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It’s been a while since I’ve been to Van’s Vietnamese Restaurant. Seems like every time I’m on that stretch of Central Ave, I inevitably wind up going to Taiwan Noodle, but this time I managed to resist that siren call as my sister called for a dinner at Van’s Vietnamese on account of their menu having a good selection of vegan and low gluten/maybe gluten-free dishes (I’m not really sure about the gluten-free part, but the sister unit says they are and I don’t have a gluten issue so if she’ll eat at a restaurant with lots of dishes like Van’s then I’m not going to argue).

For some reason I don’t remember the portions being as large as they are! Holy cow, these crappy camera phone pics don’t do the size justice. These dinner plates were like hubcaps.

Above is Banh Xeo Chay (Vegetarian Vietnamese Crispy Pancake) – $17.99 which has tofu that is textured like meat! I seriously thought that we accidentally got a chicken or duck one, but nope – just tofu. The yellow pancake is crispy, true to its name. This is kind of like a Vietnamese dosa in that you’ll be breaking bits off to eat with the filling. Seriously, it’s a massive size portion and comes as a dinner, though we split it as an appetizer for our table.  0

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Another vegetarian/vegan-approved meal we ordered as an appetizer was Bun Cha Gio Chay (Fried Vegetarian Spring Rolls over Vermicelli) – $12.99, which seems like a much more reasonable price to me. Also, it’s freaking DELICIOUS. Great texture contrast between the soft and pliant rice noodles and the crispy, crunchy vegetarian spring rolls covered in nuoc mam chay, mint, peanuts, scallions, and carrots. I’ve gotta get more mint on in my savory dishes.

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Canh Ga Tom Chien (Fried Stuffed Chicken Wings) – $8.99 for the meat eaters at the table, because how can you resist trying deboned chicken wings stuffed with crab meat? Overall, okay, but I think I prefer regular chicken wings. Kind of overwhelmed the crab flavor, IMO. Still, gotta admire those skills. No way in heck can I debone a chicken wing and leave the skin intact like that.

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Okay – one meaty main for me! Ca Hoi Nuong (Grilled Salmon with Ginger) – $15.99. How is this less than the banh xeo  chay? Our waiter laughingly told me how he’d ordered this dish for a month straight because it was so good.
This dish worked for me – light tasting but satisfying, and tons of veggies! Even a few spears of asparagus in the winter. The veggies all were lightly steamed and still had a firm texture, which I liked. I wound up bringing half of this home because it was so much food and I’d gorged on the above mentioned appetizers.

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One of my friends also got the duck, Com Vit Quay Dzon (Van’s Own Crispy Roasted Half Duck) – $19.99, which was quite tasty, though not very crisp. More taught and roasted but still quite enjoyable.

Any way, sorry to be vague about the gluten-free and vegan attributes of this restaurant. I get that it’s a concern if those are your dietary needs, though they’re not a need for me. Food has always been an issue with me and my sister, so I’m always happy when we can go out to a place where we’re both happy eating (and if you ever find out that the above definitely-vegetarian dishes aren’t vegan please don’t tell me so I can keep going here with my vegan sister, hahaha!).

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Ah, Toronto. You’re going on my list of places to return to. Jimmy’s Coffee on Baldwin was around the corner from my Air BnB rental. Albany John found them and they were a favorite morning stop for us. They even made me a really tasty decaf cappucino (I was on a decaf kick for a while there). They also had a pretty tasty pecan butter tart, which makes for a fabulously decadent vacation breakfast.

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Since I was staying in the heart of Hipsterville, Toronto (Kensington Market), I decided to check out one of their many unique food offerings. Bunner’s Bake Shop on Augusta Ave was just a skip away from my rental. The storefront itself was minimalist once inside, with an open plan so you could peep everyone making goodies in the background. They have a vegan soft serve which I had to try just out of curiosity. It was a small cone, about 3-4″ high for around $3. We’d probably call this kiddie-sized here in the Capitol Region.
Overall it wasn’t really my thing. It was icy, had a bit of a lingering aftertaste that was parts cloying and bland. I think it was an almond-milk based plain vanilla cone that tasted mostly of almond milk, which is to say, not much. Hard serve vegan ice cream has a better texture and flavor to me. It was fairly icy because of the milk used (coconut milk, with its higher fat content, would yield a creamier confection). If I were vegan, this would rock my world because I hadn’t seen vegan soft serve before. But since I’ve been eating dairy-based ice creams all summer I found this gritty and generally unsatisfying.

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But thankfully Bunner’s is right next door to Dolce Gelato. Someone tipped me off to their pistachio gelato, and I had to get in on that (left). Oh man, was that ever delicious. They use real pistachios, and the flavor just shines through. This rich, toasty pisatchio gelato just hit the spot for a creamy, rich dessert. The pink grapefruit on the right was also a winner – tart, sweet and perfectly nailing grapefruit in frozen form.

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And then I got a cold, because what else do I do on vacation? Albany John and I walked around downtown Toronto as much as I could (not much). We came upon a street fair and watched some buskers perform. That was cool. This guy was great, too. He really knew how to work the crowd and heckle rude audience members.

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More walking called for some banh mi. Not as good as Montreal or NYC, but better than we have in Albany.

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And a disappointing falafel wrap back in Kensington Market for dinner.

We grabbed some Montreal-style bagels at NuBugel on our way out. I like the size. They are a little more dense than NY bagels, smaller, and sweeter. Good for what it is, and something I’ll grab if it’s around, but not something I’ll go out of my way for.

I still hate crossing back into the US. The guards in Toronto were more aggressive than in Montreal. I wish the US guards would take a note from our neighbors to the north. The Canadian guards are nothing but polite, convivial, and generally nice people. The US border guards in my experience are usually aggressive and combative, as if they assume that you’re doing something illegal and want to catch you. The last time I had a positive interaction with US border patrol was over a decade ago. I just don’t see the point in the current mentality. Dude. I didn’t buy anything. I just went to Toronto for the weekend to see family and tourist around. No I didn’t buy anything. No, really, I’m not bringing anything over. Ok, did I buy anything? Yes, I bought dinner last night. And some chips at duty free. Which you should see since I have to give my license to check out at Duty Free. We could really be doing a better way of policing our border without coming off as stereotypical American bully types, you know? When I was at the 100th birthday party dinner everyone else spoke of how much they disliked crossing into the US because of how rude the US border patrol was. I am embarrassed as an American for this to be the first interaction someone may have when crossing the border, for this to possibly be their first interaction with an American.
The silver lining to this is that while the border patrol agents are more aggressive at the US/Toronto border, the line also moved much faster than Montreal, where I’ve usually had a 45 minute wait to return on a good day. Toronto was about a 20 minute wait. So I guess if I have to pick, I’ll go with ruder but faster border (ugh, one time I waited 3 hours in line to return to the US from Montreal. People were getting out of their cars and playing football on the side of the road).

20151005_193834[1]AYCE (All You Can Eat) is an interesting concept. Pay one price, eat as much as you want. We’ve got a few sushi restaurants in the area with caveats that you eat what you don’t pay for, which is nice from a waste mitigation perspective. One of my friends has a theory that you should check out AYCE restaurants in the Albany area when they open and are serving the best/highest quality fish until they realize that people in the Capitol Region will settle for less. Which is kind of disheartening, but an interesting theory that isn’t exactly outlandish.

I recently went to Kuma Ani with 3 other people, and we went for the $20.99 all you can eat dinner option. They’re still fairly new and haven’t been open a year yet. LorreBob over at Albany Dish has a review of their AYCE and non-all you can eat options, and Susie Davidson Powell has a great write-up over at the Times Union of their meal options, too. The AYCE menu is a little smaller than other places in the area (no sashimi), but it’s also a few bucks cheaper than other places, too.

We arrived to a restaurant at about 20-30% capacity. A few tables, but overall fairly quiet on a weeknight. It took us about 2 hours to get two orders, with priority given to non-AYCE dinner options. We waited about 30 minutes from when we placed our 2nd order to when we received it.

We got a little bit of everything for nigiri – roe in the background, octopus, mackerel, eel, white tuna, yellowtail, salmon, and tuna. Nice presentation, but the salmon, mackerel, and probably the tuna should not have been served – They tasted fine initially but finished with a very funky flavor at the end, especially the mackerel, which had a strong note of ammonia in its finish. Not at all like a pungently briny mackerel should be. This was unpleasantly disappointing. The eel was good, but it’s cooked fish. White tuna was also fine.

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Most of the specialty rolls were very rich affairs with kani/imitation crab salads, fried, and heavy on mayonnaise or rich eel sauces. We got every specialty roll we ordered, but a few of the normal maki rolls were skipped with each order.

The cooked/non-sushi appetizer options are small portions, except for the imitation crab salad, which is comically large when compared to every other portion size. It’s like a meal-sized salad of fake crab salad! I don’t like imitation crab so this dish didn’t really work for me, but the others in our party enjoyed it. One dish was the grilled squid, which were small pieces of squid with a heavy coating of old pepper – pass on that one. Also pass on the sashimi salad, which are end pieces of fish and not very pleasant tasting.

Overall it seems like Kuma Ani is ready to give you a challenge for your AYCE experience. Overall I found the experience a bit drawn out (who wants to have a 2.5 hour dinner on a weeknight?), and the food was really hit-or-miss, with more misses than hits to go back for AYCE. The regular dinner menu gets great reviews, so if I go back it’ll be to order off of the regular menu.

Mother's Dumplings

Toronto was such a great city to visit. I’m still happily remembering my trip for my Uncle’s 100th birthday celebration. I’d heard Toronto had a big Chinatown with lots to see and do, and wanted to stay nearby. I booked an Air BnB reservation in the heart of Kensington Market, which was basically like a little hipster neighborhood in the middle of Chinatown. A microcosm in a microcosm (also, holy wow on hotel and rental prices in that neighborhood). It was cute and a great place to stay while on vacation. There was a ton of stuff to see in just a 1/4 mile radius, and even more to walk to within 5 kilometers.

One such place was Mother’s Dumplings on Spadina Ave. If there’s one thing I love it’s a good dumpling. Most reviews touted Mother’s as a must-try. The hardest thing was deciding on only two types of dumplings to try for Albany John and myself. We decided we’d get an order of 12 boiled dumplings and 10 pan-fried dumplings. Ah, the perils of being but two diners in a city full of treats to try.

They were out of lamb shu mai, so we went with a dozen pork and dill boiled dumplings. I never see this combination, so it was a must-try, and I’m really glad I did. I usually think of dill as an Eastern European flavor, but it went incredibly well with juicy pork and Chinese spices. Even soy sauce. I’ll definitely be making pork and dill dumplings of my own in the future. Seriously – a  nice bright punch of dill leaves really counterbalance the rich juiciness that good pork dumplings possess.
Mother's Dumplings fried

 

Oh. My. Glob. Yes on those pan fried dumplings.
Mother's Dumplings fried detail

DO YOU SEE THAT GLORIOUS LACEY CRUST ON THOSE PAN FRIED DUMPLINGS??? DO YOU?

I almost couldn’t even. But then I could.
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We got the pork and shrimp dumplings for our pan fried order. Juicy pork meatball with bits of shrimp inside, made even more texturally appealing by crisping up one edge of the dumpling. These were well executed – each skin was nice and crispy without being greasy. Oh, that fine lace edge was just divine, too. The skins on both the boiled and pan fried dumplings tasted the same – a  nice and hearty, thick dough that complimented the rich flavors inside. Held up well to boiling and pan-frying.

If you’re in Toronto, this is the place to check out. Cash only. Condiments at the table. Fast serivice.

BurgerFi Storefront Latham NY

BurgerFi opens tomorrow at 11 am on 860 New Loudon Rd (Rt 9), Latham, NY. I was invited to a menu preview this afternoon. Overall I think it’s a good new addition – they’re a chain that sources from Meyer Ranch, which provides antibiotic-free beef that was never given additional hormones, grass raised and grain finished (best of both worlds, IMO), and none of the beef is ever frozen. I think this is a great direction for a chain to head, and one I see other chains embracing as well. Ethics aside (which is a weird phrase), the food is competitively priced and enjoyable.

BurgerFi Latham interiorThe interior is set up casually – order at the counter, pay, grab a table and wait for your food. They also have beer and wine, and it looked like some MMA style fights were on the TV when we were there. It’s easy for me to imagine biking over for a burger, beer, and a match if they wind up broadcasting fights.

There were some other local members of the media at the tasting. BTW, it’s really a thing of beauty to see Angelo Mazzone and Bill Lia walk over and talk to Steve Barnes, who curates the Tablehopping blog for the Times Union. If you want coverage, his blog certainly has the most readership/exposure. Also, he’s a nice guy with good taste, and someone pretty much anyone would want to talk to. Any way, social peeping aside, let’s get down to the food!

BurgerFi Cry Fry

Up first was the Cry Fry ($5.47) – a combination of their fries and onion rings. This is a regular order. You definitely want to share this with 1-2 other people. The onion rings are massive and massively delicious! Theyre beer battered in Coors Light. The breading is very light and crisp, giving way to large rounds of onion underneath. The fries are fried in peanut oil, and get the perfect balance of fluffy/poofy/creamy interior and crisp exterior.

BurgerFi Urban Style Fries 2

Up next were the Urban Style Fries, and I believe (hope) that these were the large portions. Because dear god, they were massive. There are two servings pictured above, and 3 people could barely put a dent in one of them. Urban style fries  are their regular hand-cut french fries with parmesan cheese, herbs, and garlic aioli. I’m not normally a mayo/aioli fan, but these were delicious. Just the right amount of garlicky creaminess atop the fries (they weren’t swimming in it), and a nice sprinkling of parmesan that stuck to the fries.

BurgerFi Urban Style Fries

Seriously massive, right? But also seriously good.
BurgerFi CheeseburgerAnd then it was time to try the burgers! First up was the BurgerFi Cheeseburger, which is two patties, american cheese, lettuce, tomato, and BurgerFi sauce. This reminded me of a ShackBurger. Actually, when you first walk in, you’ll probably notice some similar vibes from Shake Shack and BurgerFi.

The meat was good – the patties are just under 4 oz (pre-cooked weight), and cooked all the way through. They maintain a good amount of moisture and flavor while being cooked all the way through. Texture-wise, the grind is a pleasant medium or small/medium (depending on how you look at it).

BurgerFi Breakfast All Day Burger

The Breakfast All Day burger is one patty, American cheese, hickory bacon, maple syrup, a fried egg, hashbrown patty, grilled onions, and ketchup. I love that runny egg. It’s really nice to see a chain restaurant not cooking an egg yolk all the way through before it goes on a burger so you get that golden goodness all over the burger.

This wasn’t my favorite type of burger, but if you’re a bacon-on-everything person you’ll like it. For some reason I just prefer my breakfast as breakfast and not on other stuff. Oh, and the maple syrup wasn’t too cloying. Very subtle.
BurgerFi The Twenty-Eight BurgerThe Twenty-Eight is the burger you want to order if you can only try one thing. Oh my gosh, so good. And I’m glad they saved this for last. It packs a mighty whollop of umami in the very best way. The burgers on the Twenty-Eight are from brisket dry aged for 28 days. The patties have a little more funk, just the right amount of blue cheese in between the burgers, and the pickles are add a great crunchiness.
BurgerFi VegeFi BurgerWe also tried the VegeFi Burger. It’s made of quinoa, lentils, and veggies, and topped with cheddar cheese, tomato, and BurgerFi sauce with a lettuce “bun”. The whole patty is fried, so it pretty much tastes like a big pakora/lentil fritter. The lettuce are squares of iceberg lettuce.

BurgerFi Chicago Style Wagyu Beef Hot DogChicago Style Wagyu Beef The hot dog itself has a nice little snap/pull to the case and a good beefy flavor. This is a little different than your typical Chicago style hot dog – the pickle and tomatoes are in slices instead of wedges, which makes for a different kind of chew/bite.
BurgerFi Red Velvet ConcreteDessert! We tried the Chocolate Shake (not pictured) which had a lot of dark chocolate flavor and wasn’t a complete sugar bomb. A very grown up shake.
We also tried Red Velvet Concretes, which are very thick vanilla custards with layers of red velvet cake. You’ll want to split your concrete with at least 1-2 other people. They are incredibly delicious and rich. The vanilla custard is really good. Lots of rich egg yolk flavor and vanilla. Frozen custard is more popular in the south – it’s nice to have a place nearby to grab some.

Overall, I think it’s a good addition to the fast food options in the area. It’s family friendly, cares more about animal welfare than other mainstream chains (change has to start somewhere), and has a tasty product. Hopefully the quality I tried today holds up to the test of time.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go patronize another Lia-owned business and put some of this food to use!

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I know of no better way to start off a meal than with fried yucca and chicarron. Flores Family Restaurant is one of the few places you can get this fab appetizer.
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You can also get a papa rellena, which is a massive fried disc/oval of mashed potato stuffed with ground beef for $2.99. Seriously – share this. It’s great, but you’ll fill up on it if you order it for yourself, and there is so much more to eat. Creamy mashed potatoes filled with seasoned ground beef, the entire exterior crisped up.

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ALL OF THE PUPUSAS. Cheese, bean and cheese, and loroco greens. The loroco greens are incredibly mild and blend in well with the cheese. And who doesn’t love a soft corn exterior before giving way to any filling?
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Whole fried tilapia is another menu bargain at $10.99 and more than enough for two people to share. I happily crunched on the especially fried tail and fin bones.

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A few weeks ago the innovators at TC Paris Bakery in Saratoga Springs, NY debuted a new menu. They invited Daniel B up to see the new menu creations, and I tagged along for the pictures (and the delicious goods).

New menu items are beignets, Le Mosaic macaron, and … salted caramel.
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The beignet. What’s not to love? It’s a light and eggy dough fried, and packed to the gills with raspberry. So good. I bought a few more on my way out, and they were just as stuffed as these. And guess what? They keep very well until the end of the day, which is impressive for anything fried.
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Le Mosaic is a new macaron – pistachio shell on top, branded Morello cherries, and a white chocolate shell underneath. Delectable! While I love making my own macarons, TC Paris is on another level, and are so inventive with their flavors.
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And guess what? Lunch is now on the menu! A Croque Monsieur made with Niman ham, bechamel, imported gruyere and Pan de Compagne. It’s a hearty sandwich that I want to eat entirely too much of. Saratoga, call in your lunch orders now. This is an amazing treat.

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Salted caramel! This is lovely – It’s firm enough to retain its shape, but pliable enough to yield to a bite. TC Paris once again manages to perfectly push their caramel to the burnished side, developing rich caramel flavor. This is no one-note saccharine caramel.

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And any time Daniel is around, the lemon tart must make an appearance. This was another one of my purchases on the way out that kept very well until the end of the day. That is, if you can fend off everyone who sees a TC Bakery box.

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