FOOD CZAR REVIEW #1:
One gorgeous Saturday afternoon in May, my lovely wife The Rock Star said that she had an important announcement to make: She was hungry, and what was The Czar (me) going to do about it? I replied, don’t fret dear wife, we must depart our loft at once and drive in search of a deli. For you see, after 15 years of wedded bliss, I knew that because the weather outside was quite warm, my wife’s tastes this day would run to cold food, since she never likes to dine on hot food in the middle of a hot day. Thus, I procured our humble car, and employing my usual scientific method (I seemed to recall a deli we had not tried some 5-6 blocks from our casa.), we drove around until by sheer good fortune we discovered our local branch of McAlister’s deli. Good fortune, indeed! McAlister’s met our expectations and then some.
McAlister’s is one of the new breed of chain restaurants, serving first-rate food for just a few dollars over the cost of fast food. With plenty of time and dollars in their pockets to spend, Americans are demanding something more for their bucks than the standard, too often mediocre food that huge corporate chains offer, and in the last few years, a number of small companies have sprung up to meet the demand. For the most part, they are finding success and therefore are spreading rapidly to all parts of this great nation. McAlister’s is already in twenty states, mostly in the South, Southeast and Midwest.
You walk in, and proceed into the serving line right down the center of the store. Seating is on both sides. Like most counter-order places, their somewhat extensive menu may seem intimidating, but is actually easy to read. (Important Note: Before you try any new restaurant for the first time, I STRONGLY encourage you to make use of their website to make your selection before leaving home, and/or learn the art of quickly skimming the menu. If there is anything many diners dislike, it’s having to wait in line behind someone learning to read for the first time. If you simply MUST take your time, please do everyone a favor and STEP OUT OF LINE!!! Thank you.) In McAlister’s there’s lots of room for seating, and when we visited, lots of people already noshing. Good sign.
Since this was a deli, The Rock Star and I both decided to try the sandwiches. (What else? Do you go to a sandwich shop and order pizza?) The Rock Star, being the world-class wrap artist that she is, decided on the Turkey Melt Wrap which, thoughtfully, was cut in two for easier handling. (I love a company where someone in authority actually uses their brain. Bravo!) Cheddar cheese was melted very appealingly over hickory smoked turkey and applewood bacon to create one of the finest wraps The Rock Star has ever enjoyed. As for me, I opted for the Godfather. Talk about an offer I couldn’t refuse! Roast beef, mozzarella cheese, and a wonderful pizza sauce were spread generously over a 6" white hoagie. I could have easily and happily downed the whole thing, but l restrained myself because I knew that the remains would make excellent leftovers. We usually have chips with sandwiches, but why stop at a deli and not try their potato salad, especially when it was calling our names insistently? McAlisters potato salad is chunky and Southern-style, with lots of mustard. Delicious! One regret: we did not try the sweet tea, which according to both the on-site signage and the website, is world-famous. Since The Rock Star yearns to taste all world-class delicacies, you can be sure we will try the sweet tea on subsequent visits.
Service is quite nice—lots of pleasant, young people with big smiles—very comforting to an old geezer like me. You receive a number when you order at the counter, take it back to the table of your choice, and stick it atop the number holder thingy. After a short wait, a staff member will bring your order and make sure you have everything you need. One of the really nice perks of McAlister’s is that even though it’s a counter service place, staff members walk by periodically to refill drinks and offer to-go boxes, which earns them bonus points in my book. Excellent service!
When we arrived back at our loft later, I made a beeline for the computer to check out their website at http://www.mcalistersdeli.com/. The website was very user-friendly and quite nice (and yes, they are VERY proud of their sweet tea!) Just one minor complaint: no prices on the website menu. Before I go to a new place, I like to have at least a ballpark figure of how much I am going to spend, for you see, I am a budget-conscious Czar. (Needless to say, the in-store counter menu does include prices.)
I really liked McAlister’s, and the Rock Star was impressed enough to put her stamp of approval on it, and thus we’ll be dining there again soon. Some might quibble that the portions seemed a bit smallish, but honestly, which would you rather have? Small to medium-size portions of excellent food with quality ingredients, or large portions of mediocre food? I’ve said it before and I will say it again, in fact it’s become my slogan:
LIFE IS TOO SHORT FOR MEDIOCRE FOOD!!!
FOOD CZAR REVIEW #2
If you like "kickin’ it old school", then you ought to try the legendary food, fun, drinks and tiki available at Trader Vic’s.
Trader Vic’s is old school for a good reason: they’ve been around a long, long time, since 1932. Yes, Trader Vic was a real person---one Victor Jules Bergeron, son of a local waiter and grocery store owner and a born raconteur (storyteller). In 1932, he invested $700 of his own and his family’s capital and started a pub across the street from the family store and named it Hinky Dinks. Hinky Dinks eventually became Trader Vic’s and grew to 25 stores in eight states and fourteen foreign countries. The chain enjoyed it’s heyday in the 1960’s and 70’s, spurred in part by it’s mention in the high-profile song, "Werewolves of London" by Warren Zevon.
My lovely wife, The Rock Star, had been to our local branch of Trader Vic’s when but a mere babe in arms. Since meeting me, she had always wanted to introduce me to Vic’s, since she had nothing but fond memories, as it was her late father’s favorite place when she was growing up. (He had a passion for all things Polynesian.) Unfortunately, our local branch had been closed for many years due to the slow but steady decline of the hotel and neighborhood it inhabited. Finally, just a month or so before our fifteenth wedding anniversary, Trader Vic’s reopened in the same location with a flourish. Impulsively, upon hearing this news, I declared there and then that we would celebrate our anniversary at the new Vic’s.
I dare say that, if you choose to spend an evening at Trader Vic’s, the atmosphere will no doubt be one of the highpoints of your stay. If you think tropical décor means light and airy, think again. The interior is dark, warm, and inviting. Tiki and bamboo abound. After we were shown to our table, a friendly staff member handed us a dinner menu, a bar menu, and a wine list. (One odd note: The staff was garbed in basic, run-of-the mill business suits. While this is usually appropriate for a fine dining establishment, it came across as stuffy in this setting.) I must again repeat my usual caution to first-time diners: please do yourself a favor and go online to the Trader Vic’s website, http://www.tradervics.com/, to check out the food choices and prices IN ADVANCE. Remember, Vic’s is a fine dining establishment, with prices to match, and it’s no fun encountering "sticker shock" when perusing the menu for the first time. (By the way, I went to the website of our local branch twice, and both times I was unable to download the menu. I had to resort to using a menu from another location, with DIFFERENT prices. Please fix the link!)
After deciding on drinks, my wife and I decided to skip appetizers and proceed straight to the next course. My wife had selected the Trader Vic’s Salad, but her very knowledgeable waiter talked her into a local creation featuring artichoke hearts, spinach, and spicy, warm balsamic vinaigrette dressing. I tried the famous Bongo Bongo soup, featuring oysters and spinach in a cream base. Both dishes were quite delicious, and left us well prepared for our main courses.
My wife decided on a basic seafood grill featuring halibut, scallop, prawn, and salmon, all of which were very tasty. (I would be happy to give you the exact name, but since this is only my second review, I had not got into the habit of taking notes and I foolishly TOOK FOR GRANTED THAT THE LINK TO THE LOCAL WEBSITE MENU WOULD WORK. This is a mistake I will not make again!) My own entrée was Kobe beef sirloin in a wine demi-glace (sauce). The sirloin arrived perfectly cooked as requested, but alas, was a little tough, which was disappointing since Kobe beef is renowned for its tenderness. The sauce was very good, however, so I still enjoyed it. We finished our repast with a coffee crème brulee desert that was simply the finest crème brulee I have ever enjoyed. Outstanding!!
Mark, our waiter, was VERY knowledgeable, as previously mentioned. I love having enough confidence in the staff to trust their recommendations. Serviced was perfectly paced, as befits a fine dining establishment. We arrived at 6:30 and left at 8:30, so before you book reservations (which are highly encouraged), please be sure to allow adequate time for the atmosphere—and the drinks---to work their magic.
I almost forgot to mention the drinks, which are another highlight of Trader Vic’s. My wife and I usually love wine with dinner, but how can you even think of entering the Home of the Mai Tai without trying one or two? The Rock Star had the Original Mai Tai and that was easily the best of the four drinks we tried---lots of lime and not too sweet. The Samoan Fog Cutter and Trader Vic’s Grog were also outstanding, and the Black Widow was very good, although too small. Part of the fun of Trader Vic’s concerns the unusual crockery the drinks are served in: at a nearby table, one couple was drinking with straws from a white ceramic skull!
Trader Vic’s lived up to my wife’s memories and my expectations. In future, we may forego the entrees and just split one of their appetizer platters, drinks, and of course, the crème brulee! Remember:
LIFE IS TOO SHORT FOR MEDIOCRE FOOD!!!
FOOD CZAR REVIEW #3
Since I first began writing this blog some 2-3 weeks ago, I have made it my intention to focus mostly on high-quality chain restaurants. Reason: with chains I figure that more of you can be interested in my postings, as hopefully there is or soon will be a branch of said chain in or near your local town. This observation may prompt some of you to ask: Okay, smart guy, then why not review Chili’s or Red Lobster or chains like that? Answer: I feel that you already know all you need to know about such places to make an informed decision about whether or not to dine there. Also, I really love turning people on to some of my new fave restaurants, and I believe these high-quality chains deliver more bang for the buck, and deserve our support, otherwise they may be consigned to the trash heap of failed restaurants past.
That said, I feel I must start a new tradition at this point: occasionally reviewing the high-quality destination restaurant. In part, I decided to do this simply because of my recent dining experience at Fireside Pies. Although this most excellent pizza place may be said to be a chain in that it has two locations, I still decided to refer to it’s status as a destination rather than a true chain. Accordingly, if you are in the Dallas, TX area anytime soon, and feel the urge for great pizza, please consider Fireside Pies.
My trip to Fireside Pies was made, as usual, with my wife, who is not only a Rock Star, she is my partner in life and usual dining companion.
When we first walked into the Plano location of Fireside Pies, my wife and I were convinced right away we were in for a treat. The atmosphere is cozy warm and inviting, with the new neo-Mission style décor that is sweeping the country, complete with open kitchen. Such a style is most prevalent in the Southwest, particularly California, Arizona, and Nevada, and I love it. There is a long curved bar between the kitchen and dining area, and plenty of beautiful booths and tables in the somewhat smallish space. Although augmented by lots of patio seating, these areas can fill very quickly during prime times, and I must confess I don’t know if they take reservations. Most appealing of all is a separate outdoor patio area intended for large groups.
As our wonderful waitress Jessica quickly explained, portions are large at Fireside Pies, and are most definitely meant for sharing. Since my wife and I eat normal-size portions, this meant we had decisions to make. No doubt we were there for pizza, but what else?
Appetizers? Drinks? Salad? Dessert? In the end, we decided on drinks, salad, and of course pizza, and trust that we will attend to some of the other food categories in future visits. Drinks, of course, were first up, and my wife decided on the white peach sangria, a deft blend of wine, fruit juices and peach flavoring that was more refreshing than sweet. Delicious! For myself, I selected a pint of Peroni, a smooth Italian lager that matched our dinner perfectly. We next proceeded to the salad course, which like everything we sampled that night was outstanding. Fireside Cheese may be one of the least expensive salads on the menu, yet this delectable mix of greens, cheese blend, fresh market tomatoes (at Jessica’s suggestion), and roasted red pepper ranchhouse dressing, still manage to fill our mouths with cheesy goodness, prompting the Rock Star to suggest that "we could come here some night and just dine on this." I heartily concur. With such a strong beginning, I was hoping the main course wouldn’t be anticlimactic, and indeed it wasn’t. To me, a pizza parlor lives and dies by pepperoni, so it was important to try one. Trust me, the Triple ‘Roni did not disappoint. Layers of mozzarella, fantastic sauce, truffle oil, hand-tossed basil, and plenty of pepperoni added up to one of the finest pizzas in town, with enough leftovers for next day. I feel I must make one very, very minor quibble, which I doubt that one in ten of you share with me: This pizza, like most I try these days, is undersauced. I grew up on old-fashioned pizza parlors such as Shakey’s and Conan’s, which prided themselves on a fresh-tasting but balanced product, which meant that pizza worked best when in harmony and no ingredients predominated. This began to change about 20 years ago, when extra cheese and extra meat became the order of the day, and sauce was sacrificed in the process. Luckily, at Fireside Pies, extra sauce, cheese, and other ingredients are readily available and this problem did not keep me from enjoying my meal.
As previously stated, service was wonderful with Jessica attentive to our needs and ready with excellent suggestions. I noticed that Fireside Pies, like many quality establishments, makes sure that the staff is trained to cover other tables needs in a pinch, and other servers took it upon themselves to help out Jessica when she needed it, which was not often.
Fireside Pies website, http://www.firesidepies.com/, continues the same warm, family-friendly tone of their restaurants, and if you drop them an email, I’m sure they will promptly answer your questions about reservations, group dining, and other needs. The menu from the Dallas location is featured on the site, which is only different in minor ways from the one we enjoyed in Plano.
While I’m not certain Fireside Pies is worthy of a special trip to Dallas, if you do happen to be in our fair city, it will be well worth a visit. The Plano location is part of the magical Shops at Legacy, one of the new-school urban apartment/shopping/restaurant mini-cities that are deservedly all the rage with renters. There is an even an excellent movie theatre within walking distance, so why not do what The Rock Star and I did and make a very pleasant evening of it with dinner and a movie? That’s all for now, and remember:
LIFE IS TOO SHORT FOR MEDIOCRE FOOD!!!