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Friday, January 20, 2012

Restaurant Review: El Tapatio Mexican Cuisine, Middletown, NY

On our way back from Ithaca on Saturday, my family was getting hungry.  We stopped in Middletown, NY, for gas and I whipped out my iPhone and checked Yelp! to see what was nearby.  Less than a mile away, we found El Tapatio Mexican Cuisine, so I turned the car around and drove to 252 Rt. 211 East, where we parked beside the micro-strip-mall that houses El Tapatio, along with a Chinese restaurant and a liquor store.  In my experience, crummy locations are always a sign of good food, so my hopes were high.

Perhaps you remember this Puerto Rican boy band
from the '70s and '80s.  Hopefully, you don't.
If you need a reminder click here.
As we entered the vestibule, there was a specials board, with several items on it, but the menudo caught my eye.  The owner's daughter, a cute little girl of about five, brought us our menus a few moments later and, as we nibbled on chips and salsa, Kimberly and Ian quickly decided on steak tacos, but my attention was caught by the non-gringo items on the menu.  Lengua (beef tongue), nopales (prickly-pear cactus), cueritas (pork skin), and cecina (dried beef) all made appearances as ingredients in burritos and tacos and I was tempted, but my mind kept going back to the menudo on the specials board and that's what I ended up ordering.

"Now, just what is menudo?" you may be asking yourself just about now.  Perhaps you remember Menudo, the Puerto Rican boy band that was (in)famous in the 1970s and 1980s and that helped launch the careers of luminaries such as Ricky Martin of Livin' La Vida Loca fame, and a whole bunch of other people I've never heard of.  That's not the menudo we're discussing here.  We're talking about the traditional soup made of beef tripe and intestines, pig's trotters, and hominy.  How can you say "no" to cow's guts, stewed ever so gently in a spicy broth with pig's feet and corn that has been soaked in lye, and served with lime, onions and cilantro?  I mean, really???

While we waited for the meal to arrive, Ian commented that he wished that he weren't so squeamish about food, that he wished that he enjoyed the adventure of trying things like fish heads and tacos de ojo, but that he just didn't feel up to the challenge.  Still, when the food arrived, he took great pleasure in watching as I spooned up bits of intestine resembling calamari rings and scraped meat off of the hunks of bone that filled the bowl.  The broth was pleasantly spicy, much like a good pozole rojo and the trotters gave the broth a richness much like vietnamese pho.  It was great stuff and I was extremely happy with my menudo and warm corn tortillas.

Though he couldn't bring himself to taste any of the solid parts of the menudo, Ian tried the broth and liked it, so that's at least a step in the right direction for him.  Now, he just needs to step it up before he travels to China in April and gets to sample real Chinese food.  Kimberly, conversely, opted against sampling the menudo and, as I am a man who wishes to remain happily married, I didn't press the issue with her.  She and Ian enjoyed their tacos immensely.  My only regret for the evening is that we were in a bit of a hurry to get home, so we didn't stay to sample any of the desserts at El Tapatio.  Something tells me that we'll have another chance to do that when we travel through Middletown next time.

Menudo!  A steaming hot bowl of guts and bones!
What's not to love?!?!?
Ian's steak tacos.
How can you go wrong with steak tacos?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Restaurant Review: Moosewood, Ithaca, NY

Last Friday, Kimberly and I, after our lunch at Tim's Philly Steaks, picked Ian up after school and drove up to Ithaca, NY.  After five hours on the road, we arrived, just a tad late, for dinner with a large group of friends at the intergalactically famous Moosewood Restaurant.  

One of several Moosewood
cookbooks at Chez Brysmi.
While I've got absolutely nothing against vegetarian food, I haven't generally had good experiences at vegetarian restaurants.  I adore Indian vegetarian food, but for some reason American-style vegetarian restaurants have a sad habit of correlating meatlessness and flavorlessness.  There's simply no excuse for that.  For the most part, though, Moosewood doesn't take a "Vegetarian=Boring" approach to food, a fact that is equally apparent when eating there as it is when cooking from one of their many cookbooks, as we often do in the Bryant-Smith household.

By the time we arrived at Moosewood on Friday, the crowd we were dining with had already picked over several appetizers, which I'm sure were good, though I have no first-hand experience of that.  What we did get to experience were the bread baskets, with three different, hearty, fresh-baked breads, as well as salads and entrees that were all quite good.

Ian and I were seated together at one end of the long table, with Kimberly lost somewhere at the other end and, essentially, not dining with us, though she later told me that she had enjoyed a pasta dish with cauliflower and cheese, as well as the salad with the house dressing.  Ian and I were of the same mind, ordering the ginger-miso dressing on our salads and selecting an Indian potato wrap, essentially a samosa, with brown rice, dal, and chutney.

Ian isn't a big fan of green salads, but he enjoyed this one, with its Asian flavors.  When the potato wraps arrived, we puzzled over whether to treat them as sandwiches or as a meals to eat with knife and fork and ended up deciding that the rice, dal, and chutney made what would have normally been simple finger food into a full-fledged targets for cutlery.  While the wraps were not very highly spiced, they weren't bad, and the dal and chutney were nice additions to the plate.

Ian and I both enjoyed beverages from the Ithaca Brewing Company.  I had the Cascazilla, a wonderfully hoppy red ale, while Ian enjoyed the "under 21 option" of rootbeer.

While Moosewood isn't my favorite restaurant in the world, it does vegetarian food better than any other that I've visited, with a good mix of flavors and an emphasis on local, organic produce when it is available.  I expect that, should we be in Ithaca again in the future, we'll probably stop back in for another meal there, especially if we had cheesesteaks for lunch that same day.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Restaurant Review: Tim's Philly Steaks, Norwalk, CT

Tim's Philly Steaks at 336 Westport Ave. in Norwalk
I'm a cheesesteak junkie.  I've blogged about it before, writing about my quest for the holy grail of cheesesteaks and how hope springs eternal, despite the number of times I've suffered through substandard fare.

12" Philly Steak with grilled onions and cheese whiz.
Note the free pickled peppers in the background.
A week ago, my local newspaper, The Hour, ran a complimentary article featuring Tim's Philly Steaks, which recently opened not quite a mile from my home.  On Friday, I dragged Kimberly to Tim's to see how they measured up to my  hopes.

Tim's is located at 336 Westport Avenue in Norwalk, in front of  the very dicey-looking Norwalk-Westport Motel and next to Masas Arapera and  Electrical Wholesalers.  When we arrived at the restaurant, there were only two other customers there, so Kimberly and I got our orders in quickly, with Kimberly ordering a 6" Philly Steak with provolone, onions and peppers and me opting for a more traditional 12" with onions and cheese whiz.   Then, we took a seat at the fast-food-style table next to the window to wait as our sandwiches were prepared.  As we waited for our cheesesteaks to be ready, the place began to fill up and Kimberly -- much to her amusement -- noticed that everyone else in the restaurant was male.  I guess Philly steaks do qualify as "guy food."

When the guy behind the counter called our order number, I got up to retrieve our sandwiches and then went back to the counter to get a couple pickled peppers (free!!)  from the jar.  By the time I got back to the table (Maybe 45 seconds.  A minute, tops.) Kimberly had already eaten 80% of her sandwich.  I unwrapped mine, peeling back the aluminum foil that had been glued down with cheese, and bit into the sandwich which, true to advertising, tasted like it may have come from the corner of Passyunk Ave. and 9th Street in Philadelphia.  Of course, that's not much of a surprise as Tim imports his bread and meat (shaved ribeye, rather than the pressed mystery meat that many places use to make cheesesteaks) from a supplier in Philly.

While I enjoyed my Philly steak, Kimberly reported that her sandwich was somewhat disappointing, with the cheese having been placed on the cold roll and the meat being placed on top of it, rather than having the cheese integrated into the meat on the griddle.  Also, the peppers were not the bell peppers she had expected, but were pickled sweet peppers which were added, cold, to the sandwich.  Since I had ordered the traditional version of the sandwich, I didn't have any such problems; the onions were appropriately grilled and the cheese whiz was integrated well with the beef.


After lunch, as we were getting into the car to drive home, a red Jeep, jacked up and sporting oversized tires, pulled in next to us.  The driver was a solid-looking woman with a red bandanna on her head and wearing work clothes and boots.  Like Rosie the Riveter, she looked like the kind of woman who was comfortable doing work traditionally done by men.  She also wasn't afraid to stop by Tim's Philly Steaks and have "guy food" for lunch.  Good for her!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Thinking about Working for God Retreat

TAWFG Retreat Participants Preparing for Candlelight Prayer Walk
I spent this past weekend at the Silver Lake Conference Center with eleven young people who are part of the Connecticut Conference's "Thinking About Working For God" program.  Some time ago, Rev. Da Vita "Day" McCallister, the Associate Conference Minister for Youth and Young Adult Ministries, had asked me to be one of the mentors for the young people who are members of the TAWFG program and this was the first opportunity to have a retreat together.  Day led the program, along with John Selders, pastor of Amistad United Church of Christ in Hartford, and my good friend Eric Anderson , who is variously known as the "Alpha Geek" or the "Minister of Magic" for the Connecticut Conference, though he has a much more mundane title on his business card.

Over the course of the weekend, the young people discussed the reasons that they had "said yes" to thinking about working for God and heard the pastors tell stories of how they had discerned their calls to ministry.  We played together.  We ate together.  We had dance breaks.  Really.  We engaged in several spiritual disciplines, including prayer walking, with confession, petition and listening for God's response, and a reflection called "examen," during which we examined the day, taking stock of the high points, the low points, and giving thanks for both.  Working with these eleven teenagers (and there are many more TAWFG members who weren't able to attend the retreat, too) gives me a lot of hope for the future of the church, as I see their passion, intelligence, energy and faith.  I look forward to working with them as they continue to grow into their callings.

For Eric Anderson's coverage of this event, see his article at ctucc.org here.