Wednesday, June 29, 2011

400 Degrees - Nashville

Nashville is many things to many people. It’s Music City, the state capital of Tennessee, and the home of the Tennessee Titans. To me, Nashville is the home of Vanderbilt and hot chicken. From what I’ve read, hot chicken began in Nashville with a jealous girlfriend and an act of revenge and from there it sprouted into the Nashville landmark, Prince’s Hot Chicken. Many times immortalized by John T. Edge and The Southern Foodways Alliance, Prince’s Hot Chicken does seem to be the king of the Nashville hot chicken hill and for good reason. To be fair, there are people who prefer Bolton’s Hot Chicken and Fish. I was able to try Prince's competitor the last time I was in Nashville, and it was a worthy contender. After Prince's and Bolton's, I thought I’d covered most of the hot chicken bases, but there was one more lurking in the shadows: 400 Degrees.


400 Degrees may be a relative newcomer to the hot chicken game, but it has garnered rave reviews in its short lifespan (here and here). Outside of the flavors, one thing that sets 400 degrees apart from its competitors is the unique approach to their chicken’s heat level. In lieu of the usual medium, mild, hot and extra hot, 400 degrees has 0, 100 degrees, 200, and 400 degrees of heat. Naturally, I wanted to see just how different each level of heat was at 400 Degrees, so I put in my order and waited for each piece of chicken to be cooked.


In retrospect, I should have started with the 0 or plain chicken, but I made the trek to downtown Nashville to eat spicy chicken not regular chicken.
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Going with the leq quarter for extra juiciness insurance, the 100 degrees chicken was pure fried chicken excellence.

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Each bite started with the big crunch of well fried skin followed with juicy dark meat.

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There was a nice balance to the flavor at the 100 degree level with a touch of cayenne heat that lingered at the corners of my mouth. The only real complaint was the seasoning gave the skin a slight granular texture. It wasn’t too problematic on the 100 degrees but it would play a larger role later on.


With the 200 degree chicken, things began to get a little odd.

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Instead of the usual crag like texture of fried chicken, this leq quarter appeared to be entombed in an thick layer of smooth, deeply maroon batter.

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While the 100 degree chicken had a slightly grainy texture, the 200 degree suffered from a full fledged problem. There was a heavy layer of seasoning on the 200 degree but no crispy skin like before. What had been a well balanced flavor on the 100 had devolved into the heavy flavor of burnt cayenne. The spiciness was potent at first but it quickly settled into a slow burn at the front of my mouth. It wasn’t overpowering but certainly hotter than 100 degree level.


Since I had already ordered two leg quarters, I decided to get something a little smaller for the 400 level.

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I never did figure out why there wasn’t a 300 degree level of spiciness, but it’s needed. Switching from the 200 to the 400 was a Grand Canyon sized leap in spiciness.

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What had been a spicy but manageable burning sensation with the 200 jumped to an eye watering, sinus clearing, lip burning exercise in spiciness.

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At first I thought the 400 would be tolerable, but each passing moment and bite made the heat that much more vivid. This was the epitome of hot chicken and it resulted in a solid five minutes of truly uncomfortable burning. As you’d expect the graininess increased as well, but the heat level was more the focus as this point.


Curious to see if 400 Degrees could handle a pork chop as well as they could chicken, I had also ordered a 200 degree level fried pork chop.

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Unfortunately, the success 400 Degrees had with chicken did not translate well to pork.

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It was fully dressed with the 200 degree seasonings but the spice mix didn’t mesh as well with pork as it did with chicken.

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The graininess of the seasoning had halfway worked with the dark meat chicken but with this dry, overcooked pork, it was just a textural mess.


When it comes to the hot in hot chicken, 400 Degrees has the chops to stand toe to toe with their Nashville competitors, but their texture is a serious handicap. Each increase in heat level meant the graininess ratcheted up accordingly meaning every bite left my mouth coated in deep fried spice mix. Looking to the positives, even though I left out the sides, the white meat, and the 0 level of heat, I can safely say that the 100 Degree was my favorite at 400 Degrees. The 100 Degree level was the perfect balance of crispy, crunchy skin, spiciness and juicy chicken. It’s no wonder that Aqui Simpson, the owner of 400 Degrees, listed the 100 Degree as her favorite.

400 Degrees Address & Information

319 Peabody St, Nashville, TN 37210 // 615.244.4467 // 400 Degrees Website // 400 Degrees Menu

400 Degrees on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Thai Phooket - Nashville

Back in Nashville and I was on the hunt for something spicy. I had just spent a weekend in Indy for the 500, an event that seemed to be hundreds of miles from the nearest grain of rice so Asian was a must. Fortunately, whenever I visit a city, I almost instinctively search for the best Asian dining options. Be it sushi, dim sum, Sichuan hot pot, bulgogi, or any of the myriad other Asian dining options, I want to give it a shot. It was that search that brought me to Thai Phooket


I’ll spare you the architectural details as I was more concerned with the food, particularly the prik nam pla.
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I took a few requests before I got a container of Thai Phooket’s prik nam pla.

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At its most basic prik nam pla is sliced chilies and fish sauce. Some people may add lime juice(technically that is prik nam pla manao), garlic, and sometimes sugar, but I prefer my Thai ketchup on the simple side. Thai Phooket may have added a little lime for good measure, but this prik nam pla was complete pungent simplicity.


Crispy tofu may seem like the epitome of a banal dish, but I had high hopes for this appetizer.

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Fried to a crisp, these wedges of near molten tofu were well complimented by the small bowl of sweet chili sauce. As good as the tofu was with the chili sauce, it was dynamite when combined with prik nam pla.


You’ve seen it before; almost every Thai restaurant has it in some form or another. It’s the classic, pick your protein and then pick your color curry. While Thai Phooket does have the classic selection of red and green curries, they also feature Massamun, a lightly yellow curry, panang curry, huang ray curry, and sassy curry, a pineapple curry. Call me clichéd but I ordered a classic pork red curry, but I asked for, nay, demanded the full five chili “Native Thai” level of heat.

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I can’t remember ever seeing this variety of vegetables in a curry before. Bamboo shoots, mushrooms, broccoli, carrots, bell peppers, those are all old hat, but this is the first time I’ve seen green beans and zucchini in a bowl of Thai curry.

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The first few bites were a bit of a letdown. I was hoping for a fire breathing level of heat, but this classic balance of hot, sour, sweet, and salty was just as satisfying. There was a bit of residual heat that built up with each bite, eventually covering the whole of my mouth, but nothing too alarming.

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With this red curry, Thai Phooket presents a well rounded, slightly earthy, and slightly spicy dish. It’s not one for the record books, but a taste of the familiar and oh so satisfying.


Even though my order of red curry came with a bowl of white rice, an order of the spicy fried rice or drunken fried rice was on the way.
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Stir-frying rice with chili paste seems almost counter intuitive. I imagined everything would arrive as a sticky mess, and it did.

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Decked out in “Native Thai” heat level, this plate of rice was moist, thick and brimming with chili sauce, but it a surprisingly approachable way. There wasn’t an overpowering heat to this dish, just enough spiciness to remind you why this dish is called drunken fried rice.

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Joining this duet of rice and chili paste is an assortment of bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, basil leaves, and tomatoes, not to mention a healthy amount of sliced pork. This ingredient may not have combined to deliver the spice laden knockout punch that I was hoping for, but they did make for a fine plate of spicy rice.


After a nearly a week without any form of Asian cuisine, I would have been satisfied to saddle up to the nearest P.F. Chang’s. Thankfully, I was able to try Thai Phooket instead. While their local specialties and unique items went untouched, I was genuinely pleased with their take on of a few of my Thai favorites. I don’t know if I’ll ever replicate the throat closing Thai heat that I experienced in Edinburgh, but Thai Phooket gave a standup performance that more than warrants a meal or two.

Thai Phooket Address & Information

207 Woodland, Nashville, TN 37213 // 615.248.7933

Thai Phooket on Urbanspoon

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Yats - Indianapolis

Yats had already reared its head once on my most recent trip to Indianapolis. While searching for something uniquely local for dinner, Yats kept popping up as an Indianapolis favorite and for all intents and purposes, I could see why. Every comment, review, and picture pointed to a local chain that focused on approachable and satisfying Cajun & Creole cuisine. That all sounded great, but years of poor to mediocre results have left me leery of trying both Cajun and Creole food outside the state of Louisiana. It’s mostly been tarted up Zatarain’s mixes with a little Cajun seasoning sprinkled on top, but I quickly realized that when it comes to lunch on Memorial day, sometimes you have to compromise. Out of the six restaurants I called, Yats was the first one that actually answered their phone.


The Yats on College Avenue isn’t a large restaurant, but it’s packed to the brim with all kinds of Nola kitsch. I was expecting the Jazz Fest posters, the beads and all the accouterments, but I was surprised when I saw the menu. Written in chalk, it’s an ever-changing menu of daily specials, but who’s complaining when samples are readily distributed?


Curious about the chicken pazole and the chili cheese crawfish étouffée; I ordered both expecting two separate, small bowls.

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There’s nothing wrong with a heaping plate of pazole and étouffée.


Let’s start with the chicken pazole.

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Once I got past the annoying parboiled rice, this was a very well prepared chicken stew. The chicken was shredded but still remarkably moist while the corn, pinto beans, and black beans provided a satisfying amount of well-prepared body to the dish. There wasn’t an overpowering level of spiciness to the pazole, but enough to compliment the well rounded flavors and juicy chicken.


As if a plate of rice, beans, chicken, chili, and cheese wasn’t enough, Yats included a few pieces of French bread.

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It warms the cockles of your heart to see a big slice of spicy, buttery, starchy goodness.


Moving on to the chili cheese crawfish étouffée, this was a new one for me.

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I’ve made and eaten plenty of étouffée but this is the first time I can recall seeing a chili cheese étouffée. Reading the name, chili cheese crawfish étouffée, it doesn’t seem like it would work, but that’s because I was thinking of hot dog chili.

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The chili in this dish comes from chili powder and when combined with the heavy cream and cheese, it makes for a very different étouffée. One major complaint was the small amount of crawfish, but on the whole this was a very thick, rich, and cheesy dish with just a touch of a burnt cayenne finish. I don’t think I’ve been persuaded to leave behind the traditional Cajun and Creole étouffées but it’s a unique take on the classics.


Was a trip to Yats worth it? Did it end up being just another bastardized version of icon Southern cuisines? Well, yes and no. By virtue of being open on Memorial Day, Yats was certainly worth the trip and they had some fairly satisfying food to boot. I certainly wouldn’t mind ordering the chicken pazole again, but the jury is still out on the chili cheese étouffée. All together, Yats makes a good pass at bringing Cajun and Creole cuisine this far north.


Yats Address & Information

5363 N College Ave, Indianapolis, IN 46220 // 317.253.8817 // Yats Website // Yats Menu

Yats (Broad Ripple) on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Shapiro's Deli - Indianapolis

It was Saturday, the day before the Indianapolis 500. Carb Day and its pit stop challenge, practice laps, Freedom 100 and excessive amounts of Bell’s Oberon and Margaritas had come and gone. I knew there would be a massive cookout later that evening but it was lunch time and we were on our own for food and if I didn’t speak up, people would instinctively migrate towards the nearest White Castle or Buffalo Wild Wings. I also knew that trying to get a small crowd of seven guys to agree on something besides burgers and wings would be a harder challenge than I was looking to tackle. That’s when I hit me, a deli; that was the answer to my problems.


I immediately did a Google search and a chow hound search to find the nearest and best deli. Moments later, I came across the name Shapiro’s. It had something for everyone, a large selection of sandwiches, a variety of dinner plates, even a healthy number of soups. With our host's orders and blessing, the seven of us piled into my Tahoe and headed to downtown Indy.


When I read that Shapiro’s was a deli, I was expecting three or four men behind a refrigerated meat case dishing out thick slices of cured beef. I wasn’t prepared for the cafeteria that greeted us. I also wasn’t expecting the full parking lot and several busloads of Greeks. Luckily the Fraternity men and Sorority ladies got their meals to go and our group made it through the food line in short order.


As I sat down with my order, I couldn’t help but notice several of my friends had empty lunchroom trays in front of them. Having ordered the Reuben, their sandwiches had to be made fresh, but no one was really sure how the sandwiches would arrive. With no ticket and no names taken, it seemed like getting the correct sandwich would be a crapshoot. Mike McD joked that a lady would come out of the kitchen with a tray full of Reubens and yell “who got the Reuben?” across the lunchroom. Wouldn’t you know that was the way it worked?


Despite the increasingly warm weather outside, I had to try a bowl of Shapiro’s matzo ball soup. Skipping the noodles, I went straight for the broth with an extra matzo ball.
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You never know how big a matzo ball will be at a deli, but I immediately decided that two would have been a better choice. Extra matzo aside, this was a bowl of rich chicken broth filled with three pillow soft matzo balls. It may have been a plain bowl of soup, but there was enough schmaltz floating around to make this a lip smacking, revitalizing bowl of chicken goodness.


I’m always hesitant to order a Reuben, not because of the Russian dressing or pastrami but because I’m leery of mountains of sauerkraut. In an effort to find an equally meaty sandwich, I went for the combo on rye.

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Can you ever really go wrong with a leaning tower of pastrami and corned beef?

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Contained within a light rye with a good crust, was a small mountain of fatty, salty, and slightly peppery pastrami. Playing the straight man to the fattiness of the pastrami, the corned beef was a leaner and a little dry, but nicely cured and with just the enough saltiness. While the whole sandwich may have been teetering on the edge of sodium overload, a decent mustard kept things in check.


Unfortunately, one sandwich and one bowl of soup doesn’t give Shapiro’s Deli a fair shake. There are dozens more sandwiches, soups, salads, and dinner that went untouched. Sadly, that’s the way it works when you’re in town just once a year. However, with a personal litmus test of pastrami, corned beef, and matzo, not to mention the satiated appetites and empty plates of my friends, I can say that Shapiro’s Deli was worth the drive downtown. I don’t know how much competition there is for best deli in Indy, but after my short visit, I know who has my vote. Hopefully I can delve a little deeper next time, but that will have to wait until next Memorial Day.


Shapiro’s Deli Address & Information

808 S Meridian St, Indianapolis, IN 46225 // 317.631.4041 // Shapiro’s Deli Website // Shapiro’s Deli Menu

Shapiro's Delicatessen on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Loft at Traders Point Creamery - Indianapolis

It’s been seven years since I first made the drive to Indianapolis for the Indy 500. In those years, I’ve come to know Indianapolis as little more than the small town of Speedway, but I’m not complaining. To me, Indy has been an early summer weekend of cookouts, wiffle ball, kegstands & gargoyles, and the occasional 500 miles of Midwestern mayhem. However, this year was different. I took a different route up to Indy; I skipped past the boring wasteland of the interstates crossing eastern Missouri and southern Illinois and I got to Indy a little earlier than usual. With time to spare, I was determined to explore the city and eat somewhere besides the local Buffalo Wild Wings.


Of course, the three of us that had arrived early for the weekend had no idea where we should eat. Scouring Urbanspoon & chowhound, I quickly found a few ideas to throw into the discussion. First was the Indianapolis Mecca, St. Elmo Steakhouse. There was also a Cajun restaurant named Y’ats, and one or two other forgettable names. Seeing as I had just driven 700 miles away from the Deep South and Cajun country, I didn’t feel the need to seek out an Indiana version. As for St. Elmo’s, reservations weren’t available until 10:30.


It was then that I came across The Loft at The Traders Point Creamery. The name, Traders Point Creamery, sounded vaguely familiar and it garnered a glowing recommendation from our Indy hosts, The LaBuzes. After a few quick clicks on open table, Jon, Gabe, and I began the drive to The Traders Point Creamery.


Once we made the remarkably short drive from Speedway to Zionsville, I was surprised by what we found. It was lush greenery as far as the eye could see complete with a decked out old Land Rover for tours and the Traders Point Creamery logo. With that distinctively tan and melancholy cow, I quickly realized where I had heard the name Traders Point Creamery. Their yogurt is sold in Fresh Market and I’ve bought a jar or two of it before. If memory serves me well, it was pretty damn good yogurt.


Walking into to Traders Point Creamery, you first pass through the store and then it’s up a flight of stairs to The Loft restaurant. True to its name, it is a converted hayloft. Of course, I don’t know of many haylofts that include a cheese aging room.


With so much emphasis on dairy products, it should come as no surprise that dinner started with the larger version of the Blue Ribbon Cheese Plate.
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Brimming with a variety of cheese, fruits, and nuts, there was plenty to go around.

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I usually associate the cheese plate with the dessert section of the menu, but after trying the house raw milk cheddar, I was in no mood to complain. This was smooth & satisfying cheese with a welcome subtle tanginess.

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The other house raw cheese was a gouda and I rarely encounter a Gouda with this much kick. It wasn’t overpowering but enough to quickly make it one of my favorites.

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At this point my memory and notes get a little hazy but working from right to left was a beautifully smooth & tart goat cheese, a spicy fromage with a big, peppery taste that lingered just long enough, and an herb cheese that was strangely reminiscent of boursin.


Having just left the sweltering confines of a Southern summer, I wasn’t prepared for the last cold front to hit Indiana. By the time we left Traders Point, temperatures had dropped to the low 50s and something warming was in order. Enter a cup of the chicken and rice vegetable soup.
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This small cup of soup was just what I needed as the rich, creamy broth was warming to the core. True there wasn’t very much chicken in the bowl, but with a full compliment of hearty vegetables and rich, unctuous broth, it wasn’t that badly missed.



When it came to choosing an entrée, I found myself stuck in a happy situation. There were simply too many things that I wanted to try, namely the Famous Farm Burger. Made from 100% grassfed beef, I was a little miffed when they couldn’t tell me what cuts went into the burger, but there’s nothing wrong with using all the trimmings. Still, I was looking for something more than four ounces of ground beef, so I went with the more substantially named Pork Porterhouse.
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Served with a white wine tarragon mustard sauce and a side of cheesy mashed potatoes, this was meat and potatoes taken to a higher level.

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I don’t want to think how much cream and butter went into these potatoes but I will focus on the addition of the house spicy fromage. It was the inclusion of that cheese that really gave these potatoes the leg up.

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Each forkful was rife with the creamy richness that you expect from good mashed potatoes but the addition of a touch of spice made these some of the best potatoes I’ve ever had.

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All that fawning over the potatoes doesn’t mean the pork porterhouse was worthless, quite the contrary. Beautifully seared, this porterhouse was worth the wait. I will admit that it suffers a few of the problems that plague large cuts of meat. A few pieces, especially on the edge, were a little dry but the robust flavors of the mustard sauce more than made up for those shortcomings. I wouldn’t hesitate to order this again.


At this point in the meal, the three of us were ready to be rolled down the stairs and out to the parking lot, but would it really be fair to come to Traders Point Creamery and not try any of their ice cream?
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I’ve never had a cream soda float before but with the combination of Traders Point vanilla ice cream and Natural Brew vanilla crème soda, I saw a new favorite in the making.

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Some might say that mixing vanilla crème soda and vanilla ice cream might be a crème and vanilla overload, I say that’s complete hogwash. Yes, this was an obscenely rich dessert but with each spoonful and straw full of soda and ice cream, I was on a vanilla laced cream cloud.


Lacking any sense of restraint, we even ordered a Almond Toffee Crumble Sundae to go. Fortunately, that didn’t emerge from the freezer until Monday morning. More to the point, what else did we take away from our meal at The Loft at Traders Point Creamery? First, any worries about this farm side restaurant being an all organic, grass fed show and no go were completely forgotten. Second, I would hate to be lactose intolerant. Third, outside of a few long waits between courses, dinner at The Loft was an exercise in everything delicious from Indiana. The meats were local, as were the cheeses and the vegetables, the only thing really foreign was the odd presence of Guinness on the beer list. If an out of state beer is the biggest fault I can find with The Loft, then they’re pretty damn golden. Needless to say, dinner at The Loft was a welcome introduction to Indianapolis outside of buffalo wings. I’m just ashamed I waited this long to explore.


Loft Restaurant at Traders Point Creamery Address & Information

9101 Moore Rd, Zionsville, IN 46077 // 317.733.1700 // Loft Restaurant Website // Loft Restaurant Summer Lunch Menu // Loft Restaurant Summer Dinner Menu // Loft Restaurant Reservations

Loft Restaurant at Traders Point Creamery on Urbanspoon