Monday, April 19, 2010

Clear Channel Stadium: Quakes @ Jethawks

For three summers I have wanted to catch Quakes away games at the various  California League stadiums throughout the state, but I never have. Something has always gotten in the way. By "something" I guess I mean laziness. Three years ago I was on my way up to Adelanto to see the Quakes at the High Desert Mavericks when a major windstorm in the Devore Pass slowed traffic to 15 mph. I didn't feel like dealing with it so I went home. Two years ago I was going to see the Quakes at Lake Elsinore. I decided to go wine tasting instead. 

Last year I purchased tickets weeks in advance to see the Quakes at Inland Empire. Then Manny Ramirez was suspended for 50 games, came back to to do some "rehab" with the 66ers the weekend my tickets were for, and I sold my two $12 tickets for $45 each. The biggest part of the beauty of minor league baseball is that the fans are true fans of the game of baseball; they aren't front-runners or starf**kers who go to games to see particular players. I knew there were going to be many of those types at the game, so if I could skip that - and make $75 in the process - I was just fine with that.

But this year I have awaited the arrival of baseball season more than any I can remember. There hasn't been much else to keep me entertained in the last few months. UCLA football had another of its par-for-the-course-these-days .500 seasons. UCLA basketball was atrocious, as they have finally stopped practicing offense all together. The Lakers had the best record in the West, but they are still my least favorite Lakers team ever. 

Baseball is the transfusion I needed to get those other teams out of my blood. I decided this should be the season I follow the Quakes to other venues. Saturday night Elizabeth and I went up to Lancaster to see the Quakes at the Jethawks.

I drove through Lancaster pretty much every year when I was a kid - on the way to Mammoth with my family. There was never much to see. Over the years the population tripled. The last time we went to Mammoth as a family, the summer after I graduated high school, there was a new minor league baseball park. A minor league team, the Pilots, had moved from Riverside and were now the Lancaster Jethawks. 

We headed up to Lancaster in the afternoon to have lunch, play miniature golf, and visit the California Poppy Reserve. In the afternoon, about an hour and half before game time, I suggested we go to the stadium and hang out for a while. I figured there wouldn't be too many people at that hour and we could play catch in the parking lot or something. But when we got to the scene of the crime, there were hundreds of people in line already. I was not expecting this: Lancaster was 1-8, the worst team in the California League. (And, until Rancho Cuc swept the first three games of the series, the Quakes had the second-worst record.) Apparently they were giving away a fleece blanket to the first 1500 fans and, according to the Jethawks' website, it was "one of the most anticipated giveaway nights of the season." Well, then.

We took our place at the back of one of the lines, a couple hundred people deep, under the NASA F/A-18. We waited in line for about 20 minutes but it was a nice warm desert day so we didn't mind. Once inside we walked around for a while, taking pictures of the stadium. We bought a churro. A few weeks ago there was some discussion on the other blog about churros after a post on Olvera Street. That was one of the best churros I have ever had in my life. This one was perhaps the worst. It was hard enough for one of the players to use as a bat. 

Since this stadium is north of the San Gabriel Mountains, there isn't much of a view; you're just looking out onto the high desert. That's fine with me, I don't mind concentrating on the game. But it's a far cry from sitting right beneath the mountains in Rancho Cucamonga. 

My main complaint with the game, once it started, was the annoying trend of the sound system playing songs and making noises after every pitch. Now, I love the silliness of minor league ball as much as anyone. Whether it's the baby races at the Staten Island Yankees or the "free car wash for the dirtiest car in the parking lot" at the Great Falls Dodgers (my friend Tom and I had driven 500 miles through Montana that day and my car was crusted with dead bugs; I still fail to see how we lost, other than perhaps because I had California plates on my car) I love the informal atmosphere of minor league games. And I am in favor of anything silly between the innings. But once the game is being played, I find the huge ruckus distracting. But then again most people at the ballpark seemed to be enjoying it, so maybe I'm wrong. 

The Jethawks got out to a several run lead but the Quakes pitcher settled down and finished the last 4 and 1/3 innings perfectly, and the Quakes were able to come back and win. When we got home we unwrapped the fleece blanket. I gotta admit, it's pretty nice, much more comfortable than I was expecting. With all the giveaways I have picked up at baseball games over the years, there is only one that I truly used for a long time: the beach towel I got at a Padres game I went to with my dad when I was 15, a double-header that turned out to include Tony Gwynn's 2000th hit. But I have a feeling this blanket is going to last a long time as well.

As I have written before, minor league games are the way to go if you love baseball. They are much cheaper (these tickets, which as you can see were very good) were $8 each, the game only lasted a little more than a couple hours, and the fans were really into the game. I don't like Clear Channel as much as the Epicenter, but it is still a great place to catch a game. 

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Perdue's Pulled Pork (With My Own Sauce)

The other day I was asked a question by someone on one of my favorite blogs: if I knew any place around these parts for Carolina-style barbecue. There are many different things that are covered by the title "Carolina" barbecue, but the one thing they all have in common is that pork is the star of the show. The short answer to that question is no, I don't know of any place that I would call classic Carolina-style barbecue. The longer answer is that some places come pretty close to hitting certain aspects of Carolina barbecue... some of the time.

Every once in a while at Robin's you will get a sandwich of chopped pork that is close to perfect, and indeed they call it the "Carolina Chopped Pork Sandwich." Unfortunately, those sandwiches are few and far between. (Their consistency has improved a lot in the last three years, however it's still not enough to guarantee great barbecue.) Zeke's Smokehouse serves chopped pork where greatness is the rule rather than the exception, but then, in a move that frustrates and confounds me every time, they serve the pork on a dense, distracting bun that always tastes a day or two past being fresh. 

The best pork I have consistently had in L.A. County in the last year is from Perdue's. (Bludso's and Big Mista's were every bit Perdue's equal - the latter even surpassing it - but I have only had them each one time.) However, their sauce, while not bad, is nothing special, and they use too much of it. Carolina-style barbecue sauce usually means one of three things: 

1) South Carolina mustard sauce, which is usually some variation of mustard and vinegar. Zeke's has a very good version of this, although I prefer the Big Bob Gibson's mustard sauce for sale at Barbeques Galore. 

2) Eastern North Carolina sauce, which is basically just vinegar and a few spices. Sometimes, like at Baby Blues, it is only cider vinegar and chili flakes. This is my favorite kind of sauce for good pork.

3) Western North Carolina sauce, which, while still not being particularly thick, usually has ketchup and a few more ingredients in it, like brown sugar or Worcestershire sauce. 

So I got an idea: order a pulled pork sandwich at Perdue's and request it with no sauce, so I could add my own. Saturday I mixed up a small container of three things: cider vinegar, chili flakes, and a couple slugs of hot sauce. 

"What are you doing?" Elizabeth asked me. 

"I'm making my own barbecue sauce to take to Perdue's with me," I replied, naively thinking this would make perfect sense to anyone.

"Oh my God, you are a dork."

It was noon on Saturday and I was worried there might be a lot of people at Perdue's and the always-constant wait would be even longer than usual. There was no one there. We would be there about 45 minutes and not a single other person would enter the restaurant. Of course, it still took twenty minutes to get our two sandwiches. But they sat mine down in front of me, with slaw on the sandwich and no sauce, and I had no complaints.

I took a photo of it without sauce, then lifted the bun, doused it with a healthy amount of sauce, and took a bite. It was spectacular. A tender and juicy piece of smoked pork is already sweet enough; it doesn't need a sugary sauce to complement it. A slightly tart, slightly spicy vinegar sauce is perfect, especially when there is a cooling slaw on the sandwich. 

I'm not saying I'm going to do this every time I go to Perdue's, but I'm glad I tried it once. I think my next project should be a trip to Zeke's with a couple slices of white bread (and perhaps this sauce) to alter one of their sandwiches. That could be an even better sandwich than this.