Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sal's Seattle Dining Guide

We were supposed to be in Seattle last week. We'd planned to fly up Saturday morning and stay until Thursday. It was to be our daughter Gianna's first flight. However, since my dad worked for United Airlines, we fly standby and for the first time in twenty years we missed our flight. It's our own fault, since we neglected to determine that the week in question is quite possibly the busiest week of the summer in which to fly. Needless to say, we were disappointed, as much for the fact that we're missing out on a long-awaited opportunity to visit with family and friends as for the fact that Seattle is an awesome town of culinary wonderment.

Here's what we planned to eat while in the Emerald City:

Marination Mobile

I admit to being a newbie to the food truck scene. I think my only experience with them prior to trying out Marination is the seemingly dozens of roving trucks that patrol Redwood City, California, doling out awesome and inexpensive "street tacos"; and the catering truck that parked itself at my junior college in the foggy summer of 1996, where I occasionally purchased the unhealthiest of foodstuffs between my evening class and my night class. Neither of these compare, however, to the high-end eating establishments on wheels that are currently all the rage in cities like Los Angeles and New York. I don't live in a sprawling metropolitan area where such trucks are prominent, and I tend to prefer to eat with my rear end touching a chair of some sort. Of course, given the opportunity, I'd gladly eat standing up if the food was as good as the delicious offerings found at Marination, easily the best venue in Seattle for Hawaiian-Korean fusion. Recipients of an award for best food cart in America courtesy of Good Morning America, Marination serves up spam sliders, rice bowls, and (my personal favorite), tacos packed with kalbi beef, miso ginger chicken, kahlua pork and, according to their website, sexy tofu (the one variety I've not yet tried). I was lucky to stop there during my previous Seattle trip in December, and I can say without hyperbole that I've craved these tacos every day since.

I suck at embedding video. Click this link to check out video from Good Morning America's website, and try not to be tempted to book a flight to Seattle just to visit Marination.

Uli's Famous Sausage

Of the many reasons to come to Pike's Place Market, Seattle's famous public market - flying fish, local handicrafts, the world's first Starbucks location, an array of quaint shops and eateries - Uli's Famous Sausage is the one that keeps me coming back with each visit. Uli's probably carries more different sausages than you've heard of, beyond the standard bratwursts, hot links and Italian sausage (of which they carry mild and spicy "Vesuvius" varieties). At Uli's, the spectrum includes boudin blanc, boerewors, English bangers, and several kinds of chorizo, as well as almost twenty others. They ship to the continental United States in five pound increments up to twenty pounds, though the extent of my experience with Uli's consists of ordering sausage from their Pike's Place Market storefront. For a low price, especially considering the touristy location, you get a delicious, cooked-to-order sausage of your choosing, on a roll topped with mustard, onions and sauerkraut. Oddly, they have no relish, but I never miss it.

Blue Fire Mongolian Grill

I've been a fan of Mongolian barbecue for years. My first experience with it may have been at Toucan Charlie's, the award-winning buffet at the Atlantis Casino and Resort in Reno, Nevada; where I ate before I was old enough to legally gamble. For some reason, the blend of crisply-cooked vegetables, juicy meats and exotic seasonings has always electrified my palate. Blue Fire is located in Monroe, about an hour's drive northeast of Seattle. While visiting friends last December, we went to lunch there, and although there are Mongolian barbecue restaurants where we live, we were hoping to come back with our friends. In retrospect, there really wasn't anything notable that set Blue Fire apart from other Mongolian places, but as long as the guy working the grill washes his hands and switches from your original bowl to a clean one to avoid cross-contamination, I can't imagine any Mongolian BBQ restaurant not being worth a visit.

(Note that the above link is for the Maple Valley location, as I couldn't find a link for the Monroe location.)

Pyramid Alehouse

My love of beer knows no bounds. I'm not much of a pilsner drinker; in my opinion the fizzy yellow stuff that passes for beer in this country is a joke. No, I tend to stay away from your big name brewers as much as possible. The smaller the market share, the better the chance that I'll like the beer, and Pyramid is right in the middle of the scale between the big guys and the tiny microbrewers. Theirs is one of my favorite hefeweizens, and in my opinion nothing I've had there is bad. And yes, I know that there are no fewer than three locations in California, including one a short drive away in Downtown Sacramento, but for some reason I'm more likely to visit the Seattle location. This brewery, in the shadow of Safeco Field, is a must-stop. The menu consists of burgers, sandwiches, and other all-American favorites, and it's pretty good - I just don't happen to go there for the food.

The Lockspot Cafe

Walking distance from the Hiram Chittenden Locks, where tourists and locals alike come to watch watercraft transfer from salt water to fresh and vice-versa, this hole-in-the wall offers a menu featuring seafood, as well as burgers and the like. I haven't been there since 2005, but upon my last visit the food was good, the service was prompt, and the place was fairly quiet. Then again, they charged for refills, and the parking lot was packed, necessitating that we park at a meter. Now that I think of it, we probably would have skipped the Lock Spot, which I remember not so much for the food, but for their salmon chowder, which was so good it nearly drove my aunt Lindy insane. (Buy me a round sometime and I'll tell you the story.)

The Burger Express

Having planned to spend some time with family in nearby Federal Way, there was no way I was going to miss out on a trip to this small but awesome restaurant, where I've been eating since the early 1990s. One of the first independent burger joints I ever ate at, Burger Express features a fairly complicated menu that includes not just numerous variations of the hamburger and cheeseburger, but also shrimp, chili dogs, and deep-fried mushrooms. During my last visit I was dismayed to find that the burgers weren't quite as huge as I remembered them, and the service slower than I'd have liked, but everything tasted great, and their milkshakes were somehow even better than they were on previous visits. Burger Express makes them with honest-to-goodness milk, ice cream, fruit and/or syrup, in flavors including cherry, pineapple, banana, root beer, peanut butter, and apple. I'd normally never use a cliched expression like "Heaven in a cup", but it's the only one that fits.

You'll notice the lack of higher-end, upscale dining choices like The Capital Grille, Rock Salt, and The Met. Even though I love these establishments - can't go wrong with a good steak - the truth is that when I'm in Seattle I am far less likely to find myself at a dressy, upscale restaurant than I am a casual, lesser-known dive. I can get a delicious medium-rare steak and a baked potato in San Francisco, Sacramento, or any of a number of cities to which I travel more often than I do Seattle. But Marination, though on wheels, doesn't travel to me, so I must travel to it.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The (Belated) Month in Food

I should have posted this about a month ago. My bad. Hopefully the June entry won't be a month late!

Pollo asado burrito from Taqueria Sinaloense in San Mateo.

Cochinita pibil. It's a delicious slow-roasted pork roast you might have heard of if you've seen Robert Rodriguez's film Once Upon a Time in Mexico. I cooked about ten pounds of the stuff for Katie's side of the family on Mother's Day.

The pibil was followed by strawberry shortcake.

Double Doubles and fries, from In -N- Out. I only ate one, though I was tempted to eat the other.

Hand-carved pastrami dinner with mashed potatoes and gravy, salad and a wheat roll from Harry's Hofbrau in Foster City. I absolutely love Harry's food, moreso because, in my younger years, my Dad and I would eat dinner here frequently when my mom worked late. Fifteen or so years later, it's still awesome.

Homemade pasta. You read that right; homemade pasta. Who's got the energy to make pasta from scratch? This was part of an unbelievable four-course meal (salad, pasta, entree and dessert) served to Katie and I by our gifted-in-the-kitchen friend Mary. (No, I didn't take a picture of the salad.)

The chicken parmigiana that followed the pasta was phenomenal.

Dessert was apple crisp with vanilla ice cream.

Beef and lamb shawarma from Tannourine in San Mateo. I've been on a huge Mediterranean food kick lately, ever since eating at a Zankou Chicken in Anaheim during our most recent Disneyland trip.

Eggrolls from King Eggroll in San Jose. King Eggroll was highly recommended by Mr. Manuel and Miss Sassy Pants, and after eating the bounty of eggrolls we had ordered, I was immediately regretful that we hadn't ordered more. I'm not sure how it is that I'd never been there, but I will be back.

Oatmeal with cranberries and almonds. It was very healthy, but I ate it anyway.

Tacos (carnitas and chicken) from Plaza Jalisco (not to be confused with Jalisco Grill) in Roseville.

Fish and chips from Lil Biscuit House in San Mateo. Went here on a lark, and wasn’t disappointed by the food, though frankly their selection left a bit to be desired.

Barbecued hot dog, tri-tip, baked beans, bean salad, corn and cornbread. This is from a Memorial Day barbecue at my parents’ house.

Finishing the month off right, we have an awesome array of food consumed by yours truly for Mr. Manuel's birthday. Carnitas, chicken mole, rice, and salsa, all homemade. It bears noting that I prepared a batch of cochinita pibil for the party, but didn't touch it, opting instead to devour a couple plates of delicious food made by his mom and dad. For me, the highlight of the day was when his dad complimented me on the pibil. That's some very high praise!

Mr. Manuel’s birthday cake, which was not only a work of art, but delicious too. I picked at the fondant that made up the exterior well into the night, and I’m not sorry I did.

You may have noticed that the majority of my May photos were from establishments in the Bay Area as opposed to the greater Sacramento area. This is because once Katie returned to work after her maternity leave was up, I was priveleged enough to spend the month of May being a stay-at-home dad in the Bay Area. I had a blast bonding with my daughter.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Caryn's Awesome Buffalo Chicken Party Dip

As requested, here's the recipe for my sister-in-law Caryn's Awesome Buffalo Chicken Party Dip, which I first enjoyed on Superbowl Sunday.

3 cups shredded rotisserie chicken
3/4 cup bleu cheese dressing
4 oz cream cheese
8 tablespoons Frank's Hot Wing Sauce

Layer above ingredients in 8x8 Pyrex dish
Top with shredded Monterey Jack cheese
Bake at 350 until cheese is melted

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Coconut Basil Chicken Burgers with Thai Peanut Pesto

A couple weeks ago I found myself craving a burger. Not just any burger, mind, but the sort of burger I'd never had before. Something gourmet and unusual, the sort of burger you might find in a high-end eatery. The sort of burger about which a purist might say, "That's not a burger." Not something that called for overpriced, trendy ingredients, necessarily, but the sort of burger that I wouldn't in a million years think to order. Or, more accurately, make. A challenge, if you will. And the most challenging part? I was going to invent this prodigious burger myself.

At our local Winco grocery store, I picked up ground chuck, ground chicken, and a variety of other ingredients - pepper bacon, gorgonzola and brie, and various seasonings and condiments I'd never used before. Bear in mind that I still had no idea what I was going to do with all this stuff; I had only the most rudimentary plan of putting some of them into my creation. I felt like a filmmaker who goes out on location without his shot list. I knew I'd have a lot to work with, but despite my best efforts I wondered if I would be able to put together anything of value without a real plan.

My afternoon grocery shopping trip cut short by a time-sensitive errand, I ran my purchases home and proceeded to fulfill my other obligation. Once it was complete, I headed home, aware that it was too late to do much in the way of kitchen experimentation. I called Katie and asked if she could look up a recipe online, and as I had to stop to pickup hamburger buns, I would also pick up whatever ingredients I didn't already have.

She texted me a list of ingredients for one recipe, and a moment later another, longer list for a more complex recipe. The longer list called for coconut milk, cilantro and Thai curry paste. It sounded like a challenge, for certain. At the Save Mart mere blocks from our house, I decided to look for Thai curry paste, the most obscure ingredient - to me, at least - and if I could find it with no problem, I would make the second recipe. Sure enough, after a trip to the Asian foods aisle, I found it with no trouble. They had both green and red curry paste, and with no further information in the text sent by Katie, I attempted to call her, to no avail. I grabbed green, later to find out that I needed red. Oh well.

At home, I looked up the specific recipe Katie had found, and began to work. As I perused the recipe, it became clear that I should have read it beforehand. Case in point: The list of ingredients Katie had texted me included shredded coconut and coconut milk, so I just bought a coconut. The website made it very clear that I could just as easily have bought a can of coconut milk and a small bag of shredded coconut. Not to worry; I'd never cracked a coconut before, and it was kind of fun.

Coconut milk looks an awful lot like water.

Here's the text of the recipe, found at Food Network's website.

Prep Time:
45 min

Cook Time:
8 min

6 burgers

For the Asian Pear Slaw:

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon sugar
1 Asian pear, peeled and cut into thin matchsticks
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut into thin matchsticks

For the Thai Peanut Pesto:

1/2 cup roasted and salted peanuts
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons unsweetened shredded coconut
2 tablespoons roasted peanut oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/3 cup quartered cherry tomatoes

For the Patties:

1 (14-ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk
1 lime, zest grated
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon Thai red curry paste
2 pounds coarsely ground chicken thighs
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
2 teaspoons sea salt
Vegetable oil, for brushing on the grill rack
6 seeded hamburger buns, split


Prepare a medium-hot fire in a charcoal grill with a cover, or preheat a gas grill to medium-high.

For the slaw:

Whisk together the lime juice and sugar in a medium-sized bowl to dissolve the sugar. Add the pear and carrot and toss to coat. Cover and chill until serving time.

For the pesto:

Place all of the ingredients except the tomatoes in a small food processor; process briefly until the mixture forms a coarse paste. Transfer to a small bowl and gently stir in the tomatoes. Cover and set aside.

For the patties:

Combine the coconut milk, lime zest, and lime juice in a 10-inch fire-proof skillet. Place the skillet on the grill rack and bring the mixture to a simmer. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is thickened and reduced to 2/3 cup, about 15 minutes. Add the curry paste to the mixture and whisk until smooth. Transfer to a small bowl to cool.

Place the chicken in a large mixing bowl. Add the cooled coconut milk mixture, basil, panko and salt. Using a large fork, mix the ingredients together gently but thoroughly. Divide the mixture into 6 equal portions and form the portions into patties to fit the buns, making a slight indentation in the center of each patty.

When the grill is ready, brush the grill rack with oil. Place the patties on the rack, cover, and cook for 4 minutes. Flip the patties, cover, and cook an additional 4 minutes, or until the juices run clear from the center of the patties when pierced. During the last few minutes of cooking, arrange the buns, cut side down, around the edges of the grill to toast lightly.

To assemble the burgers:

Distribute an equal amount of the slaw on the bottom buns. Top each with a patty and a dollop of the pesto. Add the bun tops and serve.

Note that, rather than preparing this recipe on an outdoor grill, I prepared them in a pan on the stove (as evidenced above). Also, I omitted the Asian Pear Slaw. Although it sounds great, Katie didn't text me the ingredients, probably assuming I'd have my hands full with just the Thai Peanut Pesto and the burgers themselves.

The burger turned out great, incidentally. The chicken was flavorful and bold, the fresh herbs complementing the perfectly-seasoned meat. The coconut added a tropical freshness I've never tasted in a burger before. And the Thai Peanut Pesto, though not quite what I was expecting, was a natural condiment to top a coconut chicken burger. I don't know what, if anything, I sacrificed by getting the wrong kind of Thai curry paste, but I'll be sure to get it right next time.

Friday, April 30, 2010

The Month in Food

Here's what I've been eating:

One-third pound burger from The Counter. That's melted brie crossing the top of the patty.

Breaded chicken, asparagus, zucchini, mushrooms and macaroni and cheese, all tossed into a bowl.

Fried catfish and loaded sweet potato from Texas Roadhouse.

While in Disneyland last week, I enjoyed a cup of strawberry ice cream topped with hot fudge.

Thai Chicken Pizza from California Pizza Kitchen.

Lobster ravioli topped with crab from McCormick and Schmick's.

Katie's cousin Roya invited us over for a delicious dinner of catfish, roasted potatoes, and collard greens.

Dinner was followed by banana splits.

To wrap up, a couple of excellent burgers I've enjoyed this week. First is the coconut pesto chicken burger, lifted and adapted from a recipe at foodnetwork.com

And finally, the green apple brie burger. Neither was truly my own invention, but I know I will make both again.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Perhaps The Most Perverse Sandwich Ever Devised

Today, my cousin-in-law Roya brought to my attention the KFC Double Down sandwich. The latest item from Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Double Down features two strips of bacon and two slices of cheese sandwiched between "two thick and juicy boneless white meat chicken filets", according to the company's website, though I'm certain it will eventually find its way to the This is Why You're Fat blog. That's right, instead of a bun, the Double Down is held together by chicken. Is it still technically correct to call such an item a sandwich? Or are you just eating two pieces of chicken with some bacon and cheese stuffed between them?
As someone who's eaten his share of things he's regretted, I can almost see the allure of the Double Down. I say almost, because at the moment I've got a stomach full of rich food and bourbon from Joe's of Westlake, and the thought of actually consuming one of these sandwiches makes me nauseous. I must also cite the fact that I don't quite get the appeal of competitive eating, of the Man v. Food school of conquest that comes from consuming something so big, so gross, so freakish that one cannot imagine the eater taking any nourishment from it.

The following is an editorial published this week at SF Gate:
One sandwich to kill you all

By Mark Morford, SF Gate Columnist

There are many horrible jobs in this life. Emergency room janitor. Sow inseminator. Earwax collector. Sarah Palin's grammar checker. Glenn Beck's fluffer. Republican. New Jersey.

But when I sit back, sip my scotch and scan the newswires for sundry effluvia indicative of our culture's joyful hellbound deathspin, the realization soon dawns that I can think of few gigs more nightmare-inducingly, soul-deadeningly horrible than being an executive for garbage food megacorp.

That is to say, a VP for McDonald's, Taco Bell, Burger King or their ilk, someone who sits around all day trying to discover new ways to manipulate, coerce, poison, and otherwise flagrantly kill millions of humans worldwide by convincing them to eat mass-produced, industrial feedlot, chemical-blasted garbage you should not feed to your dog unless you totally hate him and want him to get heart disease and die.

Hell, even the oil titans right now raping Canada can claim to be supplying a commodity that runs the engines of the world. Even Wall Street ogres can claim to be partaking of a time-honored tradition of gutting the U.S. Treasury at the expense of the ignorant masses. But head of marketing for, say, Kentucky Fried Chicken? Oh, you poor soul. Hell hath a special room for you.

Who are you, really, Mr. KFC executive? Who are you who just gave your approval to a rather shocking new KFC food item, who said "Oh holy hell, yes! Look at these great test-marketing numbers! F-- it, let's go against every shred of human decency, common sense, and even the First Lady's humble plea to get us to please quit making the country so stupidly obese and sick, and sell a truly disgusting creation."

Do you know what I'm talking about yet? Have you seen it? Apparently, for many months, people who run the snarky junk food blogs on the Interwebs heard rumors that KFC was testing this item, and thought it might be a joke, a viral gimmick. Or if not that, then something that certainly would never make it to market, given how it looks like some sort of frat-boy prank, like the drones at KFC's test kitchens got completely hammered one night and had a bet as to who could come up with the most repulsive menu item imaginable.

Behold, the KFC Double Down sandwich. It is, if you really want to know, two slabs of fried chicken intersliced with two pieces of bacon, two slabs of cheese, and the Colonel's "special sauce." It comes in the form of a sandwich, with the fried chicken where the bread used to be. It's sort of hilarious. It's sort of perfect. And then it'll probably make you vomit.

Did you notice? How in one pseudo-food item, you are consuming not one, not two, but the mutated, chemically injected flesh/byproducts of fully three different distended, liquefied, industrially tortured creatures? Feel the love, pitiable animal kingdom.

You got your chicken-like creature, your pig-like creature, your dairy cow-like creature, all wrapped in a $5 fistful of nausea, ready to strangle your heart and benumb your brain. God knows what's in the "special sauce." Maybe some sort of fish byproduct, just to round it all out. It's like a wild kingdom in your mouth! It's like a toxic zoo in your colon! It's like a suicide note from what's left of your brain! "If you eat this, you are a complete and total idiot, and we're through. Signed, You."

Let us now add a shred of wary perspective. For well do I know this horrible crapbucket of chyme joins a very long list of fast-food nightmares you should never put anywhere near your mouth, unless you deeply hate yourself and don't give a damn anymore, and you want to die fat and stupid and smelling like that rotting thing you found in your rain gutter.

What's more, some fast food companies are trying, at least a little, to respond to the call for slightly healthier foods, adding salads and fruit and grilled chicken breasts to their menus, even though every single one of those items is just as jammed with chemicals, preservatives, synthetic flavorings and high-fructose corn syrup as the rest, and all the "healthy" meat products are still raised on the most execrable, environmentally rapacious industrial feedlots imaginable. But hey, it's something, right?

Further, some argue that it's a bit disingenuous to blame the junk food purveyors for all the obesity, cancer, impotence, bad skin and colonic pain in the land. After all, the undereducated masses love to eat this garbage, right? KFC test-marketed this Double Down death bomb for months, to (presumably) great effect.

Of course, it's sort of a foregone conclusion, a rigged game. This vile meatwich is crammed like a grenade with sodium, sugar, fat and chemicals. Ergo, the testers, presumably people with taste buds devastated by years of cramming similar compost into their guts, thought it was pure nirvana. And then their colons exploded.

Had KFC actually tested it on people who eat real food every day, folk who haven't touched fast food in years, whose systems are strong and fully recovered and in whose bodies blood flows unobstructed, had KFC dared any genuinely healthy human to take a bite, you can bet they would have heard, and smelled, a slightly different reaction.

Maybe it's all a silly, futile argument, a fool's game to point up the obvious evil of such products. These items are legion. They just keep right on coming. What's more, it's just capitalism at work. It's about giving the people what they want, right?

And if they don't really want it -- if, deep down, most humans sense this garbage is hugely unhealthy, that it's a form of slow poison and there are far better and wiser options out there -- well, you do what companies like KFC, Coca-Cola, Kraft, McDonald's and all the rest have done since the dawn of the free market.

You convince the less educated and the gullible that they are wrong, that this crap is actually a good value for your family, nutritious and safe to feed to children, even as you manufacture all the flavors, smells and meat-like textures in a giant lab and sell truckloads of the crap to the poorer classes, until they get fat and sick and die. Meanwhile, you employ cute cartoon characters and bright, funny mascots to lure in the next generation, to keep the cycle going.

Do I have that about right, Mr. KFC exec? Did I miss anything? Can you hear me down there, what with all the flames and the screaming?
I'm not one to judge the fast food-consuming masses (of which I am a part, after all) for choosing to shovel items like the Double Down sandwich into their gullets anymore than I am one to judge the fast food industry for exploiting human weakness and gluttony in the name of profit. That's the nature of the relationship between the two entities. That said, I doubt I will be ordering one anytime soon.

The Double Down sandwich takes the concept of "protein style" and cranks it up to eleven. Try one, if you dare. If you survive, I'd be curious to know what you thought.

Here's the final Lenten Friday Failure for 2010: One slice each pepperoni and D-Lex (chicken and bacon) pizza from Pizza My Heart.

Note: While composing this entry, I discovered that the Double Down sandwich has indeed been featured on the This is Why You're Fat blog. Strangely, the picture featured there makes the sandwich look halfways decent. Go figure.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Cooking For Three

In my home, I have a bookcase that includes four shelves of various cookbooks. By and large, I have no idea where or how I acquired them. Some were purchased. Some were gifts. Others were given to me by my mom from her own collection. The three cookbooks pictured above are Dad's Own Cookbook by Bob Sloan, See Dad Cook by Wayne Harley Brachman, and The One-Armed Cook by by Cynthia Stevens Graubart and Catherine Fliegel R.N. C.C.E. Though I suspect that The One-Armed Cook belonged to Katie before being assimilated into the bookcase, I can't say for certain how the three books came into my possession, although as of last Wednesday, March 24, at 3:45 AM, I'm very glad they did.

In case you can't tell where this is going, what you have just read is the birth announcement of our daughter, Gianna Jessica Camilleri.

How can we forget this week's Lenten Friday Failure? Last Friday after Katie and Gianna were released from the hospital, I enjoyed a delicious pastrami sandwich from Lorenzo's Sandwich Shop in Belmont, California.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Hooters San Bruno: No Need to Impress

"Customers can go to many places for wings and beer, but it is our Hooters Girls who make our concept unique. Hooters offers its customers the look of the 'All American Cheerleader, Surfer, Girl Next Door.'"

Remember when Hooters used to be scandalous, or at the very least controversial? When it was barely a rung above a seedy topless bar, a smoky, dimly-lit place for raucous groups of noisy guys to watch sports and ogle large-breasted waitresses while gnawing on chicken wings and imbibing cheap beer by the pitcher? A place where women wouldn’t be caught dead, and where any person who took a small child would immediately have his – certainly not her – parenting skills called into question?

During its almost thirty-year history, the Florida-based Hooters restaurant chain has grown to over 450 locations in twenty-five countries, and has developed from a “delightfully tacky” restaurant (according to one of its slogans) to a mainstream family-dining establishment. In addition to the restaurant and the ubiquitous Hooters Girls, the corporation has lent its name to a Las Vegas casino and hotel, a professional golf tour, a stock auto racing series, and a now-defunct airline. The chain was recently valued at $250 million.

Personally, I’ve always had mixed feelings about Hooters. Though the waitstaff is largely comprised of attractive and flirtatious young women, I never went to Hooters for that, as even when I was single I understood that it was all an act, and that the typical Hooters Girl’s interaction with her customers is, to utilize a tired cliché, as genuine as a three-dollar bill. No, Hooters waitresses are like the Mona Lisa. When you’re in the same room as them you are expected to stare, but you never touch, and you most certainly don’t plan on taking them home with you.

If I didn’t go to Hooters to flirt with the teenage waitresses, you might be asking, why exactly did I go? Was it for the food? Partially, I suppose; their menu, while not bad, is not groundbreaking, though it most definitely beats starvation. For the uninitiated, said menu consists of burgers, sandwiches and the like, though they are famous in part for their chicken wings, which come in a variety of flavors and heat levels, including “3 Mile Island” and “911”. Available breaded or “naked”, with or without bone, it is the lowly chicken wing - as much as the breast - on which Hooters has built an empire.

A brief aside: Though I do enjoy the wings at Hooters, they don’t compare to the wings at chains such as Wing Stop. I can’t put my finger on what Hooters’ wings lack, exactly; those who enjoy all things Hooters will undoubtedly claim that I’m biased against the chain, but I assure you that this is not the case. While there may be nothing truly wrong with the wings at Hooters, at Wing Stop you pay for the product, and not the name; no well-endowed waitress will giggle at your clumsy attempts at flirtation, or trick you into believing that you have a shot with her so that you’ll tip generously. In fact, since Wing Stop offers counter service, you aren’t expected to tip at all. Thus, Wing Stop must strive to put out a superior product. In my opinion, they succeed.

So no, I don’t think I ever really went to Hooters for the food. In hindsight, it’s more likely that I was taken there by male friends willing to pay for mediocre food in exchange for a confidence-boosting exchange with a vapid-yet-attractive waitress who might still be in high school. Look, I like attractive women as much as the next straight guy, but am I willing to put up with just-okay food for the reward of having one socialize with me? If I was, you would probably be reading a much more positive review in my “I Love Hot Chicks” blog, and not a decidedly negative review in my food blog.

My hometown of San Bruno, California, recently saw the opening of a Hooters restaurant at Tanforan – sorry, The Shops at Tanforan - Shopping Center. In case you don’t understand what this says about how mainstream Hooters has become, let me rephrase: The restaurant chain, once controversial for its refusal to hire anyone below a “C” cup*, now has a location at the suburban shopping mall I frequented as a child and teenager. Though the resultant fanfare swept through my circle of friends and ensured that most were there on or shortly after the December 26, 2009 grand opening, I didn’t make it in until some weeks later, with my wife who I should point out is an unabashed fan of the humble chicken wing, and who has fond memories of eating Hooters’ wings for the first time during a Vegas trip for her sister’s twenty-first birthday. Needless to say, there was no way we weren’t going to try out the San Bruno location, hereafter referred to as “Hooters San Bruno”.

First, the good: The food is decent.

Next, the bad: Almost everything else. For the record, Katie and I have eaten at various Hooters locations including both Sacramento restaurants, and have generally had very good experiences. The food is usually satisfying, for what it is; the service frequently defies the “ditzy Hooters Girl” stereotype as I am never left with an empty glass of soda (yes, I often order a soda with my cheesesteak, boneless wings, or whatever) for more than a minute before a refill is cheerfully brought to the table; and the atmosphere is fun without resembling a frat house.

Hooters San Bruno, however, may be amongst the worst restaurants I’ve ever patronized, and as you can imagine, I have patronized a great many eating establishments during my thirty-three-plus years on earth. With the aforementioned exception of the food, which I imagine is the same at this location as any other, each of our visits to Hooters San Bruno – note that we’ve eaten there more than once, to ensure that its assorted dysfunctions weren’t some sort of anomaly - has been lackluster, and by now certainly not worth repeating. Why, other than the boneless wings, I can’t think of a single thing that I found even moderately appealing.

The “phone it in” factor is evident as soon as you sit down. At the time of our first visit, the restaurant had been open about a month. The laminated menus advertising the chain’s food and merchandise were already falling apart. Now, since it’s unlikely that some high-ranking member of the Hooters board of directors ordered these menus torn as soon as they came off the printing press, I’m guessing that they originated at a different location, where they put in years of faithful service before being shipped to San Bruno. But come on – you’re trying to build up your clientele. Get some new, pristine menus and make a little effort or you’re not going to impress anyone.

That’s when it occurred to me: Hooters, as a corporation, has no need to provide pristine menus in order to impress anybody. They could scrawl their entire entrée selection in French’s yellow mustard on the back of a cocktail napkin and few would complain. No one is coming to Hooters for the menus, or the ambience, or even the food for that matter.

They’re certainly not coming to Hooters – at least, not Hooters San Bruno – for the service. Of the list of complaints I compiled in preparing this entry, the service – I almost put service in quotes, but thought that too easy – is without a doubt the category in which this particular Hooters fails most spectacularly. And you know what? It’s okay. Patrons like myself - married or otherwise attached, with reasonable amounts of self-esteem, who know when they’re being played for tips - are not their target demographic. Some of the Yelpers who've given Hooters San Bruno a positive review claim that the stupidity of their waitresses is an act, and I’m sure that in some cases it’s true; undoubtedly these are women who rely on tips to pay the rent, and thus give priority to a different clientele: Single men by themselves or in groups who are inclined to open their wallets at the first sign of flirtation or affection. But I’ve never been to Hooters San Bruno without my wife, and because of this our servers never bother to flirt. They do, however, mix orders up, or forget them altogether. Therefore, I posit that it’s not an act.

This made me wonder: Clearly we are not the only married couple to eat at Hooters San Bruno. A glance around the restaurant at almost any time of day or evening reveals numerous couples, as well as mixed groups of men and women. Are they, like us, ignored in favor of groups of guys? Do they mind the fact that the waitress who takes their order is frequently MIA until it’s time to bring the bill? That’s right, on each visit, even during off-peak hours, our order was brought out by someone other than the waitress who took it. For the majority of our dining experience our waitress was hiding from us, or more likely schmoozing a table that looked more likely to tip excessively. Regardless of any official corporate policy that may exist requiring the waitstaff to favor one demographic over another, the lack of attention paid to our table was inexcusable.

In other words, if you want a refill on that three-dollar-plus soda – THREE-DOLLAR-PLUS SODA? – you might be out of luck. Hey, call me a fat soda-chugging pig, but if I go to a restaurant and order a soda and they charge me the price of a grocery store twelve-pack, I would like to drink the equivalent of a grocery store twelve-pack. That doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. I’m guessing that the sodas are priced so high because, when faced with a soda that’s close to four dollars, most diners opt to simply order a beer. And when free refills are no longer an option the waitresses are probably more attentive, their bubbly flirtatiousness encouraging diners to order another.

I find it difficult to justify ordering a soda when it’s $2.99, and that’s taking into account at least one (but usually several) refills. But three bucks and change? Hey Hooters management, at that point why not just charge five bucks? Seriously, you’re already charging almost four. How much is too much to charge for some fizzy water and caramel coloring? At what price point do you think the consumer will stop coming in?

Another complaint I have about Hooters San Bruno (and probably the chain as a whole) is that the place is pretty damned stingy. Case in point: When taking my leftover wings to go, I asked for a lid so that I could also take my leftover blue cheese. Alternately, I suggested a new (full) container. The waitress offered to get me a lid, and said she would have to charge me for a new container. I understand that this is company policy, though it’s a shoddy one. By comparison, when dining at similar family-dining chains such as Chili’s or Red Robin, fresh portions of whichever sauces or dips you would like to take home are graciously doled out and packaged. Hooters’ refusal to provide a full container of blue cheese (i.e. one that doesn’t have traces of Buffalo wing sauce floating in it) is a lot like McDonald’s insistence on charging for extra dipping sauce with their Chicken McNuggets, and doing away with such miserly practices is hardly the sort of reckless spending that will bankrupt the company. In addition, it will probably endear to them a certain segment of their clientele (including myself). However, society as a whole is not likely to stop eating at McDonald’s out of protest, and likewise Hooters loyalists won’t stop eating there either.

It’s clear that there is no reason for Hooters to expend much effort to maintain their customer base. Even if sodas exceed five dollars and the waitresses go from poor-to-mediocre service to, say, deliberately spilling beer on the customers’ heads; and the food suffers a serious decline in quality, it’s a cinch that a certain portion of the population will continue to line up. I might not go back to Hooters San Bruno, but they won’t miss me.

Rather than posting photos of Hooter’s food, here are the last two weeks of Lenten Friday Failures:

Week 4: D-Lex (chicken and bacon) and Big Sur pizza from Pizza My Heart.

Week 5: Deluxe chile verde chicken burrito in a red chile tortilla from Taqueria Pancho Villa.

*I can’t actually account for the veracity of this claim, though it sounded good when I wrote it.