Thursday, April 30, 2009

PepperJax Grill

NebraskaPhilly’s back again/doing a little cheesesteak thing.

My cheesesteak experience has been limited mostly to the turkey cheesesteak at Grinders. I haven’t been to Chartroose Caboose, but I totally need to. And all the while I lived by the now closed Cheesesteak Alley, I stayed away because the sign said something like “Philadelphia invented it and we perfected it” -- a claim I found to be narcissistic at worst and dubious at best. Although I’ve never been to Philadelphia, I doubt much of anything is getting perfected across the street from the Kmart in Mission.

PepperJax Grill was voted First Place Best Sandwiches in Omaha Magazine’s Best of Omaha 2008. That’s something I can believe in. Omaha is, after all, a city noted for its love of Runzas so the bar can’t be too high. (Actually, I shouldn’t be so quick to judge -- I just checked out Runza online and it looks kind of good. Much better than I remember.)

We got to the front of the line at PepperJax Grill's Lawrence location, and I ordered my Philly with everything. The guy asked, “Do you want jalapeno juice?” Of course I wanted jalapeno juice.

It appears that creating a cheesesteak is a three-person operation -- PepperJax Grill is set up like a Chipotle or Subway, where you follow your sandwich down the counter as they fix it. Personally, I prefer not to see my food getting made, especially when it looks like they’re manhandling the bread. If that’s an essential step to engineering the ideal filling pocket and achieving sandwich perfection, so be it. I just don’t want to watch it happen.

My Philly tasted fantastic -- the steak, onions, peppers, mushrooms, and cheese were all in balance. Eating it was surprisingly mess-free, too. For comparison, whenever we’re at Grinders I inevitably go through a stack of napkins and yet somehow still get Cheez Whiz all over everything.

But as delicious as the PepperJax Grill cheesesteak was, between it and the cheesesteak at Grinders, I’ve got to go with Grinders as my favorite. The Cheez Whiz makes a big difference, as does that savory dash of spite that goes into just about everything that Grinders serves. Let’s face it, despite the fact that more often than not the people working at Grinders seem to be actively trying to ignore their customers, they make one fine cheesesteak.
______________________________Pepperjax Grill on Urbanspoon
947 New Hampshire | Lawrence, KS 66044

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Freshman burger phenom.

The very day we were trying to figure out a spot for Guys’ Night in April, I found a menu for Baylee’s in my mailbox. Printed on lime green paper with extensive use of a scripty pixilated mystery font, how could we resist its charms? Plus, the menu promised Cincinnati Chili. Sold.

We put Guys’ Night on the calendar for the evening of the NCAA 2009 Men’s Tournament championship game, so we could mourn our busted brackets over some cheap beers. Even though domestics were on special for $2, pitchers turned out to be a better deal -- and they had the kind of pitcher that has the built-in icy core, too. Pitcher technology has come a long way since I had a fake ID.

Baylee’s is so new, the sign says "Est. 2009." When we walked through the door, the waitress seemed genuinely surprised to see us -- in fact, we were the only paying customers all night. I’m guessing that’s mostly because the place just opened. The waitress told us Baylee’s gets pretty busy on the weekends.

The Monday food special is 50 cent wings, and we ordered a bunch of those. McHugh made a clutch call and also ordered some pepper jack fried cheese sticks, which were spicy, melty fantastic. Alas, the wings were fine, but indistinguishable from those elsewhere.

Dorsett hadn’t read the description of the fried cheese on the menu, so we were all impressed when he took a bite of the crunchy breadcrumb coating and asked, “Is that Panko?” For his keen observation, Dorsett is hereby nominated for Iron Chef Bar Food.

For the Cincinnati Chili, we ordered it 5 Way, which is chili, angel hair, grated cheese, onion and pinto beans. When we got it, we saw that Baylee’s actually uses spaghetti -- only after some online sleuthing did I learn this is the traditional way to make Cincinnati Chili.

While it had a good cinnamon-nony taste, and even though I really wanted to be a fan of the Cincinnati Chili, ultimately I can’t say that I am. What it comes down to is that there isn’t enough thickness and meat to the chili portion. And yes, I understand that Cincinnati Chili is supposed to have a thin consistency, but this was more like spaghetti soup.

I will concede that the problem may not be Baylee’s take on Cincinnati Chili -- it is completely within the realm of possibility that I have fundamental issues with Cincinnati Chili overall. Maybe I’m just a rookie. Maybe a true connoisseur would dig the Cincinnati Chili at Baylee’s. Maybe to try Cincinnati Chili proper I actually need to go to Cincinnati.

The Baylee Burger, however, was a slam dunk. According to the menu, it’s hand pattied thin and cooked on a flat top. The burger came on a grilled bun with super-fresh toppings, and when we put it all together it was total burger harmony. Probably the closest I’ve come to Whataburger around here, which I mean as a compliment. Really good fries, too. Kind of a combination of the fries at Oklahoma Joe’s and Long John Silvers. Yes, that is a compliment as well.

For the burger alone, I’ll cut Baylee’s some slack and plan on checking it out again in a couple of months to see what the bar is like after it’s been lived in a little. I mean, compared to some other places, there are barely even any neon beer signs or other paraphernalia cluttering up the walls here yet, which kind of gives Baylee’s a strange vibe that’s more like a showroom where you can go and pick out fixtures for your bar rather than a bar itself.

As for the game, due to being mathematically eliminated from all my March Madness pools, I was pulling for Michigan State since they beat KU and if we’re going to get knocked out of the tournament, we might as well get knocked out by the best, right? I like the way Wendy Molyneux sums up that line of thinking -- “Like getting punched in the face and being like, ‘But that guy punches everyone in the face! It's okay!’”

March Madness 2009 has been over for a week. Only 333 days until Selection Sunday for March Madness 2010.
13023 Holmes Road | Kansas City, MO 64145

Friday, April 10, 2009

Road Trip: Salt Lake City

Breaking News: Food Network passes on pilot for "Shaw Eats Utah."

I’d been meaning to go hang out with my sister Liz in Salt Lake City for quite awhile now, so when I found out my brother John was heading that way for a visit over his birthday weekend, I got my act together and made plans to join them.

Sure enough, it was a blast. I got to experience the bureaucracy of SLC nightlife and even go skiing for the first time in years -- where I discovered that while technique may come back quickly, muscles do not. And, of course, I also had a few bites to eat. All but one of these places were even in the Salt Lake City Weekly's "Best of Utah 2009" issue.

Pat’s BBQ
After a day of skiing, some heavy calories were called for, and we met up with Liz’s friend JJ at Pat’s BBQ to partake in some of the famous-osity that are Pat’s ribs. We managed to convince Liz to upgrade her usual 1/4 rack order to a half rack so we could all sample the goods. The rest of us ordered the 1/2 lb. pulled pork & 1/2 lb. brisket combo.

The ribs are indeed the real star at Pat’s BBQ -- just an incredible peppery smoky taste that didn’t need any embellishment from the two accompanying barbecue sauces. The pulled pork was fantastic and tender, and the brisket was good as well, but clearly outshined by everything else. Truth be told, I didn’t even feel the need to try the sauces until I was nearing the end of my brisket slices. Pat’s smoke and rub is more than enough to give everything plenty of flavor.

We also sampled a wide range of sides. Baked beans, cole slaw, potato salad and something called meaty gravy and rice, which is pulled pork over rice in a thin, clear sauce. While I questioned Liz’s choice of getting the cole slaw -- because really, when was the last time cole slaw was anything besides filler? -- I was proven wrong by the zesty yellow-tinged concoction that arrived. Yes, it was damn fine slaw.

In fact, everything we had was top notch, including the service. And if you’re lamenting the fact you may never get to try such craftsmanship since you don’t have a reason to go to Utah, there was ample evidence that Pat’s BBQ takes the show on the road to the American Royal Barbecue competition right here in KC.

Blue Plate Diner
For breakfast, Liz recommended the Blue Plate Diner, an old school eatery that seems almost as much of a house as a restaurant. We were able to get seated right away and take a look at the menu, which bounces between classic greasy spoon and trendier modern offerings.

While I agonized over my decision -- the biscuits and gravy being an early frontrunner -- Liz ordered eggs benedict and John chose a verde omelet. I ultimately opted for the spinach, mushroom and avocado variant of the eggs benedict, keeping in mind the heavier fare we’d be having later in the day.

The food came out relatively quick, but I was soon let down by the blandness of the hollandaise. The flavors all worked well together -- although some bacon would’ve really kicked the taste up a few levels. Liz’s standard eggs benedict had the same hollandaise problem. John’s omelet looked deceptively sedate until we discovered the beige gravy had an unexpected kick. Each dish came with some of the best home fries I've ever tasted.

Overall, a better than average breakfast, but I can’t help thinking the biscuits and gravy would have been a better choice, or at least a more accurate indicator of what the Blue Plate Diner can do.

Moochie’s & Brewvies
Moochie’s was one of the few places I’d checked out online before I headed to SLC, and one of the “must eats” on my list. Renowned for cheesesteaks and meatball subs, Moochie’s is fast, too. We ordered a six-inch of each to go, and were out of there within minutes. We would’ve asked for our sandwiches to be cut into thirds, but we were running tight on time -- we didn’t want to throw off Moochie’s carefully honed system and become the source of a sandwich breakdown.

We took our sandwiches and moved on to Brewvies for an afternoon showing of "Taken." Brewvies sports two theaters as well as a good-sized front bar area with pool tables and video games. Prices are very reasonable -- $3 per ticket for the first show of the day, $8 for a pitcher of Bud Light -- and the seating is spacious with each row of seats providing a low-lit narrow table/ledge to hold your drinks and food. There are also couches and tables in the back if you want to get your sprawl on.

Due to the thickness of the bread and an especially messy meatball, we had a bit of a challenge cutting the sandwiches with the plastic knives we’d picked up at Moochie’s -- but we did it. The meatball sub had a real spicy goodness, while the cheesesteak was just okay, and probably a little too salty. I wish we’d had time to eat them at Moochie’s instead to having to rush to Brewvies. I’d for sure like to make a Moochie’s return trip for more in-depth research.

Apollo Burger vs. Crown Burger
I spotted both these joints on the way to Liz’s house from the airport, and was excited to find out Crown Burger was the Salt Lake City Weekly's #1 pick. Apollo Burger didn’t even place. But as we are discerning eaters capable of making up our own minds, we decided to bring back two burgers and fries from each to conduct our own head-to-head taste competition at Liz’s apartment.

First we went to fetch some Apollo Burger, which made a strong impression with its authentic early ‘70s décor and big green leather booths. We went with the signature Apollo Burger, which is a cheeseburger with pastrami, as well as the Western Bacon Cheeseburger. $11 total.

At Crown Burger (no website), we took the drive thru since we already had our Apollo Burger order and didn’t want it to get cold. We got a Crown Burger, which is also a cheeseburger with pastrami, and a Double Bacon Cheeseburger -- the touted winner of the best burger in town. Those two burgers with fries came to $15.

Back at Liz’s, we started with the Apollo Burger, then the Crown Burger, followed by the Western Bacon Cheeseburger, and ending on the Double Bacon Cheeseburger. After the carnage, our consensus was that the Crown Burger beats the others with superior pastrami and flavor, not to mention appearance and structural integrity.

The Western Bacon Cheeseburger was the universal loser, even proving inedible to one of our testers. When we unwrapped it, Liz said, “I’m already not looking forward to it.” While we were cleaning up, John asked, “You have somewhere to throw this out? You don’t want this left in your apartment.”

In the end, Apollo put up a decent effort -- but Crown took ‘em down like Drago, not even breaking a sweat.

Red Iguana
Outstanding. That’s really the only word that can describe the Red Iguana. There’s a reason this place is listed as one of the top restaurants in SLC, and it starts with seven -- seven! -- different kinds of mole.

Red Iguana is the kind of eatery where you may never get around to trying a taco because you can’t pass up their specialty items. John got the Puntas de Filete a la Norteña, which are sirloin tips tossed with bacon, jalapenos, onions and tomatoes served over an almond mole that consists of almonds, chiles, zucchini, milk, peanut butter and onions.

I ordered the Lomo de Puerco, which is a roasted rolled pork loin stuffed with dried fruit, swiss chard and sun-dried tomatoes, sliced and served over the aforementioned almond mole. Liz went low-key with the carne asada burritos, but even that seemingly straightforward dish was incredible.

Directly after lunch my siblings dropped me off at the airport and headed back into the mountains for another round of skiing.

If only I had more time. More time to sample all of the moles.

Er, I mean hang with the family.
Big thanks to Liz, Scott (in absentia), JJ, Buddy, Claire, Kevin, Mike, Anika, and the guy who gave us a ride up to Alta for all their hospitality.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Ugly Joe’s Sports Bar & Grill

And yo momma, too.

Guys’ Night this month was at Ugly Joe’s, where the Monday special is half-price appetizers. That was good news for us, since we always appreciate the chance to tackle some variety. The even better news was that Monday is $5 cheap domestic pitcher night, too. Because my mom was in town for the weekend and her flight home had been delayed, she got to join us for the fun.

With four kinds of Baby Burgers on the menu’s appetizer section, you know we had to try those. You can order either a regular six-pack of straight-up classic burgers, or you can go with the Home Run Baby Burgers platter, where you get two each of three miniaturized versions of some of the other ones that Ugly Joe’s has:
  • Buckeyes: “Smothered with Sautéed Mushrooms & Melted Swiss”
  • Burners: “Covered with Melted Jack Cheese, Jalapenos & Spicy Buffalo Sauce”
  • Hawkeyes: “Topped with Crisp Bacon & Melted Cheddar”
Tiny burgers must be the late 2000’s equivalent of the jalapeno popper. For a while you could find them only at certain restaurants, and they made for a delicious novelty. Then at some point, word got out. Now every place has them, and whether or not they can do them well is another story altogether.

At Ugly Joe’s, the standard Baby Burgers are squarely middle of the pack, and across the board the bun-to-burger ratio is skewed unfavorably toward the bun. My first impression of the Buckeye was that the mushrooms and swiss cheese would be a little fancy to be any good in tiny burger form, so I was surprised that it actually turned out to be my favorite. Meanwhile, the Burner put in a weak showing with no buffalo sauce to be found. The bacon-powered Hawkeye was like Denzel Washington in any movie: Shows up and does exactly what you expect. Not really incredible, but always good.

All the Baby Burgers come with Burger Sauce on the side. The name Burger Sauce really grossed Robert out. We think Burger Sauce might be something close to A1.

Of course, we ordered up some wings, too. The Ugly Joe’s sauce we enjoyed the most was the Montana Style. Described on the menu as “BBQ, Buffalo & Secret Ingredients,” not only was it spicy and delicious, but it was pretty unique. The traditional Buffalo was also very well done, balancing heat with flavor. Ugly Joe knows his stuff in the wing department. Next time we’ll have to try the Spicy Honey BBQ and the Teriyaki.

This doubled as an expedition for BarQuest, the ongoing mission to find a decent neighborhood dive to hang out at in Robert’s neighborhood. While Ugly Joe’s has good food and plenty of space and TVs, it’s somewhat more spacious and bright than we’d like -- a certain amount of dank is mandatory. Plus, the place is way too sports-focused for everyday hanging out. Admittedly that doesn’t take much for the Lunch Bloggers, but this felt kind of like taking down beers at a Dick’s Sporting Goods.

By the way, my mom ordered the nachos and said they were tasty, but what she especially enjoyed was the opportunity to hang out with the guys. Come back anytime, mom -- great to have you along.
__________________________________________Ugly Joe's on Urbanspoon
1227 West 103rd Street | Kansas City, MO 64114