Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Bandana’s Bar-B-Q

103 Truman Blvd
Crystal City, MO


The Place:
Bandana’s is a regional chain headquartered in St. Louis with locations in Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana and Kansas. The one we visited is in Crystal City*, near the K-Mart. The first thing you notice when you get out of the car is the delightful aroma. They keep their smokers running 24/7 and it smells absolutely wonderful. (If heaven smelled like this I’d clean up my act.)
The second thing I noticed was the music being pumped from a cheap outdoor speaker. It was country music, I could tell from the two step beat and twang, but lyrics, voices and instruments were impossible to discern. The speaker, like one you’d find on a boat, had a bandwidth too narrow to make any music enjoyable; it was like listening to an ice cream truck.
Inside the music was audible but once again they had gone cheap on the overhead speakers. If there were any bass clef notes in any of the songs they played you couldn’t tell. The only good part about the background music is that the volume was kept very low, so it soon blended in to the background.
The décor was cheap and country-kitschy. The wallpaper on the soffits pretended to be exposed logs, over the kitchen area, brick. This wallpaper wouldn’t fool anyone. The booths were clean, well maintained and comfortable. The paper towel holder was constructed from iron pipe pieces, the overhead lamps had wash basins for shades. They were obviously going for a down-home country motif, and achieved a down-home country motif infused with a touch of either bad taste or abject poverty.
We were seated immediately and handed our menus. We asked for tea, tea, and to Adam’s delight Pepsi. (He has a definite preference it turns out) The menus were laminated two-sided cards about eleven by fourteen inches. The choices were simple. If you wanted fish, burgers, fried chicken, club sandwiches or Caesar Salad you were in the wrong place. This was a barbecue joint from one end to the other.
On the table, alongside the paper towels (always a good idea for barbeque/ribs) were five bottles of various sauces. Original, Sweet and Smoky, Sweet and Spicy, KC Masterpiece, and Chicago style. Adam tried a spot of them all from his wrist.
The menu had boasted ‘Fresh Brewed Tea’ and I was going to hold them to that. It was indeed fresh and delivered quickly but it was not Luzianne.

We placed our orders. I opted for the beef and pork platter with a baked potato and barbecue baked beans. (two sides included with the platters). Angel ordered the smoked chicken, with corn and baked potato. Adam ordered a sandwich called the “Wet Bandana” with Chicken and Turkey (beef and pork were also options) with fries.

The Food:
Delivery was pretty quick. Our plates arrived exactly as ordered. The disposable plates were set in tin pie pans and lined with butcher paper. The piles of meat were smoky and smelled great. The baked potatoes were wrapped in foil, the beans/corn served in a small bowl in the center of the plate. Topping it all were two generous slices of their garlic toast. This thick, French-bread toast was buttered, spiced then grilled. The meat portions were generous, I had two piles, pork and beef, Angel had a full half chicken. Adam’s sandwich was piled high and the fries were, as he put it, “perfectly made”.
I dabbed a little of each of the five sauces onto the rim of my plate and dragged small bits of meat through each of them. The meat was very well made and did not require sauce to make it good. I chose The Sweet & Smoky and the Chicago as my favorites. Adam agreed. (usually he prefers KC Masterpiece, this indicates that he found two sauces here that he liked even better)
Angel let me try a chunk of her chicken, it was heavenly; Moist, smoky and tender. I let her have a couple of chunks of my pork and beef. We decided that any of them would have been a good choice.
The pulled pork was absolutely perfect. The beef was a bit dry, as smoked beef tends to be, but with a dab of sauce it quickly became awesome good. The toast was simply outstanding. The potato was done perfectly and the butter and sour cream portions generous. The real surprise was the baked beans. These were absolutely the best baked/barbecue beans I had ever had. Obviously slow cooked with some meat added, the bean broth was thick and creamy. I could not get enough of these beans. Angel said that her corn was equally good, fresh, sweet and firm.
I can tell you how good this meal was in another way. I did not finish my potato. As I delighted on the bread, the beans and the barbecue, I found myself getting full. I was not going to be able to finish it all, something would be left behind. Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing at all wrong with that potato, it was just that something had to be sacrificed and the potato lost. For me to leave potato behind is unheard of. I am a potato addict. I would rather have a potato, cooked almost any way, than most other foods. In most burger or sandwich places I’ll finish the fries and leave sandwich behind, but not here. That’s how good the food was.
Adam spoke often and highly about his meal throughout the evening. This is quite rare and says quite a bit by itself and in fact, he lobbied for a perfect score. I had to remind him that the tea was NOT Luzianne so a perfect score was simply not possible. However, should they ever decide to make and serve a hearty burgoo** as good as their other food, they might just have THE wining combination.

The service:
Our friendly waitress, Brandy, checked on us frequently and kept our drinks filled. She and a manager both stopped by to inquire if everything was okay. We assured them, talking with our mouths stuffed full, that yes indeed, the food was great.
Brandy, upon sensing that we were finishing up with the main courses offered desserts. Adam picked pumpkin pie, Angel chose pecan. I inquired about the availability of the one and only worthy option, apple.
No. No apple pie.
I was disappointed, but only a little since I was already quite full. I asked her to look around in the back in case someone had squirreled away a slice somewhere. She assured me that no one would do that and that she was quite sure that there was just no apple pie. I muttered “Blasphemer”, or “Infidel”, or something like that. She smiled and once again apologized that there was not any. I asked her to check anyhow. I told her I’d take it even if it had been setting out for a few days or had fallen on the floor.
When she delivered the pies, I looked her up and down and behind her, checking for smuggling or possible surprises. She laughed but again assured me that there was simply no apple pie to be found. “ Away with you then! ” I scoffed. She laughed. (Excellent people skills!)
As Angel and Adam finished up their excellent pies, I picked at the scraps of meat still left on my plate. Once we were all finished I glanced, just glanced toward the kitchen/wait area. Brandy immediately hopped up and arrived at our table with the check.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably already figured out that we really, really enjoyed this meal. Sure the décor and music were cheap and forgettable, but man, the food was superb! Every bit of it perfectly and painstakingly prepared including the sides and the toast. The sides weren’t just ‘sides’ here, they were treated with every bit as much attention to detail and quality as the meats. This is very, very, very rare.
The service was clean, well staffed and professional. It was not too flirty or overbearing, and was close and available without hovering. In fact it was good enough for me to actually, (and for the first time in this quest) offer the name of our server in a review. Also for the first time I paid more than my customary tip. Okay, not a lot more. I still consider 15% to be a fair and strict standard. I rarely go far above that, but I will, and HAVE gone well below that.
The price was quite reasonable with our platters costing around ten dollars each and the sandwich under seven dollars. The pie, tip and drinks brought the total up to $52.50.
For a comparison, re-read the review of “Buffalo Wild Wings” a few weeks back. It cost more for basically the same meals, yet was all but intolerable and inedible in every way. I happily paid the tab at Bandana’s.
Final score: 97% a solid A+. Highly recommended, I can’t wait to go back!

* Crystal City is an interesting place historically. In the late 1800’s a factory was built to manufacture plate glass from the very high quality silica found in and around Plattin Creek. Plate glass was made by melting silica (sand) in a furnace and pouring it onto tables. Once cooled the glass was originally polished by hand using sand, rouge and emery.
The American Plate Glass Company developed the area around the factory and called the town ‘New Detroit’. A few years later, not being satisfied being compared to Old Detroit, the people renamed the town Crystal City, a likely homage to the new owning company, Crystal Plate Glass. The town was company owned and run for many years. As such the company had certain rules about the morals and behavior of its workers. Alcohol was not allowed in the company town.
It wasn’t very long at all before another town sprang up right on Crystal City’s borders primarily to remedy the rampant sobriety problem. That town, now called Festus, was originally called ‘Tanglefoot’ referring to the tripping and staggering of the many workers/residents leaving the saloons to return to their homes inside the company town.
In 1908 Crystal City Works Nine, as the factory was called, was owned by PPG and was the world’s largest plate glass plant. As other glass technologies emerged the demand for plate glass diminished throughout the early to mid twentieth century. Having manufactured windscreens for aircraft during WWII and auto glass afterwards, the factory finally closed it’s doors for good in 1991.
Driving through the area now it is very hard to determine where Crystal City starts and Festus ends. Several of the old company homes still stand in the old downtown area of Crystal City but the factory and furnaces are long gone. All that remain of the glass company are the Hospital and the Headquarters building, now used for other purposes.
Source : http://www.crystalcitymo.org/history/index.html

** Burgoo: For you non Kentuckians, burgoo is like an Irish stew, sort of, and can often be found amongst smoked/barbecue meat event such as church picnics. There is no one defining recipe but it generally contains one or more smoked meats (squirrel and opossum was once popular) lots of corn, beans and whatever veggies might be available (skip the okra, please!).

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Bentley House

Hillsboro MO.

Thanksgiving 2009

The Place:
It’s just like home, well, it is home.
Purchased unfortunately at the apex of the housing bubble in 2006. The modern comfortable home sports three bedrooms, three and a half baths, a large open living room, dining room and kitchen and a fully finished walkout basement on five acres of rural land just five miles outside Hillsboro MO. Somewhat secluded it sits back about four hundred heavily wooded feet from the road. No trick-or-treaters have ever approached, likewise there’s simply no point in hanging exterior Christmas lights. (Win-win!)
The dining room was furnished with a light oak table and matching chairs. A dark antique hutch, a family heirloom of some sort, overlooked the dining area and during the holiday season serves as the display platform for the owner’s large, pointless, but colorfully festive collection of nearly seventy nutcrackers.
The carpet was worn and plain. The large windows allowed the option of plenty of light, shaded by custom-made violet/purple/dark red vertical blinds. The walls were white with textured tones of silver and / or beige.
A few steps away were the open kitchen and pantry. Many meals are made in the small but accessible kitchen, few actually consumed in the dining room.
In the adjoining living room the large TV whispered an old episode of ‘Mythbusters’ and a fire crackled in the tarnished, glass enclosed fireplace.

The Food:
The holiday fare was traditional. Turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, corn, deviled eggs, olives, dinner rolls, and of course, the specialty of the house; gravy. For dessert two pie choices. Angel and Adam to shared the pumpkin, I got the apple. I made the apple pie with my own two hands, carefully opening the frozen box and removing the plastic covering all by myself. Great effort was extended turning the oven to 400 degrees and setting the timer for fifty five minutes exactly. Midway through the cooking cycle foil was wrapped around the edges to keep the crust from burning.
Two small turkeys were prepared. One a day ahead of time, the other fresh out of the oven. The dressing was special this year, rather than from a box, it was homemade from an old family recipe, with dried bread, sage, celery, and whatever else goes into dressing. The mashed potatoes were made from actual potatoes, the dinner rolls were name-brand ‘brown and serve’ a family favorite. The gravy was as always homemade with the drippings from one of the turkeys, flour, and… well that’s pretty much it. The deviled eggs were piled high with filling and placed in the crystal deviled egg platter, another family heirloom. In the center of the eggs was a crystal bowl filled with black olives freshly plucked from a new, un-dented can.
I made my own tea, Luzianne, of course, Angel and Adam drank something, I don’t recall what.

The Service:
Angel decided to nap that morning and did not leave me any specific instructions. I obliged by not doing anything. The house smelled great though. Once she finally got up and started the final preparations, things moved quickly. There were few fatal accidents and most of the prepared food made it to the table.
The turkey was carved, one by Angel the other by me, with all the skill and finesse of an old-west saloon knife fight. The carcasses were decimated in the carnage and reduced to brittle steamy bones in very short order. The meat went into either the large Tupperware-like box container or a one gallon freezer bag. The box would serve as the starting point for subsequent meals. Some of the better bits were plated and served at the table. The bag went into the freezer for use in future meals and snacks.
Once dinner was called at about three thirty P.M. the meal went fast.

One of the turkeys was a little dry so we mixed and matched batches. Gravy cures this problem easily if applied liberally. The dinner rolls were darker on the bottom than the top as I had failed to move the oven rack up to the center before heating them. The potatoes were a bit watery, but once again gravy punched through that issue as well. The deviled eggs were exceptional, the corn was fresh from a can and microwaved with a bit of butter. In other words, perfect. The real star of the show though was the dressing. Angel had pulled back a little from the recommended amount of sage which turned out to be a good thing. The texture and taste were simply perfect. Angel has reminded me that there was also some asparagus. I assume she cooked it somehow and enjoyed it, I really don’t care. I’m pretty sure asparagus is what the Donner party finally reduced themselves to eating after they ran out of people.
The apple pie was cooked late deliberately. I planned to stuff myself with proper vittles at dinner and then savor dessert much later. Adam made the pumpkin pie which was a good life lesson for him. He removed the tin pie pan prior to putting it on the baking sheet. Admittedly the instructions on the box were a bit vague. This resulted in what could be described as a pumpkin pizza, which was every bit as good, so they tell me, as if it were still in the pie pan. I despise pumpkin pie and would have been no more concerned about how it turned out had it exploded and turned into boiling acid.
As holiday meals go, this one was as near to perfect as I can recall. Sure some individual items were a little off, but they were all made with purpose, devotion and love and then topped with gravy.
Dinner in a warm, comfortable place, surrounded by loved ones, the total tab: Priceless.
We highly recommend this place and will certainly return again and again. Final score 100%.

Bonus track: Leftovers!
The reason for making so much food was so we would not have to prepare another meal for the remaining three days of the holiday. Below is a collection of some of the meals made independently at unpredictable and irregular times.

Barbecue Turkey Sandwich.
Select pieces of white and dark meat, sautéed with lots of onions. Barbecue sauce is thinly applied in the skillet and allowed to caramelize. Served on toast with a side of lima beans and potato chip crumbs.

Turkey Rice, Asian Style.
Regular white rice made in my prized rice cooker. Veggies, onions, peppers, celery, etc sautéed with select chopped bits of turkey. Once the rice maker pops, mix everything in a large bowl with a chopped fried egg and douse with soy sauce to taste.

Classic Turkey Sandwich.
Bread, mayo, turkey. Done. Cheez-Its round off this quick meal perfectly.

Breakfast casserole.
Turkey, a little dressing, onions, heated in a skillet till hot. Add in two to twenty eggs to taste, partially frying them then mixing with the turkey, etc. until coated and done. Some bacon pieces would have been good had I remembered that we had some.

Poor (lazy) Man’s Casserole.
Take some of everything leftover; turkey, dressing , mashed potatoes, corn and pile it high in a cereal bowl. Nuke until piping hot, smother it in reheated leftover gravy. This meal best served to people already wearing holiday sweat pants or loose fitting bathrobes.

Deep Fried Thanksgiving Balls.
Angel saw this one on The Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives”
Take some Turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and mix together in whatever proportion you like, using the mashed potatoes to bind it all. Make 2 inch diameter balls out of them and dip them in a beer batter ( 1 ½ cup flour per 12 oz beer, ½ tsp salt, mix the flour/salt into the beer). Deep fry until golden brown. We topped ours with gravy. Use any remaining batter to make some tasty onion rings.

Turkey Potato Pancakes.
The morning after we made the balls, I pondered about the best way to reheat them. I flattened a couple pancake thin then reheated them in a skillet along with some of the leftover rice. Mmm.

Basic Turkey Midnight Snack.
Take some turkey from the box and put it in a plastic bowl. Sit down in front of the TV and enjoy. Excellent when accompanied by a fresh box of Chardonnay.

Angel also reminded me to mention the Turkey Pot Pie. Which is turkey, boiled potatoes and I imagine carrots or something like that in a thick stock that she made out of broth or something. Instead of pie crust, just make some biscuits. Angel decided to try a new recipe off the web. Bad idea, they weren’t very good but they sure were flat and hard. Regular biscuits (canned) are better, and so were a couple of those leftover turkey balls. Anyway, cook the broth with the turkey and potatoes, etc, and pour in a bowl over whatever carbohydrate / starch delivery device you prefer.

Thanksgiving Chili.
By day four we were running low. Angel broke down and made traditional chili. Angel’s a bit timid when making chili so I usually end up spiking it a bit, much like I do with my Sunday morning canned chili brunch. This time I kicked it up holiday style.
Chop up the remaining, picked-over turkey bits including those dry ones stuck to the side of the box. Chop up one stalk of wilting celery and the limp end pieces of the onions that rolled to the back of the crisper. Then add those diced bell peppers and jalapenos from the bags in the freezer. Sautee in olive oil since all the canola oil got used up making the turkey balls.
Spoon in more of the plain chili than you can possibly ingest at one sitting. Simmer while your Luzianne tea steeps. Crack open the last, stale package of generic saltines. Once all is done sit down, hunch over and read a book while gorging yourself . Ignore everything and everyone else for the next hour or so. Eat all of it.
For desert: ‘Tums’ and regrets aplenty.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Buffet China / China Buffet

3833 Lemay Ferry Road
St. Louis Mo.

The Place:
Located near the South County Mall , in a strip mall adjacent to Kmart.
A Chinese buffet in a strip mall? How odd.
We love Chinese buffets. We’ve only found one or two halfway decent ones near where we live. One of them, ‘Emperor’s Wok’ is okay. The other one, in Festus, burned down several months ago. We’ve pretty much been doing without since then. Last week a couple of friends from my writers group, Marty and Cathy told me about this place. They’ve been going there for about fifteen years and were never disappointed. When my turn to pick a place came around I declared it as my choice. There are lots of places to eat, but I was hankering for some Chinese.
As it turned out it was a fortuitous choice, I needed to drop my deer-damaged car off at a dealership less than three miles from the restaurant. We convoyed up to the repair shop then I joined Angel and Adam in the family truckster for the remaining short hop.
It was typical of any strip-mall Chinese buffet; even the name of the place was generic. It said ‘China Buffet’ on the unlit sign outdoors, but the take-out menus said ‘Buffet China.’ Not that it matters really.
We were met at the door by a slight and smiling Chinese lady who merely asked us ‘How many?’ We answered with the universal sign language for ‘3’ *. As she led us toward a nearby table she took our drink orders. We didn’t even need to sit down. She pointed us to the steaming buffet lines; we knew what to do from there. The interior was dimly lit, the walls and floors plain, unremarkable and decorated with the requisite bright red and gold colorful Chinese things.
At the line the plates were still warm in the spring-loaded contraption that reminded me of a card dealing machine. The stainless trays in the warmer were all near full.

The Food:
The food looked fresh, not like it had been setting there percolating since the Ming dynasty as the case in some of these places. There was a wide variety of offerings. As I usually do in a new place I chose a little of just about everything that I determined to be remotely edible.
There were about eight kinds of chicken, Sesame, General Tso, ‘Spicy’, ‘Crispy’, etc. There was also the usual rices, white and fried as well as stir-fry noodles and the normal soups. There were two kinds of hot shrimp available, breaded and non-breaded. I was pleasantly surprised to find the non-breaded and loaded up on them. My first plate was filled with small portions of about twelve different items including each of the chicken types, fried rice and noodles, a crab rangoon and a couple of dumplings (pot stickers). We also found ‘lobster rolls’, something else unique. There was a simple krab (fake crab) concoction that seemed appealing.
When we returned to the table our drinks were waiting for us in mismatched plastic ‘Coke’ labeled tumblers. The tea was fresh but nothing special.
The food was for the most part outstanding. Angel noticed immediately that the vegetables in the fried rice were crispy and fresh tasting. A small thing perhaps, but it makes a difference. They had distinct taste and texture. In fact in every offering where there were veggies they were fresh and not overcooked or limp.
The chicken was cooked perfectly, not dry or tough. The glazes were bright and flavorful. I decided the ‘Crispy’ was the best, but I wouldn’t refuse any of them. The stir-fry pork was full of green peppers and onions, all masterfully prepared. The rangoons were wonton style** and not overcooked. There were no fried wontons. We discussed this and decided it must be a local thing. We haven’t seen many fried wontons since moving to the area. There was also no cashew chicken. (see bonus section)
The food was all quite good, with one notable exception, the dumplings. They were thick and doughy. The filling was fine (not too much ginger) but the wrapper was simply too thick. Also, The lobster rolls, essentially egg rolls with lobster meat, had been cut into two-inch medallions before cooking which made them seem a little overdone. They would have been better if sliced after frying.
Adam declared his favorite, the General Tso’s chicken. He mentioned that it was spiced exactly right, not too hot, but still spicy.
Each of us returned for another plate, Adam dived into the traditional desert offering of banana pudding topped with that Chinese staple, bananas in red gelatin sauce. Angel and I seconded on some of our favored selections. I got more of the Crispy Chicken, which was like General Tso’s but not as spicy, nor as sweet as the Sesame chicken, somewhere between, and cooked just to a slightly crispy caramelization.
I finished up with a return trip to sample the deserts. Of course I glopped some red-gelled bananas on top of some pudding; I also tried a little slice of a thin cake and a white cookie looking crisp with wavy brown line on it.
The cake and the cookie did nothing for me, the bananas and pudding hit the spot.

The service;
The drinks were refilled in a timely manner, the used plates always cleared by the time we returned from a refill. The staff was polite and efficient. The hand written ticket was torn from a book of generic guest checks and listed only ‘3’ and ‘Coke’, ‘Diet Coke’, ‘tea’; and ‘Total $ 31.07.’

We’ve certainly had worse Chinese food. A place in Hillsboro comes to mind. China Buffet / Buffet China was among the best we’ve tried locally and certainly better than any that we ever came across during our five years in Maryland. We liked the place in Festus just as well, but as I mentioned earlier, it burned down. We decided we liked this place better than Emperor’s Wok (at the corner of Gravois and Lindbergh), but not by a huge margin. Angel liked the booths here better than the wide open style at Emperor’s, Adam disagreed. I liked this place better because the waitresses were hotter. So it was officially a tie since I didn’t actually say what I was thinking. That is until we discussed the meal again and were reminded of the freshness of the vegetables.
The price was excellent The evening buffet s listed at $8.49 with the lunch buffet an exceptional $5.79 Our evening total as mentioned earlier was just slightly more than the cheapest meals we’ve found (Steak and Shake and Los Portales) but a better value because it is ‘all you can eat!”
We certainly would highly recommend China Buffet / Buffet China, and indeed we will return there. It would be a fantastic lunch spot before, after, or during a hectic day of shopping at the mall or big box stores in the area.
Final Score: 94.

* Seriously, you’re looking down here to find out what the universal sign language for ‘3’ is? Wow.

** I classify rangoons into two types; Wonton style which is folded triangular or flat with a dollop of creamy filling, and balloon style which has much more filling and is not folded so much as it is twisted at the top like the wrapper were a bag around a ball. I prefer wonton style as they are less messy.

Extra! Extra!: A personal commentary on Chinese food.
I know more about Chinese food than most people. No brag, just fact. I first tried Chinese food in the early eighties while serving a three year tour in northern Japan.
Hang on, don’t throw our atlases at me just yet! I’ll explain.
I know Japan isn’t in China and never has been. (China almost became a part of Japan though as you history buffs may recall).
When you think Japanese food you probably think sushi, sashimi, blowfish, fermented octopus testicles, etc. Well, that’s correct, but only to a point. Just as you’ll find as many similarities as differences between Spanish, Italian, and Greek food in Europe, around Asia you’ll find the same thing. Take rice for example. There’s only so much you can do with rice. Boiled/steamed, fried…. Well that about covers it. Poultry, same thing. Fry it, roast it boil it… it comes down to what you coat it with or dip it in. Japan and much of China share similar growing conditions so spices are fairly common between them. Pork and poultry abound in both countries’ interiors. With all these similarities there is bound to be some natural crossover. Many dishes in either country are very similar to something in the other.
The first several-course meal I had in Japan was indistinguishable from what we Americans consider Chinese food. Egg drop/wonton soup, fried chicken chunks with either a sweet or savory sauce, rice fried with onions, carrots and egg, etc. Sure you could order candied lobster brains and sticky rice wrapped in seaweed around raw fish, but not many Americans did, nor did that many Japanese folks I knew. I also spent a month in Korea, guess what. Similar foods, with a few unique items on the fringes. (Kimchi being a standout, in more ways than one. As if someone wanted to know what would happen if you buried a pot of sauerkraut in the ground long enough for it to go really, really bad.)
Bottom line, there is hardly anything on an American Chinese restaurant menu that is very different from many working class restaurants in Japan, China or Korea.
However it should be noted that to this reporter the center of the Chinese food universe is NOT in the eastern Hemisphere at all. It is in Springfield Missouri. Doubt me?
Go here:
Springfield is absolutely nuts for this stuff. As the article points out the dish was modified slightly from its original Chinese form to suit the local palette. This is no different from the evolutions of dishes throughout Asia. China itself has no less that eight distinct flavor regions. Chinese food in China is at least as diverse as chili or pizza in The U.S. or pasta in Europe. That Mr. Leong took his recipe and tweaked it to fit a certain midwestern U.S. preference, is no different from what his own ancestors did in China. So there.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Buffalo Wild Wings

150 Gravois Bluffs Circle
Fenton MO


14 Nov 2009

The Place:
Located near Red Robin and Chili’s in Fenton which we reviewed earlier. It looked exactly like a chain restaurant, a plastic and brightly lit box in a shopping center parking lot. As we entered we were assaulted by noise, football noise. The dining area was surrounded by TV’s, at least two dozen both large and small including three TV projectors. Three walls held very large screens four by eight or bigger, each showing a different projected college game. The sound blasting through the place was from one, and only one of those games; Ohio State vs. someone less fortunate*. This would have been fine if you happened to be facing the right wall, I was not. The game I was forced to watch was muted, I don’t even know who was playing. I do know that when I looked up towards my big screen when I heard the announcer blasting that Ohio State and Iowa were headed into overtime my screen was showing an erectile dysfunction commercial. It was confusing. I could see a smaller TV showing the announced game, but it was a 21 incher about thirty feet away.
I don’t watch football, ever, but here it was impossible not to when on every wall at every angle there were TV’s with nothing but football, the eyes just got drawn to the motion.

The sound was at a level that required patrons to shout at each other across their tables; incredibly loud.
The menu was a simple laminated tri-fold, with very few options. They pushed the wings of course but also the ribs and to a lesser degree their burgers. I didn’t want a burger, especially at a wings and rib joint.
The young, petite waitress had a voice that pierced the sports noise and I imagine kept nearby dogs and ships on alert. We sent her away a couple of times as we were having some trouble coming up with choices.

The Food:
The tea, coke and diet coke arrived, the tea was generic, perhaps Lipton again. It was fresh though. We finally made our choices. I asked for the ribs and chicken, Angel the ribs and shrimp, Adam threw caution to the wind and ordered eight wings with the most lethal heat they would put on them. The rib meals came with fries and slaw. Adam’s fries were ala carte.

Ohio State apparently won their game while the one I could actually see showed mostly big, strong guys in tight pants standing around scratching themselves I don’t recall any actual huddling, punting or running. Though the place was about three quarters full, no one seemed to be really paying attention to any of the games.
The food came, three slick and gooey ribs and about four heavily breaded chicken strips. Angel’s tiny shrimps were about as heavily breaded. I had reluctantly chosen a dipping sauce for the otherwise bland chicken strips from a selection of about ten different levels of taste and intensity. I picked the safe one, honey barbecue. The sauce was sickly sweet reminding me of generic barbecue sauce. It made the chicken taste like candy corn.** They were okay as long as there were fries to settle the palette between bites. There were simply not enough fries as it turned out. They were shoestring style, limp and pasty, but much better than the ribs, (too sweet, greasy and rubbery) and the slaw which had absolutely no flavor at all.
I noticed the slaw-flaw immediately but Angel was the first to say something about it. It was like shredded raw cabbage, period. If there was mayo, or buttermilk, or pepper it was nowhere to be found. There was a little liquid at the base of the slaw but even stirring it around did no good. It was simply shredded cabbage in a small bowl.
As I mentioned, the ribs were, well let’s just say they were awful. In texture and taste they were on the edge of being disgusting. Neither Angel nor I were able to eat half the meat off the nasty things. The initial bite would be sweet, but then an overpowering vinegar taste soon oozed out and lingered. There were simply not enough fries to kill the assault of too sweet and too vinegary.
With half the slaw, ribs, and chicken uneaten by the end of the thin, limp fries we both gave up. The stuff was simply too awful to continue. Adam’s four remaining wings went into a box. His taste buds irreversibly damaged. I tried one, which was a huge mistake. Not only was my mouth pickled by sugar and vinegar, it was also on fire.
So we ordered desert, not because it looked so tasty, but because we were still hungry AND desperate for something familiar and comfortable to repair our taste buds. Adam and Angel had cheesecake, no topping since the only topping they seemed to have was‘raspberry syrup’ which didn’t seem appealing at all. I love cheesecake, but at the moment it sounded too sweet. I might have been tempted had the topping choice been better, say strawberries or blueberries or my very favorite, banana pudding***.
I chose apple pie with an explanation. Many restaurants, this one included assume I want it piping hot with a wad of vanilla ice cream. No. I like my apple pie cold, just out of the refrigerator cold, and I’m lactose indifferent. Ice cream does nothing positive for me, in fact it makes my tummy rumble. I had to explain this to the shrill waitress that I wanted my pie cold. She wrinkled her face and said “It’s like frozen hard as a brick.” I replied “Nuke it to just below room temperature then please, no ice cream” She returned with the two cheesecakes, fresh out of some box, and a slab of nearly frozen apple pie alongside a large pile of vanilla ice cream. Then she handed us all plastic spoons. I was immediately incensed. Apparently my face said as much. I cannot recall ever eating apple pie with a plastic spoon, AND there was ice cream. I said nothing though; I needed the pie to kill the greasy vinegar taste coating my mouth.
The waitress returned sheepishly, having witnessed my silent rage, with two metal spoons and offered them. “These are the only two real spoons I can find.” She just didn’t get it, it’s PIE. Apple pie is fork-food. It wasn’t very good anyhow. There were real apple chunks, but the filling was over spiced and gelatinous, with less than fresh ingredients, much like the taste and texture of those nuclear-heated apple pie pockets you get at McDonalds.
I didn’t quite finish the pie. The ice cream melted into a pathetic caucasian puddle as I guzzled the last of my mediocre tea.

The check came: Fifty eight dollars and one cent. Yikes! The entrée’s had cost nearly twelve dollars apiece, the drinks were two nineteen each, the pie and cheesecake came in at four seventy nine each. Adam’s eight boneless wings, essentially chicken tenders served in a thin cardboard tray cost a buck apiece; his fries were two dollars extra.
None of us finished our meals. I added a very, very small tip**** to compensate for our displeasure; one dollar and ninety nine cents to bring the total up to sixty dollars even.
Of all the places we’ve been Buffalo Wild Wings was by far the worst. There was absolutely nothing about it, price, service, atmosphere, selection, or food quality that would make us ever consider going back. Angel asked me if I would ever recommend it to anyone. I replied “I would not only not recommend it to anyone; I would not even acknowledge its existence.” As for a score, we’ve hit a new low, so I’m just shoving this out there. It is remotely possible that a worse place will be found so I can’t really give it a zero. On a 100 point school type scale I’m going to set it at a dismal, irreparably failing forty. I’d go a little lower if the food contained live vermin or actually caused hospitalization.


* Iowa. I had to look it up. I don’t care for football.

** I like candy corn, in fact it’s my second favorite vegetable after lima beans. I do not like things that just taste like candy corn, especially meat. Candy corn is only good contextually confined to its natural form.

*** Many years ago Angel and I worked for a division of Litton Industries (now defunct) in Springfield Mo. It had a full cafeteria and served full hot meals, including deserts. A lot of the food was mediocre at best but there were a couple of standouts, one being the extra-cheesy macaroni. On cheesecake night they would often top the cheesecake with blueberries or cherries, but on a rare occasion they would top it with leftover banana pudding containing small banana chunks and graham cracker crust, mmmm, luscious! I have not seen this combination offered anywhere since, but I have tried to duplicate it at buffets. It is simply the best desert idea ever. In fact on my list of the best things in the world, cheesecake takes the top three slots, with Angel, my lovely wife, tied at number two with blueberry cheesecake. (She knows this and has been striving to improve her standing for over twenty years. She might make it someday.)

**** I know that tipping is supposed to be based on service, not the quality of the meals. I KNOW that servers are generally underpaid and rely on tips. I’ve been taken to task many times with my strict, merit-based system of tipping so don’t bother I'm not changing. With food service I simply cannot mentally separate good service from lousy food. In this case the food was bad and too pricey for what it was. I have no direct option to pay less for the food, so the tip must suffer to compensate. I have on such occasions written an explanatory note on the receipt or an in-store survey card. Angel hates when I do that.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Chili’s Grill and Bar

711 Gravois Rd
Fenton MO
7 Nov 2009

"Seriously Dennis, you’ve never been to a Chili’s?"
Maybe I have, I honestly don’t recall. I’ve business travelled quite a bit and have been to a lot of the chain restaurants, but I seriously can’t recall if I’ve ever been to Chili’s. Don’t pound on me if you know I have, what is important is that if I did I don’t remember it.

The Place:
Fenton again, just a block or two from the Red Robin that I complained about a couple of weeks ago. Chili’s is a big chain, all their places look alike. The interior tries to mimic a barn with open rafters and thick, rough wood paneling. Lone stars are everywhere to let you know this is a Texas style barn.
The place was crowded on Saturday night, we had to wait about ten or fifteen minutes holding one of those oversized flashing, wiggling pager devices. Once paged we were escorted to our booth near the back. They scored immediate points with me for the background music, which was loud enough to hear but not blasting. I had feared that there would be country music, being as the place looked like a barn, but mercifully it wasn’t. The theme of the music seemed to be ‘Music that Dennis likes.’ Starting with a cut from Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”, Neil Young’s “Horse With No Name” Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion”, U2’s “In the Name of Love” and even the Animals’ “House of The Rising Sun”. Some people would call this “Classic Rock” but I don’t think it’s anywhere near old enough for that moniker as all the songs are younger than I am and I’m certainly not a classic yet.
We were seated and handed our copies of “War and Peace” that served as a menu. The thing was ten pages long. Ten pages is too long, too many choices, just ask Gordon Ramsey; too wide a range of selections begs for trouble.(more on this later)
I made my choice and was ready to order until Angel found an even better choice on page eight. I had picked out a Sirloin, she had found a ‘create your own’ section which enabled me to mix entrees.
The tea, tea and coke arrived in plastic mugs, so we could pretend we were drinking beer. After all we were in a Texas barn. The tea was crisp, clear and Lipton, two points automatically deducted for not being Luzianne… after all, we were supposedly in a Texas barn, how hard would I be to hop over the pretend state line into Louisiana for some decent tea?

The food:
I ordered the ‘create your own’ Sirloin plus Shrimp and loaded mashed potatoes. I inquired about the included ‘seasonal vegetables’. When the waiter responded “broccoli” I made the requisite gagging, hissing and spitting noises. He let me substitute ‘corn on the cob’. I like corn, but as you know I don’t like fussing with served food, and chomping corn off the husk is a little too much effort, but at least it wasn’t broccoli.
Angel went for the Fajitas Trio, beef, chicken and shrimp. Adam ordered the Country-Fried Chicken Crisps. When asked which of the dipping sauces he would like he responded “Gravy” because he is his mother’s son. She used to fill Adam’s baby bottles with it. (Angel denies this.)
The food arrived in a reasonable amount of time. I had ordered my steak two degrees Fahrenheit above raw, and paid an extra $1.25 for the opportunity to do so. The waiter urged me to slice it before doing anything else to make sure it was done to my liking. It was. I should have checked the potatoes and the shrimp at this point, but the savage carnivore in me took over and the bloodlust ensued.
Angel’s plate was sizzling with beef, chicken and shrimp, it smelled great. They gave her five soft tortillas in a lidded warming bowl, the meat and sautéed veggies were served in the sizzling iron flat skillet, and the cold items, the guacamole, salsa, etc. were served on a separate small plate. Some assembly required. I was glad I hadn’t ordered it, too much fussing. Of course I had to cut the corn off my cob, which was quite messy, odd kernels and buttery juices spraying across the table. The corn itself was good though.
Angel patiently and artfully loaded up a tortilla with mostly the meats, the salsa was too hot, she bypassed it completely after a taste. The assembly effort didn’t seem to bother her, in fact she seemed to enjoy the challenge. Adam dunked his heavily breaded chicken chunks into the tiny container of gravy. I say ‘tiny’ since in our family any gravy delivery system under a gallon is just pathetic, almost sad. Adam made it stretch though.
New drinks arrived often, at about the just-less-than-halfway point.
After a couple of divine bites of steak, I tried the potatoes. They were dirty style, topped with cheese, green onions and bacon bits. They were a bit starchy, and not exactly hot. I then took a bite of one of the six medium sized shrimp and loved the taste, sort of. It was spiced just right, but there was something wrong, maybe overcooked, a little rubbery. I asked Angel to try one. She smiled took a bite then sort of winced, like something wasn’t quite right. “Does that taste cold to you?” I asked. That was it, they weren’t just overcooked they had also assumed room temperature. It takes about fifteen minutes or so for shrimp to drop to that temperature on a warm plate snuggled up to a steak, I’d had this plate for about two. I took another bite of the potatoes, same thing, room temperature. I dug into the core of the potatoes and found a small hotspot or two. Microwave reheated? That would also explain the rubbery texture of the shrimp. The kitchen was not managing time and delivery well. These side items had been plated well ahead of the steak.
By this time the waiter had disappeared so I tried to pretend it was all okay. The shrimp was not getting any warmer though and by the third one I couldn’t take it any more… same with the potatoes, I dug out the hot spots but there would be leftovers. The steak I finished, but this was the first time in my long and handsome life that I’d abandoned shrimp; they had given their lives in vain.
We were all full by the end of our meals, and more or less satisfied. Angel had earlier urged me to send my plate back but I didn’t. Except for a black pepper hot-spot or two the steak was wonderful, and I was afraid that I would be punished with it if I sent the plate back because of the sides.
I did mention it to the waiter when he came around to ask about desert. He had noticed the abandoned shrimp on the plate and seemed concerned when I told him the problem. We refused desert as we most often do, and he went away for the check. In the interim a headphone clad lady approached and asked if everything was okay, I sensed she had been summoned. I reluctantly told her about it and she assured us she would have a word with the kitchen staff.
We paid and departed.

The tab, with modest tip came in at sixty dollars. I scored Chili’s an eighty five for the cold food balanced by an excellent steak. Angel and Adam were quite satisfied with their meals however Angel was really bothered that we had to wait as long as we did to get in. She’s not spent much time in really big cities where reservations and long waits are merely part of the experience. She was irritated enough to rate Chili’s an eighty. Adam offered no score, he’s just not judgmental that way. Angel also LIKED the massive menu and the plethora of choices, We discussed this at length but neither of us could change the other’s opinion, so we did what we usually do in case of a tie, we yelled at Adam. Final score; eighty three. That’s a ‘C’ in my grading book.

Bonus! Extra words for no additional charge!
What happened here with the shrimp and potatoes is unfortunately not rare enough. These chains all potentially suffer from the same symptoms. Too large a variety stretches the abilities of any kitchen staff to properly prepare so many different offerings. Add to that that there are no chefs in these places. They have boilerplate trained cooks to prepare formulaically designed meals according to a strict procedure. There’s no love, if you know what I mean. Attention to detail is missing since there is no ownership of the meals. This became obvious to me at another place. It’s a meandering aside, but it is on point.

Ruby Tuesday’s:
This whole quest really started after a trip to a Ruby Tuesday’s. We had frequented that place for a few months. The first time I ate there I ordered the sirloin, rare, creamy mashed potatoes with onion straws, green beans, and a salad bar. It was simply awesome. No, it was perfect. Everything was absolutely perfect, even and especially the tea. I spoke about it ad -nauseam as Angel and Adam can tell you. It was simply perfect. I had never had a more perfectly prepared and executed meal. I went on and on and on about it.. just ask them.
A couple of weeks later we went back. I ordered the exact same thing. This time there were no onion straws. We mentioned it and they brought some out, too little too late.
The next time we went I again ordered the same thing. They delivered the meals before we had time to get through one third of our salad. I hate that. They were rushing us through. The next time, the tea was bitter and the steak tough to the point of being inedible. My knife could not slice it, it could only crush it into sinewy blobs. By this time I was heartbroken and furious. They knew how to make a great meal, they knew how to prepare things perfectly, how could they only get it right one out of four times? The more I thought about it the more I understood. We had been lucky that first time, that’s all just lucky. Errors like this were bound to happen rather often in this meal mass-manufacturing joint. Underpaid, under-trained kitchen staff applying rote procedure to a wide, too wide assortment of meals. This works fine at burger chains where the menu is very limited, prices are rock-bottom and expectations are minimal, but it simply does not scale up to finer foods, especially with such a wide variety of components and products.
This is like Ford Motor Company trying to manufacture Jaguars. Ford’s products and processes are simply not compatible with the expectations of Jaguar customers.
Okay I know that Chili’s and Ruby Tuesday’s aren’t anyone’s Jaguar, I’m just using an absurd analogy to make a point.
It was very soon after the last disappointing Ruby’s trip that we started discussing alternatives. This eventually led to the creation of this quest, to find better places, or just different places to eat. It also explains the basis for my ratings, my expectations. That first meal at Ruby Tuesday’s would have scored one hundred percent.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Los Portales

201 2nd St
Hillsboro MO

1 Nov, 2009

Our expectations were low. What little we had heard about this place was not at all exemplary. I have passed it hundreds of times as it sits across the street from the county courthouse and that street, Highway BB is how one gets from my house to Hillsboro. I had been in once, to meet a guy about some political stuff I don’t want to get into right now. I think I may have had a glass of tea, but no one I was meeting with had food, so I followed suit.
It does get points for convenience though, it is closer to our house that any other restaurant, in any direction. Being that close we HAD to go.

The Place:

Surely it used to be something else, an office suite maybe. It sits at the corner of Highway BB (Second street) and Highway 21 (Main street). The courthouse shares parking spaces. Next to it are the requisites title companies, law offices and bail bond joints. Hillsboro is the county seat. The building appears to be haphazard, maybe it was once a couple of different buildings sewn together. The style of the buildings seems to be of 1950’s or early 60’s construction, with additional external work maybe in the seventies. The entrance is on the side, near the back, and welcomes you with a couple of flashy arcade machines. The bar is prominent and must be passed by all who enter. The lions share of income is probably the bar itself catering to those involved with matters of the court. The tables and guacamole colored booths were spread around two or three distinct areas, all dimly lit with quick-paced Mexican music blasting from every pore. The ceilings were low, the furnishings old and the carpets worn and faded.
The bartender was running the entire floor, busy when we arrived settling up the checks from a large departing group. We waited and were finally offered the choice of ‘smoking’ or ‘just smells like smoking’ sections. We chose the latter which ended up being the front of the building, a few blinds open on the windows giving us a view of Hardees across Main Street. The décor consisted mainly of Corona advertisements, small Mexican flags and a few suspended serapes/sombreros.
We were soon given a basket full of fresh, warm nachos, two salsa bowls and two decanters of rather generic salsa. Menus were passed out and drinks ordered. One ice tea, one Diet Coke and one regular Coke, by now you know who got what.
The menu was large, colorful and filled with many, many options. There was even a glossary to explain what some of the terms meant.

The Food:
Angel ordered the Tamale Deluxe, I requested the biggest combo I could find, the Grande Special. After much deliberation Adam finally decided on Nachos Supreme (without tomatoes)
We devoured the chips which individually seemed quite light, but as they piled up proved quite filling. The tea was cloudy, old and disappointing.
The food came pretty quickly. Mine took up two full sized plates. My goal was to try as many different items for comparison even if it meant I wouldn’t like or finish all of it. On my plates were a small crisp taco, two enchiladas, a burrito, a roasted chili pepper, refried beans and a smooth cheese sauce. It was wonderful. The rice, beans and cheese and enchilada sauces formed a thick, artery clogging pool of savory delight. The enchiladas were simple and small, merely lightly seasoned ground beef in a wrap. The ‘burrito’ on the other plate was more like an open faced taco the crisp tortilla a mere appliance to hold the tomato, beef, cheese and guacamole. I managed to almost finish both plates, and yes I did regret it later, but this stuff was really quite good.
What would have made it better is if I, like Angel and Adam had chicken as their protein rather than beef. They both commented on the chicken and even offered me a sample. It was indeed excellent. The chicken was in shredded form for the nachos and tamale plate, it was tender, moist and had a distinct but not overpowering flavor that we could not quite describe, other than that it was very, very good.
Angel liked, but could not finish her tamale plate because of the layers of nacho chips that had preceded it. She did request a box though.

The Service:
Just a grade above minimal. We only ever saw two people, both young and Mexican, the bartender and another guy who bussed the tables. They were friendly, efficient and capable. Drinks were refilled promptly, the check was delivered quickly. The tables were not bussed quickly, a half hour or so passed before the cleanup of the large group’s tables began. The total tab for the evening including a merely modest tip: thirty dollars and eighty one cents.


It wasn’t fancy, or shiny, or spit polished at all. But the food was truly excellent, the price also excellent. It does not try to pass itself off as anything other than what it is, a small town hole-in-the-wall without pretentiousness or fanfare serving ample portions of authentic Mexican favorites. Yes we do recommend it and yes, we will go back. I give it a ninety four.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Steak and Shake

Steak and Shake
999 Veterans Blvd.

Festus Mo.


Once again, we’re doing burgers, which is okay. Oddly enough, although Angel, Adam and myself have lived within spitting distance of Steak and Shakes most of our natural lives, none of us recalled ever actually eating at one. So Adam’s recommendation was well within the bounds of the quest.
The Place.
Located in the shadow of a hotel, and just across a small parking lot from an Italian restaurant, and a “Bob Evans” sits the faux-diner. Black, white and red inside and out, brightly lit it is constructed from the franchise’s template. Built to look like a drive-up and / or diner from the 50’s it is kind of kitschy.
It was also kind of cold. Angel commented on this almost immediately. I hadn’t noticed, but that was due to the fact that I lost the ability to sense most modest changes in ambient temperature in my second divorce. (I had no money at the time so the lawyers went after my dignity, pride, will to live and my ability to sense ambient temperature changes. It was a compromise, they actually wanted my toenails and my eyebrows.) Anyway after a while, a long while (more later) I noticed it as well. Guessing, I’d say it was around sixty degrees. Adam was wearing a fleece hoody and did not complain. In fact I think he chuckled. I recalled and mentioned reading somewhere that some fast-food establishments lower the thermostats in order to get people to leave quicker, stepping up the pace of turnover. Uncomfortable people may eat, but they don’t linger.
We were seated in a half-booth, a booth seat against the wall, with two chairs on the opposite side of the table. I sat with Adam for the first time in our adventures simply because the booth seats looked out into the restaurant and I prefer a view. My choice to sit by him bothered him a little since it was a dramatic break from convention. I told him to shut up.
The small tables were convenient for the staff. They could arrange them into small or large groups as the need arose, which it did quite often in this busy place. There were several families, but just as many individuals (at the bar) and couples. No alcohol available here, so not as many children (see previous post: Red Robin).
The menus were colorful, not too large, and straightforward. There was a picture of just about everything. We ordered our drinks, two unsweetened ice teas and a chocolate shake. The tea arrived quickly in real glasses! We were also given silverware wrapped in a napkin. Adam was served water, also in a real glass, while his shake was being constructed. We discussed the offerings and finally decided. I ordered the bacon-cheese double steak burger, Angel the classic double and Adam, always the bolder one, chose the chipotle double.

The Food:
The food did not arrive quickly. We were patient, and just chatted, made fun of other patrons and each other, and shivered. The waiter came by after about ten or fifteen minutes and apologized for the delay. Apparently they were out of thawed patties. This is pretty serious for a place that pretty much only serves burgers.
Finally after at least twenty minutes the plates arrived. Yes plates, real stoneware plates (take notice Red Robin, real plates, silverware and real glasses!) The fries were of the shoestring variety, which I like. The one downside was the small end bits, and there were lots of them. The end bits were about 1/16th of an inch thick and only about ¼ inch long, making it very, very difficult to dip them in or retrieve them from the ketchup. They were cooked perfectly though, had it not been for the very large number of tiny ones I would have no complaint at all.
The burgers were all doubles; two thin patties made of leaner stuff then other chain burgers. None were cooked to order which is understandable since they are so thin that catching them at pink would be nearly impossible. They were delicious though. We all asked for our own combinations of lettuce, pickles, etc. I asked for everything except relish. The pickles were long cut and a little on the sweet side. The burgers were quite good, and not too terribly messy. Adam mentioned that his ‘chipotle’ was not too hot, apparently just enough of the peppers were used to add taste rather than to inflict gastric distress. They were also lighter than ‘gourmet’ burgers. By the end of the meal we all felt satisfied, but not weighed down and greasy.
Adam was quite satisfied with his shake though it was pretty much gone before the food arrived. The tea was Lipton, I could tell, but it was fresh and clear.

The Service:
For a place at this price and of this theme the service was exceptional. Our waiter was mid twenties, tall, cut and square jawed and quite pleasant. He did struggle a bit with the apology for the delay, but at least he was straightforward and sincere. The remaining staff stayed busy and teamed up to clear tables, re-arrange seating and were quite quick to refill drinks. The check arrived before we were finished eating, once again pointing to a possible desire to speed up turnover. Frankly this is fine with me, we’re not lingerers. Now for the best part You’re not going to believe it. The total tab including tip: Twenty five dollars and four cents. Yup, I checked it again just to be sure, twenty five dollars and four cents including tax and tip.

The only solid criticism was the temperature of the place. Even the delay was not that bad. Had the temperature been more tolerable the delay might have gone less noticed. It was so cold that I was not at all inclined to order a shake, which is half of the business’s name. (disclaimer: I don’t like shakes anyhow, but if I did , I am sure I would have been too cold to want one)
The price was simply unbelievable. Recall that there were real waiters, real silverware, glasses, and plates. Go back and read the Red Robin review again for a real comparison.
Price: one hundred points +, food: ninety eight points, temperature: sixty degrees. I won’t ding them for the delay too much since it was likely a rare fluke. That sixty degree thing however drives the total down to a mere chilly 92 points, a B in my book. Highly recommended, we will return, with hoodies or a sweater.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Red Robin Gourmet Burgers

The past few weeks we’ve been visiting mostly full service places that serve steak, seafood, etc. We have not limited our exercise to this though, as you will see this week. When we started this quest, we made only a couple of rules. 1. it needed to be a place we’d not been to before. 2. The choice would rotate between the three of us. This past weekend was Angel’s turn and she decided to try a place that she had seen often but that we had not tried.

Red Robin Gourmet Burgers
130 Gravois Bluffs Cir, Fenton, MO
Official Website
Oct 17 2009

The place:
Gravois Bluffs is surprisingly enough a shopping center on a bluff just off Gravois Blvd, (Highway 30) in Fenton. The shopping center hosts our nearest Target, movie theaters, office depot, and nearby is the nearest Best Buy, Garden Ridge, etc. so we’ve been by the Red Robin scores of times. It sits in the parking lot near a Qdoba, Olive Garden, and a few other such places.
Inside we immediately noticed the staff busy filling helium balloons, and a large CRT TV mounted in the floor under thick glass. I noticed that no one was stepping on the TV, though they could, they were stepping around it; modesty perhaps? I also noticed that no one was watching it either. It seemed more gimmicky than functional.
The place was very busy, the noise level was quite high, high enough that even though I sensed there was music playing I could not identify it. We were quickly escorted to a booth in the back affording us a view of the entire place. We liked the lamps, small halogen deals suspended from the exposed metal rafters and covered with small, brightly colored thick glass shades. I think LOWES carries these, we’ve always liked them. On the walls were mounted pictures, different sizes, different subjects, mostly bright and happy. They really covered the walls, nary a bare spot was visible. There was no underlying theme, some movie posters, some animated ducks, some group photos and some scenery. It appeared to have been the result of raid on a flea market rather than a planned art hunt. There was a large mural near the entrance near the ceiling, of people smiling. A diverse group of people, heads only, all very content and happy. It appeared to me to be something you would see on the cover of a brochure for an insurance company or HMO. There was also for no apparent reason, an outrigger canoe dangling from the ceiling.
The menu we were offered was a single colorful card about four feet by eight feet in size. . . well maybe not that large, but close. The variety of offerings was very good considering we were in a place that bills itself as a gourmet burger restaurant. We did not expect a soup/salad bar or a vast array of main courses.

The food:
One ice tea, one diet coke and one regular coke.
Angel went off the grid and ordered the Grilled Salmon Burger , Adam, the Banzai Burger, and I decided on a classic Bacon Cheeseburger. I was asked if I wanted it ‘pink’ or ‘not pink’, of course I chose pink. All orders promised a bottomless supply of steak fries.
The tea arrived, I was not about to be impressed. The menu had highlighted the fact that it was Lipton as if there was reason for pride in such a claim. So one point was immediately deducted from the total score. It was clear and fresh though so they didn’t lose any more points than that. Angel and Adam said nothing about their unimaginative drink choices, so I assume they were as satisfactory as mass-manufactured soft drinks can be.
The burgers and fries arrived quickly enough in a basket about two sizes too small for the offerings. The burgers were tightly diapered to help catch the advertised drippiness. This was not a problem; I like my burgers a bit messy.
The fries were thick and mostly hidden under the burger in the small basket. Adding ketchup was difficult since I prefer to dip my fries rather than drizzle them. I cleared a corner in the basket and struggled throughout the meal to keep the fries from drowning in the puddle.
I have to say the burger was fantastic. It was indeed pink, somewhere near medium rare. It was thick and juicy and covered in cheddar cheese. It held together just fine in spite of its juiciness. I tried Angel’s salmon, and oddly enough it was probably the best prepared salmon filet that I’ve had anywhere, and here it was pretending to be a burger and served like one. Angel really liked it.
The fries were a disappointment. I would have preferred thin crispy fries. Of course by definition steak fries are thick. These however were also barely done, no crispiness, mostly soft and starchy. A few more minutes in the fryer would have done the trick, these were barely brown. However there was a promised infinite supply of them. Since the basket was so small there were not many served initially, Adam and I had to request more. To my taste they were also too salty, though that’s probably just me. Angel added salt to hers.

The service:
It was fine. The uniform was blue jeans and properly logo’d polo shirts. Our server was young, quick, friendly and attentive. Looking around the staff seemed to all be busy and content. I would not have been because:
The place was filled with babies!
I noticed this while we were waiting for our food. The place was full and by my estimate more than eighty percent of the tables had at least one baby or toddler, several had more than one. I mentioned this to Angel and she agreed that there was an astonishingly high proportion of families with very young kids. I tried to figure it out. The place was more expensive and slower than McDonald’s or Burger King, the burgers were certainly of a higher quality but still we’re just talking burgers and fries. I was perplexed. Then Angel pointed to the front of the building. I saw it; the bar.
A quick scan around the tables confirmed it. Nearly every table that had a young family also had a parent or two sipping something more potent than ice tea. Dads had a variety of choice beers to choose from; the mom’s and grandma’s seemed to prefer something tall with ice and an umbrella or sunken cherry. It made perfect sense. All around messy, smelly, greasy babies were sucking on their slobbery steak fries, while mom was taking the opportunity to dip her toes into a slightly more relaxing place.

The burgers were very good. I wouldn’t say ‘insanely delicious’ as the advertisements scream, but I certainly did enjoy the burger. The fries, though okay, were quickly too thick and heavy. This is an issue with steak fries in general, not just Red Robin’s. The baskets were frustratingly small. The meal only cost forty four dollars with tip, much less than our previous restaurants, but quite high for burgers and fries. Frankly Dairy Queen’s burgers taste almost as good, and are nowhere near as pricey. Given the choice between the two, I would probably more often choose Dairy Queen because of the price certainly, but also there are fewer screaming kids and less noise in general and of course, better fries. I can certainly recommend the place though, but ONLY IF you have small children and are seeking an ‘adult friendly’ burger joint.
The final score, eighty five; barely a ‘B’.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Tanglefoot Steakhouse

Oct 10, 2009

1198 Gannon Drive
Festus MO 63028

The place:
Located near Interstate 55 in Festus, just across the parking lot from Home Depot and next to a large hotel, Tanglefoot is a busy place.(for an explanation of the name, go to their well designed and maintained out web site) Nothing fancy about the building or interior, somewhat Spartan. It was large though and could easily accommodate large groups. High ceilings and nearly bare walls made it a bit echoey, but not too bad. There were a few framed Basketball jerseys from local high schools on the walls, and several CRT TV’s mounted on the wall. The TV’s were all playing the dismal Cardinal playoff game. The sound was muted, which spared us the details of the sad game.
We were seated immediately and greeted by our host who mentioned the day’s special, some sort of chicken dish. The menu was laid out well and not too clumsy. A large assortment of appetizers and main courses took a while to go through and choose from.

The food:

We broke with tradition a couple of times. Instead of two ice teas and a Coke Angel opted for a Diet Coke for herself. I expressed my confusion and disappointment to no avail. The beverages arrived and I was pleased to see that the tea was crystal clear. It was fresh, not poured out of the middle of a thirty cup batch. It was not Luzianne, but still better than we had been served at our previous meals.
We also ordered appetizers, something we rarely do. It was the Lobster Rangoon that tipped us to sin this way. Adam does not like lobster, or even the essence of lobster so to be fair we let him order some mozzarella sticks.
For the main course, Angel ordered the Tilapia and shrimp, I ordered a Flat Iron Steak, rare, and Adam asked for the Cajun Chicken Sandwich. Angel and I asked for house salads, which were available for only ninety nine cents each. (compared to $2.95 at TGI Fridays)
The appetizers arrived and were fantastic. Nicely plated the Rangoons were served on a leaf of lettuce and drizzled with just a drip or two of sweet and sour sauce. They were expertly folded and crimped and arranged symmetrically. (The eyes always eat first). They were to die for. They oozed with flavors, lobster, onions, butter, cream cheese. They were sweet and rich but only perfectly so. The Mozzarella sticks were fine, served with the standard Marinara sauce. We saved a few of each to take home.
The salads arrived and were pretty large. They were fresh and individually made, we could tell by the equal proportions of cherry tomatoes and cucumber slices. The croutons were made in house, toasted to a light brown and not too hard or dry.
The main courses were served in excellent time and were still sizzling. The steak was cooked perfectly and was bleeding a bit, the baked potato was sliced open and two generous scoops of butter were starting to melt into it.
Angel’s Tilapia and shrimp was accompanied by a cheese and spinach gratine, which was beautifully browned and very well made. I tried a half shrimp dipped into it and wanted much, much more. The shrimp was delightful in itself, but adding that gratine dip made them extraordinarily good.
The steak was very, very good. It required no sauce, though I did cheat a little by letting a chunk or two slide through the potato’s ample butter supply. Having the salad made a big difference as far as the dining experience, something to break up the steak-potato-steak-potato monotony.
Adam said his Chicken sandwich was ‘fine’. I could tell it was pretty good by the way he went at it, devouring it.
When I asked Angel about her fish she responded “It was tilapia” meaning it was fine for a light fish meal. She had wanted something light and apparently this filled the bill perfectly. I wanted more of her shrimp and dip but the bowl was cleaned out.
The refill of my tea confirmed my initial opinion. It too was crystal clear. Excellent.

The service:

Or server was professional, courteous and responsive. I did notice that the average age of the staff was older than most of the chains. I recall no teenagers, mostly people in their late twenties to thirties. I only mention this because it was so noticeable. There was no confusion or delays or errors. The food was brought out in a very timely manner and the check was handled quickly as well. All A’s as far as I am concerned.
The total for this meal was higher than our other outings. This was due solely to the addition of the two appetizers. These at eight dollars and six and a half dollars respectively were in my opinion overpriced, even though they were excellent. The appetizers added about fifteen dollars to our meal, the total coming to seventy eight dollars including the tip.

The food was all excellent to superb. The service was professional, tidy and courteous. The only criticisms I really have were the price of the appetizers and the lack of a vegetable with the main course. I polled the family and they agreed with my own assessment, that we would indeed go back and we could indeed recommend Tanglefoot to others. I give them a ninety four out of a possible one hundred, the first ‘A’ I’ve awarded so far.

Adam’s Comments:

I agree, though I would like to input something other than "fine" for my meal.

As mentioned, I was given the Cajun Chicken Sandwich, as well as a side of fries. I was thoroughly pleased with my fries, which may sound unusual since they are... fries. But they were just about perfect. Each piece was salted well and all were crunchy, not, for lack of better word, potato-y. I was served a plentiful amount - not too much or too little. It may seem minor, but as half of my two part meal, it is rather important.

As for my chicken, I am a bit less enthused. I believe, though, that this may have more to do with personal preference rather than a general dislike. I didn't hate it, but it wasn't too my taste. I liked the spice, and the spicy sauce that they put on it was okay, but the chicken slice I was served was thin, and was only big in a manner that it was long - it stretched further than the bun. This is neither a good or bad thing, really. I liked having more, but I would rather it be all under the bun. It cancels out, I guess you could say. The meal was good for what it was, just not what I would normally have.

Friday, October 9, 2009

TGI Friday’s

TGI Friday’s
Oct 4, 2009 6:00 P.M.

The Place
Located at Lindbergh Ave and Baptist Church Road in South St Louis County, it looks like every other TGI Friday’s on the globe. The parking lot was large and almost full. The place looked very, very busy, but a neon sign above the door assured us: “Seating Available”. The hostess greeted us and quickly found us one of the worst tables in the place. It was at the intersection of the bar, the kitchen and the drink station.
The hostess arrived and handed us menus, and said some stuff. I’m not sure exactly what. I was too busy trying to avoid listening to her. She had the high pitched saw-blade voice of a cuddly but loud cartoon character, or as Angel decided, Lacey Chabert
, the girl who played ‘Penny’ in the 1998 Movie “Lost in Space”. She was otherwise professional though so I didn’t deduct any points for my distraction by her voice. I recognize that I am occasionally overly critical about some very petty things and can’t blame others for my own twitchiness.
The place was very, very busy, no empty tables for more than a few minutes. The din was almost relaxing, a white noise that faded into the background. It is a casual sports-type bar/restaurant, so the noise was expected and therefore not a problem. There were several large screen TV’s playing, something… I really didn’t watch. Aside from the constant foot traffic at our intersection table it was quite alright, decorated with flea market canoes, boats, and other assorted rustic but pointless and theme-less bric-a-brac. The stained glass skylight and interior windows were nice, if not a little out of place.
The background music, when it could be heard, was safe and unmemorable, ten to twenty year old pop songs. Too easy, too generic.

The Food
We were served our drinks quickly; once again two ice teas and a Coke. The tea was tasteless and unremarkable, I could tell it had been brewed in a large batch at least an hour before being served. It was also not Luzianne.
The menu was colorful, large and overly complicated. Too many pages, too many pictures. It was more like a collection of cumbersome billboards than a menu. The selections offered appeared quite appetizing though, everything they listed looked good.
I chose the sirloin steak (rare) and cheesy mashed potatoes, Angel ordered from the 'Jack Daniels Grill' page, ribs and shrimp. Adam ordered the All American Chicken Sandwich, hold the onions and tomatoes.
I was already a little disappointed. The choice of ‘sides’ for the steak was extremely limited. Onion Rings, fries, mashed potatoes, cheesy mashed potatoes were all I recall seeing. AND the steak only included ONE side. A small choice of salads was available for an additional $2.79. The steak was already costing me over fifteen dollars; I could not see paying an extra three bucks for ten cents worth of iceberg lettuce and Thousand Island dressing.
The plates arrived in a timely manner. My plate was mostly barren. On it sat a good looking thick steak and beside it there was a small platter containing the mashed potatoes. No garnish on the plate.
The steak was grilled perfectly to order, the waitress even asked me to cut into it to see if they got it right. I did so and on appearances accepted it.
Angel’s larger plate was packed, a rack of ribs, fries and breaded shrimp with a small bowl of ‘Jack’ sauce. Angel found the bowl of sauce unnecessary as the ribs had been saturated with the same stuff already. I tasted the sauce and decided to drizzle a bit on my steak. It was quite good that way.
Adam’s sandwich and fries were delivered in a basket and after opening it up to check for unwanted renegade condiments like onions and tomatoes, he wolfed it down. He seemed quite pleased with it, even though it had a green pepper sauce on it which we did not think he would like.
My steak appeared perfectly cooked; it tasted a little dry though. The sauce helped. I say it tasted dry; I should say it WAS dry. I’ve never had a rare steak that didn’t bleed all over the plate. This one barely bled at all. I suppose the fact that it was ‘aged’ could account for this, but it still seemed dry.
The mashed potatoes were a disappointment as well. They tasted instant, salty and starchy. The ‘cheesy’ appeared to be the application of some shredded cheese on top. If there was cheese IN the potatoes, I could not discern it. Colonel Sanders makes better mashed potatoes at a fraction of the cost.
Then there was the fact that I had nothing else on my plate. Some beans would have been nice, anything would have been nice.(Angel suggested that if we eat there again that Adam should go ahead and accept the tomatoes and onions and give them to me.) Eating this meal seemed to lack a beat. Steak, mashed potatoes, steak, mashed potatoes; repeat… there was nothing else to mix it up with. It was the culinary equivalent of a two string banjo. It just lacked simple depth and diversity.
Angel ate her ribs as if it were her first meal in a while. They were incredibly messy, as ribs are, and the pile of bones started looking like Fred Flintstone’s plate. The shrimp was breaded and fried. TOO breaded. She gave me one, I don’t recall the actual shrimp but I do recall the enormous thick wad of breading, easily as thick as the shrimp itself.
My meal left me feeling unsatisfied. Angel’s left her feeling bloated and thoroughly sugared up. Though the ‘Jack’ sauce tasted very nice in moderation, by the end of the rack of ribs, Angel said she felt like she had just drank a large bottle of maple syrup. That sensation did not go away quickly. The very idea of desert nearly sickened her. Which is okay, we don’t usually get desert anyhow.

The Service
The restaurant was heavily staffed. Young people, mostly girls, in black pants and red shirts. I already mentioned the hostess. The servers, and there were three different ones as I recall, were all friendly, available and they didn’t screw anything up or spill anything. One of them was pleasantly chatty, but not to the point of annoyance. The timing of the meal was excellent, quick, but not too quick, and the check was delivered and returned quickly. The price? Including tip, sixty three dollars and seventy four cents. This was a serious fiscal disappointment. It had cost more than similar fare at Ruby Tuesday’s but Ruby includes one of the most bountiful salad bars around. AND Ruby gives you TWO sides with a steak and a much wider variety of them. Also Jilly’s (previous post) had only cost six dollars more and provided two sides and a bread basket AND the meals are prepared by a real live chef.


For what it cost there was simply not enough meal. The food served was not really all that great, it seemed manufactured. The rib sauce was too sweet and heavy, the shrimp too bready, the steak plate bare and lifeless. The chicken sandwich rated a ‘fine’ which is pretty much the only rating Adam gives anything. I would only recommend this place for a casual, unimportant meal, and ONLY if there were no Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesday’s, or Outback within ten miles or so. Primarily for the price, but also for the overall un-remarkableness of the food I can only award a barely passing grade of seventy (out of a possible one hundred).

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Jilly’s Café and Steak House, High ridge MO

Saturday Sep 26, 2009

The Place
Jilly’s was an unexpected surprise. Angel came across it while surfing the interwebs looking for restaurants. We had never heard of it and knew no one that had ever eaten there, so our expectations were minimal.
The directions said ‘behind the Quick Trip”, and sure enough it was. The parking lot was ample and only moderately filled. To the left of the main entrance was another entrance this to the bar and dance floor. (live music on many nights) To the right was something altogether different from the bar/steakhouse we had imagined. The dining area was upscale, dark paneling up to the chair rail, then rich, tasteful and demure textured wall covering to the ceilings. Dark hardwood floors added even more warmth and unexpected classiness. Centered by a large sunken dining section the surrounding booths were tucked into roomy enclosures, wood paneled floor to ceiling. Soft individual lighting made the booths very inviting and intimate.
Upon entry there was a distraction, a life-sized butler or waiter that quivered mechanically as you passed by it. Not as tacky as “Billy Bass” but just as unnecessary and kitschy.
The restaurant was very well staffed, clean white shirted young people dashing back and fourth going about their duties were everywhere. Aside from one young man spinning, tossing and catching a menu they were not a distraction and seemed to be both satisfied with and serious about their tasks.
The music in the air was soft and unexpected. Rather than fancy restaurant elevator fare or steakhouse country, or the perfectly harmless generic vintage rock played at many family chains, the music was traditional blues; a rather welcome and refreshing touch.
We were seated in a booth by the hostess and immediately served with water, in glasses.
We were told our server’s name and that he would be by shortly. He was. Clean, friendly, serious and apron clad he greeted us and told us about the evening’s specials as he handed out the menus.

The Meal
The menus were well sized and not complicated. There were several items, but not too many. Of course there was steak. There was also a generous compliment of sandwiches, pastas, chicken etc. Adam, our rather picky adult son, quickly found something in the chicken category. Angel decided on the 12 Ounce Sirloin with Cabernet Butter Sauce with a Mushroom Risotto and Onion Scoops. I wanted steak as well, but since Angel already covered that, and this quest is all about branching out and exploring, I instead chose the Crab Encrusted Salmon with Seasoned Green Beans and Boursin Whipped Potatoes.
Drinks were ordered and delivered promptly. Two ice teas and a Coke. I noticed and remarked that the coke and tea were served in plastic tumblers whereas the water had been served in nice glasses. My family told me to shut up and stop nit picking. In my mind any ‘Café’ or steakhouse that distributes fancily folded napkins, should not serve drinks in plastic tumblers. I expect them at Denny’s or Ruby Tuesdays, but menu prices at Jilly’s were quite higher than those chains for similar offerings.
The tea itself was unremarkable. It wasn’t bad, just not memorable. I mention this because tea can easily be exceptional. Usually though it is not.
Next came the basket of rolls. The rolls we were served were pretty typical. I wish I could tell you what kind they were. We detected a possible poppy seed taste, maybe not. We asked the server what kind they were; he struggled for a moment and responded “whole wheat” as if his answer were really a question. I really don’t think they were whole wheat.
Even better than the mystery rolls was the whipped walnut butter served with them. If there were any left Angel planned to take it home. I’m not a fan of nuts as an ingredient in anything, but Angel and Adam made such a fuss about it that I am sure it was top-notch and woth mentioning.

The Salmon was large, eight ounces, about three ounces larger than it really needed to be. Better too much than not enough I suppose. The crab paste encrusting it was awesome good, the lemon butter sauce equally delightful. Most of the salmon was perfectly cooked, but since the filet was so large and not of consistent thickness, the doneness was a little uneven. The part that was a bit overcooked was rather small, so in all it was very, very good. I’m just saying, had it been a little smaller and more consistently thick it would have likely been perfect. I still highly recommend this dish though. The crust and the sauce more than overcame any defects.

Angel and I tasted each other’s meals and decided that one was very much as good as the other. Angel declared her steak the best she had ever had. The risotto was another story. She’s only had risotto a few times and has yet to find any she really liked. I tasted it and found it way too mushroomy. Risotto is a rice dish cooked slow and with a technique that forces an infusion of the flavors of whatever it is cooked with. It has to be done carefully. Risotto essentially amplifies flavors by concentrating them into the rice during the slow cooking process. My taste of it was far too strong where more subtlety would have been preferred in a side dish.

The Service, etc.
The service was pretty good, not exceptional. The wait for the check was a bit longer than it could have been, our server was pretty much nowhere to be found for several minutes. More attentive wait staff/supervision would have noticed the fidgeting and looking around of this table a bit sooner. That and his unfamiliarity of the rolls kept our tip down to the lower end of the appropriate scale.


The criticisms listed are really quite modest. In all I’d give the experience a ninety out of a possible hundred. Certainly a high B, almost an A. We decided that yes, we could recommend it and would go back ourselves. The dinner cost us seventy dollars including tip, about thirty percent more than we would pay at a family chain, however the selection and quality of the food was for the most part exceptional. If Jilly’s can get over it’s minor identity crisis, use actual glassware and dump the silly fidgety faux-waiter it might more easily match its prices and fine food offerings and overall near-elegant ambience. Details, details, details.

*Several minutes after the meal I noticed an aftertaste. Something was too salty, perhaps the potatoes, I don’t recall noticing it so much as I was dining, but there was a definite lingering saltiness later.

Seldom asked questions: (SAQ's)

Where is High Ridge?
High Ridge is not a big town, 2000 census data shows 4236 persons. It lies in north – central Jefferson County, not far at all from suburban St. Louis County. If I lived in High Ridge instead of Hillsboro I could easily shave about twenty minutes off of my commute. Should we decide to relocate for convenience it is one of the small towns we would definitely consider.
That it is a small town is evident from every angle. It’s proximity to St. Louis is evident in a few places, apartment complexes, etc. but for the most part it is just a small town, convenience stores and towing services dominate the billboards. Fenton, one of St Louis County’s large and southernmost suburbs is a mere seven miles up highway 30 (Gravois). Fenton has all the stores and restaurants you are thinking about.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Coming soon!

A diary of dining at sensibly priced establishments in and around Jefferson County Missouri.