The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
The Waiter, The Bard, And Lots Of Cops
Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip--Confessions of a Cynical Waiter by Steve Dublanica - Dublanica (whose blog I haven't read) humorously describes the challenges and frustrations of waiting tables. Waiter Rant isn't exactly the book I wanted it to be -- I'd rather have less of the author's life story -- but I enjoyed it much more than Debra Ginsberg's Waiting. If you're browsing at the bookstore, at least take the time to read "Appendix A: 40 Tips on How to Be a Good Customer." Not only is this useful advice, but if you like the way it's written, you'll probably enjoy the rest of the book.

Shakespeare: The World As Stage by Bill Bryson - To be honest, I've never had much interest in Shakespeare. I endured Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth in high school freshman English class, and I haven't given him much thought since. But when I saw this book by Bryson, an author I enjoy very much, and found that it was about Shakespeare the person rather than his works, I figured it was worth a shot (its brevity also attracted me). My gamble paid off, as Shakespeare is a fascinating book that examines the playwright's life in the context of late 1500s-early 1600s England. This is not a groundbreaking work (nor does it pretend to be), but Bryson succeeds in making the biography of someone I wouldn't ordinarily care about into something entertaining and worth reading. Note: an updated and illustrated edition is coming out next month.

On the Job: Behind the Stars of the Chicago Police Department by Daniel P. Smith - Despite my negative predisposition toward any book that I could've/should've written myself (my wife is a Chicago police officer), I found On the Job to be pretty insightful. Smith combines a history of the department with plentiful mini-bios of current and former officers. He interviews a broad range of men and women from various units, collecting humorous and heartbreaking stories from throughout the city. On the Job is undoubtedly favorable toward the department, which probably explains why it didn't get much attention from the local media where cop-bashing has been in fashion lately. Although the frustrations of police work are not ignored, the book avoids the jaded cynicism of bloggers like Second City Cop. I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in Chicago history or policing, especially anyone considering a career in the field.

Current tally: 79 books finished, 69 books acquired

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Friday, July 25, 2008
Knowing Your Market
Ad Age interviews Andy Puzder, president-CEO of Carl's Jr./Hardee's. When asked, "Why don't you have more healthy products on the menu?" he replies
My job is not to tell you what to eat, but figure out what you want to eat and offer it to you. I can tell you from our sales, it's not the ultra-healthy no-taste food. At Hardee's we sell 130 to 150 Thickburgers a day per restaurant and probably two salads. But they're there. I think if we fried the salads, they would sell more.
Come to think of it, maybe Hardee's and Carl's Jr. should partner with Hostess to offer fried Twinkies.

Puzder also attacks his competitors' 99-cent double cheeseburgers. He points out that one can't purchase the basic ingredients for a good burger at that price, even without paying rent, utilities, and labor (although some may counter that these are "loss leaders" intended to attract customers). Then he puts it bluntly: "People are looking to sell this garbage and trying to out-garbage each other."

I wish the interview hadn't been so short. I think I like this guy.

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Friday, January 18, 2008
Tummy Ache
Was it the eight warm, butter-slathered rolls I ate at lunch?
Was it the serving of lasagna thicker than War and Peace?
Was it the two glasses of fine single-malt Scotch?
Was it the minestrone soup or the lemon Italian ice?

No, I think it was the 64-ounce "Double Gulp" of Coca-Cola from 7-11 that I drank in record time after I got home. But once this passes, I'll need a refill...

UPDATE - I'm not sure what's sicker -- that I wanted to drink an entire gallon of fountain Coke today, or that I was willing to walk three quarters of a mile in the cold, wind, and snow to get it (don't tell me to buy bottles or cans for home -- the only Coke I like is fountain Coke; otherwise I drink Diet Rite). At least I saved 44 cents by refilling my original cup.

Geez, it's no wonder I weigh a gazillion pounds these days.


Friday, July 27, 2007
Tonight I had dinner at Rockwell's Neighborhood Grill. It's only a block away on Rockwell Street (hence the name) and their food is very good. A few years ago the Chicago Tribune declared their hamburger one of the top ten in Chicagoland, but I usually order the BBQ chicken sandwich. I wish they would update their menu more often (it has hardly changed since they opened three years ago), but I guess it's wise to stick with your strengths.

Anyway, I was eating a bowl of chicken tortilla soup and reading The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford when I noticed the song playing on the restaurant's satellite radio channel. It was "Somebody's Watching Me" by 1980s one-hit wonder Rockwell. That song has popped into my head hundreds if not thousands of times in the ten years since I started dating my wife -- she lived on Rockwell Street at the time.

And tonight I finally heard Rockwell in Rockwell's on Rockwell Street.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006
Roadtrip Notes
As I mentioned earlier, we just took a week-long trip to Texas and back, covering 3,000 in a rented Chrysler Sebring. We rented in Aurora since it would have cost three times as much to rent in Chicago, not to mention that the rental tax in Chicago is inflated to soak tourists. Our primary objective was to visit my wife's uncle in Dallas-Fort Worth, and our secondary goal was to visit Palo Duro Canyon, one of my favorite places on Earth.

To make a long story short, the visit to Palo Duro didn't work out, though we passed within 20 miles of the place. We were a bit too late in the season. On the bright side, I managed to visit 14 new counties in Texas and 20 new counties in Oklahoma, completing both. Now I have been to all 254 counties in the Lone Star State.

As for road food, we revisited a couple of regional favorites. First of all, anyone venturing to Oklahoma or northern Texas really ought to try Braum's. We've had their outstanding burgers before, but this time we ate breakfast there, too. The Johnsen men's love for Hardee's breakfast biscuits is legendary, but the Braum's equivalent puts them to shame. The biscuits are fluffier and much less greasy. The cheese is flavorful, a rarity among fast food joints (but after all, Braum's is a dairy). The egg layer is at least 50% thicker than at Hardee's. The meats are tasty as well, and even the sausage isn't greasy.

For a sit-down meal, I recommend another regional chain, The Kettle. I first discovered The Kettle during my 2003 tour of Texas, and this time we ate at the Plainview location. Dinner was so good that we went back for breakfast, a buffet that pleasantly lacked all the pitfalls of buffets (cold food, mystery foods, etc.).

I had the darnedest time staying awake while driving on this trip. Even when I thought I was well-rested, I found myself getting sleepy to the point where my eyes would lose focus and I'd start seeing double. It got so bad that I actually drank a cup of coffee on the way home. Not only do I hate coffee -- I've never ordered a cup before in my life -- but it's the first time I've had any caffeine in nearly four years. Even with that boost, I handed the keys to my wife two hours later and let her drive through southwestern Missouri (the best benefit of the Hertz Gold card is that spouses can drive for no extra charge).

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Sunday, June 18, 2006
When Life Gives You Lemons...
...make Italian ice. Or better yet, order some of the best on the planet.

My wife was patroling at Puerto Rican Fest in Humboldt Park this weekend. I needed the car to go see my dad and granddad in the suburbs on Father's Day, so I drove her down there this afternoon. She was going to get a ride home from a co-worker.

I was on my way home this evening when I got the phone call I didn't want: her co-worker had gone home sick, so could I pick her up? I briefly considered the ramifications of telling her to take a bus, but then I resigned myself to driving back down there to get her. The timing was lousy, too -- I could go home for half an hour, or I could screw around for a while and go straight to Humboldt Park. I opted for screwing around. After killing some time in a bookstore (note: Barnes & Noble is open an hour later (10 PM) on Sunday than Borders), I decided to take surface streets because the expressway would get me there too fast.

I still had extra time as I drove east on North Avenue (IL 64) toward Humboldt Park. As I passed through the suburb of Elmwood Park, I found a way to spend that time. Although it was 10:30 on a Sunday night, the legendary Johnnie's Beef was open for business.

Johnnie's has been around so long that my dad used to go there before I was born. And the line still runs out the door and down the street. I got lucky tonight; there were only half a dozen people in front of me. I had intended to order only an Italian ice, that lemony, sweet treat of finely crushed ice. Maybe just a small. But as I watched one employee serving up overflowing large ices and another preparing an Italian beef sandwich, my appetite grew and my order expanded.

Service was impressive. My beef and my ice were handed to me as quickly as I could pay for my order. So don't be intimidated by the long lines; these guys work quickly. I sat at a table outside (there is only a stand-up counter inside) and enjoyed my meal. I'm afraid it's been several years since I indulged at Johnnie's, an error I should not repeat. The beef was as good as I remembered. Johnnie's doesn't serve the thickest sandwich, but it is surely one of the tastiest. And the Italian ice was even better, dare I say the nectar of the Roman gods. My only regret is that perhaps I should have had the beef/sausage combo instead. Next time.

As I ate, I recalled that I was wearing a T-shirt from the other not-to-be-missed Elmwood Park eatery, Russell's Barbecue. Incidentally, both restaurants now have locations in the northwest suburbs as well -- Johnnie's in Arlington Heights and Russell's in Rolling Meadows.


Saturday, March 25, 2006
Hail to the Chef
The Chicago Sun-Times had a headline Friday:
Daley appoints Trotter emergency chief
Chicago Fire Commissioner Cortez Trotter is probably an appropriate choice for the new position of chief emergency officer. At first glance, however, I left out the "i" in chief. It just so happens that the executive chef and owner of one of Chicago's fanciest restaurants is Charlie Trotter. If I needed an emergency chef, I think he'd be the guy to call.

I wouldn't know from experience, though. Charlie Trotter's is the sort of place where a meal for one costs as much as a week's worth of groceries for two. Any dish with a name ten words long is far beyond anything I'd want to eat. The Grilled Beef Tenderloin Cobb Salad is made with quail eggs, for goodness' sake!

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Saturday, February 25, 2006
Bastard of the Day
Chili's Grill & Bar, particularly the bartender at the Chili's where I purchased gift cards last Christmas - During the holiday season, Chili's was running a special promotion that gave customers a $5 coupon card for every $25 worth of gift cards they purchased. I bought cards for several people and even kicked in an extra $5 so I could reach the next $25 increment (figuring I'd get it right back), accruing a total of $25 in coupon cards.

I asked the bartender who sold me the gift cards if I had to use the coupon cards on separate visits. She assured me that I could use them all at once if I wanted to, which was great because they were only valid for two months, January or February. The nearest Chili's is a 20-minute drive (passing many equal or better eating establishments along the way), and my wife and I only dine together twice a week due to her work schedule, but I figured we could manage to eat there sometime in two months.

Well, here it is just days before the February 28 expiration date. We planned to go out Friday night and use our $25 worth of coupon cards. We were ready to head out the door with the coupon cards when I thought to double-check the fine print on the back. Sure enough, only one $5 coupon card can be used per visit. Bastards! Sure, we could probably get $10 off by demanding separate checks (though I loathe "separate checks" people even more than waitstaff do), but it just isn't worth the hassle anymore. It would have been worth $25, but not $5 or $10. Besides, I'm not giving those bastards another dime. We went to the restaurant down the block for dinner instead, and it's better than Chili's anyway (bonus: saw Sasha Cohen get interviewed on the big TV -- she's even prettier off the ice, and unlike other Olympic skaters, she's old enough that I don't feel like a perv looking at her).

If I had known that the bartender was lying to me, I would have given away the coupon cards along with the gift cards because there's no way I could eat at Chili's five times in two months. Instead they will be wasted. This won't be a problem next year because I won't buy Chili's gift cards ever again. My ire extends to Brinker International, the corporate parent of Chili's, so my family shouldn't expect gift cards for Romano's Macaroni Grill, On The Border Mexican Grill & Cantina, Maggiano's Little Italy, or Rockfish Seafood Grill either. And don't tell me I should have read the back of the coupon card before -- as far as I'm concerned, it is their job to know the rules.

If I were the bastard, I'd go back to that Chili's, order a few margaritas, and toss my lunch on that bar for the bartender to clean up. Then I'd toss the $25 worth of coupon cards on the bar, wink at her, and stagger out the door. Hey, I still have a few days before the coupon cards expire...

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Wednesday, September 01, 2004
Free Salad
Today I turned in my Cosi lunch card for a free salad. Yippee! I just walked up to the counter, handed the man my stamped card, and walked away with my lunch (no tax, either). Getting the eleventh salad free almost justifies paying seven dollars for the first ten. There is some interesting psychology at work there. I surely enjoy turning in my card for a completely free meal more than I would appreciate saving seventy cents on each salad I buy, even though the cost would be the same. I guess it's because just once I can thumb my nose at the old saying, "There ain't no free lunch" (or as a grammar maven, I can turn that double-negative into a positive).

For anyone who cares, I get the "make-your-own" salad with mixed greens, tandoori chicken, bacon, hard-boiled egg, parmesan cheese, and caesar dressing. They toss it for you, too.

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