Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Vout: What Slims is During the Week

Food lovers and Northsiders are well acquainted with Slims. The sunny restaurant on Hamilton avenue pulls in a lot of street cred for its fresh ingredients and excellent pork belly.

I'd never eaten at Slims until last night (and technically, I guess I still haven't). The cost of the prix fixe menu was too much for a weeknight meal out, and whenever a special occasion rolled around, for some reason Slims was forgotten. When Slims announced its new Tues-Thurs concept, Vout, I knew I was out of excuses. Vout serves a considerably less expensive ala carte Cuban and Puerto Rican menu. Orders are placed at the counter, water is self-serve, and as always, it's BYOB.

On the Tuesday night that we went, most tables were occupied with an order number and a bottle of wine. The restaurant staff directed us to pick any table we liked and help ourselves to a pitcher of water.

"We'll help you to take care of your own needs."

Sounds good to me. We ordered dinner, sat back with a couple of bottles of beer, and waited. Next to us, a table was celebrating someone's birthday. Light streamed in through the shades covering the front windows. Baskets of fresh produce lined the window sill. The atmosphere was relaxing, and waiting for our food felt like no time at all.

Alex ordered the special, chicken on a biscuit, a rich gooey dish punctuated with green peas and peppery bacon on top. Mine was the vegetarian entree, enchiladas mole, consisting of a large tortilla drowned in a thick smokey-spicy sauce, mushrooms, beans, and topped off with a sweet relish of mangos. We ordered a pair of sides, a corn pudding that we were warned was sweet, and the Fufu, a mixture of smokey potatoes and mashed plantains.

The food was good, but that's not what was amazing to me. I was expecting good food. What was really wonderful was that the whole thing cost less than $20. I'm sure I've spent more than that at a meal at TGI Fridays (I know, I'm cringing at the comparison too). And what took us so long to try out Vout? The more we ate and drank, the more ridiculous it seemed. Why haven't we been here before?

I'll admit that I liked Alex's dinner better than mine. His biscuit was spiked with lemon, making the whole thing ridiculously mouth-watering. My enchilada mole was good, but I wanted a little more sweetness to play off the spice and chocolatey richness of the mole. Extra sauce is offered on the menu for a dollar - I think I'd order more of the black bean and mango salsa next time. Our sides were good, and the corn pudding was as sweet as promised.

I still want to come back on the weekend for the full Slims treatment. My Tuesday night dinner has instilled in me even more faith in Slims. Until then, I plan on returning often for a weeknight meal at Vout.

Slims on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Great Midwestern Road Trip and the Maid-Rite

It was Alton Brown who introduced me to the words "Maid Rite," though was already acquainted with the loose-meat sandwich from my childhood. As I've mentioned many times, I was born in a Great Plains state and brought up eating any number of meals that start with a square of shrink-wrapped ground beef browning in a non-stick pan. The meat cooks, and then you're ready to turn it into tacos, chili, or sloppy joes. On rarer occasions, we would have something that was a close cousin to the sloppy joe - a peppery loose meat sandwich on a bun with the condiments you would put on a burger. Not exactly a Maid-Rite, but close.

I think it goes hand-in-hand living in the Midwest that you inevitably take a long car trip with your family. Long, by definition, is anything over five hours. It had been years since we'd been on one of these trips when we all piled into a rental car over the weekend for a trip to Missouri for a cousin's wedding.

Dad, in an Alton Brown-esque move, took us out of Cincinnati on Highway 50. A more direct route, he assured us, and more colorful route than the interstate. He was right. And what should we find halfway through Illinois? A Maid-Rite, paired up with a Godfather's Pizza no less, Taco-Bell-Pizza-Hut style. Who could dream up these things?

We'd already made a stop for lunch about a couple of hours earlier, but we doubled back anyway and ordered two sandwiches to split among four of us and a round of chocolate malts.

Maid-Rites restaurants, as AB tells it, sprung up across the Midwest after the first store opened in the 1920s. They had kind of a mom-and-pop flair before they became a national chain. The Maid-Rite we found in Lebanon, IL had all the polish and blandness of a newly-remodeled McDonald's. Styled after a 1950s diner, it appeared to be run by bored sixteen-year-olds. One of them dropped off our order at our table.

We cut the sandwiches into four slices and ate, meat falling from all sides of the bun, littering the the table top. It was glorious, even if the "seasoned meat" wasn't seasoned so well, even if it was a little dry. It was a Maid-Rite. It was slathered in mustard, onions and pickle.

With four hours behind us and four more to go, we took what was left of our malts back to the car. Back on to 50, we gradually merged back onto the interstate and hit rush hour in St. Louis before the light outside dimmed and died. It was well past dinner time when we got to Kansas City, but we weren't particularly hungry. We picked at a couple of appetizers in the hotel bar, still thinking longingly of our sandwiches and malts.

On our trip home, we tried unsuccessfully to find another Maid-Rite on our route. I did find out that a Maid-Rite store has opened in the town of my alma mater, Oxford. Somehow, this slipped past my attention. Has anyone tried it?

It's reassuring to know that the next time I crave a road trip and a greasy sandwich, it's just a forty minute drive away.