That Food Guy
Sunday, June 30, 2013
  Cafe Tran Pho Bar - Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Vickie and Larry in front of
Café Trang Pho Bar - Rio Rancho

Café Tran  Pho Bar – Rio Rancho, New Mexico 11/1/2012

3301 Southern Blvd SE STE 503, Rio Rancho, NM 87124

(505) 994-9150

Monday – Saturday 11:00AM to 9:00PM Closed Sunday

While my son was at work, I went grocery shopping with my daughter in law. The supermarket is but a short distance from their house in Rio Rancho. Pulling into the parking lot we passed the Café Tran Pho Bar. I took a long look; I was curious. It brought back memories from fifty years ago. I wondered what was to be had inside versus the memories I had. I have always been curious about food and when I went to Viet Nam I welcomed that opportunity to see in person real oriental food. Unfortunately, curiosity was not satisfied and for the most part memories of Vietnamese food are poor save for one example. I did eat in a small village café once and the experience was one that I will always remember fondly. See my recipe page, beef with mushrooms, for a description of that episode.

Pho Bar Interior
For the most part I was very disappointed in food opportunities. There were lots of street vendors that sold all varieties of food, many of them Pho, or noodles. That I did see. However, a visitor to the country, without a lifetime of acquiring immunity, the sanitation standards of the street vendors were a clear warning to not try the food. Often push carts offered bahn mi, small little loaves of bread that looked like miniature loaves of French bread (after all, it once was a French colony and the Vietnamese are adaptive). In the case if bahn mi I made an exception of buying from street vendors and buy a bunch of the little breads to munch on while I was walking about town. It is kind of hard to remember what they really cost, about a dime equivalent each in US money. Local currency was in in a combination of piasters (French Indo-China money) and dong, Vietnamese currency. To avoid the black market in US currency, we were paid in MPC’s, Military Payment Certificates, that ostensibly had no value on the local economy but on our base we could exchange a certain amount of MPC’s for piasters/dong at a discount.  Wow! I never dreamt that just buying a loaf of miniature bread could be so complicated.

On the few occasions that I was in town, I sought out the largest local hotels. They would, of course, cater to foreigners and I hoped that their menus would include samples of the local delicacies. It was not to be. All of the menus listed traditional French dishes. As I mentioned, the Vietnamese are, if nothing else, adaptable and the menu’s still carried the mark of the French colonial masters. I guess not enough time had passes for them to list burgers, fries and Southern fried chicken.

We were among the first combat troops into Viet Nam. We had to begin the learning process and pass it along to all those who came after us. Unfortunately, all we could say was that, at best, the Vietnamese were dubious allies. There are many individuals in the Vietnamese community who deserve high praise and merit or esteem. But as a whole, as a country, as a people, self-serving duplicity was the ethic. The old Franco-Iberian colonial lessons were too deeply ingrained. No matter how hard we fought for them they would never fight for themselves if not knife you in the back.
Cha Gio $4.95

My lunch with a small Vietnamese boy was an example of how it could have been. Many nights, sitting around a campfire, chatting with Lam Bat, our battalion interpreter were almost inspiring. He told of his family’s flight from China when the Chinese Communists overthrew the Chaing Kai-shek government, of their resettlement in North French Indochina. When the Communist forces led by Ho Chi Minh drove the French from Indochina the family was again forced to flee and sought refuge in South Viet Nam. I long ago lost contact with Lam Bat and I have always hoped that he was able to escape the terrible reprisals that ensued after the fall of Saigon. I had to love the Australians. They were not the largest force but they were admirable soldiers and a welcome ally. And the Koreans... What can I say? We Americans went to Korea once and helped the South Korean government repel the invaders from North Korea and China. They remembered. They in kind returned the favor to help us help another government fight off an invasion by a Communist government. They were great troops and have my deepest admiration. As for the majority of American troops that came after me I also have not but the highest praise and admiration. On a day by day basis they fought and died all the while being acutely aware that the people they were fighting for were cozying up with the enemy just in case.  Which brings us back to Viet Nam; when I left that country I knew I would never have a desire to return, and save for the few good memories that I did have, I would not pursue any endeavors with a Vietnamese theme.
Tam Lan Bot $4.95

So, how do I reconcile my curiosity and trying out a Vietnamese-themed restaurant with my feelings about that country? I was sure that the food they offered was like Chinese food, tailored to the American palate. Also, the restaurant was in the middle of New Mexico, far away from Southeast Asia. The owners, much like Lam Bat, had fled that ugly corner of the world and that set them apart from what I remembered back there, way back when. From the outside the café looked clean, comfortable and inviting; a strong contrast to memories. And who knows, maybe now I could find out a bit about Vietnamese food, what I couldn’t find out then because the menu was all in French.

A day later my son Larry, his wife Vickie and I went to lunch at Café Tran Pho Bar. The café is located in a storefront in a large shopping center with easy to a main street. There is more than adequate parking as well as being convenient while doing other shopping. It is a new establishment and the facility looks clean and neat. The décor is more Howard Johnson than oriental with bright co9lors, red and black predominating. Mostly tile flooring is easy to keep clean but can be slippery when wet. Seating is a combination of booths and tables and chairs. The chairs are lightly padded and comfortable. The tables are set with sweet chili sauce and soy sauce as condiments.
Goi Cuan Tom $3.95

The café wasn’t crowded that day and the noise level was low, always a plus. The ceiling is finished with acoustical tiling, not exposed ducting and the like that seems so prevalent these days. I would guess noise4 would be at a comfortable level even on busy days. The two servers were always on the go and our wait was not very long but unless they add more servers the wait during busy times would be quite a bit longer.  I was surprised at the menu. It was much longer than I would have guessed and offers a wide variety of seafood, beef and chicken dishes as well as a selection of vegetarian and children’s selections; certainly something I would not have expected after my experiences in mid-1960’s Viet Nam.

We started with some appetizers. We chose Cha Gio (Fried pork egg rolls $4.95) and Tom Lan Bot (5 crispy golden fried butterfly shrimp $4.95) The eggrolls are serve on an attractive platter with dipping sauce, sprouts, carrot shreds and noodles. The four egg rolls made for a scramble for the last one between the three of us but we managed to split it up evenly. It is a different wrapper than found on the Chinese egg rolls; not bad just different. They were fried nice and crispy golden brown. The filling was good, tasty but not quite enough to be a favorite. The dipping sauce was good but I had trouble trying to distinguish it from the chili sauce already on the table. The platter with the fried shrimp was attractive with a bed of lettuce and a bowl of the dipping sauce. Whereas the menu cites a serving of five shrimp, our platter contained six shrimp and was an appropriate two for each of us. They were fried crispy but not overcooked. The shrimp had a nice texture and good flavor.
Com Chien $8.25

Vickie has had spring rolls before; she ordered ala carte. She ordered a combination of Goi Cuan Tom (Fresh shrimp spring roll $3.95 Each spring roll comes with lettuce, cucumber and vermicelli noodles wrapped inside clear rice paper and served with peanut dipping sauce. Two rolls per order) and Com Chien (Fried rice combination with chicken, beef, shrimp and pork $8.25) The spring rolls were served in a nice presentation plate with a portion of peanut sauce and some crushed peanuts. They had been rolled by an experience hand (rice paper is hard to work with) and there were four nice large shrimp in each roll. Vickie said the rolls were very tasty and the peanut sauce a nice savory plus. The fried rice mostly filled the plate with the exception of a small bowl of chicken broth soup on the side. There were some peas and carrots and some egg curds to be seen but most of the additions to the rice were the chicken, shrimp beef and pork. A large serving and more than enough to satisfy the appetite; Vickie said she enjoyed it very much.
Com 5 Thu Ga $11.95

My son Larry, on the other hand, ordered a combination plate and a rather eclectic one at that. He chose Com 5 Thu Ga (Five items with grilled chicken $11.95 Each plate comes with your choice of grilled items over a bed of hot jasmine rice, then topped with sliced cucumber. Served with a side of sweet and spicy fish sauce, pickled carrots and daikon radish and a small bowl of our fresh made-from-scratch chicken broth garnished with cilantro. All grilled items are drizzled with scallion oil. Our five item rice plates come with 3 grilled shrimp, a shrimp sausage wrapped in bean curd, 3 ounces thinly shredded pork and an over-easy egg. For an extra dollar you can substitute fried rice for the jasmine rice.) That is a lot of different foods and a lot of different flavors and tastes. It is all on a large platter and is a substantial serving. I did notice, however, that the menu listed 3 grilled shrimp were little shrimp. Otherwise all was there in adequate quantity. As he ate through his selections, Larry said that everything was very good, very flavorful. However I did notice that the pickled carrots and daikon were left to the very last.

Thit Ga Nuong $8.25
I, after a long perusal of the menu, finally chose Com Thit Ga Nuong (Grilled Chicken $8.25 Each plate comes with your choice of grilled items over a be of hot jasmine rice, then topped with sliced cucumber. Served with a side of sweet and spicy fish sauce, pickled carrots and daikon radish and a small bowl of our fresh make-from-scratch chicken broth garnished with cilantro. All grilled items are drizzled with scallion oil. For fried rice add $1.00) About the equivalent of a chicken breast of grilled chicken tossed with some sautéed vegetables served over a bed of jasmine rice. The chicken had a nice flavor, a bit of chargrilling, a bit of spice, not tiresome or too exotic. When I finished the portion I was looking for more. The chicken broth soup is very nice, very tasty, not too salty. This would be a very nice thing to order on one of those cold blustery winter days but not so much on a very warm New Mexico summer day. The jasmine rice goes well with the chicken. It has a nice flavor as far as plain rice goes but I think any future order would opt for the fried rice for a dollar more. The lettuce and carrot salad, as well as the cucumber slices, adds a bit of greenery to the plate but without a dressing is a bit insipid. The pickled carrots and daikon helped to liven up the salad mix. The rice is cooked loose and chopsticks would be a futile effort. As you note in the picture, spoons are provided. All in all a very good meal and I do not have any real complaints. There are several other items on the menu I would like to try at some future date but if my choices were limited I would be happy ordering this dish again.

We enjoyed our time at the Pho Bar and we all agreed that it would be a place to dine again on my next trip to visit in New Mexico.

Several of the dishes offered a spicy fish sauce and I would guess that would be nuoc mam. The product served here is a much more refined and civilized product than what I remember form way back when. On several occasions I have been a passenger in a helicopter also carrying supplies for mixed forces; Vietnamese troops operating near us. One of the supplies was nuoc mam. It was in those cubical metal 5-gallon can much like cans used for paint thinner. A putrid, decaying fish smell seemed to escape from under the tightly screwed on cap.  You would swear that something had crawled inside that can and died.  Thankfully, commercially made products for sale here in the United States are a much more refined and tamer product.

We always had to be careful to not use scented deodorants, toothpaste or aftershave lotion. That made us smell like occidentals and the word was that in the jungle the VC could smell us a hundred yards away. Be that as it may, we had a secret. If the VC were encamped, eating fish heads and rice and lavishing their meal with nuoc mam, from downwind we could tell where they were form more than a mile away. But that is another story for another day.

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Monday, June 17, 2013
  Maki Yaki - Rio Rancho, New Mexico
Larry and Vickie in front of the
Rio Rancho NM Maki Yaki
Maki Yaki – Albuquerque, New Mexico
11/3/2012 Maki Yaki 36
4300 Ridgecrest Dr. SE, Ste 0, Rio Rancho,
New Mexico (505)892-3554

This was my second encounter with a store-front takeout serving sushi and Japanese themed foods. The first was OEC Japanese Express in St Petersburg, Florida and now this one in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. Whereas OEC Japanese Express seems to be a unique entity, Maki Yaki would be part of a larger franchise headquartered in California, this being store number 36. Established in 2004, most of the stores are located in the Southern California region but apparently the store plans expansion through the rest of North America, South America, Europe and Asia. Ambitious since one of the proposed sites is Tokyo, Japan.
Clean and bright
The best that I can come up with for the name is Maki – rolled (as in makizushi) and Yaki – grilled broiled or fried (as in teriyaki or teppanyaki). ,Maki Yaki or Rolled and Grilled would seem to be an appropriate name considering the fare offered. What a fun way to learn to speak Japanese.

From Top Clockwise: Eel Special Roll,
Baked Scallop Roll, and Spicy Tuna Roll
Arriving in the late evening, the store was brightly lit. It had a clean, bright appearance. Even in the dark, with reflections, the windows were clear and not a smudge to be seen. The inside was spartanly decorated. The tiled floor had recently been swept and mopped as there were few signs of traffic on its shiny surface. The store, roughly divided in half, featured a dining area with basic tables and chairs for eating in up front and the rear half with the counter and kitchen area. Strangely, it did lack the traditional sit-at sushi bar; perhaps a manifestation of the restaurant’s bare-bones appearance. All of the food preparation was done in the back kitchen. The walls were decorated with a large lighted picture menu board and some poster art depicting “pretty as a picture” foods; the art work a standard corporate supplied item.

Left: Boston Roll
Right: Spicy Tuna Roll
Tables are in two sizes, small for two people and larger for four persons. The three of us were quite comfortable at a larger table but if there had been a fourth person it would have been quite cozy. Tables are set with a napkin, disposable chopsticks and a bottle of soy sauce.
We were warmly greeted quickly on arrival and shown to a table. Menus were passed and a beverage order taken. Most of the beverages came from the self-serve style refrigerator cabinet against the far wall; a back to basics touch. Our order taken, we could see a flurry of activity behind the partial curtains setting the kitchen apart. It seemed that the courteous woman who greeted us took care of the dining room, the counter and the register. I could only discern a single male in the kitchen. It was slow at the time we were there and the two of them were able to handle the traffic effortlessly. I would think, however, that they would need additional help for busier times. While waiting, we were all served a bowl of miso soup.

Combo Plate: Chicken and
Beef Teriyaki
It is an extensive menu featuring many Japanese dishes other than sushi. With so many good things offered it was hard to finally decide on what we each wanted. Larry and Vickie do a little mix and match across the table and can sample many items with a minimum order; sometime an order just to share. Vickie ordered an assortment of sushi items. These included a spicy tuna roll (Spicy Tuna Roll $5.95), eel special roll (Eel Special Roll $10.95 in: crab meat, cucumber, avocado out: baked fresh water eel) and baked scallop (Baked Scallop Roll $9.50 in: spicy tuna, cucumber, avocado out: baked scallop).
Larry ordered some sushi items. He chose a spicy tuna roll (Spicy Tuna Roll $5.95) and a Boston roll (Boston Roll $8.50 in: crab meat, cucumber, avocado out: shrimp tempura). He also ordered a Teriyaki Combo Plate ($7.95 Chicken and beef teriyaki served with steamed rice, vegetables and miso soup).
Bento Box: Mixed Tempura, California Roll,
Salad, Steamed Rice, and Teriyaki Beef
As luck would have it, Maki Yaki also features my favorite, the bento box. It is a great way to sample a lot of different food items in one dish. They offer six varieties of bento boxes; I chose the basic and out of seven choices chose the beef teriyaki ($9.95 Beef Teriyaki Bento Box served with salad, 5 pieces of California roll, steamed rice, mixed tempura and miso soup. Between the three of us we ordered a lot of different things. Nonetheless, our order was quickly prepared and it was time to eat.
Larry and Vickie both thoroughly enjoyed their selections. Suffice it to say there was no need for any take-home container. My bento box had a lot of good things. The salad was made of crisp lettuce mostly, a cherry tomato and some pickled onions. The salad was good but the pickled onions would not be my favorite. There was an inverted bowlful of steamed rice with a toasted sesame garnish. Rice is rice but this rice was cooked to just the right consistency to pick up with chopsticks. With the bento box that is important because you can’t just raise the bento box under your chin like a small bowl of trice. The California roll was good, the ingredients fresh. The artificial crab picks up flavors very quickly and if the crab has been sitting around any time it will take on some of the surrounding fish flavors Even with a dunk in the soy sauce you could taste the crab, avocado and cucumber; a good roll. The tempura selection was good, the batter the classical thin and crispy. It was very good. Even though my favorite is the bento box for its varied selection, I almost wished I had chosen a tempura platter instead.  The tentsuyu sauce was excellent, just the right saltiness to accent the flavor of the tempura.  There was a nice serving of teriyaki beef. It was quite tender and lean beef in teriyaki sauce with toasted sesame seeds garnish. The sauce had cling without being too thick; you could coat with as little or as much sauce as you liked each bite. The sauce had a good flavor, slightly sweet, slightly soy that did not interfere with the taste of the beef. All in all, I enjoyed my bento box very much - well, perhaps the pickled onion I could do without.
Maki Yaki Wall Menu
Maki Yaki is convenient, close to Larry and Vickie’s home. The food is excellent and there is a wide variety to choose from. The shop is clean and well cared for. The prices are reasonable. It is little wonder that Makin Yaki has become one of Larry and Vickie’s favorite places to go when the sushi urge strikes.

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Tuesday, June 11, 2013
  The Greek Village - Seminole, FLorida
Aunt Effie, Uncle Gil and Janis

The Greek Village

11125 Park Blvd Suite 117
Seminole, Florida 33772
(727) 393-6669
Check website for hours open.

I got as telephone call from Aunt Effie and Uncle Gilbert the other day. It seems that their old printer had given up the ghost and they had just purchases a new replacement from Office Depot. It is a sophisticated printer, scanner, FAX machine with Wi-Fi capability. Printer and scanner are what they wanted and all the rest was extra that made the installation intimidating. Somewhere in the background I heard that lunch would be offered. They do know how to push my buttons but that was all I had to hear and a date was set for the next day.

They live in a very nice retirement complex that offers amenities such as an extensive snack bar, the equivalent of a small café, and a more formal dining room experience the equivalent of a nice restaurant.  I have been their guest on two previous occasions and have blogged both of those experiences. I wasn’t overly anxious to do a third blog on the same pace so I didn’t even take my camera.

The printer installation was step by step easy and soon all the ends were tied up and the operator training completed. It was time for lunch. That is when I found out that we were going out for lunch to a place Gilbert and Effie had learned about from a neighbor. When I heard it was called The Greek Village I was a bit surprised. Ethnic restaurants are not the usual fare for Gilbert and Effie. After a quick plea, Gilbert and Effie were kind enough to lend me their camera for the outing.

Ham and Chicken Breast
On Pita Bread With Greek Salad
It was a short drive to the restaurant. It is in a very new appearing strip mall very near the Larger Seminole Mall complex. They have apparently moved recently because the plant looks cleaner and newer than their stated 29-years in business. Everything is very clean and neat, very inviting especially the glass display case as you enter with tiers of mouth-watering desserts.
The interior is comfortable low level lighting, the décor is Mediterranean and you have a choice of tables or booths. We were escorted to a booth on the divider making a split dining room and would probably provide a lower noise level during busy times. There were several other diners in the restaurant but it was nowhere near capacity and noise level was minimum; table conversation was low and relaxed.
Ham on Toasted Rye Bread
With Greek Salad
The menu is extensive and offers appetizers, salads, soups, pita specialties and sandwiches, combination platters and a large selection of Greek and Mediterranean-themed dinners. There is a small selection of children’s dishes, pastas with meatballs or chicken in red or feta sauce. There is also a large selection of wines to choose from.
It was a lunch visit and our attention was directed at the pita specialties and sandwiches section; there are a lot of things to choose from. Aunt Effie ordered the Baked Ham and Turkey Breast Toasted Oven Sandwich. ($8.50 Toasted Oven Sandwiches with Greek Salad - Choose pita, sub roll, whole wheat or rye bread with melted provolone cheese) She chose the pita bread. It was similar to what she ordered on her first visit and she wanted to try it again. When served, the sandwich and salad is a large plate of intimidating proportion. Over the course of a relaxed lunch she was able to eat all of her meal saying that it was very good.
Meatball Parmesan on Sub Roll
With Greek Salad
Uncle Gil ordered the Baked Ham Toasted Oven Sandwich. ($8.50 Toasted Oven Sandwiches with Greek Salad - Choose pita, sub roll, whole wheat or rye bread with melted provolone cheese) He chose the rye bread. There were nice thick slices of toasted rye bread with ample sliced ham filling. With the salad it was a very ample meal that he was able to finish handily. He did enjoy the meal.
Janis ordered the Meatball Parmesan Toasted Parmesan Sandwich. ($8.50 Toasted Parmesan Sandwiches with Greek Salad – On pita or sub roll with our homemade sauce topped with melted provolone cheese and parmesan cheese) She chose the sun roll. It was a large sandwich with a half-dozen large meatballs in a thick marinara-style sauce with lots of melted cheese. With the salad on the side it was a large lunch. Surprisingly, she finished her sandwich; there was no need for a doggie bag this day! She said she enjoyed her meal very much.
Chicken Gyro
With Greek Salad
I ordered a gyro, Chicken Breast Strips on Pita ($8.50 Pita Bread Specialties with Greek Salad – wrapped with tomatoes, red onions, feta cheese and Zaziki (sic) Dip on the side) It was a well filled sandwich. The edges of the pita bread were just able to meet. There was lots of chicken, tomato and onion inside. It was flavorful; the chicken was well seasoned and succulent. The tomato was flavorful, red, firm and nicely ripe. The tzatziki sauce was cool, mild and refreshing. There was just enough of it but I would have preferred a bit more. I could have asked more I’m sure (the staff was attentive and eager to please) but I would have liked a bit more of the tzatziki instead of rationing it.
The salad was a mix of crisp salad greens, cherry tomatoes, slices of cucumber, red onion, a Greek olive and a pepperoncini. It was topped with an in-house signature dressing. Actually, the salad was very good; neither I nor my companions had any difficulty in finishing our salad portions. I did, however, find it curious that so little or misdirected effort was made in the plating of the salad. True, someone plated the lettuce greens and from containers allotted the requisite tomatoes, cucumber slices and then added the dressing. It just had the appearance of being plopped on the plate and not neatly plated as the picture of a Greek salad in their menu would infer. It tasted just fine it just looked a bit unkempt. All in all, though, I thoroughly enjoyed my meal and mentally posted it as a place to return for another chicken gyro.
As for my companions, how was their dining experience? Janis is not what I would call an ethnic food person. In some ways the dietary choices are very limited. I would not before this day have considered that she would have ventured into a Greek restaurant not knowing what lurked inside. However, after today, The Greek Village is on a slowly expanding list of places to go out and enjoy a meal. That certainly is a compliment to The Greek Village. Perhaps, though, the best summary of our culinary voyage to the Mediterranean would be to show you Uncle Gilbert’s plate.

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Monday, June 10, 2013
  Kahiki General Tso's Chicken
40-ounce Club Package
General Tso's Chicken
Kahiki General Tso’s Chicken

I have not too long ago done a product review on another General Tso’s chicken. It did not bear up well to scrutiny. When I purchased that product in the supermarket, I was looking for another brand that I had previously purchased in Sam’s Club, Kahiki Genral Tso’s chicken. I have since returned to Sam’s Club and purchased some good stuff and I have done a little research on the Kahiki line. They make an extensive line of various oriental-style foods, mostly chicken based, in 10-ounce individual servings, 24 to 32-ounce family servings and 40-ounce club packages for Sam’s Club and Costco. Strangely, the offerings between the two membership stores are different. Sam’s Club offers General Tso’s Chicken and Sweet and Sour Chicken whereas Costco offers The General’s Chicken (I would guess guess General Tso’s by another name) and Crispy Honey Chicken. The Kahiki website features a store locator to find stores that sell their products. When I looked for a location nearby that sold the smaller portions, I could find none in my or surrounding ZIP codes in Gulf-coast central Florida. It looks like I will have to continue buying my supply at one or the other large, membership box stores.
Chicken Morsels
on Baking Sheet
Individual Packet
With Chicken and Sauce
In looking over their product line, I noted that most, but not all, of the smaller serving sizes were entrees but many of the larger, family-sized offerings also contained the accompanying rice. Read the package to see what you are buying.

As I mentioned, I have purchased this product before and was satisfied enough that I sought it out again. When I couldn’t find it in the local supermarket I instead purchased another product that did not at all meet expectations. In this instance I returned to Sam’s Club and purchase the Kihiki General Tso’s Chicken (Tempura white meat chicken in a mildly spiced ginger and garlic sauce) in the 40-ounce Club Pack.
Sauce Packet
in Hot Wtaer
Chicken Morsels
Mixed With Sauce
Opening the box you find two plastic wrapped equal portions containing the pre-cooked breaded chicken and a packet of sauce. The chicken is heated on a baking sheet in a preheated 400° F oven for 15 to 18 minutes (deep fry instructions are also included if you wish). The sauce packet is defrosted-heated in a bowl with heated to boiling water. When the chicken and the sauce are heated, coat the chicken with the sauce by gently folding with a spatula in a bowl. That is about as simple as you can get heat and serve.

General Tso's Chicken
Served With Saffron Chicken Fried Rice
And An Egg Roll
As much as I like this product, for the purists I will admit that it is not complete. Traditionally served with a chili pod, broccoli and sometimes steamed carrots, this version has the chicken and sauce only. That doesn’t bother me so much because I am in the instance using it as a side dish with my from-scratch home-made saffron chicken fried rice. If I were going to feature the General Tso’s Chicken as a main dish, I would prepare some broccoli and carrots on the side and add them to the plate. As such I believe they would fare well when compared to the offerings better take-out establishments. The sauce is mildly seasoned. If you like your General Tso’s on the hotter side the sauce would benefit from the addition  of a bit of cayenne or red pepper flakes.

Not always easy to find and the exact product you are looking for may not be available. Preparation is easy and straightforward. Most chicken pieces are bite-sized white meat that is coated well. The sauce is of the right consistency, an adequate amount and it clings well. The result is a product that is very tasty, of good quality. If you like General Tso’s Chicken I believe you will enjoys the version produced by Kahiki.

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Monday, June 03, 2013
  Aboard the MV Columbia 10/16/12 – 10/19/12

MV Columbia underway on the Lynn Canal. Passing Haines en route to Skagway.
Aboard the MV Columbia 10/16/12 – 10/19/12 
Alaska Marine Highway System
Haines, Alaska to Bellingham, Washington

Dining Room
First off I would remind the reader that the vessels of the Alaska Marine Highway System are there provide transportation to the far flung and isolated ports of call along the inland waterway. They will haul your vehicle, seemingly no matter what the size, and if you can’t afford the cost of a cabin you can snuggle down in the chairs of the observation lounge or pitch your tent on the fantail. In that respect they have no equal. They are not cruise ships but they do things the cruise ships cannot. Whatever else the ships of the Alaska Marine Highway System do provide is an extra, a convenience for the traveler. In that respect they do an exceptional job as well. This blog will be a cumulative narration of the meals I enjoyed during my trip from Haines, Alaska to Bellingham, Washington aboard the MV Columbia.

Breakfast - eggs, bacon, hash browns,
 toast and coffee.
There are two places to eat aboard the Columbia. One is the dining room, a more formal experience with linen tablecloths and real silverware and you order from a menu. The other is the snack bar cafeteria, a more casual affair. Snacks are available all night and during mealtimes the short order cook can provide you with burgers, hot dog, grilled sandwiches or steam-table entrees that change daily. I decided to try out the fare the first morning in the dining room.

The dining room was not busy at the moment and I was shown directly to a table. My server, Celistino, was there a moment later and took my order. As is my breakfast custom, I went looking for bacon, hash browns and eggs. That was listed as combination number 1 (2 eggs any style, ham, bacon or sausage, breakfast potatoes, toast. $9.75) Celistino was careful to remind me that I might also enjoy a morning cup of coffee. I did not have a long wait. While I was waiting I took the time to look around the dining room. It was neat and clean. The tables were all set with tablecloths, napkins and silverware, glasses and coffee cups and saucers; a bit of elegance on the high seas. The order was prepared quickly. Neatly arranged on a platter with a slice of orange for a garnish, the eggs were to order though perhaps cooked a bit too long on the one side. The hash browns were nicely browned, crispy outside and cooked through the middle.  The bacon was fried nice and crisp and there were four slices to the order. Two slices of toasted white bread with the butter and the jellies on the side all made for a hearty breakfast.  Aside from the eggs being slightly overcooked, the meal was prepared and served well. It was a relaxed meal, no rush and I felt I could linger as long as I liked; Celistino, my server, refilled my coffee cup when near empty until I bade him to stop. 

There is a sign on the table. It explains that the staff of the MV Columbia as well as all the employees of the Alaska Marine Highway System are State of Alaska employees, officers if you will, and the rules forbids then from accepting tips or gratuities. Even though the staff was not working for tips, their service on this trip has been of high quality and certainly in any other circumstance would have earned them a generous reward.

Sweet and Sour Pork, Egg Roll
Also, canned green beans and a biscuit
Snack Bar Dining Room
My next meal aboard the MV Columbia was the next day for lunch. I decided to try out the snack bar and get a cheeseburger and fries. After all, if you can’t make a good hamburger, or fries for that matter, the rest of the offerings are suspect. It is a combination facility. There are prepared sandwiches, salads and desserts in a refrigerated self serve counter. That is available on a twenty four basis. For scheduled lunch and dinner hours, there is a short order grill offering the usual hamburgers, hot dogs and grilled sandwiches. There is also a small steam table where entrees for the daily special are prepared in the kitchen that adjoins the dining room and the snack bar. I was a bit early and got in line to order my cheeseburger. However, a hand lettered sign offered the daily special, sweet and sour pork (Lunch Special 31, $9.00). I couldn’t pass that up.  The rice and the sweet and sour pork were already in the steam table trays. The cook was momentarily flustered and he told me that the egg rolls hadn’t yet been cooked. I told him I would wait. It only took a few minutes before the egg rolls were done and he ladled out a generous helping of rice and sweet and sour pork.  As a curiosity, I will add that it was just an entrée and the usual serving is the entrée, a vegetable and a roll. He asked me if I wanted the green beans and being hungry I said yes. He added the roll and the egg roll to complete the serving. While I was waiting I also picked out a fruit salad ($4.00) and a 12-ounce soda ($1.75). The green beans were from a big can and heated up for serving. They were as good as canned green beans can get. The rice was well cooked, a nice sticky oriental style. The sweet and sour was well made. The sauce was not overpowering; I had pineapple chunks, some carrots and sweet red peppers. The pork serving was several large pieces of a mix of roast and ribs. It was a large serving with only a couple of small bones. It was tasty and the meat tender, easy to cut with the plastic knife and fork. The egg roll, a large one at that, was also a prepared heat and serve from the distributor. Basically,  It was a seasoned cabbage filler. It was an egg roll but not outstanding. It would have benefitted from some sort of dipping sauce. The fruit salad was a prepared offering in a plastic container. It consisted of melon, cantaloupe and honeydew, with red grapes. The melon was ripe without being mushy. I would judge the salad fresh as there was virtually no liquid in the bottom of the container. It was a tasty meal, served in large portions and one that I enjoyed. Considering that it was a steam table cafeteria offering it was very good. Add to that the cook had to hurry and fill my order all the while working on the other orders and he did it with a smile. It was an enjoyable meal. The dining area is neat and clean, well tended. It also can be busy at meal times so I didn’t linger as much as I would have liked to make room for other diners.
Cheeseburger and French fries

The next day my next meal really was a cheeseburger and French fries. I picked up a tray and moved past the prepared foods to the short order area. I ordered a cheeseburger and fries ($8.75 – Remember, we are paying Alaska prices).  While I waited for my order, I poured myself a Coca Cola from the serve yourself dispenser. My preference is for a grilled meat patty. Since open fires and flaring grease are not exactly a good idea aboard a ship, the griddle fried patty was acceptable.  The patty was cooked through but not overcooked and dry.  The cheese was thoroughly melted over the top of the patty. The burger was served open faced with lettuce, tomato, onion and dill hamburger slices. The French fries were served in a bowl alongside. I proceeded to the cashier. Although the ship does not offer wi-fi or satellite services for personal computers, the ship does have satellite communications capability. You can pay with your credit or debit card just as if you were in any major city in the lower Forty Eight; just a swipe of your card and enter your PIN. A dispenser near the cashier offers all the condiments you might need; just press the plunger and fill your portion cup.

Fry cook making my cheeseburger
Business was light so I quickly found and empty booth. I was looking over my order in front of me while I pulled out my camera to take a picture.  The hamburger bun was the large size, fresh and soft and the cooked hamburger patty came almost to the edge of the bun. The lettuce was a large leaf of curly leaf lettuce, vibrant green, crisp and fresh. The tomato slice was from a large, red and ripe tomato. The onion slice, a thick slab, was from a flavorful red onion. There were seven or eight hamburger dill slices as well. Put the burger on a regular ceramic platter to have enough room to add the fries, it would have been in place, fit in, in just about any eat in restaurant you can think of. But what was most amazing to me, on this car carrying ferry boat, is that they serve fresh, vibrant and favorable vegetables. It is even more amazing when you consider where the ship is and what a complicated and sinuous path they had to follow to be aboard the ship right now. The logistics are simply amazing. A bit of that awe, knowing where I am and seeing what I had before me, was parcel to every meal I had aboard the MV Columbia. I almost forgot; it was an excellent cheeseburger. The patty was cooked through, fresh off the grill, juicy and hot, the vegetables fresh and tasty and just the right amount of dressing – after all, I put it there myself.
Ham and Cheese Omelet,
hash browns, toast and coffee

The next morning I decided to treat myself and I went to the dining room for breakfast.  I selected the ham and cheese omelet (Daily Special number 5: $9.75 Three egg omelet - Denver, ham and cheese or Spanish – breakfast potatoes and toast. I also had my morning coffee, $1.75) The coffee, fresh as usual, had a good flavor comparable to any other upscale restaurant. The servers make frequent tours filling coffee cups to the brim. Sugar is individual serving packets and cream in is offered individual creamers. There were four slices of toast, a nice toasted golden brown, served with ample supplies of butter and jam. The breakfast potatoes were an ample serving of hash browns. They were cooked through with a dark golden brown, slightly crispy outside. They were not at all oily. All they needed was a dash of salt. That brings us to the omelet. Some scaring episodes in my early life have left me very particular about my eggs; about egg shells, grease, over-cooked and undercooked. This omelet was not offensive on any account. It was pan cooked, light and fluffy almost a soufflé. It wasn’t one of those omelets cooked on a griddle where the eggs spread out thin and get cooked to a nice rubbery consistency. It also wasn’t one of those French omelets, folded onto a plate without cooking the other side, rolling the still raw egg on the inside to make what the French omelet chef’s apologize for as being “creamy.” The filling of peppers, onions and ham is cooked on the side. The filling plus some grated cheese blend is folded inside and additional cheese over the top. The filling was ample, the filling cooked till the vegetables were just soft but not mushy. The egg itself was cooked to just the lightest golden brown nd the inside light and fluffy and fully cooked. What’s not to like. I really enjoyed that breakfast; it was almost as if the chef had asked me exactly how I wanted my omelet cooked.

My Second Cheeseburger
That evening for dinner I went to the snack bar. I ordered a cheeseburger and fries ($8.75). Cooked on the spot, my order was ready in just a few minutes. This meal was not as artistically arrange as my previous cheeseburger. The bun was stacked instead of open faced which made room for the fries on the plate. The once big leaf of crispy lettuce was now a token chip. We were three days out of Haines and I suppose supplies of fresh lettuce would be running low. On the side there was ample sliced red onion, fresh ripe red tomato and four slices of dill hamburger slices. The patty was cooked a bit more than needed, had a little more shrinkage, but not over cooked to dryness. The fries were cooked golden brown and were not greasy. They had been in a holding pan so were not piping hot out of the fryer but they were still warm enough to be appetizing. The ingredients and preparation were the same as the previous cheeseburger save perhaps a low supply of lettuce and a minute more on the grill and a bit less artistic skill. It tasted just as good and was satisfying. To put it in perspective, if this cheeseburger had been preassembled with a bit too much dressing, wrapped in paper and then pre-squashed, placed in a paper bag, it would more than held its own against anything McDonalds or Burger King could offer.
Delicious Shrimp Salad

In the late evening, after the rill has closed for the day, the snack bar dining room is a popular place to meet, play cards, sit and chat, write letters home. I found a table with a convenient electrical outlet and it made for a comfortable place to come and use my laptop computer. I went through the food line to get a soda to sip on while I typed. In the prepared food section there was a shrimp salad. I have always liked shrimp salad, liked it a lot (see ). The temptation was just too great and I just had to have shrimp salad for a late night snack. I had actually seen a shrimp salad sitting on the crushed ice in that very spot for the last day or so. I wasn’t sure if it was the same one. I looked it over very carefully through the neat Saran wrapping. Here waqs a small trove of crisp looking lettuce, the tomato, egg and cucumber all looked to be fresh cut. The shrimp had the dull look, not weeping and glossy like shrimp past its prime. I took a chance. When I unwrapped the salad I took a careful sniff. I could smell shrimp but it was a mild fresh smell not like the fishing pier on a hot sunny day. It was as fresh as the shrimp I could buy from the market in the home town of Chugiak-Eagle River.  The salad couldn’t have been more than a few hours old. The shrimp must come aboard frozen and just defrosted to make new salads as needed. Crisp green lettuce, fresh tomato, crisp and cold cucumber and a sliced hardboiled egg all made for an excellent salad and a nice late night snack.

Chuck Wagon Breakfast
Biscuit, scrambled eggs and corned beef hash
The MV Columbia is a car ferry. Its schedule depends on a timely loading and unloading of the vehicles. My vehicle was loaded at near the origin of this voyage. As a result, it is poised to be the second vehicle off the ferry when we arrive in Bellingham, Washington. It is an early morning arrival in Bellingham; the sun had not yet risen as we pulled into the berth at Bellingham. As a result, there just isn’t any time for a leisurely breakfast. In fact, the main dining room wasn’t even scheduled to open. However, to accommodate passengers up very early, the snack bar had a special they called the Chuck Wagon Breakfast ($4.50 Scrambled eggs, corned beef hash and a biscuit). It was a nice way to feed the up early passengers hurrying to get ready to depart the ferry. I, of course, jumped at the opportunity to have a full belly or the rush to the freeway. The server didn’t skimp on the serving; he just kept ladling the hash.  The biscuit: it was a flaky, layered biscuit. It was nicely bake, golden brown on top. It had a good appearance, split easily between layers for some butter. It was a good biscuit but not great; perhaps a bit on the heavy side. It was, however, more than adequate in the early morning. I think the eggs were whole eggs. They cooked a lot of eggs on the griddle and that tends to change the texture, makes then denser, not as light as pan cooked scrambled eggs. They were very tasty. The corned beef hash came from a can, a very big can. There was a steam table tray full of corned beef hash. If you have ever used corned beef hash you know that it tends to be a bit greasy. If you fry it up in a pan the grease seems to go away. Or, you can drain it for a few minutes in a colander and let the grease drain away. IN this case the corned beef in the steam table tray still had all the grease. You can see it oozing out from the corned beef in the picture. I ate the eggs, the biscuit and the top layer of the corned beef. The bottom layer I just had to waste and throw it away. If it hadn’t been for the grease it would have been an almost perfect quick and easy get up and go breakfast.  For all the meals that had aboard the MV Columbia I guess this would be my only complaint and that may be the significant point in this blog. Basically, the food aboard the MV Columbia is A-Okay.

When one considers that the MV Columbia and her sister ships have a captive audience and whatever they chose to provide for the passengers depends upon the character of the Maritime Highway System and the captain and crews of the vessels.  They basically have free rein. To their credit they do an exceptional job and as a result a journey on the Alaska Marine Highway System is a pleasure. To emphasize the point we should compare the Marine Highway System to another major transportation provider for people going to and from Alaska, the airlines. Oh, that’s right. There is no comparison at all.
Snack Bar Kitchen
During the quiet hours

Passage Way Between Snack Bar Kitchen
 and Main Dining Room Kitchen

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Saturday, June 01, 2013
  OEC Japanese Express

OEC Take-Out Tempura Chicken Plated At Home
To See What An In Restaurant Serving
Would Look Like
OEC Japanese Express  March 4, 2013
2438 66th St No
St Petersburg, FL 33710
(727) 345-4088


It surely is a nice day when you have a pleasant surprise. Today was one such day. A year or so ago I received a flyer in the mail advertising OEC Japanese Express. It was an interesting concept; a storefront fast food Japanese emporium. At the time I did not think I had ever encountered anything like that before. It was on my list of things to do but often was put aside for other things that came to light; maybe someday…

What is in the bag? This is what I got when I ordered a
Teriyaki Chicken Bento Box to-go.
It was the wife’s day out today. She was on a shopping trip with her girlfriend. That left me free to find my own lunch. I rummaged through some of my papers and found the flyer for OEC and decided to give it a try. I wasn’t sure what I’d find. In my mind I was comparing it to several storefront Chinese restaurants in the area which are very bare boned; edible but really nothing to brag about. On the way to OEC Japanese express I was reminded of the old axiom of location, location, location. OEC is located on one corner of a very busy intersection. Access has to be planned ahead of time and casual drive-by encounters with OEC would be rare. In spite of being a difficult to access location, OEC has prospered and is still in business. That is always a good sign. Looking up OEC Japanese Express on the Internet I could only find one reference and that to the store in St. Petersburg. This restaurant is apparently not part of a chain and is a unique entity which may explain why the employees seem so dedicated to their store.

The Bento Box - The teriyaki chicken and vegetables.
The store is more than just a takeout counter. It is also a small sit down eat in restaurants as well. It is subtly decorated and does have a bit of the feel of Japan. I know more than entered the door then I was approached by the hostess. I informed her it was a takeout order. She has guarded me to the counter and provided me with a menu to make my selection. The menu is very complete. It features most of the items you would find in a more traditional sit-down restaurant. My selection was the bento box on the lunch special for $11.99. For the main course of the bento box you have a choice of teriyaki chicken, steak, shrimp, salmon or white fish. I selected the teriyaki chicken ($11.99 Choose from Teriyaki Chicken, Steak, Shrimp, Salmon or White Fish It is served with a California roll, house salad, white rice, and you have your choice of shumai or an eggroll). I chose the pork eggroll. The bento box gives the opportunity to sample many of the dishes at one time; the sushi, the rice, and the other traditional entrées. I was curious about how they would package the bento box to go since it usually requires a special plate.

The Bento Box - The California Roll
After I placed my order I sat down in one of the booths and looked around the restaurant, taking in my surroundings. There are several booths along one wall and tables and chairs occupied the rest of the area. I also noticed a few tables outside for alfresco dining. There is also a sit at sushi bar with about a half a dozen stools. From my vantage point I could watch the sushi chefs preparing foods for the day’s customers and I also had a peek inside of the kitchen and could watch many of the activities as they prepared my order.

One of the sushi chefs was preparing cucumbers. He was peeling the cucumbers into a paper thin strip. He worked his way around the cucumber making a long continuous strip. It w3as one continuous cut until he reached the seeds which were then discarded. I was amazed at his skill with the knife and thoroughly entertained while waiting for my order; his skills were excellent. From what I could see the kitchen, it was neat and tidy and very clean as was the rest of the restaurant. It was a little before noon and there were only three other customers in the restaurant (the small open-air patio outside had several customers but they had apparently already been served). My order was completed in a very short time. Neatly packaged in a plastic bag it was brought to me by the hostess. I hurried home to see just what I got.

This is what I got when I ordered
Tempura Chicken and California Roll to-go.
The accessories included two pouches of soy sauce, a pair of disposable chopsticks, and just in case, a fork. The house salad was in a small Styrofoam container by itself. The main part of the salad was coarsely grated lettuce, some finely grated carrot and a slice of tomato. It was accompanied by a small container of a mild dressing similar to 1000 island dressing. Lettuce was crisp and not discolored. The slice of tomato was from a nice ripe tomato that had good flavor. The dressing, though mild and taste, was a good accompaniment to the salad. The eggroll was also in its own little Styrofoam container with a small container of what appeared to be duck sauce. The eggroll was neatly wrapped crispy and fried to a nice Golden Brown. The filling was flavorful and consisted of a mixture of pork and cabbage. The dipping sauce was slightly fruity, slightly sweet with only a hint of sour. It also was a good accompaniment to the eggroll.

The Tempura Chicken with a crispy - flaky crust.
My curiosity about how they would serve the bento box without satisfied. It is served in a compartmented plastic to-go bento box; a nice touch. The main food compartment contained the teriyaki chicken. Under the chicken were some vegetables consisting of broccoli, carrot, onion and scallion and some nice slices of mushroom. To say the vegetables were under the chicken is not mean they were skimping a chicken. The chicken was all white meat, cut in small bite-size pieces and was a very generous serving. The teriyaki sauce was thinner than I would have expected, it didn’t cling, but had an excellent flavor. I saved some of the steamed white rice to sop up the teriyaki sauce after I had finished my chicken and vegetables. The white rice was an ample serving as well overflowing its compartment into the small compartment that would normally be occupied by the wasabi and beni shoga. The next compartment contained the California roll. There were six slices. The rice layer was very thin; the filling of crab and avocado and daikon was more than ample. The California rolls were freshly made but some of the ingredients may have shared space with sashimi and had just a slight taste of fish. Other than that, the California rolls were excellent. The last bento box compartment contained a small Dixie portion Cup had the essential wasabi and beni shoga. Thinking of other bento boxes that I have sampled, I recall that that one of the compartments would usually have a small selection of vegetable tempura. What I mean to say is that although this bento box selection was smaller than others I have tried it contained all of the items listed on the menu in ample quantity.

California Roll with Masago (capelin roe)
What started out as a curiosity quest ended up being a voyage of discovery. OEC Japanese Express is close by, is very clean and well-maintained, provides ample servings of good tasting, well-prepared food at a fairly reasonable price. I do believe that OEC will become one of my favorite places to go for a fast bite to eat when I don’t have time to cook at home. To anyone who asks, anyone who likes Japanese food, I would say yes, try OEC Japanese Express for a bit of sushi or other traditional Japanese dishes prepared for the American palate. I enjoyed this encounter very much and I will be going back again. I do believe I’ll try the tempura next…

A Revisit  to OEC Japanese Express March  17, 201

Over the next week or so I remembered fondly my first encounter with OEC Express. Enough so that I was back again for lunch and would now sample the chicken tempura ($8.99 Served with white rice. It includes containers of tentsuyu dipping sauce and another creamier sauce). I was a bit on the hungry side so I also ordered a side of California roll ($3.95 8-pieces Crab, cucumber, avocado and masago in place of the usual tobiko. Includes a container of beni shoga and wasabi). The California roll tasted good; it had a fresh smell. The filling was more than adequate which made the rice layer a bit thin. The rice was perhaps not as sticky as it should have been and the roll was, how should I say, tender and I had to handle them very carefully. Other than that small bit, the roll was excellent, the dipping sauce flavorful. The chicken tempura had a bit of different coating than I would have expected for a tempura batter.  It was more like a fried coating on Southern-fried chicken, crispy and flaky. It was more a difference of style than substance in the long run because the coating was excellent, light and not greasy. The chicken inside was cooked through to perfection; hot, steamy and still moist. The tentsuyu sauce was favorable but seemed a bit thin.  The creamy sauce was mild in flavor but I really can’t say what the main flavor was; not as prickly as a 1000 Island nor was it as pronounced in flavor as a Ranch dressing.  I alternated between the two but looking back I would say I preferred the tentsuyu; perhaps I am just a traditionalist. The side container had a nice serving of sticky white rice. I was able to eat it with chopsticks. Two single serving packets of soy sauce were included.

Both of these dinners were package to go for take home.  That is not the best way to showcase your food product. However, the packaging shows care in preparing the food to go. The end product is tasty and attractive. OEC Japanese Express will certainly be on my list of favorite places to go.

You can call in to order ahead, take out, eat in or perhaps linger at the sushi bar. For a minimum order of $15 they offer free delivery in the local area. OEC Japanese Express has a website at

HTTP://www.oecexpress. com ;  there you will find information about the restaurant including the unusual name, directions to get there, their menu, and some pictures of the foods they prepare.

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