Bits and pieces: Starbucks thefts, celebrity cookbooks and other food news from the web, 5.3.11

Whoa, guys. This has been a busy few days, and it’s just going to get worse.

A prince got married. Obama delivered some good zingers at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. A bad guy got killed.

And this week, the Kentucky Derby will cap off three weeks of celebrations in just two minutes. Mother’s Day is creeping up, and I don’t have a present. And between all this, I’m in a hurricane of wedding crafts from which I will not emerge until October.

So here’s some fun food news to keep us all entertained and maybe a little distracted.

Ahhh, Starbucks. Hold onto your wallets, folks. Photo courtesy of re_ality via Flickr.
  • Starbucks coffee shops across New York City (and no doubt the rest of the world) are hot spots for thieves. People let their guards down, leave their stuff at a table while they buy a latte, and boom — no more laptop. (New York Times)
  • The hot new celebrity trend? Cookbooks. Here’s a rundown of five actors, reality stars and singers who have ventured into cookbooks. (Washington Post)
  • Want to toast to the death of aforementioned bad guy? Here’s a list of places across the country with Osama bin Laden related drink specials. (Eater)

So, where am I supposed to sit? Navigating the $10 Challenge

Questions roll through my head like a CNN ticker when I go to a new restaurant for the $10 Challenge.

Do I seat myself? Where’s a menu? Do I pay the server or go to the counter? What’s the best thing to order?

Eating locally isn’t like going to Olive Garden – every place has its own way of doing things. Each restaurant’s protocol adds a unique flavor to the atmosphere, but can make newcomers like me insecure about their eating experience. And the anxiety gets in the way of focusing on what’s really important – the food.

Here are some tips for folks like me who might be intimidated at a new-to-you local place where chain restaurant norms don’t apply.

  • Do your research.

I treat each $10 Challenge like a homework assignment. I visit restaurant websites before eating out to study up on the menu, which cuts back on the time you spend making a decision in the restaurant and, therefore, gets your food to your table faster. Urbanspoon is a great resource that allows users to detail their own experiences at restaurant and provide helpful hints to other foodies. For example, I decided to try the avocado smoothie at Vietnam Kitchen based on Urbanspoon user comments about the drink. I’m glad I took their advice.

 

  • Ask for a to-go menu.

It’s surprising how many places keep a stack of inexpensive paper to-go menus on hand. This menu is a helpful tool if you’re at a busy place where you order at a counter, but you’re not sure what to get. God forbid you’re in a hurry and end up behind the person who has all the time in the world to mull over his lunch choice at the register. You can help the cashier and your fellow diners tremendously if you ask for a to-go menu, step aside and decide what you want before you get in line.  I often end up taking to-go menus home so I can decide my order for future visits. If restaurant doesn’t have a to-go menu or you have to strain your eyes to look at a menu on a wall, ask for a regular menu to review. This method worked well during a lunchtime visit to Hillbilly Tea.

 

  • If you don’t see a host stand, seat yourself.

Small restaurants often mean there’s a tiny staff. These employees act as host, server and cashier (and sometimes cook), so they probably don’t have time to seat you. It’s usually a good bet that it’s OK to grab a table whereever you like tf there isn’t a host stand or a sign at the door that asks you to wait to be seated. I learned this lesson at Mrs. Potter’s Coffee Lounge and Cafe, where everyone (myself included) stood awkwardly at the door waiting for some interaction from one of the two harried waitresses.

 

  • If you don’t know, just ask.

Some places cater to a regular clientele, but then newbies like me come in and have no idea what’s going on. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. It helps if you tell the employee that this is your first time at the restaurant. On my trip to Dizzy Whizz, the waitress asked if I knew what I wanted before I had even seen a menu because “Dizzy Whizz assumes you’ve been there before,” Rob said. But I told her I needed some time, she handed over a menu and gave me some extra time to decide.

 

  • Be nice.

If you’re still confused, don’t get in a huff. Never be rude to a person who handles your food. And always ask your server for food suggestions. Since most employees have to try everything the restaurant offers in order to give suggestions, they often know what they’re talking about.

Bits and pieces: Frankenfish, fried beer and other food news from the web, 9.7.10

  • Genetically modified salmon is safe to eat and poses little risk to the environment, the Food and Drug Administration said in an analysis the group released last week. According to an article in the New York Times, the FDA’s favorable assessment will make it more likely that this fish will be the first genetically modified animal to enter the American food supply. But “a coalition of 31 consumer, animal welfare, environmental and fisheries groups announced opposition to the approval last week, citing, in particular, concerns that the salmon could escape and possibly outcompete wild salmon for food or mates,” the article stated. I’ll hold off on buying Frankenfish, thankyouverymuch.
  • The Association of Food Journalists announced its list of the best food writers and writing at the group’s annual conference last week, according to the Poynter Institute. I’m searching for the article that won first place for best magazine food feature: “Why America is Addicted to Olive Garden.”
  • This is change I can believe in. White Castle is stepping up their game by testing new concepts in selected restaurants, according to Nation’s Restaurant News. In Lafayette, Ind., WC has introduced Blaze Modern BBQ in one of the company’s existing restaurants. The menu includes seven types of meat, baked beans, corn on the cob and jalapeno cornbread. Down in Lebanon, Tenn., WC is trying a pressed-club-sandwich concept called Deckers that offers 10 sandwiches ranging from PB&J to chicken Cordon Bleu. And there are rumors of a noodle menu at a White Castle in Ohio.
  • Only in Texas can you find beer, club salads and butter that have been battered and submerged in grease. These items are just some of the fried treats at this year’s Texas State Fair, according to the Dallas Morning News. I would eat the Texas Fried Frito Pie – “Chili, accented with a hint of sharp cheddar, encased in Fritos. Battered and fried.”