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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Eatin' in Milwaukee

I spent last week in downtown Milwaukee and managed to get home on Friday despite the foot of snow that fell that morning. While I was there I tried a few local eateries of note.

* Mader's - Often considered the best German restaurant in the country, it's been open for 106 years. The photo wall of famous visitors rivals that of any restaurant in the country. JFK, Reagan, The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Paul Newman, to name a few giving you an idea of how long Mader's has been a place people go when they're in Milwaukee. The place is decked out with lots of dark, manly wood and real Frederick Barbarossa era weapons and armor to give you an even more Teutonic vibe.

One thing I always forget about real German food since I only have it every 5 years or so is that I really don't like it that much. It's too sweet, for one thing. I had the sauerbraten with spätzle and red cabbage. Sweet gravy was served over the meat and topped with dollops of sour cream and raisins. Even ignoring the sweetness I thought the beef was really tough for something that was supposedly marinated for 12 days and cost $25. It wasn't any better than a rump roast left in the crock pot about an hour too long. I did like the spätzle which appeared to have been pan-fried after cooking to give it a little bit of crispness and extra flavor.

* The King and I is a relatively old Thai restaurant, Zagat-rated and all that, just a few blocks south of Mader's. I used to alway order Pad Thai at Thai restaurants because I love it and I like to see how it varies and compares regionally but lately I've taken to ordering larb gai everywhere I go. The larb gai, which is basically a chicken salad seasoned with chili, fish sauce and lime juice, was the best I've had. I asked for it medium spicy and it was just spicy enough to make me sweat but still be enjoyable to eat. What set it apart from others I've had was that it contained the coarsely ground toasted rice that is supposed to be essential to the dish but is commonly left out.

* I was working in one of the biggest Mexican neighborhoods in the country so one day for lunch I asked where I should go for the best tacos and by tacos I meant the little soft corn shells topped with a wide variety of meats, onions and cilantro. The unanimous answer was Los Comales. It is actually somewhat of a chain since there are numerous locations in Chicagoland as well as the one in Milwaukee. I didn't know that until I googled it though, because when I walked in it was packed at 11:30 and I was pretty much the only person in the place with English as my first language and they didn't take credit cards. It's a good thing ordering food is one of the first things you learn in a Spanish class.

I had five tacos, two al pastor, two barbacoa and one lengua. The pastor and barbacoa are similar to what I've had at Super Taco, La Mexicana, El Chaparro and El Comal, but the lengua was out of sight. I've only had lengua served in little chunks but the lengua at Los Comales was sliced, long and thin, and very tender.

There were two bottles of salsa on the table. The green tomatillo salsa was fairly mild and not too exciting but the red salsa was smoky like I like and spicy without being overpowering. What was really cool was that each table had a huge tub full of curtido, fresh pickled jalapenos, carrots and cauliflower that you pay $3 a jar for at the grocery store.

If I ever go back to Milwaukee, which I wouldn't mind at all, I'll probably hit at least one of these places again. For you bikers out there, I drove by the Harley museum everyday and it looks like it'll be open by late summer. It's a pretty impressive building.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

New blog

I finally coughed up a new non-food related blog to post about books and movies because I want to talk about the stuff I read and watch but most people I know aren't interested. Check in and tell me I'm wrong about the truth behind the monoliths.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Peacock

This past Friday I met Mr. Wilson and Mr. T and BeerOrKid at The Peacock for lunch. Mr. T might post some photos since he took a few after an awkward moment with the owner in which he tried to explain why he wanted to take pictures of food. I'm not sure how well pictures of Indian buffet would look anyway. We'll see.

As for the restaurant, I've been there for lunch a couple of times since they opened in late December but not for a couple of months. In December the lunch buffet was $10.99 much to my chagrin. I wasn't expecting that since the place was new and the buffet and the whole operation seemed pretty haphazard. In late January I went there again and lunch was $7.99. That seemed more reasonable considering it's lunchtime and most Indian food is made of some of the cheapest ingredients you can buy. On Friday the lunch buffet was again $10.99. We were all pretty surprised, especially after I'd assured everyone that it was less than that. That was probably the last time I eat lunch at The Peacock. $10.99 for a lunch buffet in Lincoln, NE, is pretty outrageous.

Their buffet is still poorly laid out even after three months. There are shelves of random plates and bowls off to the left and slightly below the buffet. Would it kill them to set up a small table with the plates and bowls on it right there at the buffet? Even Acapulco has figured that out.

The food, despite everything else, was pretty good and the buffet featured a few dishes you won't get at Lincoln's other Indian restaurants. You won't find mulligatawny on the buffet here but you will be able to grab a bowl of sambar which is perfect for dipping idli (a steamed lentil and rice patty) or vada (spicy lentil donuts). There was also a spicy cabbage dish (no name so no link) that was really good and a fish curry I thought was terrific. The other guys said it was too fishy but I didn't notice that at all. It was a basic curry sauce with pieces of white fish. I think what impressed me about the fish was how tender and firm it was - not overcooked and not mushy.

The standout dish this time was a creamy saag (spinach and/or mustard greens) preparation with green beans. I thought of the creamed spinach you can still get in old-fashioned steakhouses but it was better with the Indian spices and the tamarind rice as a base. Other than that, there was tandoori chicken (wings and legs only), a chicken curry that was really heavy on the cinnamon (not good or bad, just different compared to what I've had before) and something I've never, ever seen before - Indian quesdillas - very finely chopped veggies (carrots, peppers), spices and cheese grilled between pieces of naan.

There was also a nice dessert that I'd never had and I don't recall the name and I can't find it on the internets. It had the flavor and texture of baklava but it was orange, and made of little tubes of dough shaped into spirals. It was super rich like I was almost eating straight ghee with a little sugar and almond flavor.

I really want to like The Peacock, and I mostly do, but I can't justify spending $10.99 for lunch there unless it's a special occasion which doesn't come up at lunchtime very often. It would be nice if they made the dosa portion of their menu available for lunch. Oh, well. Based on the lunch crowd, they're doing pretty well but I wonder for how long.

UPDATE: Mr. T. calls me a fat john and explains the price difference. I guess The Peacock now considers Friday a weekend day since they're closed on Sundays. If tandoori chicken is the difference it's a pretty poor excuse for a three dollar price hike. I'd expect to see mint chutney and samosas on the buffet along with everything else for eleven bucks.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Links

I need to clean up the links over on the right side of this blog. Some of them were jokes and some don't exist anymore. If you read this blog or have a blog and know of a blog that you think would contribute to the sorry experience that is "Eatin' in Lincoln" put them in the comments below.

How are you eating?

This blog wasn't ever intended to be strictly about eating at restaurants. In the beginning I'd planned on posting recipes and pictures of food I'd prepared at home since it still fell under the general title of "Eatin' in Lincoln." That only happened a couple of times as you can see if you go back through the archives and now I'm at a point where I'm not eating in Lincoln so often that I rarely buy groceries.

The last couple of times I've gone to the grocery store and bought bread and pasta and vegetables and fruit I've been bowled over by the prices compared to what they were a year and a half ago when I still cooked dinner at home five nights a week. Then I read this story in yesterday's NY Times which lays out some of the reasons for why groceries are expensive although I don't think it went far enough.

Number one is the rising global demand for staples like wheat to make bread. There are more people on this planet at an increasing rate and more people mean more mouths to feed and those people are looking to basics like flour. That means an increase in the price of those staples worldwide. Of course, the increase in the price for oil that increases the price of diesel that powers the tractors that reap the wheat is another force on the upward rise in food costs.

What I'm wondering about (and what I thought was glaringly missing from the NYT article) is something that is controversial here in Nebraska. It's no secret that more Nebraska farmers are planting corn to sell to ethanol producers to make a tiny, tiny dent in the cost of gasoline. Continuing to grow only corn is clearly unsustainable according all the things I learned growing up in an agricultural community. At what point do farmers (who have it as good as they have had in decades) abandon the short-term gains of ethanol for the prospective long-term gains of rotating various crops in high demand? Will it take a Manhattan Project-like government emphasis on finding sustainable alternate fuels? Or will the demand for food outstrip the demand for fuel since everyone on earth eats but a much smaller percentage drives?

I guess that was a roundabout way of asking you if you've felt any financial pressures from what you've seen at the grocery store. I've definitely noticed it but since I don't buy that many groceries I don't feel it, yet.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Road Food: Mutt's BBQ

When you go to anyplace near Chesapeake Bay you get crabs...or eat oysters...or both. In Wisconsin you drink beer and eat cheese. In Vermont or New Hampshire you drink beer and eat cheese. When you go to upstate South Carolina, you eat BBQ.

Tuesday lunchtime, in the middle of a warm, spring rain in Easley, SC, (just east of Greenville/Spartanburg) I was starving and one of the guys I was working with took me to the perfect place to take care of that South Carolina spring hunger.

Mutt's has a lunch buffet and there were dozens of men in line when we arrived. It didn't take long for us to get through the line though as the buffet at Mutt's is routine for anyone who's been there and I had a guide.

The meat was standard Carolina pulled pork, chicken (fried and pulled) and ribs, with three kinds of shrimp (sauteed in butter, fried, and peel and eat). None of these were better than I've made at home or had at Paul's but the sides were another story.

If you ask me the sides are the reason to eat there because you can get the same meat anywhere in the Carolinas. The cole slaw was creamy but not too saucy. It had a crunch that suggested it was made fresh the night before. The mac and cheese was perfect for a buffet though Patti La Belle would probably object.

Two of my clients asked me if I tried the sweet potato crunch and I did and it was awesome. I usually hate sweet potato dishes that are too sweet but this stuff was awesome. The crunch came from fried sweet potatoes layered on top that were so fried they crunched and the rest of the sweet potatoes beneath the crunch were creamy but you could still pick them up with a fork.

There were a few places in Easley/Greenville/Spartanburg I didn't get to and I didn't go to any of the numerous sushi places (I've gotten so tired of eating at the same restaurants I've been getting veggies and hummus and cheese at local grocery stores). What really struck me was the Greenville, SC and Asheville, NC, Friday papers (both smaller than Lincoln) had really vibrant entertainment sections that featured local people weighing in on food, movies, theater, parks, etc. Ground Zero needs a makeover. Asheville looked especially fun.

IAH Terminal B

If you fly Continental heading south most likely you're going to wind up in Houston's Terminal B. If you have a layover there forget finding anything other than fast food. Usually that's OK, but I've been on a mission lately to find good, unique, prepared food for travelers who aren't crossing oceans. So far MSP is the winner.

The international terminals always have the best food and IAH is no exception. There's a food court near the security gate of Terminal B with standard food court food. The terminal map lists fancy sounding places like White Magnolia as dining options but the truth is White Magnolia is a counter where you can buy prepackaged salads and sandwiches. Each pod in Terminal B has the same place with a different name.

I've flown in to IAH before but I've always ended my flight there. Houston has all the horrible delay problems any big airline hub has. Monday we sat on the runway for 3 hours before taking off. Great naptime! Friday, when I was on the way home, the plane's crapper broke and it took 2 hours for the brave Continental (no pun intended) mechanics to make the plane safe for poop and pee.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Acapulco

Remember that old Onion story about the "Area Man Confounded by Buffet Procedure?" That was me Friday around noon at Acapulco near the Ramada on Center Park Road off south 14th St. I drove by because I was kind of curious to see if they were still open nearly a year after the last time I'd been there. The sign out front said they had just reopened and now had a weekday lunch buffet. I hadn't yet decided on where to have lunch so figured I might as well give it a try.

I walked in, sat down and was quickly greeted by a young woman who took my drink order. I then spent a couple of minutes scoping out the buffet. It was laid out in an L shape with plates situated between the two buffet tables. The shells, taco and tostada, were at the far right end of buffet near the salad and fruit. The beans, rice and meat were to the left of the plates.

I finally grabbed a plate and then walked to the end of the table to grab some shells. This is where I was first disappointed. There were 3 kinds of fried corn shells but no soft shells of any kind. I picked one taco shell and one sort of hybrid taco/tostada shell that was more like a little bowl. The shells did not stand up well to teeth, pretty much falling to pieces after one bite so I wound up eating variations on taco salad.

The beans and rice were pretty standard for a Mexican restaurant - soupy, refried pinto beans and orange rice. The meat selection was pretty good but nothing was hot. It was like the buffet table wasn't warmed up yet. There were two types of chicken - chunks cooked in a green sauce and shredded white meat cooked with peppers and lime juice. Neither were very good. The chunks were kind of tough and didn't really hold the flavor of the green sauce. The shredded chicken was on the verge of disintegrating it was so soft. There were chunks of pork simmered in something that didn't give any flavor to the meat beyond pork. It was very tender though. The steak fajita meat was also quite bland. There was also some grilled fish I didn't try and some cheese enchiladas that seemed to be mostly filled with air.

Luckily, Acapulco has several terrific salsas to spice up and add flavor to the meats. One was kind of spicy and heavy on the smoked paprika I love so much. Another was super thick, almost like spaghetti sauce, and the spiciest of the bunch although not hot enough to satisfy the hot sauce warriors out there. There was also a really nice fresh-tasting mild salsa. In fact, all the salsas seemed like they'd just been made.

As good as the salsas were, they couldn't really make up for the rest of the buffet. I'm not sure what I was expecting from a $5.99 Mexican buffet but hot food and good tortillas would have been at the top of the list. I'm tempted to try it again in a couple of months if they're still open just to see if they've improved since their recent reopening.