Saturday, March 24, 2012

Pirate City - All Around The World

While down at Pirate City observing the minor leaguers over the 4 fields, it seems as if I gravitated towards the international players. The Latin American players can be like shrouded mysteries to many fans, as there is very little reliable information on them before they come stateside.

And even when they get here, their first year is spent at Rookie level Gulf Coast League, on these Pirate City fields where few people attend the games and report on them.

I met the gentle giant known as Luis Heredia. He is every bit of 6 foot 7 inches tall. The day I watched him pitch, he was sitting 92-94 mph on his fastball, but there have been reports he touched 97 at one point this spring.

Dilson Herrera is an impressive specimen of a shortstop. During a relay drill, he was taking cutoff throws from the outfield and throwing no-hop on the target throws to home plate.

There are tons of other Latin American players that I watched, such as Gavi Nivar's raw power, Willy Garcia's 5 potential-yet-undeveloped tools, Alen Hansen's smooth defensive actions, Edwin Espinal's large caboose, and Yhonathan Barrios's strong lower half.

I got to see the Australian trio of LHP Jackson Lodge, RHP Wilson Lee, and C Dylan Child. They all hung around each other and were joking around with each other, indicating to me that they are pretty good friends.

I saw the two Eastern Euros -- Donaydas Neverauskas and Alex Lukashevich, both pitchers -- and they also hung out closely with each other. I also glimpsed Gift Ngeope during a part of an intra-squad game.

It was interesting to get a look at these guys, who will be at different points in the organizational ladder this year from Rookie League to High A Bradenton. It's very encouraging to see that the international pipeline is bringing in talent from a wide variety of countries.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Gettin' Gritty at Pirate City - Pompey's Seafood Shack

On my last day at Spring Training this past Tuesday, my other two travel partners had become a little saturated with minor league prospects. They didn't say it, but I sensed it (even though both said that didn't mind going back to Pirate City) so I just grabbed the rental car and drove the 10 minutes to Pirate City myself.

It was a camp day, just the intrasquad games and workouts, and it was done for the day at 12 noon. At the end of the camp, Tim from Pirates Prospects and I headed out for lunch. Tim has been covering the Pirates' minor leaguers at Spring Training for the past 5 weeks or so. Right down from Pirate City is a great little place called Mixon's Fruit Farm, sort of like a Soergel's but with oranges instead of apples. They have a little dining area with all sorts of pressed sandwiches, but the highlight is the orange and vanilla swirled ice cream -- sort of like a Creamsicle. Tim liked the food and the convenience of it so much that he ate there 45 times since coming to Florida.

I decided to give him a break from number 46 by taking him to Pompey's Seafood Shack down E 26 Avenue, about 5 minutes from Pirate City. It features a bright yellow painted block building with hand-painted descriptions of the food on the exterior walls. There was also a smoker going out in the parking lot with spray-painted advertisments on the side, so you know it has to be good.

We walked inside and were taken aback by the sprawling menu on the wall. There were variations of shrimp specials (6 shrimp with fries, 8 shrimp with 1 side, 12 shrimp with garlic sauce, 4 fried shrimp/4 steamed shrimp) that caused both of our eyes to glaze over for a second.

I saw that conch fritters were on the menu and I was eager to try them. I've been trying to sample the sweet meat of conch for some time now. When I ordered from the man at the register, he said that they were out of conch. Waa Waa. He also said they were out of amberjack and dungeness crabs. No problem on the last two. I was trying to parse through all the shrimp combinations I could get when I settled on the #7 combo -- 12 shrimp in garlic butter sauce with potatoes and corn. I also ordered a side of fried okra to split with Tim.

Tim went with the pulled pork sandwich and fries combo, under the auspice that he had been making a lot of seafood for dinner at his condo. Who am I to chastise someone for getting delicious roadside meats?

While our food was being prepared, the older man in the back came out to collect our money. I could tell from his dialect that he wasn't American, so I asked where he was from originally. I expected him to say Jamaica or Trinidad/Tobago, but he said Haiti.

His name was Shiller and he left Haiti "to escape the government" a while ago. He left family behind in Haiti, namely him mother and sister. He opened up this restaurant "3 or 4 years ago". He was very friendly and quite easy to talk to. He was the kind of guy I could I wanted to ask a million questions to about life in Haiti and how he had adjusted to America, but our food was ready.

My shrimp were steamed and dropped into a bath of garlic butter sauce with little potato life rafts popping up here and there. My island of corn was sitting in the upper left hand corner. I'm not usually wild about shrimp that have not been peeled, but I decided to just pop the garlicy morsels in my mouth and chomp through the shells. The potato slices absorbed just enough butter for the flavor, but were not soggy at all. I was so full from the dozen shrimp and potatoes that I barely touched my corn. It was plenty to eat for lunch.

The okra was from a frozen bag and dropped into a fryer, but the bite-size chunks were still very tasty and something different than what you get back home.

Tim seemed to enjoy his pulled pork and fries, but the majority of our discussion was about prospects and players in the Pirate system. Shiller came out to check on us and tell us stories about his version of split-pea soup that he makes for his family, but he had to go back inside to take care of a sudden influx of customers to the little roadside building.

If you are in the Bradenton area, whether living or visiting, check this little hidden gem out near the intersection of E 26 Avenue and E 9th Street. (I have no idea how or why they number their roads down in Bradenton).

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Ybor City - Tampa

During my recent trip to Bradenton, Florida for Pirates Spring Training, my 2 friends (John and Steve) decided to take a little trip up I-275 to Tampa for dinner and after-drinks.

John wanted to meet his niece, who recently relocated to Tampa for her job, and recommended a restaurant that he ate at in the Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa 2 years ago. Ybor City (pronounced E-bor...and...City) is the Cuban sector of Tampa. It is home to other ethnic restaurants and bars, as well, such as the restaurant of our choosing last Sunday night, Acropolis Taverna.

Acropolis Taverna is a Greek restaurant that John couldn't recommend highly enough. As soon as we walked in the door, we were greeted by the sounds of a older man playing the Greek guitar known as a Bouzouki. It was fairly busy for a Sunday night at 7:30, especially due to large group of mostly high-school age boys and girls on the main floor. We asked for a table on the mezzanene level so that we could overlook the ongoings below us.

None of my 3 dinner companions had much, if any, exposure to Greek cuisine. John had been here 2 years ago, but doesn't really seek it out. John's niece, a self-described non-adventurous eater, didn't really know much about Greek and Steve didn't have any.

We ordered an appetizer platter that was a good intro to the various dips you typically see -- hummus (chickpeas), baba ganoush (eggplant), tirosalata (a spicy whipped feta and pepper spread), and one that I was not familiar with called tamarosalata (a lemon flavored dip made with fish roe, as I later found out). This was served with some dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) and pita.

All of the dips were fantastic, but I especially liked the tirosalata. I think I'll reverse-engineer that one back home here.

I helped select the dishes for John and Steve. John's heritage is Italian, so I recommended the Chicken Rhodes for him. It had sundried tomatoes, artichokes, spinach, and olives with feta cheese. It was served with grilled vegetables and orzo. John described it as perhaps the best chicken dish he has ever had.

For Steve I thought he might like the Moussaka. In all honesty, since that is my favorite Greek dish, I was just hoping he would share a little of it with me. Moussaka is an eggplant dish intertwined with slices of potato, the layered with finely ground meat. It is topped with a bechamel sauce and then a tomato sauce. This one had some strong hints of cinammon and a little ginger in it. It was absolutely fantastic and Steve loved it too (he did give me a couple of small chunks). For all of great things Steve does, taking food porn quality pictures is not one of them, so I can't post that one.

Jen went simple and ordered chicken kabobs. It also came with grilled vegetables and orzo. She also loved her dish.

I ordered the Drunken Quail dish, which had a lemon wine sauce drizzled over perfectly charred pieces of split quail. I'm a big fan of quail, but you pretty much have to get your hands messy to eat it right. It's like a giant chicken wing, so you need to procure every piece of delicious meat you can glean from them. Not the most elegant meal to eat out in a nice restaurant, but it was totally worth it.

The food made me feel like I was back in Athens, something I can't say about any restaurant back here in Pittsburgh. It made me miss DB~ the most on this trip. But what really elevated this restaurant to one of my all-time favorite were the ancillary touches -- every hour the restaurant staff would link hands and dance through the restaurant. They would throw napkins high in the air and leave them littered on the floor afterwards. And then to add to the Bouzouki, dancing, and general festiveness there was a roaming belly dancer. I never equated that with Greek, more Middle Eastern in my mind, but it was still fun to see.

This was easily a Top 10 restaurant for me. It was great to share it with old friends and a new dinner mate. The two bottles of red wine we split probably helped, too.

After dinner, we went a couple of doors down to a cigar bar. The cigars were hand rolled by an old man named Ernesto Martinez, but the drinks were mixed by a young Cuban girl named Stephanie. When you're in a Cuban bar, it's time to have a Mojito. A Mojito is a drink made with white rum, lime juice, sugar, sparkling water and mint leaves all muddled together. And if you're going to have one, you may as well have two. Plus some Sangria that was even better than the Sangria we had at Mallorca a couple of weeks ago.

My three evening companions all enjoyed the fruits of Ernesto's labor, but I'm an avid non-smoker so I just inhaled copious amounts of second-hand smoke and got nice and buzzed up. They all seemed to enjoy the cigars quite a bit, even Jen, so they must have been good.

If I ever make it back to Tampa with DB~, we will definitely be visiting this great little neighborhood and Acropolis Taverna. From what I've gathered, Ybor can be a little rough on Friday and Saturday nights, but it was fine this night.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Back From Bradenton

I got back late last night from a trip to Bradenton, Florida with 2 friends of mine. It was weird not taking DB~ along on the trip, but this was a ton of baseball and golf packed into 5 days. She would have soldiered through all the baseball, but I'm afraid she would have been really bored.

We got down there on Friday 3/16 at 10 am and were already raring to go to McKechnie Field for the 1 p.m. major-league level Spring Training game against the Phillies. It was great to see one of my favorite prospects, Starling Marte, homer off of Cliff Lee to start the bottom of the 1st for the Pirates in the eventual 3-2 win.

The 3 of us went back the next day to see another game at McKechnie, this time a 2-1 loss to the Rays. McKechnie is an older park, but they've kept up on it with some renovations. The seats are tight and don't fold up, which led to many a time of 1/2 a row exiting the row to allow someone to go to the bathroom or concessions.

McKechnie itself is in an area of Bradenton that is, to be polite, socio-economically challenged. I've never seen so many used car dealers, auto body shops, detailing businesses, and car parts sales units in a concentrated area. Bradenton is a microcosm of the woes of Florida. There are nice areas that are coming back around, but albeit at much lower property values. These nice areas may be right next to an abandoned condominium complex or an office park with tumbleweeds rolling through it. But there are still plenty of boats in the marina, even if some of them have For Sale signs on them.

Downtown Bradenton has a 2 block area known as Old Main Street that has some fun bars and decent restaurants. The area skews older, as does most of Florida I presume, but there are still enough younger people floating around to keep the town somewhat lively.

I'll be posting some more posts talking about Pirate City (the minor league complex for the Pirates), plus our adventures in Tampa one night, and a great hole-in-the-wall restaurant on the side of the road I went to my last day.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Little Bit of Spain on the South Side

Groupon helps you find new friends (establishments) and re-unite with friends (establishments) you've lost touch with. For our most recent dinner out at Mallorca via a Groupon, it was a case of me going back to a place for the first time in probably 15+ years.

I'm not sure how long exactly Mallorca has been open, but it was my friend Karen's favorite place to go when she was in college, so that puts it somewhere in the 1994-98 range. (Note -- right on the front page of their website it says 1991). I went there with my family many moons ago and don't remember a whole heck of a lot aside from the fact it was dark inside. My palette wasn't nearly developed enough to enjoy a paella or any of the other exotic dishes they may have offered.

DB~ and I went down there on Friday night. When we walked in we were greeted by multiple Spanish speaking people, which is a great sign when you are at a restaurant named for an island off the coast of Spain. We were led back to the main dining room, which was a dark green and have dark wood mantles and inlays. The place made us think that Mallorca bought an old bar and never really did any major remodel when they moved in. The tile floor in the bar reminded us of that you might see in a diner.

I'm not going to say our waiter greeted us and read the specials to us, because we probably had 6-7 people come to our table at some point of the evening. I'll simply say the FIRST person came to give us our menus and read us the specials --- holy cow, the special menu was longer than the real menu. My ears perked up when he mentioned two certain things on special: roasted goat and a roasted wild boar dish. I asked the guy which he would choose and he immediately said the boar. Boar it is.

DB~ went with the lobster tails stuffed with crabmeat. We also ordered a pitcher of sangria to share. Sangria is a delicious Spanish-themed cocktail made with red wine/fresh fruit/carbonated water poured over ice. Perhaps getting a whole pitcher to split was not our best idea, especially when the bill came and we found out the pitcher was $25 (!!).

While we were waiting, we watched as another table ordered some type of roasted sausage appetizer. It came out in an open-topped dish in the shape of a pig and the waiter lit the whole thing on fire. So he was basically carrying a ball of fire through the restaurant on the way to the table. Sadly, I couldn't get my camera out in time to get a shot of that.

You get an incredible amount of food at Mallorca. We got small dinner salads right away (served, appropriately, with Catalina dressing) and a small loaf of bread. That was a welcome change from modern restraunting that makes salads a seperate charge and bread baskets disappearing.

Our food came out and both portions were monsterous. Our server then mumbled that he would "bring out some sides for us to share". Apparently for DB~'s dish, Mallorca must have walked 1 block down to Mullens to get her lobster from their lobster tank claw game (not really) and for my wild boar they got the brontosauras from the opening of the Flintstones cartoon.

To be honest, I would have been very content with the salads and the main dish. But then the 5th waiter brought out generous portions of yellow rice with vegetables, steamed garlic sauce vegetables, and fried potato chips.

DB~ didn't care for her dish very much, as she felt the crab meat was not all jumbo lump crab meat as it should have been for the price. She also wasn't feeling the decor, either, and I agreed with her on that one.

My dish was pretty good, but not great. It was a tomato based sauce with brandy and red wine flavors. It was topped with some lima beans, which were a welcome addition.

Overall we liked Mallorca, but probably won't be back in the future anytime soon. It's time for a re-working of the restaurant. For as modern and sleek as their sister restaurant next door, Ibiza, you would think Mallorca would want to keep up with that.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Noodles, Noodles Everywhere

Last week was a big noodle fest for us, as we went to not one but two noodle houses, due to our "geographic availability". Last Thursday we went to the South Hills to have our taxes done. Now, I live and work in the North Hills, so to drive to South Park means a trip on Route 51 and some other fun roads. After driving down there to have our taxes done, I understand why Wesley Snipes was convicted of tax evasion. It's not that he didn't have the money...he just didn't want to drive all the way to his accountant.

So anyway...after our taxes, DB~ and I were going to go to dinner. She always raves about this place called Pho Kim 88 and their delicious Pad Thai. It's a combination pan-Asian type of place -- Thai, Japanese, and Chinese, with maybe some Korean too. It's in a non-descript little strip mall off of 88.

The place inside is nice enough. DB~ got her usual chicken Pad Thai and loved it. I tried it and the Pad Thai noodles were soft and filled with flavor. The chicken was large and chunky, but had a great flavor with the Thai basil throughout the dish.

I had pork bun which was pork served over some vermicelli noodles. My dish had some peanut flavoring throughout the dish, which is pretty common in Thai food. Overall, I did like the place and DB~ got to have the pad thai dish she loves so much.

Then just two days later when we went to the Teenie Harris exhibit in Oakland, we stopped before at LuLu's Noodles on Craig Street. I went with a wider street noodle this time with some shrimp dumplings on top. I loved the shrimp dumplings (and probably should have just gone with dumplings by themselves) but found the noodles bland. It was served with a clear onion broth that, I suppose, you were supposed to add to the noodles -- at least that's what I did.

DB~ had some type of noodle dish with chicken, but not pad thai, and again she had the better dish. This one had a hint of cilantro woven throughout the dish. It had a light brown sauce and some vegetables and sprouts.

LuLu's Noodles has the motto "Think Globally, Act Locally, Eat Noodles". Perhaps instead of having such a high-minded vision they should focus on adding a touch more flavor to all their dishes.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Teenie Harris Exhibit at the Carnegie

There are scores of many famous Pittsburghers throughout its history. There are a plethora of famous athletes in our history. Dozens of famous musicians, politicans, and bon vivants.

But these famous folks are but a tiny fraction of Pittsburgh's history. The vast majority of people are just everyday folks, working a job and going to day to day. Odds are good that if those people were black and lived in the City between 1930 and 1975, they encountered Charles "Teenie" Harris.

Teenie Harris was an Afro-American photographer that worked for the Pittsburgh Courier, the black newspaper of the day. Harris primarily worked out of the Hill District and documented the everyday lives of black people and any celebrities that happened through the City of Pittsburgh.

It's hard to believe that there was a time, in the not-too-distant past, that segregation was an accepted standard. There was a White Pittsburgh and a Black Pittsburgh in most of Harris' photographs. However, it was refreshing to see people with actual muscles due to hard work and not from going to the gym 24-7 and doing steroids/drinking muscle building shakes.

The people in the photographs, primarily black, were very dignified in the photographs. They showed a lot of inner strength and a happiness in most of the shots, even if their daily lives were probably difficult.

On a side note, if you go look for this great photo of a woman holding a 3 month old baby in her hand. The kicker is that he is standing up, at age 3 months, in the palm of her hand. The mom taught all of her kids to do this and she would dance around the living room with them standing in the palm. It's hilarious to see.