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2 1/2 More Days Without Green Vegetables: Memphis Redux

April 9, 2009 Leave a comment

At the end of February, I spent a few more days in Memphis, TN.  As is my habit, I revisited some of my favorite BBQ establishments and tried to knock out a few new ones.   These trips have a habit of doing a two things: like a wine-tasting tour, they expand options and reinforce preferences; they also cause a disconcerting desire for green vegetables and brown rice. 

We happened to be staying in a hotel right upstairs from Rendezvous, so we ended up there for a late dinner on our night of arrival.  Since my traveling companion was a BBQ novice, it was the easiest place to start and a short walk, which was all the more important since Memphis was in the midst of a serious cold snap.  Most of what I can say about Rendezvous has already been said – the charcoal broiled ribs are not true BBQ, but they will do the trick and establish a good baseline for someone that is not well-versed in Memphis-style BBQ.  My ribs were a little drier than usual, but I usuall err on the side of dry rather than overly wet since I like to sauce them myself.  I kind of like the fact that I can order a “pitcher of beer,” which they actually deliver without asking what kind I’d like.   

For the next stop, we hit the Germantown Commissary.  It had been more than a year since I last visited.  Since it is in Germantown, a good 15-20 minutes from downtown Memphis, it can be hard to get to when I am on a tight schedule.  This time, however, we had some extra time before meetings and were able to swing out that way.   I ordered the BBQ sandwich plate, which comes with beans, slaw, a deviled egg, and a pickled pepper.  Their BBQ sandwich was as great this visit as prior visits, with enough smoke to make you remember you’re eating BBQ and enough moisture to stay together without devolving into a sloppy mess.  It was served properly on a cheap white bun, with slaw on the side.  The slaw provides enough creaminess.  My only disappointment was that I did not have enough appetite to eat the homemade banana pudding. 

As usual, a visit would not be complete without a stop at the BBQ Shop for dinner.  I ordered my usual ribs and pork combo.  They did not disappoint – the ribs were were perfectly smoky with a nice char on the outside, giving way to a moist interior.  The chopped pork is a nice counterpoint to the ribs: moist without being sopping wet and with good smoke and seasoning penetration throughout the meat.  One of our dining partners went all in for the BBQ Shop combo – essentially one of everything on the menu.  I admired his fortitude and was able to get a taste of their brisket, which reinforced my belief that butts are best.   I cannot lie about liking the butt.

The lone new place was Jim Neely’s Interstate BBQ.  At one time, this was purported to be the best BBQ place in Memphis, but it turned out to be one of my least favorites.  The ribs and pork lacked prominent smoke and excessive moisture seemed to be a result of spending time in a steam tray.  The ribs included the tips, increasing the eating difficulty.  The sauce was ladled over the ribs and pork, and none was provided at the table.  Can’t say that I was really enthusiastic about the place, which is a shame, since I had such high expectations.

After several visits to Memphis, the rankings are: BBQ Shop, Germantown Commissary, Central BBQ, Rendezvous, Cozy Corner.  I’m leaving Interstate off the list, as I don’t think I’ll be going back.  Cozy Corner deserves a second visit the next time I am in Memphis so that I can rate them with more certitude.

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Stunt Eater Reviews: La Michoacana, Charlottesville, VA

January 19, 2009 Leave a comment

Fewer business trips and the resulting decrease in expense account meals have given me fewer new restaurant reviews in unfamiliar cities.  In Charlottesville, few things have excited me enough culinarily to warrant a post except a recent excursion to La Michoacana on High Street. 

The place lacks most basic amenities: there is no public bathroom, there is one communal table, and a steamer table from which the people serve.  As far as I could tell, there was no kitchen, so food must magically appear before service.  The menu is two columns, one for the available meats and the other for the delivery format.  Meats include chicken, barbacoa, carnitas, pork rinds, chorizo, and beef tongue – it would appear that these are available every day.  Meat delivery formats include the standards  (tacos, burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas) as well as a few additional ones (gorditas, tortas).  The most expensive item on the menu is the enchiladas, at $8, tacos $2, and burritos $6.  Everything else is available a la carte so you can mix and match fillings to your heart’s content.

I was not feeling experimental, and ordered a barbacoa burrito.  One of my dining partners ordered a burrito, while the other picked a few tacos.  The burrito comes with rice and meat on the inside, beans and toppings (crema, lettuce, tomato, onion, and cilantro) on top.  Two hot sauces and pickled vegetables are available in tupperware containers on the counter for self service.   This was clearly food made by experienced hands – the barbacoa was rich and juicy without being greasy.  The beans were creamy without being too lard-laden.  It was the best burrito I have eaten in a long time.

On my visits out west, there were a few places serving “authentic” Mexican food that I would always visit.  During these visits, I would lament the fact that the only available Mexican food available in Charlottesville was either Guadalajara or Amigos.  While these places hold a cherished place in my heart for cheap margaritas and combo platters, sometimes you want something a bit more authentic.  La Michoacana fills this gap nicely.  Bumping shoulders with day laborers and working men while mowing down some tacos is a great way for a salaryman to spend lunch.  As we finished, a guy sat down next to us with a plate filled with two gorditas, oozing cheese – now I know what I am getting when I go back.

La Michaocana Deli
1138 E. High St.
Charlottesville, VA 22902
434-409-9941

Hours:
Mon-Thur. 10am to 9pm
Fri&Sat 11am to 11pm
Sun 11am to 9pm

Bring cash, as they do not accept anything else.

Stunteater Reviews: Ray’s Hell Burger, Arlington, VA

October 10, 2008 Leave a comment

Ray’s Hell Burger is an offshoot of what may be the finest steakhouse in the Washington, DC area, Ray’s The Steaks.  When I learned that this place existed, it immediately made it to the top of my visit-list for the next time I was in the DC area. 

For some reason, I’m a sucker for restaurants with proscriptions.  Does your restaurant only allow me to order one thing, cooked the way you see fit?  Yes?  Sign me up, my friend.  At Ray’s Hell Burger, they only offer one thing: a 10oz burger made from the same prime aged beef served at Ray’s The Steaks.  No fries, only corn.  Root beer on tap or water only. 

The burger is possibly one of the finest I have eaten.  This is not a fast-food style burger: the prime aged beef, ground several times daily right behind the counter tastes fresh and beefy; the patties are thick enough that you can get a perfect char on the outside while still coming out medium rare and juicy on the inside.   It’s possible to order it blackened or cajun-style, but why would you want to do that?

They do have their share of complicated toppings, but with a burger like this, my recommendation would be to keep it simple.  The rich taste of the burger benefits from the contrasting zing of some red onion or pickle, and does not need ketchup.  They do have a an extensive cheese list, with everything from the standard American or cheddar to some unusual ones like Taleggio.  Bacon is always a welcome addition, but I don’t think the burger gets much benefit out of the bacon – the star is the extra beefiness of the burger and the grill provides enough smoke to keep it interesting. 

Normally, a burger like this would require some engineering to get the bun right.  Make no mistake, this is a large burger that would give any bun difficulty; however, whether by science, practice, or luck, my bun made it through without becoming too soggy, even with a few juicy toppings included.  It was a pleasant surprise, since at first glance, the bun didn’t appear to stand a chance against the beef.  My dining partner had a similar experience.   

Atmosphere doesn’t appear to be a strong suit in any of the Ray’s family of restaurants, but this only serves to reinforce the point: this is a serious place to seriously eat a serious burger.  When I went, just after noon on a Saturday, the line was nearly out the door and it was difficult to get a table.  This is a burger that needs to be eaten on premises, so plan accordingly.

Other reviews can be found here.

Ray’s Hell Burger
1713 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, VA

Stunteater Reviews: Market Bar – San Francisco, CA

September 10, 2008 Leave a comment

A recent trip to San Francisco had me down by the Ferry Building at dinner time.  Unfortunately, the markets housed inside were mostly closed by the time we arrived, so I could not do too much foraging, but the Market Bar was still open. 

Market Bar’s food is hard to describe – it’s at the happy four way intersection where gastropub, osteria, bistro, and tapas bar meet. Most of the food is sourced from vendors right there in the building, lending a certain closeness to the purveyor that would be otherwise difficult to achieve and ensuring that the food is well-curated and likely to be local.  The menu includes items as varied as a Yucatan-style seafood stew to pasta bolognese or sea bass ravioli.  In other places, this might be a warning; here, it seemed more like an invitation.

We ordered the charcuterie plate to start, which came with house made pate; soppressata, coppa, and mortadella from Hobb’s; and was accompanied by mostarda, two kinds of mustard, pickled onions, and an herb salad that may have been a deconstructed gremolata.  Hobb’s can cure some meat – the sopressata had a rustic texture with a good spicy bite to it.  The mortadella, difficult to do well, dissolved in the mouth and lacked the graininess of a bad emulsion.  Even with those two standouts, the house pate was the best on the plate and one of the best I’ve had, with a smooth texture and rich flavor that did not go overboard on the liver. 

For the entree, I ordered the Ahi Tuna Tonnato.  I’m a sucker for tuna, topped with a sauce made from…wait for it…tuna.  There’s just something about anything topped with itself.   The dish was well-executed: served rare (as I had requested) and sliced on top of a salad of helga beans, tomatoes, and shallots.  The sauce provided a nice complement to the seared tuna, augmenting the tuna’s natural flavor without tasting explicitly or distinctively of tuna.

My dining partner ordered the Grand Seafood Plateau, which could have used some work.  The standard portion was enough for an entree for one person or could have been served as an appetizer for two.  The shrimp and lobster appered to have been previously frozen and the dungeness crab portion was on the small side of acceptable for a $36 plate, er, plateau.  Not the kind of experience I expected.

All of this was washed down with some Meteor Pils, another undiscovered French beer that will make it into my favorites list.  It worked well with all parts of the meal – mild enough to do well with seafood but enough body and carbonation to wipe the pallette clean after a bite of pate.

The verdict?  There are so many good restaurants in San Francisco, many of which I have not had the pleasure of eating in.  If I worked in the area, I could see myself going here for a snack and a beer after work or a special lunch.  If this restaurant was in Charlottesville, it would be a go-to on par with Mas Tapas, as long as I did not order the seafood plateau.

Categories: Restaurant Reviews

Four Days Without Green Vegetables

September 7, 2008 Leave a comment
BBQ Shop

BBQ Shop

This post should be sub-titled “aka my last business trip to Memphis.”

As both of you readers are probably aware, I enjoy the porkier things in life.  Barbeque is delicious and inherently porky, so it rates pretty highly in my book.  A few times a year, I have the unique pleasure of spending several days in Memphis.  Naturally, in a town known for its barbeque, there are going to be a few standouts.

We had three and a half days in Memphis and only so many meals to eat.  The strategy: hit some old favorites, hit some new joints, and not rupture our stomachs.

Day 1: Arrival.  We go from the airport to Cozy Corner for lunch.  I’m a firm believer in the idea that the best barbeque can come from the most unassuming places.  Located in what would otherwise look like an abandoned strip mall and with signage that looks like it survived the ’70s with barely its dignity intact, Cozy Corner meets the “unassuming” criteria.  The menu featured the usual suspects, with one standout, a barbequed game hen, which had been recommended even though it was a departure from the usual fare.  What can I say – it was good – but did not bowl me over with deliciousness.  It had a solid, smoky flavor that did not overwhelm the bird.  My compatriots ordered sliced barbeque sandwiches (the only way their pork comes) which were good.  I dunno – I expected more out of this place, given the recommendations.

For dinner, we went to Rendezvous. What can I say about this place that has not already been said? If you’re a barbeque aficionado, you have probably heard of it.  Rightfully or not, they have earned the reputation as the originator of the Memphis style dry-rubbed, charcoal-cooked ribs.  We ordered the lamb ribs and barbeque nachos to start and everyone got a rack of ribs.  The ribs taste distinctively of charcoal, not overwhelming but prominent.  The rub contributes some flavor and texture, but their two sauces are welcome additions.  On this visit, the ribs were better than the last several times, just a bit more moist and meaty – your enjoyment may be a matter of which rack you get at what part of the night, which is not necessarily a good thing.  

Day 2: Lunch from Fino’s Italian grocery, another recommendation from a local source.  Quality Italian subs.

For dinner, we went to our old favorite, BBQ Shop.  I could rave for days about their barbeque.  We ordered the barbeque nachos, the best I’ve had in Memphis.  We skipped the BBQ Spaghetti.  Although they claim to hold the original recipe, I just can’t get into it.  This may be the only time that being Italian and a barbeque lover comes into conflict, because I don’t find this uniquely Memphian dish to be good.   The irony is that I love BBQ nachos – perhaps if I was Mexican or Texan I would feel differently about it.  I recommend the ribs and pork combo plate, which comes with, well, ribs and chopped pork.  Their chopped pork, which can dry out if not sauced, is mistifyingly moist and only comes with a squirt of sauce on top.  The ribs are smoky, meaty and moist.  Their two sauces are delicious; the hot has enough heat to tickle the tongue and the regular sauce has a nice bite to it.  And to top it off, they have an excellent beer selection. 

Day 3: Unremarkable lunch from the closest thing to the office, then Central BBQ for dinner.  For the last dinner, we wanted to close out with this highly recommended place.  The first thing I noticed when we arrived was that they had real wood stacked outside the smoker – always a good sign.  Then I noticed the entire smoking operation was surrounded by razor and barbed wire – security is apparently a priority.  We ordered a raft of food – smoked and fried wings, our third round of barbeque nachos, then I split an order of ribs and chopped pork.

The wings, served whole, are smoked before being fried and sauced.  I have to say I really like the smoked and fried technique – you get the best  of the smoke flavor and the crispy texture of a fried wing.  Their wing sauce is tangy and hot without being overpowering.  Their nachos are unusual in that they have a coating of cheese sauce and unmelted shredded cheese – slightly off-putting, but that was cured once we dug into the food.  The ribs were great – perhaps the best ribs of the week by only a slight margin over BBQ Shop – with a rich smoky flavor that did justice to their porky essence.  The pulled pork was solid – a little on the dry side, which was a disappointment after the ribs.  They also have 22oz bottles of Fat Tire.

Day 4: Breakfast at Bryant’s BBQ and Breakfast.  This is a place worth adding to your Memphis itinerary and further proof that anyplace with work trucks in the parking lot at 7am probably serves good, hearty food.  They apparently don’t serve barbeque anymore, only breakfast, which is why you want to be there anyway.  They have the largest selection of biscuits – everything from the standard egg and cheese to fried pork tenderloin.  The country ham biscuit comes with a slab of ham the size of your hand, which is great, but I recommend the fried chicken biscuit and a fried pie.

The verdict: BBQ Shop reigns supreme for your barbeque needs.  The ribs, the nachos, the pork, the beer – it all works together, deliciously.  I don’t think I can go to Memphis without going here, it’s that good.  In a town known for barbeque, where you can likely get some delicious barbeque right around the corner from wherever you happen to be, that’s a feat.  Of course, there may be a few challengers that I need to (re)visit.

Categories: Restaurant Reviews

Stunt Eater Review: Beer Run, Again

July 24, 2008 Leave a comment

Since I last reviewed Beer Run, I made it a point to go back there as well as to do some thinking.

At first, I felt a little guilty for not giving a glowing review.  After all, the owners are surely nice people that are just trying to make some scratch.  And who am I to give middling reviews anonymously?  On the other hand, I had a minor epiphany last night.  The person I was with mentioned that one of the issues he has with the restaurant is the atmosphere.  It struck me that Beer Run sits in an awkward middle ground: more than a sandwich place, less than a fine dining place; more than a beer store, less than a bar. It is the middle ground between Bel Air Market, the uniquely Charlottesvillian gourmet gas station,  and our example of extreme thinking gone wrong (and out of business), Fuel Co.  You don’t go to Bel Air for the ambience – you get your sandwich and maybe you eat it while you watch people fill up their cars.  Fuel Co’s concept of fine dining and gasoline was, at best, flawed, and at worst, fatal.  If you go, your expectations should be set above “Bel  Air” and below “Fuel.”  However, I do hope that they fare better than Fuel.

As far as the food and service go, my opinion hasn’t changed.  Service is attentive and they serve great beers well.  The nachos are pretty good and the sandwiches are affordable.  The burger is still $13, which is a stretch.  They won’t beat Continental Divide’s nachos, which deserve a treatise themselves, but they are worth ordering again simply because they are reasonably priced, taste pretty good, and they are great to eat with beer.  In the end, Beer Run is worth a trip if you’re bored of your usual casual restaurants and want to try something new or if you’re looking to pick up a six pack and some food, but don’t expect fine dining.

Categories: Restaurant Reviews

Stunt Eater Review: Beer Run, Charlottesville, VA

June 17, 2008 1 comment

As a longtime Charlottesville resident, I’ve been to most every restaurant in town, several times over.  Certain restaurants receive regular visits, whether through their quality, reliability, or price.  So, when a new restaurant opens, there is a mix of excitement and a risk that you’ll waste a precious free night on a less than memorable meal.  For this reason, I am typically not on the bleeding edge of diners – if given a choice between a sure thing and a potential hit or miss, I’ll usually choose the sure thing.  It takes a lot for me to forsake the places I know and like for a new one, so I’ll rely on the opinions of friends and fellow eaters to decide whether a place warrants a visit.

Beer Run was one of those places.  I’d visited several times to buy beer in the retail store, which I’d highly recommend (more on this later).  The seating area always seemed full and the lure of cold, delicious beer on tap was hard to resist.  The clincher, however, was when a friend declared their burger to be the best she had ever eaten.  The wife and I got a babysitter and set a date last week. 

The Dining Experience: 5/10

The dining experience leaves a little bit to be desired, parking is difficult if the area is crowded, and the inside tables are close together.  The restaurant entrance is the same as the retail store, so heavy traffic in the shop may impact your dining experience.  There is very little room inside for larger parties, which may be a consideration for other diners.

The Food: 6/10

Per our friends’ recommendation, we each ordered the organic buffalo burger, medium rare.  I ordered a Hefeweizen and she ordered a white wine, which tasted like toothpaste until I reminded her that she had brushed her teeth before we left.  In the end, we like the the white so much we left with a bottle – one of the benefits of the on-site retail store. 

I am disappointed to say that the burger did not live up to expectations.  It arrived, served on a pretzel bun, with potato salad.  The pretzel bun is an underutilized burger accessory – it provides good juice absorbtion properties, nice structure, and a different taste.  Although I am not necessarily a fan of the ranchification of the American restaurant menu, the ranch dressing provided for the burger was a nice complement to the burger and bun, although a little bit thin to apply.  Roma tomatoes on a burger are, for the most part, a big disappointment.  The minor flavor boost provides little in exchange for the structural deficiencies that result from their inclusion.   The organic cheddar on the burger provided a sharp contrast to the burger and was a welcome addition.

The most significant miss, however, was an overcooked burger.   With a lean meat such as buffalo, the cooking temperature becomes that much more crucial – anything more than medium, in my opinion, and the buffalo begins to get too dry.  We let our server know about the issue and continued eating, opting to finish our meal and not waste the food we had ordered.  However, for a $12 burger, I expected better.

Dessert, however, made up significant lost ground.  We ordered the Jefferson’s Reserve Bourbon Barrel Stout and the Guinness Chocolate cake.  The stout was outstanding, with hints of smoke and chocolate coming through.  Overall a beautiful beer and one worth coming back for, especially on draft.  It matched very well with the moist, rich cake. 

The Service:  7/10

No complaints.  Service was accurate, timely, and most importantly, pleasant.  Our server was able to make good recommendations about the wine, beer, and food on the menu.  She passed on the feedback about the burger without attitude.

Overall Verdict: 6/10

Beer Run warrants a cautious trip back.   It has so many positives going for it: delicious beer, mostly organic menu, and in-town location.  In the search for a good burger and a go-to restaurant, however, some misses are hard to swallow.   There is enough on the lunch and breakfast menus to warrant a repeat visit for those meals, and the draft beer alone is enough to put up with an overcooked burger if it were not $12.  At the least, we’ll be back to the retail store to stock up on beer.

Categories: Restaurant Reviews