Monday, December 27, 2010

Now, which El Rodeo is this again?

It seems like there are a hundred El Rodeos scattered across central Indiana – and, indeed, the country. I can’t figure out if they’re all part of one large chain – a kind of Mexican McDonald’s – or if they’re independent restaurants that just happen to have really unoriginal names. In either case, my family and I decided to grab some grub at the El Rodeo near the intersection of I-65 and State Road 334 west of Zionsville today.

The first thing you’ll likely notice about this El Rodeo is that it seems fairly new – like it was built within the last couple of years or so. The outside is neat with good signage, and the inside is clean and well lit. There’s an outdoor seating area in front that looks like it would be fun in the summer. The interior is painted the traditional orange-red with southwestern-style murals encircling the dining room. Because it’s the Holiday Season right now, blooming poinsettias lined the walls, which looked very festive.

Like all restaurants of this sort, you get chips and salsa as soon as you sit down. Our chips came in white, red, and green, which I assume was for Christmas, but maybe they’re always that colorful. The salsa was good, pretty standard, but a little spicier than most. The queso dip was watery, but flavorfully hot. Because the server told me that the guacamole was made in-house, I decided to give it a try as well. It did seem fresh, but it was fairly tasteless nonetheless. It could have used some jalapeños or maybe a few more onions. It was certainly nowhere as good as the guacamole that I’m used to from El Sol de Tala out on east Washington Street. But maybe I’m spoiled!

Because it was lunchtime, I decided to try one of their lunch specials. I went with #7, which consisted of a burrito, an enchilada, and tamale. The tamale was a little cold in the middle, but was generously stuffed with shredded beef. There was a weird meat sauce covering the whole thing, though, which kind of masked the taste of the tamale itself. I’d have rather had it without the sauce. The enchilada and the burrito were good, both filled with spicy ground beef. I was happy with my choice, although I have to say that I think my dad made the best choice by ordering nachos al carbon. His nachos were loaded with shrimp, beef, chicken, and cheese, and they were absolutely delicious.

The service at El Rodeo was good. Our server was very nice and attentive, rushing to get us some extra napkins when the baby spilled some water. Actually, they accommodated the baby well over all, providing a stable high chair as well as a Styrofoam cup with a straw to make drinking easier for her. When we were getting ready to leave, they even picked her up and passed her around to say bye. For a minute, I thought we might have to leave her there!

Overall, El Rodeo provided us with some good, fresh Mexican food – just like at countless other Mexican places around Indianapolis (half of which are also called El Rodeo). There's really nothing on offer here that you can't get elsewhere, but if you're in the neighborhood and feel like eating Mexican, you could do worse. I wouldn't go out of my way to eat here, but certainly it wasn't bad.

El Rodeo on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 20, 2010

Yes, St. Elmo Steak House is still good.

St. Elmo Steak House has been a downtown Indianapolis landmark since 1902, housed at its original location (127 South Illinois Street) for its entire existence. Dinner at St. Elmo makes you feel connected to the history of Indianapolis in a way that few other restaurants can boast. And, of course, the food is always top notch as well. So, when I was recently invited to attend a private party at St. Elmo, I jumped at the chance.

First, the atmosphere. St. Elmo is one of those old-school restaurants with dark wood walls, wrought-iron fixtures, and dim lighting. What else do you want from a classy steak place, right? Our group had reserved the one table located in the restaurant’s wine cellar, so we got to dine surrounded by 20,000 bottles of wine. Apparently this is the room where Peyton Manning eats after home games. Not being a sports fan, this meant nothing to me, but some of the other members of our party seemed enthused about that.

For my pre-meal cocktails, I ordered a pomegranate Martini and a Mojito. What can I say? I was in the mood for girly drinks. The Mojito was a little sour and didn’t contain many muddled mint leaves, but the Martini was quite good. We were served bread around this time, too, and all of it was tasty. There were onion rolls (stuffed with cooked onions) and some cheesy cracker-y things that I couldn’t get enough of.

Of course we all ordered St. Elmo’s famous Shrimp cocktails as our appetizers. You simply can’t come to St. Elmo and not at least try the shrimp cocktail! If you haven’t had one, picture the plumpest, freshest shrimp that you can get in Indiana smothered with house-made cocktail sauce loaded with freshly ground horseradish. The cocktail sauce can take your breath away, if you’re not careful. Best to start with just a little of the sauce and then work your way to a big bite. My sinuses were certainly clear by the time I’d finished my appetizer.

Next comes your choice of navy bean soup or tomato juice. I’m not sure what’s up with the tomato juice, but I guess it’s a St Elmo tradition. Needless to say, I went with the navy bean soup. When I think of navy beans (which isn’t all that often, really), I tend to think they’re bland. This soup was not bland, though. In fact it was delicious.

I skipped ordering a salad so I could go straight for the main event – the surf and turf. At St. Elmo, surf and turf means a lobster tail and 10 oz. filet mignon. I asked for my filet medium-rare and it came out perfect, nice and bloody in the middle. My lobster tail was excellent, too, although anything dipped in clarified butter is going to be good. One member of our party’s steak was a little over-cooked (she had ordered it medium-rare and it came out medium), so the server cheerfully sent it back to the kitchen and got her another one that was cooked to her specifications.

Because we were surrounded by one of the best wine collections in Indiana, we had to sample a bit of the ole vino. How could we resist all those bottles just staring us and whispering, “Drink me”? So, we decided to compare and contrast a few different types of cabernet sauvignon. We first shared a bottle from Quilceda Creek (Washington state), and then tried a pair of wines from Napa, Opus One and Lokoya. All three wines were fantastic, although I think the Opus One was my favorite.

After the excellent meal, I have to admit that the desserts were a bit of a letdown. I wasn’t crazy about either of the ones that I tried – the crème brûlée and the chocolate cake. The crème brûlée tasted good, but the sugar on the top hadn’t been completely caramelized, so I didn’t get to have the fun of cracking the hardened sugar. As for the chocolate cake, it was a little stiff, which made it seem like it had been frozen or something. I’m not saying that it had been frozen, mind you, just that it had that kind of texture. Although I didn’t get to try it, the cheesecake looked good. I wish I’d ordered that.

As for the service, it was uniformly excellent, from the hostess to our dedicated server to the bussers. When I joked with our server that I needed a cocktail umbrella for my pomegranate Martini, she laughed and said she wished they had them. Then she actually made one from a piece of paper, a staple, and a toothpick, and plopped it into my drink. Our entire party appreciated her great sense of humor and attentiveness.

Like all good steak places, St. Elmo is pricy. If you start getting wine, it can be really pricy. Still, for an occasional treat (especially if someone else is paying), it certainly makes a memorable dining experience. The food is delicious – and you simply can’t beat the atmosphere and history of the restaurant. If you can swing it, eating in the wine cellar makes the experience all the more special, too.

St. Elmo Steak House on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 13, 2010

Why I love Calvin Fletcher's Coffee Company.

When I realized this weekend that Calvin Fletcher’s Coffee Company has been open at 615 Virginia Ave. for over a year now, I became a little embarrassed that I hadn’t yet discussed it here. Considering the amount of time I spend there and the number of times I swing by in a week, I kind of feel like I’ve overlooked my own living room. Simply put, I love CFCC. It is, hands-down, the best coffee shop in Fletcher Place/Fountain Square. In fact, I’d say it’s my favorite coffee shop in all of downtown Indy.

First things first, CFCC serves great, organic, fair-trade coffee; the Fletcher Place Blend is my favorite. Their specialty coffee drinks are great, too, made with freshly brewed espresso. They have awesome mochas (although I always order them with half the chocolate syrup so they’re a little less sweet), and they also make seasonal drinks such as pumpkin spice lattes in the fall and eggnog lattes around the holidays. They serve a selection of organic teas as well, but I haven’t been able to pull myself away from the coffee long enough to try any of the teas. As an added bonus, CFCC offers locally baked pastries from Circle City Sweets including brownies, cookies, and muffins. Personally, I can never get away without buying a cherry-almond strudel bar. If you do order one of those, however, be prepared to share it with someone or keep half for later because they are super-rich and buttery.

CFCC’s interior is stylish and laid-back, comfortable but with a modern sensibility. They’ve made the best of their rectangular space by putting a couple of larger tables in the front and lining the long wall with thinner tables. Nevertheless, they have also managed to squeeze in a cozy, comfortable hangout area in the back of the space. This back area makes a great place to work/write, especially given the free Wi-Fi.

Best of all, the coffee shop is staffed and managed by straight-up nice people. They run the shop as a not-for-profit and donate all of their tips to a different local charity each month such as Second Helpings, the Southeast Neighborhood Development (S.E.N.D.), and so forth; they let you know where your money will go with a little sign beside the tip jar. The staff is welcoming to people of all stripes, even learning their customers’ names and getting to know their drink preferences. Basically, you’ll never find a friendlier bunch of baristas. On weekends, CFCC often has a live band performing or hosts open mic nights. It’s also a great place for local artists to display their work. Overall, the coffee shop has really helped to pull together the resident’s of the Fletcher Place neighborhood, making us feel like one, big extended family.

The only thing that I could possibly hope for is an expansion of their hours. Currently, CFCC is open from 7 am to 7 pm Mondays through Thursdays, 7 am to 11 pm Fridays, 7 am to 9 pm Saturdays, and closed on Sundays. Those are certainly not bad hours, but I’d love to see them stay open later on weeknights and to expand with Sunday hours. Still, I understand that business may be slower on weeknights and that everyone needs a day off, so I can’t say that I blame them.

Calvin Fletcher's Coffee Company on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 6, 2010

I just don’t get Scotty’s Brewhouse.

There are so many things I don’t get about Scotty’s Brewhouse that I’m not sure where to start. First off, why are diners provided with rolled-up bathroom face towels instead of napkins? (That’s just gimmicky and weird.) Why is their menu designed to look like a fake issue of Sports Illustrated magazine? (The thing contains way too many pages for way too few items of interest. Where am I? The Cheescake Factory?) Most importantly, why in the world would Indianapolis need another boring restaurant/bar? (Within half a mile from Scotty’s is Alcatraz Brewing Company, The Ram Restaurant and Brewery, Champps Americana, Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery, Jillian’s, Kilroy’s Bar & Grill, and even a freakin’ T.G.I. Friday's.) After eating at Scotty’s this weekend, all of those questions remain unanswered for me.

I have to admit, I got a bad feeling as soon as I entered the restaurant and saw the hostesses standing around wearing t-shirts and headsets and looking bored. I felt like I had stumbled into an Old Navy. The giant, flatscreen TVs covering pretty much every surface didn’t help, either. When one of the hostesses finally asked me how many were in my party, I told her and requested a booth. She began to lead us towards our table, which was situated directly beneath a bank of suspended TVs blaring a basketball game and right beside a large table full of rowdy sports fans. Because I don’t really care about basketball, I asked the hostess if we could sit a couple of booths down from the one she had assigned us so it would be quieter. “It’d be easier for us if you sit where we want you,” she replied. Well, by all means, make things easier on yourself! So much for customer service. Playing along, I shut up and sat where she wanted me. As soon as I slid into the booth I noticed that an overhead light was shining down on my face, blinding me like a spotlight. Now I couldn’t hear or see. At least I could still taste.

With that thought in mind I cracked open the complementary sports magazine – er, I mean the menu. After flipping through its 30 pages, I realized that they mainly offered the standard wraps, burgers, and salads. Also, they call themselves a brewhouse, but they don't actually brew any of their beers. Having said that, though, they do have an extensive list of bottled and draft beers, including quite a few from local breweries, which is nice. On the front page of the menu, the Scotty’s staff helpfully spotlighted their three signature items – their dill pickle chips, their “mo’fo’” hot sauce, and their Shewman burger (dressed with jalapeños, cheddar cheese, bacon, and peanut butter). The Triple XXX in West Lafayette has been putting peanut butter on burgers for years, but I’d never gotten up the nerve to try one. Tonight was the night, I decided! In fact, we decided to order all three signature items just to give Scotty’s a fair shake.

The dill pickle chips came quickly, which was good, but they were really, really greasy and slightly overcooked, which was bad. I wanted a paper napkin or something to try and press some of the grease out of those suckers, but all I had was my enormous face towel. Needless to say, I didn’t really care for the pickle chips (too salty, for one thing), although the horseradish dippin’ sauce was quite nice.

Next came our burgers, the atomic mo'fo' burger and the Shewman burger, both with tater tots. I tried the atomic mo'fo' burger, and thought it was just okay. The mo’fo’ sauce did not impress me. It was more sweet than hot. Much to my surprise, my burger was delicious, though! The peanut butter paired really well with the spiciness of the jalapeños, cooling them down. Who knew? Well, I guess the Triple XXX did…. The tots were good, too (I’m a sucker for tots), crunchy and golden brown. They were especially tasty with the horseradish sauce (which I’d held in reserve from the pickle chips).

Overall, I just don't see what this place offers that a million other restaurants don't already offer. The interior is obnoxious and loud, the food is just okay and not very original, and the staff is hit-and-miss. The one bright spot was our server. He was very good, even offering to bring us samples of beer to taste to help us make our drink selections. I suppose if you’re really into sports or just like the kind of place that has a mini TV in each booth and an ATM in the entryway, then this might be the restaurant for you. It’s just not for me. I’m not saying Scotty’s Brewhouse is terrible; it’s just shockingly average. I may start putting peanut butter on my hamburgers at home, though, so that’s something.

Scotty's Brewhouse on Urbanspoon