Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Searching for Cultural Enlightenment in Sin City






Aces and Ales
3740 S. Nellis Blvd.
Las Vegas, NV





The last time I wrote a review in Las Vegas, I think I clearly articulated my distain for Sin City.

Vegas is an inauthentic lowest-common-denominator amusement park for unimaginative American travelers too timid to use their precious two weeks of vacation time to go anywhere real or interesting.

So here I am. On another business trip to Las Vegas.

Trillsville.

Okay. I have an idea. I’ll do what Suit757 always does.

Why should Las Vegas be any different?

I’ll seek out the local crowd -- away from the vulgar tourist masses.

Yep. I’m setting out to find “real” Vegas.

Wherever that might be.

Most of the 40 million tourists who come to Las Vegas every year never venture more than 100 yards in either direction from The Strip.

But as anyone who has sat in a window seat on approach to McCarran International Airport can attest, there is more to Las Vegas than The Strip.

More than two million people live underneath the apartments and residential rooftops that sprawl outward across the desert valley floor as far as the eye can see.

Yeah. That’s where I am headed.

Screw valet parking, lousy beer selection and hoards of 80 year old widows on walkers throwing their Social Security checks into slot machines 25 cents at a time.

I am going to find a local’s hang out to drink real beer with real people.

So I typed my favorite word into Google Maps.

B-E-E-R.

One of the first results that popped up was Aces and Ales, 25 minutes out into the Vegas sprawl.

There was just one problem with my strategy.

There aren’t any “real people” in Las Vegas.

I mean, I’m not saying that Vegas is populated with the Walking Dead, I’m just saying there really isn’t much of a local Las Vegas culture to tap into.

First of all, nobody is actually “from” Las Vegas.

Hanging out with the “locals” in Sin City isn’t like going to a Friday night fish fry with the lumberjacks in Northern Wisconsin.

Workers in Las Vegas don’t grow timber or mine coal or extract oil from the ground or build automobiles.

Virtually everyone in Las Vegas works in one industry: servicing those 40 million tourists -- and each other.

They park your car or carry your bag or give you your room key or slide you a beer or make your bed or cash out your gambling voucher or take off their bikini top for your viewing pleasure or taxi your drunk butt back to your hotel.

All for a tip of course.

So I guess what I’m saying is that hanging out on a Wednesday afternoon with the locals at Aces and Ales wasn’t quite as culturally enlightening as I hoped it would be.

But the beer was top notch.

Aces and Ales is a Las Vegas Mecca for good beer that is open 24 hours per day.

Yeah. Like Sin City itself, this joint NEVER closes.

Aces and Ales was started by bonafide rock star, Keri Kelli, in 2009.

The former guitarist for Alice Cooper loves craft beer and has utilized his connections to some legendary craft brewers to create a destination in this metropolis of mediocrity to try rare high quality beer.

Fortunately I got there just before 3pm -- the start of “Hoppy Hour”. All drafts are five bucks, a steep discount off the high alcohol/high priced beers on tap.

Awesome.

I sat at the only spot at the bar that didn’t have a video poker machine.

And I was the only patron in the place under the age of 70 -- and every one of them had their heads down punching away at the video poker buttons.

Surprisingly, most of them were drinking Budweiser or Miller Lite.

Maybe this isn’t so different from The Strip after all.

The 40ish bartender was friendly and helpful. She flipped the TV to the afternoon baseball game for me and waxed enthusiastically about all the high powered beers on tap.

I started with the Mikkeller Beer Geek Breakfast Stout, from those crazy beer geeks in Denmark who specialize in brewing off-the-wall concoctions for adventurous American craft beer drinkers.

It wasn’t really breakfast time but I suppose 3 o’clock on a Wednesday is close enough.

Malty, sweet and smooth, I’d happily make this beer my breakfast of champions -- if I were to take up beer drinking at 8am.

Probably not a good career move, but as they, say, “You can’t drink all day if you don’t start first thing in the morning!”

Noticing that I liked strong imperial stouts, the bar tender gave me a sample of Nectar Black Xantus, an 11.5% powerhouse of flavor. Luxurious and sweet as liquorish, it was like going straight from breakfast to dessert.

The Stone IRS 2011 was yet another imperial stout -- but very different from the first two. This one was more sour than sweet. Interesting, but not what I’m looking for in a dark beer.

Eventually I switched to a nice IPA by Smog City Brewing out of Southern California called
Hoptonic. Excellent choice. Perfectly balanced with a nice hoppy kick.

If this sounds like a lot of beer, well…

…it was.

And it wasn’t.

Most of the beers are served in small 8oz shot glasses. But that is because they have double to triple the alcohol of a normal beer.

These aren’t gulping beers.

Which was a problem for me when I bit into my Moondog Grilled Cheese Sandwich loaded with pepperoni, salami, cheese, olives and jalapenos.

Most restaurants that serve jalapenos as a garnishment cook the spice right out of the peppers. So I wasn’t too worried when I placed my order.

But after one bite, my head was on fire.

This sandwich included big disks of raw jalapeno -- seeds, stems and all.

Fortunately, the bar tender rushed me a glass of tap water to douse the flames. Wouldn’t want to try that with a ten percent alcohol beer.

While I would have preferred a higher cheese/meat to olives/jalapenos ratio, the sandwich was exactly as advertised.

Can’t complain.

For me, the highlight was the Arrogant Bastard Ale Onion Rings made from scratch with its namesake beer batter.

As I enjoyed my meal, it became clear that as usual I was the only guy in the place nobody knew.

And the only one in a suit. Of course.

Two very old men and a women who has been working in Las Vegas for 47 years sat next to me.

She and the bar tender started whispering about “the good looking guy in the suit.”

I immediately began nervously calculating how many minutes it would take me to finish my beer and get the check.

It didn’t take long before the lady turned my way and began telling me her story of how she came to Vegas, dealt cards for decades at the Sands and then took a job working for the government.

She soon launched into a monologue about how the “difficult working conditions” doing government work were made bearable because of the union.

She is now the union shop steward -- a bonafide government union boss!

“You know, they claim we make $80,000 per year, but that’s not true. I make $39,000. The rest is benefits and that shouldn’t count,” she tried to explain.

“But at least we can’t be fired.”

I didn’t bother to tell her that the $80,000 sure counts for the taxpayer who has to pay the bill.

But that is Vegas culture for you, to the extent that it has one: two million people working hard doing nothing but taking other peoples’ money.

By the time I polished off my sandwich, the bar tender asked me if I minded cashing out since her shift was over.

Even though I was still contemplating one more beer, I didn’t mind at all. This is Vegas. Everyone lives and dies on their tips.

She worked hard and deserved to be tipped for it before she hit the I-515.

Since it was “Hoppy Hour”, my three beers and sandwich were all five bucks each. So $20 plus tax.

I figured if I was paying full price, the tab would be closer to $34. So I left her a $7 tip on my credit card slip.

I guess I was feeling generous since the Depression Era patrons drinking Buds and playing video poker didn’t figure to be big tippers.

Meanwhile, the replacement bartender, a young attractive girl, who possessed the assets to make more money at any number of other various Sin City occupations, took over.

I ordered a pint of Smog City’s Saber Tooth Squirrel, a delicious 7% red ale, from her.

Since it was my last beer, I handed her some cash to pay for it up front and left $1.50 tip on the bar.

Like I said, I appreciate good service.

Just then, Bartender Number One makes her rounds, grabs my credit card jacket and the cash I left for Bartender Number Two and walks off in a huff.

She probably figured all I left her for her TV channel surfing and beer commentary efforts was a buck and half.

Hopefully she figured it out when she looked at the credit card slip.

But that didn’t stop her from pocketing the younger girl’s tip.

So if I ventured out to the Las Vegas suburbs to immerse myself in the real culture of this city, I guess I got what I came for.

From the 70 year old government union boss sitting next to me -- to the bar tender -- everyone’s in competition to pocket everyone else’s money.

And now you understand why I’d just assume hang out with the lumberjacks in Wisconsin.

Rating: Would Wear a Free Shirt.


Aces & Ales on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Buffalo Café: Montana’s Last Best Place for Breakfast








Buffalo Café
514 E. 3rd St.
Whitefish, MT





Stand on a mountaintop in nearby Glacier National Park and you begin to understand this state’s famous moniker. The blue Big Sky stretches from horizon to distant horizon seeming to crush the earth.

As the 4th largest state in America by land mass, Montana is a pretty diverse place.

From the oil field rough necks on the barren eastern plaines to the unemployed union workers in gritty Butte to the Blackfoot Indians across the flat north country to the celebrity Hollywood refugees in bucolic Bozeman and Helena, Montana means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

But for those of us who don’t live here, when we close our eyes and think of Montana, an image of Whitefish is what comes to mind.

Whitefish is the quintessential small Rocky Mountain town.

Nestled in the shadow of Big Mountain carved up with high priced ski slopes, Whitefish’s Central Avenue is lined with quaint shops selling western gear and fun watering holes like the Great Northern Bar and Grill.

Sure, Whitefish is a bit touristy, but it still has the feel of a real place.

That sense of Rocky Mountain authenticity hasn’t yet been subjugated to the tourist shops selling t-shirts that proclaim Montana “The Last Best Place.”

But that is an apt slogan for Montana -- and Whitefish specifically.

As I strolled through town on a sunny Saturday morning searching for breakfast, I couldn’t help but sense how fleeting Montana’s greatness can seem.

“You call something paradise, kiss it goodbye,” Don Henley once sang.

Whether it is the proliferation of Montana’s cheesy roadside casinos or the influx of California leftists like Henley, you can’t help but simultaneously admire the beauty of this small town while fearing it can’t possibly stay this quaint.

All I can say is enjoy Montana’s “Last Best Place” while you can.

When you do come to Whitefish, you have to stop by for breakfast at the Buffalo Café.

You’ll be treated to a vacation highlight Montana meal well worth the wait for a table.

While the gourmet specials on the blackboard such as the local huckleberry French toast were mighty tempting, I have a Suit757 rule about dining.

If a place is “famous” for something, order that something.

In the case of Buffalo Café, that “something” is their famous “Buffalo Pie”.

Since 1979, the Buffalo Café has been piling plates high with eggs, hash browns and various breakfast meats in delicious combinations.

The decision making was agonizing. They all sounded so good.

Sausage? Bacon? Ham? Fancy Kansas City bacon? Smoked cheddar? Green Chili? Cream gravy? Spinach? Onions? Peppers?

I was as conflicted as Barack Obama facing a foreign policy crisis.

Eventually I settled upon the Morning Glory Pie.

Epic.

That’s all I have to say.

Of course the Buffalo Pie is nothing like a pie.

There is no crust. I thought maybe the hash browns would serve as the base with the mountain of other ingredients serving as the pie filling, but that’s not the case either.

The base of this “pie” is a savory and slightly spicy patty of country sausage which added just the right amount of kick to the pile of goodness on top.

The next layer is the Buffalo Café’s famous hash browns, topped with grilled onions and spinach, topped with a couple eggs over easy, topped with a hearty covering of peppery cream gravy.

Holy heart attack, Batman!

This just might be one of the greatest breakfasts to grace Suit757’s taste buds.

The spice from the sausage, the pepper from the gravy, the sweetness from the onions, the crunch from the fried potatoes and the runny goodness of the eggs produced a kaleidoscope of flavors, textures and colors in every bite.

I even savored every bite of the buttered local nine-grain toast served on the side.

Normally I toss aside bread as a distraction to the main attraction. But not at the Buffalo Café.

Of course I couldn’t help but suffer a bit of buyer’s remorse -- not from dissatisfaction with my purchase. But from regret from just thinking about what else on the menu I might be missing.

I relieved a bit of my angst by ordering a side of Buffalo’s famous “Kansas City bacon”.

A Suit can never have too much meat after all.

Good call.

More like a cross between Canadian bacon and country ham, Buffalo’s Kansas City bacon was thick and smoky, an ideal accompaniment to a hall of fame breakfast.

I left Buffalo Café and Montana feeling like I had discovered something special.

You should too.

But hurry. It indeed just might be the last best place.

Rating: Bought the Shirt!


Buffalo Cafe on Urbanspoon


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Harris Crab House: More Fun than a Trip to the Shrink








Harris Crab House
433 Kent Narrow Way N.
Grasonville, MD






My Harris Crab House t-shirt sums it up perfectly:

“Group Therapy – One Bushel at a Time”

With a little waterman dude emblazoned on a big old bushel of freshly steamed Chesapeake Bay blue crabs.

(Spoiler Alert: I know I like to keep you in suspense until the end of the review, but…I bought the shirt.)

Some activities in life, like using a bathroom on a Regional Jet, man was meant to do alone.

But man is a social creature. We crave the company of other humans.

That is why other activities are best enjoyed in a group of friends.

Picking crabs is definitely one of those.

A crab feast is all about sitting outside on the water, passing around pitchers of cold beer, enjoying the sunshine and salty sea breeze and whiling away a lazy summer afternoon in conversation about matters simple or sublime, profound or frivolous.

Yeah, there is food involved. Sort of.

But a crab feast isn’t really about sustenance. It’s about the experience.

Group therapy.

Forget your daily routine, leave the laptop at home, power off your smart phone.

Get together with some friends you haven’t seen in a while, engage in dialogue that doesn’t involve thumbs on a tiny keyboard and hang out pounding away at bottom dwelling sea creatures with little wooden mallets.


The conversation, beer and sunshine provide the therapy. The crabs are just the excuse.

So for me, Harris’ perfect waterfront locale of its upstairs outdoor deck on Kent Narrows just over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge from Annapolis is justification enough to bestow upon Harris the title of quintessential Maryland crab house.

It just doesn’t get any better than this.

That being said, the tab for our group therapy (there were eight of us) came to $500.

Ouch.

So no matter how bucolic the setting, for that price, you better dump some decent crabs onto the table in front of us.

In the three or four times I’ve visited Harris, the place hasn’t let me down yet.

While the conversation at any crab feast usually remains appropriately light, controversy can erupt unexpectedly.

Our most contentious discussion on this Saturday afternoon dealt with this very subject -- critiquing Maryland’s famous crab houses.

One person in particular in our little party was aware of my alias as an internationally-known world-famous food critic -- and took exception to my panning of Cantler’s on the other side of the bridge.

Cantler’s is arguably the most popular crab house in Maryland, but my lone experience there left much to be desired. (Read about it here.)

My argumentative friend declared, “You can’t say Cantler’s has bad crabs. Nobody MAKES crabs! They just serve whatever is caught in the crab pot.”

While I conceded his point that crab houses don’t “make” crabs (a guy at a higher pay grade gets the credit for that), there are some important rules to follow when you make your living selling bushels of crabs that cost more than an early model Ford Focus.

First of all, the crabs need to be fresh -- as in still kicking and clawing for life when you put them in the steamer.

Second, you need to steam the crabs the exact number of moments that turn their shells from blue to red without transforming their delicate crabmeat into crabmush.

And finally, the steamed crabs should be served within minutes -- not hours or days -- after emerging from the steamer.

I’m happy to say, Harris has this process down to a science.

Our four dozen “large” crabs (Harris was out of the much more expensive “extra-large” and “jumbos”) were dumped upon our brown paper-covered picnic table in perfect condition.

Bright red, still warm and coated in Harris’ signature salty seasoning, these 48 crustaceans provided the table with an afternoon of picking, pounding and prying.

And even a little bit of crabmeat.

You’ll burn more calories than you consume.

But that’s why God invented hush puppies as well as crabs.

Harris serves excellent puppies, warm, doughy and sweet.

Even more sweet was the moist cake-like corn bread.

Of course the most important part of any crab feast is not the crabs. Or the hush puppies. Or even the conversation.

It’s the beer.

Harris has a decent selection of local craft beers available in the bottle.

My Lot No. 3 IPA from Evolution Brewing Company in Salisbury was a new one for me.

Of course you can never go wrong with a Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA from just down the Delmarva.

But let’s face it, if you are going to sit outside in the August sun all afternoon eating salt-coated crabs, even the most devout beer snob should switch eventually to pitchers of lower octane, lower priced good old American lager.

And that is basically how the afternoon unfolded.


We left the suits at home, put on our flip-flops, passed around cheap pitchers of Coors Light, soaked up the salt air and retold those decade old stories -- some of which even have a bit of truth to them.

Group therapy.

Yeah, $500 is a steep price to pay for an afternoon of hanging out on the Chesapeake.

But it’s a hell of a lot more fun than an appointment with your shrink.

Rating: I Already Told You -- Bought the Shirt!

Harris Crab House on Urbanspoon


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Parking is a Premium at Off Site Kitchen







Off Site Kitchen
2226 Irving Blvd.
Dallas, TX 75207




 
It's been just over two years since my last visit to Texas, and as a guy from the Great Lakes region, I can tell you that I did not look forward to return to the heat of Texas.

I was in the Dallas area on business with a fellow Suit who explained to me that the heat in Texas can get so extreme that bugs will actually melt on the sidewalk. Not the crunchy bugs, he clarified, just the big, fat and juicy ones.

Comforting...

Look, I'm sure Texas is nice not during the summer months, but I can't exactly confirm that, being that I've only really been there during the months that bugs melt.

And don't get me started on the politics of Texas.

Every conservative believes that Texas is somehow a utopia for conservative politics. Texas has worse gun laws than Pennsylvania!

Oh, and you also have to provide all ten fingerprints to get a driver's license in the state. How about that for freedom-loving?

And Rick Perry...where do I even start with him? Sometimes he can be so right and other times he can just be plain stupid. Perry is finally stepping down after being Governor for what seems like since the Civil War. No term limit for the Executive? No thank you...

Oh, and let us not forget that Texas also gave us the Bush dynasty which single-handedly destroyed the Republican Party.

But the people of Texas are good people, so long as you can tolerate them constantly correcting you that everything is better and/or bigger in Texas.

No, but seriously, I shouldn't be so tough on Texas because despite their government and obnoxious heat, it is a nice state. And one thing for sure, they know how to cook.

My fellow suit, being a native Texan, knew that I would be interested in the finest of what Dallas had to offer. He did his research, and brought us to a shady part of town to what looked like from the outside a perfect place for a Suit to review.

Once through the front door, I knew he had just taken me a goldmine of a Suit review.

Off Site Kitchen is everything that a Suit could ask for in a delicious place to eat: severe lack of parking spaces, long line to the register, very little seating, and the smell of smoked meat in the air.

I ordered the special of the day which was half a BBQ chicken with house made BBQ sauce, coleslaw, and Texas toast.

In true Texas fashion, my fellow Suit ordered the Ten Buck Four Burger, which is a burger made up of four 1/4 pound burger patties, for a grand total of a pound of meat, plus a fried egg on top.

I must say, I became envious of that burger. That thing looked awesome, and according to my fellow Suit, it was, as he had to restart his heart several times during the process of eating it.
 
Don't get me wrong, though, my BBQ chicken was delicious. The meat was very moist and flavorful, and the house made BBQ sauce that came with it had the right amount of tang to it.

The only way to truly complete this meal is by washing it down with the beer that is the pride of Texas, Shiner Bock. Now, I'm not going to sit here and sing the praises of Shiner Bock. It's an okay beer and really is about the best Texas can offer. The laws in Texas just absolutely kill the craft beer industry.

Yet another fine example of the lack of freedom in the Lone Star State...

But I salute Shiner for their long history of serving the people of Texas with a quality beer.

Freedom will come some day to Texas so that Texans can actually openly carry a firearm without being thrown in jail, and to know what real good beer tastes like.

Until then, they can keep enjoying their delicious food with a small variety of good beer, while dreaming of the day they can live up to the label of "freest state in the union."

Off Site Kitchen is a must for anyone visiting the Dallas area. It is off the beaten path, and you'll have a hard time finding parking, but it is well worth it.

Rating: Seriously Thought About Buying Shirt