October 15, 2010

I'll Have Another - 100 Cups of Coffee continued

This is going to round out my tour of Denton's coffee houses, though I'm sure new ones have sprung up, even as I was making my circuit. If I missed a particular favorite of yours, or you spotted a new one, please let us know. Additionally, I'm happy to report my friend my friend M was available to accompany me on this final tour.
We visited:
Cafe Du Luxe
If you've been reading my tweets, you may have guessed I've recently been diagnosed as gluten intolerant. That's almost as fun as it sounds. On the upside, however, I'm much less tired then I have been; in fact, I feel remarkably better, so I'm inclined to complain much less than I thought I might. On the downside, of course, eating is a bit less casual. In fact, after mentioning that I drink decaf, a friend who knows I have to eat gluten free (GF) told me recently, "You don't eat anything real!" I reminded him that I only eat real food, I just don't eat anything easy. So, I knew going into Cafe du Luxe, I'd have to pass on their sandwiches and pastries (damnit!), but I figured, even though no one had responded to the e-mail I sent a few days previously, that I'd be able to get a salad.
What I didn't expect was that no one at the counter or in the kitchen would know which of their salad dressings was gluten free. I mean, about 1 in 200 (or 1 in 133) people has some sort of gluten sensitivity, and we eat out!

Important lesson there, call ahead.

Anyway, after being pretty casually brushed aside by that day's cook, "We don't make any of our dressings or the black bean soup," I got a cup of decaf and a glass of water; M got a tomato & spinach quiche ("...not crispy, microwaved...") and a caramel, marked vanilla latte (pictured), and we sat down to compare notes. After I whipped out my laptop and started blogging, that same cook came out to tell me that the vinaigrettes and Caesar dressings were gluten free, but the bean soup was not. I hope my laptop didn't have anything to do with his improved customer service, but I wonder. Weirdly enough, a couple days after my visit, someone from the restaurant did answer my original e-mail. The very nice response I got was, in part:
We do not offer a gluten-free bread so we are unable to accommodate you on any of our sandwiches (unless you choose to order the sandwich without bread.) All of our salads can be modified to gluten-free when you request to leave off the croutons and baguette. All of our dressings are gluten-free as well. As for appetizers, our corn tortilla chips contain no gluten so we can offer our guacamole with chips and salsa, hummus with tortilla chips substituted for pita, and our freshly prepared shrimp ceviche. Our black bean soup is gluten-free and as far as our soup of the day any of our cooks would be happy to let you know whether or not it is a gluten-free soup. At this time we do not have any gluten-free desserts, unfortunately.

I am sorry for the limited menu options - the owner and I are working together at this time to expand our menu to accommodate our guests with special needs.

Well this is good news, if too late for my post, and that menu is not as limited as the writer seems to think. I can get by on soup, salad, corn chips and hummus easily. However, it was also a bit confusing, since the cook on duty had told me the soup was NOT GF, and so far, my two requests for clarification have gone unanswered.
So I repeat, call ahead, my GF dears, if you're on your way there.
Have you started thinking, "Enough already! They'll have to pry the pastries and flour tortillas out of my cold, dead hands, how-was-the-coffee"? Well, read on Mcduff.

Where?3101 Unicorn Lake Boulevard
Open 24 hrs?No. Mon - Thurs 5:30a - 10p;
Friday 5:30a - 11p; Sat. 6a - 11p;
Sun. 7a - 9p
What did you drink? What do you think? A small (12 oz.) cup of the decaf
Organic?No.
Kinds of cupsMugs for in-house. Paper for to go.
Sugar/honey/raw?Yes/Yes/Yes/Yellow Stuff
Milk/cream/half&half? Yes, and in some really snazzy dispensers
Price$1.62
Yeah, yeah, but how does it taste?!Not great. It was weak
What did M get? 12 oz Caramel 'marked' Vanilla latte
Was it good? Good, like dessert, and beautiful.
How much? $2.98
Bring Your Own Cup Discount?"Ahhhh, you'd have to talk to David about that."
Loyalty Card?No
Food or Pastries?Yes
WiFi?Yes - you have to buy something and get a code to use it
Atmosphere?New, mod-ish, generic.
A few upholstered seating areas, bar tables and barstools and small, round cafe tables
Crowd/Scene?Retirees and post-movie theatre crowd. I'll bet they get a ton of 'on the way to work'ers too
Study or Socialize?Socialize
Tea too?Yes. Numi
Sidewalk seating?Yes
Art?Yes. Changes monthly
Live Music?Occasionally
Anything else?Wine! $5 for a glass of the house Concha Y Toro Frontera Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz. Reasonable prices on the featured and specialty wines too


Cafe Du Luxe on Urbanspoon

Art Six
When we walked in and smelled the warm, delicious perfume of their coffee and saw the rich brown walls and stripped floors, I said to M, "I think we've found our spiritual home."
Then I gave her a sip of my decaf Americano, and we knew we'd found our level.

Located in an old house in a residential neighborhood (you know I like that) on Bryan St, Art Six has been serving joe since 2004, and I was so very pleased to see how well they're doing. What else can I say about this place? It was just really comfortable with good coffee; what more do you need? I will mention I loved their bathroom. I know that sounds random, but if you've ever lived in (and redone) an old house, you appreciate other people's work, and seeing groovy old details like you might still have (for instance, a cast iron, in-wall gas heater). See it.

M kept going on about how much she missed this place, and how we should just spend hours here, or re-do our circuit. So, that's another enthusiastic thumbs up.

Where?424 Bryan Street
Open 24 hrs?No. Their posted summer hours were:
M-F 11a -11p;
Sat 11a-12m;
Sun 2p -10p
What did you drink? A small decaf Americano
"It's stronger than the decaf."
Organic?Yes. House coffee and house espresso
Kinds of cupsChina mugs for in. Creepy styrofoam to go
Sugar/honey/raw?Yes/No/No/Pink/Yellow
Milk/cream/half&half? Half and Half and that creepy powdered creamer. Come on folks, really?
Price$2.50 for a ‘small’
Yeah, yeah, but how does it taste?!Really good
What M get? The daily staff pick - a vanilla latte frappe!
Was it good? So good I helped her finish it, but I'm a good friend like that
How much? $4.75 for a 20oz.
Bring Your Own Cup Discount?Don't know; don't think so
Loyalty Card?No
Food or Pastries?Bagels, soups, sandwiches, muffins, biscotti, smoothies, milkshakes and both root beer and Dr. Pepper floats
WiFi?Yes - Get the code from the barista
Atmosphere?Converted old house at the corner of Bryan and Scripture, one block from Fry Street.
3 rooms of tables, couches, and barstools.
Hipster Top 20 soundtrack, which, weirdly, cut in and out - like bad radio, and was nowhere near as annoying as it might have been, maybe because of the general awesomeness of the whole place
Crowd/Scene?Oh students all the way
Study or Socialize?I saw lots of both
Tea too?Yes. By the cup, the pot, or iced
Sidewalk seating?Backyard patio, and how nice is that? There's also a small front porch swing
Art?Lots
Live Music?No
Anything else?Italian cream sodas and lemonade. You have no reason to go thirsty here


Art Six Coffee House on Urbanspoon

Cups and Crepes
You know I'm a big fan of mixed use and reuse, so there's no way I couldn't stop by Cups and Crepes. Located in a grandish, old pile on Fry St, this interesting venture has been in around since 2007, I believe. And, unlike all the other coffee houses on my tour, they're not concentrating onthe late-night crowd - thery're only open for breakfast and lunch.

So, one warm morning the SO and I ankled over there to get some breakfast and coffee. You know I stick to the plain jane coffee, and so does the SO, but there's a fancy-schmancy, cherry red, coffee machine, front and center when you enter, that looks like Ferrari might have designed it. If I wasn't on a mission, I absolutely would have fallen prey to its charms and ordered whatever it makes, just to see it in action. As it was, I got a cup of decaf, pancakes, bacon, and a scrambled egg. The SO got a cup of regular, scrambled eggs, toast, bacon. (Obviously, this visit was before I had to give up the gluten. And pancakes, ooooh pancakes.)

So let's talk about the coffee, shall we? I briefly tried to think of a synonym for excellent, but gave it up, because excellent perfectly characterizes this coffee. Strong, hot, smooth - even using honey instead of sugar - this was a cup of perfect. I don't know if it's their coffee or their brew method or if we just got lucky, but that's a cup of coffee I still remember. How many cups of Joe do you remember?
The wait for this food was looong. Really long. Grumpy-making long. I have no idea what the hold up was, but the food itself was really good, in that breakfast, comfort-food sort of way. There's no real reason that I can think of for it to have been so good, it wasn't special in any way, but it was good. Really good. I suggest trying it.

I also suggest trying the chocolate banana crepes. Do you know anything about crepes? If you’ve had any previous experience, you know that they can sometimes be... limp and slimy, for want of better descriptors, but these, though incredibly simple, were perfect. Really perfect. And writing about them now, makes me wonder if there's a gluten-free creperie out there anywhere. If you know of one, clue me in, please.

So, this was a kind of mixed or 50/50 proposition, right? Good food, great coffee, long wait. There was one deciding factor for me though, which insures I won't be back anytime soon - the heat. We were sitting in a little corner, near the thermostat, and though it was set on 68°, it registered 78°. That's right - degrees Fahrenheit. Y'all, I can't eat or relax indoors at that temperature.

When I asked the braless waitress (the SO thought that was a plus) if it was always so hot, she replied, "Pretty much." So, I won't be back for food in the spring or summer time, but if that truly excellent coffee calls to me, I'll get it to go.

Where? 309 Fry St.
Open 24 hrs? No. Th-Sun 8a-3p
What did you drink? A mug of decaf
Organic? Yes.
Kinds of cups Mugs for in-house. Paper for to go.
Sugar/honey/raw? Yes/Yes/No/Yellow Stuff
Milk/cream/half&half? Yes/No/Yes
Yeah, yeah, but how does it taste?! This was a noticeably good cup of coffee.
What did the SO get? A cup of regular.
Was it good? Just as good
Bring Your Own Cup Discount? Don't think so.
Loyalty Card? No
Food or Pastries? Yes.
WiFi? Yes.
Atmosphere? The bottom floor of an old house, with some of the original finishes still there.
Crowd/Scene? Totally mixed. Students, locals, local students
Study or Socialize? Study, socialize and eat.
Tea too? Yes.
Sidewalk seating? No. Seating in the front yard instead!
Art? Yes. Looks like school (college) projects
Live Music? No.
Anything else? The crepes! Well really, where else are you gonna get crepes in town? And who doens't like a crepe? If you can eat them, try these.

Cups & Crepes on Urbanspoon


When I thought about the close of this post, I thought back on the places I'd been and the coffees I enjoyed, and I realized I should have some sort of favorites list. So, without further ado, here it is, the coffees in Denton, Texas.
  • Best Coffee - I still have to say, Cups and Crepes. That was a seriously good cup of joe.
  • Best Place - This is really a tough one. I think I have a tie - The Hydrant and Art Six.
    I didn't review it, but you might also look in on the Jupiter House on Carroll Blvd. It's lovely.
  • Best Art - Hands down, Art Six. There were paintings you might actually want to buy on display.

May 20, 2010

100 Cups of Coffee - The Grand Tour of Denton's Coffee Houses

Any Fans of Futurama reading? If you are, rest assured I'm not going to drink them all in one day, but I am embarking on a multi-part series of reviews of the coffee houses of Denton, Texas.
Are you thinking, "So soon?" (Those of you unfamiliar with sarcasm can read that as, "What took you so long?!")

I know; I know; it's time. Coffee in Denton has come up several times in your comments and has brought feedback in Twitter. Plus, as anyone with eyes (or a nose) can tell, Dentonistas and Dentonistos must love them some coffee. We've gone from having oh, one coffee shop - anyone remember the Karma Cafe? - to having, at my count, six straight-up coffee houses (not counting the 2nd Jupiter House or any of the Starbucks). And, of course, there's any number of places you can get a latte or just a decent cup of coffee. In fact, we've had coffee houses around long enough to morph into other things, like sushi cafes - where you can still get a cappuccino.

So what was the hold up? I'll tell you. As a graduated student and current working commuter, I don't have a routine that includes time reading, writing, studying or socializing at coffee houses, and believe me, I'm sorry I don't. However, I can't continue to ignore this vital part of Denton culture and commerce. So aided and abetted by a friend, M, who is a long-time student, writer and author, we set out to hit all the coffee shops we could think of, and maybe talk to some regulars along the way.

I should tell you too that I'll try to stick to the same thing at each stop – A regular old cup of coffee. I mean, what’s the worst cappuccino you ever had? Add enough frothy milk to any random blend of coffee and you still come up with a ‘big cup of love’ as a friend and former boss is wont to say. So, I’ll be trying their ‘best, dark roast’, letting whoever’s behind the counter decide, in either decaf or half caf. That’s right. I figure if an establishment cares enough to make a good cup of decaf, they’re going to be able to deliver everything else. M? She can have anything her little heart desires.
Today we'll be covering/discussing/reviewing:
And, on my own:
Jupiter House
I'd give you a Web link, but their site is so outdated, it's just not worth it. (Update! They updated the site, and now it's useful: here.) Located on the Square (with a newer satellite on Carroll Blvd at University), Jupiter House is the Big Daddy (or silver back) of Denton Coffee houses. It was the first that opened big (I believe) and opened 24 hours, though not anymore.

Where?106 N. Locust St.
Open 24 hrs?No. 6a to Midnight
What did you drink? Small, Tocano Ultra Violet Vacuum water process decaf
Organic?No
Kinds of cupsIcky Styrofoam to take, but regular mugs for in house
Sugar/honey/raw?Yes/Yes/Yes
Milk/cream/half&half? Skim/Soy/Almond/H&H - Where's the whole?
PriceHard to find, since they're not posted - $1.75
Yeah, yeah, but how does it taste?!Honestly? Kind of bitter
What did your friend M get? An Integrated Mocha (Decaf).
That's half white chocolate, half dark chocolate, all delicious
Was it good? OMG! Dessert in a cup
How much? $4.25
Bring Your Own Cup Discount?Yes
Loyalty Card?No
Food or Pastries?Muffins, Breads, Bagels (Breads baked at Ravelin!)
WiFi?Yes
Atmosphere?Exposed brick, soft lighting, lots of tables
Crowd/Scene?Totally mixed. All ages. LOTS of laptops
Study or Socialize?I saw both on a Saturday a.m.
Tea too?Yep
Sidewalk seating?Yes
Art?Yes
Live Music?Every Saturday Night
Anything else?Smoothies and Milkshakes!

Jupiter House on Urbanspoon

Hydrant Cafe
The Hydrant is a relative newcomer on the scene, and they already have loyal fans. Comments to the blog and Twitter have alerted me to their presence, and I was happy to step in here on a recent Saturday. I have to say, I'm a fan now. I think this was my favorite joint, on this review cycle.

Where?208 W. Oak St.
Open 24 hrs?No. M-Sat; 7a - 1a
What did you drink? Small, whatever decaf they were slinging
Organic?No
Kinds of cupsIcky Styrofoam to take, but regular mugs for in house
Sugar/honey/raw?Yes/Yes/Yes/ and the Pink/Blue/ Yellow stuff
Milk/cream/half&half? Cream. Asked for whole; they were out. Got 2% from Glen, the owner. Very nice guy
Price$2.15
Hard to find, since they're not posted. Again. What's up with that?
Yeah, yeah, but how does it taste?!Good, not great
What did your friend M get? Hand squeezed lemonade
Was it good? Another winner. Oh man was that good!
How much? $ 2.39
Bring Your Own Cup Discount?Yes - 10%
Loyalty Card?No
Food or Pastries?Breakfast and Soup and Sandwiches. The grilled cheese they were cooking smelled so good, we had to have one. We're not sorry about it either
WiFi?Yes
Atmosphere?Victorian, six-sided white tile, red walls and some really great fire fighter related photos. You have to see it.
Really comfy booths downstairs; couches, upholstered chairs upstairs
Crowd/Scene?Seemed like regulars.
Seems like it would be easy to become a regular too
Study or Socialize?Socialize more, I think. But you could totally study here too
Tea too?Yep
Sidewalk seating?A little
Art?Yes
Live Music?Oh yes, and lots more. We came in at the end of a Coffee Lab! (Some sort of tasting clinic.) Check out their calendar. There're even plays going on here!
Anything else?Well Glen made my coffee fresh, with a ceramic over head drip cone. That's pretty cool

Update - I'm sorry to say they're closed. However, Denton Square Donuts has taken over their space, and you might like to try that.
Hydrant Cafe on Urbanspoon

Banter
Here's another business that doesn't seem to care about maintaining a Web site. What's up with that? I hope they get it fixed soon. Anyway, we walked right across the street from The Hydrant to Banter. Now, in fairness, I haven't really ever thought of Banter as a coffee house, but M has spent a fair amount of time here drinking coffee and studying, and it was close, so why not?

Where?219 W. Oak St.
Open 24 hrs?Nope. 10a - 12 Midnight
What did you drink? Small, regular house coffee. Why?
Cause they don't-have-decaf!
Organic?No
Kinds of cupsRegular mugs for in house
Sugar/honey/raw?Yes/ Yes/ No/ Pink stuff/ Yellow stuff
Milk/cream/half&half? Cream
Price$1.00 A dollar!
Yeah, yeah, but how does it taste?!Good, not great.
What did your friend M get? Iced Green Tea
Was it good? Very refreshing
How much? $1.75
Bring Your Own Cup Discount?No
Loyalty Card?No
Food or Pastries?Breakfast - all day, Lunch and Tapas - Thurs thru Sat.
We tried another grilled cheese, the Jilled Cheese, to be exact.
Cheddar, Bacon, and horse radish mayo panino. Fancy.
Honestly, not as satisfying as the plain Jane version at The Hydrant
WiFi?Yes
Atmosphere?Exposed brick and stuccoed pine with school-house surplus chairs and lots of tables. Couches too.
Humid the day day we were there, with the doors open.
Crowd/Scene?Younger. Students and hipsters
Study or Socialize?It was quiet. Study and work
Tea too?Yep
Sidewalk seating?Yes
Art?Yes
Live Music?Yes. Poetry readings too, M tells me. Oh M!
Anything else?You know what? I'd say they're less coffee and more Beer or Wine and food, and that's not a bad thing . Might be nice to grab an adult beverage and park it on one of the couches.
Happy hour 4-7 every day

Banter on Urbanspoon
 
Big Mike's

Well M had to motor, but I did want to add Big Mike's to the inaugural lineup. Big Mike's is the newest venture of Mike Sutton. Located in the space his Voyager's Dream shop used to occupy, this coffee shop seems to be a going venture. You know I love recycling. And you know I love local (and independent) businesses, so I'm really happy to tell you about Big Mike's coffee.

Where?1306 W. Hickory. Near Voertman's, at the edge of UNT campus
Open 24 hrs?Yes
What did you drink? A small half caf
Organic?Organic, fairly traded, locally roasted coffees!
Kinds of cupsStyrofoam, but paper is coming... Mugs for in-house
Sugar/honey/raw?Yes/Yes/ Yes/Yellow stuff/Pink stuff
Milk/cream/half&half? I had to ask for whole milk, but the nice employee passed me his gallon jug, over the counter with no trouble.
Price12 oz of coffee for $1.28
Yeah, yeah, but how does it taste?!Wow! This was a really good cup of coffee. I got a 12 oz., half caf coffee (which turned out to be, the regular brew and some decaf Espresso Americano, "Decaf's not really popular around here.") To which I added a bit of raw sugar and whole milk and passed on the plastic lid.
I finished that bad boy as I was browsing silly birthday cards from The Onion - at Voertman's. I have to say, my morning was much the better for it
Bring Your Own Cup Discount?Yes. And you definitely want to, so you can give the Styrofoam cups a pass! Regular mugs for in-house drinking
Loyalty Card?No
Food or Pastries?Organic bagels!
WiFi?Yes. And, it's secure. Ask a barista for the network key
Atmosphere?A little grotty, honestly.
Playing some interesting and dirty, lo-fi rock, when I was there. Like Hendrix joined Iron Butterfly.
Crowd/Scene?Mac-toting students and hippies!
Study or Socialize?Oh both, I'd say
Tea too?Yes, locally crafted no less
Sidewalk seating?No, but a bike rack!
Art?Yes
Live Music?No, but you're very likely to hear local artists being played
Anything else?Smoothies, a free community meeting space, and twice-filtered water!

Big Mike's Coffee on Urbanspoon

March 15, 2010

Indians Push North. Pioneers, Eagles, Townies Welcome Them

I almost feel lazy starting this blog entry because I feel like I’ve already told you the goods news about the Indian food at Kokila.

However, the fact that they did open a restaurant in Denton proper seems noteworthy-enough to write about – even if it’s just a short post.
In AP-style, I’ll open with (reiterate) the important part: Kokila-is-in-Denton-Now!
Located in Carriage Court (Avenue C and Eagle Dr) in the space formerly occupied by Siam House (which is now on Cedar St), Kokile re-designed, re-painted, re-tiled, and most importantly, brought in a steam table, to create their north-side restaurant. And, oh how happy I am.
This restaurant is smaller than their Lewisville location, and the buffet is similarly a bit smaller. However, it is also a bit cheaper and still offered every day for lunch.
The food, happily, is the same delicious and excellent quality. And, dosas are offered all week, albeit a la carte. Spend the extra buck and get this potato\onion\peas and carrots crepe. Almost every time I eat it – which is every time I’m there (which is about once a week) – I remark to the S.O. that, “I don’t know why I like these so much.”
I mean, you read that, right?  Potato.  Peas.  Carrot.  Onion.
Sounds like nothing, right?
I have to tell you, whatever spices they sprinkle in there push that mix to tasty, and adding any of the chutneys (the carrot pickle is my favorite) just amps up the toothsomeness. I’ve even been known  to slip bits of chicken, goat or paneer in there too. You know, sort of making up my own little burrito?
It may not be standard Indian eating practice, but it IS delicious.

Of course the buffet changes daily, but you can usually expect to see that delish tandoori chicken (you know, the red, grilled stuff) pretty much every day.
And on a perfect Sunday, I'll sleep  in late; drink coffee; read the paper, then head over to the buffet @ 11.
On a recent-ish Sunday, I even saw local musical talent and radio God, Paul Slavens! I loooove him.

Celeb sighting or not, I always leave ready to meet the end of my weekend with a full and happy belly.
And who doesn't love happy?

Check it out.

February 15, 2010

El Chico

I know, I know! A chain restaurant! In-the-mall!! But what can I say? They routinely kick out really tasty Tex-Mex; the chips are always crisp; the salsa is bright and hot (but not too hot), and the tea is good. Though, weirdly, offered as “Sweet or unsweet?”

    Side note – What’s up with that Texas? I’m hearing that more and more. WHEN did sweet tea become an option? I mean, I grew up drinking sweet tea – NESTEA®, as a matter of fact – only in the summer – and believe me, the error of my former ways was brought home to me quickly, once I landed in the Lone Star State. So, I don’t get it. Belles and Dandies from Atlanta and Mobile drink it sweet, I know, but I always think of Texans as guys and gals who get it plain and add their own sugar or sweet n low, if they’re not tough enough to drink it straight.
But, no matter how good the tea (or chips and salsa) is that is rarely what brings you into a Mexican restaurant.
So what does?
How about the enchiladas? A recent visit saw your friendly neighborhood Dentonista getting down on some avocado enchiladas. Avocado, mushrooms, and cheese rolled up in corn tortillas, topped with tomatillo sauce and served up over sautéed spinach. Ooooh, they were gooood, y’all.
BUT, they were nowhere near as good as the chicken and spinach enchiladas I had on the previous visit.
Those enchiladas were a revelation.

Fajita chicken, spinach and cheese in corn tortillas and topped with a ‘chipotle wine sauce’. Whatever it was, it was rich and smoky and unlike anything I’ve ever eaten off an enchilada. I practically had to sit on my hands to keep from stuffing my face, two fist style.
It was so good I was practically meowing.
Uh huh. At a chain.

Now, to be fair, this is a Texas-based chain. In fact the first El Chico, the proto or Ur El Chico was a tamale stand at the Kaufman County Fair, in 1926.

And, as an added bonus to all that authenticity, both these enchilada meals were off some ‘new’ menu and only $7.99.
Yeah. $7.99.
But wait, there’s still more.
Check those coupon booklets you get in the Sunday paper. I got to use a buy one get one coupon for this meal. That’s right.
Cheap, delicious, local-ish. What’s not to love?

Well, one thing really. There’s still a smoking section in this little restaurant.
It’s at the very back of the restaurant. In fact, it’s on the ‘outside’ or ‘patio’ area, which is in-the-mall.
Yep.
Do you know where, exactly? Directly across from the kids’ play area!
Yeah.
The mall should be ashamed of itself.
El Chico corporate should be ashamed of themselves, and if you’re feeling particularly trashy, you can have a smoke while watching the kiddies play and be ashamed of yourself.

 - 2011 Update! -  El Chico no longer has a smoking section! I should delete the above paragraphs, but I really enjoyed my rant. So I won't. -

Everyone else - Keep your eyes peeled for coupon circulars, your mind open to good food at the sketchy mall, and try to sit towards the front of the restaurant.
El Chico on Urbanspoon

January 31, 2010

Keiichi

I’m having a hard time writing about Keiichi, and I don’t know why. Located across from Charlie Beck’s Garage in the former Parkway Hair salon (you’d never know from the inside), it is, without question, the best place in Denton for sushi. In fact, it’s so good, it’s spawned rumors and legends. A girlfriend told me recently that on a plane ride back from Florida, a seat companion told her he'd heard about "... a sushi place in Denton where the Dallas sushi chefs go to eat.”

Well. If Dallas sushi chefs come here, it must be good, right? Sorry, does that sound a little like kid-sister aggravation, on behalf of my city? Maybe it is. Perhaps the point was: people are willing to make the drive north, all the way to Denton, to eat this sushi, and that I don’t doubt. It may be the best sushi in North Texas.

In fact, it’s already so well known, by word of mouth, its only Web presence is a plethora of reviews and a map - no Web site. And that doesn’t really matter, in this case, because the menu changes every day. The chef and owner, Keiichi Nagano, creates the daily menu based on the best of what fish he’s got and, weirdly enough, what few Italian dishes he feels like preparing. More on that later.

I read a few of these Web reviews and a couple stuck out for me, including the number of reviews from loyal regulars and the one review where the diner mentioned the chef never smiles. I wonder if that's what makes it hard for me to write about Keiichi? I have noticed that every time we’ve been, there are always some regulars who seem bent on letting everyone know (and reminding the chef) that they are regulars, and the chef rarely smiles at anyone who isn’t a regular. Perhaps it’s that in a place so small, you can’t help but interacting a little, and a friendly glance from the chef really goes so far in making you feel welcome and comfortable and relaxed, particularly about spending so much.
And you will spend a lot – Keiichi is not cheap.

Now, grimly focused chef or no, nothing can take away from the quality of this fish – that is something I DO know about.
On this, my third visit, the Significant Other (S.O.) and I enjoyed a repast of:

  • Spicy Tuna Roll – I know - kind of prosaic, right? What can I say? This is by far the S.O.’s favorite roll, and why wouldn’t we try it here? Not a disappointment. Noticeably better than even the good rolls we can get elsewhere.

  • Flounder and yellowfin sushi – I prefer the more tender tuna to the flounder, but grew up eating it (cooked) and just had to try it. When was the last time you saw fresh flounder in North Texas? Two pieces of sushi per each order.

  • Crab sushi – Nothing special really. Fresh, cold crab legs. I’d rather have them hot with butter. And in abundance. 2 pieces per order.

  • Grilled yellow tail collar – Listed as an appetizer, it was served last. The chef did explain that it took time to, you know, cook, whereas the sushi could be prepared more quickly. No matter, it was worth the wait. Wow. Yellow tail collar is just what it sounds like, the grilled collar bones of a yellow tail tuna. I have no idea what it was marinated in, and I don’t care. It was some of the best cooked fish I’ve ever eaten. It was perfectly tender too, so we were able to pick those bones clean, using just our chopsticks. I may not be elegant with chopsticks, but I am effective. It was so good the S.O. kept saying, “What do you want next? What’s next?!” Greedy. After he calmed down and we both enjoyed this, I was inclined to agreed we might try something else…


  • Beef tataki – Another wow. I’d never had this, nor even knew what it was (the menu is light on description), but we guessed it was something we saw the other folks at the bar order, so we rolled the bones and went for it. Turns out, it's ridiculously tender beef, seared on the outside, cool on the inside (like seared tuna), sliced and served up with sautéed spinach. I added a little of the fresh wasabi, rolled it up around some of that spinach and popped it in my mouth. Holy Moly. I had to throttle back so I didn’t scarf this all up in a minute.


  • Now, it’s a well known fact that the more you enjoy a meal as an experience, the more inclined you are to prolong it with dessert, coffee, drinks, etc. I love good coffee, but I’ve never been able to cap off a meal with it. I mean, I want dessert. The chef was offering some homemade sorbets that evening – orange, grapefruit, and pomegranate – and we were clever enough to ask for a sampler, which they delivered. Oh they were just ridiculously good.

    Ooh! Before I close out my description of this meal, I want to tell what I drank – the sake flight! How cool is that? A Sake Flight! Perhaps you know something about sake, my dears, but I know nothing, other than that I like it. I’ve never had a sake I hated, but I’ve never done any sort of real sake sampling and comparing, so I was really pleased with this. I should mention too, this is cold sake. I’ve been told that sake good enough to be served cold, is the better sake, whereas stuff served warm is warmed to maybe cover flaws in taste. Now, I have no idea if that’s true (and I’d love to hear from you, if you know - these folks have another take), but I do know that this sake was really good. I loved the little card that came with it, describing each of the 3 offerings, and loved how very different they did taste from each other. I think the middle offering was my favorite. The S.O. stuck to his usual – beer. In this case, a Sapporo.

    On this visit, we also enjoyed sitting near a large Japanese family. (It was us and them at the bar.) The matriarch of this family struck up a conversation with us, based largely on her appreciation of Chef Nagano’s talent. She told us she followed him from restaurant to restaurant, and had driven down to Denton from Dallas, with her visiting children and grandchild, just so they could all eat his sushi and, that night, mushroom pasta. She also assured us he uses the best seaweed (you know, for the rolls) and that even in Japan, you’d have a hard time finding sushi this good. I admit, my sushi palate is nowhere near refined enough to discern subtle differences in dried seaweed, but I bow to her appreciative knowledge. We, in turn, impressed her by ordering the yellow tail collar, “You really do like Japanese food.” Seriously though, y’all, if you like even cooked fish, you would have loved that dish. Sometimes I think Asians think round eyes are food weenies. Or very unadventurous. Whatever.

    Now I already mentioned that the chef prepares a daily menu of the finest and freshest. In addition to all the other touches of excellence, he uses real wasabi root. You'll know because he grates it right in front of you. In front of everyone, actually, Keiichi is a very small place.

    The sushi bar, which takes up more than most of the restaurant, seats 10 and that’s it. There’s a small table tucked in a nook behind the front door, which seats 6, maybe 8 if you push it, but that’s reserved, obviously, for parties. Occasionally singles (and maybe a double) can get a seat at the actual bar, bar. But I think that only seats 4 or 6, and is usually used for waiting for your reserved seats. If you’re going to eat here, you’ll most likely be at the sushi bar.

    All these qualifications and praise aside, if rolls are your thing, I would skip Keiichi. It is must be said, Keiichi is expensive. Not crazy so, but you know you have to order several things (and you’ll want to order plenty) to make a meal of sushi or sashimi. The meal I described above cost about $100, before tip. And, frankly, I think a meal of rolls might be a waste of this amazing quality fish. Of course, if you’ve toured all the roll joints in Denton, and you just have to come here for rolls, then do it. But never say I didn’t warn you.

    I almost forgot, I promised to talk more about the Italian food. OK. If you read a few reviews or stalk him online (feel free to read this patronizing article), you’ll find he started out in the US cooking in Italian restaurants. Yeah; go know. Apparently, he developed a taste and affection for it too, and continues to offer a few dishes each night. Well why not? So really, a meal at Keiichi should be able to please everyone.

    Tell me what you think.
    Keiichi on Urbanspoon

    January 1, 2010

    Winsome Winston-Salem, NC

    Field Trip Alert!

    Today kids, we’re talking about Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I can almost hear you saying, “What’s that got to do with Denton?!” Well, remember how DFW is one of the things that makes Denton so swell? Happily, you can get direct flights from DFW to Greensboro, NC (GSO), and from there travel over to Winston-Salem.

    A better question might be, “Why Winston-Salem?” Well, I’ll tell you. One of my sisters, a former Dentonista, made her circuitous route (via Syracuse and D.C.) there and put down roots. So now, after 10 plus years of being the home for the holidays, SHE (and her S.O.) hosted the family this year. So my S.O. and I and our other sister posse-d up there for the holidays. And y’all, you know how you dread having to get together with your family for enforced festivities? Well it’s not like that for us. We were all looking forward to it (maybe no one more than me, the former hostess), so we were all prepared to have a great time. I won’t bore you with the details of all our family traditions and frolicking, because that’s not something you can participate in. No matter how good a hostess my sister is, she’s not up for random Dentonites knocking on her door, but I WILL detail what’s good, fun, and tasty in Winston-Salem.

    I will warn you now; I was totally lax in taking pictures - other than of our Christmas celebration. Pathetic really. After each delicious meal, I’d think, “D’oh! I forgot to take pictures!” Although, I think we can both agree, my food photography could be described as ‘unappetizing’. In fact, if anyone can give me some advice, so my food looks more like this or this, PLEASE let me know.


    Where to stay
    Well, on our last trip there, we stayed at the Shaffner House Bed and Breakfast, and I can totally recommend it. Beautiful, historic home turned into a Victorian-style B&B, with excellent breakfasts.

    On this trip, inspired by my sister’s previous success with Priceline, I cheaped out and bid. I got us booked at the downtown Marriott for $52 a night, y’all. I’m a convert now. Plus, you know the Marriotts all have those fluffy blankets and squashy mattresses? Oooh, like sleeping on a marshmallow covered in marshmallow fluff. Diviiine.


    What to do
    I don’t think any trip to W-S is complete without a trip to Reynolda House. In fact, with Hanes shutting down, I think that (and Wake Forest University, and Wachovia Bank) may be the economic strong holds in town; I could be wrong though.

    Anyway. Never heard of Reynolda House? Don’t feel like the Lone Ranger. How about this – Reynolda House Museum of American Art displays a premier collection of American art ranging from the colonial period to the present. Built in 1917 by Katharine Smith Reynolds and her husband Richard Joshua Reynolds, founder of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, the house originally occupied the center of a 1,067-acre estate. It opened to the public as an institution dedicated to the arts and education in 1965, and as an art museum in 1967.

    That’s right. I think the house it worth seeing, just to see how our tobacco barons lived. Can you say “personal pipe organ” kids? Yes. That’s correct. Well, in addition to the former occupants’ opulence, there’s all that art. Totally worth seeing.

    Old Salem – OK, I have to mention Old Salem because it’s a big part of Winston-Salem and some people (including the resident sister – let’s call her “K”) love historic villages. The Other Sister, “J”, and I can’t believe it. J said, “Haven’t we seen every oldest house, library, civil and revolutionary war battle field, whatever in the US?!” I could add dusty county registrar’s offices too. How else did you look up the family tree before the Internet?

    Yes my dears, those were our family vacations. Well apparently one of us did not regard them as the total rip-off they were. One of us became a total nerrrrrrrd. Might I add, K likes road trips too?!! Maybe she’s a changeling…

    Ahem.

    Now, all that said. Go check it out. There is something for everyone there, including a toy museum, which is fun for the kiddies and adults alike. I’m telling you, there were some creepy looking toys back in the day. I’m also partial to the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. Enter your own Velvet Elvis joke here. Got that out of your system? Good. I admit I had plenty of fun with that myself, but there are so many really cool things there, you’ll stop looking for John Wayne clocks -with burnt edges - and really start digging it. I imagine once you see Winchester , the smiling ceramic lion, you’ll fall in love. Don’t worry; there are soft, stuffed Winchesters to take home available in the gift shop. And, if you’ve never been to one of these historic villages, you will stand around with your mouth hanging open wondering how a family of 11 could live in a house the size of your bedroom or your living room, at the largest.

    Downtown - I mentioned the Marriott was downtown, right? Even if you're not staying there, you will want to come down, park, and walk around. There are shops, galleries, food (K recommends the Mellow Mushroom) and pretty much everything else you'd want from a little walk around a nice little city - including old architecture and a farmer's market.

    Drive Around - Winston-Salem is a much older city than Denton, and it shows in the beautiful and diverse architecture. Check it out.


    Where to eat
    6th & Vine – I like to think of this downtown restaurant as a smaller, less pricey Hannah’s. The food is that good, the wine list that extensive, and there’s even original art on the walls. Did I mention, it’s even in walking distance from the Marriott? Oh, and Sundays? Half price wine. Yeah. This go around we met up for Sunday brunch, and I can tell you the Crabcake Benedict is not to be missed.
    6th & Vine on Urbanspoon

    The Old Fourth Street Filling Station – Not cheap, but not budget busting for two on vacation and so lovely, especially if you can sit outside. I got the Small Bites special (3 for $19) and was not the least bit disappointed (or hungry). I honestly can’t remember what the rest of our party had, but I DO recall they were all pleased. Plus, it's always cheaper at lunch...
    4th Street Filling Station on Urbanspoon

    West End Café - Oh this is the perfect place for lunch. With daily soup, sandwich, and dessert specials on top of their already extensive, homemade menu, you will find something you want to eat. And, it’s one of those places that work whether it’s hot or cold outside. Oh! And if you have to wait a few (and you might) you’ll want to be outside, so you can observe the koi pond.
    West End Cafe on Urbanspoon

    Simplyummy – The out-of-towners gave our hostess and host a break, and met up here for breakfast one day. Oh man, am I glad we did! Located in the tiny, former blacksmith’s shop at Reynolda Village, they had an extensive, delicious, and cheap breakfast menu. I’m talking 3 eggs with your choice of bacon, sausage, or turkey sausage, toast, and fruit or grits for $6. Yeah. $6. (Next time, I’ll get the fruit; the grits were bland.) Of course, because I’m used to getting everything (and exactly what) I want when I eat out (have been since I was a kid), I also had a latte (luke warm) and the NYC cheese biscuit with cream cheese (not to be missed).
    Simply Yummy on Urbanspoon

    Brixx Wood Fired Pizza – Have you noticed how wood fired pizzas are all the rage now? I for one am quite pleased about this, and was very happy when K suggested we grab dinner here one night. Not only do they have an extensive beer list, they offer beer flights! Aside - I LOVE flights. Beer, wine, sake, champagne, tapas, whatever it is, if I get to sample many things vs. one, I’m so very satisfied. And, their pizzas were incredible. I really enjoyed K’s grilled vegetable pizza. When does that ever happen? I don’t know what they did to those vegetables, but even I was digging the broccoli (ack) and green peppers (ick). In fact, I think I’ll order the veggie next time around - it was the best one on the table!
    Brixx on Urbanspoon

    In closing, I will say that this is obviously a small fraction of what you can enjoy in Winston-Salem, and doesn't even touch the surrounding areas. However, I can guarantee, you can have some fun if you find yourself over that way. And, if you've been and want to mention what you enjoyed there, I'd love to hear from you.