Lawrence, KS: Not "America’s Best Philly", But A Contender For "Lawrence’s Best Sandwich"


PepperJax Grill
919 Massachusetts Street
Lawrence, KS 66044
Phone: (785) 856-4529
Prices: $$$$
Trying to find a decent sandwich in Lawrence is like trying to find the veal cordon bleu in an MRE box, ain’t gonna happen, not until I tried PepperJax Grill.

While far from the best sandwich, in general, or cheesesteak, in particular, I have ever had, PepperJax’ cheesesteak was the best sandwich I have eaten in Lawrence. Their menu is very limited with cheesesteaks, rice bowls, burritos, nachos and salads, all in the $7.29 to $7.99 range, as well as several sides including fries, chips and salsa/queso, and mandarin oranges. The combination of cheesesteaks and Mexican fare is a bit odd, but the cheesesteaks are decent.

Having eaten “real” cheesesteaks in Philadelphia, PepperJax claims theirs’ is “America’s Best Philly”, but I do not concur. There is ample diced beef sauteed with peppers and onions and the 10-12 inch roll was soft and fresh. The cheese was a nondescript American variety, not the traditional Cheese Whiz found on Philadelphia cheesesteaks and mushrooms, not green bell peppers, would be a more Philly-like addition. The sandwich was tasty and filling.

I also ordered two sides of fries ($2.50 each) , but the guy behind the counter talked me out of one, telling me “they’re really big, so you may want just one”, so I followed his advice. Turns out they were not as big as he had said and were just barely enough for two of us, but they were fresh, hot and crispy, a nice accompaniment to the cheesesteaks.

There is also a condiment bar with four sauces (au jus, chili sauce, and two others as well as the usual catsup, mustard, napkins, and plasticware. 

Overall, I have to say that PepperJax was worth the visit and a decent value. If in the mood for a Kansas cheesesteak, we will definitely return.

CombatCritic Gives PepperJax Grill 6 Bombs Out Of 10 … More Bombs Are Better!
Six Bombs Equates To:

Read Reviews By CombatCritic:

Yelp – Elite ’14/’15/’16

TripAdvisor – Top Contributor

Tabelog – Official Judge (Bronze)

Zomato – #1 Ranked Foodie

View my food journey on Zomato!



… And Don’t Forget To Subscribe To TravelValue TV on YouTube


Tabelog Reviewer CombatCriticView my food journey on Zomato!

Pepperjax Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


Title: Lawrence, KS: Not “America’s Best Philly”, But A Contender For “Lawrence’s Best Sandwich”

Key Words: PepperJax Grill, PepperJax, grill, sandwich, Philadelphia, Philly, cheesesteak, Cheese Whiz, cheese, steak, Lawrence, Kansas, CombatCritic, travel, value, restaurant, menu review, Yelp, TripAdvisor, Zomato

Translation for Civilians: G2G = “Good To Go”
Advertisements

Anatomy of a Perfect Taco


Dear Mexican Restaurants (particularly those in Lawrence, Kansas),

Photo #1 – Taco – Side View

Tacos are not meant to be served in pre-fabricated corn shells as is the case in every Mexican restaurant in Lawrence, Kansas and across the country for that matter. A perfect taco starts with a handmade corn tortilla filled with cooked/seasoned meat (beef, chicken, pork), sealed with toothpicks (note the toothpick holes in photo #1), and deep fried to crispy golden goodness. Shredded beef is the preferred meat filling, but ground beef will suffice in most cases if seasoned well.

After frying, the toothpicks are removed from the piping hot taco shell and cheese, fresh lettuce, and tomato are stuffed inside. The best tacos I ever ate were in California, prepared like this, with thin slices of fresh avocado added (guacamole can be substituted) before serving. There should only be enough room for some fresh, homemade salsa before the first bite is taken. The shell should be crisp enough so that you get the signature taco crunch as you take a bite, yet soft enough so that it does not fall apart as you inhale, I mean eat, the entire taco.

Taco – Top View
These tacos are from Rancho Grande Cantina in Parkville, Missouri and are as close to perfect as I have found in the Midwest (minus the requisite tomato and avocado). Take note amigos and LET’S STAMP OUT PRE-FAB TACO SHELLS IN OUR LIFETIME!

Key Words: taco, tacos, shell, tortilla, corn, meat, beef, recipe, menu, beef, pork, chicken, cheese, lettuce, tomato, pico di gallo, avocado, guacamole, CombatCritic, TravelValue

Burrito King … Monarch of Mediocre Mexican Meals



  • Burrito King
    900 Illinois St
    LawrenceKS 66044

  • Phone numb

  • (785) 832-2844


  • Prices: $$$$$

I love Mexican food and I like reasonably priced Mexican food even better. Enter Burrito King.
I have tried pretty much every Mexican restaurant in Lawrence and have been sadly disappointed by the mediocrity … and Burrito King did not let me down in that context. Just a few blocks from our home, I drive by the drive-in restaurant daily yet had not given them a try until yesterday.
You walk or drive up to a window to order and I was quickly greeted by a friendly young man eager to take my order, almost too eager in that I did not have a chance to read the menu posted outside before being prompted to order. I was surprised to find numerous other options beside burritos on the menu … tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas … all at fairly reasonable prices. I ordered the enchilada plate (3 enchiladas, rice, and beans for $6.95), a “steak” and bean burrito ($4.98), and chips and salsa ($2) in order to sample just a few options.
I prefer cheese and onion enchiladas and would think at the same price as meat (steak, chicken, pork) that there would be an abundance of fillings, but I was again disappointed. The red sauce covering the tubes of corn was bland and sparse, barely providing any flavor to the tortillas which were void of any significant fillings. I tasted no onions and the small amount of cheese inside did not quite make it it to the ends, leaving just tortilla and a little tasteless sauce for the first and last bite of each enchilada. The rice and beans were equally tasteless.
The burrito tasted “OK”, but there was very little “steak”, mostly beans, with a little cheese, and some some lettuce. At $5, I would expect a bit more beef and cheese, maybe some guacamole. The chips were crisp and tasty and the salsa well done, appearing homemade (not out of a can or jar) with hints of poblano pepper and cilantro.
Students probably love the quantities and prices offered at Burrito King, but for those of us who prefer quality over quantity, Burrito King falls short, at least on this visit.

CombatCritic Gives Burrito King 5 Out Of 10 Bombs … BOMBAS ARE BUENAS!






Burrito King on Urbanspoon




Key Words: Burrito King, burrito, king, Lawrence, Kansas, Illinois, burritos, Mexican, food, eat, taco, enchilada, guacamole, cheese, beans, rice, CombatCritic, travel, value, TravelValue

The Basil Leaf Cafe … Still LEAFs Me Unimpressed


Basil Leaf Cafe

616 W 9th St

Lawrence, KS 66044

Phone number(785) 856-0459

Website

When I was told by a Lawrence Bohemian acquaintance of mine that “the Basil Leaf Cafe has the best Italian food in Lawrence”, I was intrigued because we have yet to find a great restaurant of ANY kind since moving here in August. Paisano’s (reviewed in August 2013) is “OK”, but nothing to write home about, so our quest to add a new Italian restaurant to our arsenal continues.


Enter … The Basil Leaf Cafe. Yelp reviews are mostly positive with people raving about the food, but slamming the “gas station” decor of the previous location (it really was in a gas station). The new building sits in a row of shops on 9th Street not far from downtown and the University of Kansas campus. The decor is modern with a smattering of tables (about 8) in a room that could easily handle 12 or more. The arrangement of tables, bar, kitchen window and cash register is inefficient, appearing as though there really was not a plan in the first place.

Tortellini Cordon Bleu, Side of Meatballs

On our first visit, we sat at a table uncomfortably close to the front door and were quickly greeted and given menus. I ordered a glass of the house wine, a “primativo” that was aptly named being primitive and obviously cheap. At $6.00 a glass, I would not be surprised if the mark-up was in the 600% to 700% range. The glass was small and filled a little more than halfway, leaving four, maybe five, ounces …


I ordered the New England (the white variety) clam chowder, the tortellini cordon bleu, and a side of meatballs. After asking for water three times, my wife finally received hers, but I had to ask yet again to get mine, coming in a mason jar for some odd reason. This restaurant is apparently trying to find an identity with its’ eclectic menu, modern decor, and new location, but they obviously have not figured it out yet. The soup finally arrived just seconds before our

Having lived in Italy for three years and traveling there extensively over the years, I found that Italians would NEVER think of eating meat and pasta together. Basil Leaf’s menu is not even close to authentic Italian. Meat loaf? Yes, Italians actually eat meat loaf, calling it “polpetone”, literally “big meatball” (meatballs are called polpette in Italy). They eat meatballs too, but NEVER WITH SPAGHETTI!  Spaghetti and other pasta dishes are called “primo piatto” or “first plate” and are also referred to as “primi” for short. Meat dishes fall into the “secondo piatto” or “second plate”, aka “secondi” and are not brought to the table until the antipasto (appetizer) and primo have been consumed.

Anyway, the New England clam chowder came in the smallest soup cup I had ever seen and was filled a little more than halfway. I asked the server if I could get some bread with my soup, but she said “the bread sticks come with your entree”. Translation: “No, you cannot”. Fortunately, the entrees arrived just seconds after I got my soup, so it did not take long to consume it and prepare for my oversize entree.

I had heard good things about Basil Leaf’s tortellini cordon bleu on Yelp, so I had to try it. The presentation was well done, being served in an oversize bowl (see photo). I love veal and schnitzel (pork cutlet) cordon bleu and this dish actually came close in terms of taste. Nontraditionally covered with a chicken cutlet (something you would never see in a classic Italian restaurant), the dish reminds me of a carbonara with ham and cheese added. It was delicious, but would have been better had it been served fresh from the pan and hot (warm). I finished half of the pasta, the lone bread stick (cut loose folks), and one of the three meatballs, leaving me a hearty dinner for the following night. The meatballs were excellent, having the correct consistency and seasoning and obviously homemade. Kudos to the chef!

Mac and Cheese

My wife ordered the “mac and cheese”, another heaping helping of handmade pasta reminiscent of my Aunt Gina’s chicatielli from Ariano, Irpino (Italy). The sauce was creamy and rich, but not overwhelmingly so. Being a native Italian born in Sicily, her palate is well honed when it comes to pasta, an Italian staple. She liked the mac and cheese even though there is no such recipe in her homeland.


Basil Leaf Cafe left us unimpressed on our first visit. Maybe it was because of the hype, maybe a bad night, so we decided to return.

On our second visit, seven months later, we skipped the appetizers, soup, and salad as they are overpriced and unnecessary based on the size of the entrees. A Thursday night, we were surprised to see only one free table and were quickly seated although the hostess seemed confused after I asked for a table for two as my wife had not yet entered the building. Before she had the menus, my wife had arrived and we were seated.

Our server was very nice, but a bit pushy when it came time to order as she seemed in a hurry to get things rolling and ensure our tab was of sufficient size. When we were finally ready to order, I decided on the Penne Abruzzi and my wife, not a pioneer by any stretch, went with the Mac and Cheese … again.

The Penne Abruzzi has penne, obviously, with onion, bell peppers, sun dried tomato, and bacon in a three cheese sauce. I have no idea which three cheeses they use in the sauce, but it was tasty enough although a bit too salty for my taste, possibly a result of the sun dried tomatoes as they are normally sprinkled with salt prior to being dried. There was too much sauce for the amount of pasta, giving it the consistency of a thick soup, appropriate for pasta fagioli, but not a standard pasta dish where a light coating would suffice. The bacon added just enough flavor to the dish and the three large meatballs sitting atop the penne, something you WOULD NEVER SEE in Italy, were decent.

I asked a server if I could have a menu as we left, but was told “we only have them available online”. That was fine with me as I am not interested in killing trees, but when I went “online” to check the menu to complete this review, I had great difficulty finding a current menu and never did find a website. How a business can succeed without a website these days is beyond me, but Basil Leaf apparently believes they only need a Facebook page. I never did find a current menu after an exhaustive search (MenuPix had a menu with prices several dollars less than we paid) and the Facebook menu never did load. That is what you get when you trust your “free” business webpage to Mark Zuckerberg!

The pasta dishes, “starters”, and salads are overpriced ($9 for a house salad? – up from $8 last October) as was the wine ($7 for 4 ounces of cheap wine – up from $6). The decor still needs some warming up, and the tables could be rearranged to seat more customers or create a much needed waiting area (waiting customers now hover over tables of seated customers). The service was sketchy on our first visit and a bit too intense this time. The menu and food remain underwhelming. I spotted only two or three dishes on the limited menu that I would bother ordering, so our options for return visits are already limited. 

There are enough “classic” Italian pasta sauce recipes to fill the menu twice over (carbonara, amatriciana, ragu, bolagnese, boscaiola, marinara, alfredo to name a few) and some classic meat dishes (veal marsala or saltimbocca) would be nice, so embrace something … anything … and create an identity of your own in your decor, servers, and menu fit for a town that still does not have an Italian restaurant worthy of our custom.


CombatCritic Gives Basil Leaf Cafe 6 out of 10 Bombs (Previously 5 Bombs) … Bombs are Good!


The Basil Leaf on Urbanspoon








Review Updated May 12th, 2014

Key Words: Basil Leaf Cafe, basil, leaf, cafe, Italian, restaurant, Lawrence, Kansas, pasta, soup, salad, wine, vino, meatball, marinara, penne, spaghetti, macaroni, cheese, CombatCritic, 66044

Copyright 2011-2014 – CombatCritic and 3rd Wave Media Group, LLC – All Rights Reserved

Fast, Affordable, Friendly … FUZZY’S!


Great tacos … CHECK!
Tex-Mex style enchiladas … CHECK!
Fresh guacamole … CHECK!
Tasty chili con queso … CHECK!
Good margaritas … CHECK!
Get in line to order … CHECK!
Reasonable prices … CHECK!
Rowdy, friendly employees … CHECK!


CombatCritic Gives Fuzzy’s Tacos A Solid 9 Bombs Out Of 10 for solid, fast, affordable Mexican food … BOMBS ARE GOOD!






Fuzzy's Taco shop on Urbanspoon










Follow CombatCritic On Yelp (An Elite ’14/’15 Member) And  TripAdvisor (“Top Contributor”) Where You Can Read His Latest Reviews, Try His Favorite Recipes, And More!

Key Words: Fuzzy’s Tacos, Fuzzy’s, tacos, taco, fuzzy, fuzzie, enchilada, burrito, guacamole, queso, cheese, margarita, Lawrence, Kansas, Massachusetts, street, 66044, CombatCritic, TravelValue

Drifter’s Is No IN AND OUT … And That’s OK!


When compared to California’s In and Out Burger, a staple since my childhood growing up in L.A., you are bound to come-up short. My son, an In and Out novice, insisted on getting dinner from Drifter’s on Super Bowl Eve, saying “they have the best burgers in The Springs, similar to In and Out” and boy I was glad he did!

With such a basic menu it is easy to see how they excel with simple, fresh ingredients, quality ground beef, and reasonable prices. Where they diverge from In and Out is in their consistency and presentation. Every In and Out hamburger looks identical to the last with fresh lettuce and thick, red tomato on a fresh, toasted bun wrapped in their classic white, red, and yellow sandwich paper. Each of the three burgers we ordered at Drifter’s looked completely different than the others even though the ingredients were roughly the same. The makings were fresh and the food tasty, but they just do not have the process down as their California cousin has done so well for over 50 years.

The French fries were good and hot with just a little too much salt and just a bit too thin for my taste. The hamburgers were good and greasy as they should be with sautéed onions, melted American cheese, lettuce, and tomato. The only thing missing was pickle and bacon, which I understand is not an option at Drifter’s (bacon that is) … TOO BAD!

My recommendation is to FORGET IN AND OUT and focus on what Drifter’s does well and that is producing a quality burger and fries at a reasonable price. You are not In and Out, you never will be, so create and embrace your own identity … DRIFTER”S HAMBURGERS!

CombatCritic Gives Drifter’s Hamburgers 8 Bombs Out of 10 for BURGER VALUE … Bombs Are Good!

Drifter's Hamburgers on Urbanspoon

Key Words: Drifter’s Hamburgers, Drifter’s, hamburger, burger, fries, cheese, lettuce, tomato, milk, shake, eat, food, 80907, Colorado Springs, CO, Colorado, CombatCritic, TravelValue, value, travel, combat

Best Pizza in Lawrence (Kansas)!


Tad’s Pizzeria

1410 Kasold Dr 
Lawrence, KS 66049

(785) 856-3131

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tadspizzeria

Price: $$$$$

I know it is not saying much when I say that Tad’s has the best pizza in Lawrence, a town of 90,000 with some of the poorest restaurant choices per capita in the nation, if not the world, particularly when it comes to Italian food.


I had heard that Tad’s had good pizza a few weeks before our recent trip to Puerto Rico, but we did not have a chance to try it before we left. Upon our return I was too burnt-out to cook, so I ordered from Tad’s mobile website while in the sauna at the gym. Their site is actually quite user-friendly and easy to navigate, but I was dismayed when I realized that when I created an account to order our food, I had apparently signed-up for a service called “EatStreet”. Tad’s and/or EatStreet should warn you before enrolling in a service without your permission, including “push” notifications I neither wanted nor needed.


Back to the food …

I ordered two pizzas, one NY Cheese and one NY White, and at $14 and $16 respectively for an 18″, not a bad investment. Wheat State Pizza is comparable in price, but offers Groupons from time to time, making them a better value. Tad’s should consider doing the same or offer more specials than the limited number they have now. With tax and tip, the bill totaled about $36, not cheap for “PIZZA NIGHT”. I routinely order the most basic menu item available on my first visit to a restaurant, in this case no pepperoni, sausage, or … YUCK … PINEAPPLE, to see if they can get the basics right.

The pizzas arrived promptly even though Tad’s is across town from our house and the delivery person was very friendly and polite. My only critique was that when I handed him $40 for a $30 order, he asked “do you need some change”, to which I responded “yes, please!”.

The red, cheese pizza was delicious and reminiscent of the pizza “back East”, thin dough and crust, well seasoned sauce, and good mozzarella cheese, the type that stretches when you pull the slicers apart. I do not know why it is so easy to find good pizza in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania where even the bad pizza joints serve pizza better than most places in Kansas.

The white pizza was also very good with no sauce, abundant mozzarella cheese, and a dollup of ricotta on each of the eight slices. The pizza could have been improved with some extra-virgin olive oil brushed on the dough before adding the cheeses or possibly some garlic, oregano, and/or basil added under or on top of the cheeses. It was a bit dry and lacking taste, but was tasty nonetheless.

We will definitely be ordering Tad’s pizza again. My only recommendation being that it would be nice if they offered salami as a topping. I have never sen a true NY pizzeria that did not have salami and my favorite addition to a simple cheese pizza.

Overpriced by a buck or two a pie, CombatCritic Gives Tad’s Pizzeria 7 Out of 10 Bombs based on VALUE … BOMBS ARE GOOD!


Tad's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Key Words: best, pizza, lawrence, food, tad ‘s, mozzarella, cheese, pizzeria, salami, NY, New York, white, ricotta, basil, oregano, delivery, CombatCritic, TravelValue, travel, value

Palmas: Good, Friendly, Nothing Special, Overpriced


Palmas de Boulevard

281 San Sebastian Street
at Tanaca Corner

San JuanPuerto Rico 00901
(787) 630-4725
$$$$$

We drove past Palmas looking for a parking place in Old San Juan and returned after seeing what looked like a fiesta going on in the street outside. It was a small place with a large crowd outside and music blaring off the beaten path on the north (uphill) side of town.

We ordered the Asopao de Pollo (chicken and rice stew – $13.99) and Queso Frito (fried cheese with mango sauce -$8.95). The cheese was good, probably $3 overpriced for the size even in Old San Juan, with a mango dipping sauce.

The chicken stew (Asopao de Pollo) was very good, but at $13.99 for a few chunks of gristly chicken, some red bell pepper, and a half a cup of rice in chicken broth was probably $6 more than it should have been while still allowing a fair profit for the proprietor.

I had two cervezas Medalla and at $3 a pop they were twice the price I had paid our entire 3 weeks on the island.

Javier, the owner, stopped by our table and lopped-off half of an avocado the size of a watermelon (Javier and CombatCritic pictured). I tossed it in my stew and added some butt-kicking hot sauce, but made the mistake of touching my eye  … EYE CARAMBA!

Don’t get me wrong, the food was good and the bill came to $42 including 20% tip, not horrific, but more than we should have paid for a couple local beers, an appetizer, and an cheap-to-make entree.

I hope Javier figures out that knocking a couple bucks off the prices will result in happy customers, glowing reviews, and much more customers and money in his pocket. He and his staff were very nice and we enjoyed our visit even if it was not the best TravelValue in Puerto Rico.

CombatCritic Gives Palmas de Boulevard 6 Bombs Out of 10 … BOMBAS ARE BUENAS!

Key Words: Palmas, de Boulevard, restaurant, food, Caribbean, Puerto Rico, puerto, rico, old san juan, old, san, juan, chicken, stew, asopao, cheese, fried, frito, queso, CombatCritic, TravelValue

The Leaning Tower of San Juan … El Hamburguer


El Hamurguer
298 Ave Muñoz Rivera
San JuanPuerto Rico 00901

(787) 721-4269









$$$$$

San Juan, Puerto Rico: Feeling burger deprived all day after our horrible experience at El Patio de Sam last night, we walked 2 km (uphill in the snow … both ways!) for a real burger at El Hamburger!


My wife says she saw Anthony Bordain … “I eat, I travel, I drink too much” … eating there on one of his episodes in Puerto Rico and Yelp reviews were mostly 5 stars, so we had to try it. We almost literally ran into the place on Christmas day coming home from El Escambrón beach, so I knew where it was.


The place looks like it’s on fire with smoke billowing out the top and across the busy street from the dozens of small, very thick burgers being prepared for inhalation by their many ravenous patrons. It is rather small with one dining area seating about 40, a small counter, and another small room that we did not see well because of the crowd around the front door. The place was packed!


Counter and Cash Register

They had two servers, as far as we could tell, doing a remarkably fine job considering the number of people crammed inside. We ordered the bacon cheddar burgers ($3.60 each), a side of French fries, onion rings, a root beer, and a Medalla beer.


Leaning Tower of San Juan – $3.60

The burger patty, like El Patio de Sam, were smallish but thick, probably 5 ounces or so (but also $7 less than Sam) and smothered with cheddar cheese. There were several pieces of bacon wrapped in a heap on one bun and our server brought a container with plenty of lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle. By the time I built my burger, it looked like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.


The onion rings were good and plentiful for $1.90, but a little too well done for my taste. The fries were abundant for the $1.90 price, the shoestring variety, hot and crispy just the way I like them. Root beer is root beer ($1.49) and the local Medalla Light thirst quenchingly cold and at $3.60 a reasonable price.


Dining Area – Couples and Families

The servers are nice and the crowd mostly couples and families, so the noise level is moderate. They only take cash, so bring enough with or use the convenient ATM they parked right outside the door and you must pay the quiet, burly man behind the cash register before you leave.


El Hamburger serves a great, reasonably priced burger and all of the usual accompaniments, so if you are hungry for the all American meal, by all means … give them a try!


CombatCritic Gives El Hamburger 8 Bombs Out of 10 … BOMBS ARE GOOD!


 




Key Words: El Hamburger, hamburger, burger, French, fries, onion, rings, beer, soda, pop, Coke, Medalla, bacon, cheese, eat, food, lunch, dinner, CombatCritic, combat

Nonna Cucina Rustica Serves Food My Grandmother (Nonna) Would Be Proud Of!


Nonna Cucina Italiana
Calle San Jorge
San Juan, Puerto Rico
(787) 998-6555


$$$$$


San Juan: Nonna Cucina Rustica Italiana is very nice, somewhat small, slightly upscale classic Italian restaurant near downtown and not far from Miramar where we were staying. We found her on Yelp* and the reviews were very positive. We had difficulty finding a restaurant open on Christmas Eve when we arrived in San Juan, so I figured that Christmas day would be even worse. To our surprise, Nonna was open (as were several restaurants we saw – everything else was closed as they should be) and had a table available … “we’ll be right there!”

Waze, our eMap, was a bit off, so we called the restaurant and the manager guided us in (a couple blocks ahead of where Waze took us), sticking her head out the door until she spotted us pulling up. They have Valet Service, but we decided to go through the next signal and found plenty of street parking in the next block.

It is nearly impossible to find a traditional Italian kitchen in the US and we were expecting as much in Puerto Rico … WE WERE VERY PLEASANTLY SURPRISED!

Homemade Mozzarella Caprese ($9) and Vido di Alicante
Carmen, our server, was extremely pleasant even though, still being on “non-island time” and expecting things to move rapidly like they do on the continent, we were hungry and a little impatient to start. I ordered a Spanish Alicante red, a simple yet robust dark red wine ($27), to accompany our meal.

For antipasti, we had the veal polpette (meatballs) and homemade mozzarella, and both were excellent. The polpette (3 for $9 – polpettone, by the way, is Italian meatloaf) came atop a bed of mashed potatoes (polenta would have been a more traditional and excellent choice) and covered with a light tomato sauce. We had to ask for bread and it took a while to arrive, a very small basket of what looked like foccacia sliced into small pieces, and the only disappointment of the night. Local bread on the table is standard in all Italian restaurants, even in Italy, so when I did not see bread on a single table and had to ask for it, I was a bit surprised. It was decent, but too little to accompany the wonderful appetizers, both of which cried out for bread, good bread!

Polpette with Mashed Potatoes and Tomato Sauce – $9
The homemade mozzarella was also delicious. Atop the four rather small, thin slices ($9) of mozzarella were three large cherry tomatoes, a few pieces of arugula, and a hefty dose of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and chopped, toasted hazelnuts. A kind of insalata Caprese, you would never see balsamic vinegar on mozzarella in Italy, but it was very tasty if not filling.

The Casoncelli alla Bergamasca ($17), a light yet complex dish of pasta shells (the size of perogi) was stuffed with sausage and quickly sautéed in a mild butter and sage sauce. They were sublime, the only fault being that the obviously homemade pasta shells were a bit too “al dente” and could have been boiled another minute or two. Otherwise, we were quite pleased.

Casoncelli alla Bergamasca – $17
I ordered the lasagna ($18), which came in its own 7″ x 7″ baking dish with a crispy layer of cheese and béchamel sauce and it was exquisite! More than I needed to eat, it was layered with a hefty portion of minced lamb, lasagna noodles, spinach, and ricotta and mozzarella cheeses. The lamb tasted very much like lamb, so if you are not into lamb, DO NOT order this dish. I like lamb on occasion, not daily, and was very happy with my choice.

Lamb Lasagna – $18
For dessert, offered by the very sweet, young pastry chef with a huge smile, we had the tiramisu. Untraditional in every way, I had seen it on other tables throughout the night and thought it was an ice cream sunday, but it was not! All of the usual ingredients were there, cookies, mascarpone cheese, and cocoa (accompanied by a shot of espresso to pour over the top), but a scoop of ice cream was also included along with chocolate syrup. It did not taste like any tiramisu I have ever eaten (and at $12 it was the most expensive tiramisu I have eaten), but it was extravagant.

Not cheap by any stretch, Nonna was a delight and extremely good value … BUONISSIMO!

CombatCritic Gives Nonna Cucina Italiana 9 Out of 10 Bombs … BOMBS ARE GOOD!






Key Words: Nonna, cucina, rustica, Italiana, Italian, restaurant, food, San Juan, Puerto Rico, eat, dinner, delicious, pasta, wine, mozzarella, cheese, tiramisu, CombatCritic

El Potro (The Colt): Free Cheese Dip and More Scrummy Surprises


LAWRENCE, KANSAS

Lawrence, Kansas

EL POTRO
2351 W 31st St Lawrence, KS 66047

(785) 331-2500

Website

Cheese Quesadilla with Guacamole and Pico di Gallo

I found El Potro on Yelp and with such good reviews, we decided to give it a try … AND ARE WE GLAD WE DID!

Sunday is our weekly DINNER OUT night and boy were we surprised when we pulled into the parking lot to find a sea of cars … and a restaurant full of people. Sunday night dinner out in Lawrence is normally so quiet, you could be heard whispering three tables away. Not at El Potro! The restaurant used to be a fast food stop of some sort, so the atmosphere is as to be expected, nothing special and a little brighter (in lumen) than I would like.

We were quickly greeted and seated with the waiter dropping by to take drink orders and the busboy dropping off chips, salsa … AND FREE WHITE CHEESE DIP? That is correct, free chili con queso blanco for everyone! Many Lawrence Mexican restaurants charge for chips and salsa, a practice unheard of in nearly six decades and hundreds of Mexican restaurants all over the United States, so free chips and cheese dip was a welcome sight. Not only do they give you free cheese dip, it is a decent size bowl, not a cup.
Cheese and Onion Enchilada ala Carte
My wife ordered orchata, a sweet rice-based drink from Mexico that tastes like rice pudding with hints of cinnamon. I decided to go with the 22 ounce margarita (frozen with salt) special, at $6 not a bad deal, but the same price as the menu option. Not much of a special, but it was quite delicious and with more alcohol than most Lawrence restaurants so far. As usual, I have a built-in designated driver in my tea-toting wife, so I was able to enjoy my drink without concern. We also decided to try the guacamole, a good predictor of quality Mexican food. At close to $6.00, it had better be good and it was. Not as good as mine or the best restaurant guac I have had, but plentiful and tasty with just a few chopped tomatoes on top to add color to the appetizer. It was a nice accompaniment to the cheese dip, chips, and salsa.
Deep-Fried Shredded Beef Tacos, Rice, & Boracho Beans
I decided to go with the usual first visit tacos and enchiladas, so I ordered the deep fried shredded beef tacos ($8.99 – you can also get ground beef or chicken) and a cheese and onion enchilada ala carte. The tacos were crispy, the beef was well seasoned, and there was plenty of lettuce and cheese in addition to the standard rice and beans. The shells were pliable enough to add some excess guacamole, pico di gallo (from my wife’s order – she hates tomatoes), and some salsa without falling apart when I bit in. I chose the borracho (“drunk” in Spanish) beans instead of the refried beans and it was a good choice. They were soupy and well seasoned, a nice change to the usual smashed, refried variety. Off to a good start! The enchilada, came on a separate plate, was quite big, and pleasing to the eye with a colorful accompaniment of sauce, cheese, lettuce and tomato. The enchilada sauce was spicy, but not overly so and the ratio of cheese to onion to sauce was perfect. I have had better tasting enchilada sauces over the years, but it was good nonetheless.
Beef Fajita Burrito with Rice and Pico do Gallo
Our friend had the beef fajita burrito which was not huge, but enough to fill her with the accompanying rice and beans. My wife ordered the cheese quesadilla which came with more guacamole and the pico di gallo mentioned earlier. Quesadillas are pretty boring to begin with and hers were no exception. Flour tortilla and melted cheese … YAAAAAAAAWN … need I say more.
El Potro was a pleasant experience because I thought I had found the only good Mexican restaurant in Lawrence in Tortas Jalisco. Now we have two options for our weekly MEXICAN NIGHT and El Potro is a welcome delight. Reasonable prices, excellent, service, quality food, decent drinks, and FREE CHEESE DIP, CHIPS, AND SALSA … HOOAH!

CombatCritic Gives El Potro 7 out of 10 Bombs … Bombs Are Good!




El Potro Mexican Cafe on Urbanspoon


Key Words: El Potro, Mexican, restaurant, eat, food, taco, enchilada, burrito, chimichanga, rice, beans, cheese, pico di gallo, tortilla, chips, salsa, CombatCritic, Lawrence, Kansas

Basil Leaf Cafe … Mama Mia, That’s One Spicy Meatball


Basil Leaf Cafe

616 W 9th St

Lawrence, KS 66044

Phone number(785) 856-0459

Website

When I was told by a Lawrence Bohemian acquaintance of mine that “the Basil Leaf Cafe has the best Italian food in Lawrence”, I was intrigued because we have yet to find a decent restaurant of ANY kind since moving here in August. Paisano’s (reviewed in August 2013) is “OK”, but nothing to write home about, so our quest to add a new Italian restaurant to our arsenal continues.


Enter … The Basil Leaf Cafe. Yelp reviews are mostly positive with people raving about the food, but slamming the “gas station” decor of the previous location (it really was in a gas station). The new building sits in a row of shops on 9th Street not far from downtown and the University of Kansas campus. The decor is modern with a smattering of tables (about 8) in a room that could easily handle 12 or more. The arrangement of tables, bar, kitchen window and cash register is inefficient, appearing as though there really was not a plan in the first place.

Tortellini Cordon Bleu, Side of Meatballs

We sat at a table uncomfortably close to the front door and were quickly greeted and given menus. I ordered a glass of the house wine, a “primativo” that was aptly named being primitive and obviously cheap. At $6.00 a glass, I would not be surprised if the mark-up was in the 600% to 700% range. The glass was small and filled a little more than halfway, leaving four, maybe five, ounces …


I ordered the New England (the white variety) clam chowder, the tortellini cordon bleu, and a side of meatballs. After asking for water three times, my wife finally received hers, but I had to ask yet again to get mine, coming in a mason jar for some odd reason. This restaurant is apparently trying to find an identity with its’ eclectic menu, modern decor, and new location, but they obviously have not figured it out yet. The soup finally arrived just seconds before our

Having lived in Italy for three years and traveling there extensively over the years, I found that Italians would NEVER think of eating meat and pasta together. Basil Leaf’s menu is not even close to authentic Italian. Meat loaf? Yes, Italians actually eat meat loaf, calling it “polpetone”, literally “big meatball” (meatballs are called polpette in Italy). They eat meatballs too, but NEVER WITH SPAGHETTI!  Spaghetti and other pasta dishes are called “primo piatto” or “first plate” and are also referred to as “primi” for short. Meat dishes fall into the “secondo piatto” or “second plate”, aka “secondi” and are not brought to the table until the antipasto (appetizer) and primo have been consumed.

Anyway, the New England clam chowder came in the smallest soup cup I had ever seen and was filled a little more than halfway. I asked the server if I could get some bread with my soup, but she said “the bread sticks come with your entree”. Translation: “No, you cannot”. Fortunately, the entrees arrived just seconds after I got my soup, so it did not take long to consume it and prepare for my oversize entree.

I had heard good things about Basil Leaf’s tortellini cordon bleu on Yelp, so I had to try it. The presentation was well done, being served in an oversize bowl (see photo). I love veal and schnitzel (pork cutlet) cordon bleu and this dish actually came close in terms of taste. Nontraditionally covered with a chicken cutlet (something you would never see in a classic Italian restaurant), the dish reminds me of a carbonara with ham and cheese added. It was delicious, but would have been better had it been served fresh from the pan and hot (warm). I finished half of the pasta, the lone bread stick (cut loose folks), and one of the three meatballs, leaving me a hearty dinner for the following night. The meatballs were excellent, having the correct consistency and seasoning and obviously homemade. Kudos to the chef!

Mac and Cheese

My wife ordered the “mac and cheese”, another heaping helping of handmade pasta reminiscent of my Aunt Gina’s chicatielli from Ariano, Irpino (Italy). The sauce was creamy and rich, but not overwhelmingly so. Being a native Italian born in Sicily, her palate is well honed when it comes to pasta, an Italian staple. She liked the mac and cheese even though there is no such recipe in her homeland.


Basil Leaf Cafe left us unimpressed. Maybe it was because of the hype, maybe a bad night, time will tell. The pasta dishes, “starters”, and salads are overpriced ($8 for a house salad?) as was the wine ($6 for 4 ounces of cheap wine). The decor needs some warming up, the tables could be rearranged to seat more customers or create a much needed waiting area (waiting customers now hover over tables of seated customers), the service sketchy, and the menu and food underwhelming. I spotted only two or three dishes on the limited menu that I would bother ordering, so our options for a return visit are already limited. There are enough “classic” Italian pasta sauce recipes to fill the menu twice over (carbonara, amatriciana, ragu, bolagnese, boscaiola, marinara, alfredo to name a few), so embrace something … anything … and create an identity in your decor, servers, and menu fit for a town that still does not have an Italian restaurant worthy of our custom.


CombatCritic Gives Basil Leaf Cafe 5 out of 10 Bombs … Bombs are Good!

The Basil Leaf on Urbanspoon














Key Words: basil, leaf, cafe, Italian, restaurant, Lawrence, Kansas, pasta, soup, salad, wine, vino, meatball, marinara, penne, spaghetti, macaroni, cheese, CombatCritic, 66044