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Saturday, January 26, 2008

D'Leon's

D'Leon's has been a Lincoln establishment for several years now, going from their West O late-night drive-thru location to stores on N. 27th, S. 14th near SW high school and N. 48th in the old Taco John's building.

I've picked up drive thru food at the N. 27th location a few times over the years and always found myself thinking that the drive thru might be good for people at 3 am on West O but for people used to driving thru a McDonald's or Wendy's and getting their food in 5 minutes or less, especially during a lunch hour, this wasn't the way to go.

I went at least two years without going to D'Leon's at all. I had become a Mexican food snob and D'Leon's couldn't serve me little tacos with various kinds of pork, chicken and beef served with lime wedges and radish slices like Super Taco, La Mexicana and El Chaparro could. I'd written off D'Leon's as a Mexican restaurant trying to be a more authentic Amigo's.

Working in the SW quadrant of the city eventually led me to the D'Leon's store off 14th and Pine Lake behind the Popeye's. I don't eat out for lunch very often but when I do I try to avoid the places my co-workers visit on a disturbingly frequent basis (Chipotle, Noodles & Co., Popeye's, Red Robin and Famous Dave's). I'm definitely not saying the food at D'Leon's is any healthier than the food at the chains because it is most definitely not but as a once every couple of weeks treat, it feels better.

When I hit D'Leon's for lunch I always time it to be either before or after the LSW lunch rush but even then at 11 am or 1 pm there are plenty of people there. I don't mind waiting 10 minutes for my food when I go in like I would if I were in the drive-thru. A lot of that care-free time is no matter attitude is because of the salsa bar.

The salsa bar has three different salsas; a fiercely hot orange smoky sauce, a mellow green jalapeno based sauce and a hybrid of the two. What's best about the salsa bar is the whole roasted jalapenos, the onion-radish relish soaked in vinegar with peppers, the lime wedges, the radish slices and the hot carrots. There's practically enough garnish and sauce there to make a meal in itself.

I usually accompany my salsa-bar selections with the five rolled fish tacos special for $3.99. You get 5 taquito-like rolls filled with white fish and then covered in lettuce, queso blanco and the most wonderful white sauce you've ever had. It's not mayo and it's not tartar sauce. I'm not sure what it is exactly but it makes everything taste better.

I also recently had the nachos which were priced equally with the classic Taco Inn nachos but were so much better it seemed ridiculous I'd worshiped the Taco Inn nachos for so long. First, they were topped with real chunks of steak that had a flavor I'd never seen from nacho meat before. The chips were made of corn rather than flour and they were crispy as if they'd just come out of the fryer. The whole thing was laced with subtly spice guacamole, sour cream and more cheese, onions and refried beans.

I've definitely come around on D'Leon's from a few years ago although I wonder how the salsa bar looks at the other locations because that is a key.

Sam & Louie's New York Pizzeria

I hadn't intended to have my review follow so closely on the heels of Korbelik's biographical feature on the restaurant's owners but I was out of town the week after it opened and didn't get there until now. Le Korb's feature did spur me to head down to Sam & Louie's at 1501 Pine Lake Road (that strip mall with the Zesto, Subway and Juice Stop) on Friday during my lunch hour.

The first thing that struck me is how dark the place is. Pulling up outside I was wondering if it was closed. There were no lights in the windows and even upon walking in I got the impression I was interrupting a work in progress. The place is cavernous, broken up by a fake brick wall that bisects the restaurant, and the dim bulbs hanging from the ceiling don't do much to cut through the vast space.

The menu is huge for a pizza place. In addition to the pies you can get ten different salads, stromboli, calzones, pasta, sandwiches, burgers and a number of appetizers. Since this is supposed to be a New York pizzeria I ignored all the menu filler and ordered two 1-topping slices and a drink, one of the lunch specials ($5.99). How a pizza should be judged starts with the crust so I got one slice with only cheese and one with Italian sausage.

The slices came out in about 10 minutes which meant they baked each slice separately which usually means they won't be as floppy as they should be. I suppose if they limited their menu a bit they could have ready-made pies of all the popular toppings but people in South Lincoln like their variety as long as it comes from a fast casual restaurant. With that in mind, I was impressed that the slices didn't have that all-around, half-burnt crispiness that Yia-Yia's slices usually do.

The slices, as Le Korb mentioned, weren't really foldable although I don't think that had quite as much to do with the size as with the fact that the outer crust was too thick and almost brick-like. The slices were pretty big and the crust beneath gave little support, which is a good thing. Despite the floppiness of the crust there was a nice crunch to each bite which is what a good thin-crust pizza should strive to achieve. It's almost a paradox , really, but it's the greatest achievement in pizza making. A thin, floppy crust that is still crispy.

I don't know how well that thin crust would hold up to some of the multi-topping specialty pizzas they sell but none of them boast a huge amount of toppings. The Thai Pie has a spicy peanut sauce base with red peppers, broccoli and chicken or steak. The BBQ Chicken has BBQ sauce, bacon (it's a little pet-peeve of mine when a menu says "smoked bacon" since by definition bacon is almost always smoked. If not, it would be pancetta), cheddar, chicken, bell peppers and mozzarella. There are many pizzas like this which takes away from my impression of the restaurant as a New York pizzeria. I'll have to try a few to be sure but it seems like there is too much to do everything well, especially when you consider the burgers and sandwiches on the menu as well.

I scoped out the beer selection just to see if they offered more than Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Lite, Busch Light, and they did although I recoiled a little bit when I saw they had "Git-R-Done Light Lager" on tap alongside the standard light beer, the ubiquitous Boulevard Wheat and an Empyrean offering. The retired couple in line ahead of me ordered margaritas with their 11:30 lunch.

In the end the pizza was definitely worth eating since there aren't really any other places like it in Lincoln. However, I'm not sure it'll be a place I go for lunch very often as I don't consider spending $6 for two slices of pizza to be worth my money except on very rare occasions. There are about a dozen Sam & Louie's locations in Omaha and I'd never even heard of it until I saw the storefront on Pine Lake in November. When I eat pizza in Omaha it tends to be Zio's. Speaking of, I heard a rumor at least a year ago that Zio's was looking to expand into Lincoln. Was that just my imagination?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Anybody listening?

I think I'm ready to start doing this again. I had originally intended to spiff the place up with a new address and design but I just don't have the time for that right now so the easy Blogger will have to suffice.

I haven't eaten much in Lincoln lately although a couple weeks ago I made a long overdue trip back to Super Taco and had the Peacock lunch buffet on New Year's Eve. Last week I ate a lot of food in and around Philadelphia. There were a few places that made an impression.

I had lunch on Wednesday at Fioravanti's in Downingtown, PA. It's a small byob bistro with a Zagat rating and a fiercely loyal clientele. For lunch I had a bowl of the seafood chowder (shrimp, clams, crab and a silky smooth sinful cream broth). At this point in the trip it was the best creamy seafood soup I'd ever had but that was eclipsed later. I followed it with a salad of asparagus, bacon, hard-boiled eggs, shrimp and greens.

The night I arrived in the area I went out driving like a normally do, just to get a feel. I was getting hungry and wasn't seeing anything that grabbed me. Then I turned into a mall parking lot and drove by all the storefronts and saw Devi which turned out to be a completely vegetarian south Indian restaurant. Many of the dishes on the menu were unfamiliar although I've seen a few on the lunch buffet at The Peacock in south Lincoln.

I ordered a bowl of rasam, a very spicy and sour soup with lots of black mustard and coriander seeds topped with one of the lightest, crispiest papads I've ever had. I wanted to try as much as I could so I got the appetizer sampler to go with it. It came with one big vada (a deep-fried lentil donut), an idly (a big ground rice cake, also deep-fried), a vegetable cutlet (cauliflower, potato and onion, ground with spices, battered and deep-fried), a standard samosa, and a bunch of cabbage, cauliflower and onion pakora. It was like what one would order in a Indian sports bar while watching an interminable cricket match. The best part was the sauces. In Lincoln you get one kind of chutney, the standard mint-jalapeno yogurt mixture. I got that but the appetizer platter also came with coconut chutney, tamarind chutney, onion-mango chutney, tomato chutney and a small cup of sambar. I wanted to try more on the menu but the appetizer plate and soup filled me to bursting. I intended to go back but wound up driving to Atlantic City on Wednesday night and couldn't leave without eating the stupid Trump Taj Mahal buffet.

Thursday was the best all around food day I had in suburban Philly. For lunch I hit the The Blue Cafe which was next door to a natural foods grocery. The Blue Cafe is a sort of hip coffee place that serves food you'd expect at a place like the old Crane River. I had an amazing bowl of crab chowder with big chunks of crab, not just little shreds. It was perfect with a few generous dashes of tabasco. I followed that with a greek salad with grilled shrimp added. The kitchen somehow forgot to put feta on my salad so I had to send it back but once it returned it was great. I was amazed at how many shrimp were on the salad for an extra two bucks.

That night I headed up to Ludwig's Inn and Oyster Bar, originally established as an "eating house" some time in the 1840's. I went because on Thursday nights they have freshly shucked oysters on the half-shell for a buck each. It was only five minutes from my hotel on most nights but Thursday afternoon was the first measurable snowfall in the Philly area. Once I got on the highway there was no way to turn around as it was bumper to bumper and no exits for miles. It took me a good 90 minutes to get there. The culprit was a big hill that a number of cars couldn't make it to the top of.

I wound up having 18 oysters of various types. Some were big and plump and sweet, some were small and salty, some were medium, sweet and a little salty. I found myself wishing I knew more about the different types of oysters found on the East Coast from South Carolina to Newfoundland. Since 18 oysters are only worth about 180 calories I also got the 3 soup sampler, a 6-ounce serving each of crab bisque, lobster bisque and Philadelphia-style snapper soup. The lobster bisque was absolutely amazing. Perfect creaminess and almost too sweet but not quite. The snapper soup had the look and consistency of chili but was unlike anything I've had. I'm still unclear on whether it was made with turtles or red snapper since the server told me red snapper but the internet tells me turtle. It was served with a shaker of what looked like vinegar but a quick taste told me it was sherry. Apparently you're supposed to shake a bunch of sherry into your snapper soup. It definitely enhanced the flavor of the soup but I had a gross sherry aftertaste for the rest of the night.