Monday, December 13, 2010

China Hibachi Buffet, or "The restaurant in which the panda has his 'Bee Girl' moment"

Once upon a time (okay fine, it was 2001…but doesn’t a decade qualify for that opening?), there was a new Asian buffet in Orlando, Florida—or at least it’s more shi-shi suburb, Altamonte Springs—named Crazy Buffet. Unlike most buffets in the central Florida area, Crazy Buffet sought to slog off the lowbrow food troth image of their contemporaries and bring an element of upscale class to the all-you-can-eat circuit. The restaurant was elegantly decorated. In the evenings, live piano music greeted diners as they waited for tables. The food was a step above the usual fare in terms of its quality. Crazy Buffet sought to bring upscale Asian dining to a market where the local Mongolian barbeque restaurants were considered high class. It featured a three station sushi bar, grilled steaks, a hibachi grill, a Mongolian barbeque station, as well as a solid spread of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese delights.

But then, tragedy struck. Crazy Buffet became a victim of its own success. What was once the well guarded secret of Orlando’s semi upper crust soon leaked its way down the socioeconomic spectrum. Pressed shirts gave way to shorts, t-shirts, and flip flops. Couples and adult gatherings gave way to hordes of children running through the buffet area. It was like that episode of The Facts of Life, where Jo opens a pizza business and eventually had to start cutting corners as her orders escalated. Demand exceeded production capabilities, and management started making cutbacks to keep the tables turning over regularly. The crazy wok (their name for the Mongolian barbeque) vanished. One of the three sushi stations was mothballed. The Chinese food selection was simplified, and the duck station found itself relegated to weekends only. Eventually, Crazy Buffet became an ordinary Chinese buffet with a sushi line. Sadly, in researching this entry, I learned that Crazy Buffet closed in August--either a victim of the economy or health inspectors, depending on the site.

My biggest regret about my move to Raleigh was the lack of an all you can eat sushi place. Don’t judge me, we’ve talked about my relationship with sushi before here. Until last week, the best I had found were some places with moderate to decent BOGO specials. Then, when talking to friends at a holiday party, one of them mentioned a new Chinese buffet in Cary with a sushi bar.

I was skeptical. I’d had Chinese buffet sushi before. In Orlando, several Chinese buffets boasted “SUSHI!” on their marquees. It was like asking Santa Claus for a Generation 1 Optimus Prime or Megatron (you remember, the one that transformed into a gun, before he was Brady-Bill-ified into a tank, truck, or whatever vehicle was available) and instead getting a box of Go-bots under the tree. And not even the good Go-bots from the TV show, like Leader-1, Turbo, Cy-kill, or Cop-turr. We’re talking the D-list of Go-bots here: Scooter. All you could do was begrudgingly take the offering while nursing a quiet inner loathing as you braced for the first school day after the holiday, when your friends returned with Cybertron’s finest…while you had the store brand equivalent of transforming robots. Yeah, the sushi on those buffets was always that disappointing. Save for one place near NCSU that only offers a very limited sushi spread on a lunch buffet, I’ve never had good sushi at a Chinese buffet. But, as I’ve said in the past, a fix is a fix.

I pulled into Hibachi China Buffet in Cary with my roommate, promising myself that I wouldn’t allow myself to get my hopes up at the thought of sushi. If I pulled a Go-bot, I pulled a Go-bot. It was almost like a clichéd scene from a movie. Through the framed glass doors, I saw crowds congregating in front of the maitre’d, obscuring my view. As I opened the doors and stepped through, the crowds parted and revealed the buffet in all its glory. I felt myself falling in love all over again.

It was like stepping into Crazy Buffet, circa 2001, all over again. All that was missing was the pretentious waterfall, the lacquered driftwood bar tables, and a piano player laboring his way through “My Heart Will Go On” for the third time that night, in hopes of perhaps fishing a tip from one of the couples waiting for a table. My Sotalol-restrained heart almost skipped a beat.

When I eat at ethnic restaurants, I like to apply what I call the “minority test” as a means of preliminarily gauging the quality of the food—minority not because of the people eating there, but because as someone who’s as non-ethnic as you can get (a fat white guy of mostly Scottish stock, with a splash of Irish), if I’m made the minority by virtue of the presence of native diners, then that says something about the quality of the food. I’ve been to many Asian buffets where the only Asian people were working there, while the diners looked like they'd just stepped out of an Old Navy commercial. The night I visited, I saw a very heavy distribution of Korean, Japanese, and Chinese families there (including a large group in the back room), so my hopes already started raising as we were led to a booth.

No "you'll shoot your eye out" here
Once placed at a booth, I surveyed the lines. It was like that scene from The Simpsons where Homer visits the land of chocolate. Everywhere I looked, I saw the familiar foods of Crazy Buffet. We passed the cold line, with the salads and desserts. We passed two hot lines. Neon signs drew attention to the hibachi grill and a noodle soup station. Then there, against the wall, the reason for the visit: the sushi bar. Looking it over, I almost fell to my knees, crying a glutton’s tears of joy. In front of me, on piles of ice, I saw trays of sushi—nigiri and rolls, both basic (like simple, single item nigiri and California rolls) and more elaborate rolls. I marveled like Ralphie pressing his nose into the department store window in the opening scene of A Christmas Story, when I overheard the chef talking to customers as they loaded their plates up.

"Think he'd roll me some eel, cream cheese, masago, and scallion?"

“If you have any special requests for sushi, please let me know.”

Special orders don't upset them...
In my years of making all-you-can-eat sushi entrepreneurs in central Florida cry over lost profits, I’ve never had any of them offer up custom rolls. Ever. With one sentence, I went from love affair with Hibachi China to “In eight hours, we can be in Vegas, in front of an Elvis impersonating justice of the peace,” and I hadn’t even put chopsticks to my mouth yet.

So of course, the sushi bar was my first stop. The nigiri is pretty standard fare, with things like shrimp, tuna, salmon, crab (or “Krab” for purists) stick, and similar offerings. The rolls seem to be left to the chef’s discretion. If you’re adept at deciphering the cross-section of rolls, it can be a fun little adventure in interpreting a chef’s creativity. For example, fried sweet potatoes were in one of the rolls I picked up. It’s random…in a good way. Also worth noting: China Hibachi solves the dilemma of the Philly roll by making both variants—the salmon-cream cheese and the crab stick-cream cheese. The actual amount of rice on the rolls was a bit sparce. Maybe I’m just used to a thicker layer of rice on the rolls, or maybe the chefs were just hurried in a dinner rush, I’m not sure. In spite of the waifish appearance of my rolls, the sushi hit its mark for taste—the fish was fresh and the rice was neither over nor under seasoned. I’m working on a wish list of things to see if the chefs will make for me next time as I write this.

My next stop was the noodle station. China Hibachi offers four types of noodles served with a variety of broths, meats, and vegetables. I do have to admit that my impaired hearing (thanks mostly to an adolescence and twenties surgically attached to a personal stereo) made it a bit difficult to hear the chef, so I ended up doing some pointing and gesturing in between rounds of “what?” but I wound up with a bowl of shrimp udon after a few minutes. The udon was thick and perfectly firm—neither mushy now chewy. The broth had a nice spicy heat to it that stayed in my mouth for a few minutes after.

The hibachi station was more of the offspring of a hibachi grill and Mongolian barbeque—with a selection of meats, vegetables, starches, and sauces that are put into a bowl and handed off to a chef for cooking. The hibachi chicken plate I assembled was okay, but it was nothing spectacular.

The hot station offers up a variety of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean dishes. Because I was close to full, I sampled a few stand-bys, to gauge them against other places. The coconut shrimp was sweet and well cooked, neither drowned in sauce nor soggy. The sesame chicken was some of the best I’ve had in ages—with large, meaty chunks of meat in a tangy sauce. Usually, the meat in dishes like orange, sesame, or General Tso’s chicken is too heavily fried when I have them on a buffet, some places almost fried to dryness. The sesame chicken at China Hibachi was perfectly cut and prepared. Finally, the seafood delight (shrimp and crab stick with vegetables, in a brown sauce) was on par with what I’ve had in the past—passable, but there was nothing that made it stand out.

On one of the hot stations sat the added bonus for the weekend—dim sum. There were eight bamboo steamers, each with a small card in front of it. Some of the dishes were familiar, like shumai dumplings, shrimp dumplings, shrimp rice (served in leaf wrapper), while others were a bit more exotic. For example, when I saw the steamer marked “Phoenix Claws,” I obviously wasn’t expecting parts from a mythological critter, but I also wasn’t expecting chicken feet.

The desserts were standard fare—eight flavors of hard serve ice cream with the almost ubiquitous assortment of pastries: the same cream puffs, Napoleon, cream cakes, and other pastries I’ve mentioned in the past.

I’m not hiding my bias here. China Hibachi is a restaurant I’ll go to for the sushi and consider the rest of the buffet as either filler or bait to convince my sushi-phobic friends to join me. The sushi is freshly prepared and tastes amazing. The hot food has highs and lows, but no low enough to make me reconsider it. The desserts, tragically, are the same desserts that I’ve seen at cheaper buffets.  I think I'm just going to start calling them "Chinese Mafia" desserts, in honor of my former roommate. Honestly, I’d love to know where the distributor of these desserts come from. I’ve seen them from Florida to Michigan. The restaurant has promise and potential. The fact that it was packed the night I visited it suggests that it’s got a prosperous future ahead of it. However, I’m reminded about the cautionary tale of Crazy Buffet, which used a near identical model to build a successful business on…then proceeded to cut corners and quality until it was a shadow of its former self and eventually collapsed under its own success. China Hibachi has established a solid mark of quality for buffets in Cary, and I’m hoping that they strive to keep it high in the months and years to come.

Akari Express, the C student of NCSU's sushi scene

Rice, seaweed...goldfish? Why not?
My entry into sushi culture was far from ceremonious. If anything, it bordered on disastrous instead.  In the spring of 1987, my uncle’s frequent flying had earned him a free trip to Hawaii, which he gave to my father.  Never one to deny his sons the chance to experience America (which just conveniently put him on the beaches as well), he bought tickets for my younger brother and I, and we soon found ourselves in the islands.  I’m not a big fan of sun, surf, and sand.  Though I had a physique that could make many a marine mammal jealous, I was never big on baking myself on a large towel in between rounds of saltwater marinatings.  So instead, I wandered around the various shopping districts, where I was amazed at the unique fusion of American and Japanese cultures.  In particular, I was obsessed with the ubiquitous presence of sushi in the area.  Up to that point in my life, my sole experience with sushi was the scene in The Breakfast Club where a defiant Molly Ringwald defends her lunch choice to Judd Nelson: “You won’t accept a guy’s tongue in your mouth, and you’re gonna eat that?“  It was more of a food daredevil experiment, really.  I wanted to see if I could eat it and get a rise from my father and brother, who registered their disgust as soon as they saw their first plastic sushi model at the first Japanese food stand we passed.  I’ve never been one to give up a chance to eat something for attention.  One of my great thanks in life is that during my undergraduate years, none of my friends had goldfish around when we drank.  Between the intoxication and my John Blutarskyesque appetite, yeah, I’d have likely gone there…

Small, green, and candy like...what could go wrong?
Days of denials passed, as my father and brother refused to indulge my requests to stop at a restaurant wherein I might get my first fix.  Then finally, we stopped in a buffet for dinner, and there on the cold bar was a plate of sushi.  After I confessed my virginity, the waitress was happy to help me.  She explained each piece as she put it on the plate, and then she put a lump of salmon-colored slices and a small green pellet on the plate.  I returned to the table, my father and sibling both staring with a combination of curiosity and revulsion.  Remembering Ringwald’s character, I poured soy sauce over each piece, grabbed my chopsticks, and adeptly put the first piece between them.  With each piece, I announced the contents and ate it, to my collected family’s disgust.  Then finished, I began to work on the salmon colored slices.  Spicy and sweet—must have been an edible, post sushi digestif, I rationed.  So then, I put the green ball in my chopsticks (another post-sushi digestif, I thought) and drew it to my mouth.

If my positive reviews in the preceding minutes had at all broken down my father and brother’s reluctance to sushi, the next thirty seconds would forever scar and scare them away from it.  I mashed the green ball between my tongue and the roof of my mouth and wrinkled my face as I proceeded to gasp and reach for any fluid in a glass—my water, my soda, my brother’s water and soda, my father’s water and soda—I didn’t care.  In those moments, my only concern was in addressing the oral Chernobyl I was experiencing.  Wasabi, the waitress called it when she came by moments later, with a convenient pitcher of water.  To this day, I believe that the entire crew of the restaurant was watching behind a curtain somewhere, snickering as money changed hands in a bet as to whether or not I’d eat it.  Swing over to Waiter Rant.  Restaurateurs, cooks, and waitstaff can be dicks like that, especially with tourists.

But I was always the resilient fat kid, never one to retreat in the face of failure.  When I fell off my bike, I got back on it and rode again.  When a middle school guidance counselor told me I was too dumb for college, I fought my way through high school, an undergraduate degree, a masters degree, and a doctoral program (and you thought you were obsessive?) just to prove myself in my mind.  While dating, I went through enough evil exes to make a bisexual  Scott Pilgrim sequel before I found the right partner.  Never quit, never retreat.  So in the years that followed my wasabi-fueled indoctrination into sushi culture, I continued to sample it where and when I could.

Being just a bit gluttonous, I’ve never been much of a food snob.  My rule (usually) is that if something won’t kill me, I’ll at least try it.  Some of my college kitchen creations stand testament to that.  When you’ve earned the title “Iron Chef Ramen,” it becomes a badge of honor to the degree of things you’ll create to consume.  However, having had some truly bad sushi in my past, I do harbor a few prejudices here and there when it comes time to break out the chopsticks.   The biggest and most egregious offenders seem to be the restaurants that offer sushi as an add-on to another menu—like the legions of C-grade Chinese buffets that began putting sloppily-slapped sushi on cold lines across the country in the last 90s and early 00’s.  Either the rice was poorly prepared, or the fish itself bordered on rancid.

I became aware of Akari Express while I was playing on the Urbanspoon app one afternoon.  It was near one of my part time jobs, and fit my one-star criteria, so I stopped in for a late lunch (or early dinner…whichever category 3:30pm falls in to) one day in between gigs.  Akari Express seems to have been born Miyako Express and underwent a small identity crisis at some point in the recent past, thus the new name.  It’s in the upper level of a strip mall across the street from NCSU—a bit hard to find the first time there.  The restaurant itself is small and simply decorated, with just a few banners and other knick knacks to provide a setting.  But let’s be honest—with one-star Japanese, most people aren’t there for lacquered fixtures and elaborate décor.   

The menu is simple—barely large enough to cover the front of a standard piece of paper, a small assortment of: sushi, yaki soba, tempura, udon, teppanyaki, and a few side items.  Most of the seating consists of tables, though the presence of barstools in front of the sushi station suggests that patrons could sit there for a more traditional experience.

I was a bit taken back by the pricing on the sushi. It seemed a bit higher than average, probably padded to accommodate for the BOGO specials throughout the week, allowing for the illusion of getting a deal.  Moreover, it seemed that everything on the menu was ala carte.  Salad?  Separate.  Soup?  Separate?  There was a single sushi combo special (a Califormia roll and a Geisha roll), but there was nothing beyond that for thrifty customers, much less a lunch crowd.  My first impression with the staff wasn’t stellar either.  The woman who took my order was a bit brusque when I asked some questions.  She seemed impatient and standoffish, as if I was taking her away from the television behind me.  Not one to want to anger the person who was likely making at least part of my meal, I quickly placed my order, and looked around the restaurant while I waited for my food to arrive, which took about ten minutes.

Both the miso soup and salad arrived in Styrofoam containers.  The soup was hot and had a nice flavor, unmarred by the rancid, oily taste that sometimes hinders miso.  The salad, however, was disappointing.  The greens were fresh, but the dressing had no real flavor to it—no sweetness, no ginger tartness, nothing.  It was a faintly-flavored pulp that lubricated the otherwise dry greens.  Given that I was paying ala carte pricing, I expected something better—or at least enough taste to warrant not bundling it in with a meal and charging $1.99 as a side.  Even grocery store ginger dressing has more flavor than Akari’s ginger dressing.

The sushi was solid, in terms of taste.  The rice grains had a faint hint of vinegar and stuck together well—neither falling apart on the chopstick nor feeling like a rice brick on the mouth.  Trying to get some variety in the meal, I opted for the sole sushi special—the California roll and Geisha roll.  The California roll was as generic as every California roll I’d had in the twenty-three years before.  The only way to mess this roll up is with aged ingredients.  Fortunately, the crab stick was fresh, and the avocado had a nice green color to it.  Safe, generic sushi, that California roll, ordinary in every way. But at least it was a good benchmark of the freshness of the food.  The Philly roll (this one being the salmon-crème cheese variety, and not its crabstick cousin) was also plain and ordinary.  For $6.50, I expect more—either a larger roll (instead of the smaller, inside-out roll) with a bit more filling or a little something extra.  Even sesame seeds would have justified the pricing more.

The Geisha roll was the unique roll I chose for the meal.  Each restaurant has a few signature rolls, and I try to find something to break out of the spread of nigiri and rolls common to every place.  Akari Express has two, the NC State Roll and the Geisha.  The Geisha roll combines tuna, masago (flying fish roe—that’s eggs to the initianated), scallion, sesame seed, in a fried roll, topped with an eel sauce, spicy sauce, and butter sauce.  In spite of its almost overwhelming ingredient list, the roll delivered, both with a nice blend of textures and flavors.  The deep frying left the roll crisp on the breading but still soft inside. The heat from the spicy sauce stayed with me for several minutes after.

The sushi is good, in that it’s mostly a smattering of safe offerings that will appeal to the most mainstream of diners.  Unfortunately, it’s also expensive for the caliber of food served up.  Ordinary rolls that would cost $4 elsewhere run up to $6.50 at Akari Express, and taste exactly the same as the $4 roll.  The ala carte menu makes a one star meal quickly inflate to two star territory. They seem to be taking advantage of their collegiate proximity and pricing for car-locked students.  The homogeneity of the menu was broken up by two unique sushi rolls, which seem to be the only the only thing that makes Akari Express stand out from its competitors.  The signature roll I had was a nice stand out, but can’t justify the pricy nature of the food itself.  Perhaps if Akari rebrands itself again to try and begin with a fresh public image, they’ll either think about lowering their prices for the caliber of their menu or raising the menu’s quality to reflect the pricing. 

China Queen, or the Chinese Buffet-Chinese Mafia Connection?

Years ago, a former roommate of mine theorized that most Chinese buffet restaurants were run by the Chinese mafia. We’d been on a tour of several local buffets in the central Florida area when he looked up from his plate with the same gaze of epiphany that gave birth to Facebook, Pokemon, lint rollers, and the Macarena. He noted that most of the restaurants we’d been to seemed to have identical interior décor, identical menus, and even identical desserts—the same spread of chocolate-drizzled éclairs, macaroons, orange or green tea cakes, and dried-out Napoleon squares. That had to be the only explanation in his mind—the Chinese mafia had infiltrated the US through our biggest weakness: our love for unlimited quantities of sweet and sour pork, peel and eat shrimp, and soft serve ice cream sundaes with topping bars. What was scary was that ever since that conversation, I’ve cast a suspicious eye on any Chinese buffet I’ve been to—whether in Florida, Michigan, or here in the Triangle. What’s scarier is that the waterfall paintings, menu pictures, and even the dessert spread is almost always identical from place to place to place. The homogeneity is almost McDonalds-esque.

That doesn’t mean the food’s identical in quality from buffet to buffet, though. The Chinese buffet is the fat guy’s bar. It’s the one place where we can go, hide in a corner, and drown our stresses and sorrows in a sea of fried meats, salted carbohydrates, and soggy vegetables and feel no shame, as everyone else in the restaurant has mass consumption on the brain as well. It’s like that moment in Blind Melon’s “No Rain” video, where the little, dejected Bee Girl sees a welcoming gate in a field, with a troupe of dancing bee people on the other side, where she cavorts and finally finds her place in life. At a Chinese buffet, we’re all kindred spirits in gluttony, chubby bee people dancing together in a field of steam tables and MSG harmony…so long as you don’t mind having to hip check someone who tries to snatch the last egg roll when you’re reaching for it. And much like the Bee Girl, most of us have to search before we find “our” buffet—the place we don’t mind bellying up to. When I moved here, I tried to find a few places, and really didn’t find one that jived with me. It was the classic Goldilocks effect: too far, too expensive, too __________.

So when I first got the Urbanspoon app, I locked in west Raleigh and did some spinning, to get a feel for the area. China Queen kept coming up in the Chinese category. Then I learned that they were a buffet. A visit was destiny.  After all, having survived not one, but two trips to Raleigh's Crystal Palace (I won't bother going there again just to get fodder for an entry. I'll save us both the time: it's ghastly. Bad food, obnoxious crowds, and a wait staff that could take lessons on people skills from the DMV. Yes, it's an extreme buffet...extremely bad), I figured that I had nothing to lose, and might find the buffet that had thus far been elusive in the area.

It looks like China Queen used to offer the buffet for both lunch and dinner, but has since cut it back to lunch hours only. Paper covers up information about what used to be the evening buffet, and vinyl stickering on the door advises customers that the lunch buffet ends at 3:00pm. The restaurant looks like two strip mall stalls joined together with a door frames. One side houses the takeaway business, with a few tables for people to wait at, and the other side houses the dining room and the buffet. I took a booth, placed my food order, and went to investigate China Queen’s offerings.

True to my roommate’s theory, CQ’s buffet looked like it could have been one of a number of Chinese buffets from my past. The spread of food was almost identical—the expected collection of soups, carbohydrates, meats, with side dishes, and the obligatory peel and eat shrimp. I grabbed a plate and began to load up. When I try a new Chinese place—buffet or not—I always administer two tests on the overall quality of the food: the General Tso’s test and the hot and sour soup test. Just because the items are identical, that doesn’t mean the preparation quality is. So I take two favorite items and use them as a common base line against which I can compare the new restaurant.

For most Chinese places, General Tso’s chicken is a piece of fried chicken briefly sautéed in a spicy ginger-soy sauce. I’ve noticed that the same fried chicken stock can also become sesame chicken or orange chicken as well—it’s just a question of the sauce that the fried meat is sautéed in. I guess this is one of the tradeoffs for fast-food or buffet Chinese food—the versatility that can allow a chef to replenish supplies on the steam tables quickly. I don’t like my General Tso’s to be blazingly hot, but I do like a little heat on the meat. It’s always tragic when those red pepper pieces are at best a decoration. Also, a little steamed broccoli is a must—even if it’s one or two pieces to add a splash of color. CQ fell short on the General Tso’s test. The meat had no notable spicing on it—just a piece of orange chicken tinted brown from soy sauce. The pieces of meat were a bit too small for the fry time—making them tough and chewy before going in to the second phase of cooking. General Tso’s chicken jerky, I guess. The lack of broccoli doomed the dish. It’s not that it was bad. Instead, it was average. There was nothing remotely special or redeeming about the General Tso’s chicken.

Conversely, the hot and sour soup was solid. It hadn’t been on the line long enough to get a skin or otherwise thicken. The blend of broth, tofu, sliced mushrooms, and wood ear fungus played well against one another, with just enough spicing to leave some heat in the mouth after swallowing. It passed its test.

The other hot food I chose was average at best. It wasn’t that it was bad—there were just no entries that stood out, no “wow” items. The lo mein and fried dumplings were both a bit dry, probably having sat out under the heat lamps for too long. The egg roll was obviously just a premade roll that was reheated. And there, at the end of the cold bar, my Chinese mafia desserts—the same puff pastry, orange cake, and Napoleon that I’d seen at buffets across the eastern US for years.

While the hot food was average buffet fare, the sushi was amazing. I’ve had more than my fair share of Chinese buffet sushi, and I can honestly say that most of it was barely passable—something quickly put together with instructions from a book at best. For most Chinese buffets, sushi is one more thing to put on the buffet line to justify the “super” or “mega” title that so many are using these days. I’ll openly admit that I was braced for disappointment when I brought the plate back to my table, and I’ll also openly admit that the sushi was the turn that really started to make the visit worthwhile. At China Queen, the sushi was Japanese restaurant quality—perfectly prepared. The big disappointment is that the spread of sushi is small, three types of rolls that I’ve seen—a veggie roll, a California roll, and a shrimp tempura roll. Honestly, CQ has a great opportunity to do a sushi roll buffet and really carve out a niche in the Triangle, if they were up to it—add about six or seven more varieties of rolls, dish up miso soup and a nice ginger-dressing salad, and put on a sushi buffet. As far as I know, that’s one thing the Triangle is painfully lacking right now (EDIT: Not anymore, a recent entry in Cary has filled that void). If I didn’t feel guilty about clearing the plates out (hey, I’m a fat guy with a conscience at the buffet), I seriously could have had the chef making rolls for an hour.

A trip to a Chinese buffet should be like a visit with an old friend, with all the familiarity and acquaintance of any long-standing relationship. As I thought about my former roommate’s Chinese mafia analogy, I started to realize that’s what made them so comforting—the sheer homogeneity to them these days. Now admittedly, my first relationship with a buffet was a special one—an incredible restaurant in Tallahassee whose General Tso’s chicken set the bar for all others. But that’s the fodder for another entry. It seems that every Chinese place I’ve been to since has looked the same, from the menu, to the decorations, to the buffet desserts. The only thing that changes is how a chef might make the food itself. China Queen’s hot buffet line is painfully average, not standing out in any way, and finding itself easily outclassed by the sushi spread on the cold line. But that doesn’t mean that it’s bad. I mean, not everyone gets to be an astronaut, right? China Queen’s lunch buffet is as much an offering of fifty-item comfort food as the most maternally created meatloaf. Just because I was unimpressed with the General Tso’s chicken (then again, can anyone truly top our first love anyhow?), it didn’t mean that there were enough items on the like to make up for the disappointment. Unfortunately, though, it does mean that I’m back to looking in the triangle for my own “Bee Girl” moment with a local Chinese buffet.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Hibachi Xpress: the tastes of a hibachi steakhouse without the fire and flying knives...

When I was twelve, my father seeded my love for Japanese food (which led to my sushi-curiosity which I’ll elaborate upon another time) by taking our family to a Detroit-area hibachi steakhouse called Kyoto.  My younger brother and grandmother shared an adjoining birthday, so the extended family tended to gather in mid-November to celebrate both.  Kyoto was still relatively new then, so the concept of hibachi style dining was new to all of us, save for my father, who found the restaurant.  Since we were a large group, we were spared the awkwardness of having to sit with strangers, but the show was impressive.  Flashbulbs popped (remember, kids, this was 1984) as the chefs flung food and knives, and indulged their own inner Beavis and Buttheads with alcohol and lighters on the grill.  At twelve, you have to take the entertainment you can get—and if it involves people playing with fire for you, all the better.

Don’t get me wrong, I love hibachi cooking, but the showy aspect of it gets tiring after a while.  I mean how many onion volcanoes can one see before the applause becomes less than genuine?  How many times can a cheeky chef fling cooked shrimps at the stuffiest person at the dining table (not that I’m at all bitter about it after all those years, mind you) before it becomes predictable?  A big portion of the hibachi dining experience (and cost at the end of the meal) is the show itself.  Sometimes, you just want the damned food…without the clang of knives on a table, hot flashes, and the astronomical check that follows it.

Hibachi Xpress is a Raleigh-based chain with several stores in the surrounding areas.  I’d been to the one in Apex this past June, and found myself impressed with the food, but left feeling a bit…dismayed by the store’s condition, a run down and grungy space in a strip mall.  However, after spinning the Urbanspoon app the other night, I saw an impassioned plea from the owner, who was responding to his critics and asking for a second chance.  As a fat guy and armchair glutton, who was I to deny such a heartfelt appeal…especially when I saw their prices?  The fact that their Cary location was also two minutes from home certainly played in their favor.

The Cary location is in strip mall adjacent to the Crossroads shopping center.  A stark contrast to its Apex counterpart, the Cary store is elegantly and tastefully decorated, with several LCD televisions (though most were showing ads for local businesses), tiled floors, vinyl tablecloths, and pagoda-styled moldings, with a dominant earth tone color scheme.  Yellowed lighting softens the mood, but regretfully doesn’t compliment the browns and reds in the store.  In spite of its elevated presentation, Hibachi Xpress is still a fast-food style restaurant.  Orders are placed at the front counter, prepared behind the glassed-in grill area, and set out for customer pickup.  Service items are disposable—with plastic utensils, paper sauce cups, pumps that dispense the various sauces, and a self-service soda fountain, making the restaurant a bizarre nexus of one star dining in a two or three star setting.

The hibachi chicken (which was done a great injustice by the yellow mood lighting) was well prepared—blending carrots, mushrooms, zucchini, and broccoli with the meat.  As should be expected with hibachi, there was a nice hint of sesame, soy sauce, and butter in the dish, which played into the ginger sauce.  Unfortunately, the ginger sauce itself was watery—with no actual ginger pulp.  I suspect that the pumps that the management chose to dispense sauce may have unintentionally filtered out the actual ginger.  They had no problem with the white sauce, but the ginger was tough to get out when I pushed on the knob.  Again, nothing wrong with the actual flavor, just not the expected texture for the sauce.  The fried rice was a bit heavy and greasy.  The flavors were solid, but I’d have liked something a bit lighter and fluffier for the actual texture.

Philly Roll
I’m seeing an irony so far in writing this blog—the named or signature dish of a restaurant may not be the best.  Hibachi Xpress is no exception here.  While the hibachi chicken was decent, the sushi shone.  Hand rolled to order, H-X so far has the best bargain on sushi that I’ve seen in the Triangle area.  I’ve been to a few places in the last year with a BOGO (buy one, get one…either free or half off) special, but for non-special pricing, H-X has the best quality sushi for the price that I’ve seen in the area.  The menu has three grades of rolls, priced at $3 (vegetable rolls), $4 (veggie-meat rolls like the California, Philly, and Orange roll), and $7.75 for the higher-end rolls like Dragon rolls and Spider rolls.  Again, everything is rolled fresh to order.  In my case, I ordered an Orange roll and a Philly roll.

Orange Roll
The great joy (and sometimes annoyance) with sushi is that not every chef presents the rolls with the same ingredients.  Some rolls (like the California roll, for example) are pretty standard so far as their ingredients go, while the waters are a bit murkier with the contents of others.  Of course, the real fun is finding the various house specialty rolls at each restaurant—like the Seminole Roll at Kitcho, the Tallahassee restaurant where I first really had a chance to eat sushi on a regular basis.   H-X’s offerings seem to be standard fare for a sushi menu, regretfully. I saw no sign of specialty rolls, so I chose a few old favorites. The Orange roll is made up of avocado, crab stick, and cucumber, covered with flying fish roe.  The Philly roll is a bit more controversial in composition.  When I was an undergrad student in Tallahassee, the local restaurants made Philly rolls with only crab stick and cream cheese.  Elsewhere, the Philly roll blends salmon and cream cheese.  H-X presents their own take on it, blending crab stick, cream cheese, and avocado.  The rice is well prepared, neither too loose nor too moist.

Walking into Hibachi Xpress, it’s almost hard to remember that it’s a one-star fast food place.  The staff is both fast and friendly.  When the register rush died down, the woman working the register circulated around the tables, checking up on customers—not something one expects from one-star dining.  The décor is stylishly elegant, themed, but not obnoxiously so.  Unfortunately, the yellow lighting doesn’t compliment the earth tone-heavy color scheme.  H-X blends chic décor with self-service convenience and food that’s a solid substitute for the hibachi dining experience, with the sushi posing a solid threat to the star attraction.

Japanese fast food meets the Fat Panda Restaurant Equation

I wear several hats in life: doctoral student, proctor (a polite way of saying “adult babysitter”), and web developer. The latter is supposed to compliment my doctoral skill set, as educators often juggle multiple hats themselves—curriculum specialists and instructional designer among them. In my exploration in the world of web design culture, I came across a phrase that was borrowed from computer programmers:

Fast, efficient, cheap: pick two.

The idea behind the phrase is that an application designed to be efficient and done quickly isn’t going to be cheap. One designed to be efficient and cheap isn’t likely going to be finished quickly. And one developed quickly and on the cheap isn’t likely going to be efficient. Solid application design must measure and balance all three in order to produce quality product. In my food travels, I’ve borrowed this notion and extended it out to restaurants—let’s call it the Fat Panda Restaurant Equation because I'm too lazy to think of a cute acronym:

Fast, cheap, tasty, healthy, quality: For a one-star restaurant, pick one…two if you’re lucky. Add one for each star added to the restaurant.

I’ll leave you to run the permutations of the combinations. For example, McDonalds is fast and cheap, but negligible on taste and even more negligible on nutritional balance. Try it with your favorite restaurants some time…and be honest when you do it. It’s almost universal.

Japanese food, while known for being tasty and healthy, is rarely cheap, much less fast. Sakura Xpress tries to balance out the four factors. Nestled on the western edge of the NCSU campus, Sakura Xpress is a fast food Japanese restaurant that blends its Japanese offerings with Thai and Chinese dishes, to create a diverse Asian dining experience. I’ve been driving by the building for the last year, and something tells me that it’s a recycled space that might be featured on Not Fooling Anybody, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out what it was in its previous life. A Dairy Queen, perhaps?

The interior of the restaurant is spacious, with minimalistic décor. The ceilings are high, and the dining room is divided into several smaller areas—a front dining area, a smaller dining area in the rear, and two “wings” on each side. In addition to the tables and chairs, a small bar area separates the dining room from the food prep area.

I split my review into two visits, so I could sample a few things on the menu. On my first trip, I ordered the Kung Pow Chicken and a sushi platter. While the chicken had a nice spicy flavor to it, I found that it was overfried. Based on my experience with fast-prep Chinese food, this seems to be a decision left to each restaurant/chef. I’ve had some that were lightly fried, and others that were heavily fried. Sakura Xpress’ was fried to the point of being tough and chewy—Kunk Pow chicken jerky, if you will. The fried rice, however, was well done—not overcooked and solidly seasoned with a hint of pepper overtaking the others.

Alternatively, the sushi was disappointing. This was one of the compromises that Sakura Xpress had to make in order to prepare Japanese food in a fast food format. The menu was extremely limited: shrimp and eel nigiri, and a California roll and vegetable roll. When I walked in, I couldn’t figure that out—why the sushi offerings were so limited? Then when the plate arrived, it all made sense. The sushi seems to be produced en masse before each meal. My California roll looked like it came out of a rolled-mold, with grains tightly-compacted into a neat square. The rice was also a bit dry—as if it had been given too much time to absorb its vinegar mixture. The avocado had also started to brown a bit. The taste of the overall product was satisfactory—I didn’t jump and exclaim it the best sushi I’ve ever had, but I also didn’t spit it out and run to the loo—but its mass-preparation and presentation suffered a bit. Again, it’s Japanese food served fast-food style, so I expected some corners to be cut.

My next meal hit more of their Japanese menu: hibachi chicken and chicken udon. As I waited, I heard a microwave beeping in the background, so my suspicions about the advance preparations were furthered. My meal arrived about five minutes after I placed the order. The hibachi chicken was on par with the quality of fast-food hibachi restaurants like Hibachi express—more of a blend of meat, zucchini, and onions. I didn’t really notice the taste of other hibichi flavors like butter or soy sauce. The accessory sauces (the ginger and white dipping sauces) were up to par and gave some much needed flavor to the meat and veggies. The udon (which was what I suspected I heard in the microwave) was steaming hot, and had identical looking meat to what I saw on my hibachi plate. The broth was light, and the udon noodles were fat and well-prepared.

When I reviewed Cloos Coney Island, I made mention of the fact that a fix was a fix was a fix—the idea that something was better than nothing in a moment of craving. Sakura Xpress continues this nothing by providing Japanese food on a student-meal budget by cutting some corners. A majority of the food is already made to one degree or another, which results in food that can be blend or generic at times, in the case of my chicken dishes. Still, when the need for affordable Japanese strikes, a fix is a fix. Fast trumps quality and marginalizes tasty in the final product.

Dirty confessions from a fat food blogger

I know that I’m trying to keep the focus of this blog directed more onto local eateries, but something’s been weighing on my soul.  As a food blogger, I don’t feel like I could post in good faith if I didn’t get it off my chest. 

I have a confession to make.  The Monday after Easter Sunday, I’m the reason why you can’t find Cadbury crème eggs.

Don’t judge me…

A victorious panda, April 2010
Crème eggs are the daytime soap opera of the food world—compact, sweet, and devoid of any nutritionally redeeming value at all.  They’re available for about six weeks a year, so I need a stash to carry me through the late spring, summer, autumn, and winter months.  And at 50% off, how can I not stock up, I ask you?  It seems that others are also on to my scheme now.  This past April, I was at a local chemist’s, and I hit the mother lode—a sealed box of crème eggs, the remnants of another open box, and a sealed box of the store’s knock off crème eggs.  As I waited on line at the register, another customer walked in and asked where the clearance candy was…the crème eggs in particular.  I stood there, defiantly holding my prize like a hungry lion lording over the corpse of a fallen zebra.  The customer retreated, probably to the next closest chemist.  Photos of the trophy were Tweeted.  Blood sugars in the Panda household were high that night.

There’s something about the appeal of seasonal foods.  Most of them aren’t that good in the first place—much less good for us—but we still swarm retailers when news of their arrival begins to break on the social networks and food tracking sites.
Like the slasher in a teen splatter-pic, it never really goes away...
McDonalds first, and perhaps still most sinister, foray into seasonal food came in 1970, with the arrival of the Shamrock Shake and the cultural appropriation of a green-tinted Grimace, Uncle O’Grimacey.  The design was sheer, simplistic edible brilliance: a mint-flavored milkshake that appeared in mid-February, and rarely lasted until the 17th of March, as syrup supplies always seemed to vanish in advance--a feat that makes even Starbuck's Pumpkin Spice frappuccino/latte blush.  As a kid growing up, the real harbinger of spring wasn’t the melting of Michigan snow (since I recall a few winters that extended well into March), but the arrival of the first kid who tortured the rest of his classmates with stories about the first Shamrock Shake of the holiday season.

Stop looking at me like that. I never said that I couldn’t be a cruel bastard at times. As I see it, I was just live food blogging decades before it came to be.  Besides, as the token fat kid in school, I had a reputation to live up to—being an encyclopedia of all things edible.

The next entry in the McDonalds seasonal menu was the arrival of the Happy Meal.  This source of interfamily domestic disputes (trust me, when I worked for McDonalds in Flint as a teenager, I saw more than one child battle with parents to get one) was originally a limited offering.  I remember getting my first one in 1978…and promptly being disappointed when my toy was a plastic bracelet with letter stickers, allowing one to create personal bling.  McDonalds compensated me for my disappointment the next year, though, with the Star Trek: The Motion Picture Happy Meals.  A family trip to visit my grandparents in St. Loius ensured so many McDonalds visits (between the round trip road travel itself, and my father’s periodic need to get away from his southern in-laws), that I had every toy in the collection.  Eventually, the Happy Meal would graduate to full-time menu status, creating a cult of closet toy collectors.

With friends like this...
But the most lauded and legendary of the limited McDonalds menu items has to be the McRib.  The sandwich debuted in 1981, and soon found itself relegated to seasonal fare, kept on life support by a rabid fanbase.  Aside from each year’s “must have” toy (ala 1984's Cabbage Patch Kids, 1998's Furby, last year’s Zhu-Zhu Pets, or 2006’s Nintendo Wii), how many products have their own online trackers?  Like most of McDonald’s meat, the McRib is a conglomeration of animal parts, cast into a meatlike patty, which is cooked, topped with barbeque sauce, onions, pickles, and served on a warmed bun.

I shouldn’t like this sandwich.  It has no nutritional merit to it at all—shaped and formed pork part slurry, soggy pickles, frozen onions, and a sauce that tastes more like spiced catsup than barbeque sauce.  But like with the aforementioned coney island hotdog, those ingredients make a Voltron-like combination that proves irresistible to the most hardened of McDonalds anti-corporate critics.  I took a nibble of the plain pork patty, and it wasn’t that stellar.  But when I took a bite of the whole sandwich, the flavors all came together, like the Joker’s deadly grooming products from Tim Burton’s first Batman film.  I shouldn’t like this sandwich, but year after year, I just can’t quit it.  As I type this, I sit in a booth, nursing the same sense of shame I had when I first realized I’d entered puberty and was called to the board to work out a math problem on the chalkboard.  It’s McDonalds. I worked for them in the 1980s.  I've seen what happens in those kitchens.  I should know better.  But such is the psychological hold of the phrase “for a limited time only!” when applied to nostalgic fast food items.

Seriously, for the past week, my Facebook and Twitter feed has been peppered with entries like this: I just had a McRib… Why do people eat this shit, much less wait all year for it?  I don’t think I’ve seen one person in my social circle try the sandwich for the first time and like it. I seem to be one of the few people who will even admit to liking it if pressed hard enough.  Maybe that’s it.  Maybe the McRib is a secret shame for diners?  In my 2:30pm trip to the McDonalds on Western Boulevard, I saw no less than five people in the dining room order the sandwich and fully consume it.   Widely maligned as it is, it sells…and no one seems to know why?

McDonalds gets it, though.  Much like a culinary version of Ladyhawke, limited supply creates increased demand.  If the sandwich wasn’t so addictive, the plan would almost be pure, unadulterated, Karl Rove-esque evil.  But accusations of malevolence always give way to food addiction in a paired contest, so we forgive McDonalds and start sniffing around the stores at the end of October, waiting for our next fix.

…meanwhile, I’m already making my list of local chemists.  Easter’s coming, after all.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

New Burrito Love, From Disappointment and Heartbreak...

If Hollywood made a film about my life in food, ala Julie and Julia, Qdoba would be the adversary that I was destined to fall in love with.  When I was a budding doctoral student in Orlando, my college’s student union had a local chain slinging the Mexican food: Baja Burrito.  They offered up amazing queso dip and exceptional burritos on a student meal budget, but the crown jewel of the store was their salsa bar—a spread of eight freshly made salsas, with fresh cilantro, sliced lemons and limes, and peppers.  After a few months, I was a regular. I had “my” own table, where I would write papers or grade student work over warm chips and salsa or queso dip.  Eventually, I could walk in and order with two words: the usual.

Then, without so much as a goodbye, it ended.  I walked into the student union in the summer of 2007, and waiting for me was my Dear John (or Dear Panda, if you wish) letter: CLOSED. THANKS FOR YOUR BUSINESS.  I was crushed.  That was it?  All those years at my table, staring out the window as I shoveled queso and salsa into my mouth with warm salted chips, and I couldn’t even take a farewell swing through the salsa bar?  Okay, so there was another Baja Burrito a few miles away, but aside from a 4:30pm drive down Orlando’s University Boulevard (when most of UCF’s work force starts leaving), where’s the dramatic tension in that beyond a close quarters commute with a bunch of other self important academics?  I was heartbroken that day.  I sat in the neighboring Subway, sulking over a sandwich.

The Baja location was promptly papered up, the hanging sign in the hallway came down, and the sounds of construction began to ring from the interior.  I stopped going to the student union for dinners.  It just didn’t feel the same after Baja.  I’ve known of people who will look for new partners almost exactly like their ex: similar builds, similar fashion choices, similar hair color or styles—some even try to recreate the ex by buying the new partner clothes, wigs, and hair styling services.  I couldn’t do that.  There would never be another Baja Burrito.  I needed a clean break.  Months later, I had one of those movie cliché moments again.  I was running late to campus.  I needed dinner, and I was at the mercy of the student union.  At that point in time, the union offered up national franchises like Wendys, Subway, and Sbarro.  I prepared to roll the culinary dice and turned the corner down what was once a familiar hallway, braced for what was in the space that I spent so many dinners at in the years before..

A Qdoba burrito.  Another Mexican restaurant.  Those bastards at the student union…how dare they do that?  Any other sort of food, I could have at least tolerated.  But to strike a Mexican restaurant down…my Mexican restaurant…and put up another one?  I once had a friend who had to spend three months training the gentleman to whom his job had just been outsourced.  Standing in that student union hallway, seeing the stylized Qdoba logo and cactus, I had a similar feeling of sheer violation.  But then, I looked further down the hall and saw the other fare, and suspended my prejudices.  A hungry fat man can be phenomenally forgiving when faced with a rumbling belly and three hours of lectures on curriculum theory.

I wanted to hate Qdoba, but I couldn’t.  Like the widower who moves on to another wife after a sufficient period of mourning, I soon found myself going to Qdoba on an increasingly regular basis.  When I decided to move from Orlando to North Caroilna, I soon found a Qdoba less than two miles from my home, and it became one of my transition restaurants as I settled the area.

Like most styles of fast food, there’s a rivalry in the big-burrito scene: Qdoba versus Chipotle.  Both offer similarly spiced and cooked meats, with a near parallel selection of salsas and toppings.  Both offer a moist style burrito as their main attraction and signature dish—a steamed tortilla wrapper with steamed rice, wet beans, and various toppings.  But like burgers, fried chicken, and sub sandwiches, both Qdoba and Chipotle both have ardent supporters who would just as soon go hungry rather than consume a competitor’s food.  I’ve found that Chipotle’s menu is utilitarian and simplistic: burritos, burrito bowls, and tacos.  Qdoba’s slightly expanded menu won me over, with not only additional food items like soups and quesadillas, but also specialty sauces for the burritos—namely, the ancho chile BBQ and poblano pesto sauces.

For the meal, I started with a tortilla soup—a robust broth with grilled chicken and tortilla chips thrown in.  The spicing in the soup is strong, but in a good way.  It’s very present (namely in that it leaves a nice heat behind well after being swallowed) blend of spices--led with chili powder and cumin that’s intense, but not overly intense for more sensitive palate--makes for a nice warm up for the meal's main attraction.  For the burrito, I went with the chicken poblano pesto burrito: the steamed tortilla with white rice and black beans, poblano pesto sauce, a blend of the mild salsa and corn salsa, along with shredded cheese, lettuce, and sour cream.  Freshly prepared, the burrito is a rush of flavors and senses, with the dual salsas complimenting the spiced chicken and poblano pesto sauce.  Meanwhile, the warmed meat, beans, and rice plays against the cold of the salsas, cheese, lettuce, and sour cream.  Unfortunately, the burrito was a bit rushed. There was some breakthrough (the one disadvantage to the steamed tortillas) on my burrito

Moe’s Southwest Grill, Chipotle, Qdoba—they’re really all the same restaurant concept: fast-food style burritos that try to step a bit above Taco Bell fare. But I feel like I need to add a few notes about my preference for Qdoba.  First, the steamed tortillas really do add to the unique taste of the burrito—even if they can make the final product a but more fragile.   I’ve eaten at other restaurants that don’t steam the tortillas, and the final product has a different taste to it, a bit tougher to chew.  Secondly, the sauces that Qdoba offers up play well into the base favors of the burritos.  The ancho chile sauce is a sophisticated mix of sweetness with southwestern spices and a southern smoke.  The poblano pesto, meanwhile, has a subtle heat that plays against nuts and cilantro.  In a recession economy, Qdoba’s customer loyalty program is also a nice plus—offering an entrée up after purchasing ten.  Also, the North Carolina chains supposedly have rainy day buy-one-get-one coupons sent out over email, but I’ve yet to see one personally.  Regardless, as restaurants like Moe’s, Chipotle, and Qdoba try to make the big burrito the new burger, Qdoba’s expanded menu, flavorful sauces (seriously, the poblano pesto alone is worth the drive), and recession-friendly incentives make them the clear winner when I’m in the mood for Mexican food that’s fast, but not fast food quality.

Friday, November 5, 2010

A Taste of Michigan in the Triangle: Cloos Coney Island

So I started the blog about two weeks ago. It took me a little while to get things set up on the site, and then write, edit, and tweak that first entry.  In the time since, I've been to several places, and I've got a backlog of entries to make.  But I was thinking about which place to make the first entry.  I wanted a certain symbolism to it.  I said that I tended to get in patterns of familiar eateries when I settle an area, and I thought about using those familiar places and foods a sort of transition in to the blog.

When I started this project, I wasn't quite sure where to eat, aside from the familiar franchises and chains.  Technically, my first meal in Cary was a McDonalds that I stopped at on my way in to what would be my new home.  The problem about being new in an area is that one needs to know the locals usually to find the local spots.  Then, as I was playing in the Apple App Store last week, I made a find: the Urbanspoon app.  Putting the website’s content in the hands of the user, the app looks like a slot machine. There's a column for the area of the city, one for the style/region of food, and one for the price range of a restaurant—one to five dollar signs.  Each column also has a lock, so if I was looking for, say, two dollar sign Chinese food, or an Indian place in Cary, I could lock those columns in.  Otherwise, the app's like a culinary version of Joker's Wild...without Jack Barry, and ghastly late 70's/early 80's hair and fashion: hit the spin button and let the random number gods direct you where they may.  So I was at my day job last week, killing time with the Urbanspoon app, spinning through cheap eats in the NCSU area, and the random number gods brought Cloo's Coney Island to my attention.

I'm a Michigan boy at heart.  I mentioned that in the opening entry.  Coney Islands are a part of my cultural heritage, ranking up there with Dawn Donuts, Slim Chipley, and a love/hate relationship with Michael Moore.  If I can get home to Flint once a year, I'm lucky.  If I can make at least one pilgrimage to Angelo's Coney Island during my one trip a year home to Flint, I'm luckier.  So now, here I was, babysitting an undegraduate study study hall at NC State, seven hundred and fifty miles away from the alter of Angelo's Coney Island (the Mecca of the Flint coney scene), staring at an iPad that advised me to the presence of a coney island restaurant no more than a mile away.

Of course it had to be the first place I officially reviewed. 

Coney Islands first spread through Detroit in the early 1900s, usually run by Greek and Albanian immigrants.  Soon the restaurant concept migrated to nearby Flint, where Coney Islands became a common eatery for the workers in the auto factories.  The thing that non-Michiganders need to understand about the history of the Coney Island is the regional rivalry between Flint and Detroit—a Crips-and-Bloods clash about what makes a “true” coney.

Technically, there are two variants on the coney be really technical, two and a half variants.  Both consist of a hot dog and bun, topped with meat sauce, diced onion, and mustard.  The Detroit coney's meat sauce is a wetter sauce, with almost a chili-like consistency. Some Detroit coneys will even have beans included in the meat sauce.  The Flint coney is a drier sauce.  Imagine the consistency of drained and pressed ground beef. This is the single tragic reason why Flint coneys can't travel well.  Years ago, I brought a gallon of sauce from Angelo's, packed in smaller-serving freezer bags, back to Orlando after a visit home.  As I made coneys in the months following, the sauce never quite had the same taste as it did while fresh.  Reheating it drove too much of the moisture out of what was already a rather dry sauce to begin with.  The actual meat used in the Flint coney sauce has also been the subject of a decades-long debate.  Some Flintoids believe that the sauce is made of ground beef heart.  Others believe that it's a blend of ground beef and a second mystery meat—either beef heart or ground up hot dog meat, depending on the source.  Some maintain that it's just finely ground-up ground beef.  My mother swears that she has an old Flint Journal clipping with the Angelo's recipe.  It's in a box somewhere with the clipping of the Italia Gardens sauce recipe that she also swears she has.  She's moved at least ten times since we left Flint in 1984, and as she consolidates before each move, neither clipping has yet to materialize in a box of keepsakes, so I'm not holding my breath that she's got the long-lost answer to the mystery of Flint's coney sauce.

The other variation on the coney, the second-and-a-half, is strictly a Flint thing—the hot dog meat itself.  There are two schools of thought on the meat of a Flint coney.  One school is that any hot dog can be a coney dog—spiced pork in a casing.  The second school of thought is that only a Kogel (a local meat packer with a limited distribution range out of the city) hot dog/vienna an make a true coney.  When I was living in Flint, Kogel made about fifty different meat products (god, it was a fatboy's wet dream, especially the pickled and garlic bologna), including multiple types of hot dogs—a more traditional hot dog, and the vienna.  The casing on the viennas gives the dog a signature snapping sensation when chewed, giving a different feel in the mouth when eaten—a bit tougher and chewier than a standard dog.  Regretfully, viennas travel about as well as the Coney sauce, as evidenced by the eight packs of sealed, desiccated Kogels in my freezer.  Still, when Angelo's is an eleven hour drive away, a fix is a fix.  I was hoping that Cloos could become my surrogate pusher in the Triangle.

I made my way to Cloos Coney Island in the mid afternoon, after the lunch rush.  The restaurant itself has the cosmetic features of the Coney Islands from Flint—tables and chairs, a bar style counter, and an open grill area.  Napkin dispensers, salt and pepper shakers, and catsup bottles sit on each table.   The décor, however, seems to be trying too hard to replicate the Coney Island experience—almost looking more like a 50's themed novelty diner.  Checkerboard tiles cover the floor, black and white with red accents from the chairs and lighting fixtures.  University of Michigan, Michigan State, Tigers, Lions, and Red Wings signs hang on the walls.  Banksy-esque stencils of musical performers like Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Michael Jackson are painted over the tables, and a lonely Elvis pinball machine sits in the back of the store.  I'm still not sure what Sinatra, Elvis, and James Dean have to do with Detroit.  The Chevys, I can see a case for.  But Chuck Berry?  Thriller-era Michael Jackson...after he jumped ship from Motown to Epic Records?  I suppose that if Detroit can get lost in an identity crisis these days, a Detroit Coney Island in west Raleigh can as well...

Then I looked at the menu, two pieces of paper taped to the counter.  The fare was the standard stuff for a Coney Island—a mix of Greek food and greasy-spoon burgers, hot dogs, and fries.  Then I saw the hot dogs heading, and anxiously scanned the offerings.

Detroit style coneys.  Damn.

I felt like Charlie Brown looking through his Halloween bag after a trick or treating.  “I got a Detroit coney.”   I scanned and scanned, hoping to see something that looked like a Flint coney on the menu.  After all, if the Beatles and Elvis peacefully coexisted on the wall behind me, couldn't Flint and Detroit coneys coexist on the same menu?  The closest I saw was a “hamburger-meat” coney—a coney dog with ground hamburger meat on it.  I asked if the meat was at all spiced, but the woman who rang me up said that it was just plain meat...though they could spice it.  Had I the time to research, and the time (and patience) to wait, I almost thought about bringing the Flint coney to the Triangle, but lack of both time and patience resulted in a compromise on the Detroit style coney.

I ordered my usual meal from Angelos: a coney, a cheeseburger, order of fries, and a drink.  Everything at Cloos is ala carte.  There are no lunch specials or combos.  This means that a meal gets expensive quickly. In this case, my total came out to $11.05 after tax.  When I make my pilgrimage to Angelos in December, I'll run a price comparison between the two.  For 2:30 in the afternoon, the service was also a bit slow.  It took about ten minutes for the food to come out—not bad for a regular restaurant, but slow by Coney Island standards.  At a good Coney Island, a waitress can make food appear with a speed that would make Samantha Stevens blush with shame.

I tried not to let my disappointment over the lack of Flint coneys cloud my judgment, but I also realize that I was born into the Flint coney tradition.  The Generals, WWCK (at least when they were an AOR station), and Flint style coneys at Angelos—all encoded in my genetic memory.  It's like the sketch from Eddie Murphy's “Raw,” where Eddie talks about his mother trying to recreate a McDonalds burger at home—there's no substitute.  So I suspended preconceived beliefs and picked up my prize.  The bun was warmed, but the edges along the split had started to get crusty.  The hot dog was grilled (coneys can either be boiled or grilled—a choice made by each restaurant) perfectly—not cold, but also not to the point where the casing was either burned or otherwise split.  For a Detroit style dog, the meat sauce was okay.  It was beanless chili, essentially—the same dominant spices and texture on the tongue.  When put together with the yellow mustard and onions, the flavors of the coney dog blended well. I guess that for seven hundred and fifty miles away from Detroit, it was a good effort—a well dressed chili dog that's trying to live up to its distinguished blue-collar pedigree.  Like I said, a fix is a fix.

I can't say a lot about the fries, really—frozen, mass produced fries.

The real irony of Cloos Coney Island is that the cheeseburger stole the show, not the signature hot dog.  The burger is greasy-spoon cooking at its best—easily one that can stand next to local favorite Cook Out (which I'll get to in another entry...eventually)...even if it's considerably more expensive.  The buns were served with no treatment—no toasting or steaming.  I had the standard condiments: catsup, mustard, pickle, onion, lettuce, tomato.  The patty was grilled to perfection, with just a hint of pink in the middle contrasting with the grey on the outside of the patty, and a single slice of cheese melted over it.  The burger saved the meal, but then what can't a good cheeseburger save, right...except maybe cardiovascular disease?

In the Coney Island tradition, the wait staff's approach is minimalistic.  Orders are placed at the counter, and someone brings the food out to the table.  I did have a few people offer to refresh my drink several times during the meal (a big plus when I eat out—keep the drinks full), and the staff were both friendly and attentive during my visit there.  It had a definite “local” feel to it. The staff seemed to be on very familiar terms with a few of the customers who were there, and the vibe was welcoming. It clearly wasn't one of those eateries where newcomers aren't made to feel unwelcome.

My visit to Cloos reminds me of the Simpsons episode “Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo,” where the family takes a trip to Japan and immerses in the local culture.  One of their first stops is a restaurant named “Americatown,” where we see life in the US viewed through Japanese eyes...or at least the American writers viewing American life through Japanese eyes.  Cloos feels the same way—a Detroit style Coney Island that's both familiar, but has that air of awkwardness that suggests that something didn't quite make an accurate translation from the source.  The coney is a passable substitute for authentic Michigan cuisine—a little taste of home, when home's hundreds of miles away—but the cheeseburger was the real star of the meal.  As I mentioned earlier, I did notice that in the Coney Island tradition, Cloos had a solid assortment of greek food on the menu, so I may go back for a pita sometime.  In the meantime, when I'm feeling homesick, and a spontaneous road trip to Angelos is out of the question, I know that I've at least got somewhere I can go for something like it here.