The Restaurants at My End of the Universe

Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.


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A friend and I were heading to a movie and stopped at First Watch for breakfast.  Luckily, we got there before the big Sunday crowd showed up.  We both ordered skillets.


I got mine with avocado and over easy eggs. The potatoes were perfectly cooked and the fruit on the side was fresh.  It was fresh and perfectly cooked.  That’s one of the things I really like about this restaurant.  Everything from the decor to the food is light and fresh.  It just has an overall different feel from so many of the other chain breakfast restaurants.  Something as simple as leaving a pitcher of water and coffee on the table makes it so much more convenient for both the waitress and us.  Total bill was $9.

First Watch
2569 Countryside Blvd
Clearwater FL

First Watch on Urbanspoon


Looking for restaurants we hadn’t been to before, tonight we ate at the Magnolia Grille in Palm Harbor.   It’s not a very big restaurant, but the menu had all the right words to satisfy my comfort food cravings, fried chicken, mac & cheese, meatloaf, homemade mashed potatoes, the list went on and on.  It was difficult to decide what to get since everything sounded so good.  Let me stress the word “sounded”.  The execution of many of those comfort foods was nowhere near comforting.

They brought us bread, which was very soft and tasty.  A good start, we thought.

It seemed to take a long time for our food to come out.  Loren ordered the Succulent Roast Pork, however, that wasn’t exactly the adjective he used to describe it.

He said it had the consistency of an overcooked pork chop.  Not tender at all.  If you’re going to list something as succulent on your menu, shouldn’t it at least be fork tender?   He did like the green beans and the extra side of collard greens that he ordered.

I ordered Alex’s Country Chicken which came with homemade mashed potatoes, cornbread and pinto beans.  I also ordered a side of mac & cheese.

The chicken and gravy were the only things on the plate worth eating.  It was crisp on the outside and the batter had a nice flavor.  It was two chicken breasts and they didn’t flatten them out at all, so at first glance they looked small, but were actually pretty thick.  When a menu says homemade mashed potatoes, I expect potato, butter, milk, seasoning,  and that’s it.  These tasted like boxed potatoes flakes.  There were some clumps of actual potato in there, but overall, they weren’t good.  The cornbread was missing something as well.  I can’t put my finger on it, but it just wasn’t very good.  The mac & cheese was also very disappointing.  It was beyond dry.  You just know the meal isn’t good when you have a lot left on your plate and don’t ask for a to-go box. 

And yet, I thought I’d try to let them redeem themselves by ordering the peach cobbler.  I should have known better.

I can’t put my finger on exactly what it was that wasn’t right about this, but it just didn’t taste good.  The cobbler was undercooked and the peaches weren’t fresh.  There was a spice in it that was a bit overwhelming and it wasn’t very sweet. 

After reading the menu, I wanted to love this place.  Unfortunately, I could have gotten a very similar meal at Cracker Barrell and enjoyed every bite.   Overall, it was a very disappointing $42 meal. 

Magnolia Grille
600 Alt 19
Palm Harbor, FL

Magnolia Grille on Urbanspoon


To Go Greek

I was driving through Tarpon Springs around lunchtime and stopped at Mama Maria’s Greek Cuisine for some take out.  I was craving my favorite Greek dish, pastitsio.

The dish is served with a choice of soup or salad, so I chose the avgolemono soup.  It was pretty good.  The lemon wasn’t overwhelmingly tart, which is a good thing.  I’ve had the soup at other places and it just makes your mouth pucker.   It also came with a side and I chose the Greek potatoes.  They were tender, but didn’t have a lot of flavor at all. 

Unfortunately, the pastitsio fell into the same category as the potatoes.  It tasted ok, but really didn’t have any strong flavors.  I expect a hint of nutmeg and didn’t taste any and the bechamel sauce was a little rubbery.  I guess I just wanted a burst of fresh flavors when I took that first bite.  That unique flavor combination that says, “this is Greek food”.    The staff seemed friendly and the restaurant was pretty full, so maybe I just didn’t choose the best item on the menu.  Total bill was $12.

Mama Maria’s Greek Cuisine
503 N Pinellas Ave
Tarpon Springs, FL
(727) 934-5678

Mama Maria's Greek Cusine on Urbanspoon


Spent my day driving my car on a race track today, good times!  But, a racer has to eat… and that’s what this is about.  Now, “track food” isn’t known for being good eats.  Occasionally it’s okay, but more often than not… it’s merely expensive and convenient nutrition that you’re stuck with because you’re at a race track in the middle of nowhere.  Well, wouldn’t you know it, the concessions at this track were closed today!  Darn!  But, the track is within 5 miles of Keystone Heights, FL… which isn’t far from nowhere, but at least they have some restaurants!

My buddy Steve and I tried our luck at a fairly well-established local BBQ joint called Johnny’s.  The place “felt” like a Sonny’s, but the food was marginally better.  Good barbecue, not “great” barbecue.

Steve ordered the pulled pork and commented on it being moist and tender, but not “greasy”.  And he got that and a giant glass of iced tea for 8 bucks and change!  Me?  I saw St. Louis style pork ribs on the menu for $9.99 and just couldn’t come up with any good reason to not order them.  They were very well-smoked with lovely pinkness and flavor.  Could have been meatier, but I didn’t go away hungry.  For sides, I got a baked potato and baked beans.  Baked potatoes are hit or miss in a place like this, but in this case, it was definitely a hit.  Well-cooked, fresh and hot.  The beans were from a can, but very well seasoned.  I like fresh-cooked beans better, but I’ll take really good canned beans over weak fresh beans, so I’m not complaining.  I was sad that there were no greens on the menu.  As “country” as this place was, I really expected some fresh-cooked down home sides.  At least the waitresses were cute!

A nice cool break from the 104-degree heat-index at the track, some good grub, and much-needed hydration.  Would could ask for more?

Johnny’s BBQ and Catering
7411 State Rd 21
Keystone Heights, FL

Johnny's-bar-b-q & Catering on Urbanspoon

  • Filed under: BBQ
  • Day 8 of our vacation we had reservations for lunch at the Hawaiian Vanilla Company.  On the way there, we stopped at the World Botanical Gardens to check out Umauma Falls.

    What a beautiful 3 tiered waterfall.  We’ve seen numerous waterfalls on our trip, but this one was simply gorgeous.  The actual gardens aren’t as nice or plentiful as the Hawaii Botanical Gardens, but the waterfall is definitely worth the admission price.

    The Hawaiian Vanilla Experience Lunch was pretty interesting.

    Their vanilla in infused in all of the lunch items.  The vanilla lemonade was really tasty.  Lunch was a chicken sandwich with salad and roasted potatoes and a vanilla bread pudding with vanilla ice cream for dessert.  You also get to hear the story of the vanilla farm and get to visit the shade house where they grow the vanilla plants.  Trust me, after this visit you’ll completely understand why vanilla is so expensive.  Lunch and tour for two was $70, plus we ended up buying a few vanilla souvenirs as well. 

    After lunch, we went hiking through another cave and then walked around Kalopa State Park.  The park was beautiful and very serene.  We headed back to Hilo and stopped at the Hilo Bay Cafe for dinner. 

    Unfortunately, we hadn’t made reservations, but luckily there was plenty of room at the bar, so we ordered dinner there.  I think this was our best meal of the trip.

    I started out with a Thai curry coconut soup that was amazing.

    Loads of interesing flavors that were amazingly warm, but not too spicy.  Loren had a salad and really liked the dressing.

    I ordered the hamakua mushroom pot pie with chicken which came with a side salad.  This is the way pot pies should always be.

    The pastry crust was flaky and perfectly baked.  Chicken and fresh veggies in a creamy sauce inside.  This is comfort food at its best.

    Loren ordered their fish special of the night which was ono over a bed of mashed potatoes, spinach and tomatoes in a beurre blanc sauce.

    Perfectly cooked, with wonderful flavors.  There was nothing left on his plate when he was finished.  And since our entrees had been so good, I certainly couldn’t pass up their version of chocolate lava cake.

    Finally!  A restaurant that understands that lava cake should have a liquid center.  Loren was chatting with another customer at the bar and I had half of this eaten before he even turned around.  Wonderful deep chocolate flavors and the vanilla ice cream was a perfect complement.

    The entire experience was great.  This is definitely a restaurant that “gets it”.  The bartender was our waiter and he kept our drinks filled and plates cleared.  It was interesting watching him make bloody mary’s all night.  He must have made 8 of them while we were there.  Total bill was $61 and worth every penny.  If you’re in Hilo, make a reservation and eat here at least once on your trip.

    Hilo Bay Cafe on Urbanspoon

    Thursday was our last full day on the island.  We ate breakfast at the B&B and then headed down to the Volcano Park again to see the Jagger Museum and the end of the Chain of Craters road.  We also saw the Holei Sea Arch.

    We stopped at Thai Thai Restaurant for dinner in Volcano.  For an appetizer, we ordered the summer roll.

    I didn’t like it, but Loren did.  It had mint and cilantro in it that just completely ruined it for me.  Those just aren’t flavors I enjoy. 

    I ordered the chicken coconut yellow curry at the mildest setting available.

    I admit, I’m wimpy when it comes to spicy, but if this is mild, I’d hate to see what hot is like.  My mouth was on fire.  It had an interesting flavor, chicken and potatoes in the curry sauce, but my lips were tingling after just a few bites.

    Loren ordered the ginger chicken.

    His was even spicer than mine.  He enjoyed it, but still ordered some coconut ice cream for dessert just to cool off his tongue.

    The ice cream had bits of coconut in it.  Total bill was $50 and it took a while for both of us to regain sensation in our tongues and lips.  This is not a restaurant for the meek when it comes to spicy.

    Thai Thai on Urbanspoon

    Last day on the island and we got up at 3:00am in order to go on the sunrise Lava Ocean Boat Tour.  It was just so amazing during the sunset tour that we had to do it again before we left the island. 

    After the tour, we headed back to our B&B for breakfast then over to the Liliuokalani Gardens for awhile.

    We ate lunch at the Kuhio Grille in Hilo.  We actually ate breakfast here on our first day on the island.  Pancakes and a Belgium waffle that were huge and way more than one person could eat.

    Lunch on our last day also consisted of way too much food.  I ordered the chicken katsu with some corn chowder.  The chowder was really, really thick.  It had the consistency of mashed potatoes. 

    The chicken was a little overcooked.  Not the best I’d had on the island.  Loren ordered one of their specials, a Philipino combo which had spare ribs, adobo & pumpkin, long beans, wing beans and pork.

    He was a happy guy.  The meat just fell off the bones of the spare ribs.  Wonderful flavors all around.  He had no idea that he was eating pumpkin until he asked the waitress what it was.  Our final meal on the island ran us $28.

    Kuhio Grille on Urbanspoon

    All in all, we had an amazing vacation in Hawaii.  At every turn we were fascinated by the scenery.  From beautiful waterfalls, to lush green rainforests, to endless lava fields, to flowing glowing lava.  We kept saying “Wow”, only to have a bigger “Wow” uttered at the next stop.  The food was also wonderful.  So many of the restaurants used fresh, local ingredients and it was so apparent in the final dishes. 

    If you’re interested in seeing the rest of our photos, you can check them out on my Flickr page.  We’re slowly getting them edited and posted.  Aloha!