Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Eating While Shopping

This month we take a look at cafes tucked away in places you might not expect, like computer/appliance stores, furniture stores, grocery stores, and museums. If you have a favorite non-traditional eating spot, let us know.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

IKEA Cafe and Restaurant - Guest Review

The first thing one notices about the IKEA store in Round Rock, Texas is its all-encompassing blueness and its abnormal hugeness. And that's saying something for a place in Texas. I think IKEA is Swedish for "I Keep Estimating Area," as you spend most of your semi-aimless wandering through the labyrinthine store wondering how many square feet the place actually covers. You might guess something in the vicinity of the Louisiana Purchase, but you'd be wrong, although the bargains to be had at IKEA are comparable. After getting over the sheer size of the place, as this was my first visit, I was glad to see white arrows on the floor and large blue signs every few feet directing traffic, faithfully leading me to the Café. (Yes, that's my finger - I'm still getting used to my new phone, and I wasn't sure what the Swedes would think of me taking pictures inside). Of course, these Swedish furniture makers are smart and make you walk through half the store to get to the Café, but this also builds a healthy appetite. Waves of relief coursed over my parched lips upon sight of the oasis they call the IKEA Restaurant and Café. Unsurprisingly, the Café is a spacious, well-lit, and strikingly colorful dining area. Ordering your food is akin to the process at Luby's. Pick up a tray, look at all the lovely food hiding behind the glass, then tell the nice lady (Helga) what you'd like to eat. It's a fairly painless process, unless you piss off Helga. Take my advice and just don't piss off Helga. The glass is not actually a sneeze-shield, it’s Helga-proofing. My appetite was pre-whetted for the Swedish Meatball plate. My wife ordered chicken enchiladas, a daring selection for a Mexican restaurant connoisseur at a Swedish restaurant in Central Texas. The enchiladas came with rice and steamed vegetables, but she had to order macaroni and cheese as they were out of steamed vegetables, likely due to the throngs of people both in the store and in the Café. The meatball plate also came with mac and cheese. We rounded off the meal with a piece of chocolate pie and a piece of apple cake. I was hoping to find a menu online. The best I could do was this PDF for an IKEA Café in Bolingbrook. The link from IKEA’s website for the Round Rock store was not working as of this writing. Our total price was under $15. The plates were cheap and they go to great extent to let people know they have to bus their own tables, thus allowing IKEA to sell plates on the cheap. I wish more places would do that. The wife's enchiladas were edible - not great, but not bad for a Swedish Café in Texas. The side dishes were likewise; something above the quality of your typical high school cafeteria, but nothing to write home about. The twelve bite-size meatballs were covered in the right amount of gravy. Unfortunately, or so I thought, there was a smattering of red lingonberry sauce making a none too subtle approach towards the meatballs. This was my first ever encounter with this creeping, invasive Swedish sauce, so I was dubious of its intentions. But, in the name of journalistic integrity, I forced my taste buds to refute their xenophobic tendencies. I was pleasantly surprised. Fruity sauces should never be mixed with gravy, but this combination somehow worked, giving the meatballs a subtle and quick sweet taste. Our dessert was quickly consumed, although I failed to finish my chocolate pie. In other words, the food portions would make Goldilocks happy; they were just right. The meal met my expectations, which were not all that high. It was an edible, quick, cheap meal that filled the void created by the effort needed to get to the Café. The meatballs tasted like something you could have bought in a supermarket, so I was not surprised (after another mile walk to get out of the place) to see the Swedish meatballs for purchase near most of the checkout counters. It’s a great place to eat if you’re lost in IKEA, or, more likely, your spouse is buying half the store and you’ve spent six hours there, but I wouldn’t go there intentionally – I’d just buy the meatballs.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Mozart's Coffee Roasters - Podcast

Great coffee, free wireless, cool vibe

Website: www.MozartsCoffee.com/

Ian and the Wunderfool venture forth on a rainy afternoon to sip coffee and ingest desserts with a high glycemic-index at Mozart's.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Central Market Cafe

A full-contact grocery store with a cafe

Website: CentralMarket.com

It was a tech writer's lunch day, so I had The Good Daughter drop me off at the car and took it on to lunch and then to the office. Which meant that when it came time for the rush hour date, I was the one with the car. And as I drove to get The Woman, I realized her office was right around the corner from the Lamar St Central Market. I'd heard good things about the cafe, so we zipped across Lamar and were soon having our own adventure in eating. But first we took a stroll through the market.

They have a wide selection of Texas products. Check out that Texas Scream salsa. The guy who designed the label went all out. What is that, a wolf and an outhouse?I'm not going there.

Texas goodies Texas goodies

Central Market is HEB's answer to Whole Foods, a wildly popular granola-head organic grocery founded in Austin.

For you non-Texas out there, HEB is a local grocery chain founded by Howard E Butts. He used his initials instead of his name on the stores for obvious reasons, I would expect.
In my mind, they have taken it to the next level. They have better prices and a very cool system for tagging things that don't come in packages, like fruit or bulk items. The sign for the the item is labeled with the name of it, the price, and a 5-digit product code. You take the item to a scale, type the number in and it prints out a sticker with all the info on it, including the cost. Just stick it on the bag or box and you're all set at checkout time.

Inside, everywhere you look, there's five gzillion varieties of stuff, and lots of them organic. Hard to keep up with all the varieties of apples, and everybody knows that there are more brands of wine than any human could comprehend, but who knew there were over a dozen kinds of olives? All of which you can get fresh right there. And some weird potatoes. Who comes up with these things? They also have an extensive seafood section with live critters and all, but it was hard to see them through the glass, so you get the bug-eyed fish on ice photo instead.

Central Market is the kind of place where you can buy stuff in bulk, not pre-packaged. Stuff like three million kinds of flour or grains or chocolate chunks or nuts. Just scoop it into a baggie or clear plastic container and slap a sticker on it.

You can check their website to see why I call them a full-contact grocery. They have culinary cooking classes, including a summer kid's cooking camp, catering, and the Cafe on the Run. If you don't have time to cook dinner, or even sit down and eat in the cafe, you can grab a fully prepared meal in a bag or two and hit the road. (Awhile back, The Woman stopped by on the way home and picked up a Greek salad, grilled pepper salmon, pesto and a walnut grape salad. The cost came out to about 75% of what it cost us to eat at the cafe. The food was great. Something to consider for those in the area.)

After we had strolled enough to pique the appetite, we veered to the cafe. As soon as you walk up you know you're not in just any old grocery store cafe. The specials are displayed out front like in a classy joint. Next is the bucket of iced-down drinks and then the counters where you order. Inside seating is available, but if the weather's good, outside is the place to go. There's a covered deck with half a dozen tables, and an upper deck I've never been on, and then the big outdoor deck with a couple dozen tables, overlooking the play area. Then down on the ground level there are more bistro tables and some picnic tables. The places is simply huge.

The menu is as eclectic as the grocery, which of course is where they get the stuff they cook. Rest assured that the food looked a lot better than my Rokr can render. I can't give you the names of these dishes because, contrary to my expectation, the menu is not on the website and I didn't take any notes. There's some might fine chicken breasts under those potatoes. The other disk is a premium chopped steak with cheese and fries. Both were great. On a return visit I got a different chicken entre. It was coated with crumbs and nuts and some interesting spices and fried. It came along with arugula, tomatoes, and new potatoes. The Woman wanted the muffaletta, but they were out, so she got a panini sandwich that was a close second. I added a garden salad so she would have some greens, and then proceded to eat a lot of it myself.

I've also been to the Westgate location cafe a few times. Once with The Good Daughter. I experiemented with something that I don't recall. Once with The Woman. We split a giant salad, which was great, and a hamburger, which was quite good as far as dead cows go, and they can go surprising far for a dead animal.

Unfortunately, only Austin Central Market locations have a cafe, so the rest of you will have to come down to try it out. It's worth the trip. We're talking high-class, high-quality food in a sit-down cafe in a grocery store. What will the come up with next?

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Fry's Electronics

Your destination for geek cuisine

Website: www.Frys.com

Not a place you expect to eat. More a place where you would buy this. (Not an aerial photo of downtown. It's a shot of a row of motherboards.)

And one of the few places where a sign like this is necessary.

We were looking for a small jam box for The Woman's office and found the selection surprisingly slim. However, they were not hurting for high-end coffee/espresso machines. And they did have a nice collection of designer toasters.

And I found Spaceballs playing on this refrigerator.

What I didn't know is that there seems to be a rage in red appliances. They popped up with such regularity that I began running through the aisles, snapping pictures with my Rokr. I guess the coffee machines made me jumpy. Some of the pics are a bit fuzzy, but we have, in order: toaster, iron, George Foreman grill, coffee grinder, washer/dryer, double-wide toaster, hand vac, quesadilla maker beside margarita machine, rice cooker, deep fryer, mixer, hand mixer, upright vac, Roomba, food processors. On the next visit to The Good Daughter, I discovered she's had red appliances for eons. Just shows how much I pay attention.

But what about the food? They had stuff like sandwiches, pasta, salads and an ice cream freezer. Also a wide selection of bottled drinks in addition to the fountain drinks. I got the ceasar chicken wrap. The Woman got the (not so) hot pastrami.

The verdict: While it's not food you would necessarily drive across town for, or even walk across the street for, it's decent grub. Much better than expected for an electronics store. If you find yourself in Fry's and hungry, you can go considerably worse than making a stop at the cafe. And it's an excellent place for geek watching.