Thursday, September 25, 2008

Dodger Stadium

When I was a kid I hated the Dodgers. Steve Sax, Pedro Guerrero, Mariano Duncan... I didn't like any of them. The Angels were always my team, not counting my bizarre fascination with the Blue Jays (back when they were terrible.)

But when I got to be a teenager and wanted to go to games, I didn't really have the time or the means to go down to Anaheim for games. So I started going to Dodger games with my friends, and I actually started to like the team. Mike Piazza, Eric Karros, Raul Mondesi, Chan Ho Park... I liked those guys. Of course, those players are all gone (Chan Ho is back on the team after many years away) and Dodger Stadium isn't quite the place it used to be.

The summer after I graduated high school my friends and I went to games three or four times a week when the team was in town. We got decent seats for $8, parking was $5, and with a hot dog or two (never anything to drink, although we would sometimes drink beer in the parking lot until the security chased us off) you could have a great night at the stadium for under 20 bucks. And it's not like I'm talking about 50 years ago; I'm talking about 12 years ago. Now those same seats are $31 and parking is $15. I know that's the way of professional sports and somebody has to come up with the money to pay Andruw Jones 18 millions dollars to hit .158 this year, but it's too bad that some 18 year olds just won't be able to have the same experiences this summer that I did when I was their age.

So with the way I feel about Dodger Stadium, combined with the fact that I can more easily make it down to Anaheim to see the Angels these days, I hardly ever make it to Chavez Ravine anymore. (In the last 6 years, actually, I've only been once: 3 years ago on my birthday with ten friends for a Sunday afternoon game against the Giants, perhaps the best birthday I have ever had.)

But a friend of mine got tickets to a game against the Padres so I figured I'd go. I have to admit, even with Dodger Stadium not being as great as I remember it (is anything?), it is still one of my favorite places in L.A. Our seats were fantastic, my Dodger dog was good, and I even enjoyed my Heineken. (Is it weird that I didn't even blink about paying $8 for a plastic cup of Heineken? I mean, it's better than the time I paid $11 for a can of Miller Lite at Yankee Stadium, right?)

And the one thing the Angels don't have is the incomparable Vin Scully. Like the smell of fresh cut grass or the first taste of water out of a garden hose that has been lying in the sun, Vin's voice reminds me of summer. The greatest thing about interleague play isn't the opportunity for me to see National League teams, or watch the Angels pitchers bat. It's when the Dodgers play the Angels and I get to hear Vin call a couple Angels games.
So even with the hundreds of advertisements all over the stadium, the lack of Cool-A-Coos (remember those?,) or the fact that the Dodgers aren't even my favorite team, I still can't think of a better place to spend a summer evening in Los Angeles.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Epicenter

There are definite tiers to the quality of barbecue you get at baseball games. I don't think anything can ever top the smoked turkey sandwich I got at the Gates BBQ stand at Kaufmann Stadium in Kansas City. Not only was it the best barbecue sandwich I have ever had at a stadium, it was one of the best sandwiches I have ever had anywhere. Boog's BBQ at Camden Yards was also very good. Unfortunately I did not have a digital camera back when I ate at those places (but even if I did, I wasn't obsessed with taking pictures of my food back then.) Even some minor league foods, like the pulled pork nachos at Autozone Park in Memphis, or the brisket sandwich at PGE Park in Portland, are good.

Then there is the other end of the spectrum: the crock-pot cooked, sugary-sauce drenched stuff they used to serve in my high school cafeteria. That's what I got when I ordered a pulled pork sandwich at a Quakes game. Should I have expected something different at a Class A park in Southern California? Probably not. But it was still really bad. From now on at the Epicenter I will stick to hot dogs.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Rose Bowl

I hadn't been to a UCLA football game at the Rose Bowl in several years. I had only seen a UCLA game once in 6 years, actually, when I went up to San Francisco for the Emerald Bowl two years ago. That UCLA team, which had somehow held USC to 9 points, gave up 44 points to the worst Florida State team in 30 years. And as a final insult, Memphis Minnie's was closed and I had to eat a lousy meal at Big Nate's. (Well, I guess I didn't have to eat at Big Nate's; San Francisco is one of the great restaurant cities of the world, but I needed barbecue, you know?)
I don't remember them having barbecue stands back when I used to go to the games, but they have several of them now. I stayed away from the familiar Robin's BBQ stand, as I have eaten their burnt, flavorless sausages at other events in Pasadena before. (I like the restaurant, but the food at their stands at events like the South Pasadena farmer's market, the Sierra Madre Art Fair, and the Old Pasadena Summerfest has always been lousy.)
My friend (who had never been to a game at the Rose Bowl) and I went for a walk around the stadium as soon as it became clear UCLA was not going to win. (During the coin toss. Only kidding... slightly.) The first stand we came to was the Brander's Barbeque stand. I got a pulled pork sandwich and she got a bbq chicken sandwich. They were served on cheap French rolls and doused with the kind of barbecue sauce you buy in 5 gallon containers at Smart & Final, but the meat was actually very good. I was quite impressed. The chicken was better than the pork.
The next stand we passed, Rose Canyon Barbeque, had a nice looking menu: pork sandwiches, chicken wings (they looked good,) and sweet potato fries. Their pork sandwich, however, was just the kind of "barbecue" you get in a plastic Lloyd's BBQ container at Ralph's. The bun was stale so I just ate a few bites of the pork with a fork. Nothing special at all. The cole slaw, however, was very good.
I'm glad I tried the sandwiches, and the Brander's pork was pretty good, but I don't see any need to ever get them again.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Oinkster

The Oinkster
2005 Colorado Blvd
Eagle Rock, CA 90041

I am a big fan of this place. I have never had one of their burgers, but I have had their pastrami sandwich and it is fantastic. My standard order, however, is the pulled pork sandwich. The menu claims it is "roasted and smoked." I am not sure if this is true; I have never seen any smoke ring on the pork, and it certainly tastes more like it has been roasted, but it is always good. They also have a vinegar barbecue sauce that is perfect for pork. In the second photo, I have containers of the vinegar sauce, their chipotle ketchup (which is great,) and a mustard/mayo sauce (which is not.)

The sandwich also comes with a great red cabbage slaw and some caramelized onions. The onions certainly do not contribute anything to the sandwich, but they are still tasty.

Their fries are cooked in the proper Belgian style, and are perfect as long as you eat them there. Most fries don't travel well, and these are no exception. (It's one thing to wait a few minutes to eat lousy to-go fries like Carl's Jr. or Burger King; that isn't going to make them any worse. But I wouldn't recommend messing around with these.)
The last picture is one I took of their pulled pork sandwich when they first opened a couple years ago. It was served on a regular bun then, as opposed to the hard roll they use now. I always say that I prefer pulled pork on a soft bun, but I have to admit a certain fondness for the roll they use now, if only because it holds up better against the flood of vinegar sauce I put on the pork (it's that good.)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Crocodile Cafe

Crocodile Cafe
140 S Lake Ave
Pasadena, CA 91101

I have been eating at the "Croc" since I was in junior high. Their patio is a great place to eat, set a couple feet below street level on Lake Ave. A good friend of mine works just across the street and we try to meet for lunch at least once a month. We have gone to Smitty's and Celestino, which are both good places, however we almost always eat at Crocodile. (We always sit outside, though, because inside it is one of the loudest and least spacious restaurants in Pasadena.)

95% of the time my order has been the same - a plate of fries to start and a barbecue chicken pizza. (Their bbq chicken pizza is one of the best around.) But they do have a "slow-smoked bbq pork sandwich" on the menu, so I had to try it at least once.

It is served on a celery seed roll that adds nothing to the sandwich, but the pork is very good. There is very little fat on it, and even though they put too much sauce on it, the sauce is decent. It comes with a side of curry slaw (the first time I have ever tried that) which is good, although it had a very distinct flavor so I did not add any to the sandwich, which I normally do when slaw is served on the side.

I have been back a couple times since I got this sandwich, but I have not ordered it again, and I doubt I will. It was good, but their other items are much better.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Buffalo Wild Wings

Buffalo Wild Wings
8188 Day Creek Blvd
Rancho Cucamonga, CA 91739

I'm not a huge fan of chains. I don't hate them and I understand their purpose, and I have certainly eaten scores if not hundreds of meals at chains. Once while driving around Rapid City, South Dakota, during the most amazing lightning storm I have ever seen, trying desperately to find a place to eat, I came across a Chili's and was as happy as I have ever been to find a restaurant. (A few minutes earlier my friend had said "That looks like a cute restaurant," only she was saying it about a gun store, and I knew it was time to find the first decent restaurant we came across.)

I just think it's more fun to eat at independently-owned restaurants. However, I still go to Buffalo Wild Wings for lunch at least once every few months, because it's a pretty nice place (when it isn't crowded) to watch an afternoon baseball game and relax. My standard order is boneless buffalo wings with spicy garlic sauce. But they have a pulled pork sandwich on the menu and on a recent trip I ordered it.

The sandwich is described on the menu as such: "Hickory-smoked, hand-pulled pork." I suppose technically that might be true, however the pork had not been smoked or pulled any time or place proximately. It was chewy, dry (even though it had plenty of sauce on it), and basically inedible. McDonald's McRib is closer to good barbecue than this sandwich.

I was not expecting a great sandwich, and perhaps it was silly of me to be deceived by the menu description, but I was expecting something that could at least be eaten. Consider me your canary in the coal mine on this one: don't ever order this sandwich.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Gordon Biersch Brewing Company

Gordon Biersch Brewing Company
41 Hugus Alley
Pasadena, CA 91103

I have been going to Gordon Biersch since I was in high school, back when they only had a few items on their menu, all of which came with garlic fries. I have probably eaten over a hundred meals there over the years, although thankfully their menu has expanded quite a bit. I have never cared for their beer, though. With the exception of the Winter Bock, their beers taste to me like they are designed for people who don't really like beer.
But I've always like their food. On a recent visit I tried their pulled pork sandwich. I was not expecting it to be smoked on the premises, and of course it wasn't, but it was still very good. The sauce was tasty, the cabbage was fresh, and the bun was good. I'm not going to make it a regular choice - I usually just get a couple of their appetizers as my meal - but I am very glad I tried it.

Rance Mulliniks

For reasons I will probably never to be able to completely explain, Rance Mulliniks was my favorite baseball player when I was a kid. Even though he started with the Angels, my favorite team, by the time I had started following baseball he was on the Blue Jays. But instead of choosing Tommy John, Rod Carew, Brian Downing, Reggie Jackson, or any other Angel, I chose Rance as my favorite player. On my 8th birthday my parents took me to an Angels-Blue Jays game in Anaheim and Rance hit a home run, the most thrilling baseball moment of my childhood (not counting the time my brother almost spilled coffee on Johnny Bench, obviously.)

When I was seven I mailed him his rookie card, told him he was my favorite player, and asked if he would autograph it for me. A couple days later when I told my mom I had done this, she explained to me what a self-addressed, stamped envelope is (I had no idea, I had just mailed the card and letter to the Blue Jays in an envelope), and told me that I would probably never see that card again.

But a week later, I got an envelope in the mail with this autographed card in it. Rance, or a member of his posse, had autographed the card, addressed the envelope to me, and put a stamp on it. (I'm joking of course about his posse, although it's a nice image to think that Rance had an actual posse, like maybe instead of going to strip clubs or recording rap albums they would go out in the off-seaon and round up criminals in the Tulare area.)

So if you ever read my blog, Rance (talk about delusions of grandeur), thanks again. You made a seven year old kid very happy, and I will be glad to reimburse you for the stamp 22 years later.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Barbary Coast Savannah BBQ (Sacramento)

Barbary Coast Savannah BBQ
1226 20th St
Sacramento, CA 95811

It took me a while to make it here; their hours are strange. It says on the sign that they open at noon on weekdays (all the restaurants nearby open at 11) but the first two times I came here around 12:30, the place wasn't open. I tried to look through the gates to see a smoker going strong, but I couldn't (later I learned why: there isn't one.) Eventually I decided just to drive by around 3 in the afternoon and see if they were open. They were, and even though I had already eaten lunch and wasn't particularly hungry, I can always make room for barbecue.
I got a pulled pork sandwich with cole slaw and green beans. The sides were both very good. The pork was good but had certainly been cooked in an oven or a slow cooker. The bun was terrible: thick and dry. The main attraction for me was the "Authentic Georgia Barbecue Sauce." I had no idea what to expect from that. I've had sauces labeled as Georgian that were mustard-based, a sauce that tasted like K.C. Masterpiece, and even a Georgia barbecue sauce with peaches in it. This sauce was unlike any I can remember tasting - it was vinegar based but was also very sweet. Too sweet, actually, but with a few drops of hot sauce that was remedied.
I have heard that this place has closed down now. That is a shame (they were very friendly) but not unexpected. Random hours, meat that isn't smoked, and a completely perplexing name are not a good combination.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Famous Dave's

Famous Dave's
1205 Rancho Vista Blvd.
Palmdale, CA 93551

The first time I visited Famous Dave's, it was atrocious. They had only been open for a day, it took me 40 minutes to get a seat (and even then it was at the bar,) it took another 45 minutes to get my food, and the food was awful. They were clearly in over their heads. I don't usually cut restaurants slack for being brand new; if they are charging full price I expect full service. However, everyone was so friendly and apologetic (and the bartender bought me a beer, so technically I didn't pay full price for my meal) that I figured I should give them another try. I am glad I did.
I started with an order of "Sweetwater Catfish Fingers." I wish I could find the picture because they were fantastic, served with a remoulade and jalapeno sauce. I got the "Georgia Chopped Pork Sandwich" as well. The pork was just about perfect. There was plenty of smoke ring, it was fresh, and the slaw I ordered on top of the sandwich was good, too. They serve it with their "rich and sassy" barbecue sauce, which was good, although in retrospect I wish I had ordered it without the sauce, because they have a mustard sauce on the table (along with several other kinds of sauces in squeeze bottles) that is really good and would have been better on the sandwich.
I don't know when I will go back to Famous Dave's, because the nearest location is in Rancho Cucamonga, but if they ever open one closer to Pasadena I will definitely try it out.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Cheesecake Factory

The Cheesecake Factory
2 W Colorado Blvd
Pasadena, CA 91105

I do not "get" The Cheesecake Factory. I admit I am not crazy about cheesecake (or any dessert, really, except homemade ice cream and sour gummy cola bottles) so maybe my opinion on the place shouldn't count, but I have never understood why people wait in long lines to eat food that, to me, tastes like the stuff you get at Denny's for much lower prices. It is not bad food; it just isn't particularly good food, and certainly not anything worth waiting for. (Years ago my friends and I would make a point of walking by the Old Pasadena location on a Friday night, observing the more than two-hour wait, then walking down to a half-empty Kualu Lumpur and eating a Malaysian meal as good as any you will find in America.)
I have a friend, however, who really likes Cheesecake Factory, and I would gladly eat there to hang out with her. The last time I went there I decided to try the pulled pork sandwich. I know ordering something like that at a restaurant like Cheesecake Factory and expecting great barbecue, or even real barbecue, is naive. But after eating a great pulled pork sandwich at T.G.I. Friday's, nothing would surprise me.
Still, nothing prepared me for the sandwich I got. I can't say it was bad barbecue, because it was not even close to barbecue. It was pork that had been shreedded by machine, overcooked with a sweet barbecue sauce, and served on a stale bun.
I am sure I will eat at Cheesecake Factory again one day, but I will go back to eating their average pizza or boneless buffalo wings.

Beachwood BBQ

Beachwood BBQ
131 1/2 Main St
Seal Beach, CA 90740

Beachwood BBQ is another one of those places that gets all the little details right but seems to miss the big picture.

First, the good stuff. They have perhaps the best beer selection I have ever seen in a restaurant. Most bars don't even have this good a selection: New Belgium Eric's Ale, Russian River Pliny The Elder, Moonlight Brewing Death & Taxes, Sierra Nevada Harvest, and at least a dozen more. Having stated my preference for drinking Budweiser with barbecue, I have to admit that this beer selection is phenomenal.

Almost as exciting, they have four homemade sauces on each table for you. A sweet sauce, spicy sauce, mustard sauce, and vinegar sauce. I did not try the sweet sauce, but the spicy was great, although, curiously, not at all spicy. The mustard was unique - it was made with dijon and tasted like Grey Poupon mixed with vinegar. It tasted good but I doubted it would be good on a sandwich (I was wrong.) The vinegar sauce, made with red wine vinegar and chili flakes, was great; other than Johnny Rebs', it was probably the best North Carolina-style sauce I have had in Southern California.

Now, the not-so-good stuff. The pulled pork on my sandwich was dry and tasted like it had been smoked a couple days earlier. After three or four bites I put a lot of sauce on the pork just so it wouldn't taste so dry. And the pretzel bun it came on, while tasty, had no business being served with pulled pork. If you are proud of your barbecue, I don't understand why you would want to serve it on a hard roll or a fancy roll, and this was both. I also ordered a side of their "tangy" coleslaw. Not only was it not tangy, it did not seem to have any dressing on it at all. It literally tasted like cabbage and nothing else (I poured some of the vinegar barbecue sauce on it, though, and it tasted better.)

Still, overall I do like the place. My friend got the pulled chicken sandwich and I took a bite: it was much better than my pork. The fries were great, and even though the place was packed (noon on a hot Saturday) the service was great and everybody in there seemed to be having a good time. Do you know that atmosphere in September at a bar or a backyard barbecue where the summer is obviously slipping away but everyone pretends not to notice? That's what it felt like in Seal Beach and Beachwood BBQ on Saturday.

I am not a big fan of the beach (it took us 20 minutes to find a parking space several blocks away) so I don't know if I will be going back to Beachwood BBQ anytime soon. But if they were closer to me I would definitely try them again to see if maybe they were just having an off day with the barbecue. There are enough other things about the place that I like to deserve me giving them another try.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Memphis In May

I love Memphis. From the blues clubs on Beale Street, to the hundreds of great barbecue restaurants, to baseball games at Autozone Park, to the Mississippi River Museum on Mud Island, it is an amazing city to visit. The National Civil Rights Museum, with its burned-out Freedom Rider bus and tour that concludes steps away from where Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, is one of the most poignant museums you will ever see. Hell, I even loved visiting Graceland, and I'm not an Elvis fan. (The first time I was in Memphis I only visited Graceland because my friend insisted on it, although in protest I played Chuck Berry music the whole drive there. High up on the list of things I will never understand, somewhere between calculus and women, is why Chuck Berry is not as famous as Elvis.)

So there was no question that as soon as I had the time and money I would be going to the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. It was an phenomenal trip. A friend and I drove out together from Los Angeles and met up with another friend who flew in. The first picture is obviously Beale Street, and the second picture is a Dyer's burger - a burger fried in grease that has not been changed since 1912. (When they changed locations to Beale Street a few years ago they hired an armored car and police escort to transport the grease. Have I mentioned how much I love Memphis?) It is a great burger. Definitely click on the above link when you have a few minutes to watch the video.

The third picture is a view of the festival from a distance. It's in a great location, right on the banks of the Mississippi. The fourth picture is a pulled pork sandwich from a Corky's BBQ stand at the festival. It was very good, although not as good as the sandwich I had at the restaurant a couple days later. It was a very hot day, unseasonably hot for the festival, and we had walked at least a couple miles to get to there. The ice cold can of Budweiser accompanying the sandwich has to rank as one of the most pleasurable beer drinking experiences I have ever had, as strange as that may sound.

The next three pictures are some of my favorite team names from among the 250+ teams competing. I stopped and looked at the smokers and setups of lots of teams. Several of the teams talked to me, and almost all said hi. Now, I admit the alcohol was flowing freely for every team, so perhaps they were all drunk, but it was still a very friendly atmosphere. The last picture is a sandwich I grabbed just as I was leaving the park. I don't remember what the name of the stand was, and I actually don't even remember how it tasted.

I can recommend the barbecue festival without hesitation. If you like barbecue, blues, beer, friendly people, and deep fried burgers, I can't think of a better way to spend a weekend than Memphis in May. Even check out Graceland, if you have never been. (The Peabody ducks, however, are one of the stupidest things you will ever see.)

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Beach Pit BBQ

The Beach Pit BBQ
1676 Tustin Avenue
Costa Mesa, CA 92627

I understand why people love the Beach Pit. It is a charming location with checkered tablecloths on wooden tables, plenty of outside seating, a fire pit, and a childrens play area. And the food is pretty good. But I wouldn't call it great.
It was pretty empty when I stopped in. There was one woman eating outside and that was it. The guy behind the counter was a nice guy; we chatted for a couple minutes about the items on the menu. I was wearing a t shirt I had bought at Memphis in May (reading "Memphis: The 4th Fattest City in America. We Won't Rest Until We're #1") and we talked a little about the BBQ festival.
I had a pulled pork sandwich and fries. The pork was good and had definitely been wood smoked, but it was not great. It came on a dense French roll that was distracting, so I just ate the meat. The sauce, even though it was the "spicy" version, tasted sweet and did little for the pork. With all the effort they put into replicating a Southern joint, I was expecting them to have a vinegar or mustard sauce, but they did not.
I liked the Beach Pit. I just didn't love it, and I got the feeling that if they spent a little less time on marketing (and designing the place to feel "authentic") they might actually make some great barbecue. I felt their barbecue was only good. But that still puts them in the upper echelon of Southern California barbecue. If I lived closer to the area I'm sure I would visit them frequently.

Hungry Al's Bar-B-Que

Hungry Al's Bar-B-Que
116 N Vincent Ave
West Covina, CA 91790

I had heard about Hungry Al's from someone who raved about their ribs, and I filed it in the back of my mind. One day in Covina I got off the 10 because the traffic was horrible, and the restaurant was right there. Never one to pass up a barbecue joint, I stopped in.

The girl working the counter was very friendly. I asked her opinion between the hot link sandwich or the beef. She recommended the sliced beef. Unfortunately, it was not very good. It was so dry it was pretty much inedible. The bread it was served on was not fresh, either. There was a table of guys next to me all eating baby back ribs. The ribs definitely looked better than my beef sandwich. I seriously doubt I will ever be back here again, but if I do I'm getting the ribs.