Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Trunks, Hot Dogs, and Chili

Saturday was a day where we kinda sorta had an idea of what we wanted to do, but no definite timelines.  DB~ got an e-blast from Construction Junction about some storage trunks they got in, so we wanted to get down there early on Saturday before they all got sold.  We also knew that we wanted to check out a chili cook-off in Swissvale to support her not-really-a-blood-relation uncle Paul.  But in between we were just going to wing it.

We got to Construction Junction at 9:15 and there was still one trunk left to buy.  DB~ will strip it and re-stain it, so that will keep her busy and off the mean streets for a little bit of time.  We wandered all throughout the warehouse and saw some cool things; DB~ was making a mental checklist of future Pinterest-inspired projects and what she could scavenge from here.  We spotted some old slate roof tiles -- 10 in a bundle for $8 -- and thought they would be cool to use as menus for when guests come for dinner.  We'll just write the menu in chalk on them.  Then DB~ had the really good idea of putting some felt on the bottom and using them as serving trivets, as well.

After we walked out of the Junction, I suggested we should check out the East End Food Co-Op, as neither of us had ever been there.  It was right down Penn Avenue from the Junction in a (presumed) renovated factory called... The Factory.  We didn't realize the Co-Op was on the complete other side, so we drifted all throughout the Factory following the array of signs directing us until we got outside and went around the block.  The East End Co-Op is like a less pretentious Whole Foods.  Lot of dirty hippies and earthy-cool-urban-dwelling parents and kids.  We got this awesome quinoa/kale/lemon prepared salad and couldn't wait to try it.

Since we were right down the street from Station Street Hot Dogs, I suggested that we hit that up for lunch.  DB~ had never been there so she agreed.  Showed up and who was working the line?  Kevin Sousa himself.  Nonchalantly tossing hot dogs together like he's a freshly hired newbie.  He was probably going to leave there and pop in on Union Pig and Chicken before prepping for dinner service at Salt of the Earth.  He may be a cyborg.  Not sure.

I had a Hawaii Dog (pineapple salsa, soy sauce, bacon), but DB~ made the choice of the day with a Falafel.  It had julienned carrots, diced cucumbers, a light application of tahini, and perfectly fried falafel -- not heavy at all.  It was wrapped in a tortilla-pita hybrid.  As it was only a "special", there's no guarantee it will be there when we go back.

At times, I'm a little socially awkward.  At times, DB~ is a little socially awkward.  Everything is fine when at least one of us is 'normal', but then you have lunch at Station Street.  Because we wanted to try our quinoa/kale salad, we felt weird about bringing outside food into Station Street.  So we decided to get it to go and eat in the car....except I parked in the front row where we would be looking into the restaurant as the patrons look at us through the large glass windows.  Solution -- drive next door to the Target and park in their parking garage...while situating the car to look at Station Street.  Urban picnic!

We stopped by to see DB~'s East End dwelling aunt for an hour and then headed to the Chili Cook Off at Pub in the Park.  It was located in....Swissvale?  Maybe?  I think?  It's pretty rare that I'm out of my element in the confines of Pittsburgh and its environs, but this was one of those cases.  I have never been to this part of town before in my life.

DB~'s kinda-sorta uncle was the frontrunner to defend his 2-time chili champ crown at the prestigious Chili Cook Off.  He asked his friends and family to essentially come and stuff the ballot box for him in his quest for a 3rd straight title.  SPOILER ALERT! -- He won again.

Pub in the Park is a neighborhood bar ('s surrounded by row houses) that is a hit with locals and others who drive a bit to hang out here.  It's a no-frills place that still hasn't joined the 2000's yet by accepting credit cards.  But they did have 25 different crockpots of chili to sample.  Her uncle's Baby Back Ribs Chili was very good, but truth be told my favorite may have been a Chicken Cheese Chili that was kind of a cross between chili and mac and cheese.  There was also a good Lasagna Chili, a Pork Shoulder Chili, and a Hickory Smoked 3 Meat Chili.

All in all, it was a very fun day that wasn't planned down to every minute of the day.  Otherwise known as a day kind of foreign to me.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Hurdle Extension and Huntington's Fate

A few days ago, it was announced that Clint Hurdle received an extension for 2014 with an option for 2015.  Hurdle was only under contract for this year, giving the dreaded "lame duck" status.  Upon first hearing of the extension, my first nano-reaction was "Wow, presiding over two straight collapses gets a reward."

But then I realized that for what he is presumably being paid (less than $1M per year, I suppose), if  his performance warrants his dismissal, the Pirates are really only the hook for 1 year of salary.  In exchange, the players have the knowledge that Hurdle is under contract and here for the "long term".  Believe it or not, but this actually matters to players.  You would think they would be perceptive enough to realize that if the team is floundering on July 4th, Hurdle will be canned.  Ditto if they collapse for a third straight year.  But these things matter in the brotherhood of baseball.

Not only is Hurdle on notice, but so is Neal Huntington.  This will be his sixth full season as General Manager.  If the Pirates don't have a winning season this year, there is no way that a 6th losing season can be tolerated.  Baseball is still a results based business of wins and losses.

The terrible part is that if Huntington is fired during 2013, the next GM will be able to reap the benefits of the foundation laid at the major league level and the impending rise of the high impact prospects from the minors.  This week, Baseball America placed 5 Pirate prospects in their Top 100 -- Gerrit Cole at 7, Jameson Taillon at 19, Gregory Polanco at 51, Alen Hanson at 61, and Luis Heredia at 78.  All 5 of those guys would conceivably be up during the tenure of the next potential GM.  If 2 of those 5 are the stars their potential says they will be, that's a major boost to the Pirates.  If 3 or more are stars, that's a potential pennant winning team when added to McCutchen/Walker/Alvarez/hopefully Marte.

I don't think that an 82-80 record will be good enough to save Hurdle or Huntington, either.  The stakes have been raised and for these men to soldier on the Pirates will need to be in the 84-86 win range, with a prolonged stay in the playoff hunt at least.

So Hurdle needs to keep working the folksy charm and learn how to platoon and control the running game on both sides of the equation.  Or else he'll have only 1 winning season in his 11 as a manager and he'll be the catalyst for yet another turnover on Federal Street.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Root 174 - Deja Vu

On Saturday, DB~ and I went to Root 174 for a post-Valentine's Day dinner.  It was a little odd going to Root 174 for Valentine's Day considering that just two years ago we went to its predecessor, Legume, for Valentine's Day.  Legume moved in 2012 to a new space in Oakland and set up a decor so hideous that we have no interest in going back.

When Legume was on Braddock Avenue in Regent Square, it had a French country kitchen decor.  When we walked into Root, we were greeted with low lighting and earthy color tones on the walls.  The perimeter of the walls were edged in sheet metal.  Unfortunately, the sheet metal was warped and dinged in multiple places which took away from the vibe a little bit.

As is the trend nowadays, Root has a hand-crafted cocktails menu made by a barman replete with a vest.  I chose the North Shore Connector, which I thought was fitting.  It was a great choice as Boyd & Blair Vodka is always so smooth, especially with the other add-ins and bitters.

For an appetizer, I wanted to go off the reservation a little bit.  Secretly, I enjoy making DB~ expand her culinary boundaries and getting her out of her comfort zone.  So I chose the bone marrow creme brulee.  Not sure exactly how you make it, but sure enough it came out in a tiny ramekin with a blowtorched crust on top.  There were some tiny toasts to spread the bone marrow on to.  The bone marrow had a rich, buttery taste.  I'm glad we tried it, but I probably wouldn't seek it out again.

Root's menu changes daily, so the two dishes that we had on Saturday may not always be there.  If they are, there many be subtle changes to them.  DB~ selected an Asian-themed chicken dish.  It was a chicken breast topped with kimchee, some hand rolled "rice tubes", a wasabi aioli, and cashews.  It was a very simple, yet tasty, combination of flavors, especially with a slight hoison sauce glaze.

My dinner was a cassoulet of duck confit (a small breast), pork belly (a nice sized cube), and one link of spiced pork sausage, served on a bed of white beans.  This dish was easily one of my Top 5 ever dishes that I've ever had.  The duck was perfectly seasoned and prepared to the point that the meat was falling off the bone.  The pork belly was the true star as the top of it was crusted and crunchy.  The remainder of the belly had the fat cooked into the meat matrix to the point that it melted in my mouth.  The sausage was the weakest of the three, but it was still fantastic and packed with flavor.

For dessert, we selected a Nutella Bread Pudding, mostly because DB~ would encase herself in Nutella if it were socially acceptable.  Three medium sized cubes came on a plate with warm Nutella dipping zones.

Here's an interesting societal observation -- at one point at the end of the night, I counted 32 people in the restaurant, including easily-seen staff.  Of those 32 people, 7 people were bald.  I'm not talking receding hairlines --- I'm talking shaved heads or bald.  That seemed like a HUGE number to me, especially considering that not all 32 were men.

Here's a second fun fact -- Keith Fuller is the Chef/Owner of Root, but a 2nd co-owner is Pat Bollinger, the drummer for Anti-Flag.  Anti-Flag is a activist punk band that is one of the more famous and worldwide-accepted bands to come out of Pittsburgh.  Pat has been a vegetarian since 18 and is a fan of Keith Fuller's, so it was a natural fit for him to help fund the setup.

We will definitely be back for a second go-around at Root 174, perhaps with DB~'s aunt next time.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Clint Barmes Will Be Better...Right?

I'm not sure if I'm just whistling past the graveyard or not, but I think Clint Barmes will be better at the plate in 2013.  Last year was frustrating at the plate for Barmes as he sported a .229/.272/.321 triple slash line.  If uber-nerd terms that's a 593 OPS (should be around 700 for an average MLB'er), a .260 wOBA (should be around .330), and a 62 wRC+ (average is 100).

Out of 24 shortstops that had at least 450 plate appearances (Barmes had 493), Barmes finished 23rd out of 24 -- thanks Brendan Ryan! -- in terms of wOBA and wRC+.  In short, he sucked at the plate.

Too often fans treat players as robots that are immune to outside problems or pressures.  We expect them to perform the same as they did the previous year and never age or slump.  Barmes was signed before the 2012 season to a 2 year/$10.5M deal, easily the biggest payday of his career.  He was Clint Hurdle's handpicked free agent during the offseason, due to their time together at Colorado, and brought in for his defense and leadership abilities.  He was not expected to be a total black hole at the plate, though.

Perhaps he put too much pressure on himself and it just mushroomed on him.  But if you look at his 1st/2nd half splits, Barmes was halfway decent in the 2nd half.

1st half -- .204/.227/.298 (525 OPS, .230 wOBA, 41 wRC+)
2nd half -- .257/.322/.348 (670 OPS, .294 wOBA, 85 wRC+)

Are those 2nd half numbers fantastic?  No, but for a shortstop batting 8th in the lineup they're not outrageous either.  Coupled with his fantastic defense, rated 2nd overall to the aforementioned Ryan, that would be a pretty nice shortstop.  Even with his wretched bat last year, Barmes still put up a 1.7 WAR, so with his 2nd half numbers he would have been a 2.5 to 3.0 WAR player.  Not too shabby.

If Barmes would have put up his 2nd half numbers during the whole year, Barmes would have placed somewhere around 14th in the neighborhood of Rafael Furcal's .264/.325/.346 (.298 wOBA, 87 wRC+).  There wouldn't have been nearly the same amount of complaining.

I think Barmes is going to be more comfortable in his role this year and have a whole year more representative of what he did in the 2nd half.  And that will surely make the year go a little more smoother.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Pittsburgh Taco Truck

The most interesting experiences are when you start out thinking things are going to go one way and end up completely different.  Originally, I planned to stop by the Pittsburgh Taco Truck (parked outside Cafe Buddha on Perry Highway), say hi to the owner James, and grab some tacos to take home for DB~ and I.  She was going to get home at 7 pm and it was 5:30, so I thought I would chit chat for a few minutes.

There was one customer in front of me, so after his order was given out, James and I talked for a few minutes.  He asked if I wanted to come in and see the truck.  Of course!

James packed a lot into a small space.  There's a solar-powered cooler that holds his vegetables and some meats.  Of course, the main space is occupied by griddle cooktop and a couple of burners.  The other side has the counter space and a cool zone for the quarter pans (salsa, avocado cream, cheese, kimchi) and a gas-fed warm zone for the prepared ground meat and jerk chicken.

James bought the Taco Truck, which was his second as he bought and refurbished one in 2010, and rebuilt it for nearly a year.  He worked all throughout the food industry and did catering on the side, until he decided to go for it and open up in January of this year.

At about 5:50, it started to get busy as three cars pulled in succession.  I didn't want to just sit there and watch him work, so I just took off my jacket and washed my hands.  I watched him make the Americano taco (seasoned ground meat, cheese, homemade salsa), the jerk chicken taco (jerked chicken and avocado cream), and the special curried potato (green curried potatoes, chipotle cream), so I figured I could handle those ones.

Above is the jerk chicken taco....

One suggestion for James -- some chopped cilantro bounced on top of the tacos would complete the taste.

People didn't just order 1 taco and go.  They were ordering 2-4 tacos, one couple got 6, and I thought an extra pair of hands would help out.  When I got on line, James looked at me like Brick Tamland did when Veronica Corningstone did the news:

He just wasn't used to having someone help out.

James handled the cooking of the steak and flounder, plus the grilling of the tortillas.  I did the line prepped meats and toppings.  During the 1 hour that I worked, James probably sold 20 tacos.  The Cafe Buddha location has been very good to him, so he's not actively looking to move around much.  He's building a following there -- lots of repeat customers, in addition to plenty of new people.  He was working until 8 pm tonight and then going down to Bar Marco in the Strip at 9 pm until the food runs out.

Above is the flounder one with the smear of guacamole on the bottom.  The flounder was skillet sauteed in butter with some cherry tomatoes.

I give James a lot of credit for following his dream and jumping off the cliff while building the hang glider on the way down.  He has a lot of technique in the kitchen an finesses a ton of flavors out of a small space.  Stop by and check him out in the North Hills, follow him on Twitter and Facebook.  Who knows -- maybe you'll see me working the line sometime.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Resurrect Dead - Movie Review

Last month, I wrote up the presence of a Toynbee Tile in downtown Pittsburgh.  Urban mysteries fascinate me, so we rented Resurrect Dead via Netflix.  It's a documentary of these three guys obsessed with solving the mystery of who created the tiles and if he was still alive.

While the text on the Toynbees indicates a potentially mentally unstable person, the lead guy in the documentary also seems to be wrestling with his own demons of obsession too.   The other two guys were a garden variety dork and nerd (my people).  Together this nerd troika pieced together a 1983 Philadelphia Inquirer interview, a snippet from a David Mamet play, a Larry King interview, interviews with ham radio operators, on site viewings of hundreds of tiles across the United States (and sharing views of tiles in Chile and elsewhere in South America) to get to South 9th Street in Philadelphia.

At this specific address, they found evidence of a hermit who walled himself off from society -- literally, he put plywood on his windows and ran a 1 inch diameter metal bar through his door as an extra deadbolt.  Interviews with his neighbors, humorous by themselves, revealed that "Sevy" (short for Severino) used to drive his car around at night and broadcast his manifestos that would come through their TV's.  He also had no floorboards in the passenger side of his car -- perfect for surreptitiously laying tiles in urban settings at night.

But they never interviewed Sevy himself to confirm it, even with all the evidence they had, so it is still technically "unsolved".  Sometimes the people chasing the mystery are as odd as the subject they are chasing.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Fall of the Yankee Empire

Sometimes when you're caught in a tidal wave, it's hard to lose perspective that an end is in sight.  It can't last forever.  Nothing does.  It sure seemed like The Yankee Empire (trademark pending) was going to last forever, but in recent years there have been signs that it is on the fade.  The year 2012 accelerated that point.

Every great empire has a strong leader (most of the time a dictator or a series of dictators) and the Yankees were no exception.  The first chink in the armor for them occurred on July 13, 2010 when George Steinbrenner died.  Steinbrenner ruled the Yankees with an iron fist and from the mid-90's to his passing they were not allowed to lose under his watch.  Prior to his death, his influence started to wane and his sons gradually took over control.  After his passing, Hank assumed the majority of control over the franchise.

Meddling still occurred (the phrase "to meddle" is probably on the Steinbrenner coat of arms), such as when Rafael Soriano was signed against GM Brian Cashman's wishes.  Plus the Alex Rodriguez re-up in 2007, after he opted out of a contract scheduled to run until 2010, reeked of interference from the ownership.  Especially the part with bonus clauses for certain home run milestones.

But by and large, spending has been restrained under the reign of Prince Hank.  Since 2010, the only long term deals of note under his watch were the re-signing of CC Sabathia (a decent enough deal for a top of the rotation pitcher) and the re-signing of franchise icon Derek Jeter (3 year - $51M from 2011 to 2013).  Heck, the Yankees even engaged in a salary dump with the Pirates by picking up about half of AJ Burnett's contract in exchange for 2 players that will never see the majors most likely (Diego Moreno and Exicardo Cayones).

The most major fissure in the Yankees empire though were two independent, yet related, events that happened in 2012.  The first was the sale of the Dodgers in May to the Guggenheim Group for $2 billion dollars.  Immediately, the Dodgers started throwing money around everywhere.  They traded for  nearly every bad contract on the Red Sox and tossed huge dollars to international players like Yasiel Puig and Hyun-Jin Ryu.  The second event was every story during the deadline and the offseason of 2012 involving the phrase "Yankees trying to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold for 2014".  This caused them to largely stay out of free agency this past offseason.  When they did dabble, it was mainly for 1 year deals.

The Yankees have a very old team.  Most of the time that means experienced, but in this case it also means that players are exiting their peaks and getting injury prone.  A-Rod recently got caught (again) to a PED scandal.  The Yankees are quietly trying to get out of the remaining 5 years and $114M they owe him by saying that his 2nd hip operation in 3 years may end his career.  If that happens, insurance will theoretically pick up 85% of the cost, which means they will owe him about $16M.  Most importantly, though, they get to take his approximately $23M/year off their payroll for luxury tax purposes in the retirement scenario.  Of course, that only works if A-Rod actually, you know, retires.  He defiantly denied involvement with the Biogenesis clinic and said he is working hard to come back in 2013 to continue playing.

The Yankees have 3 mega contracts on the books after 2013 -- Texeira, Rodriguez, and Sabathia.  Texeira is also on the downslope and on the books through 2016 at $23.125M/year.  Sabathia is still effective and on the books through 2016 at $23M/year (with a vesting option for 2017).  Jeter has a player option for $8M in 2014, so it's hard to see him turning that down, but $8M to the Yanks is not that much.

The Yankees will need to decide about the future of Robinson Cano after 2013.  It makes sense that the Yankees will sign him, as he is their top hitter, but it is not inconceivable that the Dodgers swoop in and grab him in free agency.  Curtis Granderson is also a free agent, but with his age and declining skills the Yankees won't make much effort to re-sign him.

The Yankees don't have much in the way of replacements at the AA and AAA level to immediately replace players after 2013, either.  The Yankees were banking on a wave of pitching led by Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos, and Michael Pineda, but all three have dealt with significant injuries and/or ineffectiveness.  The Yankees do have some potential impact hitters in the form of Mason Williams, Gary Sanchez, and Tyler Austin but all of them will probably spend the majority of 2013 at High A and not be ready for the 2014 season when some of these free agents depart.

With less and less high quality players reaching free agency during their peak years, it's hard to imagine the Yankees reloading for the 2014 season (when they want to stay under the $189M threshold) via free agency.  It's possible that Cashman uses players like Austin, Williams, and Sanchez in trades to accelerate the process by trading for younger major league players with multiple years of control.  But realistically, it seems as if there may be some lean non-playoff years after 2013.  With the rise of the Blue Jays and the continued success of the Rays, it's even possible that the Yankees have some losing seasons while they rebuild-but-don't-say-rebuild.  The last losing season for the Yankees was 1992 -- the mirror image of the last Pirates winning season.

The Yankees are in the largest media market and are willing to spend huge amounts of money, but they are no longer the top of the heap in baseball.  There may be some lean days ahead of them.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Bubba's Burghers (misspell intentional)

It's always the live somewhere, life is the same and never changes.  Then you move away and something cool happens.  Case in point -- DB~ lived in Bridgeville for 7 years and I drove down to visit her for 2 of those years.  And then 1 year after she left (to live with me in blessed union and bliss), a decent restaurant opened up 2 minutes from her old place.

The place in question is Bubba's Burghers.  It's owned by that goofball radio personality -- Bubba -- so I was a little suspicious of the quality going into dinner last night.  Especially after reading online his bizzarely fashioned introduction on his menu.

It's tough to break into the burger discussion in Bridgeville with a heavyweight contender such as Sauce right up the street.  But let me say this....I think Bubba's has better burgers.  Sauce may have better sides and accoutrements, but they may take the silver medal for burgers.

DB~, in her ever-so-slow quest to shift to full vegetarian, went with a Fresh Burgher, but chose chicken instead of ground meat.  It was topped with a slab of fresh mozzarella cheese and balsamic soaked tomatoes.  Her burger (burgher -- ugh, I hate intentional misspellings, no matter if they are playing off of Pittsburgh) was served with a side of sweet potato fries and topped with their Mesquite salt rub.  DB~ found the spiced salt a little too much for her delicate (!) palette.

I went with the N'Awlins Burgher.  Am I a sucker for anything even remotely New Orleans related?  Probably.  But this was an excellent choice.  It had a Cajun spice rub, chipotle mayo, blue cheese, tomato, and lettuce, plus two strips of crisp bacon.  Mine came with regular fries with the spiced salt.  It was a touch too salty, as I was draining glasses of water.  The waitress said you can order them plain if you like.

The interior was a touch boring.  The walls were a deep red and golden yellow -- ketchup and mustard? -- but had very little interesting decorations on them aside from a couple of kitschy framed items.  As with most places I'm going lately, each entree seemed $1 or $2 too high (both of our burgers were $10.99), but perhaps I'm just getting old and crotchety.

In the end, I would definitely recommend Bubba's if you find yourself on Washington Pike outside Bridgeville.