Saturday, January 30, 2010

El Bistro Loco

My favorite episode of the Flintstones is the one where Fred drags his family and friends into the business of making and selling gooseberry pies. The pies were delicious, we’re led to believe, but as it turns out, Fred wasn’t the world’s brightest business mind, and in the end he was left with a big wagon load of melted gooseberry pies, no customers, and a pretty unhappy, laid off, workforce. As I watched this episode on the television suspended above the tables at Guadalajara Grill on South Dort Highway, I thought to myself, Soyla could probably learn something from this episode.

After my recent visit to Soylas Mexican Restaurant, on 2nd Street in downtown Flint, and after my encouraging comments about the improvements I saw, several of you have also gone back to give it a try. The votes have been tallied and I’m sorry to say, the gooseberry pies are melting, my friends. Your comments indicate that while the food has improved, the service has not. I’m an optimist though, and I still believe she can right the ship. She’s half way there with the improved quality of her food. She just needs to work out the bugs with the service and the wait staff. Once she does that, there’s no reason she shouldn’t’ start drawing a larger and larger base of loyal fans.

In case you’re wondering why I was watching Flintstones reruns at the Guadalajara Grill, by the way, I was having lunch there with Stephanie on Thursday. I hadn’t eaten there in a few years, and my friend, Christian, totally not his real name, boasted to me recently that this was the only place in town with authentic Mexican meals on its menu. I wasn’t sure if he was referring to the Bistek al a Mexicana, the mixed vegetables with liver, or the tongue platter, but they were certainly dishes I hadn’t seen on any other menus around town.

The Guadalajara Grill is actually housed in an abandoned Taco Bell, so the dining room is pretty intimate with a total of 9 tables neatly situated in such a way as to create what looks like a semi-intentional ambiance. They’ve done some marginal remodeling to the front counter and giant Taco Bell wall menu above it, so the decor is a little bit like fast food meets we’ll get-around-to-finishing-the-interior-design-a-little-later.

Other than that it’s just your run-of-the-mill surreal Mexican restaurant. Take the bat phone for example. There it was, plain as day, sitting on the front counter, this bright red old fashioned phone, just like you see in the movies. I was so distracted by it that I didn’t see our server drop off a warm basket of chips and two salsas. For some reason, I half expected the damn thing to ring. Maybe the owner has a sense of humor and uses it as the take-out phone.

The house mild salsa was more like a puree with some onion chunks mixed in and a whole lot of black pepper to give it its only heat. A little heavy handed on the pepper, I gotta tell ya. It took me back to last October when we had a very similar version at Alejandro’s, over on Elms Road. I’m just not sure black pepper is the best backdrop to a good salsa. Guadalajara’s medium salsa, though, was yabba dabba delicious! It had good body, fresh cilantro, chunky tomatoes and onions, and just enough finely diced jalapeno peppers to give it a warm after taste. We went through two bowls of this between our chips and our entrees.

The appetizer choices were pretty slim, and there was no cheese dip option, which I found a bit peculiar. It’s like going to a sushi bar and finding they don’t have miso soup on the menu. If soup as an appetizer course is appealing to you, though, Guadalajara has a good selection. Judging from the prices, five to six bucks a bowl, they’re probably hearty enough for at least two people. They had Pazole, Menudo, and several beef and chicken soups with vegetables and various spices. If you like Mexican spices, by the way, you can take home your own private stash if you visit the Guadalajara. They have a grocery store-like rack at the end of the dining room (just under the hanging television, and just over from the red bat-phone) with a couple dozen spices in medium sized packages. You can get anything from chili powders to lemon sticks to a wide variety of dried peppers. It’s the most unique feature I’ve ever seen in a Mexican restaurant, and terribly clever I might add.

Without the queso course that Steph and I have come to rely on, we moved right to the main menu, which was both manageable in its size and reasonable in its pricing. I was feeling particularly adventurous, so I set aside my usual chimichanga order and went with the Bistek al a Mexicana. What could possibly go wrong? he asked himself as he watched Fred Flintstone mark down the price on his wagon load of half melted gooseberry pies.

Stephanie, determined to find the best enchiladas in Flint, finally gave up on the chicken version. This one’s too dry; this one’s too wet, this one’s just gross and tasteless. So, in her throw-caution-to-the-wind spirit, she ordered the beef enchiladas instead—with green tomatillo sauce! Tomatillo, you ask? Well, I always thought it was just a green Mexican tomato, and then I looked it up online so I could impress you with my vast knowledge of the origins of ethnic food. What I found was far more surreal than this dining experience itself. The tomatillo, which is not even a tomato by the way, is “a plant of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, related,” are you ready for this? “to the cape gooseberry.” Is that really what Fred Flintstone’s pies were made of?

Meanwhile, Stephanie and I were trying to ignore all the goofy goings-on around us and catch up on the last two weeks. (We didn’t have our regular lunch last Thursday because I was out of town.) Just as she was getting into the heart of what a brutal two weeks she had been through, the owner of El Potrero, another Mexican restaurant over on Hill and Fenton, walked through the front door, his young daughter in tow, went straight to the red bat phone and made a call. He talked for a few minutes, hung up, and the two of them walked back out the front door. Stephanie and I just looked at each other in total bewilderment and started laughing. Before we could make heads or tails of what just happened, the sever arrived with our entrees.

Stephanie’s beef enchiladas were quite flavorful, the corn tortillas well put together, and the tomatillo verde sauce was, according to her, “excellent!” The beans and rice, well that was another story. Like so many places we’ve been to, it’s like they put all their effort into the main part of the entrée and just gave up on the beans and rice. The beans were water y and not very flavorful, and the rice was goopy and bland. I thought for a minute about buying a few packets of spices off the rack and re-doing the rice at the table myself. Instead, I pushed it aside and put my energy into the rest of the plate.

My meal was good but nothing to write home about. It was a mound of thinly sliced beef, sautéed with onions, peppers, and tomatoes, and doctored up with some fairly mild spices. The freshly sliced jalapenos added a nice bold taste and texture to the dish that probably saved it from all out mediocrity. It was served with warm flour tortillas, so basically my meal was a glorified fajita, with beans, rice, and a pretty little lettuce salad topped with chopped tomatoes. I poured some of the medium salsa over it, which made for a unique and acceptable dressing.

While our server was busy clearing away the rubble and tallying our check, a new episode of the Flintstones had started. It was the one where a Fred look-alike wreaks havoc on his life by masquerading as an Elvis impersonator and getting him in trouble with Wilma. I won’t ruin it by giving the ending away, but if you stop by the Guadalajara Grill for lunch, you just might catch it yourself.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Cool Beans, Baby

I was in Washington D.C. most of last week on business, so I came home to an overwhelming backlog of work at the office and at home. I’ve been pulling late nights and getting up early since Sunday, and It’s starting to take its toll.

I stumbled into the kitchen early this morning, eyes pasted half shut with sleep goo, and went instinctively to the coffee cupboard for my favorite mug. It’s a hearty ceramic jobby that my friends Danny and Jan (which may or may not be their real names) got for me at a Diner near Copper Harbor in the U.P.

I was only half conscious as I reached into the cupboard, but what I grabbed didn’t feel like my favorite cup. It was, in fact, a jar of Taster’s Choice Instant Coffee. It was my dad’s. And right next to that, on the upper shelf above the cups, was my mother’s jar of instant decaffeinated Folgers Crystals.

When my parents come to visit, they bring all of their own supplies. Their own creamer, their own cups, their own pillows, their own Gator Aid. It’s like their trip into the heart of Flint is like some survival expedition. They even bring their own toilet paper. That’s right, their own toilet paper. “That stuff is so expensive,” my mom says. “You don’t need to be paying for all that.”

“But I have a good job, and you’re retired and living on a fixed income. You don’t need to bring your own toilet paper!”

“We only brought four rolls, and if there’s any left we’ll leave it here.”

“But you’re only here for a day and half. How could you possibly need four rolls?”

We don’t use their toilet paper, and we certainly don’t drink their instant coffee. Philip and I have a different philosophy about coffee. First, we like good whole bean Joe that we can grind ourselves. The Unitarian Universalist Church of Flint sells about a dozen varieties of Fair Trade Certified Coffee from around the world for about seven bucks a pound. We usually pick up about seven or eight bags at a time so we always have coffee on hand. My two favorites are the Ethiopian and Columbian varieties.

This morning, I’m finishing off the last of a breakfast blend. We don’t own a coffee pot because several years ago we bought a French Press, and the difference in taste was like night and day. The French Press makes a richer, tastier fuller bodied coffee than the old Mr. Coffee from m y parent’s generation. The only downside is that the presses are made of glass. We’re pretty klutzy around my house, so French Presses don’t last very long.

But then IKEA, the promised land of kitchen gadgets, came out with an insulated stainless steel (or some cheap stainless steel knock-off) French Press. I love this thing. It’s durable. It’s unbreakable, and it’s as big as a standard coffee pot. The price is very reasonable, around twenty five bucks, and worth every penny.

Ten years ago in Flint, getting a good cup of coffee outside your own kitchen was a pretty big challenge. Back then, McDonald’s coffee was practically undrinkable, the Coney Island diner coffee was only a half step up from McDonald’s, and good coffee shops were few and far between. But all that has changed, and good quality coffee is now bountiful in our beloved city.

Places like Starbucks and The Coffee Beanery are the big kids on the block, followed by Border’s and Barnes and Nobel, but we also have some great places nestled in the downtown area. There’s The Brown Sugar Café on Saginaw Street and Steady Eddy’s at the Farmer’s Market. Bu the King of the local coffee shops is The Good Beans Café, owned and operated by Ken Van Wagoner.

Ken opened The Good Beans on the corner of Grand Traverse and First Avenue in Carriage Town almost ten years ago. The café has a long antique bar running the length of the shop (I think it was an original from the Capital Theatre on Second Street) with an equally long mirror on the back wall. The place is intimate with about 8-10 tables, and Ken picks a different local artist each month to showcase their work in the walls of the café.

Ken has always been a staunch supporter of the local community and it has helped make The Good Bean’s Café a fixture in the neighborhood and in the community. In addition to supporting visual artists, Ken has hosted a slew of musicians and poets over the years, but his most laudable contribution to the local creative scene came when he carved out a space next to his coffee shop for the Flint City Theater Group to set up shop.

The group has staged intimate performances of dozens of plays, including my favorite, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a musical. Each year, the group puts on a Halloween show called Scream Theatre, a spooky radio show with music and sketches, written mostly by the actors and troupe members. Ken’s generosity has contributed greatly to the success and longevity of Flint City Theater.

From the start, Ken adopted a simple yet powerful philosophy for running his business, one any local business owner could learn from. According to the website, The Good Beans Cafe is all about coffee, community, environment, and re-investment back into the community. It's the how we do what we do that separates us from our competitors, and will insure years of success as our business grows. We offer an inviting space for hanging out with friends, live entertainment, private party rentals, seminars, lectures, as well as late night study sessions for students, and special events. Our understanding of our community's desire to want positive impacting businesses will help set a model for future positive movement in the ongoing revitalization of Historic Carriage Town

The site also has a link to all of the sponsored events, a full menu, and a photo gallery of the shop and some of the creative drinks you can enjoy. Check out the site at Or better yet, stop by for a great cup of coffee and tour the place yourself.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Brother Can You Spare a Lime?

I've been told by a reliable source, my best friend, let’s say Lenny, that I’m prone to exaggeration and conspiracy theories. I’m not stretching the truth by sharing with you that I once ran myself over with my own truck and another time I threw myself down the Ballroom Staircase at Bally’s Casino in Reno, Nevada. No kidding. So on the exaggeration front, he’s wrong. He may be right about my tendencies toward conspiracy theory though, because I really think someone in control of a powerful information network in Flint is out to get me.

For those of you who’ve been following me from the beginning—I mean following my blog posts, not following me around like a creepy ex-boyfriend —you might remember that I wrote a post a month or two after starting Eating Flint where I mentioned Changing Perceptions of Flint, a daily e-report of all the good things happening in Flint, a report sponsored by the Flint Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Since their report’s opening mantra is “This is a daily report on Flint and Genesee County, and where it appears in the news, blogs, etc. I'll provide the links and your job is to help create a positive light around Flint,” I gave then editor Matt Bach a good-natured ribbing for not noticing the good things Eating Flint was doing for the city. He responded by welcoming us to the fold and by mentioning some of the food and culture stories from the blog. But then, and this is where it gets conspiratorial, after Matt left, Eating Flint was never mentioned again.

I happen to follow the Changing Perceptions of Flint daily report (and so can you by sending an email to Katie Bach at hey what a coincidence, she has the same last name as Matt) so I’ve seen what kinds of stories have made the report. This week, for instance, there was a link to a blog by a dog and an announcement about the Flushing Snowflake Race. Recently there was mention of a blog by a kid who grew up in Flint and is writing about it. AND THERE WERE TWO LINKS TO STORIES WRITTEN ABOUT THE NEW JAPANESE RESTAURANT, FUJI BISTRO!!!!.

Based on my objective assessment of the situation, I can only conclude one of two things: A) that Changing Perceptions of Flint is run by not-so-happy-with-me ex-Catholics who don’t have a sense of humor, or B) they’re too embarrassed to introduce my parents to their readership. Neither conclusion bodes well for me. But I have a plan.

I’ll clean up my act, and write a good, wholesome tale. Changing Perceptions of Flint likes happy stories and they don’t like people bashing Flint. Even though I had a really bad experience at a restaurant last week and feel I need to be honest about my assessment, I thought I’d mask my story in a fairytale-like adventure where nobody dies, Flint will be portrayed in a glowingly positive light, and somehow, a dog with a blog and a Snowflake Race will appear in the story. How could such a beautiful tale not make it into The Daily Report?

So, without further blah blah blah, I give you my first fairy tale food review.

Once upon a lunchtime, two weary travelers, Enjalatta and Jimmy Jonga, wandered in from the cold to a magical place they’d never seen before. Laid out before them, like a feast to the eyes, was a wee little Inn called Puerto Vallarta. This quaint little lodge was adorned with the most colorful chairs and tables; they had bright suns and smiling moons painted all over them. It was as if they’d been moved from the land of El Cozumel, another pretty o.k. place the weary travelers once visited.

A quiet young stock character offered them water, but the weary travelers were parched, for the Evil King Flushing had forced them to run in the dreadful Snowflake Race, a 5K trek through town that only the strong survive. Shrimply Divine, friend of the weary travelers, made it half way through before curling up and collapsing in the crushed ice. Water would not do this time. Only a frozen margarita would quench their horrible thirst and help them forget the fate of their delicate friend.

The pair settled in, though their drinks were quite weak and the limes on their glasses were equally thin. But the chips and the salsa, both free by the way, made them happy and warm. As they stared at their two sided menus with three flaps on each side, a second salsa appeared, carried by the young stock character. The travelers found the first salsa a magical treat, though not very hot. The second was hot but no magical treat. The third of the dips, a queso as white as the snow (except for the chunks of Chorizo) was just right and the weary travelers ate most of it up between swigs of their frozen delight.

Though the menu looked suspiciously like that from the enchanted Nuevo Vallarta in a small village to the south where the travelers once dined—it even had vegetarian specials A-F—there was no reason to doubt its authenticity for the travelers were sure that this other Vallarta had been duly vouched for by Eating Flint, a blog by a dog who shares all the wonderful news from the Kingdom (and surrounding area).

In a flash that seemed not more than twenty minutes long, the stock character emerged like an angel with broken English, carrying a bounteous plate of Enchiladas Verdes for Enjalatta, and for Jimmy a Chimi with a side of relleno-like chile. There was great rejoicing at the sight of the food. Well, except for the chile relleno, which looked, sadly, like it had taken a great fall. (Really, this thing was a train wreck.)

The green enchiladas were not bad at all, but the beans and the rice might have been spun from wet straw. The chimi was yummy and all topped with free things, but Jimmy’s sad chile was not fit for Kings (or for weary travelers). But something magical happened that day, for the pair was still happy when their food was all gone. “Only in Flint” they laugh as they say. They paid for their meal and went on their way, with everyone else to the King’s celebration of Mark Ingram Day.

The End.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Karmageddon's gonna getcha!

Mark McGuire’s admitted to being a cheater, The Balloon Boy’s dad’s been shipped off to jail, Mark Ingram’s quickly become the favorite son of Flint (he’s even got an action figure in his likeness already), ex-Catholics may or may not be happy, and now I’ve learned, through responses to my last post, that happy Catholics are happily practicing their happy faith.

But I digress.

I learned a new term today that helps me understand religious difference and to be more sensitive to it. The term comes from the Washington Post’s winning submissions to its yearly neologism contest, sent to me by a friend in my office. The term is Frisbeetarianism: “The belief that, when you die, your soul flies up onto the roof and gets stuck there”. I’m not sure what happens to Frisbeetarians during Karmageddon, but for the rest of us “it’s like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it’s, like, a serious bummer.”

Now what was I chasing around that tree?

I think I’m suffering from transitionitis. Oh yah, this week’s blog post. P. Daddy spent most of Saturday in bed with a head cold, so Alexis and I made our own daddy/daughter day of it. If anyone ever tells you there’s nothing to do in Flint, or that Flint isn’t a family friendly place, then they’ve never spent a day with Alexis and me. On this particular day, we spent half of our morning at the Flint Children’s Museum and half of our afternoon at the YMCA swimming pool.

Our day started out, however, with a good big breakfast. Alexis wasn’t at all interested in my idea of cooking up some pancakes, muffins, eggs and bacon at home. “I don’t like your food daddy. Let’s go out to eat.”

Her two favorite places are Wing Fong, the Chinese restaurant on Corunna, and Applebee’s. Lucky for me, neither place serves breakfast, After a failed twenty-minute attempt to explain why we couldn’t have breakfast at either place, I finally convinced Alexis that Steady Eddy’s, on the second floor of the Farmer’s Market, would have everything she was looking for: Mickey Mouse pancakes and hot chocolate.

Flint made national headlines last fall—oh please, it’s not what you think—when our gem of a Farmer’s Market was named the Most Beloved Farmer’s Market in the country. Yes, in the country. And with good reason. As you drive past the front entrance on the way to the 10-acre parking lot (that’s a rough estimate), the first thing you see is the mosaic Flint Farmer’s Market sign that was designed and constructed by two local artists.

There’s a little patch of grass between the sign and the front door where, in the warmer seasons, a rotation of bands entertain the Market crowd on Saturdays. The music adds a festive tone to an already vibrant scene. This little grassy stage is where Alexis, in her little tie dye tee shirt and bare feet, learned to dance. It’s also where we run into old friends, catch up on our socializing, and enjoy the best crepe sandwiches I’ve ever had. (Let’s hope The Flint Crepe Company comes back this spring.)

Our Farmer’s Market is open year round and draws good indoor crowds all winter. In addition to the many shops, the Market boasts a top notch art gallery on the second floor across from Steady Eddy’s. There’s almost always a wait at Steady Eddy’s on Saturdays, so Alexis and I usually mingle around the gallery until it’s our turn to be seated. On Saturday, we got lucky because just as we arrived, two seats opened up at the bar.

If you don’t frequent the Farmer’s Market, then you may actually not be familiar with Steady Eddy’s. It’s a quaint little restaurant that in the winter seats between twenty five and thirty people. With a second story deck overlooking the outdoor vending stands, the summer seating allows for another twenty guests. The dining room of Steady Eddy’s underwent a makeover a few years ago when a group of Interior Design students from Baker College collaborated with owner Mike Lord to give the place a fresh modern look. It’s this melding of talents to do something good for the community that makes Steady Eddy’s (and the Farmer’s Market) so special.

Sadly, Mike passed away last fall, but his legacy is kept alive by the hard work of his family and friends who are determined to keep his dream alive. Walking into his restaurant is a lot like walking into a family gathering (Teddy, Jan and Ted, it was good to see you!) And the staff is, without question, the friendliest of any restaurant in the city.

Alexis did get her Mickey Mouse pancakes with hot chocolate, and I had some basted eggs with sour dough toast—where else in Fling can you get fresh baked sour dough? Steady Eddy’s gets a lot of its food from the Market vendors, so everything is served at the peak of freshness. There are dishes far more interesting than what I chose, including a tasty selection of omelets. My all time favorite is the South of the Boarder Omelet, which is loaded with spicy chili, avocado, sour cream, cheese, and salsa None of it costs extra, by the way :)

If you’re an oatmeal fan, you have to try Steady Eddy’s version, which is served with walnuts, pecans, raisins, and cinnamon. I’m not a big fan of oatmeal, but those who are rave about this stuff. The French Toast is equally bodacious to the palate.

I like to bring Alexis here for lunch even more so than for breakfast because she isn’t a big meat eater and Steady Eddy’s has a super friendly vegetarian menu. With ten vegetarian sandwiches, a half a dozen salads, and a small selection of tofu dishes, I never fight with Alexis to get her to eat. And since the food at Steady Eddy’s is so healthy, any choice is a good one.

After breakfast, we strolled through the vendor area as we do every week. Alexis picked out some great rolls from the bakery, and I couldn’t resist getting a small chunk of triple crème brie to go with it from The Cheese Guy. I honestly can’t remember it’s proper name, but this place has one of the largest and tastiest selections of cheeses I have ever seen. Paul, the owner’s son, usually runs the show, and he can tell you anything you ever wanted to know about any cheese in the shop. Make sure you ask him for a sample. Whether it’s cheese, bread, wine, produce, meat, or other specialty items, you’ll likely find what you’re looking for at the Flint Farmer’s Market. And if you can’t decide what to buy, take some time to think about it while you enjoy a fantastic meal in a warm and friendly environment at Steady Eddy’s. It’s a great way to start your Saturday!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Dirty Little Catholic

Several posts ago, I referred to my Unitarian Church as being made up, in part, of pissed-off ex-Catholics. I’ve since come to realize, with the help of some really pissed-off emails, that it’s not the most right I’ve ever been. It turns out that a small handful of happy ex-Catholics actually do exist. Happy ex-Catholics, by the way, use the most colorful language to get their points across.

In the interest of full disclosure, my view of Catholicism, and of those who practice it, is tainted by my own history. I grew up in Manistee, a small, very white, very Catholic town on the shore of Lake Michigan. The word diversity was never a part of my childhood vocabulary, probably because there was only one permanent black resident in my little Podunk town, Bob Brewer, and he (and his white wife) lived quietly in East Lake, the smallest, poorest enclave in the city.

For a town of less than ten thousand, I’ve always been struck by the stark divisions that define it. If East Lake is where the poor minority are hidden, then Snob Hill, a subdivision adjacent to the private golf course, is where the powerful elite set up camp. In between is Oak Hill, a glorified nursing home community where the old linger for years before being called away, as my dad used to say, “to meet their maker.” He also referred to the cemetery as Marble Park, and of the Catholics he’d say, “Let ‘em go to hell with the rest of us.” The man is a fountain of wisdom.

We lived in Maxwell Town with all of the other rag-tag working class families who didn’t’ fit into any of the other micro-communities. Our house sat on a block that was wedged between a boat factory and a salt factory. At one point in my life, my mom, my sister, and my brother would head off to work at the boat factory, and my dad and I would head the other way to the salt factory.

Like Bob Brewer, my family was actually a minority too. We were an ethnic and religious minority. Ninety five percent of my hometown’s population is Polish and Catholic. We were, I was told, German and Lutheran. We didn’t go to church very much when I was a kid, but I do remember going to a Baptist Sunday school. Some guy my mom worked with drove the Sunday school bus, and since my siblings and I walked to our elementary school and had never ridden a bus, Baptist Sunday school became very appealing to us. It wasn’t until I grew up and moved away that my parents finally confessed that they only let us hang out with the crazy Baptists so they could have sex without four rambunctious kids interrupting them. I wanted to be mad at my parents for this selfish betrayal, but I have to tip my hat to them for coming up with such a brilliant scheme.

In addition to being part of an ethnic and religious minority, puberty would introduce me to yet another minority: the gay one. I consider it a generous act of God, however—either the Catholic, Baptist, or Lutheran one, that he would send me a gay, white, Polish, Catholic boyfriend. What are the odds? I often found myself asking much bigger questions, though, like what is there to do in an up North Michigan town for a Catholic/Protestant gay teen couple? Well for one, we drank ourselves silly so we didn’t have to think of all the levels of Hell we’d be visiting in the next life.

Most weekends I’d find myself sitting on the bluffs above Lake Michigan with a pint of cheap whiskey and my boyfriend by my side watching the sun go down. Merkey Road ran all the way through town and ended at the bluffs. On the way, it cut right through the two local cemeteries, the tiny protestant one on the south, and the thirty acre Catholic one on the north. Whenever we sat on the edge of the bluffs getting schnockered, my beau would insist on taking the catholic side because, get this, he didn’t want to offend his God by being on the wrong side. I let him have his way because I loved him and because he wasn’t just any dirty little Catholic, he was my dirty little Catholic.

The more I learned about Catholic dogma, the more I disliked the religion, although their elaborate rituals with all the robes and glitz and fire and smoke are enough to make any right-minded homosexual stand up and take notice. I’ve found two other things about Catholicism to be equally attractive. One is their meeting times. I hope that whoever thought up the idea of holding Mass on a Saturday evening is enjoying a well-deserved Sainthood and an eternity of personal bliss. A typical Saturday in the Polish Catholic household in Manistee went something like this: watch college football, take a nap, pig out on a massive Polish dinner, go to Mass, get out in time to get wasted and party for the rest of the night, and then sleep in on Sundays. This is how we Protestants spent our Saturdays too; we just cut out the evening Mass part.

My other attraction to the Catholics is their inherent ability to lay out a spread of food. And nowhere is this more apparent than at a Catholic funeral meal. When someone dies, it’s as if God turns the rest of the family into caterers because the meals I’ve seen prepared to honor the Catholic dead have been every bit as impressive as those I’ve seen at weddings or graduation parties. I don’t think the bountiful funeral meals were intended to honor the dead as much as they were to one-up the Protestants. I can say from experience that this really wasn’t hard to do. When my Lutheran grandmother died, for example, I remember having lunch at the church, which consisted of tuna salad sandwich triangles, marshmallow salad, and red Jell-O with canned fruit cocktail awkwardly suspended in it. And for the really important dead Lutherans, a tub of whipped cream would mysteriously appear.

I guess I’m taking a really round-about way to say to my ex-Catholic friends, I feel your pain. I get you. Catholicism is the alpha Christian dog on the block—my computer just automatically capitalized the word ChristianJ—and those of us who have left the flock, or have never been a part of it, will resolve ourselves to lives of obscurity in the religious minority. So thank you to those who have opened my eyes and helped me see that there is happiness after Catholicism. You just gotta have faith!

A sense of humor doesn’t hurt either.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Can Food Really Save Downtown Flint?

Any good writer will confess that while the final product is certainly important, the thrilling part about writing is the process. Writers draw on inspiration and creativity, discover new and unique ideas, and turn mistakes and misdirected ideas into miracles. And so do cooks.

The best cooks, I think, are not afraid to take risks and are not afraid to fail. Cooking, like writing, is as much about revision as it is about creation. Revision, after all, is what helps one evolve in their craft and over time create better and better products. Soyla, the cook and owner of Downtown Flint's newest Mexican restaurant is a case in point.

When Soyla’s opened in the Wade-Trim Building on the corner of Saginaw and 2nd Streets less than a year ago, Soyla was not running the kitchen herself. Philip and I ate dinner there less than a week after they opened, and I was a little surprised to see a half dozen cooks crammed into the relatively small kitchen. It was a chaotic scene, to say the least.

The dining room was in a state of disarray as well and staffed by four teenage girls whose collective lack of experience at waiting tables was shocking. The food, which took a very long time to get, wasn’t very impressive. It wasn’t bad, it was just plain and bland. We stopped in two or three times after that, and things had changed very little. This was disheartening to me because Philip and I are big supporters of the downtown businesses and we want to see the revitalization of Flint continue, but we had our doubts about whether Soylas’ was going to make it.

Those doubts were all erased, however, after Stephanie and I dropped by Soyla’s today for the kickoff to part 2 of our 8-month tour of Flint’s Mexican restaurants. Soyla has made a number of significant revisions to her business and the results are simply amazing. Taking control of her kitchen was probably the smartest move she has made. I didn’t see anybody else back there with her, yet there were no long delays in the food getting out to the tables. With a restaurant the size of Soyla’s, it seats about 35 people, moving from six cooks to one was a sensible move.

The dining room had a different feel to it as well. There was no sense of chaos, confusion, or lack of experience as there had been on my previous visits. And amazingly, there was only one server covering the whole dining room. By the time we left there were six or seven tables of customers, which is more than enough to keep one server busy, but she was giving them all very good service.

The most impressive change to Soyla’s, though, is the food. I was stunned by the improvement in quality, flavor, visual appeal, and variety. In addition to the lunch and dinner crowd, Soyla’s is also carving out her own niche for a breakfast crowd. The menu is a bit leaner now, which probably has a big impact on how the kitchen is run. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen restaurant owners make is to put too many options on the menu. Having cooked in restaurants for more than 10 years, I’ve seen how expensive and inefficient it is to have an expansive menu. And the more choices you offer, the more difficult it is for the cook to get the food out in a timely manner. Soyla, I am pleased to see, has solved that problem.

Stephanie and I started our meal with an order of white queso, which was served with freshly chopped jalapeño peppers mixed in. The sweet taste of the cheese, combined with the hot and very flavorful peppers, made for a nice balance. The hand-made chips were more than worthy to be served with this delicious dip. They were warm, crispy, and well seasoned. The dip was three bucks and the chips an extra three fifty, which is a bit pricy for a lunchtime appetizer, but this one was well worth the expense.

I was a bit leary about ordering the chicken burritos because they were pretty dry and bland the last time I ordered them, but based on the quality of our queso appetizer, I was willing to take the risk. Stephanie ordered the beef enchilada lunch combo. Both platter were served with beans and rice. Stephanie was on the ball and ordered spicy rice and beans, and I followed suit as if I had always known that this was an option. In fact, I did not.

The chicken burritos were far superior to what I had eaten on previous visits. The chicken was moist and seasoned in a slightly spicy sauce, wrapped in fresh tortillas, and covered with a light and tasty gravy and a generous amount of melted cheese (which, like every other place, was extra). Stephanie’s enchilada’s were equally well constructed and just as tasty as my burritos.

The beans were pretty good, but the spicy Mexican rice was a big hit. It was made with fresh onions and green peppers and flavored with a just the right amount of cayenne pepper. This rice rivals any of the other places we’ve eaten at so far. I think it was La Familia Morales that had the best rice so far, but I will add Soyla’s spicy rice as a TTC contender.

As we were finishing our drinks and commiserating about going back to work, Soyla came out from the kitchen and stopped by our table to see if we enjoyed our lunch. I told her it was a vast improvement over my last visit and that it was definitely the best food I had eaten here since she opened. That’s when she told us about all the changes. She is also very proud that she uses only fresh ingredients in her dishes, and even the salsa was made in house from scratch.

Soyla was most proud of the tamales, though, that she makes fresh every day. She even made a couple and brought them out to us so we could see for ourselves. I’m not a big fan of tamales and I never order them, but I didn’t want to insult our host so I tried one. Since I don’t eat them, I didn’t have anything to compare this one to, but I really liked it, especially the shredded beef filling. Stephanie, who is a much bigger tamale fan, gave it high marks.

Soyla’s strikes me as a great hangout for local college students, but according to Soyla, not many of them frequent her restaurant. Well students, if any of you are reading my blog, you really need to give Soyla’s a try. Not only do they have good food at reasonable prices, but Soyla offers a 50% discount to any student who shows their college identification. How on earth can you beat that? But wait, there’s more. Soyla’s also has free Wi-Fi, so you can get on Facebook for free and tell all your friends to come down and join you. With breakfast, lunch, and dinner option, any time’s a good time to come to Soyla’s. Help support downtown Flint and give it a try.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Bowling For Sushi

My daughter, Alexis, recently turned five, and now, like her P. Daddy, she thinks she knows everything. She knows, for example, that Santa couldn’t have possibly made all of her presents because he was busy telling the elves what to make and how to make it. Apparently, Santa is quite the Bossy Bosserton. And if she doesn’t know something, she asks questions that are so hard, it still makes her look smarter than me. How am I supposed to know what the tooth fairy does with the teeth after leaving money and taking them away? Oh honey, that’s easy. He resells them to professional hockey players for a hefty profit. Now go to sleep.

Alexis is learning synonyms from PBS kids shows too, which sounds like a cool thing, unless you’re in public at, say the Flint Children’s Museum, surrounded by a dozen kids and their parents when she decides to put her expanding vocabulary into practice by saying, “Stop annoying me, daddy. That mean’s stop bothering me.” I got her back, though, by waiting for most of the giggling parents to move on and a new group to move in. Then I turned to P. Daddy and in my creepy uncle voice said, “These kids are so cute. Makes you wanna have one of your own, doesn’t it?” It’s amazing how quickly a group of parents and their kids can clear a room.

And now she’s developing the insufferable knack of challenging me. Not in the normal boundary-pushing way that you’d expect from a five year old, but in the I-can-do-it-better-than-you way that makes one lose their sense of parental nurturing and start channeling Betty Davis or worse, Joan Crawford. As we were getting ready to go bowling the other night, Alexis started in with the trash talkin’. She had never been bowling before, but listening to the one-liners she was dishing up, you’d never know it. “I’m gonna do better than you, daddy. I’m gonna knock more pins down than you, daddy. P. Daddy’s gonna beat you too, daddy. “ Oh give me a break! For all the trash talkin’ that girl did, she was barely able to muster a 70 on the first game. And that was with gutter bumpers in place. (And for the record, she didn’t knock down more pins than me.)

Since the wager on our bowling challenge was that the winner buy dinner, I guess I was on the hook for this one (this kids’ a lot smarter than I give her credit for). We all love Japanese food, and usually that means a trip to Sagano in the plaza on the corner of Corunna and Linden. Their sushi is every bit as good as sushi I’ve eaten in cities like D.C., San Francisco, Chicago, and Seattle. We’ve eaten there so many times, the owners gave us a personal invitation to join them for the pre-opening party of their second restaurant in Brighton. Our beloved sushi bar would have to wait, however, because we heard a new Japanese place had opened up, and of course we had to try it.

Fuji Bistro, on the corner of Lennon and Linden (the building formerly housed Mr. Brown’s, and before that The Golden Corral) advertises itself as an upscale Japanese Sushi, Steak, and Seafood Buffett. Their take-out menu, which is actually an elaborate eight-panel flyer with 151 food choices, says that “At Fuji, we have elevated buffet dining to a new standard. We have created a unique menu that consist of both innovatively modern and purely traditional Japanese dishes, punctuated with seafood, Dimsum,…all prepared by skilled, famous chef, using fresh quality ingredient and artful display.” The writing teacher in me wanted to do an editing job on their blurb, but I resisted.

The restaurant is tastefully and a bit conservatively decorated, and the staff are all perky and excessively polite. Our hostess even gave us a grand tour of the place, including the split dining room and all six of the food stations. I was feeling a little dirty when we first walked in, like I was cheating on my old stand-by, Sagano, but as we passed the gigantic sushi bar, staffed by six chefs, my guilt began to dissipate. That means it started to go away.

In addition to platters of sashimi, thinly sliced raw fish, there were also several platters of nigiri, thinly sliced raw fish on a small ball of rice. Some of the regulars, like yellowtail, salmon, eel, tuna, and mackerel were featured, but the bar also served up octopus, squid, red clam, fluke, and flying fish roe. Alexis turns her nose up at the sushi, but Philip and I are all over it. The quality is not nearly as good as Sagano, but it is more than acceptable. The bar also features at least a dozen other platters with offerings like spicy tuna rolls, California rolls, dragon rolls, rainbow rolls, and some signature house inspirations. The sushi bar itself is worth the price.

The salad bar includes a bunch of classic American choices but also features cold udon noodles and a very good seaweed salad. Dressed with just enough sesame oil, this Japanese staple is delicious with sushi. It’s a little odd to see such an elegant dish alongside ranch dressing and strawberry Jell-O, but this is a buffet, after all.

The largest section of the buffet has some of Alexis’ favorite foods such as hot udon noodles, rice, and tempura vegetables. There are so many choices in this section that it’s hard to decide what to take and what to leave. The tempura shrimp are outstanding, as are the steamed clams, and the raw oysters on the half-shell. I am a sucker for good crab legs, and Fuji had what looked like the mother lode, piles and piles of them. I should have been ecstatic at the sight of such a bounty, but instead it gave me a nightmarish flashback.

I was at another buffet last week , Wing Fong, where crab legs are also featured. They were snow crab legs and enormous in size. Some rude and pushy woman, however, charged to the crab station before I even had a chance to pick up a plate. She mounded so much crab on her plate that it made a giant tower nearly a foot high. As she lugged her catch back to the table, I was left staring at an empty pot of stinky water. I was pissed! But at Fuji, the crab pot is bottomless and no need to map out a strategy for getting your fair share The problem is that the crab legs are pretty small and just ok as far as the taste.

If seafood’s not your thing, Fuji offers other options: free, cooked to order New York Strip Steak, a cooked to order Rib-eye steak for a dollar ninety-nine extra, or a filet mignon cooked to order for an extra two ninety nine. These steak add-ons, while attractive options, feel like overkill, since there are so many meat choices otherwise. And don’t fret, vegetarian friends, there are plenty of veggie choices for you as well, including hibachi style noodles and vegetables, cooked to order while you wait.

For twenty bucks a person (less for kids, but I’m not sure how they calculate it; Alexis, who is five, was charged nine bucks, a bit much, but she did eat her share for a thirty pound kid), Fuji is a pretty good alternative to the dozens of other buffet choices in the Flint area. I’m not sure how they will do in the long run, but early signs indicate that a loyal local following is already beginning to materialize.

As an incentive to get her to finish her dinner and clean her plate, I told Alexis I’d take her to the swimming pool at the YMCA (bribes always work in my house, especially with Alexis) “That’s a good idea daddy. Maybe we could have a race.” Oh, you silly, silly child. I read Mommy Dearest, and I already know how this race will end.” Judging by how much sushi I packed away, though, I better hold off on the trash talk until the race is over.