Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Side of Route 66 with My Omelet at Flappy Jack's Pancake House

Unassuming on the outside, I wasn't really expecting much from Flappy Jack's Pancake House in Glendora. All I was hoping for was a good breakfast from a place I have never set foot in before. Imagine my surprise when I got a little or actually a lot of Route 66 along with my omelet and pancakes that morning. Granted, the shape of the restaurant sign should have given me a hint of what was to come, especially since Flappy Jack's is on historic Route 66, but I remained completely clueless until I stepped through the doors of the restaurant.

Once inside, my eyes were immediately drawn right in front of me to the now recognizable shape of a traffic sign a la the Route 66 sign mimicking the signage outside, but in a glowing orange
neon. That neon didn't hold my attention for long because once I looked up, I almost forgot why I came in there in the first place. Before my peepers was a colorful mural using famous personalities to depict the Route 66 starting in what I think was New York and ending in Hollywood. Along the way, there were images of Louis Armstrong, John Wayne and James Dean with Marilyn Monroe hugging him from behind as they were riding a motorcycle.

Then I walked into the dining room to my left and painted on the side wall was another mural with a stylized painting of the restaurant surrounded with bright racing red and yellow roadsters. Even the chair and booth upholstery got into the act with the familiar Route 66 traffic sign being heavily featured as well as images of old gas pumps, motel signs and the "Mother Road" laid out on the fabric. I think the wait staff is probably used to first time customers gawking because she was quite patient as I slowly made my way to my booth and finally sat down. After placing my order, I wandered around a bit, camera in hand, took snaps of the front entry way and did a bit more exploring.

In the dining room on the other side of the restaurant, there w
as another mural that piqued my interest. The focus on that painting was more on the cities of Glendora and Azusa, both Foothill cities that Route 66 also crosses. This mural also had some well-known faces, specifically, Elvis, Marlon, Lucy and Ricky. I didn't even have to mention last names and I bet you knew who I was talking about. Also, on the walls were vintage advertisements and old 45s with popular hits of the day. A smaller dining room featured a large painting with a city scene and public trains. I wasn't quite sure how that fit with the Route 66 theme, but the Route 66 traffic shapes with either a male or female silhouette painted above the bathroom doors certainly did.

Finally, my hunger pangs kicked in and I tore myself away from my famous friends and sat down to breakfast, just in time for my food to arrive and my, oh my, what a meal. I ordered the Mediterranean Omelet with tomatoes, feta cheese, mushrooms and spinach. I kid you not when I say that it looked like a torpedo. It was huge and more
than enough for 2 or 3 people and it also came with a side of pancakes that could have been breakfast all on its own minus the omelet. As for how everything tasted, it hit the spot. I found the omelet a little dry and under seasoned, but a little salt, pepper and even Tabasco sauce added the zing I was looking for. The pancakes; however, were yummy and thick, but still with a fairly light and fluffy texture.

Overall, not being a big breakfast eater or a good morning person, a breakfast would have to be really fabulous for me to want to get out from under my warm covers. I'd say the food was decent. If I were in the neighborhood, I'd stop by, but I wouldn't go out of my way to eat there. A few weeks later, I was actually in that part of town, stopped by and this time ordered bacon pancakes. Savory and sweet? How could that not work? Although real bacon pieces were mixed into the batter, they were a little burnt and even worse, tasted burnt. Again, the pancake part of that dish was pretty good. Before I had placed my order, customers
seated next to me mentioned that the sweet pancakes were to die for. I should have listened, but there's always next time.

From just briefly talking to one of the wait staff, I was told that Flappy Jack's wasn't actually around during the heyday of Route 66 and that another restaurant stood in its place. Unfortunately, that's all the info I was able to get and online research didn't turn up anything else. Still, I really appreciate how Flappy Jack's Pancake House is keeping the spirit of Route 66 alive. How can you not appreciate a little nostalgia with fluffy pancakes and besides, eating across Elvis Presley isn't necessarily a bad thing either.

To see pics, go to:

Flappy Jack's Pancake House Restaurant
640 West Route 66
Glendora, CA 91740
(626) 852-9444

Flappy Jacks Pancake House on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 20, 2008

I Scream. You Scream. We All Scream.....for Cheese?

Yes, as the title suggests, there was lots of screaming for cheese, specifically oooey-gooey grilled cheese sandwiches. So where was all this yelling and carousing happening? Well, at the The 1st 6th Annual National Grilled Cheese Invitational, which was held at Griffith Park this past Saturday. And why were people yelling and carousing? More on that later, but first, let's start our tale with a little bit of background.

Since 2003, organizers from behind the Burning Man festival have been organizing a rowdy grilled cheese sandwich making contest referred to as the Grilled Cheese Invitational. With the mantra, "Bread. Butter. Cheese. Victory!" spurring them on, both amateur and professional chefs would compete side-by-side in different categories to see who would reign supreme in hot cheesy goodness. This year, a new category was added for a strong, flirty foursome. You'll know what I mean by "flirty" when you see the names of the category below.

The Missionary Position: white bread, orange cheese (cheddar or American) and butter or margarine only.

(NEW Category) Spoons: any kind of white bread, any kind of butter and any kind of cheese (or combination of cheeses) but no additional ingredients

The Kama Sutra: any ki
nd of bread, any kind of butter and any kind of cheese (or blend of cheeses) plus additional ingredients.

The Honey Pot: any kind of bread, any kind of butter, any kind of cheese (or blend of cheeses), and any additional ingredients, but a sandwich that is sweet in flavor, or would best be served as a dessert.

Initially, this event was on a smaller scale and much more underground. Most people heard about it through word of mouth. In fact, there was such an aura of mystery surrounding this event, similar to a rave, that the location address wouldn't be published until the week of the event itself and that's a tradition that continued this year as well.

As time went by, more and more cheeseheads wanted to get in the action. So this year's Grilled Cheese Invitational was the first one open to the eating public and with over 100 cheese chefs competing in one, two or all four categories, there was a lot of cheesy action that happened on the day of the event. Since the last 5 years haven't really been open to the public, that's why this year's event is referred to as the 1st 6th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational. Get it? Enough background! Let's get to the good stuff.

Once I got there, I canvassed the area. On one side of the park, there were picnic benches all grouped together, which were sectioned off primarily by tables covered with bright orange plastic covers. That area served as the general kitchen area. There were two competitors to a bench and each was allotted a portable burner to cook with, as well as given a gift bag that contained a frying pan, spatula and other items for their use.

Right next door to the kitchen area, there was a Kraft Cheese booth and they provided free grilled cheese sandwiches while Izze Sparkling Juice also had free offerings of their apple, grapefruit, pomengranate, blackberry and orange beverages from start to finish. My favorite Izze drinks were definitely the blackberry and apple. I found them light and refreshing and I think they went well with all the rich cheese offerings that were to be had.

Finally, the organizers took the stage and gave an introduction and quick explanation of how judging was going to happen. Basically, here's the breakdown of the process. Each competitor has to make enough sandwiches to make 20 portions for each category they choose to enter. The portions could vary from half size to quarter size to bigger or smaller. It didn't really matter just as long as there were enough for 20 people. Each portion is put on a paper plate which has a ballot stapled to it. As soon as you sample your sandwich, you fill out the ballot and drop it in ballot boxes being carried around by volunteer staff.

So are you wondering yet where the screaming comes in? Well, as the sandwiches are cooked,
either the competitor or one of their runners would bring out the sandwiches to be distributed to the waiting cheese-a-holics waiting behind the tables in front of the cooking section. Just because these sandwiches are free, it didn't mean that you don't have to work for them. That's where the screaming came to play or should I say enthusiasm? Nah, there was a lot of screaming involved. If you wanted one of those sandwiches, you had to get yourself noticed or you'd passed by for the noisier person standing right next to you or even behind you.

Even with all the yelling, there's still no guarantee that you'll get a sandwich. If you came expect
ing to be stuffed with grilled cheese sandwiches, you would have been sorely disappointed. Even if you managed to get 4 or more sandwiches, the small portions were not going to fill you up by any means. It got to the point that if one generous person got a sandwich, they would sometimes share it with 2 or 3 other people who may not have gotten one at all, which meant for an even smaller sampling.

I managed to try one sandwich and vote on it, but after awhile, I opted to go into the cooking section where my friend, Cecilia, was competing in all four categories. The vibe was less frenetic, but still very busy as the cheese chefs were working hard to send their offerings out to the hungry crowd. At one point, I was recruited to be a runner. Now that was fun.

I'd have my plates of Cecilia's sandwiches and as I approached the crowd, eyes pointed towards me and soon symphonies of sound, like waves, crashed around me. There was pleading and yelling. One or two people got down on their knees begged. Small children were used by their parents - their big, round innocent eyes ple
ading with me. I even got a proposal of marriage thrown at me. The first couple of times it was a bit overwhelming and I thought to myself, "Did I look that crazed when the shoe was on the other foot?" I probably did.

Soon, I got the hang of the whole thing and even got on a bit of a power trip. I felt like a Greek Goddess trying to decide which sycophant to bless with my gift of cheese. Hmmm...was she worthy enough? Did he beg enough? Are those children cute enough? Ok, I wasn't that bad, but I could have been if I let it go to my head. In general, the reaction of the crowd was just so much fun..

What I liked being in the cooking section was seeing the real camaraderie among the competitors. They in turn, supported and egged each other on. There was also swappings of cheese sandwiches going on so that they could ta
ste each other's creations. The competitors themselves were also a quirky lot. Between a very tall man wearing a red velvet dress and a green madhatter hat and someone in a gorilla outfit wearing an apron, quirky may still be too tame a description. Into the mix were also professional chefs. In fact, Cecilia shared her bench with the Artisan Cheese Gallery and the winner of the Kama Sutra category was Eric Greenspan, chef of The Foundry Restaurant.

Finally, after the heat of the competition was over, the awards ceremony were held that evening. As mentioned, Chef Greenspan took honors in the Kama Sutra category. My friend, Cecilia, first-time competitor, took first place in the Missionary Category. To see all the winners, click here!

To wrap it up, is the Grilled Cheese Invitational for everyone? Probably not. If you're expecting a more formal kind of judging where competitors are at individual stations that allow you to pick which sandwiches you want to sample and vote on, you'll be disappointed. If you're expecting to sample the majority of the sandwiches, if not all of them, you'll be crushed.

In the end, although the name of this event is the Grilled Cheese Invitational, there definitely weren't enough grilled cheese sandwiches to go around for everyone to try. I think what you get is act
ually beyond just the sandwiches themselves. What I saw was a fun and lively atmosphere. What I saw were generous people willing to split a quarter of a sandwich with 2 or 3 other people just so more people could have a taste. What I saw were competitors using their creativity and taking a simple comfort food to the next level. Whether it was a grilled cheese and anchovy sandwich or a dessert sandwich that consisted of guava jelly, marscarpone cheese and chocolate chips, these cheese chefs were limited only by their own imagination.

What I also saw was the spirit behind this event. How can you not appreciate all the hard work and time the organizers and volunteer staff put into something that was at no cost to the attendees? There aren't very many freebies in this world, especially when you consider that culinary events can cost as little as a $15 entrance fee to a food festival up to $400 for a 10 course tasting menu. Then there's the competitors who basically donated their time and money. They weren't given a stipend to pay for all the ingredients for their sandwiches. That was all their own money. I have to give them props as well for their generosity.

Overall, it wasn't what I expected; yet, it somehow also exceeded my expectations in a weird sort of way. I'm already looking forward to the 2nd 6th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational or is it 1st 7th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational?

For more info, click here for the Grilled Cheese Invitational Website.

To see pics, go to:

Sunday, April 13, 2008

"Where's the Flavor?" at Cuban Bistro

Remember that popular Wendy's commercial where the innocent looking grandmother would spout, "Where's the beef?" Well, substitute the word "beef" with "flavor" and that's the question I asked myself after a meal at Cuban Bistro one evening with my niece. Granted, I didn't go in with high expectations in the first place. I've never read glowing reviews about this restaurant before and although my niece, who wanted to go to Cuban Bistro, said the food was really good, let's just say that our culinary tastes are very different. However, I always keep an open mind so off we went.

Our meal started with complimentary buttered toasted bread. A nice little starter and a welcome change from just getting rolls. Then the first of the two appetizers I ordered arrived and it was the potato balls stuffed with ground beef. The ground beef could have used a bit more seasoning and the potatoes could have been a bit fluffier, but still not bad. Next were the chicken empanadas, which seemed a bit heavy to me. The chicken filling was okay, but I would have liked the empanada to be a little lighter and flakier.

Now it's time for the two mains. Ropa Vieja for me and Garlic Half Chicken for my niece. Texturally, I enjoy ropa vieja because I like the chewiness of the meat and in that, this dish delivered, which is about the only good thing I can say. When it came to flavor, I got close to zilch. It felt like the whole dish was just cooked in a tomato broth. I did add some salt, lots of pepper, but neither really enhanced my meal.

Curious, I sampled a little bit of the Garlic Half Chicken and while my niece was enjoying her meal, I couldn't for the life of me understand why. Just looking at her dish, I was expecting to see some garlic cloves, but there was none. I was expecting to taste garlic in the marinade that this chicken may have been soaking in earlier, but my tastebuds went away disappointed.

With appetizers that were just okay and entrees that were beyond disappointing, I didn't even want to try any of the desserts although some of them looked appealing just because I didn't want to deal with a triple strike.

Overall, the answer to "Where's the flavor?" is definitely not to be found at Cuban Bistro.

To see pics, go to:

Cuban Bistro
28 W Main St
Alhambra, CA 91801
(626) 308-3350

Cuban Bistro on Urbanspoon

Taiwanese Vegetarian Cuisine at Bean Sprout Cafe

I'm a carnivore through and through. The smell of grilling meat is like the best French perfume to me; however, I also love my veggies and after my less than successful foray into Raw Cuisine last year, I can definitely say that cooked veggies is the way to go. I've been driving past Bean Sprout Cafe, a vegetarian/vegan restaurant, for a couple of years now and although I've been curious about it, I was never really motivated to check it out. One day, after a heavily-meat based dinner the night before, I was in the mood for something different and like a siren's song, Bean Sprouts pulled me into its depths.

So I walked in, sat down and right away, I took a look at the lunch menu and the prices were certainly right. For $5.99, you had a choice between 7 different dishes that included an order of Rainbow Rolls and soup. The lunch deals didn't stop there. You could also order 6 different appetizers for $1.99 each and choose 1 of 3 different teas for $.99. In perusing the menu, I saw the words "Taiwanese" referenced a couple of times and finally confirmed with the waitress that Bean Sprout Cafe was a Taiwanese-Vegetarian restaurant.

Deciding to take advantage of the great prices, I went ahead and ordered two appetizers. One was the Pan-Fried Radish Patties which consisted of shredded radish, rice flour and oatmeal as well as the potato-cilantro-curry powder filled Crispy Spring Rolls. Before those two dishes arrived, a small vegetable bowl showed up along with the order of soup that came with the lunch special. The vegetables, which I think were broccoli stalks, had a nice crunch to them while the soup, though a little oily, still had a nice clean flavor to it.

Then out came t
he Pan-Fried Radish Patties followed by the Spring Rolls. The combo of the golden-brown, slight crispy exterior and softer eating texture of the radish patties was a definite hit while the slight pepperiness of the cilantro mixed with the curry powder added some really good flavor to the potatoes in the spring rolls.

Entree time! I don't have much experience with "meatless" meat so I was looking forward to tasting the Soy Pork with Pickled Vegetables on Brown Rice that I ordered. With my first bite, I did get a bit of the chewy texture you'd associate with meat and there was a hint of smokiness also to this faux pork, but would it replace real pork for me? Not by a long shot. Yet, I liked it. It was tasty. One thing to note is that when something is described as vegetarian anything, that label is just a benchmark to help you go in the direction of what appeals to your palate, whether it's fish, chicken, beef, etc. I wanted something "porky" and my soy pork, for the most part, did the trick and the pickled veggies it was mixed in added just the right amount sour to the whole dish.

Props to the brown rice, which was the best brown rice I've ever had. The thick brown kernels of rice didn't err on the dry side which brown rice tends to gear towards. I also was totally crushing on the rainbow rolls. The ingredients consisted of mayonnaise, carrot, lettuce and peanut powder, all wrapped in seaweed and rice paper. Absolutely delicious!

I don't know I managed, but I even ordered the Tofu Flower with Peanuts for dessert, which was sweet, but not overly so and the tofu was wonderfully silky. So I bet you think I'm done now, huh? Well, not so. I enjoyed my meal so much at Bean Sprout Cafe, I came back a couple of days later with a Vegan friend of mine just because I wanted her to check out my find.

For our lunch together, we started with the crispy seaweed wrap with bean curd skin as our appetizer. Wow, a winner! You get sweet, salty and crispy in every bite. It totally blew both the radish patty and spring rolls I had at my earlier visit clear off the water. As for our entrees, she went with the Noodle with Curry Sauce, which had potato, mushroom and carrots while I had the Sweet and Sour Sauce with Soy Fish on Rice. We also shared the Crispy Soy Chicken which was made up of soy chicken, basil and white pepper.

My soy fish was very good. It was light and crispy and also had a distinct fish taste to it without "being fishy", if you know what I mean. I also felt that soy chicken also tasted quite chicken-y. Both of these "meats" were definitely closer to their counterpart than the soy pork I had earlier in the week. Afterwards, my friend who follows a vegan lifestyle gave Bean Sprouts Cafe a thumbs up so I think that definitely counts for something. However, the fact this self-confessed carnivore would sometimes be willing to forgo a steak for soy fish speaks for itself.

To see pics, go to:

Bean Sprout Cafe
103 E. Huntington Drive
Arcadia, CA 91006

Bean Sprouts on Urbanspoon