Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Happiest Place (to Eat) on Earth, part 2

On our second day at Disneyland, we were met by family local to Southern California. Though it's usually just the two of us, we find that we have a lot of fun at Disneyland when we get to spend time with family and friends. For dinner, we all went to Ariel's Grotto at California Adventure. For those unfamiliar with this establishment, it's a higher-end family dining restaurant with a hook: While guests are eating dinner the Disney princesses - Snow White, Belle, Jasmine, Cinderella, Aurora - visit each table, signing autographs and posing for pictures. It's a good opportunity to meet the princesses without standing in line as guests do elsewhere in the parks.

The meal started with a three-tiered antipasti platter featuring salami, mozzarella cheese, Roma tomatoes, gherkins, olives and raw vegetables. Requests for refills on these items were cheerfully fulfilled.

Additionally, we were served a green salad with vinaigrette, and rolls to munch on while we waited for our entrees. Like the antipasti platter, a new serving of salad was quickly brought out when the first was finished.

Entree choices included cioppino, pasta, and chicken breast, amongst others. I selected the Santa Maria style tri-tip, served with vegetables and cheddar herb mashed potatoes. It was far from the best tri-tip I've ever had - my father-in-law's holds that distinction - but it was quite tasty and made for a nice contrast to the vendor snacks we're used to eating at Disneyland and California Adventure.

The dessert platter that followed was loaded with a variety of goodies including cookies, chocolate cake and fresh strawberries.

Despite our status as die-hard Disney fans, Ariel's Grotto is probably not the kind of restaurant Katie and I would eat at were it just the two of us. More than likely if we were in the mood for a sit-down meal, we would opt for ESPN Zone or any of the other eateries featured in the last entry. However, the food was quite good, and our nieces - both of whom had been there many times before - had a ball. The food is expensive - expect to pay around $30 per person - but you're paying more for the experience than for the food itself. If you find yourself at California Adventure with hungry daughters and some time to sit and eat, try to get a table at Ariel's Grotto (or better yet, make a reservation ahead of time). They'll thank you for it.

I'll close this entry with a review of one of our favorite eating establishments in Southern California, located on the grounds of a theme park we never actually visit. Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant, right outside the main entrance of Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, has been a vital part of almost every trip we've taken to the greater Los Angeles area.

Being annual passholders to Disneyland, there are few things capable of pulling us away from the park for a few hours. Mrs. Knott's happens to be the most consistent of these. The restaurant is something out of a bygone era: The decor is early American country kitchen, and the waitresses dress like no other waitstaff I've ever seen, in frilly dresses and striped aprons that I imagine are similar to the ones the restaurant's original waitresses wore in the 1930s.

Mrs. Knott's specializes in traditional American dining, and their menu includes roast turkey, pot pies, sandwiches, barbecued ribs, and of course, fried chicken. Dinner entrees are served with a choice of chicken noodle soup or cherry rhubarb, a small green salad, a side of cabbage or sweet corn, and dessert. Unfortunately, the line for dinner is frequently more than an hour long, and while we have stood in it - there's no leaving your name and waiting in the bar - we find it much more convenient to simply come for lunch. During the week there is rarely any wait, and lunch entrees include a choice of soup, salad or cherry rhubarb, and either cabbage or corn. In addition to this, generous portions ensure that their lunches are more than satisfying. Dessert is not included, but can be ordered separately. We rarely have room.

Katie and I are both partial to the chicken noodle soup. It's creamy and satisfying, with hearty noodles and chunks of chicken.

I usually order the chicken fried steak, served with mashed potatoes.

Though I tend to order soda when eating out, at Mrs. Knott's I always get their boysenberry punch.

All entrees are preceded by hot, freshly-baked buttermilk biscuits and many varieties of fruit-flavored jam. It's the perfect appetizer before a grand and delicious meal.

On this trip, we stopped at Mrs. Knott's just before the long drive home, and thus kept it simple. I had the soup, Katie had a salad, and we shared an order of fries and onion rings.

I miss the chicken fried steak.

Stay tuned for part 3. That's right: Dessert!

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Happiest Place (to Eat) on Earth, part 1

As promised, here is the first part of the Disneyland recap. Although food plays an important role in any vacation Katie and I take, I know whenever we take a trip to the Magic Kingdom there will be many a delicious snack, meal and dessert to be enjoyed. Planning what we'll eat and when is as important as, if not more important than, planning what ride to ride and what parade to watch. Don't act surprised; you are reading my food blog and already know what sort of eater I am.

We usually spend two or three days at Disneyland (or more when time allows). This leisurely pace allows us to enjoy a sit-down meal or two without feeling that we are wasting time we could be spending on rides or other attractions. On each trip we take, we try to allot a half-hour or so on one morning to have breakfast. On this trip, as with most others, we ate breakfast at the River Belle Terrace, located in Adventureland across from Indiana Jones Adventure. They serve typical American breakfast fare, including pancakes, cinnamon rolls and fresh fruit.

Katie ordered scrambled eggs, served with a biscuit and potatoes. She also ordered a side of bacon. Unable to stomach eggs, I ordered a side of potatoes, and took some of Katie's bacon. We should have separated the bacon after paying, as the cashier thought my portion was another side and tried to charge us for it.

Yes, we are sharing a soda for breakfast.

To us, Disneyland is synonymous with "junk food", and we frequently find ourselves paying handsomely for, and enjoying, snack items that we probably wouldn't consider paying for were we anywhere else. If you have read my previous entry you are already aware of the Mickey Mouse pretzel, an essential Disneyland snack if there ever was one. Although I'm pretty sure these are available in a cinnamon sugar variety, Katie and I prefer the salted ones. They are served with cheese, though they're quite nice with mustard as well.

A close look will reveal that this is not the same Mickey Mouse pretzel dissected in the previous entry. That's right, we had two on this trip.

We also enjoy Disneyland popcorn. Available in two sizes, the larger comes with a souvenir bucket, which we've never bothered paying for. The buckets are nice, but who wants to carry one around all day? We get the smaller size, which is more than enough popcorn for the two of us.

At first glance it looks just like regular popcorn, but it actually tastes better because you're eating it at Disneyland.

While at neighboring Disney's California Adventure, Katie and I like to visit the Mission Tortilla Factory and the Boudin Bakery. Both are located in the Pacific Wharf area of the park, and are fully-functioning facilities that produce tortillas and sourdough bread, respectively, for sale or other use in the park. The Mission Tortilla Factory features a short video and a brief walk-through.

Here's a video. It's pretty hypnotic.

At the end of the tour visitors are given a free tortilla to eat (sorry, no butter), and can watch dishes being prepared in the factory's demonstration kitchen.

Interestingly, until this trip we had only been given flour tortillas at the end of the walk-through; however, the video shown at the beginning of the tour concerns the production of corn tortillas. After mentioning this inconsistency to Katie, we were both amused to receive a corn tortilla.

The following day, flour tortillas were once again distributed.

The Boudin Bakery Tour features narration by Rosie O'Donnnell and Colin Mochrie. Visitors receive a free slice of sourdough, then walk through a glass-walled corridor looking into the bakery itself. Inside, bakers mix the dough, form it into loaves, and bake it.

Like many Disney attractions, the tour leads directly to a store, in this case the Pacific Wharf Cafe. Offering sandwiches, soups and salads in bread bowls, cookies, muffins and other freshly-baked goodies, the Pacific Wharf Cafe is a pretty regular stop for us.

However, we usually pass by all of these selections in favor of a much simpler item: A sourdough round, pre-sliced. We find this easy to eat and very satisfying, especially while waiting in the long line for Soarin' Over California or Toy Story Midway Mania.

Downtown Disney is the shopping, dining and entertainment area adjacent to Disneyland. There is no shortage of food-related options here.

I am partial to Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen Express. A faster, more casual alternative to neighboring Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen, Express features reasonably-priced (for a resort) sandwiches and other entrees, as well as free refills on their sodas, a rarity among similar restaurants at Downtown Disney. I usually get the fried shrimp po' boy sandwich

while Katie gets the fried chicken po' boy.

Both are served with fries.

Another restaurant we enjoy is ESPN Zone.

Heaven on Earth for sports fans, ESPN Zone is the ultimate theme restaurant, with TV screens broadcasting a multitude of sporting events. The restaurant features a large bar area as well as a family dining section for those who prefer to eat without deafening play-by-play or an enormous TV stifling all conversation. Katie and I, of course, always eat in the bar area; otherwise we'd just go to TGI Friday's.

I was hooked on ESPN Zone's Hot Hero Sandwich in 2005, and very disappointed when they dropped it from the menu. The last few times we ate there I had one of their many burgers. On this trip I was unsure which burger I should order - the Black and Blue Burger, for example, never disappoints - so it was fortunate that one of their specials was a selection of four different sliders, including the Black and Blue Burger, as well as the Buffalo Chicken, which I'd ordered as a full-size burger during our previous trip in November. They were served with onion straws, and quite delicious.

On our way to ESPN Zone, we passed a vendor selling nuts, and I had to take a picture. Does anyone not find it funny and sad at the same time?

I'll get part 2 posted this week.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Eating Mickey: A Tutorial

As I mentioned in the March 28th entry, Katie and I took a trip to Southern California recently. During that time, we spent a few days in Disneyland. We're annual passholders, and we try to go there a couple times each year. While there, we invariably eat a lot of food, and this trip was no exception. I'm planning to post an account of all the delectable goodies we ate during our trip, but until then please enjoy this step-by-step guide to enjoying one such treat, the Mickey Mouse pretzel.

Don't shed any tears for Mickey. He was delicious.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Best vs. Worst Easter Candy Showdown

Happy Easter! Or if you don't celebrate Easter, Happy Sunday. In honor of the holiday in which an anthropomorphic rabbit hides eggs to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I have compiled lists of the best and worst Easter candies. As with anything in life, your mileage may vary, and if your list differs from mine it simply means that you have awful taste. (Just kidding, mom!)

The Top Five:

5. Malted Milk Robin Eggs
My love of malted milk candies stems from my childhood, when my grandfather would open a carton of Whoppers and pass them out to my cousins and I. Every Easter, I would invariably find some speckled Robin Eggs in my basket, half hidden under green plastic grass. The malted milk flavor was the same, though the thick chocolate coating of the Whopper was replaced by a thinner layer beneath a crunchy candy shell. They came in a variety of eye-catching colors, and though there was no difference between them the turquoise blue ones were my favorite. I'm eating some now, having pocketed a few handfuls as I filled plastic Easter eggs for my nieces and nephews last night. They still hold up.

4. Popcorn Bunnies
Popcorn drenched in molasses and formed into a bunny-like shape, and an eyeball made out of a difficult-to-identify substance that may or may not be edible. Depending on your individual preference, this may be a tasty holiday treat, or the absolute nastiest Easter candy imaginable. Much like the Halloween-staple popcorn ball, I have always liked these, though Katie thinks I'm insane for it.

3. Reese's Peanut Butter Eggs
If you like Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, these work on the same principle, only egg-shaped. As a child I wasn't very fond of peanut butter, but chocolate can redeem almost anything. Today, having somewhat re-developed a taste for peanut butter, I actually prefer the eggs to the cups as the peanut butter flavor is much bolder.

2. See's Rocky Road Egg
The familiar white See's Candy box was a common sight in my house growing up. Although I didn't receive See's for Easter as a child, in recent years I have grown fond of their selection of chocolate eggs, particularly the Rocky Road egg. Being a fan of Annabelle Candy's Rocky Road bar, Rocky Road ice cream, and any other combination of chocolate, marshmallow and nuts, this item's prominent spot on the list was preordained, even without the "nostalgia factor" of the other four. It's nearly ten ounces of dense chocolate goodness.

1. Cadbury Mini-Eggs
The number one spot is occupied by a lifetime favorite. Cadbury Mini-Eggs are roughly the size of peanut M&Ms, and consist of a solid chocolate center surrounded by a thin layer of candy not quite like the coating of an M&M or a Robin Egg. The whole is utterly satisfying, completely addicting, and only available at Easter.
Unlike some of the other items on this list, there is no comparable candy available during the rest of the year. I considered whether my love for this selection had anything to do with the fact that it is available for such a limited time, but I discounted this theory; they're just plain delicious. The Cadbury Mini-Egg is, without a doubt, my favorite thing about Easter.

The Bottom Five:

5. Anything Palmer
"Palmer Candy Company", like "Whitman's Sampler", is code for "cheap and/or tasteless chocolate." When you want to buy an inexpensive gift for someone you don't really like, you purchase an item produced by Palmer. To drive home the point, upon telling a few friends and family members that I was planning to blog about the five worst Easter candies, every single one asked if I planned to include Palmer. Palmer Candy Company is the

4. Jelly Beans
I should clarify that I'm not talking about Herman Goelitz's Jelly Belly candies here. Jelly Belly candies may in fact be the food of the gods. But jelly beans are something else entirely. They're large, oblong, hard on the outside, gritty on the inside, and exactly what I imagine eating a pebble would be like. They have enjoyed their status as a traditional Easter favorite for years, though the reason eludes me.

3. Hollow Chocolate Bunnies
What a rip-off! "Hollow chocolate bunny" may be the single most disappointing phrase in the English language, beating out "called on account of rain", "time for school", "there is no Santa Claus", and "last call". Imagine that it's Easter morning, you're six years old, and there is nothing in the world that you like more than chocolate. Now imagine that a well-meaning relation hands you an eight-inch slab of chocolate. You can't wait to sink your teeth into that smooth bunny body. Then with the first bite a huge air pocket fills your mouth instead of rich, creamy milk chocolate. As a direct result, you suffer from extreme intestinal discomfort for the rest of the day. Thanks to frequent noisy gas outbursts you are sent to bed without Easter dinner, and the following morning your parents tell you that they're divorcing. Before you know it you're living in an alleyway and doing hard drugs to ease the pain of your shattered life. Did I mention that Palmer is known for producing mass quantities of hollow chocolate bunnies every Easter? It's no coincidence.

2. Peeps
One marketing slogan touts these marshmallow candies as "always in season", though a more apropos tagline is definitely "always in poor taste." I'm all for marshmallow, but are these things really marshmallow? In the late 1990s researchers at Emory University in Atlanta attempted to dissect Peeps to find out exactly what they were. They microwaved them. They dipped them in acid. They subjected them to physical challenges too
extreme for Fear Factor or Survivor. Horrifically, though the Peeps themselves took quite a licking, their little candy (?) eyeballs would simply not dissolve. Read all about it here. If you somehow enjoy these awful "treats", you're not alone. Several American cities including Sacramento, California hold an annual "Peep-Off" the week after Easter, and an Internet search yields way too many websites for aficionados of these spongy chicks/rabbits/whatever.

1. Cadbury Creme Eggs
A milk chocolate shell surrounding a yellow-and-white filling made to resemble a dead bird embryo. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I would have found this concoction disgusting even had I not disliked eggs as a child. There's a reason why I said that chocolate redeems almost anything; clearly there are certain crimes against humanity that nothing can fix. I planned on writing a more thorough entry on this monstrosity,
explaining their origins - I'm guessing they were found on a distant planet and brought back to Earth by an American defense contractor for the purpose of breeding the ultimate alien soldier - but just researching these things makes my stomach turn.

Please not that none of the images in this entry are mine. I'm going to stock up on Cadbury Mini-Eggs. Happy Easter.