Monday, July 21, 2014

Los Gordos Mexican Cafe

Located at 3821 High Point Road in Greensboro, Los Gordos serves Tex-Mex cuisine for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Lunch specials, daily drink specials, and catering are available.

As the name (gordo means “fat”) attests, this is not an eatery for the health-conscious or weak-stomached. Whatever you try here, it is likely to look greasy and sloppy…and taste delicious. If you can hazard that and the somewhat inconvenient location (in a shopping plaza behind another shopping plaza off High Point Road), Los Gordos offers a take on Mexican unlike any other in the area.

Those who thumb their noses at the Tex-Mex designation will find familiar targets among the burritos and enchiladas, but look past the label, and you’ll see some flair. Your complimentary chips come with two very different sauces (one red, one green, both homemade), and the menu includes touches like seabass and chicken with mushroom sauce.

For my first visit, I went with the gordo plate, a sampler of carnitas, chicken, steak, fish, and shrimp. The pork was incredibly tender and left me wanting more. The shrimp were surprisingly large and seasoned well. The onions were nicely caramelized. Even the two items that were less-than-stellar individually (a thick and doughy flour tortilla and somewhat bland yellow rice) worked when mixed with everything else on the plate. My companion’s pollo Rosita (the aforementioned chicken and mushroom sauce) was a similar success: the chicken was buttery and the sauce infused plenty of flavor.

Other high marks go to service and décor. Our waiter was fast, friendly, and at ease answering questions and making recommendations. The atmosphere is open and tavern-like without being divey. You can certainly get cheaper Mexican in the area, but prices were hardly objectionable (my combo platter ran $14 and many entrees were a few dollars less).

Given that Mexican cuisine is far more diverse than we gringos give it credit for, ranking Los Gordos (or any competing establishment) as the “best” or “most authentic” Mexican in the area is inherently problematic. However, it demonstrates that “Tex-Mex” needn’t be a culinary slur, and, if your stomach can handle it, promises a satisfying meal.


8.25/10

Los Gordos on Urbanspoon

Mr. Mercedes

After running down a crowd of job seekers using a stolen car, demented Brady Hartsfeld anonymously contacts retired police detective Bill Hodges, hoping to goad the listless ex-cop into committing suicide. Instead, he spurs Hodges into action, prompting him to launch an off-the-books investigation aimed at taking the Mercedes Killer down. The more Hartsfeld and Hodges push each other’s buttons, the higher the stakes become for them both.

Marketed as a departure for Stephen King – a straight-up mystery/thriller without supernatural elements – Mr. Mercedes will hardly seem novel to the author’s longtime readers. After all, King has struck paydirt outside the horror genre (Shawshank Redemption, anyone?) before. Furthermore, some of his most chilling antagonists are not the otherworldly creatures who commit evil for evil’s sake but flesh-and-blood people – terrible people, but people just the same. Brady Hartsfeld is a welcome continuation of this tradition, and King does well to explore his perspective. What emerges is a portrait of a nihilistic, sociopathic genius with a tragic life and a burning hatred for everyone. King makes him pitiable but no less monstrous. By steering him away from cliché, King leaves us dreading a nemesis that could very well exist instead of yawning at a straw-abomination that can’t.

The bad guy isn’t the only well-defined character here, though. King’s heroes tend to be everyman-types who, through desperate circumstances, become hardened survivors or unlikely chosen ones destined to combat evil. Bill Hodges is a welcome subversion of all of that. Though he starts at a position of nominal heroism as a former police officer, Hodges is old, fat, and full of self-recrimination. Even as he becomes fully engaged in the case, he is beleaguered by physical limitations. This forces him to be a more cerebral hero albeit one who is not afraid to cross some ethical lines.

Unfortunately, the supporting cast isn’t nearly as well-drawn. Jerome, an intellectual black youth who acts as Hodges’ right hand, has a sarcastic, subservient alter ego…who inexplicably talks like Stepin Fetchit. As embarrassing as this characterization is, it still isn’t as painful to read as that of Holly, a cousin of one of Hartsfeld’s victims. King has long been enamored of the Magic Child, only instead of a boy with telepathy or a girl with pyrokinesis, he’s shoehorned the trope into a sheltered, mentally unbalanced middle-aged woman with improbable computer skills. That she takes on such a pivotal role in the plot despite not appearing until the middle of the book makes her all the more insufferable.

Despite these shortcomings, King still knows how to spin a good yarn. Mr. Mercedes moves briskly and keeps the reader invested in Hodges and Hartsfeld’s increasingly diabolical attempts to get under each other’s skin. Though we know who they are right away, watching them make discoveries about each other keeps the pages turning. Only the ending – contrived, circumstantial, and unsatisfyingly anticlimactic – rings a false note.

Mr. Mercedes is far from King’s finest novel, but it is also far from his worst. Though he proves incapable (or perhaps unwilling) of breaking entirely free from well-worn clichés, he still manages to apply his time-honed storytelling to a different kind of story. That makes Mr. Mercedes, if nothing else, a pleasant diversion, worth at least a test drive.


7.75/10

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Nostra Pizza and Italian

Located at 3900 West Market Street in Greensboro, Nostra Pizza and Italian offers pizza, stromboli, calzones, sandwiches, pasta dishes, and more. Lunch specials are available as is delivery.

As a native of northern New Jersey, I’ve always had a soft spot for Italian-American cuisine. There is something comforting in the familiar pasta-and-red sauce, and it’s all the better when it’s in walking distance. So when Nostra opened at the former Elizabeth’s Pizza location, I had reason to be satisfied. Two visits later, and much of that satisfaction is still there.

Inside, Nostra isn’t particularly large, but it doesn’t feel at all cramped. Comfortable booths and wall art elevate the décor above that of a standard pizza parlor. There was one waitress during my first visit, and though a bit distracted, she was unfailingly polite.

Nostra’s menu offers everything you’d expect, plus a few perks like lobster ravioli. Pricing is quite reasonable: every entrée runs between $10 and $13 and includes bread and soup or salad. Many of the entrees can be had with bread and a drink during weekday lunch hours for a mere $8 to $9.

The execution has room for improvement, but it hits more than it misses. An order of gnocchi Bolognese came with a so-so salad, an abundance of melted cheese, and a sauce that was a touch too sweet for my liking, but the bread was excellent and the gnocchi were cooked well. The regular stromboli featured a crust that some may find too crisp, but the meats (ham, salami, and pepperoni) were quality, and the well-herbed marinara sauce tasted homemade.

I’ve yet to try Nostra’s New York-style pizza, and how well they pull that off could be a significant difference-maker. Right now, Nostra shows enough promise to rate as a convenient takeout option and a welcome addition to the immediate vicinity.

UPDATE

My girlfriend was kind enough to procure me a slice of sausage pizza, and it did not disappoint. The slice was huge (comparable to Mario's) and a good value at $3 or so. The pizza sauce, like the marinara, tasted fresh with distinct herb notes, and the sausage was above par. The crust, while thin and crisp, could have used more flavor (some garlic, perhaps?).


8/10 

Nostra Pizza and Italian on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Wasabi Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar

Located at 4630 West Market Street in Greensboro, Wasabi offers sushi and other Japanese specialties for lunch and dinner. Appetizers, hibachi, and noodle dishes are available as are wines, beers, and sakes.

Proximity can be a dangerous lure. In some cases, one discovers nearby gems. In other cases, one is reminded that quality is worth traveling for. Wasabi unfortunately imparted the latter lesson. The restaurant is about a mile from home and features ample parking, but one visit was all it took to remind me that Don is worth the Tate Street hassle.

Though visually appealing from the outside, Wasabi’s innards are dark and dated. It was probably handsome in its heyday, but that day has passed. Having Barry Manilow piped in adds to the unappealing ambiance.

To Wasabi’s credit, the menu boasts a bountiful selection. In addition to the usual fare, there are higher-end hibachi dishes (Ahi tuna), intriguing sushi rolls (snapper, masago, and parmesan cheese?!), and a couple of Korean influences. Prices, however, are higher than expected. Even a basic chicken hibachi ran $14 (with miso or salad), and brown rice is $1 more. Opt for a combination, fish, or steak, and you’re approaching steakhouse prices.

This would be forgivable if the food was outstanding, but it was a major disappointment. My companion and I both went with hibachi dishes (bulgogi and pork katsu respectively) and house salads. The ginger dressing on the salads (a favorite elsewhere) was a nearly inedible paste here. The katsu was chewy and dry, and the accompanying sauce overly acidic. The beef in the bulgogi was at least tender and seasoned well, but it came poorly cut in ungainly strips. The dish, which featured a few onions and carrot shreds, also could have used more vegetables.

Wasabi’s service is adequate and the sushi may very well be better than the entrees we sampled, but we have no inclination to find out. Next time a Japanese craving hits, we’ll stray farther from home.


6/10

Wasabi Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Villa Del Mar Cocina Mexicana

Located at 3738 High Point Road in Greensboro, Villa Del Mar offers Mexican cuisine for lunch and dinner. Though there is an emphasis on seafood, beef, chicken, pork, goat, and vegetarian items are also available. The restaurant offers 99 cent tacos on Tuesdays and Thursdays as well as other specials.

Villa Del Mar is a place I have driven past daily en route to work for years but never thought to stop in. Curiosity recently got the better of me (on a day off, ironically), and while it wasn’t what I expected, I’m glad I gave it a try.

The restaurant’s small lot and bar-like ambiance (there’s a loud and somewhat annoying door chime) may inspire some degree of trepidation, but looking over the menu will lift your spirits. The selection here is tremendous. You can get the expected fare (i.e. enchiladas and fajitas), but with an oyster bar, slow-roasted bbq goat, and ceviche are among your options, you should really reconsider. The pricing is also wallet-friendly: you’ll pay a meager $3 to $5 for lunch specials, and even the pricier seafood entrees tend to run under $15 (lobster tail notwithstanding).

Execution was uneven but not to the point of discouragement. Because I was pleasantly surprised to find it on the menu, I went with a seafood paella for my first visit. It ended up being a far cry from its Valencian standard-bearer and included one meager clam. However, the bits of octopus were a nice touch, and the shrimp were cooked well. My companion’s order of carnitas was tender and tasty and none too dry but could have benefitted from some verde sauce (which was included with several other pork dishes). Service was attentive, but order-to-table time could be quicker.

Villa Del Mar does not offer the best Mexican in town, but it does distinguish itself from a throng of competitors via its menu and pricing. For those reasons alone, I won’t hesitate to come back.


7.75/10


Villa Del Mar Cocina Mexicana on Urbanspoon

Her

Sad-sack writer Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix), emotionally devastated by his pending divorce, purchases an advanced artificial intelligence operating system (Scarlett Johansson) to help him manage his life. The OS, which dubs itself Samantha, is programmed with the ability to learn and grow. It isn’t long before she and Theodore form a deep attachment to one another, but can they make it work?

“Lonely man falls for iPhone” would be one way to synopsize this bizarre, intriguing, deeply flawed film. “Spike Jonze wears too many hats” would be another. Jonze, primarily a director, experienced his greatest success partnering with writer Charlie Kaufman on Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. But just as Kaufman’s directorial debut (Synecdoche, New York) collapsed under its own weight, Her (which Jonze wrote and produced as well as directed) goes off the rails.

Characterization is the biggest culprit here. It is fine to have a protagonist that isn’t especially likeable – see Walter White – but he has to at least be interesting. While Twombley’s creepy mustache and terrible fashion sense leave a distinct visual impression, the character himself is rather one-dimensional. We get that he is longing for an emotional connection in the wake of his break-up, but he’s chasing fulfillment the way that a teenager in a bad sex comedy chases a chance to score. We don’t really get to see what else makes him tick – or what drew anyone to him in the first place. Meanwhile, his ex (Rooney Mara) is positioned as something of an antagonist, despite raising perfectly valid criticisms of Twombley and his life choices. The film also manages to waste Amy Adams, who does a deglamorized turn as Twombley’s supportive friend/confidant. From the moment she makes an appearance, her role in the story is preordained. Ironically, the best performance here belongs to Johansson, who has more limitations (both in terms of acting chops and her character being voice-only) than anyone else in the cast. While Samantha begins as little more than a digitized male fantasy, by the film’s end, she’s easily the film’s best-developed character: self-aware, conflicted, and, ultimately, driven to make a difficult choice.

Pacing is another problem. At 126 minutes, Her is hardly an epic, but it drags. Supposedly, Steven Soderbergh had the film edited down to 90 minutes, but Jonze opted for a longer cut. This is a pity: with less time to wallow and bloviate, Her could have better sustained the intrigue of its premise.

And despite its other shortcomings, Her does offer quite an intriguing premise. With a near-future setting and a conceivable plot device (advanced AI), Jonze is able to probe the nature of relationships and what it means to be human in a way that is fresh. Certain elements of the plot may not be novel, but the way in which the film plays with those elements – and audience expectations – certainly is. Add in a distinctive look (a bright, color-saturated world) and an idiosyncratic sound (courtesy of Arcade Fire), and Her is far from a total loss.

With its creative approach and talented pedigree, Her created high expectations that its wasteful characterization and bloated runtime ultimately betray. Disappointment or not, however, it is still worth a look. You’ll want to put your phone down when watching though.


7.5/10

Console Wars

At the dawn of the 1990s, Nintendo enjoys virtually monopolistic control of the video game industry thanks to the success of its wildly popular 8-bit NES system. Looking to shake up the status quo, competitor Sega hires former Mattel executive Tom Kalinske to make its new 16-bit system, the Genesis, a success. Kalinske’s willingness to embrace outside-the-box thinking and edgy advertising allows Sega to challenge Nintendo’s hegemony. But as the 90s progress, strained relations between Kalinske’s branch and his Japanese parent company as well as the debut of Nintendo’s own 16-bit console turn a quest for relevance into an all-out war.

I became a Genesis owner later in the console’s lifecycle, several years after Nintendo supposedly won the console war. For that reason, Blake J. Harris’ blow-by-blow account doesn’t evoke quite the same sense of nostalgia as it would in other readers. However, it is still irresistibly interesting, both for its behind-the-scenes trivia and for the snapshot it provides of early 90s culture.

Readability is Console Wars’ biggest asset. Though diligently researched – Harris extensively interviewed several key players at both Sega and Nintendo – the book is not a dense insiders-only tract. Instead, it’s structured as a narrative with well-defined characters. There is a definite new guard-old guard dichotomy between Sega and Nintendo, but neither Kalinske nor his counterparts at Nintendo (which include former VP and current Seattle Mariners owner Howard Lincoln) are portrayed one-dimensionally.

Moreover, despite spanning over 500 pages, the book rarely drags. While it does getting bogged down in marketing minutiae at times, it sustains its momentum by alternating perspectives, granting pivotal insight into how each “side” (Sega, Nintendo, and, eventually, Sony) operated. It also rewards the reader’s patience by bringing to light a wealth of little-known or long-forgotten lore. For instance, had it not been for his untimely legal trouble, Michael Jackson would have contributed a soundtrack to a Sonic the Hedgehog game (!!).

The biggest complaint that can be lodged against Console Wars is that Harris is an uneven stylist. Some of the reconstructed dialog is hokey and not very enthralling but convincing for the 40-something executives that were supposed to have uttered it. In other places, the snark is laid on conspicuously thick.

Perhaps the strongest parallel that Console Wars draws isn’t to anything in the video game world but rather to Michael Lewis’s Moneyball. Just as you didn’t have to be a baseball fan to find that book’s narrative, characters, and underlying philosophy appealing, you don’t have to be a gamer to enjoy this one (though it certainly helps). And just like Moneyball, Console Wars will be headed to the big screen (fitting, given that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg wrote the hilarious introduction). Until it gets there, the book will serve anyone who is at least vaguely curious how a blue hedgehog and a fat plumber came to define a generation.


8.25/10
 
Zac Rates the Universe Piedmont Triad restaurants