Sunday, November 28, 2010

Panda Kitichen

     I avoid fast food if at all possible.  It's a battle let me tell you.  In today's modern world of go, go, go, it can be hard to find the time in your day to eat at home or a meal without profuse amounts of saturated fat.  There are fast food establishments that can get you going without requiring you to purchase a new wardrobe if it becomes a habit.
     One of many such places is a gem in the rough just yards away from one of the busiest intersections in town.  Panda Kitchen.  It's a small drive round only, with the exception of a couple stone picnic tables out front, and service is fast and friendly.  With the average menu price of $6 its a steal.  The menu is actually large if you ask for a take home menu as apposed to the  10 or so choices on the drive up board.
     I had seen this place nearly every day since I moved to Wichita Falls and had been afraid to try it.  Yes me lover of the hole in the wall, "should I be eating here?" restaurant was afraid.  For a completely different reason than the cleanliness factor.  I'm relatively new to Far Eastern Food. Growing up I hated it but true to what Mom instilled in me I kept trying it.  One day I took to it and have been running with it ever since.And if I didn't find a restaurant to replace the fast food style Far Eastern Food I was accustomed to I would be crushed. Still not a seafood fan but its growing on me, but another time for that.    
     They have something for all from veggie to beef.  They fill the average to go container with rice and your main course. I mean they fill that bad boy up and includes a pork spring roll!  I ate there twice and both times it made two meals for me.  I wonder if the college kids just blocks up the street know about this place? 
     I come from Southern California, and Southern Nevada, even had a stint in Oregon, and I miss Rice King and Panda Express which are both lacking in Wichita Falls.  Not the best but fast and filling.  Well Panda Kitchen blows them both out of the water and is much more fresh. You can see all the fresh prepped veggies in the refrigerator if you walk up and order at the front window.  I get my fix and both me and my wallet don't break our diets.
     Two years ago they were formerly known as "A Taste of China" , I was told by a server as I made some conversation while I waited for my order.  That was before my time and saddens me.  I bet with a full kitchen and the atmosphere of the Chinese influence would have been an experience.  But I'm glad to have Panda Kitchen now and I suggest you give it a try yourself and come to your own conclusion.  It will be worth the $6 and you'll save a notch in the belt as well perhaps if your first choice is that double burger for 99 cents.

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Monday, November 8, 2010

A Guide to Modern Dining Etiquette part1

     I have had this idea brewing in my mind for some time as I held just about every job in the restaurant industry.  Manners have fled all aspects of American society.  We just don't instill the basics from the start like most other cultures.  Many languages require you to address elders and the like with specific titles or even arrange whole grammar structures around this simple fact.  Manners equal respect and when learned from day one its hard to go against what becomes second nature.
    It has occurred to me that along with this loss of respect for our fellow man has come an almost arrogant approach to all "customer service representatives".  When it all boils out of the pot that's what we are.  We work the font lines dealing with those that are spending the money they earned doing who knows what, for who knows how many hours a day, and how many days that week.  Trust me I get it. We all get it. I know your sitting there  reading this thinking "Yea man! I can relate."
     Maybe you don't work with customers at this point in your life, but you did at one time.  You mowed lawns to get that bike, babysat for that purse that was all the rage that summer.  Most of us at one time or another had to ensure our customer was satisfied and called next weekend for more work.  Well often as I'm serving tables at a local restaurant it baffles me how many people have lost touch with this, the simple etiquette, and purpose of eating at a full service restaurant. 
     I realize as I listen to patrons, fellow employees, numerous documentaries, and just casual conversation.  Fast food, and the overall pace of modern life has killed the dining spirit of America.  "Fast food killed the chef with the five star" hahaha remember the song "Video killed the radio star"?  Well same relation here.  Not to say that's the only culprit.  Many factors contribute, like portable electronic entertainment devices.  Instant gratification via Internet purchase and on demand cable.
     Think about the last time you waited in line for over ten minutes, or took a planned trip that was over a half hour or so.  Chances are you were entertained by your own phone, portable gaming system and DVD player.  Even gas pumps are popping up with t.v..  Well next time you eat out take a good look around you.  Bet your surprised how many people go to a good restaurant and are not enjoying the experience as intended.  Most people can't put life on hold for a half hour or more to converse, try a new dish, or share a combination of your favorites.
     All these little things add up as I trudge through some days.  If you truly know me then you know I LOVE my job.  It's all I've ever done and for good reason.  But sometimes it gets difficult when a patron loses touch and runs me through the ringer.  I call these diners "single server diners".  They for some reason think that I'm there for them only.  They can't see past the end of their own table.  I had an incident today as a matter of fact that suites this perfectly.
     I work a station of three tables, may not sound like much but a server who works full service with free refills on the starters and bread thru the whole meal and this is the main appeal, it makes for one busy little station. Imagine three tables of four needing refills all at once? That's 12 starters and servings of bread they all want instantly thanks to McDonald's.  Well this is the premise of my story.  I had a 2 tables that needed refills.  Now as the tables are all in eye view of each other, and you know full well what order you came in, I work my station in that order.  First in first served.  Fair right.  Apparently not.  I could not make one trip for both tables.  I often do but this time there was just to much for one tray.  As I dropped off the food for the second table the gentleman makes on offhand comment on how long it took. 
     Are you kidding me? I was offended.  I move fast when I work and am often told to slow it down.  I move with purpose, on purpose.  I want you to see I'm trying my best to keep up.  So when he made the comment I wanted to slam his head right thru the table, good thing all the MMA(mixed martial arts) training allows me to blow off that steam.  How am I supposed to handle the situation?  I acted like I didn't hear it and killed with kindness.  They left me a 40 some odd cent tip.  I make $2.13 an hour.  All tipped employees  in most states work for less than the federal minimum wage. Surprised? Check out the site for the rules on the United States Department of Labor.  That's the link to the site. 
     Point being we who serve tables work just as hard as you.  They deal with you.  They have lives outside the restaurant that sometimes catches up with them.  Just like you.  Think about it are you 100% at all times.  No but servers are expected to be flawless, fast, and efficient at all times.  Working for commission to supplement the as low as $2.13 an hour. Paying mortgages, paying off school loans,  supporting families, all while dealing with the modern diner and their lack of common respect and dining etiquette.
     So next time your out at a restaurant do me a favor and look past the end of your own table.  How many people can't put life on hold for the brief time that they are there? How many tables dose your server have?  How many people are sharing their meal and a good conversation?  I bet the answers surprise you. 
     I'll be writing this series of articles to help reform the dining spirit of America, pass on some knowledge and gain some along the way I'm sure.  I appreciate any and all feed back.  If there are any subjects you'd like me to touch on let me know.  Any stories of your own that you feel would contribute would be great. 
     Thanks and remember,
Love food, Live life.

p.s. urbanspoon rocks!  I recommend you check their apps out for the iPhone and Android phones.  Awesome amount of restaurants and reviews.  Huge community of foodies!

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Saturday, November 6, 2010

Bills Catfish, Waurika O.K.

    Okay so I went M.I.A. for a bit. Had to get back to work and get my life going in that forward motion again.  I have had plenty of new dining experiences to share, like my latest and most adventuresome one to Bills Catfish in Waurika Oklahoma. Seeing as I've been gone and it's the freshest in memory lets start there.
     I first heard about this out of the way place from my mom, who in turn heard about it from my brother. I'm the last person you might expect to get excited about a Fish joint.  I can say seafood is my bane!  Which sucks actually because I think it often makes the most interesting looking and sounding dishes.  But I keep an open mind while venturing out, they ALWAYS have something on the menu you can eat. I'll eat off the kids menu if that's what it comes to.  Not the case here tho, I heard they had frog legs on the menu and I knew I was there!
     As I often do, and highly recommend, I looked Bills up online.  All the reviews where positive and a couple even offered some photos. One common mention in each one was the decor. "Don't go for the decor, there is none."  And so I took the next step and asked everyone I talked to about it. Nearly everyone had heard about Bill's or had been there.  Again all positive word of mouth.  I happened to get a Saturday off so I rounded up my family and we made a day of it. Isn't that what its all about?  Or should be at least. Good food and good company.
     As we set off on our culinary adventure I was excited. The weather was beautiful and the company had me laughing most the way there.  The drive was over before I knew it and I was reminded instantly of the common thread in all the reviews.  "Don't come for the decor."  The small restaurant looks like what I'm sure is a converted house.  My favorite type of place. Why?  Because it's just like walking into a friends house, sitting at their table and enjoying a home cooked meal.  Recipes the chef learned from their mom, dad, grandma, and grandpa.  Not some tweak on something learned form Le Cordon Bleu, made more to look than taste good.
     Walking thru the door you almost get the sense that maybe you made a mistake, "Is the place closed?" It was just an empty lobby closed off by a windowless door to the dining room.  This is where on most evenings rain or shine people wait on an average of a half hour for a table.  That speaks volumes in today's rushed society that people wait in an empty room to eat a meal. (My phone had limited online access as well, what do the teens do while waiting?)  The dining rooms give almost a cafeteria feel, like I'm at a fundraiser with collapsible tables and metal chairs.  But that's not what its about in a place like this. Simple atmosphere because the food is the star. Really do leather booths and neon lighting make the food taste better?  No. Granted it can add to the over all experience but that's not what Bill's is about. Its a local favorite where most lunch customers are known by name and the hustle of life takes a backseat for just an all to brief moment.
     We took a seat and were greeted by a friendly server and our meal began.  The menu was to the point.  We fry catfish and a variety of other tasty morsels. You can get whole or half orders of catfish, chicken & steak fingers, frog legs, chiken gizzards and livers, shrimp, scallops, clams, and even "Calf Fries" or as I know them, "Rock Mountain Oysters".  Bull testicles. Yep that's right. Don't knock it. The texture is liver like if i remember correctly, its been a while. The flavor is intense beef, a true carnivores paradise....
     I'm sure I missed some of the items on the menu but you get the point. I went with the frog legs and chicken livers, my mom went catfish, my brother went steak fries and my sister in law went with a fisherman's platter which was essentially a sampler of sorts.  To start the meal the server drops off a basket, heck yes a basket no fancy china needed, of hush puppies and we each get a small bowl of coleslaw.  The hush puppies where awesome, great flavor and cooked perfectly.  Not much worse than a doughy hush puppy.  The coleslaw was tasty tho I'm picky when it comes to slaw.
     The main course was served in a basket as well.  My chicken livers where crunchy morsel's of hand battered goodness with a country style gravy that ranks high on my list served on the side.  The frog legs where another story.  I'm gonna be the first to telly ya I have no knowledge of how it should be prepared but it will be a while before I work up the nerve to eat them fried again.  The batter was somewhat flavorless and the meat was not seasoned at all. It taste of deep fried frog.  No spice.  I was not turned off completely I'd try them cooked some other fashion.  But who am I to say?  I don't know how its supposed to taste it may just not be for me,  I suggest you try them for yourself and be your own judge.
     The namesake catfish was astounding.  Yea I C.J. will make a trip up to Bill's for my own platter of catfish.  That's why I say try it.  The worst thing that can happen is you don't like it.  The cornmeal batter was refreshing after all this beer batter everything.  It reminded me of when I was a boy and we lived at Lake Henshaw in the back country of San Diego. (Yes San Diego has a Backcountry, with four seasons including high possibility of a white Christmas.)  We would fish with friends and family for bass, crappie, and catfish.  Go to someones home and make a meal of it.  One bite and BOOM! just like that I'm back at the lake having some of the best fish ever. There was a time I enjoyed fish, burned out maybe.....
     Whatever its about the perfectly seasoned and battered fish.  It was well worth the trip for the small taste I had off my moms plate.  No doubt they go thru tons and for good reason.  The corn meal dose not trap and hold the grease like the beer batter will.  This results in a clean crisp finish that taste of a blend of spices contrived by a genius and a fresh form the lake fish flavor.  Not a hint of the fishy flavor I'm becoming convinced I'm just burnt on form all my time on the lake.  I highly recommend you take the trip and experience it yourself.  And remember its not decor or fancy china.  Chances are you'll wait for a table, look at the photo of cars parked two deep early Saturday afternoon.  Its about the trip there and being with those that make you feel good when they are around. Its about simple home cooked food and a new place to relax with friends and family and "LET" things be simple for an all to brief moment...

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