Monday, December 30, 2013

Taco Bell

10255 Business Highway 21
Hillsboro, Mo

You should be. I wasn't.
Angel's pick, and I knew exactly why. I've been bad mouthing the Bell for several years, but in all that time I've not actually set foot in one. I used to go occasionally, but I finally got tired of the lack of variety and the mediocre, at best, flavors. Every time it's Adam's turn to pick a place, his mom suggests to him that if he's having trouble deciding he should just pick Taco Bell. They go frequently for lunches, when I'm not around.
"But dad doesn't want to go there." He would reply.
When Angel told me this, I told her "Does the boy not understand the purpose of these meals? It doesn't matter if I have a preconceived notion or not, it's about going to places and gathering data then publicly declaring my official dislike."
So she picked it.
The Place:
On a hilltop north of downtown Hillsboro, next to McD's. I can't recall ever going into the place. It's been a long, long time since I've been to a Bell, anywhere.
The place was actually fairly attractive inside, browns and oranges, darkly painted ceiling tiles. There were some bistro tables and some half-booths (bench on one side, chairs on the other). It didn't look nearly as fast food-y as I recalled it. It had the look of a Panerea or Crazy Bowls.
The Food:
We stepped up to the counter and were greeted by a petite, almost elfin, young lady wearing the name 'Jennifer' on her name tag. Long brown hair pulled back into a quick ponytail, big, dark bright eyes, and a huge but sincere looking smile. Angel stepped up first and ordered like a pro. It occurred to me that she might have been there even more often that I was aware of. I'd looked at the menu online earlier in the day and had pretty much decided, but took a couple of minutes to scan the overhead to see if there was anything else that might pop out. There wasn't. Angel asked for two shredded chicken burritos and a steak taco. I took the plunge and went with my original, purposeful, strategic choice, a steak gordita and a soft shredded chicken taco. Jennifer said something in her tiny, happy voice that I didn't hear, so she repeated it. "Would you like a drink?"
Of course this offered up a comedic opportunity. "Yes, yes I would."
She smiled even bigger, didn't skip a beat. "Would you like our one dollar medium drink?" She asked. I had nowhere to take that, my shallow comedy tool box now empty. "Yes, that will be fine." was my reply. She'd won that round.
Steak Gordita
Adam stepped through, more deliberate and purposeful, still seeming a little unsure, though I knew he visited often. "Two shredded chicken tacos and a five layer beef burrito." He also asked for the one dollar drink. Copycat.
Angel was already picking out condiments at the condiment bar, packets of mild sauce and napkins. I filled my one dollar cup with unsweetened ice tea, Adam dispensed Dr. Pepper. Angel was not dispensing anything, she'd gone for the secret (in that I wasn't aware of it) drink menu and asked for a cherry limeade, which was assembled/brewed/distilled behind the counter.
Soft Chicken Taco
We found us a regular sized table. The place wasn't very crowded, and hot adult contemporary music played overhead. I don't know exactly what constitutes hot adult contemporary music, but that's how radio station KYKY in St. Louis describes what they play. I didn't recognize any of it, nor the artists names when they were mentioned, but it wasn't country or Christmas music, so I didn't hate it.
It wasn't very long before someone called Angel's name and the trays arrived. Adam sorted it all out and kept the tray for himself. I examined my gordita.
Chicken  Soft Taco, exposed
In Mexico if you order a gordita you will get what we might consider a sheppard's pie, stew served with a thick crust. Taco Bell has decided to screw all that authenticity malarkey, there it's just a soft pita taco. Taco Bell has tried twice to enter the food market in Mexico, both attempts failed, even when they offered Americanized things like fries. I don't know that it was the food that caused it to fail, I think it had to do with their slogan "Make a run for the border" which suffers an entirely different context in Mexico.
The pita bread wrapper was only slightly thicker than the regular soft taco's wrap. My strategy had been to test a gordita, not knowing what it was, and go with steak, since I didn't recall that being offered back in the 80's or 90's or whenever I'd last been to a Bell. I decided on the chicken for the same reason, and to test the soft shell.
I still had the taste in my mouth of the old hard-shelled ground 'beef' (in air quotes) that were so common back in the day. I steered far away from that terrible, greasy, bitter, salty memory.
Chicken Burrito
The steak in the steak taco looked like steak. It was cubed, charred and juicy looking. It had a good mix of toppings on it, cheese, tomato, lettuce and the wrap itself was indeed soft. The meat looked a little suspicious, and to the bite was very, very tender, uniformly so, no gristle or tough spots whatsoever. Too tender to be straight off a cow. I decided that the only way it could be that uniform and tender, other than the beast having been hand massaged and lived a life of leisure in Japan, was if it was beef, broken down and rebuilt like tofu is made from soy beans, highly processed, reconstituted, like their current 'taco meat filling' which can be, by law with that moniker, only 15-20% protein according to many accounts. (The Bell insists that it is at least 88% 'meat', but is struggling with official food labels and some lawsuits.) All  I'm saying is that beef, that smooth, uniform and consistent does not come straight from the cow that way.
Steak Taco,  Cherry lime-ade
The fact of the matter is that whatever it actually is, it did taste pretty good. I finished the gordita and  bit into the chicken taco. It took a couple of bites to find the chicken, which was also the last bite. That same ghastly salty and greasy taste was back. I was done. My feelings were mixed.
Oozing Cheese
Meanwhile, Angel was disassembling her burrito. It was like a pound of potatoes in a ten pound sack. She tore off large chunks of the tortilla and shoved them aside, revealing only a small smattering of actual ingredients, mostly rice. As for actual chicken there was maybe a heaping tablespoon of it, about the same as in the chicken tacos.  She didn't eat most of it, since most of it was the tortilla and the rice, which she said she didn't care for. The steak taco was different though, basically the same as my gordita, but with a slightly thinner tortilla. She had no complaints about that. She added that she loved the limeade at the Bell.
Chicken Burrito, exposed
Adam had no complaints about his, "Pretty good" he said adding that this was college kid food, lots of empty carbs, calories and grease to fuel the fast-burning, raging maturation metabolism. He said this as his burrito developed a leakage, cheese started oozing out a small tear in the tortilla, like thick yellow pus out of a punctured boil. (You're welcome)
Oh, and the tea. I was surprised, it was actually pretty good. Clear, fairly fresh and strong enough to actually taste. Believe it or not The Bell gets a +3.

The place was prettied up, the service at the counter was outstanding, the price, at twenty three dollars and change, very, very cheap.
Several dead trees.
The food was "Not awful".
This is the Bell's forte, the low price. With that price though, there comes a, er,  price, though. The food is made of the cheapest ingredients possible. These ingredients will not properly sustain a mature, slow burning metabolism. All those carbs and fats together will build up as excess sugars and fat in your system (don't even get me started on the sodium) unless you are super-active, or addicted to meth. I shouldn't have to tell a responsible, reasonable adult that this food, if eaten very regularly will make you and your kids fat. Of course this is true of burgers and pizza as well, it's all pretty much the same thing, bread, greasy, fatty meat and a few token veggie toppings with some kind of sauce. Taco Bell gets a lot of grief over their ingredients, but they are really not that much different than most plasticized, high-volume, low cost  fast food offerings.
That being said if you just need a quick and dirty calorie load, then go for it. They are fast and certainly cheap.
My biggest concern though after this trek, was what I noticed at the end of the meal. Look at that pile of refuse. I'm certainly not the greenest, tree-huggiest person around, but crimeny, that was a lot of trash. Some places present to-go orders and inside orders differently, not here. The paper wrappers sort of make sense for a bundle of food being taken elsewhere, but in-store it seems a bit much. The excess paper travels only twenty feet and fifteen minutes from initial deployment to trash bin. That seems to be very, very wasteful and inefficient to me.
So will I go back? Well frankly, I can't think of a reason to. Though the steak gordita was tasty, it was not as tasty as a good burger or a slice of pizza (especially Pizza Junction Pizza!)* and no more nutritious, just cheaper and faster. Hardees is just up the road and has pretty good burgers, as well as decent coffee and WiFi. There's nothing at the bell that really calls to me. I'd just as soon stay home and make a sandwich. I will say this though, The Bell seems to be trying to improve its image. They're just stuck in a price point problem. To keep the college kids stopping in they are forced to use faked, excuse me, processed and enhanced meat and lots and lots of cheap corn and wheat filler material.
You get what you pay for.

* Gratuitous plug for the place my son works.

Taco Bell on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 23, 2013


82 McNutt St.
Herculaneum, Mo.

 Saturday, it was my birthday. We don't make a big deal out of these things, a simple gift, a card and a meal. My choice was to have steamed shrimp at home, as is usually my birthday choice. So we decided to do that on Sunday, which left the Saturday going-out meal to Adam. His birthday was Sunday. We gave him free voice, choose any place you like. He struggled with this decision through late Saturday afternoon, then, somewhat surprisingly announced we were heading to Herky. He's turning out to be a pretty cheap date.
I knew that Wendy's had been trying new types of buns, other than that, I thought I might have the chili.
So we piled into the family truckster and made the cold, wet drive. I played with the GPS, asked Angel why it showed our car but none of the others. She said that would be cool, I posited that most of the tech exists for that and there would also be no reason that our own cars couldn't present themselves as animated avatars instead of the wretched heaps most of us actually drive. I though the Flintstone family car, or maybe the Batmobile, or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, or one of those monstrosities from Mad Max.
It takes a while to get to Herky, we have to get on I-55 and go north for a while. This is the closest Wendy's though.
The Place:
It was still cold and wet when we got there, even so, there were lots of people out and about, probably ignorant shoppers. By 'ignorant' I mean those that haven't figured out how to do the vast majority of their holiday shopping online.
I indeed decided to have the chili, but I also wanted to try the new buns, so I ordered a 'Single' with cheese and medium fries and some tea to go with it.
Angel asked for the Bacon Portabella Melt on Brioche, fries and lemonade. Adam got a small burger, a 'Son of Baconator' as well, with some of the spicy chicken nuggets, fries and a Coke.
There were some guys working on the serve-yourself liquid dispenser, one standing on a small ladder, the other handing him pitchers of steamy water. One of the condenser lines must have frozen up. As one would expect when non-professionals and professionals alike are doing this, there was water all over the floor, along with a couple of the ubiquitous, OSHA approved, bright yellow 'Piso Mojado' signs.
 The Food:
Angel paid up then headed out to pull some condiments and claim a table, Adam and I waited for the food.
Portabella Bacon Melt on Brioche
They were having to fill the drinks behind the counter so the service was a little busier than you normally might see.
Our order all fit on two trays. We each grabbed one and joined Angel. She had forgotten straws, but other than that she did an acceptable job, ketchup cups for everyone.
Her sandwich looked good and sloppy. The brioche bun looked substantial and pretty. Brioche is  a pastry made like bread, sugar and brandy optional, with a lot more butter than you'd put in standard bread dough, a 2 to 1 flour to butter ratio in most cases. That's a lot of butter. Wendy's probably doesn't use brandy in their buns, I'm just guessing.
Single, Chili, Fries
My own bun was also substantial looking with a pleasing golden brown cleavage. It was more dense that a grocery store bun, which wasn't a bad idea. It held together just fine through the last juicy bite.
The burgers are served with ketchup, mayo and mustard. Wendy's says the mustard is always applied in the shape of a 'W', though it's nearly impossible to tell for sure since once the top bun is pushed on the three sauces smush together. The fries were fresh cut, you could tell, some were left a little dirty (exposed skin). They were much better than the frozen, reprocessed carb-strips that McDonald's and many other fast food places serve.
The burger itself was pretty good, not great, but for a FF chain, not bad.
Adam's spicy chicken strips were a suspicious orange, the shade of orange you find in hot-wing restaurants, never in nature. He liked them fine though. Not too hot.
Spicy Chicken Nuggets
Angel raved about her sandwich, she said that it was a good thing the bun was denser than normal, the mushrooms were really, really juicy.
My tea wasn't as bad as I expected. It wasn't great, but it wasn't three days old either. I'd give it a +1 on the PJTea scale.
The chili was just as I'd hoped, as good as it was about twenty years ago when I first tried. it. I like different chili's, my own, especially, but for restaurant chili Wendy's has always been a favorite. It's not real spicy, a little on the sweet side, but it will clear your sinuses after a while. Which, it did for me.
Quick, simple, satisfying. The repair team continued throughout our visit working on that machine, mops came out a couple of times the mojado was taking on a lot of steamy piso.
Twenty six and a half bucks took care of all of the meals, about standard. The food is better than most of the competition. The burgers are about as good as you could ever expect from a FF chain, the fries, better than most, the chicken as well. Angel is an ardent fan of the lemonade there.
If there were one closer to home, we'd probably go more often. There just aren't as many Wendy's in the area as the other chains, which is a shame. If there were one on my daily route I'd probably stop by for chili to go quite often.
So as a birthday bash it was kind of un-interesting, but it is what the kid wanted. And isn't that what it's all really about?
I indeed had steamed shrimp Sunday night. We've been celebrating this way for several years. We just lay down some newspaper, make a simple salad, put the steamer pot on a cork coaster, melt some butter with garlic and tear in. The skins and tails pile up and when we're done they go in a bag and into the freezer. Mmmmm, future shrimp stock.

Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 9, 2013

Huddle House

13002 Highway 21
Desoto, Mo
On the Wide World of Web

Angel's choice, Adam shrugged his shoulders at the suggestion, I grinned.
I like Huddle House, I even stop in occasionally when I have weekend business in the Fountain City.
Like I did that very morning. Sometimes it's just coffee, that morning I went full plate, 2 eggs, hash browns, bacon and toast. I even took my book in with me and enjoyed a brief respite from the arctic air blast our area had been under for a couple of days.

I'd done quite a bit of shivering and shoveling since then though, I didn't mind going back at all. besides, HH has stuff other than breakfast fare.
The Place:
It wasn't very crowded, the ample, red-shirted staff was bustling, the half dozen, family filled tables were chowing down, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.
We were told to seat ourselves and we did, sort of in the middle of things at a table. The massive menus were in their place at the side. I passed them around while our server asked about drinks, tea, sweet tea and Pepsi. She offered to serve our tea with lemon, we said sure.
I looked at the non-breakfast items but the sandwiches sounded too bread-y, and other than the chicken fried steak, nothing jumped out at me. In the end I decided on the Philly Cheese Steak omelette. Kind of breakfasty, kind of not.
Our drinks were delivered and the server asked if we needed another minute to decide, I said "Yeah give us a couple of minutes."
She stepped away and disappeared for over ten minutes. Behind the counter seven or eight staff members chatted and chuckled, they indeed seemed to be enjoying themselves not serving us.
In the meantime we'd all decided and were waiting patiently. I noticed the Christmas tree, a cheap, modest thing, but tasteful. Under it were two Piso Mojado (Wet Floor) signs, the big yellow ones you see in restrooms. Somebody was going to be a little disappointed on Christmas morning.
Finally our server showed up and immediately apologized, she said she been pull aside. More on this later.
We placed our orders.
Me: Phiily Cheese Steak Omelette, hash browns(with cheddar cheese) and wheat toast.
Angel: Prime Rib Tip Stuffed Hash Browns, withe a side of gravy and raisin toast.
Adam: French Toast Platter with bacon and two scrambled eggs.
As we waited Adam and Angel played mahjong on her smart-ass phone. I listened to the music. Country Music. I've said before that I don't care for country music, but I knew what the alternative would be, Christmas music. If there is one thing I dislike more than country music it's that. So I sighed in futility and resigned myself to the brutal aural assault.
The Food:
It was delivered in good time. It was quite pretty, as pretty as the pictures in the menu.
Philly Cheese Steak Omelette
The only problem I could see was the cheese on the hash browns. I could tell it had melted, then hardened, turning the browns into a singular entity. I could tell the browns were well made though, golden brown charred ends meant they'd been allowed to become crispy. The omelette was fresh, bright and fluffy. The toast was. . .  toast.
Our server was pleased to see me snapping the pictures, she even said she was. "I like it when people take pictures of our food, it usually means they like what they see."
I carved up the hash brown brick before it hardened any more. I also carved up half the omelette, juicy thin meat, peppers and onions spilled out. Mmmm, it looked good. The table went quiet as we devoured.
Stuffed Hash Browns
Angel handed me a chunk of her rib tip, it too was juicy and tender. Adam offered up some of his French toast, but he'd already put syrup on it, ruining it for me.It was very pretty though.
French Toast
There were absolutely no complaints from around the table. Well, I had one, but it wasn't worth making a big deal out of. It was, of course, the tea. Cloudy, weak, almost bitter. A minus three if I were to be generous. They make a very good cup of coffee, but somehow the advanced chemistry required to make ice tea was too much for them. A common problem.
Very good food, simple, fresh, well prepared. None of it was especially complicated but it was all very good. The service.
Ah, the service.
If you are a regular reader then you know I've ranted a few times about service issues. I've been reading some books by Anthony Bourdain and feel emboldened pointing this stuff out.
I can make breakfast stuff. Omelettes, hash browns, bacon, eggs, even a pretty mean waffle. I don't need to go to HH or the Waffle House, or anywhere else, to enjoy a good breakfast any time of day. When I go out to eat I want to be fed good food, that's a given, but I also want it served. The food industry is, after all, a service industry.
That our server was pulled aside was a little troubling. More so since I knew what she was doing instead of taking our order. She was washing dishes. I saw her. If what she said was true, that she'd been pulled aside to do that while active tables awaited, then we have a problem. There were a lot of staff people there, there were not that many customers. I assume it was the manager that pulled her aside, so it makes me wonder what he/she was thinking.
To pull someone out of the front to help out is certainly normal business, but while they've got active tables in progress?  There was no hand-off, no notice, she'd simply disappeared from our perspective.
It's a small thing but a telling thing. If this was a management call, it was fumbled. Nobody died, nobody got rushed to the hospital, but the obvious message was that we were less important to the business than that stack of dirty dishes.
Like I said though I like HH. The servers are always friendly and polite and eager to please. I only ask that management think about this particular incident and evaluate its priorities.
The bill came to a modest twenty nine dollars, less than ten bucks per meal. Certainly  reasonable for very good, well made food.
I'll definitely go back, I really like this place.

Note to loyal fans:
Next weekend Angel is heading down to Springfield for an early holiday celebration with her family. Also, I'm on call that weekend. What that means is that I'm not sure there will be a review next week, so don't call 9-1-1 if nothing posts.

Huddle House on Urbanspoon

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Thanksgiving 2013

What? Are you kidding? Do you really think we went out to eat on the weekend after Thanksgiving?
Here it is, Sunday afternoon and my refrigerator still looks like this!

So why would we go out when there's enough calories in the chill box to make every skinny girl in Southern California look like they're from Wisconsin?
That you are here though, I guess you're really bored, or maybe you are just starving for advice on where to go, what to eat . . .
Well okay...

1. Open your fridge.
2. Grab something foil covered.
3. Put it on a slice of bread.
4. Eat it.
5. Repeat until you're completely full.
6. Grab one more deviled egg, seriously, you can hold one more, they're small.

You'd be challenged to find anything anywhere as good as that. It's cheap (now that it's a leftover) convenient, and you don't even need your spouse/partner to put on some pants and find their shoes.
I'm still bloated, stuffed, feeling a bit ill from the massive intake of high quality, delicious home cooking. If you aren't then you should immediately re-examine some of your life choices.
If you honestly don't have any leftovers, just go door to door. I promise, somebody will beg you to take a plateful.

Happy Holiday Everyone!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Steak and Shake

999 Veterans Blvd.
Festus, Mo.
On the Interwebs

        I wanted something quick and simple. (and cheaper than last week’s $98 feast) I was fresh out of ideas. I’d been hoping the new Chinese buffet would be open by this weekend, it wasn’t.
So I thought about it for about five minutes throughout the day and came up with this place.
My last burger at Gordon’s Stoplight Grill got rave reviews from the entire family. I knew S&S served a similar style burger, thin and smashed and thought it a good idea to compare privately owned vs. franchise. 

 The Place:
On a hill sharing acreage with a dozen other franchise eateries, above highway A, near the interstate.
There was a big banner touting “Kids eat free all weekend!” that I didn’t pay much attention to when we approached. I did at the time say “Hey, Adam gets to eat free!” as a joke of course, but he’s old enough to vote, drink, and die in a war, even though he’s never done any of that. He does live with us and he’s on our medical insurance,(Thanks Obama) so I thought it would only be fair to still enjoy or at least partake in some of the few benefits of parenting. But no.
Inside, the place was humming with busyness. There were only about five or six tables/booths open, but three of those had not been bused yet. We were instructed by a sign to wait to be seated, so we did. So did three other groups behind us for the next five to seven minutes.
At one point a mature, manager looking man, wearing a blood-pink long sleeve dress shirt behind the counter told us that somebody would be with us soon. He did so without even looking up from whatever he was working on. Several servers squeezed by us on their way with refills and trays.
Finally when there were about ten people total waiting they seated us at a table in the back, behind the un-bused three tables that had been scooted together for a large group. It looked like the beginnings of a landfill. It was another ten minutes or more before three staff members banded together and hurriedly cleaned it up.
There were still people waiting to be seated.
At more than half the tables/booths there were small children, really small, six months to maybe three years old. Immediately next to us was a young couple with the six month old who didn’t fuss much. Three pre-schoolers at another adjacent table were not so restrained. This struck me as odd at first, that many tiny, sticky, slimy kids at a burger joint, but then I recalled the ‘Kids eat free’ banner. Note to self. . .
Our unnamed (you know what that means) server approached and queried us about drinks.
I decided to go out on a limb again. Tea, unsweetened. Angel went sweet, Adam pulled out all the stops and ordered a Hershey’s Special Dark Chocolate Shake. My gag reflex kicked in. I’ve cut back on sweets a great deal the last year or so, way back, and anymore the idea of something that sweetly decadent sets off a physical reaction. When you cut back as much as I have, you get very sensitive to sugar.  I suppose it’s like cocaine that way. Not that I’ve ever cut back on cocaine. . . wait, that’s not right. . . I’ve never actually given up on cocaine since I’ve never (to my knowledge) tried the substance. Cocaine could be like moonshine though. I didn’t think I’d ever tasted that either until someone reminded me that they served me some once but had told me it was American Corn Vodka, so I had actually tried it, I just didn’t know it at the time nor did I 
even recall it. So that’s exactly like never trying it isn’t it? So sugar is like just cocaine and moonshine, only legal.(and cheaper, so I hear)
What were we talking about?
The place was shiny and brightly lit. The tiles and walls were black, white and red all over. It tries to mimic a fifties diner, but only succeeds in looking like a kitschy, over the top, idealistic reproduction.
There was plenty of staff on hand, all smartly dressed in white shirts and black pants. More on this later.

The Food: 
The teas and a glass of water arrived pretty quick, we were ready to order.
Bacon Frisco Melt
Me: Wisconsin Buttery Double and fries, Angel asked for The Prince Royale (a single served with a fried egg), fries and a cup of chili. Adam predictably ordered the Bacon Frisco Melt, because . . . bacon. That came with fries as well.
The babies kept arriving, the littered table still remained littered. I took stock of the large number of workers behind the counter and in the kitchen, more people certainly than you'd see at a McDonald's since S&S has servers, but it still seemed like a lot, especially  considering the line of people waiting to be seated and the unkempt tables.
Adam's shake eventually arrived, dark, chocolaty, thick. His face caved in with his first attempt at drawing some up the narrow straw. "Too thick?" I asked. "It's a problem that will take care of itself." He smart-assedly responded. Several bustling minutes passed and finally our plates arrived. Real plates, not paper or Styrofoam*.
The fries were thin, almost petite in girth, shoestring style.

I grabbed the ketchup and squeezed, the bottle farted and red sauce splattered. I shook it and tried again, same thing, the bottle was nearly empty. I squeezed out seven or eight or nine more ketchup farts and passed the bottle. It sat amid our own fledgling debris pile, napkins, straws, straw wrappers, the check. No one else grabbed it right away. Our server stopped by and asked if everything was okay, I told him about the ketchup. Normally I'd
Buttery Wisconsin Double
just grab one off another table, but except for the burgeoning landfill in front of us, and I didn't want to dig through that mess, all the other tables were occupied. The server brought it back in a couple of minutes, and set it, not in the un-populated space beside Adam, but right back in the pile of litter. It wobbled when he let go of it, as it had come to rest on a straw. This baffled me.  Why would he add it to a growing pile rather than set it in the three or four square feet of empty table space? Maybe it was my blinking camera and my notebook. I make no attempt to hide them and they are clearly logo'd. So maybe the server was worried, scared of being being evaluated. I let this awesome power go to my head for a few hours.
The burgers were thin and smashed, not industrially preformed. This made them comparable to the Stoplight Grill's burgers. My bun was buttered, as promised. There were no toppings other than a healthy dose of cheddar cheese and a dollop of caramelized onions. I'd farted just a little ketchup on the bun, there was no mustard on the table. In the first bite, I noticed something, well a couple of things actually. The burger, like the fries were not very hot. If I were to guess I'd say they'd been cooked then left to sit for several minutes. Angel and Adam did not say anything similar about theirs. The burger was good, though the onions might have been a little over-caramelized, just shy of burnt, and I'd left them in a small pile in the middle of the patty, they would have been better spread out a little more.
Prince Royale
The cheese wasn't as pronounced as I thought it would be, but it was there. The meat itself was lacking something though. "It was a poorer quality meat than Stoplight." Angel said of it later, "But still better than fast food burgers." I agreed with her assessment.  It was better than almost any other chain-burger. She'd finished her chili first, I'd tried it before and thought it was pretty good. I even bought a canned version of the stuff, not bad, but the in-store was, unsurprisingly, better. I'd thought about ordering some myself but I'd had chili twice during the week, and wasn't very  motivated.
By the time I got to the last couple of burger bites, the thing was pretty much at room temperature. STILL better than McDonald's, BK, Wendy's, etc. though.

 The tea was a great deal better than I'd expected. A +4 on the PJTea scale. The food ranged from Adam's 'Good' to Angel's  'better than . . .' comment mentioned earlier. They did not share my observation about tepidness, so maybe mine was first off the grill and it had to wait for Angel's egg or something. (she'd added that the egg would have been a little better if it were cooked 'over medium', still a little runny.) The price was satisfying, the bill totaled just under twenty five bucks, Adam observed that this was cheaper than any of the three of our dishes at Terrazza grill the week before. Sure, it wasn't steak or lobster ravioli, but the price was about the same as one would spend at the less tasty chains.
Spoiler Alert: If you see this,
you are being reviewed.
As far as the service though, Angel had noticed the same things as me. There were a lot of people working there, but the crew seem troublingly inefficient. There seemed to be a lack of coordination, organization and training. It was taking too long to seat people and too long to clear tables. Even the manager's comment about being seated soon was, not exactly rude, but dismissive. The server's fumble, the fact that it took three staff members working together to finally bus that one table and the fact that Angel said there were a few occasions  that she observed several of the workers just standing together talking are indicative of less-than perfect floor management.
"They were pretty busy." Adam defended. I agreed, they were busy. Then I said something that will probably be repeated by the great chefs of the Food Network, the guys that go in and fix troubled restaurants. But let it be known, I said it first: "When it comes to poor service, success is no excuse."
Can't you just hear Gordon Ramsey screaming that at some broken down, weeping waitress? (He'd drop a few f-bombs in with it, I don't need to though since, unlike the chef, I know more than twenty three words.)
Seriously though, it is true. The only reason to go out for a burger is to enjoy

someone else doing the work. I can make a better burger, for even cheaper than this, burgers are easy. We buy them at places like this only because we want to be served. We're buying labor and service not just food. Besides there are dozens of other places in very easy reach that make decent burgers. A bad or even lackluster experience or two is bound to eventually demotivate customers. Just because you are serving a full house does not give you license to be sloppy. I've certainly had worse service, a lot worse, but I'm trying to call this thing before it gets out of hand, while it is still easily fixable.
So Steak and Shake, take my criticisms herein seriously, but not too dramatically.  It was far from a walking out the door deal. I'm simply pointing out a slightly troubling set of symptoms. Like when your kid gets the sniffles, you may not need to rush the toddler to the emergency room, but you should certainly keep your eyes and ears open. This was all small stuff though.
Overall, in spite of the negative comments, this wasn't a bad meal at all, they didn't quite earn a place on my Raven List ("Nevermore!") And yes, there is such a list.


* Styrofoam is a trademarked brand, owned by Dow Chemical Company, and thus, should be capitalized, like Kleenex, Xerox and Toad the Wet Sprocket

Steak 'n Shake on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 18, 2013

Terrazza Grill

249 Arnold Crossroads
Arnold, Mo
On the Web
On Facebook
Adam told us about  this place, he's in Arnold more than the rest of us. I don't like Arnold, the roads make no sense. Being just across the river from St. Louis County, Arnold is more like suburban city than Jefferson County. Sure it's got lots of restaurants, shopping,etc. It also has more people, a lot more people, and their cars.
But once in a while we tunnel our way out of the back woods, gird our loins and head into this town to take advantage of its wider diversity of offerings.

The Place:
A towering stone facade welcomes you. This is no hidey-hole bistro. It is a beautiful modern building, inside and out, but it could just as well be a southwestern steak house as an Italian joint.
The vaulting ceilings and concrete floors, the dark-stained heavy tables and trim and rafters are artfully crafted, heavy and substantial, like a ski lodge. A large fireplace sits in the middle, within a stone framed chimney. We were greeted warmly and immediately led to the back, near the drink station, across from the bar.
The modern bar sported a frosted glass panel that changed color like those old aluminum Christmas trees with the revolving color disk. Angel was fascinated and soothed by it, saying she couldn't take her eyes off of it. I told her that there seemed to be a color for every one of her moods, they just didn't change as fast. It was pretty though.
There were some TV's on over the bar, we could only see one, it was showing NASCAR. Hours and hours of rough, fast traffic in tight, but competitive formation, each jostling for a better position. The occasional fender bender, a fire or two, noisy, monotonous. I don't watch NASCAR, it's too much like my daily commute.
This is a neatly-folded, white cloth napkin kind of place. Tidy, neat, upscale compared to our usual  haunts.
Terrazza Grill is owned and operated by the same family that has had fine restaurants (Lombardo's) in St. Louis since 1934. As such, it's menu boasts 3rd generation recipes. That of course includes the ubiquitous St. Louis appetizer, fried ravioli.
The Food:
Fried Ravioli
I'd previewed the menu. I'd pretty much decided ahead of time what I wanted but Scott, our waiter, spoiled it for me. As he deftly explained the day's specials I heard the words 'lobster ravioli' buzz by. This flushed my brain of everything else. We'd already asked for our drinks, and were easily talked into the appetizer. I had tea, Angel asked for sweet tea, without ice, Adam a cola. Angel likes her tea without ice in colder weather.
The tea was excellent, at least a +4.5.
Scott came around again later and we placed our orders. Me: Lobster Ravioli and house salad, Angel, the Eggplant Parmesan and Adam manned up and ordered the Filet Mignon, 8 oz. with a baked potato. He'd wanted mashed potatoes, but apparently only the Sunday chef knew how to make those.
A basket of rolls were delivered and soon the appetizer was presented. Pretty, very pretty. A bit larger and thicker than store-bought ravioli. The frying gives it a toasty crunch. This was much thicker and meatier than the typical bar version of the stuff, TG is quite proud of them. We all thought they were pretty good. Not necessarily a lot better than other places, but they were certainly better than most. "Better than frozen" Angel said.
Lobster Ravioli
The salads came soon. I tore open a roll. It was lighter than it looked, definitely fresh, also much better than frozen. The salads were pretty, fresh greens of two or three types, red onion rings, and lots of white cheese. This was not common, deli counter cheese, this too was obviously a cut above. The dressing was conservatively applied and blended in with, rather than altered the taste of the fresh salad ingredients. Pretty good, definitely fresh and crisp, but not really Italian-y, if that is what they were going for.
Eggplant Parmesan 
It wasn't long before the entrees arrived. Clean, tidy plates, slightly garnished offerings. My five lobster raviolis were again large and plump, swimming in a creamy sauce. Angel's eggplant parm was served on a bed of angel-hair pasta and topped with cheese and the rich, bright tomato sauce we'd had with the appetizer. She offered a chunk, I accepted. "Doesn't even taste like a vegetable." She said of the eggplant. "Yes, yes it does." I responded, explaining that I could tell it wasn't meat or fish, it had the texture of squash.
 It did not have the taste I associate with such things, the eggplant itself didn't seem to have a distinct taste at all, but I could tell it was veg rather than meat. It wasn't bad at all, the
Filet Mignon
sauce and cheese blend was quite good. Then Adam offered me a pretty good chunk of his steak. It was plump, beautifully charred and the taste was spot-on. No heavy sauces needed, just a really good cut of quality beef, salted, peppered and grilled. TG had performed this plate perfectly. I carved into the ravioli, they were big enough that each needed to be cut into three to be eaten without looking porcine-like in habits. There was definitely lobster, seasoned simply, and the sauce did not overwhelm it. The pasta was thick, maybe a little doughy in spots, but not far from perfect. After the salad and the roll, I thought finishing the pasta would be a snap, It wasn't I only made it halfway through the fourth one when I had to call it quits. By this time Angel and Adam had already finished.
The food was quite good, maybe even better. Angel appreciated that we were not served pounds and pounds of pasta. There was enough to act as a vessel for the sauce, and to fill us, but not enough that it would be wasted. The sauces themselves were excellent, the marinara sweet, fresh and not over-spiced, nothing was too garlic-y, too salty. The steak was perfect, the eggplant sliced pasta thin, the ravioli was plump and filled with fresh lobster. The service was top-notch, Scott didn't miss a beat. The folks refreshing the drinks remembered that Angel didn't want ice.
Angel also said that this was easily her second favorite Italian place. The biggest differences between number one, Trattoria Giuseppe in Imperial and Terrazza grill was the salad, Giuseppe serves up a more Mediterranean version with olives and artichoke hearts, and the ambiance. Giuseppe's is smaller, tighter, older, the floors slant a little, but it feels more like an Italian Bistro  than the new, modern, urban Terrazza Grill. Other than that though, she said they were pretty close.
The bill was an impressive eighty three dollars, about the same as we spend at Giuseppe's. The food matched the price though. This is not an every day dinner place for most of us, but it certainly is the kind of place if you want something special, something a cut or twelve above most eateries.

Terrazza Grill by Lombardos on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 11, 2013

Bob Evans

1003 Veterans Dr
Festus, Mo

 This is one of the most difficult reviews I've done. The last time we went to this place We were terribly disappointed. So much, in fact, that we have not gone there in nearly two years.
The only reason we went this time is that Angel had noticed that they'd just reopened after a major remodeling. Sometimes that means nothing, sometimes that means they are trying to make improvements. I never really had a complaint about the decor or the layout, it's always been the food that I thought needed re-thinking.
The decor had indeed changed. Entering we immediately noticed it was brighter, fresher. In the center, between the two dining areas, they had set up a bakery area. They seemed to want to emphasize/capitalize on this. There were donuts crullers, etc. It looked tempting, but we were hungry for actual food.
We were seated and introduced to a young lady, whose name I was going to mention, but I have decided not to since I do not want any of the somewhat negative things I have to say later to be tagged to her. She was polite, friendly, professional and she got our order right.
I had a little fun with her since she seemed to be in pretty good spirits. "Could I start you off with some tea or lemonade?" She made the mistake of asking.
"Why yes, yes you can." I answered and went back to scouring the menu. The look on her face a few seconds of silence later was priceless. I of course ordered tea, she upsold it by suggesting a lemon. I relented. Angel asked for sweet tea, Adam, the cola.
The menus were shiny and fresh, they'd capitalized on the effective use of white space and that made them seem brighter as well. Angel pointed at the lower left hand image on the burger page. It showed a sparkly glass of ice tea and the promise: "Our all-natural, long leaf black tea. Brewed fresh throughout the day."
Challenge accepted!

The Food:
BE sells comfort food, hearty, wholesome, southern/mid-western fare. Nothing fancy or spicy, nothing extravagant. This BE sits at the foot of a large hotel, it's a perfect location for a place that sells this sort of thing. Seasoned, weary travelers often want something other than fast food. I know when I was a road warrior, I eventually sought out a place that at least mimicked home cooking.
Coincidentally, we all ordered the same exact thing we did at our last visit, two years prior.
Me: Meat loaf, mashed potatoes and green beans.
Angel: Country Fried Steak, mashed potatoes and green beans.
Adam: Deep Dish Chicken and Noodles.
We were offered a selection of breads, rolls, biscuits, etc. We chose rolls.
The young waitress and her trainee scampered off.  Our drinks were in front of us.
I was impressed. The tea sparkled as only fresh brewed tea does. I took a cautious sip.
It had taste, it had substance, it was actually very good. They'd not been merely boasting, this was exactly as advertised. I awarded it a +4 on the PJTea scale.
This seemed to me a very good omen. Perhaps they were trying to improve. A fresh bakery, fresh tea, things were certainly looking up.
 The plates arrived quickly, very quickly, too quickly.
The rolls were not delivered. We were told that they had just a couple more minutes before they came out of the oven. Not a problem in my mind.
The plates were simple, no garnish or flair, simple, clean, to the point. The portion size was modest by many restaurant's standards, but just right in my mind. The Meatloaf is offered in two versions, one slab or two. I opted for the single and once again appreciated the option. Not everyone wears the same size pants, why would you only offer up one size of food portions?

 The meatloaf, made with ground beef and sausage, had a dense texture. It was not as dense as I'd found it on my last visit, when I'd compared it to tofu and dog poo. It was still more dense than meat loaf is typically made. The taste was not bad, although once again the flavor of the gravy was stronger than the taste of anything else. But not near as bad as I'd said about it before.
Angel in fact made a lukewarm pronouncement about her food. "Pretty good, not too salty. Adam seemed to like his noodles as well.
About halfway through the meal, the waitress returned, told us that the rolls were still in the oven and asked "Do you still want them?"
It was this question that caused me to decide to not use her name. It's the wrong question, at the wrong time.
I said we did, since I now was now a little annoyed. The rolls did finally arrive, fresh from the oven, after two of the three of us had already finished our meals.
Adam and I both buttered one up and wolfed them down. It was not exactly the delight I had been anticipating. I wrote a word down in my official eatandcritique notebook.
I waited for Adam to finish chewing his, which took a little longer than one would think such a thing would take. He took a big swig of his cola and said "Doughy". The exact word I had just written down. The d*%$#  things were not in the oven long enough.
This is where it gets tough. I want to be fair, but thorough here, so please bear with me. The tea was outstanding. The service was, for the most part, quite good. The food, well, as best as I can manage is to say that it was mostly improved. Unfortunately, that's a pretty low bar. It was bad enough the last time that I actually wrote a scathing rebuke to Bob Evans HQ and then we didn't go back for nearly two years. So to say it was improved is not really an A+. It's more like going from a D- to a C- or a C.
The bread thing is no small point, because it was allowed to needlessly spin out of control.
As I'd pointed out the new Bob Evans showcases its bakery. That's a bold move. That a simple roll was not thoroughly cooked, not ready in time to be served with the meal is not exactly a trophy winning effort. I appreciated they were fresh-made, but the fact that they weren't well-made, and that they weren't available at prime time dining hours is almost inexcusable.
The waitresses error may not be entirely her own. I can't excuse management and training from this.
The meals were served very quickly, and why not? It's all batch made stuff. In the back there were probably meat loafs, CFSteaks and noodles being heated in steamers and pots. All they had to do was dish it out on a plate. If the rolls were not ready, then why blow the natural order of things by not waiting for them? OR, offering us an alternative. They offered several bread choices when we ordered, surely something was ready. This was an error. The waitress's question ' Do you still want them.' should have been way down the list of options when it was obvious that the rolls were not going to be ready. Thus, one small problem quickly escalated from understandable to annoying, to frustrating and memorable.
I really wanted Bob to be better. I really thought it might be happening. But as I polled the table, things darkened.
"Good at first, but then it got too salty." was Adam's critique."And the gravy didn't taste real, like it was made from a kit."
Dagnabbit, these are simple things to fix, mostly. I think BE over-thinks their meatloaf, and their gravy is too strong in taste, and the taste is not that of  house-made.
The waitresses should be trained in how to handle unavailable product situations, because, hey, it happens. And the back of the house expediter, if there is one, should not rush out a meal until it is complete.
That's all.
Unfortunately, even though the place looked fresh and bright, the waitress was mostly spot-on, and the price ($34.28) was not bad, I still can't recommend this place until the rookie mistakes are fixed. This is a long-established franchise in a prime location. It should have these sort of things sorted out.

I fully realize that in the greater scheme of things, that my criticisms are pretty trivial. My life did not alter its course because the rolls weren't ready. I doubt that anyone has ever slammed their fists on the table and demanded a refund or filed a lawsuit over a little thing like this.
I point it out because the food service industry is very, very competitive. Multiple little things, fixable things can add up easily and become lack of repeat business and lack of good references. Sometimes little things like this, especially the food quality, can be all it takes to have people, without them saying a word, staying away in droves.

Bob Evans on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 4, 2013

Off the Hook

12636 Highway 21
DeSoto, Mo.
On the Interwebs
On Facebook

For the second weekend in a row, my mind was elsewhere. I had scheduled work planned for the middle of the night. A lot of IT system maintenance goes on in the overnight hours. This time it was the time change. Every autumn we shut down some of our systems to let the time change smoothly, else the system will think it is seeing into the future and become confident that it has super-human powers. Should that ever be allowed to happen, well, you've seen what happened with SkyNet (Terminator).
Earlier in the day I'd gone out with a friend, Dan, to solicit door to door. We're gathering petition signatures to get a Hillsboro Library on the ballot again. To say that I don't enjoy door to door canvassing, is like saying I don't enjoy massive trauma or jumping out of airplanes.  There are people that handle that sort of thing well, like Dan, he actually won a seat on the local school board doing this sort of thing. Me? I don't like walking up to perfect strangers and asking them for favors, especially when the rejection rate is exacerbated by intense political passions. I went along though, even rang a few doorbells. I was never comfortable doing it, but it was for a good cause and I'd promised to help out.
So by the time dinner time came around, I was way off my rhythm. I had a headache,  felt drained, and just wanted to crawl into bed. But it was my week to choose a place.
I had nothing in mind, not even a food type preference. Somehow though I eventually decided I wanted fish, preferably catfish. That meant one thing. Off The Hook.
I reviewed my last review of the place and made mental note of my concerns. I occasionally do this to see if there have been improvements.
We piled into the family truckster and took off. I mentioned my symptoms, saying that I thought I was coming down with something. Angel dismissed it as allergies. She dismisses everything I suffer as allergies. If I hopped into the house carrying my severed left leg in my hands she'd say it was allergies.
Luckily, this time, she was not completely wrong. I feel much better now that that weather front has moved through. Still though, just because she's been right every time up until this point, doesn't mean she will be next time.
The Food:
OTH means a couple of things. First, to me, catfish. More importantly, to Angel, it means corn poppers. We love these things. It's almost embarrassing that we love them so much, it's so stereotypically midwestern. Flour batter, whole kernel corn, balled up and deep fried. Absolutely no nutritional value, yet terribly addictive.
OTH offers these as an appetizer, we always order them. For me it's a test of brute willpower. They represent everything I've been trying to eliminate from my habitual diet, yet they are so darned tasty. I look at them and wonder; Gee, maybe just one hit of heroin today?
We ordered our drinks, tea, sweet tea and Pepsi. Angel also ordered the appetizer, plus another platter of sweet poison, crab rangoons. Oddly enough this quaint, homey, fishing themed place, in its remote and rural setting, makes better rangoons than most of the Chinese restaurants in the area.
Two deep fried, heavily breaded treats in front of me. I imagined myself crawling around on the floor of a bus station restroom sniffing out just one more hit of these magical, marvelous treasures. I was finally able to limit myself of one of each though, through sheer, super-human determination.
After the appetizers arrived we ordered our meals. It was then that something amazing happened.
In the previous review I'd complained about the portion sizes and meal makeup. I'd ordered the catfish plate, which ended up being four big filets, two hushpuppies and a pile of thick fries. It was simply waaaay too much deep fried starchy stuff for one plate.
The last time I ordered the Catfish
The young lady taking our order stopped both Angel and I after we asked for the catfish and asked: "The two piece or the four piece?" I was impressed, we both asked for the two. It got really amazing then. "Do you want the fries with that or not?"
In that last review I'd mentioned that I didn't eat any of the fries because it was simply too much fried breaded/starchy stuff.
Both of us declined the fries.
For sides, I asked for baked beans and a salad with sweet onion dressing. Angel sided white beans and Ranch for her salad.
The reduced portion version.
Adam asked for the Chipotle Ranch Baked Chicken with corn and mashed potatoes and gravy.
The salads came pretty quick, I plucked out the croutons and slipped them onto the rangoon platter. The salads were simple, yet fresh and crispy. Iceberg lettuce, julienned carrots and shredded cheese.
The entrees arrived soon enough, I was giddy. Though the plates looked nearly empty and lacked garnishments, knowing how heavy and delicious the food was told me that I would actually not be wasting much at this meal.
There are people out there that can eat four filets, a pile of fries, hush puppies two sides and a couple of appetizers, I am not one of them. Seeing this simple plate indicated to me that either OTH had read my review, or they'd been monitoring the trash.
The fish was excellent, as Angel put it, "perfectly crisp and flaky." Catfish has a stronger, earthier fish taste than cod, salmon or tilapia, but for some reason I prefer it. It may be because of my southern, river roots. Though I don't recall ever eating catfish when I was a kid. In fact, the only fish I recall from my charmed youth were frozen fish sticks. I liked them, especially with ketchup. I've mentioned before, my childhood was not a gastronomic  festival, we had simple food that was easy to prepare. My mother is a poet, a musician, a minister and a teacher. She just never got passionate about the more domestic pursuits. We always had food, it was just never upscale, fancy, or delicious. I don't blame her, not at all. We all, except with the possible exception of my sister, turned out just fine. We can all cook too, we learned early.
Baked Chipotle Ranch Chicken
The hush puppies were good as well. The chef at OTH is a master deep fryer, nothing tasted greasy.
The portions turned out to be perfect. I applaud OTH for overtly offering the option to pare down.
Adam liked the little roll that came with his meal, he asked  me if there was a name for that kind. I told him I didn't know, but this indicated to me that it was a hit with him. He liked everything else as well.
I couldn't quite finish my meal, I was still feeling a bit queasy. Angel again blamed it on my allergies, again, she was apparently correct, this time.
It was all good, in fact, it was very good. I didn't feel intimidated or weighed down by the portions. The only non-positive comments I could dig out were about the salad, Angel said she didn't like having to cut up lettuce, it was a bit large. Adam said the gravy didn't seem real. Maybe a pre-fab mix or something, it didn't taste like it had actually been made with natural, in-house meat au jous. (gesundheit!) Also, my baked beans were a little too sweet, not a big deal, but noticeable.
The price came in at a reasonable forty two bucks, that for three meals and two appetizers. the service was great, refills timely, the only exception being at the meal's end, it took a bit long to get the check.
I can't say enough how pleased I was that we'd been offered smaller portion options. This is huge in my book. I wish more places did this. I'm especially thinking of Italian places at this moment, where dishes are served with nearly a box of pasta per plate. I hope more places start offering this simple option. It will drive down costs and better serve a 'struggling to slim down' public much better. Also, the price was pared down as well. Offered on the menu at $9.99, we were only charged $6.49 for our catfish dinners. Bonus!
Oh yeah, a couple of more things.
1. The tea. Fresh but week, on par with Pizza Junction.
2. Suzy does indeed carry a checkbook. I told you so.

Off the Hook on Urbanspoon