Monthly Archives: June 2014

El Rayo Taqueria – Spanish for “Delicious”

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El Rayo Taqueria is another restaurant I hadn’t been to in a while but was dying to get back to.  Opened in 2009, the popular restaurant is one of my top choices in the area for ethnic food, but it really shines when the sun is out in the warmer months the and the large outdoor patio opens, adding lots of eating space to the small indoor area. The restaurant has been voted Portland’s favorite Mexican time and again, and now with a second location in Scarborough, there’s even more award-winning food to feast upon.

We visited El Rayo on a Saturday night around sevenish and there was an hour wait. It turns out that we had already eaten and drank a little that night and were more in the mood for drinks, so the wait wasn’t a problem. We went to the bar and quickly ordered up four whistle-wetters. El Rayo has a solid selection of signature drinks, beer, and wine. I had the Snake Bite – jalapeno, cilantro, lime, El Jimidor Silver Tequila, and triple sec. My photographic memory is in the shop right now, but a selection of beer and wine rounded out the drink orders.

With drinks and pager/buzzer in hand, we found a place to stand. A band was playing some tunes and the general atmosphere was light and fun. We sipped our libations and sure enough, when an hour was up, we were buzzed – in more than one way – and returned to the hostess who promptly seated us. The menu looked familiar but with a few changes since I had last been there.

The El Rayo menu is diverse. It features plenty of unique apps, tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and lots more. They have all the standards, but part of what makes them so great is their one-of-a-kind take on many of their items in addition to using many locally-sourced foods. Our table decided to start with an order of the Chips, Salsa, and Guacamole to share. The next part of our order would prove to be more elusive as we had a difficult time making a decision, but without much delay, the chips arrived accompanied by bowls of the red and green accompaniments.

I dug into the chips and salsa right away. Their salsa is excellent – flavorful, a little spicy, and so fresh and so clean. I generally despise guacamole, but I tried it anyway. It was not for me, but everyone else seemed to love it so I assume it was pretty good. I chowed down on chips and salsa and my wife and I decided to get another app in the form of Smokey Potato Fritters which were served with chipotle mayo. That sounded like a good plan to me, particularly since I’d never had those before.

Still chomping on our chips, the fritters came out in all their glory. I had a bit if the fritters jitters since I really wasn’t sure how a potato fritter would get along with my taste buds. The slightly-smaller-than-golf-ball-sized delights were ready for consumption so I popped one into my mouth. The soft potato texture was trumped by the smokey flavor. The chipotle mayo added even more by throwing in a creamy, southwestern touch. It turns out that the fritters were winners and much better than critters for dinner.

My last order of the night was going to be small. With the food and drink from home, chips, and fritters, I was pretty much full. I decided to force some room for one more item however. Everyone chose their next food and it took me hardly any thought to decide on the BBQ Pulled Pork Taco – just one. The BBQ PPT comes with coleslaw, cojita cheese, and red onion escabeche among other delicious flavors not listed on the menu like cilantro and feta. I was excited to get the little bugger even if I wasn’t sure I could consume more than a couple bites.

Shortly after the food was ordered, it was delivered. I jumped right into the taco. As I remembered, it had all the requisite flavors – sweet, salty, cheesy, and a very slight hint of heat. It was delicious. Everyone chomped on their meals and I took a few bites of my food in an embarrassing display of non-hunger. I became the brunt of all the jokes that night because of it, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. I was just too full. Next time I’ll be sure to go when very hungry.

El Rayo was great and always is. Their prices are reasonable, their food is delicious, and the service is where it should be. The outdoor area is really fun and with umbrellas at the tables you don’t have to worry about getting scorched by the sun. For added outdoor cooling, the drink menu lists a host of refreshing cocktails. The bands that play there add even more happiness to your Mexican merriment and they don’t play at ear-bleed levels so you can actually converse with others at your table. I recommend El Rayo year round, but if you really want to party, head there on a sunny summer day and enjoy all it has to offer.

Stay hungry.

Feel free to email me at peterpeterportlandeater@yahoo.com with any thoughts, suggestions, criticisms, or otherwise helpful info or feel free to post your thoughts below. Also, like the Peterpeterportlandeater page on Facebook. Follow me on Twitter @Portlandeater.

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Uncle Andy’s Diner – Peterpeterportlandeater’s Restaurant: Impossible Edition

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Chapter 1 – Before

When I heard that Restaurant: Impossible was coming to South Portland, just a hop, skip, and a jump from Peterpeterportlandeater Enterprises, I was happier than a pig in shit. I knew it would be a great opportunity to experience what one of my favoite TV shows had to offer a local business, and of course, I hoped I could be involved in some way. After hearing on the local news that they were going to be here in June, I starting monitoring their Facebook page like a hawk in the hopes of getting an opportunity to volunteer and help.

With the show coming, I was determined to get to Uncle Andy’s and try a “before” meal. Interestingly, I hadn’t been to Uncle Andy’s in so long that I legitimately forgot I had ever been there. When I walked in though, I immediately remembered it, particularly the refrigerators hanging out in the dining area.  Four of us were told to sit anywhere we liked and ended up picking a booth. Upon sitting, I began to look with a critical eye at the restaurant as I figured Robert Irvine would do when he came to revamp the place.

The restaurant was in some disrepair. The floor tiles were old, the front grates were falling off the fridge, everything looked worn. And while it didn’t seem dirty, the clutter everywhere sort of gave the impression that it was. The decor didn’t seem appropriate for a restaurant – lifesize cardboard cutouts of superheroes, poorly arranged autographed pictures of sports figures, etc. Overall, the place seemed old, drab, and lifeless. There was no doubt a lot of work to do on the place and I thought it was perfect for Restaurant: Impossible.

Menus were already on the table in the form of greasy booklets. I quickly looked through both the breakfast and lunch sections and flipped back to breakfast since that’s what we were there for. I had my eyes on the pancakes and omelettes. I finally settled on an omelet which was made with two eggs and cheese and came with home fries and toast. Once that decision was made, I had to then figure out what I wanted in it besides cheese. My favorites are ham with cheddar and sausage with mushrooms and feta. I decided on the latter. For the “toast”, I ordered a strawberry muffin. I also ordered a side of hash. Egg plates and a breakfast sandwich rounded out the orders when the waitress came for them.

While we waited for our food, we continued to look around, discussing all the changes Restaurant: Impossible could make. The list was long, but we were curious how the food would taste too since most of the reviews online were actually quite positive. It didn’t take too long and our food did come out, which was good, because I was ready to eat. Everyone seemed relatively pleased with the look of their food, so that was a good start.

I took my first bite of the strawberry muffin. It was really good – grilled, moist, and lots of flavor. I love strawberry muffins and not a lot of places have them, so it was nice that they had them and they tasted great. I tried my omelette next. It was pretty good, but a little on the cool side. I didn’t understand that at all. It seemed like the food came out pretty quickly, so it didn’t have time to just sit around. Maybe the insides were not heated well enough and cooled down the egg. I took a bite of the potatoes and they were also good. The one issue with them was that some of the pieces were large and didn’t cook through fully. The seasoning was good though. Lastly, I tried the hash. I liked it, but again, it had a small issue. Most of it was perfectly chopped but there were a couple bites that ended up having big chunks of pork in them. I have had hash that was made with large chunks, but that was clearly not the intention with this order.

Everyone seemed to like their meals overall. I felt mine was pretty good with a few minor problems as mentioned.  The food was solid diner food, with diner prices, diner decor, and a diner menu. But maybe that’s the problem they were having. An old school-style diner that looks like it hasn’t been updated since the sixties wasn’t the most appealing option for everyone. We certainly didn’t spend much on the meal. Mine was $10.25 before tax and tip and I probably had the most expensive order. But it definitely left us wondering what a dramatic change would do to improve the restaurant. I was certain it would be good for business.

Chapter 2 – During

A few days before Restaurant: Impossible came to town, I got a return email from a show producer that invited me to volunteer during the last of three shifts before the restaurant would reopen after a through revamping. I gladly returned the email suggesting that I, along with two others – my dad and a buddy – would be there to work on the 112th episode. The countdown was on and I was ready to see first-hand what working for one of my favorite TV shows was really like.

On Wednesday morning, we arrived a half hour early, signed releases by one of the rented tents they had set up, and were told by Tom – the show “construction guy” – to come see him inside as soon as we were done. We did just that. I must admit that I was a bit starstruck as I had seen him in every episode I’d ever watched. But it wasn’t time for nonsense. He immediately put us to work covering the floor that had been installed in the overnight hours. It needed to be protected from everything it would be subjected to during the last day of the reno.

In the middle of covering the floors, we heard a voice in a British accent come in from one of the doors. “What the fuck is that?” Robert Irvine appeared. Without wasting time, he voiced his opinion on how things were going as he would continue to do throughout the day. Also appearing shortly after that was Lynn the designer. Soon, all the volunteers would have to leave for a few minutes so they could film a scene – presumably where Robert gets an update on the work being done.

Once some filming was done, we all returned and there was no more required leaving of the building until the entire project was completed. With protection of the floor done, we helped Tom put up two of the new dividers and then we jumped in to help replace ceiling tiles. That was a long project due to the cutting required and the fact that a limited show budget meant that we use some of the old ones in areas where they’d be less visible. During that part of the job, we were treated to Otto pizza by the show. After a quick bite, it was back to work as there was still a lot left to do.

The total volunteer count on my shift was close to 35 and while my crew was working on our projects, there were a ton of other volunteers who were tiling, painting, building, cleaning, etc. The pace was furious with everyone trying to stay busy which meant that sometimes you had to find your own project or jump in on someone else’s. There was no time to spare as the restaurant had to open that night and after we were done, they would presumably be revealing the restaurant to the owners. Robert did spare some time, however, to give some Coast Guard members a tour of the work being done.

Upon finishing the ceiling tile installation, we moved on to some painting and then cleaning. While painting is easily my least favorite project on earth, it wasn’t anything difficult. Once the painting neared completion, the final cleaning started and it was extensive work. The place was a mess from the renovations and virtually everything required a wipe-down, mop-up, or vacuum-about. At one point Lynn handed me a vacuum and I just went vacuum-crazy, sucking up everything from carrier pigeons in the sky to dinner plates with small children on them.

Robert, Tom, and Lynn all led the charge and with cameras swirling about, the final push was on to get the place finished. It was like a massive crowd of people each playing one note to create a brilliant concerto. It was amazing how much work was still going on at the last minute even as most people were cleaning, but everyone was on deck trying to get the place done. Tables and chairs had to be brought in and many projects were being completed as brooms and mops were going by. At about 5 o’clock, it looked as though everything was done.

Everything was virtually complete and Robert looked over the restaurant and told Lynn that he wasn’t happy with the way the walls looked. He needed him to add something. Lynn made it clear that he thought it was okay. “This is what I do for a living and I think it looks fine.” Robert retorted that that was what he did for a living too and he didn’t think it looked fine. Lynn quickly procured a volunteer to take him to Target to find something for the walls. It was getting late, but Robert insisted it be perfect.

After the completion of the restaurant work, Robert met us in the construction tent to talk about the work he does, mentioning that 78 of the first 100 restaurants he worked on were still in business. There are only six full time staffers on the show, he told us. He thanked all the military, including my dad, let a couple people describe their experiences volunteering on multiple episodes, and encouraged everyone to give back to their communities every day whether it be with a smile, a helping hand, or financially. His words were quite inspiring. We then were able to take pictures with Robert and Tom though I would have to wait a bit for Lynn to finish up before I got a picture with him.

We talked some with Tom and then waited a bit more until the “reveal” eventually happened and were able to watch it live. With executive producer Mark Summers directing the cameras from the production tent, we were able to see the entire reveal as it occured. Tom and Lynn watched too until they were required to go in and take part per the usual workings of the show. Once that was all over with, we had time to observe the large crowd across the street waiting to get in. Tom and Lynn were watching from the restaurant side of the street and were very gracious with fans wanting to take pictures and get autographs. Some people came from a long distance trying to get in, but it was all for naught as the dinner was booked and if you didn’t have reservations, you were out of luck.

With my work done and satisfied that a real impact was made on the restaurant, I was ready to leave. I heard someone asking Tom where he was going next and he replied “home”. He deserved it for sure. Uncle Andy’s was reborn as a new restaurant – at least in look.  Everyone was excited to see it and I felt particularly anxious to see where they were headed in the future.

Chapter 3 – After

I made a return trip to Uncle Andy’s shortly after the renovation. I really wanted to see how the place was holding up. I wondered if it was possible that they would just magically turn everything around as there were so many changes made which I’m sure included lots of happenings that I never saw including training of the staff and the like. When I walked in, it was pretty much what I expected. It appeared that not all the new resources were being utilized, but some of them were.

It took a little while for us to be seated since the place was pretty busy. Once we were sitting with the menu, I observed that the physical menu was new but the menu items were the same. That made my life easy. I decided to order what I had ordered previously to compare the two. The only difference was that I got a blueberry oat muffin instead of the strawberry. The waitress came and our order was placed.

As I looked around, the place looked great. I felt happy for the restaurant and very proud to be able to help. The overall demeanor of patrons seemed to be pleasant if not a little surprised by the change. The staff was working hard to keep up, but truly did a good job, had a good attitude, and no one was waiting excessively for their food. Considering the increase in business and all the changes, this was a bit shocking really.

Our food came out (pictured above) and I was ready to give a critique. I tried my omelet. It was perfectly to temperature. I ate the potatoes and noticed that they were all cooked through. The blueberry oat muffin was delicious. Finally, I tried the hash. Though it was a smaller portion than I had previously received, it didn’t have any large chunks. I was really pleased. I do wonder if it was coincidence that my food was better or that certain issues were pointed out and immediately corrected through training. Nonetheless, it was an improvement, even if the food was essentially the same.

Chapter 4 – After the After

My entire experience at Uncle Andy’s was really spectacular. From the pre-renovation meal to working on the renovation, to checking out the final product, it was quite an amazing series of events. Obviously, just the work with and for one of my favorite shows was pretty great, but also seeing the massive crowd of people waiting to eat that night and the media and community interest was spectacular. It really showed a community spirit that was much greater than just the restaurant itself.

Based on the information from their Facebook page, it appears that Uncle Andy’s is adapting to the changes quickly. There’s no doubt that any major change is difficult to adapt to in any situation, but such a quick change after having done everything the same way for so long is challenging and Uncle Andy’s seems to be handling that quite well. I look forward to their continued progress and encourage everyone to support them.

I was impressed by a number of items regarding the show. Most notably was the fact that the show – at least from my point of view – is quite real. Having recently been in the audience of another tv reality-type show which is airing now, Restaurant: Impossible seems to be much more real and much less produced. It’s still a TV show and there is a little playing to the camera or little things done to make it more dramatic, but the urgency is real. There really is an incredibly short time frame in which to get all the work done and there really is a limited budget. That’s not a stunt or a joke in any way.

From what I’ve heard and seen, the show is expected to air sometime between August and October. I’m considering live tweeting during it to talk about the show from my point of view as a volunteer, so follow me on Twitter to show me if you’re interested in that. I must say that it was a really great experience for me. Everyone from the show was very professional, but also super-friendly and completely dedicated to helping our local restaurant, community, and economy. That was overtly stated and also very obvious. I can’t wait until it airs. I believe Uncle Andy’s will continue to benefit from this for a long time.

Stay hungry.

Feel free to email me at peterpeterportlandeater@yahoo.com with any thoughts, suggestions, criticisms, or otherwise helpful info or feel free to post your thoughts below. Also, like the Peterpeterportlandeater page on Facebook. Follow me on Twitter @Portlandeater.

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Congress Bar and Grill – High Approval Ratings

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I hadn’t been to Congress Bar and Grill since it was one of two Norms’ in Portland a few years ago. At the time of the changeover to CBAG, I was a bit disappointed as I really enjoyed Norm’s. I heard later though that hardly anything had changed except the name, so I kept it in the back of my mind that I had to see for myself if it really was still the same old place I used to enjoy. On Saturday, after much debate about where to head for an early dinner, it was finally time to head back to the Congress St. restaurant.

When I entered, it was very much as I remembered it with a bar immediately upon entering and a dining room to the right. We were told to sit whereever we wanted and chose a booth. I noticed some very cool fish art for sale hanging from the walls. All the napkins, silverware, and menus were already on the table in a side container for the customers to grab as needed. I saw three menus – a beer and wine, a cocktails, and a food menu. The cocktail menu had one side specifically for martinis and the other side had everything else listed.

My wife and I both decided we wanted a drink. I was impressed with the drink menus. Nothing was complicated and everything looked quite good. My wife decided on the Strawberry Vodka Lemonade right away, but I had trouble figuring out what I wanted and wasn’t ready when the waitress came for our drink orders. My wife ordered and I continued pondering which drink I would imbibe. I finally narrowed the choices down to the Whiskey Sidecar and what my wife ordered, eventually deciding on the Strawberry Vodka Lemonade like the follower I am.

After placing the drink orders, I was more than ready to find my dinner. We were out early, but it didn’t mean I hadn’t worked up an appetite over the course of the day from plowing the fields and milking the cows. I took the menu in my hands, opened it, and grabbed the edges like my teachers grabbed my ears in grade school when they yelled at me. Holding the menu firmly, I looked at what it could offer me. My wife had been talking about fried seafood all day, so I had it in my head that I might want something of that nature, but I wasn’t certain yet.

The menu did have a couple fried seafood items. There was a calamari appetizer and fish and chip entree. I was ready to have both, but my wife was taken with the Hummus Platter – grilled flat bread, marinated olives, and fire roasted vegetable kabobs –  which we had had before. Since I wasn’t going to eat the calamari alone, I felt the hummus would be okay to share. For the entree, she ended up straying from her original idea and went with the BBQ Chicken Quesadilla with Jack cheese, shredded lettuce, tomato, corn salsa, and cilantro. She also requested a side of Hand Cut Sweet Potato Fries with honey mustard dip. I went with the Fish and Chips which came with fried haddock, hand cut fries, and house tartar sauce.

Soon our drinks came out. They were in pint glasses, had a pink hue, and were garnished with a lemon slice. I tried mine and told my wife that it was quite strong – not that I was complaining. She however, tried both and thought they weren’t strong at all and that I was just being a girly-man. We immediately engaged in an old fashioned fist fight to determine who was the least girly among us. After a close, back-and-forth contest which peaked as my nearly lifeless body came crashing down on a table by the front window in a display of WWE-style sloberknockery or Family Guy-style giant chicken fighting, it was determined by the judges that the contest was a majority draw. We then went back to sipping our drinks.

With a small portion of our drinks down the hatch, a hummus plate made it’s way to our table. We had eaten that item on our previous visit there, but it had been so long that I really had no recollection of what it looked like. There were several pieces of flatbread, a sizable portion of what I believe were Greek olives in a bowl, a large skewer of grilled veggies, and a giant pile of hummus.

I knew I had won with the hummus plate as soon as it hit the table. The olives were mostly black, and since I don’t enjoy the green ones and my wife doesn’t eat any olives at all, I had an olive field day ahead of me. The skewer had enough veggies to share comfortably which was also a bonus. Best of all though, was the fact that there was so much hummus there was no possible way we’d run out even with my excessive consumption of sauces and spreads. I like a thick layer of the chickpea mush on every piece of bread and I don’t enjoy having to monitor myself so that I have enough left for the final pieces. I didn’t need to worry about that at all.

After all my basking in the glorious amounts of hummus we were granted, I created my flatbread concoction. I started with one piece of bread, heavily layered some hummus on top, threw on a bunch of olives, and ate a bite. It was quite good. Next, I plopped a veggie into my veggie hole. I had red pepper, zucchini, onion, and mushroom. I chose the shroom first just in case it had psychedelic properties. If it did, the rest of my meal could be a live giant octopus or a tanker truck floating on a cloud surrounded by fairies wearing lampshade hats. It turned out that my mushroom was pretty run-of-the-mill, which made it delicious, but unable to conjure up any culinary hallucinations.

We left a smidgen of hummus, some garnish, and two evil green olives on our plate which was promptly taken from us once we were done. Then, in less time than it takes a rainstorm to start on an otherwise sunny day in Maine, our entrees were delivered. The food all looked appealing, but standard. I was ready to dig in. I started by stealing my wife’s honey mustard in ninja-like fashion since she wasn’t going to eat it. I wanted it for my fries.

There were two or three sizable pieces of fish on my plate. I immediately took a bite. It was very good – well-seasoned, perfectly cooked, and flakey. I then dunked a bite into the tartar sauce. The tartar sauce was a bit thinner than I was used to, but the taste was as one would expect. I grabbed a fry and the result was essentially the same. I was pleased. A fry with the honey mustard was even better. My one requirement with honey mustard sauce of any sort is that the mustard be more prominent than the honey. It was, and I was quite pleased with it. While it wasn’t the best I ever had, it certainly ranked up there among the better ones.

My food was good enough that I continued to eat without asking my wife how her food was until I was done my own meal. She enjoyed hers and I had a bite to verify that it was okay. I thought the quesadilla was excellent. There was plenty of BBQ sauce on the chicken and it was really delicious. I have no idea if the sauce was made there or not, but if not, they chose a good one to smother on the bird. We finished our food and drinks without hardly a bite left on either of our plates.

We opted to skip dessert in favor of grabbing some elsewhere and eating it after our meal had digested a bit. They didn’t have anything with peanut butter anyway, which is what I require of my desserts these days. In total, our meal came to about $55 before tip. I didn’t think that was bad. Congress Bar and Grill produced a very good meal. They’re not fancy and they keep it simple, but the food tastes great and is cooked perfectly. The service is good too. I’d recommend checking out this congress. They get my vote.

Stay hungry.

Feel free to email me at peterpeterportlandeater@yahoo.com with any thoughts, suggestions, criticisms, or otherwise helpful info or feel free to post your thoughts below. Also, like the Peterpeterportlandeater page on Facebook.

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