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Monthly Archives: June 2012

Pizza, Pizza!

As a New Yorker, I tend to take my pizza very seriously. I keep it simple with a regular slice – or sometimes a Sicilian, if I need some extra carbs. Some people put garlic powder or crushed red pepper, but I’m a pizza purist. There’s a saying that goes “Pizza is like sex, even when it’s bad, it’s good.” I completely disagree (on both counts). I’ve had some great pizza, some bad pizza, and some downright awful pizza that I don’t even know how it could be sold for human consumption.

(Photo credit: http://lainsomnia.blogspot.com/2011/02/nyc-pizza.html
 Live by the fold, die by the fold. Never utensils.
And don’t EVER sop up all the grease with 100 napkins!

Another thing about New Yorkers and Pizza is that we are extremely territorial when it comes to which borough has the best. I’m from the Bronx, so clearly, we’re the winners. One of my favorite spots is Crosby Pizza, right off the 6 train, Buhre Ave stop. It’s crispy, quick and delicious, with a perfect balance of sauce and cheese that is just greasy enough to give it the flavor it needs – just what you want in slice.(And I would like to point out that I’ve been to that so-called Famous Pizza place in Brooklyn and wasn’t impressed.)


The saddest, darkest point of my life was going away to college in Boston; not just because I was a Yankees fan in enemy territory, but because the pizza was atrocious! I don’t even know how anyone could call it pizza? (And I wonder even less that Canada could even operate a chain called Boston Pizza. Really? Of all the other places famous for pizza, you went with Boston?) The crust was too thick, it was doughy and chewy, the sauce was bland, and there was way too much cheese. I was at a keg party and wouldn’t even eat it, so that just goes to show how awful it really was, because you know when you’re drunk, you’ll eat just about anything. 


As for pizza in other famous cities in the US… Well, if you’ve been following, you know how my experience with Chicago Deep dish style went. But there’s also New Haven style pizza, made famous by Frank Pepe; a Neopolitan-style, wood-fired pie that’s been served up in the Northeast since 1925. When I was living in CT for a few years, I visited the original location on Wooster St in New Haven – and waited on a line for 30 minutes. (Just to get pizza – are you guys serious??) It came out on a big, rectangular tray and was just a little too burnt to be edible to me. I’m all for a well-done pie, but this was too much. It just didn’t even taste like anything to me at that point; that’s how overcooked it was. 

Recently, my parents and I ate at the Pepe’s Pizza in Mohegan Sun casino. I was skeptical because they’ve just recently started opening all these Pepe’s outposts in the past few years (Fairfield, CT and Empire City casino in Yonkers, just to name a few), and one of my former co-worker’s complaints was that, because the oven at the Fairfield location was so new and the Original Pepe’s oven has been well-seasoned over it’s 75+ year history, they tasted completely different. This pie was a little less ‘cajun-style’ than the previous pie, and maybe, sorta, kinda-if-I-closed-my-eyes, tasted like the pizza I was more familiar with.

 It’s like Pac-man. Nom Nom Nom!

The crusts were too crispy – heavily charred by the oven’s 650-degree temps – and I’m a crust fan. To me, that’s one of the key elements that makes a pizza. Anyone can throw sauce and cheese on some dough, but to have a perfectly, crunchy crust – that’s what does it for me.

In other wood-fired pizza news, the Pitruco Pizza truck has been roaming the streets of Philadelphia, taking up residency during the week at Love Park or popping up in South Philly.The overall concept is pretty cool. I mean, it’s a wood-fired oven on wheels – and who hasn’t just wanted the pizza place to come to them instead of vice versa?

Pitruco’s Margherita pie.



Their margherita pie is decent: I’m not a fan of the $8 price tag or the fact that they tear these little slivers of basil and sprinkle them on your pizza. A real margherita pie should have big, fresh leaves of basil to give you that sweet, summery taste to mix with the saltiness of the buffalo mozzarella. 


The most surprising place I’ve actually had great pizza was a small little Italian restaurant in the Akita prefecture of Japan, about 400 miles from Tokyo. Now, if you’re not aware, pizza is not really a big menu item in Japan. (Although they are nuts about KFC!) Domino’s and Pizza Hut do exist – but be prepared to shell out close to ¥3,000 (roughly $38 US) for a Large pie. Dairy products in general are pretty scarce due to the fact that most of the land is used for rice farming; milk is usually pretty watered down and cheese is big ticket item and usually only available in limited varieties. So imagine my surprise when my friend and I wandered into this tiny little restaurant and were given an amazing looking pizza.

 Don’t mind the Engrish-y Italian.


Pizza Margherita, Japanese style.
We didn’t talk to the owner, but from the decor and the rest of the menu, we got the sense that he had probably either visited or lived in Italy at some point in time, and loved it so much that he learned to cook and decided to open this restaurant in the middle of the mountains and serve up some of the best Italian food in Japan. My friend ordered spaghetti arrabiata, which was cooked perfectly al dente – compared to other Japanese places I’d been to where the pasta is still hard and crunchy and they think that it’s al dente – and full of flavors of fresh garlic & chilli peppers, which gave it a nice little kick. The pizza’s crust was nice and thin, airy and crisp without tasting like a cracker. And the owner had to have gotten the cheese imported because it was that perfectly salted buffalo mozzarella that should be on a pizza and I know he didn’t find that at the local Aeon

This definitely won’t be the last you hear from me about pizza (and definitely not the last time I start a post with ‘As a New Yorker…’), so feel free to share your thoughts and your pizza snobbery with me as well! Because, honestly, the only thing better than sex might very well be great pizza.

Okonomi-Yummy!

On one of my adventures in Japan, I found myself in the city of Hiroshima. While most famous for being the site of one of the WWII atomic bomb droppings, it is also famous for a unique Japanese dish known as okonomiyaki: Okonomi meaning “What you like” and Yaki meaning “grilled”, it’s essentially a grilled pancake with a bunch of different items of your choosing such as noodles, bacon and cabbage. It’s then topped with a sweet brown okonomiyaki sauce, sprinkled with seaweed and bonito flakes, and drizzled with Japanese mayonnaise. Hiroshima style okonomiyaki differs from what others think of as the “authentic” Osaka style okonomiyaki by having its ingredients layered, rather than mixed together. 


Downtown Hiroshima is home to a six-story building known as Okonomimura, which is home to 28 different Okonomiyaki restaurants. Each floor has about 8 stalls, which are comprised of diner bar stool seating with counter service set around a giant griddle. 

Seven lil Okonomiyakis – All in a row.
Mmm! Bacon!
If you look closely, they start by spreading a thin layer of batter on the griddle, which cooks and becomes the base of the “pancake”. It’s then piled high with a ton of seasoned cabbage.

You can have it your way, just like Burger King!
Choose between Udon or Soba noodles, fried egg, add shrimp, etc – whatever’s on the menu.

(Photo credit: Essential Japan Guide.com)
(since I was too hung over and hungry to take a picture of mine)
Finished Product! 

ITADAKIMASU! (Let’s Eat)

With Love…

Now that I’ve officially recovered from Philly Beer Week ’12, I can share about my visits to the With Love Beer Garden at the Four Seasons hotel. Hidden in a picture-esque nook behind the main entrance lies the lush green courtyard that was transformed into a week-long after-work drinking paradise. With drafts and bottles provided by local breweries, live music nightly, and food catered by the wonder chefs at the Four Seasons, it was delight for all the senses. 

The first night I went was Wednesday night (6/6) of the week-long happening, which had local breweries Round Guys, Evil Genius and Prism. I tried the Evil Genius Hunchback, their summer seasonal Hefeweizen, and Round Guys “Himbeer”: Their Berliner Weiss mixed with Raspberry syrup. (I had it at PBW Opening Tap and quickly made friends with guys who were fascinated that I had a pink beer.)


Prism’s “Bitto Honey IPA” – I’m not usually an IPA person, but this was pretty good!

I also tried the Beer Garden Burger, which was topped with Meadow Farm cheddar, grilled applewood bacon, a dill pickle and special sauce. It was grilled to perfection – nice, pink center  and juicy, packing quite a punch for such a small slider. I wanted to savor it as much as I could, and even though it was small, it was still pretty filling. 


I’m kind of disappointed because I tried it again when I came back on Friday and it was slightly overcooked – probably because there were a lot more people there on Friday and so therefore, higher demand.

I wasn’t even going to come back again, but uwishunu was giving out the rest of their Boot mugs, which had only been available on Monday’s opening night, so obviously I had to get one! Braving Friday rush hour traffic on a SEPTA bus, I made it just in time to score one of these bad boys. DAS BOOT!

BYOB – Bring Your Own Boot!

Beverages that night were provided by Dock Street Brewery, who was doing a collaboration with the Four Seasons hotel and offering a Cherry Verbena summer saison. Very crisp, very sweet, very summer! Victory bottled beers were also available and demand was so high that they ran out! The staff had to go scrounge around for more, and a line of servers with cases of Summer Love, Hop Devil, and Whirlwind Witbier hoisted high above their heads saved the day as they made their way through the garden to the cheers of the thirsty masses. 



I thought the With Love Beer Garden was a great set up, great space, great overall atmosphere  – serene and quiet, beats the typical after-work bar scene – and I hope that in the future they decide to start making this a regular event. Even if it’s maybe only every Friday or once a month, I would definitely come hang out here again. 

Bobby’s Burger Palace

In more “crossing state lines to eat at various burger joints” news, not only did I recently chow down at Shake Shacks in the Philly and CT areas, I also ate at 2 different Bobby’s Burger Palaces: The West Philly/University City location (There’s also a location in Cherry Hill, NJ for those of you willing to pay a toll) and at Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, CT. 

(Photo credit: BBP website)
 Palace, you say? Sounds fancy!
If you’ve never been, it’s pretty much a fast-casual style restaurant: You put your order in with a cashier, get a number, take a seat, and eventually your food comes out to you. The counter set-ups are pretty cool, with funky lighting and “Lettuce Green” swivel seats. In addition to their regular dining room, the Mohegan Sun location also has a separate bar area with a kind of “sports bar” feel.
 (Photo credit: BBP website)
Both locations have the same menu offerings – with the exception being that the Philly location gives you the option to get your Philadelphia burger “Wit Wiz”. And also, pricing: Burgers cost the same, but booze is a little bit more at Mohegan (probably because it’s in a casino), but they also offer an extensive bottled & draft beer list as opposed to just bottles in Philly. In addition to the regular burgers on the menu, BBP also offers a “Burger of the Month”, which, as I’m sure you can already guess, is an off-menu burger that changes on a monthly basis. You can also opt to have your burger “Crunch-ified”, meaning they just pile a bunch of crushed up potato chips on top. That’s not really my thing, but it’s there if you decide it’s your thing!
 (Photo credit: Pentagram.com)
There’s also a special chart at the cashier when you’re ordering that shows you the levels of Pinkness! The Cashier even verifies with you when you select your temperature if that’s how you’re sure you want it done. (ie. ‘So you want that Medium, which is warm with a pink center?’) 
 They aren’t playing around either. When they say Medium, they mean Medium!
At BBP-Philly, I ordered the L.A. Burger, which is topped with Avocado Relish / Watercress / Cheddar Cheese/Tomato. Put avocado and cheddar cheese on just about anything and I’ll eat it. And even though it sounds weird, the watercress tastes great and makes you feel like you’re being really healthy about this delicious, juicy burger that you’re eating.
LA Burger.

At BBP-Mohegan, I ordered the Dallas Burger, which is spice crusted and topped with coleslaw, Monterey jack cheese, BBQ sauce and pickles.This is my Dad’s usual go-to at BBP. He loves BBP because he thinks it tastes just like a burger that you would make at home. It’s got a nostalgic, sesame seed topped bun and that slight, off the grill char while still being flavorful and not greasy.  

Dallas: Pickles on my top, Pickles on the side

I also usually get the Frozen Cactus Pear Margarita. I have no idea what a cactus pear is but it’s pink and there’s booze in it and it’s delicious!


They’ve also got fries (regular and sweet potato) and the biggest friggin onion rings ever. I actually took one of the onion rings and put it on top of my Dallas burger and all I could think was “Why does it not already come like this!?” Mouthgasm.

Hopefully this run-down helped ease the fears of any of you who may have been skeptical because it’s a Bobby Flay place, but it’s actually really good, reasonably priced and the burgers are delicious. So get on over to BBP and crunchify yo’self!

Brunched Out

I used to be one of those people who, after waking up hungover on a Saturday or Sunday morning, only had one thing on the brain: brunch. I mean, how could anyone hate brunch? It stretches out almost the entire day, so you don’t have to worry about getting up early and missing breakfast. And, if you’re not in the mood for bacon and eggs, you can still get a sandwich or something more savory while your friend sits across from you chowing down on challah french toast. (Let’s also not forget the bottomless Mimosas or Make-Your-Own Blood Marys)


When I moved to Philadelphia, there were dozens of blogs about brunch: Who had the best menu, who had the longest lines, best drink specials, etc. I was both elated and overwhelmed; how would I ever possibly get to all these places and enjoy all this deliciousness? I started to set out in an attempt to make a small dent in the brunch-o-sphere, knowing full well that there just would never be enough weekends for me to enjoy brunch. 

And then, something started to happen: The dynamic of brunch began to change. People who didn’t go to brunch were looked upon as lepers. (What do you mean you don’t like brunch? You do realize what it is right – it’s all your food dreams come true on one menu!Restaurants that didn’t even have lunch menus started to notice how popular brunch had become and started opening on the weekends, dishing out marscapone stuffed french toast and red velvet pancakes alongside pasta and burgers. And that’s when brunch jumped the shark. 

Any time a restaurant opens that would be a perfectly fine dinner dining establishment or a place to grab a quick bite for lunch, they immediately hop on the brunch bandwagon a few weeks later. Restaurateurs of Philadelphia, I’m here to tell you – YOU DO NOT NEED TO HAVE BRUNCH JUST TO GET CUSTOMERS TO COME IN YOUR DOORS! 

Guys, I stand before you today to proclaim that I am officially OVER brunch.

I get it – most of you already have all that shit in your kitchens so it’s not a big deal to just schedule a couple more waiters on a 9-2 shift if it means more visibility for your restaurant. But you don’t need to open at 10 AM on a Sunday or add eggs benedict and some gross bacon flavored Bloody Marys to your menu just to generate business. It’s this simple; focus on doing the rest of the awesome good food shit that you do at night and leave it at that.  Places that people normally associate with great steaks or burgers or fried chicken are trying to somehow be known for their generic, overpriced breakfast items, and that just seems like culinary burnout to me. In a city that already has ridiculously long brunch waits and a plethora of places where you just HAVE to try their vegan chorizo frittata, why add more confusion to the mix just for a few more measly dollars? 

………

Alright, so I’m not here to totally shit all over brunch. I have had some pretty decent brunches before. (Of course, I wish a lot more places offered brunch during the week for when I have days off. A place I visited in Seattle does a brunch happy hour, Mon-Fri from 8-11 AM, with $8 for all menu items and $7.50 cocktails.) So I’ll share with you two of the best brunches I’ve had in Philadelphia.

The Khyber Pass Pub’s Bananas Foster French Toast: Despite having to wait 20 minutes to grab a seat at the bar at almost 2 PM (!) on a Sunday, and also despite waiting another 10 minutes for the bartender to even notice that I was there for me to put my order in, my food came out pretty quickly. The bread was nice and thick to soak up the rum sauce and the bananas were soft and sweet. (I kind of regretted not getting the beignets, but there’s always next time.)

Yep, I got a bloody mary, too. Guilty as charged!

Belgian Cafe’s Eggs Benedict: Eggs benedict is usually my go-to brunch order. Belgian Cafe kicked their shit up a notch by serving it on a motherfucking WAFFLE – then paired it with Lancaster ham and the freshest damn asparagus I’ve ever had in my life. 

Always trying to decide between eggs or waffles? Now you don’t have to! 

I think the next big trend should be breakfast for dinner, though. A few places have started to do late lunch brunch menus recently, and I predict that in a few years, that shit is going to take the food scene by storm. People will be rolling out in their PJs at 10 PM on a Saturday night just to get steak and eggs, do some tequila shots, and then hang out until last call at 2 AM and go to bed. It’ll be like brunch in reverse! Make it happen, guys (Just remember who gave you the idea.) 

If this Shack’s a rockin’

If you’re unfamiliar with Shake Shack, it’s a rapidly growing chain of fast-casual burger joints with origins beginning in NYC’s Madison Square Park, where there was literally just a shack that served burgers, shakes and fries. It has since amassed 6 NY locations (Including the Mets’ own Citi Field), South Beach/Miami, 2 locations in the DC area, Westport, CT and even overseas in Dubai and Kuwait!  

Most recently, Philadelphia got it’s very first on the corner of 20th and Sansom, leading to long lines of eager Philadelphians looking to get their very first taste of a Shackburger. (The comparable option up until this point had been Squareburger in Franklin Square, which you’ll recall I was not happy with upon my visit.) Seating was limited when I went, but they are supposed to be opening up outdoor, cafe style seating soon!



I myself braved the line on a Saturday afternoon after their opening, a line which surprisingly moved pretty quickly. Of course, once you’ve ordered, you still have to actually wait for your food, and so each patron is given a little buzzer device that vibrates and flashes to let them know to come on up to the Shack! 

I saved you guys the trouble of going and ate all the things!



Normally, I wouldn’t be such a glutton, but on Saturdays, the special custard of the day “Coffee & Donuts” contains donuts from Federal Donuts – so I basically had to do it, right? 


“MMMMM – Donut.” – Homer Simpson
Another Philly exclusive for Shake Shack is the Smoke Shack Burger, the first burger at any of the Shake Shack locations to ever be topped with applewood bacon! (Also comes topped with cherry pepper relish and shack sauce.) I thought the peppers gave it a nice little kick & the bacon was delicious!
Peppers playing Peek-a-Boo!
But this wasn’t my only Shake Shack visit in recent weeks; I’d also stopped at the Westport, CT location on my way home. It’s HUGE compared to the Philly location! (But I guess that’s one of the benefits of being in the middle of Suburban CT) 
  Plus this awesome sign out front gives it the ol’ road side burger joint feel.
I just stuck with the basics. I don’t recall the shack sauce being quite as ZINGY! on my first visit to the UES location, and not even so much present on the Smoke Shack burger, but BOY OH BOY! My allergies had been stuffing me up all week and this really cleared me up! They must’ve put extra horseradish or something because it was a doozy! 

Oh yeah, you can totally see all that sauce!

Now if Philly can just get a few better pizza & bagel joints, a more extensive subway system, a baseball team with a higher payroll and a Uniqlo, I might never wanna move! 
( Just Kidding.)

Chi-CAG-oh.

A few months ago, I got the “privilege” of going to Chicago for work… in the middle of January. (Geez, couldn’t we have a training some place warmer?) Luckily, the weather held up and was mild and even sunny most of the time I was there! Plus, I got to try some pretty awesome food.


The first part of my trip I was holed up in a hotel in the suburbs, so my dining options were pretty limited: room service, hotel lobby, hotel across the street’s lobby, various chain restaurants at a nearby mall. I perused the hotel menu’s and decided to check out the bar at the Hilton Suites (aka the fancier Hilton that I was not staying at – across the parking lot)


And look what I found (on the left): MINI REUBENS! I know, not very exciting culinary fare, but I am a sucker for tiny foods and reubens and house made potato chips. Definitely worth bundling up in 20 degree weather and crossing an icy parking lot for. I came back a few nights later and order the Mobley burger (right), named after the first hotel Conrad Hilton purchased before starting his chain of hotels. Surprisingly good for a hotel burger. Definitely real meat and not a frozen patty. And look at the cool avocado!


I can’t even believe I’ve hit this point in my life, but I am reviewing food from the Cheesecake Factory. First off, I hate the Cheesecake Factory. Their menu is 90-something pages long with entirely way too many choices; it’s just a clusterfuck of food options. And the cheesecake is atrocious – there’s just too many concoctions and weird flavors that in no way wind up resembling cheesecake. (Being a New Yorker, I’m something of a cheesecake purist.) So, on the left are the Mexican chicken lettuce wraps, and on the right, Vietnamese tacos. The lettuce wraps were better then expected: nice presentation, chicken wasn’t overly dried out. And the Vietnamese tacos were a-MAH-zing! Like, lil tiny bahn-mis! (Here we go with the tiny foods again!) I loved the soft buns!

Eventually, I made it to Chicago. (Second City, Windy City, Chi-Town, et al.) First order of business: Deep dish pizza! I’d watched one of those shows on Travel Channel or Food Network and was told that Lou Malnati’s was THE place to go for real Chicago-style ‘Za. Now, allegedly it takes 30 minutes to cook these bad boys, which admittedly seems like a long time for just some dough, sauce and cheese. I figured if I went early enough to beat the dinner rush, I could be in and out. Wrong. I showed up around 3:30. The place was dead, with more wait staff hanging around then patrons. The bartender served me beer from a pitcher he retrieved from a fridge and looked like a hipster Mister Rogers, then made a big show about cutting my pizza for me because he didn’t want me to break a nail. I told him, go for it – my NY pizza expertise has no place here. Then he started chatting up some other guy at the bar and I wound up having to serve myself and the pizza started getting cold pretty fast. (If my pizza was cooking for 30 minutes, shouldn’t it have been piping hot, even after consuming a slice? Total tourist trap.) Plus, I had to eat it with a knife and a fork. What kind of world do we live in where you have to use utensils to eat pizza? Not one I wanna live in, that’s for sure. Fold and bite, fo’ life.


After staying in a low budget Hilton for a week, I classed it up at stayed at the Hotel Palomar, a very awesome Kimpton hotel with a Top Chef staffed restaurant in their lobby called Sable. I wanted to make sure I got the most out of every day, so I got up at the crack of dawn Saturday & Sunday when brunch started to fuel up before sightseeing. On the left is the brioche marscapone french toast. It could have been better; was a little bit on the soggy side, strawberries were definitely not fresh – seemed like they had been cut up and left out for a while. I understand that chef’s do a lot of prep for their meals so they don’t have to do it on the fly during a rush but seriously, at 8 AM when I’m the first person sitting down, you can’t cut me up some new strawberries? Sunday’s brunch on the right was much better: black bean and cheese enchiladas – topped with the biggest omelet ever and hidden underneath, some of the spiciest chorizo I’ve ever had. OMG, it was amazing. There was so much egg though that I couldn’t finish it all, and I was fine with that because the egg was the least interesting part of that dish. It definitely made up for my lackluster french toast.


When most people think Chicago, they think hot dogs, sausage, pizza, roast beef – but not me. I  was aiming to try a particular Thai place that I read about in (of all places) The Time traveler’s Wife < the book, not the movie. insert your judging here > called Opart Thai. (Clever name though, right?) On your left were the peanut summer rolls I ordered. Usually every Thai/Vietnamese place I go to puts the peanut sauce on the side for dipping; slathering it in the peanut sauce kind of overwhelmed the crisp, fresh flavor you would expect from summer rolls. Also, they were cut up into 8ths almost like a sushi roll. On the right was the tofu pad thai – decent, nothing spectacular, but it hit the spot.

Lastly, I hit up a spot mentioned on the Chicago episode of No Reservations, Kuma’s Corner, a heavy metal themed burger joint that I braved the freezing temps and took a subway and 2 buses to get to. Every burger on the menu is named after a metal band but I, however, went with their signature Kuma burger – topped with bacon and a fried egg (much like my favorite at Sketch!). First off, there was a wait – a LONNNNNNNG wait. Table space is extremely limited and since I was by myself, I was told I would have to sit at the bar. So I stood my ground in the crowd, stalking the moves of everyone sitting at the bar, being scoffed by rude bar regulars until finally – MOVEMENT! All the way at the end of the bar, I snagged a seat close to the kitchen. And not only are they inundated with table and bar orders, but they do a lot of to-go orders too. (I probably waited about 45 minutes to an hour just to sit down, and then another 30 minutes just to get my food.) As you can see from the pics, the burger was pretty beefy but I felt the bun was just a bit too big and soft, even though it did come in handy to soak up all the grease and the egg yolk. 

Moral of the story? Not all hotel food is terrible. Any place on a TV show is going to have a long wait. And don’t believe the hype of the deep dish! 
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