July 31, 2010

"... I'm writing it down to remember it now."

They say that the dullest pencil is better than the sharpest memory... as I take to this exercise of sharing the occasional thought, I'm finding it more and more necessary to jot down notes on just about anything and everything that I consider worthwhile. Couple that with a healthy affection for authenticity, a minimalist aesthetic, and well-made American wares, and suddenly I find myself with an irrepressible need for Field Notes

Hand delivered a couple Saturdays ago by my very own United States postal worker came a set of three 48-page sheets of stapled-together graph paper. Along with a handy no. 2 pencil. Thus far I've found Field Notes to be slightly less ostentatious than my Moleskine and significantly more portable. I am completely unencumbered carrying it in most any pocket (jean/coat/shirt), which means I take it everywhere. It stood up quite well against a spill/attack by my morning coffee at the office, and to date I've captured a few choice one-liners, some thoughts on a just-finished book, and a pretty terrific list of the more memorable albums released b/t '92-'96 (a particularly relevant four-year span for me), among other things. Do you want to see my grocery list?   

Hammering out these little vignettes at the old desk has become markedly easier, having already captured the moment, as it were. So at this point I'll stick to what's working, and that, for now, is my 3-1/2" x 5-1/2" memo pad.

Field Notes Brand
c/o Coudal Partners
400 North May Street, suite 301
Chicago, IL 60642

Various photos via: Field Notes.

July 28, 2010

On the Shelf - (How-Not-To) Travel Guides

I have - through good fortune, dumb luck, and taxpayer generosity - been afforded the luxury of traveling to some pretty interesting spots around the globe. Losing one's way in a foreign place is one of my favorite things; after all, if you've never hopped the metro in the wrong direction then you're really just not trying. It's all part of the experience. On the other hand, there's very little upside to, say, consuming undercooked Moroccan sausage ten hours before taking a four-hour train ride from Marrakech to Casablanca in a car w/ no air conditioning and inoperable toilets in the middle of June and then hopping a flight to Madrid. I guess that was the upside... Madrid. And the ubiquitous European bidet. My point is this: oftentimes the worst situations make for the best stories. 

So with that in mind, humor me some notes on two books that recently crossed my desk that piqued my curiosity as kind-of anti-travel guides:
Top of the list (which is to say I've actually read this one) is The Lunatic Express (by Carl Hoffman who, incidentally, lives in my old neighborhood Adam's Morgan), chronicling the author's travels as he circumnavigates the globe via its most dangerous modes of transport. That is, going from Point A (here) to Point B (there) on the plane, train, auto, or boat that has, on average, killed more people than any other way of getting from 'here' to 'there.' And don't think Palm Beach to Key West via catamaran; think Mali to Senegal on a train with no windows or bathrooms.

The first leg moves a bit too quickly as he goes from Canada to Cuba and throughout South America, as if the whole point is to just keep moving. But once he crosses into Africa the book slows down a bit and a narrative takes hold. It explores some of the inner-workings of the author's wanderlust... his detachment from society, from his family, blah blah blah. But also about the people he encounters, the lives they lead, and their paradoxical connectedness to family and place yet total isolation from the broader world. This is the real meat of the book. 

Second: 101 Places Not to See Before You Die (Catherine Price), which I have not yet read but certainly plan to. For two reasons: i) the contrarian title and a table of contents that tilts towards masochism; and ii) The Economist told me to. And since I follow its advice like a suicidal lemming, that endorsement alone is enough for me. Seriously, any book with a chapter called "An Overnight Train in China on the First Day of Your First Period" has me intrigued. It sounds like something David Sedaris would write if, you know, he had periods.
Her premise is that it's the misadventures that we relive w/ friends, not the bullet-pointed to-do lists.
At capacity: Golden Gai, Tokyo - two Americans, and Irishman, and no bartender.

July 23, 2010

Saturday Night Special

If self-sufficiency were a martial art, I'd probably rank myself a brown belt (that is the one below black, right?). So when the Z abandoned me on Sunday for sunny South Florida for six days, I fretted of course, but on balance a week of bachelorhood wasn't such a daunting proposition. 

Just that weekend, the Dallas contingent of the family was in San Antonio visiting, and after a long Friday night and Satur-day spent carousing around some of our favorite bars and eateries, we opted for a late dinner-snack at the house on Saturday evening. On hand... the holy trinity of cheeses (rouzaire/cow, manchego/sheep, and something else/goat), truffled salami, stuffed olives, and pickled artichoke hearts. It's a testament to my bachelordom - and my enviable resourcefulness - that the leftovers sustained me for my next three dinners. Amazing how far little oil, orzo, and basil pesto can stretch the other scarce provisions one has laying about.  
But if I must give credit where it actually belongs, what really helped was the wealth of archived recipes still parked on Gourmet Magazine's website, which resides in a kind-of cruel purgatory on the information superhighway - ostensibly dead, but somehow occasionally spitting out new content. Like Tupac. I feel like Charlie Brown kicking a football whenever I see something fresh pop-up... This time that bitch won't pull it away! Then *AAUGH* nothing. Flat on my back. And once I get up, I realize that the magazine, and its website, is still very much defunct. So my excitement about the purported new iPad app Gourmet Live (coming fall 2010) can only be explained by selective amnesia (and wishful thinking, considering I don't have an iPad)...  
Hopefully Gourmet Live's success will be of the overwhelming variety, such that Conde Nast will see the error in its ways and resurrect this fine publication. The prose and photography always worked in such perfect harmony. Travel + Culture smart and envy-inducing. And Food Politics, so effectively reminding us of what terrible people we are. Well, not us, but other people. So please, if the app actually happens, please ... click, browse, follow, friend, whatever. Just get it out of limbo. And send me an iPad. 
... after all, where else is one going to find a picture of a saturday night special and a tumbler of whiskey featured side-by-side in an article about Tennessee liquor legislation? 

July 19, 2010

Es No Problemo.

Marathon - Situated alongside the Southern Pacific Railroad in far West Texas rests a grouping of towns that have made a name for themselves as destinations for those seeking respite from a quicker pace. The first is called Marathon, and in Marathon one is afforded the luxury of not having to do anything, because, quite frankly, there isn't anything to do.     

We initially sought to take the train into Alpine, which is about 30 miles away, but the departure times from San Antonio (5:45am, Thursday and Saturday only) torpedoed that idea. As the beneficiary of government largesse, I guess it's not all that alarming that Amtrak hasn't taken it upon itself to adopt a more customer-friendly schedule. Probably for the best... I doubt it was the Orient Express.
Amtrak this is not
So we hit the interstate - U.S. Hwy 90 - which took us through many-a-speck-on-the-map - D'Hanis, Uvalde, Knippa, all sorts of places you can't pronounce. In Del Rio I had my first ever chilaquiles plate, a mishmash of fried corn tortillas, pulled chicken, serrano and ancho chiles, eggs, refried beans, and crema fresca. Everything a growing boy needs. After Del Rio you're kind of on your own. Nothing but asphalt and ranches. 

Now, when I think of West Texas, I think Midland, Abilene, Amarillo, Lubbock - arid and, on first pass, listless. The Tall City is where I saw my first tumbleweed. It was the size of a Volkswagen, moving 60mph down the highway. Hell maybe it was a Volkswagen. It's a rugged beauty that only a mother could love, and by "mother' I mean "local". But this far south-west, it really is quite beautiful. Rolling hills and plateaus dot the landscape and make for incredible scenery. 

Then, suddenly, Marathon is upon you. To the north, a half-mile of storefronts housing antiques, art galleries, the diner (one), the bar (again, one), and the Gage Hotel, our final destination. To the south, the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend National Park, Mexico, more or less in that order.
Rain was falling as we entered the historic hotel. Average annual rainfall in Marathon is 11"... more than 20% of which (2.35") fell during our two-day stay. So we resigned ourselves to the parlor just off the lobby, setting up full bar, cheese and cured meats, and music, and began what would ultimately be 12 hours of an intermittent domino game called Mexican Train atop the cowhide card table. The staff were thrilled.

The rain finally subsided around 6p, so we stopped by the French Co. Grocer for provisions (Cheetos, wine, and Topo Chico primarily) before embarking on an an early-evening booze cruise down the nearest gravel road. 

The only game in town when it comes to foodstuffs, and 
as any thriving monopolist would do, they price accordingly
That evening we enjoyed the chef's tasting menu w/ wine pairing at the Cafe Cenizo; as I write this I'm wishing I had brought my notepad b/c specifics from the meal are fleeting at best... excellent pours. Next time we go back I'll insist on every-man-for-himself, not that it was anything less than terrific, but two weeks later I'm still reeling that I didn't have the Chicken Fried Steak. 

Saturday, more of the same. The exact same. And it couldn't have been more relaxing, which is exactly what we were seeking in this desolate outpost. That evening we donned our best duds and went to the town dance, paying $15/couple (no idea what they charged stags) and two-stepping in circles to classic country songs played by five old men who never saw an empty dance floor.  

from my hotel room window

July 15, 2010

San Francisco by way of Stomach

My brother and his bride were in San Francisco last month enjoying the sweet life. Per his correspondence, their greatest culinary escapade was the evening they doubled down on dinner, initially knocking out three dozen oysters at Hog Island Oyster Company, rolling sideways into the Slanted Door for round two, and ultimately leaking into the Tunnel Top bar for nightcaps. 

I tried to pare these down but really what's the point; the first bite is with your eyes, so might as well feast them on something good...

The Ferry Building Marketplace
San Francisco 94111

One Ferry Building #3
San Francisco 94111

601 Bush Street
San Francisco 94108

Nipping at the heels of The Tablehopper and Anthony Bourdain also has its rewards...

Pier 30, Bryant and Embarcadero
San Francisco 94105

July 12, 2010

Same Same, but Different

Southtown, San Antonio - Between grad school years one & two I spent the summer (2007) in San Antonio. It was a new town for me, and one of the places where I could always seek refuge from the "housing" I'd been provided during those three months was the Liberty Barlocated in a 121-year old ramshackle two-story building on Josephine Street. You can stretch a limited budget pretty far on Guinness and freshly-baked bread (the latter provided free of charge), which, combined, made the squalor that was my home much more manageable. 

In spite of the fact that everything in the building - from the floors to windows to the walls - was warped (I swear there were spots where if you dropped a marble it would appear to roll up), and that the no-smoking law (of which I remain a steadfast cowardly silent critic) hadn't yet made it, I loved it - Everyone did - just the way it was. Fast forward to spring 2010. 
Over 100 years old & looks every minute of it
- artwork by Vitali Komarov 
It is one of life's enduring mysteries: landlord, owner of a well-placed piece of land, leases to local business. Business thrives on the repeat patronage of locals and visitors alike. From the outside, it appears to be a symbiotic relationship from which everyone prospers. But under the surface, literally under the building, that land becomes far too valuable. It must be sold, and whatever sits atop it must go. Just like the recently ousted 79-year old Jaime's Spanish Village in Austin, another haunt oozing with history and charm, this too would be the fate of our Liberty Bar. 
When rumors surfaced, and soon verified, that it was closing, there was surprise but not shock. Then came the announcement that the restaurant was relocating to King William, a seemingly natural fit, into the old St. Scholastica Convent. Dwight Hobart, the restaurant's owner, donated all of the original chairs and tables to Texas Public Radio for auction (which is great because I get most of my furniture from radio stations anyway), but outside of that they were moving the Liberty Bar "lock, stock, and barrel" into the new/even older building. 

We stopped by the new place three days after the grand opening. A great beer selection, good wine menu, and those deplorable cocktail governors that limit the pour from a bottle all made the move. As did the same rustic bar, the same servers, and the same adventurous menu. Differences abound, to be sure, but comfort can always be found at the bottom of a freshly-squeezed greyhound...  

Let it be said that there are few places in San Antonio more accommodating to diverse and boisterous crowds. There is always a good scene. And dinner or drinks at the Liberty Bar with a group will never disappoint. These are intangibles that will endure, no matter what kind of landscape changes come about. 

More to come soon, mostly photographs, from our brunch at the Convent next week.  

1111 South Alamo Street
San Antonio 78210

July 9, 2010

Laws & Sausage

Kiolbassa Provision Co., San Antonio - "Never watch the making of laws or sausage... you'll lose your appetite for both."  Or something to that effect is how the saying goes. So it was with some trepidation that I accepted my friend's thoughtful invitation to tour the Kiolbassa sausage plant on San Antonio's west side, because quite frankly my appetite for its products is considerable and I'm in no hurry to lose it.

The company's history goes back to 1949, when Rufus and Juanita Kiolbassa started a small meatpacking operation in San Antonio. Over the next 60+ years, and through two subsequent generations of family leadership, it would grow into one of Texas' largest sausage manufacturers. 

From the quality cuts of meat to the natural pork casings to the process by which the sausage is made, it was plain to see that the company's authentic, original methods carry through to this day. They actually have a woman who comes in three days a week whose sole job (by her choosing) is to peel and mince garlic.   

It's location is another marvel: one of Texas' best sausage makers - in a state full of quality sausage makers - is situated in this nondescript building nestled between produce warehouses within two miles of the heart of downtown San Antonio. Just another way how this city, seventh largest in the U.S., still functions as a small town. 

3,000lbs of cured deliciousness, 
just out of the smoker
Hand-tied Polish links. Smoked in small batches and sold out the front door. 

1325 South Brazos Street
San Antonio 78207

Forever Texas Sky

"For Many People around the world, great open spaces - where prairie and mountains meet the sky - symbolize Texas, where the West began" - T.R. Fehrenback in Texas: A salute from above

July 4th, various points across Texas - over the long weekend, my brother and I, respectively traveling northbound Hwy 281 (b/t Marble Falls and Dallas) and westbound Hwy 90 (b/t San Antonio and Marathon) grabbed a few photos of a Texas sky that seems to go forever. That we did this without fore-planning was a glorious coincidence. 
The topographical variations that the sky watches over illustrate well the magnificent diversity that we cherish so much. Above, the Pecos River winding through Val Verde County. 
Lone windmills working away. 
Rural landscape at 75 mph. 
Dallas skyline. Big D, the heart & hub of North Texas, whose reach extends far beyond the height of its skyscrapers.