Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Chicago, Chicago, a Tuberous Town

I've been meaning to post my Chicago finds for a while now, but an inquiry from a fellow potato lover there has spurred me forward.

First, I've got to say that this is an amazing public transportation town - way better than NYC for getting around. I did all chowhounding via buses and subways, and my iphone, with its maps and schedules, totally ruled.

Ok, on to the spuds.

Hash Browns Cafe (731 W Maxwell St.; 312-226-8000) makes tons of different types of hashbrowns: House hashbrowns (with sweet potato), rosemary hashbrowns (with red potatoes, rosemary, and garlic), regular idaho potato hashbrowns, combo hashbrowns (idaho and swweet potatoes sauteed with chopped garlic and toppped with Romano cheese), Killer Hashbrowns (idaho potatoes with cheddar, onions, and sour cream, topped with crushed corn flakes and baked until "bubbly")....and the $7.25 platter of assorted hashbrowns. Which, of course, I ordered. And ate, all by myself:

It was a spud-lover's dream come true, though near the end it felt like a wish granted by a particularly devious genie. The kitchen staff peered out of a window to watch me try to tackle it (those are not small portions).

Here are closeups:

Best were the cheesey hashbrowns topped with ground corn flakes. Click if you dare (NSFW):

Marrakech (1413 North Ashland; 773-227-6451) is an authentic but tragically neglected Moroccan, conveniently close to the metro. Sipping my mint tea, I felt like I was really back in Morocco.

Here is their very good bastilla (a great Moroccan dish that only classier kitchens make; basically a sweet and savory pastry pie with ground chicken or squab, lots of aromatic spices, and dustings of sugar and cinnamon:

They also carry some nice hand-woven items, like this bag:

Right near Marrakech: Podhalanka (1549 West Division Street, 773-486-6655) is a mega-dreary delight where the white borscht and potato pancakes will slay you.

Those pancakes are, obviously, splendidly and unrepentedly greasy. I think they start with grease, then fry the things in grease, then finally dab extra grease on them. They are best thought of as delivery vehicles for grease. If you're willing to suspend your feelings of shock and disgust, and to compromise a little on any desire you might have to live to a ripe old age, you will thrill to these things. Not every day. Not even every year. But once, to lodge in your sense memory (not to mention gall bladder) for the rest of your life, such as it is. Wait, one more shot:
Are you clicking for larger view? If not, you're missing the full effect!

Materialistic foodies always underestimate the critical importance of really crappy - and, preferably, stale - black pepper in preparing this sort of thing. Podhalanka leaves boxes of the stuff right on your table. Here you go:

More spuds. More! But, first, speaking of potatoes, have you taken my Three Foods Personality Test?

Berghoff Café (17 W. Adams Street; 312-427-7399) hosts a shuffling lunch line of downcast blue collar workers seeking cheap eats in a heavy, hazy fin de siècle cafeteria/bar. If we weren't in the midst of a depression, this all might seem quaintly retro. But one does what one must (including the ingestion of perfectly fine, and, in fact, somewhat transportive, roast turkey sandwiches and creamed spinach) to get to these incredible fried potatoes:

The seemingly bleak nether regions of Chicago sport vast unsung wonderment, and Birrieria Ocotlan (3011 W Cermak, 773-277-0189) is the one pearl I had time to suss out, but I'd think lifetimes could be spent excavating out here.

I'm not sure birria (incendiary stewed goat, best from the state of Jalisco, and better still from the town of Ocotlan in Jalisco) can get better than this. And that's all this place makes, aside from a few tacos of things like tongue or brains. No frigging chicken nachos at all. And the birria's absolutely slamming, as is the horchata. But best of all is the bowl of salted chili peppers on each table for snacking. Chips-and-salsa can kiss my ass!

As I nibbled chilis, a colossal Mexican dude at the next table kept glancing over and cringing. Finally he asked, in Spanish, if I was Mexican. "Casi" (almost), I responded, and he scratched his head and returned to his goat.

Nearby Ocotlan (a bit east on W Cermak, and across the street), there's a pan dulce place with ordinary offerings but really good cinnamon cookies at the counter. I think it was called "Central Bakery", but am not sure. Not worth a special trip, but it hits the spot post-birria

For a nice South Loop evening, here's what you do. Get a takeout pie at Lou Malnati's Pizzeria 805 South State Street, and eat it at the bar at Kasey's Tavern (701 South Dearborn St; 312-427-7992), which has a small but exquisitely well-chosen tap list, no obnoxious beer geek vibe, and friendly bartenders (I've learned to never seek out a town's most famous beer geek bar, opting, instead, for friendlier and more low-key second-rung joints with the modest-but-lovingly-selected tap lists).
Then finish with a set of music at Jazz Showcase, which still maintains just enough Chicago jazz flavor not to take a pretentious attitude toward the music.

Also in South Loop, Three Peas Art Lounge (75 E. 16th St.; 312-624-9414) is a cool (maybe a bit too cool) nano art gallery with very good coffee and wonderful key lime pie:

There's a fairly off-radar weekend street fair on South Desplaines near Cabrini (lots of the best stuff is at Desplaines and Polk) with impressive regional Mexican cooking. Here is some wicked asada:

And nice sizzling yellow corn gorditas:

One of the stands even makes pambazos, a holy grail dish for me (a sandwich of chorizo and potatoes, with the filling fried along with the bun which grows red and crispy).
One particularly good-looking stand is called "Taqueria Manolo".

I should note that Rosa De Lima (2013-15 N. Western Ave; 773-342-4557) is a friendly, well-run Peruvian with very good food. I need to investigate further to determine if there's anything keenly awesome.

There's a terrifyingly huge McDonald's at 600 North Clark Street complete with fussy dessert bar, escalator, two-lane drive-in, and split-level booth seating with views.

Across the street is an equally enormous Rain Forest Cafe (605 N. Clark St.; 312-787-1501) with a cool animatronic crocodile inside:

Appropos of nothing, Block X looks like a real cool place to live.

Hot tip not tried: Ethiopian Diamond Restaurant (6120 North Broadway; 773-338-6100. I'm positive it's real good. Also, a Mexican place called Green House of Steak (2700 South Millard Ave.; 773-277-6684), and Fogo de Chao Brazilian Churrascaria (661 N La Salle Dr; 312-932-9330) which, I know, is a chain, but trumpeter Claudio Roditi, who was headlining at Jazz Showcase, said this location's slamming.

Finally, I'd made up this Google Map before I left, stocked with tips I'd read on Chowhound. As usual, I mostly ignored this data. The thing few people grok about Chowhound is that the idea behind the site was to encourage everyone to make their own fresh finds and then use Chowhound to announce them...rather than plan scavenger hunts to follow the finds of others. Alas, most people use Chowhound to grab tips so they can scavenge other people's finds. But it's so much more fun to intrepidly find your own finds!

Three Strange Facts About Me

Three strange facts about me which I've never been able to explain:

1. People tend to think I'm three to four inches shorter than I actually am (and my posture's good!)

2. When I'm waiting on line, and people need to move laterally through to get somewhere, they always pass in front of me (no matter how much space I leave).

3. All my friends suspect they're my only friends.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Great Ball Point Pens

There was a sort of ballpoint pen my family used when I was young and which had been lost to me for many, many years. Nothing fancy or precious, those pens simply worked dependably and felt perfect in the hand, neither weighty nor flimsy. They were made by Papermate, but these, from Parker, are very similar, and my life's been just a little bit better for having found them.

The above link is for a ten pack on Amazon, but I found much cheaper five-packs on eBay.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Oldest I've Ever Felt

I just watched the The Wackness (featuring Ben Kingsley in both a brilliant comedic performance and an astoundingly incompetent accent). This 2008 film is set in 1994, and it's strewn with nostalgic pop cultural references.

As I watched, it dawned on me that you know you're really old when you're not just out of touch with current pop culture, but even with nostalgia for pop culture from fifteen years back - with which you were equally out of touch at the time.

This, I suppose, is how my grandparents' generation felt about 1973's American Grafitti (i.e. anything post Frank Sinatra was sort of a blur).

Friday, August 20, 2010

Real Publishing is Vanity Publishing, Vanity Publishing is Real Publishing

Here is the deepest, darkest secret of the book publishing business: it's the true vanity press.

Let me explain. The vast majority of books are unprofitable. And authors make pennies on each sales dollar even under the best of circumstances (yes, they're paid advances on earnings, but most are puny). And, what's more, authors are expected to do their own marketing. The publisher's PR department might book you on a few piddling radio shows and book signings, but those will not do much. Unless you're a Stephen King, you will be expected to go forth and guerilla market. Like local musicians playing a club gig, you're unlikely to be invited back unless you fill the venue with friends and family willing to pay. So you do the writing
and you do the selling, and you receive only pennies on the dollar out of the sales.

Why do it? To be able to say that you're published and to have the thrill of seeing your book "out there". Yup, pure vanity!

If you lack a Stephen King-sized following, and you're writing for a living, rather than from ego, and you do possess the sales chops the publishing companies hope you have, the shrewd biz route is self-publishing (especially now that "publish on demand" technology has made it cheap to print very small runs on short notice), where you do the same work and keep vastly more of the profits. You do not, however, enjoy the ego boost of a fancy publishing contract.

Ironically, they call this vanity publishing!

Whenever I explain this to people unfamiliar with the business, they're inevitably certain I'm oversimplifying or exaggerating. But I'm not. The publishing business is about two things: 1. printing money from sales of star authors, and 2. flattering vain wannabes into working nearly free to fill out the catalog. The category 2 authors imagine themselves to be in a third category: unknown-yet-clearly-destined-for-grandeur. And their fantasies are dutifully indulged. As they write and market, in exchange for an infinitesimal fraction of highly unlikely profits, they are granted all the shiny deferences of that fabled third category. This, obviously, is the "flattery" part!

(I should note that I'm speaking from a position of objectivity, rather than defeated bitterness. I've experienced this from both sides, having lost $4000 on my first book, never receiving a dime of royalties though it's been in print over a decade, but also, among other publishing ventures, kept Chowhound running for two solid years on the advance from a multi-book contract with Penguin.)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Majestic Depths of Pop Star Justin Beiber

It's not usually the role of this Slog to offer the nth pointer to the latest whacky Internet amusement. But I need to make an exception on this one.

Justin Bieber (for those of you over age sixteen) Is an empty bit of pop fluff, and his hit, "U Smile" is as coyly saccharine as its title. Play thirty seconds of the video to get the idea:
Yesterday some evil genius with way too much time on his hands tried slowing the tune down 800% (using technology that speeds up or slows down music without raising or dropping the pitch), and found that the result sounds amazing. You can hear it here:

Again, you'll find this all over the Internet this morning. But I just wanted to step in and say: wait, no, you've really got to hear this. You'll giggle with astonishment at the majesty, the richness, the aching beauty of it all. It's akin to discovering that Paris Hilton's tome, "Confessions of an Heiress", (available secondhand on Amazon for just one penny, by the way...who could resist?), when read backwards, is as profound as Shakespeare.

Don't believe warnings that this is a hoax, by the way. It's easy enough to fast forward the track to verify that this is, indeed, Bieber's hackwork.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Focus Versus Obsession

In my previous post (the one about smoking, weight loss, and jazz trombone), I used terms like "all-consuming" and "single-minded focus". This may have given the impression that I brought an obsessiveness to pursuing my goals - or, worse, that I think obsessiveness is the only way to reach goals.

No. But the distinction can be difficult to understand. So little regard is paid to the notion of "focus" in our society that the word has come to stink of geeky obsessiveness. Indeed, the "normal" American lifestyle is specifically designed to stomp out focus (at least: focus on anything besides primal drives like sex, power, stimulation, and material accumulation). Not long ago, only alcoholics worked systematically to extinguish their focus. These days, we're all drunks.

I didn't spend 2009 obsessing over weight loss. I just "favored" decisions leading to that. Go with friends to a new barbecue place or stay home and eat salmon? Choice B! Stuck in car with friends visiting new barbecue place: eat a ton, or just have a bite? Choice B! Not obsession, just a patient, persistent, focused favoring of actions destined to lead to a distant but prized result. I put my attention on this process.

I wasn't suggesting that by taking my mind off weight loss for a moment, I'd doomed myself to pack on a few pounds. It's that I was focused on shaving my decisions a different way, in pursuit of a different result. I was using the process for another purpose.

For the most part, we needn't focus so hard. Most of us have most aspects of our lives more or less under control and within reasonable parameters. Those things which get away from us - the extra twenty pounds or declining French language skills - are ruefully accepted. We juggle our many balls, accepting that some will inevitably drop. That's life!

But sometimes we're moved to attempt radical change. The best route is not obsessive striving; just a patient, long-viewed steady skewing of the decision-making process. Attention focused on process, not goal. And at such times, you just can't skew your decisions toward multiple goals. One's hard enough! Everything else in your life needn't drop, but every other focused process must.

So I'll stop my music focus for a while. I'll still play, but it will no longer be "the thing I'm working on", and magical levels of improvement will cease. And I'll either "work on" diet, or I'll deem the extra twelve pounds acceptable and move back into a more relaxed, divided process of decision-making for a while...until some new change beckons.

Here's a comic that makes the basic point, though drastically over-simplified. For one thing, it fails to take into account the crucial concept of serendipity - good results that aren't exactly what you were aiming for. And results are always a little serendipitous, given that we rarely hit our mark precisely, however persistent our steering. If we focus on process, something resembling the original goal eventually lumberingly appears in some surprising fashion, its appearance utterly out of our control.

A New Explanation for Weight Gain While Quitting Smoking

Nearly a year after I launched an effort to regain my long-lost trombone technique, I'm happy to report that I'm nearly there. Old colleagues say I'm back - though I'm aware of a few missing pieces. A couple of months more touch-up work should do it.

This, alas, wasn't my only regaining. I've also regained twelve of the pounds I
lost last year. I can't say I'm thrilled by this, but neither am I shocked. Starting from scratch to rebuild my musical juju was an all-consuming task. Staying on a diet is another all-consuming task (as I wrote in that last link, most of us drastically underestimate the effort and focus required). I never expected to keep both balls rolling.

It's possible to hack away at one's
habits and routines to gradually bring about dramatic change. Last year, my life decisions favored eating less (and better) and exercising more. I lost 35 pounds. No one or ten of those decisions made much difference, but the aggregate led to profound change. This year, my decisions favored playing more - even when that meant skipping the gym or catching unhealthy bites on the run. Our ability to affect profound change in ourselves is minimal to begin with. Divide focus and the magical power is lost.

But this made me reconsider the well-known fact that when people quit smoking they tend to gain weight. The explanation is that they've lost nicotine's appetite suppression, plus there's a lingering persistent oral neediness. But I don't think that's it. It's that quitting smoking is a drastic, magical change requiring single-minded focus and patience. You can't maintain a diet during such a process. You can't be single-minded about two things.

As a side note, I made a new friend last week, a precocious four year old (I always hit it off with folks under 11 and over 80: it's the touchy middle range I often have trouble with). As she sat happily next to me, discussing this and that, she poked me in the gut, saying, with a grin, "Your stomach sticks out!". She noticed, but she didn't judge it. It didn't affect her opinion of me in the least. It was plain that the size of my belly had nothing to do with who she thought I am. And no high-minded thinking was applied; it was utterly natural.

Read a clarification on why this has nothing at all to do with OCD here.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Proto Cheez Doodles: Field Photos

I've just added a photo of some really good biscoitos de queijo to my Cheez Doodles expose.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Mosque

In case you missed it, Mayor Bloomberg delivered a moving speech last week defending the proposed mosque near the Trade Center. I'd quibble over the GWB-ish trope re: the terrorists wanting to take away our freedom and the firemen wanting to protect it. Poetic, but without much substance - and the point could have been made more strongly without taking the "freedom" angle, ala Nazis marching in Skokie. After all, these are our neighbors, not some beyond-the-pale element to be protected with noses firmly pinched shut in the name of the US Constitution. But the mayor's sentiment was the main thing, and it was a courageous move in light of his reported presidential ambitions.

I'm thinking about organizing a group of non-Muslims to stand in front of the mosque during its opening week to defend it against protesters and attackers. Maybe make up "Ich bin ein Muslim" placards. Would be great to see blacks, Jews, gays, women, disabled, illegals, and other minorities stand together to oppose this shameful persecution and hatred. Especially Jews.

Friday, August 6, 2010

iPhone as RainVision Goggle

I was driving through a rain storm so severe that more than half the interstate traffic had pulled over to wait it out on the shoulder. I'd have done likewise, but, late for an appointment, I drove on, at about 30 m.p.h., with my wipers going full tilt.

For a while, it felt like driving underwater; a solid wash, the rain equivalent of a white-out. And for some reason I recalled that cameras don't register rain (filmed rain scenes are done via special methods). So I picked up my iPhone, which was already opened to the "Camera" app, and held it in front of me. Sure enough, visibility was near-perfect. I could even see cars ahead of me which I couldn't spot unassisted. It was amazing; akin to driving through pitch blackness with infrared goggles.

So I asked
Pierre Jelenc, my longtime Technical Advisor (and proprietor of the legendary Gigometer) to explain why this works. Pierre's never come up short before, and this was no exception:

The terminal velocity of large raindrops is about 9 m/s from what I can see (range 5-19 m/s). That translates to 37 cm in 1/24th of a second or 15 cm in 1/60th. A raindrop smeared into a streak of tens of centimeters will be invisible, though it will blur slightly each single frame.

The eye does not see individual frames, however: instead it averages out the blurs, blotches, visual noise, etc, which is why a running movie looks so much sharper than any of its individual frames. To film rain scenes, they use a showerhead just above the actors, so that the drops fall very slowly and can be captured in each frame without much blurring.


It really works! Try it the next time it rains hard!

Some previous tips of interest:
How to Enter Sensitive Passwords on Public Computers
How to Save $5000 on Your Logo
Don't Opt Out...Just "Correct"
$29 Swiss Army Knife DVD Player
A Short Guide to Overextension, and...
Beware Rubbery Cell Phone Cases

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Cheez Doodles and Culinary Colonialism

Morrie Yohai, inventor of the Cheez Doodle, died this week.

The only problem is, he didn't invent this item, any more than Columbus "discovered" America (in light of the 18 million or so people living here when he showed up).

Like many stupid-yet-addictive mass market American snacks, the Cheez Doodle was a rip-off of a traditional foodway from another country - in this case, Brazil, where "
biscoitos de queijo" (bish-KWOY-toe djuh KAY-zhoe) predated Cheez Doodles and Cheetos by centuries. One bite of a good one will convince you that not only did this snack originate elsewhere, but that it was criminally dumbed-down in the translation (for one thing, they're made with yucca flour, rather than sawdust, or dioxin powder, or whatever the hell goes into Cheez Doodles).

The best I've ever had outside Brazil was found in Mt. Vernon, NY, at Padamina's Brazilian Bakery‎ (66 West Lincoln Avenue; 914-667-9101‎). Here are a few biscoitos from there:

Nearly all of America's inexplicable trashy snacks, which seemed to land out of nowhere in our supermarkets in the 1950's, were similarly bastardized, rebranded versions of foods prepared loads more deliciously elsewhere. Someday I'll build a web site cataloging a bunch of them (any suggestions for a site name?)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Why Things Suck, Chapter 23

A classic network television story, from Alan Sepinwall's interview with Bill Lawrence, creator of "Scrubs" and "Cougar Town":
"When they wanted to put a laugh track on "M*A*S*H, Larry Gelbart did a test where he tested it with laughs and he tested it without, and he went to those guys and said, 'Look, people responded the same way whether there were fake laughs in it or not.' And the network said, 'Well, great. Then we'll keep the laughs.'"

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