If, after all the bubbly, & all the eggnog, all the turkey, & the green beans, & the pumpkin pie à la mode, the leftovers, the bickering, & the leftovers, & the Tums, you can’t fathom why an 8-buck dinner of brats & kraut with peppers & a baked potato (plus salad)
With all the trekking we do through Nebraska en route to Iowa & Michigan & back, the Director & I keep track of our roadside options. Going chowish isn’t really 1 of them, a) because crawling the byroads & backways in search of the troves of chicken shacks, chili emporiums & custard stands they undoubtedly spill forth is only as romantic as one’s willingness to postpone happy hour after all the dreary ones on the road is firm—i.e. not very—& b) because I actually have an abiding fondness for chain hotel lounges in their anonymous sameness (as I’ve detailed here). There’s just something so calming about the bland decor, so appealing about the weird stabs at glorifying American bar snacks & staples.
Actually, though, at The West Omaha Embassy Conference Hotel, the results aren’t half so clumsy as the burnt-orange lobby space the La Vista Nines occupies. Granted, they’re not masterful either—despite the website’s claim that they’re “all prepared by our master chef from Germany!”—being as they are the exceptions to the largely rote rule of the menu: lemon-caper chicken, pork chops in gravy, club sandwiches, etc., with lots of wild rice medleys & buttered green beans tossed in for good measure. Still, there were the quirks I seek. A salad of baby field greens with pan-fried goat cheese, shiitakes, spicy walnuts, tomatoes & honey-thyme vinaigrette, for instance, or tropical fruit sorbets drizzled with chilled vodka.
Or the Cajun potato chips.
Inspired (like so much that’s good & true in the world) by nachos, they’re hand-cut & fresh-fried to golden-brown, bubbly warped disks; smothered in cheese, crumbled Andouille sausage & green onions; & served with, of all things, a fairly spicy remoulade & a chunky, pinkish, but interesting black-eyed pea dip.
Or—I can’t believe I’m admitting this on national TV—the Alfredo flatbread.
While the Director’s “margarita”
was a travesty of the Americanized name—cheddar, basil flakes & tomatoes stuck in a glue of mozz does not a margherita make—my choice was gloriously honest in its gluttony, topped not only with the glut of gut-destruction that is Alfredo (butter, cream & parm) but also yet more mozz, plus bits of grilled chicken & red onion. Ugh! Yay!
Familiar as I am with a few of Iowa City’s diamond dives, it came as a self-surprise that my soft spot for schlock is firmer even than my devotion to dumps. But there you have it: standing between me (with pal Joey) & the likes of George’s, the Deadwood & the Foxhead, only moments away, was
I was powerless to resist.
Not that it offered much beyond the opportunity to say I was there. Sort of a steakhouse, Beefstro looks like a cross between the lobby of a ski lodge & a heartland diner; plods along servicewise; & engages in such exercises in awkwardness as
a chicken Caesar whose supposed grilled hearts of romaine turned out to be raw halved heads of romaine
sprinkled with green-can parm
Is this a common flourish I’ve somehow missed? Did someone mistake my spud for a margarita glass? Not that I minded—that’s 1 less garnishing hand-motion for me! Therein lies my compliment to the chef.
The Scoop Series: Salsa-gardening in the desert with Denveater’s favorite off-the-grid crackerjack Rebecca Ballenger
Nowadays, if I don’t check in with old pal & fellow blogger Rebecca every so often to find out what chickens she’s kicking it out in the backyard with or what sort of prickly-pear pies she’s baking in her solar oven or just generally what’s doin’ at the endless summertime block party that is her brain, all box guitars & lemonade, I begin to wither on the vine that is my couch.
So I sprouted a few new tendrils (ew) when she mentioned she was growing tomatoes. Now, if she lived in San Marzano or something, all surrounded by
that’d be one thing. But she lives in hardcore Arizona. So I had to ask, & she kindly obliged.
The Sonoran Desert is a hot mess. She’s a vampire sucking dry the landscape, the flora & the criminals creeping about in the sand. (Denved.: Really, criminals in lieu of ground cover? Sweet.) Desert survivors are stingy in their use of scarce resources. Among the most notable characters is the prickly phallus known as the saguaro (that’s pronounced suh-WAH-ro). Saguaros are native only to the Sonoran Desert. They show their supremacy & stake their claim by flipping the bird to any and all who pass by.
Well, that’s not fair. It can take 50 years for saguaros to reach 3 feet tall. Considering how often my kids beg to be measured, it must be like waiting for Christmas to get that big, except it’s waiting 50 Christmases. Eventually they do grow up & they sprout flowers—the state flower of Arizona, in fact. These flowers turn to fruit, which the Hohokam dried, crushed into powder, & added to water. Makes the 55-year-old Kool-Aid Man look spry.
(Actually to me he looks like he has a few ice cubes loose—I never really thought about the fact that he’s a big full pitcher holding a small full pitcher. You’re already it, dude! Just drop it & run! Run for that brick wall!)
Desert is a misnomer, as we receive just a twee above true desert precipitation levels, but I bet more than a few parched indigents would love to see Kool-Aid Man plowing down the delicate ecosystem with an icy pitcher of red-flavored CAP water. I don’t know from Kool-Aid though. Apart from my youth, when other kids flaunted their Kool-Aid in my face & bade me drink my spit, I still contend its best use is for coloring hair. Even then, my hair has always been too dark to take wicked awesome color like Berry Blue.
Anyway, now that the Palo Verdes—green stick trees, of which the blue variety represent the state of Arizona—are in bloom
& everyone has allergy headaches, it’s time to put the salsa gardens in the ground. As a child, I loved to walk among the rows of tomatoes that grew over my head in my backyard. I loved the smell, but even more I loved the taste. I could take salt & pepper shakers out with me, but more often than not, I’d pull the tomatoes off the vine & eat them like apples. One summer I ate so many that I developed canker sores. Then the canker sores got canker sores & I still couldn’t stop myself.
I haven’t had a single good tomato since moving to Arizona. Natives tell me that I’m not getting the right variety, not going to the best farmer’s markets, not growing my own. I call bullshit. I’ve chased down every lead & am still unable to get a good tomato.
Now, that doesn’t stop me from trying. I eat tomatoes every chance I get. I eat mealy tomatoes, waxy, hard-skinned tomatoes, even the most disgusting tomatoes on earth—the ones that come with ranch dressing & squirt like nursing babies when you bite into them.
Recently some very famous—two degrees of separation from Rachael Ray—tomato seedlings came my way, accompanied by cilantro and pepper seedlings. They all looked pathetic, but my friend Hawt Mz. Molly, who has inspired many a discussion about trade-off licking, gave them to me, so I figured I’d put them into the ground. (Folks, no idea what “trade-off licking” means. Google went straight for hybrid cabs & black lesbians. Case in point for why I dig Rebecca.)
In the past, I’ve tilled the garden, enriched the soil, & prepared sweet beds for my beloved fruits. This time out, I just couldn’t be bothered. In fact, I didn’t even manage to put on proper shoes. (Says you.)
The peppers, cilantro, & basil (from Caddo Artist—which are not yet seedlings, just seeds), went into pots, while the tomatoes went into the ground.
See how my garden grows? So much green!
Honestly? I expect only the paddle cactus there to thrive. Or maybe—given the brutal environment and hostile caregiving—killer tomatoes.
(Update forthcoming like crazy.)
Driving home through Nebraska from Cedar Rapids, we’d planned to return to the
we’d found on the way there in Grand Island—a name so topographically off it might as well have applied to the local landmark that was the stand-alone buffet at the Holiday Inn, oozing dressings, gravies, glazes & fillings over every dish like lava covering straw huts. But upon reaching city limits sooner than expected, we decided to press another 40 min. onward to the Holiday Inn in even smaller Kearney—picturing all the while an even downhomier buffet whereupon the average item would surely boast an average of 2 products made by Smucker’s, Durkee &/or Kraft, sometimes 3.
Checking in, though, I was intrigued by the relative luxury of the lobby: matching armchairs, a flickering fireplace, chessboards & coffee table books strewn among ornate
I was even more intrigued when I got a load of the mod logo on the dining voucher the receptionist handed me—
good for 1 free drink or 10% off our meal. Was this some kind of show of class?
Short answer: yeah, ish!
contemporary glass vases in fun colors & shapes
contemporary art vaguely reminiscent of
Long answer: we started with wine from a real live list, with non-merlots & everything,
served in logo-etched glasses
with focaccia that erred a little on the airy side, & came with butter rather than olive oil, but still, warm & fresh, it was a nice try.
Snobbishly uncomfortable with being mildly impressed so far, I ordered some crabcakes with remoulade & honey-jalapeno dipping sauces, envisioning breadcrumb-coated breadcrumb patties accompanied by ramekins filled with some ratio of Smucker’s to Kraft (what, no Durkee?) that I could ridicule with relieved abandon.
Instead I found myself chowing down on the real thing—not without a little filler, but not without sufficient crab flavor either; & as for the dips, both were quite distinctive, creamy with a subtle touch of sweetness & a stronger one of heat.
The Italian chopped salad I followed it up with was likewise the real thing—the exercise in balance that a main course salad should be, with generous amounts of salami, pepperoni, hard-cooked egg & tomato (along with lesser portions of cucumber & parmesan), but plenty of green as well; housemade croutons were a bit salty, but their cornbread-like texture was a pleasure.
The Director’s medium-rare filet mignon, meanwhile, was almost special, with a fierce sear, a magenta interior & a side of remarkably fluffy piped garlic–white cheddar mashed potatoes. Meat & potatoes are meat & potatoes until they’re not.
Practicing my recently espoused philosophy of sugar-snarfing, I asked to see the dessert list; our waitress returned with a sample tray. At a Holiday Inn on I-80 in Kearney, Nebraska, they’re bringing round the silver like it was the Savoy. Such an incongruous gesture of formality was touching, but not because it was delusional; my peanut butter mousse cake was lovely, really—the layers very chocolatey, not merely sweet, & the filling very peanutty, not merely creamy.
Much to my own sheepish amusement, I really have to recommend Venue. I don’t recommend I-80, but if you’ve got to take it, you might as well do it in style.
It’s a classic boy-meets-girl story, the Director’s & mine. Except the part where boy meets girl, since he doesn’t really remember it. & the part where boy loses girl, since he was in love with someone else at the time & didn’t so much pursue me in the 1st place as, okay, startle & flee from my pursuit. But the part about finding me again, that actually did happen, some 11 years after his old pal Joe Franklin—whom I’d been casually dating mainly because he looked cute in shirtless overalls & workboots he’d spraypainted pink—introduced us over a round of pool at The Foxhead in Iowa City.
While The Foxhead is long & literally storied as the all-but-official HQ for generations of students at the Writers’ Workshop such as yours truly (however arguably by fluke), its place in my heart has far more to do with the chance at true romance it ultimately yielded than with any treasured memory of the 100s of hours I spent there knocking back brave bulls & partaking in passionate debates about poetry, a) b/c I was knocking back brave bulls, which have a way of knocking you back in turn & trampling every memory in their digestive path & b) b/c deep down, if purely as a matter of aesthetics, I preferred George’s Buffet down the block.
As close to a townie hangout as an off-campus bar in an all-campus burg gets, George’s was darker & quieter & richer in trimmings: strung colored lights,
vintage Hamm’s signage,
a letterboard menu listing (among very few other things) burgers as greasy & grimy as those old gopher guts of song & wallpaper straight out of a Victorian rooming house.
But the best part of it all was yet to be—& that’s that, 13 years hence, it still is. Nothing had changed upon a recent visit. Even the cheerily weary bartender was the same if I squinted.
So I slid into 1 of the scraped wooden booths as I did with people I used to know so long ago. & I ordered, as I did so long ago,
a bloody mary & mixed nuts
from the heated dispenser behind the bar,
& I proceeded, as I had so many times before, to pour my heart out about the man I was falling hard for.
Only this time, the Director was right there to hear it, to respond. This time, he loves me back. This time, our story ends happily ever after.
Were we to submit it to the Workshop, it’d be ripped apart for its far-fetched smarm.
Yeah, not even close.
But it is a grill complete with an “e” in a Holiday Inn (for whose grandness I’ll always vouch)—
where the waitress managed, much to her own surprise, to unearth a full-grown bottle of wine amid the baby bottlettes of Sutter Home white zin;
the ol’ split-top dinner rolls were still warm;
& the buffet, AYCE for $8.99, had an actual whole smoked salmon garnished with cubes of cheddar, actually tender & juicy (for all its thorough cooking) prime rib, actually-terrible-but-awesome creamy broccoli salad with raisins & sunflower seeds
& all the heart-of-the-heartland fixins,
along with everything else from teriyaki to minestrone. What more can you ask for? We may find out on the drive back to Denver from Cedar Rapids. I’m thinking fishsticks.
With just a few substitutions—like changing “person” to “preserved meat”—I could probably turn the theme song from The Courtship of Eddie’s Father into an ode to American charcuterie. We’ve just returned from a lakefront cabin on the outskirts of Montague, MI—where the view was Merriam-Webster baroque, totally “marked generally by use of complex forms, bold ornamentation & the juxtaposition of contrasting elements often conveying a sense of drama, movement & tension,”
as were the street signs,
as was the generosity of the company we kept, who kept in turn the wine flowing & the charcoal glowing for fat smoked sausages that I truly did consider my cuddly toys, my ups, my downs, my prides & joys. They
came from here,
as did the stash we acquired out of this case,
lined with big plastic jars of house-pickled eggs & brats & stacked with containers of beef & turkey jerky, 5 or 6 types each—among them honey, teriyaki, garlic pepper, Louisiana hot cajun & bourbon—as well as elk, venison & buffalo jerky, plus smoked local salmon & trout filets.
We went for this
both really mean if not necessarily lean. I had no idea dried beef could look or taste so much like a baby back rib, complete with cherry smoke.
As for the turkey, the fact that it was recognizable as white meat brushed with still-sticky barbecue sauce likewise struck me as a revelation
We polished off both bags on the road from Montague back to Detroit Metro Airport, leaving us with 1 last impulse purchase—or, as the case may be, freak accident—to deal with: