The body knows

February in Saskatchewan was overcoats, snow shovels and block heaters. February in Puerto Vallarta though, was beach vendors, banana daquaris & cold Pacifico cervezas, and nights at whatever spot the music dragged you into. Somewhere in that swirl of vacation haze a bug found its way into my lower GI tract – microscopic in size, but titanic in its ability to bring my carefree winter respite to a screeching, cramping, shitting halt. I felt the first ominous twinge one evening as I wandered home at oh-dark thirty, the heavy night air cloaking my tank top & shorts-clad body like warm cotton. Hm, I thought… probably shouldn’t have had that last beer. Then – whoa. Soon I was racing through the empty open-air hotel lobby and dashed upstairs to my room, which is, by the way, frighteningly hard to do when your ass-cheeks are clenched like a set of vice grips. I made it to the commode in the nick of time – I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say the awe-inspiring projectile emptying of my digestive contents (and then some) was to be repeated many times over the following 18 hours.

The night passed in a misery of fitful sleep, abdominal cramps, and the routine dragging of my unwilling and abused carcass to the bathroom. Even when it seemed there couldn’t possibly be another ounce of anything left in my system, there was just a little more ejecta waiting to be processed – from whence it came I do not care to know. Fortunately I had the foresight to bring Immodium, and the common sense to drink a little water from time to time, but the following day passed in a series of uncomfortable naps and fetal-position-inducing cramps. When the maid made her daily appearance it was all I could do to toss a half-grimace her way – I’m sure my story was retold later with great amusement as she communed with her co-workers.

Around sundown I noticed to my great relief the cramps were subsiding, and I could again stand upright with a minimum of vertigo. After another few hours I actually felt good enough (and bored enough) to venture again into the warm night. Old town Puerto Vallarta was (and is still, I imagine) a seeming unplanned and unzoned hodge-podge of stalls, shops, and half-finished buildings with retail on the main floor, residences on the often open-air second floor, and a third floor which was surely planned and indeed may someday happen. It was one of these ad-hoc squatter-like restaurants which I had no doubt passed before but never noticed… open front, bare concrete walls and ceiling, as wide as a single-car garage and about twice as deep, with unblinking naked bulbs illuminating the checkerboard black & white floor tiles on which sat a few plastic tables and chairs. But it was the smell… the pungent aroma of garlic and spice and the promise of wonderful culinary delight which dragged me inside. Italian food… pasta. Suddenly I craved it – needed it. Couldn’t go another step without it. The place was about empty and I poured my abused butt into a stackable patio chair and ordered spaghetti bolognese.

The service was fast and courteous (I may have been the only paying customer in the joint), and before long a plate of steaming perfection appeared in front of me. I breathed it in… simple, fresh, and irresistable. And the taste… glorious beyond words. Spaghetti and meat sauce has always been  my favorite pasta dish, and is my go-to when I want to judge an Italian restaurant. If they can’t make a decent bolognese, then it’s a safe bet the rest of the menu will be mediocre at best. That particular dinner on that hazy night has become my personal gold standard for pasta bolognese. Maybe it was the atmosphere, maybe it was because my system was craving whatever was in that mass of noodles and sauce. But it was, and is to date, the best bolognese I have ever eaten. The meat was the  perfect texture, the sauce was mildly seasoned, tangy, and not too sweet, the spaghetti cooked just right. I ate it slowly, mindfully, savoring every bite - admittedly I was a little fearful of reloading the ejecta-machine, but I hated every bite because that was one less I had on my plate.

I walked out of there a new man. The rest of the evening is lost to me, but I do know that after that meal my vacation was firmly back on track - my day of misery just an ugly memory. It’s kind of fascinating to me… a food craving has never hit me like that before or since – my body knew what it needed. I was just along for the ride.

Hit the road, Jack

Everyone has a guilty pleasure, culinarily speaking. I’m no different… Kraft Dinner with weiners or chili? Yum. Greasy chorizo and egg burrito on a lazy Sunday morning, or for the perfect hangover cure? Nothing better. And don’t get me started on that wonderous steaming pot of sodium known as Top Ramen. However, my guilty pleasure list is topped by a good cheeseburger and onion rings. And I don’t mean a double quarter-pounder with cheese from Mickey-D’s, or those crispy, uniformly-punched o-rings you get at Burger King… they barely qualify as food! I could go on about the relative characteristics of a good burger and rings, but I’m sure you have your personal gold standard. I first encountered the cheeseburger and rings of my dreams in my late teens, at a local Dairy Queen - it was also a brazier kitchen so they served ‘real’ food as well as tasty ice cream. My buddy Kevin worked across the street and he knew to order this thing called a ‘Super Sizzle’… don’t think it was even on the menu but he somehow had special insight into their secrets. The first time I had one, angels sung… I was transported to a magical and infinitely better place. Two meaty patties, perfect bun, ketchup, mustard, pickles and I don’t know what else all wrapped in a foil square. No “thousand-islandish” special sauce either. And big… this thing was like a dinner plate! Best burger I ever had, before or since. And then tragically they quit making them… oh, the humanity.

Jack in the box logo Fast forward a bunch of years, wherein I searched vainly for a comparable burger experience. The closest I found was the Ultimate Cheeseburger at Jack In The Box. Hey – don’t judge… we’re talking personal guilty pleasure here. The burger has a pretty good ratio of patty to bun to condiments & cheese, including a satisfying heft when you first unwrap the thing… plus it tastes pretty good when you’re in the proper frame of mind. And they have decent rings as well, long as they are not overcooked. So – for the last several years JIB has been my go-to for the occaisional burger fix. Which brings me to today, and closer to the point. We have lived in three houses over the last 11 years, and each has been been in close proximity to a JIB – not necessarily the reasons we moved, but good for me. For bit of relevant background, our current place is not far from the barrio… excellent for access to Mexican food of the fast, cheap, tasty, authentic and drive through variety (I know… another guilty pleasure). When you’re in line behind a couple of landscaping trucks, you know you’re in the right place. And as you already know, I do love my chorizo… although it’s hard to beat a good fish burro as well. We have two JulioBerto’s within 10 minutes - there are also Eriberto’s, Filiberto’s, Roloberto’s, and probably other ‘berto’s I can’t think of right now. Like I said… we’re not far from the barrio. Hang in there… I’m going somewhere with this.

Ball-headed JackI drove past our first neighborhood a couple of months ago, and on the corner with all the little shops anchored by a Home Depot, the spot where my beloved JIB stood, is now a…. Filibertos. I don’t begrudge Filiberto, or any of the Bertos. But they are not Jack In The Box. Apparently times are tough for old ball-headed Jack, and the fast food market is cutthroat… not all stores can survive. It was a sad day for me, but life goes on. My current neighborhood JIB is on a super-busy 5-street intersection, surrounded by a taco place, Carls’ Junior, Subway, etc. Clearly many hungry people converge there daily. My JIB is small, and the drive-through window (and maybe the whole store for all I know) is run by this super-friendly middle-aged hispanic lady named Maria (if I recall her nametag correctly). She’s always very friendly, and happy to fling an occaisional burger and rings my way. Maria has a great attitude which invariably improves my day just a little… and frankly impresses the crap out of me because if I were manning that drive-through it would probably take half a day before I rammed soda straws through my eyes, or someone else’s. I like Maria, and I don’t even know her.

Recently I had occaision to be out running around at lunchtime and was overcome by an unmistakable tweak for you-know-what. I zoomed over to my local JIB, and…. it was boarded up. Literally. Sign gone and everything. Looked for all the world like another sad ex-gas station. Just try to imagine my horror - plus the next nearest Jack is miles away! Oh, the humanity. And the taunting irony is that it still shows up on Jack’s website. Which brings me, finally, to today with no proximity to a fix when the next urge hits. But don’t cry for me… I’ll get by on Julioberto’s, Subway, Mickey-D’s and other tolerable, adjacent quick cuisine. There’s even a small gourmet burger place not far from the boarded-up JIB, but it’s not the same. The thing I often wonder though, is what happened to Maria? Did she show up to work one day and get a pink slip? Or did Jack, being the astute businessman I hope he is, recognize that you just can’t buy attitude like hers and relocate her to a new store? Did she find work somplace close to home, maybe at a ‘bertos? Wherever she is, I hope she’s happy and doing well.  Vaya con dios, Maria. And Jack… what the hell??!!

I’m being watched…

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I was out behind the garage last December early one morning, clanking around getting ready to drag the trash bin to the street. I turned around and something caught my eye… this guy was sitting on top of our basketball hoop, not 20 feet away from me. I think he’s a Harris hawk - notable as they are one of the few birds of prey which hunt cooperatively. This was one of four which we had seen around the neighborhood last fall. We once watched them hunt as a team, which is remarkable as they take turns sharing their catch – one will hold the victim in a talon and one or more will eat, then they switch off.

In any event, he (or she) was watching me closely but clearly didn’t see me as a threat. I slowly backed into the garage, then ran to grab my camera and threw on a 270mm zoom lens. He had the patience to wait around for me to snap five or six quick shots, then bored with my presence, lazily took flight. What a magnificent bird! I estimate he stood at least a foot or more tall and had an impressive wingspan. There are lots of quail, small desert bunnies, pigeons and other birds around for them to feed on, and they have adapted well to life in the middle of 3 million-plus people.

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Amazon and the iFrame… a solution!

Another Wordpress post here. We recently added some Amazon affiliate product links on another site we have, and decided to include some Amazon dynamic ads as well. Both use the HTML <iFrame> tag, which is considered bad form these days as it doesn’t follow strict HTML standards. As such, the TinyMCE editor used in Wordpress refuses to validate that tag and strips them from posts. This is awkward, as Amazon delivers its product and ad HTML using an iframe.

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StatCounter – an alternative to Google Analytics

This will only be of interest to anyone who manages one or more websites, but just thought I’d give a tip ‘o the hat to an excellent free service I’ve used for years. StatCounter allows you to insert a bit of code into your site, and then it tracks all visitors. You can view metrics through a variety of filters – chronologically, geographically, ‘came from’ sources, most popular pages, unique vs returning visitors, etc. I use Google Analytics also – another great free service – but I find StatCounter easier to use. However, both services allow for excellent granularity of information.

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