Mysterious Cachet, Part Deux
Can's posting regarding his reaction to Pie n Burger prompts the Grubster to revisit a recent question: What restaurants do not live up to their Chowhound hype? ie, what restaurants seem to be thriving on some unexplained, mysterious cachet that draws folks -- even discerning hounds -- to them?
At the risk of offending the same folks I offended last time, I won't mention Tito's Tacos or Krispy Kreme, but go straight to Apple Pan (look Mom, it's a hamburger theme!) whose cachet seems to be only their ability to serve "pretty good," somewhat pricey burgers in an uncomfortable setting.
OK, I've lived less than 1/2 mile from the Thai American Express Cafe for like 3 years and never gave it a thought. In the last month or so, I've been in there 3 times, the first 2 times for Thai food. Last night I had a taste for a burger and remembering all the raving about their burger, I got it. I got it to go. I don't think the quality suffered too much from the 2 minute drive home/park/climb up the steps. Boy, did it smell good in the car. I was expecting miracles.
I got the burger platter which came with the "Works" burger, a salad and fries. First the burger: is it just me or is 3/4 lb of meat on a hamburger just obscene? It was literally an inch thick! It was overwhelming. Half the amount would have saved the experience. The onion/mushroom/garlic/black pepper saute that topped the meat was quite tasty on its own but was overpowered by the meat when eaten with the rest of the sandwich. I thought it could have used a little mustard or something tart in addition to the mayo. I guess I could have added it myself but didn't want to interrupt my burger experience combined with Basic Instinct on network TV with a trip to the fridge. And the alfalfa sprouts... I don't get it.
Now the salad. Or really the salad dressing. Strange little concoction of ingredients that I can't even begin to guess. Grated onion, perhaps?? It was tart and slightly spicy and overall, I guess I liked it. It was similar to some Japanese salad dressings I've had which were also equally mysterious to me.
Fries were... um, like fried strips of cardboard. What's going on there? It seemed like they'd been fried and fried and fried... and fried again. I was done after about 5 pieces. I kept hoping they would get better but they never did.
On the other hand, I think they make a decent pad thai.
Regardless of the merits of Apple Pan (I happen to like it, but it's not burger nirvana for me), I don't think it's fair to cast it as a theme restaurant a la Johnnie Rockets. It's not an hommage to an old-fashioned counter-diner. It IS an old-fashioned counter-diner, that hasn't changed substantially in the 40+ years I've gone there.
I mentioned Apple Pan and Phillipe's in a previous post as failing to live up to their mystique. I'd probably put El Cholo in this category too.
But for me there are also several places (I'm thinking of Johnnie's Pastrami and Versailles at the moment) that have the same kind of mystique and actually live up to it.
Granted this is largely subjective, but still it's curious that some clearly mediocre places are able gain some kind of metaphysical luster that translates to word on the street...
re: Key Lime Guy
Did someone say El Cholo? Mysterious cachet. Big time. With so many wonderful Mexican restaurants to choose from, the mind boggles as to how El Cholo got its rep.
The only other "MC" that comes to mind right now is Kokomo's, as I just turned in my two cents worth elsewhere on the board; bland, overpriced, tepid service.
Ah...Mr Grub, what you call Mysterious Cachet, I call Emperor's New Clothes Syndrome (see post on Pie n' Burger).
Okay, since I'm already out on a limb attacking Chowhound favorites, might as well go for broke. Last month I went to a veritable mecca of Chowhounds, La Super Rica, in Santa Barbara. I've heard praises sung by chowhounds, restaurant critics, even Julia Childs. I was plesantly surprised that it wasn't the old tacos and burritos type stand, where you find the ubiquitious carne asada taco, red/green burrito, etc etc. They had interesting tamales, exotic ingredients, stuff you don't find everywhere. We ordered one of the tamales that they had as a special and a couple other items. When we tried the food it was cold (even though they just made it) and some of the item even bordering flavorless.
Now I'll concede that I only gave La Super Rica one chance, perhaps it was an off day. We went on a cold day which contributed to our food being cold (even though our hot drink was still hot). But this isn't the first time that I try a Chowhound favorite for the first time and coming out wondering what all the hubbub is about. When I post my experience, several people jump up to defend the restaurant's honor even to the point of attacking my tastes (another symptom of "The Syndrome").
I have never understood the CH fascination with this place. I am a Santa Barbara native (ages 0-26), transplanted to Burbank, CA. I think the more recent recomendation "La Bonita" next to the Hollywood lanes is much better and more economical than L.S.R. Who wants to spend $30 for a taco stand dinner?
I also fell prey to the Las Vegas recommendation of this 'Lotus of Siam'
The service was awful, I even asked for the guy everybody was telling us all to mention and our server smiled, nodded, and proceeded to take our order. The food was way below par (in my book) I really regretted not going to 'Drais' that night.
although, we all have to remember. opinions are like 'belly-buttons' everybody has one.
I agree, vive l'difference. It's what makes these boards interesting. I'm not surprised at your comments about the service at Lotus of Siam. As a small family-run restaurant, the waitstaff can lack in training and sophistication, and can at times be almost timid in dealing with customers. Also, Bill Chutima is not always at the restaurant because of his frequent trips to Los Angeles for supplies. I agree, however, that if you asked for him and he wasn't there, your waiter should have said so.
I am surprised, however, that you didn't like the food. Did you have the minced sour sausage and crispy rice (nam kao tod), the beef jerky Issan style (nua dad deaw), the garlic-and-pepper chicken wings, or the charbroiled catfish, all of which have been recommended on Chowhound? If so, and you still came away unimpressed, I'll just chalk it up to a difference in our tastes. Since Saipin is almost always overseeing things in the kitchen (unless she was seriously ill or something like that), I doubt that the explanation lies in an "off night."
P.S. The raves for Saipin Chutima's skill in the kitchen isn't just a "Chowhound thing," as is evidenced by the rave reviews from the New York Times, Gourmet, and many other publications.
re: Tom Armitage
This talk of Lotus of Siam brings up fond memories of when I used to frequent Renu Nakorn in the late '80s. I used to go every Sunday around 3 p.m., initially for what I still consider the best Thai food I ever had. Best of all, the restaurant was completely empty at that time, and with each subsequent visit I was treated to more and more personal service by a very lovely young waitress there, who I ended up dating for several months. Definitely my most sublime dining experience ever. Service with a smile, indeed!
How I miss the sua rong hai, the raw shrimp, the barbecue chicken, the nua dad deaw--and I still dream about Kanung . . .
Lived in Santa Barbara for 3 years. NEVER, NEVER had a bad meal at Superica, and this was 5 years before Julia Child discovered it. Have been back many times since, and it has always been wonderful. Could be, just like any restaurant you had a bad outting. I have a friend who owns a restaurant in Beverly Hills, and once or twice have had a sub par meal. IT HAPPENS. Unless you are paying super high prices, and even then some places just are no good. I ate at a new restaurant in venice the other night and the mexican style food was very greasy and flavorless...........I won't be back there.
We had a stellar meal there - of the especiales - the regular menu items were good, but not great. The tamales verdunas, shredded pork, pasillas, cheese (can't remember the name) & the queso especiale are all incredible - I just don't see how anything could be served cold there - they start making it as you are paying. Three of us had a great meal with Bohemias for about $30 - can't wait to get back. Sorry you had a bad experience - how disappointing for you.
I had read a lot of hype about La Super Rica before I first went there about ten years ago, and initially it didn't live up to my expectations. But, like most addictions, it got to me and I started to crave it. Now I can't drive through Santa Barbara without stopping there. When I moved here from San Francisco a couple of years ago, I nearly had a fit of the shakes because I passed through Santa Barbara about two hours before La Super Rica opened.
The regular antojitos may be a bit pricey and are not always the most flavorful items on the menu, but the sopes, the pozole, the tamales verduras, and other specials are consistently sublime.
Now a suggestion: Instead of us going on with all these strings where we diss this institution and criticize each others' preferences, can we go back to discovering some new places and making recommendations? How about an assignment? Let's all go out and discover some new place we've never tried before and that hasn't been already discussed to death on this board. I'm off to Europe later this week, so I'll offer my London and Hannover discoveries to anyone who cares to hear about them, as well as my renewed L.A. explorations when I get back. Deal?
I like Pie 'n' Burger, but only for their sweet rolls. I never, ever got Apple Pan, despite repeated visits. I think some restaurants are like some "classic" rock 'n' roll songs--they may not be great, but they remind us of a time or place. Which is not entirely a bad thing, unless you weren't there at the time.
I'm not sure I agree that the cachet is mysterious at all. There's an element of nostalgia with both Apple Pan and Pie N Burger. If you go regularly you are known, maybe get better treatment or a sense of being one of us. You find out about variations. It becomes your place. (Tito's doesn't have this same familarity and in fact has a sense of anonymity--you can go there looking like you just got out of bed and no one cares.) The menus are limited which is reassuring in terms of making it a no brainer. You know what you are going to order before you go. You anticipate it as you are driving over. And, once you get the food it's dependably exactly what you anticipated. To you, if no one else, it's good. You know you are not going to be disappointed by Tito's being out of tacos or Apple Pan being out of cheddar to put on the burgers. The people who are most disappointed in these places are those who've heard the legends of these spots and are disappointed when the food doesn't seem legendary to them. If they had just gone there blindly, I bet they'd have liked it a lot more.
re: mc michael
You nailed the Tito's phenom, at least as I've experienced it. I don't particularly care for the food itself, but I eat there probably two evenings a week -- same order every time, some companion every time, same talk radio station as we sit in the car and eat every time.
It's akin to comfort food, but I think it's really the comfort of the familiar routine that takes me there.
I think it is an issue that some restaurants don't live up to the CH hype to some people, e.g., you. You don't get Apple Pan. I don't get Pie n' Burger. Food is too subjective to try to nail it down with a "chowhound stamp of approval." (cringe.)
I may adore the Apple Pan (which I do), but I respect that you find it uncomfortable and the burgers pricey. More room at the counter for me.
As to why the Apple Pan is thriving on an unexplained, mysterious cachet that draws folks -- even discerning hounds, here is why I have been going there for many years:
1. Burger meat quality better than most fast food places
2. Real cheddar cheese, not American
3. Good fries
4. Counter guys take good care of you
5. Love the attitude you get sometimes
6. Real whipped cream for the pies
7. Killer banana cream pie
8. Open late
9. Cool "secret" garden walk on the west side
10. Dependable -- never taken someone there who didn't find it delicious