Friday, November 26, 2010

Against the Wind

Place: Wienerschnitzel
Lunch: Angus chili dog, Pepsi

Vacation.  A week and a half of not thinking about anything.

Or TRYING to not think about anything, anyway.

I don't think I realized just how wound up I've gotten until Monday, when I started getting weirdly paranoid.  Then I started getting snippy at work on Wednesday.  It was an hour before time to hit the road, and seemingly everybody started firebombing me with stuff that just had to get done right now.  Couldn't have happened last week...right freaking now.  This describes my Tuesday as well.  I may have felt a little of what it's like to have a nervous breakdown.  I'm pretty sure I literally did break down in front of at least two people.  I realize now that I should have taken Monday-Wednesday of this week off too.

But finally, the time came (okay, slightly past the time came), and I hit the road.

What a road trip it was.

Omaha - This is where you say goodbye to Iowa and celebrate with a meal at Taco Bueno.  Or at least, I do.  Then you realize you have seven hours of driving to do through a state where the highway patrol acts like their slogan is 'We work hard to ruin as many people's holiday as humanly possible'.

York - Stopped for gas at Black Bart's.  The wind was howling and it was freezing.  I need to find my hat and gloves.  Also stopped at Runza for a milk shake and ended up with a mini Italian Runza.  That was tasty.  While waiting for my order, I saw a 'chili, cinnamon rolls, and a drink' combo special.  Chili and cinnamon rolls?

Somewhere between Kearney and North Platte - As usual, the Nebraska Highway Patrol were as thick as mosquitoes on a Minnesota summer night.  One cop finished with whoever he had pulled over, pulled into traffic, and pulled over the next car in front of him without ever even bothering to turn off his light bar.  This pattern only enhances the mosquito comparison.

Ogallala (Sapp Bros) - Slowest.  Gas pump.  Ever.

Cheyenne (night) - Stopped for the night.  Very stiff and sore.  Been like that a lot lately.  No wonder I'm so grumpy. 

Cheyenne (Thanksgiving morning) - Topped off the gas tank at Safeway and picked up some snacks...a bottle of Simply Limeade, Gatorade, and a couple of bananas.  Decided for no particular reason to not have breakfast.

Slightly west of Cheyenne - Oh great.  I-80 is closed.  I-80 between Cheyenne and Laramie gets closed often when snow and heavy winds converge.  I didn't think to check the road reports before heading out.  Headed down I-25 to Fort Collins, as US 287 between Fort Collins and Laramie is the only viable alternate route.  I couldn't resist breakfast at the Fort Collins Waffle House.  I KNEW there was a reason I blew off breakfast earlier.

Fort Collins, Colorado - I used to spend a lot of time here years ago.  On the way to my detour route, I passed through downtown, where a marathon was starting up.  They'd closed the southbound lanes.  They may as well have closed the northbound lanes too because people were walking right up the middle of the street as if it were their own private Idaho.  Until they turned and saw me riding their tails.  Then they looked startled.  I literally parted the masses.  Cop working the event gave me a shrug like he was saying "Yeah, I don't know."

US 287 - US 287 is a beautiful scenic drive even on a bad day, and today the sun was up to the east, and the moon was still up to the west. Still windy, but not as bad as it was on I-80.

Laramie - I-80 re-opened in the time I took to get here, but I was still a good half hour ahead of where I would have been if I'd waited in Cheyenne.

West of Laramie - The wind today is absolutely howling, with 60mph gusts according to the highway reader boards.  Makes yesterday look like a breeze by comparison.  My poor four cylinder is working overtime and getting barely 16 mpg...easily the worst gas mileage I've ever gotten with this car.

Rawlins - Gassed up at the always windy TA Travel Center (formerly Rip Griffins).  On this day, I am freezing even WITH my hat and gloves.  I'm also REALLY tired, yet decided to press on because I figure my adrenaline level is up from the time I spent in the wind filling the tank.  Oh, and the receipt printer didn't print.  Lovely.

Rock Springs - I wonder if one of the Taco Times are open on Thanksgiving.  Nope, not that one.  What about Dewar Drive?  YES!!!  I embrace you, crispy burritos.

Between Rock Springs and roughly Fort Bridger - Cranked The Birthday Massacre's "Walking with Strangers" CD to, 19.  BA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA!  That part of the route just FLEW by.

Somewhere East of Evanston - It's been hard enough to keep the car going in a straight line with the heavy winds, but now there's snow and ice on the road.  Truck in front of me sent a muddy mixture of ice and snow at my windshield.  I hit the washers and nothing came out...they're frozen.  Wiper blades streaked the mud on to the point where I couldn't really see anymore.  I squinted through some cracks in the mud into Evanston.

Evanston - Pulled into Maverik (yes, that's how it's spelled), topped off the tank AGAIN, and cleaned the windshield.  The parking lot had measurable snow.  I was quickly reminded why I love all wheel drive.  Got a 32oz Pepsi too.  Smiling Counter Girl..."And how are you today?"  Me..."JEEPERS!  What a day!"  Smiling Counter Girl laughs and agrees.

Utah border - YAAAY! I can't believe I'm actually here!  Okay, I've still got an hour of driving, but...

Salt Lake City - The drive down was beautiful.  Roads were generally clear, but everything else was snow covered. The sun was starting to set, which on some turns was blinding, but I made it.  Not a lot of wind, either.  Gas mileage averaged up to the mid 20's.

Residence Inn - "Well, it appears both your reservations were canceled."  Okay, first off...BOTH reservations?  Why would I have multiple reservations?  Desk Clerk fixed this quickly and checked me in so she could go back to making out with her boyfriend, who was peering from around the corner.  That's one of the reasons I decided to wait until morning to see about getting the heat fixed in the room (it's cold...even by my standards).  Smiling Desk Clerk said "It's computer controlled and it might be faulty.  The guy (who apparently fixes such things) will be in later this morning.  I'll have him take a look and let you know what he says."

I didn't really believe her because I didn't give her my name OR my room number...but within the hour, I got a call that they found a faulty part (apparently not within the room because nobody stopped by).  Replacement couldn't be had until Monday.  Would I like another room?  Yes, please.  I went from a studio suite to a one-bedroom suite.  Apparently, the difference between a studio suite and a one-bedroom suite is they put a wall between the living and bedroom areas and add a second TV (the single TV in the studio suites rotates, so you can watch it from either area).  It's otherwise the exact same size.  It just feels smaller.  And warmer.  Ahhh.

And I'm still tired. I hardly slept at all last night.  Was laying in bed at like 3am watching "Law and Order" reruns.

But I suppose I can sleep all day if I want.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Food Court Follies

Place: Taco Bell (in a mall food court)
Lunch: Grilled chicken enchilada burrito, 1/2 lb combo burrito, nachos supreme (no tomato), Dr Pepper

The chicken enchilada burrito is an LTO that I remember from a couple of years back.  I saw the ad, I had one, I loved it, I went back, it was already gone.  I swear it couldn't have been on the menu more than a week.  Now it's back, and it's fine. Not as wonderful as I remember it for some reason...but good enough.

When I'm in the mall food court, I like to sit in front of Ocean Beach Fries and watch the nothingness that always happens there.  I've never seen a single customer eat there. The guy just stares into the oblivion of the food court dining area, watching the world go by with a glazed-over look on his face.

Until today.

Today, Oblivion Guy was with another guy I hadn't seen before.  They were going over about ten feet of register tape. 

Then some guy and (presumably) his son sat nearby.  They were eventually joined by a woman in a black beret and three additional children (one boy, two girls).  And from a distance, they stared at the Ocean Beach Fries menu.  Like they were being cautious or something.

Then she pulled out a thick envelope that appeared to be full of coupons.  A coupon envelope.  My grandmother would be proud.

(Ever get used by your grandmother to buy something with a coupon that she had multiples of but which were limited to "1 per customer"? Yeah, me too.)

They spent a significant amount of time reviewing the menu board.  Then they went to the counter.  The counter guy looked as if he were confused why somebody would be approaching him.

Then one of the kids started ordering.  Then the kid walked off.

Then Dad started ordering.  Then Mom and one of the girls went off to the bathroom.

When they returned, Dad was still talking to the guy.  A third employee came out from the back and got in on the conversation.  WHY DO THEY EVEN HAVE THREE EMPLOYEES?

Then they all wandered off and sat down.  Counter Guy went in back and stared at the order receipt, like he had no idea what to do with it.

Then the most amazing thing happened....Three girls walked up to the counter to order too!

Of course, now that people are actually eating there, this has totally ruined the experience for me.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Trader Joe's

Place: Fazoli's
Lunch: Sausage Italia lasagna, side of meatballs, breadstick, Pibb XTRA

Smiling Counter Girl gave me the wrong 'your food is ready' pager.  Frowning Counter Guy was apologetic and brought me my food personally when it was actually ready.  Confused Old Ladies who should've gotten the pager I got wondered aloud why their pager never went off, even when both counter people had explained it to them.

Hmmm.  Didn't expect the red and green peppers in the lasagna.  It's a winner anyway.

Trader Joe's made their metro debut last week.  Everybody had a cow about it and have packed the place since. 

Trader Joe's is the Aldi of gourmet grocery stores...literally.  Founded in 1967 by Joe Coulombe, he sold the California-based chain to Theo Albrecht's Aldi Nord (North) in 1979.  But they're not under the same ownership as the US Aldi stores, which are owned by Karl Albrecht's Aldi Süd (South).  (Long story about brothers operating separately but friendly in defined territories.)  Anyway, all the money is going to the Germans.

Trader Joe's and Aldi do business pretty much the same way aside from Trader Joe's product being premium or organic or gourmet or some such nonsense.  Most of the store inventory is products under Trader Joe's house brands and is cheaper than similar stuff found at, say, Whole Foods.  The stores cover a smaller footprint than your typical supermarket...about the same or a little bigger than an Aldi.  Trader Joe's stocks around 4,000 items vs large supermarkets who can carry as many as 50,000 different items. 

One of the key reasons people seem to love Trader Joe's is their selection of cheap wines.  Supposedly good wines, but I don't drink so what do I know.  The store has a limited selection of everything, including canned goods, fruit juices, some produce, and a limited selection of meats, but most of this stuff seems to be targeted at single women living off a steady diet of wine, wine-related snacks, appetizers, and microwaveable entrees. (Guess who the largest wine retailer in Germany is?  Yep...Aldi.)  Oh, and they have what appears to be an extensive selection of coffees and teas as well.  I don't drink them either.

In the interest of science, I decided to try some Trader Joe's branded stuff and see if it's any good.  The first trick, however, was getting into the store.  I stopped by on opening day and immediately gave up.  The Trader Joe's faithful were there en masse.  It was insane.

So I checked the store hours and decided to drop by Sunday morning at 8.  NOBODY'S going to be there at 8 on a Sunday morning, right? was shoppable.  Still more people there than any other time I've been in one out west.  Based on overheard customer conversation, several of the patrons had traveled from the eastern end of the state just to shop here.  The Trader Joe's faithful are indeed...faithful.

Smiling Cashier Savannah rang up my order.  "Is this your first time to Trader Joe's?" she asked.

"No," I repled.

"Have you been to another store out of state?"

"Yeah, Oregon and Las Vegas."

She smiled. "Yeah."

She made lots of conversation with me about what I've bought before and what I'm trying for the first time as she rang up my total ($65? Yikes!) and filled four paper bags.  She talked about the amount of wine they've been selling...they've run out of some varieties.  Given the traffic I've seen here, I'm surprised ANYTHING is left to sell.

I kind of surprised myself with just how much stuff I bought.  I picked up a few things I was already familiar with, and lots of frozen stuff.  Chester Cat, who is all about paper grocery bags, acted as if I'd built him his own personal amusement park when I unpacked the groceries and stood the bags up on the floor for him.  Then I spent the week trying things out. 

Will I join the Trader Joe's faithful?  Let's see.

Trader Joe's Scallops Wrapped in Uncured Bacon with Brown Sugar Glaze - Target sells a version of these under their Archer Farms label, and of course they're a part of Red Lobster's awesome New England Sampler appetizer.  The Trader Joe's ones apparently use less heat resistant toothpicks as I learned when the Townhouse of Solitude filled with smoke.  I managed to open the windows and turned on the stove exhaust before the smoke alarms went off.  Problem solved.  The scallops were WAY better than Target's, thanks to the sweet bacon.  Maggie Cat agreed as she demanded I share the bacon.

Trader Joe's New York Deli-Style Baked Cheesecake - About as good as any store-bought cheesecake I've ever tried.  Very nice.  I need some strawberries in syrup to drizzle on this.

Trader Joe's Certified Organic Pasturized Strawberry Lemonade - It's lacking in flavor to the point where if I gave you some and asked you to guess what it was, you probably couldn't.  Yet I have a suspicion I'll be buying more.

Trader Giotto's Pepperoni Pizza (with uncured pepperoni, and mozzarella and asiago cheeses) - One of those pre-made in the refrigerator case...not frozen...pizzas.  The cheese was the strongest taste.  The pepperoni almost may as well have not been there.  The sauce was kind of flavorless too.

Trader Joe's Sharp Cheddar Cheese Cracker Cuts - This is genius. A resealable container of sharp cheddar sized and pre-sliced perfectly for sticking on a Ritz cracker.  The very definition of a wine-related snack, ladies.

Trader Joe's 'Just Cherry' Cherry Juice (from concentrate) - It's not sweet, but it's strong.  Hard to explain, but it's definitely like real cherries and I definitely like it.  It isn't exactly cheap, but neither are cherries.

Trader Joe's All Natural Pasteurized Unfiltered Concord Grape Juice - Ingredients: "100 percent Concord grapes grown in Yakima, Washington".  In a juice form.  Of course.  It tastes like grape juice.  Who knew.

Trader Joe's Mushroom Rice Noodle Soup Bowl - It's like one of those plastic Ramen bowl kits, except with pad Thai rice noodles.  There's a plastic bowl with noodles and a plastic packet inside.  Inside the plastic packet are three other with mushroom bits, one with seasoning, and one with oil.  Adding the oil is optional.  Fill to the lower rim with water and microwave, or do it the Cup-o-Noodles way and add boiling water, cover, and let sit for 3 minutes.  The result is a perfectly decent soup, not too sodium heavy (like Ramen tends to be) but still flavorful.  Too heavy on the noodles if you ask me.  It's also apparently vegan friendly, according to the packaging.  HA HA HA HA! Vegans.

Trader Joe's Vintage Root Beer - Made with cane sugar and packaged in glass bottles.  I have some real sugar A&W in my fridge.  This compares favorably.  But it comes in a clear bottle, unlike my dark brown A&W bottles, so the A&W has a higher cool factor.  Still, it's a perfectly good mellow root beer.  Nothing fancy like some of those horrible gourmet root beers (I'm looking at YOU, Thomas Kemper).

Trader Joe's Taco Seasoning Mix - Most taco seasoning packets have you brown the meat, drain the grease, add water and seasoning and simmer.  Trader Joe's wants you to heat a tablespoon of canola oil, sautee a medium chopped onion in it, add the beef and seasoning, then a can of tomato sauce.  Since I didn't actually read the instructions when I bought it, I didn't know to pick up an onion or tomato sauce.  So I made it the same way I always make my taco meat...Crumble meat in pan, sprinkle seasoning on top, simmer to brown and congealed.  I also added a quarter cup of water here because there's far more seasoning than in the Ortega packets.  I'll note that the ground beef (85 percent lean), shells (Ortega yellow), and taco fixings did NOT come from Trader Joe's.  In spite of this, the result was pretty decent, if not overly spicy for my taste.  I may try this again down the road using the correct Trader Joe's recipe.

Trader Joe's Mini Eclairs - Well, they're yummy...not really any more yummy than elsewhere, but yummy.  The negative is that the wonderful drizzly chocolate tends to stick to the plastic wrap, so unwrap them frozen...not after thawing.

Trader Joe's Parmesan Pastry Pups - Slightly fancy mini wiener wraps garnished in parmesan.  You get about 14 per box.  Bake and serve.  They come out of the oven a beautiful golden brown.  They dip well in mustard, or taste just fine with nothing.  I don't think most will eat more than 3 or 4 before tiring of them.

Trader Joe's Hand Crafted Cheese Enchiladas - They come in a plastic package in a shape that sort of makes you think of frozen burritos.  But what's inside is a microwavable tray with two enchiladas in sauce, kind of like Amy's cheese enchiladas, but a slightly larger portion.  They're okay, but they aren't as good as Amy's.  Or mine.  Mine are awesome.

Pilgrim Joe's Clam Chowder - It's a condensed soup in a can that you reconstitute with a can of milk.  It's "Made with Fresh Clams". It has no preservatives or artificial colors or flavors.  And it's in a can.  Who knew.  It was initially kind of flavorless, so I added some sea salt.  Then I added some more.  The end result was what looked like a bowl of hot milk with the texture of tomato soup.  Not much flavor.  The instructions advise you to use less milk for a thicker chowder.  If I try this again, I'm using HALF a can.

Trader Joe's 100% Pure Florida Orange Juice (NOT from concentrate) with Calcium and Vitamin D, Pasteurized - It tastes like the equivalent at Aldi.  I think it's also the same price as Aldi.  Which would explain a great deal.

Trader Joe's Smoke House Pulled Pork In Smoky BBQ Sauce - A pound of pulled pork.  "Serves 3" according to the box.  "It's made just for us in Texas, with a sweet & smoky sauce that screams Kansas City", says the box.  Microwaves in 2.5 minutes.  Kind of plain for my taste.  Not smoky at all.

Cannelloni Tre Formaggio alla Trader Giotto (Cannelloni with Three Cheeses) - Frozen in a microwave tray.  Wrapped in plastic.  Like Laura Palmer.  HA HA HA HA HA HA!  I ignorantly followed the cooking instructions exactly, which is stupid because I have the most powerful microwave on Earth.  It looked great after eight minutes of cooking on defrost mode.  Then you're supposed to cook it for three minutes on high.  After that, it looked like bacon.  It was still pretty good.  I bet it's awesome when cooked properly.

Trader Giotto's Spizzico Pizza - Little bite size mini cheese pizzas.  A dozen in a (frozen) box, divided by two plastic packages, which seems about right...I could eat six at a time.  The instructions included both conventional oven and microwave, so I nuked three and baked three.  The nuked ones were soft and delicious.  The baked ones came out with a very impressive pizza crust-like texture.  (I personally preferred them microwaved.)  Either way, these now top my quick-fix pizza craving appetizer list.  If you're still eating pizza rolls or bagel bites, these would be a lovely upgrade.

So...Am I a new Trader Joe's regular?  Are you KIDDING me?  They had me at the bacon-wrapped scallops.  Those pizza bites and some of their juice will be on my perpetual shopping list.

Oh...if you haven't done your Thanksgiving shopping yet, Trader Joe's apparently does turkeys for the season as well as the usual accompaniments.  All free of antibiotics and whatever other buzz words people think means 'healthy' these days.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm out of scallops.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Fly Wichita

Place: Pizza Ranch
Lunch: Buffet, Pibb XTRA

Mmmm.  Pizza.  Mmmm.  BBQ chicken.  Mmmm.  Potato Salad.  Mmmm.  Bacon cheddar mashed potatoes.  Mmmm.  Peaches.  Mmmm...oh forget it.

It's election day, which means we can go back to normal TV commercials tomorrow.  Thank GOD. 

I voted on the way to lunch.  I've found that if I go in the morning, there's long lines.  But arrive just before eleven, and practically nobody's there.  This held true this morning.  One guy was voting, and nobody was waiting.  Went in, filled out everything, got my ballot, voted, headed across the road for lunch.  Ten minutes, tops.

Spent the weekend hanging around Wichita with my brother, who flew in to see what all the fuss was about.  I corrupted his healthy lifestyle by introducing him to Freddy's.  We also found a local coffee and doughnut shop that is so cool they have a really old Gottlieb pinball machine.  And I took him down to Pops in Oklahoma. 

Wichita really needs that new airport terminal they're claiming is on the way.  For a city steeped in the history of flight, they have one of the most rinky-dink airports of any city their size I've been in.  Better buildings in lesser cities have been condemned just because they're eyesores. 

The current facility opened in the mid-1950's.  I've seen old pictures of it and it looked pretty cool back then.  It's been remodeled a time or two since, of course, and none of that charm can be seen today.  The current facility is a small cramped 80's looking box that you almost laugh at as you pull up to it.  It looks like an outdated shopping mall.  It's just dreadful.  The wiring is outdated, it's full of asbestos, some of the gates don't even have jetways.  Everything about it, from technology to ADA standards, is out of date and in many cases unadaptable.  It's an embarrassment to a city that calls itself the 'air capital of the world'.

The money to build the new terminal (which on paper looks like they took Austin-Bergstrom's new terminal and stuck a "WICHITA" sign on it) is pretty much in place.  The feds kicked in a bunch due to the existing facility's lack of ability to meet TSA standards.  There's projected usage fees that get thrown in the mix.  All of that is good to go.

But the city is dragging their feet because they're paranoid about ending up actually having to pay some of the costs if a worst-case scenario plays out.   The negative seems to be concerns about projected new usage fees not ultimately covering costs. 

Just build the stupid thing already.  This is the first impression people get when they come to Wichita.  And it's not a very good one.  Imagine if the city's worst fears are realized and they're in a position of having to campaign businesses to relocate there.

Do they REALLY think the existing airport isn't going to worsen their cause?