Restaurant Review: Saigon Cafe, Jersey City, NJ


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http://www.saigoncafejc.com/

Eating out is always an interesting scenario. I know, intellectually, that I can eat a salad almost anywhere. Obviously, there are places that I choose to shy away from intentionally… But for the most part, finding a decent place to eat out, at this point in my diet, is more about whether or not the restaurant is going to serve me anything other than a salad that I’ll want. That’s the big question. There are some issues, that I’ve discussed in previous posts, that need to be carefully considered before eating out. Just keep these in mind when you’re eating out:

  1. All cooking surfaces are almost certainly greased with a soy oil or soy derivative oil.
  2. All dressings, sauces, and other flavorings (except spices, so far) almost certainly have soy and wheat in them.
  3. The meat is almost certainly CAFO meat-factory meat.

So, keeping in mind that I really enjoy cooking, and the fruits of those labors, it turns out to be fairly irregular that I eat out. Mostly, I make all of my own food, and I eat only things that came out of my kitchen. It’s the simple and delicious solution. And when I do go out, I keep notes.

Saigon Cafe, Grove Street, Jersey City, NJ

My first impression of the Saigon Cafe restaurant was a pleasant surprise. This looked like it would count as one of those “Local Hole-In-The-Wall” places, where you encounter some really top quality food. I was hoping that their menu would be packed to the brim with seriously traditional Vietnamese food. We were seated in a small dining area, with about 10 tables. The waiter was ancient, and my guess is that he was the proprietor of the place. I like that about a place. I usually assume that the food is more likely to be lovingly crafted when the proprietor is the person seating me at the tables. It’s a pride thing for them, not just a paycheck.

The menu was a little challenging for me, but that was not surprising. Keeping in mind that soy and rice are deeply ingrained in the various Asian cultures, I didn’t expect the menu to be teeming with meals that were soy free. But I did expect that I would be able to mix-n-match my way to a well conceived soy-free meal.

The waiter came over to take our order. He spoke passably good English, and had no trouble guiding my through my options as soon as I told him that I’m allergic to soy. He stood over my shoulder, pointing at menu items as I flipped the page. “You can eat that one, or that one.” He would say. And “No, no, not that one.” When I tried to order the slow-cooked beef short ribs. Short ribs are very Vietnamese, and I really enjoy the way they cook them. Except for the soy sauce part.

With the proprietor’s help, I settled on a meal in no time. I love seafood, and they were serving something they called Claypot Seafood Curry. I like curry, seafood, and the “Claypot” meals were supposedly slow-cooked stews – and I love things that are slow-cooked!

Claypot Seafood Curry

It was full of flavor! There was clearly some sweetener in the dish, as well as some coconut milk or cream. But the over-all flavor was strong, yet well balanced. The curry was a yellow-curry, as you can see in the picture, and was delightful. The seafood all seemed quite fresh, and was slow-cooked to perfection.

All told, my experience in Saigon Cafe was quite satisfactory! I definitely recommend it for anyone in the Grove Street area of Jersey City, NJ.

Hu Kitchen Gets It!


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Hu Kitchen

I’ve already done a few different posts on Hu Kitchen, so any of you regular readers should be well-familiar with the name. These guys are excellent, and truly understand what “Food” is: it’s not just some caloric intake to stop our stomachs from grumbling, it’s carefully selected items of quality, which our bodies will use to fuel our lives! If we want a top-quality life, then by golly we need to have top quality food!!

My wife and I recently went back to Hu Kitchen, one of our favorites. In fact, we go often enough that I don’t report to you readers each time we drop by. Well, sometimes I’ll send a twitter update, but that’s about it. But when they do something extraordinary, I feel it is my responsibility to share. And what Hu Kitchen did this last time we visited them was something that really resonates with me, and is well in line with a few of my recent posts (notably: UPC’s rant about eggs). See the picture above where Hu Kitchen points out, on a chalk board outside the restaurant, one of the ways that the beef industry is trying to bamboozle consumers in to thinking grain and soy fed beef fit in to the consumers’ “healthy” food categories. I have mentioned the same thing about chickens: since they’re birds, and all birds need to eat live protein sources (does “The early bird gets the worm” ring any bells?) then an all-vegetarian fed chicken is not a healthy animal!

So, since Hu Kitchen gets it, and I really like them, I am sharing their excellent work with you all. When you’re in the Union Square area of NYC, definitely make some time to stop by Hu Kitchen for their wonderful food, excellent deserts, their ambiance, and most of all, to support a restaurant that really gets it!

HuKitchen-RoastChicken

And back to the food:

I ordered their rotisserie chicken (yes, it’s a pastured bird; thank you Hu Kitchen!!). There are a few different meal options at Hu Kitchen. There is a meal-menu, where the rotisserie chicken is always available, as well as another meat. After selecting the protein source, there are several really excellent sides to choose from. I chose the cauliflower and the grilled Brussels Sprouts. The meal, as usual, was excellent!

One of the most exciting things about Hu Kitchen is that you don’t have to worry about their food being Paleo or not. Nearly everything there is Paleo, they never cook with soy, and when there are grains in their food (they’re still a business, they need to attract non-Paleo customers until we grow our ranks more…) they have them clearly labeled. There’s never any confusion, and I’ve never walked away with that curious stomach feeling, letting me know that something in my meal was not Paleo. So feast there with confidence that your food will be to your standards!

Restaurant Review: Nook, NYC


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UPC’s Restaurant Review: Nook, NYC

Nook used to be one of my favorite places to go eat before switching to Paleo. As can be expected, my dietary needs have changed my review criteria for restaurants, and as a result, I’ve been less inclined to head to my old haunts. Of course Nook was one of them. But here it is, making it’s debut Paleo review (to my knowledge)!

Location and Presentation:

Nook is a difficult restaurant to find. It has no website, it is a small location with a small storefront in a strangely difficult location. Even knowing where I am going, I often miss the door to the restaurant the first time I pass it. Not to mention the fact that, in Hell’s Kitchen NYC, the streets are almost always bustling.
The restaurant itself is quite nice inside. The entire 7 feet of street-front space is a window and full-window door. There is a tasteful curtain on the window to give it some decorative value, as well as a bit of insulation from the intense summer heat. The indoors is quaint, with a total capacity of perhaps 20 people in a party, or 6 tables for individual seating. It’s the perfect place to take a special person for a nice dinner out, or when your parents are in town.

NookSalad

Menu:

Nook is definitely not geared for Paleo eaters, and so it was a little challenging to read the menu as a Paleo diner. It has almost entirely grain-based meals. They were delightful, back in the day, but since that’s not my fare any longer, I am forced to use my creativity, charm, and potential tip to get off-menu meals served to me and my wife. The wait staff at Nook are always pleasant and willing to work with their guests, so it’s a little easier here than at most places. There’s so few customers that the one waiter is guaranteed to have a few extra moments to contemplate your allergies. And yes, all grains and beans are allergies! If you don’t use that special word, it often your preferences won’t be respected!

NookTunaTartarTuna Tartar: My wife and I ordered the Tuna Tartar as an appetizer. The menu version of the Tuna Tartar had soy in it, as well as on it. We asked if this was a pre-made item, or if the Chef would be able to prepare it for us using olive oil rather than soy. It was a success, and it was delicious!!

Grilled Pear Salad: Grilled pear is becoming a thing. I’ve seen it in more than a few of the restaurants that I’ve been to. It’s not that I’m complaining, I love the trend of using fruit, rather than sugared salad dressings, to sweeten a salad and make it more appetizing to the non-Paleo crowd! The result for me, and you other Paleo eaters, is something that almost tastes like a desert! It’s sweet, succulent, and the flavor of the pear combined with the balsamic vinegar is excellent!

Filet Mignon: I ordered the Filet Mignon. It was cooked to perfection, and delicious! I could have survived just fine without the mashed potatoes, but the asparagus spears were quite nice. They were lightly sauteed in butter and garnished with chives. The tenderness and flavor of the beef was just right!

NookSteak

Pricing and other items:

Nook is a “BYOB” restaurant, which I like a lot. A liquor license in NYC can cost more than the entire start-up costs of the restaurant combined. And often the high price of the better-quality restaurants has to do with the price of buying a liquor license, along with the other prices of real estate, etc. Nook is not burdened with that issue, so the prices for the food is quite reasonable, and all the more reason to frequent the establishment. You get the best of both worlds: You get to choose the wine you want to drink, not pay the exorbitant restaurant-liquor charges, and still have a great meal for a decent price!

Notes for Nook dining as a Paleo diner:

  1. As with ALL restaurants, be very careful with your menu items. Ask the waiter what’s in your food, and explain your food allergies. Don’t be afraid to ask that the chef change your meal – the Nook chef will, and you’ll love the result! Your dining experience will be infinitely better if you enjoy your food during and after your meal!
  2. Nook is a BYOB restaurant, so bring a bottle of your favorite wine. And enjoy the fact that it’s not going to be 4x the price of the liquor store!
  3. Finding the restaurant is a little challenging, but do not despair. It’s there, hidden in between other more brightly colored doors. If you miss it, just go looking for it again.

Paleo Treats


ChloesSoftServeFruitCo-TangerineAndPineapple

I don’t eat a lot of sugar. In fact, I don’t eat a lot of anything that contains sugar. I probably eat less sugar-containing food, in total, in a week than the average American eats in a day. The truth is that, at the end of the day, I simply don’t need any sugar. I get along just fine without it. I wake up fine, I work out explosively, I enjoy my food and drink the way nature intended it to taste, and I don’t have any trouble falling asleep. The few times that I choose to have a sugar-laden treat, I choose carefully, and I make sure that I choose those treats based on how much joy they will bring to me. And Chloe’s Soft Serve Fruit Company really fits the bill!

Their treats are made from real fruit blended with water and a bit of organic sugar. A quick look at their nutrition facts confirms that they’re filling their treats with mostly fresh delicious fruit, and not very much sugar. On a hot day, their treats are a godsend, and the perfect pick-me-up from the heat. And there has been some SERIOUS heat in the NYC area recently!

They do a 4-flavor rotational menu, where the 4 flavors that they are serving on any given day are not necessarily the same 4 flavors as the day before. Over the past two years I have personally tried their pear, banana, mango, raspberry, strawberry, pineapple and tangerine fruit flavors, as well as their chocolate. The picture above is Tangerine and Pineapple, an amazing combination with the fresh raspberries on top!

So, if you’re hanging around 14th street of NYC and it’s a hot day like today, make some time for a mid-afternoon treat at Chloe’s Soft Serve Fruit Company!

Umm… This is not an advertisement. I guess when I sing the praises of something I’ve enjoyed as much as Chloe’s, I should point out that I am doing as I have always done on this blog: share my experiences. So far (although, I would be delighted if someone changed this!!) no one has ever offered me any kind of payment for my blog posts, including a free meal. I paid full price for the frozen fruit in my picture, and would again!

Questions:

  • What kinds of treats do you indulge in?
  • Do you indulge often? And if not often, do you have a regular indulgence? Like, every Friday night you do ice cream and a movie (no, I do not)?
  • When you indulge, what are your favorite treats?

Restaurant Review: Plan B Burger, Milford, Connecticut


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It is delightful to see more and more restaurants start to offer Paleo-friendly food options! I’ve talked about how to “build your own” Paleo meals in a restaurant before. Perhaps one of these days I will actually sit down and write up a little “Paleo Restaurant Guide” for you all to print out and use. But in the mean time, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying going to some of the closer-to-Paleo restaurants, and trying their fare!

Plan B Burger:

Overall, this was a very nice experience. The decor was impressive, and clearly had been carefully considered. The ambiance of the place was very much what I would consider to be an upscale Bar & Grill style restaurant, and considering the bar itself took up nearly 25% of the available space in the restaurant, my guess is that the owners were looking for that feel as well.

Menu:

The menu, like the decor, is very Bar & Grill. They have a lot of easy-to-make appetizers, with a focus on the Bar & Grill types of hot-sellers, like wings and sliders. While we were ordering, a waiter brought out a “Tower of Sliders” which was quite impressive – it was 3 sliders, stacked and pinned in a tower formation. Impressive, but definitely not Paleo. The most impressive part of the menu overall was this:

The Menu featured “Verified Humane” Meats.

I find this to be amazing, and definitely worthy of my business! I am not sure if they’re additionally verifying the meat themselves, or if they’re just taking a “Verified Humane” certification at it’s word. And either of those is fine with me, because just the fact that they’re cognizant of that, and working to bring it to the market is a step in the right direction!

There was a “Gluten Free” Menu. This is where Plan B Burger really started to stand out. I love that restaurants are really picking up on the Gluten Free culture which has been growing in strength. There are some restaurants out there which are almost entirely Gluten Free, while others are starting to build a “Gluten Free” menu, to cater to their Gluten Free guests. It’s fantastic! And Plan B Burger certainly deserves commendation!
PlanB-Burger-InTheGrass-Plate

Off the Gluten Free Menu, I ordered a burger called “The Squeeler” which is a half-pork, half-beef burger, shown in the pictures above and below. It is served with bacon, cheese, tomato, mustard and mayo. I ordered it without the cheese, mustard and mayo. There’s no sense in ordering an exciting Paleo meal, only to sully it with non-Paleo goo! Soy with your “Squeeler” anyone?? Didn’t think so.

PlanB-Burger-InTheGrass

The menu offered the option to order your burgers “In The Grass” which would result in the burger being served on a thick slice of lettuce. And, as you can see from the picture above, a “slice of lettuce” is exactly what they give you! They take a head of lettuce, and slice a chunk out of the middle, serving the burger on top of the slice. It’s excellent!

The cons:

It’s still a normal Bar & Grill, not a Paleo restaurant. And what that means is that you need to remember to speak with your waiter about what the burger will be cooked in. If you forget to ask for Butter or Olive Oil, it will be cooked in Pam, or some other Soy-based cooking spray. This is important! Make sure to request that your burger, or whatever foods you’re eating, are cooked in butter or olive oil!

Summary:

This is an impressive restaurant. The decor, combined with the efforts that the kitchen and executive chef made in putting together a Gluten Free menu are impressive. Their “Verified Humane” meat is a huge plus! All told, as long as you remember to talk about your food allergies (yes, Paleo people, you simply have to use the word “Allergy” when dealing with wheat and soy in foods) you should come out the other side feeling satisfied, healthy, and energized by the fact that restaurants are starting work harder for higher quality foods!

Date Night: Dinner Out With My Wife


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A Paleo Night Out with Urban Paleo Chef:

I know, I know, you’re all used to seeing me with my red shirt. Well, the truth is that, as much as I love that red shirt, it’s the exception and not the rule. I spend most of my days in a suit, tie, and some modified Paleo dress shoes (don’t worry, I share my shoes in a post soon enough). So while I live my exercise life in that red shirt (and others like it) I spend most of the rest of my life trying to approach a Paleo lifestyle, while wearing modern fashion, eating out, and looking great! Obviously, my wife deserves all of the credit for any time I look good.

My wife and I went to one of our favorite restaurants last night for a date night. We go here fairly often because we love the ambiance, the food, and the service. Everything about the place is top quality. In fact, my only meaningful complaint about them is that they use CAFO beef and chicken. It’s a legitimate complaint, but not one I expect them to respond to any time soon. So my wife and I just choose to eat food from their menu which are neither beef nor chicken. And at any great restaurant, that shouldn’t be an issue in the least.

I am getting quite used to the phrase: “I am allergic to soy and wheat.” Waiters respond to the word “Allergic” and treat it with a very different level of respect from “don’t eat,” or “don’t want”. If you’re looking for a successful Paleo night out, you’re going to have to embrace those words eventually. And the sooner you do, the better your digestion, and your satisfaction, will respond to your treatment!

What we had:

GuacamoleWithPlantainChipsGuacamole and Plantain Chips

We love our avocado, in almost any form! When we go out and see guacamole on a menu, we almost always get it and try it out. Son Cubano, the restaurant we went to last night, has never disappointed us with their guacamole, and we order it every time we go!
We noticed a Tuna Tartare on the menu, and were quite excited! This is a new menu item for them, and we really wanted to try it. Thankfully, we asked first whether there was soy in it, and were told that it is made with soy sauce. So we will have to go back another time, when it’s less busy, and ask if the Chef will make it without the soy. Not this time though.

SeaBassWithPlantainsPlantain Crusted Chilean Sea Bass

This is normally cooked in sunflower oil, but on special request, the Chef was willing to cook it in Extra Virgin Olive Oil. It was cooked to perfection! It was just lightly crispy on the outside, and warm and moist, but still slightly rare on the inside. It was just the way I like my fish! The flavor was wonderful, indicating to me that it was as close to fresh as I can expect from a Chillean fish! It was served with the black bean and corn chile that you see, which I did not try, as well as some grilled tomatoes underneath. I did scrape the beans and corn off the tomatoes and eat those – I like grilled tomatoes, and these were pretty good.
The menu had a salmon dish as well, but they could not confirm if it is farmed or wild salmon. Knowing that farmed salmon may actually be worse for you than CAFO beef, and is probably worse for the environment, I elected to eat the sea bass instead of the salmon.

GrilledCalamariGrilled Calamari

My wife LOVES grilled calamari. And I don’t blame her a bit! I reserve the top spot on my seafood list for wild-caught salmon, but grilled calamari is definitely up there for me! Well, we saw the grilled calamari on the list and simply could not pass it up – my wife made short work of that delicious dish! And I helped out just a little bit…

Eating Out Tips:

  • If you’re going out to dinner, make sure you read my Going Out To Dinner Tonight? post with tips on how to eat well, and how to have a great time.
  • Don’t be afraid to splurge once in a while. It’s not always appropriate, and if you eat out regularly, you may want to designate a once-per-month rule, or something like that. But going somewhere nice, eating some well crafted food where the chef really cares about the final product, it can be a great way to enjoy an evening with your special someone!
  • “Stretch” yourself a bit when you go out to a nice restaurant. They will do a good job with all of their foods, so it’s a great time to try something you might not normally eat. Go for that seafood dish, or that steak tartare that you’ve been silently eying and avoiding until now. The top-quality restaurants are definitely the right places to try these “edge” foods that you just didn’t dare order at other places.

Questions:

  • Have you “splurged” on a night out recently? What was the occasion?
  • Did you eat a “stretch” food? What was it? How did you find it?

Cartagena Local Restaurants – Demente


Demente

One of the most exciting things that my wife and I do, anywhere, is to find the highlights of a location. We do that here in NYC to the extent that we are able. We have a list of the best places to go for a burger (it’s a short list, and Paleo friendly!), the best places to go for a drink (sorted by what kind of drink, what kind of environment, etc.). We keep tabs on where to go, when to go, and what to do. And we just do it for fun.
Similarly, we keep track of the little holes in the wall that we find in every city we travel to. We will never forget the tiny little place in San Juan, Puerto Rico that we stumbled across completely by accident which served some of the best restaurant food we have ever had! It was definitely a local place, with amazing food, great prices, amazing service, and a decent ambiance. Though, again, it was a local joint, so it didn’t have the kind of polishing a tourist might be looking for.

Well, today’s post is about another one of those places. The kind of place you would miss unless you were specifically looking for it. It’s called Demente.

Demente Restaurant

If you wander around Getsamani in Cartagena, you may wonder if you’re in the wrong place. And depending on the street you’re on, you may well be in the wrong place. It’s a dirty, unpolished, unkempt section of Cartagena. It’s been called an “up and coming neighborhood”. We all know what that means, right? It means that it’s not there yet. And that’s true – for the most part. But it’s areas like this where you’re most likely to find authentic local gems. Places where the food is still made to serve to locals. And this is just the kind of place that my wife and I love to find. We like to find the best of the local foods – and where better to look than in an “up and coming neighborhood”?

Demente is a tapas restaurant and bar. The daily tapas are written up on a large chalk board, hung above the bar area. There are quite a number of them, and they have a large variety of foods, flavors, and styles that they bring to the table.DementePork My wife and I stopped in at Demente twice. The first time we marveled at the setup, the ambiance, and the styling of the restaurant. We would have gone in to have a drink, but the tables were all full, and we had already eaten that night. The most notable feature of the restaurant was the retractable glass roof, leaving it completely open-air on good weather nights. We filed it away in our heads for the next time and returned 2 nights later, hungry and excited to eat some of the tapas they had available. The most exciting part of most Tapas restaurants, for me at least, is reviewing what is often an impressive list of options. I love options. And the options at Demente were excellent. Unlike most Tapas places however, the most exciting part of Demente was eating the Tapas! They were top-notch. They were cooked in an open kitchen, fully visible from the dining room and bar. The cooks were local experts, clearly at the top of their craft, and the food they produced was just amazing!

DementeCornEmpanadasWe went to Demente with a friend, so that we could order some Paleo Tapas, and the friend would have a chance to sample some of the non-Paleo Tapas and give us her thoughts on those. My wife and I ordered a few different Tapas dishes, and our friend ordered another non-Paleo Tapa of her own. Of our order, two were really exceptional. One was completely Paleo in the picture above: It was a baked pork loin, cooked to juicy perfection, and served with diced broccoli and pickled red peppers. The second was definitely not Paleo, but our friend said that it was so good that I couldn’t resist a bite (I did stop at one bite though)! It was a Colombia empanada made of corn (no wheat, we asked), with spiced sweet ground beef and mozzarella as a filler. The sauce was some sort of spicy mayonnaise, which I did not try, but was apparently almost as good as the empanada on it’s own.

I definitely recommend going to Demente if you ever find yourself in Cartagena. A short walk around Getsemani, in the early evening, would be well worth your time as well. There are some excellent places with dancing, music, and some other restaurants with what appeared to be great food. We didn’t discover Getsemani until near the end of our trip, so we didn’t have the time we needed to really get a good feel for the neighborhood. But what we saw, we were very impressed with!

Questions:

  • Which local restaurants do you think are “hidden gems” in your home town?
  • Would you tell people about them, or hide them and keep them for yourself?
  • Do you keep notes on those amazing places you discover on your trips?