New Series – Disney Vacation 2014

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I’m going to branch out just a bit with this series, but don’t fret, most of the posts will be food and/or restaurant related in some way.  Our family just returned from an amazing vacation to Walt Disney World – the first vacation my wife and I have taken in quite a while and the first real vacation we’ve taken with our two year old son.  We had a great time overall, did a lot of things “right” and got a few things “wrong” – but I wouldn’t change any of it (well, almost any of it) for the world.

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We drove from Knoxville to Orlando in our little Kia Spectra 5.  I’ll admit right now that is one thing we’ll do differently next year.  We weren’t sure how our son would handle air travel, and we’ve mostly driven to Orlando in the past, so we tried it this time.  Next time, I’m thinking we’ll either fly or, at the very least, rent an SUV or minivan if we don’t upgrade to one in the meantime.

We did something for the very first time for us – we didn’t stay on Disney property.  My wife and I used to be regular Annual Pass holders, and we always stayed on property, but we decided to try something a little different this time.  More on that in a later post.

Here are a few details and highlights about the types of posts you can expect in the comings weeks in this series, including some tentatively titled special posts:

  • No fewer than 19 restaurant reviews.  These will span our trip down, our time in Orlando, and our trip back.
  • Tips & Tricks for a Successful Disney Vacation from Rookie Parents
  • Top Ten Jerk Moves at Walt Disney World
  • Geek Gear to Improve your Disney Vacation
  • Disney: On Property or Off? (lodging)
  • Disney: On Property or Off? (dining)
  • First Vacation with a Toddler: Lessons Learned

I’m going to ask my wife Rachael to co-author some of these posts with me.  You’ll recognize her writing as different from mine because she has a degree in Journalism / News Editing, so her style isn’t rambling like mine.

Looking forward to sharing our experiences with you, both about the vacation itself and the great (and not so great) food we had along the way!

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Quick Review: Chandler’s Deli

I’ll tell you all you need to know about Chandler’s Deli in this first sentence – they make hands-down the best fried chicken, and the best macaroni & cheese in Knoxville. If you haven’t eaten there and you’re reading this while they’re open, stop reading and go get some chicken – I’ll wait.

I had lunch and Chandler’s recently with a buddy from work. It’s best to arrive early, and that day there were only a couple of available tables around 11:30. Chandler’s is in an old Taco Bell building, and you order your food cafeteria style. We started off with fried pickles. They were very good – with just the right amount of breading.

Fried Pickles

I ordered fried chicken, macaronic & cheese, and fried okra. The okra was very good. A couple of guys ahead of me in line were trying to decide on which side to get, and I told them the macaroni & cheese was “drive across the state good.” They took my advice and ordered it. I’m glad I did as well. The real star of this meal, though, was the fried chicken. Chandler’s fried chicken is awesome. It’s juicy and fried just right, and has been every single time I’ve had it.

Fried Chicken

I’ve only ever tried the fried chicken at Chandler’s. I know they have other main dishes available, but I’m a fan sticking to what I know is awesome. I only let myself eat at Chandler’s once a month or so, because I know if I let it become a habit, I’d be there every week, then multiple times per week, then pretty soon I’d have a heart attack. I’ll say it again – if you haven’t tried Chandler’s fried chicken, you need to.

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Cider Roundup II: Alternate Fruits

Most of the hard cider I’ve drunk has been made with just apples. My favorite ciders, or perhaps more accurately, my favorite commercially available ciders, are all just plain apple cider. This roundup is about ciders made from, in whole or in part, fruits other than apple.

RocketScience Brewing BerryCide

BerryCide

The best cider I’ve ever had is one I’ve written about before on this blog. BerryCide is a home-brewed cider produced by my buddy Les and his wife Ann. If you brew your own beer or cider, you can find the recipe for BerryCide on RocketScience Brewing’s blog. While BerryCide’s base is apple, the considerable amount of mixed berries, blueberry pomegranate juice, and brown sugar deliver the real taste bonanza. I bought all of the equipment necessary to build my own kegerator a couple years back just so I could keep a 5 gallon keg of BerryCide or anything else the Ault’s produced on tap in my home. I sincerely wish you were lucky enough to be able to sample this.

Fox Barrel (Now Crispin) Pear Cider

Fox Barrel

The first store-bought non-apple cider I tried was Fox Barrel, and it remained one of my favorites for a long time. Pear cider, or Perry as it is sometimes called, is pretty sweet, but very good. Fox Barrel isn’t very easy to come by in Knoxville, and I believe I only ever found it at Earth Fare grocery stores. If you’ve never tried pear cider, you should give it a try under its new label, Crispin.

Ace Pineapple Cider

Fox Barrel

I found this cider at The Casual Pint downtown just a week or so ago after a local LOPSA meeting. A big group of system administrators get together each month for a technical talk and discussion for a couple hours, then adjourn for beers, or in my case ciders, at The Casual Pint. If you’re looking for some nerd fun on the first Tuesday of each month, you should come.

I can’t say I was super impressed with this cider. It was OK, and I’m certainly glad I tried it, but I wouldn’t buy it again. It tasted very faintly of pineapple, as it was composed primarily of apple cider. I would have preferred a stronger pineapple flavor. I would recommend buying this as a single if possible, or as part of a mixed 6 pack to see if you really like it.

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Quick Review: We’re Cooking All American Grill

One of my favorite restaurants in Knoxville is a little burger joint called We’re Cooking All American Grill. We came across it in a shopping center on North Peters road soon after it opened in early 2010 and just fell in love with the place. At first we were simply pleased by the quality of the simple food and the intriguing story of how the Polish immigrant came to America. Over time, we grew more impressed with how hard this guy worked, how well we ran his business, and how consistently good the food was, visit after visit. Once our son was old enough to eat grown-up food, we found another reason to love We’re Cooking – kids eat free there Mon-Wed. If we don’t hit We’re Cooking on Monday night for dinner, we usually make up for it on Saturday for lunch, and some weeks we do both.

For lunch on Saturday, my son got his usual – the kid’s hotdog without the bun, although he got fries this time instead of fruit. I took a picture of it but it was too blurry to post because he couldn’t keep his hands away from it. I’ve had the hotdog before and it’s very good, even if my son does do the unthinkable and eat it with ketchup. At least I’ve convinced him to sometimes go for mayo instead or in addition to the gross red stuff.

My wife ordered the Fourth of a Cow with fries. We’re Cooking sells a single, double, and triple burger, with the other variants being Half of a Cow and Most of a Cow. The burgers are outstanding, so much so that I could eat them every visit, and likely every day, and never grow tired of them until the inevitable heart attack came. I sometimes order my Half without a bun. The fries are a good, if fairly standard, crinkle variety.

Fourth of a Cow

I went for my current usual, the Boom Boom Seafood Tacos, although I had them make them fish only by leaving off the shrimp. The seafood is fried, and the fish comes in roughly large shrimp sized chunks. It’s flaky and fresh-tasting, although living in a land-locked state ensures it must have been frozen. I like the boom boom sauce quite a bit, although I believe it is likely just a mix of hot sauce and mayo. I typically avoid the fries because I like to kid myself into believing the onion rings are not as bad for me since they aren’t potatoes.

Boom Boom Tacos

Today’s visit was just like nearly every other visit – awesome. The food was good. We had to wipe our table off when we sat down but we grabbed a booth literally right after someone was left, so the staff wouldn’t have had time to clean it anyway. Cleaning is something the staff does a lot at We’re Cooking. It’s obvious the owner drills it into his employees – because they’re doing it all the time. That really stands out as fairly unique, especially for a “fast food” restaurant, and it has to contribute to the regular perfect scores We’re Cooking gets on its health inspections. I eat out a lot, and while 90’s aren’t that uncommon for the good places, 100’s are pretty rare, and We’re Cooking gets them quite often.

Perfect Score

I can’t say enough good things about We’re Cooking. The food is great. The service is great. The owner isn’t around as often these days as he used to be, but I figure that’s because he’s managing his growing franchise business and actually enjoying the fruit of his many years of hard work. He’s a fascinating guy to talk to, and trust me when I say you won’t find a more pro-America business owner than a Polish immigrant who left Poland to get away from Communism. He never ceases to say something awesome while we’re talking at the register or around the restaurant – offering parenting advice the other day to me when he said my son looked like he was a good boy. I laughed and said, “Well, he’s a good boy sometimes.” He told me boys could only be good some of the time, and the rest of the time, we should just let them be boys. As a former boy myself, I’m OK with that.

If you’re looking for a great burger or a good pair of fish tacos, or just about anything else they have on the menu, give We’re Cooking a shot. You won’t be disappointed.

We're Cooking - All American Grill on Urbanspoon

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Quick Review: Hard Knox Pizzeria

If you’d like the short version of this review, Hard Knox Pizzeria makes some of the most interesting and delicious pizza I’ve ever had, the service is friendly and fast, and except for one thing, I would work the place into our restaurant rotation. As it stands, however, I have absolutely no intention of eating there again.

My team at work recently celebrated the birthday of one of our coworkers. Given a choice of where to eat, she chose Hard Knox. My primary concern was whether we could fit our whole team at a few tables, so I left a bit early and we managed to put three tables together to make room for everyone. Everyone else arrived and ordered just before the lunch crowd arrived.

I’ll tell you, right off the bat, I was pleased with the service. The young lady who took our order was friendly and cute. I asked her for a recommendation for a good pizza with white sauce, and she gave me one. Once everyone was seated, she even brought out a pepperoni pizza for the group to sample while we waited for our pizzas to be prepared. That’s pretty nice. The pepperoni pizza was very good, albeit not exactly what I’m looking for in a plain pepperoni pizza. What I mean by that is if I’m just getting pepperoni, I’d rather have a deep dish pizza to make it a little more interesting, and Hard Knox pizza is a thin, wood-fired crust. Delicious – just a little on the plain side.

Pepperoni

Realizing I wanted something a little more interesting, I happily accepted the young lady’s recommendation for the Great White Hope. Pesto cream sauce, mozzarella, marinated chicken, shaved parmesan, crushed red pepper, and extra virgin olive oil. Sure, it’s what I call “frou-frou” pizza, but it’s delicious. You can tell they use fresh ingredients all the way around. The crust may have been a tad bit too thin towards the center of the pizza, forcing me to eat the first couple of bites with a fork (sorry, Jon Stewart) so the toppings didn’t slide off the too thin crust at the point of the slices. My coworker got the Bonecrusher, but with white sauce. It was very good, but if I had it to do over again (which I won’t), I’d get the Great White Hope.

Great White Hope

So if I liked the service and the pizza so much, why do I have no intention of eating there again? Two reasons, and they’re both tied to a choice the owner of Hard Knox made in furnishing the restaurant. I didn’t take this picture of the stools in the restaurant, but it’s close enough for you to get the idea.

Stool

If you want to eat in the restaurant, that stool is your only option. I absolutely understand that the owner is going for a boxing theme, both on the menu and with the decor in his shop. I get it. It’s even kinda cute, visually. But it’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen. So reason number one – comfort. I’m a big guy, and frankly, I am not comfortable sitting on a little stool while eating my meal. I don’t sit on a stool at work. I don’t sit on a stool at home. Hell, I don’t sit on stools in bars unless they have backs because they’re not comfortable. I was reminded of my only other visit to Hard Knox when I arrived early this time and setup the tables. I made sure I got a seat on the side of the tables with my back to the wall, so I would at least have some back support. That’s exactly how I had to sit after a few minutes during our first visit, only that time, since we were seated at a single table, not a row of them turned sideways, I got to lean against the wall looking like a dufus since my wife was sitting across the table at a 90 degree angle from me, along with our son in his baby carrier.

Which brings me to reason two – we have a two year old. We always ask for a booth when we eat out. Are we in love with booths? Not really. But you know what a booth allows us to do? Put our son on the inside next to his mom so we don’t have to worry about him waxing toddler for 20 seconds and tearing through the restaurant. Even a chair would be better because we could block him in against the wall. But a stool with no back that would let him just swing around and hop right off the back? No way.

Am I making too big a deal of this? Maybe, but I’m just being honest. I don’t care that the guy who owns Hard Knox wants to have stools instead of chairs, for whatever reason. I have tons of places happy to take my money for food, so I’ll continue to choose one in which I can sit comfortably, and also one in which I don’t have to worry about our son sliding off a stool and running around wreaking havoc.

If you’re someone who can sit on a tiny stool while eating your meal and you’re looking for amazing and interesting pizza, I can heartily recommend Hard Knox Pizzeria. If you like to be comfortable while eating, may I suggest Blackhorse just next door? Or if you’re really in the mood for a pizza place, give Sergeant Pepperoni’s a try – it’s just down the street.

Hard Knox

Hard Knox Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

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Quick Review: Mother Earth Meats

I’ve mentioned before that when we end up being dissatisfied with a restaurant, we’ll give it six months, and try it again to see if things have improved. Mother Earth Meats is one of those places we’ve been giving a break for a while, but today after church, I asked my wife if she would mind giving them a second chance and she agreed it would be OK.

Mother Earth Meats is a market / butcher shop that specializes in grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, and other interesting meats and foods. They also have a small restaurant and bar inside, and since it is right down the street from our church in Farragut, it is convenient for lunch on Sunday. I prefer to eat higher quality meat when I can, and I especially like knowing that the hot dog we get for our son is grass-fed beef. I’d include a picture of it in this review, but my boy refused to let me take one of his today, and I know better than to get a toddler riled before we need him to eat.

My wife was considering ordering the Wings, which we know are awesome, but she realized she’d never ordered the Free-Range Chicken Tenders, so she tried those instead. She asked for mild buffalo wing sauce (they were out of the Garlic Parmesan she wanted) as a dipping sauce, but somehow that was translated into the tenders being covered in the sauce by the time they got to the table. She wished she’d ordered the wings, as the skin on the tenders was pretty tough. The meat itself was fine, but the skin, combined with it not being tenders she could dip in sauce, really made the meal not work for her. Our son did like the chicken, though, so there is that.

Chicken Tenders

I ordered the Bison Burger, medium, with Pepper Jack cheese and bacon. My burger was excellent. The taste was fantastic, and getting it done medium was just right. Bison or Buffalo seem a bit lighter to me than regular beef, although since it is leaner, it’s important to not overcook it. I’ve had the grass-fed burger before and it is very good. The venison burger is no longer on the menu, but I tried it and it was great too. I have no use for turkey burgers and don’t care for lamb, so I’ll be sticking with the bison burger. At $10, it’s an expensive burger, but worth every penny.

Bison Burger

The store was running a 50% off special on frozen meats, so I stocked up on several kinds of sausage – hot italian, andouille, kielbasa, and bratwurst. At 50% off, I was able to buy enough for at least 4 dinners for under $20. I also noticed some Reindeer Hot Dogs in the fresh counter, but at $15.99 per pound, I was hesitant to try them. I spoke to one of the employees and he said they tasted great, said they were shipped in from Alaska (via New Jersey, for some reason) – which added to the cost. That was good enough for me, so I bought four of them as well – two for me, and one each for my wife and son. I’ll be grilling them this week.

Reindeer Dogs

The service at Mother Earth Meats is OK. Our server was friendly and only had to be asked once to get a refill for my wife’s drink, and then she later made sure to ask if I needed one. At a place as basic as a lunch counter attached to a butcher shop, I don’t think you can ask for more. Our bill came to $29, and when you consider all of the meats were grass-fed or free-range, I’m fine with he cost.

I’m willing to recommend Mother Earth Meats and put them into our restaurant rotation again.

Mother Earth Meats

Mother Earth Meats on Urbanspoon

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Quick Review: Stan’s Country Restaurant

Had to make a trip for work to Spring Hill, TN to roll out a new network, wired and wireless, at our Middle Tennessee Research and Education Center. I didn’t get to pick where we had lunch, so we did something I hate doing while traveling – we ate at a national chain – Applebees. It was predictably terrible.

That night, however, I insisted that we try something other than a chain restaurant. We stayed at a hotel in Columbia, so I asked the desk clerk for a recommendation for a local place to eat, particularly one where my boss could find fairly bland American food. She pointed us to Stan’s Country Restaurant just across the street, and said we were in luck, because that night’s special was All You Can Eat Frog Legs for $9.99.

Stan’s is a lot like a Cracker Barrel in that, in addition to the restaurant, there is a country store and gift shop. Evidently it’s been around since 1947, which is pretty cool. My boss, a coworker, and I sat down to eat with high expectations. My coworker ordered fish and chips and liked his just fine. My boss ordered pork chops and also liked his. Like many Southern restaurants featuring homestyle cooking, Stan’s offers a selection of breads, including fried cornbread. My boss asked for some honey to go with his, and I did the same. It was delicious.

I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to order the special. Frog Legs aren’t my favorite food in the world, but I figured they would be fun to write about, and when I sent my wife an iMessage saying I’d be getting them, her response of “Ewww” was all I needed to seal the deal. The special came with fries (no substitutions) and choice of two sides. I selected green beans and cole slaw.

Frog Legs

Let me say the cole slaw was not especially to my liking, but I’m a fan of sweeter slaw, and this was not very sweet, so others may like it just fine. The fries were OK, but I wasn’t in the mood for carb overload, so I only tried a few. The green beans were quite good, if a bit bland. That’s my most common complaint about Southern/American food – sometimes there isn’t a ton of flavor. But I know what you’re waiting to read – how were the frog legs? Well, they were frog legs. If you’ve never had frog legs, you’re probably wondering – do they really taste like chicken? In a way. They certainly are somewhat similar to chicken in texture, especially the meat on a chicken wing. I would say if most people were blind-folded and handed some fried frog legs to eat, many would assume they were eating chicken. But were they good? I guess. I’m honest enough to admit I ordered them to be able to say I ordered them and to write about them, but I won’t claim they were so good I’d order them again. I got the “Ewww” from my wife, and the raised eyebrows from my coworkers, and now I’ve written about them. Next time I’m down that way, I’ll probably order fish and chips or fried chicken.

For dessert, I ordered the Blackberry Cobbler. It was good but not amazing. The freshness and texture of the blackberries carried the dish. After passing on additional helpings of frog legs in hopes of getting some good Southern dessert, I was a bit disappointed in the serving size of the cobbler, but in hindsight, it was plenty big enough.

Blackberry Cobbler

Stan’s Country Restaurant is a neat place. I’m not sure I’d drive all the way over there from Nashville/Hermitage while visiting family, but I will definitely eat there again the next time work brings me to MTREC.

Stan's

Stan's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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