Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Cold Balls at REEL Mac and Cheese

Reel Mac and Cheese on UrbanspoonThis was another food cart at the Food Cart Festival last Sunday, which I attended free of charge courtesy of my Elite Yelper friend who very kindly brought me along as one of her "+1" allowances. (You see how marketing slyly works? Being a Yelper has status at popular events and privileges you can choosily bestow on your unenlightened non-Yelper friends... So slave your way toward exalted Elite Yelper status! Am I biting the hand that feeds me? Yup -- I do this sacrifice to awaken you to consciousness! Let the scales fall from your eyes! I did get free stuff, though. <_< )

We started with just a sample of their "The Main Event", which is "Gourmet Macaroni and Cheese made from scratch. It's a smooth blend of five cheeses, butter, whole milk, and select spices combined with tender elbow macaroni".

I try to remember to judge food by how it tastes. This gets increasingly harder nowadays when ingredients are always listed because marketing gets its claws into things and they try to sell you with the description. "... smooth blend of five cheeses..." sounds impressive, but once those five cheeses are blended, what is your experience? Do you even care if there's only one or two types of cheese? Sometimes less is more and more is less.
Anyway, "The Main Event" was sadly unimpressive. Not buttery, not very cheesy (or the cheese was of a more subtle type and the full experience escaped my not-very-cheese-refined palate). Thankfully not milky-tasting. Maybe some people have a particular version of home-made macaroni and cheese and they will identify closely with the recipe here, but for me, it just wasn't tasty. And maybe because it was sample-size, it wasn't very flavourful either.

Nevertheless, I was still curious enough to want to try the "Run Fat Boy Run" - $7 for three balls of deep fried macaroni and cheese. An order gets you three balls each bigger than a golf ball but smaller than a tennis ball.
They looked great and the exterior had a nice crunch to them. This arancini concept combined with the portion size has a good chance of delivering a filling meal for just $7 even if all that pasta and cheese goes straight to your hips.
Sadly, inside, it was cool, like it hadn't come out of the fridge very long. That just ruined everything and kept drawing my attention to it. Maybe it was a fluke with the prep, but in any case we couldn't bring it back to be re-fried because we'd just sort of dug into them to share and so that my Yelper friend could photograph the insides.
All in all, my experience was of course disappointing. The cool mac and cheese was tasteless too but that could be chalked up to the coldness and obviously no melted cheese flavour and goodness. If you order this, I recommend you immediately cut one of them in half NEATLY and check for doneness inside. If you cut it neatly, there's probably a better chance that the one you cut can be re-fried along with the other two.

Veggie Burger at Mogu Japanese Street Eats

Mogu Japanese Street Eats on Urbanspoon My first experience of Mogu Japanese Street Eats was at the Food Card Festival this past weekend. My Yelper friend brought me along as her "+1" and we were very surprised to find out there were free samples for Yelpers during the first preview hour before the general public was let in (with a $2 admission fee).
Other than the really cute Japanese lead at the food cart, what really impressed me was the patient care that went into the food and operations. It's the sort of vibe you get at a good sushi restaurant, where the chefs are calmly concentrating on producing a beautiful product. There's nothing wrong with just sliding a sandwich into a square paper bag, but it's an extra step to fold a snug sleeve around your burger so you don't have to pull it out of a bag and there's no mess while you eat it. I really appreciate that extra forethought and effort, especially when it comes to food-on-the-go when you might not have the luxury of sit-down space. All this adds up to a confidence that I'm going to get a properly prepared order every time, instead of a possibly rushed mistake that'll just have to be sent back.

We sampled the Sweet and Spicy Chicken Karaage (marinated deep fried chicken, house made sweet chili sauce) during the Food Cart Festival. It came piping hot. Maybe even hotter than is normally allowed because it was burn-your-mouth-hot, and that after the piece of chicken was cut in half for a sample size, and sitting for maybe a minute in a little paper cup while they put on the chili sauce and a token sprinkle of thinly shredded onion. Yes, after all that, it was still too hot. I popped the whole thing only to realize it too late, and quickly signalled my Yelper friend to stop before she got started on her piece.
You may have had the experience where too-hot food focusses you too much on handling the lava-rock-in-your-mouth crisis and you miss out on the taste. That's what happened to me, so sadly I can't comment on how good it was. If you order anything from Mogu, watch out for it to be too hot to immediately eat.

After the freebie hour, we went back to try the veggie burger: Kabocha Korokke (sweet Japanese squash croquette, katsu sauce, avocado, lettucepicture 1picture 2). It's a regulation sized burger. No sides. Nothing too fancy -- this food cart isn't the burger version of Japadog. Mostly what I remember from this burger was the crunch of the croquette patty contrasted with the overall creamy feeling from the croquette filling and the avocado. Taste-wise, it was basically a sweetness and that mostly from the sauce I'm guessing. Pretty much zero contribution from the avocado and lettuce.
For $8 with no sides, this is quite an OK price for a food cart. It would probably be a bit expensive for a sit-down restaurant, but food carts tend to be a bit pricier than restaurant counterparts in my experience. As far as veggie burgers go, it's really decent. Not as good as the bigger and more complex vegan burgers from Loving Hut Express, but also much less messy to eat.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Do not open your Taser Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

Taser Grilled Cheese Sandwiches on UrbanspoonTrust me, do NOT open up any sandwich you get from Taser Grilled Cheese Sandwiches. Or any grilled cheese sandwich, for that matter.
It's not a gourmet burger stacked with a fat patty and interesting ingredients. It's a flat sandwich. With cheese. If you open it up and see what appears to be a skimpy amount of ingredients, you might suddenly feel like you've been ripped off for the $6 (or whatever) you paid.
I say "feel" ripped off because it's not necessarily the case that you were ripped off. Sometimes, too much information biases and ruins your experience.

Taser Grilled Cheese Sandwiches has a remarkably simple setup. Instead of panini press / sandwich maker, the bread is toasted on their grill. One slice has cheese on it, and to quickly melt the cheese they put a baking sheet on it and press that down with a hot iron panini press. When the cheese is melted, they remove the baking sheet and scrape off any cheese that may be stubbornly sticking to it. The sandwich is finally assembled, pressed together, cut into two triangles for convenience, and tucked into a little brown paper bag.
Something that they do very nicely is not over-toasting the bread. It's toasted enough, but retains a chewiness to it instead of being crispy on the outside and sprinkling annoying crumbs with every bite. Sure, you get a brown bag with it, but crumbs will be on your lips and no matter what some would probably get on you.

Depending on where and when you go, the sandwich selection will be different, especially their "especial". At the Yelp Elite Food Card Festival preview (where Yelpers and their guests got in free one hour ahead of opening time, AND got FREE samples from all the food carts) I took a peek inside the Lolo sandwich we bought (after the Yelper sample hour) and found just one strip of bacon plus some sauteed onions. The Especial sample we tried had apple in it, and when I looked, there wasn't that much apple.
I was immediately disappointed both times. BUT then I thought about it: The apple did make its flavour known above the other ingredients. If they had put more in it, would that have helped or just made the sandwich soggy? There was apple listed in the ingredients, and I did taste it. Isn't that good enough?
So don't look. Trust me. If it tastes good enough, just leave it alone.

Another thing about Taser Grilled Cheese Sandwiches is that there is only so much cheese and stuff they can put in there. No matter what, you will get a lot of bread in comparison and if you focus on the "breadiness", it could feel like a rip-off. It's not a "real" sandwich where the ingredients are the focus. It's a grilled cheese sandwich where you're primarily getting toasted bread with melted cheese in it. If that's the comfort food experience you are looking for, then this will be fine. If you want a filling meal, the bread alone can be filling. If you want a sandwich packed with more ingredients, it wouldn't be a grilled cheese sandwich any more and so this is not the place to look for one.
I think Taser Grilled Cheese Sandwiches is really best when you have that nostalgic craving for a grilled cheese sandwich. The price is not bad considering what else is available under $8 from a food truck. It's a hot dog alternative at a hot dog price. IF you are willing to pay $2 to $3 more, you can definitely get something a lot more interesting from another food cart or cheap eats place.

Cheese cools rather quickly. If you wait even one minute, your sandwich may well have cooled down too much and your experience won't be the same. That was what happened to our Lolo sandwich. My Yelper friend and I were looking for a place to sit so she could take it out of the bag and take a proper picture. Mistake. It became lukewarm. I recommend you eat your sandwich right away.

Tasteless gravy at Lee's Famous Recipe Chicken

Lee's Famous Recipe Chicken on UrbanspoonI'd read good things about Lee's Famous Recipe Chicken on Urbanspoon but maybe the one in Port Coquitlam had a new chef or an off day or what not because my experience really didn't match up.

It's been ages since I had fried chicken, so that should have given them a huge advantage from the start. Long abstinence = strong craving, right?
I opted for one of the lunch specials: 3 pieces + fries + gravy for $6.99. Two pieces spicy (thigh, drumstick), one piece classic recipe (wing). I didn't opt for take-out and just ate it there, so it came freshly made and piping hot. I let the chicken cool a bit and worked on the fries first.

The fries were okay. Nothing special and probably not triple-cooked ultimate fries, but hot and fresh. The gravy was sadly flat. Almost tasteless. I was honestly really shocked.

The chicken wing with classic recipe was okay, but it didn't have quite the same amount of batter as the thigh and drumstick. That was so-so. The so-called "famous recipe" didn't leap out at me. It was also, however, not as salty as I remembered KFC to be, and being more sodium conscious these days, that didn't really bug me.

The thigh and drumstick had really only one thing going for it, and that was the crispiness. Again, not very salty. Enough of a spicy kick to have a bit of zip in your mouth, but it was barely more than mildly spicy for my palate. Again, nothing special.

Since the gravy was a complete bust, I have to wonder if it was just an off day. In case it is not, then I recommend Lee's for less salty fried chicken (but skip the fries and gravy). For crispy fried chicken, KFC and Church's are fine and much more accessible than a mere three franchise locations, two of which are way out east in PoCo and Langley.

Also, where were the mac and cheese wedges?

Monday, June 17, 2013

Fat $12 8oz steaks at the Hamilton Street Grill

Hamilton Street Grill on UrbanspoonI saw the Hamilton Street Grill had it's annual steak special (this year it is 8 oz Certified Angus for $12), and I'm not sure what came over me, but I invited our dining group, the Food Bloggers Meetup, to try it out last Saturday... Completely forgetting that I was done with steaks ever since Black + Blue.

According to our server, it's been an 8-year tradition, and each year the price was inched up by one dollar... Till it got too much, so this year they reset it down to $12.

When I was seated, I was asked if I wanted a drink. Ever hopeful, I inquired if they had fresh-squeezed juice. It turned out, YES! they did. Orange and grapefruit were available. I went with orange. The server came back with a smallish tall glass (that is, skinnier than a typical beer glass) of orange juice that looked suspiciously cloudy and yellowish. She said they didn't have oranges, so would Tropicana do?
Honestly, I was annoyed. I specifically asked for freshly squeezed juice, and the server said it was available. I would have preferred to be told they were out of oranges, and I could have opted for grapefruit or just cancelled my order. But now the drink was poured, and if I sent it back, it would have been wasted.
Long story short, I accepted it. $3 and one point off for the Hamilton Street Grill.

It was a sunny Saturday evening and we were seated just inside the patio. It was still open-air, and overall a pleasant place to sit, but it might have contributed to our food cooling down quite quickly. Not a complaint but more of being aware there might be a tradeoff between a view or food that stays hotter slightly longer.

Here's how the rest of the dinner turned out:

Bread and Bacon Butter
  • Complimentary WARM bread plus suspiciously brown butter which turned out to have a good aroma and flavour of bacon.
  • That bacon butter is good! Even if you don't want too much bread or any bread at all, just scoop up a bit of the butter to taste.
  • It's nice to see some restaurants still doing the bread basket tradition, and happily the bread was at least warm. Nothing special to the bread. It was tender and probably baked earlier that day.
  • Ordering steak? Go easy with the bread. They are quite generous with it, but you don't have to force it all down. Just try some of that bacon butter.
Garlic Prawns ($12) Pan-seared with lemon garlic butter and garlic bread
  • This was pretty decent. Could have used a spoon to get at the chopped up tomato and other bits that were apparetly sauteed into the butter as well.
  • The thin slices of garlic bread were also quite good. Strong flavour of butter and garlic without too much of either.
  • The prawns were not huge, but a decent size. In any case, you are not getting a fixed number of prawns, but (according to our waitress) prawns by weight. We got maybe 9 prawns.
8 oz Certified Angus Steak ($12)
  • The steak special running the entire month of June.
  • It's a compact, thick (over 1 inch thick) cut, which ended up being problematic. I think we all asked for medium rare, and once you get to the centre, it was deep red and it looked outright raw. I sent my remaining portion back to the kitchen to be re-cooked, and when it came back (which didn't take too long) it was properly medium rare. I recommend that instead of toughing through any undercooked portion or leaving it uneaten, just ask for it to be cooked again.
    • I'm not really going to complain about this at it was only $12. I do wonder why they didn't opt for a thinner cut, though.
  • My steak was room temperature when it initially came. We were a party of 7 and we all had the steak special, so if your party is larger than, say, four persons, I think it's going to be tricky for the kitchen to coordinate everyone's steak to come out at the same time and hot.
  • The June special menu also comes with optional sides for about $5 each. Whether they are a a good value or not can be hit or miss.
    • One person in our party ordered the $5 Hoisin Prawns and she got a skewer of just three largish prawns.
    • Someone else ordered the $5 Sauteed Mushrooms and got a mound of mushrooms almost bigger than his steak.
  • On the plate are green beans, carrots, and mashed potato in the most boring presentation possible that makes it look like you're eating at some mom and pop hole in the wall rather than Yaletown. But for $12, it's hard to complain.
    • You can swap the mashed potato for fries or more veggies, but honestly it's really decent mashed potato. Very buttery. If only they had combined their bacon butter into it...
  • There were complaints about too much tendon or too much fat, so it's possible that there's a certain amount of luck involved in exactly what you get.
Gingerbread Pudding ($8)
  • Their signature dessert. They didn't mess it up this time (and in my various experiences at the Hamilton Street Grill, they have goofed it up before). It came very warm and perhaps slightly overly generous with the delicious caramel sauce.
  • Highly recommended that you try it at least once to see if it will wow you. Even if it doesn't, it's a solid dessert though on the sweet side.
  • It's a good portion for $8, considering it also comes with two scoops of ice cream (ginger and pumpkin, if I remember correctly).
Crème Brûlée ($6?)
  • Nothing fancy here, no fancy ingredients -- just a simple, sweet, and delicious execution of the classic dessert. Can't go wrong with this for dessert.
  • Uses the smaller width but deep dish, so you get less caramelized top.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Cheap Comfort Food at Mean Poutine

Mean Poutine on Urbanspoon It's a take-out window! There is a counter on the left. For seating, you could sit on the nearby steps or the single bench up the block.

The prices (as of the evening of Friday, June 7th) are 50 cents more than what's on the website. The cheese curds are out of a bag. Not sure how that would match up with your definition of "fresh". My Quebecois friend frowned that they weren't white, but yellowish.

Although each poutine has a slightly different mix of ingredients on top of the basic $6.50 poutine, most of the time it doesn't really matter because the gravy smothers all the other tastes, unless you isolated them first (e.g., ate a meatball or a chunk of chicken instead of stirring your poutine together). Unless you are paying close attention to what you are eating, your order will probably taste like fries in gravy, plus a $2 or $3 side of whatever else you ordered. Also, the menu doesn't say, but they all come with a sprinkling of green onion.

The fries are really decent -- beer battered to be nice and crispy, especially as they are deep fried to order. However, this crispiness won't last long because of the generous amount of gravy. Eat your poutine right away for best results.

We tried the Classic Poutine, Fried Chicken, Mean Supreme, and Mama's Mean Meatball. Sadly, they didn't have any yam fries to make the Candied Yam Poutine.

Fried Chicken ($8.50) - beer battered fries, brown and white gravy, fresh cheese curds, buffalo chicken chunks
  • The chicken here was quite good as it was fried to order and nicely crispy on the outside, locking the moistness inside. It was well prepared but otherwise, chicken is chicken and nothing "wow" to write home about.
Mean Supreme ($9.50) - beer battered fries, brown gravy, fresh cheese curds, angus certified roast beef, double smoked bacon, grilled onions and peppers, sauteed mushrooms (pictures: before stirring, after stirring)
  • The beef looked like pulled pork, and not a lot of it. However, once the poutine is all stirred together into a ugly puddle, you get a little bit of beefy flavour with each bite -- if you can pick out the flavour from the gravy.
Mama's Mean Meatball ($8.50) - beer battered fries, brown gravy, fresh cheese curds, Italian meatballs, sauteed mushrooms, grilled onions (picture)
  • It didn't feel like there were a lot of meatballs, but for just $2 more than a regular poutine, you can't really expect too much here. I didn't recall the meatballs to be particularly flavourful. I recommend passing on this. The Mean Supreme had more flavour and the Fried Chicken had more pieces. Both would have been a better choice.
Whatever you want to say about the price, each box is a fairly filling meal. Dinner under $10 and no need to tip. It's not fancy but it's tasty comfort food for a cheap price. Hard to go wrong here, especially when a single burger with token side can be $12-$16 or more downtown.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Light Dinner at CHAU VeggiExpress

CHAU VeggiExpress on UrbanspoonA place like CHAU VeggieExpress is a great example of why I've been avoiding upscale downtown places this year. Location and ambiance costs you money, but it doesn't always add tastiness. Sometimes you do get awesome meals for your money, but not always. CHAU VeggiExpress is a clean, bright space that wouldn't look out of place in Yaletown or Coal Harbour, except you're not paying for them to be there.

The layout inside is a long-table and a long counter, almost cafeteria style community dining. Self-serve utensils and cold water (with slices of cucumber floating inside). You are also requested to help out a bit by taking your dishes to one of the tubs under the utensil station. You pay at the counter at the time of your order. Apparently no tipping is expected, so on top of not paying downtown prices for classy vegetarian food, you save about 15% from not being forced to tip.

This past Saturday my vegetarian friend dragged me to a "Vietnamese restaurant", and it turned out to be CHAU VeggiExpress. We were only looking for a light meal and we like sharing, so we ended up with two types of rolls from their helpful pictures-of-everything menu. The price is basically two rolls per order at $2 or less per roll. This sounds pretty expensive ($2 per spring roll?!), but at a Chinese restaurant, an oily spring roll could weigh in at $1.30-$1.60 each. Here you get something composed of more interesting ingredients and flavour for a bit more, so it's not too far off.

Non La ($4) Crispy spring rolls, egg, tofu, mung bean, taro, sesame, vegetable filling
  • The best part of this was the deep fried goodness. Not oily tasting or feeling, plus really crispy and fun to eat that way. On its own, it was a bit bland, so definitely get some sauce on this.
Namaste ($3.75) fresh rolls, steamed lemongrass tofu, green leaf lettuce, cucumber, quinoa, crispy wheat centre, rice paper
  • Interesting flavour of lemongrass jumping out at you here.
As far as vegetarian fare goes, this wasn't bad. The two plates together could have added up to a light to medium meal for one person -- and at under $10.
They weren't wow-super-tasty but good and interesting, especially for the price. Presentation was very good, with a sense of care and attention in the making of it. If you're sharing, I recommend grabbing a spoon so that you can spoon in more sauce as each portion is probably two bites and people can get pretty uptight about double-dipping. You could also flip your piece around to dip the other end, but there's the possibility of filling falling out.
Watch out for the watery sauces (such as the one for the Non La) going straight through your roll and dripping out the other end.

What not to get at Lion's Pub

Lions Pub on UrbanspoonVegetarian? Don't order any food here.

Just last Friday I was down at Lion's Pub with some Friday night pub-goers. It was a social thing. But I spotted a couple of interesting things on the menu and figured I'd have dinner there.

On Friday nights -- even as early as 5pm -- you can expect the place to be pretty packed. Our get-together was scheduled for 5.30pm and it was swarming with the Convention Centre crowd. And when it's packed like that, it gets hard to flag down a waitress. Really hard. They are not deliberately ignoring you, though: There's no head-down / eyes averted technique going on here. They are just busy. And if you are sitting at a table against the wall, try not to be trapped inside (or get someone on the outer edge catch a waitress for you).

It's an English style pub, apparently, and the one person who ordered their fish and chips was very impressed by the two well-battered pieces he got. I was more curious about the weirder things on the menu: Spicy Nuts and their "Craft Made" veggie burger.

TCC Spicy Nuts ($6) Special blend made in-house daily
  • For $6 I got a heaping bowl of crushed cashew nuts. Not a whole nut or half nut to be seen.
  • These turned out NOT spicy at all. There was some sort of occasionally slightly sweet coating and a faint taste of curry. Most of the time the nuts tasted like just cashew nuts. Everyone at our table tried it. Not spicy. Someone even complained that they were too soft.
  • TCC means (presumably) Terminal City Club. The waitress said the nuts were "made upstairs" and for that reason she was not able to return it to the kitchen to ask them to spice it up more. In the end, she offered to take them back. I hesitated -- I almost never send back food -- but since I did first offer to accept them if the kitchen could throw some more spice on them, I let it go this time. It didn't show up on the bill at all and I hope she didn't get charged for them at the end of the day.
  • The waitress said that the kitchen had just changed the recipe, so if you order it, your experience could be very different from mine. I recommend you ask the waitress about it first, and if she doesn't know what the kitchen upstairs has done to the Spicy Nuts recently, maybe ask to get a tiny sample. $6 is steep to pay for boring nuts. A half pound of  whole cashews at a downtown outlet like Ayoubs is only around $5. For $6 at the Lion's Pub you get crushed (bottom-of-the-bag leftover nut bits?) cashews cooked in a way that doesn't enhance their flavour.
Veggie Burger ($16) House made black bean & lentil burger with hummus & sauteed mushroom; served on a freshly baked sesame seed bun with lettuce, tomato, red onion, cheddar cheese, chef's signature sauce, & pickle spear
  • Normally if the restaurant is suddenly super-busy I might let kitchen mistakes go. But Lion's Pub has been at it's location for a while and is used to weekend crowds. There's little excuse for not properly staffing when you know the ebb and flow of clients. On top of this, the Terminal City Club has two restaurants (not including the Lions Pub), a wine bar, and they do catering. There is really no excuse for not pumping out quality food no matter the time of day. This said, your order of a veggie burger may be better prepared during off-peak periods.
  • The description of the burger sounded pretty decent, but what came to the table was nothing like what I expected. First, the bun: It looked like a small whole wheat bun. Didn't look baked in-house at all. Since it wasn't even warm, it was nowhere "freshly baked" either. Not a huge dealbreaker, though.
  • The "burger" was pretty big compared to the bun. It was a sort of sprawling splat of beans, seared to a crispy black. No real shape to it at all, so I suspected that they scoop it out and smash it flat. Tasted like lentils, and maybe a slight dusting of curry. It was bland and crumbly. Big portion of burger, but rather tasteless.
  • No sign of hummus. No sign of "signature sauce". There was some sort of yellow sauce in there but not much and sucked up by the bun. Couldn't isolate the taste of it. Maybe it was just butter. Hard to say.
  • I don't remember any cheddar. And there was no sign of mushrooms. I distinctly remember asking for mushrooms to make sure I got some. However, I was stuck in the wall end of the long table and had to shout my order at the server so she could hear me over the din of the packed room; so maybe she thought I wanted to hold the mushrooms.
  • Came with a side of hot fries. At least the fries were fresh and decently golden-brown and crispy.
  • $16 for a bland burger is a painful price to pay. A gourmet burger at Romer's Burger Bar in Yaletown only weighs in at $10-$13 (but no side of fries), so this burger (and quite possibly all their $16 "Craft Made" burgers) is way overpriced.
  • No, I didn't send it back. It was hard enough getting the waitress's attention just to order the burger, and later to get the bill.
Closer to 7pm, they turned on the music. The place was quieting down a bit, but still noisy from the loud conversations of people trying to be heard by their companions across the table. Then they turn on the music. Swell. Why do pubs do that?

Service was calm, patient, and polite despite how busy the pub was, and that was good. No forgotten orders or orders brought to the wrong table (not our table, anyway).