Sunday, August 29, 2010

New York Pizzeria

Name: New York Pizzeria
Location: 33 W State St., Binghamton, NY 13901
Phone: (607) 724-3555
Cuisine: Pizza
Price: Less than $5 for two slices and a drink!

New York Pizzeria occupies the southernmost corner of the K-Mart Plaza on Binghamton's North Side, a part of town sorely lacking in dining options. Sometimes I'm in the mood for just a slice or two of pizza instead of an entire pie, and I'd heard that this place specialized in slices. So off I went to check it out.

The K-Mart Plaza has seen better days, but I found New York Pizzeria to be a decent enough looking restaurant. If I were to look up the word "pizzeria" in the dictionary, a place with the layout of New York Pizzeria is exactly what I'd expect to see in the adjacent picture. There's a counter straight ahead with about twenty different pizzas on display, all available by the slice, and off to the right, there's a fairly large dining area with a large mural on the wall. I was surprised to find that the restaurant was pretty packed at 1:30 PM on a Sunday, but like I said, there really aren't many other choices in this part of town.

I opted to order two slices. I think a pizzeria is best judged by their plain cheese slice, so I got that for one, and I went with the Meat Lovers slice for my second, which appeared to be a New York-style slice covered with ground beef, pepperoni, ham, and bacon. In addition to the standard triangular slices, they also had Sicilian-style slices, which appeared to be rather popular among the patrons who were there at the same time as me. With two slices, you get a free drink, so I managed to get these two slices and a drink for a mere $3.93, which I found to be one of the area's best deals.

I found the cheese pizza to be fairly average. I thought the crust was pretty good and the sauce had reasonable flavor, but did not care too much for the cheese and it was a little lighter on the sauce than I prefer. The Meat Lovers was much better. They certainly don't skimp on the toppings, and the various meats did a good job of hiding the lackluster cheese. This was a slice I'd order again if I make it back to New York Pizzeria for a second visit. Another plus: service was quick and efficient and slightly on the brash side (which I actually expect from places such as this). On the flip side of the coin, I didn't get the sense that the restaurant was all that clean as evidenced by the copious number of flies buzzing around.

On the whole, I was guardedly pleased with my visit to New York Pizzeria. It certainly fills the need for a good, quick, cheap place to buy pizza by the slice, and the pizza itself is of reasonable quality. Cleanliness is perhaps somewhat of an issue, and aside from the dirt-cheap prices, there's really nothing that separates New York Pizzeria from the dozens of other pizza merchants in the area. If you live in this area, I recommend this place (though if you live nearby, chances are pretty likely that you already know it well), but it's not necessarily worth seeking out if you're coming from a distance.

Grade: C+

New York Chefs on Urbanspoon

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Hallo Berlin

Name: Hallo Berlin
Location: 55 Corbettsville Rd., Conklin, NY 13748
Phone: (607) 775-4391
Cuisine: German
Price: Likely around $80 for two

Hallo Berlin is easily among the area's strangest establishments: a "German Soul Food" joint in the middle of nowhere and a stone's throw from the NY/PA border. Located in the tiny hamlet of Corbettsville, they've been serving authentic German fare and imported German draft beer for years. The sign out front says "since 1840." I don't know if I quite believe that, but needless to say, Hallo Berlin has been a fixture in the area for many years. Trivia question: who was the U.S. President in 1840? Answer to follow.

We arrived at 6:30 on a Friday evening and surprisingly found the restaurant to be nearly empty. I had wondered beforehand if we would need a reservation but in the end I decided not to bother. Definitely a good decision on my part. Upon entering the restaurant you will notice the fantastically old-fashioned bar straight ahead, and all sorts of artifacts lining the walls. Megan and I decided to have a seat at the bar while we waited for our friends Tom and Bryan, who somehow managed to get lost on the way there, and eventually we were greeted by an older German man (we would later learn that his name is Thomas) who was the face of the operation all evening, serving as both bartender and waiter. I believe he is also the owner.

We ordered some drinks and I opted to get a draft of the Koestritzer Black Lager, a beer I'd had before, but never had served to me in a humongous one-liter mug like this one! When our friends arrived, we were promptly seated in the dining room, a fairly small, quaint space.

The menu at Hallo Berlin is obviously one of the most unique in the area, replete with various traditional German dishes and sausages. All entrees are served with soup and bread. Megan, who was a little hesitant about eating German food, decided to go with the Sauerbraten with Spaetzle ($20), and I decided that I had to try out the "Dr. Atkins Diet Special" ($17) which consisted of three different wursts (vealwurst, beefwurst, and porkwurst), a German meatball, red cabbage, sauerkraut, and various dipping sauces--mustard, spicy mustard, and one which may have been a homemade ketchup of some sort.

The soup was a potato and lentil soup that had small pieces of sausage included and was rather tasty. Not amazing or anything, but a good homemade soup. Served with hunks of bread and butter, it was a reasonably good start to the meal.

Soon after, it was time for a beer refill, and being the huge beer geeks that we are, Tom and I opted to try out a Berliner Weisse. This is a somewhat rare style of beer that has a sweet and somewhat sour taste. We decided to try both the red and green varieties that were offered. We thought they were pretty good but were left questioning their beerhood. The best news is that we finally found a beer that Megan liked, who referred to the drink as "really delicious." And Martin van Buren was President in 1840. Yay for non-sequiturs.

Anyhow, the main course was awesome--my meat platter was great, very well-prepared and well-presented. Apologies for the dark pictures that do not do the presentation justice. The sauerkraut and red cabbage were perfect complements to the wursts and the meatball was delicious. Of the wursts, I think I'd have to say that the vealwurst was my favorite. Megan thoroughly enjoyed the sauerbraten (German pot roast) and the spaetzle (German pasta). I tried a couple bites myself and was equally impressed.

No sooner did my meat-coma commence that it was time for dessert. Megan and I split a slice of the German Chocolate Cake. It served as a fine conclusion to the meal, if not an entirely memorable one.

I would be negligent if I didn't take the time to discuss the service at Hallo Berlin. The waiter, Thomas, was incredible in my opinion. An older gentleman, what he lacked somewhat in speed, he more than made up for with his dry, European sense of humor and his conversational style. A job well done indeed.

Hallo Berlin is not without its flaws. We felt the prices were a little outrageous. While the sauerbraten was really good, for example, I guess I didn't really see what made it a $20 plate of food. All this means though is that Hallo Berlin is a place best left for special occasions, or times when you just feel like splurging. Be prepared to pay handsomely--for the four of us, the bill came to a cool $180 including tax and tip.

Overall, our trip to Hallo Berlin was a great success. Where else in the Binghamton area can you get authentic German beer served to you in mugs larger than your head? Where else can you get authentic German food served to you by a subtly hilarious German waiter? Expect to throw down a fair bit of cash, but a visit to Hallo Berlin is definitely an experience the likes of which very few restaurants in the Triple Cities can offer.

Grade: A-

Hallo Berlin on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 23, 2010

Crossroads Diner

Name: Crossroads Diner
Location: 3000 E Main St., Endicott, NY 13760
Phone: (607) 748-3076
Cuisine: American Diner
Price: Less than $10 per person

Crossroads Diner is a large restaurant located near the corner of Main St. and North St. in Endwell. We decided to check it out on a Sunday afternoon after arriving back in the Triple Cities after a weekend out of town.

The first thing that struck me about Crossroads Diner is its size. I think it's probably among the largest diners in the area, as there is seating to the left, to the right, and straight ahead when you enter the restaurant. It's a bright space with large, comfortable booths. It reminded me of places like Bob's Big Boy that I'd been to when I was younger.

Megan was hungry for a cheeseburger and fries ($7), while I decided to try out the Chicken Souvlaki Platter ($8), which came with a complimentary Greek Salad, slaw, and fries. Our meals came pretty quickly and we found the portion sizes to be enormous, particularly my souvlaki platter. I'll say that the souvlaki platter was not exactly what I was expecting it to be. Normally the souvlaki you get at diners in this area are essentially pita sandwiches, but that was not the case here. Crossroads serves their souvlaki the old-fashioned Greek way, with triangles of pita and tzatziki on the side. This was an attempt to make up for the fact that this really wasn't souvlaki at all, but more like regular grilled chicken strips, since I did not see any evidence of the meat having come from a skewer at all.

All things considered, I liked everything on my plate. The Greek Salad was loaded with feta cheese and olives (my favorite parts), the french fries were good by diner standards, and the "souvlaki" and the tzatziki were tasty, if not exactly traditionally prepared. I may have preferred the salad to come on a separate plate since the dressing made the pita slices kind of soggy. Megan was very satisfied with her burger and had nothing negative to say about the meal at all.

Service at Crossroads Diner was a little mixed. We were seated quickly and served drinks and our meal very promptly, but when it came time to pay the check, it took us forever to get it. The waitress came to the table three separate times asking if we wanted any dessert; each time, we replied that we did not and wanted our check. I don't know if she was drunk or senile or what, but it was probably the oddest behavior I've seen by a waitress at any restaurant. By the third time, both of us were pretty miffed by the whole situation but we did eventually get the check. Otherwise, the waitress was friendly and generally quick. Strange, to say the least.

Overall, Crossroads was pretty much average across the board. It's a nice space with typical diner ambiance, while the food was tasty if not entirely authentic. Prices are reasonable and in line with those at similar diners like Spot Diner and the Read Oak. I'd definitely go back, and would be interested in trying out their breakfast menu. As far as diners in Endwell go, I think Crossroads definitely takes a backseat to the Broadway Diner on Watson Blvd., but it's serviceable and worth a shot if you're in the area.

Grade: B-

Crossroads Diner on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 20, 2010

Little Venice

Name: Little Venice
Location: 111 Chenango St., Binghamton, NY 13901
Phone: (607) 724-2513
Cuisine: Italian
Price: Depends what you get. Could be $15 per person or well more than that depending on what you get.

Little Venice is one of Binghamton's oldest restaurants, and lays claim to being the longest-running Italian restaurant in the Triple Cities. They got their humble beginnings back in 1946 on Court St., but eventually migrated their way over to Chenango St., just north of Binghamton's bus terminal. I first learned of the existence of Little Venice from Megan's grandfather, who worked on the railroad line connecting Binghamton to points downstate, and enjoyed many meals at Little Venice a number of years ago.

This is a restaurant famous for many things, not least of which is its tomato sauce. There is a long-standing rumor that the internet has helped to perpetuate regarding the inclusion of applesauce as an ingredient in the sauce, giving it its distinctly sweet flavor. According to the placemats adorning each table setting at the restaurant, such rumors are pure fabrication. No matter what the ingredients are, there's no denying that the sauce is unique among the area's Italian offerings, and very tasty for that matter.

The layout of Little Venice is rather unique in the sense that it really is more like two restaurants instead of one. In the front of the restaurant is a fantastic-looking bar (new as of their most recent remodeling) and a number of tables on either side of it. Walk down the long corridor back towards the kitchen and you will find the main dining room, a spacious area with tons of tables in the middle and booths lining the walls. No matter how busy it is, it's not hard to get a table at Little Venice even if you don't have reservations, because the place is just plain HUGE. It should be noted: there are entrances in both the front and the back of the restaurant corresponding to each dining area.

I arrived around 7:15 tonight along with two friends and after a short wait, we got a booth in the main room. I felt the booth was a bit cramped for the three of us and probably would have been better suited to a party of two, but it was manageable, and after a couple minutes of adjusting to the close quarters, I was fine with it. The restaurant is noted for its collection of original artwork. There are more than 100 paintings decorating the walls of the restaurant: some portraits, some Hudson River School nature scenes, and yet others of Binghamton itself in a bygone era. On past visits, I felt the restaurant's lighting was a little too dark and hence did a poor job of highlighting the artwork. This time, my first visit since the remodeling was finished, the dining room was much brighter, which made a world of difference in a positive way for its ambiance. The fact that there was a bustling Friday night crowd and that the tables are relatively close together gave Little Venice an Old-World feel on this occasion.

We were fairly promptly presented with bread and drinks, and ordered the fried calamari appetizer. The bread was good, though fairly standard for the area. One of my friends thought it would be a nice touch to have dipping oil as an option to go with the bread as is the custom at some other local places, and I would tend to agree. But it was fine as it was. The calamari, while not bad, was a little forgettable. Served with the house marinara sauce, I'm not sure I would order the calamari again, but it did help calm my initial hunger pangs.

For my entree I elected to go with Little Venice's legendary Manicotti with one sausage and one meatlog, covered in the famous applesauce-free red tomato sauce. Yes, I just said "meatlog," by the way, given that Little Venice's meatballs are not ball-shaped, but take the form of logs instead. With any pasta dish comes the choice of soup or salad, and I elected to go with the soup (Manhattan Clam Chowder was the soup of the day today, a personal favorite of mine). Unfortunately, I quickly learned that they had just run out of the soup due to an abnormally large Friday night crowd (it was stuffed to the gills in there like I'd never seen it) and so I opted for the house salad with Italian dressing.

The salad was good and included some different ingredients than the usual, namely green peppers (pickled, perhaps?). After enjoying the salad, I was ready for the main course, but there was about a half-hour wait between the consumption of salad and the arrival of our entrees. Given that there was a party of 24 seating directly adjacent to us, I was more than willing to forgive the somewhat slower-than-usual service. In fact, service has always been fairly prompt on my prior visits, so the long wait was a bit of an outlier.

We finally received our meals and it was time to dig in. My manicotti came on its own plate and the meatlog and sausage came together, covered in the sweet red sauce. The manicotti at Little Venice is different from any I've had anywhere else. Normally I think of manicotti as being a long, somewhat thick, tubular pasta, but Little Venice's are more like pasta crepes, filled with delicious ricotta cheese, covered with the red sauce, and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese on top. A minor complaint I had with the dish was that it was a little burned/overdone in a couple of spots on the edges, but by and large, this was the best manicotti I've ever had, hands down. The meatlog was also extremely tasty, and better this time than previous times I've had one. The sausage, on the other hand, was a little on the lukewarm side and generally not up to par with the rest of my entree. On the whole, I was definitely more than satisfied with everything I had.

Another slightly extended wait ensued before we were approached regarding dessert. Since my fellow diners were up for partaking in some dessert, I followed suit, and went with the Chocolate Truffle Cake, which was basically like a delicious, rich brownie served with a side of vanilla gelato. Excellent stuff, and one of the highlights of the meal for sure.

Little Venice might just be one of my favorite restaurants in the Binghamton area, especially since their remodeling effort has made for a much less stodgy ambiance. On this particular visit, there were some minor flaws in both the food and the service, but the manicotti and the cake were both top-notch dishes that rivaled the best Italian food you can get in this area or any other. It may not be perfect, but with its rich decor and superb cuisine, I see no reason why Little Venice won't be serving up its classic red sauce to many future generations of Binghamtonians.

Grade: B+

Little Venice Restaurant on Urbanspoon

The Sub Factory

Name: The Sub Factory
Location: 2128 Owego Rd., Vestal, NY 13850
Phone: (607) 786-0234
Cuisine: Subs/Pizza
Price: Less than $10 per person

The Sub Factory is located in the westernmost part of Vestal in the Ross Corners neighborhood. It's a somewhat odd location for the restaurant given that it's a little off the beaten path, but I believe it's a place definitely worth checking out.

I took a look at the menu for a minute and decided to go with a Turkey Sub on the recommendation of the owner, an extremely friendly and sincere middle-aged woman who provided excellent service during my brief visit. I was told that the Turkey Sub is their most popular item due to the fact that it's not made with the sliced turkey you find at most sandwich shops, but rather chunks of real turkey breast. I guess it's Thanksgiving year-round at the Sub Factory! Once I learned that tidbit of information, it sounded like something I had to try out. With mayo, sub sauce, lettuce, onion, and diced tomatoes (not sliced) as toppings and served on one of Jim Roma's famous sub rolls, I was eager to sample it.

I'd have to say this was a very good sub. The ingredients were all really fresh and the turkey reminded me of many a Black Friday binge. All told, I think this is one of the better subs I've had in the area. Now...if they were only a little closer to the rest of civilization...

The Sub Factory is open 7 days a week and features a surprisingly varied menu of appetizers (wings and other fried stuff, mainly), soups and salads, hot and cold subs, burgers, and some delicious looking pizzas in all kinds of gourmet varieties (their words, not mine). Ever had a Cream Cheese & Ham pizza, or a Kielbasa & Sauerkraut pie? Me neither. And I have no idea what Nuclear Broccoli pizza would entail, but at the very least, it sounds interesting. Prices appear to run a little on the high side for the pizzas but I am certainly interested in trying them out at some point.

I enjoyed my visit to the Sub Factory and I thought it was worth the drive out to Ross Corners. Really, it's only about a five minute drive from Vestal's Four Corners, so it's not too far out of the way. Service was top-notch and delivered with a refreshing sincerity, and I thoroughly enjoyed my sub. Being able to highlight places like The Sub Factory is what makes writing this blog enjoyable for me.

Grade: B+

Sub Factory on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Oasis Bar & Restaurant

Name: Oasis Bar & Restaurant
Location: 153 Harry L Dr., Johnson City, NY 13790
Phone: (607) 797-9782
Cuisine: Pub fare, "Hot Pies"
Price: Standard bar prices. $8.50 for a large pie.

The Oasis is a bar located on Harry L Drive in Johnson City and is among the area's oldest establishments, cranking out its famous "Hot Pies" since before the Treaty of Versailles was inked. 92 years later, it lives on as a fairly popular local bar and restaurant. I've passed by the Oasis a ridiculous number of times over the years and at some point, I knew I'd have to give in and try out this legendary food. Tonight was the night.

So what exactly is a "Hot Pie" anyway? In short, it's pizza. You might wonder why pizza wasn't a good enough name for this stuff, and I'm not quite sure that anyone has the answer to that question anymore. One theory is that "pizza" was the name given to the crust/sauce/cheese/topping style food made by Italian immigrants in the Binghamton area, while "hot pie" was the name preferred by Eastern European (mostly Polish) store owners. I don't really buy that theory though, given that Consol's (definitely an Italian restaurant) advertises its thin-crust pizza as a "hot pie." Otherwise, the theory does make sense, as the center of the Hot Pie Universe seems to be the northeastern-most section of Johnson City and Binghamton's First Ward (north of the railroad tracks). Places like Sharkey's (1948), Red's Kettle Inn (1942), and The Oasis (1918) all still carry on the name and are located in more or less the same general area, an area with an extremely high concentration of people of Eastern European descent. If anyone DOES know the difference between pizza and hot pie, if there is one, please comment on this post...I would like to know and I'm sure there's somebody else out there who cares. Right?

Anyway, Oasis. 1918. That's a long time to be in business! I ordered a hot pie with half-cheese, half-pepperoni and went to pick it up. The building itself looks like a converted house (it may even have some rooms for rent above it) with a brick facade in front. On the inside, there's a pretty nice looking bar off to the right as you enter, complete with a giant fishtank and neon lighting. There are some tables for seating off to the left, and up the stairs straight ahead, there are a sizable number of tables and booths adjacent to the kitchen area. It's a far bigger space than I expected, and it was a pretty chill atmosphere aside from the fact that there was the crappiest of crappy pop music blaring from the speakers. I got my pie ($10) and was on my way.

So, how was my first proper "hot pie" experience? Ehhh, I'd have to say I'm not a fan. This was quite possibly the oddest pizza I've ever had, and not particularly good, but it did help me figure out some things about this area's pizza traditions. For starters, I now understand Brozzetti's a lot better. Brozzetti's, if you'll recall my prior review, is a total anomaly in the world of pizza. It has a soft, bready crust and a different blend of cheeses on the top than the usual mozzarella. Oasis's Hot Pie is actually fairly similar, a far lesser version, but definitely kindred. It also consists of a very soft crust and the cheese on top was most definitely cheddar. The crust did not taste anything like Brozzetti's sweet-and-salty, weirdly delicious crust...rather, it was more similar to the greasy, almost-fried crust you'd find at Nirchi's or any of the other area "sheet pizza" peddlers. So in essence, Oasis is kind of the halfway point between the two styles.

How did it taste? Ehhh. I'll stop short of saying it's awful, I just simply didn't care for it. The greasy crust definitely is the dominant force with this pizza and there's something just a little off-putting about its flavor. The cheese (like I said, cheddar) doesn't really help matters much, and the sauce is standard tomato variety that gets rather hidden in the mix. I can tell you this though: if I were drunk, this would probably taste much better, for what it's worth. Really, if the crust were less oily/greasy...I would've enjoyed this pie a whole lot more than I did. So, not a complete failure, and worth a try, but in the end, I did not care for it much.

So ends the saga of The Oasis, the little bar that could since the Wilson Administration, since before my grandparents were born. Count me out, but may they keep making their Hot Pies for another four score and twelve years!

Grade: C

Oasis Restrnt on Urbanspoon

Jane's Diner

Name: Jane's Diner
Location: 591 Conklin Ave., Binghamton, NY 13903
Phone: (607) 722-3350
Cuisine: American Diner
Price: Very inexpensive. Less than $5 per person for breakfast!

Jane's Diner is located on Binghamton's South Side, on Conklin Ave. on the way out toward Conklin. It's a quarter-mile past the entrance to Sandy Beach Park if you're heading eastbound, located inconspicuously on the left side of a tiny plaza adjacent to the Susquehanna River. It can be a little hard to see from the road, so once you cross over the railroad bridge, keep your eyes peeled.

We arrived around 10:00 AM on a Wednesday and found the restaurant to be a standard family-style diner. The register is straight ahead as you enter the restaurant, with the traditional dessert case adjacent. There are tables off to both the left and the right, and another small room of tables further to the right. It's a fairly large space, which is good because my understanding is that Jane's is pretty popular among the locals due to a combination of good food and low prices.

We were seated immediately and ordered coffee; moments later, we had the coffee and placed our order. Both of us decided to go with a special. Mine consisted of two pancakes, two eggs, a side of bacon, and coffee for $4.99. Megan elected the Three Egg special, which came with home fries, bacon, toast, and coffee for only $3.99. $8.98 for two enormous breakfasts? To answer Shaft's most famous question, yes, I can dig it.

The pancakes were huge. Bigger than my head, and quite tasty. The syrup was nothing special but got the job done. The eggs were cooked perfectly to order (over-easy), while the bacon was not so good, the flabby, shriveled variety. So the food was a little hit-or-miss, but for $4.99, I'd have to say I was quite satisfied. Megan enjoyed her breakfast as well, for the most part. She shared my sentiment regarding the bacon, but seemed to like everything else well enough.

I felt that cleanliness was a minor concern at Jane's. There were a number of flies buzzing around me, which was a little bothersome, and Megan's silverware was on the sticky side. I can proudly say that the men's room was immaculate as public restrooms go, so I guess you take the good with the bad. Service was very quick and delivered in the no-nonsense fashion that I've come to appreciate at diners such as these.

I'm glad to have had the opportunity to try Jane's Diner. The food was pretty good with enormous portion sizes, service was solid, and the price was certainly right. On the negative side, I got the sense that the place was a little grungy, and the sticky silverware was a definite faux pas. Also, its location makes it rather unlikely that I'll be clamoring to go back anytime soon. Overall, I found Jane's to be an average addition to the Binghamton diner scene, with slight bonus points for the tremendously low prices.

Grade: B-

Jane's Diner on Urbanspoon

Tony's Texas Hots

Name: Tony's Texas Hots
Location: 300 Main St., Johnson City, NY 13790
Phone: (607) 797-0366
Cuisine: Diner (Breakfast/Lunch), Hot Dogs!
Price: Around $5 per person. Very cheap.

I am a diehard fan of the Cincinnati Bengals. (That is probably the oddest way that I could begin a review of a hot dog joint in Johnson City, NY, but bear with me.) I'm such a big supporter of the team that I made the 10-hour drive from Binghamton to Cincinnati for the Bengals' playoff game against the Jets back in January.

My team didn't win, but one positive development from the trip was that I was able to try Cincy's famous Skyline Chili for the first time. Perhaps the most popular item available at these fast-food landmarks is the Cheese Coney. A cheese coney consists of a hot dog, mustard, chopped onion, Cincy's famous Greek-style chili and a ginormous mound of finely shredded cheddar cheese on top. It's said that Skyline Chili is one of those foods you either love or hate, and I certainly fell into the former camp. Upon returning home, I found that Wegman's sells Skyline Chili in cans, which I tried a couple times, but I'll probably hold off on having more Skyline until my next visit to Cincy, hopefully for another playoff contest this season.

My point is, I like a good chili dog, and there are a couple places in the Triple Cities that specialize in Texas Hot Dogs. Despite the name, "Texas Hots" are usually found only in Central and Western New York State and parts of Pennsylvania. They get the name from the fact that chili, or some other spicy meat sauce, is used as a main topping. Tony's Texas Hots is one such place that serves these creations as its signature item.

Having lived in Johnson City for a number of years now, I have long wondered about Tony's. It's located across from the Post Office on Main St., and despite driving past it many, many times, I don't know that I had ever seen anyone enter or exit the place. The most I could say about it is that its phallic-looking hot dog logo on the sign was rather amusing. I had absolutely no idea what it would be like before I went in, but figured the pursuit of a good chili dog would be worth finding out.

As it turns out, Tony's is more of a traditional diner on the inside than simply a hot dog stand. It's a very small restaurant with a few tables in the back, but it appeared that most patrons preferred to sit at the counter in front, a medium-length coffee counter with about 8-10 stools. To my surprise, there were about four or five other patrons enjoying breakfast or lunch when I arrived. I placed an order for two Chili Dogs with the gentleman running the cash register, and a couple minutes and $4.90 later I had them in my possession.

I have to admit, I was not expecting much at all from this place. It's the veritable definition of a hole-in-the-wall, and I'd never heard a word (good or bad) about it in my decade of living in the area. But I'll be damned...these hot dogs were really good! With a light coating of mustard, chopped onion, and a healthy topping of chili, I'd have to say that these dogs reminded me somewhat of those I'd had in Cincinnati. The major difference between the two is the chili itself. Cincinnati-style chili is kind of indescribable. It's beanless, kind of clumpy, and the meat is ground very fine, and is spiced with all sorts of weird stuff like cinnamon and maybe chocolate. As for the chili on these Texas Hots, it was definitely more like traditional chili. It also lacked beans (which I understand is the custom) and had a sweeter, less spicy flavor than the Tex-Mex chili that I'm accustomed to.

In the end, I was glad to have tried these out and would definitely eat them again. If nothing else, I was glad to have tried a place that appears to be in somewhat of a historic location (anyone know how long Tony's has been around? I'm guessing it's one of the area's oldest restaurants...) and which offers a regional specialty food item. They're nothing amazing, but Tony's Texas Hots definitely helped satiate my hunger for a good chili dog until my next trip to the Queen City.

Grade: B

Tony's Texas Hots on Urbanspoon

Java Joe's

Name: Java Joe's
Location: 81 State St., Binghamton, NY 13901
Phone: (607) 774-0966
Cuisine: Coffee/Bagels/Sandwiches
Price: Around $5-$10 per person

I'm always looking for good places for bagels and coffee, and even though I've found a few good places lately (Best Bagels In Town, Nezuntoz, Bagel Factory), I decided to give Java Joe's a shot. It's somewhat surprising that I'd never been to Java Joe's before today. I've passed by the place on dozens of inebriated evenings downtown and I never really thought much of it.

Upon entering Java Joe's, I was stunned by how nice it was. It's got a really nice bohemian vibe with wood-paneled flooring and brick walls. I felt as if I had just stepped onto the set of "Rent," and I mean that in the best way possible. It's a long, narrow space, much larger than it appears from the outside. The back of the coffeehouse borders on the courtyard area between Washington St. and State St. where Uncle Tony's and Dillinger's have their outdoor seating. Atmospherically, this is the nicest coffee shop in Binghamton. I regret not taking a picture so you could see it for yourself.

I ordered a bagel with cream cheese and got a cup of coffee. Coffee comes with one free refill so I decided I was going to get my money's worth. I started with a cup of the Ethiopian Longberry Harrar and refilled with the "Parlor City Blend." All of Java Joe's coffee is roasted by the owners themselves.

The bagel did not excite me too much. It was pretty good but nowhere near the quality of the bagel I had a few weeks back at Best Bagels In Town. I got it toasted (or rather, it came toasted by default) and thought it was well-prepared, and the service was quick.

Coffee was the real reason for my stop at Java Joe's, so I am glad to report that it was very good. My criteria for a good cup of coffee is simple. I drink my coffee black (usually), so the coffee must have good flavor and not be too bitter, but should also not be too watery--I like my coffee STRONG. Also, it should get me wired. Java Joe's Ethiopian Harrar was excellent. Very bold, somewhat tangy flavor and strong enough to give a seasoned coffee drinker like myself the shakes. I would drink this again in a heartbeat. As for the Parlor City Blend, I don't know what varieties comprise this blend, but it was medium-bodied and pretty good. The first cup was by far the superior of the two, but that could be just a matter of my personal preference...I can see why others may prefer the second.

All told, I regret not paying a visit to Java Joe's sooner. This is a place I'll definitely be taking Megan to at some point in the near future. I am very interested in trying their sandwiches and paninis. I'd like to see how they compare with Nezuntoz and Escape State Street. How funny would it be if the paninis were better than those at Escape State Street? Then there would be no need to escape State St... But seriously, this is a great little place to hang out; if you're a Binghamton University student, this would be an excellent spot to get a cup of coffee, to chill out with friends, to meet if you're planning a group project, or to get some reading done.

Grade: B+

Java Joe's on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Red Oak Diner

Name: Red Oak Diner
Location: 305 Front St., Binghamton, NY 13905
Phone: (607) 722-0440
Cuisine: American Diner
Price: Around $10 per person

Another day, another diner for the Tasting Binghamton crew. This time we headed out to the Red Oak Diner on Front St. in Binghamton's First Ward for our inaugural visit. With its location right off the highway en route to Downtown Binghamton, it's a place we've passed by a number of times over the years but never bothered to stop in. I had often wondered if it were anything like The Spot Diner, located further up on Front St., given that the restaurants look similarly from the outside.

Sure enough, on the inside, I found it to be somewhat comparable to The Spot. It's a 1970's-style Greek diner with lots of seating. Upon entrance you'll see some booths to the left, the standard coffee counter straight ahead, and a large dining room to the right. We were instructed to seat ourselves in the dining room and chose a reasonable-looking table toward the back, adjacent to a window.

Service is by far the best thing the Red Oak has going. Throughout our visit, the service was very quick, from the delivery of menus, to ordering, to receiving our meals and the check. The waitress was friendly and it seemed as if she was a longtime employee of the establishment. The question is: would the food match the service?

In my opinion, it would not. Venturing a little outside my normal diner order, I elected to go with the Chicken and Biscuits special they were offering. This came with a complimentary cup of soup and a side, so I went with the Vegetable Beef and a side of mashed potatoes. Megan was a little more conservative in her ordering and went with a Turkey Club sandwich, which she proceeded to enjoy far more than I enjoyed my meal.

This is diner food, so I really try not to get my hopes up too much. It's inexpensive and intended to be quick, comfort food, after all. It isn't fine dining. Even so, I was not happy with my meal at all. The Vegetable Beef soup was an OK beginning to the meal. It certainly wasn't skimpy on the vegetables nor the beef. All told, it was a minor improvement over Campbell's. The rest of the meal was pretty much a disaster. The mashed potatoes weren't the instant variety but they were about as close as you can get. The chicken didn't have much flavor, and the biscuits had absolutely none. The entire plate was topped with a yellowish gravy that was equally tasteless and had begun to congeal. This may have been the blandest plate of food I've ever been served. It was edible, and arrived from the kitchen at a breakneck pace (literally, there were fewer than five minutes between the time we ordered and the time we had our plates in front of us), but I felt as if I could probably get a better, or at least similar, plate of food from the Binghamton High School cafeteria. Hell, I'm no Wolfgang Puck, but I could muster a better effort myself. Harsh, perhaps, but that's the honest truth.

Like I said, the Red Oak has some pluses. The service is friendly and as quick as anywhere else I've been in the area. The dining area is a pleasant, large space and has some old-school charm. Megan liked her club sandwich perfectly well. In fact, I think she rather liked the place on the whole. The truth of the matter is that I wanted her to write the review for the Red Oak so that I didn't have to write all this, but the more I thought about it, the more I really disliked my meal there, and as you've probably discerned by now, the food was simply not anything I'd want to pay money for again. With dozens of diners in the Triple Cities, it's my feeling that there are many, many better options to choose than the Red Oak.

Grade: C-

Red Oak Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Far East Chinese Restaurant

Name: Far East Chinese Restaurant
Location: 117 N Main St., Vestal, NY 13850
Phone: (607) 785-8811
Cuisine: Chinese
Price: Most lunch entrees under $5, dinner entrees under $10

Today I was hungry for some Chinese food for lunch, but my usual Chinese place of choice, Moon Star, is not open on Tuesdays. I recalled a conversation I recently had with a colleague of mine, who commented that her favorite Chinese place in the area was Far East in Vestal. My immediate reaction was "Really?!?" After all, I used to live near the Four Corners location of Far East and I got take-out there once. Once, as it turned out, was enough for me to conclude that it was below-average. But I had not been there since they remodeled a couple of years ago, so I was willing to give it another chance.

Far East is located in the tiniest strip mall I've ever seen, with only two store-fronts. To the left lies Far East, to the right is a store under construction with a sign in the window promising an "Asian/Fusion Restaurant Coming Soon." Now we're talking...and that is something I will be keeping an eye on! But anyway, I arrived at Far East around 1:00 PM and ordered the Chicken with Garlic Sauce Lunch Special ($4.45). The "special" comes with your choice of fried rice or white rice and if you want, you can add Egg Drop or Wonton soup for $1. I wanted the Hot & Sour soup, which my colleague had recommended, so I ponied up an additional $1.99 for that.

As I said, this is a new building for Far East--and hence I was surprised by how dirty it was. The floor was filthy and in need of a major scrubbing. There was garbage (used napkins, straw wrappers, etc.) underneath some of the tables. I don't know if this was the result of falling behind after the lunch crowd hit, but I doubt it. Needless to say, I was left unimpressed by the ambiance. It didn't help that a foul-smelling obese woman came in right after I did and decided to hover in my general vicinity. I was left to hope the food would make up for this series of unfortunate events.

Upon arriving home I unpacked the goods and found healthy portions of both the entree and the soup. I decided to try the soup first and I thought it was quite good. This Hot & Sour soup was loaded with ingredients and definitely lived up to the "Hot" part of its name. It was a little heavier on the tofu and a little lighter on the pork than I prefer, but I liked it. As far as the Chicken with Garlic Sauce, I did not like it. At all. The chicken was rubbery and the sauce was bland. The rice did not help was the typical Chinese take-out rice and way inferior in quality and taste to the fried rice at both Foliage and Moon Star.

Overall, I was largely dissatisfied with Far East. The soup was a definite highlight, and the service was quick and friendly, but the cleanliness of the establishment was a bit bothersome and the entree was pretty much a failure. Skip this place...there are a couple places (namely Moon Star and Foliage) not too far to the east that are more worthy of your business.

Grade: C-

Far East Chinese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Michelangelo's Pizzeria & Restaurant

Name: Michelangelo's Pizzeria & Restaurant
Location: 465 Court St., Binghamton, NY 13904
Phone: (607) 724-4045
Cuisine: Pizza/Italian
Price: Around $10-$12 for a large pizza. Entrees priced reasonably.

With it being a lazy, rainy Sunday, we elected to bring in pizza today and I decided to give Michelangelo's a chance, having heard that it's among the area's best from multiple sources. Michelangelo's is located on Binghamton's East Side, on Court St. across from McDonald's. This is not a part of town I get to visit very often. There aren't a whole lot of local restaurants nearby, outside of a couple diners and Cortese, which I reckon we'll review at some point or another (after a horrible visit a few years ago, we aren't exactly in any hurry to go back).

I ordered a large half-cheese, half-pepperoni pizza ($11.05) by phone and elected to pick it up. They also deliver within a five-mile radius, which would not have done me any good. Upon arriving, I entered through the side (pick-up) entrance and found it to have a relaxed, family-restaurant style atmosphere. I would definitely welcome the opportunity to return to Michelangelo's to try their pasta dishes--this review will stick to what I ordered, the pizza. The order was ready when I got there and I was quickly on my way.

When I got home I was pleased to notice that there wasn't a whole lot of shifting of the toppings in transit, even though it was about a ten-mile trek back home. On looks alone, I thought this was one of the better New York-style pizzas I've seen in the area. I was pretty pleased with the taste, too. The crust, although thin, was sturdy and a hair on the crispy side. The pepperoni was a really good topping choice and cut perhaps slightly thicker than you'll find at most pizzerias. The cheese and sauce had good flavor in my opinion but were fairly ordinary; I would've preferred a sauce with a little more seasoning.

What struck me most about the pizza was how chewy the crust was. This stuff definitely gave my jaw a workout, which didn't bother me too much, as I admired the fact that it was a NY-style pizza that was neither too underdone/soggy nor too overdone/brittle. Megan, on the other hand, did not care for the pizza for this reason. She normally sticks to the plain cheese half and I will agree with her: that side of the pie was definitely a little overdone. She commented that she "probably wouldn't eat [Michelangelo's pizza] again" and recited the names of several other local pizza merchants she prefers. This was a rare case where Megan and I were in complete disagreement, yet I can see where she's coming from.

All in all, I enjoyed Michelangelo's pizza and I would eat it again, yet I really don't know when that would happen. It's far away from where we live, I don't get to the East Side all that often, and my wife roundly disliked it. Maybe we'll make it over there to try out some of their other fare at some point. If not, I doubt I'll be too disappointed: the pizza may have been above-average, but it was hardly extraordinary.

Grade: B

Michelangelo Pizzeria & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 13, 2010

Binghamton Restaurant Week

Just a heads-up...Binghamton Restaurant Week is returning this fall! Special deals at many of Downtown Binghamton's eateries will be available from September 21 through September 30. Check out the Restaurant Week website at:

Binghamton Restaurant Week

...or their Facebook page:



Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Dillinger's "Celtic Pub" and Eatery

Name: Dillinger's "Celtic Pub" and Eatery
Location: 77 State St., Binghamton, NY 13903
Phone: (607) 724-7779
Cuisine: Pub fare (Burgers/sandwiches/wings)
Price: Which price? The printed one or the one they charge?

I absolutely hate Dillinger's. Here are five reasons why:

1. A little history lesson: John Dillinger was born in Indiana. He was mainly of German heritage. What John Dillinger has to do with a Celtic Pub, I have no idea.

2. The place is nearly always crowded, unbearably loud to the point that I could not hear the people across the table from me, and is the veritable meat market of downtown Binghamton, full of phony skanks and fratboys. If that makes me sound like Holden Caulfield, so be it.

3. I've eaten there four times. The first time, I got a burger. It was garbage. The second time, I got hot wings. They had a good level of spiciness, but were fatty and undercooked. I swore I would not get them again. The third time, I had nachos. I also had explosive diarrhea for the ensuing 48 hours. The fourth time, last night, I tried the wings again. After all, they were on special for $4.50/dozen. They were fatty and overcooked, and I was charged $6.75. I should listen to myself more often.

4. They used to have some good beers in bottles, like microbrews from Dogfish Head and Great Lakes. Now they just have signs on the wall advertising that they sell Dogfish Head and Great Lakes WHEN THEY ACTUALLY DO NOT SELL THEM!!! Hey look, we're cool, we sell microbrews!!! Oh wait, we don't. Womp womp.

And the biggie...

5. This is a "Celtic Pub" that DOES NOT SELL BEER ON TAP. Not even a tap for Guinness, in this "Celtic Pub"? Are you kidding me?

As a place to hang out before the crowds hit, Dillinger's is fine. It's a really nice space and there's a covered patio outside. As a place to eat and/or drink, Dillinger's is awful. Feel free to call me a snob all you want, but there's no way you'll convince me that Dillinger's is an establishment worth spending a dime in.

Grade: F

Lemongrass Restaurant

Name: Lemongrass Restaurant
Location: 1550 Vestal Pkwy E., Vestal, NY 13850
Phone: (607) 785-0688
Cuisine: Asian fusion
Price: $20+ per person.

If there's one dining option that the Binghamton area is severely lacking in, it's fine dining restaurants that cater to a younger audience. The nicer restaurants in the area, like Number 5, P.S. Restaurant, and The Silo, tend to appeal to an older clientele. Lemongrass attempts to buck that trend, offering a posh environment and a fairly progressive menu of Asian fusion entrees in their Vestal Parkway location next door to the Full Belly Deli.

Megan and I have been to Lemongrass a few times over the years. The first time, we went with a large group of friends and were quite impressed with what we found. The second time, Lemongrass was the restaurant we chose to celebrate the first anniversary of our wedding. For whatever reason, we hadn't been back since then until we decided to head there for lunch today. Honestly, I usually forget it's there. Its location does not give Lemongrass much visibility; I'm convinced if this restaurant were in downtown Binghamton, it would do much better. As it stands now, Lemongrass looks like an entirely average storefront in a strip mall from the outside. My guess is that most people who would drive by have no idea how nice it is on the inside.

My friend Tom alerted me to the fact that Lemongrass served a lunch menu. Before he said something, I had no idea that they were even open for lunch at all. He also said that the lunch portions were about the same size as the dinner portions at about half the price. That certainly sounded like a good deal to me.

We arrived at Lemongrass around noon and were the only patrons in the restaurant throughout most of our meal. The restaurant looks nothing at all on the inside like you'd expect it to from the outside. It's dimly lit and well-decorated with a black-and-tan color scheme and a floral arrangement on each table. The dining room is toward the back of the building with no windows--a good thing in my opinion since windows would give you a reminder that you're on the Vestal Parkway. Lemongrass reminds me of a slightly lower-key version of places I've been in New York City. On looks alone, it's up there with the Mad Moose among the hippest-looking places in town.

We ordered the Crispy Spring Roll appetizer ($5.95) to begin the meal with. For entrees, I got the Malaysian Curry with Naan ($9.95) while Megan elected to go with the Malaysian Pineapple Fried Rice ($11.95). I also ordered a Thai Iced Tea ($3.95), essentially black tea mixed with coconut milk and some spices. I think I detected some anise in this version. Very refreshing on a hot day like today.

The Spring Rolls were excellent, fried perfectly and coated in with a sweet sauce. They were not at all like the Spring Rolls you would normally find in a Chinese restaurant, but were more similar to the Cha Gio spring rolls you can find at Vietnamese restaurants. On prior visits, we've sampled the Gyoza (Japanese pot-stickers) appetizer as well, and found them to be very good. The Spring Rolls were, however, far superior. The presentation, as with everything I've ever ordered at Lemongrass, was nothing short of beautiful.

The Malaysian Curry with Naan was delicious. The curry itself consisted of sliced chicken, bell peppers, onion, garlic, shallots, and various spices (cinnamon? anise? clove? coriander? -- I think I have a pretty good palate at guessing these things but I'm never quite sure!). The naan (Indian bread) was served in its own little basket on the side and was delicious. I thought the curry had excellent taste but thought perhaps the chicken was a little "off." I'm not sure exactly what the issue was, but it didn't seem as well-incorporated into the curry as I would have preferred, making it a little bit foreign to the entree. The slices of naan were not large enough to encapsulate much of the curry, making the dish a little difficult to eat in the usual style. But that was not a big deal. Despite these minor flaws, I enjoyed the dish and would order it again.

Megan's Pineapple Fried Rice was awesome. She's ordered this before when we've come for dinner, and it's normally served literally inside half a carved-out pineapple, making for a very cool presentation. They didn't do it that way for lunch, but the portion appeared to be roughly equal to the dinner portion. Consisting of fried rice, pineapple, and jumbo shrimp, with crunchy lotus noodles covered in a sweet and sour sauce served on the side, we both found this dish to be a perfect combination of flavors. I highly recommend this dish, particularly to those who are somewhat inexperienced with Asian cuisine. This is a dish I guarantee you will like.

Our bill came to a mere $34 before tip, a great value considering the quality, presentation, and sheer volume of food we ate. The service we received was also top-notch. I got the sense that the owners really cared about giving us the best lunch they possibly could. It is a definite shame that there weren't other diners there along with us. I have heard that Lemongrass has been struggling to maintain a steady clientele lately, and the fact that their website seems to be disabled is not a good sign. This is a restaurant extremely worthy of business, and is a place I will not hesitate to visit again in the near future. I encourage you to do the same.

Grade: A-

Lemongrass Kitchen LLC on Urbanspoon
Related Posts with Thumbnails