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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Signs of Inflation

I grabbed lunch at Don & Millie's today and noticed their 99¢ Bud and Miller bottles are now $1.49 Bud and Miller bottles.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Road Food: Texarkana - great Italian food if you can find it

Texarkana is a sad and soul-diminishing place on both sides of State Line Avenue in AR and TX. State Line Avenue is obviously the state line between Texas and Arkansas and the main street of Texarkana unless you count I-30. The county on the Texas side is dry, meaning no off-sale liquor, beer or wine. The Arkansas side is not. The Arkansas side of the street has a full service liquor store with drive-thru about every other building from 4th Street downtown until you hit I-30 about 50 blocks north.

Despite the hangdog look of the city they did seem to have an inordinate amount of federal highway money building overpasses and such that we couldn't quite figure out where they were headed or why they were needed. Everything looks pretty good along I-30 but if you go downtown, where I spent every day, it was like some TV ad where a guy is outside shouting about cheap sandwiches in black and white and he finally realizes he's the only guy there. He sits happily down to a sandwich but sadly breaks his jaw on a bit of rubble and weeps.

There were a few decent places to eat in Texarkana should you find yourself in such a fix you couldn't make it to Dallas or New Orleans or Little Rock or even Shreveport. The BBQ is good. It's about all they eat down there. I had some complaints after a couple of stops but if you limit yourself to getting the smoked rib tips you'll be really happy.

Shockingly, the best Italian food I've had in quite awhile happened to be in Texarkana. My colleague liked to get out and smoke and walk around downtown and on Wednesday we saw a place called Via Roma in one of the very few storefronts in Texarkana's downtown that looked open for business.

I finally pushed him into going there for lunch the next day and he was happy I did so. Via Roma is a little Italian place in downtown Texarkana. It is real Italian, not Olive Garden or Grisanti's or even Vincenzo's or whatever. There was an old Italian guy in the kitchen running his family restaurant in freakin' Texarkana.

First thing, the server dropped a basket of warm garlic bread in front of us. No big deal until he set the tapenade next to it. I've made tapenades and loved tapenades but I've never been to a place where the tapenade was free. It was made of olives and garlic and anchovies and capers and it was freakishly delicious. I could have made a meal of the bread and tapenade. My friend and I polished it off pretty quickly but a refill was always coming.

We did order entrees. I had the linguini with puttanesca sauce (garlic tomato sauce sauteed with anchovies, black olives and capers) and shrimp. My friend had the special which seemed to be the local special, tilapia, and it was really really good but nothing compared to my linguini puttanesca.

We were both so happy about our lunch we decided to go back to our hotel room and think about it for awhile. That night as we were taking our last tour of Texarkana looking for something to do we drove by Via Roma and it was obvious they were doing well.

Why can't there be a small, authentic Italian restaurant in Lincoln? I've eaten dinners in about 30 different cities in the past year and Lincoln always pales in comparison to any town half its size when it comes to this kind of food.

I'm really, really glad that Lincoln has the great Vietnamese and Mexican food it does for a city its size but I've never had an Italian meal like I had in Texarkana.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Shrimp cocktail

Sarah loved a good shrimp cocktail. She loved a bad shrimp cocktail, too. Whenever one of those shrimp rings with the cup of cocktail sauce was on sale at the grocery store we'd wind up with one in our cart. When we went to some party/reception/function with a table of hors' d'oeuvres she'd judge the food by whether there was shrimp available and by how good the shrimp was (not too spongy and watery, firm, no trace of poop vein).

It was only fitting that the reception after Sarah's memorial featured the best buffet shrimp cocktail I've ever had. I understand she specifically requested a "pile of shrimp" to be served at her memorial reception. I hope she noticed how plump, firm and poopless those shrimp were.

I need to find out who the caterers were because they were terrific.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Gluten Loaf

A long time ago a few months after Sarah and I first met, when we were just "hanging out" and going to see Pulp Fiction at the Starship more often than was probably healthy for anyone's mental state Sarah showed up at work with a little paperback cookbook she'd found in her parents' collection of stuff. It was printed by some dirty hippie commune in the early 70's and it was all vegetarian. We were both vegetarians then so we decided we might as well try it out.

Most of the recipes were pretty boring and then we found the section on DIY meat substitutes and its fulsome praise of gluten. You could make anything out of this magical substance; ribs, loaf, burger, whatever. Might as well try that, we thought.

Since we were still "hanging out" and not dating we made our own gluten recipes and called each other on our land lines to talk about the process which was identical to the Wikipedia entry which says
Legend attributes the discovery of gluten to Buddhist monks in 7th century China who sought meat-like ingredients for use in their vegetarian diet.[2] With easily available wheat flour and water they made a dough which they submerged in cold water and kneaded. The water dissolved the starchy components of the dough and left behind an insoluble, gummy mass, 70% to 80% of which was gluten.

I kneaded flour under water for hours, changing the water when it got too cloudy and wound up with a perfectly insoluble, gummy mass. The next step was seasoning and baking. I made gluten loaf and Sarah and her best friend, Sara, made gluten ribs. Later we met up to share our dishes. I think we all took one bite and decided soft pinto burritos at Amigos weren't as bad as we thought.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Sarah - Updated!

Just a couple of months ago I introduced you to a great new food blog, Great Plains Foodie. For those of you who didn't know it, Sarah and I used to be married and spent 11 wonderful years together. Although we weren't very close the last couple of years she's still the best friend I've ever had.

Sadly, Sarah lost her battle with leukemia this morning in her private dining room with the lovely view of East Lincoln. Her friends, family, colleagues and the hundreds of students whose lives she touched at LNE are going to miss her dearly.

Sarah's memorial service is scheduled for 3 pm on Friday, July, 25th. It's at First Plymouth so there will be plenty of room. Even if you only knew her on the internet or just sorta knew her I'm sure there'll be room. Plus, it's going to be a great, fun service just as she would have wanted. If you just want to drink beer, the wake is at O'Rourke's on Friday afternoon at some point after the memorial service.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

My dinner tonight

Maybe the simplest thing I've ever made but one of the best.

I had a big, beautiful portabello mushroom with stem. I cut the stem, slathered them both with olive oil, black pepper and garlic (no salt since salt leaches moisture and I wanted my mushroom to be moist) then put them on an oiled sheet pan. I put a pan of water in the oven beneath the sheet pan to add some moisture to the atmosphere then let the mushroom roast/steam for an hour at 250°.

At the end of the hour I pulled the cap and stem, sliced them both then laid them on a bed of chopped romaine lettuce and topped it with kosher salt and cracked pepper. The hot mushroom added a little bit of wilt to the lettuce but I didn't add any dressing at all. The liquid from the mushroom, garlicky and peppery, coated the lettuce beneath it enough that dressing was unnecessary. The mushroom itself was one of the best I've had. I've grilled them (always too dry) and roasted them (also too dry) and sauteed them (boring and flavorless) but the addition of the pan of water and lack of salt made the difference.

Cooking Shows: Kitchen Nightmares

I'm about 2/3 of the way through the first season of Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares and I'm enjoying it quite a bit. I don't like Hell's Kitchen at all, though. Cooking competition shows like Hell's Kitchen and Top Chef are pretty unrealistic, designed to entertain, but might be accurate in the pressure felt by the cooking line on a busy Friday night service. Still, there's a lot of artifice involved. For a great story about the ultimate cooking competition (which most restaurant chefs disdain) check out Michael Ruhlman's The Soul of a Chef. The first section covers the Certified Master Chef exam, a grueling 8-day cooking test that has a 30% pass rate.

But back to Kitchen Nightmares. I didn't like Gordon Ramsay's schtick on Hell's Kitchen but I think it's well-suited for this show in which he goes to failing restaurants and tries to turn them around (the word is he's more toned down in the British version though).

The first couple episodes made me sort of afraid to ever go to a restaurant again after seeing the rotten food the places were serving and the bugs and broken coolers. The next few were more focused on the strife between the personalities and the resistance to change despite the obvious failings of the current menu.

What I find funniest is when the chefs at the restaurants balk at Ramsay's menu suggestions, claiming he's a fraud and they're much better chefs than him. Ramsay may come off as an ass but he's got three Michelin stars to his name and only 68 chefs in the world can claim that. Well, 67, since Thomas Keller has six stars.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Guest Review: Mama's Pizza (Omaha)

It didn't take long for the aforementioned Gary to return to Eatin' in Lincoln. Below is a review he submitted yesterday.

My son and I went to the Slowdown in Omaha last night for a show, so we left a little early so we grab something to eat in Omaha. We settled on pizza and decided to give Mama's Pizza a try. I'd heard good things about this locally owned restaurant, so we stopped at the Saddle Creek location [715 Saddle Creek Rd.--ed.] once we got into town.

I was surprised and a little disappointed when we pulled up and saw a building that was a lot nicer than I expected. My mental picture was of an older building that would be somewhat dated. My concerns were alleviated when we stepped inside. While they have obviously stayed on top of maintaining their building, the inside was old-school pizza joint. Clean, open and easy to navigate, but old school.

They have rows and rows of long tables pushed together. You step up to the bar to place your order, they give you a number and your beverage and you pick up your pizza when they call your number. You also pick up your own plates and utensils. It's a complete self-service approach, which I think is cool. They even drew a funny-looking guy on our ticket when we picked up our pie, which was a nice touch. I have no idea how they had time to doodle on our ticket while cooking all those pies.

The pizza is, obviously, homemade. I liked the crust, not too thick and not too doughy. I'm not a fan of thin crust pizza, and this was a nice medium thickness. I like that they don't ladle on the sauce too heavy, and the sauce itself definitely stayed in the background. Not too tangy or zesty.

We kept it simple and ordered a hamburger pizza. The meat, like the sauce, was not heavily seasoned. I would have preferred a little more seasoning in one or the other, but it was still good. They could have used less meat on the pizza and I would have liked it better. They were generous with the cheese and it was cooked to a brown bubbly crust, which was awesome.

Overall I liked Mama's and would go back but if you want good locally-owned homemade pizza, you can get it here in Lincoln. The Isles is my favorite, but Big Sal's/Patty's Pub is a strong second place for me. You should really try Piezano's if you haven't had it yet too.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Whatever happened to Gary?

I've been going through archives and Gary commented here a lot a couple years ago. He wasn't any Gary I knew, and I knew one or two Garys. Gary is missed.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Yang's Cafe

Monday I was out running errands. I had the day off so I finally got around to renewing my car registration which had expired a month earlier. While I was in the neighborhood, and since it was payday, I thought I'd get lunch. I'd been to Raisin' Cane's recently and thought of going there again because those chicken strips are damn good but then I realized I was in the Yang's Cafe neighborhood.

I googled Yang's Cafe and found this review on this very site written by Sarah about 2 1/2 years ago. I hadn't been there in about 3 years, so I figured it was time again to write about how awesome Yang's Cafe is.

The location, between TJ Maxx and America's Best Contacts and Eyeglasses, has always seemed sort of otherworldly for me. At least 10 years ago, before it was Yang's Cafe, I remember eating Chinese-style shrimp curry there on a Sunday afternoon in October and hearing the guy behind the counter saying into the phone "Giants -5, 49r's +7, Broncos -4" and feeling this little thrill because I was in a Chinese restaurant doubling as a sports' book. It was like I was in New York or Chicago or something.

Fast forward 10 years and it's still like that in the sense that it doesn't seem like I'm in a Chinese/Korean restaurant in a strip mall in Lincoln. It's not that they take bets on Royals games but that the inside of the restaurant is so claustrophic and loud and everyone is so friendly. When I walked in around 1300 on Monday the place was about half full. A woman was seated at a table in the middle of the room making crab rangoon, slathering slightly crabby cream cheese on won ton wrappers.

Lunch is buffet time though you can order from the menu. I had the buffet which has inflated to $5.15 in the years since our last review. Yang's Cafe has continued its policy of keeping a small buffet with about a dozen items on it including soup and I think that's a wise choice. Any chef will tell you the more things on the menu, the more likely things are going to go bad. I can vouch for that rule as applied to Chinese buffets.

The buffet featured my favorite Yang's dish, spicy potato pork, which is shoestring cut potatoes fried quickly to make them soggy but not crisp so the potatoes take the place of noodles when they're stir-fried with the pork and chilis. The classic beef and broccoli also took on a different and delicious flavor as the beef was stir-fried in a spicy, garlicky red sauce. The big winner on the buffet was the tofu. It was crisp on the outside and luscious and creamy inside. I actually think this was some of the best fried tofu I've ever had.

Their menu is also worth trying and I'll need to get back their soon to try some of the specials and Korean dishes. They have a pork bulgogi I'd really like to check out which is similar to the standard beef version but is made with pork belly, which I was introduced to via Iron Chef about 12 years ago but since then has made its way into high-end kitchens all over the country.

The service at Yang's was also top-notch even after the place had filled up. My glass of iced tea was always over half-full no matter how fast I drank it.

Look for a dinner review of Yang's as soon as I can get there again.

Cincinnati Chili

On the way to work this morning I noticed FOX Neighborhood Grill was advertising Cincinnati Chili as their Thursday night special. For those of you not familiar, Cincinnati Chili was created by Greek immigrants in Cincinnati in the early 20th Century. This origin means it's spices are also Greek-influenced. It's also much thinner and less tomato-y than what we think of as chili and It's usually served over spaghetti or on coney dogs.

Chili five-ways (chili served over spaghetti and topped with chili, cheddar cheese, onions and beans) used to be one of my favorite easy-to-make dinners and I'm wondering if that's how FOX is going to be serving it and if they made it themselves or brought in a couple frozen batches of Skyline or Goldstar Chili.

Coincidentally, I was in the Cincinnati airport last Monday and saw cans of Skyline Chili at one of the newsstands and couldn't help but buy one since I'd been wanting to try the real thing for years after making my chili five-ways with everything from homemade chili to Hormel to Wendy's chili picked up in the drive-thru on the way home.

Tuesday afternoon I made chili four-ways for lunch since Skyline doesn't contain beans and I didn't have any canned kidney beans around. First I heated up the chili while the pasta water was boiling. It was immediately clear in a way I couldn't tell from the many Food Network spots about Cincinnati chili that I was dealing with something completely different.

It's very thin and the beef is so fine that much of it has dissolved into the chili. A quick taste confirmed the differences. It has a much more subtle flavor than tradition chili con carne. It's not hot spicy but I appreciated the more aromatic spices used in this chili. I detected cinnamon, cloves, allspice and maybe a little bitter chocolate (which I also use a little of when I'm making traditional chili). While I would consider it more of a meat gravy akin to Bolognese sauce I'm sure the 100+ chili parlors serving this stuff in Cincinnati would disagree.

To be more healthful I used some whole-grain spaghetti; something which has come a long way from it's gummy, gritty predecessors I used to try and eat years ago. I also used green onions since that's all I had. I tried to approximate the amount of cheese I've see on top of the dish on TV and on the web but I stopped at 4 oz. which still wasn't enough.

The key is eating from the bottom up so you get all four layers while allowing the cheese to melt into the rest. The chili was thin enough to seep into space between the noodles which was nice since I'd been used to having to stir the dish thoroughly to get the optimal blend of flavors.