Monday, September 21, 2009

St. Louis Baseball & Barbecue

The last time I was in St. Louis was 2005, to see the Cardinals play their final season in old Busch Stadium. My former colleague and longtime friend Thom is originally from The Gateway to the West, and we had a blast together on that weekend trip four years ago, watching baseball, touring the Anheuser-Busch brewery, and finding the best hole-in-the-wall barbecue joints in the city. Thom's mother and brother still live there, and they were gracious enough to host us on this trip as they did previously.

Our first stop was a barbecue place in midtown St. Louis Thom had read about called Pappy's Smokehouse, and it's been featured on various food-related television programs. After perusing the menu, we decided on the "Adam Bomb," named after Adam Richman, the host of "Man vs. Food" on the Travel Channel. Consisting of a full rack of ribs, a quarter barbecued chicken, a pulled pork sandwich, a beef brisket sandwich, a Frito Pie with smoked sausage, cole slaw, baked beans, deep-fried corn-on-the-cob, and sweet potato fries, let's just say that it was a good sampling of everything on Pappy's menu. After pounding most of that down, we rolled out the door and over to Busch Stadium. Unfortunately, the Cardinals lost an odd 1-0 pitchers' duel to Atlanta, and we headed back to Richmond Heights and Thom's mom's home.

The next morning Thom and I headed to a famous Richmond Heights restaurant for an early lunch. Carl's is one of those places that seems like it's been around forever; when we were in there, a group of men were watching the Missouri football game on TV and just shootin' the breeze like they've probably done every year for the past 20. As for the food, Carl's is known for its hot pastrami, and it didn't disappoint. Thom and I each had a hot pastrami sandwich, his on a kaiser roll, mine on rye, and coupled with a Fitz cream soda, we had a perfect pre-game meal for the Cardinals' Saturday matinee.

However, when we got to the stadium, my camera battery died, having neglected to charge it the night before. So we walked over to a nearby parking garage, and wonder of wonders, found an active power outlet on an exterior wall where I could do a quick recharge. From that same vantage point, we had a great view of the exterior of Busch, complete with a front rotunda similar to that on Brooklyn's old Ebbets Field and Queens' current CitiField in New York. But there's an awful lot of red brick inside and out, which tends to diminish its effectiveness. The view from the stadium is spectacular, with both the Arch and dome of City Hall visible beyond the outfield walls, and St. Louis has some of the best baseball fans I've ever been around - it's no wonder players love playing for the Cardinals. But unfortunately, the Redbirds lost a second consecutive game to the Braves (they would sweep St. Louis the next day) and we headed home.

My longtime high school friend Kelly, with whom I reconnected at our 20-year reunion several months ago, also having gone to school in St. Louis, recommended we go to the Italian section of town called "The Hill" for dinner that night, and advised us to try the toasted ravioli. So off to Mama Campisi's we went, not only Thom and I, but his mother and brother as well. The toasted ravioli was as good as advertised, but I loved the neighborhood location even more. All too often, restaurants are sequestered in strip malls and shopping centers, and are devoid of any unique charm or personality. Mama Campisi's was literally shoehorned into an actual residential neighborhood, bordered by homes, an American Legion hall, and an Italian deli. No parking lot, no fancy faux entrance, just a solid, simple building with great food; unfortunately, a dying breed across America . . .

So after a full dinner, we drove over to one of the landmark St. Louis eateries, Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, for dessert. Not knowing what to expect, I was stunned to find a full double parking lot and huge crowd standing out front of the walk-up stand. Service was amazingly fast, and the four of us got a variety of frozen concoctions. Thom had a pistachio custard and I got a "Concrete," vanilla custard with bananas and Reese's peanut butter cups mixed in. Needless to say, I was ready to burst by the time I finished it, but when in Rome . . .

I flew home the next day; Thom would stay for a few more days. But there's just something about the Midwest. Maybe it's a simpler lifestyle, free from the superficiality so often found on both coasts. Maybe the people are just nicer, but whatever "it" is, I always enjoy being there, at least for a visit.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Lake Elsinore with Friends Old and New

I should preface that heading by saying that my friend Cori is most certainly NOT old, nor would I even dream of implying such a thing. But when you were in the same kindergarten class way back in 19-(mumble, mumble) and continued in the same classes through elementary, junior high, and high school, I would say that she qualifies as an old friend.

It is rather remarkable, that even though we hadn't seen each other since high school graduation, we talked and laughed like we used to when Cori sat behind me in English. . . . except we got in trouble back then . . . but I digress.

Cori was kind enough to bring her son Chris, his friend Drake, and her sister-in-law Jen to our mini-reunion; we all met at the Lake Elsinore Diamond to watch the hometown Storm (Class-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres) take on the San Jose Giants. We tailgated before the game, and Cori, Jen, Chris and Drake were all very complimentary of the pepper jack-stuffed burgers topped with caramelized onions . . . I know that I certainly would have turned my nose up at such non-traditional fare when I was 10, so props to both boys for tucking in with such gusto.

The game was rather uneventful, as was the stadium, with the exception of the wireframe statues at the front entrance. They were a little hard to photograph, especially at dusk, but were a nice artistic addition to what's a rather bland little field. What was spectacular though, was the moonrise over the mountains of the San Bernardino National Forest beyond the right field wall - you can see it peeking over the top of the mountain just below the middle light standard in the panoramic photo at the top (click on the photo to enlarge it).

So many thanks to Cori, not only for the tickets, but for introducing me to Jen and the boys . . . and also for all the laughter. It's amazing, that after graduating from high school in a time without cell phones, e-mail, or even the internet in general, we can reconnect and pick up right where we left off.