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Posted by on Jan 29, 2016 in Blog, Essays, Personal, Rants and Raves, Restaurant Reviews, Travel | 7 comments

Travel Advisory! Stay Away from the Barbecue in Bakersfield!

 

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Tasty barbecue shouldn’t be slathered beneath a pool of barbecue sauce.  That is, unless it’s a tasty sauce.

When the barbecue sauce is shitty, wanna’ know what happens?  The barbecue turns shitty, too — that’s what happens.

When you slather shitty barbecue sauce atop barbecue of undetermined quality, we’ll never discover if the barbecue was any good or not.  That’s because it’s slathered beneath a puddle of shitty barbecue sauce, turning the whole fucking plate into an unsolved mystery.

One would expect Bakersfield to be a terrific barbecue town.  The city’s outskirts are ringed with giant cattle farms in California’s Central Valley.  Cattle roam in green fields eating their way a bite of grass at a time to warm waiting plates of carnivores who are passionate about their barbecue.  If those poor beasts only knew of the horror that eventually awaits them, to be humiliated beneath a slathering of shitty barbecue sauce, they’d probably chose something different.  Then again, they can’t make choices for themselves.  Because, after all, they’re cows and besides — there’s no such thing as free will.

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Posted by on Jan 20, 2016 in Blog, Essays, Restaurant Reviews, Travel | 3 comments

LA Story (El Cholo Mexican Restaurant)

 

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When I first heard El Cholo was the favorite late-night hangout for actor Jack Nicholson right after Laker games, I knew this was the place to visit.

a6507c0329a9654a90a17cad05b23610El Cholo first opened up in 1923.  It was founded by Mexican immigrants who nurtured their family business and handed down secret recipes over multiple generations to the present day.  Nearing a full century in business, El Cholo has since expanded outward to other locations throughout Southern California.  However, the original flagship restaurant location remains at 1121 S. Western Avenue, just a short distance from downtown Los Angeles.

There’s lots to love about El Cholo, which has varied meanings in the Spanish language — from “peasant farmer” in some Latino regions to what’s regarded as a derogatory term, particularly in Peru.  Jack Nicholson’s tastes and his endorsement aside, there were a number of things which attracted me to try out this historic location, most of all its authenticity and obvious recognition of its heritage.

Legend has it that the dish we all know as “nachos” was introduced here during the 1950’s.  According to El Cholo’s restaurant history which is posted on the wall in the lobby area, a former waitress named Carmen Rocha crafted nachos in San Antonio, before moving later on and introducing the dish to Los Angeles at El Cholo, where she worked up through 1959.

IMAG1692 - EditedOne of the most impressionable things about El Cholo is the “Louis Zamperini Room,” which is named after the Los Angeles native who was once an Olympic athlete (competing in the 1936 Games held in Berlin) who later enlisted in the U.S. Army-Air Corps, was shot down over the Pacific Ocean, miraculously made what was then the longest survival on a life raft on the open sea in history, only to be followed by capture, imprisonment, and torture in a prisoner-of-war camp in Japan during World War II.  If this story sounds familiar, last year’s movie “Unbroken,” based on the best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand was based on Zamperini’s life.  Any place that honors such a remarkable man in this special way with his own dining room, complete with photos of the genuine hero who died last year at age 97 merits a visit in my estimation.  [Note:  My review of Hillenbrand’s book can be read HERE]

With so much going for it, I really wanted to like El Cholo.  But blatant honesty can be a painful thing.  Unfortunately, I probably won’t repeat as a customer.  I can’t recommend this historic establishment for at least a couple of reasons.  Before I get to these critiques, first here are a few positives.

IMAG1691 (1)El Cholo makes a fantastic margarita on the rocks.  I ordered the house specialty, which was splendid.  Everything about this staple of Mexican cuisine was perfect, from the generous portion served, to the kosher salt on the outer rim, to the frothy shaken ambiance atop the cocktail, to the float of Triple Sec, to the exceptional lime-based mixer which was as good as any margarita I’ve ever had outside of Dallas.

The layout of the restaurant and ambiance as also quite pleasant.  The adobe architecture throughout — both inside and out — which divides several rooms into different sections provides for an unexpected quaintness, even though this is a large-scale operation capable of serving hundreds of covers at a time.  One gets the feeling that a discovery has been made — a nice quiet restaurant no one else knows about, although that’s the furthest thing from the truth.

The food is also pretty good.  Not great, but generally pleasing.  I say this having enjoyed so many Mexican meals in so many different cities that I’ve now lost count.  Yes, I do know what great Mexican food is — and on a scale of 1-10, this gets a solid “7.”  My dinner included two beef enchiladas rolled in corn tortillas.  I also ordered the New Mexico-style green chili sauce (not a fan of the usual red sauce), which gives the dish a bit more kick.  I added a chicken taco.  The platter came with the customary rice and refried beans.  The standard chips and salsa were fine (chips were warm, a good sign).  Salsa was a bit of a bore — nothing special.

So, where did El Cholo go wrong?  Here are two criticisms.

First, the service was atrocious.  I felt like the invisible man during most of my one-hour stay.  I waited for what seemed like forever to get served.  Then, the waiter barely came around at all.  I was forced to rely on a busboy who didn’t speak much English (most of the staff were Mexicans).  Contrary to what I often write, I tend to be very tolerant of slow service and miscues.  However, this entire episode was unnecessary and unforgivable.  The restaurant wasn’t busy (I dined late in the afternoon).  But each time I needed something, a member of the staff would be around but never make eye contact (something which drives me crazy).  I resorted to shouting at one point in order to get someone’s attention.  One supposes that Jack Nicholson never had to resort to these measures.

Whack!  Here’s Joooohny!

IMAG1698 - EditedSecond, was the lack of value.  The bill finally arrived (after considerable begging for the waiter’s attention), which amounted to a whopping $35.45 for one patron.  Seriously, who in the hell spends $35 on Mexican food, with just one drink and no frills?  $35?  I could have eaten in Chinatown for a week and bought extra lottery tickets for that amount.  I did some quick calculations and the enchiladas must have run about $20 (about 33 percent higher than average elsewhere based on my experience), plus another $6 for a chicken taco, then $10 for a margarita.   In hundreds if not thousands of meals over the years, I may have tipped less than 20 percent only a handful of times, but given the non-existent waiter and being engulfed with neglect from start to finish, I tossed two $20 bills on the table and stormed out.  Fuck it.

What a shame.  El Cholo should be much better than this.  Based on the utter lack of value combined with the abominable service, I must strongly recommend dining elsewhere.  There must be hundreds of Latino-themed restaurants in and around Los Angeles which are far superior.  Next time, I’ll embark on that discovery.

 

Postscript:  Special thanks to Jessica Welman, who once lived in Los Angeles and graduated from USC which is close by.  She recommended El Cholo based on its reputation but was also careful to warn me that it might not be the same place that it once was.  Welman, who previously recommended Philippe the Original to me (another Los Angeles institution) remains undefeated in her culinary assessment.  [READ MY REVIEW OF PHILIPPE THE ORIGINAL HERE]  

_____

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Posted by on Dec 4, 2015 in Blog, Essays, Personal, Travel | 4 comments

As Happy as We Want to Be

 

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Something seemingly insignificant happened today at Starbucks Coffee, which actually ended up leaving quite an impression on me.  And, I’d like to tell you about it.

At the airport in Fort Lauderdale, I waited inside the terminal and stopped to order my usual cafe latte.  Most Starbucks have lines, especially in the mornings, and this was no exception.

While about a dozen or so travelers stood in line, bored and indifferent to our surroundings, we couldn’t help but hear and observe what can only be described as a spirited employee bouncing around, working joyously behind the counter.  It seemed like the happiest day of his life.  While two cashiers rang up the orders, the young man — whose name I soon learned was “Evans” — made the coffee drinks.

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Posted by on Nov 24, 2015 in Blog, Essays, Personal, Restaurant Reviews, Travel | 1 comment

Burgatory is Hamburger Heaven (Blow Your Dick Off Greatness in Pittsburgh)

 

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Hamburgers are for the masses.  Most decidedly, I am not a mass.

An ass?  Maybe.  A mass?  Never.

Fact is, it takes a blow-your-dick into-outer-space-great-fucking-hamburger to crowbar me away from my fancy French food and snooty red wine to try out, let alone be so hammerhead and eyes watering impressed with the experience as to write a review about a food joint where the standard fare is burgers and fries, doused with milk shakes and tap beer, where the waitress forgets my iced tea but still calls me “darlin.”

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Posted by on Oct 17, 2015 in Blog, Essays, Travel | 2 comments

The Strangest Thing Happened to Me in Fargo

 

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I just spent the whole last week in Fargo, North Dakota.

One wouldn’t expect Fargo to make too many lists of “favorite places to visit.”  It’s not what you would call a Travel and Leisure cover story.  But the more times I’ve been here and hung out with the locals, with each visit I’ve increasingly looked forward to returning here again sometime soon, and this last trip was no exception.  Just don’t book my ticket to North Dakota in mid-February, when it’s been known to get down to 40-degrees below zero in these parts.

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