Friday, August 15, 2014

Pho Vietnam: Sorry, Hipsters, Party's Over. Everyone Knows About It Now....

At the tender age of 41, I finally stopped fighting and embraced the term “hipster.” Chunky glasses, love of vintage kitsch, obscure indie music, equally obscure indie film, Instagramming food, selfies, facial hair, Apple technology. I’m owning it. Granted, now that I own it, the hipsters will move on to something else. I guess we’re all going normcore. But until the lights officially go out on the party, there’s a little pho restaurant in Cary…but you probably haven’t heard of it.

…and it’s really a shame. Pho Vietnam’s not that much to look at on the outside. The building has seen happier, more well-maintained days. Parking doesn’t look like much (use the side lot, there are only four spots out front), and their placement on a blind curve means that you may need to make a U-turn to get to them because you’ll pass them the first time. But it’s worth it for the food.

I love good Vietnamese food. I first got hooked back in grad school, at the University of Central Florida. There’s a strip mall right outside the campus’ main gate, and in the strip mall is Miss Saigon. The name alone (remember, kids, this was the late 90s…it was still a hip reference then) brought me in to try the food. And soon, I was addicted to rice and vermicelli dishes, soups, and summer rolls.

…then the hipsters came along. When I saw Sriracha being referred to as “hipster catsup,” I knew there was an issue. Pho was the new cupcakes…as cupcakes were the new sliders…and sliders were the new….well, you get it. Then add in the Cary factor. For those not in the area, Cary, NC (an alleged acronym for Containment Area for Yankee Refugees) is the Raleigh area safe haven for over-educated, NPR-addled, Apple-addicted, super-special-snowflake WASPS. You can’t swing a meditating, yoga-posing vegan without hitting a Prius, wallpapered in bumper stickers that proclaim how wonderful and super-special they are.

So a pho restaurant in Cary just seemed like the perfect storm of self-important hipster WASPiness that tries my patience like a First Friday on the opening day of a Wes Anderson film. The first rule of anger management: avoid your triggers. But there are certain risks to be taken in the name of food…

I made a few visits over the course of the review. Ideally, it was to get a wide sampling of the menu…but really? I’m a glutton at heart. I love Vietnamese food. The food is good. This was my own perfect storm.
Service is solid and attentive. Each time I went there, I was tended to quickly. When I ordered takeaway, the person taking my order offered me water and a place to sit while I waited. When I went to dine in, I was seated quickly. Each time, I saw several Vietnamese people eating there. Minority test: passed.

On visit one, my first takeaway, I got an order of summer rolls and a pork sandwich. Summer rolls can be tricky. I’ve had them where the rice paper has been overmoistened. I’ve had them where the roll itself is over stuffed. I’ve had them where the roll is really just a container for rice vermicelli and a few shrimp. Pho Vietnam’s summer rolls go heavier on the lettuce, with a little rice vermicelli in the wrap, giving them a cool, fresh taste. Over the course of my visits (hey…I had to order them each time. Consistency, you know?), the sauce ranged from having too much hoisin to a perfect blend of peanut and hoisin.

The sandwich was a pleasant surprise: roast pork. The bread was tough and chewy, nice and crisp. The pork was well cooked and the vegetables were fresh.  There was a sliver of jalapeno in the sandwich that added some nice heat. But while Vietnamese sandwiches taste good, they’re really not why most people go out for Vietnamese…

…so I went back for a vermicelli dish…and more summer rolls, my second takeaway. Chicken and lemongrass delivered in both portion and taste. The takeaway container was huge. The chicken was cooked well. The sauce wasn’t overwhelmed by either the lemongrass, the vegetables, or the chicken itself.

Finally, I had the chance to sit in the dining room. I’ve never had good luck with takeaway pho. It’s never ended well—always a huge mess. So when I decided to go back for pho, I wanted to try it in the dining room. As before, the service was fast. The tables had racks with sauces and spoons. The pho was exceptionally hot, so I put some leaves, sprouts, and sriracha in the bowl while I waited for it to cool. Even with the sriracha, the spice in the pho was pretty mellow. I guess that it’s a nice blank canvas to work with.

…and of course, there just had to be a table of Milennials on lunch break, gushing over the food as they instagrammed pictures on their iPhones. Somehow, it all felt right in a strange but stereotypical way.

I was really impressed with Pho Vietnam. Again, the exterior looks a bit run down and it’s easy to miss from the street, but it’s worth the trip out for the food and the service.

Tom Yum Thai: They're Sexy and They Know It...

The Urbanspoon app is a cruel driving force.

I've been trying to limit my lunch outings to the Cary area, if only because it's close to home. Moreover, I've discovered that I've occasionally had to shake the app more than once (any by "more than once," I mean five, six, or seven times) to find a place that I've not already seen, or a bakery or other dessert place that's not really lunch fare. However, after a several spins, I pulled Tom Yum Thai.

I'd been familiar with them for a while now. Last year, a group of us were looking for a place for Sunday lunch and went there...only to find that they're closed for lunch on Sundays. So I was looking for an excuse to get out there again. The fact that the rooster statues are an Ingress portal was sheer coincidence. ;)

Admittedly, I wasn't really up to a dine-in experience, so I ordered takeaway. There were a few dining tables outside the restaurant, and the inside was darkly lit--relying mostly on outside light from the windows--but tastefully decorated. Unlike other Asian eateries that feel the need to pour as much gold, jade, red plastic Buddhas, and other cliches into the decor, Tom Yum turns the volume down (it's there, but not garish) on the cliche and plays up the style and elegance. Hardwood flooring, dark woods, white table linens, and white flower pots with warm-colored arrangements give the dining room a sharp, sophisticated appearance--and they know it. "The place to see and be seen!" boasts their website. Tom Yum's speed was exceptional. It took eleven minutes from the time I stepped out of my car until I was stepping back in to it with food in hand.

The lunch menu was a bit confusing. The menu on their website said that lunch specials came with soup and a spring roll. When I got there, the spring roll had been covered up with tape. When I ordered, the waiter said that the lunch special came not with soup, but a spring roll. Looking at the menu, I was looking forward to the Tom Yum soup, but it could wait until another time. Sure...I can be flexible.

The fresh spring rolls had a nice taste to them. The cilantro, sprouts, and sausage in particular played into the plum sauce. However, the fact that the rolls were sliced made eating them difficult and frustrating. I don't think I had a single one that didn't either break apart in my chopsticks or leave half of their contents in the tub of sauce. They just didn't warrant the $6 for the appetizer.

Now...Tom Yum's got a little bit of swagger to them. I like swagger. Not only do they bill themselves as they place to see and be seen, but their spices run medium, hot, and "Thai" hot...because regular hot just isn't hot enough. I decided to try the Pad Thai, if only because it’s a common dish that I can use as a baseline—the way I use General Tso’s Chicken as a baseline dish when I check out a new Chinese takeaway place. Having seen from other reviews that the chef is liberal with her spicing, I played it safe and went for the medium option, and I was glad I did. For $8, the portion was decent and the heat was present during and after a bite—but it wasn’t overpowering, nor did it have me scrambling for water after each bite. The noodles weren’t overdone and mushy, and the chicken tasted like white meat cuts. The spring roll was standard. Not bad, but not special, really.  Soup would have been better, I suspect.

Admittedly, based on lunch reactions, Tom Yum was decent for the entrée. The appetizer and side item left a lot to be desired, but I didn’t go there for appetizers and sides. Also, given that they seem to play a bit more upscale in terms of atmosphere and decor, I suspect I’ll stop by to dine in for dinner some night. Still, for a fast lunch order of Pad Thai, Tom Yum Thai hit the mark.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Havana Grill: Delivery from a bad roll on Urbanspoon

I wanted a cigarette after seeing Chef...
but I bought a Panini maker..
So I saw Jon Favreau's Chef two months ago. Let’s be honest, the film was as much a food porn film (I mean honestly…the scene where Favreau’s Carl Casper made the grilled cheese sandwich only needed a slow bow-chick-a groove in the background as he pushed the bread around the grill) as it was a travel narrative. …And the fact that I bought a Panini press after seeing it (no, seriously...right from the theater to Target) is irrelevant...for the most part.

Don’t judge me…

Casper mounts his comeback by starting a food truck, featuring Cuban sandwiches, so I fell victim to some subliminal programming of my own as I fired up the Urbanspoon app and went looking for a lunch place yesterday. Originally, after my disappointing visit to Los Tres Maguyres, I wanted to hit another Mexican place. I had this whole idea of a review series—the Mexican standoff. Imagine, a series of reviews of Mexican places in town. So I went hunting in Urbanspoon—Cary, Mexican, one dollar sign—and found La Casa de Las Encilhadas.

Sorry, folks, restaurant's closed. The
app should have told ya...
Remember that scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation when the Griswolds arrive at Wally World…only to find it closed? Sadly, no one told Urbanspoon that La Casa de Las Encilhadas had closed…and not as in “not open today” closed, but empty-building, sale-sign-in-the-parking-lot, vinyl-couches-next-to-the-dumpster closed. There wasn't even a moose out front I could punch. I guess, though, I stood in for the bespectacled fat guy, I suppose.

Fat man + hunger + food denial = A rather…urgent spin on Urbanspoon. Enter Havana Grill…and that little voice in my head that said “hey…we never did have a Cuban sandwich after we saw Chef.” I was there five minutes later.

Havana Grill is nestled just outside downtown Cary—part indoor, part outdoor, with a food truck parked in the back. From the parking lot, I could hear the blasting of brass instruments and Spanish vocals. Walking inside, I saw a Hispanic couple at one of the tables. Minority test: passed. The restaurant seems divided into three main areas: the service/ordering area, a small indoor dining area, and a larger outdoor dining area. The indoor dining area was a bit warm, especially for summer, but I wrote it off as part of the Cuban theming—a humid, subtropical environment to accompany the food.

The restaurant is designed for fast service—with a hot line for sides and a kitchen in the back. The menu was considerably expansive, but I ran on instinct: Cuban sandwich with fries and a soft drink. About five minutes later, I had food. The fries were decent, but it’s hard to mess fries up. The real star was the sandwich.

I actually had to wait a few minutes for the sandwich to cool down before I could handle it. I had no problem with this. Hot food (and the wait to cool) is always better than cold food from a kitchen. The cheese had melted off the bun and onto the wax paper. At the risk of going into ignorant American mode, let’s be honest: the Cuban is a pressed ham and cheese sandwich with a little more pork, crusty bread and pickles.

This little piggy's going in mah belleh...
…but ham and cheese sandwiches are awesome…and I love pickles.

Havana Grill didn’t disappoint. The pickle and mustard provided just the right bite to play off the ham and swiss, and the bread was toasted and firm, but not overdone. The sandwich was served with a garnish of fried onions on top…which I wasn’t quite sure what to do with. The cheese had melted and solidified around the bread, mixing with the butter from the toasting process. For my first Cuban, it met every expectation set by its predecessor on the big screen.

With the sandwich gone, I decided to indulge the urge for tres leches cake that Los Tres Meguyres had denied me the day before. Now again, Havana Grill looks to be a fast-service place, so the cake had been pre-sliced and served in a Styrofoam bowl with cellophane covering it. While this might give a moment to pause…anything that lets the cake marinate in sweetened milk more is just fine for me.  The cake was well-soaked, but it wasn’t mushy or overly soggy. Likewise, I found it really sweet (I made the comment via social media that my ‘beetus got the ‘beetus from it), but it might be too sweet for some.

Havana Grill stepped in to save me from the disappointment or a bad Urbanspoon roll. The food was exceptional (and I’ll be back some time, to try other things), the price was decent ($5 for my Cuban), and the tres leches cake could put an elephant into a sugar coma.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Los Tres Magueyes: "Service? We Don't Need No Stinking Service!"

Once upon a time, I was trying to write a doctoral dissertation. And like many would-be writers before me, I chose a coffee shop to blankly stare at the screen of my Macbook Pro--Caribou Coffee in Cary. For almost a month, I drove down, found a seat in the store, spread out my research, and tried to think of an idea that would please my dissertation advisor (spoiler alert: none of them did). Across the street was Los Tres Magueyes. So a few months ago, a friend suggested dinner there on a Saturday night.

Now here’s the thing about fat guys (gay “bear” types especially): we travel in packs—large, hairy sleuths. So imagine several fat guys walking into a restaurant with three tables and the rest of the seating as booths. The hostess wanted to put us in a corner booth…one that would have made me channel my inner Lilias Folan to slide into…and I was the smallest of the guys in the party.

…So we went elsewhere for dinner.

However, I wanted to get some fodder to write about. Since I’m trying to break out of patterns, I’ve learned about Urbanspoon’s “shake” feature. Imagine a fat man’s dream slot machine. Select an area of the city, select a genre/category, select a price range…and shake—random selections. I locked in for a one-dollar sign restaurant in Cary, and Los Tres Magueyes came up. Why not?

The space is small and cramped. I wasn’t just having a bad memory from hunger when I went in yesterday. Seating is mostly booths, with a few free-standing tables. The décor…is colorful…if by “colorful” you mean that Disney World’s Enchanted Tiki Room and a Chi-Chi’s had a tacky baby. Mexican art blends with bright colors and parrots in a sensory assault that makes you wonder if there’s not LSD in the salsa.

I was seated fast, and a waitress had a menu in front of me within moments of my arrival…as well as a demand for my order. I barely had time to look at the menu (much less find the lunch specials) before she wanted my order. After bartering for a moment of time, I settled in on the fajita burrito and turned my attention to the chips and salsa.

When I do ethnic food, I try to use some kind of dish as a baseline—a means to compare restaurants fairly. With Mexican places, salsa (or if I’m looking to agitate my colon, queso) is usually my baseline. And I’ll give Los Tres Magueyes this—the salsa is decent. It’s largely a tomato puree with onions, cilantro, and spices, but at least it’s fresh and not the soupy, cooked stuff. The fajita burrito was also good. Obviously, the meat was pre cooked, to make lunch service faster, but the spicing was solid, and it didn’t taste like it was in a warmer all afternoon. They’re at least taking measures to keep it moist. The burrito is served “wet” style, with queso and a red sauce poured over it. The rice was average. There was a little hint of tomato and spices in it, but nothing special. At the same time, it wasn’t bad.

I was about ready to order a tres leches cake when my waitress walked by with a fresh drink and my check. Before I could even order the cake, she walked out the door facing the street. So I waited….and waited… After five minutes, it was obvious that she wasn’t out on a smoke break, and my meal was over. Not a good way to conclude the experience.  This was further compounded when the guy at the register acted like checking me out was a chore that interrupted him from other things.

In spite of a lukewarm first impression, I went back to Los Tres Magueyes on a whim, and I’m largely ambivalent here. The food’s okay, the décor looks like a Mexican Willy Wonka film, but the human factor is just lacking. From my waitress leaving in mid-meal to the surly cashier, poor service just brings anything they could bring to the table.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Cook Out: Where Loaves of Bread and Wine Become Burgers and Shakes...sort of...

This was one of the places that locals gushed about when I got here. The fact that there's one in my backyard (no, literally...if I step out the rear sliding door of my townhouse, I can be at the walk-up window within two minutes) meant that it was just a matter of time before I ate there. Every day, around 3:30, the smell of burgers fills the air, as they start bracing for the dinner rush. And I'll give them that--the burgers are fresh. We're not talking about the frozen patties that other chains use. It also seems that each patty is inspected for thorough cooking. I've noticed over the years that the patties are split up the middle, probably to insure  they're not too pink.

The delivery system and concept are simple: drive through or walk up. There's no eating area...unless you count an adjoining parking lot, like our townhouses. It's as fast as fast food can get: get in, get the food, get out. The menuboard requires both a graduate degree and 20/20 vision to read. It's dense and a bit difficult to navigate. They simplified it about a year ago, but it's still tough to get through the first few times. This is further complicated by the fact that the location I go to is staffed by obnoxious teenagers who don't like to be given an order twice and hate being asked to confirm orders. I rarely have someone get my order right the first time I give it, and even more rarely get someone who's not annoyed when I ask them to confirm it...just to make sure that "extra pickle" doesn't translate to "no pickle" somehow.

Yea...come unto me for coronary disease...
Cook Out deals in the standard burger joint fare: burgers (or chicken breasts), barbeque, hot dogs, shakes, and sides. And to be honest, the food's fairly-priced for the portions. Their signature item is the "Tray"--a make-your-own meal that gives a pretty large reign over the menu (shakes extra, of course), for under five dollars. But their other signature is the subtle placement of bible verses and a little Lee Greenwood-influenced patriotism on the fry bags and shake cups. Now let's be honest here, few things say "'Murrika!" like inexpensive, artery-clogging burgers, fries, and shakes. But the only time I want Jesus involved in my meal is if he can take my cheeseburger tray, double fry, and milkshake and make it feed me more than once. Yes, it's their right to do it, but it's a bit disjarring for the nonreligulous.

Little sticks of artery-hardening goodness...
The food's decent. Like I said, the burgers seem to be cooked on the premises and either kept in a warmer or microwaved until they're server. The usual toppings are free, and things like tomato, cheese, and bacon will run extra. The burgers themselves do have a nice grilled taste to them that blends well with the toppings. The meat's good, and the toppings are fresh.

The Mexi-Dog
I can't tell if the fries are fresh or frozen...and I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing. The hot dog offerings are decent--the "mexi dog" in particular, with chili, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and a shot of Texas Pete to keep it local.

The burgers...they're kind of a big thing...
Cook Out's shakes, while legendary in local food culture, are overrated. I'm sorry, but they just are. When people gush about the shakes, what I really think they mean is the sheer combinations of them, more than the quality. The shakes themselves are just soft serve ice cream with toppings and a few moments in a blender. I'd use an arctic-themed reference, but Dairy Queen and McDonalds grabbed trademark on the words, and their lawyers are better than mine...but you get the idea. Quality-wise, it's just soft serve ice cream. What Cook Out specializes at is the clever combination of flavors. Most, you can get pretty easily. Cookies and cream, Snickers, mint--all obvious mix-ins. But shakes like the cobblers use canned fruit and vanilla wafers, and the cheesecake shakes use fruit and some cheesecake. So there's a little creativity. Seasonal shakes (watermelon and egg nog) are cute on a menuboard, but didn't translate well when I've tried them over the years.

Cheeseburger dissection
When I was a little boy, I had a relative, Uncle Gene. Gene wasn't really an uncle as much as one of my paternal grandmother's in-laws for whom there may not have been a family he just got "uncle" by default. Nice guy, as I remember, but he always had these little, red mini-bibles that he carried with him. At every family gathering, Uncle Gene was handing out the little, red mini-bibles to the kids present. I just came to expect it. When I think about Cook Out, I think about Uncle Gene--nice guy, but a little unwarrantedly preachy. Likewise, with Cook Out, the religulousness is just to be expected. The burgers are excellent, the fries pass muster, and the shakes are disguised soft serve, but the overall meal (or at least its price) makes enduring the "'Murrica!" and bible verses (I guess I should give them credit for avoiding the John 3:16 cliche) tolerable. Like Uncle Gene's little red bibles, I endure it and focus on the real reason I'm there--hardening my arteries and bringing me one step closer to that massive coronary that's looming in my future.

"What is a Food Blog?"

When I started blogging about food and restaurants in the area, I wanted to keep it local. I mean, if Applebees makes a pre-cooked, microwaved entree that's REALLY awesome, I might go out of my way to try it and write about it...assuming, of course, that I'd ever be caught dead in an Applebees. But really, my goal is to get to know an area through its eateries. Note, I said eateries, not necessarily food.

National chains and franchises are comfortable because they're familiar and identical. Save for the occasional regional variations (like the time I had "McRamen" at a Hawaiian McDonalds on a family visit in 1987), every McDonalds is going to be the same--decor and menu. If you're of a certain age (read: old), you may remember a scene from the movie Gotcha, wherein our hero, having escaped "bad" Germany into "good" Germany runs right to a Burger King to order an "American" Whopper. His whole point was to reconnect with a familiar place after a brief trip behind the iron curtain. So at least for right now, I'm avoiding the big chains. That's not to say that I won't hit a chain or franchise, but there's no need to write about the nationals. I'm looking for the smaller places that people might overlook or not be familiar with. For me, local eateries are a part of a city or region's identity.

Even though I grew up in Flint, Michigan, my mother's family was from the deep south, Batesville, Arkansas. At least once a year, we'd visit my maternal grandparents down there. This is a part of the south so southern, I saw men in KKK robes, on the side of the street, having a mini-rally when I was driving over from Memphis to visit my grandmother during the Labor Day weekend holiday in 2002.

Yes, 2002.

But digressions aside, one of the things about going to visit my parents in Batesville was completely getting away from the "normalcy" of Flint, especially when we ate out. That was half of the excitement--new places to eat: new food, new environments, and stories from my mother about the places in Batesville where she ate as a teenager. I've long-since forgotten the names, but I remember having burgers and fries at a little greasy-spoon she'd visit after school as a teenager. I remember fried catfish at a seafood place we went to during a family reunion. When I think about Batesville, those are some of the things I think about--places I'd never have eaten at were I not there. The environment helps to make the impression.

So I was thinking about jumpstarting this blog last spring. I sent the link to an acquaintance. "OMG, your food blog sucks, man! You never talk about food!" I was a bit taken back...because I recalled talking about food. I mean, I didn't throw myself into armchair "food porn" mode, where I'm sitting at my Macbook like a fatter, ruddier, even more abraisive Godon Ramsey, deconstructing flavor profiles like an WASPy, NPR-fueled culture snob might try to break down a wine...despite the fact that science has proven that most of 
us just can't tell flavor nuances to that degree.  Maybe it's just because I'm more of a glutton (seriously, food in my proximity rarely lasts long. I don't inhale, but I'm not a slow, delicate, dainty eater either), I've never developed that pinpoint palate that allows me to articulate food like that.

Let's be honest here, food pretension was hip way before hipsters, Alton Brown, and a glut of bad reality cooking TV shows made any middle class white person with access to the Food Network and a box of wine (funneled into expensive bottles, to show off for friends) into an instant food critic. I'm pushing 350 pounds these days. You don't get there with a shi-shi, restrictive palate. You get there by eating. So when I think about food, I'm not looking so much at the buzzword of the moment as much as a few guiding questions:

  • Does the food taste good? If so, why? If not, what's wrong?
  • Do I want to go there again and eat more?

That's it.

For me, a food blog is about more than just the food. It's the whole experience--from my thoughts and feelings going into it, to the environment itself, to the staff, to the food. I mean yes, I could do a "food porn" style blog. I could easily be the Bob Guccione or Larry Flynt of southern flood blogging, but I think that the experience of food is about more than what's on the plate. It's more than just the organic chemistry. It's the experience. Part of the old India Mahal's charm was the divey nature of the interior. Part of Tijuana Flats' charm is the unique art deco scheme for each location. Part of Strombolis' charm was its cast of characters behind the counter, the prominently-featured brick oven, the cheap and tacky sponge painting on the bathroom walls....and a gawdy mural that the owner installed. These things all give the food character. They're all part of the experience.