Thursday, August 14, 2014

Bloomington/Normal Day 3: JJ's

One of my favorite movies of all time is "The Blues Brothers".  In that movie, the part when the brothers go to recruit Matt Guitar Murphy from his verbally abusive wife, played by Aretha Franklin, they go to a really run-down restaurant, resembling a hole in the wall. What I like about that scene, is that Aretha's character refers to their fried chicken as the "best fried chicken in the whole state."  So, very similar, there is this awesome place in Bloomington called Super JJ's.

The place is small, has old ceiling tiles, has some old carpet and floor tiles, looks like this:

But there is the kicker: the food is freakin' amazing.  The fried fish is so fresh and clean.  The fries are delicious.  I have ordered their wings before and they are so good they make me and anyone else want to take some "to go" and make the 2 hour drive back home with it.  I ordered something new, which is on that sign in the middle of the counter, near the hot sauce squeeze bottle.  I ordered a chicken sandwich.

It may not look like much, but that fried chicken sandwich was the best chicken sandwich I have ever eaten.  This is a big deal considering that during my teenage years I had lived on a mix of the chicken sandwich from Burger King and Mcnuggets from McDonalds.  It is amazing and perfectly cooked.  An easy 3 out of 5 stars.  Please look them up and go there. 

  • 1510 W Market
    Bloomington, IL 61701

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Bloomington/Normal Day 2: Destihl

So, Destihl is this brewery/restaurant that had told us the previous day that they only take reservations.  So, I we made reservations and when we got there, we still had to wait for a table.  I'm sure there is a Jerry Seinfeld episode about the purpose of having a reservation and this always reminds me of that.  When I worked at a restaurant and I heard that we had a reservation coming in an hour or even coming at a certain time, I quickly went into action putting a table together.  Under my supervision, I never had a reserved table wait.  I'm not saying wait a few minutes or wait longer, but I mean that the party would come in, tell me their name and their reservation and I would sit them: that easy. 
So, this place does what Schlafly does, for example.  They have a brewery/restaurant combo.  We sat down, ordered our food and was stuck in the curse of slow food and service, which we have been experiencing the whole trip so far then.  So, besides the slow service, what did we get?  The first item was deep fried bacon, tempura style.

Crispy crunchy fried batter on maple bacon.  A 3 out of 5 stars.

I ordered one of their signature dishes: Thai Fried Chicken.

It was a drumstick and breast piece, fried lightly with a thin coating and covered in these Thai flavors, like the flavors in a Phad Thai noodle dish.  It was a 3 out of 5 stars.

So, it was an okay place, not very child friendly and if you are hungry and you want to order, get a beer and get food within 30-40 minutes, then this isn't the place for you.  We also happened to seat in "Spot A" as I had mentioned earlier.

DESTIHL® - Opened November 2007
318 S. Towanda Avenue 
Normal, IL 61761 
P: 309-862-2337  F: 866-381-0349

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Bloomington/Normal Day 1: Flat Top

For work, I was sent to Bloomington with my family.  This meant that while my wife had meetings, I was allowed to take our two kids someplace and keep them busy.  The last time I had gone to Bloomington, was about last year or so for the same reasons.  Anyhow, on the first day, we were looking for dinner and decided to try out the restaurant right next door to our hotel, on Tonawanda Avenue.  The restaurant was called Destihl and we walked in, asked for a seat for 5 and then the hostess asked if we had a reservation.  I had said "no" and then she told me that they only take reservations and without a reservation it would be about an hour till we could have a table. 

A personal peeve of mine, is when a restaurant hostess or seater tells me that there is a wait and then you look around yourself and see 3 or 4 booths open that could sit 2-4 each, and a large table/booth against the wall that could seat 6.  We will call that table/booth combo "Spot A", because it will become important later on.  So, we left and walked just across the street to a place that looks like a steak house, called FlatTop.

FlatTop is an interesting place.  It is so interesting that it could work in other cities, like Saint Louis.  You walk in, get a table and then order.  Their special item is a food bowl, prepared on a giant flat top and then delivered to your table. 

So, what happens is that you grab a long wooden sign on a post and write your name on the sign.  Then you go up to the very large bar where they have all kinds of rices, noodles, vegetables and meats and pick your stuff that goes into your bowl.

Not only did they have everything labeled nicely, but behind this bar, on the wall, they had a whole sign describing the calories of each prepared item or sauce along with the spicy level.  So, you fill your bowl up and then take it to the bar surrounding the cooks.  There you can make any last minute changes, like turn your bowl into a soup or a salad.  Whichever change you make, you place a colored plastic stick into your food, so that the cooks know how you want it prepared.  So, they cook it, and get it to you just as you had ordered it.

I would give the place, atmosphere, food and everything else a 3 out of 5 stars.  The only issue we had with it was that since the flat top cooking area was a certain size and they have a lot of vegetables and things that appear to be raw, it takes a lot of time to get everything cooked.  Since it is the only cooking method of the food there, it is possible that you may have your bowl at the cook's bar, ready to be cooked, fr as much as 5-15 minutes before there is a space on the cook-top to cook it.  I went back for seconds after the first bowl was finished within 2-3 minutes.  The second bowl sat there, waiting and waiting and after it was delivered to me, the rest of my table had eaten and was ready to go. I would give the service as far as the cooking is concerned, maybe a 2 and 1/2 stars out of 5.  Someone has to know that this is a problem and they need to be thinking of solutions.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Cafe Mochi

My wife used to think that there was a curse on South Grand, in St. Louis.  This curse, was one best described as good food and bad service.  There are some great places on South Grand.  In fact, the only place that I have been, so far, that has good service and good food is called Meskerem.  The other places; Natasha's, The Vine, Lemongrass, and Cafe Mochi, have good food and bad service.

Cafe Mochi is a nicely done restaurant, selling Japanese and Asian food, along South Grand.  It may be the last restaurant in that area, on that side of the street.  It was a nice day outside and we chose to sit outside.  We noticed at least 3 people, wearing black, wondering around and talking to customers so I thought that there would be 3 servers at 10 tables which seems like a no-brainer.  But, little did I know that there was only 1 server, and two bussers.

After ordering and waiting about 25 minutes, we got our food. I had ordered their Kabob dish.  Be very careful when you order and look at the menu, because the way the menu was arranged, they had a list of specialty sushi rolls and then the last item in that list, was a Kabob platter.  The plate was described and in no way mentioned anything of being a roll or a sushi.  It just didn't make any sense.  The plate I had received looked like this:
So, it at least looked good.  The potatoes were seasoned and cooked, the salad was anemic, the meat was cooked thoroughly, the onions were still crunchy, the peppers were soft, the mushrooms were hard and the squash was hard.  It seemed some items were cooked perfectly and others were not.  The food was good and I'd give it a 3 out of 5 stars.

This is where the bad service gets displayed.  This restaurant with the above mentioned ones, all have a habit of getting the customer their food and then disappearing.  They never send a server or anyone to come back and ask how the food was, how we are doing or if they can get us anything else.  They don't come back when someone spills their drink, they don't bring everything ordered and they basically just act like they took care of the customer and they sit back and wait for their tip.  The problem we have with these types of servers, is that they don't get our normal tips.  

I know that the cost of the food and labor and the main payments of the chefs are in the cost of the food.  So, the amount I tip, goes to the server.  If service was bad, I tip as low as 15% or even 10%.  If the service is great, I'll go as high as 20%.  In this place, when we ask the server a question, she would say "ok" and then not come back or not get us different drinks, or the food we had ordered, etc.  It seemed that she thought that she would just deliver stuff and hide.  Now, she paid a lot of attention to other tables, and even stood and talked at some, but at ours, she tried to stay away.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Strange Donuts

I think it best to show you how great it was, while we didn't pay attention to the movie, the food and food trucks were great, at Food Truck Friday at the Art Museum.

We tried food from Pie on the fly:

The pie slice was eaten, by me, before I took a picture of it.  I'd say a 3 out of 5 stars.  They are located about 20 feet down the street from Strange Donuts, on Sutton.

So, how many people show up at these nights on Art Hill, in Forest Park?  Well...

Afterwards, as the mosquitoes started to come out and attack us, we visited Strange Donuts.  This is Strange Donuts:

Let me try to explain the love for Strange Donuts:  When I was young, my father used to take me or one of my other 3 brothers to the best donut shop in the city, called Donut Drive-in.  The Donut Drive-in, was a smallish building with a tiny one lane drive through window.  At times when there were no cars driving through, we used to walk up to the drive through window and look in and watch the older gentleman baker carefully make each donut batch, by hand.  The smell of the baking process was incredible.  After we watched, we went in and my dad would let us choose a donut that we wanted.

This donut place, is featured on all sorts of Route 66 shows and cooking shows as the donuts win awards for the fact that they are hand-cut and cooked donuts.  The bakers in this shop have been making these donuts for at least close to a hundred years, I would guess, since my father knew of it being there already in the 50's.  Every trip that I took to this donut place was special, it was special time with my father and brothers as we would sit on the hood of his car, in the lot and eat our freshly cooked donuts.  This was before fake flavors, high fructose corn syrup and any other preservatives.  These donuts felt like a warm hug or the sunlight on your face on a cold day.  They were incredible and I thought no other donut could come close.  

But then there is Strange Donuts:
I am going to say it, but if the Donut Drive-in has the best donuts in the Metropolitan area, Strange Donuts has the second best.  There are all kinds and flavors of donuts at Strange Donuts, but when a bite in any one of them brings back the memories of my childhood and the Donut Drive-In, while other donut places have been unable to do so, means that this place is that good.  The flavors are varied and delicious and taste so old school that they must have found so classic or traditional recipes.  I can't say that they are the best in Saint Louis.  It would be to me as saying that there is a restaurant that makes a dish better than your grandmother or mother.  Would you actually say that?  This donut spot has been the location of so many happy food memories that only a really, really good donut place could come close to even being thought of next to it.

All the donuts, as weird as they were, were also all delicious.  They were new as while I have made my own maple and bacon donut, I have never seen a gooey butter cake donut.  I have to give them, at Strange Donuts, a 4 out of 5 stars.  They are good and strange and weird and non of their flavors are half-thought of.  I mean that if they wanted to do a Smores donut, they do so even with a marshmallow on top.  I wish the guys at Strange Donuts the best of luck and happiness.  I hope that they get spread out throughout the city and bring happy memories to those that they server and see.