Saturday, May 26, 2012

Better ... Much Better ... But Still Room for Improvement

The United States Men's National Team has just played a truly exciting, even scintillating match against Scotland, a team struggling to regain a position in the third tier of European international soccer. There will be plenty of commentary on the Web about the match itself, especially about Landon Donovan's magnificent hat trick and Michael Bradley's utterly astounding half-volley goal; and let's not overlook Jermaine Jones's difficult header off a cross from Donovan, to wrap up the scoring in a 5:1 win (the Scotland goal coming on an unavoidable own-goal in the 15th minute). So I won't say any more about that.

There are really only three comments I want to make, on subjects that, as a spectator, are important to me but that, I reckon, won't be much discussed in the talking-heads chat rooms:

1) What idiot decided to dress our team in red and white hoops? One reasonably intelligent observer called it the "Where's Waldo" kit, and he's right. But more important to the television audience, was it the same damned fool who decided that what those silly uniforms really need was silver numbers on a white background? Did no one give a thought to what they would look like on TV? The numbers are invisible.

2) I was again impressed at the composure of the US defense. This seems to have been the first thing Jurgen Klinsmann addressed after taking over the team, and it is already paying dividends. At no point during tonight's game did our guys look like six-year-olds playing kickball in front of the goal. Even when Scotland were menacing our goal (which, despite the score line, the did do from time to time), our back four kept their cool. There were no desperate slashes at the ball, which in the past have often been the source of opponents' goals. Carlos Bocanegra, in particular, has raised himself in my esteem after a few performances under Klinsmann's influence. (And it's great to see Oguchi Onyewu back from injury.)

Arlo White doing a Sounders match
3) Kudos to NBC Sports Network for raising the bar on soccer commentary in the USA. Arlo White, an Englishman who had been doing commentary for the Seattle Sounders, is a great improvement over the breathy bozos that broadcasters usually bring in for this sport. He was fairly low-key, in the English manner, which I appreciate after hearing so many American commentators punctuate every third word of every sentence with an exclamation point, and drag down every match with unimaginative co-optation of NFL jargon. Plus, White was generally good at telling us viewers who was on the ball ... especially important, since we couldn't see the numbers on the jerseys. Kyle Martino may not have been as incisive as some other US color-commentators in the sport, but he at least has the great virtue of not speaking simply to hear his own voice, like most people who grew up watching the NFL on TV: he seems to understand the difference between those broadcasts, and soccer broadcasts: an NFL game consists of nine minutes of action over the course of two and a half hours, so most of the time the commentators' choice is between drivel and dead air. 

That's all I have to say ... except: 
USA! USA! USA! USA!


Picture credit: By Noelle Noble (Flickr: _DSC0221) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, May 18, 2012

Invasion Of The Lizard Men

File:Battleship Poster.jpgBattleship
starring Taylor Kitsch
   Liam Neeson
   Alexander Skarsgård
   Rihanna
   Brooklyn Decker
directed by Peter Berg

There is a plot, of sorts: highly advanced aliens invade in response to a naïve signal humans sent out to a distant planet with earth-like attributes. Don't get too wrapped up in that: it's so full of holes that spongiform tissue, by comparison, is a paradigm of structural integrity. The plot, along with the various subplots — and every character in this movie, however thinly drawn, is dealing with issues — are merely the skeleton on which to hang the main attraction: we movie-goers get to witness expertly-done special effects that provide entertainment from the beginning of the movie to the end.

There is acting, of a sort, in the movie. The hero is played as two-dimensionally as a 3D movie character can be; others do more with less, and Liam Neeson, the only accomplished actor in the film, gets the best line (delivered by telephone to a bureaucrat in D.C.) in the film. The acting, like the plot, is insignificant. The makers of this toy-based movie have not forgotten that this film's only purpose is to entertain enough to make a huge profit.

In the end, boy wins girl (and, more importantly, wins over her father), paraplegic finds his lost will to overcome, nerd finds courage, hot chick shows she can drive too, and the (carrier-based) Cavalry comes to the rescue. It's a feel-good movie all around, unless your people are reptilian, and oh, isn't it reassuring to know that our 21st-Century naval forces — American, Canadian, Japanese, British, and fifteen other unnamed nationalities (but mostly us Americans, with a single Japanese naval officer) — supplemented by one World-War-II-era battleship (staffed in part by a handful of World-War-II-era sailors, is adequate to utterly defeat such wildly advanced invasion forces! You betcha by golly it is.


Saturday, May 12, 2012

Get Your Mesquite-Grilled Margaritas Right Here

Goode Company Taqueria
4902 Kirby Drive
Houston
(at Westpark)

No, obviously, they don't have mesquite-grilled margaritas; they just have a little trouble with the niceties of the English language. A common enough occurence these days that generally passes unnoticed, except by grammar-wonks (which I have been ever since seeing the signs on the doors of the University of Texas Law School: "These doors are alarmed.") (I never learned what had the doors so agitated.)

What Goode Company Taqueria does have is an extensive breakfast menu made more than usually interesting by the prominence of unusual ingredients; things like venison, nopalitos and quail, for example. 

Our choices from this menu were Buck Fever and Huevos con Venado. The first is a plate of eggs any style, served with two patties of venison sausage, hash brown potatoes and a choice of bread. We chose eggs over easy and biscuits; there was, according to the menu, a choice of sausage with or without jalapeño, but our order-taker didn't ask and we didn't specify. We got sausage without jalapeño. 

What does that mean?
The eggs were cooked perfectly; clearly some restaurant kitchens need to find out where Goode Company trains its people. The sausage was very lean and had a very good flavour with a slight piquancy to it. The biscuits were just okay, not light or fluffy like fresh-made biscuits, but they weren't bad. The potatoes, though, were unappealing, despite a hefty treatment of both ham and bacon in the mix. They were overdone, approaching mushiness, and their dark colour was unappetizing.

The huevos con venado were better to eat than to look at. They are made with ground-up venison sausage mixed into scrambled eggs, and on the plate it looked unappealing: a dry, mottled brown-and-yellow slab. But looks are deceiving. The taste was reasonably good, though the final product was a little dry, as though the egg mixture had lain a moment too long on the grill. This dish was paired with traditional sides: rice and beans, both of which were excellent. The rice even had shredded chicken mixed in, an unexpected pleasure. The tortillas were excellent when warm: thin and flavourful; but they cooled and dried quickly to a chewy cardboard texture.

There is no service at Goode Company Taqueria: you order at the counter and pick up your order when called. The dining room appears comfortable; we sat in the large enclosed patio (there is also an open patio behind) but had trouble finding a table where there was no draft from the fans and air conditioning vents, and no puddles from the leaky roof. The tables are traditional Mexican-style café tables, the chairs metal and vinyl in traditional Mexican colours, inexpensive but comfortable and gay (in the non-sexual sense). The prices seemed a little high but not outrageous; once we were served, they seemed reasonable for what we got.
Goode Company Hamburgers & Taqueria on Urbanspoon

Come Hungry

Barnaby's Cafe
414 West Gray
Houston
(a few blocks east of Kirby)

The guy at the next table asked for a doggie bag for his Sausalito Chicken Crunch Salad, a dish I had decided to order. I looked at what he was packing up and thought, "He's hardly touched it!" It was a full bowl, and even though he raved about it, I thought there had to be something wrong with him, or something wrong with the salad.

I was wrong on both counts.

But before we got to the salad, we had an appetizer of Sticky Spicy Chicken Won Tons. These were a delicious chicken mixture wrapped in won tons and fried, served on a bed of red cabbage with a dressing made from sweet-and-sour sauce and Thai chili paste, with a kick that sneaks up on you and tingles long after the last drop is gone. Unfortunately, they didn't go well with the weissbier I had chosen to drink, but on their own they were fantastic.

My tablemate asked for a small salad in place of the french fries his entrée normally comes with. Barnaby's, apparently, doesn't really do "small." His salad, fresh greens topped with everything I would have put on it at home if I had no weight issues, was big enough to be a meal in itself. The bacon alone (excellently cooked, thick slices of Applewood-smoked bacon crumbled into a topping) would have done damage to my WeightWatcher's points-plus allotment (which I generally ignore anyway...); the shredded cheddar would have undone me completely.

His choice for dinner was the dish called Coronado beef. ("Coronado," as in the suburb of San Diego; the owner is an escaped Californio and still remembers all the place names.) It was a plate-sized patty of ground beef topped with cheddar and jack cheeses, diced tomatoes and green onions. For all its impressive appearance, it lacked any real interest. The meat was hardly seasoned and was, I thought, underdone for medium, the way it was ordered. It was just big.

What does that mean?
I certainly can't say that about my Sausalito Chicken Crunch salad. It was enormous, big enough to feed three people with average appetites, or two of me. The base of Romaine lettuce vanished under a gigantic pile of Napa cabbage, jicama, grape tomatoes, strips of fried corn tortilla, peanuts and queso fresco. There must have been chicken in there as well. All this was tossed with a light dressing to give it an even moistness and served piled high in a large bowl. The waiter also suggested a "red eye": a shot of hot chili sauce in ranch dressing. I had that on the side, and it added an almost superfluous zing to an already-wonderful mixture of textures and flavours. My one regret in ordering this was that I'm staying in a hotel room with no refrigerator, so a go-box was out of the question. We had to leave enough salad for a complete meal, and a good bit of the Coronado beef as well (though that was less of a heartache).
Barnaby's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 4, 2012

Off Again, Part II: OBX


When we left Highlands, we felt like we had so much time to get where we were going that we decided to take a detour of sorts, and drive through some additional counties in central North Carolina. There was nothing spectacular to see along the way, and the only impulse stop we made was at Isothermal Community College, to get someone to explain to us why a community college is named for a meteorological term. It turns out to be as mundane as the term suggests (proving that there is really nothing interesting about the place where the school is located), but the fact that it is as bland as it is silly makes it good fodder for a gag gift, so I bought a t-shirt with the logo on it for a friend. Dinner that night was at a Greek restaurant in the Charlotte suburbs: the Gateway to Athens. Not a bad little place.

Next morning we were up early, crossing the state south to north and west to east. In the middle of North Carolina there was a sign that said "Area Potters Next 6 Exits." Vague signs always intrigue me, so we took the first exit. A few miles down the road was another sign: "Area Potters," with arrows point right and ahead. We went to the right, but after a few miles with no indication of what we were looking for, we turned around and headed back to the main road. After a few miles there was another "Area Potters" sign, but this time there was an actual pottery. We learned from the potter that the clay in that part of Carolina was renowned for its workability, and so the industry concentrated there long ago. Nowadays, because of the danger of contamination and the cost of testing, all the potters use man-made clay, but there are still about a hundred in the area, which stretches over three counties. (About 80 of them display samples of their wares in a single location, in the town of Seagrove, but once I roughly calculated that it would be 7pm before we got where we were going — I do so hate having to be somewhere — we decided that would be too far out of our way.) But we stopped in a couple more potteries, and only the limitations of a small car stuffed with luggage, and the fact that the potter who sold stunning copper-lined vases doesn't offer shipping (!) kept us from buying more.

In fact it turned out to be after eight when we got into the Outer Banks. At our hotel in Kill Devil Hills, we met up with the Colorado Branch of the family for the preamble to our annual Condo Week.

The famous moment, rendered in bronze
We started with a quick trip to the Outer Banks Visitors' Center, where there is a monument celebrating 100 years of flight — actually mostly about space travel. I get the sense that Carolina, where man first powered his way into the air, is desperate to establish its place in the Space Age. Clearly, they've decided that mere atmospheric flying is so Last Century.

From there, we drove a few miles down the island to the Wright Brothers National Memorial. (When they got off the ground, it was near Kitty Hawk; since that time the town of Kill Devil Hills has come into existence, and the memorial stele erected for the 25th anniversary of that famous flight is on top of Kill Devil Hill, the highest sand dune in the area.) Even now, before the Season begins, the place is fairly thickly carpeted with tourists, enough to prevent a decent photograph of the markers showing where the four test-flights that day in 1913 started and ended. We were all impressed, though, that the last of the four flights was over 800 feet, a huge improvement over the first three. (What was once an area of open sand now has trees lining the roadway beyond, prompting my brother-in-law to observe wryly that "it's a good thing they came down when they did; otherwise they'd've flown right into those trees.")

From there we headed down the peninsula (and some peninsula it is: in places only a few hundred feet wide from east to west, it stretches about a hundred miles, from Shipps' Bay, in Virginia, to Ocracoke Channel) and turned west to visit Roanoke Island, site of the Elizabethan Gardens and, more famously, the Lost Colony. Since three of the four of us had done a good chunk of their growing up in Virginia public schools, and I had at least heard of the ill-fated venture, we were all looking forward to the visit to Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. But first we had to go to the Elizabethan Gardens, because, after all... it was us. My wife is implacably drawn to gardens like interstellar gas to a black hole. (Okay, that's not really an apt simile, because you can't get gas out of a black hole, while I have managed to get the wife out of a garden; but who else goes to Disneyland to see the flowers?) Her sister enjoys gardens, and has decided to practice her photographic skills on them. Her husband and I can stand wandering around in the gardens for a while, because they are, after all, generally pretty when things are blooming, and kind of pretty when things aren't. Usually, anyway.  But to make a long story that much longer, the Elizabethan Gardens were our first point of call on Roanoke Island.

the occasional camellia
These gardens were put in during the 1950s by a bunch of locals — three guesses, which sort of locals, and the first two don't count — for the 400th anniversary of the founding of Roanoke Colony, which would occur about thirty years later. They are supposedly in the style of gardens being done in England at the time. They seem to me to consist of a lot of azaleas and low hedges, with an assortment of camellias scattered about for variety. Yes, the gardens were pretty, but to my eyes, monotonous. (It didn't help set the mood that one of the two women in the gift shop, where you pay your admission, was snide and officious; the other, though, was most friendly and welcoming. Call it a draw.)

From the gardens, we went to Fort Raleigh, which is practically next door (though we went the long way). The National Historic Site consists of a visitors' center and a reconstruction of the dirt ramparts of the 16th-Century fort, which is about four feet high and the size of my house's footprint. There were a few birds and lots of mosquitos. We puttered around there until it was about time for sunset, which we had decided to view from Jockey's Ridge State Park, a good-sized area of dunes on the lagoon side of the peninsula. So we headed over there, took up our positions and watched the sun go down. All of us got good pictures.

We closed out the day with an excellent meal at Firefly, a slightly upscale local restaurant that impressed.

Our plan for Saturday was to go all the way down to Ocracoke, at the southern tip of the Outer Banks, and work our way back. This required a ferry ride across to Ocracoke Island, which required a wait of about half an hour for the ferry boat to arrive. The highway is two lanes all the way, well paved and straight, and conducive to the wandering of the mind of even the most attentive driver. Luckily, there was a Carolina state trooper handy, to bring our driver's thoughts back to where they should dwell; a valuable, if expensive, favour. Glad I wasn't driving....

There were boats there, I swear.
Ocracoke is a fishing village in the post-modern sense; that is, there are people there who fish for a living, in the classical manner, taking their boats out for long periods, filling their holds with all manner of edible marine creatures. You don't see them: they're out at sea. You see the boats of sport-fishermen, who will take tourists out on day-trips; you see private yachts, as at any marina: mostly single-masted craft whose owners take great pride in discussing how much of a cash drain their sloop is. The rest of the town makes its living dispensing the sort of tourist kitsch you find everywhere east of the factories in China where the stuff is all made. Honestly, other than the squat little lighthouse, the British cemetery (where are buried some crewmen from a British ship sunk during World War Two by a U-boat just offshore) and the suggestion, belied by the congestion of tourists, of remoteness, there is nothing in Ocracoke to make a visit there worthwhile except the fact that it is where the road ends. You go there only so you can say you've been there. Well, I've been there. Impressed?

At Cape Hatteras, where the coast bends sharply to the southwest, there were two things of interest: the famous lighthouse, and a museum focusing on the many shipwrecks that have occurred along the Outer Banks. We got back from the Island only a few minutes before the museum closed at 4pm, so we had to skip that; we went to the lighthouse, a few miles up the coast.

The original location of Hatteras Light
(foreground)
Cape Hatteras light is famous for two things. First, it is the tallest brick lighthouse the world (or was, when it was built; but I think I read somewhere that it still is); and second, it was moved in 1999-2000 from its original location to its present location, because of encroachment of the seashore due to erosion. It now stands as far from the shoreline as it was when it was built 150 years ago. You can see from the picture here how far inland it was moved.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore stretches most of the way from Nag's Head, the last town on the peninsula, to Ocracoke; a part of it is Pea Island National Seashore, though why they need two separate administrative entities is above my pay grade. In any case, we stopped off to have a look at the nature trail at Pea Island, seeing some turtles and a few birds, but the mosquitoes drove us off before long. Before leaving, though, we walked across the road and over the dunes to see the remnants of an 1850s shipwreck (I thought the sign said it was the Oriental, but that ship went down in the mid-20th Century). Only the boiler is still visible in the surf. And to our surprise, there was a wedding just getting under way on the beach.

Bodie Marshes Light
Also within the Pea Island National Seashore, or Cape Hatteras National Seashore (or maybe just nearby) is Bodie Marshes Light, where we stopped next.

The next morning, we packed up our two cars for the trip down to Atlantic Beach, where our condo was; but before leaving the Outer Banks, there was another light house to see, the only one that was open to the public for climbing. And if you know our history, you'll know that we don't, as a rule, pass on an opportunity to climb any tall building that promises a view. So we drove north fifteen or twenty miles, past the town of Duck, to Currituck Beach Lighthouse, and climbed to the top. The wind up there was wicked strong, and scary like you wouldn't believe, especially as you pass that point, in walking around the observation deck, directly into the wind. As you approach the point, the wind is hard in your face. Then suddenly, it's still, as the mass of the lighthouse behind you blocks its force. And then just as suddenly, it's hard in your back. Really a scary feeling, worthy of an amusement park.