When most people think of pizza in the Midwest, they think of one place: Chicago. And why wouldn’t they? Deep-dish pizza is legendary in the Windy City, and they do it right, piling on the cheese and toppings before covering it all in tomato sauce and baking to perfection. The slices are big, hot, flavorful, filling, delicious and well-made. There’s no doubt that Chicagoland’s reputation for pizza is well-deserved.
Far fewer people know about Quad-City style pizza, and truthfully, that’s a good thing that it’s not as well-known as Chicago, because the pizza we serve here in the Q-C is frankly an insult to the word pizza. I’m not a pizza elitist like my good friend Will Palaszczuk, who has very strict standards on what is and isn’t a pizza, but I know what is good and what isn’t good, and frankly, Quad-City style pizza not only isn’t good, I wouldn’t even call it edible. It’s cut into thin strips, the crust is about the texture and taste of cardboard, it’s loaded with mediocre toppings and then essentially slathered in grease. I know, it sounds so appetizing.
Problem for me is, people actually like that stuff here. Harris Pizza started this awful trend years ago, and I found out the hard way that it’s popular when I worked for the newspaper here and they would repeatedly bring in Harris whenever they had a night that led them to bring in food for the newsroom (which happens whenever the real news writers have to stay late for a big event), which caused me to adopt the “Even If It’s Free” policy, which means I won’t touch it even if it’s free. It’s sort of a play off the Jacksonville Jaguars’ stance on signing Tim Tebow. But unfortunately, enough people like it that almost all of the local pizza places serve Quad-City style, meaning that if you want pizza, as in something that most people would consider pizza, you either have to go to a chain or conduct an exhaustive search for a place that doesn’t serve it Quad-City style. Or you can make the three-hour trip to Chicago, an option we’ve done a few times. Ames is also an option, but that’s even further than Chicago.
However, less than an hour away from the Q-C sits Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa and some pretty awesome restaurants of its own. At 50 miles away from the far western part of Davenport, Iowa City and its twin city of Coralville are far enough away to be untouched by the sprawl of Quad-City style pizza in this area. In fact, Iowa City actually knows how to do pizza right, and in the most unlikely of places. To find good pizza in Iowa City, you head into Coralville and head to an English pub.
Yes, that’s right, a place that looks more like something you’d see across the pond on a Saturday of watching the Premier League is actually home to some excellent pies, so much so that they’ve been named the best pizza in the Hawkeye State by Zagat. Well, Iowa isn’t exactly a bastion for great pizza, but it is home to Black Market in Ames, and that’s one that I know is good. Throw in an English pub and their uniquely named Flying Tomato pizza, and it was pretty obvious that I was intrigued by the Wig and Pen. Amy felt the same way, so in we stepped, passing an old-style red phone booth on the way in. This place really plays up the fact that it’s an English pub, first and foremost.
As she usually does, Amy decided that she had to try Wig and Pen’s Caesar salad. One of the easiest ways to bring a smile to my wonderful lady’s face is to give her a quality Caesar salad, as she loves the taste of Caesar salad and the freshness of one that’s made properly. She hasn’t found one quite like Woodfire’s grilled Caesar yet, but this one certainly had both quality and size going for it. This salad was so big that Amy quickly realized she had no hope of finishing it all if she wanted pizza, and seeing as how Amy is the kind of person who would be very happy to eat pizza for every meal for a week, she definitely wanted to try some pizza. So I helped finish it, and even though Caesar is not my thing, this was quality. I would have preferred it with a nice ranch dressing, but the lettuce and cheese worked well enough for this to be tasty despite my lack of Caesar fandom. About the only thing Amy wished she could have had here was a breadstick. Small thing, though, as it was still outstanding.
With that out of the way, it was pizza time. Normally, when Amy and I go out for pizza, we can get something to please both of us without much hassle. We like most of the same toppings, which usually makes this a simple process. However, this time, we decided to go for different pizzas, and not because of the toppings, but because of the crusts. Wig and Pen has three of them, and they range in style and thickness. The thin crust and deep dish styles are pretty common at pizza places anywhere, but the third one is fairly unique.
The third one is known as the Flying Tomato, and it’s kind of a hybrid between the two styles. The Flying Tomato is billed as a pan version of Wig and Pen’s pizza and topped with tomato slices along with the mozzarella, which essentially gives you a free topping. It’s something that isn’t easily found, and when I saw that, I knew that it was something I had to try. Amy, on the other hand, isn’t the biggest fan of tomato slices on pizza, so she decided to go for the deep dish pizza. With that being the case, I went with a mix of spinach, mushrooms and black olives along with the tomatoes, while Amy went simple and opted for mushrooms.
Both pizzas were excellent. The Flying Tomato proved even better than advertised because all of the tomato slices were topped with herbs and cheese, providing extra flavor throughout the pizza. The toppings were all fresh and worked in perfect harmony with each other, the dough was a great complement to the cheese and sauce and the top of the pizza was grease-free. Nothing irks me more when a pizza comes out so covered in grease that it needs to be mopped up before you actually eat it, but that’s not a problem here. This was a well-cooked pizza, not to mention a large one. Normally, I can finish a small pizza, but not here, as I had a couple of slices left to bring home and consume for lunch the next day.
Amy found herself in the same situation with her deep dish. The sauce was a high quality and the pizza looked and tasted like what you might expect to find in Chicago. As often happens, we each sampled a bit of each other’s order, and I found her pizza to be very impressive and very enjoyable, although not quite at the level of my own pizza. The Flying Tomato’s style was just something different that I really loved, partially because I happen to really be a fan of fresh tomatoes on pizza and partially because it was so nice to find something in eastern Iowa that could actually call itself pizza and be accurate.
You wouldn’t expect to find good pizza in a restaurant with an English theme, given that the English are much more known for a meal of fish and chips over a pint with the Premier League on the telly. But then again, you also wouldn’t expect to find an English-themed pub in Coralville or Iowa City, so conventional expectations should be thrown out the window here. It’s taken me almost three years to do it, but I’ve finally found a non-chain pizza place within an hour’s trip that I can genuinely enjoy. It’s truly been a long time coming.
Time to go: Lunch if you want to eat in Coralville, as it opens at 11 a.m. every day. Wig and Pen’s eastern location in Iowa City proper opens at 4 p.m., making it a dinner-only option.
Wait during my visit: None. It’s Iowa, you’re not going to wait long for a table unless people are cramming in to watch a Hawkeyes game. That reminds me, don’t go on a Iowa football Saturday unless you love battling traffic.
Location: Wig and Pen’s main location is at 1220 Highway 6 West in Coralville, Iowa. Technically, it has an Iowa City address, but truthfully, nobody is exactly sure where Iowa City ends and Coralville begins, because the restaurant literally 200 feet away has a Coralville address. This might really be a problem for writers who have to cover track or softball at Iowa, because the facilities are right across the street, which means that they might be entirely in one city or that it might be possible to have a ball start in one city and land in the other.
Cost: This can be a bit high, but remember, these are big pizzas, so you’re essentially paying for two meals, not one. That makes the $13 price tag for the basic small pizza easier to stomach. For each topping, you’ll pay $1.55 for small, $1.75 for medium and $1.95 for large. Or, you could just pay for a specialty pizza, such as the Union Jack (Italian sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, onions and red peppers) or the Twickenham (artichokes, garlic, black olives, Roma tomatoes, spinach and feta), which will run $17 for a small and $24 for large. These prices are for Flying Tomato and deep dish only, though, as thin crust is $4 cheaper than Flying Tomato and deep dish, so if you’re on a budget, thin is in.
Parking: Plentiful. With another restaurant next door, you definitely don’t have to worry about finding a spot to park…unless, of course, the Hawkeyes are at home on Saturday.
Seating arrangement: Think wooden booths like your typical English pub, and you’ve got the picture.
Website: Wig and Pen
Specialty items: Flying Tomato pizza
Throughout this country, when there’s a big city, there’s usually an iconic food that goes with it. In Chicago, for example, it’s the deep dish pizza. Minneapolis has the Juicy Lucy, Baltimore has the crab cake, Cleveland has the Polish Boy and Kansas City delivers with barbecue. Even smaller cities, such as Louisville with the Hot Brown and Butte with the pasty, have their own signature foods. But in out nation’s capital, the closest large city to my native state of Virginia, the joke for the longest time was that our signature food was…absolutely nothing.
Truth be told, for the entire time that I lived in the Washington area, that was pretty accurate. Sure, we had some pretty awesome restaurants throughout the capital, and still do, with Ben’s Chili Bowl being almost as much of a Washington landmark as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the past half-century. But as good as the chili half-smokes are, great chili on a sausage isn’t exclusive to Washington, as Cincinnati and Detroit have made that part of their cuisines for decades before Ben’s opened, so it was sadly out of the running for being a true signature.
The simple fact was that with so many cultures in the nation’s capital, there wasn’t anything that could actually establish itself because of how many different tastes the city had. That only continued when Adam Richman visited Washington in season 2 of Man vs. Food…and had to conduct his challenge in Annapolis, Md., which is actually closer to Baltimore than it is to Washington, Soon after, Food Network released a potato skin for every team in the NFL based on their city’s cuisine…and couldn’t come up with anything for Washington, settling on redskin potatoes for the Redskins. That one came out when I was living in Idaho, and at the time, I thought that was simply the way it was and the way it always would be for the home of politics.
But a funny thing happened since I left Virginia. Amazingly, Washington, the city that can’t agree on what day of the week it is, has actually created a taste of its own in the past three years: the gourmet cupcake. I’d hate to think about how that would taste on a potato skin, but over the past few years, cupcake-only bakeries have been popping up all over the Washington area. Truthfully, it was New York that started cupcakes with Magnolia Bakery, but Washington was the city that really got it going in the form of Cupcake Wars and D.C. Cupcakes. Georgetown Cupcake was the first one in the nation’s capital, but since it opened in 2008, it’s had several top rivals challenge for its crown.
One of the strongest contenders for the throne is Red Velvet Cupcakery, which has locations both inside the city and in suburban Reston, Va., which has quickly become a hot spot for young adults in northern Virginia. What’s made Red Velvet so strong in the cupcake trend is its commitment to quality ingredients and its penchant for creating excellent flavors. Since their opening in 2008, their commitment has been to go local when possible and spare no expense in using the finest ingredients available in their cupcakes. They want to be judged by the highest standards possible, and that’s the way they prepare every cupcake they sell.
The most obvious example of this is in their Devil’s Food cake, which features some of the best ingredients to grace the inner wrapper of a cupcake. The Devil’s Food features a chocolate buttermilk cake topped with a ganache made from Valrhona chocolate, a luxury French chocolate that is used in some of the finest desserts imaginable. Bern’s Steak House has used it for years in its famed dessert room, and Red Velvet puts it to good use with its firm ganache atop the chocolate cake. As if that wasn’t enough luxury for this cupcake, Red Velvet goes the extra mile and tops it with edible gold. Yes, that small speck in the center of the ganache that looks like foil is genuine 24 karat gold. Pretty impressive stuff, which is why Amy decided it would be one of her two choices. I have to say, I can’t argue with that, because after all, she is a princess and deserves the luxurious things in life whenever possible.
The taste is just as impressive as the looks. Chocolate overload can be a beautiful thing, and that’s exactly what happens here. I love a good devil’s food cake, and this was well beyond good. The ganache is firm, not melted, and that’s something that really should occur more often atop cakes and cupcakes. The softer frostings have their times and places, but give me the firm and rich ganache on this one any day. Whoever said too much of a good thing is a problem definitely never had this cupcake, as the rich chocolate taste is just incredible.
With the luxury cake out of the way, it’s time to shift the focus to Red Velvet’s signature cupcake, the Southern Belle. As you might have guessed from the name of this place, the Southern Belle is Red Velvet’s red velvet cupcake, topped with cream cheese icing and red sprinkles. A red velvet cake simply isn’t proper without whipped cream cheese icing, and this icing is epic on top of a perfectly baked cupcake. They claim this one is an essential experience for the first time guest, and as a lover of pretty much anything red velvet, I knew this one had to be one of mine. I loved this one, but amazingly, it wasn’t even my favorite one that I tried here.
That one would actually go to the peanut butter cup cupcake, which is something that I know my future in-laws would absolutely love. Both Amy’s mother and sister are huge fans of peanut butter and chocolate, and so am I, dating back to my days of having a peanut butter silk pie at every chance I got. This cupcake’s peanut butter topping was silky smooth and worked wonderfully with the chocolate buttermilk cupcake base underneath the frosting. The small peanut on top was another nice touch and shows yet again that Red Velvet is going to go the extra mile when it comes to the details. I love when places do that.
For Amy’s final selection, she decided to go for something that seems normal on the surface, but is actually pretty unique when you get to the interior. Amy loves the taste of cookies and cream, and Red Velvet’s cookies and cream cupcake actually includes pieces of cookies baked into the cupcake, before topping the cake with buttercream icing and adding cookie crumbs to the top for the final signature touch. Both of us really enjoyed this one, which tasted like an Oreo cookie in cupcake form. Getting the crisp cookie inside the cake was an extra treat, and it really showed yet again the lengths Red Velvet is willing to go to make sure that its cupcakes are as good as they can possibly be.
That’s the beauty of competition, and it’s what makes sure certain foods become icons in their cities. No food can become legendary without competitors, because that’s what pushes those who make said food to make sure that it really is the best in their city. When that happens, everybody wins. Red Velvet might not have been the first one to make cupcakes in the Washington area, but it’s certainly making a case to be one of the best. A commitment to quality is always a great recipe, and when you’ve got the ability to turn great ingredients into great flavors, you’ve really got something special.
Time to go: This is a very nice thing about Red Velvet, as it’s open until 11 p.m. in Washington every night, opening at 9 a.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. on weekends. In Reston, it’s reversed. It opens at 11 a.m. every day and closes at 9 p.m. from Sunday to Thursday and at 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
Wait during my visit: None. Cupcakes don’t take very long to get.
Location: The one we visited was in the Reston Town Center, across from The Counter at 11939 Democracy Drive. In Washington, it’s in Penn Quarter at 505 7th Street in Northwest Washington. There is also a location in Doha, Qatar. No, I’m not kidding.
Cost: Gourmet cupcakes are not cheap. You’re going to pay about $3 to $3.50 for each cupcake. Definitely worth it, however.
Parking: Depending on which location you visit, this will either be “plentiful” or “don’t even think about it”. In the Reston Town Center, garages are located all over the area, and you can park for a nominal fee, unless it’s a weekend, when parking is free. In Washington, it’s one street south of the Verizon Center, which houses the NHL’s Capitals and the NBA’s Wizards. Basically, a sports stadium or arena in the District means don’t even try parking there. Just take the Yellow or Green Line of Metro to Gallery Place/Chinatown (which spits you out directly under the Verizon Center) and head down 7th to E Street.
Seating arrangement: N/A in Reston. We picked up our cupcakes and ate at our hotel. I don’t know if seats are at the Washington location.
Website: Red Velvet Cupcakery
Specialty items: Cupcakes
Before I get to my latest restaurant review, I have to say how amazed I am to be writing my 100th post on Dan vs. Food. It’s truly amazing to me that people across the world actually want to read my restaurant reviews, and it’s been quite a fun ride that will only continue as Amy and I journey together and travel across the country.
This one was substantially closer to home, as Amy and I discovered a place that mirrors our story. After months of meeting up in each other’s home cities, with her coming to Iowa and me going to Tampa, Amy decided to join me in the north last year, bravely leaving the only life she had ever known to start all over and spend her life with me. It’s been nearly 11 months since she made the move, and while some parts have been difficult for her to adjust to (such as the ice storms, the lack of a Publix grocery store and living in a substantially smaller and more isolated location than Tampa), she’s done a great job and our relationship is amazing. We’ve spent two years together now, and I’m so lucky I have her.
Jess Streit knows exactly what that feels like, because a couple years ago, he decided to leave Florida when his girlfriend landed a job in Cedar Rapids, moving to the north to be with her. Much like Amy, he faced a cultural adjustment as the things that he had known for years in Florida were no longer available in Iowa. Some of those things he could handle, but the one that he could not was the complete lack of Cuban restaurants in the Hawkeye State.
As anyone from Florida can tell you, the Cuban sandwich is dominant in both Miami and Tampa, and you can find good Cubans pretty much anywhere in those two cities. The Miami Cuban includes pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mayonnaise, mustard and pickles on pressed Cuban bread, while the Tampa Cuban, because of Italian immigrants, includes salami. It’s one of Amy’s favorite things about the cuisine of her home city (along with Wright’s, which nothing in Iowa has ever come close to matching), and it’s a delicacy that I’ve also enjoyed on occasion. But it’s very much a Florida delicacy, because as Amy discovered when she moved here, you can’t find Cuban bread in Iowa, and without that, you can’t have a real Cuban, no matter what some places try to claim is a Cuban.
Well, after a few months in Cedar Rapids, Jess Streit discovered the exact same thing for himself, and it wasn’t long before he decided that enough was enough. As much as he loved his girlfriend, there were certain things he needed to have in order to be comfortable in his new state, and one of those was Cuban food. Without the comforts of home, he felt lost in Iowa, and from that feeling came a restaurant idea. Armed with his grandparents’ recipes, Streit decided to put his feelings out there for all in the City of Five Seasons to see, opening The Lost Cuban in October of 2012.
As its name implies, The Lost Cuban brings the flavors of Cuba and Florida to the Midwest, which is actually something that has never before been done in the entire state of Iowa. The Hawkeye State is good at a lot of things food-wise, but southern and Caribbean cuisine aren’t among those areas of strength. The approach of farm-to-table works well with corn and beef, but not so much with guava and mangoes.
But when you know what you’re doing, you can make any cuisine succeed anywhere, even in an area that has never seen it before. The main way that’s done is authenticity, and that is where The Lost Cuban really shines. From the moment you step into the restaurant and spot the Cuban imagery covering the small walls, it’s clear that this is about as close as you can get to a real Cuban meal without actually making the trip to Florida or Havana.
What that means is a good mixture of beans, rice and Cuban bread, which is by far the most essential part of the experience, as Amy has said many times. Cuban bread is plentiful in the southeast and is available not only at restaurants, but in most grocery stores as well. But in the north, Cuban bread just isn’t found, which is why Amy has been so skeptical whenever she’s seen a Cuban sandwich on a restaurant’s menu here. If it isn’t on Cuban bread, it just isn’t a Cuban, a point that Amy has made many times.
This time, however, she was excited to make the trip and taste the sandwich for herself, because The Lost Cuban knows exactly what it’s doing when it comes to the bread. The bread has to be baked a certain way to come out properly, which leads to a perfectly pressed Cuban sandwich when done correctly. At The Lost Cuban, it’s a Miami-style Cuban, which leaves out the salami, and it’s simply outstanding. When I looked at Amy, I saw a look on her face that said that she’d finally been reunited with something she’d been missing for too long. It’s a look that I know quite well, having seen it from her at places in Tampa and having displayed it myself when I find myself with the chance to enjoy things such as Five Guys or Kopp’s.
Along with the authenticity and the quality of ingredients, the other thing that makes the Cubans here work so well is the sauce that is offered along with it. The Lost Cuban offers three main sauces along with the sandwich, with my favorite being a sweet and smoky sauce that offers “a little bit of sweet and a little bit of heat”, with the heat actually coming from some habaneros and the sweetness coming from both the habaneros and other sources such as mangoes and guava. It really works well with the ham, pork and Swiss, and I ended up dunking most of my sandwich in it.
Amy opted for the second sauce, which is more of a heated, smoky flavor without the sweetness. As we’ve established many times before, her spice tolerance is a heck of a lot higher than mine, and the smokiness worked perfectly for her. I found it a little bit too hot, although the taste still worked quite well. The third sauce is labeled the Cuban Missile Crisis, which includes the infamous ghost chile. Needless to say, Amy and I are nowhere near that crazy, and when it was mentioned to us, both of us just laughed.
Along with the Cubans come rice and beans, which mix perfectly together. The black beans are mixed in with vegetables and were another part of the Florida diet that Amy had really been missing. The juices give the rice the flavor it needs to go from solid to outstanding, and it’s a perfect complement to the Cuban. The Lost Cuban offers the sandwich with rice, beans and a drink as its special on a regular basis, and it’s definitely the way to go if you want the real Cuban experience for a reasonable price.
The real experience is always what means the most, and that’s where The Lost Cuban really shines, because it brings something to Iowa that didn’t exist before and it does it the right way. It’s not going to be quite as good as a Cuban in Florida, simply because of the distance the ingredients have to travel to get to the north from the southeast. But it is going to be a delicious and authentic recreation of the sandwich and sides that Tampa and Miami have perfected over the past century, and that’s all you can really ask for.
There’s a reason that the City of Five Seasons has named this place its top restaurant after just over one year. It’s because when you have something unique and you do it well, people will embrace it. As a result, The Lost Cuban has found a home, and an authentic Cuban is no longer something that requires an Iowan to get on a plane. I know that’s something that Amy and any other Florida natives up here definitely appreciate.
Time to go: Don’t go on Sunday, because it’s closed on Sundays. It’ll be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays and stays open until 7 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday and 9 p.m. on Fridays. On Saturday, it opens at 1 p.m. and closes at 8 p.m.
Wait during my visit: None. We came right when it opened and were the first ones served.
Location: The Lost Cuban is at 209 3rd Street SE in downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Cost: Not bad, but not quite Aguila’s. A Cuban special will cost you $8, which is perfectly reasonable. You’ll be hard-pressed to top $15 a person, and that’s if you don’t get a special.
Parking: This can be a problem. Cedar Rapids doesn’t have a lot of it, and there is no parking lot here. Your best bet is to hope to get lucky with street parking, or find a garage. The good news is that the meters on the street are free on Saturdays. They’re free on Sunday too, but that doesn’t help you because The Lost Cuban is closed on Sunday.
Seating arrangement: This can be an issue, as the thin stools can be wobbly and are also not made to support bigger bodies. Amy and I were OK with the size of the stools, although her stool was one of the unbalanced ones and had to be swapped out before we were able to eat. If you’re a bigger person, though, you might be in for a bit of an uncomfortable experience sitting down for too long.
Website: None as of yet, but they are working on one. They are on Facebook, and they do offer specials via Facebook.
Specialty items: Cuban sandwiches
Long before this journey began, I knew that this was one of the places that I wanted to experience at some point in my life. Put simply, Bern’s is one of the most famous restaurants not just in the Tampa Bay area, but in the entire country. This is a steakhouse that set itself out to be the best at what it does, and that means that it’s one of the rare places that had its fame go far beyond its borders long before the days of the Travel Channel, Food Network and the Internet.
I’ve personally known about Bern’s since the 1990′s, and I’ve been waiting for the day that I’d finally visit ever since then. A year ago, as a special surprise for her birthday, Amy and I got a taste of Bern’s by visiting the dessert room, which is an experience on its own. But as great as the dessert room was, it’s only a part of the true Bern’s experience. To get the real experience, one has to go through every part of a Bern’s visit, which means dinner and the dessert room in one visit. It was something that I thought would happen eventually, but as I said last time, I didn’t think I’d be able to afford it for another two years.
But with a little bit of careful budgeting and planning, Amy and I were able to make it work on our most recent trip to Tampa. After fighting our way through a massive rainstorm that stretched across the entire East Coast and shut down airports in colder cities, we handed the keys to the valet in front of Bern’s (a required part of the Bern’s experience, as there is no other parking available there) and headed into the deceptively small restaurant to begin our evening.
Just as it was when we came to the dessert room, it was clear that we had stepped into elegance. This is a place that segments its dining areas throughout the restaurant and has only one window in the entire building, which is not even in a place that’s visible to customers. Unlike the dessert room, which is first come, first served, a reservation is pretty much required when you come for dinner. If you don’t have one, you’ll be lucky to get a table at all, and even if you do have one, you might still have to wait. After all, when you’re going to a restaurant for an experience, you’re not going to be rushing yourself, and Bern’s isn’t about to ask people to rush. In fact, they encourage you to fully bask in every part of the evening.
Unfortunately, depending on your luck, that can have a slight drawback. If you do visit Bern’s, learn from our mistake and ask if there’s any way that you can avoid being seated in the same room as a large group, because Bern’s segmented areas means that it is NOT a good spot for large groups, because the noise bounces around a much smaller area. We were unfortunate enough to be seated near a group of 12 people, and as soon as they left, the room’s ambiance became much more intimate and romantic. I do wish that Bern’s would assign couples to one area of the restaurant and louder groups to another, because that would make for a much better atmosphere for all parties involved. But that said, our experience was still enjoyable, even with that drawback.
What makes a trip to Bern’s special is the quality of the service and the quality of the food. Ever since the days of Bern Laxer, the founder of the restaurant, Bern’s has billed itself as a true culinary experience, a tradition that has continued under his son David. Even the wine is something unique, as Bern’s boasts one of the largest wine cellars in the world and has bottles of wine available from all over the country, some of which are more expensive than your average journalist’s salary.
Yes, Bern’s offers bottles of wine for sale that cost over $30,000, all of which are either stored on-site in the wine cellar or stored in a private area near the restaurant. Because it takes its wine so seriously, Bern’s asks that if wine is your thing, you place your order at the beginning of your meal before anything else, which will allow them to properly prepare it for your maximum enjoyment. If you want, you’re allowed to take a tour of the wine cellar after your meal is over, which is a pretty cool experience. Each bottle is stored at the perfect temperature, and the massive collection of bottles is just awe-inspiring. The wine cellar tour is the second half of a tour that includes a tour of the Bern’s kitchen, allowing you to see just how much work goes into every bit of your meal. They say they do things differently here, and they really do mean it.
The menu is more like a book than a traditional menu (and the wine list really is a book, coming in at around 300 pages), all of which go into detail explaining the process for each of their offerings. The appetizers are broken down by what the main ingredient, including beef, poultry, vegetarian, seafood, foie gras and caviar. We weren’t about to break the bank for an ounce of caviar (although Bern’s does fly it in fresh), so we decided to start our meal with something unique that would appeal to both of our palates: a lobster cocktail.
Basically, it’s a shrimp cocktail times about 100 in terms of awesomeness. The lobster cocktail includes fresh Maine lobster tossed with citrus mayonnaise, and gets served with whipped avocado, mango and other greens, along with thinly cut gaufrette potatoes, which basically means potatoes that have been woven into a thin waffle-type shape and fried.
The lobster is quite simply incredible. The meat is amazing, and the avocado and mango flavors complement it beautifully. The potatoes are simply an added touch to show that yeah, they can go for the fantastic in terms of presentation, because that’s what they do. The taste of the potatoes with the avocado and lobster is simply unmatched. Honestly, the lobster cocktail is so good that Bern’s deserves recognition based on that alone.
But this is only the beginning of the Bern’s story. From there, Bern’s shifts to its standard offerings of soup and salad, which are pretty high-brow. All entrees come with both a house salad and French onion soup, which can be troublesome if those aren’t your thing, because substitutions are not allowed. That’s really a shame, because Bern’s has two other soups available, its vichyssoise and lobster bisque, both of which appear to be worth experiencing. In fact, Bern’s even has an option for trying all three of the soups. But unfortunately, anyone who takes any of those options will pay for the soup a la carte, which means adding roughly $12 to your bill for a bowl of soup.
Costly, but sometimes it’s worth it, because Amy is not a big onion fan and wanted to go with the lobster bisque. Truthfully, the bisque is pretty good, using golden mushrooms, corn and bacon, but it’s missing the large chunks of lobster that were present in Carmel’s version. This was honestly a tad disappointing, even though it’s still a very tasty soup. By blending the lobster meat into the soup so thoroughly, the soup is filled with lobster taste, but the lack of the meat is a slight drawback.
By contrast, I thoroughly enjoyed my French onion. The soup was hot and flavorful from first bite to last, and the cheese melted on top of it was perfection. When you make as many of these as Bern’s does, you’re bound to get really, really good at it, and I suppose that’s why every entree gets the French onion. They know it’s something they do incredibly well. Throw in some pretty awesome bread, and you really can’t go wrong here.
The salad is again amazing. Bern’s offers 10 house-made dressings available, and as many of its vegetables as possible are grown organically on the restaurant’s farm. Bern’s pays so much attention to detail on the salad that they actually peel the tomato before adding it to your salad. Having never had a peeled tomato before, I was amazed at just how good it can be without the skin.
The buttermilk ranch was also incredibly creamy and worked well with everything on the salad. I loved every bite of it, and was thoroughly impressed at just how much work goes into making a salad of that quality. From the hard boiled eggs to the green peppers to the marinated olives, everything was fresh and fantastic. You can’t ask for anything more.
After all that, it was time to get to the main reason that one comes to Bern’s: the steaks. Bern’s offers several different cuts of meat, all aged to their specifications, and does not cut any of its steaks until after a customer has placed their order. The reason is because they want the steak to be of the highest quality, and one size fits all does not really work for steaks. Instead, thin steaks are better when served medium well or higher, while thicker steaks are better when cooked less than medium well. As we’ve discussed before, they don’t miss a thing in this place. That means juicy steaks are served here, and they’re totally worth the high cost.
I decided to go with the 10-ounce Delmonico, wanting flavor marbled throughout my steak. If a place like Bern’s calls it the best beef eating in the world, that’s good enough for me. Flavor was certainly what I got. The steak was cooked to perfection, and they’re not kidding when they say that no sauce is needed because of the flavor and juice. Every bite was ridiculously flavorful, and even the bits of fat on the steak are worth eating. Bern’s isn’t concerned about looks on the steaks, because they know that this is their specialty. Unlike the lobster cocktail, where they’re trying to impress you with presentation, this time, they’re all about the taste.
It’s an approach I really appreciated it, because when it all comes down to it, the most important part of a culinary experience is whether the food tastes good, not whether it looks good. If it tastes great and looks so-so, that’s much better than the reverse. The steak was wonderful, and I would love the chance to try the other steaks that Bern’s offers. Whatever your steak preferences are, chances are you’ll be satisfied, but I can definitely vouch for the Delmonico.
The sides were just as awesome. Bern’s offers a fully loaded baked potato, crisply fried onion rings and two vegetables of the evening with all of its steaks. The vegetables of the evening can be anything that Bern’s has on its farm, and are served with all entrees. As with the cocktail presentation, this is a great example of Bern’s showing off. They’re so proud of their farm that they’ll give seconds or even thirds of the vegetables of the evening at no extra charge, if a customer asks. On our visit, we were served carrots and some kind of leafy green vegetable, which I believe was spinach. Whatever it was, it was incredible.
But the real stars of the sides are the baked potato and the onion strings. The baked potato is huge and has the flavor of condiments throughout it, while the onion strings are a perfect complement to the steak. Honestly, I was tempted to ask for more of the onion strings, and I’m not even the biggest fan of onion rings. But these things were that good.
Unfortunately, they’re also part of a very misleading part of Bern’s menu. Bern’s menu says that all entrees come with the baked potato and onion strings, but that isn’t the truth. The non-steaks occasionally have their own sides that come with the meal, and if that’s the case, the baked potato and onion strings are superseded and replaced by the sides that come with that menu item. We didn’t end up finding this out until Amy’s order arrived sans potato, and I felt horrible for her as a result, even though she of course said it was fine. She’s so incredibly sweet.
Not being a beef eater, Amy opted for the Chicken Bern, which is marinated, spiced, sauteed and served with rice pilaf and crispy shiitake mushrooms. As with the lobster bisque, it was good, but not great. The soy sauce that it’s served with didn’t really work as well as it should have, which was a bit of a disappointment. As my uncle Phil, who used to live in Tampa, told me before we went, it’s best to stick with the steaks, as that’s what Bern’s has built its reputation on through its history. I felt really bad for Amy, but the good news was that it was time to head to the dessert room.
Just as it was the first time, the dessert room was magical. This time, we decided to start by trying one of their specialty cheeses, which can be bought at $6 for an ounce. Incredibly costly, but something we decided was worth the experience to sample something unique. That ended up being the triple goat brie, which was incredibly creamy and great with strawberries. The cheese definitely isn’t something to get all the time, but it’s worth trying at least once on a dessert room visit, where the ambiance allows you to really enjoy something that exquisite.
For the desserts, of course, our choice was to go with the pie. Truthfully, it was a difficult decision, because everything on the menu looked amazing, but the main thing that we knew was that the banana cheese pie had to make a return appearance. I’ve tried to make my own, and even though it was good, it just doesn’t compare to what Bern’s produces. This pie is heaven on a graham cracker crust, and we would have been crazy not to try it. I’m all for new experiences most times, but really, that wasn’t going to be necessary this time for one of our choices.
For the other, however, we could afford to look around. We didn’t look far, though, because we both wanted to try something chocolate. Of course, that meant going with the chocolate cheese pie, which is much like the banana cheese pie in the fact that it’s also an incredibly delicious mousse. The chocolate is so rich and the whipped cream so fresh that this one ranks right up there with the banana cheese pie in terms of awesomeness. I honestly wasn’t sure which one of these two should rank higher. With the chocolate shavings, the chocolate pie scores even more points, but the fresh bananas at the bottom of the pie are totally unmatched. For a really awesome taste, you can also mix both and get a chocolate-covered banana pie. Every bite is incredibly awesome, and we might not ever get around to trying any of the other desserts. These are that good.
By the time it was over, we had spent more than three hours inside Bern’s, engrossed in the full experience. That’s a testament to just how incredible this place really is. The food is amazing, but it’s not just about the food here. From the decor to the kitchens to the wine cellar to the burgundy ties that show a waiter is still learning the job, it truly is an experience to see just how much can go into one meal from long before you arrive until the moment you finally leave. At most places, dinner is just a meal, no matter how good it is. At Bern’s, it’s truly an event, and it’s something that has to be experienced in person to really be believed.
Time to go: Dinner, and make a reservation. Bern’s is only open from 5 to 10 p.m. most nights, and it can get ridiculously packed. Call ahead and save yourself the trouble. When you do get your table, you can also book your tour of the kitchen and wine cellar, plus your seat in the dessert room, if you’re so inclined.
Wait during my visit: Minimal, because of our reservation. If you don’t have one, there’s a good chance you don’t get in at all.
Location: Bern’s can be found at 1208 South Howard Avenue in the southern part of Tampa, Fla.
Cost: Oh boy. Doing things differently does not come cheap. Even without wine, you can easily top triple digits at this place, which we did. One thing to keep in mind here is that tipping works a little differently here in the main dining room. Regardless of party size, Bern’s will automatically add a 12 percent tip to your bill, and anything on top of that is up to you, so if you normally leave 15 percent, you’ll only need to add 3 percent to your bill to reach what you want to leave. In the dessert room, however, that rule does not apply, and you should tip as you normally do in other restaurants. We budgeted $160 for this meal, and that was where it ended up.
Parking: Valet only, and you will pay $5 for the privilege.
Seating arrangement: Tables in the main dining rooms, booths in the dessert room.
Specialty items: Steaks, lobster cocktail, cheese pie
Yes, this seems like a great idea: have the non-alcoholic write about a wine bar. Actually, if you’ll bear with me, it really is. On the surface, this would seem to be like having Amy do a review of a steakhouse, but Carmel is far from just a wine bar. Sure, the Tampa Bay chain’s focus is mainly on wine, and for good reason, because it has quite the collection of wines going for it. But there’s also the cafe portion of Carmel’s name to focus on, and it’s really an underappreciated gem, mainly because of how different the upscale atmosphere is.
Right from the beginning, it’s clear that things are different here, because Carmel doesn’t stick to the traditional system of telling a waiter or waitress what you want to order. You will have a waiter or waitress to assist you, but when you sit down, you’ll be handed an iPad along with the normal paper menu. The reason is simple: Carmel is all about giving the customer the freedom to choose the experience that they want. If you’re not really interested in waiter interaction, it’s totally optional. In fact, you actually don’t have to speak to the waiter at all if you don’t want to.
The reason is because the iPad serves as both a menu and your own server. If you want to place an order for a certain food item or a wine, all you have to do is find it on your iPad and send it to the kitchen. The second you do, your order is sent back and will come out as soon as it’s finished. If you’ve ever gotten annoyed about a waiter rushing you, that’s not a problem at Carmel, because you’re in control. The iPad will even suggest drinks to pair with the food you’ve ordered, which is a very nice touch. Clearly, this is an idea for the future, and it’s probably going to expand as time goes on. It’s just a great way to put yourself in control.
However, if you’re the kind of person who just can’t get used to ordering from an iPad, or if you just want some human interaction, not to worry. Carmel’s wait staff, possibly because they don’t have to pressure the customer to order at certain times, are some of the best in the business. Our server that night was a friendly guy named Chris, and quite honestly, Chris proved himself worthy of enshrinement in the Jimmy Lopez Hall of Fame because of how professional he was from beginning to end. Repeatedly, he stopped by to check in, without ever once interrupting the atmosphere or flow of our meal. That’s a rare skill for a server to have, and when you get a server like that, consider yourself fortunate. If you’re lucky enough to get Chris as your server, you’re in for a first-class experience.
Now, on to what else makes Carmel a first-class experience, which would be the food. Truthfully, Amy had been waiting to take me here for a long time ever since she had been for appetizers and drinks with her friends when she lived in Tampa, and with us in the Sunshine State for Thanksgiving, this was the perfect time for us to experience it together. Without question, after receiving some breadsticks and sauce to snack on, our first plate that we tried was going to be Nan’s Goat Cheese, which Amy had tried on her first visit here.
As soon as Amy tasted it, she knew that we had to come here, mainly because I love high-quality goat cheese. I don’t know what it is that makes it so creamy, but when goat cheese is good, it is really good, and it’s simply one of my favorite tastes of any food. So when Amy told me she had a goat cheese appetizer that I had to try, well, this was something that I had to experience.
Holy cow, was this amazing. First, Carmel serves what they call a drunken goat cheese, which means that the goat cheese is soaked in white wine to give it another layer of flavor. Even as a non-alcoholic, I can certainly appreciate the flavors that come with alcohol, and the wine that the cheese is soaked in is a perfect complement. Second, the goat cheese comes with olives, crackers, sun-dried tomatoes and cloves of garlic, all of which are available for dunking in the cheese. The garlic is mild and buttery, a really nice treat. For a real culinary experience, try all three with goat cheese on a cracker. I did multiple times and loved the multitude of flavors going on at one time.
Third, as I mentioned before, when goat cheese is good, it’s really good, and this one was really good. The cheese is mild and creamy, creating an incredible taste that melds well with all of the flavors on the plate. Goat cheese is at its best when its texture is allowed to shine, and this was about as good as it gets. As far as appetizers go, this one is very tough to top.
Didn’t mean we weren’t going to try. While looking over our menus, Chris pointed out a special of a three-course meal that included an appetizer, soup and an entree, all for a price that was roughly about the cost of one entree. Needless to say, given how Amy and I like to experience as much of a menu as possible, we decided this was the way for us to go, and started off with a combination of edamame hummus and chickpea fries to split between us.
Both of these were fantastic. Usually, chickpeas and hummus are synonymous with each other, but this time, the chickpeas are formed into the traditional fry shape and come out looking more like Belgian frites. Whichever one of those two they are, the fries/frites are simply fantastic. They’re served with tomato jam and curry aioli, which basically serve as a much, much higher brow version of ketchup and mustard. I’m not the biggest fan of curry myself, but I absolutely loved this. The tomato jam is a little on the sweet side, which is a nice change of pace from the curry and works great with the chickpeas. It’s pretty dang awesome. The edamame hummus is also excellent. Dipping crackers into pureed edamame is a little bit different, but when the soybeans are of this quality, it’s totally worth the change.
The second course was the soup, and this time, there was going to be no sharing. Let’s be honest, it’s really darn hard to share soup, and truthfully, we didn’t want to do it anyway, because the soup in question was Carmel’s lobster bisque. Both of us love the taste of pretty much anything that comes out of the ocean, and with this being topped with truffle oil, I had a feeling that this soup was going to rank right up there with the best.
Sometimes, I know exactly what I’m talking about. This soup was simply perfect. We both love creamy soups, and this bisque had the perfect amount of cream to create a fantastic texture. At the same time, the flavor was unmatched. A proper lobster bisque is darn hard and time consuming to make because so much flavor comes from boiling the lobsters and getting the taste out of the shells, but Carmel’s version does the trick. Even better, this thing is loaded with chunks of lobster meat. Every spoonful of soup had a nice amount of lobster on it, and the lobster was succulent. I honestly can’t think of a single way that this could have been better. Seriously, I could have just eaten the lobster bisque, and not only would I have been satisfied, but Carmel’s spot would be earned on that alone.
But the story doesn’t end there. No, we still had our entrees to come, and for me, that meant pumpkin ravioli. I love pretty much all pastas, especially filled ones, and the idea of pumpkin ravioli was intriguing to me. Throw in a sage cream sauce, and you’ve got a pretty good combination there.
With pecans added to top it off, this dish is basically autumn on a hot plate, and I was very pleased with it. This being the Thanksgiving season when we visited, this was a perfect combination for the season.
As she usually does, Amy opted to go a little bit hotter than I did, choosing a Moroccan lemon chicken with pine nuts, olives and lemon, along with a vegetable couscous. This was an excellent blend, as the lemon really stands out along with the vegetables, creating a really unique flavor that she genuinely enjoyed. Personally, I preferred my meal, but that’s not to say hers wasn’t very good. It really was, it’s just a little spicier than my tastes run. As someone who enjoys the heat, Amy found it to be the perfect spice level.
That doesn’t even mention the small side dishes we chose to sample, as Amy opted for seasoned fries while I added mashed cauliflower. If you’ve never had mashed cauliflower before, it’s a really interesting texture. It’s a little liked mashed potatoes, but more lumpy and with an obviously different taste. It’s pretty healthy and it tastes pretty great, which is definitely a winning combination.
For something a bit more mainstream, Amy went with the fries, which were also pretty dang good themselves.
Even after all of that, we still weren’t done. After all, this is a wine bar, which means two things: One, the alcohol is probably very good (and Amy tells me that it is, after she sampled a couple glasses). Two, if the alcohol is good, that means any dessert that has the alcohol involved is also going to be good. With that in mind, and given my love of pears, the poached pear was an obvious choice.
I love poached pear, so much so that I’ve made it a couple times in cheesecake. Truthfully, one of the best things about it is how good it makes my apartment smell, because the wine that the pears soak in is mixed with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, which makes any kitchen it’s in smell wonderful. I don’t know what the kitchen smelled like at Carmel after poaching this pear, but with vanilla ice cream and caramel on our pear, I do know that this thing had every flavor working beautifully for it. The alcohol was a wonderful complement to the other sweet flavors, and I was absolutely thrilled with this dessert’s quality. There wasn’t a thing wrong with it, and it served as the perfect finish to a surprisingly amazing meal.
It’s almost inconceivable that a meal of several small plates at a wine bar can be this fantastic, but that’s the culture that Carmel has created here. It’s not your typical restaurant experience, and that’s the way that Carmel likes it. If you’re willing to embrace something different and give your tastes a new experience, you’re going to find something that’s pretty darn incredible in one of the most welcoming and laid-back atmospheres you could expect to find. It’s certainly an experience worth seeking out in south Tampa.
Time to go: Lunch if you have a tight budget, dinner if you can afford to spend a little more. The prices are a little bit lower at lunch, so if you’re trying to save, go early.
Wait during my visit: None. This place should get more traffic, but does not.
Location: Carmel Cafe is in south Tampa, located at 3601 W. Swann Avenue, on the corner of Swann, Henderson and Himes. For some reason, the city planner of Tampa came up with the idea of a diagonal street cutting through the city and decided that couldn’t possibly go wrong, so three roads meet here.
Cost: It isn’t cheap, but it isn’t bad. Appetizers can cost about $5 to $7, while soup is $3 to $4 and entrees range from $8 to $16. A word of warning here: if you’re going to be ordering appetizers or sides, you really don’t need the large entrees. The small will work just fine.
Parking: No challenge. Parking is abundant.
Seating arrangement: This can be in booths, tables and chairs, couches or stools. Take what makes you comfortable and adds to the atmosphere.
Specialty items: Poached pear, lobster bisque
If you took any Spanish in either high school or college, you might be surprised to see a restaurant with that name showing up on this blog. After all, Caliente translates to “hot”, and although that isn’t the same thing as spicy (that would be picante), it isn’t too far off. As we’ve established in the past, even when the pain is pleasurable, I’m still not the biggest fan of spicy foods. But Amy loves the heat, and as I’ve made it my mission to reach every Man vs. Food place I can, I couldn’t skip out on this one.
But luckily for me, Caliente is much more than pure heat. In fact, Caliente is one of the most diverse restaurants one can find, and certainly one of the most diverse in the capital of the Old Dominion State. What Buz and Ned’s did with barbecue in Richmond, Caliente has done with cuisines. Much like Blue’s Egg, Caliente prides itself on taking what it sees as good from a multitude of cuisines and fusing them onto one menu. Offerings inspired by Creole, Cajun, Carribean, Southwestern and Thai cuisines dot the menu, with Caliente adding its own touches along the way.
This is where the spice comes in. As the name implies, Caliente likes to add some heat wherever it can, which is what you would expect from a place that bills itself as the Hottest Place in Town and offers a challenge known as the Stupid Wings Challenge. The wings are doused in a ridiculously spicy sauce that includes leftover sauce from previous contestants, which has been left to marinate and increase in pain in what is known as “The Container of Poor Judgment”, because only 10 percent of all contestants actually manage to consume the Stupid Wings in a half-hour without the help of any liquids and only one napkin. In short, not the brightest decision to try it.
But fortunately, the spice isn’t always dialed up all the way to 11 (Michelle Branch, ladies and gentlemen). Actually, most of the time, the spice is used properly to create a taste that works with the dish and provides a decent kick, but not one that overpowers the dish. The best example would be the blackened tuna bites, which were the choice Amy and I finally settled on from Caliente’s extensive list of quality appetizers. Runners-up included the buffalo gator bites (alligator doused in buffalo wing sauce), jalapeno corn fritters, Cajun barbecued shrimp and a potato-poblano quesadilla. That’s a pretty impressive arsenal right there.
The tuna bites, however, were totally worth passing all of those up. Caliente uses Cajun spices on the outside of the tuna, which are a little on the spicy side, but really aren’t that hot. What they are is delicious. The tuna is very high quality and tastes great even when you get to the interior, where there are no spices. But if you really want to enjoy them, you have to use the provided remoulade sauce. This stuff is pure gold on the tuna. The marriage of spice and sauce is perfection, and once you try it, you won’t want to eat any more of the tuna without it. The remoulade adds a little heat of its own, but again, it’s not overpowering.
That brings us to the main course, and this might take about as much time as figuring out what to put on a burger at The Counter. There are plenty of options here, ranging from catfish po’ boys (and six other types) to a grilled portabella sandwich with an herbed cheese spread to the brisket and Gouda topped Bender Burger. There are plenty of options here, and even more so if you come for dinner, as Caliente offers several entrees only available after 5 p.m.
But Amy and I passed through Richmond at lunch, so it was sandwich time for us, which certainly wasn’t a problem. After scouring the menu a few times, I finally decided on the Baja, combining turkey with avocado, roasted red peppers and smoked Gouda. There’s no sauce on this sandwich, and truthfully, it doesn’t need any, because it’s excellent the way it is. The most notable thing about it is that much like Lucky’s, Caliente opts to grill the turkey before putting it on the sandwich with the other toppings.
Even better, they put the Gouda right in the middle of the turkey and bookend it with the red pepper touching one bun and the avocado touching the other. The result is delicious turkey and melted cheese, with a small bit of spice that comes from grilling the turkey. If you aren’t used to having a sandwich of grilled turkey, I highly recommend it. Caliente’s was simply incredible.
And yet, it wasn’t even the best sandwich at our table. No, that honor went to Amy’s blackened tilapia reuben, replacing the traditional corned beef with spiced tilapia. Of course, that was the only way Amy would ever have such a sandwich, and the combination of grilled rye, spiced fish, melted Swiss and sauerkraut with Thousand Island was wonderful. As soon as I took a bite of her sandwich, I knew that she had made the better choice, and given the quality of my sandwich, that’s saying something.
But when it came to our fry selection, I had the better order. Truthfully, it didn’t really matter who ordered what with our fries, because when we have multiple unique side dishes available, Amy and I always discuss our options and decide which two we most want to try. We then order both of them and share them between us. It’s kind of our unwritten rule that allows us to experience the most we can on every trip. Have I mentioned how wonderful she is?
Anyway, the fries at Caliente certainly qualify under the unique category, because this is where spice takes a new meaning. These are anything but the standard fries that come with sandwiches across the country. These fries are given your choice of one of 12 seasonings, with options including Cajun, parmesan, wasabi, ranch and ghost chile. I highly recommend staying away from ghost chile, as those things are just nasty in terms of heat.
For our fries, Amy opted for Old Bay seasoning, while I chose black truffle. For those who aren’t familiar with Old Bay (very possible if you aren’t from the East), it’s a spice that’s often used with crab or other types of seafood and is very popular in and near Baltimore. On the fries, it was pretty excellent. Amy chose to pair the fries with wasabi ranch dip, one of 10 dips available when you order the fries. You get one cup of dip with each order of fries, and other options include the remoulade from the tuna bites, jalapeno ketchup, barbecue sauce and chipotle sauce. The wasabi ranch wasn’t spicy, although it was a step up from regular ranch.
My choice of black truffle meant the fries were doused in black truffle oil, which for me basically meant heaven. I love the taste of mushrooms, and truffle oil means intense mushroom flavor. If that wasn’t enough, I added garlic aioli, that beautiful French mayonnaise-like condiment, as my choice of dip. The dip was incredible, as were the oil-soaked fries. Amy also loved the aioli, choosing it as her main dip. Since this trip and the visit to The Counter, Amy has decided that one of the things she’s discovered about herself since dating me is that she loves the taste of garlic aioli. What can I say, it’s pretty darn awesome.
The same can be said of the combination of spices and cultures found in this place, and that’s without experiencing the homemade desserts, which include bananas foster, key lime pie, pina colada bread pudding and “something chocolate”. Yes, that last one is seriously all the detail they give you about the dessert. Must be some kind of secret that you have to taste to appreciate.
No matter what culture you choose to sample here, you’re sure to be satisfied. Some like it hot, and if you’re one who does, you can’t miss out on Caliente.
Time to go: Lunch if you want a sandwich, dinner if you don’t. The restaurant is open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., then closes for three hours before opening again for dinner. Strangely, they do not list a time when they close, which means you could go late, but are likely playing with fire if you do.
Wait during my visit: None. We came during the day on a Friday, and that meant we didn’t have to deal with students. Your wait will likely be magnified if you come when Virginia Commonwealth is playing a basketball game, as Caliente serves as a home for Rams fans.
Location: Caliente is at 2922 Park Avenue in Richmond, Va., in the Museum District.
Cost: The prices aren’t bad. Plan on about $9 to $10 per sandwich. One awesome thing is that although the seasoned fries are listed at $3.25 each, you are allowed to substitute them for your regular side of chips for a mere 75 cents. Trust me, totally worth it.
Parking: Tricky. Richmond is not exactly great at having parking spaces, and Caliente is in a neighborhood, which makes this one tough. Your best bet is likely going to be street parking near the restaurant.
Seating arrangement: Tables, chairs and booths are available, and if the weather is nice, you can eat outdoors.
Specialty items: Seasoned fries, tuna bites, sandwiches
For as long as the hamburger has been around, people have been coming up with different ways to customize the classic slab of beef on bread to their liking. Sure, the burger might have started from humble beginnings when Louis Lassen created the hamburger in 1895 and only offered cheese, tomato and onion as toppings (and that’s still true at Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Conn., to this day), but as time has gone on, people have gotten more and more adventurous with what they choose to put on their burger.
The hamburger has now been around for 118 years, and from the sheer richness of the Blue Shroom Burger at Vortex to the incredible idea of ham and peppers (among other things) on the signature burger at the Thurman Cafe to the pastrami-topped cheeseburger at Crown Burgers to the inside-out Juicy Lucy to the sheer ridiculousness that is the Johnny B. Goode Burger at Rockies Diner, there’s really not a whole lot that you can’t put between two slices of bread or a bun.
At The Counter, which started in the Los Angeles area and has since made its way as far east as Ireland, that’s exactly the point. If the restaurant serves it, it’s totally fair game, and not just in the typical way of asking a server if you’re allowed to add or substitute something. This, after all, is an L.A.-based restaurant, and if there’s one thing that sums up Los Angeles, it’s that the City of Angels enjoys being a little bit (or a lot) different than everyone else. At a place that proudly boasts “the Counter Culture” and claims it was “anti-established” in 2003, doing things the traditional way would never fly.
Instead, The Counter puts you in complete control by handing you a pencil and an ordering pad, with instructions to pick whatever your heart desires from their ridiculous list of fresh, high-brow toppings, broken down into meat, cheese, toppings, premium toppings, sauce and bun. Yes, ordering here is a six-step process, and really, that’s a large part of the fun. If you really can’t handle choices, you can opt for one of The Counter’s seven signature burgers, but no additions or substitutions are allowed. Welcome to the Counter Culture.
The hard part is choosing what exactly to put on your burger, given The Counter’s plethora of choices. First, you have five choices for the meat, with beef, chicken, turkey, bison and a vegan patty available. That’s followed with your choice from 11 cheeses, a list of 22 regular toppings, nine premium toppings, 22 sauces and five types of buns. The standard burger at The Counter (really, is there a such thing as a standard burger here?) comes with one cheese, one sauce and up to four of the regular toppings. Each of the premium toppings, which include things such as mushrooms, bacon, fried eggs and guacamole, adds a dollar to your final price, while anything over four of the standard toppings (things such as spinach, tomatoes, pickles and black olives) will tack on 75 cents.
By my count, you’ve got 65 options to pick from, and by The Counter’s, at least 312,120 burger combinations are possible. That means that the staff rarely makes the same burger twice in a day, and if their math is accurate, a person could eat at The Counter every day for 855 years and never order the same burger more than once. That’s pretty incredible, and that meant Amy and I were pretty excited to give this place a try when we pulled into the Reston Town Center.
For my first trip to The Counter, I knew that I had to try the beef. I’ve had non-beef burgers before on many occasions, but when a place is known for its burgers, unless there’s a patty involved that’s truly rare, beef is the litmus test. From there, I decided to customize it with plenty of old favorites. The hardest decision might have been the cheese, but when it came down to it, I absolutely love the taste of Gruyere, a nutty and melty cheese that’s most similar to Swiss cheese. Gruyere is both high-quality and high-cost, which means it’s not likely to show up on a burger at most places. Of course, that means it makes perfect sense for The Counter to use it, and I wasn’t going to waste my opportunity. I added baby spinach, marinated artichokes, sauteed onions, tomatoes, guacamole and mushrooms, along with basil pesto and a ciabatta bun to cap off my masterpiece.
That’s exactly what it was. This burger was huge and delicious. Fresher is always better, and the use of fresh ingredients really shows up in every bite here. The bun held everything together, the burger was juicy, the vegetables were cooked to perfection when necessary and the Gruyere and basil pesto worked beautifully with the toppings. You really couldn’t ask for anything more from a burger. I would venture that the other toppings are just as incredible.
Amy, who hates beef in any and all forms, opted for a chicken breast and tossed mushrooms, pickles, avocado and an herbed goat cheese spread on it, along with roasted garlic aioli. Amy has decided that after this visit, she’s a huge fan of garlic aioli, and it’s easy to see why. The mayonnaise-like spread is fantastic on pretty much anything, and with her choice of flavors, it was an easy complement. The avocado is fantastic, and the goat cheese spread was so good that I wasn’t sure whether it or the Gruyere was a better choice. I’m giving the nod to the Gruyere, but not by much.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the other outstanding part of The Counter experience, and that would be their fries. Fries go with burgers like soap goes with water, and The Counter serves up some good ones. However, as good as their regular fries are, I wouldn’t recommend ordering them, at least not on their own. That’s because if you do, you’ll miss the truly special fries that The Counter offers: sweet potato fries. I’m admittedly not the biggest fan of sweet potatoes, but something about these fries just makes them work beautifully. The hint of sweetness in each bite with the typical fry taste and texture is something special, and I thoroughly enjoyed every one of my fries.
If that was the only twist, though, this wouldn’t be The Counter. To its credit, The Counter again offers choices to its customers in this department. Can’t decide between the regular and sweet potato fries, or are you wanting to try the onion strings along with fries? No problem. All you have to do is order a “Fifty-Fifty”, and you get two half-orders of your choice of two of the regular fries, sweet potato fries and onion strings. Perfect compromise.
When inspiration meets dedication, the result is usually a good one. When that result also runs into a combination of quality, imagination and a flair for being as different as it wants to be, success is basically a sure thing. If you really love burgers and really love dictating exactly what goes on them, you have to make a trip to The Counter.
Time to go: Lunch or dinner. Burgers can be had for either one.
Wait during my visit: Not bad, but we did decide to live up to the name and eat at the counter. If you have a larger party, you might wait longer.
Location: The Counter has 33 spots in the United States, most in California. However, Amy and I visited The Counter at 11922 Democracy Drive in Reston, Va.
Cost: Quality isn’t cheap. A standard 1/3 pound burger will run you $9, plus $1 for every premium topping you add. Meanwhile, fries will cost between $3.50 and $6.50. They’re worth the price.
Parking: Plenty, but you might have to pay. The Reston Town Center has a lot of garage spots for a price, but if you come on a weekend, you park for free.
Seating arrangement: This place is called The Counter. Enough said. There are also tables available for those who don’t want to sit on a stool (or can’t).
Website: The Counter
Specialty items: Burgers, sweet potato fries