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