Friday, July 3, 2015

Skippy's

Located at 624 West Fourth Street in downtown Winston-Salem, Skippy’s offers hot dogs, sandwiches, and sides. The restaurant is open from 11 to 4, Tuesday through Saturday. Vegetarian hot dogs are available.

Hot dogs are a rare indulgence these days, but when the craving strikes, it is good to know that Skippy’s is there to satisfy it. At first glance, this place doesn’t look like much. It’s small, the menu is limited, and aside from some old-timey cans and articles on the history of the pretzel bun, it is sparsely appointed. However, what Skippy’s does, it does well. The dogs are all beef and nicely grilled – nothing transformative, but quite tasty. I had mine Reuben style, and the spiciness was a nice complement. The pretzel bun was soft yet strong enough to hold everything together, and an order of fries came out hot, well-crisped, and addictively delicious (though in need of seasoning).

While gas station hot dogs will undoubtedly run cheaper, prices here leave little complaint given how filling the food proved to be. The dogs were $3.50 and a shareable basket of fries cost about the same (side portions are less).  Add to that friendly service, and you’re left with food that is worth the wait.

This bears mentioning because there most likely will be a wait. As Skippy’s is both quite compact and popular locally, it fills quickly. Even if you should be able to snag a table, expect a delay before your food reaches you. We aren’t talking Chinese Democracy levels of postponement, but rather long enough to make you question (especially if you are hungry) how long it takes to grill a hot dog.

With a winning concept, reasonable prices, and competent execution, Skippy’s shows that simple can still satisfy. Enjoy it for what it is: a doggone good bite.


8/10


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Friday, June 19, 2015

Antonio's Italian Pizza Kitchen

Located at 4648 West Market Street in Greensboro, Antonio’s Italian Pizza Kitchen offers pizza, subs, pasta and more for lunch and dinner. There are pizza, pasta, and wine deals on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays respectively.

I’ll always have a soft spot for classic red sauce Italian, and Antonio’s certainly fits the bill. Everything from the name to the copious usage of Italian flag colors to the red checkered tablecloths is predictable, but there are actually quite a few surprises here.

To start, the menu is surprisingly varied. You’ll find all the usual suspects (mozzarella sticks, New York-style pizza, spaghetti and meatballs, etc.) here, but Antonio’s also offers everything from salmon and veal dishes to lite and gluten-free fare to sandwiches that will make you look twice. Case-in-point: the Turkey Holiday (roast turkey, turkey bacon, and provolone with cranberry aioli) lets you experience Thanksgiving year-round.

Antonio’s also has two separate entrances. One leads to the dining room, the other to a counter for takeout orders. I opted for the latter for my first visit, which gave me a glance of the kitchen. If nothing else, Antonio’s appears adequately staffed.

The food, however, proved to be uneven. The Boom Boom Porchetta (roasted pork, sautéed spinach, and provolone with pesto mayo) sounded great on paper, and indeed the well-herbed meat delivered on flavor, but the bread was slightly burned and the sandwich was on the greasy side. An order of fried calamari was fair. While they did well to avoid overcooking (rubbery squid is a friend to no one), the breading could have been crispier.

These inconsistencies aside, it is hard to argue with the pricing here. My sandwich was $8 and included a salad, and many lunch-sized pastas run about the same. There are also $7.77 lunch combos that include drinks.

I’ve yet to try the pizza here, and that alone is worth a return visit. So far, however, Antonio’s has all the makings of a once-in-a-while spot: too uneven to rely on regularly but too interesting and affordable to dismiss entirely.


7.5/10

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Monday, June 1, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

In the future, nuclear wars have rendered the world a barren wasteland where fuel and water are scarce. Amid this backdrop, former police officer “Mad” Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) wanders the desert haunted by the memories of his dead loved ones. It isn’t long before Max is captured and put to use as a forced blood donor for the War Boys of the Citadel, a massive colony run by the tyrannical Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Meanwhile, one of Joe’s trusted operatives, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), betrays him by attempting to take his harem of child-bearing wives to freedom. As they flee Joe’s forces, her journey and Max’s become intertwined.

In the three decades since the last Mad Max movie (the disappointing Beyond the Thunderdome), Mel Gibson aged out of the title role and director/series creator George Miller faded largely into obscurity, emerging to direct family fare such as Happy Feet. Given these circumstances, it’s a small miracle that a fourth Mad Max movie got made at all. It’s a considerably larger miracle that a movie with a recast lead, a threadbare plot, and minimal dialogue manages to be as successful as it is.

At first glance, Fury Road appears to be the quintessential big, dumb action movie. There’s merit to the charge: a good deal of the film is taken up by a car chase as Furiosa steers a massive war rig away from myriad wheeled pursuers. However, this is an action movie with style and heart. Visually, it takes its cues from The Road Warrior, but it turns the volume way up. The cars are stacked, spiked, and armed to amusingly implausible degrees. The War Boys are suicidal pale mutants, eager to huff chrome paint and seek the glory of the afterlife. Joe himself (who shares an actor with but is unrelated to the antagonist of the first Mad Max) is a scarred old man whose respirator mask makes him look like the nightmare child of Bane and the Joker. There are massive dust storms and creepy crows, guitars that shoot flames and motocross grenadiers. Frequent Hans Zimmer collaborator Junkie XL provides a score that lends operatic grandeur, and Miller’s preference for practical effects means there is an absence of conspicuous CGI.

Despite this insanity, Fury Road is more than just the sum of its explosions. There is some deft messaging at play here. The Citadel evokes remerging old society: efficient, yes, but hierarchal and brutal. In contrast, Furiosa’s mission – to live (and breed) safely and freely – smacks of naïve idealism but one can hardly fault its noble intent. There is probably much more to the mythology here, but so little is given on-screen (seriously, don’t expect long monologues or expository speeches) that it places the actors in the unenviable position of implying their characters’ backstories wholesale. In the case of the two leads, they pull it off quite well. Hardy neither looks nor sounds like Gibson, but the core of the character is still there: a once-moral man who has lost much of his humanity through tragedy and violence. Meanwhile, Theron is wholly believable as an iron-willed warrior determined to atone for past wrongs (even if we don’t know what those wrongs are). Unfortunately, the rest of the characters aren’t as compelling. Joe is a one-dimensional ham in a scary mask, his wives get little in the way of development, and War Boy defector Nux (Nicholas Hoult) plays too much like comic relief to empathize with.

Bombastic, frenzied, and flat-out strange, Fury Road reads like Twisted Metal meets Fallout meets rock opera, but don’t let the packaging fool you: there is enough substance here to sustain the crazy ride.


8.25/10

Monday, May 25, 2015

Crafted! The Art of Street Food


Located at 600-C Battleground Avenue in Greensboro, Crafted! The Art of Street Food offers snacks, dishes, and desserts with Latin American and Asian influences. The restaurant is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday and offers a full bar.

Crafted! Art of the Taco is a much-loved spot in Downtown Greensboro, so the news that Chef Kris Fuller has added a new eatery next door to the also-new Preyer Brewing Company is cause enough for celebration. Add to that an exciting concept (street food from around the world), and expectations rise faster than federal spending. Thankfully, the food measures up to the hype though there are a few potential drawbacks to eating here.

The new Crafted! is considerably more spacious than the Elm Street location, but that doesn’t mean that it fills up any less quickly. We went during its first Saturday in business and found the place unsurprisingly packed. This meant grabbing stools at the bar, which ended up being a blessing in disguise as it gave us views of the décor (pseudo-industrial with bright splashes of color), the kitchen (placed conventionally in the back, unlike in the original Crafted!), and, via a glass partition, Preyer next door. It also helped that the bartenders were extremely efficient and none too harried despite the high volume.

The menu here is divided into snacks, desserts, and dishes from Asia and the Americas. Everything from poutine to banh mi enters the mix here, and you would be hard-pressed to find something that doesn’t catch your eye. For the culinary dilettante, this is a dream come true. However, do not come here expecting traditional. The dishes are more heavily sauced than you would find in authentic eateries, and there is some variation in ingredients as well. But if you can let go of a notion of what a dish should be, you are in for a treat. A starter of plantain chips was perfectly crisp and paired well with the accompanying chimichurri sauce. A vegetarian samosa used mint effectively to balance heat. A cubano sandwich, apparently one of the best-sellers, was moist, meaty, and full of flavor. Though I would likely go with different dishes next time for variety’s sake, everything I tasted merited a future reorder.

Of course, taste and value are two separate considerations, and Crafted! 2.0 rates as nearly as poorly in the latter as it rates well in the former. Dishes are offered in both large and small sizes, but if the quantity yielded from our orders of “large” cubanos and samosas is any indication, medium and tiny might be more appropriate appellations. Quality food doesn’t come cheaply, yes, but paying more than $10 for a large sandwich that was not particularly large and included no sides dulls the appreciation considerably.

This and the boisterous atmosphere may deter some diners, but on food alone, the new Crafted! is well worth exploring. For anyone who has ever tired of burgers and dogs, has had a favorite food truck or stand, or has wanted to sample different global cuisines in the same meal, fear not: Chef Fuller has you covered.


8/10
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Interstellar

In the future, food shortages have turned the Earth into an agrarian society, and famine threatens to wipe out civilization. To prevent this, the covert remnants of NASA recruit former pilot/astronaut-turned-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to lead a research team through a wormhole to find suitable planets for resettlement. Cooper’s decision to accept the mission puts him at odds with his daughter Murph, and a series of setbacks as well as time dilation keep him absent for most of his children’s lives. However, Cooper remains determined to both complete the mission and make it home.

Thanks to a (pun unintended) stellar track record, the success of a Christopher Nolan film is almost a given at this point, which is why the director deserves credit here for making his latest effort earn its plaudits. Overly long, ambitious, complex, and spiritually as well as intellectually challenging, Interstellar has its share of shortcomings as well as moments of brilliance.

As with other Nolan fare, Interstellar packs a formidable stylistic punch. Working with a new cinematographer (Wally Pfister was off directing his own far less successful sci-fi film), Nolan imparts a sense of wonder and majesty into everything from dust storms to frozen wastelands to the depths of space itself. Visually, the film pays homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey (among others) without wallowing in cliché (the robots aboard the ship, for instance, resemble neither HAL nor androids). Meanwhile, Hans Zimmer’s score is a departure from some of his previous work – don’t look for The Dark Knight’s scary strings here – that still oozes gravitas.

This weightiness suits Interstellar’s role as a Film of Ideas, a role it never lets you forget. Inspired by the work of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne (who served as a consultant), the movie aims to offer a grounded look at phenomena such as wormholes, black holes, and gravitational time dilation. The presentation is the antithesis of the breezily convenient space magic suggested by other sci-fi narratives as Nolan and Thorne try to show their work.. Less scholastically, the film also suggests that love is a universal force, but it’s an idea that comes across as laughably hokey and naïve.

As a consequence of this preoccupation with theory and theme, characterization takes a backseat for much of the voyage. Cooper is the kind of everyman reluctant hero that Tom Hanks would have portrayed ten years ago. Having McConaughey fill his shoes brings some emotional intensity, but this is still sedate and rather bland compared to the rest of the Texan’s recent work. Three different actresses portray Murph in different stages of her life, and each performance hits the right note. Mackenzie Foy is precocious, Jessica Chastain is bitter, and Ellen Burstyn is dignified. Beyond them, the other characters are given little depth. As Cooper’s mentor Dr. Brand, Michael Caine feebly and persistently quotes Dylan Thomas while Anne Hathaway portrays Brand’s daughter – and Cooper’s fellow voyager – with an inexplicable foolhardy streak. Both of the voyage’s robots (voiced by Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart), sarcastic, low-key, and helpful, were of more interest than many of the supporting characters.

Unsurprisingly given the lack of attention to character, dialogue is not a strong point here. Jonathan Nolan’s script has its moments. As mentioned previously, the robots are quite amusing, and Cooper gets to gloriously ream out some school administrators who treat the moon landings as a hoax. Far too often, however, the dialogue comes across as stilted and pedantic. This is especially true toward the film’s ending when Cooper monologues everything that is happening to him as if he has a classroom full of physics students watching his every move. Though done rather transparently for the audience’s benefit, this scene plays as confusing as it does false.

Imperfect as it is, Interstellar still manages to show that it is possible to emphasize the science side of science fiction without boring an audience to tears. Though it could have benefitted from a shorter running time and fuller characters, it still inspires a fair amount of reverence and awe. Much like the journey depicted on screen, you might not like what you see as you near the end, but it’s still a trip worth taking.


8.25/10

Friday, May 15, 2015

Burger Warfare

Located at 1209 Battleground Avenue in Greensboro, Burger Warfare specializes in burgers but also offers sandwiches, salads, and shakes. There is a full-service bar

Much like its nearly-adjacent sister restaurant (The Marshall Free House), Burger Warfare follows a familiar template for Kotis-owned properties: find a theme, go all-out on décor, inject some craft beers and a few unique food offerings, and jack up the prices. While the latter point is (understandably) a deal-breaker for some, I’ve found the overall experience to be worthwhile, and Burger Warfare is no exception.

How likely you are to agree with that assessment depends partially on how much you appreciate the dedication to theme. If the giant robot statue outside didn’t convince you, this place ain’t subtle. There are more robots on the inside, bullets inlaid on the bar counters, and servers clad in camo. While no one would confuse this with elegance, it is nevertheless a look that stands out. Try it if you want a change of pace.

Of course, aesthetics is only one part of the battle plan here. The menu isn’t particularly deep (only three sandwiches and two salads), but what it lacks in depth it makes up for in intrigue. You can build your own burger here, but the preset options are fairly compelling – they make use of everything from chorizo to portabella to brie. Ditto the drinks: booze-laden milkshakes are a house specialty, and brews from Pig Pounder across the street are readily available.

For my first visit, I went with the Eggstraction Pt. Siracha: a cheeseburger with onions, chorizo, and an over-easy egg. The burger was a bit of a mess to eat (as well it should be), and the flavors melded nicely. The Warfare Sauce that accompanied my fries was another zesty hit. The meat itself, however, doesn’t compare to Greensboro’s best. They do two thin patties here, and while it certainly outclasses Steak n Shake, let’s just say that it’s no Hops. My companion, on the other hand, seemed satisfied with her Black Ops: an Asian twist on a black bean patty. Moreover, the adult shake that we split – the Daniel Boone (vanilla with apple pie moonshine and caramel) – was a winning pick.

Our server, Victoria, was quite friendly, and our food arrived from the kitchen quickly. Both of these made the price paid more palatable. Burgers (with one side) fall in the $8 to $10 range while the alcoholic shakes are $8. These rates aren’t casus belli, but better values do exist elsewhere.   

Had I been here when the establishment was more crowded, I may have left with a decidedly less favorable impression. However, my first visit leaves me to conclude that while Burger Warfare may not win the battle for best burger in town, it can still wage a successful campaign for diners’ dollars.


7.75/10

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Saturday, May 2, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

As the Avengers combat terrorist organization Hydra in the Eastern European nation of Sokovia, team benefactor Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) has a horrifying vision of the team laid to waste because he didn’t do enough to save it. To avert this fate, he and Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), alter ego of the Hulk, use Asgardian technology to create Ultron, an artificial intelligence dedicated to defending the Earth. Unfortunately, it isn’t long before Ultron (voiced by James Spader) decides that the only way to save the world from destruction is to annihilate its human inhabitants.

In the three years since the first Avengers film, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has grown by leaps and bounds, not only increasing in number but diversifying in style and tone. With everything from cosmic adventures to political thrillers in the oeuvre and the character count at an all-time high, pulling off a coherent ensemble piece that still satisfies the fandom is twice the challenge it was in years’ past. While this sequel is hardly seamless, it nevertheless rises (super) heroically to the occasion.

First, the bad: though the conflict (heroes vs. megamaniacal robot) is as simplistic as ever, the film misfires most when it aims for more complexity. Specifically, its attempts at furthering character depth all too often read as character derailment. Stark’s morally ambiguous heedlessness is (necessarily, in light of the upcoming Captain America: Civil War) on full display here, but instead of coming across as vulnerable and conflicted (a la Iron Man 3), he’s as flippant and jokey as ever. Speaking of jokey, it’s a pity that writer/director Joss Whedon decided that the best way to counter claims of Captain America’s woodenness was to make him part of a lamer-than-lame running gag about sensitivity to harsh language. In comparison, his deadpanning from the previous film (“It appears to be powered by some sort of electricity.”) was considerably more amusing. This does not even touch upon the film’s awkwardly shoehorned romantic subplot or the tendency for characters to go from comrades in arms to attacking each other (and visa versa) seemingly on a whim.

Ultimately, however, neither these script shortcomings nor a 140-minute runtime can erase how much fun the movie is. The action choreography remains top-notch with not only Cap (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) pulling off impressive melee acrobatics but newcomers Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) making the most of their abilities (super speed and telekensis, respectively) as well. The pacing is also an asset here. While there are quieter, more intimate and contemplative scenes, they complement rather than kill the momentum built by the action, and are no wasted moments here. As a result, the film feels considerably shorter than it is.

Lastly, as misguided as some of the scripting and character decisions are, the cast refuses to mail it in. Downey remains amusingly affable and roguish as ever, Johansson and Ruffalo do the tortured soul thing without sacrificing either efficacy or believability, and Jeremy Renner gives his Clint Barton/Hawkeye character both sarcastic quips and a moral center. Spader certainly could have made Ultron sound colder and more calculating, but in a way, his Stark-patterned neurosis and all-too-human personality make the antagonist more unnerving.

With each successive (and successful) film, Marvel continues to both redefine the parameters of its own triumph and inch closer to the point where audiences will finally say “Enough!” Avengers: Age of Ultron occupies neither the upper nor the lower bound, and though it fumbles more than it should, it also exhilarates, amuses, reflects, and, ultimately wins the day.


8.25/10