Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Welcome

For those of you who have randomly stumbled here, welcome. This blog chronicles a 2-week road trip taken in May 2009. Keep reading and you'll find ballpark reviews, food reviews, and stories about both a successful eating challenge, and a not-so-successful eating challenge.

Why should you read it? Well, it's the perfect way to kill half an hour if you're bored. Also...well, that's about all I've got. But I've been told by several people that at points, it even approaches coherence. So if you've got the time, read on. For best results, start at the first post (Syllabus Day) and read through chronologically to the last (Best of the Rest).

Questions, comments, profanity-laced diatribes....send 'em to 2guys1roadtrip@gmail.com. Hope you enjoy the blog.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Best of the Rest

On this trip, a lot of stuff happened that I either forgot to write about or just didn't write about at the time. There's no real theme here, just a lot of random moments and observations that I thought were notable, funny, or Jesus-y enough to mention. Enjoy.

*The official speeding ticket count for the trip: 1. Driving from Cincinnati to St. Louis, not even 2 hours into our first big drive, we were driving near Indianapolis. The speed limit changed from 70 to 55 mph and Andy didn't see it. 76 in a 70 isn't bad. 76 in a 55 is. Whoops. Also, this gigantic distraction happened on the morning of our Pointersaurus attempt. But I'm not making excuses here.

*At every ballpark I went to, I bought a minibat. The cheapest was $5 (Washington). The most expensive was $9 (Cubs). The nicest paint job, surprisingly, was on the White Sox bat. The worst was on the Cardinals bat.



*I told Sam Klein that I'd write it up here if he ate 2 pizzas at dinner on Saturday night in Washington. He did, so here you go, Sam. Just for the record, if those are 10-inch pizzas (which I think they are), he would have had to eat 4 of them, each of them with almost a pound of toppings, to equal one half (one person's share) of the Pointersaurus. If they're 8-inch pizzas, then he would have had to eat 6.25 of them to equal half of a Pointersaurus.



*What's the highest point in central Illinois? I dunno, probably this giant cross. Unless there's an even bigger cross somewhere else that we don't know about. (Upon further review: nope -- it's the biggest. And not just in Illinois. In the world.) This wasn't part of a church or anything either, just a gigantic cross placed approximately 50 feet from the highway in Effingham, IL. Another speeding ticket be damned, we collectively slammed our semitic foot down and got out of there as quickly as we could.



*On our way from St. Louis to Chicago, while driving near Funks Grove, IL, we saw a series of 5 signs, each one part of a poem/message that began on the first sign. The signs read:

"When danger lurks / remember, Sonny / a rabbit's foot / didn't save no bunny /gunssavelife.com"

After some research, I can tell you that the website is part of the Champaign County Rifle Association, and contains such bits as: Of course, "Six Seconds from Safety" is no substitute for concealed carry of a gun in a holster – which we call "One Second from Safety"! 

*The number of Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn jerseys we saw on the trip: 4. One at US Cellular in Chicago and three in Cleveland. Here are the two that I was able to inconspicuously take pictures of.



*If you're on a road trip like this and looking for a gas station, stopping at a Pilot Travel Center is always your best bet. Is it because Pilot has clean bathrooms? No, not at all. Some were clean; others had 25-cent cologne dispensers (just turn the knob to your desired scent, put in a quarter, and stick your hand under the nozzle) and feces on the toilet seats. Is Pilot's gas cheaper than other places? Maybe a little bit, but that's not why it's so good.

No, Pilot is the best gas station because of its soda dispensers. Not only do you get a choice between crushed and cubed ice. Not only do you get to choose between 16 sodas, energy drinks, and fruit-flavored beverages, including a full range of both Coke and Pepsi products. Not only do 44 oz. sodas cost only $1.29. But the big draw is that you get unlimited flavor shots. 

Want a lemon-cherry-vanilla root beer? You're in luck. Hell, I'm sure if you wanted a 44 oz. glass of vanilla syrup on the rocks, you could bring it up to the register, pay $1.29, and be on your way. There's no better way to eliminate the diet from a diet soda than by adding 2 shots of cherry and 4 shots of vanilla syrup. There's also no better way to make it absolutely delicious. 

So congrats, Pilot Travel Center, you win the award for best gas station. Wear it proudly.



Other trip bests:

*Best Roadside Sign: In Wisconsin, for Bong Recreation AreaFurther investigation reveals that this site was named for World War II fighter pilot Richard Bong. The website answers a lot of questions about the area; unfortunately, what Dick Bong's parents were thinking when they named him is not one of them.



*Best Tourist Trap: Also in Wisconsin, the Mars Cheese Castle. Rising off the highway near Kenosha, this dairy fortress sells all things Wisconsin. Cheese, sausage, Wisconsin microbrews, pastries, more cheese, fruit spreads -- the Cheese Castle has it all. Added points for all the free food they give out, especially the samples of several varieties of cheese, best of which was the pepper jack. Andy and I made a lap around the store, feasted on some samples, ate corned beef sandwiches, bought some Wisconsin food to go, and then jumped right back on the highway to Chicago.



*Best "Welcome to" State Sign: Wow, Wisconsin is just racking up the awards. If I was an Arts & Crafts teacher doing my quarterly evaluation, I would definitely have to say that Wisconsin "went above and beyond." 



*Best Job Making the Best of a Bad Situation: Imagine you're a relief pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bad situation, right? Now imagine the whole stadium starts doing the wave. What do you do? Do you let your anger get the best of you and refuse to join in the fun? No! You cast off whatever disillusionment you may have over your current career path and when the wave hits the bullpen, you ride that baby for all it's worth. Then, as a group, you bask in the ovation you receive from the stadium, because let's face it, you guys probably aren't giving them many reasons to cheer for you when you're actually on the mound.

*Best Burger: Blimpie Burger, Ann Arbor, MI. Blimpie Burger is one of those local institutions where if you don't know how to order the right way, they yell at you. But by looking at the menu, you can see that the prices are pretty reasonable. 

The food itself is great too. The burger patties are small, but Andy and I both ordered quints (5 patties), which the menu says is equivalent to a half-pound burger. Any of the standard toppings are free, and adding fries (they serve the thick-cut steak fries) or onion rings is always a solid choice. Using my tried-and-trusted food rating system, Blimpie Burger scores a solid 3.....check it out if you're in Ann Arbor and are looking for the tastiest burger in town.



*Best Dessert: Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, St. Louis, MO. A St. This frozen custard stand, which has only 2 locations, both in St. Louis, has been around for decades and is a popular post-Cardinals game hangout. Head there about half an hour after a Cardinals game ends, and you'll be stuck in line behind 50 people wearing Albert Pujols and Rick Ankiel jerseys. The line moves quickly though, so you'll never have to wait for too long. 

The thing to order at Ted Drewes is a concrete, which is basically a McFlurry, but one that's actually made with quality ingredients and not rendered pork fat. It all starts with vanilla custard, delicious by itself, and then you can add as many ingredients that you want to it from a list of 30 or so. If you order fruit, they actually add real fruit to it, not fruit syrup. We ended up going twice, the first time as our dinner several hours after the Pointersaurus attempt, and the second time after the Cardinals game that we went to. 

The first time, I got a chocolate cookie dough concrete, the next night a strawberry banana one. Two completely different flavors; both were refreshing and delicious. Ted Drewes officially scores a 3-.....check it out if you're in St. Louis and are looking for a great dessert, or if you've been sitting outside in the heat for 3 hours at a Cardinals game and want the perfect way to cool off.



And now, a bunch of numbers:

For statistics' sake, I'm counting both Phillies-Reds games as 1 big game. Therefore, on this trip, I saw 8 baseball games, featuring 12 different teams: Pittsburgh (3 times), Philadelphia (2 times), St. Louis (2 times), Milwaukee, Washington, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Houston, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Cleveland, and the New York Yankees. 

On this trip, we saw every single team from the NL Central and went to every NL Central stadium except for Houston. Of the 8 stadiums we went to, only 2 of them were AL ballparks (White Sox and Indians).

From my starting point in New York until I got back to New York 16 days later, I traveled through 14 states. Andy and I drove roughly 1600 miles in a car, and I also spent 21 hours on a train and 4 hours on a bus.

I have now been to 16 of 30 MLB Ballparks and 40 of 50 US States.

And that's all I have to say about that. Stay tuned for some parting shots.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Ultimate Food Review

Over the course of our 2-week trip, Andy and I sampled some of the best and most regionally iconic food that the midwest has to offer. Even though basically everything we ate was delicious, give or take a giant pizza or two, there was a clear-cut winner for the award of best food on the trip. But before we get to the winner, we've got two other medals to hand out.

Bronze Medal: Primanti Brothers, 2AM. The mid-afternoon Primanti's trip was nothing spectacular, but due to the better late-nite sandwich choices of kielbasa and corned beef (as opposed to cheesesteak and capicola in the afternoon), plus our 2AM desire for a large amount of flavor-packed food, late-nite Primanti's was able to edge out Al's Italian Beef for the low spot on the medal stand.

Silver Medal: Jim's Original. Going to Jim's for delicious grilled polish sausages is a guaranteed great meal. The sausages are cooked perfectly, the mustard is sharp and has a nice kick, and the sweet sauteed onions are the perfect complement to the sausage and mustard flavors. As an added bonus, the prices are great ($3 for an italian sausage), and you get free fries with every sandwich. So when you go, bring $20 and stock up. Eat five of them at Jim's and save one to bring home and put on your medal stand.

And the champion....

Gold Medal: Pappy's Smokehouse. The clear-cut winner. I know there are scientists around the world working to cure diseases and build rocketships and whatnot -- but I really don't think it would hurt for them to take some time off to figure out the recipe for the dry rub on Pappy's ribs. Unfortunately though, the top spot on the actual medaI stand itself will have to remain unoccupied. I wouldn't even save one of Pappy's ribs to put on it; they're just too amazing not to eat.

The Final Overall Rankings

The Official Food Review Hierarchy
1) Not worth it
2) Stop in if you're driving by
3) Check it out if you're in town
4) I'd drive an hour for it
5) I'd drove across several states for it
6) I'd kill a man

Pappy's Smokehouse: 4.5 (I'd drive an hour AND wait in line for an hour for it)

Jim's Original: 4 (I'd drive an hour for it every now and then)

Primanti Brothers 2AM: 4- (I would take a $10 cab ride for it)

Al's Italian Beef: 3+ (Check it out if you're anywhere near Chicago)

Zingermann's: 3 (Stop by if you're in Ann Arbor and don't mind spending $15 on a sandwich)

Skyline Chili: 3 (Check it out if you're in Cincinnati)

Lou Malnati's Pizzeria: 3 (Check it out at one of its many locations if you're in Chicago)

The Ohio Deli (Dagwood): 2.5 (Pretty tasty sandwich in itself -- check it out if you're in Columbus and want a challenging, yet doable food challenge)

Primanti Brothers, 5PM: 2 (Check it out if you're driving by)

Pointer's Pizza: 0.5 (I would only eat it at sundown after Yom Kippur if there was nothing else to eat)

Friday, June 5, 2009

Final Ballpark Rankings

First, a few minor awards:

Best Food
Criteria: You're given $40 to get whatever food you want at each ballpark. Where will you find the best combination of food quality and food value?
Winner: Milwaukee Brewers. Get the grilled brat ($4) and add mustard and fresh cut onions at the full condiment bar. Get a side of fried cheese curds ($4), which I would best describe as a bowl of amazing bite-sized mozzarella sticks. Wash it all down with a 16 oz. High Life draft ($5.25). And even then, you still have more than $25 left. Get another sausage (polish or kielbasa). Spend an extra dollar on a beer to try a microbrew ($6.25). Try some locally-made ice cream. Even after all of this food, you'll still have $10. At Miller Park, the food is delicious, and you'll be able to eat until you're stuffed.

Best Value
Criteria: Which park gives you the best value, in terms of a combination of tickets, food, and souvenirs?
Winner: Cincinnati Reds. Milwaukee has the best food value, but its ticket prices are a little on the high side ($17 for standing room seats). Cincinnati has $5 seats available for every game, and the seats that we got from Andy's Dad a few rows behind the 3rd-base dugout were only $32 (season ticket price). Food is reasonable, and the souvenir minibat was $6, tied for 2nd place, only behind Washington's $5 minibats.

Best Design
Criteria: Which baseball park best combines unique ballpark features, sight lines, and a city's features (skyline, scenery, etc.) to produce the most aesthetically-pleasing ballpark?
Winner: Pittsburgh Pirates (with St. Louis a very close 2nd). The downtown view, which can be seen from all parts of the ballpark and includes the river and Roberto Clemente Bridge, is outstanding. There is also standing room space with a great view of the field anywhere you go in the stadium. Finally, for such a modern ballpark, retro-themed features such as the out-of-town scoreboard stand out and give PNC a classic, vintage feel.

Best Game
Criteria: Which game that we saw was the most well-played and entertaining?
Winner: St. Louis @ Milwaukee. Milwaukee's pitcher (Yovani Gallardo) had a no-hitter that was broken up in the 6th inning. Not to be outdone, St. Louis' pitcher (Chris Carpenter) had a perfect game going until it was broken up in the 7th. Both pitchers ended up going 8 innings and only allowing 2 hits each. One of the most masterful pitching performances I've ever seen by a pair of pitchers in the same game. It went to extras and Milwaukee ended up winning on a 2-out hit in the 10th inning.

And now, the moment you've all been waiting for, the award for best ballpark. Some people make spreadsheets with point values for different categories, total up the points, and determine a winner. But I think that overcomplicates it.

My criteria was simple: if offered the chance to go back to any of these ballparks to see a normal, regular-season game in the middle of the summer, what would be my first choice? After that, which ballpark would be my second choice, third choice, fourth choice, etc?

In case you want more details on any of these ballparks, click here to read all 8 of my full reviews. So now, without further ado, I present to you my overall rankings:

1) Wrigley Field, Chicago Cubs. Just an amazing baseball experience that is unlike any of the other parks we visited. Eight rows behind the plate, upper deck, in the bleachers -- I don't care where I'd be sitting, I just want to go back.

2a) Busch Stadium, St. Louis Cardinals. Beautiful stadium, devoted fans, perennially-contending team. Great combination.

2b) PNC Park, Pittsburgh Pirates. Everything good about St. Louis (with some aspects being slightly better) minus the whole being a contender part. Fans are still devoted, but when you've had 16 straight losing season, enthusiasm tends to wane, thus hurting the whole ballpark experience. Still, if Pittsburgh was even somewhat competitive, there's a good chance that it would jump St. Louis in the rankings.

4) Great American Ballpark, Cincinnati Reds. The way that the park is built into the riverbank and has such a great view of the Kentucky shoreline makes GABP beautiful and unique. Basically, it's just a very relaxing place to watch a game.

5) Miller Park, Milwaukee Brewers. This jumps up to #2 if I'm promised a Saturday night game and given a car full of friends, food, and beer. The tailgating scene at the ballpark is reminiscent of a big-program college football atmosphere, which is awesome. But since the usher said that it's not as lively on most weeknights, I'm keeping it at #5.  

6) Progressive Field, Cleveland Indians. Nice ballpark, but nothing special or memorable about it. When you're working with Cleveland as a canvas though, you're not starting out with much (as opposed to the great skyline or river views in other, non-Cleveland cities). Could've put the ballpark next to the Cuyahoga, but that might have been a fire hazard.

7) Nationals Park, Washington Nationals. The ballpark is fairly nice, but for something only a couple of years old, it ranks much lower than other brand new parks because of its overall design (lots of sharp angles -- like a video game ballpark), fanbase (just something for them to do until the Redskins start playing again), and location (in an empty warehouse district).

8) US Cellular Field, Chicago White Sox. A concrete bowl with only an upper deck. Was there a lower deck? I don't know. With my ticket, I couldn't go down there myself to confirm its existence.

Tomorrow, or whenever I feel like it: Final food rankings and random things from the trip that merit documenting.

Primanti Brothers

And now, a food review in two acts:

Act I: 5PM



Mere hours after arriving in Pittsburgh, Andy and I ventured down to Pittsburgh's strip district, home of the original Primanti Brothers. For those of you who have never watched the Food Network or Travel Channel, Primanti's started as a sandwich cart that fed Pittsburgh factory workers hundreds of thousands of years ago; it is now a regional chain with more than a few stores in the Pittsburgh area. Of course, we had to go to the original. Primanti's is famous for stuffing their sandwiches with handfuls of both fries and coleslaw. Andy and I had a plan: we would each order a different sandwich and then split them, so we would get to try as many as possible.

Andy went with the capicola (basically a spiced ham) and egg, which is touted as the local, Pittsburgh-type thing to eat. I ordered the steak and cheese, which is touted on the menu board as being the #2 best seller. The big joke, which I find absolutely hilarious, is that there is no #1 best seller. Just side-splitting stuff. Only the best at Primanti's.

We sat at the bar and watched intently as they cooked up our sandwiches on the grill. After hearing rave reviews about Primanti Bros. from nearly everyone that had tried it before, we were excited. Unfortunately, the bar may have been set too high. The sandwiches were good, but they were not the culinary orgy of flavors we had been led to believe we would encounter. 

The steak and cheese was solid, but both Andy and I were thrown off by the fact that the steak was not the standard chopped up or sliced cheesesteak cut. Instead, it was basically a beef patty. Still tasty, but I'd take a Pat's cheesesteak over this any day.

The capicola and egg was also good, but much like the steak and cheese, nothing special. It's easy to see why capicola and egg is described as a "Pittsburgh favorite." The spiced ham was a flavor that neither of us was used to, and we couldn't tell whether it was good or bad. I still don't think I've made up my mind, actually. But any time there's a local food with a somewhat funny taste, you can make it popular by describing it as a regional specialty. I really don't know if anyone in Pittsburgh would eat capicola if it didn't give them some sort of civic pride; I probably won't again.

Official verdict for Primanti Brothers, 5PM: Check it out if you're driving by. If you're hungry and and see a Primanti's, stopping in for a huge stuffed sandwich will satisfy your hunger. But don't expect anything amazing.

ACT II: 2 AM



After the Pirates game, Andy and I hit the bars near the ballpark. After making some new friends (who, not surprisingly, could not be convinced that Sidney Crosby is a bitch, as hard as I tried to prove the point), we decided to venture back to Primanti Bros. for a true late-nite sandwich experience.

We decided to start walking and flag down the first cab we saw. Thirty minutes and zero cabs later, we were getting closer to Primanti's. Then things went downhill real quickly.

NOTE: If you want to go to the original Primanti's location in the strip district at 2AM, do NOT walk. I repeat, do NOT walk. Take a cab. Wait an hour for one if you have to. But for the love of God do not walk. A sandwich is not worth a stab wound. Well, most aren't. 

Clutching our Pirates minibats tightly for protection, we cautiously made our way through some not-so-nice real estate before thankfully arriving at the restaurant. We made our way to the same seats at the bar where we had sat roughly 9 hours earlier, and decided on our next two sandwiches: corned beef and kielbasa.

We waited with anticipation, hoping that our second visit would validate the hype that had been so lavishly bestowed upon Primanti's and that had not been fulfilled during our first visit. The sandwiches came. We each grabbed half of the corned beef. We readied. And then we dug in.

Without a word, we each looked at each other and immediately knew what the other was thinking: the hype was real. This was a great sandwich. We finished our corned beef and moved on to the kielbasa. Amazingly, the kielbasa was the best of the four we'd had on the day. The kielbasa itself was delicious, and its intense flavor was balanced out incredibly well by the coleslaw and tomato on the sandwich. 

Unfortunately, by this point, my camera was dying, so the only 2 pictures I have of our 2nd trip to Primanti's are this one of the kielbasa sandwich and the one at the top of the Act II post of my corned beef remnants. Still, even looking at these 2 pictures makes me hungry for another Primanti's kielbasa.

Official verdict for Primanti Brothers, 2AM: I would take a $10 cab ride for it. For me, Primanti's has joined the ranks of elite late-night food, taking its place right behind #1 Cosmic Cantina (the one in Durham, not the overpriced, second-rate NYC one) and #2 Pat's cheesesteaks. But remember to heed my words of advice: Take a cab (or go to a different location). Get the kielbasa. Go home happy. Someday, you'll look back on this and thank me.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

PNC Park



Andy and I spent the afternoon eating sandwiches (for a change...) and then headed over to PNC Park, taking the preferred route by walking from downtown over the Roberto Clemente Bridge to the ballpark. There's a great view of the stadium from the bridge, and as you can see in the above picture, also a great view of the bridge from the stadium.

The ballpark atmosphere was fairly lively, which surprised us, seeing as how Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals (which the Penguins were in) was happening that night too. Evidently enough people wanted to go to see a 4th-place baseball team play a 6th-place team that the game was a sell-out, even when their hometown hockey team was in the finals. True, it was a Saturday night, and the weather was great, but for a town like Pittsburgh that loves their hockey (when they're winning and the bandwagon is rolling along), this was unexpected.

We bought under-face-value tickets from a scalper who said his friends had bailed due to hockey, and found our seats in the upper deck behind the plate.  That picture at the top? That's where we sat, and in terms of ballpark views, I don't think you can beat it. The skyline, the beautiful bridge, and the river...it's just a great place to watch a baseball game from. Even from the lower seats, you get a great view of the city. And the ballpark designers also made sure that wherever you are in the ballpark, you have a great view of the game. For example...

Example #1: Most ballparks have ramps behind the concourses. PNC has a winding ramp that has views of the field on each level, where fans can stand and watch. I even witnessed people sitting on a blanket having a quasi-picnic on this ramp while still having a great view of the field.

Example #2: Left field standing room is literally 6 rows from the field. In other parks they put the standing room behind an entire large section, at least 25 rows back. Here, you can stand and watch the game from only 10 yards or so behind the left field fence.

Example #3: The ballpark itself is incredibly low. Even the upper deck seats seem closer than in other parks, because, well....they are. PNC is the 2nd smallest park in the majors, which means that ridiculously high seats, like the ones that they have in Chicago at US Cellular, do not exist here.

Other cool things about PNC:

The out-of-town scoreboard. It's modern, but with a classic sort of look that fits in perfectly with the rest of the ballpark.

The radar gun. We've moved past the days of just how fast a pitch was. I'll be damned if I don't know the vertical break of Ian Snell's every pitch.

They've got a prize wheel on the walkway behind right field right next to the river. They stamp your ticket, so you can only spin it once per game, but everyone wins something; you can win a Pirates t-shirt, bobblehead, umbrella, discounted ticket, or an unnamed grand prize. Andy stepped up, spun the wheel, and wound up with a free t-shirt. Sweet. Then I gave the wheel a whirl, and it landed on....a piece of paper with an online code for a discounted ticket. Screw that. One crumple and disgusted toss later, I was prizeless.

The food prices are pretty standard for a ballpark (i.e. high), but the selection is better than most places I've seen. PNC has incorporated several local eateries into their concession stands, so if you want a $25 bucket of wings from Quaker Steak & Lube, you're in luck.

At some point during the middle innings, for no apparent reason, a small cheer arose from the crowd. This turned quickly into dull roar, which gave way to a full-fledged standing ovation. What had happened? The Penguins had scored to tie the hockey game at 1. As a Rangers fan, and someone who hates all things Sidney Crosby, I didn't like it, but I have to admit that seeing this happen was pretty cool.

And the not-really-that-cool-but-still-okay-I-guess things:

Pittsburgh has a food race too. A bunch of pierogies race around the warning track. Who won? The red one, maybe? Honestly, I wasn't really paying much attention to it because I was too busy admiring the skyline, which keeps its hypnotic properties, even at night. Andy wasn't paying attention because he refused to watch any race that didn't feature ketchup.

Like the Yankees and the Reds, the Pirates do the YMCA. Strangely enough, the fans here seem to like it. As Meatloaf almost said, 1 out of 3 ain't bad.

The game ended, the Pirates won, the Penguins lost, and everyone stayed in their seats for the postgame fireworks show/ country music concert from some band I'd never heard of. While we waited, they used the jumbotron to entertain the crowd. Props to whoever was in charge of programming, because their choice was a winner. The best part might have been the fact that the entire skit was closed-captioned.

Then the music started. We sat through a couple of songs, including a cover of The Devil Went Down to Georgia, and eventually the fireworks began. The fireworks show was good, and the fact that they exploded right in front of the skyline was an added bonus. Also featured: the amazing explodable bridge! And the best part was that that night's show only killed 8 bridge pedestrians! No...I kid, I kid. The death toll was much higher than that.

After a few minutes, the fireworks stopped, and the band started playing again. We left.

Quick Summary: Hidden deep in the Allegheny Mountains, nestled among the steel mills and coal mines, you will find an absolute gem of a ballpark. The park designers definitely had the fans in mind when they built it; every view of the field is top-notch, and the way the ballpark is built into the city is spectacular. One can make an entire lap around the field and find standing room to watch the game everywhere aside from the center field concourse, which loses the field view, but gives you concessions stands with an amazing view of the river and the city.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Zingerman's



An Ann Arbor favorite for more than 25 years, Zingerman's is an upscale food retailer and delicatessen located on a small shopping street. Andy, his friend Dave, and I got there at about 1PM on a weekday during Michigan's summer session. Nevertheless, we were still met by a sizeable line. It moved quickly, allowing us time to look at the sizeable menu. Still, when we got to the front, we still weren't sure what we wanted to order. 

Zingerman's Wikipedia page says that the deli is known for it's customer friendliness. After talking with the girl taking our order, and watching how she put up with three first-timers like us, making recommendations, and never getting flustered or annoyed by our stupid questions, I can say without a doubt that the customer service is spectacular. We each ordered a large sandwich, and then got two sides for the table: the latke sticks and the mac & cheese.

We went to another part of the store to pay, and then to the building next door where there are tables where they bring the food out to you. The food arrived quickly, and it looked delicious. The latke sticks were warm, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and the creamy pesto dipping sauce that came with was a nice touch. The mac & cheese was even better (and for Andy and Dave, their favorite item). Personally, I liked the sandwich. I got corned beef, cheese, coleslaw, and russian dressing on rye bread. The bread was toasted with a crunchy crust, and the meat was juicy and flavorful. Overall, just a great sandwich.

The downside was the price. The sandwiches were each $15. Each of the sides was $5. If the price was cut to what most other delis charged for sandwiches like this, then this could definitely be an everyday sandwich shop, but there's better food than a sandwich that you can get for $15. The food is still delicious though and it's definitely worth it to try Zingerman's if you've never been before.

Official verdict for Zingerman's: Stop by if you're in Ann Arbor and don't mind dropping $15 on a sandwich. Then stop in again sometime after your next paycheck.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Progressive Field


After staying the night at Andy's friend Jake's house, we spent the morning at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton. Highlights included: Me as an inducteeMe scared of being stabbed, Seeing that the HOF officially recognizes this name, And of course, this.
 
Afterwards, we drove to Cleveland for the Indians game. Not wanting to pay a ridiculous amount for parking near the stadium, we found out that the Great Lakes Brewing Company, which is about 1.5 miles away, provides a shuttle to and from the stadium. Technically, the pass to ride that you buy at the brewery costs $1, but I'm pretty sure that you could quickly flash any receipt and be fine. After finding cheap parking near the brewery, we boarded the "Fatty Wagon" and headed for the ballpark.

You'll notice a recurring theme in this review. Everything about the stadium is nice, but nothing is spectacular. The one exception is in promotions: June 15th is Rick Vaughn bobblehead night. That's pretty awesome.

The entire game was played, which was nice. But not until after a 1 hour, 30 minute rain delay, which actually started before the rain even did. We walked into the park, and even though it wasn't raining, we saw this. We sat through about 20 minutes of dry weather before the rain actually started. Better than: The Cubs game. Worse than: All the other ones.

The view from the ballpark is a great showcase of the Cleveland skyline. Unfortunately, Cleveland does not have much of a skyline. But you can clearly see all three of Cleveland's buildings. Better than: White Sox, Nationals, Milwaukee. Worse than: Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cincinnati's river view.

They have a nice area with plaques of famous Indians players from their history. Better than: most ballparks, including the White Sox who also have a long history and fairly new park but no such area to honor players (at least not on the upper deck). Worse than: this is basically a cheap imitation of Yankee Stadium's Monument Park.

They have a fair amount of standing room areas; however, the upper deck overhang stretches way out, obstructing the vertical view of a large portion of the standing room area behind the plate and on the baselines. And there's no standing room or open concourse on the upper deck. Better than: most old stadiums. Worse than: most new stadiums.

The stadium design itself, as seen from our seats, is pretty basic. Nothing special. Better than: old stadiums. Worse than: anything built in the past 10 years.

Attendance: Not as many people as some other parks. But more bugs and seagulls than you'll see at any place that doesn't have longshoremen working there. Better than: Nationals park, insectariums, or the docks. Worse than: any place without a midge infestation. (Bonus: a section of the ballpark that had more seagulls than people in it.)

Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cavs play, is right across the street. There's a gigantic poster on the side of the arena of Lebron. Better than: most of the Eastern Conference. Worse than: Orlando.

The ushers are nice. They're not as friendly or allowing of you to go anywhere in the park as some of the other stadium ushers. Better than: most parks. Worse than: St. Louis and Pittsburgh.

The big race in Cleveland is ketchup vs. mustard vs. onions. Worse than: Milwaukee's sausages, Washington's presidents, Pittsburgh's pierogis. Better than: Any of the animated train races on the jumbotron or the gang fight in the outfield of the White Sox game. 

*As a side note, this may have been the best actual race of any we saw. Mustard bumped ketchup and sent him flying. Ketchup responded by cheating, cutting through the infield grass. Nevertheless, mustard still won. Ketchup got even more mad and pushed mustard in his smiling hot dog face as he celebrated. Mustard ran away, pumping his fist in the air. All of this is real. Andy has video that I'll upload if he sends it to me.

The Indians' mascot is named Slider. He looks like the Philly Phanatic after a paint job and a face herpes breakout. He was also inducted into the "Mascot Hall of Fame" in a ceremony after the game while they set up the fireworks show. His "parents" were there for the ceremony. So were his "kids." But no wife. So I guess the herpes thing makes sense. Worse than: any legitimate mascot. Better than: Vomiting Kermit.



The highlights: The Yankees won 3-1. We were able to move down to seats on the field level for the last 2 innings. The fireworks were pretty cool and were set to 70's music. Andy got his picture taken with ketchup.

Quick Summary: Progressive Field is nice, but not really special or memorable in any sort of way. Everything is done well, but no aspect of the stadium is at the top in any specific category.

Wrigley Field



With the forecast calling for rain, Andy and I spent the afternoon before the Cubs game feasting on Italian Beef sandwiches and praying that the rain would hold off long enough for them to get the game in. Through some important connections high up in the Cubs front office, we were able to get seats 8 rows behind home plate. And by important connections, I mean we looked on StubHub and found a pair there for only $60 each. Compare that to what those seats would cost in Yankee Stadium, and baby, you got yourself a stew.

It rained on and off throughout the afternoon, but as the game approached, things were looking promising. We headed down to Wrigley in a very light drizzle, and as we got to the ballpark, we were immediately struck by the lively gameday atmosphere, despite the not-so-great weather. There were souvenir booths all over the place and the bars surrounding the ballpark were packed.

After the obligatory pics in front of the famous Wrigley Field sign, we decided to take a quick lap around the stadium, since we still had more than half an hour until the first pitch. Unlike stadiums that are built nowadays and are part of giant stadium complexes or are in the middle of a downtown area, Wrigley is right in the middle of a residential neighborhood. There are actually people who live right across the street from Wrigley Field, and as baseball fans know, the buildings surrounding the stadium have rooftop seats where people can watch the game. Honestly, I don’t think I should be as wowed as I am by this, but it was just a very cool thing to see firsthand.

Once inside the park, we walked around the concourse for a bit. Disregard the signs for the various food stands and the TVs that have been placed there, and the concourse looks like it’s right out of the 1930s. So do the stands themselves. There are two old, basic electronic scoreboards underneath the grandstand, and that’s it.  No marquee with flashing Coca-Cola advertisements or dancing hot dogs. Just a big sign with the score and what inning it is.

And there’s no jumbotron either. The scoreboard is the same one you would have seen decades ago. All they’ve added is a small electronic strip to the bottom of it to tell you who’s batting. Now that we’re in the age of 100-foot high HD screens, seeing a stadium that still uses something like this is amazing. But then again, who needs a jumbotron when you’re sitting close enough to see the anticipated failure on Kosuke Fukudome’s face firsthand.

The stadium itself looks old too, but in a very cool, retro sort of way. Maybe it’s the scoreboard. Maybe it’s the light towers that are different from any other I’ve seen. Maybe it’s the ivy. Maybe it’s the lack of dancing hot dogs. Whatever it is, I love it.

The game started, and even though it rained on and off for the first few innings they played through it. Again, despite the weather, the crowd was great. The stadium erupted after a first-inning solo shot with a roar that’s usually saved for late-inning heroics in other parks. And the party was on when the Cubs broke the game open with a handful of runs in the 5th inning to take a 6-1 lead. Watching Wrigley break into celebration was almost as good as watching the game itself in other stadiums, and definitely helped make Wrigley the most memorable park on the entire trip.

And then this happened. Andy and I waited it out for about an hour, but finally the game was called, which meant…Cubs Win! Cubs Win! The fans left the park wet, but happy, and crowded into the neighborhood  bars to celebrate the end of an 8-game losing streak.

Personally, I know that I’m going back to Wrigley someday. While it sucked that the weather was bad and the game was called early, we still had an amazing experience. I really can’t imagine how great a game would be at Wrigley on a warm, sunny summer afternoon. But someday, I’ll find out.

Quick Summary: There’s really no easy way to sum up what makes Wrigley Field so special without using corny expressions for the way things used to be (yeah, like that). I guess the easiest way to explain things is that going to Wrigley Field for a Cubs game is a cultural experience that is much more than just a baseball game.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Surprise Visit

I'll be on the train back to New York all day long, so I figured I'd leave you guys with a few videos to watch while I'm finishing up season 4 of The Wire. When I get back to New York, I'll write up the final 3 ballparks of the trip, do another food review or two, and publish final rankings for everything. But until I get to that, enjoy the videos.



Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Great Chicago Food Review

Now that the Chicago portion of our road trip is over, it's time for the Great Chicago Food Review. Andy and I ate at three Chicago institutions during our time there: Lou Malnati's Pizza, Jim's Original, and Al's #1 Italian Roast Beef. As a quick refresher:

The Official Food Review Hierarchy
1) Not worth it
2) Stop in if you're driving by
3) Check it out if you're in town
4) I'd drive an hour for it
5) I'd drive several states for it
6) I'd kill a man

Lou Malnati's Pizzeria



Chicago-style pizza is different from normal pizza. Take it away, Wikipedia:
A thin crust of pizza dough is laid in a seasoned deep-dish pizza pan and raised up on the sides. The ingredients are placed on a Chicago style deep-dish pizza in the opposite order of a thin crust pizza. The first ingredient is thick slices of mozzarella cheese that are placed directly on the dough. Then additional ingredients like mushrooms, onions and sausage are spread on top of the cheese. The pizza is then topped with a tomato sauce made with whole chunks of tomatoes. One of the more popular features of a "Lou-Mal" pie is the "sausage patty," which is, as the name describes, a single patty of Italian sausage below the layer of tomato chunks or sauce, as opposed to the more traditional crumbled sausage.
Basically, Chicago-style pizza is like a pizza pot pie without the top crust. You eat it with a fork and knife, and, as I learned, three pieces of it is incredibly filling. 

The cheese, underneath the tomato and sausage, is stringy and delicious, but by far, the best part about this pizza was the sausage. Every bit of the pizza was covered with a thick layer of sausage, which in addition to the cheese, tomatoes, and flaky crust, made for an excellent meal.

In terms of actually calling it "pizza," I'm not sure that I'm down with that. I'm much more comfortable with "pizza pot pie." In my opinion, New York style pizza is still tops. But this is still very good.

Official verdict for Lou Malnati's Pizzeria: Check it out if you're in Chicago. And if you're not a filthy vegetarian, sausage is definitely the way to go. I've had better pizza, but I'll call my first foray into "pizza pot pie" a success. 


Jim's Original


After the White Sox game, Andy and I headed down to Jim's Original, a Steve Messer recommendation, for some Polish sausages. Even though the location has moved, Jim's has been serving Polish sausages since 1943. One look at the menu shows two great things: the great prices, and the fact that fries come free when you order any sandwich.

Andy and I both ordered our sausages with mustard and onions (the standard way is onions, mustard, and hot peppers) and dug in. Immediately, we realized why these guys have been around for almost 70 years. The skin was snappy, the meat was juicy, and both the mustard and onions complimented the sausage perfectly. And they have the production line down to a science

After we finished, we each went back to the window and ordered a road sausage for the train ride back. The guys behind the window thought this was hilarious and even posed for pics with the food. And the true mark of a champion: sausage #2 was just as good as sausage #1.

Official verdict for Jim's Original: I'd drive an hour for it every now and then. With the prices being so low, I'd probably also stock up and eat 4 or 5 in the car on the way back. Sure, I'd feel sick, but it would be worth it.


Al's #1 Italian Beef


Again, I defer to Wikipedia:
An Italian beef is a sandwich of thin slices of seasoned roast beef, dripping with meat juices, on a dense, long Italian-style roll, believed to have originated in Chicago, where its history dates back at least to the 1930s. The bread itself is often dipped (or double-dipped) into the juices the meat is cooked in, and the sandwich is typically topped off with Chicago-style giardiniera (called "hot") or sauteed, green Italian sweet peppers (called "sweet").
After walking about 2 miles to Al's downtown location, Andy and I had worked up a good appetite by the time we got there. We knew we wanted italian beef sandwiches, but after looking at the menu quizzically for a few seconds, the guy behind the counter cut in. "First time here, guys?" he asked.

We nodded. "You guys saw this place on TV, right? Man v. Food?" Again, guilty as charged. He pointed out the combo meal menu, and told us we wanted the "Big Al Combo," the large italian beef sandwich with hand-cut fries. Perfect. We both got hot and sweet peppers on our sandwiches, asked for them dipped in the gravy, and while they put them together, we talked with the guy behind the counter about our road trip. The sandwiches came out, he threw an extra side of meat juice in for good measure, and we sat down to enjoy our food.

The fries were very good. The sandwich was great. The meat was tender, the peppers added a nice amount of spice and crunch, and the bread dipped in the meat juice was somewhat strange, but surprisingly tasty. It stuck to and changed the sandwich in the same way that cheese whiz melds to the meat in a cheesesteak, creating one homogenous piece of food.

The only negative (if you even want to view it as such) is that eating a large italian beef sandwich takes a lot out of you. Even though Andy and I had slept approximately 9 hours each the night before, after this sandwich, we both wanted to take a nap. If Al's ever did an eating challenge, we hypothesized that not too many people would be able to finish 2 large italian beef sandwiches with fries. Still, this sandwich was great, and will definitely be something I seek out on my next visit to Chicago.

Official verdict for Al's #1 Italian Beef: Check it out if you're anywhere near the Chicago area and don't have to do anything active for the rest of the day. Or if you run out of Ambien.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Miller Park


Andy and I woke up early Monday morning and headed up I-94 to Milwaukee for some Memorial Day baseball. We got to the park a little more than an hour before first pitch, and immediately found ourselves immersed in a giant tailgate. Miller Park itself is several miles outside of downtown Milwaukee and therefore, several giant parking lots have been built around the stadium, allowing fans to get to the game early and set up shop for an extended tailgate.

As we walked around the parking lots, the smell of grilled brats drifting all around us, I realized that I could have sworn that we were at a college football game. People were eating, drinking, grilling, playing bean bag toss -- just generally enjoying the hell out of themselves. And then there was the beer. Everyone was drinking it. College kids. Their parents. Little old ladies. Toddlers out of sippy cups.

We finally made our way towards the park, which from the outside looks somewhat strange due to the combination of the classic brick architecture and the retractable roof (which was open for this game). But first, we had to take pictures with giant sausages. 

The five sausages from the famous Miller Park sausage race were outside the stadium posing for pictures with fans, so Andy and I hopped right in and joined the sausage fest. After the picture, I asked them which one of them felt like they were going to win. The bratwurst (sausage #1) was the most adamant about his chances of victory. I high-fived him as a reward for his bravado and told him I'd be rooting for him during the 6th inning. More on this later.

We headed into the park, and wanting to truly take in the full Milwaukee experience, we each grabbed a beer and a brat. We loaded our brats up with onions and mustard and took them down in a matter of seconds. Just delicious. Honestly, the fact that anyone in Milwaukee has a BMI of under 30 is astounding to me.

We had standing room tickets but found some unoccupied seats on the 2nd level in left field right under Bernie Brewer's dugout. Luckily for us, we happened to be in a group of seats that were in a cheering section for Ryan Braun, a modern-day Hank Greenberg, who gives hope to young Jewish boys everywhere that they are welcome on the playing field and not just in the owner's box. I unabashedly joined in on the cheers.

As we sat there, we noticed that even though the party had moved inside, people were still enjoying themselves. And some people were getting a little out of control. Some girl trying to step over a row of bleachers while carrying food lost her balance. She went down hard and her food went flying. It was only by the grace of God and the back of a bleacher seat that her container of cheese didn't end up all over the guy in front of her. A few minutes after this, we watched as a girl vomited into a trash can, and then proceeded to pass out right in front of a group of cops. As the EMTs rushed to the scene, the vomit smell wafted over the section and Andy and I headed for less aromatic pastures.

As we walked, I noticed the giant windows behind the upper deck, instead of the mesh screen they have in most other parks. On the day we went, the temperature was in the high 60s and sunny, but because of the windows, there was no wind in the stadium, which made it feel absolutely perfect.

We wandered around for a few more innings, watching one hell of a pitcher's duel (Milwaukee's pitcher had a no-hitter through 5 innings, and St. Louis' had a perfect game through 6). At one point, we were talking to an usher, and asked him if Miller Park was always this much of a party. He told us that it usually isn't on weeknights, but on weekends, that this was the norm. Finally, it was time for the main event. The fans stood and cheered as the sausages made their way onto the field and lined up for the race

Ready.....set.....GO!!! Around the turn.....and down the stretch they come....and the winner is.....Bratwurst! All because of my high-five and my words of encouragement. Or at least that what I'm going to believe until someone proves otherwise. 

The game ended up going 10 innings, and ended when Bill Hall hit a walk-off double to lead the Brewers to a 1-0 victory, allowing the crowd to leave drunk, full, and happy.

Quick Summary: Going to a Brewers game on a weekend or a holiday is like going to a giant party that just happens to have a baseball game going on in the middle of it. Until football starts again in the Fall, this is what people from Wisconsin have in terms of tailgating, and they definitely make the best of it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

US Cellular Field


Andy and I woke up Sunday morning and hopped on the L (Chicago's elevated subway) to catch a game on the South Side at US Cellular Field, home of the Chicago White Sox. This ballpark review will be shorter than most, because this is a way to recap my memorable experiences on the trip, and frankly, US Cellular didn't provide too many of them. Although the grievance airing will take up its fair share of space.

Grievance #1: Tickets. Most ballparks have an allotment of cheap tickets that they sell, which are usually under $10. It doesn't matter that these seats are way out in the outfield or high up. Just getting into the ballpark is enough for a lot of people (including, for example, people on a road trip who just want to see the park). Here, the cheapest seats, which are the seats that are behind the columns in the back of the upper deck, are $23.

Grievance #2: Speaking of people on a road trip who just want to see the ballpark....if you buy an upper-level ticket, you can't go down to the lower level. Not even to walk around. They check tickets on the ramps at the entrance to the lower level. There are even signs that reinforce the fact that if you don't have an upper level ticket, you are a 2nd-class citizen.

Grievance #3: The dude playing the Casio keyboard that's hooked up to the sound system. If you want to play "charge" between pitches, fine. If you want to play the "everybody clap your hands" song, I have no problem with that either. What I do have a problem with is whimsical fairy music or a sea shanty being played as the pitcher looks in for a sign. Honestly, it seemed as if the person in the booth was playing just to hear the sound of his own keyboard, which unfortunately, only alternated between "harpsichord" and "wind chime" settings.

Grievance #4: The poor attempt at ivy walls. C'mon, US Cellular, that's Wrigley's thing. Find something else, like gang fights in the outfield, or a concession stand that sells heroin.

Grievance #5: Robin Ventura deserves better than this.

Alright, now on to the good things:

Our seats had a pretty good view.

There's a nice view of Chicago from the upper-level concourse.

You don't have to wait in long lines to get food, especially not for the corn. Unfortunately though, you wouldn't actually want any of the food here.

The outfield concourse looks nice. Unfortunately, because I carried the leper's mark of the 500-level ticket, I was unable to go down there in person. 

The fans are kind of d-bags, but they're devoted. And good hecklers. Game 4 of the Blackhawks-Red Wings series was being played during the baseball game, thus leading to a fair share of both Chicago and Detroit jerseys in the ballpark, including a large contingent of people wearing Red Wings jerseys who were sitting right in front of us. The two Sox fans sitting behind us, who in previous innings had loudly recapped the entire plot of The Sandlot, decided to go into a rant directed at the Red Wings fans in front of us, including a hilarious part about Russians that I wouldn't be able accurately replicate here if I tried.

We didn't get stabbed on our way to or from the park.

Quick summary: For a team that's been around for as long as the White Sox have, their ballpark is severely lacking in character. Not allowing access to the lower concourse, even to walk around, for fans that have upper-concourse tickets is a huge negative. Overall, US Cellular is an incredibly underwhelming ballpark.