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

Monday, July 4, 2011

Szechwan Garden

Located at 3649 Lafayette Road, Szechwan Garden is part of Indianapolis’s “International Corridor”—the cluster of restaurants featuring food from all over the world near the 38th Street and Lafayette Road intersection. Given that you could choose to eat Indian, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, and other exotic cuisines in that area, you might wonder why you would decide on the relatively common Chinese. I can tell you why in two words—“dim” and “sum.” Szechwan Garden is one of the few places in Indy that serves dim sum, and, for my money, they serve the best.

If you’ve never eaten dim sum, all you need you need to know is that you order a variety of small dishes and then share them with your friends. Szechwan Garden serves all of my favorite dim sum dishes including ha gaau (shrimp dumplings), siu maai (pork dumplings), and lo mai gai (savory glutinous rice wrapped in a lotus leaf). In fact, I’d say their siu maai was the best I've ever eaten! (The lady who makes their dough and dumplings was a pastry chef in China, so she certainly knows what she’s doing.) They also offer a few items that I had not had before like Tianjin pancake (mung bean pancake), pan-fried taro cake, and scallion pancakes. Unfortunately, Szechwan Garden only serves dim sum from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays because they make everything from scratch and never freeze the dishes.

Szechwan Garden also features a full Chinese menu, which they offer at all times. I’ve only tried a couple of items off of it, though—namely the spicy calamari and the sautéed kong xing tsai. Both were excellent, but the kong xing tsai (a green, semi-aquatic leaf vegetable sometimes called “water spinach” in the U.S.) was a revelation. The greens were delicious, sautéed with garlic and oil. Interestingly, kong xing tsai’s high growth rate has caused it to become an environmental problem in Florida and Texas, which has led the USDA to designate it as a “noxious weed.” Best noxious weed I’ve ever eaten!

Szechwan Garden on Urbanspoon