Friday, July 31, 2009

Mona's Cafe: I finally found a spyee-row (SPAM+gyro)

Today I visited Mona's Cafe on Magazine Street in New Orleans. Mona's is a Middle Eastern restaurant with the typical aspects of American versions of this cuisine, though with some Greek American aspects coming in (as you'll see in this review). My meal consisted of: a bowl of red lentil soup, a falafel appetizer, and a gyro sandwich.

The red lentil soup, which often leaves me underwhelmed at Ann Arbor Middle Eastern restaurants, was the best I've had. It was served with small (1/2" square) pita chips, which were to the soup what oyster crackers are to chowder (a great textural touch). Instead of the overly lemony, thin broth served elsewhere, Mona's soup presented a depth of flavors and was perfectly balanced in acidity, and with a great consistency for a legume soup. Grade: A

The falafel was OK, served as 6 small, 2" diameter domes. The dipping sauce, I assumed, would be tzatziki, but it seemed instead to be a tahini sauce. Grade: C

Now for the gyro: It was good. First, it was served with the tahini sauce, and I would have preferred a straight up tzatziki (which I love). The sandwich was loaded with gyro meat, and I'm sure this was the same factory formed concoction about which I've previously written (hence the title of this post). It was a large pita sandwich, with onions, tomatoes, and pickles. The pickles with the tahini made the sandwich much more like a shawarma than a typical gyro. Grade: B (maybe an A with tzatziki, and the grade ignores the SPAMish origin of the meat).

Finally, the value was outstanding. I had a lot of food leftover, total meal cost, with tip, and no drink: $15. Not bad.

Photo is © seattleeditor at

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Mystery Meat: The Gyro

First things first: you say tomato, I say yee-row - I cannot stand hearing the other pronunciation of the word when referring to this delicious sandwich. So when you read gyro, remember the g is a y, and the y is a long e, and we can be friends.

I've been looking around New Orleans for good Greek food, and found nothing yet. Despite the kitsch, I am a big fan of Niko Niko's in Houston. Ann Arbor has no Greek food worth eating (seriously, the prominently named place on Main St will not be named in this space, but avoid it all costs - I'll explain another day in a post about worst meals ever). So I'm still looking around NOLA.

But while waiting to a find my Mediterranean fix, an interesting story has been in the news lately. It turns out that most restaurants in America serve mass produced gyro meat that comes from one factory, Kronos. Think of it as SPAM in the shape of a lamb shank. The New York Times has video and an article, about the process - worth watching for lovers of this lamb(ish) sandwich.

On a side note, I've heard that Ann Arbor doesn't do proper gyros, because health codes won't allow a piece of meat to hang out on a spit for 12 hours a day. The NYT article seems to confirm that the oversanitized, factory-formed version of meat is a way to get around those health codes. Personally, I'd rather eat a real piece of meat, and take my risk with some germs.

Now I need to find a gyro... preferably with someone who can pronounce it correctly.

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Friday, July 3, 2009

Jazmine Cafe in Jazztown

I have a love for Vietnamese food, thanks to a year+ spent working with the cuisine. In this regard, I have two tips: 1) if you want to cook your own, Nicole Routhier's The Foods of Vietnam is a wonderful, essential, and simple must-have for your kitchen, and 2) if you are in Cincinnati and looking for inexpensive ethnic cuisine, visit SOng Long - it's a gem in a city not known for diverse food experiences.

The Gulf Coast, meanwhile, has a thriving Vietnamese population, and last night I tried my first of the many offerings in town. We were looking for dinner in Uptown (Downtown and parts of the city further away have many other options), so our choices were limited. Without any recommendations to guide us, we decided to try Jazmine Cafe. I wasn't expecting much - the place was empty at dinnertime, surprising even for a Thursday. But I was very happy with the result.

The restaurant has a nice, understated ambiance - nothing flashy. The menu is almost strictly Vietnamese, instead of the Asian combo restaurants (Vietnamese+Chinese, Korean+Japanese, Thai+Japanese, etc.) that pop up everywhere (and that I was halfway expecting). The offerings are diverse, including the Vietnamese classics: Phở, Bánh_mì (labeled as "Vietnamese Po' Boy", which is fairly accurate), etc. There was also a long list of bubble teas, new for me at a Vietnamese restaurant.

We tried "spring" (or "summer") rolls, phở gà (chicken noodle soup), a Po' Boy, and a shrimp tamarind soup, "Canh Chua Tom", that was incredibly similar in look and flavor to the Thai soup, Tom Yum. The spring rolls were goodl fresh flavors, but light on the herbs (good for me, as for personal reasons I find strong flavors of cilantro and mint unpalatable). My phở gà came with traditional accoutrement, had a wonderful light flavor, and for only $6.95 was a great price for dinner. Emilie went with the Vietnamese Po' Boy with pork, which she liked, though she mentioned that the jalapenos made it maybe a little too spicy. Once again, at $4.95, a great dinner price. The tamarind soup was a little pricy by comparison at $14.95, and Montana described it as "very similar to [Tom Yum], but a little less spicy. I found it a little bit greasy (and the shrimp in it seemed to have picked up the greasiness), but it had that delicious, distinctive sweet/sour taste that only comes from the tamarind." I tasted it and agreed perfectly with her assessment. A nice offering, but not quite the hit or meal deal as the dishes Emily and I had.

Lastly, Jazmine Cafe doesn't seem to have put their website together yet. It has a menu, but here's a map.