Thursday, December 31, 2009

Conejito's Place: Come for the food, stay for the hospitality

Imagine coming to the end of Sixth Street, just before the graceful, shining white spires of the 6th street viaduct. Imagine a bar/restaurant/banquet hall, bedecked with shimmering vegas-style signs, compete with a sombrero-wearing, mustachioed rabbit who, in some depictions, is sipping a margarita. This is the point at which you probably say to me, "Uh, Joe, maybe Qdoba is still open..." And this is the point at which I say, "I'm never going to Qdoba again, as long as Conejito's Place is open..."

The restaurant is hard to miss, what with easily a few hundred blinking lights and miles of neon surrounding the façade. Virginia St. offers plenty of angle parking, and the area is well lit at night. Inside, you'll find two large bar areas, a small dining area adjacent to one, a larger with the other, and if you're really lucky, José "Conejito" Garza might just be sitting at the bar, smiling and greeting guests as they're seated.

Right away, Andy says to me with all the enthusiasm you can muster for such things, "You're not going to believe the prices." Now, I had heard that Conejito's was inexpensive, but I guess I never realized just how inexpensive it really was. Glancing over the menu, I found prices ranging from $0.75, all the way up to (gasp!) $5. Right away, we ordered chips and guac, and chips and salsa. The chips and guac hit us for $3.95, and the chips and salsa a paltry $1.50.

When our chips and dips arrived, we were all a little surprised to see them on paper plates. Yes, Conejitos actually does have China. No, you probably won't have your food served to you on any. The paper plates are part of the charm, and if that sort of thing scares you, well, you've been reading the wrong blog.

The chips were outstanding: well seasoned, crunchy, but not brittle, and not overly oily. The guac was certainly different from what I was expecting: smooth and creamy, it was less of fatty mash of avocado, and more of a cool, refreshing dip. I know I tasted dairy in there... maybe sour cream? A little cool, a little tangy, a lot lighter than your average guac... it wasn't a strictly traditional recipe, but I like that. A nice, surprising twist to something that is so, so easy to screw up.

The salsa was marvelous. Bright and flavorful, well balanced between tomato, onion, and supporting players... and with more than a little heat. The counterpoint of the hot salsa to the cooling guac was not lost on us: I highly recommend ordering them together. You won't be disappointed!

Next up on the paper plate extravaganza was our entrées:

Lauren: Chicken Enchiladas (3, with beans or rice for a staggering $3.80)

Andy: Beef Steak and Bean Tacos (4, for $4.30)

Myself: White Meat Chicken Molé (a large portion of white meat chicken, beans, and rice for $5)

I also decided, just because it was $1.25, to try a pork burrito:

Andy's tacos were gone before I had a chance to sample them, so all I know is that Andy told us they were fantastic. I did, however, get to try Lauren's enchiladas, which were stuffed with chicken, cheese, and onions -- with more cheese melted over the top. The flavor was dead-on. Pungent onions, tangy cheese, perfectly seasoned chicken, all in a corn tortilla. They were absolutely delicious. And an absolute steal.

My chicken molé was sublime. The molé was dark and rich, bursting with a host of what I can only assume were freshly toasted and ground spices, with that hint of sweetness of cocoa, and the smack of toasted bread crumbs. Mixing the rice, beans, chicken, molé on a warm flour tortilla was heaven, but the chicken by itself shown even brighter. The breast itself was tender and not even close to tough or overcooked, and the amount of sauce on the plate (which was china, by the way!) was just enough for the meal -- not so much you're swimming in it, looking for the meat.

Molé, it seems to me, is like sausage is to my Pomeranian ancestors: we might call it one name, but everyone has their own recipe. Conejito's recipe is a keeper: rich and bright, with all of the cooked all day depth you'd expect, but none of the flatness that comes with slow, long cooking methods.

I was certainly glad I ordered the pork burrito. It was small, nothing particularly pretty to look at, but the pulled pork inside was incredibly flavorful, fatty, and absolutely tender. As a pre-cursor to my molé, it was a an excellent surprise. Just don't expect to make a meal of one!

As we were getting ready to leave (after paying our $26 tab -- mind you, for three people, sodas included!), I asked our waiter for a menu to take with me, and explained to him why I was taking pictures. He immediately introduced me to the owner, José, who was sitting at the bar essentially the whole time we were there, talking with diners, shaking hands, bragging about his "world famous" eggs. I immediately understood what makes Conejito's so special: it was the man behind the name.

Mr. Garza was welcoming with a passion: telling us again and again how much it meant to him to have us in his restaurant that night, insisting that we take some calendars with us, inviting us to try his Huevos Rancheros on a Sunday: his hospitality overfloweth. It became readily apparent that above the stellar food, above the unbelievable prices, that the heart and love that went into the business is what makes it thrive (and thrive it does!). The few minutes spent talking with Mr. Garza were thoroughly enjoyable, made me appreciate my delicious meal all the more. This wasn't just Mexican food: this was a man's life's work.

Conejito's Place has a guaranteed place in our top ten, and I have no doubt it will in yours, as well. We all highly recommend you find some time soon to discover "Milwaukee's Finest Mexican Food."

Report Card:
Atmosphere: B+
Some kitschy art, some random stuffed rabbits, a smattering of framed reviews, articles and pictures, and some very light background music. Paper plates for most of the food, and bare tabletops. No dancing waiters, no flaming drinks. Just my kind of place.

Prices: A+
Uh, the most expensive food item on the menu is $5. Even I could afford to eat here weekly!

Service: A
Our waiter was prompt and friendly. We had a fantastic time chatting it up with José and his staff... exactly the kind of evening out I could stand more often.

The Food: A
I think that what makes the food most delicious is the fact it's insanely cheap. Everything easily stands on its own, but food is tastier when it's not making you broke. Simple law of physics.

The Details:

Conejito's Place
(414) 278-9106
539 West Virginia Street
Milwaukee, WI 53204

Conejito's Place on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 28, 2009

Eating Milwaukee: Holiday Special

It's been a little while since we've posted, well, anything, and I figured I could make a sort of peace offering, now that we seem to have joined the big leagues, what with our own domain and facebook page and all...

Well, here we go. I figured, since I didn't actually have a real review to post, I could let you in on what at least some of your staff members had for Christmas...meals.

I actually would hope that someone would let us know what your favorite food traditions are for the holidays... maybe this could turn into an interactive extravaganza! E-mail us here at the blog or visit the facebook fan page and post there -- bonus points for pictures!

We at the Laedtke-Lukezich-Brzezinski household started things off on Christmas Eve with a tray of fresh veggies, some Knorr vegetable dip, and a plate of assorted sausages:

Here, we have, from left to right around the plate, Krawowska sausage,Mortadella with Pistachios,and finally, Bierwurst.

The Krakowska is a Polish sausage with an attitude: big, chewy chunks of pork, tons of garlic and corriander, and just a little bit of herbage to round things out. The mortadella was a nice change of pace from our tradition: smooth and gently spiced, but still with a funky flavor of the nuts and neck fat. Lastly, the bierwurst: strong, with just a little bit of bit, and a medium-smooth grind. Thank you, very much, Usingers!.

All of this tasty goodness was rounded out with some slices of Havarti cheese:

I rounded out the evening with my mom's hybrid cross between a Monte Cristo and a Croque Monsieur. Custard-soaked bread, filled with fabulous salty ham, swiss cheese, and dijon mustard... then pan-fried. Oh, the joy!

Come Christmas morning, my wonderful mother had something special in store:

French toast, stuffed with raspberry preserves and sweetened cream cheese, topped with a fresh raspberry sauce. All of this madness was served with a few steamed Polish Delight sausages (a cross between a Maxwell Street Polish, and a more traditional wiejska).

Also making an appearance with a fresh fruit assortment, served with a yoghurt-orange-poppy seed dressing:

After being completely stuffed, I put the finishing touches on the lemon créme tartlets... piping the lemon créme (mascarpone cheese and lemon curd) into the sugar cookie shells, and topping them with a fresh raspberry:

After the traditional Brzezinski Christmas Ham Dinner, consisting of ham, ham, and more ham:

we topped things off with my mom's Peppermint Cane Torte:

And, at that point, I gave up trying to take pictures and slipped quietly into a food coma. I woke up this morning.

Happy Holidays from the staff at Eating Milwaukee, and don't forget... we REALLY WANT TO HEAR ABOUT YOUR HOLIDAY FOODS! Drop us a line!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Arriba's Restaurant and Lounge: A Mixed Bag

When Lauren and Andy called me, I was heading out to lunch at (gag) Applebee's with a friend after drooling over some extremely out-of-my-price-range custom audio gear at Sound Investments. They wanted to do a review, and I thought... good. Anything to redeem the day after eating at Applebee's. Seriously. Anything. Someone could have clocked me in the puss with a garden spade, and I think I'd have gone to bed laughing about it. I'm not sure there's any food experience more unpleasant than Applebee's. Particularly after seeing Waiting...

So, we decided on the Arriba Lounge, located very conveniently off of 41/45 and Hampton, on 124th St. in Butler.


Yeah, I kind of forgot that the Village of Butler even existed. Sorry to our three readers in Butler. It's just so easy to overlook... I mean, outside of Butler Skateland, is there anything really spectacular about the Land Time Forgot?

Well, we were going to find out. Arriba Lounge is situated in two what appear to be turn-of-the-century storefront/apartment combos, linked by a small, aftermarket hallway. One side is the what I would assume they consider the "Lounge" portion, the other is the dining room. And what a dining room it is!

Cochineal walls, a fabulous pressed tin ceiling, and a number of south-of-the-border wallhangings contribute to the, "Hey, Gringo, This is a Mexican Restaurant" quotient, which always makes me a little queasy. Especially the sombreros hanging above the service area painted to look like a decrepit Spanish Mission. BONG! SANCTUARY! SANCTUARY! What? Restaurant review? Oh, right...

So, I got there late (no surprise), and Andy and Lauren had decided to tuck into the offerings of three (3) salsas and homemade chips, just in case I didn't show up.

So, we had a mild Pico, milder still Salsa Verde, and an apparently gawd-awful hot devil's breath with Habañero chili. The fresh pico was a nice blend with the super-crunchy homemade chips, but the verde had a sort of off-flavor to it. I usually expect tomatillos to have a bit of an acidic bite to them, but this wasn't so acidic... almost had a sort of metallic taste to it. We also ordered a large order of their guac, which came highly recommended by our server:

I couldn't help but notice that our large guac came in the same plastic dessert dish that the salsas came in. If that was a large, what was the small? Tucking in right away, the smooth buttery texture of the avocado gave room to a very strong aroma of garlic. I was encouraged, but that encouragement sort of fell short. Where I expected a little salt, a little heat, a little acid, I got... garlic. Even the flavor of the avocado itself was sort of underwhelming. Luckily, the Eating Milwaukee staff is a resourceful bunch: there was slices of lime on our glasses of soda!

I was elected to do the lime squeezing, but much to my chagrin, our limes were the new Florida Hybrid Juiceless™ brand. Oh, the humanity! Maybe three drops of lime juice later, and it was on to plan 'B': salt. Surely the miniature plastic Corona bottle filled with salt would help. Well, it did, a bit. But then I had a brainstorm: what if we mix in a little of the salsa verde? Brilliant! Except now, instead of a custard cup of garlicky, bland guac, we had a custard cup of salty, garlicky, metallic guac. So much for Guacamole bliss...

Andy ordered the Enchiladas Suizas with steak and Chorizo:

Lauren, the Combo Platter (Taco, tostada, and enchilada):

And I ordered the house special Fajitas de Camarones:

I was immediately excited by the description of my dish on the menu: shrimp cooked with pineapple, bacon, bell peppers and onions. Oooh! Pineapple, bacon and shrimp! This was the sort of food I could get behind.

However, when the cast-iron skillet arrived, I was hard pressed to see any pineapple or bacon anywhere. I did, however, see a mound of shrimp, onions, and peppers, studded with bits of chopped garlic. Okay, I thought, maybe I'm just not seeing the pineapple and bacon 'cause it's tucked under this gigantic mountain of shrimp. I'm sure I'll find it.

Well, try as I might, I couldn't find a single bit of bacon or slice of pineapple. So, unless the shrimp were cooked with said ingredients and then removed, I just can't find any explanation other than the recipe got changed and the menu didn't. I was a little disappointed. Add to that the gigantic pool of shrimp-juice at the bottom of the skllet, and the soggy, steamed texture of the veggies, and this was starting to shape up into a sub-par dinner. I truly believe the only saving grace was the large portion size... which in and of itself was a mixed blessing, in that I got to experience that same sense of disappointment tonight again when I had my leftovers.

Andy and Lauren seemed to echo my sentiments: good enough food, but just something missing. What was it? None of us were sure. I got to taste Andy's chorizo, which was spicy, crumbly and greasy... all of the wonderful things about chorizo. But it still lacked a certain "pop": that one aspect that takes technically sound and well-prepared food and transports it to a whole-body experience. For more on food like that, please read last week's review on Tandoor.

Was the Arriba Lounge a bust? No, I don't think so. We got more than our money's worth in portions, but always felt like we were only getting half the story from the kitchen. Maybe someone was having a bad day. Maybe one of the cooks called in sick. Who knows. But I truly believe that there's greatness lurking in Arriba's menu, they just have a little bit of tightening up to do.

Report Card:
Atmosphere: B+
Is it possible for a Mexican restaurant to try too hard? Yes, yes it is. Ask Chi-chi's. Ignore the sombreros hanging on the walls. They're just there waiting for the next installment of Nacho Libre to be filmed.

Prices: A
Big, big plates of food. Hot, and not stingy with the proteins, either. Most dinners range from $8-$15

Service: B
We ran out of chips a little too often, and by the time we got more, we had our entrées. Not a big beef, I know, but when we go out to eat, timing is everything.

The Food: C+
And it does hurt me to not give a glowing grade, but I just can't in good conscience shout from the hilltops about this one. You're better off with Taco Thursday's at Grebe's. Now that's a value!

The Details:

Arriba's Restaurant and Lounge
(262) 783-7630
4753 North 124th Street
Butler, WI 53007

Arriba Mexican on Urbanspoon

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Tandoor: Indian Dining Bliss...

Waxing poetic about the symphonic wonderment that is Indian Cuisine is sort of like writing a love song: it's all been done before. Ask any foodie about their opinions on Indian food, and they'll promptly melt into a puddle of mewling goo, expounding the virtues of the spicing, regaling in the perfectly cooked meats, rich gravies, and lavish rice. Oh, we all love Indian food. But I'll let you in on a little secret: if you want the most perfectly food-gasmic Indian experience possible, you're going to have to make a field trip over to Tandoor, in good old West Allis.

I think it probably shows a bit of bias that I haven't really even written a word about the food itself, and I'm already calling Tandoor the best destination for Indian food in the city, if not the state. But the fact of the matter is, I've dined at almost every Indian restaurant in every major metropolitan area in Wisconsin, and I can honestly say that Tandoor has delivered the goods, time and time again, always leaving me immensely full and awed at their culinary abilities. That said, let's talk Indian food for a moment, shall we?

Tandoor immediately greets you with a warm, comforting blanket of spiced air the second you open the door. There's ginger, coriander, cumin, garlic... the smell is heavenly, and sets the stage for what's ahead. The restaurant itself is a bit odd, consisting of a bar side (which, to be honest, I don't think I've ever seen anyone sitting at), and a dining room side. It's positioned at one end of a row of businesses on Highway 100, just about a block north of Greenfield avenue. The interior is spartan, with some traditional tapestries hanging on the walls, simple tables and chairs, and just a little Asha Bhosle piped into the dining room, to never let you forget how close Bollywood is to taking over the world.
The restaurant is always clean, well lit, and well attended, but I've never had to wait for a table. During the week, Tandoor has an exceptional lunch buffet, and the dinner menu offers all of those options and more.

You may notice that the interior of Tandoor is a bit, well, homely... you'd be correct in your assessment. And as far as I'm concerned, that's okay. Actually, more than okay. I would venture to say that the combination of humble space and extraordinary food is what makes Tandoor such a find: this place is all about the food. No pretense, no out-of-body decorating experience... just absolutely breathtaking food. Tandoor is one of the few restaurants in my short list of favorite places that has no "environment" column, just because I think it's sort of irrelevant: you go for the food, not the décor.

Tandoor is, of course, named for the Indian clay oven used for a number of dishes. Tandoori chicken, which is probably the most well-known of these, is a perennial favorite on the menu. While none of the Eating Milwaukee staff ordered it on our visit, we've all had it before, and it certainly is worth the praise and reputation which follows it. Tender and lightly spiced, with that nuclear-red color so traditional, it's the perfect solution to both boring American barbecued chicken in the Summer months, and pale and bland baked chicken in the Winter. But, I digress: as much as I love a good hunk of yard bird seared in a rocket-hot clay oven, there are other, less pedestrian treats to behold. Let us then progress to the run-down, shall we?

You should be aware that when you are seated, regardless of your dining choices, you'll be treated to a plate of Papadum: and a triumvirate of chutneys... mint, tamarind, and onion:

There are certain things you have to do when visiting Tandoor. One of them is order appetizers. Tandoor's appetizer offerings are not only expansive, but genuinely interesting, bypassing so many of the "filler" appetizers we're all used to. All types of Pakoras (fritters), breads, soups, and superb Samosas adorn the offerings. We ordered four deep-fried treats:

Shrimp Pakora

Chicken Pakora

Paneer Pakora

And Samosas

The chicken pakoras are always a personal favorite. Loving referred to amongst the staff as "Indian Chicken Strips," the pakoras consist of chicken thigh meat, spiced and breaded in a chickpea batter, and fried to GBD perfection. The shimp and paneer (a home-made, fresh farmer's-type cheese) are given similar treatment. The batter on each gets super-extra crispy, and has a wonderful spice and saltiness to it -- not too strong, not too bland, but balanced in a way that is so typical in Indian cuisine. The samosas were the stars, however, with a crumbly, crispy pastry shell, and smooth, spicy filling consisting of potatoes and peas. Lauren, not being a potato fan, was a bit leery. However, upon continuous egging on from the rest of the staff, she finally caved, and quickly exclaimed, "You can't even tell it's potato!"

One of the things that always amazes me about Indian cooking is how a basic stable of spices can be re-combined in so many different ways, yielding different results each time. Most of the dishes that form the foundation of Indian cuisine use the same basic spices, yet when combined in different proportions, sometimes omitting one, sometimes the other, different dishes can take on completely unique personalities. Taking advantage of this, many Indian dishes spawn from a number of basic sauces (something like French Mother Sauces). Regardless of whether Tandoor uses this strategy in their kitchen, I can say with all confidence that each and every item on their menu has such a specific and unique identity, they all taste as though they have been made individually, specifically to order. I like that.

We each ordered a different curry, with the break down as follows:

Joe: Chicken Shaahi Korma

Lauren: Chicken Makhani (Butter Chicken)

Andy: Garlic Chicken and Shrimp

My Chicken Shaahi Korma was beyond reproach. A smooth, creamy gravy, filled to the brim with plump, sweet golden raisins, and spiked with half cashews, it was both sweet, salty, and incredibly well spiced. The chicken chunks were tender, big, and plentiful. Combined with the large amounts of Basmati rice served with dinner, and the copious amount of fresh-baked garlic nan, the effect was amazing. Andy's Garlic Shrimp and Chicken was awe-inspiring, with a gravy so garlic-heavy it was almost too strong. Please note the operative word there: almost. For those who love garlic (me), this was just at the nexus of strength and flavor. For those who abhor garlic, well, good luck finding Indian food without it. Having had the garlic shrimp and chicken before, I was familiar with the basic flavor. However, Andy ordered his at a Medium hotness level, as opposed to my typical wussified Mild heat, or the iron-tongued Hot heat (sorry, I had to use red text somewhere in here). With the dish at medium heat, flavors seemed brighter, more pronounced. The garlic seemed less heavy, less oppressive, and had a pleasant heat augmented with the chili flavor.

Lauren's Chicken Makhani was typically delicious, with a rich, thick gravy heavy with tomato, garlic, ginger, cream, and butter, with a sweet set of spices that immediately made me think clove, cinnamon, and cardamom. The chicken tikka in her dish were tiny, tender cubes that were the perfect compliment to the delicate sauce.

There isn't much else to say that may expound the virtue of Tandoor, other than to say that every time we've visited (often) in the last seven years, we've been wowed, and honored. We always find ourselves thanking the accommodating staff, over and over, and from my point of view, it's because I feel sort of privileged to be able to eat with them. It feels like you're welcomed into their world, seated at the kitchen table of their home, and served their dinner, as opposed to going to some mock-Indian theme park that specializes in Americanized food that bears little to no resemblance to actual authentic cooking. It's a treat, and albeit one that cannot be over-used: I think part of the wonderment of Indian cooking is the fact that I can't, no matter how hard I try, re-create it at home.

I love Tandoor, always have, and always will. The wait staff is inviting and fun, very attentive and engaging. The menu is immense and comprehensive, and the food... well, the food will leave you smiling in such a way that is normally reserved for more, ahem, adult activities. Visit soon, and visit often, as any of the Eating Milwaukee staff will tell you.

Report Card:
Atmosphere: B
Is this really important when you consider the food? I mean, you've got nice linen napkins, Asha Bhosle, and the smell of a thousand spices in the air. What more do you need?

Prices: A-
Certainly fair, although not the least expensive I've seen. When your food arrives, give in to the panic that you aren't getting a whole lot in that little metal bowl. Dump some curry on a pile of rice, and then tell me you aren't going to have enough to be full... especially as you pack your left-overs in a to-go box. A little goes a long way, and portion sizes are plenty big. Most entrées fall into the $9-$14 range.

Service: A+
Fun, smiling, and pleasant. And oh, do they make sure your water glass is full!

The Food: A+(++++)
Exceptional in every way. Order anything you want, you'll be happy. No heap of praise will ever explain how much I love Tandoor, you're just going to have to experience it yourself.

The Details:

Tandoor Restaurant
(414) 777-1600
1117 S. 108th St.
West Allis, WI 53214

Online menu (danger! out of date prices and offerings!) available here.

Tandoor on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 3, 2009

Benji's: A Classic To Some, News To Me...

I was watching the Food Network the other day (because I don't have enough to fill my time with as it is...), and the show they were running was something along the lines of, "The Best Thing I've Ever Eaten." This skinny, kinda witchy looking brunette whom I've never seen on TV before starts yammering on about her favorite desert... some sundae (probably in LA or Seattle or San Francisco) where they take Schokinag chocolate ice cream (elitist golf claps), and top it with sea salt, whipped cream, and -- get this -- bergamot infused olive oil. Oh, what has the food world come to?

We can't even be satisfied with a premium chocolate ice cream any more. We have to tart it up with all sorts of non-dessert stuff, slather olive oil, sprinkle sea salt... I mean, there's all sound culinary knowledge behind those additions, but I have to ask... is it necessary?

I'm being unfair and small-minded, I know. But with my monthly operating budget shrinking by the day, the simpler, tried-and-true treats I know deliver on their promises become more and more attractive.

Take, for instance, Kopp's vanilla custard. Simple. Consistent. Hasn't changed in the past 40 years. But when you really strip away the hype, it's absolutely entrancing, deep and dark, sweet, fatty, creamy, eggy, with this smooth gloss of cooked custard flavor that just screams home-made. No designer chocolate, no crazy savory ingredients. Just a half a century of tradition, plopped in a plastic bowl with a little cookie crisp, just how it's always been. There's comfort in that, particularly when it's a little shaky if I'm going to have enough gas in the Focus to make it to next payday.

Which I think is why Benji's has enjoyed such continued success for so many years. The food served is simple. The setting is spartan. And the experience is consistent.

On our latest outing, Andy, Lauren, and our latest staff member, Adam, took a trip to Milwaukee's (the North Shore's, to be more precise) authentic, honest-to-G-D, New York style deli.

Benji's is a no-frills affair. There are small tables, banquettes, a counter, and a couple of coolers. A few pictures on the wall, a few road signs for good measure, and that's about all there is to the interior.

The menu is straightforward and succinct. With a variety of deli fixtures, we've always been to Benji's for either lunch or dinner (although I hear breakfast is to die for). Selections run the gamut of what you'd expect: cold cuts, corned beef, traditional Jewish deli fare.

We started out our dining experience with a cup of chicken soup with a Matzoh ball:

or a bowl of the Mushroom and Barley soup:

Since I did not order the mushroom barley soup, I have a hard time assessing it properly. However, I did delight in the tradition of matzoh ball soup, and feel dually qualified to comment on the treat.

Benji's matzoh ball soup is safe: no surprise. That may seem a little drowsy, but there's a time and a place for everything, and I believe the soup matches the restaurant. The salty yellow chicken broth reminds me of the chicken stews my Grandpa Al used to cook for the family. Little drops of nuclear-yellow schmaltz adorn the surface of the soup, and the matzoh ball, like a pale, pasty set of ass-cheeks looms over the broth. The flavors are familiar, delicate and comforting. The matzoh ball is smooth, firm but still creamy, with a tight skin on the outside and a giving, only faintly grainy interior. It's fluffy, it's buttocks-shaped, and it's marvelous.

Sandwiches at Benji's, as a rule, are gargantuan. For proof, take a look at this traditional Corned Beef sandwich:

Or, this Reuben:

Or, particularly, my Hear-O Israel:

The Hear-O Israel is made up of a menagerie of meats, including Corned Beef, Pastrami, Salami, and Peppered Beef. Add oily cole slaw, swiss cheese, and Thousand Island dressing, and you have indigestion on a plate.

The meats are massive. Like, I'm not sure how to properly describe them in words massive. In fact, I had to make sure to get a super-extra close-up shot of the meat, just to demonstrate how the different strata are clearly visible:

The meat component is sublime: salty, spicy, tender, and chewy all at once. The cheese is relatively mild, a bit player (actually, hardly necessary, but then... when is cheese ever unwanted?), the cole slaw both sweet, crisp, and a bit oily, and the thousand island dressing... well... thousand-islandy. Served with chips and a pickle spear, it is a completely filling dinner, and a lunch that will certainly yield leftovers.

Benji's doesn't parade around as something it's not: this is simple recipes, probably generations old, prepared and served in a loving but unadorned manner. It has become a favorite in my group of friends for Sunday afternoon Dunch. Or Linner, depending on how you look at it. Consistent, tasty, and a little on the pedestrian side, Benji's delivers the kosher goods again and again.

Report Card:
Atmosphere: A-
Kitschy, simple and fun, Benji's reminds me of the sort of places my dad would take me when my mom was working late. A great example of mid-50's lunch counter, Benjis' hasn't changed much since then.

Prices: B-
Prices, despite what you might think, aren't shockingly low. My Hear-O Israel set me back almost $12, and that's before you factor in a cup of soup and a drink. It's a damn good sandwich, and you get a stack of meat that would make R. Lee Ermey quiver, but you do pay a little bit for it.

Service: A
Quick, courteous, and not too invasive. Everything I like in wait staff.

The Food: A
A taste of childhood, of Grandpa Al's chicken stew and Grandma B's Matzoh balls (oh, we're Polish Catholics, so they were always dumplings to us, but the same thing, nonetheless). With so many of the old recipes dying with the Matriarchs and Patriarchs who held them, Benji's is a lifeline to foodways that are on the endangered species list.

The Details:

Benji's Restaurant and Deli
(414) 332-7777
4156 N. Oakland Ave.
Shorewood, WI 53211

Menu available online here

Benji's Delicatessen on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Kyoto Sushi Bar: It's not just for breakfast anymore...

Before I grew a pair in college, I wouldn't have touched a plate of sushi with a ten-foot cattle prod. It seemed to be reserved for the food elíte, the group who would use créme fraiche and truffles. Adventuresome, odd, and marginally disgusting, I would have never even considered it save for the fact that some of my fraternity brothers used it as a sort of masculine badge-of-honor. At that point, I realized what I needed to do: I needed to choke down some sushi, and act like I liked it.

Of course, choking it down became savoring, and acting never really took place at all: I immediately gravitated towards the perfectly zen mix: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, crunchy, soft, tender, chewy, creamy, oily: a sensory overload that is as much pleasure as it is challenge, even a little pain (bringing in Sriracha and Wasabi).

Finding a flawless sushi restaurant is a daunting task, and one I'm still chugging away at. My default was always Nakashima's in Appleton: as far as I'm concerned, despite the silliness of the hibachi, the combination of ambiance, food and service still place it among my favorites.

As the American palette warms to more authentic flavors from the East, we're being treated to more and more sushi bars in the Metro Milwaukee area, and lucky, lucky us! The sushi aficionados from such cultural melting pots on the Coasts would probably scoff; that's fine by me. True, we're landlocked. Fresh fish to us is anything that came out of the ocean in the last week, not the last few hours. True, a lot of the flavors, presentations, even the names are botched and gringo-ized, but I accept that. One thing about American culture is that it has the ability to absorb outside influences, reconstitute them, mutilate and meld them, and output something both old and completely new, a hybrid of American sensibilities and external traditions. We don't routinely ape other cultures, we assimilate. Good, bad, or otherwise, this is the nature of the nation.

Kyoto Japanese restaurant in Greenfield is one of those sort of multiplexed animals: recognizable for it's semi-traditional Japanese fair, but also distinctly American, and there is no better example of this than the all-you-can-eat made-to-order sushi extravaganza known as Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday nights.

The restaurant itself is situated in a strip-mall only a flew blocks away from Southridge Mall, tucked in with a salon, and Stan's footwear. An unusual location for a sushi bar, to be sure, but it seems to me that the best restaurants are often located in strip-malls like this: lower rents mean more resources to spend on staff, decor, or better yet: better ingredients and lower end-user costs. Either way, I've reconciled the fact that it isn't housed in a fancy, stand-alone box, and find the whole situation kind of charming, in a kitschy way.

The interior is spartan, with a basic drop-ceiling, formica wood tables, a few wood booths, black urushi lanterns, and a wall lined with the sushi bar itself. The space is filled with canned koto music, punctuated from time to time with the dulcet tones of "Happy Birthday." The whole operation reminds me a bit of old George Webb restaurant. Certainly not the most luxurious of environments, but I'm learning to embrace the idea that a coat of paint and some Ikea light fixtures does not a perfect restaurant make. The best food, it seems, comes from the most unlikely of surroundings.

The menu for this distinctly American twist on sushi is extensive enough. A full page, tightly packed, is laid out on the table before you, listing off Nigiri, Maki, House Special Maki, and Appetizers, to start. The appetizers include some old standbys, like Edamame, Gyozo, Shrimp Dumplings, and yakitori.

The AYCE sushi includes a cub of miso soup and a salad, the former most likely being the instant variety, the latter being standard iceberg lettuce with a ginger dressing. I can stand to live without the salad, but I can't pass up the miso soup. There's something about the salt-acid of the miso, slick and slippery seaweed, crunch of the green onions, and squish of the tofu cubes that puts me in the mood. Call me a simpleton. Kyoto's miso is of the white variety, and isn't anything out of the ordinary, but it is tasty as far as miso soups are concerned, and I'm okay with that.

I started the extravaganza off with chicken yakitori. Which is sort of a misnomer -- while marinated and skewered, I'm pretty sure that's where the similarities to the traditional form end. My yakitori was deep-fried, resembling more the teriyaki chicken you'd get from a Chinese take-out place than true grilled yakitori. Is this laziness? Is this necessity? I certainly didn't see a charcoal-fired grill anywhere in the restaurant, and I'm guessing there wasn't one lurking somewhere back in the kitchen, so this might be a case of substance over style. Regardless of the reasoning, it was still incredibly delicious... only mildy salty, with a hint of soy, garlic, and sesame oil. Crispy on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside.

We stuck with mainly maki rolls on this visit, ranging from the very basic (shrimp tempura or spicy tuna) to the more baroque (spider roll, with softshell crab, or fried oyster roll), to the downright silly (magic roll, dragon roll, snow white roll, which are all in essence just re-arrangements of shrimp tempura with different slices of tuna, salmon, or eel). Each roll arrived arranged cleanly and simply on the plate, some with a dusting of toasted panko, some with a squirt of eel sauce or spicy mayonnaise.

Instead of focusing on each individual roll, I think it's a lot easier to understand some sweeping generalizations. First, some of Kyoto's ingredients aren't the best out there. A few pieces of fish I ate were stringy with connective tissue, the shrimp can be a bit, well, shrimpy, and I once had a red clam nigiri where it was so painfully obvious that the red clam had been frozen and thawed multiple times that it was almost impossibly to chew. However, many of the fillings in the rolls are top-notch, and their combinations/ratios are spot-on. One clear winner for me was the fried oyster roll -- not something I would necessarily consider as "true" sushi, nevertheless it was insanely decadent, the oyster having a wonderful crunch on the outside, a smooth mild creaminess in the center. The salt of soy sauce brought the whole roll to another level, achieving that wonderous gestalt effect when everything comes together all in one small bite.

I happen to be a big fan of spicy tuna rolls, too, however it's been my experience that one spicy enough for my tastes is hard to come by. Kyoto, however, has hit the sweet spot for me -- I could actually see a few flakes of red pepper mixed in with the chopped tuna, and though simple, the roll's flavors were big enough to stand on their own, keeping my attention drawn, and making me want to eat the whole roll in one sitting.

From Magic Maki, to Boston Rolls, Tempura Shrimp, and everything in between, the sushi just kept coming... except when it didn't. You see, there's a lot of wait staff running around the restaurant. And a lot of little tables to watch over. And it would seem to me that none of the wait staff actually have their own tables... all the staff works all the tables, which resulted in some of our sushi coming in only a matter of minutes, some (like Joe's Snow White roll) taking nearly 15 minutes to be delivered. Meanwhile, at least three individual waitresses asked if we had gotten the roll yet.

Add to this confusion the fact that all the sushi for you table is put on the same plate, and it can be, at times, very difficult for you to understand the wait staff, and you have a recipe for disaster. I'm no sushi expert, and there are times that the House Special Greenfield Roll looks exactly like a Dragon Roll to me. Hell, most of the time I can't even remember what I ordered by the time it arrives.

These are not major gripes, mind you. But in what already seems to be a slightly chaotic atmosphere, these little trip-ups lead to me to wonder if the back kitchen is as loose as the front of the house.

Of all of the dozens of different kinds of sushi Joe and I consumed on our trip, I think my only two disappointments were the rolls that never had any right to exist in the first place: the chicken teriyaki roll, and the chicken tempura roll...

Both rolls were stuffed to the gills with thin slices of white meat chicken, a generous wedge of avocado, and drizzled with eel sauce. The teriyaki chicken had brief flashes of that brilliant concoction of soy, ginger, garlic, and mirin that I love so much... but those flashes were mostly trampled upon by the gummy texture of the chicken itself, and the pasty fattiness of the avocado.

The chicken tempura roll was an equally large let-down: the moment the plate came to rest on our table, I noticed something was awry: tempura is a thin, barely browned deep-fried battering technique, and the chicken forming a sort of crown on the end-slice of my roll had been dredged in panko bread crumbs and fried. The first bite confirmed my fears: too-crunchy, mouth-shearing crust, coupled with fryer grease, all rolled up with avocado. There was very little flavor, save for the fattiness, and what was there wasn't particularly pleasant.

However, I felt compelled to eat the whole roll, as there is a very important rule to be followed at Kyoto's AYCE soiree: any sushi left on the plate will incur the market price for that roll being added onto your bill. So, even if you don't like it, for the love of Pete, choke it down. Or at the very least, have someone sweep it into their purse when the waitresses aren't looking!

Kyoto isn't the most chic Japanese restaurant in town, or the most authentic. It's not the cheapest, nor the most reliable, nor the most delicious. It's America's favorite, though: instant gratification, and lots of it. Order, eat, repeat. It's quick 'n' dirty sushi for competitive eaters. It's an opportunity for your mom to try the Roll of A Thousand Mysteries in a semi-safe environment. It's a chance to have all your favorites, but pay the price of a quarter of them. I'm not saying Kyoto isn't good: quite the contrary. I absolutely love it. But, like most things (or people) in my life that I love, I also am willing to accept some flaws. If nothing but the best will do, well, good luck finding it in Wisconsin. But, if you have a hardcore sushi craving, and it's a Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday night... well, Kyoto might have the only cure for you...

Report Card:
Atmosphere: B-
Loud, cramped, and from time to time, a little like living in a tenement with paper walls, but it has its charm. At least we get nicely-wrapped silverware, a cloth napkin, and a warmed, gigantic wet-nap to engage in the proper hand-cleaning ritual before we eat.

Prices: A+
Oh, gripe all you want. A $23 meal isn't cheap. But if I told you that you could buy a new BMW for around $5k, would you gripe, because $5k is a lot of money, or would you see it for the enormous deal it is? Come hungry, eat like crazy, watch as your bill would have ordinarily added up to way more than $75 a plate. $30/head with tax, tip, and a bottomless soda is just about as good as it gets when sushi is involved.

Service: B-
While the entire wait staff was attentive, they were also mildly absent-minded. Be prepared to do a lot of guesswork when your food comes to your table, and just keep reminding people if it seems like that Snow White roll is taking a little too long...

The Food: B+
With a few bummers here and there, I can't give it a perfect score. But I also can't complain all that much, because despite the lackluster chicken maki, there were some stellar rolls which more than made up for it (namely, the oyster roll).

The Details:

Kyoto Japanese Restaurant
(414) 325-1000
7453 W Layton Ave
Greenfield, WI 53220

Kyoto on Urbanspoon