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Tired of the meals (or lack of) airlines are offering these days? You might be surprised by food options available at the nation's busiest airports.
By Travel writer contributor
updated 10/20/2006 12:48:18 PM ET 2006-10-20T16:48:18

Message to the airline industry: You can keep the pretzels.

After years of witnessing in-flight “dining” devolve from hot entrees to cold sandwiches to bite-sized snacks, I give up. Life is simply too short — and most flights too long — to live on itsy-bitsy bags of baked and salted dough.

Instead, much to my surprise, I’ve started eating at the airport. Chalk it up to more options, better quality, and the added downtime due to security, and lo and behold, it turns out you can actually enjoy a good meal before you go.

That’s especially true at the nation’s 10 busiest airports (based on 2005 passenger traffic). From local landmarks to new additions to the nation’s only airport-based winery, here are some tips on where to grab a bite before your flight:

Atlanta: From blackened catfish to secret-recipe fried chicken, Paschal’s Restaurant in Concourse C is legendary for its down-home southern cooking. Fluffy biscuits, candied yams, and collard greens — it’s all there, but be sure to save room for their famous peach cobbler. If you don’t have time for a sit-down meal, there are quick-serve counters in the Atrium and Concourse A.

Chicago: Located in Terminal One at O’Hare, the Berghoff Café is run by a local family whose restaurant roots go back to 1898. Long known for its hearty sandwiches, the café also serves omelets, salads, and pizza in a clubby setting of oak and stained glass. Try the hand-carved corned beef or panini-style Reuben — with a glass of their private-label, Berghoff lager or Dortmunder-style beer.

Los Angeles: The first thing you notice at Eaturna in Terminal 1 at LAX is the complete lack of heat lamps and deep fryers. Promoting “healthy food on the fly,” this take-out operation offers wraps, salads, and sandwiches that utilize organically grown produce, hormone-free meat, and all-natural ingredients. Even the Belgian chocolate brownies are made with organic sugar and flour.

Dallas: With two outlets at DFW (in Terminals A and D), La Bodega Winery is the country’s only licensed winery at an airport. Serving their own wines and those of several other Texas wineries, they feature 30 varieties for tasting, by the glass, or in bottles to go. Add in an hors d’oeuvre menu with smoked salmon, Italian meats, and fine cheeses, and you can almost enjoy being stuck at the airport.

Las Vegas: Don Alejandro’s Texan Grill has been a local institution since it opened in McCarran Airport’s Terminal 1 in 1994. Owner Alejandro Alvarez has adapted his mother’s Tex-Mex recipes — the carne asada and Texicali beef sandwich are nice and spicy — and as many as 2,000 customers a day seem to approve of the results.

Denver: Longtime football fans remember Winston Hill as a fearsome offensive lineman for the New York Jets (1963-1976); fans of good food know him as the man behind the barbecue sauce at Red Rocks Bar in Denver Airport’s Jeppesen Terminal. Barbecue brisket, barbecue chicken, barbecue turkey sandwiches — it’s all finger-licking good, but you’ll probably still want extra napkins.

New York: For some, airport sushi could be a scary concept, but the chefs at Deep Blue Sushi in JFK’s Terminal 6 (JetBlue) clearly know their ebi (shrimp) from their unagi (eel). Watch them slice, dice, and roll at the counter, settle into one of the overstuffed sofas nearby, or get an order to go and savor your seatmates’ looks of longing when you unwrap it onboard.

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Phoenix: Opened in summer 2006, Flo’s Shanghai Café in Terminal 4 is the latest offering from Florence Chan, owner of several Phoenix-area restaurants. Step through the restaurant’s classic moon gate, order at the counter, and take a seat while your food is made to order. In the morning, try their egg foo yong omelet with pickled vegetables; later, the Mongolian beef or sweet almond chicken.

Houston: The dark woods and historic photos at Bubba’s Seafood Grill in Terminal C at George Bush Intercontinental recall a 1930s steakhouse, but the name says it all. We’re talking red snapper, fried catfish, and crab cakes, along with crawfish etouffe and spicy seafood gumbo. Belly up to the bar or grab a table by the windows, where you can watch the big jets come and go until it’s time to leave.

Minneapolis-St. Paul: Vegan soups, salads with organic greens, and sandwiches with yeast-free breads are among the all-natural offerings at French Meadow Bakery & Café in Concourse F, an outlet of the long-popular café in Uptown Minneapolis. A second outlet, complete with a bar, is expected to open in the Northstar Crossing area later this year. Organic martini, anyone?

And speaking of drinks, remember that if you’re getting something to go before security, you’ll still have to comply with TSA rules on gels and liquids. You can bring the sandwich, but leave the soup and soda pop.

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