Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Kirby's Prime Steakhouse ~ Southlake, Texas

Like many local restaurants, Kirby's got its start as a neighborhood steakhouse, a place to meet friends for a casual meal. Kirby's was an institution in the Lower Greenville district of Dallas, and lasted from 1954 to 1987, when the owner decided to retire and close up shop. Though my parents and I would occasionally head down to Lower Greenville for Italian food throughout the 1970s, we never once stepped foot in Kirby's (Dad was a big fan of the Steak and Ale near Bachman Lake), though I remember driving by it each time.

So it seemed yet another classic place from DFW that was dead, gone and buried. Except 6 years later, in 1993, a group of neighbors decided to go into business together and reopen the landmark. This time as a "high end" steakhouse. Kirby's is an ideal place to take business clients or to celebrate a special birthday or anniversary.

Because of my business, I've had the opportunity to try many of these so-called "high end" steakhouses all over the country. In general, I'm usually disappointed with the experience. I generally mumble to myself that I could do better at home with my cheap outside gas grill cooking Kroger steaks. But I never say that about Kirby's. Their steaks are of a better quality, very tender and they know how to cook them. I don't think I, or anyone I've been with, has ever sent a steak back, and everyone leaves happy (except for, perhaps, the person who paid the bill).
As with most of these places, everything is served ala carte (with the exception of soup or salad). Potatoes, vegetables, mushrooms, risotto, etc... are all extra, but one serving is usually enough for the table. All are exceptional, especially the mashed potatoes. I'm also fond of their dinner salad.

If I have a complaint, and Kirby's is hardly alone in this racket, it's the exorbitant prices of the wine list. Three to ten times markup is what you can expect. Very few wines are available for under $75, and you can just feel the squeeze being put on. Fine if someone else is paying for it, but I don't like being fleeced. I love wine with my meal, but it's time to move to beer when at these kind of places. As the Regular Joe's Guide tagline suggests, I'm no food snob. But I'm even less of a wine snob. Maybe that's what keeps these places in business, I don't know.

Kirby's in Southlake is at the SW corner of Texas State Highway 114 and Southlake Blvd.



Kirby's Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

Sunday, December 14, 2008

***CLOSED*** Lina's Cocina Cafe ~ Watauga, Texas

October 2011 update: One of the hazards of doing a restaurant blog is that a place can change in a heartbeat, and suddenly your recommendation is met with scorn by those who trusted you, and credibility is thrown out the window. This is what happened to the RJG with Lina's. This is the primary reason why we insist on updating the blog and making sure you know when we last visited. Lina's has undergone dramatic shifts since we last were there. Not least of all is a complete move to a larger location next door. It's now all spiffied up with flat screen TVs and new tables and booths (though fortunately the old bowling alley ones remain). If they're going to go to this much trouble to make you want to stay, then they should offer up a full bar. It's still BYOB - which I like in Italian and Thai restaurants, but not so much in Mexican (perhaps the RJG likes his frozen margaritas? And I like wine with Thai and Italian, where BYOB is more preferable). And they ditched the serving carts!! (a comment below says they still use them occasionally - whew!) Even though Lina's still has the same menu as prior, everything seemed cheaply made - from the rice to the enchiladas. Even the salsa was more chunky-tomato rather than a smooth textured hot sauce. Now the food was still GOOD, but it wasn't great as I implied below. So we vote "likes it" on Urbanspoon, but maybe not enough to go back on any kind of regular visit. Unless someone convinces me different.

I wish Blogger featured the "strike through" font that is available on Microsoft Word, as I would like to demonstrate in the below review what no longer applies. So if you wouldn't mind, please consider everything below that is in italics to be NO LONGER APPLICABLE. Is that cool?  (LOL)

Original review

In September, I mentioned that our favorite Mexican place for enchiladas in the DFW area can be found at Fernandez Cafe in Ft. Worth. That's quite a haul for us denizens of NE Tarrant. If you're looking for a reasonable facsimile of same, then look no further than Watauga and their favorite daughter, Lina's Cocina Cafe.Mrs. RJG and I have been visiting Lina's, somewhat infrequently, since about 2004 or so (not too long after they opened). Hidden in one of those unfortunate 1980s strip centers, where 75% of the space is now available for lease, Lina's provides just the kind of hole in the wall we love. It's clean, colorfully decorated, friendly, and most importantly features great food. In fact half of the booths, in their soft blue and white swirled pattern, look like they were lifted from a bowling alley circa 1962 (I'm sure they were actually). You get mucho points for that.

We notice that everytime we go, there are dozens of regulars and the waitresses chat happily along about their life events as if catching up with old friends. In an earlier era, Lina's would be the town diner.
As if the time warp references already mentioned weren't enough for you, they also bring the food out via the two tiered wheeled cart. This lost invention needs to be brought back - pronto. Years ago, someone thought it was a wise idea to stack dozens of plates and glasses on a tray, held up precariously by someone's nervous hand. Presumably they delight in the occasional dumping of said contents on some random diner. Oh the laughs. The RJG is right now calling for the return of the wheeled cart. We shall petition! We will hit the streets! We will...

...eat enchiladas! Which is why we're here in the first place. Everything here is cooked to order, and the plate is sizzling with melted cheese, the refried beans and rice come out just right and steaming hot. Their chile con carne is seasoned perfectly. Mrs. RJG loves the Enchiladas Verde, a spicier than normal concoction that also happens to taste great. In fact, just ask for the spicy green and let the games begin! Beef, chicken, cheese - it's all good.

Oh, and the chips/hot sauce ritual: The salsa is slightly hot, but has a unique combination of spices that makes us want to keep piling the crispy chips in.

Restaurants come and go, but I get the feeling Lina's will be here for a very long time. It's that kind of place.

You can find Lina's on Rufe Snow between Hightower and Chapman.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

2008 DFW Roundup Pt. 1: Fish City Grill, El Fenix, Mi Cocina, La Playa Maya, Bosses Pizza

There are many restaurants that Mrs. RJG and I dine at that do not grace these pages. Many times they represent a lackluster visit, or even if the food is quite good, it does not inspire me to write down my thoughts. Sometimes a restaurant is perfectly fine, but what can I say really, other than "good food - nice place". And as far as the mediocre places go, I'm always hesitant to write a few discouraging words - except for those places that go out of their way to deserve my wrath. At the same time, it does help paint a picture of our own peculiar tastes, and even if you the reader disagree, at least I'm providing you the data from which can choose whether to follow the RJG advice or not.

With that preface out of the way, I think the best way to handle this situation is with a "roundup" of sorts. Not detailed reviews of our experience, but rather short capsules, that may inspire a decision one way or the other.

Fish City Grill, Seafood - Southlake. We'll start out with a positive one. For those of us in NE Tarrant, finding a good piece of fish is quite a challenge. Sadly, Clear Creek Seafood of Keller closed down earlier in the year, which pretty much left us with the National or Corporate chains such as Red Lobster, Copeland's or Trulucks. Fish City Grill is a locally based chain with Corporate ambitions, and have started to open around the country. But the concept is a good one - a neighborhood fish joint. Lunch portions and prices are not too bad, and I recommend the blackened fish dishes. You can find the Southlake location on Southlake Blvd, just west of TX-114 in a new strip mall, anchored by Michael Anthony's Steakhouse. Regular RJG readers will know the area, as Johnny B's is right across the parking lot.

El Fenix, Mexican - Grapevine. El Fenix is a Dallas institution and is arguably the place where Tex-Mex can trace its beginning. Growing up in Northwest Dallas, we occasionally went to the location on Webb Chapel and Forest throughout the 1970s and 80s. That location, fortunately, is still open and we'll still take my Mom over for dinner. Unfortunately for us in NE Tarrant, we get stuck with the Grapevine location, which isn't up to the standard of their Dallas brethren. It feels more like a Dennys than the Old Mexico of the original downtown Dallas location. Everything is served quickly, not cooked to order, and quality is uneven. It services the DFW airport crowd, and it doesn't appear the denizens care much what they're eating. Bottom line, we heartily recommend El Fenix when in Dallas, but avoid the Grapevine locale. Ironic note: The classic oval neon sign was missing the "e" and "n" in Fenix, leaving "El Fix". Indeed it does need that.

Mi Cocina, Mexican - Irving (Las Colinas) or Southlake. Corporate chain from the "M Crowd". Just the name M Crowd alone reeks of insufferable yuppiedom. Like most corporate chains, the quality from visit to visit is uneven, but if pressed to take business clients to a place, this is a safer bet than having them gulp the "extra hot" from Fernandez Cafe, while they look over their collective shoulders for fear of their life. Straight down the middle, boring Tex-Mex, that tourists seem to enjoy. Perfect for the Southlake Town Square that it resides in. The Las Colinas location is on MacArthur, just south of I-635. Be prepared for a long wait at either location, especially on weekend evenings.

La Playa Maya, Mexican - Ft. Worth (South Side). As mentioned in the El Rancho Grande entry, we had first ventured to this Ft. Worth local chain's North Side location, known simply as La Playa, as far back as 2003. It didn't inspire a repeat visit, but after writing the El Rancho Grande review, we felt compelled to try it again. So we ventured down to south Ft. Worth for a visit. The decor of the place is nothing short of awesome. And we were escorted to the small upstairs dining room, which is very quaint. Unfortunately the food just doesn't do it for us. The Mrs. says the seafood/shrimp soup is tasteless. I went with a traditional Tex-Mex combo of enchiladas and tacos. All bland. We both liked the salsa, but it's heavy on the Valentina Salsa Picante. This place has loyal fans, and I have no intention of trying to talk someone out of that. It just isn't our place. Too bad, we really wanted to like it.

Bosses Pizza, Pizza - Keller. This is another legendary place, for those that live in the Lake Worth area. Bosses recently opened in the former spot of Bellisimo's, their failed attempt at a second location. The general scuttlebutt is Bosses makes a pizza very similar to the original Mama's Pizza. Not being a true Ft. Worth guy, I can't say, since I've never been to Mama's (well.... I haven't!). If this is indeed what it's all about, then that's OK, I'll pass. We both enjoyed the ingredients, heavy on the cheese, and the toppings all were well done, tough nothing extraordinary (for example, I doubt they make their own sausage). But for the thick, chewy pizza dough - nope, that's not for us. Bosses did a nice job with the building, as they converted it into a traditional pizza parlor, giving it the character that the Bellisimo location sorely lacked. One other note - Bosses is the rare pizza place that doesn't serve any kind of pasta. Despite not being a huge fan of this style of pizza, I do hope Bosses makes it - it's the right kind of place for the area. Old Town Keller needs all the help it can get. You can find Bosses on US-377, just north of Keller Pkwy.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Peace Burger Dive Bar & Grill ~ Grapevine, Texas

January 2013 update: The beer revolution continues here in DFW, and the whole Baja "chain" has gone all in for local craft brews. Hooray, hooray! Mr. Music and I visited Peace Burger this past weekend, and now I can say they really will be part of a "burger rotation". We each tried a local-to-Texas beer - I had the Peticolas Royal Scoundrel, while he had the Real Ale "Devil's Backbone" (which I've had in the bottle but not on tap). Like their Funky Baja's location in Keller, they feature gigantic $5 "Freaking" Burgers. Mr. Music had the Hell Burger and I tried their chili cheese dog, which is about the biggest one I've ever had. Sloppy goodness. This chain has evolved so much, I'm not even sure how much of the below is worthwhile to read. I've struck out items that are no longer true

October 2011 update: The below review represented the RJG's first visit. And now some 3 years later, we have gone back for only the second time (despite my false claim below of a mythical "burger rotation"). There have been significant changes since Mr. SS and I were last here (and, as mentioned in an earlier blog entry, Mr. SS is now munching his way through Manhattan). Perhaps most notably thay have moved into a new setting around the corner - but still in the same strip mall. And they went from a fast food burger joint to a full-scale sports bar with an expanded menu that includes tacos (since they're owned by Baja's, this makes sense), appetizers, sandwiches, and of course hamburgers. Gone are the album covers - in its place, sports memorabilia and flat screen TVs.

To start with, I was disappointed with the bar aspect. The draught beer selection was limited to strictly mainstream US and Mexican macro swills. At least throw in a couple of micros or a European import! So I settled on a frozen margarita, which was pretty good actually, though somewhat generic. As for the meal, I zeroed in on the "Hell Burger". You know Mr. RJG, always looking for some fiery spice. You all seen that show Heat Seekers? I could hang with those guys all day - they're a lot of fun, and I love their idea of a good meal. So the Hell Burger is pretty much a regular size patty with a habanero sauce, sliced jalapenos and Monterey Jack cheese. Was it hot? Sure, but not overly so. I didn't taste the habanero honestly - seemed more like a paprika/cayenne blend (and suspiciously looked that way too). The sliced jalapenos were mild, though that could be a seasonal situation. They also threw a fat roasted jalapeno on top. I'm not fond of "fat" peppers, but I got about half-way through it. It was pretty weak to be honest. So in the end, I loved the concept, but wasn't blown away by it. I'm saying thumbs up to Peace Burger, though personally I'm finding it hard to come up with a reason to be a repeat visitor. Maybe I'm just not getting what they're really good at. It could be another 3 years for me...

Original review

Drugs, sex and hamburgers? One could argue that hamburgers ARE narcotics, and based by the crowd we saw on our first visit, the sex will need to be Viagra fueled.

On this lunch visit, I was accompanied by my neighbor Mr. SS. Apparently we were with the Youth Group. That is, until a bunch of woolly looking characters came walking in, with oval patches saying "Billy" and "Fred". OK, we're in the right place.

Peace Burger is actually a side business for the good folks who run the Baja Mex Grill / El Taco H, which happen to be conveniently next door. They decided to occupy a former wings place, and since they already had a circle as a logo, in the name of efficiency they just painted in the peace sign. Good idea!

Their signature burger is the "The Peace Burger", loaded with Mexican ingredients they grabbed from the adjoining kitchen no doubt. Also "The Hippie Burger" which is, predictably I suppose, a vegetarian option made with a black bean patty. Hmm, might need to drag Mrs. RJG here.

We both stuck to traditional items like cheeseburgers, fries and onion rings. The cheeseburger is huge - and has a certain thickness that some find appealing, while others (like my wife) think it appalling. Many times with a burger this size, the ingredients don't penetrate, leaving the taste of plain ground beef. Not Peace Burger. A nice, salty ingredient mix tunneled it's way throughout. And the fries also included a delicious seasoning. The rings weren't to our liking, tasting like fried batter and little else. Still, Peace Burger will now be part of the NE Tarrant Burger Rotation, that includes Johnny B's, Kincaid's, Chapps Cafe, Five Guys, Clown Burger and a few others.

You can find Peace Burger on William D. Tate in Grapevine, just east of TX-114, right across the street from the Silver Fox steakhouse.

As for the rock and roll, Peace Burger could probably use a primer on 1960s music. Sorry guys, Guns N Roses, Rainbow and Mahogany Rush weren't residents at the corner of Haight and Ashbury. Nor a part of the sunshine pop psych of LA. Or any psych movement. Let's see, better we view posters and covers of The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Doors, Iron Butterfly. Or perhaps we should dig deeper with The Beat of the Earth, Wendy and Bonnie, Music Emporium, Dragonwyck, The Plastic Cloud, Fifty Foot Hose, The United States of America... OK, I'll stop. Did I just say all those bands out loud?


Peace Burger Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Siciliano's A Taste of Italy ~ Garland, Texas

Mr. Music was over at the RJG headquarters about a month ago, and we were reminiscing over former restaurants we had gone to when the RJG lived in Addison, and later Carrollton, in the late 80s and early 90s. I asked "What about that one in Garland?" After much deliberation, Mr. Music said "Oh, I remember - Siciliano's!" In the database it went, with a code saying "revisit".

So it was one recent Saturday that me and the Mrs. decided to make the long journey over and visit this restaurant that I haven't been to in at least 16 years. Saturday is the ideal day to embark on "road games" as it were. We've tried to make a point to venture out of our comfort zone of NE Tarrant and visit the various regions of the DFW area. And Saturday is the only day where we can be pretty certain of less traffic - and that the restaurant is likely to be open (unlike Sunday or holidays).

In parallel news, one of my colleagues in the San Francisco Bay Area made the comment that Lebron James wouldn't play for a "small market team" like Dallas. "Small market?" I said exasperatingly. "Listen home boy, DFW is the 4th largest media market in the country, ahead of your precious little Bay Area." Typical left coast comment I say. Anyway, I bring out this story, only to underscore just how sprawling the DFW area is. We basically drove from the NE Ft. Worth suburbs to the NE Dallas suburbs. It takes 45 minutes without traffic, and we barely covered a fraction of the entire area.

Siciliano's sits roughly in dead center Garland, on Buckingham, just east of Shiloh. Garland is one of DFW's largest suburbs and is big enough to have it's own regions and cultures within. As we approached the restaurant, in the dark, I said "Nope, this isn't the place - way too big." After our meal, we spoke with the owner who clarified that it is indeed the place we were thinking of. They had previously been in a smaller restaurant inside a strip mall (which is what I remember) - and moved to this new construction about 8 years ago.

Old School. That's all I could think of while we enjoyed our meal at Siciliano's. Their pedigree is from the classic Italian restaurants that used to be throughout the Detroit area (and a few remain). About the only nod to modernity that I could see, were the garlic knots brought out prior to our meal. In the 1970s, having practically grown up eating Italian food in the restaurants on Lower Greenville and Mockingbird, you ate the Lisanti breadsticks that were in the basket, or you didn't eat anything prior to the appetizer.

The salad. Yes, that's it! That's the salad dressing of my youth. Before the late 1970s rage of "creamy Italian" and before anyone even knew what the word balsamic meant, we all ate salads with an oil based dressing, that had the right amount of vinegar and Italian seasonings. We make a mean Italian dressing at the RJG household - that's as close as we can get to the old days - and it still doesn't taste quite like this.

Homemade meatballs. Oh yes, my darling, that's why the RJG exists. To seek out places that some thought were extinct. How come nobody makes a homemade spicy meatball anymore? Siciliano's does! And they tell me their sausage is homemade too. Next visit.

Chicken Parm. You know, that's what they call it on the menu. Do you understand the significance of this? Anyone who has ever grown up in the East or the Midwest, refers to this dish as Chicken Parm. Not Parmesan. And certainly not Pollo Parmigiana (remember, that's $5 more just for the name). Ah, burnt gooey cheese. Crispy outside. Al Denta pasta on the side. If it were perfect, the Parm would cover the entire dish, and they'd serve the pasta in a bowl next to it. But hey, who's complaining?

They had my favorite dessert on the menu - Cappucino Pie. This is sort of a Dallas original, as you won't find it outside of the DFW area (or at least I haven't anyway). And it's usually made by one local supplier. Not Siciliano's. It's homemade (like everything here). Completely different taste - with a white cappucino ice cream, whip cream, chocolate syrup, graham cracker crust and sliced almonds. Mmmm-mmm-mmm.

They have a full bar, and their wines by the glass seem reasonable (for example $5.25 for a good Pinot Grigio).

Website: http://www.sicilianosgarland.com/

Siciliano's: a Taste of Italy on Urbanspoon

Friday, October 24, 2008

***CLOSED*** Mezza Luna ~ Keller, Texas

About once a year, Mrs. RJG and I will drift over to Rufe Snow and Keller-Smithfield Rd in Keller and enjoy a weekday lunch at Mezza Luna. We first tried this "ristorante" for a dinner in 2003, and decided it was a bit too dear for what it is, and that lunch would be a better alternative. And since then, we've been there about 5 times - yep, once a year. I can count with my toes too...

Remember terms like ristorante, zuppa and insalate mean $5 more per dish. Mezza Luna holds up this deep rooted tradition. Lunch, however, is very reasonable. Two entrees which include salad or soup won't set you back more than $20 including tip.

Like almost all of the Northeast Tarrant County Italian restaurants, Mezza Luna possesses a Balkan heritage and is tied in with the Moni empire. They even have a dish called Cappellini alla Moni, for which I mentioned that my wife should get it for free. They didn't get it.

There are some breaks with the traditional Moni styled restaurants. One is that it's considerably more fancy than the usual hole in the wall (and not something you would expect from the rather mundane strip mall it sits in). Another is the house dressing which is a honey balsamic rather than the usual red wine. And third, their red sauces have a creamy texture, which I enjoyed for a change of pace.

On this visit I went with the Rigatoni Bolognese, while Mrs. RJG enjoyed the aforementioned Cappellini alla Moni - a dish filled with broccoli and chicken in an olive oil and garlic sauce. As always, the food was excellent.

The restaurant sits in a strip mall area that has undergone quite a bit of changes in the 6 years that we've been coming here. Apparently the anchor was a Winn-Dixie grocery store, that went out of business in 2002. Unfortunately they didn't let go of their lease and the area remained dormant for years. In fact, if it weren't for Mezza Luna, the Snooty Pig cafe that sits next door, and a nearby free standing Taco Bueno, the area would've been completely abandoned. Once the center could be leased, many other retail outlets have opened up, most in the last two years. This can only be a good thing for Mezza Luna, the archduke of the center.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Prince Lebanese Grill ~ Arlington, Texas

A major event has happened since we last wrote about Prince Lebanese Grill - the appearance of one Guy Fiori from Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. It should come as no surprise to my readers that I love that show. He basically has the same attitude and concept I use here but taken to the highest level. Of course, he's a chef himself, and is very much qualified to review what each kitchen is up to. He reminds me of my very good friend Mr. Music, in his attitude, gregariousness and even his physical shape. Sometimes on a slow Saturday, especially during the summer, Mrs. RJG and I will watch a few hours of his show on the Food Channel consecutively. And get really hungry. You know, come to think of it, he also went to another RJG recommendation: Avila's in Dallas. Could Fiori be a fan of the RJG?

Because of Fiori's visit, Prince became wildly popular (though it already had a loyal local following). On Urbanspoon, it is rated as the 84th most popular restaurant in all of DFW (and 3rd overall for Middle Eastern restaurants). The former Sonic continues to be made over, and there's more seating than ever. An awesome example of urban renewal. Prince is a real American success story.

I would also add to the below review that I really love their Gyros plate. The meat is delicious, as is the rice and Greek salad (as mentioned in the review).

While on the topic are there any good Middle Eastern restaurants in NE Tarrant? I've been to one "Mediterranean" place in North Richland Hills, which was more Greek/European. I haven't done my homework here, but if you know of a place, please don't hesitate to write a comment. Thanks!

Original review

A few years ago, Mrs. RJG and I discovered a place in Arlington called Rama's Mediterranean Grill (based on a Star Telegram weekend review), in a renovated old Sonic drive in. As mentioned in the Hatam Persian restaurant blurb, we our both big fans of the spices of the Middle East, combined with the sumptuous grilled meats and bed of rice. But since it's in Arlington, it's a bit out of our routine range, and we only managed to go once. One of the partners of Rama bought the other out, and renamed the place Prince Lebanese Grill, and we noticed no downturn in quality. In fact, it was even better as the current owner was clearly the driving force of the older establishment.

And another year has passed. We had dropped Mrs. RJG's Mom at the airport one late morning and decided to head south instead of north, and revisit a place for lunch that we always love to go to, but just never think about it. And time has been even better to Prince. The place is now crowded with people. In fact, this is the first time there we didn't eat alone. It's also changed to a sitdown place, rather than an order up / serve combo. And... the prices have gone up - way up. But there's a reason for it, and it's legitimate. See, Prince has upgraded the quality of all their products, as well as upped their portions. While it used to feel like a fast food place, it now feels appropriately enough like a restaurant. And it should.

I had the kofta kabob (two large patties of seasoned ground beef), with rice and a Greek Salad. Mrs. RJG had the beef shawarma (a variation of what Greeks call gyros or, um, Californians call wraps) and a Greek Salad as well. We both adore the salad, as the dressing is absolutely delicious. The kofta is heavily seasoned, the way Mr. RJG likes it. And the rice? Oh, the rice. Long grain rice pilaf with just the right ingredients.

Looking for excellent Middle Eastern food in Tarrant county and not sure where to go? Or at least a place you can go without 1960s era belly dancers? Prince is the place. You've never had Lebanese food, but always wanted to try? Prince is the place. You will feel most comfortable in this casual establishment - the menu will explain it all for you.

You'll find Prince on Randol Mill Rd, just east of Cooper.


Prince Lebanese Grill on Urbanspoon

Friday, October 3, 2008

Clown Hamburgers ~ Haltom City, Texas

Ladies and Gentlemen, let me introduce to you the finest Regular Joe's Guide hamburger for Northeast Tarrant County. If you asked me to draw up the perfect Regular Joe's Guide restaurant, I still couldn't produce the masterpiece that is Clown Burger. Just look at those photos. My oh my. I would travel all day just to see a place like this. Careful on that last point, as they have some quirky hours. Check their website (below) before heading over.

From what I can gather, Clown Burger is a surviving institution, and the interior was pretty much moved piece by piece over to its current location. Originally it was on the old US Highway 377 (Belknap) and like just about every other such place, eventually closed down. Only to be resurrected later. We spoke about Haltom City in the Bangkok Thai entry, and it's the suburb that provides the most Regular Joe thrills per square mile. Populated by working class and newly arrived immigrants, it's the perfect blend for allowing old institutions to survive while at the same time creating new ones. Other than maybe Bud Kennedy, the journalists have steered well clear of the area. And the foodies think it's a no-go 'hood. Fine with me - keep out.

I've been going to Clown Burger for about 4 years now. Not too often, as it's a haul for me and the Mrs. RJG has little desire to eat there. The burger recipe is probably part of some Secret Order, buried with the Holy Ark somewhere in Scotland. Or Ft. Worth. Combine that with a grill that's seen more burgers than a congressman pork dollar total, and you have the formula for happiness. Right there, Mr. RJG has provided you the key to happiness. Did you gloss over that sentence? I wouldn't. I should also mention that the burgers on the small side, so I recommend a double.

I remember traveling with my Dad in West Texas in the early 1970s. It seemed to me that all places that had hamburgers were great. I get that kind of flavor here. All these years, and I still haven't been to Herd's in Jacksboro (how did I miss it on all those college drives from Dallas to Lubbock?). But I'm guessing it's that flavor. I smell a road trip this weekend.

Clown Burger is not easy to find. It's in the kind of shopping area that stopped existing since the 1940s - one that depended more on pedestrian traffic than automobile. I remember them fondly on trips to my Grandma's house in Long Island. It doesn't even seem possible that it can exist in a modern metropolis.

To get there, take Denton Highway and turn west on Stanley Keller. On the next corner will be Haltom Rd. Look for it on the SW corner. You won't believe your eyes. It's like a time tunnel. Once in the restaurant, there is nothing to remind you that this is 2008. It's 1958. For real.

Oh, It's officially known as Clown Hamburgers Too.

Clown Burger Too on Urbanspoon

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Firehouse Subs ~ North Richland Hills, Texas

Based on a tip from one of our three readers, I rolled over to Firehouse Subs the other day. Jacksonville, FL based Firehouse Subs represents yet another niche in the overcrowded QSR sandwich segment. Let's take a look at the different type of subs out there: There's the good old fashioned cold deli sub, most known via Subway, but RJG readers know we favor Jersey Mike's and the Dallas area Great Outdoors. Then you have the conveyor belt hot subs pioneered by Austin based Schlotzsky's, copied by Alvin Ord's (The RJG fondly remembers this obscure chain from the 1980s - one that still exists in Weatherford - and I haven't been since 1991 which was at the old NW Dallas location), and altered to great success by the Denver based Quizno's. Now you have the assembly line created sub, from the enterprising Dallas franchise Which Wich. Then there's the order up, sit down deli's like Jason's and McAlister's. Another variation is the wrap, a concept that most around here know from another Jacksonville based chain Roly Poly (we tried the NRH location once and thought it to be awful - and it closed soon after). Still waiting on grinders to catch on here (there are couple of good chains in the Midwest).

Firehouse Subs is yet another category: The hot grilled sub. Their variation reminds me most of the Cincinnati chain Penn Station (which I had in St. Louis once) and the Columbus, OH based Charley's Grilled Subs (had once in the home city). Since we have neither of the latter two, Firehouse fills that hole in the DFW market. And for what they do, they do well. At least based on a couple of visits so far - which was the Italian sub. Good bread with quality meats and spices - and heated to the right temperature - thank you Goldie Locks. The chain was started by two firemen, who learned their craft in the kitchen of their local fire station. The theme is uplifting, and they go a long way to recognize fireman from around the nation for their daily brave activities. Another theme they brought forward was the novelty of placing out a number of known and obscure hot sauces. Another favorite activity of Mr. RJG is trying the different ones out there. Since I've only had the Italian, it didn't make sense for me to try the sauces, so I need to find the right sandwich to do that with. But the meatball parm looked good, and I think I'll try that next, so the hot sauce investigation will have to wait.

Interesting side note: I noticed on the menu that they trademarked "Italian". How do you trademark that? The RJG wonders if it's too late to trademark "Salt"...

Another commentary on the North Richland Hills location: The RJG loves the concept of the European loft/villa style of urban living. Mrs. RJG and I hope to live like that one day later in life. But it seems rather ridiculous to me to see this kind of housing in an otherwise very suburban setting. This is not an all encompassing village, but is rather served by a strip mall next door. There are no plans for a public rail line to pass through. You need a car to get anywhere. Other than the obvious aesthetic appeal, there's not much to distinguish these condos from any other local apartment. Downtown Ft. Worth or Dallas? Sure! Even in Grapevine where they're planning a rail terminus or near the Southlake Town Center - I could see it. But North Richland Hills, right off Hwy 26? I don't get it. Same with the Art House in Keller. BTW, Google Maps was struggling with the location for awhile. If looking for this location - it's on Hwy 26, SW of Precinct Line Rd. just west of a Krogers, McAlisters and Chipotle. Oh, and next to the new Chapps Cafe.

They also have a second NE Tarrant location, in Euless.


Firehouse Subs on Urbanspoon
Firehouse Subs on Urbanspoon

Friday, September 19, 2008

Recent closings: Uncle Joe's Pizza, Enrique's, Green Bamboo

Been awhile since I mentioned some closings.

While driving to Cafe Sicilia, we noticed that Uncle Joe's Pizza and Pasta in Bedford had boarded up. Uncle Joe's were one of the better Balkan owned Italian restaurants in the area. And Mr. Jose still misses the excellent pizza and pasta dishes at Big Joe's, formerly on Hwy 26 in Colleyville.

Enrique's in old town Keller is gone. We didn't really care for the food, but the ambiance was classic Regular Joe's Guide. A tiny white shack on US-377. Hard to image the structure surviving much longer.

And we received word that Green Bamboo, also in Keller, is no longer. That's too bad, as they were one of the few Vietnamese places in the northern sections of NE Tarrant. And quite good at that. We hadn't been in awhile, but it was a place I intended to write about eventually. That leaves Pho Texas in Southlake as the only Vietnamese up north (there are tons in Haltom City and Arlington).

Thursday, September 18, 2008

El Rancho Grande ~ Fort Worth, Texas

Recently we wrote about Los Alamos, and on our journey we drove by El Rancho Grande, just a block away. And then I'd remembered the place from a few years ago when Mrs. RJG and I visited the La Playa, a branch of the La Playa Maya local chain minus the Maya (now closed). It seemed to be a happening place that particular Saturday night, and now we were going for our first visit on a Saturday afternoon.

The interior is "Old World Mexico", as found in places like El Fenix, Cantina Laredo and Pulido's. Dark, gold lighting fixtures, stucco and wood trim.

Time for the most important part of the meal: Chips and hot sauce. Why most important? As Fort Worth Hole in the Wall so astutely observes, it's 90% of the meal. May sound funny, but there are times when he's exactly right. The chips are homemade tortillas, a bit thick in texture, and have a taste that I've not had in a chip before. Not sure I'm overly fond of it, but it is different. The salsa is like many in the DFW area, with garlic, onions, salt and a mild kick. So of course Mr. Jose had to ask "Have a hotter one"? The waiter was excited to say yes and quickly brought a bowl. It was indeed hotter, but not by much. And it seemed lack salt or something. It was almost bitter. Not very good. We preferred the regular table garden variety.

As for the meal, I stuck to the basics of enchiladas and taco. The rice was outstanding. I mean really great! The beans were weak. Enchiladas were decent, nothing special. And the taco. Mr. RJG is going to get on his soap box here (readers quickly shift to next paragraph): Don't put the taco on the combo plate! Put it on a separate small platter. C'mon, is it really that expensive to wash another dish? The taco shell was, of course, soggy. Why do they do that? Unfortunately I can't remember now what Mrs. RJG had, but it wasn't memorable.

It may seem they we didn't like El Rancho Grande. Actually we did. It is good and if I lived in Bangor, Maine, I would be thrilled to have a place like this in town. But for DFW, nay for Main Street in Ft. Worth, there is better. Just down the street at Los Alamos.

El Rancho Grande Restaurante on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Five Guys Burgers and Fries ~ Southlake, Texas

I mentioned here that the Five Guys chain from the Washington DC area has made its way to NE Tarrant. And so Mrs. RJG and I did a recon mission to the Southlake Town Center, and sure enough, they're open! Mrs. RJG stated they had replaced a Chinese restaurant location, which we never tried. It's two doors down from the Brinker owned Rockfish Grill.

Even though I label Five Guys as a "Corporate Chain", I myself cannot believe how rapidly they've expanded. It was only a few years ago that they were practically a local chain operating in and around Washington DC, and the Maryland / Virginia suburbs, which I visited many times on business. And not too long ago, I was thrilled to find out they had a location in Annapolis, MD. But I would've never dreamed in such a short time that they'd be in DFW! Hopefully they grow similar to Jersey Mike's rather than Quizno's (I remember when Quizno's was just a local Denver chain). Or, God forbid - go public.

Five Guys has mastered one aspect of the fast food experience: The limited menu. It's hamburgers, hot dogs, and the one concession to vegetarians - grilled cheese (I appreciate this as there are times when his business group will include vegetarians and I still get to eat at places like this. For example, In-N-Out Burger doesn't have any options for veggie heads.)

And so with that, it's then paramount that the hamburgers are of a high quality. And indeed they are. A "regular" hamburger is actually two patties, whereas a "little" hamburger is only one. Mrs. RJG said one is more than sufficient (these aren't tiny like a regular Burger King for example). I naturally go for the regular. From there you request your toppings, which are numerous. "It'll be ready in 7 minutes" the girl at the counter stated. That's music to my ears. Nothing is more depressing than having your order ready two seconds after ordering. You order it - and they cook it. Sure, sometimes they'll have a head start, but not by much. They don't, as a rule, want burgers sitting around. So the burger usually comes out searing hot. I've burned the roof of my mouth more than once at the Reston, VA location. And the Southlake franchise upholds this tradition. As stated in the prior post, the taste is closest to Kincaid's overall. The fries are fresh cut potatoes, and they even tell you where the potatoes were grown (Burleson, Idaho I think was this day's special). And, while you're waiting those 7 minutes, grab a handful of peanuts that are sitting everywhere and munch down as many you can eat. Just like chips at a Mexican restaurant.

All Five Guys locations have a red and white checkered tile look. The walls feature the numerous articles that have been featured on Five Guys, many of them from the Washingtonian, a local magazine similar to "D".


Five Guys Burgers and Fries on Urbanspoon

Monday, September 8, 2008

Cafe Sicilia ~ Bedford, Texas

March 2015 update: New location in Watauga does not hold up the standard of the original!

May 2013 update: It's been about 3 years since we last visited Cafe Sicilia. Mrs. RJG and I decided to celebrate Mothers Day here (on a Friday night prior) with both our official Mothers' in tow (imagine that?). Food quality has remained excellent, and the restaurant seems as popular as ever. Strange then, that we find out that Ms. Stoman sold the restaurant not long after our last visit. So kudos to the new owners for maintaining the high standard set forth prior. Cafe Sicilia is quite possibly the best of the NE Tarrant neighborhood Italian restaurant stable.

Original review

Cafe Sicilia was yet another branch to the Moni's Italian restaurant empire. The original owners decided to sell out and open up Dal Italia in North Richland Hills (and they sold out again and the restaurant is now known as Oggi Italia Cafe) (May 2013: Which is now sadly closed altogether). Enter Karin Stoman, born and raised in South Africa, and who was looking for something productive to do with her time. She decided that it would be fun to run a restaurant, and she and her husband purchased Cafe Sicilia. NE Tarrant not only was able to keep a quality place, but one that was made even better by Ms. Stoman's leadership.

In demonstrating her strong management skills, she maintained the current waitstaff, chefs and recipes, thus keeping a direct link with the prior ownership. So, in this context, a visit to Cafe Sicilia will be familiar to other Italian restaurants in the area. They still even have the "Moni's Salad". But Ms. Stoman has slowly added in new recipes and she's most proud of her daily specials, which Mrs. RJG and I have have tried once in awhile, and they are indeed great.

We've been going to Cafe Sicilia since sometime in 2004, and (I think) not long after she purchased the restaurant. We typically go on average around 3 to 4 times a year. Mrs. RJG loves her Primavera dish and I tend to stick with the baked goodies. While most of the NE Tarrant Italian restaurants do this well, most notably Dal Italia and Niki's, I give the nod to Cafe Sicila in the preparation and added ingredients. And the sizzling temperature. And who doesn't love bubbling cheese? And lately we've been adding the arrabiata sauce, that classic Italian "angry dish", that gives us that special spicy kick!

As for personality, Ms. Stoman is absolutely delightful. Friendly to a fault. The restaurant has gradually improved its ambiance as well. A little bit every year, just the way it should be. Anything from a new ceiling decoration to a new sign outside, to better lighting inside, everything gets a little better. A wonderful place that's always crowded, but never jammed, and thus very comfortable. And the prices are very good, especially when you add in the BYOB aspect.

The restaurant is located on Bedford Road just off of Forest Ridge Drive (A little north of 183/121), in a time worn strip center. Cafe Sicilia is clearly the anchor and life of the area. Open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner, except Saturday, where they're open only for dinner.


Cafe Sicilia on Urbanspoon

Friday, September 5, 2008

*** CLOSED *** Fernandez Cafe ~ Fort Worth, Texas

April 2012 update: From Bud Kennedy's Eats Beat: "Breakfast hasn't been the same in west Fort Worth without Fernandez Cafe. Former server Olga Garcia finally brought back Fernandez's burritos and hot-hot sauce this week, reopening the restaurant months after buying it from Betty Ruiz.Garcia has kept the same Fernandez menu, including the unusual west-side tradition of chicken and tortilla-cut dumplings Thursday nights."

Original review

Looking for the best Tex-Mex enchiladas? Here's an insider tip from The Regular Joe's Guide: Fernandez Cafe.

This is one of the rare great places that I've found using a coupon, but were it not for said coupon book, then I may still not know about Fernandez Cafe. It was the summer of 2003, and our neighbor was selling those big books filled with coupons. They're a good deal, if you actually use them. I decided right then and there that the book would be our guide to discovering places in Tarrant County. At the time, Mrs. RJG and I had only lived in the area for about 5 months, and we had exhausted all the restaurants within a reasonable proximity of our home. Of course, we went back to some of Mr. RJG's favorites back in Dallas where I'd lived up through 1993. But those were long journeys and most of the places I once knew were gone, or had deteriorated.

I still remember Mrs. RJG's comment as we pulled into the parking lot of Fernandez Cafe: "Are you sure?". Ya know, that's a good sign right there. You want someone to ask the question "Are you sure?". Adds a little edge to it. Mrs. RJG likes a good hole in the wall, but a dirty or unclean place will put her in a bad mood quickly. Once we passed through the doors, our worries were proven unfounded. Sure, it's an old place, but a well cared one. And clean. And friendly. So far, so good.

It's chips time. Nice red based hot sauce, heavily spiced with a little kick. The chips are superior. They taste like real corn, thin and crispy. Nothing beats homemade corn chips. Mr. RJG then asked what he always asks "You have a hotter salsa?" They do. And boy do they! It's a completely different sauce, loaded with little green chilies. Even better flavor and leaves your mouth on fire. Just the way Mr. RJG likes it. Mrs. RJG was dying. And crying. Awesome.

Then came our dinners. Enchiladas are a test dish for me, similar to spaghetti at an Italian restaurant. My rule remains: If you can't make the basics, then why should I expect that you can make something more difficult?

One of my favorite moments in life comes from having my mouth on fire after eating a blazing hot sauce and then digging into the Mexican rice that is steaming hot. There's few sensations better than that! And the plates were sizzling. Like a fajita platter, only these were enchiladas served on a regular plate. The rice is divine. And a word about the beans. I've gone to charro beans over the years, as most refried beans seem like lard to me. Not Fernandez cafe. The BEST refried beans I've ever had. You can taste the bacon in them. Umm-umm-umm. Damn, I feel like going over there now....

And then there's the enchiladas. Cooked to order. No "tray of enchiladas" here. Are you kidding me? These are so ridiculously flavorful. Especially when your mouth is on fire from the salsa. Mr. RJG has long felt that the trite saying "if it's too spicy, you can't taste it" is an urban myth that is spouted out by those that are either afraid, or haven't built tolerance, for spicy food. I'm here to tell you the facts: You taste your food EVEN MORE. Maybe you're one of those who says that. OK, there are a few people who have medical conditions that don't allow them to eat it very spicy. Otherwise, it's a matter of building up tolerance. It's like anything else. You don't lift 150 pounds without working out. You build up to it. Same with spicy food. Go slow, and add a little more spice each time. Don't do too much at once. Eventually your body adjusts to it. It's worth the effort. Don't be afraid to sweat and have a runny nose. While I'm at it, I will give you another tip that I learned long ago: Want to know why you sweat and have a runny nose? Because your immune system just kicked in. The spice sets it off, thinking something needs to be fixed. Mr. or Mrs. RJG don't get sick - ever. We feel a cold coming on and off we goes for some blazing Thai and Mexican food. Works every time.

Sidetracked again... alright, bottom line here: Fernandez Cafe may be the best Tex-Mex restaurant in DFW. That's quite a statement right there. We haven't been to a fraction of the places in DFW, but of the dozens we have been to, Fernandez is #1. We've been going for 7 years now. It's no small trek either. But when we're craving enchiladas, we go here. And for you vegetarians, they also have many dishes that cater to your dietary needs. I've heard nothing but good things about it.

You can find the Fernandez Cafe on Vickery, about a 1/2 mile west of the ever popular Railhead BBQ. It's tucked into a tiny strip center that time forgot. There's also a Mexican restaurant right next door, as a stand alone building. Anyone been there? Any good? Might not matter, as it would be tough to drive all that way and not get a Fernandez Cafe enchilada.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Niki's Italian Bistro ~ Keller, Texas

August 2013 update: The NRH location is no longer associated with the one in Keller. We have recently visited, and here's our entry.

Mrs. RJG and I have been regular, albeit infrequent, visitors to Niki's since we moved back to Texas in 2003. In fact, I think they're the first Italian restaurant we visited upon our arrival.

Niki's, like almost all of NE Tarrant's Italian restaurants, are of a Balkan heritage. So there isn't much deviation of taste from others we've written about before on these pages like Oggi Italia, Cafe Italia and Bellisimo's. All the familiar telltale signs are there: A tomato based vinaigrette house dressing, similar desserts, a familiar menu with a mix of chicken / veal entrees and tradition pasta, including baked dishes - and pizza of course. On the latter, of the restaurants we mentioned above, we've only tried Oggi Italia's pizza, and if the others follow suit, we'd be very happy. Mrs. RJG's co-workers swear by Niki's pizza, and we've vowed to try it sometime. (4/18/10 update: Tried, and while it's good, there are better pizza places nearby like My New York Pizza and Marco's).

There is one major difference between Niki's and the others: They have a liquor license. That can be seen as a plus for many, but we like the savings of BYOB. We're spoiled in these parts, as most of the country's restaurants want the juicy margins that alcohol can bring. Still, we don't see that as a show stopper, and we'll dutifully order a 1/2 carafe of vino to go along with our meal. Or a nice cold beer at lunch.

Both the wife and I recommend sticking to the baked dishes, or basic red sauce pasta concoctions like chicken parm. They have a nice smooth textured and tasteful red sauce, and the pasta is always cooked al dente and steaming hot.

We probably frequent Niki's about 2 to 3 times a year, and it's consistently good, though not exceptional. It doesn't have to be.

The Keller location is at Rufe Snow and North Tarrant Parkway, set inside a newish strip center on the SE corner. The decor is excellent, in a darkened room with nice lighting and plenty of murals of Italian scenery. It's rather capacious, with two distinct rooms, ideal for large parties of people.

Niki's Italian Bistro on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

*** CLOSED *** Los Alamos Cafe ~ Fort Worth, Texas

Unbeknownst to me, Los Alomos closed shortly after our last revisit. Devastating news, but we weren't the type of customers they needed to stay in business. At best we made it over here once a year from NE Tarrant (it quite simply was not anywhere close to where we live). In the RJG's opinion, they had the best salsa in town. I hope the salsa (or restaurant) resurfaces at some point.

Lately, Mrs. RJG and I have been just going to our favorites in NE Tarrant, many of which we've already written about in these pages. So this Labor Day weekend, we figured it was time to venture out again and try a new place. Using my patented Random Restaurant Generator, and a bit of careful weeding out, we ended up at Los Alamos near the Stockyards. To be exact, 14th and N. Main near Marine Park. Strangely enough, Google Maps will send you South to near Magnolia. That's entirely wrong...

Located in an old brick building, with a tile roof, Los Alamos is a welcoming place. Once inside, you know it's a Regular Joe's Guide mecca. The zarape curtains alone are worth going to see. It's a small one room dining area, with a large flat paneled screen TV against the lone solid wall.

Once the two salsas were delivered, Mr. RJG knew he was in the right place. Served in molcajete like bowls, I first sampled the pureed red. Oh, delicious!!! Spicy, with lots of garlic, and the right texture. Then I dipped in the green. It's even hotter - way hotter. A mix of blended jalapenos and maybe avocados? It was outstanding, like no other sauce I've had before. So nice to get a blazing hot sauce without having to ask for it. Most establishments don't even have one. And a word about the chips. Homemade corn chips, that were both crisp and tasty. In fact, I wouldn't even need sauce and I'd be happy with the flavor. Mrs. RJG and I wolfed down one basket of chips and another was promptly delivered. We usually have a "one basket rule" to keep our waistlines reasonably slim (actually Mrs. RJG maintains a model's body, while Mr. RJG does his best not to get fat). But we couldn't resist eating into the second basket. It's been ages since the chips and salsa routine made me this happy.

As stated before, when the chips and salsa are good, then the meal generally follows in the same fashion. I had the enchilada plate. One thing Mr. RJG hates is the "tray of enchiladas", where my order is sliced out and served within two minutes of ordering. Not so at Los Alamos. These were cooked to order, on a sizzling plate and the cheese still bubbling. I had one beef and one cheese. The ground beef was spiced nicely. The rice was also very tasty and cooked just right, not mushy or under cooked as I've come to expect. The beans were the only weakness, tasting like regular refried beans with little flavor. No biggee, I'll go with double rice next time. Besides it's healthier.
Mrs. RJG got the chorizos with eggs. She loved the chunks of potatoes and the flavor of the sausage. She also disagrees with me and said the beans are great. So what do I know anyway?

The owner, who is extremely nice, says they no longer sell alcohol but you're welcome to bring your own. We'll do just that next time, bringing in our favorite cerveza. For this visit we had diet sodas, which is fine.

According to the menu, the place has been around since the 1950's. Not sure if at that location, or a continual restaurant since then, but there's a heritage that goes back that far. They're mainly a breakfast and lunch type of joint.

Nice review here:
"Staff choice: Los Alamos Café, 1446 N Main St, FW
Some variance occurs when fresh jalapeños are blended daily in a family recipe to make some of the North Side’s tastiest green salsa. The japs at Los Alamos aren’t scientifically cloned to perfection, so their spiciness fluctuates. Occasionally the green salsa is too hot. Once in a blue moon it’s downright mild. Sometimes it’s too thin. Most of the time it’s just right — thick, green, spicy, and flavorful. When it’s right, it’s the best in town." - FW Weekly - 2003

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The rest of the rest: Road Trip 2008

I covered most of the highlights and lowlights of our last Road Trip this past July. Some other places of interest:

Garfield's, Susquehanna, PA: Garfield's to me represents the epitome of the boring 1980's styled chain. But we were on the open road from Harrisburg, PA to Geneva, NY and it was way past lunch time and we'd already given up on our original plan to head to Penn State University, since we were running behind schedule. Garfield's, predictably enough, sits at the entrance of an equally boring mall. That said, Mr. Jose was more than impressed with Garfield's for offering locally made Pennsylvania wine. For that alone, the stop was worth it. Bravo to this branch of Garfield's!
Mighty Taco, Tonawanda, NY: Loved it, loved it, loved it! After the lackluster Spicy Thai experience, Mr. Jose decided dessert needed to be at the nearby Mighty Taco. Mrs. Jose, the beautiful woman who I have been married to for 11 years, agreed. She had only one and I had 2, but I could tell they were delicious. Old school, ground beef, mushmeat tacos. I love 'em. My only gripe is that I got hot, only to find out they have a x-hot. Next time, and I do hope there will be a next time. Mighty Taco is a local chain in the Buffalo area with quite a few locations.
Jenny's Ice Cream, Williamsburg, NY: Did I say we got dessert at Mighty Taco? Ahem, well we went for a second dessert then at Jenny's a wonderful homemade ice cream place in the quaint town of Williamsburg, just west of Buffalo and where we were staying. Looks like I can point to the day I gained 5 pounds....
Fireside Thai Jasmine and Pi-Tom's, Toronto, ONT: Two separate Thai restaurants that we had on the two nights we were in Toronto. Remember when Mrs. Jose gets in that zone for Thai food, there ain't no stopping her! Even she wishes she'd stopped herself. Both are entirely uninspiring. Fireside is definitely the better of the two. Nicer help, but the appetizer we had was awful (a variety of the fried spring roll, that had so much filler and dough, it could only be called gross). As for Pi-Tom's - lose the attitude folks. Food is bland-ola. Doesn't matter, it'll close soon. The trendy places always do. The Regular Joe's Guide kinda places don't.
Burgundy's 780, Toronto, ONT: We stopped here for lunch. Very good little tavern in the downtown area of Yorktown. I thought for sure it was a chain, but it isn't! Nothing very distinctive, but everything was good. Worth a stop for lunch if you're nearby.
Adam and Eve Chocolatier, Toronto, ONT: We enjoyed this place so much the first night, we went back the second. They feature gelato rather than ice cream, and is all homemade on the premises. Excellent and recommended to those in downtown Toronto.
Jane's Ice Cream, Saugerties, NY: Jane's is made in nearby Kingston, NY. I can't remember the name of the place we had the ice cream, it wasn't called Jane's, but they serve it. Outstanding. Though I'm sure everyone who lives there already knows this.
Olde Philadelphia Tavern, Philadelphia airport: This was our final lunch before flying home to DFW. Believe it or not, Mrs. Jose liked their Philly Cheesesteak better than Rick's. Go figure. You know what, it wasn't bad at all. There are way worse places in the airports. If you're flying American, this is a good alternative to the chains. I think they're a local chain actually, as I see other locations, but no website to consolidate that evidence.

Luca's Ristorante ~ Flemington, New Jersey

Sometime back in 1999, when Mr. RJG was working in the northeast Philadelphia suburb of Bensalem on a 2 week assignment, I asked the locals where was the best place for Italian food. They said the closest was not south Philly but rather Trenton, New Jersey. I ran out of time and only ended up trying a couple of local Bensalem places which were good, not great (pretty much what my cohorts said). So when I did my homework for this trip, it appears I may have missed my window of opportunity. Apparently many of the classic places in Trenton have either boarded up or are “not the same”. Analyzing the situation, and looking at hotel options in the area, I settled on the community of Flemington instead. And Luca’s was to be the Italian destination of choice.

With the great taste of Little Italy still on our mind, we stuck to our game plan, and headed over to Luca’s for dinner. We sat down and prepared to order win when the waiter said it was “BYOB”. What? As noted many times in the RJG, BYOB is a concept we love in Texas, and I know it exists in a few other states, but New Jersey is one place I did not expect to hear this. So I immediately asked where the nearest liquor store was. The waiter seemed surprised, but didn't realize we were guests on vacation, so we only had one shot at this. He said there was one only a few minutes away. Hey, Mr. and Mrs. RJG want our wine with our Italian food!

With that out of the way, we settled into Luca’s and prepared for our Italian meal. Could it be as good as the night before? Well, almost! Luca’s is a little bit more modern, and there were nods to the Romano’s Macaroni Grill way of doing things (olive oil and pepper for the bread, extra large portions). And really, what’s wrong with that? Nothing. The biggest weakness of the publicly traded Macaroni Grill is consistency, like all major chains. Since we've only been to Luca’s once, I can’t comment on consistency, but overall we were both quite pleased with our meal. I again stuck to the basics and wasn't disappointed. The portions here are quite large, and are ideal for take home leftovers, though we weren't obviously in a position to do so.

Luca’s is a two store local chain. The other being on the way to the New York side of the state in Somerset, NJ.

Website: http://www.lucasristorante.com/

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Albany Pump Station ~ Albany, New York

The next day in Tupper Lake we had a charming “continental breakfast” at our motel. Consisting of coffee and a wrapped powder donut – I’m pretty sure it’s the first powdered donut I've had in 20 years. Afterwards we drove out of the Adirondack Mountains, down to the state capital of Albany, where we arrived at lunch time (could it be a coincidence? Ya think?). Per original plan, we headed to a local brewery / brewpub called the Albany Pump Station just on the outskirts of downtown and the Capitol building. The Albany Pump Station resurrected an old brewery from the past called C.H. Evans Brewing Company. We had such great success with the Appalachian Brewing Company, that we were hoping for a repeat performance. And did it succeed? Well, sort of. Mr. RJG gives it a thumbs up. Outstanding brew (the Quackenbush Blonde) and I went for the cheeseburger, always a good choice at a brewpub. Great seasoning, well cooked, high quality meat, excellent toppings, and just the right amount of grease. For me a pleasurable experience all around. But Mrs. RJG didn't agree (the first time we disagreed about the meal quality on this trip). She enjoyed the beer and all was going well until she got her deli sandwich. With Jreck's fresh on her mind, I think she was expecting something similar. What she got was, in her words, something that she could get at the grocery store. Something along the lines of plain bread and Sysco cold cuts. I can’t say for sure, but it didn't look too inspiring to me either. Her point was why bother to offer a sandwich if it’s something you can get pre-wrapped at 7-11. Can’t argue with that! So we’re chalking it up to she “got the wrong thing”, and if there’s a second visit to Albany, she’ll try something else.

Website: http://www.evansale.com/

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Little Italy Restaurant ~ Tupper Lake, New York

From Gouverneur, we enjoyed a picturesque drive through the Adirondacks and onto to our destination of Tupper Lake, ideally situated in the middle of the mountains and by a lake (naturally). I think we might have even snuck in an ice cream break. The little place by the side of the road served Perry's Ice Cream, which I've only seen in the New York state area. Quite good actually.

Like many of the small towns in the Adirondacks, Tupper Lake doesn’t possess a large chain hotel. Since Mr. RJG travels a lot for business, I tend to stay at Marriott or Hilton owned hotels – generally the more business friendly ones like Hampton Inn or Courtyard. And so I’ve made that a habit for personal trips as well, and Mrs. RJG likes the free breakfasts at the Hampton in particular. We typically eat light for breakfast, nothing more a bagel, coffee, juice, yogurt, fruit, maybe some cereal. And that’s what Hampton excels at. But for Tupper Lake, I needed to be creative. After searching the internet, I settled on the Tupper Lake Motel . For the first time in many years, I actually had to call the motel to make a reservation and then reaffirm prior to leaving. Once we arrived, I knew I had made the right choice. Run by a older Slovakian couple, the Tupper Lake Motel reminded me of the motels of my childhood, traveling with my Dad as a little kid. A classic 1950’s era single story motel, with a pool in the middle of the complex (see website above). Our room was nothing more than a queen size bed, a table with 2 chairs, and a tiny bathroom. All in tip-top shape, clearly having been renovated and the maids take good care of the rooms. After walking around the lake some, Mrs. RJG and I went over to a local liquor store and picked up a cold bottle of Chardonnay, made in New York’s Finger Lakes region. And we sat in our little motel room, and drained the entire bottle, with glasses provided by the proprietors – not to mention they opened the bottle for us (I gambled that their European heritage would come through on this point).

With a good buzz on, we stumbled into town via foot to the Little Italy restaurant, recommended by both the hotel owner and the liquor store owner. Of course we each promptly ordered a glass of wine! We passed on the appetizer and I settled for a good old fashioned plate of spaghetti and meatballs. Ahhh, old fashioned homemade meatballs! So yummy. Why is it so hard to find these anymore? And the pasta? Al dente, without me having to ask for it that way. Just comes natural to those that know what they’re doing. And it was still steaming hot on the last bite. Mrs. RJG went for a pasta dish loaded with broccoli and other veggies. All outstanding. The perfect fuel for our waltz back to the motel. I believe they have another location in nearby Saranac Lake, but I’m not 100% sure.

I couldn't find another review for this fine restaurant, so we may be first!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Jreck Subs ~ Gouverneur, New York

After Simcoe, and a drive through Hamilton, we enjoyed two wonderful days in Toronto, seeing the sites and walking the quaint neighborhoods near downtown. As for our meal choices, unfortunately nothing stood out, though we did have a nice lunch (all to be covered in the summary). Leaving Toronto in the morning, we headed for our longest drive of the trip, taking a major highway through Ontario. The original plan was to stop in Kingston for a German meal, but frankly neither of us were hungry despite walking many miles around Toronto the prior two days. We felt too full for a large German lunch. So we headed for the border through to Upstate New York. After getting through US customs (not a friendly bunch, that’s for sure), we journeyed towards our destination in the Adirondack mountains. We really had no idea where we were going to eat lunch, but Mrs. RJG was starting to get hungry, and that means Mr. RJG better find a place quick, or Momma ain't goin' to be too happy. We were in the town of Gouverneur, and decided we’ll eat there no matter what. We saw a pizza place, and decided that would be sufficient to get us to dinner. So I turned into a lot to make a U-Turn when we both noticed that we were in the parking space for Jreck subs. Mrs. Jose quickly stated that would be her preference. Sounded better to me too.

We've talked about the corporate chain Jersey Mike’s before in the RJG, and Jrecks has a similar formula of freshly sliced deli meats (high quality) and an array of toppings and dressings. Mrs. RJG also went for the soup du jour (Cream of Broccoli I think). I’d never heard of Jrecks prior, but if you’re living in Upstate New York, then I’m sure the name is familiar. They’re based in Watertown and currently have 42 locations, all in this part of New York. Mr. RJG loves a good regional chain, and Jrecks is exactly the kind of fast food discovery that makes these kind of adventures fun. Another reference point for my DFW readers is The Great Outdoors.

Website: http://www.jrecksubs.com/

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Swiss Chalet ~ Sincoe, Ontario

The next day we crossed into Canada and chose a scenic drive along the coast not far from Lake Erie. Compared to the rather gritty western portion of New York, Ontario is considerably more bucolic. Just to mix it up a bit, I thought it would be a good idea to try one of Canada’s corporate chains, and so I’d selected Swiss Chalet as a good stop on the open road (Simcoe, Ontario for those keeping score). Now I’m sure for any Canadian reading this (as if), going to Swiss Chalet is about as exciting as going to Denny’s. But their website indicated rotisserie chicken and Mr. RJG saw an opportunity for a good meal without all the calories.

To be honest I was expecting a fast food place, but to my surprise it’s an actual sit down restaurant. Mrs. RJG likes that. I ordered the white chicken sandwich on a Kaiser role, and it comes with a Greek Salad (well, as an option for a small charge if I remember right). Mrs. RJG had something similar. And I think it came with a soup as well. Well… the salad was good anyway. As for the sandwich, I guess the appeal is in the dipping sauce. Unfortunately for us, we’re not into sweet sauces too much – and the honey cinnamon concoction wasn't to our liking – at all. Without the sauce, the sandwich is bone dry. Not the moist tender bits one would expect with the term “rotisserie”. Mrs. RJG seemed to enjoy the soup, but I was nonplussed. OK, it’s a boring chain, and I should not have expected anything more. But it sure was painful paying 30 some dollars (and at 1 to 1, that’s the US price!) for two ordinary chicken sandwiches and side salads. Oh well.

Website: http://www.swisschalet.com/

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Spicy Thai ~ Tonawanda, New York

We left Geneva in the late morning and headed towards Rochester for a quick tour of the town and enjoyed some authentic New York pizza for lunch (will be covered in the final summary). From Rochester we drove towards Niagara Falls, and did the mandatory touristy thing, though we decided against the boat tour. Rather, we paid the $1 to walk out to the bridge in the middle of the river and watch some crazy folks make their way up to the stairs to be swept away by the Falls themselves (actually it did look like fun). But we were getting wet just being on the bridge! Later, we checked into our hotel in Williamsburg, a pleasant community just west of Buffalo. As mentioned before, Mrs. RJG loves her Thai food, and this was to be our first experience on the trip. I chose a restaurant in the suburb of Tonawanda. Prior to dinner we journeyed into the Buffalo downtown area to take a look-see and also drove past the legendary Anchor Bar, most known as the place where Buffalo Wings were first invented. So far, so good.

We ordered a bottle of wine and a chicken satay appetizer, and all seemed to be on course for a fine meal. Then the trouble began. As stated before, Mrs. RJG likes her vegetables with her chicken dish. She asked if they would add some veggies to her chicken basil. A rhetorical question as far as we’re concerned. The waitress said she would ask and later came back and said they would not. To be clear, we said that we would be glad to pay extra for it. “Sorry, it’s not possible.” What do you mean “it’s not possible?” Are you kidding me? What, are all the dishes pre-made or something? Are we at McDonalds now? Throw some broccoli, carrots and bok choy in there and we’ll all be happy. No can do. As for Mr. RJG, I asked if they had ground chicken. They didn’t (not uncommon) so I asked if they would chop my chicken up. NOPE! “Can’t do that”. Must be rough in the old kitchen, so busy and all, especially since we were THE ONLY PEOPLE IN THE RESTAURANT. Well now I know why. I mean, it’s got to be so difficult to get a knife out and chop up the chicken pieces. Mrs. RJG took a peek in the kitchen and said the cooks looked like rap gangsters. They were Thai, but they dressed like they lived in the ‘hood. LAZY LAZY LAZY. Since we were already half way into the meal, we went ahead with our orders. I asked for mine Thai Hot, and they warned me (the usual). I said “kill me”. When delivered, she stated that the food was going to be too spicy for me, but that’s what I asked for. Yea, if Taco Bell fire sauce is too hot, then maybe? I won’t say it was mild or even medium, but it wasn’t even close to Thai Hot. To be fair, our food was pretty good, as even the cooks couldn’t ruin the quality recipes the owners obviously possess. Too bad the owners don’t care about anything else. I’m sure there are better Thai restaurants in the Buffalo area than this. It would be depressing to find out otherwise.

Website: http://spicythaibuffalo.com/

Monday, August 11, 2008

*** CLOSED *** Wing Tai Oriental ~ Geneva, New York

Part 2 of our dinner adventure in Geneva, NY. See here for the inauspicious beginning.

After the Nonna's Trattoria disaster, we decided to go with the original game plan, a local tavern called Parker's Grille and Tap House. It was about a 15 minute walk through the somewhat shabby town center. It's actually pretty depressing, reminding me of many similar town centers in the 1980s before the gentrification renaissance began. And would you believe, no one greeted us here either? Must be the way things are in Geneva, NY. If I were the leader of the Geneva Chamber of Commerce, I'd hold a quick training session on the art of making customers feel welcome. It was pretty hot inside, and one look at the menu didn't seem overly inspiring, so we left pretty quickly. Honestly it felt more like a biker bar. We weren't there long enough to really know much about the place, so it won't draw the Mr. Jose ire as did Nonna's.

Again, things happen for a reason.

Mrs. RJG had remembered seeing a Chinese restaurant on the drive into town, and it was only one block over from Parker's. Now you won't see too many Chinese restaurants in the RJG. We just haven't had much luck with them. A couple of places in Denver were pretty good, and almost all in the DFW area have been disappointing. For one thing, they seem to confuse the terms spicy with sweet. The hotter we ask for it, the sweeter it gets. We don't like sweet food, unless it's dessert. Or habaneros of course. But not much was going our way, and we were running out of options as nightfall was approaching.

"Welcome, please have a seat" said the waitress as we walked in. Wow! What a concept! Greeting us as we enter a restaurant. Somebody needs to get word to the city leaders that Wing Tai actually wants customers. Can't have that.

The interior was old school all the way - dark, lots of red and gold. Worn carpet and panelled walls. The kind of place that went the way of the dodo after the Asian Fusion rage of P.F. Chang's and its thousands of imitators. The kind of place that the Tong's would feel comfortable conducting business in. A Regular Joe's Guide kinda place.

Remember the $7 chintzy wine glasses at Villa di Roma in Philadelphia? How about $4 large glasses of local Finger Lake wine? YES! I ordered the Chicken Chili. That's what it was called - chicken chili. I asked the waitress what it was. She said, it's pretty much chopped chicken, very spicy, with rice and very little vegetables. Sounded like something Mr. Jose designed for them! I had to have it. Mrs. Jose had the Lo Mein with chicken. And something magical occurred for both of us: This was the best Chinese food we'd ever had! Maybe Brandy Ho's in San Francisco's Chinatown gives it a run. I freely admit we are not Chinese food aficionados, but we've had plenty over the years together and personally I've had Chinese food since I was a little kid - going back to the House of Gong off of Northwest HWY in Dallas (anyone remember that place?).

Looking for old school Chinese food, like the kind you'd see in an old "Thin Man" episode? Go to Wing Tai.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Nonna's Trattoria ~ Geneva, New York

From Manheim, PA where we had spent the night before, we drove through York and onto Gettysburg to see the Civil War monuments. Afterwards we drove north through the Susquehanna Valley area and mountains where we had lunch (to be covered in the final summary), into New York, through Corning, visited a winery and finished in the Finger Lake town of Geneva.

For dinner, we altered our plans, as we both noticed an appealing looking Italian restaurant called Nonna's Trattoria across the street from our hotel. We arrived and noticed a small crowd waiting for a table. So we stood at the hostess stand and awaited patiently to put our name on the list. 2 minutes nothing. 5 minutes nothing. Oh sure there were waitresses in the dining room, who could see us in plain view. There was a bar to the left as well. 8 minutes nothing. 10 minutes. Another couple walks in and asks us if there's a wait. We said we think so, but not sure, since no one has spoken to us yet. They left. We waited another 5 minutes and our patience ran out. We left. 15 minutes and no one said so much as welcome, we're busy, we'll be with you in a few minutes. Nothing. Nada. WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU NONNA'S TRATTORIA? You don't want business or what? Fine, when you do go out of business, don't act surprised. Zero customer service leads to a boarded up restaurant. Everyone who is reading this that happens to visit Geneva, NY - don't go to Nonna's Trattoria. They don't want your business.

But things happen for a reason... and we are forever grateful for their inability to run a restaurant... to be continued....

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Appalachian Brewing Company ~ Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

We had a wonderful day of touring the Amish Country of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, including driving through a couple of interesting covered bridges. Multiple times we passed the horse and buggies, with the whole Amish family in authentic 1800s attire. The anachronism is striking. Mrs. RJG was so impressed with their seemingly peaceful nature, that she said she wanted to become an Amish woman. Mr. RJG quickly stated "you'll have to give up your jewelry". And that was the end of that.

We stayed in the cute town of Manheim, but had planned to head to the state capital of Harrisburg for dinner, which is about a 30-40 drive from Manheim. No problems here since we have Hertz's NeverLost - right? Our first experience with the NeverLost system was some six years ago traveling through the Midwest, and was a near disaster. We dubbed it AlwaysLost and NeverSafe. The damn GPS system had a knack for dropping us in the 'hood and couldn't figure a way out of it. You haven't lived until you've driven through the inner ghettos of Detroit... No need to ever get a thrill at Disneyland again.

But the system seemed to have improved immensely, deftly navigating the streets of Philadelphia as well as the Amish countryside. Then came Harrisburg. "Freeway exit on your right". We're back in the 'hood. Now there's nothing wrong with that per se, but it said we were only 0.4 miles from our destination. Then 0.3 miles. A few boarded up old storefronts, a couple of open liquor stores, a Western Union - all 3 establishments complete with iron windows. Lots of people on the street and none too happy about it either. 0.2 miles. Mrs. Jose says "here we go again". 0.1 miles "right turn ahead". All we see is boarded up places. "You have arrived". And, sure enough, there it was - the Appalachian Brewing Company, right on the edge of an industrial district and the 'hood. Had a gated parking lot with security and looked to be a nice place. So we ventured in.

The Appalachian Brewing Company holds up the high standard that the name Brewpub has come to represent. I went for the Purist Pale Ale while Mrs. RJG attacked the Mountain Lager. We quickly guzzled our first beer even before we'd ordered. She went for another lager and I tried the Susquehanna Stout, which was served room temperature as it would be in the Isles, though I admit to preferring the non traditional ice cold variety. Strange as it may sound, but many of the brewpubs I've visited have mediocre suds. Not the case at the ABC - these were excellent. For dinner, Mrs. RJG had one of the specials, a seafood wrap, which she enjoyed immensely. I had the stromboli, an excellent choice for pub fare.

The Appalachian Brewing Company also has brewpub locations in Gettysburg and Camp Hill.

Website: http://www.abcbrew.com/

Friday, August 8, 2008

Bassetts Ice Cream ~ Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

It probably should come as no surprise to the readers of the RJG that Mr. RJG also likes a good, independent homemade ice cream place. I'd first gone to Bassetts, and the Reading Terminal Market for that matter, in 2004 while in downtown Philly for business.

With the Villa di Roma and Rick's experience fresh on our minds, Mr. Jose needed a win with Mrs. RJG to demonstrate that I did indeed research properly for this trip. We were both in the mood for a little ice cream after Rick's, and I figured Bassetts could be the savior of the trip, since I'd been there prior.

And Bassetts came through in a BIG WAY. Mrs. RJG, about 3 mouthfuls into her pistachio cone, looked at me and said "This is the best ice cream I've ever had". Mrs. RJG just doesn't say things like that casually. She's a tough customer. But she is still talking about how wonderful the ice cream was. I had the coffee ice cream (Mr. RJG's favorite flavor), and it was as delicious as I had remembered it 4 years prior.

Website: http://www.bassettsicecream.com/index.html

*** CLOSED *** Rick's Original Philly Steaks ~ Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Reading Market)

The Reading Terminal Market is maybe the singular greatest food idea - ever. Enclosed within its walls, are literally hundreds of independent, locally owned Philadelphia eateries, food shops and markets. You'll see Amish ladies working the Dutch kitchens next to African American managed rib places. Everything that is good about the American food experience can literally be found all in one place. The Reading Terminal was an active railroad station only some 25 years ago. Once it closed, the cities' leading visionaries moved the already existing food markets into the terminal itself. To only be able to eat all day long. If I could, I'd do it here.

Rick's is not the only steak sandwich establishment at the RTM (not surprising given it's Philly's most famous export), but his is the most famous and has the purest pedigree. Rick Olivieri is the grandson of Pat Olivieri, the founder of Pat's, which is generally considered the first Philly Cheesesteak place, along with Geno's across the street. Mr. Jose visited those fine establishments back in 2005, while on a business trip.

With all this going in my favor, I felt this would be a safe bet to introduce Mrs. RJG to an authentic Philly Steak sandwich, a food she's only had in bastardized forms in the DFW and Denver areas.

The tide from the evening before at Villa di Roma was still working against me, and Rick's was another swing and a miss. Sometimes a guy can't get a break. And poor Rick can't seem to get good help. Rick himself had to take our order since one of his employees didn't feel like working that day apparently. It looked like Rick fired him right there on the spot. Must be a tough man to work for. Later Rick yelled at one his minions to clean the tables. She did, using the wettest cloth she could find, drowning it in more water, and then leaving all the tables in puddles of water. Lovely. Mrs. RJG was sulking by now. Mrs. RJG said to order it the way I do - which is the Philly way: Wiz wit (cheese whiz and onions). Hey, that's an authentic Philly cheesesteak! When Kraft introduced Cheese Whiz in 1952, it became all the rage to douse your cheesesteak with it. I know it sounds gross, but Mr. RJG likes it. Mrs. RJG did not. At all. So we learned, next time get it with provolone and easy on the onions, eh buddy! As for me, I've had better cheesesteaks at Texadelphia. Sorry Charlie, but one can do a lot better in Philly than this. Like at Geno's or Rick's grandpa's place.

Villa di Roma ~ Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

So now that I've explained how to research for a Regular Joe's Guide Italian restaurant, I'll demonstrate right away with a place that did not work.

It seemed so perfect:

Old Italian neighborhood: Check
Vintage restaurant: Check
Red Sauce Italian: Check
Classic signage: Check it out: http://www.phillyitalianmarket.com/market/villa_de_roma/index.html

I was truly excited about this place. Mrs. RJG and I had driven there straight from the airport, and it looked so good (and loved the edgy neighborhood it resides in). Since there isn't convenient parking anywhere, we decided to head to our hotel a couple of miles further into downtown, and we'd cab it back. As we left the cab and wandered into the front door we were greeted by two entirely different Philly personalities: The gregarious bartender and the jerk "host". Naturally Mrs. RJG quickly got her nose out of joint with Mr. Rude, but I calmly explained that's part of the scene, and it's actually kind of endearing, if you're in the right frame of mind. Once we sat down, and viewed over the menu, I started to feel uncomfortable, and it had nothing to do with food.

Mr. RJG apparently didn't do all his research, and I have to take some blame here. First off, I didn't realize Rachel Ray had shilled for the place recently. Personally, I like the perky and cute Ms. Ray, and she does go to places we've been to in the past, and have also enjoyed. But not always. And when it comes to hole in the wall Italian joints, I would be very skeptical of where she goes. A visit like that can ruin the very essence of a classic RJG Italian spot.

Second, they don't take credit cards. This one just MAKES ME MAD. There's absolutely no excuse for this, unless they pass the card's service charge savings back to you. And I assure you, they do not. Mr. RJG doesn't like to take wads of cash with him, especially when in a major inner city like Philadelphia. We barely had enough money for 2 pasta plates, 2 chintzy glasses of wine and the cab fare to the hotel. Our meal cost $55 with tip and all we had were two simple pasta dishes and two tiny glasses of wine. We would've had more of course, had we extra cash. What an embarrassment to not take cards in 2008.

As for the food, well... it was OKAY I guess. If I lived in the neighborhood, and was looking for a quick bowl of pasta, and didn't want to take the 15 minutes I'd need to prepare my own, it would be a good substitute. That's really all I can say. It's very plain, non unique, nothing special red sauce Italian. Big deal.

Huge disappointment. I had one shot at a classic Italian joint in Philly and I messed it up. My research failed me.

Positive review here: http://www.foodaphilia.com/2007/04/villa-di-roma.html
Mixed reviews here: http://www.yelp.com/biz/villa-di-roma-philadelphia (Ms. Ray's visit has a lot to do with the quantity of reviews here I think)