Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Diner favorites with a twist at Sam's No. 3

My parents were arriving to Fort Collins so they could attend a reading I was giving, and I'd rented a car for the occasion. (Most students in my MFA program give a reading of their poetry or fiction in their final year, and mine was taking place the week before graduation.) As I've mentioned before, I'm not terribly experienced with driving, and after getting myself down to Denver to have dinner with ES before I picked them up from the airport, it seemed necessary to reward myself with a meal at someplace casual and low-key.
Sam's No. 3 has a few different locations, one of which is not far from ES's house. It's a restaurant that combines a Mexican menu with Greek and American diner classics, meaning that you can get a burger or chili rellenos or pork souvlaki—or that chili-cheese fries will come drowned in a spicy, salty, pork green chili rather than a red one. One order is more than enough for two people, and really, it's probably best shared among three or four.
ES was enticed to order the "One of Each" option under the Coney Island Specials menu—a quarter pound burger and a split, grilled hot dog each topped with mustard, onion, and a thin red chili. Not a bad deal for six bucks.
Wanting something lighter, I went with "Mom’s Greek Salad": romaine lettuce, tomato, slivered red onion, cucumber, bell peppers, kalamata olives, and feta cheese in vinaigrette, served with pieces of pita bread. I added on gyro meat for another two dollars, not expecting the huge pile that showed up on the plate; while it seemed like typical mass-produced gyro meat with its uniform texture, flavor, and appearance (no twirling spit in the kitchen, here), it was nonetheless good with the fluffy pita and cucumber yogurt sauce that came with it.

Thus fortified and suitably unwound from the drive, ES and I went back to his house until it was time for me to get in the car—again—to receive my parents at the airport, and bring them back to Fort Collins for a weekend in Colorado.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Salad as entree, not side: Sweet Tomatoes

Sometimes I'm in the mood for a salad, but I can't think of a place where I can get a good one or not be tied to two or three options on a otherwise non-salad menu. A few times I actually turned to places like Old Country Buffet; I'd forgo the steam tables with cooked food and just hang out at the salad bar, mixing and matching my own vegetables and getting as much (or as little) as I wanted. Still, I did feel a little silly doing it.
Enter Sweet Tomatoes, also known as Souplantation in some areas—a buffet actually focused on the leafy green stuff. For about nine bucks, the place allows you to fill up unlimited plates of either pre-mixed salads or ones of your own creation, making salad the star of the show, rather than supporting cast.
On my first visit, I got two plates: one for the romaine lettuce I loaded up with tomatoes, chick peas, cauliflower, broccoli, chopped egg, butternut squash, and zucchini; and one for some of the different pre-made salads: an Asian chicken salad, a broccoli salad (sort of like my very merry broccoli salad), and tuna pasta salad. While I found the pre-made selections to be too heavy on dressing and somewhat too sweet overall, I was happy with the fresh veggies and add-ons in my own salad, as well as the dressings I tried. Obviously, at a place like Sweet Tomatoes there's a lot of control in what you create, so it's easy to come up with something to your liking.
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And the place doesn't just limit you to salad for your meal—there are soup selections, a few pastas and hot dishes, a dessert section, and more. While the choices aren't extensive, there are just enough to complement rather than overwhelm the meal. And for what it is, the quality isn't bad, either—the last time I went, I sampled some okay fettucini alfredo, a perfectly fluffy baked potato topped with bacon, cheese, scallions, and sour cream (add your own toppings, of course), a downright tasty curried lentil soup, and a warm, gooey chocolate brownie/muffin. No sense of missing out on anything here, and more than enough satisfaction to last until the next meal.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Finding Filipino: Sunburst Grill

A decade ago—while still in undergrad—I was dating a man who introduced me to the glories of Filipino food. Suddenly, there was crispy pata, kare kare, and dinuguan; chicken adobo and lechon; spaghetti made with banana ketchup, hot dogs, and cheese. These were dishes I'd never tried before, or even heard of. I loved the mix of Spanish and Chinese influences in the cuisine, and whenever I had the good fortune to attend one of RO's family gatherings, I happily filled my plate from steam tray after steam tray of Filipino home cooking.
Now those days are gone, but luckily Filipino food isn't. Near ES's house is Sunburst Grill, a tiny restaurant featuring nearly all of the dishes I so fondly remembered. During lunch a few months ago, we started off immediately with an order of the lumpiang Shanghai, umami-rich, cigar-shaped eggrolls filled with a mixture of pork and shrimp.
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I was curious about the dish of taro leaves and pork stewed in coconut milk from the first time I visited, especially since Sunburst Grill had sold out of it that day. This time, I managed to secure myself a plate, but the musty flavor of the taro leaves took some getting used to and I wasn't sure that chasing down this dish had actually been a successful move. Better was the breakfast, mine featuring three plump links of pork longanisa, a sweet grilled sausage that has always tasted to me like a fresh version of Chinese sausage. The plate came with two fried eggs, a bit of pickled papaya, and a mound of ketchupy, pork-studded java rice.
ES had a bowl of their chicken and noodle soup, a version thankfully nothing like those wan American versions plagued by mushy pasta and pallid meat. No, this featured dark-meat chicken and springy noodles floating in a salty broth imbued with fried shallots and scallions; after one spoonful, I ladled myself a small bowl so that I could keep on enjoying its flavor. In the end, Sunburst Grill's dishes may not be home cooking, but they sure come close.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Neighborhood Korean at Al Bae Nae

ES and I discovered Al Bae Nae back in winter, a Korean restaurant tucked away in a small Aurora strip mall next to M Mart (not to be confused with H Mart) and the intriguing Havana Spa. Pleased with both the dishes and their price point, it was only a matter of time before we returned with friends in tow. Seven people at the table means more dishes to sample, and that night we did a pretty thorough job of trying something from each section of the menu.
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Makguksu, a bowl of cold soba noodles topped with assorted vegetables in sweet and spicy sauce, was rather watery at the bottom but no less refreshing for its complex layering of textures and flavors. An oxtail soup, kkori gomtang, was soothing and deeply flavored with beef and scallions. And a dish of jajangbap took the same porky, oniony, roasted soybean sauce that typically appears on noodles and stir-fried it with rice to great effect. Actually, the huge, steamed "Pyeongyang-style" dumplings were the only real disappointment: big and bland and impossible to eat without their mushy fillings disintegrating.
When we'd tried to order the kkampunggi, described on the menu as "fried chicken with hot pepper sauce," we'd been informed they were out. Undaunted, we agreed to the shrimp version instead, and it turned out to be my favorite dish of the night. Whole shrimp were coated in some kind of tapioca or potato starch batter, giving the fried crustaceans a wonderful and interesting gluey and chewy—yet crisp—shell. The barely spicy, overly sweet sauce might have been reminiscent of a Chinese takeout joint's sweet-and-sour, but it also shared the same addictive quality.
Then there was Al Bae Nae's tteokbokki: chewy cylinders of rice cake paired with red peppers, scallions, onions, cut-up hot dogs, and fish cake and simmered in a gochujang-based sauce. It was sweeter and less spicy than usual, but there's always something about the odd, junk-food mash-up quality of this dish that makes me love it no matter what. (Though I should say that the cheese version ES and I tried the first time involved American cheese and maybe shredded mozzarella swirled into the sauce—a experience I only advise if you're down with tasting processed cheese food in your Korean meal.)

Seven of us managed to pretty much clean up all the dishes, a feat no less impressive for the relatively small bill we received at the end. With plenty more to try on the menu, Al Bae Nae might just become a regular destination.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Earth Day at the Fort Collins Food Co-op

The temperatures had dropped and the wind was chilly, but the cold didn't stop a group from gathering on the street in front of the Fort Collins Food Co-op all afternoon in celebration of Earth Day. After lunch with SD and CH, we showed up just in time to hear Edgewater Juke performing a lively set of rock and roll, blues, and modern groove, a six-man band that managed to transform a whole sidewalk into a party.
Between sets I picked up a bag of these wild rice sesame sticks from the Co-op, which proved themselves to be instantly addictive. They're the kind of snack that pretends to be healthy, what with its wild rice and all, but are really just toasty, crunchy, throw-'em-down-by-the-handful junk food. Find them in the bulk section at Sunflower Market, if you happen to be far from the Co-op, but be warned: I can't stop eating them, and you might not be able to either.
Music, sun, and snacks—we might have frozen a little out there that afternoon, but Earth Day, I'm glad to report, was still celebrated with style. Hooray Edgewater Juke and the other participants that day!