Sunday, January 17, 2016

Revisiting Vacation Day 7: A dumb way to spend $50 ...

The first sign that this was a bad idea: As soon as I said the name of the restaurant, I sort of unintentionally recoiled. The last time I was there, I'd eaten a chimichanga that seemed a close relative to a boiled tube sock filled with chicken parts. The sauce was tomato-textured water.

That was years ago, though.

I just really wanted nachos. And I really wanted to leave the house. I'd been cooped in this coop for too many days in a row. First, Chach's ears were infected, then as the temperatures dropped, she stopped responding to winterwear. ("Which hat do you want to wear?" Flings both options across the room.) She was content to roam the same 40 square feet day after day after day after day. I've seen variations on the story of The Grinch 30 times in 10 days, and while I don't mind Boris Karloff or Jim Carrey's version, it's still The Grinch and it's still 30 times in 10 days.

Nachos. In public.

The other nacho purveyors in town were dismissed for various reasons ranging from location to location, and after further scanning Chicken Sock's menu it was decided we would just go there. No frills, no fireworks. We didn't need a dining experience that would inspire Instagram footage and  a Facebook check-in. Just a nacho appetizer followed by something bean-filled, cheese covered, with a spicy kick for an entree.

Listen. This is a big deal. I'm pretty plant-based and mostly dairy and gluten free. I've been meat-light for as long as I've been making my own meals. But once a week I lay aside my super obnoxious list of things I will and will not eat and replace it with complete lawlessness. I've learned that cheese tastes otherworldly when you don't eat it by the 4-inch slab every night before bed, as was my old way of confronting a block of cheddar and a fresh sleeve of Zestas.

So, nachos.

The second sign this was a bad idea: We found a great parking spot and on our cold sprint to the restaurant, passed two or three more great parking spots. Through the windows, plenty of open booths. The ebbs and flows of the food industry, right? Maybe on a Wednesday. But at 5:45 p.m. on a Friday night at a restaurant close to Amsoil Arena, where UMD was hosting St. Cloud in about the amount of time it would take to consume a dinner, one would think this place would be teeming with jerseys chasing a pre-game Tex-Mex high.


A half dozen members of the restaurant staff greeted us when we walked in. It was like a commercial for customer service. "At the Chicken Sock, we boast a 4:1 employee to customer ratio. You won't be able to wet your fork without our attentive staff making sure the tines are a dental match with the curvature of your mouth." We were whisked to a booth near the other empty booths and happened past a table where two young people were pushing more than half-filled plates of food back at the server. Or were they half-empty plates? Uh-oh, I thought.

The nachos were incredible. A mound of evenly distributed nacho ingredients -- though I'm not sure there were any of the advertised jalapenos -- spread across thin, crispy and lightly salted chips. On one half, a good sized splat of guacamole and on the other half, sour cream. Reader(s), we demolished it.

We should have stopped there. If we had stopped there, this post wouldn't exist. We would have had this pleasant plate of nachos and gone home satisfied, crave fulfilled. It might have changed my Pavlovian response to merely hearing the restaurant's name. It might have become a Friday night nacho hangout, where I shared loads of laughs with my gal pals. I definitely wouldn't have said about 100 times in the past three days: "Some restaurants seem to get away with selling slop because they have primo real estate." Soups on, tourists.

But, the entrees.

"It's meat," Chach said, looking at her plate. That was the third sign. Technically it was what she had ordered. But it was a soft shell taco filled to the rim with a greasy mess of oily red ground beef. Later it would fall open and I would see a hint of lettuce, maybe the place where a tomato might roost. It had all gotten muddied and lost in the concentration of double meat doused with meat doused with grease.

"It's spicy," she said, though it wasn't.
"If it's anything like mine, that's the salt," Chuck said.

I ordered a chicken chimichanga again, thinking the Shitty Chimichanga Lightning couldn't possibly strike twice in the same place. But there it was again, a sad and soggy lump of gooey tortilla wrapped around mediocre chicken. The sauce was probably seasoned with the scorch marks on the bottom of a pan. The pinto beans were dry; I didn't touch the rice.

"How is everything tasting," the server asked.
"Yes," I said, because it was, technically, tasting.

I ate about one-fourth of my food, Chuck and Chach managed just less than half. We assured her we didn't need a box for any of it, no-no, really. Then I paid more than $50 to just get the plates the hell away from us -- though the smell of Chach's taco somehow got embedded into my skin.

So that was pretty awful. My worst meal for as long as I can remember.

Here's the thing: I wasn't looking for an artful stack of organic things grown within a 20-foot radius of the kitchen. It didn't even need to be great. It just had to be not awful. The next day we drove past a sign advertising Taco John's and that, I realized, would have been far, far superior. How hard is it, really, to make inauthentic Mexican food?

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Vacation Day 1: Orange is dead ...

The power went out 35 minutes into my elliptical workout. I can't even remember what was happening on "The Good Wife," it was all so traumatic. Suddenly dark. The furnace quieted mid-gust. The equipment no longer erasing calories. I used my phone's light to walk upstairs, where I found Chuck lightly asleep in bed.

"The power went out," I said, when he moved.

The wind was loud. The cold already sneaking in the windows. I watched the house across the street, dark save for a beam from a flashlight bouncing around an upstairs bedroom. No streetlights, no cars. Freaking freaky stuff. Freakiest of all: My phone's battery at 43 percent.

"I'm at 10," Chuck said and I got a case of the dreads. Nothing stresses me out more than a low phone battery.

The head lamp was burned out, but I found a flashlight on the floor behind the toilet. Chuck found a lantern and a portable light. I cowered under the covers reading Patricia Highsmith getting colder and colder and colder. The story is just getting juicy. The power company's website estimated we would have electricity by 1:14 a.m.

I purposefully did not do the math on how long it would take before our pipes would freeze.

Then the carbon monoxide detector started going off. A single beep every few seconds. We both Googled hard. It seemed pretty obvious that it had something to do with the lack of power, but it also seemed silly to never again regain consciousness just because we understand Ocaam's Razor. So then a whole firetruck pulled up in front of the house and three firefighters gave us a PSA on CO detectors, checked our levels, complimented our cat and left.

We ate a bunch of hummus and agreed that we didn't feel dumb about calling at all.


A man and a woman were at the grocery store together. Every time he picked up an item, he smiled at it. It was like the apples were talking to him.


Chach had a screaming fit because I wouldn't carry her here and there and when I finally got around to picking her up, she put her head on my shoulder and fell asleep. Rare. No nightly bedtime battle. I didn't miss it a lick.


Chuck made us ramen for dinner. Favorite foods include: miso, chili oil.


The Rock Star Amy Abts alerted me to an interesting obituary and I spent the next two hours reading, Googling and texting. So vague!


We watched about 90 episodes of "The Great British Baking Show," which is such a pleasant bit of theater. In between, Chach would stand in front of the TV and perform with her ukulele. Picture: Toddler in her pajamas and a winter hat.

"One. More. Song. One. More. Song," we'd chant after each song, so she would play another.
"Old MacDonald had a penguin," she began.

At one point she put the kabosh on our adoration.
"I'm not going to play one more song," she said. "I'm going to take a bow."  
So she clutched her hat in one hand, the uke in the other, and she crossed her legs and bent at the waist. A sort of Oliver Twist era street performer.


Lunch was tempeh reubens and salad. Chach ate peanut butter toast and blueberries.


My hoodie-footies were too hot this morning, so I stripped down to shorts and a tank top. Chach looked at me sitting next to her and exclaimed: YOU DON'T HAVE ANY PANTS ON. YOU JUST HAVE LEGS. (Pause) YOU GO PUT PANTS ON!

We spent much of the morning at the kitchen table. Chach created an elaborate city made of her paint containers.

"Orange is dead," she said. "I better take him to the cat place."*

* We told her that Chuck took Hal to "the cat place" instead of saying he was sick and going to the vet.

On the eve of ...

It was cold on the eve of the first day of vacation. Our daughter resists winterwear and so is rushed to and from the car with a coat draped over her like a celebrity out on bail. But even she agreed to put her actual toddler arms into her winter coat for the frigid block walk to dinner. We stood on a corner waiting for the light and she burrowed against me and laugh-screamed in cold, cold agony.

The host tried to seat us at a sore thumb table in the middle of the room, but I nudged her toward a newly vacated table by the window. Chach colored with complementary crayons.

"What are these?" she asked, shading with green.
"Tattoos," I said, which must have been confusing. She knows a dog named Tattoo, and that's all she knows of the word.

We had an appetizer of focaccia, pesto and goat cheese to be dipped in red sauce. The server snuck Sriracha onto the corner of the table, which wasn't a bad idea at all.
We had a large pizza with Italian sausage and garlic. Chach took one bite.
"Spicy," she said, then slurped down a bunch of strawfuls of milk and pretty much ate nothing else.

After dinner I emptied the aisles at the co-op and Chuck scared up some vermouth. We got home late-ish, put Chach to bed and retired to the basement to drink martinis and listen to records well past curfew.

Chach woke up at 6 a.m. in need of an emergency diaper change. Chuck did the heavy lifting, then I swept into the room without opening my eyes and carried her into the lounge where we shared a futon for four more sweet, sweet hours of sleep and the First Official Day of Vacation.