A writer's rootsBlame Mr. Byrne. My freshman year English teacher at Seton Hall Preparatory School in South Orange, N.J., was the first person I can remember who encouraged me to write and told me I had talent.
That year's first assignment was to pen an essay on autumn. Mine was about a nature goddess undetectable to humans who painted the landscape with bright hues every fall season. The story concept originated with my mom; because I was a know-it-all teen at the time, I deemed it a horrible idea. But I could think of nothing better.
Mr. Byrne - a 30-something educator of British descent who favored crisply starched white shirts, bow ties, charcoal-gray slacks and camel hair sport coats and who brooked no dissent among his teenage charges - was impressed with my composition and awarded me a score of 92, the equivalent of an A.
It was unthinkable: Mr. Byrne almost never gave out A grades in any of his English classes. Particularly not to some punk freshman who probably couldn't differentiate a preposition and a dangling participle. Sparked by Mr. Byrne's high praise, I embraced essay writing and ended the year with a grade of 88, highest in the class.
Fast forward three decades. I approached Steve Forrester, Daily Astorian editor and publisher, with the idea of a weekly restaurant review column. He approved, even though my credentials were modest: I was a freelancer who had written for a few newspapers, magazines and guidebooks about food, fitness and travel and had contributed to the Daily Astorian's sports section and vacation guides.
But my roots as a writer date to that initial writing assignment in Mr. Byrne's English class back when I was a freshman, and I continue to cherish his kind words and inspiration.
Qualifications, pleaseSince the inception of the "Mouth" column, some readers have questioned my qualifications. "Please Mr. Fencsak, could you for the sake of your readers and ourselves, identify your credentials as a restaurant critic?" asked Chadd- Paul Flues ll and Teona Dawson, owners of Astoria's Urban Cafe and Rusty Cup Coffee House and Beanery.
Reply: There's no school (that I'm aware of) for restaurant reviewers. My knowledge derives from dining at thousands of restaurants, devouring every food book and culinary magazine I can get my hands on, and from discussing food with amateur cooks, professional chefs, gastronomes and fellow food writers. I consider myself fortunate to have been tutored by two of the finest from the latter category: Karen Brooks, now a senior editor at The Oregonian; and Stephanie Irving, a former editor at Seattle's Sasquatch Books. Since the "Mouth" column's inception, my Daily Astorian editors have provided invaluable advice and guidance. Like most restaurant reviewers, I enjoy food, dining out and being able to write about my experiences.
Enough already!Some readers have complained about my recent spate of Tex-Mex restaurant reviews. After sampling umpteen burritos, enchiladas and quesadillas, I agree (although a well-traveled friend suggested a burrito bar in Aberdeen, Wash., that I should visit).
Numerous comments have come my way concerning Las Maracas, one of Astoria's newest Tex-Mex eateries. Some readers agreed with my assessment (Coast Weekend, Sept. 19), but others didn't, including Urban Cafe owners Flues and Dawson, who stated that "it is unfair and unwise to knock them out before they're even up," then added: "Your New York standards do not apply to little Astoria." Gerlind, another Astorian, agreed. "We had friendly, courteous and speedy service (at Las Maracas). The food was very good and plentiful. I would encourage people to find out for themselves and be pleasantly surprised," she wrote in a letter.
Reply: Readers may or may not value my restaurant comments and advice. Either way, they indeed should find out for themselves. Their opinions, not mine, are the ones that matter.
Revisiting The DepotMy upgrading of The Depot in Seaview, Wash., from three to four stars (Coast Weekend, Aug. 8) continues to generate controversy, including an e-mail from A. Kim, an out-of-towner. "I was quite flabbergasted that The Depot would qualify for what I consider a special recognition," Kim wrote, then explained why The Depot didn't deserve such a high rating (e.g. an unrelaxing atmosphere, "incomplete table settings," unsatisfactory service, high prices). "My contention," Kim added, "is that Four Stars should be saved for the restaurants that you look forward to going for your own special occasions."
Reply: I do patronize The Depot on special occasions. It's one the dozen or so area restaurants that I enjoy on those rare evenings when I can dine out without taking notes. Whether appetizers, entrees or desserts, almost all the preparations I've eaten at The Depot have been outstanding (a couple of misses were noted in my review). And I'll reiterate: A four-star restaurant need not be plush, and The Depot certainly isn't.
Let's 'Thai one on'One of my more prolific correspondents (who always requests anonymity) previously wrote to suggest a "Burnt Waffle Award." In the next letter, this Astoria resident decided a "Golden Waffle" would better accentuate restaurants' positive accomplishments. In the same letter, she vented "gustatory frustration with 'plasteec' chop suey fare in local 'plasteec'-walled emporiums," then expressed hope that Astoria can "Thai one on." The most recent letter noted: "Second thoughts lead me to the "Golden Platter" awards for our area's better eateries."
Reply: It's refreshing to receive letters about dining out laced with a healthy sense of humor. Perhaps downtown Astoria's upcoming Thai restaurant will be worthy of a "Golden Platter."
Gators invade SeasideJohn Sowa, chef and co-owner at Seaside's Lil' Bayou restaurant e-mailed the following news: "We are making arrangements with a Louisiana purveyor to have alligator meat on a regular basis. In addition, we are going to have boudin (sausage) shipped in. It could be pork, crawfish or shrimp filled, spices are added and mixed with rice."
Reply: The Lil' Bayou kitchen continues to introduce locals to culinary fixings from other regions, a practice that makes eating out more fun. Even if a diner is reluctant to sample alligator or some other exotic (for these parts) food.
In a follow-up e-mail, Sowa noted that alligator "toes" (breaded fried strips of gator meat), alligator jambalaya and alligator Grand Chenier (a tenderized and seasoned loin cut stuffed with crab) are either on Lil' Bayou's new menu or being offered as specials. He said boudin is usually poached, then grilled or pan seared and served smothered in cabbage and onions (and sided with mashed potatoes).
Stormy Monday Pasta nights are another welcome wrinkle in Lil' Bayou's menu. Look for Sicilian meatballs and spaghetti, mussels in pesto over ziti, and "Goomba" pasta tossed with chicken, winter vegetables and a Parmesan-cream sauce.
Contact the Mouth at The Daily Astorian, P.O. Box 210, Astoria, OR 97103 or phone (503) 325-3211 or e-mail email@example.com