Tuesday, July 24, 2007

On The Road

I intend to read Death of a Salesman when I get a chance. I'm hoping that it will give me extra material to joke about.

I'm in the middle of my third week in a row on the road. Two weeks ago I was in Columbus, OH, enjoying a Linux System Administration class. Last week found me in Mountain View, CA, dealing with (what was for me) a significantly more grueling Linux System Administration and Networking class. I have restaurant reviews from both places, and they will be posted shortly.

This week has been a dream come true for me. I have finally made it to Baltimore, MD, home of Charm City Cakes and the great Duff Goldman. I've been wanting to drive downtown all week and stalk the bakery, but I'm torn by professional curiosity and common courtesy.

I'm teaching a Linux Essentials class this week, and my class is great. Have I ever had a bad class? Well, not just yet. I'm sure it's on the way. For now I have 10 students, most of which really are newbies that just need to get up to speed. Almost half of them are getting ready to get RHCE certification, and I've been trying to give them the most generic advice I can without revealing anything so specific about the test that Red Hat would be mad at me. Since they're still working on internalizing file permissions and ownerships, I think it may be a while before they're ready. But I think they're driven, and are going to be certified sooner than later.

On the flight out, I was reading Nasty Bits by Anthony Bourdain, which is a collection of short writings that he has done for magazines, etc. He mentioned the hallmarks of a restaurant or restaurant chain that is doomed for failure, or at the very least, is to be avoided at all costs. Little did I know that I would so immediately become familiar with exactly what he was talking about.

The thing that I remember most is a menu's inability to maintain any sort of cohesion. If you see spaghetti and sweet and sour chicken together on the same menu, there may be a problem. Maybe a place really can handle Italian and Chinese food well. I don't believe the China Dragon in Jessup, MD is one of these places. No, they didn't have spaghetti on the menu. But they did have a variety of hoagies, burgers and even two types of "Philly cheesesteak" on the menu. Most of these came with optional French fries or fried rice. One entire wall was plastered with more types of Latin phone cards for sale than I had ever seen in one place in my life. Most of the floor behind the counter was occupied by cases of 20 oz soda bottles, and I could see an entire wall full of empty boxes in the back room, many of which said "Subway" on the side.

I played it safe with the sweet and sour chicken. Or, at least I thought I was playing it safe. My chicken looked okay, but lacked any flavor or seasoning. A quick dip in the accompanying cup of sweet and sour sauce didn't help. This place obviously doesn't use MSG. Or salt. Or any other seasoning that would make anything taste even remotely good. The fried rice looked days old, and tasted even old. Again, seasoning was void. The egg roll was the least disappointing thing I was served, which is not to say it was on par with any other egg roll I've ever had. Ever.

I could feel my arteries tightening before I even got halfway through, and I ended up throwing an embarassing amount of food away. My only consolation was that by disposing of this food even while there are starving children in third world countries, I probably saved at least one life. Most notably, my own.

The next day I decided to check out a pizza joint in the same shopping center. I'm not sure what confuses me more, a pizza joint called Santa Lucia (not the most Italian name I've heard in my life) or the fact that their largely Italian menu also includes both lamb and chicken gyros. The place was clean (both of waste and customers), but I counted at least 6 employees behind the counter. The one who tried to help me didn't look Hispanic or Italian. In fact, he looked just a little Greek. All of his coworkers that I could see looked like they hailed from Latin America. After the (possibly) Greek guy failed to understand any of my questions, a very European-looking man with a killer tan came out and took my order. I'm 99% certain he was the owner. I have yet to place his accent, and I'm still not sure of his exact nationality.

He took my order (pepproni pizza and jalapeno poppers), chastised the first guy for getting it wrong ("you need to start thinking!"), and started working on it. I asked him for a menu to take with me, hoping to understand them a little bit better. It displayed a very prominent logo with a man in very traditional Greek clothing standing between two doric columns and eating a slice of pizza. It was emblazened with the words, "Santa Lucia Pizzaria". I haven't been this confused since I saw the end of No Way Out (how does Kevin Costner keep getting work?).

The pizza was, well, okay. I didn't finish it. I put the leftovers in the fridge and nuked it for breakfast. I still didn't finish it. The jalapeno poppers were good, but nothing to write home about. But I didn't feel that I was in danger of food poisoning, so I decided to try a test today. I ordered a pizza stromboli and a lamb gyro, intending to compare. I find it difficult to believe that any non-Italians can make a really killer stromboli, or that any non-Greeks could make a really awesome Gyro.

The stromboli was an improvement over the pizza, but I've had better. Much better. The gyro was really good. In fact, it was almost as good as I could get at the Greek Souvlaki in Salt Lake. If I don't make it to downtown Baltimore, I may make their gyro my staple for the rest of the week. The problem is, I know it's not their recipe. They had two posters up advertising a name-brand gyro that I've seen all over Salt Lake. It's just a generic (if tasty) gyro that's seems to be provided by some Greek version of SysCo.

You may be wondering why I haven't hit any really good local places yet. Honestly, I am too. My first night here, I asked the guy at the hotel's front desk where I should go eat. He directed me to turn right (as I left the parking lot), go about 2 1/2 miles past the mall, and then look for a plethora of restaurants on the right. I have yet to find a mall anywhere near my hotel (even using Google maps), and the only restaurant 2 1/2 miles down that road is a Wendys, right next to a Car Max, a grocery store, a bank, and pretty much nothing else.

With luck, I'll be able to make it downtown in the next couple of nights. I'll let you guys know.


  1. You're at /training/etc, right? The front desk has a list of local restaurants. I don't remember the name, but there's a really good Indian place not too far away. If you want to play it safe, there's also a Cheesecake Factory nearby.

  2. You need roadfood.com. The reviews seem to be a bit sparse for my neck of the woods, but then again so are decent restaurants. For the places around here which do have reviews, they've got it spot on and they're definitely worth a trip. I would expect the same is true of other locales.


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