Monday, November 24, 2014

Los Portales

201 Second Street
Hillsboro, Mo.

The weekend prior to this one, it had snowed. This weekend it was warmer, but windier and it had started to rain. After that snowfall, Angel had to sweep and scrape the snow and ice off of her windshield, rather aggressively. As we started into Hillsboro she turned on the wipers. The one on the passenger started making a funny noise and was soon flopping around like a snake on fire. She pulled over and shoved it back onto it's stem, got back in and drove another half mile. Then the drivers side wiper started doing the same thing. She stopped, got out and corrected it. About two miles later, just down the hill from Hillsboro, the first one started flopping again. She must have damaged them removing the snow and ice earlier in the week.
"Why don't you try your luck this time?" She urged. She pulled over, again. It took me a few moments to get out of the car, I couldn't figure out the door lock. She'd obviously called on a master mechanic to solve the wiper problem.
After comparing this wiper with the other one, I determined there was a critical piece missing. Perhaps its exhaust manifold or timing chain, or one of those other car parts I've heard about on 'Car Talk' and 'Top Gear'. I stood the bare stem upright so it wouldn't scrape the glass. The bare arm jogged back and forth. I suggested we put a glove on it so people would think we were waving. Angel was in no mood for my rapier wit. She was mumbling curses at the car. "I just paid it off, now it's just going to fall apart." and "You have one simple job you B&%$#!! wipers, one *^#$$ job."
We half-wiped and waved the last mile and found a parking spot on the street. Angel was in a mood. I dared not cross her the rest of the evening.
The Place:
Los Portales is the closest restaurant, in any direction, from our house. We were on a tight time frame, dog arrivals and departures were scheduled. We'd been often enough to know it was fast, cheap and satisfying.
The boys were with us again, Larry had never been to LP. I'm not even sure they have Mexican food in his hometown in central Tennessee. Adam, also a picky eater, had convinced him that there would be stuff he would like.
We went in and were led through the smoking area/bar to the main dining area. We took a booth, I picked one with the brightest beer neon in the window above it. I needed more than the ambient room light to take high quality photos with my magic tablet device.
We were handed menus, like we really needed them, and asked about drinks. I always forget that they make lousy tea, so I always order it. This night was no different.
Soon the drinks, chips and salsa arrived. I could sit there for nothing else but a good drink, maybe a margarita, I heard they make the best in the area, and the chips and salsa. But that would be rude.
Larry ate a bare chip. I looked at him accusingly. "I'm not a salsa person." he answered. Tennesseans, what curious fools they are. 
We ordered our meals and munched on chips. I listened to the always authentic music overhead. I asked Adam to 'Shazam' the music. Shazam is an app that listens to music, then goes out to the interwebs and finds the song and artist. I have it on my awesome tablet machine, but Los Portales has no WiFi. Adam has one of those 'smart' cellular telephones you may have heard about. These things not only make telephone calls, but they run apps as well. What will they think of next? He harrumphed at me at the thought, but like a good, decent if not completely filial son, he fired it up. It found the song and performer in mere seconds. 'El Siete Leguas' by Antonio Aguilar.  The title refers to a story about  Pancho Villa. Siete Leguas (Seven Leagues) was his horse's name, the story having to do with corruption, coercion and gunfights. A real lively number, trumpets, guitars, male crooners, the usual. I love it.
Another song started up. Shazam found it quickly as well, 'El Parrandero Enamorado' (Roughly, 'The Love Spree.'  That sounds dirty.) By the group 'Control.' Also a very upbeat and lively song.
Yeah, I could sit here, sip a fruity beverage, munch on chips and just bang my head to the great music.
The Food:
Me: #5 One chicken enchilada, one taco, beans and rice.
Angel: Enchiladas Supreme, Three enchiladas, one chesse, one bean, one beef, topped with lettuce and Ranchera sauce.
Adam: Half order of nachos and a chicken taco.
Larry: 3 beef enchiladas, a beef taco and a side of fries. Yeah, French fries. . . Tennesseans.
Food delivery is pretty quick at Los Portales. Most of the stuff is made in batches and assembled and plated to order. We hadn't even finished the chips when the meals arrived.
There's nothing fancy or dolled up on these plates, the food is simple, basic and deliberately not too spicy hot. The menu rather firmly states that ". . . all dishes are meticulously prepared with an authentic, but mild flavor. For those who like it hot we put hot sauce on the table."
I don't mind, I prefer it mild.
Lots of beans and rice on my plate, topped with that oozy, melty white cheese. A rich red sauce coated the enchilada, cheese and beef, the only ingredients in the taco, fell out the side of a crispy, thin shell.
Angel's was a real plateful. Lots of chopped lettuce and tomato and sour cream over the enchiladas, little nuggets of cheese scattered around. I didn't think she'd be able to finish it. She launched into it like a hungry sailor though, this seemed to assuage her foul mood a little.  "Always good, I like my three kinds of enchiladas."
Adam ran out of actual nacho chips well before the lettuce, etc. were used up. "It's hard to complain though." He said, pointing to the half full basket of chips in front of us. He loves the way LP prepares the chicken.
Larry was less vocal and enthusiastic. We'd all tried his fries and decided that though well fried, they were once frozen. They had that distinct one-off taste and texture you get with frozen potato products. Larry shrugged his shoulders though. Adam pointed out that this was a Mexican restaurant, not a burger chain. To complain about the fries here would be like complaining about the soup at a pizza joint. Otherwise he was more happy with the taco than the enchiladas.
I'm going to disqualify myself from the judgment round. I didn't come even close to finishing my meal. I'd made a strategic mistake earlier in the day. I had lunch. I don't usually eat lunch on Saturdays before these meals, but I broke this time. Angel had made up a big batch of Cream of Crab soup on Friday. Need I say more? I'd rather have cream of crab soup than most every other food, most sex, most good books, most years of my life. I couldn't not have some, the last creamy drop, for lunch. I had buttery crackers with it as well, since it was Saturday, so I was still carb-crammed by the time the evening meal came around. I really just wasn't hungry. When you're not really hungry, food just doesn't taste right. Well, except for pie. Pie, and by that I mean apple pie, since I am an American. Pie is good any time. If I were in charge of my life I would have coffee and pie twice or more per day, every day. Sure it would fatten me up and clog my arteries and eventually kill me, but I will have died after having plenty of pie. There are far sadder, sillier and more senseless ways to die.
Larry was not overly impressed. Angel was delighted, Adam loves the way they prepare their chicken, I like the music. The food is probably not the best there is, but it is good, close to  home and cheap. Four full meals for thirty six bucks. The service is okay, they take care of things and check for refills and such. They kind of vanished when it was time for the ticket, but we just went up to the counter/bar and they dug it out.
It is certainly the best Mexican food in town, in fact, for several miles in any direction. I've heard from a few contacts about bad experiences there, but have never had a significant problem myself. The place is smokey, so if that is an issue for you then there might be a problem. It's a very popular get together joint and watering hole, so it has a solid, steady clientele.
Still recommended!


Epilogue: On Sunday I went to the finest auto parts store I know of in the area, Walmart, and picked out a brand new pair of wipers for her SUV, the most expensive brand in the store, since high price=high quality. I even installed them for her, in the rain. Well, she did have to show me how to get the old one off,  but after that I finished the installation all by myself. Nothing but the best for My sweetie!

Los Portales‎ on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 17, 2014

Pasta House

1806 Galemore St.
Festus, Mo.
On the Web
On Facebook

This one is complicated. Very complicated.
Pasta House is a regional chain, headquartered in St. Louis. Founded in 1974 it now has around twenty locations, most in the Metro St. Louis region. Some of the locations are owned by PH, others are independently owned franchises.
We were excited to find out they were building one in Festus. More excited that the location was on Highway A, before you actually get to Festus. During our frequent trips to the town, we watched the progress. It went pretty slow, about a year or more in construction.
Finally, Angel noticed the 'Now Open' sign flashing. So as far as deciding where to go, this was an easy week.
I'd looked at the online menu ahead of time, so I was properly prepared. We invited the boys, Adam and his friend that I call Larry.
I was a bit groggy after a very heavy nap. I'd been up at 2 A.M. for a couple of hours tending to a regular work thing, system checks. Angel and the boys made fun of me because when I'm in this state I tend to incomprehensibly mumble.
The Place:
It was dark, early for dinner service, around 5 P.M. The parking lot was nearly full. This was their first weekend being open, I supposed we weren't the only anxious ones.
We could have gone to any of the other locations, we just never had. Angel had looked at the online menu as well and was relieved to find out that it was not fast-foody. She was worried that it would be like Fazoli's, that place is simply awful.
The building was brand new, it still had that new Italian Restaurant smell to it. As we went in we saw the line. Angel asked, they said it would only be about a five minute wait. The front section is a well appointed bar with about a dozen high bistro tables and chairs. People were not only drinking at the tables but also having their meals.
Sure enough we only waited a little more than five minutes before we were called. I'd spent the time sizing up the crew. The manager was easy, better dressed than the floor crew, black shirts and jeans for them. Among the mostly young ladies a couple appeared to be go-to people that the others paid heed to. I like to know who's in charge.
We were led to a four-top barely inside the dining area. Sure enough the place was packed, the din was almost rowdy sports bar-like. Lots of families, lots of very young kids in high chairs. One of the tots was banging a spoon on the tray, something that got very old and annoying very fast.
Directly overhead was a stock ceiling speaker belting out big band music, Moonlight Serenade at the time and a very bad rendition of it. Either the recording or the sound system was murdering it with clicks and pops and squashed bars, those that know audio would call it overdrive distortion. It was  made worse by the fact that the volume was up too high for dining anyhow. Along with the loud diners, the music made me uncomfortable, I don't like loud places.
I was reminded that PH was to get certain breaks in the review. This was a new crew, a new restaurant and it was their first weekend open. So any griping I make about the service are only for comparison at a later date.
One thing we did notice to their credit was how quickly they turned tables. It explained the short wait. The last crumbs had barely hit the floor before the table was being bussed.
Another lady came by and handed us menus and asked about drinks. Tea, Sweet tea and two Cokes. A bit later she brought them and we ordered an appetizer, toasted ravioli because St. Louis.
It didn't take long to decide, I knew going in what I was getting.
The Food:
Me: Spaghetti Bolognese, small, no salad.
Angel: Tutto Mare
Adam: Volcano (Hot wing and ranch) Pizza
Larry: Bacon Cheddar Burger and fries.
For those not as smart about Italian dishes as we experts are, I'll translate. Bolognese is not baloney and mayonnaise, it is a meaty tomato sauce.  When I make spaghetti at home, which I do fairly often, this is what I make. At home, we just call it 'spaghetti'.
Tutto Mare is not horse meat, it is actually seafood over pasta. Tutto mare means roughly, 'all sea'. Clams, shrimp, scallops, that sort of thing. It's usually in a creamy sauce.
If I have to explain burgers and pizza to you then you should just leave my beloved country, right now.
The ravioli arrived in a long white plate. alongside was a think, almost chunky marinara for dipping. Angel had ordered the twelve-piece so there was plenty for everyone. I pulled two off the plate, dipped them each twice at right angles, and dropped them onto the little appetizer plate we'd been given.
They were not as crispy as I thought they would be. I expected a crunch, but it never came. The taste was very good, the pasta seemed fresh, but for me it seemed a bit rubbery. No one else complained, in fact they sort of dismissed my assessment altogether. So maybe it was just me.
We finished them up fairly quickly, then the real wait began. A new place, new crew, new kitchen I would have been completely surprised if there had not been a longer than 'normal' wait. Fortunately we had devices and the PH guest WiFi was quick and strong.
As we browsed, I took time to look around at the decor. Mostly photos and a  lot of huge movie posters, mostly in Italian or for spaghetti westerns from the 60's and 70's. One photo confused me, it was of Marlon Brando. I was never a really big fan but I do know that Brando is not Italian. He was born in Nebraska and his ancestry was all German, Dutch, etc. Like I said, I was not a big fan of the big man, but the only thing I could think of is that he might have been in a movie in or about Italy. . .  I'll have to look it up sometime.
The floors were enormous earth-tone tiles, the walls were painted a glossy dark yellow, the tables and chairs were black. It was properly lit, not too bright, not too dim. More than anything though it was loud.
There seemed to be ample staff, all running around bouncing from table to table. Another man stepped out of the kitchen and stood watch, a definite authority figure as well. He and the other man I'd pegged as a manager held several discussions, but mostly they scanned the dining area like hawks on a post.
Several minutes passed, and by several, I mean about forty five, from the time we were handed menus until
the entrees arrived. Just before the entrees showed up the new manager guy spotted me looking around and rushed over, apologized for the wait and ordered someone to go grab us some rolls.
We were served a saucer full of assorted, condiment style butter containers. then a lady came along behind us with a basket full of rolls and tonged two apiece into our appetizer plates. They were warm, almost hot and smelled heavenly, like fresh baked bread should. I cracked open one of them, the crust was pleasantly crispy, and scraped the entire contents of a butter tub into each one. Mmmm, melty butter. They were tasty, but our enjoyment was short lived as a solo act as the main course finally came.
My spaghetti and Angel's seafood pasta looked correct. After just a moment though I saw it, very disappointed. When I scooped some of the pasta toward the middle of the dish, a watery puddle formed. This wasn't because the sauce itself was watery, it was because the pasta had not been thoroughly drained before plating. I was able to stir it all around and it mixed in a little better, but it weakened the sauce.
Not that it could stand much weakening. The pasta was cooked correctly, well maybe a little overdone, and the sauce tasted just fine. . . which for me is not a compliment. As I said earlier, I make spaghetti quite often. I know a good sauce and I know a really good sauce. This was cafeteria sauce. Perfectly adequate for a modest meal, but hardly up to the depth of flavor and texture you'll find at a hundred other local Italian places. It was  red sauce and ground meat. I could detect no peppers, celery, garlic, onions etc.
This was really disappointing compared to the quite-nice marinara dipping sauce we'd had earlier, that had been almost salsa-thick. This sauce was really not any better than some of the better canned sauces at a grocery store. Not that there's anything wrong with canned sauce, I use it myself, as a starter. I always add peppers, onions, garlic, celery, etc. But when you go out to eat, especially at a place called 'Pasta House' you expect something a little better, richer, deeper. . . is that asking too much?
Angel was quite happy with her tutto mare. She especially liked the fact that the clams were not in the shell. It makes a pettier plate with clams in-shell, but it is sort of a hassle to de-shell them. There was plenty of shrimp as well, and as she does with this dish she fished all the meaty bits out without eating more than half the pasta.
That's completely normal. Neither of us ever finish our pasta. Even though mine was a 'small' I knew I couldn't hold that much heavy, starchy stuff, especially after the excellent rolls. At home I serve twice as much sauce as I got at PH and half as much noodles. I had the same problem with ratio at an Olive Garden a few weeks back the taste was okay, but the pasta to sauce proportions were just not in-whack.
I asked the boys about theirs. Larry was guarded, though he finally confessed that he wasn't very impressed with the burger. A bit bland. He didn't care very much for the fries either, though he stopped short of saying he didn't like them.
Adam had a few slices of his odd looking pizza, thin, paper thin crust,
chunks of hot wings and a pale beige sauce, Ranch Dressing, I believe. He really didn't care for the celery chunks on it. He said he got it, that hot wings are often served with a side of celery sticks and Ranch dipping sauce, but he said the celery taste overwhelmed his taste buds. He plucked the chunks off, said he wished they, like with wings, had been served on the side instead of cooked in with the pizza. other than that he said it was pretty good, but would not compare it to other places.
We argued a while about whether or not celery had a strong taste, when I cook I almost always cook with celery and have always thought of it as subtle. We finally decided that Adam just has weird taste buds.
I said at the beginning that this was complicated. You see, I want places to succeed, I want a new place to be good. I'd heard good things about PH, but was not prepared for it being as lackluster as it turned out to be. It wasn't that anything was bad, there just wasn't anything there that I cannot get better versions of in other places. For Angel, it was the ambiance. I agree with that as a problem. It's too noisy, it lacks that cozy, candlelit, rough around the edges atmosphere you find at the many trattorias in the area. Sure, it cost a little less, more on par with Olive Garden, (around $16 per head plus the appetizer) maybe less, but was it worth it? I'll pay a premium for a good steak I'm not good at cooking them myself, so I don't mind. This spaghetti though was just no better than Angel and I make at home. It's not like spaghetti is hard to make.
As for all the waiting . . .  did I mention that I had to flag down the manager guy to get the check? I get that, it's a new place. I was a bit annoyed that I didn't catch our servers names primarily because no less than half a dozen different people served us, the bread lady, the tea lady and the two Coke ladies . . . I didn't tip very high, at all, because I didn't know who or what I was tipping. Yes, I completely ignored the 'suggested gratuity' list at the bottom of the check.
We will, of course, go back in a few weeks or months to see if the place runs a bit smoother. I don't know if I can count on the food being much better, I'll certainly have to try something else, probably the cannelloni, certainly not a burger. . .
The place is brand new, so it gets a pass for now. .  .

Pasta House on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 3, 2014

St. Louis Bread Company (Panera)

1075 W. Gannon Dr.
Festus, Mo.
On  the Web

Outside the Metro St. Louis area, this 1800 store franchise is known as Panera Bread. The 101 locations here though, still go by the original name, St. Louis Bread Company.
It's quite a popular lunch or shopping break place. No deep fat fried items, mostly fresh made breads, salads, pastas and soups.
I had recently re-read some earlier reviews, looking for places that I needed to re-evaluate. This one surprised me as I feel as though we'd been there more frequently, but no. Not since 2010.
In that review I summarized by saying essentially that I'd ordered the wrong thing.
Well, time to fix that with a little advanced planning. During the week before this visit, I looked up the menu and made a mental list of things I'd be happier with.
The Place:
I like the idea of SLBC. A quality step up from fast food joints. They are also made for lounging.
Aside from the booths and tables, there are lounge chairs, quiet, cozy nooks that beg to be relaxed in. Grad a small bite, a cup of coffee, some WiFi or a book and just sit back, take a break. Like a coffee house. It has a clean, modern, casual look and feel. The seating area is separated from the ordering and counter area. I want to like SLBC.
We stepped in and up to the  ordering area. My mind went blank. It took me several minutes to readjust, refocus. No panini sandwich, no panini sandwich. . .
Commonly panini are squashed in a George Foreman type grill. I've decided that I didn't want all the ingredients heated, I wanted them fresh and cool. That was rule 1. . . I forgot the other rules. There was a soup that looked good. . . nope don't remember, go for a classic.
I placed my order, Angel placed hers, they handed over my cup. Angel settled up and waited for her lemonade. They also gave her a flashing vibrator. You know, the kind restaurants hand out to alert you when your order is ready.
I found us a table by the window, a four top. The boys, Adam and Larry arrived separately. We were going to a farm supply store afterward and for some reason they weren't interested in doing that. They were also handling their own bills. It's a new arrangement, part of an agreement we reached when Larry moved in. It's not a contentious agreement, just one that is part of the ongoing growing up process.
They would sit with us though.
The Food:
I had poured myself some unsweet tea. It looked clear and fresh. It was pretty good. Angel loves the lemonade, the boys had pop.
The vibrator started flashing and jiggling. At the same time someone behind the counter shouted Angel's name. The redundancy seemed completely unnecessary. No one could ignore the flat, square pager. Angel fetched the food. It looked fresh and clean.
I had ordered a Bacon Turkey Bravo sandwich and Creamy Tomato soup. The sandwich contained turkey, apple wood smoked bacon, greens, tomato and Gouda cheese doused with a small amount of their 'signature' sauce.
According to some folks who reverse engineer foods, the 'signature' sauce is ketchup based with lemon juice, Worcestershire and Tabasco sauce with a pinch of dried mustard. That sounds about right, it had a zing to it. The bread was their tomato basil bread, which you can also buy by the loaf. It was darker than white bread, a little more orange than wheat.
Angel had originally ordered a Greek salad with some clam chowder, but had been informed that  they were out of the chowder, so she subbed with cheesy broccoli soup. Each of our plates came with a softball sized soft roll. That looked pointless to me, I was already having a sandwich. Angel said it was for the soup, but that didn't make sense either, they'd provided a perfectly good spoon.
I like tomato soup, though I don't have it often as it is not very filling. This soup looked thick, bright and fresh. The sandwich was pretty. Folded deli turkey, bright lettuce, a strip of bacon, all on that slightly tanned bread. It hadn't been smooshed down. Beside it a nice looking, but pointless roll. In fact, when I did try to smoosh the sandwich, things slithered out all sides. I stuffed them back together and again, trying to make it small enough to fit into my mouth caused the slippery innards to act like like-pole magnets and fly apart. I determined that the main problem was the meat. Having been folded, it was not flat. The fold was much thicker than the ends, creating a wedge. The slippery tomato and friction-less lettuce had nothing to stick to, the whole thing was like ice on ice. The crust proved to be yet another problem. It was thick and neither soft nor crisp. It was, as best I can describe it, leathery. It would not compress, it could not be bitten through, I could only engage it in a destructive bout of tug of war. I only tried this once since that tugging caused the sandwich to come completely apart. I finally just ripped the crust off of the remaining mess of a sandwich. Both
Angel and Adam tried the crust, assuming I was exaggerating the problem. In the end, they agreed.
Though  the sandwich ingredients themselves were tasty, mechanically the sandwich was a serious fail. The whole point of a sandwich is convenience. A small one like this you should be able to eat it, stem to stern with one hand while you are holding a book in the  other. Not this one. It took both hands just to keep the thing together.
Angel was quite happy with her salad. "It's a Greek salad." she said, some sort of Greek dressing, some Greek olives, a little pepper. . .  Nothing outstanding, but it was fresh and satisfying. It's hard to screw up a salad. I could say the same about sandwiches, but they proved me wrong. As for the soup, Cheesy Broccoli, She liked it, but was really in the mood for chowder. My soup was good, though it looked like something had curdled a little in it. It may have been tomato pulp, it might have been thin curdles of cream, I couldn't tell, but near the end of the bowl, as the temperature dropped to tepid, it was texturally a little off-putting. There wasn't a lot of food to begin with, but having discarded a lot of the bread and stopping about two thirds of the way into the soup, there was ample room for more. Angel suggested dessert, with coffee. We rarely have dessert when we go out,  but it sounded like a great idea this time.
We headed back to the entry and looked over the pastry offerings. I'm not a fancy guy, I latched on to the cinnamon roll. Angel picked a smaller knotted pastry, a pecan twist. There was more than one style of coffee to choose from, some spicy, sweet concoctions, but also some plain, dark roast. I like a strong, dark coffee, so I filled my mug. Angel got something a little more girly.
The roll was simply gorgeous. All the food at SLBC seems to be made to appeal to the eye. We took our pastries and mugs back to our table and dug in. The cinnamon roll tasted exactly right, just the right combination of cinnamon, sugar, yeasty dough and frosting. I should just leave it at that. I really should, but I can't. the cinnamon roll was pretty dry. It tasted great, but it was very, very, day-old dry. Still better than no cinnamon roll though and the coffee was very good.
I know I sound like  a whiner, but I really, really want to like SLBC. I just can't seem to find any food-reason to go there. Everything I've tried there has ended up being a bit of a disappointment. Not gross, disgusting or awful, just not up to my modest expectations. Even as a lunch destination, I have no real desire to pick SLBC over just about anywhere else. It's disappointing that a Bread Company's cinnamon roll is too dry and a sandwich bread is mechanically impossible to eat.  Is that asking too much?
The place wasn't expensive and I appreciate the less than Texas-sized portions. I like the freshness and clean-ness of the place and the food. I like the smell of baking bread, good coffee and stable WiFi. . .
Maybe this was a series of flukes, a too-old cinnamon roll, an overcooked loaf of tomato basil bread, slipperier then usual meat. . . but I really don't think so. If I were to guess, it is a problem of style over substance. Appearance over function. That's my opinion anyhow.
Angel doesn't agree, she likes the place and the food just fine. So this is really a draw. Maybe I'm just missing something.

Panera Bread on Urbanspoon