Reflections on Stripmall Eating
Thursday, July 12, 2007
Location: 181 Columbia Street, Fall River, MA
Personnel: Jesse, Me
What We Ate: Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá; Porco a Alentajana; Complimentary Bread and Butter
Observations: We had the pleasure of eating two great Portuguese meals, on our way to and from Cape Cod, respectively. In Fall River, we stopped for a white-tablecloth lunch at Sagres, a tidy spot just blocks from I-95 — not a stripmall or even a suburb but as an old babysitter used to say to me and my sisters, who's counting? — let's enjoy. We had bacalhau à gomes de sá, that rich casserole of salt cod, potatoes and caramelized onion that's punctuated by hard-boiled egg and olives. It was steamingly, tongue-scorchingly hot, with the sweet onions practically melting into the feathery potatoes. Then there was a bubbling platter of porco a alentajana, clams, potato wedges and spicy sausage sauteed in a pungent wine sauce. Both were excellent — almost too good to eat on the road. My only complaint was the persistent odor of air freshener which interfered with the more delicious smells of our lunch.
Name: Clark BBQ
Location: 1419 Raritan Road, Clark, NJ
Personnel: Jesse, Me
What We Ate: BBQ Chicken Platter with Rice and Salad; Chouriça Portugese meal with fries and rice; Diet Pepsi.
Observations: We stumbled, or whatever the verb for stumbling via automobile might be, onto Clark BBQ after pulling off the Garden State Parkway in Clark. There were plenty of interesting stripmall choices around but the festive sign outside caught our eye. It's a tiny little place, packed on this particular Sunday evening, and when our food came we found out why. There's a small bar next to a refrigerator case stocked with beer and vinho verde. They also, we were told, make a mean sangria. We didn't have time to indulge in beverages but we did each get a ridiculously cheap plateful of homey, earnest and simple cooking. Mine was the smokey and tender barbecue chicken — practically a half-bird in the "small" platter, with a mountain of golden rice and salad. Jesse had the chouriça, slices of the snappy pink sausage grilled to crispness, with more rice and airy battered fries. I would definitely hit this place again if we're in that part of NJ or the chouriça craving strikes — whichever comes first, I guess.
Monday, April 09, 2007
Location: 9309 Krewstown Rd., Philadelphia
Personnel: Erin, Catherine, Me
What We Ate: Fried eggplant with walnuts, Red bean salad with walnuts, Khinkali, Khachapuri imeruli, Chashushuli, Black tea with lemon.
Bill Total: $54
Observations: When we first arrived to this Georgian gem on Easter Sunday, the lights were half-on. The man vacuuming told us we could be seated, and that despite all signs suggesting otherwise, the kitchen would serve us. We then saw him make a phone call. Five minutes later, an on-call server showed up and explained she'd been there until very late the night before as people partied on the dance floor in back. Clearly, we'd come too early — or maybe just too late. Unfazed, she kindly helped us navigate the menu, suggesting the kidney bean salad slathered with thick walnut paste and fried podlike segments of eggplants tinged with cumin and cinnamon, also topped with walnut paste. We remarked on — but did not order — the $99 roast piglet listed under the entrees. Of our choices, there were two obvious favorites. One was the khachapuri, a warm focaccia-like bread stuffed with gooey imeruli, a salty white cheese. The other was the khinkali, puffy and pleated dumplings that burst open to reveal a juicy pork filling flecked with red pepper flakes. We were advised to top them only with black pepper, though our server said she'd give us sour cream if we really wanted. We didn't. We were comfortable, and sat for a few hours, admiring the original artwork on the walls. By then, the restaurant started filling up with families toting bottles of wine. A takeout customer came in and headed for the kitchen. Minutes later, he left carrying a tray draped in a napkin. Beneath it was the unmistakeable snout and ears of a piglet to go.
Monday, December 18, 2006
Location: 2680 Dekalb Pike, E. Norriton
Personnel: Jesse, Me
What I Ate: Complimentary Rice Crisps, Masala Dosa, Lamb Saag, Chicken Goan, Basmati Rice With Peas, Kashmiri Naan
Condiments: Sambar, Coconut Chutney, Tomato Chutney
Bill Total: $35
Observations: I have a thing about too-muchness. Like, I don't want more than one gray cable knit sweater because inevitably there will be a favorite and then I'm going to feel sorry for the one left in the closet. And so I really only needed one great Indian restaurant in Montgomery County. After all, just getting to Jaipur on the odd occasion has been challenge enough. Now that we've been to Aman's, though, I'm starting to worry. With another option comes a greater higher likelihood that somebody's gulab jamun are going to be neglected. At first I was a bit put-off by the pink, yellow and orange star-shaped crisps served instead of the usual pappadams. They had the look of breafast cereal and the texture of packing peanuts. But when the meal arrived, each dish was more delicious than the last. Jesse's a sucker for saag and the lamb rendition here had all the hallmarks of a great one: feathery spinach and bite-sized chunks of meat cooked into soft, velvety submission with sweet perfumy bursts of cardamom. I could have licked the copper bowl for the last traces of the Goan chicken's creamy coconut gravy. The dosa was the length and circumference of a telescope, though more manageable than the 6-footer our friend Jon Solomon once served at a Super Bowl party. The pancake, golden and crisp with the pleasing tang of fermented lentil, enclosed a fluffy potato and onion filling with fenugreek seeds. We alternated dips and scoops of the three accompanying condiments in a fruitless attempt to sop them all up. Apparently, you need the 6-footer to do them justice. In all, a fantastic meal, but only time will tell whether we favor Aman's over Jaipur. In the meantime, here's hoping one of them moves.
Monday, November 13, 2006
Name: Yu Hsiang Garden
Location: 7630 Germantown Ave., Chestnut Hill
What I Ate: Chive Buns, Sesame Lamb, Sauteed Bean Curd, Complimentary Pickled Vegetables
Condiments: Soy sauce
Bill Total: $34
Observations: So I used to work at the TLA Video in this shopping center 10 years ago. What I remember from that time most vividly are the cold sesame noodles I would eat mid-shift, huddled in the back room of the store — a nightly treat only slightly tainted by the office decor of reject tapes, life-size cardboard cutouts of Jim Carrey and piles of the shrink-wrapped dirty movies that were (are?) the store's stock in trade. The other big memory is the clientele who called to ask if we could check on their dry cleaning next door. Anyway, in the present moment, Yu Hsiang Garden is under grumpy new management, and the vermicelli I once knew is long gone. Chive buns, which looked luscious and plump like golden pillows, were oddly sour and dense with grease. Lamb dotted with sesame seeds and stewed in a clay pot was an indistinguishable mush of flavors in a cloying brown sauce. Sauteed bean curd was about as delicate as floral foam. I was relieved, however, to see that Yu Hsiang was still offering free servings of pickled carrots and cabbage, which are a fresh antidote to its heavy, oily dishes. The experience has me missing the old days, back when Yu Hsiang was a friendly and consistently strong neighborhood restaurant. Then again, now that my video-peddling career is over, I no longer need those noodles quite so much.
Sunday, September 24, 2006
Name: Oh Yoko!
Location: 1428 Rte. 70 West, Cherry Hill, NJ
Personnel: Megan, Me
What We Ate: Okonomiyaki; Chef's Sushi Appetizer; House Salad; Grilled Barbecue Pork with Wasabi Fries and Julienne Vegetables
Condiments: Ginger Dressing; Wasabi Sauce
Observations: It sounds like the name of a chain but this Jersey-based Japanese BYO where the Fab Five provide an all-night soundtrack is actually independently owned. (Speaking of chains, I recently had my first encounter with the Bamboo Club, which was one of the most terrifying restaurant experiences in recent memory. Let's just say I've had more appetizing meals in hospital cafeterias.) At first, we were a little put-off by the aggressiveness of the service, which went well beyond the realm of helpful into the territory of domineering, essentially forcing us to order the Okonomiyaki. The server also laughed inexplicably when I ordered the pork chop. Inside joke? Nervous tic? Porcine issues? I had to hand it to her, though. The high-pressure appetizer was an intriguing blend of salty, sweet and smoky flavors and crisp, chewy and flaky textures. It was also a sight to behold: The Japanese-style pancake was topped with interlaced squiggles of sweet, soy-based sauce and a creamy white mayonnaise sauce and a feathery layer of bonito flakes that shimmered in the AC breeze. Nigiri sushi — salmon, halibut, tuna, red snapper and shrimp — was impeccably fresh and buttery soft. The hilarious pork chop (two big ones, actually) was grilled and served glossy with barbecue sauce, along with sides of carrot and squash sprinkled with sesame seeds and insanely addictive tempura fries with bright green wasabi sauce. I enjoyed my leftovers for lunch and dinner the next day, even though the fries were a little soggy by then. If Oh Yoko! suddenly went bigtime and took over, say, all the Bamboo Club franchises, I would certainly not complain.
Monday, August 28, 2006
Location: 831 Providence Road, Secane.
Personnel: Holly, Me
What We Ate: Complimentary Chips and Salsa; Sopes; Pollo Estilo Hidalgo; Chuleta a la Ranchera
Condiments: Pico de Gallo
Bill Total: $36
Observations: Up until this week, I had never heard of Secane — a bit embarrassing for a lifelong Philly resident. My first trip there was strictly business — or at least the non-deadlined, nonpaid restaurant reviewing business that is this blog. Hidalgo, which opened last year, is owned by the family who operated Xochilmico in Upper Darby. Like Zochilmico, Hidalgo is a casual, neighborhood place. I was hoping we might get serenaded as I had at Xochilmico back in the day, but no such luck. It's BYO and they will provide tequila mixes, which we unfortunately did not get to sample. Our meal started with very good sopas, flat disks of corn topped with ribbons of crisp iceberg, shredded chicken, refried beans and queso fresco. Neither of us was thrilled with our entree, however. Holly ordered chicken in the style of Hidalgo, which ought to have been a memorable dish, being tied up with the restaurant's identity and all. And yet the chicken breast was topped with a bland, almost melon-colored peanut sauce sprinkled with sesame seeds. I ordered the chuleta or pork chop with tomatillo sauce and specified spicy. When it came it had a bright, fruity flavor that was rather mild. The pork, meanwhile, was overcooked, requiring extra sawing. Sides of rice and refried beans were similarly lackluster. I came away feeling disappointed but I think I would also give this place another chance, should I end up in Secane again anytime soon.
Name: Sea Swirl
Location: 30 Williams Avenue, Mystic, CT
Personnel: Susannah, Mike, Jesse, Me
What We Ate: 2 lobster rolls, 2 whole clam rolls
Condiments: Tartar Sauce
Bill Total: $32
Observations: We decided to make a lunch stop at Sea Swirl on the way to Wellfleet, meeting my sister and brother-in-law on the road. While it's not technically a stripmall eatery, I felt Sea Swirl deserved a visit after reading internet hype and getting a real-life recommendation from my friend Becky. At first I was put off when I saw that the restaurant sold bottled water labeled with its own name. Would the food not speak for itself? In fact, it did. I have to say these were some of the best seafood shack victuals I've ever tasted. The toasted rolls were buttery. The clams crisply shattered into soft, chewy, mollusky goodness with juicy bellies. Their secret, apparently, is soybean oil. And I've never seen such generous, identifiably claw meat chunks in a lobster roll. Best of all, none of it was so greasy that an additional four hours in the car seemed torturous. On the contrary. When we got to Wellfleet we were ready to tear into a pack of steamed lobsters.
Wednesday, July 05, 2006
Name: Cap'n Cat's Clam Bar
Location: Route 561, Voorhees, NJ
Personnel: Bethany, Rocky, Me
What We Ate: Garlic Steamed Clams, Rolls, Coconut Shrimp, Fried Oysters, Spicy Fries, Broiled Combination Deluxe (Scallops, Shrimp, Crabcake, Flounder), Coleslaw, Diet Rite
Condiments: Tartar Sauce, Cocktail Sauce, Piña Colada Sauce
Bill Total: $58
Observations: I don't know why I went looking for a taste of the sea in a Voorhees stripmall. In retrospect, it seems kind of dumb. It was a holiday weekend, though, and not having planned a trip to a beachy place, I was craving crustaceans. At the front Cap'n Cat's has a little fish counter. In the grubby back dining room, where we were seated, the service was slow and distracted. To start, we got a bowl of steaming clams for sharing, but since we had no plates of our own we had to huddle over it like it was fondue. The clams were rubbery and the broth was not rich enough to justify bread dipping. On a positive note, I was pleased to find Diet Rite on the menu, a beta cola that got pushed aside in the fierce Coke and Pepsi wars of the 80s. For a main, Rocky had oysters that were so heavily breaded they might have been cow thymus for all we knew. Bethany had fried coconut shrimp, which were a better choice — if only because they came with a piña colada sauce that tasted like the TGI Friday's cocktail mix they sell in the state store. My platter was hardly worth the $16.95. The crabcake had nice fresh meat but its crust was unappetizingly dark. The scallops came slightly overcooked; shrimp were tasteless; the fish was watery. Even the spicy fries were underwhelming. Also, as Bethany pointed out, it's kind of lame to serve condiments in wasteful plastic containers to people who are dining in. Would Red Lobster have been better? Perhaps.