Globeater - Grubbing around the Globe

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

Caggiano-vineyards ,

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

Blooming Palo Verde

& 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.

(Maybe grind some Canker-cover-dninto the soil next time?)

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.

Garden collage

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.)

Big Apple/Beantown Dispatch Final 4: Bon Chon, Da Gennaro, Meritage & Taranta

I’ve been home for nearly a week; Denveater, however, seems to be suffering from jet lag. I’m thinking the cure’s a whirlwind trip down memory block (lanes being few & far between in the big bad city), just oohing & aahing & drooling at all the highlights.


Bon Chon’s 1 of the 2 New York chains that has put Korean fried chicken smack in the eye of the urban culinary map over the past couple of years. The 2nd-story space on 5th Ave. is suspiciously louche—primarily a lounge, it may look sleek in the dark, but by day it looks like a lawn-furniture floor show, not least for the fact that our server clearly could have been a part-time model.

Then again, the signature spicy chicken looks like just the snack for kicking it poolside. Tasted like it, too—moist, greasy, slow-burning, with chilled daikon on the tongue like an ice cube to the brow.



Small plates are generally the stuff of the casually convivial—your tapas bars, your enoteche, your izakaya. Opening as an extension of the Boston Wine Festival in the Boston Harbor Hotel a few years back, ultramodern Meritage is an exception among elegant exceptions, with what amounts to a DIY pairing menu composed of small plates categorized by the types of wine they’d go best with (e.g., light whites, robust reds, etc.).

In short, it’s not the kind of place you’re supposed to lean back in your chair, thump your gut & bark, “Man, I’m backed up.” But after 3 courses each featuring the likes of foie gras, ostrich & sweetbreads, plus

Meritageamuse2 Meritagesweets2

an amuse bouche of exquisite wild mushroom broth with a diamond touch of truffle oil, plus also an array of sweets like this caramel-filled chocolate cup with the check,

what would you say? Exactly. (In fact, you’d say something even coarser—I know you! Come on, you can tell me.)

Picking a highlight’s a toughie, but I find myself oddly leaning toward a dish I wouldn’t have ordered had it not come recommended: the pan-seared diver scallops with corn & chardonnay cream—a sweet, sweet field-&-sea-breezy surprise.



Without marvelous chef & consummate host José Duarte in the house (he was off leading a culinary tour of his native Peru) to ply us with off-menu nibbles & knock back a little wine with us & pick the Director up off the floor & swing him around (José’s a long tall guy), Taranta just wasn’t the same. Moodwise, that is—foodwise, it was as stellar as ever. Since the Director called shotgun on my eternal fave, the signature yuca gnocchi in green lamb ragù spiked with chicha de jora (Peruvian corn cider),


I more than made do with a special of porcini ravioli with, um, smoked pancetta in parmesan cream?


I kinda don’t remember, having been well into our 2nd bottle of wine as I was. I just remember it was amazingly delicate & precise for being so rich & messy—a nifty, typically Duartean paradox.


From Boston’s Little Italy (i.e., the North End, my old nabe) to New York’s: it was nearly 1am, cold & drizzling when the Director & I, stumbling starved in the dark streets surrounding our Soho hotel after making an obligatory appearance at a midtown work event, accidentally landed on the doorstep of Da Gennaro, the only place through whose lit windows we could still see diners lingering. (Maybe the city that never sleeps finally OD’d on Restalex?)

As we approached to ask if they’d serve us, we caught a glimpse of the cooks & servers all digging into their staff meal & almost turned away. But the owner beckoned us in, & though we caught the flicker of dismay in one dark young gent’s eyes, it vanished as he smiled kindly, waited on us calmly & even encouraged us to take our time when we assured him we were trying to hurry.

For that grace-imbued reason alone, the whole meal couldn’t have tasted better. Though stereotypically ginormous (trust me, perspective aside, it was twice the size of Taranta’s counterpart above), our gnocchi with pesto


was atypically painstaking—sparkling to mine eye like unto


shards of a malachite geode,

each dumpling—chunkling—actually wafted upward to the bite. They were so light they’re actually still floating around my brain cavity, I think.

But the ultimate find was the dipping oil that came with the bread.


I’d have loved to see the seething vat in back—the line cooks must be high 24/7 from the sheer everlasting stench of years of batches of garlic, parmesan & red pepper–clogged olive oil. If that sounds pejorative, it ain’t. Hell, I’d have loved to skinny-dip in that vat. I’d love to have never come up for air. (Meanwhile, of course, parsley smoothed it all out a little.)

We were so heartened by our intimate little experience that we returned the next, our last, night in town. Was it that good, objectively speaking? No. Were we fully aware it wasn’t that good, objectively speaking? Sure. Would we go so far as to call it a tourist trap? Not me; I wouldn’t. In my book, tourist traps manufacture hospitality while spitting out edible formulas people with gullets where their palates & senses of poetry should be can regurgitate. This place was suffused with genuine heart—not a perfectly calibrated hand, to be sure, but genuine heart. If I’m wrong, then I’m a staunch sucker.

On that note, fuck highlights, here are the lesser but still lovable dishes we downed:


Mozzarella in carozza (we ordered spiedini, but this is what we got, it was halfway to dawn, they were technically closed, who were we to complain, especially about accidentally getting fried cheese with olives?)


Peperoni ripieni




Antipasto di mare—so garlicky it was almost bitter, so lemony it was downright sour, both in the best way

Ciao, Signore Gennaro. Fino a quando si ritorna.


And ciao to you, too, MC Slim JB, who led us so debonairly through downtown’s secret catacombs; Kimberly, with the giggle that never ceases to cheer me; Honor, who chose brain freeze over leaving half the contents of her chilled cocktail glass (that’s my girl!); Beth, who led me down the righteous path of high-noon debauchery; & so on. I’ll see you soon.

Da Gennaro on Urbanspoon

Big Apple/Beantown Dispatch 3: Eastern Standard & the decline of Western civilization

With every drink you die a little more inside, lean a little more hellward.

That’s the moral to the story of Eastern Standard in Boston’s Kenmore Square, where celebrated young buck of a bar manager Jackson Cannon is the devil with whom you strike a Faustian bargain—the tenderest cut of your soul for but a sip of bliss, believe you me.

But hey, moral, happy ending, same difference. Especially in the light of day—midday, to be exact; nothing like a few vodka cocktails over a 3-hour-long lunch in the company of old friends to feel, in Stephen Dobyns’s words, your “great red soul
trembling like a cubic meter of raspberry Jell-O.”

Or frothing like a Russian Tea Room.


This slug of beet-infused Christiana vodka, shaken with just a touch of yogurt & citrus, went down like a borscht slush, & so did the 2nd one, & the Earth & Brine—


combining Reyka vodka with celery-infused vemouth & bitters to create what was indeed less a dirty martini than an earthy one—went down just as easy, & so did the conversation, veering from extreme shepherding to Incubus, a 1966 horror flick in Esperanto starring William Shatner. I love my weird friends.

And so, on that note, did the Heather in Queue—a “riff on a gimlet” with gin, vermouth, Fernet Branca, orange liqueur & a flamed orange peel—which just happens to be named for the friend, an ES regular, who told us about the neon sheep & also about bookending a single meal at Osteria Marco with orders of burrata on a recent visit here to Denver. Such is the stuff that makes a legend of a girl.


All the while we noshed on the likes of deep-fried sweet Maine shrimp—their season so short, their memory so fresh in its lingering—


& the house charcuterie plate, which Chef Kickass Jamie Bissonnette made famous before decamping for the Oringer Empire & which the current crew has kept up to snuff: this one boasted smoked sausage & the most luscious mortadella, chunky with cubes of pure fat & pistachios.


And steak tartare—to my tastes a little overworked, its strongly seasoned add-ins obscuring rather than enhancing the flavor of the meat,


but given that it came with a side of shoestring fries all had to be forgiven, if for no other reason that it, an appetizer, came with a side.


That’s my kind of generosity. Hey, could I get a side of sandwich with that salad? Does that soup come with a side of cake?

Meanwhile, Yumyum—a longtime regular on Chowhound’s Boston board to whom Boston Magazine recently gave cred for expertise where it was overdue, as well as to my old pal MC Slim JB et al.—shared her schnitzel


along with her right-on opinion it needed more lemon. The breading was ideal though.

And so on, & so on—the Director knocked back a couple of Medjool date–infused bourbons; dear Michael, dreamy Dasha & stunning young Elizabeth shared various green things & discussed Dasha’s recent work on an energies calendar, which I really don’t know what that means other than something breathtaking (& purchasable here, along with numerous other beauties):


And Lisa & her beau, who stopped by just to say hi & then plopped down for lunch after all—because that’s what my friends do best, is surrender to indulgence.

Talk about setting the eastern standard.

Eastern Standard on Urbanspoon

Big Apple/Beantown Dispatch 2: Neptune Oyster in a class, in a post, in my heart by itself

Straight from Boston’s South Station to Haymarket & on into me olde stomping grounds, the North End, the Director & I, luggage in tow, reached the Neptune Oyster entrance at 11:30 am sharp, just as owner Jeff Nace was opening the door. He gave me a hug. The staff proffered hearty hellos. Our server welcomed us back


at the bar

with flutes of prosecco. We were home.

And home was better than ever.

Last summer, upon our very first return to my all-time favorite restaurant since both I had left for Denver & the original chef, David Nevins, had left for Norwalk & Osetra Sono, I felt the oh-so-slightest of letdowns—if the magic wasn’t gone with new chef Nate Nagy, it would never again, I feared, be quite so blinding, grinding, hot-spellbinding.

I feared wrong. Following closely in Nevins’ madcap footsteps, Nagy has nonetheless clearly hit his own stride. The proof, first & foremost, was in the pudding of pan-roasted Island Creek oysters,


a gorgeous glimpse of which got me so spasmodically jazzed I accidentally dipped my sleeve in the center shell before taking this pic. Then I deliberately dipped my face in the plate & shook it, you know, like a bachelor bashgoer at a stripper’s bosom.

Per Rowan Jacobsen’s handy-dandy Oyster Guide, Island Creeks are “salty as all get-out,” as well as firm, clean & buttery. Hear, hear to the latter trio, although these particular babies didn’t strike me as the former—& all the better for that, given that they sat atop dollops of house-deviled ham, which could have been overkill. Instead the combo was electrifying & soothing by turns as the flavor of what was called cucumber crème fraîche, but seemed to be paprika-spiked crème fraîche with squirts of cuke smoothie all round, percolated through. Truly a dish for the ages, along with Neptune’s other forever-&-a-day-worthy contributions to the canon: pickled beef tongue & fried oysters piled high with gruyère, sauerkraut & Russian dressing; short rib carpaccio piled higher with fried onion on a bed of garlic mayo–drizzled mâche; braised baby octopus over black polenta with slow-roasted tomatoes…

You see, for me, this tiny place inheres in reverie—sometimes, granted, as romantic as it is culinary (as an old Chowhound thread still embarrassingly reveals); the Director & I have spent countless hours there doing just what we did on this visit—reveling in each other’s boozy company & marveling at most every bite. Something about the misty aura—the etched glass & chalked-on mirrors, the marble & subway tiles, the embossed tin & ice-covered raw bar—invites rapt contemplation as much as the scattering of little gems like this yellowtail tartare with a salad of baby greens & sunchoke chips as well as daubs of ginger-pear vinaigrette—lovely accompaniments all, but then that hamachi could have come covered in mud & still sparkled through.


Would you believe this open-faced sardine sandwich was light?


Well, okay, me neither. Not quite. But Nagy & crew (of 1 or 2 at most) certainly handled it more elegantly than most kitchens would or could, frying a fresh, hence just this side of mild, filet to a delicate gold, layering it along with a mound of frisée & a sunny-side-up egg onto a toasted slice of brioche & spooning round a maple-bacon vinaigrette that actually was a subtly flavored dressing, not a viscous mix of syrup & drippings.

Of course, we couldn’t leave before we’d sopped up Neptune’s superb, pickle-heavy tartar sauce with a few fried clams.


Of course, we could hardly leave, period. Wistful backwards glance, bittersweet belly rub.

Neptune Oyster on Urbanspoon

Big Apple/Beantown Dispatch 1: MOMA, The Half-King, Han Bat

They say you only see what you want to see, but returning to the right coast with freshly high-desert-scrubbed eyes, I’m struck by how completely food-obsessed New York & Boston are, from their nicknames to their artistic traditions. The Northeast Corridor is just 1 big stocked pantry the city slickers frolic in!

Youthinks me doth project too much? Behold but a handful of morsels from the MOMA’s current collection:


Martin Kippenberger, The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s Amerika

At the heart of this Kafka-inspired installation enacting the madness of the modern office is this sort of life-sized, reverse Lazy Susan whereby 2 umbrella-topped chairs revolve on a track around a table shaped like a fried egg. Dreaming of cocktails circling egg’s edge that we’d snatch & sip as we glided by, the Director & I got hellbent right then on building our very own someday.


Dieter Roth, Big Landscape; Big Sunset

Apparently Roth did a lot of what he called “squashings” in the late 60s. The central stain in the 1 on the left is cheese; on the right is sausage. 40-year-old foodstains = major art works. Suddenly my whole life has meaning.


Joseph Beuys, Painting Version 1–90

Beuys slathered butter over his canvas to get those discolorations to the left & below the hole. Replace “canvas” with “body” & it totally sounds like my kind of beauty ritual!


Ed Ruscha, Stains

From a gorgeous series of abstract-ish splashings & dribblings on paper—urine, nail polish, apple juice etc.—comes this splotch of Chateau Latour 1962, which is probably about as close as I’ll ever get to a sip.


Forgot to get the name of the designer—sorry, dead German guy—of this Art Deco–era champagne flute (according to the placard, despite the shape). Still, if you ask me, a house containing Kippenberger’s contraption, a set of these & nothing else would be a home richly furnished with love.


Speaking of love, The Half-King in Chelsea is where I fell in it, after a long long-distance friendship, with the Director over hot buttered rums a few years back—so though it’s almost always absurdly crowded & loud, we have to make the sentimental journey for a nibble from time to time.

The Thai-spiced meatballs, an app special, were way better than they looked—to wit, like hell.


Believe it or not, these ringers for petrified dung pellets were actually fresh, moist, funky, indeed gamy nuggets of ground lamb & buffalo with pinenuts & golden raisins; the spicy dipping sauce itself dripped with nam pla.

Actual Asian goodies, as opposed to gastropubby takes thereon, got gobbled the next night at Han Bat, a 24-hour midtown Korean joint we took a chance on mostly to get out of the rain, & were damned glad we did. Above all, it offered relief for the jones for ddeokbokki I developed by gnocchi-association at Denver’s Locanda del Borgo a while back.


Listed here as duk bok gi (there are countless other spellings as well), they’re cylindrical glutinous rice cakes that taste like nothing so much as their own texture—soft, soft, soft—with just a hint of natural starch sweetness echoed by the spicy chili sauce.

I expect to have fully digested them by around late 2012. Too bad I couldn’t have shared some of my stash with Dieter Roth; they’d have made great squashings.

Chocolate cherry tomatoes & sour grapes, courtesy of Forward Foods’ Steve Wampus Reynolds

While kickin’ it on vacay with mama in my old hometown of Norman, Oklahoma, I stopped as I always do by the superb gourmet shop of my old friend Wampus, whose wacky backstory you may remember from here or here, where I oohed over the blooming maitakes some local’s growing in his basement—I didn’t inquire further


& aahed over imported sugarplum-walnut logs (whose photo I stole from here).


But it was these that had me at “choco.”


For a second I thought they were actually chocolate-covered, so brown was their tinge. For another second I daydreamed about how unspeakably good actually chocolate-covered cherry tomatoes would be & how I should make some. For a final second I got tired from thinking about doing something & instead just bought a package, which Wampus told me came from Boulder; the label reads “PRODUCT OF MEXICO,” but since he’s a Jeopardy! champ—not the board game or some online forum for overgrown problem children but the actual network show—far be it from me to challenge his knowledge of geography. (***UPDATE: The tomatoes are indeed from Mexico; much of this distributor’s produce comes from Colorado, so he just assumed. Shit, I should go on Jeopardy, I can assume out my ass (out of u & me). Meanwhile I’ll keep my eyes peeled locally.)

Anyway, speaking of unspeakably good things,


these babies are, hence the vocaborgasms they apparently give the copywriters of online seed-company catalogs: per one, “both skin & flesh [are] shaded an attractive combination of port wine & chestnut with a comparably delicious & multifaceted flavor”; per another, “these 1-inch beauties boast the most flavorful tomato tang in the family, from their delicious thin skins to their combinations of gels & solids, sweets & meats, in every bite.” That must be one luscious family indeed. Admittedly prone to puce prose myself when the food moves me, I’ll just add that, name notwithstanding, they’re actually less sweet than, say, grape tomatoes—or rather they’re more interestingly sweet, richer & snappier at the same time.

Speaking in turn, then, of waxing rhapsodic, it’s as though Wampus knew in advance the direction this post would be heading when he printed off a McSweeney’s-style list he’d compiled for me to take home, a sort of necessary counterbalance to the benedictions thus far spouted. I’m reprinting in its near-entirety here, cause it’s funnee: blessed be the bile spewers, for they shall inherit the blogpost.


Whatever you do, don’t invite me hiking (or camping) & never ever offer me a granola bar.

I hate pumpkin pies.

Muffins are the simpletons of the cake world.

Everyone has eaten a “danish,” but does anyone really know what a danish is?

I never really understood the fascination with Rice Krispies treats.

I’m not sure who gave me this recipe, otherwise I would be giving “you” the credit.

Don’t turn the page just because you think you have enough shortbread recipes.

Sick of triangles & rounds, I was desperate for a new look.

All of us have our deep dark secrets, those skeletons in the closet we don’t want anyone to discover.

Oh, Nance. Some of us even have deep dark chocolate cherry secrets.

Dispatch from a suspicious oasis: Venue, Kearney, NE

Driving home through Nebraska from Cedar Rapids, we’d planned to return to the

Truck – Paradise-philippines


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


faux antiques.

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.

Dispatch from Iowa City: Gorgeous George’s Buffet

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.

Dispatch: “Riverfront” Grille in Grand “Island,” NE

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.

Dispatch from Albuquirky: Charlie’s Front Door, Gecko’s, Flying Star Cafe

I wish I’d coined that nickname, but no, the appellation comes naturally to a town best-known as Bugs Bunny’s bugaboo. Wherever my 1st home was—& it’s been all over in the course of my 30-plus (or more accurately 40-minus) years—Albuquerque, as the address at any given time of at least 1 immediate relative, has always been my 2nd, all the more so now that the Director’s brother has gone & sired an adorable lass & tied the knot in the presence of the King (in roughly that order) with the equally adorable local he impregnated:


Since we had yet to lay eyes on our new niece, it was only too fitting that my own happily broken family move its Thanksgiving bash (of which more here) from Oklahoma to New Mexico this year. & am I glad we did, not only because little infant Zuzu’s (her real, if not her legal, name) utter wailing horror at every glimpse she got of her old Uncle Director was supremely hilarious like this


but also because if I don’t go to Charlie’s, Front Door or Back, every so often I positively wilt like a Southern belle awaiting smelling salts on a magnolia-redolent veranda in the gloaming, only far less lovely & more rotten. (At this point, if my penchant for mayhem were greater than my capacity for shame, & I’m somewhat surprised to find it isn’t, I’d be hyperlinking the word “rotten” to its namesake website with nary a warning. As it is, just think of me as your own personal furry old Grover,


begging you not to turn said virtual page, difference being that in this case there really is something to be afraid of—there really is a monster at the end of, & at the beginning, & all the way through. Really, don’t go there unless you’re sure you’ve got no more innocence left to lose & only darkness to gain. But if you do, check out the photo of the weightlifter with the prolapsed bowels.)

I’ve waxed mad about Charlie’s before; it’s a no-frills—or rather, 1 frill, at least in the front: a square sunken bar in the middle of the room; whoever first dreamt of a bar that would be accessible from all sides is a goddamn unsung interior-design hero—but way friendly little New Mexican joint with 1 of the funkier menus you ever will see. Even the Director’s color-blind iPhone can’t obscure the yum of the house specialty, sour cream enchiladas with chicken & green chile—which kicks pretty hard, but only after the eponymous ingredient & shredded iceberg block the impact in cooling, soothing measure:


I got the Como Se Llama,


which is exactly what it is, a whatchamacallit, combining green chile & refritos & cheese with Polish sausage & a tortilla so thick & fluffy it’s more like pita. I’m not even sure the color’s off there—it did sort of glow & burble & whatnot like the blob Stephen King as Jordy Verrill unleashes in

Creepshow_ver1 ,

especially the day after, on the inside. Had I known, I probably wouldn’t have joined the Director in polishing off the entire basket of sopaipillas, which we soaked in honey like we were warlords & it was gasoline & they were hostages we were going to set on fire but wound up cannibalizing instead, but I didn’t (know), so I did (polish).


Gecko’s the so-called gastropub & tapas bar [sic] I’m less keen on.

1st of all, & if I’ve said this once I’ve said it 1000 times without really knowing what that expression means, tapas are Spanish. If the ingredients aren’t Spanish, the small plates aren’t tapas. They’re meze, or cicchetti (chi-KETT-ee), or zakuski, or whatever they are, even just plain old small plates, but not tapas. Here, the menu places something of an emphasis on Mexican ingredients, but given its simultaneous counteremphasis on the frighteningly fused likes of “breaded slab o’ meunster with sweet yellow curry tomato chutney” & smoked kielbasa in a tawny port reduction, it isn’t strong enough to warrant a label like bocaditos. Now, that’s no black mark against the kitchen per se, but it does suggest someone at the management level who has some influence thereover either doesn’t care about ethnoculinary accuracy or isn’t interested in catering to customers who do. Neither’s a good sign.

2nd of all, & if I’ve said this once I’ve said it 1000 times without really knowing what that expression means, a gastropub is a gastropub. It has the vaguest amount to do with a changing of the culinary guard in the UK. It has absolutely nothing to do with just any old college bar in Albquerque that breads eggplant in panko, parmesan & tarregon [sic], pours green-chile honey over cambozala [sic], & serves lobster & golf [sic] shrimp ceviche with fried pita wedges for no apparent reason other than that it’s not technically illegal to do so. & it has even less than nothing to do with a college bar in Albuquerque that also calls itself a tapas bar but isn’t. Jesus H.

But even all that isn’t a black mark against the kitchen per se. The students working there way through UNM back there are doing OK with what they’ve got. So the green-chile cheese fries were gloppy, but they were also curly, & salty, & greasy, & so served their alcohol-absorbing function with sufficient charm.


A layer of black bean–pepperoni puree under the nachos was at once too ridiculous to even think about & too interesting not to unthinkingly keep swiping tastes of.


The Director’s tough sirloin tacos with gluey, flavorless roasted pablano [sic] crema, however, weren’t interesting at all. I was bored just typing that.


As for the Flying Star Cafe, it’s neither here nor there culinarily, but it’s everywhere geographically, & has free wifi, so I find myself at 1 branch or another whenever I’m in town, & don’t generally mind a bit sticking something in my mouth, be it this burly beefy chili


or that most civilized of all baked goods,*** a housemade English muffin,


or decent huevos rancheros with especially saucy pintos & home fries.


Thus did I return to Denver a little fatter & mostly happier.

***Nope, it’s not brioche; too decadent. Nope, not the baguette; too working class. Crumpets perhaps. Write-in candidates welcome.