. So does the B Spot, a Midwestern burger-and-bratwurst tavern concept from award-winning celebrity chef Michael Symon, where the meats are also carefully sourced. The turkey burger can be customized with a slate of over 30 very varied toppings, including nine cheeses (cheese whiz to feta), seven meats (chorizo to bacon) and extras like fried eggs, avocado, ghost chilies or banana pepper puree. Bobby’s Burger Palace, from another famed celebrity chef, Bobby Flay, gives three patty options — beef, chicken breast and ground turkey — equal billing and lets you construct your own. They also offer about a dozen regional American topping packages, like the Philly with provolone, grilled peppers and onions. Bobby’s caters most directly to turkey burger fans who won’t feel like their choice is an afterthought, and its signature on every burger is making it “crunchified,” with the addition of potato chips inside the bun.
While turkey burgers are often just an alternative to other meats, it is in the sandwich where turkey shines as the key ingredient, and this column has been fortunate enough to try some exceptional versions around the nation. There is no more superlative version of the turkey sandwich than the open-faced regional specialty of Louisville, “The Hot Brown.” The dish is served around town, but was created — and can still be best enjoyed — at the historic Brown Hotel. In the Roaring Twenties people would attend nightly dances into the wee hours of the night, after which revelers would visit the hotel coffee shop for late — or very early — breakfast. The chef created the concoction as post-imbibing comfort food, and it has been served ever since: hand-sliced real turkey breast is layered over toast in a ceramic skillet, topped with lots of rich Mornay sauce (white sauce of milk, flour and lots of grated Pecorino Romano), garnished with tomato wedges and bacon strips, then baked until bubbling and covered with even more cheese. The resulting sandwich cum casserole is rich, cheesy, creamy and sublime.
The Paramount is a little slopeside eatery in Steamboat Springs, Colo., that may serve the best homemade from-scratch sandwiches in all of ski country. The secret to their turkey sandwich is house-roasted whole turkey, great bread and the addition of creamy avocado, a surprising touch that works well with both flavor and texture, alongside roasted bell peppers, Swiss cheese and spicy homemade mayo.
Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Mich., is perhaps the nation’s most famous gourmet deli, and its in-house bakery is wildly (and justifiably) acclaimed, shipping mail-order bread all over the place. But it’s best here at the source, each bread carefully paired with meats and garnishes for a staggering slate of 113 specialty sandwiches. One of the perennial bestsellers is #27, aka Pat & Dick’s Honeymooner, with house-smoked turkey, muenster and Kream brand mustard on grilled challah. There are eight other signature turkey options, ranging from a poultry variation on the Reuben to curried turkey salad with cashews on pecan raisin bread. All feature 100% natural drug free turkey from “Farmer Sy,” roasted whole in-house daily.
Another not-to-be-missed classic turkey sandwich eatery — though better known for corned beef and pastrami — is New York’s venerable Carnegie Deli (with satellite in Las Vegas). It is famed for the quality and quantity of its house-cured, smoked and roasted meats, served in huge portions on Jewish rye. The basic sandwiches, including turkey, pack in close to a pound of meat, several inches high, but the more famous “Carnegie Gargantuan Combos” are much bigger, and sometimes impossible to even pick up. Many are triple-deckers combining meats and accompaniments, like the corned beef, tongue and turkey with cole slaw and Russian dressing.
Finally, capping the world of turkey sandwiches is Capriotti’s, a national chain spanning 17 states that was built on home-roasted turkey and does the best fast food version. The original opened in Wilmington, Del., in 1976, with the brother and sister owners roasting a whole turkey every night. Soon they were making a dozen turkeys a night, and the rest is history — it is Vice President (and former Delaware senator) Joe Biden’s favorite sandwich shop, and a sort of upscale take on the Subway concept. Today the chain has a full slate of sandwiches, but turkey is still the reason to visit, as it is fresh, hand-shredded and much better than the unnaturally formed stuff most delis use. Signature turkey subs include the original and still bestseller the Bobbie, with cranberry sauce, stuffing and mayo. The Cole Turkey has cole slaw, Russian dressing and provolone, and the Cran-Slam Club is another top seller, a triple-decker on sliced white or wheat bread, combining turkey with ham, cranberry sauce and lettuce.
Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a barbecue contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter, @TravelFoodGuy, and if there’s a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Some of the venues reviewed by this column provided complimentary services.