That Food Guy
Saturday, September 07, 2019
  Rock-A-Billy Diner at the Cumberland Mountain General Store

Birthday Lunch – Cumberland General  Store - Rockabilly Diner 

6807 South York Hwy (Hwy 127 North)

Clarkrange, Tennessee 38553

931 863-3880  Web Site





I usually don’t get to pick the places we go out to eat except, perhaps, on my birthday. On this birthday I chose the Cumberland Mountain General Store, or more specifically, their Rockabilly Diner. Except for local traffic the Cumberland Mountain store is not a stop along the way you are going. That is unless you are following the route of the world's longest yard sale but that is another story for another time.
Cumberland Mountain Store and the Rockabilly Dinner are definitely off the beaten track in rural Tennessee. Your question is probably, “Why there?” Since you asked, I am delighted to tell you the backstory and why I have had a curiosity about the Cumberland Mountain Store for many years. I guess it was about 1995 when I went to Florida to meet the prospective in-laws. I had not been in Florida for the previous 38 years so I figured I would have a lot of relearning to do. I must admit that father-in-law Sonny was an education in himself.  One of the things he showed to me was a catalog from the Cumberland General Store. 



That catalog was fascinating reading much like a vintage 1918 Sears Catalog , you know; men’s dress shirts, $1.18, a horse blanket for $4.50, a 100-pound iron anvil for $13.60 a new oak veneered front door for your house for $6.41 or a pair of men’s fleece-lined cotton socks for 44 cents.  Except for the clothing, the Cumberland Mountain Store sells much of the same merchandise, cast iron stoves, wood-spoked wheels for your mule cart and plows to pull behind your oxen. The only difference is the Sears catalog is an image of the past whereas the Cumberland catalog is for sale today at today’s prices. I know it is not all authentic wares from the past but modern recreations and there may be a delivery delay for material made to order. 


Sonny enjoyed reading that catalog. It was like a paleontologist’s catalog of ancient relics. Although the catalog hardly varied from year to year Sonny ordered a new one almost annually. I was happy to take one of his back issues for my own. I have ordered a few items. I have also shared the catalog with my sister and she has ordered a few thing as well from time to time including parts to restore an old family heirloom lamp. Naturally, curiosity about the store increased over the years. Tennessee is rich in the history. The first European explorer was Hernando De Soto and one hundred years later explored by Frenchmen Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet. And we cannot forget the famous explorations of Daniel Boone. Amore recent historical tie-in is its location on the York Highway named for Alvin C. York the Congressional Medal of Honor recipient during World War I. All of the historical tie-ins made it a place of interest and worthy of a visit. However, doing my research I found out they had added a small burger shop on the back of the store. That settled it. I now had to go to the Cumberland Mountain General Store and try out the burgers at the Rock-A-Billy Diner.
It is a good idea to check their Web Site or call. Things like the weather can significantly change their hours of operation.  After a quick phone call we set out allowing time for the 1 ½ hour trip to arrive a bit before the 11:00 AM diner opening. Most of the journey was along Interstate 40. We exited onto US 127, The Sargent York Highway, near Crossville, headed north and arrived a few minutes later at the Cumberland Mountain Store.

The store had not been open very long; there were few cars in the parking area. That afforded us a leisurely walkthrough the store. We visited the main room and the side annexes. It is an interesting experience walking through the store. It is like a museum where the artifacts are on sale. Quite often there is something you recognize from an earlier era, perhaps styles of dishes or cookware you remember as a child. There are things you can recognize form your parent’s youth; bedside pitchers and basins, kerosene lamps and old flour and sugar sacking grandma used to make clothing. It was a charming sojourn into the past.
 I did not ask anyone at the store but I surmise the following: The store and the catalog are related but the store does not in fact display or sell most of the items listed in the catalog, perhaps operated as distinct businesses. Most of the merchandise offered in the store, with the exception of a few items like flour and sugar sack prints material, is one of a kind, much like the offerings of an antique store. If you are looking for a hands-on look at catalog items you will not find them in the store. That is not to say the browsing isn’t interesting. I found a lovely cut glass ship’s decanter, minus the stopper that I really should have taken. Well, maybe it will still be there the next visit.
Soon it was lunch time and time for a visit to the attached Rock-A-Billy Diner. It was early so we had no problem finding a preferred table. The diner is not a glass and chrome railroad car diner but more akin to an off the side of the road 1950’s era diner with a bit of nostalgia rock and roll décor. AS you might expect the menu offers burgers, dogs, malts and the like; it is a soda fountain burger shop geared to the lunch hour. However, something I have yet to try is their Friday Fish Fry and Friday Night Cruise-In.

The young ladies tending the fountain and tables were charmingly courteous and quick to serve. One side of the menu features the sandwiches and such while the reverse lists soda fountain treats, malts, sundaes and banana splits if you desire something lighter especially on those hot Tennessee summer days. Janis ordered the 1/3 Pound Old Fashioned Steak Burger Combo (Burger, fries and a drink - $7.95). I or
dered the Rock Basket (that is a 1/3 Pound Steak Cheese Burger Combo with additional Onion Rings, $8.95, plus 50 cents for the cheese).We ordered our drinks from the offered Coca Cola products. The burgers are cooked to order and not sitting on a shelf under a heat lamp. The burgers and fries arrive in a basket with a paper liner much like drive-ins of old. The sandwiches are bare. The usual condiments, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes and the like are at a self-serve station in the dining room – you really can have it your way. The onion rings were real onion rings. They were not the minced onions formed into little circles and then fried. No these were real onions breaded and fried. They had a nice sweet flavor. The French fries were piping hot, a nice golden brown.  A dash of salt and a bit of ketchup was all they needed. When I cook burgers at home I like the a bit pink in the middle. When I am eating out and the source of the meat is unknown I like the burger to be cooked through – but certainly not over cooked. My burger has just cooked through on the griddle, was still nice and juicy and good beef flavor. Had I grilled this burger at home I would have been very happy with it.
The visit to the Cumberland Mountain General Store and the Rock-A-Billy Diner was a positive experience. The retro diner was the major draw that brought us there but the shopping tour of the general store was surely sweet icing on the cake. Tennessee is rich in history and only lightly touched in remote areas by modernization. You can evidence from the earliest days of colonization, the opening of the West and trail-blazers like Daniel Boone, the Civil War and more recent heroes of the Twentieth Century. All you have to do is turn off the Interstate and follow the small roads into the hills. The Cumberland Mountain General Store is part of that. I thoroughly enjoyed my trip back in time and the cheeseburger at the Rock-A-Billy diner. There is much more to the history of the store itself that I have not covered here. I’ll leave that to you to find out on your next trip the General Store.




















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Friday, December 14, 2018
  Windy City Grille - Maryville TN

Windy City Grille
2641 U.S.  411, Maryville TN 37801
865-724-2508
http://www.thewindycitygrille.com/  

This will be a briefer than normal blog. The occasion was a Christmas get-together of Blount County ARES, a part of the ARRL Amateur Radio Emergency Services, trained amateur radio operator volunteers organized to assist in public service and emergency communications. It is a group that I am proudly associated. When we get together we talk shop; radio and all that sort of thing. However most of the other members are unaware that on the side I am a foodie and do a blog. My family and some other friends are sometimes painfully aware that I take photos and ask questions about the food, the meals and the service.  On this occasion I strove to be not obtrusive with the camera and the questions (they will get to know that part of me later, I’m sure). This was my first visit to the Windy City Grille and I think that I did, however, get enough material to give you some insight into the Windy City Grille; a place you might one day like to visit.

Lou, our section leader, had made inquiries before but no advanced preparation had been made for our group.  Kaitlyn, the charming young lady who met us at the door and escorted us in, was more that up to the task. In just a moment she had pulled tables together and rearranged chairs.  She took our beverage orders while we waited for the others to arrive.

Our group came and departed at different times, we ordered a full range of dishes and beverages from the regular menu and we were Dutch treat.  That should be enough to drive any server into a panic. Our orders were taken in a timely manner, the orders when served were correct, drinks were refreshed as needed and bills were ready when asked and also were correct.  Our group enjoyed a carefree meal; we enjoyed the food and the company. An efficient server working in the background helps keep it all together and adds to the enjoyment of the night out to dinner. We were fortunate that Kaitlyn was our server.

The Windy City Grille is a casual café. Most of the menu is for pizza, burgers and sandwiches. There is bar service with a large selection of draft and bottled beer to choose from. Lou ordered one of their burgers with French fries.  All of the burgers seem to start with a half-pound patty.  Prices for the burgers run from $8.50 to 9.50 depending, and come with French fries or the house potato chips. Alternate side substitution selections are available at additional cost.

I’m not sure which one Lou chose but afterwards he said it was very good. They are juicy burgers and thankfully there are additional napkins available in the condiment tray in the center of the table. Another burger order down the table from me was with the in-house made fried potato chips.  They are apparently a well-regarded local specialty. Perhaps I’ll try then on my next visit.

My order was for the “Grande Shrimp Platter – 9 large breaded shrimp with side of fries and homemade cocktail sauce. No popcorn shrimp here! - $11.00. The fry cooks did a good job. The shrimp and the French fries were a nice crispy golden brown, cooked but overly so. The shrimp appeared to be butterflied 16/20 and had a nice flavor, no old cooking oil flavor there. The house cocktail sauce is excellent. There was adequate sauce for the shrimp but if I were to order this again I would ask for a second portion of the sauce as it is so much better than plain ketchup on the fries. It was an adequate portion and a satisfying meal. I was happy with my choice.

During the meal a management person came by the table to ask if everyone was happy with the service and the food. It is nice to see they have an interest and it seems to show in the performance of their work staff. As I mentioned, the Windy City Grille is a casual café, much more so than some of , for  lack of a better word, trendier brew bars and cafes in town. However, the food offered at Windy City Grille is on a par with the other restaurants and at comparable prices. There are many large screen TV screens and I could only guess that it would be a rollicking local hangout for local sports fans on big game days.

The online menu and the menu at the table are slightly different in the selections offered. The online version seems a bit more comprehensive. If you have a specific food in mind to order you may want to call ahead to see if it is available.

My only negative thought about the dining experience is the “re-purposed” theme; the ceiling not finished in the conventional manner but all of the ducting and piping exposed. It may be painted a dark color and positioned above the lighting fixtures but it is all there and the hard surfaces echo and reflect the sounds so that even a slight amount of activity can raise the ambient noise level significantly often making cross table conversation difficult.

 Amiable friends and colleagues make for an enjoyable evening meal.  I also enjoyed the meal and the surroundings. If the question arises, “Where should we go out to dinner?”  The Windy City Grille will definitely be one of the choices.

A last note in passing…  At the door to the café there is a Missing Man Table, sometimes called a Fallen Comrade Table. It is set symbolically as a remembrance and to honor those who will never be able to accept the invitation. It is frequently seen on Memorial Day and National POW/ MIA Recognition Day. Lost in service to Country those missing men have protected rights to dissent and eschew traditional things. But please remember they have also protected my right to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

I fondly remember many friends and comrades for whom that table was set.  Thank you Windy City Grille for remembering and honoring them.



 
UPDATE: August 30, 2019

“The Windy City Grille is winner of the 2019 “Best of the Best” awarded by the Best In Town Network, a Knoxville-based restaurant marketing and survey company.”  Daily Times, August 30 2019.



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Thursday, September 07, 2017
  Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen - Alcoa, Tennessee

Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen

 
250 Hamilton Crossing Dr, Alcoa, TN 37701
(865) 983-5582    https://cheddars.com/
10:30Am – 10:30PM (11:30PM week ends)

 My birthday was coming soon and I was told that I could pick the place for breakfast. I gave it a lot of thought trying to select someplace new perhaps or maybe unique but not one that anyone might object to. I wandered over my mental map of the area, thinking about any recent drives and what I might have seen. Cheddar’s came to mind! After a quick check of their web page I learned they opened late morning for lunch, no breakfast service. I asked our go-for-grub pals if a lunch was okay and I received positive replies. Then lunch, instead of breakfast, it would be.

This would not be my first visit to a Cheddar’s restaurant. In January of 2014 my wife’s dear Aunt Effie and Uncle Gilbert treated us to lunch at their new discovery, Cheddar’s Casual Café in Pinellas Park, Florida. It was a very positive experience and I looked forward to this next encounter. You can see that blog here.


The wife and I arrived a few minutes late. I noticed a change had taken place since  my first Cheddar’s encounter.  Cheddar’s Casual Café was now Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen. When Aubrey Good and Doug Rogers founded Cheddar’s in  Arlington, Texas back in 1979 their stated credo was ”… when a meal is prepared and cooked fresh just for you, it not only tastes better, it makes you feel good.” Perhaps the name change is paying homage to their beginnings. There are a few stores in the Great Plains and some in the Southwest but by far the majority of the 164 Cheddar’s locations are in the Eastern half of the United States. In 2012, Zagat ranked Cheddar's the nation's No.1 full-service restaurant chain as well as Top Overall American Cuisine. Consumer Reports and others have given high ratings and customer satisfaction reports. We were about to see if the reports were true.

Abbie and Mariano, our go-for-grub pals, had secured a spacious booth next to a shaded window. It looked to be a cozy comfortable spot for lunch. The waitress was already there taking beverage orders. I’m sorry I didn’t get here name as I would have liked to thank her by name for her good nature and thoughtful service. She wished me a happy birthday and I then knew I had been setup by the go-for-grub pals.  I just hoped that Cheddar’s didn’t do fool-crazy things designed to embarrass their patrons.

The wife Janis is a light eater and her selection was the CLASSIC LUNCH COMBO ($6.79 Select two of the following: HALF CHEDDAR’S CLUB SANDWICH - HALF MONTE CRISTO - BOWL OF SOUP - HOUSE SALAD - CAESAR SALAD - LOADED BAKED POTATO - BAKED SWEET POTATO) Her particular choices were the half Club Sandwich and the Caesar Salad. The salad was a nice bowl of crisp greens and some croutons, dressing not too heavy, not to light. It was accompanied with a butter glazed croissant. Her preference would have been without the butter but the croissant as well as the salad was very good and fully enjoyed.

Her sandwich arrived a short time later. A diagonally sliced sandwich of two slices of toasted bread well filled with ham, turkey, cheese, bacon and tomato, it was very similar to her order during our first Cheddar’s encounter. The only significant difference was it was cut as a half sandwich instead of the more traditional quarters. As with the salad, it was thoroughly enjoyed.

 Our go-for-grub pals, Abbie and Mariano, opted to share a big platter of HOUSE SMOKED BABY BACK RIBS (Add a House or Caesar salad, $3.29 HALF RACK $10.99 FULL RACK $15.99 Homemade rub, slow smoked in-house, and grilled with a honey BBQ sauce. Served with French fries and coleslaw.) Coleslaw is not their favorite and at their request the server provided a house salad instead. The serving of ribs and French fries was, to say the least, more than ample for two hearty appetites (luckily for Mariano, Abbie is also a light eater). It was a pretty serving thick and clingy barbecue sauce adding a delicious shine to the ribs. The meat was very tender easily separating form the bone. Abbie and Mariano had eagerly anticipated their visit to Cheddar’s for the ribs and I do believe they enjoyed them very much.

 

I like light meat chicken and love shrimp. The combination dinner plate of chicken tenders and shrimp caught my eye; CHICKEN TENDERS & SHRIMP ($11.19 Served with two sides. Add a House or Caesar salad, $3.29 Grilled or hand-battered fried shrimp with our homemade chicken tenders. See a list of sides at end of blog.) For sides I ordered mashed potatoes and gravy and coleslaw. For a big appetite the plate piled high with chicken, shrimp, mashed potatoes and coleslaw was a welcome sight. Included were cocktail sauce and honey mustard dipping sauce.

The coleslaw was dressed with a slightly seasoned sauce that added to the flavor but itself did not clamor for attention. Nice crisp cabbage; I would call it a good slaw. The mashed potatoes were of the industrial grade variety but acceptably smooth. The gravy was very tasty and would be most welcome on a chicken fried steak.

There were four, possibly five (sorry, I didn’t count them) large butterflied, battered and deep fried shrimp. The coating was golden brown and slightly crispy and pleasingly not oily. They were large shrimp, the meat was cooked just right and moist and tender. (As an aside: This serving of shrimp in a basket with some French fries would have more than made a beach-front fish shack offering of a shrimp basket.) They were very tasty fried shrimp.

There were four very large “chicken tenders.” I suspect they are more than tenders, more like a chicken breast sliced in two pieces. Breaded and deep fried to a golden brown, well drained and not oily, the meat was tender and very moist; lots of good chicken flavor. I tried a bit of the honey mustard sauce; a nice blend, not to sweet, not to tart but good mustard flavor. I am on again – off again with honey mustard and today wasn’t the day. I tried a bit of cocktail sauce; good but a bit too much tang from the horseradish to go with the mild taste of the chicken. I thought about asking for some plane old ketchup but decided to just eat the tenders down to the finger lickin’ end as they were. They were that good all by themselves. As you can probably guess, I really enjoyed that meal.

In the few years that we have been here, for various reasons two other local restaurants, best described I guess as up-scale beer and burger places with lots of big television screens, had become our fall back places to go. The food was good, they were close; known entities were we felt comfortable. I feel that Cheddar’s will replace the other restaurants as the spur-of-the-moment place to go. It is still quite close to the house, the prices are competitive and the menu offers more of a variety than the others. The interiors are brighter,  more focused on the food and dining and offering a more relaxed and casual (as in casual café perhaps) dining experience. On this visit Cheddar’s has validated the aforementioned awards and positive citations.

 

Just before we left, the hostess came by the table to offer her birthday congratulations. She brought a small bag with two still hot, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies (sort of a mini version of their giant cookie Sundae). I was grateful for the remembrance especially since it was low key, quiet and private.

 FYI: MADE-FROM-SCRATCH SIDES – Substitute any side for a House or Caesar salad for an additional .99  Steamed Fresh Broccoli, Buttered Off-The-Cob Corn, Freshly Made Coleslaw, French Fries, Idaho Mashed Potatoes, Homemade Black Beans, Mac and Cheese, Broccoli Cheese Casserole, Baked Sweet Potato, Loaded Baked Potato, Seasoned Rice, Southern Green Beans.
 Add a side to any order, 2.49  -  Honey Butter Croissants, 3 for 2.99
 The full menu is available online in pdf format.

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Saturday, July 01, 2017
  Sullivan's - Maryville, Tennessee

Sullivan’s – Maryville TN

Downtown Maryville - 121 W. Broadway Maryville, TN - 37804 - 865.681.3334
aLSO
Rocky Hill - 7545 Northshore Dr - Knoxville, TN 37919 -  865.694.9696

 
To be, in any small way, a part of an event that brings mirthful glee to a friend is very rewarding to the soul. What brings this to mind is that the wife and I were invited to a surprise birthday party for a dear friend that was hosted by her adoring husband and family. The party was attended by about 25 friends and associates and it did come as a complete surprise to her; the secret had been well kept. The venue was The Alcove, a banquet room in Sullivan’s. It was a festive and enjoyable evening; old acquaintances renewed and new friendships formed. It was indeed a happy birthday for Rosana!

This was our first ever visit to Sullivan’s located in the historic downtown section of Maryville, Tennessee. One of two local area stores, it is conveniently located across the street from a free public parking lot but that is problematical if other events are taking place in adjoining venues. The Sullivan’s building is also conveniently located alongside a picturesque set of brick “Spanish Steps” that lead to the lower street and another parking structure below. It was but a short walk in the rain that brought us to the front door of Sullivan’s.

As is normal with banquets, a pared down menu was offered that included selections of fish, meat, pasta and chicken.  All were served with the house salad and a selection from the sides offered;  an interesting assortment that included baked creamed spinach, Southern-style green beans, sweet potato casserole, Boursin mashed potatoes ( I had to look that one up) and jalapeño cheese grits. Beverages included iced tea, Coca Cola products and Vienna coffee.

A dinner roll was provided and butter available from any of the serving dishes on the table. The house salad is a nice large salad plate of mixed greens with some pickled cucumber slices, some plum tomatoes and seasoned with fresh cooked bacon crumbles, shredded cheese and croutons. The salad dressing is served on the side. It was a nice salad with a variety of tasty things to eat.

The wife chose the sirloin and decided on the Boursin mashed potatoes; potatoes made with a garlic and herb flavored Boursin cheese.(** See Wikipedia note below) The sirloin was a nice-sized, about an eight-ounce filet, that was cooked medium-rare to order. The mashed potatoes were served in a ramekin; the plate decorated with what I believe was a Balsamic reduction. She said the steak was tender, cooked to order and had very good flavor. She quite enjoyed the flavor of the Boursin mashed potatoes. Let it be noted that there was no doggie bag this time. I do believe she thoroughly enjoyed her steak and potatoes.

The salad was good, crisp fresh greens and a variety of tastes and textures; something I consider an important asset for a salad. Soon after the salad plate had been cleared away my entrée, the Garden Fresh Pasta, arrived. It was a substantial serving and I knew I wouldn’t go away hungry after the meal was completed. The penne was cooked al dente; not always easy with the thicker pastas. It was well covered with an agreeable Alfredo sauce. There was a good portion of tender Italian-style vegetables; broccoli, carrots and Italian beans. All was liberally decorated with shredded Parmigiano cheese and fresh chopped parsley. It was an attractive presentation, an adequate portion and tasted very good, a selection I would certainly enjoy again in any future visits to Sullivan’s. See our home version of this dish.

And what birthday, you may ask, is complete without a birthday cake? After the dinner dishes had been cleared away the wait staff brought in a candle-lit cake to a resounding chorus of, “Happy Birthday dear Rosana…” It was a layered white cake, white frosting and a very nice strawberry filling. Birthday cakes are special anyway but this was a very tasty cake; a delicious compliment to an enjoyable meal. It was an enjoyable meal certainly because the food was good (and free for the guests I might add).But even more it was enjoyable because it was friends celebrating the guest of honor’s special day. It was a fairly large group of friends celebrating in a safe and sane matter and each going home safely at the end. What more could one ask for?

I would make one additional comment… The party group was about twenty five persons. With the exception of the entrée and birthday cake serving, the one lone waitress took care of all of us. She was more than adequate and up to the task, kept the orders straight and kept the glasses filled with the proper beverage.  Credit for much of the success of the night’s festivities belongs to her.

**From Wikipedia: Boursin is a brand of Gournay cheese. It is a soft creamy cheese available in a variety of flavors, with a flavor and texture somewhat similar to cream cheese. The first Boursin flavor Garlic and Fine Herbs, was created in 1957 by François Boursin, a cheese maker from Normandy. Boursin's product was derived from a traditional party dish, fromage frais (French for "fresh cheese"); guests would take their cheese and add herbs for flavor. His recipe would be the first flavored cheese product to be sold nationally in France.


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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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