Recent Posts

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Greenville Eats: Plaza Azteca Mexican Restaurant

How many Mexican restaurants are there these days? Coming in all shapes and sizes, these restaurants have flooded the American landscape with tortillas and salsa done a million ways, so much so that it becomes difficult to separate the best from the rest. It's tough being in this genre of business, especially in a city full of them.Plaza Azteca does have one thing that helps put it over a few of its peers, but was it enough to warrant a second helping?

Located at the tail-end of Greenville Blvd, Plaza Azteca may be one of the most deceptive buildings on the strip. Borderline-Taco Bell on the cheese scale, you almost want to just keep on passing by on first sight. Two steps in, however, reveals a completely different location from what you might have expected. The dining area contains hints of the cheesy interior you may have been looking for, but with a contemporary seating that will surely surprise anyone on their first trip.

Getting to the food, our dining group dived straight into a variety of dips. If memory serves me right, there was a cheese dip along with some salsa on the table and ranch on the table (Ranch!? Really Plaza Azteca?), but those were immediately cast aside in favor of the highlight of the night - the fresh, made a table guacamole. Plaza Azteca's claim to fame, the guacamole easily was the winner of the nite. It's hard to argue with when the restaurant is confident enough to make it in front of each and every guest who orders it.

As great as the guacamole was, the meal quickly came back down to Earth as we hit the entrees. My Azteca special came with a flurry of items from a tamale to a couple of tacos. Unfortunately everything came without any salt or real flavor that you'd come to expect from quality Mexican food. Everything needed a good shot of salt to chow down, and was just similar enough to taste like a big pile of the same stuff rather than being individual flavors in the dish. Reviews around the table were about the same: lots of food, perhaps, but none of which really peaked our interest long enough to finish.

No Reservations, The Shakedown on Plaza Azteca
Atmosphere: Comically bad on the outside,
surprisingly trendy on the inside with a hint of cheesiness.
Cost: Average dinner prices, slightly high even. $8-12
Try: The tableside guacamole.
Don't: Get bother with anything else. A bland affair.

The Final Verdict
If you want delicious, freshly made guacamole, come to Plaza Azteca, find yourself a nice, comfortable seat and order yourself not one, but two orders of their specialty. And steal the recipe. Those looking for the complete Mexican meal to fill your late night cravings may want to consider looking elsewhere.

Plaza Azteca on Urbanspoon

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Greenville Eats: Cook Out

Sometimes I just want something blindingly stupid to eat, and really, what better blindingly stupid thing is there in our great country than good ol' fashioned fast food. I grew up with it and spent the better part of my last five years painfully gouging on it between equally as painful academic studies, so I certainly was looking forward to trying out Cook Out during my latest eating adventure.

I haven't had much fast food since moving to Greenville, NC (thankfully), but I finally found a craving for it the other day and decided to check out Cook Out, North Carolina's very own independent food chain. Regional fast food chains has always been a fascination of mine. Growing up in Iowa, I swam in an ocean of midwest chains, from the butter burger at Culver's to the ground beef and tenderloin monstrosities at Maid-Rites. In Columbia, South Carolina, I indulged in Zesto's fried chicken for a completely unreasonable amount of times, chowed down dozens of chicken sandwiches at Drakes Duck-In, and, well, stared at people walking into Maurice's BBQ (Cola natives will know what I'm talking about). Regional fast food chains are always a pretty neat way to learn about the locals I think, and NC's Cook Out is no exception.

I remember actually being somewhat dumbfounded at Cook Out's menu the very first time I went. Packed with everything but the kitchen sink, the menu looked like McDonalds, Burger King, Sonics, Chick Fil A, and a portion of Long John Silver's collided at an intersection and became a drive-thru restaurant. Serving everything from half pound burgers to hush puppies (!?), Cook Out certainly had one of the thickest menu's I've seen since Culver's back in the midwest.

Pining for something that would solve my fast food craving for at least a month, I went ahead and decided to shove my face in a half pound "Cook Out style" burger, which was piled with chili, coleslaw, and some mustardy onions, alongisde an obligatory order of onion rings and sweet tea. Okay, admittedly this was an absurd order by any means. Just look at the picture to the left, it's ridiculous! The burger itself was a bit on the disappointing side. It was a lot of meat, for sure, but the slaw and chili really didn't bring home any real flavor to make the burger memorable. I tried the onion ring test (take a bite, if onion runs out with the bite then you got a failure) and came away with mixed results. Some were spot on while others just ran right out. The breading was too salty as well, a frustration as memories of delicious beer-battered rings started flooding my mind. The tea of all things turned out to be the best part. Overly sweet, for sure, but unusually satisfying thanks to the crushed ice, it turned out to be a nice way to wash out all that onion ring and mile-high hamburger out of my mouth.

No Reservations, The Shakedown on Cook Out
Atmosphere: It's a drive-thru, what can I say?
Cost: Fast food glory land. $4-6 for a meal.
Try: Their milkshake brings all the boys to the club.
Don't: Go for the breaded stuff. It's generic-ville! Burgers are fine.
Better than McDonalds: Yes, but that's not hard now is it.

The Final Verdict
If you are really that darn desperate for fast food, I guess you can go to Cook Out. They've got a huge menu and a really good meal deal for $4.25 where you can get everything from corndogs to chicken quesadillas as your sides and for a small extra fee choose from over forty (I kid you not) kinds of milkshakes, including some rotating holiday specials. Personally though, in my few experiences at Cook Out I haven't been too thrilled. Their breading is a bit too salty and repetitive (good luck trying to find the difference between a chicken sandwich and onion ring), and their burger just doesn't have that "it" factor that makes me want to go back for seconds. I'll admit that Cook Out is a huge step up from the generic stuff, but as life for me goes on in Greenville, NC, I'll be forging on in search of a bigger, better bite to eat in Pirate territory.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Greenville Eats: Tokyo Japanese Restaurant

Sushi is a pretty finicky thing. The difference between good and bad sushi is so slim that it could seem negligible to most due to the actual experience. Many sushi restaurants, in fact, contain so many elegant notes that quality becomes that of a steakhouse to some where it's more about the show rather than the food.

Walking into Tokyo, however, one definitely does not get that impression. Even with the Japanese style seating on the far side of the restaurant and the bar in the center that surrounded the sushi chefs, Tokyo has the casual atmosphere of an eat-and-run type of place. Despite the low-key affair, the building was still buzzing with energy and continued to be so as things got busier throughout the evening.

Food-wise, Tokyo has just about everything you'd expect to find at any sushi restaurant from its spicy tuna rolls to bento boxes. I decided to grab the Tokyo Roll, consisting of tempura soft-shell crab, avocado, and eel. The roll was surprisingly sizable unlike some of the similar rolls I had back in Columbia, South Carolina which I found to be a huge plus. You definitely get your money's worth here. There's not much to say about such a roll itself; it was fresh, fast and filling, all I could ask for from a sushi restaurant. The roll was surprisingly well stuffed with crab, something that can be a disappointing rarity at other sushi restaurants.

My comrades in chopsticks flooded the table with mounds of various sushi, all of which seemed to satisfy. The Hawaii Roll in particular, a mix of shrimp tempura and spicy tuna topped with mango and crushed almonds, was an exercise in yin and yang with the cool mango and spicy tuna. For appetizers, an order of edamame kept things casual while an order of fried squid kept this blogger busy. Though cleverly presented, I couldn't say it was the best I ever had as the squid was a bit more rubbery than I had before and not well seasoned. We also had a dish of hibachi chicken at the table which looked pretty ordinary on the whole. In fact, glancing around the restaurant, customers definitely didn't seem to be enthused about the non-sushi fare. That being said, this is a sushi restaurant, and in that area Tokyo clearly didn't disappoint.

No Reservations, The Shakedown on Tokyo
Atmosphere: Contemp, but casual and lively at all times.
Cost: Average sushi prices, but the special rolls are generally
worth the price of admission. $8-16
Try: The Tokyo Roll. Crispy soft shell crab and avocado
makes almost anything idiot-proof.
Best sushi town?: I think so.

The Final Verdict
Despite its location on the outskirts of the Greenville area, Tokyo proved to be a nice, trendy place to grab some casual sushi and relax with your bare feet in the ground if you're lucky enough to grab the Japanese style booths. The prices ranged from extremely affordable to upscale depending on your taste and, perhaps more importantly, your choice of company. You won't find anything revolutionary here, but you will find good eats as long as you stick to what their known for.

Thanks to "Alaska" for the photos.

Tokyo Japan Restaurant & Sushi Bar on Urbanspoon

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Greenville Eats: Winslow's Tavern

Winslow's Tavern is the kind of place that you'd like every city to have. With its upscale wine and dine facility and large array of fairly-priced beers on tap, it's the kind of place that brings in both the students and professors without all the annoyances that often come with undergraduate drinking.

My party of five decided to drop by for one of the restaurants many special deals this past Sunday - brunch, of course. Unlike your average brunch buffet, however, this came packed with champagne and mimosa specials which definitely peaked our interest.

After ordering our drinks, we hit the buffet line to check out their spread. Modest in size, the line had plenty of the basics: biscuits, fruit, hash browns, a cheese omelet, random assortments of pastries, bacon and even parfait was on the menu. Though frighteningly borderlining on a continental breakfast rather then brunch - both in terms of quality and presentation - the "brunch" portion started to show with the other assortment of goods. Whether or not they were "good" is a whole other story though.

The first was a potato and onion/pepper sort of hash brown/casserole. While edible, it somewhat reminded me more of a store bought hash, and only slightly heated. The chicken and rice wasn't particularly better: the glob of salty gravy on top left a memorable impression on me that I don't think I'd like to remember.

Even more problematic was the french toast concoction which had a banana base. Obviously a bit burnt on the bottom, the toast itself was too dry to touch while the bananas had that bottom-of-the-pan taste. There was also a potato casserole which just isn't worth mentioning as well.

Basically, the truth of the matter is that the brunch turned out to be a disappointment on the whole for the price. That's not to say everything at Winslow's is bad though: its selections of appetizers and sandwiches definitely looked immensely more appealing. The hot chips, their twist away from the standard fries, are definitely a plus for casual drinkers looking for a bite to eat and share. The variety of sandwiches and some of the chances they take on the menu are pretty standard. Though substantial, few make an impression or duplicate the the quality of the actual bar itself.

No Reservations, The Shakedown on Winslow's
Atmosphere: Classiest bar in town.
Cost: Far too expensive. $8-10 for
most entrees (all of which are mostly sandwiches)
Try: Beer. Fantastic selection.
Don't: Eat the food, or come looking for sexy party.

The Final Verdict

My opinion of Winslows is pretty cut and dry: if you are looking for an upscale, atmospheric location to drink and chat at a decent price, Winslows is the place for you. Its variety makes it an ideal spot for those looking to sample some options a bit more exotic then the normal budlight/miller fare around town. The drink specials are frequent and seem to change often, so definitely inquire for the best deals. The food, however, is a bit on the pricey side, even with the offerings being reasonably substantial. The Sunday brunch itself proved to be a very hit-and-miss deal that doesn't cry for a second chance. If you do plan to eat, you can check out the appetizers and sandwiches, but don't expect anything life altering.

It's been well-noted in reviews of the restaurant that the service can be a burden. Both times that I've ventured there, however, my group has been decently taken care of. Though a few hiccups were apparent when business picked up, we never had any major problems to cry home about. If you are looking for something fast and efficient, perhaps you should look elsewhere; those looking to settle in and enjoy the evening should feel pretty cozy at this upscale hangout.

Winslow's on Urbanspoon

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Greenville Eats: Dale's Indian Cuisine

Dale's Indian Cuisine is a North Carolina based family restaurant that serves up traditional dishes in a formal, fine dining setting. The restaurant offers a buffet line during the lunch hours and a brunch on both Saturdays and Sundays. In the evening, however, it drops the conventional notions of an Indian restaurant in favor of an intimate wine and dine restaurant.

The intimate setting actually proved to be a little uncomfortable at first, for our party of four. Despite that, we settled into our table and quickly ordered a vegetable platter to get things started. The platter came with a variety of items off the appetizer list, the first of which being a vegetable fritter which definitely seemed to be a favorite. Flavorful, with a generous crunch, the fritters gave us a good first impression of things to come.

Next was the samosa, a puff pastry stuffed with chick peas and spices, and the aloo, a fried potato patty. Truth be told, I was hard-pressed to find a difference between the two, besides the texture of the pastries. The samosa was crunchier, but aloo was somewhat savorier. Neither made that memorable of an impression. There was also the cheese pakora, basically cheese fried in a batter. I was expecting something rich, but the pakora actually had the taste and texture of tofu, which I found to be uncomfortable with the other appetizers. All-in-all, a mixed bag, but not unpleasant by any means.

Our entrees soon came afterwards, piling our little round table. First was the Baigan Bhartha, an eggplant dish mashed in herbs and spices. Though I usually don't condone Indian dishes mild, this proved to be much better that way as it allowed the eggplant to shine through. My only concern was that it didn't feel like a dish that should be paired with rice. The next entree was the Chicken Korma, a curry dish that features an onion base alongside nuts and herbs. Traditional in every since of the word, fans of curry - or those looking for a place to start - will likely enjoy this down-to-Earth dish.

The oddest dish had to have of course been my own. Recommended by the server, my Chicken Tikka Masala was not a curry, but rather a tomato-based dish with cubed pieces of chicken and a flurry of Indian spices injected into the sauce. Sweet at first bite and bitingly hot after, the Masala was a dish that quickly came to stump me. I ended up not getting very far into it. Thinking about it the next day though, I popped my leftover Masala into the microwave and poured it over my own rice. Lo and behold, it actually came to somewhat win me over as the spices were able to settle overnight. As decent as it was the next day though, its the first eating that counts, and for that I would have to give it a bit of a thumbs down.

The winner of the night was easily the Tandoori Chicken, a pit-grilled dish featuring an array of seasonings and a light, spicy sauce underneath. Mouthwateringly juicy and tender enough to make plastic spoons look sharp, the dish was the flatout winner of the evening.

No Reservations, The Shakedown on Dale's Indian Cuisine
Atmosphere: Formal. Casual clothing is okay,
but dinner here is best left for date night.
Cost: Very expensive dinner. $12+
Lunch buffet runs for under ten though.
Try: The Tandoori chicken. Tender, juicy, and flavorful thanks to the grill.
Consider: Lunch. A fair price along with a buffet screams opportunity.

The Final Verdict

Personally, I've had Indian food from a cart, in a buffet, at a friends, and even at home. This, unusually enough, was the first time I had ever had it off a menu. As far as setting goes, I couldn't say I was a fan. It didn't allow the natural buzz of a college scene, and it forced the prices to go somewhere foreign to our entire table - most of which easily hit around the $16-20 range. Groups may want to consider cutting a dish and going the sharing route if that want to save some change.

Despite the prices, the entrees for the most part were all appetizing enough to sort of justify the bill, something that we all came away pretty pleased with it seemed - especially our Tandoori-filled friend. There was one key dish that made me question the whole experience though; the Naan, an Indian flatbread that came with the meal. When I think of Naan, I have memories of a soft, chewy pita that pairs amazingly well with things like curry and the eggplant dish that was ordered. Ours, however, turned out to be a hard fried tortilla-like bread that just didn't go feel right with any of the dishes.

For what we got, Dale's suggest that it would be a great place for lunch with its buffet, and perhaps an even better brunch (mimosas nonstop!). Unless you are looking for an intimate setting for a date, I would stick to the sunlight when checking out this local Indian eatery.

Dale's Indian Cuisine on Urbanspoon