This blog is devoted to highlighting restaurants of Memphis, Tennessee.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Carmela's Caffe

A Hidden Gem in East Memphis

While listening to my favorite radio show, the Jim Rome Show, I heard the commercial for Ciao Bella Italian Grill and its sister restaurant, Carmela's Caffe. Even though it wasn't the first time that I heard about it, the commercial coincided with my lunch time so I decided to give Carmela's a try. In searching for Carmela's, located in the Erin Way Shopping Center on Erin Drive near the intersection of Poplar and Mendenhall, was a little hard to find at first, especially with the place lacking any outside signage other than the small sign displayed below the bigger shopping center street side sign. Eventually, I realized that Carmela's is a café within Ciao Bella and consequently found it, and was rewarded for it with a great meal.
After seating myself at a table, I looked over the menu to see what I wanted. Carmela's serves mostly sandwiches and pizzas, with a smattering of other items like pasta. While reviewing the menu, I remembered that the blog Hungry Memphis and a foursquare user recommended the Marco Polo panini, a hearty ciabatta bread sandwich filled primarily with a lot of Mortadella ham. Along with other ingredients like mozzarella cheese and balsamic viniagrette, the taste is very light, in the sense that I got a good feel of the flavor without being overwhelmed by any particular element. The texture of the ham was very tender, so much so that I thought that I was eating a turkey sandwich at one point. Also, for those who are sodium conscious, I only detected a slight taste of salt, just enough to pleasure the taste buds. In all, the panini, along with the homemade potato chips and a Bud Light (a nice complement for this sandwich), was very satisfying both in quantity and in taste. If Carmela's other paninis and sandwiches are as good as the Marco Polo, I look forward to trying them out in the future.
On my second visit, I decided to go with a pizza because I wasn't nearly as hungry as before. After looking over my options, the Ortolana pizza looked very appealing to me so I ordered it. The pizza is a thin crust that measures about eight inches in width (this size applies to all of Carmela's pizzas), featuring the toppings of fresh spinach, artichokes, black olives, feta cheese, sliced roma tomatoes, mozzarella, and marinara. Of all the toppings, the artichokes, black olives and both cheese stand out in regards to taste, with the other toppings accentuating them. By the way, there isn't a lot of marinara on the pizza, as far as I could detect by both eyeballing and eating it. Overall, the pizza hit the spot and I was satisfied with it.
As for the other items on Carmela's menu, I believe that there isn't a bad choice on the menu, based on what I had. The Gourmet Burger, which primarily consists of grilled Black Angus beef that's lightly seasoned, Mozzarella cheese, sautéed red onions and Portabella mushrooms, lettuce, tomatoes and balsamic herb mayo on a toasted ciabatta roll, has a taste that seemed very light to me. What I mean is that the beef lacking seasoning, and nothing else came to the fore that resembled flavor. However, the burger isn't "filling" and, along with the homemade potato chips, provided just enough to satisfy my appetite.
As for the pasta, I tried the chicken alfredo with angel hair pasta (Carmela's also offers the option of penne pasta with this entrée). The alfredo sauce is thick and buttery, mixed with chopped parsley and what I believe to be garlic (it's aroma in this is very strong). Combined with the strips of chicken breast, the taste is great and left me wanting more.
Overall, I was really impressed with my experiences at Carmela's Caffe, for the food is excellent and the restaurant staff is very attentive. Even though I don't visit East Memphis often, Carmela's will definitely be on my short list whenever I'm in the area and hungering for lunch. With Carmela's being an extension of Ciao Bella, I will certainly be making a dinner visit some time soon in the hopes that the quality of the food and service that I experienced at Carmela's carries over.


Carmela's Caffe on Urbanspoon

LabelsEast Memphis, Pasta, Pizza, Sandwiches

Follow Ken's Food Find

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Pancake Pantry

Best Pancakes I've Ever Had

On the advice of friends and family (as well as a special I saw on the Travel Channel), I made my way to the Pancake Pantry to try some of its signature pancakes. In going there, I wondered if the place will live up to the hype, for a lot of places that I've been to that was proclaimed as "great" didn't live up to expectations. Fortunately, based on my experience there, Pancake Pantry was good as advertised (of course, this is based on one visit, but I don't get to Nashville often so I'll try to make the best assessment possible).
In making my choice from the menu, I thought about the sweet potato pancakes that I had at Memphis' Arcade Restaurant. Arcade's pancakes, while good, were a little on the heavy side and out of four pancakes, I was only able to finish three. With that in mind, I decided to get a "short sack" (three) of P.P.'s sweet potato pancakes with a side of bacon. I figured that if the pancakes are as "heavy" as The Arcade and many other places, this would more than satisfy my appetite. However, P.P.'s version of it was unlike anything that I've had before, and in a good way.

The sweet potato pancakes has an orange-brown appearance and powdered with cinnamon and sugar. Without syrup, the pancakes' taste has that sweet potato flavor (obviously) and is about as sweet as eating an actual cake. But what really impressed me was the pancake's texture, for even after adding syrup, the pancakes didn't make me feel bloated after eating them. In fact, after eating three of them, I was yearning for more. I don't know what technique/recipe Pancake Pantry uses to cook their pancakes, but I wish more restaurants would follow suit (the Travel Channel link in the first paragraph has video about how they're made).
As for the syrup, I was presented with two flavors, maple and cinnamon cream. After trying one of each, I decided to combine both, and the result was a sweet concoction that worked very well with the pancakes. They also comes with a big scoop of butter that gives the pancakes additional pizzazz.
In all, I really enjoyed the sweet potato pancakes which were by far the best I ever had. Unlike a lot of places that view the pancake as a side or secondary dish, Pancake Pantry has made the pancake into a gourmet food. Judging from its extensive menu, the restaurant offers pancakes with a wide variety of options ranging from chocolate chips (which I would've gotten if not for my desire to make a comparison with The Arcade) to coconuts to roasted green chilies. Also, because this is primarily a breakfast restaurant, it also offers egg entrées as well. Judging from what I saw served at other tables, I'm confident that the entrées are very good. The only thing that didn't impress me was the country bacon that I had. Even though the bacon was good, it wasn't worth $3.20 (or $3.50; not sure about the price).

Still, I have no complaints, for just about everything was excellent and well worth the ten minute wait (give or take a minute). Speaking of that, kudos to the staff for their efficiency for clearing tables and seating customers in quick fashion. Because of my excellent first experience there, I look forward to dining at Pancake Pantry often whenever I'm in the Music City.


Pancake Pantry on Urbanspoon

LabelsBreakfast, Nashville

Follow Ken's Food Find

Cash Saver

Good Food, Confusing Prices

On April 1, 2011, the former Piggly Wiggly of Midtown Memphis became a Cash Saver Cost Plus Food Outlet, meaning the end of a nostalgic era. Out of curiosity, I made a couple of visits to the re-christened grocery store to see what it was like, and I came away with a surprise or two.
The biggest surprise is the way Cash Saver prices its items, which I found confusing. The way Cash Saver does it, it marks down everything below average cost, then at the cash register it adds ten percent to the total. For anyone not knowing this and not seeing the small banners displayed on some of the walls near the back of the store, seeing what the total price of his/her purchase with the added ten percent could come as a shocking surprise, especially if it's a huge purchase. For someone to see the price of something, then told later that it costs more can be confusing, so I hope that Cash Saver does a better job at informing the public about its pricing practices. It can start buy displaying banners outside the store that could inform customers about what to expect before they begin their shopping. After buying couple of items like a six-pack of beer and a lunch plate, I didn't see any real savings. For example, my lunch plate, which was charged by the pound, cost me $5.43 with the ten percent fee (the cost was $3.37 a pound, and I got 1.34 lb. of food). Compared to other places like Kroger and Schnucks, this is meager savings at best.

As for the food, the meal that I had was pretty good by grocery store standards. Dining during the lunch rush, I had three fried chicken drumsticks with au gratin potatoes and collard greens for sides. The fried chicken was decent in an average kind of way, for it tasted the same as many other places that I've been to, including The Little Tea Shop and The Cupboard. The side items, on the other hand, made a good impression on me for they were delicious. The au gratin potatoes were very cheesy and seasoned with black pepper that made it flavorful. The collard greens had a nice mild taste, and I'm guessing that Cash Saver uses just a little bit of vinegar to give a slight sweetness to it. Both "sides" complemented the chicken well, and was worth waiting the several minutes to pay the lone woman working the deli for my order. Overall, I was impressed, for I didn't expect a pleasing meal from a "discount" grocery store.

From my experiences at Cash Saver, I found the food to be pretty good by grocery store standards but everything else, including and especially the prices, average. Even though Cash Saver stresses that customers can save on grocery shopping there, other stores offer similar savings in a much less confusing manner. With regards to its nearby competitors Kroger and Schnucks, both stores offer discount services that customers, with the aid of a bar-coded card, can use to purchase select items on the cheap. And unlike Cash Saver, the discounted price is displayed with the item, so the customer can quickly assess the value of the potential purchase. With this being an easier way to shop, I believe most customers will choose the "discount card" method over Cash Saver's pricing policy. However, I've been wrong in the past and Cash Saver might win over a significant share of the grocery market. Only time will tell.

UPDATE (July 26, 2013): Since writing this, Cash Saver has greatly expanded its beer offerings that includes many craft brews. Brands like Ghost River, Sam Adams, Dogfish Head and many others are available and can be purchased singularly (in six-packs) or as a combination of different beers. Also, the grocery store sells craft beer on tap in growlers, which are large jars that can either be bought from the store or elsewhere. This service is fully supported by staff trained to answer any questions pertaining to its beer offerings. Personally, I like getting beer growlers because they cost less than a six-pack and of the satisfaction of helping the environment by reusing my glass containers. By the way, in addition to the growler that's shown here, Cash Saver (actually Madison Growler & Bottle Shop) also sells smaller growlers for who love the taste of craft beers but can't afford a costly six-pack. Regardless of how you get your beer, you will save money by getting it at Cash Saver.

Twitter: @Cash_Saver

Cash Saver on Urbanspoon

LabelsBeer, Gas Station/Convenience Store, Midtown, Soul Food

Follow Ken's Food Find

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Battle of the Downtown Memphis Sliders, Part 1

Bar Fight

Recently, I ate "sliders," which are small, square-shaped hamburgers (think Krystal and White Castle), at two of Downtown Memphis' well-known bars, Bar None and Bardog Tavern. Both bars cater to the Downtown social scene by offering fine cuisine that would appeal to the discerning diner. One of the feature items for both bars is the ground beef slider, a menu item that the two establishments take slightly different approaches in preparing.
Bardog Tavern takes an "old school" approach to making its version of the beef slider, which includes white American cheese, ketchup and horseradish mayonnaise on the side. The sliders cost $2.79 each and three can be purchased in a combo with fries for $7.99 before taxes, a huge difference from the price for the same meal at Bar None. With such a big difference in price, one would expect the quality of sliders between the two places to vary greatly, with Bardog being inferior. However, Bardog's sliders are well cooked (possibly by the owner Aldo Demartino, who was in the kitchen when I placed my latest order of them), for the beef has a nice grilled flavor with a sufficient amount of greasy "juiciness" that I like. With the mayo and ketchup being in cups on the side, dipping the burgers and fries was a real treat that I enjoyed immensely, even without copious amounts of beer. On a side note, I have always griped about the buns breaking apart whenever I ate Bardog's sliders in the past, but the sliders that I last had weren't afflicted with that problem, and Aldo mentioned that the buns the bar uses now are of a higher quality. The bun's quality showed when I ate them, and they even held together when I dipped them in mayo and ketchup. Overall, even though Bardog's sliders are more mainstream than gourmet, they are of high quality that can hold its own with the best burger joints (and upscale restaurants) in town.

Bardog Tavern on Urbanspoon

In contrast, Bar None (owned by the renowned chef John Bragg, who also owns Circa that was housed in the space that Bar None is currently located), takes the gourmet route in making its slider. The mini burger comes with Morbier cheese, bacon, horseradish mayonnaise and leaves of spinach on the side. At $4.00 a slider, the burger is as expensive as full-size (as in approximately five inches in width) cheeseburgers that are sold at fast food places like McDonald's and Burger King. With this being a "gourmet" burger, I expected a lot from it, especially after feasting in the past on excellent burgers from places such as Automatic Slim's and South of Beale (SOB). However, the sliders I had from Bar None did not have that gourmet taste and were no different from the average burger. That said, the burger was somewhat saltier than I would have liked and it lacked the "juiciness" of grease that I'm accustomed to (this is a personal preference; some people I know have an aversion to grease). In fact, the sliders I had felt "dry" to me, meaning I had to consume a good amount of beer in order to eat them. In all, the three sliders and French fries that I had, which cost $17 before taxes, was mediocre. I would be okay with that if the meal cost ten dollars or less, but I expected more from a place that calls itself a "Chefs Pub."

Bar None Chef's Pub on Urbanspoon

In summary, after comparing the two sliders from Bar None and Bardog Tavern, I came to the conclusion that for both taste and value, Bardog's slider is clearly better. Of course, this only my opinion that some might disagree with, but Bardog's slider was clearly a joy to eat while Bar None's was more of a chore to consume. If Bar None's sliders had more of a unique "gourmet" flavor, I would be slightly less critical of it, but because the slider doesn't taste any different than most burgers sold in Memphis and elsewhere, I can not recommend it to anyone looking for a great tasting burger, especially at four dollars a slider. Therefore, in the battle of the Downtown Memphis sliders, the winner is clearly Bardog Tavern, for they offer great tasting sliders (and other foods) without breaking the bank.
By the way, both Bar None and Bardog Tavern are great places to dine and socialize, and both owners are cool guys. From the standpoint of my personal taste, I'm more of a "bar guy" than a lounger, so I'll probably lean more towards Bardog when I'm out and about Downtown, but Bar None is swankier, more upscale which is nice when I'm in that kind of mood. So, depending on personal taste, either place is an excellent choice to dine at, with both having particular strengths that make them unique.

UPDATE (May 2, 2011): After my initial post, I went out and had another of Bar None's ground beef sliders, and it was a lot better than the sliders I had previously. This slider came fresh off the grill for it was sizzling hot, unlike the last sliders I had that I waited about twenty minutes for that was lukewarm. The meat wasn't overseasoned (salty) and its flavor balanced nicely with the horseradish mayo. Also, because of the freshness, the juices (grease) was evident as I chewed the burger. Overall, this slider was much better than the others I ate and was about as good as the first one I had, grilled by John Bragg himself. Now, I'm still slightly partial to Bardog's slider for the reasons I mentioned earlier. However, Bar None's ground beef slider has won me over, for I enjoyed it and look forward to ordering it again. I just hope that when I do, the quality of it is the same as the last one, and not the former.

NOTE: Since writing this, Bar None has closed. Even though I will miss it, I'm enthusiastic about what the bar will become. The new owners (both bartenders at The Silly Goose, featured in Part 2 of the "slider battle") will turn the bar into a speakeasy called The Blind Bear (featured in Part 5 of the slider series). From what I heard so far, the menu will feature items like barbecue bologna and grilled cheese sandwiches. As far as sliders are concerned, I'm not sure if they'll be offered (correction: they're on the menu). However, with one of The Silly Goose's staff becoming the kitchen manager, who knows. I wish the new bar the best of luck in their endeavors.


Follow Ken's Food Find