Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Stuck in the 50's Since 1987

In 1987 a group of investors purchased the old diner on S. Garner St. in State College, Pennsylvania and turned it into a 50's diner. Complete with saddle shod waitresses the new owners would pay homage to the diner's roots.

Trucked in from Patterson "Silk City" New Jersey the gleaming diner now serves up a menu straight out of Happy Days. Baby's 50's theme carries throughout the place. A Wurlitzer jukebox in the corner. Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis music filling the air. Even the wait staff is dressed the part. The whole idea was to get back to the basics. Home made food at reasonable prices in a family friendly atmosphere. On that, Baby's delivers.

So how's the food you may ask...... Well, it was good but didn't over achieve. Not the food anyway.

Our drink orders were taken first. A root beer float for Mrs. Sippi and a double chocolate shake with Oreo for myself. Our drinks were brought to the table along with the excess shake in the mixing cup. I grabbed my straw to tear it open and I heard "Oh god." I turned and looked and Mrs. Sippi had already taken a sip and was immediately rendered all but speechless. It was as good as a shake can be. Thick and rich, it was practically a meal in its self.
The float was good but unfortunately had to stand beside the milk shake.

Mrs Sippi had the Reuben. It was the standard corned beef on rye with Swiss, kraut and 1,000 Islands dressing. It was a fine sandwich but did not create a new paradigm.

I opted for a cheese burger. It was a solid diner style burger. Nicely crusted from the flat top (mmm flat top) and had a good beef flavour. It did not however make me forget all about Blimpy Burger.

The "5 Alarm"chili was somewhat disappointing. First and foremost, if it says "5 Alarm" it should be hot. Even with all the peppers piled on top it could only muster 2 bells. It's actually chili mac and had a fatal flaw in my mind. The chili was pretty tight. With the addition of macaroni I think it needs to be a little soupy. The pasta is then able to soak up some of that tasty gravy for an even better dish. As for the taste, it again falls into the "Fine" category. It wasn't hot at all and was very mildly seasoned. A little cumin is all I got from it as far as seasonings. I'm not saying that was a bad thing either. Just sayin'.

Would I eat there again?? Absolutely. Good solid fare is always welcome and the shake was worth the 7 hour drive.

You can find Baby's at 131 S. Garner St. State College, Pa.

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You can also visit them on the web.  
Baby's Burgers & Shakes on Urbanspoon

Well that's all from the food court for now.


Friday, June 25, 2010

Dark Continent meets Sub Continent

Based on the delectable samosas that we sampled on the Bakery Tour a group of us decided a full visit to Simba Grill was in order. Specializing in East African and Indian food, Sultan and Rashma Jessani opened their small restaurant in Toronto's East York neighbourhood in 2002.

Separated by the Indian Ocean sit India and East Africa. While these two regions may seem like they're an ocean away they do share cultural similarities. Not the least of which is found in the food.
Perhaps no better example of this is the Samosa. A pastry, most often fried with a savoury filling. Samosas can be pretty much broken down into two categories. One type is tetrahedral in shape and has a dough that is very similar to that of an egg roll. It's no surprise either. If you were to reconfigure an egg roll to the samosa shape and add potatoes, you could pass it off as vegetable filled.
The second style is flatter and more like a thick triangle. The dough is similar to phyllo and is probably comparable to a fried spring roll. This second style is more prevalent in the south of India and East Africa.
Another staple found on plates on both sides of the ocean is Daal (Lentils). Often found in curry dishes in India the EA version here is fried in a fritter which is more like the Indian Pakora or the Mediteranian Falafel but puck shaped.
You may start to realize that a lot of these foods are not just shared by these two regions but are variations of foods found in other countries all over Asia and Europe. This is all true and can be explained by two signifcant things. First and foremost, the old Spice Route. European traders would head east, following the Spice Route through East Africa, Central and South Asia. Indians and Asian alike were also making the journey south or west. Cooking techniques and style began to migrate all through the areas. Food cultures would collide in the earliest forms of "Fusion" which is all the rage today.
The second significant reason for this is conquest. I've heard Anthony Bourdain espouse the theory that while bad for the indigenous population, the conquest of one country by another is wonderful for developing a countries cuisine. The more countries you've been invaded by, the better your food. It tends to have a reciprocal affect as well.

Well enough of the history lesson, on to the food.

The first thing to come to our table was a tray with 4 different sauces or chutneys. A tamarind sauce that reminded me somewhat of plum sauce. I felt pretty much the same about it as I do plum sauce. It didn't do anything for me. It wasn't bad as a dressing for the salad that came on the grilled meat platter. As a sauce though, it seems I just don't "Get it."
There was a green chili and coriander sauce. It had a bit of a punch and a good coriander (aka cilantro) flavour.
My second favourite was a coconut sauce. The coconut had a nice fresh flavour and was good opposite the next sauce.
The red chili sauce was fantastic. Hot with a bit of a salty and garlic flavour it was great everywhere I used it. The great thing is it wasn't just hot. It was hot with lots of flavour.

First up in the food department were the samosas we so enjoyed before. No different this time either. These babies are the best I've had in the city and I've tried quite a few.

Cassava fries named mogo were also served. They were fine. Cassava doesn't have a lot of personality so these were good for dipping in the different sauces. I really liked the combination of coconut and red chili.

We were then served daal bhajia. A Zanzibar style lentil dumpling. It was really tasty. Especially with the red chili sauce.

Next up was a grilled meat platter. Beef cubes, beef short ribs, chicken cubes and grilled chicken. It had salad as well.
The beef and chicken cubes were quite good. They're kabobs that were taken off the skewers. Cooked well too. They weren't all dried out.
The beef ribs really didn't do a whole lot for me. They weren't bad but nothing special.
The grilled chicken was amazing. Marinaded like tandoori chicken but grilled instead. It had great flavour but without the smokiness of the tandoor. I missed that but have no complaints.
I didn't understand the spicy fries that were served with it but who cares.

Ugali is a cornmeal mush similar to grits or polenta. In this region of the world it's balled up and dipped in a curry or made into a bowl shape and used like a spoon to carry food from communal plate to mouth. It had all the taste of a spoon too. It was somewhere between terribly overcooked rice or cheap grits. I'd say the whole point though was to remain more as a role player rather than a star.
With the ugali came a grilled king fish and two curries. I'm not a big king fish fan and this one was a little over cooked for my taste. Paired with the coconut and spinach curry it was delicious. I think this was more a product of the curry being very flavourful though. I was less impressed by the black bean curry.
The pickled carrots that came with it were really good.

The best was certainly saved for last though. I love butter chicken. Granted it's probably the gateway drug to Indian food and done to death but hey, if you're gonna make it this good, you do it. My first reaction was it wasn't the best I'd had. I've had a slightly spicy version that enjoyed more. This was very buttery but pretty tame. The addition of that red chili sauce vaulted it into "Blown away" status. The chicken was marinaded tandoori style and cooked to an impossible tenderness. I can't imagine how it could melt in your mouth and not be spongy, how it was able to keep it's shape and not just fall apart in the sauce. This dish was worth the entire night.
The side of naan was rather forgettable though. It was spongy, it had none of the smokiness and wasn't slathered in ghee.

A rather bizarre "Mouth cleanser" was served after dinner. It was kinda like eating perfume. It was so strange to me that I couldn't even say I liked or disliked it. It was just weird.

Well anyway, that's my tale. Hope you liked it.

You can find Simba Grill on Donlands, just south of O'Connor in Toronto, Ontario.

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You can visit them on the web as well.

Simba Grill on Urbanspoon

That's all for today. See ya soon


Sunday, June 20, 2010

Redneck Tacos

Yep, that's right. The Notorious "Redneck Taco." (top right)

If you visit Martin's BBQ in Nolensville, Tennessee (It's about a half hour drive south of Nashville) You can get your hands on some of these babies. You can also get your hands on some seriously good "Q." Martin's does it all. Chicken, turkey, brisket, BBQ, ribs and in the catering end, they go "Whole hog." Since his days in College, owner Patrick Martin has been honing his craft at various places. Learning the secrets of putting smoke to meat. Finally after more than 20 years, his BBQ education was complete. It was time to open his own joint. While a fan of BBQ from all parts of the globe, Patrick concentrates on southern BBQ and his specialty, whole hog.

In just a few short years, Martin's outgrew its original restaurant and a bigger venue was needed. 2010 marked the opening of the new place with its larger dining area and twin pits in the back.

Keeping up with demand both in house and off site requires both smokers full time and the pits on the trailer in the parking lot on the weekend.

Churning out that much goodness ensures everything is fresh.

I was first alerted by a reader of mine who was interested in my opinion of Martin's "Q." I'd been eyeballing it off and on for the last little while and finally, we made the journey. Seems we're not the only ones who'd heard about it. It's been featured in magazines such as Southern Living and Guy Fieri and the Triple D gang has paid a visit as well. All this attention meant it was busy. Then line was moderate and relatively quick moving when we showed up. We ordered and we waited only a few minutes for a table. Partway through lunch I noticed the line had dwindled to nothing and figured the lunch rush was over. Wrong. Before I could lick the sauce off my fingers and look back up, the line up was again about 10 people deep. What was once and emptying dining room was again full and the kids baseball team heading in as we left would ensure it would stay crowded for a while. Everyone we spoke to raved about the food and for good reason. It was top notch.

So without further adieu, the goodies.

We couldn't go there and not order a taco. Since we had other meats well represented on our "Big Momma Sampler" platter (ribs, BBQ and brisket), we opted for the chicken.

It comes with cheese, chicken BBQ and salsa on a flour tortilla with jalapenos for garnish. The chicken it's self was fantastic. A subtle smoke flavour and moist with the salsa and cheese rounding out the flavour. The tortilla was great. Flavourful and supple they get them fresh every day. It was both interesting an flat out tasty.

The brisket was good. Again, I'm not all that "Texan" about brisket but this one, served sliced was tasty. It was moist but not quite as much as little Paul's but it had the slight edge in flavour. I'd rate them about the same over all. It had a dollop of sauce on it. (Note the smoke ring)

The BBQ was nicely smoky, porky and juicy. It came with a finishing sauce that was different from the BBQ sauce. There wasn't a lot of it so the true pig flavour shone through.

The ribs come wet or dry, back or spare. We opted for the spare (side) ribs dry (Memphis style) which if you don't know, means rubbed only, no sauce. (Wet ribs have sauce cooked on/into them). The flavour was incredible. If they were saltier they'd have tasted like bacon. Quite smoky as you can tell by the pinkness of the meat. (If you didn't know, when smoke reacts with protein it turns it pink). In fact, the ribs may have spent too much time in the pit as they were just slightly over cooked. I'd definitely get them again though. probably a whole rack (or half and a taco).

The creamy slaw on the side I liked. Mrs. Sippi doesn't like creamy slaw so she didn't care for it.
The beans were among the best I've had. Very rich with a complexity from the molasses, jalapenos and plenty of BBQ.

Martin's sauce is quite interesting. It had a flavour that reminded me very much of my own enchilada sauce and molasses. It shared colour and flavour components I get from simmering dried chilies. It had a slight bite without being considered "Spicy" by either of us. In short, we both loved it.

NOTE: I was finally able to see the Diners, Drive Ins and Dive episode and the Pork Taco they showed was made of a corn bread pancake (Johnny Cake) topped with pulled pork, slaw and "Dixie Sauce." I'm not sure why the difference.

If you're ever in Nashville and want some great "Q" with a bit of an interesting twist, head on down to Martin's in Nolensville. It's the "A" location,
behind the Sonic Drive In. The "B" location is the old one.

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You can visit them on the web and keep up with their blog as well.

Join their Facebook Group here.

Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint on Urbanspoon

See ya sometime down the road.


Friday, June 18, 2010

A Prescription for Hunger Pangs

At one time it was a pharmacy dispensing medicine for various ailments. Today, it has the cure for that empty feeling in your stomach.

In business for 8 years now, little Paul's is a BBQ joint right across the street for the massive Huntsville hospital. Part of the BBQ aristocracy, Paul Sanford, great grandson of legendary Big Bob Gibson, attended the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. He set out to make his own name in the restaurant industry but he had pork fat in his veins and smoke in his soul. It called him back to Dixie with his wife Danielle and together they run one of the best BBQ joints I've been to.

It's location across from the emergency room of HH is as convenient as it is good. Full of patrons in their scrubs it seems that while an apple a day may keep the doctor away, pig fat and smoke lures them in.

Paul's has a nice sized menu and pretty much true to it's roots, BBQ. There are healthy options like salads but pretty much everything has some meat and most of that meat has spent time in the pit.
There is also Brunswick Stew. A hearty meat and vegetable stew popular in parts of Georgia and Virginia. Made with their BBQ it is often my choice for lunch.
They bake their own pies as well. The two I've had were very good.

First and foremost, let me tell you that Paul does the BBQ (or pulled pork if you like) right. He doesn't sauce it. He lets you do it at the table. To me, that's BBQ 101. If the meat is good enough, it won't need sauce. I do like a bit but not swimming in it like the way some places serve. It's also tender, juicy and smokey.
Mrs. Sippi's BBQ sandwich was ordered with slaw on top and proclaimed to be "Right" with that hand gesture she makes that tells you she loved it.

I had the 3 meat combo. It comes with two sides which were beans and vinegar slaw. There is also a vinegar based hot BBQ sauce and white sauce.

The slaw was really nice. It was very simple which is never a bad thing. It tasted of cabbage with a vinegar dressing. Nothing wrong with that.

The beans are fine. Not my favourite but a good solid side. Made with some of the delicious BBQ they aren't as sweet as some of the beans I've had. They don't seem to use as much molasses so they aren't nearly as thick as some either.

The meats were all good. Brisket, ribs and turkey.

The ribs are back ribs and as such, can't be my favourite. I much prefer side ribs for BBQ so they start behind the 8 ball in my books. They're still good and I love the fact that they finish them on the grill with their BBQ sauce. I love that sticky sweetness.

I'm not a huge brisket fan but I do like it. I would like to see more smokiness to it but it was very tender and juicy. I'll take juicy and not smokey over smokey and dry any day. They serve it chopped.

Absolutely the best thing on my plate was the turkey. What was selected as a "what the heck, I'll try it" option turned out to be a major surprise. They do only the breast, seasoned with the house rub and smoked. It was smokey, moist, had great turkey taste and the rub added a nice layer of flavour. I almost went back up and ordered more.

You can find Little Paul's at 815 Madison St. in Huntsville, Al. Across the street on the east side of the hospital.

Little Paul's Barbecue on Urbanspoon

'til next time.


Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Great Toronto Ethnic Bakery Tour

If you've been reading along you'll probably know that I live in Toronto. At least, the Toronto area that is. What you may not know is that "The Big Smoke" as it's called is as multicultural a city as there is on the big blue marble. This of course means there is ethnic food from every corner of the globe.

With our love of ethnic foods and bakeries in tow, a small group of local Chowhounders set out to sample some of the delights, both sweet and savoury which our immigrant compatriots have bless the city.
There is too much to go into great detail about everything so I'll hit the high points in terms of taste and interst. Focusing on 4 of the 7 bakeries and 2 places we got side tracked.

Our first stop was Columbus Bakery at 2931 Dufferin St. south of Lawrence.

Specializing in Columbian baked goods, it's quickly becoming a favourite of mine and some of my partners in crime.
We tried over half a dozen treats from the sweet and the savoury as well as a Columbian soft drink.

Pony Malta: A carbonated drink with a malted molasses taste to it. I found it to be okay and if I went back would order it again. I doubt I'd have it somewhere else though.

Carimanolas: Fried cassava (yucca) fritters stuffed with minced beef that make a great little snack when you're on the road. Perhaps a touch greasy for some but I love them. Perfect with or without hot sauce.

Tamales: Not the same as most tamales as they are much bigger and not wrapped in corn husk but banana leaves. A great corn taste from the massa. This particular tamale was chicken and contained some vegetables and a whole drumstick. Bone and all. I thought it was the best tamale I'd had but sadly, it's in short company. Eaten on arepas (cornmeal pancake) with hot sauce it was fantastic. (sorry the pic is a bit blurry). The white thing is the arepa.

Other samples consisted of giant alfajores (a shortbread type double decker cookie), empanadas (made with a corn meal shell that certainly need the hot sauce), chicarones (fried pork belly, skin on. Can't go wrong there) and a tamarind stuffed puff pastry (we don't know the name of but was also good).

We showed up hungry and ate a little too much for our first stop. As you can imagine, we compounded the problem at our second stop.

On we went to Doce Minho a little further south at 2189 Dufferin St. specializing in Portuguese fare.

I'm a chocolate nut but if I'm not having chocolate my favourite sweet is pasteis de natas. The famous custard tarts are simply out of this world good.

There were two things surprising to everyone. A custard filled donut (bottom right). Given that is has custard in it, it probably shouldn't have surprised. The other was a neat little boat filled with a sweet custard that was the colour of sweet potato (top left). There was a good almond tart (middle) and a nice piece of chourico (we laughed at the sausage being a palate cleanser) that was quite tasty too(bottom left). (blurry again)

We also had some savoury pasteis as well. Salt cod, shrimp, beef and chicken flavoured fritters (I mean seperately, not all meat mixed together).

Athen's Pasteries is as you can imagine, Greek. Right in the heart of Greektown.

First thing you'll notice is the goodies were right in the front window. All portioned and cut right there for the passers by to see.

If the pastries in the front window wasn't enough to convince you you were on to something, the fact that they make and sell their own phyllo is should seal the deal.

Kreatopita: Much like Spanakopita but with a meat filling. Fantastic.

Spanakopita: (right) Perhaps the most well known of the Greek pasteries, it's phyllo stuffed with cheese and spinach. Most were in agreement it was the best we'd had. Strong spinach taste without overwhelming.
Tiropita: (left)As above with Feta. Often called cheese pie it too was great.

All the above had flaky, buttery phyllo.

We also had Loukoumades. (above on the bottom) A donut like doughball drenched in honey. Unbelievably sweet and somewhat one dimensional. The addition of cinnamon turns something somewhat boring into a nice sweet treat.

Later in the afternoon we made our way to Babu Bakery and Sweets. Located in the back of a strip mall at 4800 Sheppard Ave. E. it's a take out only Sri Lankan place offering both the sweet and the savoury. Suffering from sugar shock we stuck the hot tables. Upwards of a couple dozen delicious looking a la carte offerings all of which I'd never sampled. We took our goodies and had a picnic in a local park.

Beef String Hopper: (left) Named for the string like rice noodles. At first bite it was quite good but unassuming. As a few more bites came so did the burn. Not overpowering but a nice back bite to it.
Chicken Kothu Roti: (right) HELLO!! Bang, tasty with an up front heat that'll get your attention.
Chicken Hakkah: (bottom) My favourite. I like sauce and spice which is exactly what this delivered.
An ingenious "PeteRock" slipped out to Mona's Roti (4810 Sheppard Ave. E.) and picked up, you guessed it, roti. Mona's roti was very nice, fresh and perfect with all three dishes from Babu.

A couple of us had (what I'm told is) sahlbet. A fruity drink made from a base of milk and rosewater. It needs to be stirred as the rosewater sinks to the bottom. I liked it.

The other unscheduled but well worth it side trips was to Simba Grill at 375 Donlands Ave. to pick up some Tanzanian style samosas to compare with those from Samosa King. Not a bakery but since we were driving right by it....

Tanzanian style samosas sport a phyllo type wrapper. We opted for the beef filled.
I prefer this style and these were as good as it gets. Another reason why we stopped.

The more traditional style have a more standard dough. Both are deep fried.
The Samosa King samosas were fine. The are loved by many but it's most likely because of the price. (5/$1) I've had much better.

Another goodie from Mona's was a Doubles. A sandwich of two flatbreads filled with chana (spiced chick peas). It's called doubles. As in, one "Doubles." It was excellent.

We also stopped at Lebanese Bakery for (obviously) Lebanese. I thought it was okay, nothing special. I did like the baklava.
Ponchos Bakery offers up Mexican breads. It seems none of us are into Mexican breads. For the most part we found them dry. Probably they're meant to be eaten with coffee or some sort of drink. I did like the strawberry flavoured empanada.
We skipped Fragrant Bakery (Chinese) since we were just flat out spent. Sensory overload and/or food coma were the reason.

Well that's all for now folks.