Sunday, June 24, 2007


Just recently, my lovely wife The Rock Star was tooling around in her car, merrily flipping thru the various radio stations, when all of a sudden she landed on a talk station, right when the host was starting to take a listener's poll about barbecue. Since barbecue just happens to be one of her favorite foods, she listened in long enough to hear the local pundit (she believes) make an absolute fool of himself. His poll question was this: does cooking over charcoal or gas make the best tasting barbecue? My wife was in a hurry and had no time to call and offer her response: neither!!! You see, my wife and myself grew up in barbecue country and we both know that there is only one true fuel to cook barbecue over, unless you are in a hurry: WOOD!!! All the finest BarBQ craftsmen in the country know to get REALLY great tasting meats, they must be cooked over mesquite, pecan, hickory, or some other real wood that grew from a real tree.

Chances are, unless you've lived in a small town, or in the South, or in one of the world's acknowledged haven's of barbecue (most of Texas, Memphis, Carolina, or Missouri), you may very well have never tasted barbecue smoked over wood. In most big cities, barbecue is now cooked over gas grills, and most backyarders use gas or charcoal (which is acceptable only if you purchase mesquite or hickory chips and wrap them in foil). Still, if you've tasted true wood-fired 'cue, it's hard to put up with anything else. That's why I'm glad to report one chain still uses the old-fashioned method, and can be found in ten states and the District of Columbia: Red, Hot, and Blue.

Red, Hot, and Blue features genuine Memphis-style barbecue, where pork, not beef, is the meat of choice, as opposed to places like Texas, which is known for beef brisket. Pulled pork and pork ribs are the specialty items of the house, although their menu does also offer sausage, turkey, and even beef, for those diners who must have their cow and eat it too.

One lovely Saturday evening, my wife and I had a hankerin' for some really good barbecue, and so we looked up the menu of our local RH&B at My wife loved what she saw, so we headed right over. When we got there, the wait for a table was not long, but they did offer us immediate seating in the bar. Since I knew they had a really cool looking bar, and knew that like many places, RH&B offers their full dinner menu in the bar, we decided to take them up on their offer.


Like the rest of the restaurant, the bar at RH&B is really funky and inviting: lots of wood and polished metal contribute to a look that is at once trendy and retro. Blues and R&B music is playing. The restaurant proper features lots of posters of blues concerts and other memorabilia, while in the bar the TVs were tuned to ESPN. (We guys just love to watch sports while we drink.) There are booths, tables, and booth/table combinations available, and as with most good bars, such a convival atmosphere that after five minutes, my wife and I felt like regulars.


Despite being busy, Lori, our cheerful bartender-waitress for the evening, came over rather quickly to take our drink orders. (Bartenders are some of the hardest working people in ANY restaurant or club. Period.) Since I knew that nothing goes better with barbecue than beer (except maybe iced tea), I decided on a pint of Shiner Bock. My wife seconded the idea, and the dark, rich draft brew (draft IS better than cans or bottles) soon arrived at our table, and paired very well with the spicy food we enjoyed that evening.

Having developed a taste for great sausage while vacationing in central Texas, my wife and I started our repast with the sausage and cheese platter for appetizer, and if you decide to follow suit, you will not be disappointed. Excellent spiced sausage is served with cheddar and pepper jack cheeses, mustard and crackers. The hoochie-coochie mustard is quite good, but since every table comes with several bottles of different kinds of barbecue sauce (mild, sweet or hot), you can try them as well. One warning: spices are used rather liberally at RH&B, so try small samples of each kind on your meat, until you find the one you are most comfortable with. In any case, the appetizer was fabulous, the meat smoked 12-14 hours over real hickory wood making the difference, as it would all night.

Salads and burgers are available at RH&B, but why bother when the meat is such a star attraction? (If you feel you must have a sandwich, particularly at lunch, then I recommend the pulled pork served Memphis style, with coleslaw INSIDE the sandwich. Marvelous!) For entree, my wife and I decided to split one of their generous platters, in this case the Tenessee Triple, so we could enjoy three meats. The Rock Star loves barbecue turkey, and so we ordered the Triple with turkey, pulled pork and some of RH&B's famous pork ribs. For the record, I've tried their ribs both wet (marinated in sauce when cooked) and dry (just rubbed with spices) and can attest that both are excellent at this restaurant. We happily split the meat, and our two sides (really good potato salad and very good hushpuppies), and even had plenty left to take home for great leftovers the next day. Speaking of take home, my wife and I often order dessert to take home and have later that night when our stomachs have cleared out a bit, and since we're both pecan fanatics, the pecan cobbler looked too good to pass up. Indeed, the sweet treat made a wonderful ending to a very fine day later that night.


Thoughout the evening, Lori was unflaggingly cheerful and helpful, quite a feat when you consider she had at least half a dozen customers dining in the bar, not to mention a passel of folks drinking at the bar. Kudos!


Again, will take you to the main website, and if you Google red hot and blue restaurant, you will find other websites as well, such as, which is the website for all the Texas branches of the chain. One big plus: the websites include an online store and PRICES. Yay!


I'm so glad that a genuine barbecue restaurant which smokes over wood is available for us city dwellers as well as the country folk. Red, Hot and Blue is definitely worth your green, and as always, remember:


Sunday, June 17, 2007



Just recently, I was leisurely viewing some postings on a restaurant opinion website, when lo and behold, one of the people posting volunteered an opinion which basically said thus: This deli (naming a national chain) does not stack up to the best New York has to offer. I did not respond to his ranting, but instead offer my opinion here: Well, duh! You see, New York deli cuisine is one of the sainted Holy Grails of fooddom; right up there on a par with Seattle seafood and genuine Central Texas (or Memphis) barbecue. In other words, it is the be-all and end-all of what deli dining should be. Nothing can compare.

Having said that, I still believe that you can have excellent deli food, maybe closer than NYC if you just look around. In that spirit, I would like to offer my humble opinion on one such place: Baker Brothers American Deli, now located in Texas, Arkansas, and Nevada, and coming soon to California, South Carolina, and (hopefully) other places. I have now had the luxury of trying their fine dishes on several occasions, and look forward to doing so again in the future.


Like McAlister's, Baker Bros has a warm, inviting ambiance. Jazz music is playing softly. Lots of dark wood with touches of polished metal. Go to the counter (please be sure and have looked over the menu first, at, before you go, as a courtesy to your fellow diners), place your order, and take a seat. Luckily, there is a register near a side entrace, which means that to-go patrons don't have to stand in the regular line to pick up their order, which is certainly convienient at lunchtime when it's crowded.


I have now had the pleasure of dining at Baker Bros (or taking out) on several occasions, and can report with some confidence that the quality of their food is high. On one visit, I was in the company of my lovely wife the Rock Star, and she ordered on of their excellent wrap sandwiches. Alas, I wish I could give you details on the dish, (I think it was some sort of ham, turkey and cheese concoction. This type of wrap is a favorite of hers when dining out), but because, once again, senile old me forgot to take any notes, its name must remain lost to history. I tried pulling up their website menu, but to no avail, they weren't listed on this menu, either. This fact suggests that wraps may be a local option, one that you can clear up with a quick call to your local store. Whatever it was, I tried it too and it was excellent. I do remember my own sandwich: I love New Orleans muffalettas and this one was quite good. Layers of ham, salami, and melted provolone cheese, topped with a olive tapenade, lettuce, tomato, and red onion, all served on a thin, toasted farm bread roll. What I loved about this particular sandwich is that there is not too much bread: meat, cheese, toppings, and bread were all in perfect harmony. Marvelous!

At this point, may I make a suggestion: don't forget about the rest of Baker Bros fine menu. Any good shop can sell sandwiches, but to me, a deli is not a deli without great soup and salad possibilities. Rest assured, Baker Brothers quality shines through here as well. My wife already is a big fan of the Santa Fe Salad: Mixed greens served with roasted chicken, cheddar cheese, tomato (which she usually removes), red onion, green onion, black olive (which she has them hold; she only likes green olives), cilantro and spiced pecans. Deliclious, of course, and the serving is quite large. Just ask for a half portion, if that's what you want. Myself, I've lately become quite the soup fan, and I have tried two here and both are outstanding. The baked potato is thick, rich, and creamy, just loaded with flavor and a perfect companion on a cold, rainy day. Also, the Texas-style chili is absolutely, 100% genuine authentic (trust me on this), spiced perfectly and topped with a small amout of grated cheese and red onion. Again, balance is the key here: the chili is neither too thick and chunky, nor too thin and watery. Again, I say, marvelous! As for side dishes, I'm sure they are all good, but I must say its hard to pass up Baker Bros potato salad, which is first rate. Future visits will be needed if I want to check out any other dishes.


Have I mentioned quality too much already? Yes? Well, what other word is there? The employees are friendly, they get the orders right, and food is brought out promptly, considering of course, the crowds at lunch and the time needed to get the quality right. Again, if your ordering too close to noon, you might want to consider calling in advance, so you can stay one step ahead of the game.


Again, the website is quite useful ( , except that it does not contain prices or some local dishes. Since this is a franchise chain, and individual locations often set their own prices in franchises, this should not come as a shock. Again, call or email the store directly or the corporate office with any concerns. If you are feeling truly entreprenurial, franchise info is available as well. Speaking of which, a local menu for takeout should be made available: the only menu I've seen to take home is their catering menu.


Safe to say, if the Rock Star and I have tried a restaurant on more than one or two occasions, you can rest assured that both quality of food and value are in place. Try Baker Brothers American deli soon, especially if you can't get to the Big Apple, and remember:


Wednesday, June 13, 2007



One gorgeous Saturday afternoon in May, my lovely wife The Rock Star said that she had an important announcement to make: She was hungry, and what was The Czar (me) going to do about it? I replied, don’t fret dear wife, we must depart our loft at once and drive in search of a deli. For you see, after 15 years of wedded bliss, I knew that because the weather outside was quite warm, my wife’s tastes this day would run to cold food, since she never likes to dine on hot food in the middle of a hot day. Thus, I procured our humble car, and employing my usual scientific method (I seemed to recall a deli we had not tried some 5-6 blocks from our casa.), we drove around until by sheer good fortune we discovered our local branch of McAlister’s deli. Good fortune, indeed! McAlister’s met our expectations and then some.
McAlister’s is one of the new breed of chain restaurants, serving first-rate food for just a few dollars over the cost of fast food. With plenty of time and dollars in their pockets to spend, Americans are demanding something more for their bucks than the standard, too often mediocre food that huge corporate chains offer, and in the last few years, a number of small companies have sprung up to meet the demand. For the most part, they are finding success and therefore are spreading rapidly to all parts of this great nation. McAlister’s is already in twenty states, mostly in the South, Southeast and Midwest.
You walk in, and proceed into the serving line right down the center of the store. Seating is on both sides. Like most counter-order places, their somewhat extensive menu may seem intimidating, but is actually easy to read. (Important Note: Before you try any new restaurant for the first time, I STRONGLY encourage you to make use of their website to make your selection before leaving home, and/or learn the art of quickly skimming the menu. If there is anything many diners dislike, it’s having to wait in line behind someone learning to read for the first time. If you simply MUST take your time, please do everyone a favor and STEP OUT OF LINE!!! Thank you.) In McAlister’s there’s lots of room for seating, and when we visited, lots of people already noshing. Good sign.
Since this was a deli, The Rock Star and I both decided to try the sandwiches. (What else? Do you go to a sandwich shop and order pizza?) The Rock Star, being the world-class wrap artist that she is, decided on the Turkey Melt Wrap which, thoughtfully, was cut in two for easier handling. (I love a company where someone in authority actually uses their brain. Bravo!) Cheddar cheese was melted very appealingly over hickory smoked turkey and applewood bacon to create one of the finest wraps The Rock Star has ever enjoyed. As for me, I opted for the Godfather. Talk about an offer I couldn’t refuse! Roast beef, mozzarella cheese, and a wonderful pizza sauce were spread generously over a 6" white hoagie. I could have easily and happily downed the whole thing, but l restrained myself because I knew that the remains would make excellent leftovers. We usually have chips with sandwiches, but why stop at a deli and not try their potato salad, especially when it was calling our names insistently? McAlisters potato salad is chunky and Southern-style, with lots of mustard. Delicious! One regret: we did not try the sweet tea, which according to both the on-site signage and the website, is world-famous. Since The Rock Star yearns to taste all world-class delicacies, you can be sure we will try the sweet tea on subsequent visits.
Service is quite nice—lots of pleasant, young people with big smiles—very comforting to an old geezer like me. You receive a number when you order at the counter, take it back to the table of your choice, and stick it atop the number holder thingy. After a short wait, a staff member will bring your order and make sure you have everything you need. One of the really nice perks of McAlister’s is that even though it’s a counter service place, staff members walk by periodically to refill drinks and offer to-go boxes, which earns them bonus points in my book. Excellent service!

When we arrived back at our loft later, I made a beeline for the computer to check out their website at The website was very user-friendly and quite nice (and yes, they are VERY proud of their sweet tea!) Just one minor complaint: no prices on the website menu. Before I go to a new place, I like to have at least a ballpark figure of how much I am going to spend, for you see, I am a budget-conscious Czar. (Needless to say, the in-store counter menu does include prices.)

I really liked McAlister’s, and the Rock Star was impressed enough to put her stamp of approval on it, and thus we’ll be dining there again soon. Some might quibble that the portions seemed a bit smallish, but honestly, which would you rather have? Small to medium-size portions of excellent food with quality ingredients, or large portions of mediocre food? I’ve said it before and I will say it again, in fact it’s become my slogan:


If you like "kickin’ it old school", then you ought to try the legendary food, fun, drinks and tiki available at Trader Vic’s.
Trader Vic’s is old school for a good reason: they’ve been around a long, long time, since 1932. Yes, Trader Vic was a real person---one Victor Jules Bergeron, son of a local waiter and grocery store owner and a born raconteur (storyteller). In 1932, he invested $700 of his own and his family’s capital and started a pub across the street from the family store and named it Hinky Dinks. Hinky Dinks eventually became Trader Vic’s and grew to 25 stores in eight states and fourteen foreign countries. The chain enjoyed it’s heyday in the 1960’s and 70’s, spurred in part by it’s mention in the high-profile song, "Werewolves of London" by Warren Zevon.
My lovely wife, The Rock Star, had been to our local branch of Trader Vic’s when but a mere babe in arms. Since meeting me, she had always wanted to introduce me to Vic’s, since she had nothing but fond memories, as it was her late father’s favorite place when she was growing up. (He had a passion for all things Polynesian.) Unfortunately, our local branch had been closed for many years due to the slow but steady decline of the hotel and neighborhood it inhabited. Finally, just a month or so before our fifteenth wedding anniversary, Trader Vic’s reopened in the same location with a flourish. Impulsively, upon hearing this news, I declared there and then that we would celebrate our anniversary at the new Vic’s.
I dare say that, if you choose to spend an evening at Trader Vic’s, the atmosphere will no doubt be one of the highpoints of your stay. If you think tropical décor means light and airy, think again. The interior is dark, warm, and inviting. Tiki and bamboo abound. After we were shown to our table, a friendly staff member handed us a dinner menu, a bar menu, and a wine list. (One odd note: The staff was garbed in basic, run-of-the mill business suits. While this is usually appropriate for a fine dining establishment, it came across as stuffy in this setting.) I must again repeat my usual caution to first-time diners: please do yourself a favor and go online to the Trader Vic’s website,, to check out the food choices and prices IN ADVANCE. Remember, Vic’s is a fine dining establishment, with prices to match, and it’s no fun encountering "sticker shock" when perusing the menu for the first time. (By the way, I went to the website of our local branch twice, and both times I was unable to download the menu. I had to resort to using a menu from another location, with DIFFERENT prices. Please fix the link!)
After deciding on drinks, my wife and I decided to skip appetizers and proceed straight to the next course. My wife had selected the Trader Vic’s Salad, but her very knowledgeable waiter talked her into a local creation featuring artichoke hearts, spinach, and spicy, warm balsamic vinaigrette dressing. I tried the famous Bongo Bongo soup, featuring oysters and spinach in a cream base. Both dishes were quite delicious, and left us well prepared for our main courses.
My wife decided on a basic seafood grill featuring halibut, scallop, prawn, and salmon, all of which were very tasty. (I would be happy to give you the exact name, but since this is only my second review, I had not got into the habit of taking notes and I foolishly TOOK FOR GRANTED THAT THE LINK TO THE LOCAL WEBSITE MENU WOULD WORK. This is a mistake I will not make again!) My own entrée was Kobe beef sirloin in a wine demi-glace (sauce). The sirloin arrived perfectly cooked as requested, but alas, was a little tough, which was disappointing since Kobe beef is renowned for its tenderness. The sauce was very good, however, so I still enjoyed it. We finished our repast with a coffee crème brulee desert that was simply the finest crème brulee I have ever enjoyed. Outstanding!!
Mark, our waiter, was VERY knowledgeable, as previously mentioned. I love having enough confidence in the staff to trust their recommendations. Serviced was perfectly paced, as befits a fine dining establishment. We arrived at 6:30 and left at 8:30, so before you book reservations (which are highly encouraged), please be sure to allow adequate time for the atmosphere—and the drinks---to work their magic.
I almost forgot to mention the drinks, which are another highlight of Trader Vic’s. My wife and I usually love wine with dinner, but how can you even think of entering the Home of the Mai Tai without trying one or two? The Rock Star had the Original Mai Tai and that was easily the best of the four drinks we tried---lots of lime and not too sweet. The Samoan Fog Cutter and Trader Vic’s Grog were also outstanding, and the Black Widow was very good, although too small. Part of the fun of Trader Vic’s concerns the unusual crockery the drinks are served in: at a nearby table, one couple was drinking with straws from a white ceramic skull!
Trader Vic’s lived up to my wife’s memories and my expectations. In future, we may forego the entrees and just split one of their appetizer platters, drinks, and of course, the crème brulee! Remember:



Since I first began writing this blog some 2-3 weeks ago, I have made it my intention to focus mostly on high-quality chain restaurants. Reason: with chains I figure that more of you can be interested in my postings, as hopefully there is or soon will be a branch of said chain in or near your local town. This observation may prompt some of you to ask: Okay, smart guy, then why not review Chili’s or Red Lobster or chains like that? Answer: I feel that you already know all you need to know about such places to make an informed decision about whether or not to dine there. Also, I really love turning people on to some of my new fave restaurants, and I believe these high-quality chains deliver more bang for the buck, and deserve our support, otherwise they may be consigned to the trash heap of failed restaurants past.
That said, I feel I must start a new tradition at this point: occasionally reviewing the high-quality destination restaurant. In part, I decided to do this simply because of my recent dining experience at Fireside Pies. Although this most excellent pizza place may be said to be a chain in that it has two locations, I still decided to refer to it’s status as a destination rather than a true chain. Accordingly, if you are in the Dallas, TX area anytime soon, and feel the urge for great pizza, please consider Fireside Pies.
My trip to Fireside Pies was made, as usual, with my wife, who is not only a Rock Star, she is my partner in life and usual dining companion.
When we first walked into the Plano location of Fireside Pies, my wife and I were convinced right away we were in for a treat. The atmosphere is cozy warm and inviting, with the new neo-Mission style décor that is sweeping the country, complete with open kitchen. Such a style is most prevalent in the Southwest, particularly California, Arizona, and Nevada, and I love it. There is a long curved bar between the kitchen and dining area, and plenty of beautiful booths and tables in the somewhat smallish space. Although augmented by lots of patio seating, these areas can fill very quickly during prime times, and I must confess I don’t know if they take reservations. Most appealing of all is a separate outdoor patio area intended for large groups.

As our wonderful waitress Jessica quickly explained, portions are large at Fireside Pies, and are most definitely meant for sharing. Since my wife and I eat normal-size portions, this meant we had decisions to make. No doubt we were there for pizza, but what else?
Appetizers? Drinks? Salad? Dessert? In the end, we decided on drinks, salad, and of course pizza, and trust that we will attend to some of the other food categories in future visits. Drinks, of course, were first up, and my wife decided on the white peach sangria, a deft blend of wine, fruit juices and peach flavoring that was more refreshing than sweet. Delicious! For myself, I selected a pint of Peroni, a smooth Italian lager that matched our dinner perfectly. We next proceeded to the salad course, which like everything we sampled that night was outstanding. Fireside Cheese may be one of the least expensive salads on the menu, yet this delectable mix of greens, cheese blend, fresh market tomatoes (at Jessica’s suggestion), and roasted red pepper ranchhouse dressing, still manage to fill our mouths with cheesy goodness, prompting the Rock Star to suggest that "we could come here some night and just dine on this." I heartily concur. With such a strong beginning, I was hoping the main course wouldn’t be anticlimactic, and indeed it wasn’t. To me, a pizza parlor lives and dies by pepperoni, so it was important to try one. Trust me, the Triple ‘Roni did not disappoint. Layers of mozzarella, fantastic sauce, truffle oil, hand-tossed basil, and plenty of pepperoni added up to one of the finest pizzas in town, with enough leftovers for next day. I feel I must make one very, very minor quibble, which I doubt that one in ten of you share with me: This pizza, like most I try these days, is undersauced. I grew up on old-fashioned pizza parlors such as Shakey’s and Conan’s, which prided themselves on a fresh-tasting but balanced product, which meant that pizza worked best when in harmony and no ingredients predominated. This began to change about 20 years ago, when extra cheese and extra meat became the order of the day, and sauce was sacrificed in the process. Luckily, at Fireside Pies, extra sauce, cheese, and other ingredients are readily available and this problem did not keep me from enjoying my meal.

As previously stated, service was wonderful with Jessica attentive to our needs and ready with excellent suggestions. I noticed that Fireside Pies, like many quality establishments, makes sure that the staff is trained to cover other tables needs in a pinch, and other servers took it upon themselves to help out Jessica when she needed it, which was not often.

Fireside Pies website,, continues the same warm, family-friendly tone of their restaurants, and if you drop them an email, I’m sure they will promptly answer your questions about reservations, group dining, and other needs. The menu from the Dallas location is featured on the site, which is only different in minor ways from the one we enjoyed in Plano.

While I’m not certain Fireside Pies is worthy of a special trip to Dallas, if you do happen to be in our fair city, it will be well worth a visit. The Plano location is part of the magical Shops at Legacy, one of the new-school urban apartment/shopping/restaurant mini-cities that are deservedly all the rage with renters. There is an even an excellent movie theatre within walking distance, so why not do what The Rock Star and I did and make a very pleasant evening of it with dinner and a movie? That’s all for now, and remember:



Welcome to Food Czar!!! My name is Chris, and I'll be your (computer) server this evening. Why Czar, rather than King or Emperor? Because the word "czar" was taken from the word "ceasar," which means emperor, and I rather liked the idea of being named after a salad! Let's see...qualifications. I've written columns and articles that were published in newspapers, have a communications degree, and I've been going out to eat longer than some of you have been alive. (My lovely wife, the Rock Star, confirms that I am indeed older than dirt.) Thoughout this blog, I intend to focus on two types of restaurants: quality chains and quality destinations, both offering great food, service, and value for the money. Now, I really don't want to limit myself, so what I'm about to say could change, but I probably won't be focussing a lot on places you are very familiar with, such as McDonalds or Red Lobster, for example. Why? Because I feel that most of my readers are already very familiar with those types of places and have already made up their minds whether to patronize them or not. Besides, I love turning people on to my favorite places.

OK some ground rules are in order:

1. Feel free to post but please PLAY NICE! I don't want to have someone's posting removed because of bad language or they decided to personally attack me for whatever reason.

2. Please don't post corrections to my grammar or punctuation. This is a blog, not an English class. Besides the mistake may very well have been intentional. (For those of you not following along, I think I just split an infinitive. Ouch!)

3. The vast majority of my postings will be favorable. I believe in the power of positive energy. If I don't like it, I probably won't write about it. However, if I have a really bad experience, I will try to let you know about that as well.

4. I love great service, but I'm not a white-glove, Martha Stewart kind of person. If you are like that, this blog may not be for you.

5. Support your local restaurant and their staff. Let me say it a little differently: ALWAYS REMEMBER TO TIP PROPERLY!!! Do not leave only a penny, and do not leave one of those cards explaining your philosophy against tipping. Reason: Not only is it not nice, chances are it won't solve the problem. Instead, if you encounter problems, ask POLITELY to speak to a manager on duty and, if that doesn't work, go on their website when you get home (most places now have them) and send a polite email to the corporate office, thoroughly explaining the problem and suggesting what it would take to make you happy and win your business back.

6. Be reasonable in your expectations, both of this blog and of your restaurant. You're not exactly the Queen of England. (Note: If Her Gracious Majesty Queen Elizabeth II happens to be reading this posting, my humble apologies are in order. May It Please Your Majesty!)

Well, I think that's enough for the first post. Now on to the reviews!!!