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

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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.