POLL RESULTS: Dano's is the Best Pizza

Posted by The LunchMen Wednesday, June 16, 2010 2 comments

What a response to this poll! Columbia, we might not be New York or Chicago, but we sure love our pizza. The Lunchmen have received weeks of praise and abuse for this poll. Some natives loved the inclusion of LaBrasca's (13 votes, 14%), while other responders railed us for not placing Za's, the Mellow Mushroom, or Z-Pizza on the list. I disagree that those other places should have been included, as I think that gourmet pizza is really its own category. However, I am sure most of us can agree on one thing - the Pizza Joint has failed to impress (8 votes, 8%), and it probably did not belong in the top five poll.

The most popular pizza spots made it a photo finish for the top prize. After jumping out to an early lead, Dano's was even momentarily overtaken by the Village Idiot (29 votes, 31%), and the two Pizza giants ran neck-and-neck right up until the end. Even the loyal Pizza Man (23 votes, 25%) supporters came out to keep us on the edge of our seats into the final days of voting. However, when the smoke cleared, Dano's (31 votes, 33%) was victorious.

Can I say that I am happy with this result? You'd better believe it. Dano's white Sicilian with meatballs - that's right, delicious, sliced meatballs - is my personal favorite pizza in town. I'm going to go have one this weekend, along with a cool pitcher of Bass, just to celebrate Dano's victory. Congratulations, Dano's, keep the good pie coming.

- Tank

“Done Just Right.”

As any regular reader of this blog would have recognized by now, the Lunchmen love Cayce and West Columbia. While none of us are sons of that great area, we all have a deep respect for the culinary treasures that abound across the river from the capital city. That, combined with a lower than average cost of living and a higher than average love of the 2nd amendment make lunch trips to this town true adventures. Last Friday’s bold call to Vella’s was no different.

Vella’s is a true neighborhood bar. Situated in a non-descript shopping strip on Knox Abbot (the road out to the airport), the place has been around for decades and recently expanded into the adjoining unit for much needed seating and bar space. Vella’s boasts the coldest beer on tap and while we can’t confirm the accuracy of this statement, we can say it’s plenty chilly when it reaches the table in a frosted mug. This place would be perfect for post-softball outings with a group looking for cheap bar food and cold beer.

As you would expect, most of the clientele are locals that look like they’ve been eating here for years. And what do they eat? Well, the simple answer is A LOT. The menu is as varied as the cars ages of the members of the wait staff, but one constant is volume. I think it’s against restaurant policy for anyone to leave not completely stuffed.

To be honest, the Lunchmen have loved this place for a while and would have made it out sooner for a review. However, Cayce’s refusal to enact a smoking ban made daytime trips difficult, as you would invariably return to the office smelling like an intoxicating mix of tobacco smoke, cooked onions and draft beer. But, as of June 1, 2010 the place (and the town, apparently) is completely smoke free. When we found this out, we gathered up the interns, The Lawnmower man, and The Dude for some good food and a little world cup viewing to boot.

We arrived a little after 12:00, the height of the lunch rush, with a group of 9. However, the helpful staff and manager/owner (not sure) quickly pulled together some tables with excellent TV views so that we didn’t have to split up. Drinks (some adult, some not) were ordered and we all settled in for a long lunch.

As for the food, Tank went with the prime rib sandwich and raw fries (floppy of course). The Prime rib was cut and cooked perfectly, and there were so many raw fries that I think this may be the closest Tank has ever come to not finishing his meal. Another item popular with the group was the Pattymelt (Chicken or Beef), which comes on real texas toast – a rarity these days indeed. If you are in the mood for something a little lighter, the salads are filling and certainly as good as any other in West Columbia. Our table tried the Chef, the Black and Bleu, and the Greek. The Lawnmower man and Hot Pockets, unable to decide from the multitude of options, went on the advice from the waitress and got the “Hot and High” (a grinder type sandwich so big it falls off the plate) and a chicken club (no explanation needed). While most people went with raw fries, one brave soul got the traditional French fries, which were actually the surprise highlight of the meal. All in all, everyone was noticeably pleased with the experience, from the good soccer to the cold brews and all in between.

One other note – Vella’s is one of those places where you are seated and have a waitress, but go up to a register to pay. This is ideal for large groups as you can (1) split the check up as needed, and (2) time your departure at your own pace. You normally see this type of thing in Mexican Restaurants and Meat and Threes, but it provided welcomed added convenience in this scenario as well.


PS – Vella’s also has a Chapin Locale, which Tank is sure to scout out for us next time he’s out visiting the in-laws. Stay tuned to see if the satellite office lives up to its name.

Vella's Restaurant & Tavern on Urbanspoon

Posted by The LunchMen Tuesday, June 15, 2010 0 comments

For those Columbia residents who have had the pleasure of going TakoSushi in Aiken, Greenville, or Augusta, today will likely be a day you remember. TakoSushi officially opened today at 1115 Assembly Street (where Doc's Gumbo Grille used to be), and the Lunchmen were on site making sure that that TakoSushi kicked it off right. Not that they needed our support, mind you. The place was packed by 12:30. I guess a lot of people are like me and just could not wait for the opportunity to eat a taco and have sashimi for lunch at the same time. The Lunchmen have a general policy of not reviewing restaurants that we try on their first week, because normally they are working out kinks, and we do not want to dump hate all over a start-up before they even get off the ground. We may break our rule for TakoSushi, however, because the food was delicious, and you should know about it. By the way, the new owner has chosen the tempura asparagus appetizer every time he has eaten at TakoSushi - and so should you, because it rocks. Go support Columbia's newest lunch spot!

Nice-N-Natural - 1217 College Street

Posted by The LunchMen Friday, June 11, 2010 1 comments

From time to time, a little healthy eating needs to be explored by the lunch crowd. Tired of seeing my compatriots eat copious amounts of meat and grease each day, and disgusted with Monday night’s transgressions of 41 tacos and tequila shots by Pig Pen, Cupcake, Hot Pockets, and Jules Winnfield, I suggested that we venture down to Nice N’ Natural near the USC Horseshoe. As I told my fellow lunchers as we made the trek, I treat my body like the temple it is, and if you can’t respect your body, what can you respect?

Generally patronized by the likes of menopausal state employees, aerobics instructors, college girls on a “trying to get ready for Spring Break in Cancun so Ricardo can take tequila shots out of my bellybutton” diet, and a certain dainty middle-aged male who likes to discuss at length his tennis game and his transition from a two hand to one hand backhand, Nice N’ Natural occupies the first floor of a building that also houses Columbia’s favorite hippie hangout and George W. Bush opposition center, Cool Beans Coffee Shop. I consider Nice N’ Natural one of Columbia’s treasures, but be forewarned; this place is NOT a Brazilian Steakhouse.

The menu includes one of Columbia’s finest chicken salad, a meatless Rueben sandwich known as the “Ruebenless”, and a fruit, nut, and yogurt plate that I think is the gem of the Columbia lunch scene. The fruit, nut, and yogurt plate is so tasty it is worth ordering even in the company of Tank, who will heckle you for eating such a cowardly dish while he tries to kill, skin, and eat the feral cat outside in the hopes of fulfilling his daily meat intake requirement.

As always, I went with the large fruit nut and yogurt plate with peach frozen yogurt. The fruit nut and yogurt plate comes with a bottom layer of diced apple, pineapple, cantaloupe, banana, strawberry, and raisins mixed with unsalted cashews, walnuts, sunflower seeds and shaved coconut. The yogurt rests on top of the mixed fruit and nuts, and the yogurt itself is topped with a kiwi slice. It comes with a few packs of Pepperidge Farm crackers to eat and dry the palate before delving into its juicy sweet deliciousness. One of my wife’s (Mrs. Frodo’s) and my favorite things to do is to cover the entire plate with honey, which is available in a fun bear-shaped container beside the pickup window.

Publican, feeling hungry, (and I might add the biggest proponent of the Nice N’ Natural lunch call when it was made via email at 9:43 a.m.) went with a chicken salad sandwich with a side spinach salad, and a scoop of peach frozen yogurt as dessert. Publican considers the chicken salad as the best in town, with its consistent texture, abundant chicken, and not too mayonnaise-y flavor. I actually prefer Mother Frodo’s Waldorf-style chicken salad, with its grapes and resulting sweet flavor. However, Nice N’ Natural’s chicken salad is a fine example of excellent chicken salad, and I agree with Publican that it is the best chicken salad in town not made by Mother Frodo.

Publican’s side salad looked divine, with fresh strawberries, walnuts and feta cheese covering a bed of leafy spinach greens. I have always known Publican as a man’s man who was not afraid to show an effeminate side, a sort of John Rambo who enjoys the Nutcracker at Christmas-type guy. Seeing him munch on the chicken salad sandwich with a side salad, all the while discussing his hometown Kevin Garnett’s play in game 3 versus Kobe and the Lakers, only affirmed my perception of Publican.

Hot Pockets also went with the chicken salad, but exactly 97/100ths of the way through his sandwich, he informed us that while he ordered chicken salad, he thinks he received tuna salad. Finding it perplexing that it took him this long for his taste buds to tell the difference, the group then proceeded to explain the difference between tuna and chicken to him, Nick Lachey to Jessica Simpson style, to make sure he understood that tuna and chicken are different beings, of a different animal family, and have different tastes. Hot Pockets remained steadfast that he did indeed receive tuna salad, and while he said that it was good, because he did not actually receive or taste the chicken salad, he was unable to comment on whether the chicken salad was the best in town. The only other thing he commented on was that his bagged Terra chips and canned diet soda were tasty. Obviously and as always, we appreciate Hot Pockets’s insightful comments.

Jules Winnfiled had certain (unknown) errands to run and was a late addition to our lunch crowd. When she arrived, she went with the small fruit, nut, and yogurt salad, obviously an intelligent choice. I couldn’t help but notice that Jules picked around and did not eat any of the raisins on her plate. Because each of the dishes at Nice N’ Natural are made by hand, I might suggest that next time she order her fruit nut and yogurt plate sans raisins.

After lunch, I had Hot Pockets accompany me to Cool Beans where I had him buy me a Peruvian Fair-Trade coffee, and then drive me back to the office.

Nice N’ Natural is not everyone’s type lunch place. I know some insecure males who would find its choices insufficient for their normal lunch desires. However, if you are looking for a lighter alternative with healthy choices, located within a unique and eclectic area near USC, I suggest you give it a try. I don’t think you will be disappointed.

- Frodo, guest blogger

Nice-N-Natural on Urbanspoon

CHALLENGE: Casa Linda Tacos

Posted by The LunchMen Thursday, June 10, 2010 0 comments

For those of you regularly following, we said last week that the "interns" would be squaring off in a taco challenge the likes of which Columbia has never seen. It happened. Pig Pen and Jules Winnfield took on Hot Pockets and Cupcake this Monday at Casa Linda on Beltline. For those of you who don't know, Casa Linda offers dollar tacos on Mondays and Tuesdays, and I think the soft chicken tacos are one of the best bargains in Columbia. Mrs. Tank and I started going after a Spanish-for-Dummies class we, along with TakeOut, were attending at Midlands Tech. We gave up on the Spanish classes, but not on those tasty tacos.

The competitors had some basic rules that they agreed to abide by in this challenge. The time limit was set at 30 minutes. Rabbit, The Highlander, Tex, and The Publican agreed to be plate judges to ensure that nearly every bite of a taco was eaten, even the fallen lettuce and meat, before that taco counted in the tally. The ladies, Jules and Cupcake, agreed to eat all hard shell tacos with chicken and lettuce. The fellas opted for hard shell beef tacos with lettuce. None of the competitors wanted cheese. This distressed Caveman and I immensely because Casa Linda's cheese adds a punch to those tacos, but as you might imagine, Rabbit swooped in and justified the change because of the health effects, etc. Health effects concerned me little after each "intern" signed a legal waiver of liability, but whatever. As a substitution, the competitors agreed to put salsa on each taco prior to eating it.

The first order of 26 tacos took the staff at Casa Linda by surprise. The mountain of tacos was impressive. Once we were rolling, the staff did nearly a flawless job of keeping the tacos flowing to order throughout the competition.

The contestants came out of the gate with guns blazing. Inexplicably, Hot Pockets managed to cram 10 tacos down in just over six minutes. It was horrific to watch. Pig Pen, in stark contrast to how he eats chicken wings, chose the "tortoise" approach - slow and steady. Pig Pen wore headphones the whole time to maintain his zen-like composure; I believe he was listening to the soothing sounds of Celine Dion.

The ladies stayed neck and neck throughout the competition. They are both petite, and the five tacos each that they consumed were impressive, and the total of 10 tacos between the two of them well cleared the over/under of 5 we set going into the competition. In full disclosure, Cupcake actually beat Jules Winfield, because Jules was still working on the back-half of the fifth taco when time expired, but we gave her credit for the finish anyway. The real difference came down to Pig Pen and Hot Pockets. Hot Pockets downed a total of 17 crunchy tacos to Pig Pen's 14 tacos. Team Cupcake/Hot Pockets won by a slight margin of 22 to 19. We were all amazed by the "interns" and their ability to down tacos.

Mrs. Caveman, the Pewter Pirate and the Mighty Eskimo all brought their children to witness this outlandish feat of taco gluttony. I believe that the children learned a very valuable lesson. If you don't want a huge, bloated belly, then don't sit down and eat 17 tacos in the course of 30 minutes.

Unlike Hot Pockets, Jules Winnfield set a good example for the children by slipping on her head phones and running home from Casa Linda to try and burn down those calories. Hot Pockets is still suffering the aftermath of his excess. Congratulations to Cupcake and Hot Pockets, they are the first winners of a new tradition for the Lunchmen.


Casa Linda on Urbanspoon

M Cafe - 1417 Sumter Street

Posted by The LunchMen Thursday, June 3, 2010 1 comments

If you have lived in Columbia or the surrounding area for any period of time, surely you have made your way to one of six restaurants that constitute Michelle Wang's local Asian cuisine empire. Miyo's is on campus, is in Irmo and the Northeast, and is arriving in Lexington. M-Vista is, well, right where the name suggests. Then there is the M-Cafe. The Lunchmen do not know if the M-Cafe has broken away from the empire or not - it is not featured on the website any longer - but even if it has, the food has not faltered.

Since it is summer, it is that special time of year when the Lunchmen get to have..."interns" of sorts. These "interns" are wonderful for many reasons, including 1) they are basically culinary guinea pigs, 2) they make an excellent excuse for long lunches, and 3) they are forced participants in eating challenges. Next week, we are going to have them go two-versus-two, Jules Winnfield and Pig-Pen versus Hot Pockets and Cupcake, on a taco eating challenge at Casa Linda that is sure to provide us with hours of laughs and entertainment.

For their first day on the job, we took the "interns" out to M-Cafe. We are always warmly received there, as the Dude basically covers the restaurant's monthly rent through his dedicated consumption of their healthy Asian fare. We had about twenty-four in attendance, so I will not bore you with the breakdown of who ate what. Instead, here are some of the highlights from my table.

The Highlander, left without an option containing mutton or haggis, went for some dish with tofu, the proper name escapes me. I'm not wild about tofu, but she seemed to dig it. If you happen to have a hankerin' for some tofu, M-Cafe is certainly generous with the portions it doles out. M-Cafe has plenty of options for the approximately 27 vegetarians and vegans that live in Columbia.

The Pewter Pirate ordered a more customary dish - Sesame Chicken with brown rice (shown up top). M-Cafe sets itself apart from many of the fast-food Chinese places in town with its preparation of familiar dishes. This Sesame Chicken, one of my go-to orders, is quite good.

I went outside of my normal order - sushi with a side of garlic green beans - and opted for the flank steak special. I still got my green beans, which might be my favorite single item on the menu. As you might expect, the flank steak is overcooked, but somehow I still liked it. Probably the gratuitous seasoning won me over, but whatever, I was still happy.

As a final note, I am going to make an admittedly controversial claim and say that the M-Cafe has my favorite sushi rolls in Columbia. No one at my table ordered sushi on this trip, but that is uncommon for the Lunchmen. Given the variety of menu options, the Lunchmen believe that the M-Cafe is the best option for Chinese, Szechuan, or sushi in Uptown Columbia.

- Tank

M Cafe on Urbanspoon

The Lunchmen have always been huge fans of the Free Times, and particularly the contributions that writer Eva Moore makes for our local food scene by supplying us all with delicious insight. We also appreciate Tug Baker's musings on all things boozing...their articles are why we always feature a link to the Free Times dining section on the blog (see above). The Lunchmen are all smiles that she gave a shout out to our blog in this week's edition of the paper. Check it out, along with all the other knowledge of dining and drinking, by clicking here.

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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.