Archive for the ‘Quick Service’ Category

Stumptown Coffee: NYC

Posted 30 Jun 2012 — by S.E.
Category Quick Service

 

Stumptown coffee serves one of my favorite cups in Manhattan. Located at West 29th and Broadway at the Ace hotel, this location is the only East Coast outpost of this artisan operation. I love the slick design, the huge glass storefront, the minimalist menu and the craftsmanship at the counter. The Baristas are clad with requisite short rimmed fedoras or bowler hats, waiter’s vests and body art; the style of the current era. Customers represent all walks of life.

Open since 2009 in New York, the Portland, Oregon based company has a total of eight locations including five back in the “City of Roses” and two in Seattle as well. Somehow, the company has remained small enough to keep its artisan feel.

Talking with my barista, it is clear that the crew is trained and passionate. We speak about the flavor nuances of the various varietals that Stumptown roasts and the conversation quickly escalates technically to a level beyond my own knowledge base. She knows her stuff and is excited to talk about product.

The menu is minimalist with fourteen items in total with a few (latte and mocha) offered in small, medium and large sizes. Prices are fantastic for this level of quality; a cappuccino is just $3. This is the coffee lifestyle; an ethical cup at the far end of the supply chain handled with skill and care.

Unless you ask for coffee to go, your cup comes in a nice rolled-edge rust colored ceramic cup. I grab a cup from my hipster barista (cash only) and head to the seating area in the lobby of the Ace Hotel just behind the storefront. The lighting in the Ace is low and the crowd so cool that I move up a notch just sitting here.  What a relaxing way to spend a late afternoon.

Stumptown Coffee

18 W 29th St.

New York, NY

10001

Pappy’s Smokehouse, St. Louis, MO

Posted 05 Dec 2010 — by S.E.
Category Quick Service

St. Louis Missouri is a special city. It’s a city with a fresh and interesting restaurant scene and deep hospitality streak running right through it. I had no idea how vibrant the culinary scene was in St. Louis until I recently took the time to get out and see for myself. After a quick flight down from Chicago, hunger pangs were registering in my belly as I checked into my hotel. Room key in hand and bags in the room, I pulled out my handheld and launched Zagat’s NRU Android app, searching for a good place to eat lunch. Within a minute I found Pappy’s Smokehouse, cross checked it on Yelp to see what people were saying about it and headed down to the lobby and out the door.

With the St. Louis arch in view, I stepped out onto Chestnut Street and grabbed a cab. Riding through downtown St. Louis it became clear that the city had seen better days, been through some tough times, and is pushing to turn itself around. There were multiple buildings, small and large, that were empty or just partially occupied. At street level, I passed two stores within a half of a mile or each other dedicated to providing local consumers with pay-day loans and bail bonds; not a good sign. Yet, through the center of the city there’s a fantastic string of parks with extensive and diverse public art on display. We drove past Gateway Mall and its green space, Serra Sculpture Park, named for Richard Serra’s controversial series of steel sculptures (walls really), past Memorial Plaza and Aloe Plaza and the fantastic, water-spouting “Meeting of the Waters” sculpture by Carl Milles. St. Louis’ investment over the past century in this urban corridor of green space and diverse art exceeds that of many cities twice its size and the aesthetic the parks create is a positive yet sharp contrast to some of the areas immediately surrounding the city center. One block west of Aloe Plaza the last green patch of park serves as a home for hard-knocks daytime drinkers taking sips of booze from brown paper bags. Although threadbare in spots, the city is vibrant in others and, like many American cities on the mend; there are pockets of development that suggest a brighter future.

About a half mile past the city center Pappy’s appears on the left adjacent to Harris-Stowe State University. My cab pulls into the side street where the restaurant is located and I jump out and immediately smell hickory smoke and roasting meat. Crossing the street to the entrance, I encounter a red colored flat-bed trailer parked right in front of the restaurant with two “Ole Hickory” smokers chugging away. A chef is standing to the right of the front entrance talking with a guy with a graying goatee wearing a baseball hat, collared shirt, and jeans. Both look up as I approach, each appears in his mid 50’s. The guy in the chef coat heads over to the smoker parked in front while the guy in the baseball hat grabs the front door and pulls it open for me. I thank him and he smiles and asks how I am doing. We start a conversation and I explain that I am visiting town, just landed a couple hours earlier and came to fill my belly. He smiles again, introduces himself and we head inside. By pure coincidence, the first person I meet at Pappy’s Smokehouse is Mike “Smokey” Emerson, founder and owner extraordinaire. By the time I explain who I am; Mike has been joined by “Skip” Steele his executive chef. Skips shakes my hand, comments how lucky I am to arrive when there are only 10 people in line and he suggests I get in line fast and place my order. I take his advice and join the cue.

Before a minute passes, Smokey Emerson is back with a hot smoked pork rib for me to sample. I take a bite and the meat gently falls from the bone into my mouth. The full flavored, moist, savory and mildly spicy rib is fantastic. My mouth is full as I grin with approval at Smokey.  Arriving at the counter to order I notice how simple the set up is. There are two cash registers sitting on a counter next to each other just inside a large window into the kitchen. Two menu boards hang on the wall above the cash registers.

I order a half-rack of ribs, pulled pork, baked beans and sweet potato fries. The cashier directs me to a seat and informs me that my order will be delivered shortly. By the time I get to a barstool along the bay window adjacent to the cashiers station my order arrives in a plastic basket lined with parchment paper. A nice seven-rib rack sits on one side, the fries and beans in a three ounce Styrofoam cup on the other, and a four ounce portion of pulled pork in the middle. I dig into the pulled pork first, having already tasted the ribs. Steele’s pulled pork is perfectly cooked, tangy with just enough spice and salt and moist – just the way I like it. Pappy’s offers customers three homemade barbecue sauces; original, sweet, and spicy. I pump a few drops of Steele’s spicy barbecue sauce on the pork to see how it tastes and it’s fantastic. The beans are tasty and the fries are good but neither is the main attraction. Pappie’s is known for ribs and the ribs are the highlight of the meal. Moist and perfect, I consume half a rack in the blink of an eye. As I am wiping my face with a paper towel, Skip comes over and hands me a Styrofoam cup full of sliced beef brisket, another one of his specialties. The brisket melts in my mouth, is full of beef, smoke and spicy flavor.

While I eat, Skip tells me his story, how he was a chef working in Las Vegas, made his way east to get the “smoke out of his veins” found himself in St. Louis and connected with Emerson to put Pappy’s on the map. Steele has thirty years of culinary experience and the battle scars to prove it. After a few minutes we discover several common friends in the culinary profession and share stories about the good, the bad and the ugly of the foodservice world. As I finish eating he offers to take me to see the kitchen, a certain degree of mutual respect settling in as always when talking food with another industry veteran.

Entering the back kitchen I am stunned by how small the space is. One half of the room is filled by another Ole Hickory smoker. This one is named “Walter” and has a wooden sign above it with this name burned into it. To the right, there’s a large walk-in refrigerator with dozens of bins full of prep. Peering up along the aluminum flashing along the top of the exterior of the walk-in I notice a series of dates and times someone has recorded in sharpie pen. The dates and times start on the right and, for some odd reason, work their way to the left. Each date to the left posts an earlier time than before and I ask Skip what the dates and times represent. “That’s the record for how quickly we run out of food and close” he says.

Pappy’s makes a certain amount of food each day following a strict set of quality standards. Once the food runs out at Pappy’s Skip and Mike shut the restaurant down and head home. Reading the dates and times, it appears that every few weeks Pappy’s sets a new record for closing early. Rather than increase production and risk a decrease in quality, Mike and Skip take the high road and focus on the integrity of their food. I have tremendous respect for these guys.

We wrap up the tour and head to the front door so I can catch a cab back to the hotel. Thanking Skip and Mike for the experience, we exchange business cards and step out onto the sunny sidewalk together. I look to Mike and tell him that the level of hospitality, from the moment I entered until stepping back outside to leave, far exceeded my expectations. By now the line to order is pushing out the door. Mike smiles again and states that the level of hospitality I experienced is part of Pappy’s culture and something he and Skip work hard to protect. They have done a great job. Looking back, it was the hospitality that really made the difference at Pappy’s. Their food was excellent and the service was smooth, seamless, and perfectly natural not forced; a real example of elegant simplicity paired with authenticity. I like restaurants that are real!

Pappy’s Smokehouse

3106 Olive St.

Saint Louis, MO 63103-1213

314-535-4340

Clover Food Lab Snags Chef Rolando Robledo

Posted 26 May 2010 — by S.E.
Category On-Site Dining, Quick Service

Rolando Robledo, a Chef Instructor at Johnson & Wales University for nearly a decade before departing last month, has joined Clover Food Labs of Cambridge Massachusetts as executive chef. Robledo refined his skill and earned his street “cred” at The French Laundry under Tom Keller and Grant Achatz, and during a stint a Charlie Trotters and the Waldorf. He has an enviable personal network in the culinary profession (Chris Cosentino was once Robledo’s roommate) and was a popular and highly appreciated faculty member during his time at JWU. Having been named the named 2010 postsecondary educator of the year by the Foodservice Educators Network International, Robledo leaves JWU at the top of his game. That he departs to invest his time in Clover makes perfect sense.

Clover was started in 2008 by Ayr Muir (CEO). Prior to starting Clover Muir worked at McKinsey & Co advising the world’s top consumer and retail companies and in marketing at Patagonia. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BS and MS from MIT. Muir hired Robledo, who has a BS and MAT from JWU, part-time in 2008 to develop menu items that matched his vegetarian, healthy, locally sourced, and eco-friendly food philosophy. Robledo added touches of his own during the development of Clover including an approach to food that is simple, honest, and hand-crafted, stating “we focus on ingredients, recipes, and hard work, but avoid mystery.” For those of you who don’t know Rolando, he has stayed true to this philosophy his whole career. During a visit to Clover he was working hard but seemed to be having the time of his life. With more than 30 people lined up to sample his fare, he had much to celebrate.

Clover Food Truck is not what you would expect; it’s better. Of the food trucks I have visited during my travels, Clover has to be the cleanest, most efficient and well designed of all. Robledo’s simple, high-integrity approach to food shines through from the lavender laced fresh lemonade to French fries that started as whole potatoes just minutes prior to being cut and cooked. The day I visited, the fries were scented with fresh rosemary (fries, rosemary, salt!) and absolutely delicious.

 

Clover cranks out a variety of vegetarian soups, salads, sandwiches and beverages including outstanding quality coffee. While visiting I also tried a wonderful egg and eggplant sandwich with herbed, diced, tomato, cucumber, and onion with garlic mayonnaise. The eggplant was perfectly cooked with notes of olive oil and fresh herbs and stuffed into a huge pita pocket. At $5.00 the sandwich was a great value.

 

Ayr and Rolando have several new Clover line extensions in development including a second food truck and a new outlet in the multimillion dollar MIT media lab building. If you want to check out Clover, try the original food truck. It is located on Carleton Street behind MIT Medical and the Kendall Square inbound MBTA stop. Operating hours are Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Read more about the development of Clover on Muir’s blog, www.cloverfoodlab.com

Eat Airport Food ~ Here

Posted 26 Apr 2010 — by S.E.
Category Quick Service

When passing through an airport with pangs of hunger in my gut, nothing attracts me more than a thoughtfully designed independent quick service restaurant (IQSR’s). This doesn’t mean that I have something against the big airport foodservice operators like Delaware North (Travel Hospitality Services) and Anton, I simply prefer to eat at places owned by local operators. Their passion, creative and quirks make me think. A couple weeks ago I had two hunger and schedule driven experiences with IQSR’s that are worth sharing. The first was at Dazbog Coffee at Denver International Airport and the second was at a cool little place called Flo’s Shanghai Café at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport.

Dazbog "God of Good Fortune"

Running through Denver airport while starving, with no time to spare, I had the good fortune of finding a relatively new Dazbog Coffee outlet in Terminal C. Dazbog was created in Denver by two Russian entrepreneurs and offers a refined set of coffee beverages and smoothies for the discerning customer. On their website they state “the Yuffa family fled Russia to embark on a new and better life of freedom, democracy and opportunity.” I noticed their first store in Denver on 17th street back in 2005. The reason I love Dazbog (other than that freedom and democracy stuff I just mentioned), is the hip Russian Theme the place offers, the quality of thinking behind the concept and the quality of the coffees and smoothies they offer (try the Forbidden Fruit!). Prices are right, the coffee is excellent and the overall feel of the airport outlet is bright and friendly rather than generic and corporate like so many other small foodservice outlets I encounter on the road. Dazbog, according to the guys that run this place, is an old Russian mythological figure who is the “giver of good fortune.” Not a bad restaurant name for a new venture, huh? These guys seem to have found good fortune in the U.S.

Flo's Entrace

Flo’s Shanghai Café is the coolest IQST at Sky Harbor Airport…period. I came up to the third floor in terminal four after getting my ticket and the escalator popped me out right in front of Flo’s. Looking at the place, it was immediately obvious that it was different than most QSR’s. Flo’s has a large arched entryway that looks like a huge upside down horseshoe with large orange Chinese tea lanterns hanging from the ceiling and a long green counter where orders are placed. It has a wide open floor plan that was way to spread out to generate the revenue per square foot that one of the large corporations would require. This made Flo’s look marvelously inviting and comfortable and drew me in for a bite.

Love the Lanterns

Checking out the details I noticed that there’s a real working kitchen in the back where entrees are made fresh and to order. Staff members are friendly and the food is simple, fresh and tasty. I had a grilled chicken with peanuts over steamed white rice. Although served in a Styrofoam bowl, the dish was fantastic otherwise (compared to most airport food). Flo’s is owned by a Phoenix operator with several other restaurants in the local market. Well thought out, with a local rather than corporate feel, I dig Flo’s and will stop there again the next time I am at Sky Harbor.

Quick – No Service? Will the Pursuit of Efficiency Take the “S” out of Q.S.R

Posted 29 Mar 2010 — by S.E.
Category Quick Service

I get a kick out of visiting quick service restaurants (QSR’s). Although my background is in the fine dining segment of

Hurry 4 Curry

our wonderful industry, it gives me great pleasure when I find an innovative QSR that serves great food. During my travels I seek out local joints or smaller regional chains that are known for something; a local dish, an innovative or gimmicky practice, or some sort of unique beverage or service.

Such was the case when I found Hurry 4 Curry in Phoenix recently. Hurry 4 Curry is located in downtown Phoenix at the new Arizona Center (400 E. Van Buren St.). The location is small and seats about 20. It’s wedged in between two other well known full service restaurants with a large glass storefront and an open kitchen.

Hurry 4 Curry is unique not because of its food but the customer interface you encounter when you enter the restaurant and place your order. Upon crossing the threshold through a glass door on the left side of the storefront, you encounter one large and two small LCD screens. The larger screen is mounted on the wall five feet off the floor and lists all the menu items for the day. The two smaller HP touch screens are located just below shoulder height on a counter and are used for placing orders.

When I first encountered the screens I found them amusing. The menu screen is brightly lit and easy to read. The smaller screens have instructions for placing an order with no human being to offer guidance in sight. This sort of customer performed ordering technology is not new but it is always interesting to see. I quickly placed an order for a Chicken Biryani and Garlic Naan by clicking through to that option. When the Biryani and Naan were confirmed, I concluded my order. Instructions came on the screen for me to swipe my credit card on the card reader just below the LCD screen. I did so and it worked flawlessly.

Once my order was in I scanned over to the right where the open kitchen is and noticed two cooks preparing items. Neither looked over at me as I tried to figure out what I was supposed to do. Grabbing my receipt from the printer on the counter next to the card swipe, I decided to sit down and wait to see what would happen. After 5 or 6 minutes, one of the cooks brought me my plate of Biryani and Naan. I thanked him and he walked away without saying a word. Interesting…

Touch Screen

The Biryani wasn’t all that memorable; they grilled the chicken, diced it and tossed it with the rice and peas just before service. It was more of a stir-fry than a Biryani. The flavor was good though and the dish was hot. The Naan was hot and tasty; nicely done. What startled me more about the experience was the lack of human contact and how empty that lack of contact made me feel. After giving it some thought, I realized that the only contact we have in a typical QSR is at the service counter when placing and picking up our order. Yes, this is a blinding flash of the obvious but one based the absence altogether of service rather than an incident of poor delivery as typically is the case. In those few minutes of human contact, a QSR has the opportunity to define itself one way or the other. When that contact is missing, a great opportunity is lost (assuming the contact wasn’t negative).

Receipt Printer

I can understand why Hurry 4 Curry would make order-taking customer driven and automated. Looking around, I never saw more than two people in the restaurant although they served more than 15 people in the short time I was there. By eliminating the hourly cashiers with touch-screens, Hurry 4 Curry is achieving a much lower labor cost and a higher degree of efficiency (the hurry in Hurry 4 Curry). The labor savings and efficiency are not passed on to customers in the price of the menu items (Biryani and Naan totaled $9.00) but the savings probably give the place a higher profit margin and a much greater probability of surviving in the long run. Still, the experience left me unsettled. This was the first dining experience I have had where I entered, ordered, received and consumed an entire meal without hearing a single word from any employee in the restaurant. The complete lack of human contact aside from my food “delivery”

Biryani & Naan

 was enough to make me wonder whether the savings in labor would wind up being the Achilles heel that kills the place. I admire Hurry 4 Curry for the quality of its innovation and thoughtful approach to efficiency. However, it is clear that we have a long way to go as an industry in building the perception of service into an automated interface. Even Rosie the cleaning robot in the Jetsons offered a lilting voice and positive, yet synthetic affect. The next time I get my curry in a hurry, I hope it comes with a smiling dose of human contact (whether real or

synthetic) and service. After all, what would a QSR be without the S?

L.A. Taqueria Heaven!

Posted 21 Mar 2010 — by S.E.
Category Quick Service

Rincon Taurino

Sometimes the best meals are the simplest. And often, the simplest meals are also the most affordable. During a recent visit to Los Angeles a good friend took me a Taqueria he has been eating at for more than 20 years. He lives just south of the 101 in Tarzana, California now but still makes the 10 mile drive over to Rincon Taurino in Panorama City for the tacos, tostadas, and tortas that this little joint is know for. With so many local, low cost choices, I was perplexed why he would drive the distance to eat at such a place. On the way over he described the owner of Rincon Taurino and how long he has known him, the wonderful array of authentic Mexican dishes on the menu, and the long lines outside the place most nights of the week. He joked that on some nights the owner parks his own food truck outside of Rincon Taurino to pick up business from his own overflow, the lines are so long.  As we get closer, my mouth begins to water. I love good authentic Mexican food.

When we pull up, things look promising. Rincon Taurino is a freestanding restaurant at the corner of Terra Bella street and Nordoff. It is well kept and clean with large white signs painted with red and blue lettering. Inside, Rincon Taurino is equally clean. The small dining room has a quarry tile floor, light orange walls and seven or eight tables with picnic bench seating. As the name suggests, the décor has a bull fighting theme. There’s more than one mounted bull staring down at you when you enter.

Orders are taken by a cashier through an opening on the right side of a large glass wall at one end of the space. Orders

Tacos Asada

are picked up on the left side of the same glass wall when finished. Cook time for what we ordered (2 Tacos Al Pastor, 2 Taco Asada, 1 Torta Milanesa, and 1 Tostada Carnitas) was around 5 minutes.

The tacos are a nice little snack with two per portion. They consist of a couple stacked fresh corn tortillas the size of a coffee saucer topped with what ever combination ordered. Of the two types we tried my favorite was the Taco Asada ($2.70 for two) which consisted of fresh grilled marinated beef with diced onions, cilantro and a spicy salsa roja. The meat was cooked and seasoned perfectly and the overall flavors of everything else complimentary. For this price, I could eat six or eight of these.

My favorite item was the Tostada Carnitas ($4.50) which is stacked much higher with fillings at Rincon Taurino than I am used to seeing. Served on a crispy corn tortilla, our

Tostada Carnitas

Tostada had a nice thick layer of fresh grilled pork and sauce topped with crisp iceberg lettuce, shaved onion, tomatoes, avocado, cilantro and cheese. The portion size was sufficient to feed both of us. With a rich pork flavor, good seasoning and a great contrast in texture between the tortilla, pork, lettuce and avocado, the dish was an absolute delight.

What I like about Rincon Taurino is the care with which the meats are cooked. Each of the items we tried featured meats that were done to perfection. These meats served as the centerpiece of each dish with the rest of the components built around them. For the prices we paid, I can understand why people drive to this place and why the lines are long. Next time you are heading North in LA on the 5 or 405 toward the valley, stop in for a taco or tostada. You’ll be glad you did.