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Originally published November 13, 2008 at 2:56 PM | Page modified November 13, 2008 at 3:40 PM

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Obamas enjoy fine food, wine, but hold the beets

Former President George H.W. Bush famously disliked broccoli. His son, the outgoing president, is a Texas meat-eater. President-elect Barack Obama loves chili and shuns beets.

Associated Press Writer

CHICAGO —

Former President George H.W. Bush famously disliked broccoli. His son, the outgoing president, is a Texas meat-eater. President-elect Barack Obama loves chili and shuns beets.

Obama's aversion to beets aside - "I always avoid eating them," he says - the new first family are foodies with a wide-ranging palate. They have hankerings for Mexican food, enjoy hand-crafted pastas and their kids dig fried chicken and macaroni and cheese.

"They are totally adventurous people ... they enjoy food," said chef Rick Bayless of Topolobampo, an upscale contemporary Mexican restaurant in downtown Chicago that's a favorite of the Obamas.

Soon, the White House staff will be catering to the family's food needs, and what the Obamas eat in their hometown of Chicago offers a hint at what might be served at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. At the White House now, Tex-Mex and barbecue are among the favorites of President George W. Bush.

At Bayless' restaurant, Obama and his wife Michelle usually begin their meals with tortilla soup and guacamole as starters, followed by something from a changing seasonal menu to reflect the freshest fare.

The Obamas aren't teetotalers, partaking of the restaurant's margaritas and wine.

"They never turn a nose up at anything we suggest to them," said Bayless, whose Frontera Grill was named outstanding restaurant by the James Beard Foundation last year.

Obama's familiarity with finer foods got him in a bit of trouble during the presidential campaign. He was talking to Iowa farmers to show he understood their plight when he mentioned the high cost of a boutique salad green.

"Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?" Obama said, referring to a high-end food chain loaded with organic products. "I mean, they're charging a lot of money for this stuff."

Critics latched on to the comment, painting him as elitist.

But it's not just fancy dining the Obamas like. They enjoy takeout from a neighborhood pizza joint and an island-inspired restaurant not far from their home where Michelle Obama fancies the grilled tilapia.

"She enjoys her food but tries to eat healthy as well," said close family friend Sandy Matthews.

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The incoming president's taste in food can also be simple. In response to an Associated Press survey of all the primary candidates, Obama listed chili as his favorite food to cook.

But on the campaign trail, he proved himself a picky and healthy eater with an aide-assisted diet managed to prevent Obama from packing on the presidential pounds.

At campaign stops, his staff would urge him to sample the corn dogs, hamburgers and other fattening fare. Obama would take a bite, but then the food would usually be whisked away. At diners and pubs, he generally ordered his food to go - whitefish and latkes at one place, cheeseburgers or chicken at another.

Obama does have a weakness for chips and salsa and tends to put hot sauce on everything. At Dooky Chase's Creole restaurant in New Orleans, he offended longtime owner Leah Chase by pouring hot sauce all over the gumbo she offered to fatten him up.

"I hope this isn't insulting," he said. Chase, sitting at his side, stared straight ahead.

When it's time for a fancy night out on the town, the Obamas tend to go for upscale Italian.

The weekend after winning the election, the couple visited Spiaggia, a classy Italian eatery on Chicago's Michigan Avenue, where they enjoy the hand-crafted pastas and other dishes, said Chef Tony Mantuano.

"They love things out of the wood-burning oven," he said.

The Obamas are loyal customers, visiting there during the busy presidential campaign to celebrate both Michelle's birthday and the couple's anniversary.

The Obama daughters, 10-year-old Malia and 7-year-old Sasha, have a few favorites of their own. When they stay over at close family friend Yvonne Davila's house they often request her fried chicken and macaroni and cheese.

Another family friend, Kaye "Mama Kaye" Wilson, said Malia is a fan of her lemon meringue pie and Sasha enjoys her cobbler.

Pie made its way into Obama's stump speech late in the campaign when he began telling an anecdote about stopping at an Ohio diner and talking to the owner about hard economic times while enjoying a slice of coconut cream pie.

"It was tasty pie," Obama would often recall.

In an interview before the election, Davila said there's one dish Malia can't resist.

"I'm the only person that can make french toast according to Malia ... She loves french toast, my french toast," she said.

The White House chef has a lot to live up to.

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Charles Babington contributed to this report from Washington and Christopher Wills from Springfield, Ill.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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