Monday, December 31, 2007

Mojito Mojo

Bella Habana, St. Pete Beach Florida

Imagine sitting outside in December, sipping mojitos,and eating Cuban sandwiches while the rest of the country digs out from under the snow. Such was my recent trip to Bella Habana on St. Pete's beach in Florida. The Cuban sandwiches were made with thick slices of pork and ham, and I think they were good, but after two mojitos, I am not really sure of anything. I SWEAR that I did not know the mojitos were two for one until the waitress plopped down the two large glasses in front of me, resulting in a much longer stay at Bella Habana than I had originally intended. The mojitos were served with fresh mint and a stalk of sugar cane. I also tried the pureed ham tapa that came with a side of hot wing type sauce and although highly recommended by the waitress, I would probably give a miss next time. I would have liked to try the chicken and rice but there is a two person minimum per order and at least a 45 minute wait.

Frog Legs and Fried Pickles, Yum!

Toots, Murfreesboro Tennessee

Toots is another formerly unique restaurant that is slowly expanding beyond the Murfreesboro area. So we expect it to go downhill fast. Unfortunately. Popular with the MTSU college crowd, Toots is known for being a little bit Hooterish but not enough that you can't bring the kids. The fried pickles (yes, deep fried with batter and served with dressing on the side) go great with the many beers that you will be ordering. I admit, they are one of my favorites if not the most healthy thing that one can eat as evidenced by the pool of grease that accumulates at the bottom of the basket. The catfish, wings, and frog legs are also popular favorites.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

How to make fresh spring rolls

Houston: Vietnamese cuisine gone wrong

Kim Son Buffet, Houston Texas
This restaurant was recommended by an actual Vietnamese person so I was excited to give it a try, being a fan of authentic Vietnamese cuisine. I was disappointed. The flavor of all dishes seemed to be rather odd and not appealing to me. I tried the hot pot and many different varieties of buffet items, most of which I did not care for. Buffets often have poorer quality food and I think that maybe that was the case with this restaurant. This restaurant has two other separate parts besides the buffet--dim sum and a fine dining seafood restaurant. I might actually consider returning to try the dim sum but definitely wouldn't return for the buffet.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Damn the Food Network!

Paradise Pup
Des Plaines Illinois

Dammit! Thanks to the Food Network and that Guy guy, I will now have to wait 2 hours instead of one to get a good hotdog or burger at what I thought was my secret little spot on my way to O'Hare. The food network recently profiled this place on Diners Drive-Ins and Dives. And for good reason. Even before being outed by the Food Network, the place was extremely popular with the locals. I noticed it while driving past on an otherwise quiet Saturday and noticed the line running out the door and around the side of the building. Of course I had to stop. The locals said that the line was actually short by comparison to the usual weekday lunch line. I was impressed by the cooks, who, unfazed by the long line, continued to systematically take and prepare each order with care and precision. Customers squeezed past each other to get in and out of this tiny little place. There were a few seats inside and tables outside but you probably won't find an empty one, and , like me, will have to eat in your car. One interesting note: outside while in line, a man was performing card tricks but stopped when he saw me take his picture (hm...)

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Adventure Dining: Knoxville

Knoxville is blessed to have not one, but TWO excellent Korean restaurants, in close proximity. Kaya Korean is known among its patrons for the delicious side dishes that come with each meal. Delicately prepared and served in little bowls, candied potatoes, sweet tofu, spicy bean sprouts, cucumbers, cabbage, and chicken (the selections are differnt each day) each come with its own unique flavor. The bulgogi and other Korean dishes are fairly standard. The flavors are not too exotic to frighten away the less adventurous diner.
On my most recent visit, the waitress praised the cooks talent in making the soup (which comes free with a meal)as being a very difficult recipe to make. The soup is a clear vegetable based broth served with a few floating scallions. I didn't find it particularly memorable.
The side dishes however, were memorable and my attempts at finding recipes to duplicate these seemingly simple little dishes have not yet been even close to successful. So in the mean time, I will have to continue to journey to Knoxville to enjoy them.

Adventure Dining: Chattanooga

La Guadalupana, Dayton Blvd., Chattanooga TN

In the back of this Mexican grocery store is a taqueria. It is far from fancy, even by typical taqueria standards, but the tacos and tortas are fairly good. But be forewarned: The lady running the place did not speak much English and there was no menu or signs indicating what foods are available--I basically had to ask what they had. All in all, I would say that you might want to give this a shot if you are in the mood for authentic Mexican tacos and don't feel like driving farther to some of the other local taquerias.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Adventure Dining

Being a seasoned (no pun intended) adventure diner, I have compiled a few tips for those of you who may be new to going beyond the buffets.

One. Choose your accomplices wisely. If you, as do I, have a friend who dislikes any food with pepper, you may need to select a different dining partner. Of course I am not suggesting that you dump any friend who refuses to go with you for some Lamb Vindaloo but just try to tactfully avoid those people at dinner time or you will be stuck in 99 cent value menu hell for the forseable future.

Two. Don’t force me to retell those stories your parents tried to sell you as a child, like the one about the 90 year old man who never tried ice cream because he thought he wouldn’t like it, only to discover on his death bed that it was the best thing he had ever eaten (why he would have chosen his deathbed to try ice cream was never really explained and I still wish I had waited until I was 90 to try that canned asparagus). Dare to try new things. Except canned asparagus.

Three. Don’t assume that because a restaurant has a lot of cars in the parking lot, its gotta be good. Case in point: any of those steakhouse buffets. The last time I went to one of those, directed to do so by a local tourist office I might add, my broccoli and “meat” disintegrated into a sipable consistency when speared with a fork.
Any restaurant whose food philosophy is “Sure the food sucks, but we have lots of it!” should be avoided at all costs.

And of course the reverse is equally untrue. In a small mom and pop type place, mom and pop may not know much about advertising but maybe what they do know is how to make the family’s best dishes, using recipes that have been perfected over the generations. You may be among the first to discover this hidden gem.

Four. If you walk into a new restaurant and all the patrons turn to look at you, the unfamiliar outsider, don’t take this as a bad thing, particularly in ethnic restaurants. I have found this to be true from places as diverse as dim sum in Winnipeg to a small barbecue shack in Georgia.

Five. Appearances can be deceiving. I recall once adamantly refusing to go into a small Vietnamese restaurant in a shady part of Chicago because it barely resembled anything close to a decent dining establishment from the outside. When I finally relented, I found that the food was the best Vietnamese I had ever eaten. These people may not have known anything about decorating but they did know how to cook. The best Mexican food in town used to come from a taqueria that had fly tape dotted with dead flies hanging above each table. Oddly, once the fly tape came down, so did the quality of the tacos.

Six. Search. Even smaller towns have Asian and Mexican grocery stores that may sell prepared foods. Asian grocers might have a rack of tasty Vietnamese sandwiches or sticky rice, and many Mexican stores have taquerias in the back. Not many people seem to know about these and--one possible drawback--perhaps the health department doesn’t either.

Seven. And of course, last but not least, always share your adventures on