Category Archives: Restaurant Reviews

Sweet Tomatoes And Other Buffets Depress Me Too

I’m generally a very happy person these days, but the quality and quantity of food we eat does make me sick at times.

When I wrote a few weeks ago about Why Trader Joe’s Depresses Me, I also had another depressing food experience in mind. We recently visited the Fort Worth location of Sweet Tomatoes, an all-you-can-eat soup, salad and bakery place that we had visited at other locations before.

The food when we visited for an early dinner a few weeks ago was dried out, stuck to its serving utensils, overflowing from its containers and generally looking terrible from lack of care and attention. But never mind that the quality and presentation at this location was inferior to the others we had visited, it was the experience in general that bothered me.

We once frequently visited buffets and other all-you-can-eat restaurants, and I often ate way too much. While I’m sure Sweet Tomatoes — which focuses on salad and soup and offers no entrees and few meat choices — would object to be lumped in with other buffets, it’s still an accurate term for this chain that serves big bowls of sloppiness rather than carefully prepared portions of whole foods.

We had visited looking a rare treat, the kind of high-end experience we had found at the chain before. What I got was a stomach ache and strong sense that even being in the place was a betrayal of my commitment to simple living.

Although few people were in the restaurant when we visited, the ones who dined near us reminded me of the overweight, undereducated people I remember from my years of buffet dining.

I was upset about the high price (although I didn’t pay), upset about the low quality, upset about the old memories and especially upset that visiting had been my idea. My stomach felt like I remembered it used to feel every day, my brain seemed less sharp and my head ached.

I was overfed on low-quality food, and I was depressed.

As I said in my post a few weeks ago, we deserve better than what we’re getting. We deserve good food made by people who care, and that means we deserve food prepared in our homes by hands that serve us with care and compassion.

This post isn’t about Sweet Tomatoes or any other buffet chain. It’s about how sad our way of dealing with food makes me.

I won’t be visiting Sweet Tomatoes again, so I unsubscribed from the company’s email list and unliked its Facebook page.

That company is no longer part of my life, and I’m a better person because I’ve moved on.

Why Trader Joe’s Depresses Me

Trader Joe’s depressed me because it’s about as good as it gets. And I think we humans deserve better than frozen turkey burgers, fried orange chicken pieces and mixed nuts with chunks of peanut brittle in them.

For the best combination of quality and value, I’m convinced that Trader Joe’s, a chain of cut-price gourmet grocery stores, is the best choice in areas where the company has stores. Products have no preservatives, colorings or other icky things and are available at lower prices than in high-end grocers.

But the company specializes in frozen ready-made meals that require little or no cooking.

Actually, it’s the chef’s case at Central Market in Fort Worth that first got me thinking about the miserable state of the food most people eat and its uncertain origins. Central Market is an upscale grocery store that prides itself on a large deli where people can buy cold foods designed to be warmed up in a microwave. Whole Foods Market offers something similar in its stores. Like Central Market, Whole Foods is praised for the quality of its fresh-made deli offerings.

Trader Joe’s, Central Market and Whole Foods all depress me a bit, however. I’ve tried frozen and prepared products from all three stores, and I’ve been disappointed by most of them. I find that I’m most satisfied by food when I cook it myself because I know that it was prepared to my standards and tastes.

The frozen products I’ve found at Trader Joe’s are, in fact, superior to similar products I’ve found at my favorite grocery store, Aldi. And there’s nothing wrong with the potato salad or fresh sandwiches at Central Market either.

But surely we deserve better than that. Don’t we all deserve freshly made foods prepared with love by our own hands or

the hands of people we know? Don’t we deserve fruits that haven’t been processed by professional canning companies and veggies that aren’t pre-trimmed and vacuumed-packed?

Isn’t it time to turn our backs on prepackaged, pre-made and flash-frozen?

You see, it’s precisely because Trader Joe’s, Central Market and Whole Foods are so well regarded that I wonder how many of us are eating well. I know I struggle with this every time I purchase something that disappoints me.

When I sample an item at an upscale deli counter known for its spectacular quality and find it uninspiring, unappealing or even unpleasant, one thought runs through my head immediately: This is as good as it gets. There may be no better prepared food on the planet, and it’s only fair.

We deserve better than this — better than bland and tasteless food provided to us in biodegradable plastic-like containers or cardboard freezer-proof boxes. We deserve food that’s actually been in a real skillet, pan or mixing bowl.

As I stand alongside aging executives in tailored suits and young mothers dragging along small children, I see what they get from these cases and freezer cabinets and feel a bit depressed.

I’ve often had what they’re having. It’s the best in the world, experts say, and I don’t think it’s very good.

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Jersey Mike’s Subs Review: Freshly Sliced Meats And Cheeses Make A Real Difference

My limited experience with Jersey Mike’s Subs indicates that it’s at the top of its class. In a marketplace filled with mediocre and tasteless sandwiches, it’s nice to find a restaurant that makes flavorful meals from freshly sliced meats and cheeses.

As with many of my restaurant experiences, I didn’t pay for my Jersey Mike’s subs. I’ve learned that free food isn’t always good food, but in the case of Jersey Mike’s, I got great sandwiches on both visits.

On my first experience a few months ago, we visited the location on S. Hulen St. in Fort Worth during a promotion that offered free sandwiches in exchange for a charitable donation. While we listened to Brad Thompson sing outside, I experienced the best sub sandwich I’ve found since local Blimpie locations closed several years ago.

Freshly sliced meats and cheeses make a real different on a sandwich, and the line at Jersey Mike’s can back up during peak times because they slice everything fresh.

I tried the regular-size Original Italian, a hefty sandwich with provolone cheese, ham, prosciuttini, cappacuolo, salami and pepperoni. I had it “Mike’s Way”, so the sandwich was dressed with onions, lettuce, tomatoes, vinegar, oil and spices.

It had more oil than necessary, making it messier than it needed to be. Still, the sandwich was so much better than anything offered by the chain’s competitors that I can hardly complain.

It would be wrong not to mention the soft white bread. Jersey Mike’s also offers a wheat and a rosemary bread, but the white bread was perfectly soft and still hearty enough to hold the sandwich together.

The only problem was that the regular sandwich is really too large for lunch. I finished it, but I probably shouldn’t have.

Sti

ll, at nearly $7, the regular-size sandwiches are too expensive for everyday dining, at least for a frugal, simple writer like me. Minis are also available in the $4 to $5 range. The chain also offers large sandwiches for $10 to $12.

Since I signed up for the company’s email promotions, I got a coupon for a free sandwich and drink on my birthday. The coupon was only good on my birthday, however — not for a week or two before and after the actual date as many other birthday coupons are — so I thought I was out of luck since all their locations are closed on Christmas, my birthday. I emailed asking for a replacement coupon, however, and they quickly provided one for the day of my choice.

For my second visit to Jersey Mike’s, I tried the new location on Camp Bowie Blvd. in Fort Worth on December 26. I had a regular Original Italian again, but this time I shared it. Half of a regular sandwich was plenty for lunch, and it was once again so soaked in oil that my finicky stomach appreciated not having to deal with the other half.

The sandwich was excellent both times, and I see no reason to try any of the company’s other offering. While Jersey Mike’s offers hot sandwiches with cheese steak, chicken parmesan and, of course, meatballs as well as other cold sandwiches, the Original Italian will always be my choice. The company also offer wraps and will make any sub as a salad.

It’s nice to find a good sandwich at a chain place. I’ve never been a fan of Subway’s tasteless breads and meats, and Quiznos never won me over either. I always liked Blimpie because their meats and cheeses were sliced fresh, but all of their Fort Worth-area stores closed. On my last few visits, Blimpie was using pre-sliced meats anyway.

Jersey Mike’s is a New Jersey-based sandwich shop with more than 400 franchised locations that has been aggressively expanding, so if you don’t have one near you now, you probably will soon.

And that’s a very good thing. The sandwiches may be a bit pricey, but they’re also quite a bit better than your average sub-shop chain.

Pie Five Pizza Review: Fair Pizza, High Price, Poor Concept

The idea behind Pie Five, a new pizza chain from Pizza Inn that started here in Fort Worth, is half-baked at best.

In fact, half-baking pizza crusts before the customer arrives is an important part of this small-but-growing new chain’s fast casual concept: It can prepare, bake and get payment for your pizza is less than five minutes.

Of course, the pizza is only fair, slightly undercooked and costs as much as a full-sized pizza at some delivery chains, so you can’t have everything.

I’ve visited Pie Five twice, and I was much more impressed the second time than the first. Still, I wouldn’t actually pay $6.49 for their one-size-is-all individual pizzas.

I ate for free on both visits — the first because the chain’s restaurant in Montgomery Plaza gave away pizzas in its early days and the second because the company sent me a coupon for a free pizza on my birthday since I signed up for their email promotions.

On my first visit, the Athenian pizza I ordered should have been amazing — chicken, onions, olives, banana peppers, feta cheese and sun-dried tomato puree — but the garlic-butter sauce made the thin crust a greasy mess that also made a mess of the pan and of me.

It didn’t help that the loud music and busy wall decorations made me a bit nervous anyway. The restaurant’s décor seems to be trying too hard to be modern and hip when it’s really just an old company with very little new concept behind it.

The chain’s Camp Bowie Blvd. location in Fort Worth was still new when I visited in late December 2011. The walls were a bit less busy, and so was the store. The music was very loud, however, making the sparsely populated restaurant seem overrun.

The Pie Five High Five is a new pizza to the lineup the relies on a so-called pan crust and features pepperoni, sausage, bacon, ham and beef. It would be called a meat lover’s pizza elsewhere, and it’s a much more loveable pizza than the Athenian. With tomato sauce instead of the oil slick, the pizza was passable.

The biggest flaw in the Pie Five concept is that its pizzas are just barely cooked after they pass through the oven. There’s no browning, and some of the cheese wasn’t completely melted on my pizza. I would have appreciated the opportunity to wait an extra minute or two for a properly cooked pie.

There’s also another problem that Pie Five shares with some sandwich shops: You have to order three times. After placing your order, you have to confirm to the person on the other end of the oven that the pizza coming out is yours. Then, you have to confirm your order again with the cashier.

At least this is somewhat better than the ordering experience at Potbelly Sandwich Shop. There you must actually remember the name of your sandwich long enough to say it to three different people.

The $6.49 price for all Pie Five pizzas isn’t outrageous, but a small or medium pizza at many takeout pizza places runs about the same price and is (usually) completely cooked. There are also other lunch places where you can get much more food for the same price.

The Pizza Inn chain dates back to its first restaurant near Southern Methodist University, opened in 1958. The company, based in The Colony, apparently hopes to revitalize itself with the new Pie Five concept.

The selling point of the concept is supposed to be the speed with which the chain can produce high-quality pizzas, but many Subway locations have been for years cooking good pizzas in two minutes using their sandwich ovens.

The Pie Five chain is up to four locations now and has a fifth on the way, but I can’t see why they would bother to add any more.

The pizza is okay, but it isn’t really a concept that’s strong enough to survive.

Review of In-N-Out Burger in Fort Worth: It’s Fine, Thanks

For me, December 2, 2011 was an important day: It was the day I confirmed that In-N-Out Burger is not worth the hype, but the company still makes pretty good burgers.

Here now — without malice about the company building its Fort Worth location next to a struggling Wendy’s or guilt about eating too much red meat — are my thoughts about my first In-N-Out burger as experienced at their West 7th location in Fort Worth, Texas.

I was a bit disappointed that the crowds have died down to the point that there was no waiting in line or worrying about where to sit at 5:15 p.m. on a Friday. We were able to order right away and found a seat with no problem.

The Wendy’s next door was almost empty, and the In-N-Out Burger was only moderately busy.

Still, waiting in line must be part of the appeal, because the stark white over-lit interior offered nothing to hold my attention or make for an interesting dining experience.

I did my research and decided in advance what to order. I don’t like big meals anymore, but I do like weird burgers. For me, then, it was to be a “single animal style”. For $2 — a good value — you get a regular-sized burger with all the veggies and thousand island sauce. The words “animal style” mean they cook mustard into the meat and add extra sauce, chopped grilled onions and chopped pickle to the other veggies.

The extra sauce was too much, but everything else was fine. It was a good, solid fast-food burger that tasted like a burger should. I have no complaints nor raves. The grilled onions and extra pickle were nice, but the burger was nothing to get excited about.

To be complete, I must mention the fries, available in one size for $1.50. In-N-Out fries get a below average rating from me. They’re made from real potatoes — a plus — but they’re limp, tasteless and uninteresting. Serving them with a salt packet and a napkin on top must be some kind of hint, but I didn’t understand it. Should I salt the fries or just wrap them up and take them to someone who likes them?

It’s interesting that some reviewers make a big deal of In-N-Out’s fresh, never-frozen beef, but Wendy’s (still standing nearly empty next door) uses never-frozen beef too. In fact, since Wendy’s upgraded their burgers, they’re very similar to In-N-Out’s. The new Wendy’s burgers are even served standing on their sides, just like the ones inside the glowing white restaurant only steps away.

Reviewers also seem to like the fact that In-N-Out is family owned, not publicly traded or franchised. That doesn’t matter to me, but it’s something unique among big burger chains.

My biggest complaint about In-N-Out Burger’s location in the developing West 7th entertainment district in Fort Worth is the design of the building itself. It looks like something that belongs on a suburban highway, not a vibrant city street. The lot also shows just as much parking as building, and that doesn’t look right in the heart of the city.

For me, In-N-Out Burger seems like an necessary addition to the Texas burger landscape. Whataburger and Sonic are well established here, and they both offer adequate burgers. Wendy’s probably offers the best chain burger today, however. No others even deserve mentioning.

In-N-Out Burger offers nice burgers in a bland atmosphere with a simple menu and very little fuss. My experience with this much-touted chain is that it’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with it. But Wendy’s has better fries, and they seem to need the business.

Review Of Oliver’s Fine Foods in Fort Worth, Texas

Oliver’s Fine Foods in downtown Fort Worth, Texas was touted as the grocery store that downtown Fort Worth had been missing since its redevelopment in the 1980s. While it’s a nice little sandwich shop, it misses the mark in many ways.

Even as the number of condos and other residences in downtown Fort Worth increased in recent years, no one bothered to open a grocery store downtown. I’ve seen downtown residents at the Albertsons on I-30 at Green Oaks rummaging through bananas that they perhaps would have preferred to acquire closer to home.

The addition of the Super Target at Montgomery Plaza lessened the need for a downtown grocery store — if there really was a need all. Truthfully, those downtown homes are high-end places occupied by some of Fort Worth’s wealthiest citizens, so getting to a grocery store in another neighborhood isn’t really a problem for most of then.

Still, leaders, residents and more columnists and bloggers than I care to count have clamored for a downtown grocery store for years. Since the Eckerd store downtown closed, it has taken great creativity and a willingness to visit an office-building convenience store during business hours to get even a frozen dinner in downtown.

When Oliver’s Fine Foods, a Mansfield specialty shop, agreed to put a grocery store where the Fort Worth Convention and Visitor’s Bureau once operated — at the corner of 4th and Throckmorton — some thought that would change.

But Oliver’s isn’t a grocery store. It’s a sandwich shop with a fresh meat counter.

After studying online photos and the company’s website, I visited Oliver’s at about 6 p.m. on a brisk-but-nice Friday in November. The store was empty of customers except for a table of three eating sandwiches and a dozen or more employees. A couple of other customers walked in and around, but none bought anything before running along.

The floor space is mostly tables, and the grocery selection was both funny and sad.

I can’t offer a review of the sandwiches that seem to be this location’s primary reason for existing. I’d already eaten when I got there. I was, after all, visiting a grocery store, and it’s best to go on a full stomach to avoid over-purchasing. I didn’t know sandwiches were the main attraction.

My first thought upon looking around was that the place looked like a convenience store movie set, not a real, functioning establishment. Three heads of celery were perched in a bowl while two carrots kept each other company in another. The tomatoes were available in somewhat larger quantities.

I’m guessing they don’t actually sell veggies at Oliver’s, but they want to look as if they do. It was the fresh vegetable selection that made me sad, but the packaged foods and essentials made me laugh.

A bottle of ketchup, for example, is essential for some people, but only Annie’s is available at Oliver’s, and it costs almost $6. The only kind of white bread available when I visited was a large loaf that was apparently freshly baked, but it was offered at an astonishing $5.50. It didn’t even have little seeds on top or cornmeal on the bottom.

The selection of prepared foods is adequate, but with Central Market only a few exits down the freeway with similar prices and bigger selection, I can’t see the appeal. The fresh meat at the counter is even more expensive than Whole Foods or Central Market but in lesser supply.

Never mind, however, whether the prices are too steep or the quality is wrong for the purpose, there just aren’t very many groceries around. The poorly stocked store looked when I was there like it didn’t yet have all its merchandise, but it had already been open a few weeks by then, so I think the sparseness of the merchandise must be part of the plan somehow.

Oliver’s Fine Foods isn’t the grocery store leaders promised it would be. And it isn’t anything special either. Whether downtown even needed a grocery store is debatable, but it didn’t need another sandwich shop.

Downtown workers may enjoy the sandwiches, but I mistakenly thought the concept was being developed for downtown residents. Their needs seem to have gotten lost somewhere, although probably not among the groceries.