Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Some Chains I'd Like to See Come to Albany

Let's face it, chain restaurants are ubiquitous. And people that don't eat at chains are the exception rather than the rule. Chains get a bad rap. They're associated with poor quality, highly processed foods, with little nutritional value. I've even chronicled some of them in my Bad Chains series.

But good things are happening. Consumers are demanding better quality food, while still desiring the convenience and familiarity that chains deliver, and restaurants are responding. Just recently, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell announced they are removing artificial ingredients from their food. Panera has pledged to do the same. Even Chipotle—arguably the leader in the "better fast food" category—has announced it will no longer use ingredients that contain GMOs.

As someone who loves food, I'm fascinated by the restaurant industry. I like to stay informed of what's new and interesting, and I'm especially interested in the "fast casual" segment. Fast Casual are those that serve a better quality product than say McDonald's or Burger King or Wendy's, (which are considered "QSRs" or quick service restaurants, in industry lingo) but are still very much fast food. Chipotle is the poster child of the fast casual genre. Others include names such as Smashburger and Burger 21, both recent additions to the Capital Region.

Here are some of the fast casual chains I'd like to see come to the Albany area. These are all restaurants that in some way are on the leading edge of the fast casual trend, or serve food that is just plain delicious.


Bareburger has taken the "better burger" concept to the next level. Much of the menu is organic and non-GMO. Their beef for example, is both grass fed and organic. For those items that are not organic, they are all natural and minimally processed. All of their meats are free-range, antibiotic and hormone free. The menu varies a bit from location to location, because they partner with local merchants for things such as the pickles, ice cream for the shakes, and cheese, among others. While they have the standards on the menu that we all love, like fries and onion rings, many of the the menu items are creative, different, and interesting. With things such as bison, pickled green tomatoes, manchego cheese, and duck bacon to name a few. These guys are on the cutting edge of the better burger trend.

Live Basil Pizza

Live Basil Pizza is founded by the same people that created Smashburger (another chain I like). The Live Basil name is no euphemism or marketing schtick. The restaurants all have live basil plants from which the leaves are picked fresh just before they are put on the pizza.

I'll let Live Basil speak for themselves, as I think they sum up the chain best. From the website:

Made right in front of you, in just a couple of minutes, for the freshest pizza you’ll ever eat. Our hand crafted, delicious pizza, made with only the finest ingredients - San Marzano organic tomatoes, locally sourced produce, all natural meats and cheese - is made to honor the heritage of Naples. Live Basil Pizza is the place for fast, fresh, great tasting, hearth-baked authentic Neapolitan pizza with an engaging experience for lunch or dinner.


OK, Chik-fil-A is technically a QSR and not a fast casual chain, and they are on the cutting edge of nothing, except freaking delicious chicken.

I travel to Atlanta a few times a year for work, and when I arrive, I make a beeline for Chik-fil-A. Make no mistake about it. Chik-fil-A's sandwiches are super tasty. There are dozens of recipes on the internet that attempt to duplicate their chicken, but none come close. (The general belief is the chicken's yumminess is a result of a pickle juice brine).

The company is growing by leaps and bounds. And it's my hope the chain will be in Albany soon. They currently have a few locations in NJ, Mass, and just one location in NYC. But I've read they plan to expand in a big way in NYC. Albany can't be far behind.

Habit Burger Grill

Habit Burger has been voted the best burger chain in America, besting such greats as Five Guys and In-N-Out Burger. I don't know much about the chain, other than their burgers are very much in the style of In-N-Out and Five Guys. That is, thin patties cooked on a flat top. This is the burger style I enjoy most.

I'm attending a wedding in Phoenix next week (Chandler, Arizona to be exact—a suburb of Phoenix) and Habit Burger has a location there. YAY! I have many must try restaurants on my list, so I'm not sure if I'll make it to Habit Burger, but it's definitely on my radar. Maybe after the wife is asleep in the hotel one evening, I can sneak out and grab a Habit Burger! (Shh, don't tell her).

JJ's Red Hots

JJ's is a very small Hot Dog chain out of Charlotte NC. Currently they only have a couple of locations, but plan to expand. They are making waves because of attention to detail, quality and creativity. The Capital Region is of course home to it's own unique hot dog style, the mini-dog. But I'm not aware of any local hot dog places that are placing an emphasis on creativity and quality like JJ's is. (If there is, please correct me). On my recent trip to Chicago, I had a Chicago style dog and fell in love with it. JJ's makes a good one, and it'd be great to have someplace in the area to grab a really good Chicago dog once in awhile.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Quick and Easy Mashed Potatoes

Is there anyone on the planet that doesn't love mashed potatoes? If there is I haven't met them. Mashed potatoes are a crowd pleaser, and any self respecting home cook needs to be able to make a good version of it. They're incredibly easy to make to make well. Any home cook can make satisfying and delicious mashed potatoes.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I have a repertoire of dishes that are delicious, easy to make, and everyone loves. Mashed potatoes are also on that list.

Making them over the years I've learned a couple of tricks to make them taste better. And I think my mashed, despite being simple, are quite good. I've even had a family member tell me once my mashed were the best they'd ever had. I say that not to boost my own ego, but to make the point that great mashed potatoes are easy to make. Anyone can do it.

Most recipes call for russet potatoes. I don't use them, for two reasons. One, you have to peel them, and two, they take longer to cook. I like to use red potatoes (sometimes called new potatoes). They cook quickly, and you don't have to peel them, saving time and effort. Plus the skins add texture, flavor, and nutrients.

The most important thing to remember when making mashed potatoes is to use lots of salt and butter. I very generously salt the water I cook them in. The potatoes taste better to me when the water is salted than when just salting them after the fact. And of course butter makes everything taste better. Butter and potatoes are a match made in heaven. I've coined a phrase: "If you think you've put enough butter in your potatoes, you haven't." The key to really good mashed potatoes is butter, butter, butter!

My Cutco potato masher. I've had it for 20 years.
I use an old fashioned potato masher. I like my mashed potatoes mashed. And I like them a bit rustic with lots of chunks. Of course you can use a hand mixer, or a potato ricer, but that adds time and additional clean up, and that's fine for special occasions, but our goal here is to make something incredibly delicious, quickly and easily.

Lastly, dairy. I like to use half and half. I always have some on hand and it makes for creamier potatoes, but most any diary works. Sometimes I'll use buttermilk which adds a nice tang. The key is to use just the right amount of dairy. You don't want the potatoes too dry, nor do you want them runny.

Quick and easy mashed potatoes:

4 large red potatoes, about 1 1/2 lbs
Dairy (milk, half and half, cream, or buttermilk)
3/4 to 1 stick of butter
salt and pepper to taste

Rinse the potatoes to be sure they're clean then rough chop them into large cubes
Add to a pot and add enough water to cover the potatoes
Add several generous pinches of kosher salt
Heat on high until boiling, once boiling check for doneness at about the 6 or 7 minute mark. They should be just al dente, you don't want to overcook them.
Drain off the water, add the butter, a few turns of ground pepper and a good splash of dairy, then mash. Once you're happy with the consistency, taste and add more dairy and salt as needed.

I realize my measurements are vague, but the amounts used do vary, and as always experience is your best friend. As I said, the key is to use plenty of salt and butter. Don't be afraid of them.

My recipe, not counting the time for the water to boil and the potatoes to cook, takes a total of 4 or 5 minutes.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Staycationaurant III - Chicago

Welcome to part 3 of what I've coined as a 'Staycationaraunt'. I've been chronicling my overeating-at-special-restuarants in Staycationaurant I and Staycationaurant II. Please check out those posts if you haven't already.

In my last post, Feeding Twenty Three Thousand, I recounted the horrible food served at the tech conference I attended. It wasn't all bad though, because I failed to mention the conference was held in Chicago.

I had never been to Chicago, so I was very excited to go, and obviously, I was most excited to find some great restaurants. That task is not as easy as it would seem. A big city like Chicago is loaded with great restaurants, but it's not just great food I like to seek out. I love places that are unique or special in some way, or at the very least, considered to be the best at what they do. Best pizza, best tacos, etc. And they have to be cheap. I just cannot afford high end dining.

Everyone has a different idea of what's good. And that's a problem. Finding places that I think are good takes time and lots of research, and then there's still a chance I'll manage to pick a dud or two. But I think I did pretty well. In total I ate at about 10 different restaurants while in Chicago. Here's four that stood out as extra special to me.

Big Star

Chicago has a vibrant taco scene, and if you're looking for tacos, there are dozens of joints that make good ones. Big Star is on a couple of "Best Tacos in America" lists, so it was a no brainer to eat there. I arrived on a Sunday, at 3pm. I figured it would be slow then. Boy was I wrong. The joint was mobbed. Big Star is in a hip neighborhood and the hipsters were out in force. Luckily, I managed to score the only open bar seat. I ordered tacos de panza (pork belly, left) and the al pastor. They were fantastic. Just look at the char on that al pastor. Only 3 bucks each to boot.

I really, really, wanted to get a couple more tacos, but just two doors down from Big Star is Dove's Luncheonette. And after taking one look at the chicken fried chicken, proudly displayed on their home page, I knew I had to eat that thing.

Dove's is a small, funky diner, with southwest inspired dishes. The interior is very cool, with a hip 70's vibe, wood paneling included. Thankfully, there were no crowds at Dove's, and I settled in at the counter and ordered the chicken fried chicken. WOW. This had to be the best dish I ate all week. I'd move to Chicago, just so I could eat that once a month. A large boneless breast, that was tender and super crunchy. With peas, pearl onions, and "salsa verde" gravy. The gravy makes the dish, with its complex flavors and subtle heat. This dish is comfort food genius. It is the very definition of comfort food. I will not soon forget it.

After two tacos and a beer, quickly followed up with a glass of wine and that heavenly chicken fried chicken, I was stuffed. It was now 4:30 in the afternoon and I had time to kill. Dove's is about 4 miles from my hotel, and I took the train out. But since I had nothing to do, and needed to shed some calories, I decided to walk back to the hotel. While on the way back, a couple of the guys I was at the conference with, started texting me asking about dinner. I had something truly special in mind for dinner that night...

Au Cheval

Au Cheval is another kicked up, funky take on a diner. They're famous for their burgers. (And I'm a sucker for a good burger). Au Cheval makes burgers in the style I love most. Thin patties, well crusted from contact with a searing hot flat top, cooked in their own fat, a la Five Guys. Oh this was going to be good.

It did not disappoint.

I dragged 3 other guys with me, and I think they were skeptical. But it was all expressions of gratitude and thank you's after they dug into those burgers. All 4 of us ordered—at the recommendation of the waitress—our burgers with egg and bacon. Thick cut heavily peppered bacon, and a perfectly cooked sunny side up egg.

We waited over an hour for a table. But it was worth it. The burgers are world class good. They put their homemade mayo on it, and it is one of those little touches that elevates and already fantastic burger to heavenly heights. It's worth a trip to Chicago, if just to go to Au Cheval. Two of my companions said it was the best burger they had ever had. The fries too are worthy of mention. Hand cut in house, they arrived to the table piping hot. So hot we could barely eat them. And crispy, ooh, they were crispy, and perfectly salted.

Lastly, I want to mention Little Goat Diner.

This one was completely off my radar, and in my research I hadn't discovered it. But my wife suggested I go here after she saw that Gwyneth Paltrow had blogged about it on her site. Again, it's a diner that's taking diner food to the next level, and the menu looked intriguing, so I decided to go for breakfast.

I ordered a funky asian inspired egg biscuit sandwich that came with blackberry sauce. It was good, I enjoyed it, but the star of the show had to be the hash browns.

Fate was shining down on me that morning. I had only ordered the sandwich, and a coffee. But as I was sitting at the counter, waiting for my food, I saw a server bring the hash browns to another table and my mouth dropped open. I then watched as the server returned them to the kitchen. Apparently, it was a mistake and the table hadn't ordered them. I quickly flagged down my waitress and asked if I could have the orphaned potatoes. She was happy to oblige.

This was one of the best takes on hash browns I've ever had. They're simple. Just potatoes and salt, nothing fancy going on here. But they are shredded very thinly and they are fall to your knees and thank God you're alive crispy. Potato heaven.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Feeding Twenty Three Thousand

I'm an IT Professional, and as part of my job, I go to a technical conference every year. This year I had the pleasure of attending Ignite. Ignite is put on by Microsoft, and it's huge. There were 23,000 attendees this year. 23,000 IT sys admins, developers, engineers, and managers. It's fun and you learn a lot about upcoming products and technologies.

But I want to talk about the food of course. The conference fee includes breakfast and lunch. I can only imagine the logistics of trying to feed 23,000 people. It's got to be a massive undertaking. And as you can imagine, just getting that many people in line to get their food, and setting up tables is a job that requires a lot of staff. The hall where the food is served is gigantic. It's mind blowing how big it is.

The food is terrible. Anything hot has to be made hours in advance, where it sits in chafing dishes degrading. The hot food is really not worth eating. It makes prison food look good. The cold food is better, as they can keep it chilled until just an hour or so before it's served.

I ate the breakfast the first day, and swore it off for the rest of the conference. I ate the lunch twice. By the third day I just couldn't do it any more, and made the long walk outside the conference center to a local eatery.

Here's a few photos I took, with some commentary.

To the right is breakfast the first day.

You can see row and rows of tables with chafing dishes set up, stretching hundreds of feet.

This is just one row of tables. There is another long row on the other side of the hall.

To the far right is the line of attendees. The tables are opened one at a time. Everyone is sent to the end of the hall. Gradually working backward, new tables are opened as the current ones empty.

People are then sent to the other side of the hall where the menagerie continues. This goes on for at least an hour as people steadily stream in.

This is a lunch line. It's several people wide and hundreds of feet long. This line is headed all the way to the back of the hall. It moves at a leisurely pace. Notice the apprehension on peoples faces as they are about to be tortured with bad food.

Another view of the food line. The gentleman in purple, in the middle of the shot is directing traffic.

Here's Monday's lunch menu. Don't be fooled by the fancy descriptions, it ain't that fancy.

This is the above lunch, ready to disappoint the thousands. Stacks and stacks of delicious sandwiches ready to be eaten thrown away.

Notice the devilish look on her face. She's eaten the food and knows what we're in for.

From bottom left clockwise:

The sandwich was ok. I threw out half the bread and mostly ate the fillings. The bread was dry and chewy.

The pasta salad was bland. Shoelaces have more flavor.

The cheddar and tomato pie was pretty tasty. It was the best thing I ate at the conference center all week.

The pound cake was disgusting. It had a very strange gummy texture. I almost threw up after eating it.

Tuesday was May 5th, Cinco de Mayo. So of course they did a Mexican theme for lunch.

From bottom left clockwise:

Jicama, orange, and basil salad. It was mushy and bland.

Some kind of cold corn salad. It was ok I guess, but then when your expectations are so low anything short of dog crap tastes good.

Salsa. Typical jarred crap.

The corn tamale was terrible. Dry, with a crumbly texture, and off flavor, and it was cold.

Mahi mahi with mango/red pepper salsa. Cook a piece of fish, then leave it in a hot pan for 6 hours and you can imagine how incredibly dry and chewy it was. The corn husk from the tamale was looking good after eating this.