Post Oak Houston

Houston gets a bad rap. People think it’s nasty and dirty and hot. They could be right… but not last week, not with the NBA All-Star game in town. Houston was on top of its game (pun intended), weather included.
When I stepped out of the airport on Monday afternoon instead of the 32 degree weather I was told I was going to have I had blue skies and 70 degrees of bliss. No smog, no scorching sun and high humidity, just the most perfect weather you can imagine. The grass was green and evidence of spring was everywhere.

Post Oak is just west of downtown Houston, south of I-10 north of 59 and right off of I-610. There are 3 golf courses (Houston Country Club, Memorial Park Municipal and River Oaks Country Club) within 5 miles but since I’m the worst golfer ever I can’t comment on them. The streets were clean and at the intersections of major streets, suspended in the air, were large faux metal rings with names of the streets illuminated from within. The shopping centers were full of all the usual retail and food suspects but here are some of the standouts of the trip (other than Chipotle).

Hilton Houston Post Oak – the service was just outstanding. The rooms had granite and cherry wood accents throughout. The styling of the hotel was modern and simple but not over the edge of plain. Even waiting for a elevator was nice on the eyes with the leather panel walls and the cherry wood accents on the brushed nickel doors. The staff was very attentive, especially the bartender in the bar downstairs (damn them for not having fat tire beer). With the exception of the tough and chewy Pecan crusted Halibut I had for dinner one night, all of the food was super.

Fogo de Chão – vegetarians beware! If you don’t like the sight of meat then definitely avoid this Brazilian Steakhouse (they do have an all you can eat salad bar but I’ve never been anywhere where lettuce tasted better than any other place, so who cares). They have locations in Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Washington DC, Beverly Hills, Chicago and 4 in Brazil.

I first experience the one in Dallas several years ago. I was immediately a smitten kitten. The warm cheese bread has just enough cheese in it to taste but not enough to make it too solid. I don’t know how they do it but they manage to keep the consistency of high quality bread with a crispy outside. Sort of like a cheesy bread cream puff. Seriously.

Their website explains their menu better than I so here’s a taste:

“Operating under the unique service concept of espeto corrido, which translates from Portuguese as “continuous service,” Fogo de Chão satisfies palates and the desire for something original. Instead of ordering from a traditional menu, Fogo de Chão offers a prix-fixe system where guests can sample the entire menu, or just focus on their favorite items.

The lunch and dinner menu features unlimited servings of 15 different delectable cuts of fire-roasted meats, a sumptuous buffet of gourmet salads and fresh-cut vegetables, and a variety of Brazilian side dishes.”

Everyone pays the same price which for now is around $45 per plate. Several years ago I remember it was $35 but either way it’s worth every penny to a food lover. And to the owners, I’m sorry I came in in a t-shirt, jeans, and my new balances.

Willie G’s Oyster Bar – this Landry’s joint has been around for over 20 years but only 3 locations. The ambiance was definately not screamin oyster bar (or any oyster bar I’ve ever been to)… unless it’s supposed to be an Oyster bar that the owner hit the PowerBall.

The menu wasn’t vast but it all looked and sounded great. It contained the usual seafood and steak items with Cajun twists.  After having my fat tire spilled in my friend’s lap and a thousand apologies from the waiter, I settled on the fried stuffed shrimp and fries (I have seafood hangups… anytime I have shrimp it has to have fries). The 4 fried stuffed shrimp on my plate were huge. Each were about the size of my palm and they looked like giant hush puppies with tails. I could comment on the how great it was but I was way drunk by the time it actually got there so for all I know it was crap. That’s what happens when you get together with some old drinking buddies.

Sam’s Boat – I didn’t eat but I did drink… a lot. It felt wierd being in a college bar many years out of school. My partner in crime agreed. The ambiance was very dock party. Live band, easy women and cheap beer was my idea of heaven 7 years ago but I’d like to think I’ve refined past that.  But I can’t lie, the cheap beer was a nice change ;0)

This post contains info on Travel, Food and People

In an effort to appease some who are Travel, Food and People starved, I’ll write about my latest experience in Columbia/Lexington, SC.
I was excited about this trip cause it would give me a chance to get back to an area of the country that I grew up in. Yes, I grew up in the Carolinas and I still have family and friends that live there so any chance to get back to see some actual mountians, hills and trees makes me happy.
Of course on the trip out we were delayed and missed our connection in ATL. When we finally got rebooked, that flight was delayed getting us in way to late to actually work. On top of that they lost our bags. No big deal, I’ll just brush my teeth with soap in the morning. We find the nearest food joint with WIFI and settle in for a long night of phone calls.
The next morning our bags had arrived. Actually they arrived at 2 a.m. and I know this because I got a phone call telling me so at 2 a.m. 🙁 We dine on some Chic-fil-a for breakfast every morning (fyi- chicken biscuits are the breakfast of the gods). The weather is perfect all week. Blue skies, no clouds, 70 degrees, elevation wasn’t too high so I could breath just fine. Mountian air is really good for your lungs…
We had to try some legendary Carolina BBQ (it’s usually shredded pork sandwhich with a Vinegar and brown sugar based BBQ sauce and cole slaw on it) so we asked some locals about good places. One night we went to Maurice’s BBQ. There, in addition to the food, you can also purchase books on how Wal-Mart is taking over the world. Good reading while on the plane :). The second night we had BBQ we went to Hudson’s BBQ. They were in the process of expanding and had only 3 walls and a sheet of plastic but there was a huge line so we figured it would be good enough. Underneath the outdoor propane heater, I had one of the best Carolina BBQ sandwhiches ever. The pork was so juicy it would just explode when you bit into it. The sauce, a near perfect combo of sweet and sour, did a 1, 2 punch on my tongue and the aftertaste was something woody, fruity and smokey. It would cause me to pause longer than normal between bites just to enjoy it a little longer. Also the shoe-string fries left nothing to be desired.
Also, being a quasi-local, I was on a mission to find 2 other things. Both beverages and both hard to come by outside of the Carolinas. One was a black cherry soda called Cheerwine and the other was a ginger-ale made with real minced ginger called Blenheim. Cheerwine was easy enough to find cause it was EVERYWHERE. Blenheim on the other hand was very elusive. It was like tracking down a UFO crash site 50 years after the fact. It could be just over Hobknob hill past Johnson’s farm or was it at the Publix on Starcross RD? Finally we found it at Bill’s Pack n’ Sack by the airport. If you like ginger and aren’t afraid of a little bite in your refreshment, this is what you need. It’s so tasty… and then it burns. It starts with the lips then moves to the tongue, cheeks, and throat. And it burns in only the way Ginger can.
The flights coming back were on time but that’s not saying there wasn’t some shooting rampage moments. The CRJ we took from Columbia to Atlanta decided to pair it’s 2 widest passengers in the same row. Needless to say I was shoulder to shoulder with this gentleman and I was cause for all traffic up and down the isle to pause, turn and suck in. There were many awkward “butt or crotch” moments. And the flight from ATL to OKC is everyone’s greatest nightmare… sitting next to the screaming child. Dameon is the name I came up with. He was sitting on her lap and she did everything but beat him to try and control him. I don’t know what was worse, sitting beside him or sitting in front of him. I think getting my chair kicked and pushed on every minute would be more annoying the just getting kicked in the leg. My ipod was cranked to no avail. I have hearing loss now because of it and I’ve decided to sue Apple. At some point I was going to suggest some corporal punishment be used on the child but then I realized he was just as frustrated with women (his mom) as I was. But with age I’ve learned not to kick, cry, scream and flail around when I get upset over a woman… well maybe not kick anyway.

Bist Du Deutschland?

I hope you’re not missing the flap in the blogosphere over the “Du Bist Deutschland” (You Are Germany) campaign. It’s well described in this article in Der Spiegel’s English edition here. (This story was Technorati’s top search last week.)

Let’s see if I can paraphrase. Very briefly:

  1. Ad agency launches “Du Bist Deutschland” campaign designed to cheer up gloomy Germans.
  2. Photo discovered  and published. Oops. “Denn Du Bist Deutchland” was a National Socialist campaign.
  3. Story gets blogged like crazy. Parodies erupt everywhere.
  4. Ad agency guy blasts bloggers, saying, “They’re the toilet walls of the internet.” Oops.
  5. Story gets blogged like crazy, Parodies erupt everywhere. You can now add a little “Ich bin Klowand” (I’m a toilet wall) chiclet to your site.
  6. Lather, rinse, repeat.

There’s a huge Flickr set of “Du Bist Deutschland” paraodies. I was suprised to find that hidden amongst them are Sabrinak‘s stunning photos of the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Not your typical response – and worth a look.

Pearly Whites, Meet South of the Border

Just yesterday, I saw the dentist here in the snowglobe. As a freelancer, I don’t carry dental insurance – it’s just not worth the expense. Your standard x-rays, exam, and cleaning is 60 dollars here, not super cheap, but cheaper than the 90 dollars, cleaning only, no exam, I’d be getting from my US dentist. Our Austrian dentist is a nice guy, runs a modern small local practice; his wife is the hygenist. They have to go for training every year in updated technologies and treatments. The clinic here is easily equal in quality to the one I went to in the US – and, unlike my US clinic, never tries to sell me services of any kind. (I can go on and on about how many times I’ve asked “Is that neccessary” and recieved “No” as a response. What if I had just believed the dentist? Sheesh.)

On the heels of my visit to a dentist in a far away land, I found Dentimundo this morning, a site documenting the link between American patients and dentists south of the border.

Dentist clinics are as prominent as three for a dollar tacos, margarita specials and Mexican panchos.

There’s quite a bit of interesting stuff up there including a snappy little “corrida” song about the whole south of the border dental business. Check out the interviews with the dentists, too.

When we landed in the San Jose, Costa Rica, airport two years back, we were amazed at the number of billboards for dentistry services. And a few nights ago on the news I saw an interesting little blurb about how Swedish clinics were importing dentists for short term contracts – under six months – to circumnavigate the cost full time employees and save their patients money. (No dental benefits for the dentists, eh?) Even here in Austria, folks are taking junkets across the border to Hungary to get care for their choppers.

I take advantage of the lower cost care in far away places, but there’s no denying that I’m the economic elite with access and opportunity. That said, I would rather get my services locally. I would rather establish a long term relationship with a health care provider that I can communicate with in an effective way. This discredits my Austrian dentist, who does speak good English, but I think you get my point.

I have an axe to grind with the insurance companies who don’t seem to think that teeth and eyes are something standard on humans and require that they have supplemental coverage. But maybe that’s another post entirely.

Via We Make Money Not Art.

Fly at Your Own Risk

The airlines in Britain are off the hook. A suit was filed against them seeking damages for deaths by deep vein thrombosis – DVT. Not their fault, the airlines say, that the plane was cramped and passengers developed DVT. The judges agreed.

Airline travel has progressively worsened since I was a young lass off to Sweden on foreign exchange. Used to be you could count on the seat next to you being empty. Used to be you could find a whole row to sleep in once the plane was at “cruising altitude.” No more. Now the plane is full and, thanks to Homeland Security, you’re not supposed to stand at the back. You’re supposed to stay in your cramped seat developing clots.

There are other risk factors involved in developing DVT. I don’t know that I’m likely to develop DVT. I do know that in a week, I’m shoehorning myself into a coach seat and flying to Europe. I always book the aisle and I’m a scofflaw about the “no loitering” rules, but others get their seats too late or just don’t know to get up and stretch.

I don’t know that I wanted the airlines to get nailed on this. While I’m thinking it through, I’m trying to project the conditions that cause DVT on to other scenarios. What if a workplace had these conditions? A prison? Is that silly? For the money you pay for an airline seat, it seems like the least you could expect are conditions that are not potentially life threatening. Ultimately, I’m being very selfish about this case. I worry that the airlines, now that the case has been thrown out, will shave another three inches off leg room in coach.

I can’t reach the stuff that’s up high in my kitchen, but at least there are some advantages to being short.

The Flying Mobulas of the Sea of Cortez

I love it when I find something online that I know I have to see in person. Today it’sThe Flying Mobulas of the Sea of Cortez.

No, they aren’t a family of trapese artists, but relatives of manta rays that “breach” frequently and fly through the air. The photographers Paul and Michael Albert have done a great job researching and documenting these amazing creatures. Baja California, anyone?

Fly Mobula Fly!

Cool travel site searches 551 airlines from over 100 sites, as well as hotels, cars and cruises. The search output is ass-kickingly cool, way better than the major sites. And the little display while it’s searching looks like old-school train schedule boards. Check it out!

Airline security that works

I just got back from a couple of weeks in Europe (London and Zurich). Security does seem to have stepped up a notch since the London bombings, but I didn’t notice anything overly obtrusive. (Then again, I wasn’t wearing a jacket and running for the Tube.) Security delays at Heathrow were uncharacteristically bad, although it did turn out I was in the trainee line at the security check — much to my frustration as my boarding time neared, the other lines were flowing through just fine.

One thing that did surprise me was the security process at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport (I had to change there to get from Zurich to Seattle). As I approached the gate for the Northwest flight, there was a line-up before you could get to the gate area. While you were waiting in line, a security officer wheeled up a laptop on a stand and scanned your passport. Then you had to wait for another officer to take you into the gate area.

But before you were allowed to proceed to the boarding area, they did a little interview with you. (There were at least a dozen interview areas — nothing more than wheeled podiums arranged in some clear space — and about as many interviewers, so this process was pretty quick.) The interviewer asked me about my itinerary on this trip, where I’d packed my luggage and where it had been on every step of the trip to the airport, what electronic devices I had in my baggage, where I lived and what I did, and so on. The interviewer did not seem to be a $5/hr flackey reading through a script — he genuinely seemed to be probing and investigating, albeit in a very polite way. I suspect the questions were dependent on your itinerary and passport scan. After a few minutes of this he checked with a supervisor, and I was then allowed to proceed. After a scan of my hand baggage through the X-ray, I was on my way.

What impressed me about this was how effective this process seemed. Everyone on the flight was interviewed — not a few random selectees — and the interview seemed meaningful. Much more focus was placed on intelligence (the interview) than on security (the X-ray scan almost seemed like a formality, and there were no pat-downs). I’m not one to get nervous on flights, but I did feel measurably safer having gone through that process. And isn’t that the point? I guess it must be expensive — let’s say 15 well-trained security staff for 2 hours of boarding — but it certainly felt worth it, and not obtrusive at all. It didn’t seem like they were doing it for all flights at Schipol — I suspect that flights to the US are singled out for this kind of operation.

Compare this with a totally bizarre security experience I had flying Baltimore to NYC about a month ago. Because we’d changed our tickets that day (to fly out of BWI instead of Reagan), we were automatically flagged by the airline for “special screening”. (If you ever see the code SSSS on your boarding pass — usually for last-minute changes, one-way tickets, or paying in cash — you’re about to get the special treatment too.) Everyone else went through the regular security line (ID checked and hand baggage X-rayed).

The first thing I saw when I got to the special screening line was your usual X-ray scanner. So I went ahead and did the usual things — take my laptop out of its bag, shoes off, you know the drill. As I put my belongings on the counter ready to be scanned, a gruff security officer told me “Put your shoes on.”. Err, ok. So I grab my shoes off the belt and put them back on.

Now the security guard points to me towards a machine that looks kinda like the Tardis. (See a picture of the Smiths Detection IonScan Sentinel II.) You step into the Tardis and the security guard pushes a button. The machine then blows air into your face (and over your whole body) for about 10 seconds. It’s kinda like standing in a strong wind. This was the exact point where the security officer decided to give me further instructions, but with all the wind blowing I could hear nothing and only see her lips moving. Anyway, the wind stopped, the machine beeped, and I was allowed to proceed.

Next, was your usual X-ray scanner for hand baggage and the personal X-ray machine you walk through. I took my stuff off the counter and put it on the belt of the bag scanner, and went to walk though the arch. Before I could, another security guard told me to take my shoes off and put them through the bag scanner as well. Protesting that I’d just been told to put my shoes on didn’t help. I meekly removed my shoes again, put them on the belt, and walked through the arch.

But it’s not over yet. Next, I had to sit down with a third security officer while he tested my hand baggage (laptop bag, overnight bag, and shoes) for explosives by wiping each of them in turn with a cloth and scanning it. This took about 5 minutes, giving me time to talk with the security guard (this guy was nice). I asked about the Tardis. He said it was a new high-tech explosive scanning machine. The TSA had bought 20 of them, and shipped them to 20 airports around the country. He said that when they got it, they didn’t really know what to do with it, so they stuck it in the special screening line.

So think about this for a moment. If you get send to the special screening line, you are checked for explosives THREE times — with the Tardis, with the regular X-ray/body-scan, and with the cloth test. Wouldn’t it be more effective to scan three times as many people? But no, that would make far too much sense. Much better just to make business travellers who change their tickets at the last minute take their shoes off, put them on again, take them off again, and put them on again in the name of trying to make people feel better while not actually making anyone measurably safer.

And consider the cost. The Tardis must costs at least in the 6 figures, and I wouldn’t be surprise if it was in the multi-millions. How many interviewers could they have trained for that kind of money that could have effectively screened for psychopaths, like they do at Schipol?

Postcard from Canada

Moraine Lake

We’re just back from three weeks of very wet camping in BC and the Rockies. We were blissfully free from news for most of that time save two major items – the gay marriage bill and the flooding around Calgary. We went from hot spring to hot spring like a couple of old Germans on holiday (hey, the weather was really bad), saw dinosaur bones out at the Royal Tyrell Museum, hiked to the tea house above Lake Louise, had an excellent meal in Nelson, stuffed ourselves on fresh organic cherries in the Okanagen, and generally enjoyed the grand nature that BC has to offer.

Over gin and tonics at their RV, Earl and Glenna recommended we camp at Burton, one of the finest lakeside campgrounds in the Kootenay Valley. Neil played Amazing Grace for us across the turquoise waters of Lake Lousie because “it’s Sunday morning and you’re in the biggest cathedral in the world.” Elk refused to leave our campsite on two separate occasions, once waking me up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because they’d chosen to do their very loud chewing just outside the tent, right about where my head was. We saw bears, waterfalls, glaciers, countless wildflowers, and miles of pristine wilderness. One evening at Arrow Lakes, we saw an osprey fly overhead with a trout in its talons and one morning in Jasper, a giant redheaded woodpecker took to a stump next to our picnic table while we ate breakfast. And because we were there for Canada Day, we learned the anthem which I can not stop singing.

Oh, Canada, we stand on guard for thee!

If you’d like to see more pictures, they’re here on my site.

Oh Canada!

We’re off to BC to do our annual “living out of the car like deadhead hippies” trip. Wait. Are they Phishheads now? I don’t even now. Anyway, you should see us camp, we’re total pros. Gourmet meals on the two burner Coleman and a tent that’s pitched tight enough to bring up the rear in a Souza march. We’d compete if camping was a competition sport, we would, and we’d win! But now I’m just showing off.

We’re taking the TransCanada highway east to Kamloops then heading north to Jasper, then south through the national parks, then zig-zagging through the Kootenays till we get to the Okanagan before heading back in to Washington.

That’s our rough itinerary. Jury is still out on if we’re bringing the laptop for campfire blogging. Before we hit the road, I’m wondering if any of you well-traveled types have must see – or must avoid – recommendations for us. Let me know! And thanks, eh?