Monday, February 28, 2011

Let "Uncle" Leo Cook For You!

Once upon a time, I would have some eats at a place called Moe's Southwest Grill. Located at 4151 Miller Road in Flint Township  between the freeway and the mall, it was a great stopping off place after the gym, with wifi (one of the earliest to offer it locally and free!). They did something really dumb. They decided to upscale themselves with beer and margaritas altho they really were only slightly more than fast food. The good thing was I could get anything vegetarian and the spicy tofu salad called the Close Talker was my fav. Sadly the lights went out and they closed in 2007 .

Then I saw construction and had the normal contest between family members trying to guess what it was going to be. With a burger joint next door, another southwest menu next to that and a stir fry on the other side, I was resigned to a coney island and not much more. I was right on the coney island but it turned out to be Leo's! I had eaten at a couple in the Detroit area when either dropping off or picking up hubby at the airport but not enough times to really give them a try out. Until they came to Flint.

And yes, they are very veg friendly! On recent trips to the Flint location I have been able to select a variety of  vegetarian items and usually have something left over to take home without breaking the bank.  Many of the sides or appetizers are suitable for vegetarians and with tweaks, also vegan diets.  Everyone loves baked potatoes, right? I just leave off the sour cream and request margarine or go bare. They really bake the potatoes here! There is nothing worse than a microwaved jacketed spud.

On an occasion where I was really hungry, I ordered spinach pie (Spanakopitawhich included  Greek rice flavored with golden saffron and a chunky tomato sauce that is similar to the heavenly topping  called Domatorizo. There are discernible chunks of tomatoes, onion, green peppers and spices with  a hint of cinnamon. I had this red sauce served on the side. Also a small side of tzatziki sauce (cooling Greek yogurt with cucumbers and onions, quite similar in construction to an Indian  dip called Raita) accompanied the spinach pie, which was hot, very spinachy with feta cheese and a crispy crust of phyllo dough browned to yumminess. The serving was very large and I took at least half home for another day.

The egg salad sammy would actually be a good choice for protein sans all the added fat gobs of mayo that other places use to prepare it with. At Leo's the boiled eggs are prepared fresh daily and sometimes the eggs are still warm on the bread. There is so little dressing on this, I often believe none is added. Just chopped up/mashed hard boiled egg. Tomato slices and fresh lettuce complete the dish, and you have your choice of breads. I love this on toasted rye because it doesn't get soggy. The only thing I would personally do to this sammy is add some onion or green pepper for crunch.

I am not a fan of french fries. I would love that more places offer something besides them, as I think they are pretty boring. Maybe sweet potato fries would work. Until that happens, I have become devoted to American fries or home fries. Most breakfast places offer hash browns, which are often undercooked, soggy or a combination of both. The waitress  at Leo's one night offered me American fries but with a twist. She had the cook cut up a baked potato  and deep fry it! Now wait before you think unhealthy. It is the same as the regular fries but with the skin (very healthy) and they are not greasy!  Since the potato is already cooked, it only takes a few seconds to get this golden look and is a good "share" side. I don't order them often but they are a "cut" above soggy hash browns.

For dieters and health nuts and all in between, if you want a truly fresh salad, look no farther than Leo's. There are up to 4 sizes available for each style from mini to extra large. The Michigan salad with dark dried cherries, fresh mixed field greens, walnuts and mandarin oranges is unique to what most coney islands offer. A vegan could omit the cheese and buy a larger serving as this salad is quite filling and all salads usually come with toasted-on-the-grill pita. I sometimes get a mini Greek or a Village salad (which has no lettuce) both of which shore up with just about any sandwich. Veggie pitas are another offering.

Another savory selection  is the Gardenburger. You will get this grilled (not microwaved as a burger chain in the area is notorious for doing), served with tomato and lettuce on a toasted bun. I always have onion added and sometimes it is a 10 cent charge for a huge slab and ofttimes, not so. I guess it depends on who  the waiter is. I imagine you could get cheese added to this but as it's served, it is vegan and kosher. With a small or mini Michigan salad, what a great lunch or light dinner!

Other veg friendly dishes I have not tried but have had other family order are the vegetable stir fry served over rice, cheese ravioli with marinara, and Mac and Cheese (hubby loves this!). Leo's has the typical coney island fare from dogs, to burgers to all-you-can-eat fish fry on Friday's which will help all you Lenten observers coming up.  You can get breakfast all open hours.

Tuesday evenings is "kid's night" at Leo's. Bring in the little ones for balloon animals, face painting (you will LOVE this!!) and Disney TV on the two large screens on opposite corners of the dining area. Even the adults get in on the act often leaving with glittery painted faces and silly balloon constructions. There is a decent kid's menu along with soups, specials on the board up front and what to me is really wonderful  wait staff. I knew many of the waiters from other local restaurants and I think they have found a place to settle in for a while.

Leo's is open 7 days a week, has a well lit parking lot and outdoor dining in nicer months. All dinners are under $10 and include rice or fries with a minimal cost to add a salad. Leo's menu  is online at their website and if you sign up for their newsletter, you will get  occasional coupons for some dollars off. 

Edited 3/1/11 Free wifi and free refills. Stop by and maybe we can IM!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Hollywood Diner-Off The Beaten Path On I75

Sometimes you forget about a dining opportunity because it's not along the main strip or traffic pattern  of your normal week. Last week, after a day trip for crafty shopping in the Ann Arbor area and a stock up after two months of no grocery shopping (what possessed me NOT to dine in Ann Arbor still hasn't fizzled out of  my brain, other than it was after 9PM when I finished my shopping), I picked up the hubster, and he drove back to the Flint area. I figured as close as we were to home in Flushing, I might as well put some of those fresh veggies I picked up at Whole Foods to use and make a quick stir fry at 11 PM. Then we saw THE sign-and I had a coupon! Exit-stage right onto  Corunna Road.

Fresh Salad-YUM!
It had probably been a couple of years since I was last in Hollywood Diner. I know when they first opened, we tried them with a free coupon that came in the direct mail envelope we get once or twice a month. I don't remember being particularly impressed at the time. It was way too noisy, and the square footage seemed much too cavernous for what I thought a diner to be. And they got a liquor license and that just ruined it for me-I felt it lost the family touch with that choice. We went three times over a couple of months, once being during Sunday brunch hours. Then we just wrote the place off, as a diner with so much potential and in a great spot for travelers just should have been much better.
So on our "emergency" visit at nearly 10PM on a cold January night, I had a plain veggie burger (they were out of mayo, it seemed-so I got a take-out packet) and hubby got a cow burger. We went home and said "ho hum".

A few days later, snail mail brought a coupon for either a free appetizer or $5.00 off our total tab and I decided I was tired of the Miller Road eateries, so let's try an actual dinner from Hollywood Diner. We entered the restaurant at about 7PM or so on a  Monday evening to no basketball on the large overhead tvs and I was disappoint that there was only one other table occupied. As the host sat us, right across from the only other occupied  table, I glanced over and saw late teens or early college age kids on laptops and smart phones. So I guess they have free WiFi.

ravioli with pesto
  I immediately looked to see if any entree could be vegetarian and found ravioli with a choice of meat sauce, marinara or pesto. I chose pesto and asked for cook to go light on the sauce as  I am not a saucy type eater. I could have chosen some other pasta or again, the veggie burger (which is huge but they butter grill the bun-not really healthy) or a couple of other dishes I might have had the cook vegetize but this sounded good. Breakfast was off limits because they do not serve it after 4PM, which kind of negates the Diner part of it. Any other diner in town will serve breakfast when you want to eat it. I often eat breakfast for dinner and I know many a odd shift worker who would love that, too.

I offer a photo of my ravioli plate along with a close up. The stuffing was some sort of cheese, probably a ricotta and very hot! I can handle ricotta  as usually it isn't too cheesy and the topping or sauce gives it the flavor that is needed. I believe I had 8 huge ravioli on my plate but  only ate half. I think I was expecting them to overlap each other and having been tossed in the pesto. No. The pesto was plopped atop each ravioli and a little of the basily oil was drizzled on the pasta. It was very bland and I wanted to run across to the Kroger and buy some roasted garlic! I personally use pesto a lot at home and many flavors of it. My favorite is pumpkin walnut. This was no pumpkin walnut but just some generic pesto from a food service. Oh well. I did not order the marinara because I have found some cooks using animal broths for flavoring and I no longer trust it to be vegetarian or vegan.

My dinner included a wonderful crunchy salad with fresh pepper and halved grape tomatoes with slices of cucumbers. A basket of fresh Italian bread (wrapped in a sammy lunch bag-perfect for take home!)  was also table topped. I also received two half slices of this same bread grilled  with what was touted as garlic butter. From the queen of garlic, nope! It was soggy and old tasting. I was not offered any sprinkly cheese as many pasta dishes come with but I would not have used it had it been offered. So I can't vouch for what you get as a topper for spaghetti or ziti.

Had I been a bit more hungry, I would have ordered the fried pickles! Yup, you read that right!! If you have never had fried pickles, you are really missing out on a wonderful treat. Usually they are batter dipped in a spicy flour mix,deep fried and served with a ranch type dressing.  I might go back just to try them and a dish of rice pudding for a snack. For now, I would give this diner a high C + for at least having a few vegetarian choices. Sadly, other than salad and bread, vegans should look elsewhere other than perhaps oatmeal and applesauce for breakfast. Hollywood Diner does NOT have a website nor is their menu online. This is not acceptable in this age when a plain website can cost less than a full meal. They have wifi so they have an Internet connection and probably have some free space from their provider. Or get a free blog!

The service was wonderful (the owner also stopped to say hello ) and we were thanked on the way out. The teens that had been cemented to the booth across from us were still there but only drinking pop and using wifi. Just as I left, I handed the extra  coupon to an elderly couple so they could save a few dollars. I hope when others use a coupon they remember to tip based on the full pricing of the meal and not the discounted total.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Kabob City-A Taste of the Middle East

Tonight for a change of pace, we decided to visit a newer restaurant in the Flint area. Kabob City has been open a few months, located in a former Chinese buffet and previous to that , the main Moy Kong Asian dining establishment. Moy Kong at one time had several satellite to-go eateries but at this time, I can't verify that any are still in business. Kabob City is the 4th Middle Eastern eating house to open within a few miles of each other. Badawest, the oldest sit down of this style in Genesee County, relocated to a larger facility (from a hole in the wall)  near the freeway on Corunna Road quite a while ago and is the one I use to judge the others for taste, price and atmosphere.  Taboon, about a half mile from Kabob City once had a twin in Grand Blanc, but this location is working for them and they are often open on holidays, too. Jerusalem Inn, about 2 miles away, sadly had a devastating fire (ruled an arson) a few years ago and was not re-opened as an ethnic dining establishment, but the area is not lacking for this type of food.

Depending on what you order, Middle Eastern dining can be quite healthy for you. But you MUST say no to the bread basket! As soon as we sat down, we were greeted by Olivia, who brought us iced tea (appeared fresh brewed but watered down) , bread and garlic spread. We nibbled as we perused the menu-I scoped out the vegetarian items and hubby chose the "other".

This bread is similar is style to Badawest, so I think it's purchased from a local bakery or brought up from the main bakery in the Detroit area. Unlike Taboon, which bakes their own bread on site, this  was warmed and had been grilled a bit-in some cases actually charred. I hope that isn't a normal way of serving it. The garlic spread/sauce pictured below, is often served with chicken shawarma dinners as a dip, too. I found the garlic sauce to be strong like I love it to be, but it was  very thin. Other eateries have more substance to their sauce, so perhaps this was made with a tad too much lemon juice or they thinned it with yogurt. It was tasty, just not thick. I personally never turn down anything with garlic! BTW-this small dish is called a monkey. I don't know why but it's one of those things I learned years ago and just adds to my trivial mind.

My menu selection was the Veggie Combo for 14.95. This is a good way to get lots of flavors, instead of ordering off the appy list. Honestly, I thought it would all come on one large platter but each item came on its own plate, so that is how I present them to you. Normally, I always try to get a salad, with dressing on the side to start a meal. I just like the crunchiness of lettuces and other raw veggies. But tonight I had a choice of soup or salad and went with the lentil soup. I started to eat before I remembered to take the photo. Oops! The soup was very warm and tasty altho I thought a bit salty. Hubby said the saltiness went away after the first bite, as he also ordered this vegetarian starter. I though it hung on, but it wasn't too much of a big deal. I did finish it and would not hesitate to order it again. I believe it to be the only vegetarian soup on the menu.

As my mini plates, very  similar to Tapas ,began arriving, I felt a bit overwhelmed and self conscious because my dining partner was not getting anything to eat beyond his lentil soup. I offered him bites of my bounty but he decided to wait until his dead chicken arrived.  This falafel was very fresh and green on the inside just as it should be. Sometimes I have had falafel at other establishments where it was brownish all the way thru and very dry-meaning they were instant falafel. This was deliciously moist and served with some greens and a bit of  tahini sauce. The tahini was way too watery and almost tasteless but I can live without it with falafel. I just dipped it in the garlic sauce that was served with the bread.

One big  fail and a huge disappointment to me was the hummus. It was very dilute and I think it was because the preparers  used the same tahini from above to make the hummus. I like my hummus thick like peanut butter but creamy. I  imagine you can pick up that this hummus would not have held itself to a spoon for long. This is something easily fixable, but it's up to the cook to know that hummus is not supposed to be soupy.  Or if it was a mistake, add more garbanzos to thicken it up.

I also had a small plate of vegetarian grape leaves. These were wonderfully moist, stuffed with spiced rice, diced garbanzos and a few flecks of sweet red peppers and a bit of mint. They are very filling, so it's hard to eat more than one or two. I have leftovers for tomorrow which I will stuff into some pita bread and make a sammy! This dish is fairly common in Greek cuisine and others along the eastern Mediterranean so I assume each country has its own add-ins. The minced garbanzos were a nice change of pace.

A reason why I didn't get my normal salad is my meal included Tabouli. This ultra fresh dish is super healthy and can be made in just minutes. I tend to make this with a tad more bulgur/cracked wheat. This dish was served almost room temperature, and was not overloaded with lemon as other places tend to serve it. A lemon on the side  will give those who like this dish more lemony a chance to "pucker" a bit.

 Perhaps the biggest disappointment to me were the spinach pies (also known as fatayer). I have had this style in many a diner, and this was the worst. I don't know if it was the particular cook, the regional representation or just plain cheapness but these reminded me of canned biscuit dough. They were "doughy" not flaky. And the spinach inside was pretty much a tad of spinach and some onion. I could not discern any feta cheese as other eateries serve them. In fact, all the recipes I have include feta. Not a lot but enough for me to see it! I much prefer this made with phyllo dough as it's so flaky. But this dish would have worked if they had not been steamed. I could tell right away that they were probably reheated either in a microwave or something that would not crisp up the dough. I would not bother with them again.

Kabob City is very similar in pricing and selection of dishes that  others in the area serving this style of food  typically offer. They do present  a Buffet Salad Bar, which is unique to the Middle Eastern trio  and this is served between 11 AM and 7 PM and it comes with bread and dips for 5.95 so if you want to eat light, this might be the way to go. Also for the health conscious, is a full juice and smoothie menu.  I did not see a children's menu but with these smaller plates, you can get something for the kidlets to eat. Of course, there is the ubiquitous hamburgers and chicken strips in case the little ones object but I think you should discourage them if you can and order some grilled items. I bet they would love it!

I cannot vouch for the decor being new, a hold-over from the old Chinese buffet or a combo of the two. The last time I was inside, it was still Moy Kong and my kids were in junior high or less. I would like to see them cozy it up a bit, as it was way too bright with vast areas of empty space. Cloth lined the tables but were covered with clear plastic overlay which are a cinch to clean but kinda cheesy. If they did a remodel, they need to have the contractor come back and fix the wall paper which is coming away from the wall (I ran my finger along seams and the  glue isn't holding). There is no focal point but room for one, and maybe a demo of Middle Eastern dance or  weekend music  is a possibility.  Additionally is  room for a moderate sized  gathering off to the side. I believe they have free Wi Fi available. I hope the decor is only on the lesser side for now as they want to make sure this location works for them and isn't jinxed as the previous conceptions have been.

One other item to address: our waiter was attentive, almost to the fault of being annoying. It seemed she asked how our food tasted every other bite. Perhaps she is new to waiting and this will finesse itself. I would have liked to see the food presented to us at the same time, so we could have both eaten together. This is probably a problem for the kitchen and certainly not the waiter's fault.

I would award this newest place to dine a B- at this time. I almost gave it a C+ but waited to let the meal and experience settle in. It's always a plus to see a formerly empty place re-open and I hope they get more business as it wasn't particularly busy for a Friday night (the rib and burger sit-downs a quarter mile down the road had a back logging at the entrance areas). A better street level sign would help them immensely. Kabob City is very vegetarian and vegan friendly, especially the appetizer category. You can mix and match and make a full meal from these selections.

ETA: 3/10/11 I have received a couple of comments which you can read below. I don't know who they are from and do not reflect my opinion. I am not paid to write these reviews, nor do I receive any compensation in cash or food to write them. I am doing this because I feel there is a need to let others know that vegans and vegetarians can eat locally and get more than a plain salad. I would love it if the comments were not anonymous but the only other option would be for me to moderate. I will leave anonymous for now and I will not reject any comments UNLESS they are nasty rude. Thanks for dropping by.