Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Chuy's Tex Mex, A Chain Restaurant that Gets SOME of the Details Right

    I'm notoriously not a fan of chain restaurants. I make exceptions for small local chains like Neomonde (I love you Neomonde...) and places that pay enough attention to detail and freshness that they don't come across like a chain. For instance, judge me all you want, I like Bone Fish Grill, and I don't care who mocks me for it. They put hearts of palm on their salads, have consistently scrumptious food and damn good sangria to boot, so sue me! Anyway...I digress. A friend recently cajoled me into trying out a new Tex-Mex restaurant called Chuy's that's all the rage in North Hills. Chuy's is a chain out of Austin, Texas, but I figured at least Austin has a solid reputation for great eats. Chuy's was packed! We waited for an hour to get a table, and helped ourselves to the salsa and tortilla chip bar. The salsa was almost the consistency of a pico and tasted extremely fresh (I later found out they make it hourly, so no wonder!) The chips were evidently freshly made as well. The decor was fun, but definitely gave off a chain restaurant atmosphere.  After we FINALLY got a table, I was super excited to see that the tortillas were being freshly pressed. Definitely a good sign! There were a substantial list of homemade sauces to top off your order, so I decided to sample a bunch of different things by getting the "Elvis Presley Memorial Combo" with three types of enchiladas, a crispy beef taco, and somewhat randomly, a couple of tostada chips dipped in chile con queso. Geez Louise what a giant plate of food! It was definitely two meals worth, even for a big eater like me. Everything tasted fresh, but I wasn't terribly impressed with the enchiladas I had. They were fine, but the sauces weren't that great and certainly not enough to sell me on the place. The hard taco was quite good, but not particularly unique. The pre-dipped tostada chips were definitely a mistake, as the chili con queso on them becomes cold and therefore unappetizing by the time it reaches your table. I wouldn't get the enchiladas again, they weren't bad, but I wasn't blown away. I really wanted to like the place more on my first visit, the food was fresh, it wasn't greasy and didn't give me the sickly rock in the stomach feeling that all to often come from some Mexican restaurants, but overall I just didn't get the hype.

      I heard great things about the "chuychangas" and went back to try them with the picky man in tow. There was another hour long wait that he patiently endured for fear I would take him to an Asian restaurant instead.  This time I was more sold. The chicken chuychangas were creamy, rich, and sinfully tasty. The lightly crispy layers of flour tortilla were filled with hand pulled oven-roasted chicken, cheese, cilantro and green chilies. I wish they had more filling inside, but I would definitely get it again regardless. I paid the up-charge to get the queso on top. It came underneath rather than on top, a smart move that kept the chimi from getting soggy.  However the queso was entirely unnecessary, the chimi was rich enough on its own and I'm partial to a queso blanco versus the unnatural velveta looking (although decently seasoned) orange queso served here. There are numerous signature sauces to choose from. I tried the deluxe tomatillo on the side which is a creamy tasty choice for a chicken dish. I'm eager to try the creamy jalapeno sauce and one of their signature green chile sauces on my next visit...which I'm already planning. I'm hoping to take my sister before she moves to Austin next month so she can compare it to the original. I've heard the rumor that it can't compete.  Mr. My idea of Mexican is Taco Bell, ordered the crunchy beef tacos and proclaimed them "yummy." He (unsurprisingly) left his rice and beans untouched, but said he would definitely want to go back.  As for the drinks, the ritas contain fresh lime juice and even though I only got the house version (underfinanced, remember?) my only complaint with the margaritas was that they weren't big enough. So while all menu items are not created equal, this is a chain where they do put some degree of care into the details (although that's hard to gather from the mediocre service.)  Is it Mexican? No not really, so don't go in expecting that. However, if you're craving a tasty Tex-Mex version of a taco or chimi it's a decent place to go, provided you're willing to wait while the hype is still at a high.

Picky McPickerson's Beef Tacos. Don't mind the presentation, he had already started digging in before I took the picture.

Chuy's on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Pizza for Pizza Snobs

       In my extensive realm of food snobbery, my pickiness over pizza ranks towards the top.  I grew up spoiled by good pizza early on in Connecticut, one of the places to claim the original American pizzeria, with simultaneous access to all the great NY pizzerias. While I can appreciate pizza in all of its various forms, deep dish, California style, cheap and dirty, and the big floppy two handed New York slices I fondly recall from my youth, I became increasing spoiled by fantastic pizza in Italy.  While I won't claim a particular preference between NY style or Italian style, I feel I can accurately assess the merits of establishment peddling either style of pie.  I recently joined two close friends on their weekly Sunday pizza night.  Generally they frequent Lilly's or Mellow Mushroom, but were inspired by the recent edition of the Indy to try out the new Pompieri Pizza and see if it was truly the kind of pizza that would make an Italian apply for a green card.
        Pompieri Pizza is the brainchild of the creators of Bull City Burger and Brewery, who have already established a reputation in Durham for well executed comfort food made with local ingredients.  Housed in an old fire house and featuring a wood fire pizza oven, Pompieri aptly translates to "firefighters" in Italian.  Excited for some authentic Italian style pizza, and anticipating the aroma of such, we were immediately thrown off by an unpleasant odor upon entering the firehouse.  We assessed that the smell was emanating from the line of cloudy gold fish tanks separating the ordering line from the dining area.  The tanks appeared to watering the basil plants growing above them.  A neat commentary on interconnectedness and sustainability, but obviously the source of an unpleasant odor for a dining establishment none-the-less. Not off to a great start.   I am a total purist when it comes to good pizza, and immediately ordered the classic margherita with tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, and basil, and "Bobby's" salad.
        The salad amounted to some mixed greens you might get out of a bag from a grocery store, no tomatoes, no cucumber, no cheese and no character what-so-ever. There was only the smoked tomato vinaigrette or straight up oil and vinegar to choose from for dressing. I asked for one of each on the side.  I wasn't a fan of the smoked flavor of the tomato vinaigrette, and nor were my friends.  Some might like it, but more options would be advisable. As for the oil and vinegar...it was hardly worth five dollars to order some baby greens with oil and vinegar and devoid of flavor. The only good part about it was the homemade cracker that came with it. Fortunately, we came for the pizza and not the salad.

         The pizza took a long time, but at least we it came hot and made to order.  The personal size margherita pizza was delicious, the crust was appropriately crisp, the sparing smatterings of fresh mozzarella cheese was true to Italian form, there was plenty of basil, and the fresh bright tasting marinara sauce was truly the star of the show. My one complaint about the pizza would be how greasy it was. They had obviously drizzled olive oil on top, which seemed unnecessary. The pizza still tasted good, but had little pools of oil. My friend Kenny ordered a build your own pizza with pepperoni.  The pasture raised beef pepperoni was not of the factory produced packaged variety, something to keep in mind if ordering for kids (or pickier adults) who might be expecting something familiar only to receive something they don't recognize. He said he prefers Lilly's pizza personally. Notably, Pompieri makes their own spicy Italian sausage in house, in addition to a cured meat of the day!  There are a few different sauce options, even a "porky" red sauce. My other friend Emily (of ice cream fame,) who ordered her sausage pizza with the rich red sauce, found the marinara on my margherita pizza to be highly preferable, and I would agree wholeheartedly.  She found the crumbled Italian sausage to be spicier than she had anticipated, but still quite good, and she echoed my thoughts about the pools of oil. The rich red sauce was more subtle to highlight the toppings, while on the margherita the bright tomato flavor of the marinara sauce is meant to be the star.

       A cute (but also practical) shtick of Pompieri's is to serve each individual pizza unsliced (a la Italia) but with a pair of kitchen shears for the diner to cut their own slices.  Cute. Pompieri also features to yummy natural soda fountain, a bar, and of course, the beers created by their sister establishment Bull City Brewery.  My verdict? Overall, Pompieri is very authentic and worth the trip for a solid Neapolitan style pizza, but do yourself a favor and skip the salad.

Pompieri Pizza on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Celebrate Lunar New Year Korean Style

    Despite my largely ongoing pseudo poverty, I've spent a lot of time in Asia, and have been fortunate enough to see more of it than most have had the good fortune to visit in one lifetime.  Much of that time was spent working in China and South Korea, which has cultivated in me a love of all  things Asian, particularly in regards to cuisine.  Well a love of most things Asian anyway...I still can't stomach eating bugs, coagulated duck blood soup, the virility boosting dog soup or being shoved into sardine can subways by white gloved station attendants. However, other than that if you combine my enthusiasm for Asian cuisine with a HOLIDAY (my friends can tell you I am a little obsessed with holidays...) and I am going to be all about it!  That brings us to Lunar New Year, or Seollal as I came to know it in Korea.  In an effort to recreate my fond Seollal memories in which my Korean boyfriend's family had me over for dinner and his mother taught me how to make authentic (and delicious!) mandu or dumplings, I will be preparing some Korean delicacies at home. Some traditional Seollal foods include tteokguk, a broth soup with sliced rice cakes, rice cakes, fruit (like the delicious crunchy honey sweet Asian pears,) and mandu (or dumplings) among other delights. Seollal is one of the most significant holidays in Korea, generally taking place over three days when Koreans visit family in their hometowns and some still wear the traditional hanbok. In an act of filial piety, children perform  a sebae bow to their elders wishing them luck for the new year. Parents and grandparents then reciprocate with "pocket money" and blessings for the new year.

    For Lunar New Year I'm hoping to make it out (weather permitting) to Grand Asia market to shop and prepare some of my old Korean favorites at home.  For those of you out there who would like to celebrate Lunar New Year, although probably belatedly (as more authentic establishments are likely to be closed tomorrow,) Seoul Garden is a very authentic Raleigh Korean restaurant, with great Korean barbeque like galbi (one of my favorite foods on earth!), a sweet and savory marinated rib meat that you can cook up at your table and wrap in lettuce wraps with samjeong a salty fermented soybean paste that is better than it sounds, rice (bap,) or any of the assortment of small side dishes called bancheon that will automatically come to your table. Bulgolgi is another good choice, a very sweet marinated thinly sliced ribeye.  Bibimbap,  a spicy rice and vegetable bowl (definitely pay the extra for dolsot bibimbap so that the rice gets crispy at the bottom of the hot stone bowl) is another favorite of waegooken or foreigners. If you'd rather order Korean style and you like your spice, try the hot Kimchi Chige (Kimchi and meat stew.) For side orders try the japchae cellophane noodles sauteed with vegetables in sesame oil, Goon Mandu (dumplings), or pajeon a savory Korean pancake filled with either kimchi or seafood.  You can expect to pay a hefty sum for the privilege of such authentically tasty Korean fair.  A Korean barbecue dinner will run you over $20 a person and requires a minimum of two orders to grill it in front of you at a barbecue table, so be sure to go with at least one other person who has meat in mind.  Seoul Garden is likely to be closed tomorrow, but the still tasty though considerably less authentic Kimbap over in Seaboard Station is likely to be open (I would call and check first.) They don't have barbecue tables, but they can satiate the craving with some tasty mandu (dumplings.) They are named after the Korean version of sushi rolls often filled with such ingredients as processed ham, cheese, egg, canned tuna, spam or other items that wartime Koreans grew a fondness for from American imports. Kimbap takes this idea and "classes it up" a little with some more gourmet, and less processed fillings.  If you would like to make your own Lunar New Year feast, I highly recommend you check out Grand Asia Market in Cary. They are definitely worth the trip featuring fresh steamed buns and roasted meats.  They also have very reasonably priced produce, fish and meats for you underfinanced foodies out there. I've bought containers of curry paste there for half the price and twice the size of those available at the super market.  If you'd rather not trek to Cary, visit Kim's market in Raleigh. It's a tiny little Korean store, but they can set you up with the kimchi, japchae, and mandu needed for a Korean style meal.

                                           Saehae bok mani badeuseyo!  

   or      Please receive a lot of luck in the New Year!

Seoul Garden on Urbanspoon Kimbap on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Parlour Ice Cream Shoppe

     I would venture to call my friend Emily a connoisseur of ice cream, so when she recommends a place for the cream, I take it pretty seriously.  Some time ago I had sampled The Parlour's wares from their roaming food bus, and I was excited to relive the pleasure by visiting their brick and mortar location in downtown Durham. I was immediately taken by the olde timey feel of The Parlour, with its sugary pink walls, classy glass ice cream dishes and cake stands.  Even the mustachioed hipster soda jerk seems to fit the scene. However, the real allure of The Parlour is it's offering of unique flavors.  While they have the old chocolate and vanilla standbys, they also offer a rotation of more exotic flavors like quince or jasmine tea.  From the copious samples tasted (and by dipping my spoon into the dishes of others...) I've managed to taste quite a few flavors. I've sampled the delightful salted butter caramel (although it seems to melt more quickly than some other flavors,) which is my friend's favorite and one of the few flavors she claims they make better than she can.  The coconut brownie (creamy coconut flavored ice cream and chunks of legitimate brownie...the good stuff.) The Vietnamese coffee, is sweet with enough of the natural bitterness of coffee to make it best complemented with chocolate fudge.  The eggnog ice cream has the creamy spicy flavor of the holiday favorite perfectly captured. The Parlour even offers vegan-friendly options like a vegan chocolate or a grapefruit sorbet.  On my next visit I'm looking forward to sampling toppings like the espresso whipped cream, or their all natural sprinkles...maybe a sundae will be in order

So when you're craving the cream, hit up The Parlour, or go stake out their next bus stop.

The Parlour on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 24, 2014

Triangle Restaurant Week Reminder!

Fellow foodies, make sure you get out this weekend to enjoy the last two days of Triangle Restaurant Week! You can sample an appetizer, entree, and dessert from a prefix menu for $20 or $30 depending on the restaurant.  This is a great opportunity to get out and try somewhere new, even somewhere you may not ordinarily be able to afford to enjoy.  I'll be out there and will report back soon!
Visit the Triangle Restaurant Week website to check out the participating restaurants and menus.
Bon Appetite!

Serena Sicilian Influenced Cucina, Picky Eater Friendly

So, I haven't posted in quite awhile, but that certainly doesn't mean I haven't been eating! I'm working as a teacher these days and my schedule has been a little nuts.  Another contributing factor has been my super picky dining partner as of late.  My current boyfriend would just assume EAT A HOT DOG FROM A GAS STATION!!! Yes, unfortunately, you read correctly.  An unlikely pair we make indeed, what's a foodie to do?  I've been working tirelessly to expand his culinary horizons and have been met with considerable resistance, but many small victories as well.  Thanks to me Mr. Gas station "cuisine" can say he has now tasted the following items for the first time ever:

fresh raspberries
lychees (he didn't like)
mangosteen (I'm obsessed with these)
avocado (he didn't like)
honeycrisp apples (loves)
Korean barbecue
egg whites
cashew chicken
fresh sauteed green beans
brussel sprouts
chicken tortilla soup
mushroom ravioli
homemade chicken noodle soup
......so on and so forth....

Every weekend is a battle to find a place that we are both willing to eat.  I stick my nose up at chain restaurants ( though I did take him to Outback Steakhouse for his birthday...because I'm a good person) and he breaks into hives at the mention of Indian or Thai food.  A compromise we can agree on, as with so many families with picky eaters before us, is Italian (provided it's good Italian.)

We recently visited Serena and both myself and Mr. Gagsatcurry were pleased.  The comforting Italian food was well executed and served up in good portions.

A friend of mine brought trays of Serena's eggplant rollatini to a holiday party I hosted.  Even, cooled off, the rollatini was fantastic, rivaling that of Gravy downtown.  After that tasty sampling and her Italian husband's assurance that everything he has tried there has been good, I was ready to head over with my picky man in tow.  The menu suited both of us well, he could get his comfort foods like pasta, pizza or even french fries, while I could play around with custom combinations of salads or pastas (pick the pasta, the style of sauce and an assortment of toppings from grilled octopus to Jail Island Salmon.)

Strangely we both settled on the lasagna at the recommendation of the waitress. The lasagna was made with Merquez ground steak, no ground chuck here, three cheeses and a nice tomato sauce. Mr. Bleedsfryergrease pronounced it the best lasagna he's ever had. I prefer Daniel's lasagna in Cary/Apex, but was still well pleased.  The salad and large piece of garlic flatbread that accompanied the meal were very tasty as well. I wasn't entirely blown away, but was certainly pleased enough to make plans to return. The prices are in the $10 to $20 range with the lasagna coming in around $16.  My boyfriend seemed to think this was a bit pricey, but he certainly got his money's worth since he went through two bowls of freshly grated parmesan that they good humoredly kept our table topped off with.

I do think Serena should hone in their concept a bit. Are they a gastropub? A pizzeria? A fine dining Italian Restaurant? Regardless of what they pick, the dance music they played needs to go. Otherwise, Serena is a safe bet to take a very "selective" dining companion.

Serena Sicilian Influenced Cucina on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 2, 2013

Buku: Modern Interpretation of a Global Inspiration

     Buku called to me some time ago with the allure of global street food. Buku delivers on delicious globally inspired cuisine, but with a modern upscale twist that can hardly be considered street food. The first time I went to Buku was on a date with a previous boyfriend who was willing to pick up the check without a second thought.  Buku has a sleek upscale atmosphere that makes it the perfect place to impress a date.     I was still dreaming of the perogies from my first visit, but I hadn't been since because of the prices, until a recent date with the exotic food aficionado (as mentioned on my Bida Manda Blog) suggested going to one of my favorite places.  My first experience at Buku definitely had rocketed it toward the top, so I'd been dying for the opportunity to get back there with someone who would equally appreciate it.  Triangle Restaurant Week provided the perfect impetus to go sample Buku's thirty dollar pre-fixe menu.  We started with some of Buku's amazing cocktails, adorned with orchids they were as beautiful as they were delicious.  Off the special restaurant week menu, I selected the Baja Crab Flautas.  Kind of a Hispanic rendition of a crab rangoon, made with corn tortillas and filled with jumbo lump crab and cream cheese, then fried and topped with cilantro, pineapple, pickled chilies, and spicy guava-lime sauce. I was expecting them to be better than they were, I would have liked to have tasted more crab, but mostly they just tasted fried... nothing spectacular or particularly memorable.  My date decided to order Malaysian Roti, with one of the many global breads on the menu with a Malaysian style curry dip on the side.  The roti wasn't very traditional and the Malaysian curry sauce was considerably more sweet than savory with strong notes of cinnamon.  As a dip it had a nice flavor, but I doubt I would enjoy an entire dish with a curry that sweet.

       For my entree I selected the highly recommended duo of duck with a crispy duck leg and pan-seared duck breast with an Asian inspired savory sweet ginger soy glaze. The moist flavorful leg was considerably more succulent than the breast.  I generally prefer the breast, so this was somewhat surprising. The duck was served atop a perfectly cooked "forbidden" rice, a short grain rice of a purplish black hue that I had seen before in Korea, and accompanied by a pickled radish, cucumber and honeydew salad.  My date elected to forgo the restaurant week menu and order off of the regular menu.  He ordered the Steak Frites at a hefty $30 for the entree alone. Although I have had better cuts of meet elsewhere, the wine and mushroom sauce made the dish. The pommes frites served up with the steak were fried up crispy in duck fat, and were outrageously delicious when dipped in the sauce topping the steak.  If they bottled that sauce I would buy it to put on EVERYTHING.  My date was nice enough to give me a couple bites of his meal, and I'll admit I preferred it to my duck.  If the steak had been slightly less fatty and more tender I would have swooned.  Probably a good thing or I would have stolen his plate..and that wouldn't have made a very good impression, now would it?
Duo of Duck

Steak Frites
       As for dessert, I ordered the Argentine alfajores. I had no idea what that was either for the record, but apparently is was small soft baked shortbread cookies sandwiched together with, dulce de leche, toasted coconut, grapefruit-vanilla bean reduction, and served with a tiny scoop of house-made white chocolate-quince ice cream.  My date ordered a yummy little apple tart with an  almond crust and served a la mode with cinnamon ice cream. My dinner and dessert was certainly more exotic, but sometimes you can't beat the classics.
Apple Tart
     I went back to Buku recently for my friend's bachelorette party and was considerably less impressed with my selections. I ordered the Indian Aloo Chana Chaat, a small plate of a spicy potato cake, chickpea, cashew, cucumber, cabbage, raita, tamarind, and cilantro chutney.  It had lots of layers of flavor, but was a little too spicy to appreciate them all.  For an entree I ordered the shrimp pad thai.  The pad thai had a delicious tamarind sauce and probably the best fried tofu I've ever tasted, however the pad thai suffered a severe shortage of everything but the homemade rice noodles.  It would have benefited greatly from more of everything else, more tofu, more eggplant, more shrimp and more veggies, for $22 I would expect it.  I didn't find my meal to be worth the fifty dollars I shelled out.  However, the bride-to-be ordered better than I did.  Her Vietnamese crepe was an excellent "small plate" a crispy crepe filled with shrimp, sausage, and overflowing with fresh herbs. And she was ecstatic about her plantain crusted Chilean Sea Bass. You can love Buku one visit and dislike it the next as some selections are perfection that will make you forget your budget, while others are a wallet breaking disappointment. The perogies and Vietnamese crepes are great choices. Skip the sushi. I was trying to order on the cheap, but since that really isn't possible at Buku (underfinanced foodies beware,) you might as well go all out.
Argentine Alfajores

Buku on Urbanspoon