Friday, July 26, 2013

Taste of the Twin Cities (Tour de TCO) – Minneapolis, MN

It’s been a long time since M.Giant and I had a quality guy night. We headed over to the TCF Stadium for, what we hoped was, a glutinous feast of super stellar food. All we knew was it was 15-20 of the Twin Cities restaurants and there would be more than enough food. We didn’t know how many people. We didn’t know what to wear. We didn’t know if anyone else we knew was attending. We didn’t know if we had to pay for each individual dish on top of the ticket fee. We didn’t know if there would be a line a mile long. We clearly didn’t know much. But we intended to find out.

The ticket we purchased got us into the event where all the food costs were covered. As were the wine pairings. Yes, I said wine pairings. Each restaurant had a particular wine they paired with whatever dish they were serving. People could then vote on their favorites and enter their name in a drawing. Thankfully, once you got through the initial line to get in and get your complementary wine glass, you could go to whichever restaurant table you wanted to. And by “whichever”, I mean ALL OF THE TABLES. Did I mention there were 20 restaurants with tables???

There were some tricky issues we had, the first was there were television monitors behind many of the tables and those monitors would scroll through a list of participating restaurants. So you’d be eating one dish and then realize the name behind the table wasn’t where you were eating – it was just scrolling through the list. Very confusing, especially because some restaurants didn’t get the memo about bringing their own banner or sign.

Then, we ran into the issue of eating food from a small plate while holding a wine glass without spilling. Clearly we needed three or four hands to accomplish this thing. Even if you were given finger food, you still didn’t have a spare few fingers to pick up the food because of the wine glass. Logistics. It would have been better if they had small trays to collect three or four items and then go sit at one of the tables around the room. We did get to be pretty good about wedging our small plates between the fingers of our wine-glass-hand and eating with the available hand. Tricky, but we’re expert eaters.

Then we realized the pours of wine weren’t “polite pours”. They were real pours. And if we were going to drink 20 glasses of wine, we would likely die. (Die happy, but whatever.) So we had to scale that back. A little.

As for the food, I think I had high expectations of something adventurous or weird or “out of the box”. That wasn’t what this event was about. This was more close to home and comfort-y foods and maybe a tiny bit unusual for suburban people. I’m not complaining because what we were served was good – even delicious in some cases – but nothing was worth raving about to my friends or getting me to get in the car immediately and driving to a restaurant (with a few exceptions). Some highlights were:
  • Barker’s Bar and Grill – Rosemary pork belly with amish blue cheese and red currant jelly – served with a nice Moscato
  • McCoy’s – Chile-honey spare ribs – served with Steel Toe Sommer Vice beer
  • St. Clair Broiler – Meatloaf sliders with some delicious sauce – served with Pothic red wine

For the dessert dishes, there were a few that were good, but were pretty standard and things you could get a lot of places – key lime pie, banana rum cake, chocolate truffles, raspberry tarts, chocolate and caramel tortes. Again, they were good, but didn’t make me crave anything nor surprised me with the combinations.

There were two dishes that really stuck out – head and shoulders abover the rest - in both M.Giant’s and my own opinions.
  • Great Waters Brewing Co – Seared pork tenderloin with bacon jam and chipotle mayo – served with Brown Trout Brown Ale
  • J.D. Hoyt’s – Buddy Bowl of red beans and rice, shrimp, and chicken and corn bread – served with Terra d’oro Red Zin

Seriously, these two tasted the best of the evening and we may or may not have gone back multiple times. I also fell in love with the Terra d’oro Zinfandel Port. I WILL be buying some of this as soon as I can. It is basically a non-syrupy port. It was awesome, especially with the different foods we tried.

Overall, a fun experience and we loved eating 20 different food options. The downside was that it wasn’t anything wacky and zany. I would totally do this again next year, especially since we got a coupon book with $180 in coupons in it. It is absolutely worth it and wasn’t a high-pressure night. Plus, I don’t mind standing in line with M.Giant while covering every subject topic known to man. Such a blast.

Top 5 things about the Taste of the Twin Cities
1. Great Waters Brewing Co.’s seared pork tenderloin
2. J.D. Hoyt’s Buddy Bowl
3. Terra d’oro Zinfandel Port
4. McCoy’s chile-honey spare ribs
5. REALLY a great value

Bottom 5 things
1. Nothing out of the ordinary
2. Hard to eat while holding a wine glass
3. Confusing signage so you didn’t know which restaurant table you were at
4. It’s weird to have Bacardi girls there pushing pineapple-infused rum drinks on attendees (not that M.Giant and I didn’t have multiple cups…)
5. It’s weird to have Memorial Blood Centers drawing blood in the middle of the people eating food

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Cora’s Best Chicken Wings Foodtruck – Eden Prairie, MN

My company has started to try to healthy its workers up, so they have been doing a farmers market in the parking lot during lunch every other Thursday. It isn’t much of a market. In fact, there’s one vegetable booth with produce from Aramark (the people that run our office cafeteria), a lady selling jewelry, a booth with a sno-cone machine, and bread from some health food store. Recently, they’ve gotten a few food trucks to show up, as well.

I went outside in the 800 degree heat and found two food trucks today. One from Stanley’s in Northeast and one from Cora’s Best Chicken Wings – a restaurant I’m familiar with from St. Paul – I’ve reviewed it before. I wasn’t going to hit up Stanley’s without D.Rough, so I went to Cora’s.

The menu had some unique things on it, including a Filipino dish I wanted to try (Beef Afritada) – which they were out of. It took me a while to find the chicken wings on the menu, but there it was at the bottom of the list without any sort of flare. That’s ok – I knew not to get the wings. They were out of Canton Steak, as well, so I went with the Nacho Relleno Fusion. I love nachos, so this was sure to be my best bet.

My food showed up quickly, as it is pretty simple preparation. I went back into my building to get out of the heat. The dish looked pretty good, actually. Ground beef, lettuce, sour cream, plenty of jalapenos, but not many tortilla chips. Hmmm.

I dug for the chips and found they were buried in a pool. Of grease. I’m normally not grease-adverse, but this was a surprising amount, even for street food. It hadn’t even sat 60 seconds and there was already a pool of grease a half inch deep in my waxed paper basket. Yikes. I tasted it to see if it was chili oil or something adventurous, but it wasn’t. It tasted like grease.

I only found about 7 or 8 chips in the bottom of the basket, none of which had the slightest amount of crispiness left in them. They were sogged through completely. That’s a pretty disappointing number of chips for an order of nachos. The meat itself was actually pretty flavorful and seasoned well, as long as you ate from the part of the meat mound above the grease line. Once you got below that, it wasn’t the best. The lettuce and jalapenos were good, again, above the grease line.

I was sad after I ate as much as I could from the basket. I didn’t finish it. I didn’t feel very spritely after I ate this, either. In fact, for the rest of the day. I’m guessing a few other people in the office got slowed down as well. I’m surprised the company I work for didn’t suggest people make healthy dishes since this whole farmers market Thursday thing was intended to get people to eat better.

I don’t think I’ll hit up the food truck from Cora’s again anytime soon. But I will likely be back to the actual restaurant in St. Paul for fried rice and chicken nuggets, however….

Not enough for a top 5 on this one.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Haiku Japanese Bistro – Inver Grove Heights, MN

D.Rough and I noticed a new Japanese restaurant going in a strip mall near our house. When it finally opened, we knew we needed to try it, especially since we were in need of a sushi fix. When we got there, we were impressed with how full the restaurant was – it seems to be doing good business. We were also impressed with the lighting in this place. A considerable amount of tho0ught and money went into the lights, which are everywhere: on the ceiling, no the floor, on the pillars, behind the bar, above the bar, under the bar, in the food – yes, some of the bowls and glasses are lighted. It’s crazy and very modern without being corny. Nicely done.

The menu has a lot of appetizers and entrees on it, some hibachi items, and sushi. A nice mix, so you’ll get fed no matter what you’re in the mood for. They also have a pretty significant cocktail and drink menu, including a couple Japanese beers and sake drinks. D.Rough and I had to narrow down what we wanted, but it didn’t take us terribly long. We went with a Kani Salad (D.Rough’s favorite salad of all time), and a few sushi rolls, a Rainbow Roll, Sweet Potato Tempura Roll, Tuna Family Roll, and Slamming Salmon Roll.

I will suggest you ask about the Crazy Spider Roll. I didn’t and I should have. On the menu, it says it’s a tempura spider, which I assumed was a typo. When I checked out the website, sure enough, it still says tempura spider. If you order that, please let me know what you get on your plate. I’m verrrrry curious.

The Kani Salad arrived and was different than we’ve had in the past. We expected a layer of seaweed, but there wasn’t one – no bother there. Thankfully, the shredded crab meat was quite tasty and was mixed in well with shredded cucumber and likely some jicama, and then some spicy mayo and masago crumbs on the top. It had a great flavor, but it was a tiny bit dry. We mentioned next time, we might order a seaweed salad to accompany the Kani Salad and mix bites of it for more moisture. But honestly, the Kani Salad was tasty and we wolfed it down very quickly. And the spicy mayo had a hidden kick that we both loved.

In order of how I liked our sushi rolls (least to best):

The Tuna Family Roll was alright. Not my favorite. It had a lot of wasabi in it (wasabi mayo, to be exact), which isn’t my favorite. The spicy tuna inside the roll was quite good though. I liked the pepper in the pepper white tuna, as well. Mainly, my issue was with the overpowering wasabi.

Slamming Salmon Roll, my third favorite of the rolls. This had some great flavors on the inside, but it was masked by the wasabi mayo and then the wasabi tobiko crumbs on the top. I figured if you were going to double up on the wasabi items, you’d scale back their potency – not so in this case. And the amount of wasabi crumbs on top, made this roll difficult to eat. There were crumbs all over the table and in my lap, no matter which direction you turned the roll, there were crumbs falling. Again, the spicy salmon on the inside of the roll was quite good, as was the pepper tuna on the top. A decent roll, but probably more so if you really like wasabi a lot.

The Sweet Potato Tempura Roll was much better than expected. It’s also very inexpensive. And quite good. It’s got a smokey flavor from the sweet potato and is more heavy duty than most rolls I’ve had, but it’s really worth getting.

The Rainbow Roll was the best of the rolls. Each fish did taste slightly different and there was plenty of avocado to add a little bit of interesting texture and flavor without being too much. They’re good sized rolls, so we were really happy to see that. I was happy there no wasabi, frankly.

Overall, I feel like the flavors were somewhat muted and not bright and vibrant. I’ve had sushi that puts a smile on my face and makes you feel like you’re ALMOST eating a healthy snack with all the vibrant pops of flavor. This sushi wasn’t bad, it was just middle of the road. It is better than buffet sushi, without a doubt, and there really isn’t anything wrong with it. But I didn’t feel like it was a happy and light meal. Of course, I’ll be back, and am looking forward to it. There are a lot of things on the menu that I want to try and those cocktails may be calling my name here in the near future…

Top 5 things about Haiku Japanese Bistro
1. Rainbow Roll
2. Sweet Potato Tempura Roll
3. Atmosphere is pretty cool
4. Thorough food and cocktail list
5. Kani Salad flavor

Bottom 5 things
1. Heavy on the wasabi
2. Blinking neon lights in a bowl of king crab legs MIGHT be a little over the top (I was going to say jumped the shark, but that, my friends would be too many seafood references and thus, jumping the shark)
3. Kani salad was a tad dry
4. The bar area seems a bit jumbled with bottles randomly stuck on the short wall in front of the pretty purple wall
5. Still curious about a tempura spider…

Monday, July 8, 2013

Pizza Train - Osceola, WI

D.Rough came home and asked me if I’d be interested in riding on a pizza train with her niece and nephew. I immediately started chanting “PIZZA TRAIN” and stomping around the house making a train whistle sound. “I’ll take that as a yes”, she said.

We drove about an hour up to Osceola, WI and found signs directing us to the depot. It’s got a bunch of train cars and locomotives and a small museum there at the depot. Kids were running around everywhere getting on trains and having the time of their lives (except those who were crying because their parents wouldn’t buy them something in the gift shop). I had no idea what to expect from this trip, since I intentionally didn’t do any internet snooping before this trip. We picked up our tickets for the pizza train and headed to the front of the line – pizza train customers are VIPs. Only one car was serving pizza – the rest of the riff raff had to sit in one of the other cars with no pizza (and a cheaper ticket price).
On our way onto the train, you grabbed a box with a personal pizza in it, a soda, and a brownie, and then pile in to find a booth to eat lunch. Everyone on our car wolfed down the pizza before we even got going. I told D.Rough we should wait until the train pushes off. Oh yeah - the train takes a short trip into Minnesota, detaches its locomotive from the front, drives around to the back of the train (which now becomes the front) and heads back to Osceola. Sure the pizza would take us 90 seconds to eat, but I wanted to be romantic and old-timey.
The nice Pizza Train lady told us a super quick history of the train (multiple cars from different eras) and then we took off. The kids all loved it. There was a snack car made from a box car. They had bars on the open doors, which let more people check out the passing scenery. There were a few different cars, and another dining car (used for brunch and dinner trains sometimes), and there was a mailcar. Sadly, no club car. All of them were pretty interesting, if you’re into trains (which apparently all male children are).

Here’s a photo of the locomotive driving away before it reattached itself on the other end of the train and headed back to Wisconsin.

All in all the whole thing took about an hour and a half, but you drive through some pretty beautiful wooded country and along the St. Croix River, eventually crossing it into Minnesota. It’s a nice little field trip for the family and I’m glad we all got to go. I’ve never heard of the pizza train, but now, all other forms of transportation will pale in comparison. And we found out there is a Pumpkin Train and Fish Fry Train – I know what someone is getting for their birthday this year….

No Top 5 list for this trip, but we had a blast. Thank you, Repeat and LunchLady for an awesome field trip!!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

BJ’s Hot Dog Shoppe & Italian Beef

DorkyBarb mentioned a few months back that she needed to take me to this particular hot dog place in St. Paul. I, of course, was very interested. But it wasn’t until after this wildly inappropriate shower proposition conversation we had that I actually went there. See below…

DorkyBarb met me there, since she works nearby. The place is in a small off-the-beaten path strip mall on the east side of St. Paul. You really have to MEAN to go there, though they do have a sandwich-board-style sign on a more busy street to let people know they’re there.

You order at the counter from this incredibly awesome and friendly man who will tell you what’s good (everything), let you sample things (everything), and makes you feel right at home. He even gave me a sample of the Italian beef in a little sample cup, just so I could make sure I was going to like it – it was top-notch. I like this guy. He’s originally from Chicago and takes an immense amount of pride in the quality of his food. He’s old school and he knows what he’s talking about. You can get dogs and sausages and chili and even tamales (I’m soooo curious about these), but I went with my standard dog restaurant benchmark – the Italian Combo. It’s an Italian sausage covered in Italian beef on a bun that SHOULD be dipped in au jus – which the gentleman will ask you if you want dipped. You do, believe me.

You have the option of various cheeses to be placed on your bun before the meat is put in, and I got provolone and pepperjack. They also have a huge list of toppings to choose from (there are photos on the front of the counter if you have questions about what the toppings will actually look like – very smart of them). Some dogs get the works, but I went with hot giardiniera on mine. And an orange Fanta – duh.

You get your food right away (you actually pay after you eat, so you can enjoy your food immediately without fumbling for your wallet while holding food. There are a handful of tables inside and a few out on the sidewalk for you to choose.

I grabbed a spork from the counter since this thing looked like it was going to get mushy and sloppy. Believe it or not, the bun absorbed the au jus, but perfectly stood up to the juicy and liquidy ingredients like a champ – down to the very last bite. It was more of a hassle to eat the thing with the spork than it was to pick it up. I picked it up and was surprised how much this thing weighed. It was massive. The Italian beef was super thin and really juicy. The Italian sausage had some snap to the casing and was really quite tasty. The giardiniera was spicy and had tons of veggies in it (celery, peppers, olives, cauliflower, red peppers) and didn’t wuss out on the heat. The bun I will keep raving about. DorkyBarb said the couple that runs the place had to go through three or four different bun vendors until they found one that could stand up to the juicy ingredients they use – like they traditionally do in Chicago. I’m glad they patiently waded through vendors, because this bun had awesome flavor and retained it structure like a champion. Well done.

DorkBarb’s sandwich also looked fantastic. She opted for the Italian beef (no sausage in hers) and some different cheese and ingredients. Everything looks wonderful here and I can’t wait to go back.

Apparently, the lovely wife makes some amazing desserts and cakes for the shop, but they were all out today. They usually have southern caramel cake, red velvet cake, the best lemon cake in the world (according to DorkyBarb and the husband), and cafeteria style butter cookies. They all sounded fantastic, so I’ll have to try them the next time I’m there. And there WILL be a next time. And, I’ll even make sure I call DorkyBarb since she works right up the street and would be more than happy to join me. No inappropriate txt message next time – promise.

Their claim (on the sign) is they have the best Italian Beef in the Twin Cities. They aren’t lying. They beat Chris & Rob’s, and surprisingly beat Uncle Franky’s (which I am a huge fan of). [And, from what I've been told, it beats the Wienery, also.] But it’s true. It’s the best around. It makes me miss my Illinois roots, but now I’ve got someplace to appease my hunger pangs.

Thanks, DorkyBarb!

Top 5 things about BJ’s Hot Dog Shoppe & Italian Beef
1. Italian beef
2. Italian sausage
3. The couple that run this place are fantastic
4. Large number of toppings
5. Desserts (remains to be seen, but I’m guessing they’re up there)

Bottom 5 things
1. Can drive past it easily and not know it’s there
2. I’m trying hard to think of something bad, but there just isn’t anything. Sorry.

1990 Suburban Ave
St. Paul, MN 55119