Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Week in Food

Well, a couple weeks, actually. Here are some highlights:

Barbecued bratwursts with melted cheese and yellow onion on a French roll, served with waffle fries. I was surprised by just how much this sandwich tasted like McDonalds' McRib.

Barbecued white and yellow corn. Although it was tempting, I didn't eat all four ears. Barbecued corn is a favorite of Katie's and mine, and at every state or county fair we attend we buy some. While passing through the neighborhood where I grew up last weekend I was pleasantly surprised to find vendors wheeling carts from which they sold, yes, barbecued corn. Maybe I moved out of there too soon. Incidentally, I prefer mine with butter, garlic salt, chili powder, and Tapatio hot sauce.

Freshly-picked cherries from the tree in my parents' yard. They've since been pitted, but I'm not sure what we'll do with them. I've been considering making fresh cherry ice cream. On the other hand, they're unbelievably refreshing after an overnight stay in the freezer.

A big bowl of orange, raspberry and pineapple sherbet which really hit the spot on a recent hot night.

A quick and easy - yet delicious - dinner one night this week: Grilled ham steak with fries.

An order of rigatoni and ravioli with meat balls, from Joe's of Westlake in Daly City, California. It's worth mentioning that what you see below are leftovers and not an entire order.

Homemade white chocolate macadamia cookies, courtesy of Katie and her enviable baking skills.

A blueberry vanilla milkshake from Red Robin. It was excellent. I don't order nearly enough milkshakes, and I think I should remedy this situation.

On Memorial Day, my in-laws barbecued burgers and various sausages. Here's my (first) plate. Note the chili beneath the tortilla chips.

A closer look at the aforementioned chili:

While in the Bay Area last weekend, Katie and I ate at Fatt Dog, located at Tanforan Shopping Center in San Bruno. The first Fatt Dog location we were aware of opened off of B Street ("Burrito Alley") in San Mateo in 2003 or 2004. We never ate there because as B Street's parenthetic nickname suggests, when dining out in that neighborhood we usually stick to taquerias. The San Mateo restaurant soon closed, replaced by the current San Bruno location. Although it took us several years to finally give them a try, I wish we'd gone there sooner. Seen below is their bratwurst slathered in all manner of toppings and served with fries. They also serve Italian sausage, kielbasa, hot links, and all-beef hot dogs.

The steak fajitas burrito from Celia's in San Mateo, California. When I moved to Roseville from the Bay Area, Celia's was one of many restaurants that I missed. I was pleased to find out that there is in fact a Celia's in Sacramento, and I'm eager to find out if it's as good as the several Bay Area locations.
Carnitas tacos.

The BBQ Burger from the Sundance Cafe at Boomtown. We occasionally receive comped weekends at this Reno-area gambling resort; however of late we've been disappointed to find their buffet closed. This burger, topped with bacon and cheddar cheese, and dripping with Sweet Baby Ray's barbecue sauce is quite the consolation prize.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Hobee's: An Underwhelming Breakfast

On Sunday morning Katie and I went out to breakfast with family, just as we do every Sunday morning we spend in the Bay Area. Usually we eat at Paul's at the Villa, located in San Mateo at the former Villa Hotel. I usually order a burger or a sandwich of some kind; my dislike of eggs, as well as the inclusion of eggs in virtually every breakfast dish served at most restaurants, necessitates my avoidance of breakfast most of the time. The food at Paul's is always great, but the main reason we eat there is that there is usually fifteen or twenty of us. On Sunday mornings few restaurants beyond Paul's can accommodate our party in a timely manner without a reservation. Today, however, there were only eight of us, and we decided to try Hobee's in nearby Belmont. I knew of the restaurant, having seen their sign many times while driving on Highway 101 near the Ralston Avenue exit, but had never eaten there. Always in the mood to try something new, I looked forward to exploring their menu and having a delicious meal.

Some background: Hobee's is a small chain of restaurants in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. There are currently nine locations between Belmont and the greater San Jose area. The chain was founded by Paul Taber, who opened the first location in Mountain View in 1974. Their website promises "fast and friendly service in a casual, homey atmosphere", as well as "generous portions at modest prices." The menu is full of standard American restaurant fare, as well as pasta, a salad bar, and some alternate choices including tofu.

Before going any further, I should cite my well-known hatred of Denny's. For me, the late-night tile-and-formica sameness of that establishment invariably translates to mediocrity on the plate. Denny's is the bottom rung on the restaurant ladder, and given the choice between Denny's and Lyon's, Carrow's, Hobee's, or anywhere else, I will undoubtedly choose the restaurant that is not Denny's. On Sunday morning, Hobee's made a better impression on me than Denny's ever did, and though I somehow knew that it wasn't where I wanted to eat, at first glance I didn't exactly find Hobee's monotonous. It's a very child-friendly restaurant, as evidenced by the smiley-face fruit platters brought out to my two nieces at no charge. The children's menu, which served double-duty as a placemat and a coloring page, kept them busy during the wait for the food, not too long in spite of a sizable Sunday morning crowd. Were I seven years old, I could see myself talking my parents into taking me to eat there. I'm not seven years old, however, and on a strictly personal level, I can't see myself returning to Hobee's anytime soon.

To be fair, I will start with the positive. The menu was full of interesting options, the most promising of which for me was their "special hashbrowns." Like the "scrambles" served in many breakfast establishments, the special hashbrowns consisted of diced potatoes accompanied by such ingredients as crumbled sausage, spinach, tomatoes and mushrooms, all smothered with melted cheese. These dishes have catchy names like "Blissful Browns" and "Mama's Papas", and unlike scrambles, they are served with nary a trace of egg. This caught my attention quickly because (a) I don't like eggs, and (b) many of Hobee's non-breakfast entrees - other than sandwiches - are not served before 11:00 AM. I'd ordered a sandwich for dinner the previous night and wasn't in the mood for another. Therefore, my choices were limited. As I said before, I tend not to order breakfast because it seems that most restaurant breakfast dishes are centered around eggs, be they scrambled, hard boiled, or served as an omelette. However, the prospect of a hearty meal with no eggs was certainly compelling, and I ended up ordering the Patriotic Hashbrowns: Potatoes with turkey sausage, tomatoes, and cheese. Though I'm not certain how these ingredients translate to love for and loyalty to one's country, I was quite happy with it, and indeed everything ordered by our party looked great.

However, there is a reason why I chose not to title this entry "A Stupendous Breakfast." In fact, there are a few reasons. First, and most important, are the prices. Don't get me wrong; I don't expect a bargain when I go out to eat. I understand that ingredients and preparation cost money. I don't mind paying for the convenience of having someone else cook for me, and because of this I am not the type to haggle over the price of my French dip. However, to me - and to everyone else at our table over the age of three years old - the prices at Hobee's seemed unusually high for the quality and the amount of the food. For example, the menu features a "No-Frills Burger", apparently just a regular burger patty on a bun with typical fixins, served with tortilla chips, for $7.75. Other burgers, including a bacon cheeseburger, a teriyaki burger, and a guacamole burger - are $8.95. We're not talking about Kobe beef served with fries at a trendy nightspot with valet parking and live music. Does that seem pricey to anyone else, or is it just me?

Additionally, and perhaps most frustrating, our bill came to more than $100 for seven entrees (our nieces shared an order of pancakes) and a few beverages including coffee that the coffee-drinkers in our party found undrinkable. I'm guessing that a very healthy gratuity was added to our bill because of the size of our party, and this brought Katie's and my portion of the bill up to approximately $35. (Katie did have coffee and orange juice, though I only had water. While I'm on the subject, I'm used to restaurants putting a lemon wedge in my water, but I was disappointed to find a yellow-green piece of what looked like rind floating in my glass. If all you've got on hand is the peel, why bother?) While there are restaurants where I would consider $35 for Katie’s and my breakfast money well-spent, Hobee's will never be one of them.

After returning home, I was surprised to find many positive reviews of Hobee’s on Yelp, and a host of accolades and awards proudly referenced on Hobee’s website. Obviously the chain has a loyal following, and I admit that I am hardly the ideal person to enthusiastically review a breakfast spot. But I got the impression that had I gone for lunch or dinner I would have been just as underwhelmed. Case in point: In the mood for ice cream, my sister-in-law ordered a milkshake. They were out of ice cream and told her that they could make a shake with frozen yogurt. According to the kids’ menu they carry vanilla frozen yogurt, which did sound good.

When the milkshake was delivered to the table, it was very impressive-looking. However, after the first taste – in which we all partook – it became apparent that some sort of orange syrup had been mixed in with the yogurt. No, said the manager when asked; that was the vanilla yogurt, which tastes very tart. Well, I’ve had tart frozen yogurt at Sacramento-area establishments like The Big Spoon and Top it Off Frozen Yogurt, and I know what it should taste like. This was simply orange-flavored yogurt, which clashed with the rich flavor of the chocolate syrup. To his credit, the manager removed the offending shake – which went untouched beyond the cursory taste – from our bill.

Perhaps “An Underwhelming Breakfast” was a poor title. Denny’s is underwhelming. Hobee’s was overpriced. Paul, we’ll see you next Sunday.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Week in Food

Pictures of what I've enjoyed over the past week.

Salad courtesy of my wife: Lettuce, chicken, red and yellow bell peppers, dried cranberries, sunflower seeds and lemon pepper.

A chicken super burrito from Jalisco Grill here in Roseville. Before and after:

Curiosity got the better of me this week and I picked up a case of Pepsi Throwback. Newly-introduced Pepsi Throwback is made with sugar instead of the high-fructose corn syrup that's been standard in all domestic Pepsi and Coke products since 1984. I enjoyed it, but I'm reluctant to get hooked since the product will only be available until June. I might have to start importing Mexican Coke, which is still made with sugar.

Barbecued chicken, peppers and mushrooms on skewers.

An excellent strawberry shake from The Counter. As you can see, in spite of their steep prices, I can't get them out of my head.

Reuben sandwich from Thunder Cafe, a restaurant at Thunder Valley Casino in nearby Lincoln, California.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Doing It Yourself

I love a good burger. I could get very philsophical about how the burger represents the perfect blank canvas upon which the eater designs an edible artistic masterpiece, with toppings, sauces and other accoutrements serving as elements of said masterpiece. I could talk about how the burger is a window into the soul of the eater, and that choice of restaurant, of topping, even of meat and bun speak volumes about the individual who is eating it. I could do these things, but I'm much too simple for that. I just love burgers. I know I've stated that virtually every food that I enjoy is my favorite, but the truth is that the hamburger may be the perfect food. They're as complex or as simple as one likes, they're easy to make and relatively easy to eat, all four food groups are frequently represented, and if done right, they're delicious.

Though I've eaten burgers at a variety of restaurants over the course of my thirty-two years, of late I am particularly enamored with the concept of the "build your own burger" restaurant. Perhaps it speaks to my inherent creativity, as the freedom to assemble - no, create! - a burger with the toppings of my choice is right up my alley. Or perhaps it speaks to my inherent gluttony, as the ability to pile on as many pickles, onions, spreads and what-have-you as I want, without being charged extra, is pretty cool as well.

As a child, I used to eat at the Flakey Jake's in Federal Way, Washington whenever I would go there to visit family. Flakey Jake's was the first restaurant to indulge my creativity/gluttony by giving me access to a toppings bar. I loved having the freedom to load my burger with virtually any topping or condiment my young mind could conceive. Beyond the usual produce and sauces, Flakey Jake's toppings bar had such exciting things as chili, nacho cheese and bacon bits, none of which I was used to getting on my plain old McDonalds hamburger, or for that matter the hamburgers my mom made. There was no Flakey Jake's in the San Francisco Bay Area where I grew up, and I remember being devastated when, in the late 1980s or early 1990s, I learned that the Federal Way location had closed down. The chain filed bankruptcy in 1992, and not long ago I learned that the Sacramento area (about two hours from where I grew up) had a Flakey Jake's location until 1991. I'm sure I could have cajoled my parents into making the drive.

Unlike Flakey Jake's, Fuddruckers still exists. Probably the best known build-it-yourself burger chain in America, Fuddruckers operates on the same general principle as Flakey Jake's: Diners order a burger plain or with specialty toppings such as bacon, cheese or grilled mushrooms, and then dress it themselves at the restaurant's toppings bar. I have long enjoyed Fuddruckers for this reason, although as a man who loves french fries almost as much as the burgers they accompany, I can imagine few pleasures greater than dipping Fuddruckers' wedge-style fries in an endless reservoir of ketchup, barbecue sauce and nacho cheese.

Roseville, where I currently live, has two new build-it-yourself burger restaurants, though they are quite different from one another. The first is Burger Hut, part of a small chain that originated in Chico, California in 1978.

Including the Roseville franchise, there are five locations, with three in Chico alone. Burger Hut operates much like Flakey Jake's and Fuddruckers, with an extensive menu that includes burgers, hot dogs, breaded and grilled chicken, and fish and chips. Particularly noteworthy is the "Bull Dog", a quarter-pound hamburger and a quarter-pound hot dog served on the same bun. Burgers and dogs, living together! Mass hysteria!

Their toppings bar - sorry, "Fresh Fixin's [sic] Bar" - features the standard assortment of condiments including lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, relish, and a variety of sauces and spreads. Unfortunately, they do not have the nacho cheese sauce I love getting at Fuddruckers. Perhaps there is a suggestion box at the restaurant; I will have to take a look the next time I'm there.

Typically I order the quarter-pound burger with bacon and either crumbled blue cheese, or else melted American or cheddar. (Burger Hut's specialty toppings, or add-ons, also include guacamole, green chiles, grilled mushrooms and chili, as well as a variety of cheeses.) I always find it amusing that, rather than laying a couple slices of bacon across my burger, they form it into a circular patty:

My burger, dressed:

It's hard to choose between fries and onion rings, so I usually get half orders of both, especially if I'm not dining alone.

Unlike Burger Hut, The Counter is a larger and more upscale chain, boasting locations in multiple states, as well as Ireland and Australia. Like the other restaurants mentioned here, The Counter specializes in letting patrons customize their burger; however, there is no toppings bar. Patrons select their burger patty from a list including beef, turkey, veggie and grilled chicken burgers (no breaded chicken option is available), and then select the size, the type of bun, cheese, toppings, and a spread. The burger is prepared and topped behind-the-scenes, and brought out just as it would be brought out at Red Robin, Chili's, or any other casual dining chain restaurant.

During our initial visit to The Counter last Saturday, I was pleased to find the burgers miles above the typical burger served by a casual dining chain restaurant. For starters, the beef looked and tasted like beef. Though the extensive list of toppings seemed a bit overwhelming at first, they were fresh and delicious, my choices the perfect complement to my burger. (FYI, I chose roasted red peppers, green chiles, grilled onions and pickle slices, as well as Danish blue cheese, peppercorn steak sauce, and a wheat bun.)

Without question, The Counter is the most expensive of the four restaurants discussed here. Katie and I went there with out of town family, and four burgers (three one-third pound and one two-third pound), three shakes, one soda and a combo order of fries, onion strings and sweet potato fries came to roughly $60. For four people this breaks down to approximately $15 per person, which isn't exorbitant, though it's more than I'd like to spend on a hamburger, even an exceptional one. The food is very good, and there's no doubt that someone who really enjoys a good burger will consider their money well spent here. We will definitely eat there again, but I'd be lying if I said that we'll be doing so on a regular basis.

Sorry, Counter people. It's certainly nothing personal.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Week in Food

Here's a sample of what I've been eating.

Salad from Ruby Tuesday: Spinach, mushrooms, croutons, shredded cheddar cheese, beans, seeds, ham, and blue cheese. And that's just what I can remember.

Last Saturday's breakfast was a waffle with sliced bananas and maple syrup.

A homemade chocolate-covered S'more, courtesy of my aunt Lindy.

Random weekday lunch: Chicken sandwich with sliced yellow onion, Tillamook cheddar, and Pepper Plant BBQ sauce.

My current favorite meal at any restaurant: The mini sampler at House of Chicken and Ribs in Antelope, California. I get it with catfish, spicy tri-tip, and hot links. The mini sampler comes with cornbread and three sides. I usually get corn on the cob, macaroni and cheese, and yams.

Major thanks to MrManuel for recommending House of Chicken and Ribs two delicious years ago.

A chocolate-covered strawberry Katie brought home from work.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Happiest Place (to Eat) on Earth, part 3

Neither Katie nor I are particularly fanatical about dessert. Given the choice between filling up on the meal or saving room for dessert, it's a safe bet that we will be filling up on the meal. Make no mistake, we do enjoy dessert, and typically choose cookies, candy or ice cream (or a combination of the three) over cake or pie, but you'll probably never hear either of us say, "I can't wait for dessert" when dining out.

While at Disneyland, however, we make a serious effort to save room for dessert. Even with the overwhelming variety of non-dessert junk food we like to eat there, the call of all things frozen, frosted, nut-covered and/or chocolate-dipped always proves too powerful to ignore. With that in mind, I present the final part of our Disneyland retrospective, an account of the many desserts we ate (or simply gazed at) during our trip.

Our first stop is the Candy Palace, located on Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A. Like most other elements of Main Street, the Candy Palace is decorated in antiquated style in order to replicate a turn-of-the-century middle-American candy shop. The kitchen area is located in the front of the store, enabling guests to observe as Disneyland's "master confectioners" make batches of English toffee, fudge, and rocky road candy.

Behind the glass candy counter is a wide assortment of treats available for bulk purchase, including coconut haystacks, Rice Krispy squares, and chocolate-covered S'mores.

The Candy Palace also offers many packaged candies and snacks, including some produced on-site, and others shipped to Disneyland from elsewhere.

Marceline's Confectionery, located in Downtown Disney, operates on much the same principle as Main Street's Candy Palace. Guests can watch as confectioners make caramel apples or chocolate-dipped marshmallow sticks. Behind the counter one can find cookies, cupcakes, chocolate-covered pretzels and chocolate almond bark.

The caramel apples made at Marceline's - as well as other candy shops throughout Disneyland - come in a variety of styles.

On previous trips, it wasn't unusual for us to buy several chocolate-dipped S'mores. This time, however, we decided to try some new selections.

A peanut butter sandwich. Though nearly indistinguishable from a S'more on the outside, the inside features peanut butter in place of the S'more's marshmallow filling.

A Minnie Mouse-themed caramel apple. The ears are chocolate-covered marshmallows.

A Mickey Mouse mini-turtle. Three bites of caramel, pecan and chocolate goodness.

Like its pretzel counterpart, Katie made short work of the mini-turtle.

The rocky road cup seen here made me forget all about the S'more, my previous favorite.

Here I am stuffing my face.

Marceline's sign features what is known amongst Disney aficionados as a "Hidden Mickey." Can you spot it?

No trip to Disneyland would be complete without ice cream. Between the two parks and Downtown Disney there is no shortage of ice cream parlors. However, we are partial to Gibson Girl, located on Main Street U.S.A. and one of the few locations where actual hand-scooped ice cream can be enjoyed. Reminiscent of an old-time soda fountain, Gibson Girl serves up generous scoops of ice cream packed into freshly-made chocolate-dipped waffle cones.

Katie got mocha almond fudge, while I opted for strawberry.

When Katie starts playing with her food, that means she's done.

I'll leave you with a video I shot at the Candy Palace.