Friday, February 14, 2014

Pizza Friday - Melting Pot, Front Royal, VA

With the sheer amount I'm on the road I've taken to a rule of "No chains" for food.  The only exception is Starbucks or local and regional chains that aren’t available in the DC Metro.  I did not start with this rule, but I noticed that I quickly got bored of places like Ruby Tuesday and…well McDonalds when I was out on the road.

Hildy the Adventure Dog
Quite frankly, there are only so many times you can have a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, and after a stop in a locally owned greasy spoon, or even a dedicated burger joint.  The same runs true with Pizza.  There are very few local shops that are so bad I’d take a Papa Johns or Pizza Hut over them, but it’s good to not get bored of the standards just incase there is nothing else around, because I can tell you with almost certainty that one day you will be somewhere in middle America, and there won’t be anything but a Papa John’s that delivers to your hotel. 

My parents and myself have taken to sharing a dog.  They love dogs, as do I, but with my travel schedule, and their approaching-retirement activity schedule, as a group we can really only have one dog.  Hildy is a sweet little dachshund, and my ever-present travel companion, but she still isn’t always welcome in the hotels I travel to.  So, when I go to a hotel that won’t let the dog stay, she goes for a visit to my parents. 

Because of my parent’s geographic location, we generally pass off my dog in the small town of Front Royal, Virginia, which is effectively the outermost western border of the area largely considered the “DC Metro Area”.  While I understand the charm of living in small-town America, the nearly 100-mile commute one-way would be enough that I’d probably decide to drive off the Teddy Roosevelt Bridge.

As a surprise twist, in one of the exchanges we made I discovered a small local Pizza place in Front Royal.
The most surprising thing about this restaurant is arguably that Melting Pot, the Fondue restaurant, hasn’t filed a cease and desist order against it.

The décor and the atmosphere were fairly standard small-town restaurant.  No unified theme, no two tables matched, some were simply folding chairs and tables, for the most part it looked like the owners went to a yard sale that a closing restaurant was having and picked out a hodge-podge of things that served a very utilitarian and functional purpose. 

I can see the conversation now…
“I need chairs.”
“What Style?”
“It doesn’t matter, just give me 100 of your cheapest ones”

In fact, after three visits, I’m almost certain that’s exactly how the conversation went.

The downside of Melting Pot is arguably that it’s so inconsistent I can’t really give it an accurate review.  Nor can I in any way guarantee that your experience there will in any way mirror my experience there.  The quality of the pizza really seems to depend on exactly who is manning the ovens, who is making the dough in the morning, or who is placing the toppings.  

The first time I went it was nearly as good as some of the better pies I’ve had in and around the New Jersey/New York region.  The second time, having thought I’d struck small-town culinary gold on the first visit, I got what more closely resembled a Tombstone brand frozen pizza, cooked at too low of a temperature.  It was so bad I almost vowed never to return.  The third time was somewhere in the middle.  

Effectively, the restaurant has someone with the know-how to produce a near-perfect pizza.  The big question, however, is whether or not they’ll utilize that individual’s knowledge and make a consistently good product regardless of who is on staff that evening.  

Judging by the décor, I’d say that consistency is not something the owners value.  Because of that I’m not sure I’ll stop in again on my next trip through.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Pizza Friday - Pete's Apizza, Clarendon, VA

I love pizza.  I love pizza in all shapes, sizes, colors, with most toppings and crusts.  Deep dish, thin crust, new york style, new haven style, Chicago style…it really doesn’t matter, I’ll take all of them any day of the week, and some days multiple days of the week. 

Many times though, a pizza joint will think they’ve labeled something in descriptive manner, but in reality, while their product is good it muddies what that style actually is, and what makes it distinct and unique.  

A few weeks ago I went on a Starbucks mug run to find the new Virginia mug.  While the ultimate goal was to find the mug, I was hoping to kill two birds with one stone, and stop by Pete's which I'd heard about and very much wanted to try. 

While Pete’s Apizza labels themselves as New Haven style, they’re certainly not.  They are a classic hand-tossed American style pizza joint…think stylistically similar to your standard Pizza Hut, Papa Johns, or Dominos pizza.

I’m not saying that’s good, nor am I saying it’s bad.  It’s just how it is. 

Pepperoni, Garlic and Spinach...oh my!
When you compare Pete’s to other stylistically similar pizzas, it’s far and away the best American style Pizza I’ve had in quite awhile, possibly forever. 

When you compare it to other classic New Haven style pies (Frank Pepe’s, Sallys, etc…) it comes up lacking.   For the long glowing tributes to Frank Pepe that were on the Pete's website (since removed) I, quite frankly, expected a more "New Haven" style classic Neapolitan.  Instead, I feel like I got a Vocelli style faux Neapolitan.

For pizza closer to Sally's or Pepe's either The Brick in Warrenton, or Stone Hot in Fairfax provides that crispy wood and/or coal fired outside and gooey inside.  Proper "New Haven" pie should be so floppy you need a fork and knife to eat the pointy end, but slightly burnt on the crust side.  This is not that.

Overall it feels more like a  cynical "Lets tell them this is what they're experiencing because they'll never actually go to the real thing" yuppie magnet than a serious attempt at re-creating a classic.

When it comes to price, they are a touch expensive.  However, they offer great value.  When I look at what I paid, compared to what I got, I paid roughly what I would have paid for the same toppings and size from one of the major chains, and got something that was substantially higher quality with more premium ingredients.  As a rule I don't get pizza from the big national chains anymore (there are TOO MANY good local joints) and Pete's proves this whole heartedly. 

The final disappointment came from the smell.  While it smelled, it didn't smell like a New Haven pizza joint.  There's a distinct aroma that comes from the constant burning of coal and/or wood in a large open oven that Pete's is just missing. 

Even with the substantial disappointment at missing the mark stylistically there were some good points.  The best pizza comes served with a craft soda.  I couldn’t find the Foxon Park that they supposedly carry, but they do have really good craft soda on fountain.  They offer premium toppings and some that I've only seen at New Haven minced garlic and spinach. 

What it all boils down to is it's a very good pizza joint, that will disappoint you if, like me, you're looking for a New Haven style pizza.  That said, if you just want pizza, and don't mind something a bit pricey, but well worth the money, this is your place.

Note: My original review for Pete's shows on Yelp.  Certain aspects of this review were lifted verbatim from my original Yelp review.  To see the original Yelp review click here.

Monday, February 3, 2014

I'll find it one day... I promise.

So close...but not quite.
I’m acutely aware of the cliché that is the person hunched over a laptop whilst sitting in their otherwise hipster-magnet coffee shop.  I’m more acutely aware that my Starbucks addiction is, while not quite at the level of problematic addiction, pretty damn close to it.

That said this post is coming to you direct from my local Starbucks store, where Mike, Isaac and James are so quick with my drinks I rarely have to even order.  I just have to step up to the counter, flash my phone, and away I go!

Today, though, when I realized how far behind I am on updating this thing (Yep, I'm acutely aware that I completely missed last week's Pizza Friday), I opted for a slightly longer visit.  With the amount I’m on the road, Starbucks is the rare oasis during my travels where I can regularly get free and unlimited WiFi, an above-average cup of coffee (I’ve had better…but they’re few and far between) and a decent sandwich.  While it is unfortunate that I can’t always find one, some things never change, and it will be my preferred stop 9 out of 10 times.

Even with all of the Starbucks stores I’ve visited my challenges in finding a Virginia mug are growing.  Yesterday was spent at an adult birthday party, which while it was good to see my cousins, and aunts, it was largely what I am perpetually terrified that my parties will one day look like, but comforting to know that I don’t really have enough friends for a surprise party to ever happen.  I hate surprise parties.

My parents and I drove down together since they were at my house for the evening.  For having such a small footprint, the Jetta is remarkably comfortable for three people on a two hour round-trip.  Even my 6’0 father had enough room that he didn’t have to encroach on my mother’s back seat space.  We were running late, and as such pushed the car up to the mid-80's on the way down.  I was fortunate that WAZE kept me on my toes as far as who to expect hiding and how far up the road to expect them.

We arrived at the party after the "big intro" but just in time to have some hors d'oeuvres and cake, which in my opinion is the perfect time to arrive at a surprise party. 

After the series of mildly inappropriate jokes, and “you’re getting old” gag gifts wrapped up, I found my way to the local Starbucks store where I was hoping, once again to snag a Virginia mug.  This store is the farthest south and west I’ve gone, and while Starbucks considers it the “DC Metro Area” it is just about as far as you can get and still be considered part of it. 

I walked inside with great hope that my Virginia mug would appear on the shelves.  Alas, no such luck.  I’ve lost count of my strikes now, but I’m determined that by the end of February I’ll have some in my hands.

So that said, another two hours in the car, and another 120 miles on the odometer, and I'm still empty handed.  The possibility is rapidly growing that I'll break the 10,000 mile threshold just looking for a mug!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Another Mug Run

I generally try to keep my "mug run's" close to other business.   This week, my parents decided they wanted to be visited by a neurotic daschund, so I lent them mine.  As such I had to meet my mother in Front Royal, Virginia.  I was hoping that by breaking free of the area largely considered "Washington Metro" I might be able to locate one of these precious, albeit elusive gems.

No such luck.  While the Jetta is a blast on the highway, and not exhausting at all to drive, it was a bit disappointing to learn that I would have to venture farther in my home state in order to snag one of these beauties.

So with that, it looks like a longer trek is in the works in the weeks coming.  I'll likely end up just doing one lap of the state just to see what I can find!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Pizza Friday

Oro Pomodoro, Rockville, MD
I love a good pie just as much as anyone.  The downside being that I love one so much that I always end up trying to find some excuse to either order one in, or to go out and find one. 

That said, it's rare a trip passes in which I don't track down a decent pizza somewhere along the trip.  Some weeks (as my ever-expanding waistline can attest) it's more than one. 

As such over the past several months I've built up a bit of a backlog of reviews of pizza places I've discovered.  I expect I'll be visiting several more by the time I "catch up".  As such this feature will probably run for quite awhile.

We will kick this off next week!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

On A Mission...

I have a secret.  I'm a crazy collector. 

I absolutely love the Starbucks "You Are Here" collector series of mugs.  I have a dozen or so of them, which I drag to and from work with me every day, serve coffee to guests in, and just generally use in ways one would expect a large coffee mug to be used.

Recently on the Fred Orange Starbucks City Mug website though I noticed that there was a new one I didn't have, and was local!

Starbucks Virginia Mug as appeared on eBay
 As a lifelong Virginia Resident, the addition of a Virginia mug to my collection was so exciting that I immediately started mapping my route for the day in order to discover one.  So, I filled up the Jetta with gas, stopped by the car wash (Jorg needs to be shiny when I find my new mugs!) and set off. 

My first stop was the Starbucks location nearest my house in Herndon, Virginia.  I planned to start off at the places close by, and then work my way towards other collectors who I knew had them, and hopefully find one along the way, but if not, I'd try Dulles airport as a last resort since they routinely have oddball mugs that I wouldn't expect to find in the Washington DC metro region...and they charge a minimum of $5.00 for parking since I didn't have someone to drive in circles until I could run in and check.

When I found out the Herndon store didn't have one, I immediately went to a Reston location, since, after all, it was on the way to the stores nearest someone I found online who actually had one.  After striking out a second time, I continued on to Arlington.

Boston mugs?  At Dulles Airport?
In Arlington I stopped for an early dinner, and then in quick succession stopped into four different stores, many had the Washington DC mug (which I already have) none had the Virginia mug.  Sensing limited additional luck in Arlington, I decided to make a quick run through Falls Church.  Two more stores, two more strike-outs.  After a run through Tysons Corner (three stores), Vienna, (one store), Fairfax (Three stores) and all the way out to Leesburg (two stores), I decided to return towards my house and stop at Dulles Airport. 

While I completely struck out and none of the 18 locations I stopped at had Virginia, I did score a small victory, albeit it wasn't the one I was looking for.  I found Boston at Dulles airport.

Oh well.  I'll take the victories where I can get them.  I'll live with Boston until the next time I get to make a run down south.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

About the New Car: Why I Picked This One.

While I understand that finding a new car is tricky and taxing I also understand the importance of researching the car you buy, I've missed my last Jetta since I sold it in 2006.  While my previous Jetta was a TDI Station Wagon, I decided this time around I wanted to stick with a sedan. 

Most people, unfortunately, are really bad at picking out cars.  After stints in sales at three different dealerships, I quickly lost track of the number of people who came in looking for a very specific vehicle (IE Honda Accord), but in reality their needs dictated they should be looking at something radically different (IE Dodge Caravan). 

Determined not to become one of those customers, I set out with a very in-depth needs analysis on myself which involved multiple trips to multiple dealerships lugging around a 60 lb presentation kit, carry on bag, flip charts, and various other things that are routinely in my trunk.

The ability to lock all of those items away in the trunk or under a cover was the most important item (scratch most hatchbacks, small sedans) , followed by the ease of getting a dog crate in and out of the back seat (scratch all two-door vehicles).  The final item was big since I routinely travel north through New England and have to go in and out of major cities: the vehicle must have the smallest footprint possible, and would ideally be smaller than my 2001 Honda.  All these requirements left effectively two vehicles, the Jetta and the Jetta Sportwagen.  While I liked the Sportwagen better, I could get much better equipment on the Sedan than the Wagon at the price point I was interested in.

While there were 2013's still on the lot, in my preferred color combination, that I conceivably could have gotten even more and better equipment on, the 2014 Jetta comes with some substantially updated features from the outgoing 2013, including a four-wheel independent suspension which dramatically improves the ride and drive, and my favorite feature: Volkswagen's CarNet Telematics system.   After a quick spin in both, the 2014 won the day.

Even just 2500 miles into this car's life, it's arguably the best car I've ever owned.  It's certainly not as exciting as the 2006 BMW I once had, but it's comfortable, confident, and the fuel mileage is incredible.  All great points for a car you plan on driving for a long time.