Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Quick Hit: Back Yard Grill BBQ

So, today it was Backyard Grill BBQ for lunch. Not bad. Here's the Quick Hit List. 

1.  Nice place. Decor is clean and neat. It's sort of a fast-casual set up where you order up front, get your food, and find a table. 

2.  Fast and friendly service. 

3.  Interesting menu choices. The menu includes BBQ staples like ribs and pulled pork. It also has a fish choice, smoked chicken, and smoked chicken wings. There is also a nice variety of sides like molasses beans, potato salad, macaroni salad, mac & cheese, slaw, and fries. 

4.  Prices are reasonable. 

5.  Food. Not bad, but not great. Between all members of our staff, we had a pretty good sample of the menu. The pulled pork had great pork flavor, but lacked bark and didn't seem to have a lot of smoke or rub flavor. The brisket was tender, so much so in fact that there were no slices. It was more like pot roast sandwich and also lacked smoke and the zing of a rub. My guess is these cuts are getting ample time in foil on the smoker. 

The ribs were intriguing. Served naked, they were tender and a sprinkling of rub prior to service jacked up the zing factor. 

Bottom line: nice effort and a nice place. Not crazy about the pulled pork or brisket, but our staff will return to try the wings and main line some ribs. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

I don't like the looks of this. At all.


Very troublesome. Very. 

Going Green: Some of Our Favorite Salads

If you find yourself out sampling burgers and chicken wings with any degree of frequency, you probably should consider a salad every now and then.  Some salads are kind of good for you, and if nothing else, you feel a bit better about yourself for having one.  Fortunately, there are some good options out there that go well beyond shredded iceberg blend out of a bag, a little dry yellow cheese, three croutons, and a side of ranch dressing in a small plastic container with the date written on the lid.

Here are some salads we have been enjoying of late.

As much as I prefer to shy away from chain joints, Chevy's has a pretty delicious salad offering.  (That's singular on purpose.)  There are two salads on the menu that look pretty tempting: a Sizzling Fajita Salad and the Santa Fe Chopped Salad.  The Sizzling Fajita Salad sounds better than it really is.  No, the salad you want is the Santa Fe Chopped.  Icy cold greens with the other ingredients consisting of avocado slices, blue cheese, grilled chicken, roasted red peppers, grilled corn, and smoky bacon composed on the top.  Get the apple chipotle vinaigrette dressing, which hits good notes of smoky, sour, spicy, and sweet just right.

Minerva's flagship location at 11th and Phillips generally has some very nice salads on the menu.  No, I don't mean the salad bar.  Yes, it's good, but by the time I eat about a half pound of the cheese spread, two cups of the tomato basil soup, a dozen of the pickled cippolini onions, pickled herring, and some actual vegetables, I should have just had a steak.  I think the best salad is the cranberry pear salad which features greens, sliced red onion, dried cranberries, spiced pecans, and gorgonzola on a bed of spinach. It's dressed with a cranberry vinaigrette.  You can get it with grilled chicken or salmon.  I strongly recommend the chicken.  (I'll get to that in a second . . .)  The other tempting salad is the salmon asparagus salad.  I personally avoid salmon at Minerva's because they insist on using Atlantic salmon- probably for cost issues.  Atlantic salmon is food code for "farm raised."  If you knew how fish is farmed, you wouldn't touch the stuff.  It's bad for the environment and it makes for fish that has undertones of the food pellets that the fish consume.  (Next time you are at a fish hatchery and you buy some pellets to feed the fish, smell them, if you think I am off my place setting on this one.)  Stick with wild Alaskan salmon and you'll never go wrong.

Back to salad.

Josiah's has some good salads.  One of my personal favorites is the quinoa with black rice.  Yes, those two ingredients, obviously, with baby arugula and a lemony vinaigrette dressing.  The grains are chewy and earthy which plays off the bitter greens.  This salad is like spa food.  You'll feel better about yourself for eating it, and perhaps even inspired to do something to make the world a better place.  Maybe that's what owner and political rabble-rouser Steve Hildebrand had in mind.  Fox News should look into that.  On a side note, Shonna Haugen is now at Josiah's.  Look for neat new things this spring and summer.

Spezia is a good spot for a salad.  Actually, I am a sucker for their specials which vary with the season. This last fall/winter, Spezia had a salad that featured some roasted beets, roasted cauliflower, and a creamy herby dressing.  Don't go run out the door.  It's gone now.  Fortunately, Spezia has other salads that feature similar ingredients, especially roasted beets.  For lunch, I like the grilled chicken salad.  Nice greens with a grilled chicken breast and a balsamic dressing.  Otherwise, expect what you could also get at Minerva's.  They may not be part of the same group, but the menu crossover is a fun discussion topic.

Speaking of Spezia, the one salad I like at Bracco, is the seared ahi salad.  Nice seared tuna, greens and dressings with zingy Asian components- mustard and soy and wasabi.  Unfortunately, Bracco finances its mortgage payments off this menu item along with the fish tacos.  I swear the price of those items has shot up faster than the S&P 500.

The Attic has a couple of super good salads.  Notably, the Southwest Chicken Salad.  Pretty basic greens, but also featuring grilled corn, bell peppers, cheese, black beans, and a nice spicy grilled chicken breast.  Try it with the creamy avocado ranch or chipotle ranch dressing.  The other great salad is the Black and Blue which features a perfectly-sized portion of sirloin cooked to your desired doneness and greens with blue cheese crumbles, bell pepper, and a few tangy pepperocini peppers stashed in there.  Avoid the buffalo chicken salad which is an attempt to marry salad to spicy chicken wings.  It's doesn't work.  Sorry, Attic.

One other salad option is worthy of mention.  Hy Vee.  Yup, Hy Vee, the local big box grocer that I love to hate and hate to love.  Our local Hy Vee stores feature salad bars where you can grab a plate or a to-go container and commence to filling that sucker up with a variety of greens, vegetables, proteins like sliced ham or turkey, hard boiled eggs, and top it all off with some dressing.  Some of the bigger, more hip stores, have pre-made DeLuso salad concoctions, as well as condiments that would allow one to make a taco salad.  Two words of warning at Hy Vee: (1) if you are trying to be healthy watch your toppings and dressing choices and (2) watch how much you have on the plate because that salad bar is sold by the pound, and you can easily manage to compose a salad that will cost more than any of the options above.

If there is another great salad that we have overlooked, please let us know so our ace staff can get out there and check it out.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

Abundance of Burgers

We loves us some foods here in River City.  New places are opening all the time and familiar favorites, like Queen City Bakery, find new homes as they gain success.  Lately, I have been contemplating the blessings of abundant burgers.  We literally have so many great burger options in this town, that they are difficult for me to rank.  I cannot choose a favorite among the many great choices.  So, I had to devise an entirely new burger rating system.

Tier One.  This is the highest rank, so a Tier One burger must be a very good exemplification of everything a great burger should be.  The meat should be hot, juicy, and fresh tasting.  Condiments should be interesting and also fresh.  The bun should be soft.  Overall, the ingredients should work together to provide a great experience.

Tier Two.  A great burger experience, but just not quite at the level of a Tier One.

Tier Three.  An enjoyable burger that feeds the need, but isn't the date you want to be seen with at prom.

So, here are some of my thoughts on what is fitting into the various categories here in our fair city.

Tier One


I definitely have to put Taphouse 41 on this list.  This is one of the new offerings in the space formerly occupied by Champps and brought to us by the group that owns Minerva's.  However, if you are expecting the same offerings you get at 11th and Phillips or any of the outposts, you won't find them.  Small place, maybe 40-ish seats.  The menu is burgers (including a chicken and vegetable option) and sides.  Period.  Lots of different bourbons to try and a nice craft beer list, but not as extensive as JL Beers.  The burgers are fresh, well-seasoned, and cooked on a flat top, so you get delicious charred edges.  The toppings are sublime, and include offerings like sunny side up eggs, house made pickles, and a house made onion jam.  Seriously inventive, well thought out, and extremely well executed.  On a quick note, I absolutely have to hand it to the folks who started with Minerva's and turned it into an empire.  Taphouse 41 really shows what these guys can do and I am looking forward to more.

JL Beers gets a Tier One nod.  Although these aren't the biggest burgers in town, and they do not have the chef-inspired spins and presentation that you will find at Taphouse 41, JL offers a damned find burger, Vincent.  The ingredients are always fresh and the buns are like pillows.  I would like to see more specials and I would love to see a runny yolk, but these are consistently tasty burgers.

Little Coalinga.  If you find this an odd choice, you just haven't been there.  The burgers are always hot and tasty.  There are some inventive options on the menu like the jalapeno burger.  On the side, Jane and Jean produce what have to be some of the best french fries in town.  I realize the fries are some sort of frozen product cooked in a fryolator, but I think they are always just right.  That marvelous dive bar atmosphere must be the secret.

Tier Two


First, a choice you might not have heard of or considered: Pomegranate Market.  Turns out there is a little bistro over on the south side of the store.  They have a salad bar and a counter where they offer fresh foods like salads, sandwiches, and even burgers.  Granted they are organic buffalo or goat burgers, but they are delish.  The best part of the burgers are the buns.  These are a special recipe Pomegranate has their friends at Great Harvest bake for them.  Last time I checked, you couldn't buy these special buns to take home.

Gateway Lounge.  The Gateway makes an awesome burger, specifically the Monster Burger.  A really nice combination of a flat-topped burger with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, lettuce and secret sauce.  The SSS tells me the fries are good.  I wouldn't know.  I always order tots.  TOTS!!

The Attic makes a pretty respectable burger.  These are thick, half-pound patties, which are cooked done.  I like the Basic Attic burger with cheese, and then lettuce and tomato, Heinz 57 and french fried potatoes, a big kosher pickle and a cold draft beer.  But, another great option is the Old Smoky with fried onions and barbecue sauce.

I also enjoy a good burger at McNally's from time-to-time.  As a matter of fact, I had one of my all time favorite burgers in Sioux Falls at McNally's when they had a super awesome lamb burger.  And then they forked it up.  Still good burgers though, and the best pull of Guinness in town doesn't hurt.

Oggie's over in Tea has some interesting burger choices.  I've generally enjoyed my sojourns over there for a burger.

Tier Three


Believe it or not, I have to put a local Burger King on the list-- specifically the one on North Minnesota Avenue and West Russell.  Every once in a while, I get a powerful hankering for a Whopper with Cheese and that location kicks out good product.

I am giving Granite City a Tier Three rating, only because they should be a Tier Two burger, but instead decided to start making "improvements" to their menu, which at one time included pretty respectable burgers.  Past tense.  Most notable fork up was switching out their barbecue sauce on the Bedda Chedda.  Pay attention, Granite City.  Champps used to be all the rage and then sort of fizzled and slipped into total suckage.  You folks are showing the same symptoms.

Five Guys.  I just don't get this place.  What's the huge attraction?  Sure, the burgers are fairly well-made and juicy.  But the fries suck, and what could be a better burger suffers from total overkill.  I get the same sick, dirty feeling after eating here that I feel after having two glazed donuts.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

WTF: Is it just me or is Granite City really starting to suck?

I have to say, my last several outings to Granite City have left me seriously unimpressed.  When the place was first open, it was sparkly, new, had things on the menu that were at least twists on the same-old-same-old fare of other locations, and they brewed their own beer.  On premises.  I really liked some of the things on the menu, such as the roast beef sandwich, the London broil sandwich, the chicken burrito, and the soups.

Despite a couple remodels, time has not exactly been kind to GC.  If you ask me, the place is getting a tad threadbare, and worse yet, the food is changing.

I think it all started going wrong when they stopped brewing on premises.  Granted in today's beer snob world, GC doesn't have the bestest beers, but I always appreciated the effort and almost always have one of their beers when I visit.  I believe I heard or was told at one point that the reason for off-premises brewing was the need to somehow standardize product across the franchise chain.  God forbid someone get a Duke in St. Cloud that tastes different than the same offering in Omaha.

Unfortunately, some of the best things GC has ever had on the menu are gone, or worse yet, altered for the worse.  Two examples jump to mind.

First example.  Several years ago, GC introduced a new burger, the Napa Valley Burger.  I don't know what screamed "wine country" about it, but it was good.  As a matter of fact, it shared many of the finest qualities of the legendary lamb burger that McNally's had years ago.  (Another great item that is now as dead as the dinosaurs.)  The Napa Valley Burger was topped with grilled prosciutto, mozzarella cheese, avocado spread, and greens cooked with some balsamic reduction. It was served on focaccia.  Really, a nice offering and a tasty departure from burger boredom.  I used to have it almost every time I visited GC.

Second example.  Granite City changed it's barbecue sauce formula.  This may seem relatively insignificant in the grander scheme of things, but as I have tried to point out ad nauseam, little details can make big differences in food.  The barbecue sauce is used on a couple of items, such as a burger known as the Bedda Chedda Burger and an open-faced meatloaf sandwich.  The former iteration of the sauce was pretty much straight up old school barbecue sauce- sweet and tangy.  The new and "improved" sauce boasts a "coffee bean" component.  It's too sweet.  I had it on an open faced meatloaf sandwich, that had I known included the sauce, I would have asked that it be left off.  I think the folks at GC have their doubts about the new barbecue sauce, too.  One of their recent special chef's features menus included the Bedda Chedda Burger with the OLD sauce.  (Also a pretty good burger, by the way.  Cheddar cheese, bacon, barbecue sauce and an onion ring.)

My Midwestern passive aggression can get me around the other things I don't care for at Granite City, such as the relentless efforts of the staff to up-sell everything.  I.E. "Would you like to substitute waffle fries?"  If so, "Would you like to add our Granite City Dip for those waffle fries?"  I can also get past the regular as clockwork visit from the manager on duty and first name introductions from the bartenders.  I know I can get snootier brew elsewhere, but a big mug of Benny and Duke mixed together is often very nice.  But, irrespective, good food needs to be the foundation of any restaurant experience.  Stellar service doesn't fix slipping food.


Saturday, October 19, 2013

Nutty's No More! Where will all the nuts hang out?

Nutty's at it's original location at 49th and Westport is no more.  During the last couple of weeks, it has undergone a huge transformation and is now BB's.  It's a big change.

Nutty's was an interesting place.  For a long time, it was pretty much the anchor of the small shopping center there.  Places like Sun & Fun, Balloons, Bears & Bouquets, and TCBY have come and gone, but Nutty's stayed the course.  Nutty's always intrigued me, primarily because the place was physically kind of like a kid's tree house or fort that was continually upgraded and added onto.  When the place first opened, it occupied only the corner of the building.  I do not recall if there was a deck at that point. (It's been a long, long time.)  I recall a pool table or two, but the real stand out feature was a shuffleboard game.  And, of course, there were plenty of peanuts to enjoy with a cold beverage.

As the years rolled by, every once in a while, there would be an addition to the place.  At it's peak, Nutty's featured a sunroom, a three-season screened-in porch, a deck, and a built-in bird sanctuary.  They also featured frozen concoctions (boozie slurpies a/k/a brunch of choice in Las Vegas or New Orleans) and an impressive row of beer taps.

A few weeks ago, I met a friend for a beer at Nutty's while they were mid-transition.  What a change!  The entrance is on the east side of the building off the deck.  Gone were the bird cages and cobbled together elements of the old location.  It's now a much more unified sort of space, but with enough of the old to remind you of the building's past.

I must say, the menu looks pretty good, and I am looking forward to giving a few things a try.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Defensive Ordering

If you have to travel for work, or kid activities, or even travel for fun, there are going to be times you end up in food deserts.  These are the sorts of places where you desperately want to get a good meal, but it just ain't going to happen.  You could be stuck at a hotel that has kind of a crummy restaurant for a conference, and even though you know there are other decent places around, you aren't going to be visiting them.  At times like this, one has to employ defensive ordering techniques.

1.  Set your expectations accordingly.  That doesn't mean to set them to "abysmally low" or "without any hope whatsoever."  Really low expectations will only jade you and pretty much guarantee the whole experience is going to suck.  I suggest you train you mind to be guardedly optimistic.  Besides, how well this works out is going to depend on your ordering skills.

2.  Be observant and ask questions.  There is probably something on the menu that someone in the kitchen is pretty good at making.  It's you're job to figure out what.  Are people at other tables eating pasta dishes and enjoying them?  Is no one in the whole house eating fish?  Is there a special?  As the server what the joint is best known for or what the best-selling items are.  Ask if the chef has any favorites.  These are usually safe bets.

3.  Don't order funky stuff.  What's funky stuff? Well, if you're in say Aberdeen or Watertown at the local Ramkota/Minerva's-lite branch office, just how fresh do you think a fish selection is?  Chances are you saw it at Sam's Club.  You can also pretty much bet that very few, if any, of the pasta sauces are being made in-house.

4.  Stick to the straight-forward.  If you're at one of these places in South Dakota, your best bet is probably a steak.  Theoretically pretty hard to screw up.  Be careful with adding funky toppings and sauces.  If you want to try one, best to ask for them on the side so you can control your dosage.  Chicken dishes are probably good choices.  Unless you know the soups are made in-house and look good, stick with the dumb house salad.

5.  Never, never, never take out a bad experience on the servers.  One thing I tend to see in some of these outpost locations is that the veteran servers are not so polished themselves, yet they have trainees in tow.  Around me I usually observe lots of mistakes and people sending items back to the kitchen.  I've ordered good wine off the list and when the staff presents the nicest Reidel glasses in the joint, they are covered with water spots.  This goes back to expectations.  Deal with it.  If something rises to the level of needing fixing, be polite and get it fixed, but don't be a total jackass about it.

If you survive the whole experience, reward yourself by finding something local and good to enjoy and wash the taste of bitter resentment right out of your mouth.