Monday, February 28, 2011

Lula Bell's Old Fashioned Hamburgers

My mother, as I am sure a number of other mothers out there, told me growing up that if I didn't have anything nice to say, then I shouldn't say anything at all. If I heeded this advice, this particular restaurant review would be short indeed! When I walk into a completely unknown restaurant, I try and do so with as open a mind as possible. While first impressions are often crucial, a bad first impression can often be turned around with stellar service or delicious food. In the case of Lula Bell's Old Fashioned Hamburgers and Ice Cream, the warning signs occurred early on and continued right on through the meal.

But before I get ahead of myself, let's get the technical details out of the way first. Lula Bell's was located on State Route 43, just south of Tallmadge Avenue in Kent, Ohio. Specifically they were located at 3958 SR 43, Kent, OH 44240 and can be reached at 330-677-3905. Parking was in the gravel lot in front of the restaurant. At the time of this writing, no website could be found that was directly associated with Lula Bell's. The actual entrance to Lula Bell's was back from the street a bit, so if you are looking for the location, pay attention for the roadside sign on the east side of State Route 43.

Here was a shot of the front entrance:

Front of Lula Bell's Old Fashioned Hamburgers and Ice Cream
And a shot of their hours of operation:

Hours of Operation
Once inside, you can't help but notice the Fifties diner decor. With pictures of all the usual suspects on the walls, the diner stools at the counter and the monochromatic paint throughout the joint, clearly the owners were trying to take you back a few decades. What surprised me first wasn't actually the decorations; it was the fact that besides myself, on a Friday night, there was only one other table with patrons at it. In fact, during the entire hour that I was there, only one other couple came in for food.

Since there were no instructions inside the door telling me to wait, I seated myself at a small two-top table. While there was a paper menu on the table already, after opening it and reading it, I realized that it was a breakfast menu. My server finally approached my table and told me about the daily special, a fish fry with hush puppies and coleslaw. I considered it long enough to perplex her with a question about what kind of fish it was (her original answer was "Ummm ... fish?"), but decided in the end that the promise of an "old fashioned hamburger" was where I wanted to go tonight gastronomically.

Once she retrieved a copy of the menu from the front counter, she left me to look over the quite lengthy menu. Because the pages were so large, I ended up taking a top/bottom photograph of each page:

Lula Bell's Menu Page 1
Lula Bell's Menu Page 2
Lula Bell's Menu Page 3
Lula Bell's Menu Page 4
Lula Bell's Menu Page 5
Lula Bell's Menu Page 6
What surprised me were the sheer number of burger combinations available. When I saw the bacon and egg burger, my mind raced back to the Lola burger I had eaten at Michael Symon's B Spot restaurant months prior and my mouth began to water. When my server finally returned to take my order, I asked her if the burgers were cooked to order. "No," she replied, "They are cooked all the way through." Fair enough, though that seemed like overkill for a 1/3 pound burger patty. The only additional topping for which I asked was a slice of American cheese.

Since all of the burgers are a la carte, I also ordered a side of onion rings. Apparently, they were out of this made in-house and frozen fried side item, so I went with a small order of the French Fries instead. The menu didn't say "fresh cut" and it didn't occur to me to ask if they were given that the onion rings were homemade, too. Bad mistake on my part.

After what seemed to be an inordinately long period of time (considering that the other table had already gotten their food and I was the only other person in the restaurant), the line cook actually ran the food to my table:

Basket with Hamburger and Fries
Here was a close-up of my bacon, egg, and cheese burger:

Bacon and Egg Hamburger
And a shot of the toppings with the crown of the bun removed:

Hamburger with the Crown Removed
Of course, the ketchup I had asked my server to bring with my meal was nowhere to be found, so I asked the line cook for it, which he was happy to get. As you can see from the pictures above, the egg portion of the burger that the menu described wasn't the fried sunnyside up egg that comes on the Lola burger, but essentially a thin, folded over omelet that reminded me of a McDonald's Bacon, Egg, and Cheese Biscuit. I guess it didn't occur to me to ask how the egg was cooked. That being said, this wasn't the deal breaker for me.

The first of three deal breakers, however, was the woefully undercooked, flabby bacon:

Flabby Strip of Undercooked Bacon
Oddly enough, the bacon was actually one very long strip and had been cooked and then twirled in concentric circles so that it fit neatly on the burger patty. Unfortunately, because it hadn't been cooked to crispy, nearly every bite of my burger involved me having to bite down on the stretchy bacon and using my fingers to sever the bacon in my mouth from the bacon remaining on my burger. After two bites, I simply removed the remaining bacon and put it in my basket.

The second deal breaker was the burger patty itself. While a nice sized burger patty at 5-6 ounces, the reason my dinner had taken so long to come out of the kitchen was because the line cook had managed to cook the burger meat to beyond well done. I had originally asked for the ketchup for my French Fries, but after seeing how dried out the patty was, I applied the tangy condiment not so much for its flavor, but more as a way to get moisture in my mouth while chewing.

The third, and final deal breaker were the French Fries:

Fresh Cut French Fries
As soon as the line cook set the burger basket down in front of me, my heart (and stomach) sank because I was pretty convinced that these were of the fresh cut variety. When my server stopped in to check on me, I asked her about the provenance of the fries and she cheerfully smiled and replied that they were indeed cut fresh every day. Having been wrong about fresh cut fries in the past, I went ahead and grabbed the end of a single fry. As I suspected, the fry was extra greasy and limp, the other end of the fry easily falling wherever gravity dictated. I took a bite and discovered that at least to Lula Bell's credit, they had been seasoned with salt after being fried. And while I don't think they were undercooked, the interior of the fry definitely wasn't that soft, fluffy texture that I look for in a properly fried potato.

As I sat there, thinking how unsatisfied I had been with my meal, a couple walked into the restaurant and sat at the stools by the front counter. Immediately recognized by my server, greetings and pleasantries were exchanged. As they turned around and stared out the plate glass window at the front of the restaurant, they must have seen someone lingering outside because one of them said in a quiet, sort of sing-song way, "Come on in, the food's great!" I didn't actually say anything, but my inside voice was pretty emphatic: "NO, IT'S NOT!"

I paid my check at the cash register, left a tip for my server, and walked back out into the cool Friday air. I certainly can't condemn Lula Bell for their entire menu since I only tried a single burger and one side item. That being said, at least 50% of the menu space (not to mention the restaurant's banner hanging out front) was dedicated to that very thing. Additionally, if this was what an old-fashioned hamburger was supposed to be, then I'm entirely content with all manner of nouveau burger creations. Between my burger and fries, I was definitely not impressed with my meal tonight. Given the out of the way location of the restaurant, I'm confident that it won't be hard for me to simply forget about it.

Friday, February 25, 2011

A Return To Hudson's Restaurant ... Sort Of

The last time I ran into Chef Kevin Altomare was at the Hudson's Farmers Market back in late September. I was giving a demonstration on how to make panzanella salad and he happened to be sitting near the demonstration tent and we struck up a conversation. I didn't know at the beginning of the conversation that he was co-chef and co-owner of Hudson's Restaurant on the Green in Hudson, but after I identified who I was, I offered that I had reviewed his restaurant a number of months earlier. Unable to get a wi-fi signal on his computer, he was unable to check my review in real time, but remembering the patty melt and homemade potato chips that I had eaten, I assured him that our lunch had been not only tasty, but also a great value, too.

Towards the end of my stint as demonstration chef for the day, Kevin told me that he and his business partners were looking to open up another Hudson's location at some point in the near future, this time in the Montrose/Fairlawn area. Plans were still being worked out at the time and so I opted not to say anything publicly here on the blog in case those plans changed. As it turned out, everything came together nicely and Chef Kevin manned the helm of the second location starting around the beginning of November. While the concept of the second location was more or less a carbon copy of the first, I decided to give the restaurant a few weeks to settle in before doing a serious review.

The newest location of Hudson's was located at 3900 Medina Road, Akron, OH 44333 and can be reached at 330-666-7777. The website has remained the same and information on both the original and the new locations can be found there. Parking for the restaurant was located in the shared lot with the other business in the strip mall. For those familiar with the Montrose area, the restaurant was located in the same space as the old Brown Derby Roadhouse restaurant, which has now moved to a new location on "Restaurant Hill" overlooking Rts. 21 & 77.

After finding a suitably close parking space, I managed to snap a photograph of the exterior of the new restaurant:

Hudson's Restaurant Storefront
Once inside, I noticed a relatively empty bar area to my right and the dining room directly in front of me. I decided to sit at one of the high top tables in the bar area so that I would be unobtrusive. I was surprised that the bar area was so empty on a Wednesday night at 6:00 PM. However, by the time I had left an hour later, it was filled with hungry diners.

While I had presented you with the lunch menu in my earlier review from the other location, I decided to include Hudson's dinner menu during this write-up:

Hudson's Dinner Menu Front
Hudson's Dinner Menu Back
It was clear from studying the dinner menu that the lunch menu was simply a subset of items available during dinner service. I was in the mood for a nice multi-course meal and seeing as many of the entrees came with a side salad included in the price, my only decisions tonight were to choose which appetizer and which entree I wanted for dinner. When my bartender/server finally came over to take my order, I asked her for the daily specials.

She easily rattled off the list and upon hearing that one of the soup options tonight was a Wisconsin Cheddar Cheese Soup, I decided that a cup of that would make an excellent way to start my meal on such a cold day. Here was a shot of the soup:

Wisconsin Cheddar Cheese Soup
After placing my order, my soup arrived fairly quickly and was accompanied by a small package of Westminster all-natural soup crackers ... a nice touch! I have had these crackers before at upscale eateries and I really thought they added a delicious flavor and contrasting crunch to the otherwise velvety soup. The cheese flavor of the soup was present, but not overpowering and I discovered as I dug my spoon into the depths of the cup that bacon had been added as well. This lent the soup a subtle smoky flavor that complimented the main cheese flavor quite well.

For my salad tonight, I decided on the basic "house" salad and when I heard that a Brandy Balsamic Vinaigrette was available, I asked for it to be placed on the side:

House Salad with Brandy Balsamic Vinaigrette
The house salad was your standard mix of greens and reds, but I was happy to see the addition of a bit of chopped egg. As expected, the salad came out unseasoned and after application of the tangy dressing and a bit of freshly ground black pepper, the flavors popped in my mouth. This was a decent enough salad and the only real complaint I had was the croutons did not feel homemade and had an oddly-garlic metallic taste to them. The vinaigrette was quite light on the palate, but I had a hard time discerning the brandy flavor. Then again, I'm not a huge brandy drinker to begin with, so it wouldn't surprise me not to be able to discern the flavor.

For my entree, even though I considered the entire menu, I seemed to gravitate toward the pastas tonight. When I saw that Pasta Bolognese was being offered, I knew that was what I would be having:

Pasta Bolognese
This generous bowl of fettuccine had been cooked to a perfect al dente and dressed (but not overdressed) in a creamy, tomato-less, pork and beef-based sauce. Adorned with a simple grating of Parmesan cheese and chopped parsley, this was a satisfying and filling dish. While the seasoning was spot on, I felt that the flavor was just a tad flat and two dimensional. Like most long-cooking stews and sauces, often times the bright, acidic notes tend to dissipate when given a long cooking process. Perhaps I was missing the acidity that the tomatoes normally add to the classic Italian-American meat sauce. Don't get me wrong, this was still a good dish, but it just needed one extra component to really elevate it. All that said, the portion I didn't finish at the restaurant definitely made it home with me for consumption later in the evening.

The best part of the meal tonight was getting the check ... just barely under $20 including tax. As with my meal at the original location in Hudson, for the quality of food being served, Hudson's offers a very good value to the customer. With dinner items ranging from only a couple of dollars up to twenty dollars for the petite filet mignon, you will definitely find something for everyone's taste and budget. If there were service issues tonight, I didn't spot any and the food coming out of the kitchen was hot, fresh (except for the croutons), and overall, very tasty. With two locations open to serve the greater Akron area, I recommend that you give Hudson's a try if you haven't already done so.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

NY Style Pizza At Mr. G's Pizzeria

After recently writing about the weekly Friday All You Can Eat (AYCE) fish fry at Mr. G's Pizzeria in Fairlawn, Ohio, it occurred to me (and probably a number of you, as well) that I probably ought to be writing a review of their signature offering, the pizza. I couldn't agree more. The problem with returning had been more to do with good timing than anything else. Having worked into the evening on a recent Friday night, I finally managed to pack everything up and leave the office around 7:15 PM or so. I knew how popular Mr. G's could be during lunch and dinner, but I figured if I showed up around 7:30 or so, I might have missed the rush.

Yes and no.

During my last visit, I noticed that there was a hole cut into the far wall of the restaurant that had been covered in a plastic tarp. Apparently, they were expanding. What I didn't realize was how close they were to actually opening that space up to their customers. When I arrived tonight and walked in the main entrance, initially my hopes sank as the main room was packed with patrons. But when I realized that the new space was officially open and only partially filled, I knew that I wouldn't have long to wait. I was right.

After seating me, my server left me with the menu, even though I knew what I would be ordering before I even walked through the door. I know I posted the menu during my first visit, but I thought I'd re-post the menu since I got much clearer photographs with my new camera:

Mr. G's Menu Page 1
Mr. G's Menu Page 2
Mr. G's Menu Page 3
Mr. G's Menu Page 4
While there was "regular" pizza being offered, tonight I was here for the New York style thin-crust pizza. The problem (and I noticed this before, too) was that the smallest size offered was the medium at 16" in diameter. The large was 20" and the extra large was 24". Clearly this was not a pizza for the individual with a light appetite. While the regular pizzas are offered by the slice during the day, the NY style pizza must be ordered whole. Concluding that I would just have to take the leftovers home with me, I placed an order for a medium NY style pepperoni pizza.

It took a fair amount of time for the pizza to arrive at the table, but considering it was a Friday night during prime dinner hours, the length of time was appropriate. Here was what I received after about a twenty-five minute wait:

NY Style Pepperoni Pizza
The medium consisted of eight slices that were fairly large. One of the true tests of authentic New York style pizza was its "foldability." Folding the slice allows busy New Yorkers to eat the slice on the run without having to worry about toppings sliding off and staining clothing. I pulled off a slice from the stainless steel pan and put it on the dinner plate my server had thoughtfully provided:

NY Style Pizza Slice Angle 1
Here's the slice from a slightly different angle:

NY Style Pizza Slice Angle 2
First impressions were that the distribution of sauce, cheese, and toppings were equitably split. The crust had a nicely browned crust, but after looking at the bottom of the slice, it seemed to be a bit too blond and under-caramelized. A taste test confirmed I was missing some of the wonderful complexity of flavor that browning the bottom of the crust a little more would have given it. I added a light sprinkling of red pepper flakes and attempted to fold the slice. Success!

I took several bites of the pizza and noted that the combination of flavors was good, but not outstanding. There was a sweetness rolling around in my mouth that bothered me somewhat. After unfolding my slice and doing a little digging with my fork, I discovered that the sauce was what was giving the pizza its uncharacteristic sweet flavor. Not sugary sweet, but a definite sweetness more than savoriness. In addition, I picked up on an herbaceousness that tasted like it came from oregano. I know that the acidity of a tomato-based sauce can be off-putting and the remedy is often to add some sugar, but in this case, I think a more acidic sauce would've paired better with the richness from the cheese and pepperoni.

That's not to say I didn't push my slice away from me in disgust. Quite the contrary. I ended up eating my way through three of the eight slices and took the remainder home where I enjoyed a couple of slices cold the following morning for an impromptu breakfast. At $12 for a medium pie, I definitely think this could easily be a single meal for two hungry adults. Having not had their non-NY style pizza, I don't know if the pizza sauce is used for both styles of pies. While I enjoy the novelty of being able to get a foldable slice, the lack of bottom crust caramelization and sweetness of the sauce kept this particular pie from being in my top five. That being said, if you like your sauce a little on the sweeter side, then this might just be the pizza for you.

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Redo At House of Hunan

It happens from time to time. With the best of intentions, I have a meal at a restaurant I plan to review on the blog. I take pictures and mental notes during the meal and when I return home in the evening, I even go so far as to process all of the photos, storyboard them in Picasa and create the "shell" of the blog entry by uploading the photographs in the correct order and finally adding my "Alt" and "Title" tags to each photo. This is usually the first step in a two step process. Normally I will sleep on the meal and at some point during the next day, I will pull up my textless entry and fill in the prose. Occasionally I will do both steps on the same day, but it is pretty rare.

Even if I don't get around to writing the text for a week, aided with my already processed and tagged photographs, I've actually become quite good at recalling my sense memories of the meal. More than a week out, however, details begin to get cloudy in my brain. Sadly, such happened with a visit about six weeks ago to House of Hunan in Fairlawn. I had gone for a nice lunchtime meal and completed the first step in my blogging process when I returned home that night. For whatever reason, I put off writing the review until it was too late. I remembered that the meal was good, but lost quite a bit of the detail that I like my reviews to have.

To remedy this situation, I decided to return to House of Hunan for a second lunch. As an added bonus, I had my new Canon G12 with me (as well as my continually evolving food photography skills) to help me get better pictures than I took last time. House of Hunan was located at 2717 West Market Street, Fairlawn, OH 44333 and can be reached at 330-864-8215. They also have a website in case you want to check on menu or directions before you go. As this location of House of Hunan (there are three total) lived inside a strip mall, ample parking was available in the lot.

Here was a shot of the main entrance:

Storefront of House of Hunan
Once inside the main door, a sushi bar was positioned to the left of the entrance. This was an addition made to the main restaurant roughly ten years ago. In addition to sushi, House of Hunan has also added additional Japanese, Thai, and even traditional Chinese cuisine to their menu. This is great news for someone like myself because now the rest of my family can have the Americanized General Tso's Chicken and I have a plethora of more authentic options from which to pick.

Speaking of options, here were today's two lunch menus:

House of Hunan's Lunch Menu 1
House of Hunan's Lunch Menu 2
In addition to the lunch menus, the regular menu was also offered:

House of Hunan's Appetizer Menu
I decided only to include the above photograph of the regular menu since a) I was there for lunch, b) there would've been an additional dozen photographs since it is now so large, and c) I ordered an appetizer from the above menu page.

Before ordering any food, I decided to go for a pitcher of green tea:

Green Tea
Unlike my recent experience at China Gourmet, when the tea arrived at the table, it was fully brewed and ready to be drank. As I took a small draught from my tea cup, I was rewarded with a wonderful green tea aroma and delicate flavor.

While I often have a few pieces of nigiri sushi as an appetizer at a place which offers it, today I was feeling like something fried. When I saw that the appetizer menu offered two pork and shrimp spring rolls for $3, I decided to go in that direction.

Here was a photograph of the duo of spring rolls:

Pork and Shrimp Spring Rolls
And where there were spring rolls, there must also be that duet of condiments, plum sauce and Chinese hot mustard:

Plum Sauce and Chinese Hot Mustard
While the tops of the spring rolls were crispy and not too greasy, sadly the same thing couldn't be said for the side sitting on the plate. As I picked each up and placed them on my paper napkin in an effort to minimize the grease, I noticed several small pools of grease still sitting on the plate. My server, being keenly astute of what I was doing with my only napkin, dropped off a fresh napkin. Even with the extra draining, it couldn't help alleviate the greasy bottom. Regardless, I took a bite and was rewarded with a shatteringly crisp exterior and a nicely seasoned interior. The shrimp and pork filling was hot and moist and was accented by the use of the sweet plum sauce and spicy mustard. I didn't verify this fact with my server, but the plum sauce tasted very fresh and the thought occurred to me that it might just be homemade.

Roughly five minutes after clearing away my appetizer plates, my lunch entree arrived. Here was a shot of the Shredded Pork and Pickled Vegetable Noodle soup:

Shredded Pork and Pickle Noodle Soup
At roughly $9, this crock of soup was large enough to split between two people. After my server set this down in front of me, I inhaled deeply and could smell the richness that soy brought to the party. Based on the darkish brown color of the broth, I'm guessing a healthy dose of soy sauce had been added. What I loved about this dish the last time I had it was that it felt very authentic to its Chinese roots. There was pork, yes, but it wasn't a pork dish, per se. The soy, mushrooms, and pork added a wonderful savory flavor, the pickled vegetables added a necessary sourness, and the finely sliced pea pods contributed a wonderful bit of sweetness and crunchy texture. The sliced green onions added a bit of sharpness.

As I dug into the dish with my chopsticks, I plucked the still steaming egg noodles from the bottom of the bowl. While I know it is common practice in China to slurp the noodles as a sign of gratitude toward the chef, I didn't want to bother the diners in the adjoining booths with strange sounds coming from mine nor did I want to end up with my shirt dotted with dark brown drips. The soup was so well balanced and while I wanted to finish it all, I simply couldn't. When my server returned to check on me, I admitted that I was finished and asked for the check.

All said and done, with tax and tip, my lunch today came to $18. This might be a tad expensive for some, but other than the greasy spring roll wrapper, everything else had really been spot on and delicious. The Fairlawn location can be quite busy during lunch, so I would recommend that you go prior to noon or after 1:00 PM. I showed up at 12:30 PM today and had about a five minute wait. I've been going to this particular House of Hunan for quite a long time (more than two decades) and the food has always been above average. Now that they've diversified their cuisine, I have even more reason to return for a great meal. I suggest that you do the same.

House of Hunan on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Veggie-Vegan Project: Happy Dog

After the first two meals of The Veggie-Vegan Project at Schezwan Garden and Flaming Ice Cube, I was beginning to come to the understanding that while restaurants specializing in this type of cuisine were not universal, the level of cuisine had been greatly elevated since I first had it many years ago. I guess that's not a totally accurate statement. Having eaten at The Vegiterranean in Akron, I knew that truly tasty vegan cuisine was possible, but I assumed that in order to get food at that level, one must empty the wallet of a significant amount of cash.

Tonight's third entry into the project at Happy Dog would prove wholly otherwise. Happy Dog is owned by Eric Williams, the owner and chef at Momocho Mod Mex. As such, I knew that the food would be good. I just didn't realize HOW good. The concept of Happy Dog was simple: offer lots of great bottled and on-tap beers, a choice between a 1/4 pound all-beef hot dog or vegetarian Italian sausage on a poppy seed bun with an impressive list of toppings. Additionally, to accompany your dog, you could get either fries or tots, again with an impressive list of toppings and dippers. While I've had and enjoyed the Morningstar vegan corn dogs in the past, I have to think my enjoyment was due as much to the cornbread exterior as it was to the liberal use of ketchup and yellow mustard. As with so many vegetarian and vegan substitutes, had the dogs been plain, I don't know that I would've loved them. Having heard others rave about the vegetarian dog at Happy Dog, I was curious to see what I'd find here.

Happy Dog was located at the corners of West 58th and Detroit, or more specifically at 5801 Detroit Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44102 and can be reached at 216-651-9474. Parking was either in a small lot on West 58th just south of Detroit or along the street. I easily found a curbside parking spot on West 58th Street just south of the bar and proceeded to walk the two minutes until I got to the front door:

Entrance to Happy Dog
Once inside, the first thing that struck me was the decor: it was a bar. To the right of the front entrance was a dais where musical groups or DJ's could spin the tunes, directly across was a large, impressive looking bar with many taps, and everywhere else were pretty basic tables and chairs. And as with most bars, it was also quite uniformly dark inside. The thought occurred to me that Chef Williams kept Momocho very dimly lit and apparently the theme continued with Happy Dog. Then again, it was a bar, and very few bars are well lit. I knew the lack of illumination would give me a chance to break out the low light photography skills on which I've been working for the last couple of months.

Seeing as I arrived an entire hour before the scheduled start of dinner, I sauntered up to the largely unpopulated bar, sat down, and proceeded to order a pint of Left Hand Milk Stout:

Pint of Left Hand Milk Stout
A handcrafted beer from the Left Hand Brewing Company out of Longmont, Colorado, this glass of wonderment combined the sharp bite of your typical stout with a creaminess that did much to sooth out the bitter notes. This was an easy to drink beer and while I did have water with dinner, it was a wonderfully tasty pre-dinner beverage to consume while waiting for the rest of the diners to show up tonight.

According to my fellow Veggie-Vegan Project co-founders, Paul and Eric, Wednesday nights were usually pretty slow. Tonight, however, with a single party of thirty occupying the entire east side of the restaurant, the other available tables began to fill quickly. We soon found ourselves staking out two tables right by the front door in anticipation of the rest of our party. Additionally, while Wednesday's were usually pretty quiet in terms of noise level, tonight Happy Dog had booked a DJ and our table happened to be located right in front of one of the speakers. Suffice it to say, easy conversation was a bit difficult.

After sitting down at our table, I noticed that at the center of each was a long, slender pad of paper. It turned out to be the menu. On one side was a list of hot dog choices and a whole lot of toppings:

Happy Dog's Hot Dog Menu
On the flip side was a list of sides, which consisted of French fries or tater tots, a list of toppings for said side, and a list of dipping sauces:

Happy Dog's Sides Menu
In addition to the menu, there was a laminated piece of card stock that offered up helpful suggestions of combinations for both the beef dog as well as the vegetarian Italian sausage:

Veggie Dog Combinations
While all fifty condiments were available as toppers for your dog at no additional cost, toppers for the fries and tots were a reasonable $1 each. While I could've made up my own list of toppings for my dog, I decided to go with one of the recommended combinations for my first visit. Each person filled out their own order request (much the way you used to do at sushi restaurants) and handed it to our server.

Even with the packed crowd tonight at Happy Dog, it wasn't very long at all before our dogs arrived at the table. Here was a shot of mine:

Vegetarian Italian Sausage on Poppyseed Bun
This was a Fieldroast Vegetarian Italian Sausage on a poppyseed bun topped with my choice of caramelized onions, sriracha hot sauce, pineapple-ginger chutney, cucumbers, and French Brie cheese. While I started eating the sandwich with my hands, halfway through I realized that I would need to finish with knife and fork. I did manage to take a bite of the Italian sausage first and discovered to my delight that the flavor and texture of this meat substitute was pretty darn close to the real deal. It wasn't quite as fatty as the meat-based version, but had I gotten the sausage plain, I would've enjoyed it the way I do with most Italian sausage sandwiches, a nice layer of peppers and onions or sauerkraut and a squirt of yellow mustard.

The toppings worked quite well together and provided a nice balance of salty, sweet, sour, and spicy. The cucumber effectively cooled some of the sriracha's heat and the subtle flavor of the Brie cheese added a creamy texture to each bite without overwhelming anything else. I should also note that the poppyseed bun was immaculately fresh and honestly, the only thing I think could've been improved upon was if the bun had been toasted.

After dropping off our dogs, the food runner soon made her way back to our table with fives dishes of tater tots and a multitude of dipping sauces:

Tater Tots with Smoked Gouda and Mole
I decided to get my tots topped with Smoked Gouda, thinking the slightly smoky flavor would go well with my dipping sauce, the Oaxacan red chile and chocolate mole. I was right. Texturally, the tots were perfectly fried, crispy on the outside without being greasy and light and fluffy on the inside. The soft Gouda added a creamy contrast and the slight smokiness added an additional layer of flavor. The mole was everything a good Mexican mole should be: spicy, sweet, floral, and complex. It very much reminded me of my last visit to Momocho. Needless to say, the pairing with the tots was a marvelous choice.

Our meal now at its conclusion, we asked our server for the check. With my pint of beer, sandwich, tots, and the addition of the Gouda as a topper for the tots, my bill came to $13 before tip and tax. And $4.50 of that was for the beer. For $8.50, I had just eaten an incredibly tasty and inexpensive vegetarian meal. As one of the other diners pointed out, you just can't beat that kind of value. I would have to agree with that sentiment.

Those who do not enjoy a sometimes loud and noisy bar environment might find that this would be enough to keep them away from trying the food at Happy Dog. While I do enjoy being able to hold a conversation with someone next to me without having to raise my voice or cup my ears, the great beer selection and more importantly, the stellar vegetarian options make returning to this bar a real no-brainer for me. Whether you avail yourself of the vegetarian options or not, with so much from which to choose, you simply cannot go wrong. Highly recommended.

Happy Dog on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Delight At Pure DeLite Cupcakery

Being relevant in the food and restaurant industry is a tricky business. Everyone, of course, is looking for the next big idea and while some concepts can really turn into serious money makers, others come and go like the fashion world: in one minute, out the next. The two most notable concepts that I've seen in the last couple of years have been the gourmet burger offerings and the notion of a "cupcakery." While I've spent my fair share of time tracking down who has the best $9 burger in northeast Ohio, I've only briefly touched on one such cupcakery, A Cookie And A Cupcake up in Tremont.

When I discovered that a quaint little shop had opened up just down the road from where I work, I knew I had to check it out. I had read about it in the weekly food articles published in the Akron Beacon Journal and was eager to check out their twist on this growing market segment. Pure DeLite Gourmet Cupcakes was located inside the Merchant's Square Plaza at 125 Ghent Road, Fairlawn, OH 44333 and can be reached at 330-865-4000. If you can find Summit Mall, you can find Pure DeLite. Parking was in the common lot between the storefronts.

Speaking of storefronts, here was Pure DeLite's:

Front Entrance to Pure DeLite Cupcakery
Once inside, I met the store's proprietor, Rachel Hough. Knowing that I wanted to get some photographs of her store and her glass cases, I explained who I was and why I was there. In this particular case I felt it was acceptible to reveal myself because I knew that 1) she couldn't bake a special batch just for me and 2) I would've refused any offer of free cupcakes so that I could write an honest review. While she graciously agreed to let me photograph anything I wanted, she worried that since I had shown up so late in the day, the cases were a bit empty. I assured her that this wouldn't be a problem and was, in fact, a good sign that she was moving her product at a good clip.

Here were a couple shots of the glass cases holding the cupcakes:

Pure DeLite's Display Case 1
Pure DeLite's Display Case 2
Pure DeLite's Display Case 3
In addition to cupcakes, Pure DeLite offers several beverages to eat with your cupcake:

Pure DeLite's Wall Menu
From the Beacon's article, the website, and talking with Rachel in person, I quickly learned that her philosophy regarding cupcakes was that if you could make a tasty cupcake with fresh quality, organic ingredients at half the fat and half the calories, why not do so? Here is what the website says on the front page under nutrition facts:

"That's right, I said healthy! Each one of our gourmet creations has LESS THAN HALF the calories, fat and sugar of a traditional cupcake. Not to mention they are made out of pure, natural, and organic ingredients, making indulging in one (or a dozen) of these the smartest decision you'll make all day."

With a challenge as bold as that, I had to give one (okay, more like six) a try. And no, I didn't eat all six in one sitting; I went back for a second visit. Here was the original box of four I got on my first visit:

Selection of Four Cupcakes
Kudos to the box as it did a great job of keeping my selections today from touching each other and marring the frosting. First on the tasting docket today was "The Original":

The Original
Consisting of chocolate cake with bits of peanut butter cup baked inside, this was decorated with chocolate peanut butter buttercream, drizzled with a bit of chocolate sauce and finally topped with a decorative half of a peanut butter cup. If you like the combination of chocolate and peanut butter as much as I do, this was a real winner. Both primary flavors were well balanced, the cake was moist, the buttercream soft and smooth, and overall, it wasn't too sweet. It was sweet, don't misunderstand me, but it wasn't that level of sweet where your teeth start to hurt. A very delicious, if not messy to eat, cupcake.

Next up was the gluten-free offering of the day, Chocolate DeLite:

Chocolate DeLite (Gluten Free)
I am very fortunate that I do not have a gluten intolerance. That being said, this chocolate upon chocolate upon chocolate creation left this chocoholic fully satisfied. While the cake wasn't as immensely moist as the non-gluten-free one I had just tried, it was satisfying and had I not been told it was gluten-free, would never have known on my own. Fortunately, any of the myriad of flavors of cupcakes can be made gluten-free and, of course, special orders can be placed for whatever type of cupcakes that Pure DeLite offers off their menu.

The third cupcake for this tasting was the sole vegan offering, the Tantrum Tamer:

Tantrum Tamer (Vegan)
Your basic chocolate cake base, this was topped with vegan "buttercream" and finished with rainbow "jimmies" (a.k.a. sprinkles). To me, while the flavor of the chocolate cupcake was fine, the texture of the cupcake felt a little bit denser than the previous versions. Figuring this was due to the fact that the cake contained no eggs, when I brought this fact up to Rachel, she seemed a little puzzled because in fact, the chocolate cupcake batter recipe she had developed and used in all the cupcakes requiring a chocolate base was actually vegan. Since this was the only vegan cupcake in the six that I tried, I had nothing else with which to compare it. As with the gluten-free cupcake, any of Pure DeLite's cupcakes can be made vegan, too.

Now that I've had three chocolate cake-based cupcakes, it was time to mix it up a little bit and try "Rabbit Food":

Rabbit Food
This was a spiced cake base with walnuts, carrots, and raisins and was topped with cinnamon buttercream and dusted with a bit more cinnamon before being decorated with several slivers of chopped carrot on top. The scent of cinnamon wafting up from the cupcake literally made me start to drool even before I tasted it. The combination of the cinnamon in the frosting and the spices in the cake along with the sweetness of the carrots and raisins and the crunch of the walnuts ... oh my! Again, this was sweet without being overpowering and the creaminess of the frosting made each bite a delicious treat for my mouth. I had to keep reminding myself that these cupcakes have less than half the fat, calories, and sugar of their more calorie-laden brethren.

Playfulness seemed to be the modus operandi at the bakery, and the next cupcake was an ode to an American classic, the Hostess With The Mostess:

Hostess with the Mostess
Comprised of chocolate cake filled with white "creme," this was topped with a decadent chocolate ganache and a loop-de-loop swirl of icing piped on top of the cake. While smaller than the original it copied, it was a very good homage to the one I grew up eating as a child. While purists might miss the extra creme in the center, Pure DeLite's version delivered enough on the flavors to satisfy this taster's Hostess memories. At the very least, I could certainly appreciate the fact that the ingredients in today's version were much healthier for me than many of the questionable ones I would find if I read the package for the original version.

My final cupcake for today's tasting was another American classic in cake form, the Ice Cream Sundae:

Ice Cream Sundae
The base consisted of a very moist banana cake with a strawberry jam center and was topped with vanilla frosting, chopped peanuts, a chocolate drizzle, and finally perched on top of this creation was a lone maraschino cherry. While this was delicious, my only complaint was that on my second bite, the cake base sort of separated where the jam was and this particular cupcake became a little hard to eat neatly. I ended up having to employ the less delicate technique of shoving the remainder of the cupcake into my mouth and chew thoroughly in order to avoid a complete disintegration. That being said, the flavors were very nice. I especially liked the play between the banana flavor, which wasn't overwhelming, and the strawberry jam. This one could easily be renamed the Banana Split, too.

Lest you think that by this point I had gone into a diabetic coma, since I had shared these with others, in the end I only had the equivalent of three cupcakes. And while that STILL may seem like a lot (and normally I would agree with you), since these were lower fat and lower sugar cupcakes, other than a little bit of water to clear out the residual sweetness, I felt fine. Now, I'm certainly not giving you license to eat as many as you want, but were I to eat one of these creations and still want a little more, a second cupcake might very well be in order.

I am truly delighted to have a bakery right here on the west side of Akron where I can find cupcakes that are not only healthier for me, but also made with fresh organic ingredients. Yes, gentle reader, some people might balk at the fact that they are $2.50 apiece and aren't absolutely enormous. Many times when I am out to eat, I opt to skip dessert, not because I don't like sweets, but because I can't justify spending $4-$8 for a dessert large enough to feed two people after eating a heavy meal. With Pure DeLite right around the corner from my job, I can now get my sweet treat fix and it will only cost me a measly $2.50.

I highly recommend that you stop by and check them out the next time you are over at Summit Mall. Make sure to check their website often as they rotate flavors on a daily basis and their store hours change depending on the time of year. I know I intend to return every now and again for more of their whimsical treats and I would suggest that you do, too.
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