Sunday, September 25, 2016

Thai Rama

907 N. Truman Blvd.
Crystal City, Mo.
On the web

First, The artists, producers, photographers, writers, editors and researchers at Eat and Critique would like to send out a big thank you to you, all of you, for making this epic and cosmically important review blog the unimaginable success it has been.
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Though we may occasionally boast, we are quite humbled on the inside.

Here we go.

Thai? Really?
Yes, I know We've never reviewed a Thai restaurant before. Not because there were none available, or that we were not aware of them, but for cultural reasons. Not the Thai culture, but that of my family.
Angel and I are culinarily, purely Midwestern. Born and bred on meat and potatoes, fried chicken, pot roast, burgers, hot dogs and bologna sandwiches. Our major spices are salt and pepper. Red sauce is ketchup.
We really like (air quotes) 'Chinese food', because what we have at Chinese restaurants is mostly invented or perfected in the USA. Just recently when we went out for Chinese, I inwardly lamented that everything seemed to taste the same, breaded, fried, you know.
We've always known that Thai or Indian would not be that comfortable taste profile. When Adam was going with us regularly, Thai was not even an option. Adam only likes about seven things, and none of them are coated with curry or peanut sauce.
So this was a big deal for us.
I'd had Thai before, maybe three or four times, at lunch with co-workers back when I lunched with co-workers, a thing I only do very rarely now, more for medical reasons than that I can't stand to eat with them. I've even tried a couple of Indian places with actual people from India.  More on that in a future episode.
When I do eat with co-workers I tend to drown in the anxiety of having to socialize with a larger group of people. Yeah, I'm one of those. I don't follow sports or fashion trends or have young kids or vacations like the rest of them and that seems to be what they like to talk about. So stressful is it that I rarely even notice the meal itself.
The Place:
In an unassuming shopping center next door to Twin City Monuments, a headstone operation that I've always wanted to visit. I've got this thing about headstones, I once asked another monument company to let me buy a couple of small 'mistake' stones. You know, just to have around the yard.
We would not be dining in. Angel called it in, I  made the hour long solo trek (extra 15-20 minutes thanks to the bridge work I mentioned last week) to Festus/Crystal City and back. Angel had created and called in the order, all I had to do was go get it. Inside was well staffed, deceptively large and nicely decorated.
When I went in the order was on the counter. There were several folks there, some eating, some waiting. The young man at the counter, as well as the three or four others, were all smiling and friendly, they seemed to be genuinely content. The transaction went straight through, I barely had time to look around. It was definitely clean and orderly, at least out front. Nothing fancy, well, except for the big mural on the wall, but nothing over the top or too kitschy. The aroma of the place was intoxicating, in a good way.
The Food:
We decided to do it 'make-your-own-buffet' style as we do with Chinese take-out. Since neither of us knew what we would like, she studied the menu a day ahead of time to create a buffet of possibilities. I knew Pad Thai with chicken was pretty tame, so she made sure to order that.
Along with:
A2 - Thai Spring Roll - cucumber, carrot, green onion, egg tofu, in rice paper, with a plum sauce.
C5 - Musaman Curry  - Coconut milk, white onion, and potato chunks, beef.
C4 - Panang Curry - milk, bell peppers, basil, and peanut sauce, chicken.
H3 - Gang Quah Shrimp - Panang Curry (above), pineapple, tomatoes, bell peppers, basil.
Yes, curry. Crazy, right?
Curry refers to a blend of spices. The word itself derives from the Tamil (Southeast India) word 'kari' which translates to 'sauce, relish for rice.' Thai Rama's curries are definitely the wet version of curry, sauces to serve over rice or noodles. We had already had noodles in the Pad Thai, so Angel ordered up some plain white rice as well, to host the curries.
In Indian restaurants there is a flat bread, similar to a pita, called naan, that you dip into the various curries.
Rice is good for that too, you just can't really pick it up with your hands.
I was a little worried. One of those times I did go Thai with co-workers, one guy, who I'll refer to as Doug, asked for the full five-alarm spice tray. He's light complected and even with a decades old, built up tolerance to most things, including almost daily 7-11 hot dogs, he turned so bright red that we considered calling 911. In fact, if we liked him more, we probably would have.
Just kidding, Doug is great, even though he curiously thinks Trump is a reasonable candidate, I like him anyhow.
Once home, Angel popped open the lids and posed them for the photo shoot. I learned something about curry during that particular part of the effort, curry is not terribly photogenic. They all looked alike.
I knew the milky, creamy sauces contained hidden secrets though.
We each dished up some rice and distributed each of the three curries around our plates. They still looked very similar, but the meats, especially the shrimp gave up hints. The curry sauce for the shrimp and chicken was the same, though with slightly different veggie chunks.
The spring rolls were fresh, crisp and cool. Fresh chilled veggies in strips wrapped in a very thin, nearly transparent rice wrap. I tried eating one in two bites, but the wrap burst on several sides when I bit into the veggies and was useless for another unified bite. Probably intended for a single thrust.
They were very good, providing a springtime contrast to the heartier rice and milky sauces.
The Pad Thai was a dish I recalled, very tame. If you too are wary about Thai food, Pad Thai is a safe choice. Not very spicy. Noodles, veggies, chicken. . .  I tried it first, about as good as I remembered it, though after eating some of the curries, it seemed quite bland. The tickle of heat in the Panang curry was enough to make the more subtle spices in the noodle dish disappear completely.
And it was just a tickle. I don't like heat for heat's sake. I have no tolerance for pepper spices, even Tabasco. I never use the stuff.
This is that cultural thing I mentioned earlier. There's nothing insane or even rare about hotter spices,
it's just that I was never around it much. My parents never, ever pushed stronger flavors on me, so most of it is their fault anyhow.
The use of tomatoes and pineapple seemed a little weird as well. I love tomatoes, I love pineapple, but I'm just not accustomed to finding them cooked into a creamy, savory sauce. I tried them anyhow. It's something I could get used to, but it will take a while. I didn't find it disgusting, or even bad, it's just my under-trained taste buds were having trouble translating it to my brain.
The curries here, Panang and Musaman are both Thai standards. I'll not go into the specific details here, that's what we built the internet for. Suffice it to say that they have different taste profiles.
We took a poll and we both agreed that the shrimp was our favorite, but only by a little.
And that's what we both noticed. There's a lot going on with the depth and breadth of tastes, all of them. This was not flour, grease and milk gravy, nor was it a basic two-spice tomato sauce. There was a lot going on.
Neither of us are experienced enough to be able to define it better than that. This stuff was very, very different from the mac and cheese and pigs in a blanket styles of food we grew knowing and loving.
It was an awakening, of what, we're not sure. It seemed exotic, foreign, unfamiliar, yet enticing. We felt like explorers.
This buffet cost a little over fifty bucks, but there was a lot of food. When we do this we end up with two or three meals worth of stuff, so prorate it based on that.
We'll definitely go back, to try different things, to expand our vocabulary, to experience some authentic and excellent cuisine, carefully and thoughtfully prepared.

Thai Rama Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, September 21, 2016


673 Gravois Bluffs Blvd.
Fenton, Mo.
On the web.

We had options. Gravois Bluffs is a shopping area, I've mentioned it several times before. Along the row in front of the big box stores on the south side of highway 141, is a long line of restaurants, a dozen or more. Most, if not all, chain restaurants you've heard of.
Our actual destination was on the north side of the road, even more stores and restaurants there. We were on a quest. We had decided that we needed new dinnerware. Like many working families, our plates and bowls are mismatched, chipped and diminishing in numbers. Angel had been thinking about it and decided that we should just go ahead and replace the war-weary collection. A store that once had nice dinnerware, Gordman's was on the north side of the highway, in the shadow of the bluffs. Angel recalled that there was an Applebee's in that same shopping center.
She's recovering from foot surgery but can now get around for short periods in her 'boot' without crutches or the now-abandoned knee scooter. Driving long distances is problematic for her since the boot is so bulky that once in place under the dashboard, there's very little wiggle room, her leg and foot stiffen up. So I drove her in her Trailblazer.  I commute in a little VW Jetta. I like my small, reliable, efficient little car. Her SUV feels massive in comparison. I rarely drive it. But I soldiered up and offered to drive. She stretched out on the passenger side, an ideal position to complain about my
overly cautious and timid driving style. She didn't nag, but I could hear the frequent sighs.
The Place:
The shopping center is very busy, but Applebee's didn't seem crowded. I cautiously and timidly parked the battleship near the door. A member of the wait staff opened the door for us as we approached. They seated us in the central dining area, near the bar, at a bistro style table.
Asked for drinks, Angel asked for sweet tea, I grumbled and settled for the un-sweet version.
I'd really like to find something else to drink on these trips, tea is almost always a disappointment at restaurants.
I looked around, typical, ubiquitous, 80's chain sports bar. TV's playing sports on every wall, thankfully muted. The overhead music came through scratchy, distributed (100 volt) institutional ceiling speakers. Those things are fine for low volume 'Muzak' but lousy for contemporary, bass-heavy pop or rock. I could explain why this is, but will spare you for the time being.
The Food:
I'd scanned the online menu earlier in the day so I'd already narrowed it down a short list of possible choices. Angel didn't seem to have any problem deciding either. I sipped on the tea, which was surprisingly good. Clear, bright, fresh. It could have been a little stronger, but for restaurant tea this was quite good.
I'd briefly considered the fish and chips, until I remembered a 'note to self': If fish and chips is not featured prominently on the menu, skip it, just walk away. Nobody seems to get the fish right at all the places I've ordered it in the past. Applebee's had it buried well down in the 'yeah we have this stuff too, if you insist' section.
The gentleman who would be our server asked for our orders, Angel took the lead.
Shrimp 'n Parmesan  Sirloin with grilled veggies and garlic mashed potatoes.
Me: Grilled Onion Sirloin and Stout Gravy with crispy red potatoes. (from the 'Lighter Fare' page)
As we waited I noticed that two of the muted TV's were not showing actual sports, they were instead showing a guy talking. I assume about sports, but for a half hour or more it was just this guy talking, on a muted TV, with no closed captioning. Not surprisingly, I could
find no one watching those 2
TVs. Frankly, it didn't appear that anyone was watching the football game on the other TV's either. I wish these places would tune at least one or two TV's to something else other than sports.
The wait was not especially long, another server brought out our plates.
Mine looked exactly like the photo in the menu. A six ounce steak, which, to me, is the perfect size for a steak, and a generous spread of crispy red potatoes. The 'Stout gravy' was an unknown. It was pretty though, the color of molasses, just not quite as thick, sweet and disgusting.
Angel's steak was a little bigger and topped with shrimp. It looked pretty good. The mixed veggies were off-putting though, one word: squash.
Yes I have tried squash, lots of kinds, lots of ways. No, just no. I cannot un-remember that distinctive, sickening taste. Go ahead and enjoy it if you like, but for me, it's just no.
The server demanded we cut into our steaks to check that the done-ness was as desired. I went medium this night, sometimes I'll go a bit pinker, but was in the mood for just a little more firmness this time around. Neither of us had any complaints. The server asked if we wanted steak sauce, I gave her my standard reply. "Not if you did the steak right."
We didn't need any sauce.
I cautiously dipped a red tater into the dark brown gravy and gave it a shot.
I was not disappointed. I savored it. I could detect meat drippings, au jus, and something, something. . . .oh yeah 'Stout' as in beer. It wasn't all beer-y, it had been cooked down quite a bit. It was heavenly. It had a deep, dare I say manly flavor. Steak drippings and beer on top of steak and potatoes. . . oh yeah.
Angel was going to town on hers as well. Then something quite remarkable happened. We both openly expressed how pleased we were with or meals. Not just a little, but quite pleased indeed!
I almost hated to admit it. We really, really liked the food.
I had managed expectations about Applebee's, it has disappointed before. I can't say much about the service, it could have been a little more attentive  and consistent, but no one was rude, nor did they botch the order.
On the table was a touch pad terminal. I'm not a gadget-guy, so it didn't interest me much. Angel poked on it a little. You could pay to play a game, pay your bill, order stuff, things like that. Of course Angel can play games on her own phone for no charge, no need to fork over $1.69 or whatever it was. The original server brought us the check, but Angel wanted to pay on the terminal. It knew what this table had ordered and it asked if we wanted to split the ticket. I guess that's cool, settle that fight with your co-workers while everyone's still sitting there.
She didn't split our check though, since we're in love and married and stuff. It's how we roll. The bill came to $41.25, a very respectable price for a fantastic meal.

Applebee's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

China King

412 N. Main
DeSoto, Mo.
On Facebook

I crowd-sourced this choice. (I asked people on a social network group to recommend a place).
This was not a gimmick though, I really wanted input and I figured, who better to ask than a group called "If you grew up in Desoto, Mo., you might remember . . . "  I didn't grow up there but I joined the group for historical reasons. . . history club stuff. There's a lot of old photos posted there and discussions as to what used to be where, etc. Here's what I posted.
"Sorry to intrude with a non-history question, but I'm kind of a marital bind. I need to find a decent Chinese take out place in Desoto. Thoughts? Recommendations? Places to avoid?"
There were several responses, even some debate. Only one name came up, to near unanimous recommendation.
One post, by Ed,  a guy I know IRL (in real life):
"Too bad you specified De Soto. I know this excellent place on Ty Tung Doh Low (phonetic spelling). But that's in Tai Pei"
I responded that I knew a couple of great places as well, in Northern Japan and South Korea.
You see, the travel was the entire point of my inquiry.
The country road I live on connects to a minor county road. At least it used to. There's a bridge over a creek between our compound and that other road. It is being completely rebuilt, road closed.
The detour adds about four or five miles to any and all trips to anywhere. That may not sound like much, but it is all country road miles. No center lines, no shoulders, narrow, curvy and constantly populated by deer, tractors and other country stuff.
Normally when we bring home Chinese, we go to Lam's in Festus. If we want a buffet, we go to Festus.
Now that Festus was even further away than it used to be, I was looking to cut down on the drive time. Desoto is about five miles closer than Festus. I'd never had Chinese food in DeSoto.
So I asked the group to name the good ones.

The Place:
Located next to the Dollar General in a not-completely-occupied strip mall on Main street. The parking lot was barely littered with patrons, it was rather quiet. On the railroad tracks across the street, a double locomotive idled powerfully, sounding hungry for the long pull to come.
It had taken about a half hour to get there, Angel had composed and called in the order just as I was leaving. I took her list with me just in case the order wasn't quite all there.
There was a couple, or a small family sitting at one of the tables, I couldn't tell if they were eating in or waiting for a take-out.
Overall the place looked exactly like every other small town Chinese take-out place, maybe a little more worn and run down. The carpet was stomped almost smooth and shiny in a few heavy traffic areas, the lights seemed old, just not as bright as maybe they once were. It wasn't necessarily dirty, just well-worn.
There was a man at the counter paying for his order, I was next in line. Actually, I was the line. The lady asked for my phone number, Angel had said they didn't ask for a name, just a number. This sort of thing is not usually a problem for me, however I fumbled the answer this time like I was lying and got caught. The problem was that I rarely give out my home phone number and my personal cell phone number had recently changed. So I essentially answered in a confused compilation of three different numbers. Realizing I had screwed it up only made me more anxious about it so I started spitting out various unrelated number sequences. One of them must have come close, since the lady shoved a large bag towards me.
I handed her my debit card, she said something about signatures and dollar amounts, but I was still recovering from the phone number crisis so I didn't quite grasp the details. I merely trusted her to ring it up correctly, I either trusted or just didn't care, they look kind of the same in the language of my facial ticks and scowls.
I made the drive back, almost hitting a deer crossing the detour road, the same deer crossing in the opposite direction, at the same spot in the same road that I'd almost hit an hour earlier. I guessed that he went out for some take-out as well.
The Food:
We ordered three combos and a couple of sides, even though it would just be the two of us. We do take out this way, we set it up as a buffet at home.
What we got this time:
1. Pepper Beef. Slim strips of beef, big ol' chunks of bell pepper and onion and a savory gravy/sauce.
2. General Chicken. You know which general. Zuo Zongtang (Tso Tsung-t'ang) (1812–1885) was indeed a real person, a military leader and statesman. However, he had absolutely nothing to do with this dish. There is no record at all of anything like this stuff existing anywhere around when and where he lived and worked. It could be a linguistic anomaly, a similar sound to his name passed down over generations. Hunan cuisine chef Peng Chang-kuei fled mainland China during that nations's civil war and settled, as did many, in what is now known as Taiwan. He cooked there until 1973 when he
left the continent to settle in New York City, where he experimented with new dishes and allegedly introduced the sweet, spicy concoction to the American menu. That's one story anyhow. There are, as with nearly every food item, more than a few claims to the origin, what is known is that it first appeared in the U.S. in the early 1970's
3. Pork Noodles (lo mein). In Japan this was called yakisoba. Chinese spiced and sauced . . .  spaghetti. . . with small strips of pork, onions, etc. I like noodles.
On the side we added steamed dumplings, a pair of crab Rangoons
and a couple of egg rolls. 'Rangoon' refers to the former capital of Myanmar (Burma) and there is a similar food item to what we know from Burma (Myanmar) BTW, Rangoon is more correctly 'Yangon'. Because, of course it is.
The version we know commonly was invented in San Francisco, perhaps at Trader Vic's. You see, there is no history, at all, of cream cheese in Southeast Asia, or pretty much any other kind of cheese.

So we peeled it all open and dived in, each a little of everything, just like at a real buffet, but without the frog legs.
Let me lead off by asking you: "What the hell is up with making the fried rice day-glow yellow and for the love of any god or gods you choose, WHY?
I've seen this in a few places. Probably turmeric, nature's own food coloring. It adds little to nothing to the taste and used like this, in my opinion, is a bit off-putting. It doesn't look anywhere near natural. I don't need to sparkle up a potato, what's wrong with natural brownish beige in a starchy side?
There, got that off my chest.
So how was it? One word, Adam could have said it for us. Fine. It was all just fine.
Nothing was outstanding and nothing was terrible. Beside the pencil-yellow rice, the steamed dumplings had a structural problem. There was a lot of dough and only a little happy ending (filling). The dough to filling ratio was out of whack.
The taste of the filling was. . . fine, but there was a lot of essentially tasteless, chewy dough to go through to get to it.
But that's pretty much as bad as it gets. In every other aspect it was quite. . .  fine. Acceptable, good enough.
Sometimes that's all you need. Chinese food like this is not haute cuisine. It's working people food. It's cheap, there are several options, and it fits perfectly with the American lust for wrapped and floured fried meats. Kids even like the stuff.
I am of course spoiled. I served and ate for three years in Japan and South Korea. It's a different thing. Some of the stuff we have here wasn't even available there. (however, if you like deep fried squid heads on a stick, you are in luck.)
I left the service after that tour and settled, for over fifteen years, in the modern day Mecca of Americanized Chinese food, Springfield, Mo. I am indeed spoiled.
There's a Chinese place nearer to my home than China King. We ate there, once and only once. For the past few years we've settled for the two places in Festus, China King can easily join that pair as a good-enough place to go for Chinese takeout.
Sometimes you have to settle. After Springfield, we lived for five years on the Chesapeake Bay in Southern Maryland. I have not had a decent crab cake since then. There are some I can settle for, but they are not the ideal. And that's okay. China King is plenty good enough. If I want steak and lobster, I'll get steak and lobster. On a busy weekend when I just crave Chinese, this will do just fine if it means I do not have to drive to Seoul or Misawa.
To all the FB post responders in Desoto, thanks for participating! Let's do this again sometime!

China King Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato