Tuesday, May 30, 2006

In the Continuing Quest for the Perfect Burger

Phil and the blog A Hamburger Today have raved about Shake Shack in Madison Square Park (here's AHT's review). On Sunday, Phil, Jeeves, Jason and I met up to partake of these alleged tasty burgers.

The Shack opened in 2004. It is, according to its website, a "roadside" foodstand. Here's the deal - you stand in line, order your food, wait for said food, grab a table and eat. Given the inexpensive prices, rave reviews, and quality burger, the lines can be quite long. But as Frank Bruni of the Times puts it, it's the Dairy Queen of Manhattan, and who can pass that up?

I arrived early - at about 7:20 and Phil was already in line - we were soon joined by our burger comrades, and let me say - as the weather was lovely, the company lively, and the smell of burgers, fries and shakes intoxicating, the wait did not seem as long as it was. How long was it? It took about an hour from getting on line to sitting down at a table with our food.

I had a Shack Burger, and it was certainly tasty - the meat quality, which AHT pointed out, is better than most of the inexpensive burgers. My one complaint is that all the burgers are cooked the same (medium), unlike the Burger Joint, where it's cooked to specifications. And while the "shack sauce" was good enough, I didn't think it was out of this world - in fact, it was maybe a little to tangy for me. The french fries would have been disappointing, except that I had cheese fries and I think the cheese was just what these fries needed - very tasty. And the black and white milkshake - heavenly.

A little too heavenly. I had that uncomfortable "I ate too much" feeling, but could not stop sucking down my milkshake. Phil made the mistake of ordering a "concrete" which is a frozen custard. Basically, it's like a very large and very serious DQ blizzard. Phil had the Shack Attack concrete, which was chocolate custard, hot fudge, chocolate truffle cookie dough, valrhona chocolate chunks and chocolate sprinkles (Wendy, this was sooo in your wheel house). As Phil would say, this dessert was no joke. I had one bite and that was more than enough for me. After a double shack burger and fries, Phil did an admirable job on the concrete, but I think he was hurting after the fact. Jeeves had a Chicago dog along with a shack burger and a shake. I think the Shack lived up to our expectations, though Jeeves and I are both inclined to say Burger Joint might have a better burger.

Jason left us and we trudged up to The Ginger Man, and I would have been excited to go there under normal circumstances. GM is primarily known for its ridiculous selection of beers, but at this point a beer was about the last thing my stomach wanted. Phil and Rajeev kept asking if I was okay, but what I really wanted to do was lapse into a burger-induced coma. Instead, I sipped my Lindemann's Peche (delicious) and stared into space, occasionally throwing in my two cents about fantasy baseball, Phil's beard, and my tummy ache. After about an hour, I came to, but it was pretty touch and go there for awhile.

I really did like The Ginger Man, though - it had a really nice, laid back vibe, comfy chairs and the aforementioned beer selection. I would definitely return.

And as for the Shack, I would certainly return there again, so long as I had good company to stand in line with me. And perhaps I could exercise some restraint and lay off the cheese fries. Or the milkshake. But seriously? It was a really good shake.

Memorial Day reminds me of....

Hot days like today remind me of when I lived one town over in Belleville with Liana in our un-air-conditioned apartment. Most of the time it didn't matter, except when it did. My apartment right now is also lacking in the air-conditioning department, a situation I plan on rectifying shortly. Anyway, back in the Belleville apartment, the people in the house next to our building would throw loud parties on holiday weekends, and it seemed like the cops were constantly being called to shut them up, or to split up the domestic dispute of my downstairs neighbors.

My current apartment is in a nice, quiet hood, slightly more upscale than B-ville. It helps that my downstairs neighbor (aka, my landlady) lives with a Nutley cop. Anyway, you can imagine my surprise this evening when I heard cursing and screaming from the street - one of our neighbors was involved in an altercation and it looks like Nutley's finest are just now leaving the scene. So, a little excitement in my quiet neighborhood, at the end of a holiday weekend.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Rhona Mitra Syndrome

This pretty lady is Rhona Mitra. She's an actress - you might recognize her if you watched Boston Legal or Nip/Tuck. I think she's been in some movies, too. She is also the live model for the video game Lara Croft. Anyway, enough of that. the other day at lunch, Matlock told us that he has been watching Boston Legal, the first season, and that he really liked her. Ever helpful K then told us that one of the other associate's buddies dates her. This buddy is apparently short, a bit pudgy and not rich. He just had the guts to go up to Ms. Mitra in a bar and talk to her. And he has a "great personality."

Matlock was through the roof with joy, which I didn't understand, because suddenly it meant that he had a chance with her. He wouldn't shut up about it. On and on and on until finally when he said, "If I were with her, people would look at me and assume that I had a "great personality" because clearly there would be no other explanation for why she was with me," I responded with "Yeah. And they'd assume she had a really low self-esteem." I immediately felt bad - it was a mean joke.

But I think what got me going was the idea that when average guys (please note that when I say "average" I mean people who don't look like movie stars... and probably not your friends that you refer to as "my hot friend," cause everyone has one) hear about other average guys getting a hot chick, they assume they can do it too. Perhaps that's the attitude to take. But it suddenly seems like the average guy expects, ney, demands a hot chick.

Women don't think like this. First of all, we have no examples to follow. I tried to think of examples of very attractive Hollywood men dating average looking women. I came up with two. Matt Damon's wife was a bartender when he met her. But she's actually pretty cute. This isn't the greatest picture of her, but I've seen her looking downright pretty. And Tobey Maguire's fiancee, Jennifer Meyer is rather homely.... but she's also the daughter of the president of Universal. That was the best I could do. And when I hear about such things, I do think that said girl is lucky, but it never makes me think that I suddenly have a shot with a guy like that.

First off, average girls never think they could get a Brad Pitt. And even if average girl did get Brad Pitt, she would be wracked with neuroses the whole time about how out of her league he is and how all the beautiful women are making eyes at him. But not guys.

I told Kate the story of Rhona Mitra and she repeated it to her co-worker Matt. He said, "I like this story. It makes me think I have a shot with a beautiful woman." When I told Phil that an average looking guy would have no problem being with a woman like Rhona Mitra, Phil exclaimed "I'll be that guy!"

What is this confidence? If you got Rhona Mitra, do you really think you could keep her? I think the difference is that guys don't ponder such mysteries in advance. Guys think, "she's beautiful, I bet we'd have a lot of fun [wink, wink]." They don't consider the rest. Ah well, clearly it can work, and guys are the luckier for it - Rhona and her short, pudgy boyfriend live together now.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Megan, the Meth Lab Operator

One of the lovely parting gifts I got from Kate's bachelorette party was a cold. At first I thought it was just my allergies, and then I thought I could fight it off, but by Friday night, my nose was stuffy and I had to admit I had a cold. The over the counter stuff with phenylephrine wasn't doing the trick, so I knew I was going to have to go up to the counter and ask for the sudafed (or in my case, the cheap store brand alternative).

The reason you now have to ask for any product containing pseudophedrine is because it is one of the main ingredients in crystal meth. Wheeeee! It is also, at least for me, a lot more effective on a stuffy nose (the sudafed, not the meth). I guess meth lab operators like to go in and buy a crapload of sudafed, or they shoplift it, or they bring in a bunch of people to buy a few boxes at a time. And many states now restrict the purchase of sudafed for just this reason. The fair state of Jersey is one of them - you can't buy more than 3 boxes at a time.

So anyway, not all the pharmacies are making you show ID and shit. Target actually took down my name and address, while I was standing there sneezing and snotting all over the place, clutching a bottle of Vitamin C in my other hand. Because clearly, I am running a meth lab, and I need some Target brand non-drying sinus to make my next shipment.

It's not that I necessarily think these statutes are completely horrible, though I do think it's a nuisance and an invasion of my privacy to take down my personal information just because I have a cold and your stupid phenyl whatever product doesn't clear my nose. It's just that it seems like a complete waste of time. I'm pretty sure people who are running meth labs aren't buying their pseudophedrine one box at a time.

I couldn't find anything in the new statute that requires the pharms to take down the personal information on a person buying a single box, but I'll admit I didn't read too closely because I freakin' hate reading statutes in my time off. If they are required, if they aren't required, I come to the same conclusion: the meth lab operators are laughing at us with their gross mouths.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Coffee is for Closers

When I was in law school, my buddy Andrew used to always say, "Coffee is for closers." He would say that derisively all the time to anyone who couldn't close a deal, but it was really meant for a guy who couldn't "close the deal" as it were with a woman. It shouldn't require further explanation than that, but you'd be surprised by the number of people who tell me "I don't get it." Simply put - if you spend the night with a woman, you'll be having coffee with her the following morning. If not, you don't get coffee. Coffee is for closers.

I was reminded of that adage while watching Yankees vs. Mets this weekend. I don't entirely blame Mo Rivera for what happened on Friday. It took me over two hours to get to Blondie's on 2nd Avenue, thanks to dreadful tunnel traffic, and while in the car I listened to the Yanks gain the lead, only to have Randy Effing Johnson lose it. He did this not once, but twice.... because he sucks. Still, Mo couldn't hold onto the tie in the 9th, he gave up what probably would have been a double to Wright. Ugh. To make matters worse, there was a drunken Mets fan who kept chanting "Let's go Mets go!" Jeeves, who takes in stride the shenanigans of other bar folk, asked me what the drunkard was saying. I repeated, and he pointed out that it made no sense. "Let's go Mets go?" Yeah. Anyway, the Yankees staff thinks that the Unit's problems are all mechanical. If by mechanical you mean a brain malfunction, then I agree. The guy clearly needs to see a shrink. I've never watched a pitcher fall to pieces so much over having Jose Reyes on first base.

The next day, though, the sweet taste of victory when the Mets closer Billy Wagner blew the lead and allowed the Yanks to tie things up in the 9th inning (they won it later on). Wagner, who walks out to "Enter Sandman" (for you non-baseball fans, Rivera has been coming out to "Sandman" for years - it doesn't really bother me that Wagner uses it, except that I think it's completely unoriginal - can't the Mets closer get his own song? Why use the song that is so associated with another closer - a Yankees closer at that?), has been solid for the Mets, erasing memories of Looper and Benitez. It was a little satisfying to see him choke yesterday.

But what little satisfaction I got was quickly erased. A-Rod. I'm done with him. I want him to succeed because he's a Yankee. But you know what? He can't hack it in a pressure situation. Tonight, men on first and second, one out, the score 4-3 (Giambi had just hit a sac fly to drive in a run), A-Rod... hits into a double play. I knew he would do that, as soon as the announcer said, "And here comes last year's American League MVP." Emphasis on the "last year's" part, please. A-Rod can't hack it in these situation. His batting stats for when there are men on base are pretty pathetic. Say what you will about Johnny Damon, but he played hard tonight, and in fact the whole weekend. Maybe, coming from Boston where the fans are as (if not more) brutal, he's gotten used to performing in these situations. A-Rod hasn't, and still can't.

I'm so tired of bringing on expensive players from less stressful venues who suddenly become total mental cases when they get to NY. Suck it up! You're playing baseball! This isn't rocket science, or surgery or any other career where the weight of the world should rest on your shoulders. This is baseball, where you throw the ball and strike guys out, or you swing the wooden bat and drive in runs. It's that simple. Close the deal! Until then, no goddamned coffee for you.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

And a 90% of sugar being poured on her

Tomorrow evening is Kate's bachelorette party. The months of planning, schlepping around NYC - it all comes to a head tomorrow night when a bunch of federal government employees invade the city. Kate called my task tomorrow night "herding cats." True, true.

I asked Kate what she intended to sing at karaoke - she said she wasn't sure, that she never knows till she's in the moment. "Do you think there will be some sugar poured on you?" I asked. "I'd say there's about a 90% chance of sugar being poured." She does love Def Leppard.

So I'll report back after I've recovered from tomorrow evening, at least with the parts that are fit for print.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

That bitch might be crazy, but he makes a decent action flick

When I was in high school, my dad and I used to go to the movies every weekend. It was a great bonding experience. Then I went to college, my sis got a dog, and even when I would come home for a visit, Pops would be off hiking with Lor and the dog. After that, we only went to movies when there was something Mom really wanted to see.

About six weeks after my mom passed, Pops asked if I would like to go to the movies some time. And this Sunday, that's just what we did - off to the Suffern Lafayette theater to see Mission Impossible III.

Well, all I can say is that Tom Cruise might be one of my least favorite people ever, but he's a decent actor and he makes a good action flick. I don't mean that Tommy Boy could pull a Heath Ledger and star in Brokeback Mountain, but he does make you forget that in real life he sucks, and that's pretty decent acting (I still have a hard time watching Russell Crowe in stuff because he's a such a real-life douche).

I currently hold all action flicks to the Batman Begins and Bourne Identity standard, and MI:3 did not match those two films. Still, it was strong. So first the good.

MI:3 was directed by J.J. Abrams, the brainiac behind Lost and Alias. Alias has a lot in common with the Mission Impossible franchise. I am a pretty big Alias fan, and as such, have a lot of love for Abrams. He loves women and he makes them kick some serious ass, and that is true about this installment of MI. The previous two films have tended towards weak, victimy women who get killed off, or need to be saved by Tom Cruise. Even the "weak" woman in this movie kicks some ass and saves the man for a change.

But I get ahead of myself. The thumbnail sketch without giving away too much. Tom's character, Ethan, is sort-of retired from IMF in that he just trains recruits now. He's engaged to a very nice lady who has no idea what he does for a living (played by Michelle Monaghan, who looks a little like Katie Holmes which grossed me out a bit, except that I thought she did a really nice job, especially at the climax). One day he gets a call that one of his recruits, whom he had recommended for field duty, has been kidnapped by the man she was surveiling. The recruit? Keri Russell (J.J. Abrams created Felicity). The bad guy? Philip Seymour Hoffman. Naturally, he has to go rescue her and then unravel the mystery. Then we've got Laurence Fishburn (looking pudgy, as my pops pointed out), Ving Rhames, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Billy Crudup (another real-life jerk who happens to be a good actor) and the ludicrously beautiful Maggie Q.

I know what you're thinking - Felicity in an action movie? For real.

Anyway, being a J.J. fan, there were certain... parallels I noticed in this film to Alias, which is the closest comparison one could make. J.J. loves to add gravitas to characters by explaining motivations. For the first time in the franchise, we get to see that Ethan really wants to live a normal life, but gets roped back in because he feels reponsible for his trainees. Blah blah blah. I could have done without that stuff. In Alias (for non watchers - main character is Sydney, a CIA agent, who is the result of a marriage between a CIA agent (dad) and a KGB agent (mom) - her mother is now a mercenary and eeeeevil... or is she?) a lot of time is spent on dysfunctional family dynamics and pathos - which is part of what makes it great. It's tough to pull that off in a movie though, and let's face it - the backstory here (Ethan just wants a normal life, but he feels loyalty to his team and his trainee) is just not that interesting.

But other parallels work to great effect. J.J. creates and directs wonderful villains - Hoffman was not remotely funny in this movie - he's just mean (kind of reminded me of Ricky Gervais's turn as a bad guy on Alias). The Times described Hoffman best: "With a sneer in his voice and a lazy slouch that telegraphs world-weariness of the most misanthropic kind, he creates an ice-blooded creature who seems as if he would like nothing better than to destroy the earth, and with as much human suffering as possible."

And Abrams really knows how to direct an action sequence - whereas Batman Begins tended to film too closely, thereby making it difficult to see what was going on, and Bourne Identity's shaky camera got tiresome, MI:3 does a pretty solid job of showing off its choreography.

Pops found the film rather convoluted and called me up with various questions after the fact. I thought it was clear enough, and I definitely enjoyed it. Big screen necessary? Probably not. I didn't lie in bed last night pondering details and the truth is that the characters just aren't interesting enough to hold one's attention after the move is over. But it was good escapist fun.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Place with the Panda

Mom: What's it called? Hunan Palace?
Megs: No, Ma. They're much more realistic. Hunan Cottage. Hunan Shack might be a little more accurate.

There is a place on Route 46 East, just over the border into Fairfield called Hunan Cottage. It's got a statue of a big, roly-poly panda in front of it. Last night I was talking about Chinese food with Mike and Gena and Mike asked me how my brother-in-law felt about eating out at Chinese restaurants. He wondered if perhaps my brother-in-law felt that Chinese restaurants in the States were unauthentic. While it is true that most of the time, my kooky brother in law would much prefer to make his own dumplings, there is one restaurant that we consistently go to, and which my sister and brother-in-law say is pretty authentic. Granted, they don't serve bugs (one of my sister's favorite things to eat in China), but a lot of their stuff is apparently very similar to what you would have in China, depending on the area.

Anyway, we started going to Hunan Cottage about two years ago. Cottage is completely nondescript from the outside (and also on the inside too) but we specifically started going there because they have soup dumplings. Soup dumplings, or steamed buns as they are typically called, are a Shanghai delicacy whereby the dumpling is filled with a meatball and soup. They are fantastic. Not sure if I have ever raved about Joe's Shanghai before, but that is the place where I first had soup dumplings. Wikipedia's brief entry on the restaurant describes the dumplings. While there are several places to get these tasty treats in New York, they are very hard to come by in the Jers.

As time has passed, though, it's not the soup dumplings that keeps my family going back (while the dumplings are solid, they don't hold a candle to Joe's). It's the Peking Duck. Simply out of this world. The duck comes with all the too fatty areas cut off, with the crispiest, tastiest of skin. Then the server makes a series of wraps with duck, Chinese veggies and duck sauce. The plate costs $25 and it easily feeds 5 people (assuming you are ordering one or two other dishes). The crispy fish there is also quite nice, and the Szechuan dumplings in peanut sauce - delightfully spicy.

I am inclined to believe that when it comes to Asian restaurants, the more Asians you see in there, the better it is. That holds true for Tawara (still the best sushi in New Jersey) and Yakitori Totto in Manhattan. That is definitely the case for Hunan Cottage, where nearly every table (especially on a Sunday at noon) is populated by Chinese families. And I have to say, (as is pointed out in the Times review below), I am glad that we have my brother in law to go with us - he always gets the skinny from the waiters on what the best specials of the day are.

Chengdu 46 gets all the attention for Chinese food in this area, but I think that for the money, the authenticity and the quality, you can't beat Hunan Cottage (granted, the decor at Chengdu is much nicer).

The Times actually reviewed Hunan Cottage a few years ago. I would rank it as better than good, but what can one expect from the uppity, bitter New Jersey section food reviewers at the Times.

The Pizza's the Thing

I grew up in far northern New Jersey. So far north, in fact, that when I was in college and my boyfriend referred to his hometown of West Orange as being northern New Jersey, Wendy and I scoffed at him and informed him that West Orange was in fact, central New Jersey. I have subsequently changed my opinion on this topic, as has Wendy, probably because we both now live in Essex County.

Anyway, one of my deeply held prejudices in favor of my childhood county of Bergen (aside from the fact that the malls are just vastly better up there) is that you cannot get proper thin-crust pizza anywhere but Kinchley's Tavern in Ramsey. Some of you may recall that I have a dear friend from college, Lauren, who now lives in Kansas. Lauren is engaged to an old high school chum of mine, Bill (yes, I introduced them and I take full credit for their happiness, but if they ever fight, it's entirely not my fault). Bill loves Kinchley's and I dare say it is what he misses most about Jersey. Can't say that I blame him - Kinchley's is pretty great.

Anyway, some years ago I went to the Star Tavern in Orange, the heart of Essex County (the physical heart, not the emotional one). The pizza was good, reasonably priced, and the joint is a lot less.... grimy than Kinchley's, but still, the pizza was not quite as good.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached the pizza at Lombardi's in Cedar Grove with Mike and Gena last night. Mike and Gena have made Lombardi's their Friday night tradition as of late, and as Mike put it - "I eat as much as I could possibly eat and drink as much as I could possibly drink and I have never paid more than $30." Sounded like a good deal. Also, as you may recall from previous posts, Mike and Gena's taste in food is impeccable and I am always inclined to trust their stellar reviews.

For the record, this Lombardi's is not related to the Lombardi's in New York. The NJ Lombardi's does however also have a location in Fairfield (Mike and Gena prefer the Cedar Grove branch, though, cause it's a bit cosier).

I met up with Mike and Gena a bit after 8pm - the restaurant is located in a strip mall with the Food Town. As such, it's not a huge place, but it is packed with people, which is always a good sign for the quality of food. There is a long bar, with about half a dozen flat screen TVs behind it showing various baseball games. Clearly my kind of place.

We had a bit of a wait for our table - about fifteen minutes. Once we sat down, we started things off with a Lombardi's Plate appetizer (broccoli rabe sauteed in olive oil with garlic, sausage, hot and sweet peppers, slices of cheese and potato chips on top), some stuffed artichokes and a sausage platter of some sort. We followed this up with four pizza pies (I should mention that four of Mike and Gena's friends joined us, so it wasn't just the three of us eating all this food). Gena branched out and had the penne a la vodka. The pizza was razor thin, crispy, with bubbling slightly browned cheese, and a perfect balance of sauce with that. I loved it. It was much better than Star Tavern, and I think I might even prefer it to Kinchley's.

To top it all off, the place itself is filled with interesting sport memorabilia, and is better maintained than Kinchley's. The service is better too, though I must admit that might have something to do with the fact that Mike and Gena are regulars, and have a favorite waitress who takes excellent care of them - I never sat with an empty beer and when we were done with our meal, we sat talking for well over an hour without any pressure to leave. I guess I will have to cast off another Bergen County prejudice.

Let me take this opportunity to remind everyone that Zagat's survey for New York restaurants is currently open until May 14th. Remember - if you do the survey, you get a free copy of the book sent to you when it's published, so get judging!