Tuesday, May 22, 2012

White Castle

1000 Veterans Blvd 
Festus, MO 63028

The Place:
Just rebuilt and re-opened. We’d notice they demolished the old one, and were somewhat surprised to see a newer, shinier one take its place in such a short time. We went on Saturday, the new one had only been open since Monday. 
White Castle is not a franchise chain. White Castle Inc. owns and manages every location. This means they have no one to blame but themselves. White Castle invented almost everything familiar to burger chains today, the bun, the assembly line, down to the distribution networks and paper hats.
As we arrived, both drive-through lanes were packed. There were also lots of cars in the parking lot.
We’d been there before, several years prior. It may have been the first time I’d been to one. I don’t recall specifics, but I do recall this, I was never tempted to go back. I do vaguely recall some significant tummy distress.
To be fair, I’d had their sliders before, quite a few of them, but they were the frozen ones bought from a grocery store. I liked those.
So the new place was brand new, shiny, clean, at least on the outside.
On the inside I immediately noticed that the floor looked like it hadn’t been swept in a month, bothersome since the place had only been open six days. The tables, all of them, were non-bussed. Condiments and wrappers were left lying on them.
Behind the counter, into the kitchen I was impressed by the size of the staff. There were easily fifteen or more, mostly kids, dressed in blue uniforms working away. None of them had a broom or cleaning cloth in their hands.
The Food:
Famous for their ‘sliders’ White Castle has been making burgers since before prohibition, the early 1920’s. They are the first recognized burger chain in the world. The iconic white porcelain tile ‘castles’ were kept highly polished to assuage the fears of ground beef people of the time had, based largely on the book ‘The Jungle’ by Upton Sinclair. This is the book that blew the doors off of the U.S. meat industry.
Today’s method of cooking is, according to Wikipedia: . . . small, frozen square patties (originally supplied by Swift & Company) which are cooked atop a bed of rehydrated onions laid out on a grill. The heat and steam rises up from the grill, through the onions. In 1951, five holes in the patty were added to facilitate quick and thorough cooking. The very thin patties are not flipped throughout this process.”
The bun sits on top of the patty as it cooks, steaming it.
Don''t quite look like the ones on the menu.
I prefer toasted or grilled buns to steamed, simply because steaming, if done incorrectly can lead to a disgusting pasty texture. More on this later.
We ordered, it’s not hard, they only offer a few options. Beside various configurations of burger, they also offer chicken and fish sliders.
Angel and I chose the #1 combo, four sliders (with cheese if you opt for it) fries and a soda. Adam picked the #6, two chicken ring sliders, fries and a drink. We were offered ‘Cheesecake on a stick’ we accepted, since everything’s better when served on a stick.
It’s only fair that I point out that our expectations were pretty low. None of us had particularly fond recollections of the place. And they did nothing to belie those meager expectations.
Yeah, that soggy.
Sliders are served in pairs, boxes open-end to open end. I had trouble getting the sliders out of the box, they had pasted themselves to the cardboard. And I do mean pasted. The buns were almost completely water logged, soggy, pasty. This was hardly appetizing. The look and texture reminded me of all those cop shows where they pull a body out of some disgusting river and describe the condition of the cadaver as having the consistency of wet bread. I’m not just talking a little damp. I tried to photograph this, I’m not sure the pictures do a disgusting enough job.
Mmmm, looks yummy!

Neither Angel nor I were able to eat all four. As they cooled they just got worse. Not just the sickening texture of the bun though, once you got past that the patties themselves were bland and lifeless. The pickle even seemed limp. An elderly man near us was telling people that he’d heard the things were fried in water a day early then reheated. I could find no reason to dispute this allegation.
Adam didn’t have much good to say about the chicken rings either, describing it as ‘bare’.
The crinkle fries were fine. The cheesecake on a stick was pretty good.
Awful, simply awful. The price was just over twenty bucks, pretty expensive for unadulterated crap.
Cheesecake on a stick.
 Angel said in summation: “If it weren’t for the cheesecake it would be one step below Fazoli’s.” Fazoli’s is, beyond question, the place we have liked the very least in all the places we’ve reviewed, therefore White Castle essentially is tied for last place. She added “Blech!” rather emphatically.
Once we left Adam chimed in: “Ha-ha, very funny, now really, where are we going to eat?”
Here’s the deal, work with me on this. Please, please, disagree with me on this. Tell me that you, or someone you know loves White Castle and be prepared to defend it. Please explain to me the two packed drive-through lanes. Please tell me how this place has managed to stay open for ninety years.

White Castle on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


 (Kentucky Fried Chicken)
12961 State Highway 21
Desoto, Mo.

I don’t know how you celebrate  Mother’s Day in your household, but we keep it simple. I could ignore it altogether, aside from the card and call to my own mother, since Angel is not my mother. She’s got several adult-like kids that call, send cards, so I really don’t feel the need to do anything special for her. Lucky for me she’s not big into silly, saccharine traditions and contrived holidays. I did make her a card this year, yeah, I made her a card, pretending it was from the dogs. The card-stock cover had pictures of our current five dogs and the comic-sans font message: “Happy Mommy's Day!” with paw-print stickers stuck on it. Inside were individual pages, one for each dog, with three pictures each. Paw-prints added there too. The back, also card-stock had cartoon dog stickers, food dishes, bones, etc. with the message “We love you!
Yeah, cheesy, but she liked it, even though she suspected that it was me, rather than the dogs that made the thing. I’m hopelessly romantic that way.Sorry again ladies, I'm spoken for.
When asked earlier in the week if she wanted anything special for the day, she blurted out “KFC!”
So Saturday afternoon, rather than go out and sit down somewhere, we picked up a couple of buckets and some sides. Bonus: Free cake!
The Place:
It’s a KFC, what else do you need to know? If you’ve never seen or been to a KFC, you probably can’t read this either being as must be from Neptune, or maybe Fiji.
Weekly Factoid: There are no KFC’s in Fiji due to the fact that the eleven herbs and spices contain something (yummy goodness?) that Fiji doesn’t allow to be imported, and KFC refuses to alter the recipe to meet their restrictions, thus, no KFC’s in Fiji.
Our nearest bucket-o-poultry outlet is in Desoto.
The Food:
Seriously? I have to lay this out for you?
We grabbed two buckets, one original recipe, the other, extra crispy. Added, two pints each of coleslaw and mashed potatoes and a half-dozen biscuits. Included were two tub-lets of brown gravy and a chocolate chip cake, the cake is part of some promotion.
I know that sounds like a lot of food, it is certainly more than our small (in number) family can finish in one sitting. But then again, that’s the point. We learned a long time ago that a couple of buckets and a couple of sides can easily get us through a weekend or holiday. Holidays and weekends without cooking, genius!  The last time we did this was New Year’s. Of course, by the end of the KFC fest, we’re pretty much burnt out on it for a few months. My last meal this weekend was one cold breast, torn up and thrown on top of a nice healthy salad.
I love KFC’s biscuits, plain, with a little margarine. They reheat nicely in about 30 seconds wrapped in a paper towel. The chicken, my choice is original recipe, I tend to like it tepid. Just warm enough to not be cold.
The mashed potatoes, I’m not a huge fan of. They seem boxed and starchy. The brown gravy is good, though not all that much better than canned.
It is Angel’s opinion, and I’m pretty much with her on this, that the coleslaw is the gold standard for which all other coleslaw's are compared. She’s been trying off and on for over a year to try to come up with a home-made version.
She also seems to prefer the extra-crispy version of the chicken, though this time she complained that it is actually only crispy when it is very fresh. The extra crispy is double floured, and the steam in the bucket quickly moistens the flour and makes it a little doughy. It tastes very good though.
KFC is not the healthiest choice for chicken, But who cares?  Like I said, it’s a once every few months thing in our household. It’s pretty cheap considering it spans several meals, it refrigerates nicely, reheats nicely. It’s a great quick snack too, just grab a cold piece right out of the fridge and wolf it down.
What else can I say about KFC? It’s simply good, it is from Kentucky after all.

KFC on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Lam’s Garden

510 Bailey Road
Crystal City, Mo
Lam's on Facebook

It was hot, humid, too soon for this heat. Late afternoon clouds were gathering for another evening of spring storms.
The Place:
It was Adam’s choice, he did some research, found this place online and was pleased with the reviews.  We wondered why we’d not heard about it or even seen it before, though when we got there it made sense. It’s not exactly visible from either of the streets it is closest to. It sits behind the Dairy Queen fronted by what I would call an industrial road.
A stand-alone building, postwar, but not by much, signage was simple, and mosaics were hand-painted on the exterior walls. Parking was ample on the side and in front. There were several cars there already, apparently a popular place.
The place was big on the inside, lots of tables, lots of booths. It was very clean and brightly lit. At the counter was the expected kitschy Chinese statues, carvings, etc. A large shiny-gold laughing Buddha  welcomed us with open arms. The ceilings were decorated with various chandeliers, ceiling fans and at least one large red paper lantern.
The walls were painted a deep yellow, one wall sported a wall-length mirror. Bad idea, I can assure you people in Chinese restaurants generally don’t want to look at themselves while they are there, this mirror needs to go.
 The tables and booths were mostly black, the table tops bore a laminated mountain waterfall scene. The floors were light brown ceramic tiles, also clean.
My one problem with Lam’s, it’s not a buffet. At a buffet I can get a little bit of a lot of things. In a sit-down/takeout place, you get a combo. One main protein dish, rice, and a choice of fried wrapped goods (wontons, rangoons, egg rolls). So it’s much easier to blow it in a combo joint than a buffet.
Oddly enough, our all time favorite area buffet was Jade Garden in Crystal City, right next door to Lam's. It burned down in 2009, right before we started reviewing places. Recent research uncovered the fact that the buffet was actually called "Lam's Jade Garden." Yeah, apparently the same people.

The Food:
Part of the attraction of the place was that Angel discovered online that Lam’s boasted cashew chicken made with, among other ingredients, oyster sauce.  This is what is used in Springfield (Mo) style cashew chicken. In essence her decision was made before we even got there, this had to be tried.
I scanned the menu, while doing so Adam declared he was going for the sweet and sour chicken, hardly surprising. Our drinks were delivered, tea, tea and Coke, and the all-American young lady asked if we needed more time. Angel and Adam looked at me disappointed, I said yes. There are forty four combo plates to choose from. I scanned them all and finally decided on an old favorite, with a twist. Chicken pepper steak. It’s like beef pepper steak, except with chicken instead of thinly sliced steak. I wasn’t in a beef mood. It would still allow me to compare it to the pepper steak at other places though.
The girl came back. For the side, I asked for the rangoons, Adam, the wontons, and Angel, an egg roll, all bases covered.  
The food arrived quickly
While we waited I sampled the unremarkable looking tea and withheld, for the time being, remarking as to it’s unremarkable-ness. To continue to fuss about tea in this area is just trite and apparently falling on deaf ears.
One of the proprietors (I assumed) a slight Chinese woman stopped by and asked if we were too hot. In her quaint, broken English she told us: “If you no stick together, it not so bad.” She was very friendly and garrulous, laughing it up with just about every customer that walked in.
Sweet and Sour Chicken
Our food came rather quickly. Bright white plates with red oriental trim. Adam's was easily the prettiest dish, with the plain white rice, yellow pineapple, the red sauce and the brown nuggets of tempura-battered chicken.  Mine had bright green bell peppers, Angel's was all brown. In Springfield, cashew chicken is sprinkled with chopped green onions, probably to make it more visually appealing. Without, it looks kind of muddy.
I bit into one of my steaming, searing hot rangoons, not knowing at the time that it was steaming, searing hot. CAUTION: Contents of rangoons may be steaming , searing hot! I doused it with unremarkable tea. Crab rangoon is not an authentic Chinese food. The fact that it is filled with cream cheese gives that away. Authentic Chinese food rarely uses cheese. It is thought to be an American invention, much the way spaghetti is a Chinese creation. In other words, who cares where it originated? The rice was pretty good, not as good as my own, but better than many places. I could tell by the overall brown appearance that they were a bit heavy handed with the soy sauce. Usually that's not a problem, as long as there is balance on the plate. (Soy sauce is Chinese, having been invented and documented eight hundred years before Jesus was born, although there is no credible record of Jesus ever having tried it.)
Chicken Pepper Steak
Balance was a problem on my plate. The chicken steak was coated with a brown savory sauce. The thick chunks of onion and peppers cut the soy-based savory-ness with a little sweet, but not by much.  Between the rice and the chicken there was a lot of savory saltiness. Once the rangoons cooled to less than five hundred degrees, this helped balance it as well. However as the rangoons and peppers disappeared the remaining rice was a little much. I was also a little disappointed to see they'd added tomatoes to the stir-fried onion/peppers/chicken. I've mentioned before that tomatoes are a new world offering and rarely if ever used in anything like Chinese cuisine. Okay, okay, I'm a hypocrite, I earlier said that origin doesn't matter, but with this I'm a purist. Tomatoes don't belong in Chinese food, but primarily because they turn to mush when stir-fried.  It's enough for me that Mexican and Italian are saturated with tomatoes, and I like them there, just not in a stir-fry.
For these reasons, I didn't quite finish  my meal.
This was not an issue for Adam and Angel. The Cashew Chicken sauce, which indeed revealed hints of oyster sauce (but maybe not quite enough) was creamy, more like southern-style gravy. It was, as Angel put it, 'about as close to Springfield-style as any we've had anywhere else.' Not quite there, but close. Her egg rolls were "nothing special" which she qualified as being a compliment. It was a simple egg roll, no frills, no fancy ingredient, just a simple, good egg roll.
Cashew Chicken
Adam's wontons disappointed him. They had stuff other than meat in them. He doesn't like a lot of stuff. To Adam, and perhaps I've spoiled him by doing the same at home, a wonton should be a small chunk of meat wrapped, then fried. Other things like peppers, onions, etc. need not apply. Other than that though he was quite pleased. He was able to easily pick around the few annoying vegetables on his plate and enjoy the chicken. He made note of the fact that although Lam's, like everyone else in the area insisted on tempura-battering the chicken for the sweet and sour dish, that the breading was not as thick as most places.
I don't get this, as I have labored about before. Very lightly flour-breaded chunks of chicken can handle a wide variety of sauces. There's simply no need to coat the small nuggets of meat with what is essentially pancake batter. It's not a corn dog, it's chicken.
(In Canada, a corn dog is often referred to as a 'pogo stick', which just goes to highlight the sheer stupidity of Canadian culture.)
Donuts, Fortune Cookies, the tab.
About halfway through the meal, mama-san* brought a small platter containing three fortune cookies, two Chinese donuts (no holes) and the bill. I was the last one still eating, as I had spent time documenting the evening's meal. Adam cracked open his cookie and marveled at the numbers on the back of the fortune. Everyone says these are 'lucky numbers' to be used for lottery picks, but I know better. They are actually an elaborate code used to deliver messages to sleeper spies, not unlike numbers stations. To a non-spy, they are meaningless and harmless, to a super-spy, they are crucial. That's how brilliant the code system is.
Though not as awesome as most Springfield-area Chinese offerings, Lam's was as close as we've found anywhere. I'd personally prefer a buffet, small amounts of lots of things, but there's a fairly decent buffet down the road a bit. Where Lam's is going to shine for us is for takeout. Now that we know of a decent takeout place, Angel can further avoid actually cooking occasionally and grab some decent meals. I told her that I'd want General Tso's or Sesame chicken instead of pepper-steak, so as to break up the 100% savory (soy-sauced) problem.
The price was very reasonable, VERY reasonable. Twenty one dollars and change. I'll say it again, twenty one dollars and change. So a takeout could include extra rangoons or egg rolls without significantly denting the bank account.
The staff was very good, and mama-san was very friendly. As we were settling up she looked at Adam, then at me, then at Adam again. "You look so much alike!" she gasped. This insulted both Adam and me equally. I'm sure she was trying to be nice, so I responded rudely. "Are you saying we all look alike?" Which is, of course a thinly veiled racist comment. She didn't quite get it, but laughed anyhow.
The popularity of this place has, in my less-than-humble opinion, a great deal to do with her charm, humor and superior customer skills. She impressed us with knowing many customers by name, hugging a few of them. What her part is in the whole spying operation though, I'm not exactly sure.


Though I'm mixing cultures a little here, not unlike the food offerings, mama-san being mostly a Japanese/south east Asia term, I mean it with all due respect, as a woman in a position of authority. Mama-san's were highly regarded in Japan and Korea as being wise and in-charge, whether it referred to the lady in charge at a store, a bar or restaurant or even the lady cleaning the restrooms while they were in use.  It's a cultural thing, in Japan a guy could be just standing there doing his business and mama-san would just keep on sweeping or mopping around him. You got used to it after a while.

Lam's Garden Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Five Guys Burgers and Fries

2255 Michigan Ave.
Arnold, MO

This is one of those places that I’d heard of, but never actually tried. Part of the reason is that there are no convenient locations where I live or work. Long-time fans will recall our lousy luck with dining out in Arnold on a Saturday evening. Many of the places we’d targeted there were overflowing, requiring a backup plan.
Fortunately Five Guys was not too crowded. It was busy, nearly full as a matter of fact, but there was still room and no waiting the counter.
The Place:
Near the Game Stop on Michigan Ave. I say that as an inside joke. It may not be funny to you, but trust me, Adam and Angel are ROFL’ing right now. Anyway, it’s actually pretty close to the Super Wal-Mart and a lot of other big shopping venues, Game Stop included.
As I said it was busy but not overflowing. It was also bright inside, very bright, in stark contrast to the dreariness outside. It had rained some earlier and the worst was yet to come.
We entered and sauntered up to the counter. I’d been working on my sauntering so as to break away from my usual style of walking, which is more like promenading, moseying or
sidling. It’s a good look for me, much better than skulking.
  The motif was red and white checkerboard tiles, bright, shiny, operating room clean and sparkly. Blonde wood tables and chairs, along with the chain’s signature bags of potatoes piled up in the middle of the dining area. On the wall beside the counter was a marker board indicating that this day’s potatoes were from Silver K Farms in Rigby, Idaho.
It didn’t take long to decide what to order, primarily since the menu is what is known in the trade as ‘limited’. You want burgers, fries, maybe a hot dog? You’re in the right place. Salad? Chicken? Fish? Onion rings? Sorry, not here. They do offer a ‘veggie sandwich’ and a cheese veggie sandwich, and even grilled cheese, but I’m pretty sure no one, absolutely no one, has ever ordered those.
The Food:
One of the Guy’s claims is that they have no freezers, only coolers. Nothing, according to the claim is ever frozen. The fries are made on the spot from actual potatoes, fried in peanut oil. The burgers are made from fresh, non-frozen ground beef.
The menu offers four different burgers. Hamburger, cheeseburger, bacon burger and bacon cheeseburger. Each ‘regular’ burger has two good-sized patties. For the more delicate customer, they offer the same four burgers in single-patty versions known as ‘little’ burgers.
There are two kinds of fries, Five-Guys-Style and ‘Cajun’.
There’s a mile long list of toppings/condiments, that means there are, according to the web site, 250,000 burger combinations possible. I kept my order basic and simple, bacon cheeseburger with mustard, ketchup, grilled onions, lettuce, tomato and pickles.
Angel , being more delicate, ordered the little burger with the usual stuff, adding mayonnaise for reasons that defy logic. Adam went for a full-size beast as well, topped only with stuff he likes which means no tomato or onions. We each tacked on fries, and a drink. We were handed cups and pointed toward the dispensers.
Angel handed the clerk her debit card as is the norm. What wasn’t normal was that it was rejected. Angel was miffed. I handed over mine in case it was just a fouled magnetic strip on hers, nope, rejected. This concerned her/us since she’d just recently had a problem with her business ATM card. It got hijacked and she’d had to work with the bank to cancel it and issue a new card, as well as sort out valid vs. invalid purchases. She was worried that the same fiends how now snatched our personal account. In the mean time she handed over a credit card which went through immediately.
The clerk informed us that our order was number fifty seven and would be called out shortly.
We filled our drinks and found a table. The tea was bland, thin, weak. I’m sure the sodas were just fine.
As we sat, Angel pulled out her smart-ass phone and started tapping and twisting it. In a couple of minutes she pronounced “Oh!” followed by "Oops!”. I assumed that her game was acting up, but no. She was banking.
It turns out that during the mess with the business card, she’d been ‘borrowing’, using the personal card, to make her dog-business related purchases and had neglected to transfer funds back once the account was up and running again. Then an amazing thing happened. Sitting there in this burger joint on a rainy Saturday evening, using just her fingertips and her smart-ass phone, she straightened the problem out, transferring funds from the business account back to the personal account, in minutes, maybe only seconds. We marveled at that, harking back of course to the good ol’ days where such a transaction would require a weekday visit to the bank, standing in line, and at least one long teller interaction. Ah, yes, the good ol’ days.
The problem was resolved even before our number came up. I used my dumb-ass phone to take a picture of my cup of tea. That’s pretty much the full extent of its super-powers. In the meantime, 70’s power ballads rocked us from overhead.
It wasn't really long at all before our number was called. I filled up a tub of ketchup for my fries, and had noticed that Five Guys offered free in-shell roasted peanuts in case you needed a snack before your burger arrived; I didn’t, but appreciated the courtesy.
Our order filled two bags. The foil-wrapped burgers were tagged with numbers indicating the order within the order. Mine was labeled #2 which was good, it meant that Adam and I didn’t need to eviscerate the sandwiches to tell one from another. The fries came in paper cups, overflowing into the bags. We set it all out and dug in.

The regular burgers were quite fat. I could barely wrap my dainty mouth around it. Angel’s seemed more practical. The fries were not chip-crispy, like Adam likes them, but they were definitely fresh and tasty. The meat was real meat, not some filler-filled/vacuum-molded substitute. Moist, tender, the condiments perfectly proportioned, the cheese, rich and gooey. I barely finished mine, I’ll probably order a ‘little’ one in the future.
Everyone finished and all agreed that these were quite good. Compared to Steak and Shake, a perennial family favorite, we cast our votes for Five Guys. The burgers were bigger, messier, fresher and the fries were thicker.
Though pricier than Steak and Shake, thirty-five dollars to be exact, some of that was the fact that we ordered the ‘regular’ rather than the more size-comparable ‘little’ burgers. So we fed three for about ten dollars apiece. The quality though was a standout. Fresh, noticeably fresh, and you could order it with as many or few toppings/condiments as one could imagine. The staff was cheerful, one could say playful, as exemplified by one clerk yelling “No pictures!, no pictures!” as I took photos of the food.
The place sparkled as I said, though I would have been a little happier had the tables been wiped down between customers. They may have done so after we left, but I didn’t see it happening while we were there.
Overall we were quite pleased, impressed even. We’ll be back, that’s for sure, but the lack of convenient locations will likely keep us from visiting very often. A great burger, pretty good price, and bright, casual and friendly atmosphere.

Five Guys Burgers and Fries (Arnold) on Urbanspoon