Aug 31, 2010

Hot Dog Fix at a Moroccan Walk-Up

As the last days of summer pound us with their dry heat, I keep telling myself they should be appreciated, not despised, as I eagerly anticipate the coolness of fall.

Partly, that means enjoying summertime foods til they've run their course. Juicy tomatoes and peaches, corn on the cob and strawberries are magical this time of year, but to me, these are the final days of true   hot dog season! True, a hot dog is good just about anytime of year, but it never tastes quite as good as in the dusk of a late summer, when baseball and cold beer, too, are in their prime.

Looking for a cheap and quick lunch today, while I ran errands, I decided to stop by a little place on 39th whose black awning with "Chicago Dogs" printed on one side had been beckoning me for quite some time. I didn't know whether this place was a hot dog stand, sold ice cream cones (see the large plastic ice cream cone mounted above their entrance) or what. I'd never heard anyone say anything about it.

Come to find out today I was way off: it's Rock-n-Moroccan (also on facebook)!

This little shop is owned and run by Moroccan-born Amine Lamrani and serves up simple favorites, both familiar and Middle Eastern. Deli staples like a turkey club, reuben and roast beef sandwich are juxtaposed with the likes of gyros, zalouk and tabouleh. Not your style? There's a list of crepes available, both savory and sweet (like everyone's favorite - Nutella!).

And, of course, they have hot dogs. A basic hot dog runs just a buck fifty. Polish and smoked sausages are $3.50. A brat is a quarter more.

My selection, though, was the classic Chicago dog, which is a basic hot dog smothered in everything but the kitchen sink, namely: tomato, pickle relish, diced white onion, peppers, a dill pickle slice and plenty of French's yellow mustard. At a measly $2.75 this is a great buy, especially considering the hot dog was no weenie.

Judging by the salty, dark colored casing and equally dark coloration that penetrated the first few layers of internal meat, I'd say this frank had been slowly cooking on hot rollers in the r-n-m kitchen for a little while, which isn't a bad thing, but those rollers have made a bad name for themselves being pimped out as self-serve taquito warmers at QT.

It was a nice, thick beef hot dog off of which the myriad of toppings with cooler flavors and crunchier textures played nicely. Not only do I recommend this hot dog stand, I'm instantly obsessed with it. I'd imagine I'll be back there again and again, particularly if I'm alone for dinner or need a late night fix (open til 2:00 a.m. during the week, 3:00 a.m. on the weekends).

I'll reserve placing a rating on Rock-n-Moroccan until I've had a chance to sample the fare from the other categories of their menu, but as a hot dog purveyor alone, they're on the right track.

Rock-n-Moroccan on Urbanspoon

Aug 22, 2010

The Westport Torta Throwdown

I may never be hungry again.

Today was part deux of the Westport Torta Throwdown, between Cancun Fiesta Fresh and El Rancho, a stone's throw over the Beaumont Club and Gold's Gym in the Westport Landing strip, and let me tell you, hogging out on these filling subs is a task best left to the gastronomically well-endowed.

Tortas have become one of my ultimate cravings. Simply put, they're Mexican sandwiches, their most Mexican aspect being their authentically flavored and prepared meats. At CFF, one simply specifies which meat from the street tacos menu they'd like placed on their 'baguette' (term used loosely), meaning either asada (marinated chopped beef), adovada (barbecue beef), carnitas (shredded pork), chicken, ground beef, shredded beef, lengua (beef tongue) or cabeza (beef cheek). I could go on and on about the preparation of each, but suffice it to say they're cooked using techniques that, like traditional barbecue, maximize the flavor and enjoyment that can be rendered from less expensive cuts of meat.

My CFF torta was asada. It was my first torta there and, as hoped, it was an expected extension of the flavor I like so much in their street tacos. Simply seasoned beef was piled on an oblong single-sized bun with tomato, lettuce, onion, jalapeno and guacamole. While the bread was tasty, it was a bit stale. I doubt this is a persistent problem but something to keep an eye on. Given my addiction to spicy food, I could've used a few more jalapenos, too, but for an otherwise delicious sandwich, that's a small gripe. The tomato was plenty fresh and added a nice coolness to the sandwich, along with the crunchy shredded lettuce. Grab some of CFF's delicious salsa on the way out the door and feel free to pour it on, as well, but it's not needed. I love the guacamole spread, which adds a great moistness and rich quality to every bite.

El Rancho began in Columbia, MO, as that quintessential type of Mexican pig out place for the local college students. In particular, it serves after hours recovery kickoff food in a jovial, student (and student wallet) friendly atmosphere. In Westport it serves a lot of the same purpose, but with a slightly different demographic and vibe, though one can feel the original's persona quite easily walking in the front door. It' a fun place to be.

The meat choices at El Rancho are similar, with some more breakfasty options, as well, including: eggs, ham, chorizo, milanesa (think Mexican chicken fried steak), steak, pastor (marinated pork) and chicken. My first torta experience in life was a late night chorizo torta from El Rancho, whose salty sandwichy goodness prompted this worthless post back in August of last year. I loved it. On this recent trip, I went with steak for the sake of an even comparison with CFF.

On the bread front, El Rancho was the clear winner. I believe I saw them swath some butter on its open faces and then, for sure, it got some time on the flat top grill, adding flavor and texture the CFF version lacked but desperately needed.

El Rancho's, too, came with avocado (whole slices, not guacamole), but with mayo, as well--enough mayo, it would seem, to kill any glutton who would eat it all. I realize that complaining about the amount of mayo on a fast food Mexican sandwich is like complaining that your fries at McDonald's are too... fried... But from a flavor and textural perspective, all that mayo really hurt the sandwich. The avocado (and salsa I dumped on) did plenty to moisten the bread. That mayo just turned the whole thing a gooey mess. So in the condiment arena, the prize goes to Cancun Fiesta Fresh.

There was no discernible winner in the meat category. Both were fine, but the chorizo version I had previously bested either of these two. The chopped up beef in both was a little dry. Not bad, but just not as craveable as other choices on both restaurants' menus.

El Rancho's torta also featured tasty, juicy tomato and delicious, pickled jalapenos. These jalapenos, more plentiful than on my torta from CFF, were plump and juicy. A delicious ingredient that I'll seek out next time I'm picking up a jar in the grocery store, instead of the thinly sliced Mt. Olive brand I'm using now. Really delicious.

Those are the ingredients of importance. The lettuce, of course, is a wash. And although one can't tell from the pictures, the torta at El Rancho seemed significantly larger than the one from Cancun Fiest Fresh. I don't see this is a leg up, though. It was unnecessarily large, but for the sport eaters out there, I thought there might be some appreciation if I mentioned whose was the biggest.

So who's the winner? If I had to go back for this exact sandwich, I'd go to Cancun Fiesta Fresh. I liked the guac spread and was just so overwhelmed by El Rancho's mayo, my mind was made up for me. But, with that edge in the bread category, and knowing the other protein selections they offer which are right in my sweet spot (eggs and sausage!!!), my gut tells me that next time I want one of these hog-out hoagies, I'll be headed to El Rancho.

Going forward, my conclusion is this: for tacos, it's Cancun Fiesta Fresh, whose may be the very best in town; for quick and cheap tortas, I'll go El Rancho, sans mayonesa.

[Note - tortas are available at many other Mexican restaurants in town. I enjoyed a more luxe version at El Patron once, featuring sliced ribeye.]

Cancun Fiesta Fresh on Urbanspoon

El Rancho on Urbanspoon

Aug 21, 2010

Po's: I Recommend the Dumplings

Restaurant: Po's Dumpling Bar
Location: 1715 W. 39th St., KC MO
Food: Above-average KC Chinese
Service: Incredibly friendly
Atmosphere: Too quiet but nicer than many other Chinese places in KC
Price: Entrees starting at $9.95
Rating: one napkin

Po's is, if nothing else, a better option for Chinese in KC. I haven't got a ton to say about it in this review because my recent trip there was mostly what I expected, and most people would. The food was decent. The restaurant was the typical hush-hush, sterile atmosphere, cleaner and more contemporary feeling than the likes of Szechuan down the street but not as alive or vibrant as Blue Koi to the West. But it's a solid, and for Chinese restaurants in KC, that means something.

What's always appealed to me about Po's is that it calls itself a dumpling bar. I love dumplings and often leave Chinese restaurants wishing I'd eaten just dumplings instead of a gloppily sauced plateful of veggies. That sentiment held true after this recent trip.

Our Cha Su Buns were incredible. If you've not had these deliciously fluffy, yet sticky pork buns, the flavor is, surprisingly, close to that of a pig-in-a-blanket... slightly sweet pork, piping hot and steaming inside a puff ball dumpling purse. Two of them come served in a metal steamer dish like little clouds of perfection. They're a must-have on the starter menu.

Also from the starter menu, we ordered the Emperor's Dumplings - pork - which come six to an order, pan fried. [I don't understand why people get steamed dumplings when the pan friend ones have such an incredible crunch on the spots where the wrapper touches the pan, contrasting with the rest which is wonderfully chewy and soft.] These dumplings, with special dipping sauce on the side, did not disappoint either. They come in a little pinched taquito shape, as opposed to the half-moon you see so often, and were surprisingly filling.

Our other starter was Elizabeth's Tofu Vegetable Soup. Its delicate, umami-flavored broth came with pretty bits of broccoli, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, scallions and silky soft tofu. It was light yet flavorful. Nothing feels quite as therapeutic as does eating a light Asian soup like this. Its earthy, unctuous aroma imparts a certain satisfaction of the soul.

Our entree of hunan chicken was fine, though seemingly identical to what one could probably get at any other Chinese restaurant in town. Crisp tender steamed veggies and a huge portion of cooked chicken came coated in a dark sauce. Its flavors were fine but this dish din't carry the same enjoyment as the starters, upholding my theory that if I'd stick to the dumplings and soups, I'd be a bigger fan of Chinese restaurants. But it was plentiful, and for that I was glad.

Next time I go to Po's, it'll be for one purpose: dumpling bonanza. The entrees are fine and I do want to point out that their website features a "New Chinese Authentic Dishes" section, which speaks volumes to their dedication to the type of food they make and serve, but the real treat here are those soft little pillows of joy. With this kind of food, a nice looking dining room and incredibly friendly service, it's hard not to like Po's. Sure, a little music, additions to the decor and a more assertive service approach would be nice, but it's definitely an enjoyable place as is.

Rating: one napkin

Po's Dumpling Bar on Urbanspoon

Aug 17, 2010

Baja 600's Doors Closed for Good

It seemed as though Baja 600 had a pretty good run in its primo location on the Plaza at 600 Ward Parkway. That torch-lit stone patio out front always looked like a great spot for an al fresco (how do you say that in Spanish?) margarita when the weather was right. But its reputation for poor service and hit or miss menu items (seemingly identical to Cactus Grill) kept it from solidifying a good base of business in this critic's estimation.

Between the various articles and comments I'm finding online, the excuses for unpaid rent to the tune of over $160,000 are varied:

  • Inability to recover from costs related to 2009 fire
  • Highwood Properties wanted Baja outta there so they could get a classier tenant
  • Loss of liquor license killing income
But whatever the case, it's gone for good. Personally, I'm looking forward to a potential upgrade inhabiting the space. 

Links of interest:

Aug 1, 2010

Another Go at Chez Elle

Back in January I had an early experience at the recently-opened Chez Elle creperie in the westside area near 17th and Summit. My take, at that time, was that it had some operational flaws, and the decor was not what I had hoped, but the food was pretty good.

Went back today for brunch with good friends Amanda and Jared and their beautiful twin girls, and found some definite improvements in place.

First of all, there were at least five employees manning the counter, which was at least two more than there were on our first trip. Though the line still moved a little slow, and one still must wait in line regardless of whether ordering a crepe or coffee (no waitstaff), they were able to get over 20 people through during our short stay, most of whom looked quite pleased as they sipped their coffee and forked their stuffed French pancakes.

Secondly, business seems to be doing well. Every seat on the front patio, which is now covered with several comfortable-looking tables and chairs with big red umbrellas for shade, was filled when we left around 10:00 am. And the laid back newspaper reading, caffeine-consuming patrons looked the part of French cafe goers. I think this is where I'll opt to sit on my next trip, maybe before a weekly visit to the farmers' market.

Third, my drip coffee contained no nutmeg! In fact, it was a truly, honest-to-goodness delicious cup of coffee. I'm so glad they quit secretly spicing the joe.

In a breakfasty mood, I went with the Bonjour crepe, which was filled with tons of cheese, little bits of ham and egg, then topped with lots more fluffy scrambled eggs and what I believe was a cheesy mornay sauce. With so much cheese already inside the crepe, the mornay was overkill for me, adding a classically French layer of richness that was one too many for my palette, but not untrue to French cuisine. And I'd imagine most diners would enjoy the sauce, so I can't downgrade for that. Still, three hours later, I was hardly ready for lunch.

Elizabeth went for the simple and cleanly flavored Petite Maison, with gruyere, mushrooms and spinach. One might anticipate, reading those ingredients, this crepe could be a little short on flavor. And it was. But it was refreshing, at the same time. The mushrooms' earthiness played well with the super-fresh and tender spinach leaves. The gruyere was just the right nutty cheese to bring them together. Wouldn't have been my choice, but for she who is always thinking along the lines of best health, it fit the bill.

And I have to admit, that decor I complained about previously was seen through different eyes today, when the twin girls sat themselves in the two miniature leather chairs and wood coffee table next to us and giggled at the cute kodak moment they had just created. Now I (almost) have a soft spot for the comfort of Chez Elle's environment.

On a final note, our companions have Celiac and must avoid gluten. Despite a menu predicated entirely on a food made with it, Chez Elle boasts gluten-free choices as well as vegan! This type of attention to the needs of their patrons is not only kind, it's good for business.

So, as mentioned, several upgrades to report. It's not on my "gotta go" list of breakfast spots in town yet, but I certainly won't avoid Chez Elle in the future, either. Still sticking with a one napkin rating, but changing my song from Tres Ordinaire to tout à fait content.

Rating: one napkin


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