Tuesday, November 29, 2011

...Project Update: 1st Nine Weeks

Do my students really go to these restaurants that I recommend?

The answer: Yes.  Some go just because they want/need extra credit, but others go because they like the idea of trying something new.  

For some, it's both.

In the first quarter of the 2011-12 school year, here are the restaurants that were visited, along with some quotes directly from the reports that the students wrote (I only used initials to refer to the students, for privacy reasons):

La Hacienda (West Mifflin): 5 Visits

Not surprisingly, the only Mexican restaurant in the school district got the most visits.  Here is what some students had to say:

"I would recommend this restaurant to everyone because the food is really good, they give you a lot, and it is inexpensive." - C.S.

"...I looked through the menu and saw unfamiliar foods, so I asked my waiter about them...I wasn't shocked about my [taco salad] - I should have went for something different." - A.P.

Emiliano's (South Side/North Hills): 3 Visits

"Overall, I enjoyed Emiliano's!  I liked it a lot because it was very different from the usual restaurants I go to...I would definitely go back to this restaurant because I liked how nice all of the workers were, the inside of the restaurant was very unique, and most importantly, I thought the food was great!...I think I will being to try more Mexican foods because of my experience here." - C.V.

"...this was a different experience of eating at a [Hispanic] restaurant, rather than Eat 'N Park." - D.B.

"I had never heard of the restaurant before, but my aunt suggested it...the salsa was different than any kind I have ever had.  It was a little spicier than I am used to, but it was still very good...I would most definitely recommend this restaurant to anybody that likes Mexican food." - R.K.

Gran Agave (Homestead): 2 Visits

"I would definitely want to go back.  The service, scenery, and food were excellent.  That was the first authentic restaurant that I have been to...After trying the chalupa and enchilada, I would definitely want to have some more." - Z.F.

"In all, the food was good, well-priced, and had a different taste." - R.A.

Mad Mex (Shadyside/Oakland): 2 Visits

"The restaurant itself was so cute!  It had interesting paintings on the wall that reminded me of the Day of the Dead.  There was also Spanish written on them, which we attempted to translate....Since I am used to the taco meat from Giant Eagle, this definitely was a delicious change..." S.A.

Patron (Monroeville): 1 Visit

"[My meal] was served on a platter and looked very delicious - I couldn't wait to dig in...I was very pleased with my meal.  To drink I had a Mexican pop that I never had before.  It was something different and tasted like a flavored fruit punch...I enjoyed the food and the service was wonderful." - S.S.

Mallorca (South Side): 1 Visit

"I chose to go with my mom for lunch because we both wanted to try something new...When I was looking at the menu, I had no idea what to get because I wanted to try something new...I asked our waiter what was the most authentic thing on the sandwich portion on the menu...I got the Sandwich de Jamon Serrano, Manchengo, y Berros...I really enjoyed this meal at Mallorca.  It was very different and something new that I never tried before.  There is always a first time for everything." - P.F.

Smoke BBQ & Taqueria: 1 Visit

"I liked both the Agua Fresca and the chicken tacos very much.  I liked the Agua Fresca because it tasted like pure strawberry juice...I didn't think I would like the chicken tacos, but they were surprisingly really good...I would go back to Smoke because the food was awesome, especially since I don't like Mexican and Spanish food." - M.E.

I am hoping that more students try restaurants, whether they need to or not.  Most of the complaints that I have gotten are that places are too far (most of my students don't drive) or that they don't have money to go.  I keep telling them - you've got to eat!  Why not kill two birds with one stone?  (Pardon the cliche).  

I am always open to feedback, good or bad (but respectful), so please feel free to comment!  

A big thanks to my students and the restaurants that have been so supportive of my project! 

...Franklin Inn Mexican Restaurant

Weird coincidences make me happy.

I got a follower on Twitter one day by the name of Wendy Cibula - funny, considering that her last name was one letter off of mine, and I figured that's why she added me.  The next day, I got an email from her, saying that I popped up as a suggestion to follow on Twitter, she thought it was funny that our last names were so similar...

...and after seeing what I do, that by total coincidence, she and her husband own a Mexican restaurant!

I had never been to the Franklin Inn, but a teacher that I worked with in the past lives in the North Hills and had RAVED about it, since she is a frequent visitor.  She said that it is her and her friends' go-to place for a fun night out.  In addition, Food Collage and FoodBurgh had written reviews on their visits (Food Collage wrote about them twice!), and I had read them all and became quite intrigued by the hype.

I had to get there soon.  But when?    Pittsburghers know how the layout of the metro area seems - the city is the United States, the North Hills is Canada, and the South Hills is Mexico (in disproportionate geographic terms).  The Franklin Inn is all the way in the North Hills, and for me, that's like driving from Mexico to Canada (and I'd have to cross TWO bridges!  Blasphemy!)

Luckily, my mom suggested that we go on our way back from our annual shopping day in Grove City, which we do every year on the first day of buck season (since us Western Pennsylvania people don't have school, and she takes that day off since she can never get Black Friday off).

Yay, mom!

Note: Look for this sign when going to the Franklin Inn!

It wasn't easy getting there, thanks to some bad iPhone GPS directions - however, we were both pretty hungry upon our arrival, since we shopped all day, stopped at Wendell August to get some engraving done, and stopped at Mojo Running and Multisport to get fitted for some new running shoes before our next 5K on December 10th.

(They're closed on Sundays)

Thank goodness we found them, because there was so much yummy food to eat there!

House-made chips and salsa
 We were immediately served house-made chips and salsa, which I could NOT stop eating - I got the "Stop eating the chips!" exclamation from my mom several times (she still yells at me).  They were not at all greasy, and the salsa was not spicy (which I wouldn't have minded if it were, but lots of people prefer not spicy), but it was flavorful.  

I made sure to order a cup of the award-winning Aztec chili, as I wanted to see why it was so commended.  The recipe won first place at Northway's Fire & Ice Chili Cook-off just this year, 20 years after winning first place in a similar contest.  Read more about it here.

The award-winning Aztec Chili

Yeah, I can see why!  This was one of the best chilis I've ever had.  I love chili, especially in the colder months.  I've had chili in many other places, plus I've made many versions of chili myself at home - and nothing...NOTHING...tops this Aztec chili.  It has the perfect amount of spice and southwestern flavors that made my taste buds tingle.  My mom tried it and love it as well.

Oh, and they're really good with the tortilla chips, too.  Not that I kept eating them or anything...

For my main entree, I couldn't resist the Chicken Enchiladas with Poblano Mole - yup, just like I had at Las Velas and Gran Agave.  This mole sauce was much thicker than the others that I had, and much less spicy, but more chocolate-y - and it was fabuloso!  If you're the type of person who prefers sweetness over spice, this mole is perfect for you (I'm a fan of both, really!) 

Chicken Enchiladas with Poblano Mole, House Salad with Jalapeno Vinaigrette, Black Bean and Corn Salad
For my sides, I chose the side salad with house dressing, a jalapeno vinaigrette, and the black bean and corn salad.  Both were great - the jalapeno vinaigrette was spicy, but added a lot of flavor to my typical green salad, and the black bean and corn salad was my favorite.  Black beans and corn make for a great combination of flavors, especially with red onions and Mexican-inspired spices.

My mom decided upon one of the "Mexican Combinaciones", for which she chose the chicken soft taco and chicken chimichanga, plus rice and the black bean and corn salad as her sides.  She agreed with my opinion on the black bean and corn salad, and she commented that she liked the fact that she could taste her chicken instead of its flavor being completely overpowered by Mexican spices and sauce.  

Chicken Soft Taco, Chicken Chimichanga, Rice, Black Bean and Corn Salad
 I think it's pretty evident that we enjoyed our meals...

My empty plate
Mom's empty plate

Despite consuming a large amount of food ("large" being a very mild term for the feast that we had just devoured), Wendy had suggested to me earlier in the day that we try her husband's famous Mexican Chocolate Ice Cream - he had just made a new batch that day, but she warned me that it tends to go fast.  Fortunately, it was not gone yet, and my mom and I decided to split a bowl between the two of us.

Ay.  De.  Mi.  This ice cream was so rich, so creamy, so decadent - I don't think that any ice cream in a carton could ever be as wonderful as this.  Handmade ice cream is always better, but this...THIS...is a definite dairy delight!

I now understand why that teacher raves about the Franklin Inn - it has a casual, friendly atmosphere with flavors of Mexico in the food as well as the decor (without looking like Mexico threw up in it, like at Patron).  It's hard to believe that someone with a last name so close to mine owns such an awesome business, even though I wish it were closer!  I guess I can't have it all, considering that Smoke BBQ & Taqueria is so close.  

A very big "Feliz Cumpleaños" to the Franklin Inn on their 33rd birthday today.  Here's to 33 (and more!) years of fabulous, flavorful Mexican food!

Franklin Inn Mexican Restaurant
2313 Rochester Rd.
Pittsburgh, PA 15237 (North Hills)

Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/FranklinInn

The Franklin Inn does catering!  Pick-up only.  View their catering menu.

Franklin Inn Mexican Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 27, 2011

...'Burgh Bits & Bites Food Tour - Brookline

 I like to share my awesome food experiences with friends and family.

This blog, unintentionally, has allowed me to do so.  I started this blog for my students, to get them excited about the authentic Hispanic/Latino restaurants right in their own vicinity, but it seems as if my family, friends, colleagues, and complete strangers are more fascinated with where I go and what I eat than they are. 

Am I wrong?

I wanted to share another one of those experiences through a 'Burgh Bits & Bites Food Tour.  I had so much fun on the Dormont Food Blogger Tour that I wanted to plan a private one for a small group of my own family and friends.  I had some family coming in for Thanksgiving, and we had a half day the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, so I figured, "Why not?"  I worked it out with Sylvia, the owner and operator of 'Burgh Bits & Bites, and seven of us embarked on a food tour of Brookline the day before Thanksgiving.

I had only been to Brookline once, when James and I experienced the taco stand and store at Las Palmas, but I wanted to see what the rest of the retailers had to offer in this area.  We were debating between Bloomfield and Brookline, but ultimately, due to the holiday, Bloomfield was unable to accommodate a tour on this date.

Oh, well.  Something else to look forward to!

Pitaland, land of many, many pitas
 Our meeting place was Pitaland, so myself and 4 of my family members were the first to arrive.  Teacher Friend (TF), from my first Strip District post and Mallorca post, was next to arrive, and James arrived not long after.  While we waited, we checked out some items in the store, such as the barrels of beans, but we were most fascinated by the pita machine that was mass-producing pitas right before our eyes.  In the midst of this, Sylvia arrived, and informed us that we would be going back to the production area for an up-close look and for our tasting.

Pitas being produced, as seen through the glass

Dough biscuits (not yet flattened)

Pitas baking in 3 seconds (and blowing up!)
 It's really amazing how this machine works.  It heats up to about 1200 degrees and bakes a pita in about 3 seconds.  As it passes through the heat, it goes from a flattened dough biscuit into a pita - it blows up like a balloon, and then flattens again as it cools.  The owner came across this machine while in Lebanon, and within 6 months, had it here in Brookline.

And lucky for us, they pulled pitas right off of the cooling belt for us to sample - as a result, this was the first item on my list to come back and purchase when the tour was over!

Our tasting table - pitas, dip, olives, feta, spinach and feta pastry
 We also sampled a spinach and feta pastry, which I liked mostly because I love the combination of spinach and feta.  I'm not a fan of olives, so I did not have that, but I tried my pita with some of the olive oil dip, which was mixed with a blend of herbs:

One of the brands available at Pitaland (mix with olive oil to make the dip that we had)
I wasn't too much of a fan of the dip, simply because it was a bit sour for my taste - probably the combination of herbs.  It wasn't terrible, but not something that I would make myself to eat with pitas.

Give me a good hummus or tzatziki any day!

Kribels's Bakery
 We moved on to Kribel's Bakery a few doors down.  They are known for their buttercream icing, and their thumbprints are made with that fact in mind - simple cookie, lots of icing. 

We sampled an apple turnover-type pastry first - perfect for those of us who consume apple pie regularly on Thanksgiving.  This definitely reminded me of apple pie in a simpler, smaller form.  Flaky, buttery pastry with a gooey apple filling, and unlike apple pie, sweet icing...ahhhh...

Apple pastry
We then sampled their pumpkin log (sorry, no picture - it went too quickly!)  I do love all things pumpkin, and cream cheese icing only makes it better.  

And then we were each handed a bag with one of their famous thumbprint cookies (the ones with all of the icing on them).  Oh boy.  Definitely taking that home and having it later - something to REALLY look forward to!
Lots of icing on those turkeys!  Thumbprints are to the left, HUGE ladylocks to the right!
Is there cake under there?!
Donuts.  Yum!
Holy cookies!
 My mom is a huge fan of Kribel's , so I was sure to ask her at the end of the tour if she wanted anything - so I stopped back afterwards to get some thumbprint cookies and a pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving!

 As a historical tidbit, we took a look at the fire station on the corner.  It is the oldest fire station in Pittsburgh and was designed for horses, not trucks (of course, since this fire station was built before fire trucks existed!)  It has been renovated to accommodate trucks now, obviously.  Fun fact - the tower that exists was not a watch tower - it was used for the firemen to hang their hoses on to dry out before being rolled back up to be used again later.  Interesting, huh?

We then moved on to Las Palmas to check out what they had to sell.  James and I did this when we visited on our own (you can read about it here), so I won't repeat myself, but Sylvia pointed out a lot of items for sale in the store that we found fascinating as well - including the gorilla booger gel.

Since it was Wednesday and not a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, no tacos were being made on the sidewalk.  Bummer.

Saddest sight in Brookline.  No tacos today :-(
We then stopped in to Sal's Barber Shop (not to eat, though!) an old-fashioned shop still owned by Sal (but operated by his son).  I felt weird taking pictures of guys getting their hair cut and shaved, so I refrained, but the inside was beautiful.  I did get a shot of their cash register, which was awesome, and the classic products on display in their window.

 Our next stop was Vinnie's Pretzel Shoppe, where we were greeted by the owner, Mike (AKA "Vinnie").  This shop opened in 2010 and has undergone several menu changes since, but the neighborhood seems to have taken to it nicely.  With their Philly-style pretzels, it is the perfect meal or snack, especially for kids coming home from school.  Mike runs an after-school special, and he gets a lot of traffic from that.  In addition, he does fundraisers and other activities for the community - in fact, he mentioned that recently he had a girl scout troop come in to learn how to make soft pretzels, which was a great activity for that age group.  

That's what small business is all about.

We were each given a soft pretzel to sample - I tried a piece and saved the rest for later, as I knew there was a lot more food to try!  The pretzel was just as it should be - solid and round on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside. 

Mike ("Vinnie"), owner of Vinnie's Pretzel Shoppe

Soft pretzels, some filled, some not
I really like the clock here!

We then went to Antonio's Pizzeria to sample two - yes TWO - kinds of pizza - a spinach and feta pizza (one of my favorites!) and plain cheese.  Definitely delicious pizza, especially the spinach and feta - I have had this kind of pizza at other pizza shops, and this was BY FAR the best!  I think it had more garlic in it, or maybe there was a better balance of garlic and herbs - either way, it was awesome!
Spinach and Feta Pizza

Cheese pizza
 We then moved on to Cannon Coffee to try their warm beverages.  James had been here before and enjoyed the atmosphere immensely, which was easy to understand when we set foot in the door.  Couches and chairs to relax in, a musical setup in one corner for small performances, and local artists' wares on display inside the shop gave it a local, comforting feel.  

Ben, one of the owners, passed around two different coffees to smell, an Ethiopian Harrar and a Honduran blend, which smelled like blueberries.  I opted to taste the Honduran, and it was so flavorful that I did not add any sweetener nor cream.  I could definitely see myself frequenting this coffee shop if I lived in the neighborhood.  Ben told us that he and the other owner lived in the neighborhood and opened the shop because there was no coffee shop - and it was by far a brilliant decision!

Part of the cozy seating area

Goodies for sale at the counter
Look up.  That's a gorgeous ceiling (common in a lot of shops that we visited)
 Our last stop on the tour was It's Greek to Me, specializing in Mediterranean foods from Greece, Cyprus, and Lebanon.  From the outside, it doesn't look like much, but the inside reminds me of being in a Greek family's dining room.

Pickled vegetables are for sale
Their motto: "Eat.  Live.  Love"
 We were served a smorgasbord of food - feta, olives, tzatziki, pita bread, and skordelia, a potato-based dip which was delicious.  James impressed us all (including the owner's wife!) by guessing every ingredient in the tzatziki (which I won't post, so as not to give away the recipe!)
Feta, olives, gyro meat


Tzatziki and pita

 I was so incredibly full at the end of this tour - even more so than after the Dormont tour.  We had sampled pastries, pretzels, pitas, pizzas...wait, am I sensing a theme?  

At the end of the tour, I think this sign outside of Cannon Coffee summed up my thoughts about the tour pretty beautifully...although I would add "family" and "food" as well...

Next time - Bloomfield.  These tours are informative, interesting, insightful, and of course, very filling!  Much more information was given to us on the tour - but I don't want to give it all away!  Thanks so much to TF, my family members (Kris, Katie, Tommy, and Christopher), and James, who is the master at asking good questions and guessing ingredients!  I think that everyone had a fantastic time.  

I swear I will do every 'Burgh Bits & Bites Food Tour at least once (at LEAST...!)

Who wants to join me? 
'Burgh Bits & Bites Food Tours
Vinnie’s Pretzel Shoppe on Urbanspoon
Antonio's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon
It's Greek To Me on Urbanspoon

Friday, November 25, 2011

...Root 174 [off-topic...kinda]

I have always gotten along better with guys.

I don't know why, but that has most likely been the case.  I guess it's the pettiness that girls have, or the grudges that they hold, or the drama that seems to follow them wherever they go - hanging out with guys is so much simpler. 

When James invited me to go to dinner with his friends Jacob and Matt at Root 174 in Regent Square, I accepted because, 1.) Dinner with James is always a good time, 2.) I wanted to meet his friends, who are guys, and I knew that I would get along with them, and 3.) I had been wanting to try the food at Root 174 since I started following them on Twitter, even though they are not in the genre of food that I normally review.  They use Twitter and Facebook to post menu items and specials, and it always looks and sounds unique and tempting.

Root 174 Facade

James and I were the first to arrive, and Jacob arrived not too long afterwards.  Matt arrived after a few more minutes, and we contemplated our appetizers.  We started with the day-boat scallops, confit wings, and bone marrow creme brulee (all split among the 4 of us to try, of course).

Day-boat Scallops
The scallops melted in my mouth - even though there were only two large scallops which we cut in half for each of us to try, they were definitely the best out of the appetizers.

Confit wings
I think James disagrees with my last statement, because he devoured these confit wings - then proceeded to ask for two more orders.  I had to look up "confit", because I had no idea what that meant: "Confit is a cooking term for a variety of foods, most often meats, preserved by being salted and cooked slowly in their own fat." (Thanks to http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-confit.htm for the definition!)  I'll admit, they were better than any wings that you would get from a "wing" establishment (e.g. Buffalo Wild Wings, Quaker Steak and Lube...) - not to mention that they were also cooked in a much more complicated manner - but there was much more food to be had!

Bone Marrow Creme Brulee
None of us were impressed with the bone marrow creme brulee.  The consensus was that it tasted like pimiento spread - I like pimiento spread, but I was expecting a bit more out of this.  Not like we didn't eat it all, though!
Brussels Sprouts
We were also presented with brussels sprouts, courtesy of the chef, Keith Fuller, for being such loyal Twitter followers.  I have never, ever had brussels sprouts in my life, and I think that these will spoil me for brussels sprouts forever, as they were AMAZINGLY delicious!  People always complain about how disgusting they are - and these were the complete opposite of disgusting.  I would have never thought to order them, but luckily Chef Fuller knew exactly what to serve us to keep us happy!

Frog Legs

Grilled Romaine

We then ordered more appetizers, including the frog legs and grilled romaine.  Frog legs do pretty much taste like chicken (I've had them before, I just can't remember where), and I never would think to grill a leafy vegetable - but it works!  I was impressed at how tasty the grilled romaine was.

Trout "taco"

Believe it or not, even after all of these appetizers, we still ordered entrees.  I chose the one thing on the menu that sounded Hispanic - a trout "taco" (yes, even on the menu, "taco" was in quotes, so I knew it wasn't going to be very authentic, but I had to try it, regardless!).  It was so, so pretty and so, so delicious.  The trout was cooked perfectly - not dry, very flaky, and not "fishy-tasting", meaning that it was fresh.  The pink and green part is guava, which is a mild tropical fruit that added a subtle tropical flavor.  The chipotle aioli, romaine, black beans, and crab salad that were also part of the "taco" complemented it well.
Grilled Hanger Steak with Fingerling Fries
James chose the grilled hanger steak, which was accompanied by fingerling fries, bleu cheese croquette, and a port wine demi.  I sampled the meat, which he ordered rare, and was surprised at how tender and juicy it was without me feeling like I was eating the flesh right off of the cow.  Usually I don't order meat any less than medium-rare (usually I order it medium), but now I may have to try it rare (in a restaurant that's trustworthy, NOT at a chain!).  The potatoes were a nice accompaniment to the beef (I only sampled one, and potatoes aren't that exciting to me).
Yam Gnocci with Pumpkin Pesto
Matt ordered the yam gnocci with pumpkin pesto, which was my second choice to the trout "taco".  Matt generously allowed each of us to try some, and I would say that having that as my second choice was brilliant.  The gnocci was so full of fall flavors - sage, pumpkin, cranberries - it was like a bowl full of Italian Thanksgiving (not that they have Thanksgiving in Italy - I just imagine that this would be a traditional dish if they did!)

I did not get a picture of Jacob's pork brisket - I thought I did, but I was wrong.  I tried some, and it was pretty delicious, even for someone like me who is not a big fan of pork.
Of course, as we were finishing our entrees, we were asked if we wanted dessert - and how could we say no?  Clearly, the food here was so magical that it caused us each to grow another stomach (and the metabolism to burn it all off, right?  RIGHT?!)

Berry Compote

Our first choice was a berry compote, which was warm and comforting.  I love berries, and in compote form, they are amazing - I tend to put this over ice cream when I make it at home.  It's almost like a berry pie.

PB&J Cheesecake
Our next choice was a PB & J Cheesecake - that, in itself, speaks volumes.  As a lover of all things peanut butter, I'd like to say that I am biased and would love this even if I had to pull it straight out of a pile of dirt to eat it - but luckily, I didn't have to, and it was rich, creamy, peanut buttery, and balanced with the right amount of sweetness from the jelly.

Vegan Chocolate Brownie
Emarie, our fabulous waitress, suggested the vegan chocolate cake-brownie thing (that I can't specifically remember the name for, but we called it the vegan chocolate thing), and the power of suggestion won us over time after time on this visit, so we ordered it.  Emarie is one smart woman, because this chocolate cake was moist and delicious.  People seem to be turned off by the term "vegan", but honestly, all that means is that the pastry is made without eggs and substituted with something else, like in the vegan cupcakes that I have made in the past (that uses soy milk and apple cider vinegar in lieu of eggs).

And I don't know why, but James insisted on the apple and cheese plate.  This was quality cheese, no doubt, and it was delicious, but geez...

Cheese and Apple Plate
It took me days - DAYS - to type this post because of all of the food that was ordered and consumed between the four of us.  The food was amazing, comforting, and savory.  A huge thanks to Keith Fuller for not only cooking us so much delicious food, but also taking the time to come out and say hello to us as loyal Twitter followers.  Also a big thanks to Jacob, Matt, and of course, James, for an evening of entertaining conversation, both about food and not about food.

The best part?  The menu changes, so there will be even more to try over the course of time...perhaps with these new friends (and others!)...

Root 174
113 S. Braddock Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15218

Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/ROOT174

Root 174 on Urbanspoon