Posted by The LunchMen Thursday, September 23, 2010 1 comments

Tank and I were lined up in the Boneless Fried Chicken formation and ready to score some baby limas and buttered squash at The Trap, when Spoony called in an audible to the “Bite of the Week.”  For the uninitiated, the Bite of the Week is pretty self explanatory – it is a weekly column in the Free Times dedicated to some delicious dish or meal here in our fair city. This week our friends at the Free Times suggested the Banh Mi (pronounced bun me) at Tea on State Street in West Columbia; so when Spoony gave us the signal, we made like Marcus Lattimore and rushed on over.  Ah, sports... the great metaphor for life.    
When we arrived, Spoony was resting impatiently, but comfortably, in a white retro modern ball chair enjoying the sounds of house music played from a nearby Peavey.  The highlight of the stylishly modern, Asian inspired furniture and décor was a striking mural depicting a stormy Vietnam.  The menus set in gilded frames were also a nice touch – an interesting, if unoriginal, contrast of modern and classic.  Overall, the clean lines and uncluttered space with exposed brick and blacked out ceiling beams made for a refreshingly different atmosphere.  One practical note: Tea is a no go for parties larger than 4, but with 40 varieties of tea and free wi-fi, the inviting space is ideal for a solo trip.      

The Lunchmen aren’t into reinventing the wheel (but we are into clichés), so we’ll set the table by shamelessly quoting our Free-Times inspiration penned by Jonathan Sharpe:

Tea’s house banh mi sandwich is a baguette stuffed with “BBQ pork”, a marinated and seasoned, thick-cut slice of pork resembling ham that is cooked on a griddle, along with cold cuts of steamed pork and head cheese — which is not a cheese but rather a cold cut made from slow-simmered pork head meat suspended in aspic. The well-sourced bread is crusty on the outside, soft on the inside, and spread on one side with paté, the other with butter. Completing the sandwich: slices of cucumber, jalapeño, cilantro and shredded daikon radish and carrot pickled in a light Asian dressing. If you’d rather choose your own adventure, there’s a build-your-own option on the menu. As for the bubble tea, owner Thuy Thach suggests choosing flavors that complement, such as honeydew jelly bubbles with coconut-flavored milk or coffee bubbles with almond-flavored milk.

We were greeted at the counter by Tea’s friendly proprietor.  She was patient with our rookie questions, and helped us navigate the menu.  Tank aptly noted that she seemed comfortable and at ease, unlike new restaurateurs we have encountered that are awkwardly eager to please.  We concluded that this ain’t her first rodeo.  In the grand tradition of the Lunchmen – and with a lot of help from our new friend – we diversified our order.  Tank opted for the House Adventurer described above – mostly because he thinks it is cool to eat headcheese.  To be honest, Anthony Bourdain convinced me headcheese was cool a long time ago... I’m just not cool enough yet to incorporate an amalgamation of swine dome and ear jelly into my regular diet.  I’ll get it next time, though, promise.  This time, I opted for the Chicken banh mi seasoned half and half with lemongrass and 5 spice, while Spoony chose the Chili Lime Shrimp banh mi. 

To round things out, we sprung for the Milk Tea: Tank went Almond and I went Mango with lychee jelly.  As they say, when in West Columbia...   A curious Tank also couldn’t resist the Shrimp Chips.  Undeterred, perhaps emboldened, by the proprietor’s warning that they were “an acquired taste,” Tank enthusiastically ordered the treat after taking one look at the package.  

We started in on the shrimp chips before we even made it to the table.  I’ll be the first to admit that my palate has its limits, but I enjoyed the shrimp chips.  I would definitely rank it above other Asian treats that are decidedly less palatable, among them: beef tendon, corn flavored and shaped ice cream bars, stinky tofu, and other “treats” I’ve encountered in my travels.  The crispy fry shaped chips were light and salty, with a satisfying, shrimpy aftertaste. 

As for the milk teas, we weren’t fans.  I’m sure they are expertly made and delicious for those accustomed to such beverages – but the Lunchmen prefer a robust coffee or tea to the super-sweet milk teas.  We were also a little unselttled by the jellys traveling up the extra wide straw. 

The sandwiches, on the other hand, were just plain delicious.  The marriage of pickled vegetables, spice, and meat on outstanding bread was a harmonious one.  The spice was assertive without being overpowering, complemented the clilantro and vegatables, and even made the sweet milk tea much better.  The lemongrass half of my sandwich stood out for its bright flavors, though the Chinese style 5 spice was also excellent.  

Tank seemed pleased with his sandwich as well – remarking at the heat from the jalapeno and relishing in his decision to hold off on the Sriracha.  The flavors simply work too well to be bastardized with Sriracha.  Tank noted that the headcheese worked into the other meat flavors, and didn’t stand out against the barbecue pork.  Next time, the Lunchmen may deconstruct the sandwich and sample the parts individually to get a full appreciation for how well the ingredients come together.  Spoony’s chili lime shrimp, while good, took third to the House Adventurer and half and half chicken. 

All in all, Tea gets an enthusiastic thumbs up from the Lunchmen – there are three new Banh Mi fans in the Metro.  We can’t wait to make it back to try more of the menu like the spring rolls and the numerous varieties of loose leaf tea.

- The Publican

For Southerners, the meat ‘n three occupies a place in the culinary tradition similar to the French bistro, Italian trattoria -- or less idyllically -- the Yankee diner. They are the places to eat in neighborhoods and small towns where the cooking is informal but an honest representation of what people in the area traditionally eat. The meat ‘n threes menu and concept is uniform wherever you go: pick one of a handful of meats off a list and three vegetables from another column with a slightly higher number of selections. Sometimes congealed salad or banana pudding is a vegetable, sometimes not. Iced tea and a bread basket round out the experience. For many (including legions of old people, who often comprise the meat ‘n three’s main constituency), it’s a nostalgia-invoking experience: a place to go that is intended to look the same as meat ‘n threes have always looked and serves the food that its diners grew up eating at home, or some such pabulum.

The problem is that at many meat ‘n threes, the execution is lacking and the quality always is slipping: the vegetables are canned, over-cooked or carelessly seasoned. The meat doesn’t taste fresh, or -- if you’re lucky -- just doesn’t taste. The fryer is on auto-pilot, and customers who eat there will never get to taste the righteousness and integrity of a chicken leg fried in a cast-iron skillet. Farm equipment and vintage soda signs tacked onto the walls of a restaurant can’t replace farm-fresh butter beans, or iced tea brewed that day.

The irony of this current dilemma is that the Southern kitchen is the most evocative, complex, and celebrated cooking tradition of any part of the Union. Every shrimp and grits dish on a Manhattan menu or a bacon-stained tablecloth in a hip Brooklyn bistro owes its heritage to meat ‘n threes and the Southern cooks who have prepared simple but tasty meals reflecting the bounty of the region. Why then do so many modern day meat ‘n threes feature second-rate food?

But there is hope to be found against this otherwise bleak backdrop; right on Millwood Avenue, a Reawakening is taking place. Millwood Café, a restaurant with a simple name, unassuming interior, and day service only, is cooking traditional Southern food that does not compromise on quality or bow to the Southern-fried-kitsch that some other meat ‘n three’s gorge themselves.

What exactly is the meat ‘n three Reawakening at Millwood Café? It starts on a dry-erase board where four or five meats usually will be listed: fried flounder, smoked sausage, meatloaf, fried chicken are all in a heavy rotation (note: there’s a small orange grill menu on each table, which features hamburgers and handcut fries. It is testament to the Millwood experience that I have never had to check down to the burger and fries option, despite my general eagerness to find a proper French fry at any time of the day).

However, the stand-out menu item remains the chicken fried steak. The batter, as noted by Tank at dinner last week, is sturdier than most, owing most likely to the use of cornmeal, and it carries enough seasoning in the dredge to wake the chopped steak up from its torpor. It comes out of the fry crisp, not greasy, and remarkably light. The sawmill gravy on top is creamy, but avoids the plaster-of-paris-masquerading-as-topping phenomenon that plagues some other restaurant’s chicken fried steak dishes.

Perhaps the most pleasing part of the Millwood Café experience is that the portions are appropriately sized for lunch. There is no good reason that a meat ‘n three should feel compelled to treat you like a French goose during fois gras season: business people have to go back to work in the afternoon; the older clientele generally are not the demographic that eats to excess; and where many similar restaurants would feel compelled to buffalo you with quantity, Millwood lays off the food throttle. They give you a filling portion without parking a plate of food in your stomach.

Millwood Café succeeds because of its attention to detail, and its diligence in presenting an appealing plate of well-cooked food. Fried okra has arrived on the table in a cup and saucer, topped with a dusting of Parmesan cheese. The field peas are Anson Mills Sea Island red field peas, and are not overcooked or simply a means to a ham-hock-tasting end. Rather they taste simply like field peas. The macaroni-and-cheese is respectable; again, like the country-fried-steak, surprisingly light but with enough sharpness and bight to take notice. The food is not intended to soar or overwhelm, it succeeds because the food arrives quickly, and appears that someone in the kitchen took time to care about how it was presented to you. The service staff is friendly, many of the waitresses claim kin to the chef, Joe Britt (a Moe’s Grapevine alumnus), or the owners, the McCarthy’s. They are not professionals, or short-timers, they are something better: that is to say, they care about the product. You should too.

- Rev. Fat Back

Rev. Fat Back is an author, diplomat, and law student who really digs on slow-cooked swine and other Southern cooking. When he isn’t studying the Rule Against Perpetuities, Rev. Fat Back extols the virtues of slow food and proselytizes about Southern barbecue. At risk of violating our oath of anonymity, check out his contribution to the gospel, Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, at http://uncpress.unc.edu/HolySmoke/index.html

I was having a perfectly fine Monday morning until Frodo forwarded me this breaking news.  Julia's German Stammtisch has set their Oktoberfest for this weekend.  It is going to be Saturday from 5:00 p.m. and continuing until they run out of cold, refreshing märzen lagers and the tastiest schnitzel I've ever enjoyed.  Can you expect to see lederhosen?  You bet.  So why did this news wreck my Monday, you ask?  Because I will not fly back into Columbia until late Saturday night, all but ensuring I will not arrive until you savvy Columbia foodies have already downed all the festive beer and tasty delights Julia is preparing for us.  Go and support a true Columbia gem this weekend and embrace Oktoberfest - Prost!

1441 Main Cafe - 1441 Main St.

Posted by The LunchMen Friday, September 17, 2010 2 comments

The first time I ate at Gotham Bagel, I walked out and remarked “I wonder what will be in that space next.”  Some restaurants are doomed from the outset.  1441 Main Cafe is one of those restaurants.  Even the décor (or lack thereof) says, “we’re just passing through” – which is especially disappointing given the dramatic facelift given to the 1441 Main St. building.  After losing their major law firm tenant, who moved up the street to keep up with the Joneses, the building’s lobby and exterior were renovated with great success.  The Lunchmen were particularly excited to learn there would be space dedicated to a lunch counter.  Excited no more. 

This morning started with Tank and I ruminating about yesterday’s trip to the Greek Festival and planning our return for today.  All the talk about food, prompted us to head out in search of a morning snack.  I hate Starbucks.  Tank has a strange relationship with their scones.  I initially refused to go, but absent a nearby alternative, I relented.  We set out on foot complaining about our terrible office coffee and the lack of a local coffee shop within walking distance of the office.  A half block from Starbucks we noticed 1441 Main and called an audible.  Tank remarked, “I’ll always forego the familiar to try something new.”  Editors Note: Mrs. Tank, that sentiment only applies to food.

The vibe was immediately suspicious, as the only patrons were a couple of odd-ball septuagenarians feeding cream cheese to their tiny dog and a security guard sitting next to an empty stroller.  Draw your own conclusions.  We pressed on, and were half-heartedly greeted by the woman behind the counter while the other employee slammed boxes and clanked containers in some bizarre, discourteous anti-symphony.   Tank and I were intrigued by the menu’s breadth, which included a plethora of pastries, biscuits and gravy and other breakfast sandwiches.  A skeptical Tank muttered that such ambition on a new menu was reckless.  Boy, was he right.

I went bold with the biscuits and gravy.  The cardboard box and steel pan anti-composer said to her co-worker, as if we couldn’t hear, “I think we have some gravy, but it is probably old.”  To my amazement, she still pulled out the saran wrapped container of gravy to prepare my breakfast, before I protested and asked for the bagel instead.  Lets stop here for a moment.  Restaurant owners, employees, and other human beings: if you ever have to even think the phrase “it is probably old” – you should tell the customer you are out of the questionable food item.  Don’t play with me at breakfast.  I will come after you if you poison me with rotten gravy.

Tank, our resident scone aficionado, selected one of their three flavor offerings and we both grabbed small cups of Dunkin Donuts coffee from the dispenser.  Upon returning our respective offices, we chowed down.  My bagel, barely toasted, stale and bready, required copious amounts of cream cheese to even be edible.  Kali appeared in my door just in time to hear me proclaim it the worst bagel I’ve ever consumed.  Seriously.  I’ve had month-old grocery store bagels better than this.  Just as I finished lambasting the place, Tank comes running down the hall screaming, “that is the worst scone I’ve ever had.”  This is a first – we’ve never had two “worsts” from a single dining experience.  Tank noted that the microwaved scone had been reduced to dough in the middle and couldn’t hold a candle to Starbucks.    

Welcome to the Boo List 1441 Main Cafe.  I can’t even bring myself to try your lunch, which we noticed included refrigerated sandwiches done gas station style.  Maybe you should poach one of the ladies from The Lunch Box to see if their experience can save your fledgling restaurant... otherwise, good luck in your future endeavors.

- The Publican

Cock n Bull is now open for lunch at 326 S. Edisto Avenue, the corner of Rosewood & S. Edisto.  Rumor is that they are yet to obtain a beer & liquor license, so remember to BYOB.  Too bad Cock n Bull got mixed up in the bureaucracy or they might be running away with the wing poll...

In other news, a truly bold call would be to head over to the Cock n Bull for a little BYOB pre-tailgating.  The new location is conveniently only 1.5 miles from the Williams-Brice Stadium.

GREEK FEST: Corner of Calhoun & Sumter

Posted by The LunchMen Thursday, September 16, 2010 0 comments

If you are new to Columbia, or if you reside under a rock, then you may not know that this is one of the best weeks of the year to live in the Midlands.  Right now, the 24th Annual Greek Festival is underway, featuring live music, art, shops, and delicious Greek food.  Today, Spoony and two of her friends met us for lunch at the festival.  Dr. Phil, the Queen of Frozen Cuisine's better half, drove in and joined us as well. It can be hard to keep a big group together in the throng of GreekFest; we lost Dr. Phil and the Queen for a while, as they decided to sit next to the jammin' Greek band.  Good call, because they also had a big fan cooling them off as they enjoyed their tasty, although hurriedly made, gyros.  They are not the best gyros in town (Hunter Gatherer and Greek Boys' gyros are preferred by the Queen), but they certainly are festive.

I could tell you what to eat at GreekFest, because I go several times every year, but seriously, you should try to eat as much of it as you can.  Today, I had pastichio for lunch, a meat pasta covered with a bake layer of fluffy bechamel.  The plates, which you get in the building rather than outside at the tents, come with Greek salad, spanikopita (spinach and feta cheese in phyllo), and a roll. When I go back tomorrow for lunch, I'll get something different - maybe Greek chicken; when I go Saturday before the game, I'll get something else, etc.  Its all good at GreekFest.

Spoony and The Publican shared a plate of pastichia, and they also had a plate of keftedes.  Keftedes are delicious Greek meatballs.  They are served with a bright, lemon sauce over a bed of noodles.  Now that I've had a chance to think about it, I'll probably tackle a plate of these tomorrow.  

The player's play, however, it is quickly follow these dishes up with some Loukoumades (Greek donuts fried right in front of you) or some delicious Greek pastry before your stomach realizes that you are full.  Don't pass up on enjoying the baking skills of these fine ladies, you'll regret it if you don't take some home to enjoy later.  Support the local festivities, my friends, and embrace GreekFest this week!

- Tank 

BREAKING NEWS: Gotham Bagel Closes its Doors

Posted by The LunchMen Tuesday, September 14, 2010 3 comments

Thanks to the wonderful world of social media, the Lunchmen just learned that Gotham Bagel, located on the 1500 block of Main Street, is closing its doors for good.

As the picture shows, however, the folks at Gotham plan to be back, though in what capacity remains to be seen. Stay tuned for updates on plans for the space that has now hosted a few unsuccessful culinary ventures...

As I type this, a single, giant tear is streaking down my face (or at least should be streaking down my face) as I recall the details and the frustration, shock, and disappointment of what is certainly the worst lunch I've had in recent memory.

Mrs. Tank works on the 1300 block of Main St.  From time to time, she will call and suggest that we go some place near her office to grab a quick bite for lunch.  She is a fan of Chic-Fil-A salads, but I am constantly trying to mix things up and try something new.  On this occasion, I made the colossal error of suggesting Atlanta Bread Company over Chic-Fil-A.

As we approached Atlanta Bread Company, I noticed a sign out front advertising a Peppadew Roast Beef and Brie panini.  I've said it before - if a restaurant thinks something is good enough to warrant a giant sign out front, I'm going to give it a try and allow them to either impress or disappoint me on that dish.  Mrs. Tank has a go-to order at ABC since she visits it on rare occasions; she gets the chicken salad sandwich with chips and a pickle spear.  Since the idea of chips and a pickle spear bores me, I opted for their roasted black bean and corn salad as my side.  I doubt I could have known that disaster was lurking with a meal that, conceptually, had some promise.

Things took a downturn before our food was even prepared.  As I often do, I poured a glass of 3/4 unsweet tea and 1/4 sweet tea - my only drink at lunch besides water or the occasional beer.  The first sip of tea tasted like feet, and it left a lingering, filmy taste in my mouth.  I don't know if they were using some incredibly boo tea product there or if the tea was brewed in ages past, but the drink was so bad I had to dump it out in the bathroom after Mrs. Tank confirmed it was wrong on every level.  How is it even possible to mess up tea?

When our food was prepared, ABC apparently decided that I needed potato salad instead of the roasted black bean and corn salad I ordered.  I took the food back up and swapped out my side.  Maybe I should have just kept the potato salad.  The "roasted" salad was cold, sweeter than a slice of cake, and drowning in what I believe was some type of vinegar product.  However, the real problem was my sandwich.  I paid top-ABC sandwich price for this new "special" Peppadew sandwich.  However, it had no peppers or sauce of any kind on it.  Rather, it merely had tough roast beef and a thin slice of brie cheese cut in such a manner to ensure that I had rind in every bite.  Disgusting.

I took my food back up again, and I pointed out the absence of their lauded South African peppers (ACB claims that it continues to "search the globe for new, unique flavors to bring to its local bakery cafés").  The employee actually argued with me regarding whether my terrible $7 sandwich was supposed to have some sauce or peppers on it!  After I brandished my receipt, she took my sandwich away.  A few minutes later, the same sandwich, complete with my missing bite, was returned to me with a thousand-island-style sauce and one 3/4 inch slice of pepper on it.  Talk about over-selling and under-producing!

I'm trying to contrast the actual sandwich to the ad for it
Now, I am not a food regulation expert, and I don't know whether Regulation 61-25, Chapter 2, Section E.5 of South Carolina's DHEC restaurant regulations actually prohibits re-service of food to the same customer or not.  I do know that, even as a teenage fast-food employee, I was trained not to accept, fix, and return the same food to a customer at Chic-Fil-A.  Even if it is not a technical violation, it is disturbing to think that someone was handling the food I had already began to eat and then gave it back to me.  Apparently, that is how they roll at Atlanta Bread Company.  When that same, terrible sandwich - already drenched in butter and pressed to death the first time around - was returned to me, the deal was sealed; Atlanta Bread Company bought itself a coveted place on the Boo List.

HEAD-TO-HEAD: Columbia Meat & Threes (Part 3 of 3)

Posted by The LunchMen Monday, September 13, 2010 2 comments

In this final installation of our Columbia Meat and Threes Head-to-Head, we are going to reveal the winner of our popular Columbia meat & three challenge.  I must admit, if you had asked me before this challenge if I would have anything nice to say about the Thicket, I would have said, "yes, they have crispy bacon."  That's it.  I have been an outspoken critic on Lizard's Thicket for a couple of years after bad experiences at the Knox Abbott and Beltline locations.  However, my criticisms will be muted moving forward after a surprising lunch at the Elmwood location.

LIZARD'S THICKET - 818 Elmwood

Lizard's Thicket is all over the place around Columbia.  In my estimation, that always places the restaurant at a disadvantage, as quality control usually goes down, organizational overhead is often up, menus are less apt to change when necessary, etc.  When I first moved to Columbia, several people recommend that I go to Lizard's Thicket for a good Southern meal.  Let's be clear: if you want a really good Southern meal, don't go to the Thicket.  That is an unfair burden to place on a restaurant empire like the Thicket - one that is designed to do high-volume at a lower price.  Inevitably, the bottom line for a restaurant like the Thicket requires compromises that will lower the quality of the food.  Therefore, it is important that the Thicket is not compared to lofty standards, even lofty meat & three standards, but rather the Thicket should be judged in the context of its competitors in terms of offerings and price.  In that context, the Thicket can shine.

Compared to Compton's and Nathan's, the Thicket on Elmwood - which I have decided is the best Thicket for either breakfast or lunch - really impressed our group.  Let me jump right into my biggest surprise:  the Thicket's country fried steak dominated the offerings of its competitors.  It was not even a competition, really, folks.  The gravy, if canned/jarred, was able to fool me into not obsessing on that fact.  The steak itself was properly cooked - still tender inside, a crispy crust, and adequate seasoning.  I felt like I was eating country-fried steak, not a sponge or shoe leather.  Although the service size was a tad massive for lunch, I'm not going to complain about that too much - lunch is quite often my only meal of the day.

The sides at the Thicket were also a nice surprise for us.  My green beans had some nice flavor added to them (a distinct pork flavor, probably ham) despite the fact that they were not fresh, local pickings.   My macaroni & cheese was creamy and cheesy.  As for the squash casserole, it might have been the single best side that I tried throughout this challenge.

Several in our group went after the Thicket's famous fried chicken.  The Publican was very happy with his selection, and in our future fried chicken poll, the Thicket has earned a spot on the list.  The Thicket's fried chicken, although it appeared deep fried rather than pan fried, was reportedly not over-cooked or too greasy.  The final result was a proper nod to the traditional Southern fried chicken, perhaps as much as can be expected to a restaurant doing the kind of volume the Thicket on Elmwood does during lunch.  On that point, take warning: this place was so packed, we were only able to find one parking spot in the lot at 12:10.  Nearly every table had someone enjoying the home-style cooking. 

Butter beans, stewed tomatoes & okra, mashed potatoes & gravy - each side was relatively well received by the Lunchmen that ordered it.  Kali opted for one of the popular salad options and a bowl of vegetable soup.  My photo does not do either justice since Kali had already set in on his meal, but take my word for it - the Thicket's soup is hearty, winter fare.  I'll be going back in the late fall for a bowl of that soup and a cornbread muffin, I promise you.  Rabbit, as you would expect, grabbed an entree salad; no complaints from our resident lettuce critic. His regular order at the Thicket is a salad with baked chicken, quartered tomatoes, carrots, and radicchio.  They also offer a  fried version for those wanting a little Southern flare without all of the guilt.

Overall, the price at the Thicket is about $2 more than Nathan's and $1 more than Compton's.  Its atmosphere is busier and less relaxed as well.  However, the quality of the food lifted the Lizard's Thicket over its competitors, and therefore we believe the Thicket - at least the Elmwood location - is best in class in this inaugural head-to-head challenge highlighting popular downtown meat & threes.  The Thicket proves that quality can be controlled even in a volume operation with the right employees and the right fixin's.  If you are looking for "real country cooking" without paying for top-end ingredients, the Thicket delivers on its promise.

Final Results:     Proteins           Sides & Veggies         Atmosphere        Price
1st                        Thicket               Compton's                    Compton's            Nathan's   
2nd                       Nathan's             Thicket                         Nathan's               Compton's
3rd                       Compton's          Nathan's                       Thicket                 Thicket

- Tank

HEAD-TO-HEAD: Columbia Meat & Threes (Part 2 of 3)

Posted by The LunchMen Friday, September 10, 2010 7 comments

In this second installation of our Columbia Meat and Threes Head-to-Head, we are going to highlight what was probably the biggest disappointment for me in this challenge. I was convinced that we had done a pretty favorable post on Compton’s Kitchen before, a West Columbia institution that has been serving up Southern home style food since 1977. If we’ve previously written a post on Compton’s, I can’t find it on our blog (pathetic, I know). Well, things did not go as well this time around...

COMPTON’S KITCHEN - 1118 B Ave., W. Cola

I didn’t live in Columbia in 1977 (or ’97 for that matter), but Compton’s appears to be a place that has not changed much in the past 33 years. That is what the Lunchmen love about Compton’s. Every time we show up, we look like a bunch of clowns - I’ve finally learned to leave my tie in the car. The friendly staff knows most of their regulars by name, and we aren’t regulars. However, the staff serves both regulars and clowns equal doses of Southern hospitality.

Compton’s is a classic meat & three. Each day, Compton’s offers a list of proteins the majority of which are fried, and a long list of “vegetables.” I have to qualify the term “vegetable” because even chocolate pie is treated as a veggie when you order the meat & three. Kudos, Comptons - sometime a man needs a meat & two and a slice of pie.

Rabbit goes for a four veggie plate every time at Compton’s. This trip, he opted for squash, green peas, cabbage, and tomatoes. Rabbit liked his veggies - they were a serious improvement over Nathan’s veggies and sides. There is nothing sexy about how these veggies are prepared, mind you; the peas and the cabbage were boiled, the squash was stewed with onions, and the tomatoes were just sliced and seasoned. However, that is pretty standard for a run of the mill meat & three, and the result is good comfort food.

The Queen of Frozen Cuisine and I had the macaroni. It was delicious - tasting just the way my mother makes it. As always, I also had the green beans. They managed to get some decent seasoning into these canned/frozen beans, beating Nathan’s in that regard. The Publican had the broccoli casserole, which is quite good comfort food at well, even if it is a little heavy on the canned soup binder. And Compton’s biscuits are second in town only to the Capital City Club’s flaky delights. 

However, Compton’s completely crashed and burned on the proteins. The Queen’s pork chop left her wishing we had gone to the Kingsman instead. The Publican’s fried chicken was passable, but compared head-to-head with the other options in this challenge, it was lacking in juiciness and seasoning. Pizza the Hut and I both had the county fried steak again. It was an absolute train wreck. Can you see the "juice" pooling in the picture!?!  The steak had the consistency of an old dish sponge. It had nearly no flavor at all. To compensate for the lack of flavor, Compton's buried it in what I can only assume was a bottled/canned gravy that was completely unappetizing. The lack of any crunch or texture left me extremely disappointed with this steak. After spending the past year hoping to become a regular at this place, maybe even during the ellusive breakfast window, the country fried steak left me wondering why that was ever my goal at all.

The Publican brought me back from the edge by reminding me that 1) the sides are generally very good for a meat & three, 2) the price is reasonable, and 3) the atmosphere makes you feel like you are in Mayberry rather than Columbia. He is right on all three counts. I’ll keep going back to Compton’s, but I’ll never order that terrible steak again. Instead, I’ll be like Rabbit and go “vegetarian” for the day - a slice of pie included.

- Tank

HEAD-TO-HEAD: Columbia Meat & Threes (Part 1 of 3)

Posted by The LunchMen Thursday, September 9, 2010 0 comments

If you are familiar with this blog, then you'll know that we usually leave head-to-head comparisons up to you through our polls. Hey, you guys almost always get it right anyways. However, the Lunchmen like to mix it up, and so we are rolling out a new post format: the Head-to-Head. We could think of no better Head-to-Head to start out this new tradition than a meat & three challenge.

First, we needed parameters for the herculean task for comparing Columbia's meat & threes. We know that there are truly baller meat & three options in the area. If you have not been to the Farmer's Shed out in Lexington, then you have a void in your life, even if you don't realize it yet. If you have not saddled up with the blue-hairs at the Millwood Cafe, then you are missing out on what I believe to be Columbia's best downtown meat & three. But the Farmer's Shed and the Millwood Cafe were not what first came to mind when we began asking our usual suspects to list the three meat & three restaurants that first came to mind. Instead we got Compton's, Nathan's, and the omnipresent Lizard's Thicket. So, we agreed we would pit these three popular options head to head, and save the true stars of Columbia's meat & three world for their own posts.

I committed to trying the country-fried steak, green beans, and macaroni & cheese at all three locations. We took at least five (and as many as ten) of our usual suspects on each of these trips. After asking everyone what really mattered at a meat & three, we agreed immediately that fried chicken needed to be tasted at each place as well. Rabbit, and others, stressed the need to highlight the veggie options. Therefore, we decided to rate the restaurants from 1st to 3rd in four categories: Proteins, Sides & Veggies, Atmosphere, and Price. When the dust cleared, the results were truly unexpected to this group. Final rankings will appear in the third and final post in this series.

NATHAN'S RESTAURANT: 1840 Hampton Street

Nathan's is a long-standing Columbia establishment. In the mornings, it is flooded with a mix of office workers and blue collar workers alike partaking of a very affordable, and artery-clogging, breakfast. Nathan has a lot of lunch options, but everyone I know goes to Nathans for the meat-and-three lunch special. If you've ever had a sandwich for lunch, give us a comment and let us know if they are good.

To most of our participants, Nathan's came into the Head-to-Head as the projected front-runner(although I believed that Compton's would ultimately triumph). With buzz circulating our office over the Head-to-Head, ten regulars came out for the Nathan's taste test, and we descended on Nathan's like a bus of tourists on a Ryan's steakhouse. The service at Nathan's is fast and friendly. Nathan's feels exactly like a downtown diner should feel: established, relaxed, and unpretentious.

The food that came out of Nathan's kitchen was polarizing. The Queen of Frozen Cuisine, for example, had some delicious fried chicken. She was pretty thrilled that she came out of her office cave and joined society for a while. Pizza the Hut and I had the country fried steak, and we both thought it was good, although perhaps a little tough. Tex, however, ordered the Cajun chicken, which I believe was actually made out of that rare chicken most often reserved for shtick comedy routines - the rubber chicken. It looked, and reportedly tasted, deplorable.

Nathan's biggest shortcoming, however were its sides & veggies. My okra was clearly something the came from a large, frozen bag - likely pre-breaded. The okra had absolutely no flavor and a mealy texture. With fresh okra growing locally while we made this trip, I shed a small tear for having to eat something so tasteless. Everyone who had mashed potatoes agreed that they came from a box of instant mashed potatoes mix - perhaps the Idahoan. I can't remember who all ordered cheese on their mashed potatoes, but none of the cheese was melted when the potatoes hit the table. To add to my pain, my green beans tasted like the tin can they were likely poured out of prior to service. At least I may have obtained some extra minerals that way.

Apparently the collards were a saving grace, and others (not me) liked the macaroni and cheese.  Pizza the Hut liked the deviled eggs, though I could detect none of the signature seasoning that should top a proper deviled egg.  So, let's talk about the real saver for Nathan's: the price. If you want a living example of the saying, "you get what you pay for," Nathan's is it. The price on the meat and three is phenomenal. Its cheaper than a $5 foot long and a drink. For the price of a fast food meal, you can have a sit-down meal with friendly service in a place that feels comfortable. Of course, your meal is no healthier than that fast food, and the food is not fresher, either. But, for those looking for a meat & three on a tight budget, Nathan's has been and will continue to be here for you.

- Tank  (who apologizes for the shifting font that is a result of Blogger's insistence on tinkering with things that need to be left alone.)


Posted by The LunchMen Wednesday, September 1, 2010 1 comments

We all know things that just seem to go together - Bert and Ernie, Gin and Tonic, people from Florence and tobacco, being an attorney and depression. But seriously, has anyone ever put Sushi and Tacos into that category? Well, that’s just what the folks behind TakoSushi have done, setting up shop in the Columbia Upper Vista after successful invasions into the Greenville, Aiken, and Augusta markets. As faithful readers may recall, we sent out a newsflash earlier in the summer announcing TakoSushi’s arrival, but wanted to hold off on a review until they had time to settle in to their new space. This week, Mrs. Rabbit found herself stuck downtown on jury duty, so she and I headed down Assembly Street to give this place a proper review. Though my wallet will remember this trip for a while, we both left stuffed and happy.

After walking in, Mrs. Rabbit immediately commented on the cool temperature inside the restaurant, which for Columbia in the summer is a huge plus. Aside from the deep red wall colors that were a little anxiety-inducing, the place was clean and comfortable, and featured tables as well as a bar and back room for seating.

Rather than decide on one continent’s culinary delights, we decided to split the baby and each order an entrée from different sides of the menu that we would then share. I went with the lunch Sushi/Sashimi box, in which you get to choose any sushi roll and are also given chef’s choice of sashimi, miso soup, and a salad. Really, this would have been enough to feed us both, but then we wouldn’t have been able to review the Southwest part of the restaurant, so Mrs. Rabbit ordered the Shrimp Tacos. These guys come in a pair, on soft or hard shells with a plate of salsa, spinach/cucumber mix, beans, guac, lettuce, tomato, and sour cream to add as you please. Definitely a hearty meal in its own right.

To start, I had the waiter bring the soup to my wife and the “salad” to me, as I do not dig on soup in any fashion and quite frankly find it repulsive in all its forms. However, Mrs. Rabbit assures me it was warm and delicious. Whatever.

As for the salad, its actually diced and shaved cucumbers with some shredded crab meat and soy sauce mixed in. It sounds simple, but it is damn delicious and much better than the normal Asian salad starter: four pieces of lettuce with carrots and a pound of ginger dressing.

Our waiter then brought the Sushi box on for the next course. On his recommendation, we went with the “Crazy Roll,” which boasts Shrimp and Cucumber topped with more shrimp, crab, avocado, Teriyaki Glaze and “TakoSushi Sauce” (think 1000 island). I must say that the one piece I had was great, but unfortunately Mrs. Rabbit decided to annex the rest of the roll for herself, and I was left to enjoy the sashimi, which is on par with any place in town.

Already full, it was with some hesitation that we embarked on the final course – the tacos. However, we felt duty bound to the blog to finish what we started. Or at least I did, as I finished my taco and half of my wife’s when she finally raised the flag of surrender. The shrimp were fresh and sautéed perfectly (not overdone), and all of the toppings were excellent. The best part about eating tacos I think is the toppings, so these guys are a home run.

Everything was excellent, and I was in a great mood thinking what a successful review this was going to be. Then, the bill arrived. Luckily, there were other people in the restaurant so my reaction remained subdued. Let’s just say it was a bit more than what I expect to pay for a two person lunch downtown. Not saying it’s not worth the trip occasionally, but it would be hard to add this into our regular “rotation” at these prices. However, if you, like Tank was today, are ever stuck going out to eat with some guy trying to sell you insurance or other financial product, suggest you go to TakoSushi, stick him with the bill, and watch with glee as he lays down the Amex to cover your multiple rolls and tacos in the desperate hope you actually buy something from him. Otherwise, if you end up there and are paying your own way, skip the drinks (2 bucks a pop for tea/coke) and order a smaller entrée – I promise it will be plenty of food.

Overall, TakoSushi has great food, but sadly they know it and have adjusted their prices accordingly. However, I’ll definitely be back and would recommend to anyone, especially those who aren’t going to be footing the bill.


Editor's Note: The pics in this post do not correlate with Rabbit's family meal.  Rabbit is a dead beat who does not take photos at lunch.  These pics are from the Lunchmen's last outing to TakoSushi.

Search This Blog

About Us

My photo
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.