Mystic Chords of Memory
How to define 2002? The most notable figures were pedophiles, Donald Rumsfeld and the Rally Monkey. Hollywood produced yet another Rob Schneider insult. Creative minds working with endless colors and fabrics from all over the world settled on bare teen-age midriffs as the year's fashion sensation. And when Trent Lott suddenly decided to become a white Mississippian with a long history of support for segregation, his announcement stirred only momentary surprise.
It was, in most respects, a pathetic year.
None of this matters in our retrospective, of course. We spent our time in Dallas-area bars and restaurants pursuing concerns of greater significance than politics or popular culture: high-end vodkas, pickup bars, chicken-fried steak, margaritas and the like. The Burning Question crew leaves the year littered with empty bottles and the decaying carcasses of brain cells. This, then, is our look back at a year in Dallas nightlife.
Fun Facts of 2002
Houston weighs in as the nation's fattest city, and residents of Dallas fairly topple the scales, as well. The reason, we learned in a December article, has little to do with sedentary lifestyles and super-sized fries--so lawyers can lay off the fast-food industry and turn their attention to truck stops and home kitchens across the state. That's right, chicken-fried steak, according to our calculations, adds roughly 183,000 pounds to waistlines in Texas every single day.
OK, if you must know, we based that figure on a rather sophisticated scientific process known as multiplication. You see, restaurants serve an estimated 800,000 servings of the breaded shoes each day. At about 800 calories and 54 grams of fat each, we rack up a daily intake of 640,000,000 calories and 43,200,000 globules of lard.
The curious mathematics of consumer culture and the free enterprise system ensure another simple equation: The more talented you are, the less money you make. For proof, we offer up Kenneth Lay, Donald Trump, Britney Spears, Emeril, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Clancy, Pauly Shore, Jerry Jones, that West Virginia Powerball winner...we could go on. Are we to believe these people represent our best and brightest? Thus it came as no surprise, earlier this year, when Todd Lincicome, wine director at Al Biernat's, informed us that "it's easier to become a neurosurgeon than a master sommelier." Only 50 people in this country qualify for the latter accolade. By comparison, 3,830 brain surgeons currently practice in American hospitals.
We're just happy that alcoholism demands stiffer prerequisites and greater academic rigor than surgery.
Speaking of alcoholism, we learned in 2002 that bar patrons attempt free-drink scams on a fairly regular basis. Indeed, "shrinkage," the loss of revenue resulting from theft, freebies and overpouring, cuts bar profits by an average of 20 percent.
The most effective ploy used to score free drinks, by the way, involves the public display of female breasts. We may revisit this story in 2003.
OK, most of the year vanished in an alcoholic haze. We even missed a week or two of work in the fall after suffering a rotator cup injury--the painful shoulder ailment caused by repetitive lifting from the bar to the mouth. Yet some events stand out, like the time Cru very nearly killed a member of the Burning Question crew by whacking her on the head--accidentally, we hope--with a wine bottle. Or the time we celebrated our 40th birthday by...um...acquainting ourselves...yeah, that's it...with several young women at Bali Bar and Whisky Bar. And then forgetting to write down their phone numbers. We had started the evening researching the dynamics of pickup attempts by older men, but the opportunity for success sidetracked our work. We're not certain if the alcohol or the quick turn we took through the Tom Thumb produce department to pick up a cucumber before hitting the bars enhanced our success ratio, but it's important, we learned, to document your success.
Otherwise no one believes it.
In the midst of an article on kitchen gadgets, we poked fun at Mike Smith, chef of 2900 and Thomas Avenue Beverage Company. He once owned a restaurant in Arkansas, you see, and we merely asked whether it was a Stuckey's or a Waffle House. For some reason he remembered this innocent little crack when we visited TABC for the first time. Imagine spending your entire evening wondering how the chef plans to retaliate.
It was a good spot, though. We plan to return one evening and order grits with sausage--just to rattle his cage a bit. Other places we enjoy and will revisit if we ever manage to pay off the credit cards include: Al Biernat's, Nikita, Paris Vendome, Tramontana, the Green Room, Arcodoro & Pomodoro, Sevy's Grill, Bali Bar, Z'Tejas, Whisky Bar, Green Papaya and Teppo. We've heard that Grapevine is worth a visit, as well.
To come up with the cash for our various excursions in the past, we've rummaged through our editor's desk for spare change, sold his vintage Leif Garrett posters on eBay and tried to pawn the odd battery-powered devices we discovered in his closet. Last month, we earned enough to embark on a whirlwind trip of rural America: chicken-fried steak in North Dakota, fish tacos in Minnesota and one very memorable evening in Belhaven, North Carolina, where six of us consumed two entire bottles of Grey Goose (see below) and assorted other liquors.
The final bill: $63. If Dallas prices matched that, our editor would still be gazing at Leif's feathered locks.
Things We Will Avoid
Quite often we encounter inept service, poorly prepared drinks and nondescript meals. Well, that last part is not entirely true. It's just that any accurate description requires adult synonyms such as "malodorous," "expulsive" and "fecal matter." Let's just say it's best to avoid Christina's, a Tex-Mex place on Belt Line Road (three top-shelf margaritas, no buzz, and they should change the word "seafood" to "bait" wherever it appears on their menu). On separate outings we waited six minutes for service on a slow day at The Loon and 10 minutes on an equally slow day at Chuy's--harrowing moments of alcohol deprivation for the entire crew. To make things worse, the bartender at Chuy's poured our sipping tequila into a tiny shot glass. At 7 Salsas in Coppell we waited close to half an hour for a menu, and the food, when it arrived, compared unfavorably to Gerber's.
Not that we've tried Gerber's recently.
We now avoid Sipango after a frustrating evening when the manager offered us--by phone--entry into The Sellar, the Knox-Henderson mainstay's private room, but failed to add our names to the list. Sipango's staff dug in their heels when we explained the situation and asked to see the aforementioned manager. Thus they end up here. By comparison, Sense, a well-run private club, took our reservation several days in advance, recognized our names immediately on arrival and ushered us through the door smoothly.
The most disappointing moment, however, was the Samba Room's demise. Once a Burning Question favorite, corporate management turned the Knox-Henderson establishment into a crypt. We watched as they fired one bartender for offering a selection of wines to an uncertain patron and another for pouring just a bit more alcohol than the prescribed amount (see "shrinkage" above). Oh, they still attract a crowd for now. But people frequent bars for the expertise of the bartenders and the vibe, the intriguing swirl of interesting patrons. The Samba Room now reminds us of an expensive version of Razoo's or any other soulless chain.
One more thing to avoid, and we learned this during our work on a story: According to multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns featuring wild encounters in laundries, the mere sight of a man sipping flavored malt beverages will send women into unrestrained sexual frenzy. When we asked female bar patrons about the appeal of an adult male drinking Smirnoff Ice, Skyy Blue or any of the other artificially flavored beers, however, their responses amounted to "shrinkage" on an unprecedented level. A young blonde named Izabela said, "I'd think you're a wuss"--by far the kindest answer. Rachel Wise, another young blonde, looked at the flavored malt and snarled, "I'd be like, 'You fucking pussy.'" Although not a blonde, Jamie confirmed the deflated value of the trendy new drinks: "There's not a guy anywhere who has a Zima or any one of those drinks in his hand that I'd even think of having sex with."
We now know to avoid flavored malt beverages.
In a recent Dallas Morning News restaurant review, a critic complained about margaritas at Javier's. While waiting at the bar for her table, the cocktails were good and sweet. Once seated, however, she received tart, unpalatable "top shelf" margaritas.
This sort of thinking annoys us. The margarita is a sour mixture of tequila, orange liqueur and lime. Most bars, however, splash at least a dash of sweet and sour--usually bar syrup with a lemon-lime flavoring--into their version of the cocktail. As a result, patrons learn to appreciate the sweetened margarita rather than the stout classic, served up or on the rocks. Sweet and sour mix eliminates the precision necessary for a well-crafted cocktail and sweetens the drink for a broader, less sophisticated audience. "It is gross stuff," said Allen Roach, a bartender at The Mansion, when we addressed this topic last spring. "I don't like it at all."
During the year we also watched bartenders pour countless vodka drinks. David Liberto, bartender at Beau Nash, drains five bottles of vodka each night, on average. At Palomino on a Friday night, we saw the bar staff empty seven bottles by 9 pm. "Vodka is the most popular of all liquors--over gin, over bourbon, over scotch," says Dennis Hayslip at Palomino. Unfortunately, he adds, "Everyone's into Grey Goose because they read in Wine Spectator that it's a 94."
In other words, people respond to marketing, packaging and price--the crucial triumvirate in our quest for recognition among peers. High-end vodkas drive the market, and people willingly shell out $30 or more for bottles of the odorless, colorless, tasteless spirit. We hope that in 2003, people will discover that Monopolowa tastes better at $12 a bottle than Grey Goose or any of the other heavily marketed brands. More important, it reflects accurately vodka's rough, unfiltered heritage.
Mostly, we hope to remember just a bit more of 2003 than we managed to recall of this past year. Or at least take better notes.
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