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Monthly Archives: January 2007

A Faux Retro Feast

Pies on display at the Hubbard Avenue DinerWhen I was a little girl, traveling with my parents on the East Coast, we stopped every time we passed a silver diner. Mango Mama is a huge fan of the original silver diner aesthetic and its mirror in Airstream trailers and the old fashioned metal toasters. Unfortunately, the only real examples of these are out East. In the West, Burgerville (see earlier post) and others have tried to replicate it to some degree. The Hubbard Avenue Diner in Middleton, Wisconsin is a Midwestern example of this faux retro trend.

The exterior has an art deco facade with silver accents and neon lights. The interior features a counter with red swivel stools and vinyl booths. The metal sheen of the kitchen is visible from the counter. Faux Fiesta ware teapots and dishes decorate the shelves. The only thing that escapes the retro, at least to some degree, is the menu. In addition to diner classics like the burger and the BLT, the Hubbard Avenue Diner boasts such updated offerings as a black bean burger, a portobello sandwich and a tuna steak sandwich. It also includes salads, wraps, quesadillas and a list of “Big Bowls,” which involve things like “Bombay Shrimp” and “Parmesan Penne.”

Fish and ChipsEmpanada Boy and I are traditionalists. When it comes to diner food, we are looking for the fried, the cheesy and the meaty. If we wanted shrimp, penne or chicken cordon bleu, we would have looked elsewhere. Following those general guidelines, I ordered the cod fish and chips, which is battered in beer from Madison’s own Capitol Brewery. The dish came with three pieces, which was plenty. These were serious pieces with some serious fried batter. I also got a nice tangy coleslaw and some cripsy waffle fries, which I promised to Empanada Boy after he expressed concern that his meal didn’t come with them. The final element of this dish was a somewhat boring roll, which I found entirely unnecessary considering the amount of food (and grams of carbohydrates) already on on the plate.

Pastrami sandwichEmpanada Boy ordered the Reuben, a large sandwich on dark rye piled high with corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing. The combination of the meat, the bite of the cheese and sauerkraut and the creaminess of the dressing was delicious. It inspired plate envy in me, but luckily EB let me have a few bites. His dish came with coleslaw too. At the end of the meal, I had eaten all my coleslaw and almost no fries while he had eaten all the fries and almost no coleslaw. That is one difference between Empanada Boy and myself. At heart, he is still a meat and potatoes kind of guy.

Hubbard Avenue Diner is known for its pies, all of which are feature prominently in a glass case at the restaurant’s entrance. The menu lists approximately 92 different varieties of pie ranging from cherry rhubarb to Mississippi Mud, but there are about 25 or so available at any given time.

Lemon Meringue PieI was so full after eating all that fried stuff that I relinquished the pie decision to Empanada Boy. That was my first mistake. EB and I often have different taste when it comes to dessert. He likes peppermint and coconut cream, for example, while I prefer fruit or chocolate flavors. I’m not saying he’s wrong, only that we tend to lean in different directions. In this case, he ordered a piece of lemon meringue pie, which came with a huge dollop of whipped cream on the side. A pie-maker myself, I am very critical of crusts, and I wasn’t particularly impressed with the flavor or texture of this one. The lemon part was very lemony, but I consider meringue to be one of life’s great disappointments: it always looks like it will taste so much better than it does.

Pie aside, I would like to come back to Hubbard Avenue Diner, perhaps for breakfast next time. I wouldn’t mind another one of those Reubens either.

Hubbard Avenue Diner
7445 Hubbard Ave.
Middleton, WI

Hamming it up with Mary

The bar menu at Hamburger Mary'sThere are some restaurants, bars and clubs frequented by gay men or lesbians that make straight people feel a little intimidated I’m not complaining about these places— they have a right to exist, and I welcome them. Being straight, I just tend to avoid them.

From the face of it, Hamburger Mary’s might seem to be one such place. It’s a nouveau diner concept that started in San Francisco in 1972. The idea basically amounts to big hamburgers with strong gay cultural undertones (if you could call them that). Waiters (Or should we call them waitresses?) are often dressed in wild or lavish costumes and service is dramatic, amounting to what the company refers to as “a flamboyant dining experience.” But both times I’ve been to the Chicago location in the city’s latest gay stomping ground of Andersonville, I’ve felt completely comfortable. This is a place that celebrates being gay while also welcoming all open-minded people.

Empanada Boy and I love hamburgers, but have determined that we can’t eat them too often for the sake of our waistlines. When we feel we deserve a special treat, there is nothing more satisfying that one of these massive burgers.

Glögg at Hamburger Mary'sIt was bitterly cold when we went there a few weeks ago, but the restaurant was alive and hopping. We were lucky to get a table. We were both feeling too chilled for cold beer or cocktails, so Empanada Boy ordered glögg, a Swedish mulled wine, which is served during the winter in many Andersonville restaurants as a tribute to the neighborhood’s heritage.

Then it was time to get down to the real business at hand: the burgers. The offerings here are not your average burger. Firstly, they are all at least half a pound with the “Proud Mary Burger” coming in at a whopping three quarters of a pound. Secondly, most of these are dolled up in a way that makes them distinctive from the average burger, a fact reflected in their pop-culture reference names. Finally, they all come with a large knife stabbed into the top.

Buffy the Hamburger SlayerMy burger was called “Buffy (the Hamburger Slayer).” It is a massive half-pound affair, and the meat is cooked in red wine (blood) and smothered in a heady garlic (to kill vampires) aioli. Next came a slice of Swiss cheese. It was enough to kill any vampire, but it hit the spot for a lover of strong, pungent flavors like me. I got a side of crispy French fries too, but I couldn’t eat all of them in addition to the burger. I know it’s not really in the spirit of burger joints, but I may order a salad in the future to lighten things up a bit. Mary’s does use nice ingredients for all its vegetable dishes.

Buffy the Hamburger SlayerEmpanada Boy ordered “The Big Kahuna Burger” where the patty is marinated in terriyaki sauce and topped with grilled pineapple slices, cheddar cheese and a creamy dressing. I liked the sweet touch of the pineapple, but I could have done without the dressing and cheese. One or the other would have sufficed. A connoisseur of all things fried, EB also ordered the onion rings. I find most of these to be a disappointment because the fried always peels away from the onion, leaving a soggy mess. These had some of that and could have been a little crispier, but were better than the norm.

Getting the check at Hamburger Mary'sThere is a dessert menu here, which includes items like a deep fried twinkie, sundaes, and an apple brown betty. After devouring these two enormous sandwiches, however, it was almost impossible for us to stand, let alone eat more. We asked for the check, and it came in a red high-heel shoe, perhaps from the collection of Mary herself. Either way, there’s no doubt she would have approved.

Hamburger Mary’s
5400 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60640

La Cocina Comunista

Bar at PambicheThere is something wonderful about a restaurant that has a signature dish called the “plato comunista.” A simple, but hearty combination of black beans, rice, yuca con mojo and a salad, it’s easy to imagine the proletariat sitting down to sup. It also happens to be a delicious dish, which I’ve ordered a number of times at Pambiche, a magnificent and affordable Cuban restaurant in Portland.

My paternal grandfather was a card-carrying Communist, so I guess you could call me a red diaper grandchild. Communist or capitalist, it’s hard to resist this place. I took my parents and sister there when I was in Portland the week after New Year’s.

Batido de PlátanoDespite his Commie roots, Daddy Salmon is still something of a glutton for the luxurious (at least when it comes to sweets). He ordered a batido de plátano, or banana milkshake, which was something of a meal in itself. It was thick and creamy, with a strong banana flavor. Eating a sandwich here with, fried plantain chips and a milkshake like this on the side is like the Cuban version of the burger, fries and a shake. I ordered a glass of Cubanisimo Vineyard’s Pinot Noir. It’s an Oregon wine made in the Willamette Valley by a Cuban winemaker who apparently intended it to pair with Cuban food. Indeed, its smooth, fruitiness paired nicely with my meal.

Croquetas de bacalaoWe started with a plate of croquetas de bacalao con papa. Crispy on the outside and filled with a seamless blend of dried saltcod and warm potatoes, these came with a spicy dipping sauce, but were also tasty on their own. I had a dish by the same name when I lived in Spain, but those were usually in round ball shapes or cakes, while these were longer and more tubular. And in Spain, of course, there would never be a spicy dipping sauce. The Cubans definitely take it up a notch in that respect.

Ropa ViejaMy entree was another dish I enjoyed while in Spain. It’s called ropa vieja (“old clothes”) because it was originally made with leftover meat. This rendition was garlic-laden shredded beef, mixed with onions and green peppers with a garnish of pimientos and peas. It comes with four slices of crusty toast and a side of Cuban beans (red beans made with bacon) and rice. It was a delicious meal, but I found the toast a little disappointing. It was hard and a little dry and lacked the lovely chewiness of well-made toast. I would have certainly been plenty fully without it. As is was, I finished my meal feeling stuffed.

Pollo criolloThat may have happened in part because I tried bites of each of my family members’ dishes. The hands down winner: Flava Flav’s “pollo criollo.” It was a large, incredibly tender piece of chicken, braised in a traditional tangy Creole sauce. It came with rice, beans and tostones, crispy slices of fried plantain. The tostones are great dipped in banana ketchup, an Asian sauce, popular in the Philippines and Cuba, made from bananas, sugar, vinegar and red food coloring. I’ve read that the Japanese brought it to the Caribbean during their occupation of the Philippines.

Pan con PescadoJust as his name suggests, Daddy Salmon couldn’t stay away from the fish. He ordered “pan con pescado,” a Cuban fish sandwich made with marinated red snapper, grilled red onions, avocado and mayonnaise on a toasted Cuban. The fish was tender and gained a lot of flavor from the marinade, the mayonnaise and the oily toasted side of the bread. This dish also came with tostones.

AjiacoMango Mama ordered ajiaco, a sort of stew filled with tropical roots and vegetables, cornbread dumplings and Creole-seasoned pork and beef. This was a beautiful dish to behold and had a very interesting flavor profile. Still, Mango Mama and I agreed that the pieces of sweet corn and the cornbread made the dish taste far too sweet. It was sorely in need of a kick of spice or salt. The inventive Mango Mama solved this problem by adding some of the spicy chili sauce to the broth. A decided improvement!

Arroz con lecheAt this point, we all felt sure we could eat no more. But Pambiche is known for it’s bakery and desserts, including everything from a fabulous tres leches cake to empanandas dulces, or sweet, fruit-filled empanadas (perfect for my sweet Empanada Boy). Daddy Salmon agreed to help us out with the heavy lifting, so we bit the bullet and ordered arroz con leche, a beautiful rice pudding, with raisins, lemon zest and cinnamon, served in a crispy almond florentina shell.

I left feeling very full, but I know I’ll be back soon. Indeed, Pambiche is best in the summer months when its outdoor dining tables are in full swing. Sitting outside, sipping a beer and eating rice and beans on a warm summer evening makes even soggy Portland feel a little closer to Havana.

2811 NE Glisan
Portland, OR 97232

Going Stag

Italy was wonderful, but it was equally great to come home to my dear Empanada Boy. After singing carols, opening presents under the tree and eating way too much at his parents’ house in Madison (the first real Christmas celebration of my lifetime), we decided to head up north to his family’s vacation home in Eagle River.

The White Stag himselfAlong the way, we stopped in Rhinelander (although it may be closer to Sugar Camp) at one of EB’s family’s favorite stomping grounds, the White Stag Inn. The White Stag is an old-fashioned steakhouse and supper club with dark wood walls, decorated with antique plates, deer heads and other hunting trophies and replicas of paintings by the masters. It is the kind of place that hip, neo-hunting-lodge places like Portland’s Doug Fir are trying to emulate.

EB’s family has been coming here for a long time, but it’s clear that the menu has been the way it is for much longer. As EB explained to me, each entrée, most of which are beef in some form, comes with a salad, bread and a baked potato.

"Salad" at the White StagThe rolls were nothing special. Next time I won’t even waste my calories by sampling one. But the salad here is like nothing I’ve ever seen at a restaurant before. A bowl filled with large wedges of iceberg lettuce is delivered to the table with some tongs for serving. Each diner takes a wedge in his or her bowl and then begins to dress it, gradually dismantling its leaves. Under normal circumstances, I might have stopped at the iceberg lettuce, but I could sense that this was a cultural experience.

Three different dressingsThere are three different house-made dressings at the White Stag: a creamy Russian, a French with garlic and a vinaigrette. They come in a tripartite serving tray. Servers actually recommend that a blend of all three be drizzled on the lettuce. Why don’t they just blend them all together to begin with, you ask? Good question. Perhaps it’s because not every diner is partial to all of them. I, for example, was not a fan of the Russian, but the other two were suprisingly good, making even iceberg edible. Under EB’s direction, we also ordered bleu cheese crumbles to sprinkle on top. Once again, only in the Midwest.

Half ChickenMy entrée was a half chicken, cooked “Dave’s way,” which means coated in lots of garlic and roasted. It was delicious in the way that roasted chickens from the grocery store tend to be, but this one obviously had less salt (a good thing) and a better balance of flavors. There was enough left over to make some nice chicken sandwiches for lunch the next day.

The baked potato on the side was fine, though hardly necessary considering the amount of chicken on my plate. The White Stag makes its own cottage cheese and chives adornment, which gives the potatoes a nice kick.

Filet mignonEver true to himself, Empanada Boy could not refrain from ordering the filet mignon. At $20, it comes in a bit above the Mango Lassie’s price range, but considering that it comes with salad, it might cut it. Plus, a filet mignon for $20 is a deal good enough that even the cheapest of cheapskates might make an exception once in a while. This was as tasty a piece of meat as a filet mignon should be, coated in a rich, buttery sauce.

There was absolutely no room in our stomachs for dessert, although it is available. Perhaps some of my readers can recommend a dessert they’ve tried. I, for one, would admire the diner who could make it that far.

The White Stag Inn
7141 State Highway 17
Rhinelander, WI 54501