Wednesday, April 29, 2009

JCW's enters California Burger Wars

I've covered pretty extensively in this blog the In-N-Out/Chadders/Route 66 battle to establish the best "California-style" burger here in Utah. (Just follow the "hamburgers" tag.") Now JCW's is in on the game, although in a pretty modest way. Now the JCW's menu includes a "single single" or "double double," a cheeseburger with American cheese, grilled onions, toasted bun, fry sauce (of course) and tomato/lettuce on the bottom. I tried this recently and thought it was OK, but it comes in fourth behind In-N-Out (#1), Chadders (#2), and Route 66 (#3). (The bottom bun was falling apart--too much fry sauce?) Besides, why would you order such a burger at JCW's when you can get either a guac/bacon burger or their pastrami burger. JCW's compares favorably with what I call the "Greek Burger" establishments (Crown Burger, Apollo Burger, Burgers Supreme), not with the California style.

Chadder's is opening a new restaurant on 9th east in Provo, across from Stan's (the previous home of Hogi Yogi). I think you would drive past it to get to a McDonald's tucked behind it.

Utah Food Bloggers

Cafe Johnsonia (primarily a recipe blog) has put together a useful list of food bloggers in Utah. Cougareats gets a (modest) shoutout.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Holy Molé!

A few weeks ago, we were watching my daughter at a Winter Guard competition (color guard without the band) at West High School. These things usually last several hours, and we had enough time during a dinner break to drive around the corner on North Temple to the Red Iguana. It was tough to drive past Crown Burger, but I had something particular in mind--molé.

It's not a perfect analogy, but molé is to Mexican cuisine what curry is to Indian cuisine. "Curry" isn't just a single spice, but a blend that draws heavily on tumeric, red pepper, and cumin (or not). Just as a "curry" can be any number of spiced dishes with a blend of various spices, "molé" refers to any number of sauces used in Mexican cooking. And like a curry, a good molé is a mixture of spices and flavors that can be best described with one word--complex.

I first heard about molé when I was in college and a friend who had served a mission in Mexico described a disgusting chicken dish with a sauce made from chocolate. Several years ago, when I was in San Antonio (Mi Tierra), I decided to give it a try. It's not disgusting, and although Mexican chocolate is an ingredient in some sauces, it's more like the Aztec Xocolatl than a Hershey's bar.

The Red Iguana is famous for their molé sauces. They offer seven different kinds: amarillo, coloradito, poblano, verde, red pipian, negro, and almendras. Your seventh-grade Spanish should reveal that some of these are named after the color of the sauce and some after the ingredients. As with curries, there are strong regional variations and individual family recipes (closely guarded). I had the molé negro emolada, which includes chile mullato (like an ancho), negro pasilla (chilaca chile), Mexican chocolate, raisins, peanuts, walnuts, and bananas, plus a bunch of other stuff that isn't listed on the menu (including avocado leaves).It's hard to say that it tastes like any one of these ingredients. Individual ingredients are tough to pick out. It's just complex. My brother suggested asking for a sample of each of their sauces before you order. If you ask nicely (or perhaps in Spanish), they may bring out a small spoonful of each one.

The Red Iguana was featured on the Food Network's Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives. In a video excerpt, you can see how they make the very thing I ordered.

The Red Iguana recipes come down through the Cardenas family. This family also started The Blue Iguana downtown, but the Cardenas family is no longer associated with it--so don't expect the same food. The Blue Iguana is what I would describe as "upscale American bistro." Watercress salad? Breaded chicken palliard? Ginger almond crusted salmon filet? These all sound good, but they aren't based on authentic Mexican recipes lovingly handed down from one generation to the next.

If you go at dinner time, expect to wait. I've heard that it's a little easier to get in at lunch. The Red Iguana attracts a mixed crowd, so you'll find convention visitors mixing with the local hipsters.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Five Guys Burgers and Fries

The first thing you notice when you walk into Five Guys is the bags and bags of potatoes. They form a little wall that you walk by as you go up to the counter to place your order. (I went to the Fort Union restaurant.) And there is a sign on the wall that indicates where "today's potatoes" came from. (The potatoes I had were from Rigby, ID--home of the Rigby High School Trojans.) I guess this is for those who understand the subtle nuances of regional tuber varieties (like wine or single-malt whiskey or single origin coffee, I guess. Perhaps we could set up a potato tasting. "This is a fine Rigby potato, so much better than an Idaho Falls variety. I hear that they may have a rare Swan Valley tomorrow. Have you tried the Moses Lake?" (Actually 5 Guys only uses Idaho potatoes. Sorry.)

$10 will get you a regular cheeseburger, regular order of french fries and a regular drink. This sounds like a lot for a "combo meal," but you need to put this in perspective. The "regular" cheeseburger is two large patties (1/3 pound). The cheeseburger is at least as tall as it is wide. You can also order a "small," which is just one patty. Most places ask if you want to make your hamburger bigger. I kind of like the attitude of a place where the "regular" is large, and you have to "mini-size" it. Looking at their nutritional chart, I figure the regular cheeseburger has easily 1000 calories--more if you add bacon. The hamburgers come with your choice of toppings. I ordered mine "all the way" with their suggested list, just to see how they imagined the ideal burger: mayo, mustard, ketchup, tomatoes, lettuce, Mt. Olive kosher pickles, grilled onions and grilled mushrooms (this last one is a little unorthodox, but a nice touch). On request, you can add fresh onions, Mt. Olive kosher relish, jalepeno peppers, hot sauce, A-1 sauce, or Cattleman's BBQ sauce. They pay a lot of attention to the patties here (each one is hand formed and never frozen), so there is the danger of too many toppings. Next time I might just get the mayo and the relish.

A regular order of french fries is actually a "small" (as is the drink). However, to create a regular order of fries, they fill a 10 oz styrofoam cup with hand-cut fries, and then dump at least that much again into the bag. There are easily more "bagglers" than official fries.

They are an efficient team at 5 Guys, so even though they make everything to order, you don't have to wait very long. But while you wait, you can help yourself to bulk peanuts in the shell--a nice bit of Virgina. (The nuts are not allowed to leave the restaurant--but I smuggled a few out in my bag.)

Five Guys began almost 25 years ago in Arlington, VA--basically the DC area--but it has now spread throughout the country. There are currently over 300 restaurants, with Utah locations in Bountiful, West Valley, Fort Union, Sandy, and Orem (the newest). 5 Guys has an east-coast feel (kosher ingredients, anyone?) and provides an nice, meaty alternative to all the California burger clones in the area. Its primary decor consists of signs praising itself. It does have a Zagat Survey rating for best hamburger in DC--the only chain to receive this honor. 5 Guys serves up fry sauce in addition to ketchup. Is this an accommodation to the local culture, or is this also the case at their other restaurants? This raises again the question: Will In-N-Out offer fry sauce when it eventually opens in Utah Valley?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

It's the same every year: They come, they eat, they leave.

It's general conference priesthood session again. This means that hordes of men and boys in white shirts descend on the local eateries at about 8:05 (except for those few who skip out before the closing prayer). I always feel sorry for any women who haven't cleared out by then--or those poor folks driving by on I-15 who think it might be good just to stop off at the Cracker Barrel in Springville. It must look like a convention for 12-year-old IRS agents.

Unless you want to be seriously standing in line, you need a strategy. First, you need to arrive early--not to get a good seat but to get a good parking spot. Parking parallel on the street is best, as long as you don't have to walk very far. Otherwise, park as close to the door as possible, facing out. On principle, we stay through the closing prayer and always stay to put away a few chairs before dashing out the door. There are always those who leave right after the last speaker. Not only does this violate my sense of fair play--we also end up putting away their chairs!

We make our way quickly to our car and head out, careful to drive safely and courteously and to observe all traffic laws. Don't even think about JCW's. It's not only popular, but across town, which means you have to somehow get there sooner than those whose church buildings are actually closer. Also, forget Chili's. I guarantee that it is still overrun with women at 8:05. (Zuppa's is way out--on many levels. "Guess where we're going, boys!") We tried Arctic Circle once, but then we were battling the Lehi crowd.

Our tradition (having been there twice now) is Asian Buffet in American Fork. We're trying to keep this to ourselves, but apparently word is out. It was crowded, but they were prepared. They had us all seated quickly, and since it's a buffet, everyone gets their food right away. We even had a coupon. And the food is really good too. The signs over the buffet items are handwritten on 3X5 cards in both English (sometimes "Engrish") and Chinese--always a good sign. Every one who works there is also Asian, and there is a fair amount of chatter in Chinese. It looks like they actually cook the food on site, rather than having a Sysco truck drive up with generic Chinese American. In addition to a wide range of Chinese options, there is a decent sushi bar and Mongolian barbecue. They have excellent pastries, and ice cream. One of my sons had nine desserts. And even though it was crowded, the service was great. They keep your drinks filled, and I've never seen anyone clear a table so fast. They obviously make their money on volume.

There were a few confused folks who must have been from out of town, but mostly it was a sea of white shirts (in a range of sizes).

I wonder what the folks who work there think. Have they figured out the semiannual nature of this horde of Mormon crickets? Or does it just look like every man and boy in town decided to get dressed up and eat out at exactly the same time? Whatever it was, by 9:00 it's all over. (We would have still be in line at Chili's.)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Wei to Go

One of the popular trends in dining out is what some call "fast casual dining." This lies somewhere between "fast food" (McDonalds in its many incarnations) and sit-down casual restaurants such as Chili's, Applebee's, or TGI Friday's. A fast casual dining restaurant typically offers restaurant-quality food but without a table service. These are particularly popular here in Utah, where diners are notoriously bad tippers.

Fast casual includes popular places such as Noodles and Co., Rumbi Island Grill, or one of my favorites--Pei Wei (pronounced "pay way").

Pei Wei is a fast-casual version of P. F. Chang's China Bistro. The food is good, but a lot faster and less expensive than it's full-service sister. Most dishes range from $6.75 to 8.25--$9.00 at the top end if you're having shrimp. With a combo meal at the local fast food place running about $5.00, you can upgrade your meal considerably by checking out a fast casual place.

I like the Orange Peel Chicken or the Spicy Korean Beef. I've also tried the Chicken Pad Thai. AnneMarie usually gets the Dan Dan Noodles with chicken. (She needs to find something between mild and medium on the spiciness scale.) As starters, they offer the lettuce wraps that everyone seems to want to get at P.F. Chang's. We haven't tried those for some reason, but we usually get an order of spring rolls.

Right now the closest P. F. Chang's is in Sandy, near the South Towne Center.