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.