Thursday, August 31, 2006

IN SEARCH OF: A Real Hot Dog

with apologies to Leonard Nemoy

One of my quests in the seven or so years I’ve lived in California is finding adequate replacements for the unique regional (and mostly unhealthy) cuisine my hometown of Chicago has to offer. I fully realize it’s more likely we’ll have a White Christmas before I find something remotely comparable, but that doesn’t stop me.

To pine for the euphoria of Gianotti’s seven finger cavatelli or the primal gratification of a dunked cheesy beef from Al’s on North is a recipe for disappointment…I know this. These things have no equal, no substitute and are completely unique. As is the Chicago-style hotdog, perhaps my favorite vernacular delicacy. I suspect it’s the peculiar juxtaposition of the Vienna “Pure” Beef dog covered with what amounts to a salad of vegetables embellished with celery salt that does it for me. And of the many great hotdogs in Chicago, Superdawg on the city’s Northwest side stands out as the pinnacle to me, a veritable Xanadu of entubed cow part puree tossed with the best of grandma’s garden.

It’s not just the food either, it’s the full experience…the sight of the authentic ‘50’s-style building, the car hops, the smells, the ‘dese, ‘dats and ‘does of the guy ordering in front of you…the 15-foot tall his-n-hers hotdog couple on the roof! The salt-of-the-earth, Midwestern Chicagoness of it all.

If I digress here it’s because a new place opened in Santa Cruz this week promising “Chicago-style” hot dogs. And if it don’t measure up, these are fighting words to me.

So it was with the twisted arms of three co-workers and the chip on my shoulder that I made the trip to Santa Cruz News, a newsstand/coffee shop/hot dog stand that opened this week on the West Side. Shoehorned into the facade of an old gas station that currently serves as a drop-station for Goodwill, Santa Cruz News is under the propriety of a former Chicagoan (and I use the term loosely as he’s actually from Arlington Heights)** named Robert.

With sweaty palms I approached the counter and ordered my hotdog, paid my $4 and waited—alternately hoping for a miserable failure, then for a euphoric foodgasm, then back again. I noted the buns and dogs were steam cooked, and the buns had poppy seeds—good signs both. The tomato wedges and pickle were cut just right and fit into the crevasses between bun and dog, held together by the mortar of ketchup and mustard. A couple points off for the natural brown mustard—it’s supposed to be near neon yellow—but that could be a minor quibble if it tastes OK. Points on the plus side for the oblong paper dog wrapper…white and pleated on the ends to perfectly surround, protect and present...oh, and the celery salt—quite satisfactory.

I sat down, eyed it up and took a deep breath as I lifted the dog towards me. In the milliseconds before my teeth hit, I registered a familiar and intoxicating smell. This converted to taste as the full mix of flavors—punctuated by the celery salt finish—hit my tongue and the hotdog ‘snapped’ with the firmness only properly steamed hotdogs exhibit. As I swallowed and went for bite two I realized that this was a more than satisfactory result. The Santa Cruz News dog is the real deal.

Better than a Superdawg? Well let’s be realistic here—HELL NO! But it’s right up there with your average Chicago dog, and that ain’t bad…and for the West Coast, that’s pretty darn excellent.

So if you see a little snow on the West Side of Santa Cruz come Christmas, you’ll know why.

Santa Cruz News is located at the corner of Mission and Trescony Streets and is open from 7am-3pm daily.

** Those of us who actually grew up in the City of Chicago take offense to folks from the suburbs saying they’re from Chicago because we’re snobs like that. It’s like people from Walnut Creek saying they’re from San Francisco. We also don’t like it when people in Lincoln Park or Bucktown claim to be Chicagoans because they’re all frat kids from Michigan. I know, I’m such a bitch.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Pictorial: How I caught the Clamp in Downieville

It was supposed to be so simple. A long weekend trip to Downieville and Tahoe for some mountain biking. Who knew we would all catch the Clamp?

Click here to see all 170 photos from the weekend.

Click here to find out what the hell a Clamper is.

Rest in peace Bruno Kirby

Kirby (in focus) with Al Pacino (left) and Johnny Depp (right) from Donnie Brasco.

I learned last night that character actor Bruno Kirby had died a couple weeks ago from leukemia. Kirby was one of those actors who flew just slightly under the radar, never a huge star, but always one to give a solid, believable supporting performance.

Probably most famous for his roles in City Slickers and When Harry Met Sally, I came to like him for his performances in Donnie Brasco, Birdy, The Freshman and of course This is Spinal Tap. Despite his diminutive stature, he had the chops to command respect as a wiseguy/mobster and was often called upon to play that role.

Most recently he appeared on the HBO series Entourage as a flamboyant film producer who is beside himself when the original Shrek doll is stolen from his mansion. As ludicrous as that sounds, Kirby sells it as believable.

Bruno Kirby was 57...his filmography is available here.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Aural Fixation #2: A surley, limey cowboy called Jon Langford

Before you start reading, turn up the volume and click on one of the following links for a little mandatory mood music, then minimize any windows that pop up:
> Click here if you run Real Audio or
> Click here if you roll with Windows Media Player

Well done, now read on.

I happened to be trolling the net the other night when I came across what you’re listening to: a live, in-studio recording of Jon Langford and longtime collaborator Sally Timms doing a cover of Alejandro Escovido’s “Broken Bottle.” It’s always cool to hear one of your favorite artists cover the song of another favorite…and even more so when the song itself is one of your favorites. Such is the case with “Broken Bottle.” I had been immediately drawn to the studio version Langford and Timms did for the Escovido tribute/benefit album Por Vida, that came out a couple years ago. And I was almost shocked to see that it was one of only five songs Langford chose to play on KEXP’s Live Performances, what with his own songs being so outstanding.

And while covering this particular song pays homage to Escovido’s immense songwriting talent, it also lends credibility to Langford’s own formidable talent, and confidence therein.

I was completely clueless when Langford's band, the Mekons, started to gain notoriety in the Leeds, UK punk scene. In my own defense, I think being nine years old at the time is an acceptable excuse. Simultaneously, the Sex Pistols and the Clash were being hailed as the irreverant, outsider response to rock. The Mekons were actually more noisy and irreverant than the lot of 'em—outside of the outsiders, if you will.

But like I say, I know none of this from my own personal experience—it is only something I've learned of post-facto and out-of-context. The Mekons and Jon Langford, have been on my real-time radar since the mid-’80’s when Mr. Daniel J. Berry, esq. and then program director at WRRG River Grove/Chicago turned my attentions to a spacey looking record with the faint face of Elvis on it (a detail which would later get them sued, by the by). Now as then, The Mekons Rock N’ Roll stands out as one of the most incredible things to ever stimulate my cochlea.

Since then Langford has moved to my hometown of Chicago and been prolific in mostly outlaw punk-country endeavors—the throw-back Waco Brothers, the collaborative Pine Valley Cosmonauts—as well as occasional punk pauses like The Three Johns, Wreck, Khomeni Lightbulbs and Skull Orchard. He’s also lent his guitar riffing and some vocals to the likes of Neko Case (mmmm Neko) as well as the Old ’97’s and Kelly Hogan. Additionally he’s been the catalyst for a number of tribute/cause albums—homages to his musical heroes as well as rare tribute albums that have as much substance as sentiment.

Langford’s artistry extends to the stretched canvas as well where he’s established as a painter with works that echo the punk and country stylings of his music. Rustic and rough-hewn, his paintings are mostly portraits or statement pieces that reflect the same influences and outlook as his songs. Not surprisingly, Langford provides much of the cover artwork for the albums he’s worked on. Marketers would call it good branding. Everyone else would call it consistent. You can see more of his work on , the website of an Austin, Texas art gallery.

Recently, Langford has taken to the airwaves hosting a free-form radio show called The Eclectic Company on WXRT in Chicago. Rotating hosting duties with Nicholas Tremulis—who’s known for combining jazz with punk much like Langford does with country—the MC’s chat, play songs, have in-studio guests and, I’m sure, otherwise share their creativity. I was at Delilah's one boozy night years ago when Langford was a guest DJ spinning insurgent country records...the fact that I remember little of it is testament to its excellence. I'd think the radio showgram would communicate the personality, if not the context, of such events well. If you’re in Chicago, tune in and consider yourself lucky.

For the rest of us, there’s lots of Mekons, Waco Brothers, Three Johns, etc., etc. to catch up on. Some of it available here at Bloodshot Records.

I think I may have a custom wool cycling sweater made for me with 'Pine Valley' in block letters and 'Cosmonauts' underneath in script (like the ‘Alameda’ one on the bottom). I think it would look cool. And I’m weird like that.

Note: It probably goes without saying, but all the paintings shown here are Langford's work.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Talk aside, ZeroOne kickoff an amazing spectacle

The ZeroOne festival officially opened in downtown San Jose last night in an spectacular mix of color, sound, performance and movement. Even the requisite bevy of long-winded speeches by politicians, sponsors and mostly non-artists at the opening ceremony could not stop the momentum of the spectacle.

Not wanting to fall in the same trap--talking about art, rather than experiencing it--I will leave you with only photos and a bit of encouragement. Come on down and check it'll be glad you did.

Monday, August 07, 2006

ZeroOne transforms San Jose into interactive, electronic art canvas

Something very strange is going on in San Jose this week…Photo-equipped pigeons will be blogging, a karaoke ice cream truck will be cruising downtown and just walking in front of the San Jose Museum of Art could get you transformed into a Sims videogame character. Skateboards will be making music, the new city hall will be transformed into something reminiscent of a Lava Lamp and passersby will be challenged to interpret Bat Signal-like projections on the top of the Adobe building.

It’s all part of ZeroOne San Jose, an electronically influenced, organically actuated festival of art that turns all of downtown into its broad canvas starting today and running through August 13th.

Though generally discredited by hipsters from San Francisco to Santa Cruz as a bland suburbia, San Jose actually has a thriving yet compact indie art scene that’s anchored by a number of galleries in downtown’s SoFA (South First Avenue) district as well as its excellent Museum of Art near the north end of Cesar Chavez Plaza.

It is this modestly sized sphere of activity which makes something like ZeroOne possible. Were it too small there wouldn’t be enough critical mass for it to happen, too large and it would collapse under its own weight. ZeroOne’s emphasis on technology also seems a good fit for San Jose and its high tech heritage. On paper (or screen, as it were), it’s the perfect convergence.

As a bonus, the festival will leave behind its wireless infrastructure providing free internet access after ZeroOne closes, a fitting gift one would think, for a town with the unfortunate “Capitol of Silicon Valley” subtitle.

The only downside is figuring out what of ZeroOne’s copious offerings to take part in. Ironically, the festival’s website takes some work to get particulars from, but I found this page offers a good staring point. The San Jose Museum of Art’s plan of attack is even better and its cafĂ© seems like an obvious jumping off point.