Peppered Past

Peppers are a lovely vegetable. I’ve always enjoyed bell peppers, a staple in my Dad’s garden for many years. However, in recent years I’ve also come to a good understanding with progressively hotter varieties of chiles, going along with my increased appetite for spicy food. Mexican, Thai, and Chinese just wouldn’t be the same without them. I respect the pepper. I haven’t tried all the varieties, but most of them sound inviting and slightly mysterious (or at least the name of a nice housing development in Arizona): Poblano. Serrano. Cayenne. Sure, I’ll drop in and stay a while.

I mentioned my Dad’s garden. I’ve tried my best to replicate even a tiny fraction of his vegetable paradise on our deck the last couple of years, without much luck. I’ve mainly tried a few varieties of tomato and green bell peppers every year, and I maybe get a few tomatoes and one pepper out of any given plant if I’m lucky, and even then the squirrels or bugs would get to them before I could. When it came time to try again this spring, Gina and I were visiting a local greenhouse that was having a moving sale. We enjoyed digging through what was left on the slightly disorganized shelves, getting plants for our front yard at good prices. As a lark, I picked up another baby pepper plant. The tag for this one intrigued me: it was the Sweet Chocolate Beauty.

Healthier than an M&M, but just as seductive.

It was the best-looking plant left in the greenhouse, so I picked it up thinking I had little to lose. And if the pepper turned out as great as the picture, then I was surely a winner.

Months later, the pepper plant had stayed healthy thanks to some particularly diligent watering and feeding on my part. When you have a jewel this rare on your deck, you have to tend to it. And before I knew it, three little peppers started growing! Sweet chocolate beauties, I was ready!

The only problem was that as these beauties grew and ripened, they were … small. And orange. Neon orange. Decidedly not chocolate looking.

I blamed myself. Surely I should have put the plant in a bigger pot! I should have fed it more! My chocolate beauties were stalling out in some kind of weird orange phase and were never going to fully ripen! More days and weeks went by, and my pepper status didn’t change. It looked like I was stuck with half-formed degenerate peppers. By the time I swallowed my disgust and went to pick them, two of the three peppers had begun to dry out on the plant, so I threw them away. The remaining one looked okay and seemed ripe enough, so I took it to the kitchen and set it aside on a paper towel. The pepper was so small, half the size of my thumb, that I didn’t know what to do with it. I figured I’d wait until I made some kind of salad and then try it out.

Recently, Gina and I made some kind of salad. I had admittedly been putting off using the pepper, partly because I was afraid that it was not truly ripe and would taste sour or something, and partly because I was hoping it would magically turn into chocolate one night. Since it never did, I had run out of excuses. As the finishing touch to my lunch, I cut the little orange pepper in half, cleared out the seeds, and plopped it on top of my bowl of salad.

Lunch was pleasant. We had our normal polite conversation and planned out our afternoon. I ate my sandwich first because I was starving, then I picked around the salad, still avoiding the pepper just in case. Finally, I forked up half of it and tossed it in my mouth, thinking that if it tasted weird I would at least know for sure and then I could give up on growing peppers from a pot on my stupid deck.

I bit down. Instantaneously, a volcano erupted in my mouth, melting my teeth and sending my tongue hiding for cover down my throat. My face contorted as sweat formed on my brow and my nose began to run. I managed to choke out, “This is hot as fire” before spewing flames – and the half-bitten pepper – like a dragon. Gina rushed to the kitchen and poured a glass of milk for me, which I immediately tossed back and let fill the molten lava pool where my mouth used to be. At that point I would have taken a bath in milk or at least dunked my whole head in there.

Gina pointed out what I should have realized all along: this was not the plant I thought I had. Thinking back, there were many many warnings I had chosen to ignore: disorganized plant markings at the greenhouse. Bright orange coloring. The fact that neither squirrel nor insect had touched these peppers. As it turns out, my green thumb worked perfectly, I just had the wrong type of pepper. Instead of sweet chocolate beauties, I got a 100% authentic habanero plant. For some perspective, a habanero is roughly 25 times hotter than the hottest jalapeno. While not the hottest chile out there, depending on which “Scoville pepper scale” image you Google, a habanero usually sits in the top three. And I had just unwittingly let it invade my mouth, raw.

All of this I discovered after my mouth cooled sufficiently for me to function again. Later, I peered out the deck door at the innocent-looking plant. Two more baby peppers had started to form. I squinted across at it, staring it down. I had taken its challenge and survived.

Think of the cartoons along the top as a reenactment of my progressive reactions to the habanero.

The saddest part? I still don’t know what a Sweet Chocolate Beauty tastes like.

 

Seattle Tourist Notes

I recently had the pleasure of traveling to Seattle for work. I’d been to the area once before, in the run-up to my and Gina’s Alaska cruise with Linda and Mark, but we didn’t have much opportunity then to tour the city other than a single bus tour through downtown and a few other highlights, plus the cruise terminal.

Unfortunately, my work schedule during the week also kept me from exploring very much, but I did have a few memorable meals and one afternoon of proper tourist time. Below are my notes:

The first visit on the list was the Museum of Flight, a Boeing-financed establishment. I only got to see about half of the exhibits during my extended lunch break, but I was impressed. What drew my co-worker and me there in the first place was the decent cafe that looks directly onto Boeing Field, which made for a nice lunch and an excellent spot for plane watching. Apparently this happens a lot, because we saw more than a few guys with super-expensive DSLRs who were taking pictures of everything in flight bigger than a sparrow.

The MoF has a few neat features and exhibits that you wouldn’t find in either of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museums, though its DC cousins definitely have more historical planes overall. The Airpark, the outside portion of the museum featuring a number of large jets, is the definite highlight. What it lacks in quantity of planes when compared to Udvar-Hazy or the Pima Air & Space Museum, it makes up in lack of blazing desert heat and humidity and some very unique items, including one of the very first jet-powered Air Force Ones, a Concorde, and the first 737 and 747 aircraft. You can tour the inside of Air Force One, which was used by Eisenhower through Nixon and flew some of the most famous flights in history, including Nixon’s visit to China. Inside, I enjoyed the World War II exhibit, which featured some nice restorations but also an emphasis on the pilots and aces who flew during the war. I learned a lot of interesting biographical tidbits. Overall, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling of being surrounded by Boeing propaganda, but it was still worth the trip.

The second place was the Experience Music Project, which is an awesome idea for a museum housed in a Frank Gehry-designed weird looking building. This one is financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Between this and the Tech Museum in San Jose, I’ve seen some great ideas for stepping up the interactiveness of a museum. EMP has a whole floor dedicated to trying out musical instruments. Kiosks are set up in the middle of the floor, where a drummer, bassist, and guitarist can use the existing instruments and try out different styles on their own or jam together. Once I got a chance to slip in between the kids who were just banging around, I tried out some smooth bass moves. There are also small music studios available where you can spend 10 minutes recording whatever you want with your band. Fantastic idea.

I just wish the rest of the place had more exhibits. The two permanent ones were dedicated to Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix, two native musical legends of Seattle. Both were interesting, and the Nirvana one had tons of rare artifacts and memorabilia, but since I was never a huge Nirvana fan it didn’t speak to me like it probably does to thousands of others. The coolest exhibit for me was the Guitar Gallery, which featured guitars (again from the private collection of Paul Allen) dating back to the earliest Martins to the first Telecasters and every iteration in between.

The EMP building also houses a Sci-Fi museum on the lower floor, which I guess ends up being a place for Allen to store some of his toys that he’s bought over the years. It’s got tons of props and costumes from Star Wars, Star Trek, The Matrix, and practically every other major sci-fi movie released over the last fifty years. Next time I go back, I’d love to spend more time there. As it was, I got a few good pictures.

Right next to the EMP is the iconic Space Needle. When in Seattle, you have to go up this thing at least once. The line for the elevator was tough, since only one was shuttling people up who were not also going to the fine-dining restaurant. But the view was outstanding since we’d lucked into some rain-free weather for the week, and the trip was again worth it. I picture the Space Needle as Seattle’s version of the Washington Monument, a structure that ends up being synonymous with the city. It’s currently been repainted to match its colors from the 1962 World’s Fair, which was a cool throwback. It would have been neat if the workers were also dressed in 60’s gear and the interior was decorated as it was back then, but it still was a nice touch to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the building. There’s a sandwich counter at the top of the Needle, offering an exclusive Starbucks roast, but we didn’t partake as we were starving and wanted to get to a real restaurant.

Which brings me to the best dinner we had all week, at a local institution in the quirky neighborhood of Queen Anne: the 5 Spot. I ordered the Honey-Stung Fried Chicken, and my brain simply wasn’t prepared for the perfection that was about to land on the table before me. It was the best fried chicken I’ve had in years! Maybe it was the stress of the week or all the walking of the afternoon that made me extra hungry, but this will go down in history as another meal that sat me up, punched me in the face, and forced me to take it seriously.

Other notables from the trip:

  • El Diablo Coffee Company – Just down the street from the 5 Spot. I had to sample some non-chain coffee, and I got a shot of decaf that was like sipping fine chocolate. Good stuff.
  • The Hangar Cafe – A tiny lunch spot in the industrial area near some of the Boeing plants. I had the Chipotle Black Bean Wrap, which sold me when I discovered it was a.) grilled and b.) had sweet potatoes. It was delicious and perked us up as our first meal in town after a long day of traveling.
  • You can see some photos from my iPhone at this Flickr gallery.

San José Tourist Notes

My sojourn in San José is almost over, but I’ve had a great time. While the main goal of the trip, for me, was to relax and catch up on my hobbies, I also managed to do a little touring. Here are my takes on what I did:

  • The Winchester Mystery House seems at first glance to be a classic tourist trap. I was expecting some kind of fun house experience with weird mirrors and clowns jumping out at you at random times. (In other words, the scariest experience imaginable). What I actually got on my tour was a glimpse of a perfectly functional, yet completely whacked out Queen Anne Victorian house. Or as another tourist put it, “it was a privately funded insane asylum” for the late Mrs. Sarah Winchester, widow and heiress to the Winchester Rifle fortune. The short version of her story is that her husband and child both died unexpectedly, and while grieving she came to believe that she was being haunted by the spirits of all those killed by Winchester rifles. The only way to stop them? To always be building a house while never finishing it. She stayed true to her word, constantly employing a team of carpenters for 38 years until the day she died. The result was a 160-room house with a stairwell leading into the ceiling, a door to nowhere, windows overlooking one of the kitchens from an upstairs bedroom, crooked stairwells with steps barely an inch above each other, uncountable nooks and crannies, and other architectural weirdness centered around the number 13. It was also one of the most technologically advanced houses of its time. The price of admission for the tour was a little steep at $30, but it was a good way to kill a couple of hours. No photography was permitted, unfortunately.
  • A great example of San Josè food is the Falafel Drive-In. Featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives,  a fact they display prominently through posters and a mural depicting not one but two caricatures of Guy Fieri, this place has been serving up falafel, gyros, tabbouleh, burgers, hot dogs, shakes, and more since 1966. They’re also famous for their banana milkshakes, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Try the pita chips too!
  • Today, I dropped by the Tech Museum downtown. This place is amazing for kids – and people who like geeky things and robots, like me. The exhibits are almost 100% interactive, utilizing cutting-edge technology to teach scientific principles. It’s got a supervised science lab, where kids and parents were making robots with markers and pens for legs so they could put them on a giant Spirograph-like sheet of drawing paper. It’s got the Mythbusters doing video cameos in some exhibits. It’s got a build-your-own-wind turbine station where you can test out how much power your design can generate. You can create your own techno song from building blocks linked to a computer, or remote control a miniature Mars rover. Four-foot-tall houses of cards, a robot that can spell your name with alphabet blocks, and an IMAX theater – and that just scratches the surface. I could’ve spent all day here if I didn’t feel weird about pushing kids out of the way so I could join in the fun.
  • My only regret is that the Rosicrucean Egyptian Museum was closed with virtually no notice except a hastily printed note on the door. After getting a recommendation about this place from my friend Michael, who echoed the website in saying that it housed the “largest collection of Egyptian artifacts on exhibit in western North America,” I was anxious to go. I was even more intrigued when he said that the museum sits in the middle of an otherwise normal, upscale residential neighborhood, sticking out like a sore thumb across from a junior high that looks like a Spanish mission. Alas, it was not meant to be… this time. I got some nice shots of the exterior but not much else.

Overall, it seems that yes, I do know the way to San José. It’s through my heart.

The High Life

Some meals we eat in the 21st century are little more than afterthoughts: they fill your stomach, provide a varying amount of nourishment, but are never anything special. They keep you going during a hectic day, but you wolf them down before you can really even taste the food, if there’s even anything worth tasting. Others are made up of decent, enjoyable food, but are best enhanced when shared with company. The conversation and the dishes interweave to balance each other out, so no one has to spend the evening staring down at their plate. This helps improve the enjoyment of a meal that might otherwise be boring or repetitive.

If you are extremely lucky, a few times in your life you will come across a meal that demands your complete attention– that pins you down, forces you into your seat, and dares you to stand up again until you finish your plate and leave the restaurant a champion.

I had one of those meals today.

It came in the form of a half-rack of baby back ribs at Henry’s Hi-Life in downtown San José. Complete with buttery baked potato, crispy garlic bread, and a salad, as soon as the waiter brought the plate out to the bar, I knew I had to hunker down to do it justice. And boy, did the ribs return the favor. Delicious. Tender. Not 80% fat and grease, but somewhere in a heavenly middle. The sauce that came with it was billed as BBQ sauce, but after enjoying Carolina and Memphis-style sauces, I can hardly call it that. The closest sauce family I can think of, at risk of sullying its reputation, is Arby’s original sauce for their roast beef. Whatever you call it, I had no problems dousing the ribs in it, and it enhanced the meat perfectly.

BBQ Heaven on the West Coast.

 

By the time I threw in the towel, it was going on 1:00 in the afternoon, and a crowd of locals had already filled up the bar with their war stories about the work week. Others checked out the Germany/Greece soccer match. The rear of the restaurant was bustling the entire time, in the way that only a local favorite can. I was reluctant to leave, but I knew the place was in good hands. I was also glad I didn’t order the full rack, as I think the ribs would have won.

If I lived here, I don’t think I could handle the responsibility of eating such good barbeque very often, but I sure would be glad for the opportunity. Here’s to you, Henry’s!

 

The Chicken Dance

This past Thursday, Chick-fil-A opened a new location in Crystal City. If the near-constant line spilling out the doors of the restaurant on its first two days of business was any indication, this was the biggest event that’s happened in the workplace neighborhood since District Taco showed up with their cart.  For me and a few co-workers, the opening was the culmination of months of rumors, intel from secondhand sources about construction delays and denied permits, dashed hopes, and ever-dwindling patience. Ever since my co-worker Michael and I participated in a market research survey a couple of years ago asking which restaurants we’d want to see brought to the area, and he brilliantly answered “Chick-fil-A” while I drew blanks and probably answered “Chinese Food” or something equally lame and generic, we’d been daring that the dream would become a reality.

It’s clear that Chick-fil-A knows how to do a grand opening. In the three days leading up to the opening, the restaurant handed out free sandwiches and biscuits, sending the local chicken addicts into a frenzy. Everyone in line also received a couple of coupons for even more free entrees, virtually ensuring that opening day would be a non-stop chicken fest. I have it on good authority that some people were in line at least two of the three days for free stuff and then went back for free breakfast and lunch on the opening day. There were over 100 people camping out in tents across the street 24 hours before opening, hoping to win a raffle for a year’s worth of free sandwiches. As for me, I was content with one free sandwich and dinner on Thursday.

There are also, of course, people on the other side of the spectrum who just don’t get it and go so far as to dismiss the chain as gross. I certainly ran into a few of those while standing in line or while walking up and down the street, like the guy who scoffed that people would wait ten to twenty minutes in line to save three dollars on a chicken sandwich, turning up his nose as he walked by us. It actually seemed rarer to find people who were squarely in the middle: not fanatics, but not opposed to some fried chicken goodness either.

All of this hoopla got me thinking: what the heck is it about Chick-fil-A that commands such a devoted following? I can’t quite explain it, myself. Growing up, the only location near us was in the Huntington Mall, and we didn’t frequent it – I much preferred McDonald’s at the time, not knowing any better. I think my love affair with the chicken began at Virginia Tech, with the Hokie Grill and its non-stop supply of nuggets and sandwiches. Ironically, it only truly intensified once I graduated and moved to Northern Virginia, where Chick-fil-A’s are much harder to come by.

So is it a sentimental attachment that keeps me coming back? Maybe, to some degree. But the food is definitely of a much higher quality than most fast food chains, as well. You can tell what you’re eating is actually from a chicken breast, which is a plus. Is it the family-friendly atmosphere infused with Southern hospitality? Well sure, that never hurts either, and it reminds me of home that much more. Is it the fact that, as fast food goes, you could do a lot worse? That helps. Men’s Health’s “Eat This, Not That” series gives the ‘fil-A a solid A-. How about the company sticking to its founder, S. Truett Cathy’s principles and not opening on Sunday even in the 24/7 nature of the 21st century? All of these factors combine to make a pretty convincing argument to me, but somehow they still don’t capture everything. I guess while I try to figure it out I’ll have to be content with being able to walk to get my chicken sandwich fix from now on.

Do any of you have any other insight into Chick-fil-A fandom?