Monday, July 16, 2012

Two Cursed Restaurants Get Yet Another Try

Stop me if you've seen this before:

1. A restaurant closes.

2. The Pitch and/or the Star report on the closing.

3. The comments section becomes some combination of indifference, regret, and disbelief that the place didn't close sooner.

4. Someone then says something in the vein of: "I don't see you opening a restaurant! You should applaud these people for having the COURAGE to open their own restaurant, especially in this economy."

And this is where I really have to fight the urge to respond.

Opening a business is not something that should be lauded unconditionally.

Here's what I'm getting at. If you asked me to list the worst spaces in my area to open a restaurant, the two at the top of my list would be the strange endcap space in the strip mall at 79th and Quivira (7820 Quivira), and the former Margarita's just west of Quivira at 12200 Johnson Drive.

Why do I say this?

Because I've lived in the area for 3 years, and in that time both spaces have housed at least 3 different restaurants. I don't think any of them lasted more than about 6 months.

Instead of taking the hint, new owners are in place at both locations, with new dreams and new hopes that they'll be the ones to break the curse.

The space at 79th and Quivira has been a Chinese place, a Mexican place, another Mexican place (with a buffet), Ray's Breakfast and Burgers, and Hot Mama's Bayou since 2009. It will soon open as Nick's Italian Pizza. I assume (and hope) that it is affiliated with the establishment of the same name in downtown KCK, which serves good NY-style pizza by the slice.
The old Margarita's building is a less-visible, more-awkward space--you have to descend a flight of stairs to get to the dining room. The space has been occupied by another Mexican place, then Daniels' BBQ and Char-Grill BBQ/fried chicken since Margarita's moved out.*

*Ironically, Margarita's is now located in a former Hardee's at 79th and the parking lot in front of what will soon be Nick's Italian Pizza.

Now, signs are up for yet another smokehouse called Vintage BBQ. Sigh.

Putting myself in the shoes of the new lessees, I can see the appeal. The rent has to be relatively low, and the spaces are built out as restaurants (which means minimal remodeling and possibly existing equipment/exhaust hoods). And at least with the pizza place, there is no pizza-by-the-slice option in the vicinity.

But you also get what you pay for, which is a lack of visibility & atmosphere, and a proven track record of restaurant failure.

Bottom line? I'm not wishing for either of these places to fail. But I won't feel sorry for them if they do.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Basic Essentials Classes 101

If you were to take a class named Wine Essentials, with the following description...

Whether you are just discovering wine or an enthusiast who needs a refresher course, our Wine Essentials Course will provide you with the building blocks. You will learn the five S's of wine tasting as you explore 8 different wines. This class focuses on the 'classic' grapes, where they grow and why they grow there.

...what would you expect the class to entail? How advanced would you expect it to be?

How about a class named Smoking 101?

Maybe my reading comprehension needs work, but I thought it was a safe assumption that these classes would be geared toward beginners who are looking to be eased into the intimidating worlds of wine and barbecue.

We took the “Wine Essentials” class recently at Cellar Rat, which is a nice store in the Crossroads with a good selection. Those who read this blog know I’m more a beer guy, but I do enjoy a good wine and have always enjoyed visiting this shop. They go out of their way to be enthusiastic and not pretentious about wine. They organize their store by price: the entire center section is wines under $25, while the more expensive bottles line the walls.

We and seven others sat down for the class. There was a group of 3--a set of parents and their daughter--down the table. The mom gleefully explained that the daughter was an architecture student and had just turned 21, and they wanted to set her off on the right foot. The mother also explained that they had drunk wine all over the world, but had never taken a formal class.

Oh boy.

The instructor was a friendly guy in his late 20s who started by giving us a brief history of wine. He then explained a technique for tasting wine, using the five ‘S’s – see, swirl, smell, sip, savor.

For the first wine, he asked us questions, like “What do you see?” Someone said “it’s really light,” and a comment from our resident experts was something to the effect that the color was normal for a Riesling.

When someone asked if we should rinse our glasses for the next round of wines, our experts piped in before our instructor, “No! No, you should never rinse your wine glass with water. There’s chlorine in water.”

Later, when the instructor asked what scents we picked up in one of the wines, the response was a sigh, a faraway gaze, and a longing “Napa Valley!” Never mind that it was a French wine…

The question of how to taste that first little sip that the waiter pours in a restaurant came up. The instructor mentioned that the cork is not presented to smell, and before he could finish our experts said, in unison, “No! You don’t smell it, you squeeze it to make sure it's wet,” with requisite hand gestures.

The daughter, who at 21 possesses more self awareness than her parents, hit her dad on the arm and said, “Let the instructor answer!”

We also got the story of how the sommelier at 40 Sardines (the former Leawood hotspot owned by Michael Smith and Debbie Gold pre-divorce) was their FAVORITE, and the sommelier was so good and knew them by name, and when they ate at Michael Smith they asked what happened to the sommelier, and Michael Smith said, “He’s right up the street! He opened his own shop!”, and she walked in and he was so happy to see them, and he remembered us and walked right over to pick up some of their best “buttery” Chardonnays because he knows exactly what she likes, and we just let him pick our wines because he’s so good…

The class itself was great, as was the instructor. Just...don’t be those people.

(Favorite line from the instructor: People say the most obnoxious things about wine. "Oh, it's fruity and precocious!" You know what? YOU'RE fruity and precocious.)


My wife and I were excited to take the smoking class a while back at the KC Culinary Institute. I had received a “starter” smoker for Christmas, and we both wanted to learn more about using it. We arrived there on a cold, rainy day ready to learn. As an introduction, the instructor asked how many of us were brand new to smoking. Only a few of us raised our hands. We found most of the class had been smoking for years, then he asked whether there were any COMPETITION TEAMS in the class. At least 10 people raised their hands, and they represented at least 3 separate groups.

Again: Competition teams. IN. SMOKING. 101. WTF???

Unfortunately, this meant the class moved way too fast. The basics were sloughed over in favor of more advanced techniques, even when we and the few other neophytes tried to slow it down with questions. It felt like the instructors were trying to show off for the barbecue nerds who were drooling over them instead of teaching those of us who hadn’t dropped a grand on a Traeger fully automated pellet smoker.

Now, I don’t deny the instructors’ knowledge whatsoever. They knew their stuff, and the main instructor is a published author, decorated BBQ cook, and professional chef. I also don’t deny that I learned some stuff, even if much of it went over my head.

I simply deny that this was at all a class for beginners, and should not have been billed as such.

My favorite parts:

1. We were asked what the best barbecue in town was. Someone said Oklahoma Joe’s. Get this – the instructor said NO. Pointed at the next person. NO. The next. NO. After about 6 of these, he said Danny Edwards. Hands down the best barbecue in town. I like Danny Edwards. It’s not the best barbecue in town. And don’t be an asshole and tell me I’m wrong.

2. After the class, we tried to ask a question on how to adapt some of the techniques for use on our basic electric smoker. We were basically scoffed at and told it would do a nice job “perfuming” our meat, but we’d best upgrade our equipment if we really want to do this. Well, maybe part of taking a class called SMOKING 101 was figuring out if we “really want to do this,” jerk.

Oh, and for the record: taking that class cost us more than TWICE as much our meat perfuming machine smoker which, as it turns out, makes really good meat with real smoke rings and everything.

Taking any “adult education” class is something of a leap of faith. It’s rare that there are meaningful reviews that one can consult in deciding what is or is not a good value. But let’s agree to stick to these rules of thumb:

1. If you call your class “basics”, “essentials”, “101”, etc. you should teach it as such, and you should definitely not condescend to the very people who took it for that very reason.

2. If you are a fairly knowledgeable person (or god forbid an expert) regarding the subject matter being taught, and choose to take a “basics” class anyway, you will shut your mouth and not come off like a pompous know-it-all ass.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Old Neighborhood, Pt. 1

Saturday, I watched Gran Torino for the first time. I know; I’m a bit behind on my flicks.

If you haven’t seen it, Clint Eastwood plays a growling, bitter, bigoted, recently widowed veteran of the Korean War. He lives defiantly in his longtime home as the neighborhood around him falls into blight and becomes an incubator for gangs of all ethnicities.

Sunday, I went to my parents’ house to celebrate my brother’s birthday. While the old neighborhood has not declined to a Gran Torino*-esque level, the movie made me a bit more aware of the signs of decay than usual. It has certainly seen better days.

*Incidentally, my parents' first car that I can actually remember was a 1975 Gran Torino. It was white, with leg-burning dark blue vinyl seats. It was also adorned with a "George Brett for President" bumper sticker, distributed during his MVP-winning 1980 season when he hit .390.

Most neighborhoods, when transitioning from "working class/blue collar" to "poor", display common visual attributes. The old guard--generally long-term resident, empty nest couples in their 50s or older--still keep up their properties:

The old guard knows, deep down, that the neighborhood is going to shit. But just as people can ignore--or really, rationalize--the two nuisance pounds they gain every year, they do the same with the slow, gradual decay happening around them:

It's easy for the old guard to ignore a house like this (the rotting siding and unkempt yard look worse in person than in this picture). It keeps them sane, keeps them rooted in place, keeps them from ruminating on the herculean task of relocating all the possessions and memories accumulated over a lifetime.

Then you see this, which shockingly was occupied (as of last month, at least):

Each of these houses is less than 1/2 block from one another.

For me, distance equals perspective. I hadn't driven down most of these side streets in well over a decade, and it really opened my eyes. The places where I used to happily ride my bike were now...seedy. A little creepy. And more than a little sad.

The baseball fields where I spent countless summer nights as a player and spectator have been abandoned for years, victims of hard times and a general decline in baseball interest among urban kids:

This photo is a bit of a non sequitur; I just found it funny and appropriate to see a "watch for pedestrians" sign on a narrow street that, like nearly all KCK streets, has no sidewalk.

Just down the street is a strip mall that has been dying since I was 10. Among other things, it housed a TG&Y when I was young, where I'd buy cheap blank cassette tapes and baseball cards. Now the only activity is at Family Dollar and the tiny liquor store. There's also a health food store that appears occupied, but mostly it's just empty, vandalized space:

Demographics in the area dictate that when there is new construction, instead of a half-decent grocery store, it's a Dollar General (sorry for the blur). For the 7 things you can't get at the aforementioned Family Dollar, naturally:

I'll post a few more later...

Monday, July 25, 2011

P90X: An Epilogue

After my wife and I realized that our gym was a) getting boring, and b) kind of a dump, we decided to give something else a try.

Enter P90X.

My guess is that everyone has at least heard of the fitness program; I’d wager that most people who regularly stay up past 11pm have taken in some portion of their ubiquitous infomercial.

The basic gist is that you are to diligently follow the workout and meal plans (or, in P90X parlance, “bring it”) for 3 months. After this time, they promise, you'll be ripped, shredded, and altogether awesome.

The program appealed to us because they weren’t selling some BS, spend-45-minutes-a-week-in-your-basement path to fitness. There was no CGI showing how a $999 machine (12 easy payments!) made your abs red (working HARD!) instead of blue (not working!).

P90X has a much more honest approach: work really hard, push “play” every day, and you will get into great shape.

So we took the plunge, determined to follow the program as strictly as we could. Below are my semi-organized thoughts.

First Things First:
This program is no joke. It is HARD. You will be sore as hell for the first week or two. You have to really want to do it; otherwise, you’re wasting your money. Also, look at the “Fit Test” online to see if you’re ready to do the program. I thought I was in okay shape, but I barely passed some of their minimum qualifications for the program.

We bought the DVDs and literature on eBay (around $80). We bought a pull-up bar ($37) and a set of heavy-duty resistance bands ($70) on Amazon. We bought a yoga mat at Target ($10). We already had one yoga mat and a set of 15 lb. and 20 lb. dumbbells. Total cost was about $200, or 5 months of gym fees. Not exactly cheap, but we’ll never have to buy any of that stuff again.

The Workouts:
P90X comes with 12 workout DVDs. There are 5 resistance workouts (4 upper body, 1 lower body); 4 cardio workouts (kenpo/martial arts, plyometrics, core synergistics, and a generic one they suggest for when you don’t feel like REALLY working out); yoga; an ab workout; and a stretching routine.

The Program:
If you follow the workouts strictly, you’ll be going at it 6 days a week. My wife and I did over 90% of the workouts as scheduled, which required quite a lot of planning, discipline, and coordination. The workouts alternate between resistance and cardio for three weeks, followed by a slightly less intense 4th week. Then, the two upper body workouts are swapped for two different upper body workouts for a month; the final month alternates the two programs.

The workouts are, again, HARD. Our first workout was plyometrics (jump training), and I was winded after the warm-ups. I made it halfway through before I had to quit because I was tempting death.

Here’s something that will rule out P90X for a lot of people: it takes a LOT of time. If you follow the program strictly, here’s what a typical week would look like…

Monday – Chest and Back (60 min), Ab Ripper (15 min)
Tuesday – Plyometrics (60 min)
Wednesday – Arms and Shoulders (60 min) Ab Ripper (15)
Thursday – Kenpo (60 min)
Friday – Legs and Back (60 min), Ab Ripper (15)
Saturday – Yoga (90 min)
TOTAL: 7 hr, 15 min per week

It’s a lot. It can be a drag, especially toward the end. We did almost all of this, but usually the additional 15 minute ab workout is what fell by the wayside. To be honest, we have both admitted that we wouldn't have made it through if the other person hadn't been there for support, encouragement, and accountability. Also, knowing there was a finite 90-day timetable made it more bearable.

The Meal Plan:
Before starting the program, they had us calculate how many calories we’d need based on our weight and activity level. My calculations indicated that I would need to eat well over 3,000 calories a day, including some 12 oz. of lean meat every night for dinner. If I had a personal chef, I would have been glad to oblige. Instead, getting home and finishing our workouts after 7pm some nights meant we ate what we could. The recipes and such actually looked pretty good; I just can’t eat at 8:30 every night.

As it was, I followed a careful diet for the first 8 weeks of the program. I ate lean meats, nothing fried, lots of vegetables, extra protein. I stayed very close to the ingredients they listed in the plan. In two months, I had zero burgers, one order of fries, and two slices of pizza. I even limited my beer intake to about 2 a week. For me, this dietary discipline is as impressive as sticking to a workout plan 6 days a week for 3 months.

I also abandoned the diet after 8 weeks. Why? See below.

The Results:
Let’s be honest: most people get into working out to lose weight. If that is your goal, P90X is NOT the workout for you. After 8 weeks--and eating fewer calories than the program suggested—I weighed exactly the same as when I started. My wife GAINED a couple pounds. It was a little frustrating in that sense, because even though you know you’re improving your health it’s easy to get hung up on that number. It was really frustrating for my wife, because she wasn’t looking to add muscle.

And—here’s the positive part--we both added a lot of muscle. My biceps now have stretch marks. Women who work with my wife ask in awe if they can touch her arms. I can see actual ab muscles, even if they’re somewhat obscured by my something-less-than-flat midsection. After walking by a mirror at home, we sometimes have to stop because we see a new calf or shoulder muscle that we’ve never noticed before.

From a fitness standpoint, I in the best overall shape of my almost 36 years old. I nearly tripled the number of pushups I could do at the beginning. I went from being unable to do a pullup to being able to do sets of 8, partially healing a bum shoulder in the process.

Most surprising? I feel FAST. This is totally new to me. In my first softball doubleheader this summer, I was on 1st base and a teammate was on 2nd. On a base hit to the gap, I nearly caught him at home. It’s unreal. I feel like a damn gazelle.

So what now? I took a few weeks off from the madness to get my bearings. Last week I did a couple of the weight workouts to ease me back into things, though the heat has made it difficult to find the energy to do anything at full intensity.

However, I do think I will be doing at least some of these workouts on a weekly basis for the foreseeable future. No more 6-night-a-week madness, but something. There are enough different workouts to keep it interesting, and I worked too hard to let myself regress completely.

Questions about our experience with P90X? Feel free to post them below.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Gas Prices and Diminishing Returns

As everyone complains about gas prices, fuel efficiency is the focus of nearly every automaker’s commercials right now.

You’ll remember that this was also the case in mid-2008, as we experienced our first dose of $4/gallon gas. You may also remember that this fell by the wayside shortly thereafter. The speculative oil bubble exploded violently just as the economy tanked, cutting gas prices by more than half (to $1.60!!!) only six months later.

And of course, the market share of SUVs increased significantly as our short memories coincided with dealer overstocks and reduced prices.

I digress.

For now, high gas prices are back, which means fuel-sippers are hot items. But how much money will you save by driving one of these vehicles?

You’ll find that the law of diminishing returns comes into play here.

All numbers assume 12,000 miles/year and $3.75/gallon of gas. The savings are what you would save by upgrading from the previous mileage; i.e. a vehicle with 25 mpg saves $450 per year over a vehicle with 20 mpg.

You can see that the big savings come at the low end of the mpg spectrum: going from 15 to 25 mpg trounces the savings of going from 25 to 50 mpg ($1200 vs. $900).

Just going from 15 to 20 mpg ($750) nearly matches the savings of going from 25 to 45 mpg ($800).

I'm a big fan of saving energy and money (heck, it's the primary focus of my job), but the payback has to make sense. Before you run out and buy a new car, or try to decide between a hybrid and a standard engine, it's worth figuring out how much you'll actually be saving.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Random Text-Based Google Voicemail

Google Voice offers the option of getting a voice-to-text "translation" sent to your email when someone leaves a message. Here's one that I received over the weekend:

My name is Peggy and I'm calling in a volunteer Christian work from here and Mary we've been making available to people in our area without charge, a book that answers from the Bible says questions as how we can have a happy, Your family life, white guy, permits F Creek and what he will do in the future to do away with sickness and death here on the error. If you would like a copy of this book at no charge. That shows were to look in your own Bible to find the answers to these questions. Please call XXX-XXXX leave your name and address and I'll be sure to have it delivered to you without charge. Thank you.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Paul Splittorff, 1946-2011

I have been a Royals fan since I was too young to pronounce my W's (my favorite 2B was Frank "Right"). As I sat in front of the TV for nearly every Royals road game, I learned before I was even in Kindergarten that the answer to my mom's nightly question--"what inning is it?"--was always "8th". A lower number meant she would make me go to bed, but a game in the 8th was close enough to ending that I could stay up a little later to see the conclusion.

I say this just to establish that Paul Splittorff has always been a part of my summers, from his days as a pitcher to the last 24 years as a broadcaster.

He epitomized hard work and getting the most out of one's talents.

He is known as extremely generous with his time and knowledge.

And the next time I hear someone say something negative about him will be the first.

I didn't realize how much I'd miss him--his voice, his contributions, his presence--until he was gone. Word spread of his grave illness last week, but it didn't hit home until now.

He was a Royal from day one (drafted before the Major League team even existed)--a link to the glory days.

I can think of no finer, more honorable ambassador for a baseball franchise than Paul Splittorff.

May he rest in peace.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tipping at a Sushi Place

We went to Sakura (AKA Sushi Train) at 75th and Nieman last night. We went a bit later in the evening, and the oval-shaped bar was less crowded than usual.

We sat down to a train full of plates, which got us off to a good start. However, the train emptied rather quickly, and owing to the small crowd, it took a while before the chef made more food.

When he returned, he asked us if we had any requests. We asked for eel (unagi), and he obliged a few moments later with two healthy plates of food.

In response, we placed a few bucks in his tip glass.

We then received our bill, and realized we needed to tip our waitress as well. But what's the breakdown? Between the chef and the waitress, who gets what?

Well, I'm glad I asked.

The hostess/manager explained it thusly:

The money that is placed in the tip glasses at the sushi bar itself goes to the chefs only. The money that is left as a tip upon paying the bill (i.e. anything that doesn't go into the tip glass) is distributed to the servers AND the chefs.

Additionally, the servers are paid by the hour (similar to pretty much any other restaurant) while the chefs are paid a set salary.

Good to know. I'm happy that she was forthcoming with the information. This may not apply unilaterally to all sushi restaurants, but I'd imagine most of them have a similar arrangement.

It's always confusing when there are multiple entities providing service, so it feels good to clear this one up.

P.S. - In related sushi news, the short-lived Asian Breeze at 61st and Nieman is now Sushi Mido. The sign says "All You Can Eat". Should be interesting...we were going to stop there last night, but they're closed on Mondays. Let me know how it is if you check it out before we do.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

KC Beer Blog

I'll be contributing occasionally to the most excellent KC Beer Blog. If you have any interest in getting the latest local info on beers, bars, festivals, etc. I recommend following them. They do a great job of staying current.

My first post is here.

Friday, April 22, 2011

2011: A Cell Phone Odyssey

I’m not a big gadget guy, so having the latest and greatest in mobile connectivity has never been a priority. I’m not technologically averse; I just don’t tend to buy a lot of toys…or really, stuff in general.

That said, after my well-past-its-prime, 4-year old “feature” phone (i.e., it can text in the old school, hit the ‘3’ key four times to make an ‘f’ sort of way) drowned in a San Francisco rainstorm, I was using my wife’s old Motorola KRZR to get me by.

Yes, it's red.

After looking at how much Verizon was costing us each month, we decided to reassess our cell phone situation overall. We were ready…for smartphones.

First piece of advice: CHECK FOR COMPANY AND ORGANIZATION DISCOUNTS. I found out that by sheer virtue of me being employed at my company, I qualified for monthly discounts of 22% (Verizon and AT&T) and 18% (Sprint). There were some add-ons that didn’t qualify for that full % off, but most of the bill did. You can check the three carriers above by simply searching their websites for “corporate discounts”, entering your work email address, and having them send the deals right to your inbox.

If you know me, you know that some serious analysis was about to take place. With months of prior usage at my fingertips, I figured out the plans we needed. Most of our plan minutes on Verizon were calls to other Verizon phones (free on our plan), so we had to take that into consideration.

When it came down to it, Sprint’s plan of 1500 minutes and unlimited data and text was the most affordable. Plus, they offered a $125 credit PER LINE to port a number over to a Sprint smartphone. Verizon was about $30/month more expensive. AT&T was only slightly more expensive than Sprint per month, but their plan only includes 2 GB of data. I know that’s a lot, but I also don’t want to worry about overages when I’m stuck at an airport for 6 hours and decide to stream a movie.

We both got an EVO 4G. Huge display, runs Android, lots of cool features.

The drawbacks: the huge display comes on an equally huge phone. Even in my relatively large paws, the phone felt cumbersome. Also, the huge display uses huge amounts of juice. Imagine a Hummer with an 8-gallon gas tank.

Of course, those flaws are pardonable. Mostly, I was relieved to finally be done with all the research of plans and phones alike…or so I thought.

Because there was a fatal flaw: we couldn’t make calls in our own house.

Our coverage was bad enough that the first day I had the phone, I dropped a call 3 times in 5 minutes. Yikes. Things did not improve throughout the week.

Fortunately, Sprint has a 30-day guarantee during which you can cancel a contract and return equipment. Which is good, but dammit. It was time to shop again.

I wasn’t keen on AT&T’s data cap, nor Verizon’s extra $30/month. I saw that some AAA members had success getting a discount on T-Mobile, so in the spirit of leaving no stone unturned I gave them a call.

Turns out there is no AAA discount. The sales rep asked to check my employer…no dice. Finally, she asked about my wife’s company.

Hey! Turns out she gets a 10% discount.

Hey again! Turns out the plan we would consider is already on sale, bringing our total down further.

Hey hey hey! Turns out the day I called was the last day of a promotion: free myTouch 4G (their flagship phone at the moment, and Consumer Reports highest-rated smartphone) for new subscribers.

Because they offer a 30-day guarantee as well, I figured I had nothing to lose. I finally placed my order after my Sprint phone dropped my call a couple times (oh, irony).

We got the phones, and get much better coverage than before. Even if that changes, T-Mobile offers free Wi-Fi calling, which means we can make clear calls over our internet connection.

The phones is more compact and more gentle on the battery. I really, really like it. And T-Mobile’s customer service has been excellent—I’ve gotten a knowledgeable, competent person every single time I’ve called.

So, when it’s all said and done, don’t overlook T-Mobile as a potential carrier. Their reputation is mixed, but the negative impressions seem to be relegated to people who don’t use their services. Almost all the people who actually use T-Mobile seem very pleased. So far, so am I.