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.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Month in Food

It's time for a little honesty: My The Week in Food entries regularly feature photos of meals eaten, in some cases, a month prior to their posting. Therefore I'm thinking The Month in Food may be a more accurate, truthful title. Here goes:

Animal-Style fries from In -N- Out Burger. For the unititiated, these are fries with cheese, grilled onions and dressing.

Mongolian BBQ from Sizzle in Rocklin, CA.

Squeezeburger with cheese from Squeeze Inn in Galt, CA.

Slices of Tom Jones and pepperoni pizza from Celestino's in Rocklin, CA.

Broccoli cheese soup, courtesy of yours truly and his trusty Turbo Blend 4500.

Cochinita pibil, one of the most consistently crowd-pleasing meals I make on a regular basis.

It's an exquisite-tasting slow-roasted pork dish that's ideal served in tortillas, as seen below.

Carnitas tacos from Jalisco Grill.

Hand-smashed guacamole from Milagros Cantina in Redwood City, CA.

Duo of Mazatlan Ceviches, also from Milagros Cantina.

The Chalet Burger with fries, from the Beach Chalet in San Francisco, CA. I ordered it with Pt. Reyes blue cheese.

Pt. Reyes blue cheese used to be my favorite, until I discovered BelGioso.

Tri-tip, grilled mushrooms and blue cheese (BelGioso, of course) on a roll.

Chicken noodle soup from Chick-Fil-A. Of all the commercially-available chicken noodle soups I have tried, Chick-Fil-A's is the closest to that served at Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant in Buena Park, CA.

Chicken sandwich from Chick-Fil-A.

Banana macadamia nut pancakes from Stacks in Redwood City, CA.

The Mighty Meat crepe from Stacks in Redwood City, CA.

Hot wings and fries from Wing Stop in San Carlos, CA. The carrots and celery sticks at the top of the image are Katie's.

Pot roast, corn and potatoes.

The next four photos depict food served at Katie's baby shower. Since I wasn't there, I didn't actually eat any of it, but someone took photos so I figured I'd share. First up is Boboli pizza crust with pesto and cheese.


Tomato, basil and mozzarella cheese on French bread.

Standard crudite tray.

Some desserts, beginning with Katie's baby shower cake, seen before and after. This cake, like every other cake we serve at family functions, was made by a family friend who can make just about any design into a delicious dessert. If you're so inclined, check out his website, take a look at his art, and perhaps order a cake.

Various cupcakes from Icing on the Cupcake in Rocklin, CA.

Carrot cupcake. The little embellishments atop the icing are baby booties, as the box of cupcakes was bought for an impromptu baby shower prior to the one referenced above.

Various goodies including cheesecake and chocolate-dipped marshmallows. These were enjoyed by me during a dinner theater-type performance (well, dessert theater, to be accurate) featuring a couple of my cousins.

Lenten Friday Failure, Week 3: Pot stickers from Fortune Star in San Mateo, CA.