Friday, January 15, 2016

2015 in Review: Food

This is the third in a series looking back on 2015. Other entries will include books, movies, music, TV, and more.

When it comes to the world of culinary delights, there were certainly some hits and misses with the new things I tried in 2015. If you don’t count what was pretty much an extended working vacation in Nauvoo, Illinois during the summer, 2015 was the first complete calendar year I’ve spent living in Utah since 2005. That means plenty of exploring still needs to be done in terms of food. Much has changed about Utah in the past decade, after all, as has my lifestyle. And I’m not talking about the fact that I now consciously choose to eat a lot of fiber. I’m talking about my leaving the LDS Church and the dietary restrictions that go with it. That’s right, folks. 2015 is the year I started drinking those most evil of beverages, tea and coffee.

Tea has been the long-standing winner in the contest between tea and coffee. Melanie’s and my tea-drinking started around early February of 2015, with multiple trips to Teavana. It wasn’t long thereafter that we tried chai lattes and fell instantly in love. I am quite a fan of both the iced and the hot varieties of chai. For a while, we were drinking quite a bit of flavored iced green teas, courtesy of Lipton® and their powdered tea mix. All of these tea practices largely subsided, however, once we discovered the joy of a Green Tea Frappuccino® from Starbucks. That quickly became our go-to standard. In the spring of 2015, we had a tradition of getting a Green Tea Frap every Monday when I’d pick Melanie up from work. To this day, Green Tea Fraps have remained one of the most common tea drinks for us to get. For Melanie, it’s always the Frappuccino® version, but I’ve become partial to iced green tea lattes with sugarless vanilla syrup in place of the classic syrup Starbucks usually uses. It’s very similar to a Frap in terms of flavor, and also cheaper.

Coffee still tasted like garbage to me when I tried it in February for the first time since junior high. I didn’t try it again until August, when I experienced an impromptu desire for it while at a hotel in Laramie, Wyoming on our way back from Nauvoo. Being able to doctor the coffee myself, I had a much better experience, but I still drank hardly any of it before chucking it in the garbage. And then autumn arrived. I don’t know what compelled me to try coffee yet again, but Melanie and I stopped at a Starbucks one fall evening and I ordered a salted caramel mocha. Worried it would be too strong for me, I asked them to put only one shot of espresso in it rather than three as they normally would. The result? It was actually kind of good. It reminded me of these delicious caramel- and chocolate-covered pretzel sticks that we get every once in a very long while from a chocolate shop in the Avenues of Salt Lake City. Having enjoyed the drink, I thought I would try more of the seasonal specialty drinks Starbucks offered. And so, over the next few months, I tried several: Chestnut Praline Latte, Eggnog Latte, Peppermint Mocha, Pumpkin Spice Latte, and more. By far, my favorite was the Caramel Brulee Latte. In second place was the Holiday Spice Flat White. By the time I’d tried all of these drinks, I was no longer asking them to scale back the espresso. I was fine taking them full strength. I’d still say that I enjoy tea more than coffee, but coffee has its place. The last new coffee drink I tried in 2015 was a caramel macchiato that I got from a gas station (Maverik). It too was very delicious, although I’m not sure how high the coffee content actually is. It tastes so little like coffee to me that I’m skeptical. But maybe I’ve just developed a taste for it and can’t even tell when it’s there.

Okay, okay, this post wasn’t supposed to be all about coffee and tea! My taste buds have had other adventures over the past twelve months! One of the things Melanie and I have been the most desperate to discover in Utah is a really good Chinese restaurant. It’s funny, when we first left Utah in 2006, we complained about the lack of good Chinese food in the South. That complaint persisted until we discovered Tan’s Asian Café in Tallahassee, which remains my favorite Chinese restaurant of all time. Nothing we’ve eaten in Utah comes close to the quality of Tan’s. And believe me, we’ve tried. We’ve even looked at online reviews and tried to go to places only if they had decent feedback from consumers. It hasn’t worked out so well for us. Mulan Chinese was a disappointment, with thick and chewy (rather than crispy) egg rolls and pasty ham fried rice. Their dumplings and crab rangoons were actually good, but everything else registered as so-so at best. Fong’s Fine Chinese Dining is a step up from Mulan and was good enough that I wouldn’t be against trying them again. I suspect you could get an all-around pretty good meal, if you just knew which particular items to get. Our particular meal was hit-and-miss. The ham fried rice was pretty flavorless, as was the broccoli beef. The latter tasted “brown,” and that’s honestly all I can think to say about it. The egg rolls weren’t bad and had a very peppery flavor, while the mango chicken and pon pon chicken (the latter of which I’d never had before) were both good. The sweet and sour sauce they brought out with the complimentary wontons was very thin and watery, unlike any sweet and sour sauce I’ve had anywhere else in the past, and the Diet Mountain Dew I was so excited to see on tap was also quite watered down. The service was ho-hum. They didn’t clear things from our table when they could have, and it became a crowded mess. We also had a problem with our bill that had to be rectified. Fortunately, I did find a Chinese restaurant that I thought was quite good all around: Mandarin Garden. I went there for my birthday and was very pleased, although Melanie hasn’t been all that interested in returning since she and Peter both ended up puking the next morning. I don’t think it was related, but that doesn’t much matter. The damage was done.

We could always get some pretty good barbecue food in both Atlanta and Tallahassee, and 2015 saw us reaching out to some new (to us) BBQ joints in Utah. Dickey’s Barbecue Pit is not a place I’d go out of my way for, but it’s solid. We’ve eaten there a couple of times now, one perk being that they offer free kid meals—seven days a week at one of the locations we visited! For being a fast casual restaurant, I was quite impressed with their ribs. They weren’t amazing, but I’ve had tougher, less enjoyable ribs from full-service restaurants numerous times in my life. My biggest complaint about Dickey’s is that none of the BBQ sauce is available in a squeeze bottle that lets you easily apply it to your food. Instead, all of the BBQ sauce resides in a common area and must be scooped out of a vat using a ladle and poured into little plastic cups, such as you might use for dipping sauces. But unless you’re eating wings or chicken nuggets, who dips into BBQ sauce? You shouldn’t have to dip ribs or pulled pork. You can pour the sauce from the cup onto the food, yes, but it’s messier and harder to control. I think it’s annoying.

Wallaby’s is another BBQ place we tried last year, although I’m not entirely sure it’s a new place for us. You see, there used to be a Wallaby’s that served BBQ located maybe 30 or 40 minutes south of Salt Lake City. It disappeared many years ago, and now this new Wallaby’s has sprung up very near to where Melanie and I currently live. Is it the same? I’m not sure. The food doesn’t seem exactly the same—there isn’t the signature slice of white bread that accompanies your meal, for example—but how many BBQ restaurants named Wallaby’s can there be? We’ve only been to this new Wallaby’s once, but it was pretty good. I’d happily go there again.

The very best new restaurant I tried in 2015 is R&R BBQ. Word-of-mouth advertising is what drew me to R&R. One item in particular was receiving a lot of buzz: the Caveman Burger. I didn’t realize the Caveman Burger was a special item you could get only on Thursdays, but coincidentally enough, it was a Thursday the first (and thus far only) time we went. As described in a previous blog post, the Caveman Burger is “a yummy and indulgent burger featuring not only a ground beef patty, but butterflied links of smoked Andouille sausage and a helping of pulled pork, all topped with fried jalapenos, melted Monterey Jack cheese, and sweet BBQ sauce.” It’s exquisite, and everything else I tasted was also very, very good: the beef brisket, the mashed potatoes, the hush puppies, and even the French fries (which, let’s be honest, are not usually anything to crow about at BBQ restaurants). R&R is located in downtown SLC, which isn’t where Melanie and I spend a lot of time. That’s the only reason we haven’t gotten back to it yet, but we reminisce about it frequently enough.

Speaking of burgers, I tried some new burger places—or at least burger-friendly places—in ’15. I stuck to the grill side of the menu when my family visited Bumblebee’s BBQ & Grill. Bumblebee’s has a very high rating on Facebook, but I have to wonder if the votes haven’t been stacked. I’m hesitant even to say the food was fair. The hamburger patties looked and tasted like they had been frozen. Flavor was minimal. My burger purported to come with “blue cheese sauce,” but featured only melted cheese and was otherwise very dry. Only if you drizzled some BBQ sauce on something did it have much flavor. The fries were so-so. Melanie got sweet potato fries, and they also seemed like something that started off frozen and came from a package. The menu is divided into American and Korean cuisine, and maybe it’s the Korean side that is their specialty. I realize people have different tastes in food, but based on what I tried, I am sincerely baffled that anyone would consider this place better than okay.

Rich’s Burgers n’ Grub in downtown SLC was a winner. I’ve been only once and ran into a couple of snafus with them, but the food was high quality overall. I had the “Bacon Blue” burger, with gorgonzola (which was quite melted and oozy), bacon, and a squirt of blue cheese dressing. I threw on the tomatoes, pickles, and lettuce that came on the side. The result was messy, but tasty. On the side, my friend and I shared both the wings with buffalo sauce and an order of “Queso Fries.” The wings were unlike any I’ve had before, in that they weren’t wet at all but rather had almost like a dry rub to them. They were very crispy and tasted great. The Queso Fries had cheese sauce, diced tomatoes, and green chilis on them. Considering the toppings, the fries tasted fairly normal.

I’d put Citris Grill as my #2 discovery of 2015. A large group of us from Community of Christ went there one day after church services. Almost six months later to the day, I returned with a couple of friends. Both times I had the BBQ Burger, with BBQ sauce, smoked gouda, and bacon, all served on a rosette bun. I thought the burger was excellent, although I will admit that on my first visit, there was a very tiny piece of bone in mine. For many people, that would probably be a deal breaker. I assume (and hope) it was a fluke. I had no such problems on my return visit. You can tell that all of their food is very high quality just by looking at it, so I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt. I’d like to return here, not only for the burger but for some of the items listed on their breakfast menu, many of which sound absolutely delectable.

I should definitely mention Costa Vida in this post, since it’s the new place I’ve ended up eating at the most. You’d think that means I love it, but I don’t. Costa Vida is pretty much an exact knockoff of the monumentally popular Café Rio. How do the two compare? It depends on what you order. On my first trip to Costa Vida, I ordered nachos with steak. I’ve never had nachos at Café Rio—and I don’t think they even offer them. The steak nachos were very good and extremely filling. If nachos are your thing, Costa Vida is a good option. When it comes to anything else I’ve tried, Café Rio is the clear winner. And at this point, I’ve tried quite a bit of the Costa Vida menu—tacos, enchiladas, and burritos, with various types of meat. I’ve also had service problems on multiple visits. One location that we visited, in the middle of the day on a weekend mind you, was out of numerous items that we tried to order. Having been wooed on my first visit, I’ve since been repeatedly underwhelmed by Costa Vida. If you told me I could never eat there again, I would merely shrug.

Kneaders is another restaurant we’ve now tried a few times. Some of their stuff has been quite good, some of their stuff has been fine, but none of it has blown my mind. Someone told me the French Dip at Kneaders was the best sandwich in the world. It’s the first menu item I ordered from Kneaders, and I’m here to tell you, no, it absolutely is not the best sandwich in the world. It was just okay. There was not much meat on the sandwich at all—with a single, paper-thin layer of meat in some spots. The sandwich itself was also very dry. With a French Dip, crusty bread is great, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. It just seemed kind of old and stale, and the roast beef itself was not juicy. I’ve had more success with their soups. I can’t verify the exact name of their soups because they aren’t listed on the Kneaders website (fail!), but I’ve tried their loaded baked potato soup, their asiago soup, the red pepper gouda soup, and one called Autumn Bliss. I very much enjoyed the latter three. The potato soup was okay, but I’ve definitely had better.

I’ll conclude by talking about donuts. (Yay!) Back on National Donut Day (June 5th), Melanie and I decided to go out for donuts and chai lattes in the morning. The place we visited was called Zam Donuts. Their selection behind the counter was very, very slim, but I can only assume it was because of the “holiday.” The available donuts were almost all very basic, so I got a glazed (which was fine, nothing more) and a chocolate raised. Photos of their other donuts looked promising, but I don’t feel compelled to return—which is probably good, because the place has since gone out of business.

On the other side of town is a place called Fresh Donut & Deli. It’s a lame name, but it matters not. The donuts here are the best I’ve found in Utah. My family was quite in love with Donut Kingdom in Tallahassee, and I’m not sure Fresh Donut & Deli rivals our Florida favorites. But they come pretty damn close. Of special note are the glazed donuts. Now, I know what some of you are thinking. Some people look at glazed donuts the way others look at vanilla ice cream—as inherently boring. And I grant that if a glazed donut isn’t excellent, it’s often not worth your time. But when you get a really good glazed donut, they are among the best donuts that will ever hit your tongue. The glazed donuts at Fresh Donut & Deli are of this caliber. It’s not just the flavor, it’s the texture. Words escape me. They are perfection. It’s a good thing they aren’t more conveniently located, or I’d be in some serious trouble. Seriously.

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