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Out Back Kitchen | Avon, NC

[UPDATE: Out Back Kitchen is now closed.]

Out Back Kitchen (Facebook)
41934 NC Highway 12
Avon, NC 27915
(252) 305-2452
Open 8 am – 2 pm daily
Accepts cash & credit/debit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? N/N/N
Kid-friendly? Y

Date of Visit: Tuesday, June 21, 2011 at 9:00 a.m.

IMPRESSIONS: The Outer Banks is our annual family vacation spot, and over the years I’ve scoured up and down Hatteras Island for good breakfast spots (see the List of Reviews for more). The nature of the islands means that businesses come and go, so every year brings new surprises. This year we discovered, within walking distance of our house, the Out Back Kitchen. Out Back (not to be confused with the steakhouse, of course) is situated in a small shopping plaza with the giant Food Lion grocery store. When we visited, their sign wasn’t even up yet – just a banner – but the day we left, we saw them installing one.

Out Back (so named because the owner is Australian) is a little more focused on being a bakery and a caterer than it is being a restaurant, so sometimes the breakfast food takes a back seat to the pastries, donuts, and cheesecake.

The upside is that you get to ogle (nay, even purchase) said pastries for your breakfast.

Scones, muffins, strudel, croissants, it’s all yours.

All yours. 

ATMOSPHERE: The cafe is small, hosting about seven tables, so expect to cozy up with your fellow patrons. The colors are very autumnal oranges and yellows; semi-indie music played through a Pandora channel.
FOOD: The breakfast menu itself is fairly simple – only four or five dishes total – and it features your basic morning meal items. Above is a simple dish of scrambled eggs, toast, sausage, and hash browns.
This is the Island Breakfast Burrito, loaded with eggs, cheese, and the like. Here you can see the problem with the hash browns: not enough brown.
The breakfast sandwiches are big on the menu, too. Here’s an egg and sausage on a croissant.
Here’s one with bacon and eggs. Again, notice the underdone hash browns.
A bite of a cinnamon roll. Lots of raisins. Good icing, but a little doughy and underdone.

We also tried a couple miscellaneous bakery goods, all of which were very nice. I think Out Back’s strength lies in their baked goods. We ordered a key lime pie to take home later, and it was exceptional.

SERVICE: Only two people were working the entire restaurant. The owner (I believe) bustled in the kitchen, while one server worked the counter and delivered food. They use the system of ordering at the counter, then having your food brought out. Overall, the server was very nice, but seemed hurried in keeping up with everything.

: There’s some hit or miss at Out Back Kitchen. The breakfast is decent, but we had to wait a while for our food, and some of the items (especially the hash browns) were underdone. The simple sandwiches and burritos were good, but there are more reliable and filling breakfasts on the island. That being said, Out Back is worth at least one visit, at the very least to try their baked goods. They have a lot going for them in that department.
Out Back Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Sweet Clove Sunshine Cafe | Columbus, OH

Sweet Clove Sunshine Cafe
6630 Sawmill Rd. (map it!)
Columbus, OH 43235
(614) 764-1717
Open Mon-Sat, 7-3; Sun, 8-3 (bfast served all day)
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N
Kid-friendly? Y

Date of Visit: Monday, May 30, 2011, at 11:00 a.m.

IMPRESSIONS: I’ve gotten a few notes from readers over the past few months about Honey Baked Ham opening a concept store up on Sawmill Road, and I’ll admit that I was intrigued. Columbus has long been known as a test market for food chains and the like: Wendy’s, Donato’s, White Castle, and Max & Erma’s started or are headquartered here; McDonald’s marketing firm is based here; cable television first debuted in town; the list goes on. So it was no surprise that Honey Baked would debut a new restaurant here in town, attached to one of their existing stores.

ATMOSPHERE: We ventured out on a hot Memorial Day, and found ourselves in essentially a modern country setting. Big, square yellow tables, bright yellow walls with black and white pictures of the Honey Baked Ham founders and their early stores. In one corner is a fireplace; out front is a small patio.

FOOD: We started with some coffee, which was pretty good. The server said it was a standard bulk food service roast, but they grind the beans fresh. Points for automatically bringing a small mug of cream.

Shortly after you sit down, they bring your table what they call “A gift of friendship,” which is a small, warm crumb cake with maple butter. It’s a very welcoming start to the meal.

The Sweet Clove menu is designed to feature the Honey Baked Ham product, so it shows up in a lot of the dishes. Case in point: their Signature Benedict. Features your standard English muffin, poached eggs, hollandaise, plus slices of their ham. Served with a side of potatoes. Overall, very nicely done. It’s a very filling dish. The key point in a benedict (for me) is the hollandaise, which was light and tasted fresh, not canned.

This is the Original French Toast. Four big slices. Cooked just right, so it’s a bit custardy and cut-able with a fork. Big bonus that it’s served with a side of real Vermont maple syrup.

And then there are variations on the signature dishes. This is the Bacon and Ham Benedict. One had their classic ham, one had a couple slices of bacon. Again, filling, and again, a very good benedict. Side of potatoes was very nice, too.

Small kids menu, too. Scrambled eggs and toast for my son.

I had a reader suggest I try the Blueberry Ginger French toast, so this was on my mind the moment we decided to visit. Just like the regular French toast, it’s cut thick and very soft. I couldn’t taste the ginger that much, but I assume it was in the batter. Blueberries were nice, as was the real maple syrup.

The folks at Sweet Clove understand some of the performance of food, too. One of the big selling points of the French toast is that your server comes around with a GIANT BOWL OF WHIPPED CREAM to dollop onto your dish.

The benefit of this (for the restaurant, at least) is that you see servers dole out the whipped cream to other tables, so instantly your appetite is whetted.

SERVICE: Our server was quiet but very nice. She had a good sense of humor, everything came out quickly, and she kept an eye on us. Overall, the table setup is appealing, too: orange square plates, salt and pepper grinders, bamboo centerpieces, fun little honey bowl (for sale in the shop, of course).

OVERALL: Because Sweet Clove Sunshine Cafe (say that five times fast) is a concept store for Honey Baked Ham, it’s attached to the store itself. So you can wander through their gift shop or order ham to take home.

So what can I say about the Cafe? Yes, it is the beginning of a new chain restaurant, but so far they seem to have a lot of things right. The overall experience is comfortable, the food is well prepared and very filling. The prices are higher than your diner breakfast – $10-12 per entree – but the portions are appropriate for it. Sawmill Road isn’t exactly in my neighborhood, but the Cafe was full when we visited, and I’m still craving another bite of that French toast.

I’d be very curious to know what others think of it!

Sweet Clove Sunshine Cafe on Urbanspoon

Northstar Cafe (Easton) | Columbus, OH

Northstar Cafe
4015 Townsfair Way (map it!)
Columbus, OH 43219
(614) 532-5444
Open 9am-10pm daily
Accepts cash & credit/debit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/Y/N
Kid-friendly? Y

Date of Visit: Friday, April 8, 2011 at 9:00 a.m.

IMPRESSIONS: The three Northstar Cafes have become institutions in Columbus. Any online search of “breakfast in Columbus” brings up at least one Northstar location, and the steady crowds can attest to their continued popularity. I’ve been to the other two locations multiple times (and reviewed first Beechwold, then Short North). While my reviews have gotten less gushy as time goes on (I can’t believe myself when I re-read the Beechwold one), I still think Northstar serves up a solid breakfast that I’ll always like.

The Easton location is their newest one, and can be found in the southeast section of the shopping center. There’s a good-sized parking lot right next to it, as well as lots of metered parking around the Easton streets. Each Northstar Cafe is designed and laid out differently, and each one fits very well with its locale. This one is a great fit for Easton overall.

ATMOSPHERE: This was my first time in the Easton location, and I have to say… it’s one of the most photogenic breakfast spots I’ve seen. Very well focused lighting, lots of natural wood accents, big counter space, bright light from abundant windows.

This location is also the biggest. The whole main floor probably has more seating than the Short North location, and then there’s a balcony circling half the restaurant.

We visited right when they opened at 9 am (which is comparatively late for a breakfast spot), and while the balcony remained empty, the main floor filled up quickly.

FOOD: The menu at Easton is pretty much the same as the other two locations (plus one tasty addition). First off, we had drinks. There are a few choices of coffee, including decaf and light-medium-or-dark roasts. I opt for their Johnny Mellow. We also nabbed a fresh-squeezed orange juice. Always a hit.

I don’t eat at Northstar Cafe as often as I used to, but whenever I have breakfast there, I have to get the Big Burrito, plus bacon (goes without saying). I’m just a big fan of the combination of bacon, sweet potatoes, black beans, veggies, and cheese.

I call this Still Life With Coffee And Burrito.

This item I haven’t seen at any of the other locations: Prosciutto and Poached Eggs. The base is a rosemary focaccia bread, topped with prosciutto (a very popular meat these days) and nicely poached eggs. Comes with a side of greens. Overall, a very nice dish: seasoned just right, between a dash of parmesan, the salty prosciutto, and herbed bread. Well worth a try.

SERVICE: Like all of their cafes, the Easton location employs the order-at-the-counter system. Order there, you’re given a number, and your food’s brought out to you. Gratuity is included in the food price. Generally, the employees there are very nice. Some are more smiley than others, but no surliness.

OVERALL: Again, I don’t get to the Northstar Cafes as often as I used to. Part of it is the cost: you’ll be paying a few bucks more than your average diner breakfast. But it’s also because I have so many more places to explore. Still, the Easton cafe is beautiful, and they serve all the breakfast favorites. Like the other cafes, they have a nice patio as well, plus this one has a wood fireplace! So there’s some consistency between the cafes, but enough interesting variations between them, too. But however you feel about the other Northstar locations, you’ll probably feel the same about this one.

Northstar Café (Easton) on Urbanspoon

Katalina’s Cafe Corner | Columbus, OH

Katalina’s Cafe Corner (Facebook / @cafecorner)
1105 Pennsylvania Ave.
Columbus, OH 43201
(614) 294-2233
Open daily 8a-9p (bfast served all day!)
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N
Kid-friendly? Y-ish

Date of Visit: Sunday, February 13, 2011 at 1:00 p.m.

IMPRESSIONS: Here’s the story. My wife and I used to live just down the street from Cafe Corner. I remember my first visit when it was essentially a wide open coffee shop. They had decent coffee. They had public computers. It was good, but nothing that really drew me back. Then, slowly, the owners expanded and revamped. We heard more and more about the sandwiches. They built a patio. They made the most of that tiny corner spot on Third and Pennsylvania Avenues. We visited during Restaurant Week 2009 and I reviewed it. And loved it. The Cafe has since transitioned into the hands of Kathleen Day, who has continued to make it a culinary hotspot.

ATMOSPHERE: The cafe itself is pretty small, as the building is a former gas station (see picture of it at the end of this post). There are maybe 7 tables total, plus a few seats at a counter looking out the front window. So beware if you’re coming with a big group. Of course, the game changes in spring and summer, when their big, beautiful patio triples the amount of seating.

The decor mixes elements of country kitchen with trendy cafe. One thing I always love to see in breakfast places are hand-written signs. The aesthetics appeal to me, and it shows that their menu is changeable based on specials, seasonal ingredients, or just plain old rotating offerings.

Self-serve coffee setup featuring Stauf’s roasts.

Visually, the whole cafe is fun to look at: big, bright windows. Colorful menu boards. Homemade iced tea served in mason jars.

FOOD: The breakfast menu covers your standards, but delightfully goes beyond that with things like Hens in a Basket, Breakfast Tacos, and Truffled Egg Sandwiches. This is, indeed, a foodie’s breakfast.

If anyone in your party is not-so-adventurous, they’ll be satisfied with the Classic Breakfast, all done right. Toast, crispy bacon, eggs scrambled and not overdone, plus good, crispy hash browns.

You can (and should) get sandwiches for breakfast, too. Here’s my wife’s Fig & Prosciutto, with provolone, white truffle oil, and a balsamic reduction. It’s such a creative interplay between salty prosciutto and sweet figs. Really a big hit.

Swedish pancake balls! Essentially fried dough balls dusted with powdered sugar. You can get them filled with Nutella or strawberry preserves. I asked the guy at the counter if he suggested one over the other. I barely got the question out before he answered, “Nutella.” And he wasn’t wrong. These are soft, warm, doughy balls of sweet goodness. Plus you can dip them in maple syrup. Also, this comes with a side of CC’s sweet and spicy bacon (which I didn’t get a picture of – gah!). I’ve long been hesitant to list anything as my favorite bacon on my best-of list – I still have lots of exploring to do – but this takes the top spot. The bacon is thick cut, and the topping is a sticky sweet mess with a bite at the back of the throat. I was delightfully surprised by it.

The Prosciutto Mozzarella sandwich, with a tomato-basil pesto and balsamic reduction. So good…

I was drawn to Cafe Corner this day by a weekend special of Eggs Benedicto, aka the Mexican Eggs Benedict (it has been offered again since). There’s the standard poached eggs, but they’re served with prosciutto on a toasted croissant, and a chipotle hollandaise. Um. Yes. Please. Eggs benedict is one of my favorite breakfasts, and I’ve neglected to properly research them in Columbus. But if CC’s is anything to go by… it’s gonna be a fun adventure. I loved almost everything about these. Eggs were perfect, croissant is a very nice touch, hollandaise was light and yet flavorful. I really liked the prosciutto, but it pushes things toward the salty side (obviously), and its nature makes it a little hard to cut with a knife. Eggs benedict is not a sandwich, so you have to use silverware, and I like being able to cut nice portions of egg, meat, and bread. The prosciutto made that a little difficult to do. That said, it all tastes lovely. You must try it.

Side of hash browns. Nice and crispy. Not tons of seasoning, but they’re done right without being greasy.

SERVICE: The cafe service is run at the counter. Place your order there, take a number, and find a table. Coffee and drinks are self-serve. The folks at the counter are very nice – not terribly talkative – but very helpful. (Cafe Corner also does a healthy take-out business. The old owners, after all, started the breakfast delivery service Late Night Eggs out of this space; it has since been relocated to the campus area and renamed Eggfast. Edit: Eggfast is now closed.)

Kathleen shared this picture from the Cafe’s history with me. Here it is in yesteryear as a corner gas station. Makes you really appreciate how much the neighborhood has changed over the decades.

OVERALL: I look forward to more return visits to Cafe Corner. Having moved away from the neighborhood is no excuse not to be back more often, especially with that patio enticing us in the spring and summer months. And that menu is sufficiently big and creative that we’ve still got lots of exploring to do.

Katalina's Cafe Corner on Urbanspoon

Taste of Belgium (Wexner Center) | Columbus, OH

UPDATE: The Taste of Belgium location in the Wexner Center has CLOSED. The North Market location is open.]

Taste of Belgium (Facebook / @TOBWex)
1871 N. High St. (inside the Wexner Center for the Arts)
Columbus, OH 43210
(614) 292-2233
Open Mon-Fri, 8 am – 4 pm
Accepts cash & credit/debit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N
Kid-friendly? Y

Date of Visit: Monday, January 31, 2011 at 12:30 p.m.

IMPRESSIONS: I’ve been a fan of Taste of Belgium’s waffles for some time now, having first discovered them when they opened a stall at the North Market. If you’ve never tried one of their signatures, you’re missing an opportunity to re-define how you think about waffles. Here they serve the authentic Belgian version, which are very unlike your thin, flat toaster-made waffle. A true Belgian waffle (Liege-style, at least) is made using a thick batter infused with beet sugar. The waffle is smaller, thicker, marbled with caramelized sugars, and a wonderful hand-held snack.

The Wexner location is Taste of Belgium’s second in Columbus. The Wexner announced months ago that they were seeking a replacement for the generic Cam’s on Campus. In my opinion, ToB is the perfect fit for the Wexner: still a casual cafe and coffee shop, but with an international flair.

ATMOSPHERE: You can find the cafe by heading down the big staircase in the Wexner’s main entryway. It’s hard to miss once you get to the lower floor (where you’ll also find the entrances to the bookstore, video theatre, galleries, etc.). Line yourself up to order at the counter.

You may have to step forward to grab a menu while you wait in line. This isn’t too bad to deal with if you’re know about it, but I think it would be handy if they put more of their menu on the wall. You can help out, though: once you’re done with your menu, be a pal and pass it back to the next person.

There’s a fair amount of seating around the cafe. Once you’ve ordered, take your number and find a table. Be advised that, during peak hours, tables can fill up. You are on the campus of the largest university in America, after all.

The cafe seating is nice and bright, even though you’re partially below ground.

FOOD: Because this location of ToB is more of a traditional cafe, their menu is expanded beyond the waffles, crepes, and coffee offered in the North Market. The market is aimed more so at the walk-and-eat crowd. Here you’ll find the full coffee shop lineup of drinks: espresso, lattes, cappuccinos, all made using coffee from Coffee Emporium in Cincinnati. Other drinks include hot and cold cider, tea, or blended drinks using coffee or fruit. Food-wise, you’ve got sweet and savory crepes; soup, salad, and sandwiches; fruit, yogurt, and muesli; frittatas; and oatmeal. Really a nice mix.

Taste of Belgium’s signature piece is the waffle, so the cafe offers a couple different spins on it. I ordered the Waffles Rancheros.

The Rancheros takes one of their waffles, and adds a small souffle-like pile of scrambled eggs, topped with a spicy salsa. Comes with a side salad with a dash of vinaigrette.

Nice cross section of it. The Rancheros are a little hard to cut with a fork and knife – the eggs are fluffy but the waffle’s a little crisp. Still, the combination of sweet waffle, savory eggs, and spicy salsa comes together well. Add the salad to that, and baby, you’ve got a lunch on.

If you’re in a sweeter mood (awww…), you can order the waffle with toppings. You have a choice of fruit – that day it was blueberries or bananas – plus optional whipped cream (note: whipped cream is not really an optional thing). The fruit and sweet cream are a nice complement to the dense, sugary waffle.

SERVICE: Despite the sometimes long lines (especially in between classes), the food service is pretty quick. If you’re eating in the cafe, just take your number to your table and they’ll find you. The folks behind the counter are nice – not terribly talkative – but nice nonetheless.

OVERALL: I’m very glad to have Taste of Belgium on campus. I think the fit is perfect for the Wexner Center, and it offers an alternative to the fast food along High Street or all the campus-run cafeterias. I hope that the campus community appreciates what we have here, and that Taste of Belgium becomes a mainstay of OSU dining.

-> full Taste of Belgium website

Taste of Belgium at the Wex on Urbanspoon

Blue Sky Cafe | Bethlehem, PA

Blue Sky Cafe (Facebook)
22 W. Fourth St. (map it!)
Bethlehem, PA 18015
(610) 867-9390
Open Tues-Thurs, 7 am – 3 pm; Fri & Sat, 7 am – 5 pm; Sun, 7 am – 2 pm
Accepts cash & credit/debit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N
Kid friendly? Y

Date of Visit: Saturday, November 6, 2010 at 10:15 a.m.

IMPRESSIONS: I’ve been excited to share this post for a long time. We got to visit some amazing places in 2010 – across the country from New York City to Portland – but for some reason our little visit to the Blue Sky Cafe sticks in my head more than any other. I’m sure I’m idealizing the experience in my memory, but boy, was this a great little discovery.

Early November found us traveling with my wife’s family across New Jersey and Pennsylvania to visit family. Eastbound and entering Pennsylvania, we did some online searching and found a promising lead with the Blue Sky Cafe in Bethlehem. We snaked off the highway exit, winding down to the small valley that is Bethlehem. Here I recalled some high school history classes and saw the remainders of Bethlehem Steel firsthand. Now the center of Bethlehem holds the remnants of that once-great industry, part of which is converted into a casino. Blue Sky can be found in southern slope of the valley, in a small, cute little downtown street. The door is small, the restaurant space old.

ATMOSPHERE: I love love love the feel of cafes like this. It’s small but not crammed. Great feel of a reclaimed old building, with brick walls, checkered floors, bright lighting.

Very busy hum of conversation, as a steady crowd comes and goes. Work from local artists and photographers on the walls.

A skylight above the kitchen allows a lot of natural light in the back. I counted 11 tables, plus 4 booths and 8 seats at the counter.

The kitchen is right there in the open, so you can watch the 8+ workers clattering around as they make you breakfast.

Lots of kooky details in the kitchen, including the bottle of bourbon for your bourbon banana french toast.

And the creative knife holder.

FOOD: Blue Sky’s menu, too, is fun and creative. All of the dishes are at those standard “cafe” prices: maybe $1-2 more than diner food, but the increased price is made up with higher quality fair. The menu is packed with your standard egg combos, plus omelets, frittatas, stirs (made over home fries), sandwiches, sweets, and a whole load of specials. Pictured above is the Mega Breakfast Sandwich, stacked with scrambled eggs, avocados, tomatoes, onions, and pesto. Came with a side of home fries. Overall, very good, although overpowered by the onions. I think the sandwich would be tops without them, personally.

And then, behold, is the Bourbon Banana French Toast. This is kinda why Blue Sky proved itself to be such a surprising and delightful find. Seriously, I think it’s the best French toast I’ve had. The bread was nice and custardy, the bananas cooked without being mushy, and the covering is more of a reduction with the maple syrup and the bourbon. It’s thicker and almost crispy, like that thin sugary glaze on a glazed donut. Altogether, a great dish. I just wanted to keep eating it forever.

Because we’re close to Philly, there’s gotta be scrapple! My second time trying it. Not bad, soft and spicy, but I’m just not a scrapple man.

Some Pumpkin Pancakes. Fluffy and subtle, a little floury and gummy. Quite good.

Their specialty frittata of the day, with caramelized onions, pears, feta, shallots, and sausage. Really magnificent.

The Jon Solomon’s Veggie Stir. Lots of veggies served with scrambled eggs over home fries, side of toast.

Another Mega Sandwich.

More pumpkin pancakes. We had a big group.

And the Antonio Veggie Stir. Adds sausage to the veggies and feta.Notice the color in all the breakfast dishes!

SERVICE: Our server really made our experience great, too. For the life of me, I can’t remember her name, although she told us she had recently moved from St. Louis, I believe. But she was warm and smiley, she handled our large group smoothly, and you could tell she took pride in the restaurant.

The table setup, too, made the experience complete: Cholula hot sauce at the table, mini salt and pepper grinders. The coffee came in mismatched mugs, and our server automatically brought milk for it.

OVERALL: Part of me wishes I could find a way back out to Bethlehem again, just to go here. It was such a delightful find and we enjoyed some wonderful food and service. Blue Sky would be my regular joint if I lived in Bethlehem.

NOTE: From the time between when I wrote the post and the time I finished it, Blue Sky changed their website. You can still find bits of the old version, which looks cooler and fits their vibe better. The new one is simpler and clunkier. Not sure what happened, but I hope they redesign to something more like the old one.


Blue Sky Cafe on Urbanspoon

Helser’s on Alberta | Portland, OR

Helser’s on Alberta
1538 NE Alberta St. (map it!)
Portland, OR 97211
(503) 281-1477
Open daily 7 am – 3 pm (bfast served all day; specials served Mon-Fri, 7-9)
Accepts cash and credit/debit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N

Date of Visit: Tuesday, October 26, 2010 at 9:00 a.m.

: Helser’s was our third formal stop on our Portland breakfast tour. While visiting friends in PDX, I had Hesler’s on my agenda after it appeared in Breakfast Special along with the Tin Shed, just down the street. The extra bonus with this visit was getting to meet Paul Gerald, author of the book Breakfast in Bridgetown and the corresponding blog. Like myself, Paul appeared in Breakfast Special as the local breakfast blogger food guide. We got to compare Portland and Columbus breakfasts and chat about all things breakfast bloggery.

Helser’s wasn’t my favorite breakfast in Portland, but comparing Portland breakfast places is like comparing Pixar films. Some are definitely better than others, but the quality is higher than most things out there.

Like the Tin Shed, Helser’s is situated along the busy and trendy Alberta Street. They’ve got a sweet corner location with big, bright windows all around. I really love the painted column in front of the door. Don’t know why; I just do.

Inside, the checkered floor, the big chalkboard with specials, the large bar with a full service coffee setup, the bright illumination – all of these things add up to a classic cafe setup. When I think cafe, I think of this.

: Again, because of Breakfast Special, we already had our eyes on some of Helser’s featured dishes. All of their food is great comfort food, but there’s lots of fun twists or unusual dishes on the menu. I don’t often see Pigs in the Blanket or Russet Potato Pancakes on breakfast menus, and I would love to return to Helser’s to sample more. Pictured above is my wife’s dish, the German Pancake, or Dutch Baby. This isn’t your traditional pancake, but more like an open pastry baked with lemon juice and powdered sugar, then served with lemon slices and syrup. You’ll have to wait a little longer for it to be prepared, but this was our favorite dish of the meal. It’s a huge pancake, sweet and flaky, but with touches of tangy lemon.

I immediately zeroed in on the Scotch Eggs and Potato Pancakes. I love a good scotch egg. Not many places in Columbus serve them. If you’ve never had one, a scotch egg (no, it has nothing to do with the distilled spirits) is a hard boiled egg, wrapped in sausage, then breaded and fried. Helser’s version is excellent: egg cooked just right, crispy breading, good seasoning. I was so-so on the potato pancakes, at least texture-wise. They taste very good, and they’re browned perfectly. I even liked the horseradish sauce (and I generally don’t like horseradish), but the internal texture of the pancakes didn’t quite work. I think the potatoes were cooked unevenly, so occasionally I had bites that were too hard.

Another good find from their menu: toasted crumpets. I can’t say I’ve ever had one. Nice soft texture, barely sweet. A good side to any of their meals.

Paul ordered the Pear and Harvati Pie, and I snapped a picture. It takes the two ingredients and bakes them into custardy tart. Again, very creative and unusual things on the menu.

And the standard side of Brioche French toast for our son. He certainly didn’t say no to it.

SERVICE: Our server was great. Fast, helpful, interactive. I was a bit predisposed to liking the service, after Breakfast Special featured one of their servers, Leah, talking about her work. We got to meet Leah and chat with her about having PBS film there.

: Again, Helser’s wasn’t my favorite Portland breakfast, but there’s plenty to like here. The service and location are top-notch, and the menu offers a lot of hard-to-find breakfast eats. Some of them just worked better than others. And I certainly wouldn’t say no to a return visit, especially to enjoy the bright atmosphere and try more of the menu.

-> a taste of Helser’s from WQED Pittsburgh

Helser's on Alberta on Urbanspoon

Gravy | Portland, OR

Gravy (Facebook)
3957 N. Mississippi Ave. (map it!)
Portland, OR 97227
(503) 287-8800
Open 7 am – 3 pm daily
Accepts cash and credit/debit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N

Date of Visit: Monday, October 25, 2010 at 9:00 a.m.

IMPRESSIONS: Stop two in our Portland breakfast tour! Our Portland friends had whispered to us about a restaurant called Gravy. One of the most appealing breakfast restaurant names I’ve heard in a while…

ATMOSPHERE: We’ve heard tell of Gravy’s long lines and packed houses on the weekends, and that can be frustrating or add to over-hype. But we found ourselves fortunate enough to visit on a slow Tuesday morning; we were ushered right to a table. Gravy’s layout is wide open, with big windows and skylights. Lots of natural lighting illuminates the browns and creams, the wood accents, and big pieces of art on the walls. You can also see right into the open-topped kitchen. Seating includes about fifteen tables, plus a few stools at the bar. Overall, a relaxing atmosphere punctuated by a fantastic music selection.

FOOD: Of all the great breakfasts we had in Portland, I am still craving Gravy’s the most. The prices are a little steeper: like $12-for-a-scramble steeper. HOWEVER, you get what you pay for. You could easily split a $12 scramble between three people. Everyone would have plenty to each, and you’d only be spending about $4 per person. Their breakfast menu isn’t extensive, but it covers all the basics: scrambles, omelets, hash, sandwiches, pancakes. I immediately eyed the list of scrambles, and settled on The Dalise: ham, bacon, sausage, mushrooms, peppers, onions, and cheddar, covered in gravy. Served with the most awesomely huge portion of done-just-right hash browns. Look at the picture above: the hash browns must have been cooked in their own pan. They come out like a giant bird’s nest. The whole breakfast was very well seasoned, cooked to the right consistency, and just a big delicious mess.

My wife is always a fan of smoked salmon, and well, we’re in the Pacific Northwest. She ordered the Smoked Salmon Hash & Eggs, which was even better than my scramble. Large chunks of fresh salmon, soooooo well seasoned, mixed with veggies and eggs on top. Probably the best dish we had in Portland, and on my list as the best hash I’ve ever had.

If I look at this picture too long, I start drooling.

We ordered their French toast for our son. He loved and devoured it. Made with challah bread. On a side note: Gravy’s coffee was also very good; their own special blend. Points to them for offering chilled cream for our coffee, without us having to ask.

Our friend ordered the Oatmeal Brulee (and my wife ordered it on a later visit). Gravy is well known for this dish, and I can see why. Along with the salmon hash, it quickly joined my list as the Best Oatmeal I’ve had.

These pictures don’t fully communicate the size of this bowl. It’s like if you cut a softball in half, hollowed it out, and filled it with oatmeal. And this is thiiiiiiick oatmeal, filled with fruit and nuts, topped with brown sugar, and torched. This probably isn’t the healthiest oatmeal ever, but a big warm bowl of cooked oats, fresh fruit, and caramelized sugars is still worth something.

It’s like an oatmeal cave! This continues Gravy’s streak of monster portions. The restaurant and neighborhood may feel a little trendy and a tiny upscale, but Gravy is pushing big, classic comfort food.

OVERALL: In our short time in Portland, we made a return visit to Gravy. That’s despite great breakfasts at The Tin Shed and Helser’s on Alberta. All of their food is big and flavorful. Great combinations of textures. You have to know how to play the prices to your advantage: if $12.75 is too much for Smoked Salmon Hash & Eggs (yeah, that’s steep for me), consider splitting it with one or two people. I think the food is worth it. They landed two dishes on my list of favorites.

-> official website for Mississippi Ave., Gravy’s neighborhood

Gravy on Urbanspoon

The Tin Shed Garden Cafe | Portland, OR

The Tin Shed Garden Cafe
1438 NE Alberta St. (map it!)
Portland, OR 97211
(503) 288-6966
Open daily, 7:00 am – 10:00 pm (bfast served till 3)
Accepts cash and credit/debit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/Y/N

Date of Visit: Sunday, October 24, 2010 at 10:00 a.m.

IMPRESSIONS: My wife and I have some close friends in Portland, Oregon, and take any opportunity we can afford to go visit them. It’s a super added bonus that Portland – like Columbus – is a great breakfast town, and it had two breakfast joints featured in Rick Sebak’s documentary Breakfast Special. The Tin Shed was his first stop in PDX, led there by Paul Gerald, author of Breakfast in Bridgetown.

You can find the Tin Shed on Alberta Street, a charming stretch of shops and restaurants that, I am told, has been improving in quality over the years. If you’re going to visit The Tin Shed, get familiar with this sight: the outside. Chances are you’re going to wait. A long line always speaks to the quality and popularity of the place, but a.) be prepared and don’t let the long wait make you grumpy, and b.) be careful that your expectations aren’t raised too high. Breakfast joints with long waits – whether because they are local favorites, or because they’ve been featured on national television, or both – can raise expectations unrealistically and lead to disappointed customers. With a group of six (4 adults + 2 kids), on a Sunday mid-morning, we waited about 30-40 minutes.

But the folks at Tin Shed know you might have a long wait (and there’s a good chance you’ll wait in the rain), so they’ve got a coffee stand set up out front. Coffee, tea, water: all there for you.

ATMOSPHERE: As if you couldn’t tell already, you can expect a busy atmosphere at Tin Shed. The sidewalks will be lined with hopeful customers. To join their ranks, you need to sign in when you arrive. (Fun note: if you’re sitting outside, you can bring your dog.) The seating is grouped in two areas. The first is the small inside, with about five tables and a few stools overlooking a small bar. It’s crowded, tight, and noisy. The decor is an eclectic mix of funky lighting and colorful art.

The second seating area is mostly outdoors. There you’ll find the more-charming covered patio, with a fireplace, big fans, heat lamps, and rustic tables. On a slightly chilly, damp October morning, there was something enticing about the patio. It seemed so cozy, despite the outdoor location, that I was almost disappointed we were seated inside.

FOOD: Tin Shed has the hip menu to match its layout and decor. Each section is a different variety of “goodness.” Stacked Goodness (potato pancakes). Sample Goodness (the big platters). Sweet Goodness (porridge, French toast). You get the idea. Pictured here is the Spike Lee, from their Specialty Goodness. Most of the items in this list are named after movie stars. The Spike Lee is a burrito filled with scrambled eggs, veggies, and black beans. It’s spiked with jalapenos and chipotle. Our friends let us try a bite: very nice.

Our friends also chose the Everything Nice. This is one of two options in the Sample Goodness category. Its counterpart is the Everything Naughty, loaded with all the bad but delicious stuff. The Everything Nice, however, features their signature potato cake, fruit, French toast, and a choice of meat. Our friends opted for the pork sausage. I love how it’s split and grilled.

A point for their kid-friendliness: a cheap but good-tasting children’s menu. We ordered our son the Freddy: a kid-sized portion of the French toast.

My wife and I split the Roll Over. This comes out of the Stacked Goodness, in which everything is based on the potato cakes and named for canine commands. I was drawn to this because I wanted to try the potato cakes, plus you could get it with rosemary mushroom gravy. Um, yes. The stack is rounded out with a sausage and egg scramble, and it was simply delicious. The gravy really made the dish. I keep craving it, well after our trip.

I chatted with one of the managers for a bit, connecting over the fact that we were both featured in Breakfast Special. As a little perk, they gave us a couple Bloody Marys to try. I’m not usually one for alcohol with my breakfast, but these were most certainly worth a try. This is the Cajun Bloody Mary, which had a big dash of spice around the lip of the glass. Garnished with lime, onions, celery, peppers, and olives.

We also tried the regular Bloody Mary, which was very smoky. Made with their own bacon-infused vodka.

SERVICE: We were treated very well at the Tin Shed. You could probably be soured by a long wait, but I think we were prepared. Our server (forget her name, dangit) was super nice and attentive. Despite the crazy crowd, the Tin Shed is accommodating to children. Our party included two youngins, and our server was prepared with high chairs, crayons, coloring books, and fun cups. This is a quick way to win parents’ hearts.

OVERALL: Tin Shed has a fun location, a really great vibe, and creative food. Again, the long wait could easily put you off or build your expectations too much (being featured nationally doesn’t help), but we found it to be a great community experience. Even the wait was fun with our friends there, and once in the restaurant, we felt welcomed and well cared-for. Their menu features a lot of creative options, and while it wasn’t my favorite in Portland, a couple items stand out, especially those potato cakes and that rosemary mushroom gravy.


Tin Shed Garden Cafe on Urbanspoon

Linden Cafe | Columbus, OH

[UPDATE: The Linden Cafe is CLOSED.]

Linden Cafe (Facebook)
1393 Cleveland Ave. (map it!)
Columbus, OH 43211
(614) 754-1054
Open Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m. – 2 p.m. (bfast served until 11 weekdays; all day Sat)
Accepts cash and credit cards
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N
Kid-friendly? Y

Date of Visit: Tuesday, September 7, 2010 at 8:45 a.m.

IMPRESSIONS: I’ve been hearing about Linden Cafe for years, but have never known anyone who’s been. They do have a Facebook page, although it’s relatively dormant. But whispers around town say they have the best chicken and waffles in Columbus, and in doing some “research” into the dish for (614) Magazine, I paid this mainstay soul food joint a visit on a quiet Tuesday morning.

You’ll find the Linden Cafe at the southwest corner of 11th and Cleveland Avenues, nestled in the heart of South Linden. This intersection, known as the Four Corners Project, has been revamped in recent years. The surrounding buildings – like the one housing the Cafe – feature new brick and gleaning glass fronts. The cafe itself is easy to to drive by. Look for the pink neon sign above the door; you’ll find parking around back.

ATMOSPHERE: Tuesday morning is clearly a calmer time for them (although I’ve seen much busier times at later visits). Inside, the space is nice and new. Recreated tin ceiling, laminate floors, a counter built of stone, 11 tables, plus a simple, open kitchen. You can see the flattop, deep fryer, and waffle iron all in action.

Bright morning sun poured in through the huge windows. Relaxing jazz played over the speakers.

FOOD: Linden Cafe serves breakfast and lunch only. The breakfast menu is a single slim sheet, so your options aren’t plentiful, but I always prefer places that only do a few things really well. The breakfast menu features omelets (Sante Fe and the Nature’s Bounty veggie are their signatures), Breakfast Sandwiches, Pancakes, Morning Traditions (2 eggs + meat; give their turkey sausage a try), plus Sides & Drinks.

The real star of the show, however, is their Chicken and Waffles. Linden Cafe serves their signature dish all day, every day, and they’re often lauded the best in Columbus. This is a notion I gladly support.

I got to chat with owner Michael Mayfield, and he spilled the beans (or batter, actually) on their famous dish. He offers the option of chicken wings or tenders with your meal. The chicken is brined twenty-four hours, then seasoned and fried to order. Michael spikes the waffles with vanilla and nutmeg, then garnishes them with a lemon and your choice of side. Served with a small pot of syrup and, yes, melted butter.

And, oh, dear reader, the chicken and waffles are delicious. It’s a big portion of solid comfort food; I can’t imagine ordering anything else there. I chose the chicken tenders (generally don’t like bones in my breakfast), and they are super tender – just so moist and well seasoned. The waffles are thick, crispy, and almost cakey. They’re not soggy in the least, although I think the syrup is necessary. You can really taste the vanilla in the batter, and the combination of the sweet waffles and savory chicken is to die for.

I chose a side of hash browns. They were good, although I’m always suspicious when food comes out in blocks. Probably pre-frozen. But I can’t complain on the taste.

SERVICE: Service was very friendly and attentive, although I was one of only a handful of customers. Michael told me a little more about the business while I ate. The Cafe itself has been around for several years; he and his wife Tamara took it over in June of 2009 and headed up much of the refurb. While they gave the restaurant a new look, they knew enough to keep up the chicken and waffles tradition.

Even though the Cafe hustles and bustles, 75% of their business comes through catering. You can also rent the Cafe space itself, either the front room or a conference room in back. They also feature wifi for anyone who wants to linger. If you’re interested in coming back for the lunch menu, take a look at their daily specials like Meatloaf Monday, Turkey Tuesday, Wednesday Wings, Thursday Soul Food, and Friday Fish.

OVERALL: I’m still craving Linden Cafe’s food, so what does that tell you? The refurbished cafe is bright and cozy, the whole crew is welcoming, and man oh man those chicken and waffles are delicious. My vote for the best in Columbus!

-> my (614) Magazine write-up on chicken and waffles (includes blurb on Linden Cafe)

Linden Cafe on Urbanspoon


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