How the mighty fall… a farewell to Noodle Box

•August 26, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I used to love Noodle Box.  I loved their food, I loved their concept, I loved their story.  You could even say they were one of my culinary heroes – from humble food cart to franchise fame, they are a Victoria legend.  For a time, I fantasized about opening my own location up-island.  I loved them in Victoria, and later when they opened up in Vancouver while I dwelt there.  From the Spicy Peanut Noodles to the Thai Style Chow Mein, Cambodian Jungle Curry to Malaysian Lamb, I loved them all.  Their nifty little boxes used to fill my trash bin, but those days are no more.  Like a love story gone awry, my infatuation with Noodle Box has dried up.

The last time I stopped by for take-out, my bill came to $26.50 for 2 boxes – and one of those made my companion ill for the next 24 hours.

Lest you think I am unfairly judging by one bad experience, I must betray that there were signs things were going sour up to a year before.  Twice consecutively, we were told they couldn’t have our meals ready in an hour with a call-ahead at 3:30 in the afternoon.  Several other times, the counter staff treated us like a nuisance – once even ignoring me for over 5 minutes to have a personal cell phone conversation at the till I was standing in front of.  And repeatedly, the bland food.  You can ask them to make it hotter, but they seem unapologetic about their undeniably skimpier portions of meat & veg.  While condiments are getting scarcer with every box, the price of bare noodles seems to keep rising.  Quality ingredients, like free-range chicken or brown rice, come at a rich premium that exceeds my comfort level for take-out – and definitely off my list of Cheap Eats.

We tried changing locations, from the flagship shop on Fisgard to the newer one on Douglas.  Once we even went out to the new Langford location where, after a 45 minute wait, they admitted they’d given our meals to someone else and had to start again.  We tried mixing up the nights, reasoning that it must be a new chef *that* night.

Now I feel I must give up.  That spark is gone for me.  The line-ups attest to the fact that many others don’t share my sentiment, but perhaps they didn’t know NB back in the day and can’t measure it’s fall.  Maybe they think $12-16 per noodle or rice dish is a great deal, because they haven’t tried the alternatives around town.  For my money, I’ll be getting my noodle fix at Shanghai Noodle, Boxo or Foo from now on.

The Noodle Box

BBQ to go: PIG

•August 26, 2010 • Leave a Comment

It wasn’t too long ago that the only way to get your bbq fix was to make it yourself.  Thankfully, restaurants like Vancouver’s Memphis Blues, BBQues and Bronco Belle make getting your fix of real southern-style bbq a dining-out possibility.  Lest you think Victoria has missed the bbq boat, PIG is here to serve it up fast-food style.

PIG has two locations, a tiny take-out oriented shop on View Street (right by the Parkade entrance) and a larger more eat-in friendly spot in Colwood (on old Sooke Road by London Drugs).  Their menu is short but sweet, offering your choice of pulled pork, beef brisket, or smoked chicken sandwiches.  Sides include homemade cornbread, coleslaw and bbq beans.  The Colwood location also offers real Southern fried chicken, slow cooked ribs, and a bevy of unusual, interesting and delicious specials (think deep-fried Wagon Wheels and bacon-stuffed Sausages).   Wash it down with house made sweet (iced) Tea or they are licensed, if you prefer a cold beer or cooler with your bbq.

I’ve had the opportunity to try both, by which I mean you can call me an addict.  Their sandwiches are sloppy & meat-filled, with pork that’s not too sweet and has a good hit of smokiness.  The  fried chicken is nothing short of spectacular:  crispy coated, perfectly seasoned,  and topped with white sauce.  Vegetarians beware – there isn’t much here for you, I’m afraid.  It’s unabashed and unapologetic bbq meat goodness they peddle at PIG.

And the bill?  Unquestionably one of the best bargains in town.  Come in with a big hunger, and you’ll walk away with a Brisket Sandwich, a side of beans or coleslaw, and a soda for under $10.  They’re also fast enough for those work-day lunches, or an easy picnic in the park.  Oink!

Pig BBQ Joint

Get your Pakoras for nothing & your Mogos for free

•August 18, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I was strolling down Fort Street this morning on my way to work, and this sign in the front window of the Spice Jammer caught my eye.  This should be all the incentive anyone needs to sample their well reputed Indian and North African cuisine.  At only $5 including  beer or wine, it’s like getting your appies for free. (H)appy Hour indeed!

Que sera, Sura!

•August 17, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Spurred on by glowing reviews from friends, I’d been waiting for the opportunity to try the newest Korean restaurant in town for weeks.  When friends & fellow foodies from out-of-town called to say they would be visiting, I pounced on the chance to eat at Sura.

Although highly visible, they’re located in a part of downtown that currently struggles with popularity.  With renovation of the former Bay building to condo units underway, the area has seen an upswing in new businesses opening nearby, eager to get the jump on what is sure to be a new hot district in the near future.

Korean cuisine isn’t new to Victoria; they aren’t even the only ones offering Korean BBQ here.  Many North American diners aren’t familiar with Korean food, and seem trepidatious to try it.  I am a big fan and have enjoyed many great Korean BBQ dinners in Vancouver at Seoul House and Shabusen.  I have tried some of the local competition though, and found it easy to see why most have come and gone.  Sura is easily the exception to that experience.

Offering hot pots, bbq, and specialties such as Bibimbop and hearty soups & stews, Sura offers diners a wide variety of Korean food experiences.  The restaurant is airy and modern, with your choice of booths or tables for seating.  All sport grills for bbq and/or hotpot, which is prepared right at your table.  The staff are also notable, not only for their friendliness but exceptional helpfulness.  While none of us were new to the cuisine, we appreciated our servers explanation of each dish as well as her frequent stops by our table to ensure our bbq experience was a good one.  When one of our party (a chef herself) enquired about the contents of a specific recipe, she even went so far as to write them down on a list for us.

Individual meals start at a very reasonable $10.  The hotpots and bbq meals look a bit more pricey on the surface, but an order feeds several people and offers a very good value for the quantity of food served.  Our foursome had the Combo BBQ for four, which features a variety of meats (steak, short ribs, spare ribs, spicy pork, and chicken), yams and mushrooms (also for the grill), a seafood pancake, bowls of rice and little plates of the usual condiments (kimchi, pickled bean sprouts, and marinated long beans and potatoes) , and soup & salad to start.  At $75, that comes to under $20 a person for more food than any of us was able to finish.

Our waitress started us off with little dishes to nosh while our meats (trimmed and placed by her) grilled aromatically in front of us.  We were supplied with scissors, tongs, chopsticks and spoons, and set loose on our bbq experience.

Our dinner was simply delightful.  The meats were nicely marbled, marinated in delicious sauces, and tooth-tender.  You’re in control here, so everything gets grilled to your own taste, and cooking it was fun.  The condiments proved to be refreshing palate cleansers between servings of bbq, and the seafood items were delicately prepared.  We enjoyed our dinner with beer and warm sake, the perfect accompaniments to the rich flavors of our meal.  If I had to pick something to criticize, I might bypass the spicy pork but that may simply be a matter of taste.  Perhaps with time, I’ll come to enjoy it.  I certainly plan on coming back to find out!

Authentic Indian cuisine in the heart of old Victoria

•August 15, 2010 • 1 Comment

You might just walk past India Curry House and not even realize it.  Tucked away at the back of a historic building on lower Fort Street, only a sandwich board lures passers-by.  Those who venture in will find this small restaurant inviting, the air thick with exotic and delicious aromas.

They’re located close to my place of work, and I have been in for lunch twice now. The first occasion was when I was welcoming a new staff member and his family to the island, who were fresh off a plane and hungry, and they requested Indian.  Having heard good word-of-mouth reviews of India Curry House, we decided to take a look at their menu.  Although they boast a nice menu for dinner, they offer only buffet at lunch.  Not usually much of a buffet diner myself, I was skeptical that first time.  Since my new coworker (who is also Indian) was willing to try it, I figured I was in good company.

We were greeted warmly upon entering, and seated at one of only a handful of tables.  The buffet sits in an L formation in the lower part of the room, with the long line featuring hot items and salad & desert in the short part.  A pot-bellied stockpot also offered soup (rasam this day) in the centre.  The hot items consisted of rice pilaf, naan, butter chicken, goat curry, and several dahl.  I tried a little of each one, and found them to be a bit spicier than most Indian restaurants offer – something I enjoy – but not so spicy as to be a deterrent to most diners.  The goat curry was particularly rich and delicious, as were all of the dahl (today’s selections were lentil, potato & cauliflower, and mixed curry).   Butter chicken is one of my favorites, and something I often make at home; their version is thinner than I am accustomed to, but with good flavour and generous hunks of chicken.  My tablemates ate eagerly, and voiced an equal appreciation for the food.  Several of our party ordered Mango Lassis as a tasty accompaniment to their meals.

My next visit came a couple of weeks later.  I was gratified to find that the selection of entrees is rotated nicely, so that a frequent diner wouldn’t find it too repetitive an experience.  Another common deterrent of the buffet experience is food that is less than fresh, or conversely (although equally off-putting) a lack of food choices due to infrequent replenishing.  It’s a delicate balance, and one many otherwise excellent eateries fail to perfect.  When we arrived this day, there were several chafing dishes that were either completely empty or left with only picked-over dredges at the bottom.  I steeled myself for what I thought would be inevitable disappointment, but was happily surprised to find wait staff refilling the food immediately after our arrival.  Our server even brought a basket of fresh from the oven Naan directly to our table, having noticed we had none when we sat down.  We ate with gusto and appreciation, and even left room to sample the desert this day.  Ever the critic, I was sure the solitary bowl of what looked like rice pudding was a throw-away.  Instead, I found myself savouring the Rava Kesari (a semolina-based pudding rich with sliced almonds) down to the last spoonful.  The owner earnestly enquired about our meal at the till, and seemed to genuinely appreciate our compliments.  When he invited us back again soon, I could honestly say “absolutely!”  And at $12 a person for as much as you can eat, it’s not much of a guilty pleasure.

Here is my “cheater” recipe for quick & easy Butter Chicken at home:

INGREDIENTS

1 packet “Asian Home Gourmet” Indian Butter Chicken spice paste**

1 lb chicken breast, cubed

1 large onion, coarsely chopped

1 small potato, finely diced*

1/2 cup tomato puree

1 cup plain yoghurt (I find 5% MF works best)*

3 tbsp butter

DIRECTIONS

1. Heat butter in a large saucepan until melted.  Add potatoes and saute on medium-high until slightly browned.

2. Add onions and saute until they are translucent.  Turn heat down to medium.

3. Stir in spice paste & tomato puree, stir until mixed.

4.  Add yoghurt and heat mixture thoroughly.

5. Add chicken, stir well and cook 10-15 minutes or until meat is cooked through.

6. Serve with basmati rice & Naan.

* The recipe on the packet calls for Heavy Cream, but not only does substituting potato & yoghurt save on fat, I prefer the tangy taste it imparts.

** Asian Home Gourmet spice packets come in a wide range of flavors that make cooking dishes from India, China, Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand easy.  While nothing beats preparing seasonings from scratch, I have found this brand to be the best on the market.  I have tried the Red & Green Thai Curry,Thai Spicy Basil Stirfry, Schezuan Dry Chilli Ginger Garlic Stirfry, and Vietnamese Lemongrass packets and enjoyed them.

Puerto Vallarta Amigos: street tacos

•August 12, 2010 • 1 Comment

I like to walk during my lunch.  It’s amazing how refreshing a little jaunt can be in the middle of a busy workday, and as I am lucky enough to work on the Inner Harbor, my forays are usually scenic.  I was trucking along Wharf towards Chinatown last week when a little trailer at the foot of Yates Street caught my eye:  Puerto Vallarta Amigos was the name on the side, and Mexican street food is their game.  I had already eaten a home-packed lunch this day, but I tucked the knowledge of this enticing nugget away for the next eat-out lunch day.  It came today.

Being a trailer operation, their menu isn’t huge.  It features tacos (with your choice of Chicken, Beef, Pork, Bean & Choice & Soy Chorizo), Tortas, Fajitas, and a combo.  I chose the tacos with beef.  They came 6 to an order for $6, served in an open carton with half of a small lime for garnish.  The beef was shredded and spicy, topped with fresh pico de gallo, and sitting on corn tortillas (sadly, not house made).  I availed myself of the tomatillo salsa (one of two on offer), and enjoyed the kind of street food I had only ever experienced hitherto in Mexico. It was delicious and filling, the perfect quick lunch on a sunny day.  Looks like long-time local favorite Hernandez has some competition.

I took a moment to chat with the proprietor (whose wife cooks next to him), to find he was indeed a Puerto Vallarta amigo who had been in Canada for 7 years.  You just can’t get more authentic than this, short of catching a plane yourself.  That’s always a great idea, but if you can’t ~ try Puerto Vallarta Amigos.

Puerto Vallarta Amigos

Shanghai Noodle: a diamond in the rough

•August 11, 2010 • 1 Comment

I can’t say how many times I’ve passed by Shanghai Noodle in the 2+ years I’ve lived in Quadra Village.  They occupy a very unobtrusive little building across from Crystal Pool, which used to feature a bright panda & forest mural (now no more).  More than once I’ve thought of stopping in, but it was only last week that I finally succumbed to the temptation.

Chinese restaurants are one thing we are not in short supply of in Victoria, and most people have their favorite take-out place for those nights you really don’t want to cook.  It’s easy to fall into a routine that doesn’t deviate much from your tried and true, but I am sure glad I did!  I wish I had tried Shanghai Noodle much sooner.

Their menu is large at over 100 items, and features all of the usual fare as well as a few variations for interest.  The first time we ate here, my companion had Combo Plate C, the kind of ubiquitous basic Chinese combo you’ll find anywhere.  It featured Chicken Chow Mein, Chop Suey, Sweet & Sour Chicken and an Egg Roll, a bargain at under $8.  I had their namesake Shanghai Noodles with bbq pork.  We wanted it to go, and had only a brief wait for our food.

I love Shanghai noodles, and these were excellent:  full of large slices of bbq pork (rather than the dry little bits you usually see), as well as plenty of veggies, mixed into thick and toothsome noodles.  I was sure I had made the better choice, until I heard quiet sighs of delight emitting from my partner.  The combo looked ordinary enough, but the taste was anything but.  The chow mein (or soft noodles, as they are called on their menu) were quite likely the best I have ever had, equally filled with broccoli pieces and big bites of chicken breast.  Another standout was the sweet & sour chicken balls.  I have never been a fan of sweet & sour anything, usually finding the sauce too sweet, and meats too heavily breaded.  Shanghai Noodle’s “honk kong” style come lightly coated, and retain their crisp as the sauce comes on the side.  And what a sauce it is: tangy with a hint of sweet, not even a little cloying.  I had to control my impulse to hoard them all.  Our entire dinner came to just over $15, a bargain by any standard.

The next visit (a mere few days later) confirmed our initial impressions.  This time we ate family style, with a large wonton soup, a dish of the Soft Noodles with Chicken, and the Beef Lettuce Wrap.  The latter is an item rarely offered, and one I eagerly anticipated.  Their version features chopped beef redolent with garlic, onions and celery, resting on a bed of crispy noodles.  Lettuce cups and a sauce (thinner & milder than the Hoisin I usually serve) round out the delicious dish.  The noodles were as good as we remembered, and the Wonton Soup also delighted.  Their broth was darker than most and hinted at 5-spice, and the wontons were simply wonderful. The bill for this meal was $22.50 including tax.

The restaurant is fairly small and humbly decorated, offering little incentive to eat in but they offer free delivery nearby for orders over $20.  Do yourself a favor and give them a try the next time you have a hankering for Chinese.  Not to mention noodles!  At under $9, they make Noodle Box look greedy.

And if you have the urge to make it yourself, here is my recipe for Lettuce Cups:

INGREDIENTS

* 1 lb boneless skinless meat, chopped small (you can use chicken, pork, or beef)**

* 1 cup water chestnuts, finely chopped

* 2/3 cup chopped mushrooms (button, crimini, or shitake all work nicely)

* 3 tbsp chopped onion

* 1 tsp minced garlic

* 3 tbsp vegetable oil

* 1 cup “Farkay” noodles (optional)

* 1 head of iceberg lettuce, pulled into leaves

* Stirfry Sauce:  2 tbsp soy sauce, 2 tbsp brown sugar, 1/2 tsp rice wine vinegar

* Hoisin sauce

DIRECTIONS

1. Heat oil to high in a wok or pan.

2. Saute the meat until slightly browned.

3. Add water chestnuts, mushrooms, and onion.  Saute until mushrooms are soft and onions translucent.

4.  Add the stirfry sauce, and stir the mixture throughly over heat.

5. Serve atop noodles (optional), with lettuce cups and hoisin sauce.

** You can use ground meat, but I prefer to chop it myself.