Monday, April 23, 2012

TV Troubles

Due to a square peg in a round hole situation with my work desk here at home (the designated computer room's door was too small for my desk to fit through), my desk had been in the living room for nearly a year.  This was fine for me, since I work from home and I like to watch TV while I work and my primary TiVo and Sony LCD TV were right there.  Around Christmas, though, space in that part of the house was at a premium.  We had to put up the Christmas tree, Tara's whole family drove down from Minnesota to spend the holidays with us, etc.  Our master bedroom has huge double doors, so after some clearing of stuff, I moved my desk into there.  The only downside was that the TV in the bedroom was an ancient Toshiba tube TV.  That wouldn't do in the long run.

Come Tax Refund Time, I started looking for a reasonably sized and priced TV for the bedroom.  I settled on 42" being the right size given room available.  I looked around online and at the various local stores.  Price-wise, I was looking in the $400-$500 range.  I finally settled on a Vizio E420VA.  Within the price range and Vizio TVs have gotten good reviews on their newer models.  Right out of the box, I couldn't get the picture to look good.  It always had a washed-out look to the colors and blacks were bad.  I tried adjusting the settings, but I couldn't get it to look good.  My 46" Sony in the living room, two years old and a fairly base model, looked gorgeous out of the box and I've never had to make any adjustments.  It's always looked perfect.  This Vizio, not so much.  I finally decided to return it and get something else.  Luckily, Sam's Club where I bought it has an excellent 90-day return policy.  I returned it and before I'd left the store, the refunded money was back in my account.

I headed over to a different Sam's Club that had the replacement TV I decided on.  An LG 42LV4400.  It was an LED model instead of an LCD, 120Hz instead of 60Hz.  Only 3 HDMI ports, but that wasn't an issue.  I set it up and after a few minor tweaks, I got the picture pretty close to the Sony's.  I was happy.  The only small problem was that for some reason, when using my Logitech Harmony 650, the LG's inputs wouldn't switch automatically when I changed activities.  I had to do that manually.  That I chalked up to the Harmony, not the TV.  I bought that TV on Feb 11 and all was hunky-dory. 

Until April 21.  I watched some TV in the morning no problem.  I get back in the afternoon, and the LG decides it won't turn on.  When I hit the Watch TV button on the Harmony, the receiver turns on and I can hear sound from the TiVo until the TV tries to power on.  Then the sound stops and the TV just emits a buzzing noise from the back.  I unplug everything, try a different power outlet but to no avail.  It's dead.  Thankfully I'd saved the receipt and after packing it back up, I head off to Sam's.  As I'm at the service desk returning it, another Sam's worker behind the counter asks me how long it took the TV to fail.  I say two months.  She says "Me, too!".  Apparently she had an LG and after two months something happened and she'd need to let it warm up for a few minutes before the picture turned on.  So, yeah, no more LGs for me. 

I check over their current inventory and another Vizio model catches my eye.  I was hoping for a Samsung, but Sam's didn't have any 42" ones at either store I checked.  The Vizio, an M420SL, looked to be pretty fancy.  It was a bit more than the LG (which in turn had been more than the first Vizio), but it had built-in WiFi, Edge-lit LED, Internet apps built in (Netflix, Amazon Instant, and many others) and it's yearly energy cost was a laughable $9.  Since it was a different panel technology, LED vs. LCD, I decided to give it a shot.  I checked out it's various picture modes on the demo model and they looked fine.  I bought one and loaded it into the car.  Worst case, I could return it again. 

I set it up and plugged in the TiVo and Roku box.  It took a bit to get it onto the wireless at home, but eventually it connected.  That could have been some user error on my part as it comes with a fancy remote that has a full keyboard on the opposite side as the normal TV controls.  I configured Netflix on it and started playing Ghostbusters as a test.  I set it to the "Vivid" picture mode, said mode being the one that I liked best.  It looked really good.  I grabbed Tara from her marathon beading session with her sister for a second opinion and she agreed it was outstanding.  The inputs even switch like they should once I updated the Harmony with the new TV.  So far, the Vizio looking even better than the LG.  Still not quite getting a Sony vibe, but it's incredibly close.  Time will tell if it has better longevity than the LG did. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Oink Cafe - Phoenix

What's in a name?

Well, when you call your new restaurant The Oink Cafe, all your interior art features pigs, and your slogan is "Breakfast. Lunch. Bacon.", I expect your bacon to be perfect. I don't care if your are open 3 days or 3 years. From day one, you need to do your bacon right.

Sadly, as with our visit to the now defunct Bacon restaurant in Old Town Scottsdale a few years ago, Oink dropped the ball with the bacon. That wasn't the first, or only, misstep on my visit today.

The Oink Cafe is on the outskirts of the Paradise Valley Mall, located just south of the Target store there on the west side. They have two entrances, but I parked on the south side and apparently entered the "back" entrance. After a bit of server confusion, I was seated and eventually handed a menu. Who sees seven people enter and grabs only two menus? Really?

I looked over the fairly typical breakfast/lunch joint menu. Since bacon seemed to be the specialty, I looked for a BACON section. Sadly, there isn't one. Just bacon listed in the sides, with the various styles (Applewood smoked, honey-cured, sugar-cured, jalapeno, and pepper). I looked and the French Toast combo (two slices of French toast, one egg, BACON (their typing), sausage patty or link). One thing I noticed that seemed odd was there were two different sections for "Sides". One was on the inside and the other was on the back of the menu. Using the one on the back, the price of all the items in the combo came to $7.30. The Combo itself was $7.99. I asked the waitress and she seemed confused as well. It was at that point I noticed the single slice of French toast on the back was $1.79. The inside Sides section had it listed for $2.99. Um, huh? The waitress said nobody had noticed that before. After three days of being open and I'd HOPE having someone proofread their menu before they placed the final order for them. I did order the French toast combo as that is what I was in the mood for. The waitress took my order and said she'd ring it up at the lower price and would let the manager know.

When my food arrived after a short wait, it was a bit underwhelming. The two slices of bacon were good-sized, but nowhere near crisp as good bacon should be. In fact, both slices were on the undercooked side of my preferences. The fatty portions weren't crisp but instead still soft and chewy. I don't expect cooked-to-charcoal bacon. Crisp bacon can still be chewy without being nastily so. Most of our usual breakfast places cook it perfectly (thus explaining why we frequent them). But for the love of god, if you call your place OINK and have BACON in your motto, this was unacceptable. I did eat it and found no "sugar-cured" flavor. I'd recommend they head down to The Pork Shop in Queen Creek and experience what really amazing bacon tastes like.

The French toast itself was very meh. The slices were very small and didn't have a particularly good flavor. Average at best and for $2.99 a slice, pathetic. Not a good deal at all.

I had the egg scrambled and it was pretty much overcooked. Fairly dense and needed more seasoning.

Service was good. My waitress bent over backwards to make sure I got the cheaper price. The manager didn't have the math skills to figure out a $.69 difference in price so he just told her to take $2 off. That brought my bill to $9.05. For her hassle, I gave her the $2 back in tip.

Overall, Oink just seems to be an average diner/cafe with delusions of being a bacon-haven. It's not. If they can't cook decent bacon when they are slow (I got there a little after 1:15pm), I'm not sure I'd bother going during prime hours.

As I've written in previous posts, Harlow's and Joe's Diner are much better options. For a really good breakfast at a slightly higher price point, go to The Breakfast Club in Old Town Scottsdale. Their fresh fruit is always amazing (some of the biggest raspberries and blackberries I've ever seen) and their sausage patties are my favorite in town, period.

Do not confuse them with The Breakfast Joynt. Joynt, while a favorite of some of our friends, has always been sub-par on our visits. Their bacon was truly limp and undercooked.

The Oink Cafe
4326 E Cactus Rd
Phoenix, AZ 85032

Monday, January 16, 2012

Chou's Kitchen - Chandler, AZ

This past Sunday, Tara and her sister went to Tucson to visit with their grandmother before she heads back to Minnesota this week. I was in the mood for something Dim Sum-ish, but going solo to Dim Sum just limits the variety too much. This post in the New Times earlier in the week intrigued me. Hamburger-sized dumplings? Count me in. So I Googled Map-ped Chou's Kitchen and headed down.

Lucky for me I'm very familiar with the Ray/Alma School intersection. There's a Goodwill store there that I've been to many times. Chou's is on the south end of the shopping center. It's a tiny place, with maybe 10 or 12 tables. The basic space's layout reminded me a lot of Acacia Cafe, for those who know the Arcadia spot (a favorite of Tara, btw). When I walked in the door, it was plain that it's popular with the Asian community. Every table was taken or needed to be bussed, as a large group had just left. And I was the sole caucasian in the place, until a couple came in immediately behind me. Generally I take it as a VERY good sign when an Asian restaurant is packed with Asians.

The waitstaff seemed a bit overwhelmed, so I wondered if they saw a upturn in business since the article came out. The other white folks mentioned they'd seen it as well, but some of the patrons were definetly regulars. I'm guessing, since Chinese dialects were literally all I could see and nearly all signs were in Chinese characters as well. Thankfully, the menu had English names as well.

Chou's Kitchen serves mainly dumpling-esque specialties from a northern province of China. Read the New Times article for the exact locations. Nearly all the main dishes are dumplings of some type. The also have some soups, cold dishes, hot pots, and noodles as well. I was targeting the meat pies pictured in the New Times article. I ordered the pork meat pies (three) and fried beef buns (six). Both were $4.98. There was a soda fountain in the corner, but it was either broken or for decoration, as my Pepsi arrived in a can.

The Fried Beef Buns arrived first. They came on a plate upside-down, and had been fried together. The texture of the bun was somewhere between a steamed pork bun and pan-fried dumpling at dim sum. They were sweet, with the filling reminding me a bit of gyoza. They were very good and I initially was going to save some to take home. The pork pies took a LONG time. The table seated before me ordered over a 1/2 dozen dishes. My buns came out just after that table's first few dishes. The pork pies were taking so long I thought they'd been forgotten. I was hungry, so the rest of the beef buns made the ultimate sacrifice. But damn, they were good. There were six in the order. Two just didn't make it into the photo.

Finally, the pork pies arrived. They were screaming hot, so I had to let them cool. There is some broth inside the wrapping, so it's very easily to get scalded if you aren't careful. The wrappers were nicely browned. They are a lot like regular dumpling, just flattened with a broth inside. The meat seasoning is similar as well. Once they'd cooled, I started nibbling carefully and really enjoyed them. They are about the size of hamburger patties, so I only managed to eat one and a half before getting a box for the leftovers.

The other table of non-Asians called the waitress over to ask if their beef pies were forgotten. The waitress let them know that the meat pies take the longest of all their items to cook. The wait is well worth it, though. I've been to my share of Chinese restaurants and many Dim Sum meals, but I've never seen this particular item. The other table hadn't either. It's well worth hunting down Chou's to give them a try.

The service is very friendly, but I think the kitchen is small, so orders can take some time. Don't come in expecting a speedy, Pei Wei-type experience. Come in, relax, and just enjoy something a bit different. Like Dim Sum, coming with a small group so you can order a variety of items is probably your best bet. I believe they are open 7 days, but I can't remembe their exact hours. No website unfortunately.

I definitely plan on going back. There are a lot of items that intrigued me and sounded quite good.

Chou's Kitchen
910 N Alma School Rd, Chandler

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Still here

Wow, nearly six months fallow. How time flies.

I really need to put a bit more effort around here. We'll see how that goes.

My latest deal I found was on a nice Waring Pro waffle maker. It was a display model at Sam's Club and I snagged it for about 1/2 price. I christened it yesterday and it works great. Adjustable browning and alarms to let you know when it's preheated and the waffle is done. Can't wait to get some more use out of it.

Terribly exciting, no? Blame it on the cold currently sapping most of my will to live. Damn relatives from Minnesota must have brought it with them over the holidays. Tara, Theresa, and I are all in various stages of colds/flus/sinus infections/ear infections.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Breakfast/lunch places in Phoenix

We enjoy our weekends, especially eating a late breakfast or lunch. Our favorite standby is Harlow's in Tempe. I love their chorizo in any number of their dishes, especially the huge Eggs Maximilian. Even the simple chorizo and eggs is a great way to start the day. Their chorizo, for me, has the perfect balance of flavor and heat. We even have a favorite waitress who remembers us, Katrina. Harlow's is one of those places that attracts everyone: college kids from ASU, hipsters, families, bikers, Scottsdale pretty people, and the like.

Sometimes, though, a change is nice.

One of our friends was checking in on Foursquare a lot at a place called Joe's Diner, on 16th Street between Camelback and Indian School. I tried it solo while Tara was out of town and loved it. After several trips, the only thing I didn't love was their sausage patties. They were kinda dry and rubbery and not up to the rest of the food. They are your basic diner, with breakfast, lunch, and a bunch of sandwiches, plus daily specials. Nothing earth-shattering, but everything is done very well. The owners have been there every weekend when we've gone. Joe comes out of the kitchen and chats with customers. On one visit, he asked me about the food, and I told him my dislike of the sausage compared to the rest of the food. In a subsequent visit, the sausage was vastly improved and he confirmed that he'd changed the recipe. The only thing I have problems with now is their chorizo. It's made for him by Carolina's using his own recipe. It's very bland for chorizo, with hardly any flavor and no heat. Luckily they have so much else that is fantastic, it's not really an issue for me. I also like that both Joe and his wife (who always says hi to us when we go) are free to recommend other places to eat. Joe admitted his Italian sandwich is an homage/copy of DeFalco's in Scottsdale. His wife recommended Bertha's in Arcadia, 5th Ave Cafe at 5th Ave and Thomas, and Times Square at I17 and Deer Valley. JK also mentioned that their coffee is great.

Today we were able to try 5th Ave Cafe for a late breakfast. It's a nice space right on the corner with a little bit of parking out front and more in the back. We got there about 1/2 before they closed for lunch. Service was pleasant although there were a few small issues with timing. I also saw another table have an ordering issue/language barrier problem, but they fixed it and several of the staff apologized for the mix-up. They did keep our drinks refilled like troopers, as just about any server who walked by when a glass was empty would immediately ask if we wanted refills. For our meals, Tara got the biscuits and gravy plate, which came with a couple scrambled eggs and red potatoes. They were some excellent biscuits and gravy and Tara loved the herbed potatoes, crunchy outside and creamy inside. I got the Chorizo Cowboy, a skillet scramble of eggs, chorizo, hash browns, and cheese sprinkled on top. I also got a side of sausage. The scramble was really good. It didn't have the nice chorizo flavor of Harlow's, but it was still quite good. The hash browns were very finely grated, so they were very crispy. It all worked. It came with a huge buttered tortilla, so I used 1/2 my skillet to make a breakfast burrito. I stuffed myself and still had some leftover scramble. The only odd thing was when the waitress dropped off some syrup on her first delivery of our meals. Tara and I gave each other an odd look, as we couldn't figure what required syrup. On her second trip, she had my dish and a huge plate with a "short stack" of pancakes, which looked really good. She asked who had them and we said nobody. She later admitted she'd keyed it into our order by mistake. I'd gotten a $10 gift cert from and even with two drinks, our order was still under the $20 min before tax. Not a bad deal. 5th Ave Cafe will definitely be in our rotation now.

On the complete opposite end of the cost spectrum, there's St Francis at Camelback and 1st St. A friend had posted pictures of his brunch there a while back and it looked so good, we had to try it. Along with our friend JK, we went for their Sunday brunch a couple weeks ago. Unfortunately, they have a live band and horrible acoustics, so we could barely hear ourselves talk. The food, however, was spectacular.
The Bakers Board, with scones, baguette, rosemary mini-biscuits, a mini-cinnamon bun, and toppings for the breads, was a meal in itself. The scones with creme fraische were incredible. The bread with the butter and jam was also right up there. Tara and JK thought the mini-biscuits were a bit over-kneaded, but I still loved them. The cinnamon bun with homemade caramel sauce was my least favorite. The sauce had too much of a burnt flavor for me.
While waiting for our table, Tara spied a group eating fingerling potatoes that looked too tempting to pass up. Cooked with rosemary, sage, sprinkled with a pecorino cheese, and served with a lemon aioli, they were crazy good.
Tara ordered the House Made Biscuit, with fennel sausage gravy and two fried eggs on top. Hands-down this was the best biscuit and gravy I've had. The gravy had a strong flavor with huge chunks of sausage. The biscuit was easily four inches across. A great dish.
JK had the Wood-Oven Baked Eggs, with red wine braised beef, summer vegetables, tomatoes, and gruyere. I had a tiny taste, yet it had a ton of flavor.
I had the Pork Chile Verde, with cilantro, lime, jack cheese, two sunny side up eggs, and homemade cornbread. I was in love with it. Not quite as good as the dreamy Carne Adovada at Dick's Hideaway, it was still fantastic. Not too much heat from the spices and a great melding of flavors. The only let down was the homemade cornbread. Compared to the other baked goods, it was out of it's league. It didn't help that it was served cold. Warm with some butter would have made a huge difference.
With our drinks, including a couple mimosas, the bill came to $85 for the three of us. Ouch. If you don't go nuts like we did trying so much, and forgo the mimosas, it would be much more manageable. Still, the food was so good, it would be hard to not order some extra dishes.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Zaytoon Kabob Bistro - North Phoenix

Wow, I didn't realize it's been so long since I posted. Things have been quite hectic. We moved to a new house in February, so January was full of searching, applying, and moving prep. We're finally mostly all settled.

Some of the first mail we got at our new place was a ValuPak of coupons. One was for a local, fairly new Middle Eastern place called Zaytoon Kabob Bistro. They are located in one of the small strip malls on the southwest corner of Greenway and Tatum. Since we moved farther from the large cluster of restaurants at 7th St/Bell, we've been looking for new places that are closer to home.

Zaytoon is a five month old restaurant. You order at the counter and they bring your food out to you. As the name implies, most of their menu is kabobs, either in wraps or entree form. Ground beef, chicken, shrimp, lamb, veggie, and a few others. They also have daily specials. On my first visit, the friendly and helpful girl at the register explained that the owner is Iranian and the specials are all Iranian specialties. They are unique on the menu and not just discounted regular items. I think that's a great idea.

On my first visit, I got the gyro wrap to go, along with an order of hummus. These are my usual measuring sticks for a new Middle Eastern restaurant. The gyro meat is made in-house. The gyros wrap was huge. A large quantity of gyro meat (beef and lamb), along with veggies and sauce, all wrapped in a fresh, house-made tandoori bread. It was very good. The hummus was excellent. There was an added flavor I couldn't identify, but it was obviously made in-house as well. This was evidenced by a few whole or nearly whole chickpeas that escaped processing. Tara and I ranked this as our second favorite hummus after Z's Greek on Thomas near 40th Street.

On my second take-out visit, I got the chicken kabob entree (marinated boneless chicken, breast or thigh), which came with basmati rice and 1/2 a piece of tandoori bread. The chicken was also very good, with a nice marinated flavor. It came with a massive side of rice, easily enough for two or three people. The rice was OK. It was basic basmati rice, nothing special. For that, you head to Eden's Grill just down Tatum at Thunderbird. Their rice is amazing, but a different review.

Tonight, Tara didn't feel like cooking and suggested we go to Zaytoon, as she hadn't tried it yet outside of the hummus. Surprisingly, they were nearly packed on a Wednesday night. They have around 15 tables and most were taken. A huge group was ordering at the register when we arrived, but the owner let his son deal with them and took our order at the other end of the counter. He was incredibly friendly and helpful. Tara got the ground beef kabobs (ground beef mixed with onions and Zaytoon seasonings). I got the daily special: Eggplant Stew (A stew of beef, yellow split peas, and eggplant in a saffron tomato sauce, served with steamed basmati rice.
We also got a hummus appetizer with two extra pieces of tandoori bread. The owner even asked the kitchen to do our order in front of the large group so we wouldn't have to wait for twelve dishes to be done before ours.

The hummus arrived before I even made my way to the table after getting my drink. I let the extremely hot bread cool before dug in, but Tara didn't way as she has a higher pain threshold. The hummus was still as good as we remembered. It was a very large portion and we found we couldn't stop eating it. As we did, we noticed the large group started to get their meals. That was fine, as they were there before us and we had a ton of hummus to keep us very happy.

After about half of the large group had their meals, our came out. Immediately after we got them, the owner came out and apologized for our meals taking longer than normal. This caught us by surprise as it didn't seem to take long at all. We assured him that we didn't even notice and were just finishing the hummus in any case. Sometimes you can't beat the service at a Mom and Pop place.

Tara's ground beef kabobs were excellent. She even went so far as to say there were better than the ones she used to get when we frequented Shish Kabab House in Glendale. High praise indeed.

My stew was very good, although I'm not sure I'd get it again. The saffron tomato sauce had a very interesting flavor, and I'm sure people love it, but it was right on the border of my tastes. I didn't DISlike it, but I'm not sure it's something I'd order again. What I did love is that it DID have a distinct flavor and didn't seem to be too toned-down for the general public.

All the plates and utensils are plastic and the interior is very clean if not too special. All of the staff has been very friendly on all my visits and the owner even more so tonight. The best part is that the most expensive items on the menu (the lamb and the shrimp entrees) top out at $9.99. The generous portion of hummus was only $3.75. My daily special was only $7.99. It's a great alternative to Chili's or other chains down at the Cactus and Tatum area. Judging by the large mid-week crowd and owner greeting many patrons like regulars, they have quite a following already.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Chili Time

Sorry for the near-abandonment of the blog. My primary computer's web browser doesn't allow me to sign in for some reason so it's a hassle to create new posts.

With the weather getting colder here in Phoenix, I've had a craving for my chili. This isn't an old sacred family recipe. I cobbled this together after some trial and error during my long-ago time in Dallas. It's not even close to an authentic Texas chili recipe. I read dozens of chili recipes online and blogs and threw together the elements that sounded good. Eventually I settled on this and it usually comes out pretty tasty. I try to keep the spice level down, as I'm not a hard-core heat enthusiast. I prefer flavor over incendiary ingredients. I found grocery store generic spices work best for me usually. I tried high-quality spices and chili powders from the awesome Central Market in Plano, and man, I felt like the ill-fated at the end of Nazi in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's nothing special and can be modified to one's tastes. I've used both beef and turkey for the meat and both work wonderfully.

Tim's Chili

1 lb ground sirloin
1 lb ground chuck
1 28oz can crushed tomatoes
2-3 tbl chipotle chili powder
2-3 tbl chili powder
1-2 tbl ground cumin
1-2 tbl onion powder
6-8 cloves fresh minced garlic
1 tbl coriander
1 can refried beans
1 can pinto beans
1 can whole kernel corn
1 jalapeno chile, finely chopped
1 Anaheim chile, finely chopped
1 medium to large white onion, diced
1 medium to large red onion, diced
1/8 to 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp Kosher salt
4 cups water
2 cans chicken stock

Brown meat and drain fat. In an 8-quart pot (that's what I used), combine meat with the
rest of the ingredients. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to low and
simmer for 90 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes.