Thursday, August 18, 2011

California Pizza Kitchen - MacArthur Center - Norfolk, VA

Alex and I had not been to California Pizza Kitchen (herein after referred to as CPK) for quite some time. We both had favorite entrees which had been eliminated with a menu update earlier in the year. I hate when this happens. CPK has a fairly extensive menu, but with our favorites gone, we didn't see much reason to return. Additionally, CPK is a bit on the pricey side and these days most of us our watching our budgets a little closer. If I am going to spend a bit for "gourmet style" pizza, I'd rather be at Fellini's. Although, I have to admit that CPK's White Pizza is wowza good. 

I can't remember the source, but somehow I was recently made aware of yet another CPK menu update. Interestingly enough, some of the old favorites were making a comeback under the guise of new names. We decided to check it out and bring our buddy *Brianna along. Brianna loves the fish tacos there, but noticed a new item, Tacos Carnitas; slow-roasted pork, homemade avocado salsa verde, red onions, cilantro, Romaine and shredded Napa cabbage served with tortilla chips and roasted tomato salsa. Sounded pretty good to everyone and she decided to give it a try. Alex of course, honed right in on the Crispy Mac 'n Cheese.  CPK' version is "classic mac ‘n’ cheese lightly fried with panko, served on creamy cheese sauce". Seeing the picture on their website, it does not appeal to me at all. It looks like a Mac 'n Cheese burger. Click here to see what I mean. Surprisingly, Alex passed on the starter and we both ordered the Roasted Vegetable Salad; Roasted artichoke hearts, asparagus, eggplant, red & yellow peppers, corn and sun-dried tomatoes served warm over Romaine tossed with homemade Dijon balsamic vinaigrette. Topped with avocado. This is suspiciously similar to our old favorite "Grilled Vegetable Salad" and we were glad to see it back.
California Pizza Kitchen dish: Tacos Carnitas

California Pizza Kitchen dish: Roasted Vegetable Salad
The meals took a while to arrive. This happens sometimes at CPK. They were packed on Tuesday, so the wait did not surprise me. The tacos arrived loaded with the salsa verde and Brianna instantly regretted her order. In retrospect she wished she had asked if they were spicy. They were a bit hot, but the bigger disappointment was the meager chunks of pork in the taco. Resting on the bottom layer were tiny, 1/2 inch, flat pieces of overcooked pork. Bleh! Should have stuck with the Fish Tacos!! Our salads looked good and the server even got the salad dressings right, which only happens about 50% of the time at this location. I always order Fat Free Balsamic on the side. Sometimes I get nothing, sometimes I get it on the salad, sometimes I get regular Balsamic and etcetera. This was a good start! After four or five bites into the salad I realize the eggplant is MIA. Ditto for Alex. We request some and it is brought out to the table within a reasonable amount of time. Next, the avocados. I want you to look at the photo of this salad here. Do you see all that avocado! Man, it is a mountain! Now, look at the photos below. We were both able to locate 2 measly little chunks. Sad. I know it is difficult to get ripe avocados, and they are expensive and blah, blah, blah. I have already heard all that. If you can't deliver the product, don't advertise it. Simple as that folks! We didn't even bother complaining about it. How many times can you complain about a salad to your server?

California Pizza Kitchen dish: Vegetable Salad
California Pizza Kitchen dish: Vegetable Salad with not a lot of Avocado

And by the way, our server did a good job. She kept our drinks full and had a pleasant demeanor. I learned long ago not to fault the server for the sins of the kitchen. I am pretty sure we each tipped her at least 20%, which is our usual  M.O. even for poor service. It's a tough job.  I know from experience. Plus, I am always thinking, that could be my kid, or my nephew or my friend. A salad at CPK, with no extras will run you about $15. This doesn't really bother me because their salads are hearty. They aren't just serving up romaine with cucumber and tomato. The Tacos are in a similar price range.

As usual the company was outstanding, and we had a fun meal. I'm sure there are more CPK lunches in my future. One thing I really like about CPK is that they post their nutritional information online. I wish more restaurants, at least chains, did that. Ut oh...the White Pizza has 1080 calories and 119 g of carbs. I plug that into my handy dandy Weight Watchers calculator and see that racks up to 22 points plus. Maybe next time I order the White Pizza I will only eat half...


California Pizza Kitchen

300 Monticello Ave # 149
Norfolk, VA 23510-4400
(757) 622-7190
Open Mon-Thu 11am-10pm; Fri-Sat 11am-shredded Napa cabbage served with tortilla chips and roasted tomato salsa

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Crackers, Norfolk, VA

Cracker's Logo
I try to remember great restaurants that are off my beaten path, but I, like many others, overlook great, hidden places far too often.  Crackers is one of those and I was lucky enough to head there recently - it has definitely been too long since I dined at the ‘new’ location on Granby Street.  Larger than its previous space, but still small in restaurant scale and intimate, Crackers has a very soothing atmosphere.  You almost feel like you are dining alone, even with other patrons nearby.  

We arrived and were told to sit wherever we wanted, so we chose a table in the corner - those are the best spots.  We perused the specials and decided to start with the Wakame and Cucumbers ($5) and the special Red Potato Fries with a dijon aioli ($5).  Aioli is still this year’s pink, which is fine with me, I love the stuff.  The Wakame was great, but we decided the fries won this round because of originality.  The aioli made the dish, of course.  Next up were the Falafel Fritters with a honey romesco ($5) and the asparagus ($5).  The latter is one of my favorites but again with this round, we decided the falafel was the champion due to its uniqueness.  This falafel was mild in comparison to some of the more garlic-induced versions Laine and I have had (oh Kebab Shack, how we miss you), but I enjoyed it regardless.  One more small item for us, the Black Bean Cake with lime cream and salsa, and we completed the savory course.  I really enjoyed this and it would make a great entree.  Crackers will make most any item a full meal for $10, which includes bread and a house salad.  I have yet to try this because I cannot prevent myself from ordering the variety that tapas offers.  Maybe one day.  

On to the sweet course, we decided we had to have the S’mores.  Crackers’ s’mores are tasty but more importantly, they are fun.  A mini grill on a wooden platter, containing graham crackers, a Hershey chocolate bar and large marshmallows, arrived and we were immediately ten years old again about to build our treats.  The best part was, we were seated in a nice restaurant and not outside in the elements (read: no camping, ever).  I have never actually roasted s’mores outside and am not going to start now.  Crackers’ version is just fine with me.

Tapas is great because you can share and if you are not looking for a huge meal, you can enjoy a lot of different tastes without paying the health price.  Something to note, all locations have Monday night wine specials and Wednesday night canned beer specials.  

Our server was attentive but not intrusive and I really, really enjoyed dinner.  I have yet to try Virginia Beach’s Pacifica, which is a sister restaurant of Crackers, as are Empire In downtown Norfolk and Six in Hampton.  I have always had great meals at Empire.  I only wish they were open during lunch so Laine and I could get over there. 


4226 Granby Street
Norfolk, Virginia 23504

Pasha Mezze Revisited, Norfolk VA

Pasha Mezze dish: Pan Fried Zucchini Cheese Puffs
I have had a few decent lunches at Pasha and a great brunch, but Laine and I were not thrilled the last time we dined there in the evening. We both felt slighted by the our choices (try a few small pieces of calamari for $10).  

Charlotte* and I were both swayed by the Pasha Groupon and noticed that the expiration date was fast approaching. We decided to use mine after a Thursday evening at Cool It! at The Chrysler Museum. We arrived around 8:30pm, a little under the 9pm cut off for weekday dinner service. We immediately settled on the Pan Fried Zucchini Cheese Puffs ($6.49). This dish includes three puffs over mint-yogurt dip and are a great appetizer to share or combine with another smaller dish to make a meal. I saw the Grilled Maiden Cake ($6.99), made with red lentils and served with lettuce, a slice of grilled tomato and Pasha’s organic vegan sauce and decided that was my dish. I threw in a side of Sauteed Julienne Vegetables ($5) for good measure. I was thrilled with my meal. The maiden cake was phenonemal and I’m not positive, but I think the secret sauce was vegannaise, or something very similar, which I like. It is not much different that regular mayo in fat and calories, but I actually prefer it to mayo now. I was never a huge mayo fan unless it was an ingredient in a dish, so having vegannaise as an option for sandwiches and such is a nice alternative. The vegetables were light and would be a great accompaniment to any dish.  

Charlotte ordered the Grilled Stuffed Calamari ($10) and had I remembered it was what Laine and I ordered that time at dinner, I would have warned her that the portion is extremely small for the price and for any appetite. She said the the quality was fine, but in my view, the portion is just ridiculous for what you pay. Charlotte ended up ordering the hummus ($6), which comes with bread and pita to round out her ‘meal’. The hummus is a decent portion and great in taste. I noticed Pasha’s hummus for sale in Taste Unlimited last weekend. I was unaware they sold it on ‘the outside’. Good, that’s competition for Azar’s, which is also sold in some stores.  

We finished our meal with the Creme Brulee Cheesecake ($6.49). Previously, I have had the Bread Pudding (no surprise there) and the Chocolate Bon Bons. I have to admit that this bread pudding is not one of my favorites and while I did enjoy the bon bons, the cheesecake quickly took the lead as top dessert at Pasha. With a graham cracker crust, it is very smooth with a rich vanilla bean flavor. This dessert is a must have.

Pasha Mezze dish: Hummus with MuhammarahThe second Groupon loomed over Charlotte’s and my heads so after our next Thursday Chrysler outing, we headed to Pasha once again. So patterned, we would be adored by a serial killer. I talked Charlotte into the Hummus with Muhammarah ($8.99), of which she was not a fan, but I can be persuasive. While I did not dislike it, I prefer the hummus straight up, as well. I should have listened, but I like to give things a whirl at least once. Live and learn. I really liked my meal my last visit, so I had to order the Grilled Maiden Cake again and we split the zucchini puffs. Charlotte broke the dining repetitiveness by ordering the Pasha Lamb Sandwich ($10.99) which looked spectacular. Lamb meatballs, melted cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, caramelized onions and sun-dried red pepper sauce sat atop Pasha’s quality artisan bread. Charlotte said the dish had great flavor, was a good size, and the sauce complimented it well. Who doesn't love the lamb stacked on top of a giant piece of Pasha’s amazing artisan bread, she exclaimed.  

Once again, we finished the meal with the Creme Brulee Cheesecake. We felt no need to trade in this dessert choice yet. Service was excellent. The first time, we sat inside in the back room which has fun leather chairs and is very lounge-like. The most recent time, we sat outside next to the roaring of the train, but the weather was so nice, we could not resist. Adam was our server on both occasions. He has a great sense of humor and our food came quickly both visits. He also told us Pasha had extended the Groupon by a week, but I’m not sure how people would know that. I wondered if Groupon sent an alert to those who had not yet used the deal. In any event, that was a nice gesture by Pasha. Hopefully, it saved a few who had let the expiration date pass.  

Pasha is back on my good list and I look forward to a brunch there in the fall.  


Pasha Mezze
340 West 22nd Street 
Norfolk, VA 23517 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A.W. Shucks - Norfolk, VA

A.W. Shucks Exterior
AW Shucks, or Shucks as locals say, is one of the favorite Ghent spots for good, no-fuss food. They are known for their fish and chips, meatloaf, oysters and most of all, the sides. In my pre-vegetarian days, I loved a good Shucks burger, the one with the crab cake on top and the steamed shrimp. Today, I favor the Vegan Chicken Po’ Boy, the salads and of course, the sides. My family and I dined at Shucks one Sunday in June and for the first time, I ordered the vegan po’ boy. I was surprised at how good the vegan chicken was - grilling makes a huge difference. My grandmother ordered her favorite, the Oyster Po’ Boy, Nikki tried the Shrimp Po’ Boy and my aunt went for the Bacon Cheeseburger. We all had fries and ordered hush puppies and the famous Shucks mac n’ cheese as supplemental sides for the table. Gotta have the mac. As Laine and I posted recently in one our Friday Top 5’s, Shucks mac n’ cheese is some of the best out there. Dinner was great and we only passed on dessert because we had a birthday cake from Sugar Plum at home. Our server, a nice young gent, was funny and put up with our dark humor, which was rampant this evening.

Laine and I, along with our good lunch friend, headed over to Shucks one recent Tuesday. Know the vegan chicken was an option, I decided to try the Spinach Salad and add that to it. Seemed like a good idea at the time. While, the salad was hearty and pretty good, with blue cheese, hard boiled egg, tomatoes and fried leeks, the up-charge for the vegan chicken add was $5.95. What? I even left the bacon off the salad. I think $3-4 would have been fair, but almost $6. This is Norfolk and Shucks is good but not a fine dining establishment where you expect to be overcharged for things. I liked my meal, but I’ll be hard pressed to order that again when I can order a half of the Vegan Chicken Po’ Boy for $6.95 and that includes a side. $6.95 versus $13.95 for less food...not really a teeth pulling decision.
A.W. Shucks dish: Spinach Salad

Last weekend, I met my great friends, Sally and Markus, at Shucks before I headed out for the evening. They ordered the cheese and cracker appetizer and were very pleased with it - this is the first I have ever heard of anyone ordering this. Sally said the Surry ham on the platter was excellent. Before I got there, I knew I wanted the Fried Green Tomatoes (FGT). I thought I had had these in the past, but I must have been mistaken. The quality was great, but for $9.95, three small slices of tomato, a little bit of goat cheese and some capers and diced red onions does not cut it. $6 seems much more rational. Luckily, I had also ordered the mac and the tomato and mozzarella sides. Another apparently nonexistent memory was me ordering the tomato and mozzarella. I really thought it was fresh mozzarella and cherry or grape tomatoes. Not the case. Three large, pink, as in bad, tomato slices that were hard as a rock and tasteless. I try not to do this often, but I had to send them back. The green tomatoes were small and tasty, the other tomatoes were huge and flavorless, go figure. Our server was very accommodating and brought me the green beans instead - those I knew would be good. Two mistaken memories equals two less than stellar choices. Maybe I was out in the sun too long that day.

Sally ordered the Scallop Platter and chose green beans and mac as her sides. She was very happy with her meal, as was Markus, who had the jambalaya, a side of mac and a pint of O’Connor’s brewski. Note, it’s all about the mac and it is common for everyone at a table to order it. No sharing here. On the flip side, we split the hush puppies, which, while these are listed as a side, they are more like an appetizer in size with a wonderful honey butter.

Onto the finale, dessert. Shucks has great selections and are typically around $5. They seem to always have a homemade bread pudding, cheesecake and another one or two treats. A time or two before I tried the Krispy Kreme bread pudding - yes, it exists and yes, is more fantastic than you can imagine - and the ‘everything’ cheesecake which has brownie, nuts, cookie dough and who knows what else. Also delicious. When I dined with Sally and Markus, the bread pudding du jour was of the white chocolate variety. This is one of Shucks’ standard flavors and is great every time I order it. My only complaint is the last two times, I had to ask the server to reheat the bread pudding. Either they are not nuking it enough or it is sitting in the kitchen after it is heated because I’m almost positive they are throwing it in the microwave before serving. While it is homemade, this is not ‘fresh out of the oven’. Even I, a constant microwave user, know the oven/stove always does a better job with reheating. It is just not the same.

Service at Shucks is always great and the atmosphere is fun and relaxed. I look forward to going again soon, but no vegan chicken add-on and I will skip the over-priced FGT. Too bad, FGT’s are one of my favorite things.

A.W. Shucks interior
I had not been in Shucks for a couple of years, the last time we reviewed it actually. Shucks has a laid back atmosphere with a hint of bar thrown in, which suits me just fine most days. Our buddy *Brianna loves Shucks,so when we threw it in the ring as a lunch option, she jumped. Shuck’s could probably win the “Best Hidden Restaurant in Norfolk” award. If you don’t know where it is, or are not with someone who does, I doubt you would find it. There were a few people ahead of us in line when we arrived, and tables were full. We were presented with the option of waiting 10 minutes or eating outside. Are you kidding me? It’s 100 degrees out there! Their patio was completely empty. We waited, and sure enough, we were seated inside in 10. Nice!

I am a real sucker for chef’s specials and their crab and shrimp wrap caught my eye. I know Alex is always going on about Mac n Cheese, fries and similar high calorie / carb sides, but I try to limit my intake on these. Instead, I selected a garden salad. Most times garden salads are such a terrible letdown. You look at it and you know someone opened a bag of prepared lettuce, threw on two cucumber slices, two grape tomatoes and called it done. Their salad isn’t too far removed from this scenario, with the exception of some pretty tasty croutons. I don’t like croutons usually, but I enjoyed these. *Brianna ordered the Shrimp Po’ Boy.

A.W. Shucks dish: Garden Salad

A.W. Shucks dish: Crab and Shrimp Wrap

A.W. Shucks dish: Shrimp Po' Boy

Our orders came out quickly. My wrap was very tasty. There was a good quantity of crab meat, and a light touch on the sauce. The shrimp were a bit disappointing. I was expecting some nice sized chunks from large shrimp. Instead I encountered tiny little shrimp, the size of your thumbnail. What a waste to pair real blue crab with those sorry little shrimp. A Po’ Boy at Shucks is a sight to behold. They are enormous, covering the entire plate. Holding one as you might a “regular” sandwich is a challenge. Biting into it,impossible. But they are delicious, and you will never be disappointed if you order one.

Checks came and went expeditiously, and a good time was had by all. Yes, even Alex and her $6 vegan chicken had a good time.

A.W. Shucks
2200 Colonial Avenue
Norfolk, VA 23517-1915
(757) 664-9117
Open Daily 11am-1:30am
A.W. Shucks Raw Bar and Grill on Urbanspoon