Home Valley Advocate Best Bites: Ordering off the kid’s menu: 9-year-old budding food critic shares...

Best Bites: Ordering off the kid’s menu: 9-year-old budding food critic shares his top 15 places to eat

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By AZAI DUGGER and ROBIN GOLDSTEIN
For the Advocate

Note from Robin Goldstein: For this column, I asked my 9-year-old nephew and co-author Azai Dugger to choose his favorite restaurants and briefly describe each one — the same task as I undertook for my last Gazette column.

With great difficulty and repeated admonishments, I banned surrounding family members from prompting Azai as he named and described his winners. I edited his descriptions moderately, shortening and re-ordering some material with the priority of preserving his original wording and phrasing. Azai then edited my final draft.

Meals served: B=Breakfast, L=Lunch, D=Dinner

STAFF PHOTO / CAROL LOLLIS
Azai Dugger at the Bluebonnet Diner, one of his top restaurants in the area. “Four people here know my order by heart,” he says. “They even get the sausage links right.”

Azai’s Top 15

1. Tokyo Cuisine, West Springfield (L,D): As I’ve grown up and my young taste buds have passed away, I’ve learned to like more things. I never liked fried rice before last year. If you like fried rice too, this is the place to go. Their fried rice is heavenly. I love both hibachi places, Tokyo Cuisine and Osaka, but the reason Tokyo Cuisine is my number one is it’s got the best food. I usually get the steak, noodles, and extra fried rice. When you’re about to go to Olive Garden, Tokyo Cuisine is the first building you see on your right if you’re in the passenger seat. There’s a metal wire fence surrounding it. It’s small inside — they have like five or six hibachi tables.

When you walk in, there’s a meat counter and a little counter under it where they have really cute little cats that are waving to you. It’s like they’re trying to say hi with their paws. One time one of our waiters was on his phone here, looking all bored and stuff, not social. But the hibachi chefs are always cool. They take a squeeze bottle and squirt water in your mouth that doesn’t taste anything like water. It’s very, very sweet.

If it’s your birthday, they’ll give you a special dessert, play a very large drum, and sing to you.

2. Osaka, Northampton (L, D): I gotta say, if you want entertainment, Osaka is the place to go. They do this thing where they light a fire right in front of you, all around the edges of the hibachi table. Sometimes they’ll give you balloon toys. If you don’t get one, you can ask for it. They’ll literally make it right in front of you. Last time they made a little hat for me, and it fit over my big hair perfectly. The antennas were actual balloons — he figured out a way to squeeze the air so it was like two little antennas extending out of the hat. The antennas broke once, because I had to pull up the hat and I squeezed it at the bottom, which pushed too much air up. Luckily, the hibachi chef made me another hat. I took that one home and tried to bring it to my birthday party, but it popped in the middle of the car ride. My third-grade mind wasn’t processing correctly.

3. Fitzwilly’s and the Toasted Owl, Northampton (L, D): Here there’s, I’m counting … seven areas where you can eat food, including the bar. Next to the Fitzwilly’s bar is an entrance to Toasted Owl, where you can sit at booths with little TVs. I watch basketball and sometimes football with my dad, and I eat chicken tenders. For my birthday I wanted to sit at the bar and watch games.

4. Joe’s Café, Northampton (D): They’ve got Italian food but Mexican design. The walls have people with sombreros on them. My dad’s friend works here. They know me at Joe’s, but they don’t know my order. It’s two meatballs and pasta with butter and no green stuff in it. I really like their meatballs, they are delicious. Joe’s pizza is decent, not the best but good. Chocolate milk is the second-best in town after Bluebonnet (see below). I also like the bread, but Grandma and Grandpa don’t like when I eat too much of it.

Warning: the pasta can get sticky and dry when you take the leftovers home.

The jukebox doesn’t work. They unplugged it. You can still flip to different pages and press the buttons, but you can’t play it. I think it used to work, because I very vaguely remember it blasting out music.

But I’m literally imagining what it would be like if I were sitting next to it, and someone started playing and singing “Bad Blood” by Taylor Swift. I don’t want it to work. Her fans were the only people I knew rooting for the Chiefs in the Super Bowl — just because her boyfriend was on the team. That’s annoying. If the Niners won, I would have been so much happier.

5. Bluebonnet Diner, Northampton (B, L): I order a lot of stuff here at once: four pieces of white bread toast, two hard-boiled eggs (but I don’t eat the yolks), a blueberry pancake, three sausage links, chocolate milk, and seltzer. The Bluebonnet has great chocolate milk, the best in town.

Four people here know my order by heart — they even get the sausage links right. I like just chilling and eating, there’s a good view out the window. They have a little train that runs along the top of the walls.

STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS
Azai Dugger at the Bluebonnet Diner, with his mother, Rosie Goldstein. “I order a lot of stuff here at once,” Duggar says. “The Bluebonnet has great chocolate milk, the best in town.”

6. Absolute Zero, Northampton: This place sells ice cream. But then a new place opened down the street called Nice Tea that sells something called boba. They started competing with Absolute Zero for customers, and they got a claw machine to attract kids like me. It worked. I went to Nice Tea just for the claw machine. I didn’t get anything but some water. You can fill up the water yourself, so you don’t need to stand in line or buy anything.

But then Absolute Zero got a competing claw machine, an exactly identical one, to fight to get the kids back. And I think they did. Recently I didn’t see anyone in Nice Tea, and there were like 10 people in Absolute Zero.

Because the thing that Absolute Zero has, and Nice Tea doesn’t, is penguin stuffies. There’s a little shelf right next to the Absolute Zero claw machine where they have small black penguin stuffies on sale for (I think) $3, medium blue ones for $5, and large red ones for $10. Even if you don’t buy a stuffie, you can take one out, play with it, and put it back. There are a few of each size, like eight or ten of each size.

One day there was this really annoying kid there who kept trying to take one. He was carrying their whole stock of large penguins around the store. Sir, you are this tall. Your hands are this big. You think you can pick up all of them and walk away with them? He did put them back. I would have took only two, because one needs a friend.

I get chocolate-chip cookie dough ice cream here. They make it in front of you. I have whipped cream on it, and gummy bears, but I don’t eat them all together. First I eat the gummy bears, then the whipped cream, then the ice cream.

Warning: they have bad sprinkles that don’t taste good.

7. The Olive Garden, West Springfield (L, D): What I order depends on my mood: spaghetti with butter and salt, usually, or chicken tenders. They don’t have good pizza. It’s weird and hot — the texture really is weird. But I love the breadsticks and the meatballs.

The place is big, which means you have a better chance of getting a good seat if you get there early. It’s very, very popular. There’s a bar, but I’ve never sat there. They have a little fireplace in one area, and tablets on the tables.

I just don’t get that here, like at Texas Roadhouse (see below), you have to pay to play games on the tablet — about three dollars. The weird thing is that they have a game called Toca Train that you can play for free on an iPhone, but you have to pay for it at the restaurant.

8. La Veracruzana, Northampton (L, D): I always order the quesadillas. They are amazing. I get a seltzer, and I think they sell chocolate milk. It’s nice here, pretty big. The tables are a bit sticky sometimes. Their Mexican football on TV doesn’t have subtitles, so you can’t see what they’re saying.

The only thing I don’t really like is that the cups are really small for the salsas, so you have to keep getting more. The spicy one is called diablo, it means devil. I am the diablo.

9. McDonald’s, Northampton (L, D): I love the Happy Meal with six-piece nuggets, extra fries, and no apple slices.

10. Smithsonian Chowder House, Hatfield (L, D): This is a new place my mom and I started going to. I get the grilled-cheese sandwich, and a dessert cupcake that’s different every time — sometimes it’s Oreo cheesecake.

11. Texas Roadhouse, Hadley (D): A good place to hang out and have fun. Their chicken tenders are spicy. I haven’t tried their steak.

I went with my mom’s friend’s daughter, and we took turns playing the basketball hoop game. She got to 56 then I got to 106, and she kept being like “how did you beat my record?” I said, “because there’s a time limit, you have to make sure you get it in, and you have to be like ‘boom!’”

The price is either $4 or $3 per game.

12. Crazy Seafood, Holyoke (L, D): I don’t eat seafood, but the chicken tenders are really big here, and I really like them. They take a long time to cool down, which is good and bad at the same time. They’re sort of spicy.

I like how it looks: there’s a TV, canoe paddles on the ceiling, and surfboards. One of the parts of the restaurant has a seat near the surfboard and you can sign your name on it. I’ve done it once.

13. Gombo, Northampton (D): Delicious fried chicken, and they have candy when it’s Halloween, but they take a really long time with the drinks and the food. I feel a bit stressed out at the high-top tables. There’s no wallpaper, nothing really on the walls. I guess some paintings.

14. Johnny’s Roadside Diner, Hadley (B, L): Amazing tater tots.

15. Roberto’s, Northampton (D): Their desserts are very good, especially their cookies. I don’t usually like cookies warm, but here they are tender and chewy and warm, and I like them.

They do have a bar there, but I’ve never sat there before. They have outside seating which is nice. When I was 7, I saw snow on their tables.

One place I wish I could pick, but it’s closed, is Sylvester’s, Northampton (B, L). I know it’s closed, but I still wish I could list it. I guess I just did!

And one last place I know I want to go, that would probably make the list if I did, is Friendly’s, Florence (B, L). Believe it or not, I’ve never been there. But I think I’m going to love it.

Azai Dugger, age 9, is a third-grade student in Northampton. His uncle, Robin Goldstein, writes the monthly Best Bites column in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Source: ValleyAdvocate.com