Depot Italiano Ristorante; Charlotte, MI

When I first moved back to Mid-Michigan (3 years ago, already!), I lived in Charlotte for the first 6 months. My studio apartment was in one of the old downtown buildings, a former Oddfellows lodge. I might still live there except that my upstairs neighbor was the biggest jerk with thrice-weekly late night parties or more and frequent deliveries of pizza and beer, usually with a wrong turn at my door first.

However, the fates aligned and I moved in to the city of Lansing and 6 months later, met this guy. Now, another 18 months later, that guy and I are getting married. So Friday, we drove out to Charlotte to fill out our marriage license application and drove through town after, looking for some lunch. Before you come to central Charlotte, you cross the railroad tracks where the old train depot still stands.

After many years as an ice cream parlor, the depot has been through a number of food-related incarnations. Today and since October 2007, it has been a small Italian restaurant. This was actually the 2nd or 3rd time Chris & I had been by there. The first time, I thought it was still just a coffee shop (which served Pepsi, anyhow) and the 2nd time, they were closed. Today, the sign out front was advertising pizza and Stromboli and they were clearly open.

If you have ever been to Clara’s in Lansing, you know what a large train depot transformed in to a restaurant looks like. Depot Italiano Ristorante is not like Clara’s in that it doesn’t look like a restaurant. It looks like a train depot with tables and chairs instead of the benches you see in the movies; I’m pretty sure the ladies room, accessed via the VIP room, is original. Its certainly not ADA compliant The depot was built in 1902 and serviced passenger trains through the end of the 1950s. Since then, the tracks have almost all been removed however there are still plenty of freight trains rumbling through Charlotte, trust me. There is also a dinner-murder mystery train that is run out of Charlotte.

The memorabilia on the walls of the Depot is all train and travel-related, much of it obviously old and “original.” In the VIP room, where we ate, there is an old sign listing the various coded alarms for fires. If you were in the first ward and there was a fire at the car garage (train cars), there would be one long blast followed by two short. We also noticed a print of an old Howard Johnson’s motel, co-advertised with Esso, AKA ExxonMobil. I want to go back just to look around some more!

The specials of the day included a lunch size portion of lasagna and a burger with potato of the day. The soup was Italian Wedding Soup. Before we even sat down, Chris had decided on the lasagna. I was surprised he didn’t also go for the soup but instead we ordered Spinach-Artichoke dip as an appetizer. I was debating between the dip and Italian Bread with Herb Dip. As it turns out, we got a loaf of the warm Italian bread with our meals so the dip worked out well. We ran out of dip before chips which is always a positive sign. The Spinach-Artichoke dip was a little thinner than some I’ve had, indicating less cheese. I like it this way, especially with bread; I feel the flavor of the vegetables comes through, not just cheese, cheese and more cheese.

I have to admit that for the non-beef eater, there were not a lot of options aside from Stromboli/calzones and pizza, all of which can be made with the ingredients of one’s choice, of course. At dinner, there are usually chicken and fish and pasta specials to choose from as well. Any pizza can be made “plate size” which is a little larger than a personal size pizza from your typical chain. I decided to to order the Margarita: fresh thin-slices of tomato, garlic white sauce and parmesan cheese. Technically, this pizza needs fresh basil and, if it had been on my pizza, I probably would have ate the whole thing. Since it was not, I controlled myself and had 1/2 a pizza to take home.

Chris says, “Could very well be the best lasagna in all of the entire state of Michigan. No lie.”

Chris’s lunch lasagna portion was just the right size and the only thing left on his plate was the tomato sauce baked to it from being cooked in the oven. The lasagna is made with Italian sausage, not just seasoned ground beef, and plenty of sauce for dipping in bread too. He used some of the bread to wipe up every last bite.

We chatted with one of the restaurant owners and she let us know they are working on some menu additions and also considering a liquor license to be able to serve beer and wine at least. Oh, and their desserts are homemade including Tiramisu. They also serve real Spumoni, something kind of hard to find these days- its usually just Neapolitan ice cream.


Details

Depot Italian Ristorante
517-543-2700

430 N. Cochran
Charlotte, MI

Tuesday-Friday 10 AM to 8 PM
Saturday 11 AM to 8 PM

Non-smoking & free Wi-Fi!

**Chris is quoted here in bold because he was making a fuss that I wouldn’t write what he told me to write. I offered him a username and access to write his own blog posts but we compromised by agreeing I would quote him on relevant subjects like food and restaurants.

Product Review: Tortillaz Zesty Guacamole from Quaker or …

Yes, we have no bananas

  

Okay, I don’t usually spend a lot of time talking about products unless I really like something (ahem, balsamic vinegar from Cherry Creek). We do have brands of things we prefer and I will mention that brand by name in recipes but I like to let most people make up their own minds.

Until now.

I discovered the Tortillaz, an air-baked rice and corn chip/cracker (officially, a crisp) at the D&W Fresh Market out in Williamston. Texture is a very important part of eating, for me. I like to have a nice balance of crisp, crunchy and soft in all my meals (along with a bit of sweet to balance out savory or vice versa). On the flip side, I’m trying not to eat too many chips and crackers as I really don’t need the carbs. Since I’m having salad for lunch today and there were no croutons for crunch, I decided to break out this bag of crisps. There are two varieties, zesty guacamole & cheesy nacho. Since I love the guac, I chose that variety. I did not look at the ingredients- I admit to being swayed by the “Air-Baked”  and “Made with Grains” plus they were in the rice cake section which just screams healthy as long as you ignore the caramel flavored ones.

Unfortunately, there is no price sticker and the receipt is long gone but I can tell you they were not cheap. At least a couple of bucks for a 3 oz bag (at 1 oz/serving).

At first glance, I was aprehensive. In fact, I saved a few bites of salad just in case I needed to cleanse my palate. The crisps are shaped like tortilla chip triangles however they have a mottled green color to them, which I guess is supposed to look as though they’ve been powdered with guacamole. Not the most appetizing look.

First bite: very crunchy, like Bugles which I really like. They were certainly zesty although I didn’t really taste guacamole. It was mostly corn with some heat and maybe a cilantro or lime like flavor. And lots of crunch- like eating a dorito with the seasoning coating your fingers.

Side note: When I was a kid, we used to put Bugles on our fingers and pretend they were long witchy fingernails, then eat them one by one.

So, they tasted good but I didn’t think I could eat a lot of them, due to the finger coating and the potential for flavor overkill. Then I looked at the ingredients and nutrition.

Nutritionally, they are fine. Ingredients? Mmm, not so much.  Okay, rice & corn I expect. Oil, yes. seasonings, sour cream, dried jalapeno. Yep, all what I’d expect. But, MSG? Maltodextrin, natural & artificial flavors, modified food starch, sodium diacetate? All of those things were above the sour cream and jalapeno. Bottom of the list were the oh-so appetizing food colorants (lakes?) and soy lecithin.

Notice anything missing? Look closely.  I remind you, these are guacamole flavored chips. The key ingredient, the one thing you must have for guacamole?

Yes, that’s right, the avocado.

Borrowed from <a href=Who knew there were so many. And who knew that you could have guacamole flavored chips with not a whit of avocado?  Okay, I admit the “natural and artificial flavors” is probably where it comes in. But you see, natural and artificial flavors doesn’t mean actual avocado or even derived from the avocado. So, guacamole without the essence of  guacamole.

I’m a bit disturbed by it all. I brought the rest of the crisps home to have Chris try them. He likes them and doesn’t care that they have no avocado.

Wrought Iron Grill, Owosso, MI; also Father’s Day

We had a number of adventures this past weekend starting with a brief jaunt to Ft. Wayne for storm-chasing on Friday night. The night ended with me driving home through that horrible downpour/second great flood/electrical storm south of Lansing. Fun times!

However, I am working my way backwards from my food notes for the weekend so we will begin with Father’s Day dinner. On Saturday, I called my dad to arrange dinner but we didn’t have plan for where to go yet. Initially, I considered taking him out on Saturday when we were going to go sample the contestant restaurants for our rehearsal dinner- ribs and pizza will make a man happy. Then, we went camping instead so we planned for Sunday.

Driving back from camping on Sunday (in Marshall), I started thinking about where to go. My parents live in Flushing, just west of Flint. We live on the west side of Lansing. I didn’t really expect my dad to drive all the way to Lansing nor did I really want to drive all the way in to Flint considering I also had a paper to finish write from scratch for class, due before bedtime. In the back of my head, I remembered this steakhouse/ grill type place in Owosso. Or maybe Corunna or even Durand. When we got back to Lansing, I went online to try to find it. You would think locating a restaurant in the small town of Owosso wouldn’t be that hard but it took 3 or 4 google search pages for the name to show up in a page- and not the restaurant’s actual home page even! After confirming I had the right place, I called to see if we needed reservations (nope) and the hours (until 8pm) then passed on the pertinent info to dad.

Only then did I look at my blog readers. And lo and behold, my fellow mid-Michigander had just been there the day before. Please read about his lunch experience and note the similarities.


We arrived before my dad and, following the behest of our GPS, drove right past the place and around the block to come in from the side. The restaurant is located in an old factory building/warehouse and is surrounded by several other buildings of the same variety. This area is right near the train tracks and across from the grain co-op, apparently the commercial-industrial center of Owosso, in its heyday. We parked along the side and noticed the adjacent building is the (former?) home of the Owosso Casket Company.

I spent some time in Owosso as a teenager. The hip thing to do was go “Owossoing” which is pretty much like cruising except lame-er. My recollections of the town are dim and consist mostly of a strip that reminds me of many towns along state highways or commercial fares (For you Flint-ites, think Dort Highway, the nicer parts): fast food joints, random stores, maybe a strip club. Oh, but Owosso has a castle! Curwood Castle was the home of author James Curwood. In case you don’t know that name, he was born in 1878 (in Owosso) and wrote such books as God’s Country and the Woman (1915) and The Valley of Silent Man (1920), several of which were made in to movies as well.

We didn’t go to the castle, having already toured a historic home down in Marshall earlier in the day. Instead, we went right to the restaurant. After a little confusion because the hostess wasn’t listening when we said we’d like to sit outside, we grabbed a table on the porch/patio. There was additional confusion because she said “wherever you like” but then said if we wanted smoking, we had to sit on the south side. And we didn’t so she said we didn’t have to smoke to sit there. Okay, but I don’t want to sit next to smokers either. Who chooses that??? The al fresco dining was perfect. The patio faces east so we didn’t have to worry about baking in the sun and it was neither too hot nor too humid.

Someone brought us water right away but it did take a few minutes more for the waitress to come and ask if we had drink orders. My dad hadn’t arrived yet but we went ahead and submitted an order for an appetizer, the Medicciettes: marinated tenderloin of beef encrusted with Parmesan breadcrumbs and served with sauce Bernaise. I also ordered a glass of red wine, a zinfandel from Melanto Terrace Wines (California). Not a favorite but not awful either, just a little too much pepper in the first taste.

After my dad arrived, the appetizer was delivered. I don’t really eat beef but of late, I’ve been sampling a few bites. Seems like if I’m going to review restaurants, I should be trying the food. I’m not likely to order a burger on our next outing nor would I order a steak entree but I’ll try a bite here and there. Chris made steak fajitas one night and I had a slice of the steak. It was good and about what I recall decent steak tasting like (oh, stopped eating red meat in 7th grade). These Medicciettes were not to my liking. The meat seemed stringy and didn’t taste like much of anything. The boys however, had no problem eating the rest.

After our appetizer, we finally ordered our entrees. I went with the Seafood Risotto, Chris ordered the Wrought Iron Pizza
and my dad had the salmon “burger.”

We’ll start with Chris- He waffled a bit before settling on pizza. Burgers and steaks were also on his mental checklist but once he picked the pizza, he stuck with it. Its not uncommon for Chris to change his mind right when the server shows up to take orders so this could be significant. The Wrought Iron Pizza consists of roasted chicken, grilled pineapple, Black Forest ham, red onion and green pepper with house barbeque sauce. He omitted the green pepper. The pizza was quite large, more than enough for two people to split. He was very happy with his pizza. Around the first bite he was asking me how long I’ve known about this place and why hadn’t we come here before. Half the pizza came home and I did have a slice tonight which I thought was pretty good and probably better warmed up.

My dad was also waffling, between the salmon entree and the salmon burger. The entree is served with a creamy dill sauce, rice and vegetables while the burger comes grilled with roasted red pepper aioli on an asiago bun with steak fries. He chose the sandwich and was a little thrown when the waitress asked how he wanted it cooked (i.e. to what degree). Truth be told, so was I. Generally, salmon is cooked all the way (excepting sushi of course). The only fish I’ve ever been asked about doneness on is ahi tuna (which should be rare, no exceptions!!!). Maybe she was just confused by the word burger and asked out of habit. The burger arrived with a scant serving of steak fries, as noted in review linked above. Maybe they are trying to help people control carbs? In any event, dad liked his burger, in fact he said it was really good. Coming from my generally quiet, “its okay” dad, this is huge!

Now I, I did not waffle. I did look at the whole menu. A few things caught my eye but once I saw risotto with lobster, shrimp and scallops in a cream sauce, I was only window shopping. Because I hadn’t really had much in the way of vegetables thus far, I added a dinner salad with sun-dried tomato vinaigrette to my order. It was your typical salad so let’s move on to the main event. I love risotto. I still reminisce over the risotto at the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham (MI) which I had at the wedding of my now ex-boyfriend’s sister six years ago. Good stuff. I make it a lot at home, look through the archives here and you’ll find the recipe for the mushroom version we like best. Now, I would probably not ever make seafood risotto at home because Chris is so picky about the source of our seafood. Oh, and he doesn’t like scallops. So, this on a menu, was gonna be on my plate. And it was exactly what I was hoping for. Delicious and creamy with a generous amount of sweet lobster meat mixed in to the risotto then several shrimp and two jumbo scallops served over the top. Besides the cheesy creaminess, the plate was dressed with a bit of balsamic vinegar. Browse this site, you might also notice a certain fondness for the balsamic. IThe risotto was expensive and considering the price and trend in America, I expected a huge serving but was pleasantly surprised to receive an amount, while no doubt high in calories, that a reasonable person could eat without needing trolley assistance to the car.

In fact, I was so not overly stuffed that I convinced the boys to go in on a dessert with me. Its June! In Michigan! Hello strawberry shortcake with local berries! Sadly this was not fabulous. The strawberries were good but the shortcake was a little too dry for the amount of berries and cream. Which didn’t stop me from eating a fair amount, I’m just saying.

This meal was pretty extended what with all the talking and eating and ordering so I ended up ordering a second glass of wine, this time Elusiv Pinot Noir which was very cherry in flavor. I liked it better than the Zin. Too bad for me that its apparently from a boutique winery sold to restaurants only. Gee, I guess we’ll have to go back to the Wrought Iron Grill soon….. The waitress mentioned that the menu changes seasonally with some carryovers based on popularity and an overall focus on locally sourced products. You know I love that!

All in all, a great place for Father’s Day or any other nice night on the town. Owosso has some other things to do (besides the castle) and also has a pretty decent community theater troupe. For this night, it was just nice to have a good meal and let Chris and my dad get to know each other better.

Details

Wrought Iron Grill
Website with Menu
317 Elm Street
Owosso, Mi 48867
989-472-9025

HOURS:
Mon – closed
Tu-Th 11a-10p
Fr-Sa 11a-12a
Sun-12n-8p

Roadside Dining, Puerto Rico

Continuing our adventure in Puerto Rico over Memorial Day, we went to our friends’ wedding on Saturday. Had some delicious Sangria and tasty little appetizers post-ceremony then a lovely luncheon of chicken crepes with grilled vegetables. The cake was non-remarkable and only served to reinforce our plan for our own cake to skip the smooth fondant icing which tastes like cardboard in favor of the good stuff: buttercream.

After the lunch reception, we had a mid-day break for drinking/napping/homework/gambling then met up with much of the wedding party at a rooftop club along the waterfront. Post-party we hit up a late-night classic, even in Puerto Rico: Denny’s.

San Juan at night
San Juan at night

The next day, having made some new friends at the wedding reception/party who had a rental car and a plan like ours, we headed out to experience the rainforest. El Yunque is the only rainforest in the National Park System. And it was awesome. I’ll throw a few pictures up at the bottom of this post.

But before we got to the rainforest (about 45 minute drive from San Juan), we needed to eat. After someone first mentioned just hitting up a fast food joint, it was observed that every block had three or four street food vendors on it. We picked a good-looking one and with a bit of broken Spanish, got a shrimp empanada (meat filled pastry, like Chris wanted Friday night), a couple of fried taquito like things and this thing that no one can remember the name of. Since we were eating in the car, I didn’t get to take a picture. But basically, it was like layers of sweet something (passion fruit), stuffed with spicy meat then battered and fried. Everything was fried and darn tasty.

We arrived at El Yunque and drove up to the highest point for cars, stopping at a tower and the waterfalls that just spill out along the road. After stopping at a park store, we got a map and decided to walk to La Mina falls, a 3/4 mile hike along the river to a cascade with swimming area at the base. This trail was rated as challenging but should also only take 30 minutes one way. HA HA HA. Well, I guess if you are in fine shape (I’m not), and its not raining (um, its the rainforest), and you aren’t stopping every 30 feet to take awesome pictures, you could get there in 30 minutes. The walk in was worth it though. La Mina falls were beautiful and there were plenty of photo ops on the way.

The walk back, not such a fan of. The rain, which is nearly constant but at a drizzly rate, became a downpour. And while I was dressed for warm weather, I was wearing cotton. We were absolutely drenched when we got back to the car. And the stairs that were challenging on the way “down” were three times harder on the way back (mentally anyhow). The entire trail is concrete or stone steps built in to the side of the river cut. Up and down, over and over. Blah.

We started back down the mountain and watched the rain lessen as we descended. By the time we got back in to the town at the base, the sun was shining. But before we hit bottom, we stopped at this little cafe mentioned in a guide book. Noted for the dog (who barks) living on the roof of the restaurant, this place was supposed to have great fried chicken.

OH MY GOD. Not like traditional Southern fried chicken with batter, this stuff was just lightly dusted with seasoning and maybe a bit of flour then thrown in the fryer. It was so good and the skin was to die for. I got an order with rice and beans on the side while Chris decided to get another empanada, this one pizza-style. Three minutes later he’s angling for a bit of my chicken. I gave him a bit (there was plenty) but I was keeping all the skin on the side. In the end I relented and gave him a bit of skin too. I also ordered a piña colada and the guy said to bring it back up if I needed more rum. I didn’t, it was tasty and just right. As we were leaving, Chris ordered one for the road and had them add the extra rum. Apparently by extra they meant another shot and a half. It was one strong piña colada!

We declared that this fried chicken lunch was the best meal of the trip, so far.


road side falls
Roadside falls
San Juan in the distance
San Juan in the distance
Cool picture of the peak in the tower- Chris took this one.
Cool picture of the peak in the tower- Chris took this one.
roadside falls going down the mountain
Roadside falls going down the mountain
La Mina Falls
La Mina Falls

Restaurant Raices – Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Upon arriving in San Juan for Ray & Evelyn’s wedding over Memorial Day, we checked in to the hotel. And while I longed for a nap, Chris forced me to go down to the casino and have a drink first. I was a little hungry too so we ordered some jerk chicken wings.  Incredibly hot and somebody ate all the celery up before I got more than one stick. I couldn’t eat more than 3 1/2 wings since I was sure my mouth was about to catch on fire.  The mojito I ordered (made with raspberry rum- highly recommended!) was too expensive to order another, flaming lips or not.

So, we adjourned to the casino proper where Chris headed to the roulette table. I don’t really get the draw of roulette. Instead, I took $20 and sat down at a video poker machine. I have somehow convinced myself that there is just a smidgen of skill required in this game as compared to slots.  Within 10 minutes of playing, I pulled 4 Aces on some triple triple bonus round. I won $318.  And I was done. I cashed out, showed Chris my slip and got the dinero from the cage then went upstairs. After that, I deserved a nap (side note: we left Detroit at 6:45 AM on Friday morning. I did not sleep the night before and I don’t sleep well on planes. We arrived in PR about 1:30).

Post nap, I, alas, had to do a little homework. Then, we made plans to meet up with the rest of the mainland crew and the bridal party for a post-rehearsal dinner. As it turned out, our hotel has 2 locations and we were staying in the one by the airport whereas most everyone else was staying in Old San Juan.  This meant we were going to end up taking a lot of cab rides, making that casino win all the more appreciated!

Someone, I’m not sure who, had chosen Restaurant Raíces as the place for dinner that night. Sam had arranged the “reservation” but the rule was they would not seat us until the whole party was there.  While we waited for stragglers, a few of us periodically peaked inside to mentally coerce a few slowpokes to finish eating so our table would be ready ASAP.  Sam mentioned that he and his wife had come down this street the night before and there was quite a line out the door then. The staff was obviously used to large groups and touristas because our waiter (whom I’m going to call Fred since I can’t remember but it was something like that) talked loud enough for the whole table to hear while he explained the basics of the menu and their specialties.

We ordered drinks first. Most everyone ordered a mojito or variation of mojito that included fruit juice (mango, passion fruit, etc). There was something called a beso tropical (Tropical Kiss) which was excessively sweet according to the one taster. There were also a few pina coladas on the table. While our mojitos were served in tall cocktail glasses, the coladas and non-alcoholic beverages came in tin cups. I had a mango mojito which was not as good as the raspberry one earlier.

As a table, we had two orders of Festival Típico, like a sampler platter, which included bacalaítos, alcapurrias, piononos, taquitos de jueyes and mofongo de yuca.In other words:  cod fish fritters, root vegetable fritters stuffed with meat, ripe fried plaintains stuffed with meat, crab meat turnovers and mashed cassava. We also had a couple orders of carne frita (fried pork bits) to split.  Of all that stuff, you may notice a theme: fried, fried and more fried.

For dinner, many of the group went with the recommended specialties which included

Tornado- Skirt Steak stuffed with mashed root vegetables, crowned with 5 shrimps and covered in a mushroom gravy

specialty of the house
Mike models the house special

Chuleta Kan Kan – Kan Kan Pork Chop

Colin prepares to eat the biggest pork chop ever
Colin prepares to eat the biggest pork chop ever

 

Dorado a la Criolla Relleno de Camarjones al Ajillo – Mahi Mahi Creole Style stuffed with Garlic Shrimp 

This is what I got. And I forgot to take a picture! It was good and garlicky.  We were impressed that the menu (in Spanish) called the fish by its real name: Dorado is also know as dolphin (fish). The name was changed to Mahi Mahi because idiots uninformed consumers thought they were actually offering up dolphin (mammals) on the menus of seafood restaurants. Anyhow, the fish itself was okay but as I said, lots of garlic.

Mofongo Relleno de churrasco al chimichurri y camarones al ajillo- Mashed plaintains stuffed with Chimichurre skirt steak and shrimp 

Mofongo
Mofongo

 

A lot of people ordered Mofongo, which is available a number of different ways. I’m not sure which variety this picture is.  Mofongo is a huge thing in Puerto Rico. Its basically the starch on your plate instead of potatoes or rice. Although rice and beans as a side is pretty commonplace too.

Lomillo empenado – breaded beefsteak, served either plain, or Nydia style (green pepper, tomato and onion sauce) or Erick Style (mushrooms, onions, peas and red wine). Nydia and Erick are the owners, I believe. Chris ordered this Erick Style. With rice and beans on teh side. He said it was good but not what he was expecting. He had confused empenado with empanada, the meat-stuffed pastry. Empenado, as far as I can tell, is like schnitzel: breaded meat covered in a gravy. Think Weiner Schnitzel or Country-Fried Steak.

Because we’d eaten so many appetizers and the meals all came with salads plus a hearty serving of starchy sides (rice or mofongo), we skipped dessert. Instead, we had a serenade by the staff to wrap up our evening (which followed two separate renditions of Happy Birthday, in Spanish, to other tables).

I have no recollection of the bill but it seemed like a reasonable amount of money at the time. This place is obviously very popular with tourists but there are locals who frequent the place regularly too. They were not really appreciative of our loitering outside while we waited for our table.

The restaurant is located in Old San Juan, the “old part” of the capital. We didn’t get to walk around too much but much of the hotels and shopping are nearby as well. Any cabdriver can get you to this place, even if you mangle the name. Trust me.

Mental note: next time write down name. I have good pronunciation, when I can remember the words.