THE SCOOP #4: Red Rocks (not the amphitheater. unfortunately.)

SAMSUNGIf you Googled Red Rocks in search of a cool blog post about a concert at the Red Rocks amphitheatre in Colorado and stumbled upon this page, I regret to inform you that you’ve come to the wrong place. This post is about a locally-owned restaurant that has absolutely no relation to the infamous Red Rocks concert venue. Sorry. I would have much preferred to review a kick-ass show at Red Rocks amphitheatre than an average meal at Red Rocks Cafe in Huntersville, NC. But since I’m literally on the opposite coast of the US, this will have to do for now.

Restaurant: Red Rocks Cafe
Location: Birkdale Village in Huntersville, NC (1 of 2 locations in the Charlotte area)
Atmosphere:  Inside – casual/contemporary with cherry wood tables & chairs; Outside – very casual with iron patio tables & chairs, and a nice view of the Birkdale Village fountain
Service:  Somewhat slow and inattentive. Our appetizer was served without any silverware.  It was calamari covered in buffalo sauce. Tasty, but rather difficult to eat without utensils.

Drinks:  I can only vouch for the wine list – haven’t tried a cocktail here yet. Though not mind-blowing, it works. Typical by-the-glass selections from Woodbridge and Robert Mondavi, and a few surprises like Conundrum white blend and Apothic Red.
Apps:  All you need to know is that the calamari here is ridiculous. You’ll get thick calamari steaks cut julienne style (long strips) instead thin, of rubbery rings that take 5 min to chew. I have no idea how they get their hands on calamari of this quality but I’m a certified junkie.
Salads:  Normally I don’t bother describing salads in my reviews, but I must point out that Red Rocks offers 19 different salads. Yes, you read that right. You’ll find the typical wedge, caesar and greek style salads, as well as a few unusual selections, including one salad topped with french fries…  which clearly defeats any healthful purpose of ordering a salad.
Entrees:  Many, many options to choose from. Perhaps too many. 50 items, to be exact. The main categories are pasta, steaks & ribs, seafood, sandwiches and chef’s specialties. The chef’s specialties include everything from meatloaf to jambalaya, and there are also nightly specials. I ordered the special for the evening: pine nut encrusted halibut topped with a tomato-basil relish and served with wild rice risotto and broccolini. The fish was cooked nicely and the risotto was tasty and sinfully buttery, abeit not perfectly al dente.     
Desserts:  A nice selection of cakes and other treats can be viewed near the front of the restaurant at the bakery station. In a moment of sheer spontaneity on our way out, my hubby ordered a slice of the 5-layer chocolate cake to go, which we later enjoyed with a nice bottle of cabernet sauvignon at home. The cake was moist and the frosting was decadent. Although, I might have said the same about a kitchen sponge after polishing off that bottle of wine.

Quality:  With so many items on the menu, no particular entrees really stand out; and while the food is well-prepared, it isn’t overly creative or especially memorable. But Red Rocks isn’t a fine dining establishment (nor does it claim to be), and it boasts plenty of return customers and a line out the door on weekend nights. Clearly they’re doing something right. 
Price:  Entrees range between $10 (burgers) and $45 (surf & turf), but the average entree price is a wallet-friendly $15 – $18.

Insider Tip:  Order the calamari. You will not be disappointed.

THE FINAL WORD:  Red Rocks is a reliable go-to spot in Birkdale for a respectable meal and nice ambiance, but it’s crazy busy on weekends due to limited dining options in the area, so make a reservation or be prepared to hang out at the bar for a while, waiting for your table. Not that there’s anything wrong with that 🙂


THE SCOOP #3: Keep it Simple, Stupid

Baja Soul TaqueriaStarting a new restaurant is in some ways similar to starting a new blog. The goal is to start out small but strong. Stick with what you do best, eliminate the stuff that’s not so great. Add new features after you’ve tested out the basics and people keep coming back. In the beginning, keep it simple, stupid.

In an effort to heed my own advice, here’s restaurant review #3 in a streamlined, simpler format for easy reading. Bon appetit!

Restaurant: Baja Soul Taqueria, opened January 2012
Location: Birkdale Village in Huntersville, NC (in the former T1 Tapas space)
Atmosphere: Bold paint colors, dancing skeleton murals that look like Grateful Dead album cover art, contemporary casual furnishings, Mexican music, outdoor seating
Service: Friendly, knowledgeable, manager checked in twice with genuine interest

Drinks: Authentic mojitos with unique variations like strawberry basil, margaritas with fresh lime sour mix, and specialty cocktails like blackberry & mango “Mora Negra”. Aged tequilas by the glass, bottle, or flights. Small wine list & imported beers, nice selection of craft beers on tap.
Apps: Guacamole, ceviche, cheese dip, salsa trio, nachos. Not sure these qualify as appetizers but rather, “stuff on top of chips”. Two salads available as well.
Entrees: 12 tacos ranging from traditional fried fish w/ cabbage slaw to steak w/ carmelized onions & goat cheese. 3 quesadillas and 1 tostada with interesting ingredient combos like mango & achiote shrimp or fire-roasted green chiles & blue crab.
Sides: Plantains, red rice, 2 kinds of beans and street corn. Nuff said.
Desserts: Molten chocolate cupcake, tres leches cake, Kahlua ice cream pie. *Shrug*

Quality: Some tacos were lukewarm and lacked flavor (pork and mahi tacos) while others were piping hot and bursting with flavor (traditional fish and steak tacos). Sides were hit-or-miss: Mexican street corn was fresh and authentic, but charro beans were bland and runny. Thankfully, the cocktails kicked ass.
Price: About what you’d expect ($8-$11 for 2 tacos, $10-$14 for 3), except for one thing. They offer a handful of “Soul Salsas”… at $3 a pop! Some of these are basic salsas that are free anywhere else, like salsa verde and pico de gallo. Weirder still, they provide the typical free basket of chips & salsa when you’re seated, and offer unlimited refills. WTF?

Pros: Fresh, flavorful cocktails, tasty classic fish tacos (a rare find in Charlotte!). A nice change of pace from the (gag) chain Mexican restaurants in the area.
Cons: Spotty execution, lack appetizers without chips, charge for extra salsas.

Insider Tip: My server revealed that customers can order a different taco for every taco in their combo plate. So, if you and a guest each order a 3-taco plate, you can get 6 different tacos and try out virtually half the menu in one sitting.

THE FINAL WORD: This place has potential… if they can boost the flavor profile (and the temperature) of some of their dishes and add a few real apps to pair with those snazzy cocktails, they just might make it. But for crying out loud, quit charging customers for salsa. It’s like charging people for various butters to go with their free bread at an Italian restaurant. And no-one wants that. Keep it simple, stupid!

THE SCOOP #2: Get out from under your rock

For those of you in Charlotte who have been living under a rock, famed restauranteur Jim Noble opened his second Rooster’s Wood-fired Kitchen restaurant in a swanky new uptown location (that’s “downtown” for all you outsiders) in February to rave reviews. And rightly so.

I visited the new Rooster’s recently and was thoroughly impressed. From the two story urban-farmhouse setup to the elegantly plated dishes and intoxicating scent of burning wood permeating the air, every aspect contributed to the feeling of being transported to some faraway city in Europe.

I started my dinner with the house-cured duck, which was a real treat. Loved how the flavor of fresh herbs underscored each bite and the accompanying bread was toasted in the wood-fired grill for a nice smoky char. Next I had the arugula salad with chevre and almonds, which was fresh and tasty but large enough to feed a small army so I boxed up half. After that I indulged in the short ribs, which were braised perfectly, bone-in. (Unlike some other short ribs I’ve had… see fake short ribs post)

The service was stellar as well – my server was new, but she knew the details of each dish well, and wasn’t afraid to ask others if she didn’t have the answer to a question. Wine pairing recommendations were spot-on and the manager came by several times to check in, taking attentiveness to a whole new level.

I also discovered that Rooster’s features “chalkboard menus” throughout the week. These are late night menus for post-10 pm meals, and the items on the chalkboard menus are no less drool-worthy than the regular menu. This is a refreshing alternative to most late-night dining options, which include deep-fried bits of unidentifiable objects and cheese plates long-past their prime. That being said, if you’re the type who likes to eat dinner at the senior-citizen-early-bird-special hour of 5 pm, this information will be of no use to you. And furthermore, you really need to get a life.

If you haven’t yet crawled out from under your rock long enough to check out the hottest new restaurant uptown, or worse, if you’re one of those delusional fools who avoids dining uptown due to “finding parking” as if it’s downtown L.A. (will save that rant for later), you’re missing out on one of the best dining experiences in town. Get in your car and go. Now.

THE SCOOP #1: Fake Short Ribs and other such tragedies

This article is the first in what will soon be a series of restaurant reviews, aptly named “THE SCOOP”.

Charlotte’s South End neighborhood is chock full of hip eateries, and after years of frequenting many of them, I finally made my debut visit to The Liberty last night. Located in the heart of South End, The Liberty is gastropub known for its craft beers on tap and tasty burgers. The vibe is laid back and the ambiance is rustic tavern-meets-modern local hotspot. Needless to say, I chose to begin the evening with a refreshing draft beer. This is where things start to go downhill. When I ask the server for a recommendation on an amber ale with some spice, she immediately scans the menu for anything labeled “amber”. How do I know this? She replies, “Here’s an amber that we have” and points to Bell’s Amber Ale. Then she mentions that they have a beer by Green Man that’s pretty good (huh?) and I comment, “Oh – that’s brewed in Asheville, right?”. She looks at the menu and says, “um, well – it’s a local beer”. I look down at the menu and see “LOCAL” in parentheses next to the Green Man ESB. Hmm…

So I order the Bell’s Amber along with some fried pickles, to get my week’s worth of sodium in one fell swoop. Both are happily satisfying. Although really, how could anyone screw up fried pickles? Next I order the braised short ribs. They arrive on a bed of buttery mashed potatoes, topped with collard greens. This seems to be a Southern spin on traditional French-style slow braised short ribs, and given that we’re in the South, I can appreciate this. What I don’t appreciate is that the short ribs are not, in fact, short ribs.

And now for a brief rant. When did restaurants stop using real bone-in short ribs? The Liberty is not the first establishment to do this, I’ve experienced it at Halcyon, Bask on Seaboard, and The Crepe Cellar, to name a few. Apparently, boneless beef chuck “short ribs” are now being used as a substitute for bone-in short ribs, and the results are lackluster at best. Instead of hearty, fall-off-the-bone tender meat, you have bland, dry pieces of beef that would be better served in a pot roast. Or perhaps as a snack for my dog, who is content to eat bits of plastic from her kong toy after devouring the treats inside. I realize that in a down economy restaurants must find creative ways to cut costs, but when the short ribs are the most expensive dish on the menu, they’d better damn well be real short ribs.

I digress. After wrapping up my meal with another trusty Bell’s Amber, I visit the restroom and find printed beer trivia posted on the walls. Because I’m a super-nerd for culinary trivia of any sort, this significantly brightens the evening. And so I’ll leave you with this: a fun fact about 17th century English taverns, courtesy of the women’s bathroom at The Liberty.

In old English pubs, ale was ordered by pints and quarts. When customers got unruly, the bartender would shout at them to mind their own pints and quarts and settle down. It’s where we got the phrase “mind your own p’s and q’s.”

I may pay another visit to The Liberty sometime in the future, but it sure as hell won’t be for the short ribs.