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POLL RESULTS: Doc's Barbeque is #1

Posted by The LunchMen Friday, November 20, 2009 1 comments

Food does not get much more controversial than barbecue. There are places in the Carolinas where people will argue for hours over the merits of vinegar vs. mustard vs. tomato-based Q. However, Doc's Barbecue has clearly made an impact the past couple of years on Columbia pork-lovers. Doc's is good enough to impress our Secretary of State, Mrs. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and its good enough to persuade our readers that it is the best Q that Columbia has to offer. Second place, well, I was surprised to see that it wasn't even close. As we suspected, Palmetto Pig, Hudson's, Little Pigs, and Shealy's all had some support. However, at the end of the day, and perhaps due to good sidekicks like the catfish bites, the collards, and the tastiest (and probably most unhealthy) potato salad in Columbia, Doc's pulled pork has won the hearts of our readers - Congratulations Doc's, we'll be seeing you next Saturday as we load up for the Carolina/Clemson tailgate.

El Burrito - 934 Harden Street

Posted by The LunchMen Thursday, November 19, 2009 3 comments

I want to make something perfectly clear from the beginning of this article - If I was not duty-bound to reflect the opinions of my fellow Lunchmen in my posts, El Burrito would easily be the latest addition to the Boo List. I understand that many Columbia residents hold El Burrito in high esteem. For years, I have tried to give El Burrito chance after chance to win me over. I am finished with trying.

Many folks try to persuade me to like El Burrito by appealing to the fact that I like restaurants that use fresh, local ingredients in their fare. I'm told that El Burrito does this, and certainly I will not dispute how fresh the food has been on most of my trips - except for the terribly acidized salsa I have had on certain late afternoon occassions. However, lets not lose the forest for the trees, people. Ingredients are simply, well, just ingredients. It does not matter if the produce was hand-picked in the Garden of Eden if the restaurant churns out food that is neither satisfying or delicious. El Burrito fails to deliver on the final product.

At some point, I've tried about everything on El Burrito's menu - basically, it consists of burritos, tacos, nachos, and beans and rice. Pretty standard taco shop stuff. Being a huge fan of, yes, black beans, I ordered some beans and rice (with the works) and a beef taco for lunch. Perhaps due to the large hippie wrap on the head of the person taking my order, I was provided an order of beans and rice and a bean taco. But hey, like I said, I like black beans.

However, when I dove in, the beans had no flavor at all. Even with the green sauce and the gratuitous serving of broken down sour cream, the dish was bland and drab. I was shocked to later learn that the beans were fresh (allegedly) rather than canned. I tasted no freshness at all. With the intent of infusing a little flavor, I added some chopped pepper and hot sauce. All this did was make my beans and rice unpalatably hot. As it included the same ingredients (except the addition of too much lettuce), suffice it to say my taco was equally depressing. It was so poorly constructed that it had to be eaten with a fork - the result of El Burrito's use of undersized, inadequate tortillas. Boooo.

My fellow Lunchmen cry "foul," alleging that I simply ordered poorly. Alas, I do not make the menu at El Burrito. If they have drab, boring, underseasoned, and ill-constructed food on their menu, then I should not be blamed for ordering it. Rabbit claimed that his salad was delicious - so I used his dish as the picture for this entry. However, he readily admits that he had to spend $12 to custom build a salad to his liking. Similarly, the Publican, who is so quick to fly to the defense of El Burrito, had to customize a taco with both a hard and soft shell to add "structural integrity." El Burrito, take a trip to Charlotte, try Cabo Fish Taco, and beg them to teach you how to build a taco using proper tortillas!

To be fair, Tex and Kali were pretty satisfied with their tacos and bean salad, respectively. The only universal complaint from the Lunchmen is that the food is very overpriced for what you get from El Burrito. I can assure you that this home cook can soak and prepare some black beans, pan fry some rice, and throw the standard accoutrements together for less than $7 per serving. Moreover, my dishes would actually be properly seasoned, properly proportioned, and taste good. As far as this writer is concerned, El Burrito is an overpriced, underwhelming experience that will be avoided in the future.

- Tank

El Burrito on Urbanspoon

NEW READER”S POLL CONTEST ANNOUNCED: BEST TAILGATE FOOD

Posted by The LunchMen Wednesday, November 18, 2009 3 comments

BREAKING NEWS

NEW READER'S POLL CONTEST ANNOUNCED: BEST TAILGATE FOOD

This past Saturday, Tank, Rabbit and the crew suffered through yet another Gamecock loss on the gridiron. While we may leave the games starving for sustained success in football here in Columbia, one thing is for certain – we never leave the tailgate hungry. This Saturday was no different. Rabbit and Tank both came back from their respective tailgate spots amazed at the variety and quality of culinary treasures offered up by Carolina fans. Tank makes his home on game-days at the Touchdown Zone, a high-priced and exclusive tailgate experience complete with a covered pavilion and working restrooms. Rabbit, who does not yet have any in-laws off of which to mooch, tailgates in the (in)famous Morrison Memorial lot – a hotbed of debauchery for the post-college, pre-adult crowd. While the Touchdown Zone boasts shag music and family fun, Morrison is known more for loud party music, shot-gunning beers, and the occasional fight or trash can fire. As diametrically opposed as these two venues are, however, they do share one thing in common: Great tailgating food.

Tank is a self-described gourmet and treats his tailgating guests who are lucky enough to procure passes to his lot to such items as Hash brown casserole and Bacon Quiche muffins for morning tailgates, Beaufort Stew (shrimp, sausage, corn, and red potatoes) cooked at the tailgate over open propane flame for night games, and most recently Deep fried alligator and homemade hushpuppies for the Florida contest.

Rabbit himself does not cook, only eat. But, as for his locale, what Morrison Memorial lacks in ambience its patrons more than make up for with an abundance of victuals. Popular items include Chicken Wings a la Griffin, Brushcetta with tomato and basil, delicious stuffed pizza rolls, and anything whose main ingredient is sausage.

Inspired by Lunch Review rookies The “Teacher,” The “Cleaner” and the “Banker,” we are starting a new poll for our readers to determine what the best recipe food for tailgating in Columbia is. But, to do this poll properly, we need YOUR HELP. Please leave a comment with a description of your favorite game day delicacy (don’t need full recipe/ingredients) and the reason why it should be crowned #1.

We’ll accept entries until November 27, 2009, right before the Carolina Clemson showdown on the 28th, and then post the five finalists for which YOU can vote through December 6th, 2009. The winning submission will receive an ALL EXPENSES PAID DOWNTOWN “LUNCHMEN” EXPERIENCE complete with Rabbit, Tank, and various members of the lunch crew at your choice of any fine restaurant in the Capital City.

To make an entry, simply make a comment to this post, leave us a message or wall post on our Face Book page, or email us at lunchmen@gmail.com

Thanks so much and happy tailgating!

-Rabbit

DiPrato's - 342 Pickens Street

Posted by The LunchMen Tuesday, November 17, 2009 0 comments

DiPrato's - just the name sounds pretty fancy for a Lunchmen destination. Generally, our crew is more comfortable with Italian names like Tony's and Dano's for lunch. However, each of us have had enough experience with DiPrato's to know that, even though they might take a dollar or two more out of your wallet than one of our usual lunch spots, DiPrato's has the ability to make that extra money go a long way towards the ultimate destination - deliciousness.

If you haven't been to DiPrato's, then let me tell you that you have been missing some of the best deli meats, pimento cheese, chicken salad, and vegetarian options in Columbia. As you stand in (the usually very long) line to place your order, DiPrato's will offer you up free, tasty offerings of their dips and pita chips for you to sample. Tex, Rabbit, Pizza the Hut, and I could not resist that siren's song on this trip, and it is a nice warm up for the goodness that is to come. DiPrato's pita chips are homemade, and they make an excellent snack to take home and use for house parties. I have been known to dive into a cold pile of those pita chips for a midnight snack once Mrs. Tank has gone to bed, but I digress....

I was a mere follower on this lunch trip, and I relied heavily on the opinions of my fellow Lunchmen (except Rabbit, of course) in making my meal selections. Tex persuaded me to try something truly outside of my usual lunch routine - a warm bowl of creamy tomato bisque that was finished with a dollop of tart goat cheese. Talk about a grand slam. It was on the special board, so I don't know if you can get it every time, but anyone who goes to DiPrato's and passes on this soup has cheated themselves out of lunch decadence.

My sandwich selection was the "Psst-Try-Me" sandwich on seedless rye. Pizza the Hut, in true gluttonous Hut-esque fashion, convinced me that a standard pastrami on rye would simply not provide me the true DiPrato's experience. Instead, he convinced me, like any good friend should, to do the sandwich "New York style" - in other words, more fatty, juicy, bacon-like goodness. The sandwich makers in the back of the deli could not contain all of the meaty goodness within two slices of bread. Pastrami poured out on the plate like a pool of artery-clogging delight. I assure you, no scraps were left behind. I checked out Pizza the Hut's plate, and he cleaned house pretty good as well.

Maybe it was because I had already feasted on free appetizers, a rich soup, and the most delicious pastrami sandwich south of Brooklyn, but by the time I decided to have a bite of my pasta salad, it seemed just...mediocre. I'm not saying absolutely don't get it, I'm just saying that if you are going to have soup and a pastrami sandwich at lunch, maybe tell them to hold the pasta salad, or pass it to someone like Rabbit who is elbow-deep in one of DiPrato's healthy salad options.

Will the Lunchmen keep going to DiPrato's every week now that we have been blown away by a delicious lunch outing? No, because $8 sandwiches are outside of our pay grade. However, with convenient parking and well above-average fare, DiPrato's will certainly be on our hearts and minds, and it will be a place we go to splurge on an excellent lunch.

- Tank

DI Prato's on Urbanspoon

The Other Store - 4130 Bethel Church Road

Posted by The LunchMen Friday, November 13, 2009 1 comments

Ah, Rabbit. Just when you think the guy is going to head down to the Farmer’s Market to consume an actual head of lettuce, he totally surprises you. Last week, in a unique marriage of bold and slick, Rabbit petitioned for The Other Store.

Needless to say, the call was met with bewilderment, mistrust and great skepticism by Other Store rookies Tank and Tex. Rabbit, as shrewd and manipulative as his soon-to-be wife, responded indignantly, saying “we don’t have to go there if y’all don’t want to.” I supported Rabbit, but certainly didn’t help the cause with my rundown of The Other Store: far away, slow service, and Apartheid Country Club soccer moms.

After failed attempts to explain The Other Store and several miles of pre-apologies to mitigate any disappointment (and, admittedly, some waffling by me), we arrived at the place to a chorus of boos from Tank and Tex. Little did they know, the Lunchmen were about to be treated to a delicious and sinful dining experience.

The Other Store is located in the back of an old gas station in Forest Acres on the corner of Atascadero and Bethel Church Road – at least a 10 minute drive from the Plaza of Greatness. Customers, met by a charmingly shoddy exterior, walk into a working convenience store complete with candy, beer, tobacco and lottery tickets. In the back, the convenience store opens up into a living room sized area, half of which is dedicated to food preparation and half dedicated to dining.

While ordering from the counter, you can watch a handful of employees laboring busily over sandwiches and salads. Without consulting the menu, I opted for The Other Store’s piece de resistance, the Greek Turkey. Rabbit, of course, had the Tedder salad; Tex the Jamaican Jerk Chicken Sandwich; and Tank the Giant club with an extra side of pasta salad.

We’ll return to the food in a moment. The Other Store offers three seating options: The porch, the main room, and a small alcove jutting out into the convenience store. We chose the alcove because it was chilly outside. Whatever you do, avoid the main room at all costs. The hustle and bustle of ordering, drink refills and food preparation lends itself to considerable stress during the 15-20 minutes you will have to wait.

9 times out of 10, you will run into a friend or acquaintance at The Other Store. We sat next to Tank and Rabbit’s favorite banker, Bambi, and her lunch companions. Bambi seemed delighted and intrigued but what transpired next. The Lottery. I hate the Lottery. It preys on poor people. It wastes my time at the gas station. But, for twenty glorious minutes we had more fun playing dollar scratch offs than the guys in The Hangover. Replete with drama, triumph and ultimately loss – four grown men playing the scratch off can have a helluva time.

Penniless and basking in the bittersweet afterglow of gambling, we were delighted when our lunch arrived. The Greek Turkey deserves its wide praise. Thinly sliced turkey, lettuce, black olives, feta cheese and an unbelievably tasty greek dressing are neatly apportioned between two slices of pita bread. The greek dressing is so delicious, one of Bambi’s companions appeared to be drinking it. Even paired with a lame looking bag of Lay’s potato chips, The Greek Turkey is an absolute can’t miss.

Rabbit’s Tedder salad, another famous Other Store staple, was covered with an invitingly seasoned chicken that was good all by itself. Tex’s Jamaican sandwich included the same or similar chicken with a little extra kick on a surprisingly good sub roll. Tank’s club was so large that we had to help him get up from the table after he downed it, the aforementioned pasta, and a cookie for good measure.

All in all, the Lunchmen were very satisfied with the trek to Forest Acres. Despite the shortcomings – décor, distance, wait time – the food is so simply delicious that it demands the Lunchmen’s respect. In short, while it wouldn’t work every week, The Other Store is a fantastic quarterly alternative to downtown.

Concluding today’s post, the Publican has an ax to grind. The Lunchmen receive a little criticism from time to time. Hard to believe, I know. Chief among those criticisms is that the Lunchmen are too forgiving of flaws, given to hyperbole, and prone to heap praise upon undeserving establishments.

In a previous post, Tank soft pedaled this point a little – but the time has come for the truth about lunch to ring out: a delicious sandwich is a delicious sandwich.

Anticlimactic? Maybe. True? Absolutely. Whether served in a downtown outparcel, a shiny, trendy cafe, or a smoky old hole in the wall, the Lunchmen value good service, fresh ingredients and delicious meals. Moreover, it doesn’t much matter whether it was prepared by a classically trained chef, a slightly smug hipster or a sweaty old guy in a wife beater. So for those of you waiting for bad reviews – keep waiting – because we try our damndest not to eat at nasty restaurants and so far we’ve been pretty good at it.

- The Publican

The Other Store on Urbanspoon

MoMo's Bistro has re-opened

Posted by The LunchMen Friday, November 6, 2009 0 comments

Much to the relief of the Lunchmen, MoMo's Bistro on Devine has re-opened the doors for business. MoMo's is Tank's favorite weekend dinner spot, and he feared that his beloved osso bucco was gone forever when MoMo's closed the doors in August. If you are looking for a delicious meal this weekend, head over to MoMo's and show its proprietors that they made the right decision in keeping this beacon of Columbia dining up and running for us.

Known simply as “Immac,” this downtown eatery next to the Nickelodeon Theatre and across from the statehouse has been feeding government employees, students, and university faculty breakfast and lunch for years. The staff, décor, and attitude of the place is, in a word, artsy, but don’t let the hipsters sipping coffee out front or the bearded professors reading the newspaper and eating cookies inside scare you off. This place has some seriously good food that is fresh and filling.

This trip the Lunchmen took along Kali and Tex, who are becoming such common elements to our excursions that they may have to be inducted as permanent “Lunchmen” – an honor not lightly bestowed, believe me. We hit the line just before noon, thereby avoiding the lunch rush and securing a good spot to sit. (This is probably the biggest complaint about Immac – the seating. There isn’t much to begin with, and the booths they do offer are roughly the size of the back seat of a Miata. Needless to say, Tank and the crew opted for a stand alone table). I went with my old standby – the Immaculate Salad, which is in my opinion the best lunch salad in town, (along with No Name Deli, of course). On the recommendation of the young lady taking our order, I eschewed my normal dressing choice for their homemade honey mustard. It proved to be the right call, as it complimented the ham, turkey, and roast beef on the salad perfectly. What made my meal memorable, though, was the audible-at-the-line selection I made by asking for a side of warm pita bread. It’s less than a dollar to add it, and it provided a good starch to complete the meal. No complaints from rabbit on this one.

Honestly, I’m a little surprised to be this far into the blog without having mentioned Immac’s pasta salad. It’s a masterpiece, to put it bluntly. The beauty of this stuff lies in its simplicity. It’s basically warm penne pasta drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled lightly with parmesan cheese and a few sliced black olives. It’s not the only option for a side item at Immac, just the only one worth trying. All three of my dining companions had it with their meals, and none of them had any left for me to try.

Though perhaps not worthy of their own paragraph like the salad and pasta, the sandwiches and soups at Immac are all solid, and everything there is fresh to a fault. Other popular items include the baked delicacies they offer every day – Tank and Tex both got giant cookies to go before (Tank) and after (Tex) their meal. The place is also known for its coffee, and there is even a separate line where you can speed past the lunch or breakfast crowd to grab a quick caffeine fix. Rabbit does not drink coffee, so if you want more information you’ll have to try this place for yourself.

Chances are if you’ve been in the Capital City for any amount of time, you know about and have been to Immac. Maybe this article will remind you to head back again. If you are knew here or for some reason haven’t given it a shot, it’s worth the trip and parking hassle, if for nothing else than to sample the pasta.

-Rabbit

Immaculate Consumption on Urbanspoon

Hennessey's - 1649 Main Street

Posted by The LunchMen Monday, November 2, 2009 0 comments

Hennessey’s has been serving up fine dining in the Capital City for over 25 years. Long a standard for romantic-minded diners and business travelers, the Columbia landmark also offers a full lunch menu, hoping to parlay their reputation for a good night-time meal into a successful daytime enterprise. We had to ask, however, would the transition work? Can Hennessey’s master the long, multi-course dinner experience as well as the busy worker lunch market? The Lunchmen recently rounded up a posse of hungry workers to find out.

This trip was memorable if for nothing else than it marked the return of Tebow to the group. Tebow has been MIA for a while due to academic commitments, but rumor has it he has been making his eating prowess known at various haunts in the South Main area. In addition, Kali, the Publican, and first-time-diner, long-time-blog-admirer “Caveman” also joined us. On the way, the Publican noted that this large group would allow the entire menu to be on display, if Hennessey’s indeed had six items that sounded interesting enough to try. As it turns out, they had enough intriguing options to go around twice. We all enthusiastically ordered different things, eager to see what was in store.

The first thing that came out was bread. For anyone out there that owns a restaurant and would like a good review from this blog, here is a secret: The offering of fresh bread at the beginning of a meal can literally make or break your chances with Tank. He will automatically write off a place that should have it but doesn’t provide it, and will let other restaurants get away with culinary murder so long as there is ample mana and butter to witness the carnage. It’s like the clear plastic covers we all used to put on our book reports in grade school. Hennessey’s offered bread, so right then I knew Tank was going to give it high marks.

Therefore, in search of more objective thoughts, I turned to Caveman, who tried a black forest ham crossaint with egg salad, lettuce and tomato. This sounded so good I had almost ordered it myself, and it received positive reviews from its patron. Kali, never one to back down from a challenge, went for the meatloaf Panini, which was described as excellent, though would be too bold a move for this guy. Tebow, who can eat with the best of them, had the largest entrée, helping himself to a huge plate of southern grits with a large fried catfish filet on top. Pleased with himself, Tebow even drew comparisons to Mr. Friendly’s catfish and grits – which means Hennessey’s version had to be at least above average. As for myself, I gave the chef salad a try, and was impressed, though not overwhelmed. I probably got what I deserved for being unimaginative.

The most controversial thing on the menu here is without a doubt the house salad dressing. Hennessey’s is proud of it, and rightfully so – it is so popular that they have begun bottling it and selling it for people to take home. However, this stuff is like American Idol - either people either can’t stand it, or can’t get enough of it. After vigorous debate on the merits of the dressing, the group consensus was that the dressing is sort of like aerobic exercise – okay in moderation, but definitely not something you want to start doing habitually.

One more thing of note about Hennessey’s is the Godfather (parts I and II) style atmosphere that greets patrons. There is very little natural light, and the ceilings are abnormally low. The entire place seems to lend itself to hushed conversations. If someone dropped a plate or broke a glass, it is likely that the whole restaurant would know about it. Understand, this isn’t reported to be necessarily a bad thing. However, you should know it before you go in. In other words, small, loud children and NBA centers are probably not the best people to take to this place.

Other than that, however, the food was very good and just the change of pace our group needed. While not a quick affair, it you have a solid hour to kill next time you are at the state courthouse, give this place a try, and enjoy a more traditional, relaxed, “three martini” style lunch.

Hennessy's Restaurant & Lounge on Urbanspoon

Chick-Fil-A - 1301 Main Street

Posted by The LunchMen Monday, October 12, 2009 1 comments

I know what you are thinking - why are the Lunchmen giving a review on Chick-Fil-A? What's next, an article on how tasty McDonald's french fries are when you have a hangover? Listen, we wanted to write an entry on Chick-Fil-A today precisely because it is NOT McDonald's. If you are looking for the best fast & fried food you can find for lunch, then Chick-Fil-A is your spot.

McDonald's likes to try to win the public over with Monopoly games that never pay (me) any money and creepy, smiling clowns. This guy is not falling for it; McDonald's food generally is a phenomenon that should be studied in chemistry classes. I promise you, Chick-Fil-A is different. Like many Southern teenagers, I worked at a Chick-Fil-A in high school. Those chicken breasts and strips are no different than the ones you are buying in the grocery store, unless you are like Captain Understatement's Better Half and only buy chicken that has been hand-fed the best fresh-picked grains and housed in quarters fit for nobility. Chick-Fil-A's chicken is marinated over night, given a milk wash, hand-breaded in a secret blend of flour and spices, and deep fried for six minutes in fresh peanut oil. Its served on a buttered, toasted bun with two pickles.

The result is the best chicken sandwich that you will ever find at a chain restaurant. McDonald's attempt to rip off Chick-Fil-A, the Southern Style Chicken Sandwich, is a pathetic imitation. Rabbit, Mrs. Tank, the Publican and I were glad to rediscover this fact today, and at no cost to us. Since Chick-Fil-A is a proud sponsor of our beloved Gamecocks, they were quite happy to give us a free chicken sandwich in exchange for our ticket stubs from Saturday's home game. This deal was good enough to draw us out of our offices despite the pouring rain to enjoy waffle fries, hand-squeezed lemonade, and of course, the original southern chicken sandwich. Its not a healthy lunch, but its a sinful pleasure that sure hits the spot - particularly for Frodo, who likes to sneak to Chick-Fil-A by himself multiple times a week.

Obviously, it is still a fast food joint, so there are some missteps you can make by eating at Chick-Fil-A that may result in a bad time. Rule #1: stay very clear of the chicken salad. Trust me. You probably should steer away from the carrot raisin salad, too. Rule #2: Don't go when it is too slow - those chicken sandwiches are best when they are piping hot and have not had time to sit in a warming drawer. Rule #3: To maximize freshness, don't order a standard sandwich. Mix it up by leaving off the pickles, ordering a slice of cheese on it, or asking for no butter on the bun. This ensures that they have to make you a fresh one to order, which is always good. While your at it, order a deluxe - a little lettuce and tomato can probably do you some good if you are scarfing down fried poultry and waffle-cut potatoes.

Let's hope the Gamecocks keep scoring three touchdowns during the home games so that I can have more Mondays with free Chick-Fil-A sandwiches. Go Cocks.

- Tank

Chick-fil-A on Urbanspoon

Carolina Cafe - 925 Sumter Street

Posted by The LunchMen Wednesday, October 7, 2009 2 comments

Typical cafe turning out typical results.

Tebow was so kind as to drive Rabbit, the Publican, and I to lunch today. I thought we were headed to Tio's, but a mid-route audible placed us next door at the Carolina Cafe. Parking for Carolina Cafe can be bad, but we were fortunate to have a 30-minute parking spot vacate as we were pulling up. If that's not writing on the wall....

Carolina Cafe looks exactly like you would expect a cafe to look. Yellow, cafe walls are adorn by random, low-end cafe art. The food counter has a bunch of college kids standing behind it debating the merits of enrolling in an art history course next semester. The food is pretty typical cafe food as well: soups, salads, bagels, and sandwiches. I don't say "typical" to convey any negative connotation - the food was fresh and of decent quality. Rabbit's Chef Salad had healthy, ripe veggies in it, and it lacked any wilted lettuce or sour tomatoes. He was a little down because the salad was pre-made earlier in the day, meaning that he had to pull out the cheese and egg yolks himself. However, the salad was passable.

Tebow and the Publican were pleased with the quality of the sandwiches they ordered. They commented on the fact that the turkey was better than one might find at a sub-par cafe or at Bi-Lo on sale; it was a nice cut of meat that was as lunch meat should be - moist, but not slimy. That's good, right? Similarly, my spinach bagel seemed recently baked, and the chicken salad I had on top of it was good, although a little heavy on the mayo. The pasta salad I had on the side was not very good at all because it lacked any imagination or flavor. I should have had a bag of Bickel's of York original potato chips instead.

We were discussing how to review our average experience at the Carolina Cafe when, to our pleasant surprise, Captain Understatement's Better Half sauntered into the restaurant for some solo dining. Captain Understatement's Better Half comes from a land where food is treated with more care and love than it receives at a place like the Carolina Cafe. Her mother is an excellent Greek cook, and I have been on the receiving end of some truly delightful fare that she has whipped out on a weekend afternoon. We asked her for her input, and she summed up the experience well (I'm paraphrasing):

"Its fine, its just fine. Its not great. You guys say that too many things are good that aren't THAT good. Its tasty enough for me to come grab and egg and cheese sandwich or a bagel because I work so close by, but it is nothing remarkable."

This was well said. The food at the Carolina Cafe is just ... pretty good.

We agree that often we describe things as "good" when, in a global sense, they aren't very remarkable at all. Certainly, the Carolina Cafe is not going to compete with the delis of New York and the side-walk cafes of Paris. Its not nearly that "good." When we say anything is "good" on this blog, we should probably qualify that opinion with the phrase "good for Columbia" or "good if your in this part of Columbia looking for a bite of what this place serves."

On a global scale of 1-10, I'd give the Carolina cafe only about a 2. On a Columbia deli/cafe scale, particularly around Campus, I'd rate it about a 5 - not too bad, just okay.

- Tank

Carolina Cafe & Catering Co on Urbanspoon

Zoe’s Kitchen – 1320 Main Street

Posted by The LunchMen Tuesday, October 6, 2009 0 comments

About a year and a half ago, Zoe’s Kitchen opened its first outpost in the Palmetto State on Forest Drive, in the heart of Forest Acres. It immediately garnered praise among the country club crowd for its delicious chicken delicacies and famous “dinner for four” options that provided busy soccer moms with ready-made family sized meals at their drive through window. On September 29, 2009, the owner of Zoe’s transported his concept to Uptown, opening a new Zoe’s in the space formerly occupied by Birds on a Wire.

FULL DISCLOSURE – The owner of Zoe’s is a good friend of mine that I have known for years. With that in mind, I tried to rustle up the largest contingent of diners possible for the Lunchmen review so that we would get a candid and accurate portrayal of the Zoe’s Uptown experience. After receiving feedback from everyone at my table, as well as some other diners sprinkled throughout the place, I can say without any reservation that Zoe’s is destined to be a go-to destination for all downtown office workers.

Three of my comrades, Take-Out, Tank, and Kali, all went with the “Gruben” on Take-Out’s suggestion – a restaurant favorite consisting of turkey, swiss, slaw and spicy mustard on grilled rye – with pasta salad as their side choice. Everyone was equally impressed, and the sandwich is available for $6.99 – right on par with most Uptown locales. The Publican was enticed by the free samples available when you walk in and went for the chicken salad sandwich, also with pasta (Another solid choice from the $6.99 section of the menu). Tex mixed it up by ordering the chicken roll ups, a Zoe’s staple featuring grilled chicken mixed with feta, lettuce, tomato, caramelized onions, and rice rolled into tortillas with salsa and a side - Tex's side was the unique, low fat marinated slaw (no mayo, it’s a vinegar based slaw).

Everyone at the table agreed Tex had the second best looking option. The first, of course, belonged to yours truly, who used his extensive Zoe’s on Forest Drive experience to order the truly bold chicken kabobs – grilled chicken on skewers with peppers, onions and tomatoes served on top of rice pilaf with a side of greek salad and pita bread. The kabobs are admittedly a bit pricier at $8.95, but well worth it for a true meal prepared fresh and served quickly to our table. Several people commented that their next trip to Zoe’s would be for these kabobs – which are also available in shrimp.

Another table, this one featuring Lunchmen supporter Knasty (who bemoaned the archaic laws preventing a marriage to his Gruben), ordered Greek chicken pitas and was, as expected, delighted with their choices (also $6.99 with a side). Of everyone surveyed, there were no complaints beyond a little difficulty finding seats for our rather large party.

As for the rest of the menu, all of the favorites from the Forest Drive location are available on Main Street, as well as some additional options featuring beef instead of chicken. There is a lot of intriguing stuff on this menu, including but not limited to: side dishes of braised white beans, no-mayo potato salad, and roasted vegetables; sandwiches such as a Mediterranean tuna pita with capers, red onions, olives, lettuce and tomato (again no mayo); pita pizzas with chicken and vegetables; and the especially captivating “Stacks” – the Olympus, The Grilled Veggie, and the Steak Stack. The Main Street location also serves beer and wine, and plans to open for breakfast in the near future.

As you can tell, Zoe’s has impressed the Lunchmen thus far, and their menu demands further exploration. Look for updates as we return to this new spot on our rotation.

- Rabbit

p.s. Zoe's Kitchen is undoubtedly the Lunchmen's latest Lunch Spot of the Week.

Zoe's Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Golden Chopstix - 1505 Charleston Hwy, West Columbia

Posted by The LunchMen Friday, October 2, 2009 1 comments

Today, the Lunchmen took a crowd of seven across the river to that strip mall at the end of Knox Abbott that looks like a colonial plantation fallen on hard times. Once there, we were in for some of the best Thai cuisine Columbia has to offer.

I'm surprised about how many people in Columbia have not heard of Golden Chopstix. Big Spur came with us to lunch today, and even though he has been around Columbia longer than in-door plumbing, the name was unknown to him. Check out the picture of the goodness that has just been waiting on him to show up. He liked it so much that he claimed that he would come back for dinner, by himself if necessary. I was impressed by Big Spur, considering last time that I convinced him to go for a lunch featuring curry, albeit Indian curry, he swore off all food from the sub-continent.

Golden Chopstix serves up traditional Thai and Vietnamese dishes that will tickle your palate with rice, spice, and everything nice. Their spring rolls are fresh and delicious. The soup selection is amazing - I highly recommend a bowl of the Tom Kha Kai Chicken for a comforting fall dish. Whether you order Vietnamese noodles, one of the many Thai curry dishes, or a standard such as fried rice, you really can't miss with this menu.

We were accompanied by the Dude at lunch today, who was not too shy to order an appetizer of spring rolls before tackling a mean order of Shrimp Pad Thai. That is a bold and respectable move. The Dude was pleased, which is significant because he is the resident expert in our midst on Asian food. Tex had Pad Thai as well, placing his order for "medium" heat. For a man that likes heat, "medium" doesn't quite cut it at Golden Chopstix. He and I both had to add a little red pepper to our dishes to give that extra kick that makes Thai food such a wake up call at lunch. I was glad that the Queen of Frozen Cuisine also came out today to see how good an Asian dish can be when it has not been frozen for months inside a wee plastic box. She had some Pad Kee-Mao that rocked her frozen, plastic world.

If Thai and Vietnamese sound too exotic for you, you can be a sissy and order some fried rice or a teriyaki dish. I only ask that if you do go this route, man up and order a Laotian beer for lunch. They've got Beerlao at Golden Chopstix; according to Beerlao, their brew "is made with only the choicest ingredients, like hand-picked indigenous rice varieties, spring water originating from the foothills of the Himalayas, Hallertau hops, German yeast and French malted barley." I can neither confirm nor deny these allegations, because I simply had a pot of green tea at lunch.

Before you pass judgment on me, know that I rectified this mistake on the way back Uptown by swinging into Vella's with Tex, Rabbit, and the Publican and grabbing a cold Sam Adams Octoberfest at the bar. Friday lunch is a great institution, and that's the way to do it, my friends.

- Tank

Golden Chopstix Vietnamese on Urbanspoon

Villa Tronco - 1213 Blanding Street

Posted by The LunchMen Thursday, October 1, 2009 0 comments

Few things are more rewarding at lunch than finding something great that you were not expecting at all. I was fortunate to have such an experience today at Villa Tronco.

Today Tex, the Publican, and I headed over to the Villa on foot so that we could enjoy the fine early fall weather gracing Columbia this week. I've dined at the Villa for dinner, and Mrs. Tank and I were underwhelmed. The restaurant is decked out like a mob flick shot in the Godfather era (I love old mob movies) complete with floor to ceiling wood paneling, images of elderly Italians on the wall, and a thick smell of garlic and history clinging to everything. Some may consider the feel of the Villa home-like and relaxing, but it hasn't quite worked for me in the past.

However, today's lunch was an unqualified success. The room of the restaurant where we dined has a sun light that brightened the atmosphere significantly. For the meal, the Villa started us off with some fresh, warm bread and butter. It was a good call on their part, as the food was a tad slow making it to the table. The delay could have been because Tex ordered a combo platter with lasagna, cheese ravioli, and fettuccine alla Tronco, along with a side salad. Bold for a man staring down the barrel of a long afternoon of work. He was happily sloshing pasta sauce all over me while he scarfed down these tasty traditional Italian offerings. The Publican went a little out of the box with a healthy crab cake spinach salad with tomatoes, mushrooms, and red onions. The Publican gave his salad high marks as well.

This guy, however, went way off the reservation and ordered a burger at an Italian restaurant. For a side, I had crunchy bagel chips with a sun-dried tomato cream cheese. Nice change of pace from the pasta salads I've eaten with reckless abandon all summer. The burger was cooked perfectly medium well. Inside the juicy patty was spinach and pecorino romano cheese - delicious. The burger was topped with a nice fontina cheese, red onion, fresh greens, and tomato slices. It was a perfect burger! I told Kali afterward that we made an error in not including Villa Tronco in the Best Burger of Columbia poll, because mine today was right up at the top.

I would have never expected to find such a great burger at the Villa. For those who can't decide what they want for lunch, the Villa's menu offers many other options, including paninis, pizzas, soups, salads, and all of the traditional Italian meals you may crave. The rates are a little high - you are not going to get out of there without spending over $10 - but the food was a nice change of pace for us. The Villa should be considered a go-to spot Uptown for those looking for something different or a great spot for a business lunch.

- Tank

Villa Tronco Italian Restaurant on Urbanspoon

New Zoe's now open

Posted by The LunchMen Wednesday, September 30, 2009 0 comments

If you work on Main Street near the capital, you've probably seen the signs, banners, and balloons. If you don't, then here is some long-awaited news - Zoe's Restaurant has finally opened its Uptown location at 1320 Main Street in the space previously occupied by Birds on a Wire. Rabbit loves Zoe's so much that it hurts him to be away from it, so he ran to lunch yesterday with his pop to enjoy the grand opening. Who could blame him? Since opening up on Forest Drive, Zoe's has garnered the affection of many Columbia residents. If you don't live out that way, you might not have tried Zoe's yet. If not, head over to Zoe's for lunch and give it a shot!

Gotham Bagel is an improvement over Rising High, the previous tenant at 1508 Main, but not much of one.

Let's face it. Rising High was bad. Really bad. First and foremost, the service was deplorable, almost abusive. Second, they ran out of most food that you would want to order every morning, so if you tried to get a bagel at lunch, you were just out of luck. Third, aside from the baked breads, I never had an appetizing meal at Rising High. So when it shut its doors, we were excited to see what restaurant would take its place.

Gotham has been up and running on Main Street for months now. Gone is the deplorable service of Rising High; the awkward service of Gotham has taken its place. Placing customers in a line to order food is expected at an Uptown lunch spot, but Gotham confuses patrons right away with its ordering system by failing to provide even a line. Rather, there is just...space. You stand in space with other patrons vying for position until you find a warm body behind the counter to scribble down your order. Then you mosey over to the register and get in a line to pay for the order you just placed. It seems to the Lunchmen that this process could be streamlined by simply having orders placed at the registers....

As for the menu, Gotham offers up a good number of sandwich options, some of which even are intriguing (on paper). No matter which combination I've tried, however, each time I've found myself somewhat dissatisfied with the result. Sometimes the bread is too dry; other times the roast beef too brown or the grilled chicken over-cooked, or the ingredients on the sandwich just don't pair well. Whatever it may be, something always seems to stand in the way of Gotham giving me a good sandwich. I'm not just being picky, either. Rabbit, Captain Understatement, Pizza the Hut, Fabio - they all agree. Gotham consistently is putting out below-average cuisine for us at lunch.

Look, if you are needing a morning bite in Uptown, go grab a muffin or bagel at Gotham. These alone are almost good enough to keep Gotham off of our "Boo List." Gotham even has all sorts of flavored cream cheese for your bagel if you are seeking a day's worth of calories before 9:00 a.m. However, for lunch, there are too many other good sandwich options Uptown, even within a block of Gotham, to warrant many trips to 1508 Main Street.

- Tank

gotham Bagel Cafe on Urbanspoon

Al Amir - 629 Main Street

Posted by The LunchMen Wednesday, September 23, 2009 1 comments

Once upon a time, Al Amir graced the Shandon area as the go-to place for fine Mediterranean cuisine. For whatever reason, a couple of years back the restaurant packed up and moved to the suburbs, opening a new place in the dreaded “Harbison” area. Townies lamented the loss of this landmark, and had to turn elsewhere for dining options from the Middle Sea. So, you can imagine our excitement when we learned that Al Amir had opened a new restaurant on South Main Street, close to campus, the government buildings, and most importantly, our office. We quickly gathered a group and headed on over.

What we hoped would be a strong satellite of the mother-ship restaurant, however, turned out to be more of an ugly stepchild. First, the downtown Al Amir doesn’t offer their famous pizzas or Damascus bread. This is the equivalent of having a strip club where the customers wear blindfolds. When we found out that pizza was not on the menu, we contemplated leaving altogether. However, we stayed to give the place a fair shake, and we resolved to find other delicious items to make up for it. Sadly, we failed to do so.

I opted for Veggie Kabobs with yellow rice and a side salad. At least I think that is what I ordered. My meal was so bland, so forgettable, that I’m having trouble remembering exactly what was served. That’s not to say that it was bad, but it just wasn’t really great either. I’m accustomed to leaving Al Amir stuffed and impressed, not hungry and under-whelmed. Two of my dining companions shared this sentiment.

However, there is some hope, courtesy of Kali. Kali opted for the student special – a Gyro and Fries for 5 bucks (available on Tuesdays) – and he was relatively pleased with his choice, especially for the price. If this option catches on with the Carolina kids, then Al Amir just might draw in the crowds it needs to make it on Campus. Rumor also has it that there is a brick oven in the works at the new location. If so, then we will be heading back down to give them another try. However, they won't be seeing any more of us with the current menu.

- Rabbit

Al Amir on Urbanspoon

Bombay Grill - 245 Bush River Road

Posted by The LunchMen Monday, September 21, 2009 3 comments

It may still look like a Chinese restaurant on the outside, but inside the pagoda-style building located on the edge of the Boozer Shopping Center that used to house the Peking Palace is some of the best creations from the sub-continent you will find in Columbia.

Rabbit and I cannot disagree more about Indian food. He hates it, and I love it. He thinks it all tastes and smells like curry. I think that no cuisine in the world uses more variety and spice to ignite a full-blown party in your mouth. So, since Rabbit was out of the office on Thursday, we took two carloads of workers over to the Bombay Grill to face their fare for the first time. Most of us are experienced Indian eaters; Captain Understatement and I used to put it down weekly in Five Points, and Tex took a long vacation to India about a year ago and explored its culinary goodness. However, kudos to Frodo, who was so bold as to trust this motley crew with his first Indian food experience; boy, was he rewarded for his faith.

Bombay Grill offers up a wide variety of vegetarian options, as well as a few chicken dishes on its appetizing and well-kept buffet. The chutney selection was great; the mint chutney saved my mouth when I enthusiastically ate a whole pepper that was a part of the smorgasbord of pakoras. The Publican tried to act like those peppers weren't hot. He is a liar who cannot be trusted (unless he posting on this blog, of course - we edit him).

The star dish this day was the chicken tikka masala. This curry dish contained the perfect mixture of tomato sauce and cream, producing that rich, orange color that would make even Rabbit's mouth water. Although I would have enjoyed a more intense "heat," the level was just right for an Indian buffet meant to please all comers. The chicken was cut generously and remained succulent, never succumbing to the continued heat that a buffet necessarily applies. Served atop an airy basmati rice, the chicken tikka masala is reason alone for me to make another trip out to the Bombay Grill soon.

However, I believe that the true test of success was how Frodo, our Indian-first-timer, enjoyed his introduction the spicy, savory delights of India. The little guy seemed genuinely impressed by the range of options and flavors that the dishes offered. He was enamored by the fried goodness of the pakora-style peppers, and he claimed that every thing he ate was tasty. He enjoyed the meal so much that, at one point, he leaped onto his chair and began singing its praises in an elvish tongue while rubbing his belly - it was an embarrassing moment for us and served as a reminder why he doesn't get invited to lunch very often.

Frodo claims that the Bombay Grill has made him a believer in Indian food. I would call that the definition of a successful lunch.

- Tank

Bombay Grill on Urbanspoon

POLL RESULTS: Five Guys has the Best Burger

Posted by The LunchMen Friday, September 18, 2009 0 comments


Thanks to all of you who voted in our inaugural poll on one of the most important topics facing Columbia today - where we can find the best hamburger. Garnering 40% of the total votes, you have indicated that I was right all along - Five Guys Burger and Fries puts out the tastiest burger in Columbia. Although I'm slow to endorse any chain, when food is this good you can't knock it just because it is produced in multiple cities. Five Guys have elevated the chain hamburger with the use of never-frozen beef, freshly sliced produced, custom-ordered buns, and all the fixings a burger-lover could desire for the same low price. My burger is usually a 1000-calorie creation consisting of two beef patties, bacon, cheese, grilled onions, lettuce, tomato, jalapenos, mustard, mayo, and A-1 sauce, and it is so unwieldy by the time the speedy staff of Five Guys is done building it that it ends up looking like a train wreck. If only all train wrecks were so delicious....

In our estimation, famous Columbia establishment Rockaway's and flashy new-comer Pauley's Front Porch put out the second-best burgers in Columbia. You agreed, giving both establishments 23% percent each of the remaining vote. The Rockaway burger, which comes topped with the best pimento cheese in town, is so good that former President George W. Bush could not resist its lure during his last trip to Columbia. As for Pauley's, well, we have already dedicated an entry of this blog to rave about the nifty burger creations they are cranking out, but these burgers are so good that they deserve another shout-out here. If you want to ride the next wave of burger innovation, saddle up to the bar at Pauley's and experience a burger that you could not have dreamed up on your own.

Apparently, we have overlooked some favorites. It was inevitable, considering how many tasty burgers our restaurants serve up. 11% of you thought that Columbia's burger was simply not on our ballot. Please post a comment and let us know which ones we missed, because I'd hate to think that somewhere here in town is a hidden jewel of a burger that the Lunchmen have yet to tackle!

Hunter-Gatherer - 900 Main St.

Posted by The LunchMen Thursday, September 17, 2009 0 comments

Alright, pop quiz. Where is my #1 spot for a delicious beer in Columbia? Hunter-Gatherer. Who serves my favorite appetizers and bar food in town? Hunter-Gatherer - that black bean dip rocks. Where is my favorite pizza in town? Well, its still at Dano's, but the Nance at Hunter-Gatherer (named for the proprietor's mom) is right up there, too.

If you don't love the Hunter-Gatherer, then you are a bad American. Full disclosure here, Kevin Varner, the Hunter-Gatherer's owner, is a cousin of Mrs. Tank. But even before I met Mrs. Tank and her family, I heralded Hunter-Gatherer as the best dinner spot in town for under-$20 entrees and as one of the coolest bars in South Carolina. As you know from our "Breaking News" post last week, H-G is now serving lunch. To say the Lunchmen were thrilled to hear this development is a massive understatement.

The Hunter-Gatherer continues to set itself apart with its use of ultra fresh, local fare and amazing, hand-crafted beers. As for proteins, Caw Caw Creek, a humane livestock farm near St. Matthews, produces H-G's outstanding sausage - eat it on a bun and you'll be thrilled. And for those seeking lighter fare, you will find simply the freshest and tasty fruits and veggies selected from our regional produce.

Kevin and his staff have rolled out some of the traditional menu favorites for lunch. The pizzas are all up for grabs, and the always-delicious steak sandwich is a strong call for bold lunchers. However, to bring things well within your lunch budget, Hunter-Gatherer has made additions to the menu that are sure to please anyone who makes the trip for lunch. We went with a group of six for the opening lunch, and four of us grabbed a new sandwich off the menu. H-G received only positive feedback and accolades for the tasty additions from all. Rabbit, of course, grabbed one of the four fresh salad options. I think he actually had to call in back-up to finish the salad, but he was quite pleased with his choice.

I'd be remiss if I did not discuss my beer - insert Homer Simpson drooling clip here - because these brews are reason alone to go to H-G. For lunch, I tried one of the high gravity beers (only one, of course) which was brewed in-house. The brew was a dark, delicious porter with mocha goodness and a dessert-like quality to it. It made my day.

I could go on with this meandering prose about H-G all day, but eventually it would bore everyone but me. Just go down there and grab some lunch, have a beer, and enjoy it for yourself.

- Tank

P.S. No surprise here, H-G is absolutely the Lunchmen's new Lunch Spot of the Week.

Hunter-Gatherer Brewery & Ale on Urbanspoon

Salty Nut Café – 2000 Greene Street

Posted by The LunchMen Monday, September 14, 2009 0 comments

The Salty Nut Café is a Five Points Institution. It’s large wrap-around deck, free roasted peanuts, and plentiful TV’s make “the Nut” a popular place to relax for happy hour during the warm weather months (February to November in Columbia). Later in the night and on the weekends the crowd becomes noticeably younger and rowdier, but if you can grab a table on the back porch of the restaurant then you have an unparalleled spot to enjoy some draft beer and serious people watching. The Nut also boasts an extensive food menu, though most people order dinner only after a few after-work drinks stretch into dinner time. The kitchen stays open late and offers standard bar fare in addition to wraps, salads, and newly arrived seafood po’ boys (shrimp, oysters, flounder).

I’ve been steadily pouring my money into this place since the fall of 2001. In fact, I’ll never forget the bartender’s reaction when I came in for my 21st birthday: “Are you serious? You’ve been drinking here for three years!!” I think its safe to say I’ve tried just about all the entrees on the menu - usually with an appetizer of two or three bourbon drinks.

This past Friday was a typical early football season day in the Capital City – warm, sunny, and unproductive. Hoping to get the weekend started off early, a large group of us headed to the Nut to try lunch out on the patio. The outing started off strong as we found a large table that could accommodate us all and helped ourselves to a few baskets of the complimentary peanuts. However, things soon took a turn for the worse.

When our food finally arrived – we didn’t get to eat until about an hour after sitting down – it was clear that, without the benefit of a little liquid pleasure to whet our appetite, the Nut’s menu simply does not stand up. While there were several different reasons people did not enjoy their food there was one common word used to describe the meal by all: DRY. Tank and Caveman both ordered Chicken Phillies, which had way too much bread and no juicy goodness of any kind (Caveman was smart enough to wash his down with a beer). A large number of the group went for jalapeño burgers, a house specialty, only to find themselves in dire need of condiments to take some of the heat off. In fact, despite his towering physical presence and striking good looks, Fabio was unable to get our waitress to bring any ketchup to the table. Luckily Tex took matters into is own hands and snagged a bottle off of a table inside. Also, the raw fries, which when served greasy and soggy have no rival, were on this day overcooked and brittle. The Queen of Frozen Cuisine may not leave the office for months after the poor tuna melt the Nut served her, and we doubt her sister will ever come to lunch with us again.

To make matters worse, the sun began to beat down on the patio, and the group waited over half an hour to get their checks. Pizza the Hut and Fabio simply left cash and the rest of the group behind. The end result was a two hour lunch that did little for our working goal for the week and even less for our appetites. Word to the wise – Salty Nut is a can’t-miss for a night out in Five Points, but I wouldn’t try heading over there until happy hour.

- Rabbit

Salty Nut Cafe on Urbanspoon

H-G expands into the lunch game

Posted by The LunchMen Tuesday, September 8, 2009 0 comments

A big development in Columbia's lunch scene today, folks. The Hunter-Gatherer, rated the #4 restaurant in Columbia by voters on Urbanspoon.com, is now serving lunch. This is a great move by the best brew pub in South Carolina, which proudly serves inventive recipes comprised of local meats and vegetables, delicious personal pizzas, and a brewed-on-site beer selection that will blow you away. Get over to the Hunter-Gather for lunch as soon as possible to support their expanded hours!


I don't say it very often, but there is only one word to describe our experience at Hong Kong last week - Booooooooo.

Here's what happened. Captain Understatement suggested that the Lunchmen call an audible and try a Chinese buffet he heard was good and affordable. Since we have not reviewed any Chinese restaurants on this blog, I hastily, perhaps too hastily, agreed. The Publican and Tex decided to make the trip, despite having some GI concerns about the fare that awaited us.

The air conditioning must have been down at Hong Kong, because it was hot enough to fry a wonton when we entered the restaurant. An industrial fan blowing across the dining area did little to alleviate the discomfort. The buffet itself was affordable - $5.25 is cheap for any uptown location. The good news ends there, however. For instance, I opted for bottled water after scoping out the suspect container with a hand-written sign that read "Water" on it. Those who were less prudent agreed that the water tasted as though it was from a garden hose - not a refreshing reprieve from the restaurant's temperature, to be sure.

The menu items had familiar names, such as "General Tso Chicken," "Sweet and Sour Chicken," "Fried Rice," etc. However, each dish proved to be below the already low bar set for Chinese buffet food. The grub was greasy to the point of being an environmental hazard if thrown out. The safest bet on the buffet was the fried dough with sugar - coincidentally the most difficult dish to mess up.

The service was equally disappointing. Tex could only swallow down one thing on the menu - the eggrolls. After taking a trip or two back to the buffet for a second eggroll and returning to his seat empty-handed, an employee asked whether he wanted anything else. Tex kindly requested that the eggrolls be replenished. Ten minutes later - no eggroll - even though the restaurant had nine people in it. As an aside, one of those nine appeared to be a wild-eyed maniac who was more intent on staring the Lunchmen down with a look that conveyed a blood-lust we rarely encounter at lunch. Spooky.

Tex left Hong Kong completely unsatisfied. He was not the only one.

The Publican decided wanted to wait it out for an eggroll, so I agreed to stay behind with him while Captain Understatement and Tex sauntered back to the office to recover from an overdose of grease and salt. In retrospect, it was a bad decision. Sometimes when a lunch goes this bad, its best just to cut your losses and walk away. Lessen learned.

- Tank

Hampton Place - 1230 Hampton St.

Posted by The LunchMen Thursday, September 3, 2009 2 comments


Everyone that goes to lunch with us carries a pink "Credit Card" in their wallet. Why? The reason is the Hampton Place Cafe. This little spot on Hampton Street between Main and Sumter is our go-to restaurant for a sandwich in Uptown, and after you buy seven of their delicious sandwiches or salads, that little pink card ensures that your next meal at Hampton Place is free.

Hampton place is known for their classics - the TSHM (turkey, swiss, and honey mustard), the RBHM (roast beef and honey mustard), and the Chicken Salad Club (think BLT w/ chicken salad). The sandwiches come standard with corn chips, potato salad, and a pickle spear. Experienced diners know that it is better to pass on the potato salad and either 1) grab some extra chips and salsa or a side of their own feta ranch, or 2) pitch in an extra buck and get a side Greek salad. Since the sandwiches are all priced under $7, a salad doesn't push lunch over $10. Whenever we head over to Hampton Place, I can be sure that many in the pack, if not all, will be ordering one these popular options. Well, except Rabbit. More often than not, he is pulled in by one of Hampton Place's massive salads. The best one in my humble opinion is the "new" Santa Fe salad. It is a taco salad on steroids.

Every now and then I stray from my usual order, "RBHM, no potato salad, just corn chips and a side of feta ranch," and I try something new. This week, I ordered the Hali Cali. Its a turkey sandwich w/ lettuce, tomato, sprouts, avocado, and sunflower seeds. This light fare was perfect for a temperate summer day, and the sunflowers seeds added a little something special. Rabbit went truly bold and ordered the skyscraper - the biggest sandwich on Hampton Place's menu. It looked so good, Pizza the Hut had to take a photo of it.

Hampton Place also serves some warm dishes for those who seek comfort in the cool winter months. Particularly popular, at least with Mrs. Tank, is the lasagna. Rumor has it that it is simply a popular store-bought brand, but she remains undeterred by that possibility. They also have a daily soup selection, but I have yet to be impressed by one. One other note of caution, steer very clear of the krab salad. It is a dark stain on the face of an otherwise delightful menu.

As usual, we all left Hampton Place pleasantly full and sporting a new hole punched into our pink cards. I'm only one punch away from my free meal, so you better believe that we'll be heading back to Hampton Place in the next week so that I can grab another RBHM.

- Tank

Hampton Place Cafe on Urbanspoon


As a college student at Carolina, I spent literally hundreds of nights and countless dollars at Columbia’s premier dive bar on Greene Street, Pavlov’s. Free pool on Mondays and Wednesdays, $2 Tuesdays, and the normal female contingent that comes with a Thursday, Friday or Saturday in Five Points meant that every night of the week was an opportunity to make a series of bad decisions. Sufficed to say, I hated missing opportunities. Oh, and one more thing, I met Mrs. Rabbit there my senior year, and we’ve been together ever since. What a special place.

It was only fitting then, that when I went to lunch this week with a dear old college buddy, “Eastbound and Down,” that we would find ourselves unexplainably drawn to site of our greatest conquests and most epic failures. Just a stone’s throw away from the Pavlov’s/Salty Nut Compound across Greene Street is Mr. Friendly’s New Southern Café. Friendly’s is a longtime staple for low-country cuisine at dinner time, and since they don’t take reservations diners often gladly wait, cocktail in hand, over an hour for a chance to try the mustard pork or famous shrimp and grits. But what of the other meal of the day – lunch? Could Friendly’s duplicate their excellence during the daylight, or are they like Dracula and the Sorority girls that frequent Pavlov’s, doing their best work in the dark?

The atmosphere, while never stuffy at night to begin with, is noticeably more casual at lunch, and most of the crowded restaurant appeared to be women whose children were grown and now occupied themselves on boards of various charities and social clubs. There was also a good sprinkling of professionals throughout.

The menu was creative, but not overly expansive. There were several items that looked intriguing and bold, but neither Eastbound nor I had the guts to risk an unproductive afternoon back in the office. Both of us ordered one of Friendly’s “big salads” – I opted for the Southwest Caesar with Blackened Shrimp, while Eastbound took on a curried chicken with mangos over a bed of lettuce. The salads were indeed fresh and truly a meal in themselves. We were both satisfied, and agreed that the ingredients were of the caliber you would expect when eating at Friendly’s (and paying well over $10). As we reminisced about our collegiate exploits, both of us agreed that, had we done this while in school, it would have by far been the nicest meal either of us bought during those four years.

At the end of the meal, we decided that Friendly’s is worthy of another trip soon, with a bigger crowd, perhaps on a Friday, when the full extent of the menu can be explored. Just a few items that warrant consideration are the “Low Country Grilled Chicken Stack,” which basically is a tower of grilled chicken, fried green tomatoes, bacon pimento cheese, bbq sauce, and mashed potatoes. The Fried Oyster Po’ Boy is also famously good, and was actually suggested to me by a fellow diner. Perhaps most intriguing to this blogger is that all of the entrees come with your choice of Creole slaw or succotash, both of which are personal favorites.

All in all, a good call if you’re prepared to pay a little extra – but when you get a chance to travel down memory lane, it’s worth it, right?

- Rabbit

Mr Friendly's New Southern on Urbanspoon

Tony's Pizza Downtown - 1120 Washington St.

Posted by The LunchMen Wednesday, September 2, 2009 0 comments


Tony’s Pizza Downtown, a fixture in the Columbia lunch scene, is tucked below street level on the 1100 block of Washington Street. Set underneath a dreary parking garage, amidst a string of loan sharks and other small businesses, a clean, new “Tony’s Downtown” awning invites Columbia business people underground.

Once inside the door, you’ll typically be met immediately by the line of nurses, bankers, office staffers, bureaucrats and lawyers silently struggling over whether to get the usual or take a chance on the simple little restaurant’s expansive menu. The atmosphere feels just dated enough to make you feel at home – like your great aunt who keeps everything nice and clean, but complains about how they don’t make TV’s in wood panel boxes like they used to (to be fair, it should be noted that, in a wildly ironic display of modernism, Caveman finds it a bit dark).

Even when extending out the door, the line moves quickly; probably because most folks I know say “Lasagna, Italian Dressing and a Tea” or “Baked Spaghetti, Thousand Island and a Water,” and pick up their plastic number to head for a booth. A few brave souls call out for The Special or The Cock and Fire Sandwich, and their courage is also richly rewarded. Ristorante Divino it is not – or so I’m told – I’ve never actually had the coin to visit the vaunted Gervais street eatery. The Italian fare at Tony’s is simple and homespun.

Speaking of simple, I always get the lasagna. To see why, check out the picture - compliments of our very own Pizza the Hut. With that dish, Tony’s starts you out with a small bowl of salad. Unless you are in tip-top cardiac shape, I suggest requesting the dressing on the side. Maybe it is to mask the less-than-perfect iceberg lettuce or maybe they just like it that way – but the ratio of dressing to salad is nearly 1:1. The salad is followed shortly by a basket of buttered garlic toast. Buttered with an enthusiasm rarely seen outside high school cafeterias, the hearty toast is a great way to dispense with all that left over salad dressing. On the heels of dipping your butter sponge in the dressing comes the real deal – everything happens fast here – Tony’s lasagna comes out steaming hot in an oval shaped dish. It seriously tastes just like Mom’s. No weird spices. No fancy presentation. No funny Italian sausage. Just pure deliciousness. Even the Queen of Frozen Cuisine agreed that the lasagna made her rare trip out of the office an excellent experience.

By the way – you’ve cheated yourself if that butter sponge didn’t get a go at the bottom of your lasagna dish.

I would be content to end the story there, but Tank and Rabbit insist we explore more of the menu, so here goes. Rabbit, true to form, had the Greek salad with grilled chicken. I dare say Rabbit aka “Salad the Greek” is an expert on all things salad – particularly Greek salad. Adequately portioned in a medium sized black bowl, the presentation was simple and appetizing with a healthy portion of right-sized chicken morsels atop a classic Greek salad. Rabbit’s report: “baller.” I guess that means he liked it. Tank and Caveman both opted for The Special: Greek pasta with grilled chicken. As Rabbit later remarked: “equally baller.” Both Tank and the hard to please Caveman remarked about how good the chicken and pasta were, as well as how the flavors were appropriately paired.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that many in my office enjoy Tony’s without falling all over themselves to gush about it. Objectivity be damned; in the words of our Governor, “this is a love story.”

A more balanced reviewer would probably conclude the following: Tony’s isn’t exactly reinventing lunch here – they’re a lot like a Bobby Knight team running the Motion – lots of options, solid execution and plenty of hustle.

- The Publican, guest columnist

Herodotus’ History Corner
: Tony’s Pizza used to be a chain – thus the various restaurants by the same name around these parts. However, the franchise went out of business years ago and the individual operators who stayed in business ran their restaurants as they pleased, resulting in diverse menus and atmospheres.

Tony's Pizza Downtown on Urbanspoon

Dano's Pizza - 2800 Rosewood Drive

Posted by The LunchMen Tuesday, September 1, 2009 0 comments

There is no better way to put this - I've got a new favorite pizza in Columbia. Sorry, Village Idiot, I hate to say goodbye, but for now, I've got a new destination for pizza. Pizza Man, I hope there is no hard feelings. Al Amir, although your white pizza will always have my recommendation, Dano's is now my #1.

Last Friday, Rabbit and I ventured over to Dano's for lunch on the enthusiastic recommendation of a not-so-anonymous poster to the Diner, Drive-ins, and Dives entry (good call, Lady Capulet). We have both enjoyed Dano's fare before, including their excellent delivery pizza, but I had not been to the storefront since the recent expansion. We sat on the bar side of the restaurant, where we had prime seats facing two large, high-def televisions that were set on ESPN and ESPN2. Glorious. We resisted the urge to grab a pitcher of Bass Ale to make the experience complete, but just barely.

Dano's has a good menu consisting of pizza, calzones, strombolis, subs, salads, and wings. I couldn't remember the last time I had a calzone, so I ordered the special meatball calzone. Rabbit went after the Turkey sub, decked out with all of the usual fixings and some extra touches like roasted red peppers and banana peppers. While Rabbit was enthusiastic about his sub, I was smitten by my calzone. It consisted of the perfect blend of thinly sliced meatball, ricotta, and mozzarella cheese. The marinara on the side was thick and warm. In short, it was the perfection of the calzone.

The only regret that we shared when leaving Dano's for lunch was that we didn't jump on that cool pitcher of ale. To correct this cosmic error, Mrs. Tank and I had an informal date night on Friday that consisted of Dano's white pizza - meatballs added, of course - and a nice refreshing pitcher of Bass Ale. I could definitely get used to doing two-a-days at Dano's.

- Tank

p.s. Because Dano's is so incredibly baller, we have named it the Lunch Spot of the Week. Click the link up top for a full menu!

Dano's Pizza on Urbanspoon

North Main Deli - 3800 Main St.

Posted by The LunchMen Monday, August 31, 2009 1 comments


Serving too little of a good thing.

The North Main Deli is located a few minutes drive from the downtown area, but many office workers swear that it’s worth the trip. It was with great anticipation that Tank, myself, and our colleague Kali headed out there for a mid-week lunch. Unfortunately, we all left the deli hungry, and if you’re in the restaurant business, that is never a good result.

All of us entered with our minds set on sampling North Main’s “Hot Bar,” but after looking it over we all decided it appeared ... less than appetizing, so we opted to order off the menu. I went with a turkey-spinach wrap and pasta salad, Tank had a chicken salad croissant with potato salad, and Kali had a sandwich on pumpernickel so small that I can’t even remember what meat was supposed to be on it. Some of the items tasted good, but there just wasn’t enough of them to garner a positive eating experience. The pasta salad was adequate for example, but I only got about three bites on my plate. Tank described his potato salad as “warm.” I didn’t ask what that was supposed to mean, but I assume it’s not good.

One positive of the experience was our friendly, if clueless, waiter that hailed from somewhere in Scandinavia. He was fun to listen to, even if we couldn’t understand what he was saying. He was certainly more pleasant than the employee working at the register, who had an awkward confrontation with the customer in line before us that made us second-guess our lunch decision before we ever tasted the food.

On our way back to the office Kali said what we were all thinking when he bemoaned, “Damn, I’m ready to go get some lunch.” It is indeed a dark day when you return to your desk at One hungrier than when you left it at Noon. The meal, as George Clooney famously lamented in O Brother Where Art Thou, “only aroused my appetite without bedding it down.”

-Rabbit

North Main Deli on Urbanspoon

300 Senate - On the Canal

Posted by The LunchMen Thursday, August 27, 2009 0 comments

Columbia's waterfront dining continues to fall short of impressive.

Being from the coast, waterfront dining is one of my favorites. When Mrs. Tank told me that Vista Events were serving lunch out their building right on the Canal, I was pretty pumped. I've tried to enjoy a meal across the bridge at New Orleans Restaurant several times, but the fare has disappointed so often that I've given up on the great location.

300 Senate is an out of the way location with a great building that features exposed bricks and rafters. Their porch overlooks a grassy expanse that leads to the canal. It is a serene venue. Since the August sun was unforgiving early this week, Mrs. Tank and I dined indoors. First impression - business was slow. However, the host and wait staff proved friendly and attentive.

We started the meal with a dip duo of chicken salad and jalapeno pimento cheese served with pita chips. The chicken salad was just okay, but the pimento was very good. The appetizer was massive, certainly more than two should eat on a busy weekday lunch. In retrospect, we should have eaten the whole appetizer, called it quits, and headed back to work happy.

However, with high expectations of the pricey lunch menu, Mrs. Tank ordered the crab cake sandwich while I ordered the fried green tomato BLT. To summarize the entrees, we were like Mama and Papa bear in the tale of Goldilocks. Her sandwich was too moist, while my sandwich was too dry. Her crab cake was undercooked, while my tomatoes were sliced too thinly, over-breaded, and over-cooked. Both sandwiches needed more aioli to lift the flat flavor.

Mrs. Tank was full and threw in the towel halfway through her sandwich. I, however, was not willing to give up. In the Goldilocks tale, had Goldilocks simply combined Papa Bear's "too hot" and Mama Bear's "too cold" porridge, I expect the result would have been "just right." Being the constant improviser that I am, I added some of her crab cake AND some of the pimento cheese to the remainder of my BLT. The result? A crab and pimento BLT that proved that a sum can be greater than its parts. Mrs. Tank was not impressed by my playing with my food, but I was thoroughly pleased with myself.

I used my 300 Senate comment card to call for improvement to the food and to praise my great waiter. I regret not suggesting that they add my creation to the menu. Ultimately, 300 Senate will need to refine its menu and its execution to stay competitive in Columbia's lunch market.

- Tank

300 Senate on Urbanspoon

The White Mule – 1530-D Main Street

Posted by The LunchMen Wednesday, August 26, 2009 1 comments

Amazing Atmosphere. Average Food at Best.

The White Mule is Main Street’s newest lunch option, having just opened in June. The restaurant is below street level and features a cool atmosphere with a full service bar and modern art adorning the walls. There is a back patio that would work perfect for a spring or fall happy hour. Understandably, the Mule’s major focus appears to be on the night life. Dave Britt and Travis Maynard, two local booking agents previously associated with Sudworks Taphouse in Five Points, are working to make the White Mule the new destination for singer-songwriter shows in the evening.

While the Mule has lots of potential as an after work hangout or a good spot to have a drink while taking in a live show, we’re not sure if lunch is its strong suit.

The menu features lots of creative sandwiches and salads, and a customer can also build his own menu item by selecting from standard meats, cheeses, breads, and toppings. Our group of five tried different items including the Mexicali, the Italiano, and the Mediterranean. I opted to create my own sandwich and had a roast beef spinach wrap with a side salad.

No one was wild about their chow. While everyone agreed the food was serviceable, it was by no means memorable. What makes this place stand out is the aforementioned atmosphere that was further bolstered by management’s choice of music from Pandora that day – new wave. Being greeted by Depeche Mode at a lunch spot is a rarity in Columbia. The music was particularly enjoyable for our dining companion Pizza the Hut (so named for his love of the large chain’s all you can eat lunch buffet – which he has been known to eat solo), who came of age in the 1980’s.

Another particular disappointment was that the pizzas – what the place is known for – are only available during dinner. This further reinforces our position that the White Mule, while not a good lunch option, is probably best enjoyed with friends after a long day at work, when patrons can hoist a few adult beverages at the bar and enjoy a slice of homemade pizza while taking in some fresh music.

- Rabbit

White Mule on Urbanspoon

Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives - Calling all Readers

Posted by The LunchMen Friday, August 21, 2009 7 comments


The Food Network's television show hosted by Guy Fieri, Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, is coming to Columbia. Rabbit and I have been contacted by the Food Network to recommend some unique spots to them that may be featured on the show. Specifically, the show's production team has requested:

"Restaurants that serve great quality, made from scratch
food in an interesting environment. We prefer that the restaurants be family
owned and operated and NOT A CHAIN!"

I have given them my input, but we'd like to pass along yours as well. Please post a comment to this blog so that we can show the Food Network viewers a taste of the best that Columbia has to offer!

- Tank

Pitas - 1800 Taylor St.

Posted by The LunchMen Wednesday, August 19, 2009 1 comments

Pitas is a good example of the saying that we often throw around on this blog, "you can't judge a book by its cover." After it first opened, I drove past Pitas on my way home from work every day, and I wondered (with my head shaking in disapproval) why anyone would paint a building such an unappetizing yellow color. Based on this simple impression, I refused to give Pitas a try for the first few months of its operation.

Finally, when one of Rabbit's friends sang Pitas' praises, we agreed to give it a shot. The Mediterranean Tea Room has been one of my favorite dinner spots over the past six years. Pitas was opened by the Tea Room's proprietor, and the menu is very similar. To my surprise, some of my favorite Mediterranean standards are missing off the menu, such as spanakopeta and falafel. However, Pitas offers many of the classic Mediterranean dishes including baba ghanoush, delicious kofta, a fresh hummus similar to the Tea Room's, and not surprisingly, a variety of very nice pita sandwiches.

Rabbit, true to his name, has been to Pitas at least 6 times and continues to order the very same thing - a Greek chicken salad - which he thoroughly endorses. Unquestionably, he's a creature of habit.

I've yet to get the same thing twice at pitas, and I have never been disappointed in my selections, until today. This time of year, when fresh salmon abounds, I crave a nice wild Alaskan or Sockeye Salmon fillet. So today, I went willy-nilly and ordered salmon burger. At the outset, I want to say it is unfair for me to judge a salmon patty by the same standards I would a fresh fillet recently pulled from the cold streams of southern Alaska and grilled on a clean cedar plank (hmmm, doesn't that sound good?). Today, my taste buds just refused to be satisfied by the salmon burger. The fault was not the ingredients on the sandwich, which included freshly shredded romaine lettuce, crisp red onions, tomato, and a spicy mayonnaise that did its best to lift the salmon patty. I must take the blame for not sticking with one of Pitas' excellent gyros or fresh pita sandwiches.

Don't let the color of the building or my menu misstep deter you from trying Pitas. It is a nice, quiet spot to sit down and enjoy some fresh Greek classics for lunch. In the future, I'll have salmon at home on the grill, and I'll be going back to Pitas for the kofta.

- Tank

Pitas on Urbanspoon

Beezer's Gourmet Sandwiches: 919 Sumter Street

Posted by The LunchMen Tuesday, August 18, 2009 0 comments


Located across from the Horseshoe – the historic and pristine heart of the campus of the University of South Carolina – is Beezer’s Gourmet Sandwiches. Ask anyone who went to USC and they’ll invariably have a favorite Beezer’s story that involves an overindulgence of alcohol and a late night delivery of some of the most delectable subs in town.

However, the Lunchmen wanted to know – is Beezer’s really that good, or does it just seem delicious at 3 a.m. when nothing else is open and your tastebuds are somewhat, shall we say, dulled? We decided to make the short hop over to campus during freshman move-in week for a lunch early enough in the day to ensure that we sampled the place with no alcohol clouding our judgment.

We arrived a little before noon and quickly ordered and had our food. Beezer’s prides itself on fast service, and you typically have your sub in hand by the time you finish paying. Tank and I found a table outside with maximum people watching capacity and dug in. The bread was soft, the toppings fresh, and the meat sliced thin. All in all, Beezer’s is a solid choice for sandwiches that can stand up to anyone in town. Add to that its low price tag (usually at good $1-1.50 cheaper than its competitors), ridiculously quick service (see above), insanely long hours (open till at least 3 a.m., 4 a.m. on weekends) and delivery, and you have a restaurant tailor-made for a busy college town like the Capital City.

Next time you are either up late and in need of an easy option, or you’re looking for a quick but hearty lunch that won’t break the bank, Beezer’s might be just the ticket. Also, try their homemade cookies, which are large enough to split and only a dollar a piece.

Editor’s note: Of particular significance is the fact that the lunch was so quick the lunchmen had time to cruise campus in search of new “talent” for the upcoming school year. Glory days…

- Rabbit

Beezers Gourmet Sandwich Shop on Urbanspoon

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Rabbit, Tank, and The Publican are three dudes just trying to get through the work week here in Columbia. Rabbit is a Columbia native, Tank is from Charleston, and The Publican hails from Greenville. Rabbit's favorite lunch spot is the No Name Deli on Elmwood, where you may find him putting down a grilled chicken salad and a side of vinegar pasta. The Publican usually wants to find food to cure his all-too-common hangovers. Tank claims no favorite lunch spot - he lives for the thrill of the hunt.

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