Wednesday, April 08, 2009

It's what's for dinner


What other power on earth could unite:
  • Jewish folks...
  • Irish folks...
  • Vietnamese folks...
  • and redneck Texan folks... one big, fat, happy, circle of sloppy carnivorous love?

It's enough to make a grown man sniffle.

We are the world, people.

And to all of my Jewish friends enjoying their Seder brisket this Passover evening, Chag Pesach Sameach! (Save your goyische Uncle Swan a slice, yeah?)

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

No uvas for you!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

What's Up With That? #73: Eating from the bottom

In the aftermath of my less-than-complimentary — yet entirely accurate — St. Patrick's Day comment regarding the quality (or lack thereof) of Irish cuisine, I got to thinking...

Why is it that the further north of the equator one travels, the lousier the food becomes?

In the so-called Old World, this principle is eminently obvious. The North Africans — the Moroccans, Ethiopians, Eritreans, et al. — have amazing food. (When they have food, which is a whole other issue.)

Their neighbors on the northern seaboard of the Mediterranean — the Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italians, and Greeks (having lived in Greece for two years, I can attest personally to the latter) — are legendary for their culinary prowess.

But then, as you continue up the continent, things start to get dicey. German and Polish food, outside of the occasional sausage? Not all that delectable. Russian cuisine? Unless you're a huge fan of beet soup, nothing to write home about.

English food? Notoriously awful. Dazzling language, superlative literature, a world-changing culture. But you wonder how they came up with those great traditions while stuffing their bellies with boiled beef and mashed peas. Irish cuisine? As previously noted, the less said about that, the better.

By the time you've traveled into Scandinavia, people are eating reindeer innards and fish soaked in lye, for pity's sake. That's not food — that's chemical warfare.

The same phenomenon occurs in the Western Hemisphere.

Anywhere you go in the Caribbean region and Central America, you're going to find spectacular dining — spicy, diverse, and flavorful. Mexico? Well, there's a reason for all those taquerias and faux-Mexican chain restaurants that proliferate north of the border. Our neighbors to the south know how to cook.

Here in the United States? Well, much like our language, our cuisine mostly cobbled together from stuff other people cooked before us. Still, we make do, especially across the nether region of this great country of ours — from the fiery specialties of the Southwest to the manly barbecue of Texas, from the Cajun and Creole delights of Louisiana to the deep-fried comfort food of the Deep South.

But here again, as you move north, the eating gets shaky. The Upper Midwest? They'll sneak some lutefisk on the steam-table smorgasbord as soon as look at you. And have you ever tried to get a decent meal in New England? I've been to Maine, and aside from the lobster, it wasn't pretty.

Canada? Does the phrase "back bacon" ring any bells? How about moose jerky? Yeah, that's what I thought.

Even the Far East — to use that dated and Caucasocentric term — suffers from the same pattern.

A quick whirl across southern Asia reveals one culinary wonderland after another: India, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines — all incredible places to grab a bite, as evidenced by the abundance of eateries featuring delicacies from these locales.

China? Hello? I'll bet you've got some of those little white paper cartons fermenting in your kitchen trash at this very moment.

Then you get up to Japan. Love that sushi, sashimi, and soba... but they're also eating some ghastly stuff. Have you ever smelled natto? Trust me, you don't want to, much less attempt to consume any. And in what other country is eating poisonous blowfish that could kill you with a single nibble someone's idea of a fun date?

You might as well stop at Japan, because progressing any further north into the Asiatic tundra will land you in the realm of yak loin and Lord only knows what else.

So, again, I'll pose the imponderable...

Why does food get so much better as you head south toward the equator, and so much more inedible as you leave it going north?

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Breakfast of cheapskates

Today's blogging is fueled by Don Francisco's Breakfast Blend coffee, a free sample of which I received in yesterday's mail.

You know your Uncle Swan's motto: If it's free, it's for me.

According to the Don Francisco site, their Breakfast Blend is "a gourmet blend designed to help the morning person start the day with gusto." Since I am the further possible creature from "the morning person" (if you look up "morning person" in the dictionary, I'm listed as an antonym), this clearly is not the coffee for me. Which may explain why I'm not enjoying it more.

It's decent enough for what I would think of as supermarket-grade coffee. The flavor profile is dark, not especially complex, and leaves a unpleasantly bitter aftertaste. Part of the problem, I think, is that the beans are ground much too fine. It might make a good espresso, if you like that sort of thing (I don't, particularly), but it's been pulverized too aggressively for use in a drip coffeemaker like my reliable Mr. Coffee.

I've actually purchased a fair amount of Don Francisco's coffee over the years. If you enjoy flavored coffee, they offer some nice varieties. Their Vanilla Nut and Butterscotch Toffee are both pretty tasty as a change of pace from the pure and natural. For the non-hardcore cafficionado, the Don's flavored coffees might be just the ticket. (Stay away from the Eggnog flavor, though. It's cloying and, for lack of a better term, peculiar.)

As for the Breakfast Blend, I'm only giving it two tailfeathers out of a possible five.

A good way to liberate your taste buds from a less-than-excellent free sample is the current featured coffee at your local Starbucks. I've been brewing Bella Vista F.W. Tres Rios (trust me, it's better than that ridiculous appellation makes it sound) every morning for the past few weeks, and it's much more along the lines of what I'd envision a perfect breakfast coffee to be. It's bright and tangy, with a clean, crisp, tropical flavor that finishes smooth and goes down easy.

B.V.F.W.T.R. (did you really think I was typing out that entire moniker again?) is available for a limited time, so get yourself on over to the Sign of the Naked Fish-Tailed Lady and pick up a bag or two while it's still around.

At least now I'm awake.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Sign of the twin-tailed mermaid apocalypse

This is wrong in so many way that it's impossible to calculate:

Starbucks is now selling instant coffee.

Everyone into the bomb shelter. The end is near.

As the late Fred Sanford might have said...

"Hold on, Elizabeth! I'm comin' to join you, honey! With a venti nonfat decaf instant mocha latte in my hand!"

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Saturday, January 03, 2009

Gimme dat wine

It's true — you really can find just about anything on the Internet.

Had I doubted this truism, the presence of not one, but two Web sites devoted to the cheap, alcohol-fortified wines favored by Skid Row denizens — the folks we used to call "winos" back in the day — would convince me.

Bum Wine — you really can't get less politically correct than that — focuses its attention on "the Big Five" wines targeting the habitual drunkard: Cisco, MD 20/20, Night Train, Wild Irish Rose, and the legendary Thunderbird. The site couples hilarious commentary ("If you like to smell your hand after pumping gas, look no further than Thunderbird") with the results of decidedly unscientific tests ("Some of our researchers indicated that [Night Train] gave them a NyQuil-like drowsiness, and perhaps this is why they put 'night' in the name").

Among the evaluative information to be found at Bum Wine: Thunderbird is the worst tasting of the Big Five, but Cisco (a product of which I was heretofore blissfully unaware) is to be preferred for its intoxicating qualities. MD 20/20 — or "Mad Dog," as it's known in certain circles — generates the highest degree of internal warmth for the consumer.

The writing style at Bum Wine reminds me of Las Vegas on 25 Cents a Day, a terrific place to get unvarnished information about the absolute cheapest eats, lodging, and entertainment in America's favorite vacation destination. I'm reasonably certain that the two sites are unrelated, however.

In case Bum Wine is just a mite too refined for your tastes, there's Ghetto Wine, which mostly forgoes the witty commentary in favor of a photographic record of the Big Five, as well as past and present products of similar ilk — including Fred Sanford's beloved Ripple. (Children of the '70s will recall that Fred recommended a mixture of ginger ale and Ripple, a concoction he dubbed "Champipple.")

Being a teetotaler myself, I can't attest to the veracity of the data on either of these sites. I'm also a bit incredulous that the folks most inclined toward the consumption of fortified wines conduct their market research online.

I do, however, recall a summer job during my high school days, when I was employed as a stock clerk at a gas station mini-mart. One of my chief responsibilities was replenishing the refrigerated case in which the beer and wine were displayed. Our tiny shop did a land-office business in T-Bird (along with slightly less toxic, but equally cheap, potions such as Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill and Annie Green Springs Country Cherry) that summer.

I can't shake the feeling that somewhere in the Great Beyond, Fred Sanford is raising a paper cup of Champipple in salute.

As the venerable radio jingle used to trumpet: "What's the word? Thunderbird!"

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Praise the Lord, and pass the balut

As I write this post, I'm watching a rerun of Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel.

In case you're unfamiliar with this delightful program, allow me to enlighten you. In every episode, chef Andrew Zimmern journeys to some foreign land (although a handful of shows have been filmed in various parts of the U.S.), finds the weirdest stuff that's being eaten by the local folk, and eats it.

And trust me, there's a lot of weird stuff being consumed on this big blue marble. Hence, Bizarre Foods.

In the episode I'm viewing, Andrew is in the Philippines. Longtime SSTOL readers will recall that I spent a chunk of my youth — two years, to be precise, from October 1973 through October 1975 — in that east Asian archipelago. Seeing this program brings back memories of places I visited, such as the cities of Manila and Pampanga, as well as the Filipino people.

And yes, things I ate.

As Andrew discovered, one of the popular cultural delicacies of the Philippines is balut, a common breakfast food and snack. Balut is a fertilized chicken or duck egg, with a partially developed embryo still inside the shell.

I know, I know. Just hang in there with me.

The eggs are boiled on the 18th day following fertilization — I'm not sure what the difference would be if you cooked one on the 17th or 19th day, but that just isn't done — then sold whole in the shell. The diner cracks open one end of the shell, slurps out the juice, then peels off the shell and consumes the baby fowl — eyes, beak, feet and all.

Now to Westerners like you and me, balut definitely sounds like the least acquirable of acquired tastes. In the Philippines, however, balut is comfort food, like your mom's meat loaf or macaroni and cheese.

When we first arrived in the country, we lived outside the confines of Clark Air Base in Angeles City. Bright and early every morning just at sunup, a fellow would come strolling down our street carrying two buckets full of steaming hot balut suspended from a stick slung across his shoulders. The neighborhood people would stream out of their homes at the call of "Ba-looooot! Ba-looooot!" Breakfast was served.

Now, I consider myself a fairly adventurous eater. I'm no Andrew Zimmern, mind you, but I'll sample almost anything once. I drew the line at balut. I feel certain that line has not moved in 30-plus years.

It's worth mentioning that balut is not characteristic of Filipino food in general, most of which is not bizarre in any respect, and is actually quite tasty. If you're serving up a banquet of sinigang, chicken adobo, pork mechado, pancit with shrimp, and fried lumpia, save me a chair.

I'll leave the balut to Andrew Zimmern.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Seven argument foods: North Bay edition

A while back, Mark Evanier offered the observation that there are seven foods that immediately engender impassioned argument whenever gourmands debate the question, "Where can you get the best...?"
  1. Hamburgers
  2. Pizza
  3. Chinese food
  4. Barbecue
  5. Philly cheesesteaks
  6. Hot dogs
  7. Clam chowder
I've been pondering Mark's list for the past several days. Now, I'm prepared to take a stab at starting a food fight.

Hamburgers. I'm not a serious burger connoisseur. In fact, I'd never order one in a restaurant unless it was the only item on the menu. But if I had a sudden craving for a steaming slab of ground cow, I'd go to Mike's at the Crossroads in Cotati. Mike's serves ginormous, sloppy gutbusters made from Harris Ranch beef, with a sumptuous array of fixings. For years, Mike's gimmick was that they didn't serve French fries. ("Mike don't like 'em," went the tagline.) Now that original owner Mike Condrin has sold the joint, you can get fries one day each week, I'm told.

Pizza. Around here, there's only one contender: Mary's Pizza Shack, a local chain that makes truly awesome pizza. The problem with Mary's pizza is that it doesn't travel well. The thin crust gets soggy quickly, so it's a poor choice for takeout. (We usually opt for Round Table, the big West Coast chain, if we're taking pizza home.) But if you're going to hang out in a pizza joint and eat off plates with a knife and fork, Mary's your girl.

Chinese food. Like most places in California, we have Chinese restaurants on practically every corner. The best in the area, however, isn't in town — it's twenty miles down the freeway in Novato. Jennie Low's, located in the Vintage Oaks shopping center on U.S. 101 in north Marin, serves some of the most sublime Chinese food I've eaten. And I've eaten a small planet in Chinese. Jennie opened a second location in Petaluma last year, but I haven't yet tried that one.

Barbecue. For whatever reason, great barbecue joints don't last long in this foodie mecca. Three excellent places — Richardson's Ribs, Pack Jack BBQ, and Terry's — have all gone the way of the passenger pigeon in recent years. The best of what's left is Porter Street Barbeque (yeah, that's how they spell it) in Cotati. Porter Street does a very nice job with ribs and tri-tip, though I've noticed the quality isn't quite as consistent since their cook passed away suddenly a few years back.

Philly cheesesteaks. Outside of the big chain sandwich shops like Quizno's, I don't know of any place around here that specializes in cheesesteaks, other than a vendor at the Sonoma County Fair that offers a decent version for two weeks every summer. If I were dying for authentic cheesesteak, I'd drive down to the East Bay and sniff out an outlet of a local chain called The Cheesesteak Shop. I've eaten on several occasions at their Pleasanton location, and it's the real deal.

Hot dogs. For me, there's only one place to eat a hot dog, and that's at a baseball game. The concession stands at AT&T Park in San Francisco serve as good a frankfurter as one could ask. Usually, though, I opt for either the Polish sausage or the Louisiana hot links. Both are outstanding. If you insist on sticking with the traditional, you can't go wrong with the standard Giants Dog.

Clam chowder. When you live less than an hour's drive (in non-commute traffic) from San Francisco, the West Coast capital of clam chowder, this one's a tough call. I guess I'll have to vote for Lucas Wharf in Bodega Bay. It's been quite a while since we've eaten there, but I recall the clam chowder with particular fondness.

Them's my choices. Let the chow-slinging begin!

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Gateway to Fresno

They say there's no such thing as a coincidence, and perhaps they're right. (I'm still not certain who "they" are, but that's a conversation for another time.)

If it's not coincidental, it's definitely ironic that, after winning its first bronze medal in International competition in Nashville this past July, my chorus should win its first District championship in the city dubbed "Nashville West." That's Bakersfield, California, the former home of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, for those of you not up to speed on your country music trivia.

For indeed, it was in Bakersfield — so named because one Colonel Thomas Baker planted an alfalfa field on the site many moons ago — that Voices in Harmony (Northern California's premier men's a cappella chorus; but then, you knew that) found ourselves this past weekend, for the annual convention of the Far Western District of the Barbershop Harmony Society.

Of the Society's 16 districts, the Far Western District spans the largest population base, encompassing California, Nevada, Arizona, and Hawaii. It's also a talent powerhouse: Both the reigning International Champion chorus (the Masters of Harmony, from Los Angeles County) and International Champion quartet (OC Times, from Orange County) hail from the FWD. (As noted above, Voices in Harmony is currently the third-place International chorus. Just thought I'd throw that in again.) Thus, winning in this ultra-competitive region marks a significant accomplishment.

This is my third time as a member of the FWD chorus champion. My former chorus won back-to-back titles in 1999 and 2000, the second of which was contested on the very same Bakersfield stage. That last was a challenging time: KJ was first diagnosed with breast cancer three weeks prior to the contest, and she had just undergone the surgical phase of her treatment. I was inclined to stay home, but she insisted — vehemently, as I recall — that I make the trip anyway. When I arrived in downtown Bakersfield, the streetlights were festooned with banners reminding me that October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. As I said... a challenging time.

Now, eight years later, KJ accompanied me to the tailbone of the San Joaquin Valley. Despite her often excruciating physical limitations, we had a fine time. We witnessed an outstanding quartet contest, won by a stellar foursome called Masterpiece (my fellow Voice, Alan Gordon, is the baritone in this future International champion). KJ renewed several old acquaintances within the Voices in Harmony family. And of course, there was that District chorus championship business.

Most of our contingent lodged at the Doubletree Hotel, which happened also to be hosting a group of hot rod automobile enthusiasts who, like ourselves, were convening in Bakersfield over the weekend. It appeared to KJ and me that the local "professional women's community" (if you know what I mean, and I think you do) made a sizable profit entertaining the gents from the hot rod (no pun intended) convention. At the very least, the legitimate female companions of the hot rodders shop for their clothing and accouterments at the same purveyors that cater to the local "professional women's community." Suffice it to say that copious quantities of alcohol were consumed, and that a well-lubricated (no pun intended) time was enjoyed by these sons of the open road and their lady friends.

When we weren't in rehearsals, attending the contests, or stepping over inebriated courtesans in the hotel lobby, KJ and I managed to find several surprisingly decent places to eat in Bakersfield. If you happen to be passing through, we recommend that you stop in at any of these fine establishments:
  • Coconut Joe's Island Grill, a kitschy joint in a downtown shopping center that specializes in faux-Hawaiian "beach food." If you like Jimmy Buffett records and the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland, you'll love this. Try the fish tacos — they're served with a delightfully tangy sauce that would probably render chunks of drywall edible.

  • J's Place, a funky little hole-in-the-wall that dishes up the tastiest Southern-style cooking I've had since the late, lamented Terry's closed up shop here in Santa Rosa. I ordered a bountiful plate of fried catfish that was as delicious as any I've eaten. KJ liked their enchilada special. I'm advised that the fried chicken and waffles are excellent, too.

  • Hodel's Country Dining, where we enjoyed a very respectable Sunday brunch. KJ's custom omelette was nicely prepared, and I enjoyed the quiche-like egg-and-cheese concoction enough to go back for seconds. Hodel's biscuits deserve their sterling regional reputation. Bonus points: Our waitress shared her first name with our daughter.
So that's the view of Bakersfield from my rear-view mirror.

If you happen to live (or are spending Thanksgiving weekend) in the Bay Area, and you'd like to kick off your Christmas / Hanukkah / Kwanzaa / Tet / insert-your-favorite-celebration-here season with the newly crowned Far Western District champions, buy your tickets now for our annual concert extravaganza, Unwrap the Holidays with Voices in Harmony. It's Saturday, November 29, at downtown San Jose's historic California Theatre. We've got music, we've got laughter, we've got glorious red tuxedos. Join us!

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Thursday, October 09, 2008

Ain't that a Mother's?

Tragic news today.

Mother's Cookies, the 94-year-old baking concern famed for its pink-and-white-frosted Circus Animal cookies, has ceased operations and filed for bankruptcy protection.

You'll have to excuse me...

I need a moment.

For all but the final two years of its existence, Mother's Cookies was based right here in the Bay Area — in Oakland, to be specific. In 2005, the company was sold to an East Coast investment firm, which the following year closed the Oakland facility that Mother's had occupied since 1949. The cookie-baking functions moved to Ohio, while the business office relocated to Battle Creek, Michigan. Some 230 local employees lost their jobs in the process.

In the corporate world, and especially in the current dicey economy, news like that of the Mother's Cookies bankruptcy doesn't come as a total shock. I lived through two company shutdowns myself, back when I was working for The Man every night and day. It's still sad, though, for the families who lost a paycheck. And it's sad for American culture, losing an icon that so many of us grew up with.

I sure am going to miss those Circus Animals.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Ain't no party like an Orthodox party

On Saturday, KJ and I attended the 20th anniversary of Glendi, the annual ethnic food fair sponsored by the local Russian Orthodox church.

Sonoma County's Russian heritage stretches back more than two centuries, when Russian traders established settlements in the area. A handful of geographic names — our primary waterway, the Russian River; the West County town of Sebastopol — serve as reminders of this historical connection.

Saint Seraphim of Sarov hosts Glendi (which means "party" in Greek) the third weekend of September every year. And every September, we see the placards all over town and say to each other, "We should go." Then other things intervene, or we simply forget. This year, we planned ahead.

The fair spotlights the food of nations where Orthodox religion is the dominant faith: Greece, Russia, the Balkans, and Eritrea. Because I spent two years in Greece during my youth, I harbor a fondness for Greek cuisine. Thus, I was looking forward to sampling some authentic Greek eats, as well as other delicacies.

Before we ventured into the food court, KJ and I stopped to view the sanctuary of Saint Seraphim, which the church is in the process of renovating. Although Saint Seraphim is culturally Russian, its architecture and iconography bears strong similarities to those of the Greek churches I often visited on Crete and in Athens. KJ had never seen anything like it, and was fascinated by the frescoes. One of the priests was leading a tour, explaining the process of fresco painting.

In the food court, we salivated over the numerous offerings. KJ enjoyed a juicy pork kabob and a tasty serving of spanakopita. I dined on a portion of perfectly roasted, sliced lamb, then dug into a plate of zigni, a spicy Eritrean beef stew that reminded me of a sharp-flavored chili, which I sopped up with a hunk of a spongy bread called ingera. After we walked around for a bit, I found room for a gyro piled high with meat, tomatoes, and cucumbers smothered in tangy tzatziki.

All of the food was spectacular — cooked fresh on the premises with obvious passion, by folks thoroughly steeped in the representative cuisines. And it was fun to watch our fellow clueless Americanos stumbling through eastern European dance steps in and around stuffing their faces.

As we departed with a package of dessert pastries for noshing later, we silently kicked ourselves for missing the Glendi experience during the previous two decades. We'll be sure to mark the calendar well in advance of next September.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

I gaze, therefore I drink

Today's edition of SSTOL is fueled in part by Starbucks Gazebo Blend coffee, which the folks behind the Sign of the Naked Fish-Tailed Lady describe as "created for summertime."

It seems a mite peculiar to be quaffing this particular brew on the first truly autumnal day here in Wine Country — dark, densely overcast, and downright chilly (only 57 degrees, and it's almost noon) — but it's what I have on hand.

Atmospherics aside, it still drinks quite well.

Gazebo Blend is an amalgam of East African coffees, which suits my tastes perfectly. Kenya, my all-time favorite Starbucks coffee, is native to the same region (and likely includes some of the same varietals). Gazebo shares some of Kenya's bright, acidic, citrus-like character, but it strikes my palate as richer, deeper in flavor, and slightly less sharp than Kenya. That makes Gazebo neither better nor worse than my old standby; it's merely a similar-yet-different sort of contrast.

What it lacks in Kenya's distinctive tang, Gazebo more than makes up in comforting drinkability. Starbucks suggests that Gazebo translates nicely into iced coffee, and I can well imagine that it would — although it seems a waste to me to suppress the flavor of excellent coffee by burying it in a blended drink. That's what the house blend is for.

Alas, Gazebo Blend is one of Starbucks' seasonal offerings, and I don't believe it's available at this moment. (I'm working toward the end of a bag I bought last month.) But toss a note in your Google Calendar to watch for its return next summer. If you like your coffee snappy and sunny, you'll get a kick out of Gazebo Blend.

Even if you don't own a gazebo.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

My new best friend: Throat Coat

In the main, I tend to be skeptical of folk remedies, homeopathic medicines, and such like. (I think astrology is bunk, too.)

I'm a convert, though, to Throat Coat, an herbal tea from the fine folks at Traditional Medicinals. Because I make my living using my voice, I'm game to try anything that might help me preserve its function — especially when I'm battling some kind of upper respiratory bug, as I have been lately. Throat Coat came highly recommended by colleagues in the speaking business, as well as a number of professional vocalists, so I decided to give it a whirl.

What do you know? It works. And despite the word "medicinal" in the company name, it's perfectly palatable from a flavor perspective. It's slightly sweet, with a hint of earthy spiciness.

According to the box, Throat Coat contains as its key ingredient something called slippery elm. I'm certain that, now that I'm ingesting the stuff on a regular basis, some scientific study will soon appear, indicting slippery elm as a root cause of esophageal cancer, nervous system dysfunction, and early-onset Alzheimer's. But for the moment, I'm enjoying the fact that it keeps my throat lubricated without creating phlegm.

Uncle Swan's bottom line: Throat Coat isn't exactly a miracle panacea, but it does make my throat feel better. If you're a yakker or singer -- or, like myself, both -- try steeping yourself a cup and see whether it helps.

It probably can't hurt.


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Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Swan Tunes In: The Next Food Network Star

Two seasons ago, local restaurant personality Guy Fieri took The Next Food Network Star by storm, winning his own cooking show — the hit Guy's Big Bite — and launching a TV career that soon made him ubiquitous on the cable channel.

Last season, a charisma-challenged field of contestants served up a tainted victor — San Diego soccer mom Amy Finley, who after being voted off returned to the show when another contestant (Joshua "JAG" Garcia) was dismissed for fabricating his culinary and military résumés. Amy's six-episode series, The Gourmet Next Star, boasted all the excitement of drying model cement, and swiftly vanished from the airwaves.

So what does this season's gang of ten tele-chef wannabes look like?
  • Aaron McCargo Jr. is the executive chef at a New Jersey hospital. I've eaten hospital food, and I've seen New Jersey. If either is any indication, I don't hold out much hope for Aaron.

  • Adam Gertler is an aspiring actor and waiter — as though that isn't redundant — who used to own a barbecue joint in Philadelphia. He strikes me as kind of goofy and annoying.

  • If Cory Kahaney's name sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because she's a stand-up comedian who made the finals of Last Comic Standing a few seasons ago. Cory's not laughing now, because she was the first contestant booted off in her latest competitive reality show challenge. Seeya, Cory.

  • Jeffrey Vaden is a caterer who, at 6'5", towers over his fellow contestants. For some reason, he reminds me a little of Geoffrey Holder, the actor from Trinidad who used to do those 7-Up commercials back in the day.

  • Jennifer Cochrane is the executive chef at a pair of restaurants in Rhode Island. Given the size of Rhode Island, those may be the only two restaurants in the entire state. She's working the "suffering single mom" angle way too hard for my taste.

  • Kelsey Nixon lost me the moment she referred to herself in her bio as "Mini Martha Stewart." She's blonde, cheerleader-chirpy, and from Utah, which I believe adds up to another redundancy. She's already had her own cooking show on local television. As far as I'm concerned, that was one Kelsey show too many. The world does not need a mini Martha Stewart. I'm not entirely sure we need the full-sized version.

  • Kevin Roberts, a chef and cookbook author from San Diego, is perhaps the most laid-back contestant in the group. Chalk at least some of that up to his experience as a culinary commentator for a radio station. I find him bland and unremarkable, but his background should help.

  • As far as I'm concerned, restaurateur and former pageant queen Lisa Garza can pack up her attitude and her Louise Brooks hairdo, and boogie on back to Dallas anytime now. She's smug, self-important, and insufferable — all of which helped land her in the bottom two. Don't let the door hit you on the way out, Miss Thing.

  • Nipa Bhatt is one of the more interesting options — her specialty is Indian food, and Food Network tends to be lacking in the ethnic cuisine department. She's smart, focused, and confident to a fault, but she might come off as a mite too serious (even grim) for weekly TV.

  • Youngster Shane Lyons — he's only 20, and already a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America — is a former child actor who costarred on Nickelodeon's All That a few years ago. Now he's a caterer in Colorado Springs. Shane broke down in tears during the first evaluation session with the judges. ("There's no crying in cooking!") He's probably had more face time on camera than any contestant except the now-departed Cory, but he'll have to man up if he wants to stick around.
It's hard to pick a single early favorite after the first episode, but if I had to bet, I'd put my money on a Jennifer/Kelsey final. They both have the kind of telegenic, upbeat (read: gratingly perky) personalities that Food Network favors. Time, as the saying goes, will tell.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Death by Frigidaire

I nearly dropped my cup of Butter Pecan when I read this...

Irv Robbins, cofounder of the Baskin-Robbins ice cream chain
, has departed for that giant freezer in the sky.

Robbins launched his tongue-chilling empire in 1945, when he opened his first ice cream parlor in Glendale, California. A few years later, he teamed up with his brother-in-law Burton Baskin to start the company that bears their names. (They flipped a coin to determine whose name came first.)

Baskin-Robbins quickly became the pioneering frozen dessert franchise operation, paving the way for franchising efforts in other areas of fast-food service. That "golden arches" thing, to name but one.

When his partner Baskin died in 1967, Robbins sold the company to United Fruit Co., although he continued on the payroll for another decade or so. These days, Baskin-Robbins belongs to the parent corporation of Dunkin' Donuts — is that a match made in hypoglycemic heaven, or what? — and boasts more than 5,800 shops internationally.

Although Baskin-Robbins' trademark is "31 Flavors," they've offered over a thousand varieties of ice cream at one time or another, from the perennial vanilla and chocolate to seasonal specialties (for example, our household favorite, Baseball Nut, a vanilla-raspberry-cashew concoction that resurfaces every spring) to such promotional gimmicks as Shrek'd Out Chocolate Mint and Casper's Red, White and Boo.

Here's a sweet irony: Robbins's son John, the author of such books as Diet for a New America, The Food Revolution, and Healthy at 100, is one of the world's most prominent advocates of veganism and natural, plant-based foods.

That's right, Junior: Dad paid for three squares a day, plus clothing, shelter, and college education, by selling frozen sugar and butterfat. And the man lived to be 90. Meanwhile, you're jumping on camera with Morgan Spurlock to bad-mouth your father's legacy.

King Lear said it best: "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!"

I'll raise a double scoop of Nutty Coconut to that.

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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Tigers and jaguars and coffee, oh my

This week's Hump Day is being fueled by Starbucks Organic Sumatra-Peru Blend.

Mmm... tasty.

This coffee has a nicely rounded flavor — slightly sweet, with a hint of chocolate in the finish. It also possesses one of the loveliest bouquets I've savored in quite a while, more herbal than floral or earthy. Must be that organic thing.

I'm not sure why there's a drawing of two cats — that's actually a Sumatran tiger and a Peruvian jaguar — on the bag. My barista assures me that this stuff is 100% cat poop free.

When I think of Sumatran animals, I think of orangutans. I've had coffee made by orangutans, and trust me — their brewing skills leave something to be desired.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Welcome to Matzo Search 2008

If you thought Where's Waldo was challenging, try finding matzo this Passover season.

There's a nationwide dearth of matzo — the unleavened bread that forms the foundation of the Jewish Passover observance — and it's especially critical here in the Bay Area. Thousands of our Jewish neighbors have been hitting local supermarkets and specialty stores in search of the dry, flat, cracker-like substance, and are coming up empty.

That's a problem, because matzo is the only bread that observant Jews can eat during the Passover season, which began at sundown on Saturday and continues throughout this week.

By all reports, a combination of factors contributed to the matzo shortage. Manischewitz, one of the largest U.S. suppliers of kosher products, recently shut down production of certain matzo varieties at its New Jersey plant due to problems with a new oven. At least two major retailers, Costco and Trader Joe's, decided not to carry matzo for Passover this year. Many other markets, including some that target the Jewish community specifically, simply underestimated the demand, and didn't stock up in time.

According to this morning's New York Times, the shortage is being felt all over the country. The San Francisco Chronicle is reporting that the Bay Area, which is home to more than a quarter of a million Jews, has been affected most acutely.

The supermarket where we shop regularly had a scant two boxes of matzo remaining on an endcap of Passover staples yesterday morning. I wouldn't be surprised if both have been snapped up by now.

For what it's worth, our church uses matzo for communion service every Sunday, so we always have a few boxes on hand. (We buy a huge case at a time — because it contains no yeast, matzo keeps pretty much indefinitely if left in the package.) Not all matzo, however, meets the particularly stringent kosher requirements for Passover. Since we don't purchase our matzo with those criteria in mind — we're only concerned that it's unleavened, which all matzo by definition is — I'd have to check the label to see whether the stock we have is Passover-worthy. (If it were, and you really needed a box, I could probably hook you up.)

If you're keeping Passover this week, I hope you've got all the matzo you need. And if you've got any to spare, my friend Neilochka over at Citizen of the Month has a terrific recipe for matzoh brei, an omelette-style dish made with eggs and matzo.

Hag Pesach Sameach!

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Pike Place... is that near Boardwalk?

This morning's activity at SSTOL is powered by free coffee from Starbucks. Because you know your Uncle Swan's motto:

If it's free, it's for me.

In case you didn't get the memo, the New York Yankees of coffee are giving away free cups of their new Pike Place Roast today, starting at 9 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

I was the first patron to queue up at my neighborhood 'Bucks to claim my gratis brew. The friendly barista enthusiastically pulled a cup of Pike Place Roast for me, and didn't charge me a penny. (As it happened, my coffee bean supply was running low, so they got a sale out of my visit anyway.)

I'm giving the new blend a moderate thumbs-up. As coffees go, Pike Place Roast is on the milder, mellower end of the flavor spectrum, with chocolate as its primary undertone. It's a smooth, easy-drinking coffee, pleasant but unremarkable. Clearly, it's designed to be quaffed in mass quantities rather than savored. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

As a coffee connoisseur, I tend to favor a sharper, brighter element — like that of the Kenya I bought today — so Pike Place Roast wouldn't be my java of choice. But if you usually guzzle the standard Starbucks house blend, and you're looking for a subtle alternative, Pike Place Roast just might be your cup of coffee.

If you run down to your nearest Starbucks in the next few minutes, you can get a freebie dose and decide for yourself.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Nothin' says lovin' like a McMuffin in the oven

Let's all raise a glass to the late, great Herb Peterson, who changed the course of American cuisine forever.

Who's Herb Peterson?
you ask.

Why, the inventor of the Egg McMuffin, of course.

Peterson was a McDonalds franchise owner in Santa Barbara (and a former VP of the advertising firm that held the McDonalds account). In the early 1970s, Peterson, who was partial to eggs Benedict, decided to create a sandwich based on his favorite breakfast fare. His moment of genius: slap a fried egg, a slab of Canadian bacon, and a slice of good old American cheese between the buttered halves of an English muffin, and viola! A handheld simulation of eggs Benedict, perfect for dining on the go.

The Egg McMuffin spawned an entire menu of breakfast items at Mickey D's, including its close cousin, the Sausage McMuffin (like an Egg McMuffin, only with a sausage patty instead of Canadian bacon); the similar McGriddle (like a McMuffin, only with a maple-flavored, waffle-like pancake in place of the English muffin); Breakfast Burritos; and a host of scrambled egg and hotcake combination plates.

Other fast food chains quickly followed suit, leading to such quizzical creations as Jack-in-the-Box's Breakfast Jack (like an Egg McMuffin, only served on a hamburger bun instead of a muffin) and Burger King's Croissan'Wich (like an Egg McMuffin, only... well, you figure it out). Even Starbucks eventually got into the act, although the company recently decided to phase out its line of breakfast sandwiches because baristas complained that they were "too smelly." (The sandwiches, not the baristas. Although I imagine that some of the more bohemian espresso-slingers occasionally get a mite funky also.)

Peterson's brainchild also led to one of the funniest bits of scripted comedy ever produced. On National Lampoon's 1977 album That's Not Funny, That's Sick, a Mister Rogers spoof character named Mr. Roberts (played by future mockumentarian and Mr. Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Guest) interviews a fuzzy-brained bass player (played by future Not Ready for Prime Time Player and Scarlett Johansen costar Bill Murray) in typically inane Fred Rogers style:
Mr. Roberts: Can you say, "Egg McMuffin"?
Bassist: Eggamuffin.
Mr. Roberts: I like the way you say that.
At the time of his passing on Tuesday, Herb Peterson was 89 years old. I once ate an Egg McMuffin that had been desiccating under a heat lamp at least that long.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

What's Up With That? #60: What part of a non-chicken is a Chicken-Free Nugget?

I spotted this product in a supermarket yesterday...

Chicken-Free Nuggets.

Now, that's just wrong.

Plain old chicken nuggets (we'll leave the "Mc" out of the discussion, lest we cloud our minds with anticorporate prejudice) are terrifying enough. Who knows what the devil they're putting in those things? It's my suspicion that they're made of ground-up chicken heads, held together with the gelatinous renderings of boiled chicken feet. (I couldn't prove it in a court of law. I'm just telling you what I think.)

But chicken-FREE nuggets?

I don't even care to contemplate what might be in these.

Perhaps one of my militant vegetarian readers can explain this to me. Why does this product even exist? If you're of a mind that it's wrong to slaughter innocent animals for human consumption, why would you wish to pretend to be engaged in that very activity? After all, no one goes to the frozen foods section hunting for: "Faux Human Nuggets: Like cannibalism, only without the life sentence."

And just look at the list of supposed ingredients:
Hydrated textured soy protein concentrate, soy protein isolate. Contains less than 2% of: rice starch, salt, toasted onion powder, flavorings, spices, maltodextrin, dehydrated celery, sea salt, garlic powder, carrageenan, natural spice oils, spice extracts.
Can anyone honestly believe that unnatural amalgamation is somehow healthier for you to eat than good old poultry, fried fresh on the drumstick?

Me, I'll stick to my local megamart's boneless, skinless chicken breasts. At least I know those were sliced from the carcass of a real, once-live gallus domesticus.

I mean...

I think they were.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

See you later, Dr. Gator

Let's all raise our glasses in memory of James Robert Cade, MD, who died today of kidney failure at age 80.

Who's James Robert Cade? you ask. To which Uncle Swan replies: Only one of the most important figures in the history of modern athletics.

Dr. Cade, you see, was the man who invented Gatorade.

In 1965, Dr. Cade, a member of the medical school faculty at the University of Florida, was asked a seemingly imponderable question by one of the university's assistant football coaches, Dwayne Douglas: "Doctor, why don't football players wee-wee after a game?" (We used euphemisms like "wee-wee" in 1965, children.)

Cade researched the matter, and discovered that football players sweated off as much as 18 pounds of water weight during the average three-hour contest. The good doctor reasoned that it might be possible to develop a supplement that would replenish the fluids and salt the players perspired away, thus improving their stamina and overall health.

Cade and his staff went to work brewing up their magical potion. After several less-than-successful attempts, they hit upon the formula we now know as Gatorade — named, of course, after the Florida football team, not in honor of any reptilian ingredient in the concoction itself. (Or so Cade said.)

And thus, an industry was born.

The University of Florida, incidentally, collects a royalty on the name Gatorade from the manufacturer, PepsiCo — an arrangement that has netted the school more than $150 million over the decades. Righteous bucks, as Jeff Spicoli would say.

Personally, I find the flavor and mouthfeel of Gatorade and similar "sports drinks" repellent. But you can't argue with $7.5 billion per year in gross revenue.

Dr. Cade, I'm sure, would drink to that.

One final note: The people at Pepsi would like to assure you that Dr. Cade's death from kidney failure is not directly attributable to 40-plus years of drinking Gatorade. At least, that's the company line.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels

The raindrops should be hitting the roses at any moment now here in lovely Sonoma County (what the heck ever happened to our customary Native American summer?), so here are a few of my favorite things, at least for today:
  • Dead animal flesh cooked over charcoal. I grilled a tri-tip on the old Char-Broil tonight that was sublime — perfectly marinated and done to a turn. Too bad you weren't here to eat some. Then again, there wasn't enough for you anyway. And you weren't getting mine. Take that, PETA.

  • Former Yankees manager Joe Torre, for having the gumption to tell George Steinbrenner to stick his 33 percent pay cut and one-year lame-duckitude where the Times Square neon doesn't shine.

  • My new Dr. Scholl's everyday walking-around shoes. They're comfy.

  • The Highwaymen, the rollicking Wildstorm Comics miniseries cleverly written by Marc Bernardin and Adam Freeman and drawn with razor-edged gusto by Lee Garbett. Of course, because I love it, it didn't sell worth a tinker's dam, and the fifth issue of the cycle marks the last time we'll see engaging mercenaries Monroe and McQueen ("One drives; one shoots"). If Wildstorm publishes a trade collection (which I doubt they will, given the lackluster sales of the monthly), buy it.

  • Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill. The langostino "lobster" that earned the chain all that untoward publicity a while back is on the menu again for a limited time. Get 'em while they've got 'em.

  • My daughter KM, who's enjoying her first semester of college. She's also taking her driver's license test on Monday — wish her luck!

  • Christopher Walken, who demanded — and supervised the auditions for — a bare-butt double for his latest film, Five Dollars a Day. I have no idea who thought anyone wanted to see Walken's pasty, 64-year-old glutes writ large on the silver screen, but good on Crazy Chris for refusing to drop trou.

  • The matching "Phoenix" and "Arizona" pictorial mugs I brought back from my recent trip to the Valley of the Sun.

  • Costco. It's the only place in town at the moment where regular gasoline is still less than three bucks per gallon.

  • Guy Fieri, our culinary local boy made good. KM and I spotted him and his family walking north of his downtown Santa Rosa restaurant, Tex Wasabi's, one day last week. Nice to see that with all his Food Network fame, Guy still hasn't lost that hometown touch. (Or the board shorts and flip-flops.)

  • The daunting new charts my chorus is learning. Just today, I downloaded an eight-page holiday arrangement that I have to familiarize myself with between now and Tuesday, on top of two others we've received in the last couple of weeks. Fun, complex, challenging music to sing, but the memory stick in the musical corner of my brain is filling up fast. (Yes, I'll get over it.)

  • Good coffee. You can never get enough good coffee.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

I was standing on a corner in Phoenix, Arizona

Notes from my weekend junket to the Valley of the Sun with my chorus, Voices in Harmony:
  • My first observation about Phoenix, from the air approaching Sky Harbor International Airport: Brown. Everything is brown. The land is brown. The buildings are mostly brown. Would it be too much to ask to broaden the color palette just a touch?

  • High marks for the Wyndham Phoenix Hotel. My 18th-floor room was nicely laid out and well appointed. I especially liked the bathroom, with its separated vanity and toilet/shower areas, full-length mirror (mighty handy when one is donning a tuxedo), and spacious closet with ample hangers. The bed may have been the most comfortable I've found in a hotel. All of the staff I dealt with were friendly and helpful. The one meal I ordered from room service arrived in a timely fashion, and was palatable to boot. My sole request: More (and faster) elevators to the guest rooms, please.

  • The Wyndham has a Starbucks right in the lobby — that's a gold star all by itself. In case you were curious, a vanilla latte at Starbucks tastes exactly the same no matter where in the world you drink it.

  • My hotel room window overlooked the Chase Tower, Arizona's tallest building, across the street. In its mirrored windows, I could watch jet aircraft landing and taking off.

  • I was surprised by the number of homeless people wandering the streets of downtown Phoenix. (Almost as many as in San Francisco. But not quite.) Although, after I thought about it, this made perfect sense. If you had to sleep outdoors, where would you rather do it: in Phoenix, where it's dry and warm (if not downright hot) most nights during the year, or, say, Minneapolis?

  • For a city relatively close to the border, I would have expected to find better Mexican cuisine in downtown Phoenix. Both of the meals I had in Mexican restaurants, however, were unimpressive. If I had a ballista in my backyard, I could hurl a boulder and hit three or four better Mexican joints.

  • Phoenix Symphony Hall makes an excellent venue both for performing and for enjoying a performance. Attractive environment, great acoustics, and surprisingly comfortable seats.

  • If you want to know what's really going on in a community, read the alternative weekly newspaper. Phoenix has a terrific one: Phoenix New Times. (So does Sonoma County, by the way. The folks at the North Bay Bohemian do an outstanding job.) Although I have to admit, I didn't know that a single locale could boast as many adult entertainment options as are advertised in the back pages of the Phoenix New Times. I suppose that when you live in a city where it's hot most of the year, it's easy to find people who are eager to get naked.

  • The best business to be in right now, apparently: Urban infrastructure. In both of the major cities I've visited in the past few months — Denver, and now Phoenix — half the streets in the downtown area are undergoing major construction. Somebody's making a killing in that racket.

  • The big story in Phoenix over the weekend: A would-be traveler wigged out at Sky Harbor Airport on Friday, after arriving late for her US Airways flight and being denied opportunity to board the already-departing plane. The 45-year-old woman from New York City later died while in police custody. I hereby affirm that I personally did nothing to provoke this incident.

  • On my flight coming home, I ran into the world's greatest vocal percussionist and live-looper — the astoundingly gifted Andrew Chaikin, better known these days as Kid Beyond. The Kid and I hadn't crossed paths since he was performing with San Francisco's a cappella pioneers, The House Jacks, a decade ago. (Frankly, I was stunned that he remembered who I was.) If Kid Beyond comes to your town, you owe it to yourself to buy a ducat and check out his act. In an era of talentless pretenders, this guy's is the real stone-cold deal. Drop by his Web site while you're thinking about it, and get a taste of his awesomeness.

  • I'd been saving a book for the plane trips to and from Phoenix, and it rocks like a house afire: Promise Me, the latest novel by Harlan Coben. It's Coben's first book in seven years to headline his favorite protagonist, former basketball star turned sports agent Myron Bolitar. If you enjoy a crackling suspense read in the modern style, hie thyself over to Amazon and pick up a few Cobens. You'll be glad you did.

  • As for the competition: Voices in Harmony came in second, as expected, with a score of 89.7%. That's a full two percentage points higher than our sixth-place score at International three months ago. (We'd have been fourth with these numbers.) Not bad for a contest set that included a ballad we began learning only eight weeks ago. Sweat equity pays off.

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Monday, July 09, 2007

Just blew in from Denver, and boy, are my lips tired

I'll cut right to the important stuff: We came in sixth.

"We" refers to my chorus, Voices in Harmony. The "came in sixth" refers to the Barbershop Harmony Society's International Chorus Contest, in which VIH competed last Friday.

This was VIH's first International as an ensemble, although about half of our members — myself included — had previous International experience in other choruses. From that perspective, being judged sixth-best in the world in our musical discipline is an awesome accomplishment. But for a contingent that had worked diligently for months hoping to debut in the top five at International, falling short of our goal felt a good deal like failure. At least for the first 36 hours.

Now, Denver's in the rear-view mirror, and we're looking ahead to next July's International contest in Nashville.

Onward and upward.

Post-competition disappointment aside, Denver was a blast. VIH performed in a talent showcase on Tuesday evening, and merited a standing ovation from one of the most accomplished chorus directors in the Society. We had three terrific rehearsals and enjoyed a fun dinner celebration on Thursday evening. We witnessed a spectacular quartet contest, won by a fine foursome of vocal musicians known as Max Q who'd finished second three years running. We cheered as our southern California neighbors, the Westminster Chorus, emerged victorious in the chorus contest. And we were treated to a warm welcome from the good folks of the Mile-High City.

For me, Denver was a pleasant surprise. Never having spent any time there, I expected something far less cosmopolitan than the city I discovered. The downtown area, highlighted by the 16th Street Mall — a mile-long outdoor pedestrian shopping stroll, complemented by free shuttle bus service, a Hard Rock Café and five Starbucks outlets — would be an asset to any American community. Even the weather was a surprise — the altitude suggested cool, breezy mountain days, but instead it was hot and steamy (and at brief times, thunderstormy) all week.

The city of Denver rolled out the red carpet for our International convention. Everywhere one wandered downtown, banners proclaimed, "Denver Welcomes the Barbershop Harmony Society." Practically every shop and restaurant window bore a similar sign of greeting. Sure, I know the idea was to charm more money out of our wallets, but still, it felt nice to be so politely suckered.

Another surprise: I savored one of the tastiest sushi lunches I've had in a while, at Sonoda's Sushi on Market Street. I walked in skeptical that a mid-continent burg could dish up the quality of sushi to which this West Coast/Hawaiian homeboy is accustomed. I waddled out 90 minutes later stuffed to the gills, to borrow a cliché. If you're in Denver and hankering for the raw stuff, stop by Sonoda's and they'll hook you up. Tell 'em the chubby brother from the barbershop convention sent you.

My accommodations at the Adam's Mark Hotel were satisfactory, if unremarkable (no pun intended) for the price. On the plus side: the air conditioning in my room delivered nice, cool air nonstop for five nights; the room service staff delivered decent food promptly whenever I ordered a meal; the free in-house high-speed Internet connection delivered consistent bandwidth throughout the week, justifying the hassle of toting my spanking new Dell laptop all the way from Cali. On the down side: the view from my window (which prominently featured a mammoth AC unit on an adjacent gravel-covered roof) was lacking; TV channel selection was sadly limited (three flavors of ESPN, but little else in the way of variety); and the one meal I ate in the hotel's restaurant took forever to arrive. In addition, the Adam's Mark is easily the most confusing hotel I've ever attempted to navigate, and I'm a veteran visitor to Las Vegas, where hotels are intentionally designed to obfuscate logical movement.

The cheerful minions of Southwest Airlines managed to transport me safely to and from Colorado without crashing or misplacing my luggage. I did, unfortunately, find myself stuck in a row either fore or aft of a screaming infant on each leg of the trip. But I can't blame Southwest for other people's procreation.

I missed my girls, my dog, my own bed, and my pocketknives. (Fortunately, scans of my comic art collection can travel with me anywhere.)

It's good to be home.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

What's Up With That? #48: What's this green stuff in my Cha-Cha Bowl?

Thirty years after serving 10 months in federal prison for smuggling marijuana, former Giants star Orlando "The Baby Bull" Cepeda has been caught once again with the evil weed.

The CHP busted Cepeda the other afternoon, blazing down I-80 at 83 miles per hour. When the Hall of Famer rolled down the driver's window, a certain unmistakable whiff alerted the arresting officer to the fact that Orlando had been doing another kind of blazing as well. A search of Cepeda's Lexus by a drug-sniffing police dog turned up both ganja and a bindle containing a suspect white powder, believed to be either cocaine or methamphetamine.

Giants cognoscenti will recollect that Cepeda's much-deserved enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame was delayed by more than three decades, as the former slugging first baseman's drug conviction prevented him from garnering the votes necessary for election. Cepeda was at long last inducted by the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee in 1999, after an intensive PR campaign mounted by the Giants.

In recent years, Cepeda has been visible as a member of the Giants' public relations staff, and as the namesake of Orlando's Caribbean BBQ, a food concession at AT&T Park. This popular snack stand is the home of the world-famous Cha-Cha Bowl, a faux-Latin riff on the basic rice bowl. Being a dedicated hot links and nachos kind of ballpark diner, I've not had a Cha-Cha Bowl myself, but I'm told that they're mighty tasty.

Just don't try to smoke one.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

It's Fat Tuesday, and I'm a bit fluffy myself

As I sit here sipping my Starbucks Kenya from my Mickey Mouse coffee mug ("It's really swell!"), I'm thinking.

You know what happens when I do that.

Get on your bikes and ride: The Tour of California bicycle race kicked off here yesterday. The first stage concluded with a 90-bike pileup in downtown Santa Rosa. At our house, we're rooting for local hero Levi Leipheimer, who's currently wearing the yellow jersey — which means that he's either leading the race, or knows where the urinals are located.

We figure Levi deserves a little applause, mostly to make up for what his parents did to his psyche by naming him Levi Leipheimer.

You really can find IT on eBay: For years, I've been hunting for a CD by an obscure '90s a cappella cover band from Washington, DC called Brock and the Rockets. The Rockets — four men, four women — performed at the very first Harmony Sweepstakes finals KJ and I attended, in 1993. In the years since, I've worn out my cassette tape of their sole album, entitled Out to Launch.

A couple of weeks ago, by sheer serendipity, I discovered a copy of the CD on eBay for just $3.99. I'm one happy Solid Rocket Booster. You haven't lived until you've heard Catherine Boland Hackett's hilarious rendition of Julie Brown's "I Like 'Em Big and Stupid."

Life begins on Opening Day: The Giants undergo their first full-squad workouts of spring training today. The wonderful thing about the first day of spring training is that every team is undefeated, every pitching staff looks like the second coming of Cy Young, every batting lineup looks like Murderers' Row, and every infield looks like Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance. Hope springs eternal in the spring.

Will this be the year Bonds breaks Aaron's record, if he's ever going to? Will Zito flourish in the National League? Will Durham prove he deserved the new contract? Anything seems possible. I loves me some Giants.

Our long national Monday nightmare is over: NBC has finally pulled the plug on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Starting next week, the oddly titled drama The Black Donnellys (odd because, from what I can tell from the previews, none of the characters are black; but then, if they were, the show would probably be called The African American Donnellys) slips into Studio 60's timeslot, by all accounts permanently.

As one of the few hardy souls who stuck it out with Aaron Sorkin and company until the end, allow me to offer three quick insights about what went wrong here:
  1. Studio 60 was a show about comedy writers and comedians, but almost no one in the cast was a comedy writer or comedian. The scripts never gave the one real-life comic in the crew (D.L. Hughley) anything funny to say or do. The actor playing the show's comedy star (Sarah Paulson) was the least funny person in the cast. Why didn't Sorkin stock the crew with genuinely funny people?

  2. The show wasted tons of airtime on relationship stories that lacked chemistry. The romance between the characters played by Paulson and Matthew Perry was doomed from the start — you never believed those two people felt anything for each other that was hotter than day-old oatmeal. The late-blooming love story between Bradley Whitford's producer and Amanda Peet's network executive seemed sillier and creepier every week. The one truly intriguing combination — Nathan Corddry's geeky comic and Lucy Davis's shy English writer — never got off the ground.

  3. The writing, to put it politely, sucked. I can't remember a show that loved to pontificate as much as Studio 60 — unless it was Sorkin's previous effort, The West Wing. There, at least, the White House setting gave the pontificating some gravitas. TV writers and comedians pontificating just came off as gratuitous and self-important.
Mrs. Butterworth, I think I love you: Today is National Pancake Day, which means that you can stop in at your friendly neighborhood International House of Pancakes before 10 p.m. today, and scarf down a free stack of three buttermilk pancakes. In exchange, the IHOP folks ask that you consider making a donation to the Children's Miracle Network, or another charity of your choice. So eat up, flapjack lovers.

(Not that I'm quibbling or anything, but I hardly believe that serving French toast, English muffins, and Belgian waffles qualifies a restaurant as "International." But maybe that's just me. I definitely would not bring up this point with your waitress, should you decide to go for the free stack.)

Happy Mardi Gras! Remember: For some of us, every Tuesday is Fat Tuesday.

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

We built this City on rock and roll

It being our anniversary and all, KJ and I spent yesterday hanging out in The World's Coolest City. (You do know that's San Francisco, right? Who would go to Honolulu just for a day trip?) We cruised Pier 39, strolled Fisherman's Wharf, then headed downtown to see the new Westfield Centre and Union Square. As you can tell, unlike many locals, we've never been too snobbish to trek through all of the touristy stuff now and again, because, what the hey, we like the touristy stuff now and again.

So in case you're contemplating a visit to Baghdad by the Bay (it used to be a nifty nickname when the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen coined it decades ago, but of course Herb had no idea how that whole Baghdad thing would turn out) sometime in your immediate future — or you're a Bay Area resident who's amenable to climbing down off the old high horse once in a blue moon — herewith follow a few random notes on our little excursion.
  • Yesterday, Pier 39 celebrated the 17th anniversary of the unexpectedly permanent arrival of the sea lion pod that has inhabited the pier ever since. The sea lions appeared to be observing the auspicious occasion by napping in the sun. Which is, so far as I can determine, pretty much what the sea lions at Pier 39 do every day, tourist attraction or no.

  • We ate lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, whose San Francisco branch is virtually indistiguishable from any of the other branches of the chain. The Hard Rock relocated to Pier 39 a while ago from a truly miserable location on busy Van Ness Avenue, a spot far distant from most of The City's major tourist venues and parking-challenged to boot. Coolest memorabilia item at the SFHRC: the black fedora Michael Jackson wore in his "Smooth Criminal" video. Who knew then that the whole "smooth criminal" thing wasn't just a song title?

  • Pier 39 is home to a collectible cutlery shop humorously dubbed We Be Knives. This dingy, poorly lighted hole in the wall is home to a dazzling array of sharp steel objects capable of sending a connoisseur like myself into paroxysms of envy. I was surprised to see that the place sells balisongs (Filipino butterfly knives), given that such items are legal to own in California, but illegal to carry on one's person. I wonder whether a knowledgeable police officer could write you a ticket the moment you stepped out of the store after purchasing one.

  • Sad observation: The quality of the resident street performers at Pier 39 has either deteriorated over time, or we just happened to catch the comedy juggler on a bad day.

  • Delicious irony: The odd juxtaposition of chain restaurants Hooters and In-N-Out Burger on Fisherman's Wharf. Of course, just being able to write a sentence that contains both "Hooters" and "In-N-Out" is amusing in itself. But the irony derives from the fact that Hooters prides itself on being a testosterone-fueled bastion of lustful objectification, while In-N-Out is a family-owned outfit famed as much for its squeaky-clean image and the proselytizing of its devoutly religious owners as for the quality of its hamburgers. In-N-Out is the only chain restaurant of which I'm aware that prints Bible references on its packaging materials (sandwich wrappers, soft drink cups, etc.). You've gotta know that the In-N-Out people passed a kidney stone when they learned that a Hooters was moving in next door to one of their burger joints.

  • The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, which oversees the preservation of Alcatraz Island, is apparently mounting a major fund-raising push to restore the long-decommissioned prison and current sightseeing location. I did my civic duty by purchasing an overpriced "Save the Rock" coffee mug. Al Capone and Robert Stroud thank me.

  • I also bought a new pair of sneakers at the Wharf's Payless Shoe Source. My feet thank me.

  • Given the eerily identical selections of merchandise in most of the souvenir shops along the Wharf, I would not be at all surprised to discover that the same guy owns all of them.

  • Westfield Centre, the new shopping mall on Market Street, lives up to its advance billing as one of the spiffiest commercial spaces on the planet. It's also one of the most confusing to navigate.

  • The men's rooms at the Westfield Bloomingdale's are much nicer than those at Macy's in Union Square. Just in case you happen to be downtown, and need a pit stop. In fact, I'm going to call the place Bathroomingdale's from now on. (I'd imagine that the facilities at Neiman Marcus are nicer than either Bloomie's or Macy's, but I didn't have to go while we were in there.)

  • From what I can tell, Mayor Gavin Newsom's highly touted efforts at getting the homeless folks off downtown streets are having zero effect.

  • We dined, as we usually do when we're in the neighborhood, at the Cheesecake Factory restaurant atop Macy's. The Jamaican black pepper shrimp was excellent, as was the vanilla bean cheesecake. You can ask for Amy's table, and tell her your Uncle Swan sent you.

  • Every time we eat at the Cheesecake Factory, I find myself at some point mesmerized by the neon sign of Harry Denton's Starlight Room nightclub across Union Square. I have no idea what the attraction is, but that darned thing commands my attention like a candle flame draws moths.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Save the planet, and pass the chicken wings

The Seminoles are buying the Hard Rock Café.

Not the Florida State University football team. The actual Seminoles.

With approximately $965 million socked away from their existing gambling ventures — including Hard Rock Casino Hotels in Tampa and Hollywood, Florida — the Seminole Tribe of Florida is purchasing the entire Hard Rock franchise — lock, stock, and memorabilia. It's the first time a Native American tribe has bought a major, name-brand corporation.

In the buyout package, the 3,300-member Seminole Tribe will receive title to 124 Hard Rock Cafés, four Hard Rock Hotels, two Hard Rock Casino Hotels, and two Hard Rock Live! concert venues. Not included is the Las Vegas branch of the Hard Rock Hotel, which was sold to another outfit earlier this year.

Apparently, there's no truth to the rumor that the Hard Rock's previous owners, the London-based Rank Group, threw in the remains of Elvis to sweeten the deal.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Love that chicken!

Yesterday in my little corner of suburbia, a Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits franchise opened.

That subterranean rumble you just felt was your Uncle Swan doing his happy suppertime dance.

The arrival of a new fast food outlet may not seem like a big deal to you, but at our house, the advent of a local Popeyes unleashed a celebratory vibe equalled only by a Giants division championship. Prior to this, the closest Popeyes was located 30 miles away in Vallejo, just down the pike from Six Flags Marine World — a lengthy run for a quick bite of fast food, though we made that run more than once. Now, Barry Bonds could practically hit a fastball from our front door to the home of tasty deep-fried poultry, buttery biscuits, and such faux-Cajun side dishes as red beans and rice.

A bit of Popeyes trivia: Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits wasn't named for the spinach-chomping cartoon sailor of the same name. The founder of the chicken joint named his restaurant after Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, the New York City police detective played by Gene Hackman in The French Connection. (The real-life "Popeye," whose actual name was Eddie Egan — he later parlayed his French Connection fame into a modest career as a Hollywood character actor — wasn't named after the sailor either. Go figure.)

It wasn't until a decade or so later that Popeye the Sailor became the company's advertising icon. That relationship, sad to tell, was severed a few years back, when the restaurant chain decided to go for a slightly more upscale tone in its marketing, focused more on the chain's New Orleans roots and Cajun-style fare.

I don't think they cook the chicken in Olive Oyl, either.

(Hee! I crack me up.)

And yes, for reasons unknown to me, the chain does, in fact, omit the apostrophe from its name. Probably just to bug me.

Or perhaps to exact revenge for the "Olive Oyl" joke.

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Monday, August 07, 2006

That's what a hamburger's all about

Esther Snyder, the cofounder of the In-N-Out hamburger chain, died over the weekend. She was 86. (Always an ironic age at which to pass on.)

For those of you not blessed to live in California, Nevada, or Arizona, the name In-N-Out Burger probably means nothing to you. For many Left Coasters and Southwesterners, however, the very mention of In-N-Out sends salivary glands into hyperactivity.

Started by Mrs. Snyder and her late husband Harry in suburban Los Angeles in 1948, In-N-Out may be the largest — and perhaps last — family-owned fast-food chain in America. The company has always been doggedly independent, both in its business philosophy — the privately-held chain only recently topped 200 outlets, a paltry number compared with such contemporaries as McDonalds and Jack-in-the-Box — and in its menu — in an era of burger joints hawking Chicken McNuggets and deli sandwiches on ciabatta bread, In-N-Out still serves nothing but hamburgers, French fries, and drinks. Period. No chicken, no fish, no salads, no frou-frou.

In-N-Out Burger's claims to fame are legion: its "off-the-board" menu options; the secretive nature of its founding family, who refuse to make public reports of sales figures or profits; the spectacularly bad personal fortunes of that same founding family (Harry Snyder died of lung cancer just as the company was beginning to expand outside its Los Angeles base, while both Snyder sons died six years apart in separate accidents after taking over control of their parents' company); the cryptic religious references that appear on its product packaging. To its fans, however, In-N-Out is famous mostly for tasty, freshly prepared (the fries are cut from whole potatoes on the spot) food.

Insiders well know that, although one can't order an entree other than a burger at In-N-Out, said burger can be obtained with numerous "secret" preparations that don't appear on the published menu. (These options are, however, preprogrammed into the cash registers, so the counter staff can charge appropriately.) For example, ordering a burger "animal style" means that the inside of the bun is coated with mustard and grilled, and the sandwich topped with cooked onions (as opposed to the standard raw) plus an extra dollop of Thousand Island dressing. (I'm told that you can order fries "animal style" also, though I have no clue why you'd want onions and salad dressing on fries.) Hefty eaters can belly up for a "2x4" (a double cheeseburger with a total of four slices of cheese) or a "4x4" (four beef patties and four cheese slices, informally known as a cardiologist's nightmare). The carbohydrate-averse can call for a "flying Dutchman" (a double cheeseburger without the bun) or a burger "protein style" (a beef patty wrapped in lettuce).

Thanks to the religious convictions of the Snyder family, In-N-Out food is served in packaging subtly adorned with Bible references, usually in an unobtrusive location, such as the underside of drink cups. It's an interesting paradox for a burger joint whose name sounds like a crude innuendo. In fact, for years a common sight on California highways was an In-N-Out Burger bumper sticker with the first and last letters of "Burger" removed. I haven't seen one of these in a while, suggesting to me that either the joke got old or the company quit giving away bumper stickers. I'm not sure which is the truth.

When I was active in chorus, our rehearsal night carpool frequently stopped at an In-N-Out for dinner on the way home. I'm not a big hamburger fan — my usual order at a burger chain is a fish sandwich, if there's one on the menu — but if you like your beef on a bun, I have to admit that In-N-Out does a pretty solid version. (I'm not as enthusiastic about the fries — prepackaged and processed or not, McDonald's still beats every other chain's fries all hollow.)

The drive-through line at our local outlet — the northernmost In-N-Out on the California coast — often wraps around the building, so they must be doing something right.

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Sunday, July 30, 2006

The idea of North's

A sad note from Medford, Oregon, gateway to Crater Lake and birthplace of Lisa Rinna:

The original J.J. North's has closed.

J.J. North's Grand Buffet was once a thriving chain of all-you-can-eat restaurants — the kind of place you folks of Scandinavian extraction residing in the upper Midwest call a smorgasbord. The sort of joint where you walk in, grab a tray, and proceed to pile plates high with bland-yet-filling steam-table fare until you can barely walk. Back in the day, the chain went by the name J.J. North's Chuck Wagon, before new ownership took the business — if not the dining experience — slightly more upscale under the "Grand Buffet" moniker.

Years ago, we had a J.J. North's here in Santa Rosa. It was a prime location for Sunday after-church luncheons because the price of admission was cheap, the grub was plentiful, even the pickiest child could find at least a few items to consume, and you could usually shove enough tables together to accommodate a party of almost any size. Our daughter KM loved it because of the self-serve ice-cream station, if for no other reason.

Then, one day, without advance warning, our J.J. North's closed its doors. (Much like the sudden departure of the Medford outlet, or so it seems.) We showed up one evening, our mouths watering in anticipation of crisp fried chicken and mounds of fluffy mashed potatoes, and it was gone. "Lost our lease!" proclaimed the hand-printed sign taped to the front door. We hoped that meant the management might perhaps reopen in another local venue, but they never did.

My funniest memory of J.J. North's involves the night we discovered our house had been sold. About a year earlier, our friend Tom the realtor had helped us move out of our cramped upstairs apartment into a comfortable two-story townhouse condo owned by one of his clients. On this particular evening, we arrived at North's to find Tom and his family already there. We greeted them in the usual way, but Tom barely spoke to us. Later, we discovered the reason — his client, our landlord, had only that afternoon decided to sell our townhouse. Tom was struggling to muster up the courage to tell us we had just 30 days to move.

A few J.J. North's Grand Buffets survive, scattered here and there throughout California, but the North family long ago sold the franchise to a larger company. The original Medford outlet was the last restaurant remaining under the control of old J.J.'s heirs.

In a dash of irony, one of the key factors in the Medford North's closure appears to have been competition from a nearby HomeTown Buffet — a huge chain founded by a former staff member at the Medford North's restaurant.

That's gratitude for you.

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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Cheese, whiz, and other excretions

Please lower your napkins to half-mast...

the inventor of the Philly cheesesteak sandwich has died.

Loath as I am to speak ill of the newly deceased, and as great a devotee as I am of the cholesterol-ravaged, carbohydrate-overloaded concoction with which he is credited, I must nevertheless question the supposed genius of one Harry Olivieri, who with his brother Pat opened the first cheesesteak joint, Pat's King of Steaks, in the 1930s.

My quibble with Mr. Olivieri? Two words: Cheez Whiz.

I'm sorry, King of Steaks (or is it Brother of King of Steaks?), but you can't put Cheez Whiz on a sandwich and call it a cheesesteak.

Cheez Whiz is not cheese.

It may, on the other hand, be whiz.

Which leads us to the dubious wisdom (no pun intended) of the Kraft Foods people in giving a semi-liquid yellow comestible a name that includes a colloquialism meaning urine.

But I digress.

According to Kraft, Cheez Whiz is a "processed cheese food product." The concept of cheese food confounds me. As a proud dog owner, I understand dog food. It's what we feed our dog. I understand cat food and fish food as the pet store staples customarily fed to cats and fish, respectively. I therefore must proceed under the presumption that "cheese food" is not cheese, but rather a product to be fed to cheese.

Who wants to put that on a sandwich? Not I, said the pig.

Provolone, on the other hand, is entirely another story. Only a barbarian — or perhaps one of those darn Etruscans — would put anything other than authentic provolone cheese (notice: not provolone "cheese food") on a cheesesteak sandwich.

Even if the guy who made the first one used that funky, viscous, Day-Glo stuff from a jar.

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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Holy vermicelli, Batman!

After many long years of geographical estrangement...

Rice-A-Roni is once again the San Francisco treat.

(The other San Francisco treat, you deve.)

When Quaker Oats ("There's nothing better for thee than me") bought Golden Grain, the company that made Rice-A-Roni for decades, they downplayed the product's San Francisco connection, eventually ditching the familiar jingle and cable car imagery altogether. For people who aren't from around here, I suppose the name San Francisco evokes certain... umm... images, shall we say, that not every company wants associated with its merchandise.

But never underestimate the power of a catchy advertising slogan to rise from the dead.

I actually like Rice-A-Roni, as an occasional side dish. When KJ and I were first married, it was practically a daily staple. We don't serve it very often anymore — our daughter isn't a fan — but I always keep a box or two handy in the pantry. Because every now and then, those old comfort foods from your childhood just taste like love, don't they?

It's interesting to note, however, that although I have consumed dozens of meals in San Francisco over the years...

...I've never eaten Rice-A-Roni there.

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Sunday, June 25, 2006

No mushroom, but a fun guy nonetheless

They say you never know what you've got until it's gone. These words were never more truly spoken than when it comes to the life of one Warren L. Simmons, who died over the hill in Napa last week.

Simmons is probably best known in the Bay Area for being the mastermind and motivating force behind Pier 39, one of San Francisco's premier tourist attractions. He also founded the Blue and Gold Fleet ferry service, which provides the only transportation to Alcatraz, the former federal prison located on an island in the middle of the bay.

But until I read his obituary, I had no idea that Mr. Simmons also started the Chevys restaurant chain.

I love me some Chevys.

As franchise restaurants go, Chevys is about as good as it gets in the field of Americanized Mexican cuisine. The chain's tagline is "Fresh Mex," and they live up to the slogan, serving food created with fresh ingredients actually prepared in their restaurant kitchens rather than prefabricated. ("No cans in our kitchen!" proclaims the menu.) Chevys makes its own excellent salsa, guacamole, and tortillas right on the premises. In fact, as you await your order you can watch the tortillas springing to life on a giant Rube Goldbergesque contraption called "El Machino," located smack-dab in the middle of the dining room.

You will not be served better chips and salsa in any restaurant north of the Baja Peninsula than you'll get at your local Chevys. The combination of hot, thin, lightly crispy chips and fresh, tangy salsa can be so tempting that you're likely to fill up before your entree arrives, unless you have either a bottomless gullet or willpower like a monk in a harem.

I highly recommend the fuego-seasoned shrimp fajitas. If you order some, save me a doggie bag.

Ironically, there isn't a Chevys on Pier 39. Warren Simmons sold the waterfront complex of shops and restaurants five years before he opened the first Chevys. (He later sold the restaurants too. Chevys today is owned by the Pepsi-Cola Company. Don't even think about trying to order a Coke.) There is, however, a Hard Rock Cafe, assuming you enjoy that sort of thing, as well as a Bubba Gump Shrimp Company that serves some of the most lackluster, insanely overpriced seafood on the planet. If you decide to eat at the Pier — and if you're on a budget, or just hate paying for outrageously expensive meals, I suggest you dine elsewhere — try Neptune's Palace instead. (The most consistently enjoyable and affordable restaurants Pier 39 ever housed, the quirky Alcatraz Bar and Grill and an outlet of the local Chinese eatery Yet Wah, both closed years ago, I'm sad to report.)

Thanks for all the good times, Mr. Simmons. The next time I go to visit the sea lions at Pier 39, or scarf a Super Chevys combo plate, I'll raise my Diet Pepsi to you.

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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Today's Recommended Daily Allowance of irony, courtesy of Chuck E. Cheese

A Chuck E. Cheese Pizza in Brooklyn has been shut down by health inspectors, after they discovered mouse droppings in the kitchen.

Given that Chuck E. is roughly the size of the average teenage girl, I'm glad I wasn't the one who found the droppings.

I always thought it was one of the world's most bizarre marketing faux pas to have a giant rat as the corporate mascot of a restaurant chain. It appears that I was prescient.

Truth to tell, KJ and I whiled away many hours at our local Chuck E. Cheese Pizza in our dating days in the early 1980s. Back then, though, Chuck E.'s was really more of a video game arcade — complete with animatronic singing animals — that just happened to serve pizza. (Barely edible pizza, at that.)

The original Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre chain was the brainchild of Nolan Bushnell, the man behind Atari Games. (Remember PONG? If you don't, you're not old enough to hang out here, kid.) Bushnell's original restaurant franchises went bankrupt as coin-operated video arcades began fading before the onslaught of Intellivision, Nintendo and other home video game consoles. The dying chain sold out to a competitor in 1984, and the new regime is the one that operates under the Chuck E. Cheese name to this day.

Our local outlet used to feature an animatronic lion called The King, who warbled bad imitations of Elvis imitations while you attempted to choke down the cardboard crust and rancid toppings of your Chuck E. Cheese pizza. We also had a character named Dolli Dimples, an Ethel Mermanesque hippo with — I kid you not — gigantic heaving bosoms that bobbed up and down as she belted out show tunes. (Now that's entertainment for the small fry!)

The old Chuck E. Cheese we frequented in downtown Santa Rosa is long since departed, but the successor chain has an outlet right here in our happy little burg. I haven't been in there since KM was a tyke.

If you've never dined at a Chuck E. Cheese Pizza, surrounded by crooning mice, dogs, chickens, and assorted other barnyard creatures, plus a hundred shrieking toddlers with pizza sauce and birthday cake smeared across their cherubic faces, you haven't lived, mon ami.

Just make sure those black olives on your combo pizza are really olives.

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Saturday, June 10, 2006

Wendy won't give you a Biggie anymore

Wendy's, the fast-food chain known for their square hamburgers and human fingers in their chili, is dropping the terms "Biggie" and "Great Biggie" in reference to their gunboat-sized French fries and drinks.

Mind you, the elephantine drinks and fries at Wendy's will still be as "big" and "great big" as they've always been. Only now, the former "Biggie" will be designated as "medium," and the "Great Biggie" will be "large."

This is exactly the same sort of sophistry engaged in by Starbucks, where small is "tall," medium is "grande," and large is "venti," whatever the heck that means.

Somehow, I don't think Wendy's founder, the late Dave Thomas, would approve.

Dave was all about the Biggie.

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Monday, June 05, 2006

Today, on America's Test Kitchen

Great bloggers really do think alike.

Here I sit, contemplating a recipe for skillet lasagna I'm preparing for dinner this evening, and over at The Watchtower of Destruction, The Ferrett (and if you aren't him reading daily, you're doing yourself a disservice) recently posted about the very magazine from which this recipe comes — Cook's Illustrated.

I loves me some Cook's Illustrated.

Even more, I love the TV cooking show the magazine produces, America's Test Kitchen. It's a staple of my Saturday morning routine (except during pledge months, when PBS stations abandon all reason — and scheduling logic — to grovel for donations). ATK (as we aficionados affectionately call it) is one of the most entertainingly informative half-hours on television. It's similar to Good Eats, only without the sometimes overbearing goofiness of Alton Brown, and with a higher babe quotient.

ATK is hosted by the publisher of Cook's Illustrated, a tall, lanky, bowtie-wearing Vermonter named Christopher Kimball, who looks as though he wandered in from a casting call for Revenge of the Nerds V: Electric Boogaloo. Most of the actual cooking duties fall to comely chefs Bridget Lancaster (the petite, sharp-featured one) and Julia Collin (the cute, chunky one). In between the two recipes presented on each program, Chris banters with his not-so-comely male associates Jack Bishop, who conducts comparative taste tests of food products, and Adam Ried, who reviews a fascinating assortment of kitchen gadgets.

Best of all, the recipes shown on ATK actually work — at least, the ones we've sampled in our personal "test kitchen" have. As is usually the case with cooking-show fare, most of the recipes require a trip to the local supermarket, because they always call for an exotic ingredient or three that no typical American family would normally have lying about in the pantry. (Unless you're a professional chef, or host your own cooking show. Or both.) But in general, ATK's dishes are relatively simple to make (if often far more time-consuming than one might guess from watching a 30-minute program) and taste terrific.

You can download ATK's easy-to-follow recipes from their Web site, once you register. (It's free, and you know Uncle Swan's motto: "If it's free, it's for me.") Plus, when you register, Chris and the gang will send you a complimentary issue of Cook's Illustrated, which is hands-down the most user-friendly cooking periodical going.

The skillet lasagna was a huge hit with the girls the last time I fixed it. I'd invite you all over for a taste, but I only have so many skillets.

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Monday, May 22, 2006

How can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?

Those laugh-a-minute folks at PETA have named music superstar Prince and actress Kristen Bell, star of the TV series Veronica Mars, as the world's sexiest vegetarians.

Now there's an oxymoron for you:

Sexy vegetarians.

Insert your own meat-eating punch line here.

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

One large pepperoni pizza, hold the cadaver

This just in from The Smoking Gun:

A Domino's pizza delivery guy in Pennsylvania, busted for a suspended license and expired registration tags, was discovered by police to be using the same car in which he transported pizzas to ferry corpses for a local funeral home.

Just think: The next combo pie that rolls up to your front door may just have been sharing car space with someone's late Uncle Fred.

Bon appetit!

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006


Police in Phoenix yesterday shot and killed a man who hijacked a Krispy Kreme delivery truck.

Let this be a lesson to you criminal types out there:

Don't. Mess. With the doughnuts.

You use a gun, you go to prison. You steal Krispy Kremes in front of cops, you die. And that, as Baretta used to say, is da name o' dat tune.

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Monday, April 24, 2006

He's our Guy

Congratulations to my homeboy Guy Fieri on being named The Next Food Network Star. Guy, who owns three restaurants and a catering business here in Sonoma County, edged out seven other hopefuls from around the country to win a contract for a six-episode cooking series on the Food Network.

I had Guy pegged to win from the first week of the competition. He has the kind of big personality that’s tailor-made for television — loud, funny, and quirky without being grating or obnoxious. I predict his show will be a hit, if they give him a decent time slot.

Guy’s food is pretty darned good, too. I’ve never eaten at any of his restaurants, but I’ve attended a couple of events his company catered, and I’ve sampled the fare at his Johnny Garlic's concession booth at the county fair over the years. Tasty.

Perhaps the mention here will net me a free dinner or something. Will blog for food.

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Campbell's soup: Now with added protein!

An 89-year-old woman in Nashville claims to have found a mouse in a can of Campbell's bean with bacon soup.

Says rodent-phobic granny Pearl Parkey, "It's not like the finger that was in the Wendy's chili."

Of course not. (Snicker.)

According to her daughter, Grandma Parkey has been reluctant to eat since discovering the furry critter in her soup. I guess it's true: Once you've tasted mouse, you're spoiled for anything else.

The next time I hear a Campbell's commercial telling me that their soup is "Mmm... Mmm... Good," I'll know what that "Mmm..." stands for.

By the way...

Who eats bean with bacon soup?

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The cheese stands alone

In other Burger King news...

A woman who manages a Burger King franchise at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C. has won the World Grilled Cheese Eating Championship. Sonya Thomas slammed down 26 grilled cheese sandwiches in 10 minutes flat at the Planet Hollywood restaurant in New York's Times Square.

Lest you suppose that competitive gustation is the sole province of sumo wrestlers and thick-necked truck drivers named Moose, you should know that your newly crowned grilled cheese eating champ tips the scales at a petite 100 pounds when not stuffed to the gills with bread and cheddar.

For her efforts, Sonya banked a cool $8,000, a chunk of which will help pay for the ambulance ride and stomach pump that doubtless ensued after this event.

A veritable legend among trenchermen (trencherwomen? trencherpersons?), Sonya — known as "the Black Widow" in speed-eating circles — holds numerous other food-guzzling records. In various competitions, Sonya has tossed down:
  • 46 dozen oysters in 10 minutes.
  • 11 pounds of cheesecake in nine minutes.
  • 48 chicken tacos in 11 minutes.
  • 37 hot dogs (with buns) in 12 minutes.
  • 56 hamburgers in eight minutes. The Associated Press story does not indicate whether Sonya set this latter record using Burger King product.
Suddenly, I've lost my appetite.


Monday, January 30, 2006

What's Up With That? #29: Hey, babe... care to see my Whopper?

First Hootie, now Hooters.

This just in, by way of The Superficial: That creepy Burger King and actress-model-Hooters spokeperson Brooke Burke have apparently made a love connection.

I'm warning you — the first one who makes a wisecrack incorporating the phrase "hot beef" is going to get a time-out.

You know, of course, that these human-mascot relationships never work out. But it could be even stranger. The Burger King could be hitting on Darius Rucker in his Brokeback Mountain cowboy outfit.

I just wonder...

Does the King let Brooke have it her way?

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