Support the Providence Children’s Museum

Climbing in the pretend forest at the Providence Children's Museum.

I’ll never forget the first time I took Madeline to the Children’s Museum in Boston — upon arrival we went directly into the first room which contains a wall of tubes and slides for ping pong balls. She didn’t want to leave.

She’s since learned that there’s usually something even more exciting around every corner so our recent visits to the Providence Children’s Museum have spanned all the exhibits from noise-makers to stacking magnetic shapes to human bones. My personal favorite is “Coming to Rhode Island” where kids (and crouching adults) can weave through Rhode Island’s past to hear stories and role play in four scenes related to families who emigrated to the state. On one recent visit, the Latino bodega became authentically bustling with kids shopping for canned goods, weighing vegetables and ringing up customers.

In one exhibit, kids can toss feathery balls and cloths through a series of air tubes to see where they shoot out.

Currently, the museum is a few hundred thousand shy of their $1.5 million fundraising target for their Play Works Campaign for Kids which will help them accomplish several goals including the creation of two new outdoor exhibits set to open in the summer 2010: Underland, an underground world filled with roots, tunnels and critters’ burrows and The Climber, a custom-designed climbing experience. So if you can, show your support — every small donation gets them closer to their goal.

Providence Children’s Museum
100 South Street
Providence, RI 02903

Kennedy Plaza Ice Skating: How Young is Too Young?

A reason to love Providence: city skating without the crowds at Kennedy Plaza.

The other night after dinner, Geoff wanted to show Madeline the ice skaters at Kennedy Plaza. Her enthusiasm didn’t disappoint: she was ready to get on the ice right then and there. Much to her chagrin (try explaining to a two-year-old that you’ll do something tomorrow instead), we decided to come back when we were all a bit more rested, and it was light out.

I wasn’t sure exactly how old you had to be to ice skate. It seemed to me she’d need the double bladed bob skates so I called around to local sports stores but no one had them. But we had promised so I called the rink at Kennedy Plaza and asked them what was the smallest size skates they had: toddler eight. So I figured she was old enough to skate after all since that’s the same size as her winter boots.

She only made it around the ice a few times and then was ready for lunch. One more time around and she was ready for a nap. But while we were out there, we passed another eager toddler also age two making his rounds.

So if you think your child is too young to ice skate perhaps think again. Can they walk? If so they might pick it up faster than you.

Public Skating in Kennedy Plaza
aka Bank of America City Center
Providence, RI

Pho Paradise: Vietnamese Bánh Mì & Phở Noodle Soups

The vegetarian Phở is packed with crunchy vegetables and layered with tasty tofu and noodles.

With its neon sign and strip mall parking, Phở Paradise might easily be missed as you’re cruising down Broad Street. But this unassuming restaurant happens to be one of the few Providence restaurants where you can find a tasty Bánh Mì, an east-meets-west sandwich that perfectly combines Vietnamese ingredients on a French-style baguette.

Last night, we stopped in for some Phở, Vietnamese noodle soup. But first we tried some terrific appetizers — I loved the Gỏi Cuốn Chay (aka vegetarian summer rolls which you’ll find on the vegetarian menu) a tightly-wrapped roll of crispy shredded lettuce, mint, vermicelli and tofu in thin rice paper. Geoff thought their scallion pancakes rivaled his favorites at Mary Chung, and their Bánh Xèo, Vietnamese crepe which packed baby shrimps, chicken and bean sprouts with a sweet and spicy sauce could make a meal in itself.

As for the Phở, we tried three kinds — beef, chicken and vegetable — and all were delicious, although my personal favorite was the vegetable which is made with a vegetarian base and packed with crunchy, flavorful carrots, zucchini, baby corn, peppers, celery, peppers and broccoli and layered with noodles and fresh and soft fried tofu. If you hate winter as much as I do, this might be just the cure.

Pho Paradise
337 Broad Street
Providence, RI, 02907

Delekta Pharmacy’s Coffee Cabinet

The interior of Delekta is a throwback to an old-time pharmacy.

After rediscovering KidoInfo’s list of 100 Things to Do with Your Kids in RI, we honed in on what appeared to be the most urgent, number 90: Order a cabinet at Delekta Pharmacy in Warren.

The coffee cabinet -- it tastes even better than it looks.

I wasn’t even sure what a cabinet was, but I knew a coffee cabinet comprised of some combination of sugar, dairy and coffee, which was enough to convince me of its worthiness. So upon arrival, Geoff and I requested a coffee cabinet each while ordering a chocolate chip ice cream cone for Madeline, the latter clearly a mistake since the cabinet was far superior and Madeline is no fool. As for the cabinet, it was a hit all around — wonderful coffee flavor without the bitterness, perfectly smooth and sweet, and thicker than milk but thinner than most shakes.

Since I noticed their menu also listed milk shakes, I decided to ask an employee: exactly how is a coffee cabinet different than a coffee milk shake? She explained that to Rhode Islanders a “milk shake” is just that: milk (with syrup) shaken. But a cabinet is what everyone outside RI actually calls a milk shake — ice cream and syrup, shaken. The coffee syrup used in their cabinets is an old-world family recipe made fresh daily by the owner himself. No wonder it’s so tasty.

Delekta Pharmacy
496 Main Street
Warren, RI, 02885
(no website but they have a Facebook page)

Kafe’ Lila

Kafe' Lila's entrance in the Grant Building lets you

When you call your ice cream “Really Good Vanilla,” you’d better mean it. Luckily at Kafe’ Lila, they do. I first discovered their small batch, homemade ice cream at the weekly Winter Farmers’ Market (and yes, ice cream in the winter makes perfect sense to me). Their Bittersweet Chocolate is absolute perfection — rich, dark, smooth and creamy. They have a variety of fruit flavors like Local Plum, Local Peach and Local Blueberry — all made (obviously) with local fruit. They also have a flavor sweetened solely with honey (quite good) and a variety of vegan flavors (never tried them).

It actually is "Really Good Vanilla."

I decided to go check out their Pawtucket ‘headquarters’ last week and found they have a wonderfully charming little café — the well-worn chairs and retro coffee tables create a warm atmosphere and fit in well with the rough-around-the-edges atmosphere of downtown Pawtucket (a.k.a. Downbucket).

For people not obsessed with ice cream, they also sell coffee, teas and a variety of sandwiches, salads and pastries.

Kafe’ Lila
The Grant Building
250 Main Street
Pawtucket, RI

Their ice cream is also available at other locations. See their list for details.

AS220: Power of the Arts

Tasty potato leek soup for a good cause at AS220.

With live/work spaces for artists (two vacancies opening this spring) along with their existing repertoire of workshops, studios, galleries, and labs, AS220 is more than a local nonprofit — it is a force to be reckoned with.

They even have a restaurant, but clearly this is no ordinary restaurant. The menu consists of an eclectic mix of dishes from a variety of cultures with ingredients derived from local farms and food artisans. Although they are known for their vegetarian and vegan options, they have plenty of dishes for carnivores as well. (They aim, after all, for inclusion). They even provide six month training positions at the restaurant for local teenagers.

If the city is to be judged by its Creativity Index, then things certainly are looking up for Providence, thanks largely to AS220.

Show me the pancakes: a search for Rhode Island’s best

The Gold Standard: My beloved pancakes from the Deluxe Town Diner in Watertown, Massachusetts. Photo by möca.

Why is it that I’m always reading blog posts and newspaper articles about great breakfast places that turn out to be subpar? Surely, I am not the only pancake purist in Rhode Island. After having eagerly gone from diner to hotspot and back again in my quest for Rhode Island’s best pancakes, I’ve decided I am going about this all wrong. When I discovered the best pancakes near Boston, I discovered them not through a blog (if those even existed then) nor through a magazine or newspaper article, but through an accountant friend who happened to live in the area and really liked pancakes.

Here I am with my Deluxe Town Diner pancakes.

Here’s how I know that the Deluxe Town Diner in Watertown, Massachusetts has amazing pancakes: it is the only thing I order there. That’s not to say I haven’t been tempted by tuna melts, homemade stews with fresh (not frozen) vegetables, and burgers with sweet potato fries. But the pancakes made with sour cream and buttermilk are just too good: they rise to thick height and remain fluffy, perfectly browned, made the size of your plate in a stack of three (or two if you so choose, but you’ll be sorry), and smeared with butter with a side of real maple syrup.

I know Rhode Island is the smallest state, but I refuse to shrink my expectations accordingly. So, fellow citizens, I beg of you: show me the (amazingly good) pancakes. Post a comment with your local favorite, and I promise to go, eat and report back.

Surely Not Rhode Island’s Best Pancakes List
(or the places I’ve tried so far)

Note: My criteria for the perfect pancake includes: 1) fluffy texture; 2) neither too wet nor too dry; 3) excellent flavor, more specifically a well-orchestrated recipe of ingredients that culminate in a caramelized flavor balancing salty and sweet; 4) made and served with real butter; and 5) served with real maple syrup.

Despite a wonderful old-fashioned diner atmosphere amidst the strip malls, you won't find the best pancakes at Star Diner.

Atlantic Grille
Middletown, RI
Why not? One of the RI Monthly reader’s choices for best breakfasts, this is truthfully the only place I can stand to eat pancakes on Aquidneck Island. Yet they are no match for the perfect pancake (decent flavor, but not fluffy enough) and fail to provide real maple syrup.

Corner Café
Newport, RI
Why not? Such a cute little spot, but they use margarine — a deal-breaker in my opinion.

Eddie & Sons Diner
Providence, RI
Why not? Here you’ll find decent pancakes (although too light indicated not enough caramelizing butter, sugar, salt), but nothing spectacular, and the diner lacks real maple syrup.

Gary’s Handy Lunch
Newport, RI
Why not? Although I love this place for its atmosphere and enjoy their thin old-fashioned french toast, their pancakes are thin and mealy.

IHOP (The International House of Pancakes)
Middletown, RI
Why not? There is no better option when you absolutely need pancakes at 1 am and are too lazy to make them (yes, it’s happened to me). But, let’s face it, as good as they may taste at that moment, we all know that IHOP is not the real deal.

Providence, RI
Why not? Generally their pancakes have fairly good flavor, although they are always too flat and light. Plus they lack consistency: a few times, the pancakes were metallic, which Geoff says is an indicator of too much baking powder. They serve them with real butter but artificial maple syrup.

Mel’s Diner
East Providence, RI
Why not? According to Providence Journal’s food writer Gail Ciampa, these are “some of the best pancakes around.” No way. Slathered with margarine, these pancakes were bound to lose. They were the right color and thickness, but ultimately too gummy with the wrong flavor.

Modern Diner
Pawtucket, RI
Why not? Their pancakes had great texture (just a tad wet) and were quite fluffy, yet the flavor was wrong — not sweet nor salty enough.

Nick’s on Broadway
Providence, RI
Why not? In general, breakfast here was terrific, but the pancakes sadly not so. Cinnamon in the batter definitely doesn’t fit the bill.

Oatley’s Restaurant
North Kingston, RI
Why not? I had high hopes here with the homemade breads and muffins, but ultimately the pancakes missed on both flavor and fluffiness.

Star Diner
Rumford, RI
Why not? Pancakes were greasy and burnt. By the taste, I highly doubt they were made with butter in the batter or on the griddle. And they don’t serve maple syrup.

T’s Restaurant
Why not? Pancakes were dense and dry with lousy flavor. They’re also served with a butter ‘blend’ (aka margarine), blanketed with powdered sugar, and a side of phony syrup — need I say more?

Top Photo Credit: möca

Big Nazo at Bright Night

A performance of Big Nazo.

I love that Providence has its own nonconformist version of First Night. Unlike First Night, Bright Night is not alcohol free but it maintains the mission of kicking off the New Year as an arts celebration incorporating theater, music, arts and films. This year marked its seventh year with events at over a dozen venues in Providence, along with a mini-WaterFire lighting.

We decided to see a live show by Big Nazo, an international performance group that happens to reside here in Providence and makes large-as-life (and larger) puppets, masks and other creatures. The 6:30 pm event at Lupo’s attracted quite a number of families with kids ranging from a few-months-old and up, yet it was a thin enough crowd that everyone easily could enjoy an unobstructed view. The performance itself was, well, weird, a kind of bizarre ride through a wonderfully twisted imagination. Picture a giant horse that removes his mask to become an enormous old white man to remove his mask to become a small-headed dog to remove his mask to become a gloved hand to then reveal his true identity as a mad scientist and your MC for the evening. And that was only the opening. Not surprisingly, Madeline was perfectly riveted and never budged from the front row seat she secured for herself. And she’s been talking about it ever since.

Pass by the windows of Big Nazo on Eddy Street in Providence to see a sample of the weird characters that comprise Big Nazo.

Big Nazo!
60 Eddy St
Providence, RI

Bright Night