Monday, June 30, 2008

Upset at the Juicebox

Well whuddya know? The Astros actually managed to beat the Red Sox 11-10 on Saturday night. It was a great game that went right down to the wire and the most runs I’ve ever seen the Astros score in person. They even managed to eke out a win on Sunday, taking the series 2-1. Not bad for a team that was fighting to stay out of last place.

We were somewhat lucky to make it to Saturday’s game. About 30 minutes after we left Austin on Friday, Kate realized we’d forgotten the tickets. This wasn’t a particularly happy realization, but at least it came before we strode up to Minute Maid Park.

Then it was my turn. Kate and I got together with her cousins after the game to close down a Pappadeaux Seafood on Richmond and I managed to leave my credit card there. I discovered this Sunday afternoon as I was preparing to gas up the car for the trip back to Austin.

Fortunately, the restaurant had my card and we didn’t have to go too far out of the way to retrieve it. Unfortunately, in my initial panic at seeing the card missing from my wallet, I left the gas station without screwing my gas cap back on.

My dad returned to the gas station that night to look for the lost cap, but his search was unsuccessful. He presumes the cap slid off the trunk of my car as I turned onto Westheimer and was washed into the storm sewer by a torrential downpour that hit shortly after we left. Replacement cost: $23.19.

I suppose I should also feel guilty about what this means for the environment, but if I had to lose a gas cap down a sewer, better to have it happen in Houston than near some organic farm where shapely strawberries are grown for NPR listeners.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Them's our Lastros

Thanks to my dad, Kate and I are going to see the Boston Red Sox play the Astros in Houston this weekend.

With the defending World Series champion Red Sox in first place in the AL East and the ‘Stros in next to last place in the NL Central, it probably won’t be too pretty. When you can’t beat the Texas Rangers, the last thing you need is the Red Sox coming to town. Unless you're Astros owner Drayton McLane, who's making a killing by charging premium prices for single game tickets to both the Red Sox and Yankees series at Minute Maid Park.

Kate is already ribbing me about how poorly the Astros are doing this year, and now one of their pitchers has been suspended indefinitely for grabbing the GM by the neck and throwing him to the floor in the club dining room. I’m hoping this lurid little donnybrook will serve as a cathartic catalyst for the Astros, much like “Babygate” did for the 1993 Houston Oilers until they were inevitably beaten by the Joe Montana-led Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional playoffs.

I wouldn’t bet falling American currency on it, though.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

What's good about bad restaurants?

I’ve always had a thing about eating in bad restaurants. Over the years, I’ve dragged friends and family alike to justifiably-defunct chain establishments like Sambo’s, Steak ‘N Egg Kitchen and Toddle House with gleeful abandon, not to mention downright creepy local restaurants with water-stained drop ceilings and vinyl booths covered in duct tape.

When some well-meaning soul tries to point me toward an alternative with better food, more attentive service and nicer surroundings, I’ll often insist on mediocrity even when I have no rational defense for it. I’ve never been able to explain why this is, but Salon TV columnist Heather Havrilesky comes pretty close. In setting up what is ostensibly a review of “Flipping Out” and “Weeds,” Havrilesky describes why she continues to patronize a bad local coffee shop instead of a superior corporate place nearby.

As repellent and deeply wrong as the local cafe is, the overpriced, meticulously designed corporate eatery seems certain to transform you, slowly but surely, into the kind of person who pays too much for haircuts and shoes, the kind of person who experiences gazpacho that doesn't have a little dab of pesto in it the way the rest of us experience a herd of middle-of-the-room flies. And therein lies the paradox of American upward mobility: The higher you climb, the thinner the air gets, until you can barely breathe. You become like Julianne Moore in "Safe," suffering from a nervous breakdown when the delivery guys bring a black couch instead of the white one she ordered. You become the kind of hothouse flower who only feels comfortable in perfectly calibrated, beautiful spaces, the kind of person who's never satisfied and can't play nicely with others.

So there’s the elusive voice of reason behind this unspoken gut instinct I’ve always had. If a dollop of pesto in my gazpacho is the best thing the next rung on the social ladder has to offer, I’d rather just sleep in and miss the breakfast rush at Denny’s.

Wal-Mart downsizes Northcross plans

Who says there’s no silver lining in a recession? Wal-Mart has decided to slash the size of its planned Northcross Mall Supercenter almost in half.

The Supercenter’s scale is being reduced from 192,000 square feet to 99,000 square feet. It will now be one story instead of two and there won’t be a parking garage, auto repair shop or garden center.

This is good news for Supercenter opponents and not a bad business decision by the Bentonville mafia, either. Why build a store that’s nine times the size of God when you can easily fill the market gap with a store that’s only five times the size of God? Wal-Mart is going to save a bundle on construction and future energy costs while still leaving H-E-B in the dust in this part of town.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Maternal health update

My mom had surgery for her breast cancer at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston on June 10. She got out of the hospital on the following Thursday and has been slowly but surely recovering at home ever since.

Her surgeon told us he was pleased with what the first round chemotherapy had done, but my folks didn’t get the pathology report results until last Tuesday. Fortunately, the pathology mirrored her surgeon’s preliminary findings. They didn’t find any cancer in the removed lymph nodes, which is really good news.

Once she’s sufficiently recovered, she’s scheduled to begin a new round of chemo, followed by radiation, followed by more chemo. Despite the severity of this treatment regimen, it’s better than what was available for inflammatory breast cancer five or 10 years ago. I’m very thankful for that.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Weekenders on our own

Yesterday was one of those magical, open-ended summer days where one cool activity seamlessly flows into another despite not having any firm plans to do much of anything.

Kate and I met David, Rachel and young Miles Wyatt at Bookpeople before splitting up by gender for a walk around the 6th and Lamar area. We three bulls ambled up to Emerald City Press, a new coffee, magazine and flower shop owned by one of David's pals. We had a refreshing iced coffee and sampled some rather amazing organic frozen yogurt and iced toddy. My parents used to refer to an ice cold glass of Coca-Cola as a "toddy," but this was the real thing and it hit the spot.

Miles woke up from his nap when we were in Cheapo Discs. I figure it's important to start him young if we're going to have a chance in hell of still having honest-to-goursh record stores when I'm a crochety old coot. Master Wyatt has some of the biggest blue eyes you ever saw. I've never considered myself overly prone to hormonal tugs toward fatherhood, but when Miles looks up and smiles at me, I feel a lot like William Forsyth's character in Raising Arizona.

After ordering in dinner at the Wyatt house while watching the straining-to-be-transgressive Margot at the Wedding, Kate and I went back to Bookpeople to look around a little more. Before going home, we decided to take a walk through the former thicket of car dealerships that is now a thicket of expensive condos.

We walked past the Seaholm Power Plant, soon to be yet another mixed-use development making laughable promises of affordability, and across the Shoal Creek pedestrian bridge into downtown proper. As we neared Lavaca, we realized the Austin Pride Parade was in full swing.

Held in conjunction with the anniversary of 1969's Stonewall rebellion, Austin's parade is a bit tamer than companion events in San Francisco or Houston, but it was still a lot of fun. Well-coiffed drag queens and burly bears alternated with refreshing presence from corporate entities like State Farm and Wells Fargo. It was cool to see lots of families lining the street, but the most moving thing I saw was a smiling Austin police officer in uniform walking the parade route hand-in-hand with his same sex partner.

I suppose it's a bit sad that something Kate and I do without concern to publicly show our affection for one another becomes a poignant, almost revolutionary act when two people of the same gender do it. On the other hand, seeing openly gay and lesbian law enforcement officers marching in a Pride parade is forward historical change I'm glad to be witness to.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The 10-Cent Beer Night Riot

Here's a great story by ESPN's Paul Jackson on the 34th anniversary of a (ahem) great moment in the mostly hapless history of the Texas Rangers baseball club – the 10-Cent Beer Night Riot in Cleveland.

On June 5, 1974, the Cleveland Indians decided to sell cups of beer for 10 cents to increase attendance at their game against the Billy Martin-managed Rangers. Although the behemoth Cleveland Municipal Stadium could've held about 70,000 fans, the 25,000+ that showed up for 10-cent beer proved more than enough.

With each inning, the stadium descended further into chaos. Chairs were thrown, genitals were bared, reporters were punched in the face and bases were literally stolen as the stadium organist tried in vain to calm the drunken mob by playing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." As fans invaded the field and players brandished bats for their own safety, the umpires called the game and awarded a forfeit win to the Rangers.

"If the fucking war is on tomorrow," groused infield umpire Nestor Chylak after the game, "I'm gonna join the other side to get a shot at them"

To toll a Mockingbird

The well-to-do Dallas area enclave of Highland Park has had it with dirty commuters cutting through their municipality on Mockingbird Lane.

About 18,000 drivers roll through Highland Park on Mockingbird every day. Most are non-residents. To address the issue, Highland Park is considering the possibility of tolling non-residents who drive the stretch of Mockingbird between Hillcrest and the Dallas North Tollway during peak congestion periods. This would make Mockingbird the first tolled surface street in the country.

In the early 70s, my family lived just inside Highland Park in a rented duplex on Mockingbird across the street from SMU. It was a busy street even then. I don’t have much sympathy for property owners along Mockingbird because virtually all of them knew it was a busy street when they bought their houses.

I’m not against tolling surface streets on principle, but this particular case is all about a wealthy suburb trying to opt out of the regional transportation network as it suits them while continuing to leech off the Dallas city infrastructure that gives Highland Park reason to exist in the first place. You can bet other Texas enclave cities like West Lake Hills, Bellaire and Alamo Heights will consider tolling their own through-arterials if Highland Park's scheme succeeds.

If Mockingbird becomes a tollway, maybe Dallas should start tolling Highland Park’s attorneys driving to their downtown offices and its society matrons on their way to Northpark.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Sunflower takes aim at Whole Foods

When I saw the headline, “Whole Foods challenger coming to town” on the Statesman’s website this morning, I immediately assumed we were finally getting a Trader Joe’s. No such luck on that count yet.

What we are getting is a 30,000 square-foot Sunflower Farmers Market at the corner of Manchaca and William Cannon. The store is set to open in November. Sunflower plans to open four or five more Austin stores in the next two years.

Sunflower started in Boulder, Colo. in 2002 and has since grown to 14 stores across the Southwest. They purport to sell quality produce and hormone-free meats at prices significantly lower than Whole Foods. Eschewing the epicurean palace model of Whole Foods, Sunflower markets itself as a manageably-sized natural grocer with low overhead.

A quick glance at this week’s circular for Sunflower’s Boulder store reveals boneless chicken breasts at $1.97 a pound and two eight-ounce baskets of organic strawberries for $3. Those sound a lot like Sun Harvest prices, which makes sense since Sunflower’s CEO is Mike Gilliland, co-founder of former Sun Harvest parent Wild Oats Market. Wild Oats was swallowed by Whole Foods last year in a controversial $565 million buyout, but Sun Harvest was sold off to Southern California-based grocer Smart & Final.

Gilliland and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey have a history of competitive trash talk. During the 90s, Mackey sent Gilliland the board game Risk with a note reading, “Forewarned is forearmed.”

For the sake of our town’s collective grocery bill, here’s hoping Gilliland returns the corporate bitch-slap.

Monday, June 02, 2008

No chicken at the ranch

My dad's birthday is today, so we decided it would be nice to meet my folks halfway between Austin and Houston yesterday for lunch and a gift exchange.

One of the best and most equidistant spots for such a meeting is Royer's Round Top Cafe. I'm particularly partial to their Sunday fried chicken dinner. Unfortunately, Royer's was closed yesterday for a family celebration. I'm glad I had the foresight to check their website before we wound up in Round Top with no place to eat.

After researching the alternatives, we settled on Bistro 108 in La Grange. They're located a block south of the Hwy. 71 business route at 108 Main St. The fun thing about going to La Grange was getting to tell Kate all about the Chicken Ranch.

La Grange hasn't had a destination dining spot since the Bon Ton Restaurant closed several years ago. I wouldn't say Bistro 108 has the far and wide cream gravy appeal of the Bon Ton in its prime, but it's a nice enough place that serves a good prime rib. I wouldn't hesitate to eat there again if I happened to be in La Grange.

However, I'm still jonesing for Royer's fried chicken.

Sunday, June 01, 2008


For the last month or so, I've been working behind Kate's back to plan a surprise 30th birthday party for her at Austin Karaoke. In doing so, I had to respond to her hints about wanting a party with feigned obliviousness. There were several occasions when I had to bite my lip to stifle a giggle.

I took off from work early on Friday afternoon and picked up a mess of party provisions at Central Market and Costco. My friends Clay and Sonja let me drop everything off at their strategically-located house on Justin Ln. While I was back home primping up for phony 8:30 dinner reservations at Restaurant Jezebel with Kate, David and Rachel picked up the goods and ferried them to the BYOB private karaoke room I'd rented.

On our way downtown, I told Kate I needed to stop off at Walgreens on N. Lamar at Justin to pick up some photos. There we "bumped in" to my pal Ol' Steve Hunt, who said he was over at Austin Karaoke across the parking lot with a group of friends and insisted we drop by to say hi. Steve led us to the karaoke room, where about 25 of Kate's friends yelled, "Surprise!" as we opened the door.

The next three hours were a happy mess of warbling, beer-fueled revelry, as the photos below will attest.

Greg and Kate sing the swinging hits of today's youth!

Ol' Steve does Philly proud with Hall & Oates' "Maneater"

Joon Yee and Jean woo the crowd with Radiohead's "Creep"

Lance slays the ladies with Judas Priest's "Hell Bent for Leather"

I'm not a details man, but I've got to give myself and my accomplices a hearty slap on the back for pulling this whole shebang together right under Kate's nose. Fun times, indeed.

By the way, we had legitimate reservations at Restaurant Jezebel for the following night.