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Atlanta Quick Review

On April 29, 2012, in Travel, by admin

Recently an opportunity arose to travel to Atlanta to watch an Elite 8 Regional basketball as part of the NCAA tourney.  I had traveled to Atlanta several times previous on business, but never for just pure pleasure. As this city regularly competes for convention business, it ends up being a destination many of us go to but rarely get a chance to spend significant personal time exploring.  Enter the regional.  With an opportunity to see my team in the Elite 8, I could not pass a chance to go.

Atlanta is a true southern city with the southern charm, if you are into that sort of thing. The city is serviced by a strong public transportation system which even feeds all the way to Hartsfield International Airport. Very convenient if you are not looking to rent or save on taxi fees.  Sure, the stations can get a little creepy at night, espeically the underground ones, but all in all, they seem fairly safe and for the most part, well used.  Atlanta has several distinct districts in the city. The older of these entertainment district is the Atlanta Underground, basically under central city.  This was developed as an entertainment district, but in the later years has lost a lot of its popularity to more trendy destinations like Mid Town.  Another district I had been previously was Buckhead.  This is further north of central Atlanta and severla years back had many nice restaurants and clubs.  Some of the clubs could be a bit wild as well.  While I did not get out to Buckhead this trip, I am told that the clubs are largely gone.  They had been run out with rents in an attempt to cater more the the higher end restaurants in the area.

The area we stayed was Mid Town. This is become a trendy part of Atlanta more recently.  Looking to avoid the standard hotel chain, we choose the independent Artmore Hotel. Upon first impression, I was a bit concerned with the clientele as it looked like it may turn into a hip hop party. Not the case.  The Artmore is well appointed and anchored by a great bar where the bartender knows how to mix a great martini. The Artmore also has a great court yard where you can take your drink and smoke a cigar. Rooms are well appointed, fairly spacious and for the most part quiet.

One of the noticeable things about Atlanta and it being in the deep south is the number of restaurants with grits on the menu. All kinds.  A normally bland dish, the Highland Bakery in mid Town dresses them up with various tastes offering them with several of the interesting breakfasts at the small establishment. Hard to find, it is a small walk up service eatery at the base of a professional building.  There are a few tables outside that make this pet friendly, if you are not in the middle of summer anyway.  Great unique breakfast offerings.

Another great eatery just down the street from Highland Bakery is South City Kitchen.  Also serving breakfast, but here, you will want to struggle through the waits for their fried chicken.  This is marinated in a buttermilk concoction for over 24 hours, then fried with a tasty crust, but leaving the chicken inside tender and moist. This eatery brands itself as new southern cuisines. Not sure what that means, but what I found off of the menu was very creative fare that I would like to come back again and again to try.  I had the crab cakes in hollandaise sauce.  Excellent.  Tender and tasty fresh crab served over cheese grits and hollandaise…….absolutely wonderful. This will be a must for a return trip to Atlanta (who hosts the final four next year)

As for the basketball……it was held in the Georgia Dome. A decent venue, again, served by the rail line.  I was not impressed with the facility or the surroundings due to lack of good places to eat immediate within walking distance.  It too is in a neighborhood that you must be careful after dark.

Overall, Atlanta was pleasant.  It was March Madness, and spring.  It may be a little different visiting in the summer, as it is hot and humid in this southern city


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Ever Been To Cheers?

On January 5, 2012, in People Are Strange, by admin

Gordy's Prairie Pub, Kenosha Wisconsin

Years ago the television show Cheers brought us laughter and antics surrounding a cast of characters that frequented a local bar in Boston. For most of us, that was just good Hollywood writing and a world many do not know, especially if you live in the south. But as is the case with most art, it captures the world around it.  The inspiration for Cheers seemingly came from the Boston bar on Charles Street of the same name, or it could have come literally from the thousands of establishments littering the northern states.  I have been to Cheers in Boston. It is small, and it is full of tourists.  But just go to anyone of the largely family owned corner bars across the ex-industrial northern U.S. You will find a cast of characters on any given night. You will find that each bar has it’s own unique personality that drives the clientele. Generally speaking, drinks are cheap, at least from the standards of what we in the south are used to paying where drinking largely comes from restaurant bars and/or meat markets.

These bars, as well, being mostly family owned, are far from the corporate greed and mentality that drives most of the alcohol consumption in the south.  Truly, if you look around at the hundreds of offerings in this city of 100K people that is pictured above, you cannot imagine these bar owners clearing much more than $25-30K a year after expenses. The above pictured bar, Gordy’s Prairie Pub offers nothing spectacular. It is about 500 square feet in retail space, has a single pool table, juke box, and well, that’s it. Now this particular bar staffs the bar  with bartenders that are  vibrant looking women.  Kind of a Hooter’s for the corner bar.

This is never a bad thing for business, and this likely drives the owners bottom line. Like most bars, it is filled with regular patrons.  Most of the older patrons spend their money, drink the entire evening, and await the good bye hug from one of the young bartenders. But on this journey, they have probably dropped $20-30 on the drink of their choice (and at these inexpensive drink prices, that is a lot of drinks) , got lit along the way, and stayed long enough to risk the drive back (Wisconsin blood alcohol level has just been ratcheted down to .08).

The operation is sparse. Even though Gordy’s, like most corner bars up here offer food, the sole bartender must prepare the bar while still tending to slinging the drinks. Much of it is pre-prepped food offerings.  The usually  half in the bag customers rarely know the difference, but if a bar does not offer food, it is less likely to be as popular.  Truly, one way to be able to drink over longer periods of time is to have food available to sop up the alcohol.

In many of these family run bars, the owners themselves are the largest customers. Other bars I have been to locally here have the owners either working the bar, or close by, throwing back a bevy of drinks to last them the entire night. Well, I guess it is a cost of doing business.

Personalities at these establishments vary from the truly funny to the morose. But in the end, everyone has a story to tell, a place they have been, and ex-wife that drives them bat shit crazy (still), a amazing event or fish story, or just overall conversation on how the family is and what kind of trouble junior as gotten himself into.  It is truly refreshing to be in an environment like this.  Now once in a while, the massive alchol takes over and disagreements pop up, but that is just part of the roadmap. Hell, go to any homeboy club and count the fights…..these folks have thier shit together comparatively.

In the end, it is understandable the attraction to these places in a northern city such as this. On this night where the pic was snapped, it was 26 degrees out. You are either inside drinking cognac in front of your fireplace, bowling, or here.  I choose here.

If you ever get a chance to visit a northern city (by this I mean far above the Mason-Dixon line for you southern jerks who do not know the difference), visit a local bar.  Northerners are not that friendly on the street as southerners are. But walk into a place like this with even a semi-friendly face, and you will be greeted, talked with, and find yourself pouring out your life stories as much as the drinks are being poured into your glass. Enjoy.


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Travelogue 009: Montana from Jason Hockney on Vimeo.

We at Reddgranite.com do not follow the typical internet formula. Nope. Instead of focusing in on one subject over and over, we take our bohemian attitude and spread it over a variety of subjects and content. Yes this is a music site, but it is so much more. Even at the expense of traffic…..(woe is the site that dances around subjects, bad for traffic and ad conversions!). WEll, we bring you different things here at redd…. and today it is no different! So we begin a series with yet another one of our expert contributors, Jason Hockney. Seems he has a knack of bringing his video cam along for the ride to a variety of interesting places and meeting some interesting people. This travelogue takes us to Montana….and the wilds and strange folks who live where man is not meant to exist…..

And you cannot resist the opening quote “they used to eat Indians in their canoes…its true”
Tune in. Intestesting stuff. And more will follow.

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Gourmet Madrid

Many do not realize, but Spain is all about wine.  With 130 varieties of grapes grown in the Spanish country side, Spaniards will quickly tell you that their wine rivals neighboring France on any level.  Well, this does come from the step child of the region when it comes to wine making.  But seriously, France enjoys a certain level of branding of their wines. Having been to Spain before, I was well aware of the Spanish wine industry. I have regularly consumed Spanish wines for for over a decade.

So I decided that a wine tour was in order when in Madrid during this last trip. I searched the internet and came up with Gourmet Madrid, offering wine tours on select days of the week. Research confirmed that this was a quality outfit, so I signed up for a wine tour of the Madrid wine region. 125E purchase a day tour with a guide, subject to a maximum of 20 people.  Price includes visits to three wineries in the smallish village of Chincon, where we to visit three wineries.  WE were motored by air conditioned bus some 60 kilometers south of Madrid.  Our host was very knowledgeable about the wine region.  He spoke fluent English.

The winery operations are nothing like that of of NAPA Valley.  These were all family run operations. The first, the winery of Jesus Diaz, was in an old convent building.  This was the largest and most interesting of wineries.  They put out about 300,000 litres a year. Included at this winery were deep cellars several levels down where the convent dug for apparent protection  from the political and/or religious challenges of the times. Tasting here was 4 different wines, each glass about a third full.  OK.  I understand.  You have 7 years of university……if you do the math, thats a  lot of wine considering this was one of three. You are right.  Prepare for this on the tour. Of course, bottles were offered for sale, and at really terrific prices for really good wines. Bottle pricing ranged from 2,6E to around 6E.

The next stop was at a small winery run by a charming lady named Consuelo, and her elderly father. The operation was no more than a total of 1000 square feet.  Lunch was next.  In an open restaurantt overlooking the town square where a bull fight had been staged just the weekend before, the food was wonderful.  And lunch was served with, well, more wine. One word of caution, I did consume a menu item which was great, but contained vegetables.  I had been told to stay away from vegetables in Spain, but I did not heed that advice.  The result was a case of Salmonella (according to my doctor after the fact).  Fever the following night of at lest 102 ensued. So please be aware and cautious.  Time was given to walk the village.  Another nice touch.

We visited one winery in the afternoon.  We were late to the scheduled time, so the host had to go to the owners house to open the winery. This winery seem like an afterthought on this tour, by this time, we were all ready to return to Madrid.  Needless to say, the bus ride on he return was quiet, with several sleeping off their wine tasting.

This tour was well worth the cost.  The logistics were easy.  You met at a certain time at the Ritz Hotel in the center of Madrid. The Ritz knew nothing of the meeting place or Gourmet Madrid.  So there were a few moments of challenge trying to find our guide.  However, when you make your reservation, they give the guide’s cell phone number.  He answers his calls.

I highly recommend this tour. You will learn much on Spanish wines, and the wines of the Madrid wine region, which has it’s own certification program which all small wineries strive to achieve. This is a great way to spend a day in the Madrid area, and you will be pleased by the tour, and the drive into the Spanish country side

A link to Gourmet Madrid is above under the title at the beginning of this article.

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Editors Note:  This BBQ  joint is one of the ‘famous Texas’ BBQ joints.  I have never been, but apparantly Low Budget Review Guys stopped in recently.  Read on:

A recent trip through central Texas brought us lunch-time pangs and a billboard advertizing a BBQ place I haven’t tried….seemed like a natural magnet drawing me to exit 294 and Central Ave in Belton, to Schoepf’s BBQ.  Just a few blocks off I-35, while looking vainly for the sign announcing the establishment, I noticed a low-slung ramshackle stone building with a crowd lined up outside. Could this be it?  Lowering the window, the heavenly smoke of meat in a BBQ pit wafted to me—this has gotta be it.  Pulling into the large parking area just past an auto parts store, the sign was barely visible leaning against the front of the building.  This family owned business has been serving for 16 years.  Ronnie and Staci Schoepf bought the business from Ronnie’s parents in 2007.  Everyone in the family has worked there at one time or another.   Evidently, they had some flood damage but at the time of our visit, the restaurant was fully open and jammed with customers.  Parking in the back we walked past several outdoor BBQ Pits being manned by several employees, keeping the wood going and turning the delicious smoking and roasting meats.  Behind the restaurant is a large wooded area with numerous picnic tables and a stage for warm-weather concerts and performances.  Love that live-music option.

Another Famous Texas BBQ Schoefs, Belton, Texas

Finally making our way inside, we got a chance to see the many offerings.  Brisket, ribs, steaks, pork chops, sausage, chicken, turkey, pork.  These had been transferred from the outside smokers to inside smokers, what they call a serving pit, to keep warm for serving.  A great idea!  Like many BBQ places, there was a long serving line where you placed your meat order.  Watching the servers slice the meat fresh in front of you was like watching artists at work.  They were quick, decisive with no wasted motion.  With the BBQ meat piled on our plastic tray, we proceed into another room where the varied sides were offered. In addition to the usual tater salad, coleslaw and beans, were green beans, baked potatoes, “cheesy potatoes” (like au gratin) and bags of chips.  Along with the obligatory bread loafs were homemade rolls, jalapeno and regular corn bread.  Pickles and Onions offered as well.  (in Texas, I think the law requires pickles and onions)  Deserts offered were homemade pies and several fruit cobblers.

The inside décor was “Texas BBQ joint standard”  There was wood paneling on the walls, wood picnic tables, some Formica tables, with a stand-along drink stand for tea and soda.  Various pictures and stuffed creatures lines the walls.  There was a separate “Event Room” for larger groups that was well done.

For this visit, we tried the two-meat sampler, brisket and sausage, with several sides.  The sauce came served on the side.  The brisket, while very tender and moist, had no smoke ring and no char, with little smoke flavor, making it appear as if it had been roasted on the fire instead of slow smoked.  The sausage came in four options, regular, a little spicy, spicy, and venison.  Unusual, and pleasing.  We elected for the lightly spicy version and were very pleased from the first bite.  The sausage was moist without being overly fatty and sopping with juice.  It was tender with just the perfect blend of seasoning.  It was the best BBQ sausage we had tasted in several years.  The BBQ sauce was warm and molasses/ketchup based with just a perfect blend of spices.  The potato salad was good, chunky, with just enough mustard to make it interesting.  The coleslaw was fresh, with perhaps a little too much mayo, but that may have been because they were adding mayo to the pan as we walked up.  The beans were good, slow cooked and tender.  We were too full to try the desert, but did pick up a bag of their own home-made beef jerky as a present for a family member.

Overall, I give Schoepf’s an “A-“ (A-minus).  The food was fresh, the service quick and very friendly.  The brisket, while tasty, loses some points for the lack of smoke ring and char that I expect from slow-smoked BBQ.  The sausage gets big points.  The multitude and flavor of the sides very good,   The sweet tea was good, and that is always an issue with me.   We will be back to try some of their other offerings.

The BBQ road goes ever onward!

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One again from our very own Low Budget Review Guy….eating his way across Texas once again.  He always comes up with interesting places that are easy on your billfold.

A recent trip to East Texas brought the opportunity to try some new BBQ places, always a treat.  The first stop was The Barbecue House inNacogdoches .  This large, stone building with a bright red facing, looked encouraging from a food standpoint.  Inside, we were directed to the traditional serving line where we ordered our meats, placed on paper plates on plastic cafeteria trays, then slid further down the gleaming line to the sides, where we could serve ourselves two choices  from the many options.  There was an interesting assortment of additions as well as the complementary white bread loaf.  There were individual packages of cheese, freshly made jalapenos stuffed with pimento cheese and several types of cobbler for desert.  We were a good sized group so we were able to try many sides and meats.  Upon ordering your meat choices, they were cut and placed on the plate.  A dry rub was then massaged into the order and then BBQ sauce was ladled on.  We were not given an option of rub or no rub, sauce or no sauce, but perhaps locals know what to expect so they can advise the servers beforehand.  The rub was quite good, the sauce a thin, vinegar based sauce, pale orange-almost yellow color, as most vinegar sauces are.  The overall mixture of the rub and sauce gave the flavor a spicy kick.  There was an ongoing debate as to which of the two was more responsible.

BBQ House

Barbecue House, Nacadoches Texas

The brisket was tender had a nice smoke ring, but not much charred edge.   The pork ribs were less tender but meaty and flavorful.  The sausage was bland, but not overly full of fat, like many are.  The sides were a mixed bag.  The mustard potato salad was just OK, mostly pureed potatoes.  It could use more mustard and seasoning.  And I prefer my “tater salad” to be chunky.  Perhaps they make it blander to offset the spiciness of the BBQ.  The beans were not traditional Texas Pinto beans, but more like the beans from Campbell’s Pork and Beans.  These were quite good, tasted as if slow cooked with molasses and brown sugar.  The best side dish was the coleslaw.  It was mayo based, but tasted as if it had just been made (and maybe it had been), fresh, crisp, delicious.  The best coleslaw we had tasted on the BBQ Road (so far).   The blackberry cobbler was warm, filling, a good choice.  The tea was a disappointment, commercial  and tasting as if it had been in the container for a while.

Overall, I give the BBQ House a “B”.   Meats were good, not great, earning points for the unusual flavors, losing points for not giving us the options of wanting the rub or sauce, and the sides ranged from OK to very good.  I would go back again.

Country Cousins BBQ in Centerville Texas

On our way back to central Texas, my companion spotted, “Country Cousins”  a small red building on the side of the road, just off I-45 and Hwy 7 in Centerville. On a cold, wet, raw winter’s day the place seemed to offer a warm inviting embrace of comfort food—BBQ.

Even though it was mid-morning and not even lunch time, there was already a line at the walk up counter on the wooden porch. A good sign.  While waiting,  I realized that this was a food trailer, like those that are popping up all over Texas, although this was wood not metal.  This trailer had been there long enough the owners had added the porch, some ground facing, and on the far side of the large parking area, a screened-in building that I realized had a large smoker and stacks of oak wood, getting seasoned and ready for cooking.  The aroma was enticing.  When my turn finally came, I ordered a sliced brisket sandwich and a small side order of potato salad.  The brisket was extremely tender, the tomato-based sauce warm and delicious, a perfect accompanist to the meat.  The potato salad was mostly pureed, with a few small chunks.  It was OK.   While we did not get the opportunity to sample their other options, so the grade is incomplete,  I rate Country Cousins an “A”.  It was the best sliced beef BBQ sandwich we have tried in years.  I look forward to my next trip, so I can try other items on the menu.

Now Thats A Brisket Sandwich

ED Note: This is part of a continuing feature on reddgranite.com on best BBQ joints in Texas. Each trip our Low Budget Review Guy, who normally writes about travel in Texas and other interesting items to do on a low cost basis, stops at BBQ joints rating them to standards we have set in our very own reviews. While there is a lot of debate on the best state that you can find the best BBQ, few can argue with Texas Best BBQ. Many of these are served in interesting locations throughout Texas.  In most cases, the small towns across the face of Texas offer consistently the Best Texas BBQ

Peace – ed.

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Fall in Texas brings cooler weather (eventually), football, and Fall Festivals in abundance.  It seems like every town and city is celebrating the turning of the season in some fashion, usually by a festival of one sort or another.  It’s as good excuse as any to walk around, drink beer, eat a turkey leg or BBQ, shop at vendors stalls and enjoy whatever special event has to offer.  Two that we checked out this year for the first time were, The Scarecrow Festival in Chappell Hill and the Hogeye Festival in Elgin.

Chappell Hill is a small community 8 miles east of Brenham, almost exactly 2 hrs east of Austin on 290.  They have two festivals every year, one in the fall and a Bluebonnet Festival in the spring.  Vendors selling clothes, jewelry, arts and crafts, plants, yard art, birdhouses, homemade salsa/sauces/dips, candles, honey, homemade soaps and lotions, paintings, and food trailers were among many others at this event.  I had heard for years about the Scarecrow festival but was not really prepared for the size and number of booths.  After the quiet scenic drive to the area, we followed the signs to a huge field for parking, $5.  We joined  a crowd through a small sidestreet to the main street of Chappell Hill, which consists of approximately 6 buildings.  The street was blocked off to traffic and there were booths as far as the eye could see.  We followed the tried and true plan of attack, always go to the right and make a loop where you will eventually see it all.  As we browsed through the vendors, we quickly realized it was even bigger than we thought.  In vacant lots and  alleys, more vendors set up  for business so it was a larger gathering than I had thot.  While passing on the turkey legs and funnel cakes (smelled heavenly) we did try an ice tea slushy that was refreshing as the day grew warmer. Think of it as an Icee but sweet-tea flavored. Sounds strange but very good.  The aroma of BBQ and fried Oreos wafted over the whole area.  There were several makeshift stages where live music was playing (I wish my favorite band was there—The Dazzling Weasel Faces.  They would have been perfect for that venue. Oh well, maybe next year).  There was also no sign of Redd Granite, but the performers we heard, a 3 man group doing oldies and a solo guitarist doing country, were both talented and worth listening to.  However, we didn’t have much time to rest as more vendors beckoned.  There were over 250 booths all in all, people bringing their wares from as far as Houston, Dallas, Beaumont, Austin, Kerrville.  A large number of these merchants travel to various fairs and festivals every weekend during the fall and spring to sell their (mostly) homemade items.  I saw several meet and greet each other as old friends, which they probably are, going to similar events for a good portion of the year every weekend.  I think it is a fascinating sub-culture, working during the week at a day job, at night working on your particular art/craft items to sell, then on weekends packing everything into a trailer, van, truck and driving to whatever festival you have paid for a vendor spot at, setting up your wares for Sat and/or Sunday, then packing it all up, driving for hours home, then doing it all again next week.  Some vendors are obviously retired folks, some are obviously not.   All seem to enjoy what they do.  It is amazing the creative items that people can make and with quality that make them worth buying.  After half the day, we finally managed to go by every booth.  We had picked up a few decorations for our yard and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  The crowds were heavy and sometimes made for a challenge to navigate and were still coming in as we made our way back to the parking lot and headed home, tired but pleased at the experience.

The second festival was the Hogeye Festival in Elgin, which lies about 20 minutes east of Austin.  This annual festival is a fundraiser for the community for Arts, and Parks programs.  It turns out that Hogeye was a small community in the area.  The theme of this fun festival is, logically enough, the Hog.  There was a BBQ Cook-off, a Chili Cook-off, a Car Show, live music, an appearance by the Sow-premes a group of ladies in eye-searing pink outfits performing on stage but arrived each perched on the back of an ear-splitting Harley Davidson (a Hog, get it?), vendors booths, and more.  Parking was not centralized, but people found spots up and down the side streets of town.  The main street was again blocked off to traffic for several blocks.  While the vendors were not as numerous as the ones in Chappell Hill, they were from more local areas, like Austin, Georgetown, and San Marcos.  This was what I consider more of an old-time city fall festival.  More Old-School as it were.  They had lots of games and art for the kids to do, they had a booth where you could shoot paint guns at targets, they had a brick-toss game where you try to toss a brick that has not been fired (hence still sorta spongy) into a trash can from a distance ranging from 15 to 40+ feet into a large garbage can.  My distance was just about as if I was pitching slow pitch softball again.  While “back in the day” I threw a few “bricks” I had never really pitched a brick before.  I did use the same pitching motion, but alas, out of three tries the closest I got was clanging one off the side.    The smell of the food booths, cotton candy, made-on-the-spot Kettle Corn, shaved ice, peanuts and pecans, corn on the cob, enticed us until we were suddenly stopped, mesmerized by the overpowering aroma of BBQ and chili being lovingly smoked and prepared by the competitors in the area set aside especially for them.  There were over 25 different teams each cooking and smoking, each with their own elaborate set up from small pull-behind trailers with a smoker on top, to huge rigs with wood carved tables and chairs in front. The smokers themselves were worth the visit, just to see the different kinds and sizes.  Almost all had brought stacks of the preferred wood to use for smoking. Some had mesquite, some oak, some hickory (where did they get hickory?).  Alas, we were too early to sample the mouth watering meats,  as most teams were still hours away from being able to offer bites.  We did try some chili from one team—outstanding!

After perusing all the vendor booths, buying a few Christmas presents, and checking out the antique cars and souped -up cars from the 50-70’s (my fav was the purple Dodge Charger, it looked like it was going 85 just sitting there—power personified)it was time to  buy tickets for Cow Patty Bingo.  This fundraiser sounds too much fun to believe.  There is a small area fenced off with hundreds of squares painted on the ground.  Each square has a number assigned to it.  At the appointed time, a cow, in this case a young longhorn, is led into the fenced off area where the crowd waits for him to walk around and uh–  leave a deposit.  The judges then decide which square has the largest contribution and that square wins the grand prize.  Surrounding squares win smaller prizes.  Alas, we were not winners, but what a hoot!

To summarize, both Festivals were worth a Saturday day trip– fun, food, shopping, people-watching.  The Hog-Eye Festival was more “home-grown” and family friendly.  I will be back next year for more brick-tossing and Cow Patty Bingo!

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To pick up where we left off, from Blue Diamond it was back to the hotel to cash in my few winning sportsbook bets, take a nap, then  head out to one of the best things to do in Vegas—cocktails at the top of The Stratosphere Hotel.  This towering structure at almost 1200 feet is not only one of my favorite places to stay in Vegas, great for the budget traveler, good clean rooms, $5 table games, good restaurants, but the tower itself has many attractions.  One of the best is also the cheapest. WE refer to this hotel as the Motel 6 of Las Vegas. Cheap, functional, clean, no frills. A good stay. While you can buy tickets to go to the 109th floor (scarily high) for the thrill rides (no thanks) you can ride up to the 107th floor lounge for free. While cocktails are approx $12-$13 apiece, at least there you are paying for the atmosphere.  The lounge looks down onto the restaurant a floor below. The restaurant rotates, the lounge does not-so it’s great for people watching.  The best time is to get there about 30-45 min before dusk.  Have a drink, chat with friends and watch the sun set over the mountains to the west, and watch the incredible lights of Las Vegas appear.  We tried a couple of appetizers and were very impressed. There are usually some happy hour specials.

From there we drove downtown to the Golden Nugget.  Dinner was at our favorite steak restaurant, Vic and Anthony’s.  This was our top-dollar meal for this trip and worth every penny.  Have been there a number of times and never disappointed. The wait staff is very attentive and the best, most tender steak I have ever had.  The sides are extra, but the marinated mushrooms were spectacular, even for non-fans.  Dinner there is truly a special experience and is highly recommended.

After dinner, we hit the slots and waited for the Fremont Street Experience, the dazzling overhead light/sound show that takes up several blocks downtown and shows several times a nite. Each show focuses on different bands, from Kiss, to The Doors, to the Rat Pack.  The people watching is primo.  They usually have several live bands, street musicians and performers, vendors, and everything in between. Cheap drinks and good cigars can be had in a number of directions.   Although we didn’t get to it this trip, a very cool biker bar, Hogs and Heifer’s is just a block away. Here the girls dance, uh, sometimes, fall off the bar.  Very entertaining.

The next day, we hit another new favoirite for a late breakfast/early lunch:  Hash House a Go-Go.  I ahd seen them on the Travel Channel and we stopped last year and loved it, so this year we had to take the spouses to enjoy, “Twisted Farm Food” is their sound bite,—and twisted it is.  My favorite—Chicken and Waffles.  Two large pieces of tender golden fried chickennestling on two huge buttermilk waffles with applewood bacon cooked into the waffles.  I can eat, but I couldn’t even get halfway through.  The prices are not cheap, but the portions are unbelievably large.  There can be a wait at either location, west of the strip on Sahara, or on the Strip at the Imperial Palace, but the wait will be worth it.  If you are into  delicious large breakfast/brunch, this place cannot be beat.  I wish I had a franchise. A new location has now opened in the M Resort, on the far south side of Las Vegas.

After we waddled to the car we drove up to Mt Charleston, approx 45 min away.  This refuge from the desert terrain is seen by very few Vegas tourists and they are missing a treat.  The road steadily climbs from the valley to well over 9,000 feet to a mountain lodge where native Americans sell handcrafted jewelry and pottery.  Cactus and desert scrub gives way to bushes and then pine trees.  On this visit we were granted a special sight.  The stands of Aspen trees in the draws and creek beds had changed to their brilliant golden hue.  We took a hike up a stream bed and took many pictures of the beautiful scenery.  There was even a picture of some strange squirrel-type creature hanging from a tree.  The temperatures at that altitude were 20-30 degrees cooler than the valley.  Looking at a number of incredible mountain homes in the area, we stopped by several that were for sale and checked the prices.  Might be a little high for a second home, but gorgeous just the same.  From there we coasted downhill 14 miles, in neutral, back to Hwy 95 and headed back to Vegas.

On the way back from Mt Charleston we stopped at the famous Pawn Shop from TV’s “Pawn Stars”.  It is on the Strip almost to downtown.  There was a line waiting to get in—to a pawn shop—are you kidding me?  They had security at the door, security directing traffic.  After about a 15 min wait we walked in. Although they had a few interesting items (Antique Slot machine anybody?  A $20,000 portrait of Jim Morrison?). They seemed more interested in selling “Pawn Stars” t-shirts and coffee mugs.  They did have some of the items that were seen on episodes of the show, which we love. The civil-war style mortar (that they actually shot a bowling ball out of during one classic episode) and the Top-Secret WW II map of the invasion beaches at Iwo Jima were two of the best that were on display.   We were glad we went, but don’t necessarily have to go back.

The rest of that day was spent playing some blackjack and roulette and getting my tail handed to me at the slot machines.  Still full from our huge breakfast at Hash House, for our last night’s dinner in Vegas we elected to hit Del Taco, a fast-food chain based out of California for a late dinner. Good taco’s , with fresh Cilantro, and cheap prices were just the ticket.

All in all, another great Vegas Vacation with great friends, great food, great fun.  Vegas appears to have rebounded nicely from the previous year or so.  The crowds were up, prices were up,  hotels were booked, restaurants were busy, traffic was awful. We tried the new (hotel Vdara and Aria Casino), the traditional (Vic and Anthony’s, In-n-out Burger, Pasta Mia) mixed in with new favorites, (Stratosphere Lounge, Hash House a Go-Go, Blue Diamond).  I am looking forward to my next trip back to my favorite American Playland–  Viva Las Vegas!

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Low Budget Review Guy on Las Vegas, Part 1

On October 12, 2010, in Travel, by admin

This was the 4th trip for  me to Vegas in the last 12 months.  I am still not tired of this fascinating city.  This was our annual fall trip we take with great friends Jay and Karen and marked the 7th ( 8th ?)year in a row.   We always stay in different hotels making each year a different experience.

This year we stayed a VDARA, one of the new hotels at City Center, a vast collection of hotels, shops, restaurants packed between Bellagio and Monte Carlo on the strip.  This is a completely non-smoking hotel, which was very much appreciated.  This hotel has only one restaurant, one main bar, (not counting the pool area) and no casino.  It is blissfully peaceful, serene, quiet.  The staff is attentive and responsive.  This is not a hotel for the budget traveler. There is an electric tram that connects it to several resorts.  The rooms are all suites, with a small, but efficient kitchen area, a living room area with couch, several chairs and large flat screen TV.  That area is separated from the bedroom and  bath, by the entertainment center holding the TV.  The king size bed was very comfortable.  The large bathroom had a tub and separate shower area.  The room had numerous electronic gadgets that were mostly wasted on us.   We never did figure how to get the nightstand lights to work.   The view from the huge windows was simply amazing.  We had an unusual north view from our 30th floor room.  We could see the mountains to the west, the Strip to the east and could see the pool area of Bellagio and had a 75% view of the Fountains at Bellagio.  Numerous times we just opened the shades to see the spectacular fountain show.  One night, Jay and Karen brought a bottle of wine and appetizers for happy hour and we set our chairs to look out our windows at the view.  That is the first time in all my 20+ years of Vegas I have ever done that.

The pool area is small, but very pleasant, and graceful.  The hotel is very much a modern-design lover’s place.  The sculptures, the layout, the fixtures, the carpet and flooring, the lighting, are all modern and impressive. The only negative grade VDARA gets is the bar.  Prices in Vegas are high, food and beverages, unnecessarily so.  Cocktails in Vegas start at $10, and go up from there.  Sometimes you can find a happy-hour with half-price or two for one, but at what they charge, the mark-up and profit-margin are huge.  VDARA charged $14 a drink.  For specialty cocktails to the house Chardonnay. Really?  $14 for a house Chardonnay?  Needless to say, one visit was more than enough.

As we arrived late in the morning, after checking in at the hotel, we went to lunch at Diablo’s, one of our new favorite hangouts in Vegas. It is perched right on the street, connected to the Monte Carlo.  This is a two-story open-air establishment with great views for people watching as they stroll up and down the Strip.  While their menu prices are high, you get a lot of food and they have outstanding Mango Margarita’s.  They also had a $5 margarita special going, so what can you do?  Ya gotta take advantage of it….After relaxing that afternoon, Saturday night brought us to our favorite Italian restaurant in Vegas—Pasta Mia.  Located in a strip center a few miles west of the strip past the Palms, this restaurant looks unimpressive from the outside, but a delight inside.  The cozy dining room with its white linen tablecloths, the pictures on the walls, the music on the sound system (Sinatra, Tony Bennett, etc) always makes us feel welcome.  The wait staff is impressive, knowledgeable and attentive.  But the food, well that is what we are there for.  Outstanding.  I had the best Chicken Marsala I have ever tasted.  Jay and Karen love the Gnocchi.  This is worth the trip off the strip. (See other recent posts about this restaurant)

Sunday morning, we walked over to the Bellagio to enjoy their fall decorations.  We then walked over to Paris and their French Bakery for some hot tea and a morning pastry, a pear muffin with walnuts. Delicious.  After playing some slots and getting my football bets down at the sportsbook, we met Jay and Karen for the day’s adventure.  After an early lunch stop at In-and-Out Burger, one of our Vegas traditions, we drove 45 min west to the small town of Pahrump to visit a winery we had seen advertised.  The beautiful buildings and grounds were well maintained.  The winery offered several free tastings as well as a more substantial tasting flight for $5.  We enthusiastically participated.  The wines were very nice and several bottles were purchased.  On the way back, we stopped in the little town of Blue Diamond, a quirky little place with a population of about 350, a library, two nice city parks, one general store, where we always stop and get snacks.  There was a house for sale, that we had seen on an earlier trip and was having an open house, so we stopped and checked it out.  Nice place, built in the 1940’s.  Large, shady, back yard with a pool.  Unfortunately, still had a California/Las Vegas price tag. (Editors Note:  We acknowledge that that prices in CA and LV have fallen dramatically, but this house just did not get it, it is an estate sale and the kids are trying to ring our the estate for every penny they can get….house has been for sale since April.) On the way out we saw 6-7 wild burros that like to hang out in Blue Diamond.  There is a spring in the town, so the animals like the availability of fresh water and greenery.  The burros are generally not shy around tourists and numerous pictures were taken up close and personal.

The rest of the trip will be recounted in Part 2, to be submitted later.

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The Business of Vegas

On August 25, 2010, in Travel, by admin

A recent trip to Las Vegas merits a review, but this one with a bit of a business twist. With the economical times teetering on the brink of a lapse into double dip recession, I was interested to return to Las Vegas for some time off. I am a regular visitor to sin city, but not in the typical sense.  I am not that into gambling. I into the restaurant, drinking, people watching, and most of all over the last two years:  the business end of Las Vegas. With the economical meltdown came the same meltdown of the Las Vegas economy…it fell and landed with a resounding thump.  But I have noticed the trend over the last few trips that the numbers seem to be returning. This trip was no different. In fact, the numbers really seemed to be close to what it was pre-meltdown. A trip to one of my clients on this trip confirmed.  My client from my practice as a consultant is very well connected in Las Vegas, as they have done a lot of work in the city. They quickly indicated, over a cup of coffee in the 115 degree heat, that business had picked up. In fact, they indicated the pricing for Saturday night rooms has “gotten ridiculous”.  I found out. The Las Vegas economy is returning, despite our current economic climate where there are a lot of nay sayers thinking we are headed for double dip recession. I secured a room using the wife’s frequent player card for Harrah’s. I selected the Imperial Palace (IP) as it was the cheapest of the cheapest on this offer.  However, when my wife was unable to make this trip, I tried to check in.  She needed to be there. So what started as a $94 rate for 4 nights (yes, I said 4 nights) turned into a $320 rate for 4 nights. Yes, as my client indicated, the driver was Saturday night rate, at $130. Even my beloved Motel 6 (the Stratosphere…I really like this place for a cheap stay normally) was $150 a night….$150! I have never seen the Strat at that price.  This was going to be my fall back. OK. I guess this is less of a Las Vegas review than a quick post on the Las Vegas economy….it really seems to be coming back.

The restaurants we visited were the usuals High End Steakhouses, a martini at Binions Ranch, our must visit to In n Out Burger (yes, coming soon to Garland Texas), and a wonderful evening at Pasta Mia (this one you need to go to in Vegas….it is outstanding….decent pricing and kick ass food…do not let the location fool you). We also did Diablos in front of Monte Carlo….great balcony above the street.  While there was a battle of the bands night that evening, the food was very disappointing, unlike prior visits.  The prices had increased, and the food was just a lot less appealing. Skip it this time.

Despite the alarmist in the Las Vegas economy and our economical times currently, get out and spend some in Las Vegas….just do not go into debt doing it.


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