Hunting for a Moment

Originally published March 7, 2016 – I wake without the alarm, eyes suddenly wide open.

I turn to look at the clock.  It’s 4:34 a.m.

Time to go.

15 minutes later, I’m out the door of the hotel.  The pre-dawn air is cold and crisp.  The nearly-full moon shines down from a clear sky.

I climb behind the wheel of my rented 4Runner and fire the ignition.

I turn right out of the drive, heading away from civilization.  In a few miles, I’ve left it all behind.

My headlights carve a bright tunnel, and I chase them, accelerating along the familiar path.

I look down at the speedometer:  80 MPH.

Seems about right; I’ve got to get there in time.

I see the turn coming up, and slow.  I make the 90-degree left, and leave familiarity behind.

I speed across the deserted landscape.  Miles roll under my wheels.

I have yet to see another vehicle.

I sense, rather than see, the cliff walls rise around me.  I feel them close in, narrowing the path.

I check the time:  5:17.

I drive faster.  It won’t wait for me, and today’s my last chance.

I pass a sign indicating I’m nearing my destination.  My pulse quickens, and I run through the routine in my mind, preparing for the shot.

The road begins to rise, and I slow, navigating the unknown switchback turns.  While I cannot see them, I know dangerous drops lurk nearby.

The 4Runner is responsive, matching the hairpins smoothly.

I keep driving, passing signs marking altitude – 4,000 ft.

5,000 ft.

6,000 ft.  Still the road rises.

Another series of switchbacks.

I’m rushing now, pushing the SUV harder, using both lanes of the road.  It doesn’t matter; I’m all alone.  The seat shifts beneath me, as I fight through the turns, racing ever closer.

My breathing quickens, from altitude and excitement.

5:32.  Almost there–hurry!

I see the sign, and turn sharply into the lot.  I see two other vehicles; I know why they’re here.

I park, slam the shift into park.

Opening the tailgate, I grab my gear.  It’s awkward, but I don it quickly.

I have to be quiet.

I have to be quick.  There’s no time left.

I leave the vehicle locked, and stride toward my goal, flicking on my headlamp.

I’ve never walked this trail before, so I move carefully, picking out the markers.  The trail is packed sand and slickrock.

I move with almost no sound, approaching my mark.

As I descend along the trail, I become aware of faint voices.  I slow my pace, steady my breathing.

For the first time, I notice the cold.  It’s 24 degrees, and my light jacket offers little protection.

I take the last few steps, and I’m there.

I quietly set up.  My hands are numb from the cold, and ordinary tasks are awkward.  I fumble with the clips and fasteners.

I adjust the settings, and check my position.  Pre-dawn light begins to pale the eastern sky.

I’ve been planning this for four months.

I’ve driven hundreds of miles to get to this precise spot.

I wait.

And as the sun rises in the east, I exhale, hold my breath, and take the shot.

Mesa Arch, sunrise, at Canyonlands National Park, Moab, Utah.

Detroit’s Biggest Ham (Sandwich)

Originally published March 24, 2016 – “Can I get some mayo?”

“No.  Mustard, pickles, cheese.”

“No Miracle Whip?”

“No.  Mustard is better for you!”

So says Mike Muftari, 67, the owner of Mike’s Famous Ham Place, on Michigan Avenue in Detroit. Mike has been here since 1974, along with his wife, Yrvet, serving up some of the best food in Detroit.

Think about it. How many times have you visited a restaurant and been confronted by a multiple-page menu, with four different ethnic cuisines, and prices that would fund a trip to any of the countries in question?  And how often is that food great?

Not often.

There’s a limited menu at Mike’s Famous Ham Place. You can order a ham sandwich, one of two soups, or a plate of ham, eggs, and toast.  There’s usually two pies for dessert, and the usual soft drinks.  That’s it.

So there’s probably no reason to go, unless you’re craving some ham.

If you are, that’s the perfect reason to go. And for 42 years, people have been coming to Mike’s.

The prices are quite reasonable, as you can see, and the menu is largely unchanged from when Mike bought the place back in 1974.

Mike emigrated from Albania in 1973.  His first job was in a more upscale restaurant in Farmington Hills.  It didn’t take long for him to realize that wasn’t for him.  So with two partners, Mike bought this little restaurant in Detroit.

Located on Michigan Avenue, just a bit west of the Midtown renewal, Mike and Yrvet have been serving up great sandwiches and soup for 4 decades (Mike eventually bought out both of his partners), an amazing accomplishment given the failure rate of restaurants.  It’s also amazing considering the changes that have taken place in the neighborhood through the decades.
I’d guess the decor hasn’t changed much in that time.  There are two counters, one facing the grill, and one facing the Avenue.  It’s safe to say Mike’s had an “open kitchen” concept before it ever was a concept.

The ham in question is a whole ham, still warm from the oven, and charred on the outside.  It’s sweet, salty, and incredibly juicy.  Mike carves thick slices for the sandwiches, which come in two sizes:  regular, or large.  You can get the sandwich with any combination of cheese, pickles, or mustard.

But no mayo.

The ham is delicious, and is also prominent in the two homemade soups, split pea or bean.  Both are a bargain, and frankly, enough for a light(er) lunch.

 

Fast food chain Wendy’s used to advertise their chili as having as much meat as their quarter-pound single.  Mike’s soups can probably raise that claim a bit.

A bowl is served on a plate, and the bowl so completely filled that a little almost always slops over onto the plate.  For some reason, this seems completely right, proof you have been given your full and fair measure of soup.

And if Mike likes you, he’ll even hand you a chip of ham on the way in, a quick carve off the crust.  It’s the best part, the charred burnt flavor contrasting with the sweetness of the pork.

But don’t tell him I told you . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mike’s Famous Ham Place is located at 3700 Michigan Avenue, Detroit.  Open daily from 7 a.m. – 3 p.m.  Closed Sundays.

Eating at the Top

Originally published June 8, 2016 – Iridescence continues to be the standard for fine dining in the city of Detroit. Yes, there are newer restaurants. Yes, there are the restaurants of the moment. But none have continued the standard of excellence set by Iridescence, as evinced by their streak of AAA 4 Diamond awards.

We held a large group dinner (18 people) at Iridescence this past weekend. Arrangements were made with David Brown, the manager, for appetizers and champagne to be waiting, and a special menu was provided. I’ve had the pleasure of working with David on a few dinners now, and he is eminently professional, and always delivers top-notch results.

We were ushered into the wine room, where a wonderful table was set: an amazing charcuterie board, Caprese skewers, and an hors d’oeuvres of steak tartare, horseradish crema, and a potato chip. Chelsea and Oretha greeted us with trays holding flutes of champagne. Our group enjoyed the elegant atmosphere, and the delicious appetizers.

After an interval, we were ushered to our table. We had chosen a menu of two soup choices, two salad choices, and five entrees. Most popular were the lobster bisque, an orange bowl of rich, creamy lobster flavor, with the hidden prize of a nugget of what I believe was butter-poached lobster in the bottom of the bowl. This soup was so good we shared tastes with others at the table.

The wedge salad was another popular choice. It was a slight twist on the classic preparation, which in a lesser restaurant can be as simple as a 1/4 head of iceberg, with a dollop of bottled Thousand Island dressing. Not the case here, as the side of tomatoes, the house-made dressing, and the generous topping of bacon combined to elevate this option.

Of the entrees, I chose the spring pea risotto, with black truffles. A good risotto is a thing of joy and comfort, and this was an exceptional version: creamy, the rice cooked till a bit of bite remained, generously topped with truffle. The cheese and fungi were in balance, with neither overpowering the other.

Another guest ordered the filet, a 1 1/2 – 2″ thick cut that claimed to be 10 ounces, but looked larger. She had ordered it rare, and the steak was perfect: a hard sear crusting the outside, with nearly the entire center a deep red hue. She proclaimed it cooked to perfection.

The Bento Box was a very popular choice, ordered by 5 or 6 of our guests. Comprised of crispy tuna, shrimp tempura, seared sea bass, an amazing ceviche, and a couple of other surprises, this was a seafood feast of flavor. Each section was expertly prepared, an overall light meal with bright, full flavors. Several of the guests called out the ceviche as the star of the box, and this is a dish I would love to see added to the menu as an appetizer. I would order it every time I walked in!

For dessert, a cake had been prepared, a white cake: moist, light, tasty, not overly sweet. It was a great ending to the meal.

Service throughout the evening was stellar. Oretha and Chelsea took wonderful care of us. Frankly, front of house at Iridescence has always been a strength. What was great to see on this visit was the outstanding food from Chef Rutkowski’s kitchen. The menu has been updated with more imaginative choices (the bento box!), and the appetizer side remains where Iridescence, well, shines. One could certainly make an interesting evening simply treating the appetizers as small plates, and splitting a number of the choices.

Regardless of your choice, Iridescence always serves up an elegant evening. The service, cuisine, and view remain at the top of the Detroit dining scene.

Howler Monkeys, Leaf Blowers, and Conference Calls

Originally published July 11, 2016 – I just returned from ten days of vacation in Costa Rica.  We stayed at a wonderful all-inclusive resort located on Playa Conchal, touted as the most beautiful beach in Costa Rica.

And who am I to argue?

Unbeknownst to us, our rooms were located along the main Howler Monkey commuter line.  That is, twice daily the mango trees next to our veranda filled with a troop of twenty to thirty Howlers, feeding, howling, and posing for pictures taken by vacationing logisticians.

For those of you that haven’t had the chance to hear a Howler in person, they are the loudest land animal, topping out at around 130 decibels (jet engines are 140 db).  They sound like demons welcoming tortured souls to the gates of hell.  Here’s a link to audio recorded by a traveler in Mexico:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kBCsWe6ufuY

For ten days, that was my wake-up call.  About 6 a.m., the male howlers would start hooting, working up to their full blown howls.  By then, I was wide awake!  I’d grab my camera and head out to see what I could shoot that morning.

To my amusement, I found the monkeys were usually talkative in the morning:  if I hooted and howled at them, they’d usually respond.  And I could  usually get some good pictures.

Now, Dr. Doolittle I’m not, so I’m not sure if I was picking a fight, giving directions to the beach, or asking for a date.  But I like the shots I was able to get.

However,  what was most engrossing was in the late morning, when the grounds crew would come by, using leafblowers to clear the walkways.  The roar of the leafblowers infuriated the monkeys!

The monkeys would become highly agitated, screaming at the leafblowers.  They would roar and howl, screaming their anger at the groundskeepers, who had heard it all before, and wore headphones to dampen the din.

And after twenty or thirty minutes, when their work was completed, the groundskeepers would turn off their leafblowers, and move on to their next job.

The howlers, satisfied their mad howling had accomplished much, fell silent, and went back to eating their mangoes.

And I, convinced I had just observed the perfect metaphor for most office conference calls, went back inside to jot down my thoughts.

Loud English

Originally published July 25, 2016 – “There are (those) whose passports should be stamped NOT VALID OUTSIDE THE CONTINENTAL LIMITS OF THE USA.”

So wrote one of my favorite authors, the late John D. MacDonald, in The Turquoise Lament, published in 1973.

Having just returned from Costa Rica, I can confirm that is still a valid premise.

Two incidents really brought this home.

The first was when we were dining in the French restaurant at our resort.  We were seated next to an American family of four, who were already working on their salads.  They were having a typical family vacation dinner conversation:  what we did today, what we’re doing tomorrow, what sis did to irritate brother, etc.

As we ordered our dinner, the waitstaff was serving them their entrees.

Three of the four had ordered the lamb chops, delivered in two racks of three bones each.  They appeared to have been ordered well-done, judging from the overall charred look of the meat.

As the plates arrived, the son, who appeared to be in his early twenties, picked up a rack with his right hand, and began gnawing the meat off the bones.  His mother briefly chided him, perfunctorily and without conviction.

He paid her no mind, and continued tearing with his teeth, tearing the overcooked meat off the bones.

I was trying to make an excuse for this in my mind, when he brought his left hand up, and began picking his nose.  Rack of lamb in the right hand; left hand buried knuckle deep in his nostril.

It was amazing.

Just then, the waiter appeared, apparently to ask how the entrees were.  However, he took one look, spun, and walked away.

I did the same, focusing on my table, and doing my best to ignore the next table, while mentally making the fifty buck “Caddyshack” bet with myself.

The second incident was later at night, a few days later.  I was walking back from one of the shows, when I saw an older woman standing by a golf cart, speaking loudly to the driver, a maintenance worker.  He was responding in Spanish, and looked a bit desperate.

She was speaking Loud English with a Texas drawl, and was clearly both irritated, and three sheets to the wind.

I asked if I could be of assistance.

She turned to me, attempted to focus on me, and said, “I’m trying to get THIS MAN to take me home!”  Evidently, she had tired of waiting for the official shuttle, and had confronted the maintenance worker for a ride back to her building (probably a 3-block walk).

I said, “Well ma’am, I’m not sure you’re his type!”

Ba-dum-dum.

Blank stare from Ms. Texas, as she swayed like a palm tree in the breeze (all my best lines are wasted).

I explained the maintenance worker isn’t allowed to shuttle guests, but I’d be happy to walk her back to her building.

She wasn’t having it–it was imperative that, despite the language gap, the maintenance worker drive her to her building, right now!  “I want a ride to my building!” she loudly repeated to the worker.

Just then, one of the shuttles pulled up, saving all of us from further disagreement.  I helped her onto the shuttle, told the driver her building number, and watched them pull away.

The maintenance worker gave me an emphatic “Muchas gracias!” and headed off to his duties.

As I walked back to my building, I tried to remember where exactly I had first heard the quote “They don’t speak Loud English either!”

Also still a valid premise.

The Most Fun You Can Have for a Nickel

Originally published August 31, 2016 – I’m eating dinner at Big Al’s Hamburgers at the Junction, in Kaban, UT, after a full day of hiking and photography, including a trip to Horseshoe Bend, pictured above.

Big Al’s is a throwback, the kind of local restaurant every town in middle America used to have.  Whether it’s named Ye Olde Malt Shoppe, The Max, or Al’s Drive In, every small town had one of these.  Sadly, most are now gone, overtaken by Arches, Kings, and Castles.

But Big Al’s endures, with it’s menu of burgers, dogs, fries, and shakes.  As I’m spooning down my raspberry shake (too thick to sip), the place is taken over by a flock of high school kids. Makes sense, since it’s mostly staffed by teenagers.

The kids are talking about the usual, but then one of them mentions something unusual: there’s a nickel in the toilet in the men’s restroom. Much discussion ensues about why the nickel won’t flush, and how long it’s been in there (everyone agrees at least a week). The girl who works there even mentions someone sending her a SnapChat of the famous nickel.

They keep talking, and I finish my shake.

Since it’s 74 miles back to Page, AZ, where I’m spending the night, I figure a pit stop is in order. I head to the men’s room, which has only a toilet.

Sure enough, there’s a nickel in the toilet.

As I’m washing my hands, an idea occurs to me. I frantically search my pockets – pennies, quarters, a dime – yes! One nickel.

I turn the tap back on, and soak the nickel. And my right hand.

Dripping water, I leave the bathroom. The teenage girl at the counter looks my way, sees me leaving the bathroom, then looks away.

I walk over to her, standing behind the stainless steel counter, and I lean over it, and SLAP! that nickel down on the counter. Water splashes across the counter, some drops hitting her. I let go of the nickel, and slide my hand back to my side of the counter, leaving a wet trail.

She looks at me, as though I am very odd.

I look down at the nickel, look up at her, and say, “I took care of that – and here I made air quotes, with water dripping from my right hand – “plumbing problem”.

She looks at me uncomprehendingly, then I see her start to get it. I wink at her, turn, and walk from the building. As the door closes behind me, I hear her scream “Oh MY GAWD! GRRRRRRrrooooooos!”

I climb in my car, and leave the fine citizens of Kaban behind.

I laughed the whole way back.

That’s the most fun I’ve ever had for a nickel.

Tu Casa es Mi Casa

 

 

 

 

 

Originally published February 27, 2017 – Tucson, Arizona, is one of my favorite cities. Tucson has a bit of everything: a historic Old Town, a thriving university (Go ‘cats!), and an outstanding culinary scene.

On that last point, you don’t have to just take my word for it. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designated Tucson a World City of Gastronomy, the only U.S. city to receive this designation.

And my favorite Tucson restaurant is Poco & Mom’s.

Located on the corner of South Kolb Road and 22nd Street, Poco & Mom’s is a small, unassuming restaurant serving exceptional Southwestern food. It’s been open since 1999, and I discovered it during my first trip to Tucson, back in 2010 or so. And every time I’m back in town, breakfast at P&M’s is a priority.

And before every meal at Poco & Mom’s, I bow my head and pray. I pray that a certain spiky-haired spray-tanned Food Network “star” never discovers this place. Who needs the crowds?

There are three excellent reasons to eat at Poco & Mom’s. First, the menu states everything is made with love. I’d agree – the food is cooked with love and pride. It’s not rushed, it’s plated neatly, and served by staff that are proud of their restaurant.

The other two reasons are the Hatch Green Chile sauce, and the Red Chile Pork. These sauces adorn several of the dishes, and really are the key to their cuisine.

The Hatch Green Chile sauce is made with green New Mexico Chile Peppers grown in the Hatch Valley in, well,  New Mexico. These heirloom peppers are 5 – 6″ long, and spicy. The chiles measure 2,500 on the Scoville scale, about the same as a jalapeno. They are fire roasted, peeled, and made into a delicious sauce that tastes great on everything. I mean, you could pour this on a dish of rusty nails and it would taste great (note – do not eat a plate of rusty nails–or if you do, don’t sue me).

The Red Chile Pork is more complex. Made with dried red New Mexico Chile Peppers, pork shoulder, and garlic, the resulting sauce features fork-tender cubes of pork, in a rich red curry-like sauce. There’s heat, but more so, tons of flavor.

These two sauces reach their apex of utility when combined in the Silver City Breakfast, the best dish on the menu. Crispy hash browns are cooked with onion, then topped with Hatch Green Chile sauce, cheddar and jack cheese, and two over easy eggs. The Red Chile Pork is then ladled over the top.

The resulting plate is finished with refried beans, and a warm homemade tortilla on the side. I keep the beans pristine, but I slice open the eggs to let the yolk cascade over the plate, and mix up the resulting mess, mopping up with torn slices of tortilla.

 

It’s heavenly – the crispy hash browns, the rich egg yolk and melted cheese, the succulent bits of lean pork, and the spice of the two sauces. The heat is a bit sneaky, it doesn’t hit you at first, but it is cumulative. By the end of the meal, you know you’ve eaten some hot food.

Well, that’s a lie.

It’s not the end of the meal. Because Poco & Mom’s also makes homemade sopapillas.

Dessert after a rich, flavorful, satisfying, and filling breakfast?

Yes, please!

So two discs of fried dough are delivered to my table, along with plastic cups of honey and powdered sugar. If you use just the powdered sugar, you’ll have a flavor reminiscent of the beignets at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans.

To me, the better choice is tearing open the sopapilla, and pouring the honey inside. It’s neater, your hands don’t get as sticky, and you don’t look like an extra from Scarface.

In addition to cooling the heat from the peppers, the honey-drenched sopapillas serve also serve as a doughy digestif. Somehow, after eating them, and drinking the strong black coffee you ordered with them, you’re less full than before dessert.

And you’re ready for the 10-mile hike you’ll need to work it off.

So if you happen to be in Tucson, stop in at Poco & Mom’s for breakfast or lunch (there’s also a new cantina location serving dinner). And if you have the urge to email that certain Camaro-drivin’ celebrity to sing the praises of this simple diner, please sit down until it goes away.

We need to keep this one our secret.