Sunday, March 6, 2011

Two Cheers: Three Forks Wok and Grill

The avalanche of groupon-imitators that began last summer has brought C and I to a near-stand still on eating. We have a basket full of coupons and can never decide where to go next -- in part because once we use one, we usually want to go back to that place immediately. Such has been the case with Three Forks Wok & Grill, a restaurant we frequently shop and study near, but not one I regularly craved, until a half-off coupon reminded me of the beauty of their sweetly-crunchy slivered almonds set atop coconut curry, jasmine rice, and tofu.

Three Forks is a Eugene-grown business that has semi-recently expanded from a single storefront in the Willamette south strip mall to a second location in the Delta Oaks area. It is also a regular participant in every festival that cascades through Eugene in the summer -- my first taste of their wares, in fact, was at the UO's Street Fare, nearly five years ago.

The menu here is eclectic and difficult to define except in the way that the sign does: all of the food is either grilled or cooked on the wok. Another way to describe this place: it's a local, pan-Asian Chipotle model.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

It's Delightful, It's Delicious, it's De... vegan?: Divine Cupcakes

I have an apology to make.

I have tasted The Divine Cupcake's wares a few times before, but not under optimum circumstances. I've had them at food fairs three times: twice under a sun that's normally illegal in Oregon and once during a downpour no one was prepared for. I've also had them late in the day in a coffee shop, where they had been sitting in a plastic case that was probably left open for a few hours during the morning rush. Every time, I've been enticed by the flavor combinations -- real ginger in your gingerbread cupcake? Sure! -- and each time, I've been disappointed by a slightly dry cake under admittedly scrumptious frosting.

My apology is this: I have blamed veganism, and for this, I am sorry. I should, instead, have blamed the weather, the venues, and my own sorry supposition that it's ever fair to judge a food when it's out in the wild instead of on its home turf. These aren't Cheetos we're dealing with, after all -- they're sweet little baked goods. There is a certain required delicacy that must be respected.

So I went on safari to stalk the Divine Cupcake in its lair on 11th Street recently, and I've discovered that my earlier samples were, indeed, not representative. In fact, the cupcakes I tasted there -- and took home in a box -- were spongy, fresh, and rich in flavor. The choco-classic cupcake is dark and satisfying; the pumpkin chocolate chip was so moist as to put pumpkin pie to shame (or at least to bring it to mind). They actually stayed very tasty for two additional days, as we picked new samples from the refrigerated box.

My blood-orange cupcake on a more recent visit sung with notes of real fruit under its flat chocolate topping, and C's "Tao of Green Tea" cupcake (matcha green tea cake, green tea frosting) tasted like a cup of tea itself -- warm, rich, and strangely refreshing.

Like with most dining experiences, the atmosphere is key; thus, the extremely cute Divine Cupcake storefront is almost necessary to the experience. Walk in, and you'll find a pleasant coffee-shop front lounge, with a small couch and two matching armchairs, a few tables, and a four- or five-seat bar. Local art (some of it referencing cupcakes, and all of it for purchase) hangs on the colorful walls. Just past all of this lies the shop, where not only the cupcakes but all of the cupcake accoutrement is kept. There are cupcake accessories (tiny wooden sticks that say, "Happy Birthday!" for you to use at will), there is cupcake art, there are cute bags and lamps and virtually anything one would need to start a book group where no one really reads the book but instead gets together to eat sweets.

And oh, the sweets. They are displayed in a two-level case, and on my visits -- even late in the day -- there have been at least eight varieties on display, plus several others in the mini category. Cupcakes are available in two kinds: standard ($2.50 for a regular sized cupcake; $1.25 for a mini) and gourmet ($3/$1.50). The difference seems to be one of fanciness and imagination. Standards include chocolate, peanut butter, vanilla, fruit (banana, lemon, raspberry, etc.), and maple; Gourmet selections include red velvet, lime coconut, coffee, carrot, and mango, among others. Nearly all of the cupcakes can be special ordered without sugar or gluten or soy, but those in the case are only guaranteed to be vegan and organic (except on certain days, when there will be sugar-free or gluten-free guarantees -- see store or twitter for details). There are also drinks on offer: cappuccinos and lattes, using any kind of milk (cow included) that you can think of, European-style drinking chocolates, and a tea list that makes C get a little emotional (in a good way).

My only concern, having now gone native to experience the wild, divine little beasts in their natural habitat, is that it can be a little tricky to know what's what. Strangers from strange lands might walk in and find that only four of the eight cupcakes have labels, and if there's a crush of people (which, on Friday night -- game night! -- there certainly was) it can be difficult or embarrassing to have to ask for each flavor to be explained.

There are, however, kind cupcake guides to aid you -- and on every visit, there have also been many cupcake veterans to offer suggestions, too. This place is a magical, mysterious blend of everything Eugene has to offer: vegan tastiness, hippie culture, free wifi, and trendy little treats, all in one (biodegradable? I bet it is!) little paper wrapper.

Location: 1680 W. 11th, Eugene
Hours: Monday through Thursday: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday 10-7. Notes: They also offering catering and advanced orders via their web site, and their baked good are available in a variety of shops around town.

The Divine Cupcake on Urbanspoon

Sidecar: Eat Charitably at Newman's and Chapala

Saturday night, C and I had the pleasure of attending a performance of Mozart's Great Mass in C Minor by the Eugene Concert Choir and the Eugene Symphony orchestra. While we waited for the show to begin, I noticed in our program that two -- and only two -- restaurants in Eugene are listed as sponsors of the choir. One of them, Newman's Fish Company, was the sponsor for the evening. The other, Chapala Mexican Restaurant, is, like Newman's, listed as a contributor of between $1,000 and $2,499 to the Concert Choir.

Since we live in a time when the arts are constantly under fiscal attack, and since we live in a community that likes to celebrate its efforts at keeping local business alive, it seems like a good idea to give some blogging high-fives to both of these places. Neither has yet earned a review from us, possibly because neither is a place that regularly makes my top ten favorite places to eat. (That's not because there's anything wrong with them; there's just a lot to eat in Eugene). Yet now, both places are on my list for a meal sometime in the near future. If they -- in hard economic times for restaurants -- found it in their hearts and wallets to support the creative arts, I can certainly find it in mine to support them.

What other restaurants around town are notable for their charitable work? I'd be curious to know, and happy to post a list, if people have suggestions.