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Reviewer of Dining Establishments (PRODE), you must every two years pass a rigorous and continually updated examination. I didn't pass until my third attempt because, frankly, it's tough.
The adjective section alone is monstrous. Consider this fill-in-the-blank question that still haunts me:
"We enjoyed a _________chowder that was served _______ hot."
I wrote "tasty" and "swelteringly," and both were wrong. The correct answers would have read: "We enjoyed a hearty chowder that was served piping hot."
All that's out the window now, thanks to Guy Fieri and the snappy lingo he throws out on his "Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives" program - all of which has been incorporated by PRODEs the world over. No longer is a steak grilled to perfection. A steak is "out of bounds," "off the hook," "money" or "taking a trip to Flavor Town."
If Guy says it, it's good enough for me! What follows are three recent trips to Flavor Town I've taken that were respectively off the hook, out of bounds, and money.
The Black Eye Pea,
This is a tiny, work-in-progress soul/comfort food spot hard to a coin laundry, and the co-mingling scents coming from the restaurant's kitchen and the warm, tossed-drying clothes next door are heavenly reminiscent of home.
The menu includes Southern staples like pork chops, fried chicken, dirty rice, gumbo and a rotating list of sides such as mac 'n' cheese, greens, and cabbage.
The fish sandwich ($6.50) is just one of the Pea masterpieces. It's deceptively simple, as a Dixie fish sandwich should be. You've got a massive, butterflied slab of white fish, coated with cornmeal - none of that beer batter-y coating associated with New England-style fish 'n' chips. You flash fry the fish and plop it on an undersized, plain hamburger bun.
The fish spreads out in all directions and makes the bun look like a small derby on a fat man's head - but that's okay. The bun serves as an anchor to hold the construct together. Grip it by the bun and nibble around the edges and enjoy the crisped, grainy exterior working hand in hand with the hot, moist fish. When you do get a bite of bread, it's a subtle but fun contrast.
You won't find a better fish sandwich in the area. Period.
Barking Dogs atop Parmesan Fries, Plan B Burger Bar, Glastonbury
Glastonbury is the sort of town where, on the occasions I might be there for one reason or another, business owners direct me to the back door, assuming I'm delivering something.
Nonetheless, I was recently seated at Plan B, a really pleasant fern/sports bar-type restaurant in a classy shopping cluster on the Hebron Avenue strip. Plan B is renowned for its designer burgers - and, indeed, those being ravenously consumed by nearby diners looked terrific.
Still, from the appetizer selections, I tried Barking Dogs ($8.59), which are three Sabbretts all-beef mini chili-cheese dogs nestled atop a clump of fries. The immediate adjustment to the plan was to upgrade to Parmesan fries (additional $2) - and it worked out beautifully.
The dogs were of terrific quality, with a distinct peppery tang and a pop when you bit into them. Artfully balanced atop the buns was a generous dollop of beef-clustered chili. Tangy melted cheddar providing a third flavor burst and simultaneously serving as an adhesive to keep the chili from drooling over.
Using a fork and knife was a superior strategy, because you can spear one of the tart Parmesan fries along with a bite of the heaping dog - and it all worked together like Queen's harmonies on "Ogre Battle."
Sliced Steak Sandwich,
On the recommendation of my pal and colleague Pete Huoppi, I wandered over to the Commoner for this rather astonishing creation. Most steak sammiches in the area are of the Philly variety - and there are no complaints here in the Philly department.
At the Commoner, though, their Sliced Steak Sandwich ($8.50) is a labor of greatness. They slice thick coins of lean, marinated tenderloin and stack them on a fresh bun. Added in properly configured portions are delicately fried onions, a rich horseradish mayo with just a hint of kick, earthy leaves of designer lettuce, and a thick gauze of melted provolone.
It's a nuanced, multi-faceted presentation with all the components working together - but the delicious beef itself is, as it should be, the instantly identifiable star of the show.
Accompanying, house-crafted potato chips weren't evenly fried, and therefore couldn't provide the anticipated crunchy counterpoint, but the sandwich itself was masterful and demands encores.
Black Eye Pea
79 Truman St., New London
Barking Dogs and Parmesan Fries
Plan B Burger Bar
120 Hebron Ave., Glastonbury
(860) 430-9737, planbburgerbar.com
Sliced Steak Sandwich
36 Bank St., New London
(860) 877-0484, thecommonernl.com
To attain and sustain certification as a Professional