Category Archives: Restaurant Reviews

Five Guys

Yesterday, after visiting Nashua airport to see some warbirds and Cessnas, my friend Jeff and I went to Five Guys to procure some hamburgers and fries. I had never been to a Five Guys before, so I figured it would be a nice opportunity to rate them.

When you walk in, you’ll notice that there’s crates of peanuts, peanut oil, potatoes, etc. all over the restaurant. Part of their chic, I bet. Still, this meant you could have some free peanuts by scooping some out of a nearby box into a provided container. A nice little snack while you’re waiting for your burger and fries.

I ordered a “little” bacon cheeseburger, which is Five Guys parlance for a single quarter pound beef patty. You can put a bunch of toppings on for no extra charge. I chose some pickles, lettuce, onions and barbecue sauce. Jeff ordered a large fries for us to share, since the large fries come in a big paper cup. Perfect for sharing. The regular sized drink is perfectly fine, and since there’s free refills, why would you ever pay for the bigger drink?

Service was fairly expedient. Burgers come served in a brown bag, wrapped in foil. The “little” burger was perfectly fine for me in terms of size since there was plenty of lettuce, pickles and onions on it. The beef is a little on the skinny side, but was flavorful and tender. A Wild Willy’s burger is probably about the same size as their regular burger, which is really two of those quarter pound beef patties on top of each other. The pickles were cut dill slices, which were fine. Overall the toppings were fresh and not much to quibble about at all.

The fries were excellent. Crispy crunchy outside with soft potato inside, but without that breaded fry taste. They felt like steak fries, except in a normal fry cut. There was certainly plenty for three people (Jeff, myself, and his roommate) to share. A normal person should get a small fries. There are also cajun fries, but Jeff said they were simply the regular fries with some cajun spice mix, so I’m not sure how different they would wind up being to the normal ones.

Overall, Five Guys is pretty good. I wouldn’t rank it above Wild Willy’s, but in terms of national burger joints, it’s pretty damn high up there and would be the first on my list to go to.

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Royal’s Roast Beef

In East Boston, across from Constitution Beach, lives a small restaurant. Has about three tables and a large aerial photograph of Logan airport from the 60s hanging on the wall. This small eatery is probably the best competition that Kelly’s Roast Beef has in the area. It’s Royal Roast Beef and Seafood, one of my favorite places to stop for a pre- or post-spotting sandwich.

Royal is decidedly a hole in the wall, but their interior decor got a bit of an upgrade over the past year. Fresh paint, fixed tables, and a new big screen for sports events livens it up a bit. The aerial photo has been taken down (and is reportedly in the back room when I asked about it) due to the painting process. I hope it returns soon. It’s not a haute restaurant, but it is certainly better than Waltham’s own Mimi’s roast beef in terms of seating and decor. Though you’re probably likelier to take out from here, the seating is generous enough that you’ll usually get a place to sit. This renovation was much needed, and it gave the restaurant a facelift it desperately needed.

The first thing you see when walking in is a gigantic menu box with options you’ll find at your average combo roast beef/seafood place. I usually order the regular roast beef, which is a generous helping of roast beef on a sesame roll. You can put whatever toppings on it you want. Royal’s beef is hot but not overcooked, served on a buttery toasted roll. Onion rolls will cost you more, but are tasty as well. Most people will be plenty satisfied with a regular roast beef, which is a decent sized sandwich. Super beefs are overstuffed, and are probably best split between two people or a part saved for later. There’s also a junior roast beef for the kids or those with less of an appetite. All of them use the same beef and toppings.

Over time I’ve preferred their barbecue sauce over my mainstay of spicy mustard. The mustard was merely average, while the sauce was certainly of higher quality and gave a different flavor to the roast beef. Unfortunately, if you like a french dip, there is no au jus.

The Regular Roast Beef value meal, at $7, is a steal. With a 16 ounce fountain drink and a small basket of fries, it certainly beats Kelly’s, which doesn’t have any kind of combo deal. One inconsistency is that the regular roast beef value meal has a soda but costs less than the “Regular Roast Beef Dinner.” I haven’t been able to really figure out what the difference is between these other than maybe the dinner one coming with the onion roll by default.

If you like seafood, Royal’s has plenty to offer. Though it’s not quite Belle Isle Seafood in terms of selection, your usual favorites like lobster rolls, clams, and haddock are there. A highlight for fish and chips lovers is Royal’s homemade tartar sauce, which is one of the best. Tangy and full of bite. The lobster roll comes with fries, and at $17 is about what you’ll usually pay in the area.

The french fries are good. They’re not hand cut, but rather slightly breaded with a crunchy outside. While they are good, I would prefer a curly fries or spicy fries option at one point. Onion rings are homemade, and rival Kelly’s in terms of the onion’s tastiness and the ring’s batter quality.

One flaw is that the soda machine always seems temperamental. Sometimes, especially with the orange soda fountain, it can spurt and spew. I’ve mentioned this to the staff a few times, but it seems to be the same every time I visit.

Royal’s is a quality roast beef place and is a solid alternative to Kelly’s if you’re not up to going to Revere Beach. The value is better and the food is comparable or better in quality.

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Rein’s Deli

Rein’s was a place I kept meaning to try in West Springfield. It was right by the rotary for route 20 and route 5. The schtick was that it was a Jewish New York deli in a place that wasn’t, well, New York. Well, apparently the one in West Springfield closed recently and the one that’s left is the original in Vernon, CT. Rein’s is a family deli restaurant and the fare is about what you’d expect. Breakfast, sandwiches, and free pickles round out the menu. It’s safe to bring your Jewish friends, but they do have some non-Kosher items on the menu. The decor is not subtle at all, it screams “We’re a stereotypical Jewish New York establishment even though we’re about 100 miles away!” Still, the service was decent.

I had a roast beef sandwich, which was not ordered ‘frasse (meaning overstuffed). There was still plenty of beef, onions, lettuce, and cheese on the sandwich. Their french fries are delicious, as they’re more like crispy steak fries or potato wedges with a good blend of seasoning. The pickle was definitely different, a more cuke-like taste than the modern dill pickle people are used to. Still, it was crunchy and tangy and next time I will have to try the full sours just to see how they compare.

For deli fare, Rein’s seems hard to beat. I did pick up some doodads on the way out, like Wise Deli Chips (who has those anymore?) and some imported candy. You can also pick up deli meat, bagels, and other fare at the takeout counter when you pick up your order. I also wish I knew that they had Dr. Brown’s soda, but that’s a lesson learned for the next time I visit.

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Taqueria el Amigo

Tucked away into a nondescript building on Willow street, Waltham’s Taqueria el Amigo is one of the hidden gems of Mexican food in the area. Taqueria el Amigo has some of the best tacos and other Mexican cuisine in the area. You can sit down at a table, get some tacos, and enjoy a bottle of Mexican soda for a very low price.

The tacos especiales are a good deal, with your choice of meat. No fish tacos here, but there are some more… esoteric options, to say the least. When you walk in, you’ll notice how cramped it is inside. Still, it has a nice ambiance since it is clean and tastefully decorated. You can either order up front or sit down and the very friendly server will attend to you. It’s cash only, so don’t forget to stop at the ATM beforehand.

One big plus is the Mexican soda. Coke and other cans are available, but why not get a bottle of mandarin orange or Mexican cola instead? It helps add to the experience. There’s complimentary chips with I assume to be homemade salsa; they’re both quite delicious when combined together. I would highly recommend using the spoon provided with the salsa since the salsa cup is not big enough for dipping.

The carne asada in the tacos especiales was tasty, as were the fresh cilantro, onions, and avocado. The one qualm might be that the carne asada was a little dry, but that is most likely a luck of the draw thing. We’ll have to see how it holds up the next few times I go. Maybe I’ll try chicken tacos instead. Still, this is a great place if you have a hankering for Mexican and just can’t find the authentic experience elsewhere.

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Restaurant Review: Formosa Taipei

Formosa Taipei, located smack dab at the intersection of Route 2A and Waltham street in Lexington, MA, is a new eatery in the crowded suburbia Chinese scene. It’s a small place, without any real tables. It’s meant primarily as a delivery or take-out restaurant, and it shows. The storefront is small and means business.

My coworker Stephen and I stopped in for lunch on Friday. The inside is certainly nice, but it is small. There’s only four seats (three at a countertop and one at another), so you’ll really want to take out from here. The menu has your standard Chinese flair, but with many authentic Taiwanese influenced dishes as well as the American Chinese. Lunch specials are $6.95 for everything. Most places have charged more for particular specials (such as General Tso’s chicken or ginger beef), but Formosa Taipei has, thankfully, avoided this.

I ordered the ginger beef lunch special, which came with four very large pieces of beef, vegetable fried rice, and a spring roll. You get a choice of noodles, white rice, or fried rice with your lunch special. There’s plenty of food on your plate – I could not finish it all, and had to bring the rest home with me. The beef was excellent, a crunchy experience probably by being cooked in the sesame sauce. It was tough to eat the big pieces with chopsticks, but it was doable. The beef was served with some broccoli on the side, and this broccoli was great. Flavorful taste without being rubbery shows the skill of the steamer, and beats our usual Chinese place. The rice was excellent, with a healthy mixture of vegetables and egg. It was sticky enough to be plenty eatable with chopsticks, but not too sticky and clumpy to indicate over-doneness.

I also sampled some of Stephen’s fried tofu, which had an excellent texture and taste. Though I must admit it’s a bit of an acquired taste, it should be easy to get used to this high quality tofu. He praised the noodle soup he purchased, and it will probably be the next thing I get from them when we visit again.

Speaking of chopsticks, the restaurant uses high quality round chopsticks and not the square break-apart kind. There were no splinters or other roughness. This is the kind of corners most places cut, but Formosa Taipei went the extra mile there. You better get used to the chopsticks, though, because the knives and forks use such soft plastic as to be useless.

Aside from a beverage case wich has a variety of sodas and water, they also have Taiwanese smoothies and bubble tea. We did not try these, but during the summertime we will certianly give them a go. We also did not try any of their desserts, which included rice cake and other tasty things.

According to their owners, they use no canned ingredients or MSG, which gives them a few bonus points. The one real downside to this place is that you can’t count on eating in. That’s not really a flaw, per se – you just need to keep it in mind when you have a hankering for Chinese. In terms of taste and value, Formosa Taipei beats out several of its competitors based on what we tried. Definitely check it out if you like Chinese and especially if you are familiar with Taiwan.

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Hilltop Steakhouse

This is my first attempt at one of the restaurant reviews. Please be gentle. :)

Hilltop Steakhouse is one of Boston’s many institutions. Its giant saguaro cactus sign is an icon of Route 1 and an indicator of a time gone by, when Massachusetts’ state highways had loud signs and bright lights to attract customers from far and wide. There used to be more Hilltops in Massachusetts (notably one in Springfield, MA, which was my first experience with Hilltop many years ago). They’re not known for being just restaurants – they have butcher shops attached. The same steak you eat at the Hilltop could be grilled by yours truly the next day if I so desired.

The restaurant has a schtick, of course – it’s the wild west steak and meat routine that most steakhouses do. Like most places, they manage to make a unique spin on the decor, but you generally won’t be surprised when walking in. Servers are generally good – it’s North Shore sensibility here, so don’t expect girls with low cut shirts. The tables have place mats showing you where each cut of meat comes from on Hilltop’s cows – informative, but sure to displease the vegetarians in your group.

This time my visit was for lunch, so I scoped out the luncheon menu. The daily lunch menu is reasonably priced and I would wager to be a good value. Included with any of your lunch choices are a potato choice, a vegetable choice, rolls and butter, and a non-alcoholic drink (soda, tea, coffee, water, etc). I went with sirloin tips cooked medium rare with steak fries and squash.

Hilltop’s rolls are small in the sense that they fit completely in your hand. Ours came out nice and hot, and tasted like they came right from the oven. They supply actual butter (not “spread,” although I’m sure if you needed something with less cholesterol they would supply it) and it makes for a good opener. Our basket came with six rolls, perhaps a bit too much for a party of two, but the generosity is noted nonetheless.

My steak tips arrived along with a bowl of steak fries and a bowl of maple butternut squash. The tips were grilled with peppers and onions, giving them a nice, deep flavor. The onions and peppers were crisp and not greasy, and combined with the juices of the steak created an excellent natural flavoring. Hilltop is nice enough to actually give you a “medium rare” steak when you ask for one, and it’s a rarity amongst restaurants these days. The amount of tips was enough for a lunch menu, though an additional tip would not have been refused. I also felt the balance went too much on the peppers and onions side – you definitely got plenty of those on the plate. Swapping another tip for less peppers and onions might have balanced the plate out a little more. Still, the actual tastes and flavors of these elements were excellent.

The steak fries are pretty good, with the crunchy outside and flavorful soft inside that you expect. There’s no wacky flavorings; just basic salt and potato flavor. Again, it’s well executed and good for nibbling inbetween bites of peppers and steak.

The standout was the butternut squash. Instead of taking plain old butternut squash and, well, squashing it, the Hilltop has gone with more of an applesauce-like dish. Flavored with maple and cinnamon, the sweet squash flavor combined well with the maple and cinnamon. It was surprising, to say the least, as I usually have squash that doesn’t taste much like that at all. Bonus tips to the chef on that one.

At the end of the day, for about $12 (after taxes and tip), a steak tip lunch at the Hilltop is certainly competitive with the likes of Ninety Nine and others, but with better food quality. Plus, when you’re done with your meal you can head into the butcher shop and pick up that same great meat to cook at home. What’s not to like?

Well, for one, it’s on Route 1. Getting in and out of the Hilltop on that part of route 1 can be an absolute chore. If you’re heading northbound on Route 1, you’ll have to flip around on one of the various roads to do a turnaround. Parking itself is not bad – they have plenty of it – but leaving the parking lot is an absolute pain. Route 1 is very busy both with local and through traffic. Expect to wait a while when you want to leave.

Second, the restaurant is very busy, and you might be waiting a long time in a line before you can take your seat. Fortunately, there are nice wooden benches to sit on while waiting your turn to be seated. Dinnertime can be very busy, so plan accordingly.

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Restaurant Reviews

Something I’ve been pondering lately is something I can write up well in advance and be moderately interesting. Well, I’ve been thinking about doing reviews of various restaurants in my area. Not the big restaurants, mind you, but the dives and holes-in-the-wall that dot the landscape in New England. There’s lots of little places that I enjoy – little roast beef houses, lobster shacks, pubs, pizza houses, barbecue pits… the list goes on. Even though they don’t really need a small time chump like me pontificating about their menu choices, I feel that thinking a little more critically about where I go and what I eat is a worthwhile endeavor.

I’ve already got a few planned so far, which will require a few visits to get a feel for.

Kelly’s Roast Beef, Royal Roast Beef, Mimi’s Roast Beef, Upper Crust Pizza, The Skellig, Watch City Brewing Company, John Brewer’s Tavern, Sichuan’s Garden, Shangri-La, Wild Willy’s, Blue Ribbon BBQ.

Since all of these places are within relatively short distance and I eat from them fairly regularly, it shouldn’t be too hard to get some things written up. Hopefully by next month I can get my first one up for you guys (all three of you) to peruse and critique.

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