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.