Sunday, March 30, 2014

Holy El Camino! Watch the Peppers!

Friday for lunch I decided to check out one of Ottawa's up and coming restaurants with an interesting twist, a take out lunch window.

El Camino (380 Elgin Street, Ottawa) has two dining options.  Weekdays for lunch a take out window serving up freshly made tacos, and churros only.  Dinner, the restaurant opens with a wider variety of whatever gourmet foods the chef has concocted.

I arrived shortly after 12 Noon to see what everyone in Ottawa has been raving out, the tacos of El Camino.  There was already decent lunch time crowd who had already ordered and was awaiting their meal to emanate from the window.

I gradually moved forward in line and ordered.

The Order: 1 Beef Taco

Yes, I ordered only 1 taco.  I was basically looking for simple taco and drink for lunch.  No problem on ordering the taco but $3.50 for a old school bottle of Coke? I think I pass on that.

I waited about 5 minutes after ordering to be served.  At least at the window you can peer through to watch the team of 5 employees scurrying about preparing the tacos and other foods by hand.

After receiving the order from the window I was left perplexed.  Obviously the window was mainly to serve the local downtown office clientele.  There are no seats available out on the outside and the regular restaurant seating is locked up and off limits like Fort Knox. What to do?   I did need something to accompany the taco as well as wash it down.  So a walk northward on Elgin Street was in order to Wendy's for fries and Coke.

As I ventured northward, I unwrapped my taco from the cardboard covered container wrapped in aluminum foil to uncover a soft shelled taco with hot peppers accompanied by shredded roast beef and other green vegetable toppings.

The taco was pretty tasty with the just right proportion of fresh ingredients.  As well, the taco was a little on the juicy side from I guess the slightly stewed beef shreddings which also helped out bring out the spicyness of the hot peppers.

The spicyness would also prove to be my own downfall.  My eyes started watering and no drink in sight to grab as I had yet to get to Wendy's, but that was not the fault of El Camino at all.

Overall, El Camino serves a fresh quality made taco which is worth the $4.  A little seating and perhaps some more affordable cans of pop would make the lunch window a little more comfortable for customers.  Sure there was a decent wait for the taco, but it is worth it as the tacos are freshly made to order with ingredients on site. Next time I'll be sure to ask them to "watch the peppers".

Tim Hortons: At the Centre of it All on Blair

Midweek, I found myself out in Gloucester for business. Gloucester, a suburb of Ottawa, has that small suburb feel with a decent sized "city centre" mall type of place at it's centre.  

Gloucester Centre is a tired looking mall with lots of potential. At the major intersection of Ogilvie & Blair Roads, it has a Loblaws, Wal-Mart and a newly opened Rexall and Pet Valu.  Along with local shopping centre staples like Bulk Barn, CIBC and mall favourites like a food court.  But there is still several empty store spaces and a general all round lack of customers.  With the opening of the new stores and the replacement of the old Zellers store with a new Wal-Mart, things might be looking up in terms of customer traffic.  Add to this, the major Blair OC Transpo Station, that provides lots of pedestrian traffic right to it's door step.

Today I was passing through for business and needed 45 minutes to waste and a small snack.  I headed through the mall and out to the parking lot to visit the newish looking Tim Hortons (1150 Blair Road).  Previously, the only new look Tim Hortons that I have been able to experience was on a recent trip to Brockville.

I visited at 12:15 P.M. to find the place bustling. A decent line up with two cash registers open with two employees at each cash taking money, making coffee and generally keeping the line moving.

I moved to the front of the line and ordered.

The Order: 1 Medium black coffee and a Fruit Explosion Muffin.

After paying and receiving my order I encountered my only gripe about this place.  Seating.  

Seating is limited to a few large tables on one side and a select small tables along the other.  Sad really, this place is bustling, provides free Wifi and yet doesn't seem to want people to linger and possibly get a refill by offering adequate seating.  There is obvious options though if you wish to eat in the area, the Gloucester Centre Food Court usually has adequate seating.  I lucked out though and dove on one of the larger tables that was clean, yet available.

The Fruit Explosion Muffin is exactly as you would find at any Tim Hortons.  A nice tasting muffin with a little shot of fruity jam in the middle.  The only complaint is that Tim Hortons muffin tops overall have seemed to shrunk over the past year or so.  Is this so Tim Hortons can use less dough?  Not sure, but this is hardly Tim Hortons Gloucester Centre's issue, but a corporate one.

The coffee was made to Tim Hortons specifications.  Decent tasting coffee with found at, hopefully, every location.  Nothing to complain or rave about here.

Overall, this Tim Hortons location is a decent spot to come in, grab a coffee and get going.  With limited seating there is not a lot of space for those wishing to sit to take advantage of.  A bustling place with decent moving line is what Tim Hortons strives for it.  Even at the centre of it all on Blair, this Tim Hortons comes through.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Overpriced Salad Plates at Talay Thai

On Friday for dinner my wife and I headed over to Talay Thai (511 Bank Street, Ottawa).  In the previous couple of weeks, I had walked by this restaurant a couple of times on my way to Starbucks and Tim Hortons for coffee.  I took a look on Talay Thai's Urbanspoon listing to see if it was a restaurant worth visiting.  With over 322 votes and 90+ percent rating, I figured it was a safe bet.

Things looked promising after arriving at 5:15 P.M. to find a bright, warm, modern and clean looking restaurant.  We were welcomed by a smiling Thai waitress wearing traditional Asian garbe.

We were given a choice of sitting in the front sunny window overlooking Bank Street or further in if we didn't want a tan from the sun. We chose the latter as the restaurant itself was pretty nice looking with bright orange walls and a modern looking bar with intricate tile.

We reviewed the menus and the daily specials to decide on what we would like to eat.  One daily special of Chicken with cashew nuts and pineapple.  Seemed interesting until we inquired with the waitress if it came with rice.  No, it doesn't you would have to add it separately we were told.  Really?  Since when does an Asian restaurant not provide rice with a dish that normally comes with rice?

I had half thought about getting one of Chicken Curry from menu but decided against it realizing none of these dishes included the word "rice" in the description.  Better order something else...

The Order: 1 Pad Kee Maow (Spicy noodles chicken with egg, chili & thai herbs) and 1 Pad Thai (Stir fried noodles with shrimp, egg, bean sprouts & peanuts).

The food came within 10 minutes of ordering.

Sure both plates looked attractive optically, but quantity wise I did a double take. Both meals were on flat plates the size a normal restaurant would serve salad on instead of a dinner plate with a bit of a curved bottom to it.

My dish, the Pad Kee Maow, was listed as "spicy" on the menu.  It lived up to it with a bit of a spicy kick as you worked your way through it.  A little bit of water though was easy enough to ensure the spiciness doesn't become too overwhelming.  Mixed into the noodles were one piece of broccoli and two pea pods, so much for quantity.  Sure there was plenty of spicy sauce and noodles to taste, but quantity wise it seemed lacking as I cleaned off the salad sized plate in no time. Not worth the $12.95 plus taxes.

The Pad Thai was also lacking in the quantity department as it was served on the same style flat salad plates.  There were three pieces of shrimp and a few vegetables mixed in as well for good measure.  Sure the shrimp tasted excellent but again, the plate was lacking especially at $12.50 plus taxes.

Service at Talay Thai is outstanding.  I lost count how many times our water glasses were refilled.  As well, the time between ordering and receiving food was an impressive less than 10 minutes. All service was done with a bright smile and easy going manner.

Overall, Talay Thai may have the nice modern interior with excellent prompt service.  Quantity of food for price paid though is a problem.  For the same amount of money, the same service and decent atmosphere can be found at Thai Garden in Downtown Ottawa.  There is potential for a good Thai meal if they dish the salad plates and serve real quantity of food that is both tasty and filling.

Good Gas Station Coffee? Say it Ain't So!

This past week I found myself on Bank Street for a number of meetings.  In the mornings I stopped by Tim Hortons (450 Bank Street, Ottawa) interestingly enough within a busy downtown Esso station.   Sure Tim Hortons has lots of counters within Esso stations across southern Ontario, but this Tim Hortons on Bank Street at Gladstone is unique in the mornings.

With an OC Transpo bus stop out front with route 7 heading to Carleton University many students use the Tim Hortons for a dose of morning java before boarding the bus to school. Thus, this coffee counter can be busy in the mornings with not only students but also motorists looking to fill up, grab a coffee and head to work downtown.

I visited this Tim Hortons location numerous times Monday through Thursday shortly after 8 A.M. each morning.  Each visit their is a line up of about five customers at the coffee counter and none at the gas station attendent's counter.  In fact, the gas station attendent looks like the famed Maytag repaireman waiting for customers to pay for their gas while the 3 Tim Hortons employees are hopping.

I usually wait patiently in the moderately paced line until I get to the counter.  There I give my order to the cashier....

The Order: 1 Medium Black coffee. and move along in orderly fashion behind the customer in front of me to pick up my drink.

Thursday morning was quite interesting.  During the week the cashier would take the order, your cash and then you would move along.  Your cup would be poured and, if needed, cream and sugar added either by that same employee or the next one who would put lids on your order and provide a tray if needed.

Thursday after putting in my order and handing over my cash, the line came to a standstill. They were out of fresh brewed coffee.  The line had moved so fast the single coffee machine couldn't brew the coffee fast enough.  A short two minute wait ensued stopping this efficient production line in its tracks.  I smiled at the nice problem Tim Hortons was having.

The coffee each day was a nice hot and freshly brewed black coffee poured by employees who seemed to care that you received a fresh cup in a timely as manner as humanly possible.

Overall, this Tim Hortons is the total opposite of traditional gas station coffee.  Fast, friendly service accompanied with fresh brewed coffee.  They do well here for the set up they have but perhaps a full Tim Hortons restaurant could be constructed either here or nearby.  Sales would definitely go up on a per customer basis for sure. Good gas station coffee? It is so!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Just Wait for the Calculator at A&W Gloucester Centre

My wife and I on Saturday found ourselves at Gloucester Centre Mall with A&W coupons in hand.  We had planned to visit the A&W in the mall's food court (1980 Ogilvie Road, Ottawa) before heading over to Canadian Tire for more shopping.

We arrived at 11 A.M. wondering if A&W would even be contemplating serving lunch as some other fast food outlets sometimes serve until 11:30 A.M.   There was already a line of three customers waiting to order ahead of us plus two other customers waiting for food to arrive.  One customer was just waiting for some hash browns to be served up.  Behind the counter was a frazzled single server taking orders and dishing out food from trays arriving from the kitchen.   The lady behind the counter seemed organized working through each order by taking cash, checking to see if the previous order had come down yet, serving and getting the next order.  Credit to her for keeping her composure. But it did seem the customer volume could of at least warranted the attention of an additional body behind the counter.

At least lunch was being served as customers ahead of us ordered burgers without any complaint from the A&W staffer.

It took at least 5 minutes to get through the line and to the counter and present the coupon.  We ordered.

The Order: 2 Teen Burger Combos with fries.  1 combo with Sprite and 1 with Coke.

The next part stunned me.  The lady entered in the order into the cash register which rang up to $18.00 and change.  Next she took out a calculator, figured out the coupon value, added taxes and then figured out the difference between the amount in the register and the coupon value plus taxes.   Took that number and discounted it off the register total and gave us the total.

Not sure why this technological wizardry was required considering we have used the same coupons at the Rideau Centre A&W without any issue or calculator shenanigans.

Next came the wait.  The next order was taken and politely waited.  Our order came up even before the the previous customers which we found odd.  The previous order was only a Teen Burger combo with blue cheese.  But somehow the blue cheese Teen seems to take longer to prepare than a regular teen.  Go figure.

We found a seat in the nearly empty food court and dug into our food.

The Teen burger sandwiches appeared mediocre.  Sure all the toppings were there but it appeared they were just stacked cause corporate said certain amounts of toppings had to be on there.  Taste wise it matched the mediocrity that it was put together, nothing great, nothing bad.

The fries were the same improved fries found chain wide in the "Allen & Wright" gourmet marketed paper wrapping.  Sure the fries were delicious and fine with a little fast food takeout style tomato ketchup. but at least accompany it with a decent burger.  The fries now seem out of the league of A&W fast food style food and more in line with a higher value burger place.

Overall, this A&W needs a little assistance.  1 employee behind the counter serving a steady stream of customers with the lunch rush building seems a little off.  Couple that with my later observations, after 1 P.M. of two counter employees standing behind the counter with no customers in line watching the world go by.  Sure it may come down to tweaking the schedule, but I believe if management did this it would serve the customers better.  Next, management needs to investigate the burgers being topped.  How is it that Rideau Centre A&W makes a better tasting burger than Gloucester Centre or even St. Laurent Centre?  Even better is these tweaks may not even need a calculator, unlike a coupon.

Bank on Feeling Like a Star at Starbucks

Was downtown a number of times this week for course work I'm currently undertaking.  A coffee is usually in order before arriving for the course.  Starbucks (445 Bank Street, Ottawa) has been pretty decent the four or five times I have been there.

I usually arrive to this newish looking ground floor coffee shop of an condominium building.  Upon entering there is an average modern looking Starbucks with 4 leather seating on the left, a long table on the right and additional bar style seating in the window for customers to sip their favorite cup of Starbuck's goodness while watching the passing pedestrians.   Directly in front of you upon entering is the counter.

The fun part, once inside during the cold months, is your glasses fog up pretty well making it hard to see.  The first occasion I walked in, took off my newly frosted glasses and tried to order.  It was pretty comical knowing what kind of coffee I wanted but couldn't remember the Starbucks lingo for size.  But before leaving after the first visit I double checked with my clean glasses I wanted a "Tall".  So for the next couple of times I was now ready.

On Tuesday, I walked in, had the old glasses fog up worse than a London fog, took them off and ordered with the smiling gentleman ready to take my order and lady waiting to make it.

The Order: 1 Tall Blonde Roast Coffee.

In flash, my money was taken and my coffee was ready.  The only guilt trip I had was ordering "1 Tall Blonde".  Who at the corporate Starbucks marketing department came up with the size and style of coffee idea?  But, lets remember the local stores do not have any control over this and only provide the smiling people behind the counter along with the preparing the corporately approved coffees and other munchies.

The Blonde coffee all week was exactly the same taste.  Nothing out of sort in terms of texture, but nothing overboard in terms of too strong of coffee.  A nice brew each time in and time out.  

Overall, this location provides fast and a friendly service with a smile.  I have been lucky all week not to encounter a long line up but have witnessed about five customers walk in within minutes.  Each customer is quickly and efficiently serviced before the next customer is attended to.  Wait times are minimal and the employees always maintain the upbeat friendly attitude. The main theme of this Starbucks location is you can bank on feeling like  a star at this Starbucks.  That is unless you are wearing glasses, then you will be a star for sure, just in a fog.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Catch 55? More like an Odd Catch 22!

Thought about checking out a restaurant for lunch I had walked by a couple of times in the Byward Market Square Building wondering if it would be any good.

Many of the restaurants in this building tend to be busy during lunch hours and on weekend during the spring and summer.  After visiting Corazon De Maize last week, I noticed that Catch 55 (55 Byward Market Square, Ottawa) had a few customers for lunch but still had a decent amount of seating space available.

I arrived at 12:30 P.M. with one customer in front of me debating what to have.  I joined her in reviewing the menu as the three employees behind the counter worked away.

In reviewing the menu listed on three flatscreen televisions mounted above the counter, I noticed there was no mention of the fish. The only thing on there was burgers, fries and poutine.  But where's the fish?  Seems as though Catch 55 is caught in a Catch 22.  You base your entire restaurant name around the idea of a "Fish Catch" but don't list fish on your menu?  There is also a noticeable lack of a good fish and chips place in the Byward Market and your business appears to fill this void but yet you don't list fish on your menu?  Many customers inquire if you still serve fish and your employees answer you still do?  There was still room on the menu layout on your television screens but nobody thought to change the Powerpoint presentation or whatever display Catch 55 uses for the menu.  Really odd.

I eventually ordered with the nice lady behind the counter.

The Order: 1 Hamburger with fries and a can of Diet Coke.

The other odd thing, all of the beverages are in the 500 ml bottles and nothing in cans except for Diet Coke.  I didn't want anything larger than a can so Diet Coke was my only option when ordering.  Odd, but I guess they think customers prefer the larger size.

The burger, fries and can of Diet Coke came to a total of $10.85 including taxes.  Really? A burger at a fast food place for $10.85? This had better be some burger and a decent amount of fries like at Five Guys Burger & Fries.

Orders were gradually moving through the cooking process.  Two customers after me the restaurant started handing out numbers to customers for their orders.  I continued to stand at the counter as the two guys in the open concept kitchen dished up their fries and burgers.   The front counter employee, who took my order, ran orders out to the tables to waiting customers.

The two gentlemen looked at me after a while standing at the front counter and inquired of my order.  Really? You have no clue?  Didn't you keep the orders in order as they came in and dish them out in sequence as they came in?  I did appreciate they were asking to make sure I had not fallen through the cracks.

They dished up my burger and fries and I was almost ready to go.  But where was the ketchup and other toppings beyond tomato, onion and lettuce for my burger.  I looked underneath the burger patty to see if they had hid the condiments there.  Nothing.

I asked the lady at the front counter who pointed me towards the baskets on the counter with ketchup, mustard, relish, salt and pepper packets.  They had one ketchup packet left but the other condiments had more available.  I took two of each and went looking for a table.

To my surprise, on most of the tables there was a small set up of ketchup and mustard in squeeze bottles and a selection of other condiments.  I guess the packets at the front counter were for take out customers.  Thus, I'm left wondering, after asking for condiments, why I was not guided to both the packets but also noted that there were ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles on the table.  Odd.

The burger and fries portion wise looked a little disappointing for the price paid.  The quantity of fries at Catch 55 could be found in a McDonald's Medium and the burger a regular nothing over the top size in terms of width or thickness.

Taste wise the burger was lacking.  The paddy did not taste fresh and was dry as it probably was overcooked.  The toppings were average quality that could have been found anywhere.  The toppings perhaps could be fresher in the summer considering the farmers' market is right at Catch 55's doorstep.  Average burger to say the least.

The fries were similar to those served up by Le Bac a Frites at the University of Ottawa.  But they were, just like the burger, overcooked and dry.  Quantity wise it was fine for the average burger.  But for the price paid, there should have been at least another scoop in quantity.

Overall, Catch 55 needs work on displaying their menu properly.  Customers typically will not order things not on the menu which should be obvious to anyone in the food business.  Disorganization at the front in taking and processing orders to the kitchen may be an issue.  Use the numbering system to work through them from 1 to 100.   This numbering system works at the larger Five Guys Burgers & Fries at Trainyards so why not implement this best practice here?  The quantity to amount paid for is also out of whack.  It might be because Catch 55 is within the Ottawa tourist trap of the Byward Market.  But for a Fish & Chip place surrounded by a lot of private and government offices, there should be an interest in receiving the reoccurring business lunch traffic.  These issues leave me thinking Catch 55 is in an odd Catch 22 situation of being situated right but inflicting many issues on themselves.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Strong Coffee at the Equator

Enjoyed a nice coffee that originated from Equator Coffee Roasters (451 Ottawa Street, Almonte) on Tuesday.

The coffee was served in a compostable cup about the size of a Tim Hortons Medium at a business series I'm currently working with from a business about to launch in Stittsville.

I always try to take a coffee that I'm trying for the first time "black". This is in order to get the full taste of the overall coffee without any milk, cream or sugar additives interrupting the true taste.  After that one can add these to taste as they see fit.  Lucky for me, I prefer to have my coffee black anyway if it is any good.

Taste wise the coffee was solid, just like a medium blend from Brideghead.  A strong flavour but not overpowering like a Dark Roast from Second Cup can be.  Interestingly the Equator coffee was supposedly a "Dark Roast" as well.  But, to their credit, it didn't taste like eating coffee grounds while drinking it.

Overall, Equator Coffee Roasters has a bright future ahead based on their product.  Fresh quality tasting coffee is Equator's focus.  If they maintain this focus on providing fresh locally roasted coffee combined with the customer's ability to obtain this product will be set this company up for great success.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Quality Mexican Food at a Price

I had heard some buzz about the excellent quality Mexican food at Corazon De Maiz (55 Byward Market Square, Ottawa).  There was even an a CTV Morning Live segment at this restaurant a year ago showing how they prepare the food.

I arrived shortly after 12 noon to the storefront located in the Byward Market Square building to find a small line up of about 4 customers with three employees serving including the two featured in the CTV Morning Live video.  The line moved consistently forward with two employees building the customers meal by hand using fresh ingredients and one last employee ringing up the orders at the cash register.

A quick look beyond the cash register, there are only three or four tables plus a bar area to eat.  Thus, before saying "for here" make sure there is space for you and your friends in the seating area.  Space is tight, but it is also in the Byward Market Building's other restaurants as well.  To the credit of this business they always try to keep the tables clean and moving so customers can have a seat.

The food? Well let's get to that as I advanced in line I was pleasantly greeted and inquired of what I like to order.

The Order: 1 12" (Large) Beef Burrito.

While moving through the different toppings to fill my Burrito I was inquired with as to different options.  I had originally said "everything on it" to try and get the full experience of Corazon De Maize. But I'm glad the server inquired as to if I would like rice (of course) and that he normally skips the hot sauce as it is available to the customer behind you when standing in line to put on a whatever you like.

I chose a "to go" option as the front seating area was full and elbow room was at a premium.  Plus, I also had a free coffee from Tim Hortons Roll Up The Rim Contest burning a hole in my pocket.  So I departed for the Rideau Centre Food Court to grab my coffee and eat there.

The Beef Burrito was excellent!  Neatly wrapped but bulging with fresh and, still warm, roast beef and freshly chopped lettuce, tomatoes and everything else.  The burrito was lovingly prepared and put together by two employees (brother & sister?) who obviously care what they serve.

Overall Corazon De Maize provides freshly prepared in house foods with a Mexican flavour.  Original Mexican recipes are used to prepare authentic dishes like Nachos, Burritos and others.  The price for the Burrito was $8.00 plus tax which may be a little expensive for some.  But it is well worth trying Corazon De Maize at least once for lunch to enjoy real authentic Mexican cooking.

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