Thursday, August 20, 2015


7070 State Rd. BB
Cedar Hill, Mo.

This was an ad-hoc plan B. We'd planned to go to Sorelli's in Cedar Hill, pizza, pasta, sandwiches, etc. As soon as we got there I had a memory flash. While looking up the menu earlier in the day, I had noticed a mention of a benefit auction for something. The parking lot was full. Ambulances in full show car mode, more than a dozen parked Harley's, many pickups and SUV's. They had quite the turnout. All three of us shy (run) away from crowds, so we didn't even need to take a vote, we were out of there.
We don't get to Cedar Hill often, it's not a very big town and it's not really on the way to anything we can get to on much less curvy, shoulder-less and narrow roads. This was highway BB, built to 1940's standards. A farm road built around farm property lines, streams, hills and creeks.
I'd been through Cedar Hill several times this year though, looking for churches. (long story) I knew there were other places in town, so did Angel. We had, in fact, just passed one. We went there.
The Place:
The Dar-E-Kreme is in a standalone, one-story, wood frame building, 1940's or 50's vintage. It does not have a drive-thru, but it does have a walk-up window. there were a few picnic tables scattered around.
As the name implies this was an old-school Ice Cream/Burger joint. Those of us in my generation, especially those more rural of us, will fondly recall places like this. This is what constituted fast-food when I was a kid. Before McD's or any of the rest of the plastic clones of McD's. During long, hot summers people would line up for some soft-serve or a sundae. Dad might get a burger, a feast for the whole family. Ahh, memories.
We walked in and I realized that they'd clung to that nostalgic notion. They hadn't copied it, this was it.
The back wall was mostly menu, bright, colorful and in the very style of the old 'Dairy-Dips' of my long-ago youth.
The yellow and beige checker pattern linoleum tile floor showed its age, but was clean and wax-shiny. The floor sagged a little in the middle as is quite common in 50 year old buildings. The sag was almost not noticeable except for the big spinning, stainless steel ice cream machine behind the counter. the squared top of the machine was parallel to nothing. Also behind the counter, scattered around on every available top, were colorful, gallon sized jugs of various syrups for the sno-cones and other frozen treats.
The walls themselves were painted a 50's shade of pale pink and almost hidden by the hundreds of photos and mini posters of The Three Stooges, 'I love Lucy' and 'The Andy Griffith Show' etc. Above the booths were yellow and orange Tiffany style hanging lamps, featuring a smiling ice cream cone. These fixtures were hardly vintage, they looked fairly new, but they fit the place like a glove. Behind the counter were a few black tee-shirted crew members, busy, sweating a little, but behaving quite professionally.

The Food:
This I knew to be a place for a quick, satisfying burger and fries. I knew that's what Adam and Angel would order, so I went out on a limb and asked for a fish sandwich and onion rings. I had a sneaky suspicion that the fish patty would be fast food square, not a filet as you may find in more upscale places. The fish patties of my youth, like the school cafeteria served. I didn't even ask, I just knew. Adam also showed some sense of familiarity when he ordered a double burger. He just knew that the meat patties would be small and thin. It was just so obviously that kind of place.
Angel made the order, I found us a booth in the back. The place was busy.
It wasn't very long before one of the crew members brought our tray with a smile.
We had nailed it. The burger patties were small and thin, spatula smashed on the grill, rough, crispy edged. Just a simple bun, exactly like those you pick up from the supermarket. The fries were perfectly sized and exactly the shade of brown that a fry should be. I took one of Angel's, it was exactly what I expected, crispy and salty. A perfect fry.
My onion rings as well looked exactly as you would expect from a joint like this. Crispy brown, all the rings intact. The fish patty, oh that lovely fish patty met my hopes and exceeded my expectations. It was crispy, the fish itself flaky and it actually tasted like fish, not burnt cooking oil. Because there was nothing else on the sandwich, like lettuce or cheese, it was just the fish, a light dollop of creamy tartar sauce and my taste buds. What a delight. The onion rings were as good as they looked. Steamy real onions encased in a crispy batter. No flash, no added heat. Simple, nostalgic, not too heavy, not crowded with extras.
Angel and Adam were truly enjoying their baskets as well. The 'Double' was the perfect call, size-wise.
Both of them were quite happy with their meals, for the same reasons I loved mine. Dar-E-Kreme pulled it off, a simple, excellent meal.
Since we were surrounded by people coming and going with frozen treats, we were tempted. Quite uncharacteristically, we succumbed to that temptation. I decided to splurge and go for an ice cream sandwich. Not just any ice cream sandwich though. Here I had the option of a Dad's Original Scotch Oatmeal Cookie. I don't recall the other options, I knew Dad's. It's a St. Louis thing. Many eateries in the area have Dad's jars on the counter. These are old style cookies, the recipe for the Scotch Oatmeal is nearly a hundred years old.
We would be eating our treats in the car, it was pretty hot out, once again reminding me of the sweet and very sticky summer trips to the lake of my youth. Two-three inch cookies with nearly an inch if hard frozen soft-serve vanilla between them. Angel and Adam stuck with their favorites, a root beer float and a chocolate malt, respectively. I assumed they enjoyed them, I was too busy trying to catch the melting ice cream before it coated my arm and lap. I proudly and bravely hosted a small bout of brain freeze. Well worth it.
As you can probably tell by now, we loved the place. Simple, inexpensive (dinner minus the ice cream was just over twenty five bucks) and friendly. I was kind of glad Sorelli's was packed, otherwise we might have skipped around this small place yet again.
Sure, Cedar Hill is hardly on the way to much, but if you do find yourself in that area and want to hark back to the good old days, the real thing, not some plastic, industrialized imitation, this is the joint.

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Monday, August 10, 2015

Oriental Buffet

774 S. Truman Blvd.
Festus, Mo.

After last week's very disappointing Chinese (Panda Express) meal, we needed to refresh our palates. One of the most telling indicators that the food wasn't that good was that no one ever touched any of the leftovers. Angel says that's a sure sign that it was just wrong.
So we decided to go to a decent Chinese place and rub the Panda's face in it.
The Place:
Less than one mile south of, and on on the same road as Panda.  PE is on a lot just north of the big Walmart, Oriental Buffet is in a shopping center on the lot south of Wally World. Yeah, that close. It doesn't appear that their business has suffered much from the big Hibachi Grill, also less than a mile away, or the mighty Panda. OB looked as clean, well staffed and popular as ever. Overhead, twangy Chinese instrumentals played quietly, as if a part of nature itself.
The steamer trays were loaded up. The first station, for  sushi, was offering pretty and colorful stuff in sticky rice, stuff that I will never take. I just don't like sticky rice.
We were greeted at the front counter and immediately led to a four top in the middle of the tidy dining area. Without even sitting down, we gave our drink orders, tea, tea and coke and were pointed toward the ample serving area. Yeah, that fast.
The Food:
The offerings at Panda were very limited. Not here, I counted seven or eight types of chicken, several types of shrimp and other seafood, including frog legs, lots of wrapped fried things, different kinds of rice and noodles, a whole station for salads, another for desserts. . .  you get the point.
We loaded up. As usual I took small samples of lots of things, rice, noodles five different chickens, bourbon, honey, orange, black pepper and General Tso. I also grabbed a spring roll a rangoon, a couple of fried shrimp and some pepper beef. In other words, everything I 'd had from the Panda, plus much more.
By the time we returned to the table, the drinks were waiting. It just doesn't get faster from order to forkful than this.
Angel's plate looked similar, though she'd also found some sauteed green beans and had some chicken on a stick. Adam had some of his favorites, broccoli (blech!), white rice and sweet and sour chicken. I like sweet and sour, but for some reason, buffets around here think that the chicken for it needs to be coated like a corn dog in breading. When I make sweet and sour at home, it's no different than that for the other sauce/coating options, very lightly breaded, just enough to make it crisp.
The first thing I dug into was the noodles. I love noodles. But I like fried rice as well. This poses a dilemma at some non-buffet Chinese places, noodles or rice, rice or noodles. That's why I love a buffet, I can get both.
Angel  and I agree, the rice here was so much better than at the Panda. Which is ridiculous, fried rice
is one of the simplest things to make. You certainly don't crowd it with veggies, especially corn. Who puts corn in fried rice? But I repeat myself.
Even Hibachi, the colossal buffet on the nearby hill makes better rice, and chicken and everything else. Even though when we did a two night comparison a while back, Hibachi lost out a little to the Oriental Buffet.
There wasn't a lot of conversation while we cleaned our plates. And clean them, we did.  This was a great idea, to restore our respect for the cuisine.
We all had small dessert plates, mine, of course was banana pudding, with a vanilla wafer, and the bananas in thick red sauce you only find at Chinese places.
Simple. Everything was better than at the Panda. It was fast, had a much wider variety and as if that weren't enough, the bill came in six dollars under what we paid at the Panda.
I've had better Chinese food. Primarily when I was stationed in Japan. But that's a bit of a drive, I doubt that I will ever have that again. However there's also Springfield, Mo. where Angel is from and where I spent seventeen years of my own handsome life. Springfield is where you find the best Americanized Chinese food in the country. Seriously, it doesn't get better. If you've ever had 'Cashew Chicken' or as it is known some places, 'Springfield Style', you'll understand, it was first created there.
However, I don't live there anymore either. So The quest is constant to find at least pretty good versions. In our vicinity, in the small window of driving time we can allow for these weekly excursions, Oriental Buffet wins every time.
The tea isn't very good, just ask for water instead, there's so many great flavors on your plate that you don't need to worry about what you drink.
The staff is efficient, tidy, busy and quickly on the spot to remove plates or refill your tumbler. The price is right, the selection and quality is a lot better. AND they have takeout options!
I do not understand why anyone would prefer the third rate food at Panda Express over this place. Of course, I also don't understand why there's always a line at the drive through at White Castle. Some people just want crap, I guess.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Panda Express

612 S. Truman
Festus, Mo.
On the Web

Easy pick. Since it sits beside the Walmart in Festus, we knew it was coming. I was actually looking forward to reviewing it, for all the wrong reasons. More on that later. You may know Panda from the many, many mall installations of the brand. The first Panda Express opened in 1983 by the Cheng family. Master Chef  Ming Tsai Cherng had been operating the very popular Panda Inn in Pasedena, California for ten years prior to he and his son, Andrew, opening the first Express in the Glendale Galleria. Pioneers in the 'Quick Service' Chinese food market. Today, there are over 1700 Panda Express locations. All locations are wholly owned by the parent company, there are no franchises.
I was already in Festus, I'd just had my head examined, well part of it anyhow. it was my eyes. Regular readers are aware of my ongoing issues with my eyesight. My eyeglass prescription ran out a few months ago and I've been mentioning (whining) it to Angel for quite a while. She has been encouraging (nagging) me to get some new ones. I, of course, get my optical needs met at Walmart. It turns out that there was a problem with my existing prescription, it was too strong. My eyesight had actually improved, probably due to my lowered blood pressure, cholesterol and weight over the past two years. I went out on a limb with the new frames, they are completely different than anything I've had the last thirty years or so.
Angel had a really busy day so we'd set this plan in place earlier in the week. I'd pop in and order a bunch of stuff, take it home and lay it all out buffet style.
The Place:
As I said, next to the big Walmart in Festus.
Brand new, so 'clean and tidy' was almost a given. The decor was nice, subdued, not plastic-y. As you go in you pass a few tables and step up to the line. The ordering/serving line is in front, glass fronted so pedestrians can't spit or sneeze into the food. The offerings are in steamer trays, much like you'll find at a buffet. Overhead is a menu with prices.
Desteny (yes, that's how she spells it.) stepped forward after welcoming me. I was still studying the overhead when she asked if she could help. I asked her about portion sizes adding the part about the in-home buffet.
She pointed out a combo, a Panda Feast, with three meats and two sides. This feast goes for thirty bucks.
The Food:
I okay'd her suggestion. We started with the meats. Not that there were a lot of them to choose from, compared to a buffet, or even to the nearby family owned Chinese place, Lam's. I went with things that were similar to what we would get at a buffet.
Orange Chicken, Beef Broccoli and Black Pepper Chicken.
The sides were a cinch, Fried Rice and White Rice. (Adam prefers the white.) I surreptitiously added two egg rolls and two orders of cheese rangoons. This brought the total up to thirty nine and change. Desteny asked if I wanted to round it up to forty and donate the change to some sort of children's charity. Sure, I was in a charitable mood.
Behind the serving line was the prep area/kitchen. Part of the Panda philosophy is to let people see the food being made to assure the customers that it was clean and was not made from cats.  I can appreciate that, there's a Springfield Mo. favorite called Cashew Chicken that somehow picked up the nickname Cashew Kitten.
I'm sure no one cooks with cats anymore. . . (I told you I was feeling charitable)
She scooped up the chosen portions into stereotypical red and paper boxes. No wire handles, which  was disappointing since I like totally pointless things.
The egg rolls looked overcooked and the rangoons looked as though they'd been sitting under a heat lamp for an hour or two.
I paid up, grabbed my package and left, racing home to put the stuff in the fridge. . .it was a bit early.
By the time Angel got a break and Adam limped out of his room for the first time that day (he works nights), an hour had passed, but the stuff in the boxes was still pretty warm. I plucked some rice, the two chickens an egg roll and a couple of rangoons out of their boxes and wrapper and populated a plate. I set the reactor two one minute to heat it back up, but not actually cook it further. If a Chinese feast suffers from reheating, it was not real Americanized Chinese food to begin with.
Angel was already feasting, watching Jurassic Park, again. I think that movie is on all the time somewhere, she seems to find it a lot.
I joined her in the adjoining recliner, because that's how we dine at home. Adam joined a couple of minutes later.
The Orange Chicken, PE's biggest seller, was sweet and there was a very slight hint of flavoring, it might have been orange. After two or three nuggets though, the sweetness started to numb my tongue. By the end of the five or so chunks I'd selected, I was queasy. Don't be fooled, it may say 'orange', but this caramelized sticky coating is mostly just sugar. The pepper chicken lived up to its name. Black pepper, lots of it. Too much, by a mile. I could only handle a very small portion. I didn't try the broc and beef but the word I got from both Angel and Adam was "Where's the sauce?" and "I think they forgot something."
The rangoons were a little greasy, not especially crisp and after chewing, there seemed to be a dusty aftertaste. It was as if the wonton wraps were hard frozen and thawed a few times, breaking down the structure of the dough. The egg roll, besides being over-fried, tasted very heavily of ginger. I can't handle that as a primary flavor. If you like heavy handed ginger, you might think more highly of it than I did. The rice was bland. Angel noted that it was too crowded with veggies, especially corn. "Who puts corn in fried rice?" She asked rhetorically, I hope.
As I polled the room, one thing was abundantly clear. No one was really impressed with anything. The highest praise for anything peaked at 'Okay.'
Adam did say, trying to be positive, "It was good for what it was."
In other words, if fast-food quality and service is what you want in your Chinese meal, well, here you go.
First  and foremost, before it gets ugly, the service and staff I encountered at the store were very pleasant, attentive and professional. Desteny was excellent, patiently explaining things to an arrogant and ignorant novice.
Through no fault of anyone in Jefferson County, this place represents a disheartening race to the bottom. This is what fast food joints of this particular generation, regardless of offerings, brings to the gastronomic landscape. Everybody knows that the soggy, flat, lifeless burgers you get in a Happy Meal looks nothing like those McD's ads you see on TV or even in-store banners. . I mean, it's right there!
Fast, cheap, greasy or sweet, turn the customers as quickly as possible, as cheaply as possible. Make every item at every one of the thousands of locations taste exactly the same, no innovation, no tweaking, stick with the lowest common denominator script. Panda Express is to Chinese food what Taco Bell is to Mexican cuisine. It's an embarrassment. It's an admission that we will gladly trade away the idea of  'quality and value' for 'fast and cheap'.
This is the 'value' Panda Express brings to Festus. Within five minutes of this location, I know of at least four more Chinese places, two of them buffets. You can get some really good, fresh(er) Chinese food, just as quickly and definitely for the same price or less. At Panda, I paid $40 for this family feast, I can 'all-you-can-eat-buffet' three people for less than that, in very close proximity.
Come on folks, we deserve better.
BTW, There's a new restaurant going up in the Desoto Walmart parking lot! Taco Bell.  Yeah. . .

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