That Food Guy
Monday, October 17, 2016
  China Lights - Eagle River, Alaska


 China Lights
12110 Business Blvd #2
Eagle River, Alaska 88577
(907) 694-8080

 
 
 
 

The China Lights Restaurant in Eagle River is a small to medium-sized facility located in a strip mall. This particular restaurant has been there since 1980. A sister establishment, located in Anchorage, has been extant since 2010. I have not visited the Anchorage facility so everything herein pertains to the Eagle River store.
I have a mixed history with China Lights that goes back a long time. I first became aware of the Eagle River China Lights when I moved into the area about 1995. A fan of Chinese food, I was quick to spot it and mentally mark it for later. Sometime later I had that urge for some fried rice, one of my favorite foods, and went to China Lights for takeout.  It was excellent! I really loved it; very flavorful with a great seasoning combination I wished I could emulate. I was very happy to have some tasty Chinese food close at hand.
It was a busy time for me then. There was work and the extracurricular activities such as dog mushing that kept me busy and it was a long while before I was in town, at the right time, to get some more fried rice takeout. It was, to put it plainly, terrible. The rice was almost crunchy. It wasn’t seasoned at all except for a splash of soy sauce and there was only a pittance of vegetables and chicken thrown in. Even steaming it a bit at home I was unable to revive it and, sadly, most of that order ended up in the compost pile. After that encounter I pretty much erased the mental note and never again considered the China Lights as an asset. Over the ensuing years I have driven past the China Lights many, many times but never had any inkling to try it again.

During this 2016 trip to Alaska I noticed some TV ads for the China Lights. They mostly featured the Anchorage store, especially the interior shots showing the buffet, but the ad did tell of the two locations, Anchorage and Eagle River. That got me to thinking… (Sometimes that is a dangerous thing to do.) So, if the China Lights has been there all this time without going under they must be doing something right and not chasing away customers like they did me. Also, if they have made enough profit to open or take over another facility they must have a fairly large and satisfied customer base. Perhaps, I thought, it was time to give China Lights another try.
I called good buddy Larry Tower and asked if he would like to go to lunch one day soon. On the appointed day we made the fifteen minute drive to China Lights. Apparently the buffet is popular and the hostess/waitress assumed we were there for the buffet and when she seated us she didn’t offer the menu as an option. I thought for a moment and then decided, “Why not?” We would try the buffet today and I could come back later for a “lunch special” take home meal rather than eat in. She took our beverage order and bade us to go and select from the buffet.

As I mentioned, the store is of modest size. It is well decorated in the Asian theme with bas-relief paneling depicting Chinese scenes. The ceiling is embossed tiles in a copper color. Various wall hangings and objects d’art round out the décor. There are several booths along the front window wall and the main dining area features tables and chair that can be arranged as needed to accommodate different sized groups. There is no room for free standing serving bars as you would normally find in a Chinese buffet. In the addition of the buffet to the more traditional sit down and dine in and take out there was little room for adding the serving bars. There is a salad bar and steam table combination, serve from one side only and about 16 to 18 feet long, against the back wall. That leaves little room for a large number of selections one would normally associate with a Chinese buffet. As I remember the selections (and memory can be spotty) the selections, with some of my initial impressions, were as follows.
Soups – Egg flower and  - one other: Egg flower soup good, didn’t try the other

Almond Chicken – Lots of chicken, pretty good but a bit confused flavor wise

Sesame Chicken – A mainstream sesame chicken but a bit weak in the sauce

Mongolian Chicken – A good amount of chicken with pretty good flavor, interesting

Spicy Meatballs - a bit over cooked, kind of bland

Vegetable Lo Mein – more noodles than vegetables

Pot Stickers – not exceptional, need the sauce

Fried Rice – for a filler dish, not too bad with good flavor and fresh looking vegetables but not as good as my sampling many years ago

Spring Rolls – little prepackaged rolls a bit chewy/crunchy

Tempura Vegetables – onion rings and medallions of squash, I believe.

Sweet and Sour Chicken – ahhh, yes! The New York-style is here too. Too bad…

Sweet and Sour Sauce – It’s red.

French fries – that one puzzles me – I didn’t try them but French fries in the limited space available?

Assorted fruits and Desserts -

 What is the allure of the Chinese buffet? I would answer that it a place where, for a relatively small amount of money, you can eat to your fill with palatable food; a place to go get stuffed. To that end China Lights does quite well. Its selections, although limited by space, fare well compared to any of the other buffets I have tried in the past. I do have some minor issues with some of the offerings but overall, as I mentioned, it is quite good as Chinese buffets go.

On my first go through the buffet line, I got a bowl of egg flower soup and a plate with tempura vegetables, sweet and sour chicken, a pot sticker, spicy meatballs, sesame chicken, some Mongolian chicken and my favorite, fried rice. The soup was good. There were a lot of egg shreds and the broth had a good flavor as well as a nice mouth feel; it wasn’t just a bowl of flavored water. The selection of the tempura vegetables was limited to some onion rings and some small medallions I think were squash. The items were battered and fried but the batter was very heavy for tempura and detracted from what taste the vegetables had. The pot stickers were a bit chewy and perhaps had been in the pan too long. The spicy meatballs relied on the sauce for the spice and the texture was coarse, perhaps a lot of filler, Not one of my favorite for the selection. The Mongolian chicken was one of the better dishes they offered. It was flavorful with lots of chicken. The sesame chicken was much like other buffet sesame chickens, an amber sauce and toasted sesame seeds. It didn’t stand out, kind of bland, and I think the sauce needed a bit more sesame oil to liven up the flavor. The sweet and sour chicken here was what I have come to learn is called New York-style; breaded chicken pieces and a red sweet and sour sauce on the side. I learned to like sweet and sour chicken a long time ago on the West Coast. It was dish of breaded and fried chicken pieces, stir fried Bell peppers, onion and sometimes thinly sliced carrots and pineapple chunks all tossed with a red sauce with definite sweet and sour overtones; a medley of many great flavors and textures. I am a bit biased and it is difficult to be positive about a dish that is missing most of its elements. The China Light’s version was heavily breaded chicken (I suspect the breaded chicken is a bulk pre-made kitchen supply) and the sauce was indeed red, sticky and sweet but lacked any definite sour component. It was just like all the other buffet sweet and sour chicken just a shadow of the real thing. The fried rice was good. It was a filler dish to be sure, an inexpensive food to bulk out the meal. Even so, it had good flavor and there were some little goodies in the mix to add to the taste and texture.
Larry, my dining companion, said that he was satisfied with the meal and if he were in the neighborhood when it was time to eat he wouldn’t mind eating at China Lights again. He pretty much echoed my feelings. Aside from the negatives I noted above, China Lights is on a par with just about any other Chinese, all you can eat, buffet.

To date my favorite Chinese restaurant in Alaska is the Imperial Palace. It is located in Anchorage which is a 45-minute drive away from home. China Lights, on the other hand, located in Eagle River, is barely a 10-minute drive away. I suspect that on my next trip to Alaska I will try out China Lights and order from the menu for a sit-down dinner. I remember once I had some great food from there. It would be very nice to know that a good and trusted source was near to home. I will let you know how well that turns out in a later blog post.
It should be noted that there is a certificate proudly displayed on the entranceway wall of China Lights:  Top 100 Chinese Restaurants:  Exterior 100%, Service 100%, Food 97.06%

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Tuesday, October 11, 2016
  Double Musky – Birthday Dinner 2016

The Double Musky Inn

Cajun cooking, emphasizing steak & local seafood, in a roadhouse with Mardi Gras-style décor.
A Birthday Dinner Tradition
Mile .3 Crow Creek Road, Girdwood, AK 99587


In another reality Larry Tower and I would have been brothers. As it is we share a common first name and share the birthday month, September. Over the years we have developed a ritual, a tradition. We would splurge a bit for our collective birthdays and go have a pepper steak dinner at the famous Double Musky Restaurant in Girdwood, Alaska. See previous eating adventure 2012 here. It had been a long four years since we last were able to get together and share a meal at the Double Musky. During this trip to Alaska, 2016, with joy we kept the tradition alive.

The Double Musky is located in the Girdwood Valley, about an hour’s drive south from Anchorage along the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet. There is a world-famous ski resort there with a lavish resort hotel. It is a very busy place during the winter ski season. It is still a mecca for the Alaska visitor even in the summer although the pace is a bit more relaxed during the warmer weather. The beauty of the Alaska wilderness surrounds and seven glaciers in the surrounding Chugach Mountains can be seen from various vantage points in the valley

On this occasion we would also have the pleasure introducing another person to the Double Musky. Larry’s most charming and lovely companion, Wasana, would be joining us for a night out with the boys. We had much to tell her, much about why and how we came to this place and what this night was all about. It took a bit of time to coordinate all of our schedules but we finally got it all together October the eleventh. It was an overcast day with a raw feel to the air, about 30 degrees. The Alaska fall weather was definitely here. I did my home chores and a few local errands. In the afternoon I drove to Anchorage’s Eastside to meet up with Larry and Wasana where we would carpool for the hour drive to Girdwood. We didn’t want to leave too early because The Double Musky is only open during dinner hours.

We arrived a few minutes before opening. There were already several cars in the parking area. Our hectic schedules had delayed our birthday get together for almost a month. The early cold weather had blighted the usually verdant garden in front of the restaurant. On this occasion we would miss the vibrancy of a floral garden. The building looked the same as always. The doors were opened soon after and we were shown to a table by the window overlooking the garden. We did look over the menu but at least Larry and I knew what we were having.

French Pepper Steak ($41.00 “Best steak in America,” says Jill Cordes of the Food Network.  A 16-20 ounce New York steak crusted with cracked pepper and covered with a spicy burgundy sauce.)

Wasana read over the menu and had a lot of questions. You can see the menu at the Double Musky website.  At long last she too knew what she wanted to sample:

  Crab Stuffed Halibut  (Market Price, today $47.00 A delicious halibut steak, stuffed with crab meat dressing which contains crab meat, mushrooms, shallots, chablis, heavy cream, creole seasoning
and served with creole beurre blanc
.)  


Appetizer bread rolls are included. You have the option of salad with dressing of choice. The entrée is served with your choice of baked potato (with whatever fixings you choose) or vegetable of the day. All three of us chose the salad. It was a mixture of lettuce and greens including spinach, some shredded carrots and croutons. I chose 1000-Island for mine and a good grind of fresh ground black pepper. Every one enjoyed their salads along with nicely buttered pieces of the appetizer rolls.

Wasana’s selection, the crab stuffed halibut, was a large halibut filet folded over the crab stuffing mixture and slathered with a thick delicious lemon butter sauce and a sprig of parsley. Then accompanying baked potato had ample sour cream and sliced scallions.  It was a large portion but Wasana was up to the task and there was little left to carry home in a takeout container. She did enjoy her meal very much. The Creole seasoning was a bit different than she is accustomed to but found it to be an enjoyable new encounter, one that she would enjoy again in the future. Perhaps next year…

The other Larry ordered the French pepper steak with the Burgundy sauce on the side. His choice of a side was the baked potato with sour cream and sliced onions. When ordering your steak, you select from the following menu listed options: “Rare - cool red center - Medium-rare - warm red center
Medium - hot pink center - Medium-well-well – Butterflied - takes time
.” He ordered medium, grilled to a hot pink center. Usually Larry has a large chunk of the steak left over to take home. He was extra hungry this day and he happily finished off all of his French pepper steak and the baked potato, with lots of sour cream and sliced green onions, included. He thoroughly enjoyed his meal and was already thinking about the next time we would visit The Double Musky for our mutual birthday celebration.

I ordered my French pepper steak medium as well, Burgundy sauce over. My baked potato was with all the trimmings including the sour cream and the sliced scallions. The steak, as is usual, cut easily with the knife and was tender to chew. It meat was flavorful on its own, the Burgundy sauce delicious. Some of the bites I took were plain, just a slight dash of salt. Some of the bites were slathered in the sauce. I can’t really say which was better. I would have been happy with that steak either way – I guess I just had the best of both worlds that day. I finished my baked potato and would have eaten all of my steak but I had a use for a bit of my pepper steak; more about that later.


At long last there was clink of forks being placed on the plates for the last time. Everyone was sated, happy with full bellies, ready to pay the bill and waddle home. That’s when our server arrived with a tray of sample desserts. Larry and I had just eaten bread, a salad, a large baked potato loaded with toppings and a one-pound steak with sauce. And now we were being tempted with rich, luscious desserts! To coin a phrase, nothing succeeds like excess. We decided to have dessert to finish off the meal. The other Larry ordered a slice of banana cream pie. It was a nice large slice of pie, a tasty pudding and banana filling, cream topping and toasted coconut; very tasty he said.


It had been a big and filling meal. Wasana and I both wanted something a bit lighter and we both chose the crème brûlée. The serving was a nice 4-ounce ramekin of velvety custard with a caramelized crust. Very tasty, the sweetness was a nice counterpoint after the savory meal.  It all capped off the evening nicely. I too look forward to the next visit with the other Larry to celebrate our birthdays.

Oh, and that bit of steak I took home in a doggie bag? Ah, yes – the next morning I fried up some potatoes, onion and the meat cut into little pieces. In the end I added some peas and carrots to make a big batch of Double Musky French pepper steak hash that would help top feed me well over  several breakfasts. Each of those breakfasts brought back memories of a wonderful evening spent with Larry and Wasana at The Double Musky Restaurant in Girdwood, Alaska.

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Thursday, September 15, 2016
  Imperial Palace - Anchorage Alaska - A Birthday Revisit 2016

Imperial Palace - A Birthday Revisit  
September 2016
400 Sitka St
Anchorage, Alaska 99501
 



The first time I ever saw the Imperial Palace was back in 1988 or so. It was on my first trip to Alaska. I saw the restaurant across the highway and down a small street each time I went to the Flight service Station to get a weather briefing. Flight Service Stations are gone now but the Imperial Palace is still there. I didn’t visit the restaurant that time but marked it in my mind for a future time.

It was several more years before I moved to Alaska. I remembered the Imperial Palace and saw it each time I would drive by the airport. Somehow it just never came to pass that I would stop in and see what it was all about. It was not until 2012 during a visit by my sister and my nephew that we decided to see if the Imperial Palace was indeed worthy. We were all very favorably impressed and looked forward to visiting again. You can read that critique at http://thatfoodguy.blogspot.com/2012/07/imperial-palace-anchorage-alaska.html .
Fast forward to 2016; in Alaska for the last part of the summer to do maintenance on our property, I was treated to dinner, the reason being it was my birthday, by some old and dear friends, Wasana and Larry Tower and Gloria and Jim Kocis. Given my choice, after all it was my birthday, the Imperial Palace came to mind. We all agreed to meet in town at 5 O’clock PM. It was a date that I eagerly awaited.
As a young child my first encounters with Chinese food were from Chinatown in Los Angeles.  Those savory dishes, the look, the smell, the taste – those delicious flavors, were the major part of larger experience. It was an alien world, the exotic dress, the incense, red and black lacquer décor accents, gilt trimming, paper lanterns; it was all heady stuff to an 8 or 9-year old but it emblazoned on my mind what eating Chinese was all about. The menu to a young person was almost impossible to comprehend. The entrees were a strange combination of alien sounds. As a family, we would usually order from the combination meals, you know, “…with four you get eggroll.” I have not been back to Chinatown for more than 50 years. It has changed I hear and sadly not like it once was. Today it is very hard to find a Chinese restaurant that compares to the old days of Chinatown. There are a lot of storefront take out emporium who all seem to serve carbon copies of each other, now served as Styrofoam plated combo meals. Even the long cherished Chinese food take out container is hard to find. It is sort-of Chinese at least in name, often fusion dishes you are a bit adverse to try. As well, the all-you-can-eat parlors are popular as well. If you want to get your Chinese food fix it is a place to go with lots of variety and in seemingly endless quantities. However, I am sure you will agree with me that it is only a semblance of what Chinese food for Americans could and should be.

The allure of the Imperial Palace for a revisit was that it is very reminiscent of the Chinatown of old. I was very favorably impressed on the first visit some years ago and I had hopes that it would be as good this time. The interior was as I remembered; not a lot of black and red lacquer to be sure. There were the paper lanterns adored with the Chinese characters, the moveable screen, very evocative of the General Lee, to set aside areas for large groups or those wishing a bit of privacy. There was no tall, beautiful oriental hostess, dressed in a floor length red silk dress with a slit up the side to greet us. But then, you can’t have everything.
The menu, in an elegant cover, is quite complete. There is a large selection of al la carte dishes including a choice of Korean dishes, a goodly selection of luncheon combinations at a reduced price, a list of single and double entrees dinners for one, and even family-style with combinations from $13.95 to $19.95 each (there are numerous combinations but the selections do not increase with the number of diners, i.e., “…with four you get eggroll.”) . For our group of five with eclectic tastes the combination dinner for one was the best way to because everyone would get just what they desired.

The meal was started with a bowl of egg drop soup. A clear flavorful broth, chicken flavored, with a good quantity of egg drop shards and some vegetables. A tasty soup to start the meal, it had many compliments.
The other Larry ordered the C1 Combination Dinner (13.95 Mongolian Beef and Sesame Chicken – Served with eggroll, pork fried rice and daily soup). An attractive presentation, stir-fried beef in a dark brown glaze, a cone of fried rice, an eggroll sliced in two, and a helping of breaded chicken fried golden brown and accented with sesame seeds. He said everything tasted good and he had no trouble at all completing his meal. He agreed with me and added that it was a place to come back to.

Jim ordered the C3 Combination Dinner ($13.95 Spicy Garlic Chicken and Sweet and Sour Pork- Served with eggroll, pork fried rice and daily soup). Another appealing plate, a serving of stir-fried chicken in a spicy sauce with vegetables such as pea pods and broccoli, the standard cone of fried rice with an eggroll, stir-fried breaded pork morsels in a sweet and sour sauce and some onions and carrots.  Jim also completely finished his dinner saying that it was good, good appearance and presentation and good flavor.
Gloria and Wasana both ordered the C4 Combination Dinner ($13.95 Kung Pao Chicken and Sweet and Sour Chicken – Served with eggroll, pork fried rice and daily soup). An equally pleasing plate featured stir-fried chicken with vegetables in a sauce and, of course, the peanuts, there was the fried rice and eggroll, and stir-fried breaded chicken with peppers, onion and carrot, in a sweet and sour sauce. A very pretty plate but all was not as it seemed. Both of them liked the sweet and sour chicken and the fried rice and eggroll. However, both of them agreed that the kung pao chicken was just too salty to enjoy and both were unable to finish their portions; everything good except the kung pao chicken.

It had been a long time since I had enjoyed a decedent chow mein. After a long look at the choices, I finally chose the C8 Combination Dinner ($13.95 Chicken Chow Mein and Sweet and Sour Pork – Served with egg roll and pork fried rice). The first impression I had when the plate was placed in front of me was that the food looks like what I would expected to. It looked like what I remember from the Chinatown restaurants. An appealing plate, there was a good portion of breaded stir fried pork cooked with onion, peppers and carrots in a very tasty sweet and sour sauce, the pork fried rice and the eggroll, and a serving of chicken chow mein. The chow mein was a mix of stir-fried chicken, vegetables and noodles in a sauce.  The noodles were fried but not crisp. The sauce is a thinner, clearer sauce made from the broth with just a touch of sweetness, traditional, just as it should be. The flavor of the chicken and the noodles was never masked by the flavor of the sauce. The eggrolls were excellent, good enough that you might wish they were more part of the dinner than as a single one serving in an appetizer role. The fried rice is the filler of the dish. It is good but not special. I would suspect that if you were to order a serving of fried rice as an entrée from the menu it would be a bit more polished. The sweet and sour pork was excellent. It was breaded morsels of pork, stir fried with some onion, peppers and carrots in a very good sweet and sour sauce.
The Imperial palace is a small and I believe a family-run business. We actually only saw one person most of the time in the dining room. She as the hostess, the waitress and the bus boy all wrapped up in one. She was never hovering but she seemed to know when you needed her.

For my dinner, I have no complaints. In fact I loved every bit of it. If it were a more perfect world to my taste, perhaps there would have been a morsel or two of pineapple in the sweet and sour and perhaps the noodles in the chow mein could have been a bit crisp – you know, just like the old days. But that does not detract form the enjoyment of a great meal. Of this visit I would say that for the most part, with the exceptions noted above, the food was better than just good. It was a special night and the company was great making it a special, gala occasion. We all arrived about 5 PM and we didn’t leave until almost 8 PM – a most enjoyable session of reminiscing and catching upon the news of the last couple of years. Larry, Wasana, Jim and Gloria, thank you one and all.

 
dly

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Thursday, September 08, 2016
  Bacon-Fried Apples - Fresh Off TheTree

Bacon-Fried Cinnamon Apples


Circumstances are often way beyond your control. That is how it was and why it had been four years since I have been home to Chugiak Alaska. It was a warm greeting by friends to start off my sojourn. The next day it was time to see what time and the Alaska weather had done to our pickup and our little place in the woods. It was, to say the least, a mess. There were fences down, weeds and grass had overgrown much of the yard. Snow loaded trees had arched over the drive way. Everywhere I looked I could see the ravages of the unattended rigors of the Alaskan winters. There was a lot of work to be done.

One of our apple trees had died and another looked about to go. The surviving trees were loaded with fruit; fruit that would go wasted if I didn’t make use of it. It took less than a minute to fill a bowl. I was wondering what I would do with the apples. From experience I knew that everyone nearby had no interest. I would bag some up from more distant friends but the remainder would still be here. I would be here too short a time to can them so I decided to make us of them in my daily meals as much as I could.

The next morning while washing the breakfast dishes, I took the skillet to wash it and noted the bit of bacon grease from the morning’s bacon. Then I thought about a favorite thing from the Cracker Barrel Restaurant chain, fried apples. That is where the idea of the bacon fried cinnamon apples was born. If you like bacon then you know most everything goes good with bacon.

I peeled and quartered the apples (The Nordland apples here are small, about the size of a small ball, about 2 to 2 ½ inches). I used a pair of scissors to cut up 2 slices of the pre-cooked bacon and put it in a skillet with two tablespoons of margarine. The pre-cooked bacon slices don’t have a lot of fat left but there is enough to impart that bacon flavor to the margarine. I cooked the bacon and margarine until the bacon pieces started to crisp. I added the apples, seasoned with a bit of salt and two tablespoons of sugar. At the heat setting I had set and what I maintained during the cooking, for the first few minutes I could hear the sizzle of the apples in the hot butter bacon mix while gently turning the apples. After about five minutes the sizzle stopped and the juice from the apples accumulated in the bottom of the pan and it became a slow stew of the apples.

The apples were beginning to take on a nice golden brown color. I tasted one. I could taste the buttery flavor of the margarine and a bit of the smoky bacon flavor but the apples were a bit too tart. The Nordlands are a tart apple and I added two more tablespoons of sugar as well as a couple pinches of nutmeg. After about another five minutes the apple liquid evaporated and the sizzle sound returned. A poke with a fork proved the apples were almost done. I sprinkled with about a tablespoon of ground cinnamon and continued to fold the apples and mix in the cinnamon. About another three minutes and the apples were fully tender, golden brown and smelled wonderful. I removed them from the heat and spooned a small sample into a cup.

Let’s face it. Cracker Barrel fried apples and these apples are basically apple pie without the crust. These apples have the added flavoring of bacon. Cooking can be a chore or it can be an adventure in creativity. Here I merged two things I like in order to make a slightly different dish. I had fun doing it and I definitely enjoyed the end result and I found an outlet for many of the apples still on my trees. How do they taste? The apples are a bit tart, a bit sweet. They have a definite cinnamon fragrance and taste as well as a bit of earthy flavor from the nutmeg, The smoky bacon and buttery flavor is in the back ground. They are not too sweet, not too tart, not too much cinnamon and not too much bacon although the little bits of crunchy bacon are a plus. I think, if only by accident, they came out just right.

I know how much sugar and cinnamon I added but I only know I had a skillet full of apples; a bit crude measurement wise for a recipe. I will play with this dish until I have a reproducible recipe and I will enjoy the experimentation as well as the final result and it will be a part of my personal recipe book. Remember, a recipe is only a starting point, a place to start to make it better.

 



 

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Friday, September 02, 2016
 
 

Gwennie’s Old Alaska Restaurant 

Anchorage, Alaska








It was a long and tiring trip northward, back to Alaska. My good buddy Larry met me at the airport. That’s right! There are two Larrys and when you get the two of us together there is bound to be trouble so beware. It was an arrival in the wee hours of the morning so it was off to his place to crash for the little that was left of the night. After a welcome sleep I was up early for Alaska but late for the East Coast. Over coffee we caught up on the news of the day. There were lots of things to do that day. I needed to get a new battery for the pickup so I would have wheels and I needed get some groceries to stock the pantry. But before any of that it was time for breakfast.

If you have been in the greater Anchorage area very long then you must have heard about Gwennie’s Old Alaska Restaurant. It is located in Spenard, an area a bit removed from downtown Anchorage during the rough and ready days of the Alaska Pipeline construction. Spenard was where the oil field workers would go to seek female companionship. The unofficial rumor is that the upper floors of Gweenie’s saw a lot of action back then. Those wild frontier days are long gone and the area has mellowed and is now busy with tourism and general commerce. But Gwennie’s Old Alaska Restaurant is still there.

The décor of Gwennie’s features rock walls, stuffed bears, a wishing well in the middle of the dining room; all the Alaska kitsch you can think of. It is also know for tasty food at Alaska prices. It was off to Gweenie’s for breakfast.

Our server was named Sparky. It was a good name for her. She was always busy but always there when you needed her. She brought our coffee quickly and left a carafe with more coffee. Sipping our coffee we studied the menu. The other Larry decided on a broccoli and mushroom omelet (Broccoli and Mushroom Omelet $11.75 Omelets served with melted cheese sauce: All omelets served with choice of home fries or grits, toast or biscuits.) with the home fries and toast. It was large and filling meal, an omelet filled with mushrooms and bright green broccoli covered with melted cheese. It was well cooked without any crispy edges. Larry enjoyed his omelet saying that it tasted very good, had loads of mushrooms and broccoli. The home fries are primitive in nature consisting of various sizes and shape of potato. Apparently cooked in masse on a griddle, there are many textures that make for an interesting dish.  Some are golden brown all over and some have darker crispy edges.

This Larry was going to order eggs and the potatoes I just couldn’t decide on what breakfast meat. It had been a long time since I had corned beef hash and I finally decided on that. (Breakfast served anytime: Corned beef hash or ham or sausage or bacon and eggs.$8.75 Served with a choice of home fries or grits, toast or biscuit.)  I also ordered the home fries and toast. The eggs were cooked to order and I had a good-sized serving of the same potatoes the other Larry had. There was a very large serving of corned beef hash. This hash wasn’t made in the kitchen; it came ready to heat and serve in a large container form a supplier. That’s not to say it wasn’t good. A bit of a salty tang as normal, it was fully equal to the premium canned corned beef hash you would get at your local super market. There was lots of corned beef and a small amount of diced potato. The toast was thick slices of bread toasted golden brown. It was a big and filling meal, one that I fully enjoyed.

If you are ever fortunate enough to be in anchorage, Alaska, seek out Gwennie’s Old Alaska Restaurant for one of your meals. It is Alaska however and where else could you say that you had breakfast in a bawdy house?






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Sunday, August 28, 2016
  Gap Creek Coffee House - Cumberland Gap, Tennessee
 
 
Gap Creek Coffee House
10 Pinnacle Alley
Cumberland Gap, Tennessee 37724
423-801-3100
 
 
 
 
The original thirteen colonies, now the United States, were looking to westward expansion. There had already been inroads to the Ohio River Valley.  To the southwest there were significant natural barriers. There were tales of green and fertile land to the west on the other side of the Cumberland and Appalachian Mountains.  Many men explored these far and distant lands, men whose names you probably remember form school. There were men such as Daniel Boone, James Bowie, Kit Carson and Lewis Clark. They followed the game trails and explored the area bringing back stories of rich and verdant land, deep forests with abundant wild game. But it was too far away, too difficult to reach to be of use for settlement. Settlement needs the exchange of goods, the farmer’s crops for the manufactured and imported goods from the Atlantic seaboard states.

In 1750 Dr. Thomas Walker, a physician and explorer led the first expedition that discovered the Cumberland Gap, a natural break in the mountains near the juncture of Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia.  It was a narrow gap but suitable for making a mule train and wagon road across the one seemingly impenetrable barrier.  The Wilderness Road was born. The way was open for the westward expansion to "Kentuck" and "Tenasi."

It was only natural that a settlement would spring up at the foot of the gap. What better place to have a blacksmith to repair the wagons, a store to provide the needed flour, bacon and coffee? That settlement became a Postal destination in 1803. It was incorporated in 1907. Walking the street of Cumberland Gap it is hard to come up with just the right word to describe it although quaint frequently comes to mind. It is almost like taking a trip back in time and perhaps a bit of the mystique of Daniel Boon, Jim Bowie and Dr. Walker can be felt in the air.
 
On this particular Sunday, a day that dawned hot and glaringly sunny, we went to Cumberland Gap for a dog event, canine scent work, a sport where dogs and handlers try to find selected odors that may be hidden in vehicles, in rooms or in the out-of-doors.  The center of our activities that day, with their gracious cooperation and generosity, would be the Gap Creek Coffee House. Nestled on a grassy and wooded lot adjacent to a perennial stream, Gap Creek, the coffee house was fashioned from a 90-year old wood frame cottage. The grassy area surrounding the cottage offers many patio chairs and table. The covered front porch has a swing and offers a shady vantage point to people watch while sipping your coffee. Part of the parlor has some seating but is mostly an order area at the counter behind which is the food prep area in the old dining and kitchen area. The bedrooms serve as small and cozy dining rooms.
The wife, the dogs and I left home early for the two hour drive to Cumberland Gap. I skipped breakfast hoping to get something to eat once we arrived. After setting up the kennels in a shady spot I went to see what the Gap Creek Coffee House had to offer. It is a coffee shop and not a restaurant as such. They do offer a big selection of sandwiches and wraps, as well as pastries with their lattes and gourmet coffees. I asked the young lady at the counter what they might have in the way of breakfast fare. She thought for a moment and offered me an egg, bacon and cheese grilled panini sandwich. I placed my order; I had a choice of eat in or outside. I chose to eat in and took a seat in one of the dining rooms to wait.
It appears the coffee shop is popular with the locals. There were several sipping their coffees while they perused their phones and tablets. Several others stopped in and got their coffee and left. There is no need for a Starbucks in this tiny community.

My order was ready shortly. It was served on a round tray with a fresh paper liner. My order slip and receipt and some napkins were tucked under the paper liner. Although my egg, bacon and cheese panini was not listed on the menu it should be noted that, “All sandwiches, melts and wraps are served with chips and a pickle spear. Had this sandwich been served in a big city restaurant it would have been acceptable. Being that it was in a small village almost in the wilderness it was a very nice presentation. The behind the counter personnel do make an effort to make appealing dishes.
The potato chips are not the usual chips you would get from a bag at the grocery store. These are I guess what you would call “artisan” chips. They are not salty and I would hazard a guess they are baked rather than fried. Although these “healthier” chips have a following they are not what I am used to. There was an adequate serving of these industrial grade chips. A pickle spear served with a sandwich is a long standing tradition that seems to have been lost in many newer chain restaurants. A nice crisp pickle, not overly tart, a good accompaniment to the sandwich.
The sandwich, on the outside, was made of slices of mild sourdough bread, toasted with panini grill marks but not pressed or flattened – an asset for this sandwich. Inside the bacon had been fried to just crisp. The cheese was hot and melted. I am not sure how they cooked the egg before it was put in the sandwich. The gleaming egg white and bright yellow yolk almost looks like it was a poached egg but I will probably never know. To me it was the ideal way to make the bacon, egg and cheese panini sandwich. It was a filling and tasty late breakfast and I appreciated it very much.
My wife, Janis, and I had different duties during the meet. As a result our meal times were staggered and we didn’t have the opportunity to eat together. At a later time she ordered a Club Wrap ($7.79 Smoked ham, smoked turkey, bacon, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, mayo and honey mustard on a wheat wrap.) And remember, that would be served with chips and a pickle. Unfortunately, we did not get a picture of that one. Suffice it to say that she enjoyed her wrap and finished her meal. If she had made this for herself at home it is what she would expect it to be.

Cumberland Gap is in a very scenic area rich in history. We plan to return one day soon when we would have leisure time to do a little sightseeing and exploring. I think we will again frequent the Gap Creek Coffee House, sit in the shade of tall trees alongside the cool, flowing waters of the creek and enjoy another sandwich for a laid-back lunch.

Summer Hours: 8:00Am - 8:00PM daily


Late Note: There were a lot of people and a lot of dogs all around. I asked the event coordinator if she had any feedback from the Gap Creek Coffee House about our visit that day. She did not have any direct knowledge but she told me one of the other entrants was asked when we might be coming back. That is a good sign. If you would like more information about canine scent work:

Event coordinator Rosana Dropkin http:/www.SunshineK9s.com  or Ro.SunshineK9s@gmail.com
Or National association of Canine Scent Work https://www.nacsw.net/

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Friday, August 26, 2016
  Oriental Cuisine - Maryville, Tennessee

Oriental Cuisine

622 Condry Lane

Maryville, TN 37803

865-984-0810 

http://www.865-984-0810.chinesemenu.com/
 



First Visit – A Take-Out Order
I would have never known the Oriental Cuisine Restaurant was there except for one thing. Several times a week my wife and I would go to the local gym. When leaving, while waiting for traffic, we would be looking across the street down a very small alley like street that has a name. In fact its name denotes its diminutive stature, Condry Lane. A lane; it is so much less that a boulevard, an avenue or even a street. It serves as the back entrance to a muffler shop and a bank parking lot as well as access for some industrial metal buildings on the left. Way down at the end of the street where it appears to dead end is one small sign; Oriental Cuisine shares sign space with a rug and tile company. From our vantage point we cannot see that building because it is set back to allow for customer parking in front. I was intrigued by this almost hidden restaurant and I thought that it must have something going for it as it would not garner any drive-by traffic.
Many months went by before I finally decided to see what it was all about. I did some internet research and found their website which is basically their menu. They offer a mix of Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese foods. I was on my own for lunch one day and stopped by for a takeout meal of sweet and sour chicken ($9.00 Breaded white chicken chunks deep fried to a golden brown and served with diced tomato, green pepper and pineapple in our sweet and sour sauce. Served with fried or steamed rice). At $9.00 dollars it seemed a bit on the expensive side but this was an exploratory visit to see what they offered and on that day I did have a “hankering” for some Chinese food. I also asked for a spring roll to compliment the meal ($1.75 A delicious mixture of jicama, carrots, onions, rice thread and pork wrapped in a crunchy spring roll wrapper) .

I was offered a seat at the nearest table and while I was waiting for my order I read over my take-home menu copy. I had ordered from the inside, the a la carte portion. On the back was the lunch menu of lower-priced combinations meals. Part of the combination is a bowl of soup. That would have made for an inconvenient take-home but I planned one day, if my pending order was good, return to try something their luncheon menu.
My order soon arrived. It was a large brown paper bag, neatly folded and stapled. I was quite surprised when I picked it up. Thinking back to my thoughts about the rather high cost I now, at least, considered it a very good deal on a price per pound basis. There was a lot of food inside that bag. I could hardly wait to get it home and check out the contents. The fact that it smelled so good made me even more eager.

Opening the bag, I found a large (26-ounce?) traditional Chinese take-out container of breaded fried chicken that was overflowing. I suspect that was a fluke and I got the benefit of the chef’s “Oops, I cooked a bit too much.” It was a large-sized container and if the chicken all fit inside it would still be a large portion. There was a portion of sweet and sour sauce and a portion of fruit and vegetables.
(I just have to add this in as a parenthetical comment: Over the years I have noticed that sweet and sour chicken or pork have become cheapened and degraded under the banner of “New York style” and the pineapple, sweet peppers and other vegetables that helped to define the dish in Chinatown settings have been eliminated and all you get is breaded chicken and sauce usually served separate. That rendition of sweet and sour chicken is travesty and defames the sweet and savory combination that is also beautiful to the eye. A pox on New York style.)

There was a 16-ounce container of fried rice, the spring roll, some packages of soy sauce, some plastic utensils and a fortune cookie. Looking over my stash of Chinese food I realized that if I had bought another spring roll I would have satisfying and filling meals for two; on a per serving basis, $4.50 per person plus the spring roll. The economics of my Oriental Cuisine purchase were looking much better. Now how does it taste?
Taking myself at my word, I divided the food into two portions and cut the spring roll in half. I would have half now and the remainder at a later time. I plated the food for a photo before eating; nothing fancy, just so it wasn’t a picture looking down into the bottom of a box. It was only half of my order but the food literally filled the plate. The sweet and sour chicken was delicious. The breading was fried crispy and the chicken inside was moist and juicy. It occurred to me while I was eating it that the extra  effort in separate packaging made for a crisp chicken in the sauce whereas if it had been all packaged together the chicken in all likelihood would have been soggy and unpalatable. The sweet and sour sauce was very good with a bit of tang from perhaps vinegar and sweetness but not just from sugar. I enjoyed the snap and flavor of the slightly crispy pepper and loved the fruity sweetness of the pineapple. An excellent sweet and sour dish I will definitely try again.

You can order fried rice as an entrée and it will be more elaborate that the pedestrian fried rice that usually serves as the carbohydrate filler in combination plates. This rice was no exception to that rule of thumb. There are bits and pieces here and there but for the most part it is rice, fried and seasoned with soy sauce. Certainly more flavorful than steamed rice but it was not too salty or overly seasoned with soy sauce.  It was good as filler rice goes but at the same time it was not exceptional.
The spring roll was crispy fried and the filling was tasty. A bit of hot Chinese mustard would have been beneficial but not necessary. Although I prefer the thicker, less crispy egg roll skins, I did enjoy the spring roll. It seems that egg or spring rolls are always an appetizer on Chinese food menus. I like them well enough that they should be a main course item. I will certainly add these spring rolls to my next order.

As a side note, take-out orders don’t always go home to be eaten. They may go to the office or on a climate day, to a picnic table in the park. The inclusion of the plastic cutlery was a nice thought.
Second Visit A Month Or So Later  – Eat In Luncheon Special

It was a very hot and sultry day, one usually better spent indoors. I had errands to run and as luck would have it, I was on my own for meals that day. I decided to treat myself to lunch out. It wouldn’t be a drive-thru burger this time. It would be the long awaited sit down meal at the Oriental Cuisine Restaurant for lunch. On the previous visit I had ordered an entrée from the main or dinner menu.  While waiting, I noticed that they also serve from a lunch menu with lower prices from 11:00Am to 3:30PM. It is a long list of choices and the entrée is served with soup (your choice of hot and sour, wonton or egg drop), a spring roll and rice (your choice of steamed or fried). My expectation was that It would be smaller portions and perhaps less elaborate in presentation. The lunch menu includes sweet and sour chicken and it would have been a good comparison but I also wanted to try a broader range of their offering so I chose the Sesame Chicken at $6.00 instead.  For my soup I ordered the wonton. For beverage I went with Coca Cola. My server, Sabrina, was very attentive, very personable. She checked on me at intervals and kept my soda glass full. I need to thank her for making my dining experience pleasurable.
My drink was delivered with a bowl of fried wontons, I sat back to await my meal. As I mentioned, it was a miserably hot day outside and the cool interior of the restaurant was a relief. The shades were drawn and the lighting subdued but you could still see images of the out-of-doors through the slats in the shade. I looked around. It was as I described before. It was oriental in motif, black lacquer chairs, a mural but not much else to give it that Asian look, certainly not gaudy. A quick count found about 50 seats. There were two tradesmen at the table next to me and a solo elderly gentleman across the aisle. There was a party of about 6 or 8 in the alcove. About 8 people came in to pick up their take-out orders; all must have called in and each order was ready on their arrival. Towards the end of my meal several people arrive and must have been regulars from the greetings. Apparently Sabrina, the server, saw one of them parking his car and had his preferred beverage ready for him when he entered the store. My observations answered the fundamental question I had harbored. How does this almost hidden restaurant manage to survive? It requires returning customers and word of mouth advertising. It certainly has returning customers and I will be providing some word of mouth. It is not an ornate place nor does it have an elegant ambiance but it is comfortable and it does have the feeling  like in the old Cheers theme song, “…where everybody knows your name.”

The wonton soup arrived quickly. There were two wontons in a clear broth.  It is served hot. A couple of the small ice pellet from my soda cooled it enough to sip. It is a mild broth with hints of many flavors, chicken and vegetables but not highly seasoned; nice flavor but mild, very subtle. The wontons are large and the wrappers are thick that made for a slightly doughy texture. A seasoned pork mixture in the middle was tasty. It was a flavorful way to await the entrée.
My entrée soon arrived. Oh, my God! The expected meager portions were huge. I must admit that I ate the whole thing with relish but I would have been much better of eating half and taking the rest home for later (something I saw others in the restaurant do). Two people could have shared the meal and felt satisfied.

The rice was the standard carbohydrate filler, seasoned with just the right amount of soy sauce. It was a soup-bowl full of rice, upended on the plate to make the rounded pile of rice. A line of three large florets of steamed broccoli divided he plate. The remainder of the plate was filled with chunks of breaded and fried chicken, coated with sauce and liberally sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. Great aroma and a very nice presentation; it looked very appetizing.
The chicken, mostly dark meat I believe, was cook just about right, the meat cooked through, the breading still slightly crispy under the sauce. Good chicken flavor in the meat and their version of the sesame sauce is very tasty although perhaps a bit thin compared to others. In this case that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The sauce that pools under the chicken provides a nice condiment for the otherwise slightly bland fried rice. It was a very enjoyable meal, one where I did really eat too much.

In conclusion: Will I go back to Oriental Cuisine? Most assuredly! The food is good, the portions are large, the staff members are friendly and the restaurant just seems to be a comfortable palace to be. They have a lot more dishes that I would like to try but I will remember in the future to divide my plate; eat that part there and take the other part home for later.

They are open 6 day a week, closed on Mondays
Hours are Sunday – Thursday 10:00AM to 9:30PM
Friday 11:00AM to 10:00PM
 









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Saturday, August 20, 2016
  Cracker Barrel - Alcoa, Tennessee

Cracker Barrel (Old Country Store)

771 Louisville Rd, Alcoa, TN 37701
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
My first experience with Cracker Barrel was probably more than 20 years ago; long before I started blogging my food adventures. Back then, Cracker Barrel’s were a mostly Southeast presence and someone from Alaska would be hard-pressed to find a convenient Cracker Barrel. The wife and I flew down to Florida to visit her parents and one of the places they took us was a Cracker Barrel for breakfast. Over the years and many more trips to Florida to visit the in-laws garnered many more Cracker Barrel experiences.
When the wife retired we started the motor home phase of our retirement. We found that Cracker Barrel had expanded and had stores across much of the United States and they made a convenient place to stop for a bite one on the road. A bit later, we stayed in Florida to spend quality time with the wife’s father in his later years. That of course made a breakfast or even a lunch or dinner a common occurrence. That’s not to mention that frequent newspaper promotions for daily specials made for an even lower priced meal.

Since then we have relocated to Eastern Tennessee. We are located not too far from where the very first Cracker Barrel company store opened in 1969 in Lebanon Tennessee. In the past Cracker Barrel has had some rough times with customer relations. Apparently they have managed to smooth out the rough edges and I notice that the customer base seems to be a cross-section of the population. They seem to be doing it right because it has grown to be 630 stores located in 42 states and a bit less than 50 years. All of them are company owned and operated.
That brings us to today’s blog, Alcoa Tennessee's Cracker Barrel. Since we moved here we have met Abbie and Mariano who are also Alaskan ex-pats. We have become good friends and grub mates as we see what is good to eat in Eastern Tennessee. We agreed to meet at the local Maryville Cracker Barrel for breakfast. There is an old expression, “if you have seen one you have seen them all.” That is a close truism for Cracker Barrel stores. They are not exact copies of what but very, very close in layout, merchandise offered, the menu and usually the quality of the food. When we were traveling Cracker Barrel offered known quality, ample portions, and reasonable price.

It was a bright sunny and unseasonably warm day in Maryville. We managed to find a parking spot in the shade of a tree. The coolness inside the store was a welcome change from the heat outside. The hostess led us to a corner table where Abbie and Mariano were waiting for us. It was all very familiar, the fireplace and the old-time country decore They had arrived after us but we managed to pass each other in the store without noticing.
Our server, Misty Dawn, was there within moments to take our beverage order. A charming young lady, she would be at tables frequently to see what we needed and yet never looming. She was a plus to the dining experience. The menu was familiar. I was trying to juggle the included side dishes with each selection and Misty knew the menu well enough for me to order the right selection without having to order it piecemeal.

Abbie ordered the Momma’s Pancake Breakfast® ($8.19 Three freshly made Buttermilk Pancakes with your choice of any fruit topping or a warmed bottle of 100% Pure Natural Syrup plus two eggs cooked to order and your choice of Smoked Sausage Patties, Thick-Sliced Bacon, Turkey Sausage or Turkey Bacon.) On a plate by themselves there were three large golden brown pancakes with a large dollop of whipped butter. On a companion plate was the bacon, fried crisp, and eggs done to order. It was a typical Cracker Barrel presentation, the food looked good and appetizing. On request Abbie got more maple syrup. Momma’s pancake breakfast is a big meal and a bit more than Abbie normally eats. She did enjoy her mail but there was a good portion that went to Mariano and some in a doggy bag.
Mariano ordered the French Toast ($7.19 Four slices of our own Sourdough Bread (regular or whole wheat) dipped in egg then grilled to perfection. Served with any fruit topping or 100% Pure Natural Syrup.) The serving was on an oval platter and there were six thick slices of sourdough bread, egg dipped, and they were fried to a nice appetizing golden brown with a dollop of whipped butter on top. More syrup came as requested. Mario said it was very good, very tasty but he did have one observation. At $7.19 for four slices of bread the coffee really should come with it. The French toast at good appearance, good taste, but may have been a bit overpriced after adding the coffee.

Janis ordered the Wild Maine Blueberry Pancakes ($7.39 Three Buttermilk Pancakes loaded with wild Maine blueberries. Served with Wild Maine Blueberry Syrup.) Served on an oval platter were three golden brown pancakes topped with an amazing abundance of blueberries. All of that was topped with a generous helping of whipped cream. There was more than enough blueberry preserves that no additional syrup with needed. Janis enjoyed her meal, and set it was very good, very tasty. It is a serving much larger than she normally eats but she managed to finish most of her meal. The blueberry pancakes were presented well, were good tasting, and adequate portion with an abundance of blueberries.
I ordered a more conventional breakfast, at least for me, I chose the Sunrise Sampler® ($8.19 Two eggs cooked to order with Grits, Sawmill Gravy, homemade Buttermilk Biscuits, real butter and the best Preserves, Jam n’ Apple Butter (on request) we could find. Plus Fried Apples and Hashbrown Casserole and a Sampling of Smoked Sausage, Country Ham and Thick-Sliced Bacon.) This is a good combination as it includes eggs and breakfast meat along with hashbrowns, biscuits and gravy and fried apples. I asked for my eggs over medium and ask for the sausage as my choice of breakfast meat. The eggs were cooked order just like I asked for. The sausage is fried nicely with good color, was tender and had a good taste. The gravy was nice and hot, nice and thick and had that good peppery country gravy flavor. The fried apples were very good and always make a great end to breakfast meal. They’re kind of like eating an apple pie without the crust.

That leaves the biscuits and the hashbrown casserole. The biscuits it had been a loft. They were dense, heavy and one would guess that they had not used enough baking powder. They were also cold and makes me wonder if perhaps they weren’t left over from the day before. Without the gravy they would have been way to dry to eat. One of my favorite parts of the Cracker Barrel breakfast is the hashbrown casserole. This serving did not live up to what I have come to expect from Cracker Barrel. It was quite dry and the edges crispy and serving was way too small-sort of like the kitchen scooped the last remaining drag out of a long-standing pan to fill my order. I did enjoy the eggs  and apples as well as the gravy. The poorly prepared biscuits and potato casserole severely detracted from my enjoyment of the meal.



One of the things that kept us going back to Cracker Barrel over the years was a consistency of quality in the food. For the most part the four of us received meals that were up to Cracker Barrel’s normal standard. In my case, however, slight deviations from normal quality made a meal less than totally satisfying. As far as I can recall this is the first time I have been dissatisfied with Cracker Barrel. I am sure we will have breakfast a Cracker Barrel again in future and I hope that this glitch was a one-time event. And the grits.... well I never eat that stuff anyway.

Previous Cracker Barrel Blogs:
May 12 2012 http://thatfoodguy.blogspot.com/2012/05/cracker-barrel-revisited.html

Aug 19, 2011 http://thatfoodguy.blogspot.com/2011/08/cracker-barrel-st-petersburg-florida.html

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