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Posts from the ‘Chains of Love’ Category

International Intrigue: Tsurutontan

tsurutontan udon

Tsurutontan rode in on the wave of imports late last year that included Ichiran, Tim Ho Wan, and the promised Inkinari Steak that didn’t get off the ground until 2017. (I’m so mad they are going to add chairs in the US.) I meant to check one out when I was in Tokyo but put it off until my last night and I couldn’t get it together for the 9pm last order (I kind of appreciate the anal-ness of publishing last calls for food in Japan) but was dying for udon and couldn’t deal with the 10 person line outside of Shin Udon. I did end up getting a bowl of cold udon, which was maybe weird in December but it was on offer, at a restaurant up a flight of stairs with no English name. I finally was tough enough after two weeks to handle an all-Japanese language menu.

Tsurutontan, off Union Square, is no noodle hole-in-the-wall, with prices that are more akin to Ipuddo and beyond. Also, without the wait and counter seating. I liked the row-facing-row with a partition separating the sides for solo diners. Plus, the Japanese thing where you can order regular or large amount of noodles for the same price, thick and thin.

I chose thin for my summer special of cold dashi broth with uni. The broth was light but the sea urchin added creaminess, and a slight bitterness, plus shredded shiso that gave the dish more bite and held it just back from being too rich. This doesn’t look like a big portion (regular noodle fyi) but it was oddly filling. I let the little batter nuggets turn to sog and scooped them out with the giant metal spoon at the end, then slurped all of the remaining sesame-studded cloudy broth like fishy cereal milk.

Tsurutontan * 21 E. 16th St., New York, NY

International Intrigue: O’Tacos

franchise-o-tacos-depuis-2007-210716(1)

I was recently made aware of a French chain in Crown Heights called O’Tacos that, yes, serves tacos. Yet from the looks of these burrito-panini hybrids, I’m not sure the French know what a taco is.

otaco menu

There appears to be 50 locations of this restaurant, and the Brooklyn branch is the only one outside of France. This is more baffling to me than the bastardized taco. The website is only in French, which is very French. It’s easily discernible that fillings include chicken breast, ground beef, nuggets, tenders, merguez, and cordon bleu. I don’t see that they explain that french fries are sometimes stuffed in these tacos. There are are 12 less discernible sauces including Algerian, samurai, and giga.

I am curious about this taco, and might be blessed to live in the same city as the only foreign outpost, but not so curious that I’m eager to spend 1 hour, 9 minutes on two subways to try one.

 

International Intrigue: The Holy Crab

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I did not eat at The Holy Crab because I already have a Chinese-run Cajun seafood restaurant on my block with a better name (Oceanic Boil), but am mentioning it it is an Indonesian chain serving Cajun seafood in Canada, and that’s all sorts of layers to dissect.

There also appears to be a knock-off in White Plains.

Chains of Love: The Original Original Pancake House

original pancake house facade

You’d be forgiven for not knowing that the original Original Pancake House originated in Portland, Oregon. I only had a vague sense of this, especially since I grew up on the east side of the city and never had any reason to eat breakfast at a restaurant twenty miles away, on the other side of the Willamette.

pancake house

I almost visited an Original Pancake House in Seoul, since it was a few blocks from my hotel, before even seeing where it all began in Oregon. Even though I was chided for not really eating any Korean food during my two-night stay over Thanksgiving, it didn’t seem right to eat American breakfast in addition to Taco Bell and a mildly esoteric tasting menu.

original pancake house room

I can’t speak for any of the other Original Pancake Houses, but I can’t imagine a quainter place to choose from 15 or so pancakes. With its candy-striped awning, sun room, knotty wood paneling, decorative dishes, and smaller interior than would seem so from the street, the restaurant transmits wholesomeness with a touch of the old world. You would not suspect it was a chain if you didn’t know the name.

original pancake house dutch baby closeup

The glorious Dutch Baby, burnished upturned edges, custardy crater, lightly powdered, is their specialty. Lemon wedges, whipped butter, and more powdered sugar are served on the side. I wanted pecan pancakes but it would be a mistake to shun what made the place famous on my first visit. Many of the diners lolling around after prime breakfast time had plate-spanning versions topped with apple wedges that from a distance looked like they’d been served and entire pan of monkey bread.

original pancake house hash

Sure, there are also omelets and corned beef hash for the know-nothings like my dining companion who said it tasted canned despite the promises of “homemade,”but duh, you’re supposed to order pancakes.

original pancake house james beard

The James Beard American Classic award from 1999 was proudly displayed facing my seat.

old spaghetti factory BC

Bonus: Did you know that the oldest Old Spaghetti Factory is also in Portland? I had the good fortune to stumble upon a branch a few weekends ago in Vancouver, B.C.

The Original Pancake House * 8601 SW 24th Ave., Portland, OR

International Intrigue: Yo! Sushi

yo sushi beltI don’t generally get excited about U.K. imports that interpret Asian cuisine. I still haven’t been to Wagamama, though I do frequent Wasabi at least once a week because it’s a block from my office and they have passable ready-made poke bowls–and just added bizarrely flavored popcorn to their repertoire. (This routine made me recently think about lifestyle creep. When I started my job–jesus, ten years ago–I wouldn’t spend more than $5 on lunch and now don’t blink at $12. I’m still too cheap to spend that daily, though. I only go to the office two to three times per week so it’s justifiable.)

yo sushi menu

But Yo! Sushi? I can stand a little novelty. Conveyor belt sushi has never really thrived in NYC and, sure, it’s not the highest quality or the best value in the city. You could do worse, though, for entertainment while dining, and you’re not restricted to what whizzes past you. You can order both sushi and non-sushi items from the menu.

yo sushi collage

When I first showed up at 6pm, there were only a few plates passing by but by 6:30pm the rotating display was much fuller. Seven plate colors dictate prices: from a $3.50 green to an $8 yellow. I think I spent around $35 with a cup sake and a few beers but I by no means consumed a lot of food. There were some shrimp tempura rolls in there, off-belt scallop nigiri, tuna carpaccio, all shared.

yo sushi fruit salad

 

You could pay $4.50 for fruit salad, if you’re that kind of monster.

Despite this branch being touted as the first US location, that’s completely untrue. Just like Uniqlo when it first came to America, Yo! Sushi originally tested the waters in a few New Jersey malls and then shuttered so quietly no one seemed to notice it coming or going. There are now also locations in Boston, Sarasota, Florida, and at Westbury Commons. 

Yo! Sushi * 23 W. 23rd St., New York, NY

 

Chains of Love: Claim Jumper

claim jumper facade

Similar to Cheddar’s or  Souplantation, Claim Jumper has always struck me as a not terribly appetizing name for a restaurant. Prospectors, floppy hats, droopy mustaches, pick axes in hand, don’t make me think of steak or whatever it is that they serve there. And after finally dining at a Claim Jumper, I’m still not sure what to make of it.

claim jumper room

 

I loved it less than I thought I might. (As opposed to the P.F. Chang’s which I’m not blogging about but enjoyed–it will shock you that I don’t post everything here–in the upscale, outdoor shopping center practically across the street.) I assumed it was akin to Cheesecake Factory, something for everyone, kind of bananas decor, but the menu is far smaller in contrast to the enormous dining area that reads like three different ski lodges cobbled together. Nothing on the pricier-than-expected menu (not much under $14.99 and many of the steaks and seafood were over $25) made me excited about ordering.

claim jumper pretzel

Soft pretzels a.k.a pub pretzel, are just a vehicle for cheese sauce. The appetizers were all buffalo wings, mozzarella sticks, artichoke dip with no twists at all. It was like they weren’t even trying. TGIFriday’s, just to use one example, adds asiago to its mozzarella sticks, panko-coats its chicken fingers, and makes its soft pretzels seem more special through adjectives. Witness “craft beer cheese dipping sauce” with “crispy applewood-smoked bacon.” Maybe I should appreciate Claim Jumper’s confidence and simplicity.

claim jumper salad

 

Cobb salad might’ve been a vehicle for the only vegetables I ate in my nearly two weeks. I topped it with semi-tough beef tips for an $18.99 salad, which is more than touristy midtown pubs charge (I’m a mild connoisseur of pub steak salads).  I actually took leftovers home despite salads always being gross later, and the tiny house where I was staying did not have a refrigerator yet. I just gnawed on the cold meat the next morning.

Claim Jumper * 18000 SW Lower Boones Ferry Rd., Tualatin, OR

Chains of Love: Benihana

I was in Las Vegas for business, which sounds more important than it was, but I can’t not mix business with pleasure so I turned it into a mini-vacation since I happened to be there during my boyfriend’s birthday (who has the same birthday as my ex-boyfriend and my sister’s ex-husband, all different years) and flights from where he lives (Portland) are fast and cheap.

We’d planned the Benihana birthday when I was in Portland a few weeks prior. Neither of us had ever been. There is one in Beaverton, the only in Oregon, but on spur of the moment there were no reservations until 8:45pm (the restaurant closes at 9:30pm) and as I’ve learned (once years ago when I attempted to walk-in at the Edison, NJ location) you have to have reservations if you want to be subjected to the whole dinner and a show thing. I even signed up for the $30 off coupon if you dine in your birthday month. That’s really the only way to do it because Benihana is not exactly cheap, though you do get soup, salad, shrimp appetizer, rice, and ice cream. My Splash ‘n Meadow (hibachi steak and shrimp) was $42. (Strangely, this combo doesn’t appear on the Oregon or NYC menus).

benihana interior

There is a newer Benihana location on the strip but I was not risking it with a new-and-improved modern version. Benihana should not look like it was designed in 2016. This restaurant at the Westgate, neon visible all the way from my hotel, the El Cortez, downtown Vegas (distances are super deceiving in this flat, plunked-down city–Benihana was three miles away) was sprawling with little indoor fountains, bridges, and semi-private rooms. And most impressive to me was a roving photographer who would take your photo before the meal had begun, posing and staging diners like I haven’t encountered since my senior portrait, and putting two images in a padded display binder to sell you as you left. I had never encountered this practice, which I thought was extinct, yet there was a woman with a camera doing the same thing at the Peppermill where we went afterward, my third time at the infamous fire pit lounge. This time I had a valid excuse, “Thanks, but we just got our picture taken.”

Usually I’m opposed to communal dining. On my left was an adult child and spouse taking parents out to celebrate a 40th wedding anniversary. The father, wearing a baseball cap, arms crossed and stony nearly the entire meal, was not having any of it. On my right were women from somewhere in the South, one 30something and single, the other 40ish with a teenage daughter at home who was also celebrating a March 22 birthday, and were there for a different conference than mine and appeared to already have a few drinks in them. They were old pros at Benihana, made sure to tell staff it was the boyfriend’s birthday and were even trying to finagle free photos (no dice). Two of the six strangers had dietary restrictions (one, no shrimp, the other no meat at all, which if you have a legit allergy, um, the food is all being cooked on the same grill) and concerns were voiced about the sauce being too spicy.

benihana trio

I haven’t spoken about the food because it’s not really the point. You get your onion soup, salad with miso-ginger dressing, and chicken fried rice. My steak and shrimp had fine texture, and my medium-rare request was granted, but the beef barely tasted of anything despite lots of a vaguely teriyaki-ish sauce and butter splashed on it while it was grilled.  It reminded me of when I get desperate and buy meat at a C Town.

Whatever, Yan, who was Chinese, did the shrimp flipped into the toque trick, made lots of puns, “Have you ever seen butter fly?” as he plopped half a stick with his spatula, and…

benihana love

…clearly was a romantic at heart. All that you could hope for celebrating a birthday in Las Vegas.

benihana photos

And I even paid $40 for the not-super-flattering, dough-faced (far more common than doe-eyed, I’m afraid) photo, something I normally would not do, but being in a long distance relationship, I’m a little more frivolous when we get together every few months. The photographer said I reminded her of her sister-in-law “she has pin-up bangs too” and was trying to find a photo of her and I was cringing inside because I was worried she’d show me a chunky rockabilly chick. (I’ll own my growing plumpness but I think I dress fairly modern/contemporary. The default style in Vegas if you’re not touristy or preppy is ‘90s burlesque. I did not see a single person in four days that could be characterized as “hipster,” despite that tired term now being devoid of meaning.) The sister-in-law ended up being an attractive blonde with a flower in her hair, similar age as me, honestly a little too old for that look if I were being judgy. (Dita Von Teese is the only example I can think of as a 40+ woman who can get away with that retro style. It ages you after a certain point.) But everyone, servers, bartenders, Lyft drivers, was so nice in Vegas–or maybe everyone is chatty everywhere except NYC–I felt obligated to engage when my instinct is to brush off. It’s kind of scary now that I think about it. Considering I work at home 2-3 times per week and rarely go out on weekends these days, I think I had more extended conversations with people I just met in those four Vegas days than a month in NYC.

Benihana * 3000 Paradise Rd., Las Vegas, NV

Chains of Love: Yard House

yard house facade

Despite possessing a master’s degree, I wouldn’t say that I’ve had an academically rigorous education. In art school in the early ‘90s we met credential-granting liberal arts requirements with classes where we read biographies of our choosing and essentially wrote middle-school level book reports. (A Korean exchange student brought in a copy of Stuart Smalley’s “I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!” believing it was non-fiction.) There was one freshman class, though, Art and Ideas, where we were expected to take a more critical approach, or maybe it just seemed more serious since the instructor was British.

pioneer place food court 2

An early assignment was analyzing a regional landmark. I chose the newly opened Pioneer Place mall, as it was pure transitional 1990s–lots of muted pink and mint hues, curves and waves, glass block walls–and was trying very hard to convey an upscale atmosphere. It wasn’t clear who it was for since–at least in my mind–downtown was playground to panhandlers and street kids at the time. (They haven’t been pushed out in the New Portland of 2017, don’t worry–now, there are entire homeless camps under bridges, along medians, and behind bushes.) The only memories of that essay was that I got called out for the use of “sea foam green” which the instructor didn’t get.

pioneer place food court

 

More than 25 years later, and now Pioneer Place is dated (there is not a single photo of the mall on its website) and going through an aesthetic overhaul, which I discovered while passing through the drained fountains, shuttered food court to get to Yard House in an attempt to be a Darden completist. (Breaking news now means I’ll have to add inexplicably named Cheddar’s to my list. And I couldn’t justify a trip to Eddie V’s on my one weekend in Austin, the only city I’ve visited where the chain exists, so that’s a knowledge gap.) Also, I had a $40 gift card from my birthday that I had been saving for just the right occasion. 

vault

Based on the above hint, I’m guessing the new food court will be flush with reclaimed wood, hand-drawn chalkboard menus, and filament bulbs. Maybe an 18-year-old with middling writing ability can deconstruct it.

yard house duo

The Yard House is at its heart a sports bar, touting classic rock, vast and on multiple floors connected by a staircase (apparently it replaced a Saks in 2012) and to my surprise it was very full at lunch with office workers and an enormous table occupied by what seemed like a tour group. (I thought everyone ate at food carts downtown.)  It’s eerily dark because the bulk of the restaurant is in a windowless basement, booths, walls, and ceilings black semi-matte, lit primarily from the multiple TV screens.

yard house chicken sandwich

The menu is a mishmash of what-millennials-eat fare, despite the boomer-leaning rock angle: “street tacos” with a Korean short rib option, deviled eggs with candied bacon, poke nachos, and my choice, a Nashville hot chicken sandwich enlivened by “fried sage, sweet potato pancakes, pickles, ranch dressing, honey hot sauce.” Wow, that’s a lot of trends for one sandwich. I don’t have any recollection of sweet potatoes and the chicken, itself, wasn’t particularly spicy. The bun, not unusually large, muffled a lot of the expected distinct flavors. It was exactly what you would expect of a regional specialty filtered down to KFC and elevated by a gastropub-ish chain.

The previous night’s stay at the nearby Hotel Monaco, festivities kicked-off at 4pm with poutine and happy hour martinis at Red Star Tavern (Portland does have some of the best, most loosey-goosey-houred drink and dining deals), squeezing  in one $5 Vieux Carré at Imperial before the 11pm happy hour cut-off, continuing at Little Bird with the late night happy hour $7 (once $5 but now service-included) double brie burger, then prolonged until the wee hours in my room, meant that by noon check-out my insides were trying to escape my body. My first meal of the day was irrelevant, but I could’ve done worse than a free hot chicken sandwich eaten in a faded glory of a mall basement.

Yard House * 888 SW Fifth Ave., Portland, OR

 

Chains of Love: Cheesecake Factory Elmhurst

I just said I didn’t eat at chains alone. This was an exception. It was bugging me that the city’s first Cheesecake Factory opened practically walking distance (a 12-minute bus ride, if you time it right) to my apartment but I hadn’t been yet. Queens already isn’t an easy sell as it is–Brooklyn people are very, very provincial/lazy–and I maybe have two friends that could be convinced to go to a mall in Rego Park (the Cheesecake Factory’s address is listed as Elmhurst–it’s very cuspy). I couldn’t wait any longer.

I used my trip to Target to return this ridiculous pepper grinder that had no obvious way to insert peppercorns (I’m not great with spatial logistics, but seriously) for my $7.99 back just before the 60-day grace period was up as an excuse to mall-hop.

chain nexus

This Cheesecake Factory, across the road from Shake Shack and up the block from a Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, Joe’s Crab Shack trifecta, is the nexus of chain culture in Queens. This restaurant is palatial for the area, large-scale, properly Vegas-y, yet not as sprawling and labyrinthine as its suburban brethren. There also weren’t hour waits for tables, though there were expectant diners waiting in the lobby.

cheesecake factory bar

Just me, I went to the bar. I didn’t grow up with Cheesecake Factories, I’ve only come to know them in adulthood, and the first two times in two different New Jersey locations, you could still smoke at the bar, so that was pre-2006. It must be noted for The Middle Ages posterity that there was one solo woman at least a decade older than me wearing earbuds while she ate (realizing more and more this is very common) who ordered a virgin pina colada, something off the “Skinnylicious” menu, and then crab wontons to go when she saw mine and asked what they were. Another solo woman at least a decade younger was on her left and was gnawing on a pile of wings.

I couldn’t necessarily pin down the crowd. An ethnically ambiguous (the man seemed sort of Latino and the woman a little South Asian) 30something couple in workout clothes, or maybe just athleisure, sat on my other side. The man asked if they had any organic wine, which ok…no. Then he didn’t know what a flatbread was. Like I said, I can’t say exactly what kind of people these are.

cheesecake factory wontons

The portions are big and American so you get kind of screwed by yourself even if ordering appetizers like my crab wontons. It’s too much and you want another item. Tuna tartare was randomness because I wanted variety and lightness. 

cheesecake factory bread

I do like that you get a full bread basket.

cheesecake factory menu

There seems to be a misperception among those who have not had the good fortune to visit a Cheesecake Factory that all they sell is cheesecake. My god, no. There are multiple menus with more choices than a typical spaghetti-to-spanikopita Greek diner, and they are not averse to trends. They’ve got your kale, quinoa, and avocado toast, ok?

cheesecake factory cheesecake

I decided I would be remiss in not ordering cheesecake, at least to go. This is 1,200 calories of salted caramel madness.

Previously in Cheesecake Factory.

 

 

Cheesecake Factory * Queens Center, 90-15 Queens Blvd., Elmhurst, NY

 

The Post-Millennium Chain Restaurants of Middlesex County: Kona Grill

kona grll vibe

I’m not going to tell you how long ago I ate at Kona Grill because it’s kind of embarrassing in its negligence (not for the mere fact that I ate there). But the documentarian completist in me can’t let it go unmentioned. Plus, I took NJ Transit to get there on a weekend so it was kind of an effort (combined with a visit to friends nearby–I don’t generally do chains solo unless in other countries–where we also did Bonefish Grill brunch). I’ve never been attracted to Kona Grill, kind of because it has a conflicting brand identity. The name would imply meats with some tropical edge, though in reality sushi is prominent. It’s not a part of some major restaurant group (though it’s based in Scottsdale, AZ like P.F. Chang’s) and there are only roughly 30 locations in the US. And also it’s in the parking lot of the Renaissance Hotel, near no other restaurants, unlike the usual suburban clusters, but most importantly it’s across the highway from Bonefish Grill, my old favorite chain, so if I was going to go to Woodbridge (technically Iselin), NJ I would have a hard time giving up a plate of Bang Bang Shrimp for the unknown.

kona grill food

So, Kona Grill is glitzier than it projects from a speeding car zooming down Route 1. There is a main dining room, with a sushi bar as its focus, all glowing blue like a Vegas (or NJ) lounge. We sat in a windowed side room near a fire pit, illuminated by TV screens, and shared a bunch of small plates (crab cakes, dumplings, avocado egg-rolls with honey-cilantro sauce, and portobello & goat cheese flatbread). Entrees remind you of the Grill part of the restaurant’s name and read busy a la miso-saké sea bass shrimp & pork fried rice, pan-asian ratatouille, yet there are also cajun dishes, cuban sandwiches, greek salads, and clam chowder. The menu could stand to be shaved by one-third.

kona grill drinksYou can have sake flights in addition to the Strawberry Basil Lemonades made with Bacardi Dragon Berry Rum. Yes, I’m the freak who always orders a martini with a cheese-stuffed novelty. I think the chain does a substantial happy hour business (I recall reading that in some earnings call transcript), which I will probably never witness first-hand.

Kona Grill * 511 US Hwy 1 south, Iselin, NJ