Tag Archives: restaurant

Heaven In a Plain Wrapper

One of my favorite things about travelling is getting to find new places to eat. I always try to avoid hitting the chain places in favor of local independent eateries. Of course sometimes I will still go to Chili’s or Cheddars because it is convenient, but I try to find new places as often as possible. My trip to Colorado afforded me many opportunities to eat at new places, but tonight’s dinner location was noteworthy for its mix of good and bad.

DiCicco’s is an Italian restaurant near the Denver Airport nestled among a collection of hotels. It is in a big, uninviting building with a solid door, no windows and a patio that is loaded down with equipment and not used for seating. Upon entering the edifice, one gets a sense of entering an expensive boutique restaurant, but instead of a hostess stand, diners face a counter with a cash register, and what looks like a server stand. The hostess did not react to me for several moments until I asked where the hostess stand was. After clearing up my confusion, she asked if I wanted to sit in the bar area or the dining room. I was taken to the two-story dining room and seated in an intimate two-person booth adorned with very pretty hand-painted floral patterns on the walls. These paintings were all over the restaurant including the ceiling and vents. One wall of the dining room was a large screen showing video of Andrea Bocelli singing in a concert. I would later find out that on weekends, the videos are replaced with live entertainment in the form of a keyboardist and once a month they feature a live band.

Brandon, my waiter, was quite knowledgeable about the restaurant’s history and the menu. He seemed pleasant and nice, but he forgot my soda and took an inordinate amount to time coming back to take my order. I asked a few questions about some of the choices and settled on the cannelloni with meatballs and minestrone. I was glad I did. Unfortunately, however, the cannelloni came out before the minestrone. The soft drink glasses were quite small, necessitating several refills, of which Brandon was not as attentive as I would like.

The highlight of the dinner was the dinner. The cannelloni was the best I have had. Every bite was a bit of heaven covered in mozzarella. The meatballs, smothered in marinara, were delectable and accented the cannelloni very well. Even the minestrone, when it finally arrived, was quite good to the point I spooned every bit of the broth I could reach stopping only when my spoon came up empty. I cannot remember a more tasty Italian dinner.

If only it was served in a more accommodating environment.

This is not to say that the dining room was drab or distracting from the dinner. As I mentioned earlier, the entire interior is festooned with impressive hand-painted artwork on the walls—not canvases hanging on the walls—but rather murals covering almost all of the plaster. The problem was the fact that the impressive adornments are only on the interior of an uninviting building. The front door is solid wood with no windows. Similarly, the windows that are on the walls are plastered over. As I mentioned earlier, the building has a two-story patio that would offer diners a spectacular view of sunset over the Rocky Mountains, but the patio is closed and filled with excess equipment, which is quite unattractive.

DiCicco’s has very good food and it is worth the trip for that. The only problem is one has to get past the uninviting building to get it. If the restaurant was not one of only two in the immediate area, I might not have even bothered to enter it. The exterior is not inviting and the foyer did little to change the impression. It is only when one enters the dining room does the restaurant become somewhat promising. It is only when the food is served does the place shine, and it shines brightly.

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Off The Beaten Path

I have mentioned in past blogs that my wife and I enjoy driving out of the city to see as much of small-town America as we can. We have been through most of the small towns around Houston, San Antonio and Austin and have thoroughly enjoyed those visits, but that means that now we have to venture out farther and farther. This weekend, we drove to Oklahoma and passed through a number of small and not-so-small towns, such as Harrison and Henderson before going through Kilgore and Longview. Our route took us along highway 259 to our destination in Idabel, Oklahoma, but not before detouring us along other roads on several occasions. Sometimes the best discoveries are made when one leaves the planned path.

The weather on this trip couldn’t have been better had we controlled it. While hot for a summer day in Texas, it wasn’t the hottest day of the year. In fact, for a late July day, it did not even break a hundred degrees. The sky was mostly sunny with just enough clouds to break up the blue expanse and also be interesting. I did read on my news feed that some parts of Houston got serious rainfall, but fortunately we missed it. Traffic was light and the drive pleasant as we jammed to our favorites playlist over the Bluetooth on the car stereo. Since we both have family in Arkansas, we have travelled highway 59 more than most truckers over the years, but once we hit Nacogdoches, this trip would have us veer off our usual course and onto highway 259. It was a beautiful drive for a federal highway. There were many beautiful homes and ranches along the drive, and the setting sun cast gorgeous diffuse light that brought the country to life highlighting warm yellows and ambers. As we drove along, we passed a large red barn, with horses frolicking in the setting sunlight framed by ripe corn fields waiting to be harvested.

After we passed Daingerfield, Texas, we were detoured onto highway 67 in Omaha. I had been looking for someplace to eat ever since we passed a Grandy’s in Longview. Michelle is not the Grandy’s fanatic that I am and she wasn’t hungry then. By the time we approached Omaha, however, she was getting hungry. I was near starving. We didn’t see many places to eat on Google maps that sounded good, so I said let’s keep an eye out and we might find something interesting. Now, in this day of technology dependence where people are afraid to venture out of their homes without internet access on a mobile device, most people rely on Google to show them where to go. I use the technology as well, but I am not dependent on it. And I will maintain that statement until the day my cloud drive crashes. Anyway, after we drove along 67 for a short time, Michelle saw a sign that made her chuckle: The Rear of the Steer. It was for a barbeque place just off the highway with a full parking lot.

“Stop!” I insisted. “Turn around. We HAVE to eat there. We can’t pass a place called ‘the rear of the steer’ and not eat there.”

After some debate, she agreed and pulled over to turn around. There was only one other car on the road, so we had no problem with traffic. Omaha is so small that it looked as though most of the town was already at the Rear of the Steer. Inside, there was a small line at the counter to order, but as most of these people were probably regulars, it went quickly. We ordered and sat in a place that looked as though it had been there since the 50’s. It was quite clean, and well maintained, but the décor was not retro; it was authentic.

So was the food. I had the hamburger steak while Michelle had the chicken fried steak and both meals were quite good. We sat and listened to some of the other patrons as they talked about their day, shared stories and jokes. One gentleman told his companion the story of how the place got its name. Evidently it is very well known for its hamburgers, and hamburger is taken from the Rear of the Steer. As this couple left the place, he yelled to no one visible “See you later, old man,” to which the reply “Take Care” came from an unseen voice back in the kitchen. Later, the owner of that voice would come out bearing several plates of food, looking very much like Mel, from Mel’s Diner on the TV show “Alice”, only dressed better. He said hi to everyone he passed and stopped to talk to more than one before hurrying off to the kitchen for more food.

We liked the place so much I bought a T-shirt. It was a great beginning to the weekend that promises more good times, especially if we remain open to leaving the planned path every once in a while. Which is kind of the point of the trip.

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Meatasaurus Rex

The sizzle hits you before the smell, but the double whammy really gets your mouth watering.  There is nothing better than a good steak, unless it is a good pot roast or pork loin or perhaps some short ribs.  I have always insisted that a meal is not a meal unless it has some primary protein (MEAT) included.  You could safely call me a carnvore.  If I were a dinosaur, I would be a meatasaurus.  My mother would love to have a pot of beans with cornbread and cabbage as a meal.  I could enjoy it as well, as long as the beans were cooked with a large ham bone and pieces of pork.  But still, a good steak is at the top of my list.  Of course, it has to be cooked properly, and that is where most people have troubles.  The other day I was enjoying lunch with some colleagues when the topic of cooking came up, and in that discussion was how to grill a good steak.
pullquoteIn another life, I was a restaurant manager and I have worked at every possible job in the food service industry including cook.  I am a pretty good cook if I do say so myself.  When I was 18 or 19, I worked at Bill Kenny’s Restaurant in Humble, Texas.  Bill built and opened the restaurant to operate at a loss for tax purposes.  He never meant for it to make money.  He paid the staff well and offered plates for low prices.  He hired a certified chef to run the kitchen along with a kitchen manager and myself and one other guy as assistant kitchen managers.  I had already worked at food prep and line cook and expediter jobs at places like Red Lobster, Sonic and Long John Silver’s so I knew my way around a commercial kitchen.  With the combination of talented staff, low prices and good food, Bill Kenny’s became a victim of its own success.  It made money.  A lot of money.  Bill lost his tax write-off and so he closed the restaurant and sold the land.  There was a Texaco where the place once stood.
While I was there, I learned a lot about cooking, but nothing more important than how to grill a steak.  The chef was not a tall man, but the description of “large” fits.  He clearly enjoyed the benefits of his labours.  He took me under his wing and showed me a lot about food preparation, but one day he was talking about steaks and temperatures.  I thought he meant we needed a meat thermometer, but he quickly corrected me.  Rare, medium-rare, medium, medium-well and well-done are the proper designations for steaks and the best temperature to serve a good steak is medium-rare.  Now, at that time the sight of blood on a plate kind of grossed me out.  I was still young and inexperienced in the finer foods so pink meat was scary and rare was out of the question.
“How do you like your steak,” he asked me.
“Well done, of course,” I confidently answered.
He looked at me as though I had just spit on his grill.  “Well done is shoe leather.  It’s a waste of meat.”  The contempt dripped from his mouth.  “Come here,” he said.
He led me over to the grill where a huge slab of sirloin had just hit the fire.  Bright red marbled with white with the grease just starting to weep across the surface, it sizzled on the hot grill.  It was called “The Hanger” because it was so big it hung over the edges of a standard platter.
“What temperature is that steak right now,” he asked.
I looked around for a meat thermometer.
“No. no.  Just look at it.  You can see it if you know what to look for.”
I was lost and it must have shown on my face.  He grabbed the tongs and pointed to the grain of the beef.  “See the color?  Here by the marbling.  When it turns gray like this across the surface, you are at rare.”
He picked up one side of the steak.  “See how the meat moves along the grain?  It’s still pliable,” he said jabbing the tongs into the meat.  “That means it’s still tender.  If we want to serve this rare, we flip it now just long enough to char grill marks on this side and serve it.”
“Rare?” I wrinkled my nose as he flipped the steak.
“This guy wants medium,” he said ignoring my reaction, “so we leave it down here a little longer, then we flip it back and turn it 90 degrees to get the square grill marks.”
We watched the steak cook for a few seconds before he brought up my reaction.
“What you got against rare?”
“It’s gross and bloody,” I answered as if that was enough of an explanation.
“Boy,” he sighed.  “You missin’ out.  All the flavor’s in the blood.” He reached up and grabbed a knife from the magnetic holder beside the grill.  “Here,” he said cutting a chunk of beef from the side and stabbing it with a fork. “Try this.”
“But this is a customer’s lunch!” I was aghast at the suggestion.
“Ah, he won’t finish this,” he said dismissively.  “No one does.  He’ll never notice it missing,” he popped the bite into his mouth.  He cut another one and again offered it to me.  “Go on, you’re supposed to periodically taste test anyway.”
I wrinkled my nose again as I took the fork.  The meat was still pink with a drop of red juice and grease forming along the bottom of the cut; a perfect medium-rare.  Not wanting to look bad, I put it in my mouth, fully expecting the bile to immediately surge in my throat.  To the contrary, my mouth watered and the mixed with the juices to create a heavenly experience as I chewed the best bite of food I had ever experienced.  I groaned my approval.  The chef just nodded with a knowing smile.
From that moment on, medium rare is the only way I take steak.  I Iearned much about steaks from that chef.  Of course the steak needs to be seasoned.  Some use marinades, some use complicated mixes of spices.  For my money, salt, pepper and occasionally a hint of cumin sprinkled on both sides of the steak should be all that is needed to bring out the natural flavors of the meat.  No steak sauce should ever touch a properly prepared steak.  Sauces are for well-done shoe leather to make it semi-palatable.  Of course, if well-done is to your taste, have a bottle of A-1 and Bon appetit.
After I left Bill Kenny’s, I went on to many more restaurant jobs, learning more and vowing after each one that it would be my last.  Grandy’s, Casa Viva, and Waffle House each taught me something about cooking and I took my favorite recipies from each one so I have a pretty good repertoire, and I could probably open my own restaurant if I ever completely lost my mind.  I guess next to cooking a steak, the most important lesson I ever learned from all my time in restaurants was that the best job in food service is that of customer.  I’ll keep that job for a while.  It lets me sample all the varieties of meat available at the many restaurants that keep popping up all over.  The best steak I have ever eaten (that I didn’t cook) was a filet mignon from Morton’s in Nashville, but the prettiest most perfectly prepared T-bone was at a Texas Roadhouse in Katy Texas.  I keep trying to find the best steaks everywhere I go.  I am a carnivore, after all.

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Getting The Debate Wrong

The American people are speaking out about a slight against a would-be protected class distinction and the backlash against the perpetrator of this egregious insult.  Unfortunately, the American people are attacking the wrong person.
Chick-Fil-A is a well-known fast food restaurant that pioneered the chicken sandwich and is quite popular with many people, enjoying a good amount of success.  The company was founded by S. Truett Cathy, a devout southern baptist who runs the company on Christian principles.  The company does not open its stores on Sundays in keeping with those principles.  It is now run by Cathy’s son who continues the Christian-oriented policies.  
Last week Cathy, in response to a question from a reporter, issued a statement supporting marriage as being between a man and a woman, incensing the left and the media and generated an outcry and a call to boycott Chick-Fil-A stores.  Conservative Christians led by Mike Huckabee have called for a day of support for the restaurant in response to the boycott.  The comments in the blogosphere and across all social media platforms reflect the polemic division the issue has created in society, and demonstrates a problem this division is exacerbating.
Homosexuality has existed for centuries in and out of the closet, depending on the mores of society at the time.  The right has traditionally found the practice an affront to normal, decent behavior while the left has espoused tolerance for alternative lifestyles.  This dichotomy has left this issue in flux through the ages.  In today’s “enlightened” and tolerant society, homosexuality has found an acceptance in Hollywood where it is promoted in films and television and the media spends hours of news coverage encouraging acceptance of this alternative choice.
Meanwhile, Christianity has been blasted by the left as being intolerant, hateful and controlling, especially on this issue.  If a person professes a faith in Jesus Christ as the son of God and as the path to salvation for the mortal soul, that person is labeled as ignorant and backward.  The left would assert that no reasonable intelligent person can believe in God in the face of so much “evidence” that God does not exist.  Surely all of mankind’s achievements prove that man is the center of the universe and since there is no heaven, there is no afterlife, the only thing that matters is what happens during life.  As long as one does not hurt another, anything goes.  Christians are hurting gays by denying them equal status, therefore Christians are bad.  Christians hate gays.
This is one point that the left gets wrong.  Christians do not hate gays.  Christians are taught to love God’s children.  While I cannot speak for all Christians, I do know most do not hate gays per se.  I disapprove of homosexuality.  I believe it to be an affront to nature and counterproductive to the survival of our race.  I do not believe that gays are entitled to any rights that any one else doesn’t have.  I do not believe laws should be rewritten to give them new rights.  I do not, however, hate gays.  I have several friends who count themselves homosexual.  I simply disapprove of the practice.
God does not hate gays.  God loves all his children, even the ones that are making wrong choices.  Much like a parent disapproves of a wayward child, that parent does not stop loving that child.
While I do not know Dan Cathy, I doubt he hates gays.  He is a business owner who employs hundreds of people and generates taxes for his local community.  He gives to philanthropic groups and charities and supports his family.  He is a Christian and is happy to testify to his beliefs on the matter.  He never said he hates gays.  Having said that, this is a free country and Cathy is entitled to his opinion.  If his opinion is that marriage is between a man and a woman, he can say that in any forum he so chooses, even in the media.
Of course, the left has the freedom to express their opinion as well and they are quite vocal in doing so.  The mayors of Chicago, Boston and San Francisco all have expressed outrage and urged Chick-Fil-A to avoid opening stores in their towns (as if they could stop it).  However to condemn a man because of an expressed opinion is the opposite of democracy.  This is the other point the left gets wrong.
In today’s society, discourse has degraded to nothing more than name calling and violent verbiage.  No one tries to enter into open discourse anymore because people are not interested in changing other’s minds through logic and reasoning, rather they would prefer to insult and vilify anyone who does not believe as they do.
Long Live Chick-Fil-A.

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