Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Guest Post: Cafe Rio

2537 South 25 East
Ammon, ID 8340
(208) 821-3636

My fondest memory of Cafe Rio ended in vomiting strawberry milkshake all over a parking lot. No, Cafe Rio does not sell milkshakes. It does, however, craft one of the finer enchilada-style, barbacoa pork burritos of any Mexican-ish chain restaurant that I know. Sound like a mouthful? It is.

Which brings me back to my point. The milkshake, the damn milkshake. It was the one thing that came between me and competitive eating glory – I did have my day, mind you. During my younger, more competitive, years I did claim several victories that included 50 Wendy's nuggets in less than 10 minutes, and back-to-back Barbacoa burritos. The day that marked my final showdown (and ultimate defeat) began one fine afternoon with a challenge: meal for meal till someone dropped out. My competitor didn't seem to have much of a chance. I had a good 40 lbs. on him and to this point I'd never seen proof of his capabilities. He did have one critical ability of which I was not aware, his inhuman capacity to stomach dairy.

The competition began with a headfirst dive in into the famed enchilada-style barbacoa pork burrito.


Without question, this is a sufficient meal for two normal eaters. The tortillas are made on site and the pork is marinated in a delectable blend of sweet and spicy.

The recipe can be found here. I highly recommend whipping up a few pounds of it and figuring out a way to integrate it into every meal for one week. Another noteworthy item on the menu is the salad. It is basically a burrito with a little bit of lettuce that hasn't been wrapped up.


Think of Cafe Rio as a less healthy Chipotle, which makes it way better and more cheese covered.

Back to the eating challenge. After violently consuming a burrito each, my competitor and I worked our way down the block. Next up was a large Quizno's sandwich each. I honestly thought this would be as far as this competition would go, but we breezed right through it. Both eager to defend our title, our sights turned to Crown Burger. This would ultimately be my demise. How this little dude was still in the running was beyond me, though I should have taken note that many reigning eating champions are not usually very big. Takeru Kobayashi, weighing in at only 136 pounds, held the title of Nathan's Annual Hot Dog Eating Contest for 6 years. Whatever the case, dairy has no place in a competition of any kind. And worse yet, don't mix beans and enchilada sauce with strawberry syrup and ice cream. It's kind of like mentos and diet coke, but with beans!

The truth is that I lost fair and square. I lost my eating title while crying/puking behind a greasy burger place. It was pathetic.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Federal Donuts

1219 S 2nd St
Philadelphia, PA 19147
(267) 687-8258

I am sure you have all heard the hype about this place. One of the main reasons I waited so long to venture there is that I hate when I go somewhere and am let down. Overexposure tends to do that to a place.

Federal Donuts is on the corner of 2nd and Federal (get it?) in Pennsport.

When you walk in, you will be greeted by delicious-smelling-donuts frying, and a small ordering area. Make sure you are not in a rush, because there is no sense of urgency by the staff (not that there should be). If you get there and there are ten people in line, you may wait 30 minutes until you actually get your food. Which is irksome.

They have "fresh" or "fancy" donuts. I tended to like the "fancy" better.

At the time, they had an apple-walnut special that was quite delicious. Not overly thick, but nicely chewy with a touch of sweetness from the crumb topping. Big fan. Another fancy version that I really enjoyed was the Key Lime. It came with a deep red glaze on it, sesame seeds and had a nice sour kick.

The regular donuts are less impressive. I tried the Indian Cinnamon (nothing too special), and the Vanilla-Lavender (pictured below). The Vanilla-Lavender was a bit too heavy and tasted more like cinnamon than it did either lavender or vanilla. In fact, I thought I was served the wrong donut and actually asked if it was rightfully the one I had ordered. Although they graciously asked if I would like another one instead, I passed and continued searching for the long lost namesake ingredients.

One of the other high points is the coffee. Cold brewed coffee is one of my favorite ways to start the day, and they do a bang-up job at making the stuff. Fried chicken will be tried upon my next venture down, and I am excited for the results. If you are going for donuts, stick with the fancy and get yourself some coffee. Delicious.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Institute

549 N 12th St
Philadelphia, PA 19123
(267) 318-7772

The Institute is a bar at which I sometimes drink, but truth be told, I usually forget about it when I am formulating my evening plans. I had eaten there a couple of years ago, and actually quite enjoyed it, but I hadn't been back to eat for a while. When I got tipped off that the menu was just re-done, I figured it was as good a time as any to see what the current food situation was like.

We started with a beer, which given their pretty extensive craft brew selection, quickly escalated into a few more. The beers are a bit on the expensive side, with nothing less than $5 and some as much as $8. The interior is finished in a sort of industrial bar-next-door theme. Dark and inviting, though not intimidatingly so.

The sambhar nachos, for a starter, are freaking fantastic. Lentil curry, black bean cilantro relish, jicama slaw and a mango-jalapeno coulis. Not exactly what you would expect to see on nachos, and now I will be longing for the interesting Indian flavors and varying textures next time I am eating mediocre bar nachos. For a vegetarian nacho plate, these were especially top-notch.

The pumpkin mac was another delicious starter, boasting pumpkin puree, boursin, goat cheese, caramelized onions and fresh herbs. The pumpkin flavor, which I thought would have been questionable, was quite good. If you are getting this as an appetizer, you'll definitely want to split it (or get the half order). Creamy, hearty and rich, this was a delicious riff on traditional mac without being cloyingly indulgent.

For the mains, a burger was/is a must. The "Goats in Roam" style was the one that caught my eye. Bedazzled with bacon, oyster mushrooms, goat cheese and MORE boursin – I never said this was diet food.

This burger was pure decadence. The meat was well seasoned, PERECTLY medium rare, and the star of this sandwich. The accompaniments played a strong supporting role: earthy, meaty mushrooms, crisp veggies, smoky bacon and salty goat cheese, this is a burger to be reckoned with. I have to give this one a high approval rating on my burger radar. The tots were also good, crispy, salty and freshly fried. I had to go ahead and ask for a variety of dips, from the miso aioli (umami filled and fantastic) to the adjika (light, fresh and packed with flavor) to a side of gravy (see below). The miso and adjika were both inventive and delicious dipping sauces, a clear path to my heart.

The grizzled pork was a huge sandwich stuffed with pulled pork, jalapeno, caramelized onion, sharp cheddar and served with your choice of chipotle bbq or gravy. I went on a limb and ordered the gravy, but I should have stuck with the bbq. The pork itself was great, slightly crispy ends, tender & well-pulled overall and nicely seasoned. The jalapeno and onions were fresh additions, but I felt the cheddar was a bit over-powering and the gravy was flavorless. It was like a roux that had never moved past the blond stage. The fries were another perfect rendition. Salty, crispy, and freshly fried, these are what I want to slap every shitty french fry in the city with. Tough love.

Don't worry when you walk in, as the pictures may tell, it's pretty dark in here come nightfall. The atmosphere is pretty friendly, and the best selection is worth the trip alone. Luckily for us (and them) the food is the real draw, and this is another great addition to the bar food options available in this up and coming neighborhood.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Tony's Place

6300 Frankford Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19134-3619
(215) 739-5660

In the never-ending hunt for great pizza, the great Northeast is usually underrepresented, yet they offer pies in many venues that are significantly better than their Southern counterparts. I heard Tony's Place offered a tomato pie, and I was anxious to see if it would save me a trip to Trenton.

Tony's place is not a fancy "gourmet pizza" type place. It's a bar/family restaurant that serves a pretty decent, comparably inexpensive thin crust tomato pie. Now don't get it twisted, this is not tomato pie, but rather, tomato pie. (The following pictures are a bit dull because the lighting here hasn't changed since 1951)

The drink special was $2.25 Woodchuck ciders. Although I usually don't drink the cider, I had to do it here, on monetary principle alone. The side salad is pretty large and quite a steal at around $3.50. Nothing crazy, but more variety and size than I expected for the price.

On to the pizza. I went with the traditional tomato pie with hot cherry peppers and sausage first. The sauce goes on top, and the cheese underneath. Upon ordering I asked for it well done, and she asked if I wanted it crispy, so I was a bit flummoxed. However, I decided to just hedge my bets and go with crispy. Crispy it was. The crust was the best part (followed by the sausage). Very thin, and very crisp, it was a nice change from the thick, greasy "medium" thickness that many places around the city serve and often call "Greek style." I am looking at YOU Central Pizza. Anyway, the pizza was good, the sausage had a nice kick of fennel, and was in perfect proportion. The problem arose with the sauce, however. It just lacked flavor. I may be spoiled, but is it too much to ask for the sauce to have some salt and garlic? This was under sweetened, under salted, and just made my two other favorite sauces (Franco's and Tacconelli's) shine.

The red and white pizza was hard to pass up, as it had a tinge of patriotism to it (even though it was missing some bleu). It was a white pie, with olive oil and garlic, swirled with sauce. Now we were getting closer to home. This had a bit more of the flavor I was looking for. Garlic, oregano, olive oil, a bit of tomato, and a satisfyingly crunchy crust.

I would certainly eat at Tony's Place again, and the fact that a pie is less than $11 is another major plus. Although the sauce is a bit lacking, the crust is definitely light and crunchy, however I am still a Tacconelli's guy for thin crust in our fair city.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Porky's Point

3824 N 5th St
Philadelphia, PA 19140
(215) 221-6243

After being thoroughly tempted, for a very long time, to check out Porky's Point, I made a trip to the cuts of Huntingpark for some Puerto Rican soul. I can't believe it took me so long. First of all, look how amazing the sign is!

Porky's Point is basically the Puerto Rican equivalent of the South Philly cheesesteak place. And I must say, for the most part, it's much, much better than your average steak joint. When I saw the sign below, I knew I was in for a treat.

Much like any other place of its kind, you place your order, grab a spot at the long stainless counter and anxiously await the mounds of pork you are looking at through the glass.

In my case, it was bistec con tostones (steak with fried plantains), pork sandwich, and an order of mofongo.

The bistec was unbelievably tender and bursting with flavor. I couldn't get over the layers of deliciousness that the slow cooking lent to this steak. The gravy was amazing, and generously spread over the entire dish. Tostones, if you have never had them, are amazing when done right, and just chunks of lead when done wrong. These tostones really sang, as though I could hear La Borinqueña coming out of the take-out container. Perfection. On to the pork sandwich. Oh GOD, that pork sandwich.

Now when Hawk Krall says that a sandwich is good, people listen. In fact, it was he who reminded me of my pressing need to hit the Philadelphia barrio in search of some good pork. They ask you if you want skin here, indeed I do. I also asked for gravy (which, for the record, is a tomato based, slightly spicy sauce).

A light & fluffy roll with mountains of freshly-chopped pork piled atop.

This is heaven. Crispy ends, succulent middles, and gravy laden insides, you will be hard pressed to top this masterpiece. Oh wait, unless you throw a bit of the mofongo on top!

Speaking of mofongo, this was a pretty delicious offering, and although I skipped the requisite pig listeners, due mostly to the fact that I had more meat and plantains than I knew what to do with already, the mofongo itself was a pretty delicious plate. Not the best I have ever had, but topped with MORE gravy and some hot sauce, it was a carb-liscious offering in and of itself.

Now you may be saying to yourself, "well it's in the middle of nowhere, and I am scared of new neighborhoods," and while you may not want to go looking for this place on foot at night, you are completely missing out if you skip this for a quick and dirty lunch. It's one of the most surprisingly flavorful, interesting and quality meals I have eaten in quite some time.

(Looking out from the point)