Butter makes Culver’s Burgers Better

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Yum!  A new Culver’s restaurant just opened in the neighborhood, and boy am I scared!

Not because it’s bad, but because it’s gooooood.

Culver’s is a mix between fast food, family restaurant, and custard stand.  It looks homey from the outside, so the order counter and menu board at the front were a surprise when we walked in. There’s a lot of variety (pot roast, salads, fried chicken, sandwiches) but they’re famous for the Butter Burger, so Hon got a triple, and I got a double.

Can I say it again?  Yum!  They were delicious little greasy patties of joy!  If you’re looking for healthy, this isn’t it.  They’re called Butter Burgers because the buns, not the burgers, are buttered and grilled.  Sure that adds fat, but it also adds a lots of flavor.  The burgers themselves are quite thin and they’re seared, giving them caramelized crispy edges.  They reminded me of old-fashioned diner burgers, or more specifically, for those old enough to remember, the burgers my grandmother used to buy me at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s.  And oh, yum!  Mayo is a standard topping, so if you’re not a fan (I’m not), they’re happy to make it the way you like, and there are lots of topping options, like mushrooms, onions, greens, etc.

Fries were good, too; not greasy and much better than the puny salt chews at most fast food joints.  Culver’s fries are crinkle cut … more diner memories! Everything was cooked to order and came out fresh.

The crowning touch is the custard.  Yum 3. It’s rich, creamy, and loaded with flavor.  Each Culver’s features a Flavor of the Day, which is posted on their website. Or, if you’re an addict, which I suspect I may be, you can get the monthly calendar emailed.  This month’s choices include Caramel Chocolate Pecan, Andes Mint Avalanche, and Egg Nog Brickle.  If straight custard isn’t exciting enough, you can get a Concrete Mixer, frozen custard with candy or fruit add-ins.  I picked vanilla custard with Oreo.  Standard combo, but the flavor was great, and even the small one (they call it short), was more than I could finish.  Hon got strawberry custard with strawberries.  He said it was very strawberry-ish.  Go figure.  He finished it in about two minutes flat, so I guess he liked it.

Decor-wise, Culver’s is nothing special.  It’s clean and bright, and slightly less plastic than, say McDonald’s. There are attempts to make it homey with a carpeted floor, fun food quotes on the walls, and big screen TV  (making dinner conversation among family members completely unnecessary).  Despite the TV, it’s not an especially noisy restaurant, which is a big plus.

The staff is very friendly and accommodating.  The wait staff delivers the food, but I felt bad for them as they carried full trays through the dining room in search of the right table.  They looked like new kids in a school cafeteria nervously trying to find a welcoming place to sit.  Those who weren’t carrying trays were checking on customers.  Our server was nice enough to take our custard order so we didn’t have to stand in line again.  That was good service and we really appreciated it.

Overall, it was a good experience, and I’m definitely going back again.  I’d like to try some other things on their menu, but those burgers might tempt me too much.  Culver’s isn’t the place to go if you’re trying to be good to your heart, but it’s oh so good for the soul.

The Peoria location at 8271 W. Ludlow Drive is open daily 10 am to 11 pm. (623) 242-8826.  To find out the Flavor of the Day or for more info, check in at www.culvers.com or you can find them on Twitter and Facebook.

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Mississippi’s Hometown Boys: Elvis & Faulkner at home

Mississippi's Native Sons: William Faulkner & Elvis Presley
Native Sons: William Faulkner & Elvis Presley

The Pelvis & The Pen
On our way to Memphis, Tennessee, there were two important stops we wanted to make. Both were in Mississippi, and both paid homage to two of America’s greatest icons. The first was Tupelo, to visit Elvis Presley’s birthplace. The second, Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home in Oxford.

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When you first consider Elvis and Faulkner together, they seem like an unlikely duo. Elvis was the King of Rock ‘n Roll, the Hillbilly Cat, Elvis the Pelvis. Faulkner was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, two Pulitzers, and two National Book Awards. Even though the disparities might seem as wide as the Mississippi River, these two Southern boys did share some similarities.

First, they were born within miles of each other in small north Mississippi towns. Elvis in Tupelo, Faulkner in New Albany. Second, from those small-town beginnings, they both grew to worldwide fame. It could even be said that they had more influence in their respective fields than any other artists of the 20th century. Yet, for all of their money, talent, and fame, their love of the South kept them deeply rooted there throughout their lives. They traveled the world, but home to both of them, was always the South. As someone who has moved from state to state a few times, I was looking forward to seeing the homes where those strong roots took hold.

Continue reading “Mississippi’s Hometown Boys: Elvis & Faulkner at home”

Bonaparte Breads: Ooo La La

If only there weren’t a trillion calories in a croissant and two trillion calories in pain chocolate, I would visit Bonaparte every day. Bonaparte is very nearly the perfect cafe (perfection would require wi-fi and more computer friendly tables). But I’ll take the near perfection that they offer over most other Fells Point coffee houses.

The coffee is brought to the table for you and served in a French cup and saucer with hot steamed milk instead of cream — very nice touch. They also bring you whatever tasties you’ve ordered at the counter. In addition to perfect croissants, Bonaparte offers sandwiches, breads, soups and a daily quiche. I’m so enamored of the croissants and pain chocolate that I haven’t gotten around to ordering anything else.

Service is generally a positive, although there is one server (possibly the manager?) who can be a grouch, but I figure she’s probably been there since 3 a.m. baking those perfect croissants, so she’s earned her grouchiness (just keep it away from me, please). The other servers are friendly and attentive, but sometimes have a hard time keeping up with the crowd at the counter and serving the coffee table-side. It’s not an aggravation though because Bonaparte is not a rush-in and rush-out kind of place. It’s a slow-down and enjoy kind of place.

The atmosphere is lovely, very French, nicely decorated (aside from the plastic folding chairs stacked up near the front doors), classical music piped in, and a view of Fell’s Point and the harbor. It’s such a relaxing environment that even the cell-phone junkies seem to understand that they should put away the appendage for a few minutes once they’ve entered Bonaparte’s front doors. That alone would make Bonaparte a favorite spot, but since it’s got so much more going for it, the unspoken no-cell law is just a bonus.

Bonaparte Breads is located at 903 South Ann Street (Fells Point) Baltimore, MD 21231. They are open daily, 8:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. 410.342.3000.

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What’s French for “Dang, That’s a Big Steak?”

Hon and I went to Brasserie Tatin for a celebration dinner. (I finished the first draft of my first novel.) I had been wanting to try it since moving to Baltimore more than a year ago, and I’m so glad we finally checked it out.

It was a very quiet night … maybe three or four other tables were occupied.  It was also a very cold night, so walking in and seeing a fireplace at the far end of the dining room was warming and welcoming.  The decor is fairly low key … modern, elegant, but not stuffy.  It was a comfortable environment, although on a busier night, I can imagine that it feels overcrowded as the tables are close together.

The service was very good, friendly and knowledgeable. I got the sense that even if it had been a busier night, our server would have been just as attentive.

Now for the food.  For starters, I got the French Onion Soup or Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée.  It was perfect, and if it hadn’t been such a classy joint, Hon and I probably would have licked the bowl.  Hon got the soup du jour, which was a cream of parsnip soup.  Sounded positively awful to me, but he loved it.  Said it was a very rich, full flavor.

On to the entrees: I was looking forward to the veal scallopini that is (still) listed on their online menu.  I was disappointed to see it wasn’t on the regular menu. Instead, I went with a standby favorite, the New York Strip steak.  When the server brought it out I almost started laughing. I know that some people believe size matters, but this steak was enough to feed three people.  It was served on top of mashed potatoes and squash with bernaise on the side. I was a little concerned that the steak might be tough or not cooked well enough because of the size, but every bite of it (including the bites that lasted for two more meals!) was delicious and perfectly done.  Even when I think back on it now, I laugh because it looked like an entire side of beef on my plate!

Hon got the Seared Diver Scallops, which were also Amazon-sized. Again, there was a concern about them being too tough or chewy, as larger scallops can be, but these were fresh, tender and delicious.  They were seasoned just right and the sweet succulence of the scallops really came through with the flavor of the buerre blanc sauce.

After such a wonderful meal, I was very excited about dessert.  We selected the seasonal sorbets, which, pardon the pun, left me cold. The tastes were either too strong, too sweet or too strange for me.  We also got the restaurant’s namesake, and the reason for my wanting to check this place out … the tarte tatin, which, after creme brulee, is my favorite dessert.

I almost don’t want to say it, but I was disappointed in it.  It had a bit of a leftover taste to it..  The pastry wasn’t flaky and light the way it should be.  It was more dense, cakelike and soggy. The caramelization had gone a touch too far and seemed overly sweet and crystallized.

You definitely pay for the experience of dining at Brasserie Tatin, it is expensive, but we were celebrating and Hon was splurging on me, so we dug in and enjoyed it!

I don’t want to end this review on a bad note, because overall it was a very good experience.  I’d even be willing to try it again, but next time we’ll finish off with the creme brulee.

Brasserie Tatin is located at 105 W 39th St., Baltimore, MD 21210. They are open Sunday and Monday, 5:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.; Tuesday to Thursday, 5:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:00 p.m. – 11:00 p.m. They serve Sunday brunch from 11:00 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. 443.278.9110. www.brasserietatin.com

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Cool Pink Trumps the Heat In Scottsdale

Sugar Bowl Ice Cream Parlor & Restaurant

It might be possible to walk into the Sugar Bowl in Scottsdale, AZ, in a bad mood, but it would take some real effort to leave that way. Before walking through the front doors, the Sugar Bowl will cheer you up with its bubblegum pink facade and multi-colored sign. From the outside, the Sugar Bowl could be taken for an old time carnival arcade, the kind you find on beach-front boardwalks that are filled with pinball machines, video games and skee-ball, but another colorful sign a little further down the building tells you it’s really an ice cream parlor/restaurant.

The cheeriness continues inside with more pink, more pink, lots and lots of pink. On paper, it might sound dreadful, but in person it’s not. It looks just right and the atmosphere is happy and friendly.

The décor in the Sugar Bowl looks just right because it’s the real thing, not a modern day knockoff. In 1958, original owner Jack Huntress converted an old auto repair shop into the restaurant and opened for business. The restaurant is still in the same location and still in the same family, with Jack’s nephew, Carroll running the show.

The atmosphere is family-friendly, but it appeals to all ages. On this particular Friday night we were surrounded by an older couple, a group of high school friends, and a married couple with kids and grandparents in tow. It was noisy and bustling and it seemed like everyone was relaxed and having a good time. That kind of levity is contagious and it means the Sugar Bowl is doing something right.

For starters, you can sit at a table, a booth, or the counter. Either one has its charms. The seats at the tables are classic ice cream parlor chairs in silver and (want to guess?) pink. The booths are upholstered in (you guessed it!) pink, and they’re overstuffed and cozy. The counter, an authentic 1950’s soda fountain, seats 10, and it’s the place to sit if you want to enjoy a sundae and do your people watching at the same time. There is a mix of art on the walls, but the Family Circus cartoons by local Bil Keane stand out and reinforce the family friendly atmosphere. Sugar Bowl has been featured throughout the years as a favorite location in Keane’s comic strip.

As soon as we walked in, we were met by a friendly hostess who picked up menus and brought us to our booth. The menu is four big pages long. Three of the pages are filled with a fantastic array of ice cream options: sundaes, splits, shakes, sherbets. If it’s not on the menu, Sugar Bowl will make it for you. The food selection is limited to soups, sandwiches, and salads. Mostly standard fare, done in a standard way. My burger was fresh and tasty, served with potato chips, cole slaw, and a big crunchy pickle. Hon ordered a chef’s salad, which came with two bite-sized pieces of date-nut bread and honey-nut filling. The bread was so good, Hon wanted to skip the salad and order a few more slices, but he behaved and ate the salad, which was filling, if slightly skimpy on the meat.

Our server was adorable. Once she found out that we were visiting from Baltimore she wanted to hear all about it. It was so nice to talk to a (very) young server who could actually carry on a conversation. She was so youthful and adorable that we didn’t even get annoyed when she enthusiastically gushed, “No problem!” every time we said, “Thank You.” Actually, we did get annoyed, but we were in such good moods we decided not to let it bother us.

When it was time to pick a dessert, we were a bit overwhelmed by the huge selection, so we decided to put off the decision until our next visit. I’m not sure I feel right writing about the Sugar Bowl and not getting ice cream, but we were just wrapping up a long day of travel and wanted to enjoy the ice cream when we were fresh and awake. Secretly, I think we opted out so that we’d have a good excuse to go back again and personally, I can’t wait.

The Sugar Bowl is located at 4005 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, AZ 85251. They are open Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 12 a.m. The Sugar Bowl’s party room, the Fiesta, is a separate area where kids can run around and play pinball games without disturbing the main dining room. Fiesta is available for large parties and groups. Call (480) 946-0051. http://www.sugarbowlscottsdale.com

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Beautiful Burgers in Baltimore

Five Guys Burgers & Fries

Just after moving to Baltimore I told my Hon I had a craving for a great burger.  He told me to leave everything to him. He was taking me to Five Guys Burgers & Fries in Canton and he assured me I’d have the best burger blast I’ve ever had. I wasn’t sure I believed him, but I went with it.

When he told me Five Guys was a chain, of sorts, my trust faltered even further, but I kept my mouth shut and my mind open.

Then I opened my mouth. I had to!  The burger that was put before me was without question, beautiful! It was big, beefy, sloppy and loaded with my favorite toppings. And it was the best burger I have ever had!  It was fresh, perfectly cooked, and D-E-L-I-C-I-O-U-S! 

I chose the regular hamburger, which I learned was actually two hamburgers on one bun. Daintier appetites can go for a “Little,” which is one burger. Heartier apps can opt for bacon, cheese or both. For toppings, I went with the basics: onion, pickle, ketchup.  Hon got his burger loaded with the big 5 … grilled onions, tomato, mushrooms, relish, lettuce. 

All toppings are free and plentiful, and also include mayo, raw onion, mustard, jalapenos, green peppers, A-1 Sauce, BBQ, or hot sauce.

We shared a (ha ha) small order of fries, which were enough to comfortably feed four.  Fries were amazing, too, and even though it was such a big order, we managed to eat them all and didn’t  finish until we sucked every last bit of salt off our greasy fingers.

Before our burgers were cooked and bagged up, we feasted on a handful of serve yourself peanuts. That was unexpected and fun and it’s a daily amenity at Five Guys. They get bonus points, too, for serving Coke products, instead of Pepsi.

Five Guys is not fancy.  You place your order at the counter and they call your number when it’s done.  Whether you eat in or take out, your order is served up in a brown paper bag with a fistful of napkins. The music is always obnoxiously loud and the counter guy is usually grumpy, but who cares!  These are fantastic burgers and I’d gladly suffer more abuse for a lesser burger. Don’t expect conversation because aside from the loud music, once dinner is served everyone will be too intimately involved with their burgers to be distracted with any conversation beyond, “Mmmm,” “Oh my God,” and “Can you pass the ketchup?”  

I’ve been back to the Five Guys in Canton and their various locations many times and it has always been an excellent, extraordinarily filling meal at a budget price.  If you’re feeling hungry enough, add a hot dog to your order.  They’re super, too!

The Canton location at 3600 Boston Street, Baltimore, is open daily 11 am to 10 pm. 410-522-1580. For other locations, and more info, check in at www.fiveguys.com.

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