“It’s your happy place.”

Someone told me today that she didn’t quite get the appeal of model railroading, that it must be a male thing. And that’s fair: Model railroads were first invented by a dollhouse maker so they would have something to market to boys. That company still markets trains, but no longer markets dollhouses, so I guess you could say it was successful.

Here’s how I summed up the appeal.

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Remembering Rossino’s

I thought of Rossino’s, a hideaway Italian restaurant in St. Louis’ Central West End the other day. And then today, I saw the obituary for Nina Lee Russo, one of the owners of the secluded yet popular restaurant.

The obituary mentioned the restaurant closed in 2006, when the second generation wanted to retire. But the obituary mentioned some other facts that explained a few things. Read more

Going violent

The rhetoric in today’s political environment is toxic. Since before the 2008 presidential election, I’ve been expecting it to take a violent turn. Today it happened. It happened later than I expected, and the target wasn’t who I expected, but now we’ve gone violent.

It’s entirely possible that the pundits and candidates who utilize violent turns of phrase didn’t expect it to happen this way. Their intent matters little at this point. You never know whether violent rhetoric will be interpreted literally or figuratively, but all it takes is one person to take it literally for it to turn into a tragedy. Now it appears that a 22-year-old consipracy theorist did take it literally, and now we have a tragedy. Among the wounded is a 40-year-old Congresswoman. Among the dead are a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl.

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Another year, another manager

Buddy Bell resigned his job as Royals manager at the end of the season to spend more time with his family, then promptly took a minor-league job with the White Sox. Given their last-place finish, it’s not much of a loss.

They named a replacement today.His name is Trey Hillman. I know little about him, except that he managed in the Yankees system and he turned around a poor team in Japan. He’s won everywhere he’s been.

I see this as a good thing, since Buddy Bell hasn’t won anywhere he’s been. And Hillman has experience as a turnaround artist, which is what the Royals need.

The best Royals managers (Dick Howser, Whitey Herzog) had big-league experience, which is a knock on Hillman, but neither was what you could call distinguished. Herzog was nobody before coming to KC, but then the Royals went on to have several of their best seasons under him. Howser won a championship with the Yankees but didn’t bring home the World Series title that Steinbrenner wanted, so he axed him. The Royals hired him, and they never finished lower than second place with him at the helm.

In this ESPN piece about Tillman, he says all the right things: Work ethic, develop in-house talent, pay attention to the team atmosphere and adjust when you feel it drop.

If he does half those things, I know he’ll do better than Buddy Bell did with his all-veterans-all-the-time approach.

I wish I’d tried out Cafe Manhattan much sooner

My wife and I tried someplace different for dinner tonight. Cafe Manhattan has been near the intersection of Lindbergh and Tesson Ferry since 1989–longer than I’ve been driving. And since it’s just a couple of miles away from where I went to high school, where I live, and where I worked for seven years, I’ve driven past it a lot.

Big mistake. But it’s going to be in heavy rotation from now on.In 2006, Cafe Manhattan got the RFT award for best milkshake in St. Louis. So I had to try it. It’s done up the old fashioned way, and you get the metal cup, and I’ll admit it’s awfully good. I’ll put it ahead of local favorite Oberweis, but it’s not quite up to par with Crown Candy Kitchen. Of course for me it’s also a much shorter drive.

The other reviews suggested to me that Cafe Manhattan is a greasy spoon, but that’s not really a fair label. Not everything is deep-fried or grill-fried, and there’s a very surprisingly large number of vegetarian dishes on the menu. I wouldn’t call it a health food place, but if you want a place to eat and there are vegetarians in your party, this place is a winner.

The menu claims the hamburger is the best in St. Louis, so of course I had to take up that challenge. It was very good, but I think the burgers at Concord Grill, a couple of blocks away, are better. Let it be known, however, that regardless of Citysearch’s claim that Hardee’s makes the best burger in St. Louis, that Cafe Manhattan’s burger is much better.

My wife had something called a Liberty Melt, which was a bunch of veggies on whole wheat bread with some type of Wisconsin cheese on it. Not my thing, but she loved it. She’s a vegetarian now, which can make going out a little difficult sometimes, but she changed her mind about four times about what to get before settling on this one. She wasn’t disappointed.

The service was excellent. The place was packed, and yet everything arrived quickly. The meal probably arrived 10 minutes after we placed our order–faster than some fast-food restaurants. The staff was attentive and courteous and kept our glasses full.

And I almost forgot the atmosphere. The building it’s in used to be a Naugel’s–one of many local Mexican fast-food chains that have come and gone–but they’ve done a lot with it. The interior has classic diner floor tile and tables, and there’s a jukebox in the corner. But along the ceiling there’s a shelf that runs the perimeter of the dining room stuffed full of Americana–old soda bottles, signs, toys, and other neat things. Lots of casual dining chains try for that look, but Cafe Manhattan does it better.

As far as having the best milkshake, best burger, best pizza, or anything else, if you’re willing to look, you’ll find one or two places that are a little bit better at each of those things. But I doubt you’ll find anyplace that does all of it better.

And while the place was busy, this was a Saturday night. Had we gone to O’Charley’s or Friday’s or Applebee’s at that time, we would have had to wait. We didn’t have to wait and we got better food.

Now I know what I was missing when I drove past those hundreds–if not thousands–of times. We’ll be back soon.

I was on vacation

I went on vacation and I guess my DSL connection got jealous. As far as I can tell it died two days into the trip. Figures. So that’s why the site’s been dead.

If it interests youm I’ll tell you about my trip.I went with the girlfriend’s family to Orange Beach, Alabama, which is close to Pensacola, Florida. In Alabama the beaches are just about as white and much easier to walk on because it’s softer, but the shell hunting is better across the Florida border.

My St. Louis buddies say I’ve already lost the twang I picked up down there. That’s a good thing. I’m a northern boy.

Train fans will have something to look at near the intersection of highways 59 and 98 in Foley, AL. An old Louisville & Nashville diesel switcher locomotive, L&N caboose and boxcar are there, along with a St. Louis-San Francisco (Frisco) boxcar. They appear to be in reasonably good condition.

The Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola is excellent. I could spend days there. Take the 11 AM restoration tour if at all possible. They take you out into the airfield where planes that won’t fit in the museum are displayed, but they also take you inside the hangar where you can see their works in progress. In front of the hanger was what was left of a Brewster Buffalo, an early Navy fighter from World War II. It’s something of a holy grail today, because its ineffectiveness against the Japanese Zero doomed it early in the war. We sold a bunch of them to Finland and palmed a few more off on the British while the Navy did its best with the Grumman Wildcat, which was slightly less ineffective, while waiting for the Hellcat and Corsair fighters.

But anyway, they had the *censored*pit section of a Buffalo in front of the hangar and another Buffalo inside, which was waiting for its wings to be installed and a trip to the paint shop. They were also working on a replica of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra. She wasn’t in the Navy, but her role in aviation and women’s acceptance in it means the museum was interested in the plane. The widespread belief that the Japanese believed her to be a U.S. spy and shot her plane down doesn’t hurt, either.

For great fish and seafood, check out Original Oyster House in Gulf Shores, AL. We had an hour and a half wait, which we passed by browsing the adjacent shops. I imagine that’s the source of most of those shops’ business. The shops aren’t earth-shattering but won’t bore you to tears either. The seafood is.

Flounders Chowder House in Pensacola Beach, Florida, is also amazing. Don’t ask me which one’s better. I think Flounders has the better atmosphere but the food in both places is first-rate. While just about every seafood place in the area is going to be better than Red Lobster, it’s easy to find disappointingly mediocre seafood in the area. But these two places knocked my socks off.

I made a new friend outside Papa Rocco’s in Gulf Shores. A sign outside Papa Rocco’s advertises warm beer and lousy pizza. Seriously, that’s what it said. I was walking across the Papa Rocco’s lot on my way to a souvenir shop when a woman started yelling at me. I kept walking but turned a couple of times. When I turned and looked at her, she yelled, "Yeah, I’m talking to you!" She wasn’t anyone I knew and she was obviously drunk. I have no idea why she was upset with me. I picked up my pace and got lost in the souvenir shop as quickly as I could.

I was crossing Papa Rocco’s to get a good look at Tracks To BBQ. Obviously if I’m on the Atlantic coast I’m going to eat seafood, since I can get good BBQ closer to home. But the ad for Tracks To advertised "Antique model train cars on display." So of course I wanted to check it out. Peering into the window, I was able to see that it was a small establishment, with only two or three tables inside. I saw a couple of Lionel posters on the wall and some assorted trinkets in the window. Further back, next to the cash register, I saw a couple of old OO or HO scale train cars that looked pretty old. What appeared to be a locomotive in the original box sat next to them. On a shelf below that I saw a postwar Lionel hopper car. I paid $10 for the same car at a swap meet last month. Nothing earth shattering there, at least not from what I could see inside. That’s not to say there wasn’t something cool running on a shelf under the ceiling, but I couldn’t tell from outside and the establishment was closed.

I’d hoped to see some prewar tinplate. Oh well.

The outlet mall in Foley is large and you can spot the occasional bargain. Some of the shops were handing out 40% off coupons for other shops in the complex. I got a pair of $50 Reebok tennis shoes for $20. I thought about buying a pair of the canvas Reebok Classic shoes as well. They would have been $12 with a coupon. I’ve had a couple of pairs of them in the past and they’re decent shoes. I’ve had shoes that were better looking and lasted longer, but in most cases I also paid $60 for them.

But as with all of these kinds of places, caveat emptor. I tried on plenty of shoes with lumpy soles. Those shoes aren’t worth taking for free because of what they’ll do to your feet. And mixed with the bargains you can find some high-priced items that are trading on reputation. Careful shoppers can save a bundle though.

I also learned that a large sand castle can attract a lot of attention. We built one large enough for a 4-year-old to hide in completely. It drew lots of looks and comments.

Visiting a movie sneak preview

I attended a sneak preview a couple of weeks ago of a movie that was released last week. The movie title isn’t terribly important–it was a ho-hum flick that no one will remember in six months–but the measures, well, they gave credence to a comment I made recently in a conversation.

When my girlfriend said the United States is a free country, I said that at least when it comes to copyright, it’s not.How ridiculous have things become? Let me tell you. There were four security guards as we stood in line. Cell phones, pagers, and all other recording devices had to be turned off. My girlfriend got special permission for her insulin pump. She had to tell them that no, she couldn’t do without it. Yes, really. Why? If something lights up, the thugs are instructed to assume it’s a recording device and evict you, no questions asked.

"Disney wants you to talk about this movie," the head thug said. "But Disney is equally concerned that nobody makes a copy of it."

Judging from the quality of the film, they’re more concerned about people copying their stuff than they are about making good new stuff. No wonder Disney’s in financial trouble. (The most frustrating thing about this particular film was that it probably could have been pretty good but it was blatantly obvious that the screenwriters didn’t know anything about the world they were trying to portray.)

Once we were seated, when someone came back from the concession stand, I so wanted to ask the person, "You sure there isn’t a recording device hidden in that hot dog?" But I couldn’t remember if they’d told us recording device jokes would not be tolerated–kind of like bomb jokes while standing in line to get on an airplane. I assumed they wouldn’t be tolerated and kept my mouth shut.

This totalitarian atmosphere has a lot to do with what’s wrong today with the music and movie industries. They love pay-per-view because they can control it. You have to fork over a few bucks every time you watch the movie. They’ve made two attempts at disposable DVDs because, again, their lifespan is limited. If you want to watch it again after the disc has self-destructed, you have to pay again.

You think they’re going after 321 Studios just because they don’t want people pirating DVDs? Think again. DVDs do have a finite lifespan, which does give you a legitimate reason to make a copy for your personal use. DVDXCopy is coded to only allow you to make a copy for personal use, though I suppose you could use it to make a copy of a borrowed or rented DVD. What you won’t see is people hawking DVDXCopy-made counterfeits out of the back of a van parked on a busy city street. But that’s OK. Hollywood doesn’t want you to make a copy of your Field of Dreams DVD because they want you to buy another one in six or seven years.

The way the big movie studios got big was by making great films that people wanted to see again and again. Along the way they made lots of bombs too, but that was part of the cost of doing business. Some films took a while to be appreciated–It’s a Wonderful Life being a prime example. Even though now it’s considered a classic, it was initially a flop.

And there are plenty of good films still being made. Time will tell on Secondhand Lions, for instance, but I loved it.

Being a somewhat creative person myself, I can sympathize with these companies. Making something good is hard. Making something that sells is hard. Making something good that sells both today and tomorrow is just about impossible. Even when you have thousands of people working for you, you can’t count on accomplishing that feat even once a year. The factors are beyond your control.

When the goal is increasing profits, it’s much cheaper and easier to buy a few Congressmen and set up a totalitarian state. That’s something you can control.

The quest for BBQ in St. Louis takes me to Smokin’ Al’s

I’ve written many times before about my never-ending search for BBQ in St. Louis. It’s a lot easier to find now than it was 10 years ago. And, although it’s still not up to Kansas City standards, I do have to say it’s getting better.

This weekend’s adventure took me to Smokin’ Al’s, which is on Hampton, just north of I-44 and south of U.S. 40, within earshot of Forest Park. It’s in the city, so be sure to pack your concealed weapons.

I’m kidding. That part of St. Louis is safe, and Smokin’ Al’s seems to be popular with the police anyway. But what’s it like?The first thing I noticed was the prices. They’re very reasonable–higher than McDonald’s but no higher than, say, Subway. My girlfriend got the BBQ hamburger with fries and a drink. Posted price was $4.99. I got the BBQ brisket sandwich with fries and drank my usual water (I don’t drink caffeine after noon). Posted price was $5.75, I think. Our total came to $11.99.

Like a true BBQ joint, Smokin’ Al’s has a napkin dispenser on the table. On a recent BBQ excursion, someone handed me a single napkin. I held it up and told whoever would listen that this was a perfect example of everything that’s wrong with BBQ in St. Louis. If you can clean up afterward with a single napkin, it wasn’t BBQ.

When the food arrived, it came with reason to hope that the napkin dispenser would be necessary. It had BBQ sauce on it! Amazing!

Like the classic Kansas City joints, the brisket sandwich was served on Texas Toast. The girl at the counter was much friendlier than the people at the counter at Gates or Arthur Bryant’s though. (They make rudeness an art form at those places. It’s part of the atmosphere.)

The quality of the meat was very commendable. It wasn’t dry or tough, and it was about as lean as you’ll ever find at a BBQ joint. You could tell from looking at it that it was cooked the way it’s supposed to be: long and slow. And there was a lot of it.

The sauce is their own homemade blend. It’s a bit different. It wasn’t quite as spicy as, say, Gates, but it wasn’t sweet. I doubt there’s a lot of honey or molasses in it. It also wasn’t tangy like a lot of BBQ sauces. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s pretty good, but it’s not much like anything I’ve had in other parts of the country. Maybe that’s what they mean when they say "St. Louis Style BBQ"–that’s what it says on the sign. And I know they don’t mean pork steaks, because those weren’t on the menu.

And yes, during the meal I went through about five napkins.

Best BBQ I’ve ever had? No. Best BBQ in St. Louis? Well, you’ve got me thinking, and I’ll grudgingly admit that the title of Best BBQ in St. Louis is no longer like the title of Tallest Building in Topeka. I might give a slight edge to Super Smokers, but Smokin’ Al’s is cheaper and the portions are a bit bigger. Best BBQ value in St. Louis? Absolutely.

So how’s it rank on the All-Time scale? It’s not quite in the same league as Gates, Arthur Bryant’s, or Smokestack, all in Kansas City. Second tier is Biffle’s in Concordia, Mo., Carson’s in Chicago, or Trotter’s, an old chain out of Springfield, Mo., which during its prime was as good as anyone’s but whose quality dropped off very quickly in the early ’90s. It disappeared soon after. But I remember it fondly.

I rank Super Smokers a notch below those two levels. I’ll put Smokin’ Al’s in that same category. But one must remember, both of these chains are mere rookies.

The quality of life in St. Louis just went up a notch. This Kansas Citian will be back. Especially seeing as it’s about a 10-minute drive from work, making it suitable lunchtime fare.

I can’t think of a higher compliment I could give.

What I’ve learned in my current video project

This is a selfish post. I want to record my notes of what I’ve learned on my current project so I don’t forget them, and so I can access them anywhere. Other video hobbyists might benefit.
This is almost exclusively theory, so it should be applicable to any video editing software/equipment you find. But as far as specific tips for helping Premiere… I doubt there’ll be anything directly applicable. Read more

St. Louis secrets

St. Louis secrets. I have no idea how many of you live in St. Louis or travel to St. Louis or have ever been here. I’m a St. Louis transplant, being a native of Kansas City. Toasted ravioli was odd. I learned to like it pretty quickly (for the unitiated, it’s ravioli that’s been battered and then deep-fried. In these health-conscious days, sometimes you can get it baked instead.)
St. Louis-style pizza, on the other hand… I tolerated it. But real pizza was from New York or Chicago. To get good pizza in St. Louis, you had to go to one of the places that specialized in one of the foreign styles. When I was in college, to get a decent pizza, my dad and I would go to Shakespeare’s, a little hole in the wall (well, now it’s a big hole in the wall) at 9th and Elm streets in Columbia, just on the edge of the MU campus. I remember once, my sophomore year, sitting there with my dad, and he looked off, whimsically in the distance. “I’m gonna miss this place.”

There wasn’t anything remotely like it in St. Louis. Ironically, their sausage and pepperoni was delivered fresh every day from St. Louis. St. Louis knows how to make this stuff–the Italian population here is huge, and the Italian restaurants in St. Louis are to die for–but Imo’s, the most famous place to get St. Louis-style pizza? Forget it. I’d rather stop at the grocery store and get a frozen pizza. Seriously. If you bake it on a baking stone, you’ll get a crisp crust that’s almost as thin, and bettter in every other way. The other big local chains are comparable.

So if you’re ever in St. Louis, skip Imo’s. Skip Cecil Whittaker’s and Elicia’s too. They’re better, but I have a hard time thinking they’re anything special.

I found out this weekend the place to go. It’s called Fortel’s Pizza Den. There are four or five locations, and they don’t advertise a whole lot. Gatermann and I paid it a visit at about 8:30 Saturday night. There were only a couple of emtpy tables when we got there, and when we left an hour later, people were still coming in about as fast as they were leaving. That tells you something. The toppings were extremely fresh, not to mention plentiful, and there was something special about the sauce. I’m not good enough at identifying spices to know what they did with it, but it’s absolutely a cut above anything the national chains like Domino’s and Papa John’s use. St. Louis knows how to make a red sauce, which you’ll know if you visit any of the Italian restaurants here. You wouldn’t know that from Imo’s or Cecil’s. You’ll know it from Fortel’s though.

So if you’re visiting a friend or relative in St. Louis and they want to show you Imo’s, show them Fortel’s instead.

I figured that to get a decent pizza joint in St. Louis, I’d have to open it myself. I’m glad I won’t have to do that now–the thought of owning a restaurant never really appealed to me. And now I don’t have to drive two hours to Shakespeare’s in Columbia to get a first-class pizza either.

Speaking of Italian restaurants, I recommend Zia’s on The Hill. There are pricier restaurants out there, but I’ve never found one that was better. Get a salad, and get their Italian dressing on it. Trust me, you’ll love it. Another hint: They sell it in grocery stores. You can stop at Schnucks or Dierbergs (the two biggest grocery chains here, both run by families who don’t know how to use apostrophes) and buy a case of it to take back with you. You’ll want to.

The Dierberg family is Lutheran. There are lots of Lutherans in St. Louis.

And if you want a goofy souvenir, stop in at Dirt Cheap Beer. There are dozens of convenient locations all around St. Louis. Pick up a six-pack of their house brand. It’ll set you back about $1.75. I won’t ruin your fun by describing the label on it. No, it’s not any classier than the word BEER in solid black block letters on a white can. But it’s a lot funnier. I’ve never been brave enough to drink any of it. One of my rules is to avoid all beer that costs less than Pepsi.

For frozen custard, there’s Ted Drewes on Chippewa. I think 3/4 of the appeal is the atmosphere and nostalgia. But it’s good. The place is always crowded, so I’m not the only one who likes it. Ted Drewes is Lutheran. He doesn’t know how to use apostrophes either. Maybe the Dierberg family taught him.

For the best deli sandwich in the world, there’s Amighetti’s on The Hill. For the second-best deli sandwich in the world, there’s Mom’s Deli on Chippewa. They’re both amazing. (I’m still mad about the Amighetti’s franchise in Crestwood, near where I work, closing. The sandwiches were to die for, and the girl who always worked the counter was really cute, too.) They know how to use apostrophes both places. Must be because they’re not Lutheran.

There’s another place I haven’t checked out yet, but I’ve been ordered to do so at some point. Up in north St. Louis, there’s a joint called Crown Candy. It’s a candy store (they make their own) with an authentic old-fashioned soda fountain. They serve food too, so you can get acceptable lunch fare on your pilgrimage. The milkshakes are supposed to be out of this world.

But if you want good barbecue in Missouri, you still have to go to Kansas City. And if you want good beer from Missouri, skip Anheuser-Busch’s products, which are as smooth as a gravel road. Get a Boulevard. That’s brewed in Kansas City, of course. (You can take Dave out of Kansas City, but you’ll never take the Kansas City out of Dave.)

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