Sunday, September 24, 2006

Ain't That America

I just came back from Indiana. The rest of the state has to be better than where I was.


The Chicagoland area encompasses the northernmost part of Indiana, including Gary (made famous by The Music Man) and Michigan City, both of which run along the south shore of Lake Michigan. We flew into Chicago on Friday for a bachelor/ette party and then headed wayyy out to Michigan City on Saturday to spend the rest of the weekend doing more wedding-related activities (mostly eating).


I have to say, I was unimpressed with both.


I've been to Chicago before, but on business trips staying in a nice hotel and not really seeing suburbs (except Highland Park, where Michelle is from). This time around I got to drive around the southern neighborhoods (yikes - I swear it's stuck in 1979) and eat deep dish pizza for the first time at Lou Malnati's (I like Uno's better). Even though I'm the groom's friend, I got stuck with the bachelorette festivities, which was planned as a sleepover. The problem is, we didn't really do anything. There was a bellydancing instructor who came to give us a lesson, but she wasn't very good and just did a lot of talking and not a lot of teaching. I don't think we really learned anything, and I felt like an expert compared to her. Can't wait to go back to Crunch and take another class with Mimi.


The best part was staying over in an amazing converted loft apartment in the old Rowe Building on Printer's Row near the Loop in downtown Chicago. The bride's sister-in-law has an amazing space and it was cool to be in such a historic area I'd never seen, with the El tracks looming above...


It was too bad we had to drive the hour and a half out to Michigan City, but we did some exploring there too. I knew that there were a lot of dunes along the beach shore, and we got to see one for ourselves: Mt. Baldy, a huge mountain made of sand that - because of wind, erosion and other environmental factors - actually moves 4 ft. every year. It looms 123 ft. high above the Lake Michigan shore and there's only one way to get to the top: a practically vertical climb of pure sand, flanked by foresty trees. I was certain I'd never make it up there but after taking my time, I managed to ascend to the flat top and see the gorgeous and bizarre view (obstructed only by the weird fossil fuel plant next door). By the time we stumbled down the vertical drop to the bottom (some ran, I squished my bare feet in very slowly and carefully), our legs were covered up to the knees in sand, grains like cinnamon sugar, soft and sweet between our toes.


Michigan City has this nature thing happening but it's also riddled with chain restaurants and big discount superstores. For a small town, it has no small town feel - only highways, a weird casino that's half boat / half building, and tons of cigarette/tobacco shops and fireworks stores. I was happy to eat at the Bob Evans for breakfast, but I don't know if that was because it's good or because I was anxious to get away from my repulsive motel room with the terrifyingly dirty bedspread.


The wedding today took us back to nature, at the International Friendship Gardens. It looks like they have a great variety of gardens and hiking trails there, but we stuck to the official wedding area which, although chilly today, was a beautiful venue for a marriage ceremony.


I'm glad I was there this weekend - after all, it's all about friendship - but I'm betting that Vic's December wedding in St. Thomas is going to give me a more enjoyable vacation.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Late at night when it's hard to rest....

I'm finally back in NYC but I thought I would never get here. I took the redeye on American last night, not by choice but by force from my boss. I know I can't really sleep on planes, and with my back, it was just asking for trouble.


I was actually pretty happy yesterday up to the point of getting on the plane. A few of our adventures actually started to redeem LA for me, and make me want to come back for more exploring. While looking for Radio Disney's offices, we found Bob's 49 Big Boy in Burbank - apparently the first and oldest-standing restaurant in the Big Boy chain. They still do the car hop thing and the exterior boasts the amazing original sign, as well as the recognizable Big Boy statue.


In Syracuse we had a franchise called TJ's Big Boy, and that was always our breakfast buffet stop on our way to the Adirondacks for family vacations. When I visited my sister in Columbus, OH she brought me to a Bob's, but it basically looked like a Ponderosa or something. This Big Boy in Burbank is what I've been looking for. It's like a slice of American Graffiti, and although I never got to experience 1950s American culture, I felt an immediate connection.


Unfortunately my travelling partner isn't much of a junk food guy and our eating schedule was weird so we didn't go in to eat. But it's spitting distance from the Burbank airport, so the next time I fly JetBlue...


Louis Jr's burger stand is right over here
After a full day of meetings, even my health food boss was ready to grab any grub we could find, so when we drove towards the LAX rental car return in search of gas and saw the Big Donut, both our faces lit up. "Does that say burgers?" he asked. Right next store is Louis Jr's burger stand, a place I can't even find on the internet (click here for map), but the experience there was unforgettable. They serve burgers and turkey burgers "colossal" style, which means they slap some grilled pastrami on top with a reddish special sauce that makes a big, sloppy, juicy meal. They also serve burritos and chicken sandwiches and a few other things, but the best thing is to get a collosal burger with cheese and just dig in.


I figured donuts would make a perfect dessert so I went to Randy's and got a couple to try. The cruller was disappointing to me, but I only got it for boss-man who wanted a taste anyway, so I threw the rest out. It wasn't surprising I didn't like the cruller - that guy and I don't agree on anything. He didn't like the Grafton hotel, what does that tell you?!


I must say, though: best jelly donut of my life. Can't wait to go back and try some other flavors.


I'm glad to be back, though. I really need some sleep. And food that won't make me fat.

Monday, September 4, 2006

Labor Day Weekend Travels Part II

The trip back today went relatively smoothly. I did get to stop in Scranton and eat at Perkins, though their "new-improved" salad bread bowl is really bizarre, and not that tasty. But it's still a great place to eat, even by yourself, and I got a sugar cookie to go, to keep me company on the rest of the trip home.


I left Syracuse a bit later than I wanted to (making a requisite stop at Carousel mall), so of course I was pretty much rushed the whole way back to Newark. Instead of stopping at every scenic overlook and taking pictures like I wanted to, I treated the trip back as more of a fact-finding mission for the next time I drive through that way. Besides all the previously mentioned restaurants, there's also The Crossings outlet mall, and Bushkills Falls (known as "The Niagara of Pennsylvania"). Plus, Pennsylvania (esp. the Scranton area) has all these coal mine tours, and even a mining museum. Probably great family vacation attractions, which means of course I want to go.


But today I spent a long time in stand-still traffic on 80E, and soon thereafter my check engine (or check oil?) light went on, so I was anxious to drop that frickin' rental car off in Newark.


By the way, if the car rental company asks you whether you prefer a KIA Rio or Optima, tell them "Neither. Give me a car with a quiet transmission and a steering wheel that doesn't shake."

Saturday, September 2, 2006

Labor Day Weekend Travels Pt 1

I rented a car today and drove up from Newark, NJ to Syracuse, NY. What a shithole Newark is. The last time I rented a car there (which is much cheaper than Manhattan), I was driving home for Christmas, and I got terribly lost getting to the highway. Finding my way went much more smoothly and quickly today, and soon I was careening down Route 80 in the rain, through the Poconos and the Del Water Gap, past the area where I went skydiving last year for my birthday.


I smartly planned my trip upstate with Maria in two sections: two hours to Scranton, pit stop, and then two hours to Syracuse. We made a detour outside of Scranton to Clarks Summit, a cute mountain town that houses all the chain restaurants you could ever want, including the only open Bennigan's I've seen in months and Waffle House. They also have a crazy restaurant right next to Waffle House called Vince the Pizza Prince, whose structure is an actual castle. I'll have to eat there one day but today I was hell-bent on introducing Maria to the famous waffles and coffee.


I think on my way back to NYC on Monday I'll drive the same way and stop to eat at one of the several fully operational Perkins restaurants in the Scranton area. I thought they were all long gone (the Syracuse locations having been replaced by Denny's), but lo and behold, they're all over the place (including three on Staten Island!).


Weather is crap and I'll probably skip the State Fair this year. Hope the visibility on the ride back is better than on the way up here.