Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Half Penny Bar & Grill

Half Penny Bar & Grill is located on Commercial St. SE in Salem, Oregon.

After hearing some good reviews about the food, I arrived on a Tuesday, just after 11 a.m. I ordered their Diablo Chicken Wrap ($8.25 -- included a 50-cent take-out order fee): a 6-ounce chicken breast seasoned with secret hot spices, sauteed jalapenos, melted pepperjack cheese, lettuce, tomato, onions, and chipotle mayonnaise. It came with a side salad and honey mustard dressing.

Diablo Chicken Wrap
Side salad with honey mustard dressing
The chicken wrap exploded with lovely flavors and textures. The heat from the secret spices and the jalapenos produced a mild, pleasurable kick. The vegetables in the wrap were crunchy and refreshing. The creamy chipotle mayo brought everything together. Unfortunately, the chicken was slightly on the dry side.

The salad and honey mustard dressing were fine for what they were, but the menu said it would be a spring green salad. I merely received a basic romaine, shredded carrot, and cucumber mix. Spring greens usually mean arugula, raddichio, chard, frisee, etc.

Half Penny is not the place to go for ambiance. I opened the door to a dark, dingy atmosphere. The wooden floors were sticky, probably from any beer that had spilled on the floor the previous night. The service was nothing to write home about, either. Basically, I'm glad I got my order to go. A delicious chicken wrap, yes, but my rating is about the entire experience. This is not a place I would stay at to eat or drink. 3/10

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Old Town

Old Town, located on SE Belmont St. in Portland, Oregon, serves burgers, hot dogs, and gyros.

Old Town is heavily Chicago-influenced, from the decor to the food. They make their own burgers, using 100 percent Angus beef. The Italian Beef sandwich and their Chicago Dog are among their most popular menu items, with their Philly Cheesesteak and gyros also selling well. Old Town also may have a couple of specials each day.

I inquired about their Chicago Dog, and was told (presumably by the manager/owner) that they use poppy seed buns, the neon green relish, pickled sport peppers, etc. The poppy seed bun alone sold me, so I got the Chicago Dog ($4.99).

Hot dog portion of their menu
Chicago colorful, so delicious
The presentation of the Chicago Dog was amazingly colorful and just screamed "Chicago Dog!" Just a burst of lovely flavors just hit every taste bud. Tangy mustard; the bite of white onion; sweet relish; mild sport pepper heat; the salty, meaty wiener; and the refreshing tomato. What can I's a classic Chicago Dog. Just having that poppy seed bun was a bonus. I've seen establishments that try to sell a Chicago Dog without the poppy seed bun; I just shake my head at that.

I did not detect celery salt in my Chicago Dog (it's also not on the menu description). While it's true that there are several variations of the Chicago Dog, I feel celery salt should be a part of that Chicago Dog experience. Ultimately, this Chicago Dog was worth the $4.99.

While the service was good, there wasn't much activity at peak lunch hour on a Saturday. The workers were busying themselves by texting on their cell phone or reading, which just looks unprofessional. The decor reminds me of an upscale Chicago-influenced sports bar (but there's also a banner for the Portland Trail Blazers in there, too). It's a very bright and inviting place. Old Town seems like a good place to go to watch a sporting event. Overall, a positive experience. 6.5/10

Monday, August 29, 2011

Aybla Grill

Aybla Grill has a few food carts in Portland, Oregon. I went to their food cart at the Good Food Here pod on SE Belmont St.

Lamb on the spit!
After seeing a nice chunk of lamb on a vertical spit in their food cart, I ordered their regular lamb gyro with feta cheese ($6.50).

Regular lamb gyro with feta cheese
(Not the most flattering photo, but it works for me)
While the succulent lamb meat was a bit on the dry side, it still had good flavor. The crumbly feta cheese took this gyro to the next level, providing extra saltiness and creaminess with every bite. The herbaceous parsley was a refresher for my palate. The diced cucumbers in the tzatziki maintained their crunchy texture as I enjoyed my Aybla Grill gyro experience. The flavors all worked for me. The soft, warm Greek pita managed to hold most of the filling in place. Overall, a successful gyro!

I would have liked to see just a bit more tomato and onions here for a more colorful presentation and a more refreshing bite. But I really liked the large lamb portions...that should be the star here anyway! I did not see hot sauce condiments at Aybla; adding hot sauce would enhance this dish tenfold for me.

The service was a bit took me a few minutes to get their attention. But once I got the food, Aybla Grill delivered. 7.25/10

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Fuji Rice Time (Part 2)

(Go here for my initial review of Fuji Rice Time)

It's been a while since I ate at Fuji Rice Time. I recently went back with a friend for lunch. The place had undergone a bit of remodeling in the months since I last visited. The cashier counter was now just in front of the sushi bar area, and new seating booths were installed where the cashier's counter used to be (on the left side of the restaurant).

Lunch menu
New seating on the left side of the restaurant
I ordered the usual that I get here: a spicy chicken plate with salad and no rice ($6.95).

Spicy Chicken Plate, no rice
As usual, a very delicious dish. The very moist, juicy chicken combined with the exquisite spicy sauce for a magical combination. The sauce had a respectable kick while not sacrificing flavor. Very inviting presentation.

The refreshing salad provided a nice breather from the saucy chicken. I'm unsure that everyone will appreciate the tang of the salad dressing. The dressing has a burnt orange color, which doesn't necessarily scream "I'm pretty, look at me," but it works for me. I wish Fuji Rice Time would get some nice spring greens instead of what appears to look like a packaged salad (it may not be, but it just appears that way).

The sweet orange wedge is there for presentation, but also there to break up the heat from the chicken and the tang from the salad dressing.

Overall, another lovely experience. The pop of the spicy sauce on the chicken made me want more. Well done! 7.25/10

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Homegrown Smoker Natural Barbecue

(UPDATE 11/8/12: Homegrown Smoker has closed their original cart at SW 4th and College, but their second cart still remains at the Mississippi Marketplace pod.)

(Also read part 2 -- June 2012)

Homegrown Smoker Natural Barbecue is a vegan BBQ food cart located on SW 4th Ave., between College St. and Hall St. A few of their menu items can also be made gluten-free!

As far as hours are concerned, it depends on the time of year:
Mon-Fri, 11 am to 6 pm (April to September)
Mon-Fri, 11 am to 3 pm (October to March)
Saturdays, 12 pm to 4 pm (May to September)


(UPDATE: Uni-Cart is closed.)

Uni-Cart, located near SW 3rd Ave. and Ash St. in downtown Portland, Oregon, basically serves three vegan, gluten-free dishes (each $5), using a fantasy animal theme to attract customers.

Menu as of August 2011
I arrived promptly at 11:30 on a Monday, just around the time this place opens. I asked Ethan, the chef/operator of Uni-Cart, what their most popular item was. Without hesitation, he said it was the "Spicy Barbeque Griffin." Tofu is seasoned with fresh garlic, black pepper, and smoky black tea extract, then put in a rice-paper "uni-cone" with rice and lettuce, then topped with BBQ sauce. The rice paper is also fried for a few seconds to get crispy, then it's served gyro-style. Intrigued, I asked for one of those.

Spicy Barbeque Griffin
Usually, one could get brown rice, but on this day, Ethan was out of brown rice, so I settled for the white rice instead.

I liked the crunchiness of the rice-paper "cone" here. That and the crunchy, fresh lettuce really provided the texture contrasts I wanted. The tofu was OK...nicely cooked, but it could have benefited from marinating in something a bit longer. The ratio of rice and tofu was a bit off, in my opinion, as every bite I took seemed to give me more (bland) rice instead of tofu, lettuce, or BBQ sauce. The dish needed more bold flavors overall to make me go "wow."

A respectable attempt, but it could be made better with a few tweaks. I'd marinate the tofu in something to give it more pop. Perhaps a little lighter on the rice portion and a bit more BBQ sauce to cut through all the "bland" items in the uni-cone.

I must say, Ethan provided excellent service. I told him about my business school plans and my interests in photographing/writing about food. Ethan invited me to return in the future if I wanted to take some more food photos. I just might take him up on that offer. I'll give some bonus points for that one.

The food can be worked on, but the service will definitely make me return one day (if I can find the time). Uni-Cart has some bizarre hours. The last time I checked, they were only open for lunch Monday through Wednesday, and open late nights on Friday and Saturday. Not sure if I'll be able to make any of those times, but we'll see. 4.5/10

Buddha Bites

(Update on 9/12/11: Food Carts Portland informed me that Buddha Bites has closed)

Buddha Bites, located on SW 4th Ave. between Hall St. and College St., is a food cart selling organic, homemade food. They also offer several gluten-free items.

Buddha Bites has a fairly large menu, serving breakfast items all day (8:30 am to 5 pm on weekdays) and lunch for most of the day.

Breakfast menu
Lunch menu, part 1
Lunch menu, part 2
Lunch menu, part 3
Drinks/sweets menu
I ordered their mango curry lunch plate ($5.50): butternut squash, potatoes, mangoes, and coconut in a mild curry sauce, served over brown rice.

Mango curry served with brown rice
The dish was cooked fresh to order, which I really liked. A pretty large portion for $5.50.

The food was OK. The presentation looked boring, not much color on the plate and nothing that really made me "happy" to eat the dish. The potatoes, squash, and mango were cooked very well. The potatoes especially fell apart wonderfully in my mouth when I bit into them. A nice, slight sweetness from the mango here. It was indeed a mild curry flavor as advertised. I would have liked bolder curry flavor and a lot more spice to liven up the taste buds.

Perhaps I should have also added chicken or tempeh for an additional $1.50. I appreciated the nuttiness of the brown rice and the red quinoa (or barley) on top of the curry, but other than that, there was really no texture contrasts in the dish. The service was pretty straightforward, nothing to write home about there. I'd give this experience an average score. 5/10

Friday, August 26, 2011

Russell Street Bar-B-Que

Russell Street Bar-B-Que, located on NE Russell St. in Portland, Oregon, serves their take on Southern BBQ cuisine.

Somehow, this reminds me a bit of an informal Texas BBQ restaurant
(Not sure why, as I've never been to Texas....)
Woohoo...full bar behind the counter!
Posted inside the restaurant...thought it was worthy of a picture!
On thisvisit, I ordered a pulled pork sandwich with a side of cole slaw ($8.50). I asked for their "Killer" sauce, a classic BBQ sauce that adds chipotles and habaneros for extra heat.

Pulled pork sandwich w/side of cole slaw
The sandwich was good, but not mind-blowing. The pulled pork was slow-cooked nicely until tender, with a mild smokiness. The slaw was colorful and very good. Not overly creamy or runny, and a nice sweetness that paired well with the BBQ sauce and pork. Of course, I just had to put some of the slaw on my sandwich for presentation and for texture/flavor contrasts. I would have liked for the bun to be toasted (or at least toasted a bit more).

I was a tad disappointed with the "Killer" sauce. Don't get me wrong, the sauce was good, but I was expecting more heat. To me, it was a very mild BBQ sauce that didn't have as much flavor as others I've enjoyed in the past. Respectable, yes, just not kickass awesome.

I also must note that I arrived promptly at 11 a.m. on Saturday (opening time). There was one other person who had already placed his take-out order. It took several minutes for any employee to take my order. Didn't even get a "I'll be right with you" from any of them. Not the best in terms of customer service.

Pretty much an average experience overall.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Screen Door

Screen Door, located on E Burnside St. in Portland, Oregon, serves Cajun-inspired meals. On the weekends, they open for brunch, which has proven extremely popular among the locals.

Packed house!

The place was packed at 10:30 on a Saturday morning. The waiting list was probably about 20 to 30 minutes, so I decided to place a take-out order for their Bananas Foster French Toast ($9.95): four thick slices of French toast with rum-flamed caramelized bananas, whipped cream, and cinnamon. Because I placed the order to go, the chef smartly kept all the components separate.

Bananas Foster French Toast
All components are kept separate because it was a take-out order

Oh my God. Busick Court's Banana Nut Stuffed French Toast just got a new rival -- and this French toast from Screen Door just may have won me over for the best in Oregon. The French toast slices were very thick and cooked to a perfect golden brown. I liked the cinnamon and the whipped cream put together...just so beautiful for presentation. The cinnamon also helped to balance the flavors.

But let's face it, the rum-flamed caramelized bananas were the star here. They were still temperature-hot from cooking on the stove mere minutes earlier -- and you can definitely taste that rum in there! When combined with the toast, whipped cream, and cinnamon, I was completely blown away by how amazing this was. I couldn't stop eating, no matter how hard I tried. And then I just started speed-eating and literally finished all of it in about two minutes. It was sweet, but not sugar overkill, which pleasantly surprised me.

To me, this is just about the perfect sweet breakfast.

I thought the atmosphere was pretty loud -- mainly because it was so packed. It could be hard to carry on a conversation when dining in, but hey, a busy restaurant is a happy restaurant! A great sit-down establishment, but be sure to get there early, or you may be waiting a while. I had seen so many amazing reviews on Yelp, and Screen Door has lived up to the hype! I'll try to go back in the future to sample their other stunning dishes! 9.25/10

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Vita Cafe

Vita Cafe is a vegetarian/vegan cafe located on NE Alberta St. in Portland, Oregon.

I liked the decor...quite simple here (a few tables and a bar counter), although I would have liked it to have a much brighter, uplifting atmosphere. They smartly (and evilly) put the shelves of cakes at the front of the house, so when you walk in, you're just blindsided by its awesomeness.

Anyone on a diet entering Vita Cafe may need to summon extra willpower upon entering
Working on my third lunch (yes, third) of my all-out "eat-everything-in-record-time-by-speed-eating" day, I ordered the Seitan Cheese Steak ($7.50): sliced seitan (meat substitute) with sauteed peppers, sauteed onions, sauteed mushrooms, and melted pepper jack cheese on a baguette.

Part of the lunch menu
Seitan Cheese Steak
All in all, a very good "cheesesteak" that I inhaled in minutes. The seitan was moist and tender, a lovely substitute for the usual ribeye or top-round meat that a traditional cheesesteak would have. The sauteed vegetables were cooked perfectly, retaining a little crunch for a nice texture contrast. The pepper jack cheese provided the must-have gooey awesomeness in this sandwich. Nice flavors all around.

For me, though, I felt this sandwich did not have enough filling...more seitan, cheese, and sauteed veggies, please! I also did not see a hot sauce option on Vita Cafe's menu, which could have added more dimension here. A good meal with good service, just not a mind-blowing experience. 6.75/10

GF Chef

(Second Review -- May 2012)

The GF Chef, located at the Green Castle Food Pod of NE 20th St. and Everett St., is an all-gluten-free food truck.