Thursday, December 25, 2008

YELP – Mandarin Garden (Pasadena, CA)

Christmas day, you're in the mood for a bite but don't want to even look at the kitchen.  Instead you go with the traditional Xmas alternative, Chinese food.  With a big "Grand Opening" written on the menu, Mandarin Garden touts itself as the "Best Delivery Service in Town".  Feeling adventurous, we braved this unproven establishment. 

As good as some places are ordering delivery can sometimes be a journey fraught with miscommunication, shouting and the wrong food.  Thankfully, putting through our order was easy and painless. 30 to 45 minutes was quoted for delivery.

Here are our culinary choices for the night:

- Egg Rolls
- Egg Flower Soup
- Hot & Sour Soup
- Spareribs Shanghai Style
- Kung Pao Chicken w/ brown rice
- Steamed Dumplings (chicken)
- Crispy Walnut Shrimp

It was barely 30 minutes when we heard the knock on our door.  Everything was exactly what we ordered with some pleasant additions.  Cutlery w/ napkins, sauces (Chili, Hot Mustard, Sweet & Sour), and Crispy Noodles.

Let me start off with the disappointing part... the soups.  I was not a fan of them.  They felt watery and the plastic containers they were in gave a weird aftertaste.  If you do decide to try them you must transfer it to a bowl immediately to minimize the plastic flavor.

Now for the good stuff.... everything else.  The steamed dumplings were HUGE and packed with delicious chicken.  The Kung Pao was filled with good pieces of chicken and slices of onion.  It could have been hotter, but I'm a "chili head" so everything can be turned up a couple of notches.  Walnut Shrimp was great (though I've never had the dish before so I have no point of reference) and the spareribs were tasty.  Also, I ended up eating both bags of the crispy noodles (I might have a problem). 

Overall it hit just the right spot.  The food was steaming hot on arrival, flavorful throughout and large in portion size.  Easy ordering with quick delivery will have me coming back for more.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

YELP – Thai Taste (Charlotte, NC)

This is the best Thai food in Charlotte.  I repeat.  This is the BEST Thai food in Charlotte. Another one of the "secret" restaurants that you need to be told about it's located in the Dilworth area right next to the popular gift store Paper Skyscraper.  The original and best of several locations (Matthews, University) I went there religiously the entire time I lived in CLT. 

As diverse as their menu was, I only sampled three dishes there Pad Thai, Pad Kee Mao and "House Noodles".  The last one being a specialty that's no longer listed on the menu.  The rating system is 1 to 6 stars and you can even order it with no stars for the scared or gastro-intestinally challenged.  For the true “chili head” you can augment the rating system.  Normally, they use crushed Thai peppers in the food which are still hot but don’t capture the true essence of the “heat” and flavor.  When you’re ready for the big leagues make sure to denote “fresh peppers” when giving them your stars.  The flavor difference is immediately noticeable from the very first bite.

For lunch during the week you need to get there by 11:30am or after 1:00pm unless you want to stand in line for a long time.  The place is popular and regularly packed.  They get all the businesses in the area, the residents of the trendy Dilworth neighborhood and a boatload of cops.  For many (like myself) this place is an addiction and you will see many regulars.

I can’t say enough good things about this place.  When I spent most of ‘07 overseas this was one of the first places I hit upon returning to the States.  Even now, all other Thai places I encounter are measured against Thai Taste.  If you spend any time in the Charlotte area you simply MUST try this restaurant out, you will not be disappointed.

*side note* For the truly adventurous you can go past the 6 star rating, but be prepared for “heat” especially when going the “fresh peppers” route.  Also be aware that anything over 10 stars is a personal challenge to the chef and he will guarantee you feel more heat/pain than you ever have in your life.  Enjoy responsibly.

YELP – Nuart Theatre (Los Angeles, CA)

I had one of the worst movie going experiences ever at this theater.  The night in question was a Q&A session with Bruce Campbell for his new movie "My Name is Bruce."  Sadly the horrible experience started many days before this.

My girl had stumbled upon this special night and wanted to snag some tickets.  She called the theater to confirm that Senor Campbell would indeed be doing the Q&A on this night during this particular viewing.  The guy over the phone was not only rude, but seemed bothered by her attempts to verify facts.  That should have been a warning, but knowing how dorktastic I am she continued procuring the tickets. 

The theater isn’t close (about 20 miles away) so I could only see us going out there for super special occasions such as this one.  3 highways later we finally arrived at the place.  To say the neighborhood looked a little rough is an understatement.  We circled several times looking for parking finally finding a dimly lit corner with no obvious “tow away” signs.

We were the last ones to get our tickets due to the lovely LA highways being a total bitch.  The ticket booth guy was nice and handed us the tickets quickly.  When we got to the front door it was locked.  From the concession stand a large disheveled man stomped toward us like the giant from “Jack & the Beanstalk.”  He opened the door but blocked our way in until we gave him the tickets.  It was a cold night and the least he could have done is let us warm ourselves while handing the tickets over.  It wasn’t like we were going to bum rush him to get into the place.  The entire time it felt like we were inconveniencing him by patronizing the establishment.  After passing the troll we slid into the theater to enjoy the film.

The movie was cheese, as was expected.  The fans were ok.  Some of them asked decent questions, but most of them behaved like they were touched in the head.  I truly feel bad for Bruce.  Once the somewhat depressing Q&A was finished everyone started leaving the theater.  Throngs of people made their way to the entrance so my girl and I patiently waited in our seats.  Just when the crowd began to ebb the same disheveled man got on the microphone barking a harsh “ALL NON-ESSENTIAL PERSONNEL NEED TO LEAVE IMMEDIATELY.”  Some folks giggled thinking he was joking, but soon saw the seriousness of his expression and the seething anger radiating from him.

With such an attitude from the moment we contacted them to the second the movie finished, there is no way in HELL that I’m ever returning to this theater.  They can show all the pretentious art-house crap they want, but I will NEVER spend another dime there.  I’m almost tempted to write off the entire chain, but that wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the organization.  With so many entertainment options available, indie film houses need to make themselves as inviting as possible to snag their customers.  This place did it’s damnedest to keep you the away and make you feel like crap.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

YELP – Ru San’s (Charlotte, NC)

This place is not only a good sushi joint, but nonstop fun as well.  In the 4 years I lived in CLT this was one of those places I kept coming back to. 

You have a great dollar sushi menu (try the fried garlic maki), allowing you to sample a wide variety of flavors without breaking the bank.  During the week there's a killer buffet that's always mobbed.  Go early or late to avoid the rush.  Even at the end they're still on top of refreshing the buffet.

Dinner there is always good.  If you decide to do a sake-bomb the entire restaurant cheers you on.  The plum sake if delicious if you want a little sweet in your alcohol.  The tempura is great with a light minimally greasy batter.  Green tea ice cream is a perfect finishing move.

The entire staff (even the chefs) is friendly and attentive.  I can't say enough good things about this place.  My girl and I became regulars early on.

The one bad thing about restaurants in Charlotte is that you have to be told about the good ones.  You really can't drive down a road and "stumble" upon it.  Thankfully our Charlotte "connection" let us in on the Ru San's secret when we first moved there.

Fun, relaxed atmosphere.  Delicious food with a huge selection.  Incredible artwork (made by the owner himself) hanging on the walls.  What more do I have to say?  Get your ass over to Ru San's and have a sake-bomb for me ;)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

YELP – Kenny & Ziggy’s Deli (Houston, TX)

The last thing I expected to find in Houston was a little bit of New York.  Going on the suggestion of someone from the client site, I hit up Kenny & Ziggy’s for a late lunch.  Walking in the place is jam packed with NY related memorabilia.  The walls are covered in movie posters (either about NY, set in NY or acted/directed by NYer’s) and Broadway show posters.  A lot of the show posters appeared to be signed by the entire cast.  A nice mix of tables and booths along with your standard issue deli counter.  The menu was MASSIVE in size and selection.  Yiddish was so ingrained into it, that there was a glossary included.  Pickles were waiting for you to nosh on while pouring over the options.

I went with the old stand by, Corn Beef and Pastrami on Rye with some Potato Pierogi.  The monstrously huge thing that came to my table can only technically be considered a sandwich.  Small moon or fully operational space station perhaps, but to call it a sammich would be insulting.  Taking a moment to admire the meat masterpiece, I grabbed the sucker and dug in.  It was a valiant messy effort, but I made it halfway before tossing in the towel.  The leftovers would easily be a dinner later in the week.  The pierogi came in an order of 3.  I had one boiled (never tried that) and two fried.  The fried were delicious and the boiled was interesting.  They all came on a big bowl of fried onion rings with applesauce and sour cream on the side.

The entire lunch was delicious, flavorful and ridiculous in size.  Definitely an unexpected gastronomic treat.  With my Jew-food cravings reignited I’m now on the hunt for a good deli in my hometown.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

YELP - Dan Thai Review

Being the professional flying monkey that I am, I end up eating at a lot of mediocre chains or crappy local establishments.  As much as I would love to live up to the “jet set” stereotype, a lot of my flying is to places you wouldn’t want to go to. That makes finding a good bite sometimes an impossible task.  Again, you have to set your expectations correctly.

Case in point, Burlington, NC.  Not known for it’s cuisine.  The furniture maybe, but that’s barely edible (though better tasting than some of the stuff I’ve had).  With my expectations correctly set at “craptastic” I tend to stomach my dining options.  Now the cool thing about flying all over god’s creation is that sometimes you find a diamond in the rough.  Either an amazing place that you would fly back to or something so much better than the local fare that it makes your work just a little more bearable.

Thai food is one of those types that all the trendy cities try to have a several restaurants of.  As a rule of thumb, the hotter it is the more I like it.  Let me be clear, I don’t like hot for the sake of hot.  That’s some macho BS peepee contest that I prefer not to engage in.  I’m a fan of ridiculous heat as long as it’s truly enhancing the flavor of the dish.  This is where Thai has become one of my favorite foods.  The inclusion of “fresh” Thai peppers in a dish not only ratchets up the fire factor but adds a whole new layer of complexity to a meal.

Dan Thai is one of those “diamonds” in the rough.  A shining example of great food in an otherwise gastronomic wasteland.  Like most Thai places (or restaurants in this area) it’s located in a strip mall.  The outside looks dismal at best and far from inviting.  Don’t let that fool you.  Once inside the decor is very nice, even approaching “date spot” status.  The staff is very friendly and attentive.  Everyone gets a soup to start which is a good intro to their flavors.  Sometimes I’ve had a clear broth with tofu and a little kick.  Other times it’s a thicker reddish curry that’s tasty and fiery.

My go to dish has always been Pad Kee Mao (a.k.a. Drunken Noodle) but known as Spicy Noodles at this establishment.  I asked for it “Thai Hot” with fresh peppers and they did a good job of accommodating.  All in all, the flavor of the food was great with fresh ingredients coupled with a nice kick.  Not as fiery as I would have liked, but most places take it easy until you become a regular and they know you can handle the dragon.

If you’re ever in this area (and I hope you aren’t) don’t despair.  There’s at least one good Thai place you can find solace in.  A little oasis of flavor in an otherwise dreary little slice of North Carolina.