Whining, Dining, and Other Unpaid Observations

White Girls Want Good Food, Too

Posted in Culinary Experiences, Customs & Cultures: An Observation by KP on February 8, 2011

I’m a Caucasian female. I’ve even taken it so far as to be of the blonde-hair-and-blue-eyes variety.

Sometimes, this is viewed as evidence that my delicate, Americanized palate should be fiercely protected from all manner of flavor and texture, lest it be ravaged by the fire of a thousand suns. After all, should my delicate palate be ravaged, my litigious, American instict might be, subsequently, to sue.

This is evident when I used to visit Nit Noi, this Thai restaurant down the street. I’d order Putt-Thai Korat (pad thai, essentially) and request it “spicy.” I’m often charmingly met with the question, “A little spicy?” to which I reply, “No, very spicy.” It often arrives a few steps up from bland.

I’ve since realized that the concept (and execution) of “spicy” varies drastically, depending on whose mouth from which it is spoken.

I don’t take offense–stereotypes are often based on fact. However, broad assumptions are one thing, and specific requests are another.  

Speaking of, at the same restuarant (which has “Café” in its name), I asked for a coffee once, and the guy behind the counter told me they didn’t have any. When I shot him my most quizzical look (I’ve been practicing) and inquired as to why they were named “Café,” he replied that, yes, they had coffee, but it was “strong.” I told him to bring it on.

Your typical Thai iced coffee

Your typical Thai iced coffee

And you know what? It wasn’t strong so much as it was sticky sweet. I’m not sure if it was altered for my delicate, Americanized mouth sensibilities, but holy mother sweetness. I couldn’t stop puckering.

Anyway. Let’s travel to more current times.

The adorable matriarch of Cali Sandwiches reminds me of my childhood best friend’s mother (also Vietnemese)–small and domineering, but in the most lovable way. I typically frequent Les Givral’s or The Teahouse for banh mi or vermicelli dishes, but today I thought I’d try Cali. I attempted to order the bbq pork sandwich (#1 on the chalkboard menu, not the printed menu), but was quickly steered away in the most hilariously stern manner.

“No,” said the adorable matriarch. “No, you don’t want that. Too much fat, and skin.”

“Oh,” I said, blue eyes wide and frightened. “I didn’t realize. What’s my alternative?”

“The #8. This is what you want.”

My delicate, Americanized sense of hospitality was reeling. Did she just tell me I didn’t want what I wanted? Did she just tell me to order something that seemed vaguely unexciting in the extreme? “#8: Grilled/seasoned pork.”

A bbq pork banh mi

A bbq pork banh mi

I blinked, and I stuttered. As my delicate, Americanized mind wondered if I would still get that quintessential bbq sauce on my terribly dry-sounding sandwich, my delicate, Americanized mouth opened and said, “Yes, yes I think I want that.”

I took my seat. What had I done? There was the potential for no sauce. And sauce was the very reason I was indulging a banh mi craving. That, and the crusty French bread. Mmm.

Sandwich arrives, and the adorable matriarch smiles at me. I melt. Such good intentions; I love her instantly.

There’s no sauce, but there’s no fat or skin, either, which proves to be a very good thing. Thanks, matriarch. The pork tasted dried but not dry, which is an interesting sensation. The extras–cucumber, carrot, and cilantro–were bright and fresh. It was a solid sandwich, especially with some self-applied squirts of Sriracha throughout.

Mid-squirt, I realized something: my motherly little matriarch helpfully left off the jalapeno.

Whew. Thanks for looking out for me.

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Wrangler Rebranding: E for Effort?

Posted in advertising by KP on September 21, 2009

Businesses are hurting. Retail is struggling. Non-essential, non-luxury products have taken a nose-dive. So it makes sense that certain brands would like to increase their consumer base  to include new, different, more demographics.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “when you’re finished changing, you’re finished.” And in most cases, it’s true. Many brands are afraid to get old and die, so they make sweeping efforts to shift their images into something more appealing, more modern, more upscale, more desirable, more sellable.

We’ve seen it happen with Target Stores and Levi-Strauss. But does it always work? Nope. Case in point: New Coke.

Now it’s Wrangler’s turn to pull out a new direction. It’s too soon to speak for its success or failure, but it’s safe to say that Wrangler is one of our country’s more iconic brands, possessed of a concrete, steadfast and well-known image. What do you think of when you hear Wrangler? Cowboy. Rugged. Rustic. Rural. Western. Man’s man.

I’m not implying that it is impossible to alter this image, to make it something different. But it will be tough. There may be a resistance to accept a new connotation for Wrangler. It may be nearly impossible to rid its original image from many consumers. Current Wrangler customers may be put off by its posturing to a different market. Said different market may scoff at Wrangler’s attempts to reach them.

The Wrangler brand makes a statement, and it’s been a consistent statement since its inception.

Wrangler.com still features rugged spokesmen Brett Favre, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Stran Smith. But their new ‘WE ARE ANIMALS’ campaign, masterminded by French ad agency Fred & Farid, speaks to a different audience altogether.

In this “Stop Thinking” spot, manly activities are still present, but my, what a tone. Who and where are these ominous, philosophical tough guys to which they’re trying to appeal here? I can’t help but like the aesthetics of it, although the copy quickly becomes redundant and the guttural voice-over is rather off-putting (and reminescent of Christian Bale’s ridiculous Batman growl in The Dark Knight). But the strategy? Not exactly kissing cousins with the typical Wrangler ad fare. And although that’s the point, the rebranding effort feels much too forced, too extreme, to stick.

The other commercials, one featuring the existentialist question “Why do we live when we know we will die?” and the other, a :14 home video-style shot of a crawling baby, have been removed from YouTube due to terms of use violations. But we still have this haunting beauty which is, I believe, the first of the series: http://adsoftheworld.com/media/tv/wrangler_animals.

Okay. If you’re going to go that far off the lam from traditional Wrangler, why keep the cowboy-western-rope-typeface? It’s such an odd, jarring, nonsensical juxtaposition.

But that’s not the biggest issue here. The cinematography is, admittedly, gorgeous, but it’s so abstract, so far removed from the beaten path that it comes across as silly and try-hard. Creative for creative’s sake does not always translate into higher sales and a bigger bottom line; there has to be a strong, purposeful strategy running parallel. This new campaign will certainly get press and word-of-mouth, but will it rustle up a new generation of Wrangler-wearers? At this point, it’s looking like a negative, cowboy.

Events I’m Excited For:

Posted in Houston Events by KP on September 19, 2009

Pabst Blue Ribbon: The Hip, Recessionomic Choice

Posted in advertising by KP on September 19, 2009

Hey you. Yeah, you. Would you like to be drinking a trendy, authentic beer that says “irony” and “anti-establishment,” all in one inexpensive, unassuming bottle? Pabst Blue Ribbon is your answer, friend.

Ad Age reports a 25% sales increase in the brand, despite a higher price point than other “below premium” brews and a seeming flat-out refusal to advertise.

You know, I like this. I don’t think I’ve ever even had a PBR, yet I feel it has much more of a personality–both homey and a little hipster, which is a hard combination to pull off–than, say, Natty Light or Busch. Miller High Life is climbing its way up the ladder of distinctive brand images with its brilliant advertising and the whole  “The Champagne of Beer” thing, but it’s spending 4.7 mil (for just the first half of 2009, by the way) to do it.

PBR has gone rogue, and it’s paying off.

Based on principle, I would never encourage a brand to just do away with advertising. First, it usually spells decreased awareness, preference and sales. Second, it kills the lifeblood of all the good folks in the ad biz, and no one should want that. We’re nice people.

But: I find it fascinating that PBR is capitalizing on the recession without the use of advertising. Current advertising. Because the rise in PBR’s sales is not only attributed to the economy. Their word-of-mouth campaign in 2004–that’s 5 years ago–is being hailed as the consumer’s motivating factor.

Here, Jeremy Mullman will tell you:

Back in 2004, Pabst executed a highly effective word-of-mouth campaign that made the long-declining brand an “ironic downscale chic” choice for bike messengers and other younger drinkers who viewed the beer as a statement of non-mainstream taste. PBR sales surged by nearly 17% that year, and have climbed at single-digit rates since, until this year, when the recession sent its sales soaring as more drinkers were pushed into the subpremium category.

And that is something I like. A struggling brand rebranded itself, and that new, more desirable image stuck.

Bravo, Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Radio Shack? Take some notes.

(AdAge)

Shrimp Po-boy Standoff: Richmond Edition

Posted in Culinary Experiences by KP on August 14, 2009

In high school, I worked at a small-town, family-owned seafood restaurant outside of Houston. Charming, no-frills ambiance inside, stunning lakeside views outside, and to this day, the best seafood I’ve ever, ever had.

I miss it.

So many of their dishes are impossible to find elsewhere. They may be on other menus, but the taste is inevitably off, absent or just wrong.

I’ve been on the lookout for a good shrimp po-boy and cup of gumbo locally for some time now. This simple combination was my standard lunchfare for years and its memory has a way of sneaking up on me, stalking me, burrowing itself into my unsatiated, tormented taste buds. And I’m always left disappointed.

I’ll admit that maybe I haven’t exactly hunted high and low for this. I tend to dislike chain restaurants because, you know, they’re soulless, and I don’t exactly have a lot of money. So that, realistically, wipes out a huge segment of Houston seafood restaurants. I realize this. But is it too much to ask to stumble upon a hole-in-the-wall place with decent, down-home dishes and regular-folk pricing?

Apparently, yes. I’ve been disappointed over the years with chains like The Fisherman’s Wharf, Boudreaux’s, Landry’s and Willie G’s. I mean, come on. I know these places are no Capitol Grille or even Christie’s, but when you specialize in seafood, your seafood should be good. Especially basic dishes, like gumbo. And shrimp po-boys.

And the ol’ craving has been nagging me more and more persistently lately, like an old, rotting tooth, roiling and festering until you just give up and go to the dentist already.

So I took myself to just inside the loop on Richmond for a side-by-side comparison. First up was a visit to Bayou City Seafood and Pasta with my dad.

Now, I’ve seen this place a few dozen times and have always been intrigued. What delicious platters of down-home cookery exist here?, I would wonder to myself. What authentic but reasonably priced treasures might I find? I’d been imagining hot, crispy, hand-breaded jumbo shrimp, still a glistening, golden brown from the fryer, nestled atop toasted, buttery french bread and fresh lettuce and tomato.  No sauce, remoulade or otherwise, required here. The gumbo would be a rich, dark, silky but dense roux stocked with crab, shrimp, filé, tomato and okra, okra, okra…

So I stumble into this rather shabby-looking place, eyes glazed, mouth set on ‘drool,’ ready to have all my wildest expectations met.

First, it’s really quite nice inside, which I took as a bold slap in the face to people like me, in tank top, jeans and flip-flops, who misjudge the bedraggled exterior and dare to think it would be appropriate to stumble into,  optically glazed and drooling.

As it turns out, it’s a rather popular spot for the way the other half lives, all employed, with their business lunches and starched collars. Everything is served on plates. The silverware is silver. And the waitstaff is unbearably polite and stiff.

This was all quite jarring, you see, as I was hoping (quite fervently, I might add) to have my order plopped down in front of me, wrapped in grease-spotted tissue paper, in a red and white checkered paper boat. Something along the lines of “Order up!” would be yelled out as the line cook pushed the cup of gumbo forward, leaving splashes here and there on the counter.

And wouldn’t you know it, none of this happened. There wasn’t even a counter.

I started out with the gumbo. It had the dark requirement down  (my dad jokingly referred to it as “ditch water”), but it was runny and weak-tasting. It was like a bowl of water, flavored with gumbo bouillon. Gumbo-flavored water.

The seafood inside was plentiful but lacked any distinguishing characteristics; each bite of shrimp tasted like the bite of fish or crab before. Protein and vegetables were all the same, soggy consistency. Rice was served on the side, presumably because it was just so jam-packed, and turned out to be necessary just to add some density.

The taste itself wasn’t awful, but there was nothing really good about any of it. Disappointment, check.

Then arrived the half shrimp po-boy and fries. The bread, which can easily make or break a sandwich, was decidedly lackluster. French bread should always, always, have a discernible crust on the outside. This one didn’t. And the shrimp, oh dear me, the shrimp. Does Tyson Foods produce a frozen fried shrimp? Because, so help me, this was the first thing I thought when I tried it. It’s like your roommate forgot she invited guests over for a dinner party that night and pops a frozen bag of T.G.I. Friday’s breaded shrimp into the toaster oven, dresses it up with some shredded lettuce and thinks, Yes, this’ll be fine.

It’s not fine.

It was a good decision to only order the half sandwich. I couldn’t imagine boring my palate through a full foot-long of that.

Oh, and the fries? I’ll admit I didn’t want them in the first place, and although they were cooked to a perfectly crispy texture, they too tasted as if they had once been frozen. Either that, or somewhere ran down to Burger King and double-fried a few orders.

The price  ($11.99) was average and on point with at least the portion size, if not quality. Unfortunately, everything about my meal at Bayou City Seafood was decidedly unfresh-tasting. Maybe they’re better with grilled dishes (the broiled scallops sounded good), or maybe it was an off day, or maybe their cook ran off and eloped with a  waitress only hours before. Who knows. Either way, I’m done speculating and ready to dust myself off and move on.

And move on, I did. Two days later, I joined my mom, brother and dad at Ragin Cajun, a minute down the road. I’ve been hesitant to try this place because, let’s face it, it’s kind of a dumb name. It’s the kind of name that makes me think that I’ve frequented it several times before and hated it, so I repeatedly pass it off as a déception établie, or established disappointment.

I should have known better. Can you ever go wrong with a restaurant bedecked with a giant red crawfish on its roof?

While it is technically a chain with four locations, it has just enough heart and soul tucked away in its shack-like exterior (and interior!) to retain its independent feel. Long, picnic-style tables and benches that you share with strangers, of all people. Way too much crap to look at on the walls. A counter where you order, which is seafood dive 101. And red and white-checkered, plastic table cloths. Although I was wearing heels this time because I crashed and burned in the wardrobe department last time, this was a place I could get down, dirty and flat-out comfortable in.

I was tempted to go healthy and get something light and grilled, but then, there it was. The chalkboard sign, where someone had lovingly scrawled, Thursday Special: Cup of gumbo, shrimp po-boy and drink, $12.99. It was as good as done.

The gumbo was dense! It was dark! It was smokey! It had an indescernible cajun bite at the end, leaving an odd sort of kicky heat to slide down your throat! I got the shrimp and crab variety (rather than shrimp and chicken) and while it possessed several of my aforementioned gumbo requirements, it still wasn’t quite right.

Again, the seafood inside didn’t taste incredibly fresh. Even if it has simmered in a pot of liquid for awhile, fresh shrimp should retain its uniquely firm texture rather than soften and flake off at the edges. The taste of both the shrimp and crab was muddled and unapparent. For that matter, so were the vegetables. It was impossible to discern what was what.

Sigh. So while I appreciated the thickness of the base and its unique flavors, it fell short of being a really good cup of gumbo.

The po-boy, on the other hand. Hoo, boy. It doesn’t top my beloved small-town, lakeside restaurant where I earned a paycheck as a teen. But it was a respectable second.

The bread was a light, hoagie-style french loaf with a barely-there toast on it and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. In all honesty, it should not have worked.  But… it did. It worked. It was buttery, and airy, and an enjoyable, wispy little foil to the main attraction.

Fried shrimp. When it goes wrong, it’s inevitably a soul-crushing experience. When it goes right, it can be the kind of joyous occasion that sparks fist-pumping, rabid grins, even sharing.

Luckily for me, this was some degree of the latter.

Fat, plump, crispy, fresh shrimp. Golden brown. Glistening. Texture! My mouth knew I was eating shrimp.

They were good. They were very good.

Iceberg lettuce and bright slices of tomato complemented nicely. I even allowed a smidge of mayo. But I must warn you. Unless you specify otherwise, your delicious po-boy will be served with ketchup.

I truly cannot wrap my head around this. While I was waiting at the table for my number to be called (it’s no “Order up!”, but it’ll do), I scanned the menu one last time. When I saw “ketchup” in the same vicinity as “delicious po-boy,” I sprinted to the counter, hurdling chairs and tables and lunch patrons in my desperation. Time was counting down quickly, and I had to save my sandwich from ruin. It was like a Nicholas Cage movie.

So aside from that near-disaster, Ragin Cajun was a pleasant experience and I expect to have more of them in the future. And in the meantime, my nagging, painful po-boy-and-gumbo craving has been successfully sated and abated, pushed back into the dusty crevices of mind and desires, until next time.

Always on Alert for Faux Fire

Posted in Notable Events by KP on March 31, 2009

1:38 this morning — FIRE ALARMS!

I wake up in a stupor, grabbing my glasses, phone, and stupidly trying to turn off my screeching, ear-splitting alarm clock. Then I realize — FIRE ALARMS!

Then I remember where I live. And this happens all the time. ALL. THE. TIME.

So I tape up the sound vents (technical term) of the two fire alarms in my apartment–again–to reduce the risk of ear bleeding. And wait. My cat looks at me, confused and furious. My boyfriend pulls a pillow over his head.

No one in my building ever rushes outside immediately, in a full-frenzied panic and weighed down with kids and pets and valuables, when they hear a fire alarm. We might open the front door in a bathrobe, look around annoyed, and close the door. Our fire alarm has cried wolf so many times that if there ever were to be a real emergency…. we’d be in trouble.

But last night was a little different. Not in the sense that there was a real fire. Thank God. But in the sense that the alarm continued for 1 WHOLE HOUR. My boyfriend and I generally take turns going downstairs to stake out information, i.e. if there’s smoke and fire. Last night was my turn.

It always turns out to be a block party during these episodes. After so long, people lazily make their ways down to the courtyards, half-concerned and half-asleep. And as it turns out, I have some really rad neighbors. Who knew. I only meet them during these faux fire shindigs, where we immediately bond over the idiocy of everything and everyone, exchange names and unit numbers, promise to come over to borrow eggs or a cup of sugar, and never see each other again. Even if they live next door. Which makes one or both of us hermits, or it just affirms that I indeed keep very odd hours.

So as I was making new best friends, fire trucks were pulling in rather lackadaisically. Not that I can blame them. Again, there’s never a real fire, only the intensely loud universal sound that indicates one should toss mattresses out of windows, loved ones following, and run screaming into the night, because there is a fire.

Everyone wearing a uniform is walking around determinedly, which is good, but sharing no information, which is bad. It is determined through the grapevine that the source of the fire (alarm) is in unit 463, and of course no one knows where that is. In this fortress of numerically ordered apartments, the location of #463 is a complete mystery. So we see the half-dozen firemen striding, single-file, to various stairwells and discussing in quiet, rapid tones if “maybe it’s up there.” Sigh. There must be a better way.

Meanwhile, that wretched alarm is still piercing through the night air as if the Birdman had escaped from Alcatraz, if this were still 1942. It reminds me of that movie with Robert Redford, where he’s in a military prison run by the Sopranos guy and he has to move stones for like 40 days, shirtless and robbed of physical strength but not spirit. And I just want a confirmation of the non-fire so I don’t have to run upstairs to rescue my cat and boyfriend, Rambo-style; instead, I’d like to just tell them the good news and we can all have hot cocoa together and tell stories and laugh.

We’re told at some point that “maintenance is on its way to take care of this noise.” Excuse me, what? This does not seem to be a good system. First of all, we all seem to agree that this fire alarm thing is just “noise” and no longer a “safeguard against human tragedy.” Great, if great means useless. Second, we have to wake up some poor maintenance guy who lives off-premises to drive over and turn off the alarm? What a crappy responsibility. And obviously inefficient, as again, it screamed for an hour before finally being silenced.

The neighbor who called the fire department had an even scarier story to share. When the fire alarm began blaring, bleeting, and bloking, she immediately left her apartment (oddly enough) and soon ran across a security guard in the hallway. Here is the transcript of their interaction:

Security guard: “We need to call the fire department.”

Neighbor: “You mean you haven’t already called?”

Guard: “It’s not a real fire.”

Neighbor: “How do you know? What if it is?”

Guard: “That’s true. Ok. What’s the number for the fire department?”

OMG. This is all very bad news.

Said neighbor is toting a teenage daughter, and as she is relaying this tidbit of homeland security, the daughter is interrupting every 0.005 seconds with excrutiatingly dumb details of the previous night’s Britney Spears concert. And shoving her camera in everyone’s face. “Look, then the guys picked her up and brought her across to here.” “Look, this is what she was wearing.” “Look, here’s the Pussycat Dolls.” “Look, now she’s over here.” “Look, I swear she almost looked at me.” I honestly felt like screaming, “Um hello? Hi. There is a fake fire going on? So let’s please respect the fake emergency and concentrate on getting no information from anyone, other than alarming tales of security failures. Thanks.”

If all this seems to have put me in a bad mood, it didn’t really. Again, there was no fire, for which I am grateful. Boyfriend, cat, and I escaped unscathed  yet again. But for all my predictable relief, I’m getting fairly tired of imagining The Worst every few months or so. Although it is nice to know where I can pick up a cup of sugar when I need it.

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America’s Favorite Restaurant does NOT equate to Favorite Tablemates

Posted in Culinary Experiences by KP on March 7, 2009

The Benihana concept is fun, right? A large, community table where you can sit with people from all walks of life and enjoy a fantastic meal prepared by a skilled, entertaining chef right in front of you? Count me in!

Except for the sitting by other people part. Count me out.

Mark and I (the aforementioned SO) eat out much too often, and Benihana’s works itself into our diets probably more than it should. We always have an amazing time, but our Benihana trips are infamous — INFAMOUS — for being marred by some form of irritating personality at our table.

It’s probably our fault, because we always have such stupidly high expectations of meeting our new best friends or something, and we also make it a point to eat at a Benihana every time we’re on vacation in a new city. For example: San Antonio Benihana is not ever recommended because of the poor service and stripper customers. Orlando Benihana is very much recommended because we had our own personal chef who was awesome, and probably the best friend-type we were looking for.

best friend chef

best friend chef

But usually, we end up sitting with the Boys and Girls Club of America who dislike imbibing in conversation, adult beverages, and society, for that matter. (No offense to the actual BGCA intended.) Sometimes we get the loud-mouth out-of-towners who secretly, or quite openly, take pictures of the two of us with their camera phones. Weird. Then there’s the couples who fight with each other, the guy who shouts about jager bombs with a baby in his lap, the girl who pitches a fit because Tuaca is not served here, and the prim, quiet families who just pick at their plates, looking miserable in wool.

Like I said, we always have unappealing tablemates, but whether they’re bland or just crazy, we manage to have a great, fun experience. But last night’s visit took the cake — in fact, it took the whole hibachi grill.

We’re the first ones seated at our table. I’m leafing through the menu like an amateur because I want something a little different. I usually stick with some combination of shrimp, scallops, and/or filet unless I’m getting sushi. I had the lobster once and was not impressed; the grill is obviously way too intense for a shellfish this delicate, and it came out overcooked and missing most of the buttery sweetness that makes lobster lobster. It honestly tasted closer to shrimp; I’ll be sticking to steamed from now on.

So I decided on the seafood diablo dish, which is “seafoods and vegetables with Japanese udon noodles and a spicy sauce.” Sounds delish, and it was. Shrimp, the always flawless scallops, and calamari, which I’ve somehow managed to never have grilled; after last night, I don’t know if I can go back to fried and dunked in marinara sauce. The flavor was just so… ah, everything you can think of. It was distinctive yet subtle, sweet yet savory, and even though it looked exactly like an udon noodle, the distinctive texture was a reminder that you were eating a delicious sea creature. The flavor just jumped out at you, well over everything else going on in your mouth. Phenomenal. The noodles were tasty as well. They’re not my favorite because they’re rather thick and can be gummy and even a little slimy, but in the hands of my hibachi chef, they were mellow and complimented the sauce well. And the secret sauce: Even though the color was off, it was obviously a simple sriracha-based sauce, which is fine with me. I got the heat I was looking for and all the ingredients were very well-balanced. It’s definitely not your typical hibachi fare but it hit the spot and I’d recommend it to those in the mood for a real dish.

But from the very beginning, it was obvious that the soon-to-be-sitting-next-to-me whack-job was going to ruin everything. So let me paint this picture: we’ve just been seated at the table when a nice-looking, well-dressed couple, probably in their late 20’s, are seated across from us. They look normal and we breathe a sigh of relief, but they’re too far away to really interact with.

You know who is not too far away to interact with? This next lady.

An older woman wearing a jacket, scarf, sunglasses, and floppy hat sits next to us and is joined by her husband shortly. Her first order of business is to complain about the temperature, which is fine, because we were sitting under a vent and it was a little chilly. Then I get lambasted with this deadly, disapproving glare when the waitress sits my Kirin Ichiban down in front of me. Whatever, I was raised by teetotalers. I am immune to that look. Then she sends her glass of water back an alarming 3 TIMES because it was not room-temperature enough. At this point, Mark and I are actively playing the part of the bland and are absorbed in our soups and salads because this lady is very openly a nut job and we don’t want any part of that.

Then, she and her husband berate the chef for only working there for a year and being a “rookie.” I’m close to snapping, and I inform them that not only is their training a grueling six months, but we’ve actually had this chef before, and he’s pretty damn great. Then, she instructs the chef where to place her lobster on the grill; she disapproves of his putting it in the middle and insists that he move it to the far right side, because she doesn’t want too much oil on it. Then when she notices that the very nice-looking, very normal couple on the other end of the table have only ordered shrimp fried rice and nothing else, she proceeds to serve them the most condescending piece of hell I have ever witnessed.

When she begins her badgering, the nice people, we’ll call them The Normals, smile and laugh and say we come here every Friday, we just wanted a light dinner, we like the ambiance, etc… Every word they uttered was as nice and normal as could be and did not even begin to venture into It’s None of Your Business territory, which would have been appropriate. But Floppy Hat insisted on continuing her tasteless verbal assault.

“I feel so bad,” she intones. “But there’s nothing on your plate,” she whines. “DO YOU WANT SOME OF OUR FOOD?”

I thought I was going to hurl. It was the single most disgusting, embarrassing, flat out rude exchange I’ve seen in a long, long time. In most circumstances, I’d like to think that I would stick my nose in there and say something. However, at a dinner? Where the whole point is to forge a sense of community with people of different cultures, generations, nationalities? I didn’t want to compound the awkwardness, and I still had a dinner to finish, so I said nothing and watched the Normals handle the situation with grace, dignity, and kindness. They did fine on their own, but I still wonder if I should have spoken up. At least it would have made me feel better.

Needless to say, the Normals bailed out of there pretty quickly, and Mark and I followed shortly after wolfing down our dinners and skipping the meal-ending green tea and ice cream (still a little sad about that). We’d both had enough, and when we stood up to leave with our two to-go boxes, Floppy Hat’s husband informed us that there were take-out bags in the front. Argh, what a rampage these two were on!

We high-tailed it out of there and capped off the night with, well, a nightcap, at Pub Fiction. Neither of us have been there in years; we’d shaken the psuedo-trendy midtown scene quite a long time ago, but it was kind of nice there. It was only about 9 o’clock so there was no half-hour line to wait in and the place was low-lit, well-air conditioned, had great TVs, and the bartender had some sort of Eastern-European accent. Just how we like it, so the night was saved after all. I only hope the Normals can say the same.

sit with caution

sit with caution

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Cheap Eats Alert #1

Posted in Cheap Eats by KP on March 4, 2009

outback-steakhouse-0908-lgSo guys. $4.95 crab-stuffed shrimp at Outback, as in steakhouse. Pretty unreal little appetizer. It’s four lightly breaded shrimp stuffed with crab, garlic, breadcrumbs, some kind of mild cheese, and topped with lemon butter, and it is GOOD! My boyfriend and I have app’d on these every day this week, then go home and make the main course. We’re always looking for some cheap eats and these absolutely deliver. Since I can’t have my beloved clam chowder there anymore (stupid seasonality), I get my fattening seafood fix from these guys. Let me know if you agree.

KP OUT

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An Ode to Thee, Coffee

Posted in Culinary Experiences by KP on March 4, 2009

As I’m sitting here sipping Seattle’s Best Blend, watching the sun rise — wait, no, it’s almost noon, — watching the sun sit in the middle of the sky, I remember jobs I used to have, and how the best part of every single one was all the free coffee.

how I love thee, let me count the ways...

how I love thee, let me count the ways...

Showing up to my various jobs throughout college, I had one main motivator during those 4, 6, or 8 hour days. That statement may be cutting myself a bit short, or maybe it just really emphasizes how I was NOT in the position or field I wanted to be in. (Side note: Potential employers, I will have lots of other motivating factors and a highly energetic work ethic, with or without caffeine, if you should hire me to do advertising.)

And I was a good employee, I feel I should say. Always. But, poor as I was/am, the driving force in the back of my mind that plastered the smile forever on my face and kept me going, going, going, was not my meager bimonthly paycheck. It was coffee.

I waited tables in high school and the first year or two of college. You know what’s great about working in a restaurant? Brewing coffee all. day. long. It was like a Dunkin’ Donuts in there, except with Folgers. I would sit in the back room and drink coffee (sometimes with whipped cream… those were the crazy days), snatch hushpuppies, and eat my way through bowls of mango-habanero ceviche. And then I’d wash my hands for 30 seconds in warm running water before returning, for all you germ sticklers.

Then there were the temp agency days, where coffee is a wild card. You never know what’s brewing in the pot, it’s all so foreign to you. Having a full-time college schedule only allowed me to have sporadic work assignments. A day here, a week there, so I never had the opportunity to truly get familiar with the way things worked.

My first assignment was with a financial planning office. They needed a kid to come in and work for $10/hr because, well, the place was a wreck. I’m an organized type of person. I like to have the things around me in their neat, tidy little places, so my head doesn’t implode. I don’t know how the three other heads who worked in this cluttered office remained on their respective shoulders.  Paperwork was literally floating around because even it recognized that there was no more room on those tables or in those cabinets. Truly, truly madness.

So I spent my 3-4 days there with my nose stuck in a mountain of paper, and I, the paper pusher, was to find a place for all of this in an office I just entered.  Seriously, you couldn’t even see me behind the pile; it was like that scene of  Scarface at his cocaine desk, except without all the money, illegality, drugs, and general insanity. In fact, it was nothing like that, because there are few things in life more ho-hum than putting paper into different stacks. So naturally, my trusty motivator saved me from attempting to papercut my wrists, and I treat myself to cup after cup of their coffee. It was pretty good too; roasty and dark. The only weird thing is they didn’t have paper cups — something about the environment — so I had to use a REAL MUG, and I was always afraid I was drinking out of someone’s favorite, and that they were secretly resentful. I had to scrub that baby down, too, and that was for myself, not you germ sticklers again.

So moving on from that, I was placed at this really dreary imaging company where they took note each time you left your desk, even for lunch. It was another nose-in-the-paperwork kinda place, where your sole task was to remove staples and put the papers in a box so someone else could come by and image them, or copy, or whatever. Exciting stuff. Since you couldn’t leave your desk too often or eyebrows would raise, I had to keep an industrial size coffee container that looked like it belonged at NASA with me. This coffee was about as lackluster as they come, too, so a week of this was e-nough.

Then, I took a Sunday, one-day only, job assignment. I was a receptionist of sorts at this ritzy real estate place. My job mostly consisted of sitting there in this comfy chair in front of a computer I only had to touch, like, twice, for about two minutes of data entry that was supposed to last me all day somehow. I mostly made coffee for the realtors and their clients on one of those Senso-something makers that only brews a cup at a time. They had a type of coffee called Lonestar, I think, and I will remember this day for all of time, because that coffee rocked. I couldn’t get enough of it and I can’t find it online so it looks like I’ll have to get over it one of these days. But it was just so smooth… a french roast, but not all that dark, and MAN it was good.

I got a permanent job after that at this shall-remained-nameless retail place that served employees the most despicable, burnt-tasting, oddly flavored coffee ever. Inexplicably, the owner is also in the coffee biz, and inexplicably, I worked there for a year and a half. Every day I had to choke down this biohazard fuel, and the cream was yucky vanilla-flavored, and the temperature was all off, and I think it was usually expired. I shudder just thinking about it. Luckily, there were about three Starbucks within a minute’s drive, so someone would sneak out everyday and come back with about 9 cups of real joe.

So now that I’m unemployed and mostly sitting at home on the ol’ PC, I go through a LOT of coffee, and it’s really hurting my already anorexic pocketbook. Pocketbook? What am I, British? I meant wallet. But at least I can get up whenever I want, drink out of my own mug, use regular cream, brew it only for myself, and not have to spit it out because it’s so completely undrinkable. If that doesn’t sound like a true team-player, I don’t know what does.

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Until next year, Rodeo Cookoff…

Posted in Culinary Experiences by KP on February 28, 2009

Goodbye, World Championship Houston Rodeo Once-a-Year-and-Not-Often- Enough BBQ Cookoff. We shall miss you.

Although you make our throats hurt for days to come because we must all yell over Roger Creager, James Earl Somebody, and inexplicably, Ne-Yo, we love you. Regardless of the thick, sumptious bbq smoke that permeates our country-western clothing fresh off the racks of Palais Royal and refuses to be washed out, no matter how many trips to the laundry room, we love you. Even when we show up to your gates with all the best intentions of not drinking ourselves into oblivion, your wild and reckless “open bar” culture beckons, and we indeed leave you some degree of tipsy, and all the while, we love you.

over 400 tents of gleeful debauchery

over 400 tents of gleeful debauchery

It’s easy to figure out why. Although I was out of commission all of the following day due to all things delicious and sinful, I was happy. The culprit? That fabulous barbecue. I can’t even abbreviate it this time, it’s that good.

Growing up in Houston, TX, we know good bbq. We may not have the Kansas City dry rub tomato-based craziness that’s going on up there, but we have Goode Company, and in the bbq world, that’s all you really need to know. The Pappas Brothers can make a mean chopped beef sandwich that might rival anything outside of Texas, but it’s sloppier, not as pure, as Goode Co. The tangy, peppery, vinegar-based sauce marries perfectly with the smoky, crusty-on the-outside-and-tender-on-the-inside, mouth-watering brisket. But I’m not here to talk about tried and true Houston legends.

Amateur up-and-comers are where it’s at.

Our tent at the cookoff was called Kitchen Kaboose and those boys know how to cook. Like cook with a capital C, cook. It’s amazing. Not only was the brisket fall-off-the-bone tender, but there were no bones on your plate, so it would fall off your fork until you just said “forget being sophisticated at the rodeo” and just ate with las manos. Freakin’ fantastic.

my favorite kind of meal

my favorite kind of meal

And what’s strange about it is, they served it with molasses-based sauce. My boyfriend and I are what you might refer to as sauce connoisseur-snobs and when we saw that thick glop of molasses mess, we exchanged a look, raised our eyebrows, and sighed. We schlopped it into the corner of our plates and resigned ourselves to a meal of little sauce dabs, in contrast to the sauce-drenching method we normally employ.

Then: I examine my plate more closely, and realize my jalapeño-sausage links have been majorly and permanently compromised. They are quite literally swimming in a pool, no, swamp, of said molasses sauce. And that’s when we realize, this sauce is super delicious. It’s got that sweet heat to it that I love and although it’s definitely full-flavored, it’s subtle enough to compliment my treasured smoked meat rather than overwhelm it, and it was more smooth and velvety than the gloppy, awkward goop I expected it to be. Hooray!

So the unification of vinegar-molasses sauce lovers really set the tone for the night. We had a blast/ball/good time. We spent time with good friends, reconnected with old ones, and met new ones. There was an all-time Friday record of 76,889 partygoers there, so we had plenty to choose from. We met the new girlfriend of one buddy and actually liked her, which almost never happens, and got to debate the merits of my old favorite dork-show, Heroes, with complete strangers. No one had cell service and no one could hear over the deafening music that shifted oddly from country to ’70s mo-town as the night went on, so communication was mostly limited to sign language and, naturally, smoke signals. There was some dancing, but it was not very good and plenty embarrassing, so we’ll leave it at “there was some dancing.”

Farewell, kind stranger

Farewell, kind stranger

You’ve left a lot of casualties in your wake as you ride off into the sunset, 2009 Houston Rodeo Cookoff, but for those of us who made it out to the other side, we’re left with fond memories, tingling taste buds, and the kind of satisfaction that only comes from looking the Rodeo full in the face and living to tell about it.

In anticipation of next year,

Kristin

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