Episode One of Foodiesaurus, Weekend Warrior Princess

Okay, so even though I grew up in a farming family, until last year I had never orchestrated the whole symphony on my own, so to speak. So I got in small and decided to stock my 0.00023 acres with as many herbs in containers as I could decoratively manage.

I decided to use no pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or soil additives. I scoured the Internet for information on companion planting, and finally, I selected the soils, containers, and plants. And it was a good introduction. I managed to start enough herbs to make Kentucky Fried Chicken (eleven) plus Roma tomatoes.

Then came the challenges. First, was the historically high heat last summer, frequently topping 100 degrees here in Birmingham, which all but killed my tomato production. Second, came 31 tobacco hornworms, voracious little nasties I had to hand pick and squish (eww) lest they strip my tomato plant bare and eat up what little green fruit I had. Finally, came this white, fuzzy stuff with little black ant-like bugs on the herbs in my “shady,” rather air-circulation-free porch corner, as well as the sticky, spider-web like egg sacks on my rosemary.

Tomato plant with basil and zinnia companion plants

Between and before the heat waves and pests arrived, however, I made batch after batch of fresh pesto, drank mint juleps, and supplied my husband with all the fresh thyme, oregano, and sage he could use. And each plant cost about the same as we would have paid for just one of those plastic packages of fresh herbs in the grocery store. You know, the ones that go bad in about three to five days.

If you are like us and absolutely love cooking with fresh herbs, there is no substitute for a constant, use whenever you want, right out on the front porch supply! Assuming we would have kept a stock of about six herbs at all times, each with a shelf life of five days, and a cost of $3.99 per package, that little herb garden saved us about $700 plus tomatoes. Hey, even if I paid $11 per bag of soil and $30 per container, I still came out ahead and then some.

Serrano pepper

Additionally, my herb pots were very pretty. In fact, other than a few box hedges, all of my ornamental plantings last year were totally edible. And my front porch smelled fabulous, making evenings spent there even more special.

Fast forward to last weekend. Having come through what should be the last frost (Easter weekend) and most of the last cold fronts expected for the year, including some pretty fierce straight line winds and tornadic near-misses, I figured it was time to roll so I went about unloading the containers of any old soil and debris they may still contain and rinsing each thoroughly to eliminate any dormant nasties from last year. I also cleaned out a couple of my now-root-bound box hedges to make room for my latest evil scheme.

Then I went shopping. First stop was Hanna’s Garden Shop on Highway 280. They have a huge selection of plants and landscape materials and are conveniently located on my side of town. And they were having a sale!

Although I was able to find organic soil and organic chicken poop fertilizer, none of their herbs were organic.

Dirt--but, hey, there's poop and stuff in there!

I did find a lovely San Marzano tomato plant and decided to get it regardless of its parentage, as this variety is a family favorite. (The variety is only half of the story, however, as the official “San Marzano” designation is an Italian certification that indicates not only the variety of the tomato, but also that it was grown in the San Marzano region. Hey, hopefully, one out of two ain’t bad….)

So I moved on down the line. After returning home to deliver the goodies I had accumulated thus far, I decided to let my fingers do the walking because I could already see this was going to be a long day of driving otherwise.

You see, last year, I planted basil as a companion to my tomato. The basil was intended not only to improve the flavor of the tomato but to repel the tobacco hornworm’s larger and even nastier cousin, the tomato hornworm. And, who knows, maybe it worked as I did not get tomato hornworms. But this year, I was looking for a companion plant besides basil for my tomato in the hopes of avoiding the procreative efforts of any stray tobacco hornworm moths as well.

I consulted The Oracle (okay, the Internet) to check my recollection that marigolds might fill the bill. Some very convincing sources argued, however, that regular marigolds would not only not prevent hornworms but might actually attract things like white flies. That sounded pretty bad. Instead, these sources recommended calendula or “pot marigold” saying the popular marigold advice was just so much mistaken nomenclature. Sadly, calendula doesn’t grow here until Autumn so nobody had it.

One lady I spoke with believed companion planting zinnias might repel hornworms and advised that zinnias were plenty hardy through our hot summers. Although a subsequent consultation with The Oracle indicated zinnias were good at repelling lots of bad stuff and attracting plenty of good stuff that killed other bad stuff, hornworms were not specifically mentioned. So, I’m hoping for the best.

Rosemary plants

This lady’s shop, Libby’s Plant Odyssey, also had a wide variety of organically- and locally-grown herb plants, so I drove up to the Lakeview District to look around. At the end of the day, I purchased the following additional plants—

  • two rosemary plants;
  • one each gray sage, spearmint, English thyme, Italian oregano, Genovese basil, French tarragon, marjoram—all of which I planted last year; and
  • one each of a few newcomers, specifically, French lavender, savory, a serrano pepper, and a four-pack of pink zinnias I thought would look nice with the cobalt blue containers on my porch.
  • Clockwise from the top--French tarragon, marjoram, Italian oregano, and lavender, with a ubiquitous zinnia in the middle.

Admittedly, several of these herbs can grow to a great scale if spaced properly. And also admittedly, I only had one 18″ round faux stone fiberglass pot for the tomato, two basils, and two zinnias; one two gallon round number for the serrano pepper and two of the same for the two rosemary plants; and finally the aforementioned pair of blue 18″ square containers into which I placed four herbs each with a zinnia in the middle. What can I say? I’m a maniac.

Clockwise from the top--spearmint, savory, English thyme, and sage, with a zinnia in the middle.

I won’t bore you (further?) with details about how to remove a plant from a plastic container and place it uninjured into a hole in some dirt. Instead, I will leave that bit to your imagination and/or whatever training the sales person at your local garden center decides to provide at no additional cost to you.

One tip, though. Shopping locally and staying out of the “big box hardware with occasional garden center attached” stores is a real help in this respect—the people who work at local shops do this gardening stuff all year long, most work in their gardens and at these local garden shops out of a passion for the subject, and many of these folks have done so for longer than they can remember. They are an amazing resource and good people to get to know. And they didn’t used to work in the plumbing or hardware department last week!

From time to time, I plan to revisit this chronicle of garden misdeeds so stay tuned for updates from Foodiesaurus, Weekend Warrior Princess.

Bon appetite!

Fun Friday Recommended Reads

Happy Friday! Here’s a round-up of interesting stuff for you to read while bellying up to the crawfish table, raising the third glass in your wine flight, or camping out to see the big Kid Rock show:

Food Trucks Rolling Into (Dallas) Arts District,” Julie Tam, MSN.com.

Is Walmart our best hope for food policy reform?,” Tom Philpott, April 29, 2011, Grist.org.

Coca-Cola adds BPA to list of ways it doesn’t care about your health,” Christopher Mims, April 29, 2011, Grist.org.

Taco Bell may sue Alabama law firm over dropped beef case,” Fox News, April 26, 2011, NYPost.com.

Give a cluck: Ask Umbra on secret backyard chickens,” Ask Umbra, April 28, 2011, Grist.org.

Students fight to save innovative garden-based public school in Detroit,” Tom Philpott, April 26, 2011, Grist.org.

The Latest Food Marketing Trend: Fake Authenticity,” Jane Black, April 25, 2011, TheAtlantic.com.

Nourish launches video encyclopedia,” April 25, 2011, SlowFoodUSA.org.

Why Is Damning New Evidence About Monsanto’s Most Widely Used Herbicide Being Silenced?,” Jill Richardson, April 25, 2011, Alternet.org.

James Lewis Set to Open Restaurant Butcher Shop Vittoria Macelleria,” Jason Horn, April 20, 2011, MagicCityPost.com.

Alabama Tornadoes—Vital Information & Ways You Can Help 2011-04-29

Now that Foodiesaurus has her electricity back in service, she has prepared the following lists of information for victims and those who would like to help:

Donations and Volunteers

Hands On Birmingham

Donate to Mid-Alabama Red Cross

Alabama tornadoes: Salvation Army Accepting Clothing, Furniture & Food Donations + Volunteer

Here’s How to Help, Donate, and Volunteer

The Governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives: Donate to the Governor’s Emergency Relief Fund to Help Tornado Victims in Alabama

Alabama Tornadoes—How to you Can Help

Please Help Find These Missing People

How to find a missing loved one

State and Federal Agency Assistance—

Governor Opens Phone Line to Answer Storm Queries

Alabama Storm-Related Insurance Claims

Alabama Department of Transportation Road Closures

FEMA’s Disaster Assistance Website

SBA Stands Ready to Assist Alabama Residents

Another Broken Egg Cafe—Probably Worth It.

Today was day two of my tornado-related-power-outage-canned-food-diet. Because power will still be out at my abode for another whole day, I decided to travel North toward Birmingham to the suburban hamlet of Mountain Brook, Alabama.

Mountain Brook is the sort of place where nothing really too bad ever happens so I figured hot breakfast would go on there as usual. I was not disappointed. Just from looking at the folks at Another Broken Egg Café, in fact, you’d never have known there was total devastation not five miles away.

By way of background, Another Broken Egg Café is a chain of breakfast joints that hails from near my hometown in Louisiana. As it really only got rolling in 1996, the year I first moved to Birmingham, I never ate at one until it followed me here, opening this location in 2010. Today was my second visit to the Mountain Brook location.

I arrived at about 10:45 a.m. today and stood alone in the entry waiting to be seated. The place was not busy as it was a little late for breakfast and a bit early for lunch. Nonetheless, I was ignored by the first person to appear at the hostess stand. After few minutes, I was somewhat promptly given a table near the distant wall next to one of the waiter’s stands by an individual who seemed to greet me more out of pity than any actual interest in facilitating my meal. But hey, I was really hungry.

A waiter approached me almost instantly inquiring about my drink order. I asked about tea. He suggested unsweet. I asked about their hot tea selection. He mentioned Earl Grey, green, and spiced. I asked what brand tea we were talking. Demonstrating his complete disinterest in answering any questions that would require a trip somewhere else, he said, “I have no idea.” I ordered water.

The water was sullenly placed on the table a few seconds later as the taciturn waiter passed the table by. That was the last interest he expressed in my order for an inordinately long time—not even acknowledging my stares and subtle wave.

So operating on the theory that perhaps this waiter-of-few-words was not my actual waiter and definitely not to be dissuaded, I grabbed the attention of a second fellow who seemed to have tables in the vicinity. After a moment’s consternation, this hijacked waiter deigned to take my order and did so very pleasantly.

I ordered the Lakeshore Scramble—a mélange of scrambled eggs, baked bacon, onions, mushrooms, and ham smothered in melted Monterey Jack and cheddar, substituting fruit for the country potatoes, and served with a “crispy” English muffin.

There now, little waitstaff. That wasn’t so hard.

The food arrived after a short interval. And it was immediately clear the kitchen was not a stingy as the service.

The eggs were served in a large gratin with a generous side of blemish-free fruit and an English muffin that may be been a tad overbilled as “crispy.” In fact, the breakfast was far too much to finish, and you know I tried as it was delicious! The quality of the ingredients really shone through, and the cook’s execution was flawless (except the partially toasted muffin—but honestly, does toasting really improve an English muffin?). Even the whipped butter was fabulous (and I’m a big fan of butter, so I should know.)

In writing this review, I found myself in a bit of a quandary, however. You see, once when Foodiesaurus was a little girl, she had a little surgery to remove her appendix. It was back in the stone ages, so you understand this was no outpatient procedure!

During the week of recovery spent in the hospital, Foodiesaurus was given nothing to eat but green Jello. (She loathes Jello to this day.) Then one fabulous day, our favorite food-obsessed dinosaur in seven-year-old form was finally given her first solid food—a hospital hamburger and fries. I don’t know what Foodie would have thought of that burger under normal circumstances, but I can assure you, as things stood in that moment, that was the best hamburger she had ever eaten or will likely ever eat again.

Accordingly, I am forced to wonder if the food at Another Broken Egg was really as good as I thought or if it was just a heck of a lot better than canned tuna and pistachios. For now, I will consider the food at this place several notches above other chain breakfast joints, (I’m looking at you IHOP!) but with service that is every bit as snotty as any five-star New York eatery.

Wear your big diamond (or maybe your little one, I can’t tell), and enjoy!

——————————————————————————————————————

RATING:

Overall:

Food:

Ambiance:

Stones Throw Bar & Grill–an Oasis in the Middle of Nowhere

Perhaps it’s unfair that Stones Throw Bar & Grill exists in the former Standard Bistro site, within fairly easy driving distance of Highland Avenue a/k/a the Birmingham Foodie District. In any other town where I’ve lived, except possibly New Orleans, this would easily be the best restaurant around.

When compared with restaurants run by perennial James Beard nominees, Frank Stitt and Chris Hastings, or even 2011 semi-finalist, Chris du Pont (a New Orleans import), however, Stones Throw pales–but only just a bit. And for Mt. Laurel, the developer-created-small-town just off Highways 41and 280 in North Shelby County, this place is an oasis in a desert of country-come-to-suburbia pizza and hamburgers.

It is fine dining in a relaxed and decidedly “unstuffy” establishment. And if you chose to dine on their patio, you will enjoy a serenity and quality of air the aforementioned places, in their very urban settings, cannot approach.

The food ain’t bad either. In fact, it’s really very good. My dining companion and I were eating a fairly restricted diet this evening so we ordered virtually the same meal–a green salad featuring local produce and a braised lamb shank on a bed of wilted spinach instead of minted risotto (the latter of which sounded amazing, BTW).

A generous selection of rustic bread preceded the salad. The hearts of baby romaine forming the salad’s foundation were perfectly light, crisp, and unblemished. It was topped by perfect proportions of blue cheese, bacon, walnuts, and cucumber with a light drizzle of blue cheese dressing, although my companion substituted balsamic vinaigrette.

The lamb shanks were also generously proportioned–think: Yabba-Dabba-Do time–without being embarrassing. The meat was tender and without a trace of “wild” flavor, which to me indicates it likely originated in New Zealand where ranchers butcher lambs smaller than their American counterparts. The spinach wilted in EVOO was tasty and perfectly textured, just as you’d expect from a chef of this caliber.

If you’d ever eaten at the Standard Bistro, you’ll find the decor not much changed. It’s a modern interpretation of an elegant dining room furnished the 1920’s, appropriately set in the retro-styled Town of Mt. Laurel. But as I really enjoyed the space before, I rather glad they kept it as it was. The service was really very good–attentive, timely, and accommodating without hovering.

All in all, if you are looking for a change of atmosphere in your fine dining or live in North Shelby, Stones Throw Bar & Grill will easily become one of your favorite haunts, if it isn’t already.

———————————————————————————————

RATING:

Overall: 

Food: 

Ambiance: 

Posted with WordPress for BlackBerry.

Jim ‘N Nick’s is Raising the Bar in Bar-B-Q

Barbeque is to Alabama as gumbo is to Louisiana as chili is to Texas and so on.  In other words, people living elsewhere generally think that’s what we do best (or possibly at all). 

So naturally when I moved to Birmingham in 1996, I was on the prowl for the best of the best authentic slow-cooked spare ribs I could find.  Then, as now, there were a large number of barbeque joints to choose from.  But having sampled the famous, like Dreamland Ribs, and the not-so-well-known, like Full Moon, Golden Rule, or Johnny Ray’s, there was one barbeque joint I kept coming back to—the then-10-year-old local chain, Jim ‘N Nick’s.

And that was weird in a way.  I mean, how does a restaurant owned by a Greek-American kid who worked his whole life in an Italian restaurant end up making the best barbeque in the biggest city of a state known for the stuff?  Who cares.  He just does—still—to this day—15 years later.

In fact, Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q is better than ever and is no longer just locally known.  Everybody in the world now knows about Nick Pihakis (the aforementioned Greek kid).  He is a semi-finalist for the 2011 James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur.  That’s right.  Pihakis v. Steve Ells of Chipotle, Roger Berkowitz of Legal Sea Foods, etc.

If a James Beard Award nominated barbeque joint seems impossible, it’s only because you’ve never eaten at Jim ‘N Nick’s.  The Hamburger Dave or The Burger 1920, a Company Salad with shaved Parmesan and pulled pork, a big, meaty rack of 14-hour spare ribs, an onion ring appetizer or side, creamed spinach or spinach and artichoke dip, the smoked pork hot links, hand-cut fries, lemon icebox or chocolate or coconut cream or pecan pie, and even the complementary cornbread muffins are all the best I’ve ever eaten anywhere.  Moreover, at a time in our collective culinary history when the norm is for quality to tank as expansion occurs, Jim ‘N Nick’s has done the exact opposite. 

Back in the day, 11 years ago, for example, my favorite Jim ‘N Nick’s was on Highway 31 near the Riverchase Galleria.  It was head and shoulders above the others.  And even as late as three or four years ago, the Highway 280/Greystone location was still my least favorite of the Galleria, Five Points South, or Highway 280 alternatives.  

But then an unexpected thing happened: the quality got substantially better at the Five Points and Highway 280 restaurants.  Now they are all my favorite locations.  Hmm.

In other words, as this chain has expanded, the consistency between locations has not only improved but the overall food and even the décor is now better than it ever was.  Could Jim ‘N Nick’s recent emphasis of locally-sourced ingredients have anything to do with it?  I think so. 

And diners are not the only beneficiaries of this constant emphasis on improvement at Jim ‘N Nick’s.  Jim ‘N Nick’s has also benefitted ’cause, let me tell you, a similar salad at another fine local barbeque establishment goes for a good bit less than the one at Jim ‘N Nick’s and yet no one cares.  People literally stand in line for the good stuff.

So, 25-year-old barbeque chain, exceedingly great food, local ingredients, higher than average prices, James Beard Award semi-finalist, and lines to get in the door.  Yup.  That about sums it up. 

In short, Pihakis and company have found a way to raise the bar in barbeque.  What’s not to love?

Buon mangiare!

——————————————————————————————————————————RATING:

Overall: 

Food: 

Ambiance:  

Fun Friday Recommended Reads

Happy Friday! Here’s a round-up of interesting stuff for you to read while standing in line at the opening day of the Pepper Place Farmers’ Market tomorrow:

The Joy of Not Cooking,” Megan McArdle, The Atlantic.com.

Ranchers struggle against giant meatpackers and economic troubles,” Stephanie Ogburn, April 14, 2011, Grist.org.

What bean-counting ‘contrarians’ miss about the local-food movement,” Benjamin Cohen, April 14, 2011, Grist.org.

Be Food Smart,” April 13, 2011, Grist.org.

The Groupon Paradox,” Esther Dyson, March 23, 2011, Slate.com.

LARD – a love story,” April 12, 2011, WhitmoreFarm.blogspot.com.

Minnesota next up to pass law banning undercover farm videos,” Tom Laskawy, April 13, 2011, Grist.org.

Mimicking Big Tobacco, Big Soda blows smoke in Philadelphia,” Michele Simon, April 4, 2011, Grist.org.

Slow Food Birmingham Call to Action–URGENT

Slow Food Birmingham has sent out an urgent plea related to Governor Bentley’s plans to zero all funding of the Alabama Farmers Market Authority in his 2012 Budget.

Acccording to SFB, the Farmers Market Authority:

  • Represents 1100 + small farmers and approximately 130 farmers markets across our state.
  • Invests in our local economy and promotes the “buy local” message
  • Connects local, fresh, and seasonal fruits & vegetables to communities
  • Manages and distributes Farmers Market Nutrition Programs available to Women, Infants, Children, and Seniors.
  • “Without funds in 2012, small farmers, farmers markets, and the ability to connect fresh fruits and vegetables to our neighbors who need it most will be at risk. As the second most obese state in the country, our community’s health depends on our help.”

    “NOW is the time to ACT.  Call your senator AND representative and ask everyone you know to do the same.  The message is simple:
    ‘Please put the Farmers Market Authority back in the 2012 General Fund Budget at the current level.'”

    “We have until Monday night to lend our voices and support for putting the Farmers Market Authority back in the 2012 General Fund Budget at the current level. Not sure who to call? Click on the following link: http://www.legislature.state.al.us/index.html

    Follow this link to view the actual SFB memorandum.

    Nabeel’s Café & Market—Traditional Greek-Italian

    It’s easy write reviews of restaurants such as Nabeel’s.   For more than 20 years, the Krontiras family has delivered outstandingly authentic examples of the food of their respective homelands, Greece and Italy.  Today at lunch I was reminded once again why I keep coming back to this fixture on Oxmoor Road in Homewood, Alabama, just south of Birmingham.

    When I visit Nabeel’s, I must confess I tend to focus on their classic Greek dishes.  In the nearly 14 years I have dined there, the quality and taste of the dishes has never varied.  My favorite appetizer is a Greek feta wrapped in foil and baked with EVOO, garlic and oregano called Feta Theologos.  It is served with the foil twisted in the shape of a swan but the flavor on the inside is even prettier!

    For an entrée, I love the Moussaka served with a Greek salad and slice of yeasty white bread made from scratch.  The meat of this dish is spiced with mint, cinnamon, and allspice—an admittedly freaky combination for a savory meat dish if you have never eaten Mediterranean food before.  But the spices in this example are balanced and so subtle I don’t even think a newbie would be offended.  The bechamel top layer is perfectly proportioned and fluffy giving the overall dish a creamy flavor and delicate texture. 

    The only component of the dish that always surprises me is the cold tomato sauce on the plate surrounding the cassarole.  I’m not talking room temperature, here.  I’m talking right out of the refrigerator and onto the place.  But the sauce is delicious and, if used strategically, can take each bite of Moussaka from molten to palatable by the time your fork reaches your mouth.

    Nor is the ubiquitous tag-along salad a throw-away.  Today, the last day of March, I was surprised by the garden-ripe flavor and smooth, slightly firm texture of the included tomatoes.  Where did they get such tomatoes in Northern Alabama at this time of year?!  And frankly, who cares?  Tomato snob that I am, I gobbled ’em up along with the rich feta, Kalamata olive, cucumber, and dried mint and red wine vinegar dressed lettuce.

    I even adore the fact that iced tea here is not some tropical-fruity-flavored nonsense (gag me!), but is laced with mint.  Mint.  I love that in tea or even as tea.  And their wine selection is pretty darn good too.

    This meal is just one representative of the fabulousness of everything I’ve ever eaten here.  The décor isn’t fancy, but it is warm and charming.  And after dinner, make a point of strolling through the market next door to find everything from dried meats to Jordan almonds.   You won’t regret it!

    ———————————————————————————————

    RATING:

    Overall: 

    Food: 

    Ambiance: 

    Ask Not For Whom the Bell Tolls—It tolls for Avo/Dram and Flip Burger and, if you aren’t careful, for Thee

    I recently had a disheartening experience at one of my top favorite restaurants in Birmingham, Avo & Dram. At first glance, Dram and its more sophisticated counterpart upstairs, Avo, are two completely different restaurants each with their own menu and décor. Dram is heavily beamed and filled with dark leather appointments and Avo is bright, white and modern, but with the same ownership and the presentation of menus from both restaurants in each, any distinction basically amounts to which dining room you feel like sitting in.

    Back in the day about three years ago, Avo’s California, slow food fusion and Dram’s farm-fresh, sophisticated pub fare were lovely additions to the local restaurant scene. Innovative combinations were described on a seasonal menu that often named the nearby source of key ingredients. And the food lived up to its billing.

    Lovingly prepared braises, game selections, duck fat twice-fried potatoes, and Cornish Pasty were just a few of the delights at Dram. While Avo’s nouvelle approach to classics like fish tacos, cioppino, and crab cakes was a revelation. More than once did I leave inspired to attempt to replicate a dish I had eaten there (emphasize “attempt”).

    Then came the first sign of trouble—Internet specials offered randomly on Facebook. Hoping it was just a sign of the times, it crossed my mind that should those specials become a standard offering, the restaurant(s) might have a revolt if ever they tried to pull back on the discounts.

    Next came a slight renovation of Avo, first, adding a few warm touches and, ultimately, a TV lounge at the end of the room. (Admittedly, the formerly unrelentingly stark, bright dining room did remind me a bit of a school cafeteria. So this change wasn’t a total disappointment.)

    After that, however, the menu was given a bit of a renovation. The inside-out burger was dropped, as was the parsnip puree and some references to specific food sources.

    Finally was the coup de grâce late last week. Where were the duck fat fries? Not on the menu, that was for sure!

    No, the waitress assured us, the run-of-the-mill shoe string fries were even better. These imposter potatoes had a splash of truffle oil and grated parmesan, after all. *Grin; knowing lean.*

    Big deal, I said. (I’d had those once before, so I knew about what I spoke.) Where were my tender middle and crisp hand cut edges? *Crickets*

    I wanted to cry. But I ordered the chicken and dumplings instead.

    Meanwhile, my husband was having disappointment of his own—an astonishing inability to order beef or bison steaks, or lamb even though still listed on the menu. The waitress offered him a remaining and still delicious (she assured us) leftover breakfast for dinner pork chop from the special the day before.

    Appetizing as that sounded, he ordered a hamburger.

    The news grew still worse, however. My entrée reminded me more of egg drop soup than a hearty stew. For a price in the teens, I certainly expected more than two meager bits of meat among vast quantities of flopping dumplings. I’ve eaten better at the Cracker Barrel! I was so distressed, I can’t even remember what he thought of his burger.

    On the way home, we struggled to find an answer and arrived at this—some organizations shouldn’t be in the restaurant business—namely, any person or group who seeks a business with unlimited upside potential. That’s because it can’t happen. It just stands to reason at some point profitability in a restaurant will stabilize. Or WILL it? asks Harvard-Business-School-types with palates of shoe leather.

    As a result, of the restaurants which start well, like the one’s discussed here, many will capitulate and start to cheap out on ingredients. It’s the restaurant equivalent of the “bait and switch.”

    These establishments set high expectations of quality and consistency, give established “foodie havens” a run for their money while developing a favorable reputation. But at some point they max out the number of seatings they can reasonably serve, the number of seats filled at each of seating and, finally, the number of dishes each of those seats is capable of eating. That’s when the corporate types take off the aprons and strap on their calculators.

    There are, they know, two ways to increase profits: increasing revenue over fixed costs or reducing costs while maintaining revenue. So if revenue has settled into a predictable pattern but one must demonstrate sustained growth to shareholders, silent partners, or other investors, or in order to unload the pile of bricks to an organization similarly burdened—ruthless cost-cutting (read: quality-cutting) is the only answer!

    First, the corporate types lose the expensive chef with all the hang-ups about freshness and crap like that. They replace him or her with a chef who will work for less and who is more “bottom-line” oriented. Why use duck fat when most people don’t know it from peanut oil? Why use local, farm-raised pork when you can sell the same stuff they get at chain restaurants for a fraction of the cost?

    If a few people fade away, we’ll just give the ones who stay happy hours and nickel beer nights. Drunk people will eat anything and plenty of it!

    By the time the majority of the diners fade away, the brilliant young exec who implemented this scheme will be off ruining another perfectly wonderful restaurant, and the new ownership will be holding the bag. But hey, the balance sheet looks amazing!

    Fans of Flip Burger may have noticed a similar trend there and for the same reasons. It started out with a fabulous take on the traditional burgers, fries, and shakes coming off of its founder’s “Next Top Chef” runner-up buzz. Next thing you know—organic, grass-fed beef is M.I.A., followed by A5 Wagyu Beef, followed by me.

    And next door, Chuy’s Mexican Cantina, started out serving junk. I ate there precisely once. The only things served to me that day that had any flavor at all were the free salsa and the margarita. How odd it was to dine on “authentic Austin Tex-Mex” (which I’ve actually eaten in Austin) but find in Birmingham it tastes like absolutely nothing. Truly, the so-called food was all texture while miraculously avoiding any flavor at all. As the original garners such rave reviews, I can only assume something was lost in the translation from local joint to sprawling chain.

    It’s always sad to say goodbye to a friend. But the next time I have a few bucks burning a hole in my pocket and a yen for something wonderful, you can bet I’ll be heading for the most consistently-fabulous, locally-owned place I can find rather than suffer through any of the above.

    —————————————————————————-

    AVO & DRAM RATING:

    Overall: 

    Food: 

    Ambiance:  

    FLIP BURGER RATING:

    Overall: 

    Food: 

    Ambiance:  

    CHUY’S MEXICAN CANTINA RATING:

    Overall: 

    Food:  

    Ambiance: