Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Guest Post! SSS Sounds Alarm on New Spezia Menu and A Bad Salad Experience

Check this out!  The SSS has provided a special guest blog.  After previous good salad experiences at Spezia, a not so good one.  

I went to lunch with a friend at Spezia.  I chose Spezia specifically because I like their Mediterranean salad with chicken, artichokes, tomatoes, onions, pepperoncinis and kalamata olives.  It is delicious.

After a noticeably slow seating, we were given the menu.  It not only looked different, Spezia re-did their menu.   On the new menu, the Mediterranean chicken salad is gone.   I was alarmed.  The new menu now consists of four salads:   a beet and goat cheese salad, a pear and fennel salad, a pear and cranberry salad and a salad with bacon and tomatoes.   I personally do not like fruit with my salad.  So, my salad choices were down to the beet salad or the bacon and tomato salad.  Since I do not like beets, I really only had one choice.   Pay $7.50 for a salad that has tomatoes and bacon.   Or, if I wanted an “entrée” size salad, I would have to add an additional $2.00.   If I wanted to add chicken, add on another $3.00.   If I wanted to add salmon or shrimp to the uncreative bacon and tomato salad, that is an additional $7.50.    I refuse to pay $9.50 for a salad that just has bacon and tomatoes, let alone $17.00 for a salad that would have bacon, tomatoes and shrimp!

I surely am not alone in not liking beets or fruit with my salad.   When designing a menu, for people like me who want to have a salad for lunch that doesn’t include fruit or beets, the best they could do is some romaine with bacon and tomatoes?  Even the house salad at Olive Garden has more ingredients – and it is all you can eat for just $6.99 – which is less than the non-entrée size of the boring tomato and bacon salad at Spezia. 

The missing Mediterranean chicken salad was noticed by customers at the table next to us.   It also did not appear to be the first time that our waitress was asked about that salad.  She suggested ordering the Mediterranean chicken without the pasta and then mixing it with the house side salad.  I followed her suggestion because I really did want a salad.  They just didn’t have a salad that I would pay to eat.   That suggestion sort-of worked – but there wasn’t nearly enough lettuce.

At one time, Spezia used to have the most ingenious salad section.  They listed ingredients and customers could order a customized salad.   I was disappointed when they removed that option.   But, I still had the Mediterranean chicken salad.  Now that salad is gone and there literally is not a single salad that I would pay to eat at Spezia.   To say that I am disappointed is an understatement.

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.