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Monday, November 29, 2010

Columbia Eats: Cafe Strudel

I'm kinda new to this "brunch" thing. Coming from a family which enjoyed the comforts of home in the morning, we rarely went out and about town on Sundays for a meal. Ever since I've ventured out on my own for graduate school, however, I've been fortunate enough to enjoy the company of my peers on Sundays and take part in the southern tradition.

Sometimes, however, Sunday just isn't enough for brunch. Fortunately for Columbians, Cafe Strudel is one of the rare gems in the world that serves breakfast at all times. Just over the bridge from downtown on the West Columbia side, Cafe Strudel is located inside a homey light blue building. Upstairs, downstairs, and patio seating are available, all of which are decorated with funky artwork and bright, vibrant colors.

Any place I go to I try to do a little research ahead of time to find out what to order, and Cafe Strudel is no exception. The Hangover Hashbrowns would have been an easy choice regardless of the research (its name alone makes me warm inside!), but these have long been hyped by local eaters, and for good reason. Crisp and creamy hand cut potatoes with just the right amount of cheese and onions, those ingredients alone would have made for a perfectly fine hash, but Cafe Strudel kicks it up a notch with tomatoes to give it some more brightness and, best of all, a handful of banana peppers which gives the dish extra crunch along with a perfect tang to keep the hashbrowns engaging from beginning to end. Eggs can be done any way, but sunny-side up easily made the dish even dreamier with the creamy yolk soaking into the hash. From top to bottom, these hashbrowns easily made my day.

My companion for the day decided to fulfill her desire for bagels with a breakfast sandwich, which came just about any way you could possibly want it. The bagel was perfectly toasted the way every bagel should be, making for a deeply satisfying sandwich. The fact that it was under $4 made it all the better! Cafe Strudel excels in the all-day breakfast menu, but they also have the usual lunch options and a bar (with a half-decent selection to boot) for those looking to relax in the evening.

Being a cafe, we can't forget the tea and coffee. Featuring over 30 teas, including rotating seasonal specials, the list featured everything from green and black tea to a few special blends. We tried a small pot of the Holiday Dream, a blend of black tea with several holiday spices and mint. It was delicious needless to say, and a beautiful pair with the breakfast items.

No Reservations, the Shakedown on Cafe Strudel
Atmosphere: Casual and cool, hip enough to be trendy,
but still homey enough for the whole family.
Cost: A steal for most items. $4-8.
Try: The Hangover Hashbrowns. A must for any first-timer.
The breakfast menu in general seems to be a hit all around.
Let me know: How the gourmet soda is if you try it!
I never get around to it thanks to the tea selection lol.

The Final Verdict
I tried to find something bad to say about Cafe Strudel, but all I could think of is the fact that it might take a few minutes to find seating because it is so busy. Even then though, the longest wait I've had is ten-to-fifteen minutes, and they even offer you a drink while you wait! The food is satisfying, the options are varied and rewarding, and the atmosphere is just spot on. With breakfast being all day, there's simply no reason not to try it. Parking can be a bit of a walk because of the area, but it is worth the trouble for this Columbia eats.

Cafe Strudel on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Hunter's Manual: A Guide to Vietnamese Food

Once a rare find, Vietnamese food seems to slowly, but surely be finding a place among the vast landscape of American restaurants. With Pho Viet becoming a solid foundation in Columbia, SC, and well... a bunch of random places serving pho in Greenville, NC, it seems like a good time to pull out a bit of a beginner's guide for a new generation of pho eaters out there. Read on to get a taste of the traditional dishes you can expect to find in a typical Vietnamese restaurant.

"Pho", more than just a cup of noodles.

Essentially Vietnam's national dish, this noodle dish is served in a delicious, savory slow cooked broth of soup bones, ginger, and various spices. Usually a choice between thinly cut slices of beef or chicken, this is definitely the dish to judge any Vietnamese restaurant on. You should look for a hot (as in fresh off the stove) sweet, savory broth. Cold broth's are an instant no-no! Garnish with fresh bean sprouts and fragrant basil for a comforting dish at any time of day. Pho, though simple in principle, easily is one of the hardest dishes to make and compare. No one person does it the same way, using different spices, seasonings, and even methods. Some even have paid thousands for an award-winning recipe for their restaurants.

Fun fact: Pho is traditionally a breakfast item in Vietnam.

"Bun Thit Nuong", pasta the Vietnamese way.

Thin slices of pork marinated in a bit of something sweet and grilled, served on top of noodles with pickled carrot/daikon (white radish), fried onion, and a sweetened fish sauce, bun thit nuong sounds like a heavy dish on paper, but is actually a wonderfully refreshing dish that fits the bill any time of the year. It comes in a ton of variations, sometimes adding shrimp or egg rolls to the mix. This is one dish that's all about the meat though. Some places are a bit heavy on the sugar, either making it burn or just too sweet. The right balance, however, makes this dish a winner. My personal favorite.

"Goi Cuon", fresh, fast, and fun.

The freshest of ingredients wrapped in rice paper, this Vietnamese appetizer is a classic starter at any restaurant. In the household, a few of these can easily become a meal any night of the week. There's a beautiful art with goi cuon, one that separates the winners from the losers. A pour wrap can spoil the whole show, leaving you in an ugly mess. A nice, tight wrap makes all the difference here. The second biggest key to this whole app is the sauce. Usually a hoisin sauce cooked down and sometimes combined with a little peanut butter and topped with chopped nuts, the sauce definitely makes this a killer app when done right (and should always be considering how easy it is to make!).

"Banh Mi", the king of sandwiches.

It's sweet, it's sour, it's salty, savory, fresh, crispy, and crunchy, a Vietnamese sandwich is just everything you look for in a great sandwich. It starts with a smear of pate on one side of a beautiful baguette, and then a slatter of butter on the other end. In goes various Asian cold cuts, including pork belly and Vietnamese ham, followed by a volley of veggies including the carrot/daikon mixture, cilantro, and a few jalapeno slices. Sometimes grilled pork is used instead in all its glory. Either way you serve this dish up, it's a real eye-catcher.

It can be a little tricky to find though. In the United States, they often are best out of sandwich shops rather than restaurants.

"Com Tam", the national rice dish.

Though it can come in a million different way, shapes, and forms, com tam is a traditional item featuring a special short grain rice served with a grilled pork chop, pickled carrots and daikons, a special baked meat/egg dish similar to a quiche, and fish sauce to tie things together. More traditional plates often include "bi", or pork skin. This is a bit of a bolder dish for those looking to try out Vietnamese food, but you'll should see it on most menus. There's so many factors that go into a great "Com Tam". The egg in particular can go wrong a million ways (I've even seen it blue on occasions. Blue!), and the pork chop can be dry in seconds if not served quickly. The fish sauce also is key in a great "Com Tam". If you want to play it safe and get a more surefire bet, try the dishes above first to make sure they get your seal of approval before venturing out for this dish.

Hopefully the next - or first - time you try out a Vietnamese restaurant, you can sink your teeth into some of these fantastic dishes. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Greenville (NC) Eats: Mike's Deli

Deli's have it hard. With so many around every town, it takes a lot to stand apart from the competition. Some have better cuts of meat, some make crazy twists to their specialties, others throw a little bit of overseas flair into the mix. Mike's Deli attempts to do the latter, adding some Mediterranean and Lebanese in the menu along with a collage of New York deli classics.

Located just across from ECU in an old fixture all by its lonesome on 10th St, Mike's Deli is one of those places you might notice driving by but never really care to enter unless dragged in by some local amigos. The menu consists of a lot of deli favorites like the Reuben along with some interesting Mediterranean picks like falafel. Not really feeling in a ham sandwich sort of mood, I decided to take a boat overseas and try out the falafel sandwich along with some grape leaves.

I love falafel. It's the perfect vegetarian choice for anyone looking for a sandwich. I've had big, beautiful falafel sandwiches in the past, consisting of hot, delicious rounds of the fried chick pea/fava bean ball crammed into a pita with lettuce, tomato, and a huge glop of tahini sauce. Unfortunately, Mike's Deli didn't quite hit the mark. The tahini sauce was too thick, creating more of a paste rather than sauce. The falafel itself was not immensely flavorful, bordering on bland at times. The huge mound of chopped lettuce and cold pita didn't help either, making for an uninspired sandwich overall.

The grape leaves were only more disappointing. I'm willing to bet that they were store bought, unless they like to brine these missiles. Almost too salty to choke down, I barely worked my way through half the order. My partner in crime for the meal also fell prey to the salty monster in the back, giving up on his minestrone soup even after attempting to water it down. Overall, not the most pleasant experience in recent memory.

No Reservations, The Shakedown on Mike's Deli
Atmosphere: Casual diner fare.
Cost: Average, $5-8
Deli Rank: Meh.
Deli Rank Compared to others in Greenville: Still meh.

The Final Verdict

A lot of people swear by Mike's; considering the courteous owner who runs the front and the variety of deli choices, I can see why. The Mediterranean and Lebanese fare, however, won't be going anywhere near me in the future. Just forget about it! As far as the deli part of Mike's is concerned though, their selection of sandwiches is probably fitting enough for any stomach around lunch time. There's nothing that makes Mike shine like a New York deli; there's no special sauce, memorable sandwich, or sexy cut of meat that will make your mouth drool just thinking about it. If you want a stacked sandwich for an okay price though, Mike's is an alright (just barely alright) place to go in an area where options are a bit limited on the deli front.

Mike's Deli on Urbanspoon