Let's meet our competitors. In the blue corner, weighing in at five pounds: a stack of oversized pancakes covered in whipped cream and fruit. In the red corner: you. The match is a single 30-minute round, and if you win, you earn a free meal. Few win. In fact, scores of potential champions have failed the Ugly Rooster Cafe's colossal pancake challenge, including The Daily Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin, but so far none have been knocked out?just blown away by chef Ariel Pagan's fluffy pancakes.
Though nothing else is as colossal as the pancake challenge, the rest of Ugly Rooster's breakfast menu still packs stomachs pretty tight. Aside from omelets and breakfast burritos, the cafe's french toast soaks bread (or cinnamon buns for the more adventurous) in a batter that hints of vanilla and nutmeg. For lunch, the cooks assemble burgers with avocado and bacon or BLTs with fried green tomatoes and garlic mayo sauce. Whether refereeing a pancake challenge or simply greeting customers at their tables, Chef Pagan works side by side with his two children, Chris and Cesare, ensuring that the family-owned restaurant operates as smoothly as a production of Ball Bearings on Ice.
Knife skills are important to any chef, but at Mr. Fuji Sushi & Hibachi, where the snick-snack of sharp blades fills the air, they’re a form of theater as much as cuisine. Standing at newly installed hibachi grills, chefs swiftly slice morsels of steak and seafood, sending them soaring into the air and onto plates via a sophisticated air-traffic control system. Diners settle into padded leather seats in a sleek, tiled room enlivened by rainbow-colored lanterns, Japanese pottery, and tiny, glowing nooks in the wall as they await hot entrees such as teriyaki or specialty sushi rolls—some deep-fried, some wrapped in different papers such as white seaweed or soybean. Continuing the theme of adhering closely to Japanese culinary traditions, the restaurant frequently uses its Facebook page as a primer on dining etiquette and some of the items guests are likely to find on the menu, from pork tonkatsu cutlets to onigiri, sushi’s answer to the dumpling.
The kitchen at Salad Creations is like a symphony hall. Chefs rap their knives against their cutting boards, drawing their orchestra of fresh lettuce, vegetables, and fruits to attention. Staccato chops and legato slices pierce the air as the culinary conductors harmonize these ingredients in salads, wraps, and paninis, each arranged to be a quick, nutritious meal. They transpose any of their classic, signature, and premium combinations into different forms, be they salads or wraps. Otherwise, they welcome diners to improvise their own salad or wrap by picking a lettuce, choosing from nearly 50 toss-ins-avocado, candied pecans, hearts of palm, and wonton strips-then choosing a protein such as turkey or wild Alaskan salmon.
Salad Creation's dressing choices range from classics such as buttermilk ranch to creative blends including blueberry pomegranate and cucumber wasabi. In addition to salads and wraps, the staff also grills up paninis made with multigrain sunflower bread or italian ciabatta bread to create toasty sandwiches perfect for warming palms after being woken up from a cryogenic freeze.
Sun streams in through a wide front window at Al-Baraki, illuminating a decorative hookah and servers placing falafel, marinated meats, and flaky baklava on cloth-covered tables. A menu of simple Lebanese fare makes use of imported spices and local ingredients, infusing each dish with an assertive punch of flavor. Their moulouki, or "royal dinner," treats patrons to a traditional Lebanese meal that begins with a gaggle of appetizers, a meaty main of shawarma and lamb kebab, and goat-cheese pie. Alternatively, vegetarian dinners, such as falafel, can be ordered à la carte and washed down with traditional lemounada, a fresh-squeezed lemonade scented with water droplets handpicked off of rose petals. In Al-Baraki's feature in the Times-Union, correspondent Cheryl Clark describes the aroma of cumin in the air alongside the decorative baubles—from a fez to an inlaid chess case—chosen by Owner and Chef Paul Chedrawee and his wife, Simone.
When Travis Dickey opened the first Dickey's BBQ in Dallas in 1941, he kept his menu small and simple, only cooking up beef brisket, pit hams, and barbecue beans, which he sold alongside potato chips, beer, bottled milk, and sodas. Dickey smoked all of his meat in-house, a practice that put his eatery on the map and one that his sons, Roland and T.D., still rely on today.
The menu has expanded since Travis’s time behind the grill, offering plates and sandwiches that brim with nine kinds of barbecued meats, including spicy cheddar sausages, pork ribs, polish sausage, and Texas-style beef brisket that’s chopped to order. Several types of baked potatoes are piled high with meats and cheeses, which diners can wash down with a gallon of tea or Dickey's signature 32-ounce Big Yellow Cup of soda. Staying true to the same spirit of hospitality, cooks always include a buttery roll, a homestyle side such as jalapeño beans, fried okra, and dill pickles, and free ice cream with every meat plate.
The Giffords have been in the barbecue business since 1995, when a single catering job helped them launch a fleet of food trucks and a brick-and-mortar restaurant they called Giffy’s Bar-B-Q. But before the family ever sold a single wing, they spent years perfecting their barbecue-chicken recipe and its attendant chicken dance. The result is a recipe they still serve today—marinated pieces of chicken slow-cooked in a charcoal pit and slathered in their housemade barbecue sauce. Glazed baby-back ribs and kaiser rolls piled high with pulled pork or smoked brisket round out a menu chock-full of slow-cooked meats and quality ingredients such as Idaho potatoes and locally made desserts.