Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Rocklands BBQ: Vegetarian Hell

I normally don't write reviews or rave about restaurants that I come across while traveling because the places that I end up eating at are usually unremarkable. There are rare exceptions to this rule and these places stand out boldly in my mind and are remembered fondly. On my recent trip to Washington, D.C. I was pleasantly surprised when I went to Rocklands BBQ on a customer recommendation.

Toward the end of my first day of work I asked for dinner recommendations. This is something that I regularly do and the results are generally mixed, sometimes I get sick, but sometimes I'm pleased beyond belief so I keep asking for recommendations from the locals. I was surprised when three of the four people I was working with suggested Rocklands almost in unison and without hesitation. Usually there is some debate on the various places that people are suggesting but with Rocklands there was no question, that was where I should go for dinner. They explained that Rocklands was a BBQ joint; I was sold.

It should be noted that I am quite fond of BBQ. I'm not fanatical about it, though I'm sure some people I know may disagree, but I do appreciate the slow cooked goodness of BBQ. It takes a lot of time and skill to properly smoke a brisket so I'm always pleased to find a place that does it right.

I will admit that when I think of Washington DC I imagine a melting pot of different cultures and foods but BBQ is not something that immediately pops to mind. This idea was changed forever that night.

After I dropped off my things at the hotel I headed up the street to where my group had told me Rocklands was located. They said to go North, past the grocery store and across from the baseball field, it would be on the left. Simple enough, I started walking. I hadn't walked a full block when I smelled the unmistakable smell of BBQ smoke. This hardwood smoky goodness becomes part of you once you eat enough BBQ, it's a magical smell. I knew that my destination was still a ways off but I couldn't help looking around for Rocklands prematurely.

I continued my walk and as I got closer the smell became stronger urging me to walk a little faster. With each step I became more and more excited at the prospects of a great meal, just based on the smell alone. Before the anticipation became too much to bare I saw it, a simple storefront that said Rocklands on the window, I stepped in.

Straight ahead was the counter, to my right stood a large communal table surrounded by stools. In the center of the table was a bucket of peanuts, a vessel to throw peanut shells into and a fairly nice selection of hot sauces. Against the window there were a few more stools and a shelf like table attached to the wall. One of the most important details that could easily be overlooked is the presence of paper towels. No napkins here, just no nonsense paper towels. I've got a theory about this:

Graham's First Rule of Paper Towels at a Restaurant
Paper Towels=Good Food

I'm sure this isn't 100% true but as I think back on places that have paper towels instead of napkins I can't think of one that I wouldn't want to go back to. Tommy's in Southern California for example has paper towels. They do serve chili burgers though so that might be part of it. Maybe I need to revise my theory a little bit:

Graham's First Rule of Paper Towels at a Restaurant (Revised)
Paper Towels=Good and Messy Food

To the left there was a wall of sauces to purchase, all kinds of hot sauces and BBQ sauces. There was one called "See Dick Burn" which had a crayon drawing of a stick man on fire running across the label, I didn't buy it. Behind the counter was the kitchen, completely built for business and full of activity. Above the kitchen was a collection of 30 or so meat cleavers of different sizes and styles hanging on the walls. Something about the utility of the humble gathering of meat cleavers struck me as wonderful. I'm not sure what it was but it made me smile. I think that the cleavers are up there as a gentle reminder of the labor that goes into good BBQ, and that we should be thankful that someone else knows how to do it so we don't have to. I love that kind of stuff.

I walked up to the counter, grabbed a menu and stood back. All the expected fare was there: Chicken, pulled pork, brisket, pork ribs, beef ribs, etc. but I didn't see the normal platter of pick 1-3 meats and 2 sides so it took me a minute to decide what I wanted. I settled on the belly buster (not pictured) which included 3 pork ribs, pulled pork, brisket, a smoked sausage and a quarter of a chicken (dark meat thank you). I figured that I could do without sides considering that this sounded like plenty of food, to drink I ordered a large sweet tea.

After a brief wait, which is never more than 8 minutes at Rocklands, I heard my name called and I claimed my food. It was a delicious pile of meat and it was beautiful. Unfortunately I didn't have my camera with me at the time. Instead of a the usual plastic dinner trays my food came on what appeared to be a 1/2 sheet baking pan. Instead of a plate on the tray was a piece of foil with the edges turned up lined with a piece of wax paper. The meat was arranged within the foil. The meal was served with a roll and some grilled onions so I guess that you could count those as sides.

It was quite a site and I started to regret not bringing my camera. This regret quickly turned to joy as I began to eat. I quickly abandoned my knife and fork, I'm not sure what I was thinking using those in the first place, and ate with my left hand leaving my right hand clean to grab my sweet tea when needed. With such a variety of meat I expected there to be a stand out in the crowd but everything was equally delicious. To be so consistent in the art of BBQ is a fairly impressive feat. I will admit that I wasn't quite as fond of the chicken as everything else but it was certainly worth trying.

I ate my meal at one of the stools against the window, I was happy to be an advertisement for Rocklands as their food was simply delicious. I noticed a father taking his children into the ice cream shop next door, I saw him hesitate slightly. I have a feeling that he wanted to come in for BBQ because I get the same feeling that I used to get going out for ice cream whenever I'm on my way to some great BBQ.

I did end up going back to Rocklands two days later, partly in order to take a picture of the food but mostly because of the excellent meal that I had enjoyed. It looks like my travel plans will have be in Washington, D.C. soon and I plan to go back once again.

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Coming Soon: 10 Usable Tips for Greener Travel

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Travel Distraction - Sock Monsters

Traveling is physically and mentally taxing. Being such I have found it a necessity to carry with me a number of travel distractions. These could be anything from a magazine to a book to a DVD. One of my favorite travel distractions is a small sewing project known as a sock monster.

A sock monster is basically what it says on the tin. It's a monster made out of old socks. This does sound quite odd but the sock monkey is has a history dating clear to the depression. It was only a matter of time before someone put old mismatched socks to a more interesting use.

That someone was John Murphy who, while attempting to make a sock monkey, made something altogether different and brilliant. You can see a lot of John's work at Stupid Creatures.

That's all well and good but what does any of this have to do with traveling? I'm getting to that. You see, John wrote a book on how to make sock monsters (Stupid Sock Creatures: Making Quirky, Lovable Figures from Cast-off Socks). My wife bought a copy of this book for my mom as a Christmas gift but before my mom got a hold of it I claimed it as my own. Along with my wife we worked through all the patterns in the book and soon began designing monsters of our own based on the fundamentals in the book.

It wasn't long after that when I got to the point where I could cut all of the pieces for a monster and I'd just need to pin them together and sew them whenever I had spare time. Since I didn't need scissors I could take a monster or two with me on a plane and work on them. After a long day of checking e-mails and teaching software it's nice to be able to do something quiet and physically constructive. I even found that I can carry all of the things I need for sewing a sock monster in an Altoids tin which makes for a robust travel case.

One of the nice things about this travel distraction is the attention that it draws. People aren't used to seeing someone sew on a plane and they are generally curious about it. They generally don't believe me when I explain it to them but when I show them the monster pictures on my camera they warm up to the idea.

After the sewing is done I can stuff and finish the monsters when I get home. The monster pictured in this post was sewn almost entirely while I was on the road. I ended up losing one of the pieces so it took me longer than normal to finish but I think it came out quite well. It is currently living with a coworker who travels as often as I do.

It is nice that this hobby is also keeping old socks from being thrown away which is nice. In the disposable society that we live in it's nice to follow in the footsteps of those that created the first sock monkeys. Making something useful and entertaining out of items that would have normally been discarded. When I give someone a sock monster as a gift they are always well received because who sews nowadays anyway?

Just in case you missed my post earlier this week you can check it out at Travel and Disaster. This was a bonus topical post in addition to my regular posting, just trying it out, don't get used to it.

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Coming Soon: Rocklands BBQ-Vegetarian Hell

Monday, September 15, 2008

Travel and Disaster

With all of the recent activity of the hurricane season system that we are currently in I've been thinking a lot about disasters and how they affect me as a traveler. On the surface disasters can change your travel plans and leave you stranded. I certainly have my share of those stories but there are also the indirect emotional effects of disasters. It's these emotional effects are what I'll be sharing with you today.

Being a frequent traveler I am fortunate in being able to visit places that I never thought that I would get to see. It's inevitable that I will visit places that have at one point or may some day in the future host a disaster, natural or man-made.

When I visit a new city I can't help becoming at least a little attached to it. Something there will stand out, the people, the culture or the buildings. I walk along the streets and get lost on the public transportation systems. I take away these experiences that are uniquely mine and in doing so I become connected to those distant locations.

These connections make disasters to a familiar location a much more emotional experience. I was in New Orleans just in April, long since Katrina had past through. I did take some time to reflect on the event while I was there and it was quite moving. When hurricane Gustav rolled through I was reminded of shops I visited, people I met and things that I did. It all comes back to me in a rush. I remember the people that live and work there, I think of them and I wonder how they handled the evacuation. I realize that I could have been there for this event if the timing had been different.

A month after the Minneapolis bridge collapse I visited a nearby university on a work assignment. From the building where I worked you could see what was left of the bridge. The site was maybe a 30 minute walk from my hotel but I didn't visit it. As interesting as it might have been I just couldn't take that walk.

I first realized that I how strong these emotional connections had become when the London Tube bombings occurred. One year prior (to the day) I was on the Tube riding it to the airport. The suddenness of the attack brought my mortality into focus and it was difficult to concentrate that day. It's a little difficult now just thinking about that day.

I understand that bad things will continue to happen to good places and to good people, but life must go on. We can't stop living, hunker down forever and become hermits. There is a great big world out there full of wonderful things, it would be a shame not to see some of them. I shall continue to travel and while doing so I shall be respectful of the past while being mindful of the the present.

Are you similarly influenced by the places that you visit? Does tragedy snap you back to streets once traveled?

Note: This was a special bonus posting and not part of the weekly post schedule. There will be another post on Wednesday as scheduled.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Hotel Room Rituals

Traveling, like the rest of life, is full of rituals. Since I've been traveling I've picked up a few interesting behaviors along the way that I figure are worth sharing. I have all kinds of rituals for different parts of travel but one of the more interesting times, as far as travel goes, is during hotel check in and the time that immediately follows. For a little more about my thoughts on rituals rituals in general you might enjoy try the first half of Shaving in Airports.

At The Front Desk

When I get to the hotel front desk I always request a room away from elevators, ice machines, washing machines and vending machines. Loyal readers know that I do love vending machines (Vending Machine Love) but the one of the rare exception to this is when I'm trying to sleep. There's nothing worse than being awoken when someone is trying get a Coke at 3 in the morning. OK, there are plenty of worse things but late night vending machine noise is unpleasant and easily avoidable.

Of course these requests don't always ensure a quiet room but they will work most of the time. There are times when you check in late and you don't really have a choice in rooms, you're out of luck in that case. Another sad scenario is when you arrive to a hotel and there are school busses outside. The dreaded overnight school field trip, while fun for kids, is not something that I enjoy. Screaming girls in the hallway, playing cards all night, running up and down the hall, eating all the food at the continental breakfast in the morning... This is just painful for a business traveler and I hope you never run into it. Meanwhile, back to the front desk...

During the course of checking in the person at the counter they usually ask me how many key cards I'd like. I always thought this was a strange questions since it's only me. How many keys could I possibly need? Due to the strangeness of this question I usually ask for 22 room keys. Sometimes they take me seriously but most of the time they get the joke. After that I'll ask for 2 keys, one for my pocket and one that lives in my wallet because I tend to lose the one in my pocket.

When traveling abroad I'll usually be jet lagged and not quite in the moment. Combined with interacting with someone with a heavy accent that I'm not used to I usually end up asking for directions to the elevator at least twice. After that I wander around until I find the elevator.

At The Room

Once I get to my room I'll open the door once and let it shut on its own. If it latches properly I'll open the door again and enter. If the door does not latch on its own I'll find the elevator again, head to the front desk and request a new room. I once had a room with a door that didn't latch properly, I noticed it and made a point of pulling the door shut when I left. Unfortunately the cleaning staff was not so mindful of this detail and left my room unlocked for the better part of the day. Fortunately nothing was stolen but I had to toss my toothbrush and my razor because you never know. I did get to change rooms to a much better one and ended up running into Dee Snyder because of it (see: Random Famous People).

With an acceptable room I'll make sure that the curtains block out an adequate amount of light, sometimes this doesn't work but a handful of paper clips from the front desk and a bath towel stuffed in a clever fashion can solve most curtain issues. Next I'll check to make sure that the alarm clock isn't set to some ungodly hour then I'll head to the bathroom to check the shower water pressure. Sometimes you can't tell a lot by this test but it will let you know that the shower can work properly.

Once these things check out then the room is good enough for me and I tear the comforter off the bed and stuff it into the corner or into an unused closet. Those comforters just aren't cleaned as often as they should be, I'm sure that you've heard the stories. I've never purchased a black light to carry around with me to check but I honestly don't want to know. Although a series of pictures of black light lit hotel comforters might make for an interesting blog entry...

That's about it for my hotel check in rituals. I get the feeling that I should carry disinfection wipes with me to wipe things down things such as: phone, remote control, door nobs, toilet handles, etc. After all, the population of an entire planet was once destroyed due to a virus that spread off the handsets of telephones.

Do you have any hotel room rituals? I'd love to hear about them.

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Coming Soon: Travel Distraction-Sock Monsters

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Travel Gear Highlight - Travel Journal

The first time I mentioned that the travel journal was a piece of my essential travel gear was in Favorite Travel Gear where I briefly discussed the remarkable utility of this item. I feel that a piece of gear with the raw utility of the travel journal requires it's own post. For my purpose I will define a travel journal as a journal that you travel with, though a travel journal could very well be a journal which you record your travels in after you've traveled.

The journal, like life itself, is full of possibilities. When it is new, much like when we as people are young, it hasn't been locked into a future. The journal is full of blank pages, by the choices you make, you get to decide what it is and what story it is going to tell. Of course it doesn't have to tell a story at all, it's what you make of it. Something about the large number of possibilities, the flexibility and control of a journal are remarkably appealing to me.

There are certainly plenty of options out there for someone who is interested in a travel journal. They come in lots of sizes, colors and with loads of miscellaneous options. I have had several types of journal in my travels including journals that have special paper, lined or unlined, clasps and bookmark ribbons. The only things that I've found to be consistent is that a journal that is labeled as a travel journal just isn't for me. "Travel Journals" aren't usually a good value and are generally decorated with pictures of the Eiffel Tower on them. While there are better ways to stick out and look like a tourist, carrying one of these funky journals is a good way to do it.

I have owned one of the Rite in the Rain travel journals, which is a great concept, but it didn't turn out to be a practical choice for me. This type of journal has special paper that you can write on even when it is wet. The problem is that it takes a regular ball point pen and I don't like those. The pens that I liked at the time I was using this journal didn't have a compatible ink and it took several months to dry completely. This journal was also lined and I found that I didn't like this limitation.

What the Rite in the Rain journal did have that I liked was an ID page and a page for writing down your airline frequent flier numbers. I have since included this information in every subsequent journal that I have owned. The ID page in the front is something I hope I never need. I put down my contact information and a note to whoever finds it asking that they contact me so I can retrieve my journal somehow. There's also a note inviting the finder to read the journal and if they are so inclined to add an entry. Like I said, I hope that the ID page is never used.

On the frequent flier number page I've also included handy phone numbers for airlines that I commonly fly as well as the number of my travel agent. I should also probably keep notes of trusted airport restaurants, it wouldn't take much space as my list of good airport restaurants is quite short.

Beyond storing frequent flier numbers the uses for a travel journal are limited only to ones imagination and cleverness. To date I have pressed leaves, recorded where I parked my car and jotted down restaurant recommendations along with instructions to get to said restaurants. I've written down the names of new biscuits that I become fond of while abroad and record the events of a given day. I've used my journal as a memory aid many times to make sure I am on time and to remember what station to get off at while riding the train/bus/streetcar. Any observations of note go into my journal so that I can take a look at them later if I'm so inclined, this proves handy when I revisit a city.

I have found the travel journal such an invaluable tool that when I train anyone in a position where they travel I am quick to make a gift of a journal. Inside I inscribe it as follows:
Travel Journal of INSERT NAME
For the journey yet to be taken
For the story yet to be written

For me this sums up what a journal is nicely and I like to pass that on to others. I present the journal on the occasion of the first trip that I take with them. In addition to the journal I impart general travel advise that only comes from experience in hope that their path to becoming an accomplished traveler is as smooth as it can be.

In using a journal regularly I have found that the 4x6 inch size works quite well for me. Unlined paper is handy as I sometimes draw maps for myself and I can write as large or small as I like when lines are absent. While a nice feature, I've found that a clasp is not something that I require in a journal. If I was in the habit of keeping more things in my journal, pressed leaves or odd bits of paper, I would find this more of a necessity. A tough exterior is definitely a must as my journals get tossed around a bit and get stuffed into my bag quite frequently. I can go though a journal in about 6 months depending on my travel schedule so I do look for something that is reasonably priced as I'll soon be replacing it.

I have been most fortunate as I have found a journal that meets all of the above criteria nicely along with being widely available. Small sketch books, available in any art supply store, fit the bill nicely. At about $5 I'm not going to complain about the price and they are meant to be carried around so they are built tough. The paper is thick and will accept a variety of inks without a problem. They are easily found in black which works well for me as they are very low key.

If you travel often you should definitely consider a travel journal, it's not for everyone but you just might find that it makes your travels a little easier.

Do you carry a travel journal? Is there a particular brand of journal that you gravitate toward? If you do have a journal preference, please let me know why.

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Coming Soon: Travel Distraction - Sock Monsters