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Monthly Archives: August 2010

Jack’s Sandwich Shop | Columbus, OH

Jack’s Sandwich Shop (Facebook)
52 E. Lynn St. (map it!)
Columbus, OH 43215
(614) 224-3655
Open Mon-Fri, 7 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Accepts cash & credit/debit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? N/N/N
Kid-friendly? Y

Date of Visit: Tuesday, August 3, 2010 at 9:30 a.m.

IMPRESSIONS: Tucked down one of the back alleys of downtown Columbus, a stone’s-throw from the Statehouse, is a little diner out to prove that, yes, they do make them like they used to. Jack’s Sandwich shop has been around as an institution since 1942, with this particular location serving the downtown crowds since 1974.

ATMOSPHERE: The decor and atmosphere reveal that not much has changed since the 70’s. We visited on a quiet Tuesday morning, sandwiched (ha!) between the breakfast and lunch crowds.

Like most diners, Jack’s consists of just one, long room. On one side is a row of 8 booths; on the other is a counter with 13 stools.

Owners Chris and Kathy Kowalski keep the place humming. They’ve owned the business since late 2003. Pictured here is Chris busy at the grill.

Chris was super nice to chat with, and excited to talk about his restaurant. If you’re in, say hi to him. On a side note… I asked if there ever was a Jack who gave the place his name. Indeed there was, said Chris. Jack was the previous owner’s father. He started three restaurants downtown after serving in World War II, and the current diner is the only one left.

The entire experience echoes of yesteryear, like a celebration of the diner heritage. Jack’s has got it all: the old menu sign, the Coca-Cola paraphernalia, the black and white photos of old drive-ins, the old wallpaper and neon lights, and that shelf. You know the one I’m talking about. The long shelf, high up on the wall, above all the booths, packed with train cars and retro signage. It’s a diner thing.

The old school kitschiness is matched by some of Chris’ own, like the mirror ball that, yes, is lit and spinning. Or the strings of Christmas lights draped from the ceiling. Chris said he’s known for decorating up the place for major holidays like Christmas, Valentine’s Day, etc. Although I’ve definitely heard some question whether the decor is really all that seasonal.

The counter is much lower than I’m accustomed to seeing, but it offers everyone a straight view of the grill, and opens up the space better.

One of my favorite details: the checkered floor. The colors are just off enough that you notice them, but not so tacky that you don’t see anything else.

FOOD: Jack’s serves a simple diner menu, with only a handful of somewhat helpful categories: Eggs & More, Hotcakes, Breakfast Specials, Breakfast Meats, and Potatoes & Grits. I say somewhat helpful because you’ll find French toast under Eggs & More, oatmeal under Hotcakes, and waffles under both Eggs & More and Breakfast Specials.

I opted for an actual special: the steak and eggs. Nice plate of crispy potatoes, plus scrambled eggs. Eggs were good, potatoes thinly sliced and crispy, but they needed some seasoning. That prompted me to ask over Twitter: should your food be salted before it comes out, or left to the diner’s preference? The general consensus – which I agree with – was that food should be seasoned according to the chef’s desire. Unfortunately, these needed a punch up.

Close-up on the steak! It was quite good. I ordered it medium, but should have ordered medium rare. Small steaks like this can be tough to manage, and this one was a little too done. But it had a good sear and nice flavor, although it could have used an extra punch of spice, too.

My wife ordered the two eggs any style. Came with the potatoes, toast, and a side of corned beef hash. We liked that you could order the corned beef hash as your side of meat. First time I’ve seen that. But we both loved it: nice crisp, good flavor and texture.

Her two eggs – nicely poached.

SERVICE: Chris and Kathy clearly know their regulars, and treat them well. And it doesn’t take much to be welcomed as a regular right away. The feeling is mutual. Check this out: pictured above is Mr. John Petro. He’s one of about a dozen men who met regularly at Jack’s from 1968 until this past spring. So regularly, in fact, that they HAVE A PLAQUE above their table!

Look at the dates! They met from 1968 until May 13, 2010. Mr. Petro, who gave me permission to take his picture, said that Lynn Alley Irregulars were attorneys, businessmen, and the like who worked downtown. They made Jack’s Sandwich Shop their home-away-from-the-office for over four decades, and had only two rules: you couldn’t talk about work – politics, sports, anything but work – and you weren’t allowed to read the newspaper if someone else was there. You had to talk.

OVERALL: Jack’s makes my short list of really worthy diners around Columbus. Their longevity, as testified by the Lynn Alley Irregulars, and the tucked-away, side alley location add to the charm. Their breakfast definitely needs some more spice, with no surprises and super stand-outs, but it fits the atmosphere, is dirt cheap, and clearly has been a downtown favorite for decades.

OTHER LINKS:

Jack's Sandwich Shop on Urbanspoon

Foodie Cart | Columbus, OH


[UPDATE: Foodie Cart is now closed.]

Foodie Cart
Columbus, OH
(614) 824-0759
Follow their Facebook page or Twitter feed for current location and hours

Date of Visit: Tuesday, August 24, 2010 at 10:45 a.m.


IMPRESSIONS
: The Foodie Cart has been serving up Japanese-style crepes out of a New York City-style food cart since June of this year. This was my first visit (shame on me!) to the cart. Finally prompted by their Facebook posts about trying a breakfast menu, I ventured out to see the breakfast crepes.


FOOD
: The menu featured five crepes – four savory and one sweet. These were the features the day I visited:
– teriyaki steak and eggs
– Genoa salami, egg, and mozzarella
– spinach porcini quiche
– miso-jalapeno hash brown
– Greek yogurt with mixed berries and pecan granola


The miso-jalapeno hash was sold out by the time I arrived. They also served a miso soup and a grapefruit gelatin cup. Keep in mind that this was their first try at breakfast, and that some of these items were adaptations from their lunch/dinner menus. So things may change if they continue doing breakfast. They started serving around 9:30 a.m., which is a little late for some for breakfast, but these crepes are good any time.


Crepes make for great street food because they’re always interesting to watch while in-progress. Here they’re spreading the eggs. The eggs cook well enough by the heat coming through the crepe.






Misako also has a certain flair for the crepe making.



The finished product, pre-bite…


…and post-bite. I opted for the teriyaki steak and eggs. Came with a homemade mayo. All of it was simply delicious. A bit drippy for street food, but tasty nonetheless.


OVERALL
: If business seems a bit harried at the Foodie Cart, cut them some slack. The lines are long – which is a good thing – and crepes can only be made one at a time. But the crepes are delicious, and already have a steady crowd following them around town. So while you’re in line, relax. Get your picture taken (you might show up on Facebook). Take pictures yourself. Chat with folks in line. It’s all part of the experience!

Island Perks Diner | Buxton, NC

NOTE: Island Perks Diner is now CLOSED.

Island Perks Diner
46618 Highway 12 (map it!)
Buxton, NC 27595
(252) 986-1111
Open daily 6:30 a.m. – 9 pm (bfast served till 11:30 a.m.)
Accepts cash and credit cards

Date of Visit: Wednesday, June 16, 2010 at 9:00 a.m.

IMPRESSIONS: For all of you vacationers on the Outer Banks who fretted over the lack of a breakfast diner (okay, maybe it was just me), you can fret no more. You can add Island Perks Diner to the worthy list of breakfasts on the OBX.

How do we know for sure Island Perks is a diner? Because the word is plastered all over. Island Perks is located at the northern end of Buxton, just as Highway 12 curves westward. If you’re going too fast, you could easily miss it.

ATMOSPHERE: Island Perks may be missing the surly waitresses, the old-timey counter, and the sticky menus, but it mixes the comfort of a diner with the softness (sorry, that’s the only word I can think of) of a new coffee shop. So, it doesn’t go full diner.

The entryway drops you in front of the counter. Order here and they’ll bring your food out to you.

Help yourself to coffee (four different blends – nice!) or tea behind you. The coffee was above-average – a very pleasant surprise. Putting the “perks” in Island Perks.

You can sit indoors down one long room decorated with all sorts of oceany knick-knacks.

Or seat yourself on the just-as-oceany enclosed deck, although you may have to sit with the bathroom doors behind you. This type of weathered wooden siding embodies the look of the Outer Banks. Anyone who’s traveled here recognizes the rows of wood-sided houses and businesses stretching down Highway 12.

FOOD: Island Perks offers what you would expect from a diner: decent food, but no real stand-outs. What sets theirs slightly apart is that they’re not afraid of a little seasoning. We started out with a cinnamon roll. Nice and warm. Good layers to it.

Their menu is separated into four categories: The Basics (two eggs, et al.), Breakfast Wraps (all named using OBX terms like The Cape, the Ocracoker, etc), Egg Scrambles, and Breakfast Sandwiches. Pictured above is the Number One: two eggs, bacon, biscuit, and home fries. I added a pancake and some sausage gravy for the biscuit. Pretty much everything was that basic “I will chow down on this for breakfast” but forget about it a couple days later.

Another Number One, but with eggs over-easy. The home fries were good and browned.

One of our party ordered The Kinnakeeter, a breakfast wrap with eggs, bacon, sausage, and cheese.

Yet another combo plate. The one thing I really appreciate: they’re not afraid to freakin’ season their food! At the very least, I think diners should be willing to toss some salt and pepper on those eggs and potatoes. I’m constantly surprised at the bland potatoes that a served. It’s dangerous to over-do the salt, yes, but don’t just send me a plate as if to say, “Here, you deal with it.”

SERVICE: Very friendly. One of those places where they actually took interest in the fact that I was taking pictures and writing about their restaurant, so they made an extra effort to show us around. Overall, things moved quickly. It felt like we hadn’t been sitting long at our table before our food showed up.

OVERALL: Not my top pick for breakfast on the Outer Banks, but they give you something fairly close to the diner experience, with simple food that’s decently seasoned and covers all the basics. One of the cheaper breakfasts on the island, too! I should note that they’re also a full-service bakery; later in our vacation we ordered a cake from them – we actually got to speak directly with the baker about what we wanted – and that the cake was pretty good.

OTHER LINKS:

Island Perks Cafe on Urbanspoon

Photos: breakfast at the Wild Goose retreat


As many of you may know, I’m a board member with the arts non-profit Wild Goose Creative. At least once a year we take a retreat together, heading an hour or three outside of Columbus to read, eat, swim, and relax.


And with that, of course, comes making breakfast. Here’s a brief travelogue, if you will, of our breakfast adventure.


Fresh eggs from the farmers’ market.


Plus some duck eggs! $3 for 1.5 dozen. I still can’t get over it.


Pancake batter.


A sight that always brings tears to my eyes: a cast iron skillet filled with bacon.


Savory pancakes, with bacon bits.



Fried eggs.


Skillet of scrambled eggs, cooked in some of the left over bacon grease. When someone says, “I could eat a whole mess of eggs,” this is what they mean.


Pssst… have you bought your tickets to BaconCamp yet?


Various ingredients and toppings ready to go.


Once all the flutter died down in the kitchen, we lined up to eat…



…and eat.


I took a stab at frying the duck eggs. Really wasn’t that hard.


My final creation: a savory, bacon-loaded pancake + roasted potatoes + fried duck egg. The true breakfast of champions.

Photos: Duck eggs in a nest


With the last of our farmer’s market duck eggs, we made a family favorite breakfast dish: eggs in a nest. Not a radical departure from the original version, but the bigger duck eggs fit the thicker-sliced Panera tomato basil bread (our preferred bread for this meal).


Close-up: beautiful yellow yoke. Duck eggs are similar to chicken eggs, but bigger, richer, heartier. You need to score the shell with a knife before you crack ‘em. They’re a little softer and denser when scrambled.


Flipped! The second side always cooks faster. I burned one of the nubbins – that’s what we call the piece of bread that’s cut out of slice. You butter it and cook it all the same. Great for dipping in the yoke.

Aaaaaand, now I’m hungry.

Photo: Betty Crocker prize pack!


It ain’t breakfast, but you can’t argue with a Betty Crocker prize pack won over Twitter. Who wants angel food cake?

Photos: visit to WQED Pittsburgh


A couple weeks ago we found ourselves in Pittsburgh visiting some family, and we took the opportunity to have breakfast at the amazing Square Cafe with Rick Sebak, producer of Breakfast Special. (Look for a review soon of Square Cafe!) We had some extra time, and Rick offered to take us on a tour of the WQED studios.


WQED is located near campus of Carnegie Mellon University, in a building that is styled neo-brutalist. I’m ashamed to say I had never heard that term before, even after taking a ass-kicking Theatre & Cinematic Styles class in grad school. Of course, that was performance and literature styles, not architecture.


WQED produced the first community-funded educational programming in 1954. This plaque proves it.


WQED’s programming eventually included Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which was filmed at the studios for decades. This edition of the Pittsburgh dinosaur statues is thus dressed like Fred Rogers, with a couple of his puppets on hand.


Rick showed us all through their recording studios, including the studio where Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was filmed, plus offices and editing suites. He played a number of edits and pieces-in-progress for Breakfast Special; we also got to meet editor Kevin Conrad.


Rick, me, and my wife, Beth!


A poster for new breakfast specials at Kings, offered to coincide with the premiere of Breakfast Special. The posters and an animated commercial starred Rick.


The last unpainted square of Fred Rogers’ set in the (now named) Fred Rogers Studio. Despite subsequent painting and improvement, they preserve this one square in honor of the show.


X the Owl’s home…


…and King Friday XIII’s castle! Both on display.

Thanks, Rick, for the tour!

Paxton’s Family Restaurant | Greenville, PA

Paxton’s Family Restaurant
143 Main St. (map it!)
Greenville, PA 16125
(724) 588-2424
Open 24 hours a day (special bfast menu served 5:30-11 a.m.)
Accepts cash and credit cards

Date of Visit: Saturday, July 24, 2010 at 9:30 a.m.

IMPRESSIONS: My wife said she’s spent many-a high school 3 a.m. at Paxton’s Family Restaurant in downtown Greenville, Pennsylvania. Downtown Greenville is about as quintessentially small town America as you can get, especially the modern small town America: long-standing businesses (Hurlbert’s Hardware, The Hub, News Depot, Majestic’s) interspersed with a few new kids on the block (including the really cool Fresh Grounds Coffeehouse), and a handful of empty spaces put out of business by Walmart.

Paxton’s is one of those holders-on, quietly serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner since 19XX. Not much has changed, from the dusty decorations, the carpeted walls, and the dim lighting. If my pictures appear a little too yellow, blame the lights above our table.

ATMOSPHERE: The carpeted walls hush the sounds of locals in conversation and the kitchen clattering. Paxton’s long, thin space is divided in lengthwise by another wall, so the impression is of several inter-connected rooms stretching back into the building. If you want more light, sit in a booth towards the front of the place, next to the big plate glass windows looking out on Main Street (yes, an actual Main Street, America). If you want more quiet, particularly if you’re visiting in the middle of the night, then huddle in the back at some of the smaller tables.

You can also sit at the counter with the classic swiveling stools…

…and try to sneak a peek in the kitchen. Unlike other diners, you don’t get to sit right across from the kitchen. Bummer on that.


FOOD: “If you’re awake, we’re open,” says the menu. Get your breakfast twenty-four hours a day. (Side note: the punctuation in that sentence makes it a good candidate for The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks.)

The iconic brown diner mug. Typical okay coffee. Caffeinated and forgettable.

We started with Homemade Grilled Cinnamon Buns. The top one featured the maple glaze; the bottom is the white. Both were decent. Interesting that they’re grilled – it gives them crispy edges – but that glaze is a pure sugary punch – make your teeth chatter.

The flattest and widest cinnamon buns I’ve seen. Proudly homemade. Not exceptional, but they went quickly.

I went with the old Two Eggs +: two eggs, potatoes, bacon, toast. With your coffee, it costs a whopping $4.15. If you wanted a simpler breakfast, you can get two eggs, toast, and coffee for $2.25. Bacon was thick and crispy. The potatoes were fresh and chunked, but oh my goodness, please season your potatoes! Also, there were some eyes in them – yikes! Not good. When all else fails, I can always just put my scrambled eggs on my fake-buttered toast. Thank goodness for that. Overall, it was all just okay, but nothing to write a blog about. Oh, wait…

My wife ordered the same, but with eggs over easy. These types of breakfasts are the ones you eat while in conversation. It’s like muzak: it fills the background with some white noise that you can easily ignore. Here, you chow down on breakfast while chatting with everyone. You don’t stop to point out how good such-and-such item is, you just eat it.

We ordered a side of french toast. Again, white noise. Doesn’t taste bad (especially with the soft butter and fake syrup), but you just eat it and move on.

The one “special” menu item that caught my eye was the Deep Fried Mush. I ordered this out of curiosity, but was pretty disappointed that these were basically frozen corn meal/polenta patties you can buy in the store. And it absorbed too much of the cooking oil. More like vegetable oil patties.

And my brother-in-law ordered the Breakfast Hoagie, essentially the eggs, meat, and veggies on a hoagie bun. Don’t know if I’ve seen a breakfast sandwich before. Plenty of burritos, no sandwiches. But he said it was good.

SERVICE: Typical diner service. I almost don’t know what to say. A middle-aged server – not on the surly side, however – but nice, knows here Knowing the how old the restaurant is, I wonder how long the server has been there.

OVERALL: Places like Paxton’s keep going for a reason. They’re familiar, they have longevity, and a dedicated clientele. Returning customers like that will overlook average food, simple service, and even an out-dated location. There’s certainly no reason to make a special trip to visit, but I hope places like Paxton’s never disappear.

OTHER LINKS:

Paxton's Family Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Photos: Amish donuts and duck eggs


Last Saturday morning we hit up the farmers’ market in my wife’s hometown of Greenville, Pennsylvania. It’s small market, especially compared to the Columbus markets of Clintonville, Worthington, North Market, and so on. But when you live in the middle of Amish and farm country… you can get some amazing deals.


Check out these Amish donuts, for instance. Pictured above are the vanilla cream; below are the Bavarian.


Fantastic consistency. Cakey, but dense and enough of a darkened crust on the outside, smooth creamy fillings, and generous powdered sugar. So, so good.


Probably the best deal of the morning? Farm fresh chicken eggs for $2 a dozen…


…and even better: fresh duck eggs for only $3 a dozen. Plus, the woman at the stall actually gave us another half dozen duck eggs! She not enough people appreciated them, so they weren’t selling as well. These are going to be fried up soon for breakfast. I hope to do the Skillet crew proud!

Photos: Buckeye Express Diner


Tonight’s excursion combined two of my favorite things: diners and trains. Yes, folks, it’s the Buckeye Express Diner in Bellville, Ohio. If you’ve ever driven I-71 between Columbus and Cleveland you know you’ve seen that train up on the hill, and that bright red passenger car with “diner” printed in white on the side. We’ve been eying it from the highway for years, and tonight, we finally stopped.


My son and I both love trains, so this was awesome. The restaurant is comprised of a newer welcome area/kitchen/restrooms built on to a couple passenger cars lined with seating. The whole setup is lovingly restored in fine detail – it’s really spectacular. Outside you can pay to blow the whistle on the locomotive or ring the bell.


They don’t serve breakfast, but the owner Tony mentioned they might add it in the future. Instead, they’ve got lunch and dinner 11 am to 8 pm seven days a week, serving burgers, subs, salads, and even ice cream. You order right at the counter in the entryway, and they’ll bring your food out. We ordered a couple burgers, which come with delicious hand-cut fries, plus appetizers of fried pickles and mushrooms. The burgers were just right – we were craving big juicy burgers with toasted buns, and we got that. Fries were fantastic – why doesn’t everyone serve hand-cut fries? Why? And the fried food was, well, fried food. Not a lot of seasoning, but still fried.


Our experience was marred by some rough service. Things started out fine, but one of our party has an allergy to eggs, and her chicken salad sandwich had eggs in it. We couldn’t think of another chicken salad we’ve encountered with eggs in it. Are we way off on this? Typically those are two different types of salad. Anyway, she brought it back and ordered another sandwich (which turned out to be great), but the server then brought the original sandwich back, boxed up ready to go, and said we owed them for the new sandwich. Sending out the teenage server to tell us we have to pay? A little passive aggressive. This is a little off-putting, especially when the owner got surly about sending it back and ordering something different. We can’t expect him to read our minds, but I expect restaurants to be able to exchange a dish if a customer has a bad experience. Like it or not, the customer is always right in this situation. And his response left us with a sour impression.


Buckeye Express Diner’s challenge is this: to most drivers on I-71, it might look like a gimmick. Sure, we’ll stop once for a burger in a train car, but if it’s mediocre, we won’t be back. From then on, we can drive by without stopping because, well, we’ve already been there. But the food is good – these were some serious burgers and fries, all freshly prepared and tasty enough to make you pause. That’s the selling point. We’re more likely to stop because we’ve been impressed by the food and the fun location. However, if we run into service like we did tonight, that’s going to put us off and give us another reason to keep driving by.

Fortunately, I think we patched things up with the owner, but we’re still discussing the experience today, so clearly it left an impression. But we’re willing to give it another shot – the burgers and fries were great examples of tasty diner food.

If you want to visit:
Buckeye Express Diner
810 State Route 97 W (exit 165 of I-71)
Bellville, OH 44813
(419) 886-2900
http://buckeyeexpressdiner.com

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