Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Rathskeller

The Rathskeller, located on Michigan St. just off Massachusetts Avenue, is a downtown Indianapolis landmark. The restaurant, housed in the historic Athenaeum Building (which was originally called Das Deutsche Haus and partially designed by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s grandfather), has been serving up German food since around 1894. Frankly, the restaurant’s lucky it’s got tradition on its side; the atmosphere and sense of history here are truly amazing, but the food is rather lackluster.

My most recent visit was at lunch. After being seated by our friendly and good-natured server, I sat back to study the menu, which is fairly similar to the more expansive dinner one. Whether lunch or dinner you’ll find many of the standard German dishes such as sauerbraten, German potato salad, schnitzel, potato pancakes, bratwurst, and so on. For those who don’t like German food, there are also a surprising number of other options such as chicken salad sandwiches, tuna melts, pork tenderloins (a Hoosier tradition), French bread pizzas, and pasta dishes as well as an assortment of soups and salads. At lunch, they bring you a complimentary pretzel with a side of really spicy mustard. This was delicious—and my friends and I had fun daring each other to eat large amounts of the mustard.

Before we ordered food, I decided to give their beer a try. Being a German restaurant and a bar, naturally they have an impressive selection of beers from all over the world. The list really is staggering! Because I couldn’t decide on just one, I ordered draught samples of the restaurant’s “Original Six” varieties: Rathskeller Amber, Spaten Lager, Spaten Optimator, Warsteiner Pilsner, Warsteiner Isenbeck, and Weihenstephaner Hefe Weisse.

As for the food, the four of us decided we’d all order something different so we could try a bit of everything. The four dishes we ordered were kassler ripchen (a pork chop topped with a sauce made of apples, raisins, walnuts, and herbs), rouladen (a beef rollup filled with bacon, onions, mustard, and a pickle wedge topped with brown gravy), schnitzel (a breaded pork cutlet topped with lemon slices and served with a lemon dipping sauce), and—so we could try something non-German—fish and chips. The German dishes all came with sauerkraut and German potato salad (although I substituted spätzle noodles for my sauerkraut).

So how was it? Well, the beer was excellent! As usual, though, the food was just okay. The rouladen was everyone’s favorite because it was nice and flavorful. How could it not be? It contains a pickle, bacon, and mustard! The kassler ripchen was fine, although it was basically just a pork chop. Nothing too special. The schnitzel was shockingly bland, rather tasteless for a breaded and fried piece of pork. The spätzle noodles were tasty, though. As for the fish and chips, it was fish and chips. ’Nuff said.

Even though I’m never blown away by the food at the Rathskeller, I find myself going back a few times a year to soak in the atmosphere and drink some good beer. If you’re in Indianapolis for a short time, the restaurant is certainly worth a visit—to see what the city was like at the turn of the 19th century and raise a pint, if nothing else. In nice weather they even have an awesome outdoor biergarten that includes two bars and a band shell that often hosts live entertainment in the summer.

The Rathskeller on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 28, 2011

Chef Mike's Charcoal Grill

Both inside and outside, Chef Mike’s Charcoal Grill looks pretty much like your typical American pub complete with gigantic TVs showing sports, an expansive bar, lots of booths, and a smattering of tables. What sets Chef Mike’s apart from other bars, however, is the food. All the meat is fresh, never frozen, and everything is prepared on a large charcoal grill. In addition, they make all the food from scratch—even the fries and the buns.

As you’d expect from a place with the words “charcoal grill” in its name, the menu consists mainly of burgers, steaks, chops, and seafood. There are some interesting choices, however, including a Joseph Decuis Wagyu burger, a red devil burger (with jalapeños, Havarti cheese, and hot sauce), a pizza burger, and the Big Burger (a 3-lb burger that serves 8-12 people and must be ordered 8 hours in advance). They also offer grilled pizzas and an assortment of non-burger sandwiches (including a Philly cheese steak, a Reuben, and a grilled Portobello mushroom).

The full bar has an extensive assortment of craft beers on tap (Fat Tire and the like) including quite a few options from the Midwest and even some local brews (mainly Sun King). I ordered a New Holland Dragon’s Milk with my dinner, which I liked very much. It was thick, dark, and oak-y—and also packed quite a wallop. They also make mixed drinks, of course; I saw someone with a margarita.

As an appetizer, my friend and I decided to try the firecracker shrimp cocktail. When it came out, I was surprised to see that the shrimp were grilled, which is not what I usually expect from a shrimp cocktail. Still, I have to admit that it was delicious; the grilling really added a lot of flavor to the shrimp. The cocktail sauce was fine as well, although not quite as spicy as I like it.
For my entrée, I opted for the bar-b-q burger with potato salad while my friend went with the bacon, mushroom, and Swiss burger with fries. We were both quite pleased. My burger was excellent, perfectly cooked medium-rare with a splash of tangy bar-b-q sauce on top. I could have used a bit more of the sauce, actually. The potato salad was good as well and seemed lighter than potato salads at many places. My bud dug his burger, too, although he said his could have used just a touch more seasoning salt. He said the fries, which seemed coated or batter-dipped or something, were really tasty.

Overall, we enjoyed our meal at Chef Mike’s. And the staff was friendly and welcoming, too; I don’t know if they actually are one big family, but they certainly seemed like it.

One more thing, even though Chef Mike’s is set up like a bar, they do have an area designated for families, so you can definitely bring kids. As a matter of fact, kids under 6 eat free every day. Bonus!

Chef Mike's Charcoal Grill on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

La Margarita (in Fountain Square)

Those of us who live near Fountain Square have become spoiled for choice over the past several years when it comes to delicious local eateries—especially those with an ethnic flavor. (I’m looking at you Naisa Pan-Asian Café, Santorini Greek Kitchen, and Siam Square.) So, when I heard that La Margarita Mexican restaurant was opening its second Indianapolis-area location in the Murphy Building, I started looking forward to welcoming another great restaurant to the neighborhood. I’ve never eaten at the La Margarita up north, but I’ve heard and read good things.

Which makes me sad to report that I didn’t really care for the place. I wish I had. Maybe they’re still finding their feet at this location? (They did just open last Thursday.) I don’t know. I just know I wasn’t impressed.

The exterior of the building isn’t yet complete (partially because of the ongoing Cultural Trail construction, I’m sure), so I’ll just talk about the inside. The decor’s not bad. The interior is spacious and open with some nice woodwork, and the well-stocked tequila bar—which comes complete with a giant, wooden agave sculpture—is neat-o. But then you come to the purple paint and the wall of gilt mirrors, which seemed a little too Pier 1 for my taste. Still, overall, the dining room is fine. Like the outside, the interior has kind of an unfinished quality, something I imagine will go away as they settle in to the new digs.

Right out the gate, our server was quite good, friendly and attentive. He told us about the beers they had on tap (all local stuff, which is fantastic) and brought us three different kinds of salsa: a tomato-y red, a watery verde, and an oddly creamy pico de gallo. I didn’t love any of them. None of them were particularly spicy or flavorful. The brews from Fountain Square Brewing Co. made it all good, though! I had the amber and my friend had the porter. We liked both of those.

As an appetizer, we decided to order some guacamole. The dish came out almost immediately after we ordered it, which made me think that it might not be made to order. Even the presentation of the dip left something to be desired; the guacamole was just smeared across a white plate with a ring of tortilla chips stuck in it. The guacamole was okay at best, although it was kind of stringy like baba ghanoush. (Edit: Jon, the owner of La Margarita, assures me that the guacamole is fresh made. Mea culpa. And the tomatillos are what made the dip stringy.) I’ve had worse guacamole—usually from a plastic bag—but it didn’t hold a candle to the guac you can get at El Sol de Tala or Tex-Mex Taqueria.

As for La Margarita’s menu, it features many of the old Mexican mainstays such as fajitas, tacos, burritos, quesadillas, chimichangas, and so on. In an effort to try something a little different, I ordered the shrimp tequila (shrimp sautéed with jalapeños, avocados, cream, and spices in a tequila-based sauce) while my buddy went with the nopalitos (nopales in salsa verde with chunks of potato and pork carnitas).

Thankfully, the main part of my meal (the part with the shrimp and the peppers) was pretty dang good. It had flavor and even a little bit of heat. Unfortunately, the stuff that accompanied the shrimp on my plate was not so great. The Spanish rice was bland and mushy and the potatoes left me underwhelmed. And there was another blob of that stringy guacamole!
My friend liked the main part of his meal, too. His was supposed to come with tortillas, which, technically, it did; it came with two. And they were flour instead of corn. Overall, he said his meal was just okay, although it was far too wet and watery for his taste. As someone who is not usually a fan of nopales (too snotty), I gave his dish a try. Like he said, it was okay; surprisingly, the texture of the nopales didn’t bother me.

For dessert, our server told us that they could make either ice cream nachos (which don’t sound appealing to me) or fried ice cream. We declined and left the restaurant, more than half of our guacamole uneaten.

Look, I don’t want to sound too negative here. As someone with a vested interest in the Fountain Square area, I wanted to like La Margarita. I’ll have to give it another try in a couple of months when they’ve had time to settle in. At the very least, I want to go back to try a margarita or some tequila. I have faith in the management and staff that the restaurant will get better.

La Margarita on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 10, 2011

Sakura Japanese Restaurant

Sakura Japanese Restaurant has long been my favorite sushi place in the city, although it's too far north for me to get to very often. Luckily, I got there this past weekend, which made me realize how much I’d missed it.

If you’ve never been to Sakura before, you should know one thing—it is tiny. And it gets very busy on weekends. Okay, two things, then—it is tiny and it gets very busy on the weekends. Three things: it is tiny, it gets very busy on the weekends, and they do take reservations. So, if you’re planning to go for dinner on a Friday night, call ahead.

When we decided to stop in late last Friday, we had not called ahead; thankfully, there were just four or five people ahead of us, so we only had to stand around for 15-20 minutes for a table. Not bad. When we finally did take our seats, the server brought us some warm, moist towels to wipe our hands—a ritual I always find relaxing.

Sakura has a full menu (including a lunch section) featuring Japanese dishes such as kabayaki (broiled eel in a special sauce), yakiniku (thinly sliced beef and onions sautéed in soy sauce), and chicken teriyaki on top of their fairly extensive list of sushi rolls and nigiri. For this meal, my friend and I decided to start with an appetizer of spinach gomaae (boiled spinach topped with a sesame dressing). What a great way to start your meal, light and flavorful! Of course, I love spinach and sesame seeds, so I’m an easy mark here. We also each had a bowl of miso soup, which was umami-licious. After we finished our appetizer and our soup, we decided to order sushi, opting for two soft shell crab rolls, one shrimp tempura roll, a Hoosier roll (tuna, avocado, and spicy sauce), and a New York roll (crab and avocado). Yeah, we ordered a couple of rolls too many. But that’s okay because the food was so good that I asked our server to pack the leftovers in a to-go box, took them home, and then had them as a midnight snack! Sakura twice in one day. What could be better?

One final note, the servers here can sometimes seem a little... severe to me. They’re not rude or anything, just not particularly friendly. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, I don’t know. In any case, I never take their occasional brusqueness personally.

Sakura Japanese on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 3, 2011

Saigon Vietnamese Restaurant

I first ate at Saigon Vietnamese restaurant a year or two back when it was located in a run-down little strip mall on Lafayette Road. I remember liking the food, but being a little turned off by the atmosphere. Having heard that the restaurant recently moved to a bigger, better building on West 38th Street, I decided to give it another shot last week for my birthday. As an added present, I got to expose my parents and my brother to Vietnamese cuisine—something none of them had ever tried.

When we pulled into the lot, all four of us were immediately impressed by the new, freestanding building (which used to be a Bob Evans). The exterior is clean with plenty of parking. When we stepped inside, we were even happier; the interior is bright and airy and modern—pretty much the opposite of the interior of the old location. You can choose to sit at tables, booths, or at a bar in the front of the dining room. Of course we requested a booth. Who doesn’t love a booth?

The menu is extensive, 11 pages (not including the cover) with a 1-page lunch menu that features a selection of dishes for just $5.95. Always the bargain shopper, my mom opted for the Pad Thai Chicken lunch special. Lunches come with soup and an egg roll, too, making them even greater deals. Because she doesn’t like soup, she asked for two crispy (deep-fried) egg rolls instead, and the friendly server was happy to accommodate. She liked her Pad Thai, although it was a little too spicy for her. She said she prefers Sawasdee's Pad Thai. I can’t argue with that.

The men of the family were not very original; all three of us ordered #91, Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio (grilled pork with crispy egg roll and vermicelli noodles). I recommended it, so I guess I’m to blame. Or to thank, as the case may be, because it was delicious. My dad and I devoured ours. My brother ate most of his. He said he liked it, but that he wouldn't be rushing back. Hey, it’s his first experience with Vietnamese food!

I was actually so pleased with the place that I went back later that week with a friend of mine to try the Thai Style Curry Beef lunch special. For my two lunch sides I chose a soft spring roll (often called a summer roll) and the crabmeat asparagus soup. The summer roll was great, fresh and light and served with a little peanut sauce. I liked the soup as well; it was basically egg drop soup with added seafood. The curry was pretty dang tasty as well. I am always a little leery about ordering Thai-style food at restaurants that don’t specialize in Thai cuisine, but I was happy with my lunch. The curry was flavorful with a nice heat to it that left my mouth burning (in a good way). My second visit featured the same great service as the first, so that wasn’t a fluke.

Note: They also serve bubble tea here, which is one of my favorite things. Unfortunately, all of their bubble teas here are icy/blended (instead of liquid). I had to try one, of course. It tasted fine (I had coconut), but the balls of tapioca were a little too big for the straw, which was frustrating. I ended up eating them with a spoon. I think I’ll hold out for some bubble tea at Taiwan Tea House.

Saigon Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Sunday, September 25, 2011

How to Eat Fried (and Baked) Squirrels

I grew up in rural Indiana with a father and a brother who were (and still are) hunting freaks. On any given day, you could find my family eating whatever type of wild game was in season and/or available—deer, turkey, frog, quail, rabbit, dove, pheasant, and even the occasional turtle. And, yes, that list also included squirrel. Hey, this blog is called ALL Your Food Are Belong To Us! That’s not hyperbole, people.

Now, I haven’t eaten squirrel for several years, but my dad called me a few of weeks back to let me know that he had a couple of fresh little fellas all skinned, cleaned, and ready to cook. So, I hightailed it up to my parents’ house to see how the cooking was done—and then share the process with all of you.

First, you need to quarter your squirrels. (Dad says that one squirrel per person is a proper serving.) You should also soak the quartered squirrels in milk for at least 30 minutes. Soaking them overnight is even better. Supposedly, this reduces the gaminess of the meat by removing some of the blood. Here is what the cleaned and soaked squirrel pieces look like.

Next, coat the pieces in seasoned flour. We added some salt, pepper, and a dash of Cajun spices to our flour. Dad even has a nifty little flour-coating device, which you can see below.

Now it’s time to brown the little suckers to seal in the flavor. Heat a half-inch of oil in a skillet on medium-high heat. Brown the squirrel in the hot oil, 5 minutes per side.

Remove the pieces and drain them on a paper towel. Place the squirrel pieces in an ovenproof dish and bake them at 325°F for 30 minutes.

Here’s the finished product. Looks pretty tasty, huh? Just like chicken.

For those of you grossed out by the idea of eating squirrels, don’t knock it ’til you tried it. There is a recession on, you know; we may all be going into our backyards soon to scavenge for food—and squirrel would certainly be near the top of my list. I mean, squirrels are preferable to opossums, right? At least they don’t have such nasty tails….

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Workingman's Friend

Workingman's Friend is not the kind of restaurant to go to if you want to impress your dining partner. It is a dive, make no mistake. That’s not to say I won’t be back, because I will. This particular dive has a couple of things going for it—namely a quirky sense of history and a delicious double cheeseburger.

The first thing you’ll probably notice as you approach the restaurant is the tempting smell of grease. The aroma of frying burgers lured me in, forcing me to ignore the rather depressing, cinderblock exterior. Inside, the place didn’t look much better. It’s basically a rectangular box with wood paneling halfway up the walls and a bar along one side. The 1950s-style tables and chairs have seen better days, too; ours even featured dirty, wadded-up napkins under two of its four legs. Still there are some charms, if you look closely. There is a couple of old cigarette machines dotted around the place and a cool antique cash register, which they still use.

Even though it is a bar, they only have Bud and Bud Light on tap. That kind of disappointed me, but then I saw that they serve their beer in huge glass goblets, which made everything okay again. Soft drinks are in cans, too, not from a fountain.

We were not given a menu by our waitress, so I glanced around and noticed a small menu painted on a nearby window that consisted of just four items: giant double cheeseburgers, breaded tenderloins, Mexican-style chili, and onion rings. I ordered a cheeseburger and onion rings while my friend opted for the tenderloin and onion rings. Later I noticed the full menu above the bar, which includes items like Braunschweiger sandwiches, grilled cheese sandwiches, and smoked sausage. Although I was intrigued by some of the items (such as the Balkan salad), I probably would have stuck with what I ordered anyway.

Our food came out quickly, which was nice. I was definitely the winner. The burger was awesome! The patties themselves were mashed thin and fried on a griddle until crispy (kind of like the burgers at Steak ‘N Shake, only better). Eating the sandwich, I felt like I was scraping the delicious, almost-burned bits of goody from the bottom of a pan and popping them into my mouth. The double cheeseburger came fully loaded, oozing with cheese and featuring an extra bun in between the two patties (like a Big Mac).

Compared to the burger, everything else was just okay. The onion rings were fine, but nothing special. I would have rather had fries. The tenderloin was a little disappointing, looking more like a Pete's Pride Pork Fritter than a real, hand-pounded/breaded Indiana tenderloin. Where’s the Hoosier pride?

A couple of warnings. First, the restaurant allows smoking, which can easily ruin any meal. Second, you must pay your bill with cash, so make sure you stop at an ATM before you arrive. That antique cash register doesn’t take plastic!

Working Man's Friend on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 28, 2011

L.S. Ayres Tea Room at the Indiana State Museum

The L.S. Ayres Tea Room was an Indianapolis institution at the downtown department store from 1905 to 1990. The tea room closed up shop when Macy’s bought Ayres, but folks nostalgic for the restaurant can still visit a full-service recreation of the restaurant inside the Indiana State Museum.

Stepping into the recreated tea room really is like traveling back in time; the dining room is decorated in an old-fashioned style with painted, wood-paneled walls, wainscoting, recessed ceilings, brass chandeliers, and (best of all) the restaurant’s original tables and chairs. They even have backlit, in-scale photos of Indy outside the windows to make you feel like you're eating in the downtown location. Despite the elegant surroundings, there doesn’t appear to be a dress code; I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt and no one raised an eyebrow.

The tea room offers two menus—the historically inspired menu and the “today's Indiana” menu. The historically inspired one includes items like baked ham loaf, chicken velvet soup, and a Hawaiian chicken salad served in a pineapple boat. Today's menu features crab stuffed portabellas, salads, and burgers. Because we were eating in a museum in a recreation of a famous locale, my friend and I both opted to order off the historically inspired menu. He decided on a bowl of their famous chicken velvet soup and the baked ham loaf while I chose a chicken salad sandwich on a croissant with a cup of the chicken velvet soup.

The baked ham salad was just what it sounded like—ham salad (like you'd eat on a sandwich) formed into loaves which were baked until they resembled Spam, served over greens, and drizzled with a mustard sauce. He was pleased with it, but thought it needed more mustard sauce. He requested some on the side, and said he liked it much better with that little extra kick. This dish was definitely old school; it looked like something that would feel right at home served with tomato aspic. We both agreed that the chicken velvet soup was very good, smooth and flavorful with chunks of chicken throughout. It was fairly rich, so I’m glad I went with just a cup, although he had no problem finishing off his bowl. The soup was especially good with a bit of buttered roll dipped into it. (As an aside, the folks at the other tables all received rolls with their appetizers, but we had to ask for some. Maybe it was the shorts and t-shirt?) My chicken salad sandwich was tasty, traditional with no surprises, which is fine. The fruit that came with it was fresh and delicious, too.

Our server (who was very good, by the way) told us about several mouth-watering desserts as well, but both of us were stuffed. Next time I’ll have to save room for the bread pudding, for sure.

The prices at the tea room are very reasonable. I wasn’t sure what to expect in that regard, actually, but we got both our meals plus two iced teas for less than $25.

Overall, I enjoyed my meal at the tea room. At first, I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t a traditional English-style “tea room”—someplace where you could get a pot of tea and finger sandwiches/pastries—but I got over that pretty quick. I do still have a hankering for some homemade scones served with clotted cream and strawberry jam, though. The restaurant serves High Tea on Sundays, so maybe I’ll have to give that a try some time.

The tea room is open every day for lunch except Monday (when the museum is closed).

L.S. Ayres Tea Room on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Lazy Daze Coffeehouse

Located in the heart of Irvington right off East Washington St., Lazy Daze Coffeehouse certainly lives up to the laid back vibe that its name implies. Outfitted with natty but comfortable furniture that looks swiped from an eccentric great aunt's house, the vibe is student-y and hippy-ish. Those may not be real words, but, hey, that’s the kind of unconventional language inspired by this joint. If you don’t want to sit inside and listen to Wilco on WTTS, there is also an outdoor deck.

The menu at Lazy Daze is fairly typical of most coffeehouses including coffee, espresso-based drinks (cappuccinos, lattes, mochas, etc.), hot chocolate, and a wide variety of loose-leaf teas (and even tea smoothies). They also serve ice cream and milkshakes, however, which sets them apart a bit.

At my most recent visit, I decided to order an iced mocha. Hey, it was hot! The drink was a tad too sweet for my taste; next time I'll order it with half the syrup—and maybe an extra shot of espresso for good measure.

One of my friends who lives in Irvington said she loves the “frapps” at Lazy Daze, especially her favorite, the Milky Way Frapp.

Look, this isn’t my favorite coffeehouse by a long shot, but it’s still a nice place to hang out. It is the center of the Irvington community, hosting weekly open mic nights, featuring local art, and serving as a meeting place for local ghost tours. Best of all, the hours are really good—better than most independent coffee places; they stay open until 10:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday and they’re even open Sundays until 9:00 p.m. For all those reasons, I’m sure I’ll find myself visiting Lazy Daze again in the near future.

Lazy Daze Coffee House on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Eagle’s Nest

Perched high atop the Hyatt Regency in downtown Indianapolis, the Eagle’s Nest is one of those revolving restaurants that every city seems to have—and where locals rarely eat. It offers a 360-degree view of the city paired with a menu that changes with the seasons. On my recent visit, my friend and I decided to eat late (9:15) so we could give the food a try while also discovering what Indy looks like from above at night. Turns out—it looks pretty nice! And the food was surprisingly good, too.

As soon as you’re seated at the Eagle’s Nest, they bring you a basket of ciabatta bread with butter. The bread is no great shakes—straight out of a bag and not even warmed. I was a little worried about how the food was going to be, given how underwhelming the bread was. Luckily, our appetizer of crab cakes (pan-seared with Peppadew pepper aioli) assuaged my fears. The crab cakes were excellent, comprised almost entirely of crabmeat.

As a starter, I had lobster bisque and my friend had a romaine salad. My bisque was really good, thick and flavorful with a nice, spicy bite. Unfortunately, it was only lukewarm, which was kind of a bummer. My friend’s salad featured candied bacon, mixed tomatoes, and blue cheese with buttermilk dressing. It was just okay; it was a salad.

For my entree, I had the seared scallops over shrimp and green pea risotto. The scallops were delicious, perfectly cooked (although I did get a little bit of grit). The risotto was really nice, too, loaded with shrimp. I ate every bite. My friend opted for the chicken cordon bleu, which was crispy on the outside, but tender on the inside. He liked it—especially the Dijon sauce that came with it.

Overall, the food was actually quite a bit better than I was expecting. When you eat at a hotel restaurant (especially one with a gimmick), you can never be sure what you’re going to get. I was not disappointed with the meal—although it was a bit pricy, make no mistake. Still, the ambiance was good and you do get an overhead tour of the city, which is cool.

As for the service, our waitress was excellent, friendly and helpful, giving us food suggestions. We even chatted with her a long time about the downfall of Broadripple and the punk band she was in, Action Barbie. I may go back again just so I can talk to her some more!

Be advised that the restaurant does take its dress code seriously. You’re required to be “business casual,” which basically means no tank tops, logo tees, athletic wear, shorts, and so on.

Eagle's Nest on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 1, 2011

Gray Brothers Cafeteria

It seems like there’s always a long line at Gray Brothers Cafeteria, but if you’re craving down-home country-style food, this is definitely the place to eat. And, thankfully, the line moves at a pretty steady pace; it only took my friend and I about 20 minutes to get from the door to the cashier. Not too bad. As I waited, I couldn’t help but notice that many of the people in line with me were over 65. And that most of them were, well, on the larger side of things. Just observations!

Gray Brothers Cafeteria is set up like every other cafeteria in America; you grab a tray, walk along the front of a steam table, and tell the people on the other side of the sneeze guard what you’d like. They start you off with desserts, offering many different kinds of pie (banana, cherry, peanut butter, butterscotch, coconut, chocolate, and so on) and cake (German chocolate, hummingbird, strawberry, carrot, cheesecake, and more). They are probably most famous for their strawberry pie, although I can’t figure out why; it’s just some sliced strawberries in a pie shell with neon red glaze squeezed over the top. Not really gourmet.

At my most recent visit, I opted for the white meat chicken tenders, mashed potatoes with white gravy, corn, yeast rolls, sweet tea, and banana cream pie for dessert. The chicken tenders really lived up their name, moist and delicious on the inside but still crisp on the outside. Of course, the thick, white gravy made them even better! The corn was fine; I'm sure it was out of a can, but it was buttery and peppery—just like grandma used to warm up. The mashed potatoes tasted like homemade, but I suspect that they were a combination of real mashed potatoes bulked up with instant. The banana cream pie was fine, but the bananas were all on the bottom and then covered with banana-flavored pudding. It would have been better if the pudding and the bananas had been combined.

My friend had the chicken fried steak with white gravy, dressing, deviled eggs, unsweetened iced tea, and sugar cream pie. The deviled eggs were good, mustard-y and vinegar-y, but the steak was just okay. It had been soaking in the white gravy for some time, so it’s breading was soggy. The sugar cream pie, on the other hand, was delicious.

The service at Gray Brothers was all around nice and friendly; they even have people in the dining room who bring drink refills. The decor is homey, old-fashioned, and clean. They restaurant also has a separate carryout door/line if you want your food to go, which is nice.

So, yes, I enjoyed my meal at Gray Brothers. Really my only problem with cafeterias like this is that they tend to make me over eat because the portions are way too large. For example, they give you two whole yeast rolls for an order, which is one too many. Plus the food isn’t exactly healthy to begin with. Hmmm. Come to think of it, maybe those two points explain all the large people in line!

Gray Brothers Cafeteria on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Southern Bred in Nashville

While visiting my sister, brother-in-law, and niece in Nashville recently, my family and I decided to go out for Saturday brunch. After consulting the Internet, we opted for Southern Bred, which had a number of good reviews online, a menu that sounded interesting, and a nicely designed website.

As we pulled up to the restaurant, I was a little surprised by how unassuming the place was; it’s housed in a nondescript building that looks like the offspring of a Denny’s and a suburban home. The inside wasn’t much more inspired, reminding me of the cafeteria at a fairly nice old folks’ home (except for the fun stenciled chickens on the walls).

When we arrived, the place was only about half full, so we assumed that we wouldn’t have much of a wait. We were wrong. The hostess seemed to enjoy ignoring us, not even taking our party’s name for 5 minutes or so. She also seemed thrown by the fact that there were six of us (five adults and a baby), saying that they really only had tables and booths for four. We suggested that we could push together a couple of the smaller (empty) tables, but she said that was out of the question. After 20 minutes, a large crowd that included several parties with more than six people had joined us for the wait. (As an aside, there’s really no waiting area to speak of; patrons are just expected to loiter near the door, spilling out into the middle of the dining room itself.) At that point, the hostess caved in and started putting together tables to accommodate the guests.

Finally seated, we were hungry and ready to order. Thankfully, our friendly waitress brought us a basket with a variety of fresh baked breads—buttermilk biscuits, yeast rolls, and sweet cornbread muffins—all of which were pretty good. I also ordered a glass of sweet tea, which was served in a Mason jar and was, indeed, sweet. As an appetizer, we decided to share the fried green tomatoes. They came with a Louisiana ranch sauce; even with the sauce, the tomatoes were surprisingly bland.

So far, none of us were impressed by Southern Bred, but we were still holding out hope for our entrees. And, although I can’t say that the dining experience was totally redeemed by the food, most of us were satisfied. My brother-in-law had the fried chicken with mac & cheese. He tends to be a picky eater, and he scarfed it all down. My dad’s fried pork chop was delicious with a light breading that didn't overpower the flavor of the juicy meat. He was also impressed with his side salad, which was huge and included almonds, bacon, homemade croutons, and a house French dressing. By far the best thing that any of us ordered was the chicken & dumplings. My sister ordered that dish and she was reluctant to share. After trying it, I could see why; the dumplings really were excellent, nice and doughy. I had the country-fried steak with mashed potatoes. They were fine, but nothing special.

Unfortunately, my mom didn’t have even a “fine” meal. She ordered the cod sandwich with coleslaw and honey mashed sweet potatoes. The fish arrived raw in the middle, so she didn’t eat much of it. She also didn’t care for the coleslaw. So, she contented herself with the sweet potatoes and having a few bites of the rest of our meals.

As for the kids’ menu, my sister and brother-in-law were quite pleased with it; for just $4, the little ones can get two sliders, a side dish, and a drink. My niece had the fried okra as her side, which was a little mushy but surprisingly spicy. I liked it.

Bottom line: long wait (for no good reason) + disorganized staff + unmemorable food + mediocre ambiance = no return visit. I’m sure Nashville has better breakfast places than this—and I look forward to uncovering one of them on my next visit.

Southern Bred on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Nick’s Chili Parlor

I’ve been meaning to try Nick’s Chili Parlor—an Indianapolis fixture located on Lafayette Road—for quite some time. Because the restaurant was recently renovated and expanded, I figured this was the perfect opportunity! From the outside, the place looks like an updated Wendy’s or Rax—a typical, functional fast food restaurant. The new interior is clean, bright, and airy; I don’t know what it looked like before, but now it has the feel of a vintage diner with lots of tile, 1950s-style, metal-edged tables, and red, vinyl booths. I liked it.

The dining room is set up like a cafeteria with desserts first. I never understand why cafeterias start with sweets, but, there you have it. Nick’s offers a variety of pies—apple, pecan, lemon meringue, and sweet potato—as well as some cookies and cakes.
After you work your way past the desserts, you get to the hot food. As the name suggests, the menu is heavy on chili (5-way, chili dogs, chiliburgers, etc.), but they also offer a 1/2-lb. breaded pork tenderloin sandwich, a chicken breast sandwich, a fish sandwich, and Polish sausage. Sides include “natural trim” fries, onion rings, salads, and coleslaw.

I had talked a friend of mine into going to Nick’s with me by telling him about the tenderloin (because he’s not a big chili fan). Unfortunately for us, the fryers were not working the day we went, so he couldn’t get the sandwich he wanted or even French fries. Disappointed, he ordered a bowl of chili with spaghetti and beans. I happily asked for a foot-long chili cheese dog with onions.

The chili was good, hearty and fairly traditional. This was not Cincinnati-style chili (like they serve at Skyline or Gold Star), so don’t expect that cinnamon-y kick. The chili was tasty, but it wasn't very spicy. Usually the lack of heat would bother me, but given that I ate here on a day when the mercury was pushing 100, I was fine with it. They also put lots of shredded cheddar cheese on my foot-long dog, which was fantastic. My friend was a little let down by the spice-level, so he asked for some red chili peppers to add to his soup. All they had were banana peppers, though, which cost 39 cents extra. He passed. Still, at under $6 apiece, we both agreed that the meal was pretty dang filling as well as economical.

The staff at Nick’s was pleasant, but not particularly friendly. I think they were a little out of sorts because of the fryer situation, though, so I’ll cut them some slack.

Nick’s Chili Parlor is open Monday through Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. I plan to go back soon. I’d love to try the tenderloin—if I can pull myself away from the chili. And if the fryers are up and running!

Nick's Chili Parlor on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 18, 2011

Thai Spice

When Thai Spice first opened in a shopping plaza across from the Greenwood Park Mall several years back, its delicious food gave me a reason to drive to the south side of Indianapolis on an almost-weekly basis. After some pretty good Thai places opened closer to me, though, I found myself making the drive less and less often. In fact, when I made a visit to the restaurant a week or so back, I was surprised to find that it had moved locations (just a block or two west) to a new, freestanding building. Well, I say “new,” but the waitress told me that they’d been there for nearly a year! I guess it had been a while…

First off, I was very impressed with the new digs. The rich burgundy and mustard-colored walls and the thick, cloth napkins (sporting the restaurant's logo) add a sense of elegance while the whimsical lotus lights keep things laid back. I was seated near the full bar, which was fine by me; made it easier to order a couple of mixed drinks.

As a starter, my friend and I decided to order the shrimp summer roll with peanut sauce. The appetizer was tasty, although the shrimp was just piled on top of the sliced roll instead of packed inside of it, which meant my shrimp kept falling off. Not the best summer roll I’ve ever had.

For our mains, my friend ordered mee ga tee (coconut-flavored rice noodles topped with peanut sauce, onions, bean sprouts, and ground peanuts) with chicken and I ordered panang curry (a mildly spicy curry mixed with green beans and kaffir limes leaves) with beef. I was really excited for the panang curry because That Spice serves Indy’s best version of the dish. So, I was disappointed when one of the owners came out and told me that they were out of green beans. He offered to replace the beans with asparagus, but that didn’t sound very appetizing to me, so I switched my order to yellow curry (green and red peppers, onions, potatoes, and cucumber in a creamy curry sauce) with chicken instead.

As we waited for out meals, our server brought us some fried tofu with chili sauce, peanuts, and cilantro. I had forgotten that entrees come with tofu, but I was happy to get it. The tofu was well done, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, and the sauce was nice, too. When our dinners arrived, we both dug in—and didn’t stop until the food was all gone. My curry was excellent! My friend’s noodle dish was a little too much for me—incredibly rich and coconut-y—but he loved it.

Our server was very good as well, friendly and quick. She even put up with a lame joke or two from me with a smile on her face. After finishing my meal, I sat back in my chair, full, and was quite pleased with the entire experience. I definitely plan to get back to Thai Spice’s new spot soon—hopefully before another year goes by!

Thai Spice on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 11, 2011

El Sol de Tala

I’ve been a regular at El Sol de Tala for quite a few years now. I can’t claim to go all the way back to its opening in 1979, but I definitely remember my first taste of their tacos al pastor, how excited I was when they opened their (unfortunately ill-fated) second branch downtown, and how glad I was when they returned to their original spot on East Washington Street. Because I’m so familiar with the place, I’m going to review the restaurant like it’s an old friend or a family member, pointing out the things I love but also pointing out a few of its weaknesses.

First off, the restaurant space itself is quite nice, consisting of a spacious central “courtyard” (including a large fountain centerpiece) plus additional seating on the sides and a small balcony area. You can also choose to eat in the cantina, if you prefer. Yes, there is a rather creepy stuffed donkey by the door, but just overlook that. The main dining room can get kind of loud when the place is busy, but it’s usually not too bad. If they start to seat you in the closed off area on the right side of the dining room, however, you might want to ask if you can sit elsewhere; that particular area is like one, long hallway that amplifies sound. I’ve overheard more than one awkwardly loud conversation in there—and I’m sure some folks have unwillingly eavesdropped on my business, too!

After you’re seated, you simply must order the guacamole, which is made fresh to order and can be modified to suit your taste. I get mine double spicy for a little extra kick while my friend Mary always orders hers without onion. If you’re not an avocado fan, I also like the cheese dip, but you should ask them to throw in some chorizo for added zing. I often order a margarita to go with my guacamole, too. Their margaritas are usually quite good—and strong!—although I have gotten one or two that were just... not right. Still, one or two iffy drinks out of a hundred ain’t bad.

As for mains, one of my favorite dishes is the parrillada (mixed grill), which consists of steak, chicken, chorizo, scallions, and peppers served sizzling on a plate over an open flame. It comes with tortillas (by the way—always ask for corn tortillas, never flour), rice, black or pinto beans, and a side salad. If you’re thinking that that sounds like a lot of food, you’re right. I usually talk one of my friends into splitting this one.

I also dig their pollo en mole (grilled chicken breast simmered in a scrumptious mole sauce), their burrito, and the meal that made me fall in love with El Sol in the first place, tacos al pastor (pork al pastor served in corn tortillas with fresh cilantro, onions, and a roasted tomatillo-jalapeno salsa). On the other hand, they have terrible tamales here. Just terrible. They’re dry and crusty and tasteless. Stay away!

As noted, most of the meals at El Sol come with rice, beans, and side salads, all of which are delicious. The salads, especially, are surprisingly tasty. These are not the shredded piles of iceberg lettuce with a dollop of sour cream on top that you get at a lot of Mexican restaurants; instead, the side salads at El Sol consist of mixed greens and Chihuahua cheese lightly dressed with a delicious house vinaigrette.

Unfortunately, the desserts at El Sol are almost uniformly bad. I have tried their flan twice (because this seems like a place that should have good flan), but it was gritty and tasted semi-spoiled both times. Never again. One of my friends used to like the chocolate tamale with raspberry sauce and vanilla bean ice cream, but every time he’s ordered it in the past six months, they tell him that they don’t have any. I don’t know if they no longer carry the item but haven’t bothered to take it off the menu or what. Now I just skip dessert here and stop at Dairy Queen on my way home.

Service can be hit and miss as well. Some of the servers are quite excellent, but there are a few who will leave you high-and-dry—especially when the place gets busy.

Still, El Sol de Tala is definitely one of my favorite Mexican restaurants in Indy. The fact that I eat there are least once a month must tell you something. Stick with the guacamole, the margaritas, and one of the dishes I highlighted above and you’ll have a great meal.

El Sol de Tala Mexican on Urbanspoon