It’s said that if you want to get to know a culture, you have to get to know its food. And food is regional, right down to city specialties. That was the idea behind Porsche’s Panamera E-Hybrid East Coast Culinary Adventure: take three days, three Panamera plug-in hybrids, and visit seven cities to taste the food for which they’re known.
As with many other “iconic” foods, most are available far and wide. But when you’ve got a cool car, why not drive to the real thing? Our schedule was whirlwind and covered almost 1,700 kilometres, which meant interstates most of the way. If you take such a culinary tour, add some extra time and explore the backroads and towns along the way as well.
Poutine – Montreal, QC
The tour began with poutine on a hot and sultry night in Montreal. This Quebec specialty will never be mistaken for health food: French fries covered with gravy and decked with cheese curds. The restaurant, Montreal Poutine, features seating in the courtyard in good weather, while – for inexplicable reasons – the glowing eyes of an enormous statue of ET stare down at diners from his spot in an alcove. My colleagues went for poutine but it’s a bit heavy for me; I opted for another Montreal specialty, a smoked-meat sandwich. Afterwards I strolled over to the Place Jacques-Cartier city square for a chocolate-and-peanut-butter ice-cream cone. I hadn’t been in a car yet and already should have brought elastic-waist pants.
I started my first day’s drive in the Panamera 4 E-Hybrid, featuring a six-cylinder with plug-in hybrid capability, a combined 462 horsepower on gasoline and electricity, and a starting price of $113,400. And that was what made this trip such a hoot: with very few exceptions, the food that makes a place famous is never haute cuisine. It’s overstuffed sandwiches, it’s wings, it’s pizza. And here I was, driving six-figure cars from city to city to eat them.
Fried Catfish, Grits, Collard Greens, and Cornbread – Montpelier, VT
The first day’s goal was Boston, which meant crossing the border from Quebec into Vermont. Lunch was at the Down Home Kitchen in Montpelier, which happens to be the capital of Vermont – but if you didn’t already know, you wouldn’t suspect a thing. Vermont has strict rules to keep the state looking good, including a ban on billboards, building height restrictions, and preservation laws. Montpelier’s downtown looks as it might have a century ago, but with stores and restaurants now nestled into its historic buildings.
Down Home was the exception on our city-food-specific tour. Rather than typical Vermont food, which might include such things as maple-sugar ice cream and fried dough, its owner cooks the food from her hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. I had fried catfish, cheese grits, collard greens, and cornbread – all without driving another eighteen hours south to get it.
From there it was back on the highway. The idea behind a plug-in hybrid is that after you charge it from a wall socket, you have a range of electric-only driving. For the Panamera, it’s about 50 kilometres. That doesn’t sound like much, but commuters who plug in faithfully may find themselves on electricity for most of their daily driving. And unlike a fully electric car, once the charge runs out, the Panamera will continue to run as long as there’s fuel in the tank.
While most other plug-in hybrids are primarily about the “green” aspect of the system, Porsche uses it for performance as well, providing a considerable boost to the gasoline engine. For this reason, the engine’s power can be used to recharge the battery, especially in Sport-Plus mode. When set into this mode, the engine not only charges the battery very quickly but also drinks deeply from it to maximize what happens when you hit the go-pedal. This isn’t about planet-saving because this mode uses as much fuel as you’d expect – but hey, it’s a Porsche. My biggest issue was keeping an eye on the speedo, since it doesn’t take much throttle to get into numbers where the uniformed gentlemen with their radar guns would want to talk to me.
Lobster & Beans – Boston, MA
After checking into my hotel in Boston, it was a short walk to dinner at the Summer Shack Restaurant. This close to the ocean, one must have seafood alongside one’s Boston baked beans, and my dinner included locally caught lobsters, served seafood-boil style with a cob of corn alongside. From there we hoofed it over to Fenway Park, where the Boston Red Sox have been playing baseball since the park opened in 1912.
Of course, there is food associated with the game, headed up by beer and hot dogs – in fact, to differentiate it from Dijon or other higher-falutin’ styles, plain yellow mustard is often called “ballpark mustard”. I thought of the old baseball song – “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack…” – but while Fenway sells bags of roasted peanuts, you can’t get a popcorn-and-peanut-with-a-prize-inside box of Cracker Jack there anymore. (The Sox lost to the Phillies – but since I was staying in Boston and heading to Philadelphia, I was rooting equally for either side.)
New York-Style Pizza – Ramsey, New Jersey
Day Two dawned with the Panamera E-Hybrid Sport Turismo, a version of my car the day before but with unique rear styling, and I was heading for pizza. It’s a specialty of New York City, where you go into one of the numerous small pizza joints, order “a slice”, and fold it in half for eating. And we would have done that, except that getting in and out of Manhattan would have taken a day on its own.
So we headed to Ramsey, New Jersey, a suburb close enough that I could see the Empire State Building through the rain that followed us throughout the day. To the outside observer, it’s an odd place. It generally looks like an average American ’burb with its fast-food chains and big-box stores, but its line of auto dealers includes McLaren, Lamborghini, and Ferrari, and the nondescript jewellery store in an equally nondescript strip mall featured a Rolex watch display in its window.
The mall was so ordinary that we thought the navigation system had erred. But under the plain red NY PIZZA sign we found that New York Pizza & Pasta turned out pies that would rival anything New York had to offer. For all that it’s available anywhere, pizza can be regional – think Chicago deep-dish or premium-topped California-style – and New York has its own style. The crust is thin and chewy, the toppings are firmly attached and the slices are large, for easy folding and one-handed eating.
Philly Cheesesteak – Philadelphia, PA
Back on the road, the old Simon & Garfunkel song went through my head: “Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike / they’ve all come to look for America” – although the highway itself is nowhere near as romantic. But it was fast and efficient for the next leg, which would feature Philadelphia’s signature cheesesteak sandwich.
There’s a lot of history in the City of Brotherly Love, and I dropped by to have a look at the famously cracked Liberty Bell before heading out for dinner. The story goes that this combination of chopped beef, onions, and cheese on a bun was invented in the 1930s when hot dog vendor Pat Olivieri put some frizzled beef on an Italian roll. A cab driver asked for one and then sent enough of his buddies that Olivieri put it on the menu. Today there’s a bitter rivalry between Pat’s King of Steaks, on the original site, and neighbouring Geno’s Steaks, which might have been the one to add the cheese.
But just about everyone makes a cheesesteak in this town, and we went to Jon’s Bar & Grille, housed in the birthplace of Larry Fine of the Three Stooges. Nyuk nyuk nyuk, Jon’s does a good one, with a good proportion of frizzled beef to melted cheese, and the right amount of chew in the toasted bun.
Chorizo Tacos – Binghamton, NY
I’d saved the best for the last day: the Panamera Turbo S E-Hybrid, with a twin-turbo V8 putting out 550 horses on its own, and ramping that up to 680 horses and 626 lb-ft of torque when combined with the electric motor. And so, being even more careful about obeying the speed limits (or at least mindful of how much I went over them), it was north through the Allegany Mountains to the city of Binghamton, set in New York just a little north of the Pennsylvania border.
Binghamton is indicative of many cities these days: it used to be a manufacturing powerhouse, but most of its factories have closed. But it is reinventing itself, and I ate chorizo tacos at Garage Taco Bar, stuffed into an old gas station garage and with a way-cool overhead light made of dozens of wheel rims welded together. Hey, when you’re on a driving trip, why not stop at a garage?
Buffalo Wings – Buffalo, NY
Fortified with rice and beans, I hopped back on the highway for the final leg to Buffalo, New York and its famous chicken wings – and where else to eat them but at their place of origin, the Anchor Bar? The story goes that in 1964, the owner’s son came in late with his friends and asked his mother, Teressa Bellissimo, if she could make something for them. The kitchen was mostly empty save for chicken wings – at the time, a throwaway part of the chicken that generally just went for soup stock. She deep-fried them and dressed them with a homemade hot sauce, and the Buffalo wing was born.
Like cheese steaks and pizza, the Buffalo wing has gone global, but the place to have them is here: it’s a time capsule, loaded to the rafters with memorabilia and with the unmistakable aroma of wing sauce soaked into the walls. And while I’ve eaten chicken wings in many places, none compare to these.
My whirlwind tour covered just a tiny portion of regional food, but what a way to travel. Yes, you can get just about any type of food anywhere these days, but going to the source makes it that much more special. On your next driving vacation, don’t think about the places you want to visit, but about what you want to eat – and the great destinations will follow.