The Victual Files: Marlene’s @ The Big Chill

One of my favorite things in life to do is to go to a small town and check out the local eatin’ joints. Restaurants in small towns define the character of the town itself in so many ways. How many towns to do you know of only because there’s a restaurant there that serves good BBQ or chicken fried steak or even a great hamburger? Out here in Arcadia, it’s commonplace for us to take trips SPECIFICALLY based on eating something we’ve heard about.

So, we decided to put together a side project for the Arcadian Experience…we took a map and drew a 100m circle on it, and decided that we are going to covertly go into restaurants within that circle in north Texas and post our thoughts about the dishes and overall experience.  We call this new project:  The Victual Files, prounouced “vittle files”.  We are Victualphiles working on the Victual Files.  Catchy, campy, and all ours.

This isn’t a chance to slam restaurants or to give harsh criticism for their food. Rather, it’s a chance for us to share a little piece of life in those towns and the love and care they put into their food. Disclaimer: even though we will focus on the 100m radius, we will probably do this for any other restaurant we might venture into anywhere we go. It’s our site, our project, our rules.  Another disclaimer: I seriously need to update my iPhone to a new version.  The camera on this thing sucks to high holy hell.  Sorry in advance for the blurry pictures.

I’m going to start with one of my favorite places to eat: Marlene’s @ The Big Chill. Owners Marlene and Ben Horst started this restaurant in 1999 and both still work there daily. When you walk in, the first thing you notice is that you’ve stepped back in time…an anachronism to a “simpler” life when sodas came from jerks and green was a much softer hue. From the outside, you see the sign and the awning that immediately give you an idea what to expect on the inside.

When you step in, TBC doesn’t disappoint. From the floors to the lights to the tables, this is as authentic as you get in a small town. One of Ben’s trophies even hangs on the wall right next to the old Dr. Pepper machine (although, the modern stereo on top of the Dr. Pepper machine might not be all that authentic).

Above the service area, Marlene writes her daily specials on a large white board. One of my favorites, the crawfish etouffee, is running today for the last time this season. It happens that her son and daughter-in-law live down in Lafayette, LA, so she’s got a little Cajun tint to her. From time to time, Marlene and Ben will have a crawfish boil dinner. I love crawfish anyway, but they make it BYOB so you can bring your cooler in and have some tasty mudbug that they cook in the alley behind the store.

The quaintness of TBC is striking. From the colors on the walls to the ceiling tiles and light fixtures…

…this place makes you want to sit down and have a nice lunch in the middle of the day. Oh, but wait…my favorite part of the entire place…

It’s this bar. I’ve been literally BEGGING Marlene and Ben to rebuild the foot bar that goes underneath the stools so I can eat up there. I tried it one day, but the stools are just long enough that you can’t get enough leverage w/o sliding off. If there’s any critique I have of TBC is that I can’t sit at the bar and eat lunch.

Above the bar:

If Tom’s peanut bar doesn’t scream “old timey”, I don’t know what does. What’s that you say? Old Dr. Pepper and Coke stuff say “old timey”? Well, ok, they’ve got that, too.

I love sitting in the booths along the mirrored wall across from the bar. They bring out the tea, and keep it flowing. A big cup of Texas sweet tea is a great way to start out lunch.

When I go to TBC, I don’t even have to order. They know that I’m there for the French Dip. I love a French Dip in the first place, but the FD at TBC is my favorite. It’s not too stuffy and not all that complicated. Just a nice hoagie roll, some melty cheese, and tasty beef consommé to dip the sandwich in. Marlene’s hoagie bun is this delicious chewy bread that holds together so well when you dip it. A lot of FD’s will have a yeasty bread, but falls apart. This doesn’t do that…it stays nice and gummy, with lots of yummy gluten to hold it together.  Sorry to my celiac-suffering friends.

There are lots of other things on the TBC menu that are good as well. They have other sandwiches, special hot lunches (again, the etouffee is remarkable; the Cajun catfish is our minister’s favorite. We call him “Rev. Awesome”). Sometimes I’ll throw them a curve and order something different, but if I’m treating myself it’s the French Dip all the way.

If you order a sandwich at TBC you get choices, mainly what sort of chip you want and if you want a pickle. Nothing overly complicated…it’s either Sun Chips or Ruffles, and the pickle is just a clean, crisp deli pickle.

Let’s talk about pickles for a second. I love pickles, and not just pickled cucumbers. Pickled okra, pickled green beans, pickled eggs (Pedigree White Trash)…I love pickles. Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor offers you two types of pickles with your sandwich: old pickle or new pickle. The difference is how long they’ve been in a jar. (For the record…Zingerman’s is the best deli I’ve ever been in.  The reuben there might be the best sandwich alive.)  I’d love to see some homemade pickles make their way to a menu near me here in Arcadia, but that’s a big order and a lot of work. “Who has time to make pickles?” one might say. Not me, which is why I want someone else to make some pickles. I digress…

My order: French Dip, Ruffles, pickle. Sweet tea. That’s all I need in this world.

Look at that cheese melting out of the sandwich. You get a healthy stack of roast beef, a decent ramekin of dip, and a good handful of chips. Luckily for me, Ben has big hands. And now I feel kinda awkward…

A closer look at that cheese oozing out…

Take that little monster and hold her head underwater for a bit…

Then let her up for a breath before you devour her…

And that’s a helluva lunch. I’ll slowly walk thru this sandwich…if I don’t have a good 20min to eat once I get my plate, I won’t go in the first place. No need to rush, and no need to rush the experience. As a matter of fact, I’ll take those plain ol’ chips and dunk them in the dip, too.

As a creature of habit, I have places I go eat for specific things, and at some point I’ll cover some of them in the Victual Files digest. I can’t think of a better place to start, though, than at Marlene’s.

Marlene’s @ The Big Chill in Graham, Texas…open M-Sat for breakfast and lunch.  Breakfast at Marlene’s is suberb as well.  Do yourself a favor and go give Marlene and Ben a try.

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The Best Soup I’ve Ever Tasted

I love soup, and when the weather starts turning cool I try to eat soup as often as possible. A lot of people will choose the salad when given the choice, but I often go with the soup as a first course, especially if it’s all made from scratch.

My three favorite soups:

3) Cream of Artichoke soup at  The Messina Hof Vintage House in Bryan, Texas. The restaurant there is hit or miss, but the cream of artichoke will change your life.

2) Red Chicken Curry at Samui Thai in Plano, Texas. I judge thai food joints based on their curry, and Samui always is rock solid.  The bamboo shoots and aubergine are incredible.  I’m not sure if you can really count this as a soup, but it’s my list so I make the rules.

1) Chicken and Mushroom soup. Right here, right now. Buckle up.

Here is the ingredient list (for the most part):

Make a classic mirepoix, which is diced onion, celery, and carrot. I cut these in random sizes for texture. Melt 3tblsn unsalted butter and then throw in the mirepoix and salt. Caution: you are going to add a lot of salt to this dish, but you want to do a little as you go. The salt will help reduce the vege.

Once the carrots start getting soft, add a bunch of garlic. I did four cloves here, but you could go with more if you are a garlic geek. Keep it moving so it doesn’t burn. We are going to use three types of mushrooms here: shitake, oyster, and plain ol’ white button mushrooms, all sliced in a rough chop. Clean the mushrooms WITHOUT water (rub them down w/a towel to remove the dirt). Once you get them sliced, toss them in. Shitake:

Oyster:

Button:

And into the pot with more salt. The shitake have this great beefy taste, the oyster a buttery chewy taste, and the buttons are just a great all around mushroom. If the vege start to look dry, add a little bit of olive oil. It should look like this:

When the mushrooms all start looking soft, add a tspn of red curry paste.

This is what I use. Now, it’s not a thai dish, but we do want a bit of the thai spice that it’s hard to combine with anything other than the paste.

Add the curry paste and toss the mixture to make sure it’s good and mixed in. Let it cook down for a few minutes, then add some white wine. How much? Hell, I don’t know. About that much:

Let that simmer for about five minutes and then add ½ chicken, chopped up. I just used one of those rotisserie chickens from the grocery store. I think the flavor was Garlic Herb. By “1/2 chicken”, I mean ½ breast, a leg, thigh, and then all the dark meat from the back. That’s some of the tastiest meat on the bird.

Then add 6oz of tomato sauce.

And about 6oz of chicken broth.

Simmer for 5 minutes or so, stirring regularly. We are looking for the liquid to reduce down quite a bit. Once you get it so that you can see the moisture but it’s not standing in broth, add 1c of heavy cream:

And 1c of half and half:

Of course, you’ll need to add more salt. Go ahead and grind some pepper in this as well. Let it simmer for 10 minutes or so, add chicken broth to keep the liquid at a soupy consistency. It should look like this:

Get some parmesan cheese (not the cheap powdered crap…get grated parm), and add a cup or so. How much? Hell, I don’t know. About this much:

Cut the heat down to low, and let it simmer for yet another 10 minutes.

The cheese should finish off the flavor. Toast up some French bread and sprinkle on some fresh parsley, and you have one of the most delicious things you’ve ever tasted.

That’s it. The best soup I’ve ever tasted.