Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Spaghetti Bowl

(Two experiences combined into one post here)

The Spaghetti Bowl is a food stand in Salem, Oregon. They can be found on the corner of Court St. and Capitol St. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so they can take advantage of the lunch rush comprising of state workers. Otherwise, they can also be found on Portland Road in Salem.

I had already eaten my lunch on June 2 (Thursday), but I walked up to The Spaghetti Bowl anyway because they were offering free samples. I tried both their homemade marinara sauce and homemade meat sauce (their marinara sauce combined with ground meat). One of the owners, Brian, also allowed me to sample a meatball (a pork/beef combination).

Meat sauce w/meatball on the left, marinara sauce on the right
I loved my sample. The Spaghetti Bowl's marinara sauce had that burst of Italian herbs and spices that not all marinara sauces possess. The meatball held together very nicely, but was not a tight meaty mass. Instead, I got a light meatball that complemented the sauce well. (NOTE: see more thoughts on the meatball on my June 7 visit right below)

I asked Denise and Brian (the two people working the food stand) if they ever considered selling their food at the Salem Farmer's Market (both on Wednesday and on Saturday). They had considered it in the past, and I told them they should do it. They would make a lot of money in the process with their food. There are not many food stands in Salem selling Italian food. Heck, there aren't many food carts in Salem at all. We need more food carts in Salem!

They basically have about five items on the menu now, basically spaghetti with your choice of sauce (meat or marinara) and choice of meatballs or no meatballs. All spaghetti dishes come with a side of garlic bread. They also have a meatball sandwich. The most expensive item on the menu is about $8, a great price here. Have I mentioned before how much I love food carts and food stands? If not...I love them!

The Spaghetti Bowl also does a promotional feature. Buy ten entrees (any pasta or sandwich) and get the next entree free. The state workers must go through those like a hot knife through butter. Or maybe in this case, a hot knife through pasta and meatballs.

I wrote a note to myself to return and officially rate their food.

On June 7, I again went back to The Spaghetti Bowl, this time fully intending to rate the establishment. I noticed that they had been featured in a publication. I might have missed that the first time around, but it's always nice when food carts get some press.

Anyway, I again got a free sample of their meatball and marinara sauce. It was the same positive experience as last time; the sauce was popping with all the basil, oregano, garlic, etc.

The meatball in my sample was good; not dense and nicely cooked. However, I think it would benefit from adding a bit more herbs and spices. The meatball takes a major backseat to the sauce, but why not have the meatball bring its own flavors to the dance? It has every right to be on the plate like the sauce does, right?

The stereotypical Italian restaurant music emanated from the stand's speakers, likely an attempt to enhance your Italian experience when ordering there. I'll give them credit for doing that, pretty cool.

I ordered their $5 special: spaghetti and marinara sauce with a side of garlic bread. I asked for the sauce and pasta to be kept separate, which they did.

The bread came in its own bag, but I took it out to get all the food in one shot.
Look at that toasty that garlic bread. Oh yeah.
For $5, I got a large portion of food. Damn. I would have liked fresh herbs for presentation, but the flavorful sauce does make up for it. It can be construed as a good thing that they let the customer put on their own Parmesan cheese or red chili pepper flakes.

The best part about the entire meal was the garlic bread. First of all, it was made fresh to order. I didn't mind waiting an extra couple of minutes for my bread to toast. Second, I thought it was the right amount of butter and garlic on the bread, nothing to kill your palette or make your co-workers flee for the Oregon coast. But most importantly, the bread was the softest toasted garlic bread I've ever had. The outer crunch of the garlic bread, combined with the inner softness, made for that "I can't miss this again" experience. I didn't want the bread to run out, and I was quite the sad panda when it did. As a note, I would have liked to see some herbs on the bread, perhaps a little basil, marjoram, oregano, etc. But it's a damn good garlic bread, in my book.

The sauce was great, as usual. However, I just wish the sauce had been heated up a bit more. It was only lukewarm this time around.

The spaghetti was the your standard, average pasta. It was cooked a little past al dente, and I would have liked it a little firmer. I also wouldn't have minded if the pasta came to me fresher (it was also lukewarm to room-temperature pasta), but because it's a food cart, I probably should come to expect something like that.

The staff was friendly and I got great service all around.

While The Spaghetti Bowl has an awesome marinara sauce and meat sauce, I would like to see them push the envelope a little more with some unique specials. They could add a second pasta (spaghetti is the only pasta they have as of this writing -- probably because they are The Spaghetti Bowl) and perhaps a white sauce. I suggest the white sauce because The Spaghetti Bowl  gets many state workers for repeat customers. State workers may be wearing white or light-colored dress shirts. You see where I'm headed with this, right?

Perhaps linguine with clams could be an option for a future special dish? We'll keep costs down and use canned clams (gotta have that clam juice in there!) instead of fresh. They could win brownie points with me by doing fresh herbs, but dried herbs (due to costs) should suffice. Sell that dish (same portion as above or possibly even slightly less than that) in the price range of $7 to $9. Very doable even at a food stand; just need to keep the products safe to eat.

At a spaghetti stand, I believe the sauce is the key. Pasta can only get you so far, but if you have a killer sauce --and even a marvelous garlic bread -- people will come back. It's also why I mentioned that pasta stands should offer both a red and a white sauce. This played a significant factor in my rating.

The Spaghetti Bowl does a meatball sandwich for $6. Because I like their garlic bread and sauce -- and the meatballs are very respectable -- that's probably what I'd get if I went back. The Spaghetti Bowl only has about five or six options, but they are all done quite well. You should definitely check out The Spaghetti Bowl for yourself! 7/10

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