School Coupon Book Dining Series: Salsarita’ Fresh Cantina

The school kids in Knox County sell coupon books every Fall as a fundraiser. We usually buy several books at $10 each and get more than our money’s worth back. I’ve decided to do a short review of each restaurant at which we use a coupon.

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The first restaurant we tried was Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina on Kingston Pike near Cedar Bluff. We ate lunch thereafter church on Sunday.

Unfortunately, this will be a short review. It could be just two words: it stunk. But here’s why it stunk:

  • The queso is so thin and watery it would be more accurate to call it cheese milk.
  • The pork on the tacos was soaking in liquid and it rendered the soft shells mushy.
  • Overall the food was, at best, mediocre, and mostly worse.

I won’t be returning to Salsarita’s.

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Sergeant Pepperoni’s – Not Just Pizza and All Good

Sergeant Pepperoni's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

 Well, it’s settled.  My wife and I have a new favorite restaurant in Knoxville, and we’re already eating there often enough that the servers recognize us and our baby boy.  Sergeant Pepperoni’s is located in the same shopping center as Long’s Drugstore on Kingston Pike and, lucky for me, close enough to work for lunch, and close enough to being on the way home that is has become our go-to place for a quick, inexpensive dinner.  You can check out the restaurant’s website to see a copy of the menu, as well as the address and directions.

My wife tried Sergeant Pepperoni’s for the first time when I was out of town for work.  She texted me a picture of her pizza that night and told me she really wanted me to try it, so when I flew home a couple days later we stopped there for dinner on the way home.  That first night was awesome enough that I knew we’d be coming back often.  S.P. serves a thin crust pizza, and with all due respect to my former favorite pizza place, Little Joe’s, Sergeant Pepperoni’s pizza is the best in Knoxville.  The crust is excellent, the ingredients are fresh, and the combination is delicious.  I believe we ordered a custom pizza that first night – pepperoni, sausage, green pepper, and onion.  It was great.  When we’d finished out pizza, our server asked if we’d like to try dessert and mentioned they had bread pudding.  I’m a bit of a bread pudding snob, so I said, “Well, is it home-made?  If it is, I’ll try it, but if you just buy it from someplace else, I’ll pass.”  Turns out it was homemade, and it was some of the best bread pudding I’ve ever had, even if they did smother it in whipped cream for some odd reason.  Rachael ordered the Apple Crisp pictured here and really liked it as well.

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We returned to Sergeant Pepperoni’s a few nights later and tried the Pop-Eye Pizza, which has garlic, spinach, tomatoes, pepperoni, and bacon.  My taste buds sang a happy song that night.  The pizza was off-the-charts good, both the combination of ingredients and each of them individually.  This was real bacon, not the bacon bits or tiny bacon pieces most places serve, but large chunks of freshly prepared bacon – more like what you’d expect to see on a good sandwich or sitting next to some eggs than on a pizza.  The only reason I was willing to try a different pizza the next time we visited was because it was the Meaty and it had bacon on it as well.  After the pizza we each got a bowl of Cherry Crisp.  My wife said she preferred the Apple Crisp and I preferred the Bread Pudding, but if I’d ordered the Cherry Crisp anywhere else I would have been quite happy.  Here are pictures of the Pop-Eye Pizza and Cherry Crisp.

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We swung by Sergeant Pepperoni’s tonight and decided to try something different, so we asked our server if the sandwiches were as good as the pizza and he said yes.  He recommended we order the World’s Fare (basically a turkey & ham club, with bacon (same awesome bacon), cucumbers (crisp), tomatoes, both Swiss and American cheese, with garlic mayo) and the Pretzeled BLT (pretzeled bread, bacon, tomatoes, and lettuce) and split them, so we did.  I’m so glad we ordered those sandwiches, because now I know I can inject Sergeant Pepperoni’s into my work Friday lunch group’s rotation.  Both sandwiches were great, and I’d happily order either of them again.  They were also the first and second best $6.00 sandwiches I’ve ever had – definitely a good value for the money.  We both preferred the BLT, and I’ll be having it for lunch soon.  They were out of ice cream today, so we ordered four of their Cinnamon Rolls.  They were quite good, and seemed like a real deal at 50 cents each.

Sergeant Pepperoni’s is new to us, and I believe it may still be within its first year here in Knoxville.  If you like pizza, sandwiches, or home-made desserts, you owe it to yourself to give this place a try.  I know you’ll love the food, and you’ll find the staff friendly and happy to be around as well.

Here are pictures of our sandwiches, the cinnamon rolls, as well as the bread pudding without the whipped cream.

 

IMG 3321 IMG 3326  IMG 3331  IMG 3327

 

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The Duke of Crisp – A New Cider from Les Ault

My buddy Les Ault handed me a bottle of his latest creation yesterday, The Duke of Crisp. As a new dad, I don’t have much time these days to just relax and enjoy an adult beverage, but I made time for it tonight, and I’m glad I did.

The Duke of Crisp is amazing. Before tonight I would have said Les’ Berry Cider was the best cider I’ve ever had, hands down. This new cider has bumped the Berry Cider down to the #2 spot. As the name suggests, this new cider is crisp. It’s also clear, and not too sweet. If I had to pick a commercial cider most similar to it in taste, I’d say Magners, which is high praise on both counts, as Magners is my favorite commercial cider.

Les tells me he let this batch ferment for six months, which is far longer than the three to four weeks I believe his Berry Cider takes. I’m also told The Duke of Crisp measures 7% alcohol by volume, making it stronger than anything else available on store shelves. Strong as it is, it goes down smoothly. It is fortunate for me that this cider wasn’t the first I ever tried, because I doubt I could have tolerated most of the other mediocre-in-comparison commercial ciders I’ve tried over the last few years.

I’ve had a single keg of cider on tap at the house at any one time over the last year. Now I need to order a second keg, a 2-way CO2 distributor, and another tap, so I can have The Duke of Crisp and the Berry Cider on tap. My wish for Les is that he could hire a team of elves to help him mass produce this stuff and get it into local taprooms, because it makes most of the ciders they serve taste like Kool-Aid.

Crisp isle

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One Geek’s DIY Smoothies

In an effort to be a completely unique snowflake, I decided to start exercising and eating better at the beginning of this year.  I’ve started going to the gym with my boss and a couple of coworkers at least a couple times per week, with a goal of working my way up to going every day.  I’m starting off fairly slow, because I’m not just out of shape, it’s been so long since I’ve done any regular exercise that I’m in the next county away from shape. There’s a Smoothie King inside the fitness center on campus, and after looking over their nutritional information, it seemed like eating a smoothie for lunch would be quite a bit healthier than what I normally eat, especially after realizing I could knock a couple hundred sugar-based calories off the smoothie by asking for them to “make it skinny” and leave off the honey and brown sugar compound.

Still, a medium smoothie costs me $7.09 with tax, and I figured I could probably do a lot better than that if I just made my own at home.  I spoke to my boss since I know he makes his own smoothies, and he sent me his basic recipe.  I made a quick trip to the grocery store and began making my own this week.  Here’s my modified version of the recipe:

1 cup Milk  (2% right now, switching to Skim next time)
1 cup Yogurt (Stonyfield organic)
12-16 oz Frozen Fruit
2 Tbsp Almond Butter
2 scoops Whey Protein (will buy vanilla next time)

I use a Ninja Master Prep blender system to make my smoothies, but any decent blender should do.  I got an awesome deal on a new Ninja at Woot.com, but here’s a link to the same thing at Amazon. I estimate it takes me about 15 minutes to get all the ingredients out, portioned, mixed, and poured into cups for the next day, and I’m sure I can shave a few minutes off that as I grow more used to the process and avoid doing things like forgetting to add the whey protein powder.

These ingredients produce 2 or 2.5 servings, depending on the amount of fruit.  I used a 16 oz bag of frozen strawberries tonight.  I just realized I forgot to take a picture of the milk, but I ran upstairs and noted its serving size is a cup, and it contains 120 calories and 8 grams of protein.  Adding all of that up, the smoothies I’ll have for breakfast and lunch tomorrow should contain a total of 860 calories and 59 grams of protein.  I’ve had a banana as a snack about mid-morning each day as well.

Tomorrow will be my third day of eating these homemade smoothies.  Aside from an unfortunate taste combination of frozen mango and chocolate whey today, I’m loving them, although I’ll be avoiding mango and choosing vanilla whey from now on.  I’m going to set myself a goal of eating these every day for the next two weeks.

 

I’ll post pictures of all of the ingredients below, as well as a before and after shot of the mixer pitcher.

 

Before

 

After

 

Strawberries

 

Strawberries info

 

Yogurt

 

Yogurt info

 

Almondbutter

 

Almondbutter info

 

Wheyprotein

 

Wheyprotein info

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Little Joe’s – Best Pizza in Knoxville

Pizza is a complicated, nuanced topic.  Most people I know prefer one style of pizza to another – Chicago deep dish over New York thin crust, for example.  Even so, most of my friends will eat pizza from just about any place in town and I can’t do that for one reason – most pizza in Knoxville, and I’d go so far as to say all pizza from chain stores, is crap.  My favorite style of pizza is deep dish, and more specifically, the deep dish pizza you get in Chicago.  The “Chicago style” pizza you can get in Knoxville, be it from Jet’s or Pizzeria Uno, is as close to real Chicago pizza as a bald fat guy singing “My Way” at karaoke night is to Frank Sinatra.

So I’ve given up on getting good deep dish pizza in Knoxville.  I’d almost given up on getting good pizza at all in Knoxville until we discovered a local place called Little Joe’s. Located at 13100 Kingston Pike, quite a bit further down that road than we’d ever driven before, Little Joe’s quickly became a regular in our restaurant rotation.  They serve a very thin crust pizza, almost but not quite a cracker crust, and it is worth the drive.

We made the trek out to Watt Rd on I-40 after work today and arrived before the typical dinner rush crowd. While I go to Little Joe’s for the pizza, I enjoy their pasta as well.  So tonight I ordered a bowl of mostaccioli, or as it is more commonly known, penne in addition to our pizza.  The mostaccioli is served simply with a meat sauce and it is as good as any other pasta I’ve had in town.  The sauce is excellent, but what continues to impress me is how perfectly al dente the pasta is served.  This is a pizza joint, after all, and they serve a more consistently good bowl of pasta than most higher-priced Italian restaurants I’ve tried.

Mastaccioli

In addition to the pasta, my wife and I split a medium pizza, pepperoni and green pepper on her half, pepperoni and Italian sausage on mine.  What I like best about Little Joe’s Pizza is the quality of the sauce and toppings.  The sauce is so good that I have yet to leave even a stray end piece of crust on my plate.  The Italian sausage is the best sausage I’ve ever had on a pizza.

Pizza

The food at Little Joe’s is great, and that alone would keep me coming back.  The owner and staff stand out as some of the friendliest folks in Knoxville.  Something that took me a couple of visits to fully understand is that the staff at Little Joe’s aren’t just friendly – they’re happy.  Not just “happy and friendly servers get better tips” happy, but genuinely walking around with smiles on their faces, joking and cutting up with each other and the customers happy.

A few weeks ago our server, a young woman, saw I was reading a comic book on my iPad and she asked what I was reading.  Trying not to sound too much like an embarrassed kid in the body of a middle aged man, I said, “oh, just a comic book.”  So she asked, “I know – which one?”  I told her I was reading Action Comics, basically Superman, and she proceeded to tell me about a graphic novel she was reading, “Y: The Last Man.”  When we returned a week or so later, she saw me reading the series she recommended and we discussed it briefly.  Tonight I let her know I’d finished the series and gave her a recommendation of my own, “Locke & Key.”  All this to say I can think of plenty of restaurants where we eat and receive good, timely, polite service.  I can only think of one place where I can get awesome pizza and exchange comic book reading suggestions, and that’s Little Joe’s.

Little Joe's Pizza on Urbanspoon

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Bearden Hill Fieldhouse – Round Two

We decided to go out to eat tonight, and I laughed when my wife looked at me and said, “are you thinking what I’m thinking?”  So we ended up at Bearden Hill Fieldhouse for the second night in a row.  Yes, we liked it that much.  While I enjoy eating at our regular spots, having a completely new restaurant to try is something uncommon enough that I was happy to return to try out some different dishes.

We tried a different appetizer tonight, the hummus plate.  It was very good, if a bit pricey at $7.95.  Next time I’ll let our server know we don’t need the Kalamata olives.  This was obviously fresh-made hummus, easily as good as any I’ve had at any restaurant in Knoxville, with the possible exception of Holy Land Market.  The pita was great as well – slightly warm and very soft.  I don’t know who decided pita served with hummus was supposed to be crispy or tough, or maybe that’s just what cheap mass-produced pita tastes like.  The Fieldhouse does both hummus and pita right.  I’d say it was as good as last night’s Pickles & Pepper Rings, and I’d gladly order either one depending on my mood.

Hummus plate

We had the pizza last night, and as good as it was, neither of us was in the mood for pizza again tonight.  So my wife ordered the Chicken Tenders Basket ($9.95) and I ordered the Deep Fried Cornish Hen ($12.50).  My dish came with  a salad and side, and my wife added a house salad for $3.95 to her entree.

Here’s a picture of my caesar salad.  It was very good – not overly drowned in dressing, but also not too little.  My wife’s house salad was the same size and while she said it was a good salad, she also said it, “wasn’t four dollars worth of salad.”  I’d have to agree, although I felt like the size of my salad was fine considering it accompanied my entree and side item for twelve bucks.

Caesar salad

My wife enjoyed her chicken tenders.  They were definitely homemade and hand-breaded, not the usual frozen store-bought crap most chain restaurants serve.  The fries passed my “just crunchy enough without being greasy” test.  I was allowed to sample one of the tenders and I thought it was very good – lightly spiced and very juicy.  My wife is a chicken tenders fan, so I see her ordering this dish again.

Chicken tenders

I struggled over my choice of entree, wondering if I should try the interesting-sounding deep fried cornish hen or the 12 oz Angus ribeye.  In the end, I let price be my guide, as I already knew I wanted to enjoy a bottle of cider with my meal, so I passed on the $23 ribeye.  I’ll try it in the future, and based on everything else I’ve tried so far, I’m sure I’ll enjoy it.  But tonight I ordered the deep friend cornish hen, and I have to say that, as far as being a whole cornish hen goes, it was pretty good.  If that sounds like faint praise, I admit I’m not a big fan of working on my food to be able to eat it.  I’m not sure what I expected from a “whole hen” but I was a little surprised to have to essentially tear it apart to eat it.  So I made a little bit of a mess, and ended up getting some very hot grease on my fingers and my shirt.  Still, setting aside my personal issue with ripping my food apart and making a mess, the chicken was awesome.  I tried the skin, and a younger version of me probably would have eaten it all, but 42-year old me pulled most of it off.  The meat was awesome, especially the breast – moist, tender, and just hot enough to steam as I pulled it off the bone.  In fact, if I’d been served just the meat on a plate, I would have walked away calling it some of the best chicken I’ve ever had.  As it is, I’m calling it some of the best chicken that I’ve ever had, but like crab and lobster, a little too much work for my tastes.  I’m a little weird about that issue, though, so if you’ve had cornish hens and you don’t blink and pulling legs and wings off, you’ll be in for a treat.

As you can see in the picture, I chose Mac & Cheese as my side item.  Yes, I could have gone for a more healthy choice like steamed broccoli or even Tabbouleh, which I love, but come one.  I was ordered a deep fried whole hen – how could I not go for macaroni and cheese.  The mac & cheese was very good.  I could take or leave the cheddar cheese on top, but I know it’s common to serve it that way.  I think the macaroni and white cheese could have stood on its own, though, and I may ask for it that way next time.  I’m a mac & cheese snob, and this ranks among my favorites in Knoxville.  Just wish mac & cheese were as healthy as Tabbouleh.  Oh well.

Fried cornish hen

I ordered a bottle of Woodchuck hard cider to accompany my meal.  It paired with the meal well overall, especially with the chicken.  Given that the Fieldhouse boasts 169 bottled beers, however, I’m going to have a chat with the manager next time and suggest they could do so much better than Woodchuck.  There’s nothing wrong with Woodchuck, especially once you pour it into a glass and let it breathe, but I think the Fieldhouse would do better to offer something like Strongbow, or Original Sin, or (a guy can hope) Magners.  I can buy Woodchuck at Kroger – that’s all I’m saying.

I’ll wrap this up by saying I got a chance to do a bit of people-watching tonight, and it was … interesting.  I’d never seen anybody play video golf before, and having done so, I can’t imagine doing it myself.  The highlight of my people-watching, though, was watching an older gentleman play the hunting/shooting game.  I’ve never paid much attention to these types of games – I’d go for Virtual Cop or Time Crisis myself.  But it was fascinating to watch this older guy play this enormous glorified light-gun game, and he certainly looked like he was having a good time.  I like to think I could have done better than him, especially on the bonus/side game that looked from where I was sitting like Duck Hunt but with pumpkins, but who knows – maybe my light-gun glory days are gone, never to return.

We had a great time at the Fieldhouse again tonight.  Service was great, food was great.  Folks behind us were a little chatty, but that’s just my inner “get off my lawn” old guy starting to emerge.

Bearden Hill Fieldhouse on Urbanspoon

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New Restaurant in Knoxville – Bearden Hill Fieldhouse

We tried a brand new restaurant tonight – Bearden Hill Fieldhouse.  It’s billed as a sports-themed restaurant and bar and based on the sheer number of flat panel televisions, I’d say that’s an accurate description.  We arrived shortly after 5pm, were greeted with an open door, and seated immediately.  The restaurant/bar has two floors, with at least three pool tables that I saw, as well as a couple of video games – golf and some kind of shooting/hunting game.

The menu listed many items that sounded promising.  Too many, in fact, so we asked our server for recommendations for appetizers.  She recommended the fried pickles & banana pepper rings, which we ordered.  We also opted to try the garlic knots.  The pickles & peppers were outstanding and well worth the price – $6.95.  Fried pickles are a Southern staple, and if that’s all this dish had been, it would have compared favorably with offerings from other area restaurants.  The fried banana peppers were different, though, and catapulted this appetizer to a whole new level.  Lightly battered, they weren’t greasy at all, and they were tasty on their own, and even better with the provided sauce.  We actually ran out of the sauce and had to ask for a second container – it was that good.

Pickles+peppers

The garlic knots were good, and if we’d ordered just the knots, I would have been happy with the decision.  Next to the pickles & peppers, though, the knots, even at $3.95, didn’t compare well.  Still, they were good.  Neither of us cared for the tomato-based sauce, preferring just the knots with a little olive oil and parmesan cheese.  We’ll skip these next time, but garlic knots are rare enough in the South as an appetizer that we felt compelled to give them a chance.

Garlic knots

We actually had a hard time deciding what to eat for the main meal, as there were so many dishes on the menu that sounded good, especially when our server assured us that everything, including the chicken tenders, was homemade.  Everything from a fried cornish hen to bourbon-glazed salmon, to a fried artichoke sandwich all sounded great.  We asked our server and she told us she’d only had the pizza, burger, and chicken tenders so far, as they’d only opened the previous evening.  We ordered a large “Triple Crown” pizza with wheat crust, which I believe cost $17.50.

Everything about the pizza was excellent.  The wheat crust was delicious, and just a bit sweet.  The crust was so good I did something I almost never do – I ate the ends of the crust.  The toppings – pepperoni, beef, and italian sausage, were all very good.  The sausage was especially tasty, coming in large chunks as you can see below.

The food quality alone would justify a return trip to the Fieldhouse, which makes the attentive and polite service we received a nice bonus.  Our server made sure I had a new glass of Diet Coke before I finished my old glass, and every other server who pitched in to deliver food or extra lemons for my wife was friendly.  Overall a very pleasant dinner out.

Pizza

Bearden Hill Fieldhouse on Urbanspoon

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