Two Days in San Francisco

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It turns out that the shorter the itinerary, the worse I would be to have as a travel companion.

That’s what I gleaned from the 48 hours I spent — as a party of one, mind you — in San Francisco at the end of May. After all, I did run on the Golden Gate Bridge, watch a soccer game, eat a sandwich named after a SportsCenter anchor, watch a baseball game, and attend a concert — and that was just my last day in San Francisco.

Whew. I’ll slow down a little and start from the beginning.

Upon landing at San Francisco International Airport at midnight on a Friday, I was too wired to fall asleep at my lodging for the first night in San Francisco, the terminal that my JetBlue plane landed in. That was the lone downside of sleeping through the cross-country flight from JFK to SFO: staying awake and browsing the internet on my phone until I fell asleep on a chair at 2 am, then waking up 2.5 hours later because I already slept five hours on the flight.

Some time around 6 am, I boarded the BART Commuter Rail for downtown San Francisco. After dropping off my backpack at the hotel, I made my first mistake of the trip an hour later. I decided that I would walk two miles from the hotel to the Painted Ladies, the famed homes you saw for the first time during the opening montage for Full House.

Two miles is a piece of cake to walk in New York, so why not get around that way in San Francisco. In my rush to get going, I failed to account for the topography in San Francisco, so that inclines I ran into made the two mile walk feel like four miles. (A detour to a Safeway to buy a drink kept the jaunt on the comfortable side.) I planned to sit in the Alamo Square Park across from the Painted Ladies, and recreate the Full House view of the Painted Ladies, but the entire green space was closed off for construction. So I had to settle for hogging up a street parking space for this portrait of the famous homes.

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I smarted up and took a bus downtown for the next touristy task on hand: riding the famous San Francisco cable car. It turns out that riding the trolley is like catching the subway during the evening rush hour.

The operators of the cable car cram in as many people as possible at the Market Street terminal. You’re crushed like sardines if you end up like me, standing in the aisle, flanked by the folks who grabbed the seats on the sides of the cable car and up against fellow standers to your front and back. The folks seated and standing up front with the operator of the trolley had a little more leg room, but if you’re lucky enough to get something in the front, you might as well go all-in and hang on to a column on the edge of the trolley.

The ride itself felt like a Disney experience. The car rattled as it drove forward and the hilly terrain caused me to hang on to dear life as the trolley plunged downward when we hit a dip in the road. Riding the trolley is a fun, if pricey experience — the $7.00 lopped off a third of the $20.00 I invested in a Clipper card — but if you’re claustrophobic or get motion sickness, you’re better off staying away from the trolley.

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The trolley stopped just outside Fisherman’s Wharf, a pretty tourist trap by the sea. A coworker told me that San Francisco is the home of sourdough bread, so I hung out at the Boudin Bakery. The presentation of the bread here is amusing. Sourdough bread is available in the shape of a simple circle (the wheel), a gator (Go Gators!), a crab (hello, Maryland!), a teddy bear (your kids will never let you eat that), and a turtle (soft-shelled), a heart (the new Straw Man), and the San Francisco Giants logo (psh, pandering). They’d make great centerpieces for a fancy dinner with family and friends.

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The sourdough bread is better here than anywhere else I’ve had it, because the bread is soft all over. But I made the mistake of ordering an entire wheel of sourdough and trying to eat it with a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich held together by — what else? — sourdough bread. It took me an hour to finish everything and throw away any opportunity I had of getting an official endorsement by the Atkins Diet organization.

Guilty over all the bread I ate for brunch, I walked from Fisherman’s Wharf and up the massive hill — pausing twice for a few minutes each to catch my breath — to Lombard Street, the famed crooked road of the city. The red-bricked road is open to motor vehicles only, but there are stairs for pedestrians that flank the corkscrews of the road. I don’t know why anyone would own a home on that road because the crowds Lombard Street attracts are huge, but it’s a neat little diversion in the city. My only wish was that I could have skipped the stairs and ran up and down the entire stretch on the main road itself.

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I walked back down the steep hill to Ghirardelli Square to go to the original Ghirardelli ice cream shop, despite the sourdough still weighing me down. For my belated dessert, I indulged in the Crissy Field — the Cookie Bits sundae consisting of a scoop of vanilla ice cream and two scoops of cookies and cream ice cream topped off with whipped cream, chunks of chocolate chip cookies, hot fudge, and Ghirardelli Milk Chocolate Caramel Minis. It was so good and so sweet and so rich and so filling — I barely finished the scoops of ice cream before they melted and the chocolate caramel minis, but the second half of chocolate chip cookie chunks defeated me. When I take my next trip to Orlando, I’m going to the Ghirardelli at Disney Springs, ordering the Crissy Field, and finishing everything this time around.

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Bloated, I walked to the nearest bus stop and waited alongside a fellow 20-something and her mother visiting from Chicago, so we ended up talking sports and food in the Windy City until their bus arrived. (I could have done without the food talk for once.) After 20 minutes of waiting and a 20 minute ride west, I arrived at one of the most beautiful sites in the country: the Golden Gate Bridge.

I spent 1.5 hours staring at the bridge and the vista surrounding it, savoring every minute of that beautiful view and the fresh air. This redeemed the first time I saw the Golden Gate Bridge a couple years ago — through the window of a bus for about two minutes, because I needed to stay on that bus and get back to SFO before the end of my 3.5 hour layover.

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The weather cooperated with stare down against the red-orange Golden Gate Bridge: clear sky, sunny, no fog. The ideal conditions made the structure and its surroundings look like they were ripped straight from a painting. It’s a testament to the engineers and construction crew who designed and built the bridge to blend in seamlessly with the mountains and Pacific Ocean that share the space.

After I had my fill, I took a bus back downtown, walked to my hotel, checked-in, and went to sleep an hour later.

It was 7 pm when I turned in for the night.


I went to bed at dinner time for normal human beings so I could wake up at the ungodly time of 4:30 am to catch a bus to the Golden Gate Bridge. An hour later, I was at the bridge for a sunrise run at the historic landmark, an item on the bucket list I can check off. The temperature was in the comfortable 50s, but strong winds made it feel about 10 degrees cooler as I shivered through my pre-run stretches.

Running the bridge was way more fun than standing around and just looking at the bridge. My arrival at dawn meant I basically had the whole pedestrian path on the bridge to myself during the run. I’d run; stop to take pictures of the bridge, the ocean, the mountains, or Alcatraz; continue running; stop to take more pictures of the landscape and bridge. After the second stop, I forced myself to continue uninterrupted into the Marin County side of the bridge.

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The span of the bridge is 1.7 miles, so a round trip between the San Francisco end and the Marin County end equates to a 5K and change. I couldn’t have asked for a better run: just me, the sunrise, the mountains, the ocean, and the wind. Those 30-ish minutes were bliss with Earth.

The rest of the day went up and down after that. I went to the Pig and Whistle with about 50 other Crystal Palace supporters to watch our club lose the FA Cup Final in heartbreaking fashion in extra time. The loss still stings, but the friendships I made there sort of make up for it.

I then went to Ike’s Place to try ESPN SportsCenter anchor Jaymee Sire’s “Jaymee Sirewich,” the best chicken sandwich I’ve ever had. The fried chicken is topped with a mustard-based BBQ sauce, lettuce, and tomatoes, all of which is sandwiched within a sourdough (of course) roll. The wait for the sandwich was about 20 minutes and it’s messy to eat, but it was worth the wait and the napkin shortage I incurred.

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Afterward, I made my way to AT&T Park to watch my Cubs play against the San Francisco Giants. Outside of Wrigley Field, AT&T Park is the most beautiful baseball stadium I’ve visited — the San Francisco Bay is the perfect backdrop for the retro-classic design of the ballpark, like what the Thames is to Fulham’s Craven Cottage. I’m glad I enjoyed the sights and sounds of AT&T park, because the Cubs joined Palace in the defeated circle after suffering a 5-3 loss to the Giants. The Cubs scattered 10 hits, but couldn’t execute the timely hits to drive home runners in scoring position, while starter Jon Lester gave up all five runs and got pulled before the end of the third inning.

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But my last day in the Bay Area ended on a high note at The Social Hall, where I watched my favorite band Idlewild perform its first West Coast show in a decade. After waiting 10 years for the band to return to the United States on tour, the Scottish band’s stop in San Francisco marked the third time I attended a concert of theirs in a seven month span. (I would make it four Idlewild concert dates in seven months a couple days later when I flew down to Los Angeles to watch the band perform at the Sunset Strip’s Roxy Theatre.)

The show ended at midnight and I made it to my hotel shortly before 1 am. After cleaning and packing, I fell asleep at 2 am. My phone alarm went off at 3:30 am—time to check-out. I had a 6 am flight to Los Angeles to catch.

And that’s how I ended my 48 hours in San Francisco the same way I started it: exhausted.

Temporary Texan: Not in Love

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The arrival of my Friday, April 29, 2016, flight from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Dallas Love Field was scheduled for 10:50 pm. Perfect timing. I could toss out a “FRIDAY I’M IN LOVE” check-in to Love Field after the Southwest Boeing 737 hit the tarmac and the flight attendant announced that we could now use our mobile devices.

But a storm rolled into Baltimore and hovered over the airport. The Southwest gate attendant for my flight held a contest for the passengers to see who could fold a paper airplane that would fly the longest distance. Twenty passengers took up the challenge; two planes tied for the longest distance and went into a sudden death fly-off to decide the winner. The first finalist threw his paper airplane straight up into the ceiling. The second contestant gently tossed his plane in such a way that it glided in a straight line for the win.

Another hour passed after the end of the paper airplane contest before we were allowed to board our flight. The delay pushed our arrival into Dallas close to 1 am on Saturday. Golden social media opportunity missed.

After sleeping over in the airport, I picked up the rental car and drove off toward Fort Worth for breakfast at — where else? — a Whataburger, the ubiquitous fast food chain that can be relied upon because they’re all open 24 hours. I had a Whatburger, then hopped back in the car and continued west to the campus of Texas Christian University. Tim, a friend of mine from high school who moved to Dallas after our freshman year, attended TCU, and settled down in the area. I would be spending the next day with him — our first time hanging out since 2007, when he visited Orlando for Christmas — so I figured that walking the TCU campus and bringing up some observations would make for good conversation. (And for working off two percent of the calories I ingested in that Whataburger breakfast.)

The campus of TCU reminded me of the campus of home, the University of Florida. They’re both big campuses that seem tiny because all the academic buildings and athletic facilities are concentrated near each other. I spent most of my time at Amon G. Carter Stadium, the on-campus football stadium for TCU. (Did Carter’s parents have a sneaky sense of humor? Amon G.? Among?) Again, just like how UF keeps The Swamp open for people who want to run stadiums or tour the facility, TCU left one of the Carter Stadium gates open for visitors. My favorite part of the walk was learning that LaDainian Tomlinson attended TCU after stumbling upon a banner of his image in the stadium.

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After I got my fill of Horned Frogs, I drove the hour north to Frisco’s Toyota Stadium, the venue for Edgefest, the 26th edition of alternative radio station KDGE 102.1 FM’s annual music festival. At the ripe old age of over-25-years-old, I don’t have the stamina to joust for position among the crowds of the General Admission pits, so I paid for a cheap seat in the stadium to watch the sets. The Struts turned in an amusing set that was half concert, half audience participation, with the lead singer getting the pit to follow his directions on when to sing, dance, or shout. I liked the tunes that The Joy Formidable and Foals chose for their sets; the volume of their instruments overpowered the microphones of their lead singers and I didn’t hear many lyrics.

I burned under the sun for 1.5 hours listening to these good bands, plus two others I don’t remember because I’m writing this two months after the fact, as the opening acts for the 20-minute set I traveled down to Texas for: Chvrches. Maintaining my three year streak of seeing the Scottish trio live, especially with Clearest Blue — my favorite song from the band — anchoring their setlists this year was the main excuse for visiting Dallas.

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The trip was worth it. The sound team for Chvrches has been amazing in every intimate, indoor venue I’ve seen the band play in, but Edgefest was the first time I heard the band in a large setting. The sound crew nailed the acoustics for the open-air environment without a hitch; the synthesizers blasted my ears, but they complemented the voice of lead singer Lauren Mayberry, whose lyrics I could still hear clearly.

On Sunday, the first day of May, I returned to Fort Worth to meet up with Tim and catch up on the last nine years. (That took all day.) Our first stop was turn around and return to Arlington for brunch at Mac’s Bar and Grill, which has the excellent Eggs Point St. George, an Eggs Benedict with crab meat, and the all-you-can-eat cinnamon roll bar. Then we made the short drive to watch the Texas Rangers host the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (Orange County California United States Earth The Universe… apologies to Owen Meany) at Globe Life Park to knock out ballpark 11/30 on my tour.

The thing I didn’t find out until I arrived at Globe Life Park is that the ballpark sits across the street from Arlington’s second theme park, Jerry World, the behemoth AT&T Stadium that looks more like a grounded unidentified flying object than the home of the Dallas Cowboys. The contrast between the two stadiums is striking and, in a way, apt for how baseball and football have entrenched themselves into American culture. The colossus that is AT&T Stadium is futuristic-looking, a large and out-of-place building in what’s otherwise an office park area of Arlington, while the retro design of Globe Life Park evokes the nostalgia for pre-1960’s ballparks and Texan pride with a pattern of longhorns painted throughout the exterior.

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The Rangers tossed out ace Cole Hamels — who threw a no-hitter against my Cubs the last time I saw him — against the Angels’ Opening Day starter, Garrett Richards. Despite two top-of-the-rotation starters pitted against each other, this game was so painful to watch because there was too much offense. The Angels’ 9-6 victory over the Rangers that day came with a combined 28 hits, 17 left on base, and my soul withering away as the game broke the three-hour mark. The game came to a merciful end 33 minutes later.

After the game, Tim and I celebrated our survival of LOB baseball with dinner at Babe’s Chicken House. For the low price of about $13.00 per person, you get four giant pieces of fried chicken and family-style sides of collared greens, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, salad, and biscuits. And this being Texas, the meal isn’t complete with a glass of sweet tea.

But as great as everything up there sounds — and it is all excellent food — let’s talk about those biscuits. Placed at the center of every table are glass containers of honey and molasses. The honey and molasses are to be poured on those biscuits. This may seem unimportant to everyone else in the world in the face of fried chicken, but for me, this was a dream come true.

Molasses was back in my life.

Thanks to Babe’s, I had molasses in a meal for the first time since fourth grade, when my class had a Little House on the Prairie lunch with venison and molasses and other stuff the Ingalls family ate. I poured molasses on top of the first biscuit and ate the soaked biscuit with a fork and knife. For the second biscuit, I stole an idea from a neighboring table and cut the biscuit in half, so that the bread in the center was exposed, and saturated each half of the open biscuit with molasses. (Turns out that’s the proper way to do things with biscuit and molasses, but Tim and I didn’t know that.) My pairing of the biscuits with the sweet tea would have earned me a scolding from Wilford Brimley.

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After we finished our meal, Tim told our waitress that I was visiting Arlington in my trek to watch a game at all 30 MLB ballparks.

“Have you been to Wrigley Field yet?” she asked me.

“Of course! It’s my hometown club. I’m a Cubs fan,” I said.

“So am I!”

No freakin’ way.

She spent part of her childhood south of Rockford, Illinois, then her dad moved the family down to Texas for a job, where she’s lived since. She said she’d return to Wrigley over the summer to play the Rangers and that she wants a Cubs-Rangers World Series this season so that she could try to attend a game.

One tiny dream came true in Babe’s on that May Day when the molasses landed on the biscuits. Based on the Cubs’ NL-leading record of 51-26 and the Rangers’ AL-leading record of 51-28 (as of the morning of June 30, 2016), her dream may also become a reality in the fall. Let’s hope it does.

Temporary Texan: Seven Hours in San Antonio

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The three-hour drive west on Interstate 10 from Houston to San Antonio starts with four lanes of highway in Houston. After passing Katy, the interstate gradually narrows to two lanes; the suburban amenities of restaurants, gas stations, and big box stores give way to miles of trees and grass for grazing; and the speed limit jumps from 60 mph to 80 mph. But what defines this section of the 10 as uniquely Texan are the work zone signs that reduce the speed limit to a mere 60 mph in the presence of construction workers. Safety first!

I undertook the long drive for this reason: dinner at Cured at Pearl. In an uncommon example that the site can be used for good, Twitter told me about Cured, and then I looked up the menu. Five glorious words on that document told me it would be worth the trip: PORK CHEEKS POUTINE (‘Nuff Said).

But since Cured doesn’t open up for dinner until 5 pm, I figured I could use the day to fulfill the obligatory tourist visits to the Riverwalk and the Alamo and partake in Fiesta. Fiesta is a two-week festival that takes over San Antonio; everyone comes together to celebrate the diverse cultural heritage of the city. It’s amazing how Fiesta has evolved into a world renowned spectacle, considering its humble roots in the 1890s as a single parade held in celebration of the defenders of the Alamo. The Fiesta Flambeau Parade, the largest illuminated parade in America, was scheduled for 7 pm. As I drove around downtown looking for an open parking garage, people were already camping out for spots along Broadway, the main corridor of the parade.

It was 11 am when I drove by these folks.

I parked the rental car in the parking garage of a Hilton just off the highway and began the walk through the Market Street and Commerce Street branches of the Riverwalk. Similarly to the tidal basin in Washington, D.C., the Riverwalk is a scenic site with plenty of photo opportunities and plenty of people — and the fear that you could fall into the water with how narrow the walkways become because they’re always packed with people. The crowds swelled that day for a happy reason: new members of the Air Force in their cadet blues took a day trip with their families to the city to celebrate the end of field training.

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The walk through the two branches of the Riverwalk finished in about 1.5 hours. My favorite segment was the Arneson River Theater along the Market branch. The river separates the stage — which features the façade of a villa — from the grass steps that the audience sits on. It’s a relatively tiny venue, but there’s an air of tranquility about it because of its size and the physical break between stage and seats. Although I passed through in the heat of midday, the theater seems like an ideal place to spend evening under the stars.

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After the Riverwalk, I made my way to the Fiesta carnival outside Cathedral of San Fernando. There were dueling concerts going where the music somehow didn’t interfere with each other and plenty of concession stands. It was tempting to grab a full meal here, but with Cured looming a few hours away, I went for a bag of mini churros instead.

As I continued walking around the cathedral while chomping on churros, I got my firsthand lesson on the importance of medals in Fiesta. The people of San Antonio are serious about collecting them — scores of people walked by me wearing sashes covered in medals or shirts with a quadrant adorned with them. The people loaded with medals embodied how I imagined Pokemon trainers would wear their eight badges when they made the Victory Road trek to the Elite Four. (/nerd)

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I turned my walk around Cathedral of San Fernando into a 10 minute walk to the Alamo. When I learned about the Battle of the Alamo and “Remember the Alamo” in school, I expected a sprawling fort akin to San Juan, Puerto Rico’s Castillo San Cristobal. After all, why else would a bunch of Americans and a few Europeans hunker down there and fight to the bitter end?

When I arrived at the site, I had to do a double take. Sure, the façade standing right in front of me looked like the Alamo, but from my spot at the cenotaph across the street, the entirety of the Alamo was at eye level with me. The building seemed too short and too narrow to be *The* Alamo. Then I went inside the historic site, found out that what I knew of the Alamo — the façade ahead of me — was a chapel on a former Catholic mission, and the size of the compound made more sense to me. The Alamo was never designed for war; man just turned it into a spot for battle, because that’s what man does best.

In light of its history, I like how the Alamo is now a research facility and a quiet place for reflection, even with many tourists like me wandering around the grounds. After I finished my tour, I took a seat in the second row of an outdoor theater within the facility where I could escape the heat and drink the All Sport I bought at a vending machine outside the bathrooms. (Who knew All Sport still existed? Of course I had to buy one; it had been 10 years since I last saw a bottle of the drink. The lemon lime still tastes the same, just without the carbonation.)

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There was a guy my age seated at the top row on the opposite end of the theater. He broke the silence and the physical distance separating us by doing something that’s pretty foreign to my generation: talking to me. I told him my name, that I was just visiting, and it was my first time in San Antonio. He told me his name, that he has spent his entire life in San Antonio, and that he’s a photographer for the Alamo. We were both waiting for 4:30 pm, when his girlfriend got off work, and when I could finally begin my walk to Cured.

He steered the conversation to video games. We bonded over games of the past (old Final Fantasies, Pokemon, Halo, whatever) and debated whether each of us should get a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One. He’s a good guy whose willingness to open up to a stranger became a big highlight of my visit and I hope his photography gets to take him around the world one day.

Finally, 4:30 came and it was time to go to Cured. I had to walk the two miles to it because the Flambeau Parade ran through Broadway, the main thoroughfare between the downtown center and the restaurant, and the city closed the street to car traffic. My walk along Broadway was one of the more astounding one I’ve taken: so many people walked the streets that the scene resembled how films portray the aftermath of an apocalyptic event; scores of chairs and bleacher seats lined Broadway; food stands sold burgers, kabobs, and funnel cakes to people looking to grab dinner before the parade; street vendors rolled carts lined with light-up toys and hats to sell to people attending the parade. This was an all-out pre-parade tailgate that rivaled the tailgate atmosphere at UF before football games. (And because it’s Texas, the experience was complete with insufferable heat, too!)

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The crowds gradually thinned as I got closer to Cured. At first, I thought it was because Pearl, the neighborhood that the restaurant resides in, was more residential than downtown. But then I saw all the stores lining the entrance to Pearl were closed for the day in honor of Fiesta.

Oh boy. What does that mean for Cured?

I walked past those stores and approached the cool standalone building that houses Cured. There looked to be no one entering or exiting the restaurant or the bakery next door to it; only the coffeehouse to the left of Cured had patrons coming in and out, while other people just sat on the lawn in front of Cured, playing with their kids or taking engagement photos.

I whipped out my phone, opened up Twitter, and read Cured would be closed for Fiesta.

Womp womp.

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I sat a tad dejected on the lawn for a few minutes before I walked back toward the downtown center. Seeing the anticipation and excitement for the parade on the attendees’ faces cheered me up and I even wanted to stick around for the parade, although watching so many Disney parades killed them for me. But seven hours of fasting in the heat and a three-hour drive back to Houston before an early flight out the next day told me that it was time for me to go. I’ll have to return to San Antonio one day and spend more than a workday there for Cured, the Spurs, and more Fiesta fun.

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When I got on the highway for the drive back to Houston, I still needed a place to go for dinner. Thankfully, I knew of a restaurant that would always be open, fill me up after a long day, and have a location within minutes of where I was.

I had Whataburger for dinner. I should have gotten a medal for that.

Temporary Texan: Dining in Houston (New Yorkers Say it Wrong)

I probably should have paid rent to the state of Texas for the month of April.

Work obligations and the MLB ballpark tour combined to make me spend nine of the last 14 days in the month of April (plus the first two days of May) in The Lone Star State. I set up shop in Houston for the first six days for work, split the seventh day between San Antonio and Houston, returned to the Northeast for five days, then settled down in Dallas-Fort Worth for the last two days of April (plus the first two days of May).

Yeah, exhausting.

Part one of this three-part set of posts focuses on Houston. San Antonio and Dallas will each get their own bits afterward.


As soon as I landed at George Bush Intercontinental Airport on 17 April, I was in a race against time.

My 2:30 pm landing gave me about two hours before the 5 pm closing time for Killen’s Barbeque in Pearland, an hour south of the airport. This was the top item of places to visit in Houston because of The Dan Patrick Show’s Paul Pabst, who repeatedly name dropped the restaurant as the home of the best brisket he’s had. To test Pabst’s assertion (and because I fasted all day for this), I opted for a two meat plate of brisket, macaroni and cheese, and creamed corn.

Oh my God, Paulie was right.

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The brisket was flavorful on its own, but I’m a barbeque sauce guy, so I poured some of the sweet barbeque sauce at Killen’s on a few slices of brisket. The great thing about the sauce was that I didn’t need to pour a lot of it on the brisket to taste the tangy flavor of the sauce. The smooth texture of the creamed corn and the macaroni and cheese complemented the brisket without completing for stomach space — I didn’t feel bloated finishing the sides before the meat. The food was so delicious, I had to remind myself to take sips of the sweet tea sitting behind the tray.

I finished up at Killen’s right as the restaurant closed at 5 pm, took the non-toll highways west to Katy, and checked into my hotel. By 7 pm, the storms rolled into the Houston area.

The torrent didn’t end until 4 pm the following day.

With so much rain hitting Houston in a short period of time, flooding hit the metropolitan area. The local TV news coverage avoided the silly practice of airing live shots of reporters driving through flooded roads. Instead, stories focused on the rescue efforts being made by civilians and emergency crews alike, city hall’s response to the disaster, and the road closures caused by the flooding — solid coverage all around.

The storms cancelled my first day of training for work. Ensconced in a hotel room where the power flickered on and off throughout the day, I watched portions of the Boston Marathon when the power stayed on, used the elliptical machine at the gym for my first cardio of 2016 (a pinched nerve sidelined me), and pondered over where to grab dinner when the rain subsided. I zeroed in on one place once lunchtime passed and I had nothing for that time of the day: Whataburger.

Whataburger is to Houston as Dunkin’ Donuts is to the northeast United States: a ubiquitous establishment that pops up every mile. The sun shone over the entire distance I drove between my hotel and the nearest Whataburger — a five minute drive. I ordered the No. 1 meal: the classic Whataburger with cheese, fries, and a medium drink. The burger is simple — lettuce, tomatoes, mustard, cheese — but juicy and filling. The fries were a little plain because they weren’t salted, but that was fine with me because I had Whataburger’s fancy ketchup to add some flavor to the potatoes.

The cup for a medium drink embraced the philosophy of “Everything’s bigger in Texas”: a 32 ounce Styrofoam Big Gulp waiting for me to fill it with sweet tea.

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Because of the cheap prices, filling meals, the high number of nearby locations, and the 24-hour service, I ate at a Whataburger for dinner three out of the six full days I spent in Houston. Except for a quick trip to BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse for a pizookie, I spent the remaining dinners with friends who knew the local restaurants with broader palettes for dinner.

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One of those restaurants my friends took me to was Uchi, a hip Japanese plate and sushi restaurant that you visit for a date night of splurging. My dates for Uchi: the couple I became friends with at an October taping of Colbert’s Late Show. I wasn’t much of a sushi guy when I arrived, but Uchi changed my perspective — I’m a believer in the dish now. The hama chili treats the taste buds to a duel between the spiciness of the Thai chili and the cool sweetness of the orange supreme. The Brussel sprouts, a vegetable I never eat in normal life, were cooked in such a way that they tasted like meat. My pals gave me a plate of the biendo makimono, and even though we’ve only seen each other for two days in our lives, they knew me well; the tempura shrimp spring roll and grapes of the biendo combined for a sweet, candy taste that gelled perfectly with my anti-sour preferences.

The last noteworthy food place I made time for in Houston: the massive H-E-B grocery store at Bunker Hill, the second largest grocer I’ve visited behind the Loblaws at Maple Leaf Garden. The wares at H-E-B had the usual stuff you see at any grocer, but the real local treat was the opportunity to take home Whataburger ketchup, mustard, and barbeque sauce. (If I didn’t have to fly back to my place, I would have.) However, my hotel had a fridge, which presented me the unique opportunity to buy a sheet cake and chocolate milk for myself. I mean, what else would you use a fridge in a hotel room for?

I bought the cake and the bottles of Promised Land midnight chocolate milk—the best chocolate milk out there, which the great grocer Publix introduced me to — on a Tuesday night and had until check-out Saturday morning to finish the cake. The cake seemed small enough and easy to finish by Friday and my consumption of the cake proceeded at a speedy rate at first. The chocolate cake and buttercream frosting was as close to the perfection that is a Publix cake that I’ve had since I left Florida. That kept me going through Tuesday and Wednesday; it was my breakfast before training and midnight snack while studying.

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By Thursday night, I realized I made a huge mistake getting this sheet cake.

The buttercream frosting, while delicious, started to become a hindrance because of how filling it was alone. Plus there’s that health concern of ingesting so much sugar when there is a history of diabetes in the family, but hey, I didn’t that far in advance when I bought the cake. All I saw was the chance to put a fridge to good use.

On Saturday morning, I finished the cake and the last of the chocolate milk for breakfast. I’m a survivor of gluttony. (I’ve only had two slices of cake since.)

Finally, my trip to Houston wouldn’t be complete without squeezing in some time for the MLB Ballpark Tour. In a wonderful coincidence of great timing, the Houston Astros began a homestand at Minute Maid Park against the Boston Red Sox on Friday, hours after I took my final exam for training. (Two of my classmates had the idea to also attend the game and we met for a mini class reunion at a bar across from the ballpark before the game.)

Minute Maid Park was stadium number 10 out of 30 on my trek, but for the first time, I didn’t attend a game alone. I took my musically-inclined friend from Rice University to the game — her first baseball game, period — as part of what we called a “cultural exchange.” The night before, I attended her final recital at Rice instead of studying for my final, where I learned that chamber orchestra pieces are longer than the ones that Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd used for their operatic cartoons. Nope, pieces don’t last a mere 10 minutes — they go as long as 1.5 hours without a break. I had no problem with that, though; in fact, I felt cultured and enlightened after the lengthy performance. (Yes, she knowingly withheld the run time of the concert when we talked in the locker area afterward.)

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So it was my turn to teach my friend the basics of baseball while watching the Red Sox slug the Astros out of the park. Going over the many nuances and rules in baseball with her opened my eyes to just how convoluted and complicated the simple game of hitting a ball with a wooden bat is. Describing infield shifts hurt my brain; explaining a sac fly and the quirks of baserunning gave me ulcers. The only person I described with ease was David “Big Papi” Ortiz, whom she saw up close for the first time during batting practice. Based on the atmosphere, the beauty of the Minute Maid Park, that silly train, the batting practice baseball that almost hit her in the outfield, the Blue Bell cookie dough ice cream we had, and all the offense that the Red Sox provided, I think she had as much fun at the game as I had at the concert. You’re welcome, Rob Manfred.

Next up: a road trip to San Antonio.

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King of the Bronx

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The man sitting across from me on the Uptown 4 train looked like an intellectual. A gray wreath of hair crowned his balding head. He dressed in a green shirt, a blue trench coat, jeans, and a Yankees cap. He read the New York Times on the train ride, shaking his head in disappointment as he read one story in the middle of the front page.

As our train exited the underground world for elevated tracks, he got up from his seat and turned toward the sunshine now beaming through the windows. His eyes caught sight of kids playing on a couple baseball fields in a park, then he turned to me and shattered my illusion of him.

“Pisses me off that the real thing isn’t there,” he moaned. “Fucking money.”

The man was complaining about the 2008 demise of Yankee Stadium; Heritage Field, the park that drew the ire of the man on the train, now stood on that land. Just a block north across E. 161st Street, the [New] Yankee Stadium that opened in 2009 waited for fans who would fill the seats for the April 16th matinee between the Seattle Mariners and the Yankees.

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Although the man on the train despised [New] Yankee Stadium, the back of his cap contained a patch commemorating the inaugural season of the Bronx Bombers’ new home.

I followed the man out the doors of the train, down the stairs of the 161st Street station, and across the street into the ballpark. After spending nearly four years in the northeast and attending four soccer games in [New] Yankee Stadium, this was my first MLB game at the facsimile of The House That Ruth Built. In a convenient coincidence, April 16, 2016, also marked the seventh anniversary of the first regular season game played in George Steinbrenner’s palace. C.C. Sabathia, then the ace of the Yankees staff, started that inaugural match against his old club, the Cleveland Indians. The Indians won 10-2, but Sabathia didn’t factor into the decision.

In another convenient coincidence, Yankees manager Joe Girardi named Sabathia the starter for the game against the Mariners, who trotted out ace Felix Hernandez for the start. Although Sabathia is past his prime, the matchup still made for an enticing pitcher’s duel, two Cy Young winners trying to get their clubs back on track after some early season woes.

A sizable contingent of Mariners fans were in attendance for the game, including a loyal band of King Felix’s Court. The Court still wore their yellow shirts, still chanted “K” every time Hernandez had two strikes on the batter, still waved their signs as they chanted, and still sat behind the foul post in left field despite being in the opposite coast of the country.

Despite the support that the King had on hand, the Yankees struck first in the bottom of the third. After getting Alex Rodriguez to ground out, Hernandez walked first baseman Mark Teixeria. At the next at-bat, outfielder Carlos Beltran hit a standup double to left centerfield, driving home Teixeria for a 1-0 Yanks lead as the ball landed in a mess of outfield crosshatching and faded pitch lines used for New York City F.C. games.

The Mariners responded in the fifth inning with their only spurt of offense in the game. Centerfielder Leonys Martin set the tone for the inning with a leadoff solo homer to right field. The Mariners batted around until Robinson Cano — Yankee fans still booed him before each at-bat for trading in his pinstripes for solid Seattle tops — hit an RBI single (and advanced to second on the throw) to score Ketel Marte and put the Mariners up 2-1. In the next at-bat, designated hitter Nelson Cruz lived up to his job title and hit a double along the third base line to make it a 3-1 lead with the insurance run. Girardi gave Sabathia the hook, the fans gave their departing pitcher a kind applause for the effort, but the Mariners did all the damage they needed.

The game continued at a sluggish pace because each team kept getting hits — the teams combined for 20 — without capitalizing on the men on base. Beltran broke the monotony with a seventh inning home run to centerfield, but of course it was a solo shot. The score was only 3-2, but the game was already approaching three hours when Beltran hit his homer.

Drama managed to climb through the sludge of this game and make a grand appearance in the bottom of the ninth. After A-Rod struck out to complete his sterling 0-4 day at the plate and Teixeria flew out, the Yankees got two men on base behind singles from Beltran and former Cub Starlin Castro. The crowd was now on its feet, chanting pro-Yankees cheers, and giving their support to pinch hitter Brian McCann.

In the climactic at-bat, McCann hit an anti-climactic dribbler of a groundout. Third out. Game over, 3-2 Mariners. An audible segment of Yankees fans booed over the recording of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” as they headed to the exits, while the tiny army of King Felix’s Court remained standing in their section, celebrating their king’s first win of the season.

Yankee Stadium was my ninth stop in my MLB ballpark tour; having been there four times already for soccer games, I found it weird to see the pitcher’s mound on the field.

The ballpark is devoid of any aura because of its young age, except for a tiny museum stationed halfway up along the concourse ramp. This museum contains a number of the Yankees’ World Series trophies on display and baseballs signed by a number of players who plied their trade in the pinstripes, from Joe Borowski to Don Mattingly. The best items on display were a jersey and bat that Babe Ruth used as a player for the Yankees, which made the legendary figure a tangible human being.

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On the flip side, relatively new stadium had plenty of concession stands and bathrooms, so that it was pretty easy to grab something or take a quick restroom break within the two minutes allotted between half-innings. I used one break to buy a pint of Turkey Hill Cookies and Cream ice cream. Although the game itself was a slog, eating that pint of ice cream under a sunny and spotless sky, planes above me buzzing toward LaGuardia or JFK, players below me trying to figure out how to score run made for a perfect day at a ballpark.

Fireworks in Birdland

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The video board out in center field of Camden Yards gave a first pitch temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit for Friday night’s game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles. However, the majority of the ballpark’s green seats remained unoccupied. The people of Baltimore accounted for the wind chill in the forecast, which made the conditions for sitting outside for three hours feel at least 10 degrees cooler, and decided to watch the game from the comforts of a warm home.

The ushers were the biggest winners from the fans staying away from Camden Yards that night. These employees, all wearing the Orioles’ version of the 9Forty adjustable caps, had the extra responsibility of spraying disinfectant on the seats belonging those fans who showed up, then wiping the chairs down with a towel. It’s customer service that Mickey Mouse would be proud of, hospitality that I imagine the ritzy gyms of Beverly Hills or New York City provide to their members.

For the fans who braved the cold in layers of hoodies and blankets to make their way to Birdland, the Orioles rewarded them with a spotless seat, a home run derby in the fifth inning, and a 6-1 victory over the Rays to make them feel all warm and fuzzy for the trip home. In spite of the Rays and Orioles matching aces — Chris Archer and Chris Tillman, respectively — against each other, five of the seven runs that the two teams combined for came off solo home runs.

Evan Longoria launched the game’s first homer in the top of the first with a two-out, solo home run to left field to score the Rays’ lone run of the game. In the bottom of the second, Chris Davis showed why the Orioles shelled out a 7-year, $161 million deal for the slugger when he hit a solo shot to centerfield to tie the game at 1-1. Davis’s home run came just seconds after the public address announcer promoted the Denny’s Grand Slam giveaway, where a homer hit by the Orioles in the 2nd inning would get everyone in attendance a coupon for a free Grand Slam at participating diners with the purchase of a beverage. Unfortunately, my hunch is that a Denny’s in Connecticut or New York City falls outside the coupon’s definition of “participating.”

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By the middle of the third inning, the sun fully set, the stadium lights above the B&O Warehouse at right field switched on, and The Baltimore Sun advertisement above the centerfield videoboard was now illuminated. Both pitchers got through the third unscathed, but Archer began to show signs of struggle in the fourth. Archer walked Davis with one out in the fourth and then threw a wild pitch with Orioles catcher Matt Wieters batting to advance Davis to second. In his lengthy at-bat, Wieters made Archer pay for his wild pitch with a single that split first and second base, driving home Davis to give Baltimore a 2-1 lead.

Struggle turned into a collapse in the fifth for Archer.

Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop drove Archer’s first pitch of the inning into left centerfield to extend the Orioles’ lead to 3-1. Although Archer appeared to settle down after striking out Ryan Flaherty and inducing Joey Rickard to ground out, the Orioles began their fireworks show with two outs. Nolan Reimold hit a solo shot to centerfield to put the Orioles up 4-1, then Manny Machado made it back-to-back homers when he launched the ball beyond the leftfield wall. Davis drew another walk and Mark Trumbo pushed Davis to third with a single.

Then Wieters put the exclamation point on Archer’s bad day on the mound.

In his at-bat, the Orioles catcher hit a line drive that struck Archer in the arm, before the slowly rolled toward first base; Davis scored with no play possible for the Rays to increase Baltimore’s lead to 6-1. After his coaches examined his arms in an injury timeout, Archer put an end to his nightmare inning by getting Orioles designated hitter Pedro Alvarez to fly out in the next at-bat.

Both teams pulled their starters at the start of the sixth inning and their relief corps dominated the remainder of the game. Rays first baseman Logan Morrison produced the only hit for the rest of the game with a leadoff single in the sixth; the two teams combined for 11 groundouts over that same span.

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Camden Yards was my first stop in a concerted effort this year to make big progress in visiting all 30 MLB ballparks at least once in my life for a game in my life. The visit to Baltimore makes it eight out of 30 ballparks so far.

 

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Camden Yards is one of the most gorgeous stadiums in general that I’ve visited. The Eutaw Street gate is open to visitors before the stadium crew begins gameday prep at around 4 pm for a 7:05 pm first pitch, so my 9 am arrival in Baltimore allowed me to tour Eutaw Street without the crowds, stare out into the fresh outfield of Camden Yards in silence, and admire Jim Palmer’s delivery through the statue of the Hall-of-Fame pitcher in picnic area behind the bullpens. Statues of Cal Ripkin, Jr., Earl Weaver, Eddie Murray, Brooks Robinson, and Frank Robinson — Hall-of-Famers with Orioles caps on their plaques, just like Palmer — were also present in the picnic area. It was a good idea to put all of Baltimore’s Hall-of-Famers in the same picnic area, which made the section of the ballpark feel like a shrine to the club’s past.

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After loading up on two crab pretzels at the neighboring Pickles Pub (so worth the $20), I made returned to Camden Yards for the opening of the gates at 5 pm and explore the rest of Birdland. The similarities between Camden Yards and Dodger Stadium piled up: the walls outside each bathroom contained a painting of a logo from the Orioles’ history, there were life-sized bobbleheads of the mascot for the kids to play with, and the vista beyond the outfield was captivating.

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Sure, nothing can top the San Gabriel Mountains sitting beyond the outfield of Dodger Stadium, but architectural firm HOK Sport’s decision to include the B&O Warehouse in the design of Camden Yards was a stroke of genius. When you see B&O Warehouse sharing space with the downtown Baltimore skyline as the backdrop to Camden Yards, you see a collision of Baltimore’s past and present — the ballpark is the intersection of those eras. Give Camden Yards another 80 years and the B&O Warehouse will be treated with the same reverence as the ivy is in Wrigley Field or the Green Monster at Fenway Park.

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Brothers

A little boy gave a crushing farewell to his older brother a few spots ahead of me in the line to board a Northeast Regional train at Washington Union Station on Sunday.

The older brother, a college-aged kid wearing a red tracksuit and black track pants and complementing the attire with a red Nike duffel bag and black backpack, resembled a young Jimmy Butler. His dad, wearing a red hoodie and hat, was giving him a hug when I first noticed the family. The mother, dressed in a Sunday best of a tan blouse and black pants, talked to her older son while standing still.

As the line continued move up toward the gate, I passed the family and saw why the mom didn’t move during the exchange with her older son. The younger son, wearing a hoodie and a navy hat with adorned with the gray Georgetown “G” in the front was hugging his mom’s left leg. He looked no older than a second grader; he barely reached his mother’s waist as he hugged her leg. The little boy’s sad eyes made palpable the pain of watching his brother slowly walk toward the exit to the platform, but the eyes shed no tears. The little brother just stared toward the exit — eyes wide open, mouth closed without a peep, arms clinging tightly to his mother’s leg, like he was petrified.

But the sadness in his eyes also displayed the depth of affection for his older brother. In spite of an age gap of around 10 years, the younger son’s eyes told me that he looked up to his older brother and that the two sons were probably close with each other.

I felt bad that the younger brother had to ride this emotional roller coaster of seeing his brother in spurts over school breaks, then saying goodbye a short time later when classes resumed at the university. The younger brother’s silent farewell occupied my mind on the train ride until I fell asleep when the train reached the BWI Airport stop. I woke up about a half-hour later when the train came to a halt at the Wilmington station. When I looked out the window to see where the train stopped, I saw the older brother on the platform, looking for the stairwell to the station.