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Monday, August 9, 2010

Best BBQ in Nashville and Four Meals with Pork. In a Row.

Spicy Food Guy and Great Guy Colleague of Spicy Food Guy (GGCSFG) had a full rack of ribs.

As a side.

After BBQ we went out for ice cream.  Spicy Food Guy had two dips of Tennessee Fudge in a Chocolate Chip Cookie Cone.  It was that kind of trip.  But Spicy Food Guy digresses.

As usual, for reasons best left unknown to the American public, Spicy Food Guy was out and about in the world; this time in Nashville, Tennessee.

The trip didn't begin as a BBQ orgy, but decadence has a way of gathering momentum.  This is especially true when the decadence has to do with ribs, pulled pork, bacon, and Texas sausage.  But Spicy Food Guy is getting ahead of himself again.

The origin of the BBQ binge took place at the Brookwood Farms North Carolina BBQ Pit at the Charlotte airport early in the afternoon.  During his layover, SFG happily knocked off a pulled pork sandwich with slaw and vinegar based BBQ sauce, baked beans, and a bottle of Budweiser.  Pretty sane BBQ consumption at this particular point in the trip.

Then the party went to Nashville and a couple of locals recommended Jacks BarBQue as the undisputed favorite among true BBQ enthusiasts.  Jacks has won two or three zillion awards, including "Best BBQ Sauce on the Planet" in 2004.  After tasting all eight or so homemade sauces that Jacks serves on premises, SFG agrees that the sauce is heavily competitive in planetary circles, and it's even in the realm of possibility that when the aliens land, they will want to go to Jacks.  But Spicy Food Guy digresses again.

SFG and GGCSFG went to Jacks with several other Food Enthusiast Colleagues of Spicy Food Guy (FECSFG).  The food at Jack's is served cafeteria style, and the line is long.  Orders must be placed quickly.

Spicy Food Guy decided on the three meat platter.  $13.  Really.  SFG picked the pork shoulder, ribs, and Texas sausage.  SFG also stuck with slaw and baked beans as tried and true BBQ sides.  However, because only two or three ribs came with the three meat platter, Spicy Food Guy fretted that there would be a rib shortage at the table.  That's when SFG and GGCSFG decided on the full rack of ribs as a side dish strategy.  Brilliant.

So this was Spicy Food Guy's tray -- 3 meat platter with beans, slaw, and bread.   A plate with a full rack of ribs.  Eight little plastic cups of every BBQ sauce that Jacks served.  And two beers.  Now this may sound a little over the top, but keep in mind SFG shared the ribs with GGCSFG.

The BBQ was fabulous.  The Texas sausage was packed with garlic, paprika, and juicy pork fat.  The ribs were tender with a great char and smoke ring.  The pulled pork was obviously smoked for hours and hours and had that pit-master smoky signature.

After dinner, SFG and FECSFG waddled over to the Whiskey Bent Saloon (of course it was called the Whiskey Bent Saloon, complete with an up and coming country music singer, and our table was made out of a real wagon wheel.  Really).  After digesting dinner and listening to music, SFG and FECSFG decided to head off to an old fashioned corner shop called Mike's Ice Cream Fountain.  That's where the Tennessee Fudge ice cream in a chocolate chip cookie cone moment occurred.  And yes, it was as tasty as it sounds.  Creamy.  Big ol' chunks of chocolate fudge.  A cookie cone that tasted like, well, a cookie.

Spicy Food Guy knows what you are thinking; "Surely it ended there, SFG, surely you didn't eat again for many, many days".

It's called breakfast and it took place the next morning.  Spicy Food Guy selected the Waffle House. Best breakfast at the Waffle House?  The Breakfast All-Star Special.  A waffle.  Two eggs.  Three strips of bacon.  Hash browns (Spicy Food Guy had his hash browns "smothered and covered", that is, grilled with onions and topped with a slice of processed American cheese.  Generally the best hash browns on the planet).  Toast.  Coffee.  SFG added orange juice.  A stick-to-your-ribs breakfast.

Ate every bite.  The force is strong in Spicy Food Guy, and the midichlorians were hungry.

And maybe, perhaps, that would have ended the pork orgy.  But Spicy Food Guy had to fly back through the Charlotte airport.  Hit the BBQ Pit on the flip side.  Pulled pork again, slaw again, beans again.

And then, and only then, did Spicy Food Guy decide he was full.

Totally true story.  Peace out, BBQ fans.  I am one of you.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Best Spicy Breakfast Sandwich in Pittsburgh, Perhaps Anywhere

Spicy Food Guy was home for a few days when he was tipped off about Gab and Eat by some local, in-the-know diner types (LITKDT).

"Go there", urged LITKDT, they have the best burgers in the 'Burgh.  They're Balls!"

OK, they didn't really say the burgers were balls, it's just that SFG loves the expression so, and it seemed to fit in the story.  And LITKDT aren't the only Gab and Eat advocates.  Several 'Burgh bloggers have hailed Gab and Eat as the "best diner in the 'Burgh".  Where there is advocacy there is substance, at least when it comes to hole-in-the-wall-diners.  The same cannot be said about the Republican party, but Spicy Food Guy digresses.

So off Spicy Food Guy went to the Gab and Eat, though he passed by it a few times because he blinked.  Or sneezed.  It doesn't take much to miss the ol' Gab and Eat.

Anyway, SFG had every intention of ordering one of the Gab and Eat burgers.  It was a mission.

Until he spotted the John Boy on the menu.  The John Boy.  Hot homemade sausage, egg, cheese, peppers and onions, all on Italian toast.  Not just any Italian toast -- but Mancini's Italian toast.  Mancini's, the makers of fabulous bread and perhaps the best pepperoni rolls in the region (that's a whole other blog post).

Let Spicy Food Guy say this about the John Boy:  it's spicy, it's cheesy gooey, it plays the egg and sausage perfectly together, it's the best bread ever, it's one of the best breakfast sandwiches in the free world, and tops anything in North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. 

If the John Boy could talk it would say "I have been called the breakfast sandwich of my generation among those who have tasted me" in a similar sort of way Will Ferrell called himself the songbird of his generation in the movie "Stepbrothers".

You should see Stepbrothers because it is hysterical.  You should eat the John Boy at Gab and Eat because it's a one of a kind Pittsburgh breakfast sandwich.  So says Spicy Food Guy.

Peace out.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Baked Beans for Breakfast is Balls and Other UK Food Observations

Let Spicy Food Guy begin by saying the highlight of his trip to the UK had to be when Esteemed Colleague of Spicy Food Guy (ECSFG) complimented a particularly flavorful curry by stating:

"Oh that's Balls."

Spicy Food Guy delights in this succinct and apt descriptor.  In fact, SFG earnestly awaits the evening, sometime in the near future, when a snooty wine sommelier pours a sliver of some fine merlot so that SFG can perform the ritualistic taste test.

"It's Balls," Spicy Food Guy will state authoritatively to the sommelier, "we'll all take some."  And then Spicy Food Guy will whirl back to the table and re-start the dinner conversation before the sommelier can manage a stuttered response.  And in his head, Spicy Food Guy will chuckle deeply.

But Spicy Food Guy digresses.

As usual, for reasons best left unknown to the American public, Spicy Food Guy was out and about in the world; this time London, England.  Specifically, SFG was rather trapped in a hotel close to terminal 4 of Heathrow airport.

Now SFG has been to London perhaps a dozen times, and as the tourist lore goes, the food is nothing to write a blog post about.  The exceptions are curry houses and baked beans for breakfast.

The English have a thing for baked beans, and beans are officially a part of a "full English breakfast".  SFG thinks the English are on to something here.  Baked beans mixed in with some fried eggs and pieces of bacon is a great combination of flavor and texture.  It's balls.  When you think about it, beans and bacon and eggs is a better combo than grilled burgers and beans.  It's not better than pulled pork and beans, but the egg combo is right up there in terms of a natural fit.

But this whole baked bean thing is not what SFG is here to discuss.  Spicy Food Guy is here to discuss curry houses and steering wheels.

So the story begins when SFG and about six Esteemed Colleagues of Spicy Food Guy (ECSSFG, because it's plural) decided to go out for some curry one evening so as to have at least one decent dinner during our stay in London.  Some of the ECSSFG also decided that a few pints at the pub would be an excellent precursor to the Indian dinner.

Needless to say, spirits were high and the mood light when the van showed up to cart SFG and ECSSFG to the restaurant.  Much to the delight of the rest of us, one ECSSFG decided to use this van ride to vent in a typical American style:

"Look," half looped ECSSFG postured to the driver, "the automobile was invented in America, right?  The automobile was first manufactured in America, right?"  

The driver did not respond.

"So," ECSSFG continued, ignoring the driver's silence, "what on earth possessed you to move the steering wheel to the other side of the car?"  

You could tell ECSSFG was genuine in his inquiry, and the driver let a small smile escape (which is the British equivalent of a hearty laugh).

In any case, SFG and ECSSFG made it safely to "Achari, Flavour of India", the locally recommended curry house.

And the curry was fabulous, as it always is in London.  SFG and ECSSFG decided to order a half dozen or so appetizers and a half dozen entrees and just split them all up.  SFG loved the fried onion bhajees as an appetizer (as wiki says, think potato fritters).  Additionally, SFG forcefully argued that one of the entrees should be a spicy lamb vindaloo, despite the hesitant misgivings of ECSSFG.  The lamb vindaloo ultimately inspired the "that's balls" comment, so Spicy Food Guy felt extremely vindicated.

The curry sauces were packed with flavor, with tastes of tumeric, garlic, ginger, and mustard.  The meats were tender, the beer cold, the staff proud, the company fine.  All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable UK evening.

Next morning, Spicy Food Guy had baked beans for breakfast.  Sometimes everything goes right.

PS, "Baked Beans for Breakfast", by Ruth Chew, was one of SFG's favorite childhood books.  Coincidence, or a higher level of order that sustains balance in the universe?  SFG thinks its all just one big mystery. 

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Best Cajun Appetizer Ever

As usual, for reasons best left unknown to the American Public, Spicy Food Guy was out and about in the world; this time in Covington Kentucky.  

From a food perspective, the trip didn't look all that promising at first.  SFG rode in a small airplane, ate airport food, drank airport beer, stayed in an airport hotel, you get the drift.

So imagine Spicy Food Guy's delightful reaction to being guided to Dee Felice Cafe, a homey and authentic cajun restaurant that seems to have been tossed into the middle of Northern Kentucky via some wormhole in the New Orlean's space time continuum.  It's a cozy little space with friendly staff, lots of window seating, and a little stage to accommodate live jazz from Tuesdays through Saturdays.  Spicy Food Guy liked the place immediately.

And then came the two appetizers, both of which Spicy Food Guy rates right up there with the best of any appetizers he has consumed as part of his lifetime habit of eating food.  Appetizer one, Ricardo's Ravioli, was a deep fried ricotta and jalapeño ravioli that was covered in a jalapeño and crawfish cream sauce.  The other was a grilled portabella mushroom with chicken and slathered with a fresh leek cream sauce.  Both appetizers were fabulous, the ravioli in particular was captivating. 

Spicy Food Guy can't put his finger on what exactly amped up his attraction to the ravioli, but it had a lot to do with there being a lot more substance to the dish than meets the eye.  First seen, the appetizer looks like something directly out of a swanky Manhattan "Froo Froo" Restaurant; kind of spoiled and pretentious and only to be consumed by uptight foodies and restaurant critics.  But, as it turns out, the ravioli has a real country and southern comfort flavor that is both simple (from the cream and pasta) and complex (from the crawfish and jalapeño) at the same time.  And, best of all, a nice streak of spice and heat runs through the entire dish, adding a sort of seduction element to the whole appetizer.  At it's essence, the ravioli represents everything Spicy Food Guy celebrates and loves when it comes to food.  It captured SFG's heart, forever.

So don't miss this place if you are in the Cincinnati area.  And send SFG some ravioli on your way out the door.  Spicy Food Guy misses it.  Really.       

Friday, June 25, 2010

Pennsylvania Pilots Wine in Grocery Stores (30 Years After Everyone Else)

Spicy Food Guy is highly amused by the following  news story from an article entitled "State pops the cork on wine kiosks" in today's Pittsburgh Post Gazette:

"The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board began a pilot program of wine-vending kiosks inside two Harrisburg area supermarkets on Wednesday.  If all goes well, similar kiosks may start popping up in Western Pennsylvania in August, said PLCB spokeswoman Stacey Witalec."

Let's make sure Spicy Food Guy has this straight:  Pennsylvania is piloting, in two whole locations, an adult beverage grocery distribution strategy that has been fully rolled out in the other 49 states for the past three decades?  Now, is this front page news because the media perceives the strategy as progressive, or because they view it as embarrassing? 

Spicy Food Guy can just envision next week's headline:

"Pennsylvania embarks on an ambitious 15 year development plan to sell beer in convenience stores".

Please someone help.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Refried Beans, Jalapeño Peppers, and How to Eat at All-Inclusive Resorts

"I bet I can eat refried beans and jalapeño peppers for 12 straight meals."

So did Spicy Food Guy toss out his "Cool Hand Luke" challenge to his family members, all of whom rolled their eyes and went back to enjoying the sun and warmth of the Riviera Maya.

As it turns out, Spicy Food Guy rather enjoyed the refried beans and jalapeño pepper challenge, though it became the bane of existence for those who had to share the same bathroom as SFG

Spicy Food Guy and his family were enjoying some quality time at the Occidental Grand Xcaret a couple months back.  In prior years, the SFG family had vacationed at the Grand Sirenis Riviera Maya.  All-Inclusive Resorts are hit and miss establishments when it comes to food.  A quick perusal of will show reviews that range anywhere from "the resort had the most fabulous food ever and I gained 10 pounds" to "I couldn't find a single dish that wasn't undercooked and my husband ended up in the hospital with food poisoning."  But given that SFG has some experience in these types of resorts, he thought he'd provide some guidance to those vacationers that might be headed down for their first visit.

But first some setup; most of the food service offerings in all inclusive resorts work in the same general manner.  A grand buffet anchors most of the meals, the selection is huge, and you can eat there with no reservations for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Most evenings the grand buffet has a specific theme, such as seafood, Mexican, or Italian.  In addition to the buffet, most resorts offer pool side lunch cafe's where you can get standard lunch fare -- tacos, burgers, pizza, hot dogs, nachos, that sort of thing.  Finally, all the resorts will have anywhere from two to five standalone dinner restaurants that require reservations and have some sort of dress code.  The restaurants range anywhere from Japanese to Mediterranean to Steakhouses.  Finally, most places offer some limited version of room service.

So how in the hell do you decide where to go and what to eat?  As I said, Spicy Food Guy is here to help.
Tip 1 -- Go big on breakfast. First, it doesn't take much to prepare a fairly elegant breakfast, and most resorts do a terrific job of setting up a nice brunch-like atmosphere.  A good omelet, prepared in front of you with your ingredients of choice, is always a great way to start the day.  And because most resorts are located in sunny warm environments, there is almost always a broad selection of fresh fruit.  The kids can enjoy cereal, scrambled eggs, or french toast.  Spicy Food Guy generally steers away from bacon and sausages, mostly because they always appear to be undercooked.  Plus, making breakfast the big meal of the day gives you at least a remote chance of burning off some calories before day's end.

Tip 2 -- Go local.  Shockingly, the best food in most Mexican resorts is, well, Mexican.  It's what they know.  The pica de gallo is always fresh and delicious.  The refried beans are outstanding.  Tinga Pueblana, Mexican pulled pork, practically melts in your mouth.  It always cracks Spicy Food Guy to read a review that says "We were really disappointed with the food at the Italian restaurant in the resort".  Really?  You were?  Spicy Food Guy is always soooo tempted to leave a comment like "No shit, bright eyes, Italy was located on another damn continent last time I checked.  Of course the Italian food sucks in Mexico.  Dumbass."  But SFG never writes this, he just thinks it.

Tip 3 -- Lunch 1 and Lunch 2.  This is a food strategy that was developed by Independent Thinking Stepdaughter of SFG (ITSOSFG).  Most of the poolside lunch cafe's are open from about 11:30 to 2:30, and they are jam packed from 12:15 to about 1:30.  So ITSOSFG came up with the brilliant idea of having a smallish lunch around 11:30 when the crowds were light and the food had just been set out, and then repeating the process at about 2:00.  Lunch 1 and lunch 2.  Helps stop binge eating, you get a quiet lunch, and really fast service.  Brilliant.

Tip 4 -- Avoid shellfish.  Admittedly, this is kind of a no-brainer.  The chances of getting food poisoning from shellfish, especially when served raw, is well documented and known.  Now Spicy Food Guy loves oysters, but he is not about to risk a spending a sunny day in the Riviera Maya vomiting in his bathroom.  Just stay away from the shellfish.

Tip 5 -- Straight from the bottle.  We all know American and European tummies don't always handle Mexican water very well.  So avoid it.  Drink water from water bottles.  Drink beer or soda poured from a bottle.  And is there anything finer than the thoughtful, well timed tequila shot?  Spicy Food Guy thinks not.

Spicy Food Guy hopes you enjoy your trip, and he highly recommends the jalapeño peppers and refried beans.  Peace out, Amigos.

Monday, June 21, 2010

10 Food Tips for New Graduates

Tip 1: Throw out the Ramen noodles.  All of them.  In the trash.  Now.  Nothing says "cheap college student who has no idea how to cook" more than a case of Ramen noodles.  So get rid of them.  Case closed.

Spicy Food Guy once lived in a college apartment, adorned with paper plates, 47 pizza delivery boxes stacked in the living room corner, and a fridge full of beer and a gallon jug of ketchup.

Spicy Food Guy has since grown up, and he is here to help.

You have just received your diploma, you are fortunate enough to have landed a real job.  A real apartment.  Real world.  How to navigate the grown-up world of food?  Here are nine more tips:

Tip 2:  Learn how to cook an elegant breakfast.  You spent four years eating Coco Puffs and cold pizza for breakfast.  Excellent while it lasted.  A couple of things:  1) breakfast is the easiest meal to learn how to cook well, and 2) if you have a guest for breakfast, chances are it is a very important guest.  So fry eggs.  Better yet, make an omelette with fresh peppers, onions, mushrooms, and local cheese.  Know how to flip it.  Sizzle up some bacon.  Slice up some toast.    Pour orange juice into a pitcher and put it on the dining room table.  Put some flowers in a vase. Win the morning, win his/her heart.

Tip 3:  Do not skimp on the basics.  Folger's coffee and store brand ice cream may have worked on the quad, but in the real world they send a very distinct signal -- "this kid is broke".  Time to upgrade.  Fresh roasted coffee beans.  Ben and Jerry's ice cream.  Throw out your cheap beer, put a six pack of Carlsberg in the fridge.  Demonstrate you have an income.  

Tip 4:  Learn how to navigate a classy restaurant.  Admittedly, this takes some time and experience, and we have all come from different backgrounds, but Spicy Food Guy is here with the basics:  1) The female guest follows the Maitre D' to the table, 2) the female guests order first, 3) no one eats until everyone is served (please, no matter what circumstances, no matter how much everyone else says to go ahead, do not eat, ever, until everyone is served).  Also, dining utensils are used, in order, from the outside in.  If you are unsure of which fork or spoon or glass to use, wait and watch someone else first.  Better yet, defer to the server.  Ask which entree the chef prefers, ask what the best wine pairing is, treat your server as if they are the resident food and wine expert (which they are), and they will almost always reward you with fabulous service.  Trust Spicy Food Guy on this one.

Tip 5:  Salt and Pepper do not a spice cabinet make.  Fresh basil.  Onion powder.  Garlic salt. Oregano.  Thyme.  Cayenne pepper.  A stocked pantry makes you look worldly, and makes your dishes taste better.  Experiment on burgers, eggs, pasta, and chicken on the evenings you eat alone.  Find your signature.

Tip 6:  Man the Grill.  Any yahoo can cook up burgers and dogs on a sunny summer Sunday afternoon.  You can do better.  Learn the basics of charcoal vs gas grilling vs a smoker.  Figure out when to use direct or indirect heat.  Grill up some salmon on a cedar plank.  Serve up a succulent beer can chicken.  Be in demand at the cul-de-sac party.  

Tip 8:  Have a signature dish.  Spicy Food Guy can whip up some from-scratch Gumbo that breaks hearts.  Really.  It is just that good, but it wasn't always that way.  Took a bunch of years for SFG to get it right.  Put this on your bucket list: take several years and learn to prepare a dish that is fucking unparalleled among its peer set.  When SFG serves up his gumbo, he expects folks to respond "holy shit this is really good".  SFG is rarely disappointed.  Find your gumbo, discover your soul, win his/her heart.

Tip 9:  Take him/her/them to Brunch.  Brunch kicks ass.  It's on a Sunday, the pace is slow, the price is inexpensive, and the food is rarely bad.  You can really get to know someone over a long sit down brunch.  If your parents are in town, take them to the fanciest brunch in the region.  At most you are out $75, and you get a quality conversation with your Mom and Dad.  As a first date, a fancy brunch can't be beat.  There is time to linger, time to chat.  Mrs. SFG found out as much at the Grand Concourse in Pittsburgh in 2001.  Enough said.

Tip 10:  On a cold winter morning, bake cookies.  If they don't come running, the warm gooiness is yours to hog alone.

But they will come running.

So says Spicy Food Guy.  Peace out.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Flatulence and Sushi in New Jersey

OK, so Spicy Food Guy, for reasons best left unknown to the American public, traveled from New York City to northern New Jersey late last week to wrap up some unfinished business.

For lodging, SFG elected to stay at a nondescript Marriott.  And to get his daily workout in, Spicy Food Guy elected to work out in the Marriott fitness center.

That's when the trouble began.

First, SFG is obligated to point out that the Marriott fitness center is not a fitness center, per se.  Rather, it is a converted hotel room or suite that can comfortably hold about six people.  And that's about how many were there that fateful day last week.

Early in the morning, SFG decided to do some ab crunches.  Bad idea.  Halfway into the set, SFG experienced some, how should we say this?  Flatulence.

Or rather, for Spicy Food Guy it was more like:


If you get SFG's drift. 

Everyone froze for like three seconds.  What to do?  There really is no appropriate response in this situation, either for the flatulence producer or the startled innocent bystanders who are deciding whether to flee or fight through it, so to speak.

Spicy Food Guy, however, was in the midst of silent prayer:

"Please Lord," implored SFG, "let this be the light-misty-morning aroma.  Please don't be the rare and dreaded rotting-dead-mammal cloud of poison."

Of course it was the dead mammals.

In business parlance, there was no upside here for SFG.  Time to crawl away and die of mortal embarrassment.  But Spicy Food Guy did not die of mortal embarrassment.  Instead, he decided to go out for sushi with some colleagues.

(Pause here.  SFG recognizes the inherent awkwardness in the above transition from gym flatulence to sushi, but the gym thing was funny, and Spicy Food Guy needed to weave it in the story somehow.)

Now to establish context, Spicy Food Guy is a reasonably seasoned sushi eater.  SFG has eaten a lot of good sushi in a lot of places, east coast to west coast.  So let it be known here that SFG found the Sushi Lounge in Morristown NJ to be among the finest sushi dinners he has ever had anywhere.

SFG knows your response.  It weirds him out, too.

Let's say you are a fan of sushi.  Let's say you are a fan of Chilean Sea Bass.  The Sushi Lounge has combined the best of both into the Chilean Sea Bass Roll, marinated in a yuzu and soy glaze and as fabulous a sushi roll that SFG has ever put into his mouth.  There is also a Tempura Sea Bass Roll.  The flaky tenderness of the sea bass combines with the crunch of the tempura so that the whole roll is a culinary explosion of texture and taste.

SFG and his colleagues also enjoyed the Lobster Crunch Roll, which combines lobster, crab, wasabi, toasted almonds, and endamame.  Who thought of this?  They should win an award.  Several awards.

And what of the Baja Roll?  Soft shell crab and shrimp tempura, guacamole, roasted red peppers and served with a mustard dressing.  Does SFG really need to explain how delicious this was?

So pleasantly surprised, Spicy Food Guy filled his belly with some of the most interesting and tasty sushi rolls he has ever had.  And the atmosphere of the Sushi Lounge is both light yet intimate, so it has a quirkiness that lends itself to good company and conversation.

Go to the Sushi Lounge.  Stay at the Marriott.

Spicy Food Guy will see you in the gym.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Tasty BBQ in Times Square

As usual, for reasons best left unknown to the American public, Spicy Food Guy found himself on the road again last week.  Destination for this trip?  Times Square, baby!

Spicy Food Guy is a huge fan of Times Square, largely because it allows him to participate in radically disparate activities in a very confined geographic area.

Typical evening outing for SFG and his buddies in Times Square:
  • Go to an Irish Pub for a quick 'lube and oil change, if you get SFG's drift.
  • Amble over to ESPN Zone to watch multiple sports games on multiple huge screens.  Sip on a beer and munch on some wings while yelling random animated coaching tips for said sports teams on said screens.
  • Stop by the M&M Store (of course there's one!) and buy a gift for the family.
  • Go back to Irish Pub.
  • Go to a random diner (open 24 hours) and eat eggs, bacon, pancakes, toast.
  • Go to hotel and sleep.
A hundred bucks says there is no other place in the world where SFG can do all that within 2 city blocks.  You gotta love the Big Apple.

But Spicy Food Guy digresses.

On this particular trip, SFG was in the mood for some good old fashioned BBQ and Southern Comfort foods, so off he went to Virgil's BBQ on the corner of 44th and Broadway.  Spicy Food Guy was arriving at Virgil's after an hour or two at ESPN Zone, so he was ready to chow down.

And chow down SFG did.  SFG ordered two meats, memphis ribs and a texas sausage link.  The ribs had a fabulous smoke ring and a really nice dry rub crust on the outside.  The outside char was offset by the tender and delicious pink meat on the inside.  The sausage link had garlic and chile pepper spices and was a juicy mix of pork meat and fat.  And the condiments!  Three or four different bbq sauces, several hot sauces, mustard.

To make sure SFG had some daily servings of "vegetables", he ordered baked beans (with big chunks of maplewood bacon) and cheese grits.  The cheese grits were creamy, not lumpy, and served steaming hot.  

As an indication of how much he enjoyed the meal, SFG texted the Boy (SFG's son) with the following message (true story):


Elegant prose.  Brought to you by Spicy Food Guy.  And next time you make it to the Big Apple, get to Virgil's.  Go hungry.  Stay late.

Peace out.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Breakfast With The Boy

9:00am on a Saturday morning, Spicy Food Guy and his only son (hereafter referred to affectionately as "the boy", with the keen knowledge that the label is only appropriate for maybe another year or two) are eating a couple of egg combos at the Dor-Stop, one of our favorite restaurants.

SFG and the boy are here following an early morning recreation 7th/8th grade boys basketball game.  SFG coaches.  The boy rebounds so well SFG is thinking of giving him the title "Chairman of the Boards".

It's been a great morning.  The boy's team was losing by 12 at half to a team that had no weapons except one future NBA star.  SFG made a half time adjustment on defense; switched from man-to-man to a three man triangle zone with the 4th kid following the ball and the boy following future NBA star wherever he went.  The boy, whose true sport is wrestling and looking at a 18 to 20 win season, was able to muscle the future star around, get him frustrated, and the boy's team went on a 18-4 run to win the game.  SFG envisions himself the Bill Belichick of the boy's hoops rec league.

But basketball is not the primary topic here at the Dor-Stop.  The boy is in 8th grade, and the topic is high school.  The start is 7 short months away, and the boy is assessing his options.

But first, some background about the boy.  Two things, actually.

First, the boy is blessed by what is best called natural gracefulness.  In athletics, the boy is liquid smooth.  Pure jump shot, sweet golf swing, a natural bowling throw; he is a quick, strong, balanced wrestler.  This natural athleticism both delights and pisses off the Boy's Sister and yours truly.  SFG, who received no athletic genes, has a golf swing that looks like an angry person trying to behead a groundhog who has just stuck his head out of a hole.  The boy's natural gracefulness goes beyond athletics.  He is a natural comedian with a sharp mind and quick wit.  He learns effortlessly.  Until he got braces, he was first chair trumpet.  He is beloved by his peers and teachers.  In short, he is popular and athletic like his Grandfather, intelligent and entertaining like his Sister.  SFG's job, apparently, was to serve as a gene carrier from one talented generation to another.  There are worse jobs, SFG supposes.

Point two about the boy; until very recently when he shot up out of nowhere, he was always in the 10th to 20th percentile for height and weight.  And he has a late August birthday, one of the youngest in his class.  The net of this was from grades 1 to 6 he was a head shorter than anyone else in his class.  Because of this circumstance, the boy learned the tough lessons of realistic expectations.  He got cut from a school basketball team because of his size (a move the middle school coach now profoundly regrets), and the boy turned to wrestling where he could compete against kids his own size.  Because of realistic expectations, the boy understands his role on any team he is on.  Someday he will come to understand just how valued that skill is.

But today we are talking about high school, and he is talking about his options.  Right now he is signed up for all Honor's classes.  Should he stick with that?  Or maybe back out of Honors English?  In wrestling, he can try out for varsity, where he will learn a lot but get his ass kicked, or he can wrestle JV or even down at the middle school team, where he will dominate his opponents but limit his development.  He is thinking about the Marching Band, but if his putting gets better he may have a shot on the 9th grade golf team.  The Theater Instructors are practically drooling for him to get involved with school plays.  His Sister had her share of lead roles when she was in high school and the boy is equally talented.  So many options.  Hard to choose.  He is being thoughtful.  A recurring statement is that high school team commitments take a lot of time and effort.  SFG, who occasionally does the right parenting thing, shuts up and listens.

On the inside, SFG is abundantly proud of the boy, but he is also jealous of the boy's powerful youth and limitless potential.  The boy is entering a time in his life when the horizon grows wide, the forks in the road become more delineated, the decisions are his to make, and his choices will lead to great adventure, ripping heartbreak, and fabulous victories that are beyond measure.  

SFG twirls the eggs on his fork and wryly wonders why his two biological children seem to have so much more class, maturity, and character than SFG ever had at their respective ages.  They are better and more interesting people than he was.  SFG is not quite certain whether this is an indictment against his own character, a case of first class parenting success, or this is just the way of things.  Maybe a combination of all three, sort of like SFG's egg combo.

And a word to Mt Lebanon High School.  Watch out and button down the hatches; the boy is almost upon you. 


Sunday, January 24, 2010

Chicago Part III: A Train Ride to the Gold Coast

No, not to Australia.  Something better.

It all started at 7:00am CST, when Spicy Food Guy's cell phone rang in his hotel room.

"Good Morning!" chirped Fabulous Administrative Assistant of Spicy Food Guy (FAASFG), "Your flight back to Pittsburgh is cancelled.  Almost all flights are cancelled.  I re-booked you on the one remaining American Eagle flight that departs O'Hare at 1:15!"

"Urgh", replied SFG, who not only had been fast asleep, but had a rather extended evening the night before involving an Irish pub and Portillo's hot dogs.

"Wake up, sleepyhead!" chirped FAASFG, "Call me if you can't get home!"

FAASFG is a peach.  Really.

So SFG lumbered over to the hotel window and pushed back the curtains.  It was snowing, in technical meteorological terms, to beat the band.  Time to get the hell out of Chicago.

SFG cleaned himself up and went down to the lobby to join forces with Fun and Favorite Colleagues of Spicy Food Guy (FFCSFG).

"The hotel staff is recommending we take the train to O'Hare because the roads are so bad," said one FFCSFG helpfully, "and the train station is only a block and a half away!"

So off SFG and FFCSFG  tromped in the heavy snowfall to find the entrance to the train station.  SFG found an entrance, but only for train pass holders.  A very helpful sign instructed that the "main entrance is one and a half blocks east".

Beg pardon?

There, standing in the heavy snowfall, SFG and FFCSFG discovered to our chagrin that not one of us had brought a compass to our business trip there in downtown Chicago.  Imagine.

So while SFG and FFCSFG stood there blinking in the snow, looking up at the skyscrapers to see if any of them had a big sign saying "East: that way" with a big arrow pointing the way east, fate intervened in the person of Loud Homeless Guy with Toilet Paper in His Pocket (LHGTPIHP).  "YOU GUYS LOOKING FOR THE ENTRANCE TO THE TRAIN STATION?" semi-shrieked LHGTPIHP.  "FOLLOW ME I KNOW THE WAY!"

And he did.  So for the low low price of a couple of bucks, SFG and FFCSFG got a personal escort to the train station.

So after saying good-bye to LHGTPIPH, taking a men's room smelling elevator down three levels, and making only a couple of wrong turns, SFG and FFCSFG finally plopped themselves in some seats on a train headed to O'Hare.  Adventure over.


Twelve short minutes into the ride, deep underground, the train stops.  Complete stop.  No power.  A sound like a car engine failing to turn over rings through the train about three times.

"I've lived in Chicago for 10 years," offered one passenger, "and this has never happened." 

Of course not.

Several minutes go by.  Then over the loudspeakers:

"Attention passengers, we have an advanced problem with the train."


SFG thought the word advanced a quite interesting choice of adjectives.  "Actually", announced SFG to his fellow passengers, "I think there is a quite basic problem with the train."

This got no laughs.

So everyone sat in silence for a few minutes.  Then a new development: in the car ahead of us, and then in our car, someone starts pounding on the train doors.  From the outside.

"What do you think that is?" asked one passenger a little fearfully, breaking the silence in the train.

"This is the part," chimed in a cheerful SFG, "when the vampires attack!"

This actually got a lot of laughs.

Finally, about five minutes later, the train starts up again.  Then this announcement:

"Ladies and gentlemen, do not stand near the doors.  The train is going 50 miles per hour.  If you stand near the doors, you will fall out and die."


This was about the time SFG started really, really hoping that his flight home would not be cancelled.

Finally, SFG and FFCSFG arrived at O'Hare.  After finding the terminal, doing the security dance, and finding out the flight home was only delayed a couple of hours, it was time to eat.

Gold Coast Hot Dogs, baby.  That's what the occasion called for.  Another world famous chili cheese dog, the second one in as many days.  And it was delicious -- steamy poppyseed bun, snappy hot dog casing, great chili and high calorie mega-transfat melted cheese. 

SFG loved it, and now there are two hot dog places in Chicago that SFG loves.  SFG looks forward to consuming a few more.

Maybe this summer.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Chicago Part II -- Escape to Portillos

Portillo's was not the planned dinner destination.  And while it didn't take a prison escape to get there, some stealth was indeed involved.

But Spicy Food Guy gets ahead of himself.

SFG and 12 fun and favorite colleagues of Spicy Food Guy (FFCSFG) were in Chicago to debate if Anakin Skywalker should enter jedi training and ultimately bring balance to the universe.

Not really.

Hosting SFG and FFCSFG were trendy Chicago based colleagues of Spicy Food Guy (TCBCSFG) and they announced the morning of the meeting that dinner that evening would be "A wine bar and pizza/pasta place".

Multiple alarm buzzers went off in SFG's head. 

By law, any pizza consumed in Chicago must be deep dish.  It has to have meat.  It has to weigh 35 pounds.  One time several years ago, SFG was in Chicago for an informal meeting that was in walking distance from SFG's hotel.  SFG stopped at Giordano's world famous deep dish pizza place and picked up a big old pizza for his lunch (SFG intended to share).  When SFG got to the building where the meeting was, the lobby guard assumed SFG was a pizza delivery guy.  True story.

But Spicy Food Guy sooooo digresses.

SFG quickly ascertained that any pizza associated with a wine bar was unlikely to be deep dish.  In fact, this wine bar pizza place sounded like it was going to be one of those downtown trendy froo froo restaurant places.


Now, in all fairness, TCBCSFG were tickled with their decision, and TCBCSFG are smart, nice, passionate people and SFG really likes them.  SFG was determined to make the best of it.  But when SFG walked in, he immediately noted the following:

1) The servers were dressed all in black.
2) The tables were packed tightly together.
3) The wineglasses were oversized.

Indeed this was a trendy froo froo downtown place.  SFG enjoyed the wine, the company, the roasted artichokes, and the pizza (not all of it; the young woman seated next to SFG had a pizza with a topping that can only be described as a baby greens salad).  So it was fine as trendy downtown spots go, but SFG yearned for more.

That's about when the plotting began.

As it turned out, the FFCSFG seated next to SFG had grown up in Chicago, and swore he could not leave town until he had eaten an Italian Beef Sandwich from Portillo's, a famous hot dog and sandwich place that is a big favorite of Chicago natives.

And there was a Portillo's location not just two blocks away.

"We're going there after this dinner", SFG whispered to FFCSFG, "alert the others".

So very quietly the word spread, and a total of four FFCSFGs agreed to the plan.  They all happened to be male.

So as dessert was wrapping up, SFG and the four FFCSFGs stood up to quietly slip out.  A particularly astute TCBCSFG saw the exchange of glances and very wrongly assumed SFG and pals were headed to a strip club.  A strip club?  When there are chili cheese dogs to be had?  Surely TCBCSFG jested, but still, some clarification was required and SFG had to come clean on the evening's plot.  So good-bye's were said, and SFG and the four FFCSFGs stepped outside.


Really, really cold.  Brutal cold.  Chicago lake wind cold.  We made it a block before SFG announced "We can't stay out here, we must take refuge in this Irish pub we are standing next to."

So refuge was taken.  For 40 minutes or so.  And when SFG and FFCSFGs had each had a couple of pints of refuge, it was time to soldier on the last half block or so to Portillo's.

And what can SFG say about Portillo's?  Only that it's hot Italian sausage is fabulous beyond measure, that SFG wolfed down the chili cheese dog inside about three minutes, that the Maxwell Street style polish sausage has terrific flavor.  Is SFG saying he had one of each?  SFG takes the fifth, and seconds and thirds.  At least while he is dining at Portillos.

The Chicago native FFCSFG had his Italian beef sandwich fix, and he insisted we all taste the tamales.  While the tamales weren't bad, the hot itailian sausage was voted best in class by SFG and a couple of non-native FFCSFGs.

So that's the tale of two restaurants.  And Portillo's is now a must stop eatery when SFG hits Chicago.  Go there.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Part I -- Chicago in Winter is "Hot as a Mutha"


Why was Spicy Food Guy's decision to consume two deep fried habanero peppers at dinner in Chicago last week so similar to (then) President Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2002?


In our anxiousness to attack, neither of us really thought through how painful the exit strategy would be.

But Spicy Food Guy is getting ahead of himself.

As usual, for reasons best left unknown to the American public, Spicy Food Guy found himself in the Windy City last week.  Fortunately for SFG, he was joined by 12 Fun and Favorite Colleagues of Spicy Food Guy (FFCSFG).  And very fortunately for FFCSFG, they were wise enough to allow SFG to select the dinner venue.

So off we went to Heaven on Seven, one of SFG's all time favorite restaurants.  Anywhere.

And because SFG and FFCSFG made a nice baker's dozen at the dinner table, sharing appetizers and entrees was the strategy of the evening.

It began deliciously and innocently enough:  fried green tomatoes, grilled andouille sausage on sweet potato polenta (which tasted angelic, given we were in Heaven), fried oysters, crab cakes.  Then, somewhere into about beer two, SFG decided to order up a "Hot as a Mutha", which is a deep fried whole habanero pepper served in a bed of mango salsa.

SFG found the fried pepper to have a great texture, with the softness of the pepper offsetting the crunch of the batter.  And like most habanero's, the pepper had sweet fruity overtones.  And it was hot as fiery hell blazes.

So Spicy Food Guy felt very strongly that FFCSFG had to have a piece of this action.  So he ordered another.

With various degrees of bravado, enthusiasm (or total lack thereof), and trepidation did FFCSFG approach their slices of the fried habanero.  Some actually enjoyed it and have the potential to become real chileheads.  Others of FFCSFG acted as if their tongues had been seared by living fire (this was especially true of the one FFCSFG who happens to have the physique of a pro wrestler).  Some hid under the table.  

Soon enough the commotion settled and everyone had a fabulous meal.  As a reward for the habanero's, SFG and FFCSFG ended the meal with slices of chocolate peanut butter pie and mississippi mud pie

Here is what Spicy Food Guy has to say about these desserts -- you want this.  You really, really want this.

So declares SFG.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Food and Books -- A Year in Review

Mostly, it was a year to hunker down.

Wiped out 401K, endless worry about layoffs, a year of nervousness. Not surprisingly, Spicy Food Guy's 2009 food and brain diet reflected his circumstances. Lots of soups, lots of stews, foods that are warm and comforting.

On the reading side, lots of science fiction and fantasy, places to escape. And plenty of American history, especially the trying times, seeking to understand, attempting to find perspective.

Like Tim Egan's "The Worst Hard Time", a fascinating account of the dust bowl at the time of the great depression. Also Stephen Ambrose's "Undaunted Courage", an in-depth look at the tragic character of Meriwhether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition, as well as "D-Day" and "Citizen Soldiers", two fascinating non-fictional accounts of World War II.

Gumbo and jambalaya were often on the menu at SFG's house, all full of roasted chicken, garlic and jalapeno sausage, and shrimp. Served with bismati rice. Filling.

On the fantasy side, a couple of very good trilogies. Joe Abercrombie writes sort of like a dark Tolkien with "The Blade Itself", "Before They are Hanged", and "The Last Argument of Kings".

Brent Weeks may have penned the year's best three book fantasy series with "The Way of Shadows", "Shadow's Edge", and "Beyond the Shadows". SFG's favorite written line of the year comes from the last book:

"Perhaps it's just the way the greatest magic works: justice and mercy entwined. It's a mystery, Kylar. A mystery on a par with the question of why is there life at all? If you wish to answer the mystery by positing a God, you can, or you can say that it just is -- and either way, be glad for it, for it is a gift. Or a most fortunate accident."

Diners were a favorite of the SFG family this year, whether at home or on the road. The kids loved the Dor-Stop here at home, and the Richmond River City Diner got rave reviews as well.

Spicy Food Guy discovered a favorite new Science Fiction author when he found Robert Charles Wilson. In quick succession, SFG knocked off "Spin", "Axis" (the two go together), "Blind Lake", and "The Chronoliths". Similar to Wilson is Joe Haldeman, with interesting reads "The Coming", "The Accidental Time Machine", and "Camouflage".

After burning out a bit on Science Fiction, SFG sobered up to some American History with Michael Shaara's "The Killer Angels", a breathtaking semi-fictional account of the Civil War battle of Gettysburg. After getting hooked on Angels, SFG followed up with a rash of Jeff Shaara (son of Michael) works, including "Rise to Rebellion" and "A Glorious Cause", a fabulous two part fictional account of the revolutionary war. SFG also took in Shaara's "Gods and Generals", which brings Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson to life in a way no history textbook ever has.

For a quick trip back to fantasy, SFG slogged his way through the four part, 3,000+ pages of Tad Williams "The Otherworld" series. It's only for the patient and brave of heart, but SFG really enjoyed it.

Pizza was big for SFG and his family in 2009. We discovered Harry's, a fantastic pizza joint in the south hills of Pittsburgh, and of course SFG enjoyed the spicy pizza at Mt Lebanon's Il Pizzaiolo.

Being a bit burnt out on Science Fiction and American History, SFG enjoyed a delightful read with Pat Conroy's "South of Broad". He followed up with a collection of essays by Malcolm Gladwell in "What the Dog Saw". A birthday gift brought Laurence Bergreen's "Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu", and followed up with Bergreen's "Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe". The latter was particularly vivid, especially the contrast of the Pacific part of the journey against the Atlantic leg. Plus, SFG had forgotten that Magellan died on the voyage, so that part was kind of like a non-fictional historical surprise.

Ice Cream was another source of comfort to SFG and his loved ones this past year, and the find of the year had to be the Sarris's Ice Cream Shop in Cannonsburg PA. The Family of Spicy Food Guy made that road trip at least a half a dozen times in 2009.

Back to Amercan History, SFG got a great peek of some great old characters with John Meacham's "American Lion," an entertaining account of Andy Jackson. Another good humorous biography was Walter Isaacson's "Benjamin Franklin", and one of the best reads of the year was the richly detailed story of Lincoln's cabinet, "A Team of Rivals".

Finally, big old meat entree's played well in 2009, with steak at Arthur's, ribs at Jasper's and Two Brothers, roasted pork sandwiches at Dinics, and bone-in bison at Mills Tavern.

But fortunately for you, dear reader, Spicy Food Guy was able to resolve once and for all whether red or green chile sauce is best for huevos rancheros.

Have a great 2010. May your table be full and your reading list fascinating. Peace out.

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