Monday, December 13, 2010

Now, for something disgusting: Worst Foods in America, in Eugene

Yahoo! has released a list of the "Worst Foods in America, 2010" today. It's a list of the most unhealthy things you can eat at a chain restaurant. I thought it'd be fun to see which of these is available in Eugene. First, the list:

  1. PF Chang's Double Pan-Fried Noodles Combo (served with beef, pork, chicken, and shrimp): 1,820 calories/84 g of fat/7,692 mg sodium.
    This is certainly available in Eugene (and even for online ordering!), but... you know, why would you get this, when I'm fairly certain you could burn through 2,000 calories by ordering some similar combination platter at Ocean Sky and racking up at least 2,000 extra sodium "points"? (It would also be cheaper).

  2. Baja Fresh Charbroiled Steak Nachos: 2,120 calories/118g fat/2,990 mg sodium.
    Available in Eugene! I guess the point of this list is that things only make it on here if they're new in 2010, so it's perhaps useless to point out that any number of Taco Bell entries could take this one down in a (sluggish, cholesterol-choked) heartbeat. Then again, this does somewhat throw a cramp into my consideration of nachos as "not really a meal" and therefore "lighter." I still believe that throwing some cranberry salsa on top would make this into a health food.

  3. Uno Chicago Grill's Chicago Classic Deep Dish Pizza (individual size): 2,310 calories/165 g fat/4,920 mg sodium
    Not available in Eugene, but they must have something comparable at BJ's. Also -- holy cow, 165 g of fat, really? Why not throw some deep-fried bacon on top and just get it over with?

  4. IHOP Big Country Breakfast with Chicken Fried Steak and Country Gravy: 2,440 calories/145 g fat/5,520 mg sodium
    Available in Eugene. Yes, but: let me ask you, do those calories really matter at the times in our lives (4 a.m., finals week, post-bar, during a relative's Riverbend surgery) that we find ourselves camped out at IHOP? I think not. No one goes to IHOP for health food, or even for particularly creative tastes. If they wanted tasty fattening breakfast, Addi's is just down the street, and if you ask nicely, they'll make you a chicken-fried-steak skillet that puts this piddlin' little platter of drunk food to shame. Then again, you can only go to Addi's during regular hours (5 a.m. to 2 p.m.), so...

  5. Cheesecake Factory's Bistro Shrimp Pasta: 2,730 calories/78g fat/919 mg sodium
    Not available in Eugene, unless they sell it frozen at Safeway or something. I'd say there's a reasonable alternative to this to be found at The Olive Garden: all the chain taste, half the price, and their little cheese-filled sacchetti things must carry most of the wallop that this pasta does. Plus, free breadsticks! Dipped in fry oil and sodium. YUM.

There's more to this list -- a whole 20-item slide show, in fact, where some guy tells you what to eat instead of each of these items. (Example: Eat the Double Stack with Bacon at Wendy's instead of the Triple Baconator). The entire list raises a few important questions:

1). Does Blimpie still exist?

2). Do people really eat Domino's breadbowl pasta line?

2.5) Seriously? Why?

3). Does anyone want to go to Addi's Diner with me, stat?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Closings, openings, etc.

  • As announced via Cara Eddo's Facebook page and Web site, Eddo Burger has closed for good. If you're looking for a cute airstream trailer from which to make your (and my) dream of veggie burger tastiness come true, you should definitely keep an eye on Craig's list, where it is apparently listed.
  • Fina Taqueria on Willamette has closed, and with its departure, the best chips in town have left the scene.  The West brothers have shuttered the concept of Fina, preferring to focus on Mucho Gusto and Dickie Jo's. Can't those places have the awesome chips, too? C'mon.
  • The Broadway downtown closed its doors... but reopened them at the Oakway Center, which is fast becoming the hub for, hm, things I like to eat before I spend too much money at Borders. (Also, please ignore the information on The Broadway's web site, and The Broadway's name itself, as the restaurant really is no longer located on Broadway).
  • Sabai, a restaurant promising Pacific-Rim-meets-Pacific-Northwest cuisine, will open at the Oakway Center next month. I'm looking forward to seeing what they do with the space that doomed Uva. Here's hoping for more lighting. (Also, Thai at Oakway would complete me).
  • Red Lobster is nearly complete near Valley River Center. Word on the "grand opening" is sometime in February, though every time I pass by, I'm sure it's already serving people.
  • Jimmy John's has opened its doors in Springfield. For those not familiar, get thee to that little corner of Gateway street where the good Starbucks huddles beside the forgotten Cafe Yumm. Or -- order online for delivery!
  • Brewed Awakenings on Willakenzie is now the evening home of Seoul Sushi, which offers karaoke (I believe on its big-screen TV) on select evenings and coupons just about everywhere. This isn't the leap that it seems; the place has been home to Korean food during the day for some time now.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Burrito Chain Wars, Part III: Qdoba is Cheesy (cheesy goodness)

There are two major differences between Qdoba and its closest competitor, Chipotle: cheese sauce and breakfast. Qdoba offers both; Chipotle offers neither. This may not be a point in Qdoba's favor, if you're some kind of chain burrito purist (and if you are: WTF?), but for me, it's often the winning move in an otherwise even chess match.

Part of my affection for Qdoba comes from one simple fact: I've eaten a lot of it, and I've paid almost nothing for it. Just over two years ago, I entered one of those drop-your-name-in-a-fishbowl contests at Qdoba and, soon after, won a year's worth of free burritos. That's 52 free burritos, credited to one of their Qdoba loyalty cards. C and I have eaten out on that card ever since -- not every week, clearly, but often enough.

Qdoba was always my second choice before I got The Free Burrito card. However, with that in hand, I've felt free to try more things -- and among these things, I've found some I really enjoy. Take, for instance, Qdoba's "Mexican Gumbo." Set aside the ridiculousness of the name and focus on what this is: rice and beans with a tomato-broth soup poured over, with cheese, crispy chip bits, salsa, and sour cream. It's the best burrito-like bowl that I have ever had, and on a mildly cool day, it's pretty much the perfect lunch. Pair it with an order of chips and cheese dip -- there's almost always a coupon for a free serving of this in those Student Coupon books they hand out at the bookstore every start of term -- and you've got a perfectly over-satisfying meal that's made for you in less than five minutes and costs about $8.

Yes, this is a place that serves nacho cheese sauce. Why not? The authenticity that any chain burrito restaurant aspires to is only a very commercialized, American version of fast Mexican cuisine, anyway, and, well, Americans love their processed cheese. Qdoba goes two better, making a "three cheese queso" (I know, that's "three cheese cheese," but this is the level of cultural knowledge we're dealing with). What are those three cheeses? I have no idea, nor do I particularly care. They make an orange sauce that's absolutely pleasing on chips and, better than that, makes a welcome, tangy addition to one of their signature burritos: The Queso Burrito. That one, which is cheese sauce and meat of choice, is neighbors to another Qdoba signature, the Ancho Chile BBQ Burrito, a dish that C is generally pleased with. "It's a nice smokey tangy barbecue sauce that goes over pork well for that kind of thing," he says. "It's something I can eat fairly often."

That kind of describes everything at Qdoba: nothing will burn you, or overexcite you, or bring you to some kind of burrito epiphany, but it's good. It's fine. None of the food at Qdoba is particularly challenging. It's plain chain burrito fare: meats, sauces, rice, two kinds of beans (both vegetarian), four kinds of salsa, and a few special features like the queso, the bbq sauce, the soup, and, hey! Breakfast.

Breakfast has been the main way I've experienced Qdoba for the last year. It is, to my knowledge, the only of the three chains in town that even bothers with the breakfast burrito. You have only a few choices: 10" or 13" flour tortilla? (10 for me; 13 for C). Egg, spiced potatoes, and cheese? (Yes). Meat? (No for me; sausage for C). Salsa? (Depends on the day). Coffee? It's Allan Bros. (No thanks -- coffee + burrito = disaster).

You can get a breakfast quesadilla with eggs and cheese, too, or substitute shredded chicken for the sausage, but these are your options. Breakfast burritos are served until noon on weekends, which is absolutely perfect (when does McDonald's stop serving? 10:30? That's practically dawn). Matched to a Coke product of your choice and scarfed down while sitting at a could-be-ripped-from-Chipotle wooden bench seat over a shiny metal table, it's exactly the breakfast one needs before wandering to the bookstore for a re-up on homework materials.

Location: 13th and Kincaid

Hours: Monday-Wednesday 8 a.m. to midnight; Thursday-Friday 8 a.m. to 3 a.m.; Saturday 9 a.m. to 3 a.m.; Sunday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Notes: The Qdoba loyalty card, in combination with a coupon book you can pick up at the bookstore for free, will generally supply you with a free burrito, chips, or drink every couple of visits, even if you don't win the contest that I did.

Qdoba Mexican Grill on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Burrito Chain Wars, Part II: Chipotle is in your mind

Of the entries in the Burrito Chain war, Chipotle (chi-POHT-lay) is the newest in Eugene and probably the best known. Chipotle fans are, admit it, cultish about the big burritos and small tacos that can be found at every one of these fast-casual "Mexican" grills. (A quick side note: Though once a member of the McDonald's family, Chipotle has been independent since 2006). I, myself, am a Chipotle fan, someone who saw the "Coming Soon" sign in the window on Coburg two years ago and nearly spit up my coffee in glee. A Chipotle! In Eugene! It made so much sense.

Now that the chain has landed, though, I seem to want it less. This makes a certain amount of sense: the memory of Chipotle is always better than the experience of Chipotle. That's not to say the experience isn't good -- it generally is. Of the three chain burrito places in Eugene, Chipotle wins in several substantial taste categories, including spiciness (try the Barbacoa), rice (cilantro-lime-magic), and guacamole (them there are real avocados, friend). They also serve with efficient speed and surprising friendliness, and $10 will always carry you out the door with a more-than-stomach-sized burrito and a soda of your choice.

Yet I really think that most people enjoy Chipotle in the abstract as much as they enjoy actual Chipotle.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Burrito Chain Wars, Part I: Baja Fresh

A little introduction: In this town, we have three of the major national contenders for Best Burrito Chain (Baja Fresh, Chipotle, and Qdoba). All three function on largely the same business model: feed people huge burritos at mid-sized prices with recognizable vegetables and absolutely nothing "refried," and they will want more. All three inspire rather rabid devotion from fans. All three also have substantial differences, and as someone who's a regular eater at all three establishments in Eugene, I thought I'd line them up for a three-part comparison. Why not? It's winter; it's foggy; who doesn't want a spicy burrito show-down right now?

So, to be as fair as possible, I'm doing this in alphabetical order -- and also, it turns out, starting with the chain that has the oldest presence in Eugene, Baja Fresh. This restaurant out on Coburg road is located in the tiny complex that also houses a Ben and Jerry's and a Newman's Fish Market -- and, oh yeah, it's directly across the street from a shiny new Chipotle.

That's OK. The folks who come to Baja Fresh probably want two things that Chiptole can't provide: a more familiar fast-food ordering experience, and a bit more choice.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Chicken Bonz: Fried stuff done (mostly) right

In the Great American Desert, where I hail from, the name in chicken wings is Buffalo Wild Wings, and when we moved here, it was with sadness that the first time the wings craving hit, I learned that Eugene didn't HAVE a BWW. It's not a craving that hits often, but at the start of the summer, one of the crappy Mexican fast food places on Franklin went toes up, and not long after the "Coming Soon: Chicken Bonz" sign went up.

(I admit it: we made fun of the spelling. We still don't pronounce it the way they probably want us to.)

I looked them up on the Internets and learned that this was another location for a restaurant located in Springfield, and we went that night to the original metro-area location over in Other Town to try it out.

I like it. It's really quite a bit like BWW, for those of you have been there. They seem to be a franchise, so you can do this in college towns all over the country, but most importantly, now you can do it half a block from the law school side of campus. So, what makes that so great?

First of all, the french fries are always amazing and crisp. They're the long skinny fries, pretty far removed from a slice of potato, but you didn't come here for health food, right? The chicken is available on the bone or off it, but one of the few remnants of my foray into the land of vegetarians is that I don't do meat (especially chicken) on the bone. So I've only ever had the boneless wings, but it's always been fresh and juicy, and whoever works the fryer at the Eugene location has a slightly better way with the deep fat fryer than the guys in Springfield. You can have an assortment of sauces or rubs as flavoring; I'm partial to the medium wing sauce with copious ranch dressing from the condiment bar. G has taken to mixing up honey with Melinda's hot sauce from the bar, and using that as his dip for chicken.

They have a variety of sizes, from the Small Appetite 3 pieces, fries, and a drink, to the daunting 12.95 All-you-can-eat Special. A few weeks ago, we saw a couple of Ducks football players attempting to get their money's-worth from that deal: they were still eating when we left, on basket number 4 each. (Total? A shocking 20 wings, at least...)

Chicken Bonz on Urbanspoon

11:00 AM - 8:00 PM
11:00 AM - 8:00 PM
11:00 AM - 8:00 PM
11:00 AM - 8:30 PM
11:00 AM - 8:30 PM
11:00 AM - 8:00 PM
12:00 PM - 8:00 PM

Location: 1535 Franklin Blvd, Eugene, or 1815 Pioneer Pkwy E, Springfield.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

No Place for Pros: Mio Sushi

We've been to Mio Sushi several times, but hadn't been back for a while until recently. That's not because of a bad experience, it's just because, well, sushi is expensive, and neither C nor I have a "one roll will do it" appetite. Recently, though, with a helping hand from a coupon at Mobba and a wave of starvation while sitting at Borders, we found our way over to Oakway's oldest new restaurant recently.

When we got there, we were surprised by two things: first, even though it was 7 p.m. by the time we arrived, the sushi conveyor belt was in full swing. Second, there were gigantic signs advertising that the restaurant now has two happy hours, during which those tasty little dishes are even less expensive. We managed to miss them both by an hour -- they run from 4ish to 6 and 8 to close -- but I'll keep that late night one in mind for feasting in the future.

So what floats by on those little plates? Bits and tastes that run from $1.75 to about $4. On the low end, you might pick up three California roll pieces or a little crock of salty edamame (we did); on the high end, there are chicken skewers and tempting two-piece Mount St. Helens rolls. In between there are a variety of cold bites to try.

Mio is the best place in town to take two kinds of folks: your friend who swears she will never, ever eat sushi OMG; and your friend who likes the idea of liking sushi more than she does actually eating the stuff.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Celebration Food: Osteria Sfizio

I've been doing a fair amount of celebrating recently. I've had a birthday come and go and new job prospects on the horizon. Between those and a trip home, I've had several charming chances to eat at lovely restaurants. Unfortunately (for this blog), many of them were in Kansas.

Before departing for the Sunflower State, though, I had a glorious birthday dinner at Eugene's newest sit-down Italian restaurant, Osteria Sfizio in the Oakway Center. It's taken the place of the wine/sandwich deli that used to be there, but the new place is nothing like the old. You walk in to a restaurant full of cozy wooden tables, with a half-square bar that offers, from one side, a view of the kitchen (and from the other, a view of their substantial bar). We made reservations; the night we were there, a weeknight, wasn't too crowded, though, so I wonder if they're always necessary. They can be made online, which is pretty handy.

This was a several course meal for us.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

My Romantic Year: Midtown Marketplace

For one brilliant year, nearly my entire job was to sit in coffee shops and write. Every day, I'd wake up, pack my little computer into my gigantic bag, and trek down from my house to find a place to settle for the day. Over and over, that place wound up being Midtown Marketplace.

Now, I'm not a regular anywhere. I don't know until I wake up what food or drink will sound good during the day, and even when I'm standing at a familiar coffee counter, there's not much chance you'll know what I'll order. Still, three or four times a week for nearly a year, I showed up at Midtown -- sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon -- to get a large mug of black coffee, no room, and a pastry.

Why this place? Why that coffee? Only the heart and the tastebuds can really answer, but my fingers will give it a try. They brew a rich, hot, dark coffee has just the faintest taste of dark, bitter chocolate. Their pastries are locally made, sometimes in house, I believe, and the buttery croissant shell around the hard bar of chocolate in the pain au chocolat was enough, most days, to sustain me through a morning of writing.

If I was hungrier, I sometimes turned to the cousin of the coffee counter, the Bistro. They have omelettes and waffles, eggs Benedict or Pierre, fruit and granola, and a few other standbys. The prices are a little high for a no-service restaurant, but that's because the ingredients aren't your typical coffee-shop fare. The Chevre omelette I liked best came with roasted red peppers, spinach, that cheese, toast, potatoes, and an $8 price tag. A burger and fries at lunch will run you $9, but the meat and lettuce are local. When it's done, you'll hear your name bellowed across the whole hall in a voice that's trained by years of service to carry.

It's a big place, after all. Midtown Marketplace is one long, open building. The front has street-facing windows onto Willamette and a bundle of benches lining the walls with seating for thirty more at tables in between. The coffee shop squats in the middle of the building, and traffic can flow around it on either side back to three separate seating areas: a U-shaped area of padded benches and tables around an indoor fireplace; a more open area across from it with more tables (and a valuable outlet for laptops); and the back bar, which has high tables and the highest concentration of outlets in the place.

Midtown used to be the home of three separate entities: the Coffeeshop, the Bistro, and, in the back, the Bel Ami lounge, which opened at night and served drinks and dinner. Sometime in the last few years, Bel Ami died, and there was a brief, glorious interlude where one could arrive for coffee at 2 and transition to martinis at 4 (er, of course, I mean five, because, ha ha, who'd drink alone before 5?), all from the same fireside chair. Think about it! Pastries, free wifi, and a damn good Manhattan, all in the same place? Throw in a bowl of fries -- and oh, they did -- for $4, and you can see why I nearly settled down.

Those days are somewhat over. Coffee and bistro both close at 3, and staying in your seat beyond that feels much like trespassing. There's a new wine bar/store that's opened in the long northern side of the building. It sells wine by the bottle and has tastings, though not on a particularly set schedule and not in conjunction with the rest of the building's services.

Our affair was brief, but sweet. We've both moved on, though not, in my case, terribly willingly. Yet I remember Midtown fondly, and I hope someday soon -- perhaps this Saturday -- we'll meet again.

Hours: Coffee and Bistro: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily; The Winehouse: Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., except Fridays: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Location: 1591 Willamette Street

Monday, September 6, 2010

Coffee for a certain crowd: The Supreme Bean

Strange as it may seem, coffee snobbery in Eugene is usually practiced in places bearing a decidedly shabby-chic decor and a cultish clientele. Not so at The Supreme Bean, a coffee shop that also serves lunch, dinner, wine, and beer next to the palatial Willamette street Market of Choice. The Supreme Bean says it all right there in its name: they aim to make coffee that's superior, in quality and -- it should be noted -- in price, in an atmosphere devoid of the usual coffee shop traffic.

The place is small but has plenty of tables for groups of two and a couple for up to four people, as well as a bar facing the window that overlooks a patio/sidewalk beyond. Out there, a few umbrella-shaded tables provide a chance to people watch (fascinating, at the intersection of Market of Choice and Ben & Jerry's) or to keep an eye on your car in the vast, steamy parking lot beyond. On Fridays and some weekends, there's often live music outside (or in, weather depending).

My general experience of The Supreme Bean has been positive in most respects. Their house coffee (20 oz: $2) is strong but not exceptionally bitter, and they're one of the only places I can think of in the wider Eugene region that bothers to make leaf patterns or swirls in the foam on a latte. (Whether a latte should have any foam is apparently a debate for another city, because they all do, here, except at Starbucks). If you dine in, your coffee comes in big, colorful mugs with saucers and a spoon (invaluable!). I tell you, I love a good saucer. They serve and sell a variety of loose-leaf teas (try the genmeicha, if you like rice), coffee by the pound, and various coffee-related materials. I've spent several longing moments staring at the travel presses they used to sell by the front door.

There's also food available, the most notable of which is the crepe. There's an honest-to-goodness crepe maker, one of those flat black jobbies that I have occasionally lusted over at Williams Sonoma, and from it springs crepes that can be topped with fruit, cheese, vegetables, or even meat. I've had a very good apple-cinnammon crepe here, and a really tasty blue-cheese apple treat, once upon a time. There are a few staples, but there's usually also a seasonal offer or two on the menu. Right now, berries are king -- strawberries, if you can get them, are a great topping, with fresh whipped cream. There are also panini and usually treats from Sweet Life Patisserie available, as well as a quiche of the day.

My two snags with The Supreme Bean are more indicative of my own station in life than anything specifically critical about the store. The crepes, and coffees, are expensive. I've easily spent over $10 to get a crepe and a cup of coffee to go with it, and I never quite feel like it's worth it. What you pay for, though, is more than just the food and drink; you pay for the atmosphere, which is tailored to welcome a certain type of crowd. What type? Well, older and affluent, I'd say. Generally, the place is pitched toward two-person parties who meet in the middle of the day (so: likely retired) for a cup of coffee or a quick bite but don't intend to stay much beyond finishing it. The Supreme Bean has self-selected its crowd through its products (European drinking chocolate, anyone?), pricing, and decor, and also through passive touches like requesting that students/people using the wireless internet not linger.

Maybe I'm oversensitive to this because, when I was a student, I used to go to The Supreme Bean pretty regularly, valuing its mid-morning quiet to get some writing done -- until I specifically heard the owner telling a friendly customer about the steps she was taking to limit the overtake of her coffee shop by the studying hoards. That's fine; it's actually a sensible business decision, in a town where you're likely to see a group camp out at Starbucks for 3 hours, soaking up free wifi on the strength of a single coffee purchase. It's just made me less likely to return to the store.

I think there's certainly room in the Eugene market for a place like the Supreme Bean to not only survive but thrive, as it is clearly doing. This is a safe space for those who want upscale coffee in an environment that reflects what they're able to pay for it, without the inconvenience of a grubby counter or the sheer commercialism of Starbucks. It's also a willing contributor to the community. Last month, they played host to a benefit event for CASA, and they seem to always have a new event coming up. That's good, local coffee.

Location: 2864 Willamette Street, in the SouthTowne shopping center next to Market of Choice (and Ben & Jerry's)
Hours: Monday to Thursday, 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily; Friday and Saturday until 8 p.m.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Daniel's Taco Cart: Take your chances

There are two experiences to be had at Daniel's Taco Cart, which on Friday and Saturday nights, after 10 PM, moves from its Hwy 99 location to be parked in the lot between the Daniel's restaurant and Franklin. The first experience is transcendent. It's "I can't believe I paid 4.00 for this"--and the burrito is fresh and hot and tastes like fresh produce and well-marinated meat. It's huge, and you feel like quite the late night value diner.

The other experience, sadly, is also "I can't believe I paid 4.00 for this," and it's a tepid burrito served with inexpert attention to little details, like what kind of meat you wanted on your burrito. It'll still be huge, but somehow, you'll feel less like a daring and clever bargain hunter. You feel like you're sorry you weren't drunk before you got this burrito (if you're me, that is, and don't reserve your late night food outings to go with nights of booze...)

I'd been planning this review for a couple weeks, but the last two weekends I've been there, quality had taken a dramatic turn for the worse. I can't really tell you that these are the best, and cheapest, burritos in town, now. What I can say is that there is a roulette wheel of quality there, ranging from Excellent to Truly Mediocre, and that I will continue to take my chances there on the occasional Saturday night.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Ultimate hangover breakfast: Caspian Restaurant

So you walk into a restaurant called "Caspian Mediterranean Restaurant," and you see Mediterranean-ish food on the menu. What do you do? Probably the wrong thing: you order it. In so doing, you've already messed up. There's a right way and a wrong way to order at Caspian, and if you walk in expecting the restaurant to live up to its name instead of its decor, well, do you also think the Original Pancake House was the first one ever?

Caspian is a campus diner that does good business as exactly that: a diner. American to its core. Skip the exotic parts of the menu and focus on the things you'd order if the name was "Bob's" or "Tex's" instead of The Caspian. In so doing, you'll notice there's a double cheeseburger special available, with fries and a coke, for about $6. It will be made quickly on a grease-covered grill, possibly by a man whose name I don't know but whose prison sentence I've heard tell about and who makes (from all reports) a very mean, tasty burger. When he finishes cooking your meal, he'll probably go outside to smoke again. Feel free to join him.

Not feeling like lunch? Good, because the burger and reasonably crispy fries are all I know to recommend. Breakfast is where it's at here. Standard diner breakfast, the kind that sounds good first thing in the morning but better at midnight, after you've spent the evening investigating the campus-area bars. (Let's face it; after much time at Taylor's or Rennie's, Caspian looks like a dream come true). What do I recommend? Several taste sensations: first, the pancakes. They're made with real buttermilk, and sometimes, they're a little sour. That's the price you pay -- oh, wait, no, the price you pay is $2.95 for two large pancakes soaked in syrup and butter. They're available to go, and if you take them to class, everyone's going to want them.

Next, if you're a meat-eater, try the Bacon Maple French Toast. It's three thick slices of French toast covered in syrup, butter, and crumbles of actual bacon. I've yet to see someone order this only once.

The egg dishes are also pretty good, and here you can even get away with trying a Mediterranean variety. The Greek scramble, which comes with olives and feta, about a 1/2 pound of homefries, and toast, is a salty, greasy masterpiece that can take on up to a case of PBR in your stomach and win the battle handily.

The atmosphere here can leave something to be desired, sure. You have to fetch your own sodas and waters, find your own silverware, and bus your own table. If you sit downstairs, you'll have a constant stream of students trooping past, and you'll most likely sit at a table no one's yet had a chance to clean. Upstairs, it's quieter, usually, though further from the sodas. Never mind; drink the water. You probably need it.

Hours: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; open until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

Location: 863 13th Ave

Caspian Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Thanks for doing the dishes: Cafe Yumm

Let me answer for what may not even be a burning question at your house: Is it possible to like Cafe Yumm without loving their namesake Yumm Sauce? Yes, my friends. It is.

Let's back up and talk about the sauce: It's an "egg-free, dairy-free, wheat-free, gluten-free, sugar-free, and low sodium" sauce that, if the Internet's imitation recipes are correct, consists mostly of hummus ingredients, curry, and a lot of nutritional yeast. The combination is stunning and strong, as it's meant to be: it's a sauce that's supposed to be the star of whatever dish it tops, be it plain brown rice or a bowl full of beans and spices and relishes. It comes on almost anything you order at Cafe Yumm, because they know that it's what makes their otherwise easy-to-fix-at-home dishes something you'd leave your house for.

Yet here I am, someone who doesn't dig the special sauce, and I still get a Cafe Yumm craving from time to time. Why?

Mostly, it has to do with avocados and a little dish called the Chilean Zucchini Yumm Bowl.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Meet your meat in Veganland: Keystone Cafe

It took me three years of living in Eugene to make it over to Keystone Cafe for the first time, and then I went there about three weekends in a row. That's been a while, and I just revisited the place today to find, somewhat reassuringly, that nothing has changed at what remains one of the real staples of what I'd call "Only in Eugene" cuisine.

Keystone serves breakfast and lunch -- well, I've heard they serve lunch, and their menu testifies to that fact, but I've never tried it and I don't know anyone who has. It's basically a breakfast place for mixed crowds of vegetarians, vegans, and those who hang out with and encourage/tolerate us while secretly wishing everything came with sausage gravy on the side. At Keystone, you can have your vegan toast and your sausage-gravy coated biscuits, too, sometimes on the same plate.

The omelettes are the first things listed on their runs-the-gamut breakfast menu, and that's because they do them pretty well. Roasted red peppers and pesto? Sure! Avocado cream cheese? Yes, please. Greek? Spanish? Olé! These are three-egg omelettes served with big chunks of spiced potato home-fries and a slice of vegan bread. I'll come back to that. The price is around $8-$9, depending on what you want in your omelette. You can add meat -- real or fake -- for another couple of bucks.

What kind of meat? The kind that's sung a lullaby before it's rocked to death and thrown into a pan of vegan oil to be fried. Nitrate-free bacon; turkey ham; hormone-free beef patties; chorizo; salmon; or tuna. They're available as sides or sometimes as the star of the show, in traditional dishes like the aforementioned biscuits and sausage gravy (C gives it two thumbs up). Most of the time, though, they're offered as an option, with tofu, homemade tempeh, or the Keystone protein patty available for substitution.

In terms of vegan fare, you can get tofu scrambles, brown-rice based dishes, a nice mix of Mexican-inspired non-Huevos Rancheros combinations, and toppings including a cremini mushroom "sausage" gravy, Nutritional Yeast gravy, or tomato-veggie sauce. I like eggs, so omelettes have been on the table for me several times, but I can also testify to the tastiness of their sliced and fried polenta.

And, oh yeah, the bread.

There are five varieties of vegan bread available, all baked with organic flours: Sourdough Dill; Mixed Grain; Herb; White; or Spelt Rye Oat. I think one of these is sometimes defined as "wheat" bread, but I'm not sure. I love the White. It's dense and short, about half the height of your standard sandwich bread and twice as firm. Maybe three times as firm, once it's toasted, so that it stands up to the butter-vegan spread mix (really, it's butter mixed with margarine) that comes on top and is a perfect companion for the thick, sweet blackberry jam that sits in old squeeze bottles on every table. Each time I visit Keystone, I tell myself this will be the time that I order nothing but bread and jam for breakfast, and each time, I'm tempted instead by something with eggs or peppers. I end up paying $2 to get two slices of bread anyway.

Seating is inside or out, year-round; the porch has a small covered area that seats about six parties comfortably, with heat lamps for the winter months. Sitting out there can be quite lovely, particularly because it offers a better atmosphere to enjoy while you're alternately forgotten by or hovered over by your server. I've had both experiences every time I've been at Keystone: a lot of initial attention, and then a long, long pause. If you aren't ready to order right as you walk in (and the menu is long, but filled with similar items, making decisions difficult), you'll wait quite a while to establish your order, and then longer to see that order come to fruition.

It doesn't matter. It's a place you go with friends, on a weekend morning or a rainy, empty weekday, to enjoy three or four (if you're me) cups of over-creamed coffee and the constant stream of watchable people and delightfully strange conversations. Keystone is a product of its neighborhood and its town as much as any place I can think of in Eugene, and it's very comfortable.

Location: 5th and Lawrence

Hours: Every day: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Keystone Cafe on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Pizza like Uno's used to make: B.J.'s Restaurant and Brewhouse

This is an easy review to write for one audience: the audience that grew up/lived in a city with a Pizzeria Uno. Uno's was a chain of restaurants that served as their specialty a deep-dish Chicago-style pizza, alongside a few burgers, pasta dishes, and soups and salads. I had one in Lawrence, Kansas that I used to visit with some regularity because their lunch special (small pizza, soup, drink, 30 minutes or less) was very convincing at about $8.

B.J.'s Restaurant and Brewhouse is about the same deal, except they focus on pizza and beer. It's got a functional not-quite-sports-bar atmosphere, a crowd that's usually a mix of parents with kids and parents out for a night without the kids, and some decent pizza choices. The deep dish pizzas are baked in heavy, well-oiled pans that should (and sometimes does) result in a crispy outside and bready interior; there's also a gluten-free and thin-crust option, but I admit to having never tried either of those. If you come to B.J.'s, it's probably for the real pizza -- and it should be.

And the pizza is pretty good. It's commercially good, I should say. The Mediterranean pizza (Kalamata olives, peperoncinis, feta cheese, roasted garlic, sundried tomatoes, chicken (optional), and pesto) is a satisfying mess of salty tastiness. Most of the pre-set pizzas offer an overwhelming pile of ingredients, ranging from the Southwestern (chipotle tomato sauce, blackened chicken, green chilies, cheddar cheese, diced tomatoes, fresh cilantro) to a three-meat variety or a pizza-like take on Buffalo chicken wings. You can also make your own pizza from a list of ingredients, with each one costing you up to $1.50 more.

The red sauce on the pizzas is usually nicely done, with a few chunks of stewed tomato popping through the cheesy toppings. You can get most of what you'd want on a pizza here -- standard meats, usual veggies, and a few café outliers, like meatballs or the above-mentioned olives in place of the standard canned black.

That said, this isn't a great value for dinner. One medium pizza has about six slices and feeds about 1.25 C and Jenn combinations, and it costs right at $20. Yeah, $20, for a pizza in what's essentially a quieter Applebee's -- that's a hard sell for me, and it's the main reason that I rarely remember B.J.'s when I'm hungry for pizza. However, if you're free for lunch, and already somewhere over the Ferry Street Bridge, B.J.'s does offer some good lunch specials: pasta with soup or salad for about $10; a gigantic baked potato with pizza toppings (I like the veggie Alfredo combination) with soup or salad for about $9; mini pizzas starting around $6 or $7; and an unlimited salad-and-soup combo vaguely reminiscent of the Olive Garden (though without the tasty breadsticks). There are also burgers (real and veggie), main-dish salads, and a few dressed-up fish dishes like Thai Salmon and Shrimp Tacos.

While you eat, you can enjoy one of B.J.'s brews -- though I have to admit, I never have. I've ordered them, sure, but they're mostly unmemorable, with the exception of B.J.'s Jeremiah Red. C has ordered that beer at least three times on the strength of its description and ended up not finishing it on the strength of its bitter taste. The Tatonka Stout pales in comparison to Oakshire's offering, and you're better off with a Widmere than with B.J.'s special Brewhouse Blonde. What can I say? It's chain beer, and it tastes like it.

If you have any room left, try a Pizookie, which is a cookie or brownie baked in a pizza pan and topped with ice cream (and, possibly, Lipitor).

So yeah: it's a mix of food that seems indigenous to the Commercial Upscale Pizza Chain, like Uno's or Old Chicago. The taste is about the same; the service is about the same; and the prices are about the same. Still, if you're a) not from Chicago and b) craving a deep dish pizza, this is about the only place you can turn to in Eugene, and they'll consistently do a good job of curing that craving for you.

A bit of perhaps telling trivia: Pizzeria Uno, now Uno's Chicago Grill, just exited bankruptcy yesterday. Is the Chicago Chain doomed?

B J's Restaurant & Brewhouse on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Bite in Review

Saturday, we braved the heat -- at least briefly -- to attend the second Bite of Eugene. There were more people in attendance than I would have expected, given the heat and that the event seemed to sneak up on me with almost no pre-event press. Booths from wine vendors, food vendors, and dessert companies made a neat little J-shaped line of goodness right near the river. Desserts -- including coffee (hard sell on a summer day? Not in Eugene ), Kailua Shaved Ice, Lochmead Dairy Farms ice cream, and Coconut Bliss ice cream from Luna & Larry's -- started things off by the main stage, and then slid easily into a trio of tasty baked goods purveyors: The Divine Cupcake and Holy Donuts! were out for the vegan crowd while The Sassy Cupcake was there for the rest of us.

The Sassy Cupcake may be my number-one favorite discovery of The Bite. They served five flavors of mini cupcake, at $1 a piece, and I went back for seconds. A friend of mine sampled the Peanut Butter Fudge cupcake, which had a fudgy cake base and peanut butter frosting: he called it "intense." I tried, in order, the The Sassy Cupcake -- a buttery, almost pie-crust textured cupcake base with cream cheese frosting/filling and a raspberry on top; the Pink Lemonade Cupcake, which had a lemon cake base and a topping that tasted exactly like the bright, canned pink lemonade of my childhood (in a good way!); and the Smores Cupcake, a graham cracker cupcake with marshmallow filling and a chocolate/fudge icing. C tried the Maple Bacon Cupcake, which was pancake cake with maple frosting and, yes, bacon on top, and said, "I could eat many of these."

It's a commercial/catering only bakery, so there's no danger (yet) of my going on an in-store binge, but through the Sassy Cupcake Facebook Page, I do hear rumors of a cupcakes-by-the-dozen sale. I will be there with bells on, and possibly with Kristen at my side, since she's very good at stabbing others in the name of food defense.

Other tasty nibbles:

  • Belly made an appearance, with a small stand selling $2 pork or veggie tacos, watermelon dusted with chili powder, and strawberry agua fresca. I went with the latter two and was extremely pleased -- will have to duplicate the watermelon trick at home.

  • Cornbread Cafe was also there, next to Belly, in a beautiful fusion of pork smoke hovering over your favorite vegan comfort food stand. The flavor of my southern-fried tofu didn't need that embellishment, though C's cornbread -- a cakey mess that looked more like sweet baked polenta than anything in the bread family -- could have stood a little help.

  • Bates Steakhouse made true believers out of two friends with what looked like a juicy, well-sauced tri-tip sandwich.

  • The line at Kailua Shaved Ice, plus the rapturous faces of those who got a cone, makes me believe that they're doing something very good in there. I can't wait to catch them (with no line!) soon.

  • One culinary oddity: There was a booth promoting pickled potatoes. I have to admit, those little things were surprisingly tasty -- like potato salad on a stick! I realized after typing that sentence that few people in the world have the enthusiasm I do for potato salad, but -- what can I say, world, I love it.

Anyone else make it out there? What do you recommend? What makes it worth the trip next year (or what could be better)?

Friday, July 23, 2010

What to do with your weekend appetite

There's a ton of events going on in Eugene involving food. Here's a few I'm intrigued by:

  1. Whiteaker Neighborhood River Festival. It promises "free food," which is, incidentally, my favorite kind. Also: gigantic slip-and-slide. Until 11 p.m. tonight at 301 Adams.

  2. Bite of Eugene. Free admission and tons and tons of food vendors and food events and wine and beer? YES. I will be there with bells on, or at least with cash-in-hand and camera and appetite. Included in the mix will be Adam's Sustainable Table, Belly, Cornbread Café, and Olive Grand, among other Eugene establishments that I've been meaning to check out but haven't quite managed to visit yet. I'm most looking forward to the Iron Chef-style showdown between Café Zenon's chef and the eponymous owner of Adam's Sustainable table. And, oh, did I mention food? 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. in Alton Baker Park.

  3. Dairy Free Ice Cream Day. Only in Eugene, right? The makers of So Delicious! Soy and Coconut milk will be distributing free -- yes, there's that word again -- free! coconut-milk treats to those who attend. Music and a prize drawing will also be included, as well as the smug satisfaction that comes from participating in a protest against last weekend's National Ice Cream day. You tell 'em, So D! 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Alton Baker Park.

  4. Finally, this might seem off point, but how about a movie? The Bijou is showing I am Love, an Italian film that stars not only Tilda Swinton but also absolutely ecstatic food scenes. (Maybe send the kids for dairy free ice cream while you go). And then there's that Salt movie... tasty? I'll tell you later.

Food Slideshow!

Well, let's see if this works! If it does, it will have a few photos of our food adventures over the last few months, with more to be added. (If it doesn't, uh, let me know in the comments!)

I'll add more when I can. For now, it's making me hungry just to think back. Mm. Food.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Parking lot pizza party: Hideaway Bakery Pizza Night!

I used to live in South Eugene, and as such the only coffee place of mention near me was the Hideaway Bakery. Thank goodness for proximity -- Hideaway lives up to its name, nestled into the back half of a building shared with Mazzi's only-open-on-the-evenings Italian food. Blink and you'll miss their small, curbside sign -- and what you'll really miss are their pastries.

I spent many a happy mid-morning with a cup of Hideaway's coffee and one of their almond-blueberry pinwheel pastries or their amazing, buttery chocolate croissants. During the rainy season, you can huddle indoors by the smoky fireplace in a mirrored room with about ten sturdy, square tables and take advantage of the free wifi. On sunny days, or lightly misting days, the patio (which is mostly covered with see-through tiles) offers a nice chance for fresh air and is framed with hanging baskets of flowers and small topiaries -- though it's also one of the main Eugene hangouts for big, ugly, buzzing flies.

Hideaway serves breakfast pastries, cakes by the slice or whole that are suitable for service at any dinner party, and a selection of fresh pasta at lunch time. The lasagna was a little bitter (over-fennel-seeded) for my taste, but the ravioli is reliably good (and often interesting, with fillings beyond just cheese). The one weakness -- besides the flies -- that Hideaway seemed to have was its early closure. I was chased from the patio at 4 or earlier on several days by a friendly broom-wielding barista eager to close the place up.

This summer, though, Hideaway is (again, I believe) offering pizza nights. A large but somehow portable stone oven has found a home in Hideaway's little parking lot, and on Tuesdays when it doesn't rain (so: now until September?), it gets fired up -- and so does a whole crowd of Eugenians.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Gyros Magic: Poppi's Anatolia

So, there's a place to get a great New York gyro here in town. I love Albee's for their New York gyros, but when I am craving something a little more Greek, I go to Poppi's Anatolia.

Poppi's has the strangest menu of just about any place in town that I can think of. They're a combination of Greek/Mediterranean and Indian food. I confess I cannot really tell you how the Indian food is. Every time we come here, I want their gyros (they say "yiros") sandwiches. They're really good: tomato slices (always passably ripe or better), good flavorful tzatziki sauce, thinly sliced onions, and a dusting of cayenne that really works for these. I almost always go with the traditional yiros, though G's been brave and branched out to try the kotta, which is also delicious. They're both really affordable choices for lunch at 5.75.

Other standouts on the menu so far are adorable little loaves of bread they call Greek Peasant bread; it's whole-wheat with whole fennel seeds for flavor, and it's amazingly tasty. They sell it as a side for a whopping forty cents, and they could easily charge more. It's delicious with cold butter. I would also recommend the Potato and Onion Bhajias, spicy garbanzo flour fritters, which come with a dressing of what we think was chopped coconut and mint. It was really different, and so, so good.

Special note: the service at Poppi's stands out among downtown restaurants. They're always pleasant, knowledgeable, and unobstrusive.

Location: 992 Willamette

Hours: Monday - Thursday: 11:30 - 9:30; Friday 11:30 - 10:00; Saturday 11:30 - 3:00, 5:00 - 10:00; Sunday 5:00 - 9:30

Poppi's Anatolia on Urbanspoon

Hot hot hot: Dizzy Dean's Doughnuts

The reigning champions of Eugene donutry have already been crowned: Kristen votes for Lee's; VooDoo is practically (hey!) a religion; and Holy Donuts wins the vegan crowd, known in Eugene as "everyone else." There are, however, trusty, traditional, mediocre donuts available in Eugene outside of a Safeway: They can be found, all day long, at Dizzy Dean's.

This place is everything that doughnut shops have always been. It smells like sweet dough, too much glaze, fry grease, and the smoke of a 1970s diner. Did anyone ever smoke here? I have no idea, but they should have. The place makes me want to smoke.

It is, in a word, unpretentious. Donuts are $.80 to $1.35, depending on their degree of dress. Dizzy Dean's has been (the times I've visited) staffed by a single person who's frantically trying to do eight things at once: make the donuts, sell the donuts, pour the coffee, answer the questions. It is stuffed into the space leftover when Staples took a spot on West 11th, and it has mis-matched dining chairs set up against tables that would have been comfortable in a 1980s McDonald's. There's six kinds of coffee being served from big, heat-retaining carafes, but you know without trying they're all going to be strong, dark, and kind of bad.

Dizzy Dean's serves Hot! donuts at different times of the day. You can tell whether there are any available because they actually light up a neon sign outside, saying "HOT DONUTS!" The donuts are kept in a warmer, next to the other donuts, the oldies that didn't make the cut.

Here, in the oldies case, there's at least substantial variety. All of the traditional favorites -- bars in maple and chocolate; plain glazed and cake donuts; chocolate-frosted cake donuts; twists in plain and cinnamon -- are here, but they're joined by their desperately over-done friends. Damn you, VooDoo Doughnuts, for this: Dizzy Dean's now has a Bacon Maple Bar, and a purple-frosted donut with a piece of taffy stuck in the middle that resembles the Grape Ape. It has donuts with crushed Oreos and donuts with Butterfinger candy on top. The chocolate donuts sometimes have sprinkles, nuts, and stripes. Those donuts have their place -- and it's in the stunt bakery downtown.

What you could come to Dizzy Dean's for, instead of the eye-candy (sure to disappoint once you take it home; aw, isn't that always the way?), are two things: the filled donuts and the crullers. In the filled donuts, I applaud the lean toward variety, because these all seem like natural extensions. Raspberry, hurrah! Lemon, sure! Marionberry? Why not. Bavarian cream? Fine by me. There's also chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla, and those are all welcome varieties that seem exactly in line with the mission of a small-time doughnut place.

The crullers, too, are something. They have an eggy, almost custard-tasting dough inside, hidden under the shelter of glaze so crisp and enthusiastic that it calls to mind the mechanical glee of Krispy Kreme. They come with a variety of flavored toppings, but why, oh why, would you put maple on this? Why raspberry? Why anything?

Dizzy Dean's is clearly a store that wants to catch up to its big, famous, beloved rivals. The path to that, though, is focus on the fundamentals. I think that's within the store's grasp, but right now, it's too busy having its head spun -- and trying to spin those of its customers -- to settle down and excel at the everyday.

Location: 2380 W. 11th

Hours: 4 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day.

Dizzy Dean's Donuts on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Vegetable Love Story: Ratatouille

Once upon a time, there was a blogging girl and a guy who was afraid of Facebook who used to get together for coffee/drinks/French fries nearly every afternoon at Midtown. There they sampled Manhattans and Old Fashioneds and talked about their various writings and readings and friends and what-have-you. Sometimes, they left Midtown and went in search of dinner together, but not together, because they were just friends.

Of course this story has a twist into more than friends territory, and though it's hard to mark an exact beginning for that twist, one of the major bumps along the way involved a dinner invitation. Just across the street from Midtown, there's a tiny little bistro-looking place called Ratatouille. Now, our hero (ahem) happens to be a vegetarian, and so she'd heard that Ratatouille was extremely friendly to folks like her. The guy -- should we just go ahead and call him C? -- was a fairly enthusiastic meat eater, someone who had, on a recent outing, eaten three McDonald's cheeseburgers without breaking the slightest what's-in-this sweat.

So it came as something of a surprise when he suggested we dine there.

It was a lovely meal. I had a pasta in a cashew cream sauce that wasn't that far removed from the cheesy cream sauces that you'd find nearly anywhere, save that no butter or real cream had touched the whole wheat noodles. C had the blue cornmeal empanadas, which came with artful pools of chocolate mole and crema. We were the only people in the restaurant that night, and our service came at the hands of someone we suspected was the owner, who talked us into a shared piece of vegan German Chocolate Cake.

Once you've found a cheeseburger-lover who's completely content to share vegan cake with you, well -- vegetarian girls, you know what I'm talking about.

So, anniversaries. It's now been just over a year since C and I upgraded from "all the time hanging out" to this dating thing, and that required a celebration last weekend. We went back to Ratatouille and found only one significant change: there were several parties of diners enjoying the place, which made for a warm, bubbling atmosphere of conversation and celebration along with allowing for much more admiration of other people's food.

We started with an appetizer of an heirloom tomato, cut horizontally and layered with fresh basil leaves that had been lightly tossed with a gentle greenish curry dressing (which also dotted the plate).

IMG_1558.JPGEggplant Parm

For the main dishes, we both went with eggplant: I had the eggplant parmesan, which comes on a bed of polenta made with a very, very few mushrooms and green beans. The eggplant was perfectly cooked, soft but not falling apart, lightly breaded, coated with orange cheese, and topped with an acidic, salty tomato sauce that would have been too intense were it not for the cooling, creamy polenta underneath.

IMG_1557.JPGC's Eggplant dinner

C had an eggplant dish that involved slightly custardy eggplant slices with layers of smoked onion ratatouille between them. Of the two dishes, I thought his won; he said he'd order mine next time.

There was no room for dessert or even for the fresh hibiscus tea that one hostess suggested, nor for the extremely tasty-looking pot pies that kept drifting by. I struggled with the choice between the eggplant, the zucchini lasagna (which can be made vegan), or the house pasta special of whole wheat noodles with sauteed squash and that same, tasty cashew cream sauce and toasted hazelnuts.

This is one of the few places in Eugene where it feels appropriate, maybe even necessary, to dress up (though strangely our waitress wore shorts). Maybe the prices -- ranging from $15 to $20 a plate for an entree; $7-$9 an appetizer -- are part of what makes Ratatouille feel fancy, but some of it is also a cultivated, quiet, artful atmosphere that the chef himself creates through careful displays of food in portions that encourage you to savor each bite.

Highly recommended.

Location: 1530 Willamette St.

Hours: Lunch: Monday through Friday 11-2 p.m.; Dinner: Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m.

Ratatouille on Urbanspoon

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Remember the Elephant!: Aiyara Thai Café

Tucked into a completely uninspiring strip-mall next to the Eugene area's least awesome mall, Aiyara Thai Café isn't the first place that perhaps comes to mind when you think "mm, thai." The competition in Eugene is fierce, after all, and good options abound -- so why would you go to Springfield?

You'd go because Aiyara does things that all of the places in Eugene seems to struggle with: it makes good Thai food, pretty cheaply, and fairly quickly, and it does it without any of the airy pomp and circumstance that most of the local places seem to charge for. There is, yes, the requisite poster-sized picture of the Thai royal family, but beyond that, you've got plain tables and chairs in a big might-have-once-been-a-shoe-store type room.

This isn't a bad thing. While dining at, say, Ta Ra Rin or Chao Pra Ya feels like an event, Aiyara feels like a place you could drop in for lunch without any forethought. I've eaten here alone many times without feeling that I'm soaking up valuable table space, which I count as a blessing.

4000B4E1-C7FF-4023-B472-C3BE2BE2A73D.jpgGreen Curry/From Aiyara website

So what about the food? It's pretty good. The typical dishes -- Pad Thai and Pad Se Ew -- are exactly that: typical. They're well done and come in full-plate portions and they taste about the same as they do everywhere. Where I think Aiyara is best is in its wide selection of curry dishes. There's a red and a green (both of which have received solid thumbs-ups from C), a Panang Curry that has a rich buttery initial taste and a slow-building spicy kick, and my favorite, the peanut curry, which can come over rice or noodles. It's a dish that's surprising in its sweet-and-sour flavor, and (at least when served with tofu) has little spice. (You can request extra spiciness on any dish; the default seems to be mild/medium area on most things, unless they've got red stars in the menu).

A bowl of peanut curry and a dish of rice costs about $9; the only way to spend more than $10 on a dish is if you want prawns -- and someday, I'm going to get over my distaste for those just so I can try the Pineapple Curry with Prawns, a dish that looks and sounds amazing. Appetizers -- including pork-filled spring rolls and my favorite, deep fried tofu -- run about $6. Everything comes up quickly, which is kind of a shame, because while you wait you can hear the chefs converse with their ever-present waitress as you wait; I once had the pleasure of hearing her explain the phrase "hook up" to them while I munched on fried tofu.

Aiyara is about as vegetarian friendly as any Thai place can be. There's fish sauce and oyster sauce in wide use, though they can make several dishes vegan (or gluten free) upon request.

Location: 1010 Harlow Road (in the strip mall that contains Ben Franklin), Springfield

Hours: Monday - Friday: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. (but good luck ordering any food after 8:20); Saturday noon to 9

Aiyara Thai Cafe on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

National Ice Cream Month: Where to get it in Eugene

Apparently, not only is July National Ice Cream Month, but this Sunday is National Ice Cream Day, known also as "Sundae Sunday." Lucky for us all, Eugene is a town replete with ice cream offerings. Here's a few suggestions for places in which to indulge:

  1. The Obvious: Prince Puckler's is Eugene's most famous and well-loved local parlor. Its 19th Street emporium of sweets is constantly crowded (on hot days) by those who enjoy flavors that run from regular old vanilla to Green Tea (once ordered by then-Senator Obama) to nearly any combination of coffee and ice cream and tastiness you can think of. They've been around for 35 years, now, and if that longevity doesn't convince you, maybe their sales will: on Fridays, they have $4 Euphoria Chocolate Sundaes with bananas and whipped cream which are (I speak from experience) not to be missed. They also serve non-dairy ice cream. (1605 E. 19th)

    • Not up for the crowds? Try their less visible location on 11th, which is paired with a Hodgepodge and a drive-thru. (2190 W. 11th)
  2. The Less Obvious: Euphoria Chocolate Company. Yes, they're better known for their melt-in-your-mouth-and-your-hands chocolate truffles, but Euphoria also makes ice cream bars -- creamy vanilla dipped in their local-legend chocolate. (They also sell frozen dipped bananas, but it's not national fruit month!). They'll add other toppings, too. Oreos? Nuts? You name it. On Thursdays, they're only two dollars -- which might leave you with enough for a truffle or four for the road. (Multiple locations, including: 6 W. 17th; Oakway Center; Valley River Center).
  3. The Chain: Cold Stone Creamery. OK, so, sure, you can get this ice cream in any mid-sized city in the country. That doesn't really make it less tasty. Cold Stone specializes in plain ice cream flavors -- Sweet Cream; Coffee; Chocolate; Strawberry -- that you then add tons of toppings to. The toppings then get mixed/beaten into your ice cream on cold stone slab -- ah, you get it, I know. What you might not know is that the best way to enjoy this ice cream is at a discount -- readily available to anyone who's got a Survival Kit coupon book floating around. They're the green ones you pick up at the bookstore at the beginning of every term (for students). You can also access a buy-one, get-one coupon here, which makes the buying and enjoying much cooler. Me? I like sweet cream with strawberries, whipped cream, and bits of pie crust mixed in. (Oakway Center)
  4. Even More Chains: We also have a couple of Ben & Jerry's locations in town -- one at 485 Coburg by Newman's Fish Market and one next to the gigantic Market of Choice at 29th and Willamette. I'm a fan of the second one, which offers a few tables outside at which to enjoy your ice cream. If you're really chain-hungry, check out the multiple Dairy Queens in our midst: Coburg has a pleasantly old-fashioned inside and almost always a line at the drive-thru (particularly right after high school events at Sheldon); 13th and Hilyard has the campus version. You can also (I'm told) still find a Baskin Robbins in the same building that houses the Fred Meyer on West 11th.
  5. Not Quite Ice Cream: If it's Frozen Yogurt you crave, there are two versions readily available in town: organic, local, actual yogurt at Vanilla Jill's [check out Kristen's review] on Coburg, or the FroYo I grew up with, an animal far removed from actual tanginess, at the TCBY on West 11th.
  6. Also Not Quite Ice Cream: Oh, gelato. It's now available in several places in Eugene:

    • Lago Blu Gelato. I've reviewed it before, I'll review it again, because I like an excuse to eat gelato. (Crescent Village)
    • Sweet Life Patisserie. They have a little, oft-neglected case of gelato at the very end which is usually hidden by the line of people waiting to get to the pie/cake/ordering stage. Don't go so fast! They have numerous tasty flavors available, and they're willing to make an affogato with any of them (do try the Dulce de Leche this way. It's amazing). (755 Monroe St.)
    • Market of Choice grand palace on Willamette. I know, you're thinking: really, a grocery store? But up by the bakery there's a small case of about 8-10 gelato flavors, and they're worth checking out -- because here you'll sometimes find the wildest gelato flavors available in Eugene (to my knowledge). I once sampled sweet corn gelato here. What did it taste like? CORN. Points for adventurousness. (67 W. 29th)
The list could go on. Many restaurants in town make their own ice creams or frozen dessert treats. I had some excellent beet ice cream at Nib once, for instance, and I believe Ratatouille nearly always features a non-dairy sorbet dessert option. McMenamin's North Bank has that delicious Terminator Stout Milkshake. Kristen swears by the soft-serve at Dickie Jo's. Etc. If it's ice cream, whole ice cream, and nothing but ice cream you want to celebrate with this weekend, though, I recommend the list above. And inviting me along! ;)

A tiny thank you

Thanks, everyone who's reading -- we've just become the most-read blog at Urbanspoon (by one view!). It's been fun recording thoughts on food and drink and Eugene here, and I'm looking forward to doing much more of it as the year winds on.

Until we next meet, then -- cheers!

Good Food Eugene Eugene restaurants

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sweet Life: Not a review

This is not a review of Sweet Life. This is just a post of bragging, Eugene. This is an I-got-some-and-you-didn't post.

This is a post featuring a blurry picture of the dessert-of-the-month at Eugene's perennial favorite bakery. It's Sour Cherry Cheesecake, and it's made from sour cherries resting on a half-inch layer of pastry cream, under which there's cheesecake that is the perfect combination of light and heavy, sweet and sour, fattening and... no, ok, there's nothing good for you in this cheesecake, from its sugared topping to its buttered-crumb crust.

But you want it anyway, right? It's $4.25 a slice. Go with my blessing.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Cart Food on the Calendar: Thoughts on, and a Schedule of, Upcoming Oregon Fairs

One thing I love about Lane County and greater Oregon is that this place is serious about not only its fairs, but its fair food. Since today is the hot, hot, hot kick-off of Oregon Country Fair, I thought a little guide to Great Fair Food might be in order. But first, a few rules:

  • Try at least one new, strange thing. Oregon fair food is famous not just for its portability (meat on a stick!) but for its variety. So no matter which festival you try this summer, you'll have your choice of traditional and wacky. Someone's going to have tea made from dragonfruit or a basket of Thai street snacks or a French almond pastry that you haven't heard of before. Try it.
  • Make your sample your meal. Most festivals require a certain amount of stamina and hydration; if you spend all of your fair-going money on wacky things and only end up liking half of them, you'll be broke, hungry, and thirsty long before your friends who stuck to funnel cake and basket-o'-chicken.
  • Understand that the fair circuit in Oregon is exactly that -- a circuit. The vendors you'll see at Country Fair are quite likely to reappear in a few weeks at the Lane County Fair or at Saturday Market. So:
  • Treat the fair, any fair, like a one-time only chance to eat as much random fried crap as possible. The occasion will come again, and again, and again. You'll enjoy it more if you aren't in the hospital for cardiac bypass the next day.
So having said all of that, what's worth trying? Here are my favorites of the "regulars," but I'm sure others have suggestions (and I'd be glad to hear them):
  • Maty's Peruvian. I used to wait impatiently for the UO Street Fair to bring Maty's, and their tasty plantain chips and vegeterian tamals, back to me every year. Now, though, I don't have to; they show up at most major fairs (saw them at Art and the Vineyard last weekend and at Country Fair last year). They also seem to be experimenting with participating in the small alternative Saturday Market held in Crescent Village. Very tasty.
  • Dana's Cheesecake Bakery. Available at Saturday Market, Holiday Market, and Country Fair, this place sells cheesecakes that make Sweet Life disappear from my mind. They also have decent coffee, on the rare days that an outdoor fair is a little too cold for the average summer fair-goer.
  • Springfield Creamery. They have dairy and non-dairy treats. Anything they serve that involves fruit is going to be delightful, sweet, sour, wonderful, cold, creamy... mm. Springfield creamery is better known as the home of Nancy's Yogurts and treats, but at Oregon Country Fair, at least, they let their frozen delights come out to play. Worth a try.
  • Cafe 26. Another OCF-only booth, I believe, this one is the only booth I've ever seen that serves an entire steamed artichoke. (I once watched C eat most of this, ah, treat. It's best with mayo, I think, or butter, or at least assistance).
  • Suzy Q's Kettle Korn. If you're looking for a treat to take home, give Suzy about $5 for a medium bag and you'll have just enough sweet, crunchy popcorn to get you through until the next fair... unless you share.
    chipper swirl.jpg
  • Tippaleipa Funnel Cake. Well, Tippaleipa and I have only just met, but we're already fast friends. You may think all funnel cakes are created equal -- and, ok, I'm with you. The feature that makes Tippaleipa stand out is that it's funnel cakes and more, and the and more includes something called a "Chipper Swirl." It's a gigantic paper cone filled to the brim with potatoes that have been shaved, in curls, and then deep-fried. You can get them flavored or not -- I tried the garlic-parm version, and while it was tasty, the potatoes themselves were the stars of the show and they didn't need the addition.
  • Finally: Thai food. Or a burger. Or, oh yes, French Fries. Many Eugene restaurants (Three Forks comes to mind) find their way onto the fairgrounds -- and there's no good reason not to enjoy their wares. Just because you could get Coconut Curry any day of the week doesn't mean it's not more fun to eat it from a paper basket while you're walking around staring at shirtless hippies. It really does add something.
So those are a few of my favorites. I'll be adding more, I'm sure, as summer wears on. Here's a little schedule of events:
July 9-11: Oregon Country Fair (Veneta)
July 15-18: Bohemia Mining Days in Cottage Grove.
July 16-18: Springfield Summerfest, celebrating 125 years of Springfield. Admission: $5.
July 16-18: Corvallis Da Vinci Days.
July 16-18: Coburg Golden Days
July 24: Bite of Eugene. Alton Baker Park
July 30-August 1: Oregon Jamboree in Sweet Home
August 12-15: Junction City Scandinavian Festival
August 18-22: Lane County Fair at the fairgrounds in Eugene
August 27-September 6: Oregon State Fair in Salem
August 27-29: Eugene Celebration
I won't make it to all of them (or probably even half of them), but if you go, let us know what food stole the show!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Open Thread: What reviews would you like?

All right, Eugene campers and eaters. Consider this an open-thread in which we, your hungry and somewhat adventurous Good Food Eugene bloggers, would like to solicit suggestions on the following:

  • Where should we try that we haven't tried already?
  • Where should we go again, that we got wrong the first time?
  • Are there any little features you'd like us to add? For instance: certain categories of food we should include, or some kind of special round-up?

  • Drop us a comment here, OR send us a happy e-mail at goodfoodeugene AT

    You can also, now, follow us and our happy little updates on Twitter: @goodfoodeugene.

    Wheee. Onward, summer.

    Not your father's 1950s: Dickie Jo's Burgers

    When Dickie Jo's first opened, I was excited to try it -- it combined two of my favorite things: diner food and the West brothers, whose Mucho Gusto was a staple of my summer diet. So I trundled on over, with two meat-eating friends in tow, to have a sample of the place.

    It was pretty much exactly what I'd expected: another brightly decorated little place that offered a clear view of the grill and emphasized freshness. The burgers are made from Painted Hills all-natural beef and can be upgraded from "regular" (bun, cheese, lettuce, tomato) to "slightly more interesting" with toppings like pepper jack or blue cheese, caramelized onions, meaty chili, and the special Dickie Jo's sauce -- which is, I think, some mix of ketchup and mayonnaise. The fries can become garlic fries or chili-cheese fries or plain onion rings. There's strawberry lemonade right next to the regular sodas and tea, and the ice cream shakes and sundaes are made with a rich soft-serve vanilla that adds a real-cream flavor to all of their treats.

    That's all very good! I was pleased with my first visit.

    A year and a half later, though, I seem to be about the only one I know who feels decidedly neutral about Dickie Jo's. They have burgers and fries and shakes, free-refill sodas, comfortable (if often full) booths, and the same sprightly, aggressively colorful atmosphere that the other West establishments have, but they lack in one regard: price. Though the atmosphere is designed for casual, quick dining, to get a Garden Burger ($5.99 base plus $1 extra for no meat) with cheese ($.50 extra), fries, and a drink ($1.99), I drop $10. For food that comes in a small paper basket, that's hard to swallow. (Hint: you can drop the fries from your burger combo and save $1.99, bringing your burger down to $3).

    So -- what's the deal, here? The deal is there's a mismatch between the Dickie Jo's of my imagination -- the one that's conjured by their "Lucky 1952" advertisements -- and the Dickie Jo's that exists in Eugene. This is not a standard 50's diner; it's the diner that will remind you of your childhood while also allowing you, now that you're a grown up, to eat sustainably whenever possible. To make that dream come true, you have to pay for it -- and that's exactly what Dickie Jo's requires. The bill is high because the ingredients aren't exactly traditional. "Shoestring-cut Russet potatoes fried in Trans Fat Free Rice Bran Oil and Seasoned with Mediterranean Sea Salt?" Not at my hometown diner.

    The result of all of this is food that tastes... well, pretty much exactly like it would if it was made with $1 burger patties instead of $2. That's the trouble. You pay a premium not for better taste, but for reassurance.

    I like Dickie Jo's, but I still experience a bit of cognitive dissonance when I walk in -- and when I see my bill. It's still a nice stop in the summer, because -- again, unlike the 50s diners of the real era -- this place has air conditioning.

    Location: 13th and Pearl and soon at Valley River Center, next to Mucho Gusto

    Hours: 11 a.m. to 9ish, or later, depending on crowds.

    Dickie Jo's Burgers on Urbanspoon

    Tuesday, July 6, 2010

    We Go Wrong at La Bufa Taqueria

    I hate giving bad reviews. I hate even being lackluster, but that's part of this food review thing. I promised to try new things for you all, and when they don't work out, I should tell you.

    So, on a recent trip through downtown Eugene, I noted a restaurant I had never really made much mind to before. It was La Bufa Taqueria, and they boasted of their "tacos al vapor." They were also closed, so I made note to go back and try them for lunch as soon as was convenient. As it happened, that was pretty much the very next day. What can I say? I really love Mexican food.

    So G. opted for two of the pork tacos al vapor, and what came out appeared to be two pretty standard pork soft tacos. In fact, that's true. Neither of us could determine anything that might have made these tacos "steamed" in any way. They were passably good, if sort of dull and dry, tacos.

    I was hungry for avocado, so I picked something--the Mini-Tosti--that would get me some of the yummy green stuff. The lady behind the counter was nice enough to steer me toward the "mini" or otherwise this thing would have been WAY too large. I could barely finish the half-sized "mini," so the full-sized one might have killed me. The dish was basically nachos: chips, beans, lettuce, tomatoes, chunks of avocado, dried oregano, and (here's where it went REALLY wrong for me) a liberal dusting of that Kraft "parmesan" cheese that comes in a can. WHY?! It ruined what was otherwise a really tasty and affordable ($3.00!) lunch. I don't think this junk should even land on homemade spaghetti, let alone Mexican food. So disappointing, especially on a menu that includes queso fresca.

    I suspect perhaps we ordered wrong, so I am thinking we'll try again some day, but I do have one price quibble that has nothing to do with the quality of the food: $1.75 for a can of soda, in the absence of a soda fountain, is just EVIL.

    Moving On Up: McMenamin's High Street Brewery and Café

    There have been (and will continue to be) some long stretches of silence here, I think, because I am in the process of moving. No, not out of Eugene, but more into the northern heart of it. Like all moves, this one has involved not only a lot of chances to eat out -- my entire kitchen is in boxes, after all -- but also very few chances to write about the eating, since all of my Internet are belong to Comcast.

    Last Saturday, however, I had such a positive experience at McMenamin's High Street location that it cannot go without comment. Picture this: four hungry movers (myself and three guys) with widely varying tastes in food, all of whom are my responsibly to feed and keep happy (since they are the ones who safely delivered my washer and dryer to their new abode). Where could we go that everyone could agree on? And -- above that -- where could we go that would let us take advantage of the sunny, cool first weekend of July?

    We went to High Street. Summer is the season for High Street, after all. More than any other McM property in town, it benefits from the rain with what seems like at least a 100 percent increase in its seating options. The deck out back allows for seating in sun or shade, and although it was right at noon, the emptying out of Eugene for the holidays gave us a quiet lunch with quick service. Better than all of that, though, this is not the High Street of my last memory: no, finally, a full menu has come to High Street. No more cheesy (not in the food sense) French bread pizzas! Instead, all of the usual McM's dishes were there -- the burgers, the sandwiches, and for me, the High Pasta, with its tasty toasted hazlenuts on a plate of pasta drenched in oily pesto and cheese. Real food and unique specials at High Street? Surely you jest.

    No joke, though. The menu is in full force. We had tater tots to start, and they were as solid and crunchy and satisfyingly salty as always. It's a testament to the size of the platter and to the quality of the rest of the food that a few were left behind.

    I really enjoyed my pasta, even though it still seems a bit overpriced at nearly $10. Two of the guys had the same thing: a pulled pork sandwich going by the name of Newton's Third Law, which is a current/temporary special. It involved some equal and opposite collision between shredded pork and a barbecue sauce that had Hammerhead Ale in it; jalapeños, frizzled onions (still not sure what that means), and smoked mozzarella were also involved. It got raves from both eaters. Another mover went with the Terminator Sausage Sandwich, which was apparently not only nicely done but very well complimented by the McM's brand mustard, which features their Edgefield wine.

    I basically left the place reminded of all the reasons I like High Street -- convenient location, often less crowded than Eugene's other two branches, cozy but not ridiculously close together; great beer selection; good, quick, casual service -- while having my number one quibble (lackluster food choices) scratched out.

    The only criticism I came away with was the lack of milkshakes -- oh, my kingdom on that day for a Terminator-Chocolate number. Other than that, High Street, you have my vote for the summer. I'll be back soon -- perhaps to try out your happy hour.

    Location: 1243 High Street

    Hours: Monday - Saturday 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
    High Street Brewery & Cafe on Urbanspoon

    Monday, June 28, 2010

    Old Place, New Taste: The Granary

    Remember Jo Fed's? If you've been in Eugene for only a few years (like me), you'll remember it as a "hey, is that place open?" joint downtown that's been up and down, closed, under new management, and then closed again. In its old site, there's now a new contender: The Granary Pizza Co., which serves pizzas and pastas on both the upper and lower level, and still features local and touring bands.

    The Granary has four parts: The wine bar, which is upstairs at the front and has first-come, first-serve seating at the bar or at any of a half-dozen very small tables overlooking 5th street; the restaurant, which takes up the back, upper level; and the bar areas that are open to the stage, both on the upper level (with the same bench-seating and small, set-back u-shaped booths in their own little no-door rooms) and on the lower level, which is slightly more nightclubbish and even with the stage and the downstairs bar. The full menu is served on all levels, though a late-night menu goes into effect at 9.

    We ate in the wine bar, which also includes a few tables on the street. Happy hour runs from 5 to 7 p.m. every day, including (holy of holies) Sunday, and it's generous: $2.50 for fantastic, tempura-like onion rings or eggplant strips, slightly more for hot wings or a house salad; $1 PBRs or $2.50 drafts (Ninkasi IPA); $5 martinis. I had a $4 house wine (Willamette Valley Riesling, not bad) that wasn't much of a bargain because of a short pour, but the beer is a good value. Their pizza is also available by the slice during happy hour: spicy pepperoni, margherita, or plain cheese at $3 a slice or $5 with a beer. We didn't end up trying the pizza, but -- with a set menu of pies or a list of choose-your-own toppings -- I can imagine we soon will. It looks fantastic.

    C and I went with pasta to share, and that was a good choice: I tried the macaroni(actually: orecchiette) and cheese, with broccoli (you could also add chicken). It came with a thick, salty (in a good way) sauce of Tillamook cheddar and parmesan, and a small but pleasant salad with balsamic-and-oil dressing. C ordered the pesto cream penne, and that was a lovely find: the basil pesto was clearly fresh, with an almost lemony bite, and included a generous pile of un-crushed pine nuts and soft, bitable sundried tomatoes, with enough cream added just to hold the green stuff together and coat the penne. Delicious. I was afraid I wouldn't get my half.

    These seem to explain the essence of The Granary's menu: standard dishes done well, for a reasonable amount of money, with great service. With happy hour drinks and an appetizer, two full pasta dishes (we had leftovers), and a tiramisu for dessert, the meal came in right at $35. You could easily drink and dine here for less than $10 a person and come away full and happy, which -- for Fifth Street -- is an accomplishment that shouldn't be ignored.

    By eight, the downstairs was starting to fill with fans of the night's entertainer -- a guitarist -- while the upstairs remained almost eerily quiet and uncrowded. I'd like to see this place succeed and survive -- and I'll do my part to help it out by showing up for Wednesday night's all-you-can-eat pasta night, with my best Carbohydrate Champion in tow to try out the marinara, Bolognese, and white clam sauces.

    I'll report back as soon as I recover.

    Location: 259 E. 5th Ave

    Hours: Wednesday through Sunday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. for food -- later for drinks downstairs

    The Granary Pizza Company on Urbanspoon