In a world  saturated with upscale menus, 
we take the road less traveled across America to find the essence of a no-frills meal.

The open road is one of opportunity and romance, travel and leisure, and for us, a chance to explore the off-the-beaten-path stops that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Oftentimes it’s the road less traveled and restaurant less publicized that can bring to the plate a meal, an experience and an atmosphere worth seeing again. Beginning on the coast of Seattle and ending in downeast Maine where rockbound shorelines are abound, this cross-country road trip is rooted in routes through Main Street. Here, the melody isn’t modernizing, and the food, the product, and the experience is founded on tradition. These restaurants offer a how-to on pleasing the traveler who’s beaten lengthy highway stretches and GPS malfunctions to find their dining destination is just up ahead.  

TAYLOR SHELLFISH FARMS

In the Pacific Northwest, oysters are more than a bivalve of the hour, they are THE bivalve. Here, they are plucked directly from the sheltered inlets and islands of one of the greatest oyster regions in the country. And with that, the oyster bar prevails. Dispersed across the Pacific Northwest, the saturation  of half-shell-focused eateries also calls for authenticity. So where better to start than back in time? With five generations of history behind it, we head to the tidelands and shallow waters of Taylor Shellfish Farms.  

“It’s really special to deliver the food of your region, and that’s shellfish to the Pacific Northwest,” says Marcelle Taylor, whose great-great-grandfather began farming Olympia oysters in the crisp Puget Sound waters in 1890. An inlet of the Pacific, there’s something seriously simplistic about the complex product that grows throughout the network of marinas and waterways in the Puget Sound. Here, every tideland creates its own composite.

At Taylor Shellfish, they’re farming more than just the northwest-of-Seattle Puget Sound area and have perfected the growing method to match each locale. At Totten Inlet, a southern point of the Sound, beloved and delicate Olympia, Pacific and Virginica oysters are grown. Chapman’s Cove produces its Kumamotos, whose sculptured, fluted shell holds an oyster of nutty, sweet and clean flavors. At its farm in Willapa Bay, also south of Puget Sound, the wave and wind help to form the company’s briny Shigoku oysters, a proprietary oyster to the company.  It’s a Pacific oyster that’s tide-tumbled so the bags flip with the flow of the tide. “It knocks off the frill and makes the meat nice and strong to give the oyster that crunch that you don’t typically get in a regular Pacific,” says Taylor.

In an effort to build a direct, sustainable relationship between the Seattle consumer and the Taylor Shellfish Farm family, the company created three neighborhood oyster bars, each tailored to its own community. Taylor Oyster Bar in Capitol Hill, the company’s first, is a reminder of the humble beginnings of fresh seafood in its rawest prime. The menu here reads raw oysters only and a few cooked, chilled and cracked market specialties like Dungeness crab and cocktail prawns. Geoduck sashimi and a smoked salmon plate are also  on the list, accompanied by local wines, IPAs and pale ales, among others.  

“We originally thought that people would come to Capitol Hill to buy shellfish retail to cook at home,” Taylor says. “But they were coming in and asking us to do the shucking. It quickly became less of a shellfish market and more of a true oyster bar.” Eating the Taylor family’s product is as transparent a process as ever, and following the oyster back to its pristine waters is simplicity at best at the company’s oyster bars, which recently expanded to include locations in Queen Anne and Pioneer Square.

Still selling about 95 percent of its product wholesale, they’ve gone beyond building a sound retail program for local Seattle consumers—this is truly developing the heart of their business. Product is delivered six days per week to more than 150 restaurants and chefs in the area. The national program is also one of recognition. The company is one of the largest shellfish producers in the United States, and with an infrastructure to send clams, mussels and oysters year round direct to distributor or chef, it’s a specialty worth looking into.

 “And it’s as fresh as it can get because we own the entire process of the supply chain,” says Taylor. “We can manage every section, and we know exactly where it came from, when, and when it’s going to hit someone’s table. We like to say its tide to table and as direct as possible.”

SUNRISE BISCUIT KITCHEN

Crumbly and dense. Flaky and light. Buttermilk or milk? The local loaf is a hotly debated topic, but in North Carolina, one biscuit kitchen has tipped the scale. Just up the road from the University of North Carolina situates a drive-through-only restaurant that’s been crafting its tall, golden brown biscuits since 1977. “Calling us no frills is being very generous,” says David Allen, owner of Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen. The 460-square-foot Chapel Hill location serves up southern comfort to lines of cars and patiently waiting customers seven days a week.

Adapting his grandmother’s biscuit recipe from “a pinch of this, a sprinkle of that” into a meal fit for service, Allen’s technique and handling of the dough hasn’t changed.

“As a southern farm family, there were many to feed,” he says. His grandmother, who lived to be 100 years old, had 17 children—Allen’s mother was the youngest. “Biscuits were served at every meal—they’re hot; they’re fresh, and they fill you up.”

It’s just the essentials here. A snaking line of cars and a steady handout of product. But for a restaurant so steeped in tradition, Allen has recognized the need to adapt. Over the years, loyal customers discovered that if they came in the kitchen door, Sunrise would let them order. When word got out, he added a second register to handle the walk in customers. It’s a small addition, but convenience for customers is key after nearly 40 years of business.
“I was hesitant to do this—the drive-through was our focus,” says Allen. “But it’s improved our service to everyone.” The location still only holds up to 3 people in at one time.

Chicken breast, sausage, bacon, country ham, pork chop tenderloin, western steak and more are all available to be sandwiched between the golden buttermilk goodness. The Chicken and Cheddar Biscuit is the top seller in Chapel Hill; The Country Ham Biscuit reigning   number one at the Louisburg location just 50 miles northeast.

These fluffy, flaky numbers are more than just a vehicle for sausage and gravy, fried chicken or sausage, they’re a way to the  heart of customer’s mealtime memories. Yelp, Facebook, TripAdvisor—all of these review sites are surging with positive responses, five stars and suggestions that the mom n’ pop spot must be seen and tasted to be fully understood.

“Many people tell me that they have been coming to Sunrise since childhood,” he says. “We certainly take great pride in what we do. At all of our locations, we have very dedicated people working with us, and I think that it helps that they get such positive feedback from our loyal customers.”


BAGADUCE LUNCH

Featuring a dramatic shoreline caressed by waves, reaches from the Maine land mass stretch like fingers into the Atlantic; its peninsulas jut in and out of the sea with more than 5,000 miles of coastline and islands to boot. In Downeast Maine, where rockbound coastlines prevail, we head inland to Bagaduce Lunch.  It sits quite literally on the edge of Brooksville and atop its namesake river.  You might find that off-the-beaten-path description of the 69-year-old roadside fish shack to be an understatement, but that certainly does not mean it’s the path less traveled. Since its opening in 1946 when Sydney Snow built a small take-out window for locals and passerbys, Bagaduce has continued to be a family affair—Judy Astbury, Snow’s granddaughter, is in her 19th year.

Simplicity reigns here at Bagaduce with Haddock Sandwiches king. Fried haddock fillets veil the sandwich buns they’re served on, and on a busy day, that number can reach 65-70. Couple that with the crab meat and lobster rolls ordered on speed dial and plump fried clams fit for Paul Bunyan himself, this Mother’s Day-through-mid-September spot is doing something right.
Astbury and her husband have seen children grow up and loyal locals and visitors come back since they took over for Judy’s parents in 1997. It’s as much about family lineage here as it is about the cohorts of customers who have traveled on ME Route 175/176 here for generations.

Sure, its no-frills atmosphere has been subject of talk and taste for those in the surrounding New England area, but Bagaduce Lunch has garnered hype and celebration of its food and service from around the country. In 2008, it was named one of the James Beard Foundation’s “America’s Classics.”

And classic is stays. There’s no indoor seating here; just a white-paneled building with red walk-up windows that customers belly up to to place an order. They’ve grown in size, expanding and rebuilding as needed. Walk around the building, and 20 picnic tables are scattered amongst a scenic backdrop of the narrow Bagaduce River—a waterside view alone worth the penny paid. But at the end of the day, it’s the family’s ability to season after season put out good food and work a crowd that brings the people back.  
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The global fishing industry is one muddied in coastal waters. Is transparency anywhere in sight? 

The traceability of seafood from international waters to an American plate can be a web of confusion for many, and black market fishing—or what we should correctly refer to as illegal, unreported or unregulated (IUU) fishing—muddies the waters. According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a federal scientific agency and one of the most respected seafood sustainability organizations in the world, nearly 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported; much of that from China, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Ecuador.

A greater understanding of where our seafood comes from is top-of-mind lately. There’s two demands here from consumers and chefs: a demand for sustainability—ideally that fish and shellfish are farmed or fished in such a way that each can maintain or increase production in the long term. And second, a demand for a more transparent look into the water—where is it coming from?

With that in mind, and because the entities engaging in IUU fishing circumvent conservation and management measures, avoid the operational costs associated with sustainable fishing practices, and possibly derive economic benefit from American fisheries, the Department of State and NOAA  announced an action plan for the implementation of recommendations to combat IUU fishing and seafood fraud.

The recommendations were announced at the Seafood Expo North America earlier this year by a 19-agency presidential task force that was established by President Obama to create a comprehensive framework to protect the economic and environmental sustainability of U.S. and global fisheries. The task force, which created the action plan, includes a diverse group of members—Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Agency for International Development, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Defense and 15 others.

“Because more than 2.5 billion people depend upon fish for food and nutrition, IUU fishing practices threaten food security and sustainability and undermine efforts to reduce global hunger and malnutrition,” the report stated.

The action plan spells out each forceful step, 15 in total, that federal agencies will take in both domestic and international settings as the Obama administration works to support sustainable fisheries and keep the American fishing industry strong.

“It hurts businesses that do the right thing; it hurts consumers; and it hurts the resource,” says Sean O’Scannlain, founder and CEO of Fortune Fish, a gourmet seafood distributor. “But the most important part of understanding the issue is having the proper perspective in order to use resources wisely in combating it.” There’s already efforts in place that seek to address transparency challenges including port state measures, which help ensure illegally harvested wild-caught seafood does not enter international trade; as well as the FDA’s Food Drug and Cosmetic Act, which enforces capabilities against misbranded food.

For the task force, the 15-step action plan simply hopes to reinforce a commitment to a transparent seafood system. An increase in required information available on products is one of the four general themes of its plan.

Port state measures, free trade agreements, fishery subsidies, and best practices for data tracking are among the 15 recommendations, broad in scope, provided to the administration by the task force.  Others include expanded federal, state and local enforcement provisions and information sharing and traceability programs.

The traceability system attempts to give chefs and consumers purchasing seafood in the American market an increasing confidence in its sustainability. In the meantime, O’Scannlain suggests that Chefs looking for a more transparent route for their fish first look at what traceability program is in place with their supplier. Extra documentation might not be needed.

“Most often that tracking will be significant,” he says. “Chefs should have a conversation with their supplier before they unilaterally embrace the need for more documentation. Sometimes a conversation rather than an ultimatum can be eye opening.”

Most suppliers already have systems in place, which is why O’Scannlain believes creating new laws or initiatives for the sake of new laws or initiatives is not successfully addressing the issue. The task force’s recommendations are ambitious, certainly. But they do address the need to trace at-risk products. The plan eventually aims to trail every piece of seafood that enters U.S. commerce from where it is caught to where it lands in the United States. According to the report, implementation by September 2016 should trace all at-risk seafood (or products of particular concern) through data tracking.

American interest in the international seafood supply chain is certainly strengthening, especially after a yearlong investigation by the Associated Press surfaced a few months back.  The investigation brought to light modern day slave labor conditions in Indonesian fisheries. It’s a clouded seafood supply chain, and according to the AP, tainted seafood mixes in with other fish at a number of sites in Thailand, including processing plants. The thought is jarring, and although extreme, it proves the need for higher regulation and transparency in the fishing supply chain. It also requires chefs ask more questions.

At Fortune Fish, yes they seek to work with the most responsible international trading partners available, but they also know which questions to ask. “We vet our suppliers and have a stringent quality assurance and control program, but we are also members of the Better Seafood Board (BSB),” says O’Scannlain. “It’s the leading B-to-B anti-fraud group. If we have questions, we take those to the BSB. If a supplier isn’t a member of the BSB, the first question we ask is why not?”

And that’s the first question O’Scannlain suggests you offer to potential distributors and suppliers as well.

Questions can tackle transparency, but sustainability takes hard work on every end. The implementation of the Task Force’s concepts will begin with the integration of programs and data across the sustainability landscape. They’ll include increased federal agency collaboration and the development and phased implementation of a traceability program for species that might not be sustainably farmed.

“NOAA is one of the premier seafood sustainability organizations on the planet,” says O’Scannlain. “They manage stocks to their maximum sustainable yield. If an NOAA regulated product is on the market, it is sustainable.” If it were not, NOAA wouldn’t allow it to be harvested. They’ll also certify that it not only came from an approved establishment, i.e. no IUU fishing involved, but it’s also meeting the U.S. grade A standard.

He believes that sustainability, very simply, has to do with oversight. “Is someone watching the stock? Is someone managing the fleet? Are there responsible measures in place to make sure aquaculture is done right?” he asks.

Unlike many specialty, packaged products on the market, there’s no one specific seal or certification that makes it sustainable. “So is seafood sustainability realistic? Yes, absolutely,” he says. “But it’s not a state of panacea that we’re trying to get to, it’s the state of hard work we are in now and will always be in that will make and keep seafood sustainable.”
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