Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Laddie Boys II

2595 Us Highway 61
Festus, MO

I first heard about Laddie Boys II a couple of weeks back. A friend had informed me that another friend, Marty Ray, was going to be performing there. I Knew Marty could play guitar/harmonica and sing, but I did not know he’d taken his act on the road. As it was, I could not attend that day. Good news though, Marty’’s group, ‘CT and the Retirees’ played there every other week. So on Saturday afternoon, I headed out, not for the food, but for the music and a brush with fame. 

Laddie Boys is a bit off the beaten path. It has a Festus address, but is a good five-seven miles outside of the city, on a road, highway 61, that has been largely bypassed by I-55 and is generally used only by locals. It sits conveniently beside a convenience store and was probably a big deal before the Interstate was installed. When I got there around 1:00 P.M.I was surprised. The music was to have started at 12:30. My reckoning was that this would be after the lunch rush, if there was indeed a lunch rush.

What I saw was a large, free-standing building, those of you familiar with the ‘Stuckey’s’ chain would recognize the style and period of the building. Nothing surprising about the building itself, those are scattered and repurposed all around the Midwest. What tossed me as odd was the parking lot. It was full, overflowing. I ended up parking in the outer area of the convenience store lot. As I approached the door I ran into Annette, the friend that had originally recommended it.
(Photo Courtesy of Annette Rey)

“We got lucky and got a table, somebody cancelled a reservation at the last minute.” She told me as we headed in. She dragged me back to a table where already seated were Verna and her daughter, and Ann and her husband. When I sat there were only two empty seats left in the room, at the end of our table. At the entrance was a line of folks waiting for someone to leave so they could take their place. That never happened. The place was standing room only.

(Photo, Courtesy of Annette Rey)
The band was playing mostly old style country music. Not the hideous new, rock-sounding anthems, but old school stuff mixed with some blues and a gospel song or two. There were four or five guitars, a dobro and an electric bass, no banjos or mandolins, and thankfully, no steel sliders*. One lady had the voice of a Carter Family member and delivered the old songs with respect and justice. Marty switched between his guitar and a haunting, sometimes howling harmonica. He coaxed the mouth-harp into perfect, lonesome, train whistle sounds as the band sang “I hear that train a-comin’” and tore through “Orange Blossom Special”, like it was written for them.

I ordered tea, even though Ann’s husband advised me against it. He’s a fan of these posts and knows my thoughts on ice tea. I also ordered a blackberry cobbler. The others had ordered full, late lunches, I’d already had a big meal.
(Photo, Courtesy of Annette Rey)

At 2:30 or so the band took a break, Marty disappeared. In about fifteen minutes he returned. No longer in his jeans and band tee shirt, he’d switched into a one-piece bejeweled, white, bell-bottomed jump suit, donned a raven-black toupee folded into a pompadour, sporting oversized gold-framed sunglasses and packing a different guitar. On the face of it shimmering decal letters were applied that simply said “Elvis”.

Yeah he did, and a damned fine job of it too.

I got home around four, Angel was getting ready for doggy-supper. She feeds everyone at 4:30, every day. Adam had cleaned up and was waiting patiently. I freshened up a little and by five we left, heading straight back to Laddie Boys ***. It was my week to choose.

The Place:
As described earlier the place was probably originally a stand alone restaurant of the Stuckey’s type. Inside were dark paneled arched vaulted ceiling probably thirty feet at the peak. Old suspended country-style chandeliers cast a soft, incandescent yellow light. The crowd had thinned considerably, the only folks seated were CT and the Retirees, resting up after a great gig. I left them alone. We found a large, dark toned booth near the back. Without the crowd, the place echoed like a church on Saturday.

A waitress approached. Instead of a standard greeting she called out “Hey we’ve got ourselves a movie star!” Naturally I assumed she was referring to me as I am constantly being confused with the dashing actor Monte Blue. But it turns out she was referring to Adam. He was sporting a beret, which he wears backwards over his longish, wavy hair, a-la Sam Kinison.  We couldn’t decide if it was indeed Kinison she was thinking of and the name Jack Black also whizzed by. Bottom line, she thought he looked like a really famous person, she just couldn’t recall which one.
"People tell me all the time that I look just like Elizabeth Taylor.” She added.
I replied: “I really don’t see that at all.” Which was the truth, but according to Angel, it was one of those times that the truth simply did not need to be brought up. Not that the waitress was unattractive at all, I was just never especially enamored with Elizabeth Taylor, who I always thought of as pompous, rude and arrogant. The waitress was none of these.
She took our drink orders tea, sweet tea and Coke/Pepsi. (which is how Adam now orders his drinks because rare is the case a place has both.)
When she delivered our drinks, she took our food order. The tea was fresh, but a bit weak.
The Food:
The menu was uncomplicated, but full of great-sounding, home-style offerings.
I went with the catfish plate served with fries and slaw, they offered three options, one filet, two, or three. I’d just recently had some cobbler (quite good) so I went for the single. Angel decided on the roast beef with gravy and a salad. Adam chose the country fried steak. **
A few more people trickled in, though it was obvious that the state of being packed earlier had more to do with the band/Elvis then it did the food itself. CT and the Retirees disassembled, Marty saw me, looked surprised and stopped by. “We were just talking about you.” he said. Which surprised me since I’m always surprised when I hear that someone is talking about me, I mean really, get a life already.
“I told them that at that table of writers that were there for the show was one guy who I never thought would show up, yet there you were! I know how much you hate country music.” He said.
“Generally I do hate country music, unless it’s local, acoustic and mostly the older stuff. I can almost stomach the music you guys were playing.” I answered.
“Well I’ll pass that along.” He responded, somewhat sarcastically.
“I can tolerate some of it Marty, but if you’ll recall I’m from Kentucky and your band was at least one Banjo short of being great.”
He left after saying kind words to Angel and Adam. Marty’s a really decent guy and one heck of an Elvis Tribute Artist and this is the opinion of a guy who can’t stand any of the Elvis impersonators he’d heard up till that date.
Angel’s salad arrived quickly, Adam dived for the croutons, turned out there weren’t any. He whined about that for at least an hour. It was a simple salad of iceberg lettuce, onions and tomato chunks. It appeared crisp and fresh.
The meals came a few minutes later, simply plated, no garnish or fanfare. My single fillet coated in browned cornmeal was large, the portion of fries was small, and the slaw, served in a separate bowl, was creamy and crisp looking. Angel’s roast beef was steaming and swimming in brown gravy, Adam’s pounded, breaded and pan-fried steak was covered in thick white gravy.
I asked for Ketchup and tarter sauce, Liz Taylor rustled some up very quickly. The meals were all hot and perfectly cooked, fresh, homey and heavy.
(Photo, courtesy of my stupid, low-res cell phone.)

We made the food disappear without a lot of comment. My slaw was indeed sweet and creamy, not watery and vinegar-heavy. My fish was flaky, moist and tender, as good as I’ve been able to find anywhere. Angel added salt to her beef and beans. We’d noticed that the patrons that were trickling in were of the more senior variety. I’m reluctant to call them ‘old’ but that’s really exactly what I’m trying to say. I should also mention that at the show earlier, someone remarked that I was apparently the third youngest person in the joint, and that was only true because some lady dragged her two grandkids along with her. Which led Angel to remark that a place that caters to seniors may hold back on salt in prep and cooking as many of the greatest generation may not care for saltiness as much as younger whippersnappers. Angel and I have decided that this was fine. “It’s pretty easy to add salt to something that’s been cooked a bit bland, but just about impossible to take it out if it’s been over-salted.” She said. I agreed. I hadn’t noticed any saltiness in my food, which if you regularly follow these reviews is something noteworthy. It may define to which generation I actually belong.

A very good meal. Sure, those who like a lot of salt may need to add some, but that was about the only concern anyone had other than that Adam said his corn could have been sweeter, a sign of being over-cooked. The food was simple and near-perfectly prepared, the wait staff was dutiful and attentive, the place was clean, friendly and comfortable. The bill only came to twenty eight dollars, a very reasonable price for good, fresh home-style food. Nothing fancy, but in ambience and quality, better than anybody’s Cracker Barrel.

To learn more about Laddie Boys II, CT and the Retirees, and Marty Ray: Click Here.

*Steel Slide Guitar. The country-music instrument that screams like a dying sow. It screams “Dennis is going to hate this whiny, nasal song!” Buck Owens pretty much ruined country music for me.

**Country fried steak vs Chicken fried steak: I was told earlier in the day that Laddie's 'country fried steak' was actually 'chicken fried steak.' I did some research on this and came to conclusion that the distinction between the two terms is somewhat regional and highly flexible. The jury is still out. In most places the terms are interchangeable.

*** Laddie Boys is NOT named after President Grover Cleveland's dog (1920-1929). I was hoping it was, as I could have delved into the significance of that history. This Restaurant, according to Liz Taylor, our waitress, was named for the nickname of the son of one of the former owners of the place. Of course HE could have been given that named based on the famous dog, who was immortalized in bronze (paid for by voluntary donations, mostly pennies from school children) and donated to the Smithsonian Institute, where it is still housed yet not on display.

Laddie Boy's II on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Lion’s Choice vs. Arby’s

Battle: Roast Beef Sandwich, the final word.

Lion’s Choice
698 Gravois Bluffs Blvd
Fenton, MO

690 South Truman Boulevard
Festus, MO

This was Angel’s idea. A two-meal weekend pitting the two, very similar chains’ offerings against each other.
Lion’s choice is a small chain, only twenty locations total, seventeen in the St. Louis area and three in and around Oklahoma City. There’s a fair amount of local pride with Lion’s Choice. I even went into this with a slight bias toward the hometown underdog. A twenty store David vs. thirty-six hundred store Goliath. I’d been to the Lion several times but not recently. When I worked downtown there was one within easy walking distance and we would dine there a couple of times per month, but that was several years ago. I vowed to try to maintain objectivity, to be honest and fair.

Saturday: Lion’s Choice.
Located below Gravois Bluff, attached to a convenience store. Not a lot of dedicated parking, but enough for the light crowd.  We stepped up to the overhead menu, I decided to keep it simple, to order the standard roast beef sandwich with cheddar cheese. Angel opted for the French Dip, Adam ordered the ‘King’, which basically had a different kind of bun. Adam and I ‘larged’ our orders which meant a bigger cup and more fries, however the amount of meat on the sandwich did not change.
Drinks were self-serve. I chose unsweetened tea in spite of the fact that Adam had tasted it and declared it ‘old and bitter’ before switching to Pepsi. He’s used the line ‘old and bitter’ before, typically when referring to me, so I knew not to take him at his word. Angel filled her cup with pink lemonade.
The tea was indeed a bit old and cloudy, but I’d had worse. I didn’t want anything sweet as that tends to overpower my taste buds, crippling them for the greater task at hand, tasting the actual food. We sat and waited the few minutes it took to slice the meat, which is a Lion’s choice brag. They don’t pre-make sandwiches or even pre-slice the meat.
I filled several tiny paper cups with ketchup and a couple more with the house barbecue sauce. Horseradish was also available, but ignored. There were also onions and pickles available, which I got, as well as some chopped peppers, which I did not.

Angel tested the barbecue sauce. “Tastes just like crap.” She mumbled.  Adam and I stared at her in disgust. “What?” we asked, since Angel is not usually quick to indict something like that. “It tastes just like Kraft Barbecue Sauce.” She looked annoyed. “You said ‘crap’” Adam scolded. “No I didn’t, I said KRAFT!” She looked at me. “I heard ‘crap’ as well.” I replied. This went on for a while, until our order was called.
Angel’s French dip turned out to be a sandwich very much like Adam’s, a small hoagie. The wrappers did not identify which was which and the ‘Au Jus’ (Gesundheit!) was served in a separate lidded bowl. They finally reached a decision and dug in. Mine was served on what appeared to be a standard, run-of-the-mill hamburger bun. The cheese was oozing out the sides nicely.
My sandwich offered forth its cheesy, pickle-y toppings. The beef itself was moist, tender and slightly pink. The bun held up for a short while but began to fall apart about halfway through, the juices released from the steamy beef slowly dismantled the flimsy bread. I thought the cheese, sharp cheddar, might have been a mistake. There was lots of it, normally a good thing, but it was salty, too salty. I barely finished the thing. I would have thought little more of it since I'm salt-sensitive. In fact I didn’t even mention it. But then Angel spoke: “My au jus (Gesundheit!) is too salty.” She said. Adam plucked at his meat. “My beef is too salty.” He added.
Angel and I looked at each other square in the eyes, something we do not often do. She dipped her finger into her au jus (Gesundheit!) and tasted it, then again. “It’s not the sauce.” she pronounced, “It’s the beef!” She tore off an un-dipped portion of the meat and tasted, then nodded her head.
Indeed the salty fries were bland in comparison. Had I noticed it earlier, or had my sandwich been bigger, I probably would have not finished it. By this time however the saltiness was entrenched in my delicate and refined palette, unable to be washed away by a few blasts of old, bitter tea. “I thought it was the cheese.” I told her. “I didn’t mention it because I’m considered overly picky about saltiness.” We sat and shook our heads in shared disappointment. 
That evening Angel’s Facebook status announced: “Went to Lion’s Choice for the first stop on a two-meal comparison, so far they’re in second place.”
The drive home was somber, frustrated and mournful. We’d really hoped that the Lion would be an out-of-the-park home run. “Well at least the sandwiches were small, I can snack later.” She sighed. Angel’s a glass-half-full person.

Sunday: Arby’s:
A shorter drive, Festus, at the edge of the Walmart parking lot. We were eerily quiet. Hope was diminished, disappointment hovered on the horizon. The feeling was similar to that one has when nearing the end of a long drive to visit a dour and bitter relative. Nothing against Arby’s itself, it was just that the bar had been set pretty low.
I ordered a similar sandwich, beef and cheddar cheese, with curly fries. They also offer waffle fries and tater-triangles (Loaded Bites), a technological breakthrough of NASA proportions. Angel ordered the same, both of us accepted the mid-sized sandwich. Adam ordered the three-cheese and bacon ‘Ultimate Angus’ which was served on a hoagie. They both ordered curly fries as well. I repeated the condiment maneuvers, ketchup, barbecue sauce, onions pickles. We poured our drinks, tea and tea, Angel’s was sweetened mine was not. Adam got his Dr. Pepper on. Angel followed me to the condiment counter and poured some horsey sauce into a little cup. Yuck.
The tea was bright and fresh, at least a lot fresher than we’d had the night before. The wait for the food was not long we waited and Angel picked at the pickles. “I like Lion’s Choice’s pickles better.” She announced. “That’s something at least.” I answered. The sandwiches arrived, the wrappers clearly stating which sandwich was which.
I immediately noticed the bun, it was heavier, sturdier than those at the Lion. It was also fancier, with seeds, or onion slivers cooked in. It needed to be a sturdy bun since the ‘mid-size’ meant at least twice as much beef as we'd had the night before. There was no pink on this beef and it lacked the home-style look and drippings. It was a dark brown and thinly deli-sliced. It was also, as Adam immediately noticed, “Not too salty”. The curly fries were simply outstanding.
There was so much meat that I could not finish it. Adam and Angel finished theirs quickly, they refilled their drinks and waited for me. In the meantime we discussed the findings. Adam asked his mother if the barbecue sauce “Tasted like crap”   which started that whole spiraling discussion again.
I gave up, folded my wrappers and added the debris to the growing pile on the tray.

The Verdict:
I convened a team meeting to discuss, objectively, our findings.
“We’re a team?” Adam asked. “I’ve never been on a real team, should we get shirts made?” Angel chimed in.
Sometimes my team is ridiculously difficultto work with.
The only thing that ended up in the plus column for Lion’s Choice turned out to be the pickles. On every other measure, beef quality, portions, buns and even fries and barbecue sauce, Arby’s simply scored better.  
As much as it pains me to say it, Arby’s won by a wide margin.
Lion’s beef was too salty, the portions were timid, the buns flimsy, the tea, old and cloudy.
The decision was quick and unanimous.
The bills for the two similar meals came in about a dollar and a half apart, in the low twenty’s. There was much more food for the buck at Arby’s. Angel made multiple mentions of the portion differences. Though the Lion’s beef looked better, more homey and fresh, the excessive saltiness was simply inexcusable. Lion’s fries were fine on their own, no complaint, but Arby’s were just better.
We went into this thing fully expecting, hoping that the hometown favorite, Lion’s Choice would be the clear winner. Surely the mega-chain Arby’s wouldn’t be able to measure up to a small, popular and local chain. But they did, and not even by the skin of their teeth.
That being said, Arby’s may have won the battle but they don’t exactly get a shiny trophy. Arby’s store was not as clean as Lion’s Choice. It seemed a little grungy. Mostly though Arby’s roast beef was not really great, merely better than Lions Choice. Arby’s meat was very much like you get at the supermarket in the deli section. It lacked that coarse, fall-apart texture and moisture. But OMG Lion’s Choice, the salt!

Disagree with our verdict? Let us know so we can publicly insult your tastes, your family, your choices, your appearance and your other opinions!
Lion's Choice:
Lion's Choice on Urbanspoon
Arby's on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bobby Munzert’s

Hillsboro, Mo
It had been nearly a year since we’d been to Munzert’s. We went soon after it  first opened, and again a couple of months later. At the time we discussed new-restaurant concerns and gave them a break since they were just starting up.
Over a year into it, it was time to take the gloves off.

The Place:
Located at the intersection of Highway B and old 21 (Main Street) in Hillsboro. It was early in the evening and the place was less than 1/3 full. We were seated in a back-corner booth immediately. The place had changed a little, but not drastically. It was neat, clean, dark, and lined up with white tablecloths and folded navy-blue napkins enveloped the silverware settings. An oil candle burned on each table, the music was big-band swing and classic crooners, Tony Bennett, et al.
The hostess handed us menus and shortly one of the two or three floor staff asked for drink orders. Tea, unsweetened for me, because I’m already sweet enough, and sweetened for Angel, because, well lets just leave it there. Adam asked for a Coke/Pepsi, got a Coke.
The menu was smaller than I recalled. Sure enough, a couple of the items we’d ordered previously were no longer offered. If there was anything new it wasn’t apparent. They’d pared down the menu some, which is a good thing. It shows they react to customers’ wants. The remaining offerings covered a good deal of ground of the basics. Steak was the headliner, along with high end burgers and some pasta dishes. Picky children might not have a lot to choose from, but for adults the selection was just right. The wait staff moved around smoothly, professionally, smartly dressed in black pants and shirts.
The drinks were delivered in those heavy stemmed glasses I’d noted previously. The tea looked clear and bright, fresh, though not as strong as I would have preferred, but infinitely better than old bitter tea.
The Food:
Myself: 6 oz. Filet Mignon, Baked potato (with bacon, cheese, sour cream) and a Caesar Salad.
Angel: 9 oz New York Strip, Baked potato (sour cream) and Caesar Salad.
Adam: Blackened Chicken sandwich (no tomatoes), fries (non-spicy) and Caesar salad.
Our salads were delivered quickly, small portions (thankfully) along with soft, but not too soft rolls served with foil-wrapped pats of actual butter. The rolls were still warm enough to completely melt the butter, which sounds obvious enough but such a thing is rarer than one might imagine. In many places the butter is kept frozen, rock hard and short a thermonuclear event will never melt completely on even the warmest of rolls. Munzert’s had this right. The butter was not frozen, it wasn’t warm either, but those few degrees between ‘rock-hard’ and ‘soft enough to melt quickly’ are crucial to the enjoyment of buttered rolls.
The salads were simple, a few greens, some red onion and a couple of croutons, with a dressing that was not too strong, but certainly more than just oil and vinegar, just right. Served on clear, square, glass plates, it was small enough that it left room for the heavy meal to come. So far, so good.

The wait for the main courses was not long. Each plate was complete, no omissions, no mess, no mistakes. No steak sauce was offered, a good sign. A good steak doesn’t need A-1, and if A-1 improves your steak, it wasn’t really a good one. I appreciated their optimism. We were asked to check for doneness, we did, and were pleased. The steak-maker was a pro. Seared to crunchy on the outside, the pink line inside was just where it was supposed to be. The knives delivered with the steak were more than suitable for the task of breaking down these tender beauties.
The potatoes were clear of blemishes and cooked perfectly. I actually prefer an over-baked potato, I like the crispy skin, but this was done as perfectly as could be without actually initiating the cremation process. It was not over-topped, which was also good.
The filet melted beneath the knife, it sliced like butter. Each bite was tender, juicy and smoky. Angel made passionate moaning, gnawing sounds. She’d had a busy day and had not eaten much of anything.
Adam was making short work of his sandwich, and when asked, grunted a monosyllabic “Good.” Which if you will recall about as good as it gets. His fries however resulted in “Fine.” Which is still pretty good.  Actually I’d asked him if they were okay, he answered “Yeah”, but I know my son and can confidently translate what he said related into what he meant.
The pitcher ladies kept our drinks topped off, and even brought an extra glass filled with ice. “The tea’s hot when we pour it, there’s some more ice for you in case yours melts too fast.” She said to explain the gift. I appreciated more than she could possibly know. This meant the tea was fresh, very fresh. I was starting to get the notion that maybe they’d read my blog. (Earlier blogs complain of too little ice, and the refills being too seldom.)
I finished the vast majority of my steak, Angel all of hers, the sandwich and fries had disappeared completely.
Angel mentioned that it was good to see bread, the rolls that came with the salad were followed up by one each on the steak plates. I recalled that I’d mentioned a bread shortage in my last Munzert’s blog as well.
I asked Angel about her meal. “One good piece of meat.”
And I agreed. The steaks at Munzert’s are the best I’ve had anywhere around.  A couple of places have good steaks, Ruby Tuesdays’ even had a great one, once. These were obviously very good cuts/grades of meat. All the steaks we’ve had here are very, very good.

 The service was spot-on, professional and efficient. The atmosphere was comfortable, causal but classy (considering the location). The price was higher than a quick dinner at Hillsboro’s other places, but in this case, well worth it. The bill was nearly fifty five dollars. I can pay the same at TGI Fridays, Ruby Tuesdays, Outback, etc. but the chains, oddly enough, lack consistency. Munzert’s has apparently decided to become a premier steakhouse, it shows in the choice of meat and the attention to detail when preparing it. Most people around Hillsboro can’t afford to pay that much for a meal very often, but at least we know we are going to get our money’s worth when we do.
Highly recommended!

Bobby Munzert's on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Los Portales

Hillsboro, Mo.

Adam’s pick, no objections.
Hillsboro is not large in any respect, around 1,800 residents. It sits in the near center of the county, deliberately. While most of the county’s oldest towns were built around mines, railroads and rivers, Hillsboro was designed, built from nothing, to serve as the county seat. Private industry did not follow, to this day its most prominent features are the courthouse, sheriff’s department, other county offices and facilities and of course, lawyers, bail bonds, etc.
There’s a McDonalds, a Hardees, a Subway and a Dairy Queen. There’s three or four local restaurants other than the franchises. The city government boasts eighteen full-time employees, including eight police officers. Compare that to the County Sheriff’s office, also headquartered in Hillsboro, which has 162 sworn officers and 76 full time employees and manages a 260 bed county lockup in the middle of town. It’s an odd  situation because of its commutable proximity to the St. Louis suburbs. Tiny, little Hillsboro, population 1,800 is the driver’s seat for a county that boasts 225,000 residents.
The Place:
Across form the courthouse is Los Portales. It serves the town as a bar as well as an eatery. It is run primarily by people of the Hispanic persuasion, which, according to City-Data.com, there are only 39 of in Hillsboro itself.
It’s a rather old building that used to be something else. Inside the floors feel a bit old and slightly warped, I call it character. Like Hillsboro itself, there’s not a lot of effort wasted on d├ęcor or ambience, merely the requisite sombreros and Mexican artwork mounted on the walls. The entry is through the bar and it is immediately obvious that Hillsboro hasn’t adopted a smoking ban for such establishments.
We waited at the bar for a moment, a Hispanic lady stepped out and escorted us out of the ashtray and into the ‘smoke-free’ dining area, a large open room made to look much larger by the full-wall mirror on one side. Nearly half of the ten or so tables were already occupied by families with sticky, noisy children. Moms sipped margaritas, dads threw back Coronas. I’ve heard the margaritas here are quite good, if you like that sort of thing. They also boast home-made sangria, I don’t even know what that is. I prefer my alcohol of choice, white wine, as God himself intended it, fresh out of a box. I don’t say this to sound pretentious, rather that I just have more refined tastes and would not be a suitable judge of inferior mixed potables.
After last week’s beer problem, I decided to just order tea. Angel did so as well, Adam went for a Coke. The drinks, chips and salsa were delivered together, we dug in as we scanned the menu. I then noticed that a mere twenty feet away, in the smoking section, sat 37.5% of the Hillsboro Police department. There were three of them, one wearing the gold bars of a Lieutenant. I quickly checked my family for any overt signs of recent illegal activity, I hoped to avoid trouble. Then I recalled that cops always know the best places to eat, and these guys seemed well fed, so they probably weren’t there just to keep an eye on us. I relaxed but avoided eye contact the rest of the time we were there. As it turned out they didn’t arrest, beat up or shoot anyone. Maybe next time.
The Food:
The menu had gotten lighter since our last visit. My old notes said I’d had the #18 combo, this menu only went up to #15.
Me: #15, burrito, enchilada, rice, beans.
Angel: Three-shrimp enchilada with rice.
Adam: Two tacos, one burrito.
I looked at my notes again, the #18 I’d had then was the same as the #15 on the new menu. Oh well. There was also a notation that it would have been better with chicken instead of beef. Too late, the order was already in. We’d barely gnawed through half the chips when the lady returned with our plates. Still sizzling, aromatic, earthy and handsomely, though not delicately, plated.
I went about chopping up my food and swirling it all together, sopping up the beans with burrito, stacking rice on top of it all. I like my Mexican food just like I like my women, spicy, a bit disorganized, (some would say messy) and covered in enchilada sauce.
Angel disassembled her enchilada. “Not much in it beside shrimp, but it’s good shrimp and it has a nice little cheese sauce.” Just as she said this, her fork slipped and somersaulted into her lap, leaving a bright red stain on the front of her shirt. She looked like she’d taken a bullet, though the cops didn’t seem to notice. Out of sympathy/generosity/nobility I let her take a few bites of my beans, and as you know I don’t share my beans with just anyone.
 Adam wolfed his down with his usual speed and near-total silence. When I queried him about his food he replied “I like  consistency.” Which is about as high and verbose a compliment as he can give to anything.
My plate had the most food of the three dishes, I made it most of the way through. It was indeed quite good, but I still thought it might be a little better with chicken rather than beef. I wrote that down so I’d know next time.
The food at Los Portales is good, quite good. It isn’t complicated and it doesn’t have many delicate or subtle features. Many fancier Mexican places try too hard and lose the wonderful simplicity that is really good, Mexican food. This is the food of hard-working, common people. Substantial, savory and simple. It doesn’t need frill or flower. Good, fresh ingredients, solid recipes, and a gifted, consistent cook.

I am quite unable to say anything bad about this place. The food is great, the service is dutiful and professional. Okay, the tea is lackluster and the bar smells like an ashtray. But put that aside and you’ve got the best Mexican food that we’ve been able to find anywhere in the area. The price is awesome, the total bill came in at just over thirty two dollars.
The atmosphere is relaxed, casual, and open. The overhead music is always lively or hopeful and not too loud. The patrons are pretty much all locals and there aren’t that many locals. The place is kid friendly, unfortunately.
I paid the tab. I thought about stepping over to the cops and offering a thumbs up or a thanks. They have a town to protect and serve, in the last ten years they’ve responded to no less than 0 murders, 2 rapes, 3 robberies, 118 assaults, 47 burglaries, 802 thefts, 28 auto thefts and 4 arsons. Impressive for such a small force.

Los Portales‎ on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


We passed two or three Applebee’s to get to this particular one. There are several much closer to our wooded compound outside Hillsboro. This location was picked because we were dining with some friends. I know! Weird huh?
You’re thinking: “But Dennis, we didn’t know you had friends.”
Well, actually, they were Angel’s friends, and by ‘Angel’s friends’ I mean dog people. I knew of them, some of them at least, but Angel’s pretty tight with one; let’s call her ‘PJ’, a fellow dog trainer. She lives about a hundred miles away (exaggeration) on the other side of Wentzville, and Ballwin serves as a mid-point of sorts between the two hard-working, dedicated ladies. They lunch together occasionally and teleconference regularly. PJ wanted to meet on Saturday night with Angel and a couple of other co-conspirators.
When Angel told PJ about my pseudo-occupation of critiquing restaurants PJ asked if there was somewhere else we’d rather go. I told Angel to tell PJ that it was entirely up to her since judging her choice was an integral part of the exercise. So she chose Applebee’s.
Adam declined the invitation and stayed home to tend to the dogs.
It took just under an hour to get to the rather upscale suburb, the time passed quickly for me as I fiddled with Angel’s Tom-Tom navigation device the whole trip. She’d had it set to speak Spanish and it was driving me nuts trying to figure out what the tall, dark, handsome Latino man (assumption) was saying. Angel doesn’t speak Spanish either, but she said it didn’t matter since she already knew how to get where we were going.
“Then why do you even bother having it turned on?” I asked her
“It gives me somebody to listen to.” She replied.
“Hello, I’m right here!” I whined.
“It gives me somebody interesting to listen to.”
“But Spanish? You don’t even know what he’s saying.”
“That makes it easier to argue with him, I always win.”
I switched the voice to a few of the others she had downloaded, Cylon (Battlestar Galactica), Pirate (Generic), Cartman (South Park). They were all equally annoying. I finally turned the volume all the way down after the hundredth “Arrrrr, swing ‘er hard to port matey!”
 The Place:
Along Manchester Road next to several new and used car lots and some upper-middle class shopping establishments. It looked exactly like the 2000 other Applebee’s around the world. The Applebee’s chain is owned by a company called DineEquity, which before the 2007 acquisition was known as IHOP Corporation. Yeah, they’re owned by IHOP.
We were early, so we sat in the parking lot for a while and made fun of the people that walked by. PJ finally pulled up beside us in her rolling billboard of an SUV. We stepped out and I greeted her, her adult son, who I will refer to as Nathan, and another trainer from Northern Kentucky that for the sake of this review, I’ll call Belinda. PJ told us that we would be joined soon by ‘Jim’ and ‘Debbie’ but we could go ahead and get a table. “And a drink!” chimed in Belinda. I didn’t know much about Belinda and neither did Angel, but we immediately assumed she liked to drink, perhaps a lot, but that was mere speculation on our part which does not necessarily reflect on reality. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, she wasn’t even the one driving. She lives across the river south of Cincinnati, and I assume that may have something to do with it. I’ve never been to Cincinnati, but I did see a show about it on TV, WKRP I think it was called. It looked like a pretty lousy place to live what with all the stupid people there (as God is my witness, they actually thought turkeys could fly). I, myself left Kentucky many, many years ago. I’ve always considered it a great place to be from.
We needed a table for seven, and to the restaurant’s credit they had a booth available that could accommodate, we were seated immediately.
Menus were passed around, a small scuffle ensued over who sat where, which was quickly resolved without unnecessary bloodshed. Nathan took point on watching for Jim and Debbie, Angel and I sat together romantically and PJ and Belinda lined up across from us. Drink orders were taken, I ordered ‘beer’ again, which delighted the ladies, confused Nathan and frustrated the young waiter. He started rattling off a litany of beer names, mostly Anheuser Busch products which I am no longer obligated to order*. Then he hit on Blue Moon, the one I’d tried to order at Taytro’s a few weeks back. I ordered up the 24 oz. version so I would have enough for the entire meal. This will later be referred to as ‘Mistake #1’. The beer arrived and the waiter offered me a giant wedge of an orange impaled on a toothpick-sized plastic sword. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with it so I waved it around at everyone until Angel finally took it from me and laid it well out of my reach. “It was for your beer.” She said.
“That can’t be right, the lady at Taytro’s said Blue Moon is best with lime, not oranges. I’m confused.” I answered.
“Maybe it’s good with either.”
“If I wanted fruit juice, I would have ordered fruit juice, I ordered beer because I wanted beer, if it’s missing a critical ingredient I’m not sure if I want it.” That settled that. Angel, obviously embarrassed in defeat, stopped paying attention to me.
The beer was quite good by itself, a citrus infusion would have ruined it.
The Food:
I couldn’t really decide what I wanted. I’d had steak the last time we went to an Applebee’s, so I needed to change it up. Knowing about Applebee’s large portions, I’d fasted most of the day and was pretty hungry. (This empty-stomach issue combined with the ‘244 oz. beer’ to exacerbate mistake #1.)
What I finally decided on was this:
Slow Simmered Beef Sandwich:
Taste the tenderness of beef that has been slow simmered for hours and piled high on a buttery bun from Applebee's collection of bakery breads.
I stopped reading the description at this point, which we will refer to as ‘Mistake #2’
The waiter asked me what side I’d like, I of course responded ‘sauerkraut’ which had everyone at the table looking at me like I was an idiot, until Angel explained the hilarity to the ladies. To his credit, the waiter said that he might be able to find some, I let him off easy though by asking for fries instead.
We also ordered appetizers, Angel and I shared the spinach-avocado dip. PJ and Belinda shared an appetizer sampler, Nathan also asked for the big sampler for himself. The plan among PJ, Belinda and Nathan was to have big appetizers then a salad for the main course. I wish I’d done that.
Jim and Debbie had arrived and ordered, something. My notes are not very clear on their meal partially because of ‘Mistake #1’ and the fact that they were Nathan’s target of conversation the whole evening, which for practical reasons I stood back from. I should point out, with all due respect, that Nathan is quite the garrulous (chatty) individual. Sweet, polite, upbeat and good hearted to a fault, but boy he can talk.
 Note to new readers: Angel and I are chronic introverts, we seldom make actual eye contact with other people and left to our own devices don’t communicate socially much at all. Therefore anyone that speaks more than four or five sentences in an hour can seem a bit intimidating to us. Our double-DNA-dosed son details his entire three-year college experience so far as ‘Fine’, whereas similar-aged Nathan spent forty five minutes, non-stop, talking about his new phone.
It wasn’t long before the dog-people started passing their phones around, showing off the latest cute dog photos, followed by the requisite ‘ooh’s’ and  ‘aww’s’ , enough to make the table sound more like a baby shower than a simple meal among non-pregnant people. **
The wait for the appetizers was long, too long. Most of the table had finished round one of drinks before we saw the waiter again. Which leads to ‘Gripe #1’. The place was not all that busy considering the large staff on hand. Appetizers should be a no-brainer, quick. We waited a half hour, perhaps more for ours to finally arrive. Sure, Belinda, a so-called vegetarian, asked for hers to be devoid of bacon bits and other meat items normal people call ’food’  so that might have added to the wait, but still, appetizers should be quick.
I told Belinda that comedian Mike Birbiglia had a good joke about this: “What do native Americans call a vegetarian? A bad hunter.”
The appetizer trays were enormous. The four trays took up most of the table space, rather awkwardly. Ours was laden with several hundred (slight exaggeration) nacho chips and about a cup of dip. Though the dip was quite good, by the bottom of the bowl the vast majority of the chips remained. The dip/chip ratio was way off.
As for Mistake #1, the unreasonable delay before the appetizers arrived meant we sat and chatted and drank. About half my large beer was gone and on my empty stomach and admittedly lousy metabolism, I was already quite woozy. My notes after this point are meaningless jottings and nearly indecipherable. I do recall that at some point PJ and Belinda were quite taken with my charm and wit. They each threw their wadded-up straw wrappers at my head. Though I can’t recall exactly what profound and inspiring comment of mine it was in response to, I naturally assumed they were flirting. This happens a lot, Angel’s used to it. Whenever I point out that ladies are flirting with me she just laughs it off. That’s why I love her, she’s so tolerant and understanding.

It wasn’t long before the entrees arrived, too soon after the appetizers really. My sandwich was thick, the beef piled high. There weren’t too many fries and they were rather unremarkable looking. Angel had ordered the steak and shrimp, slathered in cheese.  My sandwich proved to be a disappointment before the first bit. The beef drippings, or the sauce had saturated the bun-bottom. It had the icky texture of, well, wet bread. I had to turn the thing over to keep it from disintegrating completely.
The first few bites of the sandwich were fine, but after a bit I felt something was just not right. A few more bites and my mouth and upper chest started burning, the sensation built up rather quickly. I had to stop less than a third of the way through. It was then I recalled something the waiter had tried to describe when I ordered it. What I saw on the menu you’ll recall was “Slow Simmered Beef Sandwich.
Taste the tenderness of beef that has been slow simmered for hours and piled high on a buttery bun from Applebee's collection of bakery breads. . .”
However there was more information after that mouth-watering headline that I had not seen: “Layered with jalapeno coleslaw, crispy onion strings and our sweet and hot signature sauce” (emphasis mine)
That was buried somewhere down at the bottom of the description. The waiter had said something about the sauce when I ordered it, I thought he was offering me a side dipping sauce, I didn’t recall the details, Angel did, albeit only later.
What he was actually telling me was that “some people consider the sauce it comes with as too hot, would you rather have honey barbecue sauce instead” Which I would have agreed to had I heard/understood him correctly in the first place. I can’t blame the waiter, I lay the entire blame the authors of the menu (gripe #2). If something is THAT spicy by default, then you really, really should make that part of the name of the thing! When I read ‘slow-simmered beef sandwich’ I assume that the emphasis is the subtle tenderness of the meat itself, not a four alarm house sauce mentioned only in small print, after the part about the buttery bun, three lines into the &@?#!! description!
I gave Applebee’s a pretty scathing review a year ago, and I must say I wasn’t overly impressed this time either. The waiter disappeared too often and for too long, plates and trays were oversized and unwieldy, the appetizer took forever and the food was not really all that great. I can’t ignore the poor naming of the sandwich, in fact I’ll probably whine about it again and again sometime soon. In fact, on Sunday when Angel went to get groceries she asked me if there was something different/specific I’d like, I told her I’d like a roast so I could have a proper sandwich to make up for the lava-laced one Applebee’s had duped me into ordering. Take sides if you wish, blame me for not being more attentive if you think that mitigates Applebee’s heinous crime, but then at least join me in the rebuke that this food was only ‘okay’ or ‘fine’, nowhere near great. It was also overpriced. Our two meals, one small steak, one sandwich and a simple dip appetizer, plus one beer and a glass of tea, came to nearly forty-five dollars.
I can’t say I’ve tried everything they have to offer, they might make excellent burgers, I don’t know. Maybe not all their steaks are too salty (previous review) and maybe the service is more attentive at different times and different locations. I can only say this, if you want a decent roast beef sandwich and attentive service, there are many cheaper, better places to get one, like Arby’s or Lion’s Choice, or at home.
As for the entire experience, we had a blast, PJ, Belinda, Nathan, Jim and Debbie are great, fun, dog people and they can make even lackluster food and service not matter nearly so much.
So PJ, you did okay picking a place, but only okay. At least we didn’t contract food poisoning. I’m pretty sure you can do better next time if you just apply yourself.

*Anheuser Busch products, obligation to order: For nearly three years I worked for the large beer company. Though the company itself had no such loyalty requirement I also belonged to an independent, adjunct organization ‘The Royal and Ancient Order of Elbow Benders’ that did. Its membership was limited; only AB employees, former employees and contractors need apply. We met twice a year for barbecue and beer. That was it, that was the only thing the group ever did together (that I am allowed to talk about).

** Dog update! Last week I wrote about our foster dog Eva. I’m happy (and sad) to report that she has just this week found a great family of her very own. A real sweetheart, she’ll be missed around our house especially by her BFF Pip, my little female Am-Staff.