Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Vortex - Atlanta, Georgia

The Vortex is an eclectic restaurant/bar in the Midtown area of Atlanta. I heard about The Vortex, as I do so many of these places, on the Travel Channel show Man v Food.

The bar with some of its huge selection of beer and spirits

I did mention the eclectic decor right?
One of their claims to fame are the unique burgers, the other being one of the largest beer and spirit selections in the area. While we would have really liked to give the bar a workout, we stuck with the food menu and the reason we were there.

We headed over for lunch this past weekend to satisfy our curiosity and hopefully our appetites. Having looked over the menu before we got there we knew what we were going to order. We hadn't decided on an appetizer so we checked out our options and chose the Cheddar Balls O' Glory.

Cheddar Balls O' Glory - a cheese curd by any other name still tastes great

There are many, many burger options available. The basic burger is a half pound of hand-pattied beef served on an egg roll with LTO, served at whatever temperature is requested. Perfect. From there they get creative. But we were there for a real show stopper, none other than the Double Coronary Bypass burger. The description from The Vortex's website:

Twice as big as the Coronary Bypass! Topped with two fried eggs, six slices of American cheese,
and eight slices of bacon, all served between two grilled cheese sandwiches that we use in place of
the regular hamburger buns.

The Double Coronary Bypass - 2 Fried eggs, 6 slices of American cheese, 8 slices of bacon

That's no bun, oh no, that is one of 2 grilled cheese sandwiches that make up the top & bottom of the burger

Melty grilled cheese, perfectly cooked burger and a bounty of flavorful toppings. So good!
There is a bigger burger (I know, I couldn't believe it either) and one that is a bit smaller using a regular bun and only half the quantity of toppings as the one we had.

The burger we shared was delicious, cooked just the way we like and full of flavor. Way more than a gimmick, it was a great burger and one I would definitely have again. However, when I get back to The Vortex I plan on trying some of their other items. The Hell Burger for one sounds like it has my name all over it.

If you ever find yourself in the Atlanta area give The Vortex a try. A really good burger, an interesting beer menu and a fun space. All the makings of a good time.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

BBQ: A Journey in Meat

 A Guest Post by The Dining Companion

Several years ago, while working as a contractor at FHR, I was exposed, for the ‘first’ time, to BBQ. FHR had several outside caterers come in for functions held at their facility. Through this, I was able to try many things called BBQ that I hadn’t gotten around to trying over the years previously. However, the best part of the time at FHR was the individual who sat in the cube next to me. He was from San Antonio, and he said the product being served called BBQ by the outside caterers was SH!T.  He proceeded over the next few months to educate a few of us on this subject by preparing many different items and bringing them into the office to share. While the product served by the caterers was good (Divine Swine for another former employer) or OK, the items prepared by Eric were far superior. Unfortunately, my time at FHR came to an end and shortly thereafter Eric relocated to Alaska.

Over the next few years HappiTraveler & I continued to eat the BBQ prepared by local chains. For the most part it was good, but never up to the level of Eric. We also made several journeys to San Antonio and tried the BBQ (County Line) there (I was retrying some of the places I had eaten BBQ at 20 years prior – Bill Miller). These were also local SA chains and on par with the MN chains, but also not up to Eric's quality. We also tried some transplanted BBQer’s in Florida & some local variations in Puerto Rico

This brings us up to the fall/summer of 2011 I think. We began to notice several non-chain BBQ places opening up south of the river (Baldy’s & Rack Shack) as well as a national chain (Dickeys). We proceeded to try them and for the most part we were disappointed. As time progressed, I believe Mpls/St Paul magazine published an issue declaring the top BBQ places throughout the state. So began to form the ‘Summer of BBQ’ idea that winter. The idea being that we would road trip around the state that summer trying the places called out in the article.

As fate would have it, I found myself unemployed that spring. The ‘Summer of BBQ’ would continue, but at a somewhat reduced pace or scale. Over several weekends we tried 3 or 4 places in southern Minnesota. We also tried a place in St Paul (Roosters BBQ) that I had been driving by for years, but had never stopped. With the exception of the chicken at Roosters, I found the offerings disappointing. I had plans to try some other places in metro area (QFanatic) as time progressed, but once again fate intervened. We were on our way to SC. The ‘Summer of BBQ’ would proceed on for a longer period of time and in an unplanned area.

In SC, we could sample the product called out as ‘Carolina BBQ’ close to the source. I understand Carolina BBQ centers mainly on pork, specifically pulled pork. Up to this point, we had just experienced what may be called Minnesota BBQ (along with Texas BBQ). My understanding is BBQ served in Minnesota is based on some technique that was developed elsewhere, Minnesota having no BBQ culture of its own. We quickly discovered in SC, that if you wanted something other than pork, brisket for instance, the product sold SUCKED (Tom’s BBQ, Little Pigs, Henry's Smokehouse, Smokin Stokes, just to name a few). Not that the pulled pork was any better. Generally the product served was overcooked, dry and used mainly as a vehicle to serve some god-awful sauce (most proudly ' homemade'). During our time in SC, we made several journeys to Knoxville, TN to eat at the local MN chain’s outpost there.

After 6 months, our time in SC came to an end and we journeyed back to the Midwest. We spent the winter in Sioux Falls SD. South Dakota like Minnesota has no BBQ culture of its own. Reading some local news articles while there it sounded like some of the local restaurants were beginning to experiment with bringing in smokers. There was an outpost of the local MN BBQ chain and a fairly decent Brazilian steakhouse, so we were able to get by. We would leave SD before the local smokers got online. Returning to MN for a few weeks, fate intervened once again. We would be spending some time in GA.

While journeying to GA, we had the opportunity to stop in Kansas City for a night. Being in a city that is famed for its BBQ, we stop at a BBQ place close to the hotel (Zardas BBQ). What was served was for the most part disgusting. Hopefully this experience wasn’t indicative of Kansas City BBQ as a whole. We hope to get back to Kansas City again and would solicit some suggestions on where to stop and try next time (Woodyard, Oklahoma Joe’s, LC BBQ, Fiorella Jack Shack). We also went through St Louis, but didn’t stop. My understanding is that there is a St Louis style of BBQ and would like some suggestions to try when we get back there.

We are now in GA and have tried many places (Big Shanty, Williamson Bros, Sonny’s, Fox Brothers, Rib Ranch, Spiced Right, Barbeque Street Inn and the Peach and Pig BBQ event). I’m not sure if GA has a specific culture different from the pork that the Carolinas have (I notice more differentiation toward the sauces). I have come to understand a few things about what I like in my BBQ:
-Pulled pork sucks. It’s generally overcooked sh!t used as a vehicle for somebodies idea of good sauce.
-If you want pork, get it sliced (hopefully served with Texas toast).
-The Puerto Ricans do whole hog way better than a Carolinian.
-The Texans are right; BBQ is about the meat & smoke, not the sauce (Carolinian’s consider that smoking, not BBQ).
-I love good beef brisket (best served with a Shiner), but I can’t eat much of it anymore.
-I want to find somebody who smokes leg of lamb.

The Dining Companion

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Big Pie in the Sky Pizzeria - Kennesaw, Georgia

This past weekend we finally got around to checking out Big Pie in the Sky. Big Pie in the Sky is known for their extra large pizza slices and something called the Carnivore Challenge. Any fans of the Travel Channel show Man v Food might have heard of this place.

We headed over for an early dinner. The place was pretty deserted when we arrived but a crowd built up behind us as the evening wore on. I remember the episode of Man v Food when Adam Richman was there for the Carnivore Challenge. Sadly no one appeared to be taking the challenge while we were there.

We wanted to try a wide selection of the items on offer so we ordered three slices and a calzone. I knew the slices were supposed to be huge and they were. Each slice is like a small pizza. Just for perspective I placed a dollar bill along side the slices. A one dollar bill is about 6" long.

The Big Kahuna - Pineapple, Ham, Feta, and Bacon
Supreme - Sausage, pepperoni, green peppers, black olives and mushrooms

The Carnivore
Cheese Calzone
I'm not a big fan of thin crust or New York style  pizza but the crust here had a good crisp and held up nicely to all of the toppings. I didn't try the calzone but my dining companion said it was sadly nothing special. It looked good but that's where the appeal stopped.

I can understand why this place is so popular with the local university crowd. One of these giant slices will only set you back about $6. Not a bad deal.

The pizza at Big Pie in the Sky is good but it strikes me as more of a novelty than anything else. If you're in the mood for a slice of pizza as big as your head this is your place. Stop by, maybe you and a friend can take down The Carnivore.

Happy travels!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Pasta and Red Sauce with a side of Nostalgia

Walking into Buca di Beppo always transports me to another place and time. Sinatra crooning on the sound system, the aroma of garlic and basil wafting from the kitchen, it all takes me back to Sunday suppers and all of the checkered tablecloth, red sauce restaurants of my youth.

 I celebrated a milestone birthday at Buca one year, seated with my family at the Pope's table. For those not familiar, the Pope's table is a large, round dining table with a bust of the pope in the center. Seriously. It's awesome. All I wanted that year was to have my birthday dinner there. So many memories.

When I discovered that there was a Buca di Beppo just a few towns over I just had to go. My dining companion graciously agreed and off we went.

We hadn't been to a Buca in a long while but it was as I remembered. Buca has gone through some changes over the years. Menus have changed, individual dishes have changed and the way they serve their food has changed. Happily for me the experience of dining at Buca hasn't really changed. It's still a kitsch filled, Christmas light strung, family style Italian restaurant.


We were served some pretty good Italian bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar while we looked over the menu. Stuffed mushrooms are a favorite of mine and the stuffed mushrooms with pesto sauce looked like a good place to start. The large mushrooms are stuffed with a blend of prosciutto and cheese, very tasty.

We decided on the Shrimp fra Diavolo for our main dish and the Italian Sausage and Peppers as a side. All of the food is served family style adding a touch of Sunday supper ambiance.

Shrimp fra Diavolo
Sausage and peppers

We ended this nostalgia-fest with a huge slice of Italian Cream Cake. Layers of rich lemon cake and mascarpone cheese filling served with a raspberry coulis. Cake and coffee, the perfect way to end the meal.

While we don't make the trip to Buca very often anymore I'm glad to know it's there waiting for me with it's sights and sounds and happy memories of dinners gone by.