Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Off the Map: Can We Have Some Forks? And Some Flavor?

Huevos Montulenos -- Golden West Cafe, Baltimore, MD
Golden West Cafe

For the record, it is not easy to eat a pile of slop sans a fork.  We now have a new respect for pigs.

Vodka and her Baltimore-residing friend, Bloody Mary, are at Golden West Cafe for the third stop on our whirlwind tour of Baltimore Best Thing I Ever Ate locations, and almost instantly, we smell trouble.
Mmm, The Smell of Deer Carcass in the Morning
Perched on the two bar stools furthest from the action, we are surrounded by images of antlers and multi-colored lanterns, and apparently, we are also "the forgotten ones."  At least that's what we discern for how long it takes us to procure two cups of coffee.
Starbucks-Level Waiting Period, Non-Starbucks-Level Results
In a wise but disheartening decision, we have agreed not to drink this round in order to try to preserve both our stamina and Bloody Mary's lack of DUIs.  However, our once chipper (okay, "chipper" is relative in this case) attitudes deteriorate so rapidly within the walls of Golden West Cafe that we soon realize we have made the wrong choice with our non-spiked coffee.
We Need Some Liquid Courage to Get Through This Decor
Placing an order for Duff Goldman's favorite WAKE UP CALL dish, the huevos montulenos, we are optimistic that this "breakfast" will turn our downward spiral around.  Unfortunately for all involved, it ends up having the opposite effect.
Ina Garten Would Not Approve of This Plating "Style"
When the platter is placed in front of us, we both stare at it blindly for two reasons:
1. We can't distinguish half of the food on the plate.
2. We are without silverware, so what else is there to do but look at the thing?
We Are Presumably Supposed to Dive In Snout-First
Vodka, ever patient (ahem), tries multiple times to get someone -- anyone -- to hand over some forks.  When we finally receive our long-awaited utensils, we are almost sorry, as they bring us to the first bite of the huevos montulenos.

And the huevos montulenos are not good.
Its Aesthetics Should Have Been a Tip-Off to That Point
According to the Golden West Cafe menu, the huevos montulenos contain whole kernel corn cakes, two sunny-side-up eggs, black or pinto beans (note: we were not given a choice and received pinto), red or green chile sauce (again, no option was given -- we had green), feta cheese, salsa fresca, a fried banana, and a flour tortilla.  You know what all of these things look like on a single plate?  A mish-mosh of mess.
The Homemade Tortilla = The Only Decent Thing about this Meal
At first, even after receiving our forks, we are unsure as to how we're supposed to eat this thing -- do we wrap up the components in the tortilla like a fajita?  Pinch bites between our fingers?  Scoop it onto our forks like civilized people?  We are at a loss.  Asking the bartender provides no help in this matter, as she "has never had it" so thinks we "can eat it however we want."  Thanks for the insight, lady.
So Even the Golden West Employees Won't Eat This...?
We decide that, rather than acting like cavemen, we will use the forks for which we have been waiting so long.  And the first bite provides us with a strong and unmistakable flavor: spice.  Not satisfying-kick-in-the-pants spice.  Not burn-your-mouth-off-in-one-forkful spice.  Just spice.  No subtlty, no nuance.  Only pure, unadulterated chiles.

The further we attempt to make our way through the plate, the more disappointed we become: the corn cakes are vaguely cold and fall apart into their respective kernels every time a fork touches them; the eggs are way overcooked and not a single hint of a runny yolk can be found (needless to say, Ginger would be pleased); the feta cheese is so minimal that we would not even had known it was present had the menu not told us so; and the fried bananas are off-puttingly sweet, forcing us  to make every effort to avoid even the sight of them.
Now Doesn't This Look Appetizing?
We believe this dish is supposed to be some form of a "hangover cure," but Bloody Mary has no qualms about stating, "I am very hungover and this isn't doing it for me."  By the end of our "meal," at least three-quarters of the huevos montulenos remain on the plate, and we are making various facial contortions to express our displeasure.  As we gather up our belongings and slither off our barstools, Vodka has only one conclusion on our disappointing Golden West Cafe outing: "This is what happens when we don't drink."

Golden West Cafe's Huevos Montulenos: 1 star

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Off the Map: Nothing Like Cocktails and Ice Cream at 11am

CMP -- Woodberry Kitchen, Baltimore, MD
Woodberry Kitchen

Woodberry Kitchen is apparently one of Baltimore's most prized establishments.  Unfortunately for all involved, we are here merely to drink cocktails and eat ice cream.  This plan would not be so bad if it were not 11:00am on a Saturday morning, and everyone we encounter is looking at us like we are some combination of "hungover" and "a mess" (in truth, Bloody Mary is, in fact, mildly hungover).
Ten Times More Effective Than Coconut Water
The restaurant is located in an area of Baltimore that can only be described as "random," as there is seemingly nothing else around.
Baltimore's Hottest Brunch Spot?
Woodberry Kitchen itself is stationed in what appears to be an abandoned warehouse, yet its decor is more quaint and barn-like than industrial.
Old McDonald Had a Cocktail
"What Took You So Long in the Bathroom?!" "I Was Taking Pictures"
We check in for our "reservation," and Vodka guiltily informs everyone we encounter that "We only want to eat the CMP."
Breakfast of Champions
When we are seated at our table (even though we have offered multiple times to camp out at the bar), we get right down to the business of ordering our cocktails (a hot toddy for Vodka and a bloody mary for, of course, Bloody Mary) and our CMP.
"And If You'd Like to Spike Our Ice Cream While You're At It, We Won't Argue"
Our waiter, slightly confused, retreats with our order before returning with the question, "Excuse me, you want the CMP NOW?!"  Vodka confirms this fact to be true, which leaves Bloody Mary burying her face in embarrassed giggles. 

Being a newbie to these Best Thing I Ever Ate  proceedings, she is not yet aware that the one thing you can never have when ordering ludicrous combinations of dishes at absurd times is shame.
Here's a Tip, Mary: Embrace the Crazy
"It's ice cream, right?" she asks.  Vodka nods, checking the time just as our cocktails arrive: 11am -- perfect for drinks and dessert.
And This Hot Toddy Could Pass for A Spot of Tea Anyway
The bloody mary is, well, "Bloody Mary approved" -- spicy and peppery, it seems to be doing much to revive her from the previous night's overindulgence.
Bloody Mary Has Met Her Match
In contrast, Vodka's hot toddy is warm and comforting, tasting decidedly like a cup of tea with a solid input of alcohol.  When the CMP -- a towering glass filled with malt ice cream, chocolate sauce, wet peanuts, marshmallow fluff, and burnt sugar -- arrives, we have almost been lulled into a contented stupor.  
Key Word: ALMOST
The visual of the ice cream glass alone is enough to explain why Duff Goldman singled it out on the SUGAR RUSH episode of Best Thing I Ever Ate.  The portions are extremely generous, so much so that we are incapable of, as Duff had instructed, diving our spoon far enough into the glass to retrieve all of the contents at once.
No Problem; We'll Just Start at the Top
Vodka taps the top layer of burnt sugar like a snare drum until it breaks into triangles.
How Do We Get In This Thing?!
We reach our spoons through layers of marshmallow, peanuts, chocolate, and finally, ice cream (followed by more chocolate and peanuts).  The overall effect is just about everything Duff had described -- gooey, sweet, crunchy, and sticky all at once.
The Only Kind of Ice Fishing We Like to Do
Bloody Mary is especially taken with the top layers of burnt sugar and marshmallow (and finds that the dessert loses some of its luster when it is gone), and Vodka with the ice cream itself (which is a flavor we could not figure out was malt until we read about it -- the ice cream tasted more like a (splendid) blend of vanilla and coffee).
Time to Invest In Some Larger Mouths
Overall, the dessert is good -- exceptional, even -- and one we are sure we could enjoy again at a slightly more appropriate time of day.
And With an Identical Glass Filled with Booze
When we get up to leave, Vodka's napkin falls off of her lap directly into Bloody Mary's path.

"You dropped your napkin," Bloody Mary informs her with disdain.  Vodka, slightly wobbly from her hot toddy and sugar high, stoops down to retrieve it, certain in the fact that this is just the kind of thing that happens when you have cocktails and ice cream at 11am.

And naturally, she has no shame about it at all.

Woodberry Kitchen's CMP: 4 stars

Monday, February 27, 2012

Off the Map: They Could've Spared a Pickle

Brisket -- Edmart Deli, Pikesville, MD
Edmart Deli

"I forget this about you: you don't actually like people.  And that's why we're friends."

And so begins Vodka's 24-hour food spree around Baltimore.
Good Morning, Baltimore. Here's the Brisket That Lives Next Door
Vodka is in town visiting one of her oldest and dearest friends -- well, if 'dear' can be defined by such antics as blaring the car horn at the MegaBus stop by way of greeting.  Said friend, who is insisting on being referred to in this blog as "Bloody Mary," is also a New Jersey native, and is therefore hesitant about the mission of the day because she fears that it will involve interacting with a lot of people (a happenstance that we "affable" New Jerseyans try to avoid at all costs).

How Bloody Mary forgot that Vodka lacks much in the 'friendliness' department is beyond us.

Anyway, after multiple wrong turns and a few complaints about why Duff Goldman has sent us to Pikesville in the first place, we end up at Edmart Deli.  Actually, we end up in a strip mall parking lot across from Edmart Deli, which Bloody Mary points out, based on our mutual New Jersey roots, is the perfect way to begin the day.
If This Were a Diner Instead of a Deli, We'd Feel Even More at Home
We enter Edmart's and place our order for one brisket sandwich on rye with tiger sauce, as per Duff's instructions on the AT A DELI episode of Best Thing I Ever Ate.  The man taking the orders is not only about as pleasant as us, but completely lackadaisical about the fact that we are ordering a thick, meaty sandwich at 10:30 in the morning.   The store itself is stocked with typical deli wares, and thankfully, it is virtually empty.  Vodka approaches the counter to pay for our sandwich and two Snapples, and it soon becomes clear why the price tag for these three measly items is quite high for Maryland standards:

The proprietors are originally from New York.
Which Also Explains the "Charming" Attitude of the Sandwich Maker
We discover this fact when the lady at the cash register asks Vodka, seemingly out of no where, "Are you here from out of town?"  Whether this line of questioning arose from Vodka's sour expression, desire for mid-morning brisket, or penchant for photographing Edmart's "Best of Baltimore" signs is unclear, but the lady clearly has her pegged as a foreigner.  She then reveals that Edmart Deli's roots, and meat, come from New York originally, and therefore, the $13 price tag begins to make sense (thank you, New York City inflation).
So What You're Saying Is the Locals DON'T Normally Take Pictures of Your Signage?
We retreat to Bloody Mary's car, where Vodka makes a spectacle of herself by photographing our meal on the dashboard, completely unaware that there are two Baltimore residents stationed in the car directly across, completely confused (some would say "perturbed") as to why they are having their picture taken through the windshield (truth be told, we are lucky we weren't jumped for our high-price meat).
Nothing Like Getting Killed for the Sake of a Photo Op
Diving into our sandwich, we find unbelievably fresh rye bread -- soft and supple and able to blend perfectly with the brisket meat.  We are so taken with the bread, in fact, that the brisket itself almost becomes an afterthought.
WonderBread Indeed
"It's very good... for brisket," Vodka ventures.  This comment results in an inexplicable burst of laughter from Bloody Mary, followed by an accusatory, "How many times have you had brisket?!"
As If Brisket Is A Dish That Belongs on 'Man Vs. Food'
Vodka, mid-chew, is rendered incapable of answering, so she merely holds up varying numbers of fingers until Bloody Mary is forced to guess, "Once?  Twice?  Three times?"

"A lady," Vodka completes the lyric.  Despite our apparent dearth of past brisket-consumption, we decide this meat is remarkably tender and easy to consume, if grossly lacking in tiger sauce ("I knew he was going to be skimpy with that tiger sauce," Bloody Mary comments in what is usually Vodka's tone of judgment).
Never Lay Low on the Condiments with Us Around
We are satisfied, if mildly unimpressed, with our first Maryland Best Thing I Ever Ate meal of the day, especially when Vodka stuffs our trash back into the Edmart Deli paper bag with the following quip of dissatisfaction: "You would think they could've spared a pickle."

Edmart Deli's Brisket: 3 stars

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

This Dish Is Our New Favorite Word: Misguided

Arroz de Pato -- Aldea

"I assume you have a life, but in case not, do you want to go to dinner tomorrow?" Ginger emails Vodka Thursday afternoon.  Thankfully, Vodka has no such thing, so she instantaneously answers "Yes," and we decide to head to Aldea for Frank Bruni's chosen Best Thing I Ever Ate BIRD IS THE WORD dish, the arroz de pato.
The Benefits of Having No Life
Now duck, so far, has not treated us very kindly on this mission, but we are hoping we can blame this track record on Buddakan and not on the poultry itself.  What is also not helping our case on this particular night, however, is that we have both, separately and inexplicably, been is foul moods for the majority of the week. 
Or in Our Case - Fowl Moods.  Heh Heh
Ginger is blaming her hostility on an overall lack of carbs, and Vodka, simply on the fact that we are crazy ("Well, that too," Ginger answers, "But also the bread.").  For this reason, when we belly up to the bar and the bartender holds a platter of four varieties of bread products in front of us, we finagle our way into trying one of each ("We're not really a 'one piece per person' place anyway," the bartender informs us.  Our kind of policy).
An Image of Gluttony
Said bread is served seconds after the arrival of the cheese plate we have ordered, but instead of pairing the two entities, we find ourselves carb-loading all four varieties into our mouths at rapid-fire pace, the cheese nearly forgotten. 
And Never in Our Lives Have We Forgotten About Cheese
One of the options, a cornbread soaked in bacon renderings, we believe holds the most potential for greatness, and so Vodka takes a deep, hearty bite.

And she instantly clamps her mouth shut.
Bacon Bread?  What Could Go Wrong?
"Is it good?" Ginger asks, not sure whether to interpret Vodka's face as horror or ecstasy.  Vodka shakes her head back and forth slowly.  "Well, no wonder it's unlimited," Ginger reasons, yet unfortunately, this is not the end of our bread drama of the evening.
Easy to Give Away Free Things When They're All Different Degrees of "Adequate"
While the three other varieties (a brioche, a baguette, and an olive roll) are all various states of "fine" (the baguette proves to be the most successful), as is the accompanying olive oil, we are at another stand-off over the walnut version that has come with the actual cheese. 
Aldea Seems to Be Suffering from a Case of "Too Much Bread in the Kitchen"
Taking her first bite, Vodka observes, "This has nuts in it."

This statement is followed immediately, in unison, with:

Ginger: "Yes, it's delicious."
Vodka: "I hate nuts."

Truth be told, with tastes like these, it's amazing we've made it through this many dishes without a fistfight.
With Tastes Like These, It's Also Amazing We're Friends In the First Place
Onto the cheese plate, which includes a blue cheese, a soft goat-like cheese, and a hard, cheddar-like cheese (clearly, we can't distinguish cheeses unless they're blue): all are tasty enough, though we are especially taken with the lone hard cheese on the platter (and Ginger enjoys the accompanying triangles of membrillo-like jam, though Vodka finds them useless).
With So Much Bread and Cheese to Be Had, Who Needs Jelly?
Similarly, our cocktails are satisfying, if nothing to write home (or in this case, to AA) about -- Ginger's tastes appropriately like ginger, and Vodka's, in a true "I've had a tough week" divergence from her usual vodka, like tequila.
Though We Do Enjoy the Metal Straw That Accompanies Vodka's Choice
Finally, we are served our Best Thing I Ever Ate reason for being here: the arroz de pato, featuring duck confit, chorizo, clementines, and olives.  Pretty enough, the dish looks like a cross between paella and pork fried rice, and because we love a carb, we are optimistic that this rice will prove appropriately pleasing.

It does not.
To Sum Things Up in a Nutshell and All
Vodka takes one forkful, and confirming that all the bread in the world has not yet raised her from her funk, states, with mild hostility, "I don't like it."  It seems Vodka's first bite has included a healthy dose of the yellow sauce that is dolloped around the plate, which we're assuming are the clementines but taste more like lemons.  This sauce seems excessively sweet for this savory dish.
Yellow Dollops of Sugary Not-Goodness
As we manage to eat around the "frosting," we find the duck itself to be extremely well-cooked (as in tender and juicy, not dry and chewy), and the rice, appealingly sticky with a tangy bite.  The chorizo, sliced super thinly, adds more spice than one would assume it would be capable of in such a form, which is more than we can say for the bits of crispy duck skin, which taste like, well, nothing.
Perhaps Mustard Would Have Made a Better Yellow Condiment Choice
"This whole lemon thing is misguided," Ginger states, tossing her fork with disdain.  It seems "misguided" has crept into her lexicon recently and taken up residence as her favorite word ever, and the term is now catching, as one thing then another, including Aldea's chef, becomes "misguided."

You see, earlier in the evening, Vodka had spotted said chef, George Mendes, lingering near the bar. 

"I think he was our waiter somewhere else," she whispers.  "Oh no, wait - he was on Top Chef or something."

"I like that you assumed he was our waiter, like everyone is always here to serve us," Ginger smirks. 
This Is the Kind of Logic That Occurs When One's Bloodstream Is Filled with Tequila
When we figure out that Mendes is actually the chef of this place, we begin to notice him, throughout our meal, perched in various points of the restaurant, texting on his phone.

"What is he doing?!  He should be somewhere making this dish better!" Ginger exclaims, and with that, we decide it is time to leave.
After One Cocktail Each and Everything
When we receive our bill, we learn that Aldea has recently started the policy of taking 20% off all food served at the bar, a concept that not only thrills us, but is also the first thing all week that neither of us can even dare to call "misguided."

Aldea's Arroz de Pato: 3 stars

Thursday, February 9, 2012

I'll Definitely Come Back Here. Maybe Tomorrow

Steakburger and Vanilla Coke -- Steak 'n Shake
Steak 'n Shake

As children of the East Coast, we are unaccustomed with the upscale fast food burger joints that populate other portions of the country.  It seems that while we were spending our Osh Kosh days at McDonald's and Wendy's, our friends in the other parts of the country could be found at the likes of In-N-Out, Steak 'n Shake, and other restaurants that use only the letter N as a conjunction.
The N Stands for "Needs More Napkins"
Our fascination with these kinds of chains is the reason we could be found chowing down at In-N-Out Burger at 11am on a Sunday in Phoenix, hours before departing for the Animal Style-deprived New York.
The Soul Benefit of West Coast Living
When we returned to the city, we were delighted to find that while we can't eat the West Coast's choice burgers whenever we like, the island province of Manhattan has been gifted with the Midwestern equivalent, a Steak 'n Shake.
So, What Is This? Rib-Eye on a Bun?
Located in the heart of midtown, Steak 'n Shake stands directly next to David Letterman's studio, in an area of the city (where, it bears pointing out, every tourist in the world manages perfectly well to maneuver in) that Ginger cannot quite figure out.  By the time she arrives outside Steak 'n Shake, a slightly shivering Vodka is convinced that Ginger's alleged "I got lost" ruse was actually an attempt to make Vodka gain some retroactive sympathy for Ginger's hatred of patio dining.
For the Record, Her Ruse Did Not Work
We enter and are handed a menu, and we find a line to order which is blessedly only one person deep instead of wrapped around the block (we're looking at you, Shake Shack).  Based on Marc Summers's choice on the BETWEEN BREAD episode of Best Thing I Ever Ate, we know we have to eat a steakburger and a vanilla Coke.  In addition, we decide to try one of their milkshakes, since everyone and their mother seem to be drinking one in the place.
Our Milkshake Brings All the Steaks to the Yard
When we reach the counter and order two Signature burgers with fries, a vanilla Coke, and a vanilla milkshake, we are assaulted with the question, "Do you want ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise on your burger?"  Vodka answers "Yes," but Ginger, completely overwhelmed, denies the mayonnaise.

"I love mayonnaise," she comments later.  "What was I thinking?"

Clearly, we are not from the Midwest.
And Clearly, We Still Have Trouble with Napkin Use
This fact is again evidenced when we are handed a cup with which to procure our own vanilla Coke.  Staring at the soda machine like it is a contraption out of Back to the Future, we manage to pour ourselves a large cup of diet vanilla with the adeptness of two nursing home residents manning the remote control.
R2D2 Soda Machine
As it happens, we soon notice that one of Steak 'n Shake's employees appears to have been tasked with cleaning said soda machines over and over, as he does so multiple times as we wait for our food.  Apparently, they take their soda dispensers very seriously in the middle of the country.
It Is Only By the Grace of the Steak 'n Shake Gods That We Managed This
We saddle up to a counter to wait for our Olive Garden-like buzzers to vibrate, noticing that if the Manhattan incarnation of Steak 'n Shake is lacking anything, it is seating.  All of the twelve total chairs in the place are occupied, and we decide that if this Steak 'n Shake wishes to keep their diners' tushes content, they better hope Mayor Bloomberg expands his Times Square picnic tables all the way up to Harlem.
And Also, Fill Your Fries to the Top. Just Sayin'
Eventually, our buzzers go off and we retrieve our burgers, fries, and milkshake.  And let us begin with the least exciting items before us: the beverages.  First of all, the diet vanilla Coke is refreshing enough, and certainly a novelty.  We had also noticed that there are dozens of varieties of drinks to choose from in the sparkling clean soda dispensers, including such options as raspberry Coke, so we could someday do the Steak 'n Shake version of a wine pairing.

The milkshake is so thick that it is served with both a straw and a spoon.  Covered in a fair amount of whipped cream and topped with a cherry, it is tasty and sweet, but certainly no better than other milkshakes we've had (including those at our own childhood version of Steak 'n Shake, the esteemed McDonald's).
Pretty Pretty Please with a Cherry on... Well, Not Quite the Top
Additionally, there are large chunks of a frozen substance within the shake that we at first assume are ice chips, but we later think might be unblended cream, and while this is not off-putting, it is just not the sort of milkshake we're used to.
Rather Small Spoon Circumference Considering the Milkshake, No?
Next up: the fries.  The fries are cut into very petite stalks and do not harbor much of a crunch.  However, they still manage to provide a necessary kick of salt and grease to the meal (and are ten times superior, in Ginger's opinion, to the accordion fries served at Shake Shack).
Bet You Can't Eat Just One
And finally, we have our steakburgers.  Now we have been known to doubt a few of Marc Summers's other Best Thing I Ever Ate choices in the past, but with this burger, he officially redeems himself.  To begin with, the burger is monstrous: a double patty of meat, ample pickles, juicy tomato, unbelievable amounts of cheese, and a very green lettuce leaf (plus our chosen condiments) stand stacked between a memory foam-like bun.
Thank You For the Lack of Unnecessary Sesame Seeds
"This lettuce is probably going to be the only vegetable I eat all week," Ginger notes as she dives in for her first bite.  We ooh and ahh immediately -- the surefire sign that this dish is going to end up with a high star rating.
Thanks for the Green, Steak 'n Shake. Makes Us Feel Healthy
"I think this is delicious," Vodka states.  "And not just because the only things we've been eating for dinner all week are nachos and Easy Mac."  Indeed, our culinary intake for the past few days has not been on the winning side of gourmet, and Steak 'n Shake may just be benefitting from being a food that doesn't come out of plastic wrap.
We Prefer Food Wrapped in Paper and Styrofoam
Still, we are convinced that this burger is one of the best of this level that we have ever tasted, and it is completely on par with the excellence of In-N-Out.  While the meat itself is juicy and well-seasoned, it is the plethora of toppings that we find most pleasing (even if it does make for a difficult burger to consume neatly, especially without the benefit of a chair).
Burger Performing the Slip 'n Slide (Get It with the 'N?)
As we remark on how much we're enjoying our first Steak 'n Shake experience, a Taylor Swift song comes over the loudspeaker, and this seals the deal.  Not only does Steak 'n Shake make superior burgers, but they also have stupendous taste in music.
You Belong With Me, Indeed
We finally get ready to leave when a hotel doorman comes in to pick up his Steak 'n Shake meal to-go.

"Look, if the bellhops love it, you know it must be good," Ginger reasons, and Vodka is too tickled by the fact that Ginger has pulled the word "bellhop" out of a 1957 vocabulary book to concentrate on the contents of her statement.

When Vodka manages to pull herself together, we walk out onto the sidewalks of midtown, and she comments, like a true overeater, "I'll definitely come back here.  Maybe tomorrow."

And with that, two new Midwesterners by way of Manhattan are christened, Steak 'n Shake-style.

Steak 'n Shake's Steakburger and Vanilla Coke: 5 stars*

*Certifiable Best Thing We Ever Ate