Friday, December 14, 2012

Wild Tymes – St. Paul, MN

A friend of mine from business school and I met up at Wild Tymes in downtown St. Paul for lunch to get caught up. I think the last time I saw Nosila, I was shirtless and screaming for the Minnesota RollerGirls in their bout against Chicago. Yet, she still speaks to me. Nosila works downtown and I thought I’d meet her close to her work. I hadn’t been to Wild Tymes, so when she brought it up, I was game.

I assumed Wild Tymes is a Minnesota Wild hockey-themed bar, and yeah, that’s about right. With the lockout and all, I’m guessing business isn’t booming, so maybe it’s a good thing we went here. The place seemed plenty busy AFTER I took this photo of the inside. Seems like the downtown lunch crowd patronizes this place pretty well, which is nice.

The menu is pretty standard bar food, so it all looks appealing. I went with a buffalo chicken sandwich with some onion rings. I wasn’t in the mood for a burger for some reason. Since we were at the front end of the rush, the food came out pretty quickly.

It looked like standard bar food, and tasted about what I expected. Nothing flashy or earth-shattering. Just a decent chicken sandwich with buffalo sauce and blue cheese, and then with a slice of pepperjack cheese on top. Again, not bad, but the lack of frying usually causes the slippery chicken breast to slide all over when you’re eating it. This one was no different. I’m not complaining, I’m just saying it’s pretty standard fare.

The onion rings were pretty good. Maybe even a little better than average. The server had said they were pretty good there and she wasn’t lying. They had plenty of breading on them and I didn’t hit any underdone spots, which is always a drag. Great work on the rings, WT!

The place is just fine for the lunchtime crowd. I may not rush out here to have a fancy date night with D.Rough, but it’s good, as far as bar food goes.

Not enough things to do a top/bottom 5 list, sorry.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Q Fanatic BBQ – Champlin, MN (Bar-B-Quest 2012 Semi-finals!)

The competition between BBQ places in the Twin Cities has been heating up since we began this mission. Today’s match-up is to see who goes to the championships from the Western Division. Will it be Baldy’s BBQ from Lakeville or will it be Q Fanatic BBQ in Champlin??? We rallied the troops to find out!

Here’s the quick review since I’ve reviewed this place fairly recently.

Since there were four of us (LowVee, HotGirlsBrother, and HotGirl), we decided to get one of Q Fanatics crazy picnic combinations. This was going to be cheaper in the long run and then we could get creative with the sides.

We got both the baby back ribs and the spare ribs just to see what was what. Then we got spicy potato wedges (more than one order), baked beans, cole slaw, and mac and cheese. There was also come pulled pork and pulled chicken that comes with the combo, so we were going to try those.

The mac and cheese is still fantastic. We really like it here and are thrilled they use real cheese in it. Maybe not the best in the Twin Cities, but it IS the best on the Bar-B-Quest. The spicy potato wedges were fought over, once again. They are top notch and with the dipping sauce, you can’t stop eating them. Perfect again. The baked beans continue to be the best anywhere. Huge chunks of meat in the beans gives you some texture to chew on. They could be a little spicier (in my opinion), but they’re still some of the best baked beans I’ve ever had. The cole slaw again, was plain looking, but when paired with the ribs themselves, it is absolutely fantastic.

The pulled pork was pretty good, and we were all glad we tried it to see who it stacked up to the other food. With the right combinations of sauces Q Fanatic offers, you can get it dialed in just right. The pulled chicken, however, didn’t need any doctoring. It was great on its own. Much better than any of us expected, to be honest. Very tender and lots of flavor and seasoning. Perfect chicken.

Finally, the ribs were amazing as usual. The meat here just can’t be beat (or can it?). It falls off the bone but still has a good char on the outside that gives it some texture. Very little gristle and fat in these to contend with and you really enjoy every bite. Make sure you try the vodka pepper BBQ sauce – it’s the best one. This competition is getting to be TOUGH.

And of course, we had to get cookies. We weren’t playing around this time, since the “great incident of Bar-B-Quest” when HotGirlsBrother took too large a bite of LowVee’s cookie and she went ballistic. We made sure everyone had cookies immediately upon ordering (then I went back and got two more, since I wanted D.Rough to be able to share in the joy that are Q Fanatic monster cookies. I’ve decided I’m going to ask if they’ll sell me a few cookie’s worth of the dough, since I’m a huge cookie dough fiend. I’ll sign a waiver if I need to for the raw eggs – I just need that cookie dough in my face hole soon!

And the final decision, without much debating…….. Q Fanatic beats out Baldy’s for the Western Division champion and is moving on to the final round against C.G. Hooks BBQ in White Bear Lake. You have no idea how excited we are for this adventure!!!!!!! Here’s how the bracket looks, folks.

Big thanks to HotGirl, who had never experienced the intense BBQ-related discussion and debate that happens during these outings. I think she was torn between making fun of how serious we take this and how awesome the food was. That’s a good sign, people.

Top 5 things about Q Fanatic
1. Incredible BBQ spare ribs
2. Baked beans
3. Spicy potato wedges
4. Mac and cheese
5. Life changing cookies
6. Charlie commented on the last review we did of his place and thanked us for the kind words – he’s a great host!

Bottom 5 things
1. Distance from all of our houses
2. Ordering takes really long – noticeably long – as you hold up the line trying to decide
3. Potato salad has serious mustard flavor (just a personal preference)
4. I’m seriously considering hosting some large event just so I can have Q Fanatic cater the event
5. You will end up bringing a lot of leftovers home (not a bad thing, I suppose)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Hunan Garden – St. Paul, MN

Each year for D.Rough’s birthday, she picks a super fun place (usually at the last possible minute) to go for birthday drinks. This year was no different. She sent out the invite, tallied the yes responses and notified Hunan Garden – a place she and Rita had visited and had magical times. Just wait for the description.

I wanted to actually EAT at Hunan Garden, and we found out they stopped serving the full menu at 9:30pm. I rolled in about 9 and started to take the whole experience in. I’m probably going to ramble, but bear with me. It’s worth it.

Once you pick an entrance to the building (tucked away under a downtown skyway, the location is split into two areas. A divey restaurant that serves powerful drinks on one side – a divey bar that serves Chinese food on the other. I mean this place has the lights down lowwwww. Red-painted walls with Asian décor and yes, still somehow, you feel like you belong here. There’s no judging here. You just sit down, shut up, and eat or drink.

Then, you have the entertainment – “One Man Band” Ray Evangelista. One guy up the stage with a guitar and a rack full of accompanying top 40, classic rock, and old timey tracks. The guy can play that guitar too – I was honestly, quite impressed with his skills. The guy can also sing the heck out of these tunes. He’s got not music or lyrics in front of him and nails every song. He works the crowd a little bit and people are honest-to-god listening and paying attention and clapping and cheering when he starts and finishes songs. Perfect for this quickly-more-and-more-awesome establishment.

Then, you have the staff. Joe is either the owner or he runs the place like a boss. He’s the nicest and charming Asian man with long gray hair who doubles as chef and server, as well as host and drinking buddy. The bartender was a super friendly blonde woman who made sure I was taken care of and then made sure all the patrons were taken care of. Super nice, service with a wink, and knows how to pour a serious drink.

The restaurant seating area was closing down when I got there, but there were open booths in the bar area for me. I got a menu and figured out what I wanted. There’s a fantastic selection of appetizers, soups, and entrees on the menu and I decided to be gutsy and get something new – Plum Chicken and Shrimp. I also needed to check out some appetizers, so I got the Tibet Plate – egg roll, fried shrimp, hulla beef, paper chicken, and rumaki. The bartender told me she’d be right over, and I just hopped up from my table and went to the bar to order - save this lady a couple of steps and make her life easier. I had heard about the Volcano drink they have here, so I ordered one. She said, “You know that’s for four people, right?” I replied, “Yes, I do.” She smiled, nodded her head, and started mixing this huge bowl of rum, brandy, and pineapple juice. Awwww yeah.

The Volcano is serious. If you’ve been to Psycho Suzi’s in Minneapolis, you’ll recognize the Polynesian tiki bowl it comes in. There’s a spot in the middle that you pour Bacardi 151 into and then light it – that’s the volcano part. Then, I saw her pour the 151 all over the top of the bowl – intentionally – to make this thing even stronger than it already is. Like I said – a serious pour. Plus, this bowl of liquor is delicious. If you’re not going anywhere for a few hours, you should get one. They are head-spinningly inexpensive.

Joe brought out the appetizers and then scuttled back to the kitchen to finish the entrée. I dug into the various fried bits on the plate. The breaded and fried shrimp was decent. Nothing fancy, but fried shrimp is always good, as long as it’s cooked all the way through. The rumaki seemed to have an evil number of toothpicks in it (be sure to find them all before you bite into it), but had a decent flavor – although a little cold on the inside for my taste. If you don’t know, rumaki is bacon wrapped around chicken/duck liver and water chestnuts and then fried. Sometimes good, sometimes not good. The paper chicken was interesting and not like anything I’ve had before. It’s a piece of chicken cooked inside an aluminum foil triangle pouch – this was just ok and I had some concerns about the temperature of this one, as well. The Hulla Beef is a skewer of beef – nothing special, as far as I could tell. Good flavor, but not much pizazz. The egg roll was actually quite good and cooked perfectly. Good amount of ingredients on the inside and the shell was light and crispy. Plus, I think I got a bonus cream cheese wonton, which was really quite good.

The entrée came out next and looked pretty good. It smelled even better. The plum chicken and shrimp is in a brown garlic gravy with a bunch of water chestnuts and caramel walnuts. Wow, this was better than I was expecting. The shrimp was good and not fishy, the chicken had no gristle or tough pieces, and there was plenty of rice to accompany the dish. I should have ordered it spicy, but even without the zing of peppers, this dish was a nice surprise – especially with the gamble I took of getting something new.

By the time I was finishing up dinner, the birthday party crew was rolling into the Hunan Garden, ready for drinking. Which is exactly what happened. A ton of appetizers were ordered and a Volcano or two. …And, Joe may or may not have done some shots with us…

People kept asking – why don’t we know about this place???? There were comparisons drawn to the Red Dragon in Upton Minneapolis due to the tiki drinks and Chinese food, but this place has more panache and fewer people. It also has some of the best signage known to man hung on the inside. I shall give you a few examples:

As people were wrapping up dinner, Joe brought us out some fortune cookies from his secret stash. These are only for the most fun customers.

We shut down the bar that night, which was awesome on so many levels. One of those levels was NOT the fact that I had go to work in 4 hours and then immediately drive 7 hours to Chicago the next day. Still, WORTH IT. And I look forward to going back. This place is a gem in the downtown St. Paul area, and so amazing just for the entire experience. Sure you CAN find better Chinese food if you wanted to, but why would you when you’ve got all this awesome rolled up into one incredible place. I’ll vote for Hunan Garden (though my phone keeps auto-correcting it to Human Garden) every time!

Happy birthday, D.Rough!!!

Top 5 things about Hunan Garden
1. Atmosphere – without question. This place rules
2. Staff – Joe and the awesome lady bartender were fantastic hosts
3. “One Man Band” Ray Evangelista
4. Plum Chicken & Shrimp
5. Volcano drink for four

Bottom 5 things
1. Cold Rumaki
2. Cold Paper Chicken
3. Downtown parking with some shifty characters roaming around
4. Some people want to drink and be left alone… until they drink 8 too many and want to be your friend (amiright, Boom?)
5. The bartender brought me 4 straws – as if I were going to SHARE that delicious Volcano with people. hahahahaha

Monday, December 10, 2012

Cheese Factory Restaurant – Wisconsin Dells, WI

We weren’t sure what to expect from this restaurant when we pulled up to it, aside from knowing they had gotten rave reviews about their grilled cheese sandwich from Rachel Ray at some point. D.Rough came across the name of this place while we were driving to Chicago this weekend. It had gotten pretty good reviews, so we thought we’d check it out for dinner. It’s a vegetarian restaurant, as well, so we were curious what kind of thing this restaurant was going to be.

When we walked inside, it had a sort of old ice cream shop feel to it, with a soda counter and small white tables with white-seated chairs. There were extremely nice people working as hostess and server and soda counter person, and everyone was full of smiles. We perused the menu and were intrigued by a lot of things on the menu. It had a decidedly non-standard vegetarian list of options to choose from and we had troubled deciding what we’d split. We even opted to NOT choose the alleged amazing grilled cheese sandwich. Which leads me to my next point – this restaurant has an impressive LACK of cheese at it. Turns out the restaurant is built on the location of an old cheese packing factory. Wait. I mean former cheese factory – they didn’t package old cheese. So there currently isn’t any tie-in to cheese with this restaurant. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, though.

Also, look at the Men's room entrance. It's the super thick insulated, bulletproof door to a walk in freezer. I was scared enough by the sight of this door that I didn't even attempt go in. I wasn't sure I'd come out.

We ordered the East Meets Midwest – a chickpea stew – and a Mediterranean Medley platter, though we were seriously tempted by the Goat Roast (goat cheese with garlic and red peppers) and the Malaysian Coconut Noodles. I TOLD you it was a non-traditional menu.

The Mediterranean Medley had quite a few things on it (which is why we ordered it, obviously). The toasted bulgar pilaf is a cracked wheat grain with sun-dried tomatoes, scallions, and sesame seed. It was served cold, but both D.Rough and I thought it would be much better if it were hot. It had a decent flavor, but sometimes (this time wasn’t much different), the flavor gets a little lost in the translation and ended up a little dry and bland. There were also some roasted red peppers, which were surprisingly flavorful, considering it is winter. There were slices of cucumber and marinated beets, which I love. These were really good, but D.Rough stuck to the cucumbers. The grilled portobello mushroom slices were cold. It’s difficult to hide the fact that the mushroom isn’t fresh when it’s actually cold inside. It did have grill marks on it, but we’re not dummies. Weirdly, both of us said the flavor was good – we just wished it were warm (or even room temperature). The hummus was good and went well with the pita bread. The feta cheese had a great flavor (see they do have SOME cheese)(it is, after all, Wisconsin). And the olives were a good finisher to this plate. The organic greens salad that comes with the sampler is a little underwhelming, as well. Simply greens and three cherry tomatoes with some dressing. Yes, it tasted fine, but there wasn’t anything special about the presentation or attempt at making it unique. Not an entirely mind-blowing sampler platter, but it did the job of filling us up with healthy stuff.

The East Meets Midwest chickpea stew was really quite awesome though. Sort of an Indian spice in the thick stew and with the accompanying pita bread, it was the best part of the meal, without a doubt. I’d recommend that dish to anyone.

We decided against getting any of the delicious looking desserts they have in the case, and even opted to NOT exploit the soda fountain. We had a long drive and knew we’d be stopping for snacks at some point before we arrived at our destination.

Overall, an average meal. A couple of items could have turned up the wow-factor if they had been the right temperature, but nothing actually tasted bad – for which we were thankful. We also kept in mind Wisconsin Dells pretty much shuts down when tourist season is over, so the restaurants may not have the top quality stuff they have during the busy months. We were one of two tables being used this particular evening, to prove the point. Still, the people there were extremely friendly and helpful. It’s a nice fun atmosphere, even in the off season and It’s likely one of the only vegetarian options in town (they also have a gluten free menu).

Top 5 things about the Cheese Factory Restaurant
1. Chickpea stew
2. Super diverse menu
3. Roasted red peppers
4. Very nice staff
5. Great alternative to road-trip fast food

Bottom 5 things
1. Cold portobello mushroom
2. Bulgar pilaf
3. The pita bread may have been flame-broiled at one time, but we still cold from the fridge
4. Severe lack of cheese
5. Boring salad

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Christ the King Disc Golf Course – Ham Lake, MN

The plan was to play a quick round at Ham Lake Disc Golf Course, and then drive another 5 minutes up Highway 65 to Christ the King Disc Golf Course. We had no idea what to expect, but we were excited to try out the new course (to us).

I had found a map online of the course, which turned out to be helpful in finding the first few holes. The holes in the wood were pretty easy to follow, since you just stuck to the path. The first hole is at the top of the mound you can see from the parking lot.

The course starts pretty open and driveable, and then gets more narrow (and stays driveable). I ended up on a birdie streak and played pretty well here, which should probably tell you the course doesn’t require a TON of finesse – just a little bit.

The course wraps around a set of small ponds, which were frozen over – thankfully because BobaFred threw onto the ice twice. Thankfully, we were able to get both of them back. There are a few ace runs that will do your ego wonders when you lay it up close enough to drop it in for the deuce.

Again, this course is worth the stop over if you’re already up in East Bethel playing at Blue Ribbon Pines. I’m guessing it is encouraged to bite your tongue when missing really easy putts, especially during church hours. I’m glad we stopped here at this course, even if we did roll in during the mass exodus from church on a Sunday morning (pun intended).

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Ham Lake Disc Golf Course – Ham Lake, MN

The Saturday morning crew of golfers were in the mood for some new courses, so I thought we’d head up to the northern suburbs and play two courses in Ham Lake. Ham Lake Disc Golf Course is just off of Highway 65, and in a pretty secluded park (I say that, realizing it might only have seemed secluded since there was snow on the ground).

The course wraps around a baseball diamond and near some swampy areas which were both dry (due to the lack of rain this summer) and frozen over (from the temperature). I have no idea if they fill up in the rainy seasons. Let’s pretend they don’t.

The course is about half wooded and half fairly open. It has a few holes you can open up wide on, and a few finesse holes. We didn’t expect much at this course, but were pleasantly surprised to say we all liked it. We liked throwing from some of the enclosed tees out into the open areas, and then throwing from a more open area to an enclosed green. Good work on the design of this course.

When we got the back nine, we discovered the back holes had been removed due to vandalism – very unfortunately, looking at the map we had pulled up on our phones. I bet those holes were pretty fun.

This isn’t going to be a championship level course, but you’ll still need your driver and you’ll still need to bring your finesse game (which I do NOT have). We would highly recommend playing this nine-holer after a brutal round at Blue Ribbon Pines, which is about 10 minutes further north on Highway 65. It’s worth the trip, especially since you can play it pretty quickly.