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Posts from the ‘American’ Category

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Vancouver BC

wildebeest tartare

Wildebeest I thought horsemeat was more associated with Quebec than British Columbia (I did buy some frozen slices in a Montreal grocery store for “Chinese fondue,” crammed it in my hotel’s fridge and it thawed and bled all over the mini bottles) and as a Pittsburgh restaurant was just causing outrage for serving horse tartare, I couldn’t resist ordering the same off a late night happy hour menu (bolstered by poutine and a beet dish that was better than everything) because I’m a tartare freak. Pretty as can be, though I didn’t care for the chopped, pickled carrots and celery mixed with the meat that had a surprising funk since it added too much sourness. The hay-toasted mayo was appropriate and inappropriate at the same time, and the sous-vide egg yolk put it over the top.

dynasty seafood 6

Dynasty Seafood I don’t usually believe anyone who says they don’t like dim sum. Despite an hour wait (I shrugged off making reservations—don’t be like me), I might have converted a skeptic with those sweet, pastry pork buns that were brought around immediately after we were seated and dying of hunger even though this was a modern ordering-off-the-menu place. There were spring rolls filled with a shrimp mousse that tasted like hotdogs. An order of pea shoots and squiggly hand-made udon with XO sauce appeased the skeptic. I couldn’t finish the wu gok stuffed with duck and chestnuts and wrapped 1.5 pieces a napkin and stuffed it in my purse then forgot about it until I got back to Portland.

joe fortes trio

Joe Fortes Seafood and Chophouse I still don’t know if the last name of this famous local figure (looked at his wikipedia page–and he was a lifeguard from Trinidad?), whom I  saw also has a library named after him, is pronounced fortay, forts, or fortez. Anyway, any establishment that has chop house in its name is total catnip to me and I drank way too many happy hour old fashioneds, especially since $5 was $3.70, and ate a bunch of tiny lobster and shrimp rolls, giant shrimp tempura, and truffle fries (I know) and was too full to try and hit hot Italian-Japanese spot Kissa Tanto to finagle a table when it opened at 5:30pm. I want to be a Kissa Tanto type of woman, au courant and great to look at, but I’m 100% Joe Fortes, dated and brassy.IMG_3294

Maenam This could’ve been the best Thai food in Vancouver, or Canada, but the lack of air conditioning and the subsequent sweat wetting my hair (not from the spice level) was too distracting to enjoy the well-priced (everything was well-priced as the exchange rate equaled 25% off) tasting. I did love one of the servers’, who was not young, subtle mauve-tinged hair since I had just attempted to give myself a plummy ombre effect two days before.

bao down breakfast

Bao Down I would’ve preferred dinner to brunch since it seemed more traditional but we can’t have it all. A longanisa breakfast dish resembled no tselog (the menu didn’t promise a tselog) I had ever seen but something more delicate, pretty, and dare I say, healthier, than I would expect from Filipino food. Nice.

hon's quad

Hon’s This was a nostalgia lunch, for the boyfriend not me, and the cavernous dining room with multiple stations, yet only 10% full seemed bigger on atmosphere than food. Not that any of the things we over-ordered (roast pork and pot stickers were not necessary) were objectively not good, I’m just sure better versions could be had in the city. I was picturing a wonton noodle soup bowl like Noodletown but this portion was gigantic with practically an entire duck chopped into it and likely four recommended daily servings (if any government body dictated these things) of springy egg noodles. I did what I could, left lots of noodles (and appreciated being asked if I wanted them wrapped up since I’m a leftover freak/food hoarder, but declined) and took the fatty pork wedges for later.

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Novo Pizzeria I never made it to any of the cocktail bars near our Airbnb that I’d read about or Kissa Tanto, which I couldn’t get reservations for three weeks out. This wasn’t an ambitious food vacation but a long-distance meetup so I set up a Door Dash (no Seamless in BC, nor Uber and Lyft) account and got a chorizo, honey, and thyme sort of pizza delivered to the apartment, which I realized too late had no intercom. I don’t get to do the lazy Netflix (not saying and chill) thing with a guy usually so it was a novelty. I watched Win-Win (not my pick) and I Don’t Feel Safe in this World Anymore (my pick) though I had seen both already. I did not take a photo, so you will have to enjoy a public library instead.

 

 

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Memorial Day Weekend in Oregon

jackrabbit trio

Jackrabbit Meals other than dinner aren’t optimal for assessing what a restaurant can do. I took my mom to the new Chris Cosentino restaurant in the Duniway Hotel for a belated Mother’s Day lunch. It was sparsely populated, which could’ve been because it’s new or it’s not the type of place the average Portland person (or tourist–I couldn’t believe the crowds outside clearly from out of town) goes to lunch downtown. My first impression was disappointment since they didn’t have the sal de gusano (I ordered it precisely because that’s a hard to source ingredient) described as the rim for my cocktail, The Crank (mezcal, Pommeau de Normandie. lime, agave, basil). The pig’s ears were good, crunchy bits balanced by gelatinous strips. My mom’s french onion soup looked insane, not just with the blanket of melted cheese but a hunk of marrow bone sticking out. At lunch, sandwiches are the focus so I tried a banh mi with pork belly and big fat fried oysters and wanted to die. I’ll hold off on forming an opinion since I didn’t sample any of the ham or large format curiosities like the pig’s head with “brainaise.” I still haven’t been to Headwaters in the Heathman Hotel either, which I should at least for reference purposes but I’m not terribly excited about hotel dining in Portland.

tad's 6

Tad’s Chicken ‘n Dumplings a.k.a. Chic Dump per the neon sign and URL, has existed for as long as I remember in Troutdale, one town over from where I grew up, but I’d never been and when I complained to my mom about it on this trip she didn’t seem surprised or to care. This is important business! I’ve also never eaten chicken and dumplings in my life, which seem more Midwestern than Northwestern but Oregon and Washington are lacking in a regional cuisine anyway. It’s on the Sandy River where we went as hormonal teens, inner tubing and sunbathing and fended off gross guys with cut-offs and mustaches. I just listened to a Walkman and read The Boys on the Rock and imagined Simon LeBon was featured in the cover illustration. People said that the chicken and dumplings were not good. They were in my book because I like sinking my teeth into some serious carbs, but the combination of cubed, skinless chicken and wet pillowy whiteness is kind of like nursery food, soft and bland, more salty than anything. The above photo is misleading; that serving presented in a metal raised dish could feed at least three people and I can’t imagine you’d use up all of the extra gravy, especially after the relish tray, salad, and big plate of chicken livers with ketchup, an unnecessary extra I ordered because they were cheap, also a bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir since 90% of them ranged from $20-$25.

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13 Virtues Brewing First choice for a meetup with my mom and grandma was Iron Horse, closed on Memorial Day, then moved to SanFelipe Taqueria, also closed. Apparently this place in Sellwood has been serving cheesesteaks since the ’80s (the boyfriend said he went there in high school) though at some point it re-branded to a brew pub because in Oregon everything is brew pubs and changed its name. I forget no one uses Cheez Whiz outside of Philadelphia minus a few purist spots, so I was bummed by my melted provolone.

Crackerjacks This bar/restaurant looks like it has been on the corner of Thurman and 27th forever but I had never been and don’t recall its existence in my day. I liked it enough to return twice, though. Once just for drinks, the other for a cheeseburger. There is also a pizza menu though the pizza oven was broken on Memorial Day. Clearly, you’re not supposed to go to restaurants on Memorial Day. I like to disparage Portland but most everyone is nicer than in NYC. I was complimented on different dresses numerous times and was told I “looked adorable” by a waitress here. I think the last time a stranger said I was cute in NYC, it was a hostess at Mesa Grill in 1999.

bamboo sushi chirashi

Bamboo Sushi Since I have been returning to Portland for close to a year-and-a-half I have avoided this popular place as it seemed like white people sushi, which is rich coming from me since I am pretty callous about the whole cultural appropriation kerfuffle that emerged when I was in town. I don’t care if white people make sushi but this restaurant was exactly what I had pictured: pristine and sustainable fish choices, not quite traditionally presented, a little pricey, and sloppy service. A young woman had a new young man shadowing her and that might not have been the best pairing as I wouldn’t have known she was training him if she hadn’t said so. I couldn’t argue with the sweet crab legs and surf clams in my $27 chirashi (not sure about the microgreens and red onions). I also managed to snap a wooden arm rest off my chair when scooting closer to the table, which has nothing to do with anything, but added to the off-kilter-ness.

old world deli trio

Old World Deli My mother and I met my sister in Corvallis, at her suggestion, despite it in no way being the half-way point between Portland and Eugene. A cousin who works two blocks away alos joined us for lunch. I ordered first–an important point–a reuben sandwich, and then all three family members subsequently ordered the same thing even my sister who I hadn’t seen eat meat since 1990. I’m usually vehemently opposed to anyone in the same party ordering the same dish, but by necessity I’ve become a kinder, gentler human when in Oregon, plus at a random deli that looked like a Veteran’s hall, staffed by teenage boys…who cares? The sandwiches were fine, though the marble rye was too soft and stuck to everyone’s teeth. That’s just one reason why I’m not including any pictures of people.

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

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

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Two Meals in Astoria (Oregon not Queens)

buoy window

Buoy Beer Company Everyone, if they even know what Astoria, Oregon is, says to go to the Goonie house but I don’t really give a shit about Goonies. It’s a weirdly millennial folly despite the movie coming out in 1985. I mean, there was an entire big spread a few summers back in Lucky Peach devoted to Goonies (which doesn’t appear to be online and it’s just as well because my links might be dead sooner rather than later). I was really more impressed by the seal, ship, and rainbow I captured through the window while sitting inside Buoy Beer Company.

buoy 6

I lucked out because it was stout month and that’s my scene, not the IPAs plaguing the Pacific Northwest. And the food was surprisingly (not sure why I was surprised) good. I had an oyster pot pie, filled with super plump oysters, local, of course, with maybe the best side salad (pickled vegetables, asparagus spears, homemade croutons and dressing, a scattering of seeds) I’ve ever encountered. The Oregon pink shrimp cheesey bread was totally overkill but delicious, nonetheless.

humps

Fort George Brewery Astoria was meant to be a day trip since it’s only an hour-and-a-half up Route 30 from Scappoose where I saw a second branch of Itxtapa, a bar/restaurant called Hump’s, and a long-closed dilapidated near-shack called Myong’s Seoul Food, surprising since I can’t imagine any Koreans living in this part of Oregon, but I got a motel for like $60 and decided to stay overnight.

fort george fish

Dinner was tricky because after dark, in winter, on Monday, the town was ghosty, the only people on the street were shouty doorway-sleepers. I wanted to go to Albatross & Co. (dungeness crab deviled eggs, oyster chowder poutine, craft cocktails, blah blah) but it wasn’t open.  It’s not that weird to eat at two different brewpubs for two meals on the same day in Oregon. I really wanted the steak frites with blue cheese sauce, which my companion ordered, but settled for a smoked fish plate teeming with salmon, trout, pickled herring. Also smoked hazelnuts/filberts (I’m trying to bring back the latter usage). Yes, we could’ve shared.

astoria video store

Astoria, set where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean, is hard to pin down. Like most Oregon Coast towns it’s a bit rough and tumble but there are cutesier elements creeping in. There was just not a video store still in business downtown, but also a JCPenney and Sears in 1940s (just guessing the era) storefronts, which I didn’t get to take photos of before the sun set. But also a vintage hardware shop, a hair salon called Hygge, and a modern, faux old-timey butcher, which I have a hard time imaging enough clientele to sustain it. I swear my grandma worked at a Kenny Roger’s Roasters in Astoria in the ’90s, but maybe that was Seaside since I never ever visited her in Astoria, and now that I say that, it seems mildly absurd like something fleeting that occurred in a dream and decades later it seems like a fact. Maybe I’ll ask her about it.

 

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Two Meals in Eugene

mame duo

Mame It took the longest time to realize this restaurant was pronounced mah-may not like mame as in Auntie. Sushi in Eugene is something I never thought I’d care to experience but I told my sister I would take her and her husband out for her birthday and she chose this place, which requires reservations weeks in advance, not typical of this town, because Mame is tiny but also because it has a good reputation.

The sushi was very good, a mix of traditional and creative. I didn’t parse it. We were just drinking a well-priced Honjozo sake and having a good time. (The server animatedly described every single bottle on the menu. This would be weird in NYC–or I suppose, Tokyo–but she was just excited about the list she’d put together.) Omakase starts at a bargain rate $20 so I went wild and asked for $40 per person.  The top photo illustrates what was presented for three. My fear was that Mame wasn’t the best idea for my sister’s vegetarian husband (both former vegans) was unfounded. Duh, it’s Eugene. He was presented with tons of vegetarian sushi, a noodle dish, followed by hand rolls that he couldn’t finish, and we were only charged $30 because the chef (I think the partner of the server) didn’t think the ingredients merited $40. The dinner was capped off with a free red bean cheesecake for the birthday girl.

My sister, with a critical eye, said that none of the diners looked like neighborhood types. I couldn’t tell because I have no idea what passes for upscale in Eugene. I had just seen a man with a hook for a hand in a bar. I guess not living under a bridge? The bathroom isn’t inside the restaurant. It’s outside, around the back. We were joking, after my sister returned, that a homeless guy was camped out in the bathroom and the wildly ebullient server overheard (there’s no private conversations in this space) and apologized. Eugene is very earnest.

The Vintage Probably not my first choice for brunch. The website makes it seem more modern, but it’s kind of fusty. Can you shoehorn a restaurant in a old house (I don’t think this is only an Oregon thing but it’s definitely not an NYC thing) and make it feel otherwise? I don’t really even do brunch but I hadn’t seen my friend from college for at least eight years and this was her pick (everyone in Eugene is more money-conscious than I’m used to in NYC, and I don’t hang out with anyone rich–this friend had been at the same retail job for 15 years, making $2.25 above minimum wage–and I didn’t want to inadvertently choose someplace pricey). There was a 20 minute wait for a table and another 20 minute wait for food. It’s all crepes during the day and fondue at night, in a two-story old house, self-described as “quaint.” Enough said.

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Portland (and Outskirts) One More Time

biwa quad

Biwa I suppose Portland Dining Month is much like New York Restaurant Week, except that I never partake of the latter. I only accidentally stumbled upon the prix fixe at Biwa because I had one last meal and it seemed negligent that I’d never been despite it being open for a decade. (Not really a completist though–not in a hurry to try oldies that passed me by while I’ve been hanging out in NYC a la Nostrana or the Coquines, Jacquelines, and Davenports of the world). It was a super great deal for $29 despite abysmal photographic evidence. Lots of otsumami, all nice (miso sesame cauliflower, pickles, dashi ricotta dip with rice crackers, pickled and fried mackerel) a little salmon sashimi with umeboshi, and then all at once daikon salad with salmon roe, buta no kakuni (braised pork belly) with I think pears, kimchi fish stew with rice cakes (could eat Korean rice cakes until I barf), and hojicha ice cream (a nice respite from matcha). I supplemented this with Washington State oysters, three Capital and three Churchpoint served with a yuzu kosho (an ingredient that everyone seems into all of a sudden) sort of sorbet. Oysters are strangely more expensive in the NW than NYC; even the happy hour prices are more than our typical $1 per.

langbaan multi

Langbaan Second time (first here) 13 months apart and the monthly rotating menus were both Central Thai! Glad it’s my favorite region and obviously everything was new (more seafood, less meat, and a different butterfly pea flower blue rice dessert) this time. Langbaan remains one of my favorite restaurants in Portland and I was able to get a table for two without advance planning because there are often cancellations if you get on the waiting list. 

808 grinds

808 Grinds Oregon isn’t particularly close to Hawaii but maybe if you drew a line from the islands to the continental United States, Portland would be on a direct path? (I don’t think so.) There is a substantial Hawaiian presence in Portland, though. I remember church people having luaus with poi and kalua pork when I was a kid and now my boyfriend has lots of Hawaiian (though of Japanese heritage) transplant friends through judo. You’ll have no trouble tracking down poke and moco loco in the city. Everyone likes the guava chiffon cake here, which I did try, but the mochi-textured coconut squares that I don’t know the name of are better. I’m still not convinced scoops of mac salad and rice are compatible. 

babica duo

Babica Hen My sister came up to my mom’s neck of the woods (she just moved to Lake Oswego and is already decamping to Tigard) for a birthday brunch. I hate when people order the same dish (though it’s kind of mitigated when you have a party of 5) so I didn’t copy my mom’s showstopping chicken and waffles with sweet potato mousse and coconut-rum caramel and ordered a special of beer battered chicken and an orange-whiskey sauce instead and it was kind of spartan and I began regretting my petty rule.

helvetia trio

Helvetia Tavern I had never heard of this place though it apparently is famous for its jumbo burger. I imagine Guy Fieri has been here (this does not seem to be the case). And it is a jumbo double-patty burger, more jumbo than this photo conveys, deliciously oozing “fry sauce” served with more fry sauce on the side for fries and onion rings.  I only wish that 75% of the time I enter a car (and Skyline Blvd. is no joke for the queasy) I didn’t end up wanting to puke. Maybe I’m allergic to all the wet moss, ferns, mushrooms, and general greenness.  I discovered that pot helps with this sensation so took to carrying a low THC vape in my purse specifically for this purpose. This is very un-NYC behavior. I feel like I have developed West Coast and East Coast personalities.

boxer ramen

Boxer Ramen Once again, I was on the verge of puking before I had this bowl of non-traditional tonkatsu ramen set before me so I can’t say for certain that it was extra porky, a little too much so, or if I was just sensitive. I wouldn’t be one to normally complain about extra chashu, though. And I loved the black garlic oil. They were sadly out of okonomiyaki tots.

st jack duo

St. Jack  I will concede that Portland has really great happy hours, at all levels of dining. I suspect it’s the case because no one seems to ever work, despite stupefying rising rents, or at least not 9 to5. They were packed at 4pm on a Thursday. My $5 fried tripe and $6 chicken liver mousse, not my $12 burger. I just realized they serve $1 oysters during the first hour of the 4-6pm happy hour so maybe I was wrong about my above statement.

lighthouse trio

The Lighthouse I’ve become more familiar with the 20-mile stretch of Route 30 between Portland and Scappoose than I would ever care to. There are all these outskirty places you pass through with names like Linnton and Burlington but they are still technically Portland (and I always thought it was Sauvies Island, not Sauvie Island, but whatever, everyone calls it Fred Meyers, not Fred Meyer). The Lighthouse is an amazing maritime-themed bar that looks rougher than it is from a moving car at night, smokers out front. Sure, it’s a dive and no one blinks an eye if you start drinking before noon, but the bartender, a woman in jeans and a tank top who seemed to know everyone coming in for lunch, was playing Beach Fossils and other such bands that rotate on my Spotify Discover playlist, which totally didn’t jibe with the atmosphere and blue collar clientele.  But that is Portland. The wings, burger, and pork tacos were just ok. I would definitely return for drinks, though. Pro tip: a few storefronts down you can gawk at baby chicks, five different breeds, at Linnton Feed and Seed. Also, between the Lighthouse and Linnton Feed and Seed, is another bar/restaurant called Decoy which serves diner fare and apparently also Chinese food. I’m definitely going to get crab puffs when I’m in town next.

ixtapa trio

Ixtapa I ate lunch at this cheap Ameri-Mex Scappoose near-institution as well as eating a takeout chimichanga during my boyfriend’s dad’s 70th birthday party. The dad reported the runs the next morning. I can eat fried tortillas, melted cheese, and refried beans, with abandon, no problem, and I hope this is still the case in three decades. I also had no idea that there were so many White Russian variations, which only stood out because I had my first White Russian on this trip. Not at Ixtapa (at Holman’s).

 

 

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

 

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

Chains of Love: Denny’s Jackson Heights

Though it seemed like it appeared overnight, anyone following Queens chain news knew that this Denny’s has been promised for years. The first rumblings were in spring of 2013, a year and a half before I moved down the street. I assumed upon unpacking I would have Super Birds at my disposal 24 hours a day.

denny's facade

The most surprising thing about the new Jackson Heights’ Denny’s, nestled into the fresh, picture-window building also housing a Chipotle and Dunkin’ Donuts wasn’t that they don’t serve craft cocktails like NYC’s first Denny’s (they don’t serve alcohol at all) or that the host automatically sent my arriving party to the table where I was already seated (guess there’s a dearth of childless, middle-age white ladies in the neighborhood) or that it was nothing like the Denny’s in Japan. No, I was extremely tickled that the check was automatically divvied into three. I’m pretty sure I’ve never encountered that at a restaurant in NYC–or any other Denny’s.

denny's receipt

I did not take any photos of the interior. The restaurant is quite bright and large (the waiting area is the size of most cafes in the area) with lots of burgundy booths, diner seating, and totally nondescript décor. I kept getting distracted by blown-up photos on the wall depicting what looked like a Waffle House, but with Denny’s name on the signs.

The menu is heavy on Grand Slams, skillets, and burgers, as it always was. It’s also pretty trend-averse. There are no flatbreads or kale salads. Jalapeño bacon and salted caramel are about as daring as it gets.

denny's pot roast

Bacon cheddar tots were a new addition, and regular old fries could be upgraded to the little blobs, more fritter than tot, for $1.29, so that had to be done. They would probably be better if they cheese had melted rather than stayed shredded. I had no complaints about the level of American cheese oozing on my pot roast melt, though. With the addition of sautéed mushrooms and caramelized onions, held together by toasted 7-grain bread, this was not a bad sandwich. There was an unplanned double pot roast order at my table.

denny's duo

I love leftovers (I always freak when dining with people who leave 25% of their food destined for the trash) so I brought them to work the next day. I reflexively hid my plastic bag from view on the subway, but remembered this was the 7 train, not the F where my Olive Garden remnants elicited scowls.

Denny’s * 8710 Northern Blvd., Jackson Heights, NY