Know Thy Menu

Is it too much to ask for accurate answers to menu questions?

Blustery's

The sign out in front of Blustery’s, with the Columbia beyond it. (Pardon the quality; this is a cell phone photo.

Last night, I had dinner at Blustery’s Drive In in Vantage, WA. It’s a burger joint right off the interstate (I-90), just west of the bridge over the Columbia River (Wanapum Lake). I like the place. It has personality. And it has great burgers. I go there for the “Logger” burger, which is a burger topped with bacon, ham, cheese, and a fried egg.

As I ordered at the counter, I considered a side order with my burger. I asked about the onion rings. I like them batter dipped, not breaded. When I asked which they were, I was told they were breaded. I had sweet potato fries instead (which were excellent).

After dinner, I wanted ice cream. (Can you understand why I will never lose weight?) The girl at the counter offered hot fudge. Last time, I’d asked for it but was told they didn’t have any. I love hot fudge, so I went with it.

“Whipped cream and nuts?” she asked.

“Is the whipped cream real cream?”

“Yes,” she assured me.

“Okay, I’ll take some. But no nuts.”

I paid and waited for her to prepare the sundae I didn’t need. As I waited, an order of onion rings came out of the kitchen. Batter-dipped onion rings.

Now it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between breaded and batter dipped onion rings. These were definitely not breaded. They were batter-dipped. And they looked pretty good — not even very greasy.

Okay, so she’d made a mistake. No biggie.

I glanced at the girl making my sundae. She’d taken something out of a microwave and was pouring it into the bottom of a sundae dish. It was very runny. Hot fudge doesn’t usually get that consistency.

She added soft-serve ice cream and topped it off with more runny brown stuff. Then she disappeared into the back. When she returned, there was creamy white stuff and a maraschino cherry on top. She handed it over.

I dug into the cream. Or perhaps I should say “creme.” It wasn’t a dairy product. It tasted suspiciously like Cool Whip. Ick. I scooped it all off into a napkin.

I worked the spoon again. This time, I came up with some ice cream and chocolate syrup. The ice cream was melted; the syrup was cold. It was definitely not hot fudge. It was microwave-warmed chocolate syrup which had cooled back down after melting a good bit of the ice cream.

Don’t get me wrong — I ate it. Chocolate syrup is the next best thing to hot fudge in my book.

But is it too much to expect the people who work there to know what they’re serving me? Could the waitress possibly mistake Cool Whip and chocolate syrup for whipped cream and hot fudge?

Reminds me of the breakfast we had in a small town on the road one day. Mike asked the waitress if the blueberry pancakes are good.

“They’re great,” she assured us. “The blueberries are fresh. They just opened the can this morning.”

At Paradise Cove

A story and a few photos.

I was driving down the California coast, looking for a place to stop for breakfast — preferably with a view of the ocean — when I saw a sign for Paradise Cove. I followed the arrow down a narrow road that wound down to the ocean. There was a right turn into a trailer park, but if I went straight, I’d end up in a parking lot on the ocean. A sign warned that parking was $20, but only $3 if you got your parking ticket validated in the restaurant and stayed for less than 4 hours. Ahead of me was a funky little oceanfront restaurant with a handful of cars parked in front of it. I drove through the gate and parked.

The Paradise Cove Beach CafeAnd went inside the Paradise Cove Beach Cafe.

It was a typical seaside restaurant — the kind you can imagine filled with people in bathing suits, eating fried clams, with sand and flip-flops on their feet. (That’s my east coast seaside experience talking.) But that Saturday morning was partly cloudy and unseasonably cool for southern California. The main dining room was empty. I was escorted into a kind of sundeck room with big windows facing the ocean. Although all the window tables were full, the waiter kindly sat me at a huge table nearby, where I could enjoy the view as well as the activity going on around me.

I checked out the menu, eager for a big, hot breakfast. I didn’t plan to eat again until after my flight arrived in Phoenix later that evening. Some items on the menu interested me, but it was the eggs benedict I asked the waiter about.

“Are they good?” There’s nothing worse than bad eggs benedict when you’re expecting decent eggs benedict.

“Very good,” he assured me.

I settled down to wait for my breakfast. There was nothing much going on outside the window. Gulls flying around, a few people walking out on the obligatory but short pier. It was mostly dark and cloudy over the ocean, but the sun was breaking through here and there. I watched my fellow diners get their breakfasts delivered. Everything looked outrageously good.

When my breakfast arrived, it looked good. On the plate were two eggs benedict, a good sized portion of roasted potatoes, and some melon slices. I nibbled a potato. It was cooked to perfection. And then I tasted the eggs benedict.

I’ve had eggs benedict in a lot of places — including a lot of fancy and expensive hotel restaurants. But these eggs benedict were the best I’d ever had in my life. It may have been the fact that the eggs were cooked perfectly — whites cooked, yolks still runny. Or the fact that the english muffins beneath them were fresh and not over-toasted. But it was probably because the hollandaise sauce was light and airy and obviously freshly prepared from scratch — not some thick yellow crap from a mix.

You like eggs benedict? Go on out to the Paradise Cove Cafe in Malibu and get some.

I was just finishing up my breakfast when a man about my age came in with two elderly ladies. They got a table by the window near where I was sitting. I watched them, trying not to look obvious about it, recognizing something about them. It came to me slowly. He was the grandson taking his grandmother and her friend out to breakfast.

They reminded me so much of all the times I’d taken my grandmother out to breakfast. This may have been because the woman had the same New York accent my grandmother had. She also spoke rather loudly, had trouble hearing her grandson, and asked the waiter all kinds of questions. She was concerned about whether she’d have to pay for a refill of her “mocha” — a simple mix of coffee and hot chocolate prepared by the waiter. She praised the waiter extensively about how well he’d prepared that mocha for her. The other woman was quieter but seemed to have the same accent. The grandson was attentive but, on more than one occasion, obviously embarrassed.

I knew exactly how he felt.

Before I left, I got up to say hello to them. I discovered that the women were from the Bronx — the same area as my grandmother. The quiet woman was the grandmother’s sister. She complemented me on the way my blue earrings made my eyes look bluer. I could easily have chatted with them all day.

Up the CoastAfterwards, I went outside and took a walk on the pier. I took a photo looking up the coast (shown here) and another looking down the coast (shown below). Amazing that these two photos were taken only moments apart, isn’t it? But the weather was variable and moving quickly. A huge storm front was moving into southern California that would dump rain on the low elevations and snow on the higher ones.

Paradise Cove and places like it are part of the reason I like to travel alone. When you’re traveling with companions, every stop has to be debated and measured. No one ever wants to say, “Let’s stop here and check it out,” because no one wants to be responsible if the place turns out to be rat hole. As a result, opportunities to visit interesting places are missed. Instead, a trip is a long string of predetermined “must see” places, visited one after another with few spontaneous stops along the way.

Down the CoastThere was magic at the Paradise Cove Cafe — at least for me that morning. If I’d been with someone else — someone anxious to eat breakfast before starting the drive or satisfied with a chain restaurant for a meal — I would have missed that magic.

I also would have missed out on photo opportunities. When I’m on the road by myself, I stop more often to look at what’s around me and, if I can, take pictures. On this particular Saturday, all I had with me was my little Nikon CoolPix point-and-shoot, but I put it to good use. The weather was a mixture of thick clouds and blue sky. It was the kind of place and day that calls out to photographers. The photos I’m able to include with this blog entry will help me remember this day. (I even took a stealth photo of the grandson/grandmother/aunt outing with my Treo, although I won’t publish it here.)

Anyway, I walked back to my rental car, fired it up, and paid my $3 parking fee on the way out. It had been well worth the money.

The Wayside Inn is Open

Stop in for a hamburger in the middle of nowhere.

I’ve written about the Wayside Inn before in this blog. In my post, creatively titled “The Wayside Inn,” I go into a lot of detail about the place and a visit there by helicopter back in 2003. You might find that piece interesting reading if you enjoy long, rambling stories about my helicopter travels. (Some people do.)

The short version is that the Wayside Inn is a small trailer park with a restaurant in the desert about 5 miles south of Alamo Lake. It’s accessible from Wickenburg and the rest of the world by two routes: the 40+ mile long dirt road that starts near Date Creek off Highway 93 or the combination of paved and dirt roads starting in Wendon (on Highway 60) and stretching to Alamo Lake. There’s another road from the north and I have no idea where it starts, but I do know that when the lake is full, the road is under water.

You can get an idea of its remoteness by this Google satellite image, which also includes Wickenburg. The red X is the Wayside:

The Wayside Inn on a Satellite Image

The Wayside Inn has been a destination for pilots for quite a while. It has a landing strip, but the strip has been left to get overgrown with bushes and weeds and is not maintained. So instead, pilots just land on the dirt road in front of the place. I’ll admit that there aren’t many pilots who do this. It’s mostly the folks who fly taildraggers and aren’t afraid of landing on something that isn’t a real runway. And helicopter pilots, of course.

About a year ago, the Wayside Inn burned down. I didn’t know the details, but had noticed that the building was missing when I flew from Wickenburg to Las Vegas last November. The building was simply gone.

But a few weeks ago, I saw a flyer up in Ed’s hangar. Ed is the local aircraft mechanic and he does some of my engine work, including oil changes. The flyer announced that the Wayside had reopened. I put it back on my mental list of places to go for a quick bite to eat in the middle of nowhere.

On Sunday, October 19, I had an opportunity to check the place out. I was taking a video guy and a journalist along on my Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventure. Another video guy would be meeting us in Sedona. We had a few hours to kill before we were due to arrive at Sedona Airport. I figured that a stop a the Wayside would kill some time without taking us too far from our course.

So I flew us out there. The journalist took this photo as I made my approach to landing. I set down on the big triangular area at the crossroads, across the main road from the trailer park.

Landing at the Wayside Inn

The old building had been replaced with a double-wide manufactured building. Inside, the layout was much the same as the old building had been: bar, tables, pool tables, and a limited amount of groceries and fishing supplies for sale. All of the Polaroids of fishermen and their fish were gone. The drop ceiling panels were decorated with good-luck dollar bills signed by patrons. Before we left, we added one to the collection.

The video guy interviewed the owner of the place. Turns out, he’d bought the place right before the fire had burned it to the ground. After the interview, he made us breakfast. When it was time to leave, he rode his ATV out to the helicopter with us while his dog rode on the back and asked my journalist friend why she hadn’t eaten her bacon. (She’s a recovering vegetarian.)

We’d stopped in for just about an hour. The meal was good, the price was reasonable. The atmosphere was pure Arizona “remote.”

If you’re ever out by Alamo Lake and want to stop for a bite to eat, I hope you’ll look for the Wayside Inn. If you stop in, tell them that Maria in the red helicopter sent you.

Christmas Off-the-Grid, Part II

Photography, dinner, and more photography at the Grand Canyon.

We closed up the shed and headed out to the Grand Canyon at around 4 PM. We’d wanted to get an earlier start to do some hiking along the rim, but it had taken too long to troubleshoot and fix our water problem.

I should mention here that last year when we came to Howard Mesa for Christmas, the water pipes were broken. Mike spent the entire first day and half of the second day finding and repairing broken pipes. Since then, we’ve replaced the PVC with copper. But it seems like there’s always something to fix up here. It’s part of the place’s charm, I guess. Mike doesn’t seem to mind. And in my mind, nothing could be as bad as the mouse problem we’d had, which forced me to start every visit here with a 2-hour cleaning job.

The Grand Canyon is a 40-minute drive from our place. About 1/3 of that time is spent just driving the five miles from our place to pavement. (Not an easy task, as there was more mud and the pickup did a lot of fishtailing on certain parts of the road.) The rest is on SR 64, a two-lane road that stretches from Williams, AZ to the Grand Canyon. The speed limit on the road is 65 MPH for most of its distance, but because there’s only one lane in each direction for most of the way, it’s pretty common to get caught behind slower vehicles. They added some passing lanes clearly marked with signs that say, “Keep right except to pass,” but since everyone is more important than everyone else, no one moves over to the right. So you basically have to pass on the right.

We were heading toward the canyon at about the same time someone who had left Phoenix earlier in the day for a leisurely drive up there would be arriving, so there was a surprising number of people on the road.

Grand Canyon Wide AngleInside the park, we got a parking spot in the small lot right near El Tovar, where we’d be eating dinner with friends. The hotel is right on the Rim, so we spent some time out on the pathway there, looking into the canyon as the sun was dipping ever lower into the southwestern sky. I played around with my fisheye lens — this was the first time I’d had a chance to use it at the Canyon — and got an interesting shot that includes the snow all around on the Rim.

It was cold. There wasn’t much wind, but the breeze contributed some wind chill to the situation. I don’t own a good winter coat anymore — I’d rather avoid the cold than buy special clothing for it — so I didn’t want to spend much time outdoors.

We went into Hopi House for a short while. This used to be one of the nicer gift shops at the Canyon, a place where everything was high quality. Somewhere along the line, Xanterra (which runs the park concession) had decided to add the kind of tourist crap you can find in most other gift shops there, especially t-shirts, hats, and sweatshirts that say “Grand Canyon” on them and a lot of fake Indian-style dolls, statues, rugs, etc. The good stuff — including a wonderful selection of Native American handmade jewelry — is still in the gallery upstairs, and we made the climb to see it all.

Grand Canyon MoonriseAfterwards, we came out for another peek into the canyon and were rewarded with a view of the newly risen full moon inching into the sky over the north rim. I snapped a few photos of it, but was too cold (or lazy?) to set up my tripod and do it properly, so the shots I took with my 200mm lens aren’t as clear as they could be.

We met our friends inside the hotel. We were booked for the private dining room just to the left of the hostess desk at the restaurant entrance. We’d eaten there the previous year for Christmas Eve. It had been just six of us last year: Mike, me, our two friends, and his parents. A quiet dinner. This year there were ten of us; our friends had invited six of their friends. The rectangular table in the small room was filled to capacity.

Our waiter was excellent. Extremely professional, full of advice, attentive to most details. The food was very good, too — although not as good as I remember from our early days visiting El Tovar 20 or so years ago. (I know: things change.) Conversation was relatively interesting, too. It was a nice meal. The only thing that marred it was when it was time to pay the bill; certain members of the party didn’t chip in their fair share and Mike and I and our friends wound up making up the difference, paying about three times as much as some other members of our party. I know we drank, but we didn’t drink that much.

Christmas TreeAfter stopping for some photos inside the hotel lobby where a tall Christmas tree stretched up to the second floor, we stepped outside and walked back to the Rim. The moonlight was shining brightly down into the canyon, casting shadows that defined the rock walls. It was a beautiful scene, but one my camera couldn’t seem to capture properly. (I really need to play around a bit more with the bracketing feature.)

I’ve been at the Grand Canyon many times at night. If there’s no moon, you can look down into the canyon from the Rim and not see a single detail at all. It’s like a black abyss that could be a hundred miles deep. But add some moonlight and you get a completely different picture. This is part of what makes the Canyon such a special place. Different lighting conditions can completely change the experience.

Hopi House at NightSince I was out there with my tripod, I took a few moments to photograph Hopi House and El Tovar. Hopi House was especially festive with its [electric] luminarias.

El Tovar at NightIt was after 9:30 PM and it wasn’t very cold at all. The wind had died down and the air was crisp and dry. There wasn’t anyone around except us. That made good conditions for taking these photos. They create the illusion that the historic buildings along the Rim are private, special places. In reality, during the day, these places are mobbed with tourists and it would be nearly impossible to photograph them without including a few people in each shot.

We drove back to Howard Mesa in the full moonlight. There were few cars on the road.

As I opened the gate on our driveway, I noted that all the mud was frozen solid.

It was warm and cosy inside the camping shed and even more so under the covers in bed.

A Tale of Three Meals — Not!

My software ate my blog entry.

Yesterday morning, I spent about an hour writing a blog post about three very different meals I had while down in the Casa Grande, AZ area for the Copperstate Fly-In. The entry was finished and about to be posted when the software I use to compose my blog entires — ecto — started acting weird. I saved the blog entry — I know I did — and quit the software to clear out memory. When I restarted the software, the blog entry was gone.

I really hate when that happens.

Although the entry included my usual long and rambling stories and descriptions, I can summarize it in three bullet points:

  • Kai, the restaurant at the Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa, offers possibly the best service I’ve ever received in a restaurant. And the food is good, too. It was an incredible and very memorable dining experience. But the cost? Well, let’s just say we won’t be eating there too often.
  • Mr. K’s Food & Spirits at the Casa Grande Holiday Inn had absolutely terrible service and inedible food. I wouldn’t eat there if I was paid to eat there — primarily because I couldn’t eat what they put in front of me. It’s also difficult to eat without silverware, which is apparently only provided on request.
  • Chili’s, a nationwide chain restaurant, reminded me why people go to chain restaurants: because they know exactly what they’re going to get. No surprises or ruined meals a la Mr. K’s. Although I generally don’t like to eat in chain restaurants — I like to support the independents — it’s good to have some level of confidence when you go to a restaurant, especially when the previous night’s experience was such a disaster.

You’re not likely to read the whole story of our experiences here. It’s difficult for me to rewrite something from scratch. And once I’ve written something, it’s filed away as far as my brain is concerned.

But let’s face it: do you need to read yet another blog post with one of my long and rambling tales?

Maybe you should just consider yourself lucky that ecto sent the post to digital heaven before it got online.