Sunday, April 29, 2007

Just like Mom used to make...

For most of us, our mother's cooking sets the standards for how we measure food for the rest of our life. Luckily, my mother is a great cook. Her spaghetti sauce is still my favorite. Her Mexican Wedding Cake cookies still top mine. Everyone loves her homemade baked beans. I'm actually trying to make a batch today, which is why this thread came to me. To varying degrees, I've been able to duplicate most of my old favorites.

I really like chocolate chip cookies, especially the raw dough. Growing up, we'd always dunk Mom's into milk to soften them up. I tried baking a few times growing up, but I don't remember much about those efforts. I do remember the first time I made choc chip cookies. I followed the recipe and used real butter instead of margarine. To my amazement, Mom took one small taste of the dough and could taste it. While in college, I had to make my own. After much trial and error, I got it down and my friends really enjoyed them. I didn't do anything special. I followed the Nestle Tollhouse Cookie recipe in the back of their semi-sweet morsel bag. Eventually, I tried using non-stick, air-insulated sheets, and I loved them. No more burnt cookies. My only change is I doubled the vanilla extract (pure, of course). The strange thing is my cookies came out soft. Mom's were always hard. I'm not sure what I do differently, but somehow I am able to make better chocolate chip cookies. She's not too bitter anymore. :)

Next up are her Mexican Wedding Cakes. Mine are really good. They are really easy to make, but to me they are holiday cookies, so I only make them in November and December. People literally stalk me asking for them. One of my old coworkers would ask me about them at least once or twice a month all year, and once November rolled by, I'm pretty sure she had it circled on her calender. Tara also loves them and gives me the Evil Eye when I tell her they are holiday cookies. She even liked the ones I made with real butter (I'm a margarine person.) As good as mine are, I still prefer Mom's. I'm not sure what she does different, but they always taste better to me.

Her spaghetti sauce was a harder target. Mom is of the "eyeball it" school of cookers. For most of her recipes, she just adds the ingredients and doesn't measure. I have my mostly-unused Electrical Engineering degree, and all that science has forged a need in me for recipes and procedures. The scientific method, if you will. I treat cooking like chemistry. Mom has given us a rough outline of her recipe. While it's still a bit hit-or-miss, Tara can make it spot-on sometimes. Once it was actually better. It was so good I'd actually take cold spoonfuls of it out of the fridge. I'd also dip slices of baguette. It was so good. She's come close since, but that was just heavenly.

The baked beans have been a tougher nut to crack. I've made it maybe a half-dozen times or so, and still can't get it close. I figured I'd try it again today since there's not much going on. They are still baking, so I'll report more later. The recipe itself is simple, but it still eludes me.

Another problem is she no longer has a lot of the recipes I've asked for. Some of them are lost, but sometimes I get lucky. I love Alton Brown's Good Eats on The Food Network. One of his episodes dealt with duplicating a yellow cake recipe. I tried it, and it's almost exactly like Mom's. I was even able to ger her frosting recipe from the Domino sugar web site. The frosting is WAY too sweet for Tara. I made her a birthday cake our first year together, and as she was eating it, I told her what was in the frosting. A little margarine, some milk, and two pounds of powdered sugar. Her response was "So THAT'S why my teeth hurt." :) I still like it and it makes great cupcakes.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Welcome Diner

A while back, we read about Welcome Diner on and the corresponding post done by the friend he went with. It certainly piqued our interest.
Welcome Diner is near downtown Phoenix, at Roosevelt and 9th Street. It's in an older neighborhood and not the place you'd look for a restaurant. It's got a nice white fence outside and the diner is indeed an old diner car looking place. Inside they have an old photo of it. It's nicely appointed, but tiny. It has 9 stools to sit on around a counter that stretches from the entrance to the left around a corner. The stools add to the atmosphere, but aren't the most comfortable for those of us of larger stature, if you get my drift. Outside they have an umbrella-shaded table with four chairs and some wooden benches with a counter to eat at. Since it was a gorgeous day today, we decided to eat out side. One thing to mention: It's CASH ONLY. Didn't want to forget that.
We didn't look at a menu. We've been there many times and know what we like. Tara got a cheeseburger with no tomato, fries, and a glass of water. I got a hot dog, fries, a can of grape soda (I LOVE grape, and not many places have it), and a glass of water. They gave us the drinks and we sat down at the table and waited.
After maybe ten or fifteen minutes, our order was up. Since we sat outside, we got baskets with our orders. Usually when you sit inside, you get your meal on a paper plate or some such. Either way, the taste isn't affected. :) Tara's burger was stacked with the toppings and she dove in. My dog was piled high with mustard, relish, and chopped onions. I didn't see any ketchup like I ordered, but that was fine. It is a great hot dog, partially deep fried first and then finished on the grill. It gives it a great texture and flavor. I ate it in short order. The burgers are grilled with the ketchup and mustard added during cooking, as well as some olive oil. Tara loves the burgers as much as I do the hot dogs. The best part of the meal for me, though, is the fries. They are nothing extraordinary. Just fresh sliced, skin-on potatoes, blanched, and then fried. You can watch them do it all from the stools. They have the industrial potato slicer mounted on the wall and the plastic bins of blanching fries are on a shelf. What comes out of the fryer is a golden-brown, crispy slice of perfection. They toss them with some salt and serve. About as basic as you can get, but they are my favorite fries in the Valley. Dip them in the ketchup, and enjoy. Tara agrees with a couple caveats. First, for thin fries, she loves the seasoned fries at Grilled Expedition in Desert Ridge. They have a 10-spice seasoning that is really good. One of them is sugar, which surprised us the first time, but definitely adds something. Second, for sweet potato fries, she craves them from Delux.
Part of the Welcome Diner experience is eating inside. They have a random selection of books on the counter to read, like 50 Jobs Worse Than Yours, Bush quotes, What If..., and things to promote conversation. Given the close quarters seating, you generally will chat with or overhear your neighbor's conversations. Most of the crowd there is used to this and it makes for a very friendly place. The owner and his sous-chef are really cool and make you feel welcome. We've had/heard some fairly racy conversations from time to time, but it's all in good fun. It's very much a neighborhood dining experience. I believe they also try to use organic or locally produced vegetables and stuff as well. They have some gourmet relishes and toppings for the burgers, too, but we like ours regular just fine.
My biggest problem is with their hours. They are open Monday through Saturday, 11am to 2pm. We left close to 2pm, and they were still mostly full. If you are downtown for work or on the weekend hitting the farmers market, I'd highly recommend stopping in.
Our meal came to just under $13 for a cheeseburger, hot dog, two orders of fries, and a can of soda. It's a deal that is hard to beat. If you start adding extra toppings, it can add up quickly. We've eaten here four or five times now, and haven't had a bad meal.
And again, it's cash only. But luckily, it's not that much. If you are in the area and even briefly consider a chain burger place, head directly for Welcome Diner. Odds are, you will actually spend less money. I won't say it's any healthier, but you'll definitely enjoy it a lot more.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Ninetta's Passion Bistro

After reading Seth's review of Ninetta's, we were very curious to try it. We live just down the road from it on Union Hills, and last Friday we were looking for someplace close as we waited for some friends to come over. I suggested Ninetta's, and Tara agreed. We couldn't remember if it was at 7th Street or 7th Ave, and we missed it the first time, so after returning to 7th Street, we finally found it. We got there at around 7:30 or so, and I was able to snag a spot right in front of the door when a Tahoe left as I pulled up. We went in and were immediately greeted by a hostess who started to take us to our table. The friendly guy that Seth mentioned came over and delayed us. He asked me what happened, and it took me a second to realize he was referring to my shaved head, which nicely matched his. He assured us we were going to really enjoy the food. After he made a few more jokes, he let us go and we tried to locate the long-gone hostess waiting at our table on the other side of the restaurant. Luckily it was under one of the lights, as it was really dim. The menus looked to be homemade printouts inside a plastic cover, so I figure the menu might change on occasion. The hostess listed the specials of the day, but I can't remember what they were. The host came over and started chatting again. He took our drink order. Tara got a Coke and I decided to try the pomegranate iced tea, which sounded interesting. It turned out to be bottled Republic of Tea, so I was somewhat disappointed. The hostest appeared and clarified that Tara wanted a regular, not diet, Coke.
We looked over the menu, and a couple things jumped out at us. The Passion Ravioli, listed as a lobster ravioli with a cognac sauce, sounded good. The butternut squash ravioli also intrigued. They also listed a nightly lasagna, which you needed to ask to find out the current flavor. It was meat on our visit. Since Tara was getting the Passion Ravioli, I decided to get the lasagna. The host also told us they had "personal" pizzas as a nightly special, miming with his hands something about 6 or 7 inches in size. We decided to try the shrimp pesto one. Once everything was ordered, they brought out the tomato hummus and pita points. The hummus interesting. I'm not sure if I liked it or not. I didn't dislike it, but it was just in my taste bud purgatory zone. I did like the pita chips, and was imagining them with a bowl of hummus from The Shish Kabob House. Tara WANTED to like the hummus, but she's not a tomato fan and it just didn't do it for her.
The host came by at one point and let us know that they cook your order when you order, so it takes a little while. We'd remembered this from Seth's review, so we were fine.
The "personal" pizza made it's appearance, and it was much larger than described. It was maybe 10" or 12" by 12". It was a square pizza cut into 8 slices, each with a whole shrimp centered on it. It was really good. The crust had an almost cracker-like consistency. Very crunchy. The shrimp and pesto were done just right. Tara loved the whole pine nuts sprinkled over it. I had two slices and Tara had one. We didn't want to fill up before our main dishes arrived. So for the next 15 or 20 minutes, we had to use the buddy system to prevent each other from sneaking another piece.
Finally, our meals arrived. Tara's was a nice big square plate filled with ravioli and a white sauce . Mine was a good-sized slice of lasagna. I took a bite. The outside was only warm, but the inside was piping hot. It was a much drier lasagna that I like, meaning that there wasn't much sauce. It was slightly sweet, but I really didn't get any flavors. The meat could have been hamburger, but the host told me it was a mix of beef and veal. I guess I just prefer my lasagna spicier. It wasn't a bad one, just bland for me.
I tried a piece of the Passion Ravioli and it was really good. Kind of like lobster bisque in a ravioli. Tara tried a piece and agreed. Then she had a piece with the sauce and nearly fainted. She gave me a piece with a bit of sauce to try. It was amazing. The ravioli/sauce combination put the dish over the top. It was like a pillow of flavor that just hit every taste bud at the same time. I tried another bite, and it was still ecstasy. It was one of the top dishes I've ever had. It reminded me of my all-time favorite dish from Chamberlain's Chop House in Dallas. I had a seared tuna with a teriyaki glaze. The first bite I got only tuna, and loved it. Then I tried a piece with the accompanying glaze, and the flavor just exploded. I hadn't thought it could be better, but it was. The ravioli elicited a similar reaction. Even now, I'm all but drooling thinking about it.
We passed on dessert, as we were planning on making pazuki at home when our friends arrived. The host tried to entice us, but we were too full at that point. Service was ok, but Tara's Coke was empty for a long time before anyone offered to refill it. I had plenty of iced tea in the bottle, so it wasn't a problem.
Aside from the lasagna, we loved the food. The ravioli will lure us back no matter what, but there are other items that piqued our curiosity as well. All told, our bill came to $63. More than we had planned on spending, but well worth it to discover the Passion of the Ravioli.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Chanpen - quick bite

I went to Chanpen yesterday to satisfy a Thai craving. I decided to try something different, so I got the larb salad with chicken and an order of the egg rolls. I don't normally like vegetarian egg rolls, but for some reason I really enjoy theirs. They came out crispy and not too hot. I wasn't expecting it, but I got a small cup of what I found out to was chicken lemongrass soup with my meal. It was really good. Spicy, lots of mushrooms and chicken, and that full, deep flavor that all great Thai soups have. I prefer tom kha, but this was right up there as well. I got the larb at mild spice level. It came out on a nice fish-shaped plate (Chanpen has some of the best dishes), with the chopped chicken, carrot, onion, cilantro mixture on top of some big lettuce leafs. I enjoyed it. It had a nice sharp spicy flavor. Tangy, maybe. It was different than some of the other larb I've tried, but I've only had it a handful of times. Still, it was a very flavorful dish and worth trying if you enjoy larb.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

St Clair Broiler - St. Paul, MN

We spent the weekend in Minnesota to surprise Tara's dad on his 60th birthday. We stayed in the Cities on Friday before heading to Lake City on Sat. For lunch on Friday, we went to the St Claire Broiler on her sister's suggestion. It's like an over-sized corner diner, and it was much larger inside than I first thought. We got there around 11:30am and it was moderately busy. They had a very interesting menu and lots of it looked appealing. I went against type and got a Philly cheesesteak sandwich. It came with steak fries that were good, but I would have prefered them to cooked a bit more. The sandwich was really good, with lots of green peppers, onions, mushrooms and cheese. The roll tried it's best, but still got a bit soggy, but not too bad. Tara got something with gravy and garlic mashed potatoes, but I forget exactly what. Her sister Theresa got a pulled-pork sandwich with the same fries as I had. It was a huge pile of meat on the bun, with a really good bbq sauce. The real hit was her mocha shake. I tried a taste and it was chocolately with a strong coffee taste. Really good. I wish I'd ordered one myself. She polished off the fries and picked at the meat, but still had a huge pile to take home. I'd certainly go back if I'm in the area again, but Minnesota in anything close to winter conditions isn't something I want to experience too often. :) Our waitress was very accommodating, even bringing us a small ramekin of the bbq sauce to sample before we made our final decisions. They had daily specials and the fish fry was very popular by the looks of it.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Pho Avina - Glendale

Back in 2000, I visited a friend of mine in San Francisco. Well, Oakland, but close enough. As part of the 50 cent tour, we decided to go see the redwoods in Muir Woods north of the Golden Gate Bridge. On our way through Oakland's Chinatown, my friend stopped at a Vietnamese restaurant and grabbed us some sandwiches. This was my first time trying banh mi, but I was hooked. I've been looking for a good place to get them here in Phoenix. When I first moved here, I used to go to Avina's Restaurant at 43rd Ave and Bell. The problem is, for some odd reason, they only had banh mi on Wednesdays. There were other things on the menu that I liked, so I'd go back for lunch. The owner took a vacation to Vietnam, and after they came back, they started using frozen vegetables and that pretty much killed it for me. My girlfriend went the with one of her friends and she ordered something different, and after that, she wouldn't go back. I found some other places that I liked better and Avina's faded from my rotation.
A couple months back, I decided to try them again. I didn't recognize anyone working there, which struck me as odd, since it was usually Avina and her grandmother. Afterwards, I found that they'd sold that location (despite the sign out front still saying Avina's to this day) and moved into the old Pho Pat location at 49th Ave and Thunderbird.
Today I was in the mood for either banh mi or maybe Thai. Since Chanpen is just down the road from Pho Avina, I decided to decide on my way. Pho Avina was closer, so I went there. The new place is worlds above the old location. Nice dark wood tables and newly done walls. I got there around 1pm and there was only one person eating. There are maybe 12 or so tables. I walked up to the counter as everyone was in the back and waited. Much to my joy, they now apparently specialize in serving banh mi at lunch. They had a huge poster behind the counter with the various sandwiches and pictures. They ONLY serve them M-F, 11am-3pm. Avina came out of the kitchen, so I knew it was the right place. I sat at a table and perused the menu. They have a very extensive menu of Vietnamese food, but I wanted banh mi. I decided to get the grilled pork one ($3.50), along with an order of spring rolls ($3.00) and an order of egg rolls ($2.00). I stuck with water for a drink.
The spring rolls came out in a few minutes. They were freshly rolled, with lots of shrimp and pork. They came with a homemade peanut sauce. They were very good. I finished them and tried to ignore what appeared to be a Vietnamese version of American Idol by installing BlackBerry Maps on my Blackberry. After 10 or 15 minutes, my sandwich arrived. I thought this odd, since they usually bring out the egg rolls right after the spring rolls. I figured they forgot them. It happens. The sandwich was great. It was a good-sized crusty French bread roll, with lots of pork, a mayonaisey sauce, pickled carrots, pickled daikon, cilantro sprigs, and three slices of jalapeno on top. If you haven't had banh mi, you need to track down a place that makes them well and try one. So many different flavors and textures. For $3.50, you can't go wrong.
After scarfing down the sandwich, I waited a few more minutes. Two other people were eating, so the kitchen wasn't too busy. I gave up on the egg rolls, and went to pay. The older lady who owns it said that my rolls were on the way and said something about the fryer. I paid and my rolls came right out. They were good, but I prefer more meat in mine. But for $2.00 a pair, they are still a good deal. I love the ones at Noodles Ranch, but they are also $5.00 for three. For a cheap lunch, I made out well. With tax, it came to $9.18. I liked the sandwich much better than the ones at Da Vang. Other than the pacing, it was a good meal.