That Food Guy
Saturday, January 20, 2007
  Kissin’ Cuzzins - St. Petersburg, Florida
My first visit to the 34th Street Kissin’ Cussins was almost 15 years ago. Even back then, it was already a tradition with my wife’s family, an occasional family ritual, a breakfast out at Kissin’ Cuzzins. I can’t think of a single visit over the years to the in-laws that hasn’t featured a visit to Cuszzins. Opened in 1961, Cuzzins was seemingly a regular place to stop for all the old timers. Business was good and the family opened two other Cuzzins, one on 4th Street and the other in Clearwater. The two new restaurants soon became victim to land prices. The cost of the land in growing Pimellas County became too great for a single business. Only the original Cuzzins on 34th Street remains. And that has met some challenges that may do it in. The neighborhood has changed. The old timers are fewer and stop by less often. There are now fast food outlet all along the street that siphon off customers. As a result, the Cuzzins has cut back hours. It is open for breakfast and lunch, closing at 2:00pm weekdays and 3:pm weekends. The food is just as good as it was back then and the dinner entrees are available for lunch.

The food is good. Certainly not the very best I’ve ever had but it is more than good enough to come back for. It is cooked well, served in a pleasing manner, and in adequate portions. But after you have been there once or twice you will find that the atmosphere is the thing. The staff quickly gets to know you by sight, and then your name. On the next visit for lunch, you will feel right at home, just like you belonged there.

My wife’s particular favorite is the chocolate chip pancakes. Pancakes with a bit of buckwheat flour, I believe, and the chocolate chips placed on top after cooking, melting and gooey from the heat of the pancake, not burnt on the hot griddle. It is served topped with swirls of whipped cream.

Creature of habit that I am, I usually get the same thing, eggs, bacon, hash browns and toast. I love the hash browns. Nice and crispy, golden brown on the outside and creamy smooth on the inside. The fry cooks in the back do a good job and eggs are cooked right to order, over medium, hard or scrambled.

On one occasion I had the chicken fried steak. It was a nice cut of cube steak, battered and fried. It was not at all greasy and the meat was tender with good flavor. The gravy was excellent.
Prices are moderate, $12.99 for a rib-eye steak and eggs combination is tops while most breakfast combinations are $6 or $7. The staff is friendly and courteous and most of them have been on the job for years, just waiting to greet you.
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
  Ted Peter’s Famous Smoked Fish - St. Petersburg

Anyone who has been in the St. Petersburg area for any length of time knows about Ted Peter’s smoked fish. It is also amazing them number of people who come for the first time and look for Ted Peter’s having heard about it far, far away. For over 50 years Ted Peter’s Famous Smoked fish has performed two services. First, it is a place where you can go and have a bite to eat and, perhaps, take home some fish for later. Secondly, it has been a place where fishermen could bring their catch to have it smoked.

When you arrive, follow the tongue-in-cheek sign, "Air Conditioned Dining Room." All the patio dining area is al fresco, naturally air conditioned. The picnic-like tables are usually packed. Dinners, costing $13 to $18, with a selection of salmon, mahi-mahi, mackerel and mullet, are served in generous portions. For an additional $1.50, you can have an additional place setting to share the meal.

For smaller appetites, luncheon platters of mahi-mahi, mackerel and mullet are available for $8 to $10. Sides of cole slaw, German potato salad and Manhattan-style clam chowder are available.

For those who prefer other than sea food, hamburgers, hot dogs and grilled chicken sandwiches are also available. Remember, if you want lettuce and tomato, it’s a side order for 50 cents. The soft drinks, with free refills, are served in iced mugs that help keep the beverage cold on the hottest of Florida afternoons. Beer and wine are also available.

Fammily from Tennessee were down for a whirlwind visit and one of the requests was to go to Ted Peter’s place for lunch. Cousin Lynn ordered the luncheon mullet. Mullet, ordinarily an oily fish, is well suited to smoking and very popular. The bones peeled easily off the fish leaving a succulent, smoked filet. Lynn enjoyed her meal and commented the meal was well worth going out for.

I opted for the cheeseburger with the extra lettuce and tomato. It’s a 1/3-pound patty on a large bun. It is filling even without a side dish. The good and the bad: The burger was prepared well and the cheese was piping hot, running into the rough texture of the meat. It was a delicious cheeseburger. It was like the big, beautiful cheese burgers you make in your patio on the barbecue grill. The server kept the mugs of root beer topped of. We all enjoyed our meals and left in a happy frame of mind.

If you are going to stop in for a bite to eat, bring cash. They don’t accept checks or credit cards.
Monday, January 15, 2007
  Sonny’s Barbecue - St. Petersburg, Florida
Sonny’s Barbecue has been a Florida institution for a long time. Sonny and Lucile Tillman had a vison of what barbecue should be. They followed that dream and opened their first restaurant in Gainesville, Florida in 1968. Their venture struck a positive chord the public’s attention and they prospered, opening more stores and franchising.

In 1991, Sonny retired and sold his chain to owners of one of his franchises. Bob and Jeff Yarmuth. They continued the positive policies of Sonny and the chain grew and expanded to become the largest barbecue chain in the United States. It now boasts of over 150 stores in nine southeastern states. The Tyrone Blvd. Store was the most convenient to where I was staying.
I had the opportunity to sample the restaurants offerings on two different occasions. On the first visit I chose the pulled pork sandwich. On the lunch menu, the sandwich comes with your choice of two of the ten side dishes offered. I chose the fries and barbecued beans. Later, I decided that the coleslaw would have been a better choice to round out the lunch. The portions were ample and provided more than enough to eat.

The meat was moist, tender and very flavorful. Any of the table-side barbecue sauces that I added were quickly swallowed up by the meat. On that visit I didn’t get a real feel for the five Carolina-style sauces offered. There was mild, sweet, sizzlin’ sweet, smokin’ and mustard sauces. I promised myself, that should the opportunity arise, I would spent more time with the sauces on the next visit.

That next opportunity was to be a bit more than a year later. This time I chose the barbecued sliced beef. I also opted for the salad bar. Most salad bars use small plates as portion control. At Sonny’s, it was a big plate and the salad bar had many selections to choose from. In addition to the lettuce salad and fixin’s, there were potato, macaroni, coleslaw and crab (well, surimi crab) salad. All of the items in the salad bar looked fresh, the lettuce crisp without browning and there was fresh ice all around and the area was neat and well tended. It was an enjoyable sampler salad while I waited for the entree.

It was a full platter, a half pound or more I would guess, of neatly layered slices of beautifully smoked meat. Lean, evenly colored through, it was haloed with a distinctive smoked meat red ring. It was served on a platter with a goodly portion of fries and a slice of garlic bread. I was now in that conundrum that faces all who delight in barbecue. With sauce or without and with which sauce? I tried several slices of the beef without sauce to have a starting point. Delicious. Firm, tender beef with a rich smoky flavor. Then I tried each of the sauces in turn.
Over the years, barbecuing at home, I have developed a fondness for the sweet and savory Kansas City style sauces, not unlike the Southern California Loves Barbecue chain where I first acquired a taste for barbecue. Except for Sonny’s, I have had no experience with the vinegar based Carolina-style sauces. Remembering back to the pulled pork, the sauce made a good seasoning condiment. With the sliced beef, however, it seemed to detract from the already abundant flavor of the smoked beef. The sauces weren’t bad, it just that I think they do better elsewhere. Had I any of the sliced barbecued beef to take home, I would have tried it with a splash of KC masterpiece, just to see.

The restaurant was busy, understandably, it has a large number of regular customers. It is well suited for a family outing for dinner or just a quick lunch of barbecue. The decor is homey rural and looked well used but well cared for and clean. The serving staff was quick and courteous. They were considerate when answering questions and describing the menu selections. So far I have been there twice and I am sure I’ll be there again to try something new from their menu.
  Kabuki Japanese Restaurant - Woodland Hills, California

I’m really sorry that I didn’t have my camera with me when I was treated by my son to a dinner at Kabuki Japanese Restaurant. Haute European cuisine may think plating and presentation is an art. At Kabuki, they demonstrate the Japanese have it down to a science. The food simply is edible art. Words will do it little justice.

Kabuki, a stylized theater that features bizarre masks, provides the name and the logo for the growing Southern California chain. Its self-stated mission is to bring the finer points of Japanese cuisine to the mainstream American pallet. The restaurant was busy and there was a constant stream of customers. It would appear that Kabuki is making good inroads to American tastes.
The restaurant is modern Japan without the kitsch of a pseudo, old time oriental look. There is glass, chrome, designer lighting and a look of the perfect arrangement of tables, booths and aisles. Clean, bright, energetic yet subdued to provide a restful dining atmosphere. I liked the facility even before I tasted the food.

Kabuki has a large selection of sushi and sashimi. The waiter brings a lengthy check list for pencil in your order for the sushi chef. But Kabuki isn’t just sushi. It features many cooked seafood, beef, chicken and noodle dishes, be it barbecued, teriyaki, or tempura. There are selections on the menu to please just about everyone.

Son and daughter-in-law pored over the sushi list while my sister and I perused the main menu. Prices are reasonable for a Ventura Boulevard eatery. Lunch specials and combinations run from $8 to $12. Dinner offerings $11 to $16. A few of the more elaborate boat dinners, for that special occasion, are $19 per person.

After we ordered, we whetted our appetites on miso soup and steamed edimami. It was a pleasant conversation interlude before the main course. My choice was chicken teriyaki with shrimp and vegetable tempura. The meal was served on a black, lacquered, compartmented tray. All of the elements were carefully arranged and the presentation was beautiful, pretty as a picture. The teriyaki chicken, in good portion, was well seasoned and very tasty. Tempura is not easy to do well. Different vegetables cook at different rates and it is difficult to have the vegetables done and the tempura coating golden brown, not pallid or overcooked. The tempura was, as they say, all golden brown and delicious. The vegetables cooked just to done. An excellent meal.

Son and daughter-in-law shared their sushi and lobster roll selections. They enjoyed their meal and offered only praise. They have come to think of kabuki as their special place and treat themselves whenever possible. That is high compliment for any restaurant.

Sister ordered seafood udon soup. Another pretty as a picture presentation. The soup, a rich broth with lots of udon noodles, shrimp, scallops calamari and mussels, was enticing by itself. It was made ever so much more appealing by the footed, gleaming black bowl with its matching free-form tray and condiment bowl. The portion is very large. Sister said it was very flavorful and would order it again should the opportunity arise.

Our server was Japanese. Although his English was thick with accent, we had no trouble conversing. He was eager to please and quick to answer questions without patronizing. He was an enjoyable part of the whole Kabuki experience. Should my travels take me back to the Southern California area, I shall certainly endeavor to stop in for a meal at Kabuki.
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
  Macayo's Mexican Restaurant - Phoenix, Arizona

Arguably Phoenix’s most popular Mexican restaurant, it is a fact that Macayo’s has grown from a small mom and pop operation with a counter and six tables in the mid-forties to today’s thriving multiple-store chain with more than a dozen facilities in Arizona. To do that you have to do more than just sell a few tacos. The chain has developed a positive corporate culture and the employees seem to take their image seriously and are motivated to maintain that impression.
On this occasion, a long over due visit with my daughter and new grandson, we went to the Central Avenue facility. It is best to call ahead for reservations. The lobby was crowded with drop-ins like us. We added our name to the list. It was about a half hour wait but that gave us an opportunity to observe front operation. The staff apparently has a lot of experience dealing with large numbers of waiting people. Every one was taken care of tactfully, and quite quickly, I thought, considering the number of waiting diners.

We were first led to a booth. When we asked for a booster seat for the 2-year old, we learned that they only have highchairs for use at the tables only. We were quickly escorted to a table and a highchair soon arrived. A liability issue I’m sure, a highchair in the aisle at the end of a booth, but I do wonder why no booster chair. On the other hand, the restaurant is family friendly and has a children’s menu and the "color me" place mat come wrapped around some crayons.

The menu is very complete. It has all the offerings you would associate with an upscale Mexican-themed restaurant. Dinners range in price from $8 to $14. If you buy a Senor Bob or a Cha Cha Margarita mug, bring it with you on your next visit, you will get your Margaritas for a reduced price (sorry, a limit of 2 Margaritas per customer).
Grandson Russell selected the grilled cheese with French fries from the children’s menu. He found it to be "finger lickin’ good.

Daughter Christina ordered the chicken flauta. Almost at once, she divided the food on the plate in two. She explained with a wave of exaggeration that she would take half home where and it would feed her for a week (well, maybe the rest of the night). She likes the meal and it is her usual Macayo’s order.

Son-in-law Russell Sr. was at a loss - what to order. At my suggestion, he tried the chimichanga. He wasn’t too sure about a deep-fried burrito at first. After a first timid bite or two he warmed to the idea and at meals end he had nothing left for a take-home doggie bag.

My benchmark selection for a first time order at a Southwestern restaurant is fajitas. I opted for the less traditional chicken fajitas. The order comes with a "sizzlin" fajita pan piled high with chicken peppers and onions. An additional large platter comes with refritos, guacamole, sour cream and pico de gallo sauce. It would certainly get my fill that night. The chicken was tender and loaded with that smoky, grilled fajita flavor. The fajitas were as good as any that I have sampled.

Macayo’s is a busy restaurant. The staff is quick and efficient and the routine is smooth and polished. The floors, walls and furnishings are well decorated with the Mexican/Southwestern theme. Unfortunately, the facility shares a fault with many other modern-day eateries. The ceiling is unfinished - with the "we’re really in a factory" look. The echo of the serving, the clatter of dishes and even the quiet conversation of the patrons reverberates back and forth among the rafters and suspended air conditioning ducts. A normal conversation is difficult at best. Aside from the ambient noise level, I rate Macayo’s very highly and recommend their food offerings. Buen apetito!
Tuesday, January 09, 2007
  Mel’s Diner - Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

Before the freeways and the Interstate system, there were highways. The highways went through the center of every city, small town and berg. You would count the stop lights to get an idea how large the town was. Between the cities, it was the now proverbial "open road." If the road was good and the traffic light, the speed limit was often a speedy 55 miles per hour. Travel by automobile was slower then. There were service stations, auto repair garages, motels and cafes to cater to the traveling public. You drove as far as you could during the day and towards evening sought out a convenient diner and motel, to eat a good meal and have a good night’s sleep for the next day’s travel. A truism of the day advised that a café where the truckers and the state trooper ate was a good one. Quite often that café was stainless steel, railroad car-style diner complete with lots of red neon tubes. It is a bit sad that today’s automotive traveler doesn’t have the opportunity to come across the truck stop diner. Today the freeway ramps have clusters of service stations and name brand eateries and snack shops. It is pull off the freeway for a quick fuel up and pick up a Styrofoam encased burger or a 6-inch sub, usually to eat on the go. Sadly, we don’t usually venture off the freeway until we reach our destination and we therefore miss the opportunity to find a diner and have a sit-down meal. The diner, a symbol of American-style comfort foods, has been a backdrop in many movies and has become an icon, the image immediately recognizable.
We were going to be in the Pigeon Forge area for several days to visit with family. When I saw the stainless steel and red neon diner, I knew I was going to have at least 1 meal there before we continued our travels. It was to be breakfast the very next day. The diner has been at its present location for several years. Outside the stainless steel is polisher, the neon tubes glow brightly and it just looks spiffy, almost brand new. Inside it is all spit and polish. A lot of effort goes into cleaning and upkeep of that diner.
The serving staff is constantly on the go. For a long and narrow diner, it sears a surprisingly large number of people. Our server was polite and attentive to our requests. Although this is surely not the Mel’s diner of the sitcom, the lady wore a t-shirt that proclaimed, "Kiss my grits!" After we ordered, we took in the surroundings. The decor is right from the fifties and there is a juke box loaded with rock and roll records. It doesn’t take much imagination to go back a few years and savor a few memories of the good ol’ days. It is also surprising, that with all the hard surface inside the diner, that the noise level is low and conversation is possible in normal tones (well, sometimes the juke box was a bit loud, but that’s how it was).
The menu feature a good selection of traditional breakfast dishes, hot and cold sandwiches for lunch, and dinner dishes like meatloaf! For a tourist Mecca location, the prices are moderate, $6 to $8. The food is tasty and well prepared and the portions adequate. When the food is placed before you, you are ready to dig in.
The wife ordered pancakes, bacon and eggs. There were 2 large, golden brown pancakes, slices of crisp fried bacon, and her eggs over medium as ordered. She said the food was cooked well and had good flavor.
I ordered my usual, eggs over medium, hash browns and sausage. All was cooked as ordered and it was tasty. It certainly was what I would have expected from a good diner. The coffee was fresh and the cups were kept filled by any of the servers passing by. It was an enjoyable breakfast and out is a good mood fro the rest of the day’s activities. The next time we are in Pigeon Forge, we shall stop by Mel’s Diner for another nostalgic meal. Perhaps for lunch this time, and try a Big Bopper Bacon Burger or Johnny B. Goode Grilled Chicken platter.
Thursday, January 04, 2007
  Side Door Deli - St. Petersburg, Florida

The Side Door Deli and Restaurant has been around for a long time. It has a lot of repeat as well as captive customers. As its name implies, the entrance is an inconspicuous side door to a large office building. In spite of the potential customers in the surrounding offices, Side Door Deli has to rely on repeat trade and word of mouth as its almost hidden location doesn’t lend itself to attracting drive by traffic. The fact that it is usually very busy says it has a lot going for it.

The Side Door Deli has been a favorite of my in-laws for a long time. I first became aware of it when the airlines stopped feeding passengers. After a visit, and we were in the midst of departure preparations, father-in-law Sonny went to the Side Door Deli and brought us back some of our favorite sandwiches to take with us on the airplane. There was a corned beef on rye with dark mustard for the wife and a pastrami on rye, with yellow mustard and an extra pickle for me. Somewhere over the midwest, when hunger pangs struck, we opened the sandwiches for an in-flight snack. As soon as we opened the wrappers, the smell of corned beef and pastrami started to fill the air. All around us people sat up in their seats and looked around for the source of the aromas wafting about them. Apparently the airline’s generous gift of a 3/4-ounce packet of peanuts had nor quelled their hunger. We ate our sandwiches and staved off starvation all the while wondering if we were going to be mugged for a deli sandwich.

The Side Door Deli menu offers a complete line of sliced deli meat and grilled meat sandwiches, soups, salads and side dishes. They even feature breakfast selections for the early customer. Sandwiches range from $5 to $7. Most of the time we call ahead for take out and the order is ready upon our arrival. The deli meat sandwiches are packed full of meat and make for a full meal. The corned beef is moist and has good flavor. The pastrami is smoky and pungent with pepper. The rye bread is light and tasty and has good texture. Their sandwiches hold their own against any other deli.

Most of the time we order to go but if you wish to dine in, there are seats for a comfortable luncheon get together. The overall noise level is low for a restaurant and conversation is easy.
Danny, the host, has a long memory and recognizes the father-in-law’s voice over te phone. He says, "For my daughter and son-in-law," and he already knows it going to be a corned beef on rye with dark mustard for the wife and a pastrami on rye, with yellow mustard and an extra pickle for me. I like that Side Door Deli, they always seem to get the order right, be it a Greek Salad or a club sandwich.


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