Monthly Archives: May 2014

Steppin’ Out – Pizza Bene!

“We were taking a ‘Segway’ tour of San Francisco,” said owner of Pizza Bene!, Ben Butler. “We stopped for lunch at a pizza place called tony’s [Tony’s Pizza Napoletana]. I fell in love with their pizza.

“I decided to do my homework and researched pizza made the way they make it at Tony’s and in Naples, Italy. I bought the best wood/gas fired oven from Naples and opened this restaurant. I only use imported Italian caputo flour, all the produce is fresh and the meats and cheeses are the best. I call it ‘taking pizza to a higher level.’”

My friend Russ Salazar met me there last Tuesday at about noon, and when we walked in we received a friendly greeting and were seated at a table by the front window (I love to watch the passing crowd).

The first thing I noticed were the cloth napkins and metal utensils on the tables and that the place was spotless. There were half a dozen tables occupied by families and business people and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.

They have done a beautiful make over on this long-time restaurant site at 423 Main Street in Placerville (near the Bell Tower). It is warm and friendly with an open kitchen and a nice wine bar (lots of local wines and craft beers).

We looked over the menu and then settled on a slice of their combo pizza (you can get cheese, pepperoni, salami, sausage or a combo by the slice) and a calzone, both cut in two to share. We asked our server what he liked in a calzone, which turned out to be olives, salami and a few other things. To that we added sausage.

It wasn’t too long before our lunch arrived, hot from the oven.

When I took my first bite of the pizza, I said to Salazar, “Now that is a mouthful of flavor!” He looked up and answered, “What I like is that there is not too much sauce, you can taste each of the ingredients and the crust is fantastic.”

As I have said before, “In a sandwich, it is the bread; in a pizza (or calzone), it is the crust.”

Their crust immediately reminded of the crust on the pizza I had at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven, Connecticut, a few years ago. It has a wonderful texture with a slightly sourdough flavor. It is delicious. In fact, it was so delicious, that when Salazar left the rolled edge of his calzone (too many carbs for him), I took it off his plate and ate it. I told him I could use the carbs since I was doing yoga that afternoon (I needed an excuse I guess).

There was nothing left on our plates. Both the pizza and calzone were outstanding: well made, full of delicious ingredients, baked properly and served hot.
Pizza Bene! Has quite a list of pizzas, including the famous Margherita Napoletana (with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and basil, the three colors of the Italian flag). That is followed by pizzas listed as cheese, pepperoni, Asiago, marinara, garlic and more garlic, carnivoro, pesto and tomatoes and even portabello mushroom and bacon. You can order them in a 12 or 16 inch size. You can also get them on a gluten free crust.

Under Insalata are their Italian green salad and a side salad (I was going to try one, but we got to talking and I forgot). Both of them are made with romaine, tomatoes, red onion, black olives, peperoncini, chopped walnuts, blue cheese crumbles, house made croutons and served with your choice of dressing. You can also add chicken to the Italian green salad.

The calzones come with cheese and tomato sauce and you can add fillings from quite a list of vegetables and meats.

As I mentioned before, they have a number of local wines (by the glass or bottle) and beers on tap, along with sodas, iced tea and sparkling water.

Pizza Bene! is open daily from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. and until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. For more information call (530) 303-3415.

Give them a try. You will be delighted with the taste and the quality of the food.

Steppin’ Out – The Pub at Fair Play

It had been some time since I first tried the food at The Pub at Fair Play, which is located at 7915 Fairplay Road in “Downtown Fair Play.” That time, as I did this time, I took my friend Russ Salazar with me to get a second opinion.

The first time we both loved the Scotch Eggs, Bangers and Mash and the deep fried pickles, but they were having some problems with their fryers and the fish and chips (a signature pub dish) was less than it should have been.

That time we talked with two of the owners, Ian Schofield and Andrew Wyle. Schofield you probably remember from Jack Russell Brewery and Wyle, I am told, had the Streets of London Pub in Folsom. Neither were there this time and they left the selection of dishes up to their lovely and pleasant General Manager, Tiffany (McLean) Ruiz . We were delighted they did.

Our first dish was Mac & Cheese. Most mac and cheese is a bit boring, but this was fantastic. Salazar took one bite and said, “This isn’t on my diet, but I’m going to eat it anyway. It’s deadly, but at least I will die happy.”

It was made with perfectly cooked macaroni, several cheeses and heavy cream. The deeper you got into the steaming bowl, the creamier and better and better it got. We both agreed it was the best we had ever had and quite an opening dish.

Along with it came one of our favorites from our first visit, a Scotch Egg. If you have never enjoyed one, it is a hard-boiled egg, first wrapped in pork sausage, then breaded and fried and served with a local honey-bacon glaze. Absolutely delicious, and since they sliced it in two, we both agreed that all the calories had leaked out by the time we ate it.

Next we were served their version of a taco salad and two pieces of their fish.

The taco salad came in a formed, deep fried flour tortilla, which although delicious, retained a bit of fat from the frying. The salad greens were very fresh, but Salazar thought the meat had a bit too much cumin. I like cumin and I liked the dish a lot and, along with the remaining Mac & Cheese, took what was left of it home for later.

The fish was perfectly cooked large tender pieces of cod: very moist and delicious like it should be. We both agreed it could have used a bit more salt, but I like it with too little rather than too much. Salt I can add at the table. I can’t take it away.

Our next dish was what Tiffany called “Our Pub schnitzel.” It was a pounded pork loin, breaded, fried and served as a sandwich with “Sidewinder” fries. The schnitzel was nicely seasoned and very tender, but we were fascinated by the fries. They are thicker, twisty pieces of potato that are beer battered and need to be eaten hot, and we did just that – all of them.

Finally we were served their beef pasty, a Cornish style dish most often found in the deep rock gold mining areas to the north and south of us. The well made crust was full of meat and vegetables and served with a Guinness infused gravy. It was delicious. I could survive on these alone.

For dessert? No dessert for us, we were full and happy.

The menu at The Pub at Fair Play is being updated, but the present one includes lots of small plates and starters, including fried calamari, steamed mussels, Buffalo cauliflower, Pub chicken tenders, the Mac & Cheese, Scotch Egg and more. Then there are also several salads, French onion soup and tomato basil bisque.

Sandwiches include the Pub BLTA, Cuban pulled pork, the Pub Burger, a traditional burger, The Frenchy, the Pub Club Panini, roasted veggie Panini and even a ham and Swiss Panini.

You can select from quite a list of entrees: meat loaf, fish and chips, a pork chop, Bangers & Mash, beef and mushroom pie, oven roasted chicken, chicken curry and more.
Unexpectedly, they also make quite a number of pizzas, including their Supreme, Hawaiian, Irish Potato, a Pub Margarita and, if you wish, you can build your own.

Their drink list includes a huge number of domestic, imported and craft beers, along with a full list of local wines.

The Pub at Fair Play is open Monday through Friday from 11 until 11 (kitchen closes at 9) and on Saturday and Sunday from 9 until 11. On Saturday and Sunday the also serve breakfast from 9 until 2, with a number of dishes available, including a British breakfast of two eggs, toast, baked beans, bacon, a banger, sauteed tomatoes, sauteed mushrooms and coffee.

Sunday is Pub Quiz (trivia) day, starting at 7 p.m., Monday is “open mic,” Tuesday is Local Night with no corkage fee when you purchase an entree, and $1 off all draft beers from 4p.m. until close. Wednesday and Thursday they have “Happy Hour” from 4 until 6.

For more information you can call them at (530) 620-1500 or visit their webpage at http://thepubatfairplay.com.

Steppin’ Out – Gourmet Lunch at South Lake Tahoe

A couple of weeks ago I received a very special invitation to a very exclusive five course gourmet lunch that is only held about once a year. It is always held in the same place at South Lake Tahoe, in a small, but uniquely decorated dining room with only eight chairs.

After being announced, I was escorted in and asked to leave my cell phone outside. Then I was escorted through another locked door into the dining room.

The table in the room was carefully and correctly set with nice dinnerware and golden flatware, and each place setting had a napkin carefully folded into a bird and a menu for the lunch.

Soon the other seven diners arrived and, after we introduced ourselves, the “hosts” arrived and poured us water and iced tea.

The menu, which was prepared special for the occasion, listed what we were going to be served: Appetizer – Flat Bread with Tomatoes, Basil and Mozzarella; Soup – Chicken Gnocchi Soup; Salad – Mixed Greens with Raspberry Dressing; Entree – a choice of Homemade meat Lasagna or Chicken and Vegetables with Homemade Spinach Fettuccini and, for dessert – Chilled Strawberry Soup.

Not on the menu, but brought in during the meal, were unbelievably good cheese bread sticks made from laminated puff pastry. There was nearly a fight over who could take the leftovers home, of which there were only a couple.

The name of each chef or group of chefs that prepared each dish was inscribed on the menu and on the wall were pictures of them working on the dishes.

Okay, I know you are saying it. What a meal. It’s another of those fabulous wine dinners, isn’t it. So, what wines did they pair with the dishes? The answer is one word: none. And there is a very simple reason for that.

The chefs, who prepare and serve the meal are all students in the culinary classes at the El Dorado County Jail at South Lake Tahoe and the meal is served there, inside the jail.

I was first introduced to the culinary arts program when its founder and Correctional Cook Supervisor at the jail, Jeannette Shippee, entered their baked goods at the El Dorado County Fair, a competition in which I am one of the judges. She holds a culinary degree from Johnson & Wales University, has been working at the jail for 23 years and, in addition to teaching at the jail, also teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College. But that day she was there for the students at the jail, quietly sitting in the back of the room with some friends and writing down every comment the judges made to take back to them. When one of them won a ribbon, you could see the smile light up on her face.

That was a few years ago, and every year since she has been bringing more and more entries, most of which win ribbons. After the competition, she takes the ribbons they have won and the judges’ comments back to the jail. The ribbons, now numbering over 70, are proudly hung on a wall outside the kitchen.

“We started the program in conjunction with Lake Tahoe Community College in 2007,” said Shippee. “I remember the exact date because it was the date of the Angora fire, June 24.

“The program is open to any inmate who qualifies and it teaches them not only all the kitchen skills, but also life skills.

‘When we started, we had to have eight people in the class, but with some being released, it often dropped below that number. Now they each sign up for 100 to 500 hours of classes, which we hold four days a week. Upon completion they receive the very important Serv Safe Food Manager Certification, college credit and a certificate from the college.

“We have some really talented people who have completed our classes and we do everything we can to find them employment. We don’t have a real good way of tracking them, but I have always said, ‘If we can save one, it will all be worth it,’ and I know we have done that.”

In addition to the annual gourmet lunch, which they laughingly call C. U. F. F. S., which stands for Criminals United For Food Service, they have a catering service they call, “So Good it’s a Crime.” It works with the local non-profit organizations and is very busy. Any profits go back to the community.

“We are trying to change the impression the community has of the inmates,” continued Shippee, “and it is working because of all this community involvement.”

Back to the meal, it was fantastic and you could see the pride on the faces of the inmate chefs as they served each dish. We, the diners, were given two instructions: enjoy the meal and you must give feedback, good or bad, so that they can learn.

There was a lot of enjoyment and positive feedback, and only a few comments like, “It needed a little more salt.”

I am sure you can tell, it was one of the best meals I have eaten in a long time and as good as any I have had at some very fancy restaurants.

The County Jail in Placerville has recently started a similar program. It is programs like these that need community support.

By the way, last year one of the inmate chefs entered a lacy Florentine cookie which, as far as I am concerned, was the best baked item I judged, and it was baked at altitude. I have heard that person is looking for a job.

Again, this is a great program that I believe more people should know about and support. For more information you can call Shippee at 530-573-3038.

Steppin’ Out – All Star Que

Now, this place is a bit hard to find. It is a food trailer, grey in color, parked in front of All Star Gymnastics and Cheer, which is at 6160 Enterprise Drive in the Diamond Springs Industrial Park (Park West). The best way to find it is to turn off Missouri Flat Road on to Enterprise Drive (PG&E) and drive about a quarter mile or so, looking to the left.
Okay, that seems a bit complicated, but taking the time to find it is very worth the trouble.

Mike and Andrea Van Ry, the owners of All Star Gymnastics and Cheer, also own and operate this food trailer and, although they are new in the food business, they have figured it out. They did a lot of testing and tasting before they came up with their great menu and it shows.

They are an award winning family barbecue competition team and have a number of trophies on display. Their logo says, “We are the king and queen of BBQ,” and after eating there, I agree.

Mike got the trailer from his sister in New York and pulled it across America. It took five days, he told me on the phone, and then two months just to get it registered, and then a couple more bringing it up to California code, getting the health inspection and more.

Russ Salazar and I stopped by for lunch a couple of weeks ago (they had only been open a week) to sample some of their food. We were delightfully greeted by both of them, who were very busy preparing food for a number of waiting customers.

“Our pulled pork tacos are probably the number one seller,” Mike told me, with Andrea adding “The barbecued chopped chicken salad is also very popular.

“A lot of the parents who drop off their children for gymnastics,” she continued, “order something and then pick it up when they come back to get their children.

“Owning the gym, we are very health conscious,” Andrea added, “and make our food as healthy and fresh as we can.”

Andrea first fixed us a sample of their cole slaw, potato salad, macaroni salad and Mike’s own barbecue sauce (very nice flavor).

Salazar is my cole slaw expert and I could see the smile on his face. “It’s crisp, like it should be,” he said, “and not over dressed or watery. I like it.” I agreed. They make it to order so it doesn’t sit around getting limp and soggy.

We both gave similar praise to the potato salad and macaroni salad, both of which are made by them, in small batches to keep the fresh taste. They too were not over dressed and quite delicious. Sometimes less mayonnaise is best.

“I have a secret ingredient in the dressing,” Andrea said. Salazar figured it out and she told me. I’d tell you, but it wouldn’t be a secret anymore.

Mike then decided to make us each both a pulled pork taco and a chicken taco.

When we visit barbecue places pulled pork and chicken are not what we usually order, mostly because they are often soggy or over sauced. But these were neither.
The pulled pork and pulled chicken tacos came on a soft corn tortilla and were full of meat and dressed with both Mike’s barbecue sauce and a chipotle aioli. Outstanding is the first word that came to mind. Delicious, moist and flavorful. They come two to an order and while we were there, a repeat customer came by and ordered three orders for himself.

The next item we sampled was their BBQ chopped chicken salad that Andrea fixed for us. It comes with a container of ranch dressing and a container of Mike’s barbecue sauce. You mix them together, put them on the salad and wow, what a great taste. Again, freshness, good ingredients and a few secrets made for a great salad.

Finally, Mike fixed us their Loaded Pulled Pork sandwich, which Andrea cut in two. It comes on a brioche bun with freshly made cole slaw and fried onions for crunch. The slight sweetness of the bun complemented the sauce and the delicious smokiness of the meat. The cole slaw and onions added a nice crunch and even more flavor.

Other than the pulled pork sandwiches on a Hawaiian bun, the Polish sausage, hot dog, chips, soda and water, that completes their menu.

They are smart business people: start small and add items, don’t start big and take off unpopular items. The ones you take off are the ones people will then order. (Restaurant Rule #8)

If you are wondering how they do all of that out of a small trailer, they don’t. Several times a week their meat is smoked in their huge smoker and the sauces and salads are prepared in the commercial kitchen at Manzanita Kitchen in Diamond Springs. They just heat and put things together there.

All Star Que is open for lunch Tuesday though Friday from 11:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m., and for dinner Monday through Friday from 4 p.m. until 7 p.m.

For more information, orders, etc., you can call them at (530) 919-4847 and visit them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/AllStarQue.

Presently they have no seating, but will be adding a picnic table soon. They do have a cover you can stand under that they put up when it rains. Or, you can sit in your car. Plenty of parking.