Tag Archives: restaurants

Best of Buffalo: Food Dissent

15 May

The Artvoice Best of Buffalo 2013 winners were announced Monday, and I suppose it’d be gracious to congratulate the winners, so congratulations. 

But voters, jeez have I got some bones to pick with you. 

BEST BBQ
Fat Bob’s Smokehouse

Best BBQ? Fat Bob’s location might be swell, and its food may be passable, and it might have a lively bar scene, but best BBQ in Buffalo? Absolutely not. The best BBQ joint in Buffalo is Suzy Q’s – hands down, and it’s not even a competition. This scrappy little joint up near the GM Powertrain plant is a diamond in the rough, which serves up smoked pork, beef, chicken, and Polish sausage that’ll make your taste buds sing and a grown man weep. 

BEST BRUNCH
Betty’s Restaurant

Not quibbling with this result, although it’s not my first choice. But do people even do brunch anymore? Is this still a thing? 

BEST BURGER
Grover’s Bar & Grill

This is a knee-jerk reaction people have, but it’s totally wrong. Grover’s had burgers the size of frisbees, but although the meat is still big, it’s not like it used to be. At a recent visit, the meat was gray and dry and totally unsatisfying, especially given the lengthy wait. Ruzzine’s Rock Bottom directly across the street is infinitely better.  The Roaming Buffalo makes a fantastic burger. Vizzi’s is good. People swear by the Sterling Place Tavern. But Grover’s? Only in your memories, not in real life. 

BEST CHEAP EATS
Mighty Taco

Mighty Taco deserves to be on no list. It is emergency food; when you’re too broke or too drunk to eat anywhere else. 

BEST COFFEE
SPoT Coffee

If I can make it better at home, it doesn’t belong on a “best of” list. I can make better coffee at home. 

BEST DINER
Lake Effect Diner

I have a problem with Tucker Curtin after his lobbying against the food trucks. I’m not a big fan of rewarding anticompetitive behavior. 

BEST FISH FRY
Papa Jake’s Saloon

Wiechec’s. But really, best fish fry is who can best dip a frozen fish from SYSCO into a Pitco Frialator. 

BEST ICE CREAM/FROZEN YOGURT
Anderson’s Frozen Custard

Are you out of your mind Buffalo? Anderson’s is fine, but my God the ambiance in there is 70s Burger King. The ice cream is ok, but it’s not the best in Buffalo. The best ice cream being made in WNY right now is Lake Effect Ice Cream out of Lockport. They make wonderful, rich ice creams and create innovative flavors.  Get your heads out of your asses. Hell, even for custard, Abbott’s and Hibbard’s are way batter. 

BEST ITALIAN
Chef’s Restaurant

I love Chef’s as much as the next fat white guy, but it’s not the best Italian food in WNY. Not by a long shot. It is a spaghetti parm factory. San Marco (caution: annoying noise)? Mulberry? Lombardo’s

BEST PANCAKES
Amy’s Place

I’m not in college anymore, so The Original Pancake House

BEST PIZZA
La Nova

Not remotely. Romeo & Juliet’s, Trattoria Aroma, Siena, 800 Maple, Rocco’s, La Hacienda of Niagara Falls, Pizza Oven, Elm St Bakery all make pizza that’s head and shoulders above La Nova’s floppy stuff. 

BEST SUBS, BEST PLACE TO EAT AT 2AM
Jim’s Steakout

I don’t know from after 2am, but the best subs are at DiBellas and Weggies

BEST STEAK
Russell’s Steaks, Chops & More

There’s room for improvement. 

That’s it. Get it together, Buffalo. Don’t make me tell you how to vote next year. 

Valenti’s: Where are they Now?

24 Jan

A little over a year ago, then-Buffalo News restaurant critic Janice Okun reviewed a seemingly pedestrian and typical red sauce joint that had recently opened in a plaza in North Tonawanda.

In ten years of blogging, no other series of blog posts I’ve ever done so completely unraveled some bad journalism, a pack of clumsy lies, or generated quite as much conversation in comments and social media. The saga of Valenti’s will go down in the annals of western New York’s culinary lore. 

 At the time, it was fun to deconstruct Okun’s reviews, and how they emphasized booth comfort while de-emphasizing food taste and quality. Yet the Valenti’s review was different, because Okun’s review recounted how the young owner-chef had recently returned to his native western New York after stints as an executive chef in Texas and Florida. But that’s not all – Valenti was reportedly so accomplished that he supposedly competed against – and defeated – celebrity chef Bobby Flay on the TV program “Iron Chef America”. This was a lie. It was alleged that Mr. Valenti’s culinary excellence had rendered the lowly parsnip into something so delightful that the judges were floored.  Here is a snippet from Okun’s review, which I annotated at the time: 

To this day, I don’t know what constitutes “parsnip cuisine”, nor do I understand how it could be the “parsnips that did it” if, apparently, they were the secret ingredient for the fictional episode on which Valenti never appeared.  In fact, the image shown above reflects the Buffalo News’ first edit of the review, to remove a mention that Valenti had appeared on Iron Chef America in 2003. At that time, no such show existed. Valenti also claimed to have graduated from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in 1993 – another lie confirmed by that institution’s spokesman, Jeff Levine. By the end of that particular Friday, Okun’s review in the online Gusto was changed to read thusly: 

As it turned out, he never could have been a cook at Mama Leone’s, either, as it had long since closed by the time he allegedly graduated from the CIA

But don’t blame Ms. Okun – she was doing what a lot of journalists do; transcribing press releases almost verbatim.

But Valenti’s had bigger problems than just a cook with a false resume. Terry Valenti and his girlfriend Lori Brocuglio opened the restaurant with a partner in September 2011. It was a problem tenant for plaza owner Frank Budwey almost from day one. By early February, Valenti’s was evicted for failing to pay back rent. It had loads of debt and a trail of people who had been taken advantage of.  Among them was Valenti’s and Brocuglio’s nominal “partner” in the business, Melissa Janiszewski, who had signed on for all the business’ liabilities, but had no access to the restaurant’s finances, no signing privileges on the business’ accounts, and (ultimately luckily for her), was not named on the lease.  It appeared to be was a bust-out scenario, where Valenti and Brocuglio used Janiszewski’s good credit to run up debt, skip town, and leave her holding the bag. Luckily, she got wise and sought help, but not soon enough to avoid a bankruptcy filing. 

Dramatically, during the late January 2012 eviction trial in North Tonawanda City Court, Terry Valenti was taken into custody on a Texas felony warrant for forgery. After losing his job at Captain Hiram’s in Florida, Valenti moved to Texas, where he cooked at a retirement community in Odessa. Valenti stands accused of forging an ex-girlfriend’s name on a Power of Attorney and title, to fraudulently transfer a motor vehicle for his benefit. The whole saga is available here, with an innocuous takedown of a Janice Okun “review”, updated herehereherehereherehere, and here.)

So, where are they now? 

By late February, Budwey had contracted with Cash Auctions to sell off the contents of Valenti’s Restaurant. The building now houses North Tonawanda’s own branch of Mighty Taco. 

In April 2012, a Midland County Texas grand jury indicted Valenti on the forgery charge. Interestingly, around that same time, there was a rumor that Valenti was back in western New York, looking to start up a new restaurant on Delaware Avenue, and was supposedly trying to recruit people who had worked for him in North Tonawanda.  This turned out never to have materialized, thankfully. 

By late June 2012, the Texas charges against Valenti were still pending, and he was appearing there in person with counsel. Meanwhile, in Florida, Valenti’s ex-wife initiated a court action seeking physical custody of their son. Lori Brocuglio’s ex-husband in Florida had custody of their son, and an action was brought to allow his new wife to adopt. Brocuglio contested the adoption, but the court instructed her that she needed physically to appear in court to testify – the problem is that there were a couple of minor warrants out for Ms. Brocuglio in that state, rendering her appearance a tricky proposition, at best. Meanwhile, Mr. Budwey’s criminal complaint against Ms. Brocuglio for grand larceny is still pending in North Tonawanda City Court and scheduled for an appearance in February. 

Meanwhile, the entire time they lived in western New York, Valenti and Brocuglio rented a living space in Eden. 

By July, Valenti had rejected a guilty plea in Texas that would have resulted in probation, court costs, and restitution. As for the adoption case involving Ms. Brocuglio, when process servers in New York attempted to serve papers on her, Valenti told them that she had moved back to Connecticut. This was quickly resolved – during the time that Mr. Valenti had to appear in Texas, they re-served papers in Eden knowing that the only person who would be home would be Ms. Brocuglio.  On July 29th, she was home, and she was served. 

But Valenti and Brocuglio attempted to fight back.  Valenti sought a temporary restraining order against Valenti’s ex-girlfriend, but failed to serve it in a way that could be enforced against a non-resident of New York. At best, it was a nullity; at worst, it was an attempt to intimidate the star witness in the Texas forgery trial. Nothing ever came of the TRO. Lori Brocuglio lost her parental rights as to the son in Florida in November on the grounds of abandonment. Terry Valenti’s ex now has physical custody of their son in New York. He is also about $13,000 in arrears on child support. There are no-contact orders imposed upon Valenti and Brocuglio in connection with these actions. The forgery action in Texas had to be re-filed and a new indictment was issued in December, and that matter is still pending. 

About that place in Eden: as you might expect, Valenti and Brocuglio ended up mistreating their landlords there, as well. They were forced to bring two eviction actions against them; the first time, they obtained an emergency rent assistance loan from Erie County, and the back rent was paid. By July 2012, the landlords were dealing primarily with Brocuglio, who indicated she was going to Texas. After the second eviction for non-payment, the judge gave Valenti and Brocuglio a week to show receipts that $3,000 was paid.  It hadn’t been. Not only did Valenti and Brocuglio skip out on back rent, but they are alleged to have stolen or sold items belonging to the landlords that were stored on the property, such as an upright air compressor, a drill press, welders, and a John Deere tractor and trailer.  The house was left in a horrible state, filled with garbage and junk. They left moldy, rotten food in the refrigerator, moldy clothes in the washer, food and garbage in the dishwasher, 36 bags of garbage, six truckloads of garbage furniture, six very large televisions, and tons of clothes and belongings left behind. Among the treats Valenti and Brocuglio left behind was shut-off of all utilities for non-payment, including $800 for electric fees. Because the electric system ultimately needed to be changed, it took three months and thousands of dollars to do so and also to clean up the property. 

Their whereabouts are not precisely known at this time, but Ms. Brocuglio’s grand larceny charge is set for an appearance in North Tonawanda City Court on February 7th.  There are also rumors swirling of new charges. 

Throughout all of this – right up to the present day – a very cohesive group of former strangers has formed, all with one thing in common – each one has been cheated or mistreated by Mr. Valenti, Ms. Brocuglio, or both. Through a bizarre set of Artvoice posts – all relating to a strange restaurant review in the Buffalo News – these people have developed a virtual support group to help each other find out where these two are, what they’re up to, whom they might be taking advantage of, and to generally vent about the wrongs done to them at the hands of Iron Chef Parsnips and his henchwoman. There have been bankruptcies, lawsuits, criminal actions, threats, harassment, child custody actions, evictions – federal, state, and interstate civil and criminal litigation has arisen as a result of two apparent sociopaths riding roughshod through the country, leaving behind a trail of debt, lies, broken lives, and broken property. The Valenti / Brocuglio fact pattern could very easily be an essay question on a bar exam. 

In the end, be nice to people. Treat them with respect, fairness, and kindness. If you don’t, you could be in for a world of hurt, and karma will indeed maintain its reputation for being a bitch. 

Eating, Drinking, Being Merry

2 Jan

Happy New Year, Buffalo. I hope you enjoyed some time off with family and friends, and that you begin 2013 refreshed in mind and body. 

The 400 or so of you who also happen to be my friend on Facebook might be expecting a post about restaurants this morning. Suffice it to say that some of the best inexplicable back-stabbing is perpetrated by portly weathermen – (to be a meteorologist, one needs to have credentials). 

I will write about food today, (something I usually reserve for my gig with the Spree, but I will make an exception here), but only to present to you two “year in review” food posts from different Buffalo-based food writers. 

Andrew Galarneau, the Buffalo News’ restaurant critic, gives a year-end assessment here

Jeremy Horwitz, the author of Buffalo Chow, exits hiatus to present a year-in-review of restaurants he’s visited elsewhere in the US and how he sees those experiences in comparison to what’s going on in Buffalo and western New York. He considers that the domestic food scene is undergoing a revolution, and that it’s largely passing Buffalo by. There’s a lot of food for thought there, pun intended. 

Also, consider that it was a year ago that we all helped to unravel the lies and cons of the fake Iron Chef who briefly ran “Valenti’s” in North Tonawanda, where a Mighty Taco now stands. Look for a “where are they now” post in the coming days. 

Mike A vs. a Hater

10 Aug

One of the things I love about the contemporary internet is that I hold in my pocket, at any given time, a miniature touchscreen computer that’s always connected. If I’m on a road trip, and find myself in the middle of nowhere at mealtime, I have an easy way to research – on the go – a good local place that isn’t McDonalds or Subway.  

White Castle, however, is an exception. 

So, I have the Urbanspoon app, I use Yelp, and I use Chowhound to quickly look up what are good places to try that are off the Interstate, because travel should be about visiting other places, people, and things. 

Sometimes, however, these social review sites can invited bad behavior. Owners puff their joints while falsely driving down competitors’ ratings. Buyer beware is still in full effect. 

Back in early July, Buffalo Rising published a quick story about a Boston Globe writer praising local chef Mike Andrzejewski’s “Mike A’s at the Lafayette”. I’ve dined there, and although I have a few issues with the decor in particular, I thought it was outstanding. It’s easily one of the best special occasion/fine dining restaurants in Buffalo now. 

Some anonymous commenter posted a mockingly negative review of Mike A’s. It mirrors one that’s posted as a one-star review at Yelp – by someone with only one review listed. An anonymous reviewer also joined Urbanspoon on August 7th for the sole purpose of repeating the exact same review to that site. Clearly, someone with a vendetta. 

Usually, this would just be ignored or downvoted or similar. People are obviously entitled to their opinions, and to trash places where they had a bad experience. But here, there may have been more to the story, as Andrzejewski published his own scathing, exasperated, and indignant response. It’s worth a read, and it’s indicative of restaurateurs being able to put up with a lot of nonsense from horrible people, up to a point. 

 

So You Want to do Business in New York

18 May
Inflatable Rat

Inflatable Rat was unavailable for comment

Governor Cuomo is wildly popular, and he’s getting loads of credit for helping to fix the state’s fiscal crisis, and also for implementing and advocating for reforms of the way in which the state does its business. Perhaps, however, the change he’s brought has been too tentative and not wide-reaching enough.  

Take, for instance, the case of Howard Nielsen, the owner of Sticky Lips BBQ in Rochester. I first became aware of his restaurant when I saw the new one being constructed along Jefferson Road, and I had a very nice lunch there recently. He’s written an exasperated open letter right on the front page of his restaurant’s website, called “So You Want to do Business in New York“.  

The land on which the restaurant sits is owned by the Genesee Valley Regional Market Authority and leased to Sticky Lips, which owns the building. It’s a small property – a former Roadhouse restaurant – and Sticky Lips completed its renovations through a private non-union contractor. It’s not a “public work”, he’s not required under any regulation or statute to retain the services of union labor, and he is just a guy who owns a restaurant who built it out and paid a bunch of people a lot of money to renovate and build it out. He didn’t use any public money to do so. 

But the shakedown began when, halfway through the project, a guy from the carpenter’s union showed up. It was a small job, and he was told, “no thanks”.  Two days later, there was an OSHA guy camped out across the street with “a telephoto lens”. A few weeks later, a guy from the electrical union showed up. They were also told, “no thanks.” Two days later, an inspector from the state Department of Labor was on site, demanding to see the contracts to determine whether prevailing wages were being paid. 

I’m generally pro-union, and I respect the notion of collective bargaining to ensure that workers who choose to unionize are treated fairly. But that should apply to big business, or public works. Ultimately – it’s the workers’ choice whether to work for a union shop or not, and small businesses renovating a non-chain restaurant should, frankly, be left alone, much less harassed. And why is it that state and federal inspectors are seemingly acting in concert – one could even say on behalf of – the union? 

Now? Sticky Lips’ contractors were all subpoenaed for a May 16th hearing at the Labor Department for an investigation of whether laws were broken. Nielsen continues, 

Bob Bibbins pressured me to go online to register this project with the labor department, which would automatically commit me or my contractors to pay prevailing wages.  He said he would start the violation from the date he showed up, but wouldn’t put that deal in writing.  I did not submit to this online filing. My lawyer at Woods Oviatt Gilman gave Bibbins our stance that we own the building privately and we are only making improvements to the building and not the land which it sits on.

Furthermore,

In the meantime, Bibbins is going to push this and see that I pay these prevailing wages. He has subpoenaed the contractors, who have to show up May 16th and attend before Ralph Gleason, public work wage investigator. He has been designated by the Commissioner of Labor to conduct an investigation concerning Sticky Lips BBQ, “an entity subject to an investigation by the New York State Department of Labor concerning a public work project pursuant to the provisions of Article 8, New York State Labor Law.”

All I did was to put many construction workers to work. I bought hundreds of thousands of dollars of construction materials from local companies. At this restaurant, I have created over 120 good-paying jobs. The business will collect and pay hundreds of thousands dollars in sales, property, employment, and other taxes. Between my three restaurants, I have over 200 employees. I am contributing to the state, I am creating jobs. I am the type of businessman the state wants. I feel like I am being attacked by these two unions, who have put pressure on the N.Y.S. Labor Department to see this through.

Not only do I need to reinvest my profits to grow my business, but now I have to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees and worst case scenario – if the Labor Department wins, many more thousands for this prevailing wage issue.

Is this the type of business practice I should expect from New York State as I try to grow my business in the upcoming years?

Nielsen has appended some documents to his letter to prove his point. So, why exactly was this relatively small venture targeted?

Winter Break in the American West

5 Mar

Presidents’ Day week, my family and I spent some time in the great American Southwest. Because every school in WNY has that week off, airfares from Buffalo are notoriously expensive, so we opted to save 50% and fly out of CLE. To make the early morning departure even easier, we stayed at a Sheraton on-site that offers a stay & fly package, which includes long term parking for up to 2 weeks. Now that you have to arrive 2 hours before your flight to accommodate a stressy security procedure, a little extra sleep goes a long way.

Saturday morning, the hotel shuttle drove us about 1/4 mile to departures, and we were on our way to PHX. We try to do most of our flying on Southwest or JetBlue, which both give you one free checked bag. Continental/United, however, does not, so each of us had a carry-on suitcase and a piece of hand luggage. It was a bit unwieldily because, really, a 5 year-old can’t be expected to do this, but we made it work. The payoff is walking off the plane in PHX, out of the security zone, and directly to the shuttle to the centralized rent-a-car facility.

In-n-Out Burger

Similarly, by joining Dollar rent-a-car’s free “Express” service, I didn’t have to wait at a counter, but walked directly to the garage, to my waiting car. Although I had booked a full size car, I was surprised to see a Nissan Altima sitting in the spot. It was relatively new, very clean, smelled like a new car rather than an air freshener, and while its engine was a bit wheezy – especially at altitude, it more than accommodated the four of us and all our bags.

Sedona

The first day we drove to Flagstaff, about 100 miles north from Phoenix. We stopped off for lunch at In-n-Out Burger and cut through the gorgeous scenery of Sedona en route to Flagstaff, where we would spend the night before hitting the Grand Canyon.

From Outside

Last year, I had followed the story of Flagstaff resident Caleb Schiff, who was writing for Eater.com’s Slice blog, detailing his process in opening a genuine Neapolitan pizza place. When I read about the delivery of his Stefano Ferrara wood-fired oven, I made a note to go out of our way to try his place out. We got our wish.

Caleb at work

I had been Tweeting my excitement to try Schiff’s place (@pizzicletta) and when we arrived, he took the time to come out and say hello. His pizza slice-shaped little restaurant is small and cozy, but offers up everything you could possibly want – good beer, excellent wine, phenomenal wood-fired pizza, friendly people, and homemade daily gelato. It’s a remarkably simple menu, and everything is superb. There are two seating areas – a counter facing a window, and a long table that promotes getting to know your fellow diners. We met people from Montreal who came to Pizzicletta from their current home in Phoenix, on their way to ski the Arizona Snow Bowl. We met locals who were there to try the new guy out. It was busy, and Caleb is living what’s clearly his dream. He’s a talented chef who has a really great thing going. I hope to return sooner rather than later.

Flagstaff itself is a sleepy little place that I can only describe as a cowboy version of a New England college town. It reminded me of places like Northhampton, Massachusetts and Middlebury, Vermont – a gritty charm that works perfectly for the young people who pass through it and the bars, restaurants, music venues, and cafes that go along with it. Driving through its downtown, I found a courthouse, a law firm, and a mid-60s era Bank of America office building. Everything else was retail and services.

The next morning, we headed northeast out of Flagstaff to take the longer, but more scenic eastern approach into the Grand Canyon National Park. We stopped off in Cameron where there’s a mega-kitschy tchotchke shop, which was loaded with Japanese tourists, before heading west into some low clouds, which quickly turned into an on-again, off-again snowstorm.

Looking East

We came upon the Watchtower at the western end of the park and could see absolutely nothing. We were in a cloud bank, with winds so strong it was snowing up. We hung around for a little while to see if the clouds would lift, and they soon did. With a little patience, we were greeted with the cloudbank lifting, revealing the Grand Canyon in her cloudy, snowy glory. It was truly a magical experience.

The drive west to our hotel in Grand Canyon Village, however, was less magical. Although there were a few magnificent views from occasional pull-offs we took, the roadway was mostly untreated, and downright treacherous. We saw three accidents due to the compacted snow that turned to ice underneath. It’s a somewhat winding and hilly road, with only occasional guardrails, so the 15-ish mile drive was a bit rough. Having rented our car in Phoenix, we didn’t even come equipped with an ice scraper.

From Grand Canyon Village

Food at the Grand Canyon is mostly one thing – expensive. Quality is something of an afterthought. Think banquet food + captive audience. So, before leaving Flagstaff we had stopped at a Safeway to pick up provisions like peanut butter, baguettes, sodas, and other snacks. Breakfasts and lunches were made from these raw materials, as well as some we picked up at the Delaware North-operated grocery store at the park. The meal we had at the Bright Angel Lodge was passable and inexpensive, but dinner at the El Tovar Hotel, which is quite an expensive proposition, was only marginally better. Baguettes with ham or chocolate peanut butter were more satisfying, and much cheaper. Also, the Safeway in Flagstaff didn’t just sell ice, but dry ice. No watery mess!

Sunset

Colorado River

From the Grand Canyon, we headed west into California to visit relatives and make a stop at the Getty Center and Jose Andres’ restaurant, The Bazaar. I love driving out west, so the 400+ mile drive didn’t make for many problems, and a well-timed lunchbreak in Kingman, AZ gave us a second opportunity to grab another round of In-n-Out.

To LA

The Getty Center is perched above the 405, in the Santa Monica Mountains towards the west side of the L.A. basin, near UCLA. You pay $15 to park in an underground garage, and take a free tram ride up the mountain to the free museum, which can only be described as magnificent. The view was unparalleled, stretching east from Hollywood and downtown LA, west to the Pacific Ocean, which was mostly obscured by a thick marine layer. The Getty’s design itself is something to behold, and unfortunately we had only limited time to check out a smattering of the many exhibits they feature, including some Classical statuary, Impressionist paintings, some photographic exhibits, and some abstract sculpture. The Getty itself is worth a visit to LA, and a full day’s attention.

Al Fresco

The 405

From there we caught Wilshire to head east towards Beverly Hills, where we dined at one of the most whimsical and delicious restaurants I’ve ever experienced. Honestly, to include a review of this phenomenal restaurant in this general travelogue wouldn’t do it justice. But what struck me about Bazaar wasn’t just the inventive menu, the talented kitchen, or the perfect execution of really complicated dishes – instead, it was the service. Our server made sure this wasn’t just another feeding frenzy, but an experience – when’s the last time that your server, in explaining the menu, told you to ask questions and have fun? This, we did. There are some pictures of the food in my Flickr set.

The next morning, we bade family farewell and took a quick detour to show the kids the part of Hollywood in and around Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the Kodak Theater. Everything was being prepped for the Oscars that coming Sunday, which gave us a taste of what Hollywood is really about – superficial self-promotion. Take note that there’s a Beard Papa cream puff bakery there, as well as a Crumbs cupcake shop.

Kodak Theater

In-N-Out on Sunset

We stopped for lunch at a mall in Rancho Cucamonga that’s built entirely outdoors and resembles an old-fashioned small-town downtown. These types of malls, known as “lifestyle centers” have been all the rage throughout the country for years now, yet the closest one to Buffalo is the Legacy Village outside Cleveland. As we continued east towards Phoenix, we stopped again at Indio in the Coachella Valley to try a delicacy that I can highly recommend: Shields’ date crystal shake. Shields started growing dates back during the depression, and soon became a popular roadside attraction. Shields invented the date crystal, which they use to soften and dissolve into soft vanilla ice cream to create their date shake – a confection that’s simple, delicious, and hard to compare to anything. It’s one-of-a-kind, but you can give it a shot yourself. They sell date crystals online.

Shields

Date Palms

In Phoenix, we stayed at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass in Chandler. It’s a resort located on an Indian Reservation, and like the Grand Canyon resorts, it’s very family-friendly, but also quite expensive. Well, the original reservation we made for three nights through Starwood.com was $250/night. But as our trip approached, I kept an eye on Hotwire.com, which gives you great deals but only describes the hotel – it doesn’t identify it. But by using betterbidding.com, I was able to decipher that a $120/night deal was being offered on a hotel that I was 99% sure was the Shertaon Wild Horse Pass. When I bought the reservation, I was right, and saved almost $500. But the food there was pricey, too – two bagels and two coffees ran us $22, so from then on we got breakfast and some lunch provisions at the closest thing they have to Wegmans – AJ’s Fine Foods. They even sell beer, wine, and hard liquor. How bout that.

Night Driving

'Pomo

'Pomo Margherita

I had never spent any time in the Phoenix area, and fully expected it to be a baking, seedy and horrible place. But while I found the Los Angeles area to be somewhat seedy, I had no such opinion of Phoenix. In fact, I quite liked it. A lot. I thought the downtown was in great shape, and had lots to see and do. Their light rail is modern and functional, serving more than just one street. I got to thinking about our local attention to “sense of place”, and decided that Phoenix, despite being a new, sprawling, Southwestern place has “sense of place” of its own. There’s no mistaking where you are, with the blue skies, strong sun, and gorgeous mountainous setting. I was shocked by how much I enjoyed it there, although I’m not sure I’d go back in summertime. Next time, we’ll reserve some time at the Bondurant driving school and explore the surrounding mountains a bit more.

Dino

The Phoenix Art Museum was phenomenal – situated in a gorgeously designed facility, it had some wonderful exhibits. We particularly loved the contemporary art wing, the Impressionist gallery, and a great exhibition of Frank Lloyd Wright designs (including the one for the Larkin Administration Building). One of the things I learned about Wright was his vision for the “city of tomorrow”, which wasn’t so much a city as it was a sprawling, car-dependent community where every family lived on an acre. Broadacre City was never built, but they had a Wright-built model of it on display. It was thought-provoking – not 70 years ago, Wright foresaw a car-based, non-urban utopia whose population density would be miniscule in comparison even with that of Phoenix. How times have changed. Perhaps we’re too quick to assail those who came before us and brought about urban renewal and suburban sprawl. These were not only mainstream, but downright progressive in that time, when cities were not particularly attractive places to live.

In order to make sure we could zip up our bags in such a way as we wouldn’t have to pack them, we made a couple of stops at the post office to send stuff home to ourselves. Those flat-rate priority boxes were the difference between closing some bags, and checking others.

Corral

Aside from golf and a nearby casino and wild-west replica town, the resort had a horse ranch where the kids were able to ride a horse for the first time. The woman taught them how to groom the horse, clean its shoes, put the saddle on, and then to ride. It was 2 really special hours that those sisters will always remember.

Old Town Scottsdale is wild-west kitschy, but the art galleries to the west were like museums in their own right. As for dining, we found another Neapolitan place called ‘Pomo, which Pizzicletta’s Caleb Schiff had recommended. As I approached the pizzaiolo to take a snapshot of the gorgeous red-tiled wood-fired oven, he waved me over and chatted me up in barely comprehensible Englalian. Later, Fabio the master pizzaiolo sent out a delicious garlic & red pepper oil condiment to use on our pizzas, and a limoncello nightcap that had a wonderful “orange julius” creamsicle consistency. We went back the next night because, hey – there’s no Neapolitan places back home, so we stuck with what we knew was good before a hectic day coming home.

Scottsdale Old Town

And so it was that we filled up the tank at the Chandler Love’s truck stop before getting some shut-eye, leaving Sunday morning at 5am to return our car and catch a 7am flight to CLE. Thankfully, the weather back home was decent, and the ride back to Buffalo was quick. I did notice, however, that almost every other highway sign in Ohio seems to have a solar-powered K-band radar gun. I don’t know if they were attached to anything or transmitting anywhere, but the radar detector went off every couple of minutes like clockwork. I guess Ohio decided that they wouldn’t ban detectors, they’d just harass you.

 

Foodspotting

13 Feb

A tip of the hat to the Buffalo News’ Colin Dabkowski, who Tweeted this: 

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/colindabkowski/status/168714052506357760″%5D

Foodspotting is a social photography network where people share pictures of restaurant food. It’s useful to help you decide where you want to eat, and what you might be interested in ordering. Indeed, the top “noms” on Foodspotting for Toronto are “Xiao Long Bao” and “Chicken Karaage”. The top “noms” in Buffalo are chicken wings. Apart from a couple of dishes from Seabar, Blue Monk, and Sweetness 7, almost all of the Buffalo bests are wings and pizza. 

If you want to find out more about the use of social media in the local food scene, the Buffalo “Social Media Club” is hosting a panel discussion tonight at Artisan Kitchens & Baths at 200 Amherst Street from 6 – 8:30.  The Whole Hog and Roaming Buffalo food trucks will cater the event, which will feature discussions from:

  • Christa Seychew – Food editor at Buffalo Spree, Producer of Nickel City Chef series, and overall expert on local Buffalo food scene.
  • Donnie Burtless – Creator of BuffaloEats, one of the area’s premier restaurant review websites.
  • Beth Manos Brickey – Creator of Tasty-Yummies, a popular blog featuring mouth-watering recipes and beautiful food photography.
  • Deborah Clark – Owner of Delish Cooking School and Pasty shop, and advocate for social media use.

A Big Fuss: TONIGHT

8 Feb

Tonight at Artisan Kitchen & Baths at 200 Amherst Street from 6 – 8:30pm, a fundraiser will be held to support a local farm that finds itself down on its luck. $30 gets you in. There will be an auction to raise money, a gaggle of chefs will prepare comestibles for your enjoyment, there’ll be music and a roomful of foodies with whom to mingle. 

Brought to you by the people behind Nickel City Chef, “A Big Fuss” is intended to be an annual event to benefit a local farm or farmer who finds himself down on his luck (or hers, as the case may be). The identity of the event’s largesse won’t be identified, as it would only do further harm to an already precarious situation. 

 

Brown Signs Food Truck Law

8 Feb

On Monday, Mayor Byron Brown signed Buffalo’s food truck rules into law. He waited until the last day to do so, and had he not signed it, it would have become law by default. 

The full text of the new ordinance is below. 

The law is imperfect from everyone’s point of view, but it has a built-in sunset provision, expiring in April 2013. At that time, the Common Council will review how the statute worked over the preceding 15 months and take suggestions from all sides regarding any proposed changes. 
 
The law mandates that trucks be 100′ from the exterior walls of any structure containing an open kitchen, 500′ from any special event requiring special permitting, and that the trucks pay a $1,000 annual license fee. 
 
What is different about this license from that in other cities is that there is no hidden charge – you don’t pay more for certain neighborhoods over any others (except for the CBD, which is governed by Buffalo Place). The only added charge is for parking. 
 
Furthermore, a proposal that brick & mortars were proposing would have required trucks to be limited to one truck per block face. This would have prevented events on city streets where trucks could line up in a row, due to supposed congestion issues. This was not included in the law. 
 
At some point in the near future, a Buffalo Cash Mob for the food trucks will be held at Canal Side, with ECHDC’s blessing. The date and time of that cash mob is TBD.
 
The truck owners with whom I’ve spoken are excited and relieved that this controversy is behind them, and already have potential spots scoped out. They have been waiting for this day since the middle of last year, and had been very patient. 
 
With this new statute and regulatory scheme, the food trucks are now legal, and food trucks are a fantastic way for talented people to show off the food they love – and love to make – with a much lower startup cost than a brick & mortar. Hopefully, the legalization of food trucks will lead to an even more vibrant mobile food scene in town, more innovation, and more experimentation. 
 
I’m pleased that we’ve joined the ranks of progressive, forward-looking cities that have carved out a way for food trucks to peacefully co-exist with existing restaurants, benefiting all involved. 

Buffalo Food Truck Ordinance

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Photo courtesy Where’s Lloyd via Flickr.


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Buffalo’s Food Trucks React

25 Jan

Interviews conducted Tuesday after the Common Council passed the new Buffalo food truck ordinance. It is expected to be on the Mayor’s desk on Monday, and will hopefully be signed shortly thereafter.