Monday, April 14, 2014

You Cannot Digitize Good Restaurants

A friend of mine made a fortune in the movie rental business and sold out to Blockbuster about 10 years ago. He then went into the tanning booth business.  I asked him why and he told me: "You can't digitize tanning."

You have to take your hat off to any person, group or organization that can properly and successfully manage a restaurant over even two years.  Like math for Barbie, it's hard. Once you realize you have been consistently enjoying a restaurant for lunch for over that period of time, its time to swallow your pride and recognize them even though everyone probably already knows them and already has their own opinions. You probably should even recognize them despite being a little embarrassed that you like the food or because they really do not qualify as a true locally owned restaurant.  So in my case, its time to praise Chappy's and Zoe's (you know, the one with the diaeresis over the e). They have each been successful over 20 years.

I have literally eaten at every restaurant you have seen reviewed on this blog since its humble beginnings.  I, along with Bama Bing, personally trained the elite LITG guinea pig commando unit: Squeal Team Six.  In other words, I've been around the steam table a few times.  It is with this background that I have to admit that Chappy's Deli and Zoe's Kitchen consistently provide fresh and tasty lunch fare efficiently and at reasonable prices with good service. Let's start with Chappy's.

Chappy's has been a locally owned and family operated Gump/New York style deli since 1989. Now, it's not really comparable to a New York Delicatessen such as the Stage Door,  but they do have a pretty good Reuben and Pastrami & Swiss sandwich.  Now the problem is that I also have been presented so many lunch-meeting Chappy's sandwich trays that I think I could build a triple-Decker sandwich ladder to the moon and back. It's enough to make you avoid the restaurant during lunch away from the office.  Don't make that mistake.
Do not confuse these tray sandwiches with the much better sandwiches at the restaurant.

I swung by the Perry Hill Road Chappy's for lunch recently and found the place to be running smoothly.  They have a take out counter that functions very efficiently with attentive counter personnel.  I was in an out in a few minutes with a Ricky Ricardo Cuban sandwich that was quite good.  Again, not up to the Columbia Restaurant Ybor City version,  but a solid effort.

Actually, I like breakfast at Chappy's even better than lunch.  It's the usual country breakfast fare but everything is prepared properly with good ingredients.  Coffee is fresh and strong.  Great for the little crumb snatchers (who personally I would pay you to leave at home cause your 'little snowflake' grand kids are not as cute as you think). 

Chappy's is a true Gump/Castanza family gem that deserves a little love from LITG. And they are spreading.  They have locations in Pratt-Vegas and ... wait for it...Ozark, Missouri of all places.  Someone must have a vacation home in the Ozarks maybe?

Do not confuse these trays with the sandwiches you can get for lunch at one of their local restaurants. The freshly made sandwiches are mucho bettaro than the trays.  Despite this, I have some pretty funny video collected by an Internet camera in a conference room after a 2 p.m. email was sent out that said: "There are some leftover Chappy's sandwiches in the conference room."  It looked a little like roller derby without the skates and helmets.  Hats and helmets off to the Castanza's.

Now about Zoes (and I can't find the ALT+ key that generates the two dots above the "e").  Zoes means "life" in Greek.  It means "bank" in the restaurant business.  Zoes is an example of a well-run restaurant gone big time.  The restaurant was founded in Birmingham in 1995 by Zoë (cut and pasted from their webpage) and Marcus Cassimus with a Mediterranean feel and menu.

The Zoes on Zelda always serves very fresh salads and sandwiches in an efficient manner.  You place your order, pay and get a number to put on your table.  In a few minutes--not long after you serve yourself at the drink bar--a server brings you what you ordered.  On your table is the oil and vinegar dressing that goes with almost everything they serve.  One of my colleagues goes there every week and always gets the chicken salad fruit plate.  I really like the Mediterranean salad with chicken.  I almost feel like I am losing weight as I eat it.  But that is quite unlikely.  It's an easy drive from downtown, the service is quick and--on days like we have been having recently--you may dine al fresco.

Yes, Zoes is now a chain. They have 110+ locations.  In fact, they just went public April 10, 2014 and, as of today, they have a stock price in the NYSE of about $24.  They are now run by a guy with a degree from Texas A&M with their home offices in Texas.  But it does have Alabama roots and shows how a good restaurant can be replicated and franchised.  It may even show the pathway for Chappy's.

Now, to complete the circle, it was just announced that a Japanese-themed restaurant will open in the Westminster shopping center.  It will be called Maki Fresh.  Guess who came up with the idea of a serving sushi with an Asian flair?  It's John Cassimus of Birmingham, the founder of Zoes. Apparently, it will allow you to pick your food out and self-checkout.  They will also have burgers and bang-bangs. 

The moral?  Because the food industry cannot be digitized, if you can consistently serve good food at a fair price, the sky is the limit.  Congratulations to all successful restaurants from LITG!

Chappys Deli on Urbanspoon Zoes Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 13, 2014

New Slogans for a few of Montgomery's Night Spots

We at LITG think every local bar should have an honest-to-goodness slogan to let patrons know exactly what they're getting into. With that being said:

Pine Bar - Young attorney's gotta have somewhere to drink too!

LeRoy's - Wanna go to a bar in a storage room and order a beer you've never heard of?

Rock Bottom - Looking for somewhere to wear your new Affliction shirt?

1048 - When those 12 steps just didn't take.

Bud's - When you're pretentious enough for Pine Bar, but Daddy hasn't hired you at his law firm yet.

El Rey's - Nothing goes with morning "beer runs" like an $18 burrito!

The Exchange - Winter: God, it's FREEZING out here! Can't wait for summer! Summer: God, it's SWELTERING out here! Can't wait for winter!

Stuckey's - Your weed guy is here.

SandBAR - Too cheap to go out of town but still want to pretend you did?

Sous La Terre - Good LORD, are you still out?!?

The Blue Iguana - When you're too classy to drink in a bowling alley, but too drunk to leave.

Aviator Bar - Because Air Force plebs need assistance from the decor to act cool.

Club Liquids - Because you want to dance like a fool and get applauded for it.

La Jolla - Pretend to be cool, try to forget you're drinking at the mall.

AlleyBAR - We could be cool, but hey, it's Montgomery; why put up the effort?

Head on the Door - Remember us? Not really? Well, we're still here!

The Tipping Point - I know the sun is still out but it's closing time, get the kids.

--Thanks to LITG Facebook stalwarts: Robbie and Erik Poole

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Winter's Tale at the Railyard Brewing Co.

While walking from my office to the parking lot recently a snowflake landed on my cheek and, like most Southerners, I immediately forgot how to drive.  I came upon the lot where I saw several things with rubber wheels and realized it would not be prudent for me to try to operate one of them when snowflakes were falling in the Gump and Rich Thomas had on his Depend's in preparation for a long night of “severe” weather.  So I did the only rational thing I knew to do: I walked straight for the Railyard Brewing Company across from Riverwalk Stadium and ordered a draft beer crafted right here in Rivercity and pondered “global warming” or as you now hear it described: “climate change.”

As I sat at the bar gazing over the stainless steel vats out the window at the occasional snowflake, I listened as head brewer Kade Miller conversed about beers of the world with a military customer who had been in Germany.  They sampled several beers and “seasonal brews” with names I cannot recall but sounded like: Alvin Holmes’ "Uncle Tom Amber” or Scott Beason’s "Dark Aborigine" as I devoured my favorite RBC lunch item: the fried chicken club sandwich (which they may not still serve based upon the latest menu).  I felt a warm toasty glow as the yard bird and beer worked their magic in my gullet.  All seemed well.  I was safe and warm.  I bathed in the smell of hot specialty burgers.

But there upon on one of the flat screens above the bar stood a smiling Weather Channel “meteorologist,” wearing their North Face jacket with that unnecessary microphone firmly in hand excitedly pointing out the number of drivers sliding on the ice in Atlanta with cutaway shots of tires spinning and underdressed chubby people trying to push those big things with rubber wheels. The closed captioning streaming below read something like: “The Polar Vortex is the result of global warming….”

I ordered a “Flat Tire” or "Fat Tire" and pondered the years of over exaggerated and breathless dire warnings I had heard from television meteorologists coupled with their recent inability to be able to accurately predict the arrival of one winter storm in Birmingham Alabama and the havoc that ensued.  “OK,” I said to myself, “Let’s say I buy the whole idea that we can change the climate.”  I then interrupted the brewmaster and customer and said: “Gentlemen, if we control the climate shouldn’t we take a vote on whether we want it to be warmer or colder.  I mean, who gets to screw with the thermostat?”  They looked at me and smiled so I finished my thought.  “By golly, if I get to vote on what we do to the climate, I vote WARMER.”  By then, the group around the bar had become aware of my pronouncements and smiled. “Hell Yeah!” said one guy with an Alabama logo on his hat.  But another guy said, “But hey, what about the sea level?” That was a question I was ready for.  “Man, didn’t you see they just found an ancient Cypress forest in the Gulf of Mexico in about 60 feet of water?  Looks like the sea level is always changing.  Even if I lived on the coast I would hope in 200 years I could adapt to a rise of a foot or two.”

Somebody bought me another beer, a “Butt Face Amber Ale”, the irony of which I appreciated as I turned my gaze up to Channel 12’s Rich Thomas telling me to stay off the roads.  That is good advice for Southern drivers 100% of the time. By this time, after a great sandwich and some fine beer, I realized that Rich was finally right.  Even a blind meteorologist finds a bad storm every now and then.

Railyard Brewing Company on Urbanspoon

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Old School Sunday NFL Lunch at Buds

Years from now men will wax nostalgic about "back in the day" when you could eat unhealthy but awesomely good hamburgers with a draft Pabst Blue Ribbon breathing second-hand smoke while watching pro football players trying to cause concussions. This past Sunday, after watching my first "Breaking Bad" episodes which caused me to have dreams that I had lung cancer,  I decided, instead of cooking crystal meth, that I would indulge in epicurean and visual gluttony with a drinking man's pro football lunch at smokey Bud's bar deep in the Gump at Old Cloverdale.

To those few of you who do not know about Bud's, let me give you a warning: This is not your hip, light, kid friendly, airy, slick, shiny sports bar with a full menu, peppy wait staff and dozens of flat screen TVs and cool sports memorabilia on the walls.  Bud's is the opposite of all of that. The idea of "heart healthy" fare would make a Bud's customer laugh until their smoker's hack kicked in.  Children--even your precious snowflakes--are held in the same disdain as vegetarians.  The place is dark and lit only by the CRT's of the fat TVs that display a variety of sporting events with absolutely no "closed captioning" for those not watching the only game connected to the sound system.  Smoking is not prohibited--it is encouraged.  Even cigars are allowed.

Bud's in the daytime ready for customers.

There is no neon sign out front, no matchbooks or napkins with a "Bud's" logo and certainly no web page or Facebook page to "friend."  The folks at Bud's don't want Facebook friends.  They want a friend with a match and an extra unfiltered Camel.  There is a land-line phone, but if a neglected wife or girlfriend calls, the bartender will look right into the eye of the offending patron and deadpan: "Haven't seen him." ("Eye" singular was used intentionally).

For the true sport's fan there are actually plenty of TV's and they are connected to the NFL network. This means that as you smoke your cigarette and sip your cold mug of draft beer at the bar you can watch at least six football games at the same time.  As you do, you will sit next to those with the jersey's of their favorite players in far off cities like Minneapolis or Baltimore. Why, if you hold your mouth right, they might even tune one to the Premier league.

There are also some healthy activities.  There is shuffle board and pool on tattered, well-worn equipment for 50 cents a game.  There was a "Golden Tee" in the corner, but it has not worked in months and, at Bud's, they do not consider that routine maintenance.

So why would a guy dreaming of lung cancer go to this throwback sports bar filled with smoke?  There are three reasons: (1) I do not want to "Break Bad;" (2) They have PBR on tap and (3) They serve a delicious, big, greasy, bacon cheeseburger with real fries that will clog your arteries faster than the smoke can kill you.  The burger is said to be made with Wagyu beef and seems to come in a around 1/2 pound and served with melty Swiss or cheddar cheese.  Whether or not it is Wagyu or not does not really matter.  It is old-school delicious.  Deep fried potatoes, tomatoes, pickles and lettuce provide the other elements of the food pyramid.  My suggestion, cut the thing in half and take some home for later if you have the stones to ask for a "to go" box.  There are many good burgers in the Gump and we have rated them all.  But the Bud's burger is right up there with the best of them and on a dreary winter Sunday afternoon, there is nothing quite like having a cheeseburger chased with a Bud at Bud's.

Yes, there is a place where consenting adults can destroy their health while watching consenting football players try to knock each other out.  It is called Bud's and you should enjoy it while it is still legal.

Bud's on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Avoiding the Iron Bowl Harangue at Arirang...Almost

You just about cannot go anywhere in this here Gump without hearing expert analysis of the upcoming Iron Bowl.  I don't know about you, but I've about heard enough of "The team that establishes the run will win" or "If it's close in the fourth quarter it might go either way" or "Alabama's defense will stop Auburn's offense." So I started thinking--for me a dangerous task--where could I go to lunch and not be bothered by the mindless blathering cliches about the upcoming "Game of the Week, Month, Year or Century?" Heck, while I was writing this I got solicited for squares on an Iron Bowl game score grid!

Then I passed Korean food hub where one finds the best Korean grocery in the area and Arirang Korean BBQ which, like the Gangnam Grill, sits just across the by-pass within a scones throw of the Gump.  It hit me:  Do they also eat guinea pig?  No, seriously, the thought crossed my pea brain that there--in a Korean buffet restaurant--was a place where I might be able to enjoy some good bulgogi and for at least an hour avoid the clutter and chatter about armored SEC wankerball.

So I pulled into the parking lot and noticed that all the windows were covered with pictures of food and Korean (I presumed) writing. Unlike our friend Chairman Meow, who lived in Korea as a child (and wrote a great article in the Made Paper about Korean restaurants in the Gump you can read by clicking here), I had never been to a Korean BBQ buffet before.  I was a little apprehensive but went inside where the first sign I saw said: "Korean BBQ 11.99.  No BBQ 7.99."  While I tried to figure out what you got with "No BBQ" a very nice Asian lady asked me in English how many and lead me to a table with a hole in the middle--no not a hole.  It was actually a round convex metal grill with a temperature control.

"BBQ?" came the question.  Quickly I calculated the cost between no BBQ and BBQ to be about $4 and reasoned that something was better than nothing.  I answered in the affirmative.

"First time?" came the next question.  "Yes," I said honestly and nervously.

"I help. Go get some meat," she said as she turned on the grill in the middle and it began to glow red through the openings to the heat source below.

So I left the table and went to the buffet.  I started at the meat side (which I later saw was wrong).  I piled one plate with brisket, chicken, marinated beef and pork.  I then filled another plate for vegetables.  I returned for bowls of fruit and steamed rice.

Sitting down at my table I began to place the ingredients on the grill and started to cook.  My waitress noticed I have missed the sauces--duck, hot, brah and blah braa blah--and brought me four in plastic tubs and showed me how to dip the thin cooked slices with the onions/vegetables and then dip them together in one of the sauces before devouring them.  They were really delicious.  It was also fun to do your own cooking right there at your table.  I noticed the same silly dance song replayed over and over but it was a relief from the bombardment of Christmas music and football.

As I looked around I noticed I was the only non-Asian in the place.  Everyone was talking in a foreign language.  The table had signs posted in Korean and English that warned that they were not responsible if you stupidly failed to cook your own meat carefully and that you were free to take all you wanted from the buffet but if you left more than an ounce, you would be fined. The amount of the fine was not stated.  With regard to that admonition, the Korean underneath it must have said: "This does not apply to Koreans" because when the mother/son unit beside me left, their table remained piled with uneaten or cooked food.  I had watched them eat plates and plates of food before they left also so it wasn't left because it wasn't tasty. It was very tasty--especially with the sauces.

I went back to the well several times gradually getting more and more adventuresome.  Never could bring myself to try the "large intestines" but really enjoyed the kimchi.  Not sure if I was supposed to heat it up or not but it was good cold.

As I took a break from cooking I again noticed that, sure enough, everyone appeared to be Korean and they were all talking Korean.  I never heard the words Auburn or Alabama or Iron Bowl during the entire meal. I smiled and finished my meal.  Pricey at $14 with a soft drink, but a real change of pace and respite from the soon to be gorged upon Thanksgiving food and football hoopla.  That was until I whipped out my Auburn Spirit Card to pay the tab.  The hostess looked at the card, ran it through the machine and handed it back to me with the receipt and a wry smile.

"Auburn no win. No defense."

Arirang on Urbanspoon