Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry 2011

Place: BK Whopper Bar
Lunch (no...Dinner): Whopper (no lettuce, no tomato; add cheddar, grilled onions, bacon), onion rings, Dr Pepper

Dinner was supposed to be at the Village Seafood Buffet at Rio, but apparently everybody else in town had the same idea.  The line filled their standby space, out the door, around the escalators, and down past the elevators.  That's way beyond my level of patience.

Then I stumbled upon the Whopper Bar.

I've heard of the Whopper Bar, but this is the first one I've actually seen.  It differs from your regular BK in that it has a wider variety of specialty Whoppers on the menu (including a Bourbon Whopper and one with blue cheese) and a wider variety of available ingredients for you to...have it your way.  Whopper patties are cooked in the back, but the end sandwiches are assembled in a prep line in front of customers.

So I figured I'd try it.  My custom Whopper was pretty good, though I didn't expect them to keep the regular onions on it on top of my custom-requested grilled onions.  And I should have also added barbecue sauce.

Across from the Whopper Bar is a Chippendale's boutique.  In front of the Chippendale's boutique is a large wall mural of Chippendale's dancers.  Every woman who walks by it just has to have her picture taken in front of it.

I'm spending Christmas in Vegas, basically playing the role of desert slacker.  Think The Dude without the drugs or booze and with pinball instead of bowling.  Cuz that's how I roll, girlfriend.

The strip at Christmas differs very little from the strip any other day.  At 10pm Christmas Eve, the Bellagio's shops were open.  You could still get jewelery at Tiffany & Co, a handbag at Gucci, or whatever it is they sell at Prada.  And the Miracle Mile shops were open Christmas day.  This is the ultimate procrastinator's dream city.

There was no shortage of people to take it all in.  The strip and the casinos were as busy as ever.  Every nationality in full force, all wide-eyed, gazing at the wonder of it all, and documenting every little thing with their cameras and cell phones.  If there's anything we have in common as a planet, it's our ability to go all googly-eyed at a spectacle.

While I'm a week early, I figured I'd get the annual 'year in review' out of the way, which is mostly just highlights I lifted from my Twitter feed.  So if you follow me on Twitter, this will probably bore you to tears.

2011 was the year I stopped driving everywhere and started flying.  I flew 36 flight segments this year, exactly triple the number I've flown the last twenty years combined.  It's ridiculous how well I know Denver's airport now.

Coal in the Stocking of the Year - The jackasses at Dr Pepper-Snapple Group filed suit against the Dublin Dr Pepper Bottling Company to stop them from selling their original cane sugar Dr Pepper formula outside of their market territory and to get them to stop selling it under the unique brand "Dublin Dr Pepper".  (They also threw in revocation of license, but really, they're not trying to kill them outright.  Uh huh.)  The case is pending and Dr Pepper-Snapple Group will probably win, insuring their massive regional distributors and their high fructose corn syrup-laden product (which, as much as the faceless executive cowards would like you to believe tastes the same, doesn't...and neither does any 'Heritage Dr Pepper' I've tried) are kept safe from a small historic bottler who might affect a miniscule fraction of a percentage of their sales.  God bless America.

WTH of the Year - Found an MGM Grand tag on my large suitcase handle.  Which makes perfect sense since I've never stayed at the MGM Grand, and I've never taken that bag to Las Vegas.

Random Mischief of the Year - Ever think about replacing the wall art in your hotel room with something really odd to make the next guests wonder?

Irony of the Year - Saw a girl with huge breasts wearing a T-shirt that said "I Love Boobs" on it. 

Mistaken Identity of the Year - A kid in a Wienerschnitzel was staring at me intently for a long period of time.  Eventually, his mother explained..."He insists you're one of Santa's elves!"  Good grief, kid.  You must think Santa's twelve feet tall.

Fast Food LTO of the Year - Burgerville's Panko Portobello Wedges.  Served with a garlic aioli for dipping.  Fry replacement to the extreme.

Silly Fast Food LTO of the Year - Hardee's/Carl's Jr's Buffalo Chicken Tenders.  Basically, they're the standard chicken tenders slathered in Frank's red hot sauce.  So if you like them and they come off the menu, just bring your own bottle of Frank's with you, order the regular tenders, and make your own.

New Fast Food Permanent Menu Item of the Year - Wienerschnitzel's bacon-wrapped Street Dog.  Oh dear.

Full Service Restaurant LTO of the Year - IHOP's Caramel Apple Crepe Crisp thingie was surprisingly every bit as good in execution as it was on paper.

Fast Food Price Gouging of the Year - I walked into a Taco Bell, ordered three menu items and a soda, and the total was north of $11.  Never thought I'd see the day.

Fast Food Price Gouging of the Year Pt II - A Utah Taco Time was getting $3.09 for a large soda.  What is this...a cinema snack bar?

Dumb Fast Food Slogan of the Year - "Good Mood Food"? Really, Arby's?

Thanks, but I'll Pass of the Year - Trader Joe's shrimp corn dogs.  Ummm...

New M&M's Flavor of the Year - Cinnamon.  For the holidays.  I'm betting if you were in a blind taste test, you'd never guess what they were supposed to be.  Yet I liked them anyway.

Best Tweet while Live Tweeting an Awards Show of the Year - "Somewhere a Snuffleupagus died for that dress."

New Roommate of the Year - A spider moved into my downstairs bathtub in October.  Still there as of last week.  I named her Savannah.

Dream of the Year - I had a dream that I was having a heated argument with Tiger Woods outside of a rural Super 8 motel.  No idea what it was about, or why either of us would even be at a Super 8.

Satellite Radio of the Year - SiriusXM added a "Studio 54" channel for awhile.  All of the disco without the sex and drugs...the only reason people liked that music in the first place.

Cars are Getting Too Smart of the Year - Overheard a teenager bragging about how her new car e-mails her tire pressure readings.

Lifestyle Change of the Year - At the beginning of the year, I had never heard of the self-serve frozen yogurt concept.  At the end of the year, I've probably eaten half my weight in self-serve frozen yogurt...nine ounces at a time.

Flight Attendant Safety Announcement of the Year - "If you decide to be naughty in our potty, the fine for doing so is $3,000.  If you had a spare $3000 lying around, you would have flown Delta today."  (Southwest Airlines flight attendant, regarding smoking in the lavatory)

Only New TV Show I'm Still Watching of the Year - Suburgatory.  First show I've regularly watched on ABC since I can remember.  (I loved "Pushing Daisies", but only caught up on it after it had been cancelled.)  I gave Pan Am a shot too, but not for long.  These shows trying to rip off "Mad Men" just don't get it.  "The Playboy Club" was just dreadful.  If you create a show with that many scenes of women parading around in sixties underwear and I'm not sticking with it, you've done something SERIOUSLY wrong.

TV Commercial of the Year - FedEx's "Erik Gustafson" commercial may be their best yet.

TV Commercial of the Year II - Geico's "Do Dogs Chase Cats" commercial, which rarely aired, was absolutely brilliant.

Dumb TV Commercial Campaign of the Year - Virgin Mobile's commercials where they mock the T-Mobile girl.  Virgin's versions had a dingbat, whereas the T-Mobile girl comes off as intelligent.  Made no sense at all.

Dumb GM Commercial of the Year - Will somebody tell those guys driving around trying to find no cell coverage that it's possible to just shut your phone off?

Mean TV Commercial Campaign of the Year - Am I the only one who thought Best Buy's "Game On, Santa" commercials were really mean, and not in a funny way?

Our Network Sucks of the Year - Local NBC affiliate reports Ashton Kutcher is joining "Two and a Half Men" cast.  Weather Guy: "Is that an NBC show?"  Sports Guy: "No, it's a HIT."

Dumb Question of the Year - ESPN aired the "Carrier Classic", a college basketball game on an aircraft carrier this year.  It was an amazing scene, the President showed up, and the whole thing got national television coverage.  In the midst of this amazing spectacle, they interviewed the Secretary of the Navy and asked him..."You had to sign off on this event.  Why did you?"

Redneck Question of the Year - Overheard at Cabela's..."Do you have car antennas that look like fly rods?"

Album of the Year that I Didn't Already Hear in 2010 - Chelsea Crowell's raw, intimate, and beautiful "Crystal City" is a true headphone record filled with amazing retro noises and storytelling.  Even if you know going in she's the daughter of Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash, you might not expect this.  The girl was listening growing up.  Carefully.

Movies of the Year - I gave "The Help" four stars.  Other highlights were Woody Allen's excellent "Midnight in Paris", and Marvel's "Thor" and "Captain America: The First Avenger".  Marvel did my kind of movies this year.  The final "Harry Potter" movie was good, but it really made me sad that series has come to an end.  I still remember seeing the trailer for the first movie the very first time.  It came and went so quickly.

Out of Context Facebook Friend Game Status of the Year - "Amanda has run into a pack of vicious beavers!"

Small Town Advice of the Year - "Tip people, not cows."  (Tip cup at a rural Dairy Queen)

RIP Retail of the Year - Ultimate Electronics folded.  Always had good customer service and, in their prime, premium brands not everybody stocked.  Border's and Waldenbooks also went away.  I'll miss the Waldenbooks name more than Border's.

Witty RIP of the Year - "RIP Sherwood Schwartz.  At his funeral, in lieu of a eulogy, they will play a theme song that tells his backstory."  (@jelvisweinstein)

Out of Context Quote of the Year - "But if they don't have the big inflatable apes, nobody will know where the fireworks stands are!" (Taco Bueno counter girl)

Personalized License Plate of the Year - SLYTHRN - on a Dodge Viper.

Loophole of the Year - I went through the Walmart express lane with two items.  It just happened that I had sixty-eight of those two items.

Official New Hobby of the Year - Gum chewing.  No idea why, but I have a good stash of the stuff in my office.  Dentyne's "Arctic Chill" is my fave.

Religous Moment of the Year - "When Jesus returns, we're all gonna see it immediately on our cell phones." - (Random couple at Taco Bueno)

Religious Question of the Year - Why don't people tailgate before church?

Most Awesome New Grocery Store of the Year - If you Utah peeps haven't been to the new Harmon's at Station Park in Farmington yet, they really outdid themselves.  I'm looking forward to seeing their new City Creek store, which opens February 15.  I probably won't get to see it till mid-year, though.

Airline Fraud of the Year - I've noticed a trend where airlines have stopped updating flight delays on reader boards at airports and just pretend everything's on time.  The most blatant example of McCarran, an Allegiant flight I was supposed to be on actually showed "on time", "arrived", and "departed" before the aircraft ever made it to the airport in the first place.  So I'm wondering if that info is all tied to a database that tracks 'on-time' records, which they are subsequently trying to falsify.

Frustrated Employee at the Airport of the Year - "It's the Saturday morning Las Vegas run.  How do you THINK I'm doing?" (Frontier gate employee)

They Grow Up So Fast of the Year - While eating lunch at a restaurant in PDX, a little girl...maybe eight...came running in to steal a straw for her Starbucks cup.  As she grabs the straw, she looks at me and declares "I am SO gonna miss my flight!" before running off.

For the Love of Innocence of the Year - Mom to little girl as our plane lands..."Who are you more excited to see?  John...or your dad?"  Little girl..."Daddy!"  Mom, clearly disappointed, "Well...I get that."

Retweet of the Year - "It's sad how Wile E. Coyote is remembered for his violence, and not for his brilliantly realistic paintings of tunnels."  (@duncanpow)

Happy new year, kids.  Try to not make any resolutions you won't remember the next morning because you drank too much.

Thursday, December 08, 2011


Place: Pizza Ranch
Lunch (no, Dinner): Buffet, Pibb XTRA, Cherry Fanta, Lime Fanta, Strawberry Minute Maid, Raspberry-Lime Hi C

The Pizza Ranch recently added the new Coke Freestyle fountain machines, a new fountain with "100+choices".  Because waiting for kids to decide between six-to-eight flavors wasn't ridiculous enough.

The restaurant manager is quite proud.  I overheard him telling somebody that his store and three others nearby are the first in the state to get them.  They're "testing" them out.

They're not exactly new.  I first heard of them a year or two ago and have seen them before.  Megaplex 17 has a couple.  Firehouse Subs has rolled them out to all locations nationally (and yes, Firehouse cherry limeade is in there).  Taco Time Northwest (the ones in the Seattle area) have them too.

Never seen them in a buffet setting though.

The machines sort of remind you of a big retro fridge, except they have a touch screen and a space for your cup to put ice and soda in.  You begin with the touch screen (or ice if you want).  There's 22 initial brands available (including water and soda water).  Touch one and a sub-menu comes up with available flavors under said brand. can have Coke, or Coke with lime, Vanilla Coke, Raspberry Coke, Cherry Coke, Orange Coke, or Cherry Vanilla Coke.  Pick your poison, position your cup, then push the big silver button. 

(A hint from experience...push the big silver button for a half sec to discharge the previous person's soda, THEN put your cup underneath.)

Anyway, it's a cool looking machine that does cool things.  Kids are elated.  The elderly are horrified.

I sat nearby to observe.  Nobody approached these as if nothing was unusual.  Loads of fascination...and confusion.  I watched one old man walk up, stand, stare dumbfounded, stare some more, then realize there was tea in a pitcher off to the side.  He left with tea.

There was one guy who looked like he made millions in the tech industry who I was sure would have no problem, but he had no idea how to approach the thing.  He eventually put the cup in the hole, got ice, did the touch screen thing, then held his finger on the touch screen for the soda he wanted.  Couldn't figure out why he wasn't getting soda.

One angry looking teen girl chose Coke Zero and made a single mix of all seven flavors available.

If anything, I learned that the top drink with kids is orange Hi-C.  And, when confronted with a lot of options, people will indeed experiment.  Very few people just chose a regular flavor and left it at that.

This was my first chance to be in a setting to explore different flavors while grazing a buffet.  So I would only fill the cup about a third with different things.  I'd drink something, dump the ice, pour something else...

The machine itself could make me a better customer here.  The lime Fanta and the Raspberry-Lime Hi-C were great, and there's nowhere else I can have these locally.  At least for now.

If we could talk Coke into including original Pibb and Fanta Red Creme Soda, that would be awesome.

Wonder when Pepsi's going to come out with something like this.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


Place: Del Taco
Lunch (no, Breakfast): Bacon & Egg Quesadilla (with green sauce), hash brown sticks, watered down Coke

Del Taco is supposed to put green sauce on the bacon & egg quesadilla, but some locations choose not to, so I always specify.  The Coke syrup-to-soda water mix was on the lean side this morning which, for whatever reason, actually made it taste better.

EARLIER AT THE MOTEL...Kid is waiting for elevator.  We get in after a long wait.  "What floor, sir?" he asks.

"Four, please."



He pushes '4'.  He doesn't push any other floors.  "Are you on four too?", I ask.

"No, I'm on two.  But I can wait for you."

"You don't have to do that!"

"It's okay."

I thank him and get off on four.  A family of like a half dozen or so, with luggage, are waiting to get on.  As I walk down the hallway, I hear the kid ask them if they're going to the first floor.

THIS is why I love Utah.

As you are probably aware from my annual Auto Show posts and the fact I have a three-year old car with 160,000 miles on it, I like cars.  I like to drive them, I like to read about them, I like to keep up with information about new models and technologies.  So it takes quite a bit to throw me for a loop when it comes to cars, which is exactly what Hertz did last night when they handed me the keys to a 2012 Chevrolet Captiva.

A what?


(Remember when 'exactly' was Hertz's marketing slogan?  I didn't intend for it to be a pun.)

Anyway, here it is.

You're thinking "That's just a Saturn Vue with a Chevy bowtie".

That's about right.

Still, it's better looking than the Equinox.

The Captiva name has adorned small CUV's outside of North America under the Chevrolet brand and its various international subsidiaries for several years.  When the second generation Saturn Vue (itself a re-branded Opel Antara) hit our shores, Chevy also produced this Captiva-branded version for South American markets, and continued to do so even after the Saturn brand died.  That made this vehicle a simple solution for
 GM's US fleet division dilemma caused by the discontinuation of the HHR, which was a poor seller with consumers but popular with fleets.  It's not available to consumers...only fleets...but GM also claimed it wasn't available to rental companies, and Hertz had a crap ton of them anyway.

It's not exactly a barebones vehicle either.  Mine has leather seats, a sunroof, SiriusXM, a backup camera built into the rear view mirror, OnStar, auto headlights, and a built-in garage door opener.  It also has a Hertz "NeverLost" navigation system, which if you ask me should be re-branded "EverLost".  I once rented a vehicle in Las Vegas that had this, and it couldn't correctly find its way back to the Hertz rental center.  And that was at their old long-time facility, not the new central rental garage.

It also has no practical place to store sunglasses.  The space where that would normally be is where they put the garage door buttons.  There's a small space under the center stack, but mine don't fit there.

Stupid GM.

It also has "Eco" mode.  There's a button poorly placed (no...cleverly hidden) behind the shifter that says "eco".  Press it, and a green "eco" light shows up on the instrument cluster.  It apparently changes the shifting pattern of the automatic transmission to improve fuel economy.  Maybe by a mile a gallon, from what I read on the matter.

Anyway, you can't buy one at your Chevrolet dealer (and I have to wonder they think it will cannibalize sales of the more profitable Equinox?), but you can probably buy a used one at your local Hertz Car Sales in a couple of years.  Actually, Chevy dealerships will probably have used ones too.

I'm SO glad I flew out this year instead of making the long drive.  As beat as I was just at Denver after a simple flight last night, I don't think I would have made it.

Happy Thanksgiving.  Don't eat too much.

(I'm kidding.  Eat WAY too much.)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

New to Us

Place: Burger King
Lunch: BK Chef's Choice Burger, BK Mushroom Swiss Topper, BK Deluxe Cheeseburger Topper, Dr Pepper

Elderly Counter Guy (who is, by far, the most professional looking person I've ever seen manning the counter at any area BK) takes my order.  "I assume this is to go?" he asks.

"No, here," I reply.

He replies with a look of bemusement.

I'm not really going to eat three burgers, especially when one of them has a 5.5 ounce patty.  I'm just going to sample them.  They're new, I don't come here much, and I'm in the mood for veriety.  Stop looking at me like that, elderly counter guy.

The BK Toppers have 3.2 ounce beef patties and are available in Mushroom & Swiss, Western BBQ, and Deluxe Cheeseburger varieties.  The Western BBQ is basically the old Rodeo Cheeseburger with a thicker patty.  The Mushroom & Swiss is just what you're thinking.  The Deluxe Cheeseburger is topped the same way the Big King was (BK's Big Mac ripoff).

Or, at least, it's supposed to be topped that way.

Mine didn't have the thousand island dressing.  It had mayo.  And you know what?  It totally worked that way.

So thanks for screwing that up for me, BK.  You may have unintentionally made a better sandwich.

The Mushroom & Swiss was just dreadful.  BK's new energy efficient charbroilers have a side effect of making their burgers taste TOO charbroiled, and the burger toppings here only emphasised that.  It also gave me the impression that BK is actually seasoning their patties with a whole lot of sodium.  Maybe the new charbroiling takes AWAY flavor and they're compensating?

The BK Chef's Choice is a 5.5 ounce thick patty they claim is "made with USDA certified ground chuck seasoned with salt and pepper" (other burgers just say "seasoned beef") and topped with "a thick slice of American cheese, naturally-smoked thick cut bacon, Fresh cut romaine lettuce, red onions and ripe tomatoes, (and) our original grill sauce on an artisan bun."


I'll give BK credit, it actually comes off as a premium burger and it's pretty good.  And that slice of cheese IS thicker.  But for $4.99, couldn't you have used a nice thick slice of cheddar?

We're finally getting a Whole Foods Market in town.  It's a small one going into part of an old Best Buy space.  Best Buy built a new smaller store in the other part of their existing space and some neighboring empty space.  The Whole Foods construction is an extreme makeover...they gutted the remaining space and demolished the front and side walls.  The new side wall framing is up and things appear to be progressing nicely.

We are also finally getting a Noodles & Company.  We must be the last area on the planet to get them.

Five Guys, who have also built every Midwestern community around us in recent years (even ones half the size), was supposedly coming too, but the "coming soon" information on their website store locator has been removed, and the address they previously had listed is otherwise occupied with a tenant who doesn't appear to be going anywhere.

I'm not really a Five Guys fan anyway.

But I would love a Which Wich.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Direct Mail

Place: Wendy's
Lunch: Dave's Hot 'n Juicy single cheeseburger (no cheese, no tomato), chili, Coke

I'm against naming these burgers after Dave Thomas.  It sort of implies that Dave was hiding better burgers from us all these years.  It's nice that Wendy Thomas is in the new TV ad, though.

The new burgers (which are labeled "Hot n' Juicy Cheesburgers, meaning you actually have to specify if you don't want cheese, and doing so doesn't actually decrease the price) have actually replaced the "Classic" burgers on the menu.  They're essentially the same size with the burger patty set thicker and with new pickles and red onions.  The pickles taste fishy.  Not impressed.  At least they're toasting the buns now.

I've actually started using my LinkedIn account recently.  Pretty much everybody has a LinkedIn account because a business associate probably sent you a request to link up.  Nearly everybody sets one up, forgets about it, and never thinks about it again except when they get new requests to link up, or when LinkedIn sends an e-mail showing who your linked associates have since also linked to.  But I've decided to start finding ways to use LinkedIn, mostly in ways where I can hopefully make fun of LinkedIn.

So my link to this blog post on LinkedIn will read as follows..."Here's a great way to maximize your Direct Mail campaign dollars".  This should make all the marketing minded folk who are linked with me come here to read my stellar advice.  And here it is...

Stop wasting money on direct mail.

I get so little mail at home that I don't even bother walking to the mailbox more than once a week.  When I do, there's the occasional magazine I subscribe to, the water bill (the only company I do business with who isn't online), the weekly fancy invitation to get a credit card with one of my rewards clubs, the weekly plea to change my insurance to State Farm (never gonna happen...may have to tell that story someday), the weekly plea to switch to cable (HA HA HA HA! No), and the two weekly thrifty nickel newspapers that exist solely to deliver the weekly ads.

The ad stuff makes it no further into my home than the recycling bin in the garage.  The stuff that actually has my name on it makes it upstairs to the shredder.

So what I'm saying is you're wasting your money with me.  Okay fine, I'm one person, right? Well come by the post office where I have a P. O. box on any given Wednesday, when this stuff tends to hit the mailbox, and look at the trash cans.

NOBODY is reading this stuff.

It's going straight into the trash, or laid in a stack on top of the trash cans (in case others want to take them for coupon hoarding).

Mostly though, I want you to stop it because it annoys me.  It just seems like the single biggest waste of printed paper we have left.  You can do coupons online somehow, can't you?  AND not have to pay for mailing.  Let people who want them print them off their computers.

Or at least find a way to let me opt out.

Hard to do when they're addressed to "Resident".

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Smoke in the Lobby

Place: Waffle House
Lunch (breakfast? brunch?): Two eggs (over, medium), toast, bacon, chili, Coke

Worst.  Crew.  EVER.

Two of the five employees know what they're doing, and one of them has "given up trying to care".  The other is basically handling everything and correcting the others when they do something wrong.  The other three are teenagers who really don't care.  It takes as long to order as it usually takes me to order, get fed, and eat.  Then the woman who knows what she's doing starts lecturing me on how I ordered my eggs wrong and I'm getting "over medium" instead of "over light" regardless of what I want.

I realize she's not in a good mood.  That's not my fault.

Should've gone to Jack in the Box.

Last night was an eventful evening.  It started with a concert...Sugarland and Sara Bareilles, specifically.  Sara Bareilles is an artist I'm familiar with...I have both her albums.  Sugarland?  Not so much.  In fact, before the Indiana State Fair stage collapse, I'd never so much as heard of them.

To make a long story short, that tragedy led me to look up some of their material.  That led me to think they seemed to put on a great live show.  So I thought I'd check them out.  Plus I'd get to enjoy Sara Bareilles and her catchy pop tunes about hating men.

The state fair collapse took with it Sugarland's elaborate (and really beautiful) "Incredible Machine" stage set.  With maybe a few dozen shows left in the tour, they didn't rebuild.  They're finishing the last dates with a simple setup.  The only distinguishing thing on the stage is a backdrop tapestry with a cloud-like heart with angel wings, a tribute to the lost stage of sorts within the heart (like the set itself was flying to heaven).

Sara Bareilles was backed by a four-piece band and proved to be a really solid live performer. Why she is touring with a country-branded act I can't quite understand, but then again I can't quite put my finger on where Sugarland fits into country either.

Seeing them live didn't quite help.  If you remove the duo that is Sugarland from the five-piece band backing them, you have a respectable boogie band.  You could stick Kevin Cronin in front of them and they'd BE REO Speedwagon.  The country aspect is the shrieking drawly crazy annoying voice of Jennifer Nettles.  Through an arena sound system, she's like the country equivalent of Geddy Lee.  And this band seemed to rock more than anything...there were points where they had three electric guitars going at the same time, some with distortion.

Short of that, they were fun live.  I'm not buying any of their records, though.  They did end with an awesome cover of "Come On Eileen".  I can actually say that I've seen "Come On Eileen" performed live.

The surprise is this...Nettles wasn't even the loudest shriek I heard last night.  That came later.

I headed back to the hotel after the show, swinging through the Taco Bueno drive-thru on the way.  I get in, I settle in, I open my nachos and...the fire alarm in the room goes off.


They do NOT want you to miss that.

I open the door.  Others are in the hallway.  Every alarm in the building is going off.  Some are waiting for the elevator.  Do elevators work when the fire alarms are going off?  I opt for the stairs.  The first floor fire doors are shut, blocking access to the lobby, so I go out the side door and walk around to the lobby, where several guests have converged.  The lobby is a haze of smoke with the strong smell of...burnt popcorn.  Who knew burnt popcorn could make this much smoke.

The desk clerk is on the phone with another employee, trying to figure out how to shut off the alarm.

"No, somebody burned some popcorn, and the lobby is full of smoke, and I can't shut the alarm off."

"No, ALL the alarms are going off.  In the rooms and everything."

"Change the BATTERIES??? ALL of them???"

I decide to prop open the lobby doors to try and air out the smoke.  Another guests helps.  We find something to hold the doors open (big planters outside the entrance).

At this point, I hear sirens.  The fire department is pulling up.  As the first fireman gets out, I explain what happened.  He snickers that snicker that says "Yeah, that happens."

They walk in to do their inspection.  They grab a big fan.  They reset the alarm.

There's about 30 guests waiting for the elevator, so a bunch of us take the stairs.  One of the rooms at the top of the stairs still has a fire alarm on.  One of the girls staying in said room runs downstairs to complain.

My room is fine.

I settle in and enjoy my nachos.

My cold, soggy nachos.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Steve Jobs

Place: Popeye's Chicken & Biscuits (or is it "Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen" now? Whatever)
Lunch: Dip'n Chicken (with blackened ranch dipping sauce), spicy thigh, biscuts, Coke

Everybody in line is ordering Dip'n Chicken.  Dip'n Chicken is an LTO I'm apparently just getting in on at the end.  The VERY end.  When I ordered mine, the manager called back to the kitchen and asked how many orders they had down.  "Three!" was shouted back.  "But I only have (enough chicken for) about ten more!"

A few minutes later, I saw the manager outside the store pulling all the Dip'n Chicken posters down.  This didn't stop others from ordering it anyway.  Somebody even CALLED THE STORE asking about it.

Anyway, Dip'n Chicken is (was) breaded fried chicken breast pieces cut into medallions that sort of look like Fritos.  They're REALLY good, as is the dipping sauce.  Based on the response I witnessed here, I'm thinking they should become a permanent menu item.

You probably heard Steve Jobs passed away yesterday.  The name alone is certainly familiar, though you may not understand why.  Nor why your Twitter feed is flooding with memories of him.  Nor why your local Apple storefront is covered in post-it notes memorializing the man.  The guy wasn't a reality TV icon, not a major political name, not a pop star.

Well...actually, he sort of was a pop star.

The man co-founded Apple, which has always been popular with the hip.  He basically invented the home computer.  In the years between being shunned by Apple and being brought back to rescue the company, he picked up a small animation division of Lucasfilm called Pixar and sold it to Disney for billions years later.  He dreamed up the iPod and changed the music industry forever.  And in a world that had all but given up on the tablet computer concept, he succeeded with the iPad and has nearly killed the laptop industry in the process.

He wasn't just the head of the company who did this...these were largely his ideas executed under his scrutiny.  Even if you've never owned a Mac (I just bought my first this year) and don't understand why Mac people are so fiercely devoted to them and all things Apple (and why they're so willing to pay serious premiums for their products vs Windows-based competition), the man has touched your life in one way or another.

His company today is completely debt-free with reportedly an astounding $72 billion in the bank as of June, which put them on par at the time with the US Treasury. Their stock trades in the $350-400 range.  And analysts think the stock trades LOW.  They don't pay dividends, and their product returns a 20-30 percent profit margin.  You'd think that would be enough to make the anti-corporate crowd hate Apple, but even the biggest critics seems to be resigned to, at worst, referring to Jobs as being "less evil".

There aren't many people you can honestly say quite literally changed the world.

Steve Jobs is one of them.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Zombie Burger

Place: Zombie Burger + Drink Lab
Lunch: Planet Terror, chili, Coke

A recent addition to the East Village area, Zombie Burger is a zombie-themed sit-down burger and beer joint.  The name alone garnered much buzz on Facebook and in the local media before it even opened.  Buzz is one thing, food is another.  Would Zombie up to its name?

Co-worker Amy...the only person in town who ever wants to have lunch with me except the mother of my dead wife (who, as far as I know, is NOT a zombie)...ventured on down to see how the place shapes up.

First off, everybody who works here appears to be of the living.  Second, the building really doesn't have much of a zombie theme.  It's pretty modern with modern colors, lots of windows, and steel and wood accenting.  The theme is pretty well limited to the wall art, which includes a zombie mural.

The menu is the key.  The menu has an assortment of burgers with zombie themes, a couple which use trademarked names that I'm sure will eventually get them a few 'cease and desist' letters from lawyers.  There's 18 burgers with zombie theme-names, and a boring 'hamburger' and 'cheeseburger'. Each come in single, double, or triple patty varieties with prices ranging from $3.49 to $10.99.  Sides, which include fries, chili, salads, and mac and cheese, are additional.  They have a crapload of beers, which are completely lost on me.  They also have shakes and hot dogs, but not a hot dog flavored shake.  That would be gross.  Why would you even think of such a thing?

The appetizer menu included onion rings, so we ordered some.

"We don't have onion rings as an appetizer."


"We don't have onion rings as an appetizer."

But it's on the menu right there.  With dipping sauce, even.

"We had to make an adjustment because they clogged up the fryer."

Um, okay.

So they didn't get to sell us an appetizer, the list which included fried brussel sprouts, fried cheese curds, fried buffalo bacon, fried pickle chips, and Zombie Nachos.  There was also goat cheese, which obviously means the owners thought they were opening a restaurant in Austin, Texas.

I had a Planet Terror burger, which included barbecue sauce, cheddar cheese, caramelized onion, and "fried ranch".  I also had a cup of chili.  The barbecue sauce was really sweet.  The "fried ranch" turned out to be what looked like deep fried cheese curds, but with ranch in them instead.  When you bite into one, it pops and ranch drizzles down the burger.  Much like if a zombie eyeball popped, right?


The chili was decent.  It had black beans.  Just saying.

Amy tried the Trailer Trash Zombie burger, which included cheese, fried pickle slices, chicken fried bacon, cheese curds, and ranch mayo.  Amy's side of choice was fries with a side of ranch.  She took a bite, thought about it, and said "You know what? It works."  I tried a bite of it and decided that their breading tastes fishy.  Then I decided it was their oil when I had a fry.

Anyway, we decided it was well worth trying, and even worth revisiting, even if the zombie theme is lost once you no longer have a menu in your hands.  A genuinely nice place with decent prices and unusual burgers.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Dollar Snacks

Place: Bamboo Buffet & Grill
Lunch: Lunch buffet, Coke

Bamboo is in the same strip mall as Cici's.  In between Cici's and Bamboo is Dollar Tree, one of those stores that sells all sort of crap for a buck.  Over the past few weeks, I've seen a sign touting them now having a frozen food section.  I keep meaning to go in and check it out, but never do.

Until today, that is.

So I go in.  The frozen section is in the back, so I pass though other dollar items.  Like cute little figurines.  Pens.  Drinking glasses.  Toys.  And snacks.

The snack selection is chips and candy, mostly.  It's even better than the selection at Walgreens, and FAR cheaper.  Maybe I should have come in here before.

Among the snacks are Burger King onion rings.  These aren't actual onion's a puff corn snack in a bag like Cheetos, only browned on the outside, shaped like onion rings, and flavored to taste like onions.  I've had them before, but have never EVER seen them in THIS market.

So yeah...I got some.

Next to them were a line of TGI Friday's-branded snacks, one of which was "mozzarella sticks".


So yeah...I got some.

Then I browsed the freezer section, hoping they'd have some el cheapo Patio brand Mexican dinners, which I can't find anywhere anymore.

They didn't.  The dinners are mostly Banquet, the grossest food made by anybody anywhere.

But they did have Resers burritos.  In the large size, even.

So I'll be back for those later, when I can take them home and get them in the fridge.

I also snagged some taco shells.  Because...I don't know.  I just did, okay?

At the check stand, I spied caramel apple Sugar Babies.  SERIOUSLY?  HAVE to try those.

So yeah...I got some.

So...The Burger King snack was perfectly decent, just as I remember them being.

The mozarella sticks taste nothing like mozarella sticks or really anything discernable.  Kind of bland.  But not bad or gross or anything.  I wouldn't buy them again, but I'll probably finish this bag eventually.

The caramel apple Sugar Babies taste exactly how you'd think they would.

Which, as it turns out, is kind of gross.

I should go to Aldi next.

I haven't been there in years.

Sunday, September 04, 2011


Place: Wicked Spoon
Lunch: Weekend brunch buffet, Coke, water

Wicked Spoon is the house buffet at the Cosmopolitan.  It's a unique place.  The food ranks right up there with the Wynn and Bellagio buffets and includes the usual breakfast suspects, a Kung Pao chicken that had a sauce that was a near clone of PF Chang's, a fried chicken called "Wicked Chicken", a cut-to-order slab bacon (really a seasoned pork of some kind), and I can actually say I've had Ratatouille now.  I'll never have it again, but I've really tried it.  Oh...and don't even get me started on the gelato bar.  That alone may well be worth the $32.00 per person admission.

What makes it unique is lot of the food is served in little cooking pots pre-portioned.  So you typically drop about four pots on your plate.  Presentation-wise, nobody tops Wicked Spoon.  Style-wise either, really.  This is a gorgeous space.  Modern, nice accent lighting, and arty.  And it hasn't been noticed by the masses can usually get in pretty quickly, unlike the Wynn or Bellagio, where you might be in line for a couple of hours.

(Don't ask my advice on all the full-service places to eat in Las Vegas.  I'm pretty much just at the buffets or at fast food joints.  I don't know anything about the fancy sit-down joints.  What?  Stop looking at me like that.)

I'm book-ending the summer season where I began it.  It's hotter this was 89 degrees when I got up this morning around 6.  It was about that last night at 10pm.  The high today is predicted to be 103.  But it's nice because the humidity level is only about 10-15 percent. 

The night heat has had an odd effect on me.  I'll be comfortable outside, then go into my hotel where the air conditioning is around 70...and I'll be freezing.  As in shivering.  Which NEVER happens to me.  And I love it.

If I were rich, I'd totally move here and become a night owl.

(Who am I kidding.  I'd miss the Midwestern winters.)

Another discovery I made while getting hotel snacks at Vons...a new fruit.  Raspberry Jewel Pluots.  Looking very much like it comes from the plum family, it's a plum-apricot hybrid of some kind.  A well ripened one is ridiculously red and ridiculously juicy inside.  It's wonderful.  I hope I can find these back home.

I think I'll wander the Miracle Mile shops after brunch.  Short of that, my weekend plans are playing pinball over at the Pinball Hall of Fame and catching up on movies.

"The Help" is a four-star movie.

Go see it.


Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Cheddar's Story

Place: Cici's Pizza
Lunch: Buffet, Dr Pepper

Yes, again.  Bite me.

Recently over on Twitter, I made mention that I had a story about Cheddar's, a chain of casual dining restaurants in the Midwest that's sort of like Applebee's or Chili's.  The name itself is stupid because they never really had anything on the menu that focused on cheese, let alone cheddar.

Anyway, @wichitabyeb, a fine blogger if there ever was one, was interested in hearing it, and since I've been short of material for the blog lately, I figured I'd share it.  It's a great example of not only how not to do business, but how to take advantage of somebody's else's mistake.

Years ago (we're talking ten-fifteen years here), we had a local Cheddar's outlet.  It was pretty much the Sunday standard eating place for me and my wife.  We ate there more than any other restaurant.

One day, we went in and the entire staff was new.  Everybody who used to be there was gone.  And the menu had been revamped significantly.

The service, and the food, was mediocre.  It wasn't a terribly pleasant experience.  But it was nothing like the experience that came with dessert...the delight known as the Cookie Monster (which, thankfully, survived the menu revamp).

The Cookie Monster is a big freshly cooked chocolate chip cookie topped with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream topped in hot fudge, then topped with whipped cream.  And maybe a cherry...I can't remember for sure.  Pretty easy to make at home, actually.

So the guy brought it, tripped, and dumped it in my wife's lap.  It was all over the front of her shirt.

He looked stunned, stammered some sort of apology, and ran for a rag, I think.  He re-appeared.  A manager appeared.  The manager was concerned if her clothes required dry cleaning.  Once he was advised they weren't, he seemed satisfied and left, never to return.

The server came back...with the check.  Which included the Cookie Monster dumped in her lap.

The wife was mad enough before we even ordered the Cookie Monster.  Now she just wanted out of there as quickly as possible.  We actually paid.  And left. 

So I wrote a letter to Cheddar's corporate about it, which was ignored.  I then wrote to the local paper.  The editor of the weekly entertainment section and I had kind of become friends and I'd written a few guest restaurant reviews over the years.  So I wrote up this story, and she published it.

One day later, I got a letter in the mail.

We'd like to apologize for your experience at Cheddars.  We would like to show you what a real restaurant experience should be like.  Please accept the enclosed certificate for two free dinners on us.  We look forward to meeting you.

Sincerely yours,


General Manager...

Cracker Barrel

The local Cracker Barrel saw an opportunity and jumped on it.

I once told this story at a Fred Pryor seminar as an example of a company jumping on an opportunity another screwed up. 

I wouldn't be surprised if the host of that seminar is still using that story today.

Cheddar's has long since closed.

Good riddance.

Friday, August 05, 2011


Place: McDonald's
Lunch: Big Mac, Filet-o-Fish, fries, Hi-C Orange Lavaburst

The new McDonald's just up the street from the office opened today.  The sign in front said "Coming July".  That didn't happen, obviously.  They should pass a law that says new businesses that miss their advertised opening dates have to demolish their new building and start construction over. 

It's only fair.

I walk up to the door.  Frowning McEmployee is blocking the door.  "We can't take credit cards," he says.  "It's cash only."

"Well then, I guess I'll pay cash," I reply.

He stands there continuing to block the door, glaring at me.

"Can I go in now?" I ask.

He slowly moves away from the door, continuing to glare.  He doesn't offer to open it.

I go in.

Smiling Counter Girl, who is barely taller than the cash register but far more pleasant than the guy at the door, greets me.  I give her my order.  She gives me my total.  I give her a twenty.  She gives me eleven ones in change.

The dining room has got to be the most drab McDonald's dining room I've seen yet.  Brown, brown, beige, brown, brown, brown, beige...there's like a dozen shades of brown and beige.  Some of the chairs are silver, but it's all dull shades of brown and beige otherwise.  Do you know what I would give to find a McDonald's with the eighties "Jungle Concept" interior intact?

The Filet-o-Fish is fine.  The fries are fine.  The Big Mac is...missing a patty?  Really?  Oh, no...they just assembled it wrong.  Both patties are under the middle bun.

You'd think all the formally dressed managers observing the first-day operations would be working the dining room, asking customers about their experience, wouldn't you.  But they're not.  They're just standing around the order area taking up space.  They don't look remotely interested in anything going on.

Going home for a couple of days, making this the fourth weekend in a row I've spent time in the air.

Football season is coming up.  I'll settle down for awhile then.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Wheels Up

Place: Which Wich?
Lunch: Italian grinder, house chips, ice water

Dumb name, right?  The whole experience is weird to boot.  You order by finding a (sand)Wich on a menu board, then finding a corresponding bag number.  Then you take a red Sharpie (or green if it's to go) and fill out little ovals on the bag like you were taking one of those SRA tests in school.  You enter which (sand)Wich you want, you enter how you want it made and with what ingredients, and you write your name in a box at the bottom.  Then you hand the bag to Frowning Counter Guy, tell him if you want other things like chips and a drink, and pay.  Then Smiling (Sand)Wich Maker makes your (sand)Wich and hands it to you in said bag.

In any case, the resulting (sand)Wich is awesome.  Pepperoni, salami, and capicola on a toasted white bun with mozzarella, pickles, black olives, mushrooms, red onions, and spicy mayo.

SO good.

I spent yesterday at AirVenture 2011, an absurdly huge air show/expo held annually in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  The show has been going on for years and just has to be the biggest show of its kind.  Hundreds of planes (edit: "over 10,000 planes" according to an article I read) from every era of flying are on display.  Hundreds of vendors relating to anything involving flying are hocking their wares.  Major aircraft manufacturers such as Cessna and Beechcraft were there.  Rolls Royce, who manufacturers jet engines, was there.  Even Zeppelin was there.  I was surprised to see both Bose and Sennheiser, who apparently make pilot headset/microphone sets, among the vendors.  It was THAT extensive.  The show is so significant that Boeing flew their forthcoming 787 Dreamliner in on Friday and gave the first ever public tours of it.  Historically, they've even had visits from a British Airways Concorde when it was still flying.

I first heard of this show last year and thought it would be neat to see, and I considered making plans to go this year, but ultimately decided against it.  Until, that is, a contest came up I was reasonably sure I could win.

And I did.

The winners got seats on Southwest's employee 'ferry flight' to the show.  Southwest was scheduled to put a 737 on display at the show Saturday with tours of the aircraft.  This is a marquee highlight of the show...most planes are hands-off.

The 110 passengers on the plane were largely Southwest employees who had volunteered to take shifts working at the event.  This included manning the plane for tours, manning Southwest's public lounge, and manning Southwest's 'private party' employee/VIP tent.

We made the 29 minute flight from Chicago's Midway airport (which is now an all new terminal, new parking garage, new concourse...very nice), arriving just before 8am.  People were sitting on the grass parallel to the length of the runway, stationed to have prime viewing of the flying shows.  It's really neat to have lines of people waving at you as you taxi in.

We got off the plane outside on jet stairs as people watched.  Southwest made it as big a spectacle as possible by dressing us all in special event shirts and caps with the intention of creating an impressive visual.  This had an unintended side effect that happened throughout the show...Since I looked like a Southwest employee, people assumed I was an employee of the whole show and regularly asked me all sorts of questions about "where is this" and "how do I find that".  Somebody asked me if the Southwest jet was "the Dreamliner".

(No...that was only here Friday.)

Anyway, I saw lots and lots of planes, got really really hot (89 and humid, you know...I look like a boiled lobster today), and had a bratwurst for lunch, being in Wisconsin and all.

The air show was awesome.  They had flyovers of several aircraft and a faux air battle between fighters that included ground pyro.  Very impressive.

But probably the most impressive part of the day for me was experiencing the Southwest employee culture up close.  These people love their company and it's very apparent the company loves them.  Pulling this off was significantly more difficult than it looks on paper and required a lot of logistical planning, and like anything of this magnitude, not everything went right.  But there was no shortage of employees willing to take the lead in solving a crisis, and no shortage of employees willing to assist.

There's a reason Southwest is better at what they do than any other airline.  And I enjoyed experiencing it up close for a day.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Place: Shakey's Pizza
Lunch: Lunch buffet, Shakey's draft root beer

If you told me ten years ago that the Shakey's name would still exist, let alone that I'd be eating in a brand new one, I wouldn't have believed it.

But here we are.  It's in a strip mall.  It's a dedicated buffet format, though you can order take-out.  There's a game room too.  The buffet has three pre-made salads (a Caesar and two mystery salads...all three are pretty good), a few pastas, Mojo potatoes, a couple of soups, and pizzas.  Think Cici's, but a little nicer, and a little pricier.  And it's Shakey's pizza, which is a good thing.  There are optional sides you can order, but they cost extra.  Table servers introduce themselves and deliver the appetizer orders.  They don't seem to do drink refills.  I've been getting my own.  I think they want tips anyway.  Maybe.  I doubt they're getting any tips, which might explain why they look so frustrated.

The decor focuses on retro.  The old Shakey's logo is painted on a brick wall.  Old ads are framed on the walls everywhere.  The place just screams "Look who we used to be!". 

But, as a friend of mine pointed out, "it's not what it used to be.  It's a buffet."  And while Shakey's has done the buffet format in various forms since the late 1980's, he has a point.

While a nearly dead old brand experiences a resurgence, yet another big box retailer is going away.  Borders is going to liquidate.  I can't begin to describe how little this will affect my life.

Some of you may think of Borders as the big book store that was nearly identical to Barnes & Noble.  But Borders has also been the parent company of Waldenbooks, the mall book store chain you've known far longer, since 1994 when then-owner K-Mart merged the two chains.

Waldenbooks is the brand name I'll keep memories of.  The book store in a mall slot that had a seemingly magical ability to cram tons of titles into a relatively small space.  And they'd order stuff for you they didn't have.  The local mom-and-pop bookstore of my childhood, a monopoly that charged 5 percent above retail on everything just because they could, really hated to be bothered with such things.  Usually, they'd just lie to you and say the title was out of print.

Waldenbooks had a store design that could be installed in an empty mall space in nine days.  Waldenbooks also had the far cooler name.  It just rolls off the tongue. Wal-den-books.  Hard to believe somebody could screw that up.

I suppose nobody really did screw it up so much as the business model is obsolete.  The big Borders stores were designed for book lovers who liked to browse, sample, feel the paper.  But in the age of the iPad, Kindle, and Nook, who needs cumbersome paper books, magazines, and newspapers?  Besides...the people who have a love affair with paper books tend to be snobby people who shun chains in favor of independent stores.  The music and movie sections were almost completely pointless.  Prices were ridiculous.

When our local Borders opened (well, relocated into the modern format...we had an older, much smaller Borders for years before that), I shopped them for their extensive selection of magazines and Sunday newspapers from around the country.  Both of those became less important as the internet evolved, and I ultimately had little use for Borders besides Christmas gift shopping (I'm not much of a book reader).  The last time I shopped there was about a year ago when I discovered online that the local store had an out-of-print movie in stock that I really wanted.  I had to pay full price for it...but I got it.

When the local store closed, more people were excited than sad because rumors that Whole Foods Market were going to take its place immediately spread.  This proved to be inaccurate, but Whole Foods IS another part of the same shopping center.  Apparently, the Best Buy in the center is downsizing and Whole Foods will take part of their space, plus some neighboring space.

Best Buy downsizing?


Monday, June 13, 2011

Here's Your Change

Place: Cici's Pizza
Lunch: Lunch buffet, Dr Pepper

Dora isn't on.  Whatever IS on looks absolutely horrible.  For awhile, we were getting the Madagascar penguins in the Dora time slot.  I had no idea they had a TV series.

I'm starting to think I should stop carrying cash and just swipe my debit card wherever I go.  Why?  Consider today and this past weekend...

13th Avenue Warren Theatre, Friday - A movie ticket is $7.00.  I give Ticket Seller $22.  She gives me $14 in change.  I stare blankly.

Ticket Seller:  "It's $7.00.  You gave me $21."

Me:  "No, I gave you $22."

"Right.  It's $7.00, and you gave me $22."

"Yes.  22 minus 7 is 15."


She takes the $4 back and gives me a $5.

Freddy's in Topeka - Saturday - Lunch costs $6.42.  I give Smiling Counter Girl $22.  She stares blankly, then hands me back the $2.  "It's only $6.42," she says.

Me:  "Yes. But I don't want a bunch of $1's in change."

She doesn't understand and CALLS A MANAGER OVER.

He understands, of course, and tries to explain it to her.  She doesn't get it.

"Just input $22 into the register."

She does, still looking confused.  "You want all fives, then?" she asks.

"I don't care if it's a five and a ten.  I just don't want a bunch of $1's!"

Light bulb.


Manager laughs.  I don't.  Manager realizes this and stops laughing as I shrug my shoulders and give him an 'Are you KIDDING?' look.

Today, Cici's - Lunch is $6.76.  I give Counter Guy $22.01.  He inputs $220.01.  I am due $213.25 in change.

He gives me $13.25 in change.

"No, it's $15.25.  I gave you $22."

He's confused, but eventually decides I'm right.

Is the youth of America really getting that dumb?

Or is $22 just a bad luck number for currency?

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Barstow Taco

Place: Arby's
Lunch: Arby's 'Shroom & Swiss, potato cakes, Pepsi

I can't remember the last time I actually liked an Arby's LTO.  I like this one, though.

The NHL just announced that the Atlanta Thrashers have been sold to a group that's moving the team to Winnipeg.  They haven't announced a name yet, but they HAVE to go with the Jets, right? 

I still have a Jets jersey.  Never saw them play in the old Winnipeg Arena, but I did see them play at Colorado in their last season.  I did see a couple of concerts in the old Winnipeg Arena.  That was one odd building.

You can add Henderson, Nevada to the short list of cities I wouldn't mind living in.  A nice house in the hills overlooking the Las Vegas area.  A telescope on the deck that allows me to view the strip and aircraft taking off and landing at McCarran.  Easy access to all that is fun about Vegas from a safe distance. 

I based myself there over the Memorial Day weekend.  Played some pinball, ate at all the cool California fast food chains, wandered Fry's Electronics (where every answer from every employee is always "I don't know, that's not my department"), and spent all of two hours on the strip, which is a lovely walk on a Sunday morning.  The strip's newest property, The Cosmopolitan, is really nice.

Started a road trip to Barstow that sort of accidentally ended in Los Angeles, where I visited my brother and had dinner with @nyssa23 and @jammer427.  Checked out California's first Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers, who are doing Wichita proud.  Checked out the Barstow Del Tacos, whose tacos are so much better than the national Del Tacos, one has to wonder just what the national Del Taco is thinking not moving to that taco meat recipe themselves. 

Barstow is the original home of Del Taco, and founder Ed Hackbarth and partners (family?) still franchise units there.  But their tacos differ from the national chain.  Their "Barstow Taco" meat has a different, milder seasoning blend, and the shells are fuller.  $1.29 gets you a nearly full shell of beef with lettuce and cheese falling over the top.  Eat a national Del Taco version regular OR "classic" form....and you just might want to add Barstow to the list of cities YOU wouldn't mind living in.

Or take road trips to.

From Henderson.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hot Dog

Place: Burger King
Lunch: Whopper (no tomato), onion rings (with zesty sauce), Dr. Pepper

I give Smiling Counter Girl my order.  She shouts to the back "WHOPPERRRRR!"

Me: "Did you tell them 'no tomato'?

She gives me a genuine "oh noes!" look.  "NO TOMATOOOOOOH!"

The order is ready before I've even finished getting my drink, and I'm the only customer in the building, so you know it was assembled out of stuff sitting around for who knows how long.  The fries look cold.  Wait...I didn't order fries.

"I asked for onion rings."

Smiling Counter Girl: " did?"

She takes the fries, puts them under the warming light for the next customer, and immediately produces onion rings.

Somehow, the food's okay anyway.

Yesterday was a work travel day.  Three and a half hours out, an hour of nonsense, three and a half hours back.  It's a living.

On the way back, I was feeling REALLY hungry, and I had a specific craving.  I wanted a hot dog.

Simple enough, right?


Kum & Go (Mile 267) - I pull off the interstate and head to the ginormous fabulously modern Kum & Go that you can see coming for miles.  I go inside and head for...well, the bathroom first, but...the roller grill.

No hot dogs.

They have smokey links, cheddar brats, jalapeno brats, and a variety of taquitos.

But the sign that says "Hot Dogs" has nothing in front of it.

The good news?  They have $.69 32-ounce fountain sodas.  Off I go with a freshly drawn Pepsi.

Casey's (Mile 240) - Yay!  Hot dogs!  But why do they look like they're covered in sludge?  Oh...because they're practically frozen.  These were JUST put on the grill. 

Tanger Factory Outlets (Mile 220) - 55 stores and not one sells hot dogs.  But that's okay.  I really stopped here to find a spatula.

Ever since that McDonald's commercial with the jealous spatula (aka "hamburger flipper" for spatula purists who only believe a spatula is a flat utensil used for smoothing frosting on cakes) started airing, I've wanted a really nice new spatula.  I'm sure that wasn't the thing McDonald's was going for when they made that ad, but that's what happened with me.  I want to replace my crappy black plastic flipper with a nice spatula with a stainless steel body and a black woodish-knife-like handle.  But I haven't been able to find one anywhere except Williams-Sonoma, who had EXACTLY what I was looking for...for FORTY SIX DOLLARS.  Jeepers.  Declined on principle.

So I go into Le Gourmet

So I go into

So I go into Kitchen Collection...and they had something called an "oversized cookie spatula".  It had the black handle.  It was heavy duty stainless steel.  But the flipper end had a massive oval shape.  Price?  $9.99. 

SO bought it.

I still want a normal shaped one too, though.

Smiling Counter Girl tried to get me to buy a skillet.  "You get free tongs with it!" she exclaimed, snapping the tongs at me.  I passed.  "But this is our last set of free tongs!  Until we unload the truck!"

Then I saw the Reebok store sign and remembered I'd been thinking about getting new shoes.  Reebok's ZigTech shoes, specifically.  Because if Peyton Manning is your spokesman, I'm totally buying it.

ZigTechs are supposed to be these modern shoes full of technology that, more or less, make you walk funny.  Given their obnoxious style, they also make you look funny.  They had ZigTechs-a-plenty.  A couple of styles were on clearance, saving $20-$30 over the usual $99.99 price.  Only one of the styles on clearance was available in my size, of course.  (12, if you were wondering.)  And those were the ones with the obnoxious yellow soles.  Bought 'em anyway.  Nervous Counter Girl looked and acted like she thought she recognized me from America's Most Wanted or something.  No idea why, but I'm pretty sure she thought she was gonna die.

bp (Mile 220) - On the way out of the factory outlets, I made my third attempt to get a hot dog.  This store didn't even HAVE a roller grill, let alone hot dogs.  Really?  What's the point in owning a convenience store if you're not going to have a totally boss roller grill to show off to your friends?  Actually, they also didn't have employees.  There wasn't a soul in here.  There was no noise in the back either.  Maybe the Reebok girl called ahead and told these people to run for their lives.

Kwik Star (Mile 201) - What's THIS?  HOT DOGS!  Jumbo hot dogs!  FINALLY! 

I dress a bun, drop a hot dog in, and pay.

I finally have my hot dog...and it's not very good.

In fact, it's crap.

I eat like two bites and toss it.

Oh well.  Craving's gone.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Self Indulgence

Place: Yogurtland
Lunch: Frozen yogurt topped with fruits and love and harmony and stuff

This is technically the after-lunch treat, but since it fits today's blog theme, you are none the wiser.  Except that I just told you.  Forget I said that.

Remember when the only place you could get soft-serve frozen yogurt was TCBY?  And they had like three flavors if you were lucky? 

Your options have increased exponentially in recent years.  Frozen Yogurt (known as 'fro-yo' in youthful hipster circles) has gone upscale with newcomers like Pinkberry and Red Mango, both who offer traditional treat shops where counter people make your treat.  Both outlets offer limited standard and seasonal flavors with several available toppings.

But the big craze emerging is self-serve frozen yogurt.  These stores offer a bunch of different flavors, and you get to make your own concoction.

There are several players with dreams of becoming the king of the concept.  The players include (but are not limited to): Yogurtland, Orange Leaf, Cherry Berry, Yogurt Story, Yogurtini, Fiji Yogurt, Josie's, Peachwave, and Menchie's, just to name a few.  And about a bajillion independent imitators are going up too, lots of whom seem to like to use the name "Yogurt World" or some variation (I can find lots of Yogurt Worlds, but no sign of an organized chain).

Don't think the older chains aren't noticing.  Both Red Mango and TCBY are now offering a self-serve format to potential franchisees.

So over the past couple of weeks, I've been checking some of these places out.  Here's what I've found...

They all work exactly the same way.  You walk in and grab an empty container.  You face the imposing wall of soft-serve dispensers.  You pick your flavor...or mix a bunch of flavors.  You move to the topping bar.  You add toppings, which usually include a variety of fruits, candy, fake cookie batter and cheesecake pieces, nuts, and even breakfast cereal.  I put Cap'n Crunch on something somewhere.  It was WEIRD.  The cashier weighs your concoction and charges you a flat by-the-ounce price ($.35 to $.43 depending on store).  Oh...and most of these places have a tip jar.  Because the counter person did such a good job of...taking your money.

(Note to self: Write ranting blog post about fast food tip jars.)

They usually have decor packages that look like they were designed by teenage girls.  Funky modern plastic seating is almost universally mandatory, as is colorful mosaic tiles surrounding the self-serve yogurt dispensers.  Heck...even their websites mostly look like they were designed by the same person.  Now that I think about it, the yogurt dispensers all look like they're made by the same company.  I wonder if there's a single individual out there going door-to-door selling people yogurt machines and an instruction manual on how to create a franchising empire.

The popularity of the concept seems to be three-fold...Some people are under the impression yogurt is healthier than ice cream, so eating this instead should automatically increase their life expectancy by sixty-three years.  Some people like this because they can actually make a treat in a smaller, more reasonable portion size and pay a lower price.  Some like it because it's just fun to go nuts making a really awesome treat. 

ONE guess which camp I fall in.

Here's a lovely summary of the visits I made and the fro-yo that was had...

Yogurt Story - I was innocently driving down the road minding my own business when I saw the signage and thought "Hey, that's clever."  So I pulled in. 

At first, I had no idea what was going on.  I'd never heard of a self-serve treat joint before.  Smiling Counter Girl, who had absolutely nothing better to do, didn't make any effort to relieve my obvious confusion.  But I got the idea after watching others.

I grabbed a cup and made three mini-treats, a pattern which I've since continued.  I had Strawberry, Cake Batter, and NY Cheesecake.  I put blackberries on the Strawberry, strawberries on the NY Cheesecake, and cookie dough bits on the Cake Batter.  The NY Cheesecake was sort of disappointing.  The Cake Batter was incredible.

Yogurtini - Yogurtini's decor looked like they pillaged a Spring Hill Suites lobby.  They had sixteen flavors available.  Their topping bar was by far the most extensive of any I've been to.  The two guys working there were friendly and went out of their way to be helpful to obvious newbies, a standout example compared to the other stores.  I tried Birthday Cake Batter, Chelsey's Cheesecake, and Orange Creamsicle.  I was hoping Orange Creamsicle would be a worthy successor to the amazing Orange Sherbet Twist I used to get at the nearly extinct Hogi Yogi chain.  Yeah, not so much.  Chelsey's Cheesecake was easily my favorite here.  (A couple of the chains have an orange sorbet in their rotation, but it wasn't available at the stores when I visited them.)

Peachwave - Peachwave's decor looked like they pillaged a Spring Hill Suites lobby, but painted it all green and orange.  There were twelve flavors on hand.  I tried Cookies and Cream, Cheese Cake (really...the sign separated the words), Cupcake, and Vanilla.  The flavors here were much more mellow and the yogurt seemed a little creamier.  Vanilla won out here.

Orange Leaf - Orange Leaf's decor looked like they pillaged a Peachwave after Peachave pillaged a Spring Hill Suites lobby and painted everything green and orange.  Except for the awesome orange vinyl couches.  Peachwave didn't have those.  Orange Leaf's spoons were shaped like a little plastic shovel.  Cute.  Sixteen flavors, one noted as being Greek-style.  Ever tried Greek-style yogurt?  It's gross.  Icelandic yogurt, which Wikipedia tells me is technically not yogurt but soft cheese, is also gross.  Actually, I don't even eat ordinary lowfat store yogurt anymore since I discovered Brown Cow Cream Top whole milk yogurt (available at Whole Foods, some health stores, and if you live in Utah, Harmon's.)  I sure seem to like these low fat frozen yogurts, though.

Anyway, I had Raspberry Lemonade, Brownie Batter, Confetti Cake, and Red Velvet.  Which one was the best?  Too close to call.  I guess I'll go with Brownie Batter for originality.  I could taste the Raspberry Lemonade flavor for hours after eating it.

Josie's - Josie's looks like an Orange Leaf after they...oh forget it.  They had this whole rambling diatribe posted on the wall about how they use 'pure crystalline fructose' instead of high fructose corn syrup in their yogurts.  They go on to claim that you can parallel the growth of type 2 diabetes with the growth of HFCS.  They also claim that pure crystalline fructose is sweeter than table sugar, so they use less of it.  If you ever went on a blind date with somebody who talked like this read, you'd probably be bored to tears and hope they never call you again.

Josie's had ten flavors, including a lovely watermelon sorbet.  I had that and New York Cheese Cake (again, like Peachwave, two words) and Mountain Ripe Strawberry, which I piled some real strawberries on.  The watermelon sorbet won, but the strawberry was also excellent.

Frogurt - A small chain of a half dozen stores in the Salt Lake City area.  There's another two-store operation in North Carolina and Virginia using this brand, but they're not related.  The eastern operation has a frog in their logo, because frog-flavored yogurt would be AWESOME.

Utah's Frogurt is the only chain with a manly decor that I've seen.  Yellow walls.  Brownish yellow walls.  A faux sandy stone tile facade around the yogurt machines.  Dark brown leather sofas.  Chrome-backed chairs.  Dude.

Their signage said "over 16 flavors to choose from", but they only had twelve dispensers, and only seven of them were in service.  I tried Cookies & Cream, French Vanilla, Hawaiian Delight Sorbet, Cheesecake, and Strawberry.  My favorite would have to be a toss-up between Cheesecake and Cookies & Cream, but truth be known, they were all really good.

(**UPDATE** At least some of Utah's Frogurt stores were being converted to 'U-Swirl' franchisees by the end of 2011.  I've had them in Vegas.  Nothing remarkable to report.)

Menchie's - The name comes from a mistranslation gone horribly wrong.  But it reminds me of one of those made-up words like "Qdoba" or "Panera", so there you go.

Menchie's differs from the pack in a few ways.  First off, their decor is a little more original.  Not much, but a little.  Second, they offer an optional waffle bowl to use instead of a regular cup.  Third, they have pre-packed take-home containers for sale.  Finally, they sell all sorts of Menchie's-branded merchandise.  Buttons.  Stickers.  T-shirts.  Hats.  Koozies.  And a plushie version of the Menchie's mascot.  Jeepers.

Most of their flavors were labeled non-fat.  I tried German Chocolate Cake, Very Berry Sorbet, Cake Batter, Pecan Nut, Hart(?) Tart, and Vanilla Snow.  I'll note that the last two don't actually appear as choices on their website.  My favorite?  None of the above.  I really didn't care for any of these.  I think it was the lack of creaminess.

Their topping bar had an extensive selection of nuts and candy toppings.  They were short on fruits.

Lemon Tree - Two-store franchising empire out of Kansas City.  Total rip-off.  Their flavors didn't include lemon OR tree.  And the idiots who work there can't print a receipt to save their lives.  The machine prints one just fine, but they insist they need it, and getting a re-print turns into a major production.  The third (and last) time I went there, the girl actually hand wrote one on a post-it for me.  None of the other fro-yo joints I went to had a problem printing me a receipt.  NONE.  And I don't like any of Lemon Tree's flavors.  NONE of them.  Naturally, this is the ONLY fro-yo place that's available locally, or even in my entire STATE.

CherryBerry - Apple green interior with glossy red mini-brick tiles around the machines.  I forgot to write down what I had or how many machines there were, but the standout flavor was Snickerdoodle Cookie Batter.  That was awesome.

Yogurtland - Super Nice Counter Guy: "It's slow today."

Me: "Well, it's Sunday."

SNCG: "It's always slow during the day.  It's busier at night."

Me: "Probably because of the (neighboring) movie theatre."

SNCG: "Yeah.  But it's nice during the day because we have everything topped off and people can take their time making their yogurt."

Upon paying, he asks me what color spoon I like.  "Doesn't matter."  I get green.

16 flavors.  I tried Devil's Food Cupcake Batter, Madagascar Vanilla Bean, Irish Mint Creme, New York Cheesecake, Red Velvet Cupcake Batter, and Blood Orange Tart.  Devil's Food Cupcake Batter was my favorite.  They NAILED that flavor.  It's promoted on a window poster as being available for a limited time only.  Are they NUTS?  This NEEDS to be here full-time.

Mix Devil's Food with a little of the Blood Orange Tart and you have a really nice chocolate-orange flavor with an international flair.

Decor was more conservative than others with non-funky chairs.  Sort of disappointing given their overly cute logo.

So who's the winner?  I think I'd have to go with Orange Leaf, but most of them were good.  Menchie's and Lemon Tree are the only ones I might not see the point of returning to.

Financially, they ALL seem to be big winners currently.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Cracks in the Aircraft

Place: McDonald's
Lunch: 2 Filet-O-Fish, fries, Dr. Pepper

It's fast food fish season (aka "lent" for you religious freaks).  2 Filet-O-Fish are $3.33.  Culver's Northwoods Walleye is back.  And over the weekend, I finally tried Freddy's fish sandwich, which consists of two pieces of fish with cheese on a regular hamburger bun garnished with "Freddy sauce" (the same stuff they put on their fake In-N-Out "California Style" burger).  Holy was awesome.

The poor kids over at Southwest sure didn't have a good weekend, did they.  One of their older Boeing 737-300 Classics developed a five-foot tear in its fuselage mid-flight.  The cabin depressurized.  Oxygen masks deployed.  The pilots made a quick dive to an altitude where they didn't need pressurization and ultimately safely landed the aircraft to much applause from the freaked out passengers.

I imagine it must have felt like a roller coaster ride where you actually think "Jeepers.  I just might die right now." 

Probably less matter-of-factly than that.  Unless it was a flight full of Monks.

(By the way, if you didn't know, the official Boeing pronunciation of all Boeing models is to sound the second number as a single digit..."737" is "seven-THREE-seven", not "seven-THIRTY-seven", for example.  Nobody but Boeing employees and me seem to know this.)

I'm probably dwelling on it just a little bit more than you are because I just flew on an even older Southwest 737-300 a couple of weeks ago.  In fact, I flew on two of them.  Ironically, as I sat in one waiting to taxi, I looked around at the immaculate cabin and thought "Gee, they sure do keep these up well."


Southwest, in conjunction with Boeing, is conducting a "high-frequency EDDY" test on 79 of the 737-300's, which can find fuselage cracks the naked eye can't see.  So far, three aircraft have been identified as having cracks. 

This isn't a first.  In 2009, a Southwest flight developed a 'football-size' hole in flight.  That plane also landed safely, was repaired, and back in the fleet within a week (it still is).  But Southwest is calling this weekend's issue "a new and unknown issue", suggesting the tear that happened on this flight was in an area previously not thought to be vulnerable.

Why is this happening? Lots of people are pointing out that Southwest runs their aircraft hard.  They operate over 3,400 flights a day using 548 aircraft which make an average SIX stops per day.  For example, my flight was a single leg of a day-long journey that the aircraft started in Baltimore, then Houston, Dallas, Kansas City, Chicago, Nashville, and Albany.  All done with roughly 30-minute turnarounds at each stop.

All those takeoffs and landings means a lot of compression and decompression of the aircraft, which is hard on the fuselage.

So it'll be interesting to see if this incident leads to a new issue being confirmed and inspections expand to other carriers.

Some are speculating on that, but nobody's officially suggesting it


Friday, April 01, 2011


Place: Taco Bell
Lunch: Pacific shrimp taco (no tomato), beef combo burrito, nachos supreme (no tomato), Dr. Pepper

This is that ridiculous old Taco Bell in an old Sambo's building I'm sure I've mentioned before.  It's a hodge podge of bad paint, old Taco Bell interior pieces, and Sambo's flooring.  The seating, which was brought in recently, is from a Taco Bell eighties decor package that was repurposed from another Taco Bell that either got remodeled or demolished and replaced.  (Not from a Taco Bell around here, mind you.  NO local Taco Bell EVER had an eighties decor package in this market.)

There are far newer Taco Bell buildings than this dump out there that have been demolished and replaced with even newer Taco Bells.

Apparently, this long-running absurdity is going to continue.  They put up a new menu board.  Or maybe it's an old menu board new to this location.  It looks completely out of place, of course.

Smiling Counter Girl is new.  So new that she has no idea how to run the register.  Big Old Biker Dude...the shift cheerfully assisting her.  "So you hit 'Taco', then you, that's actually the Combo button.  Take that off." 

She does.

"Now hit, you hit Combo again."

This goes on so long that he announces my drink will be free for being so patient, which of course only causes MORE confusion on how to do that at the register.  By the time she's taken my money, the kitchen has already made everything.  The good news being that, as Taco Bell goes, the food is pretty well made.

After all the craziness of March (five airports, four rental cars, one auto show, major car repairs, taxes), April is a blank slate. 

I should settle in at home this month.  Maybe get some projects done.

Or maybe just be horribly lazy.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Street Cred

Place: Qdoba
Lunch: Chicken Mexican Gumbo, Dr. Pepper

Just back from a Texas weekend.  Saw Duran Duran at the previously-blogged-about WinStar in Thackerville, OK.  Got in some LTO's (Limited Time Offerings) at various chains.  Whataburger currently has strawberry know, the fast food version of a pie, deep fried burrito-shaped thingies...but with strawberry filling.  I don't normally like fast food pies, but these are the exception.  And if you find yourself near a Taco Cabana, their Shrimp Tampico Enchiladas are awesome. 

While ordering my gumbo today, I noticed Qdoba is now offering "street tacos".  I also saw "street tacos" at Taco Bueno yesterday.  Actually, it seems to me I've seen the term "street taco" a lot lately.

What's the deal?  It's the latest fad in fast food...taking what started out as a street vendor item and making it legit.  The Americanized street taco, which is actually based on the original Mexican taco concept from the days before Glen Bell invented the modern pre-fab hard shell, tends to be a soft corn tortilla wrapped around a meat filling with maybe a salsa or cilantro and onion mixture.  The meat fillings are almost never ground beef...they're shredded beef, pork, or chicken. Or maybe fish.  Some chains aren't calling them 'street tacos', opting instead for 'cantina tacos' (Taco Bell) or 'tacos del carbon' (Del Taco).

Not just tacos either.  The Wienerschnitzel bacon-wrapped street dog is similar to a commonly-sold item by hot dog vendors around stadiums according to my brother.  (I had one over the weekend.  OH MY it was good.)

I suppose I should try the food actually being sold by real street vendors, but we don't really have any of them around here.  And I get annoyed with the ones out west because the bums are constantly hanging around them panhandling unsuspecting pedestrians.  ("Hey friend!  Do you have change?  I'm only 35 cents short of a taco!")

I wonder if they're going to start hanging around in Qdobas now.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Auto Show 2011

Place: Taco Tico
Lunch: Four tacos (mild, plus meat, no tomato), cheese enchilada, Pepsi (easy on the ice)

Spent Friday in the air, mostly.  Got home around 7, adored the cats, got a phone message birthday greeting from my father (who never ever leaves a callback number), spent the evening catching up on stuff, and slept for about three hours before getting up and driving to Minnesota.

I don't get it either.

It's Auto Show time.  It works like this...Get up at 4, drive to Minneapolis, stop at the Bloomington White Caste for breakfast (which is in a new building this year...I don't see what was wrong with the old one, but what do I know), drive through the ridiculous construction between 494 and downtown, park at the 11th & Marquette garage on the skywalk level, cross the skywalk, enter the convention center, realize you're a half hour early, and stand around with all the other people who are a half hour early.  It's been this way for at least the past decade.  Don't argue with logic.

The only thing that strayed from this routine this year was that there actually WASN'T any construction on 35W coming into downtown.  Unheard of.

On the way up, I saw Burnsville Volkswagen is FINALLY getting their new building.  This poor old VW dealership, one of the highest volume sellers in the country (I bought my Beetle there and had several of my cars serviced there over the years), has been operating out of a small old building along 35W at Cliff Road near almost nothing for years.  They purchased the nearby Knox Lumber property with plans for a new building like ten years ago.  The City of Burnsville ultimately wouldn't let it happen...they wanted park space or some such nonsense.  There were apparently several other false starts at several other locations as well.  Finally, the Saturn dealership building down on Burnsville's modern dealership row opened up and they decided to move down there.  VW stopped that because the building didn't meet their specifications.  Luther Auto, the dealership owner, finally acquired some property to the north near TGI Friday's for an all-new VW-spec state-of-the-art dealership.  VW, in turn, caved and let Burnsville VW temporarily move into the old Saturn building.  Anyway, the new building is well underway and looks like it's going to be freaking huge.  The Saturn building is rumored to have a future as either a new Hyundai or Fiat dealership once Burnsville VW gets settled.

Meanwhile, back at the Auto Show...the parking garage got rid of human ticket sellers in favor of automation.  Parking was actually cheaper at $5, but the signs said $9 (which was the price last year), so maybe they screwed up.

While standing around waiting for the doors to open, I heard a 'meow'.  Then some lady walked by with a cart hauling about a half dozen pet carriers, all filled with cats.  Turns out they're having a pet expo in one of the ballrooms.  Based on what I saw while waiting for the show to start, it was an all cat affair.

The big surprise this year was the smaller footprint the show took up.  Usually, the big convention center space is entirely used end-to-end.  This year, they had a quarter of the north end curtained off.  Never seen that before.

So they open the doors and everybody streams in.  The first thing you see as you enter are some "Cars" character mockups.  Lightning McQueen, Tow Mater, and what I assume is Finn McMissle from the forthcoming "Cars 2".  Very well done.

Onward to this year's highlights...

Fiat 500 - I knew exactly where I was going first.  I've been wanting to see one of these for awhile now.  Oh yes...they're as neat in person as they are in photos.  It seats comfortably, and the Luther Auto rep (Luther will be opening the first two Twin Cities Fiat dealerships) said she'd been driving one for a couple of weeks and they "feel a lot bigger on the road than you'd think".  Their first area dealership opens in "about two weeks".  I'm totally thinking one of these would be a blast for beating around town in (outside of winter, of course).

Hyundai Veloster - Apparently coming in 2012.  Sort of looks like a shorter, rounder Nissan Juke.  Hyundai's version of the Kia Soul?  Maybe.

Hyundai Elantra - Hyundai's making a lot of noise and marketing effort towards the new Elantra.  Which is sort of like heavily hyping a store-brand bag of chips. 

Chevrolet Sonic - Sonic replaces Aveo, and is basically an Aveo redesign with a new name and a more Chevrolet-like front end.  Sort of.  Like the Aveo, it's sort of goofy looking.

Chevrolet Cruze - what's THIS?  A manual transmission?  In a base Chevrolet economy model?  NOBODY buys manual transmissions in America!  The teardrop headlights are a nice enhancement.

Chevrolet Equinox - Jeepers, Chevy. Would it kill you to attach the freaking battery so I can adjust the electric seats?  Hyundai does.

Chevrolet FREAKING TAHOE - They have a HYBRID?  Really?  Does it really do better than the 16.5 mpg I averaged in Portland last week?  Not enough to substantiate the extra cash, I think.

Chevrolet Volt - It's here, it's on a turntable, and you can't touch it.  Or buy it.  Up here, anyway.  Maybe next year.

GMC - One of the auto show highlights is frustrating the GMC reps with a simple question they can't answer.  Questions like "What color does the instrumentation light up in?"  This has unintentionally happened almost every year I've come.  Tragically, the GMC people appear to be purposely avoiding me this year.

GMC Acadia Denali - The uber-expensive luxury version of GMC's version of GM's "it's not a minivan, honest" people-hauler has two-tone leather and a dark woodish center console.  Pretty swank.  No push-button start, which is inexcusable in any car in the nearly $50,000 range.

GMC Yukon - Remember when GM would make a single vehicle and give it different names for the Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, and Cadillac versions, but there wouldn't really be anything different about them?  GM doesn't really do that anymore...unique styling sets newer models apart.  Except for this one.  Once I climbed in, there was literally no difference between this and the FREAKING TAHOE I drove in Portland last week.

Nissan Leaf - Nissan's new all-electric (EV) is here.  You can even sit in it.  Take THAT, Volt.  It has lots of futuristic modern oddities in the interior design, highlighted by the funny little knob shifter toggle thingie, which everybody is talking about.  A male couple walks by and openly questions the 'zero emission' stickers on the car, claiming 'the electricity itself was produced with emissions'.  They know Nissan is referring to the motor output itself, not the electric source...they're just elitist pricks.  Cute Car Model says the battery has an eight-year, 100,000 mile warranty, so stop freaking out about the cost of replacing it.  It's nice to see manufacturers stepping up with the EV's this way, but until they can get these cars to have a 400-mile range and there's charging stations widely available selling fast recharges at rates significantly less then gas, these are nothing but 'around-town' cars.

(Actually, I predict that we're closer to that reality than we know.  A decade or two, maybe.)

Nissan Murano - 2011 model got a refresh with a new instrument cluster and some exterior oddities almost nobody will notice.  Big surprise for me was the discovery that the drivers seat automatically moves back when you open the door for ease of exit.  THAT'S awesome.

Nissan Rogue - Rogue also received a refresh similar to Murano's.  As it happens, my Rogue is going into the shop this week to get a bad wheel bearing fixed, so I rented a car to come up here.  Guess what it is?  The newly refreshed 2011 Rogue.  I'm not sure I like the new all-white instrumentation and trip computer.  It's boring, and the trip computer is kind of a distraction.  This Rogue does seem to be quieter than mine, as if it has more sound deadening materials.

Nissan Juke - Proving quite popular here.  Looks and feels exactly like what it odd little crossover.  Nissan's answer to the Kia Soul, I guess.  Nissan doesn't understand that it's not the Soul itself that makes it's the hamsters.

Nissan Cube - So did they give up on this?  I can't find it.  Wait...there it the fake GMC area.  Nissan has an enclosed space next to GMC's, but last year they put their trucks outside the space to confuse GMC buyers.  It worked so well that they've done it again this year.

Honda...Ew.  What am I doing in the Honda section?

Acura MDX - The bucket sport seats in this crossover are NOT easy to get in and out of.

Acura ZDX - If crossovers are considered tall station wagons, this is a tall hatchback.  It has sport bucket seats basically as annoying to get in and out of as the MDX.

Toyota RAV4 - RAV4 got a mild redesign and a sport model that FINALLY lost the rear door-mounted spare.  Other models, tragically, still have it.  Sales Guy is trying to explain to a potential customer why that is.  Good luck, loser.

Toyota Prius - A Prius-C ("concept") was on display with typical futuristic stylings that never ever get developed.  The theme with the concept was "Prius Goes Plural?" with possible plural pronunciations of the word Prius (Prii, Prien, and Priuses were suggested).  One of the forthcoming plurals is allegedly a full EV version.

Ford Explorer - The venerable Explorer is now a completely different animal.  Now on a car-based platform with styling that is easily confused with the Edge.  Expensive ones have push-button start.  And lighted cup holders.  They must be local Ford dealership can't keep them in stock.

Ford Fiesta - You know that little car in the annoying commercials with all the dancing and the horrible 'ba-da-da-da-da-da-mmm-bop-mmm-bop' music?  They're even uglier in person.  And NOBODY except little kids were showing any interest.

Scion tC - They squared off the roof which gives the car a deliciously retro muscle car look. Guy sitting on drivers side...a dead ringer for Spinal Tap's David St Hubbins...had a beer in hand.  "Don't drink and drive," he quipped with a sneering smile.

Kia Sportage - What makes the all-new Sportage different from the previous versions?  Well, it actually looks...sporty.  Feels sporty too.  I might need to test drive one.

Mitsubishe MiEV - Mitsubishi returns to the Twin Cities Auto Show after a one-year absense with their forthcoming all-electric vehicle.  They had two of them a right-side driver in Geek Squad guise, and another American model.  It's so narrow that they put the climate dials in a column instead of a row.  Very ordinary interior.  Zero cool factor.

Mitsubishi Outlander Sport - It's a shorter, sportier Outlander.  Panoramic sunroof is actually visible from the drivers seat.  I could drive this if I had any faith in Mitsubishi, but they're a far too low volume seller here, and have a reputation for free-falling resale value (which really shouldn't be a concern for me since I tend to drive my cars until the wheels fall off).

VW Jetta - In a desperate attempt to sabotage US sales, VW has been working to make their cars as boring as possible.  The new Jetta is such an example.  With a side profile instantly familiar to any 10-year old Impala owner and moves like getting rid of the cool blue instrumentation in favor of boring white, I don't see myself owning another one.  And my first NINE CARS were VW's.

VW Passat - The new US-built Passat is North American-specific.  The rest of the world gets a completely different Passat.  I'd take it over the Jetta, but I'm not exactly standing in line for either one.

VW Touareg - The new Touareg is leaner, lighter, and still a complete pig.  A hybrid version will be available for around $60,000.  How ridiculous is that?  The Porsche Cayenne, which is built on the same platform, will have a hybrid version available for $69,000.  If you're going to spend that kind of money anyway, why wouldn't you pay the extra nine grand for the Porsche?  Or you could just get a Lexus RX hybrid starting at $43,000 (even loaded, it's only $52,000) and spend the savings on an awesome Fiat 500.

HA HA HA HA!  The Volvo counter is handing out IKEA catalogs.  Didn't Volvo get sold to the Chinese?

Volvo XC60 - I've been kind of interested in these.  Then I sat in this one.