Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Si Senor

Mexican Bar and Grill
227 Arnold Crossroads Ctr.
Arnold, Mo.
On The Web

There's a lively, vocal and active local FaceBook group I belong to called Jeffco411 that occasionally posts a link to this fine site. This week Angel and I were struggling to come up with something different to try. I had an idea. Mexican, but not the ones we've been to already. So I posted a note on Jeffco411:
"Eat and Critique! Is looking to review the best Mexican restaurants in Jefferson County. Where should we go?
P.S. we've already reviewed Los Portales in Hillsboro, several times.
To my mild surprise and delight, there were about 125 replies in the first 24 hours.
Scrolling scientifically down the list, one place started to be a standout.
This one. Not by a lot, but those posting about this place seemed more articulate and better looking than most of the others. Yes, being attractive will get my attention. I never said that this operation was a democracy, or fair, or unbiased. I set my own standards here and rule over the site with an iron fist, a velvet-y, handsome iron fist.

The Place:
Since this was in Arnold, we invited Adam to join, he agreed. He lives in South St. Louis County and works in Arnold, so this was less of a drive for him than us. It's located in one of that city's many, many shopping center. Arnold is Jefferson County's largest city. It's location at the northeast corner make it basically a suburb of St. Louis. I've mentioned before that I don't particularly like Arnold, but that's mostly because of the often very heavy traffic and confounding intersections. They do have a lot of nice places to eat and shop. So as long as Angel drives, I can tolerate it.
Just as we entered, the staff was finishing off a singing, clapping Happy Birthday tribute to some snot nosed kid. Adam and I looked at each other, his eyes wide. (see the post about Texas Roadhouse a few weeks back and you'll see why.) I decided to keep an open mind though, for at least a little longer. I wanted some enchiladas.
On the inside, the place was brightly and boldly painted and mural-ized floor to ceiling. Colorful parrots, lizards throughout, even on the booths, chairs and tables. It was quite busy as well, in terms of people. Nearly every table filled to capacity with families, groups of seniors, and just about every kind of person you can imagine. There was a buzz, a  din if you will, but not really too bad. It barely drowned out the Mexican music playing faintly in the overhead speakers. We were seated at the very front, next to a window.
We were greeted by a handsome young man named 'Carlos' if his name tag was to be believed. Very gracious and polite, he asked about drinks just as the chips and salsa were delivered by another handsome young man. The entire staff were in neat black shirts and they all looked busy, competent and efficient.
There were TV's on the walls and hanging from the ceiling, all muted. Golf, some kind of golf game was underway. In my mind the only thing more excruciatingly boring than golf on TV is the actual game itself. My in-laws watch a lot of TV golf, they even play golf. It is the one and only thing I don't care for about my in-laws. . . lets just leave it at that.
The Food:
The chips were perfect. The salsa, beautifully, refreshingly fresh with a slight, but noticeable sweat inducing bite to it. Not overpoweringly hot, just right on that narrow edge between pleasure and discomfort. You know the sensation, right?
We gobbled them down, all three of us love this part of a Mexican meal.
Carlos returned with our drinks, one tea and two Diet Dr. Peppers. He carefully took our orders making sure and rechecking that he had it right. His accent had a thickness to it but we managed just fine. I'm currently learning to speak a foreign language myself, I know how difficult it can be, the nuances and oddly shaped syllables. The answer to your question is of course, 'Icelandic.'
Not really a handy language to know, there are only about 300,000 native speakers of it and almost all of them also speak English.
This was not helpful with Carlos, I got the impression that he was not Icelandic. My perfectly practiced "Hvað segir þú gott?" just bounced right off of him.

I'd researched the menu beforehand so the choice was pretty much made already. Angel and Adam didn't struggle long either.
Me: Combo; one chicken enchilada and two beef flautas. The combo came with beans, rice and a 'corn cake'. I ordered the flautas specifically so I could say 'flautas'* out loud and write it several times. It's not what you think. Flautas is Spanish for 'flute'. It is a wheat wrap rolled into a long cylinder shape, filled with. . . something, then fried.
Adam: Chipotle Chicken Chimichanga.
Angel: Steak and shrimp. This was weird and surprising. On Saturday I'd commandeered the kitchen and prepared us a five course dinner. Grilled steak and shrimp, garlic toast, salad and roasted potatoes. She loved it, there was even enough left over for her to have steak and shrimp for Sunday lunch as well.
This was to be her third steak and shrimp meal in a row. I guess I'd really dialed in on her tastes. . .
Then the Si Senor staff made a mistake. Angel's plate was delivered in just a few minutes.
Have you ever gone to lunch or dinner with people from work and you all order but the food comes out in incomplete batches? Someone, usually me, is stuck sitting there at a blank spot on the table while everyone else politely watches, as their lobsters start to approach room temperature waiting for every one else's food to arrive. . .
Well, that's what happened here. Angel's plate arrived then, for about five or more minutes, nothing else. Fortunately for Angel we're all familiar family so she went ahead and un-apologetically dug right in. Adam and I didn't mind, we just wanted our food. Still it was a notable gaff, though not a fatal one.
One could say that the meals were worth the wait, because they were very, very good.
The chicken inside the enchilada was lightly spiced and quite moist. Usually at Mexican joints the bulk-cooked and steamer-warmed shredded meat ends up being quite dry. Not here. The light coating of enchilada sauce made me want more of it, a gallon or so would have been good. To my surprise and giggly delight, the flautas was quite tasty. The beef was also lightly spiced and quite smoky tasting. A very good little finger food. As always, I chopped up my enchilada and stirred it around into the cheesy beans and rice. I love that combination, when it is prepared right, and this was. Once again they'd held off on overdoing it. They let the beans and rice speak for themselves without going all Taco-Bell with the seasonings. The corn cake, a mush of corn meal with actual sweet kernels embedded in it was quite good as well.
There was absolutely nothing I did not like about the meal.
Angel too was quite impressed. "They grilled the broccoli instead of just steaming it." And "The shrimp is beautifully spiced."
Adam didn't have to say much, I know when he likes and doesn't like things. He loved this. "The chicken is very good." He even sawed off a chunk to let me try. Yep, he was right.
"I didn't share my shrimp." Angel said, unnecessarily.
There was that one and only one misstep. Staggered serving time. Easily fixable, but it would be annoying if it turned into a regular occurrence.
Angel said she'd already decided what to order next time. The seafood soup. She had seen it on the menu but passed over it for the same stuff she'd had twice before in less than 24 hours. Someone else had ordered the soup and she saw it delivered, long crab legs dangling out the side of the bowl.
The food itself was really, really good. I hear they make a pretty good margarita as well.
Now about the price. There was some mention on the Facebook group about Si Senor being a bit pricey. Well, compared to some of the other Mexican restaurants in the area, I suppose that it was. However, at forty nine bucks for three meals, it's cheaper than the popular chain places like Applebee's or Ruby T's or Olive Garden. The restaurant was very clean, the ingredients were all fresh and the staff was well trained and polite. Some of the local Mexican places are essentially dingy dives with pretty drinks. This place worried about its food, they didn't just pop open some cans and fry down some ground beef saturated with powdered taco seasoning.
This was much, much better than that. They've set the bar pretty high for a very reasonable price. In the coming months other places that were recommended will be visited, I'd have to say though, they are going to have to really impress me to beat Si Senor.

*Flautas. You need permanently juvenile male brain parts to giggle at this. In case you don't get it 'flautas' looks and sounds like the word 'flatus' which is a fancy word for 'stomach' gas.  You know. . . farts.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Gordon's Cheese Steaks


518 Bailey Rd.
Crystal City, Mo.
On Facebook

For several years I've extolled the virtues of Gordon's Stoplight Diner. A small, simple, old fashioned, no frills burger joint. For the last few months, the owners of that perfect little burger diner have decided to branch out. I was quite excited to hear about the new Gordon's Cheese Steaks.
I've been to Philadelphia though and had a cheese steak sandwich, so I knew what one ought to taste like. Would they be up to that challenge?
It finally opened, we gave it a few days. I did notice that once or twice they posted that they were sold out for the day and were closing early. I told Angel about that and she merely responded "I could handle a good sandwich for lunch."
So I mapped out a task list for Saturday morning. First I'd stop at the Hillsboro Post Office to drop off five books I'd sold on line that week. This was an unusually high amount of sales, I can go a month or two and not sell any of the nearly five hundred books I have for sale on Half.com.
After that I would go in for my semi-regular oil change. I like the convenience of pulling into an oil change place and having three guys running around my car checking things and topping off fluids. I don't care for the inevitable up-selling, radiator flush, transmission fluid exchange, new battery or wipers, etc. This time though I did accept the offer of an overpriced air filter. He showed it to me and I could see it was more dirt and grime than actual filter. Sure, I could easily go to Wally-World and get a cheaper one and replace it myself, but that's exactly what I'd said I was going to do the last two or three oil changes, but didn't.
After this, I finally headed to Bailey Road, arriving around 11:30. (they open at 11 on Saturdays).
It was chilly, gray and snowing thick, wet, but non-threatening flakes.
The Place:
This little shed of a place has been a walk up food joint, off and on, for as long as I remember. Maybe pizza and something else, I don't recall exactly what and when.
There is no dining area. You don't even go indoors, a good, ol' fashioned walk-up. There was an awning or canopy in the front and on this occasion, about five or six people in line.
Everything is made to order, so every order takes a little time to assemble. I got in line and waited. At my turn I told the charming red headed young lady at the counter that I just wanted two 'Originals', nothing else.
I'd originally planned to get more than that, they boast a pretty good sounding 'Coney' for example. But a hand written sign cut me short. 'Cash only'. This severely limited my options. At the post office earlier I'd asked, for no particular reason for $20 cash back.  This gave me a grand total of about $23 in my billfold. I had also seen the overhead menu that stated that the 'Originals' were $7.99 each. I am quite capable of doing broad math calculations in my head and decided to keep it simple this trip. Keep to the basics. This should be their flagship sandwich.
Upon ordering the young lady handed me an IPhone sized pager. She'd said to the people in front of me earlier that their order would take twenty minutes or so.
I took the pager back to my car and browsed the internet and social media on my somewhat new 4G smartphone. That 's always a time killer. I had a book in the car as well. Actually there are five or six books in my car most of the time. I'm a reader.
So I whiled away the time. I watched as the five or six people doing the prep inside worked furiously to fill orders. The wait was noticeable, maybe fifteen or twenty minutes, but I hoped the wait and the higher than fast food prices were worth it.

The Food:
The pager finally went off. There was a wait at the line, the young lady was explaining to the guy that there was some confusion with the orders and that it would be a few more minutes.
I didn't get too frustrated by that. A place that has only been open a couple of weeks and one that was proving quite busy is going to need some time to get the efficiencies and processes figured out. So I waited a few more minutes until they acknowledged that they'd sorted it out and she handed me a plain white bag.
I left and sped home, by then, pretty hungry.
We unrolled our sandwiches threw some chips on a  paper plate and dug in. We had each cut ours in half, we just can't eat a big sandwich in one sitting.

It was indeed good. There was not too much bread, the meat was cooked perfectly, juicy with smooth, creamy cheese (product) mixed in in a near perfect proportion. We both enjoyed our half sandwiches thoroughly.

Long time fans will recall that I do not judge the service at newly opened eateries too harshly. As I pointed out, these things take some time to build a flow, so I'll not say anything much about the wait, or the confusion with the orders, etc. These owners have had a successful diner running for decades. They'll figure it out.
I will point out a little thing that could be addressed soon, to cut overhead. There were enough napkins in the bag I was given to mop up an oil spill. Sure the sandwiches are juicy and cheese melty, but they're not that messy.
As for the sandwich itself, yes it was good. Angel commented that next time she might want a milder cheese since there was so much of it, the artificial cheddary Cheez-Whiz taste was a bit over-powering. They offer provolone, that should do the trick.
You can get sandwiches a lot of places for less than eight bucks. You can even get a bigger sandwich for less than eight bucks. But those sandwiches are franchise burgers or too heavily breaded subs. This was a real sandwich. Not too thick, not too greasy. It was fresh and authentic. So yes, in my mind Gordon's Cheese Steaks are better than a fast food burger or a Subway club. But nearly twice the price? I don't know. I did like it and I want it again. I also want to try out the dogs and slaw and fries and chili. . . so there is no question, we will go back. I can also highly recommend the place. They've taken the Stoplight's philosophy of simplicity and applied it well to the new menu. Just remember to bring a book and a fist full of cash. This place has been doing quite well in the first few days of operation, I certainly hope it continues to do well.

But was it as good as the one I tried in Philly?  I don't know. That was like fifteen years ago and I recall not being all that overly impressed. Yes, the real Philly philly was good, but perhaps over-hyped. The one I had here was easily as good, as best I can recall.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Osaka Sushi Grill

38 Gravois Station
House Springs, Mo.
On The Web

We heard about this place on social media, on a Jefferson County Missouri general information feed.
The question asked by the moderator was "Favorite place to get Crab Rangoon from?"
(Struggling to avoid smugly calling out the stranded preposition)
The discussion was lively, as it always is on such hot topics of personal preference. There seemed to be several passionate, probably alcohol fueled opinions. One place came up a few times, one we'd not heard of. Angel looked up the menu and showed it to me. "It looks different." she angrily and resolutely sighed. (actually I can never seem to guess Angel's emotions accurately, she may in fact have been pleased.)
We resolved to got there at the first opportunity.
Recall that recently I have been whining about getting tired of Chinese places, the food was all starting to taste alike, and it seemed muddy and almost off-putting. But this place by name and menu was definitively not just another Chinese themed restaurant, it was Japanese and yes there is a difference.
One word on the menu caught my eye and launched a flood of ancient memories.
Gyoza. (ギョーザ, ギョウザ)
I can recall it now, like it was just yesterday. . .
Back in the 80's I was stationed at Misawa Air Base on the northern tip of the largest (Honshu) of that country's many islands. For three years.
That's a long time to be anywhere, so yeah, I explored a little, tried a few things more than the average tourist. Admittedly and regrettably I didn't take full opportunity of the time I spent there. I explored tried and tasted far less than I could have.
Occasionally one of my bosses, Harry, would head off base before lunchtime and bring back a party platter of gyoza. These are basically pot stickers like you find in other Asian cuisine, but with two notable differences, more on this later.
I tried other local foods while I was there, of course. I could never acquire a tasted for two things though, sticky rice used for sushi and any form of raw fish. I tried, in Japan, but sorry, no.
I also tried sake in an unofficial and rather unceremonious ceremony called a sake circle. Basically a bunch of the local fellows that worked for NEC, the national phone company, and who we GI's worked closely with, being a communications squadron and all. The sake was heated in a battered electric aluminum percolator until it was the temperature of hot tea. Sake is terrible, unless you drink it this way, then it slides down your throat like butter. About three shots in, you're lucky if you can stand up again. I was seldom lucky.
Good times. . .  But I digress.
The Place:
House Springs is in the north central part of Jefferson County, the bulk of it sits along Highway 30 (Gravois Road in St. Louis) It was one of the earlier settlements in the county, named after one of those early pioneers, Adam House. Mr. House was notably slaughtered by indigenous Americans  of the Osage tribe along a creek, House's Springs, in 1800.
We don''t get there often as the connections over to 30 from our house are scary curvy and narrow. We took the scenic and scary curvy route this time, Hillsboro - House Springs road because. . . well it's pretty obvious isn't it?
We found it easily enough, it's not a huge place and there are only a few shopping centers. Greater House Springs boast about 14,000 people, but that covers a lot of unincorporated, rural land around it.
"Osaka" (large hill or slope) is part of Japan's second largest metropolitan area, about 250 miles east of Tokyo, also on Honshu.
Walking in, we were pleased, it was quite modern and tidy, very much in the tradition and style of the
Japanese. Dark green textured wallpaper, thick lacquered wood table tops, dark ceramic tiles. Traditional Japanese three string shamisen music played lightly in the background. As is traditional with sushi places, the prep area was brightly lit and fully visible to the diners. Sushi making is a very high precision art steeped as much in tradition as cuisine. A good sushi chef prides himself on his skills and is confident putting those skills on display.
There were only a couple of other people there at the time, making the whole experience seem more intimate and personal.
Shortly, a cheerful and welcoming young lady stopped at our table and asked about drinks. We kept it simple, tea, Angel sweet, me, not sweet.
The menus looked familiar, we'd read through it on line.
The Food:
Angel had been interested in the bento boxes. Bento, roughly translated 'convenience', is a traditional, single portion meal containing a few different, segregated foods served most often in compartmentalized box-plates, similar, but of much better quality than American TV dinners. In Japan this is a popular way to lunch, either made at home, or picked up or delivered from a restaurant. I had a yen for some yakisoba, which along with, another Japanese dish, yakimeshi, I had acquired a taste for in Japan. Chinese restaurants serve very similar dishes. Yaki means grilled, or fried. Meshi is a word for rice. Soba is literally 'buckwheat', but informally, noodles. So yakisoba = fried noodles, yakimeshi = fried rice. Some Chinese places come close to that which I recall, but it has been so long now, I don't know if I can recall the actual taste anymore, just that I could eat a lot of either.
However, indecision got the better of me. They had a combo platter, the bento box. They came with steamed rice, but for $1 U.S. or roughly 115 Yen more, you could get fried rice. It also included two Rangoons, three small California rolls and two gyoza.
Kazumi talked Angel into an appetizer. Sushi is a specialty of the place, they are terribly proud of them. They offered a diverse selection. Kazumi pushed a couple, not an aggressive upsell, more like a friend trying to get another friend to share a new experience. We’d already explained to her that I would not be sharing the experience since the thing I don’t care for in sushi is essentially what makes a thing sushi in the first place, the sticky rice. I apologized for my inadequacy and coaxed Angel to go ahead and try one anyhow.
She settled for the Spider.
“Is that made with real spiders?" I asked. Which wasn’t really that stupid of a question, since the Japanese commonly refer to crabs as spiders. So the answer was not a resounding “no”.
We went ahead and ordered our bento boxes as well, both of us chose chicken, Angel the Osaka (sesame) style, myself the Katsu style. When we asked Kazumi what that was, she explained that it was a little like steak sauce, or maybe barbecue sauce. I struggled to try to imagine something that tasted a little like ‘A1’ and a little like ‘Sweet Baby Ray’s’.
The Sushi arrived and it was beautiful, a true work of art. Precise, clean, minimalist. It was drizzled with a dark, smoky reduction, just a little. Sticking out on two slices were crispy tempura crab bites. I was tempted, but I just couldn’t get past that sticky rice. Angel was delighted though. She immediately tried to force some on me. I resisted at first until I remembered why I was there in the first place, as a service to you, my devoted fans. So I swallowed my pride. I took a bite that would be mostly crab and boy howdy, it was phenomenal. I pretty much let the rest of lie. Sorry, I just can’t handle sticky rice. I could tell by the not-rice parts though that this was expertly prepared.
Angel had most of the rest of it, savoring every bite. “Easily the best sushi I’ve had.”
Kazumi stopped by to refill our teas, answering questions and getting the jokes. Her accent was quite pronounced, but we understood each other just fine.
The boxes came soon. Neat, tidy, minimalist, precise. I was impressed by what I saw. The two chicken dishes were not made the same way. Angel’s looked like what you might get at a Chinese place, mine looked more like thin strips with a different, coarser, lighter breading. Also quite noticeable, sauces had been drizzled on the chicken, unlike Chinese places that completely flood the dish.  This was simply brilliant. When I tried my first piece I could taste the chicken the breading and a little of the savory sauce, individually, distinctly. Rather than the one-note General Tso at the buffet, this was a melody of flavors and texture. Angel’s sweeter sauce was also just barely spooned on, giving it that same breadth of flavor and texture.
The Rangoons were as good as they get, crispy, creamy, slightly sweet. The gyoza was the stuff of my
dreams. There was something here that seemed familiar, yet absent from my life for many years. We worked together to figure out what made these ‘pot stickers’  a little better, a little lighter than those at the buffets. Angel finally nailed it. “The wrap is thinner.” She declared. Also, the innards were better as well, just a different recipe, a bit more garlic for an earthier, less artificial flavor. We’d both opted for the fried rice, which is one of the only two ways I will eat rice; fried or Krispie. It too was less burdened with lots of extra stuff. There was a slight sprinkling of veggies and meat, but once again, neat, tidy, clean and precise.
It should be no surprise that I didn’t try the California rolls in my bento box. That was okay, the chicken, the gyoza and the Rangoons were plenty filling. Angel agreed, even though it had appeared rather Spartan when delivered, it turned out instead to be more than enough food.
Clean and precise, the food, the place and the staff. The tastes were so much cleaner and fresher than at most Chinese places. The price, thirty four and change before the generous tip. Was it that different and that much better? You bectcha.
Perhaps I'm a bit biased, what with having lived in Japan for three years, I accept that. We simply loved it, we could hardly stop talking about it.
Kazumi (I hope I'm spelling her name correctly) was a delight. Bright, charming, funny, helpful and professional.
I have no bad words. None. We will be back.

* The lacquered wood horses in the top photo are not from the restaurant. They are tokens of the region where I was stationed. They were called Hachinohe  or Tohoku horses, for the region and nearest city. We uncouth, uncultured GI's often called them Misawa Mules. Not unlike Kentucky, where I was whelped, That region of northern Honshu was historically famous for the quality of their horses. These brightly painted icons from my own collection are a celebration of that history. 

And here, the prettiest darn national anthem on the planet.
*Kimigayo - National Anthem of Japan