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Kin Shop

Harold Dieterle is one of those chefs who cooks outside his ethnicity—and why not? He does it well. Haven’t the non-French been doing just that for decades?

I’m happy for any ambitious Thai addition to Manhattan (and am still steamed over that Rhong Tiam/OBAO bait-and-switch near my office). Recently, I revisited Lotus of Siam, and while I didn’t think the food was dismal as might be expected long after the departure of the original owner, for those prices I’d much rather eat at Kin Shop.

Kin shop fried pork & crispy oyster salad

Double-meaty gooey fried oysters and thick slices of pork belly are lent tartness and texture with the addition of pickled onions and celery. The chile-lime dressing could’ve been more pungent, but that’s just my preference. They do provide condiments Thai-style, so you can pile on the chile flakes to delicious numbness. Then again, I might have a chile overdosing problem. After spooning a huge glob of super shrimpy, pure fire nam prik pao that I bought at Sripraphai last night (and was warned away from) on a baked sweet potato, I have lost half the taste in my mouth.

Kin shop grilled eggplant

Vegetable sides don’t play a major role on most traditional Thai menus, though maybe Americans feel like they need them. Grilled eggplant, smoky and simply dressed with mint and fish sauce, fills that void here. I just now realized that what I thought were seeds—the little white dots scattered on top—are actually pearls of rice

Kin shop massaman goat curry

Goat, braised to tenderness, makes a light massaman curry despite the level of coconut milk. And the tiny cubes of purple yam are not only more delicate than the usual potato chunks, but add punches of color to the creamier than usual stew. Normally, massaman is lower on my list of to-order curries. Not here. Photos I've seen online show a heftier piece of meat, which may or may not be due to lunch vs. dinner portioning. This was a midday meal.

Kin Shop * 469 Sixth Ave., New York, NY

Red Robin

3/4 Like people, some restaurants engender warm feelings while others leave you empty and alone. It’s that nebulous just-right essence I seek out in chain restaurants and only occasionally become properly enveloped in. My two experiences with Red Robin have not provided this soothing joy.

Maybe it’s just the South Plainfield location where my last experience with the chain three years ao also occurred, but stepping foot inside is like entering a baby house of the past (or maybe a baby house of the present, but I haven’t spent any significant time around young children in decades), dried spit-up, rusty shag-carpeted ranch houses with unexplained wet patches and greasy surfaces with high e coli potential where graham crackers are called cookies and squares of unfrosted sheet cake are served underbaked with damp, floury bottoms, suspect places where as a grade-schooler I  might be dropped off in the name of day care.

The food is fine (despite my two nemeses, melon and bottomless steak fries, being the sides of choice) for the genre.

Red robin oktoberfest burger

My only intent was to try the limited edition Oktoberfest burger, which turned out to be kind of pleasing as a pretzel sandwich. The sweetish, burnished bun was the main attraction; flavors of caramelized onions and stone ground mustard predominated. The ham and swiss barely registered while the barely pink (medium is as low as raw as they’ll cook meat, and while irksome, is a step up from Five Guys) fast food-sized hamburger patty didn’t function as a featured ingredient either but more as a beefy condiment. These are big burgers visually.

Red robin margarita

But the weirdest part of the meal was the margarita. I was once served a margarita with a green olive at an Applebee’s, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that this $5.99 version came with bejeweled ice. This photo wasn’t intended to capture it, though you can see one blue speck on the upper left. The ice had fine, sparse, glitter suspended in the clear cubes. How such a thing occurred, I have no idea (and no explanation or comp was given, though a fresh drink was produced) but it makes one wonder how much messing around goes on behind the scenes.

All of the staff is very, very young, and very, very polite and cheerful. The suburbs are usually good for that, at least.

Red Robin * 6200 Hadley Rd., South Plainfield, NJ

A Friendly Send-Off

FriendlysBankruptcy, nostalgia, swan songs…it’s been a rough few weeks for old guard chains.

24/7 Wall St. looks at the ten chain restaurants with the biggest loss of sales over the past ten years. I haven’t heard of at least half of them—Bakers Square? Damon’s?—so maybe they truly are endangered species. 341 comments? That’s a heck of a lot of people misspelling Appelbee’s as Appleby’s.

Restaurant Finance Monitor calls bullshit. Chains as a whole aren’t disappearing—we may lose a Friendly’s or a Sbarro—but we gain a Kona Grill or BJ’s.

Josh Ozersky at Time thinks the death of Friendly’s is bad for America. If the middle class can’t afford to go out for Fribbles anymore, we are in sorry shape. I think the dwindling of these traditional chains is as much about changing tastes as our collective destitution, though.

Unsurprisingly, Mark Bittman is a killjoy about the matter (I just can’t get properly worked up over the occasional foray into “factory food”) even while getting the tiniest bit misty over Friendly’s demise. Why do commenters spell it as Friendlies? And why does Bittman think the chain served fast food (this was already pointed out on Twitter)? It may have been factory food, but table service and menus doesn’t fit the definition.

Friendly’s is totally the squeaky wheel (or maybe it’s the pervasive Northeastern food writing that’s doing the squeaking) but El Torito, the Californian, Americanized Mexican chain with one location in Oregon, declared Chapter 11 too and Gustavo Arellano of ¡Ask a Mexican! fame considers the melted cheese and sour cream blobs a part of history. Parent company, Real Mex Foods, also owns Who Song & Larry’s, which played a far more significant role in my formative years (it’s in here somewhere) than Friendly’s, a place I’d never heard of until I was 25.

Chain Links: Hitting the BRIC Wall

BricChains wanting to expand into foreign markets are having a hard time finding executives with the know-how to localize menus and navigate business issues abroad. Sometimes you have to add squid and corn to a pizza or sell beer with your burgers.

There is a sandwich chain called Spicy Pickle, and it will be arriving in Qatar next year. I don’t know what makes ham, cheddar, honey mustard, apple, spinach, and tomato, on grilled marble rye Basque, and don’t expect Doha residents to be any less confused.

I vowed never to speak of Pei Wei again, after last year’s sham of a contest where they chose a finalist who couldn’t use palate properly. But if you find yourself in Mexico City in the near future, craving crab rangoon, your needs will be met.

Did you know there was a Union Square Cafe in Tokyo? I wouldn't be surprised if there were stealth replicas of other notable restaurants stashed around Japan either. I be that their La Grenouille wouldn't trigger Paris Syndrome. (I know many French stereotypes are exaggerated, but even so, I havea  million cities I'd rather visit first–I'm currently considering São Paulo, Lima, Istanbul, Los Angeles, and Reykjavik for a post-Thanksgiving jaunt, though I'll probably end up in Montreal like I often do that time of year.)

It seems that everyone wants to break into China, India, and the Middle East, but maybe chains should consider Russia and Colombia too. There was a time, not so long ago, when I did not know what BRIC stood for. Now I'm a better person.

Chili's opened in São Paulo and are serving five different caipirinhas and various dishes showcasing picahna, a popular cut of meat that's equivalent to top sirloin.

McDonald’s in Brazil has the CBO, a.k.a. chicken, bacon, onion sandwich that originated in Europe. Brazil has everything.

Van Horn

1/2 Van Horn is one those places like Rucola, Strong Place, Court Street Grocers, Brucie, and countless others walkable from my apartment, that get enough chatter without me adding to it (plus, I haven’t eaten at any of them). Maybe you’ve heard of Van Horn’s fried chicken sandwich? Up until last week, I nearly felt like I’d eaten it already.

Van horn chicken sandwichNow I have. It was impressive in person, the lightly battered chicken breast bulging out of its sesame seed bun. The weird thing was that the red cabbage slaw tasted more like shredded beets in that dirty way the root vegetable can. It added a healthy aura too. This was haute Chick-fil-A , not a substitute.

Van horn pbtI prefer my Southern sandwiches to be less virtuous, though, and the PLB oozing with pimento cheese and further greased-up with bacon (then toned back down slightly with a lettuce leaf) was the exact late-ish night snack I had been looking for. The cheese blend was complex and hinted at more than mere cheddar and mayonnaise (in fact, they use garlic aioli).

Van horn hushpuppiesIt’s easy to poke fun at artisanal updates to classics (I’m still surprised that it took a mayonnaise shop to finally push the food world over the edge) but the hushpuppies–super light and nearly creamy inside–were better than anything I was served in North Carolina last month. The honey butter didn’t hurt their case.

By the way, these horrible photos were taken by my horrible phone, which I replaced with the new iPhone two days after this meal. Eventually I cave to most trends (though I’m stating right now that these scrunchy socks will never appear in my drawer or on my person). However, the jury’s still out on apps like instagram and foodspotting (hipstamatic is banned on name alone) and that’s because I’ve been trying to cut down on food photos, not increase my output (and I kind of hate social sharing, despite embracing Twitter and well, blogging before blogs formally existed, even though sometimes I feel like I’m missing out on something indefinable). I’m loathe to give up the SLR for portrait-worthy foodstuffs, even if it makes me a so-called food paparazzi, but I can’t see a camera phone, even a good one, replacing my real camera. Do people actually use both in one setting? I’m afraid of the future now.

Van Horn * 231 Court St., Brooklyn, NY

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Uncleansed

Zeppelin Hall
Somehow a Saturday juice cleanse (never attempt such nonsense on a weekend) segued into an Oktoberfest celebration at a Jersey City beer hall. By 6pm I felt cranky, useless, and zombie-like, which may have had more to do with caffeine withdrawals than a lack of solid food. I carried beet juice in my purse but ended up with a mug of Spaten Oktoberfest and a shared bratwurst. I am a failure at detoxing and can’t go without one meal a day (today was breakfast and dinner juicing with a Trader Joe’s burrito for lunch and that’s as good as it will get). I would not even continue perpetuating the juicing sham if I had not paid good money for a discounted 18-bottle supply from RueLaLa late one pathetic night. On the walk from the PATH to the subway I noticed the new all mirrors, glass, and flatscreens-filled so-called gastropub, The Fulton, that had replaced The Blarney Stone. Ugh, an opening night party was in full-swing and was pure Meatpacking District mashed with Murray Hill. Will bros and the tanned, hair-straightened ladies who love them really make the Financial District a regular habit?

The Vanderbilt
The Vanderbilt is very likeable, even though I’ve never given it a proper post. I wouldn’t call it a destination even though we drove there and have done so numerous times, and it’s clearly popular because there’s almost always a wait unless you go on the late side. James pointed out (it was his pick) that we don’t have any restaurants like it in our neighborhood. Bullshit, I thought. Doesn’t the entire northwest swath of Brooklyn have small plates (what some like to refer to as tapas) coming out if its ass? But then I started drawing a blank. I can’t think of anywhere in Carroll Gardens that serves well-priced snacks and sharable dishes with an American bent. Things like charred brussels sprouts with honey and Sriracha, perfectly caramelized, sweet and spicy, or the crispy little slab of pork belly flavored with smoked maple syrup and surrounded by cheddary grits. I don’t even like hot dogs and appreciated the Bird Dog, a foie gras and chicken tube steak on a potato roll with fat patatas bravas-esque fries.  Nearly nothing is over $14 and plenty of wine is under $10 a glass. I’m still trying to think of a comp in a ten-block radius from my apartment.

Maria’s Mexican Bistro
I never wanted to eat at Maria’s when it was in Park Slope, but now that it’s in Sunset Park it seems ok. Sometimes you want to eat in that neighborhood but feel like more atmosphere and reprieve from potentially blasting jukeboxes. My trio of enchiladas came with three different fillings—shrimp, chicken and queso fresco—and an equal number of sauces to match. Despite the bandera in its name, tomatillos, red chiles, and mole equaled green, red, and brown. White? Brown? Whatever. One of the flashier things to order is the molcajete Norteño, which is a bunch of sizzling shrimp, steak, queso fresco, and peppers served in one of those nubby lava rock vessels commonly used to pound guacamole in).

Waterfront Ale House
I’ve never had anything except the cheeseburger at this bar with a bustling dining section, and was a little wary after my last experience dealt me a medium-well instead of medium-rare. And I was especially nervous after waiting for 20 minutes on a weeknight after 9pm with harried (it’s a popular place with some oddly high-maintenance customers). I don’t send things back anyway, but if you had to and it took half an hour to receive your food in the first place, would you bother? No worries, the cheeseburger was perfectly pink and juicy with just a little sog; the brioche bun always stays together. Half of the fun is deciding which condiments to use from the twenty or so mustards, ketchups, and assorted savory liquids and goos displayed next to each table. Sweet-hot Inglehoffer mustard and green chile Tabasco for the burger and a mix of ketchup and chipotle Tabasco for the fries, followed by a blob of fruity HP and a dash of Outerbridge’s Sherry Peppers sauce on my finger because I always forget (flavor memories are just as weak as my normal memories) what the unusual amber liquid tastes like. Like alcohol and habaneros. I will return when fall finally stops feeling like summer and have a glass of their famous eggnog. Eggs, cream, sugar, and liquor is the anti-juice cleanse.

More Cheap Eats

PagelinesReal Cheap Eats has been given a fall update with 50 new listings. I visited Holy Schnitzel and Taqueria Puebla, both in Staten Island. Tripe-filled soup and kosher sandwiches? Why not?

Chain Links: Spongebob & Oregon Steak


Budget Travel rounded up fast food chains in foreign countries. Germany’s Nordsee caught my attention, not just for its fresh seafood, but because its mascot bears a passing resemblance to Patrick on Spongebob.

While it could be easily argued that deep-dish pizza, burritos, and Hawaiian cuisine are iconically American, I’m having a hard time associating Oregon with steak. The Oregon Bar & Grill in the Shiodome district does just that, using Oregon beef and wine as a selling point. Does Oregon really have that much cache? The connection appears to be Portland-based McCormick & Schmick’s, which is affiliated with this restaurant in Japan, despite no mention of it on its site.

For all of my fascination with American chain adaptations in the Middle East, one obvious difference never occurred to me. Generally, women and men unless married or close family members don't sit together, requiring separate entrances and seating areas for solo males and families. And tables in the family section must be curtained off (women don’t eat with a veil on) like this example at a Saudi KFC. These are the constraints that the Melting Pot, treated like a date place in the US, has had to work with in Saudi Arabia.

Famous Dave's is opening in Winnepeg.

Justin Beiber and Selena Gomez were spotted eating at an Outback Steakhouse in São Paulo.

Tim Hortons opened in Dubai.

In higher end news, the shuttered Tavern on the Green will be reborn as a chain and could spread around the world. Also, Le Cirque has opened a branch in Delhi.

Town House

Town House, off I-81, past a McDonald’s, over a bridge and train tracks, blends into the row of businesses along Main Street  in Chilhowie, Virginia, population 1,688. One doesn’t end up near the nexus of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky by accident. I went on a Labor Day weekend, just because I could. For me, one of the best parts of growing older (I’ve been under the delusion that middle age was one step away from death, but apparently it now kicks in at 35) is being able to do something on a whim for no other reason than I want to. (Next half-baked urge to make reality: eating ceviche and lomo saltado in Lima.)

Bolstered by creativity and obscure location that’s gastronaut-bait, Town House would fit in nicely with the up and comers featured in the recent Wall Street Journal article about restaurants on the verge. (I know you didn’t ask, but I was surprised to see that I’d been to two of the eight: Benu for my last birthday and El Cellar de Can Roca way back in 2006 before it had three Michelin stars.)

Town house amuse

You start with a leaf. The only thing edible in this assemblage is the curved, dewy leaf. Both more minimalist and maximalist than the single lettuce leaf that opens a meal at Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

Town house chilled vegetable minestrone

Chilled Vegetable “Minestrone.” This is the dish that first got my attention in other posts and articles. I love rainbow food, whether naturally occurring or chemically induced. The curls of many-hued vegetables didn’t just catch my fancy; a photo of this dish appears on the cover of the 2011 Opinionated About U.S. Restaurant Guide that they were handing out to customers as they left (apparently, they’d been given a box and didn’t know what to do with all the books). Extremely purist while fanciful rather than stark. This would be a good dish to play a how good is your palate, vegetable guessing game.

Town house gazpacho of summer's foliage

“Gazpacho” of Summer’s Foliage. More quotes. The only way this could taste more green would be if moss was involved. Shiso, green bean leaves, zucchini, and pickled coriander were all present. A granita hidden by the leaves tasted of green tomatoes, and created a contrast of temperature and texture.

Town house barbecued leeks

Barbecued leeks. Only now that I’m thinking semi-analytically about the food instead of simply eating it, I’m seeing how color plays such a strong role. This dish looked, smelled and tasted of cinders and contained something called smoked mussel “ash.” Charred leeks, hazelnuts, and those mussels were half-smothered by a cool pile of melting gray fluff. This was a stand out.

Town house sweet corn, chicken, lovage & oats

Sweet Corn, Chicken, Lovage & Oats. The oats make it sound so wholesome. The chicken skin—which I love seeing instead of the ubiquitous pork—took care of that.

Town house abalone in brown butter & butter whey

Abalone in Brown Butter & Butter Whey. All the burnished browns and golds didn’t prepare me for the lime leaf that perfumed the seafood (a scallop was also in the mélange) and softened onions. Deceptively Thai-flavored.

Town house turbot cooked with cream & spruce

Turbot Cooked With Cream & Spruce. I knew it! Those pine needles were bound to show up at some point. The sappy flavor, though, was as delicate as the fish.

Town house beef cheek...pastoral

Beef Cheek…Pastoral. This was one pretty plate of overflowing trends. Grass is there (I want to say that chlorophyll was also mentioned, but maybe I’m blurring that with the phytoplankton at Blue Hill at Stone Barns) and hay infuses the translucent milk skin draped over the meat. What really startled me was the shredded beef tongue floss. This was the third time I’d encountered what I had originally thought was an unusual preparation in four months! Mugaritz, Castagna, now Town House. Where next?

Town house border springs farm lamb shoulder

Border Springs Farms Lamb Shoulder. More striking color. Beets, smoked, dried, and blended with licorice to form a “Bolognese,” were as prominent as the red-glazed peak of meat.

Town house cantaloupe & toasted farro

 Cantaloupe & Toasted Farro. Ugh. I shudder every time I think of this beast of what I think is considered a dessert. This was the worst dessert ever! Not objectively, of course. I just happen to hate melon (listeria will not get me without a fight). I know that savory meal-enders are in fashion (that long pepper, ginger thing at Castagna also sent me into fits) and I enjoy seeing the boundaries that chefs tinker with (especially in our cupcake, whoopee pie, and other Americana-crazed sweets climate) but these sensory clashes are still like art to me, and more appreciated than loved. Thin carrot rounds top a mound of ice cream studded with chewy grains and flavored with ginger and wild sassafras. The cantaloupe hides inside ready to spring out and terrify. Turmeric creates the yellow swirls. By the way, at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a similarly textured dessert also contained cantaloupe, but semolina instead of farro. Someone’s trying to kill me with creativity.

Town house broken marshmallows

Broken Marshmallows. Also unorthodox, but melon-free, hence more likeable. I’m perfectly fine with geraniums, cucumbers, green strawberries, and stiff, sticky whipped cream masquerading as a dessert.

Town house wasabi, lime, chocolate dessert

When you think you’d eaten everything, a meringue-like chocolate stump is presented to eat with your hands. The green wasabi-and-lime tufts add spicy-tart intrigue.

Town house interior

The food is so colorful, yet the room is so brown. No distractions.

Town House * 132 E. Main St., Chilhowie, VA

Lexington BBQ & Jimmy’s BBQ

Even though I have a tendency to issue caveats when talking about iconic American food like barbecue—I’m no regional expert—I would not liken the taste of North Carolina barbecue to roadkill. I will say that I like meat with more chew, bone-in preferably, so if I generalize this Southeastern state’s pulled pork style, it’s really just a pile of mushy meat, delicious mush for the most part. The key seems to be inclusion of many textures, fat and skin plus burnt ends, bark as some call it, to add flavor, interest, and moistness.

Lexington bbq outside

So, I ate the western style, more specifically Lexington style. What’s the difference? From what I’ve gathered in the east they use the whole hog, mince the meat finer, and wouldn’t include any tomato in the chile-flaked, vinegar sauce while in the west they use pork shoulder and a chunkier chop; the sauce might be more red.  Wood-smoking is a dying art either way. Gas is taking over.

Lexington bbq chopped pork sandwich
This is Lexington BBQ’s version on a small bun. I probably should’ve ordered a plate to assess the meat in its pure state (but Keaton’s chicken was already taking up precious space) especially since many would consider Lexington BBQ as the gold standard. It was kind of just a sandwich, frankly. Despite using wood—oak, to be exact—no pronounced smoke flavor was present. A love of consistent textures was apparent; both cabbage and pork were chopped to an unusually fine consistency until meat and vegetable nearly blended into one savory mass.

Lexington bbq hushpuppies

They did have the best hushpuppies—light and moist inside with a golden crust—we ate all weekend.

Lexington bbq peach cobbler

I never did get the banana pudding I was led to believe was a local specialty. They weren’t serving it on this Saturday. The warmed peach cobbler with a block of vanilla ice cream smashed on top was probably better anyway. (How good is banana, whipped cream, and ‘Nilla Wafers really? Tell me it sucks, or I’ll feel worse for missing out.)

Jimmy's bbq side

Sunday is slim pickings. Not much is open. One restaurant listing their hours called Sunday Church Day. Day of resting and eating, in my world. Jimmy’s, far less populated than Lexington BBQ, saved us.

Jimmy's bbq coarse chopped pork plate

This time I got the plate and opted for coarse chop (sliced was also available) to really taste the meat. I’m a little hesitant to call this barbecue dry (though I wouldn’t be the only one who has said so) but the hunks with skin attached were far superior to the interior pieces. Here, you are served a side of warm sauce to dip the meat into and also provided with a house-made hot sauce in a squeeze bottle.

Jimmy's bbq chopped pork plate

All the spice and vinegar, plus the slaw crunch, elevates the meal from a pile of mush.

Jimmy's bbq hushpuppies

I thought of hushpuppies as a french fry alternative but it turns out they’re equivalent to rolls. French fries are default and the roll or hushpuppies question must be answered. These weren’t as good Lexington’s, though the dryness was helped by a dunk in the sauce cup.

Jimmy's bbq counter

I will say that the waitresses at Jimmy’s were the nicest we encountered all weekend. I was curious about something called a skin sandwich, which turned out to be cracklings on a bun. They were out on a Sunday (yes, we already had a shopping bag full of cracklings in the car, but I wanted to experience freshly fried and put on a bun with hot sauce) but at least our server checked to see if they couldn’t scrounge something up for me to go. They couldn’t; no harm done.

Jimmy's bbq dining room

I especially like how everyone’s giant Styrofoam cups of iced tea are constantly topped off, that they remember if you had sweet or regular, and you’re given a refill and a lid for the road. You can never be too hydrated.

Lexington BBQ * 10 US Hwy 29 70 S, Lexington, NC
Jimmy’s BBQ * 1703 Cotton Grove Rd., Lexington, NC