Tuesday, April 27, 2010

El Cinco de Mayo

4587 Hunter Lane
Byrnes Mill, MO

We decided to go to a barbecue joint in the House Springs area, We’d seen it driving by on highway 30 a few times. We pulled into the parking lot and noticed that it was right next door to a bigger, prettier establishment. We suddenly felt in the mood for Mexican again.
El Cinco de Mayo, translated is “The Cinco de Mayo.” or “Toukokuun Viisi” in Finnish.

The Place: (El Lugar)

The building was bright adobe mission style, with a Byrnes Mill police cruiser parked in front. I saw that as a good sign because I’m one of those guys that believe for no real reason that cops always know the best local places to eat.
We were greeted inside and led immediately to a booth to the right of the entrance. The restaurant was separated, a large dining area to the right, another to the left, leaving the entry and the kitchen in the middle. There was no one in the left side. We sit about halfway back; I chose a view of the front, so I could keep an eye on the cop. He was middle aged neat, crisp with authoritarian short gray hair and a department issued mustache. Beside him sat a woman and a couple of adolescent children. I immediately assumed that these were some violent criminals he’d brought in to question, looking back on it now though it could have just been his family. He sat at a large table near the front keeping a close eye on me. I’m used to that, cops always assume I’m a world class master villain, out to pillage their town and have my way with their women and livestock.
The walls were bright lemon yellow, only sparsely decorated with sombreros and beer signs. ‘Corona’ was a painted in black on the far wall. There were booths along the walls and tables in between. The carpet was burgundy and worn down, the booths themselves brown and red. The music was pleasant, soulful Mexican ballads, hardly lively enough to make me want to dance around a hat.
The basket of chips arrived quickly along with the menus. We ordered our drinks, tea, tea and (spoiler alert!) tea. That’s right Adam ordered tea, sweetened of course. Tea would result in high drama later on in the evening.
The menus were thick laminated and about six pages long. Much less complicated than Senor Nacho, which was a good thing. I decided, and was reminded, not to order the biggest thing they had. As we waited for or food, three more, younger BM cops wandered in looking all official and fierce. They sat opposite the first one, in obvious subservient positions. The chief had called in reinforcements. That was going to make busting out of there more difficult. The younger officers played their part well, pretending to not pay attention to me at all. The sergeant kept his Bluetooth device clipped to his ear, ready to call in SWAT should I try to take hostages.

The Food (Los Alimentos):
We each ordered a three-choice combo. I chose a taco, an enchilada and a burrito. Angel , an enchilada, tamale and taco, and Adam a chalupa, a taco and a burrito. Angel went all beef with hers, I went all chicken, except for the taco, Adam about the same. The combos included rice and refried beans.
We munched down on the chips promising (with our mouths full) not to eat too many this time. That didn’t last, the salsa was excellent. A couple of minutes into the second basket, our meals arrived. In the mean time the place had started filling up. The cops didn’t seem concerned by this; I assumed that meant that these people were all plain-clothes or undercover detectives, or maybe even the Feds.
To my delight my meal was served up on a single plate. As the plates were put down Angel shocked and embarrassed us. “Excuse me,” She rudely snapped at the poor, defenseless waiter. “Could I please have some water, I’m afraid I don’t care for the tea.”
I KNOW! Can you believe she would humiliate us like that? I squirmed as the cops went for their guns… or as it turned out, their forks. I apologized for her rudeness, then Adam and I, to save face, started to make fun of her, calling her a ‘petty extremist snoot’ and other such swears. It was all we could do publicly, especially with the cops already on my tail.
“After lo these many months of harping on me for griping about tea, it’s YOU that actually unleashes the real fury!” I railed at her, wagging my finger in condemnation. Adam shook his head in abject shame and horror.
We dived into the food and were for the most part quite pleased. Adam didn’t like the ingredients in his chalupa, but had nothing but good things to say about the taco. Mine was fine all around Angel agreed adding that her tamale was perfect in size and taste. Adam also added that the taco meat was not too salty; referring to the recent disappointments we had at La Pachanga and Senor Nacho’s.
The beans could have been lumpier, the rice was just fine, if not a little too tame. The tea did have a distinct flavor, either some herb or berry, or it might have just been old.

Summary (Resumen):

The place is quite large; I noticed an outdoor patio area as we left. It was not in use, perhaps because of the tornado that had touched down up the road a couple hours earlier. It is also plenty popular, even among non-law-enforcement folks.
The bill came to thirty one dollars and change, including the deduction for Angel’s tea. This is precisely comparable to all the other Mexican places we’ve tried so there’s obviously some illegal price fixing going on.
The food was pretty good, not great, but perfectly fine. The restaurant was clean, the service was prompt. We can indeed recommend it and will probably eat there again should Los Portales in Hillsboro ever burn down. We came to a unanimous decision, that though it was not quite as good as Los Portales, it was considerably better than the all the others.
As we left I made a point to flip off the Chief of Police and his toadies. (By flipping off I mean I extended all the fingers of my right hand with my palm pointing toward them, that way it actually looks like I’m waving, but the joke’s really on them.) I assume they didn’t come after us because they had witnessed something they didn’t anticipate, the fiery, roaring rage of Angel not liking her tea and my immediate and commanding rebuke. No way would they step into that certain bloody tempest with only four armed men.

* As it turned out the gentlemen who took our money from us said he didn’t really care for the tea either, that it was brewed elsewhere and brought in already made. I certainly can’t condone Angel’s extreme and obnoxious behavior but it may have frightened the staff, if not the entire region, just enough to prompt a change.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

St. Louis Bread Company (Panera Bread)

I’m going to take some flak for this one; this week’s review covers an establishment that is the source of considerable pride around here. But take the flak I will, I can only be honest.

The Place:
Festus MO.
Located in the same common parking lot as the Home Depot, east of the I-55 ramps. It is a large free standing building next door to a McDonalds.
Angel and Adam had been there a few times, as I can best recall I’ve even been to one in Sunset Hills, though I couldn’t recall the specifics. Angel raves about the bread.
The place was not near as busy as the McDonalds. McD’s was hosting some sort of classic car show, their lot full of shiny muscle cars and their mostly middle aged owners.* We entered the building and stopped by the counter. I was miffed. The only menu was overhead, like at McDonalds. I queried Angel about this, she answered that just like a fast food place you place your order, then wait for it, then take a seat. I was hoping for something a little more elegant. I had not prepared, (sometimes I’ll check out menus prior to going to a restaurant) I had no idea what they offered or what might be recommended.
The pressure was on, in only a moment Angel and the usually highly selective Adam were ready to order. I was not. I was still trying to figure out the possible combinations, none of which looked that bad, none of which made me drool. I went for a default. A roast beef panini and a bowl of baked potato soup. Roast beef is a common go-to for me. When Angel goes to Subway because she didn’t have time or motivation to make anything she knows what to get me. I get it because it’s easier than trying to come up with an alternative, since I don’t really know what else they have. The problem here though was that I’d had roast beef wraps my two previous meals at home, from a homemade roast and my choice of fixin’s.
We each placed our orders, I was immediately wishing I’d ordered something else, though looking at the overhead again I still couldn’t figure out what it might be. I just knew I wasn’t going to like their prefab sandwich as much as I liked my own wraps.
They handed us clear disposable plastic cups. Adam pointed out the drink fountain. There it was, a 30 cup pot of tea that had probably been last cleaned and refilled back in the winter. There was also pop, pop, pop, and pop. None of which do I like. It’s the carbonation and the sugar/saccharine, I’ve explained this before. So tea it was. There were lemons, sitting on a plate by the tea. Two slices left, barely any fruit on either of them. I recalled a recent news story where they sampled room temperature lemon wedges at restaurants and found mega-colonies of bacteria, germs, spores and other microscopic life forms, some of which, as I recall, are flesh eating and others carrying diseases that wiped out half of Europe during the dark ages. So I took one and dropped it into my tea. I’m not squeamish. I’ve spent decades systematically building up my immune system by putting things in my mouth that I probably shouldn’t.
I headed around the corner and found a booth, sat down and got bothered by the sticky spots on the table. I looked around at the other tables; they were all flecked with crumbs and drippage. Oh well.
The interior was modern and pleasant, a giant mural consisting of what appeared to be an airbrushed trio of chili peppers against a smeared green background centered the sitting area. Lights that resembled box kites were suspended from the ceiling. I couldn’t quite come up with a name for the décor, perhaps modern Bohemian. That was reinforced by the contemporary yet overly cautious jazz music emanating from unseen speakers. I spotted a patron across the aisle, reading a book and sipping some dark coffee, I then recalled where I had seen this sort of décor before, Barnes and Noble. It was what Bohemian looks like if designed by mega-corporate MBA executives.
Angel brought the flashy pager thingy and plopped it down on the table. It went off almost immediately. I sat and listened to the music. It was sporadically interrupted by another sound a mechanical, air powered puff followed by some sort of reset, then again, puff, hiss, reset. I assumed that somewhere beneath this roof there was a robot repair shop.

The Food:
Angel ordered a Caesar chicken salad (She thought/may have ordered the salmon Caesar salad, but she got chicken) and cream of tomato soup. Adam had the smoked turkey sandwich and the (yuk) broccoli soup. My roast beef panini and potato soup lay in front of me, looking no better than I had imagined. I decided I had just chosen poorly and that I should judge it on its merits, not the fact that it could not possibly be as good as my own wraps.
Angel and Adam had picked up a couple of packaged cookies as well, Adam’s a Chocolate Duet, and Angel’s a butter toffee with brasserie nuts, or Brazil nuts. (I can’t read my writing.) I was offered a cookie back at the ordering line, but by that time I was so pressured and distracted about my feeble meal choice that I was too flustered to pick out a pretentious cookie, probably nut laden, so I passed.
My soup was okay at first, definitely potato, with lots of butter. As I dug down I realized that there was probably too much butter as it started tasting greasy. There was potato, a hint of onion, butter, and, and, actually that was about it. If there were herbs or spices they were in hiding. So it was pretty much a watered down pureed baked potato.
The panini, a thin grill-pressed sandwich was interesting at first. There was a sweetness, onions, lots and lots of caramelized onions. About one quarter of the way through the sweetness intensified; too many caramelized onions. I could barely sense, much less taste the beef. I stripped the sandwich open and separated a strip of beef. It had no flavor of its own, just the onions. They had drowned, suffocated, a perfectly good slice of cow. They had also overcooked it, no pink, somewhat leathery and completely lacking in moisture.
Angel asked me to try her salad, which I did. It was a Caesar salad, greens with that dressing that can and often does include a hint of anchovies. It tasted exactly like a Caesar salad. Her soup which she had abandoned was thick and familiar looking. She said it was too rich to finish. I tasted it, and agreed. To me it didn’t taste like cream of tomato soup, it was more like what it looked like, Ragu, the canned spaghetti sauce. It was very sweet and herby, almost exactly like Ragu, and just as thick. It would have made a great bread-dipping sauce, but as a stand-alone bowl of soup, not so much.
Adam finished his sandwich though he admitted it was a little too mustardy, the (yuk) broccoli soup was ‘excellent.’ Angel’s salad was in her words ‘good’.
The thing she had raved about, the complimentary bread, was also up to her expectations. It may be just a style - difference thing, but I found the bread crust too thick and rubbery. The taste of the interior was quite good, but it was tough to get to. I tore open the thick crust and started plucking the inner meat out, like a hyena on a zebra carcass.
I am told the cookies were awesome, but since they contained nuts** I did not actually try them.
We had to bus our own tables, just like at McDonalds. There was no service of any kind. I swept the half sandwich into the small hole over the garbage can and stacked the dishes on the crowded tray.
The meal came in, including cookies, at just under thirty two bucks. Not exactly pricey for a meal, unless you drill into it. There was no service, not even frequent table cleaning; In my mind this is just fine for cheap fast food places, but for classier, more sophisticated offerings I’d like to see a little less burger joint (though Gordon’s burger joint offered counter service and bussed and wiped down after we were done) and a little more bistro. Also the portions were small for the price, we’re talking a cup of soup and a small sandwich or salad. Not exactly hungry-man fare for the price of a full-bore three thousand calorie Mexican combo meal.
I can get a five dollar foot long at subway, with the exact same level of service. STL Bread Co.s’ sandwiches are nowhere near as large and have fewer fresh ingredients and not near as much variety. I’m not sure I know what I’m paying for at the Bread Company. The soup? Are you kidding? Soup is the golden hen for restaurants, I don’t care what the ingredients are, a cup of soup costs about a quarter to make in bulk, fifty cents if you add lobster. (Just ask Gordon Ramsey.)
According to Wikipedia, “ In a 2008 Health magazine study, Panera Bread (St. Louis Bread Company) was judged America's most healthy fast food restaurant.” I get that in this case simply because there wasn’t that much food and I didn’t finish it anyhow, so I took in significantly fewer calories than I normally do for a Saturday dinner.
The food was not awful and I readily admit to having chosen poorly. One of the sandwiches was finished, and only one of the three soups was. This may be a fine lunch place, or a shopping break once you’re locked into something they offer you actually like, but for me there is just no draw. The three of us don't completely agree, Angel likes the place Adam seems to as well. I'll not set a score out of respect for their different opinion. Let me know what you think!!

Oh, and on the way out I discovered the source of that robot-noise. It was a bagel maker/cannon at the front. Every hissing thump-whoosh produced a warm bagel out of the end of a tube. I’m not sure the value - add of the device, but at least it was distracting enough to have me daydream about robot factories for a few minutes.

* Classic cars. After we finished our meal we crossed over the curb to look at the cars. Angel led us that way so we followed. She stopped at a powder blue vintage Corvette, its hood open exposing an impossibly shiny engine compartment. The engine was not original equipment, but an aftermarket monster that required modifying the hood for it to fit. I’m not a car nut, especially muscle cars, but I like shiny old cars a little. I preferred the Studebaker and the Corvair that were there more than this thing. She asked me about the ‘vette, I admitted it was nice enough, and added; “If you really, really have to have an extra penis I suppose it’s just fine.” She laughed and muttered something I didn't quite hear.

** Nuts. I like nuts, most kinds, but never, ever, ever as an ingredient, especially in cookies. I don’t know exactly why, it’s not the taste; it may just be the context. I can sit and eat large amounts of most nuts by themselves. In a soft, fluffy, perfectly good cookie however, I just don’t like coming across hard, sharp edged gravel. Angel has countered me on pointing out that I did in fact prefer chunky peanut butter rather than creamy, but that’s different. In peanut butter the chunks are just incomplete grinding, like lumps in mashed potatoes, that’s a huge difference in my mind. ( I also like pecan pie, without the pecans.)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Gordon’s Stoplight Drive In

500 Bailey Road
Crystal City MO

This past weekend we faced a dilemma. Angel was out of town to attend her grandmother’s 350th birthday party. She would be having Chinese food at the Mecca of Chinese food, Springfield MO. Adam and I were stuck at home tending the dogs Bailey, Blue and George, (Deedee went with Angel.) Brady, the incontinent long-term foster, and Duke and Dixie, a fun pair of weimaraners in for boarding for the weekend.
We were also on our own for dining. We considered skipping reviewable places and just grabbing something quick and messy, but our sense of obligation to you, the readers simply would not allow it. We did decide to keep it simple.
The Place:
Located at a busy corner on Highway 61/67 I’ve driven by it hundreds of times and always planned to stop sometime. It’s been around since 1948 despite several floods and the passing of the eponymous Gordon Heddell (2007). It’s a small place there are no booths or tables, just a long counter with about twenty round stools. The building is all windows on three sides offering an ample, almost scary view of the very nearby traffic. On this evening there was a staff of four, two young men at the grill and two ladies tending the front. All wore titular tee shirts and seemed confident, content and capable.
One of the ladies asked for our drink order, tea and Coke. Adam and I scanned the overhead menu and eventually made our choices.
The Food:
Nothing fancy here, it’s an old-style burger joint. Several kinds and combinations of burgers, a couple of listed sandwiches, coneys and chili… That’s pretty much it. Alongside the posted menu was a hand made sign offering a ‘Monster Deal’ a ‘Quadzilla’, fries and soda for $7.77. I assumed a four-patty burger. That seemed like a lot of burger so I stepped my order down to the ‘Big Burger’ and fries, Adam opted for the ‘Double’ and fries, essentially the same thing.
The patties were thin and rough formed, which is my favorite style. Cooked right in front of everyone, the fries were also thin, almost shoestring also the way I like them. Nothing fancy about the buns either, just like you’d bring home form the grocery. The process starts with a real ceramic plate with a pile of five or six dill pickle slices. The burger is built right on the plate; nothing sits in a warmer or trough. The food is still sizzling when you get it. Ketchup and mustard, salt and pepper are available every third booth or so, so everyone can easily reach them.
That’s pretty much it, simple, quick, and by the way, Delicious! Thin but not overcooked patties with a simple, comfortable taste and texture, the fries crispy and firm, all of it completely satisfying. Go ahead and get the double or larger they’re not as big as you might think. I did notice that they put a little mayo on my burger though not enough to alter the simple flavor much, I didn’t notice it at all until I was nearly done.

No sesame seed buns, no secret sauce, nothing fancy or complicated. Personalized service, a cheery, casual, comfortable atmosphere, excellent staff and all at a price that feels like you’re cheating someone. Our meal came in at under fifteen bucks. The place stayed busy, families especially, the youngsters already decided on their choices by the time they sat down, usually including cheese fries. The place has a LOT of regulars, and on many nights, especially around high school sports seasons is packed and lined around the outside.
Compared to Steak and Shake, Gordon’s is far superior. Though the offerings and prices are essentially the same, the atmosphere at Gordon’s just can’t be beat. Steak and Shake feels like a fast food joint, Gordon’s Stoplight feels like an old-fashioned family diner. We’re Definitely going back, definitely recommended, the sooner the better. I’m thinking next time I’ll try the chili, I’ve heard it is excellent. I’ll give it a solid ninety nine for being very close to perfect in terms of quality, service and fulfilling expectations.
By the way, make sure to take cash, though you won’t need a lot. There was a sign on the door saying they are unable to process ATM and credit cards. There was a third party ATM machine inside, but those things sting you with fees.

Stop Light Drive In on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Senor Nacho

Ah Spring is in the air, It’s the Saturday before Easter; 'Sabbatum Sanctum'. Since we are otherwise completely devoid of Easter traditions or practices and we are once again not able to afford the trip to England to participate in the traditional Bacup Nutters Dance*, we decided to celebrate a Latin-named day at a Latin style eatery.

The Place:
Senor Nacho
Desoto MO

Loosely translated (by Google Translator) as ‘Lord Nacho’ our expectations were quite high. A much more regal name than ‘Taco Bell’, Which has nothing to do with a real bell at all, other than just using the founder’s name last name (Glen Bell). Had the fast-food chain’s founder’s name been Kowalczyk instead I really don’t think we’d be running to that particular border quite as often.
I knew nothing of Senor Nacho, but Angel and Adam were aware of it since it sits next to the KFC we frequent and relish. It obviously used to be something else, a chain restaurant maybe, it had that style and general look to it. The signage was modest and the requisite Mexican beer neons were in place.
Not very busy, dark but neat on the inside, the dark red walls were decorated by scores of cheap sombreros and photos and murals of people wearing sombreros. Even the ceiling tiles were painted dark red. The tables were cheap, covered in a wood laminate of some kind. There were two kinds of chairs at the tables, light oak and cheap black tubular steel. Somebody went bargain shopping.
We were led to a booth by a tall Latino man who was closely followed by a small Latino teen boy. It appeared that this was a family run place which put points in the positive column. During quiet moments three or four of the staff sat relaxed near the front and exchanged quick and animated verbiage that I could not decipher. Their bantering seemed very much family-like. Our drinks were ordered, Tea, Diet Coke and Coke, and then the chips arrived. Three small bowls were provided, accompanied by a carafe of salsa. It took two-plus baskets of chips to get to the main courses.
The menu was bright, colorful and too big. Five or six pages of essentially the same things arranged in confounding combinations, it took us quite a while to make our selections. In the background music was playing, definitely south of the border music, some of it sounding like some sort of Mexican polka (complete with tuba-ish oom-pahs) and the rest a lot like narcocorridos.** Since I don’t exactly hablos the language ( I even had to look up ‘hablos’) I assumed they were narcocorridos which I recently learned about on NPR. They may have been love ballads, but I’m going for color here, not cold hard fact.
The Food:
The chips were just a little thicker that I like them, but only just a little. The salsa was delightful; packing just enough heat to let you know this was indeed better quality stuff than you’ll get from those little packets at Taco Kowalczyk.
Angel finally decided on a dish called Tamale Deluxe, which Google translates into ‘Deluxe Tamale’. Adam built his own combo opting for two beef tacos and a chicken ‘chimichanga’, which I would translate for you except for the fact that it apparently means the same thing in Spanish as English and every other language I looked up, including Icelandic. (It’s a deep fried burrito.)
I did stupid again by ordering something called Anita’s Combo, which like our previous Mexican establishment visits included way too much of too many things.
The young man kept us in drinks and chips while we waited, and the wait was not very long.
Mine was delivered in two embarrassingly large plates, Angel and Adam’s single plates were piled high. The sauce and cheese oozed and spread out all over. We convinced Adam to actually try guacamole. It took some doing; I told him that I often didn’t even know I had some, the taste being so subtle. He took a taste, went pale, then almost wretched. He drank about a gallon of Coke to recover. Apparently I was mistaken about it being subtle. My taste buds haven’t really been the same since the overcooked Hot Pocket incident of 1997.
The ground beef in my, whatever it was, was way too salty, not unlike the tamales at La Pachanga. I couldn’t stomach more than half of that offering. Everything else was okay, but not awesome. Adam had to perform surgery on his taco to extract the offending ingredients, peppers, onions and such. Angel didn’t complain, but she, like Adam and myself, did not finish over half the meal.
Perhaps overt saltiness is normal or authentic for certain dishes, however I find it greatly off-putting. Other than the saltiness, there were not many distinct tastes in the various offerings between the burrito the taco, the enchilada and the tamale. The refried beans were pureed rather than rough mashed and the cheeses had barely any taste at all. I don’t even recall enchilada sauce, which is a shame. I usually love that stuff. I like pushing everything else into it. As Mexican food goes, this was a little bland and uninteresting.

The price was right, coming in very similar to Los Portales and La Pachanga at around thirty five dollars for the feast, including the tip. The food was okay, but only okay, and being as we have to drive right by Los Portales, where the food was much better and then nine more miles to get to it, I can’t see us returning often. If you happen to be in Desoto and are looking for some Mexican and in the mood for something quite a bit better than Taco Kowalczyk, then by all means, try it. I’d recommend a big shiny, fruity tequila drink to go with it to make it a little more palatable.
All in all I have to give Senor Nacho at least an eighty six since I gave La Pachanga an eighty five, I was really hoping for better.


* The Bacup Nutters Dance traditionally takes place on this day in the small Pennine, tin-mining town of Bacup. (Lancashire, England) Each year a team of folk-dancers with blackened faces dance through the town from boundary to boundary

** narcocorridos: Danceable ballads that recount tales of drug dealers and their exploits.