Monday, May 31, 2010

The Spot Diner/Restaurant

Name: The Spot
Location: 1062 Upper Front St, Binghamton, NY 13905
Phone: (607) 723-8149

Cuisine: American/Greek/etc.
Attire: Casual
Price: Less than $20 for two (most of the time)
The Spot Diner is a default breakfast stop for Megan and me. The food is good, the service is quick, and the menu is vast. Plus, most things on the menu are pretty inexpensive. All of these factors add up to a winning combination.

The Spot is located on Upper Front St., a good distance from downtown Binghamton. It's not far from the Northgate Plaza where Grande's is located. The place is gigantic. There are 3 distinct dining areas making it easily the largest diner I have ever seen. There are probably 100 tables in the place, all told. The booths are large and pretty comfortable. The waitresses are very quick and come around with fresh coffee to fill your cup every few minutes. The place has a nostalgic sort of charm for me that I can't quite put my finger on. It reminds me of places I used to go when I was a kid, when I used to go out for breakfast with my grandfather every Saturday morning. There's a gumball machine and old-timey arcade games in the lobby. I guess it just reminds me of a much simpler time in my life.

The menu is extraordinarily humongous, with a ton of options of various prices. Usually I order off the breakfast menu, where you can get virtually any usual breakfast food you want, but their lunch/dinner menu is even bigger, with sandwiches/burgers, pasta, steaks, seafood, and a whole slew of Greek specialty items like gyros, souvlaki, spanakopeta, and moussaka. Megan and I like the souvlaki; she orders it often. They also have a huge dessert case that I've been meaning to sample at some point. This review will focus on breakfast, however.

We went yesterday, 10:00 Sunday morning. For many places this would mean a packed house but it's nearly impossible for The Spot to be completely packed since the place is so huge. We got in right away and were seated promptly in a booth toward the back. One thing we really like about the place is that even though it's busy, it never really *feels* busy. We both ordered coffee and it came out in about a minute. Typical diner coffee, these are no gourmet beans or anything but it's drinkable and they keep filling it up regularly. Plus, I believe they don't charge you for coffee with breakfast. Win. Megan ordered the Belgian Waffle (watch out, you can only order this item before 11:00 AM, but can order any other breakfast item at any time), while I went with the buttermilk pancakes with two eggs.

The food came out promptly. Megan enjoyed her waffle immensely. It looked quite good to me. As for my pancakes, they were a little more "done" than I would've liked. I like them a little more golden than brown, and most of the time they are. Yesterday's were a little subpar, but still tasty. The eggs were normal scrambled eggs. Nothing to get excited about, but nothing to complain about either. For an $11 breakfast, both of us left quite satisfied and weren't hungry again until dinner.

There are a TON of diners in the Binghamton area and I hope to visit and review many of them. To any readers who stumble across this post: which of the area diners do you like best? Which would you recommend we visit? For now, I like The Spot. The atmosphere is suitably old-timey (hello, operator?), the service is great (amazing for a place so big that's often crowded), and the food isn't flashy but it hits...the spot. See what I did there?

Grade: B

Spot Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Cacciatore's Restaurant

Name: Cacciatore's Restaurant
Location: 365 Harry L Drive, Johnson City, NY 13790
Phone: (607) 798-7699
Cuisine: Italian
Attire: Casual
Price: Entrees range from $8 to $25. Usually a total of $50 for the two of us.
Cacciatore's is the first Italian restaurant I'll review in an area full of them, Grande's notwithstanding. Also, this'll be the first review of a restaurant in Johnson City that I'll have done, which is somewhat of a milestone given that I am a resident of said village. So I gotta make this one good.

We've been to Cacciatore's a lot over the years. It's close to where we live and they have good food at extremely fair prices. We've had a full dinner with bread, salad, entree, and dessert for less than $30 at Cacciatore's on numerous occasions, so it is possible to eat here very cheaply. We wouldn't keep coming back though, of course, if the food was subpar. Luckily, the restaurant is one of the best unheralded restaurants in the area, a place that has been consistently good and has improved consistently with just about every visit we've made in our six years of living in JC.

Cacciatore's is located in the so-called "Small Mall" on Harry L Drive across from the little league baseball fields and adjacent to where the former Magic City Music Hall was located. It's tucked about halfway into the shopping center and is a little hidden to those not looking for it. I'm always surprised when I mention Cacciatore's to someone and they haven't heard of it or don't know where it is. It's not an ideal location from a visibility standpoint but it's on a main drag so it's pretty easy to get to.

There's a small bar to the right of the restaurant as you walk in the front door and two dining areas to the left. I really like the atmosphere of Cacciatore's. It's dimly lit and intimate and there's often music playing like Frank Sinatra to provide an appropriate atmosphere. There's a warm neighborhood feel about the place. The waitresses are really good and attentive and have given good recommendations over the years. They are often busy with many tables at a time so they don't often have much time to dedicate to each table, but they are friendly and efficient.

For appetizers they have several options. We've had a few of them. On our most recent visit tonight, we didn't get an appetizer and opted to go the dessert route instead, but we've had the bruschetta, the mozzarella sticks, and the signature appetizer, the grilled mozzarella, which is mozzarella cheese wrapped in prosciutto. The mozzarella sticks are served with a dish of their homemade marinara sauce which I think is pretty fantastic. Tomato sauce can be a sensitive issue for many patrons of Italian restaurants--Cacciatore's is sweet but robust, and very good. The grilled mozzarella is less successful, in my opinion. Maybe the prosciutto just isn't my thing, but it had kind of a weird taste that I didn't quite care for. They also have a pretty good wine list. A bottle of red, a bottle of white, you know the tune...

They bring out complimentary bread which is fantastic, and all entrees come with salad. The house dressing is definitely the way to go and is one of my favorite parts of the Cacciatore's experience. One minor issue regarding the salad is that it isn't always cold. The lettuce is usually not very crisp and the dressing is usually room temperature. I'd prefer it a little more chilled.

For entrees, there are many options. They have a whole page full of signature entrees, which contains my personal favorite, the Penne with Caramelized Onions. It's penne tossed with oil and garlic and topped with onions that have been caramelized in balsamic vinegar and grated parseman cheese. It probably sounds pretty ordinary, but it's really quite commendable. And for $8, it's an absolute steal and one of the best bargain meals in the Southern Tier. They have lists of different chicken, veal, seafood, steak, and pasta entrees to choose from as well. The pasta dishes tend to run between $8 and $12. I've had several of them and have been happy with them, including the lasagna. Some of the steak and seafood options get up into the $20-$25 range. Tonight I decided to try the alfredo sauce and went with an entree called the Seafood Alfredo ($15).

As you can see, it consists of scallops, shrimp, clams, and mussels served over linguini and topped with the alfredo sauce. I was quite pleased with it. The seafood was cooked well and combined well with the alfredo. The pasta was cooked al dente and the homemade alfredo sauce was just as good as the red sauce. At only $15, I would definitely get this dish again, although it's hard to pull me away from the Penne with Caramelized Onions.

Megan got the Chicken Parmigiana ($13).

Yup, that's chicken underneath that generous helping of mozzarella on top, and it's served with a side of pasta (your choice). She was very happy with it. I sampled a couple bites and thought it was really good as well. Chicken was well-breaded and that red sauce has a nice thickness and excellent flavor. A good dish all-around.

I've never had a dessert at Cacciatore's I didn't like. Today we decided to split a cannoli.

It was quite delicious and went well with the coffee I also ordered to finish the meal. Lots of restaurants in the area have cannoli but I think Cacciatore's is the best of the bunch in that regard.

Overall, Cacciatore's deserves a higher reputation than it currently has. It keeps a relatively low profile due to its location. The restaurant has a comfortable atmosphere, an efficient wait staff, and very good food that seems to get better with every visit. Plus, it's very reasonably priced compared with its peers. I highly recommend it!

Grade: A-

Cacciatore's on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 28, 2010

California Grill

Name: California Grill
Location: 912 Vestal Parkway East, Vestal, NY 13850
Phone: (607) 741-4062
Cuisine: Southwestern
Attire: Casual
Price: $30-40 for two

So far, I think most of my reviews on this site have been positive in one way or another. With a place like Cyber West, for example, where I didn't care for the food, I was able to highlight the atmosphere, the great tap selection, and the excellent desserts. With Kelly's, I was able to recommend the wings. California Grill is where the buck stops, a truly dismal restaurant and one to which I will never return.

California Grill is located out on Vestal Parkway right near where Route 17 meets Route 26. It's not far from the Full Belly Deli, where I was the other day. Having lived several years ago near the Four Corners in Vestal, I drove past the California Grill on a daily basis. I always wondered if it was any good. I should've kept wondering.

The place is diner-like upon entry. There are tables straight ahead and in a room off to the left. There's a bar in the far left corner of the place with such favorites as Bud Light and Labatt on tap. Yes, I'm being sarcastic. Anyway, we went at an off time and were seated promptly. I didn't have a problem with the service; the waitress was adequate and brought out the food and drinks fairly quickly.

The menu has a long list of appetizers, with interesting-sounding items like Fried Pickles, Southwestern Egg Rolls, and Chicken Satay Skewers. They had a deal called the "Tidal Wave" whereby you could sample all three of these delicacies, which we opted to go with:

There we have it. A pretty sorry looking plate of food. Those burned-looking things in the upper right are the egg rolls. The egg rolls came with a chipotle dipping sauce which was OK. Aside from being somewhat burned, the egg rolls were mildly decent and could pass as acceptable bar food. The pickles are there in the foreground, served with ranch dressing. Interesting to see fried pickles on the menu, and worth a try I guess, but not something I would order again. The "chicken satay" skewers were, as Megan put it "lukewarm and teriyaki-ish" and served with a truly odd peanut dipping sauce that tasted like barbecue sauce mixed with peanut butter. Weird, and not in a good way.

For the main course I opted for something called the California Burrito which consisted of marinated steak, Mexican cheese, sour cream, and french fries(!) in a flour tortilla split in half, served with chips and salsa on the side.

I thought this ended up being less a burrito and more like a fajita wrap or something like that. The steak tasted alright but there wasn't much of it to be found. Instead, the entire thing was dominated by the taste of french fries. Now, mind you, the fries weren't bad for diner fries. But they did not pair well with the rest of the burrito. I kept thinking the whole time how I could get a similar, but better, plate of food at Applebee's or TGI Friday's, for less money. That is never a good sign.

Megan got the Chicken Club Tacos and I snagged a few bites, hoping for something better than my own entree. Indeed, hers was a better choice and exactly what you would expect them to be. Chicken tacos with the classic club sandwich ingredients, bacon, lettuce, tomato... It was better than what I got, but average at best. Hers came with a dish of rice and a dish of black beans on the side. The rice was typical Spanish rice while the beans were flat-out disgusting. I would not wish those beans on prisoners.

We did not stick around for dessert, opting to go ahead and pay the $40 check instead. Yup, $40. I could've gotten the same at Applebee's for $25-$30, but so it goes.

I wish I had better things to say about our experience at the California Grill, but it really was truly bad. It is clear that whoever made the food did not put much, if any, effort or care into its construction. The egg rolls were burnt, and my "burrito" was a complete conceptual failure with the french fries dominating every bite. The only positive was the relatively quick service. Granted, we were the only ones in the place. Now I know why.

Grade: D

California Grill on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Full Belly Deli

Name: Full Belly Deli
Location: 1550 Vestal Parkway East, Vestal, NY 13850
Phone: (607) 754-3354
Cuisine: Sandwiches/Subs
Attire: Casual
Price: Less than $20 for two

Today, I stopped by the Full Belly Deli for lunch. It was my first time there and, overall, it was a fairly positive experience.

The place is located out the far side of the Vestal Parkway about halfway between Town Square Mall and Four Corners, in the same small shopping plaza as the Asian fusion restaurant Lemongrass, which I'll certainly be writing about at some point or another. The location is not great, but that's beside the point. It's laid out on the inside like any normal sandwich shop, much like a Subway or Quizno's. The staff was very friendly and talkative; the cashier gave me an awesome coffee recommendation as well that I'll mention in a minute.

The menu is really basic, with all the standard sandwich and sub options...turkey, ham, roast beef, Italian, reuben, meatball, etc., all made-to-order. I ordered an Italian Sub ($6) with all the usual fixings--lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo, sub sauce, black olives, and provolone cheese. The meat they use for the sandwiches is the gold standard of quality deli meat, Boar's Head. In this case, ham, capicola, and pepperoni were the meats of choice. The bread was an 8" sub roll that I presume is their homemade bread. Here we go...

There it is. Truly, an ordinary-looking Italian sub, but a very fine tasting sandwich. The fresh bread was delicious and gives me reason again to come back at some point. All the veggies and meats tasted very fresh. I had absolutely no problem with the taste of the sandwich and I would probably get it again. The problem I have is with the name of the place. Full Belly Deli. When I think of a place called the Full Belly Deli, I think of heaping portions. I want a 14" sub like I'd get at Wegman's. I want the thing stuffed to the gills. I want leftovers. Granted, the quality of what you're getting here is pretty high, but this thing had the skimpiest portion of meat I've ever had in a sub. Look at the picture. You can barely see any meat there at all. I'd like a little ham with my lettuce. Please. Full Belly Deli? That's false advertising in the name alone. But I don't want to make it seem like this was not a good sandwich, because I did enjoy it. I just wished I was eating it in a place not called the Full Belly Deli the whole time.

I elected to go with a cup of coffee ($1.50) to drink and the cashier pointed me toward the Ethiopian Harrar, a dark roast. I'm not really a coffee connoisseur or anything but this was definitely the best cup of coffee I've had in a while. The coffee was easily the best thing about the meal and I'd definitely stop there for coffee alone on a regular basis if not for the fact that it's so far out of the way.

All in all, I'd have to say I recommend the Full Belly Deli. The food was really fresh and tasted good, and the coffee was a definite home run. The staff was friendly which definitely goes a long way. There are definitely some changes I would make. For starters, the name of the place is a flat-out lie. So ditch the name or up the portions. Secondly, the menu was a little too basic in my opinion. A small sandwich shop like this should offer some "signature" specialty items that give you a real reason to go there instead of Subway or Wegman's, especially since it's a little bit off the beaten path. With these basic improvements Full Belly Deli would flourish into an excellent place to grab lunch.

Grade: B

Full Belly Deli on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Cyber Cafe West

Name: Cyber Cafe West
Location: 176 Main Street, Binghamton, NY 13905
Phone: (607) 723-2456
Cuisine: Wraps/sandwiches/salads
Attire: Casual
Price: $20 for two

Cyber Cafe West is another place, like Tapatios, that I've been to a hundred times or more. They have Team Trivia on Monday nights, hosted by the inimitable Jeff Kahn, who also happens to own the place. We used to attend the trivia rather regularly (just about every week for a couple years) but these days we don't attend quite as much. There are tons of things to like about the Cyber. It has a unique atmosphere, to say the least, and appeals to a diverse clientele--dyed-in-the-wool hippies and young professionals alike. They've got live music 5 nights a week and try to bring in a wide variety of under-the-radar musicians. They have a game room in the back where people can often be seen playing chess, reading, or just hanging out. They probably have the best overall beer selection in the entire Southern Tier, with a great selection of microbrews and bottles. Their desserts are pretty outstanding, with a good, varied, rotating selection of pies, cakes, and cookies. The problem with Cyber is the rest of the food they make. It's simply not very good.

The cafe has an interesting layout. Upon entering, you can place an order off to the right, where the bar and "kitchen" are located. There's a room with tables to the left, and many more tables in the room beyond the kitchen, where the stage is located. You'll notice all sorts of hippie-ish artwork all over the place, including the tables. The tables are somewhat rickety and in fact the entire place kind of seems like it could crumble to the ground at any time. But the shambolic nature is kind of part of its charm, oddly enough.

Let's talk about the beer selection. Excellent indeed. Where else are you going to find Ommegang's Chocolate Indulgence, Dogfish Head's Midas Touch, and Great Divide's Titan IPA (to name a few) on tap in the Southern Tier? You aren't. An added bonus is that you can order either pints or pitchers. A big thumbs-up for a wide selection of about 25 different taps, nearly all of which don't suck, and they're all reasonably priced, unlike the wallet-gouging Ale House out on the Parkway. They also have a reasonable selection of wine. Megan also likes some of the other drinks they make, like the strawberry lemonade. So far, so good.

The food menu offers a wide array of wraps and sandwiches. A good number of these items are either vegetarian or vegan and the place is definitely popular among that demographic. I have gotten many different items on the menu over the years and there are a few things on there that I consider decent. The El Ciber wrap consists of vegetarian chili, jasmine rice, jalapenos, sour cream, and cheese. Served with tortilla chips with a couple wedges of gouda cheese, the El Ciber is pretty good for what it is. Sometimes a little heavy on the sour cream, but you can of course have it made it to order. The Texas Pig-in-a-Blanket is another wrap I've often ordered. Pulled pork barbecue with tomatoes and mozzarella. I've had much better pulled pork, and I usually get this without the tomatoes since I don't understand what they're doing there to begin with. But all told, it's edible. Whatever you do, don't order anything that has chicken in it, which unfortunately comprises pretty much the remainder of their non-vegetarian menu. The chicken has a very off-putting taste most of the time. It's pretty disgusting, in fact. So that knocks the Cyber down a few pegs in my book right there.

For desserts, they've got a very nice selection of coffee drinks (organic fair-trade beans only, thankyouverymuch) and the aforementioned pies/cakes/cookies. They sometimes have a chocolate peanut butter pie that I really like, and the giant chocolate chip cookies are pretty tasty. Thumbs up on the desserts.

Cyber Cafe West is tough for me to assign a grade to. The place has a really unique, comfortable atmosphere that I really like. The beverage selection is nonpareil, and the desserts are really good and are reason enough to stop by. I truly wish I had better things to say about the rest of the menu, but I really don't care for most of it. Don't let that stop you from heading to Cyber for a relaxing night on the town...just think about eating before you go.

Grade: B-

Cyber Cafe West on Urbanspoon

Saturday, May 22, 2010

P.S. Restaurant

Name: P.S. Restaurant
Location: 100 Rano Blvd., Vestal, NY 13850
Phone: (607) 770-0056
Cuisine: French/Thai
Attire: Upscale (not formal)
Price: $100+ for two

Review: P.S. is a restaurant I had long wondered about, having driven past on numerous occasions. I do math tutoring for a family on Rano Blvd. and have driven past this place every week for years. I knew it had a reputation for being one of the better restaurants in the area but didn't really know what to expect. Tonight, Megan and I decided to rally the troops and visit P.S. for ourselves. Our friend Tom came along and we had ourselves a good time.

From the outside, P.S. is nothing to look at. It's located in a small shopping plaza with a bank, a bar, an insurance office, a hairdresser, and a grocery store. Not exactly where you'd expect to find fine dining. But I was pleasantly surprised with the ambiance. In terms of appearance on the inside, there's no doubt this is one of the nicer places in the Binghamton area. Upon entrance there's a small bar/lounge area that looks like it'd make a nice place for a nightcap after a fancy night out on the town. The dining area is exactly what you'd expect of a nice restaurant, though some of the tables were a little closer together than I prefer. All three of us were impressed and somewhat surprised with our environs.

The wait staff was knowledgeable and made good recommendations throughout our meal. Our waitress was attentive throughout and really did a nice job despite her inability to pronounce "edamame" properly. Ah well, can't win 'em all.

Bread and butter were served to start, and we got a bottle of riesling. I decided to go with the Diver Scallop Risotto appetizer to start my dining experience, as seen below.

The risotto was advertised as containing "chunks" of scallops but the reality was there was but one scallop on top of the dish. A neat presentation for sure with cucumber surrounding the risotto making a "bowl." I didn't feel too strongly one way or the other about this. There was something slightly off-putting about the rice itself, it really didn't taste quite right. The scallop was well-cooked but there was just the one--I would've liked the flavor of the scallop to come through this dish a little bit more. The lobster sherry sauce surrounding the risotto was the best thing on the plate, with a rich flavor that certainly helped tie the dish together, much like The Dude's rug did for his living room. Overall, though, I was less than pleased with the appetizer.

With an entree you get your choice of soup or salad, and I elected to try out the Thai side of the menu with the Tom Yum soup with shrimp. The soup was OK but did not amaze me. Definitely a little too heavy on the mint. I would've liked a little more shrimp in there as well, but so it goes. Decent, but the best was yet to come.

For my entree, I ordered something entitled the "Caitlin & Penne" which was comprised of sauteed shrimp tossed with penne in a lobster cream sauce with mushrooms and asparagus spears. Here it is!

Now that's what I'm talking about. I was impressed by everything about this dish. The shrimp were perfectly cooked and had great taste, the penne was al dente just as it should be, but the lobster sauce was out of this world, a nice thick sauce kind of like a marsala sauce but creamier and with lobster. This dish was amazing, and I look forward to eating the rest of it for lunch tomorrow, as the portion they gave me was rather enormous. It takes a lot for me to need a doggie bag, but here's the rare instance when it was necessary. I would get this dish again in a heartbeat.

I also sampled Megan's entree, which was some variety of beef tips with bleu cheese. Also outstanding. The beef was so tender it practically melted in my mouth. Very nice. Here it is:

Certainly an impressive plate of food. I'll let her comment on how she felt about the meal, but I think she was extremely impressed, more than I was.

For dessert, I elected my usual Irish coffee from a rather impressive menu of after-dinner drinks. Good, but it left me pining a bit for the Lost Dog's counterpart that I had last weekend. Megan got the Creme Brulee and I snagged a bite. Quite good. She was pleased with it. Tom got the Apple Pie with maple and he said it was the best thing he had all night, though he was less than pleased with most of his meal. Admittedly, the tuna appetizer he ordered looked WAY overcooked especially for sashimi grade tuna, and he wasn't a big fan of the mayonnaise content of his entree (also tuna). He did say he'd definitely come back again though, so that's a plus.

All in all, P.S. had some very strong attributes that made up for a couple of smaller missteps. The ambiance of the dining area somehow is able to overcome the external surroundings of the restaurant, which is quite an achievement in and of itself. The waitress was friendly, attentive, and made good suggestions. The entree I got was superb in absolutely every way, which helped make up for the underwhelming risotto appetizer and the somewhat average soup. This was not the best meal I've had in the Binghamton area, but I think P.S. has the potential to deliver such a meal. I will give a somewhat conservative rating this time around, but I am hopeful I will be able to bump it up after my next visit, which I will eagerly await.

Rating: B+

P.S. Restaurant & Luxury Lounge on Urbanspoon

Kelly's Sports Bar

Name: Kelly's Sports Bar
Location: 102 N. Page Ave., Endicott, New York 13760
Phone: (607) 785-4444
Cuisine: Bar Food
Attire: Casual
Price: $20 for two

Kelly's is a bit of a one-trick pony as food goes. They have a wide array of deep fried appetizers like onion rings, french fries, sweet potato fries, jalapeno poppers, and other similar items. They also have a sandwich menu with several different burgers and wraps, as well as the local delicacy, spiedies. If you're going to eat at Kelly's, I highly advise against going with any of these options. Instead, go with their specialty--the wings.

Kelly's is a bit of an oddity in terms of layout. There are two entrances, a bar entrance and a restaurant entrance. There are some small tables adjacent to the bar, a small room of circular tables between the bar and the main dining area, and the main dining area which is comprised of huge rectangular tables with another bar on the right side of the room. They used to have a couple pretty good waitresses, but fired their entire staff one day about four months ago. Ever since, the service has been less than spectacular, with the wait staff being largely less-than-attentive. Around the restaurant are several large televisions. They offer the NFL Sunday Ticket during football season so you can watch all games in the same place. I'd imagine it'd be a pretty good place to watch the games; I've never actually done so. What I have gone to Kelly's for, many times, is the Wednesday night Team Trivia hosted by DJ Thaddeus. For those who like trivia, I find this one to be (generally) one of the best in the area. It's a really good atmosphere for trivia. $50 cash to the winner, $25 gift certificate for second, and a chance to win even more in the jackpot.

This is a bar, so it'd probably be worthwhile to discuss the beer selection briefly, which is pretty poor. It's not the worst in the area, as they at least have Newcastle, Bass, and Magic Hat #9, which are reasonable I guess. No microbrews to speak of, though, which is a drawback. But it's not as if I would come here to drink independent of trivia night.

As for the food, like I said, pretty mediocre. Over the years I've had a lot of the stuff on the menu. The pizza is edible but unspectacular, the french fries and sweet potato fries are OK for something to munch on. Of the appetizers I think I prefer the onion rings best. Even still, they are ordinary, fried, greasy onion rings. Blah.

The burgers are nothing to get excited about. The Bacon Bleu Cheese Burger is probably the best of the lot, but I make better burgers at home. The Spiedie Platter is one of the menu's better options. You get an enormous portion of either chicken or pork spiedies, with grilled onions, peppers, and mushrooms, together with several slices of Italian bread (the appropriate bread option for spiedies). These spiedies are good but I don't find much comparison with the best spiedies in the area, like Spiedie and Rib Pit or Sharkey's. The bread they give you is flimsy Wonder Bread-ish stuff which doesn't help the cause.

Onward to what Kelly's actually does well--the wings. These are good-sized wings with several different sauce options, and are among the better wings you can get in the Southern Tier. You can get them mild or hot, garlic or hot garlic, BBQ or hot BBQ, or honey mustard. If the hot is too weak for you, there's also a flavor called "suicide" which I presume jacks up the heat a bit more. I'm partial to the hot BBQ (a recent menu addition). The BBQ sauce has a pretty strong flavor that I didn't care for at first but have grown to like quite a bit. If you're going to eat at Kelly's, the wings are probably your best bet. Still, they aren't anywhere remotely near the best wings I've ever had, or anything like that.

Overall, Kelly's is an average local sports bar. Average beer selection, average food menu somewhat redeemed by a wide selection and its above-average wings. The Team Trivia is a good time with the layout of the restaurant and its big tables providing a good atmosphere for nerding out with a larger group of friends. The service can be pretty bad from time to time, but could be worse. It could be the Ale House.

Grade: C+

Kelly's Sports Bar on Urbanspoon

Grande's Pizza

Name: Grande's Pizza
Location: 1250 Upper Front St., Binghamton, NY 13901
Phone: (607) 723-9011
Cuisine: Italian
Attire: Casual
Price: $20-$30 for a party of two to dine in, $15 take-out.

Grande's offers of an extensive menu of Italian cuisine--pasta, chicken, veal, etc.--but the real reason to make the trek up to Upper Front St. is for the pizza. In my opinion, the pizza at Grande's is not only the absolute best in the Binghamton area, but some of the best I've ever had anywhere. They have a pizza buffet four nights a week (Sunday through Wednesday) for customers who elect to dine in, or you can pick it up to-go. The only drawback to Grande's is that they don't deliver!

We went to Grande's for dinner last night and had a great experience. Despite walking in at dinnertime on a Friday night, we were seated quickly. The waitress was friendly and attentive throughout the meal. The atmosphere is a little more formal than your average pizzeria, but that's because many patrons are there for more than the pizza. I've gotten things other than pizza on the menu before, and they were adequate, but there are so many Italian dining options in the area. When I'm at Grande's, I want to focus on what they do best, which is clearly the pizza.

Each of us started with a house salad, and we ordered a large pizza with extra cheese this time around. At most pizza places I like to order pepperoni or sausage or something on the pizza to give it a little extra flavor, but Grande's pizza is excellent just with the plain cheese. The pizza came out promptly and done impeccably. One of the most amazing things about Grande's is the remarkable consistency of their pies. We've ordered their pizza dozens of times and have yet to be disappointed in the product. The pizza itself is standard New York style.

Definitely the fold-and-eat variety. It's hard to say why I consider this pizza in such high esteem, because there really isn't anything all that special about the contents. The crust is tasty and sufficiently crispy (not too doughy), the tomato sauce is very good, sweet but robust, and the cheese has a really nice flavor to it. It's well seasoned with a little oregano. Tastes great hot out of the oven, or cold out of the refrigerator (if you order a large like we did, you'll definitely have leftovers for the morning).

Pizza is a favorite food and, hence, a sensitive topic for many folks, myself included. Some people in the area swear by Consol's and their grilled pizza (which I do like, and will write about in a future update), others prefer the unique sweet dough of Brozzetti's in Johnson City. Still others clamor for Mario's out on the Parkway, which I think is pretty much crap, or Nick's in Endicott, or Tony's in Endwell, or the ubiquitous Nirchi's, or some other choice entirely. For my money, Grande's is the best of the bunch, and an option that many diners might overlook due to its location (an otherwise rundown shopping center). Check it out!

Grade: A

Grande Pizzeria Italian Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Los Tapatios - Megan's Take

Since Dan already provided a great deal of information on Tapatios, I will give my basic take on the place based on the many times I have eaten there. For me, the important parts of a restaurant experience are ambiance, service, presentation, and of course, taste. Let's face it, you are not going to return to a place if you don't like the food. That being said, you aren't going to be in a rush to go back to a place or give out a recommendation if the other parts of the equation are lacking. Of course, each restaurant should be judged in its own context. There is no point in comparing fast food to fine dining. As such, I will keep those things in mind with all of my reviews.

Tapatios, on the whole, rates fairly well on my list, mostly for consistency. Having eaten at both locations dozens of times, the overall experience has been the same. No frills, quick seating and ordering, and a short wait for food. It is a laid back space with some traditional music playing in the background. The booths and tables are fairly generic and not that comfortable, but they serve their purpose. The wait staff is friendly, but not overly attentive as they are usually short staffed. This only comes into play when you are ready to pay your bill, as there is rarely anyone manning the register, so sometimes it can be a wait. If you are not in a rush, this is not a problem. Either location is not normally too busy, so it is a great choice for a quick meal.

As far as food, you can't go wrong with chips and salsa - though the salsa is the only somewhat inconsistent thing at Tapatios - sometimes it is a bit spicy for my tastes (I am not a big fan of spicy foods, so keep that in mind). On the whole, I usually get the same thing each time I go - the Taquitos Mexicanos, which contain beef or chicken wrapped in a tortilla and fried. The taquitos are placed on the outside with lettuce, sour cream, guacamole and a tomato slice in the middle as well as rice and beans served on a separate plate (or a choice of one or the other if it is the lunch portion). For dinner you get 2 of each and for lunch you get one of each. For me, this is the perfect combination of Mexican food - you get the different kinds of meat, a bit of crunch with the fried shell, and you can pick and choose what sides to use and it is less messy than fajitas as you can use a knife and fork. I have tried other dishes at Tapatios, such as the taco salad and the enchiladas, which are both okay, but I always find myself coming back to the taquitos. They are always good and I have successfully recommended them to friends.

Tapatios is my favorite Mexican restaurant in the Binghamton area. I have no preference for either location, as they are somewhat interchangeable. It has been our go-to place most weekends when we are faced with the task of choosing dinner options and I have never had a bad experience.

Grade: B+

Lost Dog Cafe

Name: Lost Dog Cafe
Location: 222 Water St, Binghamton, NY 13901
Phone: (607) 771-6063
Cuisine: "American eclectic" for lack of a better phrase
Attire: As informal or formal as you want
Price: Varies. I'd say $25-$30 for lunch and $50+ for dinner for a party of 2. But it depends entirely on what you get.

The Lost Dog is somewhat of a Binghamton institution which has evolved over the years from a coffeehouse which happened to serve food to more of a casual fine dining establishment. The place is pretty unique and gives off sort of a slacker, bohemian vibe. Live music can often be heard later in the evenings. Really, the Lost Dog is whatever you want it to be. You can stop by for a cup of coffee, have a drink at the bar with its unspectacular beer and wine selection, have a casual lunch, or a nice dinner. Its versatility is one of the Lost Dog's most intriguing attributes.

If you're planning on going to Lost Dog during peak dinner hours on the weekend, plan on waiting, sometimes an hour or so. You can wait at the bar, so all is not a lost cause. Of course, you can always call ahead and get your name on the list ahead of time to cut down the waiting time. This place is definitely worth the wait, as it's one of the better places in Binghamton to get a bite to eat.

On my last visit I started with a bowl of the soup of the day, which was chicken pesto. Quite delicious if I may say so. They also bring out some french bread and butter to get you started. They also have lots of options for appetizers. A very tasty spinach artichoke dip, sun-dried tomato pesto dip, and bruschetta are but a few of them. Or you can get all three with the combo platter. None of these appetizers are particularly amazing but all are good.

For the main course you have a couple options. They have a sandwich menu with various inexpensive options, and a menu of entrees which are more expensive. One thing I will say is that the menu is not very extensive for main entrees. There are only maybe 8-10 items to choose from on the menu so if you're not in the mood for one of those you're out of luck.

Luckily, one of your options is the Rigatoni ala Vodka. Which easily stands as one of the finest dishes in Binghamton. Many restaurants in the area offer this dish, but none have perfected it to the level the Lost Dog has. You can add chicken (as I did), shrimp, or tofu to the dish to give it a little protein, and you can get it "Old School" which adds spicy cayenne pepper to the mix (I added this option as well). Overall, a pretty perfect dish. The rigatoni is cooked perfectly, and the vodka sauce is out of this world. I find it to be thicker sauce than you get on the "average" vodka rigatoni and it's all the better for it. The cayenne pepper kicks it up a notch. For $18 (regular size with the chicken added) this is well worth every penny.

As far as other entrees go, the Greek Chicken ($15) is also commendable. I've gotten the Chicken Marsala ($15) before as well, and was less pleased with it, but it was still pretty good. The Lost Dog is very vegetarian/vegan friendly, with several menu options appealing to those of that persuasion. One minor complaint is that nothing else is included with the entrees, but you can add a side salad for $1.50 if you want, and other sides are available for $3 or $4. I recommend the sweet potato fries.

When it's time for dessert, you've got a few really solid options. The wife and I often split the "Good PMS." An odd name, no doubt, PMS stands for "Perfect Mexican Sundae" in this case. It's a brownie flanked by ice cream, chocolate sauce, caramel, and chopped peanuts. Very nice. I'm also partial to their after-dinner drink menu. I usually get their version of an Irish Coffee entitled the Dublin Coffee, which is quite good. Has the usual desired elements (Jameson) but a touch of brown sugar and a huge dollop of whipped cream literally takes it over the top. A really good drink, if you like that sort of thing.

All in all, the Lost Dog Cafe is one of the best, most unique restaurants in the Binghamton area. My only real complaints with the place are the somewhat limited entree menu and their mediocre beer selection. Admittedly, I am tough to please in the beer department, and this will be a common complaint throughout my reviews! These are minor issues that do not detract from a great dining experience. The Vodka Rigatoni is reason enough to go to the Lost Dog on a regular basis. It's a nice place to go for a somewhat fancy meal with the wife, but relaxed enough that you can go casually with a large group of friends as well. If you haven't been to the Lost Dog before, it definitely belongs at the top of your list when deciding your next nice dinner outing.

Grade: A-

Lost Dog Cafe on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 17, 2010

Los Tapatios

Name: Los Tapatios
Location: 11 Washington Avenue, Endicott, NY 13760
Phone: (607) 785-3544‎
Cuisine: Mexican
Attire: Casual
Price: $25.00 (normal check for party of 2)

It is fitting that Los Tapatios is the first restaurant we'll review on this site, since it is probably the one we've visited most often, due to a combination of good food at a great price. It should be known there are actually two locations of Los Tapatios, one in Endicott, and the other on Bunn Hill Road across from the Binghamton University campus. I am partial to the ambiance of the Endicott location, plus it is far from the bustle of the Vestal Parkway, hence that's the one I'll be specifically reviewing. But they are more or less the same.

Tapatios is a no-frills Mexican restaurant that offers good, albeit not spectacular, food at a low price. The place is unassuming from the outside but is kind of homey on the inside, with a bar along the left side of the restaurant, and two columns of booths off to the right. In the back there are a couple longer tables available for larger parties. The dim lighting provides an intimate atmosphere. The wait staff is generally friendly and quick, although there have been a few times we've had to wait a while for our check after finishing our meal. Likely, this is more due to the fact that they only have a couple servers working at a time than anything else. And it's usually not a real concern at all.

For starters, each table is given a basket of warmed tortilla chips and a bowl of salsa. Both are pretty much par for the course. The salsa is homemade and tends to vary a little bit day to day. Sometimes the tomatoes are chunkier, sometimes it's spicier than others. Throw a little salt on the chips and you're good to go, but be careful not to spoil your meal by eating too many chips. It's been done before. At any rate, for free chips and salsa, this is a nice start to the meal.

There are several options for appetizers (nachos and the like), but the chips and salsa more than suffice. One thing you might want as a "starter," so to speak, would be one of their margaritas, which they consider a house specialty. I've had a margarita there a few times and they were good, but somewhat unremarkable. They also have a selection of bottled beer, including some Mexican varieties such as Dos Equis, and my personal favorite, Negra Modelo. They have a limited selection of wine as well, in addition to the usual soft drinks.

Entree-wise, they have a wide selection of traditional Mexican fare, including tacos, enchiladas, burritos, chiles rellenos, taquitos, and many others. There are 30 or so different "combination dinners" you can choose from that enable you to pick several of these options at once. I've often gotten the #29, consisting of two enchiladas, a taco, and rice and beans. It's decent fare, but nothing to get too excited about. Most of the combo dinners will run you about $8.

Past the numbered meals, they have a list of 15 or so "house specialties," including the Taquitos Mexicanos, which Megan usually orders. Certainly she will have more to say regarding that. Myself, I think the real draw of Los Tapatios is the fajitas ($11-$13), also on the "specialty" menu. They have a few options as far as fajitas go. You can get normal chicken or beef fajitas, mixed fajitas which combine the two, and a dish they call Fajitas Tejanas which adds shrimp to the mix as well. Lately (at the Endicott location at least) they've been offering carnitas as an option as well, which is a slow-roasted pork. This is what I've been ordering lately every time. It has become my favorite option on the menu. The fajitas come with a sizzling plate of onions/peppers/tomatoes/whatever meat option you chose, a side plate with lettuce, tomato, sour cream, guacamole, and rice and beans. They also give you a couple tortillas to build your fajitas, and there are a variety of Mexican hot sauces available on every table. Warning: they are actually hot and not for those who like just a "little spice." The portion size you get is prodigious, to say the least. Most people probably eat about half of what they give you and take the rest home. I'm a bit more of a glutton, and am usually able to polish off the whole thing. Usually I end up somewhat regretting it later, but I digress... the fajitas are quite good. Sometimes the shrimp can be a little fishy-tasting when I've ordered the Tejanas, and sometimes the vegetables can get a little too soggy or a little charred, but these are minor quibbles. I always enjoy the fajitas--they keep me coming back time and time again.

Desserts? After the fajitas it's time to wheel me out of the place on a stretcher, or so I often feel. But for those who make it that far, they have some usual Mexican favorites like fried ice cream and flan. I can't speak to the quality of these choices, as the entrees always fill me up!

In summary, Los Tapatios provides pretty good bang for your buck. The chips and salsa make for a good start, while the entrees are pretty average Mexican fare, with the fajitas being an above-average option--bring your appetite! Service is usually good and it is rare to have to wait for a table unless you go at peak dinner time. The price is right with all entrees being in the $7 to $14 range. I give Los Tapatios a solid recommendation.

Grade: B

Los Tapatios on Urbanspoon

An introduction

Welcome to Tasting Binghamton!

The purpose of this site will be to provide critiques of local restaurants and bars in the Greater Binghamton (NY) area. My wife Megan and I hope to provide insightful reviews on a variety of different establishments and cuisines.

We hope to give balanced opinions on places we've liked and disliked and to point our readers toward local food options away from the chain restaurants on the Vestal Parkway. Occasionally, as travels take us around Central New York, we may review some places we've enjoyed in nearby cities like Ithaca or Syracuse.

One thing you need to know: we aren't food critics in the traditional sense. We are not particularly well-versed in the finer points of fine dining. Unless we're throwing down $80 for a nice dinner, we really don't care about cloth napkins and fancy presentation (although such things can't hurt!). We want good food with good service, plain and simple.

Thanks for visiting!
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