Van’s Vietnamese Restaurant

I’ve only gone to Van’s once before to eat in, and once before to get some take out for Albany John’s birthday. All that was at their old location in the converted house downtown. I like the kitchy atmosphere – how it remained romantic, upscale and very, very personal. It was also one of the most interesting set ups I’ve seen in a restaurant since certain parts were raised, others were lowered and tables were in some pretty spiffy spots. However, parking was the biggest bitch this side of the Mississipi (hyperbole here, people!). Oh sure, they had that parking lot that fit about, oh three cars and then you’d have to drive all around the not-so-nicest part of downtown Albany, NY looking for some place within a decent walking distance.

So last year Van’s up and moved. Actually, it kind of seems like they traded spaces with another Vietnamese place which is located in Van’s old location. But Van’s decided to go over to Central Ave (across from that hardware store). Still not the greatest location in the world, but parking is so much better. Also, it helps with the thought that Central Ave is getting better, which, arguably just might be.

I was game for a new place for lunch. As soon as I walked in, woah, this new place is really open. Just a big ol’ square/rectangular shape and when you first walk in, the first thing you see is the really gorgeous bar. It’s a really huge space with just under twenty tables. The new large space doesn’t feel as cozy as the former location, but it’s really well decorated and moderately welcoming in a still fancy way. I also noticed they serve plum wine – yay!

So I put in the order for summer rolls($4.95) with shrimp and pepper seared salmon($9.95) with shrimp chutney. Woah! Chutney?! OF SHRIMP?! YES! Hells frickin yes! It took about 10 or so minutes to whip up. Van (the chef/owner/namesake) also came out of the back to get the order. And some water. He’s never really that personal, but hell, when you cook to perfection like he does you could be a total jerkoff to me and I’d still keep coming back. I’ll admit I’m also slightly socially awkward around chefs I know cook it up right. Also, he’s got this awesome little tuft of hair coming out of one side of his chin. Not centered mind you, but a little plug of facial hair on the left side of his chin. WOAH! How much more Viet can you get?! That’s how authentic Van’s is!

The shrimp summer rolls were okay. They had noodles, shrimp, lettuce and mint wrapped in the thin unfried/cooked rice wrappers. I got 4 pieces (this could be a good lunch in itself) of rolls and some nuoc cham-ish dipping sauce. Nuoc cham is the fermented fish oil. It’s like Vietnamese soy sauce. I’d never tried them before and they keep popping up on the blogosphere, and I didn’t want to be left out of something tasty. Unfortunately, I didn’t really find these to be that tasty. Neither did Albany John. I don’t think they’re done badly, I just don’t like mint, or the texture of the rice wrapper (kind of gummy). We both found the mint to be over powering for our palates (Albany John swears they used the wrong kind of mint, possibly lemon mint, I say it was regular ol’ mint and just way too over powering) and it did taste a little better after I tried to pick all the mint out. Seriously, it tasted REALLY minty. Like a minty tree was stuck in there and it’s all you could taste. I’m not a fan of woody overtones in my food.

The salmon, however, was great. It came with rice and veggies. The veggies had some sweet sauce over them, which I spilled out of the container driving home, but thankfully everything was in a non-leaking bag. Phew, car interior saved. Albany John thought the veggies were over cooked, but I thought they tasted devine with that sweet sauce coating them (what IS it? I’ll eat all my servings of veggies every day if I can get that sweet sauce over them). The sweet sauce wasn’t heavy or anything though – just a sweet little liquid. The salmon was cooked to a medium perfection. Fish is a huge problem in this area. Most places will overcook the salmon past medium. I personally would perfer my fish to be cooked rare to medium-rare at most, but I’ve found if you find a place that does medium, oh man are you in luck. The center was still moist and supple, and the skin on the salmon was a little piece of peppery heaven. Albany John opted to remove the shrimp chutney, which was also heavily flavored and tasty. I always think people over cook most shrimp, or these shrimp were pre-cooked and de-frosted and thrown with seasonings. I thought they would be disappointing, but definitely were not. They did taste better separately from the salmon, so you could taste both fishy goodnesses.

I’d say not enough people check out Van’s for lunch. There were only 2 ladies in ordering pho and salad when I went in, and their lunch prices are definitely affordable. Think about how much people spend when they go out for a crappy lunch from McDonald’s and spend about six dollars. For ten dollars you can have this gourmet feast. Also, I prefer to get lunch take out from these more upscale places because it’s significantly cheaper and allows me to try something new on the relatively cheap.

Also note, they take visa and mastercard, but only on orders over $15.00 and debit on orders above $8(not too sure on the debit one).

Mangia – Slingerlands

Cut the crap and straight to the resto.

Albany John and I went to Mangia in Slingerlands. It’s right across the street from the Toll Gate Ice Cream place, which only takes cash. Anywho, it’s a nice drive there through Delmar.

We didn’t have to wait! Yay! I hate waiting. There were some tasty sounding specials like an oven cooked medium-rare steak with some kind of reduction and gorgonzola smashed potatoes. I’m a smashed potato fan. You get a lot of nutrients from the skin, plus I think they add an extra depth into plain, old mashed potatoes. But we didn’t get that, or any of the specials for that matter.

I LOVE LOVE LOVE YOU, Albany John!

So what did we get? Albany John sissied out and ordered veggie pasta (since when do you order the cheapest thing on the menu?) with a house salad. The house salad ($3.99 added on with any pasta meal. Also good for a soup instead) was a bunch of field greens pre-tossed in a balsamic vinaigrette with tomatoes and some exta garlic-y croutons. Pretty tasty stuff. It all tasted fresh and was a pretty large plate of salad. The waitress was a little robotic with us, and didn’t come around to check on us that much, but ah well. We got water eventually and never really died of thirst. We also got bread with Albany John’s salad. As you all know, Albany Jane LOVES bread, especially now the warm, chewy, slightly crusty bread at Mangia. I was also delighted to have our server pour olive oil and a very sweet balsamic vinegar onto a plate, right in front of us. The olive oil and vinegar bottles were also very nice looking, and not just a cork jammed into their original bottles. I was really wow’ed by the balsamic vinegar. It had such a light and sweet taste, yet still retained a tangy balsmic taste. Heck, it could have been just generic brand balsamic, but I was impressed. Blame it on the pretty bottle. I could have just eaten bread, although I doubt the server would have been pleased with that.

Albany John’s veggie pasta ($8.99)was rather bland. It said the veggies were sauteed in a garlic-olive oil and was served with whole wheat pasta. I had a bite of his artichoke heart, and it just tasted kind of veggie-ish. As in, it didn’t scream ARTICHOKE HEART. It screamed ALL THE VEGGIES WERE COOKED TOGETHER, SO WE ALL KIND OF TASTE THE SAME. Not in that frozen mixed veggie sense, but I prefer it when the vegetables are cooked separately and then added in together at the last minute. Also, the pasta didn’t really taste like it had a strong garlic-olive oil taste. It just tasted kind of bland, and I thought the pasta tasted over cooked, although Albany John says it’s because it was whole wheat.

I think I lucked out though. I’ve tried Mangia once before, in Stuyvesant Plaza, and then I just ordered a field green salad, so I don’t really count as having tried Mangia’s food. Field green salads are good, but they’re the easiest thing to make. It’s more a bad sign if you can remember the salad, since it was probably bad. Or I’m just not a salad person.
Right, I ordered food… I got the eggplant pizza($10.99) with a plum tomato sauce, garlic, mozzarella and goat cheese. This was a nice pizza and I’m a sucker for pizza, heck, anything, made in a brick oven. The eggplant was a bunch of paper thin shreds, and good, but hard to eat since the skins were left on when cutting them, so it made for some difficult chewing. I found I’d have to take a bite and eat the whole slice of eggplant, since the skin didn’t want to let me bite through it. The dough was chewy, and the amount of sauce was just a smear – perfect for enhancing without overwhelming. I do enjoy the lack of uniformity on these oven baked pizzas, where it’s a scattering of all the ingredients, and it’s all just plopped here and there.

We were tempted to get dessert, however all of their desserts were quite heavy like tiramisu, lava cake, and other such dense treats. I’d just recommend remembering cash and going across the street to Toll Gate for a scoop of their ice cream.

Chico’s BBQ & Restaurant

So, ya’ll, I’ve gotta confess I’ve been on a bit of a vegetarian kick lately. It’s been soy Boca Burgers for the past few days for me. Which are really good, and you should go out and try right now. NOW! But today, I got a hankering that I should eat a bit of… non-veggie. I don’t know why. I just felt like it, but at the same time I didn’t really want to. Does that make any sense?

I wandered down the road around lunch time looking for a place to eat in the Schenectady/Guilderland area. It’s pretty bleak out there. There’s some crappy chinese food places and diners. Two places I really have to be forced (or really drunk) to patronize. Eventually I found Chico’s BBQ & Restaurant. Hey, it’d been a while since I’d had some good ol’ southern ‘que done right. I’d also gotten a rave review about it from another southerner up here in NY, so I figured I’d try it. Most of these places (with the exclusion of Mo BBQ) just can’t get it right.

So I ordered the pulled pork sandwich platter (I wanted more than a sandwich, gimmie a break, okay?). It was $8.50, but the menu says $7.50, but I also got an extra thing of bbq sauce, but I don’t think a dinky little cup would be an extra dollar. Maybe cause it was takeout too. Who knows. So the bill came up to about $9.50 with tax. If you want take out you order at the bar (which looked pretty well stocked, but hey, I’m no lush). I didn’t really see much of the place, but when I first walked in there’s a little area with about 8 tables in the front. I’m going to guess that there’s a lot more seating in the back, since this place can get pretty packed around dinner/happy hour.

The sandwich came with two sides. I opted for potato salad and coleslaw. I normally hate coleslaw, but I just finished cleaning out my car (no little task mind you, as I tend to let that crap build up) which took the better half of an hour and was really hot. This was some really good coleslaw. It was light and loosely bound (not that wad of slaw you’ll get from the grocery store, seriously, what do they put in there, glue?) and all of the ingredients tasted fresh. I don’t know or really care if they were fresh, hell, they could be from last week, it was still good. The potato salad was also pretty light and non-gluey.

How was this sandwich o’pulled pork? Well, it was okay. Which, for NY standards, is really good. The meat wasn’t too dry, but it’s pulled pork, so it will always have a certain degree of dryness. It was slathered with an appropriate (read: MASSIVE) amount of bbq sauce, but not so much that your hands were covered in sauce after eating it. I probably didn’t need the extra cup of bbq sauce, but heck, in Texas you can always slather more sauce on your ‘que. Oh, there were also some pretty paltry pickled and lettuce on the side, which I’m going to assume were for decorative purposes only, since there were about 3 tiny pickle rounds and 1 piece of that shrubby type lettuce (you know, the kind they use to garnish fish with).

Overall, not too bad. Prices could be a dollar or two lower, but there’s not enough competition to merit this. Also, it beats getting lunch from the grocery store.

2490 Western Ave
Guilderland
456-0940

Home Made Awesome

I AM THE SUSHI QUEEN


Okay, modesty aside, I made some sushi rolls at home this weekend. And they kicked major taste-butt (just imagine if a tastebud had a butt). The hardest part of the whole thing was the damn sushi rice. They’re not kidding when they say that the rice is the most important aspect of the sushi. Okay, well all of the ingredients are pretty crucial, but if the rice sucks, then the whole thing will suck no matter what.

There’s this huge bag of rice in my closet. I usually get one of those 20 pounders at the asian food market, and it lasts me about a year. However, I opted to try a new variety (that’s what it says on the bag, or something to that extent) of rice instead of my usual long-grained jasmine. Oh jeezus. It didn’t say ‘this is a 20 pound sack of sushi rice’ or ‘this is a bag of super-glutinous rice’. It should have. Or I should learn some chinese/japanese. But that’s not happening any time soon, so there should just be more descriptions in english. Or pictures. Like a person covered in gooey rice after trying to eat/make the short grain rice. Don’t ask me where I come up with these analogies, I just do.
Anywhom, this sack o’ rice has been the bane of my asian existence since it’s purchase date. It’s always super sticky and never really dry like normal rice. Also, I’m glad I don’t have a gluten problem. Then I was reading about making sushi rice, and, whoops, turns out you need to wash the rice to help get rid of some of that gluten-y crapness. My bad, tastebuds. So I washed it… forever until the water was clear. And then I cooked it. And it still came out really gummy, but not as liquidy as usual, so I guess I did something not-totally-wrong along the way.
You let the rice sit for a few minutes, and then mix in your sushi rice seasoning. For me this was 4 tablespoons of rice wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons of sugar and 1 teaspoon of salt to 1 1/3 cups of rice (pre-cooking). You add in the liquid and mix it around in the rice, but careful – you don’t want to mush the rice when you mix it – SO USE A SPATULA! Also, mix it in front of a fan, because somehow fanning + vinegar = shiny sushi rice. Who knew? Mix it until it’s cooled off a bit.

I let it sit for a while and then made SUSHI ROLLS! OMG!

I got strips of seaweed, and man, you’ve got to roll your stuff up quick, because the humidity makes the little buggers go all funky and warp… I should try to prep stuff, but… then I wouldn’t be cooking in my own unique style.

So what exactly did I make? A bunch of sweet potato rolls, one with canned mackerel and scallions, avocado and sweet potato, imitation crab and cream cheese, and imitation crab, avocado and sweet potato… Oh so many rolls, mmm. Actually, the canned mackerel wasn’t the greatest… since it was canned.

I was pretty surprised at how they came out. They came out half decent. And by that I mean they didn’t fall apart like the sushi I’ve gotten at some restaurants. Also, I didn’t have one of those bamboo rollers, so I just kind of wung it (is there a past tense of ‘wing it’? ‘winged it’ just doesn’t sound right) with some saran wrap. Now all I need is access to some sushi grade fish, and we’re talkin’.

Oh yea, and in the end, I was covered in rice-y gluten.

A Taste of Greece

Okay, so I was sooo starving when I got home from work and doing errands forever, it was about 7pm. I wanted something healthy, light-ish, and most important – NOW! So I putzed around through the take out menus and found an old menu from A Taste of Greece on Lark St. For some reason, every time I’ve stopped by on the weekends, it was closed (I’ve got some kind of crazy luck with being able to stop at a restaurant the ONLY time it’s closed). But today! Ho, ho! I called up and got take out even!

I got a shrimp gyro ($6.95) and caviar dip ($4.95). A-MAY-ZING! I love that yogurt sauce that gets doused on anything gyro. The shrimp were cooked to perfection! Just barely opaque. None of that cooked till pink and rubbery crap a lot of places do. Either that or I like my seafood undercooked, and I’m risking food poisioning. But hell, I’d eat all my seafood raw if I could. The gyros at A Taste of Greece are simple – fresh pita, plop in the main ingredient (shrimp, lamb, etc.) add in lettuce (romaine, even! none of that iceberg crap!) and sparingly add in tomato slices and red onion. Then just roll it up and serve it with some greek fries. The greek fries are not too shabby. I usually hate fries, but these are flavorful, and just somehow magical.

The caviar dip was like a creamy fishy heaven. I COULD DIE IN THIS DIP! It’s a pink creamy dip with red specks in it. And guess what the specks are? Extra salty red caviar!! Oh my goodness, it doesn’t get much better when something is fishy and already extremely salty. For those of you who aren’t big salt fans, I wouldn’t recommend this. You might feel the need to gulp large amounts of water with each bite. I have to admit, my eyes were bigger than my tastebuds as I took a plop of dip on the fresh hot pita slices they serve with it. It was REEAAALLLY salty. So you just have to coat the bottom of whatever you’re dipping into it to really taste it. And I’m not heavy on the dip normally, but trust me… if it looks like just barely enough, it’s too much and you’ll probably be overwhelmed. If you aren’t, you’re like me and should come on a salt tasting tour with me (Do those even exist?!)

Also, A Taste of Greece also offers some vegetarian options, which I never remember to try. There’s a smoked veggie riblet gyro that I keep meaning to try… but then I see ‘SHRIMP’ and get side tracked. The next time I go, someone remind me to order it… or just put shrimp blinders on me.

They’ve also got a dinner buffet on sunday nights and a belly dancer on saturday nights. I might have to go back to check that all out.