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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Boiled Crawfish in the Dirty South, Y'all!

Just came back from a week long trip to New Orleans, LA (otherwise known at the Dirty South), visiting my brother, who has been working out of Louisiana for 10 years, but never visited New Orleans. The only southern City I've ever visited before now was Orlando, FL (Disney World) a few times, so this was my first REAL immersion into the southern environment, and, more importantly, the food.

As a religious watcher of the
Food Network (the real insipration for this blog), I have become somewhat familiar with what southern food is. I had tried Shrimp Gumbo, Jambalaya, and such before, but I had no idea what the real deal was like. As a semi-pro foodie, it is my solemn duty to be honest about my exeriences, even if you the reader may never visit or have the same experience. During my few days in New Orleans and the surrounding areas, I learned that crawfish can be served a million different ways, much like chicken is in the rest of the country. I saw every type of meal with an option for a crawfish substitution. I can't tell you how many signs I saw advertising 'Boiled Crawfish - $2.79/lb, Live - $1.79/lb'. If you don't know, they look like little lobsters (see pic), but has a little less flavor. I loved them in the dishes I got; it was a nice departure from shrimp. The overall service was great, depending on the price range, you know, southern least for food. Can't say much for the cab drivers.

Since none of us had actually visited New Orleans before, we had to go by the 2 travel guidebooks I checked out from the library (Frommers and Eyewitness Travel). Both were great resources and did us no wrong with their recommendations. A couple of places were small, locals only types, with way too long of a wait, no matter how good the food was. Plus, their were severe thunderstorms almost every night that week, and we didn't feel like standing out in the rain for food we new nothing about. Sorry, readers, but even the best of us have breaking points. On more then 1 occaision, I feel we were suckered into some non-authentic places.

If you don't know the difference between a Cajun and a Creole, a Crawdad from a Crawfish, or a streetcar from a cablecar, just know this - New Orleans is more then just great food (although enjoying a beignets and cafe au lait at
Cafe du Monde is an experience hard to describe, but should be had by all). I went for the food, but left with a greater respect and understanding of life in the south. I wont get into Katrina, the French Quarter, or above ground can read about that in any of the guidebooks. Instead, I simply want to impart upon my readers the enhanced experience one gets when an open food-mind is kept in the middle of this exotic place.

If you do get to visit, here are a few places we found that I recommend:
Muriel's, Zea's, and Randolph's at the Nottoway Plantation. Sorry I don't have more pic's for y'all (damn, now I'm saying it!) but I had to save the memory card for historic sites and 300 year old oak trees.

-Tom W Tell

Friday, March 20, 2009

Sandella's Flatbread......Flat-BAD!

I don't normally review lunch outings, but, as a serious food blogger, I must be open to these kinds of things. Also, I normally don't eat out for lunch, as I am a hardcore brown-bagger (ok, I use a cold/hot zip-up lunch bag), which has saved me loads of $$ during the years. On nice days, like we have been having lately, I just can't help getting outside. Downtown San Jose has a lot more food choices these days, and I have taken it upon myself to give them a chance.

This week, I wanted to play it safe and go for Baja Fresh on the Paseo de San Antonio, between 1st and 2nd St. On the way, I noticed an interesting looking place I hadn't heard of before,
Sandella's Flatbread Cafe . Not too many people inside, looked clean, what the heck? The counter person was very nice and answered all of the ordering questions with a smile...I went with the Turkey-Pesto roll with a bag of chips.

Okay, I guess I am a little spoiled on the Eric's Deli pesto sandwiches (see my previous post on the Milpitas location), because what this places calls pesto sauce is mayonaisse with some green food coloring added. It was horrible and ruined and otherwise fine turkey/salad roll. Many passers-by had the same idea I did, walking by several times before going inside. I am learning that the look of a place is as important for business as the quality of the food. I am not sure how long this place has been open, but it will not last with food like that. I realize that this is part of a chain, with a preset menu of food items to serve, but pride needs to be taken in your food. San Jose food adventurers are nothing to f#*k with when it comes to downtown!!!

Again, good service, clean, under $10, and absolutely awful food. I am so sorry, Baja Fresh, I will never pass you by again!

-Tom W Tell

Monday, March 16, 2009

99 (Chicken) Bottles of beer on the wall....

As a follow up to a previous blog posting, I paid a visit to 99 Chicken in Santa Clara, next to a (former) favorite Sushi spot near El Camino and Scott Blvd. Having eaten in this tiny strip mall many times before and passing by it without giving it so much as a second look, I was suprised to have gotten a glorious recommendation recently for it. I was told that this place had amazing fried chicken with all kinds of free side dishes and extras. This recommendation came from a reliable source (good food adventure tips come from other food adventurers!), so naturally my curiosity was piqued.

It actually took a second visit to actually go in and eat, as my first attempt the day before was thwarted by an unruly lunch crowd that I was just not in the mood to deal with at the time. Tried again the next day, and was pleased to find the early dinner crowd was much lighter. True to form, this place was a typical long, narrow, and intimate m&p (mom-and-pop) food joint with lots of nationalistic Korean flags, beer advertisements, and, of course, photos of past diners plastered over every available square inch of wall space! Now, I have seen this decorating technique before, normally commemorating a birthday or some other type of special event at the establishment, but these seemed to just be regular people enjoying their food. Strange, I thought, but then I thought "Why not??" Okay, it made me think differently about something I'd seen before, and thats part of food adventuring, right?

I think it was the owners wife that sat us and gave a 10 second de-briefing on how the place works: study the menu and place your food/drink order. There is indeed lots of free stuff, including a 'salad bar' (complete with lettuce and your choice of 3 toppings, the minimum amount to be called a salad bar I think), self serve white rice, a hot tea dispenser, and refill-your-own-water station. I guess this all cuts down on the back and forth between the waiter (owners wife) and the diners. Instead, people fight amongst themselves for drinks and side-dishes. Okay, I didn't actually see a fight, but it was fun noticing how people timed their trips and positioned themselves strategically to take advantage of the next open spot.

Beer is common to have with fried chicken, and although I don't drink the nasty stuff myself, I notice just about everyone enjoying a cold bottle, or 2, or a 40-ounce, with their dinner. The sexy Korean beer posters made it hard to resist...then I remembered what it actually tastes like.

They have plenty of Korean dishes, but I came for the fried chicken. As suggested, I got the sampler plate for myself and dining guest. It comes with about 8 pieces (drumsticks and wings), 2 pieces each with 4 different flavorings. 2 were plain, with no sauce or flavoring (my favorite), 2 came drenched in a sweet & sour sauce, 2 with a spicier sauce, and 2 with just a honey coating. It was fried chicken. What else did I expect? I was expecting a melt in your mouth, one-of-a-kind experience, I guess....but it was just fried chicken.

The comparison to KFC is obvious, and I hate to do it, but I have to say, as far as the fried chicken itself goes, is not much different. KFC has special flavorings, too, although the pieces are not as fresh. Does it really matter with fried chicken? It has been a while since I have had chicken prepared this way, and I forgot just how greasy it is. I can see why this is more of a lunch place, and I think it would be better had mid-day, instead of just before bed, as you will want to let this stuff digest before stomach was growling all night. Lets just say I 'paid for it' the next day with a slight nauseous feeling most of the day.

The experience was fun, and was around $20 for both of us. Although the plain pieces were my personal favorite, if you visit, go for something unique. Also, on my way to the restroom, I noticed also that there was a special, neon lit room for a what looked like a private a party. I may try to get that next time with some friends.

-Tom W Tell

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Sun has not's just Sen Dai!!

Finally found the highly praised Sen Dai on North Abel St in Milpitas. You may reacall from my previous posting about my visit to Sushi Mamoru on Main St that this was the place I was actually looking for. If you didn't catch that post, I was referred to Sun Dei by a Milpitas resident and fellow food adventurer, only to forget the name and exact location of the place; ended up on Main St instead of Abel St, has a so-so experience; continued my search; found Sen Dai. Sun Dei is a mom-and-pop japanese food restaurant in Milpitas that is a local favorite for Milpitians. As a former resident of Milpitas, I was suprised I had not heard of it before.

I visited here on a Saturday for lunch. The decription I got was pretty much dead-on. The dining area is about the size of my bedroom, with a cheesy exterior, but clean and orderly interior. As the place had just opened for lunch that day, there was only 1 other couple dining there, so we were seated immediately, a BIG plus++. They have a choice of regular open area dining tables, a bar, or the traditional stick-your-legs-through-a-hole-in-the-floor type of table. I have had this experience before and I cannot say I enjoy it, but it makes you feel like you are really experiencing something authentic. We decided to site at one, but it was really just a table with a bench that you had to step over to sit down on. Close enough! Our service was prompt, and our waitress was not pushy or snappy, very easy going, another plus+. We ordered some usual stuff, as I have found that trying something new on your first visit to a resaturant sometimes gives me a bad impression if I don't like what I ordered (I may not have liked that dish anywhere). We played it safe in order to make a sensible comparision to other recent japanese lunch spots (you know, Cali Rolls, Bento Box).

The food was adequate, and surely of better quality that I expected from the out of the way lunch spot (I noticed they are open for dinner, too, but all the recommendations I got was to go at lunch...not sure why?) Our water and hot tea was refilled constantly, another big plus++! Our bill was just over $20 for 2 people with some left over to take home for lunch the next day. The real reason to visit here it the great service and low prices for a tasty meal. The day I visited, there was a 1:1 ratio of employees to can't beat that.

This will be a regulary dining spot for us from now on, and if you find yoursefl food-adventuring in Milpitas, Sun Dai needs to be on your list!

-Tom W Tell

Friday, March 6, 2009

Sushi-O is now Sushi-N-O

So many a delectable japanese meal have I had at Sushi-O-Sushi in on El Camino and Bowers in Santa Clara; so much so that I just realized last night that I had been taking it for granted. As a usual quick and moderately priced dinner meeting place for my wife and I and occaisonally a friend or family member, Sushi-O was a place that became our fall-back in case we couldn't decide where we wanted to go. It was always good, had good service, and didn't emtpy the wallet. What happened to the good old days(see pic)?

Those days are over, as, just last night, we may very well have had our last meal there. I don't if they changed owners, management, or just wait staff, but it has definitely fallen off. I should have known something was a-miss when we showed up around 7pm with only 1 other person waiting for a table. We were seated promptly, which is unusual. I had become accustomed to the 15-20 minute wait during dinner hour, as it was worth it for great eats.

Our waitress broke the first rule.....NEVER LEAVE ME THIRSTY. She brought the hot tea on time, but did not get us water until we asked for the 3rd time. Unacceptable. The place was not that busy, and she was not new, as she served everything else properly (Japanese food comes in a bunch of small, 'cute' food dishes instead a few big ones, and they get placed in front of you slowly and one-by-one). All of my party's glass went dry 3 times and we had to ask each time for a refill. I call it the first rule because it is the most important...who can enjoy a meal with a dry mouth? Our appetizer rolls were tasty, but came out with the rest of the meal, that is rule number 2.....SERVE THE APPETIZER BEFORE THE MAIN COURSE, AS IT IN AN APPETIZER. Now, I can't prove this was our servers fault, as the sushi chefs may have been backed up, slow, or asleep. But, she may have left them sitting for awhile.

The food itself was good, but somehow not as good as it usually is. I believe they rasied the prices too, as the bill with tip was $50; usually not more than $40 for 3 people. I am always sorry to see this happen, but it takes only 1 bad dining experience to ruin a reputation.

On a side note, I did get a recommendation for the place 2 doors down from Sushi-O, that serves some bomb fried chicken, called 99 Chicken. I think we are going there tonight, and will post my impression tommorrow.

-Tom W Tell

Monday, March 2, 2009

Mels Drive-In, San Francisco - Near Sony Metreon

Okay, I know this isnt really a 'San Jose' food review, but I had to share my experience here. Whenever I am in San Francisco with a group, and its late, and we need to eat, Mels Drive-In always comes up first. If you don't know or haven't heard, it is modeled after the hang-out in American Graffiti. It is a fantastic place to get american soul-food, any time of day or night. Even though that usually means burgers, fries, and coke and/or shake, I usually get a turkey or chicken sandwich. I have cut french fries out of my diet completely due to their fat content, milkshakes due to the cholestrol in milk, and burgers I only have at Red Robin occaisionally. None of these factors affected my dining experience at all.

It was about 12:30am, and we had not had dinner yet, so about 5 of us ended up here over this past weekend. We came hungry, and left full and satisfied. There are several locations in SF, but my experience has been pretty much the same at all of them. Good food, cheap, and open all hours.

If you relate to things visually like I do, they have some great
website pics to help you find it.

-Tom W Tell

Sushi through a hole in the wall - Sushi Mamoru!

I got a recommendation recently from an acquaintence for a japanese restaurant in Milpitas, one I had not heard of before. On the night I went looking for it, I couldn't quite remember the specifics (location or name). All I had to go from was that I knew it was in Milpitas around the Main St/Abel St area, and it was bomb. So off I went!! I could have sworn he said Main St, right next to a bar. Well, I found one, right next to a pool hall on Main St, called Sushi Mamoru. The name didn't ring any bells, but I was almost sure this was it. It was described as "kind-of a hole in the wall" from the outside. And here it was!

The windows are totally blacked out, with huge cheesy neon signs in the front, but once you are inside, the place is actually pretty swank. Typical black and red decor, and they have a few cook-in-front-of you tables too. A mandatory Karaoke station is also prominent. As we were the only ones there (kind of strange for a Thursday night dinner hour) we got immediate service. Only 1 other couple came in while were there, so we had the whole place was practically to ourselves.

The food was not bad, not great. We got a few rolls for apps, and they were not the best I have ever had, but not the worst either. The Cali rolls were alright but the crunchy rolls were way too crunchy for me. I got a bento with teriyaki steak, again, not the best I've ever had. Not enough sauce, and the steak was a little raw for my taste as well. We did get constant refills on water and hot tea, which it always a plus.

The bill came out to less then $30, so at least we didn't get scalped! You could try their website, but it wont be much help, as it is still under construction. This place really downgraded my acquaintence for food recommendations. I found out later that it was indeed the wrong place, that I should have been looking on Abel Street for a place called Sun Dai. After checking yelp, I can see that I was way off in my recollections. My acquiantenace may still have a chance to redeem himself.

Even though I have yet to try Sun Dai, it HAS to be better then Mamoru. I will add this to my list of restaurants to try.

-Tom W Tell