Friday, July 29, 2011

Bowie Restaurant Project: (8) Grace's Fortune

Grace's Fortune is now closed.

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a collection of all the Bowie Restaurant Project entries, look here.

Grace's Fortune, 15500 Annapolis Rd
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 4/18/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 1
Pre-Foursquare Visits: A Number
Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

In some ways, Grace's Fortune was the inspiration for the Bowie Restaurant Project. Years ago, we had a series of potential consultants coming into the office for interviews; we would always take them out to lunch as part of the process. The restaurant had to satisfy a few criteria: good food, nice decor, not a chain, (good) wait service. Since these were professors, I was looking for the sort of place you might take a visiting speaker after a colloquium. The only place in Bowie that I could think of was Grace's Fortune. One time, we had two visitors on consecutive days, and I got stressed because I didn't want to go there twice in a row, have someone mention it, and expose the fact that we really don't have other decent restaurants in Bowie. (I sometimes worry about things I don't need to worry about.) We ended up lucking out, having some extra time in the schedule for the second visitor, and went to Annapolis for Indian food.

I actually now have some other ideas for where to take an interviewee (to be revealed in upcoming reviews), but that incident was one of the things I think about when I think, "Bowie doesn't have a decent selection of restaurants." (Another, back in the 1990s, was when an unremarkable restaurant opened on Crain Highway -- I think it was Tia's, and I found it absolutely swamped on a Friday night. Clearly, people were desperate for more dining options. I think the quantity of sit-down restaurants has improved in the past 15 years; now I'm more worried about the quality.)

So what can you expect at Grace's Fortune? First of all, good Chinese food in a variety of price ranges -- the lunch specials, while not super-cheap, are a good deal. Second, you'll get good service. I think it would be awful to deal with poor service during a business lunch, and I've never had to at Grace's. The decor is nice, and although Grace has opened two other restaurants in Maryland, it definitely has a locally-owned feel.

What keeps it from being a five-star restaurant? First, it's a Chinese restaurant, and Bowie has a ton of them. I haven't visited them all yet, so I can't say for sure it's the best, but even if it is, it's still a less crucial part of Bowie's food landscape than if it were, say, a Burmese restaurant. Second, it's good Chinese food, but not great Chinese food. I can imagine driving from Bowie to Wheaton or Chinatown for better Chinese food, but not vice versa. I'd dock it half a star for each of these, but its status as a go-to "interview lunch" destination keeps me from dropping it below 4 1/2 stars.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Bowie Restaurant Project: (7) Glory Days Grill

Glory Days is now closed.

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a collection of all the Bowie Restaurant Project entries, look here.

Glory Days Grill, 15505 Annapolis Rd
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 3/26/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 2
Pre-Foursquare Visits: No
Rating: 1 1/2 out of 5 stars

Glory Days is located in the rather sad "Marketplace" shopping center, across the street from the Free State Mall. While the Free State Mall has had some success in remaking itself, The Marketplace hasn't turned the corner yet. A 2008 article talks about a potential demolition of the shopping center, but that never happened. With all the fits and starts towards redeveloping the place over the past decade, it's no wonder that Glory Days is one of only two restaurants in the center.

From their web site, I learn that Glory Days is a regional chain with twenty-two locations across Virginia (mostly), Maryland and West Virginia. I guess it's intended to be sports-themed, but honestly it feels like an off-brand Applebee's. I can't give specific criticisms of the food, because a few months later, I can't quite remember any of the dishes.

Looking at their menu, they offer new "shrimp zingers", along with "smothered chicken", burgers and so on. Yeah, it's that sort of place.

We went there a couple of times after house-hunting because it's somewhat conveniently located and they have high chairs. We stopped going there because the service was inconsistent, and none of the meals were inspiring.

Ordinarily, I would favor a local chain over a national one, but there's not enough local feel to favor this place over TGI Friday's, Applebee's or Chili's -- where at least you get the consistency of a national brand.

In the end, I'm going to go with 1 1/2 stars, mostly because it's so unambitious and unexciting that you may find yourself rooting for a demolition -- at least that would give the area a chance to start over.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Waymarking Update: If You Are Here, I Am Your Leader

I thought I'd take a break from the Bowie Restaurant Project to give a little update on waymarking. As you'll recall, waymarking is a hobby built around logging the coordinates of particular types of things ("sushi restaurants" and "Maryland historical markers" being two examples), and to a lesser extent, visiting those waymarks. (I wish it were to a greater extent, but that's another story.)

For reasons I myself don't entirely understand, one of my favorite categories is "You Are Here" Maps. So I went ahead and joined the "group" for that category. As far as I can tell, joining a group doesn't actually do anything, except maybe if someone sends an e-mail to the group, you'll get it. The actual functionality lies in the group officers, who approve or disapprove of waymarks as meeting the category guidelines. (For example, using image editing software to add the words "You Are Here" is kind of a no-no.)

After a while, without notifying me, someone promoted me to a group officer for the "You Are Here" maps. I guess they needed more people to review waymarks. So when someone submits a new one, I get an e-mail notification. Since it's not my sole responsibility, I don't feel bad deleting them if I'm busy, but if I'm bored, I'll go ahead and check them out and approve or (very rarely) disapprove.

A few weeks ago, the group leader decided he had enough other things going on, so he asked for someone to take his place. I have enough other things going on myself, but I couldn't figure out any actual additional responsibility I'd have to take on, so I stepped up to the plate.

So now I'm the group leader. I still haven't figure out any additional responsibility, and the title is cool. Except...the poorly-worded requirements for posting a waymark in that category had always bothered me.
YOU MUST POST PHOTO OF THE WORDS "YOU ARE HERE". Additionally this must be the default photo for submission. ( If you do not have this your waymark will not be approved ) Please list the coordinates and have a photo of the Map ( it needs to say "you are here" or the equivalent in an other language to qualify ) and another Photo of the area.
To me, this wording was ambiguous in at least two different ways. First, it wasn't clear if the default photo had to be a close-up of the words "You are here", or just a photo that had the words somewhere in it. Second, the photo of the area sounds like it might be a request, rather than a requirement. A lot of waymarks got submitted without the area photo. I didn't want to approve them, but I didn't want to be a jerk and disapprove them. So I generally left them for other people to approve.

So using my new standing (if not power) as group leader, I initiated a discussion on re-writing the category requirements. After consultation with my fellow waymarkers, I came up with
YOU MUST POST A PHOTO OF THE WORDS "YOU ARE HERE" (or the equivalent in the language of the sign) as the default photo for the waymark.
  • You must have a minimum of three photos -- a closeup of the words, one of the map, one of the area -- in order for the waymark to be approved.
  • The closeup of the words can be from the same snap as the one of the map, just cropped differently.
  • The area photo can show the map in the location, but it doesn't have to -- take the best picture you can to show people where you are when "You Are Here".
  • If the map does not have "You Are Here" written directly on it, but instead has a symbol and a map legend explaining that symbol, please provide close-ups of both the symbol on the map and the legend.
Things have gone fairly smoothly since the update. We've had a few waymarks submitted that did not meet the new criteria, but they were re-submitted after rejection. And I've reminded myself that while I like power without responsibility, I also like responsibility enough to create work for myself.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Bowie Restaurant Project: What's a Restaurant?

When I went to the Bowie Town Center food court to review The White Tiger, I took a few pictures of other restaurants for future reviews. Afterwards, I kept thinking about Auntie Anne's. My thoughts shifted from, "When am I going to get around to reviewing it?" to "Wait, is that really a restaurant?"

The answer is "no". If you look at the definition of "restaurant", it's
an establishment where meals are served to customers
The key word here is "meals". A pretzel is tasty, a pretzel is a snack, but a pretzel is not a meal. Even if you put pepperoni on it. On the basis that they do not serve "meals", I am disqualifying the following six listings from the Bowie Restaurant Guide:
  • Auntie Anne's
  • Best Pie Company
  • Cakery
  • Cold Stone Creamery
  • Rita's Italian Ice
  • Simple Pleasures Ice Cafe
While I was discussing this with Christina, she suggested that a place would need to have seating to qualify as a restaurant. While I initially objected -- there is nothing explicitly in the definition requiring seating -- I was persuaded by two things. First, practically everyone on Facebook and Google+ who answered this question agreed with her. Second, Christina pointed out that if you don't require seating, the deli counter at Giant would qualify as a restaurant. On that basis, I am disqualifying the following four takeout establishments:
  • China Chef
  • Crescent Food Market
  • Domino's Pizza
  • Papa John's
I am not totally certain on the Crescent Food Market, but it appears to be a convenience store with a deli counter. Since we're going to be living right around the corner from it, I will find out more and reserve the right to re-qualify it.

After taking into account the two vacant/closed establishments, that brings the total number of restaurants in Bowie down to 79. There are a few more that may end up being disqualified. In particular, the Muffin Man Caribbean Cafe has yet to open, and walking by it, I'm not sure if it ever will.  But -- I figure if it opens before I review all the other restaurants in Bowie, I'll give it a chance.

On another note, I have decided to release all of the photographs from this project under a Creative Commons license. Basically, that means that other people are allowed to use the photos; all they have to do is to give me credit. I'm not sure if anyone will want to, but it's part of a general effort I'm making to have my web efforts be of as much use as possible. You can find an album of the photos below; I'll be copying more in the future. (And you can find out some of the upcoming reviews based on the photos.)
Bowie Restaurant Photos

Friday, July 22, 2011

Bowie Restaurant Project: (6) Popeye's

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a collection of all the Bowie Restaurant Project entries, look here.

Popeye's, 15480 Annapolis Rd
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 10/19/2010
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 1
Pre-Foursquare Visits: Several
Rating: 1 1/2 out of 5 stars

It's a Popeye's. In other words, like KFC, but spicier, and with more interesting side dishes.

This is in the same outbuilding of the Free State Mall as the Subway I reviewed last week. That means it has the same parking issues. While I neglected to penalize Subway for the inadequate parking, I think it's a bigger problem with a place like Popeye's. Typically, you'd expect to find a drive-through -- like at the one ten minutes away in Crofton/Gambrills, so having to navigate an annoying parking situation is perhaps more than you want to endure to get your greasy chicken.

I have to admit I find their chicken tasty enough to tempt me, but I may be getting too old to digest it smoothly. It gets some credit for being the only Popeye's in Bowie, but not much.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Bowie Restaurant Project: (5) The White Tiger

The White Tiger is Now Closed.

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a collection of all the Bowie Restaurant Project entries, look here.

The White Tiger, 3872 Town Center Boulevard
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 7/19/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 2
Pre-Foursquare Visits: At Least One
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Here are some types of restaurants that Bowie lacks:
  • Thai
  • tapas
  • Vietnamese
  • Greek
  • bagel
  • diner
The White Tiger is the only thing keeping "Indian" off that list -- and it's a pretty thin exception. The main White Tiger restaurant is a sit-down establishment in DC. The Bowie version is located in the Bowie Town Center food court. (By the way, 7 of Bowie's claimed 91 restaurants are in the food court, while 14 others are elsewhere in the mall.)

I wanted to like this restaurant, given that it fills a void in Bowie's restaurant diversity.  But eating here is like...eating at a restaurant in a food court. I think the best description I can give is that the food tastes like the frozen Indian dinners I get at MOM's Organic Market. Now, I eat those, but I don't generally like to travel farther than my freezer to get them. Likewise, I suppose if you're already at the food court, you should consider The White Tiger along with your 6 other options. But if you actually have to get into your car, make the drive to Greenbelt, Annapolis, or especially Langley Park.

I'm reluctantly giving this 2 stars, but only because of the fact that it technically allows Bowie to claim slight diversity in its ethnic dining.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bowie Restaurant Project: (4) Subway (Free State Mall)

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a collection of all the Bowie Restaurant Project entries, look here.

Subway, 15480 Annapolis Rd
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 5/14/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 4
Pre-Foursquare Visits: Several
Rating: 1 1/2 out of 5 stars

It's a Subway. One of 7 in Bowie. This particular specimen of the breed is located in an building in the parking lot of the Free State "Mall". Although it was an actual mall when I was growing up in Crofton in the 70s and 80s, now it's essentially a collection of buildings awkwardly placed around some parking spaces. There's a really nice Giant Food there, a good cleaners, and a few other places of note.

But enough about the mall, I hear you say, what distinguishes this Subway from the 6 others in Bowie? Well, I'd have to say the parking. In particular, it's terrible -- there aren't enough spaces on the Subway side of the building to serve the Subway, the liquor store, the Popeye's, and whatever else is there. So you're better off parking on the other side of the building and walking around. Other than that, it's your basic, generic Subway restaurant.

I would give this place 2 stars (the parking's not worth a deduction) like the Wendy's -- it's a reasonable example of a decent chain restaurant. Subway gives you the opportunity to have a relatively healthy meal. But as one of seven Subways in Bowie, it just doesn't merit that kind of respect, so I'll drop it to 1 1/2.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Bowie Restaurant Project: (3) Chesapeake Grille & Deli

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a collection of all the Bowie Restaurant Project entries, look here.

Chesapeake Grille & Deli, 6786 Race Track Rd
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 7/7/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins:7
Pre-Foursquare Visits: No
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Christina has a rule about restaurants -- don't eat anywhere that spells "grill" with an "e" -- that's what you find on a car, not in a kitchen. The Chesapeake Grille is good enough to make us break that rule.

Salem enjoys their sweet potato fries.
As someone whose mom brought me to Hilltop Plaza for shopping in the 1970s, it's kind of amazing that it's turned into such a great little shopping center. But we find ourselves coming here all the time. As someone who can't stand Whole Foods, MOM's Organic Market is the perfect place to shop for tasty foods without a lot of weird ingredients. And the Kid's First Swim School is a great place for "Mommy & Me" swim classes (or as we parents of twins call it, "Mommy & Daddy & Him & Me".)

After swim class, we invariably find ourselves heading over to the Chesapeake Grille. Everyone is always great to the boys, but their "no tipping" policy always leaves me a bit uncomfortable as they turn our table into a minor disaster area.

But no matter, because it's off to the counter to order our meal. Most items have been hits, including the tuna melt (made with real slices of tuna), the turkey melt, and the fries (both the Old Bay-laden ones and the sweet potato ones). They bring it to the table, and are usually good at identifying places to put down the food that the boys won't disrupt.

The Chesapeake Grille has only been open in Bowie since late May, but it already has attracted quite a following. We run into the same "regulars" on different visits, and if we are there during peak meal hours, most tables are filled. They've already got 235 fans on Facebook, and it took me 6 visits to grab the mayorship on Foursquare -- both signs they have devoted customers on-line and off.

So why don't I give it five stars? Well, I'll knock off half of a star because not every item on the menu has been a home run. I don't think I'll get the hamburger again, and Christina wasn't thrilled when she ordered a hot dog. (On the other hand, on our last trip, I got the crab cake sandwich and she got the Chesapeake Salad with salmon, and we were both delighted.) I'll deduct another half a star because it doesn't really enhance the variety of Bowie's restaurant landscape.  Nearly every dish they serve I could imagine being served at some other place -- the only real theme is the extensive use of Old Bay. But what they do, they do well. If any place can become a neighborhood institution in a month and a half, the Chesapeake Grille has accomplished it. I'm sure we'll be going back again and again.

Friday, July 08, 2011

World Heritage Update: Belfries!

I was combing the list of World Heritage Sites in the hopes I had overlooked one I had already visited. Lo and behold, I found "Belfries of Belgium and France". Going back over ten years in this blog, I find an "Images of Brugge" entry that contains a couple of pictures I took from "the Belfort" -- Brugge's (Bruges') belfry, one of the ones on the list. My father actually framed prints of those two pictures, so I've had evidence of this visit hanging in our house for more than a decade.

My total is now at 49. Twenty-five sites were inscribed last month, so the total is 936, and my percentage has actually dipped (due to rounding) to 5.2%. Could have been worse -- without this finding, I would have been down to 5.1%.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Bowie Restaurant Project: (2) Wendy's

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a collection of all the Bowie Restaurant Project entries, look here.

Wendy's,  16400 Harbour Way
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 7/6/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 5
Pre-Foursquare Visits: Many
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

It's a Wendy's. I figure if I waited until the end to review all of the chain restaurants, I'd quit halfway through. So I'll try to intersperse some of Bowie's less exciting dining destinations along the way.

I'd also like to clarify a few things. I'm not planning to release a new review every day -- it's just at the start of this project, I have a lot of pent-up opinions. Also, I'm not necessarily going to visit every restaurant just before reviewing it. In this case, though, I was out running errands, and it seemed like a good chance to get a picture to go with the review.

I can only find one thing that distinguishes this Wendy's from other establishments in the chain (see below). In general, that's a good thing. The Wendy's on Kenilworth Avenue has the distinction of "only Wendy's I've been panhandled at the drive-thru" and "only Wendy's I couldn't visit one time because it had just been robbed." So if I had to choose between the two, I like this one better. The only specific negative thing I can say is that it has a poorly-designed layout for the parking lot. When the drive-thru gets busy, it wraps around the parking lot, which makes it hard to leave parking spots and can cause the line to back up into the shared driveway with the nearby gas station. Minor enough that it doesn't lose any points, but I thought I'd mention it.

So where does that leave us? It's a chain. On the other hand, I think of Wendy's as a cut above McDonalds -- slightly tastier burgers, slightly more interesting menu. And it is Bowie's only Wendy's. A city of this size should probably have at least one, so I'll give it a not-terrribly-enthusiastic 2 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Bowie Restaurant Project: (1) California Tortilla

For an explanation of the Bowie Restaurant Project, look here.

For a collection of all the Bowie Restaurant Project entries, look here.

California Tortilla, 3941 Evergreen Parkway
Most Recent Foursquare Check-in: 7/5/2011
Total Foursquare Check-ins: 92
Pre-Foursquare Visits: Countless
Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

From the moment I decided to review all of Bowie's restaurants, I knew I had to start with California Tortilla. Not only have I eaten there more than any other Bowie restaurant, I've probably eaten there more than all other Bowie restaurants combined.

What do I love about California Tortilla? First of all, it's fairly nutritious. You can use their on-line nutritional calculator to count calories. Getting their burritos in a bowl (as I always do) is a great way to trim calories from your meal. Skipping the chips and queso is another good way, but I never seem to be able to manage that.

Which brings me to the second thing I like about "Caltort" -- the food is quite tasty. I don't love everything on their menu (the "California Screamin" burrito doesn't do it for me, especially in bowl form), but they have enough consistent hits (the Havana burrito and Sunset Bowl are two of the better lower-calorie options, and the Blackened Chicken Caesar is a nice indulgence). The fish tacos are pretty good -- not quite San Diego authentic, but a worthy substitute. And when I just don't feel like having a burrito bowl, the quesadillas are a nice change of pace.

The third thing that brings me back are the specials. They range from the prosaic (the "Burrito Elito" card's rewards turn into an effective 10% discount) to the wacky (the annual Free Pop Tart day is a must-visit event).

OK, so it is a chain. It is, however, a local chain, headquartered in Rockville and numbering 36 locations in Maryland, DC, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Based on the few I've visited, the Bowie location appears to be one of the better-run franchises.

Since I'm considering effect on the Bowie restaurant landscape, I have to dock California Tortilla a star simply for being part of a chain. If it didn't have a Bowie restaurant, you could still go to College Park or Laurel or wherever. But it gets half a star back for the new Coke Freestyle machine. Want to try a Raspberry Coke Zero or a Vanilla Sprite? Not a problem with this machine that mixes your soda on the fly and is worth a visit for its own sake.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Bowie Restaurant Project: Introduction

When we started to talk about moving to Bowie, one of the things that worried us was the lack of quality restaurants. When I discovered that the City of Bowie had posted a restaurant guide, I hoped that it would help me get a handle on the local dining options. At first glance, the choices did not look promising. Among the guide's 91 options were 2 McDonald's, 2 Pizza Huts, 3 Starbucks, 1 Starbucks/Pizza Hut and 7 Subways.

And yet, I knew there were some decent restaurants in Bowie. Grace's Fortune, for example, is always an excellent choice for taking someone out to lunch who is visiting our office.

Soon I got the idea that I would visit all of the restaurants in Bowie and review them on my blog, to ferret out the gems in between the fast-food sameness. I call this my "Bowie Restaurant Project".

Some explanations/ground rules.

1. I am using foursquare to track my visits to these restaurants. (As of this writing, it looks like I've been to 21 of them.) In some cases, I visited restaurants before I started using foursquare in January 2010. I will try to revisit those to have a more recent experience, but I don't promise to.

2. In fact, I reserve the right to modify the project as it goes along, based on my whims and tastes. In particular, I may not visit all 7 Subways, and even if I do, I probably will not be able to tell them apart.

3. To start, I am going to knock the total of 91 restaurants down to 89. First, Bowie counts "Vacant" at "13015 9th Street" as one of the 91. Although that location appears to be served by "Mama Cocoa's Delights" now, since it isn't listed in the guide, it doesn't qualify. (Maybe when the 2012 guide comes out I'll be able to determine whether a candy shop counts as a restaurant.) Second, another of the 91 is Seattle's Best, which was located in Border's, which is now closed.

4. I am going to rate the restaurants on a 5-star scale. Rather than rating solely on quality and value, I am also going to judge how much the restaurant contributes to the Bowie restaurant landscape.  A mediocre Chinese restaurant might get 2 or 2 1/2 stars, because Bowie already has 10 Chinese restaurants. But a hypothetical mediocre Thai restaurant might get 3 or even 3 1/2 stars, simply because Bowie currently has no options for Thai food.

5. You can view all of the reviews collected here.

6. Update (7/23/11): I have disqualified 10 more "restaurants" for either not serving meals or being takeout-only.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Nebula Update: Powers by Ursula K. Le Guin

Powers (Annals of the Western Shore, #3)Powers by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Powers won the 2008 Nebula for Best Novel, so I read it as part of my project to read all of the Nebula novels. That puts me at 32 out of 46, including all of the ones 1992-2009. Earlier this year, the novels Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis won the 2010 award. I started reading Blackout last year, but my increasingly hectic life got in the way of finishing it before it was due back to the library. I'm going to try the Kindle route with George RR Martin's new Song of Ice and Fire book later this month; if that goes well, maybe I'll do the same for the Willis books.

But back to Powers. It's the third book in the Annals of the Western Shore trilogy. I really enjoyed the first two (I don't believe in taking shortcuts into series). Powers is in many ways classic Le Guin -- deep themes (the role of women in society, the need to fight against injustice) set in a science fiction, or (in this case) fantasy setting. The fantasy, however, in this book is pretty weak stew, however. The protagonist's "powers" are more something he runs from than anything else (in contrast to the first two books, where the magic looms larger). Mainly what makes this feel like fantasy is the non-Earth, vaguely medieval setting. I liked this as a book, but I'm disappointed it won the Nebula, since it doesn't really feel like fantasy. (I felt similarly about "The City & The City", which was nominated for, but did not win, the 2009 award.) So it ends up getting 4/5 stars. A heavier fantasy element would probably have pushed it to 5.

Once again, I find the county insistence on shelving these books in "Young Adult" to be puzzling. The book contains references to rape and child murder. These themes are treated with the appropriate gravity, and perhaps high school is a good time to learn how awful the world can be, but I think it's a weird label to place on very sophisticated books (that I would still recommend to a bright teenager).

View all my reviews