Category Archives: Chain Restaurants

Have a delicious lunch at Ajisen Ramen at Queens Crossing in Flushing, New York

The Ajisen Deluxe Ramen dish is one of many delicious menu items offered at Ajisen Ramen in the food court at Queens Crossing in Flushing, New York.

Ajisen’s namesake ramen dish: Ajisen Deluxe Ramen

I’ve long had the misconception that authentic ramen was just the “homemade” original version of the 25-cent instant noodles so many college students live on.

It didn’t help that all of the Korean delis near my office basically rip open a bag of said instant noodles to use as the base for their “authentic” ramen soups. Even one specialty place I went to many years ago had noodles that mirrored the very wavy form typical of the noodles sold by Maruchan and their competitors.

Beef Sukiyaki Ramen at Ajisen Ramen in the Queens Crossing food court

Beef Sukiyaki Ramen at Ajisen Ramen

That’s not the case with the ramen on the menu at Ajisen Ramen at the Queens Crossing center in downtown Flushing, Queens, New York where they serve a dozen and a half varieties of the popular dish.

Ajisen has been at Queens Crossing since it opened years ago, but for some reason I can’t fathom I just never tried their food… a problem I rectified last weekend while visiting family in Flushing for the celebration of Chinese New Year.

I wanted to try something relatively “safe” since this was my first foray into Ajisen’s menu so being a fan of beef I went with one of only two offerings that included it — I ordered the Beef Sukiyaki Ramen (number 7). At $9.25 it’s one of the pricier ramen dishes, but in my opinion it’s well worth the price since the bowl is filled to the brim with strips of tender beef, a generous portion of ramen noodles (heartier noodles than the thinner, wavy noodles in the $0.25 bags sold at Chinese supermarkets), bean sprouts, a brined and hard boiled egg, some seaweed, and plenty of chopped scallions.

Ramen noodles in the Beef Sukiyaki Ramen dish at Ajisen Ramen in the Queens Crossing food court in Flushing, New York

Authentic ramen noodles look more like Chinese lo mein than the pale, wavy strands found in cheap bags of instant noodles.

The “white broth” is especially tasty. The recipe is based on the traditional techniques used by establishments that specialize in tonkotsu ramen in which pork bones and fat are simmered for hours to extract all the delicious pork flavor and create a cloudy soup with a creamy consistency.

Fair warning, though: Ajisen is a “fast food chain” sort of ramen shop. As with practically any chain restaurant there’s going to be some corner cut somewhere, and in the case of Ajisen it’s in the broth which is — shocker — not actually boiled for the dozens of hours it would take for a truly authentic and outstanding tonkotsu broth but rather reconstituted from a concentrate that is made from broth that was cooked using the traditional methods at Ajisen’s home base in Japan. At least that’s what the company claims, and I’m willing to take them on their word for that since the soup tastes exponentially better than the chemical-laden potables you’ll get from the instant stuff.

At the very least I enjoyed the meal enough that I went back the very next day to try another one of their dishes, their namesake Ajisen Deluxe Ramen which included the same peripheral ingredients but featured slices of pork chop along with a massive chunk of nice fatty pork rib — it tastes a lot better than it sounds, but I prefer the Beef Sukiyaki.

Panera’s Fuji Apple Chicken Salad

Panera Bread's Fuji Apple Chicken Salad

Fuji Apple Chicken Salad: chicken, romaine, field greens, tomatoes, red onions, pecans, Gorgonzola, and Fuji apple chips

My co-worker and I go to the Panera Bread on 5th Avenue in Manhattan near Bryant Park almost every day for lunch. It’s gotten so that a few of the cashiers there know my typical lunch order by heart (You Pick 2: Chopped Chicken Cobb with Avocado Salad and Sonoma Chicken Stew), and my co-worker was shocked when someone stole the Foursquare mayorship from me.

He’s also fairly consistent in what he orders for lunch there — he swears by the Fuji Apple Chicken Salad (with a different soup each time) so I decided to try it out for dinner at the Panera location near my house to taste for myself what he raves about.

My verdict after having tried this particular salad is that while it tastes pretty great, it’s personally not one that I could eat on a more frequent basis.

There isn’t any sort of “hint” of apple flavor in this salad — we’re talking full blown, in your face apple flavor from not just the mountain of dried Fuji apple chips sitting atop the chicken breast, romaine lettuce, field greens, tomatoes, red onions, pecans, and Gorgonzola crumbles but also the balsamic Fuji apple vinaigrette they douse all those ingredients in. Make no mistake about it: this is one sweet salad!

That’s not to say that it’s not a delicious salad — it’s really more about my love-hate relationship with apples (I have a relatively mild allergic reaction to many varieties of apples with Fujis being one of the few exceptions) and my overall aversion to sweeter salads (I’m more of a savory salad type of guy) that makes this particular entree a little bit of a challenge.

However, seeing as how most of the the ingredients blend together pretty well — the mild sweetness of the apple chips works quite nicely with the nutty flavor of the pecans and the sharp accent of the red onions to complement the savory goodness of the chicken and Gorgonzola — I think this could work for me if I requested that they reduce the amount of dressing… or even eliminate the vinaigrette altogether.

Despite my own taste preferences I have no qualms about recommending this to other Panera patrons, especially those with a love for Fuji apples, as it really is a flavorful salad with some great ingredients.

Panera’s Chopped Steak and Bleu Cheese Salad

Panera's Steak & Bleu Cheese Chopped Salad

Sirloin, Gorgonzola, tomatoes & French fried onions… all the ingredients for a tasty meal

I love beef.

Whether it’s a juicy hamburger hot off the grill on the Fourth of July, a perfectly broiled ribeye steak still sizzling on the plate or a plump meatball on top of spaghetti all covered with cheese, beef has always been a central part of my diet.

Sure, I’ve had to cut back on red meat in the past few months, but I still vastly prefer the taste of good ol’ 100% all-American, USDA grade A beef to a piece of poultry.

That’s why it was a bit of a surprise to me that I wasn’t thrilled with Panera’s Chopped Steak and Bleu Cheese Salad, which I tried for the first time last night for dinner. It’s one of their Premium Signature menu items so I went in expecting something that would blow me away as much as the Chopped Chicken Cobb with Avocado Salad or the Steak & White Cheddar Panini did.

Don’t get me wrong. The salad tastes good and is packed with tender slices of beef that have been cooked just enough — nice and pink in the middle like any good piece of roasted beef should be — so it’s certainly not the quality of the ingredients.

There’s just something about this particular combination of tastes that just didn’t dazzle me. Or maybe it’s just beef steak in salad in general… honestly, it’s not something I’m used to so that may have been a factor. Or perhaps it’s just that the Chopped Chicken Cobb with Avocado Salad is so damn perfect that this one simply couldn’t compare and was running a losing race from the get-go.

Whatever the reason it’s just not something that I would choose ahead of my fave 9 times out of 10. I certainly wouldn’t have any qualms about recommending it to anyone who loves beef like I do… just don’t try the Cobb salad first.

Steel cut oats have been an important part of a healthier diet

I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with oatmeal for my whole life. It was big for me as a child since my mother would always cook up a bowl whenever I came down with something.

My friends and co-workers would get grossed out when I told them my penchant for using salt instead of sweeteners like sugar, cinnamon, honey or fruits. I think my preferences stem from oatmeal’s similarity to congee, a cultural staple that is always served salty or savory with ingredients like pork, chicken and/or dried scallops.

In short, I was never able to get into sweetened varieties of oatmeal when I was younger, but I’m finding the idea of mixing in fruits and other sweet ingredients more palatable nowadays with my new love of steel cut oatmeal.

Steel cut oats are the whole grain inner portion of the oat kernel which are minimally processed and thus require more cooking time than the more popular rolled oats that Quaker sells in tremendous quantities throughout the U.S.

Despite this additional processing, steel cut oats are surprisingly not much healthier or diabetes-friendly than other varieties of oatmeal. The logical assumption is that the additional step of processing that turns cut oats into thin sheets of flattened grains would eradicate some of the nutrients, but in reality the two varieties are almost identical in nutritional content.

Further, while the glycemic index of steel cut oats is indeed lower than that of rolled oats both types fall into the “low glycemic impact” range and thus are very good sources of complex carbohydrates for diabetics and others who are watching their sugar intake.

What it really boils down to is taste and texture. Steel cut oats have a nuttier, bolder flavor as well as a chewier consistency which in my opinion provides a better mouthfeel than the mushier, more “porridge-like” texture of rolled oats.

Panera Bread's steel cut oats with strawberries, cinnamon & pecans on the side

Panera’s steel cut oats are great as long as I keep the strawberries, cinnamon & pecans on the side

I personally like Panera Bread’s steel cut oatmeal offering which currently comes in just one variety — strawberries with cinnamon and pecans — although they have seasonal options during the year as well. I of course make sure to get all of the toppings on the side so I can control the amount of additional carbs I consume.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Jamba Juice’s steel cut oatmeal which has an unappetizingly soggy consistency and an inordinate amount of cinnamon sugar blended in. The end result is a dark brown, somewhat slimy, overly sweet quagmire of glucose overload. I love Jamba Juice’s all fruit smoothies, but I highly recommend avoiding the oatmeal there.

For a do-it-yourself option, I highly recommend Quaker’s steel cut oats which when prepared exactly as instructed on the packaging produces a delicious equivalent to Panera’s nutty, chewy oatmeal. I recently purchased a can of Trader Joe’s steel cut oats, but I have yet to try them: I’ll post a thought or two when I have a chance to cook ’em up.

Panera Bread’s Chopped Chicken Cobb with Avocado Salad is a perfect everyday lunch

Panera's Chopped Chicken Cobb Avocado Salad

Romaine lettuce, grilled chicken, avocado, eggs, Gorgonzola, bacon, and herb vinaigrette = delicious

I wasn’t a fan of avocado or avocado-based foods like guacamole for most of my life, but Panera Bread’s delectable Chopped Chicken Cobb with Avocado Salad made me a believer.

It’s one of Panera’s Premium Signature selections which means it’s on the higher end of their menu’s price spectrum, but it’s well worth the asking price.

The salad features romaine lettuce tossed with meaty slices of grilled chicken, chunks of creamy avocado, diced hard boiled eggs, Gorgonzola cheese, bacon, and herb vinaigrette dressing.

The chicken breast is never dry — a result I can’t consistently produce myself when I cook chicken — and the avocado is always very creamy (I need to find out where they buy theirs because the ones I get from the market tend to be a bit firmer).

I could do with more hard boiled egg (I love eggs) and less Gorgonzola (which tastes good but has a sometimes overpowering flavor), and I would suggest asking them to go a tad lighter on the dressing since they tend to slather the salad in dressing.

As it stands, though, the Chopped Chicken Cobb with Avocado Salad is a delicious and pretty nutritious lunch time option for a reasonable price. It’s my favorite item on Panera’s menu, and I’ve had it for lunch almost every day since they opened a location near my office in Manhattan last year.

I credit them for offering this and other tasty choices that made it surprisingly easy for me personally to transition into a healthier, Type 2 Diabetes friendly diet!