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.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Busch Stadium

After a relaxing day eating barbeque, touring the Anheuser-Busch brewery (Horses! Buildings! Clamato! Plus, more beer than you've ever seen in your life!), and making sweet sweet love to the Gateway Arch, Andy, Danny, and I headed down to Busch Stadium to check out a Cardinals-Royals game.

We got there at about 5:30, about an hour and a half before the first pitch, and already there were masses of people outside the gates. Presumably, this was for the free Albert Pujols figurine giveaway, but nonetheless the scene outside the ballpark was lively, with people decked out in Cardinals t-shirts drinking on bar patios and live bands playing. Also, the exterior of the ballpark is 100% brick, and thus by law, classy.

We made our way to the seats behind the plate to watch some batting practice, and were immediately struck with a beatiful view of St. Louis' skyline, which prominently featured the arch. We hung around there for a few minutes before heading out to the outfield with the hopes of catching a batting practice home run. Unfortunately, we forgot to take into account the fact that the Kansas City Royals were the ones taking batting practice. Of the four home runs hit the entire time, none were near us. As they left the field, we headed to our seats feeling tired, sweaty, and used.

The Royals' batting practice was not a total failure though. As we stood in the stands, I noticed someone in the outfield who I recognized; it was none other than Royals bullpen coach John Mizerock, the catcher for the 1989 Richmond Braves, and my first ever favorite player. On a team with future major leaguers David Justice, Ron Gant, and Mark Lemke among others, I decided to pick John Mizerock, he of 103 total major league games played in, as my favorite.

After BP was over, I went over to the Royals bullpen. John was standing there, about to head out to the field to warm up a pitcher. As he started to walk out to the field, I yelled to him, "John Mizerock!" He looked up. "You were my favorite player on the Richmond Braves when I was growing up!"

He smiled and gave me a big thumbs up as he walked out onto the field. Minutes later he returned. Some guy yelled for him to throw a ball up in the stands. Mizerock looked up and shrugged, indicating he didn't have a ball to throw. I yelled to no one in particular, "he only throws them to Richmond Braves fans!" Again, a pointing acknowledgement. This was awesome.

As Andy and Danny begin realizing that this was bordering on stalking, Mizerock came back in to the bullpen with a ball. He looked up into the stands and our eyes locked. He lobbed the ball. And because I was holding my Albert Pujols figurine in one hand, some lady next to me grabbed it with both hands as I grabbed it with one. Not wanting to go to jail for hitting a girl, I let the ball go. Later on, however, Mizerock tossed another one up to me, and this time, both hands free, I caught it. So thank you,'re still my favorite player ever. And to that woman who stole the ball from me: I hope you're happy with yourself. A month from now that ball will mean nothing to you. But it would have meant a lot to me. I hope you get a tapeworm.

We headed to our seats in the right field lower deck, and proceeded to watch some baseball. From the beginning, it was obvious that every fan into the stadium was into the game. Everyone was there to watch the game. No one was there because there was nothing else to do. 

When I took my standard lap around the stadium in the middle innings, the two things I noticed were the lack of "frills," or unnecessary additions to the ballpark (for the opposite end of the spectrum, think new Yankee Stadium), and how empty the plaza areas were relative to other stadiums. There was a small kids area with a miniature baseball diamond, but there were only a few kids there. The rest were watching the game. Whereas Cincinnati had Tanner, the morbidly obese child who was more interested in food than anything else, St. Louis had a girl of roughly the same age, sitting a few seats down from us, who understood the game; she watched intently, cheered when it was appropriate to do so, and booed when Albert Pujols was intentionally walked in a key situation.

Overall, the stadium doesn't have a lot of extras. There's a painted line in the outfield walkway to show where the wall of the old Busch Stadium was. The scoreboard from the old stadium is on display in the walkway on the first-base side. There's a private club somewhere on the club level, I think. Other than those things, it's a basic stadium; the great thing is though, it doesn't have to be more than this. The team is good enough, and the fans are engaged enough, that Busch Stadium is perfect just the way it is.

The night before we went, Pujols crushed a ball that took out the "I" in the "BIG MAC LAND" sign. When we got there, the sign had an added message. Personally, I would have gone with a "no I in team" motif, but this worked too.

Quick summary: Busch Stadium reminds me of what a classic ballpark would look like if it was built in 2005. It is an outstanding place to watch a game, as the ballpark design, ballpark views, and the enthusiasm of the fans are all exceptional.

Names Explained

I am on a road trip with my friend from camp named Andy.

In Cincinnati, we met up with another friend from camp, named Danny. He went to the baseball game with one of his friends, who was named Andy.

In St. Louis, we met up with a different friend from camp, also named Danny. At the baseball game, we met up with one of his friends, who was named Andrew.

We are currently in Chicago, staying with one of Andy's friends from home. His name is Danny.

Got it?


Pappy's Smokehouse

Pappy's Smokehouse has only been open since February 2008, but it already seems to have garnered quite a strong following in the St. Louis area. As yet another Adam Richman-approved stop on our food tour, we had high expectations for Pappy's. 

According to Danny, my friend from camp (not the same one from Cincinnati) and our unofficial St. Louis tour guide, Pappy's was started by two guys who would go around and cook barbeque for competitions. They won a whole bunch of awards, and because of this, decided to open their own place. According to their website, "We prepare delicious, juicy Memphis Style BBQ daily using only the best ingredients. We start by slow smoking our meats from 4-14 hours over apple or cherry wood and finish them off with a selection of three delicious sauces and your choice of sides all prepared fresh in house."

We got to Pappy's at about 12:30, and were immediately greeted with a line that snaked through the restaurant and out the door. Faced with the decision to brave the line or leave, we decided that a line this long had to lead to amazing food. We got in line. The line slowly crept along as we made our way closer to the register. While in line, we asked one of the employees what we should get if it was our first time there. Without hesitation, he answered, "ribs with sweet potato fries and fried corn." Sounded good to us.

Finally, after about 40 minutes of waiting, we got to the front. Andy and I both ordered a half rack of ribs with an extra 1/4 lb. of pork & brisket, with sides of sweet potato fries, fried corn, and potato salad. We waited for about 5 minutes at a table, and the food was brought out to us.

The worst item by far was the potato salad....and it was pretty damn good potato salad. The sweet potato fries were hand-cut and delicious, and the fried corn on the cob was like nothing I had ever tried before; the best I can do to describe is sweet corn on the cob with a roasted popcorn flavor -- but I don't even think that description does it justice.

As good as the sides were, the meat was even better. The pork came out in large, pulled chunks, and the brisket was perfectly tender. Nevetheless, both of these items paled in comparison to the ribs.

I'm a sauce person. When I get ribs, I typically pour a nice helping of BBQ sauce on them. In fact, I basically put sauce on everything -- burgers, hot dogs, chicken wings -- but these ribs needed none of it. Actually, these ribs were so tender and delicious that I didn't even want to put sauce on them. This was mostly due to the amazing dry rub; in addition to sealing in all of the rib juices, the rub added the perfect amount of both saltiness and tangy sweetness.

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 across several states for it
6) I'd kill a man

Official verdict for Pappy's Smokehouse: I'd drive an hour for it AND wait in line for an hour. Despite having spent the first 21 years of my life living in the south, Pappy's has some of the best barbeque that I've ever had.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Great American Ballpark

We actually went to two Reds games. This review will be a combination of both of them. Andy's Dad was able to get us great seats for both the games; the first night we sat here, and the second night, we were here.

Additional cast members for this scene include Danny, another friend from camp, and his friend Andy (not Messer....another Andy). Indulging me and my overzealous picture taking, Danny decided to play up the Asian tourist bit. Thanks, Danny.

After having seen the human wasteland that is Nationals Park, seeing a group of fans outside the stadium was a refreshing sight. I didn't even mind waiting in line for three minutes to get in. I was just happy that I wouldn't be able to hear my own echo in the ballpark. The main entrance is a plaza with a bunch of statues of famous Reds players, most of which conveniently became jungle gyms right around game time.

By far, the best feature of the park is its shoreline view over the Ohio River and into Kentucky. It seems as though most new ballparks built in the past ten years have tried to incorporate a city view of the skyline into the design of their parks. Cincinnati has gone exactly the other way and turned the park away from the city so that it faces the river. While the box seats to Reds games are great, if I was a season ticket holder, I would want to sit in the upper deck on the third base side, because honestly, I can't think of many things more relaxing than leaning back in your seat, stretching out, and watching a baseball game on a warm summer night with this view

Another great thing about Great American Ballpark (GABP) is the food vendors. Each one of them has their own unique call or catchphrase. One touted himself as the "walking commissary." Another channeled his inner Pavarotti and held a loud note for an incredibly long time. And yet another scared the living shit out of a group of kids. Three boys, probably all about 10-years-old were standing in one of the many standing room areas behind a section watching the game. I watched as the vendor snuck up behind these kids, leaned in close and screamed (not shouted.....screamed), "". The kids jumped and turned around and stared at this guy with fear in their eyes. He in turn shot them a smile reminiscent of a famous movie poster and then without so much as a word, turned and walked down the aisle. Pants wet with urine, the children scattered.

And on that note, let's talk about food. The food here is all about the hot dog. In addition to the Skyline chili dogs ($1.60 at Skyline, $3.75 at the ballpark), there are numerous other hot dog stands, some even right next to each other. Evidently, the demand is there. Another popular item, which Andy swears by, but the New York Times tells you to avoid, are the Funachos. They didn't necessarily seem all that fun, but had I tried them, I'm sure they would have been at least edible...and really, when you're eating tortilla chips and processed cheese paste, isn't that basically what you're going for?

At Yankee Stadium, the grounds crew does the YMCA when they come out to rake the infield. Fans there hate this. At GABP, the grounds crew also does the YMCA. With the exception of Brandon Phillips, who for some reason is grinning like an idiot in the aforementioned picture (and evidently, is also a little teapot), no one there seems to like it either.

And then there was Tanner. Tanner sat directly behind us at the 2nd game we went to. Tanner was ~6 years old and weighed 100 lbs, if not more. During the duration of the game, Tanner was either eating something, or whining to his mom about wanting to eat something. Let's go through the Tanner timeline.

2nd inning: Tanner and family arrive at their seats. Tanner takes down a hot dog in less than a minute.
3rd inning: The Dippin' Dots guy walks by. "Mom! I want chocolate Dippin' Dots!" screams Tanner. She says no. He whines. She buys them.
4th inning: Tanner and his mom leave in the top of the inning. They return during the bottom half with a blue cotton candy.
5th inning: Tanner finishes the cotton candy. Tanner also now looks like a smurf. Face covered in blue sugar, Tanner turns to his mom and asks, "Hey ma, do you think the line at UDF (an ice cream place) is shorter?"
6th inning: Tanner asks his mom for a sip of her soda. She gives him the soda and he takes a gulp. He complains that the soda is too watered-down and begins to cry.
7th inning: Tanner stops crying when his sister returns to the seats with a bag of peanuts. Tanner snatches the bag, and begins to chow down. Speaking as if he had just discovered a new species, Tanner surprisedly exclaims, "these peanuts taste like peanut butter!" His mom goes for the bag. Tanner starts crying again. His mom gives him the bag back.
8th inning: Finished with the peanuts, Tanner says he wants a pretzel. His mom says no. His sister tells him, "dance for the pretzel, Tanner!" Tanner begins to gyrate. Tanner becomes winded and sits down. After catching his breath, Tanner begins whining again. His mom packs up all their stuff, and they leave the seats for good, but most likely not before stopping at a pretzel vendor on the way out.

But other than Tanner, the fans at GABP are loyal, devoted Reds fans. Unfortunately, this also means that they've been witness to a decade of consistent losing teams now and have become very realistic concerning this current team's chances to contend. In the first game we went to, the Reds were trailing by a run in the late innings. They had a runner in scoring position and were threatening to tie to game. Yet the only people standing in our immediate vicinity were Danny and (other) Andy, who, for the record, had been drinking heavily for about 6 hours. Try as they might, they could only muster scattered applause for the situation. Nevertheless, if this team ever starts consistently winning again, I think the enthusiasm will come back to GABP.

Quick summary: The Reds haven't been a real contender for more than a decade now, and it shows. The fans hope for the best, but at this point are pessimistic that the team will actually be able to contend past June, despite a few bright young stars. The shoreline view of the Ohio River is the perfect touch to Great American Ballpark, and is ultimately what makes it so memorable.

Skyline Chili

I'm a few days late with the Cincinnati stuff, I know, but I had more important things to deal with...mainly, the destruction of all my hopes and dreams. Better late than never, I present to you my Cincinnati food review.

Wikipedia, what exactly is Cincinnati style chili?
Cincinnati chili is a regional style of chili characteristically served over spaghetti or as a hot dog topping. Cincinnati chili sauce contains finely ground beef, seasoned with a mixture of spices. Some aficionados report a distinct hint ofcinnamon and sometimes even chocolate. However, the precise identity of other spices is hard to determine. The flavor of Cincinnati chili is distinct from that of the more widely recognized Texas-style chili, and differs from that variety too in its thin consistency, which makes it more suitable as a sauce for other dishes than as a dish by itself.

When served over spaghetti, the chili is typically topped by a large mound of shredded mild cheddar cheese (as much as will fit on top without it falling over the sides). Because of the large amount of cheese piled on top, the first few bites often consist entirely of cheese, at least for inexperienced diners. When served on a coney-style hot dog, the chili is also topped with a generous mound of cheese. 
The day after the Dagwood, Andy and I went to Skyline Chili, one of Cincinnati's many chili chains (and official chili of the Cincinnati Reds!!!) for a reasonably-portioned meal. Being that Andy is a Cincinnati resident, I followed his example and ordered 4-way chili (spaghetti topped with chili, cheese, and beans) and a coney (chili dog with cheese).

Only after about 3 minutes, our food came out, due to the fact that all the food is cooked and ready to be served behind the counter. It was immediately apparent that they do not skimp on the cheese. After a little bit of mixing, though, the cheese melted and it became one homogenous dish, not spaghetti and chili with a cheese toupee. As for the chili dog....well, it had a cheese blanket as well. So did my Diet Pepsi. Also, our chairs had cheese seat cushions. And as Andy and I were eating, the kitchen staff came out with giant vats and made it rain using shredded cheddar. It was like a giant cheese snow globe.

But getting back to what actually happened, and not what I wish had happened...getting the chili dog with onions and mustard is definitely the way to go. The mustard gives it a little bit of a bite to balance out the sweetness of the chili and the onions give it a nice crunch.

Overall, the chili itself was very good. By itself, I wouldn't think that it would stand up as a meal, but as a pasta or hot dog topping, it does the trick. Personally, I like my chili on the sweet side anyway. If you're a person who likes spicy chili, though, you can still load it up with the hot sauce they put on the tables.

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 across several states for it
6) I'd kill a man

Basically, if it's even a 2, it's good food. Anything 4 or higher is special. And pray to God that I never find a 6. 

Official verdict for Skyline Chili: Check it out if you're in town. This sweeter chili may be an acquired taste for some people, but if it's your thing, you're always in for a good, filling meal.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Pointersaurus

The clock hits 3PM, and there you are, sitting in front of 12 pounds of pizza. The store manager sets the timer for an hour, and like that, you're tearing through the task at hand, taking down whole pieces in one bite. Elbow-deep in pizza, you think to yourself, "How did I get here?"

8 Hours Earlier

Andy and I woke up early and left Cincinnati in order to get to St. Louis with time to spare. Our last meal had been roughly 32 hours before, since we wanted to make sure our stomachs were completely empty, providing enough room for our share of the pizza. Subsisting on only water, juice, gatorade, and protein powder, we spent the entire day yesterday hydrating and drinking liquids in order to stretch our stomachs in preparation for today. This morning we woke up and downed some OJ and water before getting on the road, and while on the road, pounded water until 11AM, four hours before the attempt. At that point, we cut ourselves off from drinking anything. When 3:00 hit, we would be the world's most efficient pizza-eating machines.

We got to Pointer's at around 1:45 and met up with Danny, our friend from camp and our official Pointersaurus photographer. After about 35 minutes walking around to work up a little bit more of an appetite, we changed into our official uniforms -- our Dagwood t-shirts and wristbands and a headband, in order to combat the pizza sweats. At around 2:20, we walked into Pointer's Pizza to meet our destiny.

We boldly stated our intentions, and then signed our waivers. After making sure we understood the official rules, we put in our toppings order -- chicken and turkey -- and stood back and watched the magic happen. It started with a big ball of dough, to which several ladles of sauce, handfuls of cheese, and what seemed like a never-ending parade of toppings were added. They stuck it in the oven, and a little more than 10 minutes later, they took it out and set it on our table.

How big was it? Well, my favorite photo uses my cell phone for reference. After once again taking the necessary pictures (notice the box straining under the weight of the pizza), we readied ourselves for the challenge. At 2:58, we decided we would start right at 3:00. As the manager set the timer for one hour, Andy and I went through final mental preparations. Finally, the clock hit 3PM, and the challenge was on.

We started quickly, piling pieces into our mouths, and after a few minutes, we were well on our way. We knew that the initial surge would be the key to our success, as we were sure to hit the first wall at approximately 20 minutes, and wanted to be at least halfway through the pizza at the 15-minute mark.

We pushed through the first half of the pizza, and we hit our goal of being halfway through after about 15 minutes. At this point, we felt good, and even though our pace had slowed slightly, we actually believed that maybe, just maybe...that we could do this.

And then, much like Dany Heatley, we hit a wall. Our general demeanor changed as our pace slowed and we began chipmunking bites. When we started, we were eating several pieces a minute; now, we were taking much smaller bites and taking at least two minutes to get each piece down. As we hit the 30-minute mark, our pace had slowed to a crawl.

For the next 10 minutes, we continued to push forward, but by the 40-minute mark, it was as good as over. Even though we had eaten roughly 70% of the pizza at this point, it was becoming increasingly obvious that there was no way we were going to be able to eat the rest. We weren't quitting though. We had promised to fight to end, and that was exactly what we were going to do. Since all beverages were free, Andy ordered himself a Sprite, and we continued slowly picking at the pizza.

Twenty more minutes passed, and finally, mercifully, it was over. Andy lay down. I leaned back against the wall, resigned to my fate. In all, we had eaten about 75% of the pizza. 

When we were finished, the pizza looked like this. The neat pile in the foreground is mine. The pile of "pizza surprise" in the background is Andy's. We had each started with 37 pieces of pizza. We each finished with roughly 10. It was by no means an embarrassment, but it was by no means a success either. We had given the Pointersaurus our best effort, and the Pointersaurus had looked us in the eye, and stomped on our hopes and dreams.

The guy behind the counter said that we "did better than most people do," and that we were "one of the only groups who kept on eating until the end." Great. We have determination. Whoop-de-shit. Small consolation for two humans who got outplayed by a large piece of food.

So what went wrong? 

First and foremost, the pizza was huge. Could I ever eat that much? Maybe if I trained for several weeks to expand my stomach and learn to eat that much. Otherwise, no. I now know the weight at which my stomach maxes out.

Additionally, the pizza itself was not very good. Actually, I guess that's an extra part of the challenge. The worst part was the sauce. It was sharp, watery, and overall, just borderline disgusting. The first part of the pizza went down easily enough because I was starving, and I was basically inhaling my food without actually tasting it. By the time I got to the 40-minute mark, I was full. If there was good pizza in front of me, I would have had a much easier time eating it. So had it been better, would we have finished it? Probably not, I guess...but I think if the pizza had actually been good, we would have at least gotten closer. 

What did we do right?

The toppings. Chicken and turkey is the way to go. In fact, the toppings were the easiest part of the pizza. If I had wanted to, I could have stopped at the 40-minute mark and just picked the toppings off, leaving the toughest part, the sauce and cheese, and probably have gotten through all of the meat. They were very light, and very easy to eat, even when we were full.

Our uniforms. The headbands were actually a great call. They keep the restaurant pretty warm, and after about 5 minutes of going at the pizza, we were sweating. The headbands were at least able to moderately contain the pizza sweats, and the wristbands were as good if not better than napkins when it came to wiping away sweat below the headband. Highly recommended for anyone who undertakes this.

Our beginning pace. To have a chance, you have to start fast. We accomplished what we wanted to in the first 15 minutes of the challenge, and had our stomachs been able to keep up with our appetites, we would have had a shot. Unfortunately, the remaining 45 minutes did not go to plan.

Would we ever do it again?

In a In two words.....probably not. We know our limits now, and now that we've tried it, there's no reason to ever try it again, unless, of course, we think we have a shot. Maybe after a month-long competitive eating boot camp. But probably not under any other circumstances.

So, there you have it. We gave it our best shot, put up a decent fight, but ultimately, we failed. Although on the bright side, we can now look forward to the next week and a half, where we will eat ridiculously unhealthy food, albeit in moderation. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Main Event

In this corner, the challengers:

Career Highlights:
*2005 Cornfest Champion - 31 ears
*2006 Cornfest Co-Champion - 37 ears
*Conquered El Gigante
*Used to look like this

Career Highlights:

*Two-time Whoopie Pie eater in Message to Garcia
*40 wings in one session
*Known as a "good eater"

And in the other corner, the champion:


*28 inches in diameter
*12 lbs. of dough, sauce, cheese, and meat
*Career record of 1000's-18

The Place: Pointer's Pizza, St. Louis, MO
The Time: 3PM, Central Daylight Time.


I've received several questions about the Pointersaurus over the past few weeks, but most of them revolve around this general idea: "So, Sam....why the hell are you doing this in the first place?"

For the cash. And the pride. But mostly the cash. Well, initially at least.

Sure, I'd like to take this thing down, but the odds are definitely stacked against that. Whenever I've heard about these eating challenges, my first thought is "oh, I could totally do that." But there's a reason that places like Pointers Pizza hand out $500 for winning, and it's not because people come in and beat the Pointersaurus on a daily basis. I'm glad that most of you have such faith in Andy and me, as witnessed by the fact that ~75% think we can finish this thing. But in reality, this is going to be ridiculously difficult.

At this point, what it boils down to is sheer morbid curiosity. When faced with half of a giant pizza, I want to see how well I can do. Until you've actually tried something like this, you have no gauge of just how hard it's actually going to be. 

It's very much like my desire to someday hit a well-thrown knuckleball. You see it and you say to yourself, "Look, he's just floating it in there. There's no reason why I wouldn't be able to hit that." What you fail to realize is that the pitcher is still "floating" the ball over the plate at 60 mph. And that the ball is moving around so violently that if Isaac Newton ever saw one, he would re-check his work. Hell, most major league catchers can't even catch a knuckleball consistently. So what chance do I have? In reality, zero, plus a very small percentage of close-your-eyes-and-swing luck. But if someone offered me the opportunity right now to take batting practice off Tim Wakefield, I'd give it a shot, just so I could say, "I've tried this, and now I know just how difficult it is."

Nevertheless, people do occasionally beat this thing. So I'll be there on Thursday afternoon, giving it my all, and hoping that I might just come across that small percentage of close-your-eyes-and-eat luck.

So initially, I guess it was about the cash. Now, it's more about trying to challenge myself and see what I can do. Also, once I do it once, I'll never have to do it again. That is, until the next time I feel like challenging myself.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Columbus, OH


Our bellies full of Dagwood, we decided to go visit Ohio Stadium, home of the THE Ohio State Buckeyes. But first, Andy had to go puke behind a dumpster (file not found).

After he emptied his stomach of its contents, we drove over to the stadium and found an open gate. We wandered around the stands for about an hour, taking pictures. We got one of the horseshoe. One of the city of Columbus as seen from the stands. One of an awesome stained glass window. One of how all the seats there aren't necessarily good seats.

But there were signs on all of the gates that walking on the field was strictly prohibited, so we stayed clear. However, after about 40 minutes there, we saw some other people walk out onto the field, so we hopped a fence and decided to check it out.

We took a few pictures immediately from near the end zone, and then decided to walk to the middle of the field. As we approached the 50-yard-line though, a woman walked up to us and said, "Hey need to get out of here. This is a photoshoot."

Whoops. So we snapped a quick picture of me and one of Andy at midfield, as some dude remarked that they would start the photoshoot as soon as "homeboy gets out of the middle." But before we left, I made a mad dash/dive into the end zone and Andy tiptoed the sideline and dove in for the touchdown (after video review, the ball carrier's foot was out of bounds at the 5-yard-line).

I'd also like to introduce the first of many in the "Andy Messer Speaks His Mind" video series. Today's topic: Ohio State football.

Tonight: Reds game against the WFC and Skyline Chili.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Dagwood Challenge

(Again, all bold links are pictures I took, since I still haven't figured out how to make them clickable on the blog.)

I left Washington, DC at 11AM. Fourteen hours, nine episodes of The Wire, and one pre-packaged Amtrak hot dog later, I arrived in Cincinnati.

After a long night's sleep, we woke up late, ready for the task at hand: traveling to Columbus and taking down the Dagwood, a 2.5-pound deli sandwich that comes with a pound of fries and a pickle spear. Finish it all in 30 minutes or less, and you get a free t-shirt, plus your picture on the wall. Honestly, we considered it a warm-up to Thursday's Pointersaurus, and didn't think that we'd have too much trouble taking it all down. In reality, we had severely misunderestimated it.

We rolled up to the Ohio Deli at about 3PM. The first thing you see when walking into the restaurant is the Wall of Fame, including the picture of Adam Richman, host of Man v. Food. We sat down at a booth, and when the waitress came to take our order, I confidently announced, "we're both gonna take down the Dagwood."

We waited anxiously for about 10 minutes, during which time we met Linda and "Mom." Ohio Deli regulars, they had never seen anyone do the challenge before, so they were as excited as we were. Even though they had finished their meal, they decided to stick around to watch us compete. Linda also graciously agreed to take pictures of our attempt, so our collection of action shots can be attributed to her. Thank you, Linda.

Finally the sandwiches came out, and wow were they huge. They surprised me. They surprised Andy. But we were ready for this. And after the requisite pregame pictures, we dug in.

The first half of the sandwich went down easy. Andy and I both finished it in roughly five minutes, mixing in bites of fries along the way. But it was all downhill from there. The fries were good, but they were heavy, and before long, these fries threatened to be our downfall. Even though we were both putting fries inside the sandwich, there were far too many of them to be able to eat all of them this way.

I started on the 2nd half of the sandwich, but quickly switched over to trying to knock out a portion of the still-large fry pile on my plate. As my stomach finally started to send distress signals to my brain, I was able to get the food pile down to a manageable size. As eating became harder, I decided to mix everything together, eating fries with turkey, onions with roast beef, and ham with what seemed to be a large part of my napkin.

As I made my way to the finish line at around the 20 minute mark, I was feeling the burn, but I was happy. Bites at this point were becoming increasingly difficult, but I knew that if I could put away the final few pieces, I would take my place on the wall of legends at the Ohio Deli. After several more painful mouthfuls of bread, meat, and fry, I was down to my last bite. And then it was over. At the 24-minute mark, I had conquered the Dagwood

As I looked over to Andy though, he was still eating away, a large pile of fries sitting on his plate. But to his credit, he did not give up, even when the situation looked bleak. With a minute left, he had only a handful of fries left. Doing everything in his power to finish, he balled them up, poured some water on them, and took them down. At the 30-minute mark, beating the buzzer by mere seconds, Andy joined the ranks of the Ohio Deli immortals.

What does immortality look like? It looks like this.

Coming tomorrow: The aftermath!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Caption Contest #1

Alright, so I'll be on the train to Cincinnati all day tomorrow. No internet on Amtrak (really guys, it's about time....even buses have it), but I'll have Season 4 of The Wire to keep me entertained. To keep you guys entertained, here's a caption contest. Jeff suggested I do one here, so he's gonna be the subject of the first photo (bigger version here). Just post your caption in the comments. Go nuts, guys. His self-esteem knows no lower limit.

My caption: It's okay...the results came back negative.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Nationals Park

Note: This is a ballpark review, not a rating. Once the trip ends, I'll rank all the parks, hopefully in several categories, and also declare an overall winner.

Today, Jeff and I visited Nationals Park. When it was built a few years ago in an empty warehouse district, the Nationals hoped that it would help turn the area into a trendy, upscale, developing neighboorhood along the banks of the Anacostia River. A quick walk around the park and a look at the surroundings confirms that things haven't exactly gone to plan. Although if you want to rent a U-Haul, there are two stores directly adjacent to the park: one behind right field, and one behind left. Basically, when Ryan Zimmerman leaves in five years for a legitimate team, he'll have no problem getting his stuff out of there.

Most people enter from the rear -- the centerfield gate -- because both the Metro and the two parking garages lead right to it. It's a nice little plaza where people can mill around and talk about Cristian Guzman's low on-base percentage. Also, there are ladies with accents giving out free samples of Nestea. Unfortunately, this leads to a situation where the three other gates are basically devoid of any people (not that the centerfield gate is all that crowded), and twenty minutes before first pitch, you can walk by a main gate that looks like this.

Through one of his friends, Jeff was able to get seats about 15 rows behind home plate in the Diamond Club section. Great seats, plus the tickets came with a $35 credit for food and merchandise. Alright, let's see what we can buy with $35. Large soda, polish sausage, and W-shaped pretzel. Total: $17. Another soda: up to $22. Milkshake: $30. Hmmm.....$5 left and I don't really need any more about....a minibat! Perfect. All the food was pretty good; the sausage was cooked perfectly and the pretzel was buttery and delicious -- by far the best item of the day.

And then of course, the Presidents raced. Based on the famous Milwaukee sausage race, this race involves people in giant head costumes of the four Mt. Rushmore presidents racing around the warning track, starting in centerfield and ending right in front of the Nats' dugout on the first base side. It's always a legit race....except for that Teddy Roosevelt never wins. Even though campaigns to change this are going strong, Teddy has still never won a race since they introduced this a few years ago. Today was no exception. George, TJ, and Abe came out of centerfield first, followed about 10 seconds later by Teddy channeling his inner GOB and riding in on a Segway. Still, George powered through and won the race by a good margin.

We also went to go meet up with two of our friends from Duke, Gabe and Sam. Even though we had our Diamond Club bracelets on, and there were plenty of empty seats, an usher came over and said we couldn't sit there. We showed him our bracelets that showed we had good tickets, and said that we just wanted to talk to our friends for a few minutes. He didn't care. So I sarcastically thanked him for kicking us out and then took his picture. Suck on that, d-bag.

There are also a bunch of weird statues in the centerfield plaza that are supposed to depict motion, but instead make baseball players look like Hindu gods.

Additional Pictures: View from the upper deck, View from the outfield, Attendance Counter (wait for roaring laughter to subside)....

Quick summary: The combination of an apathetic fanbase plus small crowds (there were noticeably more Phillies fans than Nats fans there today) makes Nationals Park a very enjoyable place to watch a baseball game, provided you're not actually one of the four die-hard Nationals fans in the world.

Friday, May 15, 2009

And We're Off...

Well, I'm off, at least. As I type this, I am sitting in seat 38 of the 2PM BoltBus from New York to Washington, DC. Technically, I guess this weekend isn't part of the official road trip, since it doesn't officially start until I meet up with Andy in Cincinnati, but I'm considering it an undercard to the 2-week main event. You can look forward to at least one ballpark review and maybe a restaurant review coming out of it.

So, I'm on a bus. Never thought I'd be on a bus...with wifi. BoltBus definitely gets points for that. It also gets points for hiring Kelvin as a driver. If you were casting a movie and wanted a friendly, black, bald bus driver, he'd be your guy. Before we left, he gave his little spiel, told us that until we got to DC, we were "his family," and then said that we should tell him if it was too hot/cold on the bus, if the wifi was out, etc. Kelvin then added, "If you want my attention, just say hey, Kelvin. Not hey, you. Not hey, baldy. Not hey, Montel."

If he had kept going with that thought and moved onto hey, Hootie, I might have had to quote another digital short in this post. Luckily for me, and more importantly, for the people sitting around me, he didn't.

Meanwhile, while BoltBus was gaining points, the state of Delaware was losing them just as quickly. We were stuck in traffic for about 45 minutes only to see that the delay was caused by about 10 dudes in neon vests standing around doing nothing. Understandably, if you're a state with some clout, you can close two lanes of highway for no good reason at 5PM on a Friday afternoon. But not if you're Delaware.

Thanks to those of you that I've gotten feedback about this trip from. If any of you have suggestions for the blog, or for things we should do on the road, let me know. Just say hey, Sam. Not hey, fatass. Not hey, jewbag.... 

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Crisis Averted

When facing an opponent as formidable as the Pointersaurus, one must engage in all the necessary preparation. This involves both physical training, and doing research on other peoples' experiences with eating it, which, most of the time, turn out to be huge embarrassing failures.

So it was while reading about a failed attempt several weeks ago that I came across this little tidbit: 

We told the guy we wanted to do the competition the following Friday, and he said, “The earliest opening I got is the 21st.” Wow. They were booked solid for two weeks, and there wasn’t a Friday open for weeks after that.

Uh oh. We were planning on eating the Pointersaurus on May 22nd, and it was already May 13th. Initially, our plan was to call sometime next week, a few days before eating it. Big oversight on our part. Honestly, we didn't think there would be that it would be a problem. We were wrong. Frantically, I called Pointer's Pizza hoping that by some miracle of the pizza gods, our date would still be available, but I wasn't feeling optimistic.

Two rings and an then answer. "Hi, I'd like to schedule a date to do the Pointersaurus challenge," I said apprehensively.
"When would you like to do it?"
"Is Friday, May 22nd open?" 
A long pause. The sound of paper shuffling in the background. "Sorry, we already have a group coming in that day."
Crap. "Okay, well what about the 21st or 23rd?"
Deep breath. If these days were taken, I didn't know what else we could do. Our plans would be in serious jeopardy. "Well, we're closed the 23rd........but yeah, we don't have anybody signed up yet for the 21st."

Sweet relief. So our eating date has been moved up a day. No biggie. Watch out, pizza. Here we come.