Sweet Home Chicago

Thanks to Capital City Bikefest I was given an entire weekend off and avoided the shitshow of Fayetteville St. Amazing right, especially for someone in the foodservice industry. You know what that means? On the road again foodies. This time Chicago. As an added bonus, Craig, one of my best friends from Hampden-Sydney, lives in the Windy City, so Sara and I had a place to stay and avoided paying an arm and a leg for a hotel. Now we could spend all our money on food and cocktails. One of the best things about flying? The airport bars of course. And the people watching in said bars.  However, flying out of RDU at 6 in the morning kind of derails that plan. Arriving in Chicago super early in the morning only means more time to explore. And walk. And walk. Did I mention we walked a lot? First up was the Lincoln Park Zoo. A quaint zoo right in the middle of the city that also happens to be free. I like free. After the zoo we made it down to Millennium Park to see the Cloud Gate (The Bean) and Crown Fountain with the rest of the tourists. Sometimes you gotta be one. It was really awesome though, seeing weird reflections of yourself, with the immense high rises of Chicago as the background. I think I took a million pictures and boomerangs. Sorry Instagram. At least there was no selfie stick involved. The Crown Fountain was pretty cool also, giant glass block towers with changing faces and a reflecting pool beneath. At this time I was getting a little thirsty, so obviously we had to go to the Billy Goat Tavern. We actually stumbled into one of the newer locations which happened to be very local friendly rather than full of tourists like us. Nothing like a good dive bar with a High Life in hand and the Cubs on the big screen. Next it was time to eat, and Chicago is definitely not short on options. We were thinking about The Purple Pig, but we luckily came across Eataly as we were maneuvering our way through the city. I’m glad we did, because I think I died and went to Italian heaven. Imagine two stories of just Italian meats, cheeses, wines, olive oils, etc etc. You get the picture. Dozen oysters? Yes please. Charcuterie? Totally. Buy a bottle of wine rather than a glass and you get complimentary bruschetta? Obviously. Just a little mid afternoon snack, we have been walking 500 miles. After a little nap time, we finally met up with Craig and ventured out again. When in Chicago you must deep dish. When in Rome. And not that Pizzeria Uno shit. Pequod’s is where it’s at. The caramelized crispy crust was out of bounds, flavortown city. Seriously though, it was great. I could only eat 1 1/2 slices before I was put into a meat induced coma. Totally worth it. Just don’t be in a rush to eat though, takes like 45 minutes to get the pizza. Just order a pitcher of beer and some garlic bread to tide you over. After our coma, the next day we took an architectural boat tour of Chicago. Definitely a must do in my opinion when the weather cooperates and it’s not freezing yet. Amazing views of all the beautiful skyscrapers and architecture that define Chicago. Later, after a few rooftop beverages at J. Parker hotel, dinner was Italian at Coco Pazzo. Awesome spot. Thanks Google search. Octopus, veal chop, and a lot of pasta. And the friendliest old Italian man who picked out our wine. Then the barhopping commenced. Pop’s, a champagne bar, was one of the highlights. Who doesn’t like bubbly cocktails? We ended the night at Dublin’s, well because they stay open until 4 AM. Sit at the bar if you can, otherwise you will be hounded to order food if you sit at a table. I’m not here for food buddy, just to get my drink on, ya dig? On the agenda the following day was the Art Institute of Chicago. Had to get a little culture on the trip. Plan on spending a few hours there, it’s huge. Room after room of art and sculpture, everything from ancient to modern, Byzantine to Warhol. Dinner, yes everything revolves food, was at Au Cheval, for super hipster burgers. And not just any burger, the best burger in America supposedly. And you don’t just walk in to Au Cheval and sit down. No sir. Want to order to go food? No sir. You gotta wait like the rest of us buddy. So we put our name on the list and were quoted a two hour wait. On a Sunday night. Rather than stand outside, we walked over to Bar Siena for pre-dinner snacks and cocktails. Plus the Bears were playing/losing. Two hours later we get the text to come back in 10 minutes or someone else is going to get our table. Needless to say we made it back quickly. It’s a small, dark space with weird and funky music playing. Hipster heaven. So I ordered the double burger, which is actually three patties. Melty cheese, a toasty bun, and sliced pickles round out the burger. Simple, yet heaven. And probably some of the best mashed potatoes and gravy I have ever had to boot. So what can I say about Chicago? A beautiful and lively city, super friendly people everywhere we went, great service, amazing food and drinks, awesome museums and gorgeous architecture. And Uber everywhere. It was great to catch up with an old friend as well. I don’t think I have laughed so much in a long, long time. Just reminiscing about old stories from college, all the dumb stuff we did, was worth the trip alone. As all three of us were sitting at dinner at Coco Pazzo, someone commented that you know you’re true friends when you can pick right up like nothing has changed, even though it has been years. That really hit home to me, that forming close bonds with people can be the hard part, but once you have them, they last forever. Cheers foodies!

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Did You Say Steak?

Sullivan’s. The Angus Barn. The Peddler. Fleming’s. Ruth’s Chris. Vinnie’s. You get the idea. There are plenty of options for you in the greater Raleigh area if you want to go out for a nice steak dinner and never call her again. Little Anchorman reference there sorry, I digress. I mean what’s not to like about a great steakhouse? There is just something about the appeal of going out for a steak dinner. The ambiance of a dimly lit bar with dark wood, servers in ties, red meat, a loaded baked potato, and copious red wine. Maybe a little shrimp cocktail? Best steak I ever had? Peter Luger’s in New York. Better bring cash, they don’t take cards. Best steakhouse memories? Going to Vinnie’s as a kid and seeing our family picture on the wall with the rest of the regulars. However, the one drawback? They ain’t cheap. Want a steak? 50 bucks. A salad? 10 bucks. Taters? Another 10 bucks. I’m not that much of a baller that I can afford to eat out at a high-end steakhouse that often unless someone else is picking up the tab. Outback I can afford. But don’t get me wrong, I’d much rather cook a steak at home. Back when I was in culinary school, we asked one of our chefs where his favorite place to eat in town was. Like the cocky asshole chefs can be, he said his house. At the time I thought he was just being funny. But now after working in restaurants for years, sometimes you don’t want to go out on your day off, you want to be lazy and cook your own food, especially a steak. You know it’s going to be good, plus it’s going to be seasoned well. Probably one of my biggest gear grinders is under seasoned food. Enough about that, I’ll save that for another post.  So I get to choose the exact cut I want, char it over my own grill outside in shorts with a beverage in hand, and know it’s going to be medium rare. I find it relaxing to cook on my day off. Weird right? Plus I don’t have to pay 10 bucks per side. Hasselbacken potatoes? Creamed spinach? Obviously a wedge salad with blue cheese with extra crumbles. So recently I have been on a steakhouse kick. In the last few weeks I have been to Sullivan’s, The Capital Grille, and Outback. No rules, just right. You know I had to sneak a chain in there somewhere. Hey, I wasn’t going to Logan’s Roadhouse or Lone Star. The results? Hands down the best blue cheese wedge salad was from Sullivan’s. Their dressing was super crumbly and creamy. Delicious. At Outback, I ordered a blue cheese wedge salad and the server came back 5 minutes later and asked what dressing I wanted. Um, blue cheese? Duh. So when I get the wedge it had blue cheese dressing, but also balsamic reduction! No! Why would you do that and ruin a perfectly good salad? Despite this, Outback was as tasty as it always is. A Blooming Onion, a 10 oz ribeye (skinniest ‘lil ribeye ever), baked potato with the trimmings and a shareable Mason jar cocktail? What’s not to like. So much food. And it was so much cheaper than Sullivan’s and The Capital Grille. Considerably. Best steak? Probably Sullivan’s. Bone-in Cowboy steak was charred well and cooked correctly. Best overall experience? The Capital Grille. Service and cocktails were great, plus the sides were better than Sullivan’s and Outback. Plus you get an iPad for the wine list. Pretty cool. Kinda reminded me of the tablets  at Applebee’s and Olive Garden, but actually practical. You could sort the wines by price (obviously cheaper to more expensive for me), scroll through all the cocktails, and see what wines paired with certain foods. Foodie nerds will love it. One misstep of The Capital Grille was the steak tartare. Terrible. Like totes not good. Under seasoned, served on top of hard boiled eggs and capers, with a shitty deviled egg on the side. Ugh. Bad news bears. Outside of that, it was awesome. Great night. Plus we had gift cards so we were playing with house money. So what did I learn from my mi-steaks? Sometimes you gotta pay up for your steak just for the ambiance and Outback hits the spot when you need some red meat and a deep fried onion. Cheers foodies!

North Hills

Midtown? Nah. Old North Hills Mall. I miss you. Being a native of the City of Oaks, Andy’s Pizza and Scotty’s were an institution in Raleigh. The best pizza ever. What I wouldn’t do to have a simple pepperoni pie right now. Trophy? Doesn’t hold a candle. And how can you forget the famous Scotty dog and the best greasy burgers and fries?  Now all North Hills is high dollar chains, ITB soccer moms in SUV’s that take up two spaces, and a plethora of Starbucks. No thanks. The dining page of the Visit North Hills website says “From high end to fast casual, classic to cutting-edge, North Hills has it all.” Nothing says cutting edge more than Bonefish Grill and The Cowfish. The only reason I go to North Hills is for Target and Sur La Table. And maybe Total Wine. Again, chain city. Lord knows, I’ve spent enough time working and playing in North Hills, I did work at Vivace and Starbucks. Don’t hold it against me. Yeah, hard to picture me as a barista isn’t it? Lots of eye rolling at complicated orders. You want soy and no foam? Nope. That’s why I chose back of the house. Spent many o’ late night at Midtown, and countless Saturdays day drinking at Fox & Hound. Hey, my options were limited back then. We had the ‘ol Hibernian before it ‘burned’ down and the Creekside Ale House. You know, pre-hipster downtown Raleigh. Old North Hills mall was a dump, don’t get me wrong. We used to rush there on our lunch break from Broughton to grab a slice or two and buy cheap sunglasses from The Dollar Tree. Then maybe look at cd’s from Blockbuster Music. Free Jersey Mike’s because we had a friend who worked there also. (Thanks Jessie) Yeah, I had no life as a teenager. Now? North Hills is all shiny, new, and pretentious. Expensive condos and mixed use development. Gone is the Winn-Dixie. Enter a two story Teeter. Give the ITB’ers what they want, Beach Music on Thursday, expensive steaks, and pricey boutiques. Working on a Thursday was a nightmare. Drunktown as it’s finest. I get it though, it’s good for Raleigh. Cameron Village part deux. But it kind of feels a little Charlotte-ish to me though. Forgive me for being sentimental though, old North Hills Mall was part of my childhood. Lots of great memories. It shaped me to be the pessimist I am today. Cheers foodies!

scotty's

KO at OT

Bucket list. Finally made it to The Office Tavern with AB and McGuzzles. (You know who you are). And what a sight it was. I definitely felt like I was in Carolina Beach at Loretta’s, or the Surfside Bar as it’s also called. You know it’s going to be a good day when you walk into a dive bar on a Sunday and the entire staff, as well as every bar fly, know the people you are accompanying. Not sure what it says about me. Or the company I keep. Anyway, the OT is priceless. Neon signs. Elvis lamps. Pool tables. Fish tank. Cash only. No liquor. Cheap beer. Friendly bartenders. $2 Bud Light aluminum cans on a Sunday. Half way through the day, and quite a few aluminum cans later, a fight happened to break out in the parking lot. A fist fight fight between two older gentlemen, who were also brothers. And one of them happened to be carrying a crutch. And well, he used that crutch to his advantage. It was like the Jerry Springer show broke out on Glenwood South. We had a front row seat to two rednecks beating each other up with fists and crutches flailing. Highly entertaining. Bloody faces ensued. Good thing I was 5 or 6 deep in the metal cans. Cue the jukebox. Anything to calm the situation. Red Solo Cup? Yes. Alabama? Yes. Drive By Truckers? Totally. Even after all the tomfoolery, it still felt like your neighborhood dive bar, just add the assault. I’ll be back to the OT, with their cheap beer (they have the Champagne for 2 dollaz) and for their scenery. The bartenders were salt of the earth, as well as all the regulars. Definitely welcomed with open arms. Great hardworking people who need a place to relax, blow off some steam, and talk about golf and politics. All within dark confines and comfortable bar stools. Don’t we all need that?

I gave Mash and Lauter (and Busy Bee) a second? third? chance. What a mistake that was. How can you be out of half of your entire menu? No mussels? Check. No charcuterie? Check. No bread plate? Check. The tiniest cheese plate ever? Check. Terrible. It’s not like it was late either. It’s half your menu bro.  Last time we went to Busy Bee we walked out after 10 minutes. Why you ask? Service. Always service. We’re here to spend money. Please pay attention to me. Your loss. Gave you plenty of chances. Enough ranting for one night. On a side note, congrats to Gallo Pelón. Best bar in downtown. Check it out. Britt and Marshall are amazing. Cheers foodies!

 

 

 

 

 

Mexi-can’t

I’m always looking for late night food options besides the usual suspects Player’s Retreat, Calavela, Mo Joe’s, etc. So when I found out Virgil’s Original Taqueria was opening and would serve until 2 am seven days I week I got excited. Plus who doesn’t like tacos and Tecate? However, after hearing about some of my fellow service industry friends experiences at Virgil’s I was a little leary and apprehensive; but I figured we would give it a shot anyhow. On Sunday around 10 pm we arrived to a pretty empty restaurant, maybe a handful of other people. We opted to sit at a high-top table rather than the bar. Maybe a mistake. We ordered a couple of cocktails and waited. And waited. And waited. I could see them completed and just glistening on the bar, staring at me, practically calling my name, “please drink me.” I was about to get them myself but eventually the bartender grabbed them, not our server,  and walked around the bar and dropped them off. It’s not like she was busy, there was practically no one in there. Strike one. The “flash fried” tortilla chips, as well as the salsa and guacamole,  are all a la carte on the menu, so if you want all three it’s 10 bucks. No thanks. I’d rather go eat bottomless chips and salsa at El Rodeo. Plus, the same”flash fried” tortilla chips  were just basking under the warmth of the heat lamp the entire time we were there. Plus the guys in the kitchen were ultra-hipster. I’m at a taco place, not The Stanbury ya know? Grinds my gears. So to start we got the Mexican fries, hand-cut and topped with mole, onions, cilantro, sesame seeds, and queso fresco. Well they arrived minus the queso fresco. The bits with the mole were tasty, but without the cheese they were really no bueno. In my best Gordon Ramsay voice, they were dry and bland. Next we opted to sample the tacos, so we decided on the fried avocado, chorizo con papas, and carnitas. Of the three, the fried avocado was the best. Slices of creamy fried avocado with cabbage, cilantro, onions and lime crema were really good. The carnitas were okay, just needed a lot of salt and hot sauce. The chorizo tasted as if it has been charred or burnt.  Oh well. I’ll overlook service sometimes if the food is great, but in this case neither was outstanding. Just middle of the road. For my money, I’d much rather go to Chubby’s Tacos for the relleno, spicy chicken tinga, and the barbacoa. I’ll give Virgil’s another shot because they are open so late,  plus they have Pacifico tall boys; but I’m in no rush to get back. If only Raleigh had better late night food options. Maybe Guy Fieri can open up a dive on Glenwood South. Cheers foodies!

 

Memorable Memorial

Writing can be a funny thing sometimes. You may have one idea in your head, but you sit down to type and something else altogether comes out on the screen. I had planned on one of my notorious “you know what really grinds my gears” sessions because I figured it had been long enough since I ruffled any feathers; plus it helps to vent sometimes. I had just gotten back from a quick trip to Nags Head for Memorial Day with the family and all of a sudden I forgot what I had intended to write about. Go figure. Although it was only for a couple of nights, it was still great to get the hell out of Dodge (i.e. Raleigh) and smell the fresh salt air of the Outer Banks. Being out there evokes recollections of spending my summers there as a kid, practically living in the water. Now, I spend an hour on the beach and end up looking like a lobster. Damn ginger skin. They need to make an SPF for our kind. I think they actually do, it’s called a t-shirt. Just sitting on the cabana, overlooking the sand and the waves, feeling the breeze in your face, it is utterly soothing. For a few moments you can forget about work and bills. There is also something to be said about the flavors and smells of certain foods that your family makes that can create memories, as well as transport you to different times and places of your life. Every time we have a cookout it reminds me of 4th of July in Nags Head, churning homemade ice cream, watching the fireworks explode off the fishing pier, and trips to Sam and Omie’s for greasy eggs and hash browns. I can still picture myself there as a kid, a pocketful of quarters, playing Galaga and Pac-Man, while everyone else was huddled around the bar having screwdrivers and baby beers, waiting for a table.  I miss those days. It’s also all about that sense of comfort of having your mom’s deviled eggs or your dad’s potato salad. When I try to recreate them at home they still taste good, but it’s not the same unless they make it. The food just tastes better. Maybe it’s all in my head, but it truly does. It’s my happy place being able to relax at the cottage with a beverage in hand, beach music playing, and everyone under one roof. My family may be crazy sometimes, but I love them for it. Thankfully it’s only one more month until I get back there for the 4th. Cheers foodies!

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Uncommon Commonality

Stephen King once wrote, “Friends come in and out of your life like busboys in a restaurant.” Not sure he ever saw the horror of working as a server or a cook though. There is something to be said about the friends you make while working in restaurants. Add in the small world we call Raleigh and you have a recipe for constantly seeing familiar faces wherever you may work or play. So the other night we finally decided to check out The Blind Barbour since it’s practically a stone’s throw from my house. Plus I had to name drop that I knew someone who works there; restaurant protocol. So a cocktail later, we figured why not venture to Taste since it is literally across the parking lot. It was like a mini Dixie Trail bar crawl if you will, minus the recently closed The Medlin. Thank God. Anyway, lo and behold, good ‘ol Leslie and Dean from my 18 Seaboard days were working at Taste. I can’t go anywhere without knowing someone. Born and raised in Raleigh tends to do that. A familiar face with who you can tell war stories from the good old days goes a long way though. You know, did you hear about so and so got knocked up? Can you believe so and so are still working there? Remember that one time? You get the point. It’s like the fellowship of the black apron or the white chef coat. The fraternity of shift meals, side work, and can I get a runner? The same people, who have seen you at your very best, have seen you at the very worst. It’s a kind of college reunion of sorts, just add more alcohol and shit talking. There are only so many good restaurants in our town that everyone eventually makes the rounds. And if you work in the service industry long enough here you are bound to run into the same people, and probably work with them again. It’s a close knit community that shares a common bond of customer service, being in the weeds, and the grind of a booked Mother’s Day brunch. One minute you might want to kill a server for ringing in their entire section at once, but a few hours later you are drinking beers together at The PR. What is said behind closed doors during the rush isn’t to be taken personally anyway. Lord knows I’ve said and done things I’m not proud of. However, the post-work camaraderie of finally sitting down on a bar stool and the steady flow of Fireball shots definitely make up for it. Only those who have worked in restaurants fully understand what I’m talking about. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I decided to apply to culinary school 10 plus years ago, but it’s been the best decision I have made. It may have not always been pretty, but it has been a hilarious, stressful, and rewarding ride so far. Cheers foodies!

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