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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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