If you drive down W. 21st St in Wichita in the late afternoon, chances are that by the time you approach the 200 block you will notice that the air takes on the delicious scent of mesquite smoke and grilled meat. This delightful aroma emanates from a bright yellow food truck, El Pollo Dorado al Carbon (or more accurately the large charcoal grill next to the truck) that can often be found on the north-east corner of W 21st and Wellington.
This truck does one thing–charcoal-grilled chicken–and it does it very well. Out of the small window of the vehicle pieces of chicken, golden/orange from marinating in achiote paste and other herbs and spices, magically appear with a small selection of salsas, ranchero beans, and freshly cooked corn tortilla. The chicken–lightly-spiced and scented with mesquite smoke–is succulent, tender, unctuous, unbelievably flavorful, and grilled to perfection.
The accompaniments are just as delicious. The ranchero beans are flavored with the traditional bean-herb epazote that for some can be an acquired taste, but they are plentiful and served piping hot. The corn tortillas are soft, hot and delicious; the light perfume created by the nixtamalization process is the perfect compliment to the aroma of the grilled chicken. On the night my wife and I visited El Pollo Dorado, we were served three salsas: a garlicky salsa de arbol that would have turned cardboard into a gourmet meal (and have driven-off vampires for at least a two-block radius), a light guacamole laced with habanero peppers and lime juice, and a thin and deceptively spicy, habanero-spiked citrus salsa that I would buy by the tub if it were commercially available.
Like most food trucks in the area, cash is the only form of payment. Half a bird with sides was $8.95 + tax while a whole bird with sides runs $13.95 + tax. It is worth every penny… .
Panaderia el Marmol
713 W South Ave
Emporia, KS 66801
* Cash only
Looks can be deceiving–especially when it comes to restaurants. A quick glance at the gaudy purple facade, green interior and old worn booths of Panaderia El Marmol belies the goodness to be found emanating from its kitchen. This restaurant and bakery located across from the skate park on South Ave in Emporia, Kansas has a very limited menu but what it does, it does very well.
One of the highlights of this hole-in-the-wall eatery are the fresh tacos. Built upon a double layer of delicate and flavorful homemade corn tortilla and available with a variety of meats from the regular suspects of carne asada, pollo, and al pastor, to more exotic fillings like lengua and tripitas (which is excellent when cooked extra-crispy), and topped with a simple salsa of cilantro and fresh onion tossed in lime juice, these tacos are small, delicious and inexpensive.
However, these moreish delights are not the star of the show–that role is played by the pupusa. These luscious discs of masa are stuffed with a simple mixture of shredded pork and cheese and then fried on a comal until golden brown and tender. They are served piping hot with fresh radishes, lime wedges and a sublime curtido, a lightly brine-pickled mixture of cabbage and carrot tossed with tiny chunks of pickled jalapeno and moistened with the savory smokiness of the house salsa roja, a side dish that makes most coleslaw seem bland and uninspired. To describe the combination of hot pupusa and cool, tangy curtido as delicious is an understatement.
The restaurant can get busy during the lunch hour, but given that everything is prepared when you order, service is surprisingly fast and always friendly. For the price of a fast food meal you can eat a fresh and wholesome meal that is tasty and supports a great local business. Panaderia El Marmol stocks a range of paleta (Mexican ice cream treats) from Paleteria de Reynes in Wichita-the perfect foil for a hot Kansas summer day (hint: try the cantaloupe), and a variety of Mexican sodas that are natural partners for the food.
Tucked away on a quiet back road between Ludington and Pentwater on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan is Bortell’s Fisheries. This tiny but colorful family owned fish-house that has stood only yards away from Lake Michigan for over 100 years is a hidden gem.
Bortell’s specializes in fresh and smoked fish and on any given day has a variety of local fresh whitefish, walleye, lake perch, smelt, fresh and smoked trout, and smoked salmon that can be ordered to eat under the shade of the trees (there is no indoor seating) or to go.
The deep-fried whitefish was very fresh and succulent, the flaky white flesh covered in a light and savory batter. The lake perch was cooked to perfection, the breading crisp and the fish itself obviously very fresh, and the sweet and tender fried scallops bursting with juice. Unfortunately, the sides that came with the fish were not of the same standard. The coleslaw, although fresh, was too liquidy and lacking in the tang that one expects of a good home-made slaw. The fries were cooked from frozen and while tasty enough, were nothing special, especially given the freshness and quality of the fish.
Bortell’s is definitely worth the drive if you are in Northern Michigan in the summer months; just stick with the fish and forgo the sides. Also, don’t forget your cash, Bortell’s does not take plastic.
Feeling hungry and a little flush on a recent trip into Ludington, MI, Mindelei and I decided to delve into our non-existent budget and try one of the local restaurants. After weighing our options we decided on The Blu Moon Cafe, a relatively new establishment on James Street that we had heard good things about from a few friends.
The first thing I noticed upon entering the dining room of The Blu Moon Cafe was not the smell of freshly roasted coffee nor the aroma of delectables cooking in the kitchen but the chaotic aesthetic that lets loose with an all-out assault on the eyes. Bad eighties black-and-white “art” photographs in cheap black plastic frames, pressed stainless steel panelling, B-movie posters,
a bicycle, mismatched furniture, a lime-green wall, dark 1930’s style booths inset with 50’s grey glitter plastic upholstery and other bits of bric-a-brac that adorn the walls and counter-spaces of the cafe combine to create an incoherent aesthetic that goes beyond being eclectic and vibrant and is more than a little disarming. While the aesthetic of a space is only a small part of the dining experience, it often does set the tone for the restaurant, and here was no exception; this mis-matched mash-up style of decorating unfortunately translates over to the menu.
The menus (there are 4: brunch, lunch, dinner and cocktails) are by no means large but each is just as varied as decor of the physical space. Running the gamut from Italian-inspired pasta dishes to Kansas City style ribs to perogies to asian-fusion and deli-style sandwiches the menu seems to offer something for everyone yet runs the risk of being overly ambitious, and in my experience very few restaurants can successfully “pull-off” such a varied menu. Having said that several dishes on the varying menus have piqued my interest.
On a recent visit Mindelei and I arrived just before the lunch hour and before the space started to fill, yet still found the service to be a little slow, albeit friendly and courteous. I ordered the pierogies while Mindelei ordered the Ultimate Grilled Cheese sandwich with a cup of Tomato Basil soup. The pierogies, small pockets of pasta filled with a potato and cheddar filling, were lightly sautéed in butter, topped with grilled onion, crispy-fried bacon, green onions and sour cream and served on a rectangular platter.
The pierogi dough was well prepared; not too delicate nor too tough as some pierogies I have tried have been, but flavorful and toothsome, although an extra few seconds in the fry-pan to develop some caramelization would have added depth of flavor. The potato and cheddar filling was very smooth, homogenous, and not too heavy yet sadly lacked enough seasoning to really bring out the full flavor of the filling. The onions also would have benefited with a little more time in the frying pan to develop the vegetable’s natural sweetness and complexity, while the salty, meaty and crispy bacon was perfectly cooked. Along with the scallions, the bacon added a nice textural contrast to the dish. This was an enjoyable and tasty dish but could easily have gone from good to great.
The Ultimate Grilled Cheese sandwich though did not live up to its name; the cheeses were rather mild and the tomato in the sandwich was under-ripened, flavorless, and only slightly warmed through, it seemed that the tomato was added to the sandwich after the sandwich had been grilled. The bread was crusted in parmesan cheese giving the sandwich an appealing golden hue and an enticing aroma. The creamed Tomato and Basil soup had a good deep tomato flavor and a nice mouth-feel but it was very sweet and rich.
The sweetness was not balanced by any acid or salt which made the dish seem very one-dimensional; I could not imagine eating any more than a cup. Mindelei thought that it was very reminiscent of a vodka pasta sauce and I think that it probably would have made a better sauce than it did a soup. A few shavings of Parmesan cheese would have been welcome.
This will probably be a place that we try at least once more, maybe for a dinner service to get a better feel for the food. The limited selection of foods that we tried were very hit-and-miss but all had the capacity to be very good, and should have been given the price-point of this restaurant.