Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Myth of the Angry Bike Mechanic

NOTE: This blog is rated R for foul language.


Every so often I start getting a magazine in the mail that I never asked for. Usually the free subscription makes sense: for example, a bike magazine starts showing up after I bought bike parts mail-order. More recently I started getting “Outside” magazine, for no apparent reason.

I don’t care so much for “Outside.” In general, I don’t really like magazines. Most of them, I feel, put too little faith in the reader’s patience, attention span, and intellect. Instead of delving deeply into a subject, they just skip along the surface for a few hundred words and either don’t end up saying much, or put forth an idea they can’t support effectively. Still, I flip through “Outside” during certain daily rituals, out of some sense of duty. (After all, trees died, and journalists labored, to produce this magazine.)

One recent “Outside” article did manage to hold my attention, because it was really annoying. It has stayed lodged in my brain like a nut fragment lodges in your teeth, and just as your tongue gets tired and sore trying to dislodge the nut, I’ve been unpleasantly pondering for awhile now exactly what it is about this article that bothers me so much. I think I’ve finally sorted it out, and in this post will dissect and dismember the offensive article for your amusement and (I hope) my own mental release. I’ll also share a number of anecdotes to support my case and (I hope) further amuse you.

The article

The article is titled “The Day the Insults Died” and carries the subheading, “Angry bike mechanics are going extinct. And that sucks.” (You can view the article here: The author describes how he has been insulted and laughed at by mechanics who take issue with his lack of bike repair expertise. He calls this a “valuable public service” and suggests that shop customers have historically benefited from this “tough love.” He also posits that shops no longer have these angry mechanics, quoting the management of a couple of shops who say they require their employees to be pleasant and helpful. The author laments this evolution, portraying it as some sort of a sell-out. He finishes up by claiming that the bullying has moved to the web, particularly in the guise of Bike Snob NYC, a blogger who, he approvingly points out, recently excoriated somebody for having a shop build him a several-thousand-dollar Trek Madone with straight handlebars and rear-view mirrors.

The article isn’t a travesty—the prose zips along well enough, and I chuckled a couple times—but on close inspection I find it irresponsible on a number of levels.

For one thing, the author makes no effort to establish the truth of what he’s saying. Though he suggests that the angry mechanic was a widespread phenomenon, he only cites one account, and it is more of a scenario (“The humiliations go like this…”) than an actual occurrence. Perhaps he assumes his readers are all too world-weary to bother scrutinizing his hypothesis, and will simply accept it on faith. This would really be a shame, because—as I know from working in bike shops for more than a decade—what the author puts forth is not even true. (More on that later.)

Faulty logic

From a logical perspective, the argument becomes more flimsy the more you think about it. Okay, let’s assume that the author’s own experience is representative of bike shop customers in general. And we’ll grant him, for the moment, his premise that bike mechanics of the past era were commonly arrogant and prone to rebuffing benighted customers. The problem now is that the author goes on to say that the tough love helped him learn to “learn the basics” and be more self-sufficient. Well, if this is the case, on what basis does he conclude that mechanics have changed? Clearly he has changed; maybe the reason he’s no longer snubbed and laughed at is that he’s no longer ignorant.

Or maybe he only felt like he was being snubbed; when he had “worried that the laughter coming from the back room [was] about [him],” maybe this was just his own insecurity, mitigated now by his greater knowledge and confidence. This is all fine, except that as the journalist he’s positioning himself as an authority on the bike shop industry, describing a cultural shift, rather than just telling the sad story of his own struggle with self-doubt.

But what of the testimony of the two people he actually interviewed for the story? One says, “We hire nice people” and the other says “We try to emulate the Genius Bar at an Apple store.” The author takes this as a sign that times have changed. But does he actually think that, at any point in the history of bikes, a shop manager would say otherwise? “Our mechanics are a bunch of dicks, and take every opportunity to humiliate customers.” Yeah, right. Just as the author’s bad experiences do not establish the existence of prevailing rudeness across bike shops, a couple of predictable quotes from responsible shop managers do not establish that the shop culture has evolved.

Snobbery unveiled

The most annoying aspect of the article is how the author champions the blogger Bike Snob NYC as our savior, the new torch-bearer of the supposed rude mechanic tradition. I’m not at all sure that BSNYC would welcome this designation; the purpose of his blog isn’t to sell bikes, after all. The author suggests that by mocking the multi-thousand-dollar commuting bike, BSNYC is performing a public service by carrying on the tradition of the angry mechanics’ tough love. The author concludes, “The World’s Greatest Madone proves that the customer isn’t always right. Sometimes, he or she is severely wrong.”

To which I respond, what’s so wrong with blowing a whole bunch of money on a bike, if you have the money and feel like spending it? Would the author rather that guy spend his money on a GMC Yukon, or maybe a jet-ski? Perhaps the author wouldn’t have a problem with the guy spending so much if he didn’t opt for a straight handlebar and the mirrors—but isn’t that the guy’s own business? What makes more sense: a traditional (though tricked-out) racing bike the guy doesn’t feel like riding, or a unique bike with modifications that make it more enjoyable for him?

The real absurdity of the author’s position is this: the mechanics who had shamed and humiliated him in times past were basically snobs themselves. They felt that if he didn’t share the knowledge that they had, he didn’t deserve their respect. You’d think having suffered like that, the author would appreciate a sport that welcomes those who don’t want the bike shop to be their proving ground. But instead, the author joins the ranks of the snobs and encourages his readers to follow suit, mocking the guy with “too much hair on his legs” for outfitting his new bike as he sees fit. The author is like the bullied freshman who, upon becoming a junior, perpetuates the cycle by bullying the new batch of freshmen. This is not what cycling, and society, need. Friendliness and acceptance may not be cutting-edge hip, but they do help sell bikes.

Why do I care?

Okay, so the author is a snob, and has written an article that encourages others to adopt his snobbery and his wise guy attitude. Why should I care? The magazine cost me nothing, and I didn’t have to read the article. I think my revulsion has to do with yet another hypocrisy: the author makes sport of bagging on posers, but as a journalist he’s kind of a poser himself. He’s probably pretty proud of his nervy prose, but where’s the diligence in his reporting? Who is he to play the expert about what goes on in a bike shop? Wouldn’t the article be much more compelling if he found some angry mechanics, rehabilitated or not, who could explain what makes them, or had made them, so rude? The whole essay seems like something he just drummed up, without subjecting it to any intellectual scrutiny.

Furthermore, I don’t like his vision of what this sport ought to be: an elitist realm where you can—and should!—be mocked for having hairy legs or handlebar mirrors.

And finally, I don’t like where this author, and others like him, are taking magazine writing: towards this ironic, too-cool, edgy, punchy style where attitude is king. Does this arrogant, snarky essay really match the general idea of “Outside” magazine, which ostensibly seeks to celebrate and promote recreation? I have to think this article would scare a lot of readers away from cycling, if they buy the author’s suggestion that bullying and exclusivity are integral to the sport.

Personal experience

Perhaps what keeps this article from falling completely flat is that many readers probably have had a bad experience or two at a bike shop. I remember as a kid of nine going to a Boulder bike shop, the High Wheeler, with my mom. As she talked with the owner, I idly messed around with a floor pump. The owner didn’t yell at me, exactly, but gave me a stern lecture (“these expensive things are not toys” or some such thing), and—shamed and embarrassed—I started crying.

A couple years later, I was in the same shop admiring a Team Miyata racing bike hanging from the ceiling, and give the front wheel a spin. One of the mechanics came and lectured me about the bikes being on display for potential customers who might actually have the means to buy one. I didn’t cry this time, of course, but boy was I pissed.

I would like to point out, though, that my own experience notwithstanding, these were not the mythical “angry bike mechanics” of the “Outside” article. The same shop owner who chastised me for playing with the pump gave free bike-repair clinics to anybody who wanted to learn how to fix a flat or adjust a derailleur. He wasn’t good with kids, that’s all. In fact, a couple years after our awkward first encounter, he hired me to work in his shop, alongside the mechanic who had chided me for touching the Team Miyata. Like the owner, the mechanic ended up being a really good guy.

So was Jon (not his real name), the angriest-looking mechanic we had there, a dyed-in-the-wool blue-collar type with a handlebar mustache, who wasn’t generally put in contact with customers. (At this shop, the mechanics stayed in the back and dedicated salespeople manned the front.) On one occasion, though, Jon wandered up to the counter just in time to receive a customer who had come in with a Phil Wood hub.
oooooo“New hub please,” the guy said flatly.
oooooo“Huh?” Jon asked.
oooooo“This hub carries a lifetime guarantee, and it is defective. New hub please,” the guy said smugly. Now, Jon was actually a pretty good-natured guy, but something about this customer’s attitude must have set him off. “Well, the hub does have a lifetime guarantee, but it’s for the lifetime of the hub,” he explained. “And this hub is dead.”

Man, the customer just blew his stack at that point, screaming and yelling and generally wigging out until Jon burst out laughing. By this time a normal salesman had approached and taken over, apologizing and explaining the joke and getting the guy a new hub. Granted, the customer had a right to be ticked, but would he be right in concluding that Jon was a jerk to everybody, and/or that other mechanics are just as bad?

The truth about ignorant customers

Anybody can be rude, and anybody can get angry, but it’s absurd to believe that there was ever a type of mechanic who resented his customers’ ignorance. After all, your helplessness is the tradesman’s lifeblood. I worked in seven different shops across four different cities between 1982 and 1995, and I never once met a bike shop professional who didn’t favor the totally unskilled, unlearned customer over all others—so long as this customer has money. The highest-margin repair in the industry is a simple flat repair, and a shop’s repair department could do no better than to fix flats all day long. Why ostracize a customer for not even knowing how to fix a flat, when profitable repairs like these help put the shop owner’s kid through college?

As for bike sales, margins are so slim you’ll lose money if you take too long on the sale, so you can’t do better than a customer who lets you tell him what he needs and then buys it. Half the reason shops sell bikes in the first place is to cultivate long-term customers who will buy expensive sunglasses or bike shoes down the road. The ignorant customer will come to rely on you to advise him on what accessories are compatible, what shoe size he needs, etc. Bike shop staffers will bend over backward to get this relationship off on the right foot, and shaming their customers on the basis of ignorance would never occur to them.

Meanwhile, the half-educated customers, steeped in the quasi-knowledge gleaned from magazines and catalogs, are a lot more hassle. They’re more likely to think they can get a better deal than you’re offering, and in considering a $300 bike will pepper you with half an hour of pointless questions (e.g., “Do you have anything in this price range with Araya RM-20 rims?”). I could strangle the irresponsible “Consumer Reports” writer who advised readers never to pay the price listed on the bike’s tag, assuring them that this was a just a starting point for negotiation. (At least in the Bay Area, this is exactly the opposite of the truth; the bike manufacturers put a limit on how cheap you can sell their bikes, and most shops here are always at that minimum.) Furthermore, it’s the savvy customers who pick your brain about exactly what products they should buy, only to go buy them mail-order.

Good mechanics behaving badly

The “Outside” article would have you believe that the old-school mechanics behaved rudely because they were just rude people. I think the more accurate explanation is that almost any mechanic can be rude under the right circumstances. (Malcolm Gladwell, in The Tipping Point, explores this idea at length, describing the theory of the “fundamental attribution error,” which is the mistaken belief that behavior is entirely predictable and a function of one’s character.) In short, if a mechanic is angry or rude, it’s probably because he was provoked.

If you were to somehow catalog all the unpleasant interactions at bike shops throughout history, you’d find that mechanics are not solely to blame. Over the years, I have observed certain patterns of customer annoyingness, and have assembled here, for your amusement, a brief survey of the types of customer who can bring out the worst in a bike shop employee.

Seven highly annoying customer types

The penniless kid

Perhaps because I was shamed at bike shops as a kid, I tend to go easy on the penniless kids who mistake a bike shop for a hangout. I worked at a shop not far from a bus line, and every day we got a lot of kids right around the time school let out. One kid in particular always used to have me take down this BMX bike so he could sit on it. His questions were generally simple enough: “Is this bike fast?” I would answer, “Dude. It’s hella fast.” Delighted, he would squeal, “Really?!” This went on, week after week, month after month, and though I admired and enjoyed his enthusiasm, I would tell the other guys (as soon as he’d left), “Just once I’d like one of these kids to actually buy something.”

And you know, one day, an astounding thing happened. The kid sat on the bike for awhile, and then said, “I’ll take it.” It was an expensive bike , a GT or a Dyno with a rotor and everything, and the kid laid out four or five hundred dollar bills on the counter, and I wrote up the tag. After that I never again questioned a kid’s right to sit around the shop and dream. (I shouldn’t have been surprised. Remember my tale of getting chided for touching a Team Miyata? Within a year I had my first Miyata; two years later I had my first Pro Miyata; another two years and I had the first of three Team Miyatas.)

The insurance fraudster

On several occasions I’ve seen customers getting insurance appraisals for damaged or stolen bikes who have either subtly or overtly asked the shop to inflate the price tag. Needless to say, these people are scum. I had one boss who politely declined to play along, while being very careful to acknowledge that he had no problem with what the customer was trying to do. I lost a lot of respect for my boss that day.

One time, I got to handle a fraudster on my own terms. I was taking some garbage to the dumpster and happened to overhear the guy talking to his buddy as he took a mangled bike off the back of his car. “I’m not even going to get the bike fixed—I just want to really stick it to that bitch who rear-ended me,” he said. Sure enough, the bike had clearly taken the brunt of the damage, probably sparing the guy’s car in the process. He went through the front of the shop, while I went through the back, so he had no idea I’d overheard his comment.

He asked for a repair appraisal, and straight-out asked me to “bump it up a little.” I pretended to be totally innocent of what he was asking, and took his bike to the shop area to look it over. I told the other mechanics, “No matter what you hear me say, don’t interrupt or intervene.” Then I proceeded to write up the lowest repair estimate in the history of bikes. “You really lucked out!” I told the customer, smiling brightly. “The damage isn’t nearly as bad as it looks. We can straighten that frame out, and all the wheel needs is a few new spokes and a basic truing. I’ve got a spare handlebar grip I’ll throw in for free. A little touch-up paint and we’re done!” The frame was totally caved in, the wheel pretzled. In short, the bike was completely totaled. I wrote it up for like $50. My shop pals were aghast, but not as much as the customer. He was furious, and snatched the repair tag from my hand and demanded to get his bike back. After he left, my pals said, “You’re so lucky he didn’t have us fix it.”
oooooo“Not really,” I replied.

But wait, this story gets better. At that time my brother Geoff worked at another big shop in town, and right away I phoned over there and described the situation. “If he comes in there, you have to write it up for less than $50. And then call me back and tell me exactly how it went.” To my delight, Geoff called about half an hour later. “It was glorious!” he said. “That guy was so pissed I thought he’d burst a blood vessel.”

The expert advisor

On many occasions a friend has asked me to help him or her buy a bike. I’m sure it’s tempting for a bike shop guy to resent this intrusion into his dialog with the customer, and many see the advisor’s supposed expertise as a challenge to his own. On occasion, I have clearly alienated myself and my friend from the salesman. My friends deferred to me rather than the salesman, and I’m not shy about dismissing a salesman’s less useful suggestions.

But if you ask me, a bike shop salesman should welcome the expert advisor. As the salesman, all you have to do is give the advisor a chance to shine in front of his friend, and then he’s your friend too. And half the battle in selling a bike is helping the customer to feel confident in his choice; who better to assist with this than the disinterested expert advisor?

Twice, my friends bought an expensive bike on the spot (a rare thing at most shops) based on my recommendation, with the salesman seething as he rang up the sale. Another time, I happened to be dealing with the owner of the shop, and after accepting my friend’s money he offered me a job, which I took.

The would-be warranty

I think just about anybody who worked at the High Wheeler (or the “Thigh Feeler” as we called it) in the mid- to late-nineties could recite the following from memory (and probably does from time to time, to this very day):

“I was just riding along, minding my own business, not bothering anybody, not a care in the world, when all of a sudden, out of the blue, for no apparent reason, with no provocation whatsoever, [fill in description of extensive bike damage here, or gesture toward ruined bike, or say ‘Wa-ka-PANG!”]…”

The bike is usually totaled, or at least the fork and one wheel, most often the frame. And yet the customer insists that he didn’t crash, didn’t hit anything, that suddenly the damage spontaneously occurred. The typical response from the mechanic varies from flat-out denial that this could be the case, to a wordless eye-rolling gesture, to an incredulous “Are you kidding me?!” The most successful reaction I’ve seen, though, is when the mechanic took the guy aside and whispered, “Just between you and me, totally off the record … just how much air did you get?”

The irresponsible parent

At UC Santa Barbara I worked at the student bike shop. Most of our customers hadn’t owned bikes in years but, like everyone else, rode cheap cruisers to and from class. In a stark reversal of the “Outside” writer’s hypothesis, mechanics here bent over backwards for the most helpless of the customers, who tended to be female and pretty. (The male customers were probably just as ignorant but afraid to admit it.) We wouldn’t just fix these girls’ flats, we’d give them a half-hour lesson in flat-tire repair, just to smell their freshly shampooed hair a little longer.

I was wrenching away at this shop one day when a slightly older guy came in—must have been a grad student. He had a three-speed with a flat tire. I noticed that only one handbrake was working. “So, do you want me to hook up the other brake?” I asked. He declined.
oooooo“Would you like me to take that old baby seat off for you?” I offered.
oooooo“No, I still use it,” he replied.
oooooo“Let me get this straight: you carry a child on this bike, with only one working brake?” I asked.
oooooo“What if your other brake goes out?”
oooooo“I’ll worry about that.”
oooooo“Look, I can’t let the bike leave the shop without either two working brakes, or no child seat,” I told him. (Okay, so this was rude.) He made a big stink about this, but I was firm.
oooooo“Get me the manager,” he said, finally. Ah, I’d been hoping he would say that. My boss was the nicest guy in the world, but also a father of young children. As the customer’s gripe began, my boss was all ears, quite ready to discipline me as necessary—but once he figured out what the guy was asking for, he really let him have it. We all gathered around to watch; it was like a public execution.

The disgruntled jackass

This young dude stormed into my shop with a bike wheel, glared angrily at me, and yelled, “You fucked up!” He looked vaguely familiar. I asked him what I’d done.
ooooooYou sold me the wrong length spokes!” he cried.
oooooo“Oh, yeah, I remember you. You were in a rush and I eyeballed it. Here, give me the wheel and I’ll try again.”
oooooo“Oh, no, you had your chance. I already went to the Link and they got me the right length spokes.”
oooooo“Oh, okay, then let me give you your money back.” The amount would have been under a dollar.
oooooo“I don’t want my money back,” he retorted.
oooooo“Let me get this straight. You don’t need any spokes, and you don’t want your money back. Well then, why are you here?”
oooooo“To tell you that you fucked up!”
oooooo“Okay, fine, I fucked up, I’m a terrible person. I’m sorry. Now, is there anything else I can help you with?” At this, the guy finally had no comeback, and stalked out of the shop. My boss, who had been around the corner but within earshot, came over. “Why didn’t you tell him to fuck off?” he asked.
oooooo“You mean I’m allowed to do that?”
oooooo“Sure. If you’ve been reasonable, and you’ve done what you can, and the guy is still being a dick, you can tell him whatever you want,” he said. I filed this policy away for later.

The disgruntled jackass, part 2

A middle-aged man appeared in my shop and yelled at me, “I had my tire fixed here and the damned thing is flat again!” I told him to bring the bike over so I could take a look. “Sorry about that,” I said. “I’m guessing either the tube we put in was defective, or there was something sharp stuck in the tire that we didn’t notice.”
oooooo“Well, I’m not going to stand for that!” he fired back.
oooooo“It’s okay, I’ll get it taken care of.”
The guy looked me up and down, and I guess he wasn’t impressed by my neon green t-shirt, my filthy shop apron, and my GT baseball cap. “Oh, you will, huh? What could you do about it?”
oooooo“Well, I’m the manager, so I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure you’re satisfied.” I thought this would be an absolutely foolproof response, but oddly, it wasn’t.
oooooo“Ooh, the manager! Well, good for you. I’m leaving. I’m going to the other store to talk to Martin.” Martin (not his real name) was the owner, and my boss. In the moment, I was absolutely stunned, and just sat there staring as the jerk rolled his bike out the door. Then I was kicking myself for not responding. Remembering my boss’s policy on unreasonable customers, I immediately called over to the other store. Jack (not his real name), one of two English lads working there, answered.

oooooo“Jack, it’s Dana. Look, there’s some asshole on his way over there to talk to Martin. He’s all bent out of shape over a flat repair that didn’t hold, and I tried to help him out but he was a total dick about it.” I described the guy and his bike so Jack couldn’t miss him. “So when he arrives, tell him, ‘The manager at the other store gave me a message for you: go fuck yourself and don’t ever set foot in either of our stores again, unless you want to go talk to him some more about your flat tire.’ Then call me back and tell me all about it.”

Jack was happy to follow my instructions, and awhile later he called me back. I asked him how it went. “Oh, it was brilliant,” he said. “I told him, ‘Yeah, mate, the manager at the other store has a message for you: go fuck yourself and don’t ever come back here, and if you have a problem with that, take it up with him.’”
oooooo“And what did he say?”
oooooo“He said, ‘Do you have any idea who I am?’ I said, ‘None at all.’ He said, ‘I’m the mayor of Kensington!’ I said, ‘Well, jolly good for you. Now fuck right off.’”

The bike thief

Sometimes, a thief will grab a bike from the showroom floor and take off on it. Usually the element of surprise is enough, and he gets away with it. But most thefts involve some kind of cunning, such as a phony driver license. It’s not uncommon for a female perpetrator to employ her feminine wiles in this treachery.

One morning a young, pretty blond woman took a nice mountain bike out for a test ride, and when she was gone for more than fifteen minutes I figured I’d been had. I hadn’t actually seen her driver license, because she’d left it at our other shop across town and rode one of their bikes over to my store. This seemed pretty clever—after she took off, I wouldn’t be able to scrutinize her license and recognize it as a fake. I called the other shop; they said the license looked legit. After another twenty minutes of waiting I grabbed a bike and set out looking for her, but what were my chances, really, of stumbling across her? I made my way to the other shop and looked at the license myself. It did look legit—mag stripe, good photo, even the little holograms. I called my store back, and found out she had finally returned.

I rode back and talked to her. She seemed to have no idea that forty-five minutes is way longer than a test ride is supposed to last, nor did she give any reason for being gone for so long. I should have been really ticked—she gave me a good scare, after all, and wasted a bunch of my time. But there were extenuating circumstances: she did end up buying the bike; she didn’t waste more time by exhausting me with pointless questions; and, she was pretty. So I didn’t get angry. In fact, I married her.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Race Report - Everest Challenge


About a year ago, some cycling friends made plans to do a big bike race, and were looking for takers. The race was the Everest Challenge, the California-Nevada Climbing Championship, a two-day stage race covering 206 miles with 28,035 feet of cumulative vertical gain. I was intrigued, but couldn’t get fit enough after being hit by a car that summer. The intrepid three who raced it last year—Paul, Jamie, and Craig—decided to do it again, and I determined to give it a shot. I even managed to bully another rider, Lucas, into joining us.

What follows is the official race report I sent around to my bike club. As I explained at some length in an earlier post, my race reports tend to talk a lot about the food involved. After all, most of us are in this sport for the food, and food is arguably more interesting than bike racing. If you doubt this, consider the following two passages:

I came to regret passing up the penne—pronounced “penny PAST-ah” by the locals—choosing instead a fettuccine dish consisting of limp pasta in Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, with the lightest dusting of fresh Parmesan cheese, dispensed ineffectually by the waitress, who was new, and who held the excellent Zyliss rotary cheese grater backwards and upside down, thus turning the handle the wrong way and unscrewing it from the grater, until finally I gave up and said “when” and that’s all the cheese I got.

So anyhow, I was in perfect position, about eight riders back, but knowing that this one Team Spine dude in front of me had a really good jump and would probably take me past a least a few guys, when we come around the last turn and my tire hit this Botts’ dot, one of those domed round white ones, and I didn’t exactly lose traction, but it kind of made my tire drift just a bit, so I was just a bit off balance, and I knew I wasn’t going to crash but it just kind of screwed up my timing a bit, and lost the Spine guy’s wheel, and then I got totally boxed in by this Morgan Stanley guy and ended up with another pack finish. But I was so close to having a top five at least!

Okay, I think you can see where the real human interest is. So now, with no further ado, here is my official Everest Challenge race report. (Note: if you're still interested in the story of the actual race and not just the food and camaraderie, click here. That's my Daily Peloton story, in two parts.)


After much logistical discussion, our group of five arranged ourselves in two cars: Jamie and Paul in the “Climbers’ Honda” and Lucas, Craig, and I in the “Goliaths’ Volvo.” The climbers dropped us right away, getting on the road about an hour before us, which is a pity because they missed a glorious lunch at a little taqueria in a strip mall in Escalon that I miraculously remembered from having eaten there with Erin at some point. I had the carnitas burrito, which was glorious, but Lucas was issuing serious yummy-noises over his al pastor burrito. The place had all the hallmarks of a great taqueria: grilled (not steamed) tortillas (flour and corn only, none of this sun-dried tomato, spinach, or whole wheat crap), refried (not just pinto) beans, very spicy salsa, and cabeza and lengua on the menu. And guacamole came stock—none of this nickel-and-diming us to death like that damn 360 place.

We did a quick spin-the-legs ride before our dinner, which was provided by the race organizers. This was your standard-issue mass-pasta, four on a scale of zero being mush, ten being hard, and seven being al dente. There was some tasty sausage too, and when they ran out the volunteer server picked several slices out of the sauce for me, which was a nice touch. There was some chewy garlic bread that was pleasantly low-brow, almost vulgar (in the best possible way). It was a fine meal all around, though Lucas, ever-competitive, tried to keep up with my consumption and ended up with a stomachache. (Lucas, just with whom the hell did you think you were dealing?)

Stage 1 – 122 miles, 15,465 feet of climbing

Breakfast, early the next morning, was Golean cereal, courtesy of Craig. I guess it’s supposed to be pronounced “go lean,” but I’ve trained my kids to say “GOAL-iyan” so it sounds like something Captain Kirk might eat. Oh, and a banana. We were pretty nervous.

During Stage 1 I consumed seven gels, four bottles of my standard energy drink, a bottle of water, and two bottles of the race-supplied energy drink everybody had warned me not to use. It didn’t turn my stomach as I’d feared, and as everybody had predicted, which was a relief (though I actually stopped at the car for the second two bottles of my normal energy drink as a precaution). At the finish I had two or three large bean-and-cheese quesadillas, a tall stack of real Oreos, a Coke, a V-8 juice (far higher in electrolytes than any energy drink), a cup of homemade spicy chicken soup, and a pesto-and-sun-dried-tomato quesadilla that was, hands-down, the saltiest thing I’ve ever eaten.

Dinner that evening was at a groovy Italian place the Everest veterans ate at last year. We had a large pizza as an appetizer, and though we all agreed on mushrooms, only compromise kept a fistfight from breaking out over pepperoni vs. sausage. I couldn’t tell whether the waitress was a bit dim or I simply wasn’t speaking clearly, but it took several tries to get her to understand that we wanted mushrooms on the whole thing and half-and-half pepperoni and sausage on the rest. It was damn good pizza. Then I had this mushroom soup that the waitress had warned me was “a little spicy.” That sealed the deal, not because I like spicy mushroom soup (who ever heard of such a thing?) but because I couldn’t have my masculinity called into question with a stage remaining in the race. It ended up being very fiery, probably capable of stripping paint, and I liked it.

My entree was the chicken marsala, which the waitress all but insisted I get, having shot down my first two tentative choices. (I always have the waiter or waitress vet my food choice.) The marsala was brilliant: very rich and fattening without being greasy, with copious amounts of chicken breast that was tender and actually had flavor, unlike the blasted raspy retreads you get at Outhouse Steakback. Craig and Lucas developed a technique for dredging the oil from their primavera, and I guess they liked it okay, but I’ll just come out and say it: I pitied them their inferior choice. Perhaps I was just in a competitive spirit after doing a hard race, and doing it jolly hard. Anyway, Lucas felt the pasta was overcooked, and though it was about 6.5 on my doneness scale I had no issue with it. We didn’t have dessert, though Paul clearly wanted to; I’d had enough sweets for the day and also felt that if somebody ordered a pansy dessert like tiramisu or crème brûlée we might all be cursed the next day and never find the big ring.

Stage 2 – 86 miles, 13,570 feet of climbing

Breakfast on the second day was more Golean cereal, which was mighty hard to eat because nobody slept well and you could practically see the low cloud of flatulence that had gradually filled the room all night. My own flatulence was concussive almost to a window-shaking degree, which was a big part of our insomnia, but another rider’s gas (I won’t say whose) smelled just like an outhouse. So much for breakfast.

During Stage 2 I ate six gels, four of which were this foreign brand of gnarly race-provided gels that were supposed to taste like apple pie. Back in 1983 I did a bike tour in Canada and subsisted almost entirely on individually wrapped Pepperidge Farm cookies that were like a precursor to the Powerbar, and they were mostly apple pie flavored, and I swore I’d never touch them again. These gels tasted exactly like the Pepperidge Farm cookies, so needless to say they didn’t go down easy.

On the second climb I started having pretty bad stomach problems, so I consumed as little of the race-supplied energy rink as possible and managed, during the race, to have four bottles of my preferred brand (two of which I mixed myself, one while riding). I ended up with just one bottle of foreign drink, and several bottles of water because it was really hot (over 100 degrees) and the support was so awesome. At the top I didn’t eat as much as after Stage 1, because I didn’t have to replace my muscle glycogen—in fact, the idea of paralysis was very appealing at that point. Nevertheless, I had a couple bean quesadillas, a cup of chicken noodle soup (the noodles a crunchy 9.5), a V-8, and a Coke.

Our second lunch that day was at this bakery in Bishop. It was a huge operation that could probably provide bread for a large army, and I wonder how it can exist in such a small town. They had about eight or ten sandwich choices, each a rather pricey $8, but I was in no mood to pinch pennies. My brain was pretty muddy after two brutal road races, so for a few minutes it was hard to decide what to order, but then a little sign on the menu board settled the matter: “Note: our pastrami is not lean.” And it wasn’t: it was gloriously fatty. The rye bread was excellent, the cheese melted, the sauerkraut good and sauer, and the whole thing just eyeball-rollingly exquisite.

If my arms hadn’t been so tired from all the climbing I’d probably have beaten down my biker friends to steal their sandwiches. Lucas was very pleased with his “Mule Kick” sandwich, but I suspect he just liked the name. (It’s sort of the Hootie & the Blowfish of the sandwich world.) I have to say, the sandwich Paul had looked meager and vegetarian, but he didn’t seem to have any problem with it and I should really learn to resist gloating inwardly at my superior restaurant choices, or at least to refrain from documenting them.

The trip home

For the next several hours I dreamed of the burrito I’d be eating at the little taqueria in Escalon. Lucas, Craig, and I had talked the place up to Paul and Jamie, and we took some pains to drive together, caravan-style, so we could eat there together. This wasn’t easy because it got dark during the drive and we were all completely knackered. About thirty miles out of Oakdale (where we mistakenly thought the place was) Lucas realized it would be closed. He mourned this loudly and at length, and though I felt his pain—acutely—I was in denial and exhorted him to hold out hope.

Of course he was right, and though we managed to find the taqueria, it had closed at 3 (over six hours earlier!) and we were screwed. We went to Taco Hell, where the service was the worst I’ve ever experienced. Orders were flying out of the drive-thru window but we waited at least ten minutes for our grub. I even went and complained, causing the others to fear that our food would have spit in it. I really doubt this kitchen crew was that organized. I had five Cheesy Bean ‘n’ Rice burritos, which were heinously full of that grotesque plasticized nacho cheese goo. I was so hungry I actually ate them.

And that’s about it for the race. Once back in the Bay Area, my next two lunches were proper Mexican meals, and tonight I’m eating at Gordo Taqueria. My body is still trying to refuel itself and every night I dream about food. In summary, I highly recommend the Everest Challenge for anybody who takes eating, and suffering, seriously.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

From the Archives: Three Restaurant Reviews


I hope you enjoyed reading about the food of London ( Here, from my archives, are three companion pieces: reviews of American restaurants, from the high-end to the low-brow to the cutting edge of obscurely ethnic. I wrote the Sizzler review on October 2, 1990; the La Folie review on October 29, 1995; and the Adélie review on August 30, 2004. (A few of you might have read one or more of these in e-mail form at some point. Albertnet regrets this redundancy.)

Sizzler Steakhouse, 665 San Pablo Ave, Albany

Brett, my roommate, met Toru in the Japan-town in San Francisco. Naturally, they hit it off well, because Brett is trying to learn as much about the Japanese language and culture as possible, and Toru arrived here from Tokyo three weeks ago and seeks the same knowledge about America. I guess it isn’t surprising that Toru wanted to go to a steakhouse, but it caught Brett and me off guard.

Who really goes out for steak anymore, least of all in California? Our yellow pages has these sub-listings under restaurants: African, Brazilian, Cambodian, Cantonese, Creole-Cajun, Fast Food, Filipino, Hawaiian, Hofbrau, Hungarian, Indian, Indonesian, Iranian-Persian, Jewish Style, Mandarin, Moroccan, Soul Food, Sushi Bars, Thai, Turkish, Vegetarian, and Vietnamese, among others. Steakhouse is nowhere to be found. What would someone from Nebraska say? “Hungarian, Indian, Moroccan ‑‑ what the hell is this? I'm in America, dammit, I want American food. I want Black Angus!” We couldn't find anything. Then, with a creeping feeling of uneasiness, we remembered the hideous old stand‑by: Sizzler.

Sizzler is not an old stand‑by for people who occasionally require a steakhouse. It is a stand‑by for bike racers who are on the road and need to make sure they’ll get enough to eat. We never eat steak there; if we did, maybe we wouldn't hate it so much. Our torment comes at the hands of the salad bar. Actually, only once was it a salad bar; then it became a soup-and-salad bar, then a soup-salad-taco bar, then a soup-salad-taco-pasta bar, then a soup-salad-taco-pasta-dessert bar. Since the last time I’d been there (sometime last spring), they’ve added a hot-appetizer bar, and rather than buying up the rest of the world's supply of neon, they’ve changed the name of this monstrous freak of cuisine to “The Buffet Court.”

Upon entering a Sizzler, be it as far north as Salinas or as far south as Thousand Oaks, the feeling is always the same. It’s the same gut-wrenching nervous anticipation you get at the top of a roller‑coaster, right before plunging down—that moment when the hot dogs and cotton candy are festering in your stomach and beginning to crawl up your throat. But instead of the back‑ of-your-mind knowledge that nobody ever dies on roller coasters, the only comfort you can offer yourself at Sizzler is this: “I don’t have to eat anything I don’t want to. I can make it out of here if I just stick to the basics—salad, plain pasta, fruit.” But you know it’s hopeless. Walking down the aisle between the Hot Appetizer bar and the Salad Bar, all you can see to one side is french fries, fried zucchini, chicken nuggets; all you can see down the other is macaroni salad, potato salad, whipped chocolate pudding. (Why the pudding is considered a salad-bar item and not a dessert-bar item is beyond me. Maybe it’s classified like Jell-O—and believe me, this salad bar has plenty of Jell-O.)

Service, of course, is horrible at Sizzler. Since the two types of people that eat there (bike racers and senior citizens) always get the Buffet Court, the waiters can all but ignore them and get away with it. Once I complained about an earwig in my strawberries, and the waitress replied, “Well, I guess you got lucky.” In my fury, I cleared the restaurant by projectile-vomiting all over the pasta bar. (Okay, I didn’t really, but the part about the earwig is true.) The main job of a Sizzler waiter is to bring out water and the legendary Sizzler cheese-toast. If they forget the water, I am always one to complain because certain Sizzler items, like Tex-Mex Taco Meat, absolutely require something to wash them down. I’m more lenient on the cheese-toast, although I still like to gripe to Brett, “I hate Sizzler. They never bring me my cheese-toast. Never.”

I don't know what they eat in Japan, but Toru really seems to like the food here. Or maybe he’s being polite. I begin to ponder the message this restaurant must be giving him about America. The endless rows of food, routinely replaced and all for the taking, promote gluttony, for not only do they suggest an inexhaustible cornucopia, but appeal to our business sense; our own subconscious cost-benefit-analyses will not let us leave until we are completely full. Which at Sizzler, of course, means completely sick as well. It is an orgy of food, complete with uncomfortable diseases.

On only my seventh trip back to the Buffet Court, this time in search of anything bland that will calm my frantic stomach, I run into Brett. He must sense my pain, and his ghostly pallor suggests he feels it too, for he offers what he thinks will be an encouraging word: “Hey, guess what? The waiter just styled us out hard on the cheese-toast.” He looks confused when I roll my eyes. “I hate cheese-toast,” I tell him. Looking for something kinder to my stomach, I spy the melons. Actually, something else has drawn my attention to them: an old lady lacks the reach, the strength, and the salad-bar-tong dexterity to successfully pick up a slice of melon from the inner row of the salad bar. In fierce determination, she has pressed her right cheek against the protective glass canopy, onto which steam collects from her frantic breathing, along with an occasional drop of spittle flung from her lips by her incensed muttering. Partly out of sympathy and partly to get her out of the way, I help her to both kinds of melon (honeydew as well as . . . something else looking remarkably like honeydew but which she assures me is not). Then I help myself.

I figure the melon should really impress Toru, because I have learned from Brett that a melon in Japan costs anywhere from $30 to $100. I figure once Toru sees my melon wedges, he’ll flip out and forget his steak altogether. He seems unimpressed, though, which confuses me. I ask about the cost of melons in Japan, and he replies, “Yes, the melons are very, very expensive, but they are not something you buy. They are something to give to somebody, as a gift.” Now I have a sinking feeling about my measly wedges. In Japan, food is a ceremony, and means something beyond that which satisfies a glutton’s oral fixation and lust for grease. Here at Sizzler, food has even dropped below that level of sustenance; it represents something that will make you sick, every time.

Most items here seem like a good idea and even look appetizing, until you get them to the table. The cheese-toast, on the other hand, doesn't even look good: uniform slices of dry bread topped with an uncanny orange powder. As with everything, I eat it out of guilt. There are starving people in this world, I tell myself, and although I wish I were one of them right now, I can’t help the fact that I’ve committed myself to this meal and there’s no turning back. To rid my mouth of the horrible orange taste, I make one final trip, this one to the dessert bar. Here it is, ice cream on tap: chocolate, vanilla, or of course the disgusting hybrid (which has oozed into one brownish mass), with chocolate syrup in the ubiquitous recessed-stainless-steel-salad- bar-bucket. Syrup would turn my already-runny chocolate ice cream to soup, so I bite the bullet and top it with green Jell-O. When I finish eating, I am utterly ruined. Never again, I vow. Of course, I said that last time, and the time before. Toru, astonishingly, is happy with his meal. He explains that the steak alone would have cost $25 in Japan. All the same, the next time I want a steakhouse, I'm going over there.

La Folie, 2316 Polk Street, San Francisco

La Folie is a really fancy French restaurant just down the street from our apartment. Erin and I have walked by it many times, but never really thought about going in.

Well, on Friday night, we were both sitting, dazed, trying to recover from the grueling work week, when Erin said, Let's go out to eat. Well, in return for spending a month in Pasadena, my company had given me a TOP Certificate, which is a $100 bonus that must be spent on dinner for two. (It can be at any restaurant; the company simply pays me back.) Thing was, we didn’t want to waste it on a cheap restaurant where we could never run up that kind of bill, so Erin called La Folie for reservations. When she called it was about 6:30; they said the earliest they could get us in would be 9:30, unless we could get there within two or three minutes. Well, we made it.

I cannot offer any valuable comments about the decor, since I am still well within the cave of Plato’s Allegory. I was immediately impressed, however, by the staff. The waiter took his role far beyond that required by his profession. If normal waiters are well-mannered prostitutes, he was a lover. Even waiters at fine restaurants are often guilty of rolling their eyes while rattling off a list of specials memorized by rote; you can hardly blame them, since they have so much to remember anyway. But this fellow was different. Naturally we had all kinds of questions about the food, being culinary Philistines by the standards of this restaurant; as he answered our questions, he stared into our eyes, passionately delivering a gripping narrative of the splendor of each offering. I cannot recount his exact words, or even a vague summary of them, so specialized was his language. It included such things as cooking times, geographical origins of the components of the food, arrangement on the plate . . . his testimony was as heartfelt as if he had personally created every dish. At any moment I thought he might sink into a swoon. Needless to say, we ordered with confidence.

To start with, Erin had quail stuffed with paté de foie gras (duck liver) and I had roasted sea scallops. The scallops were arranged in a circle around the plate, alternated boy-girl-boy-girl with roast potatoes cut to exactly the same dimension as the scallops. In the middle was a smooth dome of pinkish salmon mousse, and there was a thin, dark, very tasty sauce around the whole thing. Absolutely exquisite. I can’t remember much about the presentation of Erin’s appetizer, since by the time we traded, the presentation had been severely altered. But it was also exquisite.

Then, we moved onto the soup. Erin had a butternut squash soup, very nice, and I had a bouillabaisse, which I’d say is the French version of cioppino, which in turn, I gather, is the Italian word for “fancy fish soup. Highlights included a scallop the size of Manhattan, some other fish, and a lovely broth. Jutting proudly out of the bowl was a 10-inch crouton, with a large bulb of roasted garlic perched on the end. To my amazement, when I went to spread the garlic down the length of the crouton with my knife, it spread more smoothly than butter. Turns out it wasn't a bulb of garlic at all; it was mustard! I shouldn't have been surprised; I was in a French restaurant, after all, and this was a trompe l'oeil. (I feel the need here to throw around some fancy French terms. I hope you’re impressed.)

I should point out that I was not in the least disappointed to get mustard instead of garlic. It was not an overbearingly strong mustard like Grey Poupon (which is designed to stimulate the deadened taste buds of chain-smokers, such as you find in Paris), but a very mild yet distinctive mustard. The finest mustard, in fact, that I have ever had. The scallop in my soup, meanwhile, was not only the finest scallop I have ever had, but the finest thing I have ever put in my mouth. In fact, the experience of eating half of that scallop (the act of saving the other half being one of the most arduous trials my marriage has ever seen) was perhaps the most concentrated moment of pleasure I have ever experienced. Although acutely aware of the elegance of my surroundings, I could not suppress a whimper of sheer delight. Again, I can’t remember Erins soup as well as mine, except to say that it was buttery and nutty and very fine indeed.

Then we had a sorbet. It was served in something like a martini glass, although after a brief discussion we concluded that it must have been a special glass specially designed for sorbet. I thought about testing to see if the glass was crystal, which is done by flicking it in much the same fashion as you flick a schoolmate’s cold, red ear right after recess on a cold winter morning. However, I feared that if the glass were indeed crystal, I would know because I would send shards of it flying in Erin’s face, and we’d owe the restaurant gobs of money for a replacement.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes, the sorbet. It was not sherbert, or even sherbet. It had basically the composition of a snow cone. The flavor, however, put it on the opposite end of the spectrum from its oversweet cousin. It was the most vivid, pronounced grapefruit flavor I have ever encountered. Basically, they’d managed to compress the total collective flavor of a crate of grapefruits into about a tablespoon of crushed ice. My palette was instantly purged of a lifetime of accumulated flavors; indeed, I suddenly knew the inside of my mouth more intimately than I had since birth.

The entrees? I had the black sea bass. By the black sea bass, I mean that this was the only black sea bass that has ever lived. (As soon as I ordered it, they took it off the menu.) Well, actually, perhaps it wasn’t that unique, but it was still something special. As soon as I ordered it, the waiter gave instructions to an expert fisherman, who went out in a small skiff to the deep waters of the Pacific to catch the fish. (As I began the soup course, I envisioned him arriving, out of breath, at the back of the kitchen with a giant pail of water, having brought back his bounty alive. Naturally, the restaurant knew that storing an exotic fish in other than its natural environment would spoil the flavor.)

I cannot describe how the fish was prepared because the chef had worked some kind of magic on it. Magnificent. It was served with this special rice that was so inexplicably good that I must compare it to Mom’s stuffing: how could anything so simple be so delicious? (I don't want to hear any answers from dieticians, either). Sprawling lazily across the plate were several stalks of the Platonic ideal of asparagus. The plate was also festooned with these large, thick slabs of space-alien mushrooms--shitakes and portobellos and other bizarre varieties more savory than meat. These, I now recall, had also been part of the apotheosis of the appetizers.

Erin, meanwhile, had the duck. Oh, it was magnificent. Thin slices, rather rare (by which I mean to describe how they were cooked and how seldom anybody gets such fine duck). She also had an amazing rice, along with carrots and an unidentifiable vegetable that we think might have been hearts of palm. I ate half her entree myself (we had made this arrangement early on, and held to it through all five courses, even though upon tasting each course, I was tempted to call off the deal, since nothing, I reasoned, could be better than what I was eating; still, I managed to take the gamble each time, and it was always worth it).

I really liked the duck. I mean, I know that's not profound or anything; I mean, heck, we all love duck. But this went much more beyond that. Part of my love of eating duck comes from the very concept of eating such irritating birds. I remember the ones who lived at Viele Lake who turned the sidewalk green all the way from the Rec Center to Fairview High School with their feces. I also remember how they used to charge me, hissing, just for trespassing on “their land, and how they almost refused to cower when I chased them across the lawn on my mountain bike. But my general hatred of living ducks can be discounted in this case, for this was obviously a more refined breed of duck. I imagine it was a more serene, less bilious duck, who grew up in an Eddie Bauer catalog, eating a balanced diet of gourmet croutons and polenta. I’m sure it died in peace, in full knowledge of the gourmet afterlife that is every prize duck’s mortal dream.

After finishing the main course, we were feeling great. So great, in fact, that we were pushing the edge of the envelope for feeling great and I, anyway, feared that dessert might push me over the edge. It seems that every time I stay for dessert at a nice restaurant, I end up ordering the Great Ungodly Godlike Sinfully Rich Chocolate Blasphemy. It’s always good, but it’s always too much of a good thing. But of course this menu was more original and creative than that. It offered an assortment of exotic things; I almost ordered a dessert based on figs, for the sake of being outlandish. But the waiter swayed me towards the pear strudel. (Again, I marvelled at the waiter’s passion for the food; he lovingly described the desserts with the same zest I would have in recommending Simplex Retrofriction shifters.) Erin ordered the apple Charlotte.

Only when the strudel arrived did it hit me: this is a French restaurant, and nobody does pastry like the French. It was warm, of course, but not that death-warmed-over-in-the-microwave warm you get at diners. It must have been baked to order. Twin wedges met to form a tower; powdered sugar was sprinkled lightly over the rim of the plate. A star graced the plate, composed of varicolored petals of some exotic sauce. Erin’s dessert, too, was graced with pretty droplets. I expected these to be mainly cosmetic touches, like different colors of frosting on a cake. This misconception, however, was brought to my attention when Erin tasted one of her droplets and absolutely squealed with delight. Her droplet had been caramel: not like Brachs, but like La Folie had just invented caramel. Another droplet was some kind of lemon cream. I began tasting my drops, and was elated to discover that each had, condensed magically within it, the entire flavor of a mortal dessert. It became immediately obvious to me that Willy Wonka was back there in the kitchen, having found his true calling. My dessert only got more amazing from there. The pastry was so perfect and flaky and light, the filling so honest and unsweetened, that I almost broke down and cried for sheer joy.

Naturally, such a meal came at a price. But, partially because my work bonus covered more than half of it, I was not in the least disgruntled by the bill. After all, think of how much sacrifice the French people have made over the centuries, eschewing convenience and doggedly pursuing great cuisine, just to develop the kinds of delicacies we had just eaten. It is a wonderful thing that we can stroll into a restaurant, mere blocks from our home, and suddenly experience the culmination of centuries of passionate devotion to fine food.

Adélie, 1109 Fillmore Street, San Francisco

You can have all the charms of your run-of-the-mill restaurants in downtown San Francisco or the Mission District, but wouldn't you love to eat at Adélie Restaurant and watch the lively action—complete with a sidewalk scuffle—in the Western Addition?

Don't be scared to visit. Adélie (named after the Adélie Coast, a region of Antarctica near George V Coast, under French sovereignty since 1938) offers an affordable meal. The prices are all over the place—anywhere from a $1.99 ice taco to a $10.25 frozen entrée. It strikes me as a new place that’s still working out the kinks. The ambiance is sparse, yet kind of endearing (and I’m not a big ambiance guy anyway). There are black and white photocopies of Antarctic landscapes on the wall, and other photocopies are embedded in the glass dining tables. And while the fluorescent lighting and images of bleak tundra are depressing, there are handmade needle work and ceramic displays that do warm up the place a bit.

I think the waiter is also the owner, the cashier, the busboy, the chef, and possibly even the sous-chef. He explained that the restaurant was an integration of his Antarctic background with his wife’s Eskimo heritage. He was emphatic about this “hybrid project” not being fusion. Rather, he said, the dishes reflect “flavors of the old family recipes that shouldn't be altered.” Whatever, dude.

The Coats Land Snow Mixto for $9.25 completely floored me. The mix of meat and seafood including seal, penguin, walrus, and tern was nicely chilled and flavored with tart snow and fresh ice. I warn you, it might be a bit cold for the faint-hearted. If steaming biscuits are more your scene, this might turn you off a bit. Myself, I thought it was great, but then I once ate “roll mops” after being caught in the snow on a bike ride up Mount Diablo. (What, you haven't heard of a roll mop? It’s raw herring wrapped around a dill pickle, a Dutch delicacy.)

The Antarctic Pabellon for $10.25 is shredded gull brined with slush and served with pickled gull eggs, steamed ice, black gravel and a little pile of yellow snow. The presentation of the dish was simple and the aroma was enticing without being overwhelming. The gull was tender and smoky, but I began to lose interest after a few bites. Nothing about the ice or gravel really stood out either. The entrée felt like, well, discomfort food, and I had the vague feeling that someone's grandmother does a better version.

I can't vouch for the authenticity of Adélie (since I don't know squat about Antarctic cuisine) but I was pretty impressed that they have seven varieties of imported blubber, listed on their own section of the menu with a little blurb about each one. The blubbers come from various Antarctic regions, from Bellinghausen Sea to Coats Land to Australian Arctic Territory. I was tempted to try one or two, but since Erin and the kids had stuffed themselves on waffles and bacon at breakfast, I knew I wouldn’t get any help from them, and I wasn't going to tackle a whole plate of blubber on my own. (I flew solo with chicken feet at Dim Sum back in the day and I’m not making that mistake again.)

Overall, Adélie did hold its own as a nice place to grab a bite. The service was caring and the food was decent, if a bit uncomfortable. The neighborhood is a bit on the spotty side—there was a fistfight right outside our window during the meal, which set a bad example for my bored children—but who cares? Just mind your own business and enjoy the experience. Or, if you just can’t relax in that environment, get your meal to go—Adélie is one of the few restaurants I’ve seen that still sends meals out in Styrofoam containers (though I can’t imagine why, since the food is all stone cold to begin with).

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Food of London

Food is a big deal to me. When I’m not cooking or eating food, I’m either working to make money to buy it, or riding my bike to burn it off. Not surprisingly, many of my friends are also foodies, and some have asked how I liked the food in London during my recent vacation there. To those who haven’t asked my opinion, well, here it is anyway.
I will point out up front, though, that I’m not going to pretend I could give an overall account of how good English food is, or try to compare it to what we eat in the Bay Area. In London I was a clueless tourist with no idea where to go, and judging English food by the random restaurants I blindly stumbled into would be no more fair than judging San Francisco food by the humdrum fare you get along Fisherman’s Wharf.

For some reason, the members of my bike club ( are inordinately fond of bacon. Numerous group e-mail threads have been devoted to bacon-related topics, and I’ve even enjoyed a taste of a bacon chocolate bar courtesy of a teammate. There has even been talk of bacon icons on our jerseys or socks for next year. And when I mentioned I was going to London, there was much chatter about bacon butties and the merits of English bacon over American. So I’ll get right to the bacon here.
Here’s a picture of English store-bought bacon before and after I cooked it:
As you can see, their bacon is much, much leaner than what we have here. In fact, it looked more like a pork cutlet than bacon. You can also see how much of it was left after cooking; that amount of American bacon would have largely disappeared into liquid fat. And the taste? Delicious. Salty and briny like bacon should be, and though obviously less fatty, still satisfyingly decadent.
Of course, there is more than one kind of bacon in England. This snack bar sandwich had their “streaky bacon.”
This bacon was more like American, but its pairing with arugula on this simple sandwich was a nice touch. (Over there arugula is called “rocket.”)
Bacon makes a guest appearance later in this post, and if we back up and consider pork in general, stay tuned because the very best thing I ate in London involves the almighty pig. If you love pork but you’re in a rush, and/or have an MTV attention span, skip ahead to the “highlights” section.
Local specialties
We never did try a bacon butty during our trip, but we did make an effort to try some of the more famous English culinary offerings. Baked beans on toast didn’t figure in because we breakfasted at the house, and never felt like making this. As much as I love starch, I don’t get the dual-starch thing (e.g., potato calzones). So, the very first thing we ate in London was fish & chips:

I really like the format here of a single giant piece of fish. It was crispy and greasy in the best possible way and I enjoyed it. Note the side of “mushy peas,” which we frequently saw paired with fish & chips. Mushy peas: what a strange name. “Mushy” seems pejorative rather than merely descriptive, like if they’d said “gross peas.” (Speaking of unflattering terms, during the trip I frequently announced to the kids that for dinner we were having “greasy bloaters” or “cabbage and potato sog,” both phrases from the brilliant kids’ book How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen, which I think should be required reading for all children and their adults.)
So, you’re wondering, how were those mushy peas? Our panel of tasters declared them disgusting. But mixed with a little malt vinegar, salt, and some crème fraîche we stole from another entrée, they were actually quite tasty. I should also point out that the pub we ate fish & chips at has been around for about two hundred years old, with some very groovy ambiance.
Another local specialty we wanted to have in the UK was a proper high tea. This we did at the Orangery restaurant in Kensington Gardens. Being a little confused, we described this outing to the kids as “taking tea at the palace.” (I see no harm in letting them continue to think of it that way.) We waited over forty-five minutes for a table, but the experience was very grand indeed:
The little sandwiches were tasty, and the scone was better than any I’d had before. Another item I have saved for my “highlights” section below.
Alexa says this was one of her favorite memories from the trip. I'm glad, because this little snack cost about $80, and I could have put every single food item in my mouth at the same time and still had room for tea. Of course, it’s not like I worked hard to find a high-value venue for our high tea experience.
It would have seemed silly and frankly irresponsible to spend two weeks in London without having bangers & mash, so I did: I love the contrast between comically ornate American menu descriptions (e.g. “served with a turnip, radicchio, and bruised parsnip salsify”) and the barebones English term “brown sauce.” No, they’re not telling us exactly what’s in it, nor even what animal(s) it derives from. Thus, this may have been my only exposure to the infamous English beef during the trip. (Note that I’m not uniquely suspicious of English beef; I generally eat only grass fed beef in the U.S., preferably local.) Anyway, the bangers & mash were quite nice, especially the mash.
World cuisine
When at home in California, we don’t focus on American food (and what would that be, exactly, anyway? Dennison’s chili? Ball Park franks? Or Native American fare like, uh, corn and acorns and Thanksgiving food? Or would it be New York or Chicago style pizza?). So in London, we eagerly tried out English renditions of other countries’ foods. At an Italian place, I had this risotto:
It tasted about how it looks: like a pile of rice with some ham and peas in it. There was no magic there—the dish was nothing more than the sum of its parts, and the Earth didn’t move for me. Truth be told, I’m seldom impressed with risotto; it’s so often an insipid, gloppy mess. But I had it at the California Culinary Academy when I took a cooking class there, and it was fantastic. I don’t remember exactly how we made it (I was fairly absorbed in babysitting the Bolognese ragu at the time), but I remember the chef/instructor, a real Italian and rather stout, tossing pat after pat of butter into it, long after the amount in the recipe was exceeded. I asked him what he was doing and why, and his response—the subtlest shrug you could imagine—tacitly told me, “Shut up—you know nothing.”
This fettuccine alla carbonara at another Italian restaurant was a fair bit better:
The bacon involved was great stuff, and the pasta itself was perfectly cooked. Eight more servings just like this one would have made it perfect for me (look how much plate is showing).
We had a goal of eating a lot of Indian food in London, but (not knowing where to go) we ended up trying only two restaurants. Both of them were good. Here is the samosa appetizer I ordered at the better of the places:
I’m not actually a big fan of samosas and don’t often order them, because they have that dual-starch thing going (pastry plus potato). But I just had a, uh, gut feeling it would be good here, and I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, the best samosa I’ve ever had, and decked out with other hearty, groovy stuff.
And here is the thali that Erin ordered:
She loved it. By the time I tried it, I was pretty sated from eating much of my kids’ food and my own, and my mouth was already on fire from my noodles, so I wasn’t particularly receptive to its charms. As for those noodles, I’ll get to them later in the “Kids’ menu” section of this post.
One night we had American food. As I said before, I’m generally not sure what American food even is, but in this case we were notified right off the bat this was bona-fide American:
There’s a frozen pizza brand in the Netherlands called “Big American,” and I had to laugh it its conception of what “American” pizza is like. The “California,” for example, has corn and tuna on it. US Pizza has some charming “lost in translation” menu offerings as well:
I was relieved to see that “EAGLES PREY” was topped with relatively humdrum toppings rather than the rodents, birds, and carrion the name suggested. And the name “WILD CAT FEAST” startled me as well. Meanwhile, I love that the “FAVOURITE” and the “CLASSIC” have exactly the same toppings. I’ll also point out that their “SEAFOOD ULTIMO” is the first pairing of tuna, prawns, and BBQ sauce I have ever seen.
Here is the pizza itself:
It was exactly as good as it looks, and actually pretty authentic. (I had them hold the corn—local color be damned, I won’t eat corn on pizza. That would be almost as bad as whole wheat crust.) Of course the US Pizza didn’t rival my favorite pizzas in the US (see, but as far as run-of-the-mill pizza-delivery places it was just fine (and a fair bit better than Domino’s, except for the Domino’s we ate at in France back in ’03, which totally rocked, vindicating me somewhat for having bought it at all). Full disclosure: I like almost all pizza, even bad pizza, even (usually) frozen pizza.
Things we didn’t eat
The main thing we didn’t eat was Mexican food, because it’s almost impossible to find it over there. We’d been prepared for this; before leaving the US I ate Mexican for almost every meal, just as a pearl diver takes a huge breath of air before going underwater.
In fact, one of our last pre-trip meals was at Mario’s La Fiesta, my favorite Berkeley place. Early in our meal there I realized that at the very next table were seated Mario himself and his wife Rosalinda, having their dinner! A framed photo of them above our table showed them on the day the restaurant opened, in 1959. They’ve held up well, as has their restaurant. We chatted with them, and they described to us how several American expatriate families have a tradition of heading straight to La Fiesta when they come back to the US for a visit. (My brother Geoff, who lives in the Netherlands, always makes La Fiesta a primary destination when he visits.) Mario told how, very recently, one expatriate couple, hearing of La Fiesta’s move from its original Telegraph Ave location, shifted their vacation schedule by a week so they could have one more meal in the original location. (Of course fifty years in business isn’t that long by London standards, but I’ve been eating at La Fiesta for roughly half my life.)
I missed Mexican food terribly in London; twice I dreamed about it as I slept. One of these dreams featured two different kinds of chile rellenos. Waking up and realizing I couldn’t even find the raw materials to make my own pseudo-Mexican food, I was despondent. How can the English (among other Europeans) live like this? It’s barbaric. If these countries were ruled by evil tyrants who forbade Mexican food that would be one thing, but the fact that there’s apparently little demand there for this glorious cuisine just boggles my mind.
Okay, enough griping. So, what else didn’t we eat in London? Well, we took a good look at the paella a street vendor was selling on Portobello Road. (The Portobello Road outing was another literary pilgrimage, based on the short story “The Portobello Road” by Muriel Spark. This story contains what may be the greatest sentence in all of literature: “He looked as if he would murder me, and he did.” It’s something of a ghost story.) Anyway, the idea of unrefrigerated shellfish and other unknowns frightened us away from the paella:
We also declined to sample the “doners” at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that we passed every day on the way home from the underground:
I guess “doner” is just too close to “donor.” Shouldn’t the English be similarly bothered by this similarity? Like the manager of this place goes around to other restaurants saying, “I’m running a shoestring operation, do you have any meat you could donate?” And there's a suggestion of "organ donor" lurking in there as well. Beyond that, the food looked kind of gnarly in the picture, and of the very fact of the pictures I consider a liability.
We also didn’t eat this:
I’m no stranger to lard (my favorite Mexican restaurant in Boulder has t-shirts that say “Praise the Lard”), but lard in a cake? Or are they describing what the cake will do to you? I think a restaurant could be a bit more discreet.
This problem of suggestive naming also scared us away from an appetizer offered by US Pizza: It’s a pity—the description was actually somewhat enticing—but I just can’t eat anything that calls itself pregnant.
We didn’t eat much vegetarian food in London. (A friend of mine has commented, “It’s like all of England is on Atkins.’”) I’m not saying we looked particularly hard for vegetarian food (why would we?), but it’s apparently not that common to begin with. We did see a vegetarian offering at the (remarkably elegant) dining hall at one of the Oxford colleges:
Look at the second item from the top: “Mushroom in oats & salsa dip.” What the hell? Is this somebody’s idea of punishing vegetarians for being vegetarians? Wacky. (I’ve racked my brain for an explanation. I thought maybe it was “mushroom in goats,” as in goat cheeses, but there’s just plain no “g” there.)
A final thing we didn’t eat: most of a loaf of bread that inexplicably became a science project the day after we bought it:
Kids’ menus
We were pleasantly surprised by the near-ubiquity and quality of the kids’ menus at London restaurants. I won’t say they were particularly cheap (£5-6, or about $8-10), but they usually came with a dessert and a side vegetable. They were always generously apportioned (which I appreciate, being the family “closer,” who makes sure every plate is clean by the end of the meal). Best of all, these kids’ menus offered sophisticated foods, not just the cop-out grilled cheese, chicken nuggets, or hot dog to which so many American kids’ menus are limited.
Check out the quality of this kids’ entrée, grilled salmon with vegetables:
And though this next lunch gets middling scores for style points, presentation, and balance (it violates my dual-starch rule), it was fricking huge, and good. The stuff in that bowl hiding under a crust of cheese is macaroni and cheese, and we all loved it. The mashed potatoes were from scratch and perfect. The corn was, well, corn.
This dessert, custard with banana slices, was far too large for a single child. This isn’t a problem in my family, where there as a Parental Dessert Tariff of 25% per parent. The great thing about parenting is that you can create a true dictatorship. Individual rebellions are easy to crush, and kids just aren’t organized enough to challenge the status quo. In fact, perhaps the most British thing about our kids is their blind acceptance of our Parental Tariff. Whereas the founders of the USA rebelled against the whole British taxation-without-representation thing, our kids would always cheerfully slide their desserts over to be taxed, as though this were a simple fact of life. Thus a “free” dessert for them is a free dessert for us, and nobody falls into a sugar coma afterward.
At the especially groovy Indian place, Alexa got to have her own Thali, just like Erin. Look at how stoked she is:
Lindsay opted for the chicken noodles, which sounds like something really basic, like what we got out of a can in our own youth, but what she got really had some flair:
My own chicken and noodles plate looked almost exactly like this one, though it was spicier—too much so, actually. And it was only slightly larger than Linsday’s. I had her hold a box of crayons in the frame of this photo so I’d remember this was the kids’ version of this dish. You’d never know looking at it, huh?
A note on the crayons, by the way: remember how in the ‘80s it seemed as though every restaurant in America had a salad bar? Almost like it was a law? Well, in the aughts you’d be hard pressed to find a restaurant without crayons and coloring sheets. Waiters have learned not to expect kids to share, so each kid gets his or her own box. The diversion is welcome, of course, unless you believe the parenting books that warn against destroying your child’s creativity by teaching her that “art” means staying within the lines somebody else has created. Meanwhile, the crayons invariably get left behind and thrown out since all kids everywhere have bazillions of crayons at home already. Years down the road we can expect a worldwide wax shortage and Technicolor landfills.
Okay, back to the food. The real pièce de résistance of the UK kids’ menu was the “Big Mussels ‘n’ Chips” that Alexa ordered at our last restaurant meal of the trip, in a posh restaurant in Bath. I was not just surprised to see mussels on the menu (what American kid would ever order them?) but frankly a bit hesitant to let Alexa have them. For one thing, no less bold a diner than the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain warns against mussels, on illness-avoidance grounds (see Besides, I wasn’t sure Alexa would even like them. But she was adamant, and here they are:
Alexa admitted later that she had been a bit leery of her first mussel (“it seemed gooey and jiggly on my fork”) and had to close her eyes before putting it in her mouth. But once she tasted it, she loved it right away, and on the basis of her yummy noises Lindsay became envious and begged for some mussels of her own. Here is the result:

Once she’d tasted mussels, Lindsay lost interest in her salmon. Things got a little dicey there—it was a good thing Alexa’s serving was so generous.
Dining out in London was occasionally a little weird. In one case it wasn’t the food but the service that was weird. At the really good Indian place, there was a little comment card, and Erin decided to fill it out. Now, I think we generally assume these comments are anonymous, but to our surprise the manager came out, plucked the card off the table, and questioned us about it. “Why only ‘very good’ in the service category?” he asked. Erin pointed out that my entrée came ten minutes later than everybody else’s. The manager acknowledged this, but still seemed a little hurt. Erin continued, “C’mon, I gave you almost all ‘excellents,’ I have to ding you on something.” He continued to go through the card. It was a pleasant enough dialogue, but what if we’d bagged on the place? The only comment card I’ve ever filled out was at an Arby’s in Boulder near my junior high school about twenty-five years ago. Being a snotty teenager, I rated the ketchup quality “poor” and undor “Arby’s Sauce” I wrote in “ketchup.” What would the Arby’s manager have said?
Okay, back to food. I ordered the linguine alla vongole at an upscale restaurant (the place in Bath that served the mussels), hoping for the best. I make this dish at home, albeit with canned clams, and it’s pretty hard to screw up. (I used to enjoy it at I Fratelli, which was Erin and my favorite Italian Restaurant in San Francisco back when we lived there. On my deathbed I’ll still be regretting not eating there more often; it’s gone now—actually, it moved and hideously mutated and still exists in evil-twin form as Tre Fratelli in Ghirardelli Square and it’s awful). Anyway, here is the linguine alla vongole I was served in Bath: The first thing you’ll notice is that it’s really small. Probably fewer calories than in Lindsay’s plate. And I don’t need to point out that the pasta is like Noodle Roni. Why would they cut the noodles for me? It’s insanity! What isn’t evident from the photo is that at least half of those clam shells were empty. WTF!?
Also not visible is how totally over-spicy this dish was. I’m no pansy—I like my salsa good and hot—but clams have a subtle flavor. Why drown it out? Okay, maybe you think I’m just a whiner and all these complaints are nit-picky. Fine—but bear with me, because here’s where the entrée gets really weird: every third or fourth bite had tiny shards of what must have been broken clam shell in them. Each time my teeth crunched on these rock-hard shards I would wince, cringe, wither inside and then (as the English motto goes) “keep calm and carry on.” After all, my kids were enjoying themselves.
But what of Erin? Was she enjoying herself? Probably, but her own entrée wasn’t helping. She had ordered the plaice:
Now, some people might be put off by the mere sight of this fish. Not only is the head attached, but it looks like the fish equivalent of a slashed tire. That said, Erin and I are adventurous eaters, and I think Erin was still enthusiastic as she set about eating it. To say this is a flatfish is an understatement—it was practically two-dimensional. The fish opened up like a manila folder and all that was inside was bones. Hundreds of them, and virtually no flesh whatsoever. You could get more calories from the crumbs between your sofa cushions. It was a joke. She was done “eating” it within about sixty seconds. In all my years of dining out I’ve never seen anything like it. Again, I didn’t complain. We had a train to catch, and the salmon and mussels were great.
As you’ve doubtless gathered, we had some really great food during out trip. Here I’ll share with you the “best of’ items—a little food porn, if you will. Baked goods were invariably delicious. At a very basic snack bar at Kew Gardens, we shared this simple pound cake:
It’s a good thing we divvied it up ahead of time, because otherwise we might have ended up in quite a fracas. It was really, really good. I think they added heroin or something. But better yet was this Belgian chocolate cake we had with our high tea at Kensington:
This was unbelievably good, I mean eyes-rolling-back-in-your-head good. The cake was more dense, more moist, richer and better-tasting than cake ever gets to be. And that stuff next to it? Clotted cream, baby. It’s like what regular whipped cream might be like if you could freebase it. As for entrées, we particularly liked this leg of lamb: The leg of lamb technically belonged to Erin, but it was so rich I got to eat a fair bit of it, including the marrow from the bone. It’s pretty hard to screw up a leg of lamb, but this place did an especially good job. It was the kind of food that makes you (or at least makes me) whimper with pleasure. But the very best thing I ate in London was this pork belly:
This was the first pork belly I’d ever had the opportunity to eat. Why is that? How come the pork belly has become the quintessential example of a tradable commodity, and yet you never see them on menus or at the butcher shop? What do Americans do with all their pork bellies?
My God, this thing was exquisite. I won’t lie to you, it wasn’t lean whatsoever, but neither was it just a big pile of fat. It had the best characteristics of a pork cutlet and of bacon. It was like The Other Dark Meat. The skin was on it, all crackly and chewy. I was reminded of what my friend Mark said about a plate of pasta alla Bolognese: “This is so good it’s making me angry.”
This pork belly … where had it been all my life? (A quick look at yielded only two recommendations, though I sensed a kindred spirit in the seemingly almost desperate person who started the thread: “What are your favorite restaurants to get pork belly in the city? I don’t care how it’s cooked. I don’t care if its in a salad, sandwich, app, main, or even dessert.”) The side dish this pork belly was served with was good, too: roasted potatoes and slices of apple in a light curry. Brilliant.
Dang, thinking back on that meal has made it almost impossible for me to think. So, I think I’ll call this post done, and go fix myself a snack. Cheers!