Tuesday, September 2, 2014

New York City Wine & Food Festival Search for the Best Bloody in America

I was recently contacted by the folks at Tupelo Honey Cafe about their participation in the New York City Wine & Food Festival Search for the Best Bloody in America sponsored by Chopped and Absolut Vodka. The gist of the contest is that bartenders from all over the United States (including Tyler Alford from Tupelo Honey) submit their signature Bloody Mary recipe to the folks at the NYC Wine & Food Festival. The recipes are currently up for voting on the website. After the votes are tallied at the conclusion of the voting period (on September 15, so get on it!), the top 12 chefs will be flown to the NYC Wine & Food Festival to prep their Bloody's for celebrity chefs at the Food Network... and we'll get to find out who makes the best Bloody Mary in the US!

While I'm frequently contacted about promoting different products for different restaurants, I actually feel pretty passionately about this mission. So here's why you should vote for Tupelo Honey's Queen Mary:
1) It's a fine North Carolina product (and if you're not a fan of the home team, go back to whatever communist country you hail from).
2) It is seriously the most unique (in an awesome, delicious way) Bloody Mary out there. The base is a puree of golden tomatoes, garlic, and lemon juice (while your breath won't thank you for consuming it, your taste buds certainly will).
3) The garnish is equally insane and delicious -lemon, lime, pickled okra, pimento cheese stuffed olives, grilled shrimp, maple pepper bacon, celery, asparagus, pickled jalapeno and cherry tomato with a lime-salt rim!
4) It's a party in a glass -there are six parts of Absolut vodka per serving... woohoo, boozy brunch!
5) My favorite part is that there's no mix or chemical-y ingredients involved. It's all real food and flavors. I get a little perturbed when I go out for a bloody Mary and get served Zing Zang or some other mix that I could very easily buy at the grocery store and prep at home. 

So head on over to Tupelo Honey and give the Queen Mary a taste yourself! Then navigate to the online ballot page (http://www.nycwffbestbloody.org/state.php?sid=NC) and submit your vote for the Queen Mary! I'd love to see Tyler Alford represent the home state and Tupelo Honey Cafe at the NYC Wine & Food Festival's Best Bloody Mary Brunch competition!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Mellow Mushroom - Myers Park & Uptown

As I've previously explained, much like a teenager (or a teenage mutant ninja turtle), I am borderline obsessed with pizza. BFTB and I did some uncharacteristic hard partying last night and I woke up with a hangover that could slay a dragon. After a six-plus hour marathon of alternating episodes of "Don't Be Tardy" and "American Horror Story," we decided we were hungry and hollered at good ole Papa John for some 'zza. Apparently that decision did not please the pizza gods and our pie was a no show (actually it ended up being delivered 1.5 hours later after a multitude of answered calls to the restaurant and an additional call to corporate PJ's cancelling our order... btw, South Boulevard Papa John's, you suck). However, this was a blessing in disguise because we decided to up our pizza game and call in an order to Mellow Mushroom

While this move certainly involved a little more effort on my part (read: I had to put on a bra and matching shoes), I ended up pretty pleased with our choice. We ordered a chef salad with esperanza dressing and a medium pizza: half Maui Wowie, half Funky Q Chicken. The chef salad at MM is awesome, and this is coming from a girl that is generally averse to salad and all things lettuce-y. The chef consists of "salad mix" (which appears to be romaine), onions, cucumbers, green peppers, mushrooms, kalamata olives, tomatoes, mozzarella, ham, sprouts, shredded carrots, and slivers of red cabbage. Somehow our request for no olives got confused for no cheese, but the olives were easy enough to pick out so we weren't too disgruntled. While the salad is truly loaded to the point that it would almost be edible sans dressing, I would never forego my beloved esperanza dressing. That stuff is like liquid gold. It's kind of Caesar-y and is filled with about ten million grams of fat, but is absolutely delicious (I always ask for an extra container to save for crust dunking).

Half Maui Wowie (left) and half Funky Q Chicken pizza
Our pizza was equally tasty. The Maui Wowie variety is in my regular rotation of frequent orders, and it never lets me down. The delicious, chewy spring water dough is smothered in pesto and topped with mozzarella cheese, ham, pineapple, jerk chicken, banana peppers, and thick slices of applewood smoked bacon. It's like a Hawaiian pizza... but on crack (delicious, delicious crack). To keep things interesting, we decided to try out the Funky Q Chicken on the second half of our pie. That side of the pizza was topped with a blend of mozzarella and cheddar cheeses, caramelized onions, more of the uber-thick applewood smoked bacon, BBQ chicken, and a thick swirl of BBQ sauce. My big gripe with chicken on pizzas is that the protein is usually cooked to death and ends up like dry jerky. Fortunately, that was not the case with either of our chicken-based pizza varieties, and the strips of white meat were juicy and delicious. Both were absolutely delightful (and definitely hit the mark for my hungover pizza hankering), but the Maui Wowie can't be beat (at least in my book) as Mellow Mushroom's best pizza. 

An awesome (slash kinda gross) picture of my leftover Thai Dye (left) and Kosmic Karma (right) pizza.
While we didn't eat either type today, some of the other pizzas I really enjoy at MM are the Kosmic Karma and Thai Dye pies. The Thai Dye is not always on the menu, but we recently enjoyed some of both at the new-ish uptown location near the BB&T ballpark. Kosmic Karma has a red sauce base (I really like the sweetness of Mellow Mushroom's tomato sauce) and is topped with mozzarella, sun dried tomatoes, spinach, feta, roma tomatoes, and a chunky pesto swirl. In the above picture (and in general when I order the Kosmic Karma), I ask for pineapple to be added to the pie, which gives the pizza a super awesome balance of sweet and savory flavors. The Thai Dye pizza has an oil and garlic base and is topped with mozzarella cheese, grilled curried chicken, roma tomatoes, onions, sweet thai chili sauce, and a cool salsa-like mix of basil and cucumbers. The flavors are absolutely outstanding and something that cannot be replicated (trust me, I've tried). 

All in all, I'm a big Mellow Mushroom fan, especially on a fat, buttery crust-craving type of day like today. For pizza, Mellow Mushroom is in my regular rotation of favorite joints and both the uptown and Myers Park locations get a strong 8.25.

Mellow Mushroom on Urbanspoon  Mellow Mushroom on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 8, 2014

Another Bruegger's Bender... The Jalapeño Bacon & Egg Sandwich with Sofrito Sauce

Shortly after I wrote my last post about Bruegger's Bagels' Riviera Egg Sandwich (not to be confused with my even previous-er post about the Chimicheddar Egg Sandwich), Bruegger's introduced a new specialty bagel: The Jalapeño Bacon & Egg Sandwich with Sofrito Sauce. Since I seem to be on a bit of a roll of over-scrutinizing the bakery's new products, I figured I'd check it out!

This is Brueggers' image of their bagel... it didn't exactly match mine.

The sandwich consists of egg, jalapeño bacon, cheddar cheese and "a zesty sofrito sauce" served on a 12-grain bagel. The picture hanging in the restaurant made it look pretty awesome (even though I wasn't quite sure what "sofrito sauce" was...). After doing some googling, I learned that there are many sauces that are identified as "sofrito," including variations from Italy, Spain, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. The word translates to "sautéed" and the sauce itself generally consists of some variety of aromatics sautéed (I guess that's a given...) in cooking oil. Bruegger's seems to be using a Caribbean-style sofrito that is made with onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, garlic, cilantro, and jalapeños in a canola/olive oil blend. 

My Jalapeño Bacon & Egg Sandwich (on an Onion Bagel)

I placed an order for my sandwich and a giant Diet Coke andddd... was informed that they were out of multi-grain bagels. I opted to sub in an onion bagel (mostly because of the enticing "hot" sign hanging from the bin) and watched the friendly Bruegger's employee slap together my sandwich.  My first observation was that the final product didn't really resemble the beautiful ad photo.... at all (and not just because of the bagel swap).  The egg on mine looked more hard-cooked than the ad's scrambled patty and the cheese and sofrito were all but M.I.A., but there was a ton of bacon, so I remained excited about giving it a shot. All in all, it was pretty tasty. Despite the fact that the sauce was barely visible, I could definitely taste it and appreciated the spiciness and herbaciousness that it gave to the sandwich. In combination with the egg and bacon (I'm leaving the cheese out of the equation because, as expected, I could barely taste it), it made for a hearty, tasty (enough) breakfast sandwich. It was nowhere near as delicious as the Chimicheddar Egg Sandwich, but beats out the Riviera Egg Sandwich in terms of flavor and is certainly something I can see myself ordering again. Overall, I'd label it a near-hit, but I'll be looking forward to whatever pops up on the specialty sandwich menu next.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Va da Vie Gelato - Park Road Shopping Center

I have a new love: Va da Vie Gelato. The retro-chic shop (if the Jetson's owned a gelato joint, I'm pretty sure it would look like the interior of this place) is located in a cute wooden building smack dab in the middle of the Park Road Shopping Center. I recently visited and was able to try a few of the night's featured flavors: almond, chocolate hazelnut, and pistachio. They also make fruit sorbets (my friend Marie and my brother's girlfriend, Keagan are both big fans of the strawberry) that I'm looking forward to trying on a future visit.

Small cup of almond gelato
Medium cup of half-chocolate hazelnut, half-pistachio gelato

The gelato and sorbet is all made in the store with fancy imported ingredients (the website says their pistachios are grown in "volcanic soil at the base of [Sicily's] Mount Aetna and only harvested every 2 years" and the hazelnuts are from the Piemonte region of Italy) as well as local milk, cream, and produce.  The gelato/sorbet is crafted in big, shiny, industrial-looking machines and the day's selection of flavors are sold in small, medium, and large-sized cups.  While the servings look relatively small compared to what you'll get at Ben & Jerry's or another ice cream shop, the heavenly, rich gelato is dense and insanely filling. Even on an extra-hungry night, the small would make a perfectly-sized portion (unless you want a half-and-half cup, which is only available in medium or large). Of all the flavors I've sampled, my favorite is definitely the uber-delicious chocolate hazelnut -it's like Nutella, but places greater emphasis on the hazelnuts than the chocolate. The pistachio is also an excellent combo of savory and sweet flavors, and is a favorite of both BFTB and my dad. The almond was a little sweeter than I expected, but still incredibly tasty, and definitely something I would order again. 

All in all, I'm really excited that Va da Vie has set up shop in the Park Road Shopping Center (especially because it is much closer to my house than my other favorite dessert spot, Pinkberry). The gelato is a little pricey, but the outstanding quality makes it worth every penny. For dessert, Va da Vie Gelato gets a 9.25/10.

Va da Vie Gelato on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Tin Tin Box & Noodles - Uptown

After dominating (if I do say so myself...) an hour-long Flywheel class two Saturdays ago, I had a sudden, out-of-control hankering for hibachi chicken and salad with ginger dressing. Since high school, my normal go-to for quick-serve Japanese food has been Yoshi's Grill in Huntersville, but I wasn't exactly feeling the 20+-mile commute post-workout... I started perusing the interwebs for recommendations a little closer to home, but pretty much came up dry. I voiced my concerns to BFTB (read: I whined like a baby about my unsatisfied shrimp sauce craving) and he suggested that we head to center city and try Tin Tin Box & Noodles, a restaurant relatively close to his office uptown. 

BFTB told me that this place gets slammed on weekdays, but we were some of the only customers in the restaurant at 2-ish p.m. on Saturday. We snagged some Diet Cokes out of the fridge (I later discovered that they also carry fountain Pepsi products) and placed an order for a ginger salad and two hibachi chicken meals. We walked to the upstairs dining area and had to wait for twelve-ish minutes before our food was ready. 

BFTB retrieved our meals (partly because my legs were shot and I couldn't fathom the idea of walking up and down the stairs again) and we dug in. I first tried the ginger salad and was pretty underwhelmed. The "salad" was served in a plastic clamshell container and consisted of dicey iceberg lettuce (mostly the dry, bitter end-pieces) and a few carrot slivers. The dressing was served on the side and was even more disappointing. It tasted more like orange juice than ginger and was oddly sour. My biggest issue with it, however, was that it was so insanely chunky that I couldn't distribute it evenly over the lettuce. I basically had three overloaded-with-dressing bites and was then left with about 95% of the lettuce in its naked, untasty form.

After giving up on the salad, I dug into my hibachi chicken. The chicken was mixed in with mushroom slices and served atop a bed of fried rice (you can sub in steamed white or brown rice for a small upcharge) alongside a mix of broccoli and onions and a little cup of pink-colored shrimp sauce. Pros: the chicken pieces were all big hunks of white meat and the shrimp sauce was sweet and creamy. Cons: pretty much everything else. I was disappointed by the dinky,  overcooked veggies and the fact that the chicken was dried out, but the biggest issue was how freaking salty everything was. When I was younger, I had a pet rabbit named Cocoa Krispie. Ms. Krispie had a 4" salt block hooked to the bars of her cage... I would not be shocked if somebody told me that the Tin Tin chefs took that entire salt block and ground it up into my meal. I'm generally a fiend for all things sodium-laden, but the level of saltiness was ridiculous. Without a heavy coat of the thick, sweet shrimp sauce, the food would have been borderline inedible. Even discounting the salt issue, the flavors were generally unimpressive and still left me with an unsatisfied hibachi craving.

All in all, Tin Tin Box & Noodles was a big letdown (I guess there is a silver lining in that it made me drink about a gallon of water that day as a result of my sodium-induced dehydration). I'm still on the lookout for good quick-serve hibachi in Charlotte, so feel free to send recommendations my way! In the meantime, I'll avoid Tin Tin and continue to head north to Yoshi's. For quick-serve Asian food, Tin Tin gets a 4.5/10.

Tin Tin Box & Noodles on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 18, 2014

Fire in the City.... is back!!!

I remember the moment when I first learned about the Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series and the Fire in the City tournament... I was driving from the Cabarrus County jail to my office (not because I got arrested, it was part of my occupational duties)  and listening to "Charlotte Talks" on NPR. I was half paying attention until they started discussing a multi-course Iron Chef-like competition between Charlotte-area chefs. After following up with some intense Google searching and reading up on the rules of the competition, I was officially intrigued and decided to buy BFTB and myself tickets for one of the rounds that was to take place that very night. 

Displaying 2014 Fire in the City.JPG
The 2014 Fire in the City chefs in front of the Mobile Pantry

We didn't really know what we were getting into, but enthusiastically (and hungrily) showed up at the host site (Bonterra) at 6:30 p.m. and were seated at a table in the middle of the restaurant. We made friends with our tablemates and ended up having an awesome time as Chef Brian Mottola of e2 and Chef David Bettendorf of River's Edge duked it out over six courses of fabulous food. That night, the secret ingredient (which is always a North Carolina product that the chef's learn of at 1 p.m. on the day of the event) was Old Mill of Guilford's Stone Ground Grits. The chefs (each with the assistance of two sous chefs) work all day to create three courses each of dishes using only the secret ingredient and food from the competition's "Mobile Pantry" (a really awesome box truck stocked with an amazing selection of proteins, veggies, fruits, and other delicious meal-making supplies). Don't expect to see any kind of standard meals however --the chefs are prohibited from cooking their "signature dishes" or anything off the menu at their restaurants. The courses are then served to the attendees in a blind format. They tell you not to even try guessing who prepared which course, and that's good advice --we shared a table with the family of one of the chefs, and they couldn't even ID their son's dish. That night, some of my favorite courses included Chef Bettendorf's Southern Sushi (poached cabbage filled with white grits, country ham, mirin, and wasabi, accompanied by pickled jicama slaw, wasabi creme fraiche, and wonton crisps) and Chef Mottola's Truffle Beurre Fondue Poached Lobster (accompanied by a mascarpone yellow corn grits cake, radish, asaparagus, and heirloom tomato salad).  Drool.

While eating the food was obviously a pretty awesome part of the experience, it was even neater how interactive the event was --seriously, if you've ever dreamed of being a judge on Iron Chef, this is probably as close as you're going to get. There are two categories of judges, the pros (local celeb's and foodies whose votes count for 30% of the result) and the joes (the laypeople, a.k.a. me, BFTB, and everybody else who paid for tickets... our votes counted for 70% of the result). Before attending, you download the Competition Dining app to your phone/tablet. The app serves as your scorecard for the event, and the courses (this year) are judged based on presentation, aroma, overall flavor, flavor of the secret ingredient, execution, creativity, use of the secret ingredient, and accompaniments (clearly it's an intense scoring process!). After each round, you vote, and at the very end, you submit your scores for the final tally. One glass of wine later, they'd totaled the scores and we had a result... Chef Mottola was our champ (unfortunately he wasn't as lucky in the next round and lost to the ultimate winner, Chef Jon Fortes of Mimosa Grill). Seriously, it was so much fun that before we even left the parking lot, I called my parents and told them that they had to join us for another round. In addition to being tasty, it was an amazingly well-run event, especially for it being Charlotte's first year as a participant in the statewide competition. The founder and event host, Jimmy Crippen, was funny, personable, and fantastically knowledgeable about all things related to the Old North State. We ended up buying tickets to the Peculiar Rabbit vs. Wooden Vine event a few weeks later, and had an equally amazing night.

So, in my usual long-winded format, that was my way of saying that everybody should check out Competition Dining now that it's back in Charlotte for the 2014 Fire in the City Tournament. The events will occur on the following nights:

  • Sept. 8 Dinner: Aug. 18 winner versus Aug. 19 winner
  • Sept. 9 Dinner: Aug. 20 winner versus Aug. 25 winner
  • Sept. 15 Dinner: Aug. 26 winner versus Aug. 27 winner
  • Sept. 16 Dinner: Sept. 2 winner versus Sept. 3 winner
  • Sept. 22 Dinner: Sept. 8 winner versus Sept. 9 winner
  • Sept. 23 Dinner: Sept. 15 winner versus Sept. 16 winner
 Final Battle (Fire in the City championship event)
  • Sept. 29 Dinner: Sept. 22 winner versus Sept. 23 winner
The winner of the Final Battle will then go on to compete in the Final Fire competition in Raleigh the week before Thanksgiving. Personally, I'm pretty stoked about the opening night and reigning champ Jon Fortes' battle against David Sullivan of Fish Market, but I'm hoping to attend at least a few of the rounds! Tickets for the preliminary and quarterfinal rounds are $59 plus tax and a service charge (so $74.78 plus whatever adult beverages you decided to imbibe) and tickets for the semifinal and final rounds ring in at $69 plus tax and a service charge ($87.46 plus drinks). This year, they're also offering flights of specially-picked NC wines and beer at $20 and $15 respectively. While it's not a cheap night, especially if you like to put back a few glasses of vino like yours truly, I can confidently say that it is worth every single penny. So make some reserv's ASAP... because like last year, I'm sure that the events will sell out!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Le's Sandwiches & Cafe - North Charlotte

For over a year now, I've been hearing (repeatedly) that I need to check out Le's Sandwiches & Cafe in the semi-abandoned Asian Corner Mall off North Tryon Street. One of my coworkers and I decided to journey over about a week ago in order to give the banh mi's a shot, and I've since returned for lunch twice. It is that good.

My friend Noora had warned me that upon first glance (and second glance... and third glance...) the mall resembles a scene from The Walking Dead, and she is definitely right. The parking lot is covered with crater-size potholes to the extent that one should only make the journey in an SUV or some other car with generous ground clearance. Aesthetically, the inside of the mall also leaves something to desire. We walked in the first entrance and were greeted by plywood-covered storefronts, pockmarked-chipped floors, a generous assortment of random garbage and debris, and a group of old men smoking by an empty fountain.

It's easy to pick out Le's, because it was pretty much the only populated site in the mall. We walked in and asked the man at the register which sandwich was the most popular. He responded that they were all popular. We then asked which sandwich we should try since it was our first visit. He responded that we should try them all. With that helpful guidance, we both decided to order the #6, the grilled pork banh mi. Combined with a Diet Coke from the fridge case (Le's also sells a bunch of crazy juices and teas that I hope to try on a future, more adventurous visit), my entire meal rang in at a whopping $5.08. Score. 

Our meals were ready within a few minutes and we dug in. Since the sandwich itself only cost $3.75, I expected it to be fairly dinky. That was definitely not the case. If the baguette had not been cut in half, it would have been at least the length of my forearm (and I have some freakishly long monkey arms, FYI). The bread was coated with a thin layer of mayo and loaded up with pork, carrots, daikon radishes, cilantro, and jalapenos. It was simultaneously sweet, spicy, salty, and sour... and the combo was outstanding. The bread was also a perfect balance of crusty-on-the-outside and soft and fluffy-on-the-inside. My coworker and I both left stuffed and already planning a return visit. I hurried back a few days later with BFTB (who was also a huge Le's fan) and tried the BBQ pork option. It was also a really outstanding banh mi, but was not quite as flavorful as the grilled pork variety. 

A few days after that, I returned with a bunch of other coworkers, and everybody left amazed at the gloriousness that is Le's Sandwiches & Cafe. One of the things I was able to try was one of "Asia's Famous Rice Cakes" that Le's sells prepackaged along with its homemade beef jerky, desserts, and candies. As I expected, it was kind of like a muted, less sweet form of a Rice Krispie treat, with tiny flecks of caramel-y flavor. It didn't really blow me away and certainly can't hold a candle when compared to the banh mi, but I might get a wild hare and try one again at some point. 

All in all, I couldn't have been more impressed by the banh mi at Le's Sandwiches & Cafe, especially considering the price point (where can you even get another sandwich in Charlotte for $3.75?!). While the location isn't fabulous, it's certainly worth the trek to get a super-awesome sandwich. For Asian food, Le's Sandwiches & Cafe gets a 9/10.

Le's Sandwiches & Cafe on Urbanspoon