Best Banh Mi In A Garland Parking Lot

A while back, I read an article from the Dallas Observer called, “Two of Texas’ Best Vietnamese Sandwich Shops Share a Garland Parking Lot.” It told the story of Quoc Bao Bakery and Saigon Deli.

From the story:

Two of the best banh mi shops in the region — arguably two of the best banh mi shops in the United States — make their homes in Garland, where they stare each other down across a shared parking lot. Just one suburban stretch of asphalt apart, Quoc Bao Bakery and Saigon Deli compete for the title of best banh mi in metro Dallas.

But I wanted to know: Which one is better?

The answer is not so simple, of course. Quoc Bao and Saigon Deli are equally great but for different reasons, and any diner’s preference will depend on taste. It all boils down to the fundamental question which professors in Dijon-stained tweed jackets ask on the first day of Sandwich Philosophy 101: Which is more important to the sandwich, really great bread or really great filling?

A quick check of the map confirmed what I had already suspected – the aforementioned parking lot was at Jupiter and Walnut – three miles of residential streets including two miles of dedicated bike lanes. Perfect bicycle riding distance.

Now I am already a fan of banh mi and already have two go-to spots. One is the branch of Lee’s Sandwiches in Cali Saigon at Jupiter and Beltline – a half-mile from my house. The other is the Nammi Food truck (which now has a brick-n-mortar location in the Dallas Farmer’s Market). But hey, how am I going to turn down “The Best?”

So I rigged my folding bike for hot summer riding (the temperature was flirting with triple digits) which means I filled a half-gallon Nalgene bottle with ice and water, enclosed it in an insulated cooler that fit it tightly, and clipped it to the crossrack on the back of the bike.

Despite the heat, the ride down wasn’t unpleasant at all. I had been tracking all my rides with a phone app and keeping my average miles on a spreadsheet I devised. However, recently, I have been studying a short book The Bicycle Effect: Cycling as Meditation by Juan Carlos Kreimer. It has me thinking more and more of cycling as a mindfulness exercise as well as a means of transportation. I have embraced being the world’s slowest cyclist and putting aside goals of distance and speed – other than the obvious need to make sure it is possible to get where I want to go.

I chose Saigon Deli for my first visit, for no particular reason. Will have to go for the bread at Quoc Bao Bakery next time.

Banh Mi sandwich, Mango Smoothie, and Bicycle Helmet at Saigon Deli, Garland, Texas

Sandwich Menu at Saigon Deli, Garland, Texas

The store was bright, cheery, and clean. I ordered a #1 combination sandwich ($3.50) and a Mango Smoothie (also $3.50). It was very good. Best in the world? Best in Garland? Best in the parking lot?

We’ll see. It was worth the bike ride in the heat though, and that’s all that’s important.

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Bicycle Tour de Taqueria – Tacos of Oak Cliff

There is nothing better in North Texas than the few spring days when the sun is shining and the day is warm – yet the killer summer heat is still a little off into the future.

Saturday was one of those days and I headed down to the Bishop Arts District for a bicycle ride – a tour of Taquerias in Oak Cliff.

Our first stop was Cool & Hot at 930A E. Eighth St. – Streetview

Hot & Cool Tacqueria Oak Cliff, Texas

Hot & Cool Tacqueria
Oak Cliff, Texas

Bicycles stacked up in front of Hot & Cool

Bicycles stacked up in front of Hot & Cool

Cool & Hot is a converted gas station right off the Interstate – it’s mostly a drive-thru. It’s open 24 hrs a day from Thursday through the weekend – something to remember on a late night trip home.

Then is was on to Taqueria Tiquicheo at 110 S. Marsalis Ave. – Streetview.

Taqueria Tiquicheo

Taqueria Tiquicheo

This was my favorite stop on the tour – more of a sit-down restaurant. The regulars were there for menudo or other specialties – the sweaty bicyclists descended like a cloud of taco-eating locusts.

Taco Selections at Taqueria Tiquicheo

Taco Selections at Taqueria Tiquicheo

All the spots offered pretty much the same traditional selection of Mexican style tacos. This is the sign from Taqueria Tiquicheo. If you think of tacos as hamburger stuffed into crunchy corn shells – well, these aren’t what you are thinking about. Served in foil in soft flour or corn tortillas with a little onion, cilantro, and a lime wedge – along with the house special hot sauces.

The fillings:

Fajita – grilled steak
Tripa – Tripe
Nopales – Cactus (a vegetarian option)
Lengua – beef tongue
Chicharron – fried pork rinds
Pollo – chicken – one person said this was “surprisingly good”
Barbacoa – slow cooked meat, the original sorce of barbecue
Chorizo – chopped sausage

Next was on to Jefferson Boulevard – the main commercial drag through the area. The next Tacqueria was a very small, unlabeled spot with a small dining room.

El Padrino #1. – Streetview

El Padrino #1 on Busy Jefferson Blvd. in Oak Cliff

El Padrino #1 on Busy Jefferson Blvd. in Oak Cliff

Lengua Tacos from El Padrino

Lengua Tacos from El Padrino

These are the Lengua Tacos from El Padrino – I ate them on top of a newspaper stand on the street.

Then we rode off through the residential streets until we reached Los Torres Taqueria, 1322 W. Clarendon Dr. – Streetview

 Los Torres Taqueria

Los Torres Taqueria

This was the most conventional restaurant that we visited, yet still it had that family feel to it.

And that was about all the tacos I could take for one spring afternoon. I split off and rode home – a little overfull and a bit overheated. But it was still a good time.

You Insolent Demon, How Blind You Are!

You insolent demon, how blind you are! You may think I’m small, but I can grow easily enough. You may think I’m unarmed, but I could pull the moon down from the sky with my two hands. Don’t worry, old Sun WuKong will sock you one.
—- Sun WuKong, The Monkey King

I love noodles! Because of that, I was excited when, about a year ago, I read of the opening of a new place in Deep Ellum – The Monkey King Noodle Company.

Restaurant review: Monkey King Noodle Co. is a Chinese noodle soup lover’s paradise

All Hail The Monkey King

There had been this two-story taco joint on Main Street. I don’t think I had ever actually eaten there – but it was colorful and smelled delicious and I was unhappy when I saw it closed down. But it wasn’t long before construction started up. When I found out it was going to be a noodle spot – greatness.

Monkey King promised fresh hand-pulled noodles and authentic Chinese street food recipies. That sounded right up my alley – but I was never able to work out a visit. They were closed every time I stopped by.

Finally I was riding my bike down Main and saw someone out cleaning at Monkey King. I checked my phone and saw they would be opening at six – which was a half hour or so away. I rode on down to The Cold Beer Company and had a Temptress, then came back a few minutes after six.

The line was already halfway down the block but I had time so I locked up my bike and joined the queue. The guy in front of me said he lived nearby and was a huge fan of the Soup Dumplings – but since this was my first time there I went ahead and ordered the top of the menu, The Spicy Beef Noodle Soup.

And it was good. The hand thrown noodles are thick, chewy, and… well, perfect. The broth was as spicy as promised and the hunks of beef surprisingly hearty.

The small Monkey King building has a scary steel spiral staircase up to a patio on the roof. I really enjoyed chatting with the folks up there, eating our food while the sun set behind the crystal spires of downtown.

Now I have to go back and try those Soup Dumplings.

Monkey King Noodle Company, Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas With cool covered patio on the roof.

Monkey King Noodle Company, Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas
With cool covered patio on the roof.

Spicy Beef Noodles from Monkey King Noodle Company

Spicy Beef Noodles from Monkey King Noodle Company

I Venture a Long Long Way For a Waffle

Unless you live in North Texas – you have no idea how horrifically big the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex is. The entire complex of cities is seventy miles across… side to side or top to bottom… from Rockwall to Benbrook, or McKinney to Cleburn, or Denton to Waxahachie.

That’s a lot of territory. Miles and miles of Texas. That’s almost five thousand square miles of urban landscape.

That’s too much city to cross by bicycle. Or at least by bicycle alone. So, as always, I combined the bike with mass transit – specifically the web of train tracks that once took cattle back to the eastern slaughterhouses… but now shuttle city denizens around the concrete vastness.

Last week, I was surfing the web, checking out facebook, when I was confronted by a photo of a restaurant menu. The restaurant was Brewed – a craft beer/coffee/gastropub in Fort Worth – and they were offering a Temptress-Topped Waffle, paired with a special keg of French Quarter Temptress Stout.

Tempress is a milk stout produced by the Lakewood Brewing Company, located only a couple miles south of my house. I consider Temptress to be one of the best things on earth. Not beers… Things.

So on Saturday I set up my Xootr Swift Folding bicycle and set off for Fort Worth. That is too far for me to ride, so I would combine the bicycle with the local trains. My departure was delayed for an hour after I discovered a thorn in a tire – but I set off nevertheless for the nearest DART station and took the Red line to downtown Dallas. There I boarded the TRE Line for distant Fort Worth.

The only problem was that they were doing some bridge maintenance west of the airport, so the train stopped, everybody piled off and onto a brace of waiting buses, and rode to the next stop where we reboarded another train. The bus had a bike rack on the front; I had never used one of those before. It worked fine, but I felt a nervous jolt in my stomach every time the bus bounced over some pothole or ditch. I could imagine my bike bouncing off, crushed under the wheels.

Of course, the people that designed and built the rack knew much more than me and the trip was fine. Still, the unboarding, boarding, moving, and reboarding took a lot of time and it seemed like forever before I left the train at the T&P station in Fort Worth.

I used Google Maps bicycling directions to find a route to Brewed, locked my bike up outside, and found a seat at the bar.

My Xootr Swift locked up outside Brewed, Fort Worth, Texas

My Xootr Swift locked up outside Brewed, Fort Worth, Texas

Lakewood Brewing Company, French Quarter Temptress, Special Glass, Brewed, Fort Worth, Texas

Lakewood Brewing Company, French Quarter Temptress, Special Glass, Brewed, Fort Worth, Texas

Temptress-Topped Waffle, Brewed, Fort Worth, Texas

Temptress-Topped Waffle, Brewed, Fort Worth, Texas

The French Quarter Temptress was excellent – the waffle with Temptress laced syrup and whipped cream was even better. I really like Brewed – coffee, craft beer, and good food – what can be better than that? The restaurant has a fun, eclectic décor (including a “Seventies Room”) and would be a regular place for me, for sure, if it wasn’t so darned far away. I sat at the bar, chatting with the staff and customers for a lot longer than I intended, but it was fun.

We talked about local beer, about coffee, about New Orleans, and about the asymmetrical rivalry between Dallas and Fort Worth.

I left the restaurant later than I had planned, but still wanted to get a few miles of bike riding in before I headed home. The French Quarter Temptress came in a special souvenir glass – I carefully wrapped it up so I could get it all the way back unbroken. Again, using Google Maps I wound my way to the west, past the Fort Worth Zoo, and along the trails along the river back into downtown.

I wanted to visit the Water Gardens and get some photographs but I felt the pavement grow ragged under me and I realized I had another flat (another thorn) and had to take the time to fix the leak. As I sat on a bench and worked the tire irons and portable pump I kept glancing across the street at something on the sidewalk. It looked like a photorealistic sculpture of a homeless man standing there, holding his shoes, staring into the distance.

During the entire time, maybe twenty minutes, I worked on my tire, the thing never moved, not a fraction of an inch. It must be a sculpture, I thought, I even kept an eye on one little stray lock of hair – which never budged. Testing out my new tire, I rode across the street, and the sculpture turned and looked at me. It was a real homeless person, semi-catatonic, standing stock still until something moved near him.

That shook me a bit – and it was time for a train, so I rode into the T&P station. The trip back included the same train-bus-train dance. So it was TRE train-bus-TRE train-DART Red Line Train-three mile bike ride to get back to my house. I was well after dark when I reached home.

A fun day – but a long way to go for some waffles.

Emancipate Yourselves From Mental Slavery

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our mind.
Wo! Have no fear for atomic energy,
‘Cause none of them-a can-a stop-a the time.
—-Bob Marley, Redemption Song

I always have a tickle in the back of my head for jerked chicken – the Jamaican dish.

The best jerk I had was in Key West – I remember it like it was yesterday. At least I remember the chicken – I have no idea what the name of the restaurant was. We were walking down Duval, back to our hotel, and it was late, very late… late even for Key West. But Candy and the kids were hungry so we ducked into the first restaurant we saw and sat down. The prices were a bit high for a late-night snack, but this was Key West and nothing comes cheap when it has to be hauled out to that island.

I looked at the menu and my eyes fell on the Jerked Chicken. I was a bit stunned when it arrived. It was an entire chicken – the whole thing. It had been expertly knifed (I have seen chefs do this on TV since) so that it was still whole, though boneless. It was flattened, dredged in jerk spices and then grilled expertly. I didn’t think I could eat the whole thing – but it was so delicious I couldn’t help but soldier through. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t sleep at all that night, but it was worth it. You never remember the pain as much as the pleasure.

When we actually went to Jamaica I wanted to get some authentic jerk but never pulled it off. We were only there for a day on a cruise. My idea was to somehow get to a jerk stand out on a highway somewhere – a place where the locals ate. But on a cruise shore excursion the time is short and the forces are allayed against you doing what you want to do.

The kids went up in the mountains to do a zipline thing and they were served some jerk chicken. The said that it was from a shack and the chickens were all running around a pen behind the place. It must have been great – I was so jealous.

Nick and I did have a little time and a little cash to spare before the ship sailed so we hired a cab to drive us into Montego Bay for some exploring on our own. I had planned on having the driver take us to a place that he knew about where we could get some food, but we spent all our money and most of our time in the city and barely made the boat before departure time.

I need to go back.

But in the meantime I discovered by reading a local blog that there was a new Jamaican Restaurant, The Jamaica Cabana that opened up only couple miles or so north of where we live. The blog made the place look great – so I made a point of trying to get up there.

It took longer than I wanted – but Nick and I had an evening free so we drove to the place for dinner.

Jamaica Cabana Richardson Texas

Jamaica Cabana
Richardson Texas

The parking lot was packed with people eating at a crowded local Tex-Mex emporium, while The Jamaica Cabana was mostly empty. I simply can’t understand the desire to gobble down mild cheddar cheese enchiladas covered in Hormel Chili perched between a puddle of bland rice and a pile of lard larded mashed pintos. Try something new, folks. Free your mind.

The menu was full of great looking stuff – but I couldn’t resist ordering the Jerk Chicken.

The chicken came with vegetables and plantains – I love plantains. One the side were what the menu described as “rice with peas” – though it was actually rice and beans.

Jerk Chicken, plantains, and vegetables

Jerk Chicken, plantains, and vegetables

The food was fabulous and the owner very friendly. There were two bottles of very hot Jamaican sauce on the table – be careful, they are of the “delayed reaction” heat. Cool for me, if dinner doesn’t make the top of my head sweat, it isn’t spicy enough.

Now I have to go back and explore the rest of that menu….

Bodacious Bar-B-Q

When our kids were little we had a little popup tent camping trailer. It was pretty cool – we would keep it loaded with all the stuff we would need for the weekend. All we would have to do is buy some food and head out to one of the wide selection of Texas State Parks within a few hours drive of the Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex. It was worth it even for a single night – we could go to a soccer game on Saturday morning and be in the woods for Saturday night. It was a good thing… until the trailer was stolen from in back of our house… but that’s another story.

One of the places we would go was Tyler State Park – outside of the eponymous East Texas City. It was a large park – held a lot of people in a whole series of camping areas around a resplendent sylvan lake. When we drove to and from we would pass a Bar-B-Q restaurant off the exit from Interstate 20. It always looked delicious and the associated smoke smelled even more so. But in keeping with the whole camping thing we never visited.

That was many years ago but I remember it.

On our last trip to New Orleans (for Lee’s Tulane Graduation) we left early in the morning, but not too early. We would be going past Tyler right at lunch time – and I decided to finally try out Bodacious Bar-B-Q.

There are four major types of Bar-B-Que – Kansas City, Memphis, Carolina, and Texas. Bodacious is, of course, Texas. Texas BBQ is actually a dry, slow cook – with most sauce added after.

The food was great, of course. The place was exactly like you would expect – a little dusty, a little cluttered, a lot of local workers on their lunch hour.

And then it was time to get back on the road.

Bodacious Bar-B-Q Tyler, Texas

Bodacious Bar-B-Q
Tyler, Texas

bodacious4

bodacious2

bodacious3

Zoli’s New York Style

Try driving across a city when you are hungry – you will notice that there is a pizza joint on every corner. There is pizza everywhere.

Plus, the simple word pizza means something different to different people – there are so many varieties. Most people have a favorite and will defend their choice of crust – from crackerlike to deep dish – to the death. Then there are toppings – from traditional Margherita to fried eggs or squid ink. The place can vary from a corner take-out dive all the way up to a sit-down formal experience with wines to match the toppings and everything in between. A family owned local hangout to a massive international corporate chain.

Whatever you like.

I’m not a very good judge. My opinion is that pizza is like sex – when it is good, it’s great and when it is bad – it’s still pretty good.

Everyone has to have their go-to pizza joint. Ours is Cane Rosso in Deep Ellum (Pizza Napoletana with its famous “tip sag”) – I like to sit at the bar and watch the pies go into the giant wood burning dome of an oven, where they cook for only a few seconds (a close second is Urban Crust in old downtown Plano).

I stumbled across a list of 16 Iconic Pizzerias Across the Metroplex. I’ve been to about half of these (Eno’s and Mama’s are two more favorites) – and probably won’t make too much of an attempt to add more. The city is simply too spread out and there are too many good ones too close. Cane Rosso did make the grade, which is not a surprise. Campisi’s Egyption Lounge is on the list more for its history than its food, IMHO.

We were in Bishop Arts this weekend, looking for something to eat in a place that wasn’t too smoky and I remembered that Cane Rosso had opened a branch up there in the old Bee Enchilada location (shame it closed) called Zoli’s. They promised “New York Style Pizza” and that sounded good.

Here’s a useful graphic that outlines the difference in the various styles of pizza sold at the two spots. Zoli’s uses metal ovens instead of the giant domed wood-burner at Cane Rosso, plus it offers three styles – New York, Grandma, and Sicilian.

(click to enlarge)

Photo Courtesy Cane Rosso and Zoli's (click to enlarge)

Photo Courtesy Cane Rosso and Zoli’s
(click to enlarge)

Good stuff.

Zoli's, Dallas, Texas

Zoli’s, Dallas, Texas

Lunch special at Zoli's - Ceaser Salad, Slice, Knot of Garlic Bread

Lunch special at Zoli’s – Ceaser Salad, Slice, Knot of Garlic Bread

So, was Zoli’s great or was it merely good. I liked it a lot, but I was very hungry. You’ll have to go try it for yourself.