Sunday, June 8, 2008

Sawasdee Thai Restaurant

Don't let the location scare you! This is one of those "hidden gems" or "hole in the wall" restaurants that all your friends seem to know about, but don't bother letting you in on, until well into your 5th or maybe even 6th year of friendship, it's so special. It is located in a strip mall (and I'm using that term loosely here), next to the African Hairbraiding Salon and behind Chuck E. Cheese/Babies R Us. But, once you wander in from the wild noise of Capital Boulevard and the busy side street, you feel like you're in another world. They have these comfy little armchairs, decorated in what I can only assume is some Thai ethnic print for the 2 seater tables up front that make you feel like you're in some expensive, chi-chi restaurant in NYC. The lighting is low, there's beautiful music playing, the colors on the walls are vibrant, and it smells heavenly. In other words, you've entered another world - get ready for the ride!

I am fairly new to the world of Thai cuisine. I've always enjoyed it, whenever I've had the opportunity to eat it, but I've never lived anywhere before where there were good Thai restaurants nearby, so I didn't get to eat there very often. So, when I heard that Sawasdee was THE place to go, I was very excited to try it out.

For appetizers, we had the Ka Nom Jeep (Pork and Shrimp dumplings). They were steamed and served with some sort of sweet, hot sauce that totally changed the flavor and made them just perfect! The next time we visited, we had the Pinky in the Blanket (Shrimp roll). Shrimp inside some sort of wonton type wrapper, that were fried. Served with a sweet and sour chili sauce...very yummy, but I wouldn't order it again - a bit too greasy. I'm dying to try the Fresh Spring rolls with Shrimp, but my husband detests those, so I'll have to figure out something else to distract him with.

For my main course - I love Pad Thai and all those noodley based dishes, so I decided to try the Tom Yum soup. OH, WOW, that is my new favorite! It is chicken broth based, but has lemongrass as the main flavor. Filled with chicken, shrimp, veggies, of course noodles, and topped with peanuts. And, just a hint of spice. I think next time, I will ask for it to be a bit spicier. Definitely something I will get again and again!

We also tried the Tom Kha soup. Totally different from the Tom Yum soup, but so good, all the same! This one was coconut based, with mushrooms, lime leaves, shrimp and a spice I had never heard of before - galangal. Boy, did that galangal make all the difference! It was a fabulous flavor - kind of like ginger, but not nearly as bitter or overwhelming. Just delicious. And the lime leaves made such a flavor explosion in my mouth!

Cashew chicken was my dining companion's choice...he's not quite an adventurous eater. Even that was delicious. Tender, flavorful, full of spice and juicy to the last bite! Oh, and the rice they serve comes out in these adorable little shapes - star, butterfly, heart, flower, etc. A simple touch, but it adds to the whimsy for me! The next time, I believe he had the garlic chicken. Again - delicious, flavorful, garlicky. Perfect!

Their menu is varied and has something for nearly everyone. From the picky "I only like Chinese food" guy to the person looking for something exotic and spicy. The chef's specials change frequently and they have a wide variety of vegetarian dishes. Oh, and they offer the traditional levels of Thai spiciness...spicy, extra spicy and "make you cry".

The service is nothing short of perfect! What else would you expect in a place that makes you feel like you're in another world, from the moment that you step through the doors? And the prices are just right! Not to big, not too small!

Sawasdee Thai Restaurant
3601 Capital Boulevard, Suite 107
Raleigh, NC 27604
(919) 878-0049 Phone

Oliver Twist

First off, this restaurant is a tapas restaurant/martini bar, although they do have a small assortment of dinner entrees, the menu is mostly geared to tapas, martinis and desserts. We've been twice now, and have yet to eat inside - their patio is nicely located in the front of the restaurant and if you sit just right, you almost forget that you're sitting outside a strip mall, next to Ace Hardware and Planet Fitness.

They have nightly specials which range from 1/2 price tapas to $5.00 martinis. (I'd aim for the 1/2 price tapas night, if I were you)

Let's see...drink wise...good martinis - a bit on the pricey side, but generously portioned and well mixed. If you're in it for the drinks, $5.00 martini night is for you, as my last bill (for 2 Tanqueray martinis) was around $18.00.

Now onto the food. The tapas are priced around $9.00 up to $14.00 maybe. And, most of them are quite small. There are some exceptions, however, and even though the portions may be small, the flavors are great! For example, the beef carpaccio was delightful! I was so excited to see this on a menu here in Raleigh! Definitely on the smaller side of things, with maybe 5 slices total, but given that the idea is to order multiple items, I can forgive this. However, the chicken satay - with a measly portion of 2 skewers and a pretty hefty price tag of around $12 (can't quite remember the exact amount...I did have 2 martinis), left a bit to be desired.

An outstanding option both in size and price is the crab dip. Both tasty and filling, we've gotten this one both times we've been and haven't been disappointed. It's served with toasted pita chips and is so rich and creamy, it's almost sinful.

This latest time we decided to try the entrees to see how they compared to the tapas. Well, and we had a hard time agreeing on what to order that we would want to share. We had the mustard crusted lamb chops with potato fonduta and zucchini friti and the grilled mahi mahi over lobster and crab risotto. The lamb chops were delicious, and you could actually taste the mustard crust. Amazing in my book, since I've found, in most places with an elaborate description like that, I'm often disappointed with the result. The potato fonduta, on the other hand, was a bit weird. I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't what showed up! I know fonduta is fondue, but I thought, how in the world can you make potato fondue? Well, I guess you take potatoes and put them in the food processor until they turn into wallpaper paste - maybe add a little cheese, I couldn't really tell, the texture was just so thick, it was hard to even eat them. The zucchini friti - another name for fried zucchini, was actually perfectly lovely. They were just barely coated with the briefest dusting of panko breadcrumbs and fried until just golden. Those were perfect!

Now, onto the Mahi. It looked a bit dry. And it was. I mean, just how hard is it to cook fish? Come on people! You cook it just until it flakes! I am fairly new to the enjoyment of eating fish, and I have always known that! You don't need to cook the crap out of it - you cook it just until it changes color and then it's done! I have been in so many restaurants lately that just royally screw up even fish and chips! I mean, how can you screw up fried fish? It's frozen, all you have to do is throw it in the fryer and cook it for the stated time. Not rocket science here! Annnnnyway - back to the Mahi - apart from it being horribly overcooked, it tasted ok. The lobster and crab risotto was good too. Not fabulous, but not awful either. Very flavorful and had a definite seafood flavor without being fishy.

The service. We've had the same waitress both times we've dined here, and we have absolutely no complaints! She is attentive without being annoying and always keeps our glasses full and the table cleared. She offers helpful suggestions (and even tells you what NOT to get, which is nice in a restaurant with prices like these).

Will we go back? Yes, definitely. Would we recommend it to others? Yes, with the above caveats noted and try to go on a night when they have a special that will benefit you, and watch the prices. Both times, we've been totally shocked at the bill - and not in a good way!

Oliver Twist
8111 Creedmoor Rd, #137
Raleigh, NC 27613
(919) 844-4426

Saturday, April 5, 2008

La Cocina de Mama Greta

Well, if nothing else, eating at Mama Greta's made me decide to finally start this blog, after months of people telling me that I need to be a restaurant critic - just so I could have a place to say how absolutely FABULOUS this little restaurant is!

In the interest of full disclosure, it is owned by my neighbor and his business partner - but even if he weren't just the most gracious neighbor and kindest man I've met in a long time, let alone had the luck to live next to, I would still be saying how wonderful this place is!

It is tucked back into a little strip mall off of Falls of Neuse Road & Old Wake Forest Rd, behind the Red Lobster. The kind of place you would have to know is there in order to find it. They are from El Salvador, so it's a Salvadoran restaurant - if you're like me, you didn't even know such a thing existed...I mean, I've been exposed to many, different cultures' foods and their corresponding restaurants (including Ethiopian), but for some reason, lumped all Latin American food together as "Mexican" is so NOT just Mexican - what the heck was I thinking?!?!

They opened on Feburary 14th, so it's been almost 2 months that they've had to work out the kinks and perfect their menu. The menu is a bit overwhelming - Salvadorian as well as Mexican choices - a little of this, a little of that - breakfast included. So, we asked for recommendations, of course.

We tried the Pupusas as an appetizer - one chicken, one cheese and one with cheese and loroco. What's a pupusa? Well, it's delicious for one thing. They are made with homemade corn tortilla dough that's then stuffed with whatever filling that you choose. They cook up all puffy and golden and are nothing like what I expected when I heard "corn tortilla". They were so much softer and lighter than the traditional corn tortillas that you usually get in Mexican restaurants. Ok, got the pupusas? Now, for's an edible flower, best I can tell, that's grown in El Salvador and other Central American countries. As for it's flavor - it's hard to describe, but it wasn't overwhelming at all, added just the right bit of difference to the loroco pupusa versus just the cheese pupusa. They were all served with Curtido, which is a Salvadoran style slaw and a tomato based sauce. The slaw was a vinegar based slaw and had a wonderful spice in it that I couldn't quite place, but definitely added a nice flavor. I highly recommend adding a bit of the slaw and tomato sauce to each bite of pupusa!

For our main course, we ordered the Mama Greta Special Platter for Two. Simply described on the menu as "steak, vegetables, grilled shrimp, pork ribs, grilled chicken, rice, salad, frijoles, pico de gallo and two corn tortillas". Jeez - in retrospect, we shouldn't have ordered those pupusas....but I'm not above the doggie bag, so bring it on!

I'll start with the salad - ordinary salad - lettuce, tomato, enormous chunks of cucumber with choice of ranch or italian dressing (Ok, I'll admit this part was a bit odd - not my favorite part of the meal - I can do that at home). But what followed - ooooohhhhhhhhh, wow - out came a huge plate piled high with steak, shrimp, chicken, 4 ribs all served atop what can only be described as two entire sliced onions and three sliced green peppers. Rice and lovely, light as air frijoles on the side. Not sure what happened to the pico de gallo and tortillas, but I really didn't care after one bite of the shrimp. Oh, sweet heaven! I don't know what kind of seasoning they put on them, but I have NEVER had a shrimp as wonderful as those we ate last night - and I'm
originally from south Florida, so I've eaten my share of shrimp. They were covered in spices, seasoned just right, tender and so savory, it was hard to keep from eating the tails.

The steak? Marinated, chargrilled and so tender we could cut it with our forks. Chicken? Oh - even better - again, obviously marinated, chargrilled and so juicy - not what I expected from chicken that had been chargrilled - you know, it tends to get a bit dry at the edges if it's not done right...not in this case! Ribs? A bit too charred for my taste, but once you got past that little edge, there was a sweet, but not too sweet sauce slathered all over them. Onions - check. Peppers - check. What a combination! A little steak, a little green pepper, a little onion all in one bite, and I'm in heaven!

So, even though we can't even dream of finishing the main course, we decide to get dessert - who can resist the Chocobanano, after all? A frozen, chocolate dipped, super sweet banana. A favorite in El Salvador, we're told. Flan anyone? Delicious again, served with a strawberry sauce and just a dollop of whipped cream.

The only drawback to this dream restaurant is they don't serve alcohol. I mean, a nice cold beer would have just been perfect with all that grilled meat! But if I have to choose between a beer and a great meal, I'll choose the meal any day!

Oh, and it's all non-smoking! Who could ask for more? A great meal, no cigarette smoke wafting over the invisible "non-smoking line" to interfere with the food scents, gracious waitstaff, all for under $40 for two people, with plenty of leftovers for dinner tomorrow!

Our bill:

Soda - $1.50
Water - $0.00
Chicken Pupusa - $1.50
Cheese Pupusa - $1.50
Loroco Pupusa - $1.50
Mama Greta Special for two - $24.99
Chocobanano - $1.50
Flan - $2.50

Total - $34.99 plus tax

La Cocina De Mama Greta
1604 N Market Dr
Raleigh, NC 27609

Everyone's a critic

Everyone tells me I should be a critic. Not that I need anyone to TELL me that - it's just in my nature, I guess. But I can't help it sometimes - I just have to call it like I see it. I have decided that I officially need an outlet to vent about awful restaurants or proclaim the greatness of those little hidden gems your friends seem to all know about, but you somehow haven't even heard the barest whisper of. I work hard for my money and am tired of spending it in restaurants that are supposed to be good, but are really only O.K. to mediocre once you get there. I've tried following the restaurant critic's reviews from the newspaper, but he seems to be a little hit or miss for me - understandable, since everyone has different taste buds, but one would expect a paid restaurant critic to offer a bit more objective viewpoint, and dine with a number of people to get a variety of opinions. Here in the Triangle area ,in the beautiful state of North Carolina, there is a strange phenomenon that I've noticed with restaurants. Some get these rave, "Restaurant of the Year" reviews (Fins Restaurant) and I just don't think they are all that. Sure, they're pretty good - if a bit overpriced - but certainly we can do better than having to spend as much as a week's grocery money just for a delicious dinner. I know it's possible - I've done it. But unfortunately, no one else seemed to know about that restaurant (The Underground) and their gourmet (and I mean gourmet - crispy duck breast with sour cherries, hanger steak with mustard sauce, garlic mashed potatoes that had whole chunks of garlic.....) food, and they ended up going out of business. What a loss. I only hope that the rumor of the chef opening his own restaurant that isn't connected to a nightclub is true and we'll see a new "Underground" soon.