Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Jack in the Box

899 Veterans Blvd 
Festus, MO 

First, a fond farewell to one of my favorite lunch joints. Last week all four Casa Gallardo Restaurants in St. Louis shut their doors, citing a soft market. The location at Westport was, for nearly two years, pretty much a weekly habit for myself and a couple of co-workers. The service was excellent, they recognized us on site, didn’t even bother with menus, etc. They kept us fed and happy. That trio broke up several months ago, one of the three of us left for greener pastures. I only went back a couple more times after that, but they still remembered my order.
CG had been in business since 1975, so it was rather a shock to see them all shuttered just as the economy is reportedly rebounding.
I reviewed one of the other locations once, I didn’t care for it as much as Westport, but it still wasn’t too bad, and it did seem quite popular.
For this weekend’s meal, I’d announced earlier in the week that I was in the mood for a decent burger. Adam suggested Jack in the Box, as he and his lovely mother had been there recently, without me. Angel said she really, really enjoyed the cheeseburger she’d had there. So when Saturday evening arrived, I easily agreed to the choice. I hadn’t had a fast food burger in quite a while, I was eager. I’d only been to JiB twice before, and except for some minor complaints, enjoyed it.

The Place:
Above the Interstate in Festus, alongside nearly a dozen other dining choices, some good, some not so much. Fazoli’s Burger King, Bob Evans, Taco Bell, etc. We pulled in and went right in, we were the only customers at the time.
JiB is a little less plastic than other fast food places, in appearances a bit more upscale. Nicer tables, more refined d├ęcor. The sun was low in the sky, shining brightly on the table tops, which did the place no favors. I cringed a little noticing that nearly every table had a generous dusting of crumbs and other detritus. The angle of the light highlighted this sharply. As well, the floor was not quite debris free.
We ordered and loaded up on napkins, ketchup, etc., and found a tall table in the back.

The Food:
Bacon Ultimate Burger
I ordered the Bacon Ultimate Cheeseburger, with seasoned curly fries and upped it to ‘medium’ Adam aped my order. Angel went back to the one she’d had previously, the Ultimate Cheeseburger, sans bacon.  She also requested straight fries, unseasoned. Adam filled up his cup with Dr. Pepper, Angel, her beloved Diet Dr. Pepper. I looked around and saw no tea. I asked about this at the counter, they took my cup and asked whether I wanted sweet or un-sweet. Of course I said un-sweet. “Lemon?” the lady then asked. “Why yes, please!” I answered. She disappeared around the corner for a moment. Upon her return she handed it to me and asked: “Would you like some sweetener packets with that?” I responded no, but thanks anyhow. She was obviously concerned about my sweetness intake.
Or, she was trying to kill me.
I sat down with my family and took a long swig and gagged. The tea was ridiculously sweet. I don’t mind sweet tea, I am from the south, but when you’re not expecting a nine to one sugar to tea ratio, it can be quite a shock.
I took it back to the counter where the lady confessed to attempted murder. (actually she apologized and said "My Fault.") Her manager was a little displeased but very apologetic as well, saying he’d added TWO lemon wedges to the replacement. I thanked him for his generosity and made sure to not make a big fuss.
On my return to the table I boasted of my kindness and patience over the issue, downplaying the hideous incident.  I sipped the tea and was quite pleased, it was not at all terrible.
We sat and waited a few more minutes playing with our cell phones. I’d just picked up a new one, the previous one, a hand-me-down, had finally died completely. I’d even switched service plans. I refused to agree to the two-year contract renewal and jacked up fees and service requirements that took a ‘free phone’ to over a hundred dollars once all the requirements for a ‘free upgrade’ could be met. We’ve been with this service provider for seven or eight years and we've decided to wean ourselves off of it. Especially with mine. I don’t use the cell phone very often, so it just made more sense to go with a pay-as-you-go, no contract option. I’ll rant more on this mess elsewhere.
The food arrived, I was hungry.
Double Cheeseburger with Taco
I pulled open the bun and found two small slices of bacon, just enough, and the burgers were topped with ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise. The meat patties were not greasy, in all a pretty decent looking sandwich.  JiB Advertizes 100% beef in its burgers, which is good. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to compare that to though, maybe the other chains add pigeon innards or cat meat to theirs, I can only assume as much. If I were guessing though I’d say that JiB uses a slightly higher lean/fat ratio than some of the others. These were not drippy or greasy, nor did it weigh me down with that bloated, gassy feeling afterward. (Knock-knock Burger King!)
The fries were a little disappointing. They tasted fine to me, though Angel doesn’t ask for the curly seasoned ones. She says they are too ‘seasony’. I’m pretty sure that’s not even a word. The problem I had with them was not the taters themselves, or the seasoning, but rather the extra small bits and chunks of fried matter, perhaps balls of seasoning.  Back in the olden times Long John Silver used to include crunchies with the fish. The crunchies were merely bits of loose fish batter that they scooped out of the deep fryer. I loved those things. The crunchies being served with the curly fries at JiB though were not as inviting, they perhaps spent more than one fry cycle in the oil.
But that’s the  sum total of the complaints, mostly minor ones at that.

 JiB is fast becoming my favorite fast food burger joint. I’ve lost my love for Burger King and their recent tweaking of the food. JiB’s is just good, pretty darn good. I like that the burgers are less fatty, well-constructed and not too much or too little of anything.
The price is comparable to the other chains, our meal came in at around twenty three dollars. On a local level, I was disappointed that the tables hadn’t been wiped recently, especially since there were no other customers when we were there. There was plenty of staff and not much else going on. On review of my previous reviews, I discovered that the litter and un-wiped tables is a repeat offense. This might be a problem. I'll think I'll send a comment to the manager.
 Angel agreed: "Do send a review to them about the tables. It's something I've noticed too."

!!!  Last minute update!! I did send a comment, and someone from JiB's Imperial HQ called me today, while I was driving . I let it go to voicemail since the choice between driving while distracted or chatting to a customer relations agent about slightly untidy fast-food franchises seemed obvious, their call was just not that important to me. I did call them back once I got home. They seemed genuinely concerned and assured me that since I had seen and documented the same infraction, months apart, they were taking it seriously and would be contacting the location. "To confirm that location, Mr. Bentley, That was in Fetus, Missouri?"
I snickered, she immediately caught the gaffe. "We pronounce it Festus here ma'am, that first 's' is kind of important."  I tried to sound righteously agitated.
I could almost hear her blush.
She then offered me an actual written apology and a gift certificate/coupon, which I politely declined. (Professional ethics; I has it!)
"Well, thank you for bringing this up to us Mr. Bentley." She said just before hanging up.

"It's just one of the many services I provide ma'am."

Jack in the Box on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Canton Inn

205 W Sunshine St
Springfield, Mo.

I don’t often offer a review of a restaurant that I’ve not recently been to, but this place merits a distinct exception. First some background for those of you NOT from/in/around Springfield Mo.
I lived in Springfield from 1985 through 2001. Most of my adult life in fact, for nearly as long as I lived in my original home town in Kentucky. So perhaps I’m a bit biased. Springfield, if not uniquely famous for anything else, is at least very well known for Chinese restaurants. Don’t believe me? Well, the New York Times does.
There are lots of Chinese joints in the Queen City of the Ozarks, noticeably so. Even non-Chinese places serve Springfield style cashew chicken there.
Many of the places come and go, change locations, ownership and names. Several have been around for a long time. Some are great, some are merely so-so. At any rate, Springfield has more Chinese restaurants, per capita, than any other city in the U.S.
I’m not a huge fan of Cashew Chicken itself, though I’ve had a lot of it. I prefer sweet and sour. But that’s not the point.
According to Angel, Canton Inn, near the corner of Sunshine and South Campbell, has the best eggrolls in the city, which equates to the best anywhere in the world. I can’t disagree. It’s also pretty cheap as you can see here.
So when she announced that her and Adam were heading down to see the new grandbaby, of course I asked for take-out. We do this whenever anyone heads down that way.
Sure enough when she got home she was packing a grocery-sized bag full of wontons, eggrolls and crab Rangoons.
The Chinese places in Jefferson and south St. Louis county areas don’t often offer wontons, and none of them make a great eggroll. Canton Inn’s offerings are not only very good, they travel well. She’d also brought a sweet and sour chicken meal in a box. I had that for dinner on Sunday, but wasn’t too impressed. The sauce had congealed and even the microwave would not cure that. The rice was, well, rice.
On Monday I decided to go nuts. I took the remaining wontons, rangoons and eggroll, laid them out on a cookie sheet, and stuck them into the oven, which was set to about 225 degrees. I then thawed and chopped up some chicken breasts and thighs. I also started the rice cooker.
I make rice and chicken a lot. Much tougher and messier is the other stuff, the deep-fried sides.
I breaded the chicken chunks in my usual blend of flour, corn meal, garlic powder and pepper. I filled the big skillet with a little oil, about an eighth of an inch or so, and set the thermometer in it to keep a consistent temperature range. The chunks are small so they have to be watched very closely. Over-cooking or too-high temperature will ruin them.  I made two skillets full, some I flash-glazed in bottled sweet and sour sauce, the rest I left plain. These bowls were also set into the oven. Angel has her own Springfield style cashew sauce recipe and would make some once everything else was done.
I filled up one bowl of plain rice for Adam and set it in the oven as well.
To finish up the rest of the rice I added chopped bell peppers, onions, celery, slivers of carrot, a chopped fried egg and some shreds of leftover turkey (dark meat preferred). Stir that together with a couple dashes of soy sauce and you end up with a pretty decent pile of un-fried rice.
I also steamed up some frozen pot stickers. Angel likes them, I think they’re okay. I can make a decent gyoza (pot-sticker favored in Japan) myself, but it takes a lot of time and is also pretty messy.
By the time all this was done, the eggroll, wontons and rangoons were hot and ready to serve.  Dinner time.
The wontons were crispy and filled with just a little meat, the rangoons, also still crispy were packed with what appeared to be actual crab  meat and a dollop of sweet cream cheese. With the Canton Inn sides the whole meal was dreamy.
As I said before, there are a lot of Chinese dining choices in Springfield. Some big and fancy sit-down and tablecloth places, many are small, hole-in-the-wall affairs. Canton Inn is small, old, and hardly sparkly. There is inside dining, less than ten tables, so it’s cramped, and it’s always busy. The service is fast, the staff is always bustling, and there are typically lines waiting at the counter for take-out. It’s not the biggest, the shiniest, nor is it necessarily the best. It’s not even a buffet, but it is certainly very good and very much representative of Springfield-style Chinese. The sides travel very well and are always top-notch.
Springfield Missouri gave us a Wild Bill Hickok shootout, Bob Barker, Brad Pitt, Bass Pro Shops, Route 66, The Ozark Jubilee, and many other reasonably memorable and significant other things. It is home to the largest public school district in the state and to Missouri State University.
Without a doubt though, the most important item to ever emerge from my first adopted home town is the Chinese style food. In my reasoned, expert opinion, it is better than anywhere else I’ve been, including San Francisco, Japan and Korea, and most definitely markedly better than any you’ll find in Maryland, D.C., Florida, Texas, Illinois and Kentucky. (other places I’ve lived).
If you ever go through there, or know someone that will be heading that way, I strongly advise you to try it out, and Canton Inn is as good a place to start as any.

Canton Inn on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Cinco de Mayo

4587 Hunter Lane
Byrnes Mill, MO

We went to this place a while back, nearly two years ago. It was good then, but two years is a long time in restaurant years. We’d probably go there more often except for the fact that it is on Highway 30, which is inconvenient. Highway 30 runs pretty much parallel with 21 and has more traffic lights. It turns into Gravois Road in St. Louis County. So there’s really no really good reason for us to use 30, unless we’re specifically looking for something on that road.
The Place:
We got to the restaurant, a free-standing building, and were immediately put on our guard. A banner was hanging from the front announcing “Under New Ownership”. This could be bad, it could be good.
It didn’t really look any different, though it had been two years and minor changes might have simply been unnoticed. We were seated and handed menus and asked about drinks.
The drinks, tea, Diet Pepsi and Pepsi along with the chips, warm, thin and crispy arrived shortly after that while we were still perusing. Along with the chips came a beaker of salsa and a salsa dipping bowl. Fierce crunching ensued. The salsa was medium spicy and pretty tasty.
The inside of the restaurant was adorned with typical Mexican restaurant stuff, sombreros on the walls, colorful wooden and plastic parrots swung from the ceiling, and Corona signage throughout. One wall was painted to appear to be a window looking out onto a beach, sand, waves, and parrots on branches.
It was busy, about half full, there was a large group with kids celebrating something, and behind us and to one side sat middle aged folks, mostly women having a little food and a lot of drink. The volume was especially high at one of the tables, liquored up laughter thundered throughout, too often to be sober.
There was music in the background, not quite what I expected, it was adult contemporary, REO Speedwagon’s “Keep on Loving You”, and Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” stood out, yet clashed with the parrots and sombreros. There we a couple of TV’s mounted and muted, all playing the Lifetime Channel, which is about the worst channel on TV. A movie with Kathy Bates, whom I like, and Jennifer Aniston, who I do not. Kevin Kostner popped up as well, I can go either way with him. Tattooed to the screen was a note declaring “Love! Love Marathon!”  Which, if I was forced to watch it, would have motivated me to run away at least 26 miles and 385 yards in the other direction.
The Food:
There was plenty to choose from, quesadillas, enchiladas, burritos, etc. There were three or four things that I would have been happy with. I settled, on a whim, on the Mexicali Cheese Steak. Angel picked the Enchilada Missouri, which for reasons I can’t quite grasp, was filled with shrimp. I’m pretty sure theses weren’t Missouri shrimp, I don’t even think the Show Me State has indigenous shrimp.
Adam opted more traditionally, a combo of a beef taco and a chicken burrito. We munched on our chips for a while, the second basket had arrived. We didn’t have long to wait. The plates steamed and sizzled.
Mexicali Cheese Steak
Mine was chunks of beef, mushrooms, onions and bell pepper chunks on a soft tortilla, covered in white cheese. Also on the plate were rice and about a half cup of sour cream. The rice was not the rich red, tomato-y style we expected. This rice was more brownish and contained green peas and corn kernels. Interesting. The taste was a little on the bland side. Not bad, it just didn’t stand out.
Taco-Burrito combo
The beef was moist and tender, the peppers and mushrooms were excellent. The first few bites were rich, the sweet cheese was almost, but not quite, too sweet. Had the portions been larger the cheese would have been eventually overpowering.
Angel picked through her enchiladas, savoring the spicy grilled shrimp, even offering me a taste. I liked it. She made the same observation about the rice and mentioned the really rich cheese.
Enchiladas Missouri
Adam’s more traditional dishes fared well, though he insisted that it just wasn’t as good as Los Portales. “Fine, just not the same.”
Angel asked about the tea. She recalled that on our previous trip that it was awful, flowery. We’d mentioned it at the time and the waiter told us that it was not made in-house, but was delivered by a service. I sipped it, the stuff under new ownership was okay. It tasted like everyone else’s tea, not bad, but pretty much tasteless.
Not bad, not bad at all. Certainly better than some of the Mexican joints we’ve tried. I agree with Adam that Los Portales is just a bit better. The price was as good, thirty one bucks, we didn’t even need a coupon. The new ownership issue didn’t seem to cause any problems, the staff was plentiful and efficient, the food good and the place was clean. If I had any suggestions it would be about the rice. It may have been someone’s favorite recipe, but it just wasn’t tasty enough.
And then there’s the cheese. I think they might use Provel, that St. Louis area favorite. I’ve riled up a few fans out there by saying this, but Provel is just too sweet for me. The taste builds up and becomes the only note in the orchestra after a while.
So there, I’ve said it again.
Otherwise, the place is pretty decent.

El Cinco de Mayo on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Ruby Tuesday

1120 Shapiro Dr.
Festus, MO

This option pretty much chose itself. We’d been to Ruby’s a couple of times during the quest, but it had been awhile. It probably wouldn’t have been the choice had it not been for an email I received from the chain. “25% off your entire food purchase.” It said. That’s hard to pass up. I gave Ruby’s my (alternate) email address a few years back. I feel no conflict about this I’m not asking for any advantage at any restaurant that isn’t also offered to the public at large. Some places send out deals like this from time to time. I don’t always accept the offer, but it’s available to everyone.
The Place:
Above I-55, just below Lowes and the Waffle House. It had changed on the inside. Gone were all the sports-related knick-knacks, sleds, jerseys, oars, hockey sticks. The walls were painted a muted neutral color and a few, and only a few generic art prints were scattered about. The Large TV’s were limited to the area around the bar and muted. The background music was soft, and forgettable. The place was still dark, even with the large shaded lamps hanging from the ceiling. So dark that I immediately realized that any attempt at photographing the food with my flimsy phone would prove to be a disappointment. I could take my good camera, but in this place that would still require me to use a flash, and I don’t imagine those around me would appreciate that.
The wait staff was still ninja-like, black pants and shirts, though a couple of the young ladies had hems of bright red peeking out from beneath their overshirts. Our hostess reminded me a great deal of the Actress Stana Katic, who plays Kate Beckett on the TV series “Castle”. She  had those same slightly exotic Balkan features that are not Hollywood-template-pretty, more eastern-European pretty. (Katic’s parents, Serbian father and Croat mother immigrated to Canada and later Illinois, from Yugoslavia.) I do not know if our hostess was of similar lineage, I thought it would be rude to ask. I did note that the hostess carried more meat on her bones than Katic does. The actress can’t weigh more than seventy five pounds dripping wet and if you ask me is way TOO skinny, unattractively so.
We were seated in a distant booth pretty quickly though the place was filling up fast. Among the patrons were a dozen or so young ladies in prom-style dresses. Evening or party dresses I guess, I was not aware of a homecoming or prom in the area, though there was obviously something like that going on. I watched as small clutches of them would venture to the restroom together. Why girls want company in restrooms is of course, a complete mystery to me. When I go to a restroom I really am not about to do anything I wish to share with even my closest friends.
We read through our menus though I’d previewed it online earlier and was all but decided. We asked for drinks, tea, sweet tea and Coke.
The Food:
Ruby’s best feature is its salad bar. I’ve spoken of this before and it bears repeating. It is far and above the best salad bar I’ve come across anywhere. Well stocked, well managed, diverse and fresh. I knew this going in and planned accordingly. It’s very easy to overdo the salad and not have room for a big steak and potato meal. So I ordered from the salad/meal combination section. ‘Mini’s and Garden Bar’. Angel ordered form the same section, obviously aping my cleverness. Her choice was the Lobster Mac and Cheese & Garden Bar.  Adam, continuing and completing the aping ordered the Mini’s and Garden Bar as well. We were directed to the salad bar and Angel already had her plate half-filled before the various papers and napkins stopped fluttering in her wake. She loves this salad bar.
Three kinds of lettuce, spinach, peppers, onions mushrooms, cheeses, peas, bacon bits, potato salad, fruit salad, on and on and on. At least ten different dressings, I like to mix them up. A little blue cheese, some Thousand Island, a drizzle of Italian. . .
My little plate was packed, but I was okay with that knowing that the follow up, the little burgers, would still fit into my gullet quite nicely. Returning to the table we sat our plates down and began the pseudo-vegetarian carnage. The drinks had arrived, the tea was actually quite good. Ruby’s is kind of hit and miss on the tea, it was a good night though. And the biscuits. Ruby Tuesday’s luscious cheesy biscuits. Those little delights and a big sloppy salad are enough for a meal in themselves, All-you-can-eat, yummy goodness.
The arrival, a bit premature, of the main courses was almost a non-event. Adam and I were given our small plates with two sliders, a small dose of fries and a small tin bowl of ketchup each. Angel’s mac and cheese was cheesy, steamy, drippy served in a small, half-inch tall rectangular stoneware bowl. Chunks of lobster were prevalent. I almost hated pushing my awesome salad aside, but I was hankering for some meat.
The sliders were about the size and shape of White Castle’s but were a bit meatier and didn’t have whatever WC puts in theirs to make them both insanely addictive and violently diarrhetic at the same time. The tiny burgers were cooked medium well, no small feat as the patties were quite small. There was ketchup and a pickle on the top side, and the bottom of the small bun was coated with mayonnaise. Why mayonnaise? I have no idea. I think it’s a Canadian thing.
“Where do you get such small buns?” Adam asked, staring at his slider.
“Treadmill, lots of time on a treadmill.” I answered, adding: "and better DNA"
Angel oohed and ahhed over her chunky cheesy dish. “Lots of lobster.” She said with strings of melted cheese hanging from her chin.
As we slowed down for the final stretch the topic of haircuts came up, as I was going to get one the next day.
“I just grab a pair of scissors and head to the bathroom and start chopping off the parts I don’t like.” She boasted.
“I have to have mine done by professionals to maintain a professional appearance.”
“Are you saying I don’t look professional?” She accused.
“You’re a dog trainer, the frontier look works just fine for your profession.”
Oddly enough Angel took exception to this innocent and flattering comment. I spent the next few minutes trying to get her to understand that it was a compliment. She remained stubbornly unconvinced. I tried to steer the conversation to neutral ground by bringing up the Super Bowl. This didn’t work well since none of us are the least bit interested in football, we couldn’t even agree on who would be playing in it. Finally we started discussing evening entertainment and decided to stop at Blockbuster after our meal. Bullet dodged.
All good. Ruby’s has disappointed us before, and yet they have been quite exceptional at many other times. This was a good night indeed. The coup de gras of course was that not only did we have a 25% off coupon, we, for once, actually remembered to bring it with us. Thus this great and satisfying meal only cost us about thirty five dollars. Sure we didn’t have big steaks or appetizers, but the meal was excellent.  The portions were intelligently chosen to accentuate the place’s strong suit, the salad bar. The main courses were small yet satisfying. Adam even mentioned that the fries were among his favorite. Angel’s dish over time seemed very rich, but since the portion was small, it was great. I found no fault in the food or the service and the price? Wow!
Highly recommended, but read the menu ahead of time and for the love of all that may or may not be holy or even just coincidental, get a coupon!

Ruby Tuesday on Urbanspoon