Coming to America – Day 3

After breakfasting at the hotel, we set out to visit our relatives in Brownsville.  It was an absolutely beautiful day with blue skies and warm, comfortable temperatures.  As I mentioned earlier, my mother took us by train to visit Brownsville in 1964.  As we drove onto the street, it was just like we remembered!  The main house that belonged to my mother’s uncle and aunt, and where we stayed in 1964, is in the middle of the block with two family homes above it and two family homes below it.  Such a lovely area, very green and open.  The chicken coops behind the main house are even still there, but no chickens today.

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We met our cousin Jim Despot (who remembers our visit in 1964) and his son Dustin and his two children who all live on the block.  Dustin was a fifth generation coal miner until recently.  They were so welcoming and kind.  We all sat around Jim’s dining room table talking family, both past and present.  Jim prepared a delicious lunch for us of pasta and meatballs and homemade apple pie.  Jim shared recipes with me, and I was very grateful for that.

On our way back, we followed Jim to another cemetery where his grandfather and grandmother are buried.  His grandfather was our grandfather’s older brother.  Jim and Dustin told us how he arrived in America by boat before World War II, where at some point he was drafted and sent to war back in Europe on the very same boat he came to America on!

Back in Pittsburgh at our hotel, Gary, Kyle, Kelsey and I went for a walk over the Sixth Street Bridge, also known as the Roberto Clemente Bridge, one of the nearly identical “Three Sister Bridges” that spans the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh.  This bridge was erected in 1927, and you have a beautiful view of the baseball stadium right on the river.  The bridge is closed to cars on game days so that fans can cross it.  On the walkways of the bridge, many locks (Love Locks) are placed on the railings, similar to what you might see in Europe.

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Dinner that night was Clark’s choice, and we ate at a wonderful Mexican restaurant called Las Velas.  We all enjoyed the food very much.

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When we got back to the hotel, it was time for Liverpool Rummy, the favorite card game in our family.  My mom used to play this with her lady friends betting dimes.  They were quite the group!  Mom, my brothers, and I, along with Uncle Al when he was in from fishing, would play this game.  Mom taught it to all her grandchildren.  Luckily, Kelsey had purchased three decks of cards earlier that day.  We took over a large table in the hotel lounge area and proceeded to have a wonderful time.  It is always fun to play this with the family.  Shout out to Clark who won the game!

june’s ohio adventure

for those of you who know me well, you’re probably wondering to yourself, “who is this june?  is she a long-lost high school friend?  is she a college acquaintance she’s reconnected with nowadays?  is she a new coworker she’s kindly befriend?”  well, i hate that this isn’t more exciting, but june is what i named my lovely rental car for the week!  ladies and gentlemen, i introduce to you june, the 2016 grey chrysler pacifica!  isn’t she a beaut?!

the name hit me like a ton of bricks as i was weaving around winding suburb roads and channeling my inner mom, specifically my inner barbara billingsley.  i mean, it really is quite empowering, navigating this sturdy, speedy, and functional vehicle around town.  i felt like i could rule the world!  anyway, june and i became besties last week in ohio while i was up there for work and some personal traveling.  and, in an effort to spice things up on my solo trip, i decided to blog about all our adventures.  our first stop?  dayton.

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that blue apron thing

after much advertisement dodging and internal reflecting, i decided to take the plunge, jump on the bandwagon, and try out blue apron.  for those of you who do not know, blue apron is a meal-delivery service.  now, when i say “meal” i mean that they mail you all the ingredients and instructions for a few meals that you then get to cook in the comfort of your own home.  now, there are all sorts of companies like blue apron, but considering they were offering three meals for only $20 in your first week, it sounded like a deal too good to pass up.

when you sign up for blue apron, you do get to decide what day of the week your box arrives.  i figured tuesday was as good a day as any, so a few days ago our first box was waiting at the back door for me to scoop up and bring inside.

in addition to designating your delivery day, you get to provide some meal preferences.  for example, if you’re vegetarian or only eat seafood, you can indicate just that in your profile.  a handy feature, especially for someone who might be on a more restricted diet.

the box that arrived was quite compact, at least in my opinion, and i got as excited as a child on Christmas morning when i grabbed the scissors and cut that box open.

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before i proceed much further, it is clear that blue apron definitely has some thinkers working for them.  the way they package the ingredients and recipes along with the charming notes and witty branding really does the job it should:  it gets you excited to cook!

one of the delightful things about blue apron is that each refrigerated item is individually packed, “pantry” produce is loose in the box (which is fine because less packaging means less waste), and you get these awesomely large freezer packs that you can re-use or, if you desire, you can have blue apron recycle for you – nifty!  however, maybe above all else, the best part is that everything comes in the cutest little bags and cutest little containers with the cutest little labels!  again, their marketing dollars hard at work.

our box had three meals that have two servings each.  of the options in front of us, phillip and i decided to make the burgers and slaw because we were hungry.  as such, we wasted no time at all grabbing the recipe (complete with instructions, pictures, and recommended wine pairings) and getting to work.

now, the estimated completion time for this particular recipe was 25-35 minutes.  my friend judson who had done a similar meal-delivery service said that it always takes him longer than what the recipe says.  well, challenge accepted!  i kept our trusty chef timer around at all times to see if we could beat the clock.

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the recipe’s step-by-step instructions were perfectly clear.  i chopped away and mixed up the slaw while phillip was on burger duty.  phillip enjoys being in the kitchen and was especially entertained as he marked off each completed step with a little check on the recipe.  #adorable

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just as phillip was flipping the burgers to finish them off, our chef timer rang out loudly, sounding the buzzer for the suggested 35 minutes to cook the entire meal.  well, it turns out we needed about 10 minutes more.  but still, a home-cooked meal in under an hour isn’t something to be too upset about, right?  sure!

with the oven off and the stovetop cooling down, phillip and i plated our first blue apron meal, poured a couple glasses of delicious red wine, and dug in.  first things first, yes, this meal was as delicious as it looks.  the slaw was a great crunchy texture to have with the tender beef patty and schmear of sriracha mayo.  and, as you can see, there was plenty of slaw that we really even had it as a second side next to the sweet potato wedges.  those wedges were cooked through just right and were so easy to make!

now, i know what your next thought is.  “that looks like a pretty big plate of food.”  well, it certainly was.  in fact, the portion size for this meal was so large that i almost couldn’t finish!  i let phillip polish off the last few sweet potato fries and then i think we were both stuffed.

besides the end result of a delicious and different dinner on an otherwise normal tuesday night, what is our review of blue apron?

  • are you happy you tried it?  yes, especially with the first week at only $20!
  • did the box provide everything you needed to make the meal?  almost.  blue apron assumes you have things like extra virgin olive oil and salt and pepper on-hand.
  • was the food you got a good value for what you paid?  again, for the first week, yes!  it’s hard to go out to restaurants and spend only $20 on six humongous meals.
  • what are you liking most so far?  i think the convenience factor is the ultimate perk of something like blue apron.  i didn’t have to stop at the store on the way home from work, which saved me time and got us cooking earlier in the evening.  i also very much like the variety of recipes.  for example, this week’s recipes were the burgers and slaw, creamy shrimp spaghetti (which we made last night and also was quite tasty), and then chicken enchiladas.
  • will you do blue apron again?  well, considering i forgot to cancel next week’s “order,” yes!  at least for one more week.  do know, though, that the regular price for three meals with two servings each (so six meals total) bumps up to $60 per week.  however, if you don’t like eating monstrous dinners, you could likely split these two servings per meal into four, so then you’re getting twelve total meals for $60 rather than just six.  so, in the end, still a pretty good price.
  • anything else we should know?  well, yes!  apparently i have three free meals i can give to my friends, so if you’re interested, let me know and i’ll hook you up!  also, for those of you who want more per meal or have more than just a pair like phillip and me, they do have family-size options you can order.  and (i promise this is the last thing) you can also skip weeks without any penalty at all.  just make sure you do so a week before your next delivery date.

bon appetit!

the final word!

ladies and gentlemen, i am reporting to you live as the final presidential debate takes place between mr. donald trump and mrs. hillary clinton.  i have once again found myself out of town for this entertaining and informative viewing, this time coming to you direct from west palm beach!  i will admit that splitting my attention between blogging and listening is a bit of a task, but i will do my best.

in response to my previous post about the second presidential debate, my lovely friend courtney replied that i should enjoy the final presidential debate by enjoying chips and guacamole while listening to some billy joel.  well, ask and you shall receive!  as things at my client site wound down, i asked them for a good mexican restaurant recommendation nearby.  after a little mumbling and collaborating, torero’s authentic mexican cuisine was suggested.  only about ten minutes from the office, it was rightly a no-brainer for me.  with google map’s turn-by-turn directions in the background, i let billy joel serenade me along the way.  give me more of that “uptown girl”, i beg you!

anyway!  the breezy atlantic winds were blowing strongly this evening, so i requested a seat outside on the patio.  although the food was delicious (and i’ll get to all of it shortly), the service left much to be desired.  after seating me at my table, i wasn’t waited on for about 15 minutes.  eh, not the best way to start the dinner.  however, i caught up on all my social media feeds and e-mail inboxes so i wasn’t too ruffled about the delay.

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it had been quite a day at the office, and with two more days on-site, i knew it was going to be a busy end of the week.  chips, salsa, and the large house margarita sounded like a bet i couldn’t lose, so that’s just what i started out with for my meal.

i took my time sipping on my beverage and snacking on some chips and eventually ordered, per courtney’s request, some guacamole.  i’ll be honest, the guacamole was less impressive than the salsa.  it’s not that it was bad; i ate the entire plate.  however, it wasn’t anything particularly special.  now, i don’t like to discriminate when it comes to guacamole because, let’s all be real, there’s not much better than avocados really any day of the week so i ate my dip contently.

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as i finished up my appetizers, i asked for an order of the fish tacos because, you know, i was in florida and fish tacos sounded like a good idea.  unfortunately, after taking my order the waitress returned to tell me, much to my dismay, that they did not have fish that night.  well, alrighty then…since i was still in the mood for tacos, i ordered a chorizo taco and, per the waitress’ recommendation, a steak taco.  well, i’ll say that these tacos were the highlight of the meal.  the chorizo wasn’t too spicy but was quite flavorful and the steak taco wasn’t overly filling.  i’d absolutely order these two tacos again, but with so much else on the menu, i’m sure i’d try something else if i were to return here to dine.

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so, with the end of this meal and this campaign on the horizon (and i know many of you are awaiting its close), i want to kindly thank everyone for participating in my campaign and debate journey in good fun.  i also want to say how impressed i am with the attention my peers are giving to this election, knowing that the outcome will affect our very near future very soon.  if you’re registered to vote, i encourage you to exercise your american right to make your voice heard.  let’s start the show!

salsa – the number one condiment in america

recently phillip returned home with arms full of groceries from the local buford market for, you guessed it, taco night!  as everyone knows, no taco night is complete without chips and salsa, and phillip picked quite the winner with the herdez salsa casera.

this salsa is fresh and flavorful, everything you want in a little pre-dinner appetizer.  i mean, if you’re gonna fill up on chips and salsa, it may as well be the best stuff you can find!  this jar of condiment heaven is the perfect balance between chunky and liquid-y, if that makes any sense at all…?  i guess what i’m trying to say is that it’s kind of more restaurant style, and i think it is just divine.

also enjoyable is their verde salsa.  it was a great topping for my taco salad, and i’m sure it would be a great addition to a plate of enchiladas or maybe even chimichangas.  heck, dip your quesadilla in it, too!  the possibilities are endless!

i mean, as long as you don’t get your salsa mixed up with your seltzer, you’re good to go!

bone garden cantina – atlanta, ga

Hello, all.  Due to Kelsey’s meeting with FIFA in Zurich, Switzerland, she has graciously allowed me to be, for the first time ever, a “guest blogger” for the review of Bone Garden Cantina in Atlanta.  This is Kelsey’s Dad; she has mentioned me in prior blogs, so I hope you will like and enjoy this review.

First of all, guilty as charged, this blog/review will be written from a guy’s perspective.  In addition, I have worked at Saks Fifth Avenue in Ladies’ Shoes, so I am uniquely qualified to see, understand, and comment on the male and female perspective.  Also, I love clarity, so I will let you know what to expect, what not to expect, etc…

From purely a food perspective, on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best, I would put Bone Garden at a 9.  Bone Garden is definitely worth the drive.  On the menu there are some “plates/combos,” but most of the menu is a la carte.  Portions are of good size, but 2 a la carte items would be a filling meal.

As Kelsey knows, I love things in chronological order, so following will be a step-by-step, comment-by-comment review.

Location.  In Atlanta off of I-75, a bit of a challenge to find but worth the drive.  Sidebar, as Kelsey knows, I am “technically challenge,” so she found and wrote the directions to Bone Garden.  Also, if there were a Mount Rushmore for both being “off the radar” and “king of conspiracies,” I would be on them both.  Kelsey can tell you of my mistrust of online banking, the Internet, GPS, etc…  Regarding conspiracies, the Kennedy assassination, Oswald did not act alone.  Watergate, classic example of the federal government not telling the truth.  You have probably seen this all over:  it’s not so much the crime but the cover-up.  Whatever, Bone Garden is worth the drive – get there.

Wait Staff.  ASK FOR KATIE.  If needed, mention my name.  She’s witty, charming, knows the menu, knows her tequila.  ASK FOR KATIE.

Victoria and Katie.

Victoria and Katie.

Seating.  This is important for me.  I am 6’4″ and asked for a table, not a booth.  The staff happily accommodated us.  Reason for table vs. booth?  Easy, I like to stretch my legs.

Atmosphere #1.  This is important.  Bone Garden has concrete floors.  Very loud.  Sound bounces everywhere.  If you are looking for a quiet, intimate dinner, DO NOT GO HERE.  Guys, on the other hand, if you want to have a great Mexican dinner and not hear what the others are saying, go here.

Atmosphere #2.  Guys, this is important.  Ladies, if a guy takes you here, this is what to expect.  Guys, if the girl has a great sense of humor, likes to drink, this is the place for you.  If she does not have a sense of humor, do not take her here.  If she DOES have a sense of humor, you’ll love this place.  Eat, drink, do not order from the dessert menu at the restaurant, get on I-75 ,the fast lane…you get the picture.  If she DOES NOT have a sense of humor or is high maintenance, eat, drink lots, do not order from the dessert menu at the restaurant, get on I-75, drop her off and say good night, go back to Bone Garden…you get the picture.

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House Rules.  I loved this.  On the menu there is a set of “house rules,” great stuff.  Kind of like ordering soup from the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld.

Wait Staff.  Did I mention to ask for Katie?

Ordering.  We ordered three different items.  Victoria ordered the Mole Plate:  two seasoned enchiladas topped with chihuahua cheese, homemade green mole sauce, fresh avocado flown in from California, tomatoes, queso fresco, Spanish rice, and refried beans.  Yummo!  The chicken enchiladas are great.  I had 2 a la carte items.  #1, taco, barbacoa de chive, slow braised goat, topped with onion and salsa verde.  It was just OK, would not order again, would rather try other items on the menu.  #2, tamale, Puerco Azteca, corn masa filled with free-range pork and onion, steamed in a banana leaf and served with salsa verde.  THIS WAS FANTASTIC.  Order it.  I will definitely order this again.  Yummo!

Wait Staff.  Did I mention to ask for Katie?

Summary.  I would DEFINITELY go to Bone Garden again.  As long as you understand Atmosphere #1 and #2 outlined above, you and your guest will have a terrific time.

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As Kelsey has mentioned in prior blogs, I am the guy who would prefer the Silver Skillet vs. Buttermilk Kitchen.  That pretty much says it all.  In my book, Bone Garden Cantina is a definite “home run!”

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takorea – atlanta, ga

i perused my list of nrw hopefuls and couldn’t really decide what sounded best this week.  then, in a striking moment of clarity, i remembered good ‘ole hankook taqueria over on the west side.  i have literally only been there once, and it was about four years ago with my old small group, but i remember it being one heck of a place.  i thought it might be a contender, but kyle reminded me about the very limited parking.  eh, that’s right….but!  to keep in the spirit of that line of asian fusion cuisine, we decided on the midtown location of takorea.

takorea is the creation from hankook taqueria chef tomas lee, hence why i didn’t mind coming here in place of hankook.  their idea is to make korean flavors available in a fun and energetic atmosphere by presenting it through traditional mexican dishes like tacos and burritos.  don’t be fooled, though, because the fresh ingredients and components are all asian.  you’ll be easily introduced to your new favorite street snacks, wondering how you lived all those years without these flavors!  sound exciting?  then read on to see how much we all enjoyed it!

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la urbana – atlanta, ga

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***author’s note:  since our visit last fall that prompted this post, la urbana has unfortunately closed its doors.  do read on, though, to hear about how we enjoyed this local joint.

we brought nrw back this week and took it to the westside of town at la urbana, a spot that came highly recommended from my coworker batkinson.  now, i already have my favorite mexican place in town at bone garden cantina, so i was looking to be impressed.

la urbana opened in march of this year, and considering their peripheric location, i’m sure they were thrilled to have nine people come in for dinner.  their spot took over some pizza joint that used to be there a couple years back, and they’ve certainly made it their own.  the large space isn’t too crammed with tables and chairs, and i think we were all comfortable at our tables that were pushed together.

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chicken tortilla soup

i’ve had a rather relaxing weekend, and i didn’t want to spoil it by slaving away in the kitchen all night to make an outstanding meal.  sometimes i just want something simple, and this recipe for chicken tortilla soup was just the ticket.

my mom made it when we were in high school, and it has become a dish i now know by heart.  i mean, something that only requires a crock pot and no cutting at all has to be a keeper, right?  it’s so insanely easy and wonderfully delicious that i just had to share it with you all.

since this recipe makes quite a few servings, it is great for families.  for those of you who are single like yours truly?  bag this stuff up in single-serve ziplocs, throw them in the freezer, and keep ’em for later when you’re feeling extra lazy around the house.  enjoy!

ingredients

1 box or can (32 ounces) chicken broth

2 cans (15.5 ounces each) chili beans

1 can (15 ounces) great northern beans

1 can (14.5 ounces) mexican-style stewed tomatoes, diced

*sometimes i cannot always find the mexican-style stewed tomatoes.  If you can’t either, just go with the traditional.

1 can (10 ounces) diced tomatoes & green chiles

2 cans (15.5 ounces each) white corn, drained

*tori thinks just one can of corn is enough, but i like two.

2 packages lawry’s chicken taco spices & seasonings

*you do not have to get the lawry’s brand.  i often use kroger’s brand and love it just as much.

1.5 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts

shredded cheddar cheese

chopped cilantro

chopped scallions

directions

set chicken in bottom of large slow cooker (crock pot).  top with chili beans, great northern beans, stewed tomatoes, tomatoes and green chiles, and white corn.

stir in the chicken taco seasonings and add as much chicken broth as needed to fill the crock pot just below full.  there’s a good chance you will not need all 32 ounces of it, but it depends on the size of your cooker.

cover and cook on low 8 to 10 hours.  if you need to get it ready sooner, crank the crock pot to high for 4 to 6 hours.  you just need to let everything sit long enough so that the chicken is cooked through and tender.

use a pair of tongs to shred the chicken in the crock pot.  fill up your favorite soup bowl and top with cheese, cilantro, and scallions as desired.

p.s.  i personally also like to dollop on some sour cream.  you could probably even add a little bit of hot sauce if you like things spicy.

dallas – day 2

our orders were to sleep in on sunday, as we had nowhere to be and really not a thing to do.  i stirred this morning around nine thirty to wafts of freshly cooked bacon that had wound up the stairs and into my room.  i freshened up and bounced downstairs to greet mark and kathleen good morning.  the day wasn’t too hot yet, so we munched on our breakfasts on the patio.  the breeze gladly met us out there, providing for a very pleasant meal.

soon enough mark was up and at ’em, getting his weekend chores knocked out left and right.  kathleen and i proceeded to stay put in our porch recliners for the next couple of hours, talking about everything under the sun.  we needed refills on coffee and tea, so we simply moved our conversation to the comfy leather sofas in the family room.  if you ever need company on a lazy sunday afternoon, you now know two well-suited ladies.

i got my things repacked for the upcoming week, and we then hopped in the highlander to make one last stop together for dinner.  kathleen’s eye had been caught by mattito’s near the mall a couple times, so tex-mex it was!  there are several mattito’s locations around the frisco and dallas areas, so you’ll be sure to find one near you.

mattito’s is bright and energetic, and i was glad to be having dinner in a relaxed atmosphere.  the wait staff was quite friendly and attentive throughout our meal, quickly taking our drink orders and dropping off chips and salsa at the table.

mark took a swift look over the menu, deciding very soon what he wanted:  the chicken fried steak.  yes, you heard me correctly.  chicken fried steak at a tex-mex spot.  it even says on the menu that it sounds crazy!  the dish arrived, and i was curious to see if he even liked it.  not too many minutes later the plate was nearly clean, not a morsel of chicken fried steak to be seen.  to the surprise of us all, he said it was quite delicious and that he would order it again.

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unfortunately, though, kathleen did not enjoy her dinner nearly as much as mark.  nothing on the menu was really catching her eye, so she ordered a couple of beef enchiladas a la carte with rice.  i don’t know if the waiter misheard her, but the enchiladas were smothered in tomatillo sauce when she had wanted them topped with a traditional red.  bummer, right?  she picked about halfway through the first enchilada and realized she just didn’t have an appetite for tex-mex that night.  since the chips and salsa had filled her pretty well, she wasn’t too distraught about not wanting to finish her meal.  i guess that just happens sometimes.

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i, like mark, really did care for my dinner.  i was craving tamales, and they just so happened to have them on the menu.  yay!  i ordered the two chicken and two beef tamales, and it was the perfect amount of food.  i didn’t get to finish all the rice, but that’s only because i didn’t want the good stuff to go to waste.  the tamales were served with tortilla shells full of tomatillo sauce and chili con carne sauce.  both were tasty complements to the tamales, which had the most wonderful masa surrounding the fillings.  i’m not sure if mark and kathleen will find themselves back here again, but i would certainly say it is worth a try.

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after dinner we made the short drive to downtown to get me checked in and settled for the coming week.  good weekends sometimes seem to go by too quickly, and this one was no exception.  it was just so wonderful to explore and spend time with mark and kathleen, and my fingers are crossed that it won’t be too long before i’m back out here for another adventure.

after hugs and kisses goodbye, i kindly checked in with hope at the receptionist desk, took the elevator to the seventh floor, and promptly unpacked my bag, which contained ten pairs of shoes for the week…

shoes