Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Experimental Food Night #3901 – Minneapolis, MN

It’s been a while since I was able to attend Experimental Food Night at Trash and M. Giant’s house. For those unfamiliar, this is where Trash finds the most horrific thing she can muster out of a recipe (she’s vegetarian) and then makes it for M.Giant and I. It inevitably turns out delicious, since she’s a vegetarian and clearly abhors flavor while cooking for herself.

Trash called me while I was at work and asked what I was in the mood for for experimental food night. I immediately blurted out “chicken and sweet potatoes”. She cracked up at my super-quick-fire response and then set out to scour the internet in search of something she’d not ever eat. M.Giant and I got messages a short while later announcing it would be Latin Chicken. We didn’t have a clue what that would end up tasting like, but it had chicken, sweet potatoes, and black beans in it.

I showed up at their place and she immediately began complaining about the smell in the house coming from the crock put full of chicken, sweet potatoes, and black beans. But to M.Giant and myself, it smelled delicious. She had made rice (because that’s the most Latin of the starches), so I got a big scoop of rice and then Trash piled a few large scoops of crock-pot-enhanced brown and orange slop onto the plate. Still, it smelled delicious.
And it WAS delicious!!!! She managed to do it again. She made an amazing dinner while constantly vocalizing her objection to making such things. I am convinced that if she ever made something she was proud to serve to us, it would taste like air and maybe sticks (also garlic, since she loves garlic). It’s best, for M.Giant and I’s sake, that we insist on food that makes her shiver when she smells, touches, or even thinks about it.

And look, I even had a bowl of salad to maintain my girlish figure.

I’m very much looking forward to the next experimental food night. If you have any suggestions, please feel free to chime in. We prefer minimal work, and tend to favor crock pot or one-dish recipes, but we’re pretty open to various things (even if we have to work around M.Giant and I’s odd ingredient restrictions).

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

C.G. Hooks Eatery – White Bear Lake, MN

Please note, we are changing the name of Rib Quest 2011 to Bar-B-Quest 2011. So please don’t be confused by our nomenclature (yeah, nomenclature – I said it).

Bar-B-Quest 2011 Eastern Conference contender C.G. Hooks Eatery was where HotGirlsBrother and I needed to go. We decided to meet at C.G. Hooks on a Sunday since it’s waaaay too far for us to drive on our lunch break, and too far for a casual drive across town during the week. You need time to relax and leisurely drive yourself up to White Bear Lake for something like this. And of course, you’ll get to drive through Gem Lake, MN – population 441 – which is a bonus, I feel. We apparently reminded Low-Vee at too late an hour, since she freaked out when she realized she forgot we had planned on doing it this evening.

The first thing I’ll say is that this place is pretty easy to find, but terribly difficult to ACTUALLY find. You can see C.G. Hooks, but you get caught up in this maze of one-way roads and keep driving past it. In fact, HotGirlsBrother drove by the place twice and ended up driving the wrong way down the one way to get to the parking lot of this place. Hilarious.

The second thing I’ll say about this place is we were both irritated about the convoluted roads trying to get here and the GPS issues and all that. It put us in a slightly foul mood. In all honesty, we were hoping this place was going to be terrible so we’d never have to drive out here again. It wasn’t a good start and we hadn’t made it in the door yet.

Once inside, the girl at the counter asked us if we were there for ice cream or to eat? Odd question, but with all the ice cream cases at the counter, I guess it made sense now. We said we were eating. Next question: are you taking it with you, or eating it here? Eating it here. Next question: are you eating inside or outside? Inside. Are you eating it here, or over at Tally’s? Here. We think these girls are used to this line of questioning since they all remained super chipper (without being annoying) during the process. I’m assuming this happens a lot.

We grabbed a seat at one of the tables and scanned the menu she had given us. We usually get a half slab and some sides for each of us, but we noticed there was a “Sweetheart Special” which was a full slab and four sides for slightly less than two individual half slabs. Plus it sounded romantic - hahahaha. HotGirlsBrother was also excited he could drink an IPA while eating his ribs. His excitement level increased exponentially when they brought him an Odell’s IPA. Bonus for him. Also very amusing, since the girl ran across the street to the bar and had grabbed him a beer from there. Also, bonus for me, since they have 1919 Root Beer (and I clearly hadn’t had enough at the Minnesota State Fair).

The inside of the place is very oddly decorated. Almost like a former Jimmy Buffet fan had emptied out his garage. Some wooden deck chairs, a bar made out of a surfboard, lots of bright colors. There are also pictures of the owner’s kids, Gavin and Connar, on various things and a sign that says “Gavin & Connar’s Surf Shack”, so I’m thinking the confusing branding issue with the multiple locations is a little disconcerting for a first timer. We weren’t even sure we were in the right restaurant for part of the time. You’ll see the world’s skinniest Coca Cola refrigerator in the corner of the restaurant (it’s like a foot and a half wide), and then right next to it is a Coca Cola refrigerator missing one door and holding all of the tiny bottles of Barefoot wine (this may also double as an air conditioner when it gets warm outside). On top of all this is the VERY generous use of the word “Spagnanamous”. You’ll see what we’re talking about when you go there.

Look at me, I’m rambling and we haven’t even gotten our food yet. Sorry. I’m just trying to set the stage.

The place had a heavy stream of people coming in and picking up orders or standing around waiting to pick up orders. Some people seemed new and confused like we were, but the girls behind the counter made sure everyone was taken care of. VERY good customer service from these ladies. We actually didn’t wait too long to get our food, which was nice, since we were starving.

The girl had gotten our order mixed up with a to-go order, so she apologized when she brought our bag of food over to us. She immediately went back and grabbed forks and knives and some dishes for us to put our food in. She again apologized and we told her it wasn’t a problem at all. We would be just fine eating it like this.

It looked pretty good. The ribs weren’t cut into individual pieces, but we weren’t at all worried about that. HotGirlsBrother and I share very well. The ribs are a dry rub, so they bring out a small bucket of sauce if you need it. The other sides seemed a little small, but not enough to think we got ripped off.

Both HotGirlsBrother and I had commented how we were hoping it wasn’t going to be good so we didn’t have to trek al the way out here again. But when he took the first bite of the beans, I heard “Uh, oh.” He meant it in a good way, since these beans were really good. Amazingly good, in fact. Sadly, these were the best baked beans we’ve had since we started this challenge. They had all kinds of different sized and kinds of beans in there, as well. Giant beans and regular baked beans. Plus the sauce they were in was fantastic. They were awesome.

The coleslaw was the next one down. HotGirlsBrother is more of a coleslaw critic than I am, and he said the first bite was a little dry. He likes his saucy. I tried a bit and agreed with him, especially when we said the slaw was a tiny bit bland. Maybe could have used more vinegar or something. Once we got to the bottom of the small dish, there was more sauciness and more flavor, but the first few bites didn’t impress.

We were bummed to find out the place only has one BBQ sauce for the ribs. The website had us looking forward to four different crazy flavored sauces which had gotten great reviews. Super bummer. But thankfully, the sauce they brought us was really good. I always try the dry rub ribs without sauce at first to make sure the meat is good quality and tastes good. This was delicious. The meat had a good char on the outside, but was really tender on the inside and fell right off the bone. Great smoke flavor and good texture to the meat. Just a tiny bit of cartilage on a couple pieces and not much fat. Really good quality ribs. When coupled with the sauce, it was pretty amazing. Both HotGirlsBrother and I were pretty impressed – also mad because now we want to come back here with Low-Vee, just so she can try them. This place is actually VERY worth the drive out to White Bear Lake.

I had forgotten about the cornbread we ordered as a side. The menu said it was a “fishy” cornbread and I had no idea what that meant. I was also dreading it, since I'm not a huge fan of fish (aside from sushi). Once I opened up the aluminum foil the cornbread was wrapped in, I realized what they had meant. It’s SHAPED like a fish. Wurd.Oh, and by the way, it’s the best cornbread we’ve had since the challenge started, as well. Really sweet with some sugar crystallization and very moist. Fantastic cornbread and I’m glad HotGirlsBrother doesn’t eat cornbread, so I got most of it!

While we were finishing up our meal, the server girl came over to make sure everything was ok. We told her we are trying to find the best ribs in the twin Cities and this place just ranked REALLY well. In fact, we had just been cursing this place and complaining about how awesome our meal was and that now we’d have to come out here a bunch. Then a couple of tables who had overheard us say that struck up conversations with us. SUPER awesome people (regulars) eating here tonight and telling us all about this place. Tanya and her family (Tanya has already e-mailed me to tell me the open faced pulled sandwich is fantastic!) told us the place had recently expanded to include the dining room, where before you’d have to take it to go. And on Wednesdays, you can listen to live music across the street at Tally’s Dockside and they serve the ribs right there on the dock for you. That sounds AMAZING. I guess the guy had just recently gotten a liquor license to sell beer and wine, which was awesome for us, but they also told us he had to add a urinal in the restroom to be up to code enough to get the liquor license. I think it was worth it, but I know that kind of plumbing can be expensive. So if you go there, please drink a lot and make it worth his while.

The regulars told us about the photos with the owner’s kids and that’s how some of the decorations got in there. Another table told us all about the sauces they used to have and how bummed he was that they were gone. When we asked the server girls about the sauces, they said the cook had left and the owner decided not to continue the sauces. I think it’s a bummer, but totally understandable, especially if the sauces were that guy’s recipe or something. Thankfully, he picked a good sauce to stick with, so I won’t complain THAT much about it. We were very happy with it.

The regulars also told us this place needs lots of customers in the winter to keep it open. It sounds (and looks) like this place does great business in the summer (which we saw form the heavy traffic flow), but I think we’ll have to round up a ton of people to come out and eat here regularly in the winter months.

The ice cream portion of the building has some fun flavors (I stopped looking when I saw they had cookie dough ice cream), so make sure you get that, especially if you have room for a 1919 root beer float.

Well, HotGirlsBrother and I totally didn’t expect this place to be a contender, but based on this particular showing, it is going to do VERY well in this Bar-B-Quest Challenge. We were thrilled with it and are looking forward to coming back here. I also realize that D.Rough’s family lives very near this place, so I think we’ll have to ramp up our visits to their various homes.

Top 5 things about C.G. Hooks Eatery
1. Baked Beans
2. Corn Bread
3. Fantastic Ribs and sauces
4. Amazing people working there, and also dining there
5. 1919 Root Beer (for me). Odell’s IPA for HotGirlsBrother.

Bottom 5 things
1. The convoluted road trying to get to the place
2. I don’t think sitting at the end of the surfboard where it’s leaning pretty heavily would be the most comfortable seat in the house – just a hunch I have
3. Still a tiny bit bummed about the adventurous sauces (Still posted on their website) not being available
4. This place isn’t near the Twin Cities proper. But it’s worth it!
5. The inside is oddly decorated, but you warm up to it after a bit.

Rib Quest 2011

Sunday, August 28, 2011

2011 Minnesota State Fair - St. Paul, MN

Here's a (not-so-)quick recap of my time at the Minnesota State Fair this year. I try not to go too overboard with the reviews, so if you need more details, just leave a comment. And yes, I do tend to go overboard on the food and drinks at the State Fair every year - just a warning...

I started the week by figuring out what places I wanted to try, as well as their locations, just to make things a little easier for me. The website for the State Fair has an awesome Food Finder application (which can also be downloaded) that really helped find some unique items this year. I was on my own for the morning, so I'd do most of my eating then and then D.Rough and I would head out as a team and see what else I hadn't eaten.
Here's what the State Fair looks like at 9am, just in case you're wondering. Yeah, it's a little busy, but the lines and crowds are still manageable. That will change soon.

I started with a Breakfast Lollypop from Axel's - Southeast corner of the food building - on the outside of the building. It's basically a sausage patty battered and deep fried and has some maple syrup on it for sweetness. This thing had good meat flavor, but the grease was amazingly overpowering, especially first thing. Thankfully, I washed it down with the first of many 1919 Root Beers - the best root beer at the State Fair.

It was time for a Breakfast Stromboli from American Stromboli in the Food Building. It's chopped up hard-boiled eggs, shredded cheese and a slice of american cheese, and your choice of ham or sausage wrapped in a pizza crust and baked. I got to watch them make the strombolis while I was standing in line, so it's nice to see them make the things here. This pastry was just about perfect for breakfast, especially since they let you order just a half a stromboli so you still have room for other foods. Very good flavor and not greasy, so it left plenty of room for gorging.

Here, we see a VERY uptight guy smoking a cigarette. He sat like this for at least three cigarettes. Very formal smoker, I guess. I sadly, didn't get a photo of the Menonite missionary woman drinking out of a Camelpack - so hilarious.

I headed to the International Bazaar to find some stuffed grape leaves from Holy Land Deli. I'm a huge fan of Holy Land since I started going to the Midtown Global Market years ago. They always have delicious food. I asked what the grape leaves were stuffed with and the guy at the counter couldn't remember. I ordered them anyway. I was a little bummed they were served cold, but mostly because it made the rice in side a little gummy and unappetizing. NOT my favorite thing at the fair, despite being on a stick.

I went back to the food building to get a Puff Daddy on a Stick (I know, he's only going by Diddy these days, but whatever) from Sausage Sisters and Me. It's a thai sausage link wrapped in a puff pastry dough and comes with some thai peanut dipping sauce. I brought some of this back to D.Rough to sample and she really liked it. The sausage had really good flavor and actually might have been better without the dipping sauce. The pastry was really light and flaky, so this thing is worth a look/taste.

Oh wait, and another 1919 Root Beer.

I headed down the block to Andre's Watermelon to get come chocolate covered watermelon on a stick, but then when I saw he had pineapple, I changed my mind to that. Everyone has a favorite fruit - mine just happens to be chocolate-covered pineapple. It's a little sloppy to eat, but it's delicious.
To make up for the missing watermelon in my diet, I got a watermelon lemonade from Andre, as well. Excellent choice - it was fantastic.
Since moving to Minnesota, I've discovered that Hot Dago is not a racial slur, but rather a tasty Italian sandwich. Luigi's has a Hot Dago on a stick that I needed to try, so I headed there and picked on up. It's basically a breadstick followed by a meatball (repeat) and then cover the whole thing with mozzarella and then bake it all. Served with hot peppers and a marinara sauce for dipping. Holy crap this thing was amazing. One of the best things at the fair in my opinion. Absolutely delicious.
I washed this bad boy down with a Kiwi Strawberry Crystal Light (watching my figure, you know).
As an added bonus, right across the street from Luigi's is Big Fat Bacon on a stick. I loved this place last year. It's very simple - it's a really thick-cut piece of bacon is deep fried and it's put on a stick. Then, you have the option of putting on this orange-chipotle glaze on it (if you want). I'd recommend it, since it's really an amazing combination. I'm not as impressed with the piece of bacon I had this year, over last year's, but it was still pretty darn good. It's simple and filling, and the glaze is really a unique flavor. Worth it.
I headed back to find D.Rough, but not before stopping by 1919 one more time for a root beer float. So freaking good.
This is how I roll (after going to visit the fire prevention area...
With D.Rough in tow, we headed to Mouth Trap to buy the best curds at the State Fair (according to D.Rough's tastebuds). I have to admit, these things are some of the best curds I've ever had. A little bit salty, but so worth it - once these things cool down. They're like molten lava right out of the fryer. Top notch.
Then, we went to watch the robot competition/demonstration at the Education Building. High school students build robots to complete certain tasks and then try to score the most points to win the competition. They have to do things like place inflatable rings on a wall, stack the same inflatable rings in a pile, and jettison smaller mini-robots to do their bidding (seriously).
I think we were standing a little too close, since D.Rough got a little nervous when the robots rolled over to us and began stacking rings less than 6 inches from us. Yikes.
We wanted to check out some more entertainment, so we headed over to the Flippenout Extreme Trampoline show (Trash will be thrilled we did that). It was a million degrees out, so we grabbed a Lemonade Shake-up.
On the way, we stopped by the large plot of land where they basically have a huge karaoke area with like 30-40 microphones set up for people to sing into. On the giant LED screen, they show all the words to like 50 super popular songs. I know this sounds really white trash, but it's really fun and people are REALLY into it. So each song gets like 200 people singing along. It's great fun!!! We busted out some Lady Gaga while we were there.

We watched the extreme trampoline guys jump really high in the air - I mean REALLY high. They're Olympic hopefuls for the 2012 Olympics. And yes, there IS a trampoline event in the Olympics.

We leave the trampoline show and headed to the animal/pet barn. I love this place, but I don't think D.Rough has spent a lot of time in here. I had to explain a little bit about what's going on (animal surgery center, dog breeders area, etc). We popped by to pet some of the puppies, which are mostly cute. We were also amazed at how creative (aka insane) people get about their dog treats.

And now you see how crowded the State Fair gets during the afternoon. It's pretty serious.
We also saw a sad banana taking a rest since it was a thousand degrees out.
D.Rough is a big fan of the deep fried pickles from the Preferred Pickle (over west of the grandstand). They have cajun flavor, original, and ones with cream cheese in them. They're pretty good, even though I'm not a huge fan of pickles. But, let's be honest, if you deep fried anything, I'd probably eat it. These are pretty good, though she did eat more of these than I did.
It was dessert time and we had been hearing about this sweet corn ice cream over at Blue Moon Dine In Theater. It was unique enough we thought we'd better try it. They have three different toppings you can put on it, but we went with the obvious choice - Honey Butter Bacon. This sounds odd, but I can assure you, it was amazing. Great ice cream flavor with the buttery taste of corn - it even included bits of roasted corn kernels in it. Brilliant. The sauce was much runnier than I expected, but had a great flavor. It's sweet, but not sickeningly so - and the bacon pieces were quite wonderful in there. We got to eat our dessert in the theater behind the restaurant, where they were showing Minnesota-produced films on the big screen. It's a quaint little place with old bench seats out of vans to provide the seating. Super fun.

We went to the arena to check out the tail end of the cattle show. (get it? Tail end? Nevermind.) Then we watched the first couple rounds of the equestrian competition with the horses jumping the obstacles and such. Pretty fun, to be honest. Plus, how often do you get to yell all crazy for horses (unless you're a rodeo person, of course). Maybe chest paint is in order one of these days...

It was dessert time again (for me), so I headed to Moe and Joe's Coffee (near the water rapids ride) to get a Yankee Apple Pie Chocolate Sandwich. I know it sounds horrific, but it honestly was one of the best things I had all day. I'm not a huge pie fan, mainly because I don't really like the crust. However, if you put an apple pie on a couple slices of buttery toasted bread, I'm going to love it. Which I did. The chocolate spread on the bread isn't very strong, but adds some unique sweetness. Just get this thing. It's great.
And, of course, I needed another (large, this time) 1919 root beer.
I needed to have something healthy, since most of what I had today wouldn't be approved by my doctor. I found the Vegie Fries booth and grabbed a Veg Wedge. It's a bunch of chopped-up vegetables folded into a won ton skin and deep fried. See, I told you it was healthy. hahahaha. And it was pretty good. there was a lot of shell, compared to the amount of vegetables, but it was still good. This thing was almost identical to the egg-roll-on-a-stick that I was about to get, so I didn't even bother getting it. Sad, but true.

The night was winding down for us, so we decided to have a wind-down snack of our own - Garlic Fries from the Ball Park Cafe... followed up with a beer for some people and a bottle of water for me. The fries are obviously garlic-y with the amount of garlic they throw on the top of these things. They were actually quite good. I will say, the amount of garlic pales in comparison to the amount of garlic they put on the fries at the Seattle Mariner's stadium, but they were still really quite good.

I thought we were going to get out of the fair at this point, but we got sidelined by the fireworks.
And then by the cotton candy...
Time to hit the express bus home!

Overall, the entire day was wonderful. Great food and tons of people watching, and a blast with my lady. Nothing to complain about at all. And to be honest, I didn't even feel full, let alone sick. I probably could have done a few more things, but I kept it civil this year. I was surprised at the lack of really horrific foods this year, but maybe next year will be better. I'm already looking forward to it!!

Top 5 things about the Minnesota State Fair
1. Yankee Apple Pie Chocolate Sndwich
2. Hot Dago on a Stick
3. Sweet Corn Ice Cream with Honey Butter Bacon Topping
4. Mouth Trap Cheese Curds
5. 1919 Root Beer (especially in float form)

Bottom 5 things
1. Stuffed Grape Leaves
2. Breakfast Lollypops
3. Lack of more horrific foods than in previous years
4. Lack of more cute puppies in the animal barn than previous years
5. I totally missed the lumberjack show!!!