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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Columbia Eats: Egg Roll Chen's

If I were a betting man, I would guess that there were more Chinese fast food joints in Columbia then fried chicken stops. Between the number of Yummy Yummy restaurants, four million versions of China Hut and everything in between, it can be hard to pick out the good from the bad. For me, Egg Roll Chen stands as one of the very best in the Columbia area. Not only do they serve up all the usual favorites, but they also feature a special menu full of interesting picks that are found no where else in town.

My usual standby at the restaurant is the Taiwanese Yen Su Jee. Hot off the special menu, the Yen Su Jee is a heaping pile of fried chicken tossed in chili pepper, green onions, and hot oil served on top of their fried rice - arguably the best in town. It definitely serves as a great guilty pleasure after a long, hard day of whatever the heck you've had to deal with. The Yen Su Jee, along with the Beef Noodle Soup are easily the two favorites among local natives. Unlike other Chinese fast food locations, Egg Roll Chen's is the only place where you can constantly find actual Chinese natives coming in and out with orders of these two dishes and more on a daily basis - a great sign that the place knows what their doing. The Beef Noodle Soup is worth mentioning: a nice, chewy noodle in a sweet, savory broth, it makes for a nice pick-me-up on a cold winter day and is an interesting option for anyone looking for something a little different from the norm. The beef can be a little on the poor side though, on occasion spot on and on occasion slightly undercooked.

For anyone looking to stick to the original Americanized Chinese fast food, you'll most definitely find something to satisfy your taste. A word to wise though: while Egg Roll Chen features an expansive menu, find what you like and learn to love it - this definitely is a hit-and-miss sort of location despite the praise. The Rice Noodle Soup, for example came completely bland and devoid of any real interest to support even a second chance. The Spicy Taiwan Beef also failed to impress due to its gloppy sauce and poor quality beef.

No Reservations, Egg Roll Chen
Atmosphere: Bustling, but homey. Lots of Chinese regulars.
Cost: Fantastic. $5-7.
Try: The Yen Su Jee. Spicy, salty, and beautifully
crispy chicken on top of quality rice. None of that soggy stuff.
Don't: Rice noodle soup. It looks interesting, but the lack
of flavor makes it a bit of a bummer.

The Final Verdict
There are many admirable qualities about Egg Roll Chen that sets it apart from the rest. A large, bustling sit-in area already makes it feel more expansive, and the special Chinese menu definitely gets a thumbs up for those looking for some more offbeat - and even authentic - picks done the fast food way. The prices are also quality, with everything hitting the five-to-six dollar region. While you may not love everything that comes out of the kitchen, you're sure to find something that makes you come back for more. Everyone - though perhaps not on the first or second try - generally finds a dish that hits the spot. Give the place a couple of chances and you'll be sure to find yours.

Eggroll Chen on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 21, 2010

Columbia Eats: The Other Store

I honestly wasn't sure what to expect upon entering The Other Store. Tucked deep within the back streets of Forest Acres, I've amazingly lived within minutes of the store for the past five years, but only now have taken a peek inside to see what lies beyond its unassuming doors. Formerly a gas station from the looks of it, The Other Store has since become simply a convenience store - at least on the surface. Walking in, you don't get a strong first impression, what with the unlit refrigerators and ancient shelves of common goods, some less familiar then others. In the back, however, was the deli - a brightly lit and welcoming contrast to the front, it quickly lured me away from the suspect and raised my spirits as I sat down to order.

The menu was surprisingly eclectic, featuring a variety of deli sandwiches and salads that were a little different from the norm. The Jamaican sandwich first caught my eye, with its mix of jerk chicken and shrimp, but I soon opted for the 'Original Greek Turkey' along with a side of pasta salad. Boy did I make the right decision. Stuffed with olives, feta, a cucumber salad along with a tangy, sweet dressing, the Greek Turkey definitely fit the bill. At first glance, it looked like it would be a bit dry, but it shocked and surprised on first bite, actually being moist and flavorful thanks to the fantastic dressing and cucumbers. The Greek Turkey definitely gets the thumbs up for its layers of depth and satisfaction.

The pasta salad also gets a seal of approval. Bits of finely chopped celery and onion gave the side a bit of a crunch, and a light dressing accentuated the flavor of the pasta nicely. It's not often that I approve of pasta salad, but this is certainly an exception.

No Reservations, The Shakedown on The Other Store
Atmosphere: It's essentially in a gas station. How crazy is that?
Cost: A touch high, around $7-8.
Try: The Original Greek Turkey. Average looking on the menu,
beautifully rewarding in your mouth.
Don't: Underestimate places in the middle of nowhere.

Final Verdict: Anyone who manages to wander onto this side of town will find few deli options better the Other Store. While the prices may be a bit hefty (the Greek Turkey, side of pasta salad, and bag of Lays chips ran me just under $9), the end product is well worth the visit. Also worth checking out is the faithful recreation of van Gogh's Starry Night on the back of the store. If you're fortunately enough to eat here on a nice, cool South Carolina day - a rarity, for sure - take a spot on the back porch and enjoy. Family run and locally supported, the Other Store may be one of my new favorite places in Columbia, SC.

The Other Store on Urbanspoon

Friday, June 18, 2010

Columbia Eats: Eastern Buffet

I hate buffets. Few things are as bad in my humble opinion. Between the caloric disaster and overpriced/undercooked food, buffets rarely make the cut in my book as the place to eat. That being said, coming from a family that enjoys torturing me by venturing into even the most nightmarish of Chinese buffets, I've learned to cope and become somewhat of an aficionado at the job, spotting the best and worse in the business the moment I hit the line. While most Chinese buffets in Columbia get the thumbs down, Eastern Buffet stands as one of the better, if not best, around town.

If you're looking for something truly different that sets Eastern Buffet apart from any other of its size, you'll be somewhat disappointed. In the grand scheme of things, Eastern is your run-of-the-mill buffet featuring all the Chinese fast-food favorites. The difference here compared to others in town is the quality. While nothing stands out as legendary, everything stands out just enough to satisfy everyone's taste buds. The soups are fairly edible and always hot, and the typical millions of variations on chicken usually meet up to standard - not life-altering, but satisfiable. For those looking to get the upper hand, however, you'll want to look for the latest items to hit the line. The fresher the better should be your motto here, and at any other buffet you ever go to. I was fortunate enough to get some newly-made General Tso's Chicken on my latest visit. Hot, crunchy, and with a light, spicy kick, the chicken was one of best fast-food versions of the dish I've had in ages. If you see one of their many workers pouring out something new, make sure you hurry over and take advantage for the best possible bite.

Eastern also sports a sushi line filled with both the usual options and on occasion some various oddballs that may catch your eye. Bacon - a constant theme that seems to be turning up in our weekly stops - was also one of the oddball picks that stood out of the ordinary. Personally, as a rule of thumb I tend to steer away from sushi at Asian buffets as they usually aren't made in capable hands. If you are in the mood, however, the usual suspects are available.

No Reservations, The Shakedown on Eastern
Atmosphere: Standard Chinese buffet with a bit of a military crowd.
Cost: Fine for lunch($8), a bit high for dinner ($11).
Try: Anything that comes piping hot of the kitchen.
Don't: Look for sexy sushi.

Final Verdict: For anyone desperately in search of Chinese food - and lots of it - in Columbia, look no further then Eastern. They've got a nice, clean facility along with a generous side buffet that is sure take care of most's deepest desires. There are a few drawbacks though. The price is a bit higher then the norm (around $12 for dinner with a drink, and $8-9 for lunch), and the overall quality has been wavering between edible and slightly underwhelming over the past few months. That being said, 'edible' is still a hell of a lot better then most places in town when it comes to this category of dining.

Eastern Buffet on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 14, 2010

Columbia Eats: Roly Poly

It may not be completely local, but seeing as there's only two in the state and a handful nationwide, Roly Poly and its unique selection of wraps, sandwiches, and salads are - in my book - enough to the fit the bill for a Columbia Eats segment.

Established in 1996, Roly Poly started out in Atlanta, Georgia, later spreading out into Florida and the New England area. Company owners Linda Wolf and Julie Reid soon decided to take the business to new heights with their 'taste' for success, marketing and promoting their creative sandwich shops around the entire East Coast.

To say that Roly Poly is a little different from the ordinary sandwich shop is an understatement. Featuring specials like 'Thanksgiving' - a turkey wrap stuffed with actual stuffing and cranberry sauce - and the 'Nut and Honey' - a cream cheese wrap with a variety of healthy nuts seeds and veggies - you're bound to find anything and everything you could possibly want on their sprawling menu. Vegetarians will also feel quite at home with the many options including salads, hummus wraps, and more.

Restaurants could easily buckle under a vast menu, but not Roly Poly. Their consistent wraps are sure to delight and surprise the pickiest of eaters. The 'Turkey Applejack' is a savory mix of turkey, bacon, mushrooms, a smattering of sauces including apple butter and basil mayo all topped off with gooey jack cheese. The 'Peachtree Melt' may be one of my favorites: a ham wrap smothered in swiss and brie, it comes with a sweet and tangy peach spread that provides a good kick thanks to some added heat. With a menu filled to the brim with other classy choices like the 'Pesto Chicken' or the 'French Twist' - a spin on the French omelet - you're sure to spend months tossing and turning in the options.

Each wrap comes with a side of either chips, pasta or potato salad. Do yourself a favor and stay far away from the pasta salad, but consider the potato. A nice, cool salad packed with bacon and herbs, it serves as a nice addition to the hot pressed wraps on the menu.

No Reservations, The Shakedown on Roly Poly
Atmosphere: Downtown casual.
Cost: A little steep at $7 considering quantity.
Try: The Peachtree Melt. A sweet, savory, and salty attack on the palate.
a fantastic first wrap to check out.
Don't: Touch that pasta salad. The potato salad is worth a go though.

Final Verdict: All-in-all, Roly Poly's fresh and creative choices serves as a solid alternative to the major chains in the downtown area. A short walk off campus, it makes for a great lunch locale for any student looking to get away from the crowd and taste something a little different from the norm. Be wary of prices though: a half combo will set you back $7, a bit steep for the average USC student - one of the few setbacks of an otherwise satisfying establishment.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Columbia Eats: Yesterdays

Few restaurants in Columbia are more well-known then Yesterday's. Located in the heart of Five Points, this unmistakable Columbia landmark has been serving up traditional Southern favorites to locals and for over thirty years.

While Yesterday's features a menu that is sure to satisfy anyone's appetite, their specials are certainly the celebrities. First is the confederate fried steak, a huge breaded monstrosity smothered in white gravy that is sure to fill the hungriest of eaters. Though a special of the restaurant, it can vary in saltiness - make sure you grab some sides that will compliment it.

Though the confederate steak is sure to satisfy, the meatloaf - of all items - may be the shining star of the menu. This half pounder is a surefire winner in my book; well-seasoned and topped with mouth-watering gravy, it takes away the 90s stigma of the dreaded meatloaf and makes you wonder how you could have even entertained the idea of avoiding it all your life. Other favorites in the menu include: Southern fried chicken, a large choice of burgers - a standout being the 'The Big One', a massive half-pound angus burger - a laundry list of sides such as spiced apples or traditional picks like mashed potatoes and mac n' cheese, and of course desert, featuring all the favorites including apple pie, banana pudding, and strawberry shortcake.

No Reservations, The Shakedown on Yesterday's
Atmosphere: Local to the bone.
Cost: Average downtown prices. $8-12.
Try: The meatloaf. A Yesterday's special for sure.
Don't: Make the mistake of putting three fried things together.
Make sure you pick sides that cut some of the salt.

Final Verdict: While they may not be the culinary champions of Columbia, the Southern homecooked favorites, relaxed, conversation-friendly atmosphere, and local crowd makes Yesterday's a must-stop for anyone who wants to taste a real slice of Columbian life. If you are visiting town, make sure you stop by this local establishment to dig into some of your soon-to-be favorites and catch a picture with the man in the tub.

Thanks to Yesterday's official site for the photo.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Columbia Eats: Zestos

If we're purely talking quick and dirty fried chicken, there's an endless amount of fast food stops you could make in town, from all the usual suspects such as KFC or Bojangles to the lesser known, but still commercial brands such as Popeyes. For something a little closer to home though, there's Zestos.

Though not technically a local fixture (there are thirty or so around the US), Zestos is about as close to local as can be since the owners have held Columbia's chain for nearly thirty years. You can find all the classic fast food your heart desires here, including cheeseburgers, fried chicken, salads, milkshakes, crinkle fries, and hotdogs, all served up as if it were still in the 50s.

Despite the large and varied menu, the go-to pick here is definitely the fried chicken. You won't get the feeling of regret while gouging on your pile of Zesto's chicken. Crispy, but without the fat and buttery taste of Bojangles or KFC, and juicy enough to leave your mouth watering for more, this fried chicken will definitely leave you satisfied.

Pro-Tip: If you are looking for a bang for your buck, head over to the Zesto's on Forest Drive. No other place is as generous on the chicken count - you won't regret it.

For sides, the crinkle fries pair well with the star of the show, but leave the coleslaw where it belongs - its completely empty taste will ruin your day. Make sure you swap it out for extra fries at the counter.

The average price with drink will usually leave you above six dollars, but for some fast, quality fried chicken, you'll find few places better then Zesto in this town.

Thanks to Joe C. for the photo this week.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Columbia Eats: Cabo Fresh Taco

There's something special about a fresh, locally made taco. You would think Des Moines, Iowa of all places would be the last to find a great one, but growing up there I often found myself at the local haunts stuffing my face with everything from the monster choices at Tasty Tacos - a staple stop for any Iowan - to a tiny cart near downtown where I would devour some of the best fish tacos that, tragically, no one knew about. There are many things one takes for granted years later. My burning desire for a great, quick local taco turned out to be one of those things. That's why when I heard the rave reviews for Columbia's newest taco joint, Cabo Fresh Taco, I couldn't resist checking it out.

This week's dining crew, with a special guest.

Hoping to find a glimmer of anything that resembled what I've had in the past, I assembled the crew and headed straight there in search of the illustrious fish taco, or overstuff fried something with lots of it in a soft, flour shell.

Like most places we've been in these first few weeks, our initial impression walking into the restaurant was positive. The place was bustling with customers along with a fairly large crew working in the back. The menu, while relatively small, featured some eclectic choices at first sight. Unfortunately, tragedy struck before we even started as we found out there were no fish tacos to be had this day due to poor catches. Bummer. My friend ended up choosing the fried shrimp taco while the rest of us opted for the barbocoa and pork tacos.

Not Moe's stacked, but still a relatively decent amount if I do say so myself.

As much as I would like to throw praise on this establishment, which it has gotten so much of these past few weeks, I have say that this was a disastrous meal for the crew. It all started with the tortilla. Instead of the flour tortilla that most have come to love in Mexican cuisine, we got the corn flour tortilla. Essentially the polar opposite, it gets my vote for the worst tortilla on the face of this Earth. Each taco was wrapped in two of these bad boys, and even then they couldn't handle the timid amount of food inside of it. A couple bites into it and we were already drowned in sauce oozing through the taco, and not in a flattering or thumbs up sort of way.

Getting past the tortilla, the "barbacoa" had a special addition that certainly took most of us by surprise - bacon. It's true: on most occasions, the addition of bacon only results in victory. This was not the case though, providing an incredibly uneasy taste to the disappointing beef taco. Tough and chewy from the get-go, it took several douses of hot sauce to make it edible enough to plow down. The pulled pork didn't fair much better, even with the unique mango salsa thrown on top. I would have a loved a wetter mango salsa to help cut the dryness of the meat, but - like the barbocoa - it took a heavy dose of hot sauce to chew it down. And for the fried shrimp taco, more disappointment. For four dollars, the mere three pieces of shrimp definitely didn't fit the bill, and the load of peppers within only made it worse. Finally there was the salsa. Almost too questionable to be homemade, and if store-bought, questionable enough to wonder if we were being punk'd, the salsa proved to be a bit too salty and a bit too processed to be enjoyed.

No Reservations, The Shakedown on Cabo
Atmosphere: Downtown location keeps it busy.
Cost: Not swell.
Try: To heed my warning and not go.

Final Verdict: Overall, Cabo Fresh Taco hands down failed to meet the bill. They made bold attempts at changing up the classics into something original, but the result was just devastatingly bad. Unfortunately for the Columbia native it looks like Moes, Chipotle, and the various commercial brands are still the way to go for fast tacos until something else pops up. If you are willing to take a seat, Casa Linda is also a great option and locally-owned.

If you live in the Columbia area and would like to join any of my dining adventures throughout this summer, just leave me a message or email me at Till next time, thanks for reading and later days!