Friday, August 19, 2011

Don't Toss This Garbage Out

Wimpy’s Grill is nobody’s secret. It has been well covered by several respected, high-profile sources—Man vs. Food, Our State magazine, and Carpe Durham have all given this diner their stamp of approval. But it’s also the kind of place you might miss if you aren’t looking for it, particularly in a food landscape that’s always got something fresh and new. So we decided to step away from the new kids on the block, and go back to basics at a place that started flipping patties long before Durham became a foodie haven.

In particular, we were curious how Wimpy’s holds up amongst the wave of gourmet, fancy pants burgers that go for at least twice the price. The burger makeover trend has moved this classic finger food from the backyard grill to the chef’s kitchen, topped with any and everything imaginable (think Tribeca Tavern, Bull City Burger, Red Robin).
Wimpy’s version of a themed burger would be the Garbage Burger—a loaded, double-decker cheeseburger sporting every available accoutrement. But it’s less about a theme and more about maxing out the capacity of the bun—how good can a burger be if a little something doesn’t escape as you eat? And at a price of about $6.99, we couldn’t pass up this steal.

It’s fairly common practice to tweak a dish to fit your tastes and preferences—if you are tempted to do that when ordering the Garbage Burger from Wimpy’s, DON’T! Everything on the burger serves a purpose and all the flavors combined to make one heck of a good sandwich.

Here’s the breakdown: bun, pickles, tomato, lettuce, chili, slaw, onion, ketchup, mustard, mayo, bacon, cheese, ¼ lb patty, cheese, ¼ lb patty, and bun. No, that’s not a typo, there are two ¼ lb patties and double cheese on this beast.

It felt kind of like a delayed passage into the grown-up world to eat a burger with any and everything, including a few condiments we wouldn’t normally go for—and now we know it’s just meant to be. While messy, this burger hits every spot on the tongue—with each bite you get some combination of sweet, salty, juicy, tangy, crunchy, cheesy, tasty, greasy and wonderful. It hits the spot without feeling fussy—all of the add-ons are essential, layering to create an All-American treat.
To serve as a control, we also got a single cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato—your standard-issue grill food with a side of fresh, crispy fries. The main test of any burger is in the meat, and even the simplest Wimpy’s burger makes the grade with fresh ground beef. The cherry cobbler looked less appetizing than it really was and offered up flaky crust and sweet cherries. The cobblers are made fresh daily and vary by day.
At the end of the day we decided it’s not exactly apples to apples comparing Wimpy’s to the upscale burger market. It’s kind of like an Ivy League vs. a state school—you’ll get a good meal either way but one feels like a better deal, served with a bit less pomp and circumstance. It also has a lot to do with expectation—sometimes you’re in the mood for tradition and sometimes you want something unexpected. That being said, we add our stamp of approval to Wimpy’s Grill.

A few things to know if you go—the A-frame building does not offer seating so most people grub in their cars; it is also a cash only establishment. If you're stopping by, do yourself a favor and get the Garbage Burger..all the way.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Ruby Revisited

It’s easy to get spoiled living in a region with a top notch, thriving food scene—before you know it you’ve become one of those food snobs who used to make your eyes roll. You start seeking out the unique spots and locally grown dishes and suddenly you’ve written off your old fast food habit, readily forgetting the existence of the chain restaurants that gratify herds of Americans.

But is it possible to strike a balance—enjoy and support the local scene while still indulging in the collective food culture that many of us grew up on? We were recently given the opportunity to try out a new selection of cocktails served at Ruby Tuesday, and found ourselves surveying a familiar place from a more discriminating point of view. Inspiration flows freely when you are writing about new, hip places with unique personality, but could we find that in our visit to Ruby Tuesday?
Our main purpose was to try the summery line of VeeV cocktails now on the menu at Ruby’s. VeeV is a liquor made from the Açaí (ah-SIGH-ee) fruit grown and harvested in the Brazilian Rainforest and according to the website, is the world’s first Açaí Spirit. Sporting a tagline of “a better way to drink,” this beverage comes packed with nutrients that you probably aren’t thinking about while it’s going down. It is also marketed as an all natural, sustainable product.

We each tried two of the cocktails at happy hour as well as a couple of appetizers and desserts that ended up being quite a meal. Below is a description of the drinks and thoughts on each:
  • The Watermelon Martini—made with VeeV Açaí Spirit, Grey Goose Vodka, fresh watermelon, cranberry and watermelon juices. Some martinis are sinfully sweet but this one was well-balanced with a natural watermelon flavor; martinis aren’t our beverage of choice, but we didn’t leave a drop.
  • Açaí Mojito—made with VeeV Açaí Spirit, freshly muddled mintfresh, squeezed lime, agave nectar, and pomegranate served with a stick of sugar cane. Absolutely refreshing—a nice, fruity take on a classic.
  • Pomegranate Margarita—made with premium Cuervo Gold, POM Wonderful, VeeV Acai Spirit and organic agave nectar. A sweet and effective drink.
  • Superfruit Cooler—made with Veev Acai Spirit, Aboslut Berri Acai Vodka, Elderflower Liqueur, fresh cucumber, and organic agave nectar. Made with slices of cucumber, this was the top pick for the beer and whiskey drinker among us.
We admit that before this visit, our impression of Ruby Tuesday stopped shortly after the signature salad bar. So, when we tried a few of their menu items, we were pleasantly surprised.
Informed that the jumbo lump crab cake is a recipe from the founder’s wife, it came well seasoned with generous bites of crab and a tangy dipping sauce. The fresh guacamole dip was sizeable and made with jalapenos giving it a touch of heat—served with pico, salsa, and chips. We believe it includes unlimited chips, but we ate too fast to find out. Finally, to accompany our final sips we went for the dessert menu—Double Chocolate Cake and Blondie for Two. Pretty self-explanatory and fairly standard offerings, they both served their purpose well.

So what is the final verdict from two burgeoning foodies who acknowledge that they will eat almost anything? Coming from the marketing industry we can be a bit skeptical of the sales pitch, but from our experience we think the product stands up. In light of the restaurant’s image overhaul with a focus on fresh, higher end ingredients, we enjoyed giving it another try. While it’s a polished presentation with mostly predictable results, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing if you do it well. And of course there is always that salad bar.

P.S. We found it kind of cool that a big company found our little blog and reached out to let us try their product. Thanks to Ruby Tuesday and VeeV as well as Zuri Hadi and Seth Baker for the experience!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Durham Spirits Company – Top of the Class

Katie Coleman whet her culinary interest cooking for her parents during a period when she was living at home looking for new direction. She found her place in the kitchen and hasn’t looked back, honing her skills at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Now in Durham, she is helping others try on the chef hat through a variety of classes offered through her business, The Durham Spirits Company. Several courses stood out to us, but we thought “All About Tomatoes” was fitting for the summer and perfectly scheduled in the peak of tomato season.
Also an instructor at The Art Institute in Durham, Katie’s personal venture takes people away from a classroom setting and into her historic home near downtown. Equipped with a modern, pimped-out chef’s kitchen, the space has all the bells and whistles needed for effective instruction and demos while keeping a southern charm that makes it all seem doable in your own home. The house is enormous, gorgeous and filled with antique furniture and décor, which excited us almost as much as the food.

Katie keeps her classes intimate—no more than ten students—and ours ended up being a group of three allowing us to be very hands on with each recipe. She welcomed us right in as if we were old friends offering refreshing, homemade (basil?) lemonade—the only recipe she would not share! Even after the class ended she continued the personal touch, emailing a recipe for her homemade pie crust that was used in one of our dishes.
We got right into cooking with Katie getting each recipe started, but quickly turning it over to the students to finish the chopping, dipping, frying, pouring, stirring, etc…Her instruction included a lot of insider tips about shopping, ingredients, substitutions, technique and beyond—and her ease in the kitchen created a great environment to observe, participate and ask questions without disruption.

The menu for the class included chilled heirloom tomato soup with crab and goat cheese, fried green tomatoes, tomato pie, shrimp and BLT salad, and tomato sorbet for dessert. Our favorites were the fried green tomatoes and tomato pie—not that the other things weren’t great, these were just outstanding and hit the southern spot.
The fried green tomatoes (FGT) require several steps, but were easier to make than we expected—we learned you can even bread them and freeze them for later use! For dipping, we prepared a creamy sauce (made with fresh corn and more tomato)  that complimented the FGT with a nice touch of cool and spice, giving this dish even more personality.
The tomato pie—popular in South Carolina—was a less familiar favorite. Layers of tomato, onion and seasoning were piled into a homemade crust and covered with a cheese and sour cream mixture. When heated, the flavors and textures combine for a delightful treat. The leftovers were just as good when reheated.

We were both surprised by the subtly sweet and refreshing flavor of the tomato sorbet. Mixed with a simple syrup and spices, the pureed tomatoes are then strained and placed in an ice cream maker. Simple, different and delightful; who knew tomato could make a dessert?
The chilled yellow and red tomato soup makes a beautiful, colorful display and the improvised addition of crab meat and goat cheese added a bit of culinary flare. Finally, the shrimp and BLT salad with bacon vinaigrette was fresh and tasty but less noticeable when served next to the other dishes in this meal.
Both of us loved the class and found ourselves enthused to spend more time in the kitchen. The courses cover everything from basic skills to international cuisine as well as the mixology series—while we’d love to try them all, we will probably space it out due to cost (although we definitely got our money’s worth with 2.5 hours of personal instruction, a feast of a meal for 3 students + teacher, and even some leftovers). Recently the Recipes with Refugees program held its first course on Iraqi cooking in the Durham Spirits Company space—keep an eye out for additional courses from this group that is working to introduce ethnic recipes into the local scene.