Monday, September 24, 2012

Fusion Fun

BMB LogoIt can be a little bit like winning the lottery. You have an idea for a restaurant, open the doors and are instantly inundated with customers. Or can it? Too much too soon can kill a place. Service, quality and ultimately reputation suffer.
In December of 2011, Banh Mi Boys opened up and were, lets face it, overwhelmed. Far too popular for them to keep up they shut their doors and regrouped. A complete overhaul of service and space occurred. They reopened a couple months later and were off to the races. As popular again they’ve tidied up the store and tightened up their chops.

Banh Mi BoysThe brainchild of David, Peter and Phillip Chau, the brothers come by their abilities honestly. Their parents opened the very successful Nguyen Huong Food Co. back in 1986 and now have multiple locations in the GTA as well as their own bakery. The boys plan was to, for all intents and purposes, serve food truck foods out of a store. Popular mobile kitchen goodies like Korean Tacos and nouveau Vietnamese Subs are selling like hot cakes from curbside vendors south of the boarder. They wanted to bring that same food flair to the Big Smoke. From their little sandwich shop on Queen St. W they’re doing banh mi, tacos and bao along with fries and salad. All with their unique spin on things.

BMB InsideThe renovation has given the boys a spiffy, east meets west, old meets new interior. Barn board, mixed with Formica meets Oriental lanterns and technology. Splashy paint on some walls, reclaimend wood on others. Menus on flat screens are there too but the best thing they got out of the reno was tables. Once a grab n go place it now has seating for 20 or so. There’s a main kitchen in the back and an open kitchen/prep station at the back of the long, thin dining room.

Those kitchens are where all the magic happens. Everything is made in house. All sauces, breads, condiments and proteins are made on site. Heck they even have their own little smoker. Slightly bigger than a mini fridge it’s perfect for a college dorm room.

So lets get a look at these goodies.

Jicima Papaya SaladPerhaps my least favourite thing first on menu is the Jicima/Papaya salad. It’s very good but for me, nothing all that mind blowing. I actually think it would be amazing as a sandwich condiment. It has a lot more going on than do chua. It comes with an Asian salad dressing and I think I probably used too much of it. I really kinda drowned it. I’d order it again but as I said, it’s not my favourite thing here.

Kimchi FriesThe Kimchi Fries were simply fantastic. Fries covered in mayo, pulled pork and kimchi. Garnished with green onion. The whole dish was great and really did scream drunk food. Broken down I found that pulled pork to be among the best smoked pork shoulder anywhere. Also, the fries on their own are some of the best I've had in the city. If not anywhere. They held up very well (both in terms of flavour and crispiness) to the components above and had a great potato taste. The kimchi tasted pretty much exactly like what my friend's Korean wife's family makes. I have 2 small complaints though. First off, the kimchi was cold. By the time I got half way through it had warmed to room temp and I much preferred it then. Perhaps that was because I was there right after they opened it was fresh out of the fridge. Also, I'd like to have seen a touch more pulled pork on them. Not a whole lot more would be needed but the smoky, porky flavour could've used just a bit more punch.

Pork Belly Banh MiThe 5 Spice Pork Belly Banh Mi was nicely packed with all the requisite goodies. Cucumber, cilantro, and do chua. They add sliced pickled radish and a nice helping of the pig tummy. I told the girl to make it (spice level) like she'd have it since she likes hot stuff. She gave me "Hot" and it was perfect. I could handle hotter but this was the right heat level. Enough to light up the taste buds without drowning anything out. On it's own the pig tummy was fabulous. Tender, tasty and not overwhelmed with the 5 Spice. Complimented and allowed the porky goodness to shine. 

Squid TacoThe Squid Taco is worthy of it’s praise. A friend and fellow food nut is totally in love with this and it’s easy to see why. The squid rings are perfectly cooked. Breaded with panko they’re deep fried to the point of golden brown but not so much that the meat turns into tires. Topped with do chua, cabbage and cilantro, then add some minced Thai chilies it’s incredible. Don’t let the picture fool you. There’s squid rings under that there vegetation. Plenty of it too.

Grilled Chicken TacoThe Grilled Chicken Taco is, so far, definitely my favourtie thing on the menu. Grilled and sauced chicken that’s totally tasty. I think the tortilla was flavourful enough but very nicely grilled and somewhat hearty. The meat was saucy (some say too saucy) which, as I've said before, is right in my wheelhouse. The vegetation on it was a good compliment of taste, temps and textures. I could eat a hundred of these.

Fried Chicken BaoThe Fried Chicken Bao is often cited as a favourite of people and there’s good reason. It’s awesome. While bao isn’t exactly my favourite bread it’s okay but what they stuff inside is what makes this sandwich. It’s dressed much like the banh mi so you know that’s a huge plus. The big thing is, one of the best pieces of fried chicken stars. A thin piece of breast meat in a fabulous breading is deep fried to perfection. The chicken is nice and juicy while the breading gets a golden brown, crunchiness. Simply fantastic.

So there you have it folks. A great little sandwich shop churning out some cool twists on traditional favourites.

You can find Banh Mi Boys Sandwich Shop at 392 Queen St. W. in Toronto.

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You can also find them on the web, facebook and Twitter.
Banh Mi Boys on Urbanspoon

Well that’s all for now folks. See ya next time in the food court.


Monday, September 17, 2012

Stay Full All Day

If you’ve never heard of Ooltewah, Tennessee you’re probably not alone. The tiny town of well less than 1,000 folks is somewhat a burg that time forgot. Once occupied by Union forces during the “Late, Great, Unpleasantness” it didn’t get it’s first restaurant until 1976. At one time it served as capital of the long ago bankrupted James County. The old courthouse is still there and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. 

030If you have heard of Ooltewah, there’s a good chance you’ve been to Countryside Cafe. Owned and operated by Ponder and Marlene Geren it began life in 1990 and has had happy Chattanoogans (and many others) heading out into the country for some of the best Southern cooking in the area. Not too surprising to find a great respite at Countryside. The name Ooltewah is Native American for “Resting place.” Another story tells that it comes from the Muskogee word meaning “Town.” That said many residents will tell you it means “Owls nest.” Not so co-incidentally the local High School team is named the “Owls.”

031Countryside Café sits at the corner of two country roads about a half hour outside Chattanooga. In what looks like a ranch style house. The parking lot is a large and just about always crammed to the point of busting. Not to worry though, the staff inside is quite efficient and wait times are usually short. Even for large crowds. Inside there’s obviously plenty of tables in the dining room. Another way to keep the line moving.

As usual at these great Meat n 3 places, they do pretty much everything from scratch in the kitchen. 

So let’s have a look at what’s coming out of that kitchen.

The corn bread was good and completely Mrs. Sippi style. Which is to say denser dry than what I prefer. There was nothing wrong with it, in fact it had a nice corn flavour. Great with butter naturally. I just like mine moister and with a crumb closer to cake. The dinner roll was fairly bland but that's how I wanted it. It was to be a vehicle to sop up the goodness left on my plate. In that it succeeded very well.

The Country Fried steak was very good. Nice and tender with a crunchy crust. The White Gravy could've had a bit more character but all in all it was good. The White Beans were only okay. There wasn't much seasoning in them and no pork so they had to carry the ball on their own. The fried okra was also only okay. I’m not a big fan so I’m not much of a judge. The carrots were of course carrots. So a good plate all around. The main of course being the star.

The Meatloaf was very nice. I was asked if I wanted gravy and of course I did. I was surprised to find that it had a tomato sauce baked onto it like you'd expect. Which would've alleviated the need for gravy. Oddly enough, the combination of the tomato sauce and gravy on the meatloaf made for quite a tasty bite. I don’t think that I’d opt for that again but for a surprise change, I think it was welcomed. The broccoli casserole was great. I'm trying to ween myself onto broccoli for health reasons and while I doubt it was healthy, it might help bridge the gap. The Hashbrown Caserole was your typical type and there's nothing wrong with that. Just a good ole work horse starch. The Black Eyed Peas were fabulous. I don't know how they did them since there wasn't any pork to be found but they had that good earthiness they are known for and some depth as well.

The Coconut Cake was excellent. This is what I refer to as new style. It's a single layer cake with frosting and coconut. A traditional coconut cake takes hours to make if you do it from scratch. Most places just won't dedicate the time anymore. This particular cake as you can see used a yellow cake and had the traditional 7 minute frosting sprinkled with grated coconut. Basically, if you made 2 and piled them on top of each other you'd have the old school version. Also, this one wasn't round.

The Hot Fudge Cake was very good but I honestly think it didn't taste as good as it looked. I just don't think it did the picture justice. Don't get me wrong, this was a very good dessert. The cake (buried under all that whipped and ice cream) was a bit of a cross between a cake and a brownie. It had a mild chocolate taste. Not a rich, knee buckling smack from the Dark Lord. The whipped cream was very light and tasty but the ice cream was only okay. The hot fudge sauce did have that blast of chocolate that you want. The best part was where everything had melted in the bottom. Scoop some of that up with a piece of cake and it was fantastic. The bottom line is, it just wasn't decadent.

So there you have it folks. Some terrific country cooking in a nice country setting.

You can find Countryside Café at 8223 County Hwy 1124 (Mahan Gap Road) Ooltewah, Tn.

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You can also find them on the web.
Countryside Cafe on Urbanspoon
Countryside Cafe on Foodio54

Well that’s all for now folks, see ya next time in the food court.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Little Taste of the Caribbean

You know the problem. You’ve spent all morning walking around a mall and it’s time for lunch. Your options are pretty much the same in just about every mall. Chains. Boring. Fortunately for us here in the GTA, in some of the B or C grade malls you’ll find a small, Caribbean franchise named Tropical Joe’s. While they have a couple other locations the only one I’ve been to is at Gerrard Square. The tiny mall in Toronto’s Riverdale neighbourhood anchored by Home Depot.

20120725_111406 A few years ago I was on a bit of a Jerk Chicken kick. I'd tried about a half dozen places and while all were really good to fabulous, none were as good as the Jamaican lady's who worked the cafeteria at my work. One day I was talking to a fellow toiler and asked him where he got his fix. Being from Jamaica himself and all. I was stunned when he pointed me to a mall but I'm glad he did. This particular location, by pretty much all accounts, is the best.

So let’s have a look at these spicy tastes of the islands.

073The Jerk Chicken was the first thing I sampled from here and wasn’t sure about the Chow Mein noodles. I opted for a combination of noodles and rice. Skipping the veggies. The rice is good, don’t get me wrong. Made with coconut milk and pigeon peas it was as it should be. The noodles on the other hand, made sort of pilaf style, were so much better. I’m a big fan of pasta and I guess these are close enough. They stood up nicely to the heat and juiciness of the chicken. Speaking of the chicken, the spicing was nice. Not overly hot but as you can see, if you like it a little livelier you can add hot sauce. The bird was nice and juicy which added oomph to the gravy.

074Ox Tails, for those who don’t know, are the tail of a cow. As a young lad I didn’t want to try them. For some reason the name is rather off putting for people. Rest assured though,these are all cow. These ones are nice and rich. A sweet and sour sauce that’s little spicy but not much but with a big, well rounded flavour. They’re some of the meatier pieces you’ll find. At least, in this order they were. They matched perfectly with the noodles. The veggies, basted in the gravy were quite good too.

045The Stew Chicken is amazing. Chopped bits of chicken in a sort of sweet and sour curry (different from the ox tail gravy) fortified with some onions. It’s also rather peppery. Not spicy though it does have a slight tingle but more just tasting of pepper. The chicken managed to stay moist even during stewing which is a huge plus. As you can probably tell I’ve landed completely in the Chow Mein noodle camp by this point.

You can find Tropical Joe’s in some Toronto area food courts but this particular, and probably best one is in Gerrard Square at 1000 Gerrard Street E. Toronto, On.

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Tropical Joe's on Urbanspoon

Well that’s all for now folks, see ya next time in the food court.


Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Best Darn Hot Dogs Around!

I’m sure by now you’ve realized I have a real zeal for ethnic and regional fare. Dishes that are found in one part of the country (or planet) but mostly (or sometimes completely) unknown in the rest. Normally I’d regale you with some anecdotal story of how a regional dish came to be. A romanticized tale of some foreigner packing up their life and heading to a new world, toiling in a kitchen perfecting the recipe for  (insert dish here) . Not so much with the Giovanni Hamburger of northern West Virginia. When I asked about the origin at one legendary restaurant I was told that “Everyone around here serves ‘em.” I’ve scoured the internet. Asked everyone I can think of. No one seems to know. Just informing me that “Everyone 'round there serves ‘em.”

003A terrific version of the Giovanni hamburger can be found at Ritzy Lunch in Clarksburg. The small diner in Stonewall Jackson’s home town was opened in 1933 by the Selario’s, Joseph and Mary. Joseph, an immigrant from Florenza, Italy toiled for the Coca Cola company before entering the restaurant business. Back in the day, Ritzy, as much as anything, catered to the movie crowd. Dinner and a movie at the neighbouring theatre was a way of life in the one of the sleepier corner of the US. 
This is the type of business that lends itself to a family legacy. Ritzy is no exception. At the age of 10 John Selario started working in the restaurant at lunch and after school. John learned the ropes and finally took over with his wife in 1970. By the 2000’s their son Antonio took over and is currently the third generation running the place. John can still be found patrolling the restaurant but his biggest job these days is organizing Bike Night. Every Thursday during the spring and summer months bikers from as far away as California descend on Ritzy Lunch, meet, greet, eat and play cornhole.

002Ritzy sits just off the historic downtown district right on the west bound part of the loop. (like in many towns, Main St. runs one way and one street over will head the opposite). It’s a small store front that just screams charm. Two park benches are usually occupied buy a local or two. Shaded by the awning above. The old sign is showing it’s age but, as I often say, it’s just part of the charm.

005Inside it’s your typical small town diner. Long and narrow with a counter on one side and booths on the other. There’s an open kitchen/prep station behind the counter and a second kitchen in the back. While it’s not one of those places that it seems time has forgotten, it really does have that charm associated with a venerable establishment.

Well enough of all that. Let’s get to the good stuff.

007I loved the Chili Cheese Fries. The frozen fries on their own would be fine. Just good fries you'd make at home and not complain. The addition of nacho cheese and their hotdog chili made them fantastic. What's more, the loose chili gave the thing a bit of a soupiness at the bottom that made the last fries more like a potato, chili cheese soup. It was great.

 006The beef and pork hot dogs, much like the ones we come across in these places are really not all that great in and of themselves. It's the combination of the dogs, chili, onions and mustard that makes them so much greater than that of their parts. We didn't even think about it but probably should've added cheese as well.

 008The Giovanni sandwich was amazing. It was a simple flat top hamburger cooked medium with Processed Cheese (yellow and white), hot peppers and pimentos. The whole thing is served up on white bread done grilled cheese style. West Virginia's version of the Green Chili Cheeseburger I suppose. Flat out awesome.

So there you go. A cool breakfast and lunch place in a nice little town.

You can find Ritzy Lunch at 456 West Pike St. Clarksburg, WVa.

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You can also find them on the web.
Ritzy Lunch on Urbanspoon
Ritzy Lunch on Foodio54
Well that’s all for now folks, see ya next time in the food court.