Sunday, September 16, 2018

Tampopo Ramen & Hibachi

Located at 4929 West Market Street in Greensboro’s FantaCity International Shopping Center, Tampopo Ramen & Hibachi specializes in ramen but also offers hibachi dishes and Japanese appetizers. The restaurant is open from 11 to 9 every day except for Sunday.

Instant ramen may be a staple of college dorm sustenance, but it also gives the real thing a bad name. For those who have never had a chance to experience genuine ramen, Tampopo will deliciously illuminate all you have been missing.

Tampopo is a smallish space though patterned chair covers and wall art give the domain some personality. It seems to do a brisk lunch trade, which is great for its coffers but puts a strain on the constantly bustling servers, who are at least polite and helpful (a thick noodle suggestion proved to be a good call) when available.

The menu here offers the expected apps (gyoza, tempura, edamame) and hibachi plates (chicken, shrimp, steak, veggies, etc.), but the ramen offerings are really what set Tampopo apart. There are about half a dozen ramen offerings here, varying in broths (pork, chicken, or vegetable), flavor profiles (miso, soy, or spicy), and toppings. Additional toppings can be added for an upcharge, allowing for a highly customizable experience.

For our first visit, I went with a champon ramen (a Nagasaki specialty with seafood and a spicy broth) while my wife opted for the classic tonkatsu (pork broth) ramen. The dishes were a good value at $12 and $10, respectively, as they came in huge bowls that easily yielded two meals apiece.




Both bowls presented well with plenty of meat, vegetables, and noodles. The champon ramen was tasty but punishing: plan on drinking plenty of water if you want to take it on. The tonkatsu ramen, ordered spicy, still had a kick, but its flavors were more complex. Both dishes were hearty and filling.


Tampopo is not the only place in Greensboro that offers real ramen, but it certainly provides the most variety and the most intriguing examples thereof. Whether or not it becomes a favorite depends on your taste for the titular dish, but the next time you find yourself craving soup on a cold or rainy day, give it a try.

Krankies

Located at 211 East 3rd Street in downtown Winston-Salem, Krankies specializes in coffee but also offers breakfasts, sandwiches, salads, and burgers. There is a full bar, outdoor seating, and regularly rotating food and drink specials.

I put off visiting Krankies for years in part because it seemed to bear the marks of being a victim of its own success: a local favorite whose popularity invites expectations that it cannot hope to meet. When I finally did get around to giving Krankies a try, I expected to deem it overrated and go back to avoiding it. Fortunately, my skepticism proved to be misplaced.

Krankies is housed in a good-sized space that has both an industrial mien (overhead ducts and brick walls) and enough artwork to offer a contrast to it. Those who treat coffee shops as offices away from home may find Krankies distractingly boisterous, but for most other patrons, it’s not too loud.

My first visit was on a Saturday morning, which gave me a chance to try the brunch menu. From egg dishes (huevos rancheros and benedicts) to sweet breads (French toast) to biscuits to lunch sandwiches (a cheesy western burger and a BLT), nearly everything looked good. I ultimately settled on a chicken biscuit with gravy while my wife went with the weekend BLT on sourdough.




Though Krankies was moderately busy, our food came relatively quickly, and we were not let down. The chicken was generously sized, thickly battered, and tender, and while the biscuit wasn’t quite to Rise levels, it was still satisfyingly buttery. The BLT’s bacon was just crisp enough, and the avocado and egg gave the sandwich some nice textural variety. The coffee was a hit as well: my vanilla latte was smooth without any bitterness.

At first glance, Krankies’ prices may seem a bit high: $7 for the chicken biscuit and $8 for the BLT, neither of which came with a side. However, both sandwiches were quite filling, and the pricing is fair for the quality of the food. Service was also on-point, as our server, an affable future costume designer, provided helpful recommendations.

Before I checked it out firsthand, I expected Krankies to be a mediocre, hipster infested, and grossly overpriced. Instead, I found myself surprised by how much I liked it, and I would not hesitate to return.


NOTE: The narrow parking lot can be a pain, but there is plenty of additional parking in walking distance.
Krankies Coffee Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Master Tea Cafe and Bites

Located at 5103 West Market Street in Greensboro, Master Tea Café and Bites offers teas, coffees, and smoothies as well as Vietnamese sandwiches, meals, and snacks. The restaurant is open from 11 to 9 Sunday through Thursday and 11 to 11 on Friday and Saturday. Books and board games are available.

Situated beside a paint store in a plaza between FantaCity International Shopping Center and Ace Hardware, Master Tea is, like many of Greensboro’s hidden gems, easy to overlook. But if you are able to find a parking space in the smallish lot, you will be glad that you stopped by. Whether you have a bubble tea craving, are in search of an inexpensive meal, or just want a break from run-of-the-mill coffee shops, Master Tea has a lot to offer.

As the name implies, beverages are the main attraction here, and Master Tea has plenty to choose from. You can opt for milk teas (with boba), fruit teas, hot teas, matchas, coffees, or smoothies. The food side of the menu is more limited but not without appeal. There are seven different types of banh mi sandwiches as well as a few entrees (vermicelli bowls and pho) and snacks that range from the expected (egg rolls and spring rolls) to the surprising (crispy quail and kimchi fries).





For our first visit, my wife and I went with a taro milk tea and lemongrass banh mi and a Thai tea and a bulgogi banh mi, respectively. The teas were perhaps the best milk teas in town: smooth and refreshing without any graininess or unpleasantly artificial flavors. The sandwiches were good but not great. The sauces delivered the expected flavors and the meats were none too tough, but both banh mi were a bit small and may rankle sticklers for authenticity.

Our food and drinks arrived relatively quickly, and our server was helpful and patient while we ordered. The pricing proved quite budget-friendly though not the outright steal that Banh Mi Saigon Bakery is. Sandwiches were $5 a piece while the teas were $3.75 for a regular (16 ounce) and $5.25 for a large (24 ounce).

While Saigon Bakery may off both lower prices and more sandwiches to choose from Master Tea has a distinct advantage in the décor department. From a well-scribbled chalkboard wall to repurposed doors and shutters as ornaments to blue and yellow hues, Master Tea offers a bright and clean environment that is fun and relaxing without being ostentatious. The establishment is also deceptively spacious.

Good service, tasty food, and affordable prices make Master Tea a worthwhile lunch/tea/snack option for all but the most steadfast purists. I cannot speak to the quality of the pho, snacks, or smoothies, but what I did taste has given me reason enough to come back.


8/10

Monday, August 13, 2018

Burgerim

Located at 2505 Battleground Avenue in Greensboro, Burgerim serves slider-sized burgers, shakes, and fries. Outdoor seating is available as are carry-out party boxes.

Greensboro had no great need of yet another burger joint when Burgerim opened in the former Los Gordos location last month, but the slider-centric focus at least offers this Israeli chain’s first North Carolina store a chance to stand out. The concept is a winner, but everything else, so far, is a mixed bag.

Choice is Burgerim’s calling card and biggest asset. Combos come with fries and a drink and your pick of one (Uno), two (Duo), or three (Trio) sandwiches with three-ounce patties. Those patties can be chicken, lamb, turkey, salmon, veggie, falafel, or one of five (!!) different kinds of beef. Choose between a white or wheat bun, and then either select your toppings (all the standards are available as are tahini, garlic aioli, and habanero mayo) or go with a signature style such as classic (American cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, and house sauce), cowboy (cheddar, bacon, onion ring and BBQ), California (Swiss, greens, tomato, avocado, and chipotle mayo), or caliente (pepper jack, jalapenos, lettuce, Cajun seasoning, and habanero mayo). Even the fries can be ugraded in form (sweet potato fries, onion rings, or a half-fry, half-ring blend) and flavor (Cajun, jalapeno and cheese, or bacon and cheese). While this many options makes for an indecisive person’s nightmare, it affords everyone else a wealth of possibilities.




For our first visit, my wife and I each went with a differently-kitted Duo combo. We anticipated some degree of trial-and-error, and true to expectations, there were certain things we wouldn’t hesitate to try again and certain things that were a mistake the first time. All of the patties were cooked well-done, which resulted in disappointingly dry lamb. The merguez beef (seasoned with cumin, chili pepper, garlic, paprika, and roasted red pepper) was also not nearly as flavorful as the description suggested. On the other hand, the Spanish beef (smoked paprika, garlic, and chili pepper) delivered the advertised flavors, and the more tender dry-aged beef gets a definite recommendation. Burgerim’s fries are disc-shaped chips that call to mind scalloped potatoes. Topped with Cajun seasoning, they were tasty albeit salty. Topped with bacon and cheese, they proved messy and a bit greasy. For the amount of food given, the prices paid (a Duo combo is $9.99, topping and fry upgrades are .79 each) are fair.

Burgerim is blessed with helpful, hard-working staff and cursed with a layout/ordering system that does them no favors. Unlike other fast food restaurants, there is no real designated order area. Lines begin at the register, run toward a wall, and wind around the aisles between tables. One young man was working the floor and handing out menus, and his suggestions proved beneficial. Counter staff were equally accommodating of and patient with first-time guests. However, when orders are ready, staff call out a name and walk the floor, food in hand, looking for a raised arm or an acknowledgment, problematic given that the restaurant can get quite loud and that any line that forms at the drinks machine will undoubtedly get in their way. This seems like a recipe for chaos on busier days.

The menu possibilities alone make Burgerim worth checking out, but its appeal is tempered by uneven food and a potentially chaotic system.


7.25/10

Monday, July 30, 2018

Whiskey Kitchen


Located at 201 Martin Street near Nash Square in Raleigh, Whiskey Kitchen specializes in whiskeys, cocktails, and Southern cuisine. Patio seating and private/event dining are available. The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesday through Sunday and 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Monday.

Coming from Greensboro, I was skeptical that anything could match 913 Whiskey Bar without being priced into the stratosphere. Raleigh’s Whiskey Kitchen managed to match its strengths – a deep drinks menu, a more compact food menu full of delicious-sounding Southern bites, friendly service, and affordable pricing – while providing considerably more space. Even if you are not a whiskey drinker, you can find plenty to like here.

Whiskey Kitchen is a casual, seat-yourself spot, with an inviting high-meets-low motif. Think brick-and-ductwork industrial with big garage doors but also a striking mural behind a sleek, long bar. The combination proved both distinctive and inviting.

Though Whiskey Kitchen offers food all day, certain items are only available during certain times. Lunch specials run from 11-3 while dinner entrees are offered from 5-11. My wife and I came in toward the end of the lunch shift and found several possibilities from among the admittedly limited (about six items) lunch menu. I opted for a smoked brisket melt, she took on the fried chicken sandwich, and we both did side salads instead of potato wedges to assuage our guilt.




Our food came out relatively quickly, and it did not disappoint. The brisket was neither too dry nor too greasy, the sweet sauce balanced the smoky flavor, and the crispy bread held the sandwich together well. The chicken had a buttermilk and sweet tea batter, a quirky combination that was thankfully not overwhelming, and the meat was moist and delicious. Considering the quality of the food and the downtown Raleigh location, the $10 apiece charged for each sandwich+side was confusingly affordable (the chicken sandwich goes up to a less impressive $13 if ordered past lunch hours).

All told, we had a great lunch at the Whiskey Kitchen, but we also visited during an off-hour (2:30 p.m. on a Saturday). During peak times, I can imagine the acoustics being somewhat unforgiving. Time it right, however, and you won’t regret stopping by.


8.5/10

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Nix

After his mother Fay abandoned the family when he was a boy, Samuel Anderson grew up to become a failed writer, bored English professor, and hopeless gaming addict. However, when Fay becomes a brief cause celebre after throwing rocks at a controversial presidential candidate, Samuel is encouraged/threatened by his media-savvy publisher to get her story. Though reluctant at first to reconnect, Samuel eventually begins to search for answers, a journey that sees him research Fay’s midwestern roots, unlikely late-1960s student activism, and the titular Nix, a supposed family curse that followed Fay’s father from Norway.

The Nix may be Hill’s debut novel, but at times it reads like an accomplished author’s magnum opus. It satirically savages everything from grandstanding reactionary politicians to socially inept gamers to self-absorbed hippies to entitled millennial college students, often with hilarious results, and the stylistic shifts that accommodate these different perspectives are spot-on. However, the book does this without relying on mere caricature. Hill’s characters are often more complex than they seem, and even the most antagonistic or vile among them (such as a student who resolves to get Samuel fired after he busts her for plagiarism or a cop-turned-judge with a deep-seated grudge) are given some sympathetic edges.

That depth of characterization also extends to the Andersons, whose mysteries – Why did Fay leave? Why is Samuel such a jaded washout? How did the family curse come about? – are revealed gradually. Hill uses digression frequently and often to good effect (witness the woes of Samuel’s gamer friend Pwnage), but between that and the book’s frequent hops across place (Iowa to Chicago to New York) and time (the present to the 1960s to the early 2000s), The Nix is guaranteed to try some readers’ patience. For those who stick with it until the end, there is a definite payoff in seeing how the pieces come together.

If there is one thing that does mark The Nix as a first novel, it is a certain amount of unevenness. At times, it feels excessive. Hill often posses Fay’s (and Samuel’s) trials and tribulations against historical backdrops, and both the violence of the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots and cameos from the likes of Walter Cronkite and Allen Ginsberg felt gratuitous. On the opposite end of the spectrum, parts of the ending came across as too neatly packaged.
Sharply witty yet achingly sincere, The Nix is an auspicious debut and an engrossing family saga that is well worth the time invested in it.


8.75/10

Superhero Chronicles: The Secret History of Wonder Woman and The Caped Crusade

Though they may have reached the point of oversaturation, the cultural prominence of comic book superheroes makes it difficult to dismiss them as mindless juvenilia. They are often, rightly, recognized as symbolically representing the best and worst of the world as its creators see it, from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s original immigrant success story Superman to Frank Miller’s quasi-fascist take on Batman to Deadpool’s self-referential postmodern absurdity. For characters who have been around for decades, there are years of influences – both on and of – to unpack. The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore and The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture by Glen Weldon give this treatment to two of D.C.’s most iconic long-runners, with very different results.



Lepore’s detailed and meticulously researched text is less a history of Wonder Woman and more a history of her creators: Professor William Moulton Marston, his wife Elizabeth “Sadie” Holloway Marston, and his former student-turned-lover Olive Byrne. Marston, a Harvard-educated psychology professor who created a version of the lie detector, emerges as a fascinatingly complex and contradictory figure: a committed and outspoken feminist (he fully intended for Wonder Woman to serve as feminist propaganda, Lepore notes) who overshadowed his female collaborators, a literal truth-seeker who perpetrated fraud, and a highly credentialed man of letters who dove headfirst into some questionable ventures. Said collaborators Holloway (a lawyer and psychologist in her own right) and Byrne are implied to have been hugely influential in Wonder Woman’s creation (Byrne, for instance, wore bracelets that WW fans would find familiar), but Lepore shies away from giving them the lion’s share of the credit. And while Lepore does explore the cultural context that birthed Wonder Woman (namely, first-wave feminism), Diana Prince herself is treated almost like a minor character in her own supposed history. Only the last third of the book directly discusses Wonder Woman in comics, and her post-Marston years are treated briefly and disdainfully (somewhat understandable given Gardner Fox’s and Robert Kanigher’s treatment of the character). While The Secret History of Wonder Woman offers a detailed look at a mad genius, it does not fully do its supposed subject justice.



Weldon’s take on Batman’s history is a leaner, snarkier, less scholarly (though still credibly researched) affair that hews more closely to its proclaimed purpose. Weldon traces The Caped Crusader’s origins (confirming the open secret that credit-hogging artist Bob Kane stole recognition from co-creator/writer Bill Finger) and various iterations over the years, from noirish gun-wielding (!) vigilante to science fiction superhero to camp icon to grim, hypercompetent foe of criminals everywhere. Along the way, he notes how reactions to these differing takes resulted in a rabid and impossible to please fanbase split along tribal lines. To some, a dark and brooding Batman is the only true Batman and Adam West/Joel Schumacher silliness is an abomination; but to others (such as Weldon himself), the camp version is the more interesting take. Just as Lepore played up Wonder Woman’s feminist bonafides, Weldon places a lot of emphasis on Batman’s status as a gay icon (ironic, given his denunciation of comic book critic Frederick Wertham’s homophobic fearmongering). However, Weldon also reminds readers that Batman is an inkblot: fans see in The Dark Knight what they want to see. This view is affirmed by showing how different filmmakers, writers, and artists have all approached the character over the years. Overall, the book is a balanced blend of history, behind-the-scenes trivia, and cultural criticism.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman: 7.5/10

The Caped Crusade: 8/10