Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Restaurant Review - HuHot Mongolian Grill, 1187 Florida Mall Ave, Orlando, FL

This past weekend, Grandma, Grandpa, the boys and I tried the new Mongolian grill concept called "HuHot" near the Florida Mall. For those of you who have never heard of Mongolian grill style cooking - it's basically stir-fry, except you gather the raw ingredients and they cook it for you. I've seen this before at a few of those huge Chinese super-buffets but this is the first time I've seen it as a fast-casual restaurant concept.

The interior of HuHot Mongolian Grill looks simliar to a lot of Asian restaurant chains - at the same time BB said "This looks like P.F. Chang's!", Grandpa said, "This looks like Doc Chey's!". You know, lots of red, brown and black in the decor. I wasn't sure if HuHot was going to be a 'go up to the counter and order' type of place or a 'sit-down' type of place - turns out it is sit-down with table service. When we were first seated though, we were placed at a booth for four, which was clearly too small for the five of us. We had to flag down the hostess again and ask for a bigger table - we were then placed in what they called the "VIP area" - which was really just a small open room with a larger table inside. On the table was a small container with "recipes" - little cards saying what kinds of ingredients to gather to make Beef with Broccoli and other Asian dishes. We started to flip through them when our server arrived. She asked if we had been there before and when we replied "No", she gave a huge sigh and said, aloud, "Wow, everyone's new today" and then proceeded to tell us how she's had to explain to all of her tables today about the whole concept and what to do and that it was much easier when she had people who knew what to do. However, she then did go on to tell us what to do - we were to go to the (raw) food bar, grab a bowl, put in our protein (beef, shrimp, pork, chicken, seafood), then put in our choice of noodles (pad thai, chinese, soba), then our veggies (broccoli, cabbage, water chestnuts, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, baby corn, spinach, cilantro, etc.), and then finally add at least 5-7 ladles of sauce or sauce additives. Sauces range from mild - teriyaki, sweet-n-sour, and Khan's Favorite (their signature sauce) - to hot (their Kung Pao - Yow! sauce) - with curry, ginger, thai peanut, and other sauces in the middle. The "sauce additives" as they call it were items such as sherry, sesame oil, garlic broth, and lime juice. Our server emphasized again that it was very important to put enough sauce and she encouraged us to put more than 7 ladles in if we want. Oh, and HuHot is all-you-can-eat so we could go back and try a different "recipe" if we liked. She said she would bring rice and wraps (these ended up being tortillas - I really don't get that - what is that doing at an Asian restaurant?) to the table. She then took our drink orders and asked if we wanted any appetizers - the menu lists several - but we decided to just go ahead and Mongolian grill.

The prices are pretty reasonable for an all-you-can-eat place - our weekend lunch was $9.99 per adult, kids 4-10 are only $3.99 and kids 3 and under are free. Dinner prices for adults are $11.99 and include a soup or salad.

Grandpa helped BB at the raw bar and I helped LB, which worked out pretty good. I was able to choose my options for my dish and put ingredients into LB's bowl as well. I decided to do something like a chicken stir-fry for LB and just put in chicken, chinese noodles, a few green beans (practically the only veggie he will actually eat) and then just started ladling in the mild sauces - a few of the Khan's, a few of the teriyaki, and a sesame oil. There were also suggested sauce recipes on a board above the sauces which was helpful. For me, I decided to attempt a Pad Thai - I chose pork, a few shrimp, pad thai noodles, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, cilantro... and... and... darn it - I should have paid more attention last time I got pad thai so I knew what went into it! I tossed in some bean sprouts, and then ladled in some thai peanut sauce, a Khan's, some lime juice, some garlic oil, some sesame oil, and then figured I was close enough. And then came... the line. I guess it was a busy weekend because we had to wait in line with our bowls to approach the enclosure with the huge circular grill. This was very difficult to do with LB as he was very impatient so I finally handled my bowls to Grandpa and BB and walked LB back to Grandma at the table. He was happy to sit there with her, especially since the rice had already arrived so I went back to wait in line. We were now approaching a tall counter that surrounded the large circular grill. There were only two grillmasters working (I thought there should be more, especially with the long line) and they would circle around the grill and stir fry each group of food in turn, making about 2-3 rounds before they would start plating the food and handing it out to the guests. This took about 5-10 minutes so it is probably better to leave the kids at the table. BB got bored waiting as well and headed back to eat some rice. One important note, if you are holding two bowls and the cook comes to take your bowls to put on the grill, state very clearly if these should be mixed together or if they are separate. The cook grabbed both bowls in Grandpa's hands and mixed them together - a big problem because Grandpa's was spicy and BB's was not! After Grandpa told him, he tried to split them up but I was worried it was now too spicy for my 7-year old. As I watched the cooking process, I realized that you cannot be a germ-a-phobe eating here - and you really shouldn't be allergic to any foods either. Sure, the grill was smoking hot but the grillers were using the same spatulas to cook up everyone's food. And the area around the grill was very dirty with spilled food parts all over the floor. Again, this may be because they did not have enough staff - all of the food was really left on there a long time - long enough to pretty much dry up all of the sauces. We finally received our food - I added some peanuts to the top of mine and we headed back to the table. The food was actually good - a little dry like I expected - but tasty. I wish they would have had additional sauces at the end that you could add back to your meal. Grandpa and I actually went back to try another dish - I tried to make a chicken curry this time which came out okay, but I liked my pad thai better. One thing, on our return trip to the food bar, they had run out of noodles and some other items and they were slow to refill those - again, seems like they need more staff to do cleaning and other maintenance during weekends. I may go back to HuHot and try other recipes another time, but I may have to wait until the kids are a little more patient.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Restaurant Review - Pat's Pizzeria, 1218 Winter Garden Vineland Rd (535), Winter Garden, FL

Update 10/13/07 - Things are not looking good for Pat's Pizzeria. Tonight I tried to call to order a pizza and no one answered the phone. When we drove by to see if they were open, a sign said they were closed - and it was a Saturday at 7:30 pm.

Pat's Pizzeria is located right on 535, just south of S.R.50 in Winter Garden. It's located behind the Publix shopping center in a new strip mall that is next to a storage place. If you didn't know it was there, you would probably go right by or think it is just a take-out pizza place like I did. Instead, it is a quaint little sit-down restaurant serving New York-style pizza. And when I say "little", I mean it - Pat's only has seven tables total with five booths that seat 4 people and two larger tables that can seat 6 - there's also the "Wine Cellar" room that is a private function room in the back that can seat more folks. Also, they appear to really discourage pizza delivery - if you want your pizza delivered to your home, they only deliver from 5 - 9 pm, and there is a $4 delivery charge. You'll probably want to eat-in or take-out.

Pat's Pizzeria is also a work in progress. Since they opened a few months ago, they are experimenting and trying new things to become a part of the community and increase their offerings. They just added beer and wine on their menu and are now open for lunch on Sundays. They also just added an "Italian Style Breakfast Buffet" on Sunday mornings starting at 9 am. The flyer says it will feature fried dough, meatballs, eggs, bacon, pancakes, toast, muffins and more for $6.99 for adults and $3.99 for children under 12. I don't know if I exactly think of going to a pizza restaurant for Sunday breakfast, but hey, it's creative so I'll probably give it a try.

The restaurant, as I noted above, is very small but is nicely decorated. They went with an "Italian countryside" theme so there is faux paintings on the walls that make it look like you are eating outside an Italian village. The open kitchen is along the left-side of the space and the booths are along the right. There are also two TVs on either end of the restaurant so patrons can watch while they are eating (or waiting).

The boys, Grandma M., and I ate at Pat's on a recent Friday night and we were able to get the last booth. Pat's doesn't do too well, service-wise, when their place is crowded and our visit was no exception. Our server came by to get our drink orders and then disappeared for a while (which is hard to do in such a small restaurant). When she finally did return, she brought Wikki Stix for the boys to play with (for an explanation of Wikki Stix, see my review on the Florida Waffle Shop), and then took our order. We just ordered a large cheese pizza (18") for $12.99. I usually like mushrooms but Pat's only has canned mushrooms, so we went with just the cheese. Grandma M. also ordered a side garden salad, without onions. They do have children's items (but no coloring menu - BB was upset until the Wikki Stix arrived) such as spaghetti for $2.99 or chicken fingers for $3.99, but usually in pizza places we just have the boys eat the pizza with us. While we were waiting for our pizza, a manager dropped off some garlic bread at our table - I actually have no idea why since pizza is not supposed to come with garlic bread, but I don't quibble when there is garlic to be had. The bread was fantastic - small slices of Italian bread drenched in garlic butter and toasted just right. About 15 minutes later, our server dropped off our pizza at our table, along with cute pizza-shaped dishes for the boys, and then promptly left before we could ask about the side salad for Grandma M. Pat's makes a great pizza - crunchy crust, slightly sweet sauce, and a "fresh bread from the oven" smell. After 10 minutes, we finally had to stop a manager to ask about the salad (our server had disappeared again). He came back in two minutes with the side salad, topped with... onions - oh, well, at least he tried. When we were done with the pizza, the boys started to get antsy and we still couldn't catch our server so Grandma took the boys outside while I waited to get the check. If Pat's could fix their service problem, it would be a great place to go, at anytime. However, since the pizza is really good - I'd say the best in the area - I'll keep coming back, although I'll probably do take-out more often than eating in.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Quick Bites - Perkins Restaurants and the Search for the Crazy Cookie

Here's a "Quick Bite" to tide you over until my next full restaurant review. I've got a few I'm working on but haven't had time to pull them together yet.

When we go out to breakfast with the kids on weekend mornings, we will frequently go to Perkins. They have a pretty good, all-encompassing menu, and usually the wait isn't that long. Plus, they have a really good children's menu. The offerings are very nicely photographed so you can ask your kids what they want and they can just point to it. Then, they can turn the menu over and find a bunch of activities and puzzles that they can color. The choices are really kid-friendly too - for breakfast kids can get chocolate-chip pancakes shaped like a bear (to me, he looks like Mickey Mouse), rainbow pancakes (regular pancakes with rainbow sprinkles and whipped cream), a stack of French toast sticks, silver dollar pancakes, or a breakfast platter with eggs, bacon, and potatoes. LB usually goes for the Rainbow pancakes and BB goes for the chocolate-chip pancakes. Last time, however, LB said he wanted BOTH kinds of pancakes so our server was very nice and gave him pancakes with small cups of chocolate chips and sprinkles on the side. He loved it - he got to decorate the pancakes on his own.

One thing it clearly states on the menu is that all children's meals come with a drink and a Crazy Cookie for dessert. The Crazy Cookie is a half sugar/half chocolate-chip cookie and it looks really cool on the menu. However, I was starting to believe that maybe there really wasn't a Crazy Cookie and it was just a tease - every time we were ready to leave and asked for our Crazy Cookies, we were told that they didn't have any available right now. Hmm, I thought, maybe they only have these available for lunch and dinner? Then, one day a few months ago, we ate at the Perkins at the intersection of I-4 and U.S. 27 for breakfast. I again asked for the Crazy Cookies after we were done and was amazed when our server said, "Okay, I'll go get them right now." She said they had just made a fresh batch (so they do have them available during breakfast time). BB said it tasted okay, just like a sugar cookie with chocolate chips and LB just ate the chocolate chip side and then handed me the sugar cookie side to finish. We haven't seen one since, although we have been eating at the Perkins in Ocoee lately - so maybe we'll have to make another trip down south to see the Crazy Cookies again.

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