Sunday, May 30, 2010

Donuts Plus

Saturday May 22nd 2010
Donuts Plus, 44th and Chestnut, Philadelphia, PA

I don’t make it over to West Philly too much. It’s almost like a different city than my neighborhood, and the traffic involved in going that way rarely justifies your reason for being there. But on those rare occasions when I do find myself in that part of the city, even just sort of close to that part of the city, I make it a point to hit up Donuts Plus.
Sharing a shopping center with an army recruitment center, laundromat, pornographic video store, African restaurant, and head shop, people don’t usually take me seriously when I tell them what an amazing place Donuts Plus is. They just shrug it off. To me Donuts Plus is a symbol of purity, a ray of hope and decency cast upon a city that needs just that, and when I think about Philly, no joke, Donuts Plus is one of the first things that comes to my mind. Their specialty is obviously donuts, but this is the first place I noticed the entrepreneurial Philly business style of taking something like a donut business and branching it out in as many directions as you could go. It’s part vintage arcade, water ice stand, hot dog shop, mini mart, and coffee shop. You get a calling card for Ghana and some Advil with your coffee and donut.
What impressed me so much about this place when I first came in back in 2003, was the price and the quality. My combination of items, which I’ve come to refer to as “The Deluxe” is a large iced coffee ($1.50), plain bagel with cream cheese ($1.00), and Boston creme donut ($.60), totaling $3.10. This is with the recent price increase included, it used to be .75 cents for the bagel and cream cheese, but even a dollar can’t be beat anywhere else. Not only is all this stuff super cheap, but its actually good. You might think a donut is just a donut, and these are definitely classic regular donuts, but they’re fresh and moist, with just the right amount of creme inside. The bagels are good and chewy, maybe they could use a little bit more cream cheese, but at least they don’t go overboard with it, and you do get what you pay for. The coffee normally wouldn’t be anything special, I don’t know what kind it is, but I’m sure its some store bought drip machine brand, which with my coffee snobbery increasing isn’t the kind of thing I’m into at all these days, but it feels right drinking it in this situation. The size of the coffee has a lot to do with it, being served in a to-go soup container with a straw hole scissored into the lid.
The first time I came to Philly after being a proud new owner of Old Vanny, my beloved van, a total Cinderella moment happened as I sat in the drivers seat, put my bag of donuts and bagels on the floor and with my right hand placed the gigantic oversized coffee right into the cup holder. It fit perfectly, snugly, right into the cup holder. I sat and admired the sight of it, basking in a moment of true perfection, feeling good about life. Nothing could have been more meant to be. I don’t mean to get all emotional on you, but that was a special day for me.
Whereas I think working in the pizza truck would be a fun job, I could easily see getting real depressed working in a strip mall donut shop, but that’s not how it is. It’s run by an Asian family, the male workers sometimes seem indifferent, but the mother and daughter team are constantly smiling, enjoying their work. I’m sure there’s been times where I didn’t get to go to Donuts Plus for a full year, maybe even more, and yet they remember me, and have a vague recollection of what I like to get.
“It’s been a while.”, she said to me as I walked in. I couldn’t help but agree, it had been a couple months at least. I ordered the bagel first, knowing it would take a little time for them to toast it. “Iced coffee..?”, she was trying to remember everything included in The Deluxe. I nodded. “No sugar right?”, correct you are. It’s a professional operation they got going on here.
Sipping my coffee, eating my bagel, munching my donut, experiencing all these wonderful pleasures at once, I thought back to the pizza truck, how they acted like jerks, tried to steal my change, gave me a crap product, and bestowed some of the suckyness of their lives upon mine, and I realized how a place like Donuts Plus actually should be the same way. That’s why it’s a real gem. You walk into a dismal looking donut shop next to the laundromat, expectations set real low, prepared to be spit on and screamed at, and instead you get some nice people giving you good things, things you want, at an exceptionally reasonable price. If these people can do it, why can’t everyone else?
Donuts Plus should be a business role model, it’s something to respect and look up to, they care, they take pride in what they’re doing, and unfortunately they’re outnumbered by places with the opposite approach. They do what they do well, and I can’t imagine with too great a reward at the end of the day, yet they keep at it. I know it might sound silly, but this is truly one of my favorite places in the entire world, and I feel that no visit to Philadelphia could be complete without stopping in to check it out, if for no other reason than to guarantee yourself one positive experience during your stay.

The Pizza Truck

Thursday May 20th 2010
The Pizza Truck, Memphis and Sergeant, Philadelphia, PA

Shortly before I moved up to Philly my friend Davey (the same one with the wise words about Plaza Pizza) told me about a pizza truck, like an ice cream truck except with pizza, that drives around North Philly selling slices. Naturally I was amazed, excited, and eager to flag it down and scoop a couple slices.
“How’s their pizza?”, I asked him.
“It sucks!”, he was blunt about it. “It’s so bad, but every time you hear that bell your like ‘oh shit, pizza truck!’ and you gotta grab a slice.”
I’d passed up many opportunities, watching it pass down my street, hearing them ringing their little bell from up in my room, never actually stopping them and trying it out. I mean, the review I’d heard wasn’t the best.
Freshly home from the Log/Mag U.S. tour I was driving home from the grocery store, and abiding by the law I came to a complete stop at the intersection of Memphis and Sergeant. And who would have the right of way? Who’s turn was it at the stop sign? The pizza truck. From the drivers seat I got a good full view of the whole thing as it slowly passed in front of me. This is the time, this is the place. I grabbed a parking spot down the block and ran back up the road. Luckily a couple yokels had already flagged it down, so I got in line behind them.
My order for one slice was placed with the crabby old lady who runs the operation, and evidently isn’t enjoying herself very much. The way she threw the slice in the oven was with such disrespect for the food, that even if it had been a tasty slice of pizza before, it wasn’t going to be now. Her negative energy and abuse tactics were most certainly going to translate right into my dining experience.
“Can I help you?”, her co-worker asked me in the type of tone you would use to address someone urinating on your front steps, apparently having missed the exchange between the woman and I. I didn’t respond. I don’t understand how these people could have been so bummed out. Your in a giant truck, just driving around, making pizzas. To me, it sounds like a lot of fun. Make a sharp turn, pizzas go flying across the truck. You don’t even actually have to stop if someone flags you down, you could just keep going, it really sounds like an enjoyable job to me.
After a good minute and a half heat up she handed me my slice, said a quick thanks, and turned her back. This slice was $1.50 and I’d given them $2, no change had been received. Did they assume they’d be getting tipped? For this nonsense?
“Hey.” I said in my most authoritative voice, standing there outside the truck, holding my sad piece of pizza. “Fifty cents.” She grabbed a couple coins and handed them to me, no excuse, no apology, it wasn’t a mistake, they were trying to rob me. And they basically did for the $1.50 that I paid. Look at this joke. The shape of the cheese shreds is still visible after cooking, meaning they’re using some really low grade stuff.

I ate it in two bites, and don’t get me wrong, it was terrible, but I just felt indifferent about it after eating it, like as soon as I was done with it I didn’t even have a memory of it. I think if your going to make good pizza, then good for you, do it well, but if your going to make bad pizza, and trust me those people know they’re making bad pizza, then do it right, make it one to remember, make it so disgusting that at least people will be talking about it. This was just bland, boring, I guess the best word to describe it would be ‘stupid’. I ate a totally dumb slice of pizza.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Tudor's Biscuit World

Monday May 17th 2010
Tudor’s Biscuit World, 4116 First Ave, Nitro, WV

We’d been driving in silence for a couple hours by the time Noah leaned over from the back seat and asked if I was getting hungry yet.
“Yes.”, I told him, “I am.” The “meatbag” our newly college graduated friends had shared with us the night before in Lexington at their no-mess no-grills barbecue was no longer powering me like I needed it to.
“Well, take the Nitro exit then, it should be coming up soon.”
“They got something good there?”, I asked. He stuttered a bit and emitted a few odd sounds, searching for the proper words to explain to me what was going to happen.
“Tudor’s Biscuit World.”, he eventually got out. “That’s where we’re going.” The man had a serious plan, and this wasn’t the first I’d heard of it. He’d mentioned it a week or so back, “We gotta go to Tudor’s Biscuit World when we’re in West Virginia.”, he spoke longingly of it, and it being his native state, his turf, I wasn’t about to interfere.
Inside, I started reading the menu from the left, browsing through average breakfast plate selections, nothing too special. I was trying to figure out how much I wanted to eat and how much I wanted to spend. Would some scrambled eggs and some toast be enough? It was when I heard Noah order something with a name along the lines of “The Mountaineer”, that I realized I must have been looking at the wrong part of the menu. That’s when I discovered the breakfast biscuit sandwich section.
“The Mountaineer” describes a breakfast sandwich that is brave, tough, satisfying, a real mans sandwich. When I heard the name I imagined a cross between Conan the Barbarian and the guy from Brawny paper towels eating a whole one in a single bite and then just slamming an axe clear through a log, effortlessly. That’s how I knew it probably wasn’t the sandwich for me. It was the one below it that was really catching my eye, “The Thundering Herd”. With a name like that, a lot could go wrong.
A confusing number system had been implemented where once you ordered they’d give you a tray and a tent shaped green card with a number on it, which presumably you would either leave at the edge of your table so they’d know where to bring the food, or you could trade it back to them when they called the number as proof you actually ordered and paid. Regardless, I didn’t get one, so I stood in the aisle next to our table for a little bit, waiting to see if they’d bring it by. Awkwardly the waitress and I locked into several avant-dance routines as I, being in an inconvenient place, accidentally ended up blocking her every time she tried to squeeze by to deliver some food and then get back into the aisle.
The delivery of my “Thundering Herd” came with great relief. Well, relief that it came. For some reason I was expecting it to bear some resemblance to a volcano, a biscuit tower spewing molten breakfast unmentionables across the whole plate. Instead it looked like this; a sloppy sausage, egg, and cheese, biscuit with the exciting addition of a hash brown patty. I sneered when I saw it, believing myself capable of easily housing two, but it only took a couple bites for me to retract my initial opinion and realize that I was in deep this time. What I was messing with was no joke, no sir. I think my ‘at the moment’ review was, “The Thundering Herd is kind of intense.”, to which Jeremy nodded in agreement, maybe in a comatose state from having just finished his.
It was the hash brown patty that really took it over the edge, because we’re not talking the kind of hash browns that actually resemble potatoes, we’re talking the kind that are just like a puck shaped grease sponge that by chance happened to be made with potato products, comparable to eating a regular breakfast sandwich with a slab of hot Vaseline in it.
By the end my insides were slick, coated in a thick grease layer that I could tell would take some time to wear away. We weren’t a talkative bunch that day, before Tudor’s and especially not after. I sought solace in this wreath that had been pleasantly tacked up by our table. Tudor’s Biscuit World, a West Virginia treat.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Betty's Bar and Grill

Saturday May 15th 2010
Betty’s Bar and Grill, 49th and Charlotte, Nashville, TN

Betty’s Bar and Grill is a lot of things. It’s side patio serves as home to a couple dozen feral cats who survive off ranch dressing sides, food scraps, and sips of beer donated by the customers. In the daytime it serves as a NASCAR viewing destination for the crowd of early drinking Tennesseeans. And at night the youth in training pour in for pool and an at times strange combination of traditional and experimental music. The first time I came here, back when I lived in town, I looked over the drinks and decided to go with “Betty’s Bitchin’ Brew”, for two reasons: 1- I’d never tried that beer before, 2- it was the cheapest. As I sipped it I thought, “Wow, this beer is total garbage.”, which for $1.50 is pretty much what I expected, I just found it strange that a small bar in West Nashville would take the time to brew their own swill or ‘pinche’ as I’ve heard it called. Once I thought about it for a minute and realized how ridiculous and unreasonable that was I asked the bartendress what it actually was.
“Oh, it’s Natty Light.”, She responded. It’s funny that they changed the name of the beer in the first place, but what’s even funnier is that I would never in a million years spring for a Natty Light in any bar or in any store, but every time I’m at Betty’s that’s what I get, and I don’t like it at all, but for some reason the name switch makes it a little more tolerable.
When this town was my home and trips to Betty’s were a little more frequent than I would have cared for, I never tried the food. Something about the overwhelming amount of swimsuited beer model posters and haze of cigarette smoke just didn’t get my appetite going. It wasn’t until my second return to town, when two good friends of mine, Crom and Leslie, had taken over the night shift, that I decided to go for it and have a burger. Crom, despite being a self proclaimed ‘man of leisure’ with a Ferris Bueller poster to prove it, can really get crazy in the kitchen. You’ll be sitting on the porch together for an hour in complete silence and then suddenly he’s serving you a plate of Fettuccini Alfredo with turkey meat balls. He’s got some tricks. The burger was for lack of a better term, insane. I instructed him to put ‘everything’ on it, which he did, and when I came to an hour later after a sudden full body incapacitation, I was ready to start hitting those “Bitchin’ Brews”, and knew very well that food would not be necessary for quite some time.
This time around Leslie made me one. To get a little shit started I told Crom, “Leslie said she makes a better burger than you.” Initially he shrugged it off, but came back at me a couple minutes later.

“Was that a direct quote? ‘I make a better burger than Crom.’, did she say that?”
My burger came cut in half like so (I apologize for the darkness of the pictures, it’s not the kind of place where bright lights would go over well), and I showed the cross section to Crom to get an opinion on how the meat was cooked.
“Where’s the pink?”, he said, “I don’t see any pink. Show me the pink!” He continued on, referring to how the burger was, not over done, but thoroughly cooked whereas he prefers and makes for everyone who orders one, a medium rare. I offered him a bite, which he at first declined, but then I insisted suggesting he try it to see how he felt. “Where’s the meat juice?”, he added. I proposed a throwdown, but neither party seemed interested. Or were they just scared?
Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed the “Lazlo Burger”. It might not have been as juicy as Crom’s, but it was lighter, which I was glad about because there aren’t many good places to lay down at Betty’s. After letting it settle for a few moments a feeling of pure triumph washed through me, and again I had the intuition that eating would not need to be done again for a long while, and truth be told it carried me through the long night, my slumber, all the way up to our mid afternoon breakfast.


Saturday May 15th 2010
Garduno’s, Cherokee and Iowa, St Louis, MO

I awoke next to a piece of art, a sculpture we had collaborated on the night before. Carefully, a mountain bike had been placed amongst a pile of overturned chairs, blankets draped haphazardly over certain sections. It was nearing 2PM. Slowly the others woke up and we straightened up the van in preparation for our drive to Nashville.
“We need to get a stuffed sopapilla.”, Jeremy told me, his face and neck decorated with multi color marker smears, dreaming of the New Mexican gut bombs we had enjoyed several days before. Neither of us had tried a stuffed sopapilla previous to this trip, and were worried that maybe it was a regional specialty and we’d have to wait til we were back in Albuquerque to have another. We asked last nights host if she knew where we could find some.
“Yeah, stuffed sopapilla’s, you can get those right down the street. Yeah, the ice cream.”, she told us. Our excitement faded rapidly into confusion. Ice cream? “Sopapilla, yeah it’s a dessert with ice cream.” Something was very wrong, so we set sail to Garduno’s to get to the bottom of it. Jeremy was out of the van and in the restaurant before anyone else, face to technicolor face with the owner, trying to get a few things clarified.
“I had a sopapilla with meat in it in New Mexico. Is that crazy?”, he told the man. And the man nodded yes, confirming our fears that in Missouri sopapilla’s come with ice cream and not beans and cheese. “Well”, Jeremy carried on, “can I get one with chorizo instead of ice cream?”
“You want sopapilla with chorizo?”, the man asked in total disbelief. And upon confirmation, he drifted back into the kitchen prepared to give some special and apparently confusing orders to the cooks. Noah and I sat in a booth with Jeremy perusing through some menu’s, most items were in the $8 and up range, which at this point in the trip wasn’t much of an option. The guy came back over to clear a few things up. “So, you want just chorizo? No lettuce, tomato, sour cream right?”
“No, I’d like it with everything.”, Jeremy let him know.
“With everything?”, he double checked, shocked.
“How much is that?”, I inquired.
“$3.95?”, he sort of guessed.
“Well, I’ll have one too.”, I placed my order.
“Yeah, me too.”, Noah chimed in.
“You all want the sopapilla with chorizo?”, his mind = fried, as the whole table agreed that’s what we’d be eating.

These differed greatly from the ones in Albuquerque. Those ones were more like a thick pocket that held all the slop inside, the bread would tear nicely. The bread on these ones was deep fried creating a tough shell (no longer bread at all really) which would break with contact and had all the ingredients piled on top. Definitely a utensil meal, not something you eat on the go.
“Whats so weird about this?”, I wondered aloud.
“Are you kidding me,” Jeremy answered, “this is like asking for a hot dog in an ice cream cone!”, and then I got it, that would be weird. I’m not opposed to the idea, but I guess if some Spanish guy came into a place where I worked and was like, “Yeah, I’ll have the hot dog, but put it in a waffle cone. Yes, with mustard please.”, I would have to double check with him. We ate, enjoyed it, and left to the strange looks and laughter coming from every other person in the place. Just another day of waking up in the afternoon, hanging out with a marker faced man, and butchering traditional cuisine.

Gas Station Special

Friday May 14th and Saturday May 15th 2010
Mobil On The Run, Rolla, MO
Pilot Travel Center, Paducah, KY

Gas station meals can be a hard road to walk down, but sometimes out on the ol’ road like this you might be running late for the show and there are few other options. You gotta take a deep breath, prepare to get a little crafty, and jump into the situation no matter how dismal it may seem.
Maybe you just don’t care, your into it, and you stroll through those doors all tough, walk right to the back of the room, and straight up barehanded you grab a greasy, foamy, rotating cave age hot dog out the ‘grill’, slap it between those buns, and you start chomping. Or maybe eating healthy is on your mind. That’s when you really gotta get clever. Very few even pseudo-healthy items can be found at a gas station. A V-8, some granola bars, an old withering piece of fruit, that’s generally about the best you’ll do in most situations.
Occasionally you might be lucky enough to pull into the one usually unassuming gas station that actually cares and went the extra mile. They’ve got decent somewhat fresh sandwiches, loaves of bread, cheese, real fruit, maybe they’re selling fried chicken at the counter or something. That’s a rare and glorious situation that I believe deserves a moment of silence as a show of appreciation, because you usually end up encountering places like this just when Pop Tarts started to sound like a viable dinner option, then your face to face with a turkey sandwich and some grapes and you realize how far gone you were for a minute there. Total reality check.
This On The Run mart we stopped at on the way to St Louis...well, at least they tried. A lot of places will have some nasty egg salad sandwich in the cooler sealed in a plastic box, I never trust those. On The Run had a nice center display cooler with a lot of different sandwiches all wrapped up. Granted they were wrapped up in paper so you couldn’t see them, which I should have taken as a hint, but I was starving and must have convinced myself it would have been ok. I considered the Italian sub, but decided on the spicy chicken and cheese sandwich for only $1.50, then I saw that chicken biscuits had been marked down from .99 cents to .50 cents. Naturally, I doubled up, because sometimes I’ve expected the worst from these things and then gotten a special treat, you never can tell with these places.

I should have known better and eaten the 50 cent chicken biscuit first, because I might not have noticed how bad it was, and then the spicy with cheese would have been this incredible delicacy, but I switched it up, finishing and not being disgusted by the spicy sandwich, and then being simply repulsed by the biscuit. Here I am almost a week later writing about it and its putrid taste flushed back into my mouth at the mere mention of it, now I’m going crazy on pretzels and water trying to get rid of it. I resold my remaining 2/3rds of it at full cost to Rick, who proceeded to read the ingredient list to me. After too many initial ingredients he finally got to “...chicken breast, seasoning...”, but he said it in a way that I didn’t catch the presence of the comma, and briefly thought and found it completely feasible that there was only the flavor of chicken breast in this and no actual meat. I inquired and there turned out to be a comma, but the placement of ‘chicken breast’ in the overall list was still a little disturbing.

Next day, same awful situation. Drifting around a price gouged Pilot Travel Center in dreary Paducah, Kentucky, uncertain of why we stopped the van in the first place. I looked at the donuts for a while, I glanced over the drinks, but when you think about it there isn’t really a point to getting either of those things. I had my eye on the dogs. I didn’t want it there, but that’s where it was. And I figured I’d go for the gusto and really prove a point with this one, so I grabbed a cheddar cheese infused bratwurst, loaded it up with the most watery ketchup I may have ever had a dealing with, and then hit the fixin’s, hooking myself up with sauerkraut, tomato chunks, onions, and banana peppers. Knowing a cleansing would be necessary after this beast, I picked up a real banana as well, hoping it would act as an antidote and counteract the poisons.
“You know hot dogs are two for $2 dollars right?”, The lady cashier informed me.
“Yeah, that’s alright.”, I told her.
“Well they’re $1.50 separately. You sure?”
“Yeah, I’m ok.”
“And banana’s too, those are 2 for a dollar...”, Christ lady! You want me to eat this ‘meal’ twice?! I did that yesterday! This is sheer madness. But I’ll be honest, as long as you didn’t look at it too much, the brat was pretty awesome, and the banana did help me feel normal again afterwards.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

El Modelo

Wednesday May 12th 2010
El Modelo, 1715 2nd st, Albuquerque, NM

Post show, post bar, post unsuccessful attempt to find an open and functioning taco truck, we sat at the Mexican church turned underground performance venue where we played, eating peanut butter and kale sandwiches while our host Raven drew a detailed map of Albuquerque, directing us to El Modelo on our way out of town. We pulled a little bit of the ol' "Vulture Style" when he left, raiding the pantry of microwave popcorn and some sort of pasta salad mix which I was unable to stay awake for.
The morning brought an unwelcome chatter of cell phone alarm clocks, all of which were set to snooze several times before the gang was awake, aimlessly wandering the room in a groggy shuffle. We vultured some coffee, loaded up the gear, and split to get some food for the ten hour drive ahead of us.
Raven's map was full of a lot of nice details and notes, but lacked in accuracy. Where 2nd st was supposed to curve, it dead ended. Where we were supposed to turn on 1st st, it was one way in the opposite direction. Eventually, when we did find it, the Maryland license plates on the van drew quite a bit of attention from the regulars, in particular, one man.
"Where you guys from? How'd you find out about this place? I know you didn't hear about this place in Philly!", He razzed us upon our entry.
The stuffed sopapillas came recommened from both this guy and Raven as well, so thats what we all got. Raven had launched into a tirade of exaggeration while he drew us the map, "You eat one of these stuffed sopapillas man, you'll be full til' Thursday night!"
"I'll be full until we're in Texas you think?", I asked him.
"At least man, at least.", and surprisingly the man was spot on. For under three dollars we were fed copious amounts of refried beans, cheese, lettuce, and a chorizo sauce encased in a dense and crispy bread shell. A "gut bomb" they called it.
I ate about half in the parking lot and was left not only full, but in a state of panic from some spicy chile's they snuck in there. On the drive I began to wonder if I was maybe allergic to the chile's or something, as it took a while for the panic feeling to wear off, at which point I was feeling able to eat again, so I started in on my remaining half, only getting halfway through that before I was again full, and right back in the panic state.
So wouldn't you know it was a good hour into Texas that I gained the capibilities to finish the remaining quarter of it, resuming satiation, this time without panic, possibly having conditioned myself to the spice, building up a nice tolerance.
If for $2.80 I can buy something that will keep the hunger away for a solid half a day, I feel like a little spice induced panic is nothing more than an additional tax they throw in. And I don't really have a problem with that, you've gotta work for your comfort.

Roadside Grill Session #3

Sunday May 9th 2010
Roadside Grill Session #3, Safeway parking lot, Tempe, AZ

Grill session #2 took place at an I-90 rest area in central Washington during a wild wind storm, making the session rushed and unpleasant, resulting in lack of documentation. We made "Fish Philly's" again, and honed the criteria for the sandwich down to an exact science. To make one you will need to buy: the cheapest fish (preferably not frozen), the cheapest cheese (ordered from the deli counter, specifying the exact amount of slices you'd like), the cheapest bread (pre-sliced or not, doesn't matter), and then you just spend whatever they're asking on the avocado and you've got all you'll need.
So after waking up too late in Arizona to make it to the Grand Junction, CO show, we canceled the next two days of shows, miraculously booked new ones throughout the desert, and in realization of the financial bullet we had just dodged and the miraculous feat we just pulled off, decided to hit the grocery store and celebrate with a round of Fish Philly's.
These ones had tilapia, more pepper jack, obviously avocado, and everything bagels. For a moment we decided a Fish Philly on an everything bagel was a "Desert Style" Fish Philly, but after making them with some green chile's donated from Jeremy's ex-girlfiends dad in New Mexico (weird, i know), we decided that was desert style, and the everything bagel was "College Style".

La Playita

Friday May 7th 2010
La Playita, 3306 Lincoln Blvd, Santa Monica, CA

Apprehensively acting on an impulse decision to leave Sacramento en route for LA at 2 AM, we shot down I-5 in the middle of the night with a 32 year old man who has never been in possession of a valid license as our driver, while the rest of us caught up on some sleep. Arriving at 9:30 AM, clueless as to how we would kill the next 12 hours in front of us, we found ourselves being pulled in the direction of the freak magnet that is Venice Beach.
Having Recently been in the area for a wedding, Rick recognized our surroundings as we drove down the Lincoln Blvd stretch of California route 1, and remembered seeing people enjoying some type of "bloody fish drink", which we decided to seek out and try. Luckily this sign sported an unmistakable illustration of said drink and we stopped to check it out.
Seeing everyone with their murky red cocktails, vegetables and chunks of fish swirling around inside, I began to wonder if this was the right choice for first meal of the day. It was only 10AM, I hadn't even had any coffee yet, but I was definitely going to. Would coffee be a good thing to throw into the mix right after a varietal seafood morning? It certainly didn't sound like it, and to tell the truth I was becoming quite skeptical about ordering one of these things. Several times I stood at the window, ready to place my order, I'd see the guy coming over with his paper and pen, and I'd chicken out, step out of line, and resume looking at the menu, waiting for something to tell me what to do. And then I remembered the blog. I had to do it, for you, the reader. I could have walked to the Whole Foods next door, grabbed a falafel sandwich, and been like, "Today I went to Whole Foods, I had a falafel sandwich. It was good. I enjoyed it.", but that would have been total bullshit, so I sucked it up, ordered a small fish cocktail, and stood there on the sidewalk, clutching it in my hand, stirring it with my spoon.
A tentacle would pop to the surface, a chunk of avocado, a whole shrimp, a piece of crab, a blob of salsa. I took a few sips of the liquid and it was pretty nice, actually not too bad for breakfast, a tomato and vegetable based juice with a light fish flavoring. I had some spoonfulls of avocado and vegetables first before I got into the real seafood territory which I naturally had mixed feelings about.
The sight of a tentacle chunk and the texture of squid, in a drink context, that early in the day, after an all night drive, was I think just a little bit more than I had hoped to get into. A lot of the fish wasn't recognizable to me. Some of it came in sugar cube sized squares, and they all varied in consistency, certain pieces being nice and soft, others tough and chewy. I drank most of the liquid, ate the vegetables, and what I could manage of the fish, passing the rest along to our surprisingly alert driver who sat and gazed confusedly into the cup.
Instead of a drink, I would call this a chilled soup, and I probably wouldn't recommend having it first thing in the morning. I drank my coffee after this without any negative side effects, and the day more or less went in an uphill direction from there.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

In-N-Out Burger

Wednesday May 5th 2010
In-N-Out Burger, 1275 Dana Dr, Redding, CA

Allow me to preface this entry with a few words about the culinary genre of Fast Food. For a long time I never really paid it too much thought. I would eat it when necessary or convenient without bias to certain restaurants and continue on with my day unaffected. It was around the time that the film "Super Size Me" came out, and after seeing it, when I briefly and for the first time really 'got in' to Fast Food.
While the movies publicity had McDonalds cowering in the corner creating salad dishes, getting rid of their jumbo sizes, and offering fruit, their competitors Burger King seized the moment and created two of their filthiest sandwiches to date, catering to what people who like Fast Food in the first place actually want. The King Kong burger, a three tier frizbee burger caked in a menagerie of dressings and sauces, and The Meatnormous, a two omelette, four bacon, three sausage, ham steak, and cheese, full day ruining breakfast meal. Both of which I tried and felt drugged, delirious, and frightened afterwards. It was the first time Fast Food has harmed me with what I now refer to as "Mental Food Poisioning", a common Fast Food side effect in which you experience unreasonable thoughts and an almost indescribable negative euphoria.
As time passed, the list of Fast Food restaurants I was ok with dining at began to dwindle considerably. I got the Popeyes paranoia in the Atlanta airport food court. A McDonalds breakfast sandwich started giving me sporadic hot flashes and had me considering checking into a hospital in Memphis. It took at least three ruthless gut grabs from Checkers's spicy chicken sandwich before I caught on. Taco Bell was one of the only ones not on my danger list, but then I overdid it with the cheesy gordita crunch "NBA Box" (seen here), and I had trouble making it back to the house, playing basketball just wouldn't have worked. It's come down to Wendy's (only in dire situations, and I'm sure they'll slip up soon enough), and the great, the grand, In-N-Out Burger.
Never before has a Fast Food chain acheived the same mythical lore that In-N-Out has. Slacking East Coasters who never make the trip out West can only dream as their enlightened friends embellish and blow out of proportion the secret menu, the animal style fries, furthuring it's kingly reputation across the land.

The uniformity among In-N-Out's, although gross and upsetting, is quite impressive. Each locations interior looks exactly the same, exactly. Even the employees look alike. I mean, yeah they're all forced into 50's style goofball diner cap's and tight red aprons, but physically, they look the same from town to town. Either theres some sort of California cross polination type thing going on or they're cloning these people. And they're happy! Actual happiness too, not a ploy, not some con. I watched a girl today struggling with an old man who wanted this on his burger, but he didn't want that, and he couldn't decide on fries or not, and where I would have been like, "Back of the line you senile old bastard, how'd you get out of the house?", she patiently assisted him with a genuine smile and look of true joy on her face. It actually made her happy to help this guy get the exact kind of burger he wanted. Astonishing!
The food itself at In-N-Out has never harmed me like those other places, but I have harmed myself with it. Sure, theres no freezer here, the beef is brought in fresh everyday, the potatoes are prepared to order, theres no preservatives in the bread, but it's still Fast Food. It just takes more of it to acheive the same effects you could easily get from one item off the dollar menu at Jack In The Box. Here is a before and after shot of me eating a 4X4 at this very same In-N-Out location back in the fall of 2007. In the before picture you can spot a sinful glimmer of excitement in my eye, in the after picture I have clearly been transported to the dark side and mentally conquered by the burger. 4X4 translates to four beef patties by four cheese slices, and any number you wish can be substituted in depending on how "wild" your trying to get. I guess what I'm trying to say is that even though a sensible portion of food from In-N-Out won't make you feel like complete garbage, and actually could make you feel pretty amazing, if you keep going you'll get there. And that's what I did then, and also today.

I've learned my lesson with 4X4's, the joke just isn't that funny, especially for me. So I went with the Double Double, animal style, a double cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, sauteed onions, thousand island dressing, and pickles. It was incredible. It had been two years since I'd had In-N-Out and I missed it every single day, but I couldn't just leave it at that. Instead of being pleasantly satisfied by the burger alone, I managed to convince myself that some animal style fries would be a good idea. So post double cheeseburger I dipped into a basket of toxic waste topped french fries, acheiving the feeling of body and mind Fast Food contamination that some awful part of me apparently wanted. Ahh...but it had been two years and I was ready to indulge, I needed to go overboard and I did and I don't regret it for a second. In-N-Out; one of maybe three good things about the West Coast.

Roadside Grill Session #1

Sunday May 2nd 2010
Roadside Grill Session #1, I-94 Rest Stop, Oriska, ND

Intrigued and I supposed inspired by the "Fish Philly" menu option we discovered at Minneapolis's Mediterranean Deli, we decided to make them for ourselves about three and a half hours into a 26 plus hour drive to Seattle.
Had the Fish Philly been ordered at the Mediterranean Deli, or were such a sandwich even offered in the city of Philadelphia it would likely be a deep fried, soggy, bottom feeding chunk of mutated aquatic life smothered in cheez whiz and onions in a stale roll.
Not interested in eating such a thing, or in possession of the correct tools to make it, we took some liberties and created a new, more personally appealing recipe with ingredients gathered from Fargo's poorly maintained Sun Mart, and grilled em up at the Oriska rest stop.
Grilled catfish, melted pepper jack cheese, and avocado, prepared and then lightly burned on the grill.

Mediterranean Deli

Saturday May 1st 2010
Mediterranean Deli, Cedar and S 6th, Minneapolis, MN

There is something very appealing about the Gyro to me. It's an irresistible attraction, possibly caused by minor hypnotism due to the slow rotation of the meat log against the backdrop of hot red coils. Something about watching the Gyro vendor taking their blade to the log, shaving off long strips of meat, revealing an inner shade, and tossing it carelessly on a grill for a few minutes, theres a simple magic to it. Not to mention the feeling of complete satisfaction experienced after eating one.
Minneapolis's Cedar Towers are two gigantic high rise apartment buildings, more on the project side of things than the condo side. Actually way more towards the project side, and apparently used to house a predominant hippy population until the 90's when there was an influx of Somalians and Northern Africans to the area who claimed the towers for themselves. And thank goodness, because without them this neighborhood would likely be a trendy mess of bulk grain co-op's and dopey stoners playing hakky sack on the sidewalk. There is a little bit of that element here still, but the majority of businesses are African oriented. All kinds of interesting markets, hookah salesmen, bizarre looking "East African Style" coffee shops, and restaurants like the Mediterranean Deli.

Unfortunately for you this was by far not the most adventerous or exciting choice of restaurant we had at our disposal, but I was looking for a Gyro and I got one. This was sort of like a Gyro platter, the pita was laid flat and acted as a bed for the stack of meat, lettuce, tomato, and full hosing of cucumber Tzatziki sauce. I had to eat about a quarter of it with a fork before I could fit most of it in the pita and eat with my hands, which even with that quarter missing was a sloppy challenge, and the medium size nonetheless.
A Philadelphia section was included in their menu which was listed like this: "Philly Cheese Steak", "Gyros Philly" (yes, pluralized), "Chickens Philly", and "Fish Philly", all followed up by "Sambusa". We had a lot of questions we didn't know how to phrase and they went unanswered.
Minneapolis is the kind of place I'd like to come to for a full week with a thick wad of cash and just go walking around buying funny food. This is a regular fish sandwich.

Marko's Tacos

Thursday April 29th 2010
Marko's Tacos, 3009 W Cermak, Chicago, IL

Being a couple hours early for the show in Chicago we wandered around the neighborhood in search of more dollar store sunglasses and tacos. We spotted quite a few Mexican restaurants, one Rick thought had come recommended to him by a friend. After closer examination he realized it wasn't the same place, but we decided to to pretend that it had in fact been recommended and go, because the difference between an actual recommendation and a fake one is pretty slim.
My plan was to be economical, keep it cheap, and not eat too much now in case there was going to be some food at the show. I ordered what I believed would be a pleasant and light hunger reliever, two tacos (chicken and chorizo), with sides of guacamole and sour cream. The sides being only 50 cents, it seemed like the right thing to do.
We sat down and were brought the common place and expected bowl of tortilla chips and salsa spread, but were then surprised by the delivery of three cups of lentil soup. Confused looks were shot around the table, but we were the only party of three, so it must have been for us. We accepted the offer.
Then came the tacos. As soon as they were put down in front of me, I realized just how bad the Mexican food situation in Philly really is. I mean I knew it was bad, but just seeing these masterfully crafted beauties and thinking back to Taco Loco, my 'favorite' Philly spot, it was just kind of sad.
The Taco Loco taco's are topped with onion and cilantro only, where as these had both of those plus lettuce, tomato, and queso fresco. Cheese god damn it! An essential ingredient, for which there is no sensible reason for exclusion. All these fine ingredients, tacos loaded with meat, for $1.80 a piece.
I was halfway through my chorizo taco when the sides came. I'd forgotten about them. Look at this "side" of guacamole. That's at least two avocado's in there, and this was 50 cents! One avocado costs at least a dollar in the grocery store, and thats on a good day! (confused baffled silence) At this point, one cup of lentil soup and half a taco down, eyeing the still plentiful spread before me, I realized I might have went a little overboard.
The tacos I put back without a problem, it was the guac and the sour cream that were giving me trouble. Guacamole is a precious and luxurious resource that in good conscience cannot be wasted. I offered some to my dining mates, both of whom had the foresight and common sense to get just a single taco, and yet were still full enough to not put a noticeable dent in the mountain of guac. And with the tortilla chip supply dwindling and no utencils in sight, it was becoming harder to eat. I used the last chip as a spoon, shovling left over taco scraps into my mouth, and sucking the sour cream and guac off of it, until the scraps were gone and i was eating just the sides. A nice taste, but an obnoxious wet and squishy texture that forced me to eat the chip spoon, so I could at least somewhat enjoy the things I had ordered. This experience, plus the amount I had already eaten, combined with the sensation of adjusting my eyes to the real world, after five hours of sunglasses vision, had me feeling pretty loopy when we left. But there was no food at the show, so I did the right thing, and all that only cost five bucks! This place gets an actual recommendation now.

Steve's Lunch

Thursday April 29th 2010
Steve's Lunch, Lorain and W 50th, Cleveland, OH

A kin to my native Olneyville New York System, Steve's Lunch is Cleveland's version of the all night disaster dog diner. The kind of place where neither the owners, the employees, or the patrons, care at all. Going there it is well known that you will be eating disgusting, although somewhat pleasurable garbage food with the possibility of unknown long term health risks, which will be hesitantly and unhappily served to you without a trace of pride by the downtrodden staff.
The menu is an explosion of sharpie scrawled construction paper taped erratically across the walls, explaining specials, sides, prices, rules of the house.
One recurring name on the menu is "Dooley". There is the Dooley Sandwich, the Super Dooley, maybe even the Dooley Deluxe. Dooley is the name of a Cleveland police officer who with loyal patronage and true dedication to Steve's Lunch, earned his way into the menu. Last time I was here he stood behind the counter, manning the grill, in full law enforcement uniform, brandishing a tazer, simultaneously preventing a violent outbreak amongst the drunk and disorderly customers, while processing and serving the orders in an appropriate fashion.
I have a theory on how this came to be: Dooley, new to the force, is assigned to the West Lorain neighborhood 'beat', passing by Steve's on a daily basis. Being a big hungry guy, he stops in has a few dogs, a coffee, it starts becoming a regular thing. He gets to know the waitresses, the owner, and always secretly having a passion for cooking, jumps behind the counter, gets on the grill, and saves the day on a busy and understaffed Saturday night, forever earning the trust and love of Steve's Lunch and their people.
So while listening to the list of races he's unafraid to taze, "Chinese, Puerto Rican, Mexican, hell I'll taze anyone.", I can only assume in addition to his police salary, Steve's is probably kicking him a few bucks on the side as well. Which means that in at least one respect, Dooley is really cleaning up out there in Cleveland.

Seen here is the regular Dooley sandwich, an egg, three sausage, four bacon, and cheese. And here, my Slaw Dog, a tightly cased, ultra low quality dog pulled from a vat of discolored warm water, shoved into a bun and loaded up with cole slaw. Something that actually tastes amazing after a long night of moderate rock and VHS.
Time is much more of a commitment here than you'd expect. You'd think you could just walk in, yell out 'slaw dog' and before you knew it you'd be back at home with the vile lingering taste in your mouth as the only confirmation that you actually ate the thing. A whirlwind, the way you want it to be, the way it should be. Instead it takes easliy ten minutes to even place your order. "I got a lot of orders to take!", the woman behind the counter will yell out of frustration with the presence of customers and the annoyance of having to do work. When you do finally get to tell them what you want, your order is then very casually assembled taking another 10 to 15 minutes before you can actually eat.
Is it worth the wait? Absolutely not. Do I enjoy killing time for a half hour just to introduce a tube of poisionous reject meat into my body at the end? Well, yes, I sort of do.