Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Fast Food Review: Wienerschnitzel's Bacon Ranch Chili Cheese Fries

Sometimes even I get perplexed by fast food promotions. Take, for example, Carl's Jr.'s Philly Cheesesteak Burger. I have talked with quite a few friends about Philly cheesesteaks over the last couple years, particularly in regard to Philly's Best. Not once did anyone say "I like a good cheesesteak; I just wish I could get one on a burger."

Similarly, I am trying to imagine the person who pitched the idea for Wienerschnitzel's new fries: "You know our chili fries? I think people would love it if we put bacon and ranch dressing on them."

But someone somewhere thought it sounded like a good idea and it got the green light. When I first heard that Wienerschnitzel was coming out with some new chili cheese fries, my hopes got up for a second. I thought maybe they were bringing back their chipotle chili - not great, but much better than the original, bland version - and putting it over fries. Then I found out it was two different types of chili cheese fries: the "ultimate," served with tomatoes, onions and sour cream, and the self-explanatory bacon ranch version.

There was certainly no way I was going to try the former. I'm not a fan of chopped tomatoes. If someone makes me a homemade pasta or pizza with tomatoes on it, I will eat them. But the idea of chopped fast food tomatoes is not appealing. Neither is fast food sour cream. Elizabeth has turned me around on sour cream since she moved to California, one of many things I used to dislike but now don't mind, like cake, Scrubs, the smell of lavender, and the McDonald's two cheeseburger meal. (Although I still hate the Yankees just as much.) But trying sour cream at Wienerschnitzel isn't going to happen.

Ranch dressing isn't one of the my favorites, either. I don't hate it but I don't get it: there isn't much flavor to it other than milk and sour cream. I don't understand what kind of food it's supposed to complement. But I have never tried it with chili. Is there a chance it's actually good with chili? (Spoiler: no.)

(Full disclosure: when I was a kid I used to cook "Micro Magic" french fries, little cardboard containers the size of a chalkboard eraser that heated up unimpressively in the the microwave. What did I used to the dip the fries into? Ranch dressing. Of course, my memories are of eating them in front of the TV watching professional wrestling, so that pretty much tells you my level of maturity at the time.)

I headed down to the Wienerschnitzel in Alhambra. I have written before that I like this one. There are newer ones around that are indistinguishable from Dairy Queens. There is even a Wienershnitzel kiosk in the Arcadia mall. But this one reminds me of the way they used to look when I was young: the A-frame structure, the drive-through line that cuts through the heart of the parking lot, the filthy round tables at which to eat.

I ordered the fries and took them to my car. I was surprised at the quality of the bacon when I opened the box: it looked good. And indeed it was. And the fries were hot and crispy, something I've never experienced at Wienerschnitzel before. But here's the thing: the ranch dressing added nothing to the chili and cheese. It masked the taste of both. These might as well have just been fries with ranch dressing. The one time I get great fries at Wienerschnitzel and they're drowned in ranch dressing. Just my luck.

So, they weren't terrible... they just weren't very good. I guess I just do not "get" them. Maybe someone who loves ranch dressing will think they're great. I did not.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Last of the New York Eats

The month of August has been a rundown of the things I ate on my trip to New York. It ends with this post, a photo collection of all the leftover pictures that I do not feel warrant a separate post. Thank you for for indulging me with the vacation posts this month; it's been a lot of fun.

I had been asked if I would cook for the bridal shower for Elizabeth's sister. I said I would be glad to. I wasn't nervous about it (especially since the bride requested tacos, something I have been making for a long time) but I was a little apprehensive, just because I had to provide a list for someone else to do the shopping and I wasn't going to see the ingredients until arriving at the party.

If this were taking place in Pasadena, I would have gone to King Ranch Market and bought carne and pollo with marinade, mini tortillas, chipotle sauces, all kinds of things. But I knew a small town in the Hudson Valley wasn't going to have an ethnic market like King Ranch. Still, I was able to give instructions on marinating the flank steak the day before the party, and it turned out okay.

I grilled the stuff outside. Of course that had to be the one day of the trip that it rained. Whatever. It was a warm rain and I had a mission to complete. I laid everything out on a table for the ladies to eat. I didn't think the tacos were spectacular, but they were certainly good and I received many compliments. And the bride seemed happy, which is all I really cared about.

Someone at the party (I do not remember who; I met about twenty women, including Elizabeth's mom and older sister, for the first time in the space of half an hour) made cupcakes. They were possibly the best cupcakes I have ever had. We took several leftovers with us and snacked on them for the rest of the week.

After the shower that night, we had pizza delivered from a local restaurant. I do not remember the name. It was good but nothing special; it was the only slice of pizza from the trip that I felt like I could easily get around here.

Elizabeth's mom had us take her by a market called Adams Fairacre Farms so she could run in and get something. We stayed in the car, but Elizabeth asked her to get a small container of macaroni salad, telling me it is the best in the world. I am often suspicious when I hear people make claims like this in their hometown. (A friend once took me to a sports bar in his town that he claimed made the best food of any sports bar in the world. It was one step above Hooters.) People often overvalue something when they've grown up with it. I am guilty myself.

However, this was the best pasta salad of any kind I have ever had. Simply phenomenal.

I was asked to get some beer for everyone at the house we were staying at. I got Sierra Nevada Summerfest and Abita Purple Haze, a raspberry-flavored wheat beer that is the only fruit-flavored beer I like. No one else, besides Elizabeth, had tried either of these beers before. Everyone liked them.

We had plenty of leftover lettuce from the shower, so the next evening I made some vegetable lettuce cups as an appetizer. In addition to green onions, cilantro, water chestnuts and carrots, I decided to add jicama. I had to get two people at the grocery store to help me find it; neither of them had ever heard of it. (I actually ended up showing them what it is and where it was, in a small section of Hispanic produce the market had.)

It's inevitable with any vacation that some of the memories fade. I'm not saying I necessarily forget things, but the details of a lot of things become fuzzy, the mental snapshots fade around the edges. But there always remain a few things I remember indelibly.

For this trip I would say it would be the wedding location, Eddy's Restaurant, the Ashokan Reservoir (where New York City gets their water supply, a truly pristine location), Crafts People, and Davenport Farms.

Davenport Farms is a roadside stand, in existence 50 years, selling fresh produce from their farm, as well as meat from a rancher less than half a mile away, fresh local coffee and homemade pies. Out in back they have a nice nursery. I doubt the store has changed much at all in the decades it has been open.

This is what I bought at Davenport Farms. Together it cost about six dollars.

The grill was out on the deck, overlooking the pool and the woods off in the distance. It was a wonderful setting in which to cook, and I gladly grilled vegetables for all of us.

Elizabeth has told me about her mom's cocktail sauce for some time, so when it was suggested that we have a shrimp cocktail and some beers around the pool, I did not hesitate to say "That sounds great." The cocktail sauce was very close to ideal for me: spicy enough to know there is plenty of horseradish in it, but not so much that it makes your nose run.

Okay, this one has nothing to do with food. I don't care, it makes me extremely happy. Elizabeth's dad was telling us about a country store that has a lot of old fashioned candies. I said we had to go. The candy selection wasn't as nice as I'd been hoping for, but what I did find was even better: a collection of Guillow's balsa wood airplanes. I have not seen these in a long time, maybe twenty years. There used to be a shop in Monrovia where I would buy these and fly them at my grandmother's house up in the canyons. I think the longest I ever took before destroying or losing one was ten minutes.

I bought the Fokker D7, the best $2.99 I have spent in as long as I can remember. It's a wonderful feeling to realize at my age that there are still things I come across for less than three dollars that make me very happy. I assembled it at home and took it out back to fly. I even named the pilot. I could have been 8 years old again. It took about five minutes before I flew it into the pool and another ten minutes before I flew the thing into the house and it broke. Oh well.

I would love for someone to explain to me why there are two Islands restaurants in Pasadena, three Del Tacos, and fourteen Stabucks, yet we can't have a Dunkin' Donuts. DD's donuts are passable, although not great, but their coffee is fantastic.

We went to a lot of restaurants during the trip, so one night, while everyone else went out to dinner, Eliabeth and I felt like just staying at home, grilling on the deck, watching fireflies, drinking cold beer and going for a nighttime swim. (The last part of that was aborted when a f**king bat kept dive-bombing us. I don't mind snakes, I'm the one who has to deal with spiders around our house, and there are even a couple Red Sox fans whom I can be nice to... but I hate bats.)

We had no plan for what to eat, so we went to the local store. As usually happens, we ended up with a hodgepodge of foods. There was a package of pepper steaks - beautiful, pink-looking cuts of meat with crushed pepper - for only $3. We grabbed that. There was a package of egg rolls that looked good, and in the middle of shopping I felt like hot dogs.

All of it was good. Elizabeth asked me how I was going to reheat the egg rolls and expressed surprise when I said "On the grill." I love using the grill for things like this. Obviously, you can't grill an egg roll if it hasn't been cooked yet, but when it's been fried and then cooled, reheating it on the grill is possibly the best way. The oil releases and the wrapper crisps up again, and if you do it at just the right temperature, you can get cool-looking grill marks without burning it.

Elizabeth said the steaks were very good. I did not try them, however I thought they looked tough, but then again that's the way she likes them. I loved my hot dogs in the split-top Pepperidge Farm buns. (Something else I wish we could get in Southern California.) Elizabeth's youngest sister, Kate, was going out with some friends but she hung around to have dinner with us first. She doesn't eat meat or poultry but loves fish, so I wrapped a piece of halibut in foil with some lemon and olive oil and cooked it on the grill for her. She said it was great.

While Elizabeth was getting her hair done for the wedding, after I ate at Dallas Hot Wieners, I wandered down the street and discovered an outstanding farmers market. There was a stand of Highland Premium Venison products. I picked up their brochure and read a little bit about them: their farm is nearby and their deer live in a pasture and are fed local hay and produce. I've never actually had venison jerky, so I figured why not. I bought a stick, as well as a stick of buffalo meat.

I sat on a wall outside the beauty salon while Elizabeth was getting her hair done. (When we'd arrived and asked how long it would take, the answer was ten minutes. I was worried I wouldn't have time to get my hot dog. But I did.. and I went to a used book store... and a guitar shop... and a pawn shop... and now a farmers market. More than an hour later she still wasn't done.)

So I unwrapped the venison jerky to have a snack. It was quite possibly the best jerky of any kind that I have ever had. I saved some for Elizabeth and she agreed it was fantastic, too. The buffalo stick was good, no doubt, but this venison jerky was amazing. I was going to go back and buy some to take home with me, but Elizabeth's dad pulled up just then and we had leave.

Keegan Ales is a local brewery that Elizabeth's parents had just gone to a couple nights before (while we stayed at home and grilled) and I'd heard their beers are pretty good. But, while walking around the farmers market, I saw their stand offering root beer floats. Something about a root beer float on a hot Hudson Valley afternoon sounded really, really good. So I bought one. It was great. Elizabeth, her dad and I took turns drinking it in the car on the way to the wedding location. We all agreed it hit the spot.

Since Virgin Atlantic was out of every food item that looked good, we had not eaten all day. We landed at LAX around 8:30 PM and my parents picked us up. We had them take us to In-N-Out. We had Double-Doubles, but what I was really craving were Animal Fries.

It was an amazing trip, but it was good to be home.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Drinking Life

We were in Manhattan and had been thinking of going to the Mets-Cardinals game at Citi Field, but all of the inexpensive tickets were sold out. We kind of wanted to see a game at the new ballpark, but Elizabeth is a Yankees fan and I am an Angels fan. (We missed seeing the Yankees and Angels at the new Yankee Stadium by two days, unfortunately.) She strongly dislikes the Mets. I don't care about either team. So instead of buying expensive tickets to see a game we really didn't care about at all, we decided to go to some bars. I love Guinness and the pints in New York are much better than most in California, and I had a strong desire for some.

Henry Street Ale House
It was a blisteringly hot day. Locals were complaining about the weather. The news said records were set in several parts of the city. We had just walked for miles, checking out lots of the sites. We both were very thirsty. Elizabeth had been to the Henry Street Ale House before and said it was cool, although she added that she had never been in there in the middle of the day.

We were the only people there. I liked the place very much. It was attractive but small. I asked how it was when crowded. She said it gets really crowded, and she has left before because it's been too much. I asked for something local (there was no Guinness); the bartender poured me a beer. It was delicious and I had two of them. I wish I could remember the name.

McSorley's Old Ale House
McSorley's Old Ale House is probably my second-favorite bar in America. Established in 1854 (although women weren't allowed until 1970), McSorley's serves one thing to drink: ale. You can order it light or dark and each beer is actually two half-pints, poured with remarkable speed by the bartender. (Our bartender on this day said he had been working there forty years.) Elizabeth ordered light, I had dark.

I drank mine much faster than she did. So I got up and got myself another. This ale (you will be corrected if you call it "beer") is very, very good. We were settled into the corner of the joint, admiring all the old photos on the walls, and we considered sticking around for a while. But we decided to try some other places.

Bull McCabe's
We walked by Bull McCabe's and it looked like it would have a nice pint of Guinness, so we ducked inside. And indeed they do pour a nice pint. We wandered out onto the patio for a while and noticed an airplane in the courtyard. The bartender told us a (possibly apocryphal) story about the owner of the bar cutting it up one night and putting it in the yard. I do not remember all the details of the story.

The Thirsty Scholar
We were walking around taking pictures when I noticed the Thirsty Scholar. The name was too good to pass up. It was a dark, downstairs bar, beautifully decorated and very cold, which felt good on such a hot day.

I had a pint of Guinness that was as close to perfect as I have had in America: smooth, creamy, and cold. It was like drinking a light milkshake. We also considered staying in this bar for a while, but it was getting towards late afternoon and we wanted to walk around some more, so we only had one pint. I noticed an electronic dart board and asked Elizabeth if she wanted to play.

Elizabeth is smarter, prettier, and more successful than I, and yeah she has better personal hygiene and doesn't waste her weekends watching Die Hard repeatedly... but at least I can whip her at darts.

Nevada Smith's
Elizabeth wanted me to see Nevada Smith's, a soccer-themed bar. Why, I have no idea. I'm not really a big soccer fan. But they did a good pint of Guinness and the bartender was a very nice girl from a town in Ireland that I had once been to. We stayed for a couple beers before we had to catch the train home.

(Note: we went to another place called Beauty Bar which, as the name sort of suggests, is a beauty salon and bar. We had one drink at the bar while women were getting their nails and hair done just behind us. But I am not including any photos of the place. It was dark inside and the photos came out poorly, plus the beer selection was lousy and all I had was a Corona.)