Monday, July 28, 2008

In search of a good breakfast

If I want Italian food, the
only places I can really eat it without throwing up are New Jersey, New York and San Francisco. If I want good barbecue, I'm headed for Kansas City or Houston. If I want the best damned fried grouper on the planet, I head to redneck Florida.

And if I want a good breakfast? It really doesn't matter where I go.

It's our nation's most homogeneous meal.

Every fry pit from the Gulf Stream waters to the Redwood Forest can slog out a decent plate of scrambled eggs, hash browns and bacon. Every hotel can manage a buffet that's got those same staples, plus an assortment of melons, pineapple and dried cereals. This is all well and good.

But good is the enemy of great. And across the nation, breakfast is suffering from a lack of imagination. It gets no respect. Someone call Rodney Dangerfield.

This shouldn't be the case. Nutritionists tell us breakfast is the most important meal of the day, that it provides the necessary fuel to make us somewhat coherent, that it revs up our metabolisms. It deserves study in culinary schools, and creative approaches. In theory, we should be focused on it more than any other meal. In practice, we largely ignore it.

Instead, we specialize in lunch and dinner, which have entire conglomerates of restaurants dedicated to their preparation. At its best, breakfast is weakly served at jack-of-all-trade establishments which crank it out with assembly-line monotony.

That's why it is a rare treat to find a restaurant that specializes in this underappreciated meal. Mrs. VFR and I found one such place this weekend, which is what got my mind whirring on the topic, and also thinking about the best breakfasts I've ever had.

One of those has come at a bed and breakfast, but for the purposes of this discussion, I'm limiting my choices to restaurants that any Joe Blogger can walk into off the street. Here are the places I've eaten my top five breakfasts:

1. The Jail House Cafe. Moab, Utah.

This place is exclusively geared toward breakfast, open only from about 7 a.m. until noon. It is located in, you guessed it, a couple of ramshackle old huts that once served as the jail and courthouse in Moab. People were noosed there.

We discovered this gem while camping near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Maybe it was because I'd nearly starved to death after Mrs. VFR and I got lost in the desert the night before, but their ginger pancakes were a thing of art.

The next day we returned, and I loaded up on a scintillating chorizo omelet before hitting that sweet highway. It was magnificent. Since then, we have returned to the Jail House on every trip to Moab. My personal favorite.

2. Orange. Chicago, Illinois.

This outfit is a bit more trendy than the Jail House. (I don't think you can get away with wearing four-day-old clothes with no shower here like you can in Moab).

The first thing you notice about Orange is the juice. You can have whatever kind of juice you want. You can have whatever combination you want. Mango-strawberry? You got it. Papaya-lemon? Comin' right up. And it's all freshly squeezed right out in the open -- no sugary, phony syrups are used for flavor.

The menu? It's excellent. Chai-infused french toast. French toast kabobs. Green eggs and ham, colored with pesto. Fruit sushi. Chicken scrambled eggs. Like a good ski resort, you really need three days there to sample everything they've got to offer.

3. The Five Spot. Seattle, Washington.

A couple of starving beat writers stumbled into this joint on a Saturday before a Donkeys-Seahawks game back in the day. The line was an-hour-and-a-half long, but someone told us we wouldn't regret the wait. They were right.

The menu is a bit more standard than some of the others on my list, but damn, they just do everything so well. I don't know what they put in their omelets that makes them stand out, but their Black Bean Chili Omelet is hands-down the best omelet I've ever eaten.

It also sat like a brick in my stomach. Swear to God, it was the only meal I needed to eat all day.
4. Some little roadside hut, Guatemala.

I can't tell you exactly where this is, but here are some rough directions: Cross the Belize border into Guatemala, go about 25 km down a frightful dirt road, park on the side of the road and look for a gazebo hidden behind a thicket of shrubs.

Suspicion is natural, but there you will find perhaps the best damned breakfast of your life. It deserves a higher ranking here, but since I'm straying off U.S. turf to include it, I've got to keep it here.

We arrived to find all sort of tremendous delicacies, farm fresh and hand-made by these little old Guatemalan women. They may earn the equivalent of a nickel a day, but I don't think the richest chef in America could produce piping hot corn tortillas the way these ladies did.

Homemade cheese, eggs and salsa were stuffed into the tortillas. It was so good, I could cry just thinking about it. Same goes for the pineapple juice that accompanied it. I don't know if it was a different strain of pineapple than we're accustomed to here in America or what, but it was the most pure, delicious drink to ever pass my lips.

I don't drink coffee. Never have. But when they brought it around at the end of the meal, I grabbed some. I figured that if it was half as good as the rest of the meal, I couldn't possibly dislike it. And I was right.

5. The Aut Bar. Ann Arbor, Michigan.

This is the place Mrs. VFR and I ate last week. It's a bit of a wacky joint -- it's pronounced the Out Bar, and it functions as a homosexual haven at night.

In the morning, they serve a fantastic breakfast.

I ordered a bastardized version of huevos rancheros, and I got this huge stack of eggs, covered in tortillas, black beans, cheese, peas and ham. It was fantastic. The combination produced a flavor I had never tasted before.

On the side, they brought Portland Potatoes. Again, a taste combination I've never encountered. Sweet potato hash browns mixed with garlic and sweet onion and a few other spices. Again fantastic. I had to restrain myself from eating too much.

Overall, it was an impressive, ambitious menu that I would never have expected to find in this particular town.

Honorable mentions: When in Denver, you can't go wrong eating the biscuits and rhubarb jam at Lucille's. ... The Millbrae Pancake House in Millbrae, Calif., makes a mean pancake. It's a solid, straight-up breakfast joint near SFO, so if you've ever got time to kill or a flight delay, it's recommended.

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Monday, July 07, 2008

Some speculation on the VP

The lone commentator on my last post asked for my thoughts on who the top contenders are for the vice presidential nods. We'll start with the Donkeys tonight.

Without further ado, here they are:


1. Dick Gephardt, Retired House Speaker of Missouri. Odds: 5-2.

Pro: A conservative Democrat from the heartland. He could probably deliver swing-state Missouri, as well as bring a ton of leadership to the ticket.

Con: He brings so much experience, his selection would run contrary to Obama's image as a Washington outsider who brings fresh ideas to the Capitol.

2. Kathleen Sebelius, Kansas Governor. Odds: 8-1.

Pro: Another conservative Dem from the heartland. As a two-term Dem governor in a state that has gone blue twice since 1904, she'd personifies the ideal of the post-partisan government Obama has envisioned. She probably couldn't deliver Kansas, but she has influence in the Missouri sphere.

Con: Choosing her could be viewed as grabbing a second-tier female just to appease the Hillary faction of the party, and one that ranks as someone few people outside political junkies really know.

3. Joe Biden, longtime Delaware senator. Odds: 15-1.

Pro: He's a foreign policy mastermind who would bring a ton of clout and experience into the role. Serious chops. His strengths nicely complement Obama's weaknesses.

Con: His straight talk can be refreshing and enjoyable, but the arrogance also rubs some people the wrong way. I enjoy it. Hopefully the voters do too.

4. Bill Richardson, New Mexico Governor. Odds: 22-1.

Pro: A perfect candidate in many ways. A Hispanic leader with vast foreign-policy experience from the New West.

Con: He bungled his own presidential campaign so badly that it's fair to wonder if he's not quite ready for prime time.

5. Chuck Hagel, Republican Senator of Nebraska. Odds: 200-1.

Pro: He's been one of the most vocal critics of the Iraq War and President Bush in the senate. He's got the same military cred as McCain and would be an asset in cleaning up the messes Bush made around the globe.

Con: Hagel's views line up with the Repubs on pretty much every other issue, and Obama would incur the wrath of his own party if he selected a Repub. Still, it would show he's got some serious balls, and serious about post-partisan government.

Others mentioned:

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, an excellent reformer who's outright support for Hillary probably costs him a shot, even though he'd wrap up a Rust Belt state. ... Indiana's Evan Bayh would have a better shot, and was my early favorite for the VP spot.

Jim Webb is the party's rising giant, but is better off waiting for his own shot at the Oval Office in 2012 or 2016. Plus, the Dems don't want to risk his senate seat in tightly contested Virginia. Ditto goes for Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill.

Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer is an intriguing possibility. A Dem Governor of a Repub state which seems poised to be a swing state who is well-versed in energy issues. Arizona governor Janet Napolitano probably gets a look, but if Bam is going to go with a female, he probably picks Sebelius.

John Edwards? I thought he was the best Dem candidate early in the primaries. If Obama picked him, he'd be complementing his strength with another young, we-can-change-the-world senator, much like how Bill Clinton picked Al Gore in '92.

But Edwards lost with Kerry the last time. I don't know if Bam can risk picking a one-term senator, one-time loser.

Squawking VFR will be back with a look at the Repub side of things later this week.


Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Thoughts on the VP picks

I'm tired of the swing-state theories.

Every four years, members of the national media spend countless hours speculating on which vice presidential contenders could deliver this state or that state in the general election. Every four years, they get it wrong.

This is not an a storyline, although given the amount of time the political junkies devote to this topic, you'd think swing-state delivery was some sort of sacred barometer on how the Obamas and McCains of the world go about choosing their running mates.

In the last 30 years, there couldn't be a more irrelevant criteria.

Take a look:

In 2004, John Kerry picked John Edwards, his chief rival for the Democratic nomination. Edwards brought youth and "change" to the ticket, but was never really expected to deliver North Carolina. And he didn't.

In 2000, Al Gore chose Democratic turncoat Joe Lieberman, whose home state of Connecticut is irrelevant on the electoral map. George W. Bush chose Wyoming's Dick Cheney as his running mate. With or without Cheney, it's safe to say that Wyoming and its three electoral votes were safely in the Republican column.

In 1996, Bob Dole chose Jack Kemp, who hailed from New York, not exactly a flip-flopper on the red-blue state spectrum.

In 1992, Bill Clinton tabbed Al Gore from neighboring Tennessee. The Volunteer State indeed went blue, a turnaround from its 1988 red status. But given that both Clinton and Gore hailed from neighboring southern states, Gore wasn't looked at as a swing-state VP.

In 1988, George H. Bush chose first-term senator Dan Quayle of Indiana ... and who really knows why? Indiana has gone for a Republican every year since 1964, when it narrowly gave its electoral purse to LBJ. Quayle was not a swing-stater.

On the Democratic side, Michael Dukakis picked Texas senator Lloyd Bentsen, you know, to shore up his Texas base that he so clearly was going to win? Hell, he would have been far better off using the swing-state theory. (And would also have been better off not letting Willie Horton out of prison, and then driving that silly tank down the street as well).

In 1984, Walter Mondale tabbed Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate for one of the worst defeats in Democratic history. She came from New York, allegedly a Democratic base.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan shored up his right-wing base by tabbing Bush Sr. from Texas.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter picked Minnesota's Walter Mondale as his running mate. You could make the argument that Carter, a southerner, picked Mondale to add some Midwest muscle to the ticket. But Minnesota has been gone Democratic in every election but one since 1932. It's the only state that went to Mondale in '84. It's not a swing state.

Swing-state vice presidential theories have been dead for a long time. It's time for lazy journalists to retire this sorry excuse of a storyline.