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Monday, August 29, 2011

Greenville (NC) Eats: Sakura Asian Express

If looks can be deceiving, Sakura Asian Express may be the most deceiving of them all in the Greenville area. Instead of the Chinese fast food joint you'd maybe expect the place to be from the outside, Sakura is a remarkably honest restaurant serving anything but Chinese, including a wide variety of Asian cult classics such as Vietnamese Pho, Japanese Soba, Thai Pad Thai (Ha.), Korean bibimbap, and even Malaysian curry. Malaysian curry!

With such an eclectic menu though, Sakura has to take a few strange twists and turns, crafting interesting riffs on traditional dishes that both excite and impress. Take the bibimbap for instance, a classic Korean dish of mixed vegetables and grilled meat with rice. Sakura gives this traditional dish a very American spin, using a blend of American-friendly vegetables like carrots, peppers, and onions instead of the usual Korean fixings, but with the classic bibimbap sauce and korean grilled steak to make a familial, yet distinctly Asian dish. For an even more American twist, look no further then the hibachi sandwich; a simple, but clever hibachi stir fry served on a grilled kaiser roll and topped with an Asian slaw. How have we missed the boat on crisp, buttery bread with stir-fry, I do not know.

On more foreign dishes like Vietnamese "bun," which on the surface has little room for creativity, Sakura still manages to add their own subtle spin by swapping the traditionally light, sweet fish sauce with a beautiful sweet and spicy concoction that really elevates the dish in a surprising way. People familiar with Vietnamese bun might go what the heck!? on first bite, but the dizzying array of tastes and textures begin to mesh and make sense after a few more bites, be brilliant even.

In some cases, it's not creativity that stands out at Sakura, but the willingness to go the extra mile to make a dish better. The eggroll, for example, isn't that cheap knockoff found at other Asian restaurants and to-go places. It's a quality eggroll wrap often used at home rather than restaurants because of its high costs. The extra buck or so is worth the bite; the crispiness and light texture of the wrap really trancends the cheap knockoffs so popular in Chinese fast food. The list only goes on for Sakura. Kim chi is often made fresh in the facility or by local residents. Appetizers aren't frozen boxes, but freshly handcrafted and hot out of the kitchen. Herbs are fresh from local gardens. Vegetables such as daikon and carrots are pickled in house. For a growing menu that stretches from Korea to Vietnam, it's downright amazing the extent they are willing to go for customers.

No Reservations, the downlow on Sakura
Atmosphere: Clean, comfortable, and inviting.
Costs: A touch high at around $8-10 for entrees and $3-5 for appetizers.
There plenty of budget bites though that don't hurt the wallet.
Try: The "bun", pho, and really any noodle dish.

Most ethnic restaurants aim to serve dishes at their most authentic. I think Sakura's bravery for exploring new directions makes them one of the most exciting places to venture to in the Greenville area. They pride themselves on bringing authentic Asian flavors to town, and they absolutely do, but at the same time they also bring something that is uniquely themselves, and for that reason I have to call it one of my favorite places in Greenville, NC. The owners are incredibly sweet as well and greet all customers warmly as if they'd known each other all their lives. Ignore what you see outside and check out one of Greenville's best.

A Word to the Wise
Heat is usually a funny business in Greenville when it comes to Thai food. From 1-20 scales to unreliable alphabetic combinations, Greenville's got a lot of strange options at Thai restaurants that often result in disappointment. Not for Sakura though: the food is not only spicy at times here, it's almost volcanic. The kim chi stew for example, though a wonderfully hearty and vibrant dish, is near impossible to finish with the heat resonating from the kim chi and added spices, and the heavy glass noodles only provide a dangerous vehicle for it. The spicy basil isn't just a quaint name; it's a flat out threat.

Lassiez-faire, as they say. Sakura's heat scale is no joke and they are proud to tell you that. On a simple one-to-four scale, stick to two if you want a nice hot and spicy dish. Three or four will leave you stitches if you are not ready for it.

Sakura Asian Express on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 19, 2011

Greenville (NC) Eats: La Hacienda, King Panda, and Mongolian Empire

While I blog my fair share, I've certainly eaten at least twice as much around town. There are plenty of unmentionables anywhere you go, but every once in awhile one finds some decent picks a random night out. Here are a few hit-and-mostly-misses in the Greenville area:

La Hacienda Mexican Grill
Type of Food: Tex-Mex
Price: $6-7 lunch, $10+ dinner

Recently opened on 10th street, La Hacienda offers some Tex-Mex options for the local crowd. To be honest, I have a slight bias for the taquerias - restaurants serving tacos, sopas, burritos and other traditionally Mexican fare - over what you usually see. East Carolina is an area bustling with these family joints serving some incredible tacos that will make you forget those Tex-Mex versions in a pinch, so it was a little disappointing to find that Hacienda was a Tex-Mex restaurant after seeing their "authentic Mexican" sign outside. For a Tex-Mex in Greenville though, it's on par with everything else on town. I tried out the quesadilla relleno for lunch which was stuffed with shredded chicken, vegetables and cheese. Along with a side of rice and salad topped with guacamole, it made for a filling meal. I wasn't too impressed with the flavors though, nothing was really strongly seasoned and the quesadilla needed a large dose of salsa to stay interesting. It had a good crispiness though, and maintained it to the last bite which was a redeeming factor.

While the location makes it an ideal choice for students who can't venture further into town on a daily basis, I would still take the marginally longer walk and pick Armadillo Grill in the downtown area for Tex-Mex tacos. Anyone with a vehicle, however, should try hopping either cross Tar River to El Azador or the taqueria at the Mexican supermarket down Charles St. for some good eats.

Final Word: Meh.

La Hacienda Mexican Grill on Urbanspoon

King Panda Restaurant
Type of Food: Chinese-American
Price: $5 lunch, $8 dinner

Unlike Tex-Mex, I have a bit of sympathy for Chinese-American fast food. General Tso chicken, sweet and sour pork, hot and sour soup, that fast food fried wing, the lo mein stuff - I love that crap to death for no reason. I've had my fair share of the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to Chinese buffets though, and for me King Panda sits right in between the bad and the ugly. The sickly sweet taste of bottled sweet sour, uncrisp meats, and generally either bland or overly something made my two attempts at the buffet turn sour fast. They have a cheap lunch buffet, but this is one of those times where I can say you pay for what you get.

Final Word: Thumbs down.

Mongolian Empire BBQ
Type of Food: Asian Grill
Price: Can't remember, but under ten I'm sure.

I've been a little baffled about whether I should review this place, because in theory everything you have there is as good as you make it out to be. The way this or any Mongolian grill works is a pile of fruits, vegetables, mysteriously dehydrated meat and sauces are left out for you to fill a bowl. Once you get your bowls set, the cooks throw it onto a grill and combine until ready to eat. If we just leave it at that, Mongolian is satisfying in the sense that you get a nice diversity of food to mix and match at your leisure and enjoy.

I think I like Mongolian Empire, but a large heaping bowl of noodles with various Asian sauces and vegetables is commonplace in my own home, so that may be a personal bias. If you are hungry for bowls of meat and vegetable noodles and don't want to purchase the pieces yourself, I guess this is an option for you. It's a good way, if anything, to experience a variety of Asian sauces that you may have never touched on and help inspire some ideas for your own kitchen. If you are looking for more of a savvy culinary meal though, then crawl up the street and check out Sakura Asian Express instead.

Final Word: Craving bowls of noodles in Greenville, NC? It's okay.

Mongolian House & Golden China on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

On the Prowl: Nile Asian Market in Greenville, NC

Cooking became a million times more enjoyable for local Asian and Asian-food lovers in Greenville, NC with the opening of Nile Asian Market. Just a couple of stores from Anchalee Thai Restaurant and DMV on Memorial, Nile provides a host of ethnic essentials from rice to noodles to an interesting variety of meat and seafood for the local crowd. Opened only recently in July, it's already become a favorite for many locals and restaurateurs such as owners of Sakura Asian Restaurant down the street.

Location: 3400 S Memorial Dr, Suite 14
Greenville, NC 27834

Hours: Monday - Saturday, 9:30 AM -8:00 PM
Sunday, 9:30 - 7:00

Browsing through the store, you can find a lot of basics at Nile including soy sauce, fish sauce, chili's, and more. Being a Thai-variety of Asian store, Nile's strong points revolve around Southeast Asian cooking. Things like basil, lemongrass, ginger, and other Thai, Vietnamese, and similar regional flavors are all present here. It's the more East Asian - Japan and Korean - ingredients that are lacking for people eyeing ingredients for those dishes, things like red pepper paste for Korean cooking, soba and other noodle types or stock ingredients for Japanese in particular.

The positives far outshine the negatives though. Maybe best of all is the frozen goods located around store where all the vegetables and meats await. Pork belly is almost impossible to find in the area, but Nile keeps that along with a few neat seafood items in the freezer. Vegetables seem to rotate weekly, but I've found everything from daikon to Chinese broccoli and eggplant to bok choy here, and continue seeing other neat things come in week to week. You'll even find kaffir lime leaves, good for Thai curry enthusiasts.

There's still a lot of room for growth at Nile, especially in the second half of the store that has yet to be filled. As long as a steady stream of customers keep on checking out Nile's treasures, I'm sure this market will be able to expand and continue providing a greater diversity of ingredients for those in the area. Make sure you head and out Greenville's newest ethnic grocery and help make it a permanent fixture in the area.

You can find Nile on Facebook here.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Columbia Eats: Doc's Barbecue and Southern Buffet

My six-going-on-seven-years-too-late barbecue crawl of Columbia forged on this week with a trip to Doc's Barbecue. Location-wise, it may be one of the most accessible places I've been yet - though a yet-to-be-determined-but-forthcoming trip to Palmetto Pig will top that by a mile, literally. Just a few blocks from the Gamecock stadium and the State's (South Carolina's local paper) offices, Doc's caters to a diverse crowd of workers in the Shop Rd. area along with businessmen from the downtown area. It's apparently not rare to find a few state officials and law enforcement roaming around for a bite to eat as the majority of the people during my visit were just that.

Buffet-wise, Doc's is admittedly a lot smaller then I'd envisioned it. The buffet starts out with baked beans, collards and an admittedly welcome pile of brussel sprouts, then moves into the rice with hash and/or gravy. The collards were fine; they had a nice, crisp texture and were the usual sweetness that you find in Cola's collards. Hash, for non-South Carolina natives, consists of all the spare parts of the pork that don't get pulled or used for other recipes. Mixed with vegetables cooked to death and a variety of spices, it's a unique item that comes either in a soup-like consistency or something more akin to a stew - Doc's falls into the stew variety with their thick variation. I don't say this very often, but I wasn't a huge fan of the texture of this hash. It was like pulled pork mashed into a pile of mush, which doesn't scream pleasant. Down the line you can also find the trademark potato salad, slaw, casserole, and mac and cheese. I won't talk about the latter three, which were... "ya know?", but the potato salad. Killer. A bit creamy then some may want it, but there's some nice smoky flavor in there that makes it stand out over the less impressionable sides just mentioned.

Next was the all-important fried chicken. At first glance, it looked a bit disappointing to be honest, not dark and gold fried like you may expect. It turned out to be fairly crispy and juicy though, not the best in Columbia but not a disappointment like previously thought. Better yet, however, was their Tuesday lunch special, an amazing smoked chicken which had great smoke flavor and oozed juices right to the bone. Perhaps my favorite of the day. And then there was the barbecue. I hate to bring it up in yet another Columbia barbecue review, but the mustard pulled pork still falls to Little Pig's great bite for the Cola crowd. The vinegar, however, has just the right about sour and savoriness to it that made me come back for seconds. And then there was the catfish nuggets. I think Doc's is the only one to sport it, and I have to say, it's great. Crisp nuggets of fishy goodness, without that smell of whiting that you usually find elsewhere.

Finally, the peach cobbler, an essential for any Southern buffet. I have to say, I've been disappointed in the past by Columbia's peach cobbler. There were some where you couldn't find a peach if it was hitting you in a face, others where the cobbler reeked of the dreaded burnt crust, and some that just sucked horribly in the worse of ways. Not Doc's though; their crisp, sweet cobbler top and peached filled interior hit all the right notes. Pair with a slice of cool, cold watermelon to clean the pallete every few bites and you have one of the best Southern buffet deserts in Cola.

No Reservations, the word on Doc's
Atmosphere: Surprisingly clean, but a bit heavy on the business side. Bring company.
Costs: A touch steeper then the competition at $9 for lunch.
Pile Up On: The potato salad, vinegar pulled pork, smoked chicken if there on a Tuesday and the peach cobbler - with a slice of watermelon. Very important.

To be perfectly honest, if I were still living in the Columbia area frequently, I'd probably still run up to the other side of town to Little Pigs for barbecue. Doc's is worth a visit, but there just weren't enough notes to make me a frequent. The peach cobbler was great, and the vinegar pulled pork was nice, but there are others in town that are a step ahead of the game I feel. If you are strapped to the USC area for lunch and are craving barbecue though, I would definitely recommend Doc's in the face of it's local competition as it definitely wins in that regard. If you can make the drive though, Little Pigs - for me - is still Cola's best in the barbecue arena.

Doc's Barbecue & Southern Bfft on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Columbia Eats: Drip

French-pressed coffee has become kind of the new fad in the South as of late, with a flurry of small, independent coffee shops popping up around the deep South. The recipe is the same for most: supply high-end coffee at Starbucks prices alongside a small, but charming menu of bistro-esque items for under ten dollars. And free wi-fi of course. Each differ a bit in their approach food-wise, but the general sentiment of "provide a damn good cup of coffee without the pretensions of a chain" is kind of the flagship message of these establishments.

Drips take on the trend pairs coffee with high quality ingredient sandwiches, several involving prosciutto with some cheese pairings. I opted for one of those, a prosciutto and brie concoction on sourdough with a small bowl of honey and balsamic to dip with a side of fruit. The standout of the sandwich for me was the sourdough. Crisp to touch and beautifully crackling to the ear, yet nice and light to bite, just they way you want any sandwich bread. The ingredients inside were okay, not oh-my-god amazing in an earth-shattering way, but nice and not overly salty as some may fear. The fruit was spot on, nice and sweet, and a good way to mop up the excess honey and balsamic.

Honestly, I was a little puzzled on how to go about reviewing a cup of coffee without sounding like a Tyler Florence special. I could say that "the Sumatra has a luscious, velvety texture and a rich, dark, malty body that pairs beautifully with..." but you know what, screw it. Drip serves a damn fine cup of French pressed coffee. Period. It's nice and silky, and comparable to Starbucks in prices, but with a greater quality. It actually took me a moment to look around for the menu items, but once I got adjusted (some coffee options on the front right wall, food items above the bar for newcomers) it didn't take long to make a decision.

No Reservations, the lowdown on Drip
Atmosphere: Casual, but contemporary. Think Starbucks,
but a little more homey.
Costs: Sandwiches are priced around $7.95 for lunch on, but breakfast items are mostly around $5 and offered all day along with a couple of under $6 options for lunch.
Try: Uh, Coffee.

Drip is still a newcomer in the scene, but I think it's safe to say they have all the makings of a quality coffee shop. I worry about the seating, which could slow things down for those who want to come in, wi-fi and work during the school semester. It was already decently busy on my visit, I only imagine things getting busier as USC kicks back into gear at the rate it is going, but for a place like Drip I imagine this to be a good problem for them. Food-wise, there's still room for growth. While I enjoyed what I had, I still had a slight yearning for something more than fruit and a sandwich. Drip's shown that they've only begun to show what they can do though. With the recent announcement of evening hours for the school year, I hope to see them push out some greater fare for the afternoon and evening crowd like Cafe Strudel and 116 - Cola's Tea and Wine bars - have on the other side of the river.

Drip on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 1, 2011

On the Prowl: Pitt County Farmer's Market in Greenville, NC

Greenville's biggest farmer's market is a bit more of an excursion to get to then the Umbrella market in downtown, but if you want to get the best of what East Carolina has to offer at a good, low price, then you'll definitely want to take a peek at what's hiding down Country Home Road.

Location: 4560 Country Home Road, Greenville, NC 27834.
Directions: Head onto East Firetower Rd. Country Home Road is where the Sheetz's is, head past the Sheetz's and drive down a ways until you see the market on your right.
Hours: Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday 8 AM - 1 PM. To 3 PM on Friday's. (March thru December)

Produce Round-Up
For a more precise list, the farmer's market has a neat "What's in Season" chart which you can find here. For the most part, you'll find everything you find at the Umbrella market here. The Pitt County farmer's market stands out with a larger collection to pick from, whether it's peppers or various root vegetables. Along with the usually suspects, you'll also find a few interesting subjects at the end of the aisle, including a bread and grain man, a herb stand, and a large and robust collection of jarred stuff including jams and pickles of all shapes and sizes.

Note: My Pitt County Farmer's Market experiences have usually been Saturdays. Days may fluctuate in produce.

The usual suspects:
Bell Peppers
Collard Greens
Sweet Potato
Grape Tomato
Zucchini (Yellow/Green)

Like the Umbrella market, you'll also find a seafood vendor most weekends.

Along with the produce, you'll also find an interesting array of eats. Breakfast can be found in the form of fruit empanadas at road side of the building. Crispy, sweet, and succulent, they provide a nice pick-me-up while browsing the morning goods. My favorites so far have been the mango and peach, but they have a large variety to fit anyone's tastes. $1.50 a piece for those who are curious. On the other end are the bakers, which will easily tickle your sweet tooth with their concoctions. Some surprising French baked treats were present this past week. Outside the main building is a newcomer to the market, a red hot, hot dog stand. While it seemed like just another dog stand at first glance, the allure of a good beef hot dog was too hard to pass up, especially at $2.00 and with an AMAZING sweet pepper relish on top. Well worth the stop for any hot dog lovers out there.

Overall, Pitt County's Farmer's Market is a great place to stop and pick up affordable produce for the week while picking up a few nice bites to eat. Unfortunately, unlike the Umbrella Market you won't find any extra activities to keep the family busy here, but if you're aiming for the produce then you'll definitely want to make this your regular stop for local goods within the Greenville area.