Tuesday, July 31, 2012


10857 Business 21
Hillsboro, Mo.
The Place:
Munzert’s faces the afternoon sun. The door handle was hot to the touch, enough so that I almost let go of it rather than holding it open for my slow moving family. I suffered through it though.
The parking lot was only sparsely populated and as we entered I saw only one other couple in the dining area. To the left was the bar, a few people sitting quietly. Overhead a flat screen was showing an Olympic soccer match. I don’t know if you know about this sport, I thought it was a kids game, or rather an excuse to take your kid somewhere and let him run up and down a field until he tires out so you can then go home and take a quiet nap. Apparently though, some adults play the game as well, mostly overseas. I’m not sure why, the game is as about as interesting as watching kids run up and down a field to tire them out.
The sun would have been baking the interior of the joint had they not had dark Venetian mini-blinds closed tightly above the tables. So even though the sun was bright and hot, the interior of the place was quite dark.
We were seated at one of the windows in a booth. The hostess was sweet and polite, a waitress handed us menus.
I didn’t take long. I’d built up an appetite earlier in the day during a failed quest to find a simple, yet non-existent plumbing fixture, followed by an afternoon of defending an on-line political statement I’d made in frustration.
Angel had a full house of dogs, including three Great Danes and an adorable and lovable new client, Maya, a brindle Bull Terrier. Not a pit bull, Bull Terriers have an egg-shaped head and small triangular eyes. A Pit Bull, with its wide, square head is closer to a Staffordshire Terrier.
Overhead music played, 60’s stuff, Beatles, Motown, etc. I’m not a huge fan of 60’s music, though it is much more tolerable than country or anything contemporary currently playing on radio stations anywhere.
The selection process was quick and by the time the waitress served our drinks, tea, tea and Coke, we were ready to order. I jumped in first.
The Food:
A ten ounce New York strip and German fries for me. As for salad I picked the dinner version, with Thousand Island dressing.
Dinner salad
Angel, was hovering somewhere between a steak and the fried chicken, finally landing on the chicken. She opted for the Caesar salad, mashed potatoes and gravy. She said she’d prefer the German fries, but they didn’t come with gravy.
Adam picked the peppercorn strip steak, mashed potatoes and the Caesar salad.
As we waited for the salads we each played with our phones. Angel and Adam debated the strategies of a connect-the-dot game they’d been playing, I was just trying to get my phone to turn on.
The tea was cloudy and not exactly fresh, but it was wet and cold. The salads arrived in about the right amount of time.
Steak, German fries.
The salads looked fresh and bright, though mine was a bit skimpy on the tomato front. Two small tomato chunks, that’s all. Other than that it was quite good.
A few minutes, but only a few, passed between the salads and the main course. They did not deliver one course on top of the other as did Cracker Barrel a couple of weeks back. Bobby’s been in the restaurant business for several decades and knows better than to rush customers through.
The potatoes were served in small bowls on the larger plates. My steak, sizzling, with deep, dark grill marks was starting to let loose of it’s inner moisture, I didn’t want to waste that luscious stuff so I dumped my bowl of potatoes onto the plate.
German Fries are large chunks of skillet-fried potatoes with lots of onions. I’ve never had them anywhere else, but I absolutely love them. Even with soaking up the steak drippings they did not get mushy.
Chicken, mashed potatoes.
My knife glided trough the grilled pink meat just like a knife is supposed to. Take note Cracker Barrel, steak knives should be able to slice things, like, say for example, a steak. The first bites were heavenly, I had several before I even noticed the rolls.
Long, firm bread, still warm. The butter was in individually foil-wrapped tabs, frozen.
I don’t like frozen butter, warm rolls are never warm enough to melt an iceberg. Fix that will ya’ Bobby?
The family dived in to their meals. Angels’ first three pieces of chicken were quickly converted into a growing pile of bones, Adam’s steak disappeared rather quickly as well. Primal, grunting, animal noises and knives scrapping plates were the only sounds from our table for several minutes.
Peppercorn Steak
Angel stopped before the fourth and final piece of chicken, she surrendered. I  looked at my steak, three quarters gone and decided to stop as well. I had an idea for breakfast, thin slicing the remaining steak along with some fried chopped potatoes and scrambled eggs.
Adam all but finished his, saving the last few bites for the box.
We were stuffed, and we all laughed when the waitress offered us cheesecake or carrot cake.
In the few times we’ve been to Munzert’s we’ve learned this much. Bobby makes an excellent steak as well as some fine fried chicken. We were not disappointed this time either. Except for the cloudy tea, and the too-few tomatoes and the frozen butter, that’s really all the criticism we could muster.
“Yum, good as always!” Angel noted
“Good, I knew it would be, I’ve had it before.” Adam added.
And there you have it, about as good a review as it gets. No surprises, no mysteries, just a fine, well-prepared and satisfying meal.
At just over fifty dollars, this is certainly not the cheapest meal in Hillsboro, but it may be the best.

Bobby Munzert's on Urbanspoon

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Go Gyro Go (Food Truck)

I can’t say I’ve ever actually had a gyro. Not that I have anything against them, I just don’t recall ever having one.  
Growing up in the lovely, rural, slightly inbred backwaters of western Kentucky, there weren’t a lot of Greek people, and few if any of their traditions or inventions, like gyros, urns, or western civilization. Unlike Greece though, western Kentucky has evolved a little since the Bronze Age, adopting certain modern innovations like electricity and regular bathing.
Somewhere along the way, in ancient times, the Greeks invented the gyro, a type of bread-wrapped working man’s meal containing meat, produce, cheese and yogurt.
In some places in the U.S. these things are very popular. In other places they are heavily Americanized. In a few other places, like my first hometown, Cadiz Ky., they exist only in a slightly modified form, eschewing the lamb and goat products in favor of bovine byproducts, and replacing the arrogant, snooty, yogurt based sauce with a more basic tomato-pepper sauce. Instead of feta, real American pasteurized, processed cheese product is used, as God intended. Oh yeah, it’s not even called a gyro in Cadiz, it’s called a ‘taco’.
The Truck:
Go Gyro Go is owned by Nick and Linda Cowlin. Nick’s grandparents are Greek, they hail from the small island of Zakynthos (pronounced Zxzkntthhss). Linda is described on their web page as “first generation Greek-American” and is by far the prettier of the two, Greek or not.
The truck, outfitted by Nick himself, has been on the road since mid-2011.
It showed up at my workplace right on time, with a three person crew. I immediately recognized Linda from the website; I didn’t really pay much attention to the two dudes. I’m sure they were quite handsome and worked pretty hard.
Linda manned the window, taking orders and sweating a lot, though not the least bit offensively. This heat wave must be brutal on food truck workers, crammed in a hot, oven’ed and grilled motor coach in near triple digit temperatures. Seeing the crew sweat like that made me glad I went to college and established a cushy indoor career.
The paint job on the truck was blue on white, like the Greek flag. The lettering was faux-Greek, using a heavily angular script just like that used on every fraternity house across the U.S.
The aroma rising from the truck was inviting. Inside, the spiced meat was being freshly grilled. On the window counter sat a jug of fresh lemonade and a jar of pickled peppers.
The line was quite long when I got there, twelve or more people lined up. None of my immediate co-workers though. Rumor had it that someone among them had discovered a lunch-provided meeting of some kind and most of the folks in my village of cubicles hunted it down. Business meetings are usually terribly tedious, bordering on mental menstruation, brain cells actually dying and sloughing off. Add a free lunch to a meeting though and all bets are off. I was busy though, I needed to get back to my cube to move some more big, ugly upgrade files around from server to server. (not as easy as it sounds)
The Food:
I was curious to hear how everyone would pronounce the word ‘gyro’, I’ve heard it several ways. Hi-ro, gy-ro, guy-ro,  even he-ro. I listened closely to those in front of me and ended up ordering it like they did “A classic, please.”
The classic gyro was billed as: “A blend of beef, lamb and spices, served in warm, grilled pita bread with fresh tomato, red onion, feta cheese, parsley and tzatziki sauce.”
The classic cost $7.50 and came with regular, generic potato chips. I didn’t add a drink, though the lemonade looked pretty tempting. It only took about five minutes from order to delivery. The truck had a second window for pick-ups, a good idea, it kept Linda free to take more orders without having to share a cramped window.
They wrapped the gyro in a foil diaper and put that into a Styrofoam box. I marched right back up to the cube, without delay.
I picked at the dangling meat, thinly sliced and a little dry looking. It wasn’t dry to the taste though. The spice mix they used made it taste a little like jerky, though much more tender. The veggies were fresh, especially the tomatoes. It’s been a lousy garden year here and good looking tomatoes like these have been rare.
The pita wrapper was thicker than a soft taco, and very soft and pliable. The most prominent aspect of the wrap however, was the sauce.
Tzatzki looks like sour cream, but it isn’t. Traditionally tzatzki (pronounced ‘Tzzttzzkky’) is made from strained yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, olive oil and dill. It is nearly always served cold, like sour cream.
The taste is also kind of like sour cream but with a not-unpleasant added tartness. Atop all that was a sprinkling of feta cheese, which in taste is a little like mild blue cheese. Feta is a protected blend in the Euro zone since 2002. According to the Encyclopedia Galactica, or as it is more commonly known, Wikipedia: ". . .only those cheeses produced in a traditional way in some areas of Greece (mainland and the island of Lesbos), and made from sheep milk, or from a mixture of sheep and goats’ milk (up to 30%) of the same area, may bear the name "feta"
And this matters a lot since it afforded me the opportunity to write the word ‘Lesbos’ for the seventh time today.
The meat was very tender, the sauce, not as strong or bitter as I’d imagined it might be. There was certainly a tartness in the sauce and cheese, and a peppery taste from the meat, but not too much of any of it. I wolfed it down messily and even picked at the crumbs in the box. For my taste there was, due to the messiness, not the taste, a little too much sauce. And the sauce was all located at the top so it was a little uneven in the eating. One bite would be all sauce and cheese, the next meat and tomatoes. It was certainly pretty laid out like that, but I think next time I’ll stir it all up before eating it.
Just as I was finishing, some of the folks from the meeting came back, Doug included. He had a Styrofoam box, identical to the one my gyro came in. No one else had such a box.
“I thought you were going to have lunch at the meeting.” I said.
“I did, two rounds.” He answered, settling into his chair.
“So this is your third lunch today?”
“Sort of, it’s my third lunch in the past hour.”
Doug, usually accused as being the fastest eating mammal on the planet, also eats a lot. He’s a big boy and burns lots of calories coming up with really stupid jokes all day. I have to give him credit this time though, he didn’t eat his classic gyro very fast at all.
I have to say I was quite pleased with my gyro. It was spicy, but not too much so, it introduced me to a new cultural experience. I’m not a big fan of living food, like yogurt, but with this meal, I got it. It made sense, tastes and textures blended well, and it was overall, quite pleasing indeed. Doug liked it as well, even as a third lunch. The price was dead-on, maintaining the below-ten-dollar arbitrary bar. There' was a tip jar in the truck's window, it was filling up pretty fast, a sure indicator of appropriately priced meals.
Go Gyro Go’s interpretation of the gyro was quite satisfying. I can’t tell you how it compares universally, since I’m from Kentucky and grew up with only the Mexican version of the wrapped meal, but this thing was for me, really, really good, surprisingly so. They got it all right, Α to Ω.

Go Gyro Go (Food Truck) on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 23, 2012

Texas Taters n’ More

144 7th Street
Hillsboro, MO.

On Wednesday night I attended  my first meeting of  the Campaign Committee for the Hillsboro District Branch of the Jefferson County Library.  I became interested in this effort as a result of a newspaper article in the Leader, the Jefferson County weekly paper that said that the committee had successfully petitioned the County Council to include the initiative on the November ballot.
Okay, enough of the soapbox, (see more about it below) but it is actually integral to this review.
At the meeting, I was quaintly and grass-root-ly putting stickers on piles of pamphlets. The lady next to me, also there for the first time, started chatting with me. Normally I am averse to this sort of social interaction, but she seemed relatively harmless, and I knew I could get up and walk away at any time.
Renee, as I came to know her, while also sticking stickers on piles of pamphlets, told me a little about herself and more later in the formal introductions and mentioned she was going to start book readings for kids at this new Hillsboro restaurant, Texas Taters N’ More. She was offering to accept donations and contribute them to the Library committee.
I was fascinated, beside myself with glee. There was a new restaurant in Hillsboro that I was not aware of. So the hook was in. I knew from that instant that it would be the target of my next review.
The Place:
The place used to be Rich’s Frozen Custard, a joint I reviewed a year or so back. Restaurants are fickle businesses; it’s unfortunate, but not at all unusual to have one open for only a year or so, or less.
The building sports an auto parts store underneath. It’s a bit off the road and the new, modest signage is a little hard to see from Main Street.
Entering the doors I was instantly reminded of my Rich’s experience. A wide room, perhaps fifty feet or more square, and a high open ceiling. The walls were now painted blue which worked well with the bright, white, polished tile floors. On the walls were signs and kitschy objet d’ Texas.
There were several sparsely located tables and booths, the booth tables had been topped with buckaroo and ten gallon hat printed laminated coverings. The cavernous interior echoed, which I had remarked on back in Rich’s time, and can’t quite ignore now. It cuts down on any possibility of intimacy or private conversation, but if you like big, open, family style atmosphere this is just fine. Short of dropping a ceiling and installing partitions and such, I don’t see another remedy for this. This was once a hardware store if I recall correctly.
But that is of only minor concern compared to the service, the food and the overall quality of the experience.
The Food:
The menu on the wall made it clear, if the name of the place didn’t already give it away. They serve baked potatoes. I knew this ahead of time though since I tend to spend tens of minutes, more or less, usually much less, painstakingly researching every place we plan to review.
Adam and I scanned the menu, both pre-planned 'chuckwagon combos' as well as a ‘build your own’ list of toppings. A hand printed fluorescent marker board indicated that the special was  the chicken-fried steak and gravy potato.
I knew that if Angel were with us that this would be her choice.
Did I mention that Angel wasn’t there?
Buckaroo tablecloth
She’d abandoned us on Friday, something about a granddaughter’s birthday party in Springfield or something trivial like that. She was due back Saturday evening, or so she had said. I’m never quite convinced  that when she leaves us all alone like that if she will actually ever return, so I treat every one of her road trips like it’s permanent. I’m sure that’s just the way she’d want it.
So Adam and I, lonely and abandoned, stared almost helplessly at the menu. No guidance or suggestions from Angel, who is usually good for just that sort of thing, if nothing else. But she was gone now, perhaps never to return.
I saw one combo listed that stood out as a potato as I’d make for myself, the 'All American'. Cheddar cheese, sour cream, chives and bacon. Adam succumbed to the temptation of the chicken fried steak and gravy. One of the two attending ladies, the owners as it turned out, greeted us. “The potatoes are over a pound each before we even start, I hope you brought an appetite.”
All American
It made sense, this was a Texas themed joint, and Texas claims to do everything bigger, it’s a Freudian compensation thing I’m pretty sure, so naturally the potatoes would be ridiculously large. I took this into mathematical consideration. When you see a burger billed as a quarter pound or half pound burger, that is pre-cooked weight. As burgers and steaks are cooked the rendering off of the 20% or so of fat content drops that weight a dramatic amount. Not so with a fat-free potato, the post-cooked weight is pretty close to the pre-cooked weight. In other words, a one pound potato, with added toppings is pretty close if not more than a pound of food.
We ordered, adding a take-out potato for Angel, should she defy the odds and expectations and actually return home. Our drinks, tea for me, Coke for Adam and  a Diet Coke for Angel’s, or whomever’s, takeout. The lady attendant, the co-potato-chef, mentioned that the place would also deliver lunch orders.
CF Steak and gravy
Adam and I wandered around the place, we were at  the time the only customers. It was early though, around five p.m. and also this was a brand new place having opened only a week before. Word of mouth had not quite kicked in yet. PLUS the Jefferson County fair was in full swing and the temptations of funnel cake and bizarre and mysterious fried things on a stick probably were sucking away some potential patronage.
We situated ourselves in a booth/table in the middle. It was only a few minutes before the food arrived. Red plastic baskets lined with bright blue and white gingham paper held the massive spuds. The presentation was excellent. Bright crisp green chives, scoops of bright white sour cream and thick brown crispy chunks of bacon, and a generous handful of shredded cheddar. Adam’s gravy-coated tuber held golden chunks of breaded steak popping through. The plating/presentation was above and beyond what I expected.
The drinks were served in Styrofoam cups, the plastic tableware was a little feeble, but adequate. I’m not a big fan of plastic or Styrofoam, but as this is a local startup, I have to give them a little slack. It’s not like I would be dismantling a sirloin.
Adam and I chopped and stirred around the massive tater, mixing the toppings generously. The first bites, as well as the last were warm and greatly satisfying.
Potatoes are not a very fussy food. It’s pretty basic. Cook it right and it’s a hit. The toppings, chosen to personal preference, only need to be fresh and generous. TTn'M got it all right, the texture of the taters was spot on, not dried out, not starchy or under-cooked.
Neither Adam or I were able to finish completely.
“I’m full, but not in a bad way.” He told me. The look on his face told me he'd really enjoyed it. 
I knew what he meant. Calorically speaking a loaded potato might not be any less deadly than a burger, but without the animal fat and the frying oils a baked potato simply doesn’t feel as greasy and sinful as a burger and fries. I too was full, in a good way.
The price was equivalent to a burger joint, three meals and drinks for twenty two dollars and change. The preparation was spot-on, these ladies know how to cook a big spud. The toppings seemed fresh and crisp, the service was beyond personable, and the wait time was minimal. This is a fresh new start-up in our little town, so it needs support to help it thrive. I encourage all those in the area, including folks that might only be passing through on the way back to St. Louis from Old Mines** looking for new places to check out, to give this new place a shot. They do a good job and provide a refreshing  alternative to the greasy fast food joints in town. Angel was surprisingly home by the time we got there, much earlier than the 'never' that I'd expected. She'd done it right though, stopping at the Canton Inn in Springfield on the way back. I expect that by the time you read this I will have packed on a couple or twelve extra pounds.

* Hillsboro is the seat of the sixth most populous county in Missouri. The residents of Hillsboro do not have free access to any library in the county, nor is there a library branch in the town. I’ve always thought this was odd, at best, and absurd, to be perfectly honest. So I decided to help out as much as able to get this silly situation rectified. Certainly Hillsboro is not a huge metropolis, but the people there surely deserve the same access to a library as every other place I’ve ever lived in my life.  Though it involves a property tax increase, a very modest one, a public library is among the basic services, like a school, a post office, sidewalks and water treatment plants that every small town usually demands. Even the right-wing utopian model of rural America, Mayberry, had a tax-funded public library.

** Passing through.  This is a cheap, gratuitous reach-out to Alanna Kellogg, the lady behind the St. Louis Food Blog group, a network for those of us who write blogs about food and eating establishments in the St. Louis area. Alanna recently recognized my brilliance and dazzling contributions to the St. Louis gastronomic community and accepted this little blog into the group. There’s a link at the upper right hand corner of this page.

Texas Taters N More on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Cracker Barrel

Cracker Barrel
1193 Scenic Dr  
Herculaneum, MO

It was my week to choose, I procrastinated. Friday night we were watching TV and a commercial for Cracker Barrel came on. Angel let out one of those smoky, soft moans that she lets out when she sees something she likes or wants. I made note of it and on Saturday announced my decision.
It’s not wise to ignore Angel’s smoky moans, they don’t occur very often anymore.

The Place:
Some places ban firearms.
Here, they're considered art.
In Herculaneum, near the interstate. A large free-standing, porched, barn-like building. On the porch are dozens of wood rocking chairs. They are for sitting or for sale. The Barrel sells lots of stuff, in fact to get to the restaurant itself you have to wind through shelves and racks of vintage-brand candy, clothing, toys and kitschy country novelties. The ceiling of the store is heavily laden with stuff you’d expect to find at a yard sale in Mayberry, sturdy old bicycles, wash tubs, lanterns, farm implements. I would not want to be caught in that storefront during a tornado or earthquake, there’s a couple of tons of jagged metal-edged items up there.
Stupid golf tee game
We pushed our way trough the shoppers, gawkers and dawdlers to the hostess counter. A lady holding a tray and wearing black pants and white button down shirt approached and sat her tray down on the podium. “Your hostess will be here in a minute, I don’t know how to do her job.” She said, pulling a paper out from underneath, picking up her tray and wandering off. “Someday you will dreamer, someday!” I called to her, trying to lift her spirits. I don’t think she heard me over the sounds of my ribs cracking beneath Angel’s elbow.
We were seated near the huge, empty fireplace. In the winter they burn logs, lots of logs in that massive hole in the building. Not this summer though, thank goodness.
Menus were slapped down, drink orders taken (tea, tea, Coke) by our cute, short, round-faced young waitress. Not as trim and tanned as the Hooters ladies, but infinitely more approachable. The place was packed, it always is.
The Food:
The large, flimsy and thin brown paper menus were filled with country classics. Choosing was only difficult because almost everything looked good. Angel was in the mood for a simple steak, which sounded good to me as well. So when round-face came back we ordered sirloins, with baked potato and side salad. We were asked about salad dressing, Angel named one, I asked for a recitation of the options. Round-face struggled a little with this, especially when I asked after about the tenth one she could remember, “What was the fifth one?” My ribs cracked again, so I chose Thousand Island.
The lamp, bolted to the table.
Adam opted for the chicken fried chicken, a safe, comfortable choice. We asked for the complimentary bread basket to be split between cornbread and biscuits, we couldn't recall which of the two we preferred.
She skittered away, we settled in for a wait. Adam pulled out the stupid golf-tee-in-a-triangle game. I didn’t bother. I looked up the solution on the interwebs once so it’s no fun anymore. Looking around there was more old junk on the walls. It looked like they’d cleaned out the American Pickers’ store. Oil signs, moose heads, rusty tools, sleds, canoes, washboards, radios, food tins. Mike and Frank would go ape in this place, or at least politely pretend to. Danielle would just roll her eyes, like she always does when the boys find something cool. She’s no one to judge though, being a bawdy burlesque dancer and all. All those tattoos, it’s a crying shame, bad parenting no doubt.
I hear the salad is very good.
The salads showed up pretty quickly. They were gorgeous. Fresh, thinly sliced, skin-on cucumbers, a dozen or more cherry tomatoes, crisp lettuce. I peeled open the long, narrow, condiment-ized salad dressing tube and squeezed it all on. I then stirred it around, cut the cucumber slices in half, took the first two or three bites, all fresh all…
That’s as much as I can say about the salad. At this point things went seriously foul. Three or four bites into the big salad, our steaks arrived. Sizzling, the butter in the potato just starting to melt, there was barely enough room on the small table for the salads, the bread plate and the three main courses. Seriously, things were teetering over the edge of the table.
I was incensed.
I’ve often complained about too much time between courses. The Barrel struck out with the exact opposite problem. Neither of us had even dented our salads and we were now confronted with a dilemma.
Fresh from 'the Barrel?'
Grilled steak has a very short half-life, you can’t just set it aside like a sandwich or pile of green beans while you finish up a salad.  A fresh grilled steak requires immediate and focused attention since they do not get better from sitting long at room temperature.
We could have split the eating three ways, potato, steak, salad, had there been enough room on the table! But here wasn’t. I abandoned my salad, which was very good, after another bite or two. I had to prep the potato and dig in to that thick, rare steak. The salad went to the empty setting across the table, blocked from easy access by the kitschy, bolted down, oil lamp.
The steak was cooked as ordered, barely seasoned at all, which was fine. The potato was plump and steamy, creamy with all that butter and sour cream. Angel tossed me some warm (but only slightly warm) corn bread and a tiny sealed plastic tub of butter. I peeled back the top and dug out a stone-like pebble of hard-frozen butter. No way was the cornbread or the biscuits anywhere near hot enough to melt it. Which turned out to be moot since neither the cornbread or the biscuits were all that good. A little industrial tasting, not home made-like at all. I asked Angel about this. She agreed that the cornbread was dry and unlike more familiar cornbread, devoid of any hint of sweetness. She didn’t try the biscuits.
I tossed most of my cornbread into the abandoned salad bowl across the table. A mostly uneaten, hard, dry biscuit joined it a minute later.
We were about five or six bites into our main courses when the waitress returned and tossed the check onto the table. She asked how everything tasted, which was wise on her part since we weren’t displeased with the tastes. We grunted ‘fine’, ‘okay’, etc. though I was now even more riled up having the feeling, what with the much-too-soon arrival of the check that we were being rushed. She topped off our drinks, which didn’t add to the pleasure at all. She filled my glass by reaching over Angel and all the way across the cluttered table and tilted the pitcher sideways as some waitresses are prone to do. She filled my tumbler, or should I say overfilled it. The term for how full it was is ‘convex meniscus’ where the level of the fluid, due to viscosity/surface tension of the liquid, forms a cone higher than the edge of the container. In other words I couldn’t move the darn thing without spilling it. I found my straw, which I rarely use, and had to siphon-suck a little out to drop the level in the glass low enough to pick up and drink like an adult.  I don’t like using straws since I read somewhere that people, grown ups, who use straws suffer from latent nursing trauma. A Freudian mommy issue, perhaps weaned too early, or much too late. I don’t have any mommy issues, in spite of what several so-called professional counselors and therapists have said. Well, except for my hatred of poetry, which is a completely different issue that I won’t go into at this time. I don’t have mommy issues so I don’t drink through a straw. That’s the point I’m trying to make.
This of course bothered me. I can top off beverages for years in a row and never overfill one. It’s not exactly rocket surgery.
Steak, potato, bludgeoning tool.
Then we get to yet another serious issue. A repeat, the so-called 'knives'.
The Barrel distributes massive, Crocodile Dundee impressing steak knives. Serrated, heavy, large, and as dull as the side of a spoon. The potato was not so much carved or sliced, it was mashed. The steak became ground beef under the ridiculously dull edge of the big, scary-looking utensil. There’s no excuse for this, especially since I recall griping about this before. Thick meat needs a slightly sharp knife, these things were blunt objects. Even the lovely and sweet Angel griped about this.
Long-time fans will recall that Adam usually doesn’t say a whole lot about these meals. He’s not a big talker. But he said this about the Barrel. “They blew everything but the food.”
I agree. The steak was fine, even after being crushed by the bludgeoning tool I was given to dissect it. The potato was great, the salad was fresh, generous and crispy. The price wasn’t even that bad, all told, the prematurely dropped off bill came to just over forty dollars.
But everything else, the frozen butter, the knives, the unmistakable sense of being rushed, the overzealous refilling of the drinks, it was not a pleasant experience at all. Which is a terrible shame.
There is simply no excuse for rushing a customer by delivering the main course a mere two minutes after the salads, especially on a crowded table. Simply inexcusable.
As we left we stopped in the store area and paid too much for some vintage candies. Chick-O-Sticks for me, flat taffy for Angel, and a giant sucker for Adam. I had trouble enjoying the shopping, I was still miffed at the lousy service.
I do not blame the waitress, except maybe for the tea, the other stuff must be conscious management decisions. I hope they reconsider these choices.
There are several other country style dining places in the area, some, like ‘Off the Hook' in  Desoto are downright excellent. Unless Cracker Barrel gets its act together I just can’t see bothering with them much in the future.


Cracker Barrel Old Country Store on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 15, 2012


11835 Lackland Rd.
St. Louis (Maryland Heights) Mo.

This was a last minute get-together. Alex, the intern, polled the group and Keith, Doug and I agreed to tag along with him to this bastion of  almost pathetic male chauvinism. I’d been to a Hooters before, the one in downtown St. Louis. I’ve never been to the one in Springfield, Mo, the place where my lovely and precious daughter used to work.
Yeah, I’m so proud.
Actually I am. She knew what it was about, she knew exactly why she was there and why the customers were drawn to the place. She was more than adequately qualified, and she racked up huge, some would say enormous, tips.
That's tips, people, TIPS!
Let’s be realistic, let’s be honest. Patrons are not drawn to this place because of the fine cuisine.*

The Place:
Located at an intersection near my office complex, it is built large and rather rustic. Inside it is dark, but not too dark. Small spotlights line the exposed heavy wood rafters.
The whole place, ceiling to wall to floor all the way to include the booths and tables are heavy wood.. Along with the small spotlights are strings of faux Christmas lights, reminiscent of the big bulbed strings that were common back in the sixties, the ones that burned down a lot of houses. These were actually bigger, more plastic looking, probably not even dangerous.
We were seated at a high table in the back next to a shaded window. Alex and I were in the lead, Doug and Keith lagged a little. Alex and I sat against the window looking out onto the floor. I took this position for the same reason I always do, to get a full view of the goings-on for this report. Just ask my family, I always choose a seat with a view.
This arrangement meant that Keith and Doug’s view was of the shaded window, and if they squinted between the mesh, they could almost see out to the parking lot.
There were a dozen or so flat TV’s mounted and muted around the place, sports, since Hooters claims to be a sports bar. Nobody was watching them.
Scanning around I made an observation. The place, almost completely packed, was filled almost exclusively by men, middle aged men at that. There were a few women customers, though all of them with larger groups of men. I struggled to maintain my shock at this.
There were a few kids too, mostly accompanied by fatherly types. I found this interesting if not a little creepy. There’s lots of eateries around that are dying to fatten up our kids that use toys and cartoons to draw them in. I’m not exactly sure what the kid-draw was here.
We where handed menus and asked about drinks. Alex and I ordered tea, unsweetened, Doug ordered a soda, I don’t recall what Keith ordered.
Our waitress, whose name I will not mention, was wearing the same outfit as all the other waitresses, tight black micro-shorts and an equally taut black titular (bearing the title of the establishment) tank top. Hers didn’t fit too well, there were tanned and perky curvy parts leaking out from all the edges of the garments. I tried not to stare, but couldn’t actually come up with a rational reason not to.
I glanced over the menu as well, typical sports bar fare. Burgers, wings, sandwiches. No BLT though.
The Food:
I decided to order the same thing I used to order at the downtown location, the fish and chips. I wasn’t in the mood for a heavy, very heavy half-pound burger, I had work to do later and needed to stay non-comatose.
The waitress brought our drinks and placed them incorrectly around the table. We had to swap them with each other to get it right.This didn't seem to concern her much, she might just be new at this gig. She was, coincidentally, quite young and attractive, reminding me a bit of Debi Mazar (Space Truckers, Entourage) long, straight raven hair, bright blue/green eyes, lip and eye accentuating makeup. She didn’t chat a lot, but she did seem attentive to our orders. Doug chose the spicy chicken strips, Keith, a smothered chicken sandwich, and young Alex opted for the buffalo chicken sandwich. He also ordered a side of curly fries.
The sandwiches were priced at seven to ten dollars, and did not come with fries, they came with either baked beans or slaw. Alex’s fries order added nearly three dollars to his tab.
While we waited, Alex and I scanned the floor, there were a dozen or more of the youthful, curvy ladies in the too-taut uniforms bustling about.
Alex talked more than the rest of us, he’s better at it than we are. He’s young and doesn’t really have that many more stories to share, he just has more willingness to share them. He spoke a bit about his brother/uncle/cousin, I don’t recall which, as I wasn’t paying as close attention as I appeared to be, a terribly bad habit of mine. Anyway this relative of his works in refineries around the world, tough, manly, dangerous work. Recently he was in Zanzibar. “It’s and Island off Tanzania I think.” He said. Keith shrugged his shoulders, either he didn’t know if it was or not or he wasn’t paying that much attention either.
“Zanzibar?” I inserted. “That’s where Freddie Mercury was born!”
“Really?” Keith asked.
“Who?” naively added Alex.”
“Lead singer for ‘Queen’”  Keith informed him. Alex didn’t really respond.
It would be rude of me to have all this vital and important knowledge bottled up in my brain and not share it with others from time to time. It’s really not very often that the opportunity arises on some of this stuff I carry around.
The food arrived, except for Alex’s, we politely waited until his finally came. This was okay since I could hear the sizzle of my fish and feel the intense heat of the dish rising off of it. The thing about breaded fried fish is that it’s like the Hot-Pocket of seafood. It holds that heat for quite a while. A smart person such as myself will crack open a couple of filets and let them cool a bit before committing one's tender, sensitive but ruggedly handsome mouth to them.
I had to peel open the container of tarter sauce anyhow.
His sandwich finally arrived, and a few seconds later Doug’s paltry and otherwise barren plateful of spicy wings disappeared. I didn’t even see him pick one up, I did hear a sort of liquidy buzzing noise though, like a hundred thousand beetles dismantling a field mouse. Doug eats fast, I think I’ve mentioned that before.
I was immediately unimpressed. The curly fries, the ‘chips’ on my plate were not at all crisp, and seasoned only with salt. The four fish filets, though still moist on the inside, were a bit greasy. The slaw was completely bland, no color, no zing, just cabbage with a little generic mayo.
I was unimpressed, but not disappointed. I’ll explain later.
The waitress stopped by once or twice. “How does everything look?” She asked. I’m sure she was talking about the food, not her cleavage, but the honest answering of that question was a bit awkward. At least it was for the other guys, I was on the job, a true professional, undistracted by the, by the, umm… where was I?
This might surprise you but the food, by consensus was overall, unremarkable and in some cases disappointing. Nobody in the group said anything close to “This is the best darned thing I’ve ever eaten!”
Mostly it was a tentative “Good” from Alex, who later added that he’d been gypped on the sauce, not nearly the vampire-killing garlic coating that had been advertised.
“Not as good as expected” and “Not as good as Train Wreck.” Keith piped in. I knew what he meant. Train Wreck is a place about five minutes away in Westport Plaza that makes a hell of a good burger, for about the same inflated price.
Doug’s “It was okay, not too dry, but I’ll wait for about a half hour to see how it settles to be sure.” Doug not only eats fast, he also likes to talk about his digestive system. It’s kind of charming.
I said earlier that I wasn’t impressed, but I also wasn’t disappointed. This is simply a result of my low expectations for the food at this place. I’ve never found anything at Hooters worth getting worked up about, at least on the plates. It’s too pricy, my modest meal put me out nearly fifteen bucks, the other guys' maybe a little less since Doug and Keith opted out of ordering the fries that Hooters is unjustifiably so proud of.
None of the food was awful, I’ve had awful meals before. But the food here is just not really all that good. As I said, just across Page Avenue from this place is the Train Wreck, using the same ingredients, for the same price range, and their sandwiches are quite memorable. Hooters just doesn’t seem to even try. Of  course, as even as my son Adam knew and pointed out, “Nobody goes to Hooters for the food.”


* The ladies here are all adults, they choose to work there, they all get it. I refuse to believe that there is any actual manipulation of them going on. If anything, those being 'used' are the men, the customers. Pandering to the lowest, most basic, almost reptilian brain function of a male creature to yank money out of his pocket is a proven and successful business model. To deny the attraction of a red blooded male towards a youthful, healthy, nicely proportioned woman is to ignorantly deny reality and millions of years of evolution. (or thousands of years of divine creation, I'll not bait that particular discussion here)
I like looking at pretty women just like I looking at expensive, flashy sports and luxury cars. Because I admire the art, the craftsmanship, the care, the beauty and the sleek lines in no way means I want to be responsible for one. They're finicky, expensive, break down at the drop of a hat, cost a fortune to keep in shape, and complain, complain, complain. . .   Young women are nice to look at, but they are also filled with a mountain of volatile and emotional 'challenges'.  
The guys I was with on this trip, except maybe for Alex, are mature and responsible husbands and fathers. I've seen them smile with pride and joy when they talk to or about their wives and kids. Sure they, like me, will take notice, admire the curves and lines, crack wise perhaps, but it is beyond my comprehension that they would ever take it any further than that. These guys don't want any part of the high priced and constant maintenance involved, they are quite content, happy in fact, with the aging, faded, rust-cratered, frequently-overheating yet comfortable and practical mini vans they have at home.
Hold it, we are still talking about cars right? 

Hooters on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Gravois Bluffs
Fenton, Mo.

This was supposed to be a review/revisit of the Olive Garden. We went straight there, found a full parking lot and a line forming outside. We took a step into the entrance, looked at the packed crowd there, and Angel and I agreed immediately to abandon the effort.
Lucky for us there are nearly a dozen eateries in sight of this OG. It was simply too steamy hot to wait twenty to thirty minutes for Olive Garden. That’s like standing in line for a ten percent-off coupon for a can of generic peaches; it’s just not worth it. My previous reviews for the OG have been tepid at best. There's several places worth waiting for, Olive Garden simply isn't among them.
The problem with IHOP is that it extremely hard to review.  A good review includes criticism, friction, or simply lousy food or service. I’ve been to a few IHOP’s in my years, and I’ve never really found any of that.
The Place:
What can I tell you, it's an IHOP. You see them everywhere. Bigger than Waffle Houses but containing that same dreamy bacon-y, syrup-y, coffee aroma.
We were shown to our booth and waited on by a young lady that I have determined to be perhaps the best waitress in the world, ever. Youthful, upbeat, smart, dutiful, funny, Jessica. She handed us a pile of glossy, colorful menus. She took our drink orders, tea, sweet tea, and for Adam, an iced mocha. I didn't even know he liked mocha.
The Food:
If I have one complaint about IHOP, it’s the menu. They're pretty and spill-proof, but it contains too much. We sent poor Jessica away three times, replying to her that yes indeed, we still needed a few more minutes to choose.
Appetizer Sampler
She took it in stride, even refilling Adam’s mocha once before we’d made up our minds. There was too much to choose from and it all looked very good. Deciding on one thing meant forgoing the rest. The upside being that we’d more than likely not be disappointed.
I decided on a breakfast plate, coincidentally called a ‘Split Decision Combo’. Two eggs, two slices of bacon, two sausage links, two pancakes and two slices of French toast.
Angel ordered the bacon-wrapped sirloin steak and eggs,
Adam picked the hash brown-battered chicken with biscuits and two eggs.
Angel ordered the appetizer sampler, onion rings, chicken strips and mozzarella sticks.
Split Decision
I also asked for a pot of coffee. The tea was completely tasteless and breakfast was coming soon.
Jessica was quick with the thermos and a cup, happily reporting that our appetizer was on the way.
Quickly enough, it was. Knowing I had a pretty full meal ahead of me I just had an onion ring or two. Adam scooped up a stringy cheese stick, pulling the gooey cheese to arm’s length.
Bacon Wrapped Sirloin
The coffee was fresh and good, not too weak. Within a few more minutes our plates arrived.
About the food, I can only say this. It was near perfect. Properly prepared, as ordered, not too much or too little of anything.
Hash brown crusted chicken
That’s the benefit of IHOP’s menu, there’s nothing bold or complicated. No fussy sauces or fickle proteins or produce. These are basic, simple dishes, no grand recipes. About the only spices in their rack are salt and pepper. It’s not hard to make a nice breakfast plate, you only need to learn how to do it right, then repeat. Overcook the bacon or an egg? It’s instantly recognizable and easily corrected.The french toast was a bit on the sweet side having been dusted with powdered sugar, but that's just a preference some people have. I prefer mine un-sweetened, no syrup, the same as my pancakes. IHOP lives up to their name when it comes to pancakes, light, fluffy, perfectly browned.
The only less than positive comment was from Angel, the bacon had completely infused the small, slightly overcooked  sirloins with bacon flavor, and after a bit that was a little strong.
That’s it, the only negative comment.
The bill came to a reasonable $43 and change, I tipped as much as I could with the cash in my pocket. Jessica was a pleasure as a server, friendly, bright, funny, patient and courteous. The place was clean, roomy, and comfortable. The food was, for the most part, exactly what we expected, wanted, and we left fully satisfied, with a takeout box of mozzarella sticks and chicken fingers.
Going that extra mile. Thanks Jessica!

IHOP on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Lorenzo’s Italian Kitchen

106 Main Street
DeSoto, Mo

On Facebook

It was hot, very hot. We were in day twenty or ninety of a triple-digit heat wave. Weekend meant summer hibernation. The dogs could only be out for a few minutes at a time, allowing for napping in between. Normally this type of weather is not conducive to craving a heavy Italian meal, but there was this relatively new place in DeSoto that we’d been promising to try.
The Place.
Main street. DeSoto has a very nice Main street, it fronts the railroad tracks. DeSoto is historically and still today, a railroad town. The buildings along main are the old, quaint, small-town America style, two story brick. There’s still a movie theater there and a couple of nice places to eat. There’s also several flea markets. I’ve spent a few Saturday mornings checking them out.
Lorenzo’s is the place behind the Red, White and Green banners and signs. If you miss it, you’re an idiot.
It’s not big, but it does have a sizable outdoor patio where they occasionally have live music. When we got there the temperature  was still over a hundred degrees and the concrete patio didn’t look very inviting. It wasn’t just us, a whole lot of people weren’t sitting out there. In fact, no one was.
Inside there were eight or so booths and maybe that many tables. The small place was already busy. We were seated at a booth. Across from us was a table full of amply-sized locals sipping wine. Lorenzo’s has a pretty adequate wine list, nothing egregiously priced. They also offered a good selection of beer, none of which I was in the mood for. The heat makes me grouchy, makes me want to punch someone out. Not a good idea to fuel that simmering viciousness with booze, things could easily get out of hand.
The booths, tables and chairs were new, vinyl, black. The walls were wainscaoted with darkly painted paneling and topped to the ceiling in dark terra-cotta orange in the dining area and mustard-yellow on the back wall above the kitchen and counter. The carpet was dark and industrial. The darkness made it feel cooler than it probably was, the air conditioner was apparently struggling to cool the place down. The ceiling fans helped a little too.
Overhead the cheap speakers were pushing out vintage Italian-ish music, only one song I recognized “Mambo Italiano”. I believe it was the original Rosemary Clooney version, even though she was not the least bit Italian, (English/Irish/German). The music was a bit loud for my tastes, but maybe that’s just me. 

The Food:
We’d asked for drinks, tea, sweet tea and Coke, and handed our menus. They were simple and straight-forward, appetizers, salads, pastas, sandwiches and pizzas. Not too many of any of them. The prices were all very reasonable. We immediately noticed that nine-inch pizzas were only $6.25 which included a choice of sauce, cheese and up to six toppings! A nine inch pizza meant that we could each have our very own.
I looked over the pasta choices and was tempted by the cannelloni, not so much by the lasagna, but in the end decided that pizza would weigh me down less than pasta. The family shared the sentiment. We each had our own preferences though.
Me: From  the gourmet section, the Sicilian. “Traditional pizza sauce topped with Mozzarella cheese, housemade Italian sausage, pepperoni, Capicolla ham, fresh basil.”
Angel and Adam picked their own toppings.
Angel: Garlic butter sauce, St. Louis style cheese (provel), spinach, artichoke, green olives, chicken, bacon and mushrooms.
Adam: Traditional sauce, mozzarella cheese, black olives, bacon, sausage, pepperoni and Canadian bacon.
We also opted for an appetizer, the St. Louis area’s ubiquitous toasted ravioli.
As we waited my attention turned to the table next to ours, the wine-lovers. The two corpulent couples were now popping the corks on their third and fourth bottles. Their conversation tended to be about wine and wine places, occasionally drifting to odd vodka-mixes and the embarrassing things that occur when too many of them are consumed.  There were other customers at other tables, mostly more reserved than this group. As time passed, and since the meals are all made to order, time did pass, the wine-rs got a bit louder and their laughter more frequent. Not that they were any funnier than earlier. When they finally did order food it was as if they’d been asked to decipher an enemy code, their menus must have been more complicated than ours. And order food they did. Salads, garlic bread and pasta dishes. And of course, more wine.
I’m not judging, they seemed to be nice people, no foul language or threats of violence, just robust laughter and spirited jolliness.
We introverts just see this sort of overt, rambunctious behavior as strange and at the same time fascinating.
The ravioli arrived with a thick, almost chunky dipping sauce. There were nine raviolis, Adam did the complex math, and we each ate three. The first one was hot, tongue-singing hot. Angel double-dipped hers, I scolded her and showed her how to avoid needing to do that. I took mine and dipped straight down then turned it ninety degrees and dipped it again. This evenly coated three quarters of it and left a dry area to hold it. I know, genius.
The ravioli was better than some places. The meat was house-made sausage, spicy but in a good way. The sauce was rich, seasoned, not just canned tomato sauce and basil. They house-make their own sauces as well. There is a difference.
Once the appetizer was gone it was still about fifteen more minutes before the pizzas arrived. Which was about fifteen more minutes than we needed to talk to each other about our weeks, our lives, or anything else. Maybe if we’d had wine we would have thought more mundane stuff was interesting enough to talk about. It seemed to work at the other table.
The pizzas finally came and were well worth the wait. Nine inches seemed to be a perfect size.

Once it cooled a bit I took it on. The house-made sauce and sausage on that fresh crust was good, very good. Though it looked rustic, like a home-made pizza, the tastes were much richer and deeper. The care taken to use fresh ingredients rather than canned or even bulk made all the difference in the world.
Angel's looked and tasted completely different. The butter sauce was completely unlike mine. Once again rich and deep in flavor, the sauce made it something else altogether, and that something else was quite good indeed.
Of course the pizza, being rich and thick, was itself pretty heavy. This is the nice thing about pizza though, you don’t have to eat it all at one sitting. Sunday brunch was taken care of. I ate half of mine and called it quits. Angel and Adam each had a quarter-pie left. We asked for boxes. I asked around for opinions. “It looked home made, but didn’t taste like it, it was much better.” Angel answered. As for the crust, she added “you barely know it’s there.” This was a ringing endorsement since Angel usually likes thin, crispy crust. I queried Adam, he nodded. Another rave review.
We were smitten. The pizzas were good in every way. Better than just about any we’ve had recently. Even the St. Louis cheese was held back, not overpowering like it is on so many. The sauces were genuine and deep in flavor. The amazing thing, the really amazing thing, is that this meal, three pizzas plus an appetizer came in at thirty two dollars and change. Later that evening we saw a Domino’s commercial boasting ten dollar pizzas. Domino’s is about as generic a pizza as one can find without being a store-bought frozen pie. We had custom-made, fresh, house-made pies for much less than that. We could have each had Lorenzo’s twelve incher’s for under ten dollars apiece. The staff were spot-on professional and efficient, the place was clean and neat. Lorenzo’s is not only very good, first class I’d say, it’s a bargain. It’s not fast like Domino’s boasts, so if you go there you need to bring some conversation with you, but the wait is very well worth it.

Lorenzo's Italian Kitchen on Urbanspoon