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Edible Complex

Reflections on Stripmall Eating

Updated: 2014-10-04T20:57:11.427-04:00


Chouriça a Go-Go


Name: SagresLocation: 181 Columbia Street, Fall River, MAPersonnel: Jesse, MeWhat We Ate: Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá; Porco a Alentajana; Complimentary Bread and ButterObservations: We had the pleasure of eating two great Portuguese meals, on our way to and from Cape Cod, respectively. In Fall River, we stopped for a white-tablecloth lunch at Sagres, a tidy spot just blocks from I-95 — not a stripmall or even a suburb but as an old babysitter used to say to me and my sisters, who's counting? — let's enjoy. We had bacalhau à gomes de sá, that rich casserole of salt cod, potatoes and caramelized onion that's punctuated by hard-boiled egg and olives. It was steamingly, tongue-scorchingly hot, with the sweet onions practically melting into the feathery potatoes. Then there was a bubbling platter of porco a alentajana, clams, potato wedges and spicy sausage sauteed in a pungent wine sauce. Both were excellent — almost too good to eat on the road. My only complaint was the persistent odor of air freshener which interfered with the more delicious smells of our lunch.Name: Clark BBQLocation: 1419 Raritan Road, Clark, NJPersonnel: Jesse, MeWhat We Ate: BBQ Chicken Platter with Rice and Salad; Chouriça Portugese meal with fries and rice; Diet Pepsi.Observations: We stumbled, or whatever the verb for stumbling via automobile might be, onto Clark BBQ after pulling off the Garden State Parkway in Clark. There were plenty of interesting stripmall choices around but the festive sign outside caught our eye. It's a tiny little place, packed on this particular Sunday evening, and when our food came we found out why. There's a small bar next to a refrigerator case stocked with beer and vinho verde. They also, we were told, make a mean sangria. We didn't have time to indulge in beverages but we did each get a ridiculously cheap plateful of homey, earnest and simple cooking. Mine was the smokey and tender barbecue chicken — practically a half-bird in the "small" platter, with a mountain of golden rice and salad. Jesse had the chouriça, slices of the snappy pink sausage grilled to crispness, with more rice and airy battered fries. I would definitely hit this place again if we're in that part of NJ or the chouriça craving strikes — whichever comes first, I guess.[...]

Easter Surprise





Name: Pirosmani
Location: 9309 Krewstown Rd., Philadelphia
Personnel: Erin, Catherine, Me
What We Ate: Fried eggplant with walnuts, Red bean salad with walnuts, Khinkali, Khachapuri imeruli, Chashushuli, Black tea with lemon.
Bill Total: $54
Observations: When we first arrived to this Georgian gem on Easter Sunday, the lights were half-on. The man vacuuming told us we could be seated, and that despite all signs suggesting otherwise, the kitchen would serve us. We then saw him make a phone call. Five minutes later, an on-call server showed up and explained she'd been there until very late the night before as people partied on the dance floor in back. Clearly, we'd come too early — or maybe just too late. Unfazed, she kindly helped us navigate the menu, suggesting the kidney bean salad slathered with thick walnut paste and fried podlike segments of eggplants tinged with cumin and cinnamon, also topped with walnut paste. We remarked on — but did not order — the $99 roast piglet listed under the entrees. Of our choices, there were two obvious favorites. One was the khachapuri, a warm focaccia-like bread stuffed with gooey imeruli, a salty white cheese. The other was the khinkali, puffy and pleated dumplings that burst open to reveal a juicy pork filling flecked with red pepper flakes. We were advised to top them only with black pepper, though our server said she'd give us sour cream if we really wanted. We didn't. We were comfortable, and sat for a few hours, admiring the original artwork on the walls. By then, the restaurant started filling up with families toting bottles of wine. A takeout customer came in and headed for the kitchen. Minutes later, he left carrying a tray draped in a napkin. Beneath it was the unmistakeable snout and ears of a piglet to go.

The Rogan Josh Not Taken




Name: Aman's
Location: 2680 Dekalb Pike, E. Norriton
Personnel: Jesse, Me
What I Ate: Complimentary Rice Crisps, Masala Dosa, Lamb Saag, Chicken Goan, Basmati Rice With Peas, Kashmiri Naan
Condiments: Sambar, Coconut Chutney, Tomato Chutney
Bill Total: $35
Observations: I have a thing about too-muchness. Like, I don't want more than one gray cable knit sweater because inevitably there will be a favorite and then I'm going to feel sorry for the one left in the closet. And so I really only needed one great Indian restaurant in Montgomery County. After all, just getting to Jaipur on the odd occasion has been challenge enough. Now that we've been to Aman's, though, I'm starting to worry. With another option comes a greater higher likelihood that somebody's gulab jamun are going to be neglected. At first I was a bit put-off by the pink, yellow and orange star-shaped crisps served instead of the usual pappadams. They had the look of breafast cereal and the texture of packing peanuts. But when the meal arrived, each dish was more delicious than the last. Jesse's a sucker for saag and the lamb rendition here had all the hallmarks of a great one: feathery spinach and bite-sized chunks of meat cooked into soft, velvety submission with sweet perfumy bursts of cardamom. I could have licked the copper bowl for the last traces of the Goan chicken's creamy coconut gravy. The dosa was the length and circumference of a telescope, though more manageable than the 6-footer our friend Jon Solomon once served at a Super Bowl party. The pancake, golden and crisp with the pleasing tang of fermented lentil, enclosed a fluffy potato and onion filling with fenugreek seeds. We alternated dips and scoops of the three accompanying condiments in a fruitless attempt to sop them all up. Apparently, you need the 6-footer to do them justice. In all, a fantastic meal, but only time will tell whether we favor Aman's over Jaipur. In the meantime, here's hoping one of them moves.

The Garden of Good and Eh


Name: Yu Hsiang Garden
Location: 7630 Germantown Ave., Chestnut Hill
Personnel: Me
What I Ate: Chive Buns, Sesame Lamb, Sauteed Bean Curd, Complimentary Pickled Vegetables
Condiments: Soy sauce
Bill Total: $34
Observations: So I used to work at the TLA Video in this shopping center 10 years ago. What I remember from that time most vividly are the cold sesame noodles I would eat mid-shift, huddled in the back room of the store — a nightly treat only slightly tainted by the office decor of reject tapes, life-size cardboard cutouts of Jim Carrey and piles of the shrink-wrapped dirty movies that were (are?) the store's stock in trade. The other big memory is the clientele who called to ask if we could check on their dry cleaning next door. Anyway, in the present moment, Yu Hsiang Garden is under grumpy new management, and the vermicelli I once knew is long gone. Chive buns, which looked luscious and plump like golden pillows, were oddly sour and dense with grease. Lamb dotted with sesame seeds and stewed in a clay pot was an indistinguishable mush of flavors in a cloying brown sauce. Sauteed bean curd was about as delicate as floral foam. I was relieved, however, to see that Yu Hsiang was still offering free servings of pickled carrots and cabbage, which are a fresh antidote to its heavy, oily dishes. The experience has me missing the old days, back when Yu Hsiang was a friendly and consistently strong neighborhood restaurant. Then again, now that my video-peddling career is over, I no longer need those noodles quite so much.

A Girl Walks Into a Sushi Bar...



Name: Oh Yoko!
Location: 1428 Rte. 70 West, Cherry Hill, NJ
Personnel: Megan, Me
What We Ate: Okonomiyaki; Chef's Sushi Appetizer; House Salad; Grilled Barbecue Pork with Wasabi Fries and Julienne Vegetables
Condiments: Ginger Dressing; Wasabi Sauce
Observations: It sounds like the name of a chain but this Jersey-based Japanese BYO where the Fab Five provide an all-night soundtrack is actually independently owned. (Speaking of chains, I recently had my first encounter with the Bamboo Club, which was one of the most terrifying restaurant experiences in recent memory. Let's just say I've had more appetizing meals in hospital cafeterias.) At first, we were a little put-off by the aggressiveness of the service, which went well beyond the realm of helpful into the territory of domineering, essentially forcing us to order the Okonomiyaki. The server also laughed inexplicably when I ordered the pork chop. Inside joke? Nervous tic? Porcine issues? I had to hand it to her, though. The high-pressure appetizer was an intriguing blend of salty, sweet and smoky flavors and crisp, chewy and flaky textures. It was also a sight to behold: The Japanese-style pancake was topped with interlaced squiggles of sweet, soy-based sauce and a creamy white mayonnaise sauce and a feathery layer of bonito flakes that shimmered in the AC breeze. Nigiri sushi — salmon, halibut, tuna, red snapper and shrimp — was impeccably fresh and buttery soft. The hilarious pork chop (two big ones, actually) was grilled and served glossy with barbecue sauce, along with sides of carrot and squash sprinkled with sesame seeds and insanely addictive tempura fries with bright green wasabi sauce. I enjoyed my leftovers for lunch and dinner the next day, even though the fries were a little soggy by then. If Oh Yoko! suddenly went bigtime and took over, say, all the Bamboo Club franchises, I would certainly not complain.

Do You Know the Way to Secane?



Name: Hidalgo
Location: 831 Providence Road, Secane.
Personnel: Holly, Me
What We Ate: Complimentary Chips and Salsa; Sopes; Pollo Estilo Hidalgo; Chuleta a la Ranchera
Condiments: Pico de Gallo
Bill Total: $36
Observations: Up until this week, I had never heard of Secane — a bit embarrassing for a lifelong Philly resident. My first trip there was strictly business — or at least the non-deadlined, nonpaid restaurant reviewing business that is this blog. Hidalgo, which opened last year, is owned by the family who operated Xochilmico in Upper Darby. Like Zochilmico, Hidalgo is a casual, neighborhood place. I was hoping we might get serenaded as I had at Xochilmico back in the day, but no such luck. It's BYO and they will provide tequila mixes, which we unfortunately did not get to sample. Our meal started with very good sopas, flat disks of corn topped with ribbons of crisp iceberg, shredded chicken, refried beans and queso fresco. Neither of us was thrilled with our entree, however. Holly ordered chicken in the style of Hidalgo, which ought to have been a memorable dish, being tied up with the restaurant's identity and all. And yet the chicken breast was topped with a bland, almost melon-colored peanut sauce sprinkled with sesame seeds. I ordered the chuleta or pork chop with tomatillo sauce and specified spicy. When it came it had a bright, fruity flavor that was rather mild. The pork, meanwhile, was overcooked, requiring extra sawing. Sides of rice and refried beans were similarly lackluster. I came away feeling disappointed but I think I would also give this place another chance, should I end up in Secane again anytime soon.

Bellying Up


Name: Sea Swirl
Location: 30 Williams Avenue, Mystic, CT
Personnel: Susannah, Mike, Jesse, Me
What We Ate: 2 lobster rolls, 2 whole clam rolls
Condiments: Tartar Sauce
Bill Total: $32
Observations: We decided to make a lunch stop at Sea Swirl on the way to Wellfleet, meeting my sister and brother-in-law on the road. While it's not technically a stripmall eatery, I felt Sea Swirl deserved a visit after reading internet hype and getting a real-life recommendation from my friend Becky. At first I was put off when I saw that the restaurant sold bottled water labeled with its own name. Would the food not speak for itself? In fact, it did. I have to say these were some of the best seafood shack victuals I've ever tasted. The toasted rolls were buttery. The clams crisply shattered into soft, chewy, mollusky goodness with juicy bellies. Their secret, apparently, is soybean oil. And I've never seen such generous, identifiably claw meat chunks in a lobster roll. Best of all, none of it was so greasy that an additional four hours in the car seemed torturous. On the contrary. When we got to Wellfleet we were ready to tear into a pack of steamed lobsters.




Name: Cap'n Cat's Clam Bar
Location: Route 561, Voorhees, NJ
Personnel: Bethany, Rocky, Me
What We Ate: Garlic Steamed Clams, Rolls, Coconut Shrimp, Fried Oysters, Spicy Fries, Broiled Combination Deluxe (Scallops, Shrimp, Crabcake, Flounder), Coleslaw, Diet Rite
Condiments: Tartar Sauce, Cocktail Sauce, Piña Colada Sauce
Bill Total: $58
Observations: I don't know why I went looking for a taste of the sea in a Voorhees stripmall. In retrospect, it seems kind of dumb. It was a holiday weekend, though, and not having planned a trip to a beachy place, I was craving crustaceans. At the front Cap'n Cat's has a little fish counter. In the grubby back dining room, where we were seated, the service was slow and distracted. To start, we got a bowl of steaming clams for sharing, but since we had no plates of our own we had to huddle over it like it was fondue. The clams were rubbery and the broth was not rich enough to justify bread dipping. On a positive note, I was pleased to find Diet Rite on the menu, a beta cola that got pushed aside in the fierce Coke and Pepsi wars of the 80s. For a main, Rocky had oysters that were so heavily breaded they might have been cow thymus for all we knew. Bethany had fried coconut shrimp, which were a better choice — if only because they came with a piña colada sauce that tasted like the TGI Friday's cocktail mix they sell in the state store. My platter was hardly worth the $16.95. The crabcake had nice fresh meat but its crust was unappetizingly dark. The scallops came slightly overcooked; shrimp were tasteless; the fish was watery. Even the spicy fries were underwhelming. Also, as Bethany pointed out, it's kind of lame to serve condiments in wasteful plastic containers to people who are dining in. Would Red Lobster have been better? Perhaps.

A Slice of Jerz



Name: Romanza
Location: 1900 Greentree Road, Cherry Hill, NJ
Personnel: Keith, Jesse, Me
What We Ate: Caprese Salad, Pescatore Pizza, 1 Complimentary Roll, Diet Coke
Condiments: None
Bill Total: $24
Observations: Romanza is a modest joint in Cherry Hill, actually in the same shopping center as one of my favorite chaat places, Rajbhog. It's got kind of a split personality. On one side of the restaurant there is table service. On the other is a counter and the casual seating you usually find in a pizzeria. Like the seating plan, the menu also seems to merge two types of eating establishments. You've got your regional pizzeria fare — sandwiches, pizza, cheesesteaks, and variations thereof that can be embellished with cheesesteakiness. But there are also more traditional Italian pasta, veal and chicken dishes. On our visit we sat on the fancier side and ordered salad and a large, 17" Pescatore pizza. The salad was bland, oily and pale, with anemic tomatoes and half-dry ribbons of prosciutto, and it came with a single flour-dusty roll that we split between us. Fortunately, the pizza was an improvement. Chunks of garlic, tender clams, and the baby shrimp that in the wrong context can give me the willies were nestled in melted mozzarella on a chewy crust. It was briny and greasy in the best possible way. Good enough that I would go back, but only if I had a guarantee that I would not get sucked into the black hole of jughandles, incomprehensible signage, and generally frustrating road trickery that is New Jersey.

Mall Country's Finest



Name: Jaipur
Location: 336 West DeKalb Pike, King of Prussia
Personnel: Stephen and Zella (aka my parents), Jesse, Me
What We Ate: Vegetarian Platter (Samosa, Pakoras, Paneer Pakoras); Papri Chaat; Tandoori Chicken; Lamb Kadai; Shrimp Vindalu; Palak Paneer; Nan; Masala Chai.
Condiments: Raita, Mango Chutney
Bill Total: $99
Observations: King of Prussia, land of malls, has become something of a breeding ground for exotically themed chain eateries. (PF Chang, Bahama Breeze and California Pizza Kitchen, for instance.) But it is also home to one of my favorite Indian restaurants in the suburbs. Located in the DeKalb Plaza, and named for the 12th largest city in India, Jaipur is a consistent bite for your buck, and a good place to escape the sodden buffet-table Indian food that's so prevalent in Center City. The service is friendly and efficient, the tablecloths are rose-colored, the food is served in elegant hammered metal pots. And, as my mom pointed out, it passes the ethnicity test: Actual Indian people choose to eat there — not just us Yanks. We started with the impossibly crisp pakoras, flaky samosa and thin slices of fried homemade cheese. The Papri Chaat, a seven-layer-type dip of yogurt, rice crisps, chickpeas and spices was a swirl of sharp and creamy textures and sweet and nutty flavors. Tender and piquant Tandoori Chicken arrived sizzling on its traditional metallic platter with onions and lemon wedges. The Goan shrimp Vindalu was my least favorite of the bunch — the shrimp were overwhelmed by the hot and sour sauce, with the overriding note being sour. There was no mistaking the peppery appeal of the Lamb Kadai, which burned with currylicious abandon. We cooled our mouths with dollops of minty raita and pillowy sheets of plain nan which we tore between us, then scooped up more. If you ever have to go to the KOP mall (and it really is unavoidable) you should check this place out. But do yourself a favor and go to the mall first. You wouldn't want to eat at Jaipur if, for instance, you had to try on jeans afterward.

New Haven



Name: Wasabi
Location: 350 Boston Post Road, Orange, CT
Personnel: Jesse, Me
What We Ate: Green Salad with Carrot Ginger Dressing; Oshinko; Spicy Crab Roll; Wasabi Roll; White Tuna roll
Condiments: Soy Sauce, Wasabi
Bill Total: $50
Observations: This is the first in what I hope will be a series of summer road trip restaurant adventures. We were en route to Cape Cod last week when we stopped at Wasabi, a spare little eatery tucked in between a nail salon and a tanning salon, just a couple of miles off of I-95, and close to New Haven. The lunch actually broke up the drive very nicely, like a crisp slice of pickled ginger on the palate between bites of fish. (It's an especially great find since all the official reststops are monopolized by McDonald's.) On the day we visited there were shamefully few customers lunching (none, actually), despite some generous midday specials. Surely the crowd picks up for dinnertime: The sushi is impeccably prepared and gorgeously fresh, with a long list of creative rolls throwing flavors like kiwi and peach into the mix. My only regret is not delving into the dessert offerings, like the sticky black rice pudding or the green tea mascarpone cheesecake that sounded a lot like a recipe I tried from last January's Bon Appetit magazine. Mine didn't come out very well, due to the fact that I mistakenly bought gluten free shortbread at Whole Foods, which made the crust all gray and gummy. Wasabi probably does it much better.

Ladies' Night



Name: Royal Orchid
Location: 370 East Windsor Plaza, Rte. 130, East Windsor, NJ
Personnel: Jon, Nicole, Jesse, Me
What We Ate: Complimentary Rice Crisps and Chili Sauce; Tom Yom Koong; Duck and Pineapple Salad; Thai Chili Shrimp; Bean Curd in Ginger Basil Sauce; Vegetable Green Curry; Chili Lamb; White Rice; Thai Iced Tea and Coffee.
Condiments: None
Bill Total: $73
Observations: I always assumed Ladies' Night was a way for bars to level the playing field and distract their male patrons from getting in brawls. Royal Orchid in East Windsor, NJ, however, is hardly a sausage party. On Mondays entrees are half price for the fairer sex, and you don't even have to wear a skirt. Apparently Royal Orchid's owner operates a gaggle of restaurants in the region, and his suburban empire managed to attract the attention of The New York Times. (Though it is unlikely, as the window posting suggests, that the 2003 review of Royal Orchid appeared on the front page.) The tabletops are glass, and beside each one is a wall-mounted mini-fountain, water running in a perpetual trickle over faux pebbles. Fully engaged paper umbrellas hang suspended from the ceiling. Even the menus are embellished with the three dimensional metallic elephants. It's all very pretty, very dressy. The offerings, ranging from escargot and frogs' legs to tamer noodle concoctions, are notated with warnings of pork (P) or nuts (N) or meatlessness (V). Everyone seemed to enjoy what they had. The shrimp, shellacked with chili glaze, were plump and luxuriant, though the duck in a pineapple sweetened salad was a little dry and chewy. In and of itself the food isn't front page material, but the deep discounts are certainly newsworthy.




Name: Little Marakesh
Location: 1825 Limekiln Pike, Dresher.
Personnel: Jesse, Me
What We Ate: Salad Platter (Carrot Salad, Eggplant, Hummus, Tomato, Cucumber and Peppers), Pita Triangles, Bastilla, Chicken Tagine, Lamb Kabobs, Couscous, Baklava, Mint Tea
Condiments: None
Bill Total: $53
Observations: On Little Marakesh's website there are goofily smiling servers wearing fezzes and bejeweled belly dancers peering dreamily out of veils but this Dresher restaurant is way less Epcot in person. As Jesse noted, LM was one of the few stripmall spaces we've seen that has actually been transformed into a charming, cozy and even alluring atmosphere. Sure, there's a little gift shop in the back selling tagines, tea sets and pottery, and menu of hookahs for smoking, which the two gossiping teenage girls across the room seemed to enjoy. But these are just touristy distractions from the food, which is authentic and transporting in its own right. It's worth visiting on the weekends to partake in a multicourse feast, beginning with a salad platter of sweet carrots, smoky charred eggplant and velvety hummus. The bastilla, phyllo pastry layered with cinnamon, shredded chicken, fluffy bits of egg and almonds, was delicious but it was the camel stenciled in cinnamon on top that really left me awestruck. Next is the Berber tagine: olives, preserved lemon, onions and chicken stewed in a clay pot until the meat falls off the bone. Then there are ground lamb kabobs, flavored with the hot chile kiss of harrissa, and sumptuous couscous, laden with sweet caramelized onions, plump raisins and chickpeas. In traditional Moroccan style you are expected to eat with your hands—the server will douse you in hot water at the beginning of the meal—but a plate of forks is also discreetly provided, no questions asked, for those that do not want to dive headlong into soupy tagine with their bare digits. After all, no matter how much hookah you've smoked, you're still in Dresher.

Strong and Hot



Name: Sila Turkish Restaurant
Location: 4313 Rte. 130, Edgewater Park, NJ
Personnel: Aubrey, Me
What We Ate: Humus, Babaganus, Haydari, Aciliezme, Adana Kebab, Yogurt Kebab, Baklava, Turkish Coffee
Condiments: None
Bill Total: $48
Observations: I live for Turkish food. My sister Aubrey and I visited Turkey in the late-’90s and ate baklava every day for three glorious weeks. Now, when I dream, it's of pide, pine nuts and raisins. Unfortunately there is very little Turkish food in Philly. Sila was written up in the Inquirer about a year ago, and I have been waiting for the right opportunity to get there. It's about 20 minutes outside the city, in what has to be one of the most strip-mall-tastic parts of New Jersey. (Yet I wouldn't be surprised if I were wrong about this.) Aubrey came along for the trip because she was as excited as I was to relive our experience. Park Plaza is an odd little enclave that also hosts a Curves and a ballet school. Sila itself is quite fancy, with murals, and a dance floor and an area where the food is laid out under glass for ogling. Our bread came out with a dish of butter and crumbled feta cheese. We shared a selection of cold dips, which included the usual garlicky suspects. The babaganus (Turkish spelling) was wonderfully smoky. For an entree she had the yogurt kebab, a classic dish with roasted lamb and rich tomato sauce slathered on buttery bread cubes. I had oblong lamb patties, which had nice charcoal flavor. These were accompanied by traditional accompaniments: raw onions and parsley, a grilled tomato and a grilled chili pepper. Over the baklava, which was sweeter, more syrupy and rosier-tasting than what we usually get around these parts, we learned that Sila had changed ownership recently. Our teenage server, clad in a tuxedo vest, is the new owner's daughter. Next door, she told us, there's a men-only cafe and they are also building another room for daytime gathering. She wanted to make sure that we knew what we were getting into when we ordered the Turkish coffee. People had complained, she said, because they didn't realize how strong it was. We knew, we told her, and we had no complaints.

Big Champin'


Name: Champa Laos
Location: 219 Haddonfield Berlin Road, Cherry Hill, NJ
Personnel: Rachel, Me
What We Ate: Mang Sa Vi Raj (Vegetarian Appetizer Plate With Corncakes, Spring Rolls, Fried Tofu; Two Kinds of Vegetable Dumplings and Cabbage Salad); Aom Laos With Chicken; Sticky Rice; Wild Ginger Tofu; Coconut Jasmine Rice; Tea
Condiments: Chili Sauce; Fish Sauce; Sweet and Sour Sauce
Bill Total: $50
Observations: The owners of the excellent Cafe de Laos on 11th Street have now opened a suburban outpost in the Centrum Shoppes strip in Cherry Hill. Like Cafe de Laos, Champa Laos is beautifully decorated with vibrant colors and gold stenciled walls. The menu is a similar mix of Thai and Lao specialties, but if memory serves, some of the offerings are different. Either way, you can't really go wrong here: A vegetarian Thai style appetizer sampler is a great start, with delicate spring rolls, ginger-inflected corn cakes and blocks of golden fried tofu. These crisp, oily treats are nicely balanced with a shredded cabbage salad dressed in chili and lime. I loved the light, tangy broth of the Aom Laos curry, with its herby scent of lemongrass and dill. The accompanying sticky rice came in a traditional bamboo basket which, when you're done sopping up sauce with the rice, could double as a cute little purse. The service is friendly, too. A word of advice, though: If you plan to go to this restaurant, don't Mapquest it.

You Gotta Have Balls*


Name: Sushikazu
Location: 920 Dekalb Pike, Blue Bell, PA
Personnel: Jesse, Me
What We Ate: Wasabi Shumai; Complimentary Hijiki and Tofu; Oshinko; Japanese Tuna Balls; Kanica Roll; Blue Bell Roll; Una Avo Roll; Green Tea; Complimentary Orange Sections
Condiments: Soy-Vinegar Shumai Dip; Soy Sauce
Bill Total: $48
Observations: Holy shit. We struck suburban gold. Jesse had been telling me about Sushikazu for some time, and we finally had the chance to visit last weekend. It's a small place and it's kind of hidden behind a strip mall off of Route 73. But the place was obscure only to me—on a Saturday night it was packed with much savvier diners who'd had the foresight to make a reservation. The hostess gently chastised us for our mistake and we hovered by the entrance, watching what looked like promotional tourism videos until she found us a table. Because it was so crowded service was slow, but boy, everything we had was well worth the wait: A plate of oshinko (pickled veggies) surprised with unexpected flares of sweetness and umami. Spicy-sweet pork dumplings wrapped in wasabi-flavored leaves melted on the tongue. The Kanika roll, a bundle of King crab, cucumber, glinting roe and spicy sauce, was crowned with perfectly airy shrimp tempura. The highlight, though. was Japanese tuna balls, where the soft raw fish was embedded with slivers of green onion, and crispy crackles of tempura and rice cake. Unfortunately my camera batteries ran out en route, or I would be sharing pics of these gorgeous creations.
*The title of this post is actually a reference to a novel by Lily Brett, which is about a octogenarian man who opens up a restaurant with his sexy Polish girlfriend. They specialize in all things ball-like.

Continental Style



Name: Coconut Bay Asian Cuisine
Location: White Horse Road, Voorhees, NJ
Personnel: Keith, Jesse, Me
What We Ate: Pickled Cucumbers With Chile Pepper; Hong Kong Noodle Soup With Seafood; Cold Sesame Noodles; Thai Fried Rice With Chicken, Pineapple and Raisins; Eggplant and Chicken in a Clay Pot; Lemon Jasmine Iced Tea
Condiments: None
Bill Total: $52
Observations:I read about Coconut Bay over the Internet, and we wanted to see Neil Young: Heart of Gold, so we decided to combine it with a blog dining outing nearby. (It should be noted that for a Philadelphian, New Jersey suburbs are exceedingly difficult to navigate. We drove around in a Mapquest-induced state of confusion until we finally realized that White Horse Pike and White Horse Road were two different thoroughfares.) Coconut Bay is in the Echelon Village Plaza, which boasts a Genuardi's and a Panera Bread.

If "Asian cuisine" sounds vague that's because the menu here truly spans the continent. You got your Malay beef, your Hirame, your Kung Pao, all in a fat bound volume that demands prolonged, furrowed brow concentration. I don't think restaurants ought to aim for diner-style comprehensiveness. It seems a little too deferential to picky diners. If we don't like curry, we'll go somewhere else. What we had was nicely presented, like the cold sesame noodles with cherry tomato buttons lining the plate, and the fried rice in a cute Polynesian pineapple bowl. The former was greasy and flavorless but the latter was actually quite zesty. I was surprised to find chunks of lobster tail floating in the Hong Kong noodle soup broth, but otherwise the dish was not worth the work of maneuvering two utensils. Jasmine iced tea was sweet, syrupy and herbal all at once, like a drinkable cough drop. We were running late for the movie so we didn't get a chance to sample dessert. (Oddly, there are only four on the menu.) It was all decent enough but next time I think I'd rather go back to Coriander, the excellent Indian restaurant a few doors down from the Ritz. The movie, on the other hand, was fantastic.

Just Dessert


Name: Lucy's Indian Cuisine
Location: 7518 Castor Avenue
Personnel: Me
What I Ate: Keema Paratha; Chicken Saag; Basmati Rice; Gulab Jamon
Condiments: Raita
Bill Total: $19
Observations: In all honesty I was planning to check out a different Indian restaurant in the Northeast, but I stumbled on Lucy's in what looked like a Brazilian shopping center and I wanted to see how the masala fared in such a habitat. The answer is eh. This was truly some of the blandest Indian food I have ever encountered. Perhaps the giveaway was that the only activity in the place was on the mounted TV broadcasting Asianet talk shows. The paratha, which was supposed to be stuffed with lamb, peas and ginger, had a few barely discernible crumbs of meat and no peas to speak of. The saag sauce, pooling around lackluster chunks of breast meat, was diluted by tomato juice. You know it's mediocre if the spiciest thing in the bunch was the raita. But it wasn't a total wash. The dessert, which had leaked out of its styrofoam nest and into the surrounding plastic wrap, made my lips ring with sugar—and my counter sticky with syrup. What can I say? I'm a sucker for those gulab jamon.

Goodbye Saigon



Name: Pho 38
Location: Route 38, Pennsauken, NJ
Personnel: Me
What I Ate: Banh Xèo Chay; Com Thit Nuong Bi Cha
Condiments: Nuoc Cham
Bill Total: $18
Observations: This particular strip mall has seen better days. Back when Flower World was still open and filling the parking lot with lawn tchotkes, Pho 38 was another Vietnamese restaurant called Saigon. Saigon was pretty good, and it had an elaborate fountain inside as well as a big aquarium—fancy, but in a way that was kind of decadent and depressing. Now the shopping center is all but vacant, the fountain is dried up and unplugged. Saigon has become yet another pho restaurant named after a number. (Good for remembering the address, but not so great for marketing purposes.) The aquarium is still there, though, and now there's a rotary shot dispenser on the bar that's filled solely with cognac. And fortunately, the food is still better than decent—as good as anything on Washington Avenue. You've got your array of pho, of course, each kind with one less meat than the next. There's steak, and steak and flank, and steak and flank and fatty tendon. And so on. I enjoyed the vegetarian Smiling Pancake, at once crisp and creamy, aromatic with coconut milk and punctuated with a smattering of cool mung beans. Of the many rice plates I chose the one with shreds of julienned pork, and slices of sweet marinated grilled pork, plus a wedge of egg cake, all of which got doused in tangy nuoc cham. Very tasty. Which is good, because Pho 38 might be this plaza's only hope for salvation.

Takeout Doubleshot


I've been negligent, but I'm not going to be *that* blogger and waste precious megabytes with excuses. Instead, I'm going to hit you up with a doubleshot of takeout experiences. (You'll notice that the tableware in the photos is my very own.)

The Jewish Dining Conundrum




Name: Murray Delicatessen
Location: 285 Montgomery Avenue, Bala Cynwyd
Personnel: Jesse, Bethany, Me
What We Ate: Challah French Toast; Whitefish Salad on a Multigrain Bagel With Cucumber, Tomato, Olives and Cream Cheese; Salami and Eggs With Homefries and Whole Wheat Toast; Coffee
Condiments: Kraft Syrup in packets; Heinz Ketchup
Bill Total: $28
Observations: We Jews will loyally patronize any restaurant that serves matzoh ball soup, even if the matzoh balls are sinkers and the broth is watery and flavorless. In a cuisine that relies heavily on margarine, the bar tends to be pretty low. That's the only way I can explain the ongoing competition between the two Bala delis, Murray's and Hymie's. Neither are particularly great. My grandmother used to take me to Hymie's because she thought it looked cleaner but we have since concluded that the smoked fish at Murray's is better. So nowadays, when I do the suburban Semitic brunch thing I go to Murray's. There's usually a crowd at both places with a sprinkling of middle-aged regulars who seem to know one another. (When our server asked us if everything was all right, one patron chided her, "In a Jewish restaurant you should ask, 'Is anything all right?'" She responded by passing him a photo album of her children.) That familiarity goes a long way towards establishing an authentically kibbutzy atmosphere. Even so, the food is really nothing to kvell about. The salami and eggs were ample and fluffy but greasy. The challah French toast, which Bethany ordered because it was boxed on the menu and looked like a specialty, was thin and flavorless. I also learned that the blintzes, which we didn't order, are frozen. (For shame!) However, I'd still assert that the whitefish salad, a gigantic mound of feathery fish and mayo, was superior. And I'm pretty sure I'll go back there sometime. It's just a Jewish thing.

Monotheism Changes Everything


Name: Athena Restaurant
Location: 264 Keswick Avenue, Glenside
Personnel: Jesse, Me
What We Ate: Kafteri (a dip of tomato paste and feta) and Pita Bread; Complimentary Salad and More Pita Bread; Pastitso; the Pikelia Platter (Moussaka; Feta; Olives; Spanikopita; Gyro; Dolmades; Keftedes)
Condiments: Tzatziki, at our server's suggestion
Bill Total: $52
Observations: Keeping up these suburban excursions through the holidays might be a little challenging—not to mention jeans-expanding—but I'm going to try to work through it. Last night, in fact, Jesse and I left a holiday party early, giving up a free buffet, open bar and what looked like a bakery smorgasbord to journey out to Glenside. I'd been to Athena, but it was at least a decade ago, and I wanted to know if it was as good as I remembered. Parking was surprisingly tight around there, perhaps because Cyndi Lauper was playing at the Keswick Theater a few doors down. Yet the restaurant itself was quiet, which is to say we interrupted an employee mopping up. The motif, in classic American Greek restaurant style, is azure and white, and the walls are embellished with mini bottles of ouzo and nostalgic photos of stark island houses. Like a true goddess, Athena is truly generous. You are plied with free salad and many piles of fresh warm pita triangles, which we used to scoop up the tangy kafteri dip. Other dishes, however, were only okay. Both of our meals came with potatoes roasted to a nice lemony crust, but Jesse's also had string beans that had been cooked to splitting. Everything needed more seasoning, including the moussaka and pastitso, which are such indulgent dishes that when you order them they ought to be worth their cholesterol count. If I had to do it over I'd try the fish. And, had I known, I would have gotten Cyndi Lauper tickets.
Bonus Errand: Jesse scored some mistletoe at the florist across the street.

He Who Feels It, Tastes It



Name: One Love Cafe
Location:6417 Rising Sun Avenue
Personnel: Bethany, Me
What We Ate: Complimentary Cornbread, Jerk Chicken, Cabbage, Rice and Peas, Fried Fish, Macaroni and Cheese, Collards. One Ginger Beer.
Condiments: Tartar Sauce. I think this was an American appurtenance, but I'm not one to turn down mayonnaise in any form.
Bill Total: $24.50
Observations: Though technically not in a strip mall, One Love Cafe is in a strip of restaurants and stores on Rising Sun Avenue. I've been looking for a good new jerk for sometime (the reigning favorite is Taste of Home in Cobbs Creek). I heard about One Love but I was somewhat skeptical. The name sounded iffy, like it could be a Rainforest Cafe kind of theme park restaurant/"retail concept," only Caribbean, with eternal blue sky painted on the ceiling, drinks in coconuts and bad reggae. Not hardly. One Love was the real deal and it's one of the better suburban finds in recent memory: The jerk chicken was saucy, tender and brightly spiced with cinnamon and hot pepper; the mac and cheese had the impressive girth and crispy crust of a kugel; the cabbage, cut in ribbons, was fried to a buttery softness without melting to mush. "I love the Northeast," I said to Bethany as we got in the car. That was before we hit the quagmire of Roosevelt Boulevard's 15 lanes, none letting us turn left. But still.

Iran So Far Away



Name: Caspian Grille
Location: 539 Germantown Pike, Lafayette Hill.
Personnel: Me
What I Ate: Baba Ganoush, Cucumber Salad, Persian Rice With Apricots, Carrots and Raisins, Eggplant Stuffed with Ground Beef, Phyllo-Wrapped Chicken and Spinach, Whole Wheat Pita Bread and Pumpkin Bread Pudding.
Condiments: None
Bill Total: $34.28
Observations: I grew up in Lafayette Hill, and back in those days of piano lessons, Golden Dream Barbie grooming and Hebrew school, dinner out was usually limited to a pu-pu platter at the Golden Dragon, or a flabby slice of Vino's pizza. The past few times I've been back in the Hill, though, I've passed by this new addition to Germantown Avenue and looked at it longingly from the car window. I finally pulled into the parking lot and saw it up close today. Turns out it isn't a proper restaurant—at least not yet. It's more like a takeout counter/catering business. And, unlike the nearby Persian Grill, the Caspian Grill is not limited to Persian food. Its 25-foot glass display case is filled with salads, curries, rice, fish, moussaka, dolmades, and burritos. (The Iranian owner, a slight man with a snowy beard, also operates a stand in the Flourtown Farmers Market. He explained that Mexican cuisine was popular among American customers, so he is just keeping his bases covered.) In addition, he and his co-chefs had laid out some Thanksgiving items like a rolled turkey breast stuffed with apples and a pretty hot-rockin' pumpkin bread pudding. I wasn't so big on the chicken, which was mostly flavorless underneath its crisp wrapping, but the saffron-tinted rice was sweet and fragrant and the baba ganoush had the perfect smoky : tangy ratio. It is a friendly place, and even if you order as much as I did they will not make you feel like a total pig.

My Little Gulab Jamon


Name: Uduppi Dosa House
Location: Galloway Road, Bensalem
Date: Tuesday, November 8, 2005
Personnel: Jesse, Jon, Me
What We Ate: House Special Assorted Plate (Medhu Vada, Masala Vada, Vegetable Pakoda, Samosa, Vegetable Cutlet and Bhajia); Tomato and Pea Uthappam, Mysore Masala Dosa, Malai Kofta, Alu Parata, Gajar Ka Halwa, Gulab Jamun. One Mango Lassi.
Condiments: Coconut Chutney, Tamarind Sauce, Sambar, Coriander/Mint Chutney
Bill Total: a paltry $41
Observations: We were greeted by Lakshmi, garlanded for Diwali, the festival of lights. (See below.) The all-veg dosa house is divided by a series of stainless steel buffet warmers which were disappointingly barren. Turns out the regular buffet is at lunch time ($6.99 on weekdays and $8.99 on weekends). On Wednesday night there's also a chaat buffet. Have to come back for that. A family behind us ordered thalis and knocked them back in record time. Uduppi staff were friendly and gracious. Our server gently walked us through the menu, acknowledging our indisputable Western-ness without making us feel especially ignorant. In retrospect I believe we ordered too many starchy dishes—the lentil donut was no joke. We left feeling spongy, indolent, and just slightly stoned on chili peppers. Also intrigued by the many stripmall dining possibilities in Bensalem.
Bonus Errands: Old Navy (baby gift); Home Depot (faux wood-burning stove)