Beware the nachos of Old Chicago

I went to Old Chicago under the assumption that the nachos would suck.

I just felt in being truthful right up front. It had been four or five years, and the last time I had the OC nachos, they hadn’t been good. Not really even close to good. But as a nacho aficionado, I felt I would give them another try. At least 1200 days had passed, plenty of time for the cooks to improve their nachos since my last experience there. Surely someone would have figured out their nachos were subpar and resolve that problem.

Nachos at Old Chicago

Nachos at Old Chicago

We’ll start slow. Let’s talk about the salsa. I couldn’t figure out if I was accidently given pizza sauce, or it was just bad salsa, or some bastardized, unholy combination of the two. I fear the latter, but it didn’t take long to figure out the bowl of red in the middle of the plate was something to be avoided. Flanking the bowl of evil  were two big globs of sour cream. Certainly enough to get me through my meal – much appreciated. Those globs completely covered a pair of chips, but as it turns out, two fewer chips on the plate was a blessing.

After much experimenting, I found that the best combination of ingredients were chips with cheese. That’s it. No beans, no meat, certainly no salsa. Because the cheese was the best part of the who meal. (Well, technically, the two pints of Two-Hearted were the best, but let’s stick with the food.) The cheese has a bit of seasoning that gave it a very mild, spicy flavor, and the chips were crispy. And I can’t fault them for volume – I ended up not finishing them, though only part of that was the amount of food.

Old Chicago charges $2 to put ground beef on their nachos. They should default to putting it on, and charge $2 to take it off. That was some of the blandest ground beef I have tasted. Add that to the equally bland black beans, and you have the making of a truly below average set of nachos. Really, it was disappointing all the way around. There were some vegetables, but they couldn’t make a mark is the badness that was the beef. Somehow, some green peppers snuck onto my plate, continuing the freefall of nacho quality.

So here is my advice: Order nothing with the word “Nacho” in it at Old Chicago. Take the $10 you would have spent on nachos and put it towards something they do well, like pizza. Or beer.

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Tannin, Okemos

Tannin had been on our radar for quite some time, and we zeroed-in last week to eat at the Okemos restaurant. Tannin was my 41st new (to me) restaurant of the year.

I liked the wooden paneling and canned lights surrounded by corks and the pictures of Detroit above our table. Seeing pictures of Detroit usually makes me glad I’m not there. (No offense people who live there.) Service that night was a little slow, but the waiter did have a lot tables, and he was hustling. He reminded me slightly of Zak Galifianakis, a name I was nowhere close to spelling correctly the first time. For the record, he did not slip us roofies, so it wasn’t a “The Hangover 4” situation. And he made a good wine suggestion for Andrea which made her happy. I made a nice choice of white, and I was happy. We were both winning at life.

But when it came to the food, there was only one winner. That winner happened to be me and the choice of champons, chicken carbonara. Though its gray-colored pasta shells didn’t look appetizing (they looked like undead button mushrooms, a food I dislike weather a member of the undead or just a normal fungus), but the taste made up for that. it was cheesy with super tender chicken, and though not among my favorite pasta dishes in Lansing (Red Cedar Grill’s mac & cheese and Bravo’s braised beef ravioli come to mind), it was a decent dish.

Tannin

Tannin

Andrea ordered the hard-to-pronounce amatriciana. I had considered ordering the same, but I have a thing where I don’t like ordering what my wife orders. It’s nothing personal, I assure you. The problem with her pasta was the taste, which is kind of a big thing for a meal. The red sauce seemed like plain tomato paste, and there was an overwhelming amount of it. It had plenty of flavor, just not a good one. Perhaps they were trying to cover up the underwhelming noodles. There were a lot of those noodles, but a lot of something you don’t want isn’t much of a deal.

I’m torn on a return visit. The wine selection looked strong, and the appetizers also looked appealing even if the pasta didn’t impress. There was more on the menu than just pasta, and that would be my target dish. Service and ambiance were positive, it just fell a bit flat on the food.

Chili’s, Okemos

I didn’t suggest Chili’s for the quiet atmosphere. I expected the opposite, and that’s what we got. It was a family outing, so an intimate setting was not required. On past visits, I had good margaritas, burgers, and chicken crispers, and some combination of those things is what I intended to order.

Chili’s is also a good place to go to make yourself look like a better parent. The place echoes with the screeches of kids whose parents care little for the desires of others. My daughter is mouse-like in her silence compared to many howler monkeys that pass for children. For all my failings, having a child that screams in restaurants is not one of them.

As I mentioned, I had intended on having my usual Chili’s fare, but I was thrown off course by the smoked chicken burrito. It sounded interesting, and certainly looked appetizing – oh, those clever menu item photographers.  I wish I had made that career choice instead of computer programmer. The words “smoked”, “chicken”, and “burrito” just sounded awesome together, too. In fact, Chili’s had given itself a Tex-Mex makeover, more Mex-y, less Tex-y, and there were quite a few things that looked new to me.

Smoked chicken burrito

Smoked chicken burrito

The burrito turned out to be alright. It wasn’t that I disliked it, but I could get something better at Chipotle or Qdoba, and it would have been cheaper, too. There just needed to be a bit something more in the flavor department to make the burrito more exciting. Jalapenos or raccoon or something, I don’t know. Yes, I do know. They need to transfer some of the jalapenos from the side of beans into the burrito, then it would have been a well-balanced meal.

At some point, I will return to Chili’s – the call of the chicken crispers is strong, and they have a strong entry in the nachos  department. I hope the smoked chicken burrito gets more smoky or gets a flavor boost because it’s got good potential. Perhaps they need to tone it down so the parents ignoring their animals are distracted from their phones. But the next time I’m in the mood for a burrito, I’ll head to Cancun. The Okemos restaurant, not the city – that’s a bit far to go for dinner.

Gilbert & Blake’s, Okemos

Mother’s Day had come, and that means I cook. And when I say “I cook”, that means we go out. We made the not-long trip to Okemos to visit Gilbert & Blake’s. We don’t go there often, not because of the food, it’s just not in our normal sphere of restaurants. We tend to reserve G&B’s for special occasions, like birthdays and solar eclipses.

It was a tough choice. I intended to order fish, since I consider G&Bs a fish restaurant (that’s just me). I was considering three options, but I decided on the Honey Mustard Rainbow Trout. It narrowly beat out the Jalapeno Salmon, but since by wife ordered that, it was a win-win. The perch was also in the running, but rainbow trout makes me think of “The Rainbow Connection”, and who doesn’t like singing frogs? Follow that logic? Me neither.

When they first brought it out, I wondered who put the hang glider on my plate. It nearly covered the entire plate. Though the fish is fileted, and was fairly thin, it was still a lot of fish. And it is covered in a heavy honey mustard sauce. I didn’t taste much of the fish because the sauce was so overwhelming. But luckily, the sauce was good, with a nice balance of honey and mustard, so I didn’t mind. But if you don’t like mustard, you need to stay away from this meal.

Gilbert and Blake's

Gilbert and Blake’s

Gilbert & Blake’s doesn’t have a huge draft beer selection, but they had a few good offerings. I went with the Sam Adams Summer Ale, because it was close enough to summer. There were a few IPAs to choose from, but I bypassed the hoppy beers for something, well, better. And I poured some beer on the floor for my homey, Damon’s, which this particular G&B’s used to be. Those four big murals at the back of the restaurant? Those were TVs. Consider yourselves informed.

You don’t need to wait until holidays are exciting astronomical events to go to Gilbert & Blake’s. Both Gilbert and Blake are fantastic people, and would love to see you any time of year.

Ukai, Okemos

Bonzai!

What’s better than Japanese food? Japanese food and a great big fire. That is the pull of Ukai in Okemos, a hibachi grill with entertaining chefs, huge flames, and, oh yeah, excellent food.

We entered through the large wooden doors complete with lion pull rings. I’d like to see McDonald’s try to pull that off. We were led past the sushi bar and aquarium – I don’t think the fish were going to be dinner – and into the main dining area, which had eight tables. Each table could seat eight, and each had their own grill. So if you do the math, that equals a bunch of people and eight great big fires.

Ukai

Ukai

First off, I went for the large Sapporo, because that’s how I roll. Maybe you’re a Mai Tai person, maybe wine, maybe sake. I don’t know under which category you fall, but you have your options. I had hoped that my beer would come in a paper sack, but apparently, you have to order a Mad Dog to get one, and they were all out of Mad Dog.

I always get the teriyaki chicken, and this trip was no exception. The dinner start with salad and soup. I found it very hard to eat the soup with chopsticks, so I had to resort to the spoon. I know, I know – Japanese food fail. The soup seemed extra salty which is fine by me – salt is the fifth food group. And you know you love little chunks of tofu floating in your soup. Oh, lovely soy bean-based cubes.

But, man does not live by soy-based products in soup alone. (I think that’s from the Bible.) No, the star of my show was the teriyaki chicken. After the ninja chef was done doing his magic, I had a plate with chicken, fried rice, sprouts, onions, mushrooms, and a few shrimp appetizers. And there was a lot of food waiting anxiously in front of me… waiting for me to devour it.

Teriyaki chicken

Teriyaki chicken

And devour it I did. The teriyaki sauce wasn’t heavy and the chicken was nicely prepared. And there was a lot of it – no skimping at Ukai. If you go hungry, it’s your own fault. Besides tasty chicken, I like my fried rice with lots of egg, and that’s what I got – lucky me. And you may not get one of these, but we were there for my daughter’s sixth birthday dinner, and they brought out a boat carved out of a pineapple, along with an orange and Maraschino cherries skewed with little plastic swords.

Ukai is a great break from the ordinary restaurant scene. Good food, very nice servers and chefs, large Japanese beers, and fires that could take off your eyebrows – in other words, a recipe for a great outing.

The almost Italian beef at Old Chicago

Being the ambitious man I am, one of my great goals in life is to try an authentic Italian beef sandwich in Chicago. So many food shows have showcased this sandwich packed with beef and peppers and dripping with beef juice. It is truly a beautiful sandwich, unless you’re a vegetarian, in which case, you weep. But I fear no sandwich.

With that pointless background information, I went to Old Chicago in Okemos for their version of an Italian beef. And I have the sneaking suspicion that a Chicagoan would scoff at what I had been served. No dripping juice, no bustling street-side location, no triple-digit murder total – this just wasn’t the Chicago experience. 

Old Chicago Italian Beef

Old Chicago Italian Beef

That said, the sandwich was pretty good, but instead of an iconic food experience, it was simply a French Dip with cheese, peppers and something spicy lurking inside. (Come to think of it, that’s basically what an Italian beef sandwich seems to be.) I suppose if I dumped the au jus on the sandwich it would have been dripping, but I probably also would have been wet, so I made due. Again, not bad – the beef was tender and tasty, and if you’re in the mood for a French Dip, then this sandwich is basically a deluxe version. Fries were squarely in the “ordinary” category, nothing bad to report, and there was no fry shortage on my plate. And pickles! There were pickles, too.

Along with the meal I got two beers. (They weren’t included – I had to buy them.) There was a Halloween mini-tour going on, so I tried two new ones – very exciting. The most exciting Monday night experience, in fact, since last Monday night.

The first brew was a Maibock, which was smooth and sweet. This was my favorite of the two, and I could have drank that with anything. My second beer was Newcastle Werewolf, and it was listed as a “Blood red ale” and had a sour aftertaste. Maybe the werewolf they juiced to get my beer had eaten a lot of Sweet Tarts? That’s my guess.

I came for the Monday Night Football, stayed for the beer, and enjoyed the French Dip. I mean, Italian Beef.

The magnificient nachos of Buddies

I would like to contrast the these nachos, which I ate at Conrad’s on Monday:

Nachos at Conrad's, East Lansing

Nachos at Conrad's, East Lansing

With these nachos, which I ate at Buddies in Okemos on Thursday:

Buddies Nachos

Notice the beautiful mountain of nacho goodness of Buddies. I can barely see Andrea across the table, the pile is so high. Cheese, onions, beef, tomatoes, oh my. And we also splurged and got salsa, sour cream, and guacamole.  Living large in Lansing.

This is the “small”, by the way. It’s one of the menu quirks – the small is the large and the mini is the small. The mini is enough for one person, or perhaps two if you are light eaters or are getting dessert. We were able to eat about half of the small, and I had the rest for lunch the next day. They warmed up pretty well in the oven, but don’t make the mistake of putting nachos in the microwave. Soggy chips are just plain nasty. To give you an idea of what was left, here is the “after” picture. As you can see, plenty were left:

Buddies Nachos - after

But if there were a lot of chips and the nachos sucked, that’s no good. Luckily, Buddies has great nachos, and they have been at the top of my list since I first had them over ten years ago. Good tasting beef, and the sheer amount of cheese is overwhelming. And the toppings were not just on top – top, bottom, middle, sides – it was all covered.

And beer! They had lots of brews on tap. I went with a Founder’s porter, as I’m a fan of the Grand Rapids-based brewery. Andrea had a cider, so if you’re a hard cider fan, they have one of those on tap, too. Muy bueno.

Buddies has three locations. The Okemos location is in a strip mall at the corner of Grand River and Haslett Road. The East Lansing location is in the Carriage Hills shopping center at the north end of Hagadorn, near the former location of Goff, my first employer when I worked as a bag boy. And the Holt location is located at Aurelius and Holt Road. That location, by the way, has a ton of TVs, and is a great place to watch a game. Oh heck, go to all three and see which one is your favorite.