February 19, 2008

Good Beer, Veggie Eats At Sidetrack in Ypsi

By George Bishop

On Valentine’s day my girlfriend and I forsook the usual romantic hot spots that Ann Arbor has to offer and took a brief trip down 94 to Sidetrack Bar and Grille in Ypsilanti. While I can’t recommend Sidetrack for a romantic getaway, it does have a great pub-like atmosphere, a good selection of beer on tap and some well above-average bar food.

Located in Ypsilanti’s historic depot town, Sidetrack, and the rest of the businesses on the block, seem as if they were plucked from the 1950s. The illusion is maintained upon entering the restaurant, where one is greeted with a sea of tables that stretch to the back of the building. The restaurant was packed to capacity (perhaps 75-100 people at tables and the bar) when we arrived around 7:00 but was not cramped or claustrophobic considering the large crowd. Upon the walls one can find a stuffed menagerie of the local wildlife along with some old-timey photographs. Despite the clichés, the décor resists the over-the-top camp of a TGI Fridays and makes for very cozy, tavern atmosphere.

While the atmosphere was a pleasant surprise, it was the menu that drew us to Sidetrack. My girlfriend had received a tip the Sidetrack was especially vegetarian friendly and the selections did not disappoint. The menu was quite varied and displayed more than just a nominal vegetarian selection (quite a surprise as Sidetrack is famous for its burgers). I decided upon a cup of black bean chili and the goat cheese quesadilla. The chili, which came smothered with cheese and onions, was perfectly seasoned, not too spicy but still with a little kick to it. After the chili, the quesadilla seemed a bit lacking. It came with a generous portion of goat cheese and a variety of peppers, spinach and other veggies wrapped in a grilled tortilla. The quesadillas were tasty but underdone and thus slightly soggy. For desert we split an order of cherry bread pudding topped with a caramel sauce. This desert was a tasty as you’d imagine and the portion was enormous as well. To cap it off, Sidetrack boasts a great selection of draught beers. While the selection can’t rival Ashley’s, anyone who appreciates a good brew should be able to find something suitable. In all I’d recommend Sidetrack to anyone looking to get out of AA for the night or if you’re simply searching for a good meal at a laid-back local pub.

October 09, 2007

Champion House: For a Fratastic Family Outing

By Adam Dubinsky, ’07

If you associate family establishments and acrobatic juggling with popped collars and sake bombs, read no further. You already know what I have to say. This review is of no use to you -- you are a frat boy, you are drunk, and you have accidentally stumbled over into the Law School. Put the newspaper down, turn around, cross the street, and go back to Beta, your beach volleyball game, and your gutted, sticky-floored dens of misogyny.

If you do not yet make this association, but would like to experience the seamless and shameless unification of children screaming and frat boys pounding tables, then have your next dinner at Champion House, located at 120 E. Liberty. You might find that you have a passion for participating in the bizarre sociological pastiche, though Champion House is such a caricature of an imitation of a simulacrum of an already mythical notion of authenticity that, by the time you leave, you risk losing any grasp of reality. (Eat your heart out, Phillip K. Dick.) No, really—the sodium content of the food is enough to make me worry about hypertension, and my blood pressure is only around 90/46 (measured during Trusts & Estates).

It is true that high sodium content, grotesque stereotypes, and awkward juxtapositions are part of the perverse charm of teppanyaki Japanese steakhouses. The average trip to Benihana will sit you next to four obnoxious strangers, whose loud “private” divulgences are not particularly appetizing, and feature a Chinese chef putting on a fake “Asian” accent while pretending to be Japanese, making onion-ring volcanoes, and sending twirling cascades of salt over everything. Don’t get me wrong—I love teppanyaki. My favorite restaurant in Worcester, MA is the irredeemably mediocre Sakura Tokyo, where they never give you enough mustard sauce (“for steak, chicken, and everything”) but overload you with ginger sauce (“for seafood, vegetable, and everything”). I can’t get enough of the food and the flames. I eat and eat and, a half hour after I’m done, I am hungry again. Even the authenticity of my hunger’s satisfaction is illusive.

But, if teppanyaki is the culinary equivalent of the mind-fuck film genre, Champion House is the Blade Runner of teppanyaki, especially if you include Harrison Ford’s ridiculous voice-over from the production cut. The ridiculous voice-over in my head began as soon as my lovely companion and I encountered the maitre d’. After we asked to be seated at a teppanyaki table, he eyed us, leafed through his reservations, eyed us again, flipped another page, eyed us, looked at the page, eyed us again, paused, eyed us once more, and finally gestured for us to follow him. He led us to the end of an empty table for eight, across from a table occupied by a family of five.

While we debated what to order, my ears picked up the thud of approaching footfalls and the irreverent banter of the sort of group that actually seems to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of tube tops and ruffle skirts. Peeking from behind the menu, I saw four large, good-looking gentlemen in polo shirts approach our table. The waiter recognized them immediately: “let me guess—you all want the scallops? The sake bombs will be right over.” Indeed, the boys wanted the scallops and the sake bombs came quickly. The little girls from the family across from us watched in amazement while the boys filled their glasses with beer and perched their sake cups precariously above it with their chopsticks. The fists came down like so many hammers of Thor; the sake fell. The boys chugged. I wiped a few drops of splattered beer from my forehead. The boys slammed their glasses down and cheered.

Meanwhile, at the other table, the youngest daughter began screaming. The middle child, one noodle-draped chopstick in each fist, lowered far too much pasta into her mouth from above her head. The oldest daughter, around thirteen, shrank with embarrassment into her chair. Meanwhile, their Caucasian chef pushed around a flaming onion-ring volcano. My companion tapped my shoulder to show me the cart carrying the ingredients their chef would prepare. The raw beef had spilled over the side of its container and collected in the corner of the cart. One piece had fallen onto the floor. That’s when we decided to change our filet order from medium rare to medium well.

My attention returned to our table with another round of slamming fists and drizzling beer. Our chef had arrived, and my companion sighed with relief—he was Asian. I wasn’t prepared to relax yet. During his performance, he dropped his knife three times and burned his hand on the stove trying to catch a low-falling spatula. He nearly singed my eyebrows off when he lit the oil on fire, another first in my vast teppanyaki experience. More fist slams. A drop of beer slid down my nose and fell onto my zucchini.

Honestly, most of the food wasn’t awful. The vegetables were more or less the same as at any teppanyaki table—over-salted and over-sauced onion and zucchini that I just can’t get enough of. The filet was a bit chewy at medium well, but still tasty. The lobster tail was delicious, though perhaps it is difficult to ruin lobster. The mustard sauce, however, was too thin. And the calamari steaks were actually awful. They lacked flavor and had the texture of a tempurpedic mattress. All in all, even ignoring the omission to offer a complimentary scoop of coconut ice cream with each meal, Champion House is by far the worst teppanyaki I have ever had. But it’s not any cheaper.

The family across from us had been replaced by a group of four boys in polo shirts. They were setting up their sake bombs. When my companion and I stood up, I looked across the restaurant. There were four frat boys at every other table. At some, the fists were coming down. At others, the cups we being set up. At the third set, the boys had abandoned the chopsticks altogether and just dropped their cups into the beer. In between them all were nuclear families with young children in various states of tantrums.

So, if you like sake bombs and absurdity, Champion House may very well your ultimate dining experience. If not, it still might be better than a trip to the circus. You should have heard what our frat boys were talking about. My companion and I pretended to be mesmerized by the fried rice to disguise our eavesdropping. Sociological studies aside, though, Champion House is a loser.

MLCC Presents: The Best of Ann Arbor

These are the venues that the Culinary Club’s members voted for as the best restaurants, pubs, bakeries, and more!

Best Restaurant Around
1) Eve, 2) Zingerman’s Roadhouse, 3) Grizzly Peak, 4) Common Grill

Best Happy Hour Nosh
1) Rush Street, 2) The Earle, 3) Metro Café, 4) Weber’s Grill

Best Breakfast
1) Café Zola, 2) Angelo’s, 3) Afternoon Delight, 4) Frank’s, 5) The Broken Egg (tied with) 5) Northside Grill, 7) Aut Bar (Sundays only), 8) Zingerman’s Roadhouse

Best Burger
1) Red Hawk, 2) Side Track Bar and Grill (Ypsilanti), 3) Crazy Jim’s Blimpie Burger, 4) Ashley’s

Cheap Meals Near Campus
1) BTB, 2) Za’s, 3) Pita Kabob Grill, 4) Potbelly’s, 5) Le Dog, 6) Red Hot Lovers, 7) NYPD, 8) Rich JC Korean

Best Italian
1) Gratzi, 2) Bella Ciao, 3) Palio, 4) Argiero’s, 5) Silvio’s, 6) Paesano’s, 7) Olive Garden, 8) Romano’s

Best Sandwich/Deli
1) Zingerman’s, 2) Amer’s, 3) Ali Baba, 4) Maize and Blue Deli, 5) Potbelly’s, 6) Pita Kabob Grill, 7) Jimmy John’s, 8) Great Harvest, 9) Panera, 10) Cosi, 11) Quizno’s, 11) Subway

Best Ice Cream
1) Washtenaw Dairy, 2) Stucchi’s,
3) Ben and Jerry’s, 4) Kilwin’s

Best Bakery
1) Zingerman’s, 2) Great Harvest, 3) Big City Small World, 4) Panera

Best Donuts/Pastries
1) Zingerman’s, 2) Cake Nouveau, 3) Washtenaw Dairy

Best Splurge Dinner
1) Eve, 2) Common Grill (tied with) 2) Real Seafood, 4) West End Grill, 5) Vinology, 6) Chop House, 7) Gandy Dancer, 8) Amadeus, 9) Cherry Blossom

Best Sushi/Japanese Food
1) Sodako, 2) Miki, 3) Totoro,
4) Godaiko, 5) Cherry Blossom (tied with) 5) Makkara, 7) Sushi.Come

Best Thai
1) No Thai, 2) Marnee Thai, 3) Lotus Thai, 4) Sivathai

Best Korean
1) Seoul Garden, 2) Bewon, 3) JC Rich, 4) Kosmo’s

Best Chinese
1) TK Wu, 2) China Gate, 3) Middle Kingdom, 4) Dynasty Buffet (Ypsilanti), 5) Asian Legend (tied with) 5) Evergreen

Best Indian
1) Temptations (Ypsilanti), 2) Shalimar, 3) Madras Masala, 4) Raja Rani

Best Latino
1) Pilar’s Tamales, 2) Sabor Latino, 3) Prickly Pear, 4) Chipotle, 5) BTB, 6) Qdoba, 7) Taqueria La Loma, 8) The Burrito Joint, 9) La Fiesta Mexicana, 10) Banditos

Best Vegetarian
1) Seva (tied with) 1) Earthen Jar

Best Middle Eastern
1) Ali Baba’s, 2) Jerusalem Garden (tied with) 2) Ayse’s Café (Turkish), 4) Pita Kabob Grill, 5) Oasis Café,
Write-in: Charlie’s La Shish (will be renamed Charlie’s Mediterranean soon)
Best Pub
1) Ashley’s, 2) Leopold Brothers, 3) Grizzly Peak, 4) Arbor Brewing Company, 5) Conor O’Neill’s, 6) Brown Jug, 7) The Rathskeller, 8) Rick’s

Best Wine Shop
1) Morgan & York, 2) Bello Vino Marketplace, 3) Trader Joe’s, 4) Everyday Wine
Write-in: Village Corner

Best Dive Bar
1) Alley Bar, 2) The Rathskeller, 3) Eight Ball

Best Pizza
1) Silvio’s Organic, 2) Pizza House, 3) New York Pizza Depot, 4) Papa John’s, 5) California Pizza Kitchen, 6) Cottage Inn, 7) Pizza Bob’s

Bulk Foods
1) Whole Foods, 2) By the Pound, 3) People’s Food Co-op

Best Grocery
1) Trader Joe’s, 2) Busch’s, 3) Hiller’s, 4) Whole Foods, 5) Bello Vino, 6) Kroger, 7) People’s Food Co-op, 8) Arbor Farms

Best Coffee Shop
1) Sweetwater’s, 2) Espresso Royale, 3) Zingerman’s Next Door, 4) Caribou, 5) Café Ambrosia, 6) Beaner’s, 7) Starbucks, 8) Café Verde, 9) Primo Coffee

Best reasons to find a ride to Ypsi:
Red Sea (Ethiopian), Dalat (Vietnamese), Side Track (burgers, Irish spring rolls), Taqueria La Loma or Fiesta Mexicana (Mexican), Tuptim (Thai), Banh Na (Thai and Laotian)

And don’t forget these one-of-a-kind places!
Farmer’s Market: Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market, Westside Farmer’s Market (near Zingerman’s Roadhouse)
Specialty Markets: Hua Xing Grocery (diverse Asian foods in Ypsilanti), Sunshine Mart (Middle Eastern)
Jamaican: Jamaican Jerk Pit
Leopold Brothers: Small-batch distillery