Saturday, June 24, 2017

Take a Flyswatter

The Rose Bush Food Truck Court
2301 San Pedro Avenue
(between Huisache and Mulberry streets)

Malik's Phamous Philly Cheesesteaks
food truck

Ay Papi Puerto Rican
food truck

We made our first real foray into the not-really-exciting world of food trucks tonight when we went with another couple to the recently-opened Rose Bush, a few blocks down the avenue from our houses. When we went last night there were only two vehicles in place, so we got two dishes from each and split them four ways.

From Malik's the choices were the original Philly sandwich, and a veggies-only version. The Philly was, frankly, pretty disappointing, possibly because, you know, it's a Philly cheesesteak: (a) it'd be hard to live up to the reputation that sandwich has acquired, reinforced on a recent visit to Philadelphia where they talk about the sandwich the way we talk about hot weather; and (b) they wanted to put what they call "whiz-cheese" on it, so we opted for no cheese. And a cheesesteak sandwich without cheese is like a guard dog without legs; it'll still bark, but can only bite if you give it your hand. There's just something missing, and I can't see how using something called "whiz-cheese" can be any kind of improvement.

Unless, of course, it's whatever chemical concoction was used to
Mobile vendor inspection
reports are not currently
available on line
cover the veggies-only sandwich. It looked like melted cheese, if a little on the white side; it had the consistency of fairly-good-quality cheese, such as is found on your average pizza; and it had a mild cheesy flavour, such as you would experience in an underaged Kraft product. It was laid on in a pretty generous layer and held the thoroughly cooked onions and peppers together (though it didn't really stick to the soft, warm oily bread) and stretched just like cheese on a mediocre pizza. It may not have been the best quality, nutritionally speaking, but of the four sandwiches we tried, the veggie Philly won top honours for the evening. And the cheese (or whatever cheese-like concoction it was) would have improved the other sandwich.
Malik's Phamous Philly Cheesesteak Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Mobile vendor inspection
reports are not currently
available on line
The other two were from the puertoriqueno mobile kitchen called "Ay Papi," which our neighbour tells us is a reference to some baseball player. Whatever.  This food truck -- trailer, actually -- offers a limited menu of 3 or 4 sandwiches, tostones, a few other sides, and canned drinks. We chose the cubano, a traditional Caribbean pressed sandwich; and a three-meat construct, the name of which I now forget. Both sandwiches were built in traditional hoagie-style rolls. The cubano was good for the type, though not outstanding; the other, larger sandwich was an esculent hodgepodge. It was impossible to separate the various ingredients either by flavour or texture, and overall both aspects of the product were the culinary equivalent of mud-brown. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't good in any particular. And both sandwiches were marred by the slowness with which they were produced.
Ay Papi Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 
The prices for Malik's sandwiches were about what you'd expect, at roughly ten bucks apiece.  The sandwiches from Ay Papi cost about the same or a little more, but somehow seemed less worth it even before we'd tried them.

And here's one more curious failing to set against this food truck: at 7PM on a Friday night, with their busy time just beginning, they were already down to their last Diet Coke. I ordered two but could only get one. That is a failure of preparation on the most basic level.

No inspection report
on file
The place itself, the Rose Bush food truck court, is a converted auto-service shop, with a large paved area enclosed by a wrought-iron fence. It's family- and pet-friendly, though no one had brought their dog. In the far corner is a tetherball set-up to distract the kids; it worked well for that. The building provides restrooms, which were reasonably clean and adequately appointed, and seating in the former service bay (which, even with a fan running full speed, was intolerable in the early summer heat). The outside yard was washed with a comforting breeze that could do nothing to keep the hordes of flies away. There were sufficient trash receptacles with easy-to-close lids to help, but as soon as our first sandwiches arrived, so did more flies than you will find in a small back yard occupied by three large dogs. The picnic tables had paper towel rollers mounted on each, which was good, and there were plenty of paper towels, plus a service bar with barely-useful plastic utensils, napkins and a few essential condiments. The seating was adequate, except that one of the two planks used to make the picnic-table bench had sagged, quickly making it uncomfortable Had there been another table open, I would have insisted we move, but there wasn't; the entire outdoor seating area was taken up by our other neighbours.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Perfect Setting

Iron Cactus
200 River Walk
(at St Mary's, across from La Mansión)

This was a perfect day for lunch on the River Walk. There were no good movies we hadn't already seen; it was sunny and 75 with a mild breeze; and the crush of tourists is still a few weeks away. We pawed through the listings to decide on a place for lunch, then decided to just go down to the River and see what looked good. Ended up here.

This place wasn't around when I worked downtown, so I wasn't familiar with it. It's located in the Mokhara Hotel building, which used to be the Watermark, which is the building famous for having its historical facade fall over in the street about 15 years ago. I anticipated that anything in this part of the River Walk would be even pricier than the normally overpriced venues, but the prices on their posted (dinner) menu were, if not bargains, at least not unreasonable: $13 to $16 for sandwiches, $20 or so for entrées. 

We were seated almost immediately at a table hidden from the water by a planter. We couldn't see the strollers at riverside, but enjoyed all the ambience of the location: the perfect weather, the beautiful La Mansión Hotel on the opposite side; just a little traffic noise (and one siren) from street level; and a soft burble of conversation from all around.

Our server seemed new, tense and timid, but did a fine job throughout the meal. She brought me a sample of the chocolate chipotle sauce (it sounded too much like salsa molé for me to order it without tasting it first; I've had some wonderful molés, and others that are less appealing than dog puke) and kept our chips and salsa coming, followed up with us a couple of times at appropriate points, and hunted down answers to our questions, or at least tried to. 

The complimentary chips and salsa provided are very good. The chips are thin and fresh, though a lot of them had broken down to too-small fragments; the salsas --- one regular, one fire-roasted and served hot --- were both very good as well; chunky, with nice seasoning and not too runny. Despite having those to nosh on, we decided to split an appetizer. On our waitress's recommendation, we went for the tamale pops (see picture). Delightful balls of seasoned pork lightly fried and nestled on a bead of guacamole, they immediately attracted stares from the couple from Alabama who sat across the aisle from us. I always appreciate dishes that provoke conversation with strangers. These, as it happened, also taste good. They were a little overpriced, I thought, at $9, but then, this is the River Walk. Here, they seem reasonable.

For our entrées, my friend Roland went with the Stuffed Iron Burger, while I chose one smoked brisket enchilada in chocolate chipotle sauce (that sauce having passed review with flying colours), and one smoked chicken enchilada in salsa verde. 

Last city inspection: 10/2016
score: 90
The enchiladas were served with a small block of Spanish rice, good but unremarkable, and an equally small side of beans; you have the choice of black beans, refried beans, or charro beans; I chose the last and found it excellent. It had quite a bit of both ham and bacon in it, and there was some unidentifiable seasoning in the mix that really took it beyond merely good charro beans. I asked the waitress, who asked in the kitchen, but as she read from the list she'd made the only thing out of the ordinary was "solaro," which isn't a thing. Possibly she meant "celeriac," but by that point I was beyond following up. In any case, the beans were worthy of the venue.

The enchiladas were lightly filled, but had excellent textures and the sauces of each complemented the fillings in expert fashion. The chicken was nicely shredded, well-smoked without being at all dry, and with a very good smoky flavour; and the salsa verde was a quality mixture. The brisket was delicious, also with a clear smoky flavour, and the chocolate chipotle sauce was magnificent: rich, deeply flavoured, without the slightest hint of overwhelming the dish. (The sauce is also very good on tostadas....)

Roland's burger, which, like my enchiladas, we split, was of good size, with a satisfying patty stuffed with cheese and mild chiles verdes; it was served on what looked like a whole-wheat bun that was lightly toasted, but which seemed a little chewy by the time I got around to eating my half. It was served with fries that were coated in salt and parmesan cheese: too much of the former, not enough of the latter. Though in all honesty I could do without either. The fries would not have suffered from another few seconds in the oil, either. They were the outliers of an otherwise very good meal.
Iron Cactus Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

A link to my other restaurant reviews

I'm pretty sure nobody's interested, but when has that ever stopped anybody from posting anything on the internet? And this space is mine to do with as I like, so in case your mind races and you need some non-chemical soporific, here is a link to all the reviews I've posted on (formerly Urbanspoon) (and if they had to choose between the meaningless "Zomato" and the minimally clever and para-meaningful "Urbanspoon", why would they make the choice they did? I just wonder...).  Remember to "like" the reviews there ... if you can do so without lying. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Nearly a Religious Experience

Rossini's Italian Bistro
2195 Northwest Military Drive
(in Castle Hills, where all the big streets cross)

We felt like trying someplace new this week, so I spent some time looking at what other Zomato users had to say about various places, including this one, and decided to go for it. Even though it's Outside The Loop, and I wasn't packing a suitcase. I figured I could justify the trip by stopping off at the pet shop on the way. (I don't much trust restaurant reviews from people who only ever write one; I figure those people are motivated by some personal agenda, either boosterism or vendetta. I still read 'em, but more for entertainment than information.) 

Found this small place on the corner of one of the three main intersections of Castle Hills -- in that section where all the major roads cross, and I can never keep straight which one is which. This one's across from the bank and kitty-corner from the drug store. It was easy enough to find, though, because it's at the very end of a leafy and elegant strip center. Yes, I know, that's an oxymoron, but we move on.

We were early, having calculated that, in this affluent part of town on a Friday night, with no reservation, we'd have to wait a long time if we went at a more fashionable hour. As it turned out, we were the first people there. But even when we left, at 7:30, the dining room wasn't even half-full. Considering how good this place is, and how small, I guess it counts as being a surprisingly well-guarded secret. And while I hope the place does well, so that it'll stay around forever, if it turns into the Fashion of the Month and gets too crowded, it'll ruin it for me. But it's been here for a year and a half already, and the local-boy owner/chef with long bi-coastal experience sure as Hell knows what he's doing.

If Castle Hills publishes its
restaurant inspections, it's
news to me
The space is nice enough; decorated mostly from the "Eye-talian Restaurant" page of some corporate consulting decorator's catalog. Nothing special, just nice in a very ordinary way. It was clean, well-maintained and quiet; including when a party of four came in and recognized some people they knew, and everybody else in the place (meaning, at that point, just us) could have heard all about what everybody had said about everything. Even then, the acoustics were good enough to allow us to ignore the alien conversation. There are a few tables outside, but it would seem to me that the noise of traffic in the area would keep them from being fully enjoyed. 

Prices here are on the high side; much higher, in fact, that what I would have believed had I relied on the information on this Zomato listing ($25 per couple, my ass; but kudos to Zomato for their quick update following my email); but I had looked at the menu on line and already knew that was wrong, so I wasn't unpleasantly surprised when we arrived. We ended up spending about $165 total, including a couple of glasses of wine, and tax and tip. That's about 3 times what we'll normally spend on a Friday night out. But it was not an unreasonable amount for what we got (and this is only the 2nd time I've said anything like that about a three-figure bill). I will also say this about the prices: the amounts for wine by the glass here are, unlike some would-be-upscale places, very reasonable; mostly $7 to $10. I don't drink wine very often, but I often find prices on a wine list a good guide to value overall.

So to sum up so far, the decor: not great, but not bad. And the prices: reasonable, tending to better than that. Beyond that, this was absolutely exquisite. 

It being near Valentine's day, the kitchen was offering a special prix-fixe menu, four courses for $55 a person. (Everything on the menu is available à la carte as well.) My wife chose tomato basil soup, which was, y'know, tomato basil soup ... served piping hot and topped with a marvelous thin parmesan wafer to lift it beyond ordinary. My choice was gnocchi with lamb. The lamb meat had been sautéed to perfection --- I really didn't know lamb could be so tender --- with mushrooms and a little red pepper, then spooned into a dish with the gnocchi. The gnocchi, which was home-made, I'm sure, was marvelously dense and perfectly simmered before being flash-fried for a few seconds to give it just the slightest crusty texture. It was a revelation. It was fabulous. It was the perfect touch to bring the whole course triumphantly together. I miss it already. 

Next came the salad course. We had both chosen the beet* salad, on the waiter's recommendation. Not a large salad, but delicious: diced beets on creamy ricotta, a few greens for colour and some nuts for texture, altogether a magic formula for a truly satisfying experience. Anyone who goes to Rossini's after reading this review should genuinely regret that this little beet salad isn't on the regular menu. Needs to be.

Our choices for entrées were a beef tenderloin for my wife, a fish dish for me. The quantity of my fish was substantial enough to keep me from complaining (and those who know me know how hard it is to keep me from complaining), while the size of my wife's cut of meat was something of a surprise. Not outrageous by any means, but there on her plate it looked prodigious: thick; mouthwatering; tender. It proved to be all those things, perfectly cooked to medium-rare, served with some mushrooms and asparagus in a Marsala sauce, the meat just melted in the mouth like ... well, like that lamb I'd just had. So, so good.

I had never ordered branzino before, but when it came and I'd tasted it, I recognised it as what we called spigola or spicolo when I was a kid, oh, sooo many years back, when New Orleans was still a big city. It's kind of like a sea bass, only smaller. Anyway, it was nicely grilled and served with minimal sauce and seasoning -- no more than was needed -- over some brussel sprouts and potato wedges. All in all, an excellent dish perfectly executed. I lingered over it with as much deliberation as I could muster, enjoying every morsel and mopping the plate with some of the slightly dry cubes of bread that had been served at the start of the meal. (The fact that I've forgotten about the bread until this moment should tell you volumes about the quality of the rest of the meal.)

The entire evening was capped majestically by dessert: cannoli. Cannoli are, without a doubt, the best possible dessert when properly prepared. They are also, without a doubt, the most difficult to prepare properly. In the last, oh, 30 years, I've had exactly one good cannolo in San Antonio, at a now-defunct restaurant near Olmos Circle. And plenty of so-so cannoli. And too many lousy cannoli.  The cannolo I had at Rossini was the best I've ever had; better even than the cannolo I measure all other cannoli against, one that I had in New York City in 1972 at a place on Mulberry Street that's gone now. Yes, it was good enough to remember, until now. Now, I can forget about that one.

The cannoli shells Rossini uses are mass-produced, but properly stored to maintain crispy freshness until served. That alone seems beyond the capability of other restaurateurs. The filling is a rich, sweet (but not too sweet) preparation of ricotta cheese, good-quality chocolate chips, and deft seasoning, carefully stuffed into the shell and sprinkled with just the right amount of confectioner's sugar. It's served on a small pedestal of the same ricotta filling, which helps make it easier to eat, but it does raise the awkward question of whether one should lick the plate, or use one's finger to get the last little bit. That, my friends, is a question I can't answer. You will have to determine the proper course for yourself; but do let me know what you decide.

Rossini Italian Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

* I have only recently removed beets from my List of Five Foods I Will Not Eat Under Any Circumstances; the list, these days is down to only two items: viscera and black-eyed peas, whether you care or not.