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By Jake Pucci
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Eat like a Hawaiian, without the airfare

First published: June 15, 2014 at 9:27 am
Last modified: June 15, 2014 at 9:27 am

EVANS MILLS — When your meal comes with two generous heaps of both white rice and mayonnaisey macaroni salad, not to mention the pound or so of juicy pulled pork nestled next to it, you have to give in, calorie count be damned.

L&L Hawaiian Barbecue in the J&J Plaza (no relation) near Fort Drum, has healthy options too, but they’re not nearly as much fun as the kalua pork with cabbage, my choice this particular afternoon.

L&L is technically a chain, but if there is only one location east of the Mississippi, does it still count? In fact, if there weren’t a lone straggler in Plano, Texas, the next closest location would be Colorado Springs.

A search of the website’s map uncovered that most of the locations on the continental U.S. are near San Diego. A scroll of the mouse to the left, however and I hit the mother lode right near Honolulu. I figure it’s a good sign that the chain is popular in Hawaii. In fact, the restaurant started in Honolulu in 1976 and eventually moved to the Lower 48 in 1988.

Sometime between then and now, it made its way to Evans Mills, which is good — because while I’d certainly enjoy a Hawaiian vacation, it’s not exactly practical just for a Tuesday afternoon lunch. So instead of the 5,000-mile-flight I took an 8-mile drive in search of authentic Hawaiian cuisine.

In addition to my slow-cooked pork, the menu consists of shrimp, fish, beef or chicken, either breaded and fried and served with various sauces, stewed into a curry or in a ramen soup. There are burgers too.

The fried and stewed entrees are all Plate Lunches — which, you notice, is capitalized, because it refers to more than just what the food is served on. Actually, all the food is served in Styrofoam or plastic containers regardless if the customer is eating in or taking out, so there aren’t any actual plates involved.

No, the Hawaiian Plate Lunch is a thing in and of itself. Don’t believe me? Google it. There’s a New York Times article all about the foam clamshell delight.

I’ll admit, when I received my Plate Lunch, I was skeptical that the macaroni side was there only to appeal to mainland American tastes. There was also the choice of a tossed green salad, but at this point, you can probably tell that I’m not going to opt for that. But much to my chagrin, the big scoops of macaroni salad and white rice (brown rice is also available) are classic for the dish.

I don’t know how macaroni salad became the standard side for a Hawaiian lunch, but I bet it was around the same time that Spam, everyone’s favorite salty meat in a can, became a Hawaiian favorite.

And like the proper Hawaiian restaurant that it was becoming clear L&L is, Spam is on the menu. Here it’s in the form of musubi, a sushi-like roll with rice, a sweet soy glaze and a roll of nori, a type of dried seaweed.

The last time I ate Spam was probably on a camping trip years ago, and it was not wrapped in seaweed or calling itself “Hawaiian Sushi,” as L&L bills it.

But maybe it should have been, because the musubi was really quite good. It’s easy to look at a canned salty pork product wrapped in seaweed and think poorly of it, but that would be to misjudge the balance L&L was able to achieve.

Somehow the thick slab of Spam was not overpoweringly salty and worked really well with the sea freshness and slight funk of the nori. The Spam version will run you $2.10, but for a quarter more, all the unadventurous eaters can opt for barbecue chicken or katsu, which is breaded and fried chicken.

When I received my bag of food from the woman behind the counter, I thought she’d accidently put one of the bricks from the J&J Plaza in the bag. But no, no building materials, only lots of food.

All the Plates are available in mini and regular sizes. The mini includes one scoop of each side, while the regular includes two. As a first-time customer, I opted for the regular size, figuring I’m a regular guy with a possibly above average appetite.

If by regular, they mean regular couple or regular family of four with small children, then it’d be accurate. I typically don’t bring a bathroom scale to a restaurant, so my estimation is far from official, but it felt like at least two pounds of food.

And it was two pounds of really good food too. And at a great price: $8.25 for the Plate.

The pork, advertised as “smoked-flavored,” was indeed smoky. The terminology leads me to believe the smoke may have come from a bottle rather than wood, but kalua cooking is a traditional method in which the food, typically a whole pig, is buried in an underground pit filled with hot coals, and unless the owners of the J&J Plaza don’t mind a few large potholes in the parking lot, the pit ovens might have to be saved for later.

Fire pit or not, the pork was quite good. It comes mixed with slow-cooked cabbage, which soaks up all the fat and juices from the pork as the two cook. The best kinds of vegetables are vegetables cooked in meat juices, so I wholeheartedly approve.

The meat remained tender and juicy, and fortunately, L&L is generous with including a good dose of the cooking liquid as well. That works well for the white rice, which is a bit soft but pleasantly sticky and apt to soak up all the meat juices. Long story short, the more meat juices, the better.

The macaroni salad scoops alongside were warm, which may shock an amateur eater, but as a proud upstate New Yorker who has enjoyed his fair share of Rochester garbage plates, where the warm but sturdy macaroni salad is an integral component, I quite enjoyed it.

I could draw an analogy between the macaroni salad and a fine red wine, saying how both need to be served at the ideal just-below room temperature to unleash the full bouquet of flavor, but that would be ridiculous. I found myself spearing a few noodles and a chunk of pork on the same bite anyway, so it was going to warm up no matter what.

Due to L&L’s close proximity to Fort Drum, it was no surprise the restaurant was largely full of uniformed soldiers chowing down. There’s free Wi-Fi available in the restaurant, if you count the signal emanating from the Dunkin Donuts on the corner.

Some of the soldiers appeared to be opting for a more healthy meal than I, a request that the restaurant caters to with its “Healthier Plates” section, consisting of chicken, shrimp, salmon or mahi-mahi served with brown rice and tossed salad.

If you’re like me and fatty pork sounds more appealing than lean chicken, come on the weekend for the pork lau lau, a bundle of slow-cooked pork wrapped in taro leaf and steamed. Unfortunately, I came during the week and was unable to sample it.

Fun fact: taro leaves are toxic when raw. I like to take risks with my foods, so I’ll be back.

Rating: 3.5, because of the seriously tasty food in huge portions and at affordable prices. If the meat was smoked in a large underground pit, it would have easily gotten 4 spoons.

L&L Hawaiian Barbecue

26390A U.S. Route 11, Evans Mills

629-5998

www.hawaiianbarbecue.com

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily

Delivery:

4 to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday

Noon to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

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A good lunch at Goodfellos

First published: June 08, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: June 08, 2014 at 12:06 pm
Goodfellos

SACKETS HARBOR — There are three certainties in life: death, taxes and Sackets Harbor being crowded on a warm, summery weekend afternoon.

Well, on this warm, summery weekend afternoon, the village was indeed crowded. Cars lined West Main Street, while others slowed to a standstill as they approached intersections, looking down side streets to find parking. One man in a blue car (you know who you are) decided that stopping to chat with two women on the sidewalk was more important than other things, like, say, driving.

A word of advice to anyone who wants to stop in the middle of a two-lane roadway: don’t.

I was lucky to find two open spots right in front of Goodfellos restaurant. I took the one and forced Mr. Blue Car to parallel park into the other. I’m the kind of person who will drive around the block a few times hoping a spot opens up, making what I like to call “loser laps” rather than take my chances parallel parking, so I’m glad it was him and not me.

He joined the swarm of brunchers outside Tin Pan Galley, while I (fortunately) went the other direction into Goodfellos.

Goodfellos bills itself as a “brick oven pizza & wine bar.” I like both those things, so this seemed like the place for me. After pulling up a seat at the bar, I turned my back around to look at the man slinging pizzas into the prominent brick oven in the dining room.

The pairing of real brick and exposed ductwork inside the restaurant brings back a comfortable feel that would make even the nicest newly built luxury lofts jealous.

Find me a bar, restaurant, or even a storage shed in someone’s backyard with a tall tin ceiling, and I’ll think it’s a nice-looking place. Well, Goodfellos has a tall tin ceiling and, combined with the comfortable seats and high-top bar, it certainly looked nice.

The restaurant is open seven days a week, but lunch is served only on weekends.

There is no separate lunch and dinner menus, so if you want that 1-pound New York strip steak at 11:30 in the morning, go right ahead. On most days, I’m the kind of person that could go for a flat slab of meat (which Goodfellos will serve up with herb roasted potatoes, mercado verdi, red pepper pesto and a Della Vaschetta sauce for $28,) but I was feeling like a lighter lunch today. So much so that I was actually tempted by the entrée salads.

That may be the first time I’ve uttered that sentence. So I compromised a bit and went with the Prosciutto y Fico pizza ($15), which comes with a garlic, olive oil and fig puree base with prosciutto and ricotta and gruyere cheeses, finished with Bartlett pears, spring mix and balsamic vinegar.

It has spring mix, so it’s healthy, I tell myself as I take my first bite.

I had snuck a few peeks behind me to watch the dough being rolled out, prepped and slid into the burning oven.

The top didn’t reveal a ton of dark char, which worried me until I lifted up the sturdy slice and examined the undercarriage, which revealed the spots of char that I had been craving.

All my cravings, even my unexpected salad craving, were largely fulfilled.

Both the figs and balsamic, which is cooked down to a tangy glaze, were sweet but not cloying. In bites with a fat pinch of prosciutto, the balance was perfect. I could have gone for a bit more prosciutto on the pizza, as the salty kick of the meat was much needed. Plus, deep down, I’m still the guy who has chosen entrees based on the number of meats packed into it.

The cheeses-gruyere and ricotta-were solid, if a bit too mild. I would have opted for goat cheese or a crumby Gorgonzola that would have stood up stronger to the salty and sweet flavors. The cheese is appropriately applied, meaning that my cheese-sliding tragedy from days past would not recur.

The server was attentive and waited until I didn’t have a huge bite of pizza in my mouth to ask me how everything was. Props for that.

For those who crave more substantial fare, there’s a wide variety of steaks, chops, seafood and pastas ranging from $18 to $28. The pork chop, stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes, goat cheese, rosemary and basil, and served with a side of polenta, caught my eye. I’ll order that on a return visit.

Goodfellos is not cheap, but it’s quite good. There’s a full bar with about 10 drafts and the same number of bottles. As the name would imply, there’s a nice wine list as well, but I opted for a pint of the War of 1812 Amber Ale, brewed only a few doors down. When in Rome?

Rating: 3½

.... because of a great atmosphere and good food. Until I return for dinner, though, the rating is still incomplete.

202 W. Main St.

Sackets Harbor

646-3463

www.goodfellos.com

Hours:

4 to11 p.m. Monday through Friday

11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m Saturday and Sunday

Pizza served till midnight on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday

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For big sub flavors, visit The Little Barn in Hounsfield

First published: June 01, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: May 30, 2014 at 2:22 pm

WATERTOWN — The pursuit of a properly constructed submarine sandwich is a noble one. Like pizza, a sub is greater than the sum of it parts. Each ingredient must be equally able to stand on its own and, at the same time, not overpower the rest.

I may have said cheese sliding off a still-too-hot pizza was the worst food tragedy, but the sadness that ensues after taking a bite of a sub, only for all the fillings to fall on the plate or waxed paper below, may top it. Often, a too-slippery slick of mayonnaise or an ill-placed tomato is to blame.

The pizza problem can be easily solved by letting the slice cool down, but in the case of a cold cut sub, there isn’t a whole lot you can do about temperature. You’re not going to freeze your sub, and heating it up would make it worse, plus it would be weird. Nope, not much you can do.

So for this, it comes down to construction. Meat, cheese, vegetables, spreads, sauces and oils all enclosed by an oblong loaf. It seems simple, but there is a science involved.

So I was off to The Little Barn Bulk Foods, an unassuming white barn, in search of a sub up to snuff.

In a food culture today where people crave more choices and the ability to customize all parts of their order, the Little Barn certainly satisfies.

There’s roast beef, ham, turkey, salami, bologna and rest of the usual cast, all from John F. Martin & Sons in Lancaster County, Pa. This sounds standard until you consider that there are five varieties of ham, from spicy Italian cappicola (that’s gabagool for you “Sopranos” fans out there) and sweet honey ham, to meaty off-the-bone ham and the classic pink boiled bricks.

There are four varieties of turkey and four kinds of beef, too. All said and done, there’s more than 20 meats available for your picking. Can’t choose just one? That’s OK, you can make a combination sub as well.

It wouldn’t be a proper sub sandwich without cheese, and they certainly do not disappoint. In fact, there are 15 or so cheeses available. Sure there’s American and Swiss and provolone, but there’s Buffalo wing cheddar, dill havarti and for the lactose-intolerant folks who may have disagreed with the first sentence of this paragraph, there’s even a lactose-free yogurt cheese.

Each sub is $6.99 for a whole (12 to 13 inches) and $4.99 for a half. That’s the price for every sub, whether it be bologna and American cheese or roast beef and salami paired with sliced Asiago cheese, like mine.

I’m a big fan of stronger-flavored cheeses in a sub, so the Asiago, with its Parmesan-esque flavor, was a welcome choice. The Italian roast beef I chose was spiced with rosemary, garlic and other flavors, and the hard salami had enough cured meat funk to stand up with the rest of the components.

There are the usual additions like mayonnaise, mustard, shredded lettuce, sliced tomato, sub oil, dill and sweet pickles; banana peppers, pickled jalapenos and hot peppers, grated Parmesan and dried oregano.

At a place with 35 different meats and cheeses, it’s no surprise that’s there’s also a handful of mustard options. All are from Nunda Mustard, located in the town bearing its name around 20 miles south of Geneseo.

There are no yellow squeeze bottles here. Customers have a choice of cracked peppercorn, jalapeno, smoky maple, horseradish-caraway, garlic and the original tangy variety.

I went with the horseradish and caraway seed mustard, but I was tempted by the garlic and the cracked peppercorn and pretty much all the rest. Next time, I tell myself. Next time.

Unlike some chain sandwich shops, where there’s only enough meat to cover the roll and the cheese is skimpily applied in as few triangles as possible, there’s a good amount of fillings in the Little Barn sub. The roll, from Schenectady’s Mastroianni Bros., is full but not bursting at the seams; you’re not going to be Clara Peller, left wondering “Where’s the beef?”

In a (hyphenated) word, it’s well-balanced. The tomatoes were deep red and very tasty — such a pleasant departure from the pale pink, mealy slices that usually top fast-food sandwiches, that I could have gone for a few slices more. I’d also have liked another scoop of the hot pepper relish, but maybe that’s just because I like spice. Next time I’ll ask for extra.

For the quality of the products, $7 for a large sub is a great deal. All the cold cuts are sliced fresh, and cheeses include brands like BelGioioso and Yancey’s Fancy. Unless your sub of choice is the $5 foot long of the month at Subway, it’ll be cheaper at Little Barn. And it will taste better no matter what.

All the meats and cheeses are sold by the pound as well, as are the salads. I paired my sub with a side of macaroni salad. At $2.99 pound, a third-pound side was more than enough and ran only a dollar. Nice. It could have used another pinch of salt, and chopped hard boiled egg or pickle would have pushed it over the edge, but there was some nice celery crunch and the noodles were perfectly cooked and paired with just the right amount of mayonnaise. A very solid salad.

The store is largely a bulk food store, selling spices, grains, nuts and candies well below supermarket retail. Local products like Croghan Bologna, cheese curds and River Rat cheeses are on sale, as is smoked slab bacon and other fresh meats from the butcher counter.

Located at the Peer Farm on Route 3 in Hounsfield, three miles west of the Salmon Run Mall, The Little Barn Bulk Foods is certainly worth the drive. Come in for the groceries and stay for the sub, or come for lunch and grab some groceries on your way out. Either way, it’s worth it. It’s hard to miss. Just look for the red wagon across the street.

Rating: 3 1/2 spoons

the little barn bulk foods

17937 Route 3, Watertown NY

315-788-1253

www.littlebarnbulkfoods.com

Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday

10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday

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Paradise on a plastic tray: a quick lunch at Pastabilities in Syracuse

First published: May 25, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: May 22, 2014 at 2:19 pm
Pastabilities

SYRACUSE — After my sophomore year of college, I thought I left behind dining halls for good. No more waiting in lines, no more pointing to what I wanted from steam trays of food that had seen better days.

But on this warm Monday afternoon, I grabbed my plastic tray and got in line at Pastabilities, a popular destination in Syracuse’s Armory Square. The Italian restaurant is a bustling hot spot for dinner as well, but those in the know come for the counter-service lunch that brings back shades of undergrad days.

Just as it would at Cooper Dining Hall at my alma mater, SUNY Oswego, the meal started with a stack of trays followed by bins of forks, knives and spoons. If there had been lewd images or names carved into the trays, I would have felt right at home.

But this is a restaurant, after all. The trays are all clean and obscenity-free and, unlike at the dining hall, the silverware wouldn’t bend with the lightest of touches.

Utensils in hand, I made my way through the line, which was speckled with guests wearing T-shirts and shorts next to suited businessmen. I made my order: homemade fettuccine with Pastabilities’ famous spicy tomato oil with a generous sprinkling of pecorino Romano cheese ($7.25). Add in a drink and tax and the bill came to exactly $9.99. How’s that for a lunch under $10?

There are side salads that change daily, ranging from $4 for a single one to $9.75 for a platter of four, and entrée salads on the printed menu, such as Thai beef salad ($7.95 for a large). There are personal pizzas and calzones as well.

They looked delicious, but I was after the namesake dish. The pastas range from $6.25 for the house tomato sauce to $8 for the chicken riggies or basil pesto and shredded cheese. Most of the pasta options that at dinner may run $12 to $17 can be had for around half the price. The lunch portion is smaller, however, but I was comfortably full after my meal — and that’s coming from someone who really likes his pasta. Containers are available for both takeout and leftovers, but I think it’s worth staying inside and enjoying the atmosphere.

The vibe is decidedly more urban and industrial than trattoria, with wire-caged light bulbs illuminating the bare brick bar. There’s a full bar with many local beers on tap. The Italian folk music that so many red sauce joints have playing in the background has been replaced by Broken Bells and The Postal Service. It’s a bit loud, but considering the omnipresent crowd and narrow structure of the restaurant, that’s no surprise.

For the sake of speed, the pizzas and calzones are par-baked ahead of time; only the toppings are applied, and then back into the oven for a few minutes. The cooked pasta is dunked into boiling water to heat it up, tossed with the sauce of choice and served up. It took less than three minutes for me to get my food.

All the meals are served with a slice of homemade bread, which is great for soaking up all the tomato oil left in the bowl. The oil is also sold by the 15-ounce jar for $7, and it seemed like a good third of the jar goes into each portion. How good is the tomato oil? I’ll let the fact that I have a jar of it in my fridge now be testament to that.

In addition to the pasta, there are daily entrée choices. On this day, barbecue brisket sliders and a hot meatball sub were the choices. There are calzone, sauce and pizza choices that change daily as well. The sub was billed as being served on their house bread with pancetta, caramelized onions, aged provolone cheese and a covering of “50/50” sauce, an equal blend of tomato sauce and tomato oil. Well, I know what I’m getting next time.

But on to what I had this time. The fettuccine and linguine are both homemade and were by far the most popular choices that afternoon. It’s unclear if the other pastas are homemade. The menu reads “all of our pasta is made fresh daily,” but if you go to the restaurant’s bakery, Pasta’s Daily Bread, only fettuccine and linguine are available for sale.

The tomato oil is billed as spicy, but the pepper twang is light and the sweetness of the tomatoes provides an excellent counter to the spice. All the pastas are tossed with the sauce — rather than simply topped — so each thick, toothsome strand is covered in the sauce.

(For my latest entry into the ever-growing list of food tragedies, I add improperly sauced pasta. For a bonus entry, I add poorly drained pasta as well. A sauce can be flavorful and have the perfect consistency, but when a boatload of water is swimming in the bottom of the bowl, it’ll never be a good thing.)

It may be called tomato oil, but the fine puree of tomato and hearty slices of garlic push it closer into sauce country.

It might be an oil, it might be a sauce, but it’s certainly delicious. As the restaurant’s owner, Karyn Korteling, says on www.hottom.com — because why not make a separate website just for the one ingredient — the inspiration for the oil/sauce/whatever it is came from a stop at an unassuming café in Tuscany on trip to Italy in 1989. Apparently she and her husband stopped there because she was five months pregnant with their first child and needed a quick bite on the way to their intended dining destination.

The tomato oil, tossed with the homemade fettuccine, was somehow both light and decadent all at once. To be fair, I could probably eat it with a spoon out of the jar and be happy. Good thing I picked up a jar to go.

No trip to Pastabilities would be complete without a trip to their bakery across the street. Pasta’s Daily Bread is open only until 5:30 p.m. during the week, 5 on Saturday and 4 on Sunday, so if you’re going for dinner, you might want to get your bread before you eat.

And I would highly recommend doing so. A loaf of stretch Italian bread is $3.25, about 2 feet long and such a great texture that you won’t be able to help tearing into it once you leave the shop. If there hadn’t been sliced samples available, I might have dived in immediately. I would like you to know that I had the restraint to wait until I walked back to my car before ripping off the heel in a carb-driven frenzy.

There’s also a variety of focaccias, and for those who don’t need 24 inches of bread, many of the different breads are available as rolls.

They use that stretch bread for the sandwiches, which pair nicely with the soups available for takeout. The soup of the day was the same at both places on the day I was there, which is the norm, I’d assume.

Grab a loaf and a tub of the hot tomato oil to go and it might fend off the cravings you’ll undoubtedly get until your next visit. Might.

Eater’s Digest reviews and blog entries can be viewed at http://wdt.me/eatersdigest. Have a tip or suggestion? Email Jake Pucci at jpucci@wdt.net or follow him on Twitter at @EatersDigestNNY.

Rating: 4 spoons

Pastabilities

311 S. Franklin St.,

Syracuse, NY

315-474-1153

Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday

Dinner: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m. Friday to Sunday

http://pastabilities.com/

Pasta’s Daily Bread

308 S. Franklin St.

315-701-0224

Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday to Friday

Saturday: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Sunday: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

http://pastabilities.com/bakery.htm

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A tale of three slices

First published: May 18, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: May 15, 2014 at 1:45 pm
Clockwise from bottom left: OIP, Nonna Dina, Cam's.

WATERTOWN — Few foods are more satisfying than pizza. The combination of crust, cheese, sauce and topping is ideally greater than the sum of its humble parts.

Some pizzas are better than others, but nearly all are at least decent. For those who don’t want to read on, I’ll let you know now that all the pizzas sampled here are at least decent, because they’re all pizza.

For the sake of ease, only slice joints will be reviewed, so whole-pie restaurants, like Fairground Inn and Art’s Jug, are not a part of this review.

I believe a sausage slice is one of the better ways to evaluate a pizzeria. High-quality sausage is a meaty and properly spiced thing of beauty. Poor- quality sausage more closely resembles rabbit pellets than pork — not something we want to find on our pizza.

But overall, a sausage slice gives an accurate glimpse of the attention paid to the quality of all the ingredients, so for those who do not eat sausage, I promise this review will still be relevant.

We’ll start with the two regional chains in Watertown.

Cam’s Pizzeria has 16 locations from Rochester to Syracuse. Both Cam’s and Syracuse-based Original Italian Pizza — with six of its seven New York locations in the Syracuse area and two down in Boca Raton, Fla., for some reason — sling out oversized slices of thin-crust pizza.

OIP’s slice is just a tad bigger, but these are both substantial slices. OIP whole pizzas come in 16-inch large and 12-inch medium sizes. At Cam’s, that 16 inches would be a medium, while a large is a whopping 20 inches in diameter.

Cam’s

But bigger is not always better. There was a generous portion of sausage crumbles topping the Cam’s slice ($2.80 with tax), but they were a bit chewy and didn’t have a ton of flavor. The pieces were the biggest out of any of the pizzerias tested, but that left the lacking texture fully exposed.

Structurally, the slice held together better than I expected, considering the size of the slice that easily hung off my plate. There are few things worse than soggy pizza that falls apart immediately upon picking it up, hot cheese slipping off onto the plate — most likely paper — below.

With that potential tragedy out of my mind, I’ll move on to note that the cheese was your standard low-moisture shredded mozzarella applied in a pretty generous amount. The sauce was standard without too much to make it stand out. Like sausage, the tomato sauce often can go wrong, whether it be sickly sweet or packed with so many dried herbs that the pizza loses every ounce of fresh flavor it might have had.

OIP

Much of the same can be said for the OIP slice ($2.54 with tax). Both were big, but this slice was even a tad bigger than the Cam’s slice. Getting your money’s worth from either place will not be a concern.

The sausage, however, was better, with a stronger flavor and meatier texture. With smaller crumbles, it was more evenly distributed over the slice, allowing for a bit of sausage in each bite.

The menu here advertises that the pizza is baked in a brick oven, which is supposed to add a bit of smoky flavor reminiscent of the “char-grilled” wings the chain is known for. I couldn’t pick up much of that flavor, and an undercarriage shot of the crust did not reveal any charring. While I do like a bit of that crisp in my crust, it was plenty sturdy and did not flop around like a fish out of water. See the aforementioned tragedy for more information on why this is a bad thing.

I’m not sure if it was the sausage or the cheese, but this slice was the greasiest of the bunch. There are people in the world who blot the grease from their pizza until the napkin is nearly translucent. I am firmly not in that camp, but there is no way around the fact that your hands will get greasy.

That’s all well and good if you’re eating in or taking it back home, but if you’re like many of us and eat in the car, or while walking, or anywhere napkins are not easily accessible, you might not have a good time.

That being said, the crust could have had a bit more chew, but was otherwise solid. As with the Cam’s slice, the sauce and cheese were complementary to the rest of the slice without standing out too much.

Nonna Dina

I made the trip just beyond Watertown to Brownville for a slice from Nonna Dina pizzeria. The same family owns New York Pizzeria in Gouverneur, but it’s definitely not a chain.

The slice ($2.42 with tax) is definitely smaller than the other two, meaning that it is your typical slice size, rather than the gargantuan slices served elsewhere.

The first bite told the story, though. The restaurant’s website advertises that they use homemade dough and homemade sauce, and both were standouts.

People who blot their pizza are probably the same people who do not eat the outer crust. I’m not saying these are bad people, but they are worth keeping an eye on.

But the crust at Nonna Dina should be able to convert even the most diehard crust discarder. Too often, the outer crust is dry and crackerlike, or overly doughy and chewy. This was neither, a happy medium with enough crunch to keep it satisfying but enough chew to feel substantial. It passed the stability test as well, optimal for one-handed eating.

Unlike the other two, the Nonna Dina sauce really stood out. A well-made sauce is often overlooked, but not here. It was the freshest-tasting of the bunch, and even paired with quality sausage and cheese, had a flavor profile of its own.

The sausage comes from Gianelli, the North Syracuse company well-known for its pork products. A small touch, but the flavor was the most pronounced of the bunch, packed with fennel seed and spices. Like the OIP slice, the sausage was finely crumbled, the way I like it.

As someone who detests sliced sausage on pizza, all three fulfilled in this regard.

The cheese was standard but put on with a heavier hand, as the pizza appeared whiter on top than the orange color synonymous with a thinner layer.

But these restaurants are only three of many pizzerias in the area. As a journalist of integrity, I will be providing more extensive coverage soon.

Until then, I leave you with two solid slices and one exceptional slice.

Eater’s Digest reviews and blog entries can be viewed at http://wdt.me/eatersdigest. Have a tip or suggestion? Email Jake Pucci at jpucci@wdt.net or follow him on Twitter at @EatersDigestNNY.

Eater’s Digest ratings:

Nonna Dina

114 E. Main St.

Brownville

www.thebestpizza.net

315-777-8877

3 ½ spoons

With its combination of top-quality sausage and superior crust, Nonna Dina serves up a seriously good slice.

OIP

222 N. Massey St.

Watertown

www.myoip.com

315-786-0000

2 ½ spoons

An unspectacular but solid slice. Wins points for its size, but a bit greasy.

Cam’s

25 Public Square

Watertown

www.camspizzeria.com

315-779-8900

2 spoons

Similar to the OIP slice, but the sausage was not quite as good.

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Tex-Mex taste test takes on three Arsenal Street contenders

First published: May 11, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: May 11, 2014 at 9:47 am
Taco Del Mar

Starting today, Jake Pucci takes over as the Times’ restaurant reviewer and food writer. A staff writer who covers the police beat, he spends his spare time exploring the north country and will report on the food and drink of the region. Check out his Eater’s Digest blog on our website at http://wdt.me/eatersdigest.

WATERTOWN — It’s easy to see three similar restaurants serving similar ingredients in oversized flour tortillas and assume the items taste pretty much the same.

But just as McDonald’s fries look similar to, but taste way better than, Burger King fries (or do they? Foreshadowing a future review, perhaps?), looks can be deceiving.

So I hit Arsenal Street in Watertown, a well-known hot spot for burritos, in search of deliciousness wrapped in foil.

Moe’s Southwest Grill occupies a coveted corner spot of the Stateway Plaza, right off Interstate 81. Chipotle Mexican Grill, though not part of Stateway, is just across the parking lot in the City Center Plaza.

But for my first stop, I made the trip across the border of I-81 to Taco Del Mar.

Taco Del Mar

A newcomer to the north country burrito scene, Taco Del Mar opened only in late March. In fact, it’s so new that there’s no Yelp entry for it, and a Google Maps search brought up a photography business.

Mar, meaning “sea” in Spanish, is vying for a Pacific Coast vibe — or as the Taco Del Mar website says, for customers to feed their “Inner Baja.”

Though decidedly far from the Pacific Ocean, the thatched-roof tables and rusted-roof overhang above the preparation area will be a nice distraction from the cold reality that is winter in the north country. If you’re lucky, you’ll snag a long surfboard-shaped table.

A margarita or a cold beer would have completed the image, but unlike the next two establishments, there was no alcohol available.

Each establishment offers burritos and, for our lower-carb friends, entree-sized salads, both of which will be reviewed. For the sake of an even comparison, pork carnitas was the protein of choice for all three burritos, as were pinto beans and nearly as many fillings as could be rolled up in their flour cocoon.

For the salads, shredded beef, called barbacoa at Chipotle, was the pick, except at Moe’s, where a lack of a shredded beef option led me to choose their grass-fed sirloin steak. Black beans were the choice for all salads.

Taco Del Mar is smart and has daily specials, because if there’s something better than tacos or a burrito, it’s getting it cheaper or getting extras. On Sundays, a kids meal comes free with each “favorite” ordered — which is every menu item except sides and kids meals. Is bringing a kid a prerequisite for taking advantage of this offer? The fact that I got a free cheese quesadilla, small drink and a portion of tortilla chips or a cookie seems to be an emphatic no. Just be sure to mention the deal, as it was not mentioned by anyone there until I asked.

But on to the burrito. For $6 plus tax you get a Mondo Burrito with your choice of meat and fillings. In addition to the shredded pork and beef, steak, chicken, vegetarian (includes guacamole) and fish are available. This is this only place that offers fish and features it in taco form as a Friday special.

Sour cream is 50 cents extra; guacamole will run you a buck.

The additions are fairly standard, with a few interesting choices. The pico de gallo was refreshing, with plenty of cilantro. I’m a cilantro fiend, so I was happy to see chopped cilantro as an available filling, which was largely leaves and only few stem pieces. A nice start.

But even a squeeze of fresh lime (nice!) couldn’t wake up an otherwise unexciting burrito (not so nice). There was a fair-sized portion of the pulled pork, which — spoiler alert — finished second in the pork tasting. It was moist and in good-sized pieces, if a bit bland. Otherwise, the rice, a seasoned white rice mix served as filler only, and the beans, though tasty, overpowered the rest of the burrito.

A cross cut revealed that roughly half the burrito was rice and beans.

The salad, also $6 plus tax, was served in a scallop-edged tortilla shell with the same topping choices. Though a picture on Taco Del Mar’s website shows a salad in an evenly golden brown shell bursting at the seams with vibrant fillings, the reality was a spotty brown shell that felt a bit meager. On top of a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce and choice of black, pinto or refried beans sat my picks of shredded cheese, pico de gallo, pickled jalapenos, chopped tomatoes and more cilantro.

The shredded beef was good, if a bit too mild. The texture was meaty and not mushy, a problem that often befalls meats served from steam pans on an assembly line.

A side of salsa verde came as a dressing, but was dull green and lacked the fresh and acidic bite needed to boost the muted flavors.

The cheese quesadilla that came free under the false pretenses that it was for a child was a simple tortilla and shredded mild cheddar combination that was served alongside a pinch of shredded lettuce, a bit of pico and a scoop of sour cream that somehow came free with this choice but not the others. Nothing exciting, but gooey, melted cheese — especially unexpectedly free gooey, melted cheese — is nothing to scoff at.

Chips, tacos, enchiladas, nachos, a tortilla-free Baja Bowl and quesadillas round out the menu at Taco Del Mar. There’s also the option to tell your burrito to “get wet” with a slather of queso or enchilada sauce. A temptation for another day.

chipotle

While Taco Del Mar is clear about its Pacific coast theme, Chipotle opts for an industrial chic look, with exposed rafters and high-top bars with backless stools. Just like walking into an Apple store, I felt sophisticated just entering, in the way that a restaurant can be described as “smart.”

Though Chipotle is aesthetically pleasing, my having to part a sea of people waiting to fill soda cups to make it to the ordering line revealed that the layout of the already cramped restaurant could use some attention. More than one person was standing absentmindedly near the large glass windows, perhaps not realizing that a waiter was not about to come out of the kitchen and take their order.

Both the burrito and salad run $6.85 for the carnitas and barbacoa options. Grilled steak is also available at that price, while cubed grilled chicken, vegetarian and a new item, sofritas, run 40 cents less. For those wondering, sofritas is described as shredded organic tofu, braised with “chipotle chilis, roasted poblanos, and a blend of aromatic spices.”

The vegetarian option includes guacamole, but if you want chicken, beef, pork or tofu, a scoop of the green good stuff will run an extra $1.95.

Chipotle does earn points for its rice, which comes flavored with lime and cilantro and in both white and brown varieties. Bean choices are either black or pinto, and the grilled pepper and onion blend retains just the right amount of crunch. Pico de gallo, two types of tomatillo salsa and a white corn salsa join the standard sour cream, shredded cheese and lettuce fillings.

I’ll be upfront and say that I expected Chipotle to win this competition. Chipotle pushes its “Food With Integrity” initiative, which means that the meats are raised without antibiotics or added hormones, and the vegetables are all organic and, when practical, local. The dairy comes from pasture-raised cows not treated with synthetic hormones and are fed an all-plant diet.

But the carnitas was mushy and had a strange note reminiscent of cream of mushroom soup, which sounds more pleasant than it actually was. The barbacoa on the salad was a bit better, with nice spice and firmer texture, but the 4-ounce portion left me wanting more.

Both Chipotle and Taco Del Mar items were hampered by uneven construction. There are few things worse in the world than a burrito with an uneven distribution of fillings, which sounds hyperbolic, but is a real problem. The first quarter of my burrito was rice, which while tasty and definitely the best rice out of the three, was still rice.

The salad was flavorful, though. Chopped romaine was a nice upgrade from shredded iceberg and included a spicy chipotle-honey vinaigrette dressing. It looked healthy, even if the large splattering of sour cream would indicate otherwise.

Speaking of healthy, this was the only salad to not be served in a fried tortilla shell. While I’m sure this saved many calories, if you wanted a healthy salad, you would have not plopped beef, cheese and sour cream on top of your greens. A low-carb option is nice, but a low-carb requirement seems limiting.

Chipotle’s website says that when the meat cannot be “naturally” sourced, the individual restaurants will notify customers. After seeing no such alert to that while I was there, a check of the Chipotle app I downloaded on my phone after visiting revealed that the steak at this location was sourced conventionally.

Moe’s

Onward to Moe’s. As I walked through the door, I was greeted with an enthusiastic “Welcome to Moe’s!” and stares from other customers. In unison, they turned their heads toward the door, as if I was the first person to ever dine at a Moe’s or as if they themselves had not received the same exact greeting only moments before they dug their faces into the burrito, taco or salad of their choosing.

After causing an apparently unique spectacle that was repeated thrice more by the time I reached the first step in the three-step burrito process, I was ready to challenge the burrito rollers behind the counter.

There are three burrito options: the Homewrecker, Joey Bag of Donuts and Art Vandalay. Not wishing to take culinary advice from an importer/exporter of latex or what a Google search determined to be a large dancing man from an early ’90s radio station commercial, I risked my stable home life and opted for the first.

For those not in the know, the Art Vandalay ($6.49) comes without a protein choice, but with guacamole. The Joey Bag of Donuts ($7.49) includes the choice of steak, chopped chicken, pulled pork, ground beef or tofu, but no guacamole. The Homewrecker ($7.99) includes it all. Sour cream comes free with each.

Even at first glance, it’s clear that there are many more choices at Moe’s than there were at the previous two locations. For those who don’t want their cooked onions and peppers commingling, they’re separated here and even joined by cooked mushrooms. These vegetables were cut bigger than those at Chipotle, strong enough to be a nice textural contrast to the softness of pulled pork, rice, beans and sour cream.

Cucumbers, fresh and pickled jalapenos, black olives, tomatoes, onions, shredded lettuce, cheese, corn salsa and my trusty cilantro round out the impressive filling selection. There was only one type of rice available, but it was applied in such a small quantity that the textural difference between white and brown would have been difficult to decipher.

As for the salad, dubbed the Close Talker, the tortilla shell was just as outstanding as the show the name is based on — “Seinfeld.” Evenly gold and puffy, it retained its crunch to the last bite and did not crumble under the daunting amount of chipotle ranch dressing on top. It was far more substantial than the flimsy shell from Taco Del Mar.

The pork here was the best of the bunch too, by far. The portion seemed more generous, and the burrito as a whole simply smelled more appetizing. With the cheaper ingredients like rice and beans taking a backseat to the more premium ingredients, it felt like a better value. Add in the included guacamole and sour cream and it’s cheaper than the Chipotle burrito and only 50 cents more than the Taco Del Mar, plus it includes chips.

Lots of chips: $1.25 will buy you a portion of lime- and salt-seasoned chips at Chipotle that’s half the size of the portion Moe’s doles out with each item. With both the salad and burrito coming with free chips and five varieties of salsa, one could make a meal out of chips and salsa alone.

My favorites were the mild green tomatillo salsa and the medium Who is Kaiser, with a nice chunky texture and a bit of sweetness from the diced onion.

I’d welcome Moe’s any day.

Have a tip or suggestion? Email Jake Pucci at jpucci@wdt.net or follow him on Twitter at @Eaters DigestNNY.

Ratings:

Moe’s — 3

1222 Arsenal St.

Watertown, NY 13601

681-6046

www.moes.com

Moe’s wins three spoons for having clean flavors and a proper meat-to-rice and -bean ratio. The choices of salsa and mountain of chips that come with each entree don’t hurt either.

Chipotle — 2

1290 Arsenal St.

Watertown, NY 13601

786-2813

www.chipotle.com

Chipotle comes away with two spoons because while the salad was quite tasty and the vinigarette served alongside has the right amount of heat, the burrito left much to be desired. Too much rice, off-flavored meat — and guacamole costs $2 extra.

Taco Del Mar — 1 1/2

21290 County Route 202

(Corner of Arsenal Street)

Watertown, NY 13601

405-4391

www.tacodelmar.com

Overall blandness and the lack of the options offered at the other two restaurants are to blame for Taco Del Mar earning a spoon and a half. The daily specials add some value, and I give props to them for offering fresh limes during a lime stortage, but it’s not enough to overcome a lackluster taco shell and a burrito that cried out for more meat.

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The first bite

First published: May 09, 2014 at 5:30 pm
Last modified: May 09, 2014 at 5:30 pm

Eater’s Digest will attempt to conquer the vast north country and Thousand Islands region one bite (or sip) at a time.

Good food doesn’t always come on a white tablecloth. If there’s a street vendor, or small store front serving something delicious, Eater’s Digest will be all over it in a decidedly less formal approach.

There will still be proper, weekly reviews, but shorter blog posts will be sprinkled in as well and no subject is off-limits.

Suggestions are always welcome by email at jpucci@wdt.net or on Twitter at @EatersdigestNNY.

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