Friday, March 27, 2009

And Sometimes You Can (Go Home)

I've written about Marie's Restaurant located in Wadsworth, OH before and after my sort of disastrous meal at the Chicken Manor Restaurant in my last post, I decided that I needed an Italian food intervention to set things straight.

While my normal order is a medium pepperoni pizza, this time I decided to try something on the menu that I hadn't ordered before, the lasagna. One of Marie's strengths (besides their pizzas) has always been their marinara sauce and varieties of pastas. Add on to that fact that Marie's makes their lasagna daily from scratch and you can see what motivated me to order it.

First, my garden salad with side of French dressing:

Pretty standard stuff, and flavor profiles were in line with what I was expecting. The one thing I did notice were the cheese and croutons -- in a good way. The cheese was freshly grated and didn't overwhelm the salad and the croutons, which I have no doubt in my mind were not homemade, were actually decent. Flavorful without being overly salty and processed.

Next up is the lasagna. As with most places, you'll notice two things about the lasagna. The portion is huge, and it's largely invisible underneath a mountain of sauce:

This was a nicely constructed lasagna. However, the lasagna itself was not the star ... the *sauce* was the star. This was a marinara sauce that comes across as a meat sauce. The "meatiness" in the dish was amazing. The depth of tomato flavor that they developed when making the sauce just screams "umami". It's the same sauce that is used on their pizzas and I am beginning to realize why their pizzas are also SO good. I only ate about half of the lasagna and took the rest home for a second meal.

Finally, a shot of some proper garlic breadsticks and more of that delicious marinara sauce, this time used as a dipping sauce:

The garlic breadsicks were tasty and better than average, but still not a standout. In other words, the breadsticks alone are not enough to draw me into Marie's. Then again, being paired with more of that stellar marinara sauce is enough to elevate even the most mediocre of dishes.

Once again I have to heartily recommend Marie's for the aficionado of anything having to do with "red sauce" Italian places. It's nice to know that I can go home (literally) and find an excellent plate of pasta.

Marie's Pizza on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sometimes You Can't Go Home

I had blogged about an experience at the Chicken Manor Family Restaurant prior to this. At the time I had praised the restaurant for a very good fish dinner with some unusual, but tasty side dishes. So it was with little trepidation that I returned several Fridays ago to again experience the tasty food. Unfortunately, this time I didn't get the cute waiter I had last time. That should've been my tip-off that things were going to be amiss.

Even though I did go on a Friday night, I decided to try something else on the menu. Having not had any of their pasta dishes, I decided to go with the chicken parmesan. This came with a garlic breadstick and a garden salad. Here is my salad with a side of French dressing:

Pretty standard house garden salad. The surprising addition was a little bit of pickled beets. I daresay I may actually have started becoming fond of the much-maligned little suckers. I don't think I could sit down and eat an entire can, but used sparingly, it wasn't bad at all. The rest of the salad was pretty standard, nothing special.

Next came the chicken parmesan:

A couple of things to note. First, as usual, the pasta had a layer of cooking water underneath it, but not as bad as some other versions that I've had. Second, the chicken breast in question was grilled, not breaded and fried. I tried the sauce first, and while it was definitely a marinara, it had sort of an oddish flavor to it that I couldn't quite put my hand on. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either. It had a "doctored sauce" kind of flavor to it that wasn't intensely tomato-y. The harder thing to forgive was the chicken itself. The breast was all of one thickness and when I tried the chicken, it had that intense chemical flavor profile that a Wendy's chicken breast sandwich has (the non-fried version). It was quite off-putting.

Finally, there was the garlic breadstick:

I don't think this breadstick ever saw even a single clove of actual garlic in its entire life. It had an awful metallic aftertaste to it that really played havoc with my taste buds. Between this and the nasty chicken breast, I wondered how a place that had done so much right before could be this completely off the mark on a different dish.

Unfortunately, I never had a chance to confirm with my server that the chicken was pre-processed instead of fresh; they were completely slammed at the time. If I go back (and I will probably try it once more before passing final judgment), I will definitely ask then. I suspect they get the breasts 24 to a box, pre-processed and marinating in something that is just nasty.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Hungarian Nirvana

It may seem like the posts are coming fast and furious suddenly, but I assure you, the previous two posts and the next four or five are not being posted in real time. I've sort of gotten a backlog of photos from various gustatory experiences over the last month, but just haven't had time to put much up on the blog.

That being said, I had the somewhat rare opportunity to visit a local Barberton eatery called Al's Corner Restaurant located at the corner of 4th and Tuscawaras Streets (just south of Lake Anna). What makes it rare, you ask? They are only open for lunch and only from 11 am - 2 pm. Unfortunately, considering I am usually working in either Cleveland or Canton during the day, that doesn't give me a whole lot of time to make a trip to Barberton in the middle of the day. Fortunately, I finally had the chance to do so and I have to say, it was worth the wait.

Al's Restaurant is unique in that when you walk in, you immediately get in line. The menu is fairly limited, but fairly straightforward. You basically make your way to the front of the line, place your order which is served from the hot line underneath the glass case, pay for your meal and then sit at either a table or a very long counter (U-shaped, of course). There is a soda fountain in the back of the restaurant where you get your own refills and a refrigerated case where the bottled waters are kept.

You can order any of the lunch items for $7.00 (this includes a slice of bread and your choice of beverage), any number of sides, or individual items for prices ranging from $2.00 - $6.00. They also have a sampler for $8.50, which gives you a taste of just about everything on the menu. Being as this was my first and probably only time for the foreseeable future, I decided on going with the sampler platter:

I thought I had taken more than just this one photo, but unfortunately, I was having some unexpected issues with my camera and by the time I realized that the other photos had been deleted, unfortunately, I had already dug into the dish.

Starting at 12:00 and moving clockwise, we have:

1) Piece of white bread that comes with the meal
2) Spaeztle-like dumplings mixed in with sauteed cabbage and onions
3) Sauerkraut and hot Slovenian sausage
4) Potato and Cheese pierogi
5) Cabbage roll

and right dead center in the middle is the chicken paprikash with dumplings.

Honestly, the only thing that didn't agree with me was the sauerkraut ... not too salty, but a bit too acidic for my taste. Everything else was just lovely, with the winner going to the chicken paprikash. It was nice and creamy with just a little bit of heat from the paprika. The chicken leg I was served was hot and juicy and tender. The only off thing about the paprikash was the dumplings. They were slightly more chewy than I would have expected. Then again, the spaetzle were lovely, so perhaps that was the way they were supposed to be. I'm willing to acknowledge that.

The pierogi was pretty good, although it could've used more cheese. The cabbage roll was quite lovely, being both firm enough to cut with a fork, and still tender and moist enough to satisfy my taste. The one interesting thing to note about the cabbage roll was that the ground meat inside the roll was actually pink. Now, normally that raises alarm bells, but after taking a bite, I can assure you that it was properly cooked. There may be some kind of chemical reaction going on here that I am unaware of that makes it pink, even though it is fully cooked. Either way, it was delicious.

Honestly, the only thing I didn't even bother to try on the plate was the slice of white bread. It just seemed kind of out of place, if you ask me.

I look forward to returning. So should you.

Al's Corner Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A haircut, dinner, and lunch the next day

I had a couple of extra photos lying around, so I figured I'd just post them in their own entry. I had stopped at my friend Sherri's hair salon, Frizz, and decided to have dinner afterwards at On Tap, just a few doors down in the same plaza. They've added shells and cheese as a new side item. Although their sandwiches are generally decent, their sides need a lot of work. I decided on going with the Buffalo Chicken sandwich with a side of shells and cheese.

Here is a photo of the meal:

The pickled jalapenos I generally discard as they don't really add anything relevant to the dish. I also always ask for the "hot" wing sauce to be used to coat the chicken instead of the regular sauce. The positives? Generally the chicken is moist and the hot sauce is hot enough to give it a nice kick. The blue cheese dressing actually contains real blue cheese. The shells and cheese were definitely a step up from their other sides and will probably be my choice for the future. The negatives? Eh, for $5, you can't complain too loudly, but I'm surprised the dish containing the shells and cheese didn't have the word "Kraft" stamped on it someplace. Just because it was better than their normal side dishes doesn't mean it was really that much better than mediocre.

The next day I went back to Nicole's (which I posted about earlier) for lunch and had a double cheeseburger with a side of their homemade macaroni and cheese.

I had tried their mac and cheese at one other point and found that it had a sort of acidic quality to it, so I never ordered it again. Not being fully satisfied by the previous night's shells and cheese, I decided to give it another try and was suitably rewarded. I really do enjoy their burgers (definitely get the double, it is juicier). Now I have a side dish I can get into as well.

On Tap on Urbanspoon  Nicole's Family Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Thai Gourmet vs. Pataya: Battle of the Asian Cuisines

Thai Gourmet, located at 3732 Darrow Road in Stow, OH (phone is 330-688-0880, no website) has been a local go-to place if I don't want to drive all the way to Cleveland (although I do think Cleveland does have better Thai restaurants). Out of the blue, I decided to pop in on a Saturday evening around 6 PM. It was definitely busy, although they did have a table available. It had "ok" lighting, but not optimal, so the pictures will appear a bit dark.

First, a shot of the condiments that are on the table. Notice the dried chili in the container in the front; that will be important later on in the meal.

I decided to do soup, an appetizer, and an entree. For my appetizer, I decided on doing the Thai Dumplings. Here is a photo of the dumplings:

This was FANTASTIC! A nice pork and shrimp dumpling in a soft wonton skin, cooked until still tender. It was served in a nice broth that had all the elements of Thai style cooking: sweet, savory, umami, and spicy. Topping the dumplings was scallions and fried shallots, which provided a nice textual contrast. I would order this again in a heartbeat.

Next came the Tom Yum Gai (chicken instead of shrimp).

This had a sort of odd "off" flavor. It almost tasted like it had too much of an acidic component to it. The ingredients were cooked properly (nothing was rubbery or tough), but the balance just wasn't there. This was a dish that I didn't finish and didn't take home with me.

Finally, even though it isn't Thai, I saw that the restaurant offered Ma Po Tofu. Although the version on the menu is vegetarian, I asked if they could add some ground pork to it and the waitress indicated that they could. The menu declared that the dish came out "spicy", but I know better and asked my waitress what my spice level options were. She indicated that the hottest they could make it was "Thai spicy". When I asked if "Thai spicy" was American Thai Spicy or Thai Thai Spicy, she indicated that it was the latter. So I ordered my dish "Thai Spicy", not really sure what to expect.

Here is what came out from the kitchen:

My heart dropped almost immediately. If you notice, there are no red flecks at all in the dish. No red flecks means no chilies. Tasting the dish confirmed my worst fear. Either the cook has absolutely no idea what "Thai Spicy" is supposed to actually taste like, or I got the "American" Thai Spicy. *Sigh*

So, I ended up adding about 6 spoonfuls of the crushed chili peppers that were sitting on the table. This helped, but it still wasn't the same thing as cooking with the chili during the dish's preparation. Flavorwise, the dish was fine, but clearly once again, my hope for a properly spiced dish was dashed. I did take the rest of the dish home and had it for lunch the next day.

Several days later, I ended up eating dinner at a Canton restaurant I frequent regularly, Pa Ta Ya (1122 30th Street NW, Canton, OH 44709, no website). It had been closed for a while and when I returned, they had a new menu. The thing I like about this restaurant is that it is one of the few places in Canton that I can get Chinese (admittedly, American Chinese), Thai, and Vietnamese. While their Pho is not the best I've ever had, at least I can get it on a fairly regular basis if I want it.

Seeing Thai Dumplings on the menu brought back the memory of the Thai Dumplings I had at Thai Gourmet several days earlier. So I decided to do a taste comparison between the two. Here is the dish:

While this dish had several of the same elements as the one I experienced at the other restaurant, it was not nearly as harmonious (or tasty). There was absolutely ZERO heat at all. I'm not looking to be blown away with chili heat, but this had none at all. This meant that the sweetness in the sauce was not counterbalanced in any way.

Another concern that I have, and this is not a new concern, is that the knife skills of the chef at Pa Ta Ya is just not very consistent. In the picture above, you'll notice that the knifework on the cucumbers is just not very even. While this doesn't bother me in a dish such as the dumplings, it is often a big factor in other dishes, like the Pho:

Pa Ta Ya's Pho is a decent bowl, with nice tender meat and a nice umami broth. I always add hoisin sauce and sriracha to give it a bit of sweetness and garlic-y heat. This restaurant is unusual in that they bring you out a side of both sauces instead of having the condiments on the table. While I usually only add a little bit of hoisin, I like quite a bit of sriracha and no matter how many times I go back and order the Pho, I always have to ask for extra. Oh bother.

And here is the same Pho, with an onion wedge that has not been properly prepped.

Part of the problem with such huge pieces of onion is that they aren't cooked through in their version. While I love onions, I just can't really do them raw anymore, so I end up having to pick them out.

Just so Thai Gourmet isn't the only one with a chili level issue, the one thing that drives me up the wall at Pa Ta Ya (I've eaten there quite a bit for lunch), is their inconsistency with spicing the dishes. I've tried working with several of the servers there (including the daughter of the owner) to try and understand how I need to order a dish if I want it spiced to the level I require and it is still a hit or miss proposition. If the husband owner is cooking and he sees me, I will generally get it at the spice level I ask for. With the wife owner cooking? Forget it.

Overall, I think I'd have to give the edge to Thai Gourmet. Even though they have no idea what "Thai Spicy" is, at least their dishes were more refined and better balanced.

Pataya Thai & Chinese Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Saturday, March 7, 2009

True BBQ in Medina?

Based on a posting on the Cleveland Food and Wine Forum earlier this week, I decided to spend my Saturday afternoon checking out what was purported to be a true BBQ restaurant in Medina, OH. Bullies Real BBQ is a locally owned restaurant that pulls on BBQ traditions from the various regions throughout the country. It is located at 4055 Pearl Road, Medina, OH 44256 and can be reached at 330-725-4227. No website is available at the moment.

Honestly, what I had in my mind's eye when I was picturing the place was some type of old, broken down storefront (aka dive) that had just amazing food. When I arrived at my destination, I immediately became concerned. The storefront had an eerie similarity to a Columbus/Dayton chain called Tumbleweed:

Notice that other than the name itself, the only other two words on the sign are "Burgers" and "Wings". Hmmm ...

But, having driven for half an hour to get here, I wasn't about to abandon my quest. Upon walking inside, it looked extremely "chain-y". It looked like a cross between a sports bar and a Lone Star Steakhouse. There were flatscreen TV's plastered in almost every corner imaginable and nothing but sports on those TV's. The hostess sat me at a table where I had a nice view of the kitchen. Still unsure of what I was getting myself into, I started looking at the menus that were on the table. Bad mistake.

The dessert menu started with the words "Big Lou's Desserts". And looking at the desserts listed, it read like a who's who from an Olive Garden dessert menu. Or Chili's. Or Applebee's. You get the point. The regular menu was somewhat better, but the whole experience continued to feel very "chain-y". It wasn't until the waitress finally approached me and I started asking questions that I finally began to calm down a bit.

She explained that they do all the meats on premises, smoking them between 12 and 24 hours. She walked through the sauces on the table (which I will show you next) and gave me a few minutes to look over the menu. Many of the items come as either a "Sandwich" or a "Dinner". The difference, I found out after asking, is that the sandwiches come with fresh cut fries and cole slaw. The dinners come with more meat and a side of cornbread (along with said fries and cole slaw). The thing is, that the price difference between the two was fairly substantial. For instance, the pulled pork "sandwich" was $6.99 and the "dinner" was $11.99. For a little bit more meat and a side of cornbread, it didn't seem like a good deal to me.

So, I ultimately ordered the pulled pork sandwich and got a side of macaroni and cheese to go along with it. After my waitress left, I set about exploring the sauce box. First, a shot of side #1:

From left to right are the mild BBQ sauce, the sweet BBQ sauce, and the spicy BBQ sauce. Fortunately, I had a knife so I put a little dab of each one to try it out. The mild, ironically, had dried rosemary in it. Not so much that it was the predominant flavor, but there was a mild undercurrent of it (plus you could see it -- even in the photo above). The sweet wasn't all that sweet, but had absolutely no hint of traditional BBQ flavor base ... molasses or tomatoes. Actually, it almost looked "marmalade-ish" in it's color. The spicy one in the red bottle was a nice sauce, with a heat that simmered in the background. It wasn't too spicy (although I kind of wish it kind of was).

Flipping the sauce container around, you can see the remaining two sauces:

To the left is ketchup and to the right is a vinegar based sauce. There were really no surprises as to what each tasted like, so I won't go into any depth here.

Finally, my sandwich platter arrived:

A shot of my sandwich without it's crown:

The cole slaw on top of the pulled pork was a vinegar based slaw as opposed to the slaw in the little plastic cups that came with the platter. I'm not sure if that was what added to the overall juiciness of the pulled pork, but between the slaw, the spicy BBQ sauce and the pulled pork, it was a very good sandwich. Spicy, sweet, juicy, and crunchy. The fries were not bad, probably the best example of fresh cut fries I've had so far, but they inevitably suffered from the same problem as others: some were nice and crispy, others, limp and oily. The cole slaw in the little cups was a dairy based cole slaw. The original post on the Food and Wine forum said to pay particular attention to the cole slaw, but I honestly found it to be a little boring.

Finally, a little bit on my side dish of macaroni and cheese. First, a picture:

I love a good mac and cheese, and sadly, while creamy and tender, this one was just sort of flat and one note. It was as if they had used a really mild cheese with no character at all. While this might appeal to the kiddies, it definitely didn't appeal to my adult sensibilities.

Overall, I thought the meal was pretty good with the pulled pork being the breakout star of the meal. I don't know if I would travel that far by myself again just to get a meal, but if I were making suggestions or tagging along with a group already content on eating there, I would certainly not have a problem returning.

Lee's Korean ... For Dinner!

After I found out that I could no longer get my Korean fix during the days anymore at Lee's Korean BBQ, I decided to make a concerted effort to get there during a weeknight. So, after working a particularly long day, I decided to make the trip to Massillon and get my Korean groove on.

As always, the place was dead. I really have no clue as to how this place survives -- even with the merger to Colucci's. I started out with the Mandoo soup for my appetizer. Fluffy beef dumplings in a light broth with ginger, scallions, carrots, and eggs. This was a wonderful way to start out the meal:

Next up, my banchan and white rice arrived. These come automatically with each meal. In the banchan, you have pressed tofu, kimchi, cucumber, and what I believe to be some type of potato dish (left to right, front to back).

And a super awesome shot of my rice:

Instead of going with my normal order of Bi Bim Bap, I decided to go out on a limb and order something different. Looking over the menu, I decided to go with the O-Sam-Bulgogi, which is a mixture of pork and squid in a spicy chili sauce with onions and sesame seeds:

The sauce was quite good, but not particularly spicy, so I asked my server for an extra dish of gozhujaan, or spicy Korean chili paste. Overall, the flavor was spectacular. About 80% of the pork was nice and tender. 20%, not so much. I think it was more of the cut of pork than anything else. Unfortunately, while there were nice large pieces of squid in the dish, it was woefully overcooked and tough. So sad.

I only learned later on after the meal was over and I was settling the check with my waitress that they can make it much more spicy than it came out (and I asked for it spicy). So, the next time I go back, I may give this one another shot and get it "Korean spicy". Well, with my luck at getting food served at authentic spicy levels, hopefully it will come out correctly and not "American spicy".

Monday, March 2, 2009

Crooked River Cafe and the Sauce of Death

I decided to stop at a local mom and pop place tonight for dinner, the Crooked River Grill. I've had some good meals there in the past, but it had been a while and I happened to be in the area. It's a quaint little place that seats around 45-50 people. Upon arriving at my table, I began looking at the paper mat that was sitting in front of me. I liked what it said:

When Jo Jo my server arrived at my table, I began asking questions about what was made in house. I fancied a cup of soup to start with. When I asked about the chili (my first choice), she shook her head and said that all of the soups were homemade except the chili. It, in fact, came from Whitey's. So, I decided to go with a cup of the special soup du jour, the Fiesta Chicken soup.

It was quite well-balanced and tasty. You could even pass this off as a white chili. The cumin and chili powder taste was bold but not too strong. The soup was composed of corn, roasted red pepper, shredded chicken, onion, celery, and both black and navy beans. It was very good and had a nice fresh flavor to it.

What caught my eye on the menu was the pulled pork sandwich. When I asked about it, I was excited to learn that both the pulled pork and the BBQ sauce were both made on the premises. I eagerly ordered my sandwich with their spicier BBQ sauce and upgraded from the potato chips to the fresh cut fries.

Here is the platter as it came out

And a close-up of the sandwich itself. Note that the bun was a very nice ciabatta roll:

The pork was nice and juicy. It was tender. It was seasoned properly. The BBQ sauce wasn't all that spicy and had a heavy molasses flavor to it. I guess I prefer my sauces to be a bit more acidic and less gloopy than what they served above. As with most fresh cut fries, the ones on top of the heap were crispy and not greasy. As you got to the bottom, however, it was obvious where all the extra oil was. Not that great.

The one thing that I will comment on additionally is the bun. Now as a ciabatta roll, it was quite good. It head a nice crispy exterior with a nice soft crumb on the inside. The problem was that because it was so hard to bite through the crust, the contents of the sandwich basically squished out when I took my first bite. I think a softer roll is in order here.

My waitress brought around a tray of desserts for me to look at, but sadly, not a single thing was made in house. As I was already kind of full, I just declined and asked for the check. When she finally brought the check, I asked her about the "spicy BBQ" sauce. She indicated that the sauce they mix directly with the pork was the mild and then they put the spicy BBQ sauce on my sandwich (the thick gloopy maroon stuff in the picture above). When I mentioned that the "spicy" wasn't really very spicy, she said they did have one level higher, but she almost never recommended it because it made people cry.

When I asked if I could get a small taste from the kitchen, she agreed. I heard her walk back and ask the cook for a small sample of the "XXX sauce". This is what she brought to my table:

The minute I put my nose to it, I could detect the same odor as Dave's Ultimate Insanity Sauce. You know, the kind of sauce where not only does it include habenero peppers in it, but they also fortify it with pure capsaicin. It has almost this smoky smell to it. Carefully, I put just a dab on the end of my spoon and tried it. The first flavor that I detected was the spicy BBQ sauce that came on my sandwich. Almost immediately after that I could taste the flavor profile of Dave's (or something equivalent to it). Within seconds, my entire mouth was on fire. Now I know why she never recommended it to customers. I wouldn't either. When I asked, she confirmed that they take the spicy BBQ sauce and "do stuff to it." She seemed to think they added jalapenos to it. I'm thinking probably not.

Overall, I'd rate this place fair to midland. Certainly better than those places that use nothing but Sysco products, but not a star pupil either.

Crooked River Grill on Urbanspoon
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