Tuesday, October 11, 2016


It's too easy for me to forget that this blog exists. I'll get on a roll for a few months, build up some momentum, then "reward" myself with a "break" and subsequently disappear for half a year or more. I can't say for sure why I drop off like that. I enjoy writing. I see putting my thoughts down and sharing them as a healing act, and when the going inevitably gets tough, this is the logic that I'll use as a prod to jab me back in to the game; but said logic means nothing to whatever sick entity was put in charge of scripting 2016. This year has been nothing but one devastating vicissitude bleeding with an almost competitive malevolence in to another. The reflexive result is my subconscious defensively extricating itself from any true participation in the world.

This is heartbreaking for me. Going out in to the world is what I love. Going to desperate and impractical means to enjoy life's most premium experiences is what I do. I use my insistence on participation, on not being bored ever, as the only real blueprint for escaping my blistering depression. It feels damn near impossible, however, to run tantivy in to the nurturing and inspired arms of cuisine and revelry when the hurdles I have to leap are the bodies of legends and friends maimed or killed off by illness at an age where most of us are entering our prime, my dead dog, and a formidable and growing golem of small personal defeats. The idea of spritzing in a few curative instances of luxury just feels wrong.

Defying the mandates set forth by this shitty year to stay miserable, myself and a sizable group of friends who, for their own reasons are mutually eager to bid adieu to 2016, recently set out to Madison for a midweek trip. The plan was simple enough: dinner at Forequarter followed by Car Seat Headrest playing at the Majestic. As it turns out, simple wouldn't do. The alchemized effect of this specific group of people, our commensurate measures of frustration and irrepressibility culminated in a full-scale takedown of Forequarter's menu (which it just so happens was otherworldly in it's deliciousness) and enough wine to provide the foundation for at least one near black out. After filling up on puffed beef tendon, seared scallops, steak, chicken, lamb... literally the entire damn menu with several items doubled up on plus desserts, we made our way to the show. I walked out in to perfect weather, ethereally drunk and full enough to be stoned; and if you can empathize with the latter of those two states of intoxication, we can almost definitely be friends.

The rest of the night hovers in a flickering ether for me. Fleeting moments of don't-give-a-fuck fun leading up to sloppily passing out on a friends air mattress. I closed my eyes with the spirit of a 19 year old, waking up very much in my thirties with horrible pain in my joints and head and GERD intense enough to produce a panic attack. Ultimately, I emerged from this self-induced chrysalis/iron maiden hybrid refreshed. As grey as life had been leading up to that night, was immediately hellish after, and lame as it has been ever since-it was proven to me over the course of those several hours that escape is possible.

Obviously this isn't meant to be a review of a restaurant or even a narrative of my evening. This is a reminder to me and whoever else it might resonate with that dread doesn't have to win. Fight like hell to keep the jaws of circumstance from snapping down on you; but if you start to feel consumed, it might be better to blast your way out with dynamite than negotiate with nightmares you don't always have control over.  Since I started writing this another one of my friends passed away, and another person who I didn't know personally but was close to many of my other friends also died. It's more a reminder than anything for me to continue to get out and actually enjoy life instead of letting the downsides (not matter how drastic they may be) beat me in to submission. More to come. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

El Señorial And A Lesson Learned

Around this time last year I noticed sudden rumblings of a restaurant on Milwaukee's south side by the name of El Señorial. Those tremors quickly became a full on mania-quake, the aftershocks of which delivered me and a few curious friends to the door of El Señorial for a late night dinner.

The evening was a fateful one for me as it drastically changed the way I've gone about dining. I went in to the restaurant with the knowledge that El Señorial was famous for a few dishes, most notably their parrilladas. A combination of arrogance, entitlement and idiocy persuaded me to ignore the advice of my hedonistic brethren and go with the strategy I always implemented as a first time diner in an establishment: go with the fundamentals. To be fair, I only went with what I perceived to be the fundamentals, forgetting entirely that perhaps, just maybe, this deeply authentic Mexican restaurant, who's clientele are primarily Mexican people, doesn't give a shit about what I qualify as a "fundamental" Mexican food experience.

The result of my sloppy ordering was a forgettable and poorly prepared taco plate, replete with cold beans and rice. I left in a whiny huff, convinced that all of my friends had either pulled some elaborate prank on me despite not knowing one another, or that they didn't know a damn thing about food. There's that arrogance I mentioned again. After writing some jejune status update detailing my disdain, I got quite the lashing from several of my friends informing me that it wasn't the restaurant that had fucked up, it was me. I took a step back and considered my actions, which led to the dismissal of my faulty and misinformed "fundamentals" policy. I could have very easily reeled in to some existentialist crisis where I chronicled and criticized my ordering process for every meal I've ever had. Now that I'm married and have found content in the realm of romance, food has become my pursuit of choice when I want to instill my life with excitement. Could El Señorial be the one who got away? It came very close to that, but luckily fate intervened.

I was getting off of work a couple Saturdays ago when some married friends of mine contacted me asking if I wanted to stop by (the magnificent) Red Light Ramen for dinner. Usually i'd emphatically leap at the opportunity to get some midnight ramen, but there were a lot of things in the way this time. First: I had already gotten ramen in two consecutive weeks, Second: I had just gotten off a shift that had kicked my ass and I wasn't sure I could endure waiting in a line for dinner, but the big one is that I had already said the words "Mexican food" to my wife, so anything else may as well be "poisoned garbage" as far as our options were concerned. We bounced around a few more ideas before I almost unconsciously uttered the words "El Señorial", and just like that, our destination was set.

The husband in tow was one of the ones who more sternly criticized my initial ordering behavior, so with that and his enviable dining repertoire in mind I did the unthinkable... I handed over the helm of my dinner to my friends for the evening. We started with the requisite free chips and beers. I hate the idea of patronizing anyone who reads this with the details of ordering a generic Mexican beer, but the fact that they came with humongous frosted mugs with salted rims feels worth mentioning. We ordered a few other things that feel ornamental in comparison to our main dish; an incredible side of arbol sauce that I can say without hesitation was the best of my young life, and about a fifteen pound plate of chilaquiles which were sort of ordered "just because", but then we got down to the real deal, the reason for our whole journey, the pièce de résistance: the parrilladas.
Objective, indisputable excellence.

From the little I've been able to ascertain from the internet, parrillada has several different incarnations. The one placed before us was a truly majestic heap of ribs, flank steak and chorizo, along with peppers, onion and potatoes cut lengthwise. Imagine some sort of evolved and nearly holy version of fajitas and that's what this was. I don't mean to use the word holy to come off as lofty or to be disrespectful either. What I mean to say is that what I ate at El Señorial at 1:30 in the morning a few Sundays ago was so close to perfection for that moment that it gave me pause and made me lament my mortality. To know that there are a finite amount of moments in anyone's life like the one I was having saddened me, but also inspired me in to a state of very real gratitude. I was thankful for what I was consuming, who I was with, and the reminder that being humbled can lead to great things. Usually if I'm awake at 1:30 in the morning I'm busy destroying memories instead of creating them, but that dinner was unforgettable.

Our ride home was filled with a wonderful delirium. Incidentally the last time I'd experienced anything like it was around the eleventh course of my dinner at Alinea. Stuffed with food and starved for sleep we parted ways. My wife and I made our way home. My wife and I attempted our nightly routine of nostalgic television and a beer, but I was no match for the sheer amount of mixed meats crushing my system. I fell asleep on the couch, beer in hand, so grateful to have been so wrong.

El Señorial
1901 S 31st St, Milwaukee, WI 53215
(414) 385-9506
Make it happen.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Sorry, sorry, sorry.

Maybe it's some sort of mental dysmorphia but I live in a constant state of self doubt. I feel like I'm treading on a thin strand of luck and the slightest of circumstances could buffet me off the rope in to the abyss I deserve to live in. This isn't to suggest I believe I've done something cosmically immoral, but it is to say that I'm presently living a life I have a hard time accepting I'm worthy of. I have a job that is actually fun to go to, I have an insistently loving and supportive family, I have enough money to sustain the maintenance of two dogs who I adore and enough extra to manage a date night here and there. My wife is the loyal, sweet, incisive and hilarious breadwinner of my house who puts up with my neurotic bullshit with more patience than I had previously assumed was possible. That doesn't even touch on her beauty, which exists on such a scale that otherwise mature and tactful adults who meet her for the first time feel compelled to tell me they don't understand how I, of all people, ended up with her. The life surrounding this teeth-gritting, fatalistic, catastrophic curmudgeon is by definition a good one; one that could be categorized as enviable for a lot of people

So what's my stupid problem then? Well, I'm so nervous about the fragility of my very nice life that instead of enjoying it I become a hypochondriacal wad of nervous energy. I consider the logic of doomsayers predicting the end of the world, I convince my body it has cancer or some anomalous neurological condition, I remind myself constantly that at any minute someone I love could die in a car accident and joy itself could become rendered an impossibility forevermore. In short, my last name is "Ciaccio" and I am imbued with a genetic condition that makes me, at times, a grumpy and petulant old man who loves life too much to invest in it. Caution begets anxiety which begets self doubt which begets depression which begets me sitting around and playing my PS3 for hours instead of doing anything remotely useful, like cleaning up my house or writing on this here blog. It's lame and inexcusable. That's why I'm sorry.

I'm not sorry to you, my reader, whoever you are. I'm really grateful that you've tolerated my indulgent self-effacement long enough to get to this sentence, but I'm not sorry. I'm also not going to apologize to myself because my inner snob resents my inner sloth too much to let me get away with contrition. I dedicate my lament to the static sense of fulfillment that I've been shutting out the last several months by looking at my laptop and saying, "Why bother?". Knowing that I've exchanged something I personally find enriching for hours and hours of forgettable non-life isn't something I want to apologize to myself for, but it is something I want to regret. Even if life isn't as fragile as my brain would like me to believe, time itself is a non-renewable resource.

So here is this post, in all of it's immodest and maudlin glory, obliging me to keep writing. There may be a lot in this world that I thumb my nose at, but food and writing don't fit in to that vast bracket. Whatever this blog is the product of; be it a talent, a gift, a delusion or whatever else, it is with out a doubt a more logical means to a satisfying end than all of the nothing i've been doing. So, with Wisconsin's pertinacious winter looming, let's get cozy, and I'll fill some of your time with what I think about the great (and not so great) world of gustation.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Writing About Writing About Food

I've been writing this blog, with varying degrees of prolificness, for almost exactly half a year now.  My love of all things gastronomic hasn't burnt out in the least, but I keep hitting very serious walls that make writing about my objective experiences with food very difficult.  In an attempt to grease the wheels I'm going to go stream of conscious a little bit and try and unlock some of the reasons why.

To me, the process of eating food can be a sacred thing. I don't mean to come off as desperate or lachrymose when I use the word "sacred", but there is an inherent romance attached to good food.  It can be something I've eaten a hundred times in my life, but if it's a good product that took consideration to make, I owe it my consideration as it's being consumed.  Let's use the very basic example of fresh cheese curds. Any self-respecting Wisconsinite has experienced the majesty that is opening the twist-tied bag of cheese curds and popping a fresh chunk of squeaky cheddar in their mouths and just slipping cozily in to bliss. For me, the sensory experience given to be by cheese curds immediately brings me to my grandparent's farm, where I have a distinct memory of my late grandmother and I sharing a bowl of cheese curds on the front porch while Amish buggies clopped by. The fresh air, my grandma's voice, Uecker on the radio all hum back to my by proxy of a taste I can connect through memories over time. That is what is sacred.

So why is this difficult to write about? It's hard to say. Maybe I'm protective of memories like that, or perhaps I'm nervous I won't do them justice. Maybe it's difficult for me to communicate deeply personal moments that leave me feeling slightly vulnerable. Being that I am, to a fault, pretty open with how I feel about things, I think the difficulty is more in trying to relate personal experiences than anything else.

To draw a comparison, the experience of eating food for me is like being in love. I have proud, precise feelings when it comes to the love I have for my wife and my family and friends, but it's an unquantifiable and amorphous experience that is individual to me. Everyone loves differently, even my wife loves me in different way than I do her, so really how accurately can I describe the experience of our relationship and it's depth to someone who I haven't even met? The same goes with my own personal attachment to food and dining. Given the insatiable ardor I have in my heart for gastronomy, I'm probably something of an authority, but really how much of one? My experience as a diner is pretty deep but certainly not in comparison to others food writers out there. My experience as someone who's worked in restaurants is a decade long but that's mostly front of house and odd job work that doesn't actually pertain to making food, the parts that do pertain to making food are fucking laughable. I cook at home but I'm a bronze medal finalist behind my wife and roommate.

Everything I listed up there are all things that make me question myself in to the role of "hesitant authority". It sounds cocky to consider oneself an authority at all but if I didn't then why the hell write about anything at all?  I know my love for food is genuine. Literally almost everything about the experience of "food" is exciting to me. Where the food comes from, who is making it, how it's meant to be eaten, what it's meant to be paired with, the kitchen it came out of, etc. The trick comes in capturing that thought and holding it in my brain long enough to transcribe it in to words, and then convincing myself that I'm making it good and real enough to click the bright orange "Publish" button that's mocking me from it's perch in the upper right corner of the site.

Wow, this is all sounding a whole lot less confident than I am as someone who writes about food. The point I'm trying to make is that accurately describing a personal experience and trying to relate it to people in a very general way can be very difficult. This truth is magnified when it involves a topic so dear to me that I consider it as much a cornerstone of my existence as the people I love. The implicit challenge is equal parts exciting and intimidating, a combination that serves as an adequate enough inspiration fuel for me to keep writing and hoping that I never come off as trite or mawkish.

If you've read this far I guess it's safe to say that you vibe with Rough Chop, and for that I sincerely thank you. I always thought it was a bit of a lame platitude to readers when other bloggers have described their work as a journey shared with the writer, but in a way I understand where that feeling comes from. I hope you want cheese curds as much as I do now.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Over It

There is exhaustion, and then there is whatever is after exhaustion. Whatever that emotion is set it's precedent and etched itself in to my heart almost a year ago. Unable to identify it's source, that emotion transformed in to a depression that was intense and aggressive even by my standards. Accenting that was a daily onslaught of panic attacks, an ordeal far worse than the once-a-month surprise panic that usually peppers my life.

This virulent shit was all cyclical in nature. Depression made me panic, panic exhausted me and made me depressed. I was angry at everyone and everything. Further complicating that was a deepening in my tendency to catastrophize expectation. If something could go wrong, I knew it would. As you can imagine, this is not a particularly great mindset for a hypochondriac to adopt. I was an abject mess. 

What was most unnerving about all of this is that I could not for the life of me determine the source of the anguish that had mysteriously manifested itself in my life. I was still basking in the afterglow of my less than a year old marriage, I was developing new and exciting friendships while enhancing old ones, I enjoyed my life and my personal schedule. I didn't allow myself to accept what the obvious triggers were for my anxiety, and ignoring them only turned what was a molehill in to a minefield of complications. Letting the few things that were truly damaging me fester made everything horrible. I allowed my issues to exacerbate so intensely that my new marriage was in actual jeopardy. I needed to identify what was wrong. I needed to ingratiate myself to back in to existence. 

With some help and some patience and a whole lot of cognitive sifting I determined that the category of my life that I found most unfulfilling was my job. To a lot of people this isn't a big deal. A lot of jobs actually encourage you to shut off any part of yourself that craves an identity. If you hate working at Best Buy, you can just quit. Odds are if you did develop an emotional attachment to the place or your coworkers, not only were you not a good fit, you were probably violating company protocol. That mentality can't exist when the company you work for is familial and participatory and lets you know you are cared. But there I was, clocking in to that company looking like a kicked dog, sad and stressed out and pathetic.

I wasn't working in restaurants to get me through school, or because I was waiting to figure myself out, or because I was waiting for something better to come along. The idea putting on whites and working insane hours for little-to-no tangible reward was exciting to me. I loved the aesthetic, the grind, the push, the post shift beers. Waking up with sore knees and a bad back had fulfillment written all over it in my head. Furthermore, food is absolutely integral to my existence. There are probably fewer people in my life than I can count on both hands that I love more than good food. Fucked up, I know, but it's true. I wanted to be a lifer.

So, what was the problem? Well aside from the mental limitations implicit in living with anxiety, my mechanical skills aren't exactly a sight to behold. The name "Rough Chop" is more self-identifying than you might assume, and my handwriting looks like it's being executed with all the skill and precision of an eight year old. Self-effacement aside though, the "problem", for a lack of better words, went far beyond mechanical capacity. Almost like I hadn't realized it, enough time had gone by that I was a year from 30 years old and doing nothing but aggressively treading water. I wasn't a chef and god knows I didn't want to be one. Working nights stopped being fun once my wife got out of the service industry, started working normal hours and never saw me anymore. My time off became a balancing act between having time with my wife, time to myself, and maintaining my social life. 

Trying something and quitting because you don't like it is one thing, trying something you love and failing because you don't have the capacity to execute can break your heart. I had become the embodiment of lessons learned from investing an industry without being willing to put my whole heart in it. My brain burned out just slightly before my heart did, and my inability to accept what was happening reality sent me in to a spiral of self-defeat. So something had to be done, and done that thing was. I quit working in restaurants. Out of necessity, out of desire, out of my love for my family and friends and even food. I had to amputate the part of my identity that time and circumstance had let become infected.

I think the extrapolated result is a good one, despite the rocky road it took to get here. I also think listening when your body and brain is demanding you get the fuck out of a situation is a lesson a lot of people could learn. I'm not positive I've found my niche just yet, or that what I'm doing now is a logical means to a fulfilling life. Having said that I do know ripping the bandage off, and with it an obsolete skill set, has been a beneficial change. Sometimes its better to jettison yourself in to the unknown than to cling on to something that isn't working for you. I value the time I spent working in restaurants, and this entry isn't meant to shit on the people who have the ethic and passion to make a life out of it. If anything, I envy the people willing and able to uphold the aesthetic I fell in and then dramatically out of love with. 

It took me a while to write this post because I wanted the dust to settle in my head a little bit before I chose to write my feelings down. My reflexive side wanted to explode in to a cathartic writing rampage and just tear apart every element of what I didn't love about cooking, like a petulant teenage boy who just got dumped for the first time. That wouldn't have done justice to an experience that I was 90% in love with. That 10% was so grating and frustrating that a love sonnet wouldn't necessarily have been an appropriate send off either. So I chose to avoid the maudlin dirge approach all together and write something kind of analytical and straightforward.

This isn't to say that my departure from the world of restaurants is completely without criticism for the industry itself. While you are allowed to have an identity and personality in the kitchen, any part of that identity that doesn't pertain to working in a kitchen is pretty much useless. It helps to be a yes man. Also, their is a rigid bureaucracy that plays itself out in ways that are often painfully arbitrary and idiotic. Sensitivity and kindness have almost no place on the clock. If you're sick, if someone you know is dying, if you're wrought with anxiety and depression, you better get your shift covered or you better be at work. Being the prototypical family man (or woman) is also totally impossible if you want to fulfill some serious role in a kitchen. These are all just realities that I've gleaned from my personal experience of 10+ years of working in various kitchens, but if those realities are somehow vastly different from anyone else's experience, I'd be willing to bet that those other people are the exception to the rule. 

Whenever I write these more personal entries I always feel compelled to end with some moral or a summation of my emotions based on what I just wrote, but this feels a little different. It's hard for me to project my own personal feelings on this matter as they pertain to someone else, because that's fucking with someone's most core passion. Cooking isn't something ever succeeds at if they aren't completely in love with it and aren't completely driven. So I guess my advice is to always read the writing on the wall. Perfection will always be unattainable, but unless you're willing to try and get there, the long term kitchen life just isn't for you. After a decade of trying, I realized it wasn't for me.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Memories In Gustation-Hot Doug's (Chicago, IL)

The end of 2013 and beginning of 2014 was marked by some extreme financial stress. The perfect storm of the holidays, car repairs and extreme energy bills that were prolonged by relentless polar vortex left my wife and I in a pretty steep hole. Tired of playing the part of pent up curmudgeons, we agreed that when our tax return came, we'd split what was left after catching up and do whatever the hell we wanted with our respective halves. My wife, being of practical mind and body, decided to revamp our decrepit living room. I on the other hand opted for an all out culinary splurge in the great city of Chicago.

We drove to Chicago in the still frigid middle of March and met up with our friends with whom we made plans to spend our first night in town with. The whole day was an absolute blast. Starting with lunch at Cafe Spiagga and ending with a 4 AM bar who's name has been vaporized from my memory. Now, i'm a quaint little man from Wisconsin and am not used to quite the level of ravaging that was doled out to me by the dank dive I remember walking in to but have no recollection of leaving. The next day, brain exploding and stomach in knots, we cautiously ate some brunch and prepared for what was next.

My wife and I wanted to have one night of romance amidst our cyclone of dining and drinking. We got a nice room in MileNorth hotel in downtown Chicago where we rested up, got dressed and took a cab to Taxim for dinner. Taxim, a romantic but not at all stuffy upscale Greek restaurant, is a bit of a hidden gem. Our initial plan was to go to Taxim, hit a few bars, get a fancy drink at The Violet Hour and wrap our evening up with tacos at Big Star.  What actually happened was a traumatic alchemy involving a combination of a whole roasted sea bass, a bottle of wine, too much ouzo and a body that hadn't fully detoxed from the 4 AM bar. By the time we were done with our meal at Taxim we were in such a state of psychosis that literally our only choice was to go to our hotel room and pass out.

This sets the scene for our meal at Hot Doug's. We woke up in about as bad a state as you can imagine, checked out of our room and grabbed our car. The delightful combo of uninhibited binging and Chicago's insane parking prices left our heads, stomachs and checking accounts in mutual anguish. Frankly, all I wanted to do was put on some music, remain silent and drive home. Suffice to say that "eating a bunch of hotdogs" doesn't exactly live in harmony with the rest of those thoughts, but with rumors that Hot Doug's would soon be announcing their impending closing, we absolutely had to make a stop.

Getting off the freeway and making our way to Hot Doug's felt like a fucking death march. It took almost 45 minutes to make it essentially a half a mile thanks to construction and the thickest and most hostile chunk of traffic I've ever been in. My cynicism started to make me angry with myself. "How could a hotdog place really be this special? Could this even possibly be worth it? What kind of sick human being likes hotdogs as much as I do?" My mind raced with thoughts self-hatred and vows of future temperance. Fortunately for me, my adoration for hotdogs won out,

Pulling up to Hot Doug's when we did must have been the result of some divine inspiration. The hotdog god's awarded us for our determination with a gift of an uncharacteristically short line. The famous line around the block synonymous with Hot Doug's was pruned to a line of maybe five other people. Being rookies to the establishment, my wife and I naively showed up with only credit card in hand. Owner Doug Sohn himself was manning the front and informed us it was cash only. Before we could turn around to leave he told us to order and eat and pay him back "whenever", which was astounding. Popularity aside I can't imagine the profit margins for hotdogs (especially ones as specialized as Hot Doug's) could be that huge; and having never met us before there was no implicit reason to trust that we'd make good on paying him back.

The dogs came out quickly and deliciously. As evidenced in the picture above, we went a little overboard. We ordered a mountain of fries, I had three hotdog's and my usually less voracious wife had two. We both had the indispensable Chicago dog, which I maintain is the greatest combination of flavors humanity has ever created. As far as the specialty dogs go my wife had the Bo Derek sausage made with andouille and given it's name on account of being "very, very hot".  I went with a gin and tonic dog which was blended with juniper berries (interesting tasting but not necessarily delicious) and a Paul Kelly, which I lament to say was better than any bratwurst I've had in Milwaukee.

This isn't about the food I ate though, it's about cutting through the predictable hype that surrounds kitschy food and finding out what was so special about the now-shuttered Hot Doug's. To be honest, it's difficult to pinpoint the amorphous emotion that Sohn's humble establishment brought out for me. Being as forthright as I can be, it wasn't the food. That's not talking shit, I did eat probably the best hotdog of my life within the confines of 3342 N. California; but the best hotdog of my life doesn't necessitate this level of analysis, at least not for me. I think what made Hot Doug's a memorable experience for me was the feeling I got that this restaurant pre-dated kitsch and absolutely owned that fact. It's hard to imagine that Doug Sohn envisioned the kind of fame he had coming his way when he first opened his restaurant, and it didn't seem to phase his ethic at all once it showed up on his doorstep. I only made it through his door once, but my experience filled all of my most optimistic expectations. Familiar but not boring, special but not complicated, accommodating but not in your face. Good food, done right. And like a great television show, Doug made sure to end his vision before it got stale. Hot Doug's closed it's doors on October 3rd, 2014. Sohn simply stated that "it was time to do something else".

It might seem a little silly to eulogize a restaurant, and it might seem arrogant to try and encapsulate what that restaurant meant in my solitary experience; but from what I gleaned from the hour or so I spent in that restaurant, that's exactly what Doug wanted. I enjoyed myself thoroughly, I had good service, and I had an actually memorable hotdog. Simple as that. That platitude I tacked on up there, "good food, done right", is a basic thought that's executed all too rarely. When it is, magic happens, and people wait in lines for hours to experience. Our impatient and entitled generation doesn't wait in lines for kitsch or irony, but it will wait for something special. I'm grateful I got to experience that specialness, even if it was just one time.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Best Of Ten-Pho-Round Two: Vietnamese Noodles

Last Friday I kicked off one of the craziest and most gluttonous weekends of my life with a giant eponymous bowl of pho from Mequon's own Vietnamese Noodles. Joining Lisa (my partner in the tour de pho we masochistically assigned ourselves to) and myself was my very hungry wife.


Tommy's Experience 

I arrived a little bit early to the eyesore that Vietnamese Noodles is unfortunately embedded in. I put zero blame on the restaurant for it's location mind you; if you are going to try and open up any sort of establishment in Mequon you'll likely be doing it in a strip mall. Even the Bartolotta supper club Joey Gerard's is crammed in to one of the many depressing brown strip malls you'll find in the 'quon. Making matters all the more irritating is the fact that some snotty sixteen year old gave me a dirty look for driving more than one mile per hour when entering the parking lot. Ugh, Mequon, you are truly determined to burrow an ulcer in to my stomach. But enough about that.

My wife and I arrived at the refreshingly not-at-all-cleverly named restaurant at around 2:30 PM. The place was totally dead, which wasn't shocking given the fact that it was well after lunchtime in a business district in a part of the state that's absolutely inundated with shitty, cutesy pseudo-chains like Noodles And Company and Cosi. One thing that made me a little concerned that the deadness was not only confined to hours that aren't typically busy was the fact that the menu had some whole pages covered up with ominous tape, signifying that there are a lot of items permanently off the menu. Most concerning to me was the restaurants elimination of bahn mi. Hopefully the kitchen is simply trying to reduce and re-focus on other menu items, but frankly speaking, part of me sees "menu reduction" and hears "death rattle".

Vietnamese Noodles menu looks a little hookah bar/Ed Hardy to me for some reason

Another issue was the fact that our service was pretty slow. This would be fine if there was a rush going on, but we were literally the only three people in the entire restaurant. When our server did interact with us he did so with a thick tone of ambivalence in his voice. I wouldn't go as far as to say the service was "rude" per se, just a bit on the nonchalant side of things for my taste. That being said this place was not in any way trying to be fancy or super accommodating or anything besides a place to sit down and get a basic ass bowl of noodles and then leave. This aesthetic is actually pretty refreshing when you put it in the middle of a bunch of businesses trying to zealously cram whole wheat tortillas or frozen yogurt down your throat.

We ordered our food, drinks, and a side of egg rolls, all which came out pretty quickly. Being the sophisticated dandy you have all come to know me as, I went with tea. Lisa once again ordered beer, this time because they were out of coffee, seemingly permanently(???). My wife also ordered beer. Almost everything came out at the exact same time but a couple of minutes ahead of the pho were the egg rolls. Spare the now shuttered Port China (rest in peace), I've never had an impressive egg roll experience. Vietnamese Noodles was no exception. Little bland tubes of crunch with some processed orange sweet sauce over the top of them.

Shortly after I had eaten a couple boring crunch tubes, my triumphantly huge bowl of pho emerged from the kitchen and was plunked down on my table. By way of some astonishing mental lapse I had ordered "the big bowl". Pho is never not served in giant portions so when our monotone server asked if I wanted the larger portion I said yes without batting an eye. Whatever.

The pho was good beyond expectation but that isn't to suggest it was mind blowing. What I am saying is that a restaurant in a strip mall in the dullest city on the planet shouldn't lend much to expectation, so when anything even mildly decent pops up it's always a bit of a surprise. Still, the pho did actually taste good. Under the weight of the litany of meat options the menu presented I ordered the unimaginative "sliced medium rare beef noodle soup".  Whenever I'm experiencing paralysis by choice I almost always choke and pick the most basic thing. The broth was good, the garnishes were plentiful, the noodles were the same exact noodles I've had in every bowl of pho ever, but the meat kind of sucked.  First off, there was just not very much of it, not even by pho standards. Secondly, I'm just going to assume from this experience that no matter which way you order your meat, it's going to come out extremely well done.

The verdict: All in all I'd say I enjoyed it. Nothing was excellent but I wasn't repulsed or alienated by anything either. If you can tolerate ambivalent service and want maybe the only decent thing to eat in the 262 area code that's under $10.00, swing by Vietnamese Noodles. Really I should say "swing by while you still can", as I got the distinct feeling that the restaurant was in it's final stages.

Was it better than Hue?:
Pound for pound I'd say Vietnamese Noodles is the better of the two restaurants. The food felt more authentic, the prices were far more reasonable and for some sick reason I almost want to count the perfunctory nature of the staff as a plus. The entire experience coasted linearly in a comforting modesty. The fact that there is something decent and affordable to eat for lunch in Mequon also stands on it's own as an accomplishment.

The "big bowl"

Lisa's Experience

I met up with Tom and Steph for a late lunch last Friday at Mequon’s aptly named Vietnamese Noodles. Because of my inability to efficiently complete everyday tedious tasks (homework? errands?), poor spatial/map skills, and the unbelievably slow drivers that populate 43 north, I was twenty minutes late and rolled in starving and somewhat frantic. Luckily, we were literally the only customers in the place, so my lateness didn’t appear to be inconveniencing anyone except my friends, and well, they’re probably used to it.

Vietnamese Noodles is small and unassuming, nestled into a perfectly average suburban strip mall between stores so unremarkable I’ve already forgotten what they are. The menu was huge, in that sprawling, numerical, vaguely-overwhelming-in-its-breadth kind of way. Knowing ahead of time that you’re going to get pho of some kind certainly narrows it down, but they did have an appealing variety to choose from, ranging from traditional steak/flank to vegetarian to every kind of meat ever all in one bowl.

I opted for a rare steak and tendon bowl, better known as #11. After spending most of my last pho lunch with Tom jealously staring at his coffee/condensed milk, I wanted one for myself (also possibly a smoothie, because there’s no such thing as too many beverages, right?). Disappointingly, the (bored but polite) server informed me that there were no drinks other than water and tea (and maybe soda? I don’t remember because I was too busy sulking, apparently). The unexpected unorderable beverages sort of fit with my vague feeling that Vietnamese Noodles is maybe not a restaurant that is doing well, or is not managed well, or something like that, from how empty it was to the handwritten notes pointing out menu items that are no longer available, including all of the banh mi, which was a bummer.
However, the arrival of the pho more than made up for any residual smoothie/coffee/banh mi angst--- huge steaming bowls (Tom’s was more like a trough, actually), heaping plate of basil/lime/jalapeño, and the broth, oh man, the broth. It was much more flavorful than Hue’s, more savory and with greater depths of meaty flavor. It was still light though, both in color and fattiness, which I like. I couldn’t resist adding a little Sriracha, chili paste, and hoisin, but it really wouldn’t be necessary since the broth is so tasty. My only complaint was that there really wasn’t that much meat in mine, like seriously only a few tiny pieces of tendon, which was kind of a disappointment, but at $8 for a large bowl I really can’t bring myself to be that bothered by it. In fact, it was so good that I bought another serving to go, ostensibly for my boyfriend, but wound up eating most of it myself the next day. Cool, I know.

Verdict: Undeniably more delicious than Hue. Ambience is meh, and it’s hard to say what you’ll be able to order, but who cares when the pho is good?

Vietnamese Noodles is open seven days a week 
Mon-Sat 10 am to 9 pm
Sun-10 am to 7 pm
1380 W. Mequon Rd, Mequon, WI 53092