June 29, 2011

Shake Shack - New York City, NY

I had about three hours to kill in Upper West Side Manhattan before I could check into my hotel on my first day in New York City. The first order of business was to get lunch, since I had been up since 4:00am and hadn't actually eaten all day. Fortunately, I was on Columbus street, which was lined with great restaurants. Unfortunately, I spent almost every penny I had on airfare and a hotel room so I couldn't actually afford to eat at most of them. I had done a bit of research on cheap meals before I left and opted to walk to the Shake Shack.

The Shake Shack is a modern-day "roadside" burger stand, offering the American roadside classics of burgers, hot dogs, fries and shakes. It was an instant hit when it first opended in Madison Square, with both local and tourist patrons willing to line up and wait. Even with additional locations, there is still usually a wait and often the line goes out the door. The Shake Shack is a chain restaurant, something I usually avoid on trips, but it got its start in New York City so it seemed an acceptable choice in spite of that. It has locations in New York City, Saratoga Springs, Miami, Westport, Washington D.C., and surprisingly the Middle East. (That one confuses me. They'll take their delicious burgers across the ocean to the Middle East but not to Middle America where I wait with bated stomach?).

One my first of two trips to the Shake Shack, I got the traditional cheeseburger and fries. At first, I didn't get what the big deal was. I mean, it's a burger! In New York. How on earth did they expect to compete with my burger palate that had been trained by decades of eating beef that was raised just down the road? Well, it was good. Really, really good. I don't think it was exactly the best burger I ever had but it was definitely worth the wait. The meat patty is hand formed by a butcher, which gave it that fresh rather than machine process taste that you get at most fast food burger joints. The potato bun was also grilled, which gave it a great burger-to-bun ratio but also gave it something fresh and wonderful to soak up the meaty juices.

On my second trip, I opted for the New York Dog, a hotdog with saurkraut. (For the record, hot dogs should always be served with saurkraut. Always. Anyone who says otherwise has no taste buds.) The steamed potato bun was perfect and definitely an improvement over the soggy, white, processed buns you get from roadside hotdog stands in the city. The hot dog itself was also great. I ate a hot dog later from a stand during my trip and found myself wondering what exactly I was eating. Because it really didn't taste like a hot dog is supposed to. At the Shake Shack, there was no questioning - it is premium Vienna all-beef hot dog. And the saurkraut was great, the cabbage was crunchy instead of soggy and it had the most wonderful sour, acidic flavor that perfectly complimented the grilled flavor of the hot dog.

So I learned my lesson. Don't eat a hot dog in New York City from one of the sidewalk stands. Do it right and get it from the Shake Shack, because that's how a New York Dog is supposed to taste.

This joins other food blog articles posted in Wanderfood Wednesdays on Wanderlust and Lipstick. Check them out!


June 28, 2011

Park 79 Hotel - New York City, NY

Getting to New York City was not as easy as I imagined. I woke up at 4:00 a.m. after a long night of packing to make sure I got to the airport on time and didn't actually arrive at my hotel until somewhere around noon. Only then to be told that I couldn't check into my room until 3:00pm. So the trip began with hurried exhaustion followed by exhausted waiting. Luckily, they allowed me to check my bags so I could go galavanting in my half-awake state around the Upper West Side.

Staying at the Park 79 Hotel was actually great, it is definitely an ideal place to stay for anyone looking for a hotel in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It is literally across the street from the American Museum of Natural History and Central Park, so I was close to some great attractions. It was also just off Columbus street, which is lined with wonderful restaurants. In particular, it was close to World Coffee that was a great place to grab my morning cup of coffee with some decent pastries (not exactly the greatest in the city, but definitely it hits a spot in the morning). One block up is Amsterdam with great bars and a block up from that is Broadway with some great stores, including one of my mother's favorites, Filene's Basement.

Transportation was also easy. It is just off Columbus, where you can usually catch a cab within five minutes. And for those taking the subway, it is just about a block or two away from a train station.

The hotel room was nice, although tiny. And I mean really tiny - it was easily smaller than my freshman year dorm room. But for the price and for Manhattan, it was very accomodating. There was enough room for the dresser and the bed, with a small bathroom inside. The bathroom was greatly appreciated because many places I was looking to stay required patrons to share...something I wasn't exactly comfortable with. The service was also wonderful. Any time I had a question about the amenities or finding a cab, they were happy to answer.

If I have any complaints, it is one small one. That is the slowest, hottest elevator I have ever been in. It was one of those antique jobs that moves at a glacial place. There was enough room for one or two people, maybe for one to swing their arms, but not much more than that. And as we climbed the floors to my room at the top, I began to seriously fear that it would stop and I would be trapped in the tiny gold and mirror plated coffin for the rest of my trip. It never happened, but I held my breath for the entire five minutes it took to go up or down.


June 16, 2011

Road Trip Memories - My Four Trips to New York City

I have been to New York City four times in my life. The most recent will be this weekend to attend the wedding of my friend Joel and his wonderful fiance Aubrae, who I have mentioned on this blog before. In the course of planning this trip, I was eager to use some free time to visit some new places and re-visit some places I have been before, like Central Park. But I also want to share with you a little bit about who I was when I took those trips. It is a necessary context because who I was then and who I am now will affect how I view the City that Never Sleeps.

First Trip to New York City:
My first trip was in the 7th Grade on a school trip. I was incredibly eager because I believed it would offer me a glimpse into the future life I was destined to lead. My family had always known I would leave Tulsa. They said it was in my blood. When my grandmother (my father's mother) had turned 18 she left Yates Center, Kansas and moved to Omaha, Nebraska. Why Omaha? Because she didn't know anyone there. When my father turned 18, he left Nebraska and moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma. When I turned 18, everyone assumed I would leave and go to some place where I didn't know anyone. And they were right. I moved to Chicago because it was a big city and I didn't know anyone there.

My visit to the city was organized as any school children's trip would be organized: visits to all the major landmarks and museums, little time for us to get ourselves into trouble (although we managed to do so anyway), and a few brilliant surprises such as chance encounters with movie stars. I'll share with a few of those stories in the coming weeks.

Second Trip to New York City:
My second visit was in high school. My friend Katy had moved to New York City to attend Columbia University. She was living the dream in my mind. With several high school friends, I flew to New York City to party like I believed people partied in the city. We slept on her dorm floor, literally taking up every little bit of floor space that was available. It's funny, but this is the trip I remember the least. There are only three events I remember clearly from this trip: (1) Cutting my finger with a spoon (yes, I really did that), (2) Going to see one of the early off-Broadway performances of "I Am My Own Wife" before it won the Pulitzer Prize, and (3) A friend who was with us getting drunk and speaking only in Spanish for the remainder of the night. Why is this trip the most unclear in my mind? I don't know. Maybe it was because I was being guided by a friend who lived in New York. I was seeing New York as she saw it, not entirely through my own eyes.

Third Trip to New York City:
My second trip was as a sophomore in college. With my friends MirMir and Bess, I went to New York City as cheaply as possible. We flew to Philadelphia and got a ride to Newark, Delaware where we spent a few days with MirMir's family. Then we took a bus to New York City and took a room in a dilapidated YMCA by Central Park. We weren't really interested in seeing the Statute of Liberty, our sightseeing adventures were a little different. We had an Italian dinner in Little Italy and a drink at the White Horse Tavern where Dylan Thomas went gentle into that good night. We spent most of the trip pretending we were in a fake goth rock band called "Meanwhile Back in Communist Russia..." and had very loud conversations about our non-existent drummer we were kicking out of the band and our debut album "The Mexican Icepick" on the subway. (Get it? The Mexican Icepick?)

It was an amazing trip of three girls play-acting at being interesting. I wasn't sure who I really was then, but loved being in a big city where I could try on different identities. A melancholy bassist in a goth rock band, an aspiring writer lingering in the bookstore where Jhumpa Lahiri shops, or a heavy drinker who could keep up with Dylan Thomas if he hadn't already succumb to his eighteenth whiskey. I was all of them and I was none of them. I was everyone I imagined I could be because I had no idea who I really was.

Fourth Trip to New York City:
My fourth trip to New York City is as an adult. This is also my first time traveling to New York City alone, probably because it is the first time I am mature enough to contemplate the difficulties of traveling alone in a big city. I found a nice little hotel on the Upper West Side, near where the ceremony would be. I planned some activities for my free time, mapped out subway routes, and calculated taxi fares. It is a trip I have planned and prepared for, something I haven't done on my previous trips. Most likely because I didn't know how and didn't know what I wanted. But this time, I do. On this time to New York, I am going as a whole person. I am not anticipating a future I still can't see clearly or experimenting with identities. I know who I am this time around. So does that make New York City a different place now? I don't know yet. I'll have to wait and see.


June 14, 2011

The Green Monster – Topeka, KS

St. Gregory Apartments, a.k.a. the Green Monster, is a notorious eight-story building in Topeka, so-named for the hideous shade of green it has been painted. I’m sure when the building was first designed someone thought it would be fresh and cheery to have a minty green apartment building in downtown Topeka. But over time, the green tiles that cover the building’s sides have become more of a pus green than mint.

Despite the name and the sickly color of the exterior, it remains in active use. The lobby is the Disability Rights Center of Kansas while the upper floors are apartments. I went to an apartment on the fifth floor once and was immediately horrified by the smells. At one end of the hall, I could smell fried chicken. At the other end of the hall, I could smell something rotting, like a dead body. It was the most disconcerting combination of smells ever. I can understand an apartment hallway that smells like cooking flesh or a hallway that smells like rotting flesh…but both? That suggests nothing good in my mind.

And in all probability, there really could have been a dead body there. The Green Monster has been the site of numerous crimes, including murder. An article on a January 2011 murder in the building was met with anything but surprise and prompted the journalists to recount some of the more notorious past crimes committed there, including multiple murders and the brutal “stomping” that left a man with brain damage in 2007. Some people in Topeka have called for the building to be torn down or at least painted (maybe something about the hideous shade of green inspires some kind of criminal inclination in people nearby?) Maybe the building itself is out to get people. On at least one occasion, a tile fell off the side of the building and landed on a truck in the parking lot below.

I’ve heard the Green Monster wasn’t always a monster, of course. Once it was a popular building where government offices could be run in the lobby while government and political employees could occupy the suites on the upper floors. But something happened. Maybe it was when the shade of green began to shift from sweet to sickly. Maybe it was one when the tiles started to fall off the siding and crush the cars below. Maybe it was the smell. I don’t know. But the Green Monster continues to stand, inspiring confusion and maybe a little fear in the people of Topeka.

Total Time Traveled: 1 hour
Total Distance Traveled: 55 miles
Soundtrack: "Sainthood" Tegan and Sara

Photo Source


June 8, 2011

Road Trip Philosophy - Why I Love Diners

No matter where I travel, I always look for the same place to eat - the All-American Diner. It is something so quintessentially perfect for a road trip. You pull off the road when you see the sign, usually a name and followed by apostrophe s, like Mikey's or Linda's (I always wonder if the name is a real person, or just a persona created for the atmosphere). The menus are always laminated but still slightly stained by customers who have come before. At least one item of the menu is always designated as world-famous, some claim to fame to entice diners although they never say how that acclaim was achieved.

The diner coffee is always good. (My friends and I had a theory it was because the coffee pots were always old.) Coffee is diners is not just a road trip staple, it is also something uniquely American. When the country was first beginning to rebel against England, drinking coffee became an act of American independence. When the English began taxing tea in America...well, you know the story of the Boston Tea Party and so on. Suffice it to say that as Americans began to reject tea as English, many of the country's first patriots began to prefer coffee. (Coffee has always been a bit of a rabblerouser. In the 17th century, Ottoman Sultan Murad IV banned coffee because he believed drinking it led people to question his rule. Supposedly, he roamed the streets with an executioner and beheaded anyone he saw drinking coffee.)

It's not just me who has a passion for diners. Movies, music, and television shows featuring road trips inevitably focus on the old, dusty diner where weary travelers can stop for a bite to eat and a strong cup of coffee. There's Katz's Deli where Rob Reiner's mother ordered what Sally was having in When Harry Met Sally. There's Olive ordering her waffles a la mode, because even pageant girls eat ice cream, in Little Miss Sunshine. Or the intricate discussion of tipping during the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs. Actually, I think Quentin Tarentino's films have particularly latched on to the mystique of the diner. Most of his films feature diners as prominent locations for important scenes. Pulp Fiction had the 50's themed diner with a $5 milkshake and a dance contest as well as the Hawthorne Grill where Honey-Bunny and Pumpkin tried to hold-up customers. Whenever someone makes a movie or writes a song about a road trip, there always is some mention of that diner in the middle of nowhere for wayward wanderers to stop.

It's not just about the coffee or the mystique of diners - it's also about the food. I love diner food. There is nothing better than a good plate of runny eggs with bacon and hash browns (as I've said before and will say again). Although everyone has a preferred diner meal. For some its french toast or maybe pancakes. Others might steer away from breakfast food (although I have no idea why) and go for the other diner classics like a burger and fries or chicken fried steak. But there's a sense of comfort to the traveler when she stops at a diner in a place she has never been and is able to find something on the menu that feels comfortable and homey.

Perhaps that is the best thing about diners - no matter where we are, they always provide sense of home through a familiar meal.

Throughout my travels, I've been to plenty of diners. Some have been great and some have been awful. One in Chicago gave me food poisoning. Twice. But no matter where you travel in this country, there will always be a great roadside diner with a cup of coffee, some world famous dish to offer, and a laminated menu with decade-old ketchup stains.

This joins other food blog articles posted in Wanderfood Wednesdays on Wanderlust and Lipstick. Check them out!


June 7, 2011

Road Trip Music - Cue the Theme Music Playlist

The last month has been extremely difficult for me. Between two weeks of final exams and starting new jobs, there have been some mornings as I drive to school or work that I'm just not sure I can make it through another day. That's when its time to cue the theme music. When I was in high school, my friends and I had those songs we would play as loud as possible in the car just to get our spirits up. Our favorite was "Minority" by Green Day. We always felt better about life as we shouted the lyrics out the window.

As I've gotten older, I still have theme music that I love to yell out the window. And so to get me through these past several weeks, I made a playlist to keep my spirits up.

"Cue the Theme Music" Playlist
  1. "Don't Stop Believin'" Journey
  2. "Carry On My Wayward Son" Kansas
  3. "Free Bird" Lynard Skynard
  4. "You Give Love a Bad Name" Bon Jovi
  5. "Gimmee Three Steps" Lynard Skynard
  6. "Smoke on the Water" Deep Purple
  7. "All My Life" Foo Fighters
  8. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" Nirvana
  9. "Cold Hard B****" Jet
  10. "Back in Black" AC/DC
  11. "Whole Lotta Love" Led Zepplin
  12. "Don't Fear the Reaper" Blue Oyster Cult
  13. "Simple Kind of Man" Lynard Skynard
  14. "You Can't Always Get What You Want" Rolling Stones


June 2, 2011

Artificial Cloud Sculpture - Tulsa, OK

Near the Center of the Universe, that site of spirituality and acoustic ingenuity, is a more depressing historical monument called the "Artificial Cloud" by Robert Haozous. The steel sculpture is a commentary on the destruction of society by technology. The material itself illustrates the destruction. The 72.5 foot sculpture is made of untreated steel that corrodes overtime, allowing the sculpture to fully articulate its message over time.

The long, center section features humans without hands among airplanes and rises to a point with a cloud on top.When I was younger, I though the artificial cloud referred to the atomic bomb. The rising cloud and sky full of planes depicted on the base made me believe the sculpture referred to the devastation wrought by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I have since learned the warning had nothing to do with foreign bombings, but rather referred to destruction must closer to home.

The statute actually refers to the effect of technology on American society. The statute represents the history of Native Americans subjugation after their first contact with the west. The human figures without hands are the Native Americans and then the sky filling with airplanes as technology continues to overtake the indigenous way of life. The cloud is the threatened hope for the future.

The lower base of the statute has shackles that are meant to symbolize the shackles placed on Native Americans during the early years of the nation. However, that is not a commonly known fact in Tulsa. Actually, most people think that the shackles are actually rings and supposedly banging them will have supernatural results. There are many urban legends about what clanging the steel rings at a certain time will do and sometimes at night you will see someone ringing them, though for what purpose I don't know.

It is interesting to me that a sculpture so incredibly meaningful does not have a well known meaning in Tulsa. As I said, I believed it referred to the atomic bomb for most of my life, until I recently began doing research on the sculpture for my latest trip to Tulsa. Also that a symbol of subjugation - the shackles - should become part of a silly mystical urban legend. Part of me wonders what the artist would think that even with the technology available to find the true meaning, his commentary on technology itself seems to be largely recognized.

Total Time Traveled: 9 hours
Total Distance Traveled: 522 miles
Soundtrack: "Cue the Theme Music" Playlist