El Paraiso Bar and Grill

It’s been so long since I’ve posted. Sorry. We’ve been on a severe budget crunch. Greek austerity like. We paid a steep price moving to Cedar Rapids. It’s going to hurt financially for probably five years, but still, totally worth it.

So a rare dinner out while the kiddo is at gymnastics. Took the opportunity to try a new to us Mexican restaurant, El Paraiso Bar and Grill. And it was on our way to Aldi. When we arrived we were a little confused because even though there were quite a few cars in the parking lot, the neon beer lights were all off and the place looked closed. The big doors in front of us that looked like an entrance from the parking had a big sign that said Employee Entrance. We hesitated but then got off our lazy asses and walked to the side of the building. That’s where the front door was and yes they were open.

First impression was the place was HUGE. Most of the seating is in booths which is no bueno for us.When we asked for a table we were seated on the edge of a back section far away from the rest of the customers. This would prove problematic.

The menu was small but more like what we were used to seeing in Georgia but not like our previous excursions in Cedar Rapids to Los Compadres or Cancun Mexican Grill. There were a few new things to me though.Siete Mares, a seafood soup I have not seen before on a menu. Nor have I seen a ham and cheese quesadilla before, Quesadilla Sincronisadas. And there were no nacho plates listed on the menu which was a bummer for the wife.

The chips and salsa were meh. I would rate the salsa as weak, almost no spice. The wife ordered the Quesadilla El Paraiso which was a large quesadilla filled with chicken and chorizo with a fancy side of sour cream, lettuce and pico de gallo which looked like a mini taco salad. She raved about the quesadilla and was only able to eat half. She was excited about having it for lunch the next day with a side of their refried beans which she said were very good.

I ordered the Burrito Campechano, filled with steak and chorizo, and one beef hard shell taco. I’m still searching for that magical taco like Mi Ranchito had on Westnedge in Kalamazoo. This wasn’t it. The taco also serves as my side since I don’t eat the beans or rice. The burrito was quite salty, not inedible but still heavy. I thought maybe it was the chorizo but the wife didn’t notice it in her quesadilla. Probably just a heavy hand in the kitchen.

Unfortunately service was very inadequate though would not deter me from coming back again. I watched and the main section had at least four servers including ours. I think the problem was a function of being a Sunday, under staffing, and being seated in an out of sight section. It was a shame our server didn’t come to our table more often because I liked her, I mean REALLY liked her.persons-0006

MEAT!!!

I am an unabashed carnivore. I do eat vegetables, well a few.  I eat lots of fruit in season, but otherwise meat meat meat. When we lived in Georgia we used to visit Your Dekalb Farmers Market, aka Heaven On Earth, . This was always wonderful Daddy-Daughter bonding time. Our favorite sections were the fish and the meat departments. We used to load up on meat sticks, sausages from Patak Meats. The Child’s favorites were kabanos and landjaegers. Moving to Iowa, how were we going to replace these???

Perusing online, The Village Meat Market & Cafe looked like it might be the answer. Yesterday we didn’t go for the meat though, we went for dinner. We got there at 5:30pm and almost left because closing time was 6:00pm. I hate walking into a place at closing time. I’ve been on the grill when that party of four comes in at the last minute and wants an hour dinner. I hate it and don’t like doing it to others. But the guy working the kitchen said “No problem!”

There was so much to choose from on the menu. Even breakfast! As one would expect dining in the middle of Czech Village a good bit of the menu was Czech, but not everything. Immediately my eyes fell on the Goulash. I have not had goulash since a business trip to Germany at least ten years ago. I was excited to try a Czechoslovakian version. Plus a side of Cajun baked beans. The Wife went with The Butcher Loaf Sandwich, a Czech recipe meatloaf sandwich, with a side of potato salad.

Our food came out surprisingly quickly. I guess because we were the only ones eating. The meatloaf sandwich looked like a great cheeseburger to me. Humorously, in the description on the menu it stated, Nezapomen’te na kec’up (don’t forget the ketchup).” It came without ketchup! The Wife tends to be picky about potato salad and she said the potato salad was not extraordinary but good. She ate it all.

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This is an excellent example of why I dislike Yelp and Google+ type reviews. The goulash was very good, very well made. But I didn’t care for it. I’m glad I ordered it, but I wouldn’t order it again. The dumplings were good. I think the tomato sauce with wonderful chunks of meat would make a great spaghetti. It just wasn’t my thing. The beans were not good. Baked beans can be too thick and these were. Flavor was good but I couldn’t stand the texture. As my wife said, maybe they were good at lunch but not the end of the day when they’ve been forgotten about and completely cooked down. I will want to try them again. The thick cut piece of pumpernickel was awesome though. I didn’t even need my usual schmear of butter. See, just because I didn’t care for the food one time doesn’t mean a restaurant deserves a scathing review and one star. That has to happen at least three times in a row for me to be that critical. Or major ServSafe violations.

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After we paid we perused the meat counter. So much tasty goodness!!! The Child will definitely need to visit for the Bacon On a Stick. We were excited to see smoked pork chops. We used to eat them on a regular basis when we lived in South Georgia. Jones Country Meats had the best I’ve had. The pork chops at the Village Meat Market were huge! I can’t wait to try them. They had some type of meat stick for a dollar each. I bought five. They weren’t kabanos but I think they are going to be their replacement for us. The Child gave them a thumbs up and then asked for a second one. Win!

 

Papa Juan Stefano’s

The Child hates Mexican restaurants. I had high hopes this would fix that problem. Papa Juan Stefano’s serves both Mexican AND Italian! And some American food too.

The inside of Papa Juan Stefano’s looks like any other Mexican restaurant. A large bar was off to the right with some dining. The main dining room was to the left where we were seated at a large string of 4 tops pushed together. There were about six other tables occupied all partaking in alcoholic beverages. A manager informed us that the kitchen was behind and the wait on food was 45-50 minutes. Well that explained the long faces and margaritas. Oh well, as long as there was chips and salsa. I can endure a 45 minute wait for food better than I can a 45 minute wait for a table, especially if I am warned in advance.

Chips and salsa arrived without too much delay. The chips were meh, thick yellow corn chips. A quick blast in the oven to serve them warm would have improved them. The salsa was nice and chunky with a lot of flavor. There was something off putting about it though. Too sweet? Almost as if they added sugar. It didn’t stop me from eating a whole basket of chips though. Our drinks took a little bit longer. Well more than a little bit but I was in a patient state of mind.

While we waited we perused the menu. Lots of interesting stuff worth trying. There was an extensive appetizer selection . The Mexican style potato skins and seafood rangoons looked intriguing. But since we knew there was a long wait for food and had chips and salsa we didn’t order an appetizer. We did order a bowl of white queso with chorizo to go with our chips.

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The Mexican side of the menu was pretty standard, a mix of tortilla wrapped entrées like burritos, enchiladas, tacos, fajitas, etc. The Italian side was predictably nearly all pasta dishes. I don’t like pasta. The Chicken Cordon Rouge looked like  an interesting take on the famous Swiss dish. And I was tempted to get the Italian Mac and Cheese with crab and bacon.

The American third of the menu was primarily all sandwiches, though they did have ribs, chicken tenders, broasted chicken and pizza. I was caught completely off guard but the Pablo Escobar burger. I’m not sure if it is ignorance or what but naming a sandwich after a Columbian cartel drug lord is certainly poor taste.

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The Wife ordered chicken fajitas. Of note, all dinners include two sides. She chose the Asada Potatoes and Vermicelli. Her favorite food, beans, is off limits because she is highly allergic to them. Poor thing, she only discovered this allergy shortly after The Child was born. She’s eaten beans her whole life. When her food finally arrived it was no different than any other Mexican restaurant’s chicken fajitas. She said it was really good. The Wife said, “I hate the potatoes. You can have them if you want.” Wow, that’s a strong statement. She had a bite or two of the vermicelli but said she was too full to eat anymore than that. She did say it was good.

The Child ordered the kid’s spaghetti. It comes with a bread stick, no other sides. The portion size was huge for a kid’s meal. Easily an adult portion at any other restaurant. She could only eat half of it. The Child was THRILLED to be able to get spaghetti at a Mexican restaurant so we may have a big hit on our hands here. Hopefully just more timely service next time.

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I ordered the Green Chili Pork Enchilada. I love tomatillo salsa. especially with pork. I do not like enchiladas preferring burritos because I prefer flour tortillas to corn tortillas. But the menu said flour tortillas right in the description! For sides I asked for the Asada Potatoes and the Mixed Vegetables. I did not care for the potatoes either. I ate most of the potatoes and left the cooked pico de gallo behind. The vegetables were smothered in cheese! Flashback to childhood when my parents would serve broccoli and cauliflower covered in cheese, the only way I would eat it. This was broccoli covered in cheese. Well, nacho cheese sauce. It was mostly good though the cheese had a sweetness to it that I didn’t care for. Good ol’ Cheez Wiz would have been better. The enchilada was good but again too sweet, sweeter than any green salsa I’ve ever had. I had a sweetness issue at this restaurant.

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Even though we were there entirely too long I think we will give Juan Stefano’s another try. It may be the perfect place for when The Wife needs a Mexican fix and The Child is resistant.

 

 

Uptown Gyros

I love gyros. My gold standard is Parthenon’s in Madison WI. I have not found any that live up to theirs since I left Mad Town but I keep searching. I’ve driven by Uptown Gyros many times and today I thought I would stop in instead of just drive by.

I was completely caught off guard when I walked in. This place is carry out ONLY. There are no tables to eat at. Padded office chairs line the perimeter of the inside waiting area. You place your order and then wait in one of the chairs. It feels a lot like going to the DMV.

The menu looks fantastic. I will be interested in trying a few more items but I will have to plan correctly since I have to pick up and eat nearby. I guess good if it is my last stop on the way home.The Indian food at a gyro joint intrigues me. And I’m all about a perch basket.

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I ordered the Gyro Combo, all the way. Which means lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and tzatziki sauce. I don’t think I have had a gyro with chopped cucumbers but it was better than the places that use salad mix and then I get carrots on my gyro. Please. No. I did not see a spit in the kitchen for the gyro meat and the meat didn’t have crisp edges like it was cooked on a standing spit. But it was good and not the pre-made food service stuff some places sell. I could hear him chopping meat in the back like he was making Philly steak sandwiches so maybe he bakes the meat and chops it by hand? Regardless it was a good gyro and the flavors were all right. The fries were lame. I did ask what a Gyro Supreme was and was told it’s double meat. Hmmm….maybe next time.

 

BBQ This!

One thing we left behind in the South is good barbecue. There weren’t a lot places surprisingly but there were enough to make it difficult to replace. Jim’s Smokin’ Que even had national press.  I thought it was only OK, but another place that has national notoriety is Col. Poole’s. And the NC BBQ Trail began by our old digs.

In searching the internet it seems that Caribbean Kitchen had the best ribs in Cedar Rapids but alas they are no more. Scouring with Google some more turned up BBQ This! I liked the idea of dry rubbed meat that you sauce yourself. I associate this with Texas and if it’s good barbecue I don’t even use sauce.

BBQ This ! is tucked in a small shopping plaza off Boyson Rd. It is another one of those “fast casual” establishments. You order under the big “Order Here” sign, one order at a time, and pay at the end of the line, exactly like Subway. Our order totaled $55 though so this is less casual than I would have thought. They aren’t using this model to keep prices low, that’s for sure.

We came here in search of good ribs. BBQ This! has baby back ribs rather than spare ribs. They cut each rib off the rack for you. I ordered a full rack for The Child thinking she would eat half and I would eat half. She also ordered mac n’ cheese and homemade chips. She went to town on the mac ‘n cheese but only had a rib or two. She didn’t care for them but didn’t have a real good reason as to why. But she did say she did not like the barbecue sauces. I did not care for the ribs either. I found them to be very dry. I would have liked them to be tender and juicy . The search continues.

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The Wife went with a two meat combo, pulled pork and sausage. For sides she got the potato salad and the cheesy potatoes which was like a hash brown casserole. All of the combos come with a side of sweet corn bread. She preferred the spicy barbecue sauce.

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I ordered the sliced beef brisket and sausage with sides of baked beans and apple crisp. I began seeking sausage out at barbecue places after all my trips in Texas. I call a brisket, pulled pork, sausage plate a Texas plate. BBQ This didn’t have a three meat combo to offer though. The brisket was good but I found it to be dry. It was good with both the mild and the sweet sauce. But truthfully, I couldn’t tell the difference between the two sauces. I love smoked sausage and it was quite good. I just poured one of the sauces over the sausage like I was in Texas.The baked beans were so-so, they had a vinegary flavor to them. Being a Yankee I prefer sweet corn bread to dry southern corn bread, but I need butter. The corn bread was slightly sweet, and tasted pretty good with the whipped spread I found, though I would have preferred real butter. The apple crisp was a winner. It was fresh from the oven and oh so good.

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Not really my kind of barbecue joint but the sausage was good enough to go back. Next time though I will probably try the smoked wings.

Noodles and Company

Last night we ate at Noodles and Company. Hey I know it’s a chain but it was new to me.

First of all Noodles and Company is not at all what I had expected. I had expected a pasta bar where you go down a school cafeteria style line, pick your pasta, pick a sauce, pick toppings and pay at the end of the line. And it would be all you can eat.

Not so! Noodles and Company is another in the long trend of restaurants offering better than fast food meals without table service. It’s called “fast casual” and traces it’s roots back to Chipotle’s. This is a cost savings measure by companies and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Our experience was quite good.

One walks in and orders a base pasta bowl. There are two sizes, small and large, and I found the portions sizes to be nearly perfect. I believe all of the pasta bowls are meatless and you then have your choice of adding a seasoned meat of your choice or tofu. The one exception is the Steak Stroganoff. There are also a few soup options, salads, and several sandwiches to choose from.

We went to Noodles because The Child wanted spaghetti. Naturally she ordered the kids grilled chicken bites and apples. I ordered the Steak Stroganoff with a Tomato Cucumber side salad. The Wife ordered the Pesto Cavatappi and added Parmesan Crusted Chicken to it. The Child’s meal came with an juice pouch or milk. The juice was organic apple juice. Very impressive. We adults got soft drinks which were self serve at a….. COKE MACHINE! I love the Coke machine! All my favorite versions of Fanta Zero in one unlimited tap.

I don’t think we waited more than five minutes for our food to be brought to our table. One of the pluses of this type of restaurant design. The Child picked at her grilled chicken. Grilled is not her thing so I was surprised she ordered it. I tasted the chicken and thought it was pretty good. She did not like the marinara dipping sauce. I think it was chunkier than she would like. She gave the apples a big thumbs down. She claimed they tasted like lemons. And they did. I suspect they spritz the cut apples with lemon juice to prevent them from browning. I don’t mind the taste. Beats preservatives.

The Child ended up ordering a small bowl of buttered noodles. I had them hold the seasoning and Parmesan cheese which comes standard. Buttered egg noodles was a college staple for me and I still eat them. These looked to be made with the same dumpling size noodles I always buy. She ate half and I finished them. They were very good.

The Wife said her meal was excellent. She raved about the chicken addition. She found the large size bowl to be the perfect size for her and quite filling.

I started with my salad and it was very good. The tomatoes may be food service grade and just barely flavorful but the texture was good and I love them with cucumbers and red onions. Just a little seasoning and oil rounded out the flavor. My pasta bowl was fantastic though it really isn’t a Stroganoff. Great flavor. I can’t pinpoint what the non-traditional flavor was. Could have been the grated cheese which isn’t found in traditional Stroganoff? Maybe it was garlic? I almost want to say mustard, the sauce did have a burnt yellow tint to it.

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All in all this was a great experience. About half of what we usually pay dining out. The Child liked it enough to go back which is a big plus. Always good when she expands her dining horizons.

 

Cancun Mexican Grill

While The Child was at practice last night we decided to use the opportunity to have Mexican for dinner because The Child hates Mexican food. Cancun Mexican Grill was our second foray into a Mexican restaurant. Our first was Los Compadres which was an outstanding experience.

Cancun Mexican Grill was busy which was a good sign. The bar was packed and most of the tables were occupied. We were seated in the back next to a large party celebrating grandma’s birthday. The decor was typical of any Mexican restaurant I have been in . Lots of orange and browns. The floor looked pretty worn and wasn’t the cleanest. The tables were pretty worn too.

Most of the tables around us were enjoying margaritas. I was surprised The Wife passed on one. Next time she said.

Looking at the menu the selections were not only different than Los Compadres but also different than what we are used to seeing. I looked for my  go to Chile Relleno and didn’t find it on the menu.

Chips and salsa were served. The chips were better than average. A lighter tortilla lightly salted. More like what Chili’s serves. The salsa was good. Some chunks of onion, not very hot but good flavor. We could have used more before our food came out.

The Wife loves a mess of nachos. What she calls “Slop.” She likes to get half and half beef and chicken, smother it in salsa and sour cream and then toss it like a salad until it’s a sloppy soggy mess. Rather than going with her usual though, The Wife ordered the Cabos Nachos. Not that dissimilar from her standard order but it came with only chicken, no beef, and a mango salsa. The Wife said the chicken was marinated and was by far superior to any chicken she’s had at a Mexican restaurant. She said there was the perfect amount of spiciness and it balanced perfectly with the sweetness of the mango salsa.

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I stumbled in my order. Usually I order a la carte because I’ve eaten so much bad Mexican food over the years. I just get an order of chile rellenos and beef tacos. I’m in long search for a taco like that of Mi Ranchito’s in Kalamazoo which was the absolute best greasy beef taco ever. I’m still searching. Not seeing rellenos on the menu I forgot to even look at the taco options and panicked when the server came to take my order. I said I wanted the Big Burrito, which isn’t on the menu, it’s at Taco Bell, and when the server got confused, I blurted out, “chimichangas, beef.”

The chimichangas were the same and different than every other order I’ve ever had. The side of rice and beans was exactly the same as everywhere, The burritos were not wrapped closed so I am confused as to how they deep fried them. Surely they didn’t pan fry them? The tortilla shell was also different. The same crispiness but a much darker color, almost as if whole grain. As usual the two chimichangas were topped with a lettuce salad with tomato, sour cream and guacamole. Everything seemed fresher. For example the lettuce was obviously cut from a head with a knife not bagged salad mix. And the guacamole was better than usual. Overall the chimichangas were excellent. I think the fact that they used beef tips made a huge difference.

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We greatly enjoyed our dinner at Cancun Mexican Grill. It’s good to know that not only do we have two go to restaurants for good food but that both Mexican restaurants, Los Compadres and Cancun have uniquely different menus.