Taste of India Restaurant

 Two members of CVFTA recently went to Taste of India in Rockford, Illinois. This is one of the few Indian restaurants in the area and is also one of the lower cost options for that style of food. Indian food can get pretty pricy in America.

The restaurant is located in the spot next to Hachi Hachi at:
139 Sundae Drive
Rockford, IL 61107

Our mutual order:
Mango Milk Shake
Lamb Curry
Plain Nann
Vegetable Soup
Lamb Vindaloo
Chicken Nann

Prices here are higher than your everyday restaurant. For example, the lamb curry is around $14, but it seems customary to order bread for an extra $3. With a drink and a tip, you can easily spend over $25. Portions were pretty average compared to other restaurants in this range. The staff was very polite and helpful, checking up on us a few times to make sure everything was good.

I enjoyed everything that I ordered, though I especially liked the Nann .  When ordering curry, they ask for your preferred spice level from low to high. I ended up going with medium. Scott S. ordered extremely hot, but after trying it, I didn't feel it was much spicier than what I had. Maybe the potatoes in his curry toned things down a bit... I think they might also try to keep things to a western level of spice as to not alienate potential customers.

Overall, it is a nice restaurant and worth checking out. Just expect to spend at least $20 per person for a full meal.

Food Excursion: Cherry Valley Cafe

The CVFTA crew visited a new restaurant today. Though we had plans to check out Murasaki, the place appeared to be closed. After intense debate, we ended up going to a place called the Cherry Valley Cafe.

Cherry Valley Cafe
216 E State St
Cherry Valley, Illinois 61016-7708

Cherry Valley is a small town bordering Rockford and it has stayed that way for a long time. There is a main street made with actual red brick you would imagine to see in days long past. The cafe itself also fits the old-time feel both inside and out. Even the staff have that "Flo-esque" personality of 60's waitresses. If you like that old diner feel, this would be a great place for you to check out.

They serve a large variety from steak and burgers to all-day breakfast. Burgers, for example, can come with a small soup and also chips or fries for an extra fee. I'd suggest spending extra to get the fries because they are unique and worth trying out.

Our order consisted of:
Country Fried Steak (Cream of Chicken soup and hash browns)
New York Strip Steak (Onion Rings and green beans)
Mushroom Swiss Burger (vegetable soup and fries)
Swedish Pancakes
BLT Sandwich (Fries, no soup)

I had the Mushroom Swiss Burger. It came with fresh lettuce and tomato as well as a pickle slice. The fries were really interesting. They had extra breading or something that increased their flavor and texture over normal fries. The burger itself was good; about what you would expect from a diner styled restaurant.

I was told the strip steak was lackluster, but the country fried steak was flavorful and not over cooked.

I was also told that the Swedish Pancakes were good and on par with a local restaurant that specializes in breakfast foods.

Overall, a nice little restaurant and worth checking out. Prices are pretty average. Expect to spend around $10 per meal give or take a few dollars with a tip. This place is good if you enjoy that small town atmosphere.

You can see more photos here (larger versions available).


Katsucon 19 (2013) Photos and Report

Check out my Katsucon photography article for info on my technique!

Check out these image galleries for photos of the convention:
Photography Banzai Gallery:

My dedicated gallery website:

Facebook (you can tag yourself after liking the main page):

Scott S. (aka. Robot, aka. Saihawkeye) and I took the long road trip from northern Illinois to National Harbor Maryland last week to attend Katsucon 19. It is a large convention that is kind of a little sister to the largest convention in the area called Otakon. I had attended Otakon in 2011, so I can at least provide a little perspective on how they compare. I'll say right now that I liked Katsucon more.

The main convention hotel.
I literally decided to attend around a week before the convention. Without a room, I ended up finding one of the lower cost options around 1.5 miles from the convention on Oxon Hill Road (Clarion Hotel to be specific). The hotel itself was pretty nice, but I still kept my gear with me at all times throughout the trip to be on the safe side. Ideally, I would have much preferred a hotel on-site, but it was good enough and didn't hinder me too much. There is a bus called the NH1 that travels to National Harbor and has stops near the hotel making it workable if you time things right (the bus hits each stop on a 30 minute interval). My days were from morning to late evening.

Katsucon registration price spans from $35 to $70 depending on when you get your badge. Given my last minute trip, I ended up paying the full on-site price of $70. That price is a bit over the top considering my home convention called Anime Central tops out at $60 and is a much larger convention. I can't really comment much on the level and quality of panels, but the schedule shows 24-hour programming, which is nice. Registration on Friday morning wasn't too bad. I ended up waiting a while, but nothing too extreme.

The best thing about Katsucon, at least to me, is the cosplay. If you are interested in cosplay and photograph, this a convention you should plan on attending. The location is amazing and the cosplay quality is high. National Harbor and the main hotel called the Gaylord have some really amazing backdrops that help make your photos even better. The one negative is that you should expect the best locations to be very busy and difficult to access at times. The other negative is that February on East coast can have large fluctuations in weather. Friday had great weather above 50 in the daytime, but Saturday and Sunday were cold and windy with a little snow at times. I did buy a badge, but ended up spending the majority of my time just walking around taking photos of cosplayers. The convention is so packed full that it isn't difficult to spend all day taking up photo opportunities if that floats your boat.

Weather on the harbor isn't really an issue in regard to getting nice light because the main hotel has a large open area with a gigantic glass top. This hotel alone is worth the trip. There are multiple levels with even a few little slanted roof buildings inside.

Inside the Gaylord (convention hotel)

I ended up with over 1000 uploaded photos this time, with from 1 to 5 photos per person. As you might know, I spend most of my time doing hallway cosplay photography. This time I took a few photos of friends and friends of friends quite a bit on Saturday.

Impromptu Magi Shoot
The convention went pretty smoothly, but there were a few quirks. On Friday, the popular gazebo area was blocked off due to a youth convention that was happening at the same time. There was said to be various problems with them over the weekend, but I was personally pretty oblivious to any issues besides the access restrictions. The Gazebo was eventually split into to parts, allowing us to get our photo ops, which was nice.

The popular Yaya Han at the Gazebo on Sunday.
Katsucon and Otakon have a different feel. I like Katsucon a bit better due to the location and 24 hour feel to the convention. I was off-site so I can't say from first hand experience, but if you manage to get a room at the Gaylord, you should be able to experience the convention all day or night without having to worry about the weather or your safety. As I also said, they have programming that spans the early hours meaning there should always be something to do. At Otakon, the place gets a bit unappealing after dark, so it isn't quite as fun in my opinion (though August daylight hours are longer, which is good for Otakon).

A great location for constant convention action.
I personally had a nice experience at the convention and would eventually like to return. The expense of big trips like this makes it difficult though. Overall, if you have an interest in large conventions and want to see some great cosplay or even just want to stay at a really amazing hotel for a weekend, Katsucon is worth checking out.

Check out my Katsucon photography article for info on my technique!

San Jose Taqueria Food Excursion

We recently visited a restaurant off of East State Street in Rockford Illinois specializing in Mexican food.

The interior is top notch with elaborate furnishings and features like a fountain and clouds on the ceiling.  It is probably designed to mimic the style of high end homes and buildings in Mexico.

Walls were textured and adorned.
All three members of CVFTA were present for the excursion.

We ordered :
Quesadilla Dinner
Taco Dinner (steak)
Super Nacho
Guacamole Appetizer

I ordered the iced tea.
Quesadilla Dinner
The Taco Dinner
Super Nacho

I had the taco dinner and the iced tea.  The prices were reasonable and the food was pretty good.  I especially liked the iced tea.  It had a light sweetness to it as well a taste of lime that went really well together.  The tacos came with flavored rice, beans, and some guacamole.  The flavor of the tacos was decent on its own, but they seem to be flavored mildly enough that you should use the bottles of hot sauce that are available on the table to get your ideal level of spice.

Overall, the food was pleasant and the restaurant was fun to look at inside.  It's worth revisiting in the future to try out more of the menu.

You can see more of the photos I had taken here (with larger versions available).

Sushi Roll Takeout from Hachi Hachi Express

A few days ago I decided to visit a local restaurant called Hachi Hachi Express. They specialize in sushi and hibachi styled meals at a decent price. They are somewhat between a chain fast food restaurant and a full restaurant. The seating area is without a waitress, but their food and prices are a bit above what you would pay at somewhere like McDonalds or Burger King. It's really easy to spend $20 on a full meal of sushi rolls.

My order consisted of:
Bagel Roll: $4.50
Shrimp Tempura Roll: $5.75
California Roll: $3.75

The Tempura and California rolls.

The bagel rolls.
As mentioned before, I had takeout, so they put them together in as few packages as possible. Portions for the price are a bit small, but that comes with the territory of this specialty offering.

My favorite of the three rolls were the tempura shrimp. They have a great overall flavor and texture.  The sauce covering the seaweed wrap adds to the overall enjoyment as well.
Tempura rolls were the best tasting of the group.

The California rolls and bagel rolls didn't appeal to me much. The bagel rolls had an odd after taste, probably from the smoked fish or just the combination of the ingredients. They were alright, but just not too appealing to me.
The bagel roll up close.

The California rolls were better than the bagel rolls, but still not something I'd order again. I probably should have put some of the included sauces or condiments on them to add kick to the somewhat bland ingredients.

California rolls
I have been to Hachi Hachi quite a few times. It's a quick and easy way to stomp out that craving for Japanese style food without having to go through the whole sit-down restaurant experience with a waitress. They probably have around 40 different sushi rolls and over 10 hibachi meals, so there is a lot to choose from.  I really like the shrimp tempura rolls, but I need to try more of the sushi offerings to find other favorites, which I'm sure exist. 

You can see larger versions of the photos here.

Food on my Arizona 2013 trip.

I stayed in Arizona from January 4th through 11th. The first three days I attended Taiyou Con in Mesa, but for the remainder, I just enjoyed the time with my aunt and uncle I was staying with.

In tradition with recent CVFTA articles on local restaurants, I photographed some of the more interesting meals we had.

The first restaurant we visited was their favorite pizza placed called Oregano's due to its classic Italian Chicago styled fare. We had a Italian salad as well as a thin crust pizza with pepperoni and sausage. I let them totally decide on the order so that I could experience what they like most about the food there.

A large pepperoni and sausage pizza.
The pizza turned out more unique that I expected it to be. The toppings were of a high quality and placed under the cheese, giving it a unique texture and flavor over your run of the mill pizza.

A salad large enough for 4 people.
The salad was also surprisingly unique. The dressing wasn't the standard high vinegar quotient Italian, but more of a mild hint of flavor to the salad. The main kick came from the feta cheese, figs, and walnuts graciously disbursed throughout. Salad really goes well with pizza and helps to remove a little bit of the high-calorie guilt that comes from eating pizza like that.

Later in the week we went on a trip east to the Superstition Mountains and Tortilla Flats. Superstition Saloon was located in a little town and the second restaurant worth mentioning.

Most of the restaurant is covered in $1 bills.
The restaurant is a popular attraction with the unique decor of customer's dollar bills covering the walls, bar seats made out of saddles, and an overall western theme.  Food ranged from burgers to Mexican styled cuisine.

Taco meal came with two large soft shell tacos and vegetables.
My uncle's meal at the Superstition Saloon.
The food here was pleasant and pretty basic.  I enjoyed the tacos and the atmosphere of the place.  It's worth checking out if you are doing a similar trip to that area.

After Tortilla Flats, we visited a ghost town for some ice cream at the Miner's Grill and Ice Cream Parlor. We had planned to have prickly pear ice cream, but they no longer had it. I went with the cotton candy flavor.

Cotton candy flavored ice cream.
I enjoyed the slight cotton candy flavor, but wasn't too fond of the small chocolate pieces disbursed throughout the ice cream. The chocolate added some bite to the ice cream that is probably appealing to some people, but not me personally. It was thicker than normal ice cream with more of a Italian Gelato consistency to it.

The last restaurant we visited was P.F. Chang's China Bistro. I had mentioned these food reviews and said that so far CVFTA had mostly visited Chinese or Japanese styled restaurants, so they seemed to go with that theme for this last outing.

The atmosphere of the place is on the somewhat upscale side with a lot of dark woods and shinny metals disbursed throughout. Food also fits the theme with smaller quantities at a higher than normal prices. My favorite food of our order was the crab wantons. They had a really nice filling and were not over or under cooked.  They were probably one of the best Crab Rangoon type preparations I've had so far.

My meal consisted of a honey glazed chicken and rice meal. It was decent, but nothing really struck me besides the strongly flavored vegetables on the side that didn't personally appeal to me. The chicken was good, but I just had wished there was more of it for the price.

Honey glazed chicken.

I had a nice time visiting my family in Arizona and experiencing a few new restaurants along the way.  You can see more photos here.

Restaurant Excursion: Salamone's Italian Pizzeria

The entire CVFTA team visited Salamone's Italian Pizzeria on Saturday the 12th 2013.  You can learn more about their restaurant on their Facebook page and website.

Salamone's is a traditional Italian styled place in a small town that is east of the largest city in the area called Rockford (currently at 103 S. Cherry St., Cherry Valley, IL).

We had originally planned to visit a pizza restaurant for none other than pizza, but ended up making separate orders. One of our members frequents the place and made the suggestion.  We all agreed that it sounded interesting enough to check out considering it was local and not a chain restaurant.

Our mutual order consisted of:
Stuffed crust pepperoni pizza and onion rings.
Fettucini alfredo and bruschetta appetizer.
Calzone with mushrooms, green olives, and artichoke inside.

Stuffed crust pepperoni pizza.
Prices are pretty average for a restaurant of this level.  Pizzas were from $10 to $20 and the Calzone I ordered was around $9.

Upon arrival, we walked in directly to the bar area.  It seemed comfortable enough with quite a few normal dining tables and wasn't crowded at the time. 

He was instantly ready to enjoy his fettucini alfredo.
We ended up staying in the bar, so I didn't get a chance to see what the normal restaurant seating arrangements were like.  The bar had multiple flat screen TVs with sports games on that give customers an additional level of atmosphere to enjoy if they prefer the supplemental sound and visuals.

The calzone includes up to 3 additional ingredients at no charge.
I had ordered the Calzone with mushrooms, green olives, and artichoke inside.  It was flavorful and enjoyable, though the knife I had wasn't the best tool to cut into the crust, making a bit difficult to eat unless I had wanted to just use my hands.  Portion size was reasonable for the price.

Onion rings
I had also sampled the onion rings someone else ordered.  They had thick pieces of onion inside and seemed fresh with a hand-made feel.

One of the owners had noticed us taking photos and took a moment to stop by for a quick chat.  It's nice to see that the place is family owned and operated.  I'm sure we will return there again in the future to sample other items on the menu.

Taiyou Con 2013 Photos and Report

Convention Photos:
Photography Banzai: Friday, Saturday, Maid Cafe, Masquerade, Sunday
Gallery Site: Friday, Saturday, Maid Cafe, Masquerade, Sunday
Facebook (tag-able): Friday, Saturday, Maid Cafe, Masquerade, Sunday

Also check out my related Taiyou Con 2013 photography article on photographybanzai.com.

I was able to attend a convention far outside of my usual stomping grounds. I found out the convention existed through a fan page of one of the guests. It seemed like a good way to start a visit with my aunt and uncle that I occasionally see while they are living in Arizona.

I might as well mention the added bonus that I've used twice before. My home city has a smaller airport that has a direct flight to Mesa, AZ. It might be a bit more expensive than O'Hare in Chicago, but it is extremely easy If you are a resident of either the Scottsdale/Mesa, AZ area or Rockford metro, IL area. The Rockford Airport (RFD), for example, has free parking and you can expect the check-in and security screening process to take only a few minutes. There is a flight to Vegas I'd like to try out if I can someday afford the flight and hotel costs for a convention I've heard of near the airport.

Taiyou con (Facebook page link) is a convention in Mesa Arizona that was on its third year for 2013. The convention floor consisted of an area past what I assume was the main lobby of the Hilton. Some of the panel rooms and the dealer's room were a bit small, but the rest of the areas such as the artists alley and main programming rooms were spacious.  The main area with artists booths was the one I spent most of my time in.  It was a good photography area with skylight in the daytime and enough room to not cause any traffic flow issues if I asked for a picture.
The main area with artists booths had enough room to work in.
I need to mention the badge. They had a map of the convention on the back! This is a great idea and I ended up using it a few times before I knew where all of the panel rooms were located. I arrived late Friday and registration was out of program books, so the badge helped. Nicely done.

My time at the convention consisted of about two hours on Friday night and full days on Saturday and Sunday. I ended up with around 715 raw files before my edit and selection process.

I was able to attend a few events and panels such as the Masquerade, Voice actor Q&A, Cosplay for Beginners, and the Maid Cafe to name a few. All of the panels and events that I did attend were interesting and informative. There was one quirk in regard to placement and scheduling that I noticed at the "Cosplay for Beginners" panel. Whatever event was scheduled next to it had extremely loud music playing half of the time, making it hard to follow what the panelist was saying. It is difficult to fault the convention though, because this happens at most to some degree.  Especially with smaller conventions that don't have as many options available to isolate louder events.
The Masquerade award session.
This was my first time attending a maid cafe at a convention. This specific event was $10 for up to an hour of activities such as go-fish, special maid skills like caricature art drawings, general small talk, dancing, and group activities like jan-ken-pon to win a prize. I'll probably try other ones at future conventions in my area. I decided to pay an extra $5 for an instant photo of me with the two maids that handled the table I was at.
My table maids and one of the other customers.
The difficult thing about attending a convention outside of your area (in my case many states apart) is that you probably won't know anyone. I haven't experienced this in a long time, but had that situation at Taiyou Con more than I've ever had before. It's a good and bad thing. Good because I can meet a lot of new people and do some networking, but bad because I'm not exactly the best at doing that. I did strike up some conversation with a few photographers I randomly ran into. It's a bit more difficult to talk with cosplayers for various reasons. Usually, I just ask and then take their photo without even making small talk afterward. I don't want to take more of their time unless they make some type of indication they want to talk. They rarely if ever do that, so I just move on to the next photo opportunity that presents itself. Photography itself is a good way to enjoy the convention, so I use it in that respect and always have a good and busy time. Like many have said before, conventions are what you make them. It's up to you to make them enjoyable.

You can tell the girl in the background knows how to have a good time at conventions.
The one somewhat familiar face at the convention was the photographer of Cosplay in America. I talked with him a bit and also hung around his booth on occasion to take hallway cosplay photos. It was a good location that wasn't usually busy. You can check out his site and the video he made for the convention. If you look closely, you can see I seemed to have "videobombed" his video on two occasions toward the end.
Cosplay in America interviewing a cosplayer.
Overall, I really enjoyed the convention. I never once had any issues with staff and thought things ran smoothly. They did a good job making the convention a success. I'm not sure when I'll be able to visit another convention in the west due to the expense, but I would like to eventually make it out for more.

Also check out my related Taiyou Con 2013 photography article on photographybanzai.com.
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