Circuit Grub.

I love cheap food done right.  Call me crazy, but given a choice between a five course meal at a Michelin five star restaurant and a perfectly prepared chicken parm hero from the deli around the way, and I’m going chicken parm all day.

It’s not that I have an underdeveloped palette.  I’ve lived in New York City for well over a decade, and it wasn’t long ago that I was regularly availing myself of meals at its finest restaurants courtesy of a corporate expense account.  You think being handed too much change at the drugstore is getting over?  Try eating a shitload of free meals at critically acclaimed NYC restaurants.

I’ve traveled everywhere, too.  When it comes to experiencing the finest restaurants the world has to offer, I’ve been there, done that.  I enjoy complex dishes served by impeccably mannered waitstaff, but in the end, that kind of experience just isn’t a big deal to me.  What I really want is two pieces of bread with some combination of meat and cheese stuffed between them.  A tasty sandwich or a badass cheeseburger cooked by someone who really knows what they’re doing.

I grew up thinking that the four food groups were 1) Brookville Diner; 2) pizza; 3) Wendy’s; and 4) chinese takeout.  To this day, when I’m looking for food that makes me happy, I automatically go back to that comfort zone.  When I suffer an unjust beat that takes me out of a poker tournament, I hightail it over to the nearest sub or burger joint.  That’s my salve.  I’m not saying that I love lowest-common-denominator fast food (although there is a time and place for it) but that my preference is for down-home eats.  I have thus made it my mission in life to find the most authentic, affordable, delicious local meals wherever I go.  My time away on the poker tournament circuit has taken me to both the normal casino towns and some pretty unlikely places.  I always make a point of traveling off campus to find something good to eat.

Again, my age and New York perspective colors my personal preferences on the road.  If I were 23 years old or from Sheboygan, my favorite lifetime meals might be found in casinos.  But the fact is that I’m thoroughly unimpressed with whatever Bobby Flay is doing at Borgata and the steakhouse at the Palms.  That’s not who I am or where I’m from.  To be perfectly honest, I could give two shits about most of the high end places in Vegas and AC (not even going to mention what typically passes for high end elsewhere). I can treat myself to better meals two blocks from my apartment.  What I want when I’m traveling is something cheap, hand crafted and delicious that I can’t have at home.

And so I present to you the local gems I have discovered in the past few years.  My guide to poker circuit grub.

Bear in mind that I am not conversant in foodie-talk, so in the paragraphs below you will not find any esoteric food critic words, no gallant descriptions of different flavors or textures, and not a single reference to “port wine reduction.”  If you are looking for that, take your ass over to chowhound or yelp or wherever.

Atlantic City

AC isn’t a great food town.  Borgata and Caesar’s bring some very predictable high end places, and there are a couple of decent basic red sauce italians around.  Here are my circuit grub picks:

White House Sub Shop, 2301 Arctic Ave.  Yes, there are other AC sub shops that serve similar fare, but this place is the original.  The real deal.  That they’ve refused to expand the operation beyond the single store on the corner of Arctic and Mississippi adds to the charm.  No one ever has a bad thing to say about the White House, and you should believe the hype.  Their advertising budget is exactly $0.00, but word of mouth is powerful when the product is perfect.  The ingredients at the White House are always fresh (and limited—try asking for a condiment other than mayo, ketchup or oil and see what happens).   The secret weapon is the freshly baked bread from the Formica Bakery across the street, delivered to the White House every couple of hours.

Walk in, sit at the counter and ask one of the nice old ladies for an italian sub or a cheesesteak served on a half-loaf (full loaves are also available for the morbidly obese and the incredibly hungry), then watch a guy make it for you.  It’s obvious that not much has changed here in the sixty-plus years they’ve been in operation, and that’s a good thing.  You want something other than a great sub?  The machine in the back sells $1.00 sodas, and behind the counter they have a few bags of chips and TastyCakes.  Best sub shop ever.

Five Guys Burgers and Fries , 720 White Horse Pike, Absecon.  Actually located several miles outside Atlantic City, this blatant, not-quite-as-good In ‘N Out knockoff is a brand name that is currently expanding rapidly and in danger of oversaturating its market.  Still, this is the best fast food burger I’ve found in or around AC.

Las Vegas

Almost every restaurant in Las Vegas is decent to good, but not excellent.  For this reason, the occasional tourist does little exploration out there.  Solid options exist at all the large casino hotels. Anyone with even the faintest familiarity with the Vegas real estate market should innately understand the dilemma faced by a Vegas restaurateur:  either pay exorbitant rent for an on-strip (or near-strip) location and the captive consumers it comes with or pay very modest overhead a few miles away and try to create a product that separates your business from the crowd.  If you’re off the strip and can manage to generate a buzz that resonates with even out-of-towners, chances are you’re serving good food.  Vegas picks:

In N’ Out Burger (various locations):  The current gold standard in American fast food.  Because the company is resolute in its refusal to franchise and limits itself to stores in California, Nevada and Arizona, east coast burgerboys like me make pilgrimages to the nearest outpost whenver we find ourselves in one of those states.  The Double-Double Animal Style remains my favorite fast food burger.

Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop (various locations):  Capriotti’s is a Delaware sub chain that for unkown reasons has expanded somewhat randomly with a few locations in the Midwest, Florida, California, and yes, Las Vegas.  If you’re like me and love turkey sandwiches, this place is a great go-to.  WHen you order a turkey sub here you will not receive a small stack of slimy off-white processed ovals with toppings, condiments and bread.  Instead you will receive actual, real-deal delicious turkey meat pulled off of a just-roasted whole turkey, with toppings, condiments and bread.  Yes, the kind of turkey from Thanksgiving.  Not Boar’s Head.  Righteous.

The Egg & I, 4533 West Sahara Ave.; Egg Works, 9355 West Flamingo Rd.:  I love these places.  If you are in Vegas and find yourself craving an artery-busting, cholesterol-crammed pile of breakfast food, go to Egg & I or Egg Works.  These places have names that are 100% on point—they make every conceivable combination of (incredible, edible) eggs, served with everything under the sun that goes with (incredible, edible) eggs.  They get big bonus points for their banana nut muffins and the cutesy imitation newspaper menu filled with pictures of cartoon eggs begging you to devour them.  They open at 6 a.m. and stop seating at 3 p.m.  They serve lunch too, but I know nothing about that.

Connecticut

My Connecticut explorations have uncovered very little in the way of quality local stuff.  Conspicuously absent from my short list below is a restaurant in or near Foxwoods, and that is no accident.  I’m sad to report that the best cheap meal that Foxwoods offers can be found at California Pizza Kitchen.  Seriously.

Herb’s Country Deli, 1105 Norwich New London Turnpike, Uncasville:  Located maybe three or four miles from Mohegan Sun, this little diner/candy store slings New England style breakfast and lunch from a cute ramshackle building abutted by a gravel parking lot.  Some thought goes into the preparation of the simple menu items offered here—try the western omelet; it comes not with plain old ham but with a yummy mixture of ham, salami and turkey ground together.  The people who work at this place are almost impossibly nice.  You will end up having a conversation about whatever it is you’re up to that day, guaranteed.  This is a challenge for a poker player, but go early.  They close at 2 or 3 p.m.

Frank Pepe’s Pizza, @ Mohegan Sun:  This place earns the honor of being the only restaurant located within the confines of a casino that makes my list.  This is actually an outpost of a famous New Haven pizza joint and it serves thin-crust pizza done exactly right.  The cheese, sauce and toppings are all really good, and the pie is cooked properly—not undercooked and goopy, not overcooked and overly crisp.  New Yorkers might blanch at the way the large square pies here are haphazardly sliced, but there is no dispute about how good it tastes.  This is truly outstanding pizza.  Every time I come here I eat way more pizza than I thought I was capable of stuffing down.

Biloxi

I’ve been to Biloxi once, for a week.  The odds of a return trip are 50/50 at best, it’ll take a pretty nice tournament to lure me back.  Before Biloxi, I thought that culture shock in my own country was impossible, but I was wrong.  Yikes.  A few days before my trip wrapped, I remembered a Travel or Food Network feature on a BBQ joint down there, and the saving grace become my excursion to…

The Shed, 7501 Highway 57, Ocean Springs MS:  First of all let me say that I luuurrrrrve Bar-B-Que.  BBQ, perhaps more than the hot dog or hamburger, is the quintessentially American cuisine.  It represents everything I want in a meal:  it is cheap, it varies widely provincially, and it is often created with great pride and effort.  It is a cuisine that people have strong opinions on.  BBQ is a food that lends itself to much debate, and there is an astounding number of small scale producers across the country.  BBQ quests are a fine way to spend a day.  Again, I don’t count myself amongst its true connoisseurs, but I know when I taste some BBQ that I like (and also when it’s not very good).

Anyway, The Shed.  I’ve probably said it best in a prior blog entry, so I’ll just quote myself:

The place is pretty out of the way, off of Route 10 (the highway that connects Gulfport and Mobile), and it’s located next to a trailer park.  The place is literally ashedof some sort, with a yard full of junk next to it.  The decor inside is an overwhelming tapestry of more junk; it’s everywhere, on the walls, the floor, the ceiling.  You walk in and a hostess approaches you and chats your face off about what you oughta eat.  Then you stand in line and order it, and then you go sit somewhere amidst the junk and wait.  Chilling along with the other customers there is a small collection of happy homeless-looking men who are apparently either employed by The Shed or just allowed to hang out there.  After awhile, a different chick pops out of the kitchen with a Styrofoam box screaming your name, and when you reply you are presented with the box.

Upon receiving the box, you open it, and inside is the best BBQ ever.  Amongst the best ribs i ever had, with meat that falls off the bone.  Your meal includes a couple of sides, and they sold me on the macaroni salad, which i don’t normally like, but this was the best macaroni salad ever.  They also jam a piece of white bread in the styrofoam box, along with a plastic fork.  And to drink they have a gazillion beers and sweet tea.  It comes out to around $12.00.  Unbelievable place.

Upstate/Turning Stone

Upstate New York has a lot of things to offer.  The stretch of interstate that connects Albany to points west that include towns-that-time-forgot Utica, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo is not one of them.  Yet along this highway is where one finds the Turning Stone Casino.  Nothing worth a damn thing is located within one hundred stone’s throws of the place.  Playing poker there is not much better, unless you enjoy the company of a mixture of old men who are bad at poker and a crew of 18-year old kids who are bad at life (in varying degrees), snickering at old men nonstop.  However, located less than a half an hour’s drive from Turning Stone—and probably the most compelling reason to bother going there—lies the world’s greatest restaurant.  My favorite BBQ joint (possibly favorite joint, period), in the most unlikely of locations.

The Dinosaur BBQ, 236 West Willow Street, Syracuse NY:   I don’t even know where to begin with this place. Just preparing to write something about The Dinosaur makes me very happy.

First I should admit that I have a strong bias because of some sentimental memories associated with the Dinosaur.  I went to school in Ithaca New York, about an hour away.  During my senior year, word filtered out that there was a dope BBQ joint in Syracuse.  Road trip!  My friends and I drove up there to check it out, and at 21 years of age the night turned into my first experience in an adult barroom.  Until that time, “going out” was associated strictly with college bars, fraternity parties, and “afterhours,” i.e., sloppy porch keggers.  The Dinosaur was my first time at a bar that didn’t reek of stale beer and vomit, a place where a chug-off seemed (only) mildly inappropriate, a place with attitude, where old people were in our midst.  Back then (umm, 1994) the Dinosaur was just a biker bar with live blues and great BBQ.  My friends and I sat at in a booth, devoured some ribs, drank some pints of cheap beer, and watched in awe as a crusty old blues band ripped through two sets.  Great food, great beer, great music.  Great fuckin’ life.  It was electrifying, amazing.

I’d love to meet the bikers who opened the Dinosaur in 1988.  They are obviously equal parts cool and astute.  Today, the Dinosaur is always (literally, always) packed, and there are similar locations in Rochester and Harlem.  The owners have grown the Dinosaur into a national brand that sells its rubs and sauces in supermarkets.  But somehow the place is the opposite of a sellout.  Everything remains exactly the same—but bigger—inside.  The amazing ribs they serve here are the place’s calling card, but everything on the menu is delicious, and I’ve been through it all. Best wings.  Best sides.  Best chicken.  Best chili.  Best brisket.  Best salads even.  Best beer list, with tons of great stuff on tap.  I think this place was designed for me.  Then again, everyone feels the same way.  I dare you to go to this place and not have a good time.  Yeah, there may be a long wait for a table, so get your ass over to the bar.  You can’t F wit’ the Dinosuar.  I lurrrve you Dinosaur!

10 thoughts on “Circuit Grub.

  1. Yo – next time we go out of town to a poker tourney, you gotta take me to one of the places.

    I guess we better not go to Foxwoods. *chuckle*

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more.

    And yeah, Syracuse Dino still holds a place in my heart. Manhattan Dino, not so much.

    Syracuse salt potatoes for life!

    BTW, next time you drive up there, stop in Binghamton at Lupo’s Spiedie Pit. Nom!

  3. I know you said you hate Bobby Flay…but you have to try BBP (Bobby’s Burger Palace) at Mohegan. I’m with you on Frank Pepe’s as first choice, but BBP is awesome!

    By the way, if you are ever stuck at the Turning Stone again, and need a great place to eat there… try the Peach Blossom….best Asian food in Upstate NY.

  4. Last night I had a “Spicy Stumbler” at The Stumble Inn (76th & 2nd) and I can honestly say it may have been the best burger I’ve ever eaten. You gotta go and get one of their stuffed burgers! Crazy good.

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